The sun is high and it glances off the water, a lance in the eyes of anyone who dares lift their head to the horizon. For three days they have bobbed in place like a cork on the water, becalmed, and the crew are growing restless. The anchor is all that prevents them drifting off course. Capitaine Javert descends below, confirming that the cannons are all in good order, when he is drawn back into the passageway outside by the sounds of a commotion on the quarterdeck.
The Surveillante is a naval frigate of the finest order; the polished wood of her three masts gleam in the sun, and when the wind is with them, her crisp white sails can overrun even the fleetest pirate vessel. The hull, inscribed with ornamental carvings beyond number, conceals three levels, each one essential to the ship’s smooth operation. Lowest down are the storerooms filled with salted provisions, caskets of water and ale, and the powder magazine. On the second level, there is the brig, the mess, and the officers’ lockers, while the level immediately belowdecks contains the officers’ bunks at the forecastle and the Capitaine’s own modest quarters at the aft. Between them stretch the lines of cannons, with enough firepower to easily cripple a ship the Surveillante’s own size. It is a good ship, and Javert is proud to be entrusted with her duties.
Taking the ladder two steps at a time, Javert’s navy tailcoat streams out behind him as he vaults through the hatch onto the deck above. There will be no brawling on his ship, he vows, and as he beholds the circled crowd gathered near the portside railing, the man’s eyes narrow.
“What is the meaning of this?” he demands, striding forward. “Speak up. Who is responsible?”
A few of the onlookers startle, though the rest of the circle is still involved in their tussle.
Javert turns; it is a younger officer who addresses him, standing at attention.
“If you please, sir.” Rivette offers a short bow. “The men are not at fault. There has been a... well, perhaps you should see for yourself.”
Frowning, Javert tempers his ire but shoulders his way quickly through the congregation. When he reaches the knot at the center, the Capitaine discovers the source of the trouble: there are four officers, able-bodied men of no little strength, all laboring to pin down a fifth barely visible beneath the pile of bodies.
Javert draws his pistol from its holster and cocks it.
“Get up, all of you.” He gestures with the pistol. “Let us see what this fuss is about.”
Four heads duck at the sound of his voice, and then each sailor rises slowly from his place. Their motions are wary, as though they expect their opponent might launch upon them at any moment. As the crew shuffle out of the way, there are gasps from the spectators; Javert’s hand on the gun does not falter, but the breath stills in his chest.
Beached upon the smooth planks, shedding sea water and sweat, is a chimera the likes of which Javert has hoped never to see at close quarters. From the waist up, it is ostensibly a man—ice blue eyes gaze out from under soaking wet curls the color of jet, and the torso is muscular and broad; the Capitaine perceives why so many men were needed to hold it. Once the lean stomach dips lower into the vee of the creature’s hips, however, the human form becomes a monstrosity. Where there should be legs, there is instead a powerful tail which flashes blue and silver in the light. The tail ends in a pale, barbed fin. It is a signature Javert recognizes.
“A siren.” The Capitaine holds his gun steady even as the creature pants, staring up at him defiantly. “How did this come to pass?”
It is Rivette who answers, having made his way around the crowd to the railing.
“Droit was aloft in the crow’s nest when the sun glanced off something in the water. He thought at first it was a shoal of fish, but it was too oddly shaped. When he brought it to Jourdan’s attention, they discovered the siren circling underneath us. They fetched a net and were able to haul the creature aboard, but not before he almost knocked their legs out from under them.” The Lieutenant eyes the siren cautiously. “I daresay he is very strong, even for one of the merfolk.”
From the crowd comes an exclamation. “Shoot it, Monsieur, before it can bring down the ship!”
Across the deck, Droit stands with his arms crossed, chiming in, “That thing nearabouts broke my arm. Send it back to the pit of hell it crawled out of!”
Where it reclines upon the floorboards, the siren watches Javert’s every move. The Capitaine’s forefinger brushes the trigger and the siren shudders, but it does not lower its gaze.
“If we kill this creature, we condemn ourselves with it,” Javert says, his finger never leaving the trigger for an instant. “So much as a drop of its blood in the water will summon more of its kind. Is there any man here who would take that chance?”
A grumble of discontent sweeps through the assembly. When no outcry is raised, however, Rivette steps forward. “What would you have us do, Commandant? If we throw him back, he will surely drown us all.”
The siren opens its mouth, leaning forward as if to speak. In retaliation, Javert points more emphatically with his pistol, and the creature swallows whatever curse it was ready to spout.
Javert rakes the siren with his eyes. “There is a tank in the old distillery room. That ought to suffice.”
The Lieutenant snaps his fingers, and the crew jump to attention. “Draw up barrels of seawater. The siren will keep until we reach the mainland.”
As the men begin to move, Javert remains at a standstill. The siren also sits frozen, staring down the barrel of the gun like a hunted animal. Its tail twitches, but perhaps seeing the fierce look upon Javert’s face, it makes no attempt to escape.
“The King pays more than my salary for the likes of you,” Javert says coolly. “And you will find no shipwreckers to come to your aid on land.”
When the last barrel of water is handed down to the hold, the crew tighten the circle around their prisoner. As two officers step forward, grabbing it beneath the arms, the siren begins to look decidedly uneasy. Its tail twitches again, slapping the surface of the deck, and the Capitaine takes a single step forward. He pins the creature’s fin to the planks with the heel of his boot, holding it in place.
“Watch it,” Javert warns. “The barbs on that tail could take out a man’s eye.”
Around him, the officers shift uncomfortably, none of them eager to get any closer to the beast than they have to. Javert snorts impatiently.
“Come now,” he says. “Martin, Sauveterre, hold the tail steady. Mercier, take a rope and bind its hands.”
The Capitaine circles the creature as the others step up reluctantly, pausing when he reaches its head. The siren can do nothing but await its fate, and it stares up at Javert with pleading eyes. Javert does not believe the droplets lingering on its cheeks are ocean water. He sneers; crocodile tears might tempt lesser men to release such a beast, only for them to see the error of their ways too late when it capsizes their vessel. The Capitaine does not intend to be so fooled.
“Jourdan,” he says, beckoning the young officer over. Despite his age, Jourdan is a good sailor and a braver man than many. He approaches curiously, and Javert points at their erstwhile captive.
“Fetch some cloth and muzzle its mouth. If it can still speak, it is dangerous.”
Jourdan returns minutes later from his errand with a long strip of material that looks as though it has been cut from the bedding of one of the bunks. He wraps it over the siren’s mouth to muffle any sound, then knots it tightly. Through it all, the siren makes a show of not struggling, but Javert’s crew are professionals and their grip on the creature does not slacken in complacency.
Only when Javert is satisfied with the restraints does he give the word to carry the siren into the hold of the ship. The distillery room is a relic of the ship’s last Capitaine, who was a fine officer in most regards but whom, in Javert’s mind, permitted too much drinking and rowdiness aboard his vessel. Thus, under Javert’s command the distillery stands unused, though it is kept clean and in working order should circumstance deprive them of their stored provisions.
In the foremost glass tank, a little longer than a man and a little higher than Javert’s knees, the barrels of saltwater have been poured out to fill it nearly to the brim. When the siren perceives what is in store, it abandons pretense and begins to wrestle with its captors, twisting and straining for purchase. Its efforts are fruitless; it is too far from water and too well tied to do more than aggravate the men holding it.
Javert points; there is a lid to the tank leaning against the wall. “Droit, D’Amboise, be ready with that.”
The pair heft the heavy lid, and those holding the siren lower it into the tank. Releasing their grip, the officers all but snatch their hands away as the creature hits the water. It thrashes about, water sloshing as its tail beats upon the sides of the glass, but before it can leverage itself free, Droit and D’Amboise heave the lid on top. They fasten the clamps, and lock it in place.
The siren’s struggles become more frantic; it pounds on the walls of the tank with its bound fists until gradually the understanding sets in that there is no way out. Slowly, defeat replaces panic; it sinks to the bottom and curls on its side, facing away from Javert and his crew. Javert knows it to be a deceptive sort of surrender. They have only to loosen the lid, and he is certain the siren will be at it again.
With the extant threat contained, the Capitaine orders the men back to their posts. Coming to a stop alongside him, Rivette stares at the tank looking rather ill.
“Is that... humane?” he asks, face ashen.
Javert regards their prisoner impassively. “What else would you have me do? This is the only way to ensure the ship’s safety.”
“Even so.” The Lieutenant shudders. “I think I shall have nightmares for weeks.”
“What do you know about sirens, Lieutenant?” Javert inquires. In the tank, the set of the creature’s shoulders is sullen.
“Only as much as anyone else,” Rivette replies.
“So nothing of substance, then.” Javert laughs, a singular harsh sound. “Do not waste your pity on the likes of this scum. Sirens,” he elucidates, “are vicious creatures which hunt men for food and sport. The sound of their voice is enough to drive a sailor mad. Let it speak to you, and it will begin to ensnare your mind. Let it sing to you, and you will throw yourself from the rigging without thinking twice. Entire pods of them will chase down ships, calling up storms from the deep powerful enough to break a frigate in two. This creature would feast on your flesh if it could, Rivette. Do you still feel sorry for it?”
Rivette says wryly, “I do not think you are helping my nightmares, sir.”
Javert’s features harden as he studies their captive. “A single siren can do as much harm as an entire corsair of pirates, and they cannot be reasoned with. Count yourself lucky that Droit spotted this one before it could summon more of its kin.”
“The crew will be pleased with their bonus,” says Rivette. He crosses his arms, still appearing slightly discomfited. “What will become of him when we return to port?”
Raising his voice in the off-chance the creature is listening, Javert responds, “It will be executed, of course. Perhaps there is a man of science who will examine its entrails—at any rate, this siren shall take no more ships.”
They are interrupted by a cry from the main deck—“Lay aloft and loose all sail!”—and a cheer goes up from the men. A moment later, the timbers groan and shift as the Surveillante begins to move; for the first time in three days, there is sufficient wind to carry them forward.
As he turns toward the ladder outside, Javert casts a final, contemptuous glance at the siren. “Thought to maroon us on our own ship, did you? There will be no more of that—not so long as there is breath in my lungs.”
With that, the Capitaine motions for Rivette to follow and marches from the room, leaving the siren alone.