His head snapped back as sensation and breath peaked, breaking through its center of origin to rush down his skin, reaching into his fingers. It spilled past him, bleeding into the world around him with shocking intensity, and he sobbed. Ashur shuddered, undone, crushing his forehead against Leki’s chest, gasping. Leki was breathing fast, body clenched with the overflow that passed to him through their skin. He felt a tickling wetness find a wavering trail across his face.
The orgasm let him go gradually, fading pulses, until there was only damp skin, stuffy cabin air, Leki’s stomach pressed against his. Under the line of Leki’s arm Ashur could see the length of his compact body, wiry and brown, more due to the sun than that his father had been from Crec. In the chill overcast season his skin faded, though not as much as Secled or Endon.
Ashur shifted back on the blanket to give himself more room to breathe, his bones impossibly heavy, soaking in his next breath. He dabbed at the white slick smeared across his stomach, mildly surprised. He hadn’t even felt it happen.
“Well,” he said, “You’re getting better.”
Leki finished slipping his fingers out of him and moved his hand to his hip, thumb massaging idly.
The charge still hung heavy the air, a leak of power that he had never been able to suppress. It prickled Leki’s skin, making all the hair on his body stand alert. He had said once that it was like breathing the sun, but without the light. Leki liked it. Not everyone did.
Leki had propped his head up on his hand, watching him.
“Never seen you cry before.”
“I don’t,” he said, shifting onto his side, head pillowed in the crook of his elbow. “Not for years.”
Leki didn’t say anything, studying his face, eyes following the tears still trickling down his skin.
They watched each other for a while, no reason to move. Then Ashur pushed Leki’s shoulder down and closed his mouth over the back of his neck, feeling Leki arch back into him.
He looked up, fingertips resting on the grain-side of a hide map of the western estuaries of the Duchies.
“You’d be best for this,” Rie said. Ashur felt his eyebrows twitch upward, but he didn’t ask. Rie’s dark eyes, face, posture, were not alarmed, but he was also never whimsical. Following him out of the map cabin into the still air that came with flying with the wind, Ashur hoisted himself up the ladder to the stern deck. Coming to a halt, Rie pursed his lips toward the head of the mizzenmast, where several other men were staring.
Perched on the yard, head swiveling alertly, was a gray-winged bird. A faint line dangled from the broad talons, a suggestion of jesses. With an extreme tilt of the head, the bird eyed them, searchingly.
“How long’s she been there?” Ashur asked.
“Just landed. Didn’ wanna scare her off, climbing up.”
As he focused on her Ashur could feel the air sliding through her hollow bones, feel the bright, sharp pattern of her, built for flying, killing, feasting. Wound inside that pattern was another, her self, the individual transitory experiences of her life that would die with her.
Ashur cocked his head, connecting their eyes across a distance three times his height. He made a snick across the back of his tongue, then another, peripherally aware that Rie was watching him now, not the bird.
She shifted, alternating feet, and turned to look at him with the other blue-singed eye. Ashur rolled a shoulder, lifting his right leg, and made a series of snicks, then a whistle below his ability to hear, jutting his chin.
Plumping her breast feathers, she opened her wings and glided down. Rie took an abrupt step back as she backwinged and landed carefully on Ashur’s bare outstretched arm. The callouses on her toes dug into his skin, the huge, black curve of her talons wrapping around his arm, not piercing. They regarded each other. With a snick, he ducked forward to nuzzle her neck, and she mouthed gently at his earlobe.
As they pulled away from each other, she held out a leg, gripping tighter with the other foot for balance, and he carefully plucked the tightly rolled vellum out of the bone tube fastened to her ankle. Settling back onto two feet, she gave a string of snicks, turning one blue eye on him.
“Get her one of Ecrembl’s eels,” Ashur told Rie. “Then see if we can find a lizard. She’ll like it better live.” Rolling his shoulders, he shifted his ribcage forward. She launched herself from his arm and landed on the halyard block, collecting a following of eyes.
Because Rie was standing so close, Ashur felt when something shifted in him like a dislocating bone. Looking over sharply, Ashur found him blinking, like he was trying to keep his eyes from twitching. He swayed faintly. Covering his eyes, Rie muttered, “Need t’take a nap.” The beds of his nails were almost yellow against the black of his fingers.
“Taighaut,” Ashur called, “help Rie down.” Pushing his awareness under his feet, Ashur felt Alan still sunk in sleep, and a covey of short, brittle understanding that was a nest of young lizards. As Taighaut jogged over and took Rie’s arm, Ashur walked to the end of the stern where Ecrembl was still fishing.
He had the stump of his right leg thrown over the railing, using the other for balance as he played out a long, knotted line between his hands. Ashur grabbed a slender, faintly shuddering silver rope of a body out of the basket beside his foot.
“For our guest,” he said jutting his chin at the bird. Ecrembl glanced over Ashur to the bird, then returned his attention to his line.
After the shift turnover, he found Alan sitting in the spare hammock in the map cabin, laboriously picking through the military-abbreviated script burned into the vellum. Someone must have told him when he woke. Ashur halted, crossing his arms over his chest, taking in the grey-winged bird sleeping with one eye open, talons curled around the top bar of a crate. Alan had glanced up when he walked in, and then returned to the missive, eyes flicking to previous passages often. Ashur watched the bird sway faintly with the motion of the boat.
“Give me that.”
Alan stared at the space where the vellum had been, his hand still holding the air, then glanced at Ashur, who was scanning the correspondence with half a scowl. His brow smoothed gradually as he paced a tight circle. Alan waited.
“What does lhambare mean?” Ashur had stopped mid-circle, and stared at the vellum as he held it above his head to catch the light from the porthole.
“On the field I have heard lhambaret used as a form of retreat, but to circle behind the enemy. It always seemed to be used as a bypass.”
“I doubt that’s how they’re using it here.”
He tossed the vellum on the table with a dry fwap.
“It seems two chorlons are rearranging their grain routes to minimize interference from the Drifalcand. Inland, behind the Taibath. I don’t see how it could profit us,” Ashur continued, now leaning across the map table.
“It was only a thin chance,” Alan said, reclaiming the report and picking his way slowly through the joined letters. This time Ashur waited with an amicable patience. “I see nothing else here either. Ridiath can read it to be third sure.” Ashur’s nostrils twitched, but he didn’t comment.
“Either she is profoundly storm-blown, or the Sergilé have finally finished negotiations with the Endon shipwrights.” Shemeyye were inland birds, native to the long-lived forests of western Serg and the Duchies. The Sergilé had, after generations of experimentation, discovered how to breed them on the plains. Ashur eyed her speculatively. “You think we could use her?”
“I’m not sure what scale of insult the Sergilé would find in that, were it discovered,” said Alan, only half dryly.
“Mmm,” Ashur agreed, staring at the floor.
“Ridiath said she has already contacted Demhlei. She expects a report soon.”
Ashur was interested enough to look up briefly. Bracing his hands on the map table behind him, he kicked one leg out.
“Rie had another bout.”
“I saw him asleep. He’s not in any immediate danger.”
“His last one was only three days ago. Lately it hasn’t been happening more than twice a pass. There wasn’t any fade. When he showed me the shemeyye he was sharp, then he could barely keep his eyes open.”
“Ridiath went straight to her hammock for her off-shift. Is there else here?” Alan tipped his chin toward the table. “I want to examine him again while he’s still asleep.”
“Run run run run run!”
Alan stopped short as he was nearly run over by Ibleton, and was fortunate to stand still long enough to avoid Taighaut crashing into him after. A yellow blur whizzed past and Ibleton leapt, catching it and hurling it up onto the stern deck before Taighaut could catch him.
“Rie’s got it!”
“Run! No, over here! Lam!”
Eyeing the pumping legs and arms streaking down the sides of the ship, Alan wove carefully through the mast stays toward the bow, and found himself accosted.
Kimfen eyed him warily behind the ragged black strands of his hair.
“What are the naked storms?” he asked suspiciously. Alan held up his hands.
“I am neutra—”
“No neutrality!” Kimfen tackled him.
Hitting the deck with a rib-bruising rush of air, Alan found his arm twisted behind his back, and didn’t quite have enough time to decide it wasn’t worth fighting as Kimfen hauled him up and marched him across the deck.
The prison was demarcated by two ropes stretched from the ends of the upturned galley to to the mainmast, where Kimfen promptly shoved him.
“Prisoner!” Kimfen called, and dashed back into the fray.
Rearranging himself into a more comfortable position, Alan took a rib-swelling breath, feeling the ache recede. There was a faint scrape, and a knee poked into his peripheral vision. Alan glanced over to find himself sitting next to Hannah Roverton.
“Hi,” she said. There was a smear of varnish on her jaw, and gummed dark beneath her fingernails.
The thumping and shouting of a brawl broke out on the stern, hidden by the shape of the galley’s hull. Listening, Alan picked out voices, trying to determine who had the advantage. A cluster of men just visible past Hannah held a furious conference in hand sign.
“Ohmygod. Is this a mutiny?”
She twisted her head around to peer over the galley as someone yelled.
Alan looked at her out of the corner of his eye.
There was a loud collective groan, and someone shouted “Prisoner!” from the stern.
Alan contemplated the cloud towers keeping pace with the ship, and Hannah held her laced hands in her lap, tapping her thumbs together.
A bright yellow blur arced high across the deck, causing an eruption of shouting and shoving. When the ball didn’t land, there was a blank space, interjected with a few oblivious scuffles.
Alan followed the faces turned upward and found Efeddre, legs wrapped around the mast head, something that might have been yellow caught between his fingers.He considered the activity below him.
“Laberd, how’d he get up there?”
“S’he even playing? Whose side is he on?” Alan heard Colae ask incredulously.
After a heartbeat of unreadable calculation, Efeddre let the ball fall straight down.
“Oh come on.”
It bounced lightly, just outside of the rope of the prison camp. He and Hannah stared at it for several breaths.
“Where’d it go?”
“I hate this like lizards in my hammock.”
“Did’t go down the hatch? Quick!”
Alan tipped forward and reached for the ball, carefully standing. He spotted Kimfen scanning around with his back turned and pulling his arm back, he pitched it hard into his back.
“Nice shot,” said Hannah, peering over the hulk of the galley.
Whirling around, Kimfen saw Alan. “Hey!”
“No neutrality,” he called back, and ducked under the rope, dashing for the stern deck.
“You can patch it together quick, right Juele?”
He understood the words, but they were not as immediate to him as the swamp of stagnating blood and snarled tissue shouting pain and damage through the nerves, pulsing as heat into his hand. Underneath the bulwark of clenched muscle and inflammation he could feel the shape of the cracks in two of the small bones that built the precarious mobility of Tande’s ankle. Under his other hand, sinking beneath the callous and ribbons of tendon, he could feel the bone of the heel, hard-shelled and soft-centered, completely sheered off.
Alan pulled his focus away from the ordered intelligence of the bone, already seeking for itself to knit the chasm together, but let his awareness travel through the mangled tissues as he looked up at Tande.
“You can patch me up, right? Like Felghaim.”
Alan regarded him dryly. Having supported him hopping into the sick cabin, Eana stood behind Tande where he half-sat up on the table, looking like he wanted to strangle him.
“It will heal straight,” Alan told him mildly. “Maybe two passes before you can walk on it again.”
Tande stared at him blankly.
“But with Felghaim it only took a few days.” Alan returned the stare blandly.
“You jumped off the mainmast!” Eana exploded.
“I thought I was gonna catch the yard! Jormrher had the ball,” Tande protested.
“F’we were anywhere else you’d be crippled and starve!”
“Well I’m here!” He looked back up at Alan expectantly, switching to Seclednar as if that would help his case. “You can patch me up in a few days, right?” Alan didn’t answer. Tande’s expression was turning to uncomprehending disbelief. “Come on, Juele, you know how I get itchy to move. I can’t be off my foot for two passes, and you can—”
Alan walked to the chests against the wall and took out his needles, a lamp, and began sorting through herbs and clays for a poultice, choosing by smell, and texture.
“You do not get to jump off the mainmast like a suicide then get to walk after half a twelve-day!” Eana was spluttering. “You do not get to do that!”
“But I was—”
“No! Are you cracked?”
The muscles and connective tissues would have to unlock, and the swelling disperse before Tande’s heel could be manipulated back into place. Then he would ask Ashur to help him coax the bone to grow enough that it would knit straight. He suspected the only reason Ashur wasn’t in the cabin right now was to prevent himself from doing Tande verbal or physical harm.
“But—” Tande looked at Alan disbelievingly as he pushed his shoulder to lay him out on the table.
“Get something under his back and knees,” Alan told Eana, who went to the blankets piled in one of the hammocks. Resting his fingers lightly on Tande’s skin, Alan sank lower in his senses, found the twisting, hardening connective tissue and followed it to a snag in his hip, pressing. Tande’s leg jumped, and he made a painful noise.
- to politically maneuver ↵