“Laberd,” Gerril muttered. He moved forward and started pulling off the man’s boots. Gerril was from Ruy deep in Endonsárre, where they said you would catch a fever from sleeping with shoes on. The Jueden didn’t stir, the long strands of hair over his face fluttering with his breath.
“How is he?” Ashur asked as Gerril returned to Egreall’s side.
“Fever seems down.” Gerril began unwrapping the rag around Egreall’s thigh, and abruptly lurched back, shaking his heavy hands violently.
“Tsunami are like rocking cradles,” he muttered, leaning forward to study Egreall’s leg, not touching. In Ruy they also said that if you touched something bizarre you had to shed it, or you would become bizarre too. “How— This.” He gestured emphatically.
Ashur knelt on one knee beside him, hand reaching to cup the fresh scar. He felt the change in texture, radiating heat.
“Him,” he said, not looking at the sleeping Jueden. After a pause, “And me.” Gerril knew about him, more than most others. He could feel Gerril’s pattern tense, the myriad lines of him growing more rigid. He didn’t take the discomfort onto himself, filled with some primal satisfaction. He had done this.
“Come on,” Ashur stood and pushed out of the tent into the punishing sun. Men looked up from where they had gathered around the shady side of the tent. Some were lying down, headscarves tented over their faces with stalks of grass. Litin had the wounded gathered around him, and was sniffing Kashen’s belly wound. Toney was still tending to Mehth, young brown face lined with worry. He looked up as Ashur approached, dark eyes distracted. Werser was sitting down so that Fis was the tallest man in sight, impassively studying the activity of the camp around them.
“Fis, take guard inside, Ashur told him. Without a word Fis ducked inside. “Idishe. Scout.” Kimfen looked up expectantly, but Ashur took in his Crec coloring and said, “You’re too obvious here. Felghaim, seduce a soldier. Get Mirea to do it if you’re too dark for them.” Felghaim gave him a formal salute from crew to harle, fingertips to heart then open hand, then went back to teasing one of the long, matted strands of his hair back into shape.
“Might not be so easy,” Gerril said, smirking. “In Secled they like to pretend that doesn’t happen.”
“There’s always someone,” Felghaim said placidly.
“Who’s the worst?” Ashur asked Litin. He had braided his hair into a short black queue, a few strands escaping around his rawboned face.
“Been two nights and Mehth is still fading out. I don’t think he’s bleeding in his head, but I don’t like it.” Pulling back from Kashen he concluded, “The blade didn’t pierce his guts.”
Ashur studied Lamdek’s blunt features, tight and grey with pain, slick with sweat.
“Lam?” Lam didn’t look up.
Litin said, “Might not be able to lift that arm much once it heals. It’s in pieces, and the cartilage all torn around it.” Ashur said nothing, thinking of the Jueden and the knot of power inside him.
“What about Dhomlar?” He was one of the scrawny bodies flat on the ground, headscarf over his face, the raw ends of his missing fingertips resting on his stomach.
“He keeps those fingers clean they won’t get infected.” Litin leaned in to Mehth again, peeling back an eyelid and peering in. Rocking back on his heels, he looked up at Ashur. “Egreall.”
Ashur signed, wait, taking stock of the men around him.
“Who wants to coach me about Secled politics?”
Clisand shrugged with his yellow eyebrows. “Moored in a Secled city mosta my life, but I don’t know all the fine threads.”
“The Secled don’t have cities,” Eana interjected, bracing his back against Toney’s.
“Well, they got the three.”
“Colae,” Ashur called, and the other scrawny body besides Dhomlar popped off the ground. He tilted his head toward the tent.
Jalar scrubbed his cheeks through the bristle of his beard. “What do we do?”
“Look like you’re not a threat, but like you won’t give ground.”
“I am going to shit myself,” Jalar said, pale eyes gazing across tent upon tent upon tent, scattered clumps of men clad in mail and long iron. The perimeter was a distant, ragged line cutting the baking green of the plateau, the figures there as tall as a fingernail.
As Ashur reentered the Jueden’s tent, the background buzz of so many bodies and voices and activities faded a notch.
The man on the pallet hadn’t moved. Egreall’s breathing was deeper. Fis watched over them both, squatting in the corner of the tripod to the right of the door, so easily overlooked in the shadow, unless you knew Fis well enough to look at all.
The flap dropped behind Colae, casting them in dimness again as Ashur turned to Clisand.
“Where’s a Jueden in the hierarchy?” He kept his voice quiet, but didn’t whisper.
“Supposed to be the same level as a Thocas, but without his own army.”
“He’s had to repeat orders to everyone he’s talked to.” No one said anything to that. “What exactly does a Jueden do besides kill monarchs?” Clisand poked out his lips.
“Think he’s a counselor. Voice that always argues. Political drek.”
Ashur sent a sharp look at Colae.
“You’re sure he’s a herder.”
“Certainly looks like it,” Colae said dryly, gesturing above his head as far as he could reach. “No one else can learn Ekkednar.” Ashur felt his expression sour.
“What’s a herder doing in the Secled army?”
Colae lifted one thin shoulder. “Prob’ly got kidnapped. I heard in port the Secled were yanking from wherever they could during the Feud.”
“So how much is he herder and how much is he Secled?” Colae’s pointed face tilted, noncomittal.
“Depend on when he left the herd.”
“So now there’s a herder who can kill the monarch that no one can touch.”
“Maybe that’s why he has to keep saying orders again,” Clisand said.
Ashur heard Jalar’s voice outside the tent, not the words, but the tone. With a flash of focus he realized there someone close who he didn’t know.
Outside Ashur found Jalar confronted with the soldier who had tried to accost the Jueden. Jalar didn’t turn his head as Ashur walked over, just sent him a quick glance out of the corner of his eye.
“Now, don,” the soldier said, expression unyielding.
Coming to a halt beside Jalar, Ashur looked down at him.
“What is your need?” he asked in the most formal register of Seclednar he knew, keeping his face blank.
“It is my duty to see to the Jueden. Let me pass,” the soldier said in a similar dialect, Lum-dialect he guessed. He dropped the “don,” but Ashur’s red-brown skin couldn’t be mistaken for Endon. The insignia embroidered in cord on his left shoulder was a circle with a single bar inside. As far as Ashur knew the single bar made him fherac, usually a second in command. He had never seen the circle before.
“The Jueden gave me orders not to be disturbed. I am acting under blue tannydh.”
Something surprised shifted in the soldier’s eyes at the last words, but he said abruptly, “I am his fherac. Let me pass.”
“I can’t go against orders.”
The fherac’s voice turned low and furious, his dialect changing to something more provincial, inland. “There will be iron if you don’t let me in that tent, mercenary.” He spat it like an insult. In the Secled and Sergilé armies Ashur knew it was. But in Endonsárre and the Duchies he might as well have said “carpenter,” or “merchant.”
“We are here only to defend the Jueden.” It was not, quite, “We’ll meet your iron.” Ashur repeated, “I am acting under blue tannydh. I cannot go against the Jueden’s orders.”
Teeth grinding, the fherac’s right hand fisted around the hilt of his lhir. It was a gesture of frustration, not a threat. He would draw with his left.
Abruptly he whirled, stalking toward a tiny cluster of tents that Ashur now realized were slightly removed from the rest.
“Funny, to hear you talking taking orders,” Jalar said beside him.
“I don’t suppose he brought water,” Ashur said.
“Anyone else comes, don’t talk to them. Give them to me.”
As the heat stretched through the afternoon the fherac still hadn’t followed the Jueden’s orders to bring them food and water. They had the samsk fat and dried fish rescued from the fort but not enough moisture to digest it. Litin dribbled the last of their water down Egreall’s throat. It would be worthless to have saved him from the infection only to have him wither away. They stashed Mehth and Lam in the tent with him, out of the sun. Ashur closed himself off from the world, withdrawing into his body before the clamor of the the army’s life bludgeoned him senseless.
Bracing his back against Jalar’s, he watched a soldier rush into the cluster of tents. Even at that distance Ashur recognized one of the guards who had escorted them outside the fort to tend Egreall. Wild-eyed, he found the fherac among the soldiers, words spilling out of his mouth. The fherac listened, tense and resigned.
Idishe returned, slipping in just like he had left, unnoticed. Ashur listened with the others to his concise descriptions of the layout of the camp. There was no ship moored below the fort, and the slopes were being razed of wood and brush for the army’s cook fires.
Eventually a soldier came with a yoke over his shoulders, hung with two buckets. He practically dropped them, water sloshing onto the parched ground, and gave them a disgusted glare before leaving.
Half a dozen times Ashur turned the fherac and two of his subordinates away. Over and over he said, “I’m acting under the blue tannydh.”
“What’as that mean?” Eana asked, watching the latest soldier’s back as he stormed away. Toney had finally passed out, head pillowed in Eana’s lap. Ashur could see the bruise of twisted rope circling his neck from the march to the fort.
“If I know, I count feathers.”
Egreall woke once, mumbling, recognized Fis, and fell unconscious. By dusk the Jueden hadn’t woken. He never rolled over, never snored, never twitched as men moved in and out of the tent. At first light he was still asleep, and at dawn.
When the sun rode halfway between the vale and the middle of the sky, Ashur shook him. He didn’t wake. Finally he slapped him between the shoulderblades.
Jerking violently awake, the man went for his lhir. Ashur shoved his shoulder down, cutting off his leverage.
“Easy. It’s your convict-slaves.”
He breathed hard and heavy under Ashur’s hand, but he stilled. He was bonier than he looked, under the cloth. When Ashur felt sure he wasn’t going to panic he stepped back. The man slowly rolled over, pulling himself into a sitting position, head hanging.
“What’s your name?” Ashur asked abruptly.
The man didn’t absorb it at first, took a few heartbeats to say, “Alaundat sicla Tansh.”
Guarding the door, Colae let out an abrupt chuckle that made Ashur flick an irritated look at him.
“Tansh just means needles,” Colae explained. But as he finished saying it, his expression changed to consideration, and he glanced at Egreall as if something had just ocurred to him.
“What on the wind do we call you?” Ashur said, ignoring Colae. The man gave a slow blink.
“Jueden, in public.” Another blink. “The rest we’ll figure out later.”
“Call me Ashur. It’s midmorning the day after you went down like a navgh in the droughts. Your fherac is about to have a nervous breakdown or declare war.”
The Jueden didn’t say anything, fumbling under the grass pallet to pull out a half limp water skin. He drank a little desperately, sucking out every drop. Jerking at the togs to the vest of his dark overtunic, he pulled a flat pouch from inside his shirt. Seeming oblivious to the men around him, he started gulping down hard, dark chunks of jerky, barely chewing. Ashur’s attention sharpened.
He watched the man as he spoke. “If we’re going to keep you alive to keep us alive, I need information. Why do you want more than three dozen men around you?”
“My decisions are rarely popular.”
If swearing in an Endon crew convicted of pirating was typical of his decisions, then Ashur could believe that.
“Are the men with your fherac yours?”
Colae had slipped from his post by the door, distracting Ashur from the man’s “In name.” Ashur stared as he sank on the pallet behind the Jueden and started combing out his yellow hair.
The Jueden froze infinitesimally. Then, as Colae quietly ran his fingers through his hair, he relaxed minutely.
“How many?” Ashur asked, still staring. Colae didn’t look up at him.
“Can we trust your life with them?”
He didn’t answer.
“My mother and my aunt.” Ashur rubbed at the dull, heavy ache in his forehead, mouth still tense with thirst. He found himself looking down at Mehth’s still form.
“Tananacheforlibalaheutas?” Ashur heard softly from the Jueden. He kept quiet, not wanting to break the strange, fragile rapport.
“Ashur,” Colae said, making Ashur glance in his direction. Then, with a smile, “Sasadchebache-Colae-ndejcamb.”
“We have wounded you need to look at,” Ashur told the Jueden as he stood. He paused, unsure how to phrase it. “We might need to do more.”
The Jueden turned a strange expression on him.
“I can’t do that again.”
Ashur stepped into his space, too close. It didn’t matter that the man was taller, broader than him, it was a threat.
The man looked at him for a heartbeat, then gave him his back and crouched by Mehth. Ashur was left with the distinct, unsatisfactory impression that he had not given in, but simply removed himself from the argument.
Without asking anything, the Jueden slid his fingers across Mehth’s brow, then around his skull through his long, lank hair. Ashur felt him reach into Mehth’s skull in quick little stitches.
“He will be well. Another day, at most, before it becomes obvious.”
His perception was muddied by the din of the camp, and Ashur wasn’t quite sure whether to believe him. But he was already moving on to Egreall, fingertips skimming his whole body.
Egreall muttered, then startled awake, trying to push himself away.
“Easy, Egreall,” Ashur told him. “Me and Colae are here.”
“Who’s salt-pedlar whore is this?” he demanded, voice sticky.
Lam whimpered as the man probed at his shoulder, running his hands around the swollen joint, down his arm and up his neck.
“He’s not in danger of his life,” the Jueden concluded, standing. Then he batted the tentflap aside, and Ashur had to dart out after him.
The fherac was already standing outside on his personal seige, face set grimly. When he saw the Jueden he started forward, expression creasing in what seemed like a cross of relief and worry.
“Jueden. These men denied us entry.”
“They acted under my orders.”
Sweeping the gathering with an unfriendly glance, the fherac switched to some incomprehensible dialect of broken Sergileg. Ashur nearly twitched.
“Yym tai? Karmosc salau?”
The Jueden stumbled through a reply in the same dialect, broken by excruciating pauses. Ashur could only guess at the occasional familiar word.
Quietly, insistently, the fherac said, “Kanrira, Alaun. Kanshigoli laddaco brasaika.”
“Harishcanakan. Co ladda breityy.” The fherac’s eyes widened.
The Jueden said, “I want them fully provisioned. I will give my report to the Thocas. I’ll take Cesai as one of my escorts.”
His fherac stood very still for a breath, then turned and walked away, face unreadable.
Glancing at Ashur the Jueden said, “I need another escort from you.”
“Take him,” Ashur said, pointing with his lips to Idishe. Slender, easily forgotten, Idishe would miss nothing. The man studied Idishe’s bland expression, his pale eyes. Finally he scanned the men crouched in the shade or stretched out on the ground.
“Don’t get into a fight,” he said to Ashur. “Don’t let anyone into the tent, no matter who they say they are or under whose orders.” In his mind Ashur saw the hidden water skin, the food.
Catching someone’s eye across the trampled moat between the tent and the rest of the camp, the Jueden gave a peremptory wave. Idishe shadowed him as he started through the camp, a young soldier hesitantly separating from the knot of men around the fherac to join them. The soldier eyed Idishe askance. Idishe pretended to not notice. As Ashur stared after them, Colae spoke.
“So. We’re aground.” Everyone was silent. Their ship, all the work of their hands and sweat, their freedom to fly the Waters was gone. And their only was a man who wanted their protection from assassination. Clisand rubbed around his eyesockets, staring at the dying grass. Fis, as always, was inscrutable. Colae’s face suddenly brightened. “Well, we all know what grounded means: Women.”
“Speak, for yourself,” Egreall rasped from inside the tent.