23 Sarenith, 4712 AR
Plugg was nothing if not predictable, Sandara thought to herself as she crept around the bowels of their new ship. “Puts ever-body he don’ like on the nastiest jobs, like it’ll matter.” She passed the bilges hatch and stopped in surprise at some loud banging and scraping noises, not usual for even the worst bilges in operation. The racket abruptly ceased, replaced by some incomprehensible yelling. Sandara peeked down the ladder and found Feruzi armpit-deep in the pump workings.
“Man alive, I dunno that language, but I know a swear when I hears one,” she said, hoping it came across companionably. She liked the Mwangi woman but didn’t have a solid feel for her reactions yet.
“No need for you to be down here, friend, I can handle it. Though Feruzi would not be averse to a cup of water.”
“That, I kin do. Be right back.” The clanging (and swearing) resumed while Sandara filled a small bucket from the fresh water barrel and grabbed two tin cups. Feruzi accepted a cup and swallowed deeply.
“Ahh, that is better. This would not be nearly such a difficult job if they kept the equipment in order,” she added with asperity.
“Better than the Wormwood, though, innit? Not that it’d take much t’be any worse!”
“This is true, though there were more people to share the work on the Wormwood. Still, it is far more peaceful here. You are well? Anticipating trouble with the, ah, sleeping arrangements?”"
Sandara shuddered. “Don’t remind me. I ain’t lookin’ forward to it.”
“Chopper was a bit upset, as if you were a hostage. At least Rosie is there as well. She can watch your back.”
“Aye, though it might be a big con-spic-yer-ous to set a watch.” Sandara swallowed some water herselff. “Aye, thass the stuff.”
“Better than rum,” Feruzi said, putting her cup down and fiddling some more with the pump machinery. Sandara stared into her cup silently for a while, trying to gather her thoughts.
“Feruzi, we’re . . . we’re friends now, aye?”
The Mwangi woman glanced up, a bit startled. “Certainly, for my part.” Sandara found herself fidgeting and set her cup down noisily.
“I mean, yer always straight with people, even if it might hurt their feelins.”
“I believe falsehood, even well-intended, does more harm in the long run.” Feruzi waited a moment, then asked encouragingly, “You have something you wish to know?”
“Aye. Chopper.” Sandara announced abruptly. “I . . . what sort o’man is he? Since you known him for longer, in all.”
She’d expected an immediate and definite response, but Feruzi took some time to consider the matter. “I am . . . not certain how to answer. Men where I come from are so different from here that I am not sure how to judge. If he were of my people, I would say he is a skilled warrior, but as yet too childish to take a wife.” Sandara giggled involuntarily. “He seems like the sort of man who would dote on his wife and children. The other warriors would laugh and his wife would be dreadfully spoiled, but he would be happy.”
Sandara found herself reflecting, going over her impressions of Chopper. It was an unusual feeling, but she felt she liked it. “He does, at that,” she agreed.
“If his wife were ambitious or grasping, though, she would likely grow to hate him.”
“Is that how it is twixt men an’ women with yer people? More business than pleasure, as it were?”
“The pleasure is there, but it is a . . . byproduct, not the goal.”
“Political, I guess. I follow ye.”
“The goal is the prosperity and continuation of the tribe, to live and to raise up children who follow the traditions and live properly. I am not sure if that is politics.” Feruzi scowled. “When politics has entered the lives of the people, it has always ended badly.”
“I mean, politics is the sort of ambition yer hy-po-thet-ical wife has.”
“Some, yes. Feruzi’s sister Ukele sought high status, and Feruzi was nearly killed as a result. That is how Feruzi met Chopper and became indebted to him.”
“Oh, aye?” This was interesting, Sandara thought. “Will ye tell me th’ tale?” she waved the mallet she was supposed to be using to kill rats. “I suppose the rats on the Man’s Promise are jist too wily fer me today.”
Feruzi smiled slyly. “Feruzi was sent to retrieve her sister Ukele, who ran away from her husband-to-be. It was a long, troublesome search, but eventually Feruzi came to Eledar, where she lost the trail entirely. You know that the Mwangi is troubled by slavers, yes?”
“I heard that, aye. There was a market in Hell Harbor that was busy day ’n night.”
“Feruzi encountered some of these creatures in Eledar, at the very end of their range. They thought to capture Feruzi, and she killed one of their number. Their fury with Feruzi was terrible, but the Sargava warriors stopped them from killing Feruzi—they said it was against their law. So the slavers clamed Feruzi was an escaped slave.”
“Typical,” Sandara sniffed. “Nobody has the sense to jist walk away.”
“The Sargava chief, the, ah, governor? She let them chain Feruzi and take her aboard a sailing vessel much like this one. The Sargava navy, I believe. Chopper was aboard as a lesser officer of some kind, an ensign? So he was assigned to bring Feruzi food and water. And talk. Oh, so much talk.”
“Heh, he does enjoy that. But it ain’t that he’s so in love wi’ his own voice, izzit? He likes to, you know, TALK.”
“Feruzi was afraid at first he was trying to seduce her, but it turned out he was just curious. His father is Mwangi, did you know?”
Sandara felt her lips forming a surprised O. “No, I dinna know that.”
Feruzi nodded. “He despizes the slavery and corruption that has risen up where Sargavans and Mwangi meet—perhaps he feels almost that he embodies it in some way.”
“That’d follow. I ain’t bin that far south, m’self, mind you.”
“When the ship landed at Crown’s End, the slavers would have killed Feruzi in the street, but Chopper intervened.”
“Intervened how?” Sandara asked, fascinated.
“He declared loudly that slavery was an abomination and that Feruzi must be released at once. So they fought. In the end, the ship master made Chopper pay the slavers for Feruzi to settle the matter. It was almost all of his pay.”
“You mean they fought a DUEL?” Sandara asked. It sounded terribly romantic.
“If four on one is a ‘duel’. It started with Chopper challenging their boss and escalated from there.”
“Oh, the poor bastard . . .”
“He always does it,” Feruzi said, rolling her eyes. “He has no concern for his own safety, only doing what he thinks is right. He said afterward that Feruzi was ‘free’, but he saved her life, how can she abandon him now?”
“Like at the Formidably Maid,” Sandara said with dawning comprehension. “And like with the Rahadoumi woman.”
“Yes, always the same.”
Sandara shook her head slightly. “See, he’s not like th’ men I’m used ta either. I mean, take th’ other night. I was sloppy drunk, I was willin’, an’ he dinna lay a finger on me. Only decent men and sods do that. Like I said, men I ain’t used ta.”
“Are you disappointed?” Feruzi asked, startling her.
“Nah. Maybe. Confused, more’n anythin’ else. Him an’ Ezikial both. He was th’ first t’ come t’ my defense at the Maid, an’ now he hardly talks t’ me . . .”
“Ezikial hardly talks to anyone,” Feruzi said dryly.
“Aye, I kinda figgered that out, so I try not t’ let it bother me. I’m jist . . .used t’ bein’ liked, I guess.” As she said it, though, she realized she wasn’t sure whether she cared for it or not.
“Liked?” Feruzi asked. “Or wanted? Wanted the way a man wants a hat or a new sword?”
Sandara snapped her fingers. “Aye, THAT’S what I’m useta. Jist as well, really. My heart ain’t brought me naught but trouble, the crazy bitch. Mebbe that’s why I’m tryin’ to look afore leapin.” She sighed. “I feel like I feel somethin, here. I’m jist useta puttin’ out those fires.”
“Are there not many types of fires? Some give life on a freezing night. Some flicker and fade. Some burst and consume. The difference lies in what you feed them and how you tend them, no?”
“Aye. It makes sense when ya put it like that. I jist know, up here,” Sandara tapped her temple, “that Chopper rescued that woman cos it’s who he is. An’ the way she’s followin him around up there has everythin to do wi tryin not t’ get punished fer failin. But here,” she continued, tapping her chest, “I AM SO JEALOUS.”
Sandara was a little shocked when Feruzi made a scoffing sound. “Jealous?” the Mwangin woman said. “It seems unlikely.”
“Oh, well, mebbe thass the wrong word, then? I’m such a mess . . .” she could feel herself shrinking back, slightly, a little hurt by this dismissal. Feruzi waved it away and smiled.
“You, my friend, are simply uncertain. You do not know what you want, so everything is a threat. You fear Leila may send you hurtling down the wrong path before you have fully chosen it.”
Sandara turned this over in her head for a bit. “Ye think so?” It might be possible.
“Yes. Either you will throw yourself at Chopper and maybe regret it, or perhaps you will let him slip away and regret that instead. Feruzi cannot know Sandara’s full heart, but she will say this thing: not once has Feruzi regretted following Chopper.”
“He seems t’ need yer wisdom, an’ know it better’n he says,” Sandara offered. “Else he’d be dead three times over.”
“Someone to watch his back, at least. Chopper has his own wisdom. Not always to stay safe, but to go his own way.” Feruzi grinned suddenly, a white flash in the dim hold. “Still, Feruzi is glad he is not Feruzi’s husband. THAT would be a mess.”
“Sometimes ye bicker like a married couple, so I wondered . . .” Sandara said.
“Aye, an’ the Black Queen be praised. Are ye lookin’ out for a husband, though?”
“Feruzi would like a husband some day, certainly.” Another wry look. “Feruzi’s father had difficulties, though. He did not want her to lose in status, but the best warriors want a wife who will tend their hearth and children, not run off to hunt on her own.”
“That surely don’t seem like yer style. So yer sister decided it wasn’t her style, neither?”
“Ukele could never be satisfied with a simple warrior’s hearth.” Feruzi’s expression grew pained. “Though perhaps it is not ALL her fault. When you hear nothing but how beautiful you are, how perfect, how desirable day after day, do you not come to believe it?”
“I guess it weren’t jist yer Da tellin’ her that?”
“Everyone in the village, it seemed,” Feruzi said bitterly. “They adored her. No one adored Feruzi.” She stopped and blinked, apparently surprised by her own admission. Sandara felt a sudden flood of warmth for the other woman and reached out to pat her on the wiry, hard-muscled shoulder. She seemed so utterly self-contained, self-controlled, that it was somewhat of a relief to hear her, well, gripe a bit.
“So ye dinna match yer people’s idea of what’s beautiful an’ perfect. So what? It’s a big, big sea. Yer perfect t’ somebody out there.”
“Feruzi knows,” she said, looking a bit sheepish. “She should not have complained.”
“Hey, I’m down here bitchin’ too.”
“It’s a bit hard to imagine who might be perfect for Ezikial, though,” Feruzi added.
“Someone who don’t talk much an’ loves drink, gunpowder, an’ blood,” Sandara replied instantly.
“You think so? Men don’t always want a woman exactly like themselves.”
Sandara felt as though her ears perked up, and peered at Feruzi through the gloom, trying to get a hint. “I mean, a girl in port might be jist his thing, but mebbe it ain’t,” she ventured.
“Feruzi has seen those port women. They are vile.” This came out rather harshly.
“Oh, aye, dinna remind me,” Sandara said, making a face.
“Ezikial is better than that,” Feruzi insisted.
“I was jist jokin . . . hang on . . . are ye defendin’ him? Are ye SWEET on ’im?” Sandara grinned wildly. Oh, this was rich.
“What?! No! Well . . . no! Not . . .” Feruzi sputtered to an irritated halt. “He’s just so SHORT,” she said finally.
“Mmm-HMM. It’s okay, ye kin tell me! I won’t breathe a word!”
“It is . . . he seems like there could be . . . more . . . there. More to him, I mean.” Feruzi seemed to recover and made another wry face. “Also, my father would approve of his warrior spirit. I do not know. Perhaps it is all in Feruzi’s mind.”
“Mebbe. An’ mebbe it takes a woman’s hand t’ bring out th’ man he KIN be.”
Feruzi made yet another unexpected annoyed face, but she didn’t seem really offended. “Men can’t be made men by women. Although they might make themselves men FOR women.”
“Er, thass more what I mean, aye. Some jist need more help’n others, belike.”
Feruzi shook her head. “Enough, Feruzi must fix this slop somehow. Be well, Sandara. Feed your heart well.”
“Aye, an’ the same t’ ye,” Sandara said, getting up. “I think I know what t’ do, now.”