“I still think it’s gonna be tomorrow night.”
Ridiath glanced beside her where Cosag crouched, twisting his fluffy hair into slim little strands, like twine. He was practically invisible, the light from someone’s nearby lamp only touching his fingers, turning their edges pink.
“Any reason?” She couldn’t imitate his sea-blurred slur in Donse, her vowels all crisp, her consonants soft.
“Dunno. Just feel it.”
“And I’m gonna get a bet on you,” Leki said again.
“You got three on me. You hoard like a navgh.”
“Pshhhh.” Leki scrambled up the cabin wall high enough to peer over the lip of the stern deck. “Ashur’s out,” he announced, dropping back to the deck.
Ashur was not allowed to bet, or give his opinion.
“You think you know?” Rher asked her, squatting and pressing his skinny back against the wall on her other side. His accent in Seclednar was almost invisible.
“I don’t know. It comes when it comes.”
“You’re never gonna get any bets like that.”
“I got one on Kimfen the other day on a race.”
“You are gonna need lots of bets. Better start now.” She let out a faint, humorless laugh.
The stars pierced the sky just as crisply as the night they had listened to Efeddre’s story. The masts stood bare, stark towers slicing through the stars. The wind had failed with the dusk. Clisand had ordered the drogue down so they wouldn’t drift. Gayentya was echoing in her mind, fluttering around an emotional stillness and a faint knot in her belly as she thought of Demhlei.
“So, what’re your bets?” Ashur’s smug voice drifted lazily down from atop the cabin.
“Shuttup,” Leki told him. He looked down at Cosag, who now had a dozen little twists hanging in his eyes. “You want help?”
“Sure.” He moved over so Leki could reach his head. The water rolled beneath them, an invisible blackness past the railing with only the starlight to reach it. Still, no lookout called to announce kydele’s passing.
Rher drifted into a doze, his wiry little body moving gently, somehow keeping his balance.
“What’d the whore do today?” Ashur asked. Ridiath doubted he wanted her description of events.
After a distracted pause, Leki rolled off, “Slept, pissed, shit, ate, and slept.”
“She have any time to drink in all that?
Leki ignored him.
Ridiath felt a thump through the wall at her back, and looked up.
“Get everyone on deck,” Ashur said abruptly. His tone made the hairs on her arms stand up, and she felt her heart beat just a little faster. The men around her were suddenly still, alert.
“No.” Ashur was moving, rolling off the cabin and hitting the deck.
Rher unfolded himself, standing. “Hey, you find something? We gonna have a fight?”
“No, just do it,” Ashur called over his shoulder.
They moved to obey, and after the message began to self-perpetuate, Ridiath removed herself skyside to keep from getting in the way of streams of men stumbling out of the hatches.
Many had grabbed weapons despite word that there was no danger, and several were practically still asleep.
“Eana? Is Eana up here yet?” Ridiath heard Ashur calling, noted the displacement of shuffling figures as he passed. “Eana, there you are— climb up the mainmast.”
“Whu—? But, I don’t—”
“Just get up there.”
“I fall asleep and break my neck, I hope I land on you.” His mutter floated on the warm air.
Through the gaps between shadow-cut forms, Ridiath caught a glimpse of Ashur’s lean silhouette, face tilted toward the sky. Her body had caught up with her heartbeat, as she sat balanced on the edge of tension, waiting.
There was some awkward shuffling. Ridiath heard a thump, then a wide, loud yawn.
The call came from the other side of the ship, and a quick scan through the darkness revealed a fingerprint of clear fire near the invisible horizon.
Kydele grew bigger as it wove closer, and Ridiath began to cross the deck to get a better view. Already the ocean was rising, reaching up to meet the undulating light.
Faster than she could have imagined, kydele grew, heading straight toward them in quick zigs and zags, trailing its curtain behind. There wasn’t enough room to suck in another breath before a miasmic cluster of colorless brilliance sailed across the stars, casting three-dozen shadows for everything in its path.
Details exploded across the ship, suddenly lit up like day, faces staring in shock and awe at the wavering curtain of white light that billowed up toward the stars like a wall of flame. The ocean leapt beneath them, heaving the ship up on a wave that expanded for leagues.
Kydele was already running on, veering east, scrawling its light across the sky, until it was nothing but a pinprick on the end of a thread. The water beneath the curtain was aglow, frothing with swimmers rising from the depths to bathe in its radiance.
Eana whooped up on the mast, laughing wildly. Ridiath realized she wasn’t breathing, and shut her mouth.
“Look look look!”
The pinprick was blooming, looping southward, pulling back toward them in an intricate pattern only it understood. It swept across the sky five lengths out before plunging as a bright ribbon into the depths of the landless west.
Ridiath gazed up at the gently billowing curtain, taller than the Secleron Wall from peak to crashing waves, fading gradually the higher it reached. It seemed, in that bright instant, as if she could have reached up and pulled it down like a sheet. Some of the stars were strong enough to shine through it, tiny holes of solid light.
“I’ve never seen it this close,” Ridiath said to Rher, her voice catching on the dryness in her throat. Someone was letting flow a stream of awed curses under his breath.
“I don’t think I could draw that,” he murmured. “Not if I could do it on the Secleron, not if I lived long enough to finish it.” She nearly laughed, soaking the muggy night into her lungs. “Times like this, I don’t mind not being able to forget.”
Tande closed the door behind her, and unshuttered the lamp.
The woman had tucked herself in the niche of the bow, leaning over her naked thighs as she sat on the bucket. Her eyes slid over to Ridiath, then returned to the hull with resignation.
Moving to her usual spot, Ridiath crouched and laid out the bowls, pouring the water. She tossed the rag-wrapped sponge toward the woman. Her eyes followed it sluggishly, and she stared at it without comprehension for a long breath.
Lam had reported that she was bleeding, and the choice about how to treat it had been given to Ridiath. She had decided to let the woman be uncomfortable, and see if she said anything. For two days he hadn’t. Now Ridiath wanted to see how she would react to that small offering.
A soft grunt, and Ridiath saw her lean forward and take the sponge. She picked at it for a long time, not moving. Finally she stuffed the sponge between her blood-crusted thighs and tipped onto her knees, tugging the tunic back down around her hips. Resettling the lid on the bucket, the woman used her tied feet to scoot back across the compartment.
Considering the bowl of water wearily, she reached for it like she was trying not to touch it, and with great determination poured a little over her red-stained fingers. She wiped them back and forth across the hem of the tunic. By her expression she seemed extremely unsatisfied with the exercise.
As the woman drank, Ridiath saw the skin around her wrists was red even in the lamplight, the texture raw.
Ridiath reached into the bowl between them for one of the slim refer. Stripping the flaky meat from the rack of spindly bones, she nibbled at the salty, oily skin. Twisting the head off, she sucked out the brain and eyes, and when the woman set her bowl down, refilled it. She was more cautious with how quickly she drank, and she didn’t throw any of it up this time.
Tossing the refer skeleton in the bowl, Ridiath took a stem of yellow palydda. The pits were just ripe, sweet and chewy inside the rich fruit. Reaching for another refer, Ridiath systematically disassembled it into its edible parts, tossing the skeleton in with the other. The woman flicked her eyes from Ridiath eating to the food. Some dim expression pulled down one corner of her mouth.
“Your good-cop-bad-cop routine is cute,” the woman informed her as she waddled forward to serve herself. Settling back, she sniffed at her bowl, plucking a palydda from the stem.
Ridiath didn’t reply. It was the only thing the woman had said to her since their first meeting. Alan had described how half of anything she said didn’t make sense, despite how perfectly she spoke Seclednar.
Gingerly eating around the pit of a palydda with her front teeth, the woman paused and blinked, apparently discovering it was soft. She carefully sank her molars into it, chewing slowly, doubt painted across her features. She swallowed very deliberately. Her eyes widened, and she proceeded to scarf down the four palydda left on the stem. Her expression as she considered the little refer was one of extreme skepticism. She picked the flesh from the spine, sloppily.
Ridiath noticed again how she always reached for things with her right hand, and held things with her left. The dark, yeasty smell of a woman’s bleeding mixed with her strange, sour-sweet odor spread subtly through the stale air.
Eventually the woman ate everything between the refer’s head and tail, working the fingers of her right hand beneath the rope around her ankles, massaging the chafed skin. She looked somewhere above Ridiath, almost as if she wasn’t there. She was feeling the knots, tracing them, trying to test their strength without being obvious, but she made no move to loosen them. Ridiath made no comment.
Ridiath continued to eat a token amount, until the woman leaned forward, about to pluck the last stem of palydda from the bowl. She stared at Ridiath beneath the short hair above her eyebrows with faint challenge. Amused, Ridiath tipped her chin at the bowl.
Claiming the palydda, the woman retreated against the hull, munching noisily.
Ridiath collected the bowls and the lidded bucket and left, and was not dissatisfied when the woman offered nothing.
On the windblown deck, she walked under the mainsail and past the small crowd reassembling the galley. Toward the stern, she lifted the lid off the bucket and tossed the contents with the wind into the green waves.
Finding the collection of buckets set out to be scoured by the sun, she looped the rope holding the pile in place through the handle and retied it. Looking up, she scanned the men around the galley, looking for two in particular.
Not finding either, her eyes swept up and down the deck, when she spotted Idishe perched atop of the overturned body of the longboat.
As she came toward him, he didn’t move his eyes from where he stared out over the vastness of the ocean. Settling on the curve of the keel a little below him, Ridiath drew one leg up and wrapped her arms lightly around her knee, gripping the edge of the wood with her toes. They were flying as close into the wind as they could, and it whipped the long ends of Idishe’s headscarf around his shoulders, tugging heavily at her bundled hair.
“Everyone says yes.” he said, still not shifting. “‘Cept Lam, who’s not going.” A few breaths. He looked down at her without turning his face, and she met his pale eyes. “I say yes,” he said after a slow consideration.
Ridiath nodded, letting it settle over her, the anticipation in her stomach dissipating outward.
He continued, eyes back out over the water, “We’ll meet to work it out. The big thing is whether we’re taking the kid. And if we do whether he can hold himself together. You, and him. That’s extra variables.” Idishe’s eyes slid to hers again. When she nodded, he returned his gaze to whatever held it toward the horizon. “That’ll be a lot of working out too.”
Balancing one bowl in his right hand, Alan ladled soup into the second, and carefully scooping it up, stood from the firebox.
Tande considerately dodged as he saw Alan coming through, and Alan’s feet bore him across the deck without sloshing scalding broth all over himself.
He nudged Ibleton’s toe. Opening his eyes with a blink, Ibleton looked up, and accepted the proffered bowl.
“Thanks,” he said in Donse, lifting the bowl under his crooked nose and breathing in before the breeze could carry the smell away.
The last traces of pre-dawn coolness were being whipped away, replaced by a restless heat. Wind was building, carrying them to the relative safety of the western water from where they would fly south.
Lowering himself to the deck, Alan braced his back against the railing beside Ibleton and inhaled from his own bowl.
As Alan took a scalding slurp, Ibleton switched to Seclednar and told him, “Lamdek doesn’t want to go again.” Ibleton took a swallow, sucking up a long strand of hairweed. “F’we take the kid, Toney, and Ridiath that’ll replace Ashur and Lam and add one.”
Alan looked over at him curiously, taking another slow sip of his soup. Noticing Ibleton’s eyes play across the men on deck, he followed his gaze and found himself looking at Efeddre, reclining on the low forecastle.
“S’been a twelveday and he hasn’t flayed anybody yet,” Ibleton said with slow consideration.
Which almost certainly made a new record. Alan had already wondered how many bets had been lost. Now he wondered if Efeddre’s self-control were selective.
“His plan still depends on a great many factors,” he said, because the perspective was required. Ibleton tilted his head with half a humorless grin in a cargo-handler’s cynical assessment of a bargain that would beggar the buyer up front but could pay off by twelve.
“Cost per weight, Juele.”
“The trap could as easily be for the Lindrinsi as us.”
“Then they’ll be surprised either way, won’t they?”
“Okay, Blondie. I’m ready to give in to stockholme’s. You can untie me now.”
Sitting squarely on her knees, the woman regarded him with bright expectation.
Slowly lowering himself to the damp planks, Alan knew he was not entirely able to hide his curiosity. By the door, what light from the lamp touched Werser cast the shadows of his arms and belly in distorted bulk all the way down the hull.
Alan studied her mutely, her sudden abandonment of silence both somewhat expected and a fascinating shock. Her bones had lost some of their flab, the unfamiliar oval of her features growing sharper.
“It’s okay,” she told him. “I love you now.”
When the silence spun out, she leaned forward slightly.
Very slowly she said, “Un. Tie.” She stared at him with great intensity. He returned the stare evenly, attempting to mask mild consternation. After a long moment, she added hopefully, “Please?”
When he still failed to respond, she gave a thick sigh, back curving.
“Dude. Shoulder cramps. You have no idea.”
Coming to a decision, Alan rested an elbow on one knee and propped his jaw in his hand.
“Do you have a name?” he asked mildly.
The dejection on her face was immediately replaced by blankness. Then she blinked several times, and appeared to briefly struggle.
“Hannah. Roverton,” she said neutrally. His brows lifted slightly, a piece sliding into place. Her tone changed abruptly. “And I swear to god, if you ask me my social security next I will find a way to smack you.”
He ignored the distractions and asked, “Where do you come from?”
“Nuh-uh.” She jerked suddenly straight. “You have abducted me, kept me in solitary for like, weeks, tied up, fed me bizarre seafood, with no. Toilet paper, and left me sitting in a puddle of my own blood. I am not playing along with your bullshit for free. I answer a question, you answer a question.” As he considered her hard eyes, her rigid posture suddenly melted and she added, “Or, for every game of tic-tac-toe you play with me I will answer a question. I have no preference.”
“You have lied before,” he pointed out.
“Under duress,” she agreed with a bob of her head. A stiff hook of hair bounced into her face. “And now out of sheer boredom I give in to stockholme’s.”
“We did leave you clothes,” Alan pointed out dryly, though that had been Ridiath’s method.
“Yeah, only because you didn’t want to reamed with sexual harassment any more than you’re already going to be. So. Question for question. You like?”
After a heartbeat the corners of his mouth twitched up.
“If you keep to your bargain and I find your questions reasonable, I will answer them.”
“So you asked, now I ask?” Alan’s mouth quirked again.
She appeared to ponder, pursing her lips to a point.
Finally, she came out with, “So. What’s your name?”
There could have been a few reasons not to answer, but there was little to be discerned from his name.
“Alaundat,” he told her, leaving off the rest. She glanced from side to side.
“And, uh, is that supposed to mean something?”
He smiled, faintly.
“Second born son.”
“Huh.” He watched her. “Your turn,” she reminded him.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
“Yu-es-of-ey,” she replied promptly. He raised an eyebrow. “U-ni-ted-states-of-a-me-ri-ca,” she elaborated.
“And what is that?”
“Dude, you are white and speak english. You know what fucking america is.”
“Explain to me as if I do not,” he suggested, lifting his brows slightly.
Sucking in deep breath she seemed about to release it into an explosive sound, then she abruptly said in very precise tones: “It is a country.”
When she did not continue, he prompted, “And where is this country?”
“Myturn. Where the hell are we?”
His eyelids closed the barest degree as he considered any agenda behind the obvious question. But a general answer could only confirm what she already knew.
“The Widest Water.”
She blinked and looked at him with a faint frown.
“Soooo. Is that the pacific?” A beat. “Oh. Sorry. Your turn.”
“The location of your country?”
She appeared displeased, but resigned.
“North america?” she suggested hopefully. When he looked at her expectantly. “Between the atlantic and pacific oceans? Between canada and mexico? The western hemisphere? You are very good at this faking ignorance thing.” Alan did not remark on that last.
“And where are you from?”
“Secled,” he offered, straightening and resting both elbows on his knees. When she stared at him blankly the side of his mouth quirked upward, and he said, “By the Widest Water, bordered by Endonsárre, Limdris and Serg.”
“No. In reality.”
Alan gazed back steadily, not entirely sure of her meaning.
Her eyes bulged and she craned her neck to stare at the ceiling.
“We are getting nowhere. Can we see that we are getting nowhere? Wait!” Her head abruptly snapped down, her eyes still wide. “I get it! It’s a code, or an analogy, or something. The widest water is the pacific, and the other ones are the atlantic, mexico and canada. Blink twice if I’m right.” She stared at him with intense expectation. Alan returned her gaze with nothing to offer. “You are not helping.”
Wood creaked as Werser shifted, and the woman’s eyes shot toward him, brows knotted in suspicious alarm. When it appeared the ship would not collapse, she looked back at Alan. After so long under an ocean sun, her unburned paleness was startling, improbable.
“Why are you here?”
“That’s my line, Blondie.” Before he could respond she continued, “So did you use beaming technology or drug me and have me shipped to the nearest body of salty water which is probably the pacific?”
“It is my question, correct?” he asked with some amusement, to avoid the maze her speech presented.
“Technically,” she agreed, “but if I have no frigging clue how I got here, that means it’s a pretty sure thing you do.”
He sat back slightly, evaluating her once again.
“You claim to not know how you came to be on this ship.”
“Yeah, I don’t habitually wreck renaissance fairs.”
“And you believe that I have better knowledge of your presence here than you do.”
He could not tell if her conviction were genuine or if her confusing speech were an elaborate distraction.
“The order is fucked,” she commented. “How do we proceed?”
Alan tilted his chin toward her.
“So, Blondie. Are you the captain?”
His lips twitched upward again.
“No,” he said.
“Are you lying to me?” Her eyes narrowed, and she leaned forward. His smile deepened, and he shook his head slightly.
Her eyes still slitted, she raised her eyebrows.
“Are you in charge.”
He watched her settle back, apparently resigned to the fact that her line of inquiry had been too ambitious.
“Go,” she sighed. He raised his eyebrows.
“You wish me to leave?”
Her eyes snapped wide.
“Go. Your question. Ask it.”
Despite her strange impatience, he chose his next question with careful thought for its risks and benefits.
“What do you know of the Drifalcand?”
She regarded him blankly. He had seen no telltale of recognition, no carefully smoothed reaction. He remained relaxed, mild.
“Not ringing any bells.” He understood the words, but the way she used them eluded him.
“Do you know anything of breeders?”
“Whatever that is, it sounds creepy as fuck. And it’s not your turn. Who are the Drif-al-cand?”
The abrupt turnaround was surprising, and if it was calculated, clever. He chose the words carefully.
“They are a nomadic, war-making people.” He paused slightly, honing the next piece. “Currently, they are invading.” A beat as he studied her face, searching for movement underneath her skin, anything in her eyes. “With no little success.”
A silence stretched before she spoke, her features neutral.
“I just want to state for the record that I want no part in your epic struggle of good versus evil.”
“Where did you come by your eyes?”
She blinked rapidly, four times.
“Their color. How did you come by it?”
“…genetics…?” At his continued silent question— “Uh, mom’s side of the family.”
He blinked. She knew her mother.
“Do you know where she comes from?”
“Where is this?”
“Um, north of where I’m from. Why do you care?” Alan lifted a brow. “Why I have green eyes.”
He let out a silent laugh through his nose, and could think of no reason not to answer, and something to be gained if she were provoked.
“Because the only people we have ever observed this in are the Drifalcand.”
She stared at him evenly for a long breath.
“You must be fucking joking.”
And that was where he felt the need to end. Giving no explanation, Alan began to stand, and the woman instantly became alert, following his movements.
Before he could reach the door, she called, “So, have I earned enough brownie-points to get untied?”
“Well. It worked.”
“In a way,” Alan agreed.
Ashur did not feel better. Alan was in one of his moods.
They had decided to take advantage of Ridiath’s absence.
Ridiath had been taking food in the morning. The day after she left, they told the guards to wait until late in the afternoon. Then they had brought in food and water, provided their prisoner with a bucket, untied her wrists, and said nothing. No explanation, no question, no threat. Alan and Ashur had stayed away from her for the past seven days, waiting to see what she would do.
Alan sat in the spare hammock, chin propped on folded knuckles, patiently watching Ashur take a pace past the map table.
“She’s waving smoke in our faces,” Ashur said sharply. “She wants us distracted, looking for possibilities that aren’t.”
“There are lands beyond Crec,” Alan pointed out, voice subtly tinted with amusement. “And north of the Duchies. Your people live deep in the west, which we say to be landless.”
Abruptly, Ashur spun on the ball of his foot to face him.
“And from out there,” he slashed his spread fingers toward the porthole, “she just happens to be more comfortable with Seclednar than you are?” he demanded.
Alan’s mouth only curved up, which was infuriating, but so familiar as to be taken for granted. Ashur’s hand dropped and he jabbed at the floor with two fingers.
“We’ve held her for most of a pass, and two days before the earliest we can expect the raid back, she decides to start talking. A raid on the one target through which we can cause any significant damage. The raid we just sent ten of our people on. I do not. Like it.”
“Take me to your leader.”
“It’s traditional,” she told him.
The woman lay on her side, head resting on the keelson. She looked up at him with conversational interest.
Alan glanced at Werser. He was guarding her a second day in a row, another change in her routine. The woman had not made any reference to Ridiath or her absence.
“Whoa,” she said, eyes widening as Werser moved closer. “Whoa.” She tensed as he squatted his enormous bulk over her and pushed her onto her stomach. She held still, though, as he carefully loosened the knots around her wrists and unwrapped them. Letting her arms fall to her sides, she closed her eyes and sighed.
Her eyes cracked, peering down the length of her body as Werser moved down to her ankles and tugged out the knots.
“Sweet jesus, yesssss.” Almost before Werser had moved away she started to stretch, spreading her arms and ankles wide, reaching as far as she could in four different directions. “Oh, fuck yes…” Something in her arms creaked and cracked as she kept straining, her limbs lifting. Gradually she went limp. “Aaaahh.”
Alan watch her twist onto her side, then flop onto her back, arm smacking the hull. She stretched outward again, eyes clenched shut, a tight sound of pent-up movement crawling out of her throat, and her back arched.
“Oh god. Oh god. Fuck.”
She collapsed abruptly, muscles relaxing. Sucking in a rib-swelling breath, she blew it out through her lips, and then stilled, her mouth slightly open.
“You have just upped my level of stockholme’s by like ten points.”
Alan’s brows rose, but she wasn’t watching him to observe his mystification.
“Hannah Roverton,” he said after a silence. Her eyes opened and slid toward him automatically. He noted it. “How are you called?”
“Han-nah.” After a moment she added, “I don’t even remember how pronounce your name.” He smiled slightly, and did not offer it again. “So. How are you today?”
He lifted an eyebrow.
“I feel well.”
She seemed content. She lifted the arm farthest from him, one finger pointed up.
“We got sloppy yesterday,” she informed him. “With the question for question thing. We gotta get on top of our game.” She clapped her hands lightly together above her face. Her wrists were infected. “I believe it is your turn.”
Alan drew out the stiff white rectangle from inside his overtunic, and she turned her head toward him at the distinctive rasping sound.
Holding it up, he asked, “What is this?” Her eyes had already fastened on it with recognition. She glanced at him with her neutral expression, then lifted her eyebrows slightly.
“It’s my electricity bill.” Alan added that to a growing list of words she used he didn’t know.
She waited, then, “Oh yeah, my turn.” Rolling stiffly into a sitting position, she spread her knees and grabbed her feet, letting her torso and head hang. Her dark hair tumbled down in tangled chunks. “Oghhhh… So. Is this the pacific ocean?” The question emerged muffled. He wondered that she repeated herself.
“I know it only as the Widest Water. Is this writing?” He placed his thumb beneath a set short of rows on the corner of the rectangle.
Still bent over, she lifted her head and stared at him through her hair.
“Yes. So is this a renaissance fair, or dungeons and dragons?”
They considered each other for several breaths.
“I am unsure how to answer,” he said finally.
“I suppose that was too much to hope for,” she agreed. “Go.”
After the slightest hesitation as he remembering their conversation yesterday, Alan placed the rectangle on the beam of the keelson.
“That’s not a question,” she said automatically, but reached for it with her right hand, rocking back and crossing her legs. She then proceeded to pluck out another white rectangle from inside, and unfolded it into three parts, turning it over. Her eyes slid back and forth across the starkly white surface.
“It says it’s addressed to me, Hannah Roverton, one-oh-thirty-seven spruce lane, greeley, colorado, eight-oh-six-three-four, and for the month of august I am being charged sixty-seven dollars, which is bullshit, let me tell you. I hardly even turn on the lights. Courtesy of en-double-yu colorado power, et cetera, et cetera.” She glanced up at him under her brows and the short fringe of hair that had resettled over her forehead. “Happy?”
Alan was staring at her.
“What language is that?” he asked mildly.
“Hey, don’t fuck with me Blondie.”
Nothing in the syllables or the cadence struck familiar.
“If I cannot understand you, then the question has not been answered,” he pointed out.
“I said that it’s my electricity bill, and what I’m being charged and all that. This whole question-answer session isn’t really doing anything for me. I advocate the tic-tac-toe route. Look! We can use this.” She flipped the sheet over to the side where there were fewer markings, and flattened the three sections against the keelson. “Get a pencil.” When he did not respond, she rolled her eyes and said, “Or a quill, or whatever the fuck you use.”
Her eyes snapped up as the door slid open with a sharp skont of swollen wood catching against the bulkhead, and Ashur stepped inside. Even the trivial airflow from the rest of the bilge refreshed the stifling pressure in the compartment.
“Hey, do not interrupt my interview time, asshole.”
Ashur gave her a baleful, flat heartbeat of attention before turning to Alan.
“Storm to the southwest,” he said in Donse. Alan gave a faint nod, and Ashur ducked under the edge of the door and shut it after him.
“Oh god, is he in charge?” Her expression of apparent horror morphed suddenly, her eyes narrowing and her brows drawing down. “Man threw me overboard. Not in my good graces. Who’s turn is it? Is it my turn? I think it’s my turn.” She was thinking, eyes unfocused. “So what are you going to do with me?”
Alan’s mouth curled involuntarily, and he found himself curious that she had not asked earlier.
“If you attempt escape, or attack of any kind, we will throw you overboard. And this time not retrieve you.” She accepted this steadily. “Other than that, we have not decided.” Glancing at the stiff white sheet, he gestured for him to pass it back to him.
“What language were you speaking, earlier?”
“Uh, english,” she said, reaching for the sheet. But rather than refolding it as it had been, she folded it in half lengthways, creasing it sharply.
“I am unfamiliar with that term.”
“You speak Seclednar quite well.” Her eyes rolled severely toward the ceiling as Alan watched her fold the top two corners to the center, too curious to stop her.
“I speak english just as good as you do. Shockingly.” She made a few more long, practiced creases, and before Alan had enough time to register, directed the sharply pointed result at him.
Holding it by her ear, she flicked her wrist.
Alan leaned abruptly to the side as it swooped past his face. The point hit the hull by his shoulder with a sharp tap, then dropped with a fluttering scrape. Werser had straightened, almost taken a step forward.
Quickly looking back up at the woman, he found her staring at him with an expression he could not read.
“Nice reflexes,” she said. A pause. “Though I must say I’ve never seen anyone react to a paper airplane like a gun.” She tossed the other white piece spinning into his lap. “Well, at least you didn’t get poked in the eye. That sucks.”
“What is this?” Alan asked slowly, picking the thing up delicately, wondering with the sudden intensity of startlement if she had intended a distraction or a test. She responded with the same expression as when he had asked her what her country was.
“Paper airplane.” When he kept looking at her, she lifted her eyebrows slightly. “It’s a toy. That children make. Shit, Blondie, you are no fun.” Alan considered the folds and planes, how they remained sharp and tight, the faintly crumpled point, then set it aside, retrieving the other piece.
“Nyah. You used up your question. You shouldn’t waste them on obvious shit like that, Blondie. Do you mind that I call you Blondie?”
His mind lurched around at the sudden shift in questioning, and he smiled again, lifting a brow. Leaning against the hull behind him, he opened his shoulders, holding his hands laced loosely in his lap.
“I find it curious.”
“So can I keep calling you it?”
“I feel no need to stop you.”
“Without repercussion?” she pressed.
“Most likely,” he agreed dryly.
“Cool. Your turn. You were asking ‘Why did.'” Lifting her arms above her head, she grasped on elbow in the other hand and pulled on it gently. He decided to change the question.
“Why did you board this ship?”
“Oh god, are we back to this again?” The response was so automatic he didn’t know how to interpret it. He considered her, what she might want, what might lure her.
“If we give you amnesty, will you tell us your purpose and how you came aboard?”
“I ain’t got nothin’ to tell, Blondie. Not gonna change no matter how many times you ask. And that’s two questions. Now I get two. One: So your issue is that you think I’m playing for the other team, yes? Two: Okay, so this isn’t a question, but could you at least consider, hypothetically—” she switched arms, “—that this is not. The case. And what that would mean that you have kept me tied up in solitary for a month. Maybe for some bizarre, crazy reason beyond both of our comprehensions the other team kidnapped me and planted me here, to fuck with you or something. Because it’s obvious you have already taken this too far. And then —and here’s the question— if this has all simply been a horrible misunderstanding, would it not be easier to simply drop me off with the coastguard?”
Watching her, Alan considered whether to answer and how.
“I won’t press charges,” she offered, lacing her fingers and stretching up, her whole spine reaching for the deckhead. “Okay, just to recap, cuz that was long, you are all freaking out that I’m here cuz you think I’m a spy or whatever from the other team. Yes?”
“The possibility concerns us,” he said dryly. His tunic was beginning to stick to his back, sweat prickling his armpits. He shifted forward, resting his elbows on his knees.
“Okay, and I’m am telling you that I have never heard of your Drif-people, I don’t know what your epic roleplay is, nor do I care, I don’t know how I got there, I want to be returned, so wouldn’t it just be better for everyone involved, if you handed me over to the coastguard, I don’t press charges, you go back to your game, and I go back to my cat and my dreary suburban existence?” Her voice was starting to go hoarse after practically a pass of silence, and she worked her mouth and swallowed.
“Essentially, you wish to be released?”
“Yes. And you have got to stop with this smiling shit, Blondie. You’re seriously creeping me out.”
He had not consciously been aware of it, and he only felt it deepen.
“I did not realize it was offensive.”
“We find it more likely that you are aware of why you are here and have some purpose.”
“Bullshit, Blondie. I was planting morning glories around my mailbox in colo-fucking-rado. Please tell me how I got two-thousand miles to an ocean without knowing it.”
“We had no knowledge of you until you appeared, suddenly, on this ship. We have every reason to believe you a stowaway or a trespasser.”
Her glare turned hooded.
“I believe this is what they call an impasse,” she said finally. She was massaging her palms now, picking at the raw skin on her wrists.
Her face contorted as she watched pus ooze out of the abrasion. She glanced up at him.
“I don’t suppose you guys carry hydrogen peroxide? That doesn’t count as a question.” When Alan did not answer she glanced back down at her wrists. “I’m just praying I don’t have nerve damage, Blondie,” she said, coughing lightly as her voice caught on the last words, massaging deeply above the wrist. “So like, what happens now? You’ve got me locked up, claiming ignorance, you don’t believe me. We cancel each other out. What next?”
“We will see.”
Her eyes flicked upward, not as severely this time.
“Ugh.” Then, “So if—” He raised an eyebrow. “Oh. Sorry,” she said.
“If you were released, what would you return to?”
“My cat. My suburban bachelor pad. My pitiful pension. My profane habits around roadkill. My counselor—” she shuddered, closing her eyes, “—and I am going to be in such deep shit with my sister, you have no idea. It won’t matter that it’s not my fault, I am going to be the one who has to deal with the tears and snot.
“So,” she continued, “if you’re not going to let me go—” the woman gestured to her left, “—are you are least going to give me something to read or something? People go out of their minds in solitary, you know? Like, a manual if that’s all you’ve got.” Her expression turned flat as he considered her, and she examined her untrimmed fingernails. “I’m sorry, I forgot that people that go out in full costume on sailboats already have the manual memorized.”
“I am unclear why you would want to read.”
“Cuz I’m bored.” They regarded each other, she somewhat glumly, he still unclear. “Also, I’m hungry. And thirsty. Just in case that counts for anything.”
The bilge was rapidly becoming stifling. Her eyelids were drooping, her sickly-pale skin glistening.
“Someone will bring you water and food,” he told her, standing.
“Books,” she said in farewell. “Seriously. Or like, a gameboy.”