Chapter 1: Becalmed
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.
Chapter 2: Middle Watch
Just a quick note to say that the rating has changed, though I don't see it increasing past M. I have also added a few additional tags. Any chapter-specific content warnings will be put in the notes of that chapter so readers have a heads-up.
That night, Javert is awoken by a sixth sense.
He cannot say what it is that draws him from slumber, but as he lays in his cot feeling the gentle rocking of the ship below him, he has the distinct impression that something is amiss. The Capitaine stares at the overhead compartment, ears pricked for any sign of trouble. There is no gust of wind to suggest a sudden change in the weather, nor the sounds of a scuffle on deck. It is altogether peaceful—too peaceful.
Restless, Javert swings his legs out of bed and pulls his leather boots up to his knees. His hair is loose; he draws it back with the ribbon at his bedside, and then he stands. His pistol, too, rests within arm’s reach, and he straps the holster around his waist. As an afterthought, Javert throws his tailcoat over his nightshirt and crosses the room to the door.
Outside, the night sky is painted with stars, and a half moon casts her ghostly illumination over the scene. They appear to be completely alone; Javert scans the horizon in both directions, but sees neither shore nor sails. Still, he is not entirely assured. Turning away from his cabin, the Capitaine climbs the stairs to the aftcastle where Sauveterre is keeping middle watch at the helm.
“Commandant,” the officer greets him.
Javert inclines his head. “All quiet?”
“Perfectly so. Rivette gives it two days before we catch up with the pirates. I don’t know how he reckons that, but there’s been no sign of them tonight.”
The mainsail creaks, and Javert studies the pattern of the clouds where they obscure the view of the firmament. “They will have taken the lead after we lost the wind,” he says. “But we will catch them. There is no faster ship in France than the Surveillante. Keep an eye on those clouds—you may get a sprinkling of rain before the next watch.”
“Yes, sir.” Sauveterre looks at him askance. “You should get some sleep, Commandant. You’re no good to the rest of us if you’re dead on your feet.”
Javert shakes his head. “Instinct will not allow it. I am going to check below. Call me if anything changes.”
Javert descends to the quarterdeck; his cabin calls invitingly, but the restlessness has not dissipated. Instead the Capitaine drops through the first hatch he comes across, descending past the cannon ports to the second level. He knows what it is that troubles him; thoughts of the siren have not left his mind all day. To think that it was only Droit’s keen vision which prevented disaster—the notion makes his skin crawl. Resolving just to check on the creature eases some of Javert’s disquiet.
Stepping off the ladder, the Capitaine removes a lantern from where it hangs on the bulkhead. Holding it aloft, he creeps down the passageway with more caution than such a routine inspection probably requires. Not a single board squeaks under his careful movements as he makes his way to the distillery room.
The first sign that something is wrong is the door standing ajar. However, it is not until Javert ducks inside that he understands how bad the situation has become. The tank is broken, and worse, it is empty. On the floor is a pool of water that stretches almost to the threshold, mingled with blood and shards of glass. Most damningly of all is the length of rope laying at the bottom of the tank. At once it is plain what has happened: the siren has escaped.
Javert raises the alarm even as a hundred thoughts flash through his head, most of which amount to his wishing he had posted a guard on the door. The creature has left slick patches on the floorboards and Javert falls into pursuit, no longer bothering to dampen his footsteps. He wrests his gun from his belt and turns the corner, only to come face to face with none other than the siren itself.
The beast has dragged itself halfway up the stairs on naught but its arms, tail lapsing uselessly on the treads below. It is midway to hoisting itself higher when it hears Javert’s approach and freezes.
“So,” says Javert, every step forward measured and deliberate now he is certain the siren has not flown the confines of the ship. “This is where I find you.”
The siren is motionless, the tension in its shoulders palpable, and a thin smile lines Javert’s face. At least the creature has the wits to realize the position it is in. Javert can hear the pounding of feet in the passage behind him, but he does not wait for aid to arrive. He climbs the first step and hooks the lantern over a peg, then seizes the siren by the shoulder and flips it onto its back. It produces a muffled grunt—and it is not lost on Javert that the siren has discarded the gag over its mouth just as it discarded the rope at its wrists—but otherwise it does not react as the Capitaine presses his pistol to its chest.
“I have been more than generous,” Javert hisses, bending down enough to see the whites of the creature’s eyes. “You had water. You had solitude. A pirate would weep to be treated so indulgently on his way to the gallows. If you are this determined to behave like a jailbreaker, you can be dealt with like one.”
He is not certain whether the creature understands him; at any rate, it continues to regard Javert with the same unnerving expression. On a man, such a look might be termed resignation, but the Capitaine does not believe for one moment that the siren has given up. There are a patchwork of cuts lacing its arms and stomach where it crawled over the broken glass, though the worst appears to be its tail. Javert guesses the appendage supplied the brute force necessary to shatter the walls of the tank. No creature would do that to itself only to surrender when caught; it is a ploy, a transparent attempt to trick Javert into letting his guard down.
Sauveterre comes running around the corner, stopping short when he sees the siren braced against the steps. Following close behind are Martin and D’Amboise, evidently roused from their bunks by the Capitaine’s shout. Martin catches sight of the escaped prisoner and curses loudly.
Javert’s eyes do not leave the siren’s face as he says, “Take the shipwrecker to the brig and leave it there to rot.”
As Sauveterre and D’Amboise lay hands on the creature, Javert backs down, though he does not relax the hold on his gun. All the while, the siren watches him with the same weary sort of forbearance. It is an expression that rankles; Javert is certain that no sooner will it be relegated to a new prison than it will attempt to abscond again.
The distance to the brig is not far, but the officers bend under the siren’s weight and the creature’s tail is not helping matters; it scrapes along the floorboards leaving a moist, rust-colored trail that will have to be mopped afterwards. Eventually, they reach the bow of the ship where rows of squalid cells line the center aisle. At the moment, they all stand empty, but that is about to change. Javert takes the keyring from the hook on the wall and unbolts the nearest door on the portside block. He stands with it open as Sauveterre and D’Amboise drag the siren inside, Martin bringing up the rear to secure shackles upon it.
One by one, the creature’s limbs are fastened; first its wrists to the lattice of iron bars, then at the Capitaine’s insistence its tail, which is wrapped in chains until the siren is no longer free to writhe and flail as it did before. Through it all, the siren is almost unaffected, its breathing steady. Only the tip of its tailfin betrays its feelings, fluttering and twitching in small, agonized movements.
When the officers step back, Javert reviews their handiwork. The siren is half-slumped against the bars, wrists pinned in the vicinity of its shoulders. There will be no getting out of that, not without the keys and more than a little ingenuity. Giving a jerk of his head, the Capitaine indicates for the men to take their leave. He locks the cell door behind them, shaking it to ensure its security.
“Post a guard on the door,” Javert says. “You may wake Pierre, God knows he has had enough sleep lately, and change every shift. I will not be made a fool of twice.”
At their chorus of “Yes, sir,” the Capitaine waves them back to their bunks. He is moving to follow suit when a voice calls out.
Javert starts as though he has received an electric shock. Pivoting on his heel, he looks back at the tiny chamber. The siren has fixed him with its piercing eyes, wild and strange. They are mesmerizing, no shade of blue the Capitaine has ever seen. It is then that Javert remembers he has not had the beast gagged a second time. He had almost forgotten it capable of speech, and its voice is not at all what the Capitaine expected—it is disconcertingly human.
“Please,” the siren continues. “Water.”
It speaks French as though it has lived its life in the northern countryside rather than trawling the ocean, and Javert is mindful of any change in his own behavior that might suggest this familiar speech is intended to reel him in. The officers have paused on the stairs, ogling the creature as it makes its first words to them a request.
The Capitaine frowns. “If you wanted so badly to have water, you should not have broken the tank.”
The siren shifts minutely, and the chains clank together. “I... I do not care for small spaces.” Its composure wavers as it adds, “Surely men can understand that.”
“What I understand,” says Javert, “is that a prisoner has abused my leniency, and is now asking for a favor. The answer is no.”
Striding toward the staircase, Javert mutters something about waking Pierre himself when there comes another, more urgent, “Wait!”
Javert pauses, one foot on the lowest step. “What?” he grinds out.
There is silence for a moment before the quiet reply, “Would it please you if I begged?”
Javert’s mouth twists with distaste at the thought.
“Save your breath,” he says.
It is an intellectual curiosity, and nothing more, which draws the Capitaine back to the bars. The siren has turned onto its side as much as the chains will allow, and it meets Javert’s gaze evenly.
“I cannot last more than a few hours without water,” the siren tells him. “Should your crew wish to claim the reward for my capture, you need me alive. If they do not... If they do not, then surely there is a kinder way of ending my life than this.”
“I am not kind,” Javert says automatically.
He glances at where the officers wait on the stairs. They are waiting intently for their orders, and Javert sighs. A siren’s ransom will put more in every man’s purse than their entire mission, even should they succeed at bringing back a ship full of pirates. Javert does not want to have to quell a mutiny. Nevertheless, he cannot be certain his hesitation is not the result of the creature toying with his head. Finally, he reaches a decision.
“Bring another tank,” he orders. With a glare at the siren, Javert adds, “And then shut its mouth.”
The men change course for the distillery room, and the last thing the Capitaine sees before he sweeps up the stairs is the way the siren’s shoulders sag with relief.
Chapter 3: Stifling
Several days pass, and Javert does not think of the prisoner. There have been no further incidents since a guard was stationed at the cell door, and all of the Capitaine’s attentions have been fixated upon catching the pirate vessel. The pirates are faster than Javert would have guessed; it is not until the third day that they at last catch a glimpse of sails on the horizon, only for the corsair to vanish again. It puts him in a foul mood, and the crew is on edge. There are whispers about some ill power giving speed to their quarry, and it is ultimately that which reminds Javert of the siren in the hold.
When Javert descends to the brig, the midday sun is shining through the portholes. It casts a yellow glow over the brown of his skin, over the bulkheads plugged full of pitch and oakum. The air is stifling; it is moments before the wool of his collar is chafing against his neck. Officer Rousseau keeps the current watch on the siren, and he snaps to attention as the Capitaine approaches. Javert acknowledges him with a tip of the head, coming to a stop in front of the bars.
Folding his hands behind his back, Javert observes his captive. It comes as something of a surprise to see the creature looking unwell. The siren’s face is pale, its curls hanging limpid with sweat. Though its arms are manacled still to the ironwork, the siren’s tail is submerged in a glass tank pushed alongside the bars. It reclines half in, half out of the water in a position which seems decidedly uncomfortable, but Javert is not concerned with that. It is not his business to dote on the prisoner. What is his business is seeing to it that the siren survives the return journey, and at present he is not convinced the creature will live so long.
“Key,” says the Capitaine shortly, extending a gloved hand. Rousseau gives it to him.
Stepping through the cell door, Javert shuts himself inside and passes the keyring back through the bars as a precaution. He will not risk loosing the siren on the ship. The creature has been resting with its eyes closed, to all appearances asleep. However, it raises its head at the creak of the hinges, and Javert does not miss the uncertainty which flickers across its face at the sight of the Capitaine. Javert stares placidly back; he is content to let the siren stew in its own sense of anticipation as he ponders what to do next. He came with the intent of questioning the creature, but the question rising to his lips now is a different one.
“Have you eaten?” Javert asks.
Now the siren just looks confused; clearly, that is not what it expected Javert to say.
“Well?” Impatient, the Capitaine demands, “Have you?”
There is cloth tied over its mouth as Javert had ordered, so the siren gives a single shake of its head no.
Again, the siren shakes its head. Javert pinches the bridge of his nose. How do the crew expect to claim any reward if they starve the creature to death? Surely Rivette ought to have known better.
“Are you hungry?”
The siren does not move, but the dubious look on its features speaks volumes.
Javert folds his arms to his chest. “If I intended to poison you, I would have done so already. Do your kind eat fish?”
This time, the siren slowly nods the affirmative, and Javert bangs on the bars until Rousseau turns to him.
“Go to the galley, tell the cook to give you a plate of whatever raw fish he can find.”
As Rousseau’s footsteps disappear up the passageway, Javert crosses to the other side of the cell. Astonishment and suspicion war for control of the siren’s expression, and it shrinks against the bars when the Capitaine comes closer. With a dissatisfied hum, Javert examines the quality of the water in the tank. It is murky and reeks of filth. He touches his gloved fingers to the surface, and the leather comes away coated with a slimy film. Javert wrinkles his nose in revulsion.
The siren does not seem to know what to make of this; it startles when Javert touches the water, then goes still as a statue when Javert steps closer yet. The Capitaine brushes the pistol at his hip, reassuring himself as much as the siren of its presence, and raises his hand to the material muzzling the creature. With an ungentle tug, he loosens the knot and pulls the fabric away. It is stained with spittle and sweat, and the corners of the creature’s mouth are red where the cotton has bitten into its skin. Javert’s fingers linger a moment on the siren’s jaw, feeling it shiver at his touch. The creature’s trim beard has grown rough and patchy in its captivity, which only adds to its ill affect. Standing so near, Javert sees the dried salt and flecks of blood covering its arms and chest. He lowers his hand slowly.
Rousseau returns with a tin plate upon which there is a single fresh cod.
“It was all he had,” the officer explains. “And, er, the cook said to tell you that next time you can go and get it yourself...”
“Oh, the cook said that, did he?” Javert growls, accepting the plate through the bars. Rousseau passes him a long-handled knife as well, wincing at the thought of the dressing-down the cook will undoubtedly receive later.
As Javert begins to chop the fish into small chunks, he asks, “Who is responsible for changing the creature’s water?”
Rousseau shifts awkwardly, stammering out, “W-well sir, if I’m being honest, all of us are too scared to get anywhere close to the damn thing.”
Glowering, Javert snaps, “Pick up a bucket and start dumping that bilge back into the ocean. I don’t care how squeamish you are, it will need new water drawn up at least every two days. The authorities do not pay for dead sirens, and you couldn’t keep anything alive in that cesspool.”
Rousseau lifts a bucket looking miserable, and Javert gives his attention back to the prisoner. It is watching him carefully now, and as Javert returns to its side, it opens its mouth to speak.
Javert brandishes the knife. “One sound,” he says, “one single sound out of you, and I will cut out your tongue. Is that clear, siren?”
The creature’s pallor increases, and it nods. To his right, Rousseau starts scooping the dingy water out of the tank, but Javert is focused on his task. He does not trust the crew to do what needs to be done, but neither does that make it any more tasteful. Grimacing as it sticks slightly to his fingers, Javert plucks a single piece of fish from the plate and holds it out near the creature’s mouth.
The siren’s eyes flicker hesitantly between the fish and the Capitaine. It bends forward as though expecting some trick; when none is forthcoming, it snatches the food from Javert’s fingers between its teeth. The siren’s throat bobs as it swallows, and then it looks back at Javert utterly perplexed.
Javert scoffs. “I am not doing this out of sympathy,” he says, raising another piece of fish. “It is necessary—you must eat, and I will not have you unshackled aboard my ship.”
The siren inclines its head slightly, then takes the next bite from Javert’s fingers. The cell door opens and shuts repeatedly as Rousseau works to empty the tank, but the officer fades in Javert’s mind until he is part of the background. Instead, the Capitaine concentrates on the siren and their uneasy truce. True to its word, the creature does not make so much as a single sound. Instead it accepts morsels of food with docile obedience, gulping them down indifferent to bits of scale or bone. The occasional crack of marrow between its teeth is repellent, but it is not as though Javert has any desire to clean the fish properly for the prisoner’s sake.
As the siren feeds from his hand, there are certain things Javert cannot help but notice. The first are its teeth; unlike in the stories, they are neither needle-sharp nor filed to points. On its neck, thin, parallel slits suggest gills, presently laying flat as the creature breathes the air through its nostrils. Then there is the dusting of dark hair that covers its bare chest and arms, through which are visible the pale lines of old scars. Some of them look like the work of a net, and Javert wonders if this is not the first time the siren has been captured by men. He wonders how it ended, whether the siren simply slipped out of its bonds and into the water, or if it took the whole vessel to the seafloor with it. He has the sudden desire to ask, but he does not.
Through it all, the siren does its utmost to preserve the distance between them, but it is difficult. Inevitably, its lips will brush against Javert’s gloves, and the pair share in a moment of mutual discomfort. At those times, the siren pulls away at once, looking anywhere but at Javert’s face, and it is a minute before it gathers the courage to reach for the next morsel. Javert is privately grateful that Rousseau is otherwise engaged; the thought of another watching this is intolerable. Already the sensation of the siren’s mouth is distracting, its lips chapped and dry as they ghost over the leather. Too human, Javert thinks, and therein lies the danger; if he does not look down at the tail, it is easy to forget that this creature is not a man at all.
At last, the siren swallows the last bite of fish and Javert moves away more quickly than perhaps he meant to. Rousseau returns from the quarterdeck rolling a hefty barrel, which he shoves through the cell door with great effort. The officer begins to pour clean water into the tank and the siren visibly eases, but its eyes never leave Javert. The expression it wears is unfathomable; the Capitaine does not pretend to understand it. Instead he catalogues the return of color to the siren’s face, the way it seems to breathe easier, and counts his efforts a success.
“Tie that again, won’t you?” Javert says when Rousseau has emptied his barrel. In unison, all glance at the strip of material laying on the floor.
The siren looks as though it wants to protest, but remembering Javert’s warning, it remains silent as the officer stoops to collect the rough cloth. Rousseau winds the gag back around its mouth, and whatever sentiment had been shining through the creature’s eyes turns dull and apathetic again.
Javert announces, “I will return at this time tomorrow.”
Both Rousseau and the siren seem to start, though it is the siren which receives Javert’s scrutiny. It looks as baffled now as it did when first the Capitaine arrived, and Javert snorts as he departs for the passage outside.
If the creature is determined to mistake his actions for mercy, it will only continue to be confused. Javert is not merciful, in the way that the sea is not merciful. The sea takes, and what it takes it does not then release. Javert fully expects that one day the sea will take him, too, and there will be a certain symmetry in that. Yes, Javert will do what he must to keep the siren alive, no more and no less, and if it is wise, the creature will not underestimate him.
Those who underestimate Capitaine Javert seldom live to regret it.
Chapter 4: Phantoms
Happy Barricade Day/Post-Seine Day! I am going camping this weekend, so I wanted to get this chapter posted before I leave. Thank you as always to Ias, who was a very patient beta as I rewrote this chapter three different times~
The next day, Javert arrives promptly when he said he would. He is grumbling, a low string of imprecations spilling out of his mouth which curse in turn the cook, the cook’s mother, and the irreputable port city in which the cook was born. In his hands, the Capitaine carries a plate laden with two small fish and a handful of prawn. It will have to do.
The seas have turned choppy, and the Surveillante cuts through the waves as she rides to the top of one crest, then drops down into the trough before the next swell. The crew are well-used to such weather, but now and then a particularly great jolt runs through the ship and the men must work to keep their feet. As he reaches the bottom of the ladder, the Surveillante rolls a few degrees to starboard, and Javert steadies himself on the bulkhead.
Outside the brig, Martin is standing guard while looking somewhat green in the face. The Capitaine dismisses him with an order to lay down for an hour.
“Thank you, sir,” Martin says fervently.
Javert watches him go, hoping that the officer will have the good sense to get to a railing if his rations start coming back on him. Then he turns to face the siren’s cell.
Letting himself in, Javert latches the door securely before beginning to assess the prisoner’s condition. This afternoon, the siren is alert, and it regards the Capitaine with apparent surprise. In all likelihood, it never expected him to keep his word. It sits perched on the edge of its tank, its back to the bars. The water immersing its tail is clear, and Javert can see through to the heavy chains weighting its fins to the bottom. All told, the creature scarcely seems to have moved since last Javert saw it.
Wordlessly, Javert prepares the fish, cutting it into slightly larger chunks than the day before. Larger chunks mean fewer opportunities for the siren’s lips to touch Javert’s fingers, which suits the Capitaine just fine. Setting his features in a hard line, Javert rests the plate of food upon the edge of the tank and strides over to where the siren is restrained. Unlike yesterday, the siren does not tremble when Javert removes the gag. Instead it studies him, an unvoiced question written on its face. The Capitaine does not ask; he does not care to know.
Fetching the plate, Javert picks a rubbery piece of bass from the pile and holds it at arm’s length. He will keep this as brief and to the point as he can, and finish Martin’s watch in the hall outside. The boat pitches; Javert sways with the motion like it is second nature, and the siren snatches the food from his hand. It seems almost as eager as Javert to get this over with—or perhaps, Javert thinks, it is just hungry.
A second bite and a third go down in the same way. The siren eats the prawns whole, a sight which turns Javert’s stomach. He has tried repeatedly not to dwell on the fact that this creature would also eat human flesh given the chance, but it is a difficult thought to shake. How many sailors has the siren carried into the depths and drowned, only to devour their bodies in the same way it now gulps down bits of bass and cod? Javert’s lip curls slightly. Then, to his misfortune, the Surveillante lands in a trough more heavily than it has before.
The change catches Javert off balance. He tries to right himself but overcompensates, falling forward towards the bars, and the plate slips from his grip to clatter to the floor. Throwing his hands out, Javert braces for impact. One hand grabs hold of the iron lattice. The other lands squarely on the broad plane of the siren’s chest.
A quiet gasp coincides with Javert’s own sharp intake of breath. It takes the Capitaine a moment even to realize what has occurred, and then it dawns on him; his nose is a hair’s breadth from touching the bars, while half his weight leans into the siren’s bulk. Mere inches away, the creature’s hand is chained to the ironwork; it could so easily grab him by the hair, hold him hostage and whisper sweet enchantments in his ear until Javert is utterly in its thrall, but the siren is too startled to think to act. Instead it tenses, eyes darting furtively from Javert to the hand over its heart.
The ship returns to its steady undulating pace, and Javert picks himself up. He brushes off his tailcoat and straightens his cravat, electing to say nothing of what just transpired. For a single instant, the balance of power tipped in the siren’s favor, but now the scales are righted again. The errant thought passes through his head that the siren’s skin had been warm, even through the material of his glove, where he would have expected such a creature to be cold-blooded. He bends at the waist; the plate has landed right-side up, and while the prawns have scattered, the fish appears salvageable.
Straightening, Javert is unsurprised to find the siren watching; its eyes never seem to leave him. Javert wishes he knew whether this were out of the proper deference to authority a prisoner should display, or something more sinister. He fears it is the latter. The Capitaine cannot have failed to notice that there is something magnetic about the creature’s gaze, though the siren itself appears to be unconscious of it. That is just as well; if the creature realized its hypnotic effect, it would surely exploit Javert’s weakness to snare him.
Yet that is itself strange, Javert thinks as he stands rigidly with the plate in his hands, for all his sailor’s wisdom suggests that it is the creature’s voice which must be avoided. The tales and lore he has worked to commit to memory seem to be filled with holes in the face of an actual monster.
“Perhaps we can come to some other arrangement.”
Javert does not realize he is speaking until he has already spoken. It is like the deck has tilted again beneath his feet; he does not even know what arrangement he could propose that would not be unacceptably perilous. The siren regards him with a calm and steady stare, and the Capitaine is discomfited to find it is he who first looks away.
Setting the plate aside, Javert says, “There is knowledge which you possess that could be of use to me.” He drums his fingers against his thigh, measuring every word carefully. “I am willing to permit you to speak, so long as you answer my questions. But -”
He stops, meeting the siren’s gaze once more.
“- there has to be some insurance that you will not try to bewitch me, nor any member of my crew.”
The siren shifts where it sits on the edge of the tank, rippling the water around its tail, but its expression does not change, not even when Javert closes the gap between them. Strangling the bars between his fingers, Javert leans in until he can feel the moisture present in each one of the creature’s slight exhalations.
“Understand,” says Javert, lowering his voice to a dangerous murmur, “that should I detect so much as the faintest trace of enchantment, I will take whatever measures I deem necessary to counteract it.”
The siren’s features are written with mistrust as Javert tries to impress upon it just how earnestly he means his words. Even now, the Capitaine cannot deny there is a thrill of danger in standing so close; though the siren is manacled, there is no fettering the pools of its eyes. Perhaps he would have been better served by a blindfold.
In the same low tone as before, the Capitaine continues, “You will speak when spoken to, and you will not speak out of turn. Can you agree to that?”
The siren looks him over, appearing to weigh its options. When Javert’s thin patience has nearly worn through, it inclines its head in a gesture of accession.
Releasing the bars, Javert turns about and strides back to the middle of the cell, thinking hard. The siren will most assuredly be reticent to share any detail which might compromise it further, yet it is precisely that which Javert needs most. Frowning, he elects to open with what he believes to be a safe question; better to put the creature at ease and hope it can be tricked into revealing more than it intends than to anger it from the offset.
“You have a grasp of French,” Javert begins.
The siren nods, its entire manner one of caution.
Opening its mouth, the prisoner looks askance at the Capitaine and seems to think twice.
“You have my permission to respond,” Javert informs it peevishly.
The siren swallows. When it speaks, its voice is hoarse with disuse. “I... We... have the gift of understanding most creatures.” It lifts its broad shoulders slightly. “I do not know how I speak your language, only that I do.”
Javert hums. It is a talent he would do well not to overlook.
“Very well.” He pivots, pacing a track across the floorboards. “Then speak. Do you have a name?”
The siren considers this. “In your tongue, it is perhaps best said, ‘Jean-Val-Jean’.”
“Jean Valjean. Hmph.”
It is strange to think of the creature as having a name, though he supposes it must. Javert cannot quite bring himself to address it as such when he reaches the end of his track and must turn to pace back.
Instead, he says curtly, “Where do you come from?”
The coils of the siren’s tail slide as much as the chains will allow as it turns slightly to the side.
“I go where there is food,” it says. “Fish,” it clarifies hastily, but it is too late. Javert has already stiffened with the memory of discovering the siren on his deck, held down by four men who were said to have seen it circling beneath them.
The Capitaine narrows his eyes. “Why did you steal the wind from my ship?”
At Javert’s skeptical snort, the creature says more emphatically, “I swear it! No power but the weather of the world took the wind from your sails.”
Javert clenches his jaw. “If that is true, then what were you doing prowling below us?”
The siren’s tailfin twitches, splashing water from its tank. Quietly it replies, “You would not believe me if I told you.”
“Tch.” Javert raises his eyes to the ceiling. “Just admit that you were planning to sink us.”
“But I wasn’t,” the siren says weakly. “I saw that your ship was stranded, and—and I wanted to help.”
Javert retrieves the gag from where it rests on the floor, saying, “If you cannot speak honestly, then I would prefer you not to speak at all.”
At that, something genuinely like anger flashes across the siren’s face. “How can I be honest when you will only see me as a beast I am not?”
There is a pause as Javert splutters for a response; when he is too long in coming up with one, the siren turns its face away.
“I should think you would know, Commandant, that a single siren could not raise a storm sufficient to sink your frigate.”
The way it pronounces his title is bitter, and a little mocking. Javert is above such things, but it annoys him even so.
“So you were scouting,” he says dismissively. “And my crew brought you aboard before you could send for the others.”
“And how would I do that?” The siren’s gaze turns distant. “All my family are dead.”
Now Javert finds himself wrong-footed, as though he somewhere missed a stair step. Nothing the creature has said has been untoward, and yet the Capitaine finds himself wondering if perhaps it has gotten inside his head after all; how else to explain the mystifying tangle of emotion the siren inspires in his chest? There is aggravation, certainly, and more than enough distrust, but also something else that he cannot name, a specter which looms like a distant crag on the horizon. He does not like it, does not like the way the siren droops as it loses the will to fight, does not like that he must now question whether his captive was telling the truth from the start.
Shaking free of the strange mood that has come over him, Javert revisits the remnants of fish where they were left beside the tank. He came down here to do a job, and he intends to finish it. Stonily, the Capitaine returns to the siren’s side.
“You cannot be full yet,” he says. “Here. Eat.”
He holds a bite of food uncompromisingly to the siren’s mouth. It does as instructed, but stares into space as though lost in thought. For several minutes it silently accepts scraps, until it surprises Javert by looking up.
“Do you miss your family while you are away at sea?”
The Capitaine blinks. Stalling for an answer, he hands another piece of fish to the siren but it does not take it. It simply watches him, quietly waiting for a reply.
“No,” says Javert shortly. “I do not miss them.”
Facing away, he adds, “If you are done, Mercier will be relieving me shortly.”
Javert crosses to the door, suddenly eager to be gone from the creature’s presence, when he is stopped by just the word, “Wait.”
His hand on the door, Javert nevertheless turns his head.
The siren looks sheepish, but it says, “You asked my name, but you have never given me yours.”
The Capitaine stares at it. Eventually, he replies gruffly, “Javert.”
“Javert,” the siren repeats, rolling the word on its tongue. It pronounces it like a riddle, and a shiver runs down Javert’s spine. The urge to flee has become overwhelming.
While trying not to let his discomfiture show, Javert nods his head once. In the passageway Mercier is approaching the brig, and the Capitaine hails him.
“The creature has been fed,” he says, his voice nearly a growl. “Tie the muzzle back around its mouth, and shout if it gives you any trouble. Do not do so alone, and do not let it speak to you.”
“Yes, sir,” says Mercier, eyeing the cell warily.
Javert scowls and stalks towards the stairs. Through no fault of his own, he is driven to distraction. It can only have been the creature’s intent to unsettle him; even now he can hear the voice of the siren—of Valjean—whispering his name like a phantom echo over the sea.
Chapter 5: Shipwrecker
“Sir, you are bleeding -”
“Let it be, Lieutenant.”
“But sir -”
“I said, let it be!”
Javert takes the ladder down two steps at a time, lightheaded with outrage and with the wetness he can feel seeping through the sleeve of his coat. Rivette comes trailing after, face pinched in concern. When he goes so far as to try to take the plate from Javert’s hands, the Capitaine spins around.
“Enough, Rivette!” he snaps, and the Lieutenant stops immediately in his tracks.
For a moment they stare at each other, Javert furious, Rivette doing his best not to appear hurt.
Then Rivette says quietly, “Yes, sir. Forgive my presumption.”
Javert sighs, regretting his temper. “Your concern is noted,” he replies, continuing down the steps. “But you have to understand, I am the only one who can do this.”
Rivette makes an unconvinced noise in the back of his throat, and Javert realizes how he must sound. He pauses, turning back over his shoulder. The Lieutenant is still fixed in place; when Javert meets his eyes, he raises his chin slightly as though expecting another rebuke.
“I must question the creature,” the Capitaine explains. “I would not chance you or any other man under my command falling under its spell. After, I shall tend to my arm. In the meantime, see that the others who were struck go to the sickbay at once—we all must be ready when we run those bastards to ground.”
Throughout the course of this speech, Rivette’s eyes soften.
“I will see to it, sir,” he says.
The Capitaine hesitates only a moment before going on into the hold. This afternoon, the watch at the brig is kept by a man called Géroux, an officer of stocky build and ruddy complexion. When he notices Javert’s approach, he hurries forward anxiously.
“There you are, Commandant! What in the nine Hells is happening up there?”
Grimly, the Capitaine glances upwards. “The Sangsue got abreast of us—we could not wear ship fast enough.” His expression darkens as he adds, “The rigging is full of chain shot, and we’ve had to stop until it can be repaired. They’ve used the opportunity to escape, of course.”
Looking more dismayed by the word, Géroux swears colorfully. Even if the Capitaine shares the sentiment, he will not tolerate that sort of language in his presence; he stares levelly at the officer until Géroux, realizing his mistake, slinks away with a muttered apology and a redder than usual face.
Shaking his head, Javert returns his attention to his task. Géroux has left behind him a stool, and after a moment’s deliberation Javert drags it along with his good arm, transferring the plate of food to his other despite that his hand trembles slightly. They have a routine between them now; when Javert enters the cell, the siren, Valjean, is already leaning forward as far as its bonds will allow. Javert stands the stool beside the tank and deposits the plate atop it.
“Hold still,” he barks.
Valjean blinks and does not move, though the siren’s muscles strain against the chains. It peers at Javert over the gag, unintimidated.
Suspicious of his captive as ever, the Capitaine raises his hand to the knot at the back of its head. In so doing, his fingers brush against curls which are softer than he had imagined, hardly the coarse hair of a sea-beast. He unties the band of cloth and Valjean swivels away, choking and retching as the creature expels from its mouth a second piece of material; a handkerchief, Javert perceives, that some enterprising sailor can only have wadded up and forced into the siren’s mouth the better to ensure its silence.
Reclining back against the bars, Valjean emits a small sigh of relief. The creature’s eyes fall shut, and it croaks out, “Thank you.”
Javert does not reply. Instead he pulls the stool closer and sits, taking the plate of food back in his hands. Today there is sea bass, after Pierre caught a large one fishing off the bow. In the afternoon light, the siren at repose is resplendent; its tail glitters, and Javert perceives thin pinstripes of silver scales he has not hitherto noticed running down its length. They are the markings of a predator; Javert strives not to forget that as he holds out a chunk of pale flesh.
The creature tips its head to one side, mouth closing around the fish. Looking anywhere but at Valjean, Javert flounders to think of something other than the warm wetness lingering on his fingertips. His eyes land on the restraints; it seems to Javert that the siren’s left arm hangs just slightly looser in its shackles than it ought, and when Valjean finishes that first morsel, Javert leans across the tank to take a better look. If the prisoner has done damage to the manacles, he wants to be the first to know.
As Javert bends forward, his sleeve rides up to expose the gash near the crook of his arm, the wool darkened with a spreading stain. The siren’s nostrils flare, its eyes going wide, and then time seems to slow to a stop as several things happen in quick succession.
Valjean’s tail roils in the tank, churning the water as a fin flicks above the surface. Javert leaps backward, staggering away from the stool and putting his hand to the butt of his pistol. Panting, he draws his weapon and aims for the siren’s heart. Valjean freezes; for a moment all is quiet.
The siren lifts its hands in defeat.
“Do not,” says Javert through gritted teeth, “make any sudden moves.”
Even now he is out of harm’s way, the vision will not leave him: that ferocious tail rising from the water, pulling him down and forcing his head below the surface until his struggles cease and the bubbles no longer issue from his mouth. The chains should be enough to prevent that happening. They should, and yet the vision remains.
Quietly, Valjean murmurs, “Forgive me. I did not mean to frighten you.”
“You do not frighten me,” Javert sneers. “I simply do not trust you. What do you think you’re playing at, anyway?”
“You are hurt.” The siren adds tentatively, “I was only trying to sit up. Once, I could have... I wanted to know if I could help.”
Javert stares. “...wanted to know if it could help,” he mutters under his breath. “Ha. As if you would ever lift a finger to help me. Trying to pull me under is more like it.”
He lets his arm with the gun drop, ignoring the way his shoulder twinges. The bleeding has slowed, at least. Valjean watches with bated breath; when it is apparent the Capitaine is not about to shoot him, the siren huffs.
“What happened?” it asks. “I heard cannonfire.”
“Pirates.” Javert spits, stowing his gun again. The memory makes his mouth twist with displeasure. “We’ve been on their tail for over a week, ever since they burned the port at Montreuil-sur-Mer.”
The noise Valjean makes is sympathetic—it cannot be sympathetic. The Capitaine sits guardedly back upon the stool, but he does not return to feeding the creature. Rather, they look at one another; Javert does not know what to think, and he touches the tear in his coat.
“It was chain shot,” he finds himself explaining. “The Sangsue is not equipped to overpower us. Their only hope was to disable our rigging and flee. One of the balls smashed a hole in the gunwale, and I was standing in the path of the debris.”
“I’m sorry,” says Valjean.
The siren sounds sincere, and Javert glances at it in disbelief.
“I got off lightly. Others weren’t so fortunate.”
Valjean hums, lengths of scale folding and adjusting beneath the water’s surface as it eases again into the same awkward position it has held for nearly all its captivity. The tank is growing algae in the corners, and the Capitaine suspects the men have not been changing the water as they were instructed. It occurs to Javert then what a miserable existence this must be, how Valjean must despise him for it. He is unbothered—Javert has done no more than what is necessary to contain the siren’s power, and he does not regret it—but still it is strange that Valjean should show him so little animosity.
That thought then reminds the Capitaine of the old scars crisscrossing the siren’s chest. He did not ask about them before, but now he does.
“This is not the first time you have been captured by men, is it?”
Valjean frowns at the inquiry, looking pensive, and Javert expects the creature will not answer. Before a minute has passed, however, it nods; Valjean’s head tips to the side, regarding Javert more intently.
“There was a fishing vessel in our cove, years ago,” it explains. “Most ships would not go past the reef, but this one did. It came out of nowhere, it seemed. I was tangled in a net.”
Javert’s mouth thins. The ropes must have bitten deep to leave marks that can be seen years later. He thinks of the siren at the moment his crew locked it in the distilling tank, how it panicked and thrashed about, and finds that he can imagine the way it happened, the creature fighting for liberty but only succeeding in wrapping the net around itself tighter.
“They brought me aboard with the rest of their catch,” Valjean says. “I expected they would cut my throat at once.”
Snorting, Javert interjects, “Whatever magic you worked over them, it will not charm me. Do not make the mistake of thinking you will get away a second time.”
Gazing at him placidly, the siren says, “There was no magic. I did not dare—they might have noticed my little one in the shoals, and I could not allow that. The Capitaine approached with a knife and knelt. I waited to die.”
Those blue eyes are captivating; Javert cannot look away. He has lost the thread of what Valjean is saying, but he can see the scene even so, the merman tangled and lying prone in the net, the weathered old sailor crouching at its side as the ship tosses gently on the waves.
“And then,” says Valjean, the same preoccupied mood entering its voice, “he cut the ropes loose, and ordered his crew to throw me back.”
This revelation is so startling that it shakes Javert from the reverie he has all but slipped into.
“What, just like that?” he demands. “I do not believe it.”
Valjean tosses his head. “I did not believe it, either. I told him what I was—siren, shipwrecker, sailor’s bane—but he acted as though it were nothing. ‘We are all God’s creatures,’ he said, and he repeated his order.”
Dumbfounded, Javert tries to comprehend what sheer folly would drive anyone to such lengths. Never mind that the creature, returned to the sea, could sing the ship against the rocks; there were other forces yet to contend with.
“It is treasonous to free a siren from one’s possession,” says the Capitaine. “The penalty is hanging.”
“So the men told him.” Something like sadness creeps into Valjean’s expression. “He said he assumed all responsibility. I do not know why he did it,” the siren adds, turning away. “I did not ask him to. But since then I... I have tried to be worthy of a second chance. He never gave his name, but the crew called him Bienvenu.”
At a loss for words, Javert sits agape on the stool. He cannot begin to make sense of what he is hearing; it contradicts law and precedent and even the barest dregs of human reason. “What happened to him?” Javert asks, because he does not know what else to say.
The sorrow returns to Valjean’s eyes. “I suppose they hanged him.”
An uncomfortable silence falls. The Capitaine’s brow is pinched as he puzzles over what he has heard. No matter which angle he comes at it from, he cannot resolve the siren’s story into one that makes sense. Perhaps Valjean is lying, telling a pretty tale no less treacherous than siren song.
When several minutes have passed, Javert’s thoughts are interrupted by a diffident cough. Looking over, he sees Valjean, self-conscious but still returning Javert’s gaze.
“Well?” says Javert testily.
“I was only wondering... Since you went to the trouble...” Valjean glances sidelong at the plate of fish, and the Capitaine understands.
“You are hungry.”
Valjean nods a trifle awkwardly. Javert wonders at it, for he has known many a prisoner to be far more vocal in their demands, seething and cursing and flaunting their hatred for the Capitaine and his crew. As Javert takes food off the tin plate, he supposes it means that the creature has at least learnt the meaning of the gag, as well as the Capitaine’s willingness to employ it.
Holding out what is nearly an entire fillet, Javert resigns himself to the knowledge that his gloves will be forever imbued with the smell of fish. The siren bows its head, taking small, careful bites from Javert’s hand, and the Capitaine resists the urge to shudder every time it mouths over the leather of his palm. The tank’s effect is tropical; it produces a humidity that is warm and cloying against the bare skin of Javert’s face. In such proximity, he is aware of every detail—the hollowness of Valjean’s cheeks, the growing prominence of the creature’s ribs, the shadows under its eyes—as imprisonment takes its toll.
Thinking again that someone needs to scour the muck from the tank glass, the Capitaine’s attention is drawn back to his prisoner when Valjean raises his head.
“Thank you,” the siren says. Its gratitude is senseless, for Javert’s generosity only falls just outside of starvation, but moreover its words do not add up as there is still half a fish in Javert’s grasp.
“You cannot be finished,” the Capitaine objects.
Valjean shrugs, issuing the barest trace of a crooked smile. “I was not so hungry as that.”
Javert makes a silent study of his captive. He has seen in the past pirates who, knowing they are bound for the noose, lose all will to eat until they waste away, an end of their own making. Not yet are the siren’s eyes glassy, which Javert counts as a good sign. Still, he resolves to tell Richelieu when he arrives for his shift to check that -
The Capitaine jerks back to the present as the blast of a cannon resounds over the water. The siren, too, jumps and raises its eyes with alarm at the sounds of shouting from above.
“Impossible,” Javert mutters.
Only scarcely does he remember to bolt the door behind him as he races from the cell. On deck, the Lieutenant is calling his name, and Javert bounds up the steps, raging against the unsteadiness of his hand on his gun. As a second cannon sounds, any thought he might have spared for the welfare of his prisoner is lost to the shake of the timbers beneath his feet.
In the hold, Valjean sinks lower into the water and shuts his eyes.
Chapter 6: Bewitched
The latter half of this chapter contains elements of knifeplay as tagged for above.
Posting a bit early because I have to work tomorrow—hope you enjoy! :D
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
In the end, the damage is inconsequential.
Javert finishes his inspection with a disgruntled shake of the head and orders repairs to be completed post-haste. As before, they have no sooner gained on the Sangsue than the pirates managed to stall them, just enough to slip again from their grasp. This game of cat-and-mouse is beginning to grow tired; the Capitaine will have to devise a new strategy if they are ever to catch their prize. He continues to ponder the matter as he takes the ladder down to the hold.
Javert arrives in the brig to the sound of laughter.
Arrested mid-step, the Capitaine steadies himself on the bulkhead and strains to listen. Soft voices murmur words too faint to make out, until there it is again—a congenial laugh overlapping a deeper, rumbling chuckle. Prickling with foreboding, Javert slinks forward as softly as his footfalls will allow. In his hand, he clutches tighter the cook’s boning knife; it was intended for fixing the siren’s meal, but now he thinks he may need it for another purpose.
When he reaches the bars, Javert steels himself and peers inside. The sight still manages to take his breath away; there is the siren, its mouth unbound, and sitting upon the stool beside it is Rivette. At once, the Capitaine is flooded by a heady rush of fear and adrenaline, but he cannot let it get the better of him. One wrong move, and Valjean will surely drown his Lieutenant.
“You say you are from Paris?” The siren lounges in its tank, basking in the washed-out glow of sunlight. Its tailfin curls over the glass edge as though it were a man putting his feet up at the end of a long day. The creature is altogether too relaxed, too pleased by his subordinate’s company, and the Capitaine bristles.
Rivette hums in response; just as Javert feared, his face displays none of the vigilance, none of the chariness it should at the creature’s beguiling tone.
“The north is where I spent my boyhood, in Seine-Inférieure,” the Lieutenant says. “I moved to Paris for work as a young man, until I joined the navy. It has been many years since I’ve gone home.”
“I know of it.” Valjean sounds almost playful as he adds, “I am from the north as well.”
Rivette only laughs again, the corners of his mouth curling up into his mustache as he smiles, and that more than anything settles Javert. Clearly, Rivette is not in his right mind. The siren has doubtless picked him for an easy target, plying him with charms and inviting words; probably, the Lieutenant never even knew what was happening.
Barging through the cell door, Javert all but throws the daily plate of fish to the floor as he wastes no time in seizing Rivette by the collar, dragging him from the stool and out of reach of the tank. His entrance takes both the man and the siren by surprise, and Rivette does not think to pull free as he is hauled upright. Only when they have retreated a safe distance away does Javert stop. He holds the Lieutenant by the lapels of his uniform, searching his face for any sign of recognition.
“Rivette. Rivette! Wake up, man!” He shakes him vigorously, willing the strings of enchantment to snap. Instead, Rivette merely looks bewildered.
“Commandant...?” He puts his hands on Javert’s wrists until the Capitaine desists, though it is not enough to wipe the snarl from his features.
“You are bespelled,” the Capitaine grits out. “That creature has you under its sway.” He cannot thank his opportune timing enough. There is no telling what Valjean might have done to the Lieutenant otherwise; persuaded him to undo the shackles; suffocated him for its own wicked amusement; debauched and degraded him; Javert’s face heats in what is surely anger.
Rivette opens his mouth to speak. “Commandant -”
“I do not know how it rid itself of the muzzle, but when I find out...!”
“- bad enough that I should have to risk myself, but for it to do this to you is -”
Javert breaks off mid-stream, both at the novelty of having been interrupted and at the look on Rivette’s face. It is pained, almost chagrined, but it is not the vacant stare of one enchanted.
With difficulty, the Lieutenant meets his eyes. “It was no spell, Monsieur. It was... it was my fault. I initiated the conversation.”
Unmoving, Javert is stone as Rivette squirms under his gaze. Slowly the reality sets in: Rivette has overstepped a line the Capitaine was not consciously aware of existing before now.
“He was not wearing the muzzle,” the Lieutenant tries to explain. “I asked him how that could be and he said...” Rivette falters at Javert’s expression. “...he said you had not remembered to tie it again the day before.”
At first, Javert is scandalized—How dare the creature accuse him of such negligence?—but as the moment stretches, an uncomfortable realization breaks over him. The Capitaine’s memories of the day prior are flurried with the pirates’ attempts on his vessel, but he does not actually recall returning the gag to its proper place.
Growling, Javert says, “It must have used its wiles to make me forget.” He glances at the siren; Valjean watches the two of them closely, a pensive twist to its lips.
Rivette’s “Yes, sir” does not sound wholly convinced, which brings Javert back to the matter at hand.
“Your severe lack of judgement poses a danger not only to yourself but to every man aboard this ship.” His mouth thins. “Moreover, where were the heads of those officers on guard duty last night? Any one of them should have noticed the lack of a gag and reported it.”
Rivette bows his head and says, “Your pardon, Commandant, but I do not know. And for my own part, I have no excuse. I was simply... intrigued.”
Javert’s brow is furrowed as he says, “Your interference could have cost you your life. Sirens are bloodthirsty monsters.”
“Forgive me, sir, but I am not certain of that.” No sooner has he said it than Rivette seems to realize the extent of his misconduct; he winces and stares at his feet as Javert leans closer.
Hissing through his teeth, Javert replies, “Ask Vice-Admiral Chabouillet what happened to the crew of the Étoile du Soir before you go feeling too sorry for the prisoner. They are vicious, untrustworthy creatures, I assure you.”
He points at the cell door. “Go. I want to see you and every man who has kept the watch since noon yesterday in my cabin in an hour’s time. We will finish discussing this then.”
The Lieutenant gives a tight nod, his face bloodless and his lips pressed together with the knowledge that Javert’s displeasure is not something to be suffered lightly. As the Capitaine waves him dismissed, Rivette stiffly takes his leave. Javert watches him go, the lines deepening around his mouth.
In the tense silence which follows, a voice speaks from behind.
“I meant him no harm.”
Javert swivels to see Valjean looking at him.
“Nor you, for that matter.”
The Capitaine’s hands curl into fists at his sides. “So you say,” he glowers, “but I will not gamble my life on a siren’s word.”
He takes stock of the cell. Scraps of sea bass litter the floorboards, and the stool sits askew. The water in Valjean’s tank is green with muck—he wonders briefly whether keeping the siren alive is more trouble than it is worth.
Javert’s anger does not dissipate; instead, it simmers. As he crouches to collect the scattered food, he thinks on what he will say to the men later, what logic he can provide that will illustrate for Rivette the danger. The man is a good officer, but he is soft, which makes him vulnerable. Javert is harder than flint and just as sharp, and he will not be taken in by Valjean’s show of goodwill.
Some of his thoughts must show on his face, for the siren asks tentatively, “If I said I had done it, had ‘bewitched’ your officer, would you be more... charitable to him?”
Javert grimaces. “First you would have to lie more persuasively than that.”
Quietly, Valjean says, “He was kind to me.” The circles under its eyes seem more pronounced as it speaks.
The Capitaine rises, traversing the cell to the stool where he sets the reconstructed plate with the knife. His features are thunderous; for a moment, he considers departing then and there, leaving the siren unfed.
“Do not grow accustomed to it,” he snaps. “Rivette should never have spoken to you.”
Valjean looks at him levelly. “You are speaking to me.”
“That is because—” Javert splutters, incensed. “Because you will not be silent! Because you are maddening! If you still prefer to eat today, then I advise you shut your mouth.”
A stubborn jut to his chin, Valjean presses on. “The Lieutenant said your father was a pirate.”
“He—” The Capitaine gapes, torn between horror and fury. “He told you— Why would he—”
“He asked about my family,” Valjean explains calmly. “And answered me when I inquired about yours.”
“That wasn’t for him to— He never should have—” Javert cannot finish the thought, the words escaping him as he tries to understand how Rivette could have let such a thing slip to anyone, least of all to a prisoner who already has too many advantages at its disposal. “Forget you ever heard it,” he finishes, humiliation churning his stomach.
The siren is relentless. “But if you can forgive your father that—”
“Who said I forgive it?” Javert seethes, his eyes narrowed to slits. “My father was hanged by the neck until dead and the crows plucked out the eyes from his corpse. I forgive nothing—were he still alive, I would send the man to the gallows myself!”
The anger is catching, like a fever, like the tide. Valjean sits as straight as possible despite the way the chains cinch tighter around its middle, and its tail twitches resentfully against the glass as the creature argues, “I could have done away with any one of your crew last night! But I would never, because I am not the monster you take me for!”
“You are right that you will never,” Javert whispers, a nearly lethal edge entering his voice. “I will see to that.” He has no plan in mind, no set course of action to back his warning, but it does not matter. All that matters is the burning in his blood like a poison, like something outside of himself fueling the fire in his head.
Valjean’s eyes flash. “Just know, Javert, that if I truly meant you ill, there is nothing stopping me from enchanting you right this very moment.”
At the sound of his name, something throbs in Javert’s core, an animal instinct for which he has no words. It alarms and repulses him, as does the implicit menace in the prisoner’s glare. Valjean has threatened him, he thinks, threatened him with the helplessness of which he has only heard tell, the destructive pleasure that leads sailors to fling themselves overboard. And the siren spoke with such certainty that Javert does not doubt it could do exactly as it said.
Valjean takes a deep breath in and out; at the same time Javert feels some of his mindless anger leave him for no reason he can discern. It is replaced by a sublime clarity, the understanding that the prisoner will never cease its impertinence unless steps are taken.
Thoughtfully, Javert turns to the tin plate. Reaching for the boning knife, he slowly cuts a sliver from a chunk of fish where dust and dirt have stuck to its surface. The siren follows the path of the blade with its eyes, its complexion turning the color of spoiled cream. Javert purses his lips; he is not one to shrink from administering punishment when it is deserved. As he ponders on what to do, Javert is reminded of the ultimatum he posed days before. His fingers on the wooden handle flex.
The siren stares, a look of comprehension and dread emerging upon its face. In the entirety of its confinement, the creature has never looked at Javert like that, not even when there was a gun pointed at its head.
Javert puts aside the plate. He keeps hold of the knife.
Walking forward evenly, Javert watches as Valjean’s eyes widen further with every step. When he stops, they are chest to chest. He cradles the siren’s jaw in his hands; the pulse in its neck races under his fingertips.
“Now then,” Javert murmurs. “I believe I told you what would happen if you talked out of turn.”
The siren meets his gaze obstinately, but it cannot hope to conceal how its pupils have grown wide and dark with fear. They are still mesmerizing, yet Javert thinks the draw that he feels is not Valjean’s this time but his own. The urge to brush the thumb of his glove over the creature’s lips and remind it of just how powerless it is comes and goes unacted upon. Instead he stands there immobile, the knife held in his right hand, cupping the siren’s cheek with the left. The siren breathes in shallow pants, but even so it does not try to win free.
Minutes pass of their silent contest. In the back of his mind, the thought is buzzing that perhaps Javert has taken this too far after all, but there is no foreseeable way to back down now without losing face, and anyway Valjean continues to stare at him. It is infuriating, in part because it is lacking all of the insolence such an expression can only be intended to convey. Rather, the siren appears nearly to have accepted this, atop all the other ignominities Javert has heaped upon it. It cannot be true; Javert bares his teeth as he examines the creature’s features for any sign that it is being less than sincere in its submission.
When he finds none, Javert’s hand slides lower, leather-clad fingers curling around the siren’s chin. It is not gentleness as he prises its mouth open with his fingers; Valjean quakes imperceptibly, but still—still—the siren does not tear away. Javert looks into its eyes, and for a moment, they are the ancient bluestone cliffs against which the sea has beat its waves since time immemorial. They are eyes that can do naught but endure . It occurs to the Capitaine that if he has posed a challenge, then this is a creature which is equal to it.
His hand is unsteady as Javert raises the knife to Valjean’s lips. It is no different than what the monster would do to him were their positions reversed, he reasons. Even the ever-present slap of saltwater against the hull is lost beneath the pounding of blood in his ears; Javert thinks of nothing at all, and then he presses the flat of the blade lightly against his captive’s tongue.
The siren’s eyelids shutter closed, and visions of ocean vistas disappear behind them. It is possessed by a sudden, terrible calm, and then it tips its head back slightly. The angle is inviting; almost Javert can hear the words the gesture is intended to convey— What are you waiting for? do it, then —Javert’s grip on the knife tightens— Quickly, now —It is a whisper in his mind— Finish it, I can feel that you want to —
The Capitaine is wrenched from whatever trance has taken over feeling as though the ship has pitched him off kilter. What is he thinking? It is because he would not behave as a siren would that Javert is a man, not a monster. The Capitaine has been harsh in his life, but he has never been needlessly cruel. This he knows to be an act of cruelty, no matter how many problems it would solve to strip the creature of its spellbinding voice. And even now, Valjean is perfectly motionless under the tip of Javert’s blade.
Disgusted—with himself, with the creature that reduced him to this, with the whole damn thing—Javert slides the knife smoothly from Valjean’s mouth.
The siren’s head jerks up. It too looks as though the deck has heaved beneath it, and there remains a distress which shows through the disbelief now coloring its features. It exhales shakily as Javert steps away.
“There,” says the Capitaine brusquely. He is somewhat surprised to find himself breathing hard. “Next time I will finish the job. Think of that when you are inclined to comment on matters which are none of your concern.”
Valjean makes no reply, does not even move, only stares at Javert with something very like genuine fear. If Javert expects to feel pride at having finally cowed the siren, he is disappointed; all he feels is a lingering wrongness which he must attribute to his actions, as well as a tightness deep in the pit of his stomach like a spring overwound. Still, he refuses to apologize to a prisoner—everything he has done is by the book.
They meet eyes; Javert reaches slowly for the plate of fish, but the siren is already shaking its head no. Valjean’s features are tight with pain, despite that the Capitaine has done nothing in the end to harm it, and the creature holds his gaze for no longer than an instant before it cringes and looks down.
“Have it your way,” Javert bites out.
He storms from the cell, vacillating between wrath and revulsion. His final act is to flag his replacement, an older sailor from Calais, and press the cloth gag into his hands with instructions and a grunted word of warning.
Then Javert climbs to the deck, where he spends many hours shouting orders and hauling in lines until he is drenched in salt and sweat, and he is finally able to shake the image of defiant blue eyes and a head thrown back in surrender to the inevitable. He shudders with the suspicion that it has not truly left him at all, and he will be haunted by that memory again in his dreams. As a nightmare or a fantasy, he dares not speculate.
While I am hoping to stick to my update schedule, I am also participating in an exchange with a July deadline, and will need to be making some serious progress in the coming weeks. If I am delayed somewhat in posting, please bear with me! <3
Chapter 7: Fever
Oof, I am almost certainly going to have to set this on hiatus, I do have a good start to chapter 8 BUT I am currently looking at my exchange deadline like 😬👀😬👀😬
I will definitely continue or resume posting as quickly as my schedule will allow, I’m so excited to continue work on this. ❤️ Please forgive any formatting errors, as I am posting from my phone today.
The galley is a flurry of activity as the cook conducts his three assistants, each of them toiling to wash and dry the dishes from the officers’ midday meal. They pay no mind to the Capitaine as he enters the long, narrow compartment, nor does he expect them to. The galley is the one place aboard the Surveillante in which Javert will allow another to assume control, namely because the most important thing to a sailor, more so even than his pay, is his stomach.
Instead, Javert conducts his eyes to the corner of the countertop, upon which rests a tin plate with two squid and the by-now familiar boning knife. He and the cook arrived at a certain accord after their first argument when the Capitaine reminded him of what sirens ate in the absence of fish, and the cook, being a very superstitious man, crossed himself and thereafter never failed to have a seafood offering set aside for the creature.
Javert takes hold of the plate; the knife he nearly leaves behind, for the sight of it brings his thoughts skittering too near to the edge of guilt, but that is ridiculous. The food is not going to chop itself. In the end, he takes it with him and turns to depart, leaving just as unnoticed as he materialized.
Outside in the officer’s mess, long lines of trestle tables span from wall to wall, a single aisle splitting the center. Most of the men are already through with eating, and have retired to their hammocks to catch an hour or two of sleep before the start of the next shift. There are a few who remain, however, talking and laughing where they sit on their benches.
“And what of your wife, Géroux?” Jourdan asks teasingly, holding his mug of ale between his hands. “Surely she won’t be pleased that you’ve spent your wages on something so extravagant.”
Géroux grins. “She won’t say a thing, not once she sees the place. It’s got a view of the water, even, and a bit of garden, she’ll like that. With the money from taking in the shipwrecker, I’ll have enough for the bank’s collateral and more besides.”
Sauveterre claps him on the shoulder, grinning. “I think it sounds brilliant,” he says, and leans back in his chair. “Me, I’m going to save the money for my own ship—just imagine, having a crew and a brigantine, sailing for the New World!”
The officers laugh. “I’ll believe that when I see it,” says Jourdan, then sighs. “Damn, and I was hoping to have time to read this afternoon.”
At the far end of the table, Rivette sits alone nursing his drink. He glances up at Javert’s approach, but when the Capitaine continues on without saying anything, he drops his head lower. Javert frowns; he has not spoken to the Lieutenant since telling him off, and he wonders if now, removed from the siren’s influence, Rivette has realized the extent of his foolishness.
As he enters the passageway outside, the Capitaine readies himself to face Valjean again. By now, the siren has doubtless concocted a dozen possible revenges for Javert’s discipline yesterday, and the man is firmly on his guard as he strides down the corridor to the prison cells at the other end. He briefly entertains the idea of stoppering his ears with wax, but decides against it. He will not let Valjean think him afraid.
When he arrives, Javert banishes Droit from his post with a grunted word and steps up to the bars to study his captive. For all its bulk, the siren seems somehow small curled against the side of its tank. It does not look at Javert, but it must hear his approach if the hunching of the creature’s shoulders is to be any indication.
The Capitaine unbolts the door; at the sound of its creaking, Valjean hunches further still, staring at the floorboards. The sight gives Javert pause. It is not the reaction he expected, not from the creature who until now has shown him nothing but a certain unflinching opposition.
“So you are sulking, are you?”
Valjean gives no response to the query, does not even acknowledge it. Javert takes a seat upon the stool, the customary plate of food in his lap. Raising the knife, he pares the squid into bite-sized chunks. The siren does not so much sit upon the edge of its tank as it does sag into it; Valjean’s eyes are half-lidded, and they have not yet raised higher than the region of the Capitaine’s boots.
Determinedly, Javert reaches out, hooking his fingers under the cloth band obstructing the creature’s mouth and tugging it loose. Valjean makes a stifled noise—a sound of protest or of thanks, Javert cannot say—and then it pulls away, leaning against the bars as if for support. The Capitaine snorts. Rarely has he seen a display so pathetic. If this is how Valjean intends to garner sympathy, it is surely wasted on Javert.
Nothing more moves in the brig, save for the ship itself with its ceaseless rocking. Through the porthole, the water is storm grey, reflecting an overcast sky. Javert selects a gelatinous piece of squid from the plate, holding it aloft without room for argument. A moment passes before the siren accepts it listlessly into its mouth, chewing for far too long before swallowing.
A crease appears between the Capitaine’s eyebrows.
“You are very quiet.”
As before, Valjean makes no reply. The siren seems to shiver without even realizing it, a slight shaking of the shoulders that is noticeable only in such close propinquity. The crease above Javert’s nose deepens, for the brig is almost sweltering with its usual oppressive heat; surely Valjean cannot be cold?
When Javert has been at his post for nearly a quarter-hour, the quiet unbroken, he finds himself beginning to grow uneasy. Valjean’s silence can only be because of the day before—Javert prefers not to think on it, for when he does there comes a sickening shame that threatens to sour his inherent sense of rightness. The trouble, he has come to realize, is that a part of him enjoyed it; it cannot be duty if he enjoys it.
His train of thought irritates him.
“Come then,” he snaps, if only to distract himself. “Usually you are too chatty.”
Stubborn to the last, Valjean holds his tongue, and when Javert hands the siren its next bite, the creature does not move to accept it.
“If it is an apology you are waiting for, you are wasting your time.” The Capitaine scowls, thrusting the food forward. “Be grateful you are eating at all.”
Finally, as though every movement is an effort, the siren lowers its head and takes the fish between its teeth. Javert feels the kiss of Valjean’s lips against the fingertips of his glove, and a spark of something unexpectedly gratifying kindles in his belly. It is a dangerous feeling, like a lit match held too near to gunpowder, and he jerks his hand away. Valjean does not even seem to notice; the siren’s eyes are diverted, downcast, and Javert hates how suddenly he wishes to see some of that brazen temerity streak across its face again.
The Capitaine gets to his feet abruptly. He will relieve Bouchard from duty and order the officer to stand watch instead at the siren’s post. Halfway to the door, he is forcefully putting that foreign shiver of emotion from his mind when he hears behind him Valjean cough; just the once at first, and then again more emphatically. It is an unwholesome sound, a wet rattle in the back of the throat. Javert turns; Valjean’s eyes have shut entirely, and the siren appears to be held upright by the chains more than it is restrained by them.
It is the first time he has addressed the creature by name, but the siren does not give any sign it has heard. Its entire manner is odd—Javert looks it over skeptically, ever-watchful for any trick, only to notice the sheen of sweat on its brow, the laboredness of its breathing. Every rise and fall of Valjean’s chest is broken by a long pause, and its fingers seem to grasp at nothing.
In retrospect, it is obvious that the creature is sick. Cursing himself for failing to see it sooner, Javert crosses smartly to the side of the tank where he strips the leather from his hand and lays the flat of his knuckles against Valjean’s forehead. His skin is hardly cool but Valjean gasps at the touch, the siren’s eyes fluttering open. They are unseeing, feverish, and it is no wonder; under his fingers, Valjean is burning up.
Javert glances down at the water in the tank, nearly black as it is with algae. His gaze narrows—when next he sees Rousseau, he will read the officer the riot act for failing to obey him. In the meantime, there is what to do about the siren’s illness to consider. He has only the barest idea of how to treat a human fever, and doubts very much that the ship’s medic will be keen on getting any closer to the creature than he must. Then the Capitaine’s scrutiny makes note of something else: the heavy chain binding Valjean’s tail has turned the surrounding scales dark and purplish with what appear to be bruises.
“Why did you not say something?” Javert murmurs, bending closer.
The moment the Capitaine’s hand touches the siren’s flank, a convulsion rolls through Valjean’s entire body like an earthquake. The creature’s face turns into the crook of an elbow, hiding its expression from view, but Javert is more concerned with the slip of the chain slightly to one side, and the raw, bloody flesh beneath. He traces lightly along the edge of the abrasion; Valjean does not flinch a second time but lets Javert poke and prod as he pleases. Decidedly, the scales are discolored, and they are coated with a thick slime that clings to the Capitaine’s fingers. Here, too, the siren is burning, its blood running hotter than any marine creature’s ought to. It is likely that its wounds are infected.
Javert rises. “I will fetch gauze,” he says. It is not his prerogative to torture prisoners under his command, and certainly Valjean must be in agony.
“Don’t bother.” The siren’s voice is little more than a rasp, but Valjean shifts enough to look Javert in the eye. “It would be a waste when you are... going to kill me anyway.”
The Capitaine blinks, his response failing on his tongue. At times, it is all too easy to forget that this creature is condemned, a danger to society which must be destroyed. Of course, that can only be Valjean’s intent, and Javert would be a fool to be taken in by the siren’s cloak of self-effacement. It should be right that it suffers, as it has surely made countless sailors to suffer.
Yet as Valjean’s back arches for breath, the creature biting its bottom lip until it is as red and flushed as its face, Javert feels himself moved by something that is neither mercy nor compassion. It is a feeling like the riptide, an ocean current pulling him inexorably towards the abyss; not a pleasant feeling, but one that is inescapable, and he feels the resignation well up in him like dark water.
Javert can hardly miss the bitter disappointment that passes over the siren’s face when he turns to go, but Valjean does not call after him, and Javert does not say a word as he marches towards the ship’s ladder.
Ascending to the main deck through the hatch, Javert casts his eyes about until they land finally on Rousseau. The officer is fastening down tie lines while talking animatedly to Richelieu beside him, though he pales when he notices the expression on the Capitaine’s face.
Taking long strides across the deck boards, Javert scowls like the devil himself, and Rousseau swallows and stands at attention.
“Commandant,” he says at the Capitaine’s approach, “is there something I—”
“Did I not say,” Javert interrupts, “that you were to see to it the siren had clean water?”
The officer’s eyes widen in dawning comprehension and he stammers, “But sir—”
“Now the creature is ill,” Javert continues, leaving no room to speak edgewise. “If the infection spreads, it may well perish.” He looms above his subordinates, intimidating enough by virtue of his height and reputation to need no other means of assuring they take notice. Quietly, the Capitaine says, “Perhaps a purse full of Napoleons is mere change to you, but I doubt the same is true of your crewmates.”
“N-no, sir,” Rousseau manages.
Unwisely, Richelieu chooses that moment to contribute, puffing out his chest. “He can’t be left alone with that thing, it is a menace!”
The pencil-thin smile to light Javert’s face then would not have looked out of place on a shark. “Thank you for volunteering,” he says. “You may assist him.”
Richelieu is still working out what he volunteered to do when Javert adds, “And then go to the sickbay—tell the doctor to bring whatever tinctures he has and administer them. If he objects, send him to me.”
The men are gauging whether or not to argue when a voice from behind says, “Commandant.”
Javert looks around to find Rivette standing there stiffly.
“Lieutenant?” he replies, waving the two officers away without another word to them.
Rivette shifts his weight, staring at the Capitaine’s nose rather than meet his eyes. “I thought you would want to know where we stand with regard to the target.”
At once, Javert is all ears. “What is the news?”
Rivette bows his head. “The repairs are holding, and we are making good time. Sauveterre believes that if this wind keeps up, we will have sails on the horizon by daybreak.”
“Excellent,” Javert says with relish. “That is to be the last time these scum get the better of us. Are the cannons primed for the assault?”
At this, the hesitation in the Lieutenant’s frame becomes more pronounced. “Yes, sir. However...”
Javert shuts his eyes, reaching for the last dregs of his patience. “What now?” he asks through gritted teeth.
Clearing his throat, Rivette explains, “It would appear that some of the powder was improperly packaged—it is wet and will not light. We have enough for at least three volleys, but beyond that it is hard to say.”
The Capitaine pinches the bridge of his nose. “It appears our suppliers grow shoddier every time we come into port. Do what you can to air out the damp powder and have every man prepare his cutlass. If we cannot bombard the Sangsue, we had best be ready to board them.”
“Yes, sir.” Rivette rocks on his heels as though about to leave when he pauses, a question written on his face.
Javert sighs. “Out with it, then.”
“Ah.” The Lieutenant scratches the back of his neck. “It is only, I happened to hear what you said to Rousseau.”
The Capitaine raises an eyebrow. “What of it?” he asks.
“Val— The siren is ill?”
“Yes,” says Javert shortly.
“And you wanted the officers to help him... it?”
With as much evenness as he can muster, the Capitaine replies, “If you heard all that, you must surely have heard my reasoning. Even after we capture the Sangsue, it will be another week at least before we reach the harbor. The siren is unlikely to last that long in its current state.”
“I see,” says Rivette in a tone which tells plainly he does not see. “I only wondered if there might be some other reason.”
“What other reason could there be?” Javert asks waspishly.
“Nothing, sir, of course. Forgive me.” Rivette prepares to leave, turning pink around the edges, when Javert puts out his hand to stop him.
“You told the prisoner enough about me,” he says, and Rivette flinches at the reminder; Javert had not been kind over that remark. Before he can speak, however, the Capitaine continues. “Did it not say anything in return? Anything at all that could be of use?”
Rivette frowns. “He said he had a daughter— Or, that it was not his daughter, but the daughter of a friend who died. He said he hoped she was not worried for him. That was all, sir. I do not think you will find much use in that.”
Before Javert can ask anything further, Rivette pulls away. “If you will excuse me, sir,” he says, “the watch will be changing soon and I am needed belowdecks.”
The Lieutenant turns to go, barely concealing the quiet anguish on his face, and Javert can guess that it pains Rivette to see what he believes to be an innocent held captive in such a way. The siren must know Rivette has no wife, must know that the man has not heard from his family in years. It is cruel of Valjean to use that against him, to invent tales of orphaned children for the sake of perhaps making himself an ally.
Sighing deeply, Javert puts the matter from his mind. The doctor will see to the siren, and in the meantime there are the pirates to consider; if he means to catch the Sangsue come morning, there are preparations to be made.
Chapter 8: Boarded
Hello! I am back from hiatus (works for the Just Married exchange go live August 4, woohoo!), and even have a longer chapter to offer you all. I am going to continue to attempt to make weekly updates. Thank you all for your patience, and enjoy!
It is not yet dawn as Javert stands at the prow of his ship, though the first signs of light are beginning to creep into the eastern sky. He raises a spyglass to his eye, extending the tube until at last the lens brings into focus the white sails on the horizon.
“Take us hard to port,” the Capitaine says to Rivette beside him. “We will outrun her and then tack ship until we cut her off.”
“Yes, sir.” The Lieutenant ducks his head and vanishes to relay the orders to the crew.
The rudder at the aft creaks, the sails shifting in a gust of wind as the Surveillante leans towards the left. Javert collapses the telescope, returning it to his pocket, and stands with his hands gripping the rail. The breeze tugs at his tails and his hair, and a feral smile lights his face. This is the sort of chase which makes his blood sing; his quarry in sight, the wind at his back, and eighty men ready to spring into action the instant he gives the word.
The plan is simplicity itself. Were they to flank the Sangsue, the pirates would have plenty of opportunity to return fire, and Javert will be damned before he will waste another day rerigging lines snapped by chain shot. Instead, they will cross in front of their opponents, concentrate their fire, and aim across the unprotected bow. The Sangsue will be helpless to defend herself, and turning to bring forward their gun ports will only expose more of the pirate vessel to cannon blasts. By day’s end, the Sangsue will be sunk or captured, the pirates dead or imprisoned in the brig. That thought is a satisfying one; in particular, Javert would like to take the rival Capitaine alive, if only to make an example of him. Failing that, the man’s head would do.
Javert quits the prow, taking the ladder down to the quarterdeck. Everywhere he looks, the officers are readying themselves. Armed for battle, the men wear holsters with pistols, sabres d’abordage strapped to their thighs, and each is grim with concentration. There are a few who sport evidence of past altercations; an arm in a sling here, bandages over a wound there. None are deterred. Aboard the Surveillante, every man has his role to play.
Crossing the gangplank to the aft of the ship, Javert enters his cabin. There is time yet before they close on their prey, and he must prepare himself as well as his crew. The Capitaine’s quarters are unpresumptuous, save for where the trappings of its prior tenants remain unaltered. One such relic is a woven map of the stars that hangs above the bunk; Javert glances at it as he buckles his belt around his waist. The loomwork is an antique, one which he keeps for its practical appeal as much as its history. Soon, Polaris’ guiding light will lead them back to France’s far-flung shores, and the sea will be rid of one more menace.
Two more, Javert corrects himself, remembering the siren. He slots first one pistol, then another through their loops. Perhaps once the pirates have been dealt with he will spare a moment to see that the doctor’s treatment of Valjean has had the desired effect.
The thought lingers. As the Capitaine removes his cutlass from its scabbard, checking it for any imperfection, he finds his thoughts dwell disturbingly long on the siren and its plight. The creature is anything but helpless, yet Valjean seems to prefer mockery to resistance, making a display of giving itself to Javert’s power. It is also increasingly difficult to ignore that despite having had ample occasions to try, Valjean has yet to work any obvious sign of enchantment over him.
Fastening the straps of the scabbard, Javert returns the cutlass to its place at his side. This is not the time for distractions, he reminds himself sternly. He will require all his concentration to bring the pirates to heel.
Thus equipped, Javert reemerges on deck to a flurry of activity. The officers move with haste to their positions, coiling the ropes at the weather bracers until they need only wait for the right moment to let them go. Javert lifts his head to the horizon; he no longer requires his spyglass to make out the Sangsue on the water, for they are all but alongside her. With such a gap of ocean between them, they are too far apart for either ship’s cannons to be of any use, but not for much longer.
Swiftly, Javert scales the ladder to the top of the aftcastle where a man called Favre mans the helm. The Capitaine takes his place overlooking the scene below, and then he nods to Rivette who stands on deck ready to repeat his orders.
“Clew up the mainsail!”
At his word, the men haul on the lines until the mainsail is drawn up tight to the yard. At once, their speed forward slows, but it is an unfortunate necessity for their next maneuver.
“Ready about.” Javert squints at the corsair; the pirates have undoubtedly guessed their game, but the Sangsue makes no move to change her course. “Haul up the spanker!”
The Capitaine ducks as the long spanker boom is pulled around to amidships, passing just above where his shoulders stood moments prior. Favre, too short to need bow his head, cranks the helm to starboard, and with a groan the Surveillante swings into the wind.
At once, the sails begin to quiver.
“Slack off headsail sheets!” Javert barks. As other lines are loosed, the sails flap and strain all the more at their tethers. They are slowing, almost to a stop it seems, but what matters most is that they are turning.
Critically, the Capitaine eyes their trajectory. If they are to shoot across the Sangsue’s path, cutting off all hope of escape, then they cannot afford any mistakes. On deck it is silent, the only noise the whistle of the wind and the flapping of the forecourse sheets. It seems the whole world awaits his next command, yet it must come at precisely the right moment. The ship pivots like a dancer on the water, pointing ever nearer to their desired way forward, but Javert’s eye is on the spanker sail now.
Then, the moment arrives: the spanker falls limp, parallel to the wind, and Javert’s head snaps up.
“Aft let go!”
At the weather bracers, the crew release the lines. Suddenly freed of their slack, the ropes run out, uncoiling too rapidly for any man to stop, and the wind, eager to push at their fragile human vessel, surges against the newly loosened sails to fill them. A shudder runs through the entire ship as the main and the mizzenmasts swing about, jarring to a stop only when there is no more slack to speak of. Now they are turning in truth, pushed from the front and pulled along by the rear, and Javert cannot resist another thin smile; the timing has played out perfectly.
“Brace ‘round forward,” he calls, and officers hurry to the foremast, the final set of sails necessitating more coaxing from the crew to bring them around.
The men grab hold of the ropes, hauling with all their strength, and little by little the foremast turns toward starboard. They are fighting the wind, right up until they are not; at last, the mast has turned so far that the breeze hits the sails at a new angle, and the change is immediate. The Surveillante leaps forward in the water, and in moments, they are underway.
As the crew labor to return the spanker to its place, Javert paces across the aftcastle. They are hurtling straight for a point perpendicular to the Sangsue’s course, and the Sangsue is not slowing.
“She is going to try to outrun us,” Javert mutters under his breath. “But she will not make it.” More loudly, he calls, “Set the mainsail!”
The ropes holding the mainsail drop away, and at once the cotton fabric billows in the breeze. The extra burst of speed is all they need; soon Javert is having to reign them back, until they have slowed to a near stop bearing down on the single pirate ship. At a word, officers scale the rigging to pour buckets of water over the sails, soaking them wet.
Dropping from the ladder, the Capitaine strides to the starboard-side gunwale and looks out. The Sangsue is not yet upon them but neither is she stopping, continuing to surge forward on the waves. Rivette hurries to his side, wiping sweat from his brow that does not seem to be due to exertion.
“They are going to ram us, sir,” he says, his face pale. “If we let out the mainsail now, we can pull away, try something else -”
“They are not going to ram us,” Javert says calmly, narrowing his eyes at the oncoming vessel. “Tell the men to get to the gunports. I want the first volley to be ready on my mark.”
“That was an order, Lieutenant.”
As the crew rally, Javert stands watching the corsair approach. She is making good speed, the prow pointed squarely for where Javert himself is standing, but the Capitaine does not for one instant believe the pirates will continue on their suicide course. He watches as from the decks of the Sangsue , a black flag is raised—a poor attempt at intimidation, at least against so seasoned a crew, but Javert would expect nothing better from Thenardier’s cowardly lot.
“Run out the guns!” Javert calls. The order is echoed across the decks, and below the Capitaine’s feet cannon barrels are rammed with cloth and gunpowder and hauled into position.
They will reserve half of their cannons, restricting their firing power to only those weapons likely to hit their target at this angle. There can be no crippling the opposing ship if they waste powder. On deck of the corsair, the blackguards realize at last that they cannot spook the Surveillante into moving aside, and the pirates scramble to slow their own vessel to a stop. Javert smirks. There is not a pirate alive who would truly risk his life or his ship so needlessly as to collide with them; from the start, it was a transparent bluff.
Resting a hand on the hilt of his cutlass, Javert exclaims, “Fire!”
Three dozen men pour priming powder into the touch holes of their guns, and then the morning erupts as the gunpowder explodes in a cacophonous thunder. The balls of round shot fly over the white caps of the waves, striking the hull of the Sangsue with all the wrath of God behind them; there are a few which fall short, sinking harmlessly into the water, but the rest puncture jagged holes through the wooden planks and soar down the length of the ship’s interior. Any pirate unlucky enough to stand in a ball’s path is likely to lose his head.
Rivette returns out of breath, holding his sides with the effort of running.
“A good first round,” Javert murmurs. “But we will need a second, before they can pivot enough to return fire.”
“Yes, sir,” Rivette pants, eyeing the corsair appraisingly. “I daresay that was not enough for her to take on any water.”
“Tell the crew to aim their next shots for the weakened section of the hull, then change to grapeshot. The pirates must surrender to authority.”
“Yes, sir.” Rivette frowns. “Though I do not expect them to do so willingly, sir.”
As the Lieutenant departs to conduct the officers through their next barrage, Javert watches the pirates attempt to brace around with a thoughtful frown. Rivette was correct to think their foes would not surrender easily, not when losing meant a noose around the neck. If it came to a fight at closer quarters, it was sure to be a bloody one.
The sun is cresting over the horizon in a blaze of crimson when Javert shouts again, “Fire!”
The cannons’ roar splits apart the morning for the second time, the balls whizzing through space with the promise of destruction. On the water, the Sangsue is turning, pushing against the wind in an effort to bring her guns facing the naval frigate. At that oblique angle, the round shot slams through one corner of the ship and out the other side. The sounds of shouting resound across the waves, and Javert counts down the seconds it will take his men to clean their barrels and reload. This is it, the critical moment, as the Sangsue’s gun ports come into view. Now it is only a question of who will get their next volley off first—
Javert is distracted from his strategizing as he catches his first glimpse of the man at the corsair’s helm. Even at the great distance separating them, the pirate’s maroon tailcoat is distinctive where the cheap velvet catches the light. The Capitaine grimaces, withdrawing his spyglass once more from his pocket to confirm his suspicions. The telescope reveals what his eye had guessed at; he knows that man, as surely as he knows all the infamous brigands to torment sailors on the high seas. His name is Montparnasse, Thénardier’s most dangerous Lieutenant.
The spyglass almost slips from Javert’s fingers as the ship quakes, but this time what flies through the air are not balls but bullets, exploding out of sacks to rain down upon the pirates in a deadly hailstorm, who scatter. The Capitaine’s moment of triumph is short-lived however, for the corsair’s guns turn in their ports, finally arriving at a position where they can retaliate. The Sangsue’s cannons rumble and smoke, and then Javert is diving behind the solid block of the gunwale for cover as marble-sized grapeshot sprays over the deck.
Keeping his head down, his knees drawn to his chest, Javert nevertheless scans the decks of his ship to see what damage has been wrought. At his back, the bullets hammer the timber of the gunwale but it is holding. The handful of personnel not helping to man the cannons are similarly sheltering behind whatever cover they can find, and Javert grimaces. It will be impossible to give orders if he is pinned down in the open like this.
Rolling onto his knees, Javert crawls across the deck, sticking close to the gunwale. He reaches where Richelieu is crouched, though he must wait until there is a break in the artillery to be heard.
“I am going below,” he says over the commotion. “If they send another volley this way, cover me.”
With that, Javert bends as low as he can and clambers over to the nearest hatch, dropping onto the ladder just as some projectile goes flying past overhead. He lands on the gundeck, searching wildly through the chaos of officers running and shouting.
He pushes past a pair of men loading a cannon with more ammunition only to run directly into Rivette, who is in the midst of instructing another to fetch more water for swabbing hot embers from inside the gun barrels.
“Commandant?” Rivette says when he has recovered.
Steadying himself, Javert does not waste time on apologies. Instead, he says, “All hands to action stations—have the crew bring grappling hooks and make ready to attack.”
The moment Rivette has nodded, Javert is moving again, sidestepping crewmates and piles of cannonballs as he makes haste down the length of the gundeck. Each port that he passes provides a view of how close the vessels have been pulled to one another, the wind and the motion of the waves drawing each into the other’s wake. There remains only a strip of water visible between them; if he stopped for long enough, he could probably peer through one of the openings and make out the faces of pirates on the other side.
No sooner has he thought as much than there is another explosion, and not from the deck of the Surveillante; Javert throws himself forward even as his hearing goes white with silence, rolling when he hits the floorboards to land on his haunches. Noise returns distorted by a high ringing in his ears, and with it the sound of screams. Behind him, the bulkhead is peppered with more grapeshot—from the sound of it, not all of the bullets missed their mark.
A sharp stinging directs Javert’s eyes downward. There is a tear in his sleeve where a ball grazed past his elbow, but the line of red is little more than a scratch and so he does not bother with it, climbing to his feet. His hand finds his sword and he bolts up the ladder to the main deck before the Sangsue can fire off another round.
Above, the men stand lined along the starboard gunwale, grappling hooks and weapons in hand. On the enemy ship the pirates have taken the opposite stance, leering and spitting at the Surveillante’s crew. Javert scans the faces of their foes, recognizing some, but nowhere does he see the man he most desires brought to justice.
“Ready!” The crew tense like coiled springs. “Grapples, away!”
A dozen ropes tied with hooks long as a man’s arm fly through the air, falling across the enemy gunwale and biting deep into the wood. In moments, the two ships are all but grinding together, and Javert raises his cutlass above his head.
To the pirates, he shouts, “Surrender or prepare to be boarded!”
The crew of the Sangsue only jeer in response, and Javert’s mouth thins.
The order resonates above even the creaking and groaning of the interlocked ships, and a cry goes up from the crew as they leap aboard the pirate vessel. Immediately, swords clang against swords, pistols fire, and pikes are raised high against the oncoming forces.
It is only moments before the pirates are spilling onto the Surveillante’s deck, the threat of the noose making them reckless in their determination to win. A barrel-chested man studded with tattoos jumps from the parapet, landing hard enough to make the floorboards shake, and looks up at Javert with a glint in his eye.
Snarling, Javert charges forward, brandishing his cutlass. The pirate scowls, raising his own weapon; they come together in a crescendo of violence, the pirate swinging for his head and Javert parrying the blow. Feinting towards the left, the Capitaine succeeds at landing a hit on his opponent’s unprotected flank and narrowly avoids being skewered in turn. As he whirls around, the pirate curses in pain, blood dripping through his fingertips where they press over the wound.
“You’ll pay for that,” the man growls, starting forward.
“I doubt it,” Javert replies as Richelieu comes up from behind to strike the pirate over his head with the pommel of his sword. He crumples to the ground, and Javert nods briskly.
“Get this one to the brig, along with any others you can round up. The sooner they are all dealt with, the better.”
Richelieu bends to shoulder the pirate’s weight, and Javert dives back into the fray. It is impossible to tell which side is winning—the fighting has spread across both decks now, a seething broil of human bodies with a singular goal in mind: to conquer the ship of the opposition.
It is well that he has his cutlass, Javert thinks. Any longer sword would be too unwieldy in the cramped conditions, and between the pitching and rocking of the boats and the risk of hitting one of his own, his pistols are all but useless. The Capitaine seizes another pirate by the lapels, shoving him against the railing and overboard into the churning water below. Yet in a matter of seconds, Javert finds his way is blocked again, this time by a pirate wearing gold hoops in his ears.
“Where is your Capitaine?” Javert demands, gnashing his teeth as their swords clash.
The pirate laughs, a harsh and grating sound. “Sorry to disappoint you,” he says without sincerity. “He isn’t here—too busy counting his treasure if I had to guess.”
He swings his sword for Javert’s head and Javert barely catches it in time, his arms shuddering at the strength of the blow. Still the pirate presses forward, his blade inches from Javert’s nose, and it is all the Capitaine can do to hold him. Sweat trickles down his back. Then, Providence—an explosion crackles through the air, and the pirate, momentarily distracted, glances away. Javert is able to slip out from under his weapon, delivering a blow of his own to the back of his opponent’s knees. The pirate falls, landing heavily and spouting obscenities, but he does not get back to his feet.
Now Javert searches for the source of the explosion. They are jockeying too closely together for cannons to be of much use to either side; anyone fool enough to fire risks doing more damage to his own vessel than the opposition. Then, the Capitaine’s eyes alight on a handful of officers stamping out the scorched remains of an incendiary device smoldering on the quarterdeck. The pirates are trying to set them ablaze. Fortunately—and Javert smiles slightly at this—the wood is too soaked with seawater to do more than singe the surface. Even so, he hails his men.
“DuMont, Sauveterre, search for any other charges.” Javert glowers at the mark on his deck, marring the otherwise impeccable surface. “Someone will have to mend that.”
The acrid scent of burning saltpeter reaches him, and Javert turns to see smoke rising from another soot-blackened spot. Immediately, Sauveterre curses and goes running, DuMont not far behind. In the same glance, the Capitaine also catches sight of something out of place; there is the brief swish of a coat disappearing through the hatch in the quarterdeck floor, and it is not the navy blue of the officers’ uniforms. At once, a thousand suppositions leap to Javert’s mind, not the least of which is concern for the magazine room, and he falls into pursuit.
Below his feet, the ship’s ladder disappears quickly. He can hear movement below him, and he passes the gun deck as he descends further. It is quieter down here, almost startling after the calamity of battle. He can hear a quiet voice chuckling to himself and then—the clinking of keys.
With a flash of alarm, Javert makes a beeline for the brig. As he turns the corner, he is brought up short by the flash of maroon; it is Montparnasse, who stands facing away from the Capitaine and swinging the keys to the ship’s prison in one hand.
“Well then,” the pirate murmurs aloud. “Let us see what trouble we can make.”
He stalks into the brig, pristine boots clicking on the floor, and Javert follows silently after.
When Montparnasse finds the first cell he stops at to be empty, he is clearly nonplussed. No doubt his intent was to loose dangerous brigands upon the ship to add to the chaos, and Javert cannot suppress the vindicated pleasure he feels at inadvertently thwarting the youth’s plan. Then the pirate turns on his heel, and Javert realizes with a rush at the same moment Montparnasse draws a sharp breath that he is standing outside of Valjean’s cell.
“What have we here?” the pirate asks, squinting through the bars. “Ha, you’re a funny-looking one.” He clicks his teeth. “I s’pose the old Capitaine thinks to turn you in for the reward, eh? Not very polite of him, if you ask me.”
If Valjean makes any reply to this, it is not one Javert can hear. Nevertheless, Montparnasse’s hand disappears to his side for a moment, and Javert is filled with a sudden horror at the thought of the siren getting free. Surely Montparnasse is not so stupid as that—He must realize Valjean cannot sink one ship without sinking the other—
That is when Montparnasse raises not the key, but a gun.
“Apologies,” says the pirate with a mock bow, “but I am sure a gentleman such as yourself can understand. Can’t go letting Javert keep his prize, and all that.” He cocks the tiny silver peashooter and takes aim through the iron grating.
Javert acts without thinking. In less than the blink of an eye, his pistol is in his hand and raised.
“Montparnasse,” he intones, pulling back the bolt lock on his pistol. “Very clever, sneaking down here, but as you can see, I have found you.”
“One more step and he dies,” says Montparnasse, his eyes not wavering once from Valjean even as Javert steps forward.
“Kill it, and I will shoot you where you stand.” The Capitaine is as calm as though he discusses the weather. “Surrender, and I’ll see you and your crew to a cell instead.”
Montparnasse snorts, though he would not himself have described the noise so unbecomingly. “On the way to the scaffold, you mean. Your idea of ‘mercy’ is hardly generous, Monsieur.”
His finger is on the trigger, it is tightening, and Javert barrels ahead without pause for reason or thought. He crashed into Montparnasse as the gun discharges, but the sound which he hears as they fall against the bulkhead is of wood splintering rather than flesh and bone.
Immediately, Javert reaches for the gun, tearing it from between Montparnasse’s fingers. For all of one moment he stands triumphant, until the youth sneers in his face and an ice cold heat rakes from his shoulder to his chest.
Releasing the pirate’s lapels, Javert staggers backward, looking down at himself. There is blood seeping through his uniform, and he sees now that Montparnasse holds a knife in one hand—The brat must have hidden it up his sleeve—His waistcoat will be ruined now—
In his distraction, Montparnasse tries to slip away unnoticed but the movement catches Javert’s eye. The pain recedes under a surge of adrenaline as the Capitaine leaps in front of his path, shoving the youth with all his strength. Tripping over his boots, Montparnasse falls; Javert bends over him, stomping hard on his wrist until he releases the surin he clutches.
Then Javert plants his heel in the center of Montparnasse’s chest and shoves him against the floorboards, pointing his pistol between his eyebrows.
Perhaps it is the effect of staring down a gun barrel, but Montparnasse deflates. Javert hauls him up by the collar, breathing hard but careful to never let his aim waver for a moment as he holds the gun to the pirate’s head. He propels Montparnasse inside of the nearest cell, and bolts the door behind him.
It does not sink in that he has won until another moment passes. His head is turning cloudy, and it is harder to ignore the burning in his shoulder. Javert touches a hand to the rent in his tailcoat, and it comes away wet. That is not supposed to happen, he thinks dazedly. Something ought to be done about that.
From nearby comes a voice. “Javert.”
It takes the Capitaine a moment to realize it is the siren who has spoken. He turns.
Valjean is watching him with concern through the bars; there remains a sallow cast to the siren’s features but it appears more alert than the day before, so perhaps the doctor’s tinctures have done it some good after all. Still, there is something about its expression Javert does not like, if only he could think what it is.
“You must tend to that,” says Valjean, and in his present state Javert almost fancies the siren’s eyes to be luminous in the low light. “Javert, you are bleeding.”
“I know that,” the Capitaine snaps, or tries to; his tongue feels heavier in his mouth than usual. How could he not, when there are hot rivulets running down his skin inside of his shirt? “I am not a -”
Whatever he is not, Javert never finishes. He raises his head as from above come sounds of shouting, shriller and more panicked than those which conflict produced. Like a man in a trance, the Capitaine turns towards the stairs, ignoring whatever exclamation Valjean shouts after him. His knees tremble as he climbs and every breath sends a wave of fire through his chest, but he will not be deterred as he returns to the surface.
Javert emerges through the hatch to find a madness possessing his ship. Everywhere, his crew race back and forth and the pirates which remain uncaptured retreat, clambering over slumped bodies back to the decks of the Sangsue. Pressing his coat tighter to his wound, the Capitaine is about to accost the nearest officer he can grab hold of when he hears behind him a crackle and a collective cry.
Turning around is the most agonizing thing Javert has ever done, and not only because he is bleeding through his front. The red light he now perceives flickering over the deck can mean but one thing, and sure enough, as the Capitaine raises his head to see what has happened it is to find the mainmast burning like a torch.
Around him, the men scramble to fetch buckets of water, and thus far the blaze remains contained to the center mast only. Yet it is enough; they have not the resources to replace the entirety of it at sea.
All this Javert thinks through a haze of blankness; he is strangely calm. Droit comes running up to him, exclaiming something about his shoulder, but Javert waves his words away. “How did it happen?” he asks tonelessly.
Droit clenches his fists, staring up at the conflagration with a scowl. “Those blasted pirates,” he mutters. Then, glancing at Javert, he explains, “The mainsail was all clewed up—it must not have been soaked all the way through with water, and an explosive caught it. There was nothing we could do.”
The Capitaine nods wearily, trying to think despite that the world is fading in and out of focus.
“Keep at it with the water,” he says. “See that all the flames are quenched and comb the deck for hot ash—I do not want another blaze springing up in an hour’s time.”
“Yes, sir,” says Droit, a frown turning his mouth. “Sir, should you not -”
The sound of Rivette’s frantic shout is enough to make Javert swivel in spite of his lightheadedness, though the feeling of nausea returns threefold when he sees the blade at his Lieutenant’s throat.
“Rivette...” he croaks, taking in the pirate holding the man captive, the sweat dripping from his brow, the edge of the sword digging into the tender skin of his jugular. With more steel in his voice, Javert adds, “Let him go!”
The pirate, and Javert thinks the name of this one is Gueulemer, shakes his head vehemently. “You will permit us to leave,” he says. “Do not attempt to follow. If you do...” he trails off, but Rivette flinches as the blade presses harder against his neck.
Gueulemer climbs onto the gunwale, dragging Rivette with him like a shield as other pirates saw at the ropes binding their two ships together.
“Rivette,” Javert says again, this time with a faint disbelief. Then Gueulemer jumps aboard the Sangsue, dragging Rivette with, and Javert breaks into a run across the deck heedless of the danger to himself should some enterprising pirate decide to shoot.
He cannot breathe—
The deck is slick with blood—
His shoulder screams in protest—
Rivette stares at him, wide-eyed and helpless upon the opposing deck.
He cannot breathe—
The ship pitches up to meet him, and the sea is indistinguishable from the sky as everything spins in a dizzying blur. The last thing Javert sees is Rivette crying out in alarm, and then his legs give out and falls, senseless, into darkness.
Chapter 9: Seaworthy
I am getting ready to move cross-country for grad school, so if my updates turn a bit sporadic, please bear with me. <3
Sunlight falls across his face, and Javert rouses to find softness beneath his head. Such comfort is a scarce commodity aboard a sailing vessel; certainly, he cannot be in his own hard bunk. Blinking, the Capitaine props himself up groggily and takes in his surroundings. He is in the sickbay. It all comes back to him then: Montparnasse, the ship burning like a Roman candle, Rivette—
Javert is sitting up before he is aware of moving, swinging his legs out of bed. He is not wearing a shirt, it occurs to him dully, which he supposes is due to the thick wad of bandages crisscrossing his chest. There are clothes folded over the back of a chair and the Capitaine struggles into the sleeves of a button-down, his shoulder twinging angrily. Around him, there are others lying abed, many more grievously wounded than Javert himself. Their victory, if it can even be called that, is a very partial one.
The door opens.
“Monsieur!” The doctor comes scurrying in, carrying his bag and looking consternated. “Monsieur, you should not be out of bed, you will reopen the stitches!”
Javert grunts, continuing to do up the buttons single-handed.
“Commandant Javert, I really must insist -”
The Capitaine holds up his hand. “Help me with my waistcoat,” he interjects, pulling his good arm through the hole.
Helplessly, the doctor comes alongside him, sliding the garment over his bandages. “At least say you will use a cane, Commandant. You lost a lot of blood.”
“What happened?” Javert asks tersely.
The doctor ducks his head. “You passed out,” he says. “Droit and Jourdan carried you in, and -”
“Not me, you ninny.” Javert grits his teeth, settling his hat on his head. “The battle! Are the pirates in custody?”
Swallowing, the doctor averts his eyes. “I think you’d best be asking that of your officers, sir,” he replies. “They can surely explain better than I.”
It is hardly a reassuring statement.
Minutes later, Javert emerges from the hold, leaning on a wooden cane for support. He has taken but two steps before he is stopped by the enormity of the sight before him.
Across every deck the crew move methodically as ants, re-tying knots, tearing up boards and replacing them with fresh ones, bailing out water from the bilge. Some are limping, and others have the look of not having slept in their off hours. But what has captured Javert’s attention, what has gripped him as assuredly as the tentacled limbs of the kraken itself, is the charred remains of the ship’s mainmast.
The wood itself is not so badly damaged as it appears; the fire will only have scorched the outermost layers of wood and pitch, leaving plenty of hearty wood below. The Capitaine tries to think of it as good fortune—as least if it remains sound of structure, the mast will not fall and damage the ship further—but it is difficult to cut through the sudden fog in his head. Javert looks at the rigging, hempen rope reduced in places almost to ash, and the sails, or what is left of them.
It is by the grace of God that the foremast and the mizzenmast escaped the worst of the blaze. At present, the sheets are clewed up tight against the yardarms such that the Surveillante makes little headway, merely bobs like a cork on the water whilst repairs are made. Yet the mainmast sails are all but unrecognizable; blackened scraps fray and flutter in the breeze, utterly unsuitable for speeding the ship’s progress. They can perhaps sail, but they will be fortunate to reach even half their previous speed.
Dazedly, the Capitaine hails Favre and the helmsman stoops over. His arm is bandaged, and Javert detects a weariness about him which does not seem to be due to exertion.
“Commandant,” says Favre, dipping his head.
Not wasting time on the pleasantries, Javert asks brusquely, “What is our status?”
Favre speaks slowly, and Javert must reign in the urge to hurry him along. “We are down twenty-eight men, sir. Another thirteen consigned to the sickbay, twelve now that you’re up and about. The mainmast... Well, you can see for yourself, sir, it isn’t looking good. Jean-Pierre has a crew on it, but he doesn’t see any chance of sewing new sails with the supplies we have aboard, and frankly I think he’s right...”
The officer draws breath to continue, but Javert waves his words away. “What of the pirates?”
“Eight dead on our decks, more on their own. The Sangsue used the fire as their cue to get away.” Favre shakes his head. “We’ve got a baker’s dozen in the brig, but it’s a shame what happened to Rivette, I always liked that boy, never an unkind word to say about anyone, and a hard worker at that...”
Despite that the sun is shining, a chill seems to steal Javert’s breath. “What happened to Rivette?” he challenges, as though daring the truth to be anything other than within the realm of remedy.
Favre blinks at him, his wrinkled features turned pensive and sad. “I s’pose you were passed out by then, sir. The pirates, those which escaped, took him.”
“Took him?” Javert repeats, the chill turning to ice in his belly. “What do you mean, ‘took him’?”
“Captured him, sir,” Favre says dourly. “Warned us if we tried to follow that they’d cut his throat, not that we could have anyhow, what with the fire.”
Captured. The thought fills Javert with a sickening feeling he has seldom known and does not care for: guilt. It floods hot and fast through his veins driven by the notion that if he had only arrived sooner, if he had not been so careless in his scuffle with Montparnasse, the Lieutenant might have been saved.
Only then does Javert realize Favre still was speaking.
“What?” he asks, irascible.
“I said, would you like us to continue making repairs, sir, or pursue the Sangsue?”
“Would I -” Javert sputters. “Yes, of course you should continue with repairs. We will get nowhere if we are not made seaworthy. Rivette is either dead—” He tries not to dwell on the idea, though the vivid image of the pirate’s blade across his officer’s windpipe is slow to dissipate. “—or has been press-ganged into service. Neither state is likely to change in the immediate future.”
“Yessir.” Favre shuffles away, returning to his duties, and Javert gazes at the horizon without seeing it. He has not often been generous to Rivette, for Javert believes in discipline, not in pandering to be liked, but the lad is a good officer and his absence leaves a vacuum the Capitaine will have to try to fill with resources he does not have.
It is a moment more before he composes himself. The men will not benefit from his wretched spirits, and it undermines his authority to show signs of weakness. Fixing his features in the expression of a scowl, the Capitaine brushes past a crew of laboring sailors for the hatch in the floor.
Belowdecks, the damages are not so readily apparent, save for where the occasional hole punched through the hull allows the sun to stream through. Already, there are men working to fill them, hauling barrels of pitch and oakum fibers. Javert does not spare them a second glance as he makes his way to the brig.
The cell block is rowdier than usual with the pirates in holding. Alternating threats and bribes resound down the length of the passageway, but the three officers standing guard are unmoved. Javert nods to them briefly in greeting, then surveys the prisoners. As Favre promised, there are thirteen of them divided between five cells. Montparnasse sits alone in the fifth, and when he sees Javert looking, he offers the Capitaine a smirk and a rude gesture. Javert does not even bat an eye; Montparnasse will be less cocky when he stands on the gallows.
Also solitary in its confinement is the siren; even the pirates in the neighboring cell give Valjean a wide berth, preferring to sit as far from the creature as possible. When Javert is satisfied that their new captives are all properly restrained, he wanders closer to the bars of Valjean’s prison. Rousseau has scrubbed the tank back to clear salinity, and through the glass Javert can make out strips of linen binding salve to the creature’s tail. Yet there is a nervous cast to its face that puts Javert on his guard; always, it seems, Valjean is cooking up some new mischief.
“Still breathing, are you?” the Capitaine asks dryly.
Valjean does not rise to the jibe but glances toward the port window like a skittish cat. “The wind has changed,” the creature murmurs. “Do you feel it?”
Javert snorts. “You are a fish, not a bird. What do you know of wind?”
The siren flicks its tailfin unhappily, but does not answer.
“I have no patience for games,” Javert continues. “Do not spook my crew, or I can just as easily withhold your rations.”
Valjean’s gaze lowers, but the stubborn set of its shoulders makes it clear that the creature is unrepentant.
A shrill whistle from behind causes Javert to wheel around, only to find himself facing peals of raucous laughter. Three pirates sit in a cell, doubled over in their amusement.
“Ogling the fish-man, are we, Commandant?” asks one, and his fellows laugh harder. “He makes a pretty Melusine, I’ll give you that.”
By now, the other pirates are watching, not to mention his officers, and Javert has only just begun to grasp that he is being heckled, and by a prisoner no less. His brow creases; he opens his mouth to speak, but is interrupted.
“Are you joking, Brevet?” snickers his compatriot. “The good Capitaine here wouldn’t know pretty if she were dancing in front of him with her décolletage all hanging out.”
“A prude like that—” chimes in the third, elbowing the other in the ribs, “he’d have to take the stick out of his ass before he could get his fish supper!”
The Capitaine observes this with his arms crossed, clenching his teeth even as the back of his neck heats. The pirates, who by the redness of their faces are still a few hours away from sobering up, dissolve again into howls of laughter. It continues a moment more, until Javert has taken all he is willing to.
“That’s enough,” he says.
Wiping his eyes, Brevet says, “Oh, and what are you going to do about it, then? Shoot me?” He spits contemptuously. “Like you aren’t going to hang us all the minute we come to port. Far as I see it, I got nothing to lose.”
In three steps, Javert crosses the aisle to the cell door.
“You say that now,” he murmurs, looking the pirate in the eye. “But we’re ten days out from port—maybe more, now that your people torched our mainmast.”
Javert raises his hand, curling his gloved fingers into a fist until the leather creaks. “A cat o’ nine tails hangs in my cabin,” he says quietly. “I doubt a flogging would silence your tongue but a wise man would not tempt me to find out.”
Raising his head, the Capitaine adds, “That goes for all of you. This is a prison, not a brothel. Keep it quiet, or I’ll see all of you beaten.”
The mockery fades from the pirates’ eyes, replaced with a sullen anger. Javert grimaces and turns away. His officers do not meet his gaze, and it occurs to Javert to wonder whether they would have said the same in his absence. Well, let them think what they will—his integrity speaks for itself.
As he turns back in the direction of the stairs, the slightest of motions in Valjean’s cell catches his eye. The siren has fallen back against the bars, arms and chest heaving like it is still in pain. Its wrists strain in their shackles, and Javert almost blurts an obscenity at the thought of anything else going wrong.
Clicking his fingers at the nearest guard, Javert grinds out, “Have the doctor see to this one again. If its fever has returned, it’ll mean trouble for all of us.”
The officer speaks a word to the affirmative, but the Capitaine is already striding down the passage, his tailcoat billowing behind him.
Returning to the deck, it is not long at all before Javert notices Sauveterre studying the horizon with a spyglass. The sight does nothing to improve his foul mood. Stalking over to the officer’s side, he says baldly and without preamble, “What is it?”
Sauveterre purses his lips. “Not exactly sure, sir. Might be nothing. Just a wisp of cloud.”
“Hah.” Javert extends his hand, and Sauveterre places the telescope in it. “But it caught your eye, why?”
“The wind, sir. It dropped rather suddenly. Thought I ought to have a look around.”
Like an omen, a prickle raises the hairs along the nape of the Capitaine’s neck. Glancing up at the sail sheets, Javert sees that indeed, they do not appear as full as they did when he went below. At once, his grip on the spyglass tightens, and he holds it to his eye.
There where the sky meets the water is the same smudge upon which Sauveterre was so intent. Truly, it does not look like much—perhaps it is in fact only a passing cloud. And yet, in the broad light of day and at so far a distance, it seems that such an innocent thing should be all but invisible. He taps his fingers on the rail thoughtfully.
“It would take more than a little rain squall to calm us this far out.” Reaching a decision, Javert says, “Let us keep making headway towards the mainland. If it is a storm, we would only be sailing into it to move farther out to sea.”
Cautiously, Sauveterre asks, “And the pirates?”
Javert thinks of his missing Lieutenant, and his chest tightens. “They will also have to skirt around any storm, or sail for the coast themselves. Either way, it is a fool’s errand to think we could board the Sangsue in inclement weather.”
Sauveterre carries his orders to the helmsman, and the Surveillante sets its course. With the rudder steering and all their remaining sails unfurled, their progress forward is not insubstantial. Even so, it is a fraction of their usual pace, and now that the thought has entered his mind, Javert cannot stop glancing at the horizon.
At first, the smudge remains only that, a smudge. Yet by mid-afternoon, it becomes clear that his fears are well-founded. The brushstroke in the distance has become a solid wall of grey at their backs, and the crew grow restless in its shadow. It does not need to be said—every man aboard knows they cannot outrun such a deluge with their ship impaired. It is only a question now of how far they will get before the stormfront catches up with them.
Javert stands at the stern watching the sky. In their wake, the clouds billow to new heights, great anvil-shaped thunderheads the color of hammered steel. A floating citadel, nimbus spires towering into the heavens, it is a sight which would steal the breath of lesser men. But for all that it is awe-inspiring, Javert knows it is not these which he must watch for but the darker clouds under the storm’s belly. His telescope reveals with clarity what even his naked eye can now begin to discern: a dense ring below the storm, so dark as to be almost blue. It rides forward like a battleship, a funnel battering the sea with rain. And all around the Surveillante, what breeze remained goes eerily still.
“Damn,” Javert mutters.
Javert turns to see Jourdan and a few of the others standing near the helm. Their features are anxious, made all the more so by the echoes of thunder. The Capitaine hesitates, and for a moment he feels Rivette’s loss keenly; he has not the same talent for reassurance as the Lieutenant.
“Gather every able-bodied man on the quarterdeck,” he says gruffly. “Be quick about it—there is not a moment to spare.”
The younger officers scamper off, and Javert glances back in time to see lightning arc between pillars. No, he thinks. There is no time to spare at all.
When all officers have been gathered, even those well enough to leave the sickbay, Javert paces down the line distributing assignments.
“And do not forget your harness,” he adds, looking each man in the eye. “A wave crashing over the deck could carry even the stoutest sailor overboard. Sauveterre—”
The man steps forward, and Javert continues, “I want you at the helm. Favre, be ready to relieve him. We will take her downwind until we reach the low side of the storm. Strike the royals—they will not help us steer and will only be shredded by the gale.”
As the crew get to work, Javert climbs back up to the aftcastle. Sauveterre and Favre are lashing their lifelines to the helm, and Javert does the same. Only when the rope is securely fastened around his waist does Javert straighten, eyeing the sails. The royals luff and flutter as they are cinched tight to the yardarms. The fraction of sheets remaining will catch the wind when it comes; for all that the air is still now, the Capitaine’s instincts tell him that sea is merely holding its breath.
Then, a noticeable ripple stirs the waves behind them.
“Here it comes,” Javert says under his breath. Aloud, he calls, “Brace yourselves!” just as the wind hits the Surveillante like a wall. The vessel groans and jumps forward, the sails filling in an instant. Javert catches himself on the baluster overlooking the lower deck, and sees that not everyone has been so fortunate as to keep their balance. For now, though, they are flying, the strength behind them propelling the ship faster than they have moved since losing the mainsail.
“Commandant!” Sauveterre shouts above the roar of the wind. “Let me run her before the storm—we’re not short for searoom, and with the wind at our back we’ll go farther than we ever would on our own!”
Keeping hold of the railing, Javert turns back to face the stormfront.
“No,” he replies. “The waves will be too intense—they could crack the stern in two!”
As if to punctuate his point, a hearty breaker slaps the rear of the ship, throwing saltwater spray over the deck. Javert shields his eyes from the stinging foam, pointing his finger to starboard.
“Bring us about!”
The masts creak worryingly as the ship turns and Javert growls imprecations, the sound lost to the wind.
Motioning to the crew, he shouts, “Strike the topgallants!”
As more sails are reeled in, they cease to careen forward at such a reckless pace, but the wind is not the only danger. The very air reverberates with approaching thunderclaps as grey-black clouds obscure the face of the sun. With every passing second, the waves are whipped into a greater frenzy around them, and the Surveillante cuts through the top of the swells only to drop into the trough before the next crest. The greatest peril lies in permitting wind or waves to buffet them parallel to the water’s motion; one wrong encounter with a wave could upset them in the blink of an eye.
As the ship fights to pivot about, pointing counterclockwise of the storm’s worst, the gale winds strike anew to send Javert staggering under the full brunt of its force. And descending just behind it, impenetrable sheets of rain sweep across the deck as hard and as merciless as cannonballs.
The Capitaine’s blasphemy is cut off as the squall crashes over him. The rain is everywhere, in his mouth, in his eyes, and it is impossible to see more than a few feet ahead, the rest of the ship lost behind a grey curtain. His clothes are plastered to his skin and it is freezing but there is no time to dwell on it, not when the ship is heeling from side to side, rolling on its axis as the waves sweep it ever higher.
A particularly jarring impact knocks his feet out from under him; the deck is slippery with water, and Javert goes sprawling just as another icy wave crashes over the gunwale. Its weight is crushing as it soaks through anything which was not already soaked, and Javert sits up spitting brine and gasping for breath, the tear in his shoulder smarting as the salt seeps into the wound. Only the line tying him to the helm keeps him from being dragged overboard, and he depends on it now to find his way back to where Sauveterre and Favre wrestle jointly with the wheel.
“We cannot keep our course,” Sauveterre bellows, the tempest nearly drowning out his words. “Javert, we must turn back!”
“Are you mad?” The Capitaine hauls himself upright, shaking his hair fruitlessly from his eyes. “We would no sooner start to turn than the waves would capsize us!”
“They may well do that anyway!” the officer argues. “Even with two we can barely control the rudder!”
The Surveillante dives forward into a valley, and as the prow strikes the next swell, the water strains to push them aside to port. The roiling ocean crests rise taller than the ship’s castles, black as the abyss and equally unforgiving. If they are caught between them, it will mean their deaths.
Lunging himself at the wheel, Javert’s fingers grasp for a handle. The three of them together are able to drag the ship back from the brink, but every jostle of the boat sends more water crashing over the sides. Some will spill back out the scuppers, but not all.
“Hold her here!” he cries, though he does not know if they hear him; the fury of the storm is deafening.
Running across the deck is like running uphill; the vessel climbs the lee side of the wave, and the horizon itself leans backwards. Javert makes it to the baluster just as the ship arrives at the summit, and for a moment everything is suspended, motionless. A crackle of electricity leaps through the upper atmosphere like chains of silver.
Then, the plunge.
The prow tips forward and the Surveillante slides first slowly, then faster, into the undulating blackness. The bottom of the trough rises up to meet them; Javert can see nothing but rain, nothing but sea and foam, yet he can feel the tremble in the bones of the ship when it lands. All the light screens are smashed, the rigging stripped away. As for his crew, they could be ghosts for all he can tell—Javert stands alone, an isolated figure in the screaming maelstrom, and he gnashes his teeth in defiance of the odds. He has not been defeated yet, nor does he intend to be.
Yet, against Javert’s will, they are turning. The next swell knocks them like a plaything, sending them spinning as it sloughs over top of the masts. Pummeled, tossed about, the ship tips so far to port she is nearly laying atop the water; she snaps upright again fast enough to roll a man’s eyeteeth, but the Capitaine knows it will not last. They are all of them damned.
No sooner has the ship found her keel than they are struck by another towering wall of water.
Javert hangs immobile in midair as the world turns sideways. He has a strangely lucid vision of his bootheels pointing at the sky, before he is falling through space, the ship following him into the embrace of the deep.
His very last thought before hitting the water is that—somewhere—the siren must surely be laughing at him now.
Chapter 10: Submersed
So after a cross-country move, several competing WIPs, and starting grad school, this chapter is............. overdue. Apologies for that, and I think it would probably be wise if I didn't set expectations on when to look for the next one, at least while I'm settling into my new schedule. Hopefully it won't be too long, though. I'm very excited to get to the halfway point. <3
He has no sense of how long it has been; time seems to hold no meaning down here. Certainly it has been long enough for the air to grow stale, for the walls of his sanctuary to close in around him like a coffin. He is going to die here, he knows. It is only a matter of when, and how.
When Javert fell into the water, the ship overhauling under the weight of the ocean’s wrath, the force of the waves thundering down upon her broke the Surveillante in two, severing his lifeline with it. Pieces of the wreck flooded and sank, and Javert, in that startling clarity which accompanies moments of great peril, perceived a fragment of the hull collapsing upon him through the foam. As the waterlogged wood overtook him, the waves above seething like a cauldron, the Capitaine closed his eyes and knew himself condemned.
Then for reasons Javert did not begin to guess at, death stayed its hand. Where he had expected to be bludgeoned by a hard pitch-stained surface, pinned below the hull until his lungs gave out, he found his head bobbing above the water. Groping blindly for a handhold, the Capitaine felt his way to understanding. Within that fragile chunk of debris, a bubble of air had been trapped between the sea and the impenetrable keel, sufficient for Javert to carefully ease himself halfway out of the water upon the shattered remains of what was once the ship’s bilge. There he lay panting for breath, too exhausted and too precariously perched to haul himself out any further. It would be a long time before he moved at all.
It is dark, Javert thinks, so very dark. Before his eyes, amorphous figures twist and shift and vanish, mirages in the night. His legs disappear below him, any light which might otherwise have filtered down from the surface banished by the setting of the sun. He wishes in vain for a candle to see by. That the flame would only devour the sparse oxygen in the chamber faster does not concern him; perhaps it would even be welcome. The hull is a volume unto itself, but its boundaries are lost to the blackness. His mind supplies them instead: claustrophobic timber ribs and thin layers of planks are all that separates him from a wretched end. Slowly, the hull is sinking. It is buoyed by the pocket of air, but only just. Eventually the pressure will grow too much to withstand, but he will have asphyxiated by then if the cold does not get to him first.
And it is cold. Javert does not remember ever feeling so biting a chill, even in the dead of winter when there was not a sou left in the coffers for firewood. It creeps inside of muscle, of bone, until Javert is no longer able to feel anything at all. Even his shoulder has gone from firey with pain to merely a numb ache. He is a corpse already, floating in a graveyard of corpses. There is a certain rightness to his descent into the void; he must take full responsibility for the fate of his crew, and it is only fitting that he join them in oblivion.
Javert is beginning to doze, falling into a sleep from which he suspects he will never wake, when the water ripples unnaturally behind him. In the silence, the splash is like a gunshot, and the hull creaks unnervingly as Javert’s head jerks up in sudden horror. At once, he is reminded of all the sea-beasts which look upon a shipwreck as a feast, the stout sailor bodies in the water enough to sate even a voracious appetite.
Holding perfectly still, Javert waits, praying to a God whose existence he doubts that he will not feel the sandy hide of a shark slip past his leg.
Thus it is that when he instead hears a very uncertain, “Javert?” the Capitaine almost loses his grip. Damp wood rocks underneath his fingertips, upset by his convulsion of shock, and Javert has a sudden vision of the hull turning over, finally releasing its delicate cargo of air to the surface and filling with water. The siren has found him; this must have been the creature’s plan all along. The hull will right itself and he will be lost, overturned by one smooth stroke of Valjean’s tail—
And then just as suddenly, everything is still again, the ship’s balance restored.
“Do not fear,” Valjean murmurs. “All will be well.”
Javert emits a harsh laugh. “Ridiculous,” he says.
“What is ridiculous?”
“Spare me your platitudes, Valjean,” Javert grates out. “I suppose you have desecrated the bodies of my crew, and now that their bones are picked clean you have come for dessert. Well, I will not go quietly.” His hands ball into fists upon the deck boards, and it occurs to him that somewhere along the way he has lost one of his gloves. It makes no difference; the one hand is as cold as the other.
“Javert,” says Valjean in what is intended to be a placating voice, but which in reality sounds more anxious than anything, “you are... I do not know how your kind measure distance.”
The statement is so incongruous that Javert says roughly, “What?”
“I think...” The siren tests the fit of the unfamiliar words in its mouth. “I think you are no more than twenty fathoms below the surface. If you would but let me guide you...”
“To my demise, you mean,” Javert snarls, clinging with all his might to his ship as though the creature is already trying to drag him under. “I know I am doomed, Valjean, and I do not need your ‘help’ to ensure it.”
“I had not hoped to find you alive.” Valjean’s tone is wondering. “The others believed you to have drowned.”
Curiosity overrides Javert’s better judgement. Reluctantly he asks, “Others?”
“Not all your crew perished.” With that cryptic remark, Valjean adds, “You will run out of air soon.” It is a statement of fact, one they both know to be true. “If you do not trust me, trust that. Stay, and you are certain to die. Accept my help, and you may yet live.”
Unseen in the darkness, Javert puts his head in his hands. He knows that Valjean is manipulating him—it is after all a siren’s second nature—yet he cannot dismiss the possibility that the creature somehow speaks the truth. Though it seems impossible there could have been any other survivors, he would be delinquent in his duty to abandon them. And if Valjean does drown him, what of it? The manner of his passing will make no difference to anyone, living or dead.
His fists tighten.
“Very well,” says Javert resignedly. “Do it.”
A hand brushes the back of his neck, and Javert conceals his flinch under a clearing of the throat as it settles upon his shoulder. Valjean’s touch is too light, cautious where it should be possessive, seductive. An arm snakes around Javert’s waist, holding him fast, but there is neither malice nor intention in it. Then Valjean tugs the Capitaine free of his mooring, and Javert’s fingernails scrape the hull in one last animal compulsion to hang on.
He does not succeed. The siren is strong; Javert has known this. It pulls him back against its chest, and Javert finds Valjean’s body to be warm, even in the frigid water. In his nearly hypothermic state, it is like being pressed to a furnace; he cannot tell whether it is a favorable heat or scalding.
“I will have to swim down first before I can head for the surface.” Valjean’s voice is a low murmur in his ear. “Breathe deeply, and relax if you can.”
Javert wishes to be spiteful, but his traitorous body anticipates suffocating and acts against his will. He sucks down as much of the stagnant air as his lungs will hold, and then Javert screws his eyes shut as Valjean sinks them both beneath the surface.
A stream of sensations vie simultaneously for Javert’s attention. The first, and most demanding, is the pressure. Water works like a corkscrew into his ears, crushing and squeezing his skull with the finesse of a vice, and the Capitaine snorts a stream of precious bubbles from his nose in distress. The second is the temperature, which is now all-encompassing. His eyes blink open, but it is impossible to perceive anything in the midnight blue waters. There is a shadow above him—the ship?—and Valjean’s arm tightens around his middle as they descend deeper into the drink.
Fear churns his stomach, an unwelcome emotion but one he cannot seem to shake. Javert feels every slight shift and twitch of Valjean’s body as the siren holds them steady in the water waiting for something; perhaps for the current to change; for the hull to drift out of the way; for Javert to run out of breath. He wonders whether he will still be conscious when Valjean tears out his throat.
Then, whatever Valjean is waiting for comes to pass. Slinging the Capitaine over its shoulder, the siren beats its powerful tail, shooting like a bullet for the surface. In the water, Valjean loses all of the haplessness that beset the creature on dry land. The siren’s figure undulates with more grace than any human dancer, a shape rendered by nature for the sole purpose of cutting through the water like a knife. It makes his own limbs feel heavy and gangly by comparison, and Javert shivers. If he has ever doubted that Valjean comes from a predatory breed, this lays those thoughts to rest. The siren moves more lithely even than a sand tiger.
And yet, they are still so far from the surface.
A hot, tingling feeling sweeps through the Capitaine as his lungs cry out for air. His chest burns with the need for it—the illusion of heat is a stark contrast to the chill of the water around him. He must breathe in; he must not breathe in. The paradox means his undoing.
Javert is dimly aware of his legs kicking frantically, trying to propel them faster still, when a stray beam of moonlight catches Valjean’s face through the water. The siren looks concerned. It points a finger upwards, but Javert cannot make heads or tails of what that means.
His cognition is the swiftest thing to wane. Though the weight of the water is slacking off somewhat, there is a different sort of pressure building in his temples, one which muffles everything but the singular demand for reprieve. It is all very confusing—he can no longer tell whether he faces upright or down, whether Valjean is carrying him into the light or into the pit. The drive to inhale is overwhelming. Not even the knowledge that he remains submerged can quell it.
He gives in, and gasps.
Immediately, Javert is struck by the wrongness of it. Saltwater floods his nose, his sinuses, his mouth. If he thought his chest hurt before, it is nothing compared to the excruciating explosion of liquid forcing its way into the soft tissues of his lungs. He chokes, but trying to expel the water only makes it worse. The sea has him in its jaws now, and it will not let him go.
Javert is dimly aware of his arms clinging to Valjean’s neck as he trembles and spasms. His struggles grow weaker by the second, and even Valjean’s shadowed face disappears into the dark behind his eyelids. This is what it is to die—the epiphany arrives in an instant. There is nothing he can do to prevent it and so he accepts it instead, going limp and unresisting, his long hair floating in a cloud around his face. Valjean moves, but what he does is no longer any concern of Javert’s.
He is fading, he is fading, and then he is gone, a victim of the siren’s embrace at last.
The voice is as the first stroke upon a blank canvas.
It echoes inside his head; he has no other thoughts to interrupt it, for what use has a dead man for thoughts?
Wake up, please.
The voice is aggravatingly persistent, and now that it accosts him so, he cannot deny the gradual return of other sensations as well. Cold, clamminess, a ubiquitous pain without any source—these are what he returns to. More cynically, he wonders what use a dead man has for pain.
Javert, wake up!
He will not remember it later, but in the moment he thinks it is his name called upon with such desperation that does it. Javert wakes, alive after all, his eyes cracking open to understand two things in unison. The first is that there are wet, soft lips clamped over his own, forcing life-giving air back down his windpipe. The second is that these efforts are having some success, and as a result he has a rather pressing urge to vomit. It seems unsporting to do that into the mouth of his rescuer; Javert groans and tips his head to one side, a fountain of water spewing out to puddle beside him.
Just then, as though his senses are returning to him one at a time, he comprehends the clamor in the background for what it is: speech.
“God spare us, what is it doing?”
“Devouring his immortal soul, I’d expect. I’ve heard tell of such things, fiendish bastards.”
“Wait. Did you see that?”
“He moved, I swear it!”
Javert cannot make sense of what he hears, nor does he try to. It takes all of his very limited energy to roll onto his stomach, retching and spitting up more seawater. Every time he thinks it must surely be over with, it happens again, running down his chin and spilling over his hands. His throat feels chafed raw with bile and salt.
Eventually he can breathe freely again. The pain, he has discovered, originates from the knife wound. It feels as though the stitches have opened up, and he dreads the moment he must undo his shirt and attend to it. For the moment, however, there is something he has to know.
Rocking back onto his side, the Capitaine raises his eyes to see just who or what has pulled him from the water. The answer, when it comes, is not a complete surprise, though he freezes anyway.
Lying scarcely a foot away from him is the siren, Valjean, propped up on its elbows. It watches him with an odd combination of relief and wariness, blue eyes reflecting the moonlight with an iridescent glow. For a moment, the Capitaine hears a reverberation of that same voice in his head—Valjean’s voice.
Struggling for something to say, Javert merely wets his lips. Perhaps it is only his imagination, but he thinks they taste slightly of seaweed. He has imprisoned this creature, abused it, starved it, threatened it... threatened him, Javert amends, for try as he may, it is impossible to think of Valjean as the lesser being when he has spared the life of one who would see him destroyed. There is little Javert can say to that. It occurs to him that “Thank you” might be appropriate. He does not say that, either.
When the silence has stretched, Valjean offers the slightest of nods, equally wordless, before slithering backwards with a plop and a quiet splash. Javert realizes then that his legs are still floating on the water. The leather of his boots will be stained forever by this ordeal.
As he is gathering the will to move, the Capitaine hears a shout of, “Javert!”
The deck beneath him tilts alarmingly as running feet approach, and the Capitaine looks up to see silhouetted against the night sky a familiar face.
“Droit?” he asks, and immediately regrets the weakness of his voice.
“Commandant, so it is you.” The man crouches, offering his arm as Javert hauls himself entirely out of the water. “I almost do not dare believe it.”
“Believe it,” Javert grumbles. “Where are we?”
The officer wraps Javert’s arm over his shoulder, helping him to stand. A gibbous moon hangs in the cloudless firmament, peppered with stars. It sheds a silver-blue light over the scene, and Javert frowns at his surroundings as Droit leads him across the deck.
To call it a deck is a misnomer. Parts of it are comprised of nailed boards, others of logs, or floating barrels. All at once, the Capitaine understands; he is aboard the Surveillante, or what is left of her, floating scraps of wreckage lashed together by lengths of rope. It is an unsteady, ugly craft, and at night it is especially treacherous to cross for the shadows conceal holes and gangplanks that fall back into the water. It is slow going and the exertion leaves his heart pounding, but presently Javert sees where they are bound for. A huddle of human figures crouch in a hollow between a pile of barrels, a scrap of sailcloth providing a small measure of shelter.
As they approach, cries of mingled greeting and amazement ring out across the raft. When they arrive, Droit sits Javert down and wisely ignores how the man’s legs all but give out from under him. The wood is dry, which is as unlikely as it is appreciated, and Javert is about to pose a question when half a dozen hands clap him on the back in welcome. It is a peculiar feeling which rises in his breast; camaraderie is not something to which Javert is accustomed. And yet, he supposes that these men, too, must be full of the same strange disbelief at being alive.
“Place your wet things over here, sir,” says one, and the Capitaine is too weary to argue as he strips down to his shirtsleeves. He is sodden all the way through, even his woolen tailcoat, which weighs on his shoulders like a whole other person. Gooseflesh pricks at his arms; fortunately, there is very little breeze tonight to blow through his thin cotton shirt and chill him further. He hands his other articles to Géroux, who lays them out to dry, and someone passes him an unspoilt waterskin.
The taste of fresh water is as much a relief to his tongue as every inhalation is to his ribs, and Javert drinks greedily; not until the purity of the Adam’s ale touches his parched throat does he realize just how thirsty he is. He permits himself only a few swallows before handing it back, but it is enough to clear the last of the fog from his head.
Then the Capitaine gathers what remains of his iron concentration and fixes it on the situation at hand.
“Tell me what happened,” Javert says hoarsely. “All of it.”
The men turn to look at each other. It is Droit, who has sat down nearby, to first take up the tale.
“When the ship keeled over, I was working the weather bracers.” He shakes his head. “That wave hit me like a ton of bricks, snapped my lifeline like it was no more than string. Probably for the best—if it hadn’t, I’d have been dragged down with the ship. As it was, I was treading water, tossed about like flotsam, when something grabbed my waist. Next thing I knew, I was holding onto a barrel for dear life with no idea how I’d got there.”
“It was the same for me,” said Travers, a quiet boy whom Javert knew only as a hired hand of the cook’s. “One minute I was thinking ‘bout how I was never gonna see maman again, and the next I’m laying astride the mast and coughing up half the ocean.”
Their circle numbers fifteen, sixteen altogether with Javert. Each man among them has a similar story to tell, one which starts with a miraculous emancipation from the water and culminates in the construction of the raft from whatever odds and ends could be salvaged from the wreck. The one called Vauquelin—Javert does not believe he has ever done more than bark orders at the man, and certainly he has not until now learned his name—explains how the storm ceased not long after the frigate’s collapse.
“Blew itself out,” he says, adding with a meaningful glance toward the edge of the water, “Almost suspicious how quickly it happened, too.”
“I thought the same,” agrees Bellamy, a southern man with a thick mustache. “A bit too coincidental, if you ask me.”
Closing his eyes, Javert tries to lay it out in his head where it can be examined from every angle. What is clear is that Valjean dismissed the storm or sent it on its way, rescuing the occasional sailor from its path in the process. What is less clear is why; the younger men are inclined to believe it was the siren’s mercy, but the more experienced officers among them are less convinced. When Fabien and Travers are out of earshot, Droit mutters lowly, “Your ‘friend’ may yet have other plans for us. What food do you suppose exists for it out here in the open ocean? It could be only keeping us alive to strip the meat from our bones later.”
Javert replies, “He is not my friend.”
Droit glances around, but the others have dissolved into talking amongst themselves so he continues, “If I am being honest, sir, when that creature—what did you say it was called, ‘Valjean’?—dragged you up onto the deck, I would have sworn on my mother’s grave that you were dead. I thought it meant to start eating your corpse right there in front of us.”
The gruesome image is slow to leave his mind. Javert chews his lower lip, wondering for what end the siren has saved him. Perhaps it is true what Droit fears; and yet, Javert cannot reconcile the idea with the earlier trace of worry on Valjean’s face, nor the intimate way in which he was revived. None of it makes any sense, and the Capitaine’s skull is throbbing just thinking about it.
“Let it be for the moment,” he murmurs. “We can deal with him in the morning.”
Droit tips his head in tacit acknowledgment, and Javert raises his voice to address the rest.
“I advise you all to get some sleep,” he says, looking at each man sternly. “There is no use in posting a watch. I doubt any one of us could stay awake for it.”
Above, the sky is clear and peaceful, and the horizons are free of any immediate danger. They are safe enough by Javert’s reckoning, though ‘safe’ is even more a relative term than usual. Still, though Valjean may have disappeared for the present, Javert doubts he is far away, nor does he believe the siren would preserve their lives only to abandon them to chance; for better or worse, Valjean will be keeping what is left of Javert’s crew close.
Settling back against part of a broken bulkhead, the Capitaine shuts his eyes. Around him, he can hear the men making their own preparations, but for the first time since coming to, Javert is alone with his thoughts. Now he can ponder everything; his own unlikely survival, the continued endurance of his crew, and Valjean who sits at the heart of it all. The unexpected reversal of their roles is more startling than he cares to admit out loud, and yet...
Javert remembers too vividly the sheer panic which engulfed him as his throat closed up, the helpless terror of it mortifying even in the throes of gulping down water. It is enough to make his face color with shame, for Valjean had him utterly within his power, but the siren did not bow to his bestial nature. Instead—Javert’s flush deepens as he imagines how they must have looked before his men—Valjean brought their mouths together and in stealing a kiss saved his life. As his ears heat, the Capitaine reflects that it is just as well he was too dazed at the time to think on it. If he had been aware of what was happening, it would have been far more humiliating.
What will happen next remains to be seen. Perhaps the siren intends to give him a taste of his own medicine; certainly, Valjean would be justified enough in doing so. Javert will plead the case of his crew if he must—let him be the one to starve for the creature’s amusement, the others are innocent—but he knows not what else to do. They are alive, and they are also stranded.
Sighing, the Capitaine slumps more heavily against his chosen bedrest. Perhaps matters will be clearer in the light of day. As it stands, he doubts whether anything more can be accomplished that night. Fatigue is quick to claim him, and Javert falls into a fitful slumber.
His dreams are fleeting, distorted things. Javert drowns perhaps a dozen times, each in different ways, but the end result is always the same: panicked, heart clenching, he half-wakes in a cold sweat only to fall asleep again moments later. Valjean figures frequently in his visions, though sometimes Javert is alone, no siren and no ship in sight and the surface ever out of his reach. In one particularly memorable night terror, it is a shark which finds Javert sheltering in the hull after all, and the Capitaine jolts upright with his pulse hammering and a phantom pain in his leg.
By the time sunlight begins filtering through his eyelids, Javert’s dreams mellow. There is a languid warmth spilling over his lap, a weight pressing lightly on his chest, and fingers in his hair. He is aware of a mouth covering his own but Javert does not think he is being resuscitated—certainly Valjean did not need to implement his tongue in such a way to bring him around before—and it makes him want to shift and pull that warmth closer. He might even have done so, had it not been for the screech of a seabird which interrupts the dream’s pleasant fuge. The dream fades, and this time Javert wakes feeling vaguely hollow and dissatisfied.
Opening his eyes a fraction, Javert grimaces to find his face encrusted with a layer of salt. He brushes it off his eyelids and away from his mouth, slowly rolling onto his knees and rising. His uniform is no better off; his shirt and trousers are stiff with evaporated seawater, and he dares not even consider his hair. A commotion across the raft draws his attention; Cousineau and Bellamy chase after an albatross which has landed upon their craft to catch a moment’s rest. Doubtless they intend to eat it, though how they think to catch the bird Javert cannot imagine. He stumps over to where his clothes have dried in the night, pulling on his waistcoat and tails after beating what salt he can from the material. Stranded they may be, but Javert is not about to descend into savagery and wander around underdressed.
When he is as presentable as circumstance allows, the Capitaine surveys his new vessel. The morning sun reveals to the eye just what a hodgepodge it is of loosely connected scrap, decking, and debris. But it floats, and with men to steer her all is not lost. Resolving firstly to see to their supplies, Javert hails Droit where he stands talking to Martin.
“Congratulations,” says Javert dryly as the man approaches. “Field promotion. I am in need of a Lieutenant.”
Droit salutes. “Sir.” He pauses, then asks, “How can I be of service?”
“I want a report on our status,” says the Capitaine. “What do we have on hand—food, water, weapons?”
Bowing his head, the new Lieutenant replies, “We have four barrels of water that survived the storm, sir. No food to speak of. As for weapons, Fabien has his cutlass. And DuMond’s pistol made it, but without powder it isn’t of much use.”
Javert processes these facts silently, taking a slow breath.
“So be it,” he says. “We will make do. Any sign yet of the siren?”
Droit frowns, his mistrust for the creature evident. “No, sir.”
“I see.” Javert glances at where Cousineau is now being chased by the albatross, the bird swooping and diving at his head in retaliation. “Please go inform that officer that birds are better caught with a cutlass or blunt object than with one’s hands. If he slips off the deck, he will have to fish his own self out.”
Snorting, Droit responds with another, “Yes sir.” Then he says, “There is also the matter of the prisoner.”
Javert arches an eyebrow. “Prisoner?”
“Were you not informed?” Droit motions towards a pile of broken boards. When Javert indicates that he was not, the Lieutenant leads him around to the other side, careful not to slip and fall on the uneven footing.
They reach the other end, and Javert stops short. Trussed up on the deck and looking positively miserable about it is none other than Montparnasse. Seeing the Capitaine’s dumbfounded expression, Droit explains.
“We were tying the framing together with what was left of the rigging when there was a splash.” He nods at the pirate’s petulant expression and adds, “Valjean must have pulled this one out of the brig. Well, we couldn’t just throw a man overboard, so we bound him with rope. If we had oars, I would say make him paddle, but this raft’s not going anywhere the wind doesn’t carry her.”
Javert nods his head. “You did the right thing,” he says. “Post a rotating guard on him and see to it that he gets a share of the water, but not at the expense of our officers. I don’t want him causing any trouble, and it will give the crew something to do.”
With that taken care of, Javert does not give the prisoner so much as a second glance as he stalks back to what he deems to be the prow, on account of it being somewhat more shapely than any other jagged corner. Droit follows curiously at a distance, but Javert pays him no mind. Instead, he stops a stone’s throw from the water’s edge and looks out. The sea looks the same in all directions.
Javert calls the siren’s name loudly, crossing his arms and waiting for what he is almost certain will work.
When several minutes go by without a response, he readies himself to try again. Just as he opens his mouth, however, the water in front of him bubbles and Valjean’s head and shoulders break through the surface.
“Javert.” Even underwater, the stripes down his tail shine like silver. “Your men made it through the night?”
Tossing his wet curls out of his eyes, there is definitely something guarded in the way Valjean looks up at him. But still the siren came, Javert thinks, and that is what he was banking on.
“You could not have brought me anyone more useful than Montparnasse?” the Capitaine asks. “The cutthroat stabbed me and nearly shot you. Now I have to mind him lest he try it again.”
The stubborn jut of Valjean’s chin suggests that Javert is in for an argument. “A life is a life,” he replies mulishly. “I saved everyone I was able to save. Most of them never stood a chance.”
Javert opens his mouth, a cutting response already on his tongue, when he notices the look on Valjean’s face. He appears as guilt-stricken as Javert feels, for the Capitaine left port with a crew of eighty-five. The number of families who will need to be notified is staggering.
“Forgive me,” Valjean says quietly. “I tried.”
Crouching, Javert sits on his haunches. “What is your plan for us?” he demands. “Are you going to eat those of us that are left? And do not lie to me—it is not as though I could stop you anyway.”
Valjean’s eyes narrow. “You understand nothing,” he says, and Javert cannot get another word in before the creature flips backwards and disappears below the waves, his tail filling the air with sparkling droplets.
Muttering disgustedly under his breath, Javert stands while Droit approaches from behind.
“It was worth the try,” the officer says, glancing at the spot where Valjean disappeared. “What now?”
Javert rubs his temples. “Food must be our first priority. I prefer to avoid what befell the crew of the Méduse.”
Droit pulls a face. “Agreed. I will set some of the others to collecting anything that might attract the attention of a fish.”
“Good.” Javert hesitates, surveying the oddly-shaped raft skeptically. “As for the rest, have them pry up a board or whatever they can find to make a paddle. We will navigate by the stars, and strike out for shore.”
The two men share a moment of mutual dismay at the thought. Each knows the likelihood of their success even in fair weather is slim to none.
“That would be ill-advised.”
Javert turns to see Valjean reappearing at the side of the raft. The siren’s lips are pursed as he gazes at them.
“You are more likely to waste your energy spinning in circles, not to mention that the currents will catch you.”
“And what do you suggest?” Javert snaps. “I am not planning to sit here until I grow old and grey.”
“Have you a spare rope?” Valjean’s stare is almost a contest, one which Javert is prepared to win. He will not be told off by some merman when it is he who is Capitaine of this—
“Yes,” says Droit. “Hold on.”
The officer turns about, leaving Javert stammering blankly for words.
In the water, Valjean motions Javert closer. “Here,” he says, and from below he lifts a flat silver fish as long in length as the siren’s torso. “For your crew,” he adds.
Their eyes lock, and Javert’s mouth sets in a hard, thin line. So that is how it is. Nodding stiffly, the Capitaine accepts the offering and hauls it onto the deck. He will go hungry if it is the price to pay for feeding his men. The fish’s gills flap, its spiny fins razor sharp. Javert is mindful it does not wriggle away, though he must handle it with care.
Then a glint of light catches his eye, and Javert notices that around the siren’s wrists are still locked the metal shackles, broken chain links dangling from the rings. It has scarcely occurred to him that Valjean would have had to first escape his prison in the brig only to turn around and save his captors, but of course that would be the case. It makes it all the more incredible that any of them lived to tell.
Javert is still standing there stupefied when Droit returns, a coil of rope under his arm.
“Here,” he says, tossing it to Valjean. “I don’t know what you plan to do with this, but it would be unwise to double-cross us.”
Valjean does not dignify that with a response, securing one end of the rope to the raft and the other around his waist.
Looking up, he informs Javert, “That will be best while it is fresh,” and nods at the fish.
“You cannot mean to tow us,” Javert says incredulously.
The siren turns away without answering, submersing again. Through the sea’s glassy surface, Javert sees Valjean’s tail move, his fingers cupping the water and pushing it aside as he swims forward. The rope goes taut, and for a moment it seems the weight of the raft has won out. Then Valjean strains harder, and the ground beneath Javert’s feet groans as it shifts, moving forward in the water and slowly gaining momentum.
“Unbelievable,” Droit murmurs.
“Yes.” Javert glances back at Valjean. Even at a distance, the reddish lesions from the chains stand out in stark relief against the paleness of his tail.
Suddenly he is dizzy.
“I am going to sit down,” Javert announces. Pointing at the gift of food, he continues, “See that the crew divide that evenly.”
Droit looks at him questioningly. “You are not hungry?”
“No,” says Javert, though it is a lie.
He paces the length of the raft, ignoring the invitations of the others to join them. Instead he finds a place at the aft that is out of the way and quiet. There he sits, drawing his knees up to his chest. It would not do for the officers to see him so out of sorts, and Javert knows enough to understand that whatever new and tangled reality is unfolding before him, he is most definitely more than ‘out of sorts’.
The unchanging horizon fills the borders of his vision. Below, the raft cuts a subtle wake through the water as they speed towards whatever destination Valjean has chosen for them. Javert watches the bubbles stream to the surface, thinking. He cannot recall the discolored patches in the siren’s scales without his stomach turning; Javert is not used to indecision, and now he is consumed by it.
He does not know what to do with Valjean. He does not know what to do with himself.
Tipping his head against the debris at his back, Javert heaves a sigh of discontent. Perhaps Valjean is correct to say he does not understand; he will have to question the creature again at the first opportunity.
Chapter 11: Stalemate
Hey all, sorry to disappear for like a month and a half, I signed up for too many things this summer and have been cramming words into my entry for the Sewerchat Anniversary Exchange. In any event, looks like it’s high time I picked up where I left off....
(Also! HellenHighwater did some amazing fanart for this fic, you can find it under the related works! <3)
Night is falling when footsteps approach the rear of the raft. Javert sits forward from where he has hunkered down to sleep, turning his head to see Droit, flanked by Géroux and Mercier. The Lieutenant motions with a subtle nod of the chin and Javert gets slowly to his feet, wincing as his shoulder pains him. When he is standing, the three men move away from the water and Javert follows. They travel in a line, leaving the water’s edge behind until they are as far from it as is possible aboard their small craft. Then Droit holds up his hand, and they stop.
Lowly, Javert asks, “What is this about, Lieutenant?”
Droit points at the sky. “The stars are all wrong,” he says. “We are too far south.”
The Capitaine studies the sky for himself and sees the officer is correct; the constellations turn on their heavenly track, but far removed from the degree and angle at which they would appear were they on course.
“Ah,” says Javert.
“It’s that siren,” Géroux whispers, glancing suspiciously towards the water. “He’s led us astray.”
Droit looks pointedly back at Javert. “There can be no doubt of it now, sir. The creature must be taking us to its lair, and I for one am not waiting around to be eaten. Fabien has lent us his cutlass—I say we find the beast while it sleeps and cut its throat.”
He punctuates this last by gripping the hilt of the sword at his side, and though the others’ faces pale at the danger, they both nod in agreement.
Javert looks between them; clearly, their minds are made up. He glances too at the stars, and the strangeness of their designs. All day, a directionless malcontent has smoldered in his breast like embers covered under a bed of damp leaves; now it sparks into anger, finding kindling on which to catch. The siren cannot be trusted, not with fresh meat so readily in its grasp. There comes a strange relief at the thought.
After a moment’s consideration, Javert says, “Be silent and follow me.”
Together, their footsteps are not as quiet on the floorboards as Javert would prefer. And yet, if the others of the crew hear their passing, they make no movement to involve themselves. It is better they do not; this will be delicate enough with only the four of them.
At night, the prow of the raft rears like a mountain out of the waves, jagged spars of wood dividing it from the rest of the shoddy vessel. Yet beyond that, there is a flat expanse, a few yards of almost proper deck, before it drops sharply into the ocean. And here is where they find him: draped halfway over the wood, tail dangling in the water, Valjean is asleep. His head is propped on his crossed arms, tilted just slightly to one side—Javert’s breath catches at the thought that the siren’s eyelashes need only flutter for them to be discovered.
“There it is, the wretched creature,” mutters Droit. “Let us have done with this.”
He draws the cutlass and stalks forward, but Javert throws out his arm to stop the Lieutenant before he can get any farther than that.
“I will do it,” he says lowly. “If the siren wakes, he should have no cause for anger with the rest of you.”
The officers shift uncomfortably; it is lost on no-one that Valjean could drown them all in a heartbeat if he so chose.
Accepting the sword from Droit’s reluctant grasp, the Capitaine creeps across the surface of the deck, testing each plank of wood with the toe of his boot before settling his weight on it. The wood never creaks to give him away.
After what seems like ages, Javert comes to a stop just beside where Valjean lays docile and unassuming. The whiteness of the siren’s throat seems almost to glow in the light of the moon, thin dark stripes revealing where his gills run down the length of his neck. He is apparently unconscious to Javert’s presence, his breathing deep and even. It would take the work of a moment to dispatch him as one guts a fish.
Javert’s fingers flex around the grip as he brings the sword within an inch of that vulnerable, exposed skin. If Valjean tenses as though in anticipation, Javert does not notice. The Capitaine tells himself his hesitation comes only from the fact that he has never killed anything in its sleep before, and a part of him finds it dishonorable. He adamantly does not think of the warmth of Valjean’s body, nor the insistence of the siren’s mouth dragging him back from the abyss when it would have been so easy to succumb. Even if the thought did cross his mind, it would surely do nothing to sway him.
Raising his arm, the Capitaine gathers his strength. He will make it quick, at least.
At his feet, Valjean shifts, the head propped on his arms lolling further to one side. In so doing, a stray beam of moonlight catches on the circlet of iron around the siren’s wrist. The weirdness of the light changes the world to pale purples and blues, but even the Capitaine can tell that the skin underneath must be red with sores. Javert did that, trapping a creature of the sea with the metals of the earth.
And yet, the fact remains that Valjean did not leave his crew to die; did not leave Javert to die. Every man aboard that craft owes Valjean his life, Javert included. That knowledge does regrettable things to the Capitaine’s driftwood heart, straining its hard yet brittle capacity for unfeelingness. He owes Valjean—he does not want to owe him. But his debt does not diminish, in spite of the wanting.
Javert finds that the sword falls heavily back to his side.
He can feel the men’s eyes upon him, but is too numb to be humiliated at his inability to finish the task. Yet if Javert is going to drink this bitter wine, he will drink it to the dregs; deliberately, he nudges Valjean’s shoulder with his foot.
Valjean blinks his eyes open to find Javert standing over him. Rolling onto his back, a series of expressions flash over the siren’s features too quickly to name. Yet the end result is a certain guardedness; Valjean glances from the cutlass to the Capitaine’s face, and it would not surprise Javert if Valjean can guess what he came here to do. Even so, he does not speak, holding very still as though Javert might yet plunge the blade into his breast.
Javert clears his throat. “We are off course,” he says sternly, as though this is a conversation with one of his crew and not a fickle sea monster. “Why have you brought us so far south?”
Something in Valjean’s face changes at that, a slight relaxing that Javert is not sure he likes.
“We are following the current,” the siren explains. “Even I cannot swim against it while towing your weight. Tomorrow, we should reach the place where it bends back towards the north.”
“I see.” Javert does not know whether or not to believe him; either way, he thinks himself foolish.
Valjean sits up, casting a glance at where the three officers stand in a small huddle. “Out for an evening stroll?” he asks wryly.
Javert grits his teeth. “They were concerned by the direction we are taking,” he says. “We do not prefer to be dragged back to some nest as food for your siren offspring.”
Valjean’s mouth tightens. “Cosette is no siren.” He looks away, toward the water. “Tell your men we will be back on course by high noon. And Commandant,” he adds, looking up suddenly to meet Javert’s eye, “you should know it has been nearly one of your decades since last I tasted human flesh. Goodnight.”
With that, he slides into the dark water, vanishing without a trace. Javert grimaces; he does not know whether Valjean’s parting words were meant as reassurance or a threat.
It is as if they straddle the boundary between two different worlds, separated by dusk and dawn. Under cover of darkness, his crew grow alert, even feral, primed perhaps against the sublime terror of anything befalling them in the night. Yet in the harsh light of day, it becomes impossible to escape the tragedy of their existence; the crew withdraw, recalling the lives of friends and comrades lost and the unlikelihood of their ever seeing home again. The sun itself issues a sobering reminder as it bleaches fish bones white that it may yet rise to desiccate their own corpses.
Javert sits unmoving on the raft, staring into the water. Hunger claws at his belly, but he clenches his hands tighter and ignores his body’s demands. Where the sun reflects off the sea, a mirror-like glare bores into his eyes until his vision dances with amorphous blots of green and blue and a migraine seems moments from splitting his skull. In spite of this, he does not look away.
He likes best to sit at the stern; it is impossible to find any real privacy aboard their floating prison, but this is the closest he can come to achieving the illusion of it. Certainly, he can hear anyone who might be coming to hail him long before they arrive, and his face is concealed from the rest of the crew. Here they cannot see the doubt which crawls underneath his skin.
It is like the salt that way, pervasive, gritty, irritating. There is a rime of white which coats his hands, his hair, his lips. If he scratches, it will come away in a fine powder, but it is just as quickly replaced and he gets no relief. So it has been for hours now, ever since Mercier arrived at daybreak bearing another fillet of fish cut from a gift left on the deck. Javert turned it down with a passive wave of his hand; the very idea of eating Valjean’s food makes him ill.
There is a notion which has crept into his head, rising slow and silent as the tide until he is nearly and unexpectedly underwater. Perhaps it is a sign of madness setting in, though Javert would be disappointed in himself if he gave way to such grotesquerie so quickly. It is a notion which says it is better to die by the siren’s hand than to live by it, that to be spared by this creature would be a fate worse than death.
It is obvious what any siren should intend, in this game of cat and mouse they play; only Javert finds himself to be the cat no longer, and Valjean has him pinned under his paw with claws pressing lightly against his throat. He is toying with Javert, he must be. There is no other explanation for the offerings of fish, for this farce of towing them to dry land.
The doubt lurks all the same, a hulking thing in the shadowy waters of his mind, shapeless and vast but for where a fraction of it skims above the surface. Javert knows better than to examine the feeling too closely; he tells himself it is merely imprudent to give way to fancy, but perhaps it is that it is better not to know, to leave such thoughts unexamined lest they reveal too much. A man can be broken by these things.
Easier almost in a way to bear is the guilt. It comes upon him in the light of day like a scavenging beast, searching for a bone to gnaw. In the past, he would not have given it any credence, but on the raft there is nothing to keep him busy, nothing to do but think. Again and again, the Capitaine’s thoughts turn to the storm. Every order he gave was in line with best practice. Is it simply that the forces of nature were too much for any vessel to escape unscathed, or was there some other course he could have taken which would have them all safely now in port? Had he heeded Sauveterre’s advice and run them before the storm, would the man still be alive?
And Rivette... Javert hangs his head, for if there were ever any chance of liberating the Lieutenant, they now have surely damned him. It is a dismal fate they have consigned him to, beyond any hope of rescue. Of course, that is all presuming Rivette is even still alive. If Javert were in his place, he would demand to be shot at once rather than serve a band of pirates.
There is a splash then a gurgle of water which are distinct from the steady slap of waves upon the wreck, and Javert raises his head. At once, he schools his expression into that of aloof disregard. An arm's length from the edge, Valjean’s head and shoulders rise above the ocean surface. The siren is studying him with a slight tilt of the chin, and Javert tolerates the inspection with what small patience he has left. Valjean purses his lips but says nothing, until Javert tosses the windswept hair from his face.
“Satisfied?” he growls, aware he must look a mess.
Valjean says, “We have found the current.”
Caught off guard, the Capitaine blinks. “Good,” he replies after a moment.
Drifting closer, the siren continues, “Following the paths in the water, we will make fair time, better than if you were to rely on the winds alone.”
“I am glad to hear it.” The words are stiff, formal; he does not know how to address this creature. “How long until we make landfall?”
Valjean considers the query. “I believe perhaps five days from now.”
At that, Javert scowls. “Our water will not last so long, not in this heat.”
“I can cause it to rain.”
“A drizzle would be welcome.”
The conversation, such as it is, lapses again. Javert wonders when Valjean will leave. He would prefer to return to his brooding in peace. Yet it is not as though he can merely walk away and leave the siren tethered in a cell—he quits that thought before it can continue, for it reminds him too much of the circlets of iron still chained around Valjean’s wrists. The line between captive and jailor has blurred uncomfortably thin.
Perhaps Valjean is equally as unsettled, as he then turns to swim back out to sea. He has not gotten far, however, when he pauses with his back to Javert. A long, pale scar runs down his shoulder blades before curving off to one side like a fishhook.
“There is something you should know about merfolk,” he says, looking straight at the horizon. “Our hearing is quite keen. So when your crew come and ask your blessing in the dead of night to slay the siren, I know of it.”
Javert twitches as the blood drains from his face. “You were asleep,” he forces out, though it feels as though the floor has fallen from under him.
“I was resting.” There is a beat. “They would have done it if you had not stopped them.”
Surely if Valjean overheard that much then he could not have failed to notice how Javert crept to his side, all but putting a blade to his neck. He must know how close Javert came to doing so. And if he had gone so far, if Javert had indeed tried to cut the siren’s throat, what then? Would Valjean merely have overpowered him, or would he have sunk the entire craft in his displeasure?
Javert swallows. “I...”
He thinks of Droit, and of Géroux and Mercier. Their lives are in his hands, his responsibility. If he does not act, Valjean may choose to have his revenge in another way. The siren could charm any one of his men into diving headfirst off the raft without a second thought. His next words will tip the balance of the scales in one way or the other.
“I suppose you are angry—very well, that is your right.”
Valjean starts and turns to face him, expressionless.
The Capitaine licks his cracked lips. “But do not take it out on my crew. If you must punish someone for their misjudgement -” He draws a slow breath. “- I was equally as complicit.”
Valjean frowns slightly, a crease appearing between his eyebrows. “You are trying to protect them. Why?”
“It is my duty.” Javert‘s heart pounds, but even now there is something vindicated in it. This, surely, is where Valjean’s facade of generosity will come crashing down. “If you would make an example of someone, then do with me what you must.”
When Valjean still does not reply, Javert grinds out, “Please.”
The siren is silent for a long moment.
Then Valjean says decisively, “Get in the water.”
Javert shudders in revulsion. This is not how it should be, he thinks, he should not be bent to the whims of this creature, but there is no changing that. In the end, Valjean has always had the means to take whatever he wants.
The Capitaine rises, his mind going carefully blank as he shrugs the tailcoat from over his shoulders. The fingers which land on the buttons of his waistcoat tremble, but he does not hesitate to undo them. On second thought he removes his boots and stockings as well, until he has stalled for as long as he can justify.
Clad only in shirtsleeves and trousers, Javert pads across the planks like a man going to the gallows. There he sits, swinging his legs over the edge. With a tiny push, Javert slides forward into the eddying waters.
The sea is cool but not cold here at the surface, the uppermost layers warmed by the constant, beating sun. As he breaks above those little wavelets left by his splash, Javert shakes the droplets from his eyes and grabs onto the raft, one hand all that secures him to safety. He is acutely aware of the precariousness of his position; if Valjean wishes to drag Javert into open ocean, the Capitaine knows his fingers have not the strength to hang on.
Looking up, Javert finds that the siren has not moved but is merely watching, gauging his reaction. Javert fixes his mouth in a straight line and determines not to let his discomfort show. Whatever will happen is outside of his control. It is disquieting how easy it is to resign himself to this.
The stalemate does not last long. Soon, Valjean is drifting closer, as a shark who circles a wounded dolphin. It is plain he is giving Javert the opportunity to disappoint him, to scramble in panic up onto the deck again, but Javert is not tempted. Even as every instinct screams that this is a predator, his ingrained teachings urging him to lash out or flee, the Capitaine does not move. He holds on to the raft, and he waits.
Nevertheless, it is impossible to stem the tide of his thoughts, knowing as he does what Valjean could do to him. The notion of teeth sinking into his flesh, of hands pulling him tenderly but inexorably under until the water fills his throat are too compelling, particularly when the siren is watching him so.
Or—and Javert prays his whiskers conceal the sudden spray of color on his cheeks—there are other, more sordid ways Valjean could have his vengeance. Javert has dismissed the stories a hundred times, rarely considering a siren’s lust to be the principal danger. Yet now he finds that he cannot shake it, the idea of that azure tail twining around his thighs even as Valjean croons a whisper of the fabled siren song into his ear.
Javert shakes his head, trying to clear it. The sun has addled his brains, or perhaps it is the creature’s enchantments already at work in his blood. He tastes fear and desire and for a moment they are the same. And still, Valjean is drifting slowly closer; just when Javert thinks he can no longer stand it, Valjean raises his hand from the water, reaching out and curling it, just gently, around Javert’s cheek.
The touch is cool with water that dribbles down his chin but it feels scalding. Let it happen, Javert thinks. At least if Valjean is brutal, it will lay to rest the terrible figment of uncertainty in his imagination, which rears its head whenever the siren acts without cruelty.
Steadily, Valjean gazes at him, his eyes curiously human in the sunlight. Something compels Javert to look away. He does not.
The siren’s hand slides along his jaw; Javert feels his breath quicken, the pulse thrumming in his neck, but he holds still as Valjean’s other hand comes to settle atop his own as though meaning to tear him away from the raft. For a moment, both float unmoving in the water.
The siren’s fingers tighten over Javert’s, and the Capitaine stiffens.
Quietly, Valjean murmurs, “I am not what you think I am.”
Then Javert must catch himself as he is suddenly released. Valjean dives back beneath the waves, the siren’s tail glimmering once in the light before it is gone.
In Valjean’s absence, the vast, empty ocean is a thing of dread, and Javert scrambles for the safety of the raft. Sharp shards of wood catch on the material of his shirt as he hauls himself, dripping, onto dry ground.
There Javert collapses in a puddle, drenched to the skin. Only then, when he is far removed from the crush of the bottomless sea, does he allow himself to ponder what happened.
Mostly, what Javert ponders is the traces of water left by damp fingers on the line of his throat.
Chapter 12: Tremors
I am so fortunate that so many people have been inspired by this story to create their own fanworks!!! <3 T_T Check out the "works inspired by"s at the bottom to see a new artwork posted by francu, it is amazing!
Javert has had much time to dwell on it, and he is quite certain that he has never been so miserable as this in his entire life.
Leaning against the pile of debris at his back, the Capitaine shields his eyes from the sun, but to no avail. The blinding light burns too harshly as it bears down upon their makeshift craft, pinioning the survivors under its merciless rays. There is so little shade; Javert’s complexion is long-since tanned and weathered like a worn leather hide, but without any respite at all from the elements he finds his extremities grow ruddy and blistered, over-sensitive to everything from the brush of a hand to the slide of his collar against his reddening neck.
There is also the matter of his injury, which is improved by neither the strenuous conditions nor the absence of clean bandages. It pains him all the time now, whether he moves or not, and when Javert prods gingerly at the inflamed skin he finds it hot and angry beneath his fingertips. He is no doctor, but the Capitaine knows this to be a bad sign.
Sitting as still as he can, Javert conserves what remains of his strength. If the stars of the night prior are to be believed, then Valjean has not yet lied to them; they are headed once more in the right direction. And if that is the case, he must be prepared for whatever comes, whether they should spy friend or foe or dry land.
Periodically, his daze is interrupted by Rousseau, who has been tasked with the management of their dwindling supply of water. The weather is too torrid for any man to go overlong without a drink, and sure enough it is near a quarter ‘til the hour by Javert’s mark when the officer makes his rounds once more, appearing suddenly at the Capitaine’s side.
“Here, sir,” says Rousseau, holding out a waterskin. “It’s only Barre and Géroux left to drink, so go on and take what you need.”
Javert’s arm trembles as he reaches for the receptacle; the interminable shaking aggravates him, and the Capitaine tries to steel his body against any further such weakness of the flesh. He does not entirely succeed; no matter how stiffly he holds himself, there remains a slight tremor in his hands he cannot seem to do away with.
Despite himself, Javert drinks deeply. The water provides some momentary relief as it flows down his throat, but it is not long until his mouth feels just as parched as it did before. He passes the skin back, and feels the liquid sloshing around his empty stomach.
Croakily, Javert asks, “How much more do we have?”
Rousseau winces. “Enough for today,” he says. “Perhaps tomorrow, if we ration it. But fifteen men out in the blazing sun drink a lot of water, sir.”
The Capitaine frowns, the lines around his mouth etching deeper into his face. Even if Valjean does not double cross them, even if they reach their destination as soon as predicted, the odds are that the entirety of the crew will be delirious with thirst, hardly in any condition to seek shelter or supplies.
“I will speak to the siren,” Javert says eventually. “He made mention of rain.”
Rousseau looks at him seriously, holding the waterskin close to his chest. “Do you think we can trust him, Commandant?”
Taken off guard, Javert opens his mouth to reply only to discover that he does not quite know what to say. His first instinct, the one which rises at once in his throat, is to answer that only a ninny would give a siren his trust. Yet just as he goes to spit the derisive words, the Capitaine is stopped by the sour taste of an untruth; their lives until now have been nothing but safe in Valjean’s hands.
Finally, Javert lowers his eyes. “I do not believe we have any choice,” he mutters.
The impressions are slow to fade until long after the officer has departed—of the curl of Valjean’s fingers over his own, those eyes which are warm for all their icy blueness, the thrice-damned mercy Valjean insists upon showing him again and again and again. Javert no longer fears that the siren might kill him, he fears that the siren will not. And if that happens, if Javert must concede that he would have stood before his superiors and thoughtlessly had Valjean put to death...
Javert does not know what to think of that.
Alone on his corner of the raft, the Capitaine pulls his knees as close to his chest as he is able, quietly groaning. The position stems some of his hunger, dulling it from a sharp pain in his gut to a more manageable ache. It has been two days now since food last parted his lips, and it is well that Javert is no stranger to going without, for at present the mere thought of eating is enough to turn his stomach; an effect of the sun which is only compounded by his injuries, he supposes.
But the nausea which grips him is relentless for all that he can name its cause, and besides, Javert is determined to refuse the taste of Valjean’s munificence. Let his crew eat; the Capitaine will take no part of a siren’s fare.
His eyes close. Against the back of his lids, the sun beams down from its high angle, pummeling the deck with heat. And such a heat—it is almost a living creature, crouching oppressively on Javert’s chest. Rousseau has only just gone, but his spirit cries out for water. It is a devilish irony that they are surrounded by ocean on all sides, yet cannot drink of it.
Hours pass, each much like the one before it. At times, Javert dozes. At others, he scans the horizon with a sort of manic attention, but nothing ever comes of it. There is naught to see except endless water.
Once, he thinks perhaps he does see something—a glimmer like white sails on the horizon. But the moment the Capitaine rises to his knees to gain a better look at it, his shoulder flares in a fiery explosion of pain that leaves him doubled over and gasping. By the time he raises his head, whatever it was is gone, if indeed it was ever there to begin with.
Gritting his teeth, Javert removes his fraying waistcoat and unbuttons his shirt. What he sees is not encouraging. The gash left by Montparnasse stretches from above his collarbone down almost to where the plane of his chest smooths into diaphragm. It is not terribly deep, but what bandages he wore disintegrated in the wreck and he has no means of replacing them, save to give up some article of clothing. Touching a hand to the surface grimly, Javert finds the wound still hot as with fever; his fingers come away wet with a yellowish ooze.
The Capitaine shakes his head in disgust. Of all the times for such a thing to happen, he cannot imagine a more inconvenient one. Sliding across the deck, Javert dips his hand into the ocean and draws up a palmful of saltwater. Splashing it over himself, he ignores the harsh sting of the salt and reaches for more, rinsing what he can of the pus from his chest. The water is pleasantly cool in the baking sun; almost it would be tempting to hang off the back of the raft and float for awhile, were it not for the fact that every slight movement leaves him dizzy and bad-tempered.
With a slight groan, Javert splashes himself a final time, wiping his face for good measure. He looks up, sweeping a tangle of hair from his face—and finds eyes watching him.
“Valjean!” Javert does not quite splutter, hurriedly pulling his shirt closed.
“I felt the water moving,” the siren says, blinking up at Javert unabashedly. “I thought I should check that all was well.”
“Perfectly well, thank you,” the Capitaine growls.
“You are hurt,” Valjean continues as though Javert had not spoken. “You stopped that man from shooting me, and he hurt you.”
“It is nothing. Superficial.” Javert turns his gaze elsewhere, but Valjean is not deterred.
Gliding closer, the siren says, “May I see?”
Immediately, Javert prickles with suspicion. “Why?” he asks, narrowing his eyes.
“It did not look superficial.”
Valjean’s expression is guileless; the Capitaine knows it could just as easily be a trick, but at present he lacks the wherewithal to care. Slowly, Javert permits the hand to fall from his shirt, until the garment hangs open. The siren approaches until he is all but touching the raft, a furrow to his brow as he studies the injury.
“It is worse than I thought,” says Valjean, giving Javert a reproving look. “You did not tell me it had become infected.”
“You did not ask.” The words are meant to be scathing, a dismissal, but to his ears they hold the underpinnings of petulance. Yet Valjean’s expression flickers, and Javert wonders if the siren will play the martyr even in this, taking the blame for the state of Javert’s injury when the reality is there is nothing to be done.
Slowly, Valjean raises a hand from the water. His dripping fingers linger in the air, hovering just above Javert’s chest, but he does not touch.
“I could have healed this once,” he murmurs. “But that is all gone now.”
Valjean withdraws, his mouth twisted with some old sorrow.
“All my powers are good for is to destroy.”
Javert shifts quickly back as the water ripples, then explodes, and Valjean dives headfirst below the waves. Shimmering droplets of spray hang in the air as the siren’s tail flicks above the surface, until all at once he is gone.
The water stills. In seconds, it is like Valjean was never there at all.
Javert looks around. Truly, the siren has vanished. Sighing, he leans back against the raft.
That, he supposes, is the end of that.
The gradual fall of the sun into the west tells Javert it is drawing on evening. In all that time, they have been bobbing on the ocean’s surface aimlessly but for where the current takes them.
Before, there has always been a direction to their movement, a wake spreading out behind the craft from the force of Valjean towing it. Now, the Capitaine must wonder if he has driven the creature off at last, and with him their only hope of survival. He says nothing of it to the crew, for it will only dispirit them. Yet surely they must notice it all the same; they are adrift, and Javert is in no condition to lead them.
A quiet splash breaks apart the silence, attracting his attention. The Capitaine looks up to see familiar eyes just above the surface of the water, watching him.
“About time you showed up,” Javert complains, hiding his relief beneath impatience. “Where have you been all day?”
Valjean comes closer slowly, made wary by Javert’s tone despite that the Capitaine can scarcely sit up without his chest wrenching in pain. Inclining his head, the siren explains, “I was seeking a certain plant. I had to travel many leagues to find it.”
There is a cutting remark to be made of that, Javert is certain, but his head is too clouded to invent one. And indeed, Valjean seems to expect it, bracing himself against a beratement that does not come. When a moment has passed in silence, the siren’s eyes soften.
“You are heat-sick,” he says, gliding closer until he can fold his elbows on the edge of the raft. “It is bad for your temper, and more besides. Is there nowhere with more shade that you could sit and rest?”
“I thought you left.” The words emerge quiet, unbidden, from his throat. Javert stares at a knot in the wooden planks, its whorls mesmerizing in his current delirium. “I cannot understand why you keep helping us. Me.”
Valjean looks at him, a thoughtful twist to his lips. “You are my responsibility. I would not just abandon you.”
The strangest thing is that Javert believes him. The Capitaine nods curtly, not meeting the siren’s gaze.
“Well then,” he mutters. “Now that you are here, there is something I have been meaning to ask.”
Valjean cocks his head slightly to one side. “Go on.”
Javert clears his throat.
“Yesterday, you spoke of rain.” He forces himself to sit up straighter, his chin high despite the indignity of what he is asking. “Well, soon our stores of fresh water will run out. You can see how little I have to bargain with, but I will not accept -”
Javert's lips turn down in a frown.
“Have you not heard anything I’ve said?” he asks. “I cannot bear to be indebted to you any further.”
Valjean regards him frankly. “As you say, you have little to bargain with. There is no debt between us. You shall have rain, for you need it, and that is all I will hear said of that.”
Grimacing, the Capitaine folds his arms—unwisely, as it would turn out, for the motion reminds him that he is sore, and the grimace becomes a wince. At that, Valjean’s expression turns to concern.
“That infection should not be allowed to spread,” he says. “When I took sick, you ordered your doctor to provide medicine. Will you now allow me to do the same?”
Clearly, it has not taken the siren long to discern how best to logic his way around the Capitaine’s reservations. Almost unconsciously, Javert’s arms tighten. “How?”
The siren looks down. “I told you I went in search of a plant. Well, this is why.” He raises his arms from the water, spreading them to reveal handfuls of a long, straggly waterweed. “It occurs but rarely, yet can mend all number of ills. It should take the sting from your shoulder.”
“You -” Javert starts and then stops. “You brought this for me?”
Wordlessly, Valjean nods.
“Oh.” The Capitaine’s brow furrows. “Well. That is... unexpected.”
“If you would come here,” Valjean begins, “I can see to applying it.” There is only the lightest blush of color to his face.
It is odd, but Javert does not argue as he scoots over to the water’s edge. The sky turns yellow and orange with twilight, haloing the siren’s head as he beckons for Javert to lie down, and again the Capitaine obeys without objection. It is only when he is lying on his back, shirt open, that he begins to regret having complied so readily; he does not know that he likes Valjean looking down on him. There is a difference between the siren’s steady gaze when they are eye to eye and now that Javert is below him, belly-up on the deck.
Yet before he can twice-guess himself any further, Valjean’s hands move to his bare chest. The siren has torn the waterweed into strips until it is nearly like a paste, and as he smears it over the knife wound, Javert finds it to be slimy in consistency as well. His nose wrinkles.
“This will work, will it?” he asks skeptically.
“Peace,” Valjean hushes. “It will need to sit and perform its task.”
The Capitaine shifts, trying to dispel the itch of being watched, for he is unaccustomed to such exposure. Valjean’s fingers on his skin are deplorably attentive; Javert wishes that the siren would be less careful, if only to have something he could hiss or snarl at, but instead the siren’s touches are feather-light and without any intention but to spread the healing salve wherever it is needed. The pad of a thumb swipes over his collarbone, and Javert feels his skin tingle with gooseflesh.
To take his mind off it, Javert casts his thoughts about until they land on the conversation that afternoon. “What did you mean earlier?” he asks. “About your... powers?”
It is peculiar to acknowledge the siren’s abilities aloud, his words uncolored by any trace of venom or accusation. For a moment, Valjean also appears taken aback, and his hands pause in their ministrations.
“Did you know that merfolk and sirens are not one and the same?” Valjean asks. There is a wistfulness to his voice, a distance in the way he gazes at the horizon, and the Capitaine is reminded suddenly that Valjean has a life eked out for himself away from this place, away from Javert, that he is now at liberty to pursue anytime he so desires.
“I confess, I did not,” Javert rumbles. “I suppose my knowledge is somewhat more... military.”
Valjean returns to what he is doing, though he continues to speak. “I am not surprised—it is a little-known fact to most of mankind. True merfolk keep to themselves, avoiding the human race. For when land and sea collide, too often they become... this.” Again, Valjean pauses, and his face creases, a countenance of pain and perhaps a measure of disgust.
Javert quirks his mouth, the gears of his mind turning. “I do not understand,” he says. “They become what?”
“Sirens,” Valjean answers heavily. His hands lie motionless on Javert’s chest, rising and falling with the Capitaine’s every breath. “We are made, not born, you see, when some great tragedy strikes. And if you will forgive my saying so, Javert, your kind are very skilled at inventing tragedy.”
Javert opens his mouth to protest, but the sight of Valjean’s face gives him pause. The siren’s eyes are lowered, written still with traces of grief, and it occurs to the Capitaine to wonder what befell Valjean so terrible that it could change him from whatever he was before into this creature.
“That is what I meant earlier,” Valjean concludes. “In the past, I could cure wounds and cleanse filth from the water, and little fishes would weave their nests in my hair. Now I can raise storms and break ships, but even my own kind fear me, and the little fishes stay away.”
With some difficulty, Valjean pulls himself from his reverie. “Forgive my melancholy,” he says with a small, forced smile. “I do not speak of it often. But then, you are the first to ask.”
Glancing down at his handiwork, the siren adds, “That will need another minute to set. Stay just as you are, I will be back in a moment.”
“But where are you -” Javert starts, lifting his head, only to fall back to the deck in frustration as Valjean disappears beneath the waves.
“What now?” Javert grumbles into the emptiness.
The paste on his chest turns scratchy as it dries, but it does seem to be dulling the pain in his shoulder as promised. In the sudden quiet, the Capitaine turns Valjean’s story over in his mind, examining it from every angle. It is disquieting to think that there are fish-people without a taste for blood, ones who have a sense of society, and a benign one at that. Almost, he does not believe it, except that he does not see what Valjean stands to gain by lying. It is enough to make Javert wonder whether Chabouillet knows that not every finned creature he meets is necessarily a monster.
Before he can think on it more than to feel vaguely uneasy, the water ripples and Valjean appears again all at once. In one hand, he holds a silver fish the size of both his fists.
“Here,” he says, holding it out. “Eat.”
Javert glances between the fish and the siren, and the softer line of his mouth curdles as he determines that this, at least, is not a contest of wills he can be persuaded to lose.
“I am not hungry,” he says, turning his head to the side.
Valjean purses his lips. “Anyone could see that is a lie. You are trembling like a weed in a current—when I laid hands on you it was obvious.”
“I am not hungry,” Javert repeats through clenched teeth. It is almost the truth; he has been long enough without food that he can scarcely feel it anymore, though the sight of the fish puts the idea back at the forefront of his mind.
Shaking his head, Valjean says, “I should have realized this was the fault of your own stubbornness.” He pulls the fish apart, exposing the white meat inside, and thrusts it uncompromisingly in Javert’s direction. “I will not leave til you have eaten it.”
Javert rolls onto his side and sits up, indignant at being ordered around, and by Valjean no less. “Then you will be waiting a long time.”
“So be it.” Valjean raises his eyebrows as he adds, “You are only wasting the time I could be pulling you towards shore.”
“You are insufferable,” Javert mutters.
“And you are a stubborn fool,” the siren snaps, looking more cross than Javert has ever seen him. “Do you even know that your crew are whispering about you? They are worried, and with good reason I see. What purpose can self-destruction serve?”
Under his breath, the Capitaine says, “You wouldn’t understand.”
Valjean’s expression is a challenge, and Javert decides he would prefer not to know what similarities the siren thinks he has discovered between them. Rather than prompt any further uncomfortable revelations, Javert picks up the fish and tears a strip from its flank. The flesh is limpid and rubbery—Javert has no appetite, much less for raw fish—but Valjean has made it clear that declining is not an option, so he reluctantly puts it in his mouth.
The first bite nearly makes him gag. The second is made worse by anticipation, but the third is... tolerable. He cannot eat much more than that before his stomach begins to cramp and complain, but the siren appears satisfied.
“Thank you,” Valjean says, and Javert looks up, perplexed.
“For what?” he asks, frowning. “Being basely ungrateful?”
The siren gazes at him placidly. “For listening.”
Valjean holds his eyes a moment longer, until he sinks below the surface. When he does not re-emerge, Javert presumes he has been left alone for the night, though he is certain Valjean will return with the same purpose.
Soon enough, the raft starts moving in earnest, the siren pulling once more on the rope at the fore.
It is not long after that a gentle rain begins at last to fall.
Chapter 13: Siren Song
Me? Updating in a timely fashion? Unlikely, but here we are.
The rain continues into the night, pattering down in silver sheets. It lasts long enough to refill much that was lost from the water barrels, long enough to rinse the salt and sweat from Javert’s hair, long enough to soak his heavy woolen coat until he is wet through. It lets up just before morning, and the first rays of light find Javert shivering with cold under the grey sky. He has slept fitfully, if at all, dreams passing like visions before his waking eyes.
Still, with the advent of dawn, the Capitaine rises; the siren’s salve plastered to his chest cracks like a scab with every movement, but the skin beneath expresses no more complaints than any other part of his battered frame. He has not felt so purposeful in days.
Crossing the deck, Javert skirts barrels and jumbled outcroppings of debris until he reaches the camp his crew have made for themselves. Without preamble, he takes a seat under the sodden sailcloth shelter and reaches for a skewer of fish; another gift, left on the deck in the night. The men, bleary-eyed and just waking, notice him in turns. Each seems to double-take, but the Capitaine does not acknowledge them until Droit says carefully, “Good morning, sir.”
Javert nods briskly. “The rain has passed,” he says. “Let us make certain the barrels are shut fast again, lest the sun take the water we have only just replenished.”
“Yes, sir.” There is some relief coloring the Lieutenant’s voice, and Javert recalls what Valjean mentioned about whispers between the crew. Perhaps they feared he was giving way to a sickness of the mind. Well, Javert is yet uncertain whether that might be the case—he still feels painfully unmoored—but his strength is returning, and with it, his iron resolve.
Pointing to Fabien, who looks petrified to be addressed, Javert asks, “Have you still possession of that cutlass?”
“Y-yes,” the boy replies, digging around in the wood pile for where he has left it.
“Good,” says Javert when he is handed the blade. “Eat, then go inform Valjean that I would speak with him.”
Rising, Javert finishes what remains of his food and returns the way he came. The raft slides and shifts under his feet, but he is well-used to its strange motion by now and does not stumble. When he arrives at the aft, he sits near the water and waits. The cutlass he lays across his lap.
Spreading out in thin ripples, the ocean moves with their graceless wake. Javert watches as the wavelets slow gradually to a stop, though it is some moments yet before a familiar dark head comes gliding around the corner.
“Ah,” says the Capitaine. “Here you are.”
“Your man said you wanted to see me?” Valjean inquires, eyeing the sword with some apprehension.
“Indeed.” Javert points to the surface of the deck. “Your wrists, if you please.”
In the water, Valjean twitches. “What?”
“Your wrists.” The Capitaine sits back on his haunches, waiting expectantly.
Valjean gives Javert a long, piercing look as though sizing him up, but slowly he raises his hands from the water and lays them down flat on the wood, palms facing the sky.
There remain ugly circlets of black metal cinched tight around the narrowest part of his wrists, and the siren shivers as Javert runs a finger lightly over them.
“Hold still,” Javert says, clasping the hilt of the sword.
There is a keyhole near the center of each ill-wrought shackle. The key that would open it is undoubtedly sitting on the bottom of the ocean floor by now, but there are other ways to force a lock. Valjean draws breath sharply as Javert raises the blade, but the Capitaine does no more than to insert the point into that tiny opening.
“Tell me if I hurt you,” says Javert brusquely, and Valjean nods once, his eyes wide.
It requires bearing down with both his weight and a certain amount of force, but soon enough there is a crack and Javert looks to see that the cuff has split open, the mechanism inside weakened by saltwater and rust. It is a matter of minutes to do the same to its mate, and then Javert is nudging the broken pieces off the edge of the deck with his boot.
“There,” he says. “That is better.”
Valjean rubs at the abraded skin, which is mottled purple and red with bruises.
“Yes,” he murmurs quietly. “It is. I did not expect...”
Javert waves this away. “In a few days’ time, we will part ways.” He looks up at the sky, where patches of blue are beginning to break through the clouds. “It is poor thanks, but it is all that I can offer.”
At that, Valjean’s expression turns pensive. “What will you do then?” he asks.
The Capitaine frowns in thought. “The first thing will be to find the nearest garrison. My crew will be wanting for food and a bed, not to mention their pay. I shall have to inform my patron of the Surveillante’s loss—perhaps I can secure a place on the mail-coach to Brest.”
“And you?” Javert glances at the siren. “I suppose you will return to your—to your daughter.” He stumbles over his words, reminded once more that Valjean is a father, and has a family to go home to.
“Yes.” A rare, genuine smile flits across Valjean’s face, and for a moment it is like staring at the sun. “My little Cosette—I would cross all the oceans of the world for her.”
Javert brushes lint from his sleeve, ill at ease with that effusion of emotion. “So I gather.” He is cautious, almost tentative, as he says, “Rivette told me once that she was not your blood, that she was the child of someone who died.”
Valjean stiffens. “He told you that, did he?”
“Forget I mentioned it.” The Capitaine goes to rise, preferring to abort the conversation rather than continue down this increasingly uncomfortable path, but Valjean shakes his head slightly as though to clear it.
“He was correct.”
Javert stops, sitting again though it is against his better judgement, and Valjean goes on, “Cosette is not my child. Her mother was a siren, like me. Her father was a human sailor.”
The Capitaine blinks. “But the girl is -”
“A mermaiden, yes. Years ago, her mother took sick, and she never recovered. When she passed, she gave Cosette to my care. I swore I would protect her.”
Javert does not quite know what to say to that. He tries to picture Valjean, a creature stronger than an ox and many times as dangerous, doting on a little girl. Somehow, it is not as difficult to believe as he might have imagined.
The smile returns to Valjean’s face. “There is a grotto near our cavern where Cosette has always loved to play. She comes home with her hands full of guppies and muck, and I must wipe them clean before we eat. It is a simple life, but a good one.”
“She manages well enough on her own while you are away?”
Valjean hesitates. “I have been gone before.” It is not exactly an answer. Then he says, “And you, will you be glad to go home?”
The query catches Javert by surprise. He will use what wages he has earned to let a room for a few weeks, but it will not be home.
Finally, he replies, “I suppose I shall be stuck behind a desk for some time. There will be paperwork—the Vice-Admiral may never give me command of a ship again after this disaster—and of course I must send notice to the families of those who perished.”
Valjean hums, his manner subdued again. “That is a difficult task.”
“It is necessary.” The Capitaine adjusts his collar, the turn of the conversation casting a gloom over them both. “Though I do still wonder whether... But it is nothing,” he adds, setting aside his self-doubt before it can show on his face.
“I am sorry about your crew,” Valjean says quietly.
Javert glances at him, raising an eyebrow. “They all but tortured you,” he points out. “As did I.”
The admission grates, but Javert is nothing less than honest.
“Yet they were also God’s creatures,” the siren murmurs. “They did not deserve to die so horribly.”
“What would you know of it?” the Capitaine asks. “You cannot drown.”
“No,” Valjean agrees, “but nor can I be too long without water.”
Javert recalls then the first night of the siren’s capture, how Valjean escaped and how Javert very nearly left him to shrivel and die in the brig as a result. He knows, now, that had Valjean succeeded in fleeing to the sea, he would have let the ship go unharmed. Instead, Javert tormented him, in ways that would be unthinkable to treat a human soul—
The guilt fills his throat like poison. Yet there could be nothing more humiliating than for Valjean to sense it; he beats the feeling back as far as he is able, only to realize then that the siren is still speaking.
“I have heard you made Droit your Lieutenant, now that Rivette is gone.” Valjean averts his eyes towards the water. “You cared for Rivette, I think.”
“I...” Javert cannot bring himself to deny it.
“He was a good man.” Valjean’s voice trembles.
It occurs to Javert that the siren is grieving. And for what? A man he spoke to once, if hardly that? But Javert says gruffly, yet not unkindly, “There is nothing you could have done.”
Valjean looks up in disbelief; Javert is as unpracticed in giving comfort as he is at receiving it, and he looks pointedly in another direction while the siren studies him.
“You have changed, and that troubles you.” Valjean flicks his tail musingly. “Though I think I prefer this to our past conversations.”
There is no reproof in his voice, but still it gives Javert pause. On the raft, their speech has been short and bitter. On the ship, it was little more than one-sided. And the one time it was not, the one time Valjean dared to talk back... Like a phantom, the Capitaine can still feel the frantic clip of the siren’s pulse under his fingertips, can see the vein pounding in his throat and the flash of steel pressing upon his tongue.
“Yes,” Javert agrees with some difficulty. The memory fills him with a deep shame, though nothing can be as shameful as the way it stirs his blood even now to think of having the siren so near, and so vulnerable. “Valjean -” he tries, starting and stopping abruptly.
“Yes?” Valjean tilts his head curiously. The Capitaine’s voice must sound very queer, emerging distorted by pangs of conscience and the strange breathlessness the images evoke. Valjean’s eyes are still arresting—more and more, Javert wonders whether that is some trick of magic or simply his own moral failings at work.
“About that day, in the brig.” Javert wipes his palms on his trousers, setting aside the cutlass and looking down at the deck. “I threatened you.”
“I believe that could be said of more than one occasion,” Valjean says wryly.
“You know what one I mean.”
The siren is silent.
Wetting his lips, the Capitaine forces himself to meet Valjean’s gaze. “All I have to say is -”
“I do not wish to discuss it,” Valjean interjects, turning away.
“- I went too far,” Javert finishes.
Again there is a silence. Valjean’s shoulders are tense, his head bowed. Perhaps Javert would have done better not to pick at old wounds, leaving matters to lie as they were. Yet the thought will not let him rest, that for reasons he cannot begin to understand, the siren believed his life worthy of saving when any other living soul so subjected would have let him perish.
Lowly, Javert murmurs, “How you can even stand to look at me, I do not know.”
Valjean makes to swim back to the fore of the raft. “You are not to blame,” he says flatly. “Or at least, not entirely. Do not concern yourself over it.”
“How can you think that?” Crawling forward, Javert reaches until his hand can catch the siren by the shoulder. Valjean freezes, skin cool and damp with seawater. “My actions are my own, my responsibility.”
“Except when they are not.”
The siren’s voice is tight, and he still will not meet the Capitaine’s gaze.
Javert frowns. “What are you saying?”
“Sometimes...” Valjean pauses, measuring his words carefully. “Sometimes, acts of what you call magic are intentional. But at others, they... slip out.” His voice is heavy with self-reproach. “I do not mean for it to happen, it is simply the nature of what I am.”
“So, that day...” Javert begins slowly.
Then Valjean does raise his eyes to Javert’s, everything in him imploring the Capitaine to understand. “You were angry. The magic sensed that. Such is what it does, it takes that which you already feel and twists it, makes it irresistible.”
Amazed, Javert can do nothing but shake his head. Now that Valjean makes mention of it, he is reminded of a certain peculiarity in how quickly fury overtook him. But even so, it is impossible to conceive of the siren as having been anything but a victim in that circumstance.
Valjean’s gaze falls. “So you see, I deserved what you did to me—it was my own fault, after all.”
Javert is struck once more by the notion that he does not know this creature, that he never has. Every word Valjean speaks is a revelation, and this one is profoundly disturbing; Javert forced the siren’s mouth with the knife willfully, enchantment or no enchantment, and that he should allow Valjean to blame himself for the Capitaine’s doings is surely the height of disgrace.
Pursing his lips, Javert says in the firm, clipped tones of authority, “I will not hear another word of this. You were my prisoner and I... acted out of turn. Besides—if what you say is true, then you made me do nothing I had not already thought of.”
Valjean’s face pinches. “Must we continue to speak of it?”
“Yes. No. Only...” Now Javert hesitates, for the siren’s words have spurred questions in matters to which he had believed he knew the answer.
The siren looks at him with eyebrows raised. “Yes?”
Javert runs a hand through his hair. “Perhaps I understand less of this than I thought,” he mutters. There is a slight catch to his voice as he asks, “How then does a siren enchant a sailor by design?”
Never has Javert seen Valjean look so flustered as he does in that moment, the siren’s cheeks reddening and his eyes turned aside. Rolling flat onto his stomach, the Capitaine props himself up on his elbows. He is confident Valjean can be made to speak, if only he is patient.
“You see, it is a matter of...” Valjean gestures vaguely, wavering between explanation and the coy reticence which seems to have come over him. “There must be... emotion present, the stronger the better, that the siren can make use of.”
Clearing his throat, he adds, “Then it is not so hard to turn a man’s thoughts against him, if that is indeed the goal.”
“But how does it happen?” Javert demands in frustration, running a hand over his face. “You speak as though you have never done such a thing before—come, Valjean, are you a siren or aren’t you?”
Immediately, Javert regrets his outburst; he knows full well that no matter the years that may have passed, Valjean is not a stranger to drowning men nor to devouring them afterwards; knows that the only thing staying his hand now is some improbable conscience rather than any lack of ability. But when he raises his eyes to face the backlash, Javert discovers the siren studying him not with anger but an expression which is quite unfathomable.
“I am trying to think of how best to explain it,” Valjean says. Without appearing conscious of his actions, he drifts nearer to the raft. “My intent is not to frighten you.”
“You won’t,” Javert replies brashly.
Valjean hums. “There is a sort of... ‘song’ that is sung by all living things,” he says. “It is a constant murmur, like the waves, until you listen for it. Then it becomes a roar.”
The Capitaine nods along with the siren’s words. Something nearly melodic has crept into Valjean’s voice, a reverberation and a rhythm that was not there before.
“In some creatures the music is clearer than others,” Valjean continues. “Men and merfolk have many thoughts, which are like chords played out upon strings. A siren can pluck upon those strings, and change the tune.”
“Siren song,” Javert mutters.
“It is not always necessary that it be spoken aloud, but yes.” Valjean rocks forward, his tail a quiet undulation in the water. “An entire ship requires such an effort, but one man alone may succumb more readily.”
Javert’s voice emerges rougher than usual as he asks, “And that is when the shipwrecker has his way with the sailor, is it?”
“Sometimes,” Valjean concedes. “There are those with a cruel fondness for seducing their prey. Often, the men are merely drowned the moment they cease to resist.”
“So for instance...”
“For instance?” Valjean prompts, folding his hands once more on the edge of the raft.
“Suppose you were to do such a thing to me,” the Capitaine finishes, forcing his voice to remain steady. It is an important question—whatever the siren’s answer, he needs to know. His throat is dry as he adds, “What would it feel like?”
Valjean’s cheeks redden again. “Javert, why would you even ask such a thing?”
The Capitaine looks at him levelly. “You are not the only siren in this sea,” he says. “What if I were to run across another without your same qualms. How would I know what was happening before it was too late?”
“I suppose that is sensible,” says Valjean doubtfully, and there is still a flush of color upon his face. “Well... first, you would begin to feel very warm.”
Javert feels warm enough already, heat climbing up the back of his neck, his shirt adhering to his shoulders. It is no more than the heat of the mid-morning sun, but still it lends a certain eeriness to the creature’s narrative.
Valjean pushes himself further out of the water, leaning on his forearms until he and Javert are all but face to face. “You would relax, until all other thought is driven from your head.”
His voice grows softer as the siren continues, “You would feel an... itch in your blood that you cannot assuage—and if you try, it will only get worse.”
Batting his eyes, Javert tries to focus on Valjean’s face, but he cannot seem to raise his eyes any higher than his mouth.
“From there—” Valjean licks his lips, and Javert cannot tear his gaze away from that glistening wetness. “—two things may happen.”
“Yes?” Javert croaks.
Valjean regards him with those burning blue eyes. “Truly, you wish to know?”
“I cannot... counteract it if I do not know of it,” the Capitaine replies. For some reason, his tongue feels too thick in his mouth.
“Very well.” Valjean leans in closer yet, the edge of the raft dipping into the water under his weight. “The siren would want you close. Suppose that you stand on the deck of a ship, you would feel the urge to change course toward the rocks, or leap into the water.”
“And then?” Javert does not recognize his own voice, but it is impossible to think through the fuge in his mind. All he can see are those eyes, bluer than the sky and treacherously deep.
“And then.” Valjean speaks barely above a whisper now. “You are caught, and the siren has you in their power to do with as they please.”
And just like that, Javert can see it, can see himself spread-eagle on some godless beach, Valjean pinning him against the sand, that powerful tail between his legs. Valjean’s mouth on his neck, on his lips, Javert’s hands shackled by no more than the strength of the siren’s grip. A rise and fall of hips, a soft cry, and—
Javert’s eyes fly open, a groan in his throat. Valjean is staring at him with horror and guilt, and the Capitaine realizes two things at once. The first is that Valjean has played him like a fiddle, demonstrating beyond any shadow of doubt Javert’s weakness, his susceptibility to this awful magic. The second is that he is woefully, achingly aroused.
He bites back the rest of the sound threatening to spill from his mouth, swallowing thickly instead.
“Forgive me.” Valjean’s face is scarlet, mortified, and he pushes himself from the raft, violently backpedaling into the water. “I did not mean—I thought I could control it—It was never my intention to -”
“Valjean.” The siren’s name emerges as little more than a grunt forced between his teeth, and when Valjean looks up, his eyes are wide with barely suppressed panic.
“It was a necessary demonstration.” Javert swallows a breath; there is no natural way he can sit up without betraying how his body is affected. “Now I see.”
He sees too well—that it has always been within Valjean’s power to take him apart, that it is easy, in fact, for Valjean managed it without trying. And not even once did Javert think to defend himself; left to the mercy of any other siren, he would be dead by now, or worse. It is a sobering realization, as is his inexplicable certainty that Valjean will not now turn this weakness against him.
“I—I should go,” says Valjean shakily, looking anywhere else but at Javert. “You will want to be getting underway, I am sure. There is a long distance to go yet.”
Javert has not responded when he is distracted by the sounds of shouting from across the raft. Craning his neck, he beholds Mercier pointing frantically at the horizon. Over the waters, the man’s voice is carried, along with the words, “Ship ahoy! Ship ahoy!”
At once, the Capitaine is on his feet, his state of dishevelment forgotten amidst the surge of hope flooding his breast. Carefully, his eyes scan the ocean swells until he too sees it: the flash of topsails over the water.
“A ship,” he says aloud.
After too long, fortune is finally turning in his favor. This could mean rescue, real food, shelter— He watches the crew frantically wave what sailcloth they have to catch the boat’s attention, and a fierce smile cracks his features.
They are saved.
Chapter 14: Rescued
Halloween and school both severely butted into my ability to write this chapter, rude. But we got here in the end. Enjoy! <3
Things happen in swift progression after that.
With the appearance of a ship, any ship, on the water, the men are galvanized into action. Javert pulls his tailcoat closer around him, hoping to conceal the slight tent in his trousers as he vaults over broken boards and races towards the far end of the raft. Valjean is left to stare after him as he goes, his mouth set in a thin line.
Javert comes to a halt alongside Droit, who is doling out orders to the others.
“Higher, Mercier, wave it higher if you want them to see you. Any luck, Géroux?”
“No, sir,” says the officer from where he is crouched over a pile of wood. “It’s too damn damp to catch.”
“The damp is what will make it smoke, keep trying.” Turning to Javert, the Lieutenant adds, “They appear to be holding position for now, but it is hard to say whether that means they have seen us or not. The wind is shifting, they may simply have stalled.”
Javert squints, raising his hand against the sun as he studies the shape of the distant vessel.
“She is of size to be a frigate,” he says, “though with no more than a single deck of cannons.” The Capitaine thinks of his spyglass, which even had it survived the wreck would undoubtedly be too cracked and waterlogged to be of any use. “The smoke signal is our best hope—light a drier piece of kindling to begin with and then use it to catch the others.”
The prospect of help on the way is a heady one. Javert paces the perimeter of the craft, inventorying the remainder of their supplies. He also pauses long enough to check that the prisoner remains duly tied; Montparnasse glares, but says nothing as the Capitaine tests the security of his bonds. The youth looks rather the worse for wear, captivity and exposure silencing even his sharp tongue. When they are safe aboard the deck of a proper vessel, the pirate dandy will find himself locked once more in the brig. Until then, Javert is satisfied he cannot escape.
An excited cry goes up from across the way, and Javert lifts his head to see thick, ashy smoke rising in a column from the surface of the raft. At once, he rejoins his men where they stand about clapping Géroux on the back.
“Well done,” says Javert. “There is nothing to be done now but wait.”
“And look!” exclaims Martin, pointing. “She is coming our way!”
The men turn to find the rescue ship has indeed pivoted her nose in their direction.
Addressing his crew, Javert says, “I expect you all to make your best impression. No matter the hardships of the last week, I will not have you acting like animals the moment you are faced with a hot meal and a hammock, is that clear?”
A chorus of “Yes, sir’s” go up from the small crowd.
Crossing the gangplank, Javert approaches again where Montparnasse sits bound with rope.
“Up,” he says shortly, seizing the youth by the collar.
Montparnasse staggers to his feet unhappily, and Javert marches him to where the others are gathered.
“Keep an eye on this one,” he instructs. “Montparnasse has been a bane to these waters for years—I will not see him slip away now.”
The dandy snorts rather smugly at that, though the amusement fades from his expression as Bellamy and Fabien grab hold of his arms.
By now it is clear that the distant vessel is closing on their position, the signal fire making them a clear target in the vast expanse of ocean. Droit turns to Javert and salutes proudly.
“I’ve always had faith you would get us out of this, Commandant.”
Javert’s expression darkens. In a voice low enough for only the Lieutenant to hear, he murmurs, “It was not I who towed us back to inhabited waters.”
A splash from near the threshold of the raft cues Javert’s attention. As one, he and Droit look over to see the siren’s head poking out of the water.
“Excuse me,” the Capitaine says.
Crossing the wooden planks, Javert kneels at the edge and frowns, studying Valjean’s face.
“What is it?” he asks, for the siren is pale, his eyes downcast.
Without meeting his gaze, Valjean says, “Tell me what you would have me do.”
“Do?” Javert regards him perplexedly.
Valjean glances at the ship. “It is only a matter of time before their lookout spots me in the water. They will assume that I am the cause of your wreck and flee, or imprison me for the reward. So I ask again, what would you have me do?”
The siren’s voice shakes almost imperceptibly, and a vision appears in Javert’s mind of Valjean bound once more by chains, limp and unresisting even as he possesses full knowledge of the horrors in store for him.
“Hide.” Javert’s voice grates like a file, each word forced, but he continues, “Stay close to the underside of the raft—you will be in the shadows, and they shall not see you.”
Valjean blinks, uncertainty flashing across his features. “If you are caught, if your men should say even one word to give you away—Javert, they will hang you.”
It occurs to Javert then that what he is proposing is, in fact, treason. For the briefest of moments, he wonders if he could do it, if he could return to thinking of Valjean as no more than a hostage and a danger to be eradicated. How much simpler life would be if he could.
Instead, he feels there is an axe hanging above his head, waiting to cleave him in two. On the one hand, how could he betray king and country? But on the other, he owes Valjean everything. Even the reward would be of no comfort, for it would weigh in his purse as heavily as forty pieces of silver.
“Hide,” Javert orders through his teeth. “Do not make me say it again.
Javert glares at the siren, willing him to do as he is told. Valjean’s countenance is dumbfounded, yet before he can say another word, they are interrupted by Droit.
“Not now, Lieutenant,” Javert growls, still glaring.
“But sir -“
“I said, not now.”
It is the note of alarm in the man’s voice which finally drives Javert to raise his head, turning his displeasure on where the Lieutenant stands a few yards away.
“What is it?” he demands, getting to his feet, only to stop abruptly as the Capitaine catches sight again of the ship, much closer this time.
It is indeed a naval frigate, her hull painted black and barnacled where it rises out of the water. From the stern, a carved Grecian woman smiles benevolently down upon the waves. The name upon the hull is Astrée—Javert knows it as a vessel which departed the port at Brest not long before the Surveillante set sail herself. Yet the picture is wrong; there is no bustling crew manning the decks, no lookout in the crow’s nest, and the ship is listing slightly to starboard. She is pointed still in a straight line for the raft; at this distance, Javert can make out holes puncturing the hull as if from cannonfire.
“What in Heaven’s name -” Javert starts and then stops, for even as he utters the words he perceives rising above the quarterdeck a flag, winched upwards by unseen hands. It is no tricolor ensign; rather, the flag is blood red, emblazoned with a white skull and below it an hourglass.
“Pirates,” breathes Droit.
The sounds of pounding feet come up behind them as the rest of the crew gather in close.
“What do we do now, sir?” Travers asks, the boy’s voice very small. From the rear of the crowd, Montparnasse gives a soft, wicked chuckle like a bad omen.
Javert’s jaw tightens as he stares at the ship rapidly gaining on their tiny sanctuary. They have but a few minutes more before they will be overtaken. No man has yet put it to words, but nevertheless the understanding hangs unspoken in the air; a red flag is not a warning, but a promise that they will be slaughtered without quarter or mercy. His crew numbers barely over a dozen, and between them, there is a single sword and a pistol that is better used for a club. They may as well have no weapons at all.
That thought strikes an idea like a spark from a flintstone, and Javert smiles grimly. Perhaps it is not altogether accurate to say they haven’t any weapons.
“Valjean,” the Capitaine says aloud. “You must do something.”
All turn as one to look at the siren who is still gripping the side of the raft, waylaid by indecision. At Javert’s words, he looks up with a start, his brows drawing together.
Javert gestures at the commandeered vessel. “You are a siren—stop that ship!”
Valjean blinks several times in succession. “You want me to -?”
“The alternative is that they will kill us,” Javert says shortly, and Valjean winces. “Surely it is within your power.”
“I alone cannot capsize a frigate,” Valjean replies, a hollow echo of earlier words.
“But the crew.” Javert’s words turn impatient as the shadow of the vessel stretches like a long, grasping hand towards them. “Surely you can enchant them.”
Valjean’s face hardens. “I will defend you,” he says, “but I swore that I would never again take a human life.”
“They are bound for the gallows anyway! What difference does it make?”
“The difference is that I am not a hangman!”
Valjean’s chest heaves at the strength of his outburst, the raft utterly silent. Javert turns away, dragging a hand down his face. It cannot be that they have outlasted shipwreck and drought and hunger only to perish like this, fish in a barrel for the sport of pirates.
“You would let Thénardier’s scoundrels run amuck over these waters,” says the Capitaine quietly. “Do you not realize that they too take lives? Merchants, the women and children of the ports they raid—all burned to the ground.”
“What was that name you spoke?”
Javert pivots, and finds Valjean looking at him with a very strange expression.
“Thénardier,” Javert repeats, and watches as the siren’s eyes flash.
“The Thénardier I knew was the Capitaine of a ship called Le Sergent,” says Valjean. “By rights, he should be dead. This is the same man?”
“I know not what ships that scum used to command,” Javert answers stiffly. “But I do not doubt it is the same man. He is very much alive.”
Reluctantly, Valjean says, “I will help you. I will bring no man to harm, but I can perhaps... buy the time for you to do what you must.”
At that, Javert’s shoulders lose some of their tension. “I ask no more.”
“Very well, then,” sighs Valjean, and an agreement is reached.
In the long minutes that follow, the ship grows steadily closer. No-one dares to voice the question which nevertheless lingers in every man’s mind, of what will happen if Valjean does not act after all. Should she stay to her present course, the Astrée will careen straight through their delicate raft and break them in two. Then they will join the rest of their comrades in a watery grave, and there will be none left to tell of how the siren did get his revenge in the end.
A long vee of ripples fan out from behind Valjean’s head as he swims directly into the path of the oncoming ship. Javert watches with bated breath; even Valjean’s strength seems dwarfed in comparison to the towering frigate.
Slowly, the siren sinks below the surface.
For a moment, nothing happens. Then, the breeze which has all this time been carrying the Astrée forward drops away, leaving the air so motionless it is suffocating.
“I don’t like this,” Bellamy mutters under his breath as the sails droop. “Not natural, not the least bit -”
“Hush,” Javert snaps without looking away. In the absence of the wind, the ship nevertheless continues to glide forward under her own momentum. The Capitaine cranes his neck back to look; at that oblique angle, he can just barely make out human figures on the deck above. He squares his shoulders, resigning himself to what will no doubt be a very short-lived fight, when a sound emerges from the water.
For but an instant, Javert is merely perplexed, as it is like nothing he has ever heard in all his years. Then, understanding strikes like a thunderclap, and he clamps his hands over his ears, dimly aware of the others doing the same. Yet even through his fingers Javert can hear it still: the inhuman melodies of siren song.
Several seconds pass in which Javert is intensely aware of the beating of his heart, of the intake of his breath, of his every slight move. He gauges it all with harsh objectivity, waiting for a sign that he is slipping under Valjean’s spell, for that sudden compulsion to fling himself overboard. Nothing comes. And yet, he can hear it, muffled by his hands but undeniably there. With a warning glance to his men not to imitate him, the Capitaine slowly unstoppers his ears.
If the music is entrancing, then it is only because it is so utterly foreign. There is, he thinks after a moment, more than a passing similarity to the singing of whales; sweeping, sonorous notes rise off of the water, passing from high, unearthly quavers effortlessly into pulses so low they are nearly subsonic. The effect is unsettling, even haunting, and the longer Javert listens the more difficult it is to tell whether the song is a thing he hears aloud, or if it is something which exists only in his mind, a psychic intrusion he cannot comprehend.
Yet for all that it makes his skin crawl, for all that his decades of training cry out for plugging his ears with wax, Javert finds that he is still more or less in control of his faculties. Certainly when Valjean charmed him that very afternoon, it had felt nothing like this. Cautiously, he waves the others’ hands down, and watches as they one by one allow their arms to drop, their expressions shifting from suspicion to amazement.
“Sir?” asks a strained voice at his side, and Javert turns. Droit’s face is white, his fingers balled into his trousers, and the look with which he affixes the Capitaine suggests that he is hovering on the verge of panic. It is then that Javert recalls a story he was told when the man signed his ship’s articles: that his father had been a sailor as well, until a siren pod took his charter ship to the bottom of the sea.
“Peace,” Javert says as bracingly as he can manage. “Look—the Astrée is stopping.”
And so she is; ground to an improbable halt in the tossing waves, the frigate sits weirdly still. Upon her decks, the few figures Javert can pick out are equally immobile, as though they are frozen in place. It is the effect of the song, he realizes, despite that he and his crew do not seem affected.
Javert turns to face the others.
“We are going to board her,” the Capitaine says firmly. “Valjean has got the pirates bespelled, but keep your wits about you.”
The answering chorus of “Yes, sir,” is somewhat more subdued than usual.
Grabbing on to a water barrel, Javert pulls it free of where the men have lashed it to the raft. Wordlessly, Droit steps up to his side, helping to overturn it before the Capitaine rolls it past the edge into the sea. The barrel bobs under, then floats back to the surface, a buoy in an empty ocean. Before he jumps after it, Javert looks back over his shoulder at the others.
Fifteen men stare back, the shadow of a skeleton crew. Their faces are turned as gaunt as Javert’s own, the ordeal leaving them leaner and quieter than when they started. But they do not flinch from what the Capitaine is asking, and Javert cannot find fault with them.
“Come on, then,” he mutters, and draws a sharp breath as he steps off the edge of the raft into the water.
The cold hits him like a shock today and at once his woolen tailcoat begins to swell and weigh him down like another body, but Javert latches onto the barrel and it keeps him afloat. From behind he can hear the splashes of other barrels hitting the water as the rest follow. Someone will have to toss Montparnasse over top of one, he thinks, for with his wrists bound the man cannot be made to paddle like a dog.
In his own right, the Capitaine is a practiced swimmer, but that neither means that he is graceful, nor that he enjoys it. As he kicks his feet, he casts a sideways glance at where Valjean hangs suspended in the water; the siren appears to be concentrating deeply, his hair floating around his face like a halo as he holds just beneath the surface.
Approaching around the side, Javert sees better than ever how the Astrée is stranded, not even jouncing up and down with the gentle motions native to all watercraft. It is as though she has been pinned in place, like a trophy beast mounted by a tannery. Siren song radiates off the water all around him, a strange, disquieting sound. Javert is enveloped by it, yet the music’s press against his ears and eyelids is not a malicious one.
Luck is with him then, for the pirate commandeers have left the frigate’s pilot ladder carelessly unrolled over the side. It dangles into the water, and as the barrel knocks into the hull of the ship, Javert’s fingers wrap around the lowest slat and he pulls himself up. Briefly, it occurs to him to wonder whether touching the ship will render him equally as helpless, yet his hands do not falter on the unswaying ladder. Instead he climbs, rung by rung, until at last he reaches the gunwale and can swing his legs over the railing.
On this side of the deck, there is a different quality to the song resonating in the air. No longer is it so disturbing; rather, the music is ethereal, filling one’s spirit with a sense of deep tranquility. The enchantment is almost a tangible presence. Javert fancies that he can feel it slip and coil around him, though it seems to slide off like oil on water. In the air, too, there is a slight haze, a shimmer as if of heat, that wraps the ship in witchery. Clearly, whatever magic Valjean infected him with before, it was a mere sampling of the siren’s power.
The deck of the Astrée tells a tale of battle; bloody smears and broken planks go unrepaired, while the scars and gouges in the gunwale speak to grappling hooks and boarding ladders. The ship’s officers were clearly taken by the pirates unawares. At the prow, half a dozen men stand comically frozen in mid-speech. Javert plods over and examines them critically as his men follow his lead onto the quarterdeck. The pirates are dirty, uncouth brigands, and Javert recognizes the looks of some.
“Good day, Brujon,” the Capitaine says conversationally. Brujon, of course, does not answer.
Turning around, Javert observes the last of his crew struggling to haul Montparnasse’s dripping figure over the railing. He beckons for the Lieutenant , who is putting on a good show of concealing how badly he is shaken; setting the man to work will be a better cure for his nerves than any paltry reassurance, Javert is sure.
“These are Thénardier’s, alright,” he says as Droit crosses to join him. “See if you and Martin cannot make them move—disarm them, and distribute the weapons amongst the men. I am going down to inspect the brig, you may take them there after.”
Satisfied that the Lieutenant will obey, Javert goes to the nearest hatch in the deck and takes the ladder down. The air rising through the hole reeks of blood and filth, and the Capitaine wrinkles his nose. Clearly, the pirates captured the vessel only recently, for even their ilk would not leave so precious an acquisition in such disrepair for long. The lanterns are all smashed out, but sunlight filters in through the holes punched in the hull and illuminates the long, narrow corridor as Javert steps below.
Examining each door in passing, the Capitaine frowns. He finds the mess hall, storage lockers, and sick bay all in short succession, and in varying states of disarray. Any room that is occupied he leaves open, that his officers following behind may deal with the inhabitants. The investigation leads him all the way to the stern, and there he finds the rows of barred cells he expected.
Yet then Javert receives a small shock, for to his surprise he finds the prison already tenanted. Into every cell are crammed as many men as will fit, chained together hand to hand. Each wears a dirtied uniform; by it, Javert recognizes the crew of the Astrée, whom the pirates undoubtedly intended to force into service or to sell off as slaves. The knowledge disgusts him.
Martin’s voice interrupts Javert’s thoughts, and he looks up to see the man dragging Brujon by the arm; Brujon is as stiff as a statue, and his feet scrape along the floorboards as Martin hauls him down the passage.
“The Lieutenant is coming with the others,” the officer continues. He breathes heavily, for Brujon possesses no small mass. “But he wanted me to go ahead and tell you—oh.”
Noticing the prisoners at last, Martin stops, taken aback.
“Yes,” Javert says with slight humor. “We will have to release these first.”
As entranced by the siren song as the pirates, the crew of the Astrée are no less fixed in place. But the keys soon prove to be hanging nearby, and it is a simple enough matter to pull open the first door and remove the shackles from the sailors.
“Here,” says Javert, passing Martin the long length of chain. He nods at Brujon and adds, “Put those around his wrists and do the same with any more that Droit sends down.”
“Yes, sir,” says Martin, and holsters Brujon’s pistol as he binds the man’s hands.
It is a time-consuming effort to undo every cuff link, but Javert sets to his work with diligence. He would do nothing less, appalled to see honest men made the prisoners of such scum. Distantly, he is aware of the others, who continue to drag new prisoners into the hold. They pull the transfixed officers from out of the cells, and shunt the chained pirates into their place. There seem to be more men of the navy than there are conquerors; doubtless, the raiding party split, with most returning to the pirate vessel and leaving only the barest number of outlaws to captain the captured Astrée back to their stronghold.
This changeover of parties is but half complete as the final strains of inhuman music die away, the echoes reverberating as much in the mind as on the ear. What follows is several minutes of chaos, a brief tussle which ends quickly after the pirates discover they have been deprived of their weapons.
The rescued crew come back to themselves more slowly, having clearly suffered some abuses at the hands of their captors. They regard Javert’s men with uncertainty and distrust, not that Javert blames them. He too would be wary of any man who arrived pledging aid and mercy on the wings of a siren’s voice.
When the next frantic exclamation comes, it is as Javert is freeing an old sailor with a greying beard and no hair. He does not raise his head, patiently working to spring the lock, even as a tirade of feet come to a halt behind him.
“Just so,” Javert says as the cuffs pop open, and the old sailor voices a demure word of thanks.
“Javert,” says Droit urgently, and it is the use of his name rather than his title that makes the Capitaine look up. Droit wears a ghastly expression. In his hand, he holds a length of severed rope. “Montparnasse has slipped loose.”
Immediately, Javert is on his feet, cursing.
“Rousseau was keeping watch,” the Lieutenant continues. “Fabien found him out cold, and the prisoner gone. All that was left were these.”
He tips the rope into Javert’s outstretched hand, as well as a sharp bit of iron shrapnel.
“Search the ship,” Javert growls. “He cannot have gone far. Check the lifeboats first of all.” Shaking his head, he adds, “And remind the men to stay on their guard. Rousseau is lucky to be alive.”
With that parting warning, Javert tears out of the brig himself, pausing only long enough to pocket one of the pirate’s confiscated pistols as his feet carry him back to the base of the ship’s ladder. Montparnasse will not have hidden himself down in the hold where there is less room to maneuver; it is far more likely he has concealed himself somewhere on the main deck, if in fact he has not already absconded with a lifeboat.
After the stench of the brig, the fresh air and sun are a welcome improvement, but Javert scarcely notices as his eyes sweep the scene. There are Fabien and Vauquelin tending to Rousseau, and past that some of the Astrée’s crew gather in an untidy circle. At the fore are the men’s quarters, while the Capitaine’s cabin is at the aft. For a moment, Javert hesitates, torn between the two. Finally he grunts, “To hell with it all,” and runs in the direction of the prow.
Bursting into the officer’s bunk, Javert searches high and low. It is a wide room with multiple aisles of sling hammocks, and the deep shadows and crannies offer many hiding places. Javert’s search turns up books of illicit reading material and more than one misplaced stocking, but there is no sign anywhere of a fugitive.
Growling, Javert turns his eyes to the other end of the ship.
The dash from prow to stern feels impossibly long now that he is certain he has honed in on his quarry. As the Capitaine passes the hatch in the floorboards, he hears Martin’s voice call, “No sign of him below, sir.”
Calling back, Javert shouts, “Gather what men you can to surround the cabin!”
The cabin chambers are a small series of rooms, the door to which opens onto the quarterdeck. Staircases on either side sweep up to the aftcastle and the helm, but these are not the affection of Javert’s current interests. Gripping his pistol tight, Javert gathers his strength and barrels at the door, such that he goes flying straight through it when the bolt turns out to be unlatched.
Skidding to a halt, Javert shakes his head in bemusement and gets his bearings. The room in which he finds himself is by far more luxurious than the officers’; a long map table extends for most of the breadth of the space, while little upholstered benches of damask surround the perimeter. Along the sides, wide windows overlook the sea. To the back is a door, through which there is the hint of a poster bed, and a second window vista. It is all very richly decorated, as is the man who is seated comfortably behind the table.
“Ah, Commandant, I wondered when you would arrive.”
Javert scowls, recognizing Montparnasse despite that the man has clearly raided the Capitaine’s wardrobe. Over top of his wet things, he wears an emerald frock coat, unbuttoned and casual. Upon his head, he has placed an extravagant wig that falls past his shoulders.
“What do you think?” asks the pirate, showing off the lace on his cuffs. “I daresay the wig is old fashioned, but I do believe it suits me.”
“Montparnasse,” Javert says through his teeth, “you are under arrest and will be tried as a pirate before a court of law.” Leveling his pistol at the dandy, he continues, “Surrender yourself, or I will not hesitate to shoot.”
“Ah,” says Montparnasse nonchalantly. “I thought we might hit this little snag. So you see, I have brought some insurance.”
Raising a pistol of his own, the pirate points it not at Javert but at a crumpled pile of clothing at his feet.
The Capitaine regards this ‘insurance’ skeptically. “What is it?” he asks brusquely.
“See for yourself.”
Montparnasse nudges the pile with his foot, rolling it over until it is revealed to be a man. This prisoner is hogtied with rope, his face very pale, and he stares up in confusion until both he and Javert share a moment of unlikely recognition.
Javert’s brow wrinkles. “Rivette?”
“Commandant?” The word emerges cracked and uncertain, disbelief scrawled across the Lieutenant’s features.
Javert does not at first believe it; it seems that his senses must deceive him. Rivette is of a far more sallow color than when last Javert beheld the man, the lines around his mouth etched deeper. Whatever captivity he has endured, it has not agreed with him. Yet before he can inquire anything into the man’s condition, Montparnasse interjects.
“Very touching,” the pirate drawls. “Now Javert, if you want your man to remain in one piece, I advise you lay down your gun and order the men outside to disperse. I will be more than willing to negotiate after that. If you do not -” There is a click, and all hear the cocking of the gun. “- I shall be forced to blow this man’s brains all over the floor.”
“Do not listen to him, sir.” Rivette’s voice is creaky with disuse. “You know he cannot be trusted.”
“Quiet, you,” hisses Montparnasse, kicking the Lieutenant sharply in the side.
Rivette stifles a noise of pain, and Javert seethes. “A negotiation held at gunpoint is no negotiation at all,” he says. “You betray all notions of gentlemanly conduct.”
“Maybe so,” Montparnasse smiles. “But those are my rules, like them or not.”
Javert’s eyes scan the room, looking for anything by which to turn the odds in his favor. His gaze flits over the door to the bedroom, and the vague outlines of an idea appear.
“Very well,” the Capitaine concedes. “I have not come so far to see a man shot.”
“I knew you would see reason,” the dandy says smoothly. “Gun on the table, if you please. I won’t take any chances of it slipping back into your pocket.”
Holding the man’s gaze, Javert approaches slowly and deposits his pistol on the tabletop.
“Good,” the youth grins. “Now deal with the others.”
Javert nods to show he understands, then retreats to the door. Opening it in part, he stands half over the threshold, where Montparnasse can still hear his words. Outside the crew are gathered, looking on anxiously. When they see Javert, they straighten to attention.
“Listen carefully,” says the Capitaine, meeting each man’s eyes in turn. “Montparnasse has taken a prisoner, Lieutenant Rivette.”
At that, a ripple of dismay moves through the crowd.
“I will hear out the pirate’s demands in exchange for Rivette’s life.”
As Javert continues, he leans farther around the door, careful to keep his motions hidden. Pointing at a coil of rope, he goes on, “Montparnasse has asked that you withdraw in the meantime, so that we may speak unhindered.” Then he jerks his thumb around back of the ship, and watches as understanding kindles in Droit’s eyes.
“I am sure I can count on you to do what needs to be done.”
With a last pointed look, Javert steps back inside the cabin and closes the door, latching it. Rivette’s expression is one of distress, but Montparnasse appears delighted.
“Come and sit, Commandant,” he says, pointing at the chair opposite even as he levels the barrel of the gun to face Javert instead.
“I prefer to stand,” says Javert frostily. Footsteps creak on the aftcastle above and he speaks over them, adding, “Shoot me if you dare, but know that you leave this place alive on my orders alone. I rather doubt your gun has enough bullets for the crew as well.”
Some of the mirth leaves the dandy’s eyes at that.
“Fine,” he spits. “Have it your way.” The gun returns to Rivette’s head, and he says, “My demands are as follows.”
“Yes?” Outwardly Javert is stone-faced, though every groan of timber and sail pings on his nerves like electricity. He can only hope his men interpreted what cryptic instructions he was able to convey, else this could end badly for all of them.
“I want a lifeboat,” says Montparnasse at once. “And three barrels of water.”
Javert purses his lips. “One,” he says. “We have little enough for the crew already, and there are the men of the Astrée to think of.”
“Not my problem,” Montparnasse sneers. “Three.”
“Two barrels, and that is my final offer,” says Javert. There is a distant groan of hinges; he cannot be certain if he has imagined it. “What else?”
“Rations.” The pirate’s voice is peevish now with irritation. “And not those hard biscuits, Commandant, but real food.”
“And a roast turkey, no doubt,” Javert says drily. “Is that all?”
Montparnasse hesitates, evidently wondering what else he might be able to wheedle into the bargain. Javert is certain he hears some man’s light tread now; he works to keep his features utterly impassive.
“I want my pick of this cabin,” says the youth. “Clothes, jewels, all of it.”
Javert raises an eyebrow. “You expect to fit an entire cabin in a skiff?”
“Only the best,” counters Montparnasse. “I am a man of some taste after all.”
“Oh yes.” Javert eyes his wig. Entirely deadpan, he says, “That is very apparent.”
Appearing in the doorway behind the pirate’s back is Mercier, tiptoeing on stockinged feet. The Capitaine keeps him in his periphery, his gaze never leaving Montparnasse’s face.
“So?” Montparnasse gestures impatiently. “Do we have an understanding? Or will your Lieutenant have to leave quite a miserable stain on the rug?”
“I understand you very well,” Javert replies, a grimacing smile stretching his lips. “I understand that you are a selfish, ill-mannered brat who will spend what remains of your short life behind bars.”
Livid, lip trembling, Montparnasse rises from his chair as he struggles to think of an answer to that insult. Yet before his finger can do more than brush over the trigger, Mercier is leaping upon him, grappling his arm and twisting it behind his back. With a grunt of pain the youth has no choice but to relinquish his gun, going slack with disappointment.
Victorious, Mercier’s grip loosens, and that is when the pirate’s ruse reveals itself, for at once Montparnasse squirms his way free, turning instead to lunge at his attacker. A tangle of bodies crash to the floor, and Javert picks his way around the furniture, kicking the gun far out of reach. His own pistol he retrieves from the table, such that when he comes upon Montparnasse with his hands around Mercier’s throat, it is a simple matter to press the barrel to the youth’s temple.
“A knife would have done you better,” Javert says coldly. “Give up.”
“You double-dealing son of a dog,” Montparnasse snarls, twisting around to glare up at Javert. “One of these days it will catch up to you. And when it does, I hope I am there to see it.”
Javert hauls the youth to his feet, prying his fingers free, and Mercier rolls over retching.
“Then you had best pray it happens quickly,” says Javert, “for as soon as we enter port, it is the rope for you.”
Mercier leads Montparnasse away, his grip uncomfortably tight so as not to make the same mistake twice, and Javert bends at last to where Rivette lies on the floor.
“I am sorry for this, sir,” Rivette mumbles. “I have no excuse.”
“Do not be ridiculous.” Javert rifles through the contents of the table until his fingers land on a short letter blade. “What are you doing here, anyway?”
The Lieutenant swallows. “After I was captured, the pirates insisted I work for them. I refused.”
Javert can only imagine what that refusal must have cost him, and it is a moment before Rivette begins again, shifting under Javert’s hands as the Capitaine starts to saw at the ropes.
“Two days ago, they took the Astrée and imprisoned the crew. Thénardier has a contact far down the coast, you see, who buys men like cattle. Gueulemer... he sent me to be sold with them. But he left the Astrée in the hands of a man called Boulatruelle, and Boulatruelle desired a servant. I thought, perhaps if I played the part, I might be able to escape.”
Rivette shifts, turning his face further into the carpet. Javert recognizes the shame coloring the man’s features, and for once withholds the judgement on his tongue.
“And then?” he prompts instead.
“And then there was the siren song,” says Rivette heavily. “It came without warning, not even a wisp of rain in the sky. And it was very strange—I could not move even the slightest. When I came out of it, I was tied like this and Montparnasse warned me that he would shoot if I made even a sound. I did not have a clue what was going on—nor do I now, for that matter.”
He casts a questioning glance back at the Capitaine.
“Keep still,” Javert admonishes. “I cannot untie you with this squirming.”
Chastened, Rivette obliges, and Javert pulls the knife through what is left of the rope. He gets to his feet, then offers Rivette his hand. The Lieutenant takes it, the same sort of wondering disbelief on his face as before.
No sooner is Rivette standing upright than he pulls Javert into a fierce, one-armed embrace.
“Ah.” Javert flexes his fingers stiffly.
“I thought I would never see you again,” Rivette mutters into his shoulder. “Any of you,” he hastily amends, stepping back.
The Capitaine studies him critically. “Are you hurt?” he asks, for the man’s face is haggard, a split in his lip and the shadows of bruises suggesting he has been beaten.
“Nothing a few hearty meals and a night spent in my own bunk won’t cure,” Rivette replies ruefully. “I confess, I am looking forward to being back aboard the Surveillante.”
At that, Javert feels his breath catch slightly. He does not lower his eyes, but says, “The Surveillante is lost, Rivette.”
“Lost?” Shock and confusion cloud the man’s expression, and he asks, “When? How?”
“I will have much to tell you,” says Javert, “and must also write out a report for the Vice-Admiral. I daresay he will be displeased. But not now—you must rest, and the ship made ready to sail.”
Rivette inclines his head. “Yes, sir.”
Just then, the door slams open, and in barges Droit.
He looks about as though expecting more trouble.
“I saw Mercier leaving with Montparnasse—I lowered him down to the window on a rope like I thought you wanted, sir.”
“It was well done,” says Javert. “We have won a victory today.”
Droit looks to Rivette, hesitating a moment before he extends his hand. “Lieutenant.”
“Ah.” Javert turns to Rivette. “There was a slight change of ranks in your absence. Lieutenant Commander Rivette, meet Lieutenant Droit. I trust there will be no squabbles of seniority.”
“None, sir,” says Droit affably. “It’s good to have you back.”
Rivette accepts his hand, shaking it with a small smile.
When the trio emerge into the sun, stepping through the door onto the quarterdeck, it is to find a gathering of the Astrée’s crew waiting for them.
“You are the commanding officer of this lot?” one man inquires, stepping forward. His chin is held high, his chest puffed out, but Javert does not miss the traces of nervousness in his eyes.
“I am Javert,” comes the wry response. “Capitaine de frégate under Vice-Admiral Chabouillet. Who are you?”
This matter-of-fact reply seems to take the officer by surprise, and his face relaxes somewhat. Glancing back at his fellows, he answers, “I am Lieutenant Bellerose, under the late Capitaine Fournier.” At Javert’s questioning look, he explains frankly, “The pirates shot him when they took the ship. I was made to watch.”
Javert crosses himself perfunctorily. “An unfortunate loss.”
Looking again to his companions for support, Bellerose continues, “We would know your plans for us, Messieurs. We are grateful to be rescued—the pirates meant to send us down the Barbary Coast for whatever coin our labor could procure them. Yet you came here by means of a siren’s enchantment, and we do not prefer to be delivered from one sort of slavery into another. I have never heard tell of a good man who was aided by a shipwrecker and was not its thrall.”
Javert smiles thinly. “My plans are this: to return posthaste to the port at Brest and deliver the pirates to the bagne. Is that agreeable to you, Lieutenant?”
There is something mocking in his tone, but the officer does not acknowledge it as he nods decisively. “In that case, Commandant, my crew await your orders.”
“See that the rigging is in good condition. We will set the sails as soon as any damages are repaired.” Javert turns. “Droit, introduce them to the others. If all cooperate, we will be back in port that much the sooner.”
Javert watches them go, aware of Rivette’s eyes on him. Even so, the man does not speak until the others are out of earshot.
“I admit, sir, I find it hard to believe myself.”
The Capitaine turns to face him, raising an eyebrow silently.
“To think that you would cooperate with Valjean—it seems impossible,” Rivette continues, his lips twitching in contemplation. “Yet you do not strike me as a man bewitched.”
Javert sighs, pinching the bridge of his nose.
“After the storm took the Surveillante...” he says slowly, “certain courses of action were born out of necessity. Valjean... Valjean offered a truce. I had little choice but to accept.”
Something flickers in Rivette’s expression, but whatever his thoughts, he does not voice them aloud. Instead he asks, “Where is he?”
Wordlessly, Javert points towards the prow. Rivette glances between the Capitaine and the water, and then he strides pointedly in the direction of the railing. Javert follows, feeling unaccountably on edge.
The Lieutenant arrives at the rail before him, and after a few moments of looking, Rivette turns back over his shoulder. “Where?”
“There,” Javert starts to say, only to stop mid-word. The water is clear blue in the sunlight, and it is deserted. Sharply, he calls out, “Valjean!” but he receives no response, nor does a dark head suddenly surface in the water.
For a moment, he stares blankly. Then Javert goes first to port, then to starboard, searching for any sign of the siren. In every direction, the sea is empty. When he stops finally, it is with a strange feeling that borders on loss.
“Well,” says Rivette after a moment. “I suppose that is that.”
“Perhaps it is better this way,” Javert murmurs, and it is unclear even to himself to whom he is speaking. “There are no more debts between us now.”
Rivette does not reply, and Javert only continues to gaze at the water. He is alive and Valjean is free; there is no reason the siren should have needed to stay. Better for the both of them that he leave before the Capitaine was faced with the choice of having to capture him again. But for all that he knows this to be true, Javert cannot shake it, the tiny curl of betrayal that Valjean should have gone without even saying goodbye.