Chapter 1: Prologue
When the goddesses woke up after the sea was created, they had no knowledge of the world or the people in it. The world was only ocean, a great blue pearl floating in the starry sky.
But Zzoriel, mother of the land, realized that though the oceans were full of life, they were limited, held back by very water that sustained them. She dove down to the seabed and grabbed great handfuls of earth, gouging deep trenches in the ocean floor. When she rose up, dirt and sand trailed from her fingers, scattering across the ocean; where it fell it formed great ridges and mountains. When she surfaced, she tried to build landmasses with the earth, but it sank beneath the waves.
Zzoriel turned to the ocean creatures. “One of you,” she said, “come to me, and I will build a new world on your back.”
Two creatures came to her: a turtle and a great fish. She placed the earth upon both of their backs, and they grew to tremendous sizes, losing their flippers and fins and becoming stone and soil. They became the two great continents of the world.
“Sister,” said Athu, from the waters, “you cannot leave us to go onto the land. You are bound to the sea, like we are.”
“Of this I know,” Zzoriel said, and grasping a piece of sharp coral cut her right arm away from her body. It fell onto the smaller continent and became the god Mehlitte, the progenitor of the land, and those who dwell upon it.
He gained form and stood up. Zzoriel pointed to the land with her left hand and said, “go, child, and give this land life.”
“What will I do?” the new god asked.
“Whatever you wish,” Zzoriel said, “but beware, child, for if your creations stray too far from the land, they will answer to us.”
“I will watch over him from above,” Kulari said, and her voice was booming thunder. “I can see even onto the land, for my reach is wide.”
Zzoriel returned to the sea, tired, and slipped below the waters to lay on the seabed and sleep.
Mehlitte turned to sea. “Any who wish it,” he said, to the animals and plants of the sea, “may come upon the land, and I will reform you so that you may thrive here.” For he knew he could not create things of his own, but could change the shape of the creations of his mother and aunts.
Seaweeds and sea-ferns and fish and shelled bugs all came up to the shore, and when he touched them, they grew into new forms with legs and necks and dry scales and skin. Some of them Mehlitte took into himself, and thus he gave birth to strange creatures with hooves and fur, and the creatures he birthed laid no more eggs, instead birthing their own young as he had them.
Some of his creatures went back to the sea, finding the land not to their liking. Some remained on the land, exploring their new home. Some, even, looked upwards, and begged Kulari for wings; and she granted them, and the skies were filled with birds.
Humans were different. They saw all the world, and sought to inhabit it; but they did not ask the gods to be changed, and changed the world instead. They built houses and roads and cities and kingdoms and ships, ships to traverse the seas, ships to go far and find new things.
The first time a human sailed out past the breakers, Zzoriel tested them with rocks and reefs, sharp stone and coral, the sacred tool she’d used to create their all-father. The humans were frightened; they turned back, fled from the ocean.
The second time humans pushed their vessels out beyond the waves, Zzoriel tested them again, and they passed. Then Kulari tested them, sending a great storm to overturn their boat, and again they fled, back to the safety of the land.
The third time, they braved both Zzoriel’s reefs and Kulari’s winds. The storm overturned their ship, and threw them into the water, and it was there that Xikaalothirivaani tested them, to see if they would survive.
They failed, and their bodies drifted into the waves, and did not wash up on the shore. The sisters turned away, sighing – all but Athu.
Athu rose from the depths and pondered them. “You were so brave,” she said, “and you tried so very hard. To see you die now is a sad thing. I will not spit in my sister’s face and bring you back, but I will take you, and turn you into something new. Transformation is ever possible.”
She took their legs, giving them a smooth sea-beast’s tail instead, and covered them in the tough, rubbery skin of dolphins and whales. She gave them powerful claws like sea-glass and basalt, and eyes that reflected the light like flashes of lightning on the waves, and strong bodies to push through the strongest currents. Then she took them, and breathed new life into strange forms, and sent them away, into the sea, to be the first of the merids, Athu’s children.
They sang, and grew, mer-maids growing to mer-matrons. They had their children, raised them, and sent them out into the ocean to make their own lives. And when they were finished with children, the oldest mer-matrons sought Athu out.
“We are tired,” they said, “for we have lived long, and we no longer take joy in the light of the surface. We long to embrace the deeps, mother Athu, to lay in the dark and sing to each other. Let us go, let us be free. We do not wish to die; we just wish to move on.”
And so Athu took their bodies and transformed them again, slowly and carefully, and each matron regained their gills and swam down to the seafloor and grew and changed, and became vast and terrifying and beautiful.
Thus they became the first matriarchs, and since them, there have been few who have received such honor, such powerful blessings from the goddess of the deeps.
In the darkness at the bottom of the sea, the matriarchs sleep. When another joins their number they wake and sing, and that song ripples through the world, stirring all living creatures. But they slip away again not long after. They do not remain awake, only stirring when called.
One day, they will wake for good.
They’d had to swing the ship broadside to the beach to pin the monster in the lagoon, and it had fought them viciously. There were deep gouges in the hull where its claws had raked across the dark wood; crew members in the hold were still desperately patching the holes to prevent the ship from taking on any more water.
Previously, the lagoon had been a clear, brilliant blue. Now it was stained dark with black blood that swirled like ink through the lapping waves.
The monster was floating in the center of the cove, dark coils limp. Its slick, smooth body looped around itself. Now that it wasn’t so bunched up, it was easy to tell how large it was – probably longer than the ship in its entirety. From the smooth deep brown skin of the face and head under a mop of black hair and spiked webbing to the tip of the long, sinuous tail, the merid was all muscle. It had been a swift, sleek creature, able to wedge its two-inch talons into the cracks between the hull planks and tear at them. Now its wet body was punctured with bullet wounds and slashes from swords or bayonets. Ianthe leaned on the railing of the Midnight Sun, musket beside her, and let out a breath.
They’d seen the merid while circling the island. It had been blocking their access to the clear freshwater stream that fed into the sea. They’d gone around, trying to find another creek, but scouted no other sources.
Strangely, the merid hadn’t fled before the ship as they normally did. This one had guarded the cove; they’d tried to reason with it, calling that they needed to enter the cove, offering food or treasures, but it hadn’t listened. They’d had no choice try and sail past it, and when they did, it had attacked.
Ianthe shook her head. They would burn the corpse once they’d hauled it out of the water and onto the beach and dried it as much as they could, or if Captain McCullough said, they’d leave it out at sea to be eaten by scavengers. Whatever they did, it still filled Ianthe with a sickened displeasure. She didn’t like the whole matter. It was a damn shame to kill something just because it was in the way.
She looked over the body. It was easy to tell now that it wasn’t moving around that it was a mermaid, a female of the species. She wondered what it had been doing here, at such a large size. Wouldn’t it have gone further out into the ocean by now, to grow…?
Someone below, in the boats towing the corpse to shore, shouted. “Mate Ianthe!”
Ianthe glanced over.
“There’s something down there, in the water!” The crewman, a wiry and excitable man called Leng, was leaning far enough over the edge of the boat to set it rocking dangerously.
“Is there? What is it?”
“Yes!” He peered into the waves. “Not a stone or a piece of coral…”
“So what is it?”
In response, Leng dove into the water. The other crewmember in the boat flailed to keep the boat afloat. Ianthe winced – this was going to bite Leng later, when he was trying to wash the mildly toxic merid blood out of his eyes and clothing.
Leng’s lithe form powered down to the sandy cove bed. Ianthe watched him circle around a darker spot in the white sand. He was right – there was something down there.
After several attempts to move whatever it was, he shot back to the surface and gasped, spitting out water. “It’s a chest,” he called, gesturing down. He squinted, eyes flooded with bloodied seawater. “Treasure, or something, I think. A cache maybe.”
Ahhh. That explained a lot – the merid could have fled the lagoon if it had chosen to dive beneath the boat, but it hadn’t. It had stubbornly stayed and hissed at them in its strange pseudo-language and fought them and died.
Now she knew it was because it had something to protect. Something it didn’t want them to have.
Well, they might as well get it. “Go ahead,” Ianthe called down. “Get someone else and retrieve it, if you can. We’ll open it on shore.”
It took four of the strongest crew to dig the chest out of the sand and drag it to the shore, over the white seabed. It was too heavy to float – Ianthe thought perhaps they’d be lucky, and there’d be gold inside, or something else valuable. The task was made all the harder by the blood clouding the water, though by the time they started to try to move the chest in earnest, the tide had shifted, and the water began to wash the blood out to sea.
Resting on the beach, the chest reached Ianthe’s waist. She looked it over carefully.
“Think it’s dangerous?” Captain Winthrop McCullough, standing next to her, asked thoughtfully.
“I doubt it,” she replied, shaking her head. “Why would the merid guard something dangerous?”
“Something dangerous to us is likely dangerous to a merid, unless it happens to be a food store,” Ianthe said. Merids could eat things that would kill humans, like octopuses, and cone snails.
“Fair enough.” McCullough stepped forwards and reached out, taking hold of the heavy, cracking, sodden leather strap that held the chest shut. He unbuckled it and lifted the lid.
Immediately a wave of seawater poured out, washing over the boots of anyone nearby and soaking into the pale sand. Ianthe and McCullough didn’t move, though a few of the other crew members hopped back, startled. After a few moments the pirates inched forwards again, peering into the chest. Ianthe shielded her eyes with her hand and tried to keep the glare off the water so she could see through the dark, wavering surface.
There was no gleam of gold or shimmer of pearls. No, instead, there was a mess of tangled seaweed and a few pieces of colorful coral. Scattered throughout Ianthe could spot the glint of a few silver pieces, but other than that, the chest did not seem to contain anything of value.
It was hard to see. Ianthe squinted against the light. Something about this didn’t feel right, and she gripped her weathered sword hilt with one hand.
The waters stirred. There was a moment of panic among the assembled crew, and then a creature surfaced and blinked sleepily in the sunlight.
It was a small, almost human figure – dark skin and eyes, plump arms and hands and fat cheeks. But on its torso there were long, gaping red slits, and where its ears should have been there were slitted holes surrounded by webbing, and rather than legs there was instead a long, dark, rubbery-skinned tail.
Ianthe felt her heart go cold in her chest and caught her breath, horror dawning on her.
No wonder the mermaid – no, not a mermaid. Mer-matron.
No wonder she had fought so hard, tried to stop the ship from entering the lagoon. No wonder she was so large and yet so close to shore, not out in the ocean like most larger merids. No wonder she was here instead of out there feasting on fish and plumbing the depths for her ancestors. This chest held no material treasure – it held her child.
Several of the crew whispered and warded themselves against evil, though against the creature or against their crime Ianthe could not tell.
“Athu will send us to the bottom of the sea,” one of the crew whispered, face pale. “We never should have fought her. We should not have come here!”
“We didn’t know any better,” one of the deckhands hissed back, but it seemed half a plea both to themselves and perhaps to Athu as well.
Captain McCullough stared down at the baby merid, eyes cold. Ianthe swallowed hard. She knew that look – he was hiding his uncertainty – but this was when he made his harshest decisions.
“What do we do?” she asked him.
“Kill it,” he said, after a long moment’s hesitation.
Ianthe stopped, stunned. She fumbled for words. “We can’t,” she said finally, desperately. “We can’t. We – I won’t. We won’t.”
The captain’s face was hard, but the ice in his eyes was melting already. Ianthe prayed he would relent.
There was a long, tense silence, and finally he sighed and looked down. “I know,” he said. “That would be too simple. That would – that would be the easy answer. We can’t kill it. We have done enough of that today.”
Ianthe let out the breath she had been holding. “So what do we do?” she asked again.
“We take it with us,” McCullough replied. “Bring it on board.”
The crewmembers stirred. Ianthe looked down at the mermaid. It didn’t know what was happening – it clung to the side of the chest and pushed itself mostly underwater, where its flared gills could breathe. The dark eyes looked over them all, wide and afraid.
“…does anyone have a problem with that?” the captain asked.
There was silence.
McCullough sighed. “Deal with it,” he muttered to Ianthe. She nodded and stepped up to the chest, turning to put her back to the baby. The crew wouldn’t voice their opinions against McCullough with him there, but with Ianthe, they would speak, because she would listen to them and try to understand or address their concerns; that was her job. They would tell her what they really felt about any decisions McCullough made.
Another moment of silence as McCullough headed back towards the boats to take them out to the Midnight Sun. Ianthe looked over the assembled crew.
“Does anyone take issue with bringing this creature on board?” she asked, slowly and carefully.
Another stirring, but now McCullough was gone, and they were more willing to speak. “I do,” said one of the hold cannoneers, a burly man called Gunnar.
“What do you have to say.” Flat tone, flat stare. Generally, he was rather irreverent, calling the goddesses ‘your gods’ to keep himself away from them as if the seas of other countries were ruled by different deities, and Ianthe disliked his audacity. At her tone he swallowed nervously before continuing.
“It ain’t natural,” he said, frown heavy on his flushed face. “We shouldn’t be close to it. Cap’n was right – we should kill it.”
“Captain also decided against that plan of action. We aren’t going to,” Ianthe said, soft but firm. “We will carry this child on board and keep it with us.”
“It’s wrong,” Gunnar argued. He glanced around at the crew members, hoping for support. “It’s wrong, ain’t it?”
Leng, who was studying the sand, looked up. “We need to take it,” he said quietly, black eyes more serious than Ianthe had ever seen them. “We did this. It’s our responsibility.” She could read his expression even through the sheen of dark blood that persisted from his dive into the lagoon waters. It was irritating his eyes, inflaming the edges to a puffy red and scumming the pupils over, but he didn’t look like the pain he was suffering was physical.
“To keep a monster?”
Ianthe looked back at the baby mermaid. It was hiding now, wrapping seaweed around its head and ducking beneath the water. She could see the fuzz on its scalp where black hair was growing. “She’s not a monster,” she said firmly. “And if you think otherwise, you should stay here on this island and find passage the next ship.”
Silence. This island was far enough from any other that it would take days for any ship to reach it, and it wasn’t on any normal sailing route. Anyone left here wouldn’t see another ship for weeks, perhaps months.
“If you stay with the ship, and find that you still cannot bear to be around her, you may leave when we next dock. Is that understood?”
No one contested her. Ianthe let out a breath and turned back to the crew who had hauled the chest onto the beach.
“Get this into a boat,” she said, gesturing to the chest. “We’re taking her, and it, with us.”
“The whole thing?” The nearest crewmate, a powerfully built woman called Ayesha, glanced dubiously down at the chest.
“But – “
“Can’t you see she lives there?” Ianthe snapped, cutting her off.
Ayesha shut her mouth. “Understood,” she muttered, and helped bring the mermaid aboard.
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Chapter 3: Mother of Pearl
They didn’t know where to put her so she would be safe, so they kept her in the captain’s cabin. She was small and scared and didn’t seem to like being in the dark all the time.
Ianthe and the captain stood and stared at it.
“I don’t know how to take care of this thing,” she started.
“Neither do I,” McCullough answered, shaking his head. “But we have to.”
“We have to.”
“…would a merid, ah… feed like a human child?” He raised one eyebrow, glancing dubiously over to Ianthe. “I would assume not…”
The mermaid blinked at both of them in the low light, then yawned, showing sharp, thin teeth, like slivers of oyster shell. The captain’s eyes went wide.
“Oh, no,” he said, fervently.
“Definitely not,” Ianthe agreed.
“So what does she eat?”
“I’m not certain. Fish? Mussels? Clams?”
“Mussels and clams would make sense,” McCullough murmured, rubbing the side of his face. “Do we know of anyone who could tell us about merids?”
Ianthe racked her brain, trying to come up with an answer. “I’m not certain,” she said, “but Port Kanzeru lies due east. Perhaps we can check there for anyone who may know more.”
McCullough paused, thinking. “We can make it in a few days,” he said. “Will it survive?”
Leng came up with the first breakthrough. Before they’d even left the cove, a few days after the fight, he dove under the ship and pried off a patch of mussels that had suckered themselves onto the old wood, bringing them aboard to dump into a barrel of seawater.
“If she eats anything, it’ll be those,” he said, wiping water out of his eyes. They were still red, but he was at least no longer blinded. “That or fish, but I’m willing to bet it’s that. Crack it open and give it to her. Or just give it to her; maybe she’ll be able to open it herself.” He helped drag the barrel to the captain’s quarters; they let him stay to see if it worked. After all, he’d gone through the trouble of going and getting them.
Ianthe opened the lid of the chest and offered the mermaid a dark-shelled mussel from the cluster in the barrel. Her tiny hands grabbed onto it and she looked it over curiously.
“Can she open that?” McCullough asked, frowning.
“We’ll find out,” Ianthe said, standing back.
The mermaid scrabbled at the shell, but couldn’t break it open. She stared at it, then looked up to Ianthe and held it out. “Mah,” she said, out loud, clearly distressed. Her gills flared in the air.
Ianthe tamped down her panic for a second and took the mussel from the mermaid. “Just a minute,” she said, looking over to McCullough and trying not to appear as terrified as she felt. “I’ll get it, at least partway.”
She sat down next to the chest and pulled out her belt knife, jamming the tip into the seam between the shell halves. The mussel was doing a fine job of squeezing itself shut. She narrowed her eyes and worked the tip into the shell.
As she wiggled the blade, she felt someone tug on her hair and jumped – the mermaid was toying with the thick locs, patting them gently, pulling occasionally. “Uh, be careful,” Ianthe said nervously, and looked back down to the mussel.
The mermaid subsided. McCullough watched, eyes flicking from Ianthe to the mermaid and back again. She was gripping the edge of the chest, eyes just barely poking over the edge.
With a crack Ianthe managed to wedge the shell partially open, breaking part of the hinge. “Got it,” she announced, and set the knife aside, handing the mussel to the mermaid.
The mermaid immediately pulled the shell open and yanked the slimy shellfish out in one pudgy hand, then swallowed it whole. Ianthe stared. She’d never seen anyone eat a raw shellfish with the complete lack of hesitation this child possessed.
“Huh,” McCullough said, off to the side.
Leng, leaning on the barrel, grinned. “There aren’t any other large clusters on the hull, but next time we’re near a rocky shore, I’ll look for more of these.”
“Maybe you’ll find pearl oysters while you’re at it,” McCullough joked.
“Oh, maybe!” Leng straightened up. “What a find…”
“Alright, get out of here,” Ianthe ordered him, rolling her eyes. “You’re dripping.”
“Oh!” Leng darted out of the room, trailing seawater. Ianthe sighed and stepped over to put the lid on the barrel.
The mermaid surfaced again, pulling herself half out of the water. “Mmm-bah,” she called, frowning. “Eeeaahh.”
Ianthe froze and looked over to McCullough. “Your turn,” she said.
He sighed and moved over to the chest. “What is it?” he asked the tiny mermaid, kneeling down.
She waved her hands at Ianthe. “Mah,” she said again. “Ah-brrr.”
McCullough pulled his head back, eyebrows raised, and blinked several times. “Well, I don’t know what that means,” he said, “but maybe she wants another one?”
Ianthe let out a breath. That was an easy enough problem to fix. She rolled up her sleeve and plunged one hand into the barrel of seawater, fishing around until she felt another mussel, which she wiggled out of its cluster and pulled free of the water.
Its shell gleamed in the low light. “We’ll need to get more light in here eventually,” she said, shaking her head, as she brought the mussel over. “She’s used to the cove, and it’s too dark here.”
“But look at those eyes,” McCullough countered, as he took the mussel from Ianthe and began to pry it open with his knife. “Look how big they are.”
“She can probably see in the dark. And she must, to be able to see in the deep ocean – or, at least, the parts of it where there’s any light at all.”
“She’s never been to the deep ocean.”
“Yes, but they go there when they’re… you know, larger.” He gestured vaguely with both hands.
Ianthe pursed her lips, thinking about this. “I suppose,” she said finally.
McCullough handed the mussel over and the mermaid took it, delighted, and ripped it open just as forcefully as the last one. She slurped down the mollusk inside and disappeared, putting the shell somewhere in the chest.
“We’re going to have to clean that chest constantly,” Ianthe realized. “Win, I nominate you for the task.”
“As if!” McCullough glared at her. “Absolutely not. I don’t need to do that.”
“She’s in your quarters.”
“And I’ll get someone to clean my quarters.”
Ianthe grinned at him.
They managed to keep the mermaid fed on mussels for the few days it took them to sail to Kanzeru. When they docked, Ianthe went in search of someone who would know about merids. It was too suspicious for Captain McCullough to go - he was rather distinctive, with his pale skin and red hair, and he was easy to track. Ianthe could blend into a crowd and disappear.
Merids held a strange place in the hearts of sailors; they were both holy to the sea-gods and terrible to sailors, being strange beasts of the ocean. They attacked ships, drowned sailors, killed selectively with some process that only they knew. Some said they were just as intelligent as humans, some said they were mindless beasts. From the fact that the little one had been trying to speak, it seemed like the former might be the case, in which case not only did Ianthe desperately want an expert opinion, but she also felt even more wary about the battle that had put them all in this situation.
They weren’t like serpents, to be avoided or fought and killed if you got too close. They weren’t like the strange fish, to be caught, or the blessed ones, to be thrown back at all costs. Merids carried an air of uncertainty about them, an air of mystery. It was going to be a little difficult to ask about them. Ianthe knew that sailors who knew about their little passenger wouldn’t be fond of the idea, most likely, and the last thing she wanted was someone trying to steal the young merid and kill her for teeth or tail-skin, which could fetch a pretty price in the right markets.
Athu, she prayed, forgive us for out transgression against you, and let me find someone who can help us undo what harm we’ve wrought.
Ianthe slunk into one of the taverns and found the first local informant she could spot – a young, slightly grimy woman, slouched in the corner fiddling with a piece of fabric. “Hello,” Ianthe said, quietly.
The young woman looked up, dark brows knitted together, and surveyed Ianthe, carefully. “Hello,” she said, voice hesitant, testing the waters.
“Do you happen to be familiar with the area?” Of course she was; she was a local. The question was a formality.
“I do,” the girl said, tipping her chin up. She searched Ianthe’s face slowly, eyes flicking over her features. “What do you need to know?”
“I need someone who knows a great deal about merids. Is there anyone like that around?”
The woman pondered this for a moment. Behind her lips, she ran her tongue over her teeth, thinking. Not thinking of whether she knows. Thinking of whether she wants to tell me. “Ababuo Osei,” she said finally, after a long moment. “She’s probably over at the Singh’s. What interest do you have in merids?”
“It’s cursory,” Ianthe said, with a shrug. “Where is Singh’s?”
“Down the docks three roads and in a bit. Red banners. You’ll see it.” The girl’s gaze roved down Ianthe’s throat, then snapped back up to her face. “Anything else you need?”
“No, I don’t believe so,” Ianthe said, amused. “Thanks.”
The girl shrugged, looking back to the cloth she’d been messing about with; it looked like it were maybe embroidered. Ianthe stood and fished a gold piece out of her pocket and left it on the table; the girl glanced up, but didn’t reach out to take it yet. “Good luck,” Ianthe said, and hurried out into the port again.
Singh’s, down shore and further into the town a bit, was a nicer place than the quayside shack she’d stepped into. This place had a sign, and curtains of red cloth hanging from the ceiling. The lights were lower than expected. It smelled like salt and incense.
Ianthe glanced around. Ababuo Osei, she’d been told. Who was that?
The patrons here were less drunk, more subdued, and a little fancier than the crowd Ianthe was used to. She stepped sideways out of the door and leaned against the wall, searching the crowd.
A young man with an immaculately groomed black beard found her first. “Looking for something in particular?” he said. Ianthe recognized the gold emblem embroidered on the red sash he wore draped over one shoulder to be the same as that of the tavern.
“Someone,” she corrected.
He raised an eyebrow. “Just anyone?” he asked, tipping his head slightly to the side.
Ianthe smiled gently. “No, not like that,” she said, shaking her head. Everyone seems to be very interested in me. I would be irritated if it weren’t so funny. “I need to ask someone a few questions.”
“Not violently, I should hope,” he replied, eyeing Ianthe’s sword.
“No, not at all.”
“Good. Who are you looking for?”
“Ababuo Osei. I was told she might be here?”
He nodded. “She’s this way,” he said.
“If you were coming to attack or kill her, she would know,” he said, shrugging. “And it doesn’t matter anyways. Not to her.”
Curious. Ianthe followed him as he wound his way through the tavern, between tables and lamps and patrons lounging against the wall in curtained booths or sitting along the bar.
In a side room, she could hear laughter and voices. She poked her head through the doorway that the young man gestured to and saw inside a group of people surrounding an elderly woman with golden spiked earrings and hair rolled into thick strands, colored with red clay.
The woman glanced over, dark eyes piercing, and raised an eyebrow. “Hello,” she called, raising a hand off the bar in greeting. “Come here.”
Ianthe obeyed, crossing the room. A red-robed courtesan moved out of her way, smiling to her as she went past. She sat herself on a stool.
“Ababuo?” she asked.
“I’m Ianthe Ikande,” she began. “I have questions for you.”
“Of course you do. What about?” Her voice was low and raspy, scraped rough by salt and smoke.
Ianthe glanced around at the assembled crowd. Ababuo sighed and raised her other hand, rolling her eyes; immediately, everyone backed off, retreating to the corners of the room and leaving her and Ianthe alone at the bar.
“You’re in want of secrecy,” Ababuo observed, and she looked more amused than anything. “What do you want to know that has you so riled up?”
“I need to know about merids,” Ianthe said.
Ababuo’s eyebrows raised, but only barely. She took a drink from the thick glass in front of her and swallowed, thinking. “Merids?” she finally said. “Why?”
“It’s not important.”
“You don’t want anyone to hear. You’re paranoid. Child, don’t lie to me.”
“We have one on our ship.”
This time, Ababuo stopped, glass halfway to her lips. “Interesting,” she finally said, searching Ianthe’s face. “But if it were full grown, you would have more problems than questions.”
“What did you do?”
Ianthe took a breath, let it out, tried again. “We didn’t know any better,” she finally managed, rubbing the palm of one hand with the thumb of the other. She looked down. “She wouldn’t leave the cove. It was a mer-matron, but we didn’t know. She attacked us and we had to fight back. We’re lucky we saw the chest. We have her child on our ship, and her mother is dead, and we don’t know what to do.”
Ababuo set the glass down with a resonant thunk and thought for a moment. “What are you feeding her?” she said.
Oh, thank the goddesses, she knows things. She can help us. “Mussels off the ship and shorelines, when we can. Is that enough?”
“More will be needed, but for now, it’s alright. How large is she?”
Ianthe gestured, imitating the size. “Small,” she said. “Like a human child. A toddler at most.”
“Does she speak?”
“Then you have taken for yourself a great gift,” Ababuo murmured. “One you must not squander. You took it; don’t make the cost of that worthless.”
“I understand,” Ianthe said, “but how do we make sure she’s safe?”
“Keep her fed. Teach her your language.”
“They can speak our language?”
Ababuo side-eyed her, raising one eyebrow. “They speak their own, don’t they?”
Ianthe was silent. So the sailors, the ones who thought they were like us, they were right…
“Teach her your language. Keep her fed; she will eat fish when she is large enough to swallow them, but for now, mussels and clams will do. She will need a lot of food. You can chop up some fish too if you want, she’ll like that. Don’t worry about bones, she’ll eat them just fine. When she is large enough the gills will disappear; if you can, carry her with you to see the sunlight. When she is too large for the ship, you will have to keep her in the sea itself, and then you will be tested.”
Ianthe felt a stab of – was that fear? “In the sea?”
Ababuo surveyed Ianthe’s face for a moment. “It will be dangerous,” she said. “If she does not like you enough, she will leave you, and it will all be for naught. If she hates you, she will return when she is large enough and destroy your ship. If she loves you, she will stay with you.”
“How large will she be when that happens?”
Ababuo shrugged. “I don’t know,” she said. “I’ve never kept a merid before.”
Ianthe opened her mouth, then shut it again. She didn’t like the word ‘kept,’ as if the mermaid were some kind of pet. She was a child, and apparently, an intelligent one. One who would grow to be… more.
“Keep her safe. People will not love her. She is frightening to them. She is the face of enemies they have fought. Guard her.”
“I will,” Ianthe said, with so much vehemence she startled herself.
Ababuo smiled. “I can tell. What of your captain?”
Ianthe considered Captain McCullough, sitting on the floor next to the chest, murmuring in response to the mermaid’s senseless babbles. “He will also,” she said, with a slight nod.
Was there anything else she could ask? “What else do we need to know?”
“She will sing,” Ababuo said. “She won’t control it, at first. You have to make yourselves listen to it when she’s young, or you won’t be able to stop when she’s older.”
Ianthe felt a shiver run through her body. She’d heard talk of sirens before, merids with the gift of song, a powerful enough gift that it could enchant the crews of entire galleons and leave them drifting for days in a becalmed sea or drive them to leap off the deck and be eaten alive. “How do we do that?”
“Sit with her. Sing with her, if you can bear it.”
No. Ianthe shook her head; she could not sing, least of all to match a siren. “I… I’ll listen.”
“Good.” Ababuo drained her glass and tilted her head to the side, thinking. “If you let her sing, she will be able to do incredible things. I have seen merids tear the sky apart with their voices. I have seen them turn the path of a rogue wave, or split the sea in two. Should you treat this child right, she may be your greatest ally.”
Ianthe swallowed. What have we gotten into? “I understand,” she said, though she didn’t. “What do you want as payment for this information?”
“Nothing,” Ababuo said, smiling. “This is not something I need payment for.” She paused. “Well… perhaps another drink.”
“Done.” Ianthe pulled the requisite gold from her pocket and waved to the bartender, who nodded and headed over. Ababuo nodded to her and waved her crowd back; Ianthe took the cue and slid off the barstool, leaving the gold on the counter as she swept out of Singh’s and headed back to the Midnight Sun.
Chapter 4: Calliope
The mermaid, as it turned out, could breathe both underwater and in air. They found this out when she escaped her chest-cradle and hid underneath Captain McCullough’s bed for three hours while they frantically searched the ship for her, hoping one of the crew hadn’t hurt her – though they’d left those that disliked her behind in Kanzeru, with a warning not to return if they still bore her ill will.
She’d been discovered when Captain McCullough, exhausted and defeated, had sat on the bed and heard her giggle.
Her little form was already growing longer. She was perhaps a meter and a half long, but most of it was tail. Ianthe lifted her up to try and replace her in the chest and she wrapped her tail around Ianthe’s torso and waist and refused to let go, clinging to her shoulder.
“Oh,” Ianthe said, staring the mermaid in the face, trying to figure out how to hold her.
“Interesting,” Captain McCullough said, watching from the bed.
Ianthe finally got her arm around the mermaid and held her up carefully, glad she was as strong as she was. The mermaid’s big dark eyes stared into hers. “Do you want to go up on the deck?” she asked, after a long moment.
“Bah!” the mermaid said, grinning. The sight would have been cute in a human toddler; in the mermaid, it was a little frightening, given her mouth of razor-sharp teeth. Ianthe glanced over to McCullough and took a deep, nervous breath.
“I’ll go with you,” McCullough said, and stood.
They headed up to the deck. The first to notice them was Ayesha, who was climbing down from the rigging. She turned and stopped, staring.
“She can breathe out of the water,” Ianthe explained, shifting the weight of the mermaid a little bit. She moved the baby to her hip and felt her tail tighten as she shifted.
“Oh,” Ayesha said, swallowing. She glanced around. “Leng!”
Ianthe glanced back. Leng, over by the helm, looked up. “Yeah?” he said, and then spotted the mermaid. His entire face lit up and he abandoned his task immediately to come leaping over the railing down onto the deck.
“Hello!” he said, stopping just before them. The mermaid blinked curiously at him, then reached out. Instinctively he put a hand up and she grabbed it, curious, and tugged. He laughed, startled – her simple pull was strong enough to move his entire form, slight as he was.
McCullough glanced around. A few other crew members now realized what was happening and several were drifting over to see what was going on.
The mermaid blinked in the bright light, glancing around, and was observing the pirates until the glint of the sea caught her eye. She batted Ianthe’s shoulder with her tiny hands and pointed. “Bah!”
Ianthe glanced over. “Sure,” she said, and stepped forwards. The crew parted for her to go by and she walked all the way to the edge, where she held tight to the mermaid and looked out over the endless horizon. “There’s the ocean,” she said. “That’s your home. That’s where you came from.” Her heart raced – at any moment, the baby merid could try to escape, try to wiggle free and make it into the water. If she got out, there would be no getting her back.
The mermaid did not try to escape. She looked over the sea, then up to Ianthe. “Mah?” she asked.
“Mhm,” Ianthe said, as if it were a real question. “The ocean, yes. Someday, that’s where you’ll go back to. But for now, you’re here, safe, with us.”
McCullough came up next to her and glanced over, at the mermaid. “You’re too small to go into the ocean now,” he told her, folding his arms and staring out towards the horizon. “When you’re bigger, maybe.”
“Buh,” the mermaid said, sounding vaguely disappointed.
Ianthe glanced over at McCullough, expression frozen. “…did she understand that?”
“I have no idea,” McCullough answered slowly, also caught unawares.
“…I’m not sure if I like that answer or not.” Ianthe used her other hand to shift the mermaid’s position again, and almost jumped at the feeling of that rubbery tail squeezing her midsection. It would take some time to get used to that. “You’re smart, aren’t you? Smarter than a human toddler, anyway.”
The mermaid pondered this, then smiled again, all plump cheeks and needle teeth. “Heh!” she laughed.
Ianthe shook her head, caught between amusement and alarm. “Sure,” she said. “Sure thing.”
They named her Calliope.
Ianthe suggested it – it reminded her of her home, in the warm waters between the white rocks and deep dusty green olive trees, where her family had moved two hundred years before and stayed. It reminded her of wind chimes in the sea breeze and the smell of lemon and sugar rising from the bakery down the hill, and the flocks of seagulls that frequented the shore, the far-off splash as eagles and pelicans dove for fish in the bay.
It meant beautiful-voiced, and Ianthe couldn’t get the name out of her head after the first time Calliope sang.
It was evening, and the setting sun sent lances of brilliant orange light through the thick glass of the window in the captain’s office cabin. Ianthe, who had been carrying the mermaid around all day while Jiula and Cirrio, two of the deckhands, cleaned the chest-cradle and washed the seaweed and coral. It was clean now, filled with new water, and Ianthe watched the mermaid splash around and immediately start biting at one of the pieces of coral.
Ianthe turned around and exhaled, looking to the captain. “Well, I think –“
A low, melodic hum filled the cabin. Ianthe stopped short and turned back to the mermaid, floating where she was, resting the coral on her chest. “What…?” she began.
The mermaid opened her eyes and hummed again, this time cycling through a few startlingly pure tones, and Ianthe felt her head spin. She looked around quickly and found a spot to sit down before she fell over.
“Kulari’s breath,” McCullough whispered, eyes wide.
The little mermaid hummed to herself again, then stopped, looking between the two cautiously. She seemed to be waiting.
“I can’t sing,” Ianthe said desperately, looking to McCullough. “Win? I know you can.”
“What? I’m not – “
“Win, you have to.” She swallowed hard, remembering Ababuo’s advice. “You have to sing with her, if you can. We have to listen. We have to join her.”
“Um, I – “
“Ababuo told me it was important when I met her. We can’t withstand her voice otherwise.”
McCullough paused for a moment, then sighed and went dropped his head. “Alright,” he said, “alright.”
Ianthe let out a breath.
He stood and walked over, steady as stone through the gentle rocking of the ship, then knelt next to the chest and paused for a moment before humming a few notes to himself.
The mermaid caught them immediately and mimicked them back at him. McCullough raised his eyebrows and glanced over at Ianthe, then hummed a few more, then launched into a quiet rendition of one of the oldest shanties Ianthe had ever heard, the language stilted from hundreds of years of disuse.
Sing upon the waves and sing upon the sea,
ride the swellin’ tide and forever we’ll be free
Sing upon the waves and sing upon the sea
Till I come home to thee
The mermaid couldn’t do words – not yet – but she mirrored the sounds of the letters in a noise that was frighteningly similar to human speech. Ianthe remained where she was, watching, as McCullough went into the second and third verse, then back to the first.
Watch the stars an’ moon go, deeper through the night
hang a crescent from the mast to be our lantern light
Watch the stars an’ moon go, deeper through the night
So keep your lantern bright
Always moving onwards, never do we rest
Wind within our sails and a new wave to crest
Always moving onwards, never do we rest
at our true love’s behest
Sing upon the waves and sing upon the sea,
ride the swellin’ tide and forever we’ll be free
Sing upon the waves and sing upon the sea
Till I come home to thee
Calliope immediately seemed to pick up on how music worked, and instead of copying McCullough’s notes, she began to dip into a harmony line, flicking the webbing of her ears back as she listened to the tones resonate against each other. Her child’s voice was clear and high-pitched and she wound her line through McCullough’s song like a seamstress.
Ianthe wished she could sing, wished she could join them. The ringing tones the mermaid produced still made her head spin, but as she listened to them they seemed to daze her less and less, even though she could hear the fizz of magic along the edges of the notes, like the soft hissing of surf receding on the sand. Ianthe closed her eyes and listened.
Consequently, Calliope’s first words were those of a song. It seemed to be the best way to teach her language; she understood the melodic sounds more than she did ordinary speech.
Much to McCullough’s embarrassment, one of the crewmembers managed to teach Calliope the word ‘daddy,’ which was something he had been avoiding – they weren’t this mermaid’s parents, and he wasn’t about to tell her that they were, but now there was no stopping her. She referred to him as her father, and that was that.
Ianthe teased him about it. “Goodness,” she said, watching him sit next to the chest, reading a book, “who knew you had a child, and a secret wife at sea?”
“Please,” McCullough growled, rolling his eyes. “I’m trying to read.”
“To your beautiful daughter.”
“Ianthe, I will throw you off this ship.”
She laughed. “Don’t be so mean in front of your only child, Win. How could you? What kind of example are you setting right now?”
He shook his head and went back to the book.
Within three months of her first coherent words, Calliope was able to formulate coherent thoughts. “What is?” she asked, when one of the oysters she ate contained a pearl that she nearly choked on.
“That’s a pearl,” Ianthe said, from where she was, kneeling next to the chest. She’d run over and immediately given Calliope a swift thump on the back to help her cough the thing up. They hadn’t actually expected there to be pearls in the oysters Leng had gotten from the bottom of the bay this time – at least, not ones large enough to be noteworthy.
“They don’t, normally,” Ianthe told her. “But you’re not supposed to eat them.”
Calliope narrowed her eyes at the pearl in Ianthe’s hand, then held out her own. Ianthe, cautiously, dropped the pearl into her little fingers.
“Nasty,” Calliope muttered, glaring at it. She immediately brought it up to her face and put it back in her mouth.
“No, wait,” Ianthe said belatedly, as Calliope bit down on it. The pearl crunched and crumbled into shards, which the tiny mermaid chewed to paste and swallowed.
“I win,” Calliope said triumphantly.
“Uh – yes, you… do,” Ianthe replied, still stunned. She had no idea how much that pearl could have been worth, but she wasn’t about to chastise the mermaid for eating it. She didn’t know any better. Maybe in the future she’d save them. Also, she’d just eaten it. Ianthe hadn’t even realized that was possible.
She made a mental note to keep her fingers away from Calliope's mouth.
Lightning cracked through the clouds overhead, fragments of brilliance crawling across the underbellies of the clouds. No rain fell.
“I don’t like this,” Ianthe murmured, staring up. “This doesn’t feel natural.”
“How do you mean?” McCullough, next to her, glanced over.
“No storm naturally feels like this.” Ianthe reached up, mind brushing the low-hanging clouds. She could taste the sting of electricity in the air, but there was something else underneath it, something she normally didn’t feel. “This is not Kulari’s work.”
“Well, that’s frightening,” McCullough commented, folding his arms. “But if it isn’t Kulari’s storm, then whose is it?”
There was a long moment of silence. Ianthe breathed in again, through her mouth, wrinkling her nose up to try and taste the air as best as she could. There was the shimmer of electricity on her tongue, the ever-present scent of salt, the coolness of the wind, and…
…a faint, hazy smell, sweet – too sweet. The smooth, yet abrasive taste of pungent alcohol, softened with the slick taste of too-sugary honey.
She knew that specific scent, that exact flavor. The unnerving, out of place smell of honey and absinthe, floating like incense on the wind. That was magic, and she knew exactly whose magic it was.
“Alizarin’s,” she breathed, answering McCullough. “It’s Alizarin’s storm.”
Ianthe turned her gaze to her captain. “He’s doing this.”
McCullough immediately turned and vaulted up the steps on the prow, up to the bowsprit. “Eyes on the horizon!”
The crew obeyed his shouted command without question. Ianthe sprinted towards the bow, towards the oncoming storm, and pulled the brass spyglass from her coat pocket.
Through the salt-spattered glass, over the gray waves and through the wind, she could see it – the Heretic, Alizarin’s flagship. She could see even from here the black lightning leaping up from the deck, chaining the storm to the ship, keeping it under control. The ship seemed to be alone, but it didn’t need a fleet behind it to frighten Ianthe to her very soul.
McCullough, running by, paused next to her. “What do you see?”
“It’s him. We have to run.” The Heretic was headed right in their direction. Ianthe turned and shoved the spyglass into McCullough’s hands. “We can’t fight him,” she said, searching his face. “You know this. I know this. If we are caught in that storm, we will not escape.”
McCullough took the spyglass and observed the oncoming ship for a moment. “Oh, damn it all,” he said, and lowered it. His already pale skin was drained of what little color it held. “You’re right. I wish you weren’t.”
Ianthe turned to the crew. “About face!” she called out, voice clear through the rising wind. “Make away from the storm!”
They responded again, swarming up the rigging and heaving on the sails, turning the tiller. Ianthe felt the Midnight Sun begin to change course, sweeping away from Alizarin.
But it wasn’t fast enough. They didn’t have enough wind, and the Heretic was flying over the waves faster than any ship should have been able to go. Ianthe knew why, and she didn’t like the reason, but that didn’t change the fact that they would not be able to outrun it.
McCullough realized this too. “She’s too fast,” he muttered, frowning through the spyglass again. Any pirate worth their salt could see how quickly the Heretic was whipping across the swell, how easily it would catch up to the Midnight Sun. He lowered the spyglass again, this time folding it and handing it back to Ianthe. “We’re going to need an intervention,” he said, after a long moment.
Ianthe closed her eyes for a moment. McCullough was right. They weren’t going to be able to make it out of this mess without a bit of a sacrifice.
Alizarin was… more than human. He was a practitioner of the old arts, the dirtier, disrespectful arts, the ones that spat in the faces of the gods – hence the name of his wretched ship. He used the souls of people he killed to strengthen his ship’s hull, to guide his aim in battle, to summon winds for the sails that pushed more powerfully than any ordinary sea breeze. Without help, without an intervention, the Midnight Sun was doomed.
Ianthe considered her options. Of the goddesses of the sea, which one would save them?
Kulari might be able to lend them enough speed to outrun the Heretic, and She would be the most likely to answer, but Ianthe wasn’t sure if any storm she called would be safe from Alizarin’s influence and control. Athu may be able to help, but… Ianthe wasn’t certain what She would do. She’d be rolling the dice on that one. Zzoriel would not be useful, as they were in the deep ocean, but she could still try. Perhaps She would be able to call up some unknown spire of coral to block Alizarin’s path?
And of course, there was Xikaal… no. Too risky. Ianthe would not do that.
“Who are you choosing?” McCullough asked.
Ianthe took a breath. “Kulari,” she said. Hopefully her devotion would be stronger than Alizarin’s rotted, corrupted magic. She turned and moved up to the bow, breathing deep.
Feel the wind in your lungs, she heard her mother whisper in her memory. Your breath Kulari’s breath. Your voice Her voice. Your words Her words. Become Her, for a mere moment, and the sky is yours.
It was partly a request, partly an order. Ianthe took her coat off and stored it in a nearby chest, then stepped up to the fore railing, putting her hands on the polished wood and planting her feet on the planks.
The ship had pulled a full roundabout away from the Heretic, away from the stormfront. She bucked up and down on the swell, sending spray up all the way to the railing. The wind tugged at Ianthe’s hair and clothes.
“Kulari,” she began, and took another breath, feeling the polished metal and wood underneath her rough palms. “Goddess of storms, the Eternal Tempest, I call upon you now.”
The static tingle crawling along her skin told her Kulari was listening. The smell of rosemary and pepper oil began to permeate the air: the scent of Ianthe’s magic. She raised both arms to the sky, beckoning, supplicant.
“Alizarin, who ensnares the souls of the dead, pursues us. He has conjured a mockery of your works and intends to use it against us. I entreat you now – give us, give me, the power to outrun him. Give us wings of thunderheads, eyes of lightning. Let me guide my ship to safety in your storm.”
The feeling intensified. Ianthe forged onwards, despite the knowledge that this was about to hurt… a lot.
“You are the wind in our sails, and so shall I be also. You are the energy in our crew, and so shall I be also. Your thunder is our shouts and cries, and so mine shall be also. You are – “
The only warning she had was the sudden sharp, hot smell of ozone in the thick air. A bolt of white lightning broke the world in half as it dropped down and struck Ianthe where she stood, paralyzing her for a moment, sending pain through every inch of her body. She couldn’t scream, because her lungs wouldn’t work, and she couldn’t move.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a crew member leap forwards, obviously terrified for her. McCullough grabbed their arm and pulled them back, shaking his head – the crewmember glanced at him, then over to Ianthe, then subsided, worry etched on their face.
Don’t worry, Ianthe wanted to say, wanted to laugh. I’ve done this before.
Slowly, Ianthe felt control of her limbs returning to her. She lowered her arms and examined her hands.
Kulari was the goddess who listened most often. Ianthe had channeled the Tempest many times, and knew what to expect. As always, she could see flickers of lightning running like living tattoos beneath the surface of her skin. She flexed her fingers and felt the electricity in her blood.
Now they had a chance.
Ianthe reached one hand up and pulled on the sky. This was going to cost her once Kulari left, but it would definitely be worth it. She looked at her crew, at McCullough, and thought of Calliope in the hold, probably frightened by the noise. She hoped the mermaid was alright. She couldn’t know what was happening. She probably thought the world was ending. No, child, she thought, smiling. There will be no end if I can help it.
“We’ll be going now,” she said, and called the wind.
It answered her in sweeping gusts of stinging rain that slammed down in a dark gray curtain between them and the Heretic. The ship shuddered with the force and suddenness of it – though when the rain hit Ianthe’s skin, the drops hissed and steamed and vanished.
The Midnight Sun, in spite of the rain, caught the gale in her canvas and surged forwards, breaking through the rapidly-deepening storm swell. The movement threatened to toss Ianthe over the front rail into the deep slate-gray waters below, and as she grabbed onto the rail again she had to remind herself – as her mother had always told her – that channeling one of the goddesses did not make her invincible. She had to keep herself alive.
Ianthe focused on the storm that had swirled up from nothing above. It was a cold storm, a swift storm, and Ianthe could tell it would not last long. They had to make the best of this while they had it.
But someone was pulling on the storm, and it wasn’t her. It felt like a hand brushed across her cheek or back – she whirled, eyes narrowed, trying to pinpoint the sensation. The sweet scents of honey and absinthe again tinged the air.
Alizarin. He was closing fast – they weren’t moving quickly enough to escape. Ianthe gritted her teeth and pushed the wind.
Above, someone cried out. Ianthe’s attention snapped upwards. The push was too strong – one of the ropes in the rigging had snapped, cracking across the torso of whoever was up there. Ianthe lessened the push a bit and frantically hoped it hadn’t weakened the mast, or hurt the crewmember too badly.
In her moment of distraction, she lost track of Alizarin’s souls, and of his ship. They escaped her notice in the typhoon. Where were they? Where?
Port. Port. No! Starboard!
The Heretic came from the haze of the rain like one of the great sea beasts, off the crest of a swell wave, fully suspended – a black and gray shadow like a stony reef - above Ianthe and the Midnight Sun. She turned towards it, heart in her throat, and reflexively slammed a gust of wind into it, trying to knock it away.
For a heartrending moment, the Heretic hung in the air above the Midnight Sun’s prow, threatening to crush her entirely. Then the wind took hold and forced the boat aside, twisting the structure of the ship with the sheer strength of it, and the Heretic crashed down into the black waves, its prow shoved to the side. Not enough to keep it from slamming into the Sun, but enough to keep it from crushing the Sun’s hull like a weathered seashell.
The Heretic cracked into the Sun with a power that sent vibrations through the entire hull. Ianthe grabbed onto the railing again and prayed that the mermaid, inside her wooden cradle, was going to be okay. McCullough had likely had someone buckle her chest shut, but it would be horrible if it tipped and hurt her. What if –
No! No time to worry about that now. The two ships scraped together with the scream of bending wood as Ianthe furiously tried to send the same wind current in two different directions at the same time. Anything to get Alizarin’s horrible, unholy construction away from her, or damage it somehow. She pushed on the Heretic’s sails, trying to replicate what she’d accidentally done to her own ship just moments before.
As she had hoped, the crew of the Heretic weren’t ready for it. The wind she forced into the sails was too strong – she actually heard, through the rumble and roar of the storm, the heart-stopping sound of canvas tearing. Someone on the other ship screamed, and Ianthe felt them in the air, falling.
The wind under her control was violently wrenched away, and she physically staggered to keep hold of it. It was Alizarin, taking a personal hand in this fight. She felt him wrap his souls around the storm and try to pull it from her. The smells of honey and absinthe thickened.
No. She would not let this happen!
She gripped the railing tight and yanked the storm back as the two ships scraped past each other, and as they did, she saw him. He was standing at the stern, one hand holding a glass jar full of swirling baubles of dim light, the other on the railing. He looked into her white-lightning eyes and smiled.
He was wearing the same long crimson coat he had been wearing when Ianthe had ripped off the patch that marked her as first mate and thrown it at his feet. He had the same cold, impassive look on his face, the one he had given her when she had turned away from his ship and its vile magic.
She had later learned that it had been just in time for her – Alizarin was just a few days from his first binding of another gifted human using soul magic, and she would have been next, her channeling his to use as he pleased. No, she had escaped him not a day too soon.
He looked exactly the same. He had not aged, his clothes had not worn, and he had not changed, not a bit since Ianthe had left his crew.
Or perhaps not. Alizarin’s tight-lipped smile was different from the one she remembered – he was hiding something.
“You will not touch my ship,” Ianthe snarled, through the wind. The smell of pepper oil made her eyes sting.
“It’s already mine,” Alizarin said, and when he opened his mouth she could see behind his white teeth a roiling mass of greenish-black flesh where there should have been a tongue, slick wet tendrils that writhed together in his mouth. His voice was thick and garbled, warped by the aberration that produced it.
Horrified, Ianthe almost lost her grip on the railing, instinctively pulling back. She tried to push the Heretic away again, but Alizarin’s souls were too numerous, clinging to the storm. She took another breath and began to speak, swiftly, quietly.
“Athu, grant me the wisdom to hold your power and another’s in my mind. Athu, grant me the strength of the sea to save my ship. Athu, give me one wave to send them away from us, that we may be free of them. Athu, the Sea, the Unending Expanse, the Azure Queen, give me blood of seawater and a heart of whalesong. Let me hold your waters in my hands for a moment.”
Athu was slower to answer, normally, but Ianthe – fearing the consequences, but fearing Alizarin’s certainty more – used Kulari’s power to push the call forward. She felt the deep shift of the Midnight Sun as the ocean answered her, quietly, but with a deep, powerful strength.
Very well, she thought, and let go of Kulari as Athu’s presence surged into her mind.
Another bolt of lightning came cracking down, this time eschewing the boats and dropping directly into the sea. The storm vanished from Ianthe and instead she felt the impossibly deep swell of the sea beneath her. She wrenched her hands up, dragging them through the thick air, and forced a rogue wave into the side of the Heretic and into Alizarin.
He was not expecting it. He stumbled and nearly fell as the water crashed into the Heretic’s hull, fingers white as he gripped the jar in his left hand deathly tight. “You wretched cur,” he snarled, and Ianthe ignored him to slam another wave into the side. She used the current to turn the Midnight Sun away from her pursuer, and spun the Heretic sideways, keeping it floundering in the swell.
The waves carried the Sun forward, through the storm, and in the mind of the sea Ianthe could feel the storm above lessening. She could also feel Athu’s interest in what was happening, and desperately tried to keep the Heretic spinning uselessly under the storm clouds while the Sun made her escape.
The rain descended and cut the Heretic away. It vanished behind them as they were borne forwards on unnatural waves.
Ianthe felt her channel failing and pushed one last time, clearing the way in front of the Sun. The currents swept her along, cutting a knife-clean path through the waters, and pulled her to safety, closing behind her to keep her enemies from following.
Completely soaked, exhausted, and with Athu’s power leaving her, Ianthe stepped back from the railing. She knew her eyes, for now, were a solid deep blue-black; but when Athu was gone, she would return to normal, and it was likely she would fall unconscious. Channeling one of the goddesses was hard enough. Channeling two was an absolute nightmare.
“Keep going,” she told the crew, as she retrieved her coat and strode towards the hold. “Do not stop for any reason. Keep going. Do not let him catch us. The waters will carry us for a time, but after that, it is your responsibility to keep us moving. We must be gone by the time the storms disappear.”
She made it into the hallway before collapsing.
So I upped the stakes a little from the original story, though of course, the key elements are the same. The antagonist is just a little more... present, now.
Chapter 6: Growth
She dozed, waking and falling asleep several times, drifting in and out of consciousness. The ship beneath her rocked comfortingly. Several times when she woke she heard Calliope singing quietly – Ianthe had been moved from the crew hold into the private quarters, where no one would bother her, and Calliope could see her.
The first time, McCullough was pacing back and forth while Calliope hummed. The music wasn’t normal – Ianthe could hear the fear in her small voice, and heard the thunder above threatening to shake the boat apart.
“It’s alright,” McCullough said, when the mermaid called for him, sinking under the water’s surface to peer out with only her eyes. He hurried over and knelt next to the chest, putting one hand into the water for her to hold on to. “It’ll be okay. Don’t worry.”
Ianthe heard him singing gently to Calliope, to calm her in the storm. She was not awake to know if it worked.
Ianthe remained asleep for several days, but was determined not to allow herself to be down for too long. She forced herself up on the third day and out onto the deck, still shaky and bearing jagged black burns from the lightning.
They had broken free of the storm and sailed south, away from Alizarin, and had managed to lose him on the open ocean. More importantly, they knew where they were – just north of a collection of warm, lightly populated islands. They could stop there for supplies, to trade, and to get news. Ianthe checked the horizon through her spyglass.
No ships followed them. No dark sails crested over the waves.
Calliope’s vocabulary expanded at a rapid pace, fueled in part by the books McCullough read to her whenever he wasn’t with the crew.
“She just eats them right up,” he told Ianthe, as they stood in the quarters after setting the Midnight Sun on a course south, and added hurriedly, “not physically! But she gets the words. Faster than I could, that’s for sure. And she understands the context, and if she doesn’t, she asks me about it.” He shook his head. “It’s astonishing.”
“Astonishing,” Calliope parroted from the chest, and then said, “I can hear you.”
McCullough froze, eyes wide. Calliope laughed.
“You’re talking about me.”
“Yes,” Ianthe said immediately, unsure of how else to respond. “We are.”
She had to think about that one.
“Y’know, I don’t have an answer either,” McCullough said, into the silence. “I… am amazed at how fast you’re learning.”
It was weird to speak directly to her when so recently she had only been able to make toddler sounds. Maybe she had been this smart all along, and only now understood how to use human speech instead of… whatever the merids spoke in.
How smart would she eventually get?
They had to move her out of the chest; she got far too large for it. They nailed a lifeboat to the floor in the hold and built higher sides on it, and filled it with seawater.
“Normally,” Ianthe heard a younger crewmember named Kiran pant to Ayesha as they carried a bucket down the stairs, “we take the seawater off the boat. Now we bring it on the boat.”
“Normally we don’t have a mermaid in the hold,” Ayesha said, shaking her head. She spotted Ianthe looking and tried to hide her smile.
Even with her new tub, though, she was still antsy.
“Why can’t I go in the ocean?” she asked repeatedly, to McCullough, while he stood next to his desk and rubbed his forehead.
“It isn’t safe,” he explained, turning to face her. “There are too many creatures there that will kill and eat you.”
“I’m fine!” Calliope insisted, squeezing the edge of the tub. “I’d be fine. I can rip a shark apart with my bare hands.”
“…can you?” Ianthe asked, in the following silence.
Calliope shrugged. “Probably,” she said. “I’ve never had the chance to try.”
They let her go in the ocean.
They made her wait, for weeks after transferring tubs, but they gave in eventually. She was practically vibrating with excitement when Ianthe carried her over to the lifeboat and sat in it with her while it lowered down to the ocean’s surface. She was large as a child of perhaps eight or nine, and far heavier than one, but Ianthe still found herself able to lift and carry her without too much trouble.
“Be careful,” she cautioned, heart in her throat, as they touched down against the ocean’s surface. “If you see anything dangerous, come back immediately and we’ll protect you.”
They were moored off the coast of a rocky island, in the clear blue waters with coral shimmering underneath like an oil painting. The blurs and smudges of color and shadow caught Ianthe’s gaze as she searched the reef below for threats.
There were none. She took a breath. “Alright,” she said, to Calliope, and let go of her, letting her splay haphazardly on the lifeboat’s seat. “Go ahead.”
Calliope, without hesitation, grabbed the edge of the boat, pulled herself closer, and flipped over the rail, splashing into the water. Ianthe couldn’t stop herself from leaning over the edge to see where the mermaid went, and saw her vanish down underneath the boat. Her dark form disappeared instantly into the clear waters, darting away over the colorful ocean floor.
For a few terrifying minutes, there was silence.
And then, in a flash of deep brown, the boat rocked again and Calliope popped up. Water streamed from her hair and her dark eyes gleamed. “It’s wonderful!” she said, grinning with those brilliantly sharp teeth. “Beautiful! Also, I found this!” She tossed an octopus into the boat.
Ianthe jumped at that and stared at the octopus. It was alive, and stared right back at her, oozing gently over the planks. “Oh,” she said. “I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do with this.”
“Oh, I just thought it looked pretty,” Calliope replied, leaning on the edge of the boat and tipping it dangerously to one side. “Isn’t it?”
It was a deep reddish-pink at the moment, but as Ianthe watched, it changed to a dark brown and squished itself against the wood of the lifeboat.
“Whoa!” Calliope said, eyes wide. “I didn’t know it could do that! Can I do that?”
“Probably not,” Ianthe told her. She wracked her mind to see if this specific type of octopus was dangerous. She couldn’t remember.
Language, Ianthe thought, and didn’t bother saying it aloud. She watched Calliope reach over and grab the octopus – it clung with its suckers to the boat for a second, but couldn’t resist Calliope’s swift tug – then retreat into the waters and vanish once again.
She loved the ocean.
Every opportunity she got, she found her way back into the sea. The tub in the hold was no longer enough to satisfy her; she accepted that she needed it for journeys and for the dangerous nights or storms, but wished she were strong enough to stay in the sea.
The crew used to dive for mussels for her. Now, she found them on her own, whenever they were near a shore – she pried them off the rocks with her bare hands, stronger than any human Ianthe had ever met.
“So,” she said, one day, from the tub, “You’re my family.”
Ianthe paused. “Yes,” she said cautiously.
“Why do you have pictures on your skin and I don’t?”
Tattoos. Ianthe glanced down, where a wave curled over her arm and hand, seafoam on the crest scraping over her knuckles, matching the scars she’d gotten from a fight with a crewmate some years prior. “We… oh, these aren’t natural.”
“How’d you get them?”
“Someone has to tattoo you,” Ianthe explained. “It takes skill and practice, and someone has to make it for you.”
Calliope paused. “Why don’t I have any?”
“…you haven’t… asked?” Ianthe said, and paused. “We never even thought of that. You were too young before.”
“I want one,” Calliope said firmly.
Ianthe opened her mouth to argue, but she’d gotten her first tattoo before she’d even gotten on a ship, so who was she to say refuse such a request? “I… we’ll see.”
“That means no,” Calliope muttered, and sank down in the water.
Ianthe relented. “Oh… alright, fine,” she said, and Calliope looked up, grinning.
They docked at another port town, Cape Chularet, and stayed there for a few days, trading things they’d found in the sea for things found only on land and gathering information. Calliope convinced them to let her stay off the ship, in the bay, hiding beneath the docks and staying out of sight.
She enjoyed it anyways. Ianthe told her she couldn’t let anyone else see her – it was too dangerous – but caught her showing off a couple times to children from the port, surprising them when they stood next to the water’s edge on the rocks or threw pebbles into the waves.
They stayed there for a few days. Calliope, at this point, was much larger than she had been the first time she’d been allowed in the sea – easily the size of a young human, perhaps a teenager, with a two-meter tail. And she was curious.
Not always about things that had answers that Ianthe wanted to give.
“Why am I really here?” she asked Ianthe, one night, as she drifted in the water at the edge of the dock, leaning on it, next to Ianthe. The setting sun pooled like liquid metal in the troughs of the swell, and Ianthe looked away from Calliope. “I asked Father, and he told me the story he always does. That you found me, drifting through the waves, alone on a bed of kelp. That you think my mother was sick and fell to illness, building something to keep me afloat before slipping beneath the surface of the sea.” She paused and took a breath. “Is that true? Is that really true?”
Ianthe took a breath to lie and couldn’t. There was no point. “No.”
Calliope watched her carefully, silent.
“We didn’t know,” Ianthe finally said, exhaling in a gust of wind. “We didn’t know any better. We were just trying to get to shore, to get water. She – there was a matron. She would not let us past. We didn’t know that she guarded something, and we didn’t understand that what she guarded was a thousand times more priceless than the purest gold.”
Calliope looked down and picked at the salt-stained boards, twisting her mouth into a frown. Her eyes were almost blocked by the black puff of hair tied back with a scrap of white linen. “I… see,” she said. “So you fought her.”
“We killed her. We didn’t know. We couldn’t know.”
There was a long moment. Ianthe forced herself to look at the mermaid, to see the inevitable distaste and distrust. But when she did look, there was no malice in her eyes.
“I guess,” Calliope said, with a sigh. She leaned on the dock, folding her hands over each other. On one of them, the curling tentacles of a kraken swirled around her fingers, stemming from an armored beast that spread its arms over her shoulders and down her back. “You know, I don’t think I would have liked my other life as much.”
“Where is it?” McCullough whispered, next to Ianthe.
The Midnight Sun was completely still and silent, floating in the water. They’d extinguished all the lights and stopped moving.
Ianthe shook her head. “I don’t know,” she breathed back, trying to avoid making any sound at all. “I don’t feel it.”
Her irises were the deepest black-blue, reflecting the depths of the sea; she could feel the swell and whisper of the waves beneath the ship, and below that, until recently, she’d been able to feel the murmur and slip of the beast below.
They’d gone further south than they’d expected, tracking down a Crown cargo ship. They weren’t sure what was on board, but it was deviating from the normal courses the crown ships tended to run, so it was curious.
This had been a terrible mistake. They’d strayed too far, slipping sideways on a crosswind into the area above a series of underwater mountains and crags, which the crew could see from the surface as luminescent algae coated the crevasses and cracks in the stone.
The area, unfortunately, was home to a serpent. While it wasn’t large, for a serpent – Ianthe had spotted it almost instantly when it had rushed them, and desperately begun to channel Athu – it was still extremely dangerous, and capable of destroying the ship if they weren’t cautious. Their best hope was to stun and subdue it and try to get away while it was wrapped in netting.
There – in the corner of her awareness, Ianthe felt the serpent slither through the deeps, headed their way. She turned towards it, one hand out, trying to detect its intentions.
They weren’t good. She barely had time to call a warning – “Get ready!” – before it slammed full-force into the hull, making the entire ship rock where it was.
She rushed to the edge and peered over. There went its coiled form – the size of a great white, perhaps, no larger. Tiny, for a serpent. But an enemy that they would have a hard time besting nonetheless.
“Ready the nets,” she murmured, and crewmen moved across the deck as quickly and quietly as they could while the serpent swirled around for another pass.
Its fins cut the water like swords as it whipped around. Ianthe saw its angular head and the frilled fins on its jaws flare as it gaped at them, teeth flashing in the light of the algae. Those black eyes held no mercy; only hunger. This was not a creature to be reasoned with.
She gave the signal, and one of the cannons fired, a spiraling net of rope that whipped into the water. The serpent saw it coming and slipped to the side in a ribbon of deep blue scales, and though she couldn’t hear the noise it made, she knew it was hissing.
It bashed itself into the hull again. She flinched, gripping the railing as hard as she could.
McCullough pursed his lips. “If we can’t kill it, we’re going to have to… try and leave its territory, maybe. Outrun it. Can you do that?”
“I can try,” Ianthe muttered back, shaking her head. “It will hurt.”
Damn it. If only they hadn’t tried to take advantage of the crosswind! If only they had known that this serpent was here.
She felt something else catch her attention; a different movement of water, in the hold. “Calliope,” she murmured. “Win, go check on her. She’s distressed.”
McCullough nodded and vanished for a few minutes. The serpent made several more passes, hitting the same part of the ship’s hull every time. Ianthe felt the hull begin to bow and sensed the water as it trickled into the hold through the indent. The crew loaded a few harpoons and shot them out, but it was too swift, every time.
When McCullough returned, he was even more worried than before. “She wanted to know what was happening,” he muttered, shaking his head. “I told her it was a serpent. She asked if she could fight it.”
“And I said no, because that’s ridiculous,” he said, disbelief etched across his features as he glanced over at Ianthe. She could barely see his face, lit from underneath in the cold light of the algae. “She’ll be killed if she goes near it.”
Ianthe shoved on the serpent as it tried to dodge again, refusing to let the waters comply with its movement. She felt its muscle strain against her mind and she wasn’t prepared for it; it broke through and avoided another net. That was a weighted net gone now, vanished in the waters. They would run out if they weren’t careful.
The serpent vanished again, out of Ianthe’s range. She extended her reach and tried to feel for it.
Nothing. Nothing. It was too quick.
The boat shifted slightly, and she heard a splash.
“…what the hell was that?” McCullough asked, after a long moment of silence.
Ianthe shook her head, but knew instantly. She felt Calliope’s presence in the water as soon as she entered it; she’d somehow gotten herself into the sea. How, Ianthe didn’t know, but she was in danger.
“Calliope, no,” she murmured, and tried to pull on her.
“Oh, no,” McCullough said, realizing. “No, no, no!”
The mermaid resisted Ianthe’s tug with surprising force, flipping her tail and whirling away through the cold, glowing water. “Come and get me,” Ianthe heard her call, her voice warped as it came through the shifting swell. “I’m not afraid. Especially not of you.”
It was too late to get her out now. The best way to ensure her survival would be to help her, and if she thought she could take on a serpent…
“Damn it,” McCullough hissed, leaning far enough over the rail that Ianthe feared for a moment that he might fall. “No! Calliope, no!”
“It’s too late,” Ianthe murmured, pulling him back. “We can only help her now.”
“She’ll be killed!”
“Not if we can help it!”
“Come and get me!” Calliope shouted again, through the water.
The serpent took the challenge. Ianthe felt it as it entered her range. “Port!” she called, and Calliope turned in time to face it head-on.
It slammed into her torso. She immediately wrapped her sinuous tail around its upper body, pinning its front legs down, and started to squeeze its neck. It wasn’t expecting this; Ianthe held her breath as she saw it begin to thrash, trying to throw Calliope off. Its powerful tail tossed spray up from the surface of the water and even thwacked into the hull again, but Calliope was holding it.
For a moment, anyway. It shook her off after a few seconds and whirled away, and Calliope righted herself and tried to see around.
“It’s going to kill her,” McCullough whispered, eyes wide. “Ianthe, do something.”
There wasn’t anything she could do. Ianthe glanced around, searching the deck – was there some kind of tool she could throw down to the mermaid? Was –
The serpent came back around again, and this time Ianthe was too distracted to sense its direction before it impacted Calliope, claws raking across her shoulders. It swept past behind her and she spun, but was too slow to catch and hold it. Black blood curled through the water.
Ianthe bit her lip hard. Damn it. She needed to keep her attention on the water.
It was too dangerous to shoot harpoons down while Calliope was there, and while she could try to manipulate the water to hold the serpent relatively still, Ianthe wouldn’t even trust herself to harpoon it without hurting Calliope.
She glanced back to the deck. Quickly only. Keep watch for her. If only Calliope had some kind of weapon. A sword would be useless against a creature born of the sea, and guns wouldn’t work underwater. Nothing would – wait, unless…
“Win,” she said to McCullough, turning her gaze back to the sea, “your gun.”
He glanced down to his side, where a revolver hung holstered. “My – what? This isn’t the time!”
“No. The other one.”
McCullough blinked, then realized what she meant. “Oh,” he said, glancing across the ship’s deck.
“Get it. Give it to her, now!”
“Will it work underwater?”
“It’s better than nothing.”
McCullough turned and sprinted across the deck. There was no point in trying to be quiet, not while the serpent was actively distracted by Calliope. He scooped up what appeared to be an oversized crossbow from the boards and spun back to the railing, hefting it in one hand. “Calliope!” he shouted.
Ianthe saw her look up as McCullough heaved the gun over the side of the boat. “Catch!” he called.
It splashed down and she reached out and took it as it floated. For a moment she looked over it, then nodded, cocking it back. She had one shot – this gun wasn’t perfect, but it was enough to launch one small harpoon at something with a great deal of force.
Not a moment too soon. Directly beneath the ship, she could feel the serpent’s smooth, ribbon-like presence, swirling upwards. Ianthe reached out, tried to slow its movement, impede it somehow, but it was impossible to hold it while allowing Calliope to move. “Underneath!” she called out, hoping the mermaid could hear her. “Calliope, watch out!”
Calliope darted to the side as the serpent came swirling up from the light-streaked mountains below, gaping mouth wide. She wrapped herself around it again, trying to keep her arms near its face.
And this time, it was unable to shake her free. She pinned its legs again, clamping one arm around its jaw. Ianthe saw the two of them spiral out from beneath the boat in a roiling mass of dark skin and glittering scales, and barely managed to see through the chaos as Calliope pulled the gun up, pressed the harpoon tip against the serpent’s skull, and pulled back on the trigger mechanism.
There was a muffled click and a heavy thudding sound, and the serpent’s entire body jumped. Its jaws opened and shut, gulping for water, and its gills flared, but Ianthe could see the tip of the harpoon poking out from its throat. It had gone almost all the way through its skull.
For a moment, Ianthe thought it would live through the blow. But slowly the body began to slacken, until Calliope unwrapped her tail from it, floating in the water. She turned towards the boat and grinned, grabbing its lower jaw with one hand and lifting it out of the water, a limp string of shimmering blue.
“It’s dead,” she called.
McCullough stared at her, aghast. “I… didn’t think she could do that,” he murmured.
Ianthe let her connection to Athu go, thanking the goddess for guiding her and helping them survive. “She’s stronger than we thought,” she said, shaking her head and gripping the railing as Athu’s strength seeped out of her bones. “Stronger than we knew.”
McCullough opened his mouth to agree, but both of them saw at the same time as Calliope’s smile faltered, a flash of pain sparking in her eyes. Blood still drifted from her shoulders.
“Lower a lifeboat,” McCullough ordered. “Bring her up!”
The serpent had caught her across the back, four long, ragged slashes in her dark skin and the darker flesh beneath. She winced when Shafira, the sharp-eyed ship’s medic, ran her fingers along the skin in between and whistled through her teeth, thinking.
“This won’t heal without a scar,” she said, and opened the silver-clasped box that held her most useful tools. “But it will heal.”
She sewed the wounds shut with careful, precise stitches, a feat Ianthe admired all the more for its perfection despite the pitching and movement of the boat. Calliope winced every so often, but gripped the edge of the lifeboat she was in and fiercely stared down the corpse of the serpent.
It was larger than her, but not by much, and they’d hauled it on board – serpent scales, claws, and teeth fetched quite a lot on the market. They were rare, and no one usually dared attack even the smallest ones. They were simply too strong.
But here they had a dead one. How could they explain it without mentioning Calliope?
She flinched again as Shafira carefully poked the needle through her skin. “Don’t move,” the healer ordered.
Calliope didn’t respond, other than to hold still. Shafira nodded to herself.
McCullough was crouched next to the corpse, staring at the harpoon through its brain and the empty gun. He hefted it in his hands and examined it, then set it down and stepped over to Calliope.
“I want to apologize,” he said, after a moment. “I… should not have doubted you.”
“It’s okay,” Calliope said, grinning with all those incredibly sharp teeth. “It was fun.”
McCullough almost choked on his words; Ianthe had to stifle a laugh, seeing the momentary panic in his eyes. “Fun?” he finally said.
Calliope laughed, loud enough to be genuine, soft enough that she couldn’t disturb Shafira’s work. “I’d do it again! It was fun. Exciting.”
“That’s dangerous,” McCullough protested.
“Well, so am I,” Calliope answered simply.
There was a moment of silence. McCullough glanced over in Ianthe’s direction, eyes wide; she shrugged and smiled back at him.
“I can do a lot more than you give me credit for,” Calliope said.
McCullough opened his mouth to argue, but stopped, and paused. “You’re probably right,” he said, after a long moment. “I suppose we’ll just have to see.”
“I’ll prove it,” Calliope said eagerly, shifting where she was. “I can fight monsters!”
“Don’t move,” Shafira scolded, glaring at her patient. Calliope sank down again, holding still.
“I can fight,” she said again. “But… can I have that?”
McCullough followed her gaze to the empty harpoon gun. “That?” he asked, staring at it.
“I haven’t been able to make it work for me, but you’ve already proven you can use it. It’s yours.”
Ianthe smiled as Calliope’s face lit up. “Yes!” the mermaid crowed, beaming again as she wiggled in place. “Can I stay in the sea longer?”
“Calliope,” Shafira warned, through gritted teeth.
“We’ll discuss it later,” McCullough said, raising one eyebrow. “For now, try not to annoy your surgeon.”
Enjoying this? Check out some of my other original works, also on my AO3 profile.
The claw marks from the serpent healed remarkably quickly into a set of raised, pale scars that streaked across Calliope’s back and shoulders. She took pride in them.
They took the serpent to the largest port in the area, Buroni Hakir, and found someone who could make use of it – someone willing to buy the entire thing and disassemble it.
Ianthe turned to the rail as they neared the port and pulled out her spyglass to scan the docked ships. If there were any Crown ships, she wanted to know beforehand. Her gaze roamed over the gathered boats – she saw the tattered sails of ancient frigates, the crisp white of a new sail draped on a fancy pleasure boat, and –
Her breath caught. She saw the gray-white sail, the massive tear through it, currently being patched by the crawling forms of lethargic crew. Even though she knew what it would say, she still panned the spyglass down to see the name painted on the hull.
Ianthe nearly dropped her spyglass, fear clutching at her heart. “Shit,” she muttered, and whirled, running for McCullough’s quarters.
She burst in, cracking the door against the wall. “Win,” she said, stopping where she was and holding the door open, “he’s here.”
McCullough was sitting at his desk, writing something. He stopped and looked up, raising an eyebrow. “Who?” he asked.
He paused, considering this. “Alright,” he said, and tapped a finger on his jaw. “Well, just to start, we know at least he can’t hurt you. The neutrality is something not even he would violate – “
“It’s not me I’m worried about,” Ianthe snapped, interrupting him, “It’s Calliope.”
There was a brief silence. McCullough went pale. “The treaty protects her,” he said.
Ianthe shook her head. “No, it doesn’t. It protects the sailors and wanderers of the sea. She is not one of those. She is a creature of the deeps – and while you can argue she is a wanderer, Alizarin will use that loophole before we get a chance to protect her. She cannot be found by him. He will – he will try and kill her, I know it.” She paused. “Her soul would be powerful.”
McCullough shut his mouth and swallowed. “Oh,” he said.
“We need to bring her on board or send her to safety.”
“Where is she now?”
“Outside, in the bay.”
“Get her before we make port, then.”
Ianthe spun and hurried back up to the deck and to the railing. “Calliope!” she bellowed, leaning over the rail on the side of the ship facing away from the docks. “Come up!”
Silence. The brilliant blue water rippled gently beneath the boat.
“I know you’re down there,” she called, narrowing her eyes. “It’s important. Come on.”
Moments later, Calliope surfaced, bobbing next to the ship. Her dark skin glittered in the sunlight, the shapes of the kraken tendrils curling over her rounded shoulders and soft arms. “What is it?” she asked, looking more annoyed than anything.
“The harbor is too dangerous for you to be freely swimming in,” Ianthe told her. “You have to come on board.”
Ianthe relented. “That, or you have to leave the bay for a while, and you can’t come near us again until we leave.”
“There are those in the port that would do you harm if they knew of you.”
Calliope squinted. “Who?”
Ianthe glared at her.
“Fine, fine. I’ll come up. How long will we be here?”
“A few days, perhaps.”
“Oh, never mind. I changed my mind. I’ll go outside.”
Ianthe paused, nervous. “Are you certain?” she said.
“I’ll be fine! Besides, you want me to be safe. It’s best for me to get out of here.”
“I… alright. Be careful.”
“Yes, Mother, I always am,” Calliope said, rolling her eyes.
Ianthe stared as Calliope slipped under the water’s surface and shot away over the sand, a blur of dark that vanished into the oil-painting-background of the ocean bottom.
She shook her head, but couldn’t help but smile.
Buroni Hakir was a massive port, ruled by three sisters who collectively owned every single business and building in the city. It was a meeting-place of the fleets of the world, a sprawling expanse of buildings – inns, taverns, businesses, storefronts, homes – built over a sand and silt delta speckled with broad-leafed trees. The docks sprawled through the shallow waters, snaking back and forth over the sandbanks. There were hundreds of thousands of people from every port on the planet here; she could go an entire month walking the sunny streets without meeting the same person twice.
It only took a few hours for her to bump into Alizarin.
He was lounging in a bar when she strode in. At the sight of him she almost faltered, but kept her steps even and her head high – she would not be swayed by him in a place where he could not hurt her.
Alizarin cocked his head to the side, catching sight of her. “Hello,” he said, speaking through a mouth stuffed full. He wasn’t eating.
“Alizarin,” she said, carefully keeping her eyes away from his face. “Well met.”
He laughed, strangely, with his jaw tight. “Well met indeed,” he said. “Our last encounter was not so fortuitous for either of us, hmm?”
“Perhaps not,” she said carefully, making eye contact with the bartender. The lass blinked slowly, acknowledging – there was a rivalry here, and she was prepared to defuse the situation should any violence begin to rise. Rivalry violence was not permitted in Buroni Hakir.
“Tell me, where did you learn that little trick of yours?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“You took some of my storm,” he murmured, leaning forwards and bracing his head on his chin. “I know you can do it – but how did you also take the sea?”
She almost laughed. He was still thinking about her ship’s escape from his out in the storm. In her thoughts of Calliope, she’d almost forgotten about that entire event. “I did not take the sea,” Ianthe lied, tapping her fingers on the polished wood of the bar. She looked down and waited while the bartender prepared her a drink. “I cannot. You know this.”
“Not while you channel one, no. But you’re capable of it.”
Ianthe only shrugged. She’d come to this bar to meet with an old friend she’d made here some years back, but she was likely going to have to cut that short. If Alizarin was going to be like this, she wanted to get away. Still, better not make it look like she was running. She’d have her drink and leave.
Alizarin laughed, again with his mouth almost shut. Ianthe could see the faint writhing of dark tendrils behind his teeth. “Don’t lie to me, dear,” he said, saccharine tones making her skin crawl. “I know what you’re capable of. I helped you master it.”
Lies. Ianthe swallowed, calming her temper. While her mother wouldn’t have approved of the insult, she would’ve approved even less of Ianthe rising to the bait. “What I know I learned from someone else,” she said carefully. “And it is something you will never know.”
“We’ll see about that,” Alizarin hummed, raising a hand for the bartender to bring him something. His tight-lipped smile curved across his face; it reminded Ianthe of the thin slice of a shark’s fin through water.
Except sharks are creatures that can be understood, that follow the laws of nature. Simple things that eat and swim, not dangerous if you understand them. This thing – Alizarin – is something else. He violated the existence of the world, and it had not come to punish him yet. Another thing that Ianthe hated about him. Was he free from even the retribution of the gods?
The bartender brought Ianthe her drink and made eye contact for a moment. Ianthe blinked once and looked down; the bartender stepped away. She was ready, should Alizarin try anything violent. But he wouldn’t be so stupid.
Alizarin studied her closely. It took all of Ianthe’s self-control not to shift uncomfortably in her chair. She stared into space, at the back wall of the bar.
“Something is different,” Alizarin murmured, words thick through the mass that writhed secretly in his mouth and throat, and twitched one of his fingers on the bartop.
Ianthe felt as if she could not move. She tried to turn, look, but couldn’t – she was paralyzed, frozen in place. Something poked gently at the corners of her mind, tugging at her thoughts, listening.
“Oh, please,” Alizarin sighed, raising one eyebrow. “You used to be so open. You would share your thoughts with anyone.”
My thoughts are my own, and are none of your concern. Let me go!
“You’re hiding something.”
Ianthe felt a brief surge of panic, a trapped bird in her chest. She managed to take a breath before she felt her lungs stop.
“Tell me,” Alizarin said casually, leaning on the bartop. “What’s on your mind?”
Ianthe wished she could call out. But no one would notice this – and even if they did, there was a chance no one would stop him. Alizarin was known for being vicious when necessary, and while he would not openly break the terms of the truce, if he caught you outside of Buroni Hakir…
The prying grew stronger. Ianthe tried to shut out all of the nimble fingers picking at the loose ends of words drifting through her mind. She could not, would not let him know about –
She stopped. He could hear this. Get out, you filth, she snarled. I may be hiding something, I may not. It’s not for you to know!
Alizarin paused again and let out a breath, looking down to the bartop, then back up. “Do you intend to stop me from knowing?” he said softly, the tone of voice that warned, the tone that meant if you did not heed his words you would soon learn why he was captain.
I can’t, Ianthe said, but She can.
She didn’t want to channel. She couldn’t, here, not without the proper rituals. But she could reach out and just brush the surface of one goddess’ power, enough to startle him into letting her go perhaps – enough to put him off. She stretched up for Kulari’s lightning.
There was something in the way – the souls of the dead, chained to Alizarin. She could sense them roaming around him, tied to the tiny birdcages strung along his belt and tucked into his pockets. She could not reach Kulari.
Athu was out of the question, too far away. Could Zzoriel help? Her steadiness, her silence, her firm power… no, that would not be useful. Which meant…
Don’t think. Just do it. It was best not to hesitate with Xikaal. Ianthe reached out and grazed the edges of where she knew Xikaal’s power lay in her mind.
It was worse than lightning, less natural, and it made her flinch. It hit Alizarin harder, and he jerked his hands backwards, startled. Ianthe felt the spirits lose hold of her and gasped in a breath of air, trying not to draw attention to herself.
“What?” Alizarin snapped, looking down at his own hand. Ianthe glanced over despite herself and saw where the skin on his fingertips had paled to a chalky white, the color and life draining out of them. It was the hand he had used to hold her. He looked up, frowning ever so slightly.
Ianthe’s mind was spinning. That briefest touch of Xikaal’s presence was enough to exhaust her and scatter her thoughts. She didn’t respond to Alizarin, just fished in her pocket for a coin and set it on the bartop next to her half-empty glass.
Alizarin stared at his hand. Ianthe stood and left the tavern, striding tall – desperately trying not to stumble.
The following day she was summoned.
Red and black and gold were the colors of the three sisters, and red and black and gold were the robes of the messenger that stood on the dock, waiting for Ianthe to leave the ship.
“You’re needed,” she said quietly, as Ianthe tried to pass her.
Ianthe looked to her, stopping in her tracks. “By who?” she asked, even though she already knew.
“Mahima Khurana,” the messenger said, eyes looking respectful to the dock planks as she spoke. “She requests your presence.”
The eldest of the sisters that held Buroni Hakir, and the most powerful. Ianthe nodded once. “I will come,” she said, though she knew it wasn’t an option. “Are you to lead me there?”
The messenger took her through the sprawling streets of the city. The sun was rising; the city’s heat had not yet gathered to its sweltering peak, and people were hurrying past, trying to finish what they could before the sun forced them inside. The moisture of the delta and the nearby jungle hung in the air, in the streets where the wind could not reach to stir it. Ianthe couldn’t fathom how the messenger in her draped red cloths and headscarf wasn’t overheating already. Her own coat felt like it was clinging to her arms. She was used to swifter winds than these.
The messenger brought her to the base of a low hill dominated by a set of golden stairs, leading to a vast walled palace. Ianthe followed her up.
Past the gate, the messenger stepped aside, gesturing. “You will continue,” she said, and bowed. “It is not my place to go any further.”
Ianthe clasped her hands in front of her and rubbed the palm of one with her other thumb, gaze flicking to the left and right. She walked forwards through the gateway; beyond lay a carefully tended garden. Here the sun’s light was blocked by tall palm trees with wide, green leaves spattered with splashes of red and yellow. The shade was cool and a welcome relief from the brutal sun.
She kept going, along a white stone pathway, until she came to the entryway to the palace and stepped inside. There was no one in sight, but she knew to keep going, through the pillared entryway into a throne room.
The sisters waited. Mahima was in the center, lounging on an intricate cushioned seat draped in silk. Golden chains, so fine they seemed like thread, dripped from her ears and nose, and a swathe of fabric laid over her bunched hair like a veil. Ianthe could see the glimmer of gold bands in those dark tresses. A ruby glittered in the center of Mahima’s forehead, the centerpiece of a golden crown that dipped down above the bridge of her nose and dangled smaller rubies just above her eyebrows. Her arms and fingers were covered in heavy gold bracers and rings, so many she almost seemed to be wearing armor. Her dress was intricately wrapped red silk, thin black lines of embroidery running across it, and a deep black sash with gold thread woven into the pattern and the fringe. Her feet were bare, and adorned with rings and strings of beads that lay across the top and circled around her ankles.
Her eyes were hard. Ianthe came to a respectful distance and knelt before the sisters. Mahima looked her over once and raised a hand to her mouth, as if contemplating something. She glanced to her left.
Bhamini sat there, draped in silk and gold, an onyx jewel dangling from her crown. She was stunningly, breathtakingly beautiful – graceful and exquisite, every movement carefully calculated to draw attention, or lose it. The jewelry shone against her smooth brown skin, reflections glinting in her eyes.
Ianthe looked over to her, then down again. She was not supposed to look.
Mahima looked to her right. There sat the youngest sister, legs tucked up against her chest, folds of red cloth – not silk – enveloping her small form. She was… sharp, and there was a fizzing energy in her eyes and movements that put Ianthe on edge. She did not expect this royal to harm her, but she could not predict what she would do, and that made her nervous. Shavi’s crown jewel was a cut topaz wrapped in wire, dangling on her forehead; golden powder coated her eyelids and trailed in swirling designs down her cheekbones. She tapped one jeweled claw against the side of her face and looked to Mahima.
“Ianthe Ikande,” Mahima said, her voice low and echoing.
“Yes, Peacebringer Mahima,” Ianthe said, looking down to the mosaic-tile floor. Patterns of white and blue laid out the shape of a lotus flower beneath her.
“You have a quarrel with a man in our city,” Mahima said.
“Yes, Peacebringer Mahima, but I would not act on it. I have committed no offense.”
“And neither has he, by our laws, which extend only to the body. But he has worked magic in our port, against you, and you against him.”
There was no point in lying. It would only bring punishment. The Peacebringers could, together, rip a pirate’s voice from their body, silence them forever. They could steal the life from someone and take it for themselves. They could perform acts of magic that any individual person could not. To go against the sisters was to risk more than a finger, a hand, an arm... “Yes, Peacebringer.”
“He wanted to know what I know.”
Mahima tapped on finger on her chin again, her rings clinking together softly as she moved. “What do you know that he does not?”
You did not keep secrets from the Peacebringers. They knew all, and if they did not know, they would find out. The magic of knowing hung heavy in the air, scent masked in the haze of perfumes that wafted through the throne room. “One of our number is not safe in the harbor, Peacebringers, and if she were to enter Alizarin would kill her and bind her soul to his ship. He does not know she exists, but he knows that I am hiding something. I do not want him to know.”
“One of your number?” Shavi said, from Ianthe’s left. She raised an eyebrow. “Why did you not say crew?”
“She is not of our crew,” Ianthe said. “She is our… charge.”
Shavi glanced back over to Mahima.
Mahima’s eyes could not be resisted. “We killed a mer-matron, and found she had hidden a chest at the bottom of a bay. Within was her child, which we could not kill. We took the child and raised her. She is old enough to swim beyond our ship, but not old enough to know of Alizarin and his danger. She is outside the bay now, in secret, hiding. Were she to enter the neutrality would not protect her. Alizarin wants to know of her.”
Silence. Outside, a small group of macaws went winging by, their hoarse voices cutting through the wind. The sun lanced off their feathers and for a moment they gleamed brighter than the sisters’ thrones.
“Curious,” Bhamini murmured, one hand idly stroking one dark sweep of her hair. The golden ring piercing her nose swung gently as she tilted her head ever so slightly, the golden chain that ran from it to her ear jingling quietly. “Why did you not simply leave the youngling to die?”
“We couldn’t. We did not mean to kill the mother – we needed to find fresh water, and she would not let us into the cove. We tried to reason with her, and tried to sail past her, but she attacked us, and we had no choice but to fight back. We had no idea that she was guarding something. It was our fault that she was orphaned, and so it is our responsibility to raise her.”
“Does she know?”
“She – she knows, she understands. She does not blame us.”
There was a silence. Ianthe opened her mouth, shut it again, spoke. “Ababuo Osei told me what to do when I asked her,” she said. “She lives in Kanzeru, east and north, in the – “
“We know of Ababuo,” Mahima interrupted, with a smile. “We have spoken with her before. She is wise, and knows more than we do of the world.”
That was a startling admission coming from a Peacebringer. Ianthe pulled her head back a little, eyes widening fractionally.
“Don’t get ideas,” Bhamini said casually, examining the fingernails on one hand. “It is because she is far older than anyone understands. We would not ask for a better counselor.”
It was not Ianthe’s place to ask. She bowed her head down again.
“Alizarin,” Mahima said, “is your enemy. You met him yesterday, and attacked him.”
Ianthe felt a flare of anger rise in her chest and tamped it down. “He bound me with his power,” she said, trying to keep the fury out of her voice. “Stopped me from moving, breathing. He was trying to search my mind for Calliope. I could not escape, so I forced him to let go.”
“By channeling one of the Goddesses.”
“Nay, Peacebringer. I did not channel her. I simply reached out and touched the edge of her power. I – I could not channel here. I wouldn’t.”
There was another moment of silence. Motes of dust drifted through the perfumed air, twirling slowly in the beams of light that streamed down from the stained glass over the thrones.
Ianthe glanced up. Mahima was looking over to Shavi, silent. The two were speaking, but not in any way that Ianthe could hear or understand.
“Your offense is pardoned,” Mahima said after a long moment, turning that heavy, dark gaze back on Ianthe. “As is his.”
She wanted them to take offense at what Alizarin had done. She wanted them to throw him out of the port, ban him from Buroni Hakir for the rest of time, refuse him entry ever again. She wanted them to claim him as an enemy to the fleets of the world, someone to be fired at and struck down wherever he went, preyed upon by every ship that had ever docked in the river delta. She wanted the sisters to call their wrath and the wrath of the gods upon him to strike his rotten presence from the world.
“But,” Mahima continued, “we are watching him. The magic he uses, the ship he sails – both of these things are…”
She paused, narrowing her eyes. Bhamini glanced over.
“Not ordinary,” she said, picking up where her sister left off. Her narrowed eyes shone in the light that lanced in through the open windows near the roof. “They are excessive. The Heretic is an insult, and not a veiled one. We are wary of the implications of Alizarin’s magic. It feels unnatural to us.”
“He captures the souls of his crew members and uses them to force his ship over the sea,” Ianthe said, anger finally forcing her voice out of her. “He kills them on purpose, and binds them to cages in his pockets and on his belt.”
The sisters looked her carefully over. Their eyes were quiet, dark, judging her. Ianthe bowed her head again, trying to humble herself again. “Peacebringers,” she murmured, eyes on the tiled floor, “he has sought to kill me in the past – “
“Many here would kill others that dock on these shores,” Mahima interrupted, flat voice sounding almost bored. “This is not new. Rivalries are put aside here; that is the law of this place. He is like every other on our shores.”
Ianthe swallowed. “Understood,” she said, and went quiet.
The sisters exchanged another glance. What were they thinking? Ianthe focused on the floor, the smooth tiles and the white between them, rough with sand pulled from the beach. “Still,” Mahima said finally, “your claims will be… investigated. Many gifted captains sail these seas, and his is simply another gift, however vile it may be. You have defended yourself. We have what we need. Go.”
That was a command. Ianthe stood and bowed to the sisters again. There was no point in thanking them – they hadn’t done her a favor – or bidding them goodbye; she didn’t need to. She turned and left the throne room.
She’d never spoken to the Peacebringers before. She didn’t know if the outcome of her meeting was desirable or not, but she was worried about their casual lack of concern regarding Alizarin’s activities. They don’t know, she thought, as she hurried down the cream and orange steps and nodded to the assistant who had brought her here, walking fast for the docks. He is far more dangerous than they can understand. He -
She had to stop herself, shaking her head, her thick locs falling into her face. The Peacebringers had been around far longer than she had – they were blessed with long lives, more so with the lives of those who broke their laws – and thus they had probably encountered worse enemies in their times. Still…
No. She had spoken to them; what they did now she could not control. She went back to the Midnight Sun.
McCullough found her on-board, sitting in the hold on a chair, glowering at the wall where her boots were braced against the boards.
“Where have you been?” he asked. It was noon; the humidity of the delta was shimmering in the air in a thick haze. Ianthe could see it through the window glass.
“The Peacebringers wanted to speak with me,” Ianthe answered, voice a low growl.
“What did you do?”
McCullough’s expression changed. “Ianthe, what have you done?” he said softly.
She glanced over, sitting up straighter. “No! We’re not – we’re fine. Nothing has happened. It was justified, and nothing that would warrant our expulsion from the port. Alizarin tried to read my mind. I scared him off. That’s it.” She unfolded her arms and swiveled to face him, lacing her fingers together and leaning on her knees.
“He tried to what?”
“Pry into my thoughts,” Ianthe spat, glaring at the deck boards. “He knows we are hiding something. He doesn’t know what – he doesn’t know about Calliope, not yet, I think – but he knows something is hidden. And he knows I desperately don’t want him to find it.” She shook her head. “Which will make him all the more determined to do exactly that.”
McCullough leaned on the wall, tapping his fingers on the dark wood. “Hmm,” he said, pursing his lips. “Well, what did the sisters say?”
“They’ll look into it. But they aren’t worried by him.”
“They don’t need to be,” McCullough muttered.
“I don’t know if that’s true.”
“What could he do against them? Against the Peacebringers? They would annihilate him.”
Ianthe let out a breath. “You may think so,” she said, “but he… no. You know what he can do. He has only gotten stronger since I left. They should fear him.”
A bold statement, and she knew it. McCullough searched her face. Ianthe swallowed, feeling her throat work, thinking of the gray-green tendrils writhing behind Alizarin's clean white teeth.
“We should all fear him.”
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After that, Ianthe – though knowing of course that Buroni Hakir was perfectly safe – did not feel quite as welcome there as she had before. It was clear that McCullough and the others on the crew shared her reservations, and besides, she wanted to get back out to the open expanse of the sea, where she wasn’t so far apart from Calliope.
The mermaid, true to her word, had remained outside the port the entire visit. Ianthe had been terrified, secretly, that when they left she would find that Calliope had left, and she would simply never see her charge again. To her immense relief, though, she spotted Calliope’s dark shape under the water’s surface only minutes after they’d cleared the delta waters and forged outwards towards the ocean.
“Hi, welcome back to the ocean,” Calliope shouted, when she surfaced next to the Midnight Sun as the ship made her way through the water. The mermaid grinned, tossing her hair – so long, tightly curled and deep black – behind her. “Took you long enough!”
“Would have been longer,” Ianthe sighed, and cut her own words short. Calliope… didn’t need to know what was going on with Alizarin. Ideally she’d soon be too large to be easily killed. Maybe after that point it would be safe to tell her, but until then… no. It was better she not know. She was young, reckless, impetuous, thinking herself invincible.
“But?” Calliope asked, tilting her head to the side.
Ianthe shook her head. “But we decided to leave,” she said, “and so now we go.”
For a moment, Ianthe thought she caught a flash of suspicion in Calliope’s eyes. Did she know Ianthe was withholding information? She wasn’t sure. The mermaid didn’t seem to be inclined to push the matter any further, though, at least not for now; instead she nodded and adjusted her position, sweeping her hands through the water. “Where are we going next?”
“North,” Ianthe said, “towards the equator. I’m not sure how far we’ll go. Not all the way there, of course.”
“I want to go to the equator,” Calliope grumbled, splashing water onto the side of the ship. “It seems neat!”
“Even I get sunburned that far north,” Ianthe said, shaking her head. “You would likely suffer the same, though… perhaps the water would shield you.” Ianthe’s skin was so dark it was nearly pure black, but in the past they’d strayed dangerously close to the brilliant band of sea and land that formed the equator, and that was where she’d gotten the worst sunburn she’d ever felt. She didn’t normally burn, either, so it had been a… novel experience. McCullough hadn’t even dared to stay on deck for more than a few minutes.
Calliope’s skin wasn’t quite as dark as Ianthe’s, but it was far thicker and tougher, almost rubbery and unnaturally good at healing. No doubt she was adapted to the constant glare of the sun, filtered as it may be through the water.
“If our course takes us that way, we’ll go,” Ianthe said, with a shrug. “We’ll have to see.”
“Maybe we can find someone to get me more tattoos,” Calliope mused.
“I’ll tell McCullough to make it a priority.”
They set sail north, for a port called Vaarila, nestled deep in a cove on a rocky island. Calliope continued to grow as they went, spending most of her time in the water rather than onboard the Midnight Sun. Which was just as well, because she was swiftly becoming too large to get on and off the ship easily. They had to haul her up in a lifeboat now.
“How are you getting enough to eat?” Ianthe asked her once, curious, leaning back in the lifeboat. They often let it down if the ship wasn’t moving, so that Calliope could rest her elbows on the edge and threaten with a laugh to tip anybody inside into the water. It made chatting with her fairly easy, at least.
“I catch fish and things,” Calliope replied, with a shrug. “It’s easy. They’re not that fast once you stun them.”
Calliope responded by opening her mouth and singing a note that Ianthe felt rather than heard, a high, barely audible tone that made her skull vibrate. For a few moments she just sat there, then she shook her head to clear it and realized Calliope was floating in the water, grinning at her.
“See?” she said, dark eyes gleaming.
“You do that to fish?”
“Sometimes it just kills them. Then it’s even easier to catch them, though it’s not as fun.”
Nothing stopped them, so they kept going north, away from the more populated waters. The weather grew rougher, stormier, and more than once Ianthe had to call upon the great goddess of the sky not to rile the weather up, but to calm it.
“How are you doing that?” Calliope asked her once, as she cut through the water alongside the ship while Ianthe stood on the bow.
Ianthe felt the sparks of lightning crackle along her fingertips. “Doing this?” she asked, looking down at her hands.
“I’m channeling the goddess Kulari, the Eternal Tempest, the Queen of Storms.” Something that sounded almost insane, though it was anything but.
“Yes, I know what it is you’re doing, but I want to know how.”
That took a moment. Ianthe frowned. “My mother taught me how,” she said, after a long moment, turning her flickering eyes towards the horizon. She could feel the electricity running underneath her eyelids, across her face, leaving a faint pinch-like stinging in its wake. “It is a power I was born with, but I had to learn how to use it.”
Calliope paced the ship, her strong tail working smoothly in the water. She rolled onto her back and let the water soak her hair, floating over her thick shoulders in a soft, fluffy poof of jet black large enough to swirl behind her like a cloud of ink, halfway down her back. She took a breath and let it out, still keeping pace with the Sun, and looked up at Ianthe. “Can you teach me?”
“I don’t know. I could… try, I suppose, but you aren’t related to me by blood.”
“Does that matter?”
Ianthe paused, wondering, head tipped to the side. “I… hm.”
There was a long silence. Water lapped against the wood of the boat, gently whispering under the churning sky. Calliope watched her carefully, dark eyes with a faint hint of a shine in the back of them that caught the light when she tipped her head back just right.
“I’m not sure,” Ianthe said, finally.
She’d been taught by her mother, and her mother had been taught by her grandmother. She’d always thought perhaps she would have a daughter to teach, but it didn’t seem to be her fate – and she didn’t mind, though she was worried that when she died, no one else in the world would know how to do it, and the art would be lost forever. She knew that she was one of very few people who could still converse with the gods as if they were ordinary people, and that if she didn’t pass on her magic, it could disappear into the past without a single ripple spreading to the future.
But was it her job alone to save this by giving up her own life on the seas to have a child? It was a debate she had been having with herself for years, and one she’d not found an answer to. And while she had pondered the question, she’d sailed.
If she could teach these same skills to Calliope…
“I will try,” she said, raising one hand and bringing a bolt of lightning down on the distant sea, “but I cannot guarantee your success.”
“That’s fine,” Calliope said, with a shrug. “I’ll do my best anyways.”
Ianthe nodded. “Very well.”
Short chapter! That's okay, because... we're headed into part two! We've been living inside Ianthe's head this whole time. Don't you think it's time we rode passenger to our favorite merid?
Chapter 10: Voice of the Sea
Ianthe didn’t care about blood relations, Calliope mused, but it seemed the gods did, because they wouldn’t speak to her.
She hated disappointing Ianthe. She did – and she could tell the first mate was disappointed, even though she pretended not to be. But when Calliope repeated the prayers, and tried to channel the goddesses of the sea, they didn’t come to her.
Calliope was almost envious of the way Ianthe could bring one of them through between one breath and the next; close her eyes and open them and where before they were deep brown they would become black as the depths of the ocean or white as the fire of lightning, and Calliope could see the crackle of magic running through her veins and over her skin, see the ghostly impression of the goddess she channeled swirling around her body like a veil in water.
But they wouldn’t come to her. She saw them – and yes, when Ianthe held them, they could see her too – but they never came to her. She called them, ordered, begged, pleaded, but even when they listened to her, they never responded but for once, when Athu shook her head before slipping away from Ianthe into the deep ocean below the ship.
“They won’t come to me,” Calliope told Ianthe again, after failing for what felt like the hundredth time to bring Kulari to her. “It’s – no, don’t be like that. It’s because I’m not your blood.”
“But I should be able to teach you,” Ianthe murmured, shaking her head. “I – “
“It’s not you,” Calliope interrupted, with a sigh. “I think it’s because I already have my own magic. If I had yours, too, wouldn’t that be ridiculous? It’d be silly. Nobody’s allowed to have that much.”
Ianthe paused, considering this. “I… suppose you’re right,” she said, in the tone of voice that meant she wasn’t quite convinced. There was something else in her eyes, too – a flash of knowledge Calliope wasn’t privy to – but it passed in a moment.
Calliope shrugged. “It’s fine, really,” she said, resolving to find out what hid behind Ianthe’s mind in the future. Not now – she’d just shut down, and Calliope didn’t want that. “I don’t mind,” she hummed. “My own power is enough for me.”
“Speaking of that,” Ianthe said, “what do you mean?”
“…what do I mean by what?”
“Your own power.”
Time for another demonstration. Calliope turned and hummed a few notes to herself, constructing a melody, then sang them out carefully. The water, before her, shivered and hissed, the top layer turning to steam and vanishing into the sky.
Ianthe blinked, startled. Calliope beat her tail once and turned back, grinning. “I can do a whole lot more than that,” she said, “but that’s a little bit of it.”
“…a lot more?” Ianthe said, raising one eyebrow. “Such as?”
“I don’t know. Lots of things, probably. Sone of them very destructive indeed. I don’t know! I haven’t had a chance to really test it out.”
“…I’m not certain that we should want one.”
Calliope leaned back and floated on the surface of the water, grinning. “Yes, but, wouldn’t it be interesting to try?”
It took far too long for Calliope to learn the name of her archenemy.
“That’s a bit strong of a term, don’t you think?” McCullough said, laying on his back in the lifeboat next to the Midnight Sun while Calliope floated in the water.
She shook her head. “No,” she said, firmly. “He deserves it.”
Alizarin. That was the name; the name of the man who had scared Ianthe so badly that she’d channeled two gods at once, multiple times, just to get away from him. The name of the man that frightened her enough that when McCullough had mentioned his name once she’d gone silent and stiff. The name of the vile person who had done something – or threatened to do something – terrible enough that when Calliope cornered Ianthe to ask about it, the first mate had snapped at her, telling her she shouldn’t ask if she wanted to keep herself and the rest of the crew safe, and to never mention him again unless it was necessary.
McCullough was silent for a second. The waves lapped against the lifeboat as Calliope leaned on the edge of it, chin on her hands.
“How much do you know about him?” McCullough finally asked.
“Nothing. I know his name, because someone said it, and I know he’s evil.”
“Well, that’s a start,” McCullough sighed, shaking his head. “Ianthe will kill me, but I may as well tell you what’s going on. You’ll find out on your own anyway if I don’t.”
Story time. Calliope had to stop herself from smiling.
“Alizarin was Ianthe’s captain on the last ship she sailed on,” McCullough explained. “She was part of the crew of the Heretic – the first mate, actually – and while she was on board, Alizarin started to use soul magic.”
“Mm. It’s… capturing the soul of something that has died, and using it for your own purposes after sealing it in this world. Or something.” He frowned, shaking his head. “I don’t know the specifics of it, probably because I’ve never used it. Because I can’t, and I don’t want to. But whatever they are, you can do it to creatures, or people. And Alizarin does it to people.”
“Well, that sounds bad.”
“Aye, that’s ‘cause it is. He learned how to take the souls of other gifted people, not just ordinary folks – he would have done it to Ianthe, killed her and stolen her soul, if he could have.”
“But wasn’t she the first mate?”
“…he would kill his own first mate?”
“From what I hear, he’s done it several times now.”
Calliope didn’t know much about the workings of other ships, but if McCullough had done that, she would kill him instantly, even if the first mate wasn’t Ianthe. “How is he getting away with this?” she finally said, disgusted.
“Who’s going to combat him? His ship sails faster than any other, and if you die in battle with him, he’ll steal and enslave your soul. No one wants to risk that.”
“But someone should stop him!”
“No one has yet.”
Calliope made up her mind. “I’ll stop him.”
“Let’s not jump the gun here,” McCullough responded, raising his head to look over at her, expression caught between frightened and dubious.
“Oh, why not? Someone needs to kill him! It may as well be me.”
“Uh – “ McCullough opened his mouth and shut it again.
“I’ve fought monsters before,” Calliope said, with a shrug. “I can do it again.”
“This is different,” McCullough tried, desperately. “He’s not – he’s not a serpent, something you can simply grab on to and rip apart. He’s got magic.”
“So do I.”
McCullough sputtered. “He’s clever, and he’ll use every trick he has against you.”
Calliope smiled. This was what she wanted to hear – McCullough giving her tips on how to fight. His voice sounded like he wanted her to give it up, but the words said that he wanted her to win. “Excellent,” she said, “tell me more.”
Ianthe did not control all storms. Some were too great for her to alter – and some the goddess did not want her to alter.
Calliope felt one a few miles off to the northwest at the same time as the lookout in the crow’s nest spotted it. She watched as Ianthe and McCullough headed to the edge of the rail and followed them so she could hear their conversation.
“That’s not mine,” Ianthe said, staring at it.
“I think we would know if it was,” McCullough answered.
“We can’t be caught in that.”
The crew swarmed over the rigging, turning the sails to catch the wind coming off the front. They could get away from this, past a few small islands to a safe cove, but they needed to act fast, and it was a direct diversion off-course. That was fine; it was better to take a detour than being caught in a storm they didn’t need to fight with.
Calliope couldn’t help with the sails, but she could scout the territory ahead, searching for other ships or signs of inhabitants, like serpents or other merids. The last thing the Midnight Sun needed was to encounter another unexpected sea serpent while trying to escape the storm. She took off southeast, pressing her arms against her sides, racing through the water.
She did not find any sea creatures, but she did find a Crown fleet. The second she saw their hulls from below she backfinned to a halt and surfaced, trying to count, and checking the sails to confirm her suspicions. There were at least twelve ships, the sails white with the golden symbol, all between the Midnight Sun and the safety of the islands.
This was going to be trouble. Calliope turned, speeding back to the Midnight Sun. They were already feeling the stormfront batter at the sails and were desperately heading towards the Crown ships. She surfaced and waved her arms until someone came over to the side.
“We can’t go that way,” she called up, blinking saltwater out of her eyes. “It’s too dangerous.”
“Why?” called the crewman – it was Ekash, a young, wiry-framed man with soft black eyes.
“There’s a Crown fleet blocking access to the islands.”
His eyes widened, and he pulled back from the rail to look over the deck before looking back down. “We can’t change course, we’ll be caught in the storm.”
“We can’t keep course, we’ll be caught by the fleet!”
Ekash shook his head desperately and disappeared from the rail. Moments later, McCullough appeared.
“A Crown fleet?” he questioned. “Are you certain?”
“I said a fleet, didn’t I? At least twelve, maybe more.”
He swore profusely. “We’re going to have to get past them somehow.”
Thunder cracked overhead; Calliope saw the lightning arc from one black cloud-top to the next. She swallowed nervously, feeling the swell grow rougher. “Are you sure we can’t manage the storm?” she asked, but she already knew the answer.
McCullough shook his head. “I… Ianthe? Can you deal with this storm?”
Calliope didn’t hear Ianthe’s response, but she did see McCullough’s expression fall and heard him swear again. He tried to say something, but the wind whipping by stole his words.
The wind whipping by. Calliope narrowed her eyes, thinking, and glanced to the southeast. Maybe…
“Let me up,” she yelled, looking back to McCullough.
“Let me up! Quickly, quickly.” She beckoned. “Get me on board. I can help.”
It’d been quite some time since she was brought on board; a few crew members stopped working on the sails and lowered a lifeboat for her. She hauled herself in and winced as she felt the full effect of gravity pin her body to the boat. Being out of the water was awful.
But she didn’t have a choice, and she could help right now. “Hurry,” she called, watching the crew pull her up. “Come on, come on…”
The sails billowed, carrying the ship further. “Keep her going,” Calliope said to McCullough, as the boat reached the rail. “I can deal with the fleet.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“I need to get to the front of the ship.” Calliope addressed Ayesha, who had been one of the crew who pulled her up. “Quickly!”
Ayesha nodded once and reached down, picking Calliope’s torso up and hefting her over one shoulder. Her tail dragged onto the ground; two crew behind her heaved it up and followed. This was a little bit demeaning, but there was no other way to get to the front, unless she wanted to crawl.
The crew brought her to the prow. “Now what?” Ayesha called, over the wind.
“Set me down!”
Once she was down, she dragged herself up and over the front railing and out onto the bowsprit, which was much smaller than she had hoped. But it was strong, and could hold her weight. She wrapped her tail around it and held on tightly with both hands, inching out in front of the ship.
“What are you doing?!” she heard Ianthe yell, from somewhere behind her, but she ignored her. We’ve seen your magic, she thought, narrowing her eyes at the Crown ships appearing on the horizon, and now we’ll see some of mine.
She raised the front of her body up as far as she could manage, took as deep a breath as she could manage, and began to sing.
Ianthe dealt with creating and controlling. Calliope could bend what was already there, convince things to be different, stop minds from thinking. She wove a tune into the wind – not the sound she used to stun fish before catching them, but a nearly wordless chain of notes that ensnared, enraptured, enchanted.
Behind her, she heard the crew’s work falter. She glanced back once and saw Ianthe staring at her for a moment, and felt a brief stab of fear in her heart – would she accidentally ensorcel her own ship’s crew?
No. Ianthe nodded to her, expression caught between fierce determination and even fiercer pride, and turned away. The crew, used to hearing Calliope’s voice, shook their heads free of her song and kept the ship’s sails full.
Calliope turned back to the southeast and sent her words away on the wind. She could almost see the shimmer of her magic in the air, caught like a fishing net on a current, whipping away towards the Crown fleet. And she saw that magic alight on those ships, and as the Midnight Sun drew closer, the fleet remained perfectly still, unmoving – not even preparing themselves for the oncoming storm.
The crews of the Crown ships had been struck dumb. They were standing, completely still, heads cocked to the side, ears filled with song. Calliope could see them staring with glassy eyes at the Midnight Sun as she slipped past them towards the islands, and the Sun’s crew murmured uneasily amongst themselves to see these sailors so lost. She did not falter.
None of the Crown ships moved to stop them. One of them had cannons half-loaded – they’d probably seen the Midnight Sun coming – but the cannoneers now stood idle, the cannonballs laying on the deck where they’d slipped out of their hands.
Stay here, Calliope sang to the Crown sailors, stay here, and dream of a ship, and dream of a merid who sang to you, and dream of clear skies and do not listen to the sound of thunder; it is a lie, a terrible lie, told to you by a distant goddess. Listen to me. Stay here. Dream.
The Sun made it through. Calliope could hear the storm closing in and watched as the Sun glided around the corner of the islands and made her careful way through the channels. The wind wouldn’t carry Calliope’s voice anymore; she stopped singing and braced herself on the bowsprit, head spinning. She shook her hair out of her face, trying to keep her vision straight. The Midnight Sun headed around the southeastern side of the island ring and dropped anchor in a sheltered cove.
The storm came. Calliope saw it drop gray curtains of rain down onto the Crown fleet; she watched it obscure the jungle of the islands and come racing across the water’s surface to drench the Midnight Sun. She dropped off the bowsprit into the water when it did and darted over to a shallow cave in the rocky walls of the lagoon, out of the rain. It roared on the cliffs, pounded the surface of the sea.
No one pursued them.
The next time they sailed to Buroni Hakir, they found it in ruins.
Not all of it – the central districts were unharmed – but the outer edges of the city had been torn to shreds, wooden buildings shattered and waters still turbid with sediment and stinking of death. There were crews of people trying to sift through the sodden wreckage for possessions or bodies; the Midnight Sun’s crew was silent as they passed by the outer reaches of the port and into the docks.
“What happened?” Ianthe said, horrified, as she leaned over the railing.
Calliope poked her head out of the water, tipping it just a hair to the side. “It’s not supposed to look like that, right?” she called up.
Ianthe shook her head. Calliope narrowed her eyes, then dove.
The seabed was a mess. Corals had been ripped up and strewn across the sand; the waters were still turbid from catastrophe. She could see the skeletons of fish that had suffocated in dirt and been eaten by worms lying between the rocks.
Ianthe frowned. “A storm did this, but how? This has never happened before. At least, as far as I know.”
“This wasn’t us, was it?” McCullough asked, surveying the damage.
“No!” Ianthe shook her head. “This is hurricane damage. Those… I can’t make those. Even if I could, it would have to be with me. And I would never. It’s far too dangerous. Something else did this.” She narrowed her eyes, and Calliope only just managed to catch her words. “Or someone.”
Calliope was allowed into the harbor this time, because Alizarin wasn’t there. She stayed near the ship, watching the ships that sailed in and out. There were hardly any; the ships that were here were being repaired. Nearly all of them were damaged in some capacity.
Ianthe was immediately summoned, before the Sun had even finished tying up; Calliope saw the red-clothed messenger waiting on the quayside, and watched her bow to Ianthe and lead her away. She submerged herself under the dark planks and waited for the first mate to return.
It took some time, but she did. Calliope surfaced next to the dock and put her hands on the edge of it, digging her claws into the wood. “What’s going on?” she asked, as Ianthe strode past her and out to the ship.
Ianthe’s face was bleak as she stopped before the gangplank and turned to face Calliope. “Alizarin,” she said, jaw set, and the word hissed in the air. “The Peacebringers called him in to question him. They underestimated him. As everyone does.”
Calliope was silent.
“He fled, and built this storm to cover his retreat. The sisters and their servants managed to protect part of the city, but the outer districts were destroyed.” Ianthe shook her head, turning, one hand repeatedly buttoning and unbuttoning the cuff of her left coat sleeve. “He tore a city to shreds to escape retribution. He won’t be allowed here again – but people died in that storm, and either they’re lost, or he took their souls with him. The sisters have a bounty out for him.”
“Where is he now?”
Ianthe turned and strode up the gangplank, voice harder than black ocean stone. “Gone.”
They spent several days in Buroni Hakir, waiting, gathering information. Even the royal fleets were willing to ally with the pirates now, because Alizarin’s storm had sunk three of their ships. That was enough to push them over the edge, to declare that an enemy of an enemy is a friend.
The fleet was rallying around several flagships: the Curse of the North was one of them – a strange ship, covered in heavy iron plating, and with no sails. Instead she had circular towers on her abnormally tall deck that belched white and gray clouds whenever she moved. She was captained by Denzil Haliche, a tall, well-dressed man with hair in thick dreadlocks tied back with a golden ribbon that fell halfway down his back over his embroidered waistcoat. He was a gifted captain as well, gifted in the same way Ianthe was – though his power did not deal with the gods of the sea. He had come down from beyond the equator, past that boiling heat, from a place so far away he said that the sea froze there like it did in the Far South, that his iron-clad ship had to force its way through the icebergs even in the summer. Calliope believed him. He radiated cold the way the sun did light.
The Queen’s Bounty was another, and this one Calliope hated – it was a Crown ship, and the captain on board treated every pirate she met with disdain and distaste. Calliope had to stop herself from darting out from beneath the quay and grabbing the captain’s ankle to trip her, or drag her into the bay. Where Denzil and Ianthe felt like power, this captain, Kiera Zeidane, oozed superiority. She held that superiority over her crew and the crews of the other Crown ships, and they obeyed her – but it was clear how she thought of the pirates, and the fact that her authority meant little to them.
The third captain of the collected fleet was younger, relatively new to the seas – Sun Yeng, who dressed in blue robes embroidered with golden dragons. Their ship was called Lè Yuán de Wéi Gōng, made of dark wood and ivory. Calliope disliked the material, but was fond of the captain, who got along easily with anyone – even the Kiera.
“This pirate of yours,” Kiera said, with a curl in her lip, as she and the other captains stood on the shore and Calliope lurked against a patch of dark rocks underneath the dock where they stood and listened to them. Her accent was clipped and sharp, and she did not try to hide the discomfort and suspicion in her voice. “How do we know that you aren’t working with him?”
The other two captains exchanged a glance. “You cannot be serious,” Denzil said, after a moment, raising one dark eyebrow. “He… killed one of my crew members.”
“Yes, but he does that to his own crew. It’s barbaric, but why should he treat you any differently?”
“Captain Zeidane, I understand you think all pirates are savages. I assure you this is not the case. Alizarin is… an anomaly, and one that will seek to eliminate as swiftly as possible.”
Sun Yeng spoke up. “I was not here for the storm, but I can see its devastation. He clearly has no respect for this place, or for the sisters. Even you answer to them. Why would you think we are with him when we benefit from this place as you do? Why would we want to destroy it?”
Kiera pursed her lips, frowning. “Very well, very well. But we have no leads.”
“He’s gone north,” Sun Yeng said. “That’s all we know.”
“How do we know that?”
“The storm followed him.”
“And that’s not just a coincidence?”
“He called the storm,” Sun Yeng said, with a frown. “It was under his control. Of course it followed him.”
“Storms are not his gift.”
A slight pause. Denzil coughed lightly. “Ahem, no,” he said, and Calliope could see through the slats of the dock where his breath caused the air to cloud. “He pulls his power from, shall we say, other sources.”
“Such as?” Kiera crossed her arms, raising one eyebrow.
“The souls of the dead,” Sun Yeng said bluntly. “Which is why we cannot die to him.”
“Hmm,” Kiera said, looking down. Calliope went still, hoping the captain couldn’t see her through the gaps between the dock boards. “Difficult to deprive him of his source, then. We can’t exactly kill them.”
“No. We will have to fight him the ordinary way. But we’ll have to overpower him, which’ll be… difficult, given his augmented ship,” Denzil mused, rubbing the side of his jaw, the other hand hidden behind his back. “With a fleet, however, it will be easier than it would otherwise. Captain Zeidane, I appreciate your cooperation in this matter.”
“If he intends to continue to terrorize the port which is my fleet’s safe haven in these…” She paused, lip curling in disgust. “These waters infested with predators… then I will see him caught and set to justice.”
Denzil half-smiled, raising one eyebrow. “I find it amusing that you and your fleet are so frightened of sea beasts,” he said.
“The sea beasts are not to what I refer.” Kiera swiveled on her heel and strode off the dock.
“You knew that,” Sun Yeng said, once she was out of earshot.
“Oh, yes, of course” Denzil said. “I was just curious to see if she would insult me to my face, and how badly. And to test her flair for the dramatic.”
“It wasn’t that terrible,” Sun Yeng said.
“No, it wasn’t. We shouldn’t have much of an issue with her.” Denzil turned, heading for his own ship. “And when dealing with an enemy of this magnitude, we should count ourselves lucky to have Crown assistance.”
Sun Yeng snorted. “This would not be the first time I’ve had such help,” they said.
“Oh? You’ll have to tell me about it. Perhaps it can give us some tips for dealing with her.”
“Oh, be kind,” Sun Yeng said, as they strode away with Denzil out of Calliope’s hearing range. “Just give her a chance. She may yet warm up to us.”
Denzil’s soft chuckle echoed over the waves, and then they were gone.
From then on, Buroni Hakir served as a center for the fleet. The ships gathered there and the captains plotted; the Midnight Sun found itself under Denzil Haliche. Calliope liked him well enough; he was calm and collected, and treated all of McCullough’s crew with respect.
“This is a strong ship,” he said, standing on the deck of the Midnight Sun as she bobbed gently in the port waters. He was tall, taller than Ianthe or McCullough, and it was strange to see him in the middle of a familiar setting. The crew moved around him – wary, uncertain, respectful, awed. “The Midnight Sun, yes? And you… are captain?”
He was speaking with Ianthe. She shook her head. “Not me,” she said, and jerked her head to the side, where McCullough was speaking quietly with Leng and another newer crewmate called Khavi. “Him.”
“And his name?”
“How did he come by this ship?”
“He claimed it from its previous captain during a suicidal mission to the south pole.”
“Effectively, yes,” Ianthe begrudgingly admitted, “but it was for his own good, and the good of the crew. His previous captain was insane.”
“Is he gifted?”
“Not in the way we are, no, but he does possess a certain… empathy.” Ianthe glanced over again. McCullough rested one hand on Khavi’s shoulder and smiled at her; she dipped her head in assent before darting off to complete whatever task he had assigned her.
Denzil watched her go. “Interesting,” he mused. “And your power?”
“Comes from the goddesses.”
Denzil glanced around at the busy deck. For a moment, there was relative silence – only the sound of the waves and the work around them. Calliope cupped her hands around her finned ears to try and pick up any quieter mutterings and pressed herself to the side of the ship.
“How did you kill the serpent?” Denzil finally asked.
Ianthe was shocked into silence; Calliope could hear it in the sudden catch in her breath. “I – what?” she asked.
“The serpent,” Denzil said casually. It was the tone of voice that would hide warning in it if he were anyone but him – but his words held only curiosity. “You sold it here in the port, or so I was told. Who killed it?”
Ianthe glanced over to McCullough; Calliope saw her head swing around and back again. “His harpoon crossbow dealt the blow,” she said carefully. “It was an invention – “
“Yes, I know,” Denzil interrupted, calmly, without impatience. He knew Ianthe was mincing her words to hide something, that much was clear. His words weren’t threatening, just curious. “But who wielded it? I know it wasn’t you. And it certainly wasn’t him, or he’d be carrying it. Which of your crew?”
Calliope considered the situation. It was clear that Ianthe didn’t know whether to reveal her presence or not; while Calliope knew personally she could be an asset to the fleet, she would also be in danger of assassination by other captains or Crown pirates.
“Perhaps we could speak privately,” Ianthe said.
“It was me,” Calliope yelled, from the water’s edge.
There was another silence, followed by footsteps, as Denzil stepped over to the edge of the boat and looked down. Calliope bobbed on the swell and waved, grinning.
She had to give him credit – he kept his composure, raising an eyebrow down at her.
“Interesting,” he said, glancing over to Ianthe. “And this would be?”
No – sorry, Ianthe, but I can speak for myself. “Ah, ah, down here, please! I’m Calliope! I’m with Ianthe and the Sun.”
The look on Ianthe’s face was caught somewhere between fear and resignation. “Well met,” Denzil called down. “Is there perhaps an easier way to speak than shouting back and forth from the ship’s rail?”
Hiya I do not know if the translation of the name of Sun Yeng's ship is correct, I had someone who knows more of the language do it for me but you can never be sure.
Yes, before anyone asks, Sun Yeng is nonbinary! I'm editing this to include more of their pronouns because prior to this I had skirted around them, thinking that it might raise less alarm bells if a publisher happened to spot it, but since I'm not OFFICIALLY publishing it through the industry it doesn't matter! So if there seem to be too few instances of using their pronouns I'm quite sorry, I'm trying to remember where I originally had them and add them back in.
I hope you love these new captains as much as I do! Thank you <3
Denzil was just as polite to Calliope as he was to any other pirate, which made her swell with pride. Additionally, he understood Ianthe’s desire to keep her existence a secret.
“Yes, I can see why some here would take issue with her presence,” he mused, crouched on the dock next to Ianthe. “Sirens have killed before, and they will again.”
“I will not allow her to be harmed, but I cannot control what others do, past a point,” Ianthe said.
Denzil nodded. “Right,” he said. “Calliope, I do have a question: If you killed the serpent, how useful do you think you would be in open combat with an enemy fleet?”
“Probably not very,” Calliope answered with a shrug. “The serpent was just one monster. Alizarin is a horrible little man with a whole bunch of ships. I’m not really sure what I could do against those. What are you planning to do?”
There was a moment of silence. “We’re… not entirely certain yet,” Denzil said carefully. “Our plan is to find him first, judge the size of his fleet, and rely on Captain Zeidane’s military expertise to plan a battle that will go in our favor.”
“Well, I’ll be there, but I won’t be useful.”
“In that case, keep yourself safe, and if you see an opportunity, take it.” Denzil stood and turned to Ianthe. “You have a powerful ally,” he said, with a faint smile. “Keep her safe.”
“She keeps us safe half the time,” Ianthe replied dryly, shaking her head. “But I will do my best. As I always have.”
The collective fleet sailed out several days later. Ships damaged in the storm still weren’t up to full capacity, but they had to track Alizarin down before he found a way to secret himself from their wrath.
“He is still subject to the winds of the world, even with his summoned storms,” Ianthe had told Calliope, before they set out. “We will follow where the wind would have taken him.”
There were several pirates – and even some Crown sailors – who had the ability to see through birds’ eyes and use their wings. Calliope often saw their birds – petrels, terns, pelicans, and, in one case, an albatross – skimming the waves ahead of the fleet or soaring out miles ahead and disappearing for hours before returning to their masters.
Calliope swam near or under the Midnight Sun at all times, which was odd – she couldn’t surface and call out to the crew, and had to hide in the shadow of the ship to come up for air. Not that she needed to come up often – at her size, much larger than the great white sharks that sometimes followed ships for food, she could hold her breath for over two hours. And she could dive deep, slowing her heartbeat to press into the depths.
Not too far, though. In the open ocean, no one went too far down. That was not her realm. Not yet, and perhaps not ever. That’s where the matriarchs lived.
Calliope stayed near the surface.
The fleet sailed for two weeks, spreading out in vast lines to follow Alizarin’s trail. They tried to track the ghost of his ship through the sea; they tried to follow imprints of his presence left from his passage, impressed in time. It was the only way to find him, the only way that he couldn’t erase with his ghosts.
And they did find him. After three anxious weeks of searching, the albatross returned and its master reported to her captain that the bird had spotted ships on the horizon. And no small convoy, either – a fleet was gathered, one that rivaled the size of the collective.
“How?” Ianthe demanded, when the news was passed on to the Midnight Sun. “How could he have gathered these ships? From where? There are none upon this sea who would go against the sisters and the gods but him!”
Calliope slipped down and dove, heading in the direction the albatross had come from. It was west – and she followed the sunset until she saw the specks of ships on the horizon. Then she took a breath and dove, and as she went down she hummed to herself, singing in her mind and ensuring that, to anyone not looking closely, she appeared to be nothing more than an exceptionally large shark.
She drew closer. The ships she saw were anchored, waiting. They were ready. They knew that the fleet was coming.
This wasn’t a chase – it was a stand-off now. Calliope pressed her lips together and narrowed her black eyes, swimming closer to the ships. Night was good cover for her – she could see in the darkness, and needed the shadows, for though she could disguise herself it was becoming harder to do so with her massive size. She was larger than all but the great whale sharks, and pretending to be one of those would be rather suspicious. Perhaps she could –
Something caught her attention, cutting her thoughts short. The ships. There was something wrong about them. Something… off. She’d never felt this particular strangeness before, not even amongst the boats of Buroni Hakir. Never.
The Heretic sat at the front of the fleet, prow pointed eastward. Calliope gave it a wide berth. She was no Ianthe, but even she could sense the chained spirits swarming around the hull.
The ships behind it were ordinary ships, but she could feel the spirits around them, too. She dove deeper, trying not to cause too much disturbance in the water, swirling around the anchor chains that trailed down into the black ocean.
Further back into the fleet, that strange, unnerving sense grew stronger. She felt it like a faint pulsing against her skin, like sound waves from a whale when it belted song at volumes lower than humans could hear. She powered forwards, ignoring her discomfort.
There. There lay a ship that radiated that disgusting feeling. She drifted closer, stilling herself, trying to stay unnoticed. She could sense spirits around this one, but they weren’t looking outwards – they were focused on the ship itself, and its inhabitants. Why?
As she floated upwards, she glanced over the hull, and nearly lost her breath right there – the wood was ancient and rotted away, pockmarked with the skeletons of barnacles and coated with sand and silt that, despite being battered by the water, had worked its way into the grain of the wood and remained there. In several places the hull had been torn open, and the hold was partially flooded. Why was no one panicking?
Calliope stared upwards, uncertainty raising her heartbeat. She fought it down and lashed her tail once, propelling herself upwards, and broke the surface.
The ship above her was dead. She could see the scraps of sail hanging from the mast, the dangling fragments of rope that was once rigging. In the light of the few lanterns on board, she could see that there were chunks of coral and deep-sea shells still fastened onto the metal grating in the deck and the wooden planks, and she could spot where the door to the navigator’s station had been ripped partially off its hinges and hung askew.
Her gaze drifted up. The sails hung uselessly, but she could see faint flickers of movement in the air, the billowing of some ghostly canvas in a nonexistent wind. She looked down again as something lurched across the deck – some humanoid form, hunched over, limping unevenly as it dragged one crippled leg over the sodden, splintered planks.
Calliope spun. Around her, that same horrible sensation radiated from most of the ships in the fleet – and now she could see, she could see the shipwrecks that Alizarin had torn from the seabed and brought into his service. She could see the forms of what were once people manning these ships still moving about, repeating pointless actions like coiling rope or pulling rigging that no longer existed. Horrified, she moved back.
This was wrong. This was wrong. She took another breath and tasted the seafloor on her tongue. That wasn’t supposed to be here, up here, in the air!
She dove, and fled back towards the collective fleet.
When she arrived she knocked on the Midnight Sun’s hull until someone came and peered over the edge. “Get McCullough,” Calliope hissed, trying to stay quiet in the dark. They vanished for a few seconds and she bobbed in the water, casting occasional terrified glances back east. The word beat in her head like her thudding heart: Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.
McCullough stuck his head out a porthole halfway down the hull. “What is it?” he asked.
Calliope’s attention snapped upwards. She placed her palms on the wood of the hull – the clean, whole wood, solid, sturdy, whole, alive – and beat her tail against the water again, pushing herself upward, as if that would help him hear her. “The fleet,” she gasped out, voice raised just a bit so he could hear her over the slap of the water against the ship. “Alizarin’s fleet. It’s – I don’t know how he did it, I don’t, I don’t understand it. The ships are dead. Maybe he just took a bunch with him from Buroni Hakir? I’m not sure. But they’re dead!”
“The ships are dead. They’re all rotted, with holes through them, and the people on them aren’t people anymore. And – they’re covered in sand, and dirt and silt, and… that’s how he got them, I bet; he picked them right up off the seafloor.” She swallowed. “I didn’t know he could do that.”
“Neither did I, or anyone,” McCullough muttered, brow furrowed. “This changes things.”
Calliope looked back to the west, towards the fleet. Calm down. You’re with everyone. You can go against this, and they’ll be with you. You have little to fear. She took a deep breath, filling her lungs entirely, and let it out. “Can we fight that?”
“We’ll have to find out.”
Calliope lurked just at the waterline against the side of the Queen’s Bounty, eavesdropping on the captains as they met.
“The size of his fleet is an… unexpected development,” Kiera Zeidane told the other two. “We can’t get any counts – my petrel scout was killed when it got near – but it’s a significant number. Too many to simply surround and bombard.”
She spoke so casually of the petrel (a small, dusky gray seabird with little tubes at the base of its beak and shiny dark eyes, intelligent and charming), but Calliope had seen and heard the commotion surrounding that matter. One of the gifted sailors who could see through a creature’s eyes had been using his petrel to scout Alizarin’s fleet when he’d leaped up and begun screaming, viciously fighting any who got near him, staring with unseeing eyes at something only he could see.
Calliope had been startled and honestly a little frightened by his outburst. He had stumbled across his ship’s deck, babbling nonsense words – and a few terrifyingly clear phrases. “Fly!” he’d screamed. “Fly, Smoke! – no! No! He’s taken my bird! He’s taken my eyes! He has my eyes!”
There had been a pause, then a wordless howl of agony, and then he’d dropped dead on the deck.
None of the scouts were allowed to draw close now.
“If I may,” Captain Denzil, said quietly, “I have received information that Alizarin’s fleet is… rather unusual.”
“Yes, it is,” Kiera snapped. “Now – “
“No,” Denzil interrupted. “This is important. His fleet includes sunken ships. They will not be defeated by ordinary means.”
There was a heavy pause.
“I – I beg your pardon?” Kiera laughed, the kind of disbelieving, stunned laughter of someone who can’t quite grasp what they were just told.
“He has stolen ships from the seabed and forced them to fight for him.”
“That is not within his power to do!” A swift thud; Kiera slammed her hand on the table.
“Ships have spirits, too,” Sun Yeng said quietly, “so it is. He has enslaved them to his will.”
Another long silence. Calliope pressed one hand against the hull of the ship to steady herself.
“How do you know this?” Kiera suddenly demanded, suspicion turning her words sharp. “If our scouts couldn’t get close – “
“Have you considered,” Denzil said calmly, with a hint of a smile in his voice, “that our scouts may be more used to these sorts of endeavors than yours?”
Calliope could hear the indignation in Kiera’s affronted silence, and smiled to herself – of course the information had really come from her, but Denzil wasn’t wrong. The pirate scouts were used to sneaking around fleets – Crown fleets, specifically. It was a subtle dig at Kiera herself, but almost a friendly one.
“Well,” Kiera finally muttered, “I must admit I have not fought… dead ships before.”
“Then you are in good company,” Sun Yeng said cheerfully, “for neither have we.”
“The plan will not change. I assume dead ships can die again.”
“Cannonballs will not work on these,” Denzil said. “They were described to me as impossibly afloat, filled with holes and seawater but existing nonetheless. I doubt that knocking more holes in their hulls will do much to wound them.”
“What about their crews?”
“Your scouts certainly did get quite a lot of detail.” There was the suspicion again, creeping around the corners of Kiera’s words.
“Unfortunately that is the extent of the information they were able to gather; to go closer would have drawn attention and endangered them.” This was technically true, but the edge and ice through Denzil’s voice told Calliope that this wasn’t about her – it was about the petrel scout.
She understood Denzil’s disgust. Pirates were close-knit groups, crews that were ready to fight and die for each other; crews where everyone had a place and a job, and no one went unused. Kiera’s treatment of her scout as disposable was atrocious behavior, repulsive to the other captains.
“A shame.” Kiera sounded dispassionate and disappointed all at once. Calliope cupped her hands around her ears, trying to catch the sound drifting out through the ship porthole. “But I am certain still that a ship with no hull will be unable to float. If these are as old as you say, they should be easy enough to destroy.”
“Respectfully, Captain Zeidane, I don’t think that’s possible,” Sun Yeng said.
Kiera took a quick breath to retort and held it for a moment before exhaling slowly. “What do you suggest?” she asked, finally, and her voice was carefully controlled and calm.
“Alizarin controls these ships. Remove him, or even just sufficiently disrupt him, and his control will fail. This is fairly simple. We must focus on the Heretic.”
“He will be sequestered behind his cannon fodder,” Denzil pointed out. “Unless we break through the sunken line, we cannot possibly reach the Heretic to board it and fight him. And I’m not – “
There was a low laugh from Kiera, which stopped Denzil mid-sentence. “Tell me, Captain Haliche,” she began, and Calliope could hear the triumph in her voice. “What is your ship designed to do?”
There was a slight pause. “She – the Curse is designed for ice, not enemies!” Denzil finally spluttered, clearly taken aback by this suggestion.
“So make it ice.” Sun Yeng’s voice again, tinged with a curl of a smile. “I am starting to like this plan.”
“Immobilize their ships, break through, and fire on the Heretic,” Kiera said.
“There is only so much ocean I can affect,” Denzil protested. “I cannot stop Alizarin’s fleet with my power alone!”
“Keep your ship and your unit handy, and we’ll handle the excess and distract the fleet by flanking both sides while you spearhead the middle.”
They went on at length about fleet maneuvers and military tactics, and Calliope grew bored. She went and picked barnacles off the various ships to eat and waited for the meeting to end.
It did, after several hours, and she waited as Denzil stepped across the boarding walkway onto the Curse and the Bounty moved away.
“Excuse me,” she called up, when she was certain nobody else could hear her.
Denzil glanced around, then leaned on the railing and looked down into the water to where Calliope bobbed in the swell. “Ah. Calliope.”
“We’re going to be in danger tomorrow.”
“I won’t deny that.”
“I’ll protect my crew above all else.”
“I understand. I have no authority over you.”
Calliope smiled. She liked Denzil. “If they don’t need me, what should I do?”
Denzil cocked his head to the side for a moment, considering. “Don’t venture too close to the Curse, but stay within earshot. We may need you in an emergency, and I don’t want you caught in the ice.” He knew she’d been listening, of course. He knew she was aware of their plans.
“Got it.” Calliope submerged, cutting off further conversation, and flicked her tail once, sending a wave into the side of the Curse as she did so. The ironclad did not move.
She would stay with the Midnight Sun unless she was needed elsewhere, and even then the Sun still took priority over all other ships. The Sun was her home. Her family was on board.
She would protect her family.
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Chapter 13: Red Sky in the Morning
feat. misuse of an icebreaker, more magic, and the oceanic goddess of life, death, and salt, as well as our wonderful antagonist.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
They had the advantage at dawn; Alizarin and his ships would have to look and fire into the rising sun. So they set sail just before, as the sky was paling to gray of a petrel’s breast, with Denzil and the ships he chose to accompany him nestled in the center point formation. Calliope swam below the Midnight Sun, which sailed off the Curse of the North’s starboard side. The harpoon gun was strapped to her back.
Alizarin’s fleet was waiting. Calliope, below the water, counted the hulls she saw and frowned. There were far fewer than there had been before – and the strangeness was almost gone. Perhaps Alizarin had lost his hold on the ships, and they had just been an intimidation tactic.
She doubted this, somehow. But where did the ships go?
She couldn’t surface, not now, but she drifted up a bit, closer to the Midnight Sun. Something about this whole situation felt off.
The collective fleet advanced. Denzil was fleet point, and he stepped up and stared at Alizarin’s ships, waiting. After a few minutes of slow progress he raised one hand, and the ships stopped – backpaddled, pulled their sails, reversed winds they had been using to propel themselves.
He cleared his throat. Beside him, a young woman laid one hand on his shoulder and nodded. The faint smell of honeysuckle drifted on the wind as she concentrated.
“Alizarin,” Denzil said clearly, and his voice echoed across the swell, amplified by magic. “Stand down and face justice at the hands of the sisters of Buroni Hakir and the goddesses of the sea.”
Calliope had to know, to see. She surfaced in front of the Midnight Sun, between it and the Curse of the North, and looked at the enemy fleet.
A moment passed, and then a figure in a crimson coat stepped up on the foredeck of the ship in front of the fleet – and, yes, that had to be the Heretic, with its deep reddish hull and the dirty canvas sails streaked with rain and the name painted in black letters over the planks. Even from this distance, Calliope could see Alizarin aboard his ship.
The Heretic wasn’t supposed to be out in front, though. Denzil had said she would be hiding behind other ships, and though he’d never encountered Alizarin before, those who had were his informants. So why wasn’t she? Why was Alizarin so bold? What was he hiding?
Where were the dead ships?
Alizarin’s voice came hissing across the waves, curling around Calliope’s ears. She glanced up to see Denzil shake his head – it was doing the same to him, and presumably to everyone on this side of the stand-off.
“As it happens,” Alizarin purred, “I don’t answer to the sisters – or the goddesses.”
Silence between the fleets. Calliope shivered. It was one thing to be casual about the goddesses, to not give them worship but perhaps tip your hat at a shrine as you passed by but offer no other tribute, but it was a completely different matter to be openly defiant of them. To spit in their faces.
“It is… unfortunate, that you believe that,” Denzil called back, and to his credit he sounded genuinely disappointed. “But what you believe is unimportant.”
Calliope scanned the horizon again, heart fluttering with uncertainty. Where were Alizarin’s ships?
“Our task is to recover you and bring you back to Buroni Hakir to be tried for crimes against life itself,” Denzil continued. “Stand down and allow us to detain you.”
“That isn’t going to happen,” Alizarin spat back.
“You are outnumbered and outgunned. If you resist, and we are forced to kill you, we will.”
“’We’?” Alizarin laughed, a burbling noise that Calliope could barely comprehend. It didn’t even sound human. “What ‘we’ are you talking about? Your allies? I don’t fear you. Your tenuous alliance is fragile as a bird’s wing.”
A sharp crack echoed across the swell, far louder than it should have been. Calliope flinched. Alizarin held something up in his hand, grinning with bright white teeth. She narrowed her eyes to see it better. It was a small gray corpse, some type of seabird –
A petrel. Calliope’s heart lurched. Alizarin had snapped the bird’s wing in half, though it was definitely already dead – it didn’t struggle.
“Oh, I don’t think you’ll last, the three of you,” Alizarin continued, flinging the corpse off the side of the ship, into the waves. Calliope felt anger bubble up in her throat and forced it down, kept the furious song locked away. “Look at you, Denzil Haliche. So cold, so calculating. Can you feel? Have you convinced your crew you can? You can’t rule without knowing anger, or fear, or triumph. You’re weak.”
Calliope glanced up. Denzil was staring back, more perplexed than anything.
“And you, Kiera – may I call you Kiera? I’m going to assume the answer is yes, you’re not a real ship’s captain and can’t have the title of one after all – you’re a slave to the Crown. You hate it, but at the same time, you revile those who claim their own freedom. A hypocrite, someone who hides their own desires out of fear. You have no will. You always wait for orders. If you had freedom, would you even know what to do with it?” He snorted. “Your hold is already failing out here, with no one to tell you what to do. Pathetic.”
Silence again. Calliope couldn’t see Kiera from where she was, but from what she knew of the Crown captain, she was undoubtedly fuming silently.
“Sun Yeng – what a lost, hopeless person you are,” Alizarin drawled. “You never belonged. You never will. You don’t even belong on the ship you own. You’re lying to yourself, believing that you have a home out here. The sea doesn’t like uncertainty.”
Who are you to know what the sea wants? Calliope thought, furious. Sun Yeng was a friend, now. She abhorred these insults.
“…are you finished yet?” Denzil called, after a moment. He raised an eyebrow, waiting for a response.
A sigh. “No,” Alizarin said. “I have a request. Give me Ianthe.”
Stunned and very confused silence. Calliope saw Denzil glance over towards the Midnight Sun, as startled as she had ever seen him, before turning back to Alizarin. “…no,” he said, after a moment. “I don’t think we’ll be doing that.”
“She’s my first mate,” Alizarin countered. “She belongs on my ship.”
“Not anymore,” Ianthe shouted, out over the waters. Calliope looked up when she heard her voice – she was leaning over the rail, gripping the edge so hard it drove the color from her fingers, directing her voice over the waves. It certainly didn’t carry like Denzil’s did, but she had no doubt that Alizarin could hear it.
“So she speaks,” Alizarin murmured, that smile creeping into his voice again. He extended one hand, the motion clear, marked in bright red against a blue sky. “Thank you for joining the conversation. I have an offer for you, Ianthe: come back to the Heretic, and I will show you power beyond imagining.”
“Your power is a lie, an insult,” Ianthe yelled back, expression contorted in rage. “You are a monster and I will have no part of your vile, blasphemous rituals!”
Alizarin shook his head and made a horrific, sticky clicking noise, which at one point may have sounded like the ‘tsk, tsk’ of a human tongue. “What a shame,” he said. “But come over anyways. You still belong to my ship, and your soul would give me so much to use.”
“How about,” McCullough shouted at the top of his lungs, inserting himself into the exchange, “you shut the hell up?”
A startled pause, and then laughter. “You’re not part of this,” Alizarin called back, and Calliope knew he was smiling, though she had never seen his face closely enough to envision the expression. “Do keep your tongue to yourself while your betters are having a conversation.”
“This is your last chance,” Denzil called, taking control of negotiations once again. “We will not give any of our number to you, and if you yet again reject out offer of mercy, we will kill you.”
“Try it,” Alizarin snarled, and then stepped back off the Heretic’s bowsprit.
That ended that. The young woman took her hand from Denzil’s shoulder as he turned back to his crew. “It was worth a try,” he said, voice back to normal, and smiled ruefully. She could see the worry on his face though – he’d noticed the lack of the ships Calliope had reported. He glanced down, to the waters.
“Where are they,” he said, quietly, to no one.
“I don’t know,” Calliope hissed, shaping the words so they would reach only his ears. “I don’t know. They were there. They were there! And now they’re not.”
“Be cautious moving forwards,” Denzil said, turning to his crew and fleet. “Be very cautious. There may yet be dangers we do not understand.”
The collective fleet began to move forwards again. The Heretic, facing them, drifted backwards, hiding behind four ordinary pirate ships. Calliope surveyed the enemy – none of the dead ships were there.
So where were they?!
She stayed low, in the Sun’s shadow. As they neared Alizarin’s fleet she felt the temperature of the water suddenly drop, a deep cold that bit past her thick skin and fat layers and into her bones. She got of the way in a hurry.
Denzil stood at the fore of the Curse of the North, arms extended, hands held out to his sides but low, almost casual. The air was suddenly permeated with the sharp scent of mint and the pungent odor of lemongrass. His eyes were closed. The swell around the ship began to turn from ordinary water into slush and ice crystals, with larger chunks bobbing up and down like miniature icebergs. And then it began to solidify into one sheet that traveled with the Curse of the North in an aura of cold.
It surrounded several other ships – but where their hulls touched the water, the ice melted, and behind them, it reformed. Calliope had to dip down and look up to understand what was happening – because the other ships could not break through the ice, Denzil was creating small, moving patches of clear water for them. She marveled at the control it must take for the five ships that surrounded him.
There was a boom of thunder, and Calliope glanced off to the left and saw Kiera’s unit racing towards Alizarin’s fleet, flanking hard port and arcing around to broadside his ships. Sun Yeng’s unit peeled off to the right and surged through the waves, arcing around again.
And still the Heretic did not move. Something was wrong. Something was very wrong. Alizarin’s ships were reacting to the attack, yes, but not as they should. They acted… fearless, almost, greater than they were. Could Alizarin have hidden his ships from sight, like Calliope could on occasion?
No – it would have taken far too much effort, and Calliope would have seen them from below anyways as disturbances in the water. So what was his secret weapon? What was the –
Movement caught her eye, somewhere behind her. She whipped around and searched the gray-blue depths, trying to see between the rays of light slanting down into the half-lit murk. There – movement, again. Fish, perhaps? No, it wasn’t fish.
A thin spire of wood speared up from the darkness. It rose, growing thicker – and there, the rotted remains of a crow’s nest –
Calliope lashed her tail furiously and powered directly upwards. No time to worry about being seen. No time to worry about the other ships on her side.
She burst through the surface with a gasp and bellowed, “Below! They’re coming from below! They’re under the water!”
Her voice carried. She saw pirates around her look around in shock, though not many of them spotted her.
“Brace yourselves!” she yelled, and the first mast broke through the surface.
Vast, dark shapes emerged from the depths, sailing upwards through the water and rising like serpents. It was far worse than serpents – that horrible, unnatural strangeness radiated from them and made Calliope want to tear at her own skin away to get rid of it, like a slick coating of oil. And she could see the what-once-were-people still on board, ready to fight.
This was Alizarin’s triumphant secret. He had not lost his ships – they were simply lying in wait to ambush the collective fleet. Ships that did not need to breathe could lurk below the surface.
A wreck rose not far to her right, and she watched in horror as it came up underneath a live ship and knocked her so hard to the side that she pitched too far and capsized, sending her wailing crew into the waters. Calliope looked down into the water immediately, and was relieved to see that nothing was directly below the Midnight Sun.
She paused, then dove again – and was grateful she had as, seconds later, the booming of cannons echoed overhead as the Sun fired into the dead ship. It didn’t seem to hinder it much, but it was moving up, away from her.
Calliope swam for it and grabbed onto one portion of the hull where the planks had been partially torn away, and made for good handholds. She stared up at it. Kiera was right – if these were destroyed entirely, it didn’t matter how much magic Alizarin pumped into them, they wouldn’t float. She pushed down the fear at the back of her mind that told her maybe even that wouldn’t be enough. It had to be enough.
It had to be enough.
Destroy them. But how? Calliope yanked hard on the plank under her claws and watched more debris flood out of the already waterlogged hold. Water alone wouldn’t do it.
Narrowing her eyes again, Calliope opened her mouth and sang a sharp, high-pitched note. The water around her shivered, and the iron bolts holding these planks onto the skeleton of the ship went white-hot and created bursts of steam that hissed up towards the surface. With a little bit of pressure, the old wooden boards came away in Calliope’s hands.
She grinned and tore at them. Once there was a large hole she could get her hands into…
The ship listed to one side as she ripped its hull to shreds, tossing the chunks away. Most of them floated, but some sank towards the blackness below and vanished out of sight. She saw one of the people-who-weren’t-anymore fall out of the hole and hit it with her tail, sending it flailing into the deeps.
She didn’t get to finish her work – she felt the water around her pull urgently and recognized Ianthe’s touch, trying to get her attention. She turned.
A dead ship was headed right for the Midnight Sun at ramming speed, aiming to catch her right in the side. From what Calliope had seen so far, the wrecks didn’t stop; they were disposable, and damage couldn’t take them out of a fight like it could on a live ship. Calliope abandoned the ship she’d been tearing apart and shot towards the new threat.
If she tried to push it… but no, she would likely slip off the hull, and she’d be trying to lift it out of the water. That wouldn’t work. Calliope scraped her claws over the wood, skimming underneath it. She couldn’t push it away – perhaps there was something she could she could pull on, to turn it aside? A trailing piece of rigging, maybe?
A dark line caught her attention, drifting off from the bow of the ship just near her. She backfinned and caught it – it was an anchor chain, disconnected from whatever had once hung from its end.
This might work. Calliope wrapped the chain around her torso with a quick twirl, keeping it away from the harpoon gun, and started to swim.
It was almost immediate – she felt the entire weight of the ship pull hard, pressing into her shoulder and pinching, ripping at her skin. She strained against it, pulling as hard as she could, and to her fierce relief she saw the ship above wrenched off course, cutting hard to starboard.
No reason to stop. Calliope renewed her efforts, swimming with her whole body – away from the Midnight Sun and down, away from her family, towards the deeps.
She only knew she was getting somewhere by the dimming light and the lessening sounds of battle, though the booming of cannons and the scream of breaking wood still assaulted her down here, and she heard it from everywhere – from every part of the battle, near or far. Sound carried in the water.
The ship she was dragging was trying to get back up, and she could feel the spirits swarming around her – but they didn’t know what she was, didn’t know what to make of her, and she forced them away with a hissed note in a couple of bubbles that scared them off.
When she had gotten down far enough, she turned and sang the same note as before, but louder this time – and she turned with a flick of her tail and swam the length of the entire ship, singing the whole way down. If she did this near the surface, it would rebound onto the ships she wanted to keep together. Down here, the sound still carried, but the power didn’t.
The chain in her hands melted instantly. The bolts in the wood, the grating on the deck, the lead framing of the windows, the locks on the doors – everything came apart as she sustained the note, and she watched the ship disintegrate before her eyes.
Once she was certain it was drifting apart and not reforming, she returned to the surface for a breath of air, filling her burning lungs. Magic made her body hurt.
Calliope cleared the water from her eyes with a shake of her head and glanced around. Things were… not going well. She saw the Curse of the North had managed to get near the Heretic, but wasn’t yet in a good position to fire on her, despite her front-facing guns.
The Midnight Sun was fine. She hadn’t been hurt yet, and Calliope took a few gulps of air and watched one of the crew members spot her and wave, relief etched on their features. She grinned back.
The Curse of the North was no longer between Calliope and Kiera’s unit. She glanced over to see how they were faring in the battle.
Not well. They’d been ambushed, but the angle of their attack put them in a perfect position to be rammed by the dead ships, and Calliope could see the wreckage of one galleon slowly sinking beneath the waves. She swallowed nervously and looked to the Queen’s Bounty.
She spotted it just in time to see the prow and bowsprit of a dead ship crash through the Bounty’s side, sending wood flying and splitting the ship in two. She gasped despite herself – she could see figures flung from the deck into the roiling water.
Denzil whirled at the sound of the crash, eyes wide. “Calliope!” he shouted.
She understood. There was no time to get them with lifeboats. She dove underneath the water and streaked towards them, wondering how many people she could carry. Denzil turned again, searching the water, and caught sight of her as she shot by. She flicked her tail above the water to signal she’d heard him – he could focus on the fight.
The dead ship lost most of its momentum hitting the Queen’s Bounty, but still had enough force to crunch through the rest of it and press the rest of the ship down into the water. It was one fancy gilded caravel against a three-masted sailing galleon – there was no contest here, and the Queen’s Bounty hadn’t been ready to avoid the hit.
As soon as the dead ship passed by, Calliope swept in, searching the wreckage for survivors – specifically, for Kiera.
There. The captain was floating, barely conscious, in the water, thankfully face-up. Calliope reached out and scooped her up in one arm, slinging her over one shoulder.
“Who?” Kiera managed.
“Shush,” Calliope said, moving through the floating debris. There were a few other bodies, but only two of them were alive.
Easy enough. She gathered the three of them – she could easily hold three humans – and held them out of the water while trying to stay low to the surface herself.
A ship cut between her and the Midnight Sun. It was a live ship, but not a friendly one; on its low deck she saw pirates rushing back and forth, eyeing her.
“What the hell is that?” One of them shouted.
Whoops. She couldn’t dive, because she was carrying three people, but she couldn’t exactly peacefully move around them and expect them not to fire on her.
She didn’t think. Instead she beat her tail and propelled herself upwards, transferring the humans to one arm, and hauled herself up onto the ship.
The pirates were not prepared for this, and neither was the ship. The entire thing listed to starboard as she pulled herself up, grinning, and set her passengers down gently on the deck.
“That ain’t no whale,” one of the pirates managed dumbly, before Calliope whipped out the harpoon gun and fired. It went smoothly through his lower torso and then retracted, reloading itself – McCullough’s latest alteration to it.
The pirates on board rushed her like idiots. Perhaps they were compelled to do it; she didn’t know. But she dispatched them easily enough, either with the gun or by throwing them into the water or hitting them as hard as she could with her hands and claws. Once none were left on the deck, she slipped the harpoon gun back onto her back, grabbed the survivors, and rolled off the ship back into the water.
It seemed that nothing else noticed her as she slipped between pieces of ships to get back to the Midnight Sun. She watched Denzil drop the sheet of ice around his ship and instead bring it up in front of the Curse of the North, cutting her off from the Heretic. This was a retreat, then. The great engines in the Curse’s belly roared, and the water churned around her.
Calliope wanted to fight. But Denzil was now the captain of these fleets, and she wasn’t going to leave her family so she could fuss about with some dead boats.
She brought the sailors to the Midnight Sun and shouted; they lowered a lifeboat while turning the ship and she dropped the humans in.
Ianthe was leaning over the rail, looking worriedly down. “Calliope,” she called, “go! It isn’t safe!”
“I’m fine,” Calliope called. “I’m going to look for survivors.”
The mast of a ship rose near her and she, as a reaction, slammed her weight into the side of the Midnight Sun and pushed the entire ship to the side, through the water. The dead ship rose easily up, dripping and black, and readied century-old cannons.
There were dead ships everywhere. Calliope could fight, but she couldn’t fight that many, and they were being surrounded.
She looked back up. Ianthe was gripping the rail with her eyes shut. She was going to do something. Calliope caught the scent of Ianthe’s magic, pepper oil and rosemary. “Ianthe?”
“I… Xikaal,” Ianthe began, “Goddess of life and death, of the in-between, the salt in the water and the gleam of light on the waves.”
“Ianthe, no!” Xikaal was far, far more dangerous than any other goddess of the sea. Calliope surged upwards, clawing at the wood of the hull, trying to draw her attention. She was going to get herself killed. She was going to die! “Ianthe!”
Ianthe was not listening. “As I stare into death, and welcome it, I want to reflect my demise to it. It does not belong here. It has already died. I want to send it back. It has no right to overstep its boundaries. Once our time is up, we do not get any more.”
“I call upon you, Xikaalothirivaani, to grant me the power to restore balance to the world.”
There was no response but silence – silence that grew, blotting out sound, muting out the crash of ships in the swell and the thunder of summoned clouds and cannon fire, erasing the shouting of the crews.
“Alizarin’s hold on these ships is less than yours should be, great one. Help me send them back to – “
There was no bolt of lightning, no spires of stone or coral, no massive waves. Just a faint sensation in the world of something changing and a fleeting moment where sound was muted, and a ripple – ever so faint – flashed out from Ianthe and depressed the ocean in a circular pattern, flicking over the tops of the swell and past the ships.
Aboard the Midnight Sun, Ianthe collapsed. But around the fleet, the dead ships shuddered and went still. The figures on their decks collapsed, slumping into sodden heaps of old rags and bone. The sound of cannon fire continued for a few seconds, then ceased.
“Ianthe!” Calliope yelled, but there was no response.
“Back!” Denzil called, voice amplified again. Calliope looked to the Curse of the North and saw that she had turned fully and was powering as quickly as she could away from the Heretic, her engines screaming. What remained of the collective fleet was turning, heading east, relying on the sunrise to help cover their retreat.
It was working – and it seemed that Alizarin was unwilling to follow them without his dead ships. “What have you done?” he hissed through the air and waves, voice following him, tainted with fury. It smelled like honey and an alcohol Calliope wasn’t familiar with. She shook her head and tried to clear the scent from her nose and mouth.
No one answered. The ships fled.
The wind weakened. “Go,” Alizarin hissed, voice distant but still audible through the breezes. His voice licked against Calliope’s ears; she shuddered. “Leave the dead. They are mine now.”
The fleet retreated.
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Chapter 14: Across the Horizon
Another shorter chapter. Get ready :3
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Calliope paced the Sun, out in the open, the entire time they ran from Alizarin. Every glance she shot back at the horizon saw his live ships drifting gently over the battlefield. She could see even from this distance, even as they got further away, a strange distortion in the air. It twisted and writhed in place like a nest of mud-worms, almost as if the sky itself were trying to flee, but was being… contained. The air stank of honey and decaying flesh, and alcohol, sharp and stinging. It made Calliope gag.
Alizarin, working his vile craft. She could see the Heretic on the waves, claiming her victory.
As they went, the wind was cut through with other scents – Denzil’s mint and lemongrass, as he left thick sea ice over the waves behind them, and the myriad scents of hundreds of other magic-users amongst the fleet’s collective crew. Calliope occasionally glanced towards the Curse of the North and saw Denzil standing at the aft rail, brow furrowed, staring at the sea. He’d positioned the Curse at the rear of the fleet to cover their retreat, her massive gray iron hull shielding the wooden ships from any stray shots. She was going much slower than she could to keep herself between the fleet and their enemy, and she could control her speed through her huge engines. The rest of the fleet had to rely on the wind – though with the number of gifted pirates, the wind was in their favor, tinged with the smells of magic.
None of the other ships seemed to pay much mind to Calliope down in the water. They had bigger things to worry about, Calliope thought, and she didn’t care to hide when she was more concerned with trying to see if Ianthe was alright.
Ianthe was not dead, but she was unconscious, and no one seemed to be able to wake her.
“Let me up,” Calliope said, the instant she heard this.
“We’ll have to wait until we’re a safe distance from the fleet,” McCullough told her, from the rail. His face was pale and troubled, the skin tight around his jaw. “We can’t yet. I’m sorry.”
“I will claw my way up the side of the ship.”
“I know you can, but we – we can’t stop. Just wait. Please.”
Calliope had to satisfy herself with staying close enough to the Sun’s hull that she brushed against the wood every now and then. It took an agonizing hour and a half for the horizon to erase Alizarin from their view, and that was when Denzil – who was now the one in charge, given that Kiera’s ship had been destroyed – gave the signal that they could stop.
“So let me up!” Calliope shouted, to the Sun’s crew. “Now!”
They let down one of the lifeboats for her. She ignored the attention she was now gathering from nearby ships that let down anchor in the waters and hauled herself into the boat, flicking her tail-tip impatiently while they pulled her back up.
She was far larger than any of them, and could tell it was a struggle for the crewmembers to pull her up. Additionally, it was a struggle for the ship to have to deal with her weight now tipping the balance dangerously to port. She ignored that, and as soon as the boat was level with the ship’s rail she rolled out of it and onto the deck, then glanced around for Ianthe.
The first mate was, thankfully, still out on the deck. They hadn’t moved her since she’d fallen at the rail save to transfer her from the seawater-stained planks onto a sturdy wood and cloth cot. She lay there nearly motionless.
“Ianthe,” Calliope said urgently, and dragged herself over, claws leaving deep gouges in the decks. Someone might scold her for those later. She didn’t particularly care.
Ianthe was breathing, slow and deep, for all appearances asleep. Her pulse was very slow, but steady, and her face relaxed.
“I think she’ll be alright,” McCullough said, stepping up next to Calliope. “I… hope. It would be a real struggle to find another first mate as good as she is.”
“You’d better not.”
“I – that was a joke,” McCullough sighed, clasping his hands behind his back. “I’m really worried about her. I was – it was a joke.”
“Oh.” Calliope reached out and cupped Ianthe’s face with one hand. Her palm was large enough to cover the entire side of Ianthe’s face; she brushed her thumb gently over the first mate’s nose and cheek, careful not to nick her skin with her claws, then withdrew. “Got it.”
“She’ll be fine. She’s – I don’t really… I don’t know much about how the goddesses work, despite how long I’ve spent in Ianthe’s company, but – well, no, that’s not true. But I don’t know about that one.”
That one. The goddess of salt, of life and death, both the unexpected and uncertain, and the known and dreaded. Calliope didn’t know her either, and didn’t care to.
Footsteps on the deck behind them. Calliope didn’t bother turning to look.
“We have to go back,” someone said, an imperious, irritated voice. “There’s no excuse for – “
“…fffffor,” Kiera Zeidane said, and then, “what… is that.”
Calliope glanced over her shoulder. The captain had dried out from earlier, but was in a rather sorry state still, her clothing crusted with salt and her light brown skin marked with a number of cuts and scrapes from when her ship had been turned to matchsticks with her on board. “Hello,” Calliope said to her, and turned in place, putting herself between Kiera and Ianthe. McCullough glanced over to her quickly and stayed by her side, hands still behind his back.
“I’m sorry,” Kiera said, taking a step backwards and glancing around to the Midnight Sun’s crew. “Is that – is that a merid?”
“Yes,” McCullough said.
“I sure am,” Calliope said. “And I’m right here. You can just talk to me instead of asking other people.”
“That’s not – “ Kiera started, and then stopped, taking a deep breath. She closed her eyes for a second and rubbed her forehead, then looked up, through her fingers. Her eyes, rich brown with golden spots, drove into Calliope’s own. “You,” she said instead. “I… remember you.”
“Yes. I pulled you out of the water earlier,” Calliope said. She refused to be intimidated by a Crown-appointed captain who didn’t even have a ship. She’d never been subjected to Kiera’s gaze before, and while it might’ve worked something akin to magic on Crown sailors, Calliope wasn’t impressed by it now. “You’re welcome for that, by the way.”
“That was you? There was a, another ship – “
“Yep! It’s gone, don’t worry,” Calliope said, cutting her off hurriedly. The sea had washed the blood from the gun, and McCullough didn’t know about the pirates she’d killed. “All taken care of. Got you away from that one, too. So I’d appreciate if you didn’t attack me or anything.”
Kiera fell silent again.
McCullough glanced over at Calliope. He seemed calm, but she could see him fiddling with his sleeve collar behind his back. “Calliope is, um, she lives with us,” he managed.
“You have a merid that lives on your ship.” Kiera folded her arms, setting her weight back on one leg. It seemed that her best defense was to be annoyed by any given situation.
McCullough shrugged. “Around it, really. She’s too big to come on board now.”
“Now? It – she’s done this before?”
“Oh, yeah, all the time. When she was little, anyways.”
“…when she was ‘little’?”
McCullough shrugged. “You know. Smaller than she currently is.”
“I’m not looking for a definition of a word I already know, Captain McCullough, I’m looking for an explanation.”
“They raised me,” Calliope said, breaking into the exchange. “On board. Since I was a baby. I live here. Is that good enough? Do you need more, or…?”
Kiera didn’t answer.
Ianthe woke up towards evening, after being tended to for most of the day. Calliope almost cried in relief; though the first mate was weak, she was alive, which was more than either of them had expected.
“I never want to do that again,” Ianthe said fervently, when she was conscious, and aware enough to speak. There was a faraway cast to her gaze. Calliope couldn’t possibly know what was inside her mind, but she could tell that the first mate had seen and experienced something most humans would never know. “That was awful.”
“Yes.” Ianthe closed her eyes again and took a breath, then held out her hands. The fingertips, which were normally dark, had been scarred salt-white, as if the color had been drained from them. The color hadn’t returned at all since she’d fallen unconscious. “She was… I was her for one moment. I have never felt something so – alien, so uncaring. The other gods will listen and speak. This one…”
She trailed off, shaking her head. Calliope extended one hand and Ianthe took hold of it, though she had to use both hands simply to hold Calliope’s. “No. Never again.”
Just after nightfall, Denzil came on board to meet with Ianthe and Kiera, as did Sun Yeng. “I’m not certain how to deal with this situation,” he admitted, looking down.
Kiera folded her arms, glowering at the floorboards. “Perhaps,” she said carefully, “we underestimated him.”
“Perhaps?” Sun Yeng glanced over. “Perhaps we underestimated him? I lost five of my fleet, and countless more ships have sustained horrendous amounts of damage.”
Kiera did not look down; she stared icily back. “The Queen’s Bounty is gone. I am well aware of our mistake.”
“No. You do not.” Sun Yeng narrowed their eyes. “For you, the problem is easy to fix. You tell your superiors. They punish you. They give you new ships. They sell you new ships. They assign new sailors to your ships. The problem is solved. For us, who run our own lives, such things are not so easily dismissed. We value each and every one of our ships and crew because we cannot replace them like new toys for a petulant child. We should have been more careful. We should have planned better. We should have waited to learn more about Alizarin’s dead ships.”
“Easy,” Denzil said, holding up a hand. “We all misjudged Alizarin’s capabilities. But even the Peacebringers did not know the full extent of his power. Regardless of the happenstances, we must figure out what to do next. Blaming each other is pointless.”
Kiera let out a long, controlled breath. “We’ve suffered a great defeat at his hands,” she said, through gritted teeth. “I suppose we should call upon the Crown next, and hope that they view him as enough of a threat to send their own navy against.
A great defeat? Calliope felt a jolt in her stomach. Were they planning to give up? No. They couldn’t. “We have to fight Alizarin still,” she blurted, and Kiera jumped again, still unused to her presence, or perhaps just to her voicing her opinions. The other captains glanced over at her as she flicked her tail-tip over the deck with a wet smack and dug her claws into the salt-stained wood. “He’s not gone yet, and he’s going to bring all his ships back, along with any he destroyed today. He can do it and he will do it. We have to try again!”
“We can’t fight him,” Ianthe said from her cot, shaking her head.
Her voice was so sure. Her despair showed on her face, grated in her words like a heavy stone in a net. She kept rubbing her fingertips together, over the coarse fabric of her coat, the smooth wood of the ship. Calliope glanced up. Everyone else watched her. Kiera Zeidane looked uncomfortable, jaw working as she ran her top lip between her teeth. Sun Yeng was breathing a little harder than they normally did, their hands tucked into their sleeves. Ianthe was staring at the floorboards, McCullough was running his palm over the pommel of his sword, and Denzil was watching her with cautious, curious eyes. Calliope took a few deep breaths.
All of them were so afraid of Alizarin. So afraid of what he could do. So unwilling to sacrifice their crew to bring him down. And she understood that. She too felt fear when she thought of Alizarin’s dead ships, his tight-lipped smile, his hissing, curdled words on the wind, flicking against her ears and trailing over her face and throat. But her fear was eclipsed by something else – her anger, bright as sunlight, cold as seawater, swift as storm-clouds.
We can’t fight him. He’ll win.
Calliope cocked her head to the side, eyes shining in the darkness, and smiled, slow and sharp. “Are you sure?”
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The captains forbade her from going – all of them and Ianthe. Five different people told her she was not allowed to try and take on Alizarin on her own.
She didn’t care.
He had hurt Ianthe before, and he had almost made her kill herself to save everyone else. And he’d destroyed hundreds of lives in his flight from Buroni Hakir and in the battle earlier. She wouldn’t put up with his existence any longer.
As the moon – a thick gibbous, nearly full – rose over the sea, Calliope slipped back into the waters and slowed her heartbeat and her breath. She did not want to be seen or noticed until she absolutely had to be.
Denzil and Kiera had been right. Eliminate Alizarin and his fleet would fall apart. They were smart to go right for him – but they had done it too obviously, and been unaware of his ambush. They had not had the upper hand like they’d thought.
Alone, she could see everything. Alone, no one expected her. Alone, she didn’t have to hold back.
She knew where Alizarin’s fleet was. They didn’t see her, deep as she was, and she bypassed every other ship in the fleet and came at the Heretic directly from below, slow and steady. The spirits swarming around it didn’t notice her – not when she carefully hummed a shimmer into the water to keep her presence a secret – and, ever so carefully, she drifted up to the ship and placed her hands on the keel. She felt the ship breathing, and she felt the spirits trapped in the wood, in the masts and rope, in the sails. She could feel it all.
Time to destroy it.
She had air. She opened her mouth and sang the same note as before – but this time she sang it with all the force she could muster, as loud as she possibly could, and the water around her heated up. She could feel the echoes of her own note reverberating back to her, and she flinched to hear them, but she kept going.
The iron and steel in the Heretic’s hull, though protected by spirits, was not prepared for her. Just like before, she watched it flash-heat to brilliant glowing white and send out a burst of steam, and stretch and lose shape, allowing the planks to move. Not the entire ship – certainly not, she couldn’t manage that while in the water like this – but where she was, and that was enough. And perhaps her voice would reach further than she hoped.
Some of the planks began to drift away – but she felt movement on the ship now, panicked feet and running. They knew something was happening; likely they knew she was here. She ripped at the ship and was rewarded as she felt the planks come away under her hands, watched water swirl into the hold and precious air bubble out. She laughed; perhaps it would be this easy after all.
She opened her mouth again and sang a more complex sequence of notes, and this time, she felt heat above the surface break out as fire sprang up on the hull and began to race across the wood, clinging to the wood. The shouting grew louder, and she heard several splashes as a few pirates abandoned the ship.
So quick to flee, she mused, still grinning. How hilarious. How strong they were earlier, and how weak they were now.
Turning, she rolled in place and slammed her tail into the ship – once, twice, three times, and she felt the ribs of the ship crack under the impacts. Even with her size and the water’s resistance, she still had enough force to do that.
She reached into the hold and ripped one of the ribs out, tossing it into the water. The ship began to pitch and take on water, and Calliope laughed again, tearing at another board.
There was a bang from above, and she watched dispassionately as someone fired a gun into the water. What were they thinking? Bullets didn’t penetrate the sea very well. She watched the metal sphere go drifting past her and reached up and into the ship, pulling at the hold ceiling, forcing water into the next deck. The Heretic pitched more violently and screamed as she began to slip under the water’s surface.
The other ships were closing in, but she didn’t care. The Heretic was sinking. Now, where was Alizarin? Trapped in his own ship, unable to escape? Already in the water? She looked around for him, searching for that red coat, for that figure, for that disgusting sense, for whoever was controlling the dead ships.
The Heretic was going down. She watched the deck submerge and the sails become drenched.
There! There he was – still in that stupid red coat – holding desperately on to the wooden rail. He looked up, saw her, and narrowed his eyes.
And the Heretic stopped sinking.
Slowly, she halted, then began to rise upwards. Calliope stared first in confusion, and then in horror as she realized – if she killed the ship, it fell under Alizarin’s jurisdiction. He could bring it back.
Alizarin’s triumphant grin spurred her into action. She hated him, hated his horrible smile, hated his gloating words. With a flick of her tail Calliope darted forwards onto the deck and planted herself on it, and as the Heretic rose above the surface again, water streaming from the deck and portholes and the holes Calliope had knocked in the hull – and even now she could see anything attached by metal was only partially held together, but somehow, just like the dead ships, it was still alive – she finally found herself face-to-face with Alizarin.
“So,” he said, and when he spoke she could see the interior of his mouth filled with writhing tendrils of greenish-black flesh. They writhed and pressed against the insides of his cheeks, making them bulge outwards. He didn’t seem to notice. “You’re Ianthe’s little secret, aren’t you?”
“I’m not a secret anymore,” Calliope said triumphantly. “I am – “
She stopped. No, there was probably no point in giving Alizarin her name, and it’d cause more trouble than she cared to collect. “I am here to kill you,” she said instead.
“Good luck with that,” Alizarin laughed. One tendril slipped out in front of his teeth and curled over his lip. He tossed his head back and swallowed to pull it back into his mouth. “You can kill my ship, but I’ll bring her back.”
“No, I’m here to kill you, not your ship.” Calliope smiled, holding herself upright by sheer strength and force of will. “There’s – there’s a difference.”
“Again. I wish you the best of luck.”
“I won’t need it.” Calliope reached behind her and pulled out the harpoon gun. She aimed and fired.
The shot went wide. She frowned, retracting the harpoon with a switch and a whirring sound, and tried again. As she fired her hand jerked to the side and the bolt whipped away and thunked into the wood of the now-tilted ship’s deck. “What - ?”
“You can’t hurt me,” Alizarin taunted.
Hissing, Calliope retracted the bolt, pulling herself towards it and towards Alizarin. He sidestepped and she smacked into the side of the ship, sending it reeling so far over to the side she thought it would capsize again. Alizarin had to leap for the mast and hold on to avoid falling in the water. “That’s right,” Calliope called to him, grinning. “Come into my territory and let’s see how well you do.”
“You’re a real treasure,” Alizarin sneered back. “Where’d they find you?”
“In the ocean. Are you an idiot?”
The ship wrenched itself back upright with a scream of breaking wood, and Calliope found herself flung back across the deck. She skidded to a halt and caught herself against the stairs as Alizarin balanced himself carefully on the mast; the Heretic began to pitch to the other side, and she found herself nearly thrown off again. She searched for something to cling to and dug her claws into the stairs, snapping the boards entirely.
“Ianthe really should have given herself up,” Alizarin sighed, shaking his head. “It would have made killing the rest of you very, very easy. But you know what? Your soul will do just fine.”
“Too bad you won’t get it.” If she couldn’t attack him what could she do? The Heretic began to stabilize again, and she dragged herself further onto the deck. “Not unless you can kill me.”
“I don’t think that’s going to be an issue.”
Calliope gritted her teeth. “I do,” she panted, and hurled herself forwards, shooting the harpoon gun again.
It got closer to Alizarin, but still missed him. He laughed again.
She couldn’t attack him. She probably couldn’t rip him apart with her hands. But could she just… hold on to him?
“What’s so funny?” she asked, retracting the gun and getting closer.
He stepped back, so small and quick and agile around her massive form. “It’s just very amusing, all this,” he said. “You really think one single person is going to be able to stop me? What could possibly give you that impression?”
“Overconfidence,” Calliope replied, and leaped for him. He darted out of the way and she hissed again and sheathed the harpoon gun.
“That’s also not going to work,” Alizarin said. “You can’t attack me. You can’t harm me – you physically cannot do it. I have ensured it.”
Loopholes. Where was the loophole? There was always a loophole. Every agreement had its flaws, every order had its blind spots. The more generic a command, the easier it was to subvert it. “That’s too bad.”
“Violence isn’t the answer this time. Well, it isn’t for you, anyways. It definitely is for me.” Alizarin went for a gun at his side, but when he tried to pull it out, it stuck – it had melted into a chunk of silvery slag and become glued to his clothing, and he glanced down at it and growled in frustration. Calliope grinned.
Loopholes. There had to be something! If she couldn’t act violently… maybe she could act nonviolently, but in a manner that would still kill him.
“No, you were right. Violence sure isn’t the way,” she said. What if… This was ridiculous, but so was her entire attempt at taking down Alizarin’s fleet with nothing but her claws and a harpoon gun. “It sure is dangerous to be on board a sinking ship, isn’t it? I think I’m going to save your life.”
Calliope lunged at him again, and this time, he didn’t dodge fast enough and she grabbed him in what was essentially a double-armed hug, crushing him close to her chest. He yelped as she did so and she tumbled forwards and off the ship, into the water.
“You – what?” Alizarin managed, and then Calliope took a deep breath , filling her lungs with smoke-tinged air, and dove.
Holding onto Alizarin was hard – he was wriggly and slippery, and she kept feeling her arms involuntarily start to lose him. But she made sure to be careful, to not hurt him. She didn’t want to hurt him. She wasn’t going to hurt him. She was just taking him away from the very dangerous, on-fire, sinking ship! To save his life, of course. To keep him safe, from the ship that could explode, or burn, or break. He could get a splinter. How kind and thoughtful of her.
Now, if in the process of saving him, she accidentally took him somewhere and he became fatally injured, well… that wasn’t her fault, now was it? No, of course not!
That heavily flawed reasoning was, apparently, enough to convince the spirits that Alizarin had bound. Perhaps they were only governed by the exact words he’d used to work his magic. Perhaps, even dead, they still hated him, and wanted him to suffer for what he’d done to them. Whatever the truth, it was enough.
Calliope dove straight down. The flaming wreckage of the Heretic began to sink above, and Alizarin was trying to hold his breath but growing more and more panicked as Calliope powered downwards, away from the moon and the stars and into the depths.
If anything, the goddesses of the ocean would be pleased to have Alizarin delivered directly to Athu’s grasp. Calliope kept arms locked around Alizarin’s form.
Around her, she felt spirits swarm over her skin. They knew what she was now, and she felt as they took the form of sharp little claws and tore into her skin, ripped at her hair, sliced through her fins. She rolled to try and shake them off but they kept going.
She tried to swat them away – and to her surprise she almost could. To hurt her, they had to take a physical form. She saw Alizarin squeezing his eyes shut, but watched him twitch his fingers and felt the spirits tear deeper.
They’re going to ruin my tattoos, she thought, infuriated, and powered downwards harder. She couldn’t hurt Alizarin, couldn’t rip his hands away to prevent him from controlling his stolen spirits. She just had to keep going.
Around her, shapes flitted through the water. She couldn’t catch them in her sight, only out of the corner of her eyes. More spirits, more tricks? She faltered and felt Alizarin struggle, trying to get free. At the same time she felt her limbs lock up, her tail freezing in place, keeping her from tightening her grasp on Alizarin. She felt him wriggle again, and start to free himself.
No! She hissed out a barely audible note and felt the spirits recoil from her for a second, and in that second she renewed her dive, surging into the black.
The pressure increased. She saw Alizarin frantically flailing, trying to pull himself out of her arms, and held on just as carefully as before, taking utmost caution not to hurt him. She cupped one hand around his head and held him close, as if she were protecting him.
Alizarin’s mouth was shut, but he was covering his ears and his eyes now. She could feel his body shaking. He was a scrawny little thing, really; no strength in him at all, not here. And his hands were occupied. The flickering images in her vision were gone, and the spirits that had been nipping at her body had vanished. Without his hands, he couldn’t do anything to hurt her. She grinned fiercely as she felt her body adjusting to the weight of the water over her. Alizarin was out of his depth – and into hers.
She kept going. All light was gone; she could see, but only barely, and Alizarin certainly couldn’t. He was struggling still, but as she watched the air in his lungs burst out from his mouth and spiraled upwards in a trail of bubbles. He reached out towards them, opening his eyes, unable to see but knowing where his air went, and the tendrils in his mouth spread outwards and flailed, searching for air, any air, anything at all. They unraveled into thin, slick lines that grasped at the water, stretching down to searching past his neck to his torso, touching Calliope’s skin once or twice. The feel of them was repulsive; like the faintest brush of a finger or fin – gentle, yet horrific.
The temperature was dropping. She’d thought Denzil’s magic was cold, but the deeper ocean here had her shaking, even through the layers of fat she’d grown from her steady diet of fish and whatever sea life she could get her hands on. The chill was seeping into her lungs and she wondered how long she would be able to hold her breath. Even now, she felt the pressure pressing in on her skull and ears, though her ears were protected by several layers of webbing when she went this deep.
Alizarin finally went limp in her hands. She saw – more felt, really felt – his body convulse once, felt him break, watched blood drift out of his mouth and nose in faint crimson clouds. She couldn’t hear his frantic heartbeat anymore.
Good enough. She let go, dropping him into the blackness. It disappeared instantaneously.
And then she began to panic.
Which way was up? She was completely disoriented; she tried to catch sight of Alizarin’s body drifting, but it was gone; and even if she spotted it, could be going in any direction. Were there currents to catch it down here? She didn’t know. She swam forwards, then turned, then regretted turning. It didn’t feel right. None of it felt right. She couldn’t figure out what was the pull of the ocean floor and what was the pressure of the water and what might have been the push of a deep-sea current on her body. There was no direction here. She was suspended, eternally, in an endless void.
She didn’t want to die. She didn’t want to die. She thought of Ianthe, of her pirate family, of the goddesses. Their faces ran through her mind, McCullough singing, Ianthe with her arms spread and the goddesses burning in her blood. The goddesses! Maybe if she prayed to one, she’d be saved.
Kulari, storms. Nope. Xikaal, life. Maybe. Zzoriel, stone. Perhaps. Athu –
Athu. She closed her eyes for a moment. Athu, show me the way to the surface.
The ocean was merciless. Alizarin’s body drifted further, vanishing into the black. Calliope shivered and tried to keep her heartbeat down. It pounded in her ears. The darkness was all-consuming. She closed her eyes for a moment. Athu, guide me out from your everlasting depths.
Vast, distant noises echoed from far trenches and creatures that were miles away from her, low notes and distant scraping sounds, and the faintest echo of underwater volcanoes rumbling. Calliope wrapped her arms around herself. Athu, please. I want to go home.
And, in the pitch darkness of the deep ocean, miles of emptiness surrounding Calliope in every direction, in a world where the moon and stars could never reach and even the sun did not exist, there was light.
A faint yellow luminescence in the shadows before her, in a single oval patch. It brightened, dimmed, and brightened again. Then another lit up next to it, and another – and a whole row of ovals of a neon yellow color, growing brighter as she watched, and then smaller lines of circular dots running along the ridge of something. Was that up? Was that down? What was Athu trying to tell her?
She stared at it, baffled. Another line of yellow lights began to run through the darkness, and a few long, thin lines of light, and slowly Calliope realized what she was looking at.
Above the seafloor – which lay not far below her – was a creature. She was larger than any undersea mountain Calliope had seen. Her black skin was craggy and ridged, sharp-edged plates of skin like scales mimicking rocks. Her tail lay on the seabed, half-buried in silt, and the luminescence she was giving off was glowing brighter and brighter as she woke up. She’d been asleep.
The patches ran up her body to long, slice-like slits in her sides that puffed out water that glowed after it left her body. Gills, of a sort, and ahead of them two long, dark arms, with strangely lengthened webbed hands. And above that there was a thick, spiny neck, and a smooth hairless head with long stalks that felt for disturbances in the water and were tipped with glowing baubles.
And then the eyes.
She opened her eyes, and they were brilliant yellow, glowing enough to shine light on the seabed. Calliope saw small creatures scuttle out of the way of the light, hiding from the creature.
After a moment, she opened her mouth just a sliver and sucked in water, and Calliope saw that the mouth stretched around most of her face and revealed rows of needle-like teeth in the light that glowed just inside.
Calliope knew what this was. And it – she – was far more beautiful, and far more terrifying, than Calliope had ever thought she could be. This was a mer-matriarch, one of the eldest and strongest creatures that could ever exist, and she was staring at Calliope now.
She wanted to speak to this creature, but she breathed air, and couldn’t risk losing it – and, anyways, what would she say?
Alizarin’s corpse drifted downwards, a tiny dark splotch against the light. His coat floated in the water near Calliope while his body fell; she snatched the coat in one hand and watched the matriarch as she shifted her monochrome eyes from Calliope to Alizarin.
She cocked her head to the side in interest, then reached out with one massive hand and carefully held him between two fingers. The wave her hand sent out nearly bowled Calliope over.
He was dead, but the tendrils of his mouth still writhed around, grasping for air, or something to hold on to. The light of the matriarch’s eyes illuminated him enough to see the damage that had been done to his fragile human form. It wasn’t pretty.
The matriarch blinked, opened her mouth, and swallowed Alizarin’s corpse whole. It vanished between her massive teeth; Calliope shuddered nervously, still holding the coat, as the matriarch looked up. She had no doubt that the matriarch would eat her given the chance, and that her gigantic body only looked slow and lethargic. That creature was probably swifter than a swordfish.
But instead, the matriarch closed her eyes, then breathed out through the gills at her sides. Puffs of neon light spread over the ocean floor, curling luminescence produced by the matriarch that shone across more and more of the soft seabed, billowing clouds like smoke that glimmered against the mud.
It took a few seconds for Calliope to understand. Athu, thank you, she thought. She put her tail to the light and swam up.
The matriarch’s glow was powerful enough – and it was growing as she left – that she could see it for most of her swim up. It was so strong it only faded when she had left the midnight zone and could see a hint of the moon above her.
And she slowed and stopped, astonished, because as she swam up, she passed the slowly sinking wrecks of Alizarin’s stolen ships. They were returning to the seabed. She hoped the matriarch wouldn’t mind too much. Athu was reclaiming what was hers.
She kept going, but did not surface above the matriarch. Instead she oriented herself by the stars and swam back to the Midnight Sun and the collective fleet.
When she finally broke the surface, she found herself crying massive, salty tears, shaking as she did so. Her lungs and torso ached from the strain of the changing pressure and the air that had been trapped inside them. She let herself float in the water for a bit in the moonlight until she had control of herself again.
Then she wearily knocked on the Sun’s hull until someone woke up and came to see what was the issue. It was Cirrio, rubbing at his eyes.
“Let me up,” Calliope said.
“It’s… Calliope, it’s the dead of night,” said Cirrio, sounding exhausted.
“I killed Alizarin and fed him to a matriarch,” Calliope told him.
“I’ll wake Ayesha,” Cirrio replied.
It took a few moments for the ship to wake up, but once it did, Calliope was hauled out of the water and immediately swarmed. She flopped onto the deck, causing the ship to list to the side a bit, and threw Alizarin’s sodden coat down onto the planks.
“He’s dead,” she said, resting her elbows on the wood and folding her hands over one another. “He won’t be a problem anymore.”
The crowd of crewmembers parted, revealing Ianthe, who was up and walking – though unsteadily – with McCullough close by. She looked down to the coat and up again, then swiftly stepped forwards and put her arms around Calliope’s neck, burying her face in her shoulder.
Calliope went slightly tense, startled. “Ianthe?” she asked, as quietly as she could.
“For fifteen years I have lived in fear of one day meeting Alizarin and dying to him. I knew that even if I killed him, I would die in my attempt to do so. But you’ve saved me.”
“I mean, it’s only fair,” Calliope said with a shrug. “You all didn’t leave me to die when I was little.”
“How did you do it?”
She smiled, long and slow, sharp in the moonlight. “I took him somewhere he couldn’t go.”
“…I don’t understand.”
“Humans,” Calliope said carefully, still remembering the feeling of the water crushing her ribs, “can’t go down very far. I can.”
Silence again, and this time Calliope could see the dawning horror – and admiration – on the faces of the crew around her. She let herself grin.
Ianthe shook her head. “The ships he enslaved?”
“Sank to the seabed.” Oh, she really hoped the matriarch wouldn’t be annoyed by that. Probably not.
“Free.” Calliope upended the coat and fragments of glass fell sparkling to the planks; the remnants of the tiny birdcages Alizarin had kept with him. The souls within them were gone, their captor dead and their prisons shattered.
“So these – “ Ianthe began, and then stopped, tilting her head to the side. Calliope could hear whispers in the breeze, but couldn’t make out what they said. After a moment Ianthe looked back to her. “I am told,” Ianthe said slowly, “that you called upon Athu.”
“I – no, I didn’t channel her or anything, but… I – I got lost. She woke up the matriarch. I was… disoriented, down in the deep, in the dark. The light showed me which direction to go. The matriarch – she breathed light…” Calliope let out a breath, remembering the uncaring cold of the abyss, the deep squeezing of the pressure on her lungs, the weight of the ocean threatening to crush her head, her eyes, burst her ears.
The matriarch had been one with the ocean, unbothered by the weight of the sea above her. Calliope shivered – would she become that some day?
Ianthe nodded. “Thank you,” she said quietly, and Calliope could tell the statement wasn’t directed towards her. Ianthe’s eyes were unfocused, staring beyond Calliope, beyond the ship, into the ocean. “Thank you for bringing her back to me. To us,” she added, glancing back to McCullough and the crew. For a second she hesitated, then said, “You saved my daughter, and for that, I owe you my life.”
Another moment passed. Ianthe listened, and finally looked down to the planks, smile bright in her dark face. “She says that by killing Alizarin you have already paid the debt for both of us.”
There was a moment of silence. Calliope pulled herself over and pressed herself against Ianthe. She felt the first mate laugh, breathless, and lean against her.
After another moment, McCullough chuckled as well.
“What?” Ianthe asked, glaring at him.
“Not you,” McCullough said, shaking his head. “The other captains. They’re absolutely going to lose their minds.”
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Chapter 16: A New Day Rises
The story comes to an end.
There will be an epilogue after this, stay tuned!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
When the sun rose, the collective fleet was greeted by the sight of the few remaining enemy ships sailing quietly towards them, white flags up. Total, unconditional surrender.
“A serpent attacked,” one of the enemy captains claimed, when the ships were boarded and their crews captured. His eyes were wild; they kept darting back and forth, frightened, searching for threats. “It came up out of the sea and tore the Heretic apart! It spit fire from its jaws like a dragon!”
“We never should have doubted you,” Ianthe said quietly to Calliope, while McCullough nodded sagely to the enemy and tried to stifle his laughter.
“Don’t worry,” Calliope said brightly. “It was fun.”
“Revenge is fun.”
The collective fleet captains gathered on board the Midnight Sun with Calliope.
“And you knew about this beforehand?” Kiera demanded, glaring at Denzil.
“I did, yes.”
“Why did you not use it before our battle?”
“Hey, excuse me,” Calliope snapped. “I’m not an it, and I don’t answer to you. I only answer to the Sun and the sea.”
Kiera subsided. She looked far less regal than she had before – the loss of her ship and crew had dealt a blow to her, to her confidence, to her trust in herself. Calliope could see it.
“If it comforts you at all,” Sun Yeng said, “I also did not know.”
“Oh, I’m so glad.”
“And, Kiera,” Denzil said, “we did have Calliope. She destroyed Alizarin. But I know what you’re really asking. You want to know why we didn’t have her before we wasted ships and lives attacking Alizarin and his dead-ship fleet.”
“We did not fully understand the threat. You said it yourself; we underestimated him. For that, I apologize, for it is partially my doing. Their deaths will weigh heavy upon me.”
Sun Yeng took over. “This is true. But additionally, Calliope could not have taken Alizarin and his ship on during the day, or during a battle. She needed the element of surprise; she needed the night.”
Calliope looked down, hiding her slight smile. Having the captains defend her like this felt nice. She was so used to hiding and eavesdropping; hearing them openly speak about her, to her, around her, was different. She liked it. She liked being someone to them. To everyone.
Kiera, arms folded and eyes dark under the puff of her hair, took a breath and opened her mouth to say something, then let the air out. “I understand,” she finally said, lowering her gaze. “I knew that it was likely we would lose some of our own in the battle. I suppose I just didn’t expect my ship to be one of those that would be lost.”
“I hesitate to view any ships as disposable, much like my crew,” Denzil said carefully.
A final dig and callback to the petrel-scout, and this time Kiera understood. She glared at the planks. “I will not do that again,” she growled.
“So who amongst us will claim the bounty on Alizarin?” Sun Yeng broke in, glancing between them all.
“Calliope, of course,” Denzil answered, almost surprised. He glanced over to her.
“I don’t care about the reward,” Calliope countered. “Give it to McCullough and Ianthe.” She was careful to list McCullough’s name first; he was the ship’s captain, after all. “The only thing I want is to not be murdered in port so I don’t have to hide underneath the ship anymore.”
Kiera nearly choked. “You were – you were in Buroni Hakir?!”
“I was there the whole time.”
She couldn’t respond, shocked. Calliope grinned needles at her.
“I’m sure the sisters would grant you at least that,” Denzil said, one eyebrow raised. “It is the very least they can do, and you nearly singlehandedly took down their greatest enemy yet.”
“Well, let’s go, then.”
The Curse of the North, the Lè Yuán de Wéi Gōng, and the Midnight Sun sailed first and foremost with the sunrise into Buroni Hakir, and Calliope swam ahead of them, at the surface of the water. Her proximity to the returning ships prevented anyone from firing on her – all here knew what the collective fleet had sailed out for, and that their return could mean only one thing.
An assistant waited at the dock where the Midnight Sun came to anchor, watching the ship with disinterested black eyes underneath the fringed red scarf wrapped around her face and hair. Another stood by while the Curse of the North let off a burst of steam and came to rest in the harbor; the Yuán docked to the Sun’s port side.
McCullough and Ianthe stepped down from the ship to greet the assistant, who simply nodded to them. Calliope propelled herself up out of the water enough to catch the edge of the dark plank deck and lean on it, face in her hands.
“We see the Queen’s Bounty has not returned,” the assistant said, looking over the docked ships. “Is her captain dead?”
“No,” Kiera called, striding down the gangplank. “I’m here.”
They waited. The other captains joined them just off the docks, but close enough that Calliope could still be part of the conversation.
“Your task is complete?”
“Alizarin is dead,” Denzil confirmed, bowing slightly. He wore his brocade vest and coat as always, this time with the addition of a pocketwatch and a dark-wood cane with a silver cap.
“The sisters will be pleased. Who claims his bounty?”
“I do,” Calliope called, from the water.
The assistant regarded her with an expression of disinterested calculation. She seemed entirely unbothered by Calliope’s presence and the fact that she was a merid. “It would be difficult to bring you to the palace for an audience,” she mused, after a moment.
“I’ll say,” McCullough muttered.
“I think that might not be possible, sorry,” Calliope said, with a shrug. “I mean… well, it’s possible. But it wouldn’t be pretty. Or anything but demeaning actually. Can we avoid that?”
The assistant cocked her head to the side, and this time Calliope saw the gleam of amusement in her eyes. “Very well,” she said, nodding ever so slightly. “I will announce to the sisters your presence.”
She bowed, turned, and left, striding away from the docks up through the shallow stone buildings and swaying palms of Buroni Hakir. The captains were left standing by the dock.
Kiera glanced over the ships and ran a hand over her face. There were circles under her eyes that had not been there before, and the gash across her forehead and face had only just begun to heal. “As soon as this is over,” she muttered, “I am going to have hell to pay.”
“Oh?” Sun Yeng said, glancing over.
“Did you think I owned the Queen’s Bounty?” Kiera asked, shaking her head and glowering at the bay. “No! I will have to pay for that, and it will take years.”
Sun Yeng paused and glanced over at Ianthe. She raised an eyebrow, then turned to Kiera.
“You know,” she said, “you could always abandon the Crown.”
“Abandon the Crown! I could never – “
She stopped mid-sentence.
“Consider your options,” Sun Yeng said soothingly, stepping up next to Ianthe. “You have no ship, and no crew but the two others who were saved by Calliope. If you return to the Crown, you will have to work for them for many years to pay off the cost of the Queen’s Bounty. But there are several ships here that have been surrendered to Buroni Hakir; for your sacrifice, of your ship and your crew, the sisters may allow you to take one. But the Crown wouldn’t like that, would they?”
“No,” Kiera muttered, “they wouldn’t.” She drummed her fingers on her arm, then looked to the Peacebringers’ assistant.
“We do not care what you do,” the assistant said, her face neutral, “but all are welcome in Buroni Hakir as long as you obey our rules.”
A long pause. She toed the cobblestones and looked out to sea. “But Alizarin was right,” she finally said. “He was right when he spoke to me. Not to the rest of you, but to me, he was. He told me I was nothing but a soldier taking orders.”
The wind picked up, sweeping through the nearby palms and rippling over the cool blue-green bay waters. The sound of a market floated along on it, the murmur of voices speaking over one another, the sound of animals calling in stalls, the chime of bells capturing the attention of passerby. Calliope breathed in and smelled sweet gulab jamun and spicy marsala curry in the square, and rich baking fish and naan bread. Overhead a pair of frigatebirds circled, rising from somewhere amongst the vast swathes of green trees and foliage that ran like rivers through the city. They floated out towards the sea to sweep over the silver waves and snatch up the sardines that ventured too close to the brilliant surface.
“He was right. But he won’t be anymore.” Kiera looked back to the other captains and nodded. “I will take one of the surrendered ships. I’ll take any of Alizarin’s pirates who want to come with me.”
“A sound decision,” Denzil said, with a smile. “I can see you already, scourge of the seas. You will be a fine pirate.”
“I’m disgusted,” Kiera muttered. Ianthe rolled her eyes.
“You can always go back,” Sun Yeng offered.
“No. No, I choose this course, and I’ll stay to it,” Kiera said, setting her brow in a frown. “And… there are some interesting things I know about the Crown routes that would come in handy were I to raid them.”
“Already thinking like one of us, Captain Zeidane,” McCullough said cheerfully, grinning at her. “Good start. No, don’t look at me like that! You can’t really believe the Crown sources all of its ridiculously expensive imported goods with any sort of fair deal, can you? Those are stolen. Go get them back.”
Kiera nodded, and a smile flashed across her face. “I think I shall, if the sisters give me the chance.”
They waited. The sun cast shadows over the land and out to sea; the buildings began to give off heat in the rising morning. Calliope was glad she was in the water, in the cool waves; she could already sea sweat beading on the faces of several of the captains and crew.
After nearly an hour of angled sunlight and the sound of pelicans, Calliope caught the faint chiming of bells through the streets. She put her torso up on the dock again and waited, watching.
It was a small procession of people, carefully making their way down the broad, shallow steps to the dockside. They were carrying a palanquin draped in red cloth, and as they drew closer Calliope could smell the perfumes that billowed out from the curtains like smoke.
The convoy set the palanquin down as they stopped by the docks and waited. There was a moment of silence before the curtains parted and Mahima Khurana stepped out. She looked around, almost carelessly, until she spotted the captains.
Ianthe was the first to move – she stepped over and knelt, head down. “Peacebringer Mahima,” she said quietly, eyes down. “This meeting is blessed.”
“It is indeed,” Mahima replied, and looked to the captains. They followed Ianthe’s example and knelt, bowing their heads. Calliope watched curiously as a second woman stepped out of the palanquin – this must be the second sister, Bhamini. She looked over the captains quietly.
“Rise,” Mahima said, and that released the captains. They stood before the sisters. This made them nervous for some reason, Calliope could tell – even Denzil had his hands clasped behind his back, trying to stop himself from fidgeting, from running his fingers over the silver head of his cane. The captains didn’t like being on level ground with the sisters.
The air of authority the sisters gave off was powerful enough that Calliope could understand why. It wasn’t right to be on the same level as someone so great.
For them, anyway. She didn’t particularly care.
“Alizarin is dead, then,” Mahima said.
“Yes, Peacebringer,” Ianthe replied.
“Why do you speak for the fleet?” Bhamini asked instantly. “You are not a captain. You were not appointed leader of this endeavor.”
“I – It was not the fleet that killed him, but my daughter, Calliope,” Ianthe replied, flinching with the suddenness of the request.
“Hello,” Calliope called, from the dock.
“Interesting,” said Shavi, from directly next to her. Calliope jumped, startled enough that she splashed water up onto the dock – the third Khurana sister had snuck so carefully up to her that she hadn’t even noticed her approach. She was now crouched at the edge of the boards, staring intently at Calliope.
“Uh – hello,” Calliope managed.
“I’m Peacebringer Shavi,” Shavi said, with a faint smile. “You are Calliope.”
Shavi’s eyes were piercing. Calliope could see the energy deep in them as the Peacebringer looked over her, judging her in her entirety. “You killed Alizarin, then?” Shavi asked her.
“Yes, I did.”
“I dragged him into the depths and fed him to a matriarch.” It still sounded dramatic, but somehow her words meant less in the presence of the Khurana sisters.
“He’s dead. He’s very gone.”
Shavi looked her over again. “I believe you,” she said. “So you’re the secret crew member he wanted to know about. Ianthe told us about you.”
Calliope almost glared over at Ianthe, but the intensity of Shavi’s stare held her in place. No, she wouldn’t have been able to withhold information from the sisters either; Ianthe had done nothing wrong. “Yes, that’s me.”
“If you are in this port, you cannot be harmed by any other in this port. That is law. It applies to you.”
“…thank you,” Calliope said. She glanced over at Ianthe, who gestured with her head ever so slightly. “Ah – thank you, Peacebringer Shavi.”
Shavi smiled at her.
“The reward for Alizarin’s death belongs to you,” Mahima said, directing her attention towards Calliope. The captains silently moved out of the way to give her a clear line of sight. “What would you do with it?”
“Give it to McCullough and Ianthe,” Calliope replied instantly. She paused. “Oh, but… Alizarin’s fleet had several ships that surrendered to us after he died. Can Kiera have one of those?”
Kiera looked stunned. The Mahima glanced over towards her and raised an eyebrow.
“If you captured it,” she said, “it is yours. Those laws we do not govern.”
“Uh – then just give it to the Midnight Sun and the other captains, I guess,” Calliope said. “I mean. We all did a lot of work, so we should all get something for it. Just… split it apart, I guess? Everybody did stuff, so everybody gets some. That seems fair.”
Denzil shook his head with a slight smile. “Astonishing,” he murmured.
The Khurana sisters exchanged glances. “Very well,” Bhamini finally said, “we will work out what those rewards shall be. Is there anything else you require in the meantime?”
“N – not personally,” Calliope managed.
Bhamini nodded sharply and turned away.
Shavi sat down on the boards, bare feet tucked beneath her red silk dress. “A matriarch,” she said. “You fed him to a matriarch.”
“She woke up when I pulled him to the seabed and consumed him, or what was left of him.” Calliope shrugged. “She didn’t eat me. Obviously. I… think I’m lucky for that. But she lit up the seabed and showed me how to get back to the surface.”
“Hm.” Shavi paused. “Interesting! Interesting.”
Whatever that meant.
“She did you a favor, that matriarch. Perhaps someday you will meet again.”
Shavi tipped her head to the side, smiling. “It was lovely to meet you, Calliope, daughter of Ianthe. Return to this port whenever you see fit. I think soon enough nobody will be able to harm you, even if they are willing. They know what you can do. They know what you can be. They know what you might be. Swim far and deep.”
She stood and moved back to the other sisters, and Calliope watched her go.
The majority of the captured ships were turned over to the Khurana sisters, though their worth was paid to Calliope and the Midnight Sun, and by extension, to the other captains. Kiera claimed one of them and renamed it – The Queen’s Scourge, which Calliope personally found delightful. Despite her apparent (prior) distaste for pirates, she seemed be very enthusiastic about becoming one.
“You’ll do well,” Sun Yeng told her, as she supervised the refitting of the ship to suit her desires. She’d taken on many of the pirates that had surrendered after Alizarin’s defeat. “They’ll listen to you.”
“They’d better,” Kiera said, raising her chin. “I’m not getting a bounty put on my head by the Crown to get ignored by my own crew.”
The captains met one last time, after the rewards had been given out. McCullough shook Denzil’s hand.
“Remind me never to battle you on the open sea,” he said, fervently.
“I would never,” Denzil said, with a smile. “I am far too fond of all of you to wish to sink your ships. Perhaps we can cooperate again in the future.”
Kiera clicked her tongue against her teeth. “I would certainly be interested in that,” she said. “After all, I am rather new to… being one of you.”
Denzil rolled his eyes. “Such a dramatic turn of phrase,” he muttered. “Captain Zeidane, I will formally invite you to follow me northwards, so I may show you what I know of the area north of the equator, if you wish. There is plenty to be explored and understood there.”
“I will accept that offer.”
“And I will go south again,” Sun Yeng said, looking back to their ship. “If you need my assistance, seek me out, and perhaps we can make a trade.”
“I… certainly will,” Kiera said haltingly. Sun Yeng nodded, then turned and strode away.
Ianthe and McCullough exchanged a glance.
“Were are we going?” Calliope asked, looking between them.
“West, I suppose,” McCullough said. “Towards the setting sun. You know there’s another continent over there, right? With cities and everything?”
Towards the setting sun and the parts of the world that no one knew. Calliope grinned. If any ship could make that journey, it was the Midnight Sun.
“What are we waiting for?”
“It might be dangerous.”
“Oh, please,” Calliope said. “Since when has that ever stopped us?”
Ianthe laughed. “That’s fair,” she said, when McCullough glanced over at her, one eyebrow raised. “It’s true. We have never shied away from danger before. Let’s find out what lies beyond the sunset.”
Calliope swept her tail back and forth. The tip of it brushed the lagoon’s seabed, stirring up muddy, river-silt sand and sending a school of brightly colored minnows darting away. “Don’t worry,” she said, grinning. “If it gets too dangerous, I’ll keep you safe.”
“Thank you, Calliope,” Ianthe said, rolling her eyes.
“I mean it!” Calliope thumped the wood of the Midnight Sun with the palm of her big hand. “I will. I always will.”
A breeze scudded over the water, sending the blowing Calliope’s hair back, dripping wet as it was. She looked out towards the sea. Buroni Hakir was beautiful, but she longed to be alongside the Sun as it cut through the swell, headed outwards, across the vast blue expanse. She was no longer afraid of the open sea, of its immeasurable depths. Of the blackness far below. She knew what was down there.
The waters of the delta glittered around her. The sun was at its zenith, baking the mud flats dry and sending the sea-birds away over the ocean to escape the rising heat. Calliope flicked her tail again and felt it scrape the sand below.
West. Calliope smiled. Yes. She was excited for this. West, to find new things, see new sights, go to new places and meet new people. Taste new waters, fight new enemies, tackle new dangers.
Calliope scraped her claws over the Sun’s hull in contemplation. New dangers, yes. She wasn’t afraid. She wasn’t afraid of anything now. Not since the matriarch had looked into her eyes.
Besides, it didn’t matter what dangers the Midnight Sun and her crew faced. Calliope was going to be there to defend them from anything that could ever want to hurt them. She was larger, stronger, and more deadly than most things in the sea now. She could take care of any trouble they found, and she would. No matter what.
She would protect her family.
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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.”
Thank you for joining me on this journey! I may be adding a few notes or drawings from the writing of this story on to the end as additional chapters, but the story itself is finished. I hope you enjoyed Calliope's Tale as much as I did, and I hope you continue to share and enjoy it in the future!
If you liked this piece of original fiction, check out some of my other works on my AO3; I have more original content (as well as plenty of fanfiction, which I tend to do in outsider perspective style with little to no interaction with canon characters) where this came from, though the characters, of course, are different.
If you want to make fan content for this story and post it on tumblr, PLEASE tag me (dragonsateyourtoast) so I can see! I may die of happiness. You can also find me on twitter at Falcolmreynolds.
Thank you so much! <3 <3 <3