Jaera had an easy way of moving, quietly, without drawing attention to herself. When she was six, it was called keeping out from underfoot. When she was thirteen, it was called creeping. When she was eighteen, it was called knowing her place. Always, it was expected, unquestionable that she should keep quiet and just to the side.
But when she was alone, in her own cabin, her movements looked like grace. Even steps on steady feet against the shifting deck of the ship. A gentle, unshakeable smile. Back straight, unassuming, and assured. Galen paused at the door, resting his hands on the top of the wood frame. For a long moment, he watched her, silent until she looked over.
Jaera smiled. “I’m almost ready.” She was folding a shirt into her trunk, digging down for something at the bottom.
“You have time,” Galen said. “The boat’s not goin’ anywhere for a bit.” He bent his head, stepped inside and leaned against the inner wall to prove he was in no hurry. She hurried anyway.
Jaera reached deep into the trunk and pulled out a jacket. She held a stack of carefully folded clothes with her other hand to keep them from spilling out, then shoved them back inside, and let the lid slam shut. Throwing the jacket around her shoulders she beamed up at Galen. He watched her tug her sleeves down to her wrists. She gave her right sleeve a harder pull, making sure it covered her wristband, making sure no one could see that one thing that marked her for what she was. Galen looked down.
He grabbed her arm as she passed him, met her eyes slowly. She was smiling. Like she didn’t even know what she’d done.
“What?” she asked. Her smile started to fade and he realized his grip was just a little too tight.
“Do you ever…” Galen began. He hesitated, then changed his mind about what he was going to say. “I made choices, when you were small. There were people who said that I made them wrong.”
“Yes,” she said. She gave a sideways grin, eyes on the floor. “I know. I remember Leahy yelling at you for letting me into the rigging. And Mrs. Cook after she heard me with that three letter word. And Lainan–”
“Stop,” Galen murmured. “You know what I’m talkin’ about.”
Jaera swallowed. Her smile slipped away a second time and she still didn’t look at him. “You mean, you could have said that I was yours. When you brought me back. You could have made me something other than just some foundling brat.”
“Yeah,” he said. He tried to catch her eyes. “I could have. And I didn’t.”
She shook her head. “You were fourteen.”
“It wouldn’t have changed my life an inch,” he told her quickly and her eyes flicked up to meet his. It made him pause, but he continued forward. “I still had you glued to me. I still had to take care of you. You think people thinkin’ I’d had a baby girl would have done me any damage?”
“I think…” Jaera snapped, so fast he almost pulled away. Then she stopped, shook her head, looked down again, didn’t shake his hand away. Finally, she raised her head and looked him full in the eye. She looked on the border between tears and a smile, and it was enough to stun him into silence. He’d expected anger, a light in her eyes so sharp he might cut himself on a glance. He’d seen how volatile she could be, but this was something quiet, unassuming, assured.
She just shook her head a little at him. “Galen, I’ve seen you knock men down for saying a wrong word about me. I’ve seen you take hits for me. You’d fight for me, you’d kill for me, you’d die for me. You think I don’t know you’d lie for me too?” Jaera shook her head again. “I know you did everything you did, for me. You did more than you had to. And you did nothing wrong.”
Galen didn’t say anything. She waited, giving him the time to respond anyway he liked, but nothing felt right on his tongue. Instead, he gave her arm a gentle squeeze and let his hand slide away. Smiling, Jaera nodded and turned for the door. He stayed right behind her, following her up to the top deck, into the cutting breeze and bright sunshine. At the top of the ladder, Jaera turned back for him and looped her arm through his elbow, holding to him for warmth.
“Just a thought though,” she murmured against his sleeve. “When you do have a daughter, you should hold off on teaching her the three-letter words until she’s at least seven.”
Galen smiled, slipped his arm around her shoulders to hold her closer and nodded. “I’ll keep it in mind.” Then he tightened his arm. He ducked her into a headlock. She laughed and batted at his other hand to keep him from tickling her.