Ring of Five Stones first pages

Part Fourteen: Recruit

Chapter One Hundred One: Book, Ship, and Sacrifice

Even in the vague dark she could see the gray sword slice through the man’s neck. It made only a thin red line. He continued to smile at her, in a way that suggested, and was, in itself, a violation of her, of her body, of her mind. She started to swing the sword again, in the same direction, but without having drawn it back first. The low whiskey voice of the woman in the snow said, Be careful of hatred. She lowered her hand. There was no sword.

The man’s smile became a desperate grin. He had lost. He feared death, and he was going to die. His desperation became terror, even though he smiled ever more broadly in a ghastly way. He started to fall sideways. And suddenly, from somewhere inside herself, Leslie Ann felt sorry for him, a pity so sharp that it hurt, in her throat and in her chest.

She opened her eyes into darkness no longer vague. The image of the falling, grinning man did not fade away. She looked at the clock beside the head of the bed. It took a second for her eyes to focus on the glowing numbers. The alarm would go off in nine minutes. She turned it off.

She carefully slid out from under the covers and stood up. It was chilly, but she didn’t reach for the thick flannel robe on the chair beside her bed. She tugged at the corner of the covers with a practiced movement, and the bed was all but made.

The palms of her hands were tingling. She looked at them. She saw, even in the darkness, the black band on her left ring finger. She turned her hand over. The silvery black faceted bezel almost sparkled, though there was no light. There was some kind of engraving, or inclusion within the bezel. She couldn’t see what it was.

She began to shiver. She needed to go down to the little bathroom, so she put her robe on after all. It wasn’t likely that the Dillards would come into the garage this early, but you never knew.

They didn’t. She went back upstairs to get dressed. There were things she was planning to do before work, but they didn’t seem very important right now. She had killed a man, and had watched a woman die. What was laundry and homework compared to that?

There was no image in her peripheral vision. She had answered the call, and the woman was dead. But the reality of the ring on her finger could only mean that this business was not over. She didn’t want to think about it.

She had only the hot plate in her loft, and a tiny electric cooler for milk and cheese. There had been many times when she had wished that she could do more than just heat water or a can of something. Right now she wanted real coffee, not instant. And a couple eggs. And a sweet roll for some reason. She would have to go out and get it.

She went down to the garage, put on her long winter coat, went out to the alley, and went toward town. It was cold this early in the morning, though not as cold as it had been last night. 

Walking always stimulated her thoughts, and she was not pleased to find that among those thoughts was the nightmare, like a shadow in the back of her head, eerily competing with everything else. At least there were no images. At least…. She tried to think about something else, but she couldn’t banish the remnants. A thin red line …

She decided to go to a diner that was open early for people on their way to work. She ate there on occasion, their food was good, and their coffee was excellent. She had no idea what she would do afterward. The thought struck her, somewhere out of the left, that maybe she should have retrieved the sword. She hoped that the wounded man had been able to help the one who had been drugged, and that they had been able to get home.

As if it had all been real.

She found herself at the diner without any memory of how she had gotten there. She forced her thoughts back to the present moment, went inside, took a seat at the counter, and added bacon and orange juice to her order.

 Memories — more of her feelings and emotions than of her dreams — came back to distract her while she waited, but distraction wasn’t a problem here like it was at work. Many of the other customers were even more preoccupied than she was, anticipating what was going to happen during the day. Her order came and that helped. She drank her coffee, ate her breakfast, drank her orange juice, concentrating on what she was doing while keeping her anxiety, revulsion, fear — and her wonder at and sympathy for the dead woman — carefully at bay.

She paid and left. She could not go to work feeling like this. She wasn’t due at the shop until four, but still. She didn’t want to go back home. Maybe she should take a long walk, go ahead and let herself think, work things out, come to terms with what had seemed to have happened, and what it would imply if it had not been real. Then she could face her staff, and they would see her just as they always did. She would see how they felt about her taking some vacation time. The holidays were over, it wasn’t a busy time of year. What she would do on her vacation she didn’t know.

She wandered, unaware of where she was going, until she saw the library across the street. It was one of those classical Carnegie buildings, set in the corner of the block, with semi-circular steps leading up to a portico with columns and a dome. She liked the place, with its high ceiling, deep stacks, and heavy furniture. She went up and through the outer doors into the small lobby. Narrow, curving stairs went down on either side, to the children’s department on the ground floor. She pushed open the swinging inner doors, and went into a different library altogether.

What the Hell was she doing here?

She should have come in through a corner of the reading room. Instead she came in between cases of oversized books, two on either side, in the long side of the room. She stopped when she wouldn’t be in the way of anybody coming in behind her. 

The circulation desk at the far side was wide and straight, not a three-sided square open at the back. To the left of it was an old fashioned card catalogue with drawers, two sets of drawers it looked like. The stacks behind the desk, along the full width of the room, had two balconies above the main floor, not one. The shelves against the side walls, under high windows, had almost vertical ladders on rails, instead of being free-standing and at an angle on wheels. A broad spiral stairway behind the desk went to the balconies, and even up to the ceiling.

She was not as surprised as she thought she should be, and that bothered her. She was still suffering the after effects of what had happened last night, and here she was, transported to somewhere else for a second time. She thought for a long moment about just turning around and leaving. She had her own life to live. But her being brought here, or sent here, or led here, had not been a capricious act. She was sure of that. But still …

This was not her library, but the transition from the known to the unknown had, in itself, been easy, no sudden dislocation as going from a city street to the snowy forest had been. There was nothing about the library, in itself, to be frightening or disturbing or threatening. It just wasn’t the library she had expected it to be. And it was the second time in less than twelve hours. There was something almost clumsy about it, as if whoever or whatever had done this to her wasn’t quite as experienced at doing it as she should have been. 

What a strange thought.

But it was a library, and she liked libraries, and she couldn’t help but wonder what kind of books she would find here. Maybe she could take some time to look around. If she checked out a book, could she take it back home? She had a library card, but she was sure it wouldn’t work here. But, no matter how curious she was about this library and what it might contain, she would really rather that she hadn’t come.

There were two librarians working behind the circulation desk. The younger woman, maybe in her mid thirties, looked up at her expectantly. Leslie Ann smiled at her, as if she didn’t need any help, thank you. She wasn’t exactly human. The woman smiled back and returned to her work. The older woman, in her sixties or so, remained occupied with what she was doing.

She couldn’t just stand there. Someone would eventually ask her what she wanted. She could say that it was her first time here, and she just wanted to look around. So she should do that. But if, after a while, if she didn’t find out why she was here, someone was sure to ask her if she needed any help, and she had no idea what she would say. What would she do back home? She went to the card catalogue beside the desk.

The two sets of drawers were each five drawers wide and six drawers high, set on low tables made for them. The drawers this set had brass pulls with paper labels, each with two sets of three letters, indicating the range of what was inside. They were not in any alphabet she had ever seen, but she knew what the letters were, and knew that they were in the proper order. That made the back of her head feel tight. She had no idea how that worked.

She pulled open a drawer, and started flipping through the cards. Most of them were printed, some of them were typed, some had hand-written notes or corrections. There was nothing unusual about them, but it made her feel unreal. She was not in her own world any more. There should have been a computer terminal.

She flipped through the cards until she noticed that her hands were not the hands she knew. The fingers were shorter, thicker, paler, with heavier nails. She looked over at the librarians. Their necks were shorter, their heads were rounder, and there was something subtly but truly different about their eyes and mouths. But they had not reacted to Leslie Ann as if she were an alien. Maybe she looked like them. Which should have been reassuring, but it wasn’t.

She read one of the cards. Though the language, its vocabulary and grammar, was completely foreign to her, she knew that the book was about raising flowers in a garden. The next card was about a recent period in a history not her own. The one after that was a biography. The cards were arranged alphabetically by author. Well, that at least was normal, and as it should be. The other set of drawers had cards by subject, with a code like Dewey Decimal, indicating where they would be on the shelves. The sheer normality of that made her feel even more unreal.

She was breathing was too quickly. She made herself stop, take a deep breath, then another. Then she looked down at the card she was now reading, something about cooking with an ingredient she didn’t recognize. It meant nothing to her, but she pretended that she had found something interesting. She closed the drawer, went to the narrow stack just to the left of the catalogue, and went in between the shelves. She didn’t quite read the spines of the books she wasn’t looking at. She went a little further, then looked back to the reading room. There was nobody who might look in and see her. She could take her time.

There was a tall, narrow window at the back end of the stack. It contributed significantly to the illumination between the shelves. The overhead tubes were not very bright, and were not really fluorescents. Or maybe they were, she couldn’t tell. 

She went to the window and looked out. There was huge tree in the middle of a mowed lawn. It was about ten feet to the ground. There was a street on the right, with commercial buildings on the other side. The backs of other buildings were beyond the tree, and on the left.

There were no warriors. There was no screaming and cursing and clashing of metal against metal. And there was no desperate woman, prepared to die, just to give her a black ring.

She looked at it in the light of the window. It was crystal, but she could not see through it. It was heavy, and it fit her perfectly, though her finger here was a different size. The symbol, barely visible within it, had profound meaning, but she had no idea what it was.

Her eyes refocused on a bucket below her hand, on the bottom shelf on the left, against the wall where the last few books should have been. It was filled with rags that had a greasy wet look to them. A thick, kinky cord came out of the bucket, went down to the floor, along the wall under the window close to the molding, and went behind the last books on the right. There was no smell.

A cold finger went down her back. This was not something left behind by the cleaning crew. She knelt by the bucket and touched a rag. Her finger came away slick with oil. Another cord came out of the back of the bucket, and went between the wall and the books on the shelf backing onto this one.

It was an incendiary device. In a library. That was why she was here.

She left the stack and went into the next one to the left. There was another bucket at the back, in a similar position. The cord between buckets was a wick or a fuse. She went to the last stack on the left. There was no bucket here, but the cord from the previous set of shelves came up against the end wall from the right, then over to the window, which was open just an eighth of an inch, so that it could go out and hang down over the sill.

Someone was going to burn this place down. Now or later, someone would come to the fuse outside and light it. The people in the library would probably have plenty of time to get out, but the books would be destroyed.

Leslie Ann had once started to read the Gormenghast trilogy, but had to stop when the young anti-hero was preparing to burn the family library. The destruction of the library at Alexandria, however it had really happened, had always disturbed her, all that knowledge lost, some of it forever. The burning of the library in The Name of the Rose had been at the end of the book, otherwise she could not have finished it. This was not something she could ignore.

They wouldn’t believe her if she went to the circulation desk, and told them that someone wanted to burn down the library. What a wild story. So when she got to the desk, she pointed to the first stack she had been in and said, “Someone’s been sick all over some books back there.” The librarian looked at her aghast. This was something that was easy to believe. She went to see how much damage had been done. Leslie Ann turned away and went out the front door. 

It was winter here, but she was not back in Minneapolis. It didn’t look like Minneapolis at all. This was the town to which this library belonged. Alerting the librarian wasn’t enough, there was something else she had to do. She went down to the front lawn, and around side of the building.

She stopped at the back corner, and peeked carefully around it. She saw the back of a tall, thin man, barely three feet from her, facing the library wall. He was wearing a jacket but no coat, despite the cold. She slowly peeked a little further, just enough to see that he was holding the end of the fuse dangling down from the window above. He was fumbling in his pants pocket with his other hand. He was totally focused on what he was intending to do, and did not notice her. He took something like a cigarette lighter out of his pocket, and thumbed the wheel until he got a flame. “Hey!” she shouted, as loudly as she could. 

The man startled, jerked half way around toward her, and took an involuntary step backward. She took a long step toward him, grabbed the fuse out of his hand, and pulled it as hard as she could. It broke off at the window sill. The man swung at her with the back of his hand, still holding the burning lighter, and hit her cheek hard enough to knock her down. 

“Fire!” Leslie Ann screamed. A window opened further along the wall, up at the main floor, and the librarian she had sent to find the sick looked out. The man didn’t notice, he just glared at Leslie Ann, then turned away toward the street. Leslie Ann, even as she struggled to her feet, leaped at him as hard as she could, landed face down on the lawn, and caught his ankle. He tried to take a step and fell. “Fire!” she screamed again. The man tried to get up, but she held onto his ankle, screaming fire, until pedestrians from the street came to see what was happening.

“Stop him!” the librarian called to them from the window. They didn’t ask why, they just grabbed at him, and when he fought back, they knocked him down again, and kept him down until the police came, just a few minutes later. The man kept struggling, and the police had to subdue him again, a bit more decisively, before they could take him away.

“So where’s the fire?” one of the officers asked Leslie Ann.

“Come inside and I’ll show you.” Three officers went with her. 

The head librarian had arrived from the main branch, just moments ago, and the other two librarians were telling her what they knew, which wasn’t much. Leslie Ann had to explain several times what she had seen, what she had thought, and why she had done what she did. She finally realized that she wasn’t speaking English, and hadn’t been since she had gotten here. But then, the woman in the snow had not spoken English either.

One of the officers went into a stack and brought back a bucket. They knew what the oil on the rags was, a kind of fuel oil that was highly flammable and burned hot. 

Nobody understood why the arsonist had wanted to burn the library. Other policemen came in to take away the buckets and the fuse cord that had been strung between them. The police decided, after a while, that they had done all they could, and as they were getting ready to leave, Leslie Ann asked the older librarian, “What do you have in the attic?” There had to be an attic, if the spiral stairs went all the way to the ceiling.

“Withdrawn books,” she said. The policemen hesitated.

“Are they very old?”

“Some of them, I guess —”

“Wait a minute,” the head librarian said. “There are all those boxes way in the back.”

“I’ll go see,” the younger librarian said. She went to the stairs, up past the two balconies, to a trap door in the high ceiling, and through it. A moment later a light came on. The police decided to stick around.

“I’d forgotten about those,” the other librarian said.

“I just now remembered,” the head librarian said. “I was told they were up there when I started here, but I don’t know what they are.”

The librarian in the attic came part way down the stairs. “All those boxes at the very back have labels. Something about a Katsurigi Collection.”

The head librarian stared up at her, mouth open, face pale. “My God,” she said, using a phrase that meant much the same thing.

“Is that important?” one of the police officers asked.

“If that’s what they really are. Etorain Katsurigi had a private collection of some of the rarest books in the world. It has been lost for more than seventy years.”

Everybody started talking about this, and about what it meant. It was obvious to everybody that that had been the arsonist’s target. But how could he have known about it? Maybe someone had told him. But that wasn’t any kind of answer at all, really, since how could they have known about it either?

Leslie Ann turned away, crossed the room to the entrance between the shelves of oversized books, and out through the little lobby. She was back in the city she knew without any sense of transition. She looked at her watch. The whole thing had taken, what, twenty minutes? Maybe half an hour. If she went back inside now, would she be in her own library? Or back in that strange one somewhere else? She thought she knew the answer, but she wasn’t going to test it. She went down the steps and turned toward home.

She was angry, mostly at the arsonist, but also at the woman in the snow. She was sure it was she who had sent her to that other library somehow. Leslie Ann didn’t need this kind of madness. Whether it was real — her face hurt where she had been struck, and there were grass marks on her coat — or just her imagination, it had nothing to do with the hoped-for promotion toward which she had been working so hard.

But it wasn’t the woman’s fault. Maybe it was she who had called to her the first time, but she was dead now. Someone else had called her to that alien library. Or something else — going up in flames … irreplaceable books … Damn, she hated that.

Be careful of hatred …

She didn’t actually hear the words. Not really. But she couldn’t deny their truth and importance. The woman in the snow had probably learned that the hard way.

Her face was really hurting by the time she got home. She hung up her coat, went into the tiny downstairs bathroom, and looked in the mirror over the sink. Her right cheek was red and swollen. She touched her cheekbone gently. She was going to have a magnificent bruise.

She was exhausted, even though she had not been up that long, and her little expedition hadn’t lasted that long. She had planned on doing things today, but instead she went back up to her room, lay down fully dressed on her bed, which she never did, and went to sleep.

#

She got to the store ahead of time, as she always did. Several of her crew were there a few minutes early as well. The two shifts overlapped by half an hour, which made the transition easy, though they almost never needed that much time. 

Carl Patterson, the day manager and her boss, saw her when she came in, then met her as she came out of the staff room where everybody kept their coats. “How are you?” He was in his mid thirties, fairly dark, a bit plump, and very secure in his position.

“I’m okay,” she said, then she remembered her cheek and reached up to touch it. “I really hurt myself. I slipped on the stairs coming down from my loft this morning.”

“You should get yourself a better place to live.” He went with her to the time clock.

“I will,” she said. “Some day.”

“Um, what I meant was, you’ve been working awfully hard lately.”

“Lately?”

“Um, okay, but the last couple weeks you’ve been a bit distracted.”

“I have. Yes.”

“Look. I know when the district manager is going to come by. And, ah,” he looked around, just like in the movies, “I’m going to give him notice.”

“Really?” She didn’t have to pretend to be surprised.

“They’re not going to give you the promotion you want,” he said, his voice lowered, “but they might give you my job.”

“I see.” She felt breathless and disappointed at the same time.

“So look. You’ve got a lot of vacation coming. Take a month off, starting a week from Sunday. The DM won’t be here til three weeks after you get back. You’ll be all rested up and moving at full speed by the time he gets here. You see?”

“Yes, I do.” She read real concern in his face. “Thank you.”

“Sure. Um. Your work here shows up on my record too. That helped me get this new job. So I owe you. You see?”

“I do. Thank you.” She smiled at him, even though her face hurt.

#

The rest of the day went well. She got home without taking any unexpected side trips to other worlds. She didn’t dream about the man she had killed, nor about the library she had saved. But she did have a dream, just before morning, rather diffuse, about the woman in the snow. She was standing right in front of her, but at the same time she was far away.

I’m sorry, the woman said inaudibly.

It’s all right, Leslie Ann said, almost meaning it. She couldn’t hear her own voice either.

I wish it were, the woman said. Then she smiled, which made Leslie Ann feel good in an odd kind of way. Then something went wrong, and the woman was swept away, as if by some dark wind.

#

The next day was normal, and she spent the next day, which was Sunday, catching up on her errands as best she could, and even did some schoolwork. But on Monday, starting very subtly some time after she got up, there were hints of a sea smell, an all but inaudible sound of wind, and a suggestion that whatever she was standing on wasn’t quite as steady as it should be. She was going to be called on again — at least she had had two days to get over the last time — and these sensations were hints of what was to come. 

She always hung up her coat when she got home at night, but Monday night she wore it up to her door. It could only mean that whatever was coming, it was going to happen right now. She opened her door, and went into another room entirely, with the sound of wind, the smell of ocean, and a slight rocking motion under her feet. She was on a ship at sea, just as she had been led to expect.

The room, or cabin, was paneled with wood. The low wooden ceiling had exposed rafters. There was a low door, flanked by small windows, in front of her. A table and four chairs beside her were heavy, and didn’t slide around with the movement of the ship. There was a built-in bunk under square windows on the right, with shelves above them, beyond which was the horizon between the sky and the sea. There were chests and cabinets on the other side the table, against the wall on the left. She turned to look behind her, at an open door from which she had come, beyond which was only a shallow closet.

She looked at her hands, three fingers and a thumb, lightly furred on the back. She touched her face, longer between nose and lip, shorter between lip and chin, almost downy on cheeks and forehead. Her hair was coarse, and flowed straight back over large ears.

She had been transformed somehow, to look like the people of this world. That had happened at the library. It had probably happened in the snow. Maybe it always happened when someone went to another world. It was a good thing. Nobody here, just by looking at her, could tell that she was an extra-dimensional alien. 

What a weird thought.

She looked down at herself. She was a little larger around her hips. Her winter boots over her shoes were wider across the arch and narrower at the heel. Her coat was a shade darker, with a narrower waist and fuller skirts. They were the kind of clothes she would have, if she were native to this world. There was something about that which she couldn’t quite get straight in her mind. It was just the way it was. She stopped thinking about it.

Except that her long winter coat was a part of all this. It wasn’t by accident that she had not taken it off before going up to her room. She had no hint or clue as to why she had kept it on, and it was too warm, but she was not going to take it off now.

She went to the window to the right of the door, and looked out onto the ship. It was big, a sailing ship with six masts. The cabin in which she stood was on a high deck at the rear — the stern — on the right side — port or starboard, she couldn’t remember which it was. The main deck was two or three levels lower. There were men at their stations, on the deck and up in the sails, doing whatever sailors did when they were at sea. It all looked so normal. 

But she knew that there something was wrong here, something terrible and secret. She didn’t need any hint or clue, it was why she had been brought here.

She had stopped an attempted arson at the very last possible moment. Even ten seconds later, and she would have been too late. This time was different. Whatever she had to do, it wasn’t that urgent. 

How did she know that? 

The last time she had gone to a library, ordinarily a very safe place to be, if no one was trying to burn it down. This time, she was the only woman on a ship full of horny sailors. 

She turned away from the window. There had to be something here with which she could defend herself. She needed a knife, or a club, or even a candle stick. What she found was clothes, books, charts and charting tools. There was a medicine chest, a whiskey cabinet, even something like a small, three-stringed guitar. That might serve, but just for one time. She found nothing else.

She sat at the table, facing the door. It was too solidly built for her to take one of the legs off. The chair was too heavy, and it too wouldn’t come apart. The skirt of the table was rather larager than usual. She took hold of the under edge and pulled. There was a drawer, without a knob, and inside there were knives, forks, spoons, other things. They were all of silver except for one knife, which had a steel blade about six inches long, sharp enough for cutting steak. That was what she wanted. She stood, pulled the back of her coat aside, and stuck the knife into her belt, turning it so that the sharp edge, when she pulled it out, wouldn’t cut across her belt. The thought that she was being clever was more ironic than congratulatory. Maybe she could put the knife back, go to the closet door, and go back home. She readjusted her coat, and went to the door at the front, and out. 

The smell the sea was stronger here. There was a railing at the front of the deck, and stairs went down on right and left. She looked behind her at another railing above the cabins, of which there were two, and steep stairs going up on either side. What were stairs called on a ship? The door from which she had come was still open, the other one was closed.

She went to the rail, into the wind which blew from behind her and a bit to her right, flapping her coat skirts. The sails overhead, eight on this rearmost mast, were full, and at a slight angle to catch the wind. She looked back at the deck over the cabins. There was nobody there. Below her was another deck, like the one on which she stood, a bit longer from front to back, a bit wider. There had to be at least one more similar deck before the main deck. It was a big ship.

Maybe the crew, when they found her, would think her a stowaway, and just throw her overboard without asking questions. She didn’t think they would. There would be no point to her coming here if they were to do that. She took a breath and called out, “I need some help up here.” The words were not in English, nor were they in the language she had used in the library, or in the snowy forest. She was someplace else.

Men appeared on the deck below her. Some of the men up in the sails glanced down, but kept to whatever it was they were doing. A man came out of the other cabin behind her. They were all surprised, and in some cases frightened.

“I know there is something wrong here,” she called again. “I want to see your captain.”

“Who are you?” the man behind her shouted. “How did you get on board?”

“My name is Lesandro,” Leslie Ann said, turning to face him. “I don’t know how I got here.” Men were coming up the stairs from the deck below. Ladder, was that it? “I just know there’s something wrong. Are you the captain?”

“The captain’s below,” a man on her left said. He took her arm rather roughly. Another man came up on her right.

“You can see the captain there if you like,” the man from the cabin said, meaning, in fact, that she would have no choice.

“Maybe we should entertain her in the captain’s cabin first,” the man on her right said, taking her other arm just as roughly.

“By all means,” the man from the cabin said, and went back inside.

The two sailors half lifted her as they walked her toward the cabin from which she had come. The man on her right opened the door. They shoved her through so that she nearly fell, then came in after her and closed the door. She turned to face them. They were not smiling.

Scream? Run behind the table? Beg? She stood up straight and, on inspiration, slowly took off her coat. That was why she had worn it, she needed a prop. The men stopped and watched. Their expressions changed, but not in a nice way. 

She pressed the heel of her right boot with the toe of her left, and pulled the boot off. Then she took off the left boot the same way. She pulled the front of her shirt out of her waistband. She had their complete attention. She reached around behind her to pull out the back of her shirt, took the knife from her belt, remembered a man who’s head she had cut off and, holding the knife up along and behind her wrist, walked in what she hoped was a mildly provocative way toward the man on her right. Whatever she was going to do, she would have only one chance. 

The man reached for her. She stepped right up to him and stabbed him as hard as she could through his solar plexus. He gasped and stumbled. She jerked the knife out of him and turned to the other man. Again she stepped closer before he could grab her, and put the knife, edge up, between his legs, up against his groin, and cut him just a little bit. The first man fell. The one still standing gasped, paled, fluttered his hands, anticipating castration. She knew she could do it if she had to. The man interpreted her twitch of disgust as a threat, and got very still.

Now what? Make it up as she went along, as someone once said. The knife wasn’t really that sharp. “I want you to call the man from that other cabin,” she said. “Tell him to come in here.” Her voice, thank God, didn’t tremble. “Be careful. If you do it the wrong way,” she felt that the edge of the blade was just to one side of him, and turned it toward his scrotum, “I’ll cut you off and let you bleed to death.” The thought made her belly shrink.

“Okay,” he said, his voice possibly an octave and a half higher than it usually was. He cleared his throat. “Okay,” he said again, his voice much lower, a hoarse whisper. He glanced at the wall — bulkhead? whatever — between the two cabins, then jerked his head at it.

Leslie Ann kept the knife in place and went with him as he sidled sideways, very carefully. They got to the wall, he raised his hand as if to knock, hesitated, stared at her with frightened eyes, cleared his throat again, then knocked on the wooden paneling. “Josmith,” he called, sounding almost normal. “You might want to come in here.”

“You need help?” Josmith called back.

“Nah, you know, I just thought …”

Hell,” or a word that meant something similar, “why not?”

Now what was she going to do? … making it up as she went along…. She pulled the knife very carefully out of the man’s crotch. He winced, his lips pulled back. She stepped back, keeping the knife — there was blood on it — pointing more or less at the man’s stomach. “Let’s go over by the door,” she said. The door to the other cabin opened and closed.

The sailor had to work to take his eyes off the knife, but he did, and went toward the door just as it opened. Leslie Ann stood behind him, so Josmith wouldn’t see her right away. Josmith came in with a mildly expectant expression on his face, closed the door behind him, then noticed the body on the floor. Leslie Ann, still unnoticed, carefully put the knife back into her belt. Her hands tingled. Then, with her hands down beside her, she came out from behind the sailor and said, “I want to see the captain.”

Josmith was startled. He stared at her, glanced at the sailor, who just stood there, then looked at Leslie Ann again. She raised her hands slightly and, surprising herself, wiggled her fingers. His face went pale. She had no idea what he was imagining.

“All right,” he said as if his throat were full of phlegm.

Leslie Ann made sure that the tail of her shirt concealed the knife, then gestured toward the door. Josmith turned toward it. Leslie Ann came up beside the sailor, glanced down at his crotch, back up at his eyes, then went out after Josmith. They walked toward the right hand ladder. The cabin door closed behind her, but no footsteps followed.

They crossed the deck below, then the one below that, then down to the main deck. Her heart was pounding. Her hands still tingled. She refused to imagine what it might have been like if she had actually had to cut that man.

Josmith’s stride became more natural and confident. He must have been wondering what he had been worried about. The sailors they passed stared, but said nothing. She heard only normal sounds behind her as they went on with what they had been doing. They got to a door at the other end of the ship, where three more decks stepped up and forward from the main deck. She quickly pulled out the knife and pressed up between Josmith’s legs, her hand against his butt. There was no reaction from behind her. Maybe nobody had noticed. She turned the edge against his soft parts. He stood absolutely still.

Her mind fluttered, but her hand was perfectly steady as she pressed it against him just a little harder, and angled the blade just a little more dangerously. “There is no margin for error,” she said softly. Her voice was almost gentle, not at all hard, but he could have no doubt that she would do it.

He nodded his head jerkily, then opened the door. She followed him, completely synchronized with his movements, but without the vaguest idea of what she was going to do.

There were doors on either side of the narrow passage, off-set from each other, and there was another door at the far end, at which a man had been leaning with his arms crossed. He stood straight, now, as if on guard, his arms down at his sides. 

Josmith went to him, walking a little oddly because of the knife between his legs. The guard didn’t see Leslie Ann behind him. Josmith gestured to him to open the door, then to precede him into the storage room beyond. They went to another door on the far side of the room. The man looked over his shoulder, Josmith nodded, the man unlocked it and stepped aside. Leslie Ann twitched the knife. Josmith gestured to the sailor to go in ahead of him. The sailor was a bit confused, but he went. Josmith followed with Leslie Ann close behind. There were windows on either side, and more than a dozen men sitting on crates. 

Leslie Ann took the knife from between Josmith’s legs when they were all three inside. He let out a long, shuddering sigh. She put the knife back into the belt behind her back, adjusted her shirt, and stepped out from behind him. The guard was surprised, but most of the prisoners had been sitting where they could see her when she had come in. 

She let her hands hang loosely at her side. She could still lose everything if she did this the wrong way. She looked from one sailor to another. That one there, a little older than the rest, a little calmer, and at the same time a little angrier, he would be the one.

“Captain,” she said, “how do we get your ship back?”

#

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