He groaned, rolling onto his side, feeling stiff, his muscles all glued together. Something seemed wrong with the light.
“Get Fis and Ibleton.” Someone slipped through the door as Ashur tried to remember why he was in the sick cabin, in a hammock that smelled musty with disuse. Something seemed wrong with the light.
“How long’s it been?” he asked, groggy. He had to get to Alan, now, he remembered, before it was too late.
Litin told him, “Down, you’re not ready to get up yet.” Ashur struggled into a sitting position, head hanging.
“Hey,” Ibleton said, and Ashur’s eyes jerked up to see his almost Secled face, cropped yellow hair, heavy build suddenly there like he had always been there, but he hadn’t been there before, “slow down and let us—”
“How long?” he demanded again, raising his voice to drown them out. Fis stood by the door, a statue in muscle, dark eyes watchful, hooded.
A heavy pause.
It felt like his heart stopped, a sudden still, black place where a rhythm should have been.
“You salt-peddling, levy-collecting whores, do you have any idea what you’ve done?”
“Your skull is cracked, Ashur,” Litin said with the deliberate emphasis of speaking to someone who wasn’t completely there, but who didn’t warrant yelling at. “The rethor may have kept you alive, but it hasn’t healed the bone.”
“Take me to him,” Ashur said over him, grabbing the rope suspending the hammock to haul himself to his feet, lancing pain shooting through his head, trying to snatch his arm from Litin’s vice-like fingers, “it can’t, the longer its there the harder it will be. Let me go, I have to—”
Fis stepped forward and grabbed his face with one hand, covering his mouth, forcing him to look up. He stared into Fis’ deep-set eyes, feeling his fingers digging into his face. The others were staring at Fis, but he only looked at Ashur. After a few long breaths, Fis let him go and stepped back, and Ashur’s head sagged.
He took a deep breath, sorted through his cluttered mind for the words, because the right words might convince them. “It’s taken Alan as a home. The longer it stays, the more it will bond to his body. If I can’t force it out, I have to convince it. And I am the only person here who even knows what to say.” That wasn’t true, he realized. Not quite. There was someone else.
“You can barely stand, and you can’t think straight,” Litin said, implacable.
“Who is your nine-times harle.”
“Harle with cracked skulls don’t give orders.” Litin reached for his arm, then snatched his hand back with a shocked hiss. Ashur stared at him, thoughts suddenly halted by the violence of the reaction. He watched Litin’s pale eyes as he made that shift within himself where he could transform even pain he didn’t enjoy into merely an experience and set it aside.
“You’re burning hot,” he said, something strange in his voice. He rubbed his fingers as if they were tender.
“What?” Ashur said dumbly. He smelled smoke, couldn’t process it through his distraction.
“My mother,” Ibleton blurted, eyes wide, focused on the floor. Ashur looked down, saw curls of smoke drifting up from his feet. He took a stumbling step back, stared at the perfect burned imprint of his toes, the arch of his foot, his heel. The smell of woodsmoke filled his nose, fluttering up around his body in silvering whorls.
“Get out of here,” Litin said abruptly. Ashur took another horrified step back, watching another brown singed footprint appear in his wake. “Ashur, get out, get on deck! You have to get in the water.”
He was going to burn through the deck, going to set the ship on fire.
I don’t feel hot, he thought, and then he was stumbling for the door, clutching the wall, then the railing, past blurred faces and bodies before he threw himself overboard.
The water hit him like an anvil, erupting in steam as he came up for air. The steaming soup was too thick to breathe, making him cough, which sent shocks of pain through his skull.
“Water still boiling?” Jentosh yelled down.
Ashur shook his head, struggling to tread, water dripping into eyes, into his open mouth, strangely warm, and sweet.
“Swim a little farther to be sure,” Jentosh called. His limbs felt almost dead, but he did. He stopped, gulping for breath, watching the water’s surface for steam.
They didn’t throw down a ladder, but a line. He stuck his foot into the loop at the end, holding on as they started hoisting him up, hands cramped by the time Eana offered him a tanned, wiry arm to help him over the rail.
“How come you never do that for soup?” Eana said, gripping his arm to haul him up.
Jentosh announced, “You, get to sleep on deck, until we know if that’s gonna happen again.” Ashur didn’t even have the energy or the motivation to tell him not to give him orders. Jentosh shook out a blanket and draped it over his shoulders as Ashur hunched over.
“You can see where th’water changes.” Eana was staring out over the waves. It took Ashur a long breath to focus where Eana was looking, and he saw it, an abrupt change in color six lengths out from the ship, from something paler than liquid sky, then the familiar piercing green-blue. Eana could barely see clearly from one end of the ship to the other, but he could still distinguish it.
A strange trill made him look up to find a swarm of the strange hawk-like, long-necked birds.
Jentosh said, “There’s fish, too. No one wants to eat ’em. An’ bigger things.” Ashur watched a droplet of water wander off his arm and scoot across the railing, flinging itself into the air.
He closed his eyes, fighting to see straight.
“I’ve already moved around more than Litin wants me to. Take me to Alan.”
4 Days Ago
The tingling rush of fear and battle-readiness thumming along his skin coating the bone-throbbing ache in his bones, the world abruptly still, upright. A veil of water spilling over the edge of the railing, seeping with steady purpose toward them. Someone was chanting something soft and desperae in Donse. Something wet slithered up his leg. Before he could say anything, make any sign, he gagged as it slipped into his mouth and slid down his throat, choked as it burned through his nose and into his sinuses, pooling in his lungs and his stomach. It seeped into the open blister on the ball of his foot, into the bloodstream, the lymph, worked its way into his anus, his urethra, his bladder, through his intestines, pried itself between his eyes and sockets, into his tearducts, forcing itself in, making him suddenly deaf as it stabbed into his ears, breaking delicate membrane and forcing its way into his skull—
“Juele?” Egreall asked gently. Ashur was laid out limp on the deck, struggled to sit, Werser helping him.
“Get me the bag,” Litin said.
No reponse for a shuddering breath, then another.
“He’s occupied,” a hoarse voice told him in perfect Donse. “He can’t talk to you right now.”
Egreall felt himself go still, as if for him the passage of the sun had stopped while it went on around him.
Juele braced a hand on his thigh, and wobbly, pushed himself to his feet. Egreall stood with him, hands out automatically to steady him, but not quite touching.
“I can’t talk to you either. I have to pay attention to him–” He was swaying slightly, strands of blonde hair sticking out.
Juele’s eyelids fluttered, as if he was trying to focus them, and there was something wrong, very wrong because they weren’t that pale brown anymore, they were a color too bright for eyes, something red-orange that seemed to breathe.
“I need somewhere quiet, dark,” the voice said. His teeth were stained with red. Egreall’s brain said with absolute certainty that his hand should drop to his knife and kill this thing, and his body said with absolute certainty that if he tried he would die. He took a heartbeat, to swallow, speak.
“Over here.” He jerked his head toward the cabin. He kept his eyes on the deck, watched the wetness seeping away in reverse, leaving the planks dry, hoping in eight storms that no one else noticed Juele’s eyes and tried to stab him. Most of them were distracted, throwing a ladder over the side, trying not to crack as the water disappeared from the deck.
He pushed open the door of the first cabin, empty except for the hammock, one end flopped on the deck. Juele stumbled inside, hand holding his head, and Egreall slid the door closed and leaned against it.
He wanted to bar the door, nail it shut, and somehow knew it wouldn’t do a thing.
“I wondered if you would die.”
Just those words, and it was like his skin was being split apart, flayed from his body, leaving him raw as he realized exactly how far it had migrated to come here. Ashur stopped in mid-step, closed his eyes. Jentosh hesitated in the doorway behind him.
They had never met, he had never even known it existed, and it knew him more clearly than anyone he had known for the last half of his life.
“Don’t. Don’t do this.”
He said it in Seclednar, like he would have to Alan, but it wasn’ t Alan.
“I already know your language. You’re too wounded to listen to me without sounds. It will be easier on him at this stage than using his memories.”
Its voice was like Alan’s and unlike. Not as deep, a smoother timbre. It leaned against the cabin wall beneath the rectangle of the porthole, one knee pulled up, the darkest spot in the cabin. It was naked, the familiar lines of Alan’s frame half silhouette —male, part herder, part Secled soldier— clothes flung across the deck. The brightness of its eyes cast a muted band of glow across its face.
Ashur sat where he had halted, in the middle of the cabin, and hunched into the blanket.
“You have to let him go.” He couldn’t bring himself to match the language, felt the idea stick in his throat, sharp as bone.
“I can’t. You know that. I leave now and I’ll shred him. He has to give himself to me.”
“Can he hear any of this?”
“Let me talk to him, let me explain—”
“You’ve done enough damage,” it said flatly. Ashur looked at it, startled, then sliding into dread.
A sound at the door him and its glowing eyes flicking over his shoulder made him turn his head —too fast, a flash of pain, things grating in his head that weren’t supposed to. Ridiath slipped past Jentosh standing guard by the door, slender feet carefully silent, and sat, without a word, without explanation. She crossed her legs, back held rigidly straight. Of course she would want to be here. He wondered how many others were listening with ears pressed against the outer cabin wall. Ashur shoved his irritation out of the way, and refocused his attention to the presence regarding him from across the cabin.
“What are you talking about?” he demanded, what he might have turned on Ridiath redirected. “You were maiming him, did you expect me to let you do it?”
There was something like anger in the burning brightness of its eyes, its brow faintly clenched. The glow seemed to withdraw, the coals banking, leaving them almost dark.
“Do you have any idea what you did? He can’t hold both of us. He can’t even hold me, and you forced yourself into him when there was no way for me to be forced out. He was clinging to the last crumbling edge, he could bear it, and you knocked him down and shoved him down a well. His suffering is beyond your imagination because of what you did.”
Something under his heart clenched, turned into an ache, turned into piercing nausea.
He forced himself to keep his eyes open, to keep breathing.
“Don’t play guiltgames with me. I won’t join the game.”
“You know what you did.”
“Why take him?” he demanded. “You were about to destroy us, why take him then?”
“When the River runs into a mountain it accepts the offer of the valley.” So eerie to hear that proverb, here, so far away. “He was willing to do whatever it took. You told me only what I couldn’t do.”
“He didn’t know what he was offering,” he said, like the words might shatter.
“No,” it said, cradled in that agreement an unutterable sadness. “He didn’t.”
“I would have given myself to you.”
“But you didn’t.”
“You didn’t tell me what you wanted! I would have—”
“You can’t. You couldn’t then, you can’t now. There is no room in you for anyone beside yourself.”
“You’re killing him.”
“It’s already happening. We will become one whether he gives himself to me or not.”
“What do you want?” He had to choke the words out.
“There’s a woman here.” For a heartbeat Ashur’s mind latched onto the idea of Ridiath sitting so straight, listening so intently just a pace behind him. “I’ve been searching for her.” Then it dawned on him, and something in him snapped.
He couldn’t have said how long he sat there in the silence, staring into the glowing eyes as they watched him.
Ashur stood up. The blanket slid off his shoulders, pooled around his ankles. He walked out the door, and Ridiath jumped up to follow him with Jentosh.
“Ashur,” Ridiath said urgently to his back. He was already halfway down the corridor.
“I’m going to kill her.” His vision had narrowed to the hall, to the hatch at the end. Everything beyond that tunnel was patchy blackness.
It was the only time in his memory that she had ever laid a hand on him to stop him, and he jerked out of her grasp.
“Touch me again and I will break your hand, I don’t care who fucked who to beget you.”
“If it wants Hannah, then we can use her—”
He whirled, shoved her against the wall.
“Do you not comprehend what’s going on, do you not understand what’s going to happen to him?” he shouted.
He stared down at her, the long wave of her hair pulled back tightly from her delicate Secled features, her body trimmed of the lushness it had once promised to grow into. She had been bred for a different place, a different role, and that she was here, now, so integrated into the ship’s landscape was a paradox of pattern that stood out to him like black against white, green against red, orange against blue. Jentosh moved to break them apart, mouth open as if to say something reasonable, respectful. Ashur expected her blankness, but something behind her eyes lashed out. Ridiath planted a hand on his chest and pushed him back, and he was so weak he stumbled.
“No.” Her voice so utterly empty. “Because you won’t tell anyone what’s going on.”
His voice dropped as he leaned over her again, and she held her ground, dark eyes hard.
“He is under seige by something on the same scale as kydele, as a flood, a force of nature. And the only way he can survive it is to let go of his sense of self, lose himself as an individual, submit everything he is to it, but he won’t. Because he is an ignorant, illiterate herder’s bastard who has grown complacent in the cracked fortune that always seems to follow in the wake of his recklessness. And no matter how much he begs, and begs, it isn’t going to stop until he is so utterly crushed that when it leaves, there isn’t going to be anything left.”