“So. Can I play?”
There were only four or five players this time, so Hannah had gotten a ringside seat. ringside
“No,” said the dealer, the guy with about six inches of beard, laying down one of his wooden slats on the corner of the card fort in the middle. He snagged one from the opposite corner, then two more out of his hand and laid them down in a triangle.
Hannah was actually surprised she’d gotten an answer.
Partly it was boredom. Partly it was because in training they said that if you ever get captured the first rule is to make them like you. Humanize yourself. Make them think of you as more than a prisoner.
Well, she’d fucked that one up, but she’d been pissed.
So mostly it was boredom, and that kind of highschool era need to be included.
They finished up the round with some dramatic flourishes and ribbing each other in not-English. The bearded guy started dealing out slats, not to players, but laid out in shapes in the center, faces up. The guy with the really long, soft dreads looked up at the dealer abruptly, seeming surprised. He had that skin color racially tolerant grandmothers called “coffee and cream.” Hannah had never really found black guys attractive —possibly the result of growing up in a town where there were no black people except on TV— but she had to admit he was kind of a sex god.
“You.” The dealer stuck his beard out at her. Hannah stared back blankly. He pointed the beard at the cards. “Pick two.”
“What? Oh.” Hannah lurched forward, still not entirely sure what she was supposed to be doing. “Wait, so like two sets, or two cards?” Hand hovering, she tried to figure it out and decide before they got impatient and kicked her out. She dragged two of the closest sets toward her, a cross and a triangle. No one corrected her, and the other guys were reaching for piles. Different shapes were made up of a different number of cards, but everyone still took two piles, so everyone had a different number of cards.
“You want one sign to be everything the same, and one to be everything different. You’re starting out with five, so that’s how many you need.”
“Echesh duncla?” the hot guy with dreads said as he chose his piles.
The hot guy looked blank for a second, then gave a soft laugh. Hannah arranged her cards into a fan.
All the cards that hadn’t been taken by players got shuffled, faces still up. Every time you got a turn you got to pick one of the cards to make your set, but you had to discard one from your hand. Two of the others finished in the first round, laughing, but instead of starting the game over, each person in the round picked a card for them and that was their new hand. Eventually Hannah figured out that he’d dealt the equivalent of Go Fish.
Which was really not a good sign, because she sucked at it. She had all circles and squares, and she wasn’t sure what to do about it. These assholes had probably been playing it since they were five.
Then she suddenly remembered that this wasn’t real. That these were not really medieval pirates, they were actors, or gamers, or something. She looked up at the bearded guy. In real life he was probably a banker. Glancing around the circle, Hannah pictured the dude who looked like an ad for enlisting in World War II behind a Mickey D’s cash register, or selling real estate in a suit. Nothing they were doing really gave it away.
Man, it must take some serious money to do this. Hannah picked a card at random to discard, because she couldn’t really tell which ones were better to keep. Maybe this was one of those things people with money paid big bucks for. Go out for a couple of months and pretend to be on the high seas before you went back to business, and the wife, and the kids, and the stripper on the side.
“Mina ormiet,” Hot Guy With Dreads said. Suddenly no one was paying attention to the game, and Hannah belatedly looked over where they were looking.
It took a second to register that she was looking at land, because it was black. Rolling hills rose from a dark beach, scattered with charred toothpicks and long, ivory spires wreathed in ash kicked up by the wind. The burn had to be multiple square miles, distantly framed by the green of untouched forest.
All the players were suddenly stacking their cards and handing them back to the bearded guy, so Hannah hurriedly did the same, trying to keep them facing all the same direction.
There was some shouting of orders as they got closer, the ivory spires seeming impossibly tall, throwing off her sense of distance. The sails started coming down and Hannah did her best to stay out of the way and inconspicuous. Several guys got together to turn over the big rowboat while others hauled out ropes and pulleys.
They were about ready to lower the rowboat into the water, when a guy at the head of the ship yelled, pointing with his whole arm. The Asshole ran up to him, and there was some conferencing. The pirates at the rowboat waited, tense, and a couple ran to the side, staring out.
“Jme im,” someone yelled,
Tucked closer to the back of the ship, Hannah didn’t risk getting close enough to be noticed, so it took her a while to see the long, skinny boat headed toward them, pulled by oars. Someone threw a rope ladder over the side, and Wiry Dude who liked to get beat up sparring came out of the cabin with a shoulder bag and a couple of blankets.
Hannah saw Trich climb over the side first, then Blondie, looking rough, then a black guy she didn’t recognize. She hadn’t even known they were gone. Then there was the Twerp, and a couple more she thought she recognized, including the skinny guy who had tied her up when she’d somehow appeared on the ship. Wiry Dude started checking people over, talking with Blondie.
“Drifalcand atcyateb-eda Lindrinsi. Hushyllai lunin Wemir,” the one who had tied her up told the Asshole, scraping his long black hair behind his shoulders, looking that kind of exhausted where you stop feeling tired.
The Asshole’s neutral expression didn’t change. And then the water around the ship exploded, gushing as high as the railing, splattering on the deck. Hannah jumped, water hitting her face, and then it was over.
She wasn’t the only one who had jumped, but no one else was looking wildly around trying to figure out what could have been big enough to make that kind of splash and where the fuck was it now. One blocky guy was shaking his hands like he was trying to get something off.
Preoccupied by the water drama, Hannah missed that she was smack in the middle of the Asshole’s warpath.
Not even slowing, he raked her over with cold, cold eyes.
“Satafde culm ern ecau bdemynin jasivo.”
Hannah eyed him warily as he passed her and climbed the ladder to the deck where the helm was. Then she noticed a pirate approaching, looking resigned, the one who had been acting like he had gook on his hands. He only came up to her nose, but he was built like a brick shit house, with buzzed brown hair and cauliflower ears. Hannah got whiplash turning to stare after the Asshole.
“Oh, you did not just— you motherfucking cunt.”
“Come on,” said the muscle, tilting his head toward the hatch.
“I didn’t do shit,” Hannah said, pointing behind her at the Asshole. “I have been a model fucking prisoner.”
The muscle just sighed.
“Don’t give me trouble.”
Hannah took the anger and shoved it down, hard.
They left smoke and charcoal behind them, flying down the coast, searching for another grove in Jalar’s memory.
Alan sat on the deck between Colae’s knees as Colae wove his hair into dozens of tiny yellow braids, crying silently and staring out over the water. Locked inside himself, his senses retreated firmly into his body, Ashur felt a numb awe at the simplicity of Alan’s life: When he mourned he mourned. And when he didn’t, he didn’t.
Efeddre had broken Wemir’s neck, but that didn’t matter. The fire had killed him.
After the storm, Ashur had found the shemeyye dead in the map cabin, her body limp and broken.
“Oh, little grey-wing bird,” he murmured, a sudden, little breaking of his heart. Kneeling behind the map table he had held her in his lap, so tiny and fragile beneath all the feathers. He had stroked her feathers, pulling out a wing to watch them slide against each other, felt the curve of her talons and the pebbled scales of her legs. Then he took her skyside, and plucked her, gutted her, and gave her to Mehth to cook. Two of the silvery tail feathers he kept, and hung them above his hammock.
Naal and Litin took down Wemir’s hammock. As they laid out all his belongings on a small patch of deck, a blanket, his tools, a comb, his bowl, a knuckle bone, clothes, bits of his life, everyone slowly gathered. Efeddre came, but stayed in the back, out of the way.
Anyone who needed something took it, and left something in return. Anything with metal was salvaged. The rest, and that which was too personal to be reused, Naal laid in Wemir’s hammock. Fis tossed a smooth, triangular stone onto the pile, expression unchanging. Ridiath gave a curl of driftwood, her brow knotted, Naal a slat from his briggeie set. Alan cut off a fistful of braids from the nape of his neck, and Ashur tucked one of the shemeyye’s grey feathers into the folds. His leg still swathed in bandages, Aaric gave blood, cutting his palm and squeezing red over the pile, shoulders shaking.
Then Naal and Litin rolled the hammock into a bundle, and threw it overboard together. The bundle floated just under the surface of the waves as the wind carried them away.
The next time Ashur woke to the rustle and clatter of the changing of the shift, he saw Sondra climbing the ladder after Eana. Then he climbed through the hatch and disappeared.
Ashur stared after him, and barely felt something die in the pit of his stomach.
Skyside he found Sondra mending line with Ecrembl, sitting on a ship Sondra could never have imagined, flying an ocean Sondra had never seen except from the shore. Ecremble kept spitting into his palms and twisting fiber, as if nothing had changed.
For days Ashur kept catching glimpses of him out of the corner of his eye, skin like his, hair like his, a face like his. No one said anything. No one remarked when he joined the circle eating in the dark by the firebox. No one found it strange when he played a round of briggeie, a game he wouldn’t have been able to understand, no one stopped to look at him napping on the deck, a red-brown arm flung over his eyes.
Ashur ignored him. Couldn’t bear to look at him. Pretended he did not see what no one else was seeing. Sondra never seemed to notice him. His eyes never lingered on him, as if he wasn’t there.
Sondra’s back was to him as he leaned against the mainmast, listening to Mehth and Rie bantering. Ashur walked up to him, not quite looking at him because he couldn’t look at wasn’t there, and reached out, tentative as a shy child.
His fingertips met the warm elasticity of skin over the density of muscle and bone, felt his shoulders lift as he breathed.
Sondra never looked back at him, never gave any sign that he had felt the touch.
As soon as they let her out of the basement again, Hannah went on the offensive.
“So, can we just be friends, cuz we’re the only girls? Like, solidarity, right?”
Hannah had cornered her sitting by the water barrels down in the hold, half the crew passed out in hammocks. The Girl laughed, completely unconscious, from the gut. She was pretty, but not in the way Hanah was used to, the squareness of her jaw and hairline somehow working for her. Her body was short and thin and strong, but it wasn’t Bowflex muscle. It was muscle like she had been lifting and hauling and getting in fights for years, and it made some angles of her body sharper, some parts of her broader or tighter, giving an overall effect that looked a little off.
“You really are cracked, aren’t you?”
Hannah wasn’t sure what to say to that. She’d heard the phrase a few times now, usually in reference to her. She was pretty sure it was roleplay lingo for “bat shit.” In Hannah’s mind, the jury was still on on that.
“You don’t smell so strange anymore,” the Girl added, consideringly.
It was the first real thing the Girl had said to her, even in all those stoic mealtimes where they’d just watched each other.
“You know, of all the people I might have expected to hear that from, you were not one of them.” Awkward pause. “So, what’s your name?”
Something was going on behind the Girl’s eyes. She looked a little like she was debating whether or not to answer, then shook her head, still smiling as she got up and left.
“Come on,” Ibleton said. “We got a seal.”
“Again?” Ridiath raised her eyebrows but didn’t resist, and fetched her lhir from her hammock in the hold. Ecrembl was sitting up in the hammock beside hers, rubbing a hand through his fresh blonde stubble and scratching the stump of his leg.
“He gonna work that ’til you can do it sleeping,” he told her.
On the stern deck, Ibleton and Ob had used the empty mizzenmast to hoist the seal up by its neck. The spine peeked out between flaps of the cut stomach, guts already safely in a bucket. The smooth wedge of the seal’s head hung awkwardly, the black eyes still shiny.
“Mehth hates it when the meat gets bruised,” she told them, drawing her blade.
“Some things more important’n perfect meat,” Ob said, his bulging eye focused on her steadily. He had upended a bucket to sit on safely outside of the arc of danger, his withered arm tucked in his lap. Crossing his arms, Ibleton stepped back. No one else made it obvious they were watching, which Ridiath thought was at least polite.
She let thought go and felt the balance of the slender length of iron hanging in her hand, aware of the faint curve of it, the flex, the reach. She let her knees soften to cushion the gentle heaving of the ship as they cut through the waves. She studied the swaying seal, its rubbery, brown-grey hide and empty belly. They had tied it a little higher this time.
She judged the distance, the angle, the force, grounded her left foot and half spun, bringing the strength of her hips and legs and both hands to the blow. The blade tore through meat, shattered bone, sending a jolt to her shoulders, and the seal’s body dropped to the deck. The ribs flexed together with the force of the landing, then sprang back open. The head dangled briefly in the tight coils of the rope, then teetered and landed with a muffled crat.
One stroke, that’s what they’ll remember, Ob had said.
“Good,” Ibleton said after a breath, pursing his lips and giving a faint nod. Ridiath kneaded the bicep of her sword arm, a tingling numbness still tracing a faint line to her shoulder. “Maybe we find a fresh corpse sometime we can prop it up.”
“Are you done yet?” Mehth asked, looking harassed, giving Ridiath the same resigned and not strictly pleased look he directed at Ob and Ibleton. Ridiath stepped back in answer, using the leg of her pants to wipe bits of flesh and the residue of blood off her lhir.
She was helping Mehth with the butchering as a kind of apology, exploring the seal’s tricky joints with her knife when her perception thickened.
The the dark, fishy flesh in her bloody hands was suddenly new, newer than it was to her. The blur of men’s voices in the background was suddenly unfamiliar, her feelings overlaid with an analytical wariness, strategic curiosity.
She finished cutting the tendons, the tightly sheathed vertebrae finally twisting apart.
“I need a break.” She flashed Mehth an apologetic smile, standing. He gave her a look filled with something of his earlier resignation, not questioning. As she made for the cabin she wiped her palms down her pants, rubbing at dried blood on the backs of her fingers.
No one was in the map cabin, or the sick cabin. Efeddre’s door was shut. She stepped into the cabin across from his, sliding the door closed. Crossing her legs in the middle of the darkened space, she shut her eyes and rested her hands on her knees, clearing her mind.
Efeddre hovered, waiting for her to notice him, too distracted by restlessness to catch her attention. Part of him was ready to leave, to wait until she was alone, another part wanted it done, over.
Rher had noticed him, eyes lifting briefly before returning to Ridiath as they talked, oiling rope. Eventually Rher caught Ridiath’s attention, glancing at Efeddre again and pursing his lips. Ridiath looked over her shoulder, saw him, and her expression turned to polite expectancy.
“There’s another story to tell you,” he said abruptly, removing himself from the sentence, as if he were not even the messenger. She waited for him to say more. He couldn’t keep his eyes on her, already wanting to be away.
“This afternoon, during the heat?” she suggested, lifting her eyebrows in a perfect, unconscious imitation of Alan.
Ridiath didn’t bring anyone, which he had half-expected.
Which probably explained why she had suggested meeting during the heat. Even men who were off-shift stayed on deck to escape the bone-dissolving pressure below, stretching out to nap in out of the way corners. Efeddre could feel his heart pounding the walls of his chest, frantic to push blood to his skin where it could cool.
As she crossed her legs across from him on the foredeck, he saw her glance around, searching for Toney.
“This was before I was born,” Efeddre began, before her eyes had finished sweeping the deck, raising his voice over the languid flapping of the limp sails. A small group was planing down the skycomb sapling that would be the new mast. Dhomlar was fetching for Jalar, who was determined to work the wood even with splinted legs.
They tried not to make it noticeable, but they were too quiet.
“When your father was still young. It was the last time the Sergilé sent an envoy to the mountains. Phabel told me the story. The Father of Serg had sent his own name-brother to Sedronne, so that what he reported would be as if he saw it with his own eyes.” Ridiath nodded. “When she treated with the Sergilé, Sedronne always stood on four feet, so they would not think of her as a woman. The Father’s name-brother brought three men of his house, a younger son, a wife-brother, and an uncle.”
“‘The three legs of a man’s table,’” Ridiath interrupted, eyes growing keener.
“And two eunuchs,” he continued. It was sloppy, saying whatever came to him regardless of where it fit. “The men’s hair was very long, and their plaits ornate, with blue and green beads. They left their limbihte hobbled and muzzled in a pass because the limbihte would not safely carry them closer when they smelled so many Lridrisy. Sedronne asked the cubs to stay away to not terrify them. Which must have been very hard, because cubs are curious, and unbridled limbihte don’t leave the plains.
“Sergilé men bind much of themselves up in their pride in their strength. It is their weakness. But they are from the plains, and in the mountains the air grows more subtle the higher you climb.” With his hand he traced the slope of the particular mountainside they had climbed before he was born, as familiar to him as his own body. “Phabel met them to escort them, and they came to Sedronne the rest of the way on foot and everyone had to pretend they didn’t notice how winded they all were. The Sergilé are so easy to offend, so quick to violence, and life in the mountains so different from what they know, that we have always taken precaution when dealing with them. All the women and females and girls and girl-cubs stayed away, except for Sedronne. They went to scout, in case the Sergilé had brought more men with them than they had said.”
“Had they?” Ridiath asked, pulling her knees to her chest, the single wavy sheaf of her hair draped over one shoulder. Sweat was slithering from her damp hairline, sheening her chest and arms. His skin was dry. If he hadn’t been talking so much he would have been panting.
“They left the rest of their company in the feet of the hills,” he said shortly. “The uncle was most affected, because his hair was already grey and in his life he had been wounded many times in battle. But none of us could have offered to help, because we were not Sergilé men. The younger son held his arm once or twice, acting, Phabel said, like he wasn’t helping, like his hand on his arm was only a coincidence. That was all the old man would allow.
“She greeted them standing on four feet, so they were eye to eye.” He broke, wondering how to say it, picking through Seclednar words. “There is almost always a reaction the first time a non-Limdri sees a Lridisy on four feet. A stutter. And my mother is very striking to non-Limdri, because her pelt is all black.” Efeddre realized he was slipping in and out of what was then and what is now. He noted it because it could confuse in Seclednar, but didn’t trouble himself over it. It didn’t feel different to him.
“There is a subtle balance, to using our size to make the non-Limdri cautious, but not terrified into viciousness. So none of the other Lridrisy were on four feet, and when the Sergilé sat, Sedronne laid down, so they would not have to look up at her.
“There is a ledge —I’ve seen it many times whenever we moved through the area to another camp— that is not much higher than the rest of the rock, but gives the impression of a greatchair.” Efeddre swept the air above the deck with his hand, giving an impression of the shape. “Sedronne always said that if we gave them what they expected, they would see what they wanted. Phabel looked too young for the Sergilé to treat as a man, so he played servant. Both parties spoke in Seclednar, because the Sergilé can’t learn Lril, and it is too dangerous to make a mistake in Sergileg, to accidentally use a eunuch’s or a woman’s word for a man. So both sides had the same disadvantage. On four feet we can only speak our language. Rada, one of our old men who died the thaw after I was born, translated for Sedronne, because that is what the Sergilé believe, that we rule the Limdri.
“Sedronne spoke of the greatness of the Father of Serg, and the Father’s name-brother mouthed words about the greatness of Limdris and its one-ruler. Phabel said he was overwhelmed by her size, though he hid most of it. They numbered their sons, and Phabel said they were very impressed that she claimed a dozen and three. But they wouldn’t have understood that all the generations of Limdri children in our methala were hers too. They spoke of wealth, of grain, and rivers, and land. And the name-brother of the Father asked Sedronne how many hectares were hers to rule. She gave a chirp, the kind which is like a laugh, which Phabel said seemed to startle them a little, and she told him, ‘All the mountains are mine.'”
Efeddre stared past Ridiath, down the length of the ship and lounging men, past the quiet industry around the new mast. The faintest breeze licked around his neck, soothing. His heart still raced behind his ribs in the heat as he tried to collect his scattered thoughts.
“Once, just before the Drifalcand began to come up from the ice, a proxy from one of the Trade Barons was visiting, and I played servant so I could watch. His name was Ditea, and he worked for Nailil the Loost Fist, who rules the north of the Ribbon.” Ridiath’s face shifted as she processed the name. “Sedronne could talk with the Endon on two feet, and in Donse, because they still respect mothers in Endonsárre. But even that has changed since she first spoke for all the methala. The traders used to be the mothers, the aunts. Now all the Trade Barons are men, except one.”
He recounted every detail he could remember, the proxy’s mannerisms, when he laughed or smiled, and when he didn’t, everything he had revealed knowingly or not.
“As they spoke of Nailil’s holdings, Ditea asked her how many hectares of land were given to her name. And Sedronne smiled, and said, ‘All the mountains are mine.’ She used the same words as with the Sergilé envoy. I asked her, because it reminded me of the story Phabel had told me.” Efeddre paused. “In Serg, who do they say the land belongs to?”
Slowly, Ridiath said, “The chorlons.” When he kept looking at her, she continued. “And the chorlons then allow men sworn to them to plant fiefs.”
“And in Secled, who do you say the land belongs to?”
“The one-ruler,” she said automatically with a faint lift of her brows.
“And how do the villages know where they are allowed to plant?”
Her eyes said she saw what he was doing, but she was interested enough to be willing to follow the trail he left.
“The villages wander as they will, as long as they pay their tithes in grain and fruit to the cities and armies.”
“The land belongs to the dukes. They contract it out.”
“And in Endonsárre?”
“The Trade Barons.”
“Only the Trade Barons?”
She was slower to answer this time, thinking. Then she finally said, “Whoever has enough copper and iron can have land to their name. But along the border they still don’t use money. It’s more like the villages in Secled.”
“When Sedronne first began to speak,” Efeddre told her, “the women held much of the land in Endonsárre, and when they died or were old, they said the land now belonged to their mother’s sister’s daughters. They learned money from the Duchies.” He didn’t think she had known that, by the faint, interested surprise that flickered across her face. He asked her, “What did Sedronne say to the trade proxy and the Father’s name-brother?”
“‘All the mountains belong to me.'”
“She did not lie. All the mountains were hers, just like they are mine, or Toney’s, or any of our people’s. She used the same words, and two different men heard two different things.”
When he didn’t go on, Ridiath prompted, “What did they hear?”
He found her eyes again. “What do you think they heard?”
Ridiath gave an almost imperceptable sigh, but apparently she didn’t feel compelled to answer immediately. His distraction carried him on.
“She did not lie. But we wouldn’t say that in Lril. There would be no circumstance to say it. If I were trying to explain to someone who didn’t understand what I am, I might say I belonged to the mountains.”
“How old was Sedronne?” She had asked him once before, and he hadn’t understood enough to answer.
“If she were still alive, when your hair turned grey, she would have begun to age. She was late in her life, but still in her prime. When she was born, there was not so much difference between Serg and Secled and Endonsárre. There was the Ribbon, but inland there were fewer lines. There were more herders.”
Ridiath’s eyes were unfocused now, directed at the deck.
“Do you know who was one-ruler when your mother was born?”
He had to think.
“Cashian, Algargh’s son, maybe. Or one of the Geals. How many years would that be?” The question was unexpected, as much as the curiosity. It was hard to think in years. But somehow they helped Ridiath understand.
This time Ridiath had to think, counting on her knuckles.
“A gross and half, at most.”
It meant nothing to him. Abruptly, he asked, “What about the herders?”
Ridiath’s mouth tightened into a small, half-suppressed smile.
“You should ask Alan.”
“Who do you think they would say the land belongs to?” he pressed.
She was silent for a few long breaths, watching him, massaging a ridge of callouses on her left palm.
“I think they would say it belongs to the herd. And the grass. They don’t tithe except at the point of a lhir.”
“But the herders and the Secled and the Endon and the Sergilé all live on the same land. And they all say the land belongs to different people. So who does the land belong to?”
“There isn’t an answer to that,” said Ridiath, retreating suddenly behind her eyes.
“There never is.”
She blinked, a tiny crease deepening her brow. But she didn’t ask.