From the ship's railing, the coast stretched like a dark cloak away from the rough sea. The morning light was weak through the clouds, and the rain made a maddening, monotonous staccato on Malaamig's oiled hood.
"The tides will be right for your landfall in about an hour," Iremima said from behind him, coming to join him at the rail. "Are you ready?"
It was a question he'd asked himself every day for a month of travel. He grunted; it was as close to an answer as he'd been able to formulate for himself and he could do no better for her. It wasn't, after all, a choice, only a state of spirit. The choice involved was long past.
Iremima swapped directions, looking back onto the deck of her ship with her elbows propped easily on the rail. The rain didn't seem to perturb her, any more than the endless swaying and tugging of the ship on its anchor. Malaamig wondered if anything perturbed her. She'd met every obstacle on their journey this far with diplomatic aplomb and sharp decision-making authority, seemingly unfazed by any trial. She'd be a fine travel-companion, and if Malaamig had been traveling further with her, he would probably not have the doubts that he did.
"You aren't going to feel like a third hand, are you?" Iremima asked dryly, and Malaamig glanced down the deck to see Diren and Margaa exchanging an excited embrace - apparently prompted by numbers generated by the calculations Diren was recording in his book. Margaa was taking readings off of the mountains that lay just inland from the shore.
Malaamig grunted again. Their enthusiasm for the work they'd come to do could not be considered a detriment. Their enthusiasm for each other was none of his business. He had a job, and he could do it. He hoped. He scowled in their direction, past Iremima.
Iremima smirked. "A year is a long time," she said unnecessarily. There was an odd note to her voice, and Malaamig wondered what she was beating at. Subtlety was not one of his strong points. He had no doubts that his best role was the one he played - the man who carried the heavy equipment, cut the survey lines, and kept them alive. There was nothing delicate or complicated about his tasks, and he was glad of it. Diren and Margaa could do a fine job of the more refined work they were here to do - and he was almost sure he could keep them alive to do it; if only they weren't so dashed flighty about things. They were the kind of scientists who forgot to eat, if the instruments were giving them exciting numbers. The kind of scientists who walked off cliffs because they were too busy counting mountain peaks and speculating biology and geology.
"Not so long," Malaamig replied after a moment. He'd done several year-long trips in the East before - survey trips in larger groups, and even smaller hunting expeditions with single employees for the rare and shy animals that lived in the cold wastelands. This was further north, more mountainous and less familiar, perhaps, but it wouldn't be so different.
"The winter will be hard and long, this far north," Iremima said cheerfully, moving closer along the rail to be better heard. "It's summer at home, already, and barely spring up here. There is still ice along the northern coasts. Autumn will be chasing your heels before you know it."
"We've the equipment for it," Malaamig said confidently. "Some of what we do will be easier in snow."
"You were part of the original group, weren't you?" The captain shook her hood in a futile effort to shed the water off it. More cold rain replaced it at once.
Malaamig nodded. "Nasty swamps," he said briefly. "We weren't able to survey more than a mile a day. We'll tackle them after freeze, and take the drier uplands in the summer months." The bugs had been worse than the rain - endless droning swarms of them.
It was almost melancholy, the idea of taking a wilderness like this - untouched, unbroken - and distilling it to lines and numbers on a map. Scientists loved to turn things into numbers, to reduce everything into figures and theories and complicated terms.
"Who is she? Who is it that makes you look so sad?"
Malaamig gave Iremima all of his attention - astonished. Is that what she had been on about? Had she been trying to win his awareness in that fashion? He gave a bark of laughter. "You saw my license, woman," he said flatly.
"Licenses are bought and sold for the price of bread these days," Iremima scoffed. "Mine has falsehoods, too."
Malaamig found time to think on that - there had been rumors in the crew, but he'd been inclined to ignore them. They said she'd borne an unlicensed brat, and had it given to a Purist family, rather than lose her ship for the breach of government. She had a slight, fit figure, and Malaamig wouldn't have guessed her for a mother, however briefly.
She took his tangent of thought for an avoidance of her topic, and put a strong hand on his arm. "She must have hurt you terribly," she said purred, barely audible over the crash of the waves and the rhythm of the downpour. "To make you go to such lengths..."
"Do I have to drop my pants to prove it?" Malaamig asked harshly. He shook her off, his high opinion of her suddenly betrayed. "I am no man. You won't find a broken heart in my vest to mend beneath your sheets. There is nothing to conquer here."
Iremima was quiet, and Malaamig looked fixedly at land again. It was a gorgeous land, even half-wrapped in rain and cloud. The kind of land you could get lost in - and never find your way out of, if you didn't wish.
"I'm sorry," Iremima said quietly, and Malaamig only knew it by guessing at the syllable of her words beneath the noise of water, and by knowing what she would say. They were all sorry.
It was the kind of thing you could regret forever, if you let yourself. Malaamig knew too well the hole that it could be. He shrugged. "It doesn't matter like you think it might," he offered peacefully. It was only partly a lie; you did get used to it, after a while, even if you never got used to the reaction to it. It was his last hour on the ship - it didn't need to be made more awkward with useless anger.
"I should get ready," he said at last. There was little left to do - the packs had been ready for weeks, and only need to be loaded on the dogs and horses before the skiff that would take them to shore was launched. His personal supplies were few and light - the only things of note were the log he was required to keep, and the compass that never left his neck, except to read.
"No grief," Iremima said pleadingly. "I did not mean offense."
She got formal when she was embarrassed - Malaamig had observed it in her previously on the voyage. "None taken," he replied. "It is more common an assumption than it should be." He was the kind of man - in the loose interpretation of the noun - who liked to believe in truth and honesty and obedience to the government; it troubled him that people would assume he lied on his license to shield his heart or protect himself in some way. He knew many lovers of men would provide falsehoods of their state to duck shame and revulsion in conservative cities, and that decision was not one that he could follow, even if it would have made his life much easier.
Iremima nodded, accepting his forgiveness with aplomb and returning to her cool, professional demeanor. "The dogs will be happy to be off this ship," she said with a friendly note to her voice.
"We will all be glad to have solid ground beneath our feet," Malaamig rumbled at her, truce in his voice. "I will go and load them up. We'll be ready to go when the tide is."
He left her standing at the rail and glanced again at Diren and Margaa before heading below to the pens. They were laughing close together - clearly as giddy as children about the task before them. Margaa saw his glance and waved, all but clapping her hands in excitement. Malaamig nodded at her, cracking a smile solely for her benefit.
He would be the brawn of their group - the perfect strong companion for a married couple of scientific renown. There was no better 'man' for this job.
The Right Man by Ellen Million
It took me a little while to decide where to start our story; you can see the groundwork of this journey in Wile Away - but that concentrates on Iremima's assignment to the exploration mission, and she gets to head back out to sea in short order here, leaving Malaamig and his scientists alone in a wild new land. (You can follow her next adventures in A Little Luck.) The Right Man was actually the start of a NaNoWriMo challenge several years ago. Malaamig managed to surprise me - I had nothing in mind for him beyond the vague idea that I needed an explorer and he quickly decided not to be normal. His license states 'no-gender,' which sparked an interested discussion among contributors... and natural no-gender became an unexpected addition to the Torn World tapestry. This kind of kaleidoscope of inspiration is one of the perks of Torn World existing as a shared world.