“I’m not tall, you guys’re fucking short.”
“Juele is tall, and he’s a man. You, are a giant.”
“Look, I’m tall. I’m not that tall.”
Belly pressed to the deck, Hannah passed a random card to Eric to her left. The sun was hot on the soles of her feet, which stuck out behind the square of shade cast by the tarp someone had angled down off the cabin.
“Bald and stoic is taller than both Blondie and me,” she pointed out. He had been out and about a lot lately, moving between the helm and the guys manning the sails. Bald and stoic was the one built like an Olympic gymnast who had been going full contact with the Twerp that one day.
“Fis, is a freak,” Odul said flatly, slapping down a card for emphasis. Someone’s body odor kept catching Hannah’s attention, straddling the line between neutral and unpleasant.
“What about Werser?”
“Werser? Werser’s th’biggest man I’ve ever seen.”
“Never met anyone who could look me in the eye,” Werser said, looming to her left. The Girl discarded after Odul, not joining in the conversation. Her hair was loose from it’s usual ponytail, wet so that it looked almost black, curlier than Hannah remembered. A bunch of people had gone swimming when the boat stopped. The Girl’s name was Ridiath. Someone else had given it away, but she hadn’t freaked when Hannah started calling her that.
“Okay, you’re tall. But you’re not that tall. Six-four, max. There was a guy in my unit was six-eight.” Everyone seemed content to ignore her when she said things like that. Hannah didn’t find she minded. She wondered if that was a sign of Stockholmes. “Look, we can’t both be giants. You could squash me by sitting on me.”
For once Naal wasn’t refereeing, instead it was a guy named Nemasd who had the most glaringly pink palms and soles Hannah had ever seen. He took his turn then called the new rule.
“Take a slat from the fan and one from me,” Werser explained, scraping his hair off the back of his soft neck. There were, apparently, benefits to being in motion on the ocean. Like a breeze.
Ridiath said, considering the central splay of cards with a slight quirk to her mouth, “If you’re not tall, then I wonder how they feed all the people in your country.”
It was the first thing Ridiath had said to her without Hannah talking to her first. Hannah wondered if Lindsey would have had better luck with her.
Hmm, maybe not.
“We have supermarkets for that. Where the fuck do you guys get all your food? I mean I guess you catch some of it, but I haven’t heard any helicopters, or do you have like, rendezvous?” No one answered. Nemasd gave Odul a quizzical look, and Odul just gave a tiny, resigned shake of his head. Hannah rambled, “I mean, I think I get the basics. Bad guys. Roleplay. Dudes get to be macho with swords and knives and shit. I’m kind of surprised there hasn’t been a battle. What I don’t get, is you. You’re the only girl so far. Question is, are you the hooker with a heart of gold, or exiled princess?”
Hannah took one of Werser’s cards with two burnt yellow triangles, because Werser had taken a card with one yellow triangle during his turn. She had no idea what the fuck she was doing.
Suddenly she realized that Ridiath and all the guys were staring at her, giving her the surreal impression that she’d just said the wrong thing. The girl’s face was almost perfectly blank, her eyes way too empty.
“What do you know about me?” she asked.
“What?” Hannah backpedaled. “I don’t know shit about you. But in these kind of plots you don’t have many options. That’s the way it always is in those stories.”
“Stories,” Ridiath said, with the beginnings of a smile.
“Yeah. Like B fantasy movies. Which it occurred to me —I haven’t seen any film crews— that maybe that’s what you guys’re doing. Except you take it so frigging seriously. But maybe it’s in your contract that you’re not allowed to come out of character or something.”
Ridiath’s eyes had dropped back to her cards, all the weird seriousness suddenly gone. Some of the guys were still staring at her. Hannah did the usual and ignored it.
“Demhlei has heard of two barbarian soldiers captured on the north bank of the Sobath. He hasn’t seen them, only heard the story. Someone told him they looked to be from the black sands.”
“How fresh is his news?” Alan asked. Half a twelveday had passed, and now it had been ten days since Ashur and Kimfen had left to scout the edge of the army. As soon as the sixth day had passed she had asked Demhlei to start listening for rumor of two unusual prisoners.
“Yesterday,” she lied. Improbable, but it was not as impossible as, “Right before I called the meeting.”
“Rumors bend like grass,” Alan said, one of those queer times when his voice sounded so Secled and his words did not. “Even reports of two Crec men might not be them.”
“But how likely a coincidence?” she countered.
“If Ashur hasn’t already gotten them out, there is a reason. He could be dead, or too severely wounded.”
Fis, Alan, Mirea, and Efeddre. Fis and Mirea had filled Ashur’s role as harle. Fis stood silent by the the door, arms crossed over his chest in a noteable display of relaxed muscle; Mirea leaned in the crook of a corner of the cabin. His headscarf was tied around his waist, leaving his cropped blonde hair strangely naked. Efeddre had put aside his latest temper to listen intently, calculations weighed and measured behind his eyes.
Fis said, “How close could Demhlei point us to where they might be?” He spoke the most neutral dialect of Seclednar she had ever heard. Ridiath couldn’t have pinpointed where he had learned it, or even said for certain that he was Endon based on his accent alone.
“Close enough to lay eyes, if it were light,” Ridiath told him. His dark eyes measured her, a quick study of her face. Fis saw more than he ever revealed in his expression.
“I have already endangered my people too much with my actions at Laschdarvi.” Efeddre said into the space of silence, the conclusion of whatever he had been weighing since the meeting began. “I won’t help in any way that will identify me as Lridrisy,” No one had asked him, no one had even suggested he might be an advantage, but he felt the need to say it. Sensitive from her own tension, it rubbed her to irritatation, but his bluntness was valuable.
“Efeddre would be useful for stealth or for a fight. I would be the better choice to hide in plain sight.” Alan eyed her, shifting his stance, but he gave her no argument.
Instead, “Before we examine any plan, we need to ascertain if the reward is worth the risk.” Ridiath didn’t even consider that wasn’t willing to go after them. “Is it feasible for Demhlei to get close enough to identify them, or their state?”
Letting her impatience fall away, Ridiath considered, rolling the flavors of what Demhlei had shared with her around the back of her skull.
“He has no reason to frequent the part of camp where they are being held. He wouldn’t be stopped, but there is a chance he would go unnoticed. There is an equal chance that he would be noticed, and it would raise questions with no easy answers.” Alan thought, the pad of his thumb pressed against his lower lip. Mirea straightened to vigorously rub his arms. The evening was rapidly cooling the map cabin, not yet uncomfortable.
“Is he in any position to intercede for them?”
Ridiath gave waved her fingers in a negative.
“He has no valid reason to participate in their interrogation, or the rank to justify the whim. He can only be eyes and ears, unless he takes great risk to himself. If he breaks his faith with his brothers to help us, then we take him too.” She said it flatly, leaving no room for negotiation.
“Why you, to get them out?” Mirea asked, bending a knee and propping his foot against the wall behind him. She had expected the question from Alan, but the answer was the same.
“Because I can walk into that camp,” Ridiath stabbed at the floor with two fingers, “and no one will so much as touch me if say no, so long as I say it in the right language.”
“Breeders never walk alone, they say.” Fis would know that detail.
Ridiath looked at him, hard, then said with a flick of her brows, “I’ll bring the woman with me.”
Alan’s eyebrows climbed toward his hairline. “Reckless,” he commented.
“This, from the man who jumped off the Secleron to avoid his own trial for treason.”
“I know no one actually made a bet,” Mirea said from his corner, “but she wins.”
Alan said, “Your plan only works if we can escort you to the camp safely. It’s been nearly a twelveday. Even if Demhlei could have given us precise directions yesterday, we don’t know if the army has marched since his report, or where on the river they are bivouacked. If the prisoners are Kimfen and Ashur, we don’t know if they’ve been moved or executed since Demhlei’s news, or if they will be by the time we reach them. We don’t know to what extent they are being tortured. And we have little time to learn more from Demhlei before a party would need to set out to reach them, all in the hopes that they won’t be dead or too maimed to take.”
“Demhlei can get me the information in time.”
He wanted to ask, “How?” She could see it written in his face. It was Alan’s nature to question, and it was an utterly reasonable thing to ask. She almost wanted them to ask, so she could throw it back at them. The muscles in her neck were strung tight, her heart fast. Alan didn’t ask. Two years and he hadn’t asked.
“What’f she runs?” Mirea asked.
“Run where? She’s useless. She can barely gut a fish.”
“Thatsa little ironic, coming from you.” Ridiath rolled her eyes.
“I’ve been able to gut a fish for years, Mirea.”
“An’ people aren’t always smart when they run,” he went on. “They just gotta run or they feel like they’re gonna die.”
“She’s got grass eyes, but she’s tall,” Fis said. “She’ll prick the eye like a tight-pursed man in a gamehouse. They’ll remember her.”
“Let them. Let them remember her and not me. If she hinders us we’ll leave her. Half of what she says in Seclednar is gibberish. If she speaks Quandil she’s hiding it very well. As relaxed as we’ve grown she still knows nothing meaningful about us.”
“So if we were able to get you to the camp perimeter unmolested,” Alan said, the faintest emphasis on if, “The challenge then becomes getting out.”
“Two breeders carousing with two soldiers won’t raise any suspicion.”
“Two soldiers who don’t look remotely Drifalcand and may or may not be able to walk.”
“Kimfen could pass in the dark. And Ashur can… make people see what they want.”
“If Ashur is alive and has not already used his advantages, there is a reason,” Alan said again. “I don’t see how we can make a decision now. We need to hear more from Demhlei, ascertain if we can risk using the woman, and hope we find empty waters as we fly back to the coast.”
Ridiath held her tongue. Demhlei was already trying to find out more. If the crew was willing to at very least fly to the coast, everything else would probably fall into place. Efeddre was picking at his lip, eyes staring through the floor. Alan was studying her.
“You’re coiled tightly,” he said.
“I’m driven,” she told him.
Slowly, Mirea said, “Common-thought would be you’re not the person to risk.”
“Line me and Ashur and Kimfen up along the pier and tell me who you’d pick for your crew,” Ridiath shot back.
The Girl initiated contact.
“I want your help.”
It was kind of weird the way she said it, not “Can you help me?” not “I need your help.”
“Uh, sure. Probably.” Hannah eyed her a little sideways as she added another loop of rope to the wreathe of it on the deck. The pirates were very particular about how you coiled it. She’d gotten bitched out once already, by a guy she didn’t even think she’d seen before. “Uh, so, help with what? I mean.” Hannah stood, found herself towering over Ridiath, who didn’t quite reach her chin.
“Two of our men have probably been captured on the mainland,” the Girl said briskly, the various hems of her clothes fluttering and jerking in the wind. “Ashur and Kimfen. I need another woman to infiltrate the camp.”
Hannah had been expecting something alone the lines of, “Help me haul something,” or “Help me clean a cabin.” This was the first time she’d been asked to participate in The Plot.
Ridiath started walking down the deck, arms crossed tightly across her chest, and Hannah took a big step to catch up with her.
“Wait, how is having another another woman going to help you sneak in?”
“We’re going to be breeders.”
Grabbing one of the taut ropes that held the mast up, Hannah’s brain kind of stuttered. “… Okay, people have been throwing that word around from the beginning, but no one’s actually told me what it means. Does it mean what it sounds like?”
“Cuz it sounds bad.” It took a second for it to sink it. “Wait, seriously? We’re going to do that? We’re going to play slut to the badguys to help your comrades escape?” Ridiath didn’t say anything, just kept walking. “Man, they don’t let you write any of the episodes, do they?” She kept walking. “What do I get out of it?” Hannah blurted.
“What do you want?”
Hannah blinked. She hadn’t actually expected an offer.
“Uh, I want to not sleep locked up in the basement anymore?”
“I’ll make it happen.”
“Look, no offense, but you can’t even get out of this dumb plotline, how’re you gonna convince them to not treat me like a criminal?”
Ridiath turned to face her abruptly, and Hannah had to put the brakes or walk over her.
“Do this, and you will make quite a few friends here, especially if we succeed.”
“So you’re basically saying that if I do this I’ll have enough points to not have to sleep in two inches of stank.”
Ridiath took a short breath, let it out.
“Whatever you just said, yes.”
Hannah felt herself frown a little, watching Ridiath be clearly exasperated and not really sure why, wondering if this was some bullshit about not understanding anything but their selective Star Trek English.
“Okay, exactly how far do we have to go with playing slut? Cuz like, uncomfortable, you know?”
“Keep your mouth shut and let me do the talking, and no one will touch you.”
That wasn’t that bad.
“Okay. I can do that. I proved I can keep my mouth shut. When I want to.”
Lindsey. Would. Pitch. A. Fit.
But it was just a game. It was all a game.
The Twerp had turned into a giant cat.
Would Be Rapist, he hadn’t been part of the game. This was crazy.
“Okay, you’re going to have to give me some more intel here. At what point do I get to knee a guy in the nuts if he does get a little too friendly?”