A wave bumps against the side of the ship, rolling it beneath my feet, but I don't lose my balance. I've lived on a ship long enough to never stumble, not even in high winter storms out in the Northern Seas, not even in the summer tempests in the south. No, the wooden planks creak and the water surges and sweeps, but I'm anchored. See, I've got to have my feet beneath me, 'cause a girl can't do anything on a ship when she don't got her feet.
I'm rifling through the furs in my cot, searching hard, when Greda comes in behind me. I hear the cabin door slide open, a heavy shum sound of wood against wood, and I know it's Greda 'cause of her footfalls, and the soft tread of her leather deck shoes on the floor.
"What you lost, Inrid?" She asks me, setting down in her own cot, across the narrow cabin from mine. It's maybe three steps from my cot to hers, so short a distance that we used to just from one to the other when we were little.
I straighten up, and run a hand through my tangled hair. "My skin." I say, and Greda laughs. Her laugh's like a bell. Not those big ones in the harbours, that ring deep on the hour, but the little chiming ones priests and highborn people ring before them to announce themselves.
"You lost your damn skin again?" I turn around to look at her and she's grinning at me. "How often do you lose that thing?"
She sees the humour in it. I am very bad at keeping track of my seal skin, so bad my pa has almost sold it as walrus leather to a tradesman by accident more than once. I don't know how he can mistake my skin for walrus. Walrus is thick and wrinkled, and my skin is smooth and light brown, just lighter than my human skin, and faintly dappled white on the back. It slips onto me like a well worn jerkin, soft and forgiving in all the right places. And, as usual, I cannot find it.
"Have you seen it?" I ask Greda, and she shrugs.
"Maybe I'm the one who hid it." She leans back into her furs and sighs. "Maybe I wanted to teach you a lesson."
I go back to looking through my own furs for it. "And what lesson would that be, Greda?" I say, 'cause she's playing a game.
"To keep a better track of your damn skin." She laughs again. "Anyway," She says, "Your pa is looking for you, up on deck. He's spotted another ship on the horizon. Probably a trader too, but he wants you to go over there and see."
I nod. "I can't well go over there if I don't have my skin. Why can't just sail over and talk to them?"
I hear Greda shuffling in the furs behind me, that soft sound that only comes from fur against fur and fur against skin. She probably already took her clothes off while my back was turned.
"Well," She says, "Don't expect me to help you find it. I am tired and cold, and the wind on deck is too northern for my bones." See, Greda is a ship-person, but her ma and pa were from the south, where it mostly rains, and there is no real cold at all. She's not built for it like born ship-people, and her hands are more likely to frostbite and chill. Our cabin is her favourite place on the ship, 'cause it's so warm.
Fairly satisfied that my seal skin is not in our cabin, I wave goodbye to Greda and leave, shutting the door behind me to keep the heat in. Though we are more for the cold, sometimes heat is as valuable as food.
I go left out of the cabin and up the hall, then up stairs into the dining hall. Fassor Iremoc is sitting on one of the benches, leaning on the long table. The dented metal plate in front of him has grease on it, either from the meal he just had or the one before it. He is not paying attention to anything besides the map sprawled out beside his plate. He's so engrossed that he don't even hear me coming up behind him to talk.
"Fassor." I say, and he almost jumps out of his seat. Then he turns to face me, scowling. He has a face for scowling, broad and scarred features.
"Inrid." He says. "Do not surprise me like that."
I glance at the map. It's stained yellow by sun and wear, but the marks are still visible. It is of no place or sea that I know. "I thought you heard me coming up behind you." I say. "Have you seen my skin?" I ask him, but he shakes his head.
"I have not." He says solemnly. "I will look out for it. You know your pa wants you?" I nod, and he seems to think about this for a while. "Be careful on deck," He decides to say, "There is a cold ice in the air. There will be snows later, I am sure." He is likely right. Fassor was born in the Drowning Fens, where knowing the weather's mood is the difference between life and death.
He goes back to his map, and I go on my way. I pass through the rest of the hall, and into the annex with the stairs leading up to the deck.
The annex is what we call it, but it is more like a small store room. It's maybe ten steps in length and eight in width, and the walls are lines with spare and broken nets and spears, ropes and barrels, and things that we have no need of but cannot sell. I look quickly through the barrels and crates for my skin, and underneath the thick weave of nets. I don’t find my skin, but I do disturb Frenken’s cat from his sleep. The cat stares at me with amber eyes and seems to frown, and I know that Frenken is looking at me through him. Skinslippers often sleep in the bodies of their animals. They’re all alike in that way, just like all my kind are more comfortable in our seal skins.
The cat uncurls from where it was lying amongst coils of rope, and leaps past me, sprinting up the stairs and onto the deck. I follow.
My pa is waiting for me, leaning against the rail and looking out over the grey waves that thrash and churn below. The sky is a lighter grey than the sea, thick with clouds. The air feels right for the snow, like Fassor predicted.
“Pa!” I shout to him, trying to make myself heard above the wind and sea. He doesn’t turn, so I go closer and shout again. This time he hears.
He looks at me and his face is stern, as always, and his beard is tangled, streaked with water and salt. “Inrid.” He says. “I was waiting for you.” He fixes me a look with his one good eye.
I nod. “Greda told me so.” I go over to the rail and lean beside him. “She said you saw a ship.”
“Aye,” He points out to the sea in front of us. There's a fret too thick to see far, but I can just make out a ship’s silhouette, maybe a league or two away. “There. Frenken’s bird flew out to it, but they tried to shoot him down. Slingshots, see?” I nod, and he goes on. “You could probably get closer. They won’t see you in the water.”
I am hesitant. “Why do we need to see who they are? They’re likely just traders, like us.”
“Tell me that silhouette is a trader, girl. It is not.” He says. “And traders do not shoot at birds, not sea hawks like Frenken’s bird.”
He’s right. The ship is the wrong shape for a trader. It’s too long, too pointed, and the only ships that shoot at birds are the ones that expect the bird to be carrying a message. “We should sail away, then.” I say, not meeting his stare.
He looks at me and doesn’t move for a moment, and then sighs. “You do not want to go.” He laughs suddenly, almost making me jump. “You have lost your skin again.” I nod. “Aye, I thought so. You should keep track of it. Have it with you all the time.” I nod again, ‘cause my pa is right. Whenever I need it, I can’t find it. “You’re lucky I keep track better than you do.” I look up sharply, and he laughs again. He knows where my skin is! “Check the crow’s nest. You left it up there yesterday. Speaking of, where did Greda get to? She is supposed to be up later.”
“She went to bed. Too cold out on deck for her.” I say, and head off to the rigging. “Thanks, pa.” He says something back to me, but his words are whisked off by the wind.
I’ve lived on this ship my whole life, now, and I’ve scaled this rigging a hundred hundred times. It’s all the same, even when we have to change the ropes, even when it’s wet or dry or covered in ice. I don’t even have to think as I go up, reaching out with fingers already going numb from the cold. The crow’s nest’s at the highest point of the mast, a good two minute climb if you trust your hands and don’t think. I can’t think straight when I’m up this high, I get this queasy feeling in my stomach, like sea sickness. I get it too, when I’m too far inland. My body’s always aching for the sea.
I hoist myself into the crow's nest, and there it is. My skin, draped over the opposite side of the nest like wet laundry. I grab it, and tie it around my waist. Looking back out to sea, I can't even see the other ship any more. The silhouette is gone, now the fret's getting thicker. I can almost see the cloud moving in front of me, so thick you could cut it with a knife, if you had one sharp enough. You can't sail in this weather, not even if you've known the coast and fens all your life. Those who think they can all run aground, or tear themselves apart on the rocks. The sea's too treacherous for the confident.
I slip back down the rigging. My fingers are freezing and I get rope burn when I misstep on the rope, too busy looking out to sea and not at my feet, but I make it down fine. The queasy feeling in my stomach goes away when I hear the thud of my feet on the deck, no longer swaying with the wind.
I don't talk to my pa again as I take off my deck shoes and slip into my skin. We've said all we need to. I know what I have to do. My skin fits like a dream, slick against me, and I don't even need to think as I slide over the railings and into the chopping water.
See, with human skin, the water feels freezing. This far north, people can stay in the water maybe ten minutes before they freeze to death. That's why losing your footing on deck can be deadlier than any storm. Human skin is too thin, it doesn't have the right way with water, not like seal skins do. Seals, they’re born for the sea. They live and die there, only going on land to sleep. They're swifter in the water too, better than humans. Us with the seal skins, land people call us skinliers. They think we're evil or something. Ship people just call us selkies. We've got human and seal skin both, seal for the sea and human for the land, can slip in and out of our seal skins when we want, just like putting on a well worn pair of shoes.
So when I hit the surface of the water, dive beneath, swallowed by it, it feels like going back to where I belong. There are no waves under the surface, just the ebb and the flow of the tides and the currents, the shimmer of tiny fish, and the black water holding you tight.
I swim. The water’s clearer than the air - I can see the hull of the other ship, closer than I’d thought before. Closer, I see that the hull’s... red? I never seen a ship with a red hull before. There ain’t no point in painting the hull of a ship like that, not all that way, ‘cause no one’s going to see it but the drowners and the fishes. I swim up and break the surface, looking for a name painted on the side. There’s one here, at the back, gold plated. Svardspyrd. I means ‘sword spear’. The weapon you use when you want to kill an enemy from afar. We’ve got a couple on our ship, for fishing, but there’s something that tells me that this ship ain’t a fisher boat. The hull’s lined with cannons.
I dive back below the surface and jet myself back towards our ship. It’s too close to be safe. I cling onto the nets at the side, slip out of my skin, and haul myself up. I’m soaking wet and shivering when I fall back onto the deck. My pa drapes a fur over me, but it ain’t enough to drive the chill away.
“Pa,” I tell him when his stern eye fixes on mine. “We need to get away from that ship.”