Lilin faces a language barrier.
She saw Rakgi as she continued up past the second deck. The boy stared at her, and she proudly stared right back at him. She knew she was good at walking. She didn't plod like a turtle, and while she couldn't dance like a crab, she felt quite sure on her feet. It was strange how the humans were so surprised about it; they had two legs, too. Did they expect her to have fins and a tail instead, like a dolphin?
No one was in the hallway when she reached the first deck. Good. She moved confidently to the box in the corner and picked out a piece of blank paper from the pile.
Painstakingly, she wrote her name across the top. Lilin. It didn't look at all like how it sounded, but she liked seeing it anyway. The slightly wavy, vertical lines on the smooth paper looked like a stand of kelp.
She blew on the ink to let it dry, like Rikie had shown her. The sad woman was very gentle, and not at all startling or threatening. She'd helped Lilin set up her shop in the bilges, and then taught her how to write so she could keep records of what she made and sold.
Lilin frowned in concentration as she wrote the word "Letter" on the next line, so Naphtali would know it was friendly, and not a complaint or suggestion. Then she dipped the brush back in the bottle of ink, lifted it, and stopped short.
What else should she write? Too many thoughts spun around in her head and refused to order themselves into stands of letters. She wanted to thank Naphtali, for saving her from the murderers and for giving her a place on the ship, where she could make beautiful, useful things out of seashells and pearls. She wanted to see him again, because he was quiet and kind, and his ocean-eyes made her smile. She wanted him to be proud of how quickly she'd learned to write the human language, and how hard she was working at her shop.
Rapid footsteps behind her made her start, and she gave a sigh of relief as she realized it was only Cedric. For all that she'd been promised safety among the many humans on the ship, she didn't like to be alone with any of the ones she didn't know. Cedric seemed more interested in talking about how fast he was than in taking her scales, so he was all right.
Still, having someone standing there while she was writing made her nervous, even if he wasn't dangerous, and her mind went blank. All the letters she'd so carefully learned were swept away, all the things she wanted to say drowned by the undertow.
Lilin scowled at the nearly blank page, feeling stupid and hating it. She had to hurry up and write something, or Cedric would think she was stupid. It was bad enough that most people talked to her as if she were a child.
"Writing a message for Naphtali?" the young man asked her cordially. "I've seen him check the box. He reads every one he gets."
She turned to face him slowly, searching for the right words. "A short letter," she told him. "Just a short. I don't want to make him busy."
Cedric laughed. "Our leader's busy all the time. But I know what you mean."
She laughed a little too, even though she didn't really see what was funny. Then an uncomfortable thought struck her, and the false laugh faded. "You... you don't read, right? Just him?"
Cedric frowned. "I can read. I've written him letters, too."
"No, no..." Lilin winced at the misunderstanding. She'd offended him "Not that. Only Naphtali reads letters?" She gestured to the box.
"Oh... yes, he's the only one who reads these letters. They're supposed to be for him only, and everyone respects that."
She nodded. "Thank you."
She turned away, staring once again at the nearly blank piece of paper in her hands. But Cedric was still there, behind her, and the words just wouldn't come.
"Would you like some help writing your letter?" he asked her after a few minutes.
"No!" She knew his offer was meant kindly, but it still hurt. "I will write myself," she said fiercely. Stupid human language, with too many words for things she'd never seen, too many rules for changing words around. It was so hard to speak, and hard to write, and she'd worked so hard at it but every time she talked to someone it was clear she wasn't any good at it. Stupid Lilin, they all must think. Stupid Lilin, talking like a baby.
She didn't want Naphtali thinking she was stupid. She wanted him to know she was trying.
Before Cedric made the offer again, she drew the pen from the ink and wrote in thick, clear strokes, pulling the brush too quickly for the lines to grow crooked.
She folded it before the ink was really quite dry, jammed it into the box, and took off down the stairs.
Running wasn't at all fun just now. She pounded down the hallway of the fifth deck, dodging Mitsuba. The door to her shop closed too loudly behind her, the sign still turned to "closed". She curled up in the puddle in the corner of her shop, behind the counter, and leaned against the sloping wall of the ship.
It was reassuring that the ocean was on the other side of the wall, that the only thing between her and the world where people understood her was wood and pitch. She started to relax a bit, stretching out her legs, uncurling like a crab emerging from a shell.
Then she remembered her letter. Just one word. She'd meant something by it, but without saying anything else, no one would know. It didn't mean anything by itself like that.
Naphtali was really going to think she was stupid.