Zain’s fingers moved quickly, turning, twisting, slipping, pushing through. The rope in his hands folded smoothly, the ends flicking in an amusing, lively way as he tied his knots. His hands were calloused after a decade on the ocean, but not thick, and he still had his mother’s long, graceful fingers. He worked the rope, in smooth light motions, as if he were playing with an animal that liked him, but still had teeth and claws. He had spent enough of his hours playing trickster to do it, and add just enough flourish to misdirect an eye from the actual turnings of the knot.
The boy at his elbow let out a sound like he was swallowing his teeth, eyes trained on Zain’s hands, while a piece of rope looped awkwardly through his own hands.
“There,” he said, pulling the rope tight and sealing his knot. It looked pretty as a braid, one side knotted around the other with the end neatly tucked away. He leaned back from the crate and the rope tied tight to one side of it. “Do you see?”
The boy looked up at Zain with wide, near-panicked eyes.
It was really unfair for Zain to keep calling him a boy – he was barely younger than Zain himself – but he had the look of someone who had spent a lot more time indoors than he should have, if he expected to just climb aboard a ship on his next whim and sail without floundering through it. To the boy’s credit, he hadn’t floundered in the four months it had taken them to reach port, or even hardly misstepped. He hadn’t burned in the sun, hadn’t lost any of his meals over the side, hadn’t held the line in noodle arms and almost gotten himself flung over the side when the wind touched the canvas he was trying to hold. But all that was a little late for Zain’s quick first judgment.
“No,” the boy said carefully.
Zain shook his head, almost laughing. “Really?”
“Do it again,” the boy said, and the determination that founded his tone was admirable.
“I’ve already done it five times,” Zain said. “If six is your charm…”
The boy swallowed. He glanced at the stack of crates in front of him, then the larger stack just to his left. Then the pair behind him.
“These all need to be knotted together?” he asked.
“That’s the plan I was told to follow,” Zain said.
“With this particular knot?” the boy asked. “I know a good–” He stopped as soon as he saw Zain’s raised eyebrows quietly daring him to continue. His eyes widened again, and this time, Zain thought he stopped breathing in the attempt not to groan.
“You can get it,” Zain said encouragingly. “Watch me again.” He loosened his knot in four quick twists, then yanked it apart, and started his fingers running around it again.
Zain heard Terius wander in behind him halfway through his sleight of hand. He finished anyway before he rocked back again. Without turning his head much, he could catch a glimpse of his cousin, see him watching with his arms folded over his chest, without alerting the boy that any one had joined them.
“Did you get it?” Zain asked.
“I…” The boy didn’t even bother to complete the thought.
“Just give it a try. Sometimes your hands catch more than your head.”
The boy nodded, and slowly started to twist the rope in his hands. He yanked them up tight to the crate, looped one end carefully, started to push it through.
“Captain on deck!” Zain shouted.
The boy nearly dropped one side of the knot, quickly shoved it all into one hand and pivoted with his hand already coming up into a salute before he saw Terius standing behind him.
Terius’ mouth twisted, amused, and he saluted back to let the boy relax.
“How’s it going?” Terius asked.
“Fine,” Zain said.
The boy glanced sideways at him. “Yes, sir. Fine.”
“We’re moving along nicely,” Zain said.
The boy looked at him again.
“We’ve almost got it,” Zain said brightly. He smiled, first at Terius, then at the boy and nodded him back toward his work. When the boy had turned his back again, he flat out grinned at Terius.
“No, no, the one on your left,” Zain said without looking at anything the boy was doing. He turned quickly, to make sure he didn’t catch him at it. “Under,” he snapped, just to stop his hand. “Not over.”
The boy flipped the ropes in his hands, and swapped out their places.
“You have to twist that one,” Zain said.
“Now kind of hold it upside down so you can fit that – no, no, don’t tie your fingers into it. You’ll want to keep those.”
The boy stopped, froze with his fingers just as they were, and looked up at Zain balefully.
“I know I want to keep my fingers,” he said.
“Then you should be careful,” Zain said earnestly. “Because you were halfway to tying the Finger Snapper right there.”
“Finger Sna…” the boy’s eyebrows crunched together. “I’m not ten. Are you seriously trying to get me to believe in sailor’s telk again?”
“Oh, it’s real enough,” Zain said.
“A knot that when you pull it tight pops your fingers clean off?” the boy said.
“Right at the knuckles,” Zain said.
The boy opened his mouth, and Zain pointed toward the ropes.
“Shouldn’t you be working?”
“I–” the boy began.
Terius put a hand on his arm. “Relax a bit,” he said across to Zain.
The boy looked down at the odd feel of Terius’ hand on his arm. Then his eyes shot open again. Terius’ middle finger was snapped in half, and his pinky finger too. The boy jumped, shook, took a step back without meaning to, and tripped on a rope behind him. A quick thump, a scuffle as he tried to catch himself, and he looked up from the deck, stunned and horrified.
Zain doubled over laughing.
Terius pushed his lips together to hold it in. Looking down at his hand, he almost lost his control, and just slowly uncurled his fingers to show them whole.
“What–” the boy began. “Why–” He didn’t continued, staring at Zain, who was still laughing.
“Why don’t you two go into port,” Terius’s first mate, Ehren called from the upper decks.
Terius lifted his head to look at him. Then he shook his head a little. “There’s work to do.”
“Go,” Ehren said flatly.
Terius blinked at the older man. Then he picked Zain up by the shoulders and pushed him toward the long boats readied at the side of the ship.
“Did you see his face?” Zain asked, still just trying to take a breath without laughing it out.
“Yeah.” Terius grinned.
“Did we just get kicked off our own ship?” Zain asked.
“Yeah,” Terius said, and his grin sharpened.