When I signed on with Captain Hua, I knew more or less what I was getting into. Thought I did, anyway—no idea about anything, it turned out, except she was a hard woman and it was a hard life. And why not? There was nothing left for me in the Kingdom. I'd had a man there, sure—until the priests took him for a sacrifice. I'd had a life there, sure—but after that? I'd have gone the same way, soon enough—there, or to the bottoms, because where else is there for a still young and pretty widow? Neither one a fate I'd choose.
But there was a ship in port, words on her in no tongue I could read but I guessed it must be her name. Taking on provisions, and I just walked on up the—well, I thought "ramp" then, I know now it's a gangplank. Went up on to the ship because why not? Nothing that'd happen if the guards saw me would be worse than what'd happen anyway, soon enough. But they didn't, I thought, and so I was just standing there, looking around at all these people the like of whom I'd never seen before, when from behind me comes this deep hoarse voice barking in mushmouth Mixtlan what the hell am I doing on her ship and I had better explain myself right now or she'd give me the hiding of my life before she threw me back on the pier.
So I turn around, of course, and there's this astonishing woman standing there, and I'd never have believed any woman could produce a voice like the one she'd flung at me but as soon as I saw her I knew of course. Of course she'd sound like that. Almost as tall as I am, and I'm tall even for my kind—but built like a wall, out of rammed earth, angry muscles straining every seam and button of her braided jacket. I knew I'd never seen her like, for certain.
I knew I wanted to see more.
Of course the guards saw me. The guards see everything, or their priests flay the skin alive from their bodies and hang it in front of barracks to remind the others of their responsibilities. What I didn't know then was that the guards didn't dare trespass aboard the Reaver Bitch. Her captain wouldn't have it, and had made that amply clear—and though the priesthood did not love her, they cherished the baubles she sold them, and feared very badly what'd happen if they annoyed her enough to order her ship to stand out into the harbor, and drop her anchor, and turn to open her broadside.
I just thought I'd got lucky. And I guess I did. I thought I had, anyway. Now...
But just then I'm faced with this amazing woman who is clearly furious with me. Every line of her said it, and it should've terrified me mute. But her eyes said something else I didn't understand at all. Not then. All I saw then was, maybe she didn't mean that threat quite as much as she'd made it sound.
So I did my best. My Mixtlan isn't great, but it was better than hers, and she kept stopping me, making me repeat myself, always with these short choppy gestures like the priests would make in the temple, right before the knife came down. But eventually she got the sense of it, and then she stopped me for good—didn't care to hear any more, I thought. Now I know she didn't need to. It's an old story in the Kingdom, after all.
She looked me up and down, real slow. Sizing me up, like. Stared me in the eyes a long time, and I just looked back at her like I don't know what. Usually it'd have bothered me, but not then—I was dead anyway, just still walking around a while, and what did any of it matter?
So after a minute of this she shrugs. "Seven years," she says. And I ask, seven years what? Thinking it's just her bad Mixtlan and she meant to say something else entirely.
"Seven years. You want to come with us, you sign on seven years."
"You want to come with us," she says, and I'm just standing there dumb as a temple eunuch. Last thing in the world I'd have thought of. I just figured I'd see something new before I died. But...why not? I was dead anyway—if I stayed. Hadn't thought of it that way before. Hadn't thought of not dying before; in the Kingdom that's just what happens. But here was a new thought: I could leave. Leave and never come back.
And what did I have to come back for, anyway?
The whole "seven years" part still had me mixed up, but we went over it a few times in lousy Mixtlan, and eventually I got it. I'd sign papers that basically said for seven years the captain—that amazing woman with the voice like a hammer and the body like a wall—owned me, and I belonged to the ship. I'd spend that time working off the debt, and then I'd be free to do whatever I liked. And in the meantime, I'd see a lot of the world—or of port towns, anyway—and get to know the people who now were just anonymous faces, strangely shaped and colored bodies all in the same strange clothes, hustling to and fro and hauling things this way and that.
Well, I got some of it. It took a while to figure out that I could sign the papers. That it'd matter if I did, and didn't need my man now gone to sign his name to make it count.
I broke the first quill she handed me. Well, what about it?—I'd never held one before.
First three days aboard I spent mostly throwing up. Took me that long to get used to everything moving all the time, and it got me right in the belly. People told me not to worry about it, it happened all the time and I'd get over it soon enough, and they were right. Before long I was starting to figure out what I was good for aboard the Reaver Bitch—didn't even know her name for a month and a half; it took that long to learn enough Albian to understand the words. Such a mess of a language! But eventually they got it across to me, what that name meant, and I just had to laugh and laugh. It fit the captain so well. Felt good laughing, too. You don't do that, in the Kingdom, not where anyone can see. But I wasn't in the Kingdom any more.
I didn't see much of her, the first few months I was aboard. Just that she'd turn up, muster whatever work gang I was in from holystoning the deck or pumping the bilges or whatever dirty work the chiefs had us doing, and give us some even nastier job, like getting down in the bilges and greasing that damned capstan. Never turned easily enough to satisfy her, my mates would always say. Could breathe on it and it'd spin to drill a hole through the sea and into the middle of the world, and she'd still have us down here in this—a word I didn't know—rubbing this—another one, and a laugh—into this bearing like it was her very own—still another, and whatever that one was, it had everyone else on the work gang falling all over with glee.
I didn't mind greasing the bearing. Dirty work, sure, but you could always get clean, after. Oh sure, we bathe in the Kingdom, but only when we have to, and it's a big open plaza with basins and the water in them's always filthy because swamping them out is a day's heavy work and the priests and the guards have their own. To really get clean?—and once a day at least?—a chief told me my first day, in Mixtlan even worse than the captain's, that I'd bathe once a day and like it, or else they'd drag me out on the deck and strip me down and scrub me. I saw that happen a couple times, too. Never worried me, though. Bathe once a day?—only once? If I had to. But I'd do it twice or three times on a Sunday, just because it felt so good.
I didn't mind greasing the bearing, or holystoning the deck, or picking oakum from old lines, or whatever else the captain had us doing—us, or sometimes just me, she'd call me out of the working party and set me to some task special. Hard work, oh, sure. What about it? But she sure found it interesting. Watched for hours sometimes, while I did it.
I just figured she was watching for me to get it wrong, and she'd have me flogged or whatever. Didn't, though, and by and by I got used to it, and didn't worry about it so.
Never occurred to me that it wasn't the work she was watching.
So that for a while, but I got used to living aboard ship and got to like it, and made able seaman with five and a half years left on my indenture. Just meant more work, mostly—but better work, and different, up in the rigging or the tops, or over the side on a bosun's seat, looking after the hull—I knew enough that I probably wouldn't fall out of it, and didn't, but I never got used to it, nothing between me and all the water in the world but a short board or sometimes just a couple lengths of line. Made me feel...naked, sort of. Naked and small.
Never got used to it. But I did get to like it, or that about it anyway.
Then we crossed the Line—the middle of the world. Turns out that's a special thing, if you've never done it before. Before, you're a polliwog. After, you're a shellback. And in between, you're a mess.
They lined us up on the deck in front of the King and Queen—he a great grizzled old goat of a chief, mother naked with the world's biggest belly, all smeared with the same grease I'd got used to using on the capstan. Hadn't thought to wonder what it tasted like. Wish I hadn't found out, but kissing the King's belly turned out to be part of it. Dead things and candles, it tasted like. And she—herself, Captain Hua, all kitted out in finery from a dozen different prizes, and looking like a queen, the kind of queen you'd get out in the Reaches where the people are all slender elegant angles and the sun comes down like murder.
I'd known I wanted to see more, the first time I saw her. I'd forgotten, the way it happens when you're busy with life and making a place for yourself in it. I remembered now.
Then they told us to strip, and she looked me square in the eyes, and I knew—I knew—it was just me and her. That, and she'd been looking forward to this.
Some of them made a show of it. Some of them got all bashful, and did silly things with their hands, trying to pretend they weren't naked.
Me, I just took 'em off and stood there. Let her see me. It felt brazen, like I'd got to feel when I was down by the hull on a bosun's seat. The Kingdom was further behind me every day but I remembered I'd have got twenty or thirty stripes for wantonness, doing something like this there. Stripping naked in public—
I thought it should bother me. It didn't. Not with her looking at me, looking at every part of me, long and slow and careful. Just her and me, in the middle of all the nonsense with pails of bilge water and people throwing each other around the deck and hollering and all manner of silliness.
Just her and me.
She'd been looking forward to it. I saw that in her eyes. I'd been looking forward to it, too, it turned out. Just didn't know I had.
I got clean that night too, just like every other. But I did it in Captain Hua's own bath—great big thing made of iron, big enough to stretch all the way out in even being as tall as me.
Big enough to fit the both of us, it turned out.
And even though I got clean, I'd never got so dirty. Never in all my life. But she's got this way about her. Makes you realize you can do things you never thought you could. Makes you want to do them, to please her.
Maybe that's part of being a captain. Maybe that's just part of being her. Whatever it was, I liked it just fine. Liked her, too. Never thought that way about women before, but that's the Kingdom for you—they don't just stripe you for that, and it's not a place where you get that kind of idea anyway. But her—
Especially when I found out what hyena women have. Oh my—the best of both kinds, that is. Beautiful in the way men never are except in one part of them, and beautiful there too. Oh, she had me howling for hours. Loving every minute of it.
I never wanted it to end.
It did, though. Turns out that's just her way. She gets to liking one mate or another, and gets into it with them, and then she's just—done. And you deal with it as well as you can.
Most of them, it's fine. Something they enjoy, and when it's done, it's done. Good memories, and that's enough.
I couldn't, though. Couldn't stand it. I'd never thought that way in my life about a woman. Now I'd started, turned out I couldn't stop. Didn't want to, either.
Lu knew, of course. That little fox always does. Smart as she is quiet, and she's a lot of quiet. I think she knows everything that goes on, and says nothing almost ever. Except to the captain. But she didn't push. Just kept watching. Like she was waiting for something, I didn't know.
Waiting for me to break, I guess. She knew I would before I did. I thought I could cope. Not stop thinking about her, sure. Not stop thinking about all the things we'd done—she'd done—and the way they made me feel. About how nothing in my life could compare to what it was like, to be lying on that big broad bed of hers, feeling the rough ropes biting my wrists and ankles—not lines, ropes, and she kept them just for that—and watching her as she settled in over me, looking down at me with that special smile, the one that showed just the tips of her teeth and promised everything in the world. Looking down my body at hers, and that beautiful thing of hers, jutting up and out from her proud as the Bitch's bowsprit but no figurehead in the world so pretty. And then—
That was usually about where I'd start crying, if no one else was looking. I never let anyone see it, though. Hurt like the worst grippe in the world, and I learned about grippes when we were becalmed off the southern trades that time—me and half the crew, and three who never learned anything else again and we had to bury them at sea. But you can swallow it down.
Never goes away, though. Like to say you don't feel it so much, but you do. It's always there inside you. What you had, and what you don't have any more and can never have again, and how it's the only thing in the world you've ever really wanted, and didn't even know it until you had it and now it's gone.
Always in the back of your head and the pit of your belly.
Lu kept watching me.
And then this girl comes on board, signs on like I did, scraped up out of the middle of nowhere, New Albain. Awful place, worse than the Kingdom some ways, woods full of monsters, walled towns full of parsons. Fresh stripes on her back, hadn't eaten in three days. Captain brought her back from that lousy little strand in the pinnace. Fed her some tack and a little salt beef, then stood her to on the deck.
Looked her up and down, real slow. Sizing her up, like. Stared her in the eyes a long time, and she just looked back at her like I don't know what. Didn't seem to bother her.
So after a minute of this the captain shrugs. "Seven years," she says. And I know how it's going to go from there. Something's going to happen and she's going to end up in the captain's bed, and then she won't be, and that'll be that. But—
—I don't know. Something about this girl. Don't know if what I saw in her was what the captain did, but I saw something in her all right.
And Lu still watching me. I wondered what she saw.
What kind of name is "Emeline"?
Girl's on board for three months. Gets all the crap jobs, same as I did when I first signed on. Captain pulls her off work parties once or twice, puts her to some slow boring work of her own. Watches her. Same as me.
Girl's not as good at it, though. Mind wanders, and that's bad when you're picking oakum—wanders off, if you let it, and you lose track of what you're doing and start noticing the way your fingers are bleeding. Captain'd bark at her, she'd set back to, ears flat to her head. Looking scared.
Scared of what? Girl was a wood scout, and I don't know much about New Albain but wood scouts are tough. They have to be, or they get eaten alive, and that's not just a funny way to say it—the things in those woods will eat them, alive and shrieking about it, if they mess up. Captain's a hard woman, but she's not that hard. But the girl won't keep her mind on the safest, most boring job on the ship. Didn't make sense.
Starts putting her on midwatch. My watch—I'd found my way to it a while before. Middle of the night, just you and a couple other mates, and they're paying attention to everything but you because the job is to look out, not in.
I set myself to watch ahead. You're at the bow, that way, downwind of everyone else on the watch. Hard to hear, hard to smell. And nobody's looking at you.
I thought it was helping. I'd cry, sometimes. Tend to myself, others. Sometimes both at once. It hurt, but I thought I was getting used to that. Thought I was getting the measure of it.
Guess I wasn't.
Lu on the foretop. Didn't trust her there. She could see me there, if she liked. But never said anything, and that woman—if it was there to know, she knew it already. I got so I didn't so much mind. Felt like...like down by the hull on the bosun's seat, in a way. And I think that really did help.
One night we're on watch, same as ever. Girl's on the quarterdeck, same as ever, leaning on the rail looking aft, thinking about I don't know what. I'm not paying much attention—mind on my own thoughts, eyes off the bow in case there's any merchants out there carrying lights. Not likely with a war on, but merchant skippers do the dumbest things. Wouldn't matter—crew in no state to take a second prize today, not with the rum out of the first—but better to see them than not, especially with their shiphandling what it tends to be.
Comes a whistle from aft, quiet but the breeze makes it easy to hear. Head down to the deck to find out what the hell, and there's the girl with the captain's glass in her hand—the captain's glass! Never trusted me with it—and talking a lot of craziness about there's a thing off the starboard quarter and it's dying and she wants to try to save it and I don't know what all.
Why not? She wants to ride a bosun's seat down, let her—from the look of her, she'd dive over the waist rail if we didn't go along, or do something else just as foolish. Lu watching her instead of me for a change—why not? Why the hell not, indeed?
So we do it the way she wants, lash a seat out of pins and hang it over the side. But I want to mess with her a little. Thinking about the way the captain did me, back when I crossed the Line the first time. So I tell her to strip off, just to see how she'll take it.
Dignified, is how. Have to respect her for that, and I don't want to, because I hate her for it, too. Reminds me of how I was, and that reminds me of how the captain was, and isn't any more, and—She's not half bad to look at, either. Made a little like the captain, in fact, but on dholes it's not how they're meant to be. She wears it well, though, and it is a handsome thing, if little. She and the captain are alike that way—only a second but I didn't know I could hate someone that much even for a second. Didn't want to know.
Paying out the line while she's on her way down and I just get this thought in my head that I should drop her and have done. Everything about her being here is tearing me up even worse than everything already was, and I start to think if she's not aboard any more than everything will be all right again. That Captain Hua will see me again. And if she wants to tear me to pieces for it, well and good. Better that than coming apart a little at a time like I have been for so long. But I can make it look like the line just slipped. Not even hard to do.
Except Lu's always watching. Busy feeding line off the fake and she just sees it. Sees me do it. And then everything just goes black.
Come to and everything hurts and I can't move my arms. Oh—I can, but my hands are tied behind me. Could be nice but the way Lu's looking at me now says she could murder me on the spot and never mind it. Why would that be? And why am I
What have I done? What was I thinking I don't even know it just came over me and I couldn't take it it's been so long and all I ever wanted was for the Captain to see me, take me back into her cabin and use me the way she did before that's not too much to ask but she doesn't even look at me any more now she's looking at this new girl and I know she's going to do the same but she might decide she likes the girl enough to keep her the way she didn't keep me and I can't take that it'll k
did I? Tell me I didn't
Lu knows. Sees it in my face. "No, you didn't kill her." Like she was listening to all of it. She's scary that way, gets into your head. "Tried hard, but she's breathing, I don't know how. She was under long enough to drown. But whatever that thing is, it just scooped her out of the water, and she coughed it up and went right back to work."
Just looks at me for a minute. Like a priest looking at a sacrifice. Nothing in her eyes.
"Why'd you do it, Quen?"
Open my mouth to answer and I'm just sobbing. Ashamed of it, it's the very thing I worked so hard to hide, and she's watching me do it and I just can't stop. Bawling like a baby and it doesn't matter a damn because I know I'm going to hang for this—I have to. Ship can't work any other way. Captain'll have the chief of the deck tie a hangman's knot and she'll put it around my neck and they'll put a line on my feet to stop me swinging into something when I'm dead and then they'll just do it. And that'll be that.
Maybe that's what I was looking for. Can't hurt worse than the last I don't know how many months have. Feels like forever. And even if it is worse, it's only for a minute and then done. Better than forever like this.
I don't know how long later and the girl's back on deck, I guess she climbed the line. Doesn't matter. Captain's up here too, and me on my knees in front of her with my hands tied tight behind me. All I ever wanted and I'm getting it in the worst possible way. Gets me crying again, and I thought I'd cried myself out. Not sure I ever will. Not sure I'll live long enough to find out—the look in her eyes should be enough to strike me dead on the spot, and I know right then she is going to hang me.
Probably do it herself, even. Probably feels like I betrayed her and I guess I did but maybe it's fair because what did she do to me? Showed me the one thing in the world I'd never known I wanted so bad and then took it away. Tore my soul wide open and then just left me that way. Can't do worse to me now.
Lu pushing me along, down the ladder and across by the capstan. Girl's on it—just her? She's pretty big but not like the captain or me and she's going to do—whatever she's doing—by herself? You can see it means a lot to her but not a chance in the world. She'll buckle under it, ask for help, turn to the captain, turn to me. Sure, she'll buckle.
Any second now.
Except she doesn't and now I know the captain'll take an interest and that would tear me up even more except I'm dead anyway, just still walking around a while. I can see it on her—I can smell it on her. Same way she used to look at me. Same way she smelled before
Walking the capstan, bringing the line up with whatever it is on the end, and every turn takes me around to see the girl's sobbing her eyes out and the captain's just hugging her. Same way after we'd get done and if it'd been hard she used to
I hope she hangs me soon.
And then the girl just up and over the rail and down like she's decided to finish what I started and—what?
—and everyone around me, the whole crew up on deck and doing everything, and the girl's up there in all these tentacles like no high priest ever thought of being, she's in them and they're in her, some kind of monster that's got her and like she's loving it more than life itself and there was something I don't even know what but I felt it in my head and that was right when people started looking at each other and dropping clothes and clinching, and me just here in the middle of it and
she's looking at me and the captain's looking at me and all I'm thinking is please hang me soon I want to be done with this don't make me hurt like this any more