Seven

Daylight grew and turned into a heated wash. The air still smelled of cold water and distant wind off the southern glacier. Efeddre cradled the child in his lap, a little boy-child she saw now.

While she rowed, Ridiath watched them. Efeddre had washed off most of the blood caking mouth and hands. The rest had smeared. Now he licked a finger, cleaning each deep, bloodless cut on the boy’s body. The child never flinched, never cried out, did not even seem to be aware.

Biting the inside of his scarred wrist, Efeddre let the blood fill his mouth and then pressed his mouth to the boy’s. He was at least responsive enough to swallow, because none of it poured down his chin. Reopening his wrist, Efeddre held the red dribble over each wound, directing it into the channel of every cut.

During one of her shifts off the oars she was with Solme, crouched across from him at the bow. Drinking from a jar, she jutted her chin at his gut, and he lifted his slashed tunic. The shallow gash followed the curve of his belly like a downturned mouth.

I didn’ think you were gonna make it with that soldier in the hall,” he said. He seemed to consider, slowly chewing on the end of a strand of hair. “Demhlei teach you that?

She felt surprised, but it was an obvious connection.

Yes,” she said, because it was less complicated. He nodded.

The only marks on the child’s body now were Efeddre’s blood, a few bruises, the sharp definition of starvation. Stretching him out in his lap, Efeddre stroked his tiny body, rubbed his skin, gently pressed his lips in a line down his spine.

They ordered the change-over of rowers so that most of the time either Toney or Efeddre could give the child their whole attention. The other times he slept on their backs while they pulled an oar, tucked inside their tunics.

Sometimes Toney spoke quietly to him in Lril, long murmurings. Efeddre did not speak to him at all.

When Oraun took Efeddre’s place at the oars, he tucked himself in the nook of the galley’s stern, and curled his body around the child. Rowing had turned into a heavy ache in her upper arms, and Ridiath repositioned herself, letting her weight and the natural movement of her torso carry the oars for her before the ache reached back into her shoulders, knotted at the base of her neck.

Gradually, she began to feel a vibration, not quite a sound, reaching through the hull to her feet. She did not consciously become aware of it until ahead of her Oraun began flicking his eyes around, tiny movements of his head.

The vibration came in steady, paired lengths, almost like a sound heard behind the sternum and not in the ear. Half Oraun’s face was visible to her, and his expression turned suddenly intent, gaze unfocused, his sharp, pale eyebrows knotted. After a few long pulls on the oar, he noticed her attention, and glanced behind him, then pursed his lips toward toward the stern.

Still folded around the boy, eyes closed, Efeddre didn’t notice their attention or ignored it. She didn’t understand. Eventually, she felt the source of the vibration through the hull, spreading out from him like a wave. She stared through Oraun for a long moment, trying to decipher it. Then she gave him a minute shrug on the upswing of the oars.

~~~

Sucking in a gasp at the sharp twist to sensitive flesh, she bolted almost upright, one hand already on her knife and the other starting to shove the grasping thing away. They had found her sleeping— fury and disgust roiled in confusion when her hand connected with a small forehead, and soft tufts of hair. Her thrust lost its momentum before she could knock the body away.

Not a man, fondling her as she lay sleeping. A child. The Lridrisy child, latched on her breast, slowly suckling, already asleep. The details of the dark, still beach penetrated the not-quite-memory, not-quite-dream, confirming that she was not in the walls of Lum, that one of her hiding places had not been discovered.

She had woken Solme. He had already grasped his lhir before he even came fully awake.

No danger,” she said. “The child startled me.

He took a bleary second to process that, then dropped back to his roll, pulling his blade to him like a partner.

Awkwardly, Ridiath pulled the rest of the boy into her lap, feeling him drag her nipple into his mouth, his small hand digging into her other breast through her tunic. Her eyes strained through the darkness, looking for Efeddre’s profile in the dark, but could not make him out. She sighed, wondering if she should take the child back to him. Holding him with one arm, she tried to gently pry her breast out of his mouth, but his thin, sharp fingers only dug into her more, and he made a muffled noise of discontent. She persisted, and the mewling grew louder. Letting out another breath, Ridiath stopped. She had already woken Solme.

She sat there, eyes gritty, wondering what to do. Cheek in one hand, she looked around, seeking out forms in the darkness. The collar of her tunic rubbed where the boy had rucked it down to her ribs. She tried to adjust it, running a finger underneath the tight hem. It didn’t help. Her eyes picked out the watchman, probably Fis, sitting on a rock. She had begun to absently rub between the child’s shoulders. As her gaze travelled toward the impenetrable darkness of the island’s tree line, one shadow abruptly peeled away from the others, revealing itself to be separate, closer. Disconcerted, her eyes took a breath too long to adjust and perceive a figure crouching just a step behind where her head had lain, watching her. Her mind jumped too late to her knife, and then she knew it was Efeddre, and did not reach for it.

“He was sleeping fitfully.” His voice came low out of the darkness. “He found his own way over to you. I wanted to see what would happen.” It flashed through her with great irony that Efeddre could certainly never be faulted on his honesty. His closeness, and her unawareness of it, was unsettling. But then she realized he had positioned himself close enough to reach out and scoop the boy away, or stay her hand if she had been more than startled.

“I can’t feed him.”

“He wants the comfort. If you were to keep suckling him, in a few twelvedays your milk might start flowing. Even then I don’t think it would give him everything he needs.”

“Do you want him back?” From the slightest movement of his shadowed body and what might have been a change in his breath, she thought he might be amused.

“I won’t try to convince you to mock-nurse him, but he’s already sleeping more restfully.”

She let out another short sigh.

“Let him sleep, then.”

Efeddre gave no sign if he was pleased, or cared what she chose.

Careful to support the boy’s thin body against her side, Ridiath lay back down, pulling her arm under her ear as a pillow. She shifted to take pressure off her hip, and the boy squirmed against her, never unlatching. It was strange. She realized that point of sensation was building between her legs, giving a faint pulse, did not know where to place that within herself, so didn’t.

Ridiath heard sand shifting behind her, not from someone rising to leave, but from someone lying down. She craned her neck back, and saw Efeddre’s shadow curled in the sand, and she thought she caught the gleam of an eye.

She was surprised when he said, “I’ll stay to watch him.”

Tucking her chin, she stared down the length of the boy’s shadow, still trying to process the sensation of his nursing. Even more strangely, she could hear Efeddre breathing, soft and even.

“Why did you want me with you?” It was the one part of his plan that she did not yet fully understand.

It was a few heartbeats before he spoke.

“So you would see everything. So you could judge for yourself.”

The cloud cover was clearing, and the sky was patched with stars. She wondered if she would ever sleep like this.

“When I was a little girl, and my mother brought me to Limdris, was it you who stayed with me, with your sister?”

There was a pause. She thought he would use sleep as an excuse not to answer.

“No. He was my older brother, Tebbat. We looked alike.”

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