“Couldn’t you have said something like, ‘Can you speak up?'”
“I got him to do it on the deck while everyone was around, didn’t I?” Ridiath said, smiling faintly.
“I hate it when he talks about politics,” Tande said, stretched out on the deck so that he was taking up even more space than Werser.
Eana continued, “F’he’s gonna make us miserable he can at least entertain us.” He stripped the thread through a lump of wax, and used the iron thimble strapped to his palm to push the needle through the storm sail again. As he tugged to adjust the slack, Ridiath shifted her hands on the section where she was holding the seam in place. “Like her.” He jutted his chin toward the bow, where Ridiath now saw Hannah varnishing with Colae. She snapped something back to Colae, who looked like he was ready to hit her except that she would hit back. “She eats, but she never gets boring.”
“He laughed,” Kol said, waving his slate-dark arms expansively.
“So strange a thing I have never seen, not even on the far isles—” Werser smacked him on the arm, and Kol made a show of being knocked over.
“He does laugh,” Toney pointed out dryly, his blunt-tipped brown fingers examining the stitches on the other side of where the sail was spread out on the deck.
“Not while I’m around, he doesn’t,” Eana said.
Righting himself, Kol said, “At first, he looked like he would weep, as if his uncle had just died, and then he laughed, as if his honored uncle had just named him heir.”
“Would you stop talking like that?” Eana said, eyes faintly wide. Kol gave a tiny, courtly bow. Eana threw the lump of wax at him.
Ridiath was trying to dig up a riposte in Duchy-tongue, but nothing came to mind before Toney said, “Well, he’s hot.”
“That’s why he’s angry and shouts all the time,” Tande said wisely. Ridiath abstained from commenting.
Toney slowly shook his head, pushing another stich through on the other side of the sail. “That’s not how it works.”
“Well then what does it mean?”
“How does hot water move?” asked Toney.
“Well, ‘ventually it boils,” Tande said blankly.
“It moves fast.” Toney wove his hand through the air in quick little curls. “It’s always changing. And cold water—”
“Moves slow, like the deep currents.” Ridiath watched the movement of Toney’s hand grow languid, subtle shifts in the air.
Tande thought about it, staring into the sky.
“He doesn’t act like it.”
“Well, mosta the time he’s cold.”
“What? You just said—”
“They go th’other way when they’re stressed.”
Tande pushed himself up with a sigh, scooted back, and plopped his head in Ridiath’s lap. He grinned up at her.
“No politics next time. Tellim to tell a real story.” Ridiath looked down at him dryly, his scarless forehead and full lips. “You can massage my head now.” She barked out a laugh, and dragged the stiff edge of the sail over his face.
“Hey!” Eana protested, jerking it back in place.
She’s sharpening her lhir, feathering the stone down its edge. Flipping it over, she feels the edge and and the little catch tells her she’s pressed too hard, so she compensates on the next pass only to flip it over and see she’s done the same thing again, so she compensates, over and over and she’s worried about how much iron she’s taking off with each pass. The lhir becomes a long fish with a fat body and she’s scaling it, but the shape of it keeps slipping out of her fingers. She’s talking to Alan and he tells her tithes are just lines of spiders moving from the rivers and it makes perfect sense, fitting into some crack of her knowledge. Belan and Ashur are telling her a joke and it doesn’t seem strange. They know each other, laughing together—
Belan is telling her that Ashur is really from Crec, and she is surprised because someone had told her he wasn’t but she believes it—
I like talking to you when you’re asleep. You don’t think.
I’ve never talked to you when you’re asleep, she told him.
No, that’s now quite how it works, is it?
I think the ship has left the water.
So where would it go? he asked, with rapt interest.
The plains. Obviously.
Obviously, he agreed.
Confusion. A niggling notion she couldn’t quite grasp.
Where are you?
Promptly, he said, Inside a flask.
Oh. I thought so. The last time you were there, didn’t you eat a seal rib?
What’s a seal? he asked.
A fish. With no eyes and nine legs.
His presence became a little distant, focused on something other than her.
Go away. Can’t you see I’m meditating? Milӕ.
His attention returned.
Fun as this is, you need to be awake to listen to this. Are you ready?
Ridiath became aware of noise, mumbled threads of voices and creaks and thumps. The thickness of the air nearly pushed her back to sleep, then her eyes were open and she was staring at the deckhead, at the sway of her basket hanging above her hammock.
“I’m awake.” Then she actually finished waking up and realized she’d said it aloud. She felt an odd look from somewhere, didn’t know whose it was, of if it was anybody’s.
Do you need to move? Demhlei asked.
She shaped the thought, half words and half ideas.
I think here is fine. She closed her eyes. What’s happening?
We’re breaking camp, moving north and west. We’ll be within a few leagues of the coast. I still don’t think we’re going to be called by the gods into Serg.
Landmarks, Ridiath said.
Below the Sobath, east of the fork that flows back into the plains.
Three dozen grosses, maybe. A third of that birthers and children. The Thocas is taunting us. He’s good at it.
Demhlei’s thoughts loosened, became fewer words and more ideas, images, the march of caravans across the landscape, the rhythym of life and battle. Some images, feelings, textures, were already familiar, others were new, or new nuances. She didn’t try to think about it, organize it, she just absorbed it.
They drifted apart gradually, the groans of the ship and the voices of the men slowly becoming more real than the soldiers and breeders and their lives birthing and killing and worshipping. And when she opened her eyes she was suddenly there, back, on the ship, even though she had never left.
He opened his eyes.
The ceiling of the cabin ran in long lines through his vision, blocking out the sky. The heat almost choked him. Too hot to move, too hot to sleep. As the ship lunged and dipped he stared through the ceiling, the weight of his own bones pressing him to the floor. Finally Efeddre rolled onto his hands and knees off the nest of blankets, onto the hard wood. For a heartbeat he had to just stay there, just breathe, before he could force himself up and through the door.
At least, there was a guy dancing, like, really dancing, by himself. Which was not something Hannah had ever really seen outside of break dancing, and a scene of a gay strip club in a movie. It was one of those things Hannah thought a lot of women wished they saw, just a guy who knew how to move his body and was completely unselfconscious about it. It was sexy in a way, and with the amount of gay sex that was probably going on downstairs Hannah had to wonder, but there was nothing that said “fuck me” in the way he moved. It was like he was dancing to dance.
He was one of the slightly taller pirates who always wore the really long cancer scarves, and he’d taken it off and was using it like a veil, twisting and swirling it around his body in ways that seemed anatomically impossible and were probably a lot more simple than they looked.
The wind caught the scarf, and he just went with it, letting it stream out in an arc between his hands dancing in and around it.
There were a few guys watching, but with the kind of attitude you’d have watching a TV show, leaning back and maybe making some popcorn. One guy started clapping out a rhythm on the deck. Hannah eyed them, marshaling her list of possible names for round three of Trying to Talk to People.
In the spirit of going on the offensive getting buddy-buddy with her captors, Hannah had started looking for defensive weakness. There was this guy, who was just honest to God deformed. In that way nobody in developed countries ever really saw anymore because they started doing plastic surgery on those kids when they were babies. She wondered how he’d gotten out of that, and if any of it would have helped. He could walk, but his whole right shoulder was raised halfway to his ear and curved over, giving him a hump that visibly twisted his spine, even through his shirt. He had a hare-lip that opened up into his nose, and the arm that hung down from the humped shoulder was withered so that it looked like it belonged to a concentration camp victim while the rest of him looked pretty healthy, considering. One of his eye sockets stuck out, making the eye look like it was about to pop out, too much white. Hannah had kind of been banking on the too-ugly-to-get-female-attention card.
He was leaning against the railing, watching something out on the blue-green water. She leaned against the railing. Took a step closer. Then again. With the hunched back he only came up to her shoulder.
“So. What’s your name? I’m Hannah.”
He eyed her like she was a little dangerous, the too-white, popping eye rolling toward her.
Hannah maintained an expression of pleasant interest.
Christ. The poor sonovabitch’s name was Ob.
“Is that short for something?” she tried.
Another sideways look out of the bulging eye.
“Oh. Where are you from?”
“…Eghril,” he said. There was a little whistle when he talked.
“That sounds pretty. I’m from Colorado. It’s only pretty in some parts. The rest of it is feedlots. And corn.”
He had escaped in a kind of crab shuffle. Hannah had sighed.
The dancer was rolling his shoulders and ducking under a loop of scarf in her peripheral vision as Hannah scouted likely candidates. Trich, unfortunately, was not around. She was pretty sure the one-legged guy’s name was something like Ecrem, but he didn’t seem too friendly. There was another pair of guys talking, a barrel-chested, chubby white guy with long hair and a skinny black guy whose name she thought was Rie. They weren’t quite conversation-distance, but it wasn’t ridiculous.
“So, your name is Rie, right?” she called.
The black guy looked over, not exactly at her, seeming surprised. Then he realized it was her, and his friend was looking over too. She took that as her opening, and scooted closer, wrapping her arms around her knees.
“I’m working on names,” she told them, which might not actually be a good thing to give away since they thought she was a spy for the other team, but she didn’t really have any other conversation material. “Rie,” she said, sticking out a finger at him, then turned it to the legless guy. “Ecrem?” The dancer was winding down, shaking himself out and plopping down by a trio who had been watching, gleaming with sweat. Across the deck she saw a black guy who’s name was easy, and pointed, “Eric. Gerril,” pointing at the built guy with brown hair next to the dancer. “Tony,” pointing to the stocky guy who looked naturally brown who was sitting with the Twerp, “and okay, this is going to sound weird, but Megan?” Staring in the direction she pointed, they seemed mystified. “The guy carving something on the mast.”
“Which one?” the chubby dude asked.
“The white guy.”
He looked at her blankly.
“A corpse?” he said finally, like he was trying to understand.
“No, white, like skin like you, me.” Hannah gestured.
Chubby looked down at his hands, palms then backs.
“That ain’t white.”
“Well not literally. We’re pretty fucking tan now. You know what I mean.”
“Lisbdelc Megars,” Rie interjected in not-English.
“That’s stupid. White is bright clouds, and whiteblades, and the curtain.”
“Look, I didn’t come up with it.” Hannah threw her hands in the air. “So what do you call it?”
Hannah pictured sandy roads and fields, desert sand, not the pristine white beaches on postcards.
“Oh. But what if you have black sand?”
Chubby waved a hand. “They got that along Crec, not here.”
“So what about black people?” She looked at Rie. Chubby looked amused, propping his face in one hand.
“He’s not any blacker’n I’m white.”
“Slate,” Rie answered. Hannah realized she didn’t exactly know what slate looked like, but apparently it must be dark.
“So you have selectively different vocabulary. How very Star Trekkish of you. Okaaay… so… him. Slate?” She pointed to the black guy behind the wheel with lighter skin, less tightly curled hair hair. Chubby glanced over, not turning his head.
“He’s clay,” Rie said, leaning back. “Mama’s headwaters’re in the Duchies, papa’s Secled.”
“So, Blondie would be sandy. For instance.” They looked at each other, looked back at her, and Hannah heaved a sigh. “Long blonde hair? Smiles constantly without talking, practically only person around who’s not a fucking midget?”
“Who, Juele?” Rie asked. Hannah had heard them calling him that. She had decided it was not-English for “boss.”
“Well, sure, he’d be sandy, but he’s from Secled.”
“They don’t have anyone with headwaters in the Duchies there, so you wouldn’t have to say sandy. Endonsárre it matters more.”
Hannah tried to think of a way to say it.
“Is he, a little… retarded?”
At first she thought they were pretending to not understand again, then Chubby snorked covering his face with this hands and rolling onto his back, sniggering helplessly. Rie was chuckling, slowly shaking his head.
“What? It’s the smiling,” Hannah insisted. “It’s creepy.” Chubby, dissolved, rolling onto his stomach again and covering his head, shaking. Hannah gave him slitty eyes. “Okay, well what about Ashur?” Ashur was the Asshole. It had been one of the first names she’d picked up once she really started paying attention.
Rie poked out his lips.
“But he’s sort of like the Limdri,” Chubby commented from under his arms.
“But’s not the same. He’s not clay,” Rie added consideringly. He waved it away, rubbing at one of his eyes. “I don’ know what to call him.”
“Grouchy and underage over there looks like him.” Rie craned his neck to see the Twerp.
“He’s Lridrisy. Don’t matter what they look like, they’re just Lridrisy.”
Rie waved a dark hand.
“I don’t want to talk about it.” Chubby seemed more into it though, hooking his lank hair behind his ears as Rie stretched out on the deck.
“Toney, though, is Limdri. They all pretty much look like that. Limdri, and Lridrisy—” He pressed his flat hands together.
Hannah thought she heard Rie about to say something, glanced over and saw his mouth was open a little, cheek mashed into the pillow of his arm. He whistled as he breathed. Hannah blinked.
Chubby looked over, and said, “He does that sometimes.”
“Falls asleep in the middle of a sentence? Practically.”
“Got hit in the head a fist too many times.”
Hannah couldn’t tell if he was serious, or if that was the equivalent of saying someone had been dropped on the head too many times as a baby.
“So what’s your name,” Hannah said, figuring she had enough points racked up.
He hesitated for a second, then one side of his mouth lifted in a grin.
“Mehth.” He said the th soft, like thee, not hard like Beth.
Hannah rocked back onto her sitbones. Victory.
“Wow. You’re like the first person who’s voluntarily answered that question.”
Ashur was frowning, arrested just outside the main cabin hatch by the sight of Rie and Mehth talking animatedly to the Crazy. His eyes scanned the deck looking for Alan and found him talking to Gerril and Kol, and allowed himself to frown back at Crazy. Rie gave a distracted wave, the kind of gesture that said he was losing focus, about to drop.
A small, wiry brown figure came up beside him, distracting him. He looked down at Leki, who paused to jerk his pointed chin toward the hatch behind him.
“Felghaim’s waiting in the cabin. Wanna come?”
Ashur scanned the deck again, finding Alan still lounging in the shade of the mainsail, saying something dry and straight-faced to Kol while he trimmed his toenails with a knife.
“Maybe if it’s short…”
“Your part can be short. I’m going to fuck all afternoon.” Leki grabbed him by the shoulders, and hauled him inside.