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The Captain and the Shore

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Suradanna woke up in the middle of the night, which wasn’t unusual. She’d heard that you needed less sleep as you got older. Suradanna never seemed to want less sleep, but over the last century she’d slept in fits and dozes, fighting for six hours of sleep from eight hours spent lying in bed.

There was a warm arm wrapped around Suradanna’s midriff, which was unusual. At least recently. Suradanna blinked slowly and breathed until she managed to remember what had happened, who she was with. She found she was smiling. She closed her eyes to savor it before carefully turning over, trying not to loosen the captain’s arm. She’d lull herself back to sleep by watching the captain snore.

But the captain was awake—had been awake, Suradanna thought, for some time. Her light gray eyes looked black in the dim yellow gaslight, spilling through the window from the street. Her mouth was only a few inches from Suradanna’s own.

“Go to sleep,” said Suradanna.

“I will,” murmured the captain, seriously. “Don’t worry.”

Her arm pulled Suradanna closer, until Suradanna was tucked against the captain’s skin, her legs tangled with the captain’s legs, her cheek pressed against the captain’s chest. Suradanna wasn’t falling asleep, not quite, but she felt drunk on the soft hair that ran down the captain’s thighs and the rough callouses on her palm. The captain was stroking circles into Suradanna’s back. Suradanna bit her lip and didn’t shriek from joy, didn’t throw up her hands in victory, didn’t dance on the bed. It was late, and Suradanna was—wasn’t—was falling asleep.

She did say: “I’m glad you came to me.”

The captain’s hand didn’t pause. She might not have heard Suradanna, the words mumbled into the captain’s collarbone. The captain tucked her chin over Suradanna’s head and breathed long and deep, the sound of it in her chest loud against Suradanna’s ear. Suradanna was drowning.

She thought she heard the captain say “what else was there?” But Suradanna’s eyes were closed, and her mind was fading. It was hard to tell what was real and what was a dream.

---

In the morning, Suradanna walked quickly through Suradan House, spinning round to walk backwards and point out all the little details to the captain. She’d forgotten how old she was supposed to be, and she couldn’t quite force herself to keep up the pretense when the captain was here and smiling. Suradanna’s cane was held loosely in one hand, used for emphasis rather than support. Little peals of laughter spilled from her lips, nothing like the mature chuckle she’d cultivated this lifetime.

“That’s the house sigil.” Suradanna gestured at the phoenix emblem carved just above the west windows in the great meeting room. “We’ll have to come back at sunset—the light shines through beautifully, like the whole wall is catching fire.”

The captain considered the phoenix with an expression that Suradanna thought was fond, oh. “Was that your good idea?”

Suradanna couldn’t help another laugh. “No, no, the architect’s. But I did design the sigil. Well, I described the sigil, and an artist actually designed it. Come through here, you can see my office—“

Someone knocked gently on the door, and Suradanna caught her breath, forced her shoulders to slump and her back to curve. She leant on her cane and pursed her lips in a way that drew out lines around her mouth. She hoped that the egg-white paint would disguise her blush, though there was nothing to be done about the shine in her eyes. The captain watched Suradanna's transformation with amusement. Of course, she'd never had to pretend to be older-younger than she was. The sea was ageless, without the memories of the shore.

“Come in,” called Suradanna, her voice creaking.

Zuradankiher opened the door and bowed. "Suradanna-zsi, I’ve been looking for you. I have your schedule for the day.” She held up her tablet, and then smiled stiffly as she noticed the captain. “Is this a guest?" Her eyes flicked over the captain's clothing, no less travel-stained for having been slept in overnight. Suradanna didn’t own anything that could have possibly fit.

"The captain is visiting," said Suradanna. "But she’s lost her luggage. She needs clothes, and toiletries—you must clear some time in my schedule."

Zuradankiher was making changes already, rubbing away marks from her tablet with a cloth, and making new notes with the little chalk pencil. It probably wouldn't be much trouble. House Suradan was one of the most successful Houses in Salamadan Port, but Salamadan Port itself was sunken in stature. There were few captains to meet with, fewer traders.

"I'll make an appointment at Mardanesh," said Zuradankiher. "You'll have to keep your morning meeting with the shareholders, but I think I can pry most of the day free. Will you be staying long, Captain…"

The captain filled the silence with her name, and Suradanna felt herself bristle. It was so easy, the syllables passed from mouth to mouth without centuries of curiosity and longing. It felt worse when Zuradankiher looked at the captain for a moment and then repeated the name without honorific, the captain's status unrecognized, unknown.

Honorifics were fading from use, Suradanna knew, just as the precise salutes of her youth had almost disappeared, only preserved in their misuse by historical plays. Zuradankiher’s Suradanna-zsi and careful bows were concessions to Suradanna’s aged sensibilities. It wasn't an insult for Zuradankiher to omit the honorific, especially with a stranger who might be of any age.

But it grated.

"I have to go to my meeting," said Suradanna. "Just for an hour, I think, and then you’ll have me for the rest of the day. Zuradankiher-li, can you take care of the captain? Show her whatever she'd like to see."

"Of course," Zuradankiher smiled. "This way, captain."

That was better.

The captain smiled as they left, and Suradanna could have read a dozen emotions into the subtle curve of the captain’s mouth. Something was bubbling in Suradanna’s throat, and she coughed to keep herself from letting it out.

---

The meeting was boring, pointless. Land and sea trade routes were becoming impassable; no one had any good ideas for what to do about it. Suradanna forced her feet still, resisted the urge to doodle on her chalk tablet. She got up slowly from the table when the meeting was done, and kept her steps small and careful as she left the room.

"The captain is in the library." Zuradankiher offered her arm, and Suradanna tried to take it with gratitude rather than impatience.

"I'm glad you rescheduled my meetings," Suradanna confided. It was safer to confide her irritation, rather than let it fester and leave Zuradankiher to wonder at its source. "I couldn't stand a whole day with Vakrinza, the fool."

"That's what you always say," murmured Zuradankiher. "And yet you always survive."

"It's more surprising that he survives," said Suradanna, and displayed her deep and mature chuckle.

The captain was sitting with a book, a glass of juice at her elbow. Suradanna waited until Zuradankiher closed the door, and then straightened, letting the pretended fractions of years fall from her spine. "What are you reading?"

The captain shrugged. When Suradanna peered over her shoulder, she found pictures of sea monsters and zuiran. A navigating book. She wondered if the captain could read the modern Lalidani script—Suradanna read it easily and write it fluently, but the now-ancient Lalidani and Alameidan she'd grown up with always came more easily. There were more letters now than there'd once been. They'd never needed so many before.

"We'll go to the tailors so you can change," said Suradanna. "And you can buy whatever else you need. I don't know if you have any money, but I can loan you—" She caught herself, her trader's instincts, but the captain was nodding.

"I'll pay you back," said the captain. "As long as the interest's not too much."

“I offer very good terms.” Suradanna offered the captain a hand and drew her out of the chair—though it had to be admitted that the captain didn’t lean too much of her own weight against Suradanna’s. When they left Suradan House it was Suradanna leaning on the captain’s arm.

Oh, Suradanna resented their slow pace. She wanted to pull the captain along, half-running from the financial district and into the marketplace. But oh, did Suradanna feel smug about her position at the captain’s side. It was almost worth being old.

"Your assistant seemed familiar," said the captain.

"You met one of her ancestors, He Quier. She was a waitress at the Salt Anchor."

The captain laughed. "I remember. You chased her away from me."

"I wanted to talk to you." Suradanna frowned, suppressing the feeling of being laughed at.

"Oh, I know." The captain patted her arm. "I'm glad you did. I wasn't then, but I am now."

Suradanna wanted to catch the captain's hands and spin her in the street. Mine, mine, mine, she wanted to say. She’d waited long enough. But she was the honored Suradanna-zsi again. Salamadan Port was watching. There were other, better ways to lay claim.

---

The tailors and the shopkeepers all called the captain by her name, either without honorific or with -li. It was the captain's fault for introducing herself; it was the merchants' fault for not recognizing the captain's seniority. It was Suradanna's fault for being bothered by it.

Suradanna felt like she was crawling out of her skin.

She hated the look that the tailor gave her when Suradanna picked the color of the captain's vest, a bright blue that offset the deep orange-red of Suradanna's silk skirts. She hated the look that the merchant gave her when Suradanna picked the best soap out of a basket and gave it to the captain to smell. She especially hated the look that the captain gave her when Suradanna complained.

"They think I'm a toy of yours." The captain laughed, the second time in less than three hours. Suradanna should be grateful, but she still felt rubbed raw.

"It's insulting," fumed Suradanna. She’d wanted to leave her mark on the captain, but not in a way that framed the captain as her subordinate, as her—

"What would you think?" asked the captain. "An established, respected trader, buying clothes and luxuries for the young foreigner on her arm?"

"Soap isn't a luxury," said Suradanna. "I'm on your arm. And you're not young!"

The captain actually leaned down and brushed her lips over Suradanna's forehead. "Are you always this offended by the world?"

It's easier for you, thought Suradanna. The sea isn't supposed to know your age. The sea doesn't change. But then she thought a moment more, and was glad she hadn't said it.

Her cane was a fine thing, dark carved wood inlaid with light shells. Zuradankiher had a tendency to stare at it during idle moments, and Suradanna had already made a point of leaving it to Zuradankiher in her will. It was only this sense of obligation that stopped Suradanna from tossing it away, suddenly resentful of the trappings of age that didn’t command her enough respect but still set her apart from the captain.

"Do you need anything else?" she asked instead.

"No," said the captain.

“Do you want to go to the docks?” asked Suradanna. She found herself pressing at the captain as if at a wound. “There might be a few ships for sale, if you think—“

“No,” said the captain, more firmly. She looked away from Suradanna and then slowed, her gaze caught by a little bookbinder’s shop.

“Sure you don’t need anything?” asked Suradanna.

“Yes,” said the captain, and then bit her lip.

“Then let me make you a gift,” purred Suradanna, and steered them inside.

She hated the way the salesgirl looked at her in this shop, too, but the captain’s eyes were warm and surprised as she picked out a thick blank book, a sturdy pen. Suradanna thought she could bear anything for the warmth of her captain’s eyes.