It wasn’t unusual for an officer’s briefing to be interrupted by ferrets’ chittering. The furry things were sly and slight enough to work their way into any space they liked, and as a general rule, they had the run of every cabin aboard ship. If the sailors felt it absolutely necessary, they could clear the ferrets out for a few minutes, but it never took for much longer than that. The ferrets liked to be chased.
They scampered through the crew decks unchallenged. They wove between the cargo stacks and the ballast and stole loose treasures for their hidey-holes. They slept halfway off the officer’s bunks as if they had forgotten they had spines and shook themselves awake shamelessly. They hunted and they played and they leapt through their wild circles and they chattered through briefings, and sailors learned to ignore them with a smile.
But they didn’t usually sit so still beneath the officer’s table, two or three or four of them chittering from a particular officer’s chair.
Terius wished he could be surprised. The most he could manage was a dull look in his cousin’s direction.
Zain looked back, innocent and ignorant, as if he had no idea what had drawn Terius’ attention. Terius turned away in an instant.
Kartas made her navigational report, delivered with her habitual succinctness. They were on course and making time as she expected. That was a miracle, and if someone called her a saint, she wouldn’t mind. She saved a few words by leaving the last bit as an implication, then looked sideways at Zain.
Lainan carefully brought up the names of two of his sailors who had been put on Discipline Watches, to see if Ehren was ready to hand them back to their regular posts yet. He ably ignored Zain, and Ehren responded smoothly. One of them was free to return. One of them had another week of slushing the mast left in her, he was sure of it.
The chittering continued. Zain reached down to shift something under the table, and straightened in his seat.
Never one to like mornings, Toar eyed Zain suspiciously.
“Zain,” he said.
Terius leaned back in his seat, braced himself for what was coming, and wasn’t quite able to stop himself from smiling.
Eyebrows raised curiously, Zain turned to Toar.
“Why are you keeping ferrets in your pants?” Toar asked bluntly.
Ehren blinked at him across the table, then looked at Zain in sharp disbelief.
“What?” Zain said.
“Ferrets,” Toar said shortly. “Pants.”
Behind him, his apprentice, Jaera was looking down, fingers lightly on her lips to keep from making a sound. Terius didn’t notice her smile until she flicked a look at him, and then he almost broke into a grin.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Zain said.
Toar stared. “You’re usually a better liar than that.”
“Thank you,” Zain said. He turned back to the rest of the table only to stop short when he found Lainan staring at him as well.
“Are you going to answer the man?” Lainan asked.
“About what?” Zain asked.
“Your new fashion choices.”
Zain touched his uniform jacket, and looked at Lainan doubtfully. “It’s the same thing I’ve worn for the last two months. Same thing you’ve worn for the last two months.”
“Really?” Lainan asked. “Because those pants sound new.” He paused. “How did you even walk in here?”
Zain started to shrug. Then the ferrets chattered a little louder and he suddenly sat forward, coughing through a laugh.
“Why?” Toar demanded.
“You know,” Zain said, after catching a quick breath. He was still smiling broadly, though he quickly pushed that back as well. “I heard that the officers aboard this good ship had been ordered to ignore my nonsense to stop giving me reasons to continue so broadly.” He put his hand on his chest. “I’m an officer.”
Terius put his head in his hands, and gave up. His shoulders shook, but he at least managed to keep his laughter silent. He should have told Ehren that an order like that would never work, but somehow he had thought it might be worth a try.
Toar stared at Zain harder. “But, why?”
“I have no idea why they made me lieutenant,” Zain told him, equally forcefully.
Ehren laughed next, and Lainan didn’t even bother to cover his mouth. Karta leaned all the way back in her chair and threw her arm over the back so that she could turn and hide her face.
Toar just blinked at him.