“The yellowfern isn’t gonna bloom for another couple passes,” said Mehth, pulling his stringy hair behind his ears. “We’ll still have time to trawl the edges of the Trench before the harvest.”
“But Oraun might kill Kimfen before the nets’re finished,” Jormrher pointed out, maliciously amused. Ashur was never sure if he thought they should fuck more, or less. He crouched in the shade of Mehth and Jormrher’s combined shadows, while Alan stood with his arm settled comfortably around Nemasd’s waist.
“This’s not new,” Mehth said placidly.
At the helm, Clisand was driving the ship into the wind, toward heat and storms. Jeik was already sleeping through his off-shift below. The water bounced the sunlight upward, threatening to burn the eyes. The wind whisked away the sharp tang of new sweat, but it sheened Mehth’s round, sun-browned shoulders, and turned the darkness of Nemasd’s skin a deep black.
“Naal wants to start a round of hamma-briggeie with eight tonight,” Nemasd announced. “Duchy variation. You’re invited.” He flashed a grin at Ashur, who lifted his eyebrows. He had no head for the rules and intricacies of the briggeie, but he could always read in the player’s bodies who had which signs, and who wanted them, leading to the rumor that he was a cheat. Etiquette allowed that you could cheat– as long as no one figured out how you were doing it. But it might lead to fewer invitations to play.
“That dreck confuses me,” said Jormrher.
“Eana might want to play,” Mehth commented.
Ashur had felt a heavy tread bubble through the planks, and everyone stared in a collective stillness as the woman abruptly halted in front of them. Bizarrely colored eyes narrowed, she used her hand to measure her height against Alan, who gazed back straight-faced. Jormrher’s expression became distinctly unamused as she twisted toward him suddenly and did the same. She had about two fingers’ height more than him. Turning abruptly away, she stalked off, dragging the broom behind her.
“I’ll tell Eana about the game,” Mehth continued as they stared after her.
“What will we need soon?” Alan asked him, staying in Donse, words thick with Seclednar vowels.
“Palydda are running low, but I don’t know what we could do about that. Other’n that, the only fruit we got is wingfruit. There’s gorja along the edge of the Trench. They always dry good.”
“Seals’re getting fat,” Nemasd told him, grinning, idly rubbing the back of Alan’s neck. Mehth rolled his eyes.
“No, no, no, and four times—”
He cut himself off as a spate of rabid cursing in half a dozen dialects of Donse, Seclednar, and Duchie-tongues flew across the deck in ferocious spurts.
All eyes turned toward the sound, and there was a tangible collective contemplation about what to do about it. Ashur didn’t even know if he had the energy to be irritated. Jormrher peeled himself away form the group, glaring.
“And so it begins.”
“That Sergileg?” Mehth asked, mildly amazed, as Jormrher disappeared behind the mainsail.
The shouting went on for several breaths, then was abruptly cut off, leaving its strain strung about the air, unreleased.
Shortly after, Jormrher stalked back to the gathering, still glaring. No one made comment, and neither did he.
Recon day six.
Hannah found Blondie.
“Pants,” she demanded.
The long shirt worked better than being naked as long as she acted like she was wearing a miniskirt. Which was not something Hannah had ever really worn. It meant stopping whatever she was doing when there was a gust of wind to hold the hem down, and being conscious that someone would get an eyeful if she bent over. But she figured she had put in enough time as cooperative prisoner.
Blondie had looked at her, arms crossed over his chest, with that expression that she couldn’t tell what it meant, like he could have just stood there and not gotten bored. He was the only person so far she could actually look in the eye. Then he took her down to the field of hammocks, sat in one, and dug in a bag hanging above one end. He unrolled what looked like baggy capris in some faded dark color, and handed them to her.
Ignoring the casual curiosity of the scattering of roleplayers around them, Hannah stepped into the pants and pulled them up under the tunic in that way that women could change clothes in public without ever showing anything. It took her a minute to figure out how to tie the things on, since apparently they couldn’t just use a fucking drawstring. The cloth was threadbare at the knees.
“Thanks,” she said. Blondie didn’t say anything back, just lifted his eyebrows a little, and went back outside.
Observations: A lot of not-English. Whenever she got close to a conversation the ones who were speaking English switched suspiciously. She couldn’t figure out what it was, or even narrow it down to a continent based on all the foreign languages she’d heard in movies. There was a group hanging out by the water barrels talking in it, only one word in handful audible.
Hannah was wondering precisely how many times she was going to be able to sweep the floor again before they locked her back up. She wasn’t even really sure what she was sweeping, except maybe hair and dead skin cells.
She looked over her shoulder as she heard someone coming down the ladder behind her. In the light shooting down from the hatch, she got a good look at him and had the immediate impression of “Mexican.” Then she realized he could just as easily been Middle Eastern, or Indian, or any number of things she’d probably never heard of. Along with the girl, he was the youngest person she’d seen so far, one of those fifteen-year-olds you mistook for eighteen-year-olds, so you had to guess down a few years to be sure. The type where they were in shape and not covered in acne and without the general awkwardness of living in a practically new body.
And he seemed intent on walking right through her.
“Hey. Hey.” Hannah jerked the broom handle up across her body as he shouldered past her, nearly knocking her back. “Kid! You fucking— honestly!” She jabbed the broom at him, catching his leg, and he stopped.
One of the guys by the barrels choked and spewed water across the floor. Someone pounded him on the back as he coughed frantically.
“What the fuck is your problem?” Like practically everyone else here the kid was shorter than she was, and the look he gave her suggested he was going to kill her, but quietly.
In the shaft of light from the hatch, she could see all the lines in the brown of his irises. She didn’t break the eye contact, not even blinking.
The pissing contest went on for nearly a full minute.
Then the kid turned and stalked off. Hannah stared after him, not entirely sure that she’d won.
“Brat,” she called after him.
The guy who had just recovered from hacking up the invading substance from his lungs spluttered and was rendered unable to breathe again. The kid didn’t turn back, and disappeared down the ladder to the basement.
Someone gave a single, dry laugh.
“Kibought hama jui corlot,” someone else muttered.
The cluster started talking again, and Hannah walked over, intending to whack the first guy she came to upside the head. The others warned him with eye-signals before she had the chance.
“Laberd!” He ducked, just in case it seemed, twisting around toward her. “Are you cracked? What ‘as that for?”
“For whatever you knew and weren’t telling me.”
Hannah decided that thinking was a hazardous exercise, and went back to sweeping.
Hannah was observing the command structure.
Blondie, while not exactly a goddamn liar, had definitely downplayed himself. People went to him for things, and he made decisions. Which was a little weird. She was still not entirely sure he was all there, or maybe that was just his way of being annoying.
The Asshole, though, was definitely in charge of something. Which was bad for her. Normally Hannah might have ignored him as much as humanly possible just on principal, except that he was, in a weirdly beautiful and yet masculine way, absolutely gorgeous. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, his assholism negated anything beyond detached appreciation.
Then there was the Girl. The Girl was Hands Off, in a special way that Hannah wasn’t, even though no one had harassed her, with the exception of Trich, and she wasn’t sure that conversation even qualified as harassment. Which was kind of weird, not that she wasn’t glad. The Girl had talked to Blondie a lot the past couple of days and sat in on a couple of meetings with the Asshole, and Hannah couldn’t figure out if she was Blondie’s jailbait girlfriend, or his protégé.
Other than that, she hadn’t figured out the hierarchy. She couldn’t tell between Blondie and the Asshole who was second-in-command. She needed to find out more about the bad guys, and the plot.
Hannah had been right that other than the Girl and her, the rest of the population was male, and she estimated eighty percent of them were screwing each other for lack of women. There were enough public displays of affection to give the average straight American man a heart attack.
They were, as far as she was concerned, pirates. It was more entertaining than “sailors.” She decided this while dusting walls, rubbing the wood in precise circles, leaving invisible spirographs behind her. Also, she needed a head kerchief if she was going to do this maid thing.
The Twerp, as Hannah was beginning to think of the bitchy kid she’d run into the other day, had just stalked across the clutter of hammocks and said something to the Girl. She had that neutral look like she didn’t necessarily want to talk to him but wasn’t going to say anything to piss him off more either. Hannah wondered what it was like being the only two teenagers. And what was the deal with that? Did minors have to get parental release forms to do this kind of crap? The Twerp left, radiating angst.
There was a clattering, thumping line of pirate-people climbing down the ladders, and a corresponding set of groans and yawns, which signaled the changing of the guard. It was also her personal alarm clock for when it was okay to take a siesta, but she stuck around, spying out of the corners of her eyes, more on general principal than because she had something to look for. Other than the cat-fight with the dude who had slapped her, she was pretty much staying out of people’s way, and they were staying out of hers. But she figured the whole ridiculous captivity thing gave her license to act however she fucking wanted, as long as she didn’t abuse the privilege.
Hannah folded her rag dusty side in and tucked it into the waist of her new pants.
There weren’t any sails out when she hoisted herself up the ladder, which meant that other than a gentle wobble, the deck was blessedly flat. For some reason it looked bigger than it had. Hannah made her way over to her nap spot in the corner between the cabin and the railing. A tilt in the deck caught her off guard, and she grabbed one of the taut ropes that held up the crooked mast.
Giant nets were draped over the railing, like the kind Jesus’ disciples used in prints on church walls. As she sat down, Hannah spotted the big rowboat that usually lay upside down on one side of the ship floating farther out on the water, and realized why the deck seemed bigger. A guy on the boat tossed something, and it turned into a swirling flare of net, the web of it sharp and black against the afternoon sun.
Hannah realized she wasn’t actually nap-tired, she was more need-to-relax-tired. Pushing herself up, she propped herself against the railing, watching the boat. Now a couple of guys were hauling up fat, writhing nets. She could hear them laughing across the water.
On impulse, she swung a leg over the railing, hesitated, then swung over the other. The boat wasn’t rocking that much. She gripped the railing with her hands. Hopefully no one would shove her overboard. Hannah eyed the nearest pirates warily.
They started rowing the boat in, and more pirates crowded toward the side, catching ropes flung up from the rowboat. They got coordinated hauling, heckling each other in not-English. It took one last massive pull to get the nets to tip over the railing and onto the deck. Fish spilled out the nets in a dark torrent, gasping and flopping. Then one that had slid toward Hannah flipped itself over, propped itself up on its six fins, and started scuttling around.
Hannah had the sudden image of the Jesus-fish with legs that said “Darwin” in the middle that people put on the back of their cars.
A shirtless, tanned guy with a beer gut and longish hair grabbed a fish around the gills and whacked it with a stick. It spasmed rigidly, fins shivering, mouth working as it died. There was a whole group of pirates starting to move through the pile, providing blunt force trauma and tossing the fish into a new heap where another group was starting to slice open their bellies, stripping out the guts.
“Can I help?” she asked.
The shirtless guy gave her an almost offended look like he was about to blow her off, then looked at her consideringly.
“You’ll get over it,” he said, waving her over to the fish-gutting party.
“Jedima glaoghim!” someone called to him, laughing.
Ridiath looked up when she felt Efeddre hovering, breaking off her conversation with Megars.
“Tonight,” he snapped, then turned and left. Megars’ pale eyes followed him over her shoulder, then looked at her, curiously. He seemed almost about to ask something, then didn’t. She rolled up another length of the line around her arms to give him tension to work with as his fingers continued twisting fibers into cord.
The sky was obliterated that night, the clouds pressing steamy heat down against the water. The deck was quiet after a festival of samma processing that had dwindled with the day’s light. Only a small group continuing by torchlight, laughing and smelling of fish guts and oil. It took her a while to find Efeddre in the dark, on the abandoned forward deck, which she suspected, sourly, that he had commandeered.
He shifted restlessly as she sat, but didn’t begin immediately.
“Once, when I was a child-adult, there was a growing season so harsh my methala began to starve.” He sat with his arms locked around his spread knees, his voice choppy. “The herds were lean after the snows; it was too dry for the fruits, too early for the wholesome roots. One of our females reabsorbed her unborn cubs, and two women aborted. There’s a bush that grows on the eastern slopes of the mountains, always beside a boulder, and an oil can be drawn from the roots that will coax a baby to release the womb. Our men all grew thin, and some males were beginning to die.
“The Lridrisy slept much of the time, except to hunt. The two methala adjacent to our territory were almost as stricken as we were. Their territories had no abundance to share.”
Ridiath heard the strain of the anchor cable as the ship gently yawed with the subtle shifts in the tide, a groaning creak.
“The two oldest in our methala, who had told all the stories they had to tell, went to walk the valleys. That is what we say when someone leaves to die, so the rest can live.”
The tone of his voice was changing, becoming something she had never quite heard before.
“There is a beauty, to starvation, when you watch the sky, and listen to the white trees grow. Everything is slower, so slow. Blinking. Sleeping. Savoring every bite of food; watching your skin grow looser, then tighter, seeing every shape of your own bones. Our stomachs were usually full. There were greens everywhere, and easy hunting as the herds dwindled. They were too lean to nourish us. But we were always hungry, until we weren’t hungry at all.”
He had stopped, and Ridiath expected him to stand and leave like he had before. He stayed, though, unmoving, and unspeaking.
“Did anyone die?” she asked, hesitant.
“The two oldest. And the youngest, before they were born. A rich harvest season followed, the herds and fruits fattened, and we lived.”
“The two oldest, who suicided. Were they Lridrisy or Limdri?” She felt faintly wary that would find insult in the question, but he gave no sign of any in his answer.
“He was Lridrisy. She was Limdri. She and my father were very close.”
Ridiath had been hungry, hungry for days, but she had never starved. It was, in a way, hard to understand why it was allowed to happen. But Limdris was different than Secled.
“There was no recourse… because of your mother?”
“No. Nothing changed because of her status. If she had died, another speaker would have been chosen.”
Ridiath did not always understand why he told her the stories he did. Yet she knew he always chose them for a reason.
“What happened to the boy after Laschdarvi?” she asked, because he was answering, and maybe he would answer this.
“I brought him to a camp.”
It was what she already knew, yet the answer was incomplete. Ridiath found herself suddenly tired, restless, and wanting to be away from him.
“Easy night,” she said, and pushed herself up.