“You want us to let her walk around,” Egreall said.
“Just, walk around—” Egreall mimed with two fingers, “don’t bother her, and see if she does anything.”
“Essentially,” said Alan.
Sitting behind him on a crate, Colae took a slow swipe through his hair with a bone comb. Colae didn’t usually represent any of the fluid social rings on the ship in these meetings, but he liked to listen. Egreall’s tense hands were flat against his thighs as he sat cross-legged on deck, fingers partially covering a hard lip of scar.
He looked up at Ashur, who stared back stonily.
“Beat sense into him,” he demanded. Ashur didn’t reply, expression unchanging. Mouth tightening, Egreall looked back at Alan. “And what if she attacks someone?”
“Then defend yourself.”
Alan dipped his chin as Colae combed his hair upward, showing the darker hair beneath. Mehth had been checking stores for lizard nests and wanted to hear the meeting, so they had gathered in the storeroom, door shut to the bulk of open hold hung with dozens of hammocks. He had finished by the time Egreall started protesting, and now lounged on another crate, sucking the kernels out of a leathery humaryt bladder, not offering anything to the discussion.
“[Tip:Tamanh-regt?=Braid?]” Colae asked, and Ashur’s stony mood turned distinctly sour.
“[Tip:Yuduch,=Sure.]” Alan said.
“Why for the weight of three feathers d’you thinks she’s not gonna try?” demanded Egreall. His opinions, and his mouth, carried influence in his ring, but Jentosh was also a part of that group, and he tended to see things from many sides. And Egreall had never felt strongly enough about his complaints to actually make a challenge. Ashur’s eyes found Egreall’s jagged white scar.
Kol clearly didn’t see their prisoner as a threat, satisfied after a few logistical questions. He shaped a humaryt bladder with his hands at Mehth, who dug around in the basket hanging by his head and sent one sailing toward him with an underhanded toss. Splitting it open with a ripe crack, Kol passed half to Oraun, who accepted with a lift of his sharp eyebrows in thanks.
“She doesn’t have the musculature of any kind of fighter,” Alan replied. “She never has, I think.” Tightening his scarf around the base of his skull, Colae parted Alan’s hair into four chunks and began weaving them into each other like it wasn’t some feat of nimbleness to keep them all straight.
“You want us to let a breeder walk around, hope she doesn’t kill anybody, and not fuck her.”
“She counts her relatives like the Duchies—”
“Western Duchies,” Kol corrected, lean black arms crossed over his chest, his fuzzy hair beginning to separate into half-distinct strands of curl.
“—she speaks Seclednar and another language not even Ashur knows, she reads, she’s my height, she has no mark, nor has she born a child. I don’t want her raped for the color of her eyes, and accepting any offers only gives her opportunity if she is hostile.”
The comb was Nemasd’s. Ashur focused on the comb, because Alan’s stilted Seclednar was pricking at him, half a dozen snappish responses floating in his head. He turned his gaze to the bulkhead.
“I haven’t had a woman in four clear seasons and I would not touch that,” said Colae, gathering a chunk of Alan’s yellow hair and picking a strand out with the comb.
“Yapas,” Oraun said, swallowing the kernels he’d been chewing. “I haven’t had a woman… ever, and I still wouldn’t touch that.”
“Shut up.” Colae pitched the comb at his head, and Oraun grinned, tossing it back.
“Didn’t she ask you for a whore?” Kol asked Alan drolly.
“‘Gameboy,'” Alan told him blandly.
“I thought that was maybe a yerola referee,” Colae said, wrapping the tail of the plait down Alan’s back with a leather lace. “They play it in Crec, and boys around the port’ll referee for bead.”
“This is like lizards in my hammock,” Egreall said flatly.
Egreall eyed him askance as he approached, and slid open the door for him. Hannah Roverton stopped running in place, one leg still canted up. She wobbled.
Holding out his burden, he said, lifting an eyebrow, “Your request has been granted.”
“Ohmygodyes.” Lurching forward, she snatched the broom out of his hand. “Where do I start?”
Alan tilted his head toward the open door, where Egreall and Jormrher waited warily.
Swooping out of the cabin, Jormrher quickly ducking out after her, she was already lovingly scraping at the sloping sides of the hull when Alan reached the doorframe.
He watched her twirl around the broom in no particular pattern, leaving scratches of wet in the dusty light reaching through the hatch as she spread the bilge water around, singing atonally but exultantly, “Laa, la la la.”
“You gave her a broom,” Egreall over-enunciated. “That could be a weapon.”
“Vigilance would serve us,” Alan agreed in his best Donse, amused.
“Juele.” When Alan just looked at him, he sighed deeply, casting his eyes toward the deckhead.
“You’re cracked,” Jormrher told him, and arms crossed over his chest, wandered forward to direct her up the ladder.
She wanted to do one of those message in a bottle things, one that read something like:
But not only did Hannah not have handwriting that fancy, at this point it just seemed easier to go along with it.
Day three: Recon.
It wasn’t actually day three, it was more like week something-or-other, but it was day three of reconnaissance.
She slashed the broom back and forth, and made way for another dude in historical pants and shirt. She just wasn’t sure whose history.
Hannah had, after two solid days of sweeping, scrubbing, and dusting, made it to a short hallway, with actual rooms on either side. She remembered that, from where she first got jumped. Which meant that outside was just down the hall. She shoved the bristles of the broom into a corner, trying to get in all the creases. Handmade bullshit.
She couldn’t tell if she was being followed. The first day and a half it had been obvious, one or two guys hanging back, watching her. She hadn’t gotten any bad-shit vibes from them, so she’d ignored them. Now, she wasn’t sure. Except there was always somebody around, even if just passing through. She didn’t look at anyone except when they weren’t looking, and tried to look busy.
She’d missed her chance to head straight for the end of the hall because there were a couple of guys standing around talking something not-English, and it would have looked bad for her alibi to not sweep the floor. But as soon as they were gone, she figured she could get away with it. She could feel the breeze piping in through the door.
Walking down the middle of the hall, she looked into the doors that were open. She didn’t see anyone, or hear any voices.
She had to duck.
Outside, it was about twenty degrees cooler.
Her back cracked a little when she straightened, squinting.
“God, I almost forgot the smell of oxygen.” A historical reenactor looked at her sideways, then went back to his business doing some historical shit with rope.
Holding her hand over her eyes, she scanned around, figuring she could pretend she was looking at scenery.
The boat pitched forward, a veil of spray flashing over the pointy front end, and Hannah grabbed the doorframe to keep herself from toppling over. Breaking her neck would be bad, she decided. Hoisting her broom, she decided it would be her sea leg.
A gust of wind streamed past her face, and a second later everything tilted about forty-five degrees, and she grabbed the broom and the doorframe and hung on for dear life. There was a bunch of creaking, and then the tilt subsided a little, leaving her bent over double.
After a second’s consideration, Hannah tried to find a place to start sweeping where if she fell it wouldn’t be overboard. The wood on the deck had good traction, but this was serious splinter territory. She inched her way around to the high side of the boat, and was drawn by the thunder-ripple of something very big and flat under pressure to look upwards.
The sails weren’t square like the stuff they brought out on Columbus Day, they were triangular, and there weren’t as many. But they also weren’t like the ones you saw in cheap pastel prints on hospital walls, though she couldn’t have told anyone why.
The mast, though, was… listing. She leaned to the side, matching it. Maybe it was broken.
There were some guys hanging out on the roof of the cabin she’d just come out of, but none of them seemed to be paying attention to her. She started sweeping along the edge of the wall. Four at the front of the ship, and another ten or so scattered around the middle. About half of them were black. The rest were white as far as she could tell. Glancing back at the roof of the cabin, she counted three more, then four, maybe five.
Spotting the Asshole, she waved enthusiastically until he noticed her and got one of those perfect looks of being the utterly helpless victim of sheer annoyance. She smiled at him with all her teeth, picture perfect. He glared, and turned away. Mission accomplished, Hannah went back to sweeping.
After a while, it became obvious someone was watching her. Very obvious. Too obvious to be spying. Frowning too much to be eyeballing her.
Swish, swish. Swish, swish. Swish, swish.
He did not go away.
Hannah looked up at him from underneath her eyebrows.
He was black, and short, and wearing a headscarf in a way that reminded her of cancer patients.
It took him a couple of seconds, looking like he was trying not to twitch.
“You’re… doing it wrong.”
“There’s nothing here to sweep.”
“Look. They gave me a broom. It’s what I’ve got.”
“Do you see anything up here to sweep?” he demanded.
“Dude, you’re way too picky.”
He sighed, like this was simply too much to continue to give a fuck about, then left. Staring after him, Hannah decided he had given up.
It started getting hot.
Hot like an anvil dropping on you.
Remembering the many horrors of dehydration in stupidly hot environments, Hannah climbed down the ladder near the big mast where it was even hotter, and skirted the small field of hammocks to find the barrels they’d showed her.
There were some guys passed out in hammocks, and a couple sitting on the floor looked up at her as she passed.
Squatting in front of the barrels she grabbed one of the bowls —wood, no cups— and wiggled the little plug out of the spout at the bottom. The water was tepid, and tasted exactly like it had been sitting in a barrel for months. Except it was kind of sweet.
No one had said anything about rationing and she wasn’t going to ask. Hannah downed it, then another bowl-full, then another, until just before the point where she was really going to get nauseous. She’d felt so fucking sick sometimes in the basement, especially when it got hot. The decided lack of hygienic opportunities provided a pretty good incentive not to throw up, though.
She watched the two guys out of the corner of her eye. One of them was still looking at her. Rolling the last swallow around in her mouth, she lingered, trying to figure out if she could get away with taking a siesta. The last two days she hadn’t, mainly because she’d been trying to prove she was genuinely excited about cleaning. Sweat tickled between her breasts, sliding under the curve, and she rubbed it through her shirt before it became an itch. She needed to find a scrunchy.
Not really sure what to do with the bowl, she replaced it in the basket hanging from the ceiling. As she made for the ladder, every hair on her body was sizzling to catch any sign she was being followed, but neither of the guys came after her.
Finding her broom where she’d left it, Hannah started swish-swishing again, and suddenly remembered she’d wanted to take a siesta.
She’d seen one guy laid out with a shirt draped over his face. There was a long rowboat to the left with a guy propped up on the shady side, head back and mouth open. Upon further investigation there was an arm hanging down over the edge of the roof of the cabin. So it was official. Naptime.
Considering the tilt of the boat and how fucking hot it was inside, it seemed that the safest, coolest place at this point was against the wall of the cabin on the high side of the ship. So she sat down with her knees up and basked in not doing anything and not being locked up. Drowsiness made her eyes burn a little, even behind the lids. So she figured what the hell, and lay down.
No one had tried to rape her tied up and locked up, so hopefully it was a safe bet now. Which was probably a stupid thing to assume, but under the compulsion to nap it suddenly didn’t seem to matter.
Hannah woke, unmolested, when she started rolling.
Her arms and legs shot out before she could really think about it, making her as flat as possible. A hum shot up her arm from her funny bone where she’d rammed it into the wall, and she observed the new slant to the deck that suddenly put much less between her and overboard.
With a heave of the boat, the broom started thinking about heading downhill, and she grabbed it with her toes.
It was not, actually, that steep of an incline. But it was moving.
She decided she didn’t care what she looked like and crawled to the high side, dragging the broom with her.
Recon: Day four.
Observations: Not a lot of color. Lot of brown, some reddish, some yellowish, some grey, whitish. They were obviously trying to be different with their clothes, but she couldn’t really pinpoint who they were copying. There were none of the frills and puffs and hats she associated with old-timey seamen. Hannah was looking at one guy, and she saw that his shirt wasn’t actually sewn closed at the sides. He had it tied with a belt, which gave it the look of a t-shirt with the arms cut out really low, like the guys who played basketball on public courts always seemed to wear.
She was sweeping the top deck again, because there was nothing else to do and it was outside. It was morning, and it felt nice. Seventies maybe. It seemed like there were more guys up top, sitting around doing stuff with rope, or nets. Some looked like they were playing cards. She had yet to find the inboard motor, GPS, or radio. She needed to find an excuse to get into the cabins.
Hannah had gotten to the point where she was starting to work around the big wooden box at the front of the ship, when she found her progress blocked. He was staring out over the sea, and he was not paying attention to the cleaning lady.
“Move.” He looked up in surprised irritation, blinking. She swished the broom at him. “Moooove.” He kept staring at her, looking vaguely hostile. “Move.” Hannah scooted forward, and he backed up, into the box behind him. She heaved an exasperated breath. “Move. Move. Move.” She tried to dance around him, just as he tried to step aside, and they ended up blocking each other again. “Move, move, move.” He tried to slide past her the other way the same time as she tried to duck that way. “Move move move move—”
Hannah’s brain suddenly went blank, and she didn’t flash back to when the guy had slapped her when they chucked her overboard. She flashed back the last time she’d been slapped by her mom, for back-talking in that particularly tense space of time right after someone’s been laid off, and suddenly every smart aleck remark is a calamity.
The sting went deep, the numbness from the impact wearing off after the first second. Standing there tight with nerves, he looked like he was ready to do it again. Hannah straightened her face to look down at him, trying to comprehend that he had just fucking slapped her.
In movies they never show how much it hurts your goddamn hand to slap someone. At least if you do it hard. And Hannah generally went in for the pound.
“You do not fucking slap me.”
He looked at her, stunned, one side of his face turning pink, as if this was not a possibility he had considered.
She slapped him again, and he threw up his hands in front of his face, tangling their arms. Snatching back her hand, she darted in from the other side and got him again.
“Try that on for size.”
“Get back here, you sorry motherfucker.”
He was already scrambling away and she kicked a leg out to trip him, dropping the broom. He stumbled, still protecting his face, so she got him one in the stomach.
“Mudut! Aff— Stop!” Hannah kicked him in the calf, tripping over the tilt in the deck. “I am gonna—”
“You’ll what? Fucking slap me?” He kept backing, toward a little group standing on the high side of the boat, a black guy and two white guys, one of whom was Blondie.
Everyone started backing up when it became clear that there would be no deviation in course, but then the guy went and hid behind Blondie.
“Getter off me!”
Blondie looked confused, and also like he was threatening to smile again, in that way that made Hannah think that maybe he wasn’t running on all cylinders. Ignoring him, she reached around and whacked at the guy again.
“Fucking whore,” she said, catching him as he tried to dash around Blondie.
“How did this start?” Blondie asked, like he was asking the weather.
“She was, aggh! She wouldn’ leave me alone, an’ I hitter, and then she went crazy—” He dodged again. Blondie took this opportunity to step out of the crossfire. “Juele!”
“Pansy-ass bitch.” She smacked the back of his head, then got his arms a couple more times. When she stopped, he froze, arms still covering his head. She pointed at him. “Don’t fuck with me.” Then she turned around and marched off to find her broom.
“Mirea, toludt fasi ak behom.”
On recon day five, she ran into the girl.
The girl stopped, blinking like she was startled. They were below deck, where all the hammocks were. Clusters of guys held quiet conversations against the ambient noise of someone lightly snoring. Hannah had caught sight of her as she was crossing through, registering as someone smaller and with boobs before she recognized the long braid.
“Hello,” the girl said carefully when she recognized her.
“Dude, I wondered where you went. I thought they might’ve beat you up for not being mean enough.” The girl didn’t say anything, but she hadn’t seemed real big on conversation before either, unlike Blondie. “Are we like, the only chicks on this boat?” She looked like she was thinking about whether or not to answer. Maybe she wasn’t supposed to give anything away. “Well, glad you’re okay. I’ve got to clean. I’m the new maid.” The girl glanced at the filthy rag in Hannah’s hand, then back up at her face. She was really short, in her usual bra-less sleeveless shirt and clam diggers and not a corset and skirt, which seemed somehow unrealistic.
“So I see.”
“Well, seeya ’round.”
Hannah went back to scraping out the grime between the cracks in the low ceiling with the rag, and the girl headed for a little group in the corner. Two guys shuffled back crosslegged to make space for her.
Hannah was beginning to realize she had made a strategic mistake cleaning the deck in the morning. Because that meant she had to clean things below deck when it actually started getting hot. Sweat was already leaking down her armpits and her BO was taking a turn for the intense. She was certainly not the only one. It didn’t smell bad, just really obvious. Walking around a hammock, Hannah continued down the crack she’d been working on. Checking to see how much crud had accumulated, she switched to another part of the rag. Someone laughed, and in her peripheral vision she watched a group of guys to her right, sewing or something.
Hannah tried to figure out what they were talking in, but it didn’t sound like anything, except maybe vaguely familiar, like she would have been able to understand if she listened long enough. Maybe it was Pig Latin or something.
“Cheesha ul glisim.”
One of the guys stood up and dodged some hammocks, and then stopped in front of her, arms crossed over his chest. Hannah wondered if she was blocking him or something, and stepped out of the way. Grinning at her, he didn’t move.
“Be my woman.”
“No?” she suggested hopefully.
“Fuck me,” he tried.
He grinned again, and said “Trich.”
“Trich,” he said again, still grinning, tapping his lips with two fingers. It almost looked like he was bringing a non-existent cigarette to his mouth, and then she thought maybe it was some sign language for blowjob she didn’t know. Then it kind of clicked.
“Hannah,” she replied, bemused, and held out her hand. He clasped her wrist instead, and she fumbled.
Trich, should have been a biker. A severely tattooed, hulking-motorcycle-straddling, GI boots and leather, biker. She could see him sitting on a Harley with some rode-hard-put-up-wet-fake-blonde-too-tan-older-than-she-wants-to-look chick hanging around his waist on the back seat. He had the muscle, the buzz cut with rattail, but not the weird mustache-beard. Or the tattoos. And he was about five foot five.
“Nice to meet you,” she added when he continued to stare up at her. He flashed a brighter grin at her, then turned around to go back to his compatriots, who had apparently all turned around to watch.
One with long black hair made a noise kind of like spitting, and another guy punched his arm laughing.
“Em batt,” Trich told him. He hadn’t sounded like he had an accent. A guy with a long scarf tied around his head grunted, and the disgusted guy muttered something which made them laugh.
After a few minutes of staring, Hannah shook it off and went back to cleaning.
Right when Hannah was ready to convince herself that, yes, a siesta was really necessary or she was going to have a heat stroke, something started happening.
More guys starting climbing down the ladders, and suddenly there was a lot more noise, and a lot more bodies, and a lot more smell. Several plunked down into hammocks, while some of the guys who had been sleeping started stretching, getting up, and heading up the ladders. Glancing to either side, she looked over the tops of all the new heads.
And then it dawned on her what had been bugging her.
They were all shorter than her.
It was really obvious now that a bunch of them were standing up at once. Especially the black guys. She wasn’t used to black guys being shorter than her. Hannah wondered if that was racist. Hm. Maybe.
It wasn’t unusual to be around guys less than five-nine, but it was also usual to be around guys who were at least five-nine. She realized, with a wash of weirdness, that she wasn’t sure she’d met anyone who was taller than her, except that one guard-guy who was built like Andre-the-goddamn-Giant, but more pear-shaped.
Where do you find a horde of short, built guys to crew a fucking sailboat in costume?
“What the hell.”
A skinny guy with short hair gave her a weird look as he pulled off his shirt. Hands on her hips, Hannah stared around as some of the groups around the edges of the big room disbanded and disappeared up the ladders. The noise level was going down, except for a gaggle of guys chugging water over by the barrels.
It flashed through her mind what Lindsey and Judy were probably thinking right now, and how if they were wrong, it was hilarious, and if they were right, it was not fucking fair.