Fulke took half a dozen lazy steps in no particular direction across the deck, then stopped in Galen’s path, looking at him with half a smile. Galen stopped too, looking down at him patiently.
He was older than Fulke by four years, and it showed. At seventeen, Fulke had gotten tall, but he was still spear-thin, the bones of his shoulders making perfect right angles out of his frame. The fashionably long cut of his hair did something to soften the edges of his face, but he was mostly angles there, too. What muscle he had from hauling lines and running the decks was still lean and hidden under the clean lines of his uniform.
Galen had been working ships for eleven years, and he’d worked them harder than Fulke had. He was naturally broader and two inches taller, but his age and his work had given him bulk-rounded chest and arms. Adjusting the coil of rope wrapped over his shoulder, he considered bumping the kid to the side and continuing on his way. It would have been as easy as any stride. There just wasn’t much need.
“Hello,” Fulke said. He smiled before he made his joke. “I didn’t see you there.”
Galen breathed in, breathed out, and looked back in silence. In a moment, when Fulke was done laughing, he would step out of the way. The kid wasn’t interested in a fight – Galen thought he would run from one if he ever actually saw a fist thrown – but he got bored easily.
The ship rolled into the next wave and Galen steadied the rope on his shoulder, waiting. The breeze calmly lifted his jacket and let it fall, and the rest of the crew carried on in the afternoon sun.
It was a long moment before Galen realized that Fulke was not readying for his usual insincere apology. He had his hands in his pockets, shoulders pushed back to be as broad as they could, chin tilted up to meet Galen’s eye.
Galen nodded to the far side of the ship, behind Fulke. “I’m headin’ just there…” He expected Fulke to step to the side, acting like he’d just realized his accidental impolite slip and he was sorry. Fulke didn’t move.
“I had a question for you,” he said.
Galen nodded slowly. He pointed toward the far side of the ship again. “You wanna walk with me, then?”
Fulke shook his head, but didn’t really answer the question. “What ship did you say you transferred from?”
Galen leaned back carefully. “The Bearer,” he said. “Under Cap’n Enil.” He didn’t bother asking why the kid wanted to know. He had the feeling that he could ask any question that he wanted, but Fulke would only accept the ones that led where he wanted.
“And before that?” Fulke asked.
“Nowhere before that,” Galen said. He watched Fulke blink twice, his sudden pause showing his surprise better than his expression. Fulke had probably sailed with half a dozen ships, but the nobility had a need to shuffle men back and forth that Galen didn’t. He worked for money only. They worked for money and relationships, and hopped ships as soon as they had secured what reputation they needed. Fulke apparently hadn’t yet realized that some parts of the world were different from what he’d seen, despite the fact that there was a core of crew on this ship that never moved, as there probably had been on every ship he’d served.
“How long did you sail there?” Fulke asked. There was a hesitance in his question that didn’t come from stunned curiosity.
“I started when I was ten,” Galen told him easily.
“And… in all that time, you never needed to read anything?” Fulke asked. He had quieted his voice, just enough to keep the crew around them from being able to reasonably listen in.
Galen took a breath and let it out. “No,” he said. He didn’t bother to be any quieter, and just shook his head, ready to end this conversation. “It didn’t come up.”
Fulke took a single step forward.
Galen had been about to step around him, but he went still instead. It wasn’t that it put the kid particularly close to him, just that it put him closer than he’d ever been before. Without wanting to, he questioned whether the kid really would run from a fist fight. But he couldn’t believe that Fulke would start one. Galen glanced at the rest of the crew, working or resting without paying any attention. Not here, with so many people to take notice.
“How does that work?” Fulke asked.
“It works fine,” Galen said. “My last Cap’n just did a bit more talkin’.”
“Come on,” Fulke said. “What do you people do with yourselves if you can’t even be bothered to teach yourselves something so simple?”
Galen hesitated. Then he didn’t answer.
“We play cards,” Jaera said.
Galen hadn’t realized that she was nearby, and blinked. Fulke had jumped.
She was coming closer in careful steps, watching her toes for some reason. The ship was rolling lightly with the water, and she was letting the deck’s leanings lead her feet, almost criss-crossing her slow steps. It looked like it was taking most of her attention, though she’d learned to walk on an ocean like this…
Galen paused as soon as he noticed the smoke curling off her hands. Her fingers were still curled thoughtlessly at her sides, but blue and gray smoke dragged in the hesitant breeze. It gleamed oddly as it stretched, turned white in places that it didn’t have the right to, catching fire in the strangest way.
Galen took a careful breath. He’d never seen her do it on purpose before.
When she looked up, she looked to him first. Still blinking, Galen shook his head. It was a small motion but she caught it like it was heavy as a brick. She had already put her toes down on her next step, but she stopped before her heel hit, and hesitated. She blinked, too, and quickly curled her hands into fists. He watched her swallow, suddenly uneasy, and she didn’t look at him again.
Fulke took a step backward. Her head barely came up to Fulke’s elbow, but he eased back up another step. As if she were a line of white water, and he was afraid of getting caught in the reef hidden around her.
“Cards?” he repeated.
“Yeah,” Galen said.
Fulke nodded as if that was a thing that made sense, then nodded a good-bye to Galen, and left.
After a moment, Jaera stepped in beside Galen, still looking down. “He’s scared of me,” she explained.
Galen nodded. He’d noticed. He watched the top of her head, considering.
“Are we not tellin’ people they shouldn’t be anymore?” he murmured.
Jaera met his eye slowly, tilting her head almost all the way back. Her mouth was open a little, as if it were easier to breathe that way. “They never believe me,” she whispered.
He nodded at that, too. “Yeah,” he said. He put a hand on her shoulder, and held her when she leaned in to his side. “Well, maybe, at least, we could not tell them they should be.”