The crowd was turning on her. A growing chorus of protests was crammed within the holdhall’s tight metal confines. Their hostage—a young girl no older than ten tied to a support beam—was fixated on Lyn, her eyes widening with the room’s volume. Hostage taking was a new tactic among the holds, a way to grab Lyn’s immediate and undivided attention.
“Navigator Chaunce promised us safe passage in the water corridor,” one holdmaster said. He was an older man with a thick black beard, seated on a raised dais in the center of the room along with three other holdmasters. He beat a thin metal rod against the ground in rhythm with his words.
“I don’t know what Chaunce promised. I’m still reviewing her files, but as your new Navigator, I promise to—”
The shouting rose again. They barked from the base of the dais and bayed from a bridging balcony above. In the corner of her eye, she made out Lornium on the balcony off to the side, his red wool sweater sticking out in the sea of pale skin and weathered couwhide.
“You are a lackey!” the holdmaster said and he turned to address the crowd around him. “Council gives with one hand and takes with the other. If we want the water corridor then we should make it ours!”
Her back was to the chamber’s only passageway, but that was no comfort. In front, behind, and all around, bodies pressed in on her—all of MaieHold out to see their frustrations addressed. Lyn kept a hand on her saber’s hilt. The weight on her hip was familiar, a reassurance, but it stuck out like a sore thumb among the empty hands and belts. “The corridor has worked mutually for the three holds for a year now. What’s changed?”
“HinHold has grown prideful, grown arrogant,” the holdmaster said. “They smack our kids and laugh at our women. They embarrass us going to the water and back.”
He probably had a point. HinHold was under new management, a single reigning holdmaster when two or three was the norm. That some of the hold’s more aggressive types were suddenly getting leeway didn’t surprise her. She had met with them last week and the new ruler gave her an earful about HinHold’s growing might. “More children than any other hold on Deck 17,” he’d said.
“I can only promise we’ll review the maps, speak with HinHold, and try to work something out.” Lyn regretted the words almost as she spoke. The hold maps were a nightmare to decipher. Decades of corridor claims and counter-claims made the borders of the ship’s decks look like knotted bundles of string.
They at least didn’t shout this time. The holdmasters turned and whispered among one another, the hands of one moving in quick, hurried gestures. A nearby bystanders, an old woman with a bent back, spat near Lyn’s feet. Others were cursing at her and gyrating their hips to laughter. One snickering kid even had the guts to sneak behind and flick her ear. She swatted at the air but kept her focus on the dais.
“For now,” Lyn said, cutting in, “it would be best if you released the HinHold girl.”
“No.” The bearded holdmaster was adamant. “We shall keep her until we have a deal that favors the MaieHold.”
The stuffy heat of the room was getting to her head. It was a struggle to keep her tone neutral. “You should release her as a show of good faith. If HinHold thinks themselves strong, they’ll never bargain while already at a loss.”
“MaieHold has taken, and it will take more. We are done giving.” The holdmaster straightened, chin held high, his rhetorical masterstroke delivered.
“Father.” Lornium’s voice rose above the din. Every face in the chamber turned to the proud son above. “Release the HinHolder. Our Navigator has come and listened. The girl’s purpose is served.”
The holdmasters still weren’t happy, resignation smeared across their faces. The main holdmaster waved his staff at the girl and a group untied her. The girl shoved through the crowd, tears streaking into her hair as she ran. As the girl pushed through the gathering toward the passageway, Lyn resisted the urge to stoop down and stop her with a hug. She wanted to hold the girl close, look her in the eyes and apologize and tell her she would fix all this. But the moment passed. The girl shoved by and disappeared into the hallway.
“Kindness won’t be forgotten,” Lyn said.
The holdmaster nodded. “Weakness neither.” He waved her off with his rod. “You’ve heard what MaieHold wants. Leave now, Council couw.”
Lyn stayed put. “It would help your cause to address me properly first.”
“We will speak when Navigator Chaunce returns. We do not take orders from lackeys.”
A hot itching flared in her chest. It crawled up the back of her neck and nested in her forehead, a creature of embarrassment, frustration, anger. “Chaunce is sick, at the end of her days. I am, by the Council’s order, your Navigator now.”
The resignation on the bearded holdmaster’s face was gone. The other holdmasters shook their heads. The people were baying again, feeding off their own energy, waving and throwing their hands. Lyn waited but nothing more was said.
Outside the half-octagonal doorway, an overflow of people pressed close to hear the goings-on inside. Lyn shoved herself through a mass of leather vests, clammy bare-skin chests, naked children, and more grimacing old women. Away from the crowd, she swiftly moved down the corridor, turning one corner and then another just to be sure. Only when she was clear of the echoing noise of the holdhall did she stop to breathe, the air thick and warm as she leaned against a grimy wall. She breathed and let the droning, ambient hum of the ship take over her thoughts.
“You were brimming with confidence.” A voice bouncing down the hall snapped her out of it. “Even fooled me for a bit.”
Lornium stepped from a dark patch between the fluorescent lights. He walked slowly and held his arms behind his back.
“Shut up, Lorn.” She stood straight to face him, hand resting naturally on her hilt.
“Ungrateful as ever, I see.” She hadn’t seen him since he graduated. The Academy had worked him over into a respectable student, his hair neat and every feature looking sharper, more straight. All hints of the Deck 17 accent were gone from his voice.
“Who really calls the shots in there? No father-son resentment anymore?” She asked.
“He’s come around, as he will with you I imagine. Just leave the iron fist at home next time.”
“Navigator Garl said I better put my foot down early. And besides, they started it.”
“The holdmasters have to save face for the crowd. They’re not complete dullards.” Lornium flapped the collar of his sweater to cool off. “They’re just in the unfortunate predicament of knowing what they want.”
A group of clunking footfalls echoed from the nearby intersection. A group of MaieHolders passed, flocking out with the end of their meeting. Several peered down the corridor at Lyn and Lornium as they shuffled by and exchanged hateful glares.
Lornium saw what was happening and blurted, “How about a walk? It’s been a while since you’ve been around these parts.”
Lyn was happy to oblige.
There was nothing special about the halls and bulkheads of Deck 17. They looked like any other known deck- cramped, flecked with rust, the darkness punctured by pure-white fluorescent lights running down the center of the ceilings. Everywhere there was the white square of the Council painted on the walls, some as small as a hand, others reaching from floor to ceiling. They passed rows of chamber homes with bulkhead doors open against the heat. Each open portal was a glimpse into the deck’s thriving life- elders asleep in their bunkholes, families together at play, partners in silent embrace. Merchants set up stalls between homes in regular niches in the walls to sell any goods they could do without. There was extra clothing, raw couwhide, bundles of wool, fresh wax and wax paper, handwoven wool tapestries, and all kinds of necklaces and bracelets and rings made from scrap. They stopped at a white line painted along the floor and running up the walls. Two men playing cards sat on stools a few feet ahead.
“And here lies HinHold. When we were kids, there wasn’t a need for lines and men to watch them.” Lornium shrugged.
“They’re really throwing up walls?”
“In more ways than you know.”
Lyn sighed. “Well, listen. I’m not supposed to say but the Council’s meeting is next week and there’s talk of opening up territory everywhere below Deck 15, pushing the border back a few junctions. If MaieHold gets claims there, will they let the water corridor go?”
“You haven’t looked at a map, have you?” Lornium shook his head. “HinHold already sits between MaieHold and the border. Giving them claim on the other side will squeeze HinHold, separate families. Lots of unpleasantness.”
“Okay, other way then. They give up claims on new territory, but we give them the water corridor in return? I think I can swing that.”
Lornium’s nose went up, his eyes were downcast. “You think?”
“Honestly, the Council doesn’t care much about some walkthrough deck’s problems. They’ll back whatever I say they should back.”
He went quiet, already mapping out his conversation with the holdmasters. “I can win father’s support. The others will fall in line. But you’ll still have to win mine.”
Lyn crossed her arms.
“Five academy slots for MaieHold kids,” he said.
It wasn’t what she wanted to hear. She ran a hand over her close-cropped hair and Lornium watched as she paced in a circle before coming back to him. “You’re not making this easy, Lorn.”
“Three minimum. I’m the only one they have right now, and if they’re going to survive — to prosper — they need more. Look at OkeHold here, they have no one from the academy, and where are they?”
Lyn had almost forgotten about OkeHold. He was right— their name never came up in claim talks. Without an academic voice, they were shoved to the side, given whatever was left over after the Maie and Hin got their way. “I’ll see what I can do. That’s not the Council’s call to make.”
Lornium nodded. He started back the way they had come. “I wasn’t going to show you this, but since you’re at least trying—” He beckoned her on.
She kept pace beside him as they turned off their previous path, passing through unlit corridors. “But first, maybe a question I’ve been pondering, if you’ll entertain an old friend.”
Lyn didn’t say anything. She was surprised to see the halls here were mostly clean, clear of refuse thanks to cans of garbage dotting the intersections. A cool breeze roamed the halls with them, a momentary relief from the stifling heat of the rest of the ship.
“I never got to congratulate you on your promotion, but I can’t say it wasn’t a surprise. How did that come about?”
“Garl nominated me. Said I’d been playing assistant to Chaunce for a while and thought I’d know her beat the best.”
Lornium couldn’t help but laugh. She was glad, the tension between them easing. “As we’ve clearly seen.”
“I wasn’t always listening.” She smiled back at him. Lyn caught a glimpse inside the water corridor as they passed by. The fluorescents inside were broken, candles spaced out on the floor providing the only light. She saw what the holdmasters meant. Young kids and a few older teens loitered up and down the length of it. Leaning against walls, tossing bolts, wrestling. Each silhouetted by an aura of soft amber glow. Beyond them the hall ended abruptly with a sharp turn, but at the winding end of it lay the reservoir: a series of tapped pipes running water vertically through most of the ship’s decks, a lifeline the holds could not do without.
“Yes, but why replace the kind, motherly, and very charming Chaunce with-” he paused to pick his words, “no offense, but someone who holds up their pants with a very large knife.”
“What? Don’t think I’m up for it?”
He shrugged. “One just wonders: oversight or calculation?”
“The Council’s lazy, and I was the best person for the job. Garl needed someone quick. A lot of fires kicking up these days.”
He smiled but didn’t say anything else.
They rounded another corner and Lornium stopped, showing her the closest wall. Grease bled from every seam of the bulkhead over a rusty mosaic of orange, yellow, and scab brown. As she looked it over, she made out thin scratches in the rust. Adjacent and perpendicular lines cut with purpose.
“What’s all that?” she asked.
“Your usual kid scratch, not uncommon in this area. But it’s distinct in sentiment.” He stepped closer to the wall, pointing out the wording. “It reads: ‘The NC’ — that’s you — ‘do not.’” His hand touched the wall and felt its way across the bottom line. “The last word here translates to ‘navigate.’”
“The Navigators don’t navigate? Is that it?”
“It’s just a phrase, but one not contained to rebel youth.” He set his arms behind his back again and straightened himself. “Though they’d never say it to you, I know the holdmasters have whispered the same. And as we know, sentiment breeds opinion.”
Lyn looked it over again, scrutinizing the characters. She didn’t want to be led on. “It’s typical impatience of the lower decks. Those who can’t wait for the Destination don’t deserve it.”
“The Council have given you the details on it, have they?”
“I’m to be briefed later. I’ll know more after the next meeting.” A lie, but it would have to do for now.
Lornium shook his head and looked back at the wall. “It’s a madness,” he said. “All of it.”
They said their good-byes and promised to talk again soon. Lyn was scheduled to meet with PloHold on Deck 18 but decided they could wait, and instead wandered the halls by herself. She grew up on the deck above, but all her friends had been down here. She remembered the running and chasing, the climbing, the boys-versus-girls brawls. She searched for things familiar, places she knew and played in, or young faces now hardened in the crowds. But the people were alien and the corridors blended together, her memories rusting with the ship.
Her feet took her beyond it all to the border’s edge, the drop off beyond which no one was allowed to settle, and paced along its empty halls. Most of the passageways leading deeper were sealed off or welded shut, but she found one pried open— junkers, most likely. Men and women who, for whatever reason, fled into the dark and came back only to steal what they needed to survive. If they ever came back at all.
She paused, closed her eyes, and started walking. Allowed herself to be swallowed. She didn’t have to go far before she was blind, any difference between open or closed eyelids indistinguishable. All she could see was the dark, and that face. Sweat-sheened and agony-ridden. His lips bubbling with blood. And all she could hear was the ship’s throat-song, its halls echoing a restless tune.