Forty-Three – Birth

Efeddre scanned the rocky, green-crept mountainside, then settled his gaze on on the lean not-limdri man crouching by a swift, cold stream. He was dressed in hide leggings and breechclout, his long yellow hair loose down his back. Efeddre drank in the air, fanning the tastes through his nose and the back of his tongue, ears swiveling to look behind him. He smelled a richness of pattern as telling as sight, maleness, herdwalker musk, warm, clear water. He sat, curling his tail around his haunches.

“It’s done, then.”

A one-sided smile, the faint pop of an eyebrow. The fierce fire color of the eyes wasn’t as visible at this distance, drowned out by sunlight.

“I thought this would let us share without anyone taking exception to you talking with me. Since you’ve made yourself so unpopular.”

“Did he survive?”

The roll of sun-browned shoulder as he rocked his weight back to haul up one of the stones in the stream. “I don’t remember.”

It was morning, late in the melting season on the protected face of the mountain, the slopes mostly too steep for trees. Tendrils of faint mist still hugged the eaves of the rock. These were the bones of the earth. This was home.

There was no ache, no sadness or joy. It was like he’d never left.

“You’re speaking Seclednar,” Alan-not-Alan said casually, peering into the swirling water. “I remember you saying you couldn’t do that on four legs.”

Efeddre paused.

“Well. It’s a dream.” He watched the not-limdri’s back. “What do you want?”

“To share.”

“You’ve always been tenacious,” Efeddre said sourly, ears flattening, a stark flash of memory of Alan’s relentless healing hands, a sensation like his skin was coming apart.

He laughed, a rich, sharp sound that was utterly unlike Alan.

“I was obsessed, wasn’t I?”

“You didn’t seem to think so at the time.”

“Well, it was obsession.”

“The scars are important,” Efeddre said suddenly, stopping both of them. “They can be seen; they show what’s unseen. They tell a story that words can’t.”

“I think,” he said, “I need to remember that.” A quiet consideration, a faint cant of his head, a crumb of Alan. “I’ve never seen you like this.”

Efeddre curled his lip, either at Alan-not-Alan, or himself.

“This is the way I’m supposed to be.”

Restless, he stood, stretching out his tail and each of his hind legs. Then he swung around and started skirting the mountainside.

Running lightly to catch up, Alan-not-Alan laid a hand on Efeddre’s shoulder, sinking his fingers into his fur. Efeddre twitched his skin, shaking him off. Without a glance or hesitation he let his hand drop to his side.

“Will you show me the stars, as you remember them?”

Efeddre kept walking, slinking over a fallen trunk, stepping around a slope of loose stone, which forced the not-limdri man behind him.

“No,” he said, after considering.

“We’ve all changed, haven’t we?”

Flicking an irritated ear behind him, he considered pushing the curious creature off the mountain. He looked up for alternatives, then coiling his muscles, launched himself upward, an effortless bound five times Alan’s height. Perched on the raw ledge, he flexed his claws, pulled his lips back from his teeth.

Go.”

“Why should I?” the thing that wasn’t Alan called, staring up at him, a small figure. “After all, it’s my dream.”

Efeddre took an uncertain step back, one paw curling in the air, then woke to find his eyes were already open. He was frowning at the wall.

Newborns,” he muttered, rolling into a crouch before he could convince himself to lie there forever.

~~~

Movement pulled him from a fitful, aching sleep. He winced as he moved his head, neck twinging. He’d fallen asleep sitting next to the bulkhead. Through his lashes he saw Alan sitting up in the hammock, wide, square hands roaming over his arms, fingers feeling the shape of his face, as if his own touch was something wholly new. Ashur watched him, watched his head bow to watch his hands run down his chest, fiddle with the stretchy skin of his balls, lace his fingers between all his toes, flexing them.

“What happened?” he asked finally, resting his elbows on his knees, not ready to stretch out his back. He could feel the gentle lap of water against the hull, and it wasn’t ocean. No thick smell of salt clung to the back of his nose. Alan didn’t turn his head to look at him, splaying his toes and examining them.

I was dreaming.” It wasn’t the answer he wanted. Ashur cringed at the language.

“Don’t talk that way,” he said harshly.

Why?

His breath caught. He couldn’t answer.

“Why did you let her try to convince him and not me?”

You’re too immense. You’ve always been more than your body can hold.

The words tipped him over the edge, let the rawness spill out.

“Don’t play your games with me. I am too insignificant for you to have ever noticed.”

Just because you never knew me doesn’t mean I never knew you. I’ve known you since you first reached across the continent. I’ve known you since you became one with the River, and I knew when you were gone.

Ashur stared at it, and felt like the veins in his eyes were about to burst. It hit him for the first time, Alan speaking a language he hadn’t heard since he as a young man, speaking of things he had no right to speak of.

“And what you want just happens to be here, with me, all these years and leagues later,” he said hoarsely.

Are you really surprised? You and those like you pull the world out of its pattern. You are the vortex in the great waters, shaping everything that drifts into your influence.

He couldn’t think about this, couldn’t listen to this, couldn’t know it.

“What are you going to do?”

He shrugged.

Live.”

~~~

Tying the loop to start the next row of the net over his toe, Rher wound the thread over the shuttle, weaving the knot through. It was cold enough to start wearing jackets and heavy headscarves, but not too cold for bare feet. Leaning against the bulkhead to the cabin, he could hear the bur of a conversation up on the sterndeck, and tuned it out so he wouldn’t have to remember it word for word for the next dozen years. They wouldn’t be able to use fine nets like this except at a river, but it was something to do to not think about how the ship was flying without sails on water that wasn’t salty and had a habit of running uphill.

A shadow fell over him, and he didn’t think it about it at first. Until he noticed the rest of the deck was washed in cold sunshine. He looked at where the shadow ended at his ankle, then looked up for clouds. Instead he found Juele crouched on the edge of the stern deck, peering down at him, hair dangling around his face. He was wearing breeches and a jacket but left it open, his toes gripping the edge of the deck.

Rher’s heart hit his ribs at about the same speed as a bird flying into a window and he scrambled away.

What are you doing?” Juele said curiously, arms folded over his knees, as easy in Donse as if he’d never had trouble with it.

What is wrong with you?” Rher demanded, his heart still beating fast.

Hey! Pay attention to me, you oil-fingered salt-peddler!

Juele turned toward Jeik’s sharp voice. Tsunami are like rocking cradles, Jeik had finally cracked. Rher quickly round the netting around the spool, stuffed it in his bag and scrambled up the stair to the deck in time to see Jeik throw a chunk of wood a Juele’s head.

Juele ducked without losing his, bouncing back upright, looking bizarrely calm. The deck was still littered with shavings, the new mizzenmast finally raised.

Whatever this is, you stop it!” Jeik said, pointing with a slate arm out over the eerily still water, the false wind whipping past them. He had a sliver of wood sticking out of his cloud of sun-browned hair.

What?” Juele asked, as if he really wanted to know. The way he was standing wasn’t like him, weight planted too evenly, too much of a curve in his back. Maybe no one else noticed, or at least didn’t realize, but Rher remembered everything. He knew Juele always stood with more weight on one leg than another, always carried his shoulders a little more forward from training with a lhir. He remembered all that, felt it clash, layer on layer, with what he was seeing, just like he would remember this, too, for the rest of his life.

Moving us!

Juele got that look like he was thinking, something bizarrely familiar amid the unfamiliar.

You want to use the sails,” he said finally.

Yes! That’s what we do! We fly the ship.” Rher eyed Jeik worriedly. He didn’t do well sitting still. Rher edged toward him, ready to grab him if he went for Juele’s throat. Jeik was a good hand taller than he was, but having to fight might snap him back in his right mind.

Everybody’s edgy,” Rher called, trying to reach the part of him that they knew. Ashur said he was at least half Juele. “i>There’s already been a couple of fights. You remember what it was like f’r us, in Lum? ‘Cept now we don’t have anything t’do.”

He was thinking again.

I think I understand,” he said. “Like being caught behind a dam.” Rher stared at him, and had no idea what he was talking about.

Just, let us do it our way, or people’re gonna start cracking.

~~~

So it had happened. Allegedly.

It was an anti-climax, with none of the resolution. Basically it meant Alan walking around chatting everyone up and acting like nothing was different. Apparently someone had sat down with him and said they wanted to at least pretend they were in control, so the sails were up instead of the boat mysteriously moving on its own. Or, it hadn’t even been the boat moving, but the whole body of water and the boat happened to move with it. It had been freaky.

Crosslegged, watching the game, Hannah tucked her toes into the pits of her knees to keep them warm. Odul, one of the white, stringy, headscarf types who had brushed her hair once, had finally dug up a coat for her when she asked. It was scratchy, and windproof. She wondered if they would have let her freeze if she hadn’t said anything. It wasn’t that it was cold. Not like Colorado-cold. But it was wet cold. And when you only had one set of clothes, all of it borrowed, you couldn’t just go to the dresser and pull out a sweatshirt.

Hannah had wedged herself in beside Werser’s sumo wrestler bulk so she could see the game. She didn’t quite have the guts or the sass to ask to play like she had before, but she kept hanging out where she could in spite of the boycott because going along with ostracism just made you look guilty. She’d asked him a question at one point when she thought she understood something, and he’d given her those short, distracted answers someone gives when they don’t really want to talk to you, but they don’t actually want to say it. So she was basically ignoring awkward silence.

It was Kashen, the moody black guy who had told her she was sweeping wrong early on, who finally threw down the glove.

He looked up, straight at her, and said, “Crazy, get out. I don’t want to look at you.”

It fucking pissed her off, but at least he’d said it straight. Hannah eyed the other guys, gauging their reactions. No one else said anything, or looked up.

“Fine.” Hannah spread her hands over her head and climbed to her feet. “I’ll stay out of your hair.”

Fuck you guys. Just fuck you.

There was a small crowd gathered around the railing, looking overboard, and Hannah decided to go see what they were doing. No one really looked at her as she came up and squeezed herself in, which suited her fine. Trich was there, and standing near the back, the Twerp. She gave him one sideways look before switching her attention to whatever had drawn the crowd. She’d managed to ignore him since the weird purring incident. She noticed a ladder hung over the side, and Brac was hauling at a rope, slack magically piling in a neat coil at his feet. A bucket appeared, the lip immediately swarmed with an alarming horde of small, squirrelly bugs.

“What is it?” Trich said, standing near the front as Brac set the bucket down.

Shuk tulub[1],” Brac said, snatching his hand away and wiping it in his ragged black hair.

Dozens of tiny crab things spilled over the edge of the bucket, each topped with a shell like the depression of a fingertip. They skittered away, alarmed, trying to scale the railing and Brac’s legs. He danced back in that goofy, ADD way he had, slapping at his skinny brown legs. The glare bounced off their iridescent shells, all blues and greys and reds, reflecting the light in muted beads. Hannah felt deja vu swamp over her, and closed her eyes to shut it out. When she opened them, Trich was squatting, saying doubtfully, “Could boil ’em.” He
picked one up, watched its tiny articulated legs flail for purchase, then flicked it over the railing.

Kol, a guy she didn’t know real well with the closest thing she’d seen to an afro so far, nudged a crablet with a dark toe. The crablet fled. A chubby guy with mousy hair down to his shoulders behind her muttered something, and stomped on one with a tiny crunch. Hannah felt herself frown, the same way you frown when you prick yourself with a needle, and shook her head to clear it. She’d never been the one defending bugs as a kid. She’d been the one pulling them apart by their legs and frying them with magnifying glasses.

Brac stumbled back into her, slapping at his pants, throwing her off balance. Grabbing his bony shoulders, Hannah stepped on someone’s foot as she tried to compensate. Her bad shoulder twinged as she ran smack dab into someone surprisingly rock solid. As she caught her balance Hannah looked at who she’d run into and saw the Twerp, the only person not wearing at least a long sleeved shirt.

Efeddre looked like he was about to unleash some tongue-lashing on her.

Hannah crossed her arms gave him a look that said, “Really?”

For a split second he looked like he was going to boil over. Then it looked like he was about to turn it on Brac instead, before he seemed to realize that if he wasn’t going to do it impulsively he had no call to do it at all, and then he looked like he was going to have a stroke. Everyone but Hannah, who was still giving Efeddre the look, stared.

He swiveled abruptly around and Hannah watched him stalk toward the cabin, until she noticed that now everyone was staring at her. She blinked.

“What?” she said.

~~~

Back against one of the overturned boats, Hannah was oiling big sheets of leather in with something the consistency of bacon grease when Ashur walked up to her and effectively cornered her even though there was no corner.

Without any preliminaries he said, “What do you have on Efeddre?”

Legs stuck out, a sheet of leather covering her lap, Hannah looked at him for what felt like a minute. It was probably ten seconds.

“I see my every breath is still reported.”

“Tell me how you can get him to be less intractable and I will make your life much easier.” He had his arms crossed over his chest so he could tuck his fingers under the arms of his hip-length coat for warmth. Somehow he didn’t make it look silly.

As the ship lifted, cutting through another waive, Hannah supposed technically she might have blackmail material. If one counted embarrassment as blackmailable, but then she might as well blackmail herself. Then again, it didn’t seem like the sort of thing you just handed over, especially since Efeddre had not treated her like shit since.

“Why do you want to know?” she asked, half curiously, half to stall, raising her voice as the wind shifted and the edges of the one of the sails started flapping.

Ashur looked like he wanted to cuss, and spat out, “Because if I can find anything that will make him three feathers more cooperative, it will make everyone’s life easier.” Someone took care of the sail, and the flapping faded, the ship leaning to one side a fraction more.

“You should try making friends,” she told him. “Then you’d both probably be less mean.”

Ashur stared at her for a second, face unreadable enough that she could appreciate how gorgeous he was before he replied, “I can also make your life much harder.”

Hannah wondered if the Symon/Alan would protect her, if she asked.

“Dude. Do not take out your inability to have a relationship with anyone you can’t threaten down to manageable size on my fucking life. I am having enough fucking problems on your wacked little planet as it is.”

She had not entirely known what she was going to say as she started saying it, and she had said more of what she really thought than she expected. That had perhaps not been the smartest thing to do. Ashur’s expression didn’t change, but something in his eyes was shocked, even more than her. Hannah waited for him to leave first; as much as strategic retreat seemed like a good idea, she wasn’t going to turn her back to him after that. And surprisingly, he did not rip her apart, but walked away.

Hannah tried to think of one person who might give her honest advice, at least who she didn’t feel painfully uncomfortable talking to. So she put away the leather and grease, then scoured the ship for Ridiath, who at least acted like she didn’t really give a shit either way about her. On the shift change Hannah found her sitting in her hammock, shrugging into a jacket and lacing up soft leather shoes. They were the first shoes Hannah had really seen.

Sitting in the hammock parallel hers without asking, Hannah tucked her hands between her thighs to warm her fingers and said, “So I just totally emotionally kneecapped Ashur, and since he didn’t rip me a new one I don’t even know what to expect. Like, assassination, or is he going to use my current unpopularity to make me walk the plank? And I’m wondering if you know what to do, since you guy seem to hate each other, too.”

Ridiath looked increasingly confused as she talked, one eyebrow coming up and one side of her mouth stretching, almost like a smile that couldn’t quite make it. It made her look older, adding lines to to her mouth and eyes.

Hannah narrowed her eyes.

“Did you understand anything I just said?”

Ridiath actually laughed, a dry, tired sound.

“I understood all of you words. The way you’re using them…” The eyebrow went up, her mouth half a smile, not like she meant it.

Hands on her thighs, feet planted on the floor, Hannah looked at her blankly for a second.

“Can I try again?”

Both eyebrows up this time, small chin propped on her laced knuckles, elbows propped on knees.

“Sure.”

“So Ashur seems to think I have blackmail material on Efeddre to make him behave.” She studied Ridiath carefully. “So are we go? You understand?” Ridiath nodded, chin still on her knuckles. “And he tried to bribe me with making my life less miserable.” Hannah paused. “I think my exact words might have been something like, ‘You can’t have a relationship with anyone you can’t threaten down to size.'”

Ridiath didn’t laugh, but covered her mouth like she wanted to but knew it would be a bad idea.

“And then I kind of expected him to scream at me, since that’s what he likes to do. At least to women.” Hannah frowned suspiciously. She hadn’t actually seen him yell at any of the guys, just get pissed off. “But he just walked away.” Both Ridiath’s flat eyebrows went up at that. “So I want to know how he gets back at people. Is he a knife in the back kind of guy, rile up a mob to do it for him? Is he going to lock me up in the bilge again?”

Ridiath rubbed her face, pressing the palm of her hand over one eye.

“Ashur has been… unpredictable, since Alan was taken. No one really knows what he’s going to do.” Great. Fabulous. She was looking to the side, giving Hannah a full view of her square, somehow dainty profile. “He has no compunction against murder, when he sees it necessary.” ‘Compunction.’ Where the hell had she picked up that? Hannah was only vaguely sure she knew what it meant. “In other ways he’s soft.”

It was Hannah’s eyebrow’s turn, and they went for the ceiling. Ridiath had turned back, and was looking at her dryly.

“Ashur doesn’t tolerate rape, as one example.” That was interesting, considering the guy who’d gone after her. Hannah remembered the reaction of his friend, hauling him off. He’d been scared. Ridiath said the next part almost as if she were enjoying saying it on some level. “When we first found you, it was Alan who entertained the possibility of torturing you. Ashur wasn’t willing to go that far, until you proved yourself a threat.”

Hannah blinked, and let that sit for a second.

“Huh.”

Ridiath’s eyes lost that look like she was needling her on purpose to get a reaction.

“Do you? Have blackmail material on Efeddre?” she asked, her tone mild, eyebrows faintly quirked, a little too interested beneath that picture of casual.

Carefully, Hannah said, “Not that I know of.” Before she could think about it too much, “So Ashur hates you. What’s your security?”

Ridiath didn’t answer, losing her expression, but she didn’t look away.


  1. Not barnacles.

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