If he turned the paper sideways, he could make out a school of tiny fish swimming out of some seaweed. Turned the other way, it was the rough tentacles of a jelly fish. Turned right side up, the stark and ocean-grown masts of a sunken ship. Not that any of that helped Galen read it.
He’d been standing in front of the posting too long, he realized, hearing a stifled snort behind him. He tried to make his eyes scan the page like it was words instead of artwork, like it was just taking him a long time to decipher. Like he wasn’t some empty-skulled deckhand trying to con men better and smarter than him into believing he could read. Then he turned to go, leaving his eyes on the paper until his first step tore him away. He didn’t look at the other sailors over his shoulder. Sticking his hands in his pockets, he walked down the docks until he couldn’t hear them anymore, then finally looked up.
He was almost to the ship. His ship, he tried to correct himself, but he hadn’t sailed with her yet, hadn’t learned her moods and her turns, so she just seemed another ship bobbing at anchor. Taller than most. Belled and beautiful polished wood with a wide flat deck and an elegant lady carved into the bow. He looked at her like artwork too, a little too long, and he glanced over his shoulder.
There was no one there to snicker this time. Galen let out a long breath and started down the docks again.
Jaera was sitting on a pile of crates opposite the ship, one leg tucked under her, hands hidden inside a sailor’s jacket that was much too big. She watched Galen as he came closer and he got the feeling she’d been watching him for a long time. Turning toward her, he stopped at the crates, leaning back against them to look at the harbor.
“Hey, Squidget,” he murmured.
She was quiet for a minute. He let her, tracing the line of the water at the edge of the harbor. He counted the waves breaking over the point of the stone retainer on the west side. He measured the white foam and how long it took the water to fumble back down through the rocks. The clouds overhead were light and cob-webbed, but he’d bet on a storm the next day.
“You can’t read,” Jaera said.
“Yeah,” he said. He didn’t look at her. “Let’s just keep that our secret, aright?”
She shifted on the crate. A year ago he would have caught a grin from her at the adventure of a secret. But a year ago, she would have already climbed up onto his shoulders instead of staying so still a few feet beside him. He was still getting used to her quiet turns around him. Galen looked at her, gave her a low smile.
“Deal?” he asked.
She only met his eyes for a moment, then deliberately looked out at the water. She sucked on her tongue, working an idea around her head. Galen waited, curious.
“You’re on dawn watch,” she said finally. “You report to Danic. Unless he’s not on deck, then you report to Alrein. He’s second lieutenant. Kinda nice. And we ship out Monday at tide.”
Galen blinked at her. “What?”
“How do you know that?” he asked.
“That’s what the paper says.”
He spun to face her, forgetting about the rest of the docks. “You can read?”
She shrugged again.
“When did you learn to read?” he asked.
“While you were gone,” she said. She watched his face for his reaction. He didn’t hide that the weight on that last word bothered him. “Toar taught me,” she said. “He said there were teachers in books, smarter than him and I needed to read.”
Galen nodded to himself. “That was good of him. He didn’t have to do that.”
Jaera nodded too. “He’s nice.”
Galen looked at her, waiting for her to say something else. But the silence stretched between them, growing wider like they were drifting apart on the tides. She tapped her heels against the crate, then played with the hem of the jacket, flicking it back and forth on two fingers. Galen looked down at his arms, crossed over the top of the crate.
“I’m good at it,” she said.
Galen looked up again.
“Reading,” she said, reading his expression before he could get out a question. “I’m good at it.”
“Good,” Galen said. He thought he saw a smile, somewhere at the back of her eyes.
“I could teach you,” she said.
Galen broke into a laugh. He dropped his head onto his arms.
“If you wanted,” Jaera continued, hesitant.
He looked up at her immediately, grinning. “You would be saving my hide,” he told her. He jabbed a thumb over his shoulder. “That thing looked like a squid-fish-ship to me.”
“Squid-fish-ship,” she repeated slowly. She looked at him with wide eyes. She bit her lip, deliberately. “This might be hard.” She could barely hold back the smile at her joke.
Grinning, Galen wrapped an arm around her head, pulling her toward him and kissed her hair. “No. Because you’re good at it.”
My friend Kate is a thief! She stole the first line of this piece for some fiction on her blog yesterday. Be sure to check it out, and come back around two weeks from now to see the next round of robberies.