Kimbra barely heard the order, and didn’t care. Her shoulder was pressed hard to the broken crate beside her. Her chin was bent tight to her chest, her hands were braced against the deck around one knee, and she rested back against one heel. And she didn’t feel small enough. Carefully, she picked up one hand, clenched her fingers, trying to stop her shaking. Her heart was beating fast enough, she swore just the speed of her blood was knocking her off balance.
There were too many footsteps on deck. Too many to sound right, and too many to sort through.
“Uncuff me,” Aylin said again.
Kimbra ignored her. She tried to remember how many men and women she had seen climbing over the side. She tried to measure the length of the other ship in memory, decide how many it could fit, how many it needed to stay under sail, how many it could send across the water to take the deck. She couldn’t find a number. Her blood rattled and her head spun. Someone else shouted. Dozens of people ran. The ship clacked and cracked and thundered.
Aylin shoved her hard, just one cold hand at the back of her neck, and the other on her shoulder, driving her straight down into the decking. Kimbra’s elbows buckled. An instant later, she shoved back, just to keep her head from going past the far end of the crate. All it did was push tight against Aylin’s arm, and bring Aylin’s mouth closer to her ear.
“Uncuff me,” she hissed. Her breath crawled against the bare skin of Kimbra neck. She pulled her head away, just to escape the feel of it, then glared back at her over her shoulder. She wasn’t honestly sure whether this thing tightening her expression was anger or panic.
“No,” Kimbra said. She tried to push a little harder, shove Aylin back off her.
Aylin felt like rock. Or something harder. “Do it, and I can help you,” she said.
Kimbra tried not to feel the way her stomach turned. She tried to ignore what was now yanking on her bones, too, tying her down smaller and smaller, and, soft stars, not small enough. She focused on Aylin’s hand on her shoulder. It was lighter than the one on her neck. She could almost make herself believe that it was farther away, that it wasn’t bearing down on her, that she had the time to look at it in the steady way a day usually allowed.
There was a metal strap around the base of her fingers. It was tight enough that her skin turning both red and white while she bent her hands to keep a firm grip on Kimbra’s jacket. Metal struts stretched back along her palm to meet a thicker metal strap around the bones of her wrist. White plates of stone were screwed in over her palm, locked in place, and now slid almost on top of each other to fit her fist. A barrel hinge stood out in the space between her thumb and first finger. The lock was hidden on the other side of her hand.
The binder clicked as Aylin readjusted her grip. It must have hurt her to hold her so tight. The short chain between the two cuffs shifted, coming into contact with Kimbra’s neck, and the stone plates on Aylin’s other hand caught in Kimbra’s hair.
It had been a long time since Kimbra escorted a prisoner that needed that sort of cuff. They had to be a keimon. They had to be too powerful for the woven purphagus binders. They had to be dangerous, and a little stupid.
It was an easy decision to shake her head and face forward again.
Aylin bore down harder. And she swore. “What’s wrong with you? I haven’t been sentenced to death.”
“If I let you out, you’d never go back into them,” Kimbra murmured.
“That is a problem for another day,” Aylin snapped. “Which you’ll be glad to see. Right now, you don’t have another day.”
“No,” Kimbra said firmly.
“You’ll kill me,” Aylin said. “If you don’t let me fight.”
Kimbra spread her fingers on the deck, braced herself more firmly. She tried to listen to the deck with the same distance she had looked at the binders. All the noise was too close, drumming on her spine, and every sound had an iron weight. She shut her eyes. “You’ve killed,” she said, almost absently. Her own voice was a closer sound, proving that the fight on the other side of the crate was farther away.
“That… hasn’t been proven,” Aylin said. She sounded laughably awkward, skirting what she might actually have to apologize for. And her voice was farther than Kimbra’s had been, but still close, and it pushed the fight back another inch. Kimbra focused hard.
“That’s not the question of the moment, anyway,” Aylin said.
“No?” Kimbra asked.
“The question is: can you kill me?” Aylin spaced her words carefully, each one lingering and heavy.
Slowly, Kimbra opened her eyes, turning her head to look Aylin in the eye. “That’s not the question,” she whispered.
Aylin’s brown hair was falling over her face, hiding one dark eye as she bent over Kimbra. There was a bruise healing on her jaw, rounding one side of her face strangely. She had been living in her clothes, shirt, jacket, and breeches all wrinkled, dirt-scrubbed, and unsettled around her. She tilted her head, uncertain.
“It’s which side you’ll fight on,” Kimbra murmured.
Aylin blinked at her. Then she shoved hard and leaned in closer.