Three

Erue was expecting her, and she heard him straighten in the darkness as she approached. Stepping close, she said in his ear, “Untie her hands before I go in.

 

Pushing the door into its slot, he stepped in and slid it closed behind him. Ridiath leaned against to the bulkhead, the stack of bowls close to her ribs.

 

A crack of light seeped around the edges of the door, then faded. Someone slipped out, taller and broader in the shoulder than Erue, moving with more care. Fis touched her arm lightly to ask if she wanted to go inside, but she spread her fingers against his hand in a sign to wait.

 

Closing her eyes, Ridiath settled into the patchy blackness behind her eyelids. She heard nothing from inside, and Erue raised no alarm. The ship creaked and whispered around them.

 

Opening her eyes to the dark, she touched Fis’ shoulder.

 

He slid the door open, and when Erue unshuttered the lamp she ducked in, keeping her face down against the sudden glare. Erue had settled by the door, the lamp dangling from his fingers washing the bilge in dim shades of yellow and gray. The woman sat against the hull to her left, and looked up sharply as Ridiath stepped in. She was still massaging her wrists, clenching her hands and stretching them.

 

The glitter of her eyes followed Ridiath as she walked down the keelson and laid two bowls along the beam, sliding the strap of the jar off her shoulder.

 

Ridiath tossed the tunic onto the woman’s knees. She reacted sluggishly, not even blinking.

 

In careful ritual observance, Ridiath poured water into the empty bowls. The woman had picked the tunic up, staring at it blankly for a heartbeat before stiffly working it over her head. Pushing the cap back on the jar, Ridiath folded her legs and tucked herself across the compartment. Picking up a bowl, she drank, studying the woman over the rim as she finished pulling the tunic as far down her thighs as it would reach. It had been a challenge finding something long enough to cover her.

 

Her hair was plastered to the sides of her face as it had dried, and her eyes were sunken. The effort of struggling into the tunic seemed to have exhausted her. She glanced at the bowl of water, then back at Ridiath. Ridiath took another swallow.

 

After a long stretch of grim consideration, the woman shifted closer, and leaned forward. Bracing the points of her elbows against the beam she picked up the bowl and drank, slowly, taking minute sips. When she had emptied it she seemed almost breathless. Her eyelids sagged. Ridiath picked up the jar, which made the woman’s eyes snap back open. As Ridiath stretched forward and poured, she pulled herself back against the hull. She tried to say something and gave a jagged cough. Swallowing, she rasped again, “So’re we supposed to build rapport now cuz we’re both women?”

 

“Probably,” Ridiath agreed, settling back again. The woman glanced back at the bowl, but did not move toward it, staring at Ridiath. Ridiath ignored her and finished drinking.

 

Setting her bowl down, Ridiath let her curiosity direct her eyes. She was big, with a frame to match her height, not fat but soft. The woman pulled on her little finger, and cracked the joint in her thumb.

 

The ship listed, and the woman’s eyes flicked down to watch the water level in the bowl move from horizontal to diagonal, but she did not move. A little spilled over the lip before the ship rocked back. Ridiath waited, and watched herself be watched.

 

Suddenly the woman wrinkled her face, and began to chafe at her cheeks with her hands, loosening hanks of salt-stiff hair. She combed half-heartedly through it with her fingers, snagging on tangles, before rubbing her face insistently. The fringe on her forehead stuck out in odd directions.

 

Shifting, she paused, keeping her eyes on Ridiath. They darted to the side toward Erue’s indolent stance against the wall. Then she slowly crept forward again and took the bowl, drinking a little more deeply.

 

Ridiath lifted the jar and an eyebrow.

 

Setting the bowl down, the woman pushed it toward her.

 

The tone of the stream of water rose in pitch as she emptied the jar.

 

This time the woman reached for the bowl as soon as Ridiath moved back. Stretching out her tied legs, she drank like deep breaths, cradling the bowl in her lap when she was done, eyes closed.

 

Gathering her bowl and the jar, Ridiath rose to a crouch. Eyes cracking, the woman followed her as she leaned forward and held out her hand. After a long stare, the woman gave her the bowl, but said nothing, even when Erue shuttered the lamp.

 

The light through the porthole in the map cabin was infinitely brighter, clearer, than the lamplight below.

 

“And?”

 

“She didn’t throw up.”

 

Ashur straightened in irritation.

 

“And what else?”

 

“She is wary, and somewhat patient.”

 

“What did you ask?” he demanded. Raising her brows slightly, Ridiath turned her full attention on him and braced herself.

 

“Nothing.”

 

Ashur stared at her.

 

“Then what did you do down there for half the morning?”

 

“Your method can be to press her; mine will be to offer her silence.”

 

Alan was watching, considering. Ashur turned away from her, making his sharply cut shadow twist on the floor.

 

“I see the wisdom in attempting both.”

 

“There are faster ways,” Ashur said again. Alan tilted his head curiously.

 

“Have you ever heard a story of a breeder giving up under torture?” Ashur’s fine mouth twisted.

 

“No.”

 

Ridiath’s hand wandered to the pile of bizarre clothes in the basket on the map table. Her finger toyed idly with the metal tongue etched with tiny symbols, teasing it up the two rows of teeth at the crotch of the pants. Catching herself, she pulled her hand away to not muddy the scent.

 

“She still smells odd,” she said into the silence.

 

Piss does that,” Ashur agreed, deadpan.

 

She chose not to react, continuing, “And she doesn’t have any hair on her legs.” After her own pause, she said, “She doesn’t feel like a breeder.” The movement of his eyes said Ashur thought not much of that. Collapsing into the spare hammock hanging to the side, he scraped his hand through his newly cropped black hair.

 

“I don’t like this,” he said abruptly. “There’s too much unknown. She’s too comfortable with Seclednar.” He paused. “I should have felt her come aboard.” Ridiath held still and thought of nothing but the carved sweep of currents in front of her, the play of the sunshine on the floorboards, and especially did not feel interested in listening to him lest he shut down. “If she was Blinshe, that would be… too much…” He never finished unfolding the slow thought, and Ridiath carefully did not feel disappointed lest he remember she was there. “I still can’t find anything within three leagues of us.”

 

“Then we should be in no immediate danger,” Alan pointed out.

 

“‘Immediate’ danger would be less worry.”

 

 

 

 

~~~

 

Enád, please—

 

 

We have to feed her?

 

Mehth sounded sourly unconvinced of the necessity.

 

Ashur made half a ruthless grin.

 

One meal a day’s not going to starve the rest of us.

 

Helping him wrestle another crate from the back end of a stack against the hull, Mehth said, “I don’t like it as an idea.” Ashur didn’t disagree. Mehth picked off a length of the pitch seal, squeezing a wooden bar under the tightly fitted lid, and wrenched it downward with his heavy arms. Pitch crackled and popped off onto the decking. Lifting the lid off, he leaned it against the stack of crates and they surveyed the contents.

 

Wing fruits, pickled, dried, and mashed into a solid block as heavy as a man. It showed no sign of having been tampered with since they had put it away last warm season. The seal hadn’t been touched.

 

That,” Mehth said, “s’the last one.

 

He sighed, belly heaving.

 

You’re adorable when you’re frustrated.

 

Tie a rock to your neck and jump,” he replied. He dropped the lid back on the crate and sat on it to fit it. Swirling a brush in a bucket of warm pitch, he started painting over the crack, making marks in his own code on the four sides.

 

I’ve been through every crate, bag, barrel, sack, and jar on this boat. Nothing’s been touched that wasn’t supposed to be.” He looked up at Ashur, bracing his hands on his hips and stretching. “Can you tell anything?

 

After a heartbeat of blank hesitation, Ashur laid his hand flat on a crate at head level, and opened his awareness to the subtle chatter of growing, living wood killed and shaped into plank and beam and board.

 

Beyond that, seed and flesh, crystallized, altered, still only a trigger of warmth and moisture and sour earth away from unlocking, growing, continuing— leaf and stem and salt, dried and flaking, filled with memories of waving beneath the water before the sudden, agonizing pleasure of the cut and the baking heat of an unshielded sun— dried meat that remembered running, pumping, the nourishment of blood, remembered being grass and before that bone and earth and tiny worms, cold and bruise and the all consuming terror of the chase, dozens of final instants and beginnings, a train of existence that never ended conscious-non-consciousnesses and their knowings and beings and memories—

 

Ashur pulled abruptly away from it, turned inside himself so that it was out of his line of sight, before it sucked him in.

 

A breath, and he said, “I don’t feel anything out of place. Which doesn’t mean nothing’s there, just that I don’t notice it.

 

Another heavy sigh.

 

I’m gonna go shut my eyes up top, and’f someone finds a hole in the hull or dies covered with black spots, it’s not my fault.” Mehth hooked his hair behind his ears and turned resolutely toward the hatch out of the hold.

 

Don’t roll off.

 

Only if someone hasn’t greased the deck.

 

Following him up the ladder, Ashur scanned the length of the ship under the mountainous white clouds and piercing sky. Alan was humoring someone and dutifully losing at briggeie. He spotted another knot of activity toward the bow, and striding across the deck, folded himself abruptly beside it. He planted his face in his hand.

 

Sooo. We gonna die of poison in the food or in the drink?

 

Kimfen leisurely slipped a shuttle through a loop in the net draped over his bony lap and pulled the knot snug. Colae was leaning over the other end of the net, going over each link for weaknesses and breaks, but he hadn’t looked up when Ashur sat.

 

We’re as likely to die of sunstroke the way Mehth’s been over everything,” Ashur told him.

 

There was a space, the slow draw of a few more knots.

 

I find that more unsettling than’f we’d found something off.

 

Colae glanced up in the glum silence, then dropped his pale eyes back to his work when the conversation didn’t go on. Fingering a few more loops, he tightened the scarf around his head, the ends trailing down his back.

 

It was getting hot. It was going to get hotter.

 

Ashur’s memory wandered, and he saw a river, and a green, stony land.

 

He faded away from it, and saw a green-blue ocean, no earth near except straight down.

 

Pretty. My name, is Schylus.

 

 

The shore was a long swath of wave-worn sand that met a tall, heavy forest of windcomb crowned with green. To his left the northward curve of the land reached toward the ocean. To the south it stretched away straight as far as the eye could see. They dropped anchor just as the day’s light was breaking through the grey-lined clouds, setting the water afire.

 

Fis and Ashur had organized a heavy watch, but there were more eyes and hands than that ready on deck. By the anchor, Werser was flexing his chubby fingers, massaging his hands between periodically resting them on his enormous belly.

 

Werser caught his amused study.

 

“F’we see anything, Juele, I’m gonna haul this thing up so fast you won’t see me move.” Beside him Brac was practically dancing with tension, slapping his thighs, wiping his palms down his tunic.

 

A call swooped across the deck before spreading out over the water. Alan looked up the slant of the mainmast and saw Arramyys with his legs wrapped around the mast. Arramyys signed sighting, then friend, two. Brac had resorted to pacing tight circles.

 

The lookouts kept their posts, but quite a few men turned toward the shore, trying to pick out anything in the fierce, fire-tipped blue. Kimfen gave a shout, pointing with a skinny arm as he caught something, followed by two more voices. Squinting against the light as he scanned the waves, Alan recognized Efeddre paddling out to meet them, his head held above the water. Astride his back, Toney waved, to whoops and trills amid laughter.

 

As they grew closer and more recognizable, Toney blew a broad kiss, and then they disappeared under the edge of the hull. Several of those standing back jumped forward to watch, and a ladder hit the water with a distant spash.

 

Quicker than anyone expected, Efeddre appeared over the railing, and Brac lurched back as he swung over, naked, the strap of a netted bag across his chest. He noticed Alan immediately and made for him.

 

“You are welcome,” Alan said, as he had each time before. Efeddre returned a minute nod, black hair dry from the ears up, the water already lifting from his brown skin. “How fared your endeavor?”

 

“We were well-received,” Efeddre replied shortly, reaching around to the string bag and tugging out a bundle of cloth, which he shook out. “We were given the location of two more camps— too far inland to approach now.”

 

“Hup, hup, hup.” Toney appeared over the side, and stepped carefully over the railing, then threw up his arms in greeting.

 

You’re nekked,” someone called in Donse, and he grinned, slapping his barreled chest. As Efeddre stepped into pants and knotted the drawstring, Kimfen ran up and flung his arms around Toney, then startled him into a laugh by lifting the considerably stockier man into the air.

 

Yer gonna throw out yer back,” Alan heard as Efeddre pulled his tunic over his head.

 

“We discovered an intruder aboard half a twelveday ago,” Alan told him, and Efeddre looked up at him, eyes sharp. “We’ve seen no evidence we are being followed, so we decided to keep the rendezvous. Is there any reason we should linger?”

 

“None.” Toney came up beside Efeddre, who was already sticking his hand back in the bag and pulling out a second bundle, handing it to Toney. At Alan’s signal, Brac helped Werser haul up the anchor with measured heaves.

 

“Hi Juele.” Toney beamed at him. Alan smiled.

 

“Welcome back.” Toney flung a tunic around his shoulders and closed it up the front.

 

Get your pants on, man!” Arramyys shouted from the mast.

 

Gesturing toward the stern, Alan noticed Ashur lounging on the edge of the deck that roofed the cabin, watching them. In the brief instant Efeddre and Ashur’s line of sight crossed, Alan watched them make a wordless compact to ignore each other. As they crossed the deck, a slight frame dodged the overturned galley, Ridiath, reaching behind her head to tighten the thong holding back her hair.

 

“Welcome,” she greeted. Efeddre nodded curtly, and Alan halted as he paused.

 

“Tonight.”

 

“All right,” she agreed steadily, but she had gone very still, alert. Before Efeddre could leave she quickly interjected, “Can Alan come?”

 

“Fine.”

 

Inside, the constant noise of wind and water was muted, and the air thickened. Efeddre followed him down the short corridor as Alan informed him of the particulars. Inside the map cabin, Alan crossed to a chest, and the cloying, sickly sweet smell flooded out, almost as strong as the first time. Retrieving the basket, Alan passed it to Efeddre, who already looked as if he found the experience unpleasant.

 

Efeddre examined the blade and the black and grey markings on the stiff, crumpled white rectangle, then picked up the heavy blue material of the short pants.

 

Alan watched with patient curiosity as he breathed on the fabric and then sucked in a deep draft through his mouth and nose, nostrils flexing. What he smelled was enough to make his lips draw back, nose wrinkling.

 

“Seeing her might be more useful than my description,” Alan told him.

 

“If she smells like that I don’t want to be in the same space with her.” Nonetheless, he picked up the faded black tunic and found the pit of the armhole, breathing on it and taking in the scent. “How old is she?”

 

“Middle-aged.”

 

“Then she’s not a breeder. I’ve never met a Drifalcand that old who didn’t smell like they were raised on ice-melt and rockstalker grease.” He tossed the cut tunic back into the basket. “None of it looks familiar.”

 

Alan paused, considering carefully how to tactfully pry. “Was the camp curious about your departure?” Efeddre passed his eyes over Alan without actually looking at him.

 

“Of course. They did not try to make us reveal our route though.”

 

“What are their long-term plans?”

 

“Survive, until such a time as we can return to the mountains. They are well situated. The Secled don’t live there, and the wood is rich. Their scouts have seen no sign of Drifalcand.” Alan’s interest peaked.

 

“And the other camps they are in contact with?”

 

“The western-most camp has seen two caravans in the past three passes. The last one was in the middle of the new growth.” Efeddre turned the conversation back on Alan. “What are your plans for the intruder?” Alan waited a long breath before answering, watching the flat angles of Efeddre’s face, too young for his eyes. There was no agenda there, no opinion.

 

“I don’t know.”

 

“Keep me informed.”

 

“As you wish,” Alan replied, and watched as Efeddre turned and left.
~~~

 

 

Toney and Efeddre had been waiting for them in the open air. Kydele’s curtain was completely vanished, except perhaps as a glimmer caught in the corner of the eye. The stars hung fierce and bright in the clear black sky, all the way down to the horizon.

 

“This is in the end of the fruiting season,” Efeddre continued, “so everyone is getting fat before the snows. Tesenge is cold, and has at least a gross of years. He lives a little apart from his people, and watches the herds move through their valley. Orion is in her prime. She directs her people’s fishing when a long, black and gold fish spawns, and she can throw a pike as far as one of our tallest white trees can reach.”

 

Away from the torches, Ridiath could only roughly see his slender silhouette as his hand rose in a gesture of height. The knot of anticipation that had ridden in her gut all day had begun to relax as Efeddre settled into his casual rhythm. Toney lay stretched out on his stomach, chin propped on his folded arms. Beside her, Alan sat with his elbows resting on his knees, silent, gently moving with the motion of the boat.

 

“While they’re talking, Orion is cracking umpir that her people just harvested. Umpir are a kind of nut,” —Ridiath caught the line of his hand as he flexed his fingers— “that can break rocks, their shells are so hard. But Orion has the knack of it, and every time she strikes—” Efeddre brought his hand down, “—an umpir splits into three, and she uses her hair pick to dig out the meat, which is rich and oily. Tesenge has been listening, and talking, and every time Orion cracks an umpir with her rock, he blinks.”

 

A tattoo of heels hitting the deck and a few softer treads heralded the formation of a circle of briggeie several paces away. They brought with them a lamp, which flared suddenly, reaching just beyond their circle. None of the players glanced over at the smaller gathering in the dark, but Ridiath did not think it was a coincidence. She smiled faintly.

 

“There are no umpir in Tesenge’s valley; the land is too sweet there, and he is used to living apart, and only hearing the drum of hooves, and the occasional tree landing.

 

“‘Do your parents walk?’ Orion asks him.

 

Crack.” Efeddre clapped, softly but sharply. “And he blinks.

 

“‘My poppa walks,’ he tells her. ‘He’ll lie down soon; he is only a little younger than my momma. He still hunts, and tells stories of how the mountains stood before he was mated.’

 

Crack. He blinks.” The soft, sharp clap, this time against the deck.
“Orion asks, ‘Is he hot or like you?’

 

“‘Hot,’ Tesenge tells her, and she laughs, and crack.

 

“‘I love the old stories hots tell. I like to watch their faces,’ Orion says.”

 

“They always change,” Toney cut in. “Like watching a feather in a whirlwind.”

 

“Orion tells Tesenge a story of her methala—” Efeddre continued, and Toney interrupted.

 

“The Lridrisy tied to her family.”

 

“—and crack. Their youngest litter has just finished growing, but they still hunt flocks of moths, and Orion tells how their father is watching them one night, and how his face flows into a new expression with every leap and twist and tumble. Crack.

 

“Tesenge’s left eye is beginning to twitch.” The silhouettes of Efeddre’s fingers sprang open near his temple.

 

“He asks Orion about the black and gold fish spawn, and she tells him about their shining backs skimming the surface of the streams, and crack. He blinks. Twitches.

 

“Finally, Tesenge asks, ‘Would you stop that?’ Orion stares at him, because she is like a hot, and they have been talking since the sun was in the middle of the sky.”

 

“An’ he’s only just now said something,” Toney added, in case they did not understand.

 

Efeddre went on, “Orion finally asks, ‘Is there something else I can eat?’ because of course she needs to fatten up more than he does.

 

“‘I’ll come back,’ he says, and marches down the hill. He asks everyone he crosses if they have something for Orion to eat, and they all offer him umpir.” Ridiath felt her mouth twitch. “So he runs to the next camp and asks if they have something for Orion to eat, and they have been gathering spicy leaves from the streams before they freeze, but those have no fat. They offer to go to the next camp and fetch some umpir.” Toney giggled into the deck, but Efeddre’s deadpan voice never faltered. He never laughed at the humor in his stories.

 

“So Tesenge is running to the next camp, when he feels the land change, and he follows the feeling up onto a bluff,” Efeddre’s hand lifted, tracing its shape in the starlight, “where a man named Yanya is shaking a kind of mountain palydda out of a tree onto mats. When he asks for something for Orion to eat, Yanya tells him to take what he needs, so Tesenge takes off his vest and fills it with fruit, and runs back to Orion’s camp.

 

“Where she has been sitting on the hill, cracking umpir. She has a pile of shells up to here.” Efeddre held his hand about the length of his forearm above the deck. Toney was smothering a strangled laugh into his arms. “When she sees what he’s brought her she starts to laugh, because she knows the nearest tree of this kind is five leagues away.

 

“‘I can’t eat them all, I’ll get sick,’ she tells him.

 

“And he says, ‘I’ll help you.’ So they go back to sharing, and Orion lets the stone rest. He tells her about the sensation that climbs up his bones when dozens of hooves drum the ground, the herd almost close enough to touch, and the things he sees when the night is blackest, and what it is like when the children visit him.”

 

Efeddre paused. The game of briggeie seemed intensely focused inward, the only sound the occasional clat of slats, or the declaration of the referee.

 

Efeddre’s silence lengthened, and Ridiath did not know if he would pick up the story again, or tell another. They rocked gently, the masts swinging through the stars. Efeddre shifted, then pushed himself to his feet, looking up at the sky. Then he walked away.

 

Watching his shadow fade, Ridiath remained seated, her knees swaying. None of them made a move to leave.

 

A little later she asked Alan, “Do you mind when I volunteer you?”

 

“My curiosity is always grateful.” She could feel him smiling.

 

“I like that story,” Toney said contentedly into the darkness.

 

“Have you heard it before?”

 

“He practiced it on me on the way back.”

 

Ridiath waited, thinking carefully before asking, “Did you know them?”

 

He murmured a negative.
~~~

 

 

 

—and then something about babies chasing moths…

 

No no no! The thing about the faces changing was first. Because he was hot.

 

Who was?” Erue asked patiently, seated on a crate, fingers laced lightly together.

 

The Lridrisy’s poppa?” Nemasd said.

 

No—” Brac burst out, “—it was a Lridrisy attached to the woman, a Lridrisy family and Limdri family, or something.

 

Why don’t you ask Toney?” said Erue.

 

Because he’s not here right now.

 

Ashur watched Brac fling out his skinny, ocean-tanned arms, pacing to the right.

 

Blandly, Nemasd remarked, “Well he’s probably somewhere on the ship.” From where he crouched on the deck near the cooler air, Ashur’s eyes followed Brac as he reversed direction, not quite able to resist showing his amusement.

 

You were so loud during that part,” Brac muttered, pacing. “I couldn’t hear anything.

 

You asked me to referee. I told you we should’ve sat closer.” Nemasd wiped a sheen of sweat off of his lip with a thumb, his almost black skin beginning to gleam.

 

Well then it would’ve been obvious!” Brac’s hands shot skyward, and Nemasd stepped casually out of the way. Ashur gave an imperceptible snort. Not yet.

 

So the woman was telling the Lridrisy about her Lridrisy,” Erue repeated in tolerable Donse, stringing it all together, “and the face of the father would change really quick when he watched his kids playing, ‘cause he’s a hot.

 

Lamdek approached the knot of men from the main hatch, hand on his knife, his lank hair sticking to the sides of his face.

 

Brac was nodding frenetically, but everyone fell silent as Lamdek focused on Ashur, shifting his weight uncomfortably.

 

Uh, she’s bleeding. Do we care?

 

I don’t care if my aunt’s dying. Go ask Alan.

 

Lamdek seemed resigned, but unsurprised.

 

“Egreall would probably remember better,” Erue commented as Lamdek left, switching back to Seclednar and scratching above his ear where his freshly shaved scalp was crisping red.

 

He’s still asleep,” Brac said, dancing on one foot.

 

It would be soon now.

 

Should’ve got Rher there,” Nemasd said, folding his legs and leaning back on the deck. Brac kicked at the planks.

 

And… now.

 

Flopping down into a bundle of gangly limbs, Brac slapped his hands on his knees, and sighed.

 

Patting his thigh, Nemasd told him, “You just walked about a league.” Mumbling, Brac toppled onto him with a groan, squirming until his head was comfortable in Nemasd’s lap. He stared up at the sky with an expression of profound dissatisfaction.

 

The day’s heat rose with the moisture in the air. Practically everyone retreated skyside for cooler activities, except the guards, who rotated frequently out of the sweltering oven below.

 

Stripping to the waist, Ashur took a turn in the bilge, and when he emerged into the air, dripping, Ridiath found him. He waited for her as she approached, the hot wind almost icy on his slick skin, knowing she wouldn’t have bothered without a reason. Her classic Secled features were set, her personality withdrawn behind her eyes.

 

“I have word from Demhlei. We’re meeting.”

 

~~~

 

 

 

“Demhlei has reported that he knows nothing of breeders without a mark. He can suggest no other possibilities either.” Ashur looked at Ridiath along with the others standing around the cabin as she shared the news, not particularly satisfied, but too interested to care. “He’s never heard of anyone besides Drifalcand with pale skin and grass eyes.”

 

Hands braced on the edge of the table, her tail of wavy hair slipped over her shoulder as her gaze traced the flow of etched lines on the map. “He says more and more small bands are appearing from the deep south. He has heard ‘Laschdarvi.’” She glanced up at the men around her.

 

Ashur watched Clisand focus on the limbihte hide map pegged on the bulkhead behind Alan. It was Jeik’s shift at the wheel, so Clisand had come to the meeting. Following his gaze, they considered the patch around the tiny southern peninsula, empty of all but two bleached threads.

 

“We put those’n there right after,” Clisand said, glancing at Efeddre beside him. “Top of the drinking water was still freezing at night.” Another thaw had already passed since then.

 

“They could be letting their guard slip,” Alan said.

 

“Or they could be preparing a very broad trap,” Ashur concluded flatly.

 

Alan apparently had no argument with that, but he turned his attention to Ridiath. “Does Demhlei know why they are pulling soldiers north?” She paused, lifting her eyebrows.

 

“He believes they’re going to drive into Serg.” There was silence around the table, and they all considered the hide map, and the flurry of red arrows north of Secled. Ashur could feel the news in his gut, clarity and the edge of a knife, a feeling older than his memory.

 

“The entire army?” Alan asked her.

 

“He doesn’t know. They’ve received no orders yet. There’s just a feeling of gayentya, he calls it. Potency.”

 

“The moment before orgasm,” Ashur said. “The silence before a storm.”

 

He could feel the others watching him, and he caught Ridiath’s carefully veiled look, but she said nothing. If Demhlei’s unit was part of the drive, his chances of survival would grow dramatically fewer.

 

“Should we examine making another raid on Laschdarvi?” Alan asked them.

 

There was a measured pause.

 

“It’s too good,” Ibleton said from the hammock, muscles bunching as he crossed his arms over his chest. Alan lifted an eyebrow, one corner of his mouth drawing up slightly.

 

“Too good to take, or too good to leave?”

 

Ibleton pursed his lips to one side.

 

“Both?”

 

“It’s one of the few targets we could take that would make any difference,” Ashur threw in. He had said the same before.

 

“We must also consider the possibility they are moving sites.” Efeddre had remained silent until that point, his startlingly clear brown eyes fastened on a point on the table. Rather than responding directly, he had aimed the comment at Alan, and Ashur took no issue with it.

 

“Maybe we could get ‘em before they do,” said Ibleton, tucking one foot up into the hammock.

 

Ashur glanced at Clisand, who didn’t need to study the map to answer.

 

“Think we could swing down there’n fly back up in time for the storms if we smelled something rotten, way the winds are acting,” he offered.

 

Efeddre’s voice cut in.

 

“If we decide to attack, I want to direct the raid on Laschdarvi.” His eyes fastened on Alan’s and Ashur’s gaze snapped to Alan’s face, honing his focus on all of his subtle clues.

 

The slightest refocusing of the eyes, an involuntary blink that did not change his expression.

 

Alan returned the gaze for a long time. No one else spoke.

 

“We can consider it.”

 

“If you choose someone else, I still want to be there.”

 

“I will bear that in mind.” Efeddre did not look away from him, hard and unblinking, but then he seemed satisfied, and turned away.

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