Two – The Ocean

 

STOWAWAAAAAAAAY!

 

Straightening from the railing, Alan turned toward the bellowed alarm emanating from the cabin, the tattered fragments of their conversation hanging in the air. Beside him Shenele jerked in the same direction, hand stealing to his knife. Erue adjusted his stance, but didn’t reach for his.

 

“Shenele, organize the watch. Erue, with me,” Alan ordered, then ran. Shenele shouted across the deck, and the faces that had been turned toward the cabin swept to him, then in pairs turned out over the water.

 

Ducking under the frame of the hatch, Alan found Jovrec struggling a stranger into knots.

 

“Ow.” She craned her head up to look at him through her hair. “Ow?”

 

“She’s a breeder,” Jovrec said, looping the cordage between her wrists and weaving it into the knot. “Look.” He leaned forward, pressing his knee into the small of her back, and grabbed her hair to jerk her head back.

 

“Ow!”

 

Grass eyes.

 

Alan stepped to the side to give Erue access.

 

“Take her to the bilge and search her. I want no less than two men guarding her at all times, no matter what.” Erue nodded, and crouched to press down her shoulders as Jovrec bound her ankles.

 

“Aah-AAAAGH!” She bucked and twisted as they lifted her, kicking at Jovrec’s stomach.

 

Emerging from stuffy dark of the cabin, Alan was not startled to find Fis’ powerful body perched on the stern deck a handspan away from his head.

 

“Ashur and Ridiath?”

 

Fis glanced over Alan’s shoulder, and Alan turned.

 

“Jovrec found an intruder,” he said as Ashur reached him.

 

“I feel her.” Alan mentally stepped back, reappraising the situation.

 

“Others?” Forehead creased, Ashur jerked his head. “She appears to be a breeder. She can’t be alone.” Still frowning, Ashur gave a faint nod.

 

“Everyone’s on watch. I’ll press a search. Who’s guarding her?”

 

“Jovrec and Erue.”

 

“There’s nothing visible out on the water,” Fis’ deep voice broke in. “We should send down divers.” A breath’s consideration, and Ashur nodded.

 

“Choose two more. Set spotters.” Fis nodded, and leapt down from the cabin. He tapped Leki on the shoulder as Alan said to Ashur, “Send runners to me every level.”

 

Ashur had called about a dozen men over to him, and they began to split up to proceed down all the hatches as Alan paced the perimeter of the ship. Fis was already stripped to a breechclout and a knife, and made a powerful dive from the railing. None of the scouts had seen anything out of place on the gentle, green waves.

 

Ridiath found him, pouring out of the hatch with a handful of others in the hold who had missed the alarm.

 

“Any others since the woman?” she asked him, dark eyes sharp, alert. Aramyys, perched on the bare mainmast called out a clear as the three divers surfaced on the other side of the ship. He gave a minute shake of his head.

 

“Circulate,” he told her. “See what they see.” She went, binding up her hair in case of a fight.

 

Alan reached behind his head and quickly braided his own hair as he continued around the ship. Taking the giant step onto the forecastle, he found Jeik straddling the stemhead, staring outward.

 

“What do you see?” he asked, crouching behind his shoulder.

 

“Kind south wind, light rain come morning, and good sailing.” Alan’s mouth twitched.

 

“And else?”

 

“Not yet.”

 

Juele!

 

The first runner spotted him, signing across the distance. Bilge clear, two guards. Alan gave a fist in acknowledgment.

 

“Where would you hide if not on the ship?” Jeik briefly removed his eyes from the waves to glance at Alan, then pointed his lips, tipping his chin out.

 

“Under the water, but three lengths away at least. Far enough that divers couldn’t make me out.” Another of the spotters called a clear. The breeze stiffened, moving dense and cold out of the south.

 

Among the figures on deck, Alan found Ridiath, and saw Leki emerge up a ladder from the water below, slick and dripping. By the time he stepped down to the deck, Fis had climbed back aboard, and Felghaim was just clambering over the railing.

 

Nothing,” Leki said, water still trickling down the thin, tanned lines of his body. “We couldn’ave missed anything around the boat, and we couldn’ see farther out.” Alan glanced at Felghaim and Fis.

 

Felghaim added, “The water’s clear as clear. It’ve been hard for someone to hide. The anchor’s sound. No sign of anything sunk below us.”

 

Droplets beading on his skull, Fis accepted the clothes and long knife someone handed him, stepping into his breeches before making for Jeik on the forecastle. Two men were rolling up the ladder they had ascended.

 

Dusk was laying itself down on the ocean, gradually reaching for more of the sky, when Ashur emerged from below decks looking like his own storm.

 

“Cabins are empty,” he spat. “No stashes, no nests, nothing. Two guards each deck, and two more for the breeder.”

 

“Are we all accounted for?”

 

“Everyone. The only thing new is her. Mehth is checking stores. So far nothing looks like it’s been rifled or tampered with.”

 

“No sightings above. We can reorganize the watch shifts. Jeik feels a good wind coming out of the south. We could be out of this standstill tomorrow.” Ashur stood strangely still, lean arms crossed tight across his chest, biting the inside corner of one lip.

 

“You take the breeder,” Ashur told him abruptly. “I’m going to look beyond the ship.”

 

 

 

~~~

 

 

 

I’m going to die. I’m going to burn to death.

 

 

Erue came up to him before he climbed down into the bilge. Quietly, he said into Alan’s ear, “She doesn’t have a mark.” Alan stared down into the dark, absorbing that.

 

“Has she said anything?”

 

“Not past trying to eat my thumb.”

 

“Is it still attached?”

 

“More’r less.”

 

“What was found on her?” Erue pointed his bristled chin toward a small pile against the planking running up the belly of the ship.

 

The pile contained little beyond her odd clothing, which smelled strongly. The cloth had been arranged so that it lay as it would have before it was cut. He took in only what stood out to him. The fabric of the tunic felt strange to his fingertips, not woven. In the shaft of sunlight from the open hatch the short breeches were startlingly blue. Laid on top was a rectangle of white, crumpled in half with a torn flap jutting upward. It was rigid but delicate, and he turned it cautiously in his hands. Alan froze as a fine edge sliced through the skin of his knuckle. The cut stung fiercely, not bleeding, and Alan was forced to wonder if the material could have been poisoned.

 

Briefly rubbing his thumb over the cut revealed nothing tainting his blood his body could not pass. He set the packet aside and picked up the blade, studying it only long enough to determine that it was strangely constructed. Erue followed him down the ladder into the bilge.

 

The dark here was absolute, and Alan found his way with his bare feet along the damp, central beam of the keelson, water echoing dimly around them. His outstretched fingers brushed a bulkhead, and he rapped twice.

 

The door slid open to Jovrec, framed by lamplight, and Alan stepped in, surveying the pale, naked form squeezed into the space where the sides of the hull met at the bow.

 

Alan followed the beam, ducking as the hull rose to meet the deckhead, and crouched a pace away from her.

 

He saw her watching him. He could already smell her, a stiff, cloying scent that tickled the back of his throat. She had propped herself up as best she could in the space, her bound legs drawn up to cover her breasts. A thick pucker of scar under her collarbone peered out from behind the curve of a knee. As she stared back at him unreadably, in the lamplight he could not even tell the color of her eyes.

 

“Can you understand me?” he tested, beginning in Seclednar. She gave no reply. “I have no patience for feinting. You will tell us your purpose, and the location of the soldiers or I will tie you to the keel.” When she met him with silence, he tried for a reaction. “Why do you have no mark? Are you motherless?”

 

Not so much as a shift of her eyelids.

 

“Speak willing?” he tried in Quandil, slowly. Her eyes flicked above his head, but he could tell nothing from it. “Execution-consequence. Soldiers where?” The woman’s eyes fastened on his again.

 

“Look, Blondie, you are gonna give me clothes and untie me real soon, or I am gonna slap you with sexual harassment, cruel and unusual punishment, and unlawful imprisonment so hard you will see galaxies.”

 

Alan had to mute his reflexive surprise. She had tripped over none of the words in Seclednar. All her words were perfectly clear, but he still wasn’t quite certain what she was saying.

 

“Since you understand,” he said, “why are you here?”

 

“An excellent fucking question. You tell me.” His eyebrows lifted.

 

“If you want to live longer than it would take you to drown or waste away, you will tell us exactly what your plan is.”

 

“You are unreal, dude. And you need to cut the act and take me to the nearest police station this very fucking instant before you dig yourself any. Fucking. Deeper.”

 

“Where are the soldiers?”

 

“Blondie, you know better than me that I ain’t done shit and this is pointless.”

 

“If you have done nothing,” he said carefully, “then why did you fight?”

 

She stared at him for a long breath.

 

“I’m sorry, in what part of the world does a man ripping the clothes off a woman not usually mean rape?”

 

Alan’s focus shifted. He tilted his head. He didn’t answer her.

 

“Where did you hide? You must have had sufficient supplies to have remained hidden for so long.”

 

She stared at him expressionlessly. Then, courteously, “I would be happy to answer your questions once you’ve untied me and given me some clothes.”

 

Alan considered her gaze for a long moment. Nothing she said made sense, but the offer was novel enough to pique his curiosity.

 

Glancing over his shoulder at Jovrec, he motioned with his eyes, and the man disappeared through the cracked door. He returned his attention to the woman and asked no more questions. She was studying his legs, her eyes flicking from one detail to the next, traveling up his body. The shape of her face was unfamiliarly rounded, revealed by a gap in the straight line of hair cut short on her forehead. Without the brown-in-green of her eyes, her features suggested no particular people to him.

 

Done with him, she scanned the partition of the bilge, moving from corner to corner. Straightening her back against the planks to ease her shoulders, the woman returned her stare to him.

 

Jovrec stepped in with a roll of cloth, which he peeled apart into halves. Her attention split between the two of them.

 

“If you attempt escape, you forfeit,” Alan told her. She held very still as Jovrec dropped to one knee beside her. Stiffening, she didn’t resist when he pulled her out of the niche and leaned her over so his deft, thick-tipped fingers could pluck out the knots around her arms. She pulled her hands forward when they were free, holding them stiff at her knees as she gently flexed her wrists and fingers. Jovrec picked out the knots binding her ankles and took the cordage with him as he stood, returning to his position by the door. Her eyes followed his feet, and she flicked one last glance at Alan before reaching for the clothes. She kept her groin and nipples covered with her legs, leaning to the side to shake out the tunic, turning it slightly to assess it, and pulling it quickly over her head. It took her slightly longer to understand the pants, and when she straightened her legs Alan caught a glimpse of a dimpled line slashing across one thigh. Shimmying into them, she the waist in a sloppy knot.

 

When her eyes were focused on his again, Alan asked, “Where are the soldiers, and how many came with you?” Crossing her legs as best she could, she straightened her back against the planks and took a breath.

 

“Roverton, hannah. Ex-private-first-class. Five two two, nine eight, six four three one.”

 

The words and the numbers had no meaning for him. Alan waited. She said nothing else.

 

“Why have you stowed aboard?”

 

Closing her eyes, she took another breath.

 

“Roverton, hannah. Ex-private-first-class. Five two two, nine eight, six four three one.”

 

Enád, I don’t like this. I want to stop.

 

 

The night sat quiet, and still. No sign of attack or ambush. Before dawn a dense, chill wind gusted out of the south, filling the sails, and they were moving again. Alan stood his watch near Jeik at the wheel, who adjusted the rudder minutely, his cloud of hair a blurred silhouette, his eyes on the stars.

 

“Who do we follow?” Alan asked.

 

“The Saddle. She’ll take us to the Long Flow.”

 

“Do you see anything you shouldn’t?”

 

“Nope. We are the only thing bobbin’ on this ocean except two broja nests.” After a moment Jeik added, “Some of the boys are putting up another jib. We’ll make good time.” They were due to rendezvous with Efeddre in six days.

 

Ashur found him halfway through his watch.

 

“I’m going to try again.”

 

He left, and Alan continued to scan the dark rippling enormity of the ocean. He heard nothing he did not hear every night, felt no rhythm out of place.

 

When Ob limped over to take his watch, he moved across the shadowed deck to find Ashur.

 

Seating himself a pace away, Alan felt no difference in the deep, gentle throb in his bones that was Ashur’s presence. He could not feel any indication of his effort, could not even see it in the star-picked angles of his face. Ashur’s hair was growing long, brushing his ears.

 

Alan waited with him until pre-dawn had turned the sky grey, and then, slowly, Ashur frowned. It was several moments before he opened his dark eyes.

 

“Nothing. Not for three leagues. Well, everything. But not what we’re looking for.”

 

“What did you feel?” Alan asked, releasing his patient curiosity.

 

Ashur’s face split into an unguarded smile.

 

“A school of markarl that spanned hectares. The eel that will hunt among them when the sun glancing off the water reaches its den. Coral so old it spans the Great Trench. Water dancing down to the very pieces that make it water. Molten rock beneath the ocean.” He turned to Alan, his face still open and suddenly younger. “None of which tells us what we need to know.”

 

 

 

~~~

 

Will you live now? Will you be safe?

 

 

“Roverton, hannah. Ex-private-first-class. Five two two, nine eight, six four three one.”

 

Alan glanced across the narrow space at Ashur, who stared at the woman with almost offended disbelief. It had gone on like this for half the morning.

 

“Aofludi ra inash?Why are you here now?” Ashur asked again in rapid Quandil. “Aoflühsho? Edymacai. [1]” His voice turned into a sneer. “Ejakalade, Emao. Eganru. Etishylo vemhpat. Duna washæh kiyvy, ehshö. [2]” Alan caught one word in six, not concentrating on the questions, but her reaction. She kept her eyes closed, legs drawn up to cover her nakedness, her shoulders against the wall despite her bound wrists, and said nothing. “Taoera cædetidda. [3]” Ashur’s eyes narrowed, focusing on her intensely. Not even a change in her breathing.

 

Jovrec still leaned beside the door, an unspeaking presence. Jaw propped in his hand, Alan watched her as Ashur’s silence lengthened. The fringe of hair on her forehead tugged at memories of following the herds. The same-unsameness of it picked at him, her hair too dark, her face too round, the humid pressure in the bilge so closed compared to the endless roll of the plains.

 

The two things she had demanded most vehemently had been clothes and to be unbound. Yet after they had wrestled her flailing back out of the clothes and tied her she made no second attempt to negotiate. Her anger had evaporated from the tight lines of her body, leaving an interminable patience. She had not reacted to anything said in Donse, or Sergileg, or the three other languages that had rolled out of Ashur’s lips. No one had given her water, and other than an occasional repetition of her strange litany, she wasted none on her breath. Alan did not expect deprivation to affect her this early, and so they offered nothing.

 

Finally, Alan caught Jovrec’s gaze, and motioned toward her with a tilt of his head. Catching the gesture, Ashur stood, without a scrape or bump.

 

As soon as she felt them descending on her, the woman’s eyes snapped open and she tried to roll away. They each caught her under one of her arms, and she thrashed, using the support to kick out with her tied ankles as Alan approached.

 

“Assault!” she shouted, and as Alan pressed his fingers into the scar below her collarbone, “Battery!” She tried to knee him in the groin, but only caught him a glancing blow where his leg met his hip, puffing and straining.

 

Alan sank underneath his senses, beneath her skin, into the blood and meat and bone of her. He could see and touch and smell and hear and taste, and underneath his hands he could feel all the tiny bursts of lightning and rushing fluids and building dying growing shedding processes of her life.

 

The scar was old, faded white. Through the memory of her flesh he could feel the impact of whatever had torn a hole in her, the jagged tug of misaligned muscle, the gnarled web of connective tissue, how the blood flowed thick and stagnant.

 

From her shoulder he traveled upward beneath her skin, thoroughly and concisely examining her up to her scalp. She was tall, of a height with him. Her eyelids twitched as he ran his thumbs across them, and the sickly, pale skin of her face and chest was flushing a furious red. Alan ran his hands down her breasts and she tried to knee him again, before he moved to the mirror of the scar below her collarbone embedded in her flank. It was as old as the other, but still tinged faintly pink, a locus of tension and toxins that radiated through her body.

 

His hands lingered on her belly, his senses lingering in her inflamed intestines and her tight, empty womb. As he knelt Jovrec caught her feet against the hull with one of his, cutting off her balance. Skimming his hands up a prickly leg, he traced under his senses the seam of an old break in the bone, then he traced with his fingers the dimpled trough gashed across the front of her thigh. The scar reached down to the artery, pulling muscle and fat and tissue in all the wrong directions.

 

Retreating back to his own skin, Alan found himself frowning faintly. Bracing his hand on one knee, he stood, and studied her face closely.

 

“Where are you from?” She had closed her eyes again, eyelids and mouth tight.

 

Roverton. Hannah. Ex. Private. First. Class. Five. Two. Two. Nine. Eight. Six. Four. Three. One.

 

He glanced at Ashur, who returned it questioningly, and tilted his head toward the door. Jovrec and Ashur stepped away and let her collapse. She briefly tried to catch her balance before falling, and hissed as her knees hit the beams.

 

When they had climbed up to the cabins, Ashur asked, “What did you find?”

 

“Her body is full of poisons, none of which are killing her immediately. The scar on her thigh cut the artery. The two round scars went through her.” He touched his right shoulder under his collarbone and tapped his flank. “Old rib fractures, a broken left leg, and a broken right arm, both healed straight.” He considered a strange detail. “She has metal in her teeth.”

 

“Riidu?” Ashur asked, tapping the spot on his own shoulder Alan had indicated.

 

“It was moving too fast.” Ashur’s black eyebrows arched.

 

“Arrow?” he tendered.

 

“Perhaps. I want to meet with Mehth, Ridiath, and Jeik.”

 

“Add Kol.”

 

 

~~~

 

 

 

Oh, Pretty. It’s been so long.

 

 

In the map cabin, Alan cleared the table, and unrolled the limbihte hide burned with the shapes of landmass and ocean, hanging it on a row of pegs. Mehth wandered in first, and sat on the deck to wait, face propped in one meaty hand. Ridiath and Kol came together, and finally Ashur arrived with Jeik.

 

“You missed the rain,” Jeik remarked. His warm skin shone slightly damp, his cloudy hair covered in faintly sparkling specks.

 

“The intruder Jovrec discovered has grass eyes,” Alan announced, reiterating what had already circulated. “This is what was found on her.” He lifted the basket of items collected from her and passed it to Mehth beside him.

 

“Laberd, that what that smell is?” Jeik asked. “Shenele’d pass out if he was in here.”

 

“Don’t handle it too much. Efeddre may be able to gain something from it.”

 

Mehth lifted the basket, and his round nose twitched as he took in a breath. Using the point of his knife, he flipped through the cloth, then passed it to Ridiath. She briefly fingered a corner of each object, feeling the texture before passing it on. When it came to Kol, he picked up the stiff white rectangle.

 

“Careful,” said Alan. “I cut myself on it.”

 

With precise delicacy, Kol twirled the rectangle on its corners between his dark fingers.

 

He asked, “Do you think this is writing?” Ashur leaned over and Kol turned one face of it so he could see.

 

“I don’t recognize it.”

 

“Neither do I,” Ridiath said after a brief examination. The basket went around to Jeik, who coughed sharply as he leaned close to smell it. No one recognized the style or manufacture of any of it.

 

“Sightings?” Alan asked when the basket came back to him.

 

“Three rorsha,” Jeik offered. Ashur leaned over the map table, sinews and veins standing out on his arms as he braced his hands on the edge.

 

“Where are we now, where were we yesterday, and where were the last four places we were within sight of land or another ship.”

 

Jeik squatted, taking smooth little stones from a bowl, and laid them out among the currents carved with fine lines into the wood of the table.

 

Their present position was already at the outer arms of the Long Flow. When Jovrec had found the intruder they had been south and west, caught in a dead space. Their last sight of land had been when kydele passed. Two passes ago they had berthed in a secluded harbor. There had been no sign of anyone, Secled or Drifalcand. They had caught sight of a ship a twelveday before, a Secled cargo liner bound north for the Strait. The berth before that had been nearly three passes ago, on an island with no human population.

 

Alan touched the last two stones.

 

“We couldn’t have had a stowaway that long,” Jeik said, and slid the stones to the sides.

 

Alan stared at the stone placed at the harbor. “Could she have been on board for two passes?”

 

“We’ve had lizards that’ve lasted that long…” Mehth said. “A woman? Stowaways have to eat, drink, piss, and shit. Our stores’re untouched. We went through every bag, barrel, and half the crates. No sign. She’d’ve had to have brought supplies for that long, and I don’t see how. Unless she was dumping her shit every day, and somehow didn’t get spotted, we’d have smelled her.”

 

“It’s impossible,” Ashur said flatly. “I never felt her until right before Jovrec sounded the alarm.” Alan looked at him.

 

“But you did not feel her come on board.” Ashur’s face showed doubt.

 

“No.”

 

“Deep sea canoes,” Kol tossed out, clasping his hands behind the thick nap of his hair. “Like island-jumpers. Small sails, or none. They moor with us at night, scale the sides, sink the canoes. Days ago at most.” Alan watched as Kol traced a hypothetical sail profile in the air with his long fingers.

 

“How would they have found us?” Ridiath asked.

 

“What if they were ocean-lost?” Jeik interjected, drumming his fingertips on the side of the table while he crouched on the floor.

 

“And were missed by all our watches?” Alan asked. No one replied. It was a disturbing possibility.

 

“We’ve had it easy,” Jeik admitted after a few heartbeats. “And we usually look for big ships.”

 

Jeik was studying the map burned into the limbihte hide, scanning the clusters of colored threads that marked ship sightings, Secled, Sergilé, Drifalcand and Endon, and what they knew of military movement through the mainland.

 

“We’re not even in an active spot,” he said, scrubbing at his patchy beard.

 

Alan considered for a long moment before speaking.

 

“I don’t think she’s a breeder.”

 

“She’s pale, she has grass eyes, Secled is swarming with caravans of breeders,” Ashur listed insistently.

 

“She’s never born a child.”

 

That brought Ashur short. He frowned.

 

“She’s barren?”

 

“No. And she has no mark. She speaks Seclednar and she’s as tall as I am.” Meth blinked at that. “There are no soldiers aboard. She is unescorted.” Alan’s eyes fastened on Ridiath. “Could Demhlei know?”

 

Suddenly everyone’s attention was on her, even Ashur’s.

 

“It’s possible. I can ask.” She paused, thinking, the fine, squared features of her face unreadable. “How general do you want me to be?”

 

“I believe in this case specifics are appropriate. Tell him what you think necessary.”

 

“Is there anything else I should include?”

 

“Just his latest report.” Ridiath nodded. Alan turned from her to Ashur.

 

“You have said before that some of your people have eyes like that. And travel over water in small craft.” For one of the first times since Alan had known him, Ashur looked mildly startled.

 

“Wrong skin,” he said automatically. He displayed the back of his reddish brown hand. “She’s too pale to be Blinshe.” This time everyone’s attention had honed in on him, but he said nothing else.

 

“Too pale to have been under an ocean sun,” Alan added.

 

“That’s more like stowaway,” Mehth said, which left them all silent again.

 

Alan glanced around the table.

 

“The question becomes whether we should delay our rendezvous with Efeddre and Toney.” He had no desire to be caught at the coast.

 

“Have to see,” Jeik said, ambivalent. “Might be best to wait a coupla days, to be sure, and to make sure they’re there so we can pick ’em up and fly out.” It appeared there was no other opinion, and the decision could not be made now.

 

“Spread what we know around,” Ashur said, face set in dissatisfied creases.

 

Alan added, “Let everyone know that she’s not to be touched, even if she offers herself.”

 

In her dafamn[4] could have ortuit[5].” Kol pointed out in Donse. Mehth stared at him. Alan didn’t understand all of the words through Kol’s lilting accent, but he could guess, mouth twitching upward at Mehth’s expression.

 

You think of the most horrible things,” Mehth said. Kol smiled, showing his big ivory teeth. Ashur gave him a look of disgusted exasperation while Mehth shuddered. Ridiath had understood enough to roll her eyes, and Kol beamed at her unapologetically.

 

 

~~~

 

 

 

I’ve almost forgotten what it feels like.

 

 

“Well, it’s been three days. I say we throw her overboard.”

 

Ashur leaned back on his hands, watching as Alan considered. Ridiath was sitting in, listening only, forming the other point of the triangle where they sat on the deck.

 

They had rotated the breeder’s guards and interrogators throughout the day and night, giving her little chance to sleep before she was woken by more questioning. She had said nothing except a few words and a line of numbers, and then she shut up entirely with her thirst. It was time to give her water or kill her.

 

The steady southern wind gusted, streaming past the swollen sails looming above them, and the ship rose on a breaker before sloshing down again. Ashur felt the air stream through the hairs on his arms, tugging at his clothes. The strong, gentle warm season was receding, and the hot storm season lay ahead. Strands of Alan’s yellow hair whipped forward of his shoulders, and he gathered them, twisting his hair into a temporary knot. The pale brown of his eyes stood out bright in the sunlight as he returned his attention to Ashur.

 

“I agree,” he said after consideration.

 

“There are faster ways to go about this.”

 

“I am not convinced of the urgency for torture.”

 

Ashur didn’t yet feel the need to argue. Bracing himself on one hand, Ashur pushed himself up and called out in Donse— “Tell them to bring’r up. We’re dumping her.” Moving toward the stern deck, he called out two orders and Gerril and Ibleton began lowering the main yard, the sail billowing as it collapsed.

 

Their progress slowed by abrupt degrees as the sails were furled and the jib dropped. By the time Fis emerged from the main hatch they had set the sea anchor and were bobbing with the swells. Alan had positioned himself by the railing where Ashur waited, standing a little to the side.

 

The breeder’s loose brown hair lashed at her face as she was pushed into the windy sunshine, her hands bound behind her back, her blanched nakedness garishly bright. Fis climbed up behind her, skull and muscle gleaming with sweat from the bilge, the only man in sight who was actually taller than her. A crowd of those on deck, along with a few trailing skyside out of the other hatches, formed a corridor to watch the entertainment.

 

Squinting in the sunlight, the breeder’s eyes began roving around immediately. She took in the bright water that stretched to every horizon, craning her neck to look up at the rhythmic calls of a passing fork of glacial turns. A line deepened between her eyes.

 

She lurched as Fis shoved her and marched her across the tilting deck, making sure she stumbled. Ashur caught sight of Ridiath pacing swiftly behind the screen of men, following their progress until Fis passed her to Ashur.

 

He slammed her against the railing, forcing her head down.

 

Over ten years since they had come up from the ice, and he had never been this close to one, and yet the memory of her floated in his blood.

 

“You have one last chance to make yourself worth keeping.”

 

So strange, to speak that language to her, here, so far away.

 

Above the wind and waves slapping against the hull, he heard a gummy rasp catch in her throat.

 

“I do not. Negotiate. With assholes.”

 

Ashur waited a measured breath.

 

“Fine.”

 

Hauling her back, he lifted her by the shoulders and a leg, and tossed her overboard. She only managed to suck in a sort of high-pitched gasp, and men crowded toward the side of the ship.

 

“I’m considering what a waste it would be if she broke her neck,” Ridiath remarked, squeezing in beside him as the woman’s half-curled body smacked into the clear, ultramarine surface, and disappeared with a frothy eruption. There was a loud chorus of painful noises from the onlookers. Ashur ignored her, then looked up when he felt Alan’s attention beside him.

 

“I kept your neck intact, didn’t I?” Alan raised an eyebrow and acceded him the point.

 

Turning his attention back over the side, Ashur saw the breeder emerge, spluttering and gasping, then she slipped beneath a wave. She managed to thrash herself back to the surface, struggling to tread water with her hands bound. They could hear the echo of her choking, and her head disappeared again. When she went under at third time, Ashur saw Alan catch Fis’ attention and tilt his head toward the water.

 

Fis took the time to shed his clothes, then dove off the side with a neat splash. Watching Fis stroke out to the disturbance, Ashur saw the breeder trying to float on her back, and doing a better job of drowning. As Fis reached her, he slapped her across the face as a precaution before grabbing her under the arm and swimming them both toward the ladder.

 

Climbing with her stunned form over his shoulder was slow. The crowd moved away as he swung over the railing and dumped her on the deck, shaking and still choking out ocean water.

 

Alan pulled away from Ashur and knelt on one knee in front of her. Her bloodshot eyes didn’t rise to meet his.

 

“Are you ready to answer our questions?”

 

She hacked hoarsely.

 

“You are all unconscionable dicks.”

 

Someone close enough to hear laughed; it sounded like Colae.

 

“Are you ready to answer our questions.”

 

“Roverton. Hannah. Five, two, two,” —breath— “nine, eight, six, four, three, one.”


  1. What is your purpose? Meaningless.
  2. Motherless, childless. Markless. Stealthless failure. Wasting to dust, purposeless.
  3. We have your fighter.
  4. cunt
  5. poison

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