“Handsomely, now.” Captain Beagar’s voice sharpened as the Ryala Pim and its consorts sailed between the two warships into the harbor. “Handsomely does it—do not anticipate the signal. They may take it amiss.”
The captain of the windward Khanerenth warship had posted a youngster on the foredeck, whose function was to convey by a combination of flags and shouts the sails the Pim Ryala was to furl, and the direction to steer as they glided into the calmer waters of the harbor. When the Khanerenth warships first surrounded the Pim Ryala, Captain Beagar hoped he would be able to get a decent trade for his goods, a hope that had eroded to dread that his cargo would be seized altogether, and he and his crew . . .
He did not like to let his mind go in that direction.
So he reclasped his hands behind his back, trusting to his implicit obedience, and his captain’s green coat—a merchantman’s green coat—to make it plain that he had no interest in whatever military matters had caused the Khanerenth navy to surround them and force them toward land.
At her station on the foremast, Jeje cast a glance up at the sky, at the sails, at the flow of the current, and at the harbor’s mouth, anticipating the order to haul down the sail. She stood with one hand to a gently humming stay as she swept another look round—this time at her fellow crew members.
The captain stood erect and somber on the captain’s deck. No surprise there. Tau rode easily on the main yard, his wheat-gold hair blowing back as he watched Inda on the foredeck. Directly above him, Norsh glowered at Tau in preference to the Khanerenth threat. No surprise there, either.
As the ship heeled, Norsh said nastily, “Have a hankering for the rat, pretty boy?”
“Quiet! Fore and aft,” Kodl snapped, his pale gaze glaring up at Norsh, who reddened.
Tau sighed—Jeje couldn’t hear it, but she saw it in the way his chest rose and fell under the wind-rippled shirt as he turned his head and gazed out to sea.
Jeje thought sourly, Even I know if you want someone’s attention, you don’t pick at them. But Norsh didn’t seem to know how else to behave.
Another heave on a swell, and the orders began coming. By the time they had everything battened down, and had let the anchor go in the precise spot indicated, the sky had clouded up.
The young mate, or lieutenant, or whatever he was (Jeje knew nothing about naval hierarchies and cared less) bellowed in Dock Talk, “Get yez dunnage and into the boats, inna quarter-glass, then we come aboard ye with swords out.”
The ship rats clustered with their own watches out of habit, then headed toward the same boat. Fassun and Vorzscin—acting as coxswains—separated them out, and put the rats in the bows of the two long boats—after the rats had done all the work of loading everyone’s else’s dunnage in to their exacting specifications.
The captain and the mates went in the gig. From the way Fassun and Vorzscin gave orders it was clear to rats and sailors alike that they were to row in creditably, and not look like a bunch of scruffy dock hands, or worse, pirates, slumping disconsolately.
“We’ve done nothing amiss,” Fassun muttered.
“They don’t seem to know it,” Faura retorted with a sour glance and a toss of her dark hair.
No one had an answer to that. Instead, they were full of questions—what had they done, why were they being forced to land, what would happen to them?
When the gig docked, and Tau absently reached down to haul short Jeje up from the rocking craft, Faura bumped up behind Jeje and muttered goadingly, “Glad you left your fishers, Jeje?”
No, Jeje was not glad, but she would have bitten through her own tongue rather than admit it to Faura, who had turned so unaccountably nasty of late. She’d never been friendly, but at least she’d been decent when Jeje first came aboard, showing her where to stow her gear, and introducing her to Sails.
As yet, Jeje had no idea that Faura bitterly resented every slight attention, no matter how brief or absent, that Tau showed to any other female. Jeje only knew that you never won against Faura, so she kept silent and gave a slight shrug. Then she climbed the slimy ladder to the dock and scuffed up behind Inda as the crew of the Pim Ryala fell in line beside the crew from an old caravel carrying woolens and Bermundi rugs.
They shuffled at a snail’s pace, with plenty of stops for no reason anyone could discern.
Some twenty small steps along, Zimd poked Inda. She grinned, nosy as always. “What were you lookin’ at so intent, while we were coming in?” she asked in Iascan, though nobody from Khanerenth was around. But the atmosphere was tense.
Inda turned her way. “I was lookin’ at the bow crew on the navy schooner. What kind of bows they use. How they grouped.”
“Why?” Zimd asked.
Inda shrugged. “If we have to defend our ship, good to see what we might face. In tactics.”
“Tactics?” Zimd repeated. “What’s that?”
“I was about to ask myself,” Tau murmured.
Inda chewed his bottom lip, his wide-set light brown eyes doing that odd thing again, where he’d go blind for a breath or two. Then the line in front began shuffling again, and Leugre gave the rats hard shoves from behind, as if that would move the queue along any faster.
Inda fell silent. He never talked around Leugre or his friends. Jeje had figured out by summer’s end that he wasn’t stupid, and by winter—when he had noticed her and Yan struggling over their letters, while Indutsan and his mate ignored them—she had began to figure out that he wasn’t dull.
That is, he was dull enough on the outside, but something was going on inside him. She struggled to put to words what she sensed—but, coming from plain and outspoken people (what you saw was what you heard, like it or not) she failed.
She failed at understanding Tau, too.
She scowled down at her bare feet on the warped planks of the dock. Now that they were stuck on land, she could feel winter hadn’t quite let go, in the cold wind bringing a bank of low clouds overhead.
She was used to thinking of herself as quick and smart. That’s what her grandmother had said about her, when she first broached the idea of leaving the family fishers. In spite of Faura’s sneering, she was not the least bit ashamed of fishing. The problem? It was boring. She hadn’t wanted to spend a lifetime working her way up to a bigger boat, just to haul more fish, then dry it, then sell it. And then go out for more.
“Get aboard a good merchant,” her grandmother had said. “You’ll see the world, and every kind of trade. It’s a different sort of sailing, but you’re clever and you work hard. S’long as you stay away from the likes of kings, you’ll do fine.”
Well, it looked as if they’d sailed right into something having to do with kings, Jeje thought grumpily. Or rather stepped into it.
Shuffle, shuffle. The planking gave way to sandy granite: they’d reached the quay.
Right then it began raining, and a lot of crossbow-carrying warriors shoved them past the harbormaster’s building—which looked like it had suffered a recent fire—and toward some huge warehouses.
The rain had begun in earnest by the time they crowded inside the cavernous space, which smelled like rotten vegetables. “Not a good sign,” Cook muttered. “Means they let a whole cargo sit and rot.”
“Probably while fightin’ each other,” Sails agreed. “I always said, Khanerenth is full o’chancy people. We do a lot better further south. But no one asks me.”
Jeje liked Sails, who was a fair taskmaster and a good teacher, but she thought privately that Sails was always very ready to offer her opinion, and did, whether anyone wanted it or not. Usually after the fact—and nobody liked hearing I told you so.
They stood there, most still holding their dunnage, heavy as it was. Jeje shifted hers from shoulder to shoulder, aware that she didn’t want to put it down. That would mean she expected to stay. Carrying it meant she hoped to soon be back on the ship. She knew this was stupid, but . . .When Tau gave another of those quiet sighs and swung his bag down to rest by his feet, Jeje surrendered and lowered hers, too.
A rustle of movement and a sharpening of voices caused everyone to turn to each other and ask what was going on, did you hear anything—which kept them from hearing until Tau, who had the sharpest ears of the rats—and spoke the best Sartoran—murmured, “Someone demanded manifests. Seems our cargo is being seized. Maybe the ship.”
“Seizing the ship?”
“What’s going to happen to us?”
Word propagated outward faster than a grass fire, leaving a profound silence, and people edging away as armed warriors moved among them.
Captain Beagar had brought his papers, and perforce had to surrender them.
When the warriors left him, he turned, found his crew, and came to them, as other captains went to theirs.
He held up his hand, and though they were now on land and he was no longer the supreme authority, habit was strong. This was the last vestige of order, of sense, in a world suddenly gone askew.
The Pim Ryala’s crew stood silent as he said, “I am told that they are searching for weapons and contraband, after which we shall be let go.”
Wily, grizzled Scalis said, “Capting, what d’they consider contraband?”
Indutsan, his balding head barely visible at the captain’s shoulder, looked so sour that it was clear he expected their entire cargo to turn up on their contraband list. His mood didn’t improve when another set of warriors came through, swords drawn, crossbows loaded, and began herding the prisoners through the warehouse.
Jeje stuck as close to her fellow rats as she could, noticing that they seemed to have the same idea.
It was at first somewhat of a relief when they discovered they were more or less together, shoved into a makeshift barracks that must have once served as a storage room, with a row of high windows down one side. Someone had shoved three dilapidated bunks into it, and a double bunk. The rest was bare stone. The bunks were mostly slat, with lumpy straw mattresses that smelled like mold, as if they hadn’t been changed out for years.
Norsh promptly claimed the best of them, and Leugre the next best. Jeje moved to the opposite side of the room and put her stuff on the floor. At least it had been swept sometime in the past months. She’d slept on the floor at her cousins’ many times. This place wouldn’t be that different.
Faura loudly claimed two of the remaining bunks, one for her and one for her cousin, then moved to the third and sat down. “Tau?” she said, patting it.
Norsh swung around, eyes narrowed. His face reddened with fury when Tau pitched his dunnage in the corner opposite the bunks—which put him not two paces from Jeje.
“Tactics?” Tau turned to Inda, who’d been standing there, blinking.
Zimd gave a huge yawn. “If you can’t sail it, trade it, or eat it, then I don’t want to know. Let’s sleep!” She pitched her stuff on Jeje’s other side.
Inda put his things down beside Yan’s.
Tau sat down on his dunnage. “Inda, what are tactics?”
“Tactics is what you do to carry out a strategy,” Inda mumbled, then looked up. “It’s, um, carrying out orders. Like, the first mate tells you to step the new topgallant mast. Tactics is what the work party does to get it done.”
Jeje ignored this blabber, and scowled when she noticed that everyone with beds was part of Norsh’s gang, or wanted to be, and those on the floor were people Norsh hated or picked on. Jeje considered grabbing that bunk that Faura was sitting on—she’d only gone to the floor to be on the opposite side of the room from Norsh.
She thought about Faura’s prickly personality, her habit of borrowing things and not returning them, and decided she’d stay where she was.
Testhy entered, the last of them, and headed toward the empty bunk between where Faura sat and the one where she’d put her stuff.
Faura snapped, “That’s for Fass. You can have this one.”
She got up, crossed her arms, and stalked back to the bunk she’d claimed. Testhy dropped his stuff, then said, “Fass will be along. They’re questioning him.”
“Fass?” Faura asked, her irritation turning to worry. “Why?”
Testhy’s pale brows lifted and he spread his hands. “Why are they doing any of this?”
The door opened, and Fassun entered, stumbling as if he’d been shoved. He almost dropped his dunnage, but wrestled it up to his shoulder again, peered around in the gloom, then his expression eased when he spotted Faura.
“What’s going on?” Norsh asked.
Fassun sighed. “They seem to think we’re spies, or allied with their navy, or something like that. Captain Beagar managed to convince them to write to Lindeth and the Pims to prove the owner isn’t whatever they think.” He shrugged, and dropped his things on the empty bunk.
“Write to Lindeth? That’ll take months!” Norsh exclaimed.
“Years!” Zimd howled, fists on her hips.
“If they even do it,” Leugre muttered, then glared around looking for something to hit. His gaze lit on Yan. “What’re you staring at, dish face?”
Yan dropped his gaze. Inda said, “Yan, help me spread out my blankets? My wrist still hurts.”
Jeje watched how Leugre stared at Inda while Norsh pretended Inda didn’t exist. Yeah, she thought. Inda’s hand might hurt, but he still can beat you. But did his hand still hurt that bad?
Then it hit her: Inda had said that on purpose.
She slewed around and watched Inda and Yan work together to spread their stuff out, first Yan’s, then Inda’s. Tau was also watching, his profile hard for Jeje to read. Most of the time she couldn’t. He reminded her of a fire, cheery most of the time, but sometimes too hot.
Tau turned and with his customary care, began spreading out his things.
Faura copied him, as she often did, looking frequently over her shoulder in his direction. To see if he noticed, probably. Jeje wondered why she found that so annoying.
She didn’t like being annoyed, especially at people she had to live with. Norsh and Leugre were hopeless—they didn’t like anyone but themselves—but everyone else, she tried to get along with. Shipmates are closer than family on those long voyages foreign, Jeje’s grandmother had warned her. You get along, the days go by pretty good. You don’t get along, and it’s stormy seas and salt galls.
They’d all settled (except Norsh, who seemed to think if he refused to unpack his dunnage, the Khanerenth authorities would soon free them) when the door opened. This time it was Kodl who entered, lugging a huge basket.
He looked around at them, set the basket down, then said in Iascan, “I’ve brought food—flatrolls stuffed with greens and grilled fish, melons, dark cheese, and a couple jugs of berry pressings. The captain paid for it, by the bye, and he will be quite angry if he finds out that everyone didn’t get their share. I’m also to tell you, anyone who makes trouble will be left behind, their back pay forfeited.”
Silence met this.
Kodl wiped his grimy light blond hair off his sweaty brow. “And that means trouble among you.” He looked straight at Leugre.
“Why you staring’t me, First Mate?” Leugre sneered in Dock Talk.
“I wonder,” Kodl said shortly. “If you don’t like it here, you can bunk with Scalis. Plenty of room. In fact, the captain said, anyone who raises trouble among us—never mind the locals—will be put in with them.”
“All right, then. The consort crews are being housed across the way. We’re better off than some, I can tell you. The guards will bring around water in the morning.” He turned to Testhy, and set the basket by his feet. “You’re the purser’s mate. Take charge of the galley.”
The moment he walked out, Leugre cast a glare at Norsh, who stood undecided. Leugre sneered at him, then walked up to Testhy, who had begun setting out the foods wrapped in cloths. He smacked Testhy on the side of the head.
“I’ll take charge.”
Inda got up and said, “Kodl put Testhy in charge.” He stopped beside the big basket and gazed up at Leugre, a short figure but with the shoulders of someone Tau’s age.
Leugre sneered, “I thought your hand hurt.”
“It does,” Inda said. “But I’ll be fine.”
I’ll be fine. Jeje remembered how Inda’s hand got hurt—and he won the fight despite it being broken. Then she noticed Tau’s flickering smile, and the way Norsh rubbed his thumb against his narrow jaw, looking away as though the moss-stained stone at the far corner held some secret message.
They were all remembering. Jeje was sure of it. Laughter bloomed inside her.
Leugre scowled down at Inda, then spat on the ground and sauntered away.
Fassun sighed as Testhy moved the basket away from the spit, and with Inda helping, finished the job of unloading the basket and then dividing things up.
And that’s the way it was the for next few days.
That night a crashing, roaring thunderstorm broke overhead, and for a while everyone joked about how nice it was to be under a roof instead of trying to reef the mainsail, but by the week’s end, and the third storm, it wasn’t so funny anymore.
Kodl, who arrived every other day, under guard, brought a greasy pack of cards. They played games of cards and shards, everyone using a button or some other small item from their dunnage as markers. For a time it was fun playing a huge game, but that, too, gradually palled, first Faura complained that Testhy was cheating, and why did everyone always deal her terrible cards, and how was she supposed to remember where her shards were. Then, Testhy always won because he was the fastest at numbers, which made Norsh nasty.
When the cards were put away, for a time they talked, everybody telling stories out of their past. Well, everyone but Inda and Yan, who sat and listened so quietly that only Tau, then Jeje, noticed them skipped over, Zimd and Faura talking enough for four people.
Jeje was telling another funny one about her outspoken grandmother—as Zimd giggled and Dasta looked less hangdog than usual—until Faura said with a tired sigh, “Jeje, if we have to hear about your grandmother one more time, I’m going to run out of here screaming for them to shoot me.”
Jeje stared at Faura, who lay on her bunk, eyes closed. She looked and sounded weary, except for the corrosive snap to her last two words.
Jeje’s neck heated, and she turned away, mechanically straightening her things. “Sorry. I didn’t think I was yawping too much.”
“Well you are.”
“No she isn’t,” Yan said in a soft voice.
“I like those stories,” Dasta murmured, even softer. “Though I wouldn’t want her gran mad at me.”
Faura didn’t react.
Yan was stitching a summer shirt, his head so bent all Jeje could see was his black hair. “Reminds me of home. A little. And your grandmother is funny.”
“I like them, too,” Tau added. He lay stretched out on his bunk, head resting on his hand.
Faura certainly heard that. She snorted, and turned her back on them all.
Tau said slowly, “I like hearing little stories about others’ lives because it takes me out of here.” He lifted a shoulder. “If only in my head.”
“I like them, too,” Inda said. He, too, was busy sewing a summer shirt.
Jeje was about to say, How about we hear some of yours, but she hesitated. Then she wondered why she hesitated—she wasn’t given to thinking about such things. But in memory there was always that look of Inda’s, the day soon after he was hired when she saw him staring at that bucket of fresh sponges. He’d looked like he’d been stabbed right in the heart. Well, not that she’d ever seen anybody stabbed in the heart—and didn’t want to, except maybe pirates. And she did want to see that. Well, hear about it after it happened, maybe. Anyway try as she might, she could not imagine what about sponges could cause that expression. She wasn’t sure she wanted to find out.
So she didn’t speak, and the moment passed.
But after that, she noticed things. Like how Inda readily took part when the card games started up again, and he took his turn in guessing what was going on outside. But when people reminisced, he just listened.
Yan was quiet all the time. Inda wasn’t—except when it came to his life before the Pim Ryala.
As the days stretched on, people got restless.
Three times Norsh tried to go after Tau. The first time, Leugre stopped him—and got a punch in the stomach for his pains, but then Leugre coldcocked Norsh when his back was turned, and the result was, everybody got a couple days of relative quiet.
The second time, it was night, and everyone had settled down to sleep. Some, like Zimd, slept already.
Norsh crept up behind Tau, who was pulling off his shirt, and tackled him. They rolled over the ground, messing up the floor-sleepers’ bunks, until they fetched up against Inda, who snapped a kick into the side of Norsh’s knee, eliciting a howl of pain.
Norsh fell off Tau and got to hands and knees. “I’ll kill you,” he snarled at Inda.
Inda didn’t answer. Just stood there, waiting.
Leugre snarled, “They’ll all yap when Kodl comes. Or do you want the guards hearing, and banging in here?”
Norsh flung himself away.
The next morning, Jeje woke up to soft, rhythmic breathing and the quiet rustle of cloth. In the dim light through the high, dirty windows. Inda was alone at the far end, moving through stretching exercises.
Tau and Yan promptly joined him. Zimd followed, laughing like it was a joke. Then Dasta, and some others. Jeje thought, why not? Especially when the jumping around turned into some fast tag games, and tumbling.
They kept it up until mealtime, and Jeje noticed she felt better than she had since they were locked up. Being still was making them crazy.
After that, it became a regular thing. Faura joined, usually standing next to Tau. Testhy did as well, and Fassun.
Everyone joined but Leugre and his followers, including Norsh.
A week or so passed, and gradually the running around turned into exercises, until the day that Leugre, bored and disgusted with everyone thumping and sweating through those pointless exercises, noticed Testhy half-hidden by some old, broken barrels, busily scrawling away on a slate.
Leugre flicked a look at Norsh, who lunged at Testhy and threw him up against a wall. “Whatcha got there?”
“Nothing,” Testhy yelped.
“Nothing? Nothing?” Norsh mimicked.
There was Inda, reminding Jeje of a pug dog her aunt had had. It was the smallest dog of the pack in Lindeth, but it didn’t know it was the smallest. Inda asserted himself the same way the pug did, only he wasn’t doing it over scraps or a wooden toy.
Tau appeared at Inda’s shoulder, silent, waiting, and Norsh dropped the slate deliberately. The ground was too dirty for it to break. He cursed them all, and said, “I’m bored.”
Inda picked up the slate and handed it to Testhy, who said in a low voice, “Kodl got it for me so I could practice my multiples. I won’t be able to pass my purser’s mate’s test in the guild until I can do multiples in my head. But I only do it afternoons, when everyone’s doing cards.” He scowled at Norsh. “Since they won’t let me play anymore.”
Inda whispered something to Testhy, who shrugged. “Sure. I don’t mind.”
Then Inda said, not looking at anybody, “Testhy says we could share the slate, if anyone wants to practice their letters.”
It was the way Inda didn’t look at anybody that warmed Jeje inside. She’d never thought of herself as ignorant until Fassun had said contemptuously one day, not long after her hire, “You really can’t read?”
Tau took the slate and began drawing Sartoran letters, which got Faura interested—and within a day or so, they were passing the slate from hand to hand, or else practicing letters by finger drawing in the dust. Jeje was not the only one who had not learnt her letters. Dasta, child of beekeepers, was also learning.
After that, the days didn’t pass any faster, but somehow the time was less boring because they had set watches, with things to do in each: the stretches and tumbling, then the lessons in reading and numbers and Sartoran. Especially when the day came when Inda got Tau to dictate sentences from some plays he happened to have learned, and they began writing them in the dust, seeing who could make their letters fastest.
Until then, Jeje had never wanted siblings. She’d even congratulated herself on not having any when she overheard certain of her cousins squabbling shrilly on the old fisher. But as the weather began to change, one morning she woke up between Inda and Yan, and thought, It’s like I got some brothers.