“Dude. It is about time.”
There wasn’t enough light to tell who it was. Which always left that niggling doubt if it was someone planning to come in with some other ideas, but he said, “Come on up.”
Hannah was already up, wobbling down the central beam toward the door, balance compromised because her shoulder and neck felt like she’d been twisted into a pretzel. A small, bite-sized pretzel. No fucking mattress…
The door was empty when she reached it, moving into the open blackness of the basement. She lost her balance and stepped off the beam into a sludgy puddle and made a face in the dark. Walking forward slowly she held out her hand to feel the ladder, ended up poking her hand directly through one of the spaces and had to wave around a little to find it. Low squeaks came from the ceiling as the guy climbed the ladder above her.
It had been two or three days since they’d let her out, except she couldn’t fucking tell with no light. If she was not already crazy they were going to fucking drive her to it with this bullshit. No explanation. Twice someone’d brought her food, the bucket, water. Once she’d thought she heard voices on the other side of the door.
It was dark in hammock-land. Main hatch looked covered. They did that when it rained.
Shuffling toward the water barrels, Hannah brushed by hammocks like spiderwebs. She bumped into one that still had somebody in it, half-losing her balance.
Finding the wall, she followed it with her hand to the barrels and fumbled in the dark for a bowl. She could hear the rain now, a faint drumming from above, then a hard beat with a gust of wind.
The other hatch that went up into the cabin was in the food room. She wasn’t supposed to go in there, but it was closer, and the other one was closed. It wasn’t like she was planning on fucking with anything. Up in the cabin, all the doors were open except the one in the back, though Hannah supposed it depended which direction you were coming from if it was left or right. Maybe that was why they had come up with “port” and “starboard.” That one door was always closed. She never cleaned in there. Two down, though, she saw her varnishing overseer, little skinny guy with pointy joints sitting with his back against the frame, one leg sticking out into the hallway. Laughter filtered through the steady drumming of the rain, the air thick and weirdly cool.
“Hey,” she said. “What do I do?”
He glanced up from saying something to someone in the cabin, half a grin still on his face, which was not the expression he used for her, so it seemed weird.
“Acha, shanyat oumbtem,” someone said inside.
“Come on,” Overseer said, waving her in. “We need a ninth player.”
Hovering in the doorway, alarms set for bad vibes, Hannah saw a rough circle of guys in a ring of lamplight. The bearded guy who was always dealing was arranging cards.
“Hey Crazy!” A thin guy with blonde hair peeking out from a cancer scarf looked happier to see her than made sense. “Well, if you’re gonna be shanyat we might as well give you names.”
“Mebim dun hanatd?” said a black guy lounging in the corner, his face distinctively round.
“Bata raecym Mehth bdepaalibm van. Odul,” he said, tapping his mouth.
“Like the beer?” she said blankly. There was something wrong with her. She just felt kind of numb.
“Naal,” Odul said, pursing his lips at the bearded guy who always officiated at the games. Naal glanced up at her, but didn’t make any comment, going back to shuffling the cards in some complex pattern. He shifted his attention to the black guy in the corner, and started pointing with his lips again.
“Sfo, eraudinmaka gitnme, bde osofuy beir——”
“He doesn’t want me t’tell you his name ’cause he’s superstitious freak. He’s Beond,” Odul jutted his chin at World War II Recruitment Pin-up. Andre-the-Giant-But-Pear-Shaped was next, “Werser, Aaric,” he said, though she already knew Eric’s name, “And Colae’s been the one working you raw.” Her overseer rolled his eyes. Hannah had heard his name before, what with working with him every day, but it hadn’t stuck because the only thing she could think of was E. coli. “Legless over there is Ecrembl.” She had been close with his name. She’d just missed the ending. “And Jentosh.” Jentosh was a black guy she wasn’t sure she’d ever really noticed before. His hair was almost shaved to his scalp, and he had a scabbed cut on one side of his head.
“All right, who wants Crazy?” Naal, the dealer, said.
“I’ll take her,” the one-legged guy, Ecrembl said. He moved his crutch out of the way, and she hesitated, then picked her way through the knees and shoulders to sit next to him, feeling like a stork, or a heron or something.
“Look, I don’t know if you’ve heard, but I’m not very good at this.”
“You’re shanyat,” Ecrembl said. “You’re just so we have enough players. You don’t have to do anything.”
Cool. I guess.
Naal said, “You got shanyat. Pick first.” Ecrembl tapped one of the neat stacks of wooden cards, and that pile went to Colae and Eric to their left. Then they picked a pile and it went to Andre the Giant —Werser— and the guy who didn’t want her to know his name.
Ecrembl handed her four of the slats, keeping five, and gave a general explanation of what she was looking for, but didn’t seem too concerned. Mostly he picked new cards for her from the maze rapidly being built in the middle of the circle, and told her what to discard or give to other players. Other times he just told her to do what she wanted, and she picked at random. Hannah felt like she was understanding more of the shape of the game than how it was actually played. Most of the guys were talking in not-English, but Ecrembl and Colae stuck to English. Werser made a joke that had Colae and the guy who didn’t want her to know his name rolling. Somewhere in the middle of the game the numbness wore off, and she was just focused on paying attention, trying to figure things out, watching the pirate-people and how they interacted. She recited their names in her head. She was looking at Odul while he took his turn, considering his cards, when it clicked.
“Oh dude, you braided my hair. I just got that.”
No one else understood, and Odul didn’t seem to realize she was talking to him. Then he looked up, and grinned. He was missing a premolar.
“Still haven’t learned to take care of it, huh?”
“Look, all I’ve got is my fingers.” She gestured with a clawed hand. Her fingernails were disgustingly long. The ring-finger nail on her right hand had broken off the other day, tearing into the quick.
It was her and Ecrembl’s turn again, and Ecrembl glanced at her cards, then at his, then a did a double-take. But then he just said, “Get rid of that one,” and she let him pluck a slat with a dark circle and a yellow line and tossed it into the middle. When it was their turn again he seemed to have a plan.
Ecrembl laid down one of his slats, then one by one plucked four out of her hand, discarded one, and picked one from the middle. She stared at the arrangement, trying to make sense of it. Then she realized everyone else was staring too.
“Thatsa best stack y’can get in this variation,” Ecrembl said, matter of fact and like he didn’t quite believe it himself, leaning back on his hands. Hannah didn’t think she’d ever seen someone with an amputated leg cross their legs before.
“Oh. Did we just win?”
“Noyet. But we prob’bly will.”
Hannah realized all the stares had transfered from the cards to her.
“Man, I love flukes,” she said brightly. “What’s next?”
“There’s a good rivermouth half a day flying north,” Kimfen said, tracing the first broad curve of the Sobath before it opened into the ocean on a map from memory, the lines traced on the deck planks with charcoal. “Wide.” He had a blanket draped over his bare, wiry shoulders, hair still tangled from rolling out of his hammock. Alan cracked another harbe and tucked the nut in his teeth, tossing the wings of the shell into the firebox. Heat beat rhythmically against Ridiath’s right side, the fire snapping as it gulped the prickling chill of the rising morning wind.
“Kydele’s dark. There’ll be no overcast this time of season, but we can use the dark to move far enough upriver where the water isn’t brackish. We’ve used the mist when the dawn hits to cover us on the way back.”
“Would you go on the drinking-water foray or scout more inland?” Alan asked, hair loose down his back, chest bare to the brisk morning.
“I’d rather scout,” Kimfen said after a breath of still consideration. “Gerril wants to direct the barrels.”
Ridiath waited until the members of the meeting had finished outlining the forays, letting go of the impulse to interject herself. The thin harbe shells had burned to black petals rimmed with glowing coal.
“Would it be feasible for me to go?” Ridiath asked the group. Alan was watching her, and Kashen looked at her with a curious implacability.
Kimfen finally said, “Could use you on the drinking water trip. Ecrembl and Megars already said they’d go.” She waited, but there was no objection.
As the sky faded to yellow and then to blue she was whetting her lhir, sitting on a crate that had been deposited skyside to be scoured by the sun. A long pace away Megars had finished honing a drawknife, judging the angle of the bevel in the light, testing it with his thumb.
Someone walked as if to pass by, then stopped, hovering roughly between them, broad bare feet and big, weathered toes. Ridiath glanced up from her lhir, taking in the brown bristle of hair and thin beard, the thick frame.
Gerril looked at Megars, then at Ridiath, standing between them with his arms crossed.
“This going to be a problem?”
Ridiath held his eyes for a blank heartbeat, then slid her eyes toward Megars.
“I don’t see why it should be.”
Megars said nothing, his expression attentive and nothing else.
Gerril measured them both again, then left. Curiously, Ridiath looked over at Megars. He smiled faintly, and barely rolled one round shoulder in a shrug, and went back to stropping his drawknife.
His toes touched the narrow wood, then the ball of his foot, outside of the arch, the heel. The wind gusted against his body, threatening to push him over, and he stiffened against it. He laid his other foot down, gently, precisely, body swaying faintly as he balanced down the railing. Sails were raised on both masts, the ship tilting hard as they cut through the waves with twin veils of spray, streams of white in their wake.
Efeddre could feel eyes on him, nervous glances. If they said anything to each other he wasn’t paying attention enough to notice. He had done this before, and they never liked it. It had become familiar, the tug of different rhythms, the ship meeting the waves and the waves meeting the wind and the wind the sails, the risk, always. No matter how many times he did it, how many times he didn’t fall, it was never safe. A gust made his arms lift from his sides, and he dropped them, keeping his center. The ship heeled over another degree, and the tiny muscles in his ankles compensated and he stayed his next step, fighting for balance until he lifted his foot again.
Eyes on the beam. Toes, ball, arch, heel. Balanced on one foot for that one instant then toes, ball, arch, heel. When he reached the stemhead at the bow, he laid his hand against it, letting the sensation that the tear-water was rushing toward him as he stood still trick his senses. Then he stared down the bowed length of the railing, moving with the ship. Without thinking he took the first step back toward the stern, eyes focused on the narrow wood. Another, the thick taste of salt in the back of his nose. A sudden image of pelting down the railing came to him, running through the wind, breathing hard. He took another step, toes, ball, arch, heel.
Efeddre stopped, lifted his eyes to trace the line of wood to the stern. Another step.
He didn’t know if he could do it. It wasn’t wise.
He took another step.
Then he ran, feet launching him forward, keeping his body low. Five paces, more, around the greatest curve and the ship lurched and there was no ground to hold him up.
Falling, strike of body-terror that didn’t reach his mind, throwing his weight forward grabbing for something he didn’t know what—
Efeddre’s hand caught the railing, fingers barely clinging to the edge. The muscles of his chest and under his arms tight and painful as hot wire as he grabbed for the better grip of inside edge of the rail with his other hand, missed. Aaric’s terrified face, a dark hand reaching down to him. Aaric wasn’t strong enough to hold him, and Efeddre sucked in a hard breath, steeling himself to shift his grip. He did, a tight line in the inside of his wrist stretching too far, pulling everything else with it as he made another controlled grab for the inside edge of the rail, pulling himself half on it. Aaric grabbed his arm, fingers digging into muscle, and when he was sure he wouldn’t pull Aaric over with him Efeddre took his hand, careful not to put too much of his weight on him as he hauled himself back on the deck. He sat on the railing, the exhaustion that came after the body-terror turning him heavy and still.
Aaric was breathing hard, scared, eyes wide.
“Mina ormiet, you can’t do stupid petty-barter drek like this, you could’ve fallen overboard —an’ if you’d hit your head— and at this speed we, kid we might not’ve found you by the time we could drop the sails you cannot do stunts like this—” His voice was turning into a drone that battered at the stagnant edges of Efeddre’s mind, a needling itch.
“I didn’t need your help.”
His voice wasn’t loud, wasn’t anything, and it cut Aaric off like a knife. His body turned stiff, jaw working, holding everything he wanted to say in his body, until he turned sharply and left.