When the music began, Charlie was at the mainmast, coiling lines with Young Davy. It was a lovely ballad with a hint of melancholy to it, carried on the wind from somewhere near the bow, and Charlie's first thought was that Roderick's skill with the fiddle had vastly improved since the last time he'd played for the Merry Maid's crew.
"Nice to have a bit of music while we work," said Charlie, looping a bight through the just-completed coil and hanging it on the proper dowel. "I reckon it makes the job go faster, don't you think?"
No response. "Davy?" Charlie looked over at him and saw that his hands had stilled on his coil of line; he was gazing forward raptly, his face relaxed into an unaccustomed smile.
Then someone started singing, and that rich, sweet voice definitely wasn't coming from Roderick. At this distance the words were impossible to distinguish, but there was something about the way the soft voice wrapped around the music that made Charlie certain it was a love song. A young woman, lonely and sad, yearning for her lost lover.
Yes, it was definitely a female voice, which was a bit of a shock, for as far as Charlie knew, she was the only woman on board. Though she was pretty sure nobody knew that she was, since she was slender and small-breasted and dressed in men's clothes that hid her figure. Maybe another woman had done the same, though Charlie liked to think they would have spotted each other's subterfuge. And it would have been nice to have had a friend she could trust. Keeping her secret meant keeping her distance from the rest of the crew, and as a result she was rather lonely.
Still, she loved the pirate life, had loved it ever since the day the crew of the Merry Maid had boarded the ship that had been carrying her to marry, unwillingly, the plantation owner to whom her parents had betrothed her. They'd played music then as well, raucous and warlike, meant to frighten their prey into giving up without a fight. It had done that – but had also frightened the hateful old maidservant who had been sent to ensure Charlie – Charlotte, then – went meekly to her new life. It had frightened her enough that her heart had stopped.
Charlie had been frightened as well, for everyone knew what pirates did to young ladies. She'd begged clothing from one of the crewmen; she'd worn her brother's clothes often enough at home that she knew she made a creditable boy. Of course this had earned disapproval from her parents, and was one reason her parents had married her off to a man far from home. But when the pirates invited any likely lads who might want to join their crew to come aboard, she saw it as a chance to escape the prison her parents had intended for her – and in the four months she had spent aboard the Merry Maid she had not once regretted it. She was far happier coiling lines with the likes of Young Davy than she ever would have been as a plantation owner's wife.
"I'm coming," said Davy, but his words were clearly meant for someone else, not for Charlie. He dropped the line onto the deck, then scrambled to his feet.
"What the hell are you doing?"
Davy didn't answer, just began heading toward the port bow. It wasn't just Davy; all over the Merry Maid, men had left their posts and were streaming forward, all with the same intent expression that Davy wore. An untended sheet unspooled itself from its winch and its sail began to flap. The ship began to round up into the wind, and Charlie realized with dismay that nobody was at the wheel.
Muttering curses, Charlie ran aft and up the ladder to the upper deck, dodging the men who walked past without sparing her a glance on their way forward, and grabbed at the freely-turning wheel. From there it was obvious that the Maid was off course, heading for a rocky islet, and with another heartfelt curse she began to wrestle the wheel back to starboard. Was nobody paying any attention to the ship?
Clearly, the answer was no. The men – even Captain Holleran – had all apparently lost their minds. They crowded along the forward port rail, leaning over the water, looking at the island. There was a splash, then another; some of the men were not bothering to go forward but were jumping off the ship where they stood.
Jumping into the water, and sinking fast. With a dawning horror she realized that none of them knew how to swim. This was not surprising; it was a point of pride with many pirates, as to them it meant they had committed themselves fully to their ships, with no alternative should anything untoward happen. Charlie could swim a little, due to having grown up with brothers and a pond they liked to throw her into, though considering the waves crashing near the ship, she was not certain she'd be able to make it to the island safely.
Waves crashing. There must be rocks underwater, or a reef close to the surface, Charlie realized, and despite yanking on the wheel with all the force she could muster, fighting the loose sheets and flapping canvas, it was too late for the Merry Maid. The ship smashed into something hard and unyielding with a sickening crash.
The ship's boat was on davits at the stern. It would be safer to take it than to attempt to swim through the churning surf, Charlie knew, so she left the wheel and raced aft, then uncleated the dinghy lines and lowered it into the water. The music was still playing, the woman singing her plaintive song, when Charlie took a deep breath and jumped down beside the small boat. Then she hauled herself in, put the oars in the oarlocks, unclipped the dinghy lines from the boat's gunwales, and began to row.
Araioa's voice was beginning to get hoarse by the time she saw the last man disappear for good beneath the waves, and she was glad to stop singing. The ship was holed on the reef and would surely sink as well; no doubt it carried all sorts of treasures for her to recover. She strummed one last chord on her instrument, then set it down. Time to head over to the ship and see what she could salvage. That was always a chore, since moving across dry surfaces was so laborious. It would be easier for her if she waited until it was low enough that she could swim through most of it, but of course that would ruin anything that couldn't stand contact with seawater.
Then she spotted the boat. A man in a boat, rowing toward her island! How could he have resisted her song? He shouldn't be able to row. He should have been stunned, drawn inexorably toward her, with no thought but to plunge into the water to reach her.
Perhaps, she decided, this man had retained just enough reason to decide that rowing the boat was the best way to come to her. It would be safer for her to enthrall him again, just in case he had regained his senses, for he might be angry and harm her. Sighing, she picked her instrument back up and began her song again. She was going to have to gargle some seawater to soothe her poor throat, when this was all over.
The boat kept coming. The man's back was to her, though every once in a while he looked over his shoulder, apparently verifying he was on course. Frowning, Araioa dug vigorously at the strings. Had she lost her touch? She switched to a defensive song, one that would keep men away rather than drawing them in.
Still, the boat kept coming, until it grounded itself on the stony beach. The rower leaped out, strode toward her, and in one quick motion grabbed her instrument and dashed it on the rocks. Then he stomped on it.
"You sunk my ship," he said, glaring at her. His eyes were a deep golden brown, like the dusky damselfish that swarmed on the reef, and his hair, tied back in a short queue under a wide-brimmed slouch hat, was also brown. "You bewitched the crew! They all jumped overboard and drowned when they heard you sing!"
"You broke my instrument!" Araioa retorted. "And you should have jumped overboard and drowned, too! Why didn't my song work on you?" A thought struck her. "Are you...can you not hear me?" she said slowly, exaggerating the movement of her lips.
He scoffed. "I'm not deaf. Your song was pretty, I admit it, but it didn't make me want to drown myself."
"It doesn't make you want to drown yourself, it makes you want to come to me."
"Which is the same thing if you can't swim."
"Unless you have a boat. Which you do," she pointed out.
"Then I guess it did work on me. I'm here, ain't I?"
"It did not work on you! It's supposed to enthrall you, and you are obviously not enthralled. I don't understand! I've never heard of a man resisting a mermaid's song!"
To Araioa's surprise, he burst out laughing. He had a nice laugh, almost like music, though of course nothing like her music. "So that's it! I reckon I got so good at pretending to be a man that I even fooled a mermaid!"
She frowned. "But you are a man. You've got legs."
That made him laugh even harder. "It's not legs that make a man. Not the kind you stand on, anyhow!" He wiped his face on his sleeve. "Oh, Lord, I wish Davy were here, he'd bust a gut. But he's dead now," he added, suddenly sober. "You made him drown."
"And I should have made you drown, too," Araioa shot back at him. "So what are you, if you're not a man?"
He rolled his eyes. "A woman, of course."
"That doesn't make any sense!" She shook her head in frustration. "I'm a woman. You've got legs."
For a moment he stared at her as though she was speaking a foreign language. Then he laughed again, and unbuttoned his shirt and pulled it open. "I have breasts. See? Woman."
It was true. A pair of breasts almost as nice as her own; a little smaller, but rounded and nicely-shaped. Men didn't have breasts. But maybe it was a trick. Her eyes moved lower. "If you insist," said the stranger, with an amused huff of breath. Fingers moved to unbutton pants, and...oh. He – she – was indeed a woman, despite those unsettling legs.
Oddly, that made Araioa feel better about having someone else on her island. Mermaids did occasionally rescue men they'd lured with their crooning, especially if one of them happened to be able to swim to shore. It was a lonely life, after all, and it was nice to have company every so often. And of course, there would be no children if mermaids didn't occasionally take men to their beds. But the last time Araioa had let a man stay with her on her island, it hadn't gone very well. Had gone so badly, in fact, that she hadn't done it in more years than she could remember. But a woman-with-legs was basically half-mermaid, and that wasn't quite as threatening.
"Well, that explains why my song didn't enthrall you," said Araioa, as the woman refastened her clothing. "You can row away now, if you like. I won't drown you."
"And where should I row to, across the open ocean? The Merry Maid's done for." Her face crumpled and she sank to the stony ground and put her head in her hands. "I'm likely to die of thirst before anyone rescues me. If they can rescue me. You'll probably sink their ship, too."
Araioa felt a twinge of guilt, and of sympathy. She hadn't thought it through; she'd forgotten that men (and, she supposed, women-with-legs) couldn't flow through the water the way she was able to, since her powerful tail could propel her quite fast without much effort. The nearest island that was inhabited by men took her only four hours to reach. But that was doubtless much faster than the little rowboat could manage in flat calm conditions, and it was rarely flat calm in the open ocean.
"I can take you to a place of men. But I have much to do right now, so you must stay with me for five days, maybe six. I promise I won't drown you," she repeated.
"What does it matter? A couple of days without food and water will kill me just the same."
"No, I'll bring you some water and something to eat. Wait here." As soon as she slipped into the water, Araioa realized how silly that must have sounded. Of course the stranger would wait; where else could she go? It was funny how responsible she felt, how concerned. If this one had drowned with the others, Araioa wouldn't have felt the least bit guilty. It was all part of her job. But now that the woman was on her island with no way to leave, she felt a duty to make her comfortable.
She swam down to the air bubble that held her supplies and filled a bottle with water from one of her casks, then took a ripe guava and a portion of cheese from the larder and put them and the bottle in a basket. There was still enough there to feed them both for a while, but it reminded her that she'd best hurry to the ship before everything edible it carried became ruined by the seawater. She made another bubble to protect the food for the return swim, then swam back up to the surface.
The woman was still sitting exactly where she had been. Araioa set the basket of food above the waterline, then wriggled up next to it and handed it to her. "Will this be enough until the evening? I'm sorry, I have to hurry and salvage the ship." As soon as she said it, she felt bad. Another reminder that she had been the one to sink it.
But the woman didn't seem to notice. She reached into the basket and held up the guava, turning it around in her hands. "Is this a fruit?"
"You haven't had guava before? Yes, it's a fruit."
She poked at it experimentally, then pulled a knife from her belt. Cutting it open, she took a long sniff. "Oh! You don't know how long it is since I've had something fresh." She took a careful taste, then a much larger one. "Do you have more of these? This is so good."
"I'll bring up another for dinner," Araioa promised. "I need to go now." She started to slip back into the water.
Araioa paused, looked back.
"There's a fiddle on the ship, if you need something to play music with. Since I, uh." She cleared her throat. "It's probably in the forepeak."
"Thank you." That was a pleasant surprise. She nodded once, and then submerged and swam away.
The fruit was really good. Really, really good, and Charlie finished the whole thing, licking the juice from her fingers when there was nothing left but the skin. She then took a swig from the bottle of water, which was not quite so good; it was very slightly brackish, though admittedly that was no different than the water on the Merry Maid. She decided to save the cheese for later. She hadn't actually been hungry, but seeing the fresh fruit had made her mouth water.
I'm on an island with a mermaid. Of all the adventures she'd had since she had put on the clothes of a crewman and joined the pirates, this was the strangest. The pirates had told ribald stories of mermaids, fish-tailed women with beautiful faces, huge breasts, and insatiable desires, but to her it had always sounded like the tall tales in her childhood story-books. Although admittedly the stories the pirates told were not for children.
This mermaid certainly could have sprung from one of those stories. Her long hair was as green as seaweed, and her lower body was one big tail covered in shining silvery scales, but other than that she was indeed beautiful. Charlie's face and arms had darkened from exposure to the sun – she could hardly demand a parasol when she was passing herself off as a boy – but the mermaid's skin was even darker, the shade of the teak planking below decks on the Merry Maid, where it hadn't been weathered to the soft silver of the sun-exposed planks. Charlie's mother had always scolded her when she went outside without a parasol, warning her that no man would look twice at her unless she kept her complexion as pale as cream, but Charlie thought the mermaid's smooth dark face the prettiest she'd ever seen.
As for those desires, well. The mermaid had been obviously relieved to find out Charlie wasn't a man. Considering what had happened to the men on the ship, it was even more obvious that those stories had been invented from whole cloth. She'd bet none of them had ever actually even seen a mermaid before her voice lured them to their doom.
She looked out to where the Merry Maid was being pushed by the waves ever farther onto the submerged reef. How did the mermaid plan to do the salvaging? Would she swim into the hole in the keel? How would she get to the deck, or the captain's cabin high in the stern? Maybe she used her arms to walk, instead of the legs she didn't have. But then how would she carry things?
Charlie sighed and pulled her hat lower on her brow. It was sometime after noon, and it was starting to get hot. She'd moved up to sit under one of the few scraggly trees that dotted the island, but they hardly provided enough shade to make a difference. She drank another sip of water, looked out at the ocean, and waited for the mermaid's return.
It was late afternoon by the time the mermaid came back. She flopped up onto the pebbles at the water's edge, then began straining to pull a large sack out of the water. It looked terribly awkward, since the mermaid was close to the ground and had little leverage, so Charlie jumped up from where she'd been sitting and rushed to help. Oddly, the sack was only a little damp. She would have expected it to be completely sodden.
"Is this all you could retrieve from the Maid?" she asked, setting the sack up on the beach. They'd successfully raided three ships since their last visit to Nassau – in fact, the holds had been getting full, and the captain had been making for port – so she'd thought there would be far more on board.
"Oh, no, there's plenty more. This is only for provisions, and a hammock for your bed. I made three trips today, and I'm just too tired to do any more." The mermaid stretched her arms and shoulders, which had the effect of drawing Charlie's eyes to her naked breasts. All she wore was a necklace of polished silver set with smooth green stones.
It seemed weird to not wear any clothing at all, but the mermaid didn't seem in the least self-conscious about it. She supposed that it made sense, since clothing would just get wet. And that reminded her of the sack, which the mermaid had opened and begun to empty. One by one, items were placed on the rocks: a thick sausage, a loaf of bread, a ceramic jug that Charlie recognized as the sort that usually held rum. "How did that all stay dry?"
"The food's still above the waterline." She pulled out some more food, and then a coil of rope and a rolled-up hammock. "The hammock's damp, so you should probably hang it up now to give it time to dry out in the sun."
Charlie reached for the hammock and rope. "I mean, how did it stay dry when you swam with it?"
"I made a bubble for it, of course."
"Of course," said Charlie pettishly. As if she was just a stupid kid, asking stupid questions. "How was I supposed to know? You're the first mermaid I've ever met."
"Well, you're the first woman-with-legs I've ever met!" snapped the mermaid.
She was about to let loose with something really rude – she'd learned a lot of excellent swear words from Young Davy – but caught herself just in time. She was stuck on this island, dependent on the mermaid for food and water, and hopefully a trip to an inhabited island. The mermaid had been kinder to her than she'd had any right to expect, considering. It would not be smart to make her reconsider.
She swallowed her anger and instead made a small bow. "I'm sorry for being impolite. I never introduced myself, and I am a guest on your island. My name is Charlie."
"Charlie," repeated the mermaid. It sounded prettier in her mouth, like a bit of song. "I am Araioa. It is pleasant to have a guest on my island, and very interesting to meet a woman-with-legs."
"I'll go hang this up now, and when I come back you can tell me about bubbles."
"It's not far. I'll come with you."
She wouldn't have expected a mermaid to be graceful on land, but somehow Araioa was. She twisted her tail around and propelled herself up toward the trees; she was considerably slower than Charlie, but they didn't have far to go. As they moved toward the trees, Araioa explained that she could create air bubbles that lasted until she dissolved them. She could put them around objects like the sack, or on the sea floor, or she could anchor them to the sea floor and let them float in the water. She used them to protect things she wanted to keep dry, or places where she wanted to be able to stay without holding her breath.
"I thought mermaids could breathe underwater."
Araioa gave a musical laugh. "What, did you think we were fish?"
"Like I said, I've never met a mermaid before." Charlie tied a bowline around one tree and fastened one end of the hammock to it, then took the knife from her belt. After hacking off the rest of the rope, she tied it to the other end of the hammock. "So you keep your food in this bubble and come up to eat it? Where do you sleep?"
"Sometimes I eat and sleep up here, sometimes down in one of my bubbles."
"Bubbles at the bottom of the ocean! It sounds so strange." It took her three tosses before she got the rope high enough in the second tree that the hammock hung above the ground, but once it was set she made a neat tautline hitch and pulled it tight. She'd learned so many useful things from the pirates. The old Charlotte would never have been able to do this.
"That's where I store the things I take from – sorry. I keep telling myself to stop talking about your ship, but I always forget." Araioa was twisting one of her seaweed-green curls in a gesture that reminded Charlie of the way she used to play with her own hair when her mother gave her a talking-to.
"It's all right," said Charlie. "You're a pirate, like me. Ships are fair game."
"I'm not a pirate!" said Araioa, with a hint of her old indignation.
Charlie shrugged. "I don't see much difference. We both prey on ships and take valuables from them. Except we tried not to kill any more people than necessary."
"We don't – oh. Men are people to you, aren't they." The mermaid suddenly looked stricken. "Oh. They are people, aren't they. A different kind of women-with-legs. I never thought of them that way."
"How could you think of them any other way?" demanded Charlie. "Obviously we're people!"
"Well, you're obviously people. But I didn't know there were women-with-legs among them. We don't have men-with-tails!"
Charlie blinked. "You don't?" She guessed that made sense. Not that there was no such thing as mermaid-men; but it made sense that if there weren't mermaid-men, mermaids would think of men as something very different from themselves. Men were just creatures they could control with their song. Like dogs, maybe, who would come when you whistled.
"Let's go back down to the beach," suggested Araioa. "I'm getting parched up here away from the water, and my throat hurts from all the singing, and anyway, I'm getting hungry. We can talk while we eat."
It was a simple dinner, but a tasty one: bread, sausage, cheese, and two more of those delicious guavas, washed down with grog made from rum, water, and a sweet-sour fruit that Araioa told her was called passionfruit. As the level of grog in their cups went down, the conversation grew ever more lively. Araioa told her about how mermaids lived. They were ruled by an Elder, the mermaid told her, who took the goods they salvaged and had them sold to pay for things the mermaids couldn't get from the ships. Charlie told Araioa about growing up on a farm, and being sent to the islands to marry a man she'd never met, and how she became a pirate. After the months on the Merry Maid, surrounded by men she didn't dare become too friendly with for fear they'd discover her secret, it was a relief to finally be able to talk to someone.
The sun reached the horizon and sank quickly behind it. The food was long gone, though the bottle of water was still half full, and there was a little rum left in the jug. Araioa gave Charlie the water and put the jug back in her sack. "I'll bring you some bread and cheese early in the morning, but I'll be working on the salvage all day. Is there anything else you'll need for tomorrow?"
Charlie had been thinking about this during their dinner. It was obvious that Araioa was much better at moving underwater than on land. But much of the ship was still above water. It would be no different, she told herself, than moving through a ship they'd boarded, checking the cabins and store-rooms. Easier, even, with no cowering passengers or dead sailors.
"I could row out with you and get things out of the dry parts of the ship. Would that be all right?"
Araioa's smile was dazzling. "That would be wonderful!"
After a quick morning meal of bread, cheese, and ale, they headed over to the ship. At Charlie's request, Araioa had brought her extra ropes and sacks, and she tossed them into the rowboat before rowing out.
"Do you need any help?" Araioa asked, surfacing beside the rowboat as Charlie began clipping it to the lines dangling from the vessel's stern.
"Nothing you can do here that I can't do easier," she said. "If you need me, sing something and I'll come find you. Or after you've carried out everything you can manage in one trip. I'll whistle when I'm done, and meet you back here."
Araioa nodded, and slipped under the surface. Over breakfast Charlie had outlined, to the best of her knowledge, what was stored where, and Araioa had pointed out which areas had been above the water on her salvage visits the day before, and which below. It made sense to split the work, and she hoped it would mean they could get more out of it before things became irretrievably ruined, for seawater quickly damaged fine instruments like spyglasses and timepieces, and the Elder's agent could get more money for things like cloth and tapestries if they had stayed dry.
She wriggled through the water to the hole in the keel, which had enlarged with the rising and falling of the tide. She was glad there were no men left on board. Charlie had seemed enthusiastic enough, but it might be hard to be confronted with the bodies of her shipmates. She made her way past the compartments she'd emptied the day before, and got to work.
It was astonishing how fast things went when she didn't have to wriggle her way up dry companionways to the parts of the ship above the water. The lower holds were filled with water barrels, which she dragged out one by one, and crates which she pried open and investigated before selecting what to take. There were gold coins which she gleefully stuffed into a sack, and sets of porcelain dishes, which she packed more carefully. She made several trips back to the rowboat to deposit her takings, which was certainly easier than swimming all the way back to her storage bubble by the island, and was about to sing out for Charlie to return when Charlie herself shimmied down one of the ropes holding the boat, carrying two bulging sacks tied across her back.
Charlie gave her a satisfied smile as she dropped down to the small boat. "I've got the rest of the pantry – there were two hams in there! That should hold us for a while. And look, there was even some sugar left."
Araioa was delighted to see that Charlie had also found the ship's sextant, as well as a bundle of rolled-up charts. She'd told Charlie to look for them; they could be sold for a good sum as long as they were dry and in good condition. Already they'd managed to gather more items than Araioa usually collected from a whole day's work, and they still had plenty of time to make more trips.
"All right," she said. "Meet me back on the island."
"Aye, captain!" said Charlie, laughing, and she unfastened the boat and began rowing back to shore.
They made a total of five round trips that day, more than Araioa'd ever managed on her own in a single day, which got nearly everything salvageable off the ship. She'd never stripped a ship that quickly, nor taken so much that was undamaged by seawater.
It would have taken even less time had they simply piled their take on the beach, but from long experience she knew that if she sorted out the things she could keep from those that needed to go to the Elder as she worked, it would save time later. This was something Charlie couldn't help much with, though Araioa explained as they set things out on the beach.
"Food I can keep, and books, and one musical instrument, and one piece of jewelry, and up to three knives. Everything else goes back to the Elder. She has someone on land who will sell things, and that gets added to whatever gold and coins I've found, and the whole lot is divided among all of us."
"All of you?"
"All eleven of us in our clan, plus the Elder's share, of course. Each of us has our own island. The Elder keeps our shares and buys supplies and other things we've asked her for. Or we can request our coin to keep on our own." Araioa knew one mermaid who kept a small chest filled with coins hidden on her island as a reward for men who particularly pleased her. After the man had dug up and taken the chest away, she buried another for the next man she took a liking to.
"That doesn't seem fair," observed Charlie. "I mean, pirates divide everything too, but we're all working together. How do you know the other mermaids aren't just sitting on their rocks letting you do the hard work?"
"They just wouldn't. And besides, it makes sense, since we never know when a ship will sail by. That's why each of us has an island in a different place, so that there's a better chance someone will be lucky. I hadn't seen a ship since the last full moon, until this one came along."
"Huh." Charlie looked thoughtful, but whatever she was thinking, she kept to herself.
It was a good haul, though. On the second-to-last trip Araioa had found a small chest of jewelry in the hold; Charlie had told her that they'd boarded a merchantman two weeks earlier, and relieved the owner of the pretty things he was bringing back for his wife. Araioa selected a bracelet which had green stones that matched her favorite necklace, then turned to Charlie.
"You should take something, too."
She shrugged. "You told me you only get one. I don't want to get you in trouble with your Elder."
"She'll understand. You helped me get them, so why shouldn't you have a share?"
"A whole share?"
That wasn't quite what Araioa meant, but it made sense. Charlie deserved a portion of the goods for her hard work in bringing them to shore. And it would help her begin a new life when Araioa brought her to the place of men.
Thinking about that – about Charlie leaving – made her heart clench a little. Salvaging was so much easier with a woman-with-legs to help. And Charlie was pleasant, and pretty, and had a nice laugh. And Araioa had been so lonely...but that was the life of a mermaid, and she really oughtn't complain. Charlie deserved to live with those of her kind.
She put those thoughts away, and instead forced a bright smile. "Well, of course! I'll ask the Elder for your share in coin, if you like. You can settle on the island of men, or buy passage somewhere else."
"That's very kind of you." Charlie looked at the chest of jewelry, then looked away. "I don't know. Pick something for me."
Araioa ran her fingers through the chest. Silver rings, an enameled hair-clip...no. Her hand hesitated over the elaborate necklace that sparkled with gems. Doubtless it was worth a lot, and if Charlie sold it she'd probably double the coin of her share. But she didn't want to give Charlie something to sell. She wanted to give Charlie something she'd keep, something she'd wear. Something to remember her by.
From the chest, she extracted a gold locket which hung from a thin gold chain. She pried open the locket with a fingernail, revealing a tiny portrait of an ugly man; the artist had either been unskilled, or uncaring of his commission, or perhaps both. She scraped it out, then carefully dislodged one of the scales from along her waist, where the largest ones were, and placed it in the locket.
"Come here so I can put this on you," she said, unhooking the catch from the end of the chain. Charlie leaned close, and Araioa fastened it around her neck. The locket dangled between Charlie's breasts, shining against her shirt. It would look even more beautiful against her pale golden skin, thought Araioa.
Charlie fingered the locket thoughtfully. "Thank you, Araioa. It will remind me of you always."
The following morning, they made two more trips out to the poor Merry Maid, and that got everything worth taking. The old girl must have been built fairly well, since she was hardly any lower in the water than she'd been when she first crashed into the reef. It was storms that did the real damage, Araioa had told her; they'd just been lucky that the weather had been fine.
"I've got to finish putting my sledge together," said Araioa, as they finished their midday meal on the beach. "Will you be all right for the afternoon by yourself? I could bring you a book, or you could try playing the new instrument?"
"Oh, I'm no good with a fiddle. I can play the piano a bit, but I don't reckon you find many of those on ships." She looked around the island. It was really just an islet, and exploring the whole place had taken her half an hour at most. Maybe it was for the best she was going to be leaving, even though part of her wanted to stay with Araioa.
The past few days had been surprisingly fun: working together to retrieve all the valuables from the ship, eating meals on the beach, talking about their pasts. Araioa had played Roderick's fiddle, pronouncing it well enough for a mermaid to use, and although Charlie was immune to the magic in her song it had been lovely to sit back at night and look at the stars as she listened to Araioa make music. She'd had asked all sorts of questions about being a human – or rather, about being a "woman-with-legs", which made Charlie smile every time she heard it – and she'd done her best to answer. It was strange talking with someone who had no idea about how people lived on land! And Araioa had patiently answered all her questions about mermaids, which Charlie supposed sounded as silly to her as some of Araioa's questions did, to Charlie.
But being trapped on a tiny island would no doubt become tedious. Perhaps that's why Araioa seemed to be in such a hurry to get Charlie back to the world of men. Maybe she thought Charlie was getting anxious, or maybe she was tired of having to consider Charlie in everything she did. Well, she'd enjoy the mermaid's company while it lasted.
"Do you think," she said hesitantly, "I could help you with your packing?"
"Well, it would go faster! But will you be comfortable under the water? I'm told it's a strange feeling, if you're not used to it."
"Of course," said Charlie firmly. She had no idea what it would be like, but she was certain it would be more interesting than staying on the shore, waiting.
It turned out to be rather terrifying, at first. After she waded into the water, Araioa passed her hands over Charlie's head and shoulders, murmuring something in an unfamiliar liquid-sounding language. Then she smiled at Charlie, took her hand, and said, "Ready?"
"All right – whoa!" For Araioa had dived, pulling Charlie below the surface. Out of instinct, Charlie closed her eyes and held her breath, and clapped her other hand to her head to hold her hat. But her hat...felt dry. Cautiously, she opened her eyes. A bubble of air surrounded her head, but outside it she could see Araioa's tail to her side and a bit ahead, swishing left and right. A curious fish swam toward her bubble, a long, silver fish that opened its mouth to show disturbingly sharp teeth, and instinctively her hand tightened on Araioa's and she tried to move away. But the fish only touched the bubble briefly before veering off to the side, and Charlie forced herself to relax as they skimmed over the bottom of the sea, past colorful reefs and gently waving fronds of seaweed.
It was only a minute or two before Araioa gently pushed her forward into an air-filled space; the bubble around her head joined with the larger bubble, and as her shoulders entered the dry area she fell the few inches to the smooth sand. Araioa slid herself in next to Charlie, looking graceful as always, and Charlie imitated the way she wriggled and pulled herself completely into the large air bubble.
"Here we are," said Araioa.
Charlie got to her feet slowly and cautiously, but the air space was high enough for her to stand. She brushed herself off as well as she could – the bubble had kept her head dry, but her body had been in the water, and the sand clung to her wet clothes – then looked up and gasped. The water was not very deep inside the reef, and there was only perhaps two feet of water above her head, shining as the sun passed through it; she could clearly see small fish dart around in that space, shimmering like jewels.
The crates and sacks that they'd taken off the Merry Maid were piled around the bubble, most of them on an odd sort of sledge that looked nothing like the sort Charlie had ridden on in winter back at home. It was really only a ship's boat, with no mast or oars, wedged into the sand so that it remained upright. One end nearly touched the far side of the bubble, where ropes trailed off into the water.
"Isn't it hard for you to get everything stacked?" asked Charlie as Araioa pushed herself along the sand to one side of the sledge.
"Stand close on the other side, and I'll show you."
It was really quite amazing, thought Charlie. Araioa worked back and forth, making new bubbles and shrinking the large one so that her body could float in the water while the sledge and the sacks of valuables stayed dry. Her head and hands seemed almost disembodied as they worked. Charlie herself stayed dry as well, and after watching Araioa for a few moments, she moved to help, stuffing items into open spots on the sledge. After everything was packed, Araioa directed her to pick up a large coil of rope from the ground, and together they worked back and forth to tie down the load.
"There," said Araioa, when they were finished. "That was so much easier with your help. I thought I'd be spending the whole afternoon on it."
Charlie shrugged. "So will you be leaving today, then?"
"Oh, no! I told the dolphins to come tomorrow." She grinned at Charlie. "So we've got some unexpected free time. Would you like to see the rest of my home?"
This was probably her only chance, thought Charlie, so she nodded and took Araioa's hand again. Now that she'd done it once, it was far less unsettling. They poked their heads into the food storage bubble, with its casks of water and crates of different foodstuffs, and into a small bubble that held an assortment of flutes and pennywhistles, along with a harp and a stringed instrument Charlie couldn't identify, and Roderick's fiddle, sitting on an upturned crate. Another bubble held nothing but books, arranged on warped wooden shelving that looked as though it had been torn out of a ship's library.
Finally they arrived at a bubble that covered what looked like a soft heap of fabric. "You can dry yourself off with this one," said Araioa, pulling a large square of flannel from the pile.
"My clothes are going to stay damp," said Charlie. "I guess I should have taken them off before you pulled me into the water."
"Then take them off. I don't wear anything – I don't see why you need to!"
Charlie considered that for a moment, then laughed. "All right, then!" She pulled off her wet shirt and trousers and dropped them just inside the bubble, then rubbed herself vigorously with the flannel. "There, all dry."
"You've still got your hat on," Araioa pointed out.
"All right." She took off her hat and placed it next to her clothes, then sank down next to Araioa, wriggling into the fabric. "Mmm, this feels nice."
"It's where I sleep. All the softest cloth I've recovered from ships makes a nice bed. And when the top layer gets too salty, I just peel it off and go to the next."
"Mmm." She looked up at the roof of the bubble, which was a deep and translucent blue. They must be in deeper water now, though it couldn't be too deep, since they were still inside the fringing reef. The light through the bubble shaded everything in blues and greens. "I never thought I'd ever be looking up at the water like this. It's like being inside a pane of glass. "
"I've never brought anyone else down here," said Araioa softly.
Charlie turned her head. Araioa was sitting beside her, her tail tucked underneath her in the mounds of fabric. The light made her seaweed-green hair look darker, almost black, and turned her silvery scales a pale blue. How lucky she was, to have seen a mermaid – to have become a mermaid's friend. Even if she lived the rest of her life far from the ocean, she'd remember this forever. "Thank you."
"I'll miss you so much," Araioa said, reaching out to clasp Charlie's hand. Somehow it seemed natural to lean into her, to put her own hand on Araioa's shoulder. And from there it took only a small tug to pull Araioa on top of her, to find her face and kiss her mouth.
Araioa's lips were as sweet as the guava they'd eaten together, and her hair, falling freely around Charlie's face, smelled like the sea. Charlie let her hand slide down Araioa's body to where her skin turned to scales. She wondered if the place where Araioa had taken one to put into her locket would grow back. There was still so much she didn't know about mermaids. She didn't want to leave yet.
She didn't want to leave at all.
"If only you could stay," said Araioa, almost as though she had heard Charlie's thoughts.
"Would you let me stay with you?"
"Let you stay, so that we can salvage a ship in a quarter of the time it takes me alone? Let you stay, so we can wrap up the sledge in an hour rather than an afternoon? Let you stay, so you can," she murmured, dropping her face close to Charlie's again, "kiss me like that?"
Charlie kissed her like that again, and then a few more times, until she'd almost forgotten what they'd been talking about. But then Araioa pulled back from her with a sigh.
"I would, yes. But this isn't any kind of life for a woman-with-legs. You deserve to be able to walk around more than a tiny island. You shouldn't have to drown your kind to get your food and drink."
"I was a pirate. We took ships, just like you do. Your island's bigger than the Maid was. And anyway," said Charlie, grinning up at Araioa, "I have an idea."
Charlie set down her book and checked the sun again: two hours to sunset. It had been four days since Araioa had left, and she was beginning to get anxious. In a way, it was good that Araioa wasn't back yet, for if the Elder had disapproved of her proposal, she'd have concluded her business and come back straightaway, arriving at the island that same evening. But she hadn't returned, which meant that the Elder had given her blessing and sent for the other mermaids. No doubt there'd be a lively discussion, and that would take some time. Charlie had a whole loaf of bread and a barrel of fresh water, both from the stores they'd taken off the Merry Maid, and enough meat and cheese and fruit to last for five days.
But at the back of her mind, she worried that her plan had offended the Elder. Maybe it had infuriated her so much that she had decided to punish Araioa, keeping her confined until Charlie had died of hunger and thirst. She supposed she could swim around the island and try to find Araioa's larder-bubble, if she had to. There was enough food there she'd die of boredom instead. She'd about finished the book she'd taken, and she certainly couldn't swim down and take another one back up without ruining it, even if she could find the bubbles.
She was about to open her book again, when she saw something splash out by the reef. Another splash of water, and then a dolphin breached the surface, jumping clean out and back in again. Two more dolphins jumped, side by side, and then the surface was smooth and flat again. That was a good sign, wasn't it?
Then Araioa herself swam up to the surface, waving her hand as soon as she saw Charlie. Charlie grinned and waved back, and ran down to the beach just as Araioa reached it.
"Welcome back! What did they say?"
Araioa turned her head to look out over the water and whistled a few soft, musical notes. "Come out, sisters!" Behind her, five more mermaids surfaced. Then she turned back to Charlie. "We can't wait to get started!"
The portside tavern was dark and smoke-filled, and stank of spilled ale and other, less savory, fluids. From a corner table, one man waved to another who was just coming in, then signaled to a barmaid to bring another drink.
"Well if it ain't my old friend Mac," said the grizzled old salt as he eased himself into a rickety chair. His beard was as white as his hair, his face tanned like old leather from years in the tropical sun. "I thought I saw the Annette when we dropped anchor yestereve."
"Aye," said Mac. He was nearly as weathered as his friend, though his dark hair was only shot through with silvery strands. "Still on the Silvania, are you? There was some talk around town that she was overdue. Glad to see you ain't drownded."
The first man spat. "'Twas a near thing, mind you. We were rounding the tip of Hog Island when the ship o' mermaids came upon us."
"A ship of mermaids? Now, Oz, I heard of mermaids on rocks and mermaids on islands, but I never heard of mermaids on a ship."
"Aye, on a ship. Called the Merry Mermaid, it is, and it glides on the water with no sails on its masts, for it's pulled by six mermaids."
"Sounds like a sight to see, all right."
"And I wish I'd never seen it! For as we all stared at the ship coming at us with no sails, the mermaids started singing. The sweetest singing you've ever heard, and every man jack aboard lost his mind. We all dropped what we were doing, staring like slack-jawed lads at their first titty show, and then their captain strode up to the rail and shouted orders at us, and we couldn't do anything but obey. We anchored in the cove and listened to the mermaids, and then they boarded us and took all we had."
Mac looked at his friend skeptically. "That's a tall tale if ever I heard one. Everyone knows mermaids sing you to your death. And boarding a ship? What'd they do, sprout legs?"
"Their captain, she's a regular woman. She carried our gold out while the mermaids sang. And we carried it up to her, 'cause the mermaids told us to. Nothing we could do but help them plunder our Silvania, and watch as they sailed away again."
"The captain, a woman? Mermaids pulling a pirate ship?" He laughed and took another drink of his ale. "Now I've heard everything. I think you must have had too much rum, my friend."
"Not enough rum," said Oz darkly. "Believe me or don't, I don't care. Just 'ware the Merry Mermaid, or you'll be regretting it."
"No worries," said Mac. "We ain't going anywhere near Hog Island, anyway. Heading down past Sugar Bay to George Town. And we sail on tomorrow's tide, so I better have another drink."
As he waved down the barmaid, a small, slender figure in a battered slouch hat slipped away from the bar and left the tavern, smiling to herself. So the Annette would be heading past Sugar Bay tomorrow? A fine place for an ambush...