Flash Fiction: Nothing (1329 words)

Zain elbowed Terius. It was remarkably gentle for him, a subtle motion that could easy have been missed by anyone watching, but gave a quick, firm nudge against Terius’ ribs. Terius lifted his head immediately, eyebrows almost going into his hair, and looked at him.

Zain almost laughed at the surprise on his cousin’s face, but looked away and just smiled. He took another big bite out of the apple in his hand. Then he nodded across the deck of the ship.

The Clanless girl was out again. Terius wasn’t sure where she had just come from, but her sleeves were rolled up to the elbow and the hair that had come loose from her braid was stuck to her neck and forehead. She’d been working hard on something. She wandered to the far rail, stuck her elbows on top and lifted herself onto her toes. Face first in the breeze, she tilted her head back to cool her skin.

Terius watched her for a moment, then he looked back down at the book in his lap.

Zain had a book he was supposed to be reading, but he shut it and pushed it behind him while he leaned back on his hands. He tilted his head, watching the girl. Terius supposed he’d thought schooling would end when they started sailing, and now Zain kicked harder than ever against sticking his nose between the dry pages.

“They found her, right?” Zain asked.

Terius glanced at him uncertainly.

Zain looked at him. “I mean, somebody did?”

Terius nodded slowly. “That why my father said she was Clanless.”

“So, why is the whole crew acting like she got caught murdering?” Zain asked. He tilted his head farther, ear to his shoulder, as if the new angle would tell him secrets about the girl.

“My father says she’s sort of dangerous,” Terius said. He glanced at Zain again, then pulled his knees in toward his chest, pushing his book higher on top of them as a hint. Zain would get extra duties if he didn’t do his reading, and anything that Zain had to do, he could talk Terius into helping with. Terius didn’t want to have to scrub anything this week.

“Yeah,” Zain said. “My brother said she wasn’t allowed to go anywhere without Toar for a whole three months when she came onboard. They thought she would burn the whole place up.” He said it, but it didn’t sound like agreement.

Terius looked at him more closely.

“You know,” Zain said. “I heard she burned down her last ship.” He turned to Terius brightly.

“Yeah,” Terius said. He watched him, blinking.

“I don’t think she did,” Zain said.

“Oh,” Terius said. “Were you there?”

“No,” Zain said. “But look.” He nodded to the girl. “She’s here. On this ship. Full of important people. Your father wouldn’t let her come on board if she was going to sink all these important people.”

“Remind me to tell my father we need to go over those logic lessons again,” Terius murmured.

“And she’s been here for a year already, right?” Zain continued. He didn’t look at his cousin, still focused on the girl. “Your father would know if she was really dangerous. And if she was, there’s no way he would have let you and me come sailing on a ship that was about to sink.”

“All right,” Terius said slowly.

“Yeah, yeah, so he might have let you come along,” Zain said, shrugging. “But he really likes me.” He looked at Terius and grinned.

Terius rolled his eyes.

“No way she sank a ship,” Zain said.

“You’re right,” Terius said. “Read now?”

Zain was quiet for a moment, considering. Then he rolled forward onto his feet.

“What are you doing?” Terius asked.

“I’m going to go say hello,” Zain said. Sticking his book into the back of his breeches, he looked down at Terius. “You?”

“Why?” Terius asked.

Zain’s eyes went serious for just a moment. “Because, stupid. I’ve seen her talk to exactly two people.” He leaned down to put the two fingers he was holding up directly into Terius’ line of sight. Terius pulled back, Zain’s hand just a little too close, and glared dully up at him.

“She talks to Toar,” Zain said. “Who is one of the grumpiest people we’ve ever met, including that one apple seller on Leck Stree, with the mustache and the dog. Don’t tell me I’m wrong. If you put Toar in a room with a bull, he’d make the bull look friendly. And she talks to that new rig hand, who people don’t seem to much like either.” He paused, making sure he had Terius’ eye. “Doesn’t that just sound boring to you?”

Terius tried not to agree with him. They did have work to do, and following Zain into anything meant losing at least an hour. But it did sound boring, and worse, lonely. It only took another moment, and Terius sighed, put his finger into his book to hold his place, and stood too.

Shoving his hands into his pockets, Zain smiled. Then he led the way across to the rail.

Without hesitation, he dropped his elbows onto the rail beside the girl’s, his right shoulder almost brushing hers. Terius, moving in more slowly, watched her drop back onto her heels and look over in surprise. She was wary by the time she twisted the other way to find him over her other shoulder, and she looked down as she faced forward. Terius only put one hand on the rail, and gave her her space.

“Hello,” Zain said. He must have noticed the way she looked at them – and now the way she didn’t look at them – but he didn’t react. “I’m Zain.”

She nodded to him, still not looking up. Then she crossed her arms in front of her. It put her blank wristband out of sight, and narrowed her shoulders.

Terius looked down at his hand. The gold lines of the hawk on his wristband glinted in the sun, and he felt sorry immediately. It was common to lead with your wristband hand, but he hadn’t even meant to here.

“That’s my cousin, Terius,” Zain said. He nodded across her. “What’s your name?”

The girl paused. “Jaera, my lord,” she said.

Zain shook his head. “I’ve got six older brothers. I’m not going to own anything when I grow up. So, I’m just Zain.”

She didn’t move.

Zain smiled. “So what are you doing?” he asked.

Jaera looked at Terius, then back to him. “Nothing,” she murmured.

“That’s what we’re doing!” Zain said. He grinned at Terius.

Terius glared back at him dully. “Sort of,” Terius said.

Jaera looked confused, but almost as if she might smile. She didn’t say anything.

“Want to do nothing with us?” Zain asked.

She didn’t answer.

“Hey,” Terius said. “You should know, when he says ‘nothing’, that’s sort of a code for…” He reached behind her quickly, pulling the book from the small of Zain’s back as quick as he could before Zain tried to slap his hand away. He twisted his hand to pull the book right side up, and read off the spine. “… reading The Histories of the First Five Lords of the Southern Expansions and Trades.” He handed her the book to keep Zain from stealing it back.

She held it as if the leather binding might break in her fingers.

“Or, it could mean something completely different,” Zain said.

Jaera met his eye carefully. She touched the book like she might open it. “Can I?” she asked him.

Zain looked surprised. Then he grinned. “Go for it,” he said. “If you show me how you climb the rigs so fast, like I’ve seen you.”

She hesitated. Then she took a deep breath. “I can try,” she murmured. “I’ve been doing it a long time.”

Zain just smiled.

Terius glanced between them, then put his back to the rail and opened his book again.

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