Silas watched The Winter Woman carefully as he approached along the short dock yard, feeling as if he had just woken up late and come down the stairs to find his mother rearranging the house for a party that no one told him about.
The ship was covered in the same sort of tight, happy flurry, the sailors in their uniforms moving smartly in all directions exactly the way his mother’s servants would take to their invisible courses with their arms full and feet flying. They called instructions back and forth in the same way, threw jokes between them in the same way, and carried on their conversations in bits and pieces in the same way, sharing the work. Even the Captain, her hair wrapped in a tight tail that turned carelessly loose after an inch or two, stood as the center that the rest referenced as they spun while simultaneously threading her way invisibly to put hand or shoulder just where help was needed, like his mother.
He just couldn’t recall his mother ever chartering a crane to bring in supplies, or allowing anyone who worked for her to hang off the side of netted freight that swung about twenty feet overhead.
Captain Britomartis was grinning up at the deck hand though as Silas approached the boarding planks.
“You still owe me a new pair of boots for that grounding, Jannie!” she shouted up over her head.
“I still say if we went back, we could mount a rescue operation,” Jannie called down. “The mud must have dried by now. I bet your boots are still there!”
Silas blinked, realizing that the grin and the jokes had nothing to do with the woman hanging one-handed off the cargo on the crane. It was just their continued conversation as if nothing exciting were happening. He shifted his bag on his shoulder and hesitated. Not sure why it took so much effort, he finally shouted up to the ship.
It had come out quieter, less sure than he had meant it to, but Britomartis turned toward his voice almost immediately.
“Hello, there!” she called down and examined him for another moment before she seemed to sort out who he was and why he was standing there with all his things hanging off his shoulder. “Silas, isn’t it?” she asked cheerfully.
“Yes, Captain,” he said. “Permission to come aboard?”
Her smile grew and she jerked her head over her shoulder to motion him up. “Granted,” she said.
Silas walked the boards carefully, not sure he liked how they bent under his weight. He was not very heavy, all skin and bones and still long inches away from his full height if his brothers were any indication, but the boards bowed a little on each step. Silas scrambled across the last two feet, and would have jumped them, if he could have been sure his bag wouldn’t knock him over. The ship deck was blessedly solid on the first moment, and then it leaned with the roll of the water and he looked down at his feet quickly to steady himself.
“First rule of sailing, Silas?” Captain Britomartis began, too gently to expect an answer from him.
Feeling silly for his first reaction to the ship, Silas looked up at her. He wasn’t sure if he felt better or worse to find her smiling kindly down at him.
“When you come aboard, you check in with the First Mate,” she said. “I don’t know you’re aboard until he tells me you are, whether I think I’ve seen you or not. Clear?”
“Good,” she said. She turned away from him without another word, wrapped up in the rush and run of the ship again. “I’m feeling a bit of a roll to port!” she shouted, and Silas wasn’t sure who to until Jannie called back.
“I’ll tell the cargo,” Jannie said, still hanging on the nets as they lowered through the large hatch at the center of the deck.
Silas turned a little, glancing around, not sure where he was supposed to put his feet.
“Adatha!” Britomartis called. “Make sure our new cabin bird doesn’t get himself lost, please.”
Silas looked back at her quickly. Her back was to him and he was sure she couldn’t have seen his awkward turn to know he needed help. Perhaps she had always meant to call help for him. It didn’t take any more of her attention. She was already running up the upper deck where a man behind the ship’s wheel was waving her over.
A girl tapped Silas on the shoulder, looking all-over the proper cabin bird herself. She was younger than him by about two years, and shorter by a hand span, her brown hair cut short all over. The way she brushed it out of her eyes even though it was too short to stay where she put it made him think that it was new. He had no idea how she had found him so quickly in this mess, or how she could be looking up at him, so sure she was where she was supposed to be.
“I’m Adatha Cenn,” she said.
“Silas Visade,” he said.
She readjusted the tilt of her head, recognizing his last name, but otherwise didn’t react. “This way,” she said.
Adatha took him in a straight line, stopping and starting when she crossed paths with someone else, rather than try to dance around them, and came to a rest in front of the First Mate, Kibens. He was tall, clean-shaven with a thick, dark beard, and officer’s stripes at his neck. Adatha hung back, looking at something over her shoulder and they both waited for him to finish his orders to the woman beside him.
“Hello, sir,” Silas said as soon as Kibens finished the brief exchange and the woman moved away on a long stride. “I’m supposed to check in with you?”
Kibens smiled, recognizing him from his hiring. “That’s exactly what you’re supposed to do,” he said. “Then you should stow your stuff below – make sure it’s good and out of the way like everybody else’s – and come back up here so we can put you to work.” He clapped Silas on the shoulder. “Get moving.” He followed his own instructions and strode away before Silas had realized he was finished.
Adatha touched his shoulder again. “This way,” she said. She took him back the way they had come, then down a narrow hatch cut a little in front of the foremast. The next was cooler and dimmer, but just as busy, every footstep echoing.
“What kind of work do we do?” Silas asked her as he kept close behind her to stay out of everyone’s way. He tucked his elbows against his ribs, and kept both hands on his bag.
“Whatever we’re told,” she said. “Scrubbing, fixing, fetching, mostly so far. And learning. Crew likes to just point to random bits of the ship and slap you with what it’s called and what it’s used for. Make sure you remember, because they’ll ask again later.”
“How long have you been aboard?” Silas asked.
“Two months,” she said. She looked over her shoulder regretfully. “But three weeks of that has been port sitting.”
Adatha pointed him to the last in a line of wooden knee-high lockers built into the ship’s wall. “You can put your things in there.”
Glancing at her to double-check, he lifted the lid. There were already a number of bags tucked in tight, but he shifted them to one side or the other to dig enough room for his things, then tested the lid to make sure it would close.
“You’re the youngest, aren’t you?” Adatha asked beside him. “I mean, I think I heard that there was only one Visade left who wasn’t on a ship.”
The locker didn’t close, and Silas pulled it open again to see what he could squeeze tighter together. “Yeah,” he said. “That’s me.”
“You look it,” she said. “I’ve got two little sisters and two little brothers.”
Silas got the locker shut, and looked back at her, taking a breath before he saw the way she was watching him. She picked at her fingernails, considering him with a little more concern than he thought he warranted. She bit her lip.
“Not trying to be rude,” she said. “But I don’t really want to be anyone else’s big sister. All right?”
Staring, Silas shook his head quickly. “No,” he told her. “No, I don’t want another one.”
She laughed at him, and the smile stuck. “Good,” she said. “But if you really don’t, you’re going to have to get rid of the lost puppy look, make sure you don’t accidentally pick one up.”
Silas blinked and stared some more.
Adatha bit her lip to hold back a broader smile. Then she shook her head. “Try again,” she said.