The sun was setting, brilliant rays of light lancing through the swell of the waves outside of Kanzeru. Calliope lay on the soft seabed, head and shoulders above the water because she was far too large to be submerged here. She looked at Ianthe and McCullough.
“You know what happens next,” Ianthe called to her, looking down. Her thick black hair was now dusted with gray, and the wrinkles in her dark face had deepened.
Calliope didn’t like it, but she understood. “I do,” she said, softly. If she were to speak without restraint, her voice would be too loud for most people to comfortably hear. “But I don’t want you to go.”
“We have to,” McCullough told her, looking back towards the port. “We can’t do this anymore.”
They were leaving the Midnight Sun. They were too old – they were dying, unable to withstand the might of the sea any longer. Ianthe in particular; her human form was taking the toll of years of channeling the goddesses. Her fingers were still scarred white from breaking Alizarin’s fleet so long ago, and she’d accumulated dark markings from Athu’s grasp and old cuts and scrapes from Zzoriel’s stone and coral. When she spoke as Kulari, she still had lightning under her skin, but now it burned her, and every time she took a storm there was a danger that she would not wake up after letting it go. For her own life and safety she had to leave the ship.
McCullough was similarly wounded; in a battle two years ago he’d been shot several times, and he had not fully recovered since then. When he was younger he’d been the most agile and energetic pirate Calliope had ever seen. But now, he was often in too much pain to move with any speed or strength. He limped, and his thin frame lacked the strength to fight the way he had. It was safer for them to go.
“I know,” Calliope said. She wished she were small enough still to hug them as she once had, and she feared their absence – if they were not with her, she could not protect them. But she couldn’t protect them from time anyways.
Her own hair dripped down into the bay in waves of braids, each tied with a thick piece of tough rope, carefully done for her by the crew – a momentous effort that helped her see what she was doing on the surface or in the deep. Most merids didn’t reach her size without becoming matriarchs, so their hair wasn’t usually an issue for them. Calliope remembered when she was small enough that Ianthe alone could braid her hair.
“You know the crew would be lost without you,” McCullough called to her, with a faint smile.
“Without you,” Calliope corrected. “What will we do?”
“Find a new captain. Someone you think is worthy. Someone you’ll protect.”
“…I’ll do my best.” It was for the better, them going, and she knew that. She hated it, but she understood.
Ianthe stared into one of Calliope’s massive eyes. “You’ll keep them safe, won’t you?”
“Of course I will,” Calliope replied, with a snort. “I will always protect my family.”
Ianthe nodded once, slowly, and then looked to McCullough. The two of them turned and walked away, across the docks, and disappeared into the port amongst the buildings. Calliope lowered her face and tried to ignore the deep ache in her heart.
Someone appeared at the railing – Ayesha, older, but just as strong as before. “Ho, Calliope,” she called, looking down. “Where are they?”
Calliope did not answer.
“…they’re gone, aren’t they.”
They sailed into Buroni Hakir a week later, Calliope ahead of the ship. She had to stay off to the side of the bay, lying on the seabed; she felt a little bad for disrupting all the fish there. But they had business in Buroni Hakir.
Shavi met them at the docks. She knew Calliope was coming. “You’re looking for a captain,” she said, eyes glinting.
“Yes,” Calliope said, and wondered for a bizarre moment if Shavi were about to volunteer.
The Peacebringer smiled at her. “I will find you a candidate.”
The girl who showed up at the dock the next morning was slight, but bold, with broad shoulders on a thin frame. Her eyes were deep brown, and her hair was as black as her skin, and coiled in a lumpy crown beneath a brightly colored cloth wrapped around her head. She pursed her thick lips and looked over the ship, then glanced over to Calliope, who was watching her from the water.
“Is this yours?” she asked, casually.
“In a way,” Calliope replied.
The girl looked back to the ship again and nodded slowly. “Peacebringer Shavi sent me,” she said after a moment, “but I think you knew that.”
Calliope nodded. Of course Shavi had. Which mean this was probably the best person who could captain this ship.
“I’m Nenet,” the new captain said, turning towards Calliope. She grinned. “Captain Nenet Ashraf. I would shake your hand, but I think I might be a little bit too small.” Her voice was low and scraped at the high registers she pushed it to. She wore a long coat that flared out to swirl around her knees.
Calliope grinned at her, on purpose, displaying her teeth. She leaned on her elbows, a motion that sent waves sloshing up against the pier, and put her eyes very close to the new captain.
Nenet stared right back, unfazed.
“Do you have a first mate in mind?” Calliope asked.
“I’m certain there will be someone on-board who would be willing to offer me advice,” Nenet said.
Another long, slow smile. “Very well,” Calliope said.
Nenet looked up at the Midnight Sun, then back to Calliope, and sat down on the dock, dangling her feet meters above the water’s surface. Calliope waited.
“You know,” Nenet said, after a moment, looking down to pick at a loose splinter of wood on the dock. “I heard stories about you when I was little.”
“Is that so?”
“They said that you could sink an entire fleet and that you had skin tougher than dragon scales. They said you were dangerous, deadly, unstoppable.”
The sun beat down on Calliope’s dark skin, shone on the inked kraken that curled over her shoulders and chest and down her arms and torso and onto her tail. Its many tendrils curled and wound over her body, broken by some scars, crawling over others, a living record of her existence. “And?”
“They were right,” Nenet said, looking up. “How did they ever befriend you?”
Calliope laughed. “They didn’t know any better.”