Water sluiced across the decks, turning the storm sails the color of charcoal.
Below it was nearly as wet as it was skyside. But the air was still, thick.
“What would be awesome in here, is a fan.”
Alan was becoming accustomed to overriding the instinct to halt in surprise every time he entered. The woman lay on her shoulders on the flattest part of the compartment, legs and hips and ribs lifted straight into the air, faintly swaying.
“What are you doing?” he asked, because he could not ignore his curiosity that much.
“Counting the number of things I would not do for a pot of coffee right now.” She paused. “The list is frighteningly short.”
Letting her legs fall, she propped her heels against the hull, and crossed her ankles. Tilting her head back, she peered up at him.
Upside-down, her eyes calmly followed him as he sat near her head, setting the bucket down beside him. Her legs listed, until she rolled abruptly onto her knees, hands held clasped between her thighs.
He hooked two fingers around her arm and pried it up. Without objection she watched his hands as he traced the red puffiness of her wrist. The infection did not go past the skin, but the abrasions were closing up on top of it. The flow of blood and nerve had not returned to normal, as if they did not know how. Her hands were cold.
“Ooo, medical care after the cruel and unusual punishment. Classy. Hey.” She stiffened as he broke open the crust and began massaging the pus out, wiping it away with a cloth. Then she held still, watching. “That’s gross,” she remarked after a breath, with no apparent sign of disgust. When blood began to ooze out, her eyes flicked up at him.
When he had worked around her wrist, he moved the bucket closer, and pushed her hand into the seawater.
He held her hand down before she could retract it. She looked at him, eyes suddenly hard.
“Itchy stingy itchy stingy itchy,” she declared, shoulders tense, glaring at him as he worked around her other wrist. As he pulled away she said, “Dude, I hope you washed your hands,” and showed an immediate inclination to yank her hand from the water.
“Leave it,” he said. “Then let it work on the other.”
“Is this water even clean?”
“Yes,” he said dryly. The woman eyed the bucket askance.
“Okay.” She pulled her legs out from under her and leaned against the hull, knees drawn up. When he touched her ankle, she stuck out her leg, pushing down the hem of the tunic to cover her groin.
“What is the meaning of the numbers you kept repeating?” he asked, tracing the inflammation winding around her tendons. Her eyes bulged.
“I’m going to smack you. I told you.”
“And then you would be restrained,” he agreed wryly. The infection was superficial, and would need no assistance, though it would heal slowly.
Alan watched the woman roll her eyes at such extreme angles he thought she might pull a muscle in her eye socket.
He moved to the next ankle, and she obligingly stuck out the other leg. Water and wood groaned around them, the ship rolling in the throes of the storm.
“Article seventeen!” she exploded, kicking her feet against the planks. She did not, he noted, kick him. By the door, Leki straightened, wiry arms starting to unfold.
Alan’s brows rose.
“Article! Seven! Teen!” He blinked. She leaned forward abruptly. “Have you ever heard of the geneva convention?”
“Okay, so if you missed that, I should probably also tell you that the going rate for kidnap is twenty to life.” At his blank expression, she sighed breathily and slumped back against the hull. “Dude, this is like, more humidity than I have ever experienced in my life. Even in colombia.”
“The numbers,” he reminded her. She blew out a breath, stared up at the tilting deckhead.
“My social-security number.”
“And what is that?”
“It is the number by which the government keeps track of everything I do or say and that they make you memorize and spout off for just about anything. You probably have one. Did you bring any books?” she asked plaintively, no longer paying attention to her wrist.
“No,” he said briefly. She seemed resigned.
“Why tell us this number?”
“Article seventeen, dude. The only shit I am obligated to tell you is my name, rank, and social-security number. Technically my serial number, but I’m discharged. For pee-oh-double-yu’s.” The glance he gave her was a question. She stared back. “I’m gonna make you use a question, so maybe eventually you’ll get sick of it and stop playing dumb. So can I like, maybe, get some food more than once a day? Or like, water, I guess water is more important. Especially the way I sweat down here.”
Alan considered if she was trying to alter her routine to gain more opportunities for escape.
He said only, “It is possible.”
“Prisoner of war,” she said promptly. He lifted his eyebrows. “I knew what you were going to ask, so I saved you the trouble.” She raised her own brows, as if to see if he objected. Then she glanced down at her submerged hand, one eye narrowed. “It stopped stinging. Should I switch now?” He tilted his chin at her, and she examined her wet wrist at all angles before dunking the other. “So is this actually going to help?”
“Likely,” he agreed with a faint smile. She seemed to measure him with suspicion.
“Can I use the rest of this to sponge-bathe?”
After a breath, he said, “If you wish.” She shut her eyes and pumped a fist.
Slowly, he asked, “Do you think yourself a prisoner in war?”
She considered briefly, eyes wandering, poking her lips out.
“Not really. I guess. I don’t know what war I’d be a part of. But it seemed to apply.” Her eyes landed on him, and she gave him a measuring glance. “So do you say ‘pop’ or ‘soda’?”
Alan contemplated the frequency of these strange silences in their conversations.
“Who are you?” He could think of no other question to ask.
“You mean besides the woman held captive in your boat-basement?” She waited so long it seemed she might actually expect an answer. “Um, I dunno, thirty-year-old; vet; cat-owner; older sister with way too much time on her hands, ummm… I don’t really like sports… or seafood… or anything much, really. Except my cat. And my family. I guess. Sometimes.”
As she trailed off, Alan did not find himself much enlightened.
“Paper or plastic?” she asked promptly.
The strange silences, were, indeed, frequent.
“What is your occupation?”
“Dude, I told you.” Her eyes swung large circles.
“If you have, then I have not understood,” he pointed out.
“I don’t know how many times I already said this.” Her eyes fastened on his again, the shape not entirely familiar. “I was a soldier.”
Stormwater lapped at his toes in the main part of the bilge, and Leki slipped out after him with the lamp, sliding the door quickly shut.
“Uh, Juele, ‘ave we considered she might be, hm…” He hooked a long, frayed strand of black behind his ear, then knocked his temple with two knuckles. Alan cocked an eyebrow, smiling faintly.
“Do you think she is?”
Leki looked at him with mixed doubt and consideration, then made a face and ducked back in.