Flash Fiction: Good Excuses (1101 words)

At nineteen, Galen had put out a dozen ship fires. None of them had been easy, or done any less to rattle his bones, though some of them the crew had stopped faster, and they’d taken smaller bites out of the boat. Fires in the hold got smokey, quick, and burned in his lungs and eyes worse than the others. Spilled lamp oil clung to planks, and burned long, and there was a different kind of panic when that wave of heat hit his face and he realized he needed something other than water to smother it. Fires on deck spread fast in the wind, and fires in the rigging had to be reached quick before they rained ash and coal and ate through the only way to reach them. But no other fire was like keimon fire.

Keimon fire crackled and jumped, spun like smoke, and rolled like water. No matter how carefully he watched it, he couldn’t read where it might move next. It glowed brightest where it was coolest, a blinding ice-blue. At its hottest, it was just a streaky black sheet under the yellow flames it lit all around it. It couldn’t be smothered, just held down for a little while until it found air again.

Keimon fire always bit deep, until the keimon who lit it reined it back down to nothing.

At five, Jeara had lit three ship fires, all on accident, and they were getting worse.

It had taken Galen nearly half an hour to calm her this time, and the crew had worked for an hour after that to finish stamping out the common fires it had sparked around it. It had caught in the canvas, crumbled a stretch of the upper deck and a length of rail besides it, and spread down the side of the hull. The wood had blackened, and thinned, and they spent the rest of the evening reinforcing it as best they could across the two lower decks.

Jaera fell asleep on Galen’s shoulder, crying, her arms wrapped tight around his neck. Her hands were balled into fists under his hair. He held her just as tight, trying to stop both of their shakes. She’d burned him again – set another jagged red streak into his shoulder – but it wasn’t deep. He would see to it later.

When he was sure that she was asleep, he carried her below and settled her in her hammock. He should have left her to help brace the hull, but he stayed. Curled into a ball inside the canvas sling, she looked so small. Her hands stayed tightly shut, while the rest of her narrow frame went slack in unconsciousness. It was hard to forget what she had just done, and hard to believe it.

Cap’n found him, stood gently beside him, arms crossed over his chest. The ship creaked around them, quiet after the rush of the last few hours, even while they could hear the pound of hammers echoing above them. It was the echo that made it sound calm, the absence after the pounding that let the sound reverberate, instead of the tumble of noise and motion, one after another, on and on, that they’d had before.

Cap’n let go of a deep breath. Galen pulled one in.

“We’re lucky,” Cap’n said.

Galen nodded before he explained why.

“Deva says we’re only two weeks from port,” Cap’n continued. “We’ll take a longer stay than we thought we would, but we shouldn’t be limping too long from this.”

“That’s good,” Galen murmured. He watched Jaera’s shoulders rise and fall as she breathed. Her lashes flittered while she slept, eyes moving to watch something in her dreams.

“We can’t keep her onboard,” Cap’n said.

Galen didn’t move.

“She’s gotten too dangerous, Galen,” Cap’n said. “For us. For her. You’re bleeding.”

Galen glanced at his shoulder. His shirt was torn, and blood was seeping sluggishly along the line of the burn. It hurt, but the real sting, the under the skin ache, hadn’t set in yet. It would scar, but it wasn’t the worst he’d gotten.

“You know I like her. She’s got better sea legs than I do, and a smile brighter than…” Cap’n paused before he finished his sentence, apparently second-guessing what he was about to say. “She needs training. And none of us can give it to her.”

“I know,” Galen returned, finally. “So… I guess… you’re leavin’ us behind the next time you ship out. We’ll try t’be ready when you come back.”

Cap’n’s eyebrows rose and the quiet stretched for a moment. The ship eased into the next swell, and the two of them shifted on their feet to ride through it.

“I wasn’t asking you to do that,” Cap’n said.

Galen looked at him dully, silently questioning what he’d intended him to do, or what other option he’d had.

“When I told you to take care of her, I never meant for you to tie your life in a knot around hers,” Cap’n said. “You’re good here. I’ve seen you putting in the work to make officer rank.”

Galen shrugged. “I found her,” he said. “She’s always stayed with me. There’s no one else that she belongs to. Where were you going to put her?”

“I’d take care of that,” Cap’n promised him. He held Galen’s eye seriously. “I have friends who like to stay on island.”

Galen listened, and he nodded.

“You don’t have to go with her,” Cap’n said.

Galen barely paused. “I know,” he said. “But I’m gonna.”

Cap’n kept quiet to let that end the discussion. Then he nodded too. “All right,” he said. Rocking back on his heel, he turned back toward the ladder.

Quickly, Galen spun toward him. “Don’t tell the others.”

Sliding on his heel to face him again, Cap’n raised his eyebrows at the order. He tilted his head, inviting Galen to try again.

“Please,” Galen said.

“I don’t know why…” Cap’n said slowly.

“She knows she was thrown away once,” Galen said. “No other kid she’s ever met has a friend who found them in an alley. They have parents. I know you’re not throwin’ her away, but… Let me find an excuse for us to stay on land. She shouldn’t have to hear this from anyone.” For a moment, he curled his hands into fists, afraid that Cap’n would disagree. He took a breath, and forced himself to let it go quietly, and then, finally, Cap’n nodded.

“Let me know if you need help making a good excuse,” he said.

Gratefully, Galen tapped his forehead in salute. “Aye, aye.”

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