“We checked the Captain’s quarters, the brig, the store-room, the nest-- there’s nothing, Dan. She’s emptier than my stomach.”
“Why’s she so well armed if there’s nothing? No, that can’t be right. Check again.”
Matt groaned, but doubled back to relay the order. Over the heads of bound-up, black uniformed sailors, The Fox’s crew members echoed his groan as they restarted combing over the spit-polished caravel. She was a beauty of a ship, really: made of sturdy dark wood, tipped with iron and manned by twenty experienced navy-men, she had enough food in the galley to last the men three months and enough gunpowder to fend off five pirate vessels. Unfortunately for her, The Fox counted for ten pirate vessels. Well, the foggy week and a convenient narrow cove that the caravel should have known better than to go through helped, too. It would have been a miracle if they hadn’t watched the Laughing Jackal for an age and a half, and struck only when the planets aligned for them to do so. Some might call it cowardly, but with how long they’d been out of port, they couldn’t risk a failed run.
If nothing else, Dan mused to herself, the food and gunpowder replenished their stock a good amount. Katelyn would finally be able to make up something better than mashed potatoes on steamed potatoes.
The thought didn’t comfort her much. She’d really been hoping for a jackpot - the caravel might have flown His Majesty’s red-and-black colors, and the sailors came dressed in navy uniforms, but the Laughing Jackal sailed alone, which was quite peculiar so far from the empire’s well-patrolled waters. If she’d been on a mission for the crown, she should have had an accompaniment. It seemed more than reasonable to think she hauled precious cargo that His Majesty didn’t want to risk anyone knowing about. Why else waste such a fine ship?
The brig. The store-room. The Captain’s quarters. The First Mate’s quarters. The best Dan found to pilfer was a fine-looking silver quill, partly out of spite and partly because Erik’s last good tip had broken and their records were a mess. The navy men had nothing to say, and Dan caught one sneering at her after she’d glanced around the empty deck with a sigh. She thinned her lips at him and dropped a hand to tap oh-so-absently on her sword. He stopped sneering, but he didn’t look apologetic.
Matt reappeared from the hold, hands empty and head shaking. Allison appeared behind him, good rope slung around her shoulder but otherwise similarly empty of valuables. Seth wasn’t far behind her. A glance behind her put Kevin on the top deck, his arms crossed over his chest and expression stormy. That left the twins and Nicky, who were always a bit of a pain to wrangle.
She was just about to call it in as a wash when Nicky’s voice echoed out from the Captain’s quarters.
Can’t you be a little respectful, she thought- she’d become First Mate two months ago!- but the surprise in his voice had her grinning and dashing for the quarters. Finally! It must be jewels! Or covert trade routes! Or gold! Or jewel-capped, golden, covert trade routes!
“We found something.” Nicky said from over a trap door that had previously been covered by the Captain’s heavy desk, his hands gripping its edges and a quick glance sent at her entrance. “It’s, um. Er.”
“C’mon, spit it out. Found what?”
Making an awkward, wobbling gesture, Nicky shrugged one shoulder and backed off. It was unusually quiet of him, but Dan was too excited by the secret room to pay it mind. She slipped through the gap and clattered swiftly down the rope ladder, straightening up at the bottom to peer around the dimly lit room. It only had candles for lighting; combined with a low ceiling and no shelves or crates to speak of, it made for an odd sight.
What really made it odd, though, was the glass tank that took up an entire wall. It spanned a good ten feet by five feet (or three meters by one and a half, Renee’s smart voice told her), and looked thicker than a spy-glass lens. The water within was a murky green, algae growing happily in its corners and in stripes down the walls. On top was a tightly-sealed iron lid - as Dan ventured closer, she caught sight of strange whirling symbols scrawled along its edges (magicks and superstition, clearly, if poorly applied). It came up to mid-chest level, making the sliding flap on top clearly visible and easily reached. Dan squinted at it, and then at the twins standing on either side of it.
“What’s this, then? Grimmy saltwater for the Captain’s viewing pleasure?”
Andrew shook his head while Aaron gave a two-shoulder shrug. “Look again,” the latter finally said, and pointed, as if Dan could’ve missed something in a glass tank.
She took a moment to scowl at them-- Nicky was bad with respect, but these two were the worst- but, obligingly, squinted again at the murky water. As far as secret rooms went, this seemed like poor use of one. Just as she was about to snap at them for making her waste time with an empty tank, what she’d taken as a shadow from the candles shifted, making it not a shadow at all.
The more her eyes adjusted to the dim lighting, the more wrong she realized she was. This was an excellent use of a secret room.
The not-a-shadow resolved itself into a creature folded up along the tank’s floor; despite having ten feet to stretch in, its long, rust-colored tail had to double back to fit. The tail itself was gorgeous even in the grimy water, well-muscled and powerful, the red scales and delicate fins fit to take one’s breath away. That alone would have made any fisherman happy, but the top half sky-rocketed its price: what appeared to be a human male, shoulder-length brown hair fanned around high cheekbones and blue eyes, stared back at her. Its arms were dusted with patterned scales, its hands tipped in sharp claws and the in-between webbed, and a dorsal fin that stretched down its tail laid flat upon its back. Under its narrow ribs, gills slowly rose and fell.
It was beautiful.
It was rarer than any diamond.
“A mermaid,” Dan laughed, taking a step back and sweeping her hat off her head to hold to her chest. “They were transporting a mermaid.”
It was going to make them rich.
“I thought it would give you untold riches?”
“No, no. It becomes the love of your life and vows to never leave your side.”
“What’s appealing about having a mind-slave for a lover? Bet it’d still smell fishy, too. Uh-huh, we should toss it back. Seems like bad luck to keep on board.”
“If it was cursed, how would they have kept it for so long? Look at those walls. They’re filthy.”
“I hate to agree with Seth,” Kevin said from the back of the group, “but we shouldn’t be hasty.”
Seth grinned at him, making him scowl deeper, and then continued with, “Yeah. Fuck the legends - we should get to a port and sell it.”
“What merchant do you know buys mermaids?” Matt asked, half exasperated and half curious.
“I’ve seen it in the south,” Nicky piped in. “They sell powdered mermaid scales there. With tea made from a dryad’s leaves, it’ll cure any ailment.”
“Sure it does. Boiling and drinking the blood will add ten years to your life, too.”
Nicky shrugged. “Who knows? You ever meet a mermaid before?”
The group fell quiet. No, none of them had.
Hauling the tank out of the secret room had been a fight and a half - another secret panel luckily opened to the hold so they didn’t have to move it up a ladder, but it’d taken five lengths of rope and a lot of heaving and hoing to get it on the deck and then across the plank to The Fox. The bounded navy-men had paled extraordinarily when they’d gotten the tank up. Dan hadn’t felt a speck of pity as they watched as their precious cargo changed hands.
Now that they’d cut the men’s sails and shoved off, though, the mer-tank secured by piles upon piles of wrapped rope and heavy gunpowder sacks along its base on The Fox’s deck, it sunk in that beyond knowing it’d fetch a nice price, they weren’t entirely sure what to do with it. The creature within was no help - it shied from being surrounded and in the sun, its body curled and face hidden by its long, long tail. Dan eyed it, hands on her hips. It’d take four months to reach southern ports, and they couldn’t even be sure the merchants there would pay a fair price. His Majesty advertised his willingness to buy magical creatures with the fortunes he took from his people, but like hell Dan would sell a find this good back to Him, even if the irony of re-selling His own goods to him amused her something awful.
“What do you think the writing says?” Matt asked, stooping to peer at the lid’s edge.
“Dunno.” Dan replied. “I’m going to alert the Captain and Renee. We should’ve done that before we strapped it in.”
“It says don’t tap on the glass, will bite,” Allison smirked as she left for the Captain’s drawing room.
Captain Wymack was at his desk as usual. After they’d secured the Laughing Jackal, he’d retreated to his papers and left his crew to search for treasures. The reward was never the highlight of this life, he’d said; the way his eyes lit up whenever they stuck one to His Majesty made Dan believe him.
“Captain?” He looked up at her knocking on the door and quickly motioned her in. She didn’t shut the door behind her, though she did take a seat. Renee looked up from her own small table, the sooth-sayer trading a smile for a smile with the First Mate. “The galley’s stocked, the gunroom’s stocked, and we’ve got... a new passenger.”
Wymack hadn’t been expecting that. He furrowed his eyebrows at her, holding back a snapped retort by the skin of his teeth. “What was that?”
Dan’s smile grew. She couldn’t help it. Maybe the mermaid was going to bring more trouble than it was worth, but that seemed hard. As far as she could tell, no matter what path they took, it was worth a lot. “The ship only had one valuable worth taking, but you might not believe me without seeing it for yourself.”
“Wilds, don’t play games with me--”
“It’s a mermaid,” she cut in, leaning forward in her seat. Wymack blinked again, his mouth agape.
“A merman,” she amended with a wishy-washy gesture and shrug, sitting back again. “Technically.”
“What color?” Renee asked, because of course she’d know something about how a mermaid’s color mattered. She knew all sorts of things, and Dan didn’t want to know how she’d come about any of them. Their friendship worked out fine like that, since Renee wasn’t too forward about anything, either.
Out in the sun, the thing’s scales had brightened incredibly. If it were in cleaner water, Dan wouldn’t have been surprised if it could glow. “Red?”
Eyes widening an inch, Renee nodded respect to Wymack and sped walked out to the deck. Wymack huffed after her for leaving without an explanation, but his eyes were bigger, too, and soon enough, he and Dan followed her.
“Oh,” Renee was saying from her place next to the tank, kneeling atop gunpowder and pressing one pale hand against the glass, “you poor thing.”
The others exchanged glances, unwilling to contradict a sooth-sayer on magical matters but privately hoping the sympathy in her voice didn’t mean they’d lost their single pay-out from two weeks’ worth of navy stalking. The Captain stopped at the edge of the group, his eyebrows almost up to his greying hairline.
“Is it true if you keep a mermaid out of the sea for four seasons,” Nicky ventured, “it’ll do something amazing for you?”
Everyone shuffled closer to Renee’s side of the tank. Even, Dan noticed, the twins, though it was more of an attentive look than any real shuffling.
“That’s how the legends go,” Renee answered, temper mild and words soft. “Judging by the writing on the lid, that’s what they were hoping for, too. It’s a sealing spell set to last for six full moons. Nothing less than a full unbinding ritual will break it.”
“So even if we wanted to dump it,” Matt hedged, his hands fidgeting with his sash, “we’d have to wait a few months?”
“Probably. I can’t tell when the seal was made.”
“That gives us some time to decide what to do, then.” Allison said, her hand waving dismissively. “Can’t sell a full tank and living beast to a merchant - they’d probably charge us for the butcher.”
Seth and Matt nodded, and Renee hummed. When she didn’t correct Allison on potentially selling the creature, Dan mentally sighed in relief. Good, good. The run wasn’t a complete waste.
“If it’s going to be here a while, I won’t have it out in the middle of my deck giving you lot more excuses not to work.” The Captain declared with a look that Dan knew meant he hadn’t a clue what to do about the find either and was grateful to have time to work with. “Move it to the hold. And for all our sakes, don’t crack the glass!”
A collective groan went up at having to move the bulky container again, but it made for a happy break in the routine -- now if only it occurred when they were weeks at sea without seeing another soul, and not right after a raid. But overall, Dan thought, taking on the Laughing Jackal hadn’t been a bad job. Hopefully keeping a mermaid on board wasn’t as bad of luck as the superstitious Matt feared-- if it was, surely Renee would’ve told them.
Being in the back pushing rather than in the front pulling, Dan caught its gleaming blue eyes when it peeked out of its huddle. Rather than focusing on her or anyone else, though, it looked out toward the sky.
The only reason she felt bad when they got it below deck and the last bit of sunlight cut away from its tank, Dan reasoned to herself, was because its face looked so human. Why, she could’ve sworn it looked out with bone-deep longing.
By the first week’s end, the mermaid finally stopped hiding its face whenever someone came by. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the good development they’d hoped for.
“Looks sick, doesn’t it?” Matt whispered, as if he could disturb the thing from talking too loudly when his face was an inch from the glass. At first if their name wasn’t Renee Walker (who didn’t know much about mermaids, but still knew more than the rest of them), they’d give it plenty of space - as time went on and it didn’t reveal sharpened teeth or nightmarish tendencies, everyone crowded closer and closer.
The tank’s companions for the hour, Nicky asked, “What’s wrong with it?” and Erik huhed in agreement.
The creature laid still on the tank’s bottom, unfocused eyes cracked open and gills fluttering rapid-paced. It resembled a fish out of water. Now if only it wasn’t in plenty of water.
“Do mermaids eat?”
“It’s a merman.”
Matt rolled his eyes. “Do mermen eat?”
“Its water would be in awfully worse state if it did, wouldn’t it?” Erik made a face and lightly elbowed Nicky. He put his hands up with a joking smile. “Hey, fair observation, isn’t it?”
“Maybe that’s the problem. The water is pretty nasty. If you open the grate, you can smell it from the deck.”
“So, what, we need to change the water?”
“But we can’t put it in the sea, and we can’t open the lid.”
“It’s got the grate on top… We could drain the bad water out and, I don’t know, quickly refill it?”
Nicky and Erik made twin expressions of doubt. Matt shrugged at them, at a loss and not entirely sure how much effort he should be ready to commit. It was a hefty investment, but it weighed on him a little - keeping the thing in such cramped quarters didn’t seem right, and on top of the algae and limited sunlight through the hold’s tiny portholes, well, he wouldn’t have chained up a dog in such a state.
“Worth a try, I suppose.” Erik said.
“We are not dumping its gross-ass water in here, though.” Nicky pulled a face. “We’re going to have to move it again, aren’t we?”
And they did, roping Dan, Aaron and Renee into helping them. They lined up as many spare buckets and barrels as they had and filled them to the brim with seawater. Andrew stood to the side with one eyebrow occasionally quirked; Allison and Seth watched from the upper deck, laughing; Abby and Katelyn gave encouragement; Kevin and Wymack contributed sharp-worded corrections, prompting Dan to say if they weren’t going to help, they could at least shut their traps! -- Not you, Captain, I meant Kevin!
At first the creature didn’t react to their pushing its tank around, floating back and forth with the water’s jiggling, but once they managed to - carefully, on a calm, windless day - tip its tank on its side at the ship’s rail and the water began to drain, it blinked itself into wakefulness and flew into a right tizzy. It thrashed, curving in frantic, tight circles; when this failed to keep the water from flowing out, it pressed itself against the walls and made strange beseeching, pleading noises at them, its hands raised to cover the grate; when the water level - nearly pure slime, Aaron, Nicky and Erik all gagged at the pungent smell - dropped below its stomach, it fell to the floor and chased the last liquid puddles with an expression eerily similar to morose resignation.
There was no way they could tip the tank completely over and hope to get it back up, but they emptied the majority of it. Algae continued to cling to the sides - there was nothing they could do about that. Moving quickly as possible, they tipped it right-ways up and fetched the buckets to pour into the grate on the top.
The thing had the gall to look surprised when saltwater splashed in. Before long, with even Kevin and Katelyn joining in to help haul buckets, it floated in its container, its eyes blinking and webbed hands moving through the water as if it couldn’t believe it was still alive.
Closing the flap over the grate, Matt stood back with his hands on his hips. “There,” he said, as Dan sauntered up to sling an arm over his shoulders, “much better.”
Its head snapped to Matt, dashing the smile from Dan’s face and making him jump. It twisted to press a hand against the glass, its fins for once opened up. The deck fell silent except for Katelyn’s stifled gasp; in the sunlight and without green water to squint through, two things became clear. One: silvery scars of all make and pattern littered its human skin. Two: despite that, its coloring boggled the mind. The red scales were akin to an unfurled rose sparkling with dew - the dawn on still waters, speckled with pink and orange - a loved one’s happy flush after a long-awaited reunion - and a dozen more lines that only a poet could hope to illustrate. The fins’ sharp-tipped webbing made for light accents, bringing out its blue eyes perfectly. Its hair was not brown, as they’d thought, but a deep auburn. And, most impressive of all:
“Did it just… thank me?”
Matt’s face drained of color. Dan, for once, wasn’t sure of what to say. Behind them, Andrew, Kevin and Wymack kept similarly silent.
“Oh, wow,” Katelyn gasped on the other side of the tank, completely oblivious to the mermaid’s miming of human words. Aaron was at her elbow with an admiring, if much more subdued, expression of his own. “Look at that. That’s gorgeous. No wonder they sell for so much.”
The mermaid’s fins snapped close, its whole upper body flinching. Within a flash, it’d curled back up, a red coil obscuring its face.
Dan let out a shaky sigh, not sure if she was relieved or not that its too-human expression was hidden.
Katelyn made a disappointed noise, while - the show being over - Allison and Seth disappeared to the common sleeping quarters. Soon enough Wymack snapped at them to move it back to the hold and finish their daily tasks, and once again they shoved it into its darkened corner. This time as the sunlight faded from its waters, it didn’t glance up.
In turn, it stopped hiding quite as much when they came around. It didn’t open its fins again, preferring instead to push or pull itself along with its hands and the sheer force of its tail, and it wouldn’t ever look any of them in the face, but eventually it would move in their presence. Granted, it mostly sat on the bottom of the tank looking listless, and when it did move, it spun in mindless, never-ending circles, but at least it was something pretty to look at, and the heart didn’t clench up quite as bad when it stopped curling up like it was expecting a beating.
“I think,” Matt said, two and a half weeks after it had come aboard, “mermen eat.”
He, Dan, Allison and Renee sat on nearby crates (the hold had been cramped before the addition of a ten foot long tank; after, most of its storage brushed the ceiling), Katelyn’s dinner plates of the Laughing Jackal’s pilfered mashed potatoes and sausage with a side of oranges in front of them. Seth had left for watch, which was just about the only reason Matt brought up what he thought about mermen’s dietary habits. Although he’d admitted liking the look of its tail, Seth was more fixated on hypothesizing its price than caring about its well-being. Dan envied him a little.
“What makes you say that?” Dan asked.
“I think,” Renee said, quietly, as she lifted an orange and watched the merman’s eyes track it from where he laid, ever listless, on the tank’s floor, “you might be right.”
Allison, practical and unhelpful: “What would a merman eat?”
“Fish? It lives in the sea. I don’t think we have to think too hard about what it eats.”
Matt perked up. “We’ve got plenty of fish.”
“Wait, wait.” Allison snapped back, leveling a look at him. “We’re not going to start wasting supplies on a creature we don’t even know needs to eat, are we?”
In his tank, the merman pushed himself up on his elbows and, very pointedly, scowled at Allison.
Dan busted out laughing, startled and disbelieving and not a little amused at his cheekiness.
Pink colored Allison’s ears; she fought obviously with a proper reaction to being scolded by a sea creature, and then decided to scowl back. The merman held her gaze for a moment before shoving himself back onto the floor, his arms loosely crossed over his chest. It was a remarkably human gesture and emotion.
“Oh my,” Renee said from behind her hand, her smile nonetheless peeking around it. “It looks like it answered the question for itself.”
“Right,” Matt said, and stood. “I’m going to get some fish.” He semi-jogged out of the hold, but within seconds reappeared, hanging onto the doorway. Dan eyed him, her amusement growing at his enthusiasm over taking care of their living cargo. “Cooked or raw?”
Dan shrugged. Allison blew out a breath, still bitter. Renee hazarded, “Raw?”
They glanced at the tank.
The merman gazed back at them, a bit of interest on its face. That was new. After a moment, it nodded. It actually nodded.
What the fuck, Dan mouthed at Renee, who only smiled.
Matt nodded back, as if that was the thing to do with a sea creature, and retreated again.
When he returned with a salmon cut through its belly but retaining its scales, bones, head and tail, the merman visibly stilled. Amazing, that a thing that barely moved could somehow stop with such a notable difference. It watched, frozen, as Matt opened its hatch and fit the salmon through the grate. Once the fish’s head was through, the merman exploded into motion. Matt stumbled back on his ass with a yelp as the creature ripped the food through the grate, tucking it close to its chest and curling up in that oh-so-familiar tangle as it, presumably, feasted. Wisps of blood floated up from the cracks between coils and human.
Dan shook herself out of her stupor. “Whoa.”
“It must have been hungry,” Renee murmured.
Matt, wide-eyed, nodded.
They dallied as long as they could, hoping to see it uncurl, maybe (a bit) hoping to see if it’d mime gratitude again, but even after the waters stopped shifting and it quit eating, it kept itself hidden.
What struck Matt and Dan most when they visited again the next day was the lack of anything left behind. The merman looked somewhat livelier, its eyes tracking Dan and Matt’s when they showed up and its body shifted toward them, but not a bone, eye or scale of the salmon could be found.
Within hours, feeding the merman became a hobby, if not a daily assigned task. Wymack grumbled about having an extra mouth while Katelyn and Erik’s expressions darkened as they recalculated the supply portions, but then Nicky volunteered his fishing skills to catch the merman’s portion. Aaron said he was a shit fisherman and he’d do it just so Nicky wouldn’t poison their expensive loot, and then Allison bet Matt couldn’t catch as much as Aaron or Nicky, and soon enough, everyone’s free period became devoted to getting fish for the creature in the hold. Whoever caught the most got to feed him, and whoever fed him the most became the merman’s preferred person of the next three days (and even Renee wasn’t sure the merman did it out of instinct or intellect). Though he still never let them see how he ate, he’d uncurl afterward, usually looking a mix of cautious and curious. It would’ve been heart-breaking on a human’s face, the way he seemed surprised every time they pushed fish through the grate. Then again, they had essentially starved him for two and a half weeks.
“The blooming thing’s going to be fatter than me,” Wymack groused. “It’s definitely eating better than me.”
“Aw, Captain, you could fish for him, too, if you’re jealous,” Nicky cajoled.
“Get back to work, Hemmick.”
“I always heard mermaids were smart, but they’re not supposed to be like sirens.” Renee mused one day, up on deck and out of the merman’s ear-shot. They weren’t sure exactly how the merman understood what they said, but it was beyond clear that he did, and close to perfectly, to boot. “Sirens can talk you into following them if seduction doesn’t work. They’re good at rooting out your desires - they’re convincingly human, which is why their songs work so well. Mermaids… Mermen… Are more feral. They’ll grant your wish, as the legend goes, but they’re more like dolphins or seals than water-based humans.
“Or, well,” she added dubiously, then with a soft, almost fond huff as she watched the merman ram its tail against the glass after Seth tapped on it for too long, startling the man into jumping back with a curse, “they’re supposed to be.”
“Maybe no one’s taken the time to study one properly?” Dan proposed.
“Woo it properly, you mean?” Allison drawled.
“Or I just don’t know,” Renee said. “It isn’t like I studied extensively into mermaid history and lore. My specialty is weather and the tides, not what lives underneath.”
“Great.” Dan said, her hands clapping together. “So we’re all solving this mystery together.”
“What mystery?” Allison said as she headed for Seth, ready to draw him away from the tank before he somehow cracked it with a kick. “It’s a particularly smart fish. It can understand a few words. So what? We’re still looking at either selling it or wringing it of its magic in a few months.”
Renee kept quiet, but Dan’s smile dimmed.
She’d somehow forgotten that.
The crew usually played its card games on the deck or in the singular, cramped sleeping quarters, but one evening Matt recommended they play in the hold, and somehow, they migrated over there. When they invited Kevin, Nicky and the twins, they expected the usual rejection. They used to be called Andrew’s lot, as he’d made it clear he was the one keeping the group in order; the term had only shifted after Erik and Katelyn joined The Fox and, in consequence, Nicky and Aaron occasionally joined the rest of the crew for games or drinking parties. Kevin and Andrew remained stubbornly cold, however, the former critical of their frequent ‘goofing off’ sessions and the latter flat out dismissive. The four in a clump had joined Wymack’s crew after a bad skirmish with His Majesty’s navy wiped half their crew, and, in Dan’s opinion, they’d been desperate. Wymack refused to comment on why he’d taken the four on, but it was undeniable they were decent at their jobs, even if they were unfriendly at best and openly hostile at worst (even among themselves: Dan once had to break up Andrew and Nicky before Andrew stuck the guy through with a dagger). So, yeah, they extended the invite, but it was just out of manners, and maybe a bit of see, at least we aren’t total animals.
They weren’t entirely sure how to react when Andrew shrugged and said, “Sure,” while Kevin huffed and said, “There’s not anything left to do, anyway.”
What they ended up doing was what they planned to do. They got their decks out and went to the hold, found there were way too many of them to comfortably fit, and so had to arrange themselves uncomfortably on crates and the floor and stairs and even against the merman’s tank.
Which, wow, wasn’t that something to watch. As the first half of the group processed in with lanterns and cards, he didn’t do more than flick his eyes over before continuing his mindless, tight swimming circle. Then the second half came in, and he pulled up, his brilliant eyes unblinking and mouth turned vaguely downward. As they all settled in - Andrew and Kevin leaning against his tank - he hunched his shoulders, curling half-way up, paused, uncurled, paused, curled again, paused one more time, and uncurled, settling along the far side of the glass to watch them from the corner of his eye.
When Renee glanced up from the middle of the second round, Kevin and Seth already bickering about possibly cheating, she caught sight of the merman pressing his hands against the glass and unabashedly staring at the cards laid out on the wooden floor. She also saw Andrew contemplating the sight from the corner of his eye. She kept both notes to herself.
The hours drew on and the night grew late. At some point Erik and Nicky left and reappeared with rum, and the games grew a little less about the cards and more about bets and challenges and bringing up past mistakes to tease one another over. The two groups still couldn’t find real common ground, but alcohol and the subject of the merman helped quite a bit.
For the first time, just because he was being talked about didn’t scare him into hiding. “Oi,” Seth said, pointing directly at the staring creature. He didn’t even blink. “That thing watching us?”
“You’re pointing at him. No shit he’s looking.” Aaron muttered.
“Think he likes to play cards?” Nicky asked, grinning drunkenly as he leaned heavily on Erik.
Matt matched the grin, his own cheeks flushed. “Bet his favorite is Go Fish.”
“Bet that’s what he’s thinking about us now,” Dan snickered. Her voice dropped, quite possibly meant to be an impression of a sea-logged, grumpy old man’s. “Go fish, you stupid two-leggers. I’m always hungry. My stomach is a bottomless pit. Damn it, why aren’t you fishing?”
Most laughed. It might have been their imagination, but the merman looked personally affronted about the discourse on his eating habits.
Catching the look and tipsy enough to capitalize on it, Nicky reached past Kevin to pat the tank’s side. “Don’t worry, fishman. The ocean won’t run out of good eating any time soon.”
That comment shuttered the merman’s expression into a frigid neutrality, and he turned away, ducking back down to the mindless circling they’d interrupted. It looked a little painful this close-up and the mood so warm, the tank’s ill fit evident with every sharp turn he took.
“What?” Nicky asked, oblivious, when Aaron jabbed an elbow into his side. “What’d I do? -- Oh. Oh. Uh.” Awkwardness came over him, and, admittedly, a few of the others. Apologizing to a merman didn’t seem right. “Sorry?”
The creature ignored him, face blank.
Silence fell, heavy and unfortunate, on the crowd.
They dealt cards and started another round of poker.
“Fishman?” Andrew asked.
Nicky started, meeting Andrew’s stare with confusion. Erik’s arm drifted over his shoulders and reeled him in. Still, his cousin being the one to interrupt the silence distracted him.
Andrew’s eyebrows twitched up a centimeter, though nothing else about him changed. “That’s a really stupid name.”
Realization dawned on the drunk, the tipsy, and the singular sober.
“We haven’t named him. How could we not have named him?”
“If we name him, we have to keep him.”
“No, we just can’t eat him. You can throw away things you’ve named, but you can’t eat things you’ve named.”
“We were never going to eat him!”
“Wait, we were going to eat him? Is that why we keep feeding him so much?”
“But really, guys! We have to name him! Like-- McFisher. Mr. Swimmington. Whale-Breath.”
“Nicky, you are awful at this. He’s obviously more of a Flounder.”
“I consider him a Basstard, myself.”
“Quit it! If I keep laughing, I’m going to pull a mussel.”
“Oh, my cod.”
“We should draw up a list,” said Kevin, very seriously with only the slightest slur, “and vote in the morning.”
Everyone vetoed that as a terrible idea, and continued bickering. In his tank, the merman at last stopped his maddening circles, bemusement spreading over his face. It took him a moment to realize two of the group were looking at him: Renee and Andrew, one with a smile and one without much of anything. It shouldn’t have been possible to be heard over the other’s dim roar and the through the thick glass, but when Renee gently prodded, “What would you like to be called?” The creature’s head tilted in immediate contemplation.
It took a while. It took until the group had almost worn itself out of yelling, the topic sliding into the pros and cons of different cultures’ naming conventions. Eventually, however, slowly and deliberately and looking like he thought this was the worst decision he’d ever made, the merman pressed a finger against the glass and tapped out a silent rhythm. Long press, short, pause, short, pause, short short... Once recognized, the method of answer froze Renee with shock; Andrew, meanwhile, didn’t look the least bit fazed, almost as if he’d seen this before. It fell to him to turn back to the group and translate what the others missed completely, which he did without raising his voice a single octave.
“Neil.” Not everyone paused, but when half the group dropped out of the banter to stare at Andrew, the second time he spoke, everyone heard. “Call him Neil.”
More than a few people looked displeased with the choice - they’d been hoping for King Minnow or Prince Seaweed - but the almost bored resolution in Andrew’s voice combined with the suddenly intent look on the merman’s face reduced any real protests to token grumbles and a begrudging acceptance.
Wymack just about flipped his lid when he realized his crew had named their cargo, but given he only lectured them for a few minutes on getting too attached to temporary things and treating the mermaid like a pet dog, the crew felt assured he didn’t really mind. In any case, it became clear that if they used the name, the merman reacted much more immediately and, day by day, loosened up even further in their presence.
Later in the evening, when most were asleep and the watch had herself settled in the nest, Renee crept down to the hold to tap out a measured rhythm on the glass. Short, short, short, short, pause, long, long…
The merman within didn’t even glance at her. In fact, when she frowned and tapped out a more pointed question, it curled up, face and body once more obscured by its thick red tail. Renee paused, finger hovering over the glass, but - if she didn’t mind taking a consolation prize - that reaction spoke loudly enough. Shaking her head, she left with a smile.
Without anyone meaning to make it so, game night in the hold became a staple.
“I’m not going to like this, am I?” He asked.
She shook her head.
They were due for a monster of a storm in twelve hours’ time, and it wouldn’t be delayed. The sea was deceptively peaceful, the sky open and clear, the horizon line flat and unremarkable, but they needed to start securing supplies now, she said. He nodded and strode out to gather everyone in the deck and assign tasks, emphasizing speed and efficiency. With minimal grumbling-- mostly from Seth’s disbelief that such a nice day could get bad, and Kevin’s unhappiness at their trajectory being stalled- everyone raced to complete the preparations. The rudders had to be strengthened, the sails folded and tied tight, the food piled over gunpowder and wrapped with burlap in case of flooding. It took the entire afternoon to tighten up the ship, in part due to do previous slacking on cleaning duties, to which no one would fess up to.
But as dusk came and they watched from their stilled ship’s starboard, dark clouds gathered at the horizon. An albatross flew overhead, fleeing as fast as its massive wings would take it. Before they knew it - but right on the twelfth hour’s dot - rain fell in horizontal sheets, The Fox rocking on dangerously high waves. Wind wailed around their ears, threatening the wrath of a Mother Nature defied; humans weren’t meant to be out at sea for so long, and She was happy to see them sink to the bottom for their arrogance. The crew retreated to its respective sleeping quarters, the doors battened down with heavy sacks. Renee received more than a few pats on the back - if it hadn’t been for her, they surely would have lost a crewmate or two trying to secure the masts. It was an eerie thing, listening to the storm rage and pound at their beloved ship, but Dan lit a lantern and spread cards between two hammocks, and everyone did their best to keep their mind off the creaking and groaning of old wood. There wouldn’t be any sleeping until it passed.
For a long time, it wouldn’t pass. The night crawled by slowly, the crew’s collective breath held as the ship tipped from one side to another. Eventually the rocking lessened, the wind’s howling dying, and though rain continued, it fell as rain should. The collective sigh of relief as everyone crawled into their beds was palpable.
They extinguished the lantern, and quiet settled within the crew’s quarters.
In the morning, they moved the sacks from the door and creaked it open, spilling out with dawn’s soft light to check damages. The masts were largely fine, but a few railings and posts had snapped clean off, the nest was missing a chunk in its siding, and the deck needed to be cleaned of seaweed and dead fish. All in all, not too bad, albeit smelly.
Then, “Andrew--” and everyone turned to watch Kevin follow Andrew toward the hold. Realization dawned on Dan, Matt and Renee next, and they scrambled to follow. Katelyn tugged Aaron along by his hand, putting them at the edge of the group to gather in the hold’s entrance.
Even from the back, however, the damage was obvious. What crates hadn’t been secured the best due to lack of rope were tipped, their contents hap-hazardly spilled across a wet floor. No one had mind for that, though - they’d stepped onto an inch of water, and the water came from leaked-in rain as well as a tipped tank, its contents drained from the grate in its lid.
It was only by virtue of having landed on and smashing a crate that any water remained in the tank; its occupant was shoved awkwardly into the shallow puddle collected at a corner, one set of gills submerged but the other gaping weakly in the open air. Neil flinched when they arrived, the whites of his eyes stark and blue narrowed into a black pin-prick, mouth open and taking fretful, desperate gasps in the air. With a sickly pallor to his already fair skin, the silvery scars stood out as a grotesque map on a young human’s skin: burns, puckered bullet holes, lashes and deep grooves from blades.
“How long has he been like this?” Dan asked, which broke the spell the sight put on them.
They’d put gunpowder sacks along the tank base to keep it upright, for all the good it did. Now they had to scramble to remove them, half the team racing to fill buckets and barrels while the other half righted the tank. Just before they settled their hands on the edges, however, Andrew cut in with, “Are you that stupid? The water will be too shallow for any of his gills to reach,” his voice uncharacteristically sharp. Everyone realized it a second before they committed. Almost in response, Neil’s tail - its scales worryingly dry - gave a weak flop, his eyes squeezed shut as he rolled to submerge his other side.
Probably thanks to the sealing spell, the glass hadn’t cracked, but it still took time to refill. They’d packed everything away - by the time they’d uncovered enough buckets to make an assembly line out of the process, the Captain and Abby had joined them to help, and it still took what felt like an eternity.
Eventually there was enough water to tip the tank back upwards. Neil wouldn’t quit rolling in it, twisting to dampen his scales and skin, his chest at last ceasing its desperate heaving. When he was upright and fully submerged, he floated belly-up with a look of pure euphoria, eyes closed and gills flared. Even his fins unfurled, everything about him radiating relief.
The crew, sweaty, hungry and thirsty, breathed easier.
Seth and Allison were the first to split off with Katelyn dragged on Allison’s arm, complaining about missed breakfast; Aaron, Nicky and Erik sent a look to Andrew before they trailed after them; Abby and Wymack warned the remaining souls not to let something like this happen again, that they had a lot riding on the merman making it to port, especially given the costs the storm wrecked upon their ship; Renee took a moment to press her hand against the glass before she, Dan and Matt at last wandered toward the galley, too.
“That could’ve been really, really bad,” Dan mumbled.
“Yeah.” Matt replied, though only half of his mind was on the money and legendary wish.
Unnerved, Dan continued with, “Maybe the reason it’s so hard to keep ‘em for four seasons is because they look so damned human. No wonder the navy bastards left him in a dark, lonely room.”
The other two echoed agreement.
In the hold, the last of The Fox’s crew tapped out a question on thick glass. Neil cracked open an eye to peer at the figure, exhausted and hungry and sore beyond words. The two held each other’s gaze before Neil painstakingly turned to the wall and tapped a reply, his sharp claw scratching at the glass.
Although only the two of them knew it, the exchange was the second time Neil actively replied to a question. The first had been his name. The second was: I’m fine.
Although its history ran ancient as legend itself, Troy had fell from fame and splendor centuries ago, henceforth known for its peaceful waters and welcoming arms for any who bore no ill will. It was a small and proud Kingdom set outside of the empire’s reach, quite possibly because it continued to act as a way-point for merchants of any faction. The Fox dropped its anchor a ways from its shore; piling sacks on the tank and dodging Neil’s blank but damming gaze, they draped burlap over the tank and a few other piles, peace-knotting their swords, unloading the cannons and disassembling the rifles in a show of good will as Troy’s inspectors came aboard. They were deemed decent folk - the inspectors barely glanced in the hold, their forged documents accepted at face-value, and allowed them to take two rowboats to the shore.
A rotation was set up to make sure at least four remained behind to watch the ship but everyone had a chance to stretch their legs on land. Taverns were frequented, the love bird pairs -- Seth and Allison, Katelyn and Aaron, Erik and Nicky, Matt and Dan - disappeared from their crewmate’s sights only to return in a much better mood than before, shopping and fresh food eating was done in abundance, and, lastly, repairs were purchased and a shipwright by the name of Jeremy Knox rowed out to take a look at their nest and rails. He estimated five days’ worth of crafting needing to be done, and brought on two assistants, Laila and Alvarez, to help. His extensive knowledge and modest demeanor enamored him to the crew immediately, an impression that doubled when he proved to the honest sort that wouldn’t peek beyond where he was directed. It seemed a rare find, indeed. Kevin, the biggest fan of ships and ship-related activities, stuck to Jeremy like a barnacle to the haul, to the point that Alvarez pulled Dan aside and asked if Kevin wasn’t hoping to join on as Jeremy’s apprentice, because flattering as that was, the spots were taken. Dan assured her that no, Kevin wasn’t interested in leaving The Fox, though she would’ve paid for Jeremy to take the man away for a month or two.
(He’d have to come back eventually, of course. Once a fox, always a fox.)
(That, and making him lose at cards when he was on a winning streak seemed to amuse Andrew, and if Kevin left, they’d potentially be down two players on game night.)
Repairs finished too soon, new wood polished and sanded where it was patchworked in, and the pirates were called back from the back alleys of Troy’s tight-packed city. The final day at port saw only the Captain and Abby remaining back on the ship so as to give the crew time to make the most of it. When they clambered back onto the rowboats - a tight fit, considering they still only had two - most of them were either teetering on the treacherous edge of a hangover, or still fully inebriated.
“Hey,” Matt slurred, a fine example of the latter category, “what’ve you got?”
Dan grumbled and shoved the brightly colored cube deeper into her jacket, an unfortunate victim of an early hangover. Matt, not to be deterred, pawed at her arm and pestered her into sharing.
“It’s for Neil, alright?” she finally snapped, annoyed and embarrassed. “I was thinking, and, being in that tank all day has to be mind-numbingly boring, right? So… These are supposed to be real popular with the Trojan kids. Maybe he could get a kick out of it, too.”
‘This’ was a metal cube with differently colored clay tiles stuck in a four-by-four grid. One slot was missing, the aim of the toy being to shift the tiles until a picture appeared. The exercise was repeated on each of the cube’s sides, every picture slightly different and, if done correctly, made to act out a simple story. Matt squinted at it.
“You got him a picture of a fuzzy crab dancing?”
“It’s supposed to be a sea turtle swimming into the sunset,” Dan huffed.
“Oh, good,” Nicky sighed, his shoulders slumping in relief, “because I got him the one with the crab.”
“You desperate morons got gifts for our pet merman?” Seth quipped, his arms folded twice and eyes the bloodshot of the hungover. Allison, for once, didn’t immediately back him up. He shot her a look, which she returned coolly. His confidence dropped a little, irritation quick to take its place. “What the hell? Not you too.”
“He’s just a fish,” Allison replied with her nose up, “I didn’t get him something I expected him to solve. But I’m sick of staring at that nasty algae every time we go down there. I got a steel brush to clean it off.”
“You’re still expecting it to be able to figure out how to use a brush!”
Allison shrugged. “He’s obviously not that stupid.”
“Aw, man,” Matt said, shoulders slouching. “I wish I’d picked up something. I didn’t realize that was going to be a thing.”
With a glance toward his twin that no one but Katelyn noticed, Aaron snorted and shook his head, tone mocking. “Andrew found water-proof cards.”
Renee looked curious, but Andrew kept his eyes elsewhere, unconcerned and uninterested in joining the conversation. When someone half-jokingly wondered if they could actually teach the merman Go Fish, he gave a shrug and leveled a stare at Seth. “Who knows. He’s just a dumb animal.”
They contemplated turning around to pick up a barrel of mackerel or freshwater trout, but Erik pointed out none of them had the kind of money for that, and they really didn’t need to get caught by the authorities on the day they were going to leave, and that it would’ve made them even later to reaching the main ship, besides. For some reason, the rational explanations dabbed guilt in most of the crew’s hearts, though none could articulate if it was over not having bought the fish before leaving or the fact they were contemplating going out of their way for a creature that was still technically cargo.
Jeremy Knox and his assistants had left the day before, much to Kevin’s, and the rest of the crew’s slightly less, disappointment. The Captain had them pull anchor under the moon’s light and shove off as quietly as they could, Renee predicting a good wind that would carry them back on-route without much struggle. They kept the blue flag flying even after they left Troy’s waters, figuring other ships might pass looking for the warm southern current along with them.
When they pulled back the burlap from Neil’s tank, the merman grimaced away from them, his dilated pupils squinting and rapidly blinking at the abrupt arrival of a lantern’s flame.
“Sorry, fishman,” Nicky muttered, much easier than he used to. Apologizing felt right, here. They’d left the guy alone and in the pitch black for nearly two weeks, only pulling back the tarp to shove in fish when they knew the shipwright or his assistants weren’t around. “But hey, look! We have stuff for you. Happy, um, back-at-sea day?”
The grate’s holes weren’t big, nothing a hand could fit through, but the metal cubes folded up in the middle and were easy enough to drop through.
Neil treated the object’s intrusions with utmost suspicion, his eyes flitting between the metal that plunked to the bottom of his tank and the expectant, hopeful pirates that dropped them in. For a while, they stared, both parties unmoving.
When Allison realized this had become a stare off, she huffed, “I seriously don’t have time for this. Here, you stupid fish,” shoved past Nicky and Dan to drop in her own gift of a steel-toothed brush, and spun around to stomp out, “do whatever with it!”
Aaron, Katelyn and Kevin followed her out, Erik on their heels with an apologetic look to Nicky. Seth hadn’t bothered to go to the hold to see their ‘weird gift giving ritual,’ and eventually, even Dan felt a little silly. When Neil finally did reach for the metal cubes, unfolding the sea turtle one first to peer down at its brightly colored tiles, the First Mate couldn’t remember what exactly she’d expected the creature to do with it. Then he pushed a tile from one slot to the next and the fins on his sides flared, his body twisting to angle the cube to better catch the light. At least, that’s what it looked like to Matt and Dan, and they shared a look as the thought occurred to them.
“You should put in the cards,” Nicky told Andrew. The blond leveled a look at him before turning on a heel and walking out, apparently satisfied with knowing the merman could, in fact, use simpler toys.
Renee proposed they leave the lantern, if only for this one night. Although an unattended flame was a horror and a half for a wooden vessel on the sea, they all agreed, hung the lantern from a hook, and left the hold’s door open as they exited. Behind them, the merman’s attention rested solely on the tiles and cubes, claws pulling at the edges to create a picture that he was very, very careful not to scratch.
Neil swimming in circles wasn’t unusual, but he never moved himself with his fins and tail alone, and especially never swam circles on his back. And yet, because his hands were busy with the cubes - which, Kevin noted, had both definitely been completed for hours, and he watched as Neil re-set and re-shuffled and re-did the one with a dancing crab in record time - the merman almost seemed to lounge in the tank, drifting in a circle with absent-minded flicks of fin and tail. He spared Kevin a quick glance, but didn’t snatch the offered food as if he expected it to disappear if he waited too long, instead gently setting the toys aside and reaching up with what Kevin would later swear to Andrew was a nod of thanks. The matter of being left in the dark for two weeks seemed to have been forgiven.
Later that same day, Abby returned from her spot in the hold for mixing remedies with a peculiar look on her face. “Who put the steel brush in the tank?” She asked those on deck, who happened to be Aaron and Katelyn. “I’ll have to pass on my thanks to Allison. He’d always looked a little sickly from a human stand-point, but now he’s practically glowing. There’s a whole pile of scales on the tank’s bottom - if I had to guess, without anything rough to scrape against, he’s been carrying around rotten scales for some time now.”
Indeed, there was a pile of dark red scales in one corner of the tank, and though his tail spotted a few bald spots, the vulnerable skin underneath quickly hardened into a white then pink then a glossy fire red. The algae on the walls was also swiftly scrapped off, and Matt made plans to replace the creature’s water within the next few evenings to make sure it stayed off.
The next game night, Neil tapped insistently on the glass; Aaron, incredibly, was the first to get fed up with it and move to open the grate to snap a what do you want?, only to jump back as the merman gathered up the scales and shoved them out before turning his back on the group and refusing to look back no matter how many times they called his name.
“What was that you said about powdered mermaid scales?” Dan asked Nicky.
His mouth worked soundlessly, then he shrugged, amazed. “I don’t know if it counts when they’re rotten.”
“Bet the merchants won’t know that,” Allison said, gathering her wits and swooping in to collect a few off the floor. Even broken, chipped and a little gross smelling, the red color came alive in the light.
“Bet you five copper they’ll undercharge you anyway while pretending not to believe you,” Matt quipped.
“Bet you I’ll get a better deal than the Crown’s offering,” Allison shot back. “And for the record? These are one hundred percent mine.”
By the end of the week, interacting with Neil became the number one cause of dirty dishes and messy rope piles aboard The Fox. The merman wouldn’t communicate with discernable words (that anyone but Renee and Andrew knew, anyway), but he’d mimic tricks if you were dumb enough to do them first. For example: Kevin stuck a front flip, and Neil took a somersault in the water. Matt flipped a bottle up from behind his back, spun, and caught it, while Neil rolled a cube from his shoulder to his broad tail fin before flicking it up to his hand. Nicky stood on his hands for a good minute; Neil twisted up so tightly he could fit the whole of his body in one vertical, four-foot high line. Dan did the splits, and Neil rolled his eyes, tail flicked back-and-forth as if to say okay, okay, you win.
They talked about him like a fourteenth crew member, quoting stunts and faces he’d pulled as if he’d volunteered them himself. Dan noticed Wymack’s face growing stonier and stonier as the week went on and the tales about what the merman did grew, but it wasn’t until seven days into their voyage that he called a ship-wide meeting.
“By Katelyn’s count, our food stores are dwindling faster than they should be.” He started from the upper deck, Dan at his side and his pirates in an unorganized clump near the mast post. “Especially the meats and breads. I know the merman’s cute, but sneaking him food to make him do flips will leave your human crewmates hungry. More than that,” and here his face became grimmer, shoulders stiffer, especially as a murmur swept the crew of were you feeding him from our stores? -- No, just what extra I caught, “I’d like to remind you all what we’re sailing toward. In three months, we’ll be in southern waters. A month after that, at most, the tank will be unsealable. When the time comes, we’ll decide what to do with him. But no matter what, he isn’t one of us. He isn’t a pirate. He isn’t a Fox. He isn’t human. He isn’t even a pet. He’s a magical creature, and we can’t keep him locked up forever.”
Everyone kept quiet, their attention on their Captain.
“It’s tough. By the face, he looks human.” Wymack paused, and let out a terse breath. “But it’d do you all well to remember that he isn’t, unless, in three months’ time, a merman is what you’d like to tear this crew apart.”
Eyes were averted. Put like that - couched in mutiny, a thought never on their minds - hesitance over the merman returned. Maybe this was the creature’s curse: inciting a rift between duty and heart, weaseling into their good graces and charming them with blue eyes and illusions of camaraderie.
Wymack dismissed them soon after, and the crew’s tentative bonds with the sea creature crumbled at the edges.
They still fished and bet on fish amounts, they still dumped out and replenished its water before it grew stagnant, but after the next game night wherein they felt too awkward to interact or (in the case of Nicky and Dan) look at the merman that stared out at them, it was decided cards would be moved back to the sleeping quarters. And if Andrew drifted off from playing and Kevin swiftly lost interest and Aaron and Nicky shrugged awkwardly and followed, well, they still had enough people to play the majority of game variants.
The crew as a whole decided without words to avoid taking free periods in the hold; for the first time in ages, the door remained shut when they didn’t need to move anything from within to above.
After a week and a half of dodging his confused gaze, Dan jumped when she opened the grate to dump in trout only for the merman to reach up and hook claws into the metal bars. They were wickedly curved things, a deep black like the sea’s abyss, his joints scaled and shining and blatantly inhuman. Between webbed fingers, a blue eye peered out. While she hesitated with the fish out of reach, a questioning sound rumbled out of Neil’s throat, garbled by the water but no less wary to her ears, as if this were the last resort the creature wanted to go to but it thought it nonetheless worth it.
She hovered, looking down with her own face screwed up.
“Sorry, Neil,” she finally murmured. The merman’s face smoothed out as if hammered flat, bit by slow bit. Before she finished speaking, he’d dropped back to the tank floor, twisting away from her to half-curl in the far corner. “We were forgetting ourselves a little. I hope you understand. It’s really nothing personal.”
She shoved in the fish, watched as he didn’t even budge toward it, snapped the flap shut over the grate, and made an extreme effort not to flee from his silent judgment.
The whole encounter left an acrid taste in her mouth.
She stopped competing for feeding him after that, and soon enough, everyone treated the task like it really was: another chore.
“Neil,” the Captain muttered, his head in his hands. “I can’t believe they named him something human.”
“Take it up with Andrew, he picked it,” she replied, then tapped on the daily-updated record of their supplies. “This is a serious problem, David. I think we might have a stowaway.”
He straightened up at that, hands dropping. “On our ship? What would someone what to escape on our ship for?”
“They must have snuck on when we stopped at Troy. How would they know what our ship was really for?”
Wymack’s mouth thinned into a line.
“Don’t tell the crew just yet. The stowaway’s had five weeks of good luck; they must be getting comfortable. I don’t want them catching wind that they won’t make it to the next stop.”
That afternoon, the Captain called for a full operational check of the sails, lines, and gunroom. As they did so, he swept the sleeping quarters, the map-slash-Renee’s rune room, and, finally, the hold. He spared time to gaze upon their most expensive treasure; the merman in question ignored his presence while it dragged itself in a mindless, endless circle, its meager belongings of brush and toys forgotten in a corner. It became apparent to him how much Neil had gained in health since arriving and subsequently seemed to be sliding into losing it again, and he forced himself to turn away after the sixth time the creature bent nearly in half to turn in the too-small tank.
The hold’s door shut behind him, he made a thorough check of the crates and sacks in the storage room, one ear kept open for any shuffling or shifting as he methodically worked his way through the hold. The ship creaked underfoot, her old planks nonetheless reliably sealed against the ocean beneath, but otherwise, the air was still. A third of the way from finishing his search, and the merman suddenly slammed up against its tank, its claws spread, teeth bared and body twisted up in a distinctly threatening fashion. Wymack knew there was no way it would get out of the tank, let alone reach him, but he found himself unnerved enough to consider the search a lost cause and take his leave from the merman’s domain.
Which meant, as the hours dragged on and day turned to night turned to another missing ration of bread, that keeping the stowaway’s news quiet was no longer an option. He called in Andrew and Renee from patrol after sleeping hours, entering the common sleeping quarters for perhaps the third time since The Fox had touched water and he’d taken her helm.
“We’ve a stowaway from Troy,” he told his crew, holding up a hand to cut off any outrage or protest. “The ship’s only so big. They can only hide for so long. Keep an eye out, but don’t tear apart the floorboards looking for them.”
He took his leave shortly after that, the patrol leaving with him, and the door swung shut on a jumble of noise that his ridiculous crew probably thought was convincingly whisper-y.
That night, the Captain in his quarters and the crew in theirs, Renee turned to her patrol partner and murmured, “I’m sure he’s seen whoever’s on board. They wouldn’t hide from a sea creature that they think can’t talk.”
Andrew tilted his head, but didn’t reply.
After a moment, she quirked up one edge of her mouth. “It might be worth seeing how extensive his vocabulary is.”
At that he cut her an annoyed look, and shut the conversation down with a, “We’ll see.” She dropped it without complaint, and they split up to take different sides of the ship.
Before the quarter moon began its descent, he crept alone into the hold, a candle in hand. The flickering flame caught first on red scales and then gleaning eyes, Neil shifting from his place on the tank’s floor toward the glass.
Unlike what Renee thought, they hadn’t communicated since that second ‘talk.’ Sometimes Andrew would sit himself in the hold and drop waterproof cards into the tank and not leave - or stop tapping an annoyingly steady beat on the glass - until Neil gave them back. Mostly he traced backward letters into the glass, a little impressed despite himself as the merman copied them and, eventually, mimed writing the whole alphabet without prompting. This night started no differently: he dropped in cards, the merman fetched them, and they sat down for a round of Mao (a concept Neil initially bucked picking up on, but when winning came down to miming and memorizing every reaction Andrew gave, he got over himself and excelled, though he made it clear he wouldn’t make any rules involving tails or gills if Andrew wouldn’t use his feet or legs).
There was little tension in these meetings, and no pressure to perform in any way except to beat the other. When Andrew deviated from their norm after winning a hand to tap in code against the glass, only then did Neil freeze up.
What sea are you from?
Blue eyes stared back at him, the merman’s hair long enough now to reach a quarter of the way down his back.
Hair strands floated in front of Neil’s face, and he irritatedly swept it back.
A cold one, came the eventual reply.
This was an awfully far ways from northern waters. Andrew didn’t bother with pity.
What land are you from? The merman asked.
Neither hot nor cold.
You don’t know what those are, he returned. Neil’s smaller fins flicked open and close, a little burst of amusement.
Mountains are in the sea, he tapped. It took ages to talk like this. Fortunately, they had all night. Bigger than ones on land.
Trees are vastly superior to seaweed.
Maybe, with a little twist of his tail, a gesture that conveyed an emotion both dismissive and accepting in typical contradictory mermaid fashion, if you can’t swim well. Can you swim?
I can’t breathe underwater, he replied, but I can swim.
That’s an unfair comparison.
Like a one-legged shrimp, very ungraceful Neil tapped, and looked amused, and a looked a little happy, and bobbed, accidentally knocking his head against the lid. He shied downward, body coiled with remembered tension and stiff, cramped muscles. Happiness gone, he turned back to the cards, clearly not wishing to continue conversing.
Andrew asked, Who’s your new friend?
Neil froze, but this time, curiousity didn’t shake apart his caution. His eyes glued to Andrew’s cool ones; only his gills continued to move, his breathing too slow to be anything but practiced.
They’re looking for her, Andrew continued after a moment. They’ll find her. She’s been eating all the food. We don’t like stowaways. The Captain will have her keel-hauled or ransomed, depending on who she’s running from.
Head shaking, Neil shrank away from cards and human. Something dark passed over Andrew’s face, but he kept tapping, aware the stowaway must be watching from somewhere behind him.
Are you that pathetically lonely?
Neil bared his teeth, tail twisting up, a wordless denial that did very little to convince the blond. He hadn’t touched his so-called gifts in weeks, as far as Andrew could tell.
They left because they’re scared you’ll break them apart.
Scared because they remembered --- want to ------ sell me, Neil returned, every other word interrupted by a restless circling in the tank, pent-up anger and fear and frustration ruining his concentration, liked - pet too much -- thinking human -- hard to kill --- own.
Not really, Andrew returned, calm and cool and patient. People kill people all the time. Then, aloud and firm, “Stop circling. You’re only hurting yourself.”
He tried to tap a reply, but his claws shook too much and beat out arrhythmic non-sense, and he gave up before long with a snarl that the water gobbled up, tail lashing out uselessly against thick glass walls. At first Andrew let him writhe, but he grew bored of waiting soon enough, and stood to open the hatch. Neil darted toward the noise in a second, a little blind in his rage, his claws hooking on the grating and giving a sharp, demanding pull. Again, again, tail flipping and ramming and scraping against his cage, spilling water from the grate’s top without care. He finally tired himself out of struggling with the grate and simply hung, gills flared with heaving breathes. Without missing a beat, Andrew’s mouth tightened at the corners and he slipped his fingers over the backs of Neil’s.
It felt like a strange work of magicks. Even curved and scaled, his hands felt smooth as silk.
Through the grating, blue eyes were wide as sand-dollars.
Andrew let his fingers linger and kept quiet, cataloging every twitch in fin and tail.
When the claws loosened on metal and wrapped gentle pads around two of his fingers, he didn’t pull back or flinch. When Neil’s fingers slid out of the water to prod at the soft of his palm, he kept still.
Don’t hurt him, came the code, tapped with the back of a smooth claw in the shelter of Andrew’s hand. It’s not his fault. He’s as scared as the rest of us.
“The world’s not fair,” Andrew said.
Neil closed his eyes and bit the inside of his cheek, hand sinking lower but holding on to two of his fingers. Not a speck of blood dotted up by his claws; he simply, for a moment, enjoyed the warm contact.
Then he jerked his chin toward the front of the hold, toward crates still covered with burlap.
Andrew disentangled his fingers, left the cards with the merman, and went to wake the Captain. It significantly lowered the stowaway’s chances of being tossed overboard if Wymack had a cup of coffee before holding trial. Moreover, it would be less hassle overall.
“Jean Moreau,” Kevin told the crew as they formed a half-circle around their trussed up stowaway, of whom now sported a split lip and blackening eye from the extraction process, and of whom was tied to the main mast post. “We served together on The Raven.”
“Before you ran away,” Jean spat.
“You may have been able to say that before--”
“I can still say it. You had a new place; your pride turned you into a coward.”
“Wait,” Dan cut in before Kevin stormed off, “you served on His Majesty’s pride and joy?”
Caught, he looked a mite awkward.
“She’s sailing in the empire’s waters right now, isn’t she? On the west side?” Matt asked, while Dan made a clear we’re talking about this later gesture behind Matt’s back at him.
“I thought so.” Kevin muttered, then shot a suspicious look at Jean. “How did you get to Troy?”
“None of your business,” Jean said. Andrew took one step closer. “Alright, alright. His Majesty lost a platoon. The Raven was sent to find any survivors and, if possible, eliminate whatever caused the disappearance.”
“A platoon?” The Captain asked, voice gruff to bely his confusion. “There’s been no platoon near here for nine seasons.”
“That’s what all the Trojans said,” Jean grumbled, tongue worrying at his split lip. “I found out only after I jumped ship.”
Dan was dubious. “His Majesty pulled one over on his crown jewel of navy ships?”
“And why’d you leave?”
“And seriously, how’d you swim to Troy? The Trojans don’t let navy boats within ten leagues of Troy’s shores.”
“How many questions are you expecting me to answer?” Jean growled, stiff-shouldered.
“All of them,” the Captain said, his arms crossed, “and you better get talking, or we’ll introduce you to the underside of our fair lady, The Fox. She’s not as pretty down there.”
In order: yes, apparently King Ichirou had pulled one over on his brother’s ship, because they’d specifically been told three good naval vessels and one merchant ship called the Laughing Jackal hauling precious cargo had been lost on the eastern shoreline. He’d jumped ship because as they’d searched for word or wreckage without success, Captain Riko grew desperate and bought a monkey paw from a small market, breaking all its fingers to at once to change their luck. Of course, it’d backfired, and their ship had been waylaid by disaster after magical disaster, from an infestation of hydras to a close call with a charybdis’s giant whirlpool. But the Captain didn’t take or see responsibility for the problems, and escaped death himself by sacrificing his crew’s lives. The last straw had been when their ship passed under a Sphnix’s roost and the beast had demanded an answer that the Captain didn’t know. He’d sent his men, one-by-one, to attempt it, no matter that none passed and the Sphnix would have been happy with the singular sacrifice of their leader. Jean had been next in line to answer. So, he’d jumped ship in the middle of the night, and swam to shore. At Troy, he’d learned none of His Majesty’s ships had been sighted in ages, and if there had been a navy ship, it moved quickly and quietly under the radar and possibly even under a different flag.
Allison eyed his scrawny arms and legs, as dubious as their First Mate. “You swam ten leagues?”
“I was desperate.” Jean sniffed. “And better fed. Your nutritional variety is fitting for a pirate ship, but undeniably horrendous for anyone else.”
“He’s right,” Kevin muttered, but Dan took the opportunity to stomp on the naval officer’s foot.
“Rats don’t get opinions on their food,” she chided. “How come you snuck on our boat, anyway? Far as you knew, we were an exploration vessel, headed who-knows-where.”
At that, Jean’s lip buttoned up. This time, Renee stepped forward. He eyed her suspiciously, a small slip of a girl, but she just crouched to stare into his eyes.
“You heard about us going south.” She said. “You’re from there, aren’t you?”
“His Majesty’s hated down there,” Dan cut in. “He declared rule over all the peoples and demands annual tributes. Big ones, I hear, something worth a fortune from every village. What’s a southerner doing in the navy?”
Everyone stared. The southerner squirmed, but finally jerked up his chin and hardened his eyes.
“As tribute,” Jean ground out.
And turned to Kevin, who blinked back.
“Is he part magic?”
“Is he part cursed?”
Kevin sputtered. “Why should I know? He’s right there, ask him yourself.”
“I am right here,” Jean said, hunkering down as much as his ropes allowed. “My grand-mother was a selkie. It doesn’t mean anything other than my family passed down a lot of stories, and the sea’s cold doesn’t bother me as much.”
“Knew he cheated with the ten leagues,” Allison muttered.
Jean glared, then snapped, “Speaking of magicks, you treat your mermaid terribly. Why’s its tank so small?”
“We didn’t have much choice about that.”
“So why’s it in the dark?”
“We can’t exactly leave him out in the open for every passing ship with a spy-glass to see.”
“And its diet! All you feed it is dead fish.”
“What’s a merman supposed to eat?”
“Live fish, for one. Crabs. Lobsters. Clams. Sea lettuce, sea moss, and seaweed, especially dulse and kelp. You can give them fruits, the sugars help keep their blood up-- not that it has anywhere to go in that dingy tank. Plus, they’re social creatures. You’re not supposed to leave one by itself for a day, let alone a week. It stresses them out, and they already have weak hearts.”
Again, everyone fell silent.
Then Renee asked, a little wondering, “How many caught mermaids have you met?”
“A few,” Jean hedged after a pause, abruptly nervous. “His Majesty collects them.”
“Because if you keep them out of the sea for four seasons, they’ll grant your heart’s deepest desire?” Nicky asked.
Jean gave him a weird look.
“No. Because if you boil the blood and drink it with its powdered scales, you’ll regain five years of youth.”
Everyone rocked back on their heels, the new silence shocked.
“Oh,” Nicky said, his voice raising in pitch. “Is that all.”
“Maybe Captain Riko will never manage to answer the Sphnix’s riddle.”
“I’m not relying on all of his crew not enjoying ridiculously abstract word play,” the Captain said, the only one in a chair and the only one not smothered by his neighbors. “No one saw us run down the Laughing Jackal. That’ll buy us time even after The Raven’s sailed out. But I’m sure they’ll put two and two together. There’s good reason we’ve always kept out of their way.”
Most of the crew nodded.
Kevin had ran after His Majesty had awarded him a medal and made mention of promoting him from First Mate to a Captain of his own ship, and Captain Riko had broken his hand out of-- jealousy, or something, Kevin didn’t really know. Assholery, Aaron proposed. Anyway, he remembered how Riko ran his ship very clearly, which seemed great until everything he said pointed to The Fox being no better than a sitting duck once The Raven came looking for her.
“Can’t you be positive for once?” Nicky asked, voice strangled. Kevin gave him a weird look that everyone else realized matched Jean’s pretty closely. Navy men were known for their uniformity - of course its top ship would epitomize that.
“So what do we do?” Renee asked, soft but with a touch of steel underneath. “Run forever?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” Seth cut in. “We sell the fishy bastard back to the Crown. We make up some story about finding it washed up in a shipwreck, and His Majesty’ll be so happy to have more youth juice to guzzle, he won’t bother with us.”
“That seems pretty cold-hearted, if you ask me.” Matt muttered. “We’d be delivering Neil to get boiled and powdered.”
“It’s a glorified goldfish!” Seth argued, voice sharp and unimpressed. “We were planning to sell it to a merchant who’d probably do the same, anyway. The only difference here is we cut out the middle-man and get our names struck off the empire’s top priority black book.”
“Put it like that,” the Captain started, which Seth pointed at with a thank you! The Captain held up his hand for silence. “Put it like that, and there’s no way we’re selling him to the crown.”
“What?” Seth sputtered. “Captain, are you serious?”
“Deadly. It isn’t right to have hauled him all the way for nothing, so we’ll have to figure out some profit soon, but for now, we’re keeping him aboard and staying en route to where we planned to go.”
“And if The Raven comes calling?”
“We’ll deal with that when it happens.” Wymack answered, his expression grim. “We’ve always been an understaffed and motley crew, but we’ve done damn fine for ourselves. I won’t have us spend our days cowering in the far reaches of the ocean. Upgrade that creature’s diet, get him some sun, and for goodness sake, don’t leave him alone. Hell, set up a rotation, tell him all about your day and concerns and feelings and offer to clean his teeth, I don’t care - I want him to be the healthiest, happiest merman on this side of the sea, and I don’t want the King or his brother to touch a single shining scale on that ridiculous tail.”
“That’s the nicest spite-driven thing I’ve ever heard,” Nicky muttered. Dan grinned, wide and proud.
“Yeah, well,” Wymack huffed, stealing a glance toward Kevin for one heartbeat before looking over each of them and, with a scowl, shooing them out with his hands, “didn’t you hear me? This is all effective immediately. Move it!”
Neil spared a glance at the words, but redirected his eyes to the rising sun without a change in expression.
Eventually, the smile dropped, apology left in its wake. “Hope you can forgive us. It’s a slim, shitty excuse, but we didn’t know what jackshit about what we were doing when we took you on. It’s not like you came with an instruction manual.”
When they’d first hauled him from hold to deck, Neil had watched them with the dull look he always sported when they dumped and refilled his tank. The water wasn’t anywhere close to bad - they’d cleaned it out not a week prior - but, as far as experiences went, there was no other reason in the world they’d take him above deck. Then Matt and Kevin had untied the ropes, Dan and Aaron dropped their leads, and everyone backed off to give the merman room to look around at his own leisure. A collective breath might also have been held, but only Katelyn, Matt and Nicky would admit to it.
For a while, Neil didn’t budge. Having sworn himself off of merman duties as long as they were going to treat him like an underwater human, Seth scoffed from the upper deck and ducked himself into the sleeping quarters. Allison didn’t immediately follow. He appeared to scowl at her, but disappeared again in a blink. (Tied to the mast and unable to avoid watching the exchange, Jean Moreau looked quite unimpressed.)
Then: the merman refocused his gaze, eyes flitting around the tank’s corners as if it held the answers for why his water level wasn’t rapidly decreasing. He next caught sight of their stowaway, who looked back - he twisted to face Jean, then twisted away. It was close to high noon, the sun shedding only a sliver of light through the glass walls: Neil ran the length of his tail along that side, and turned a guarded, uncertain look on the rest of them. Nicky waved, unapologetically hopeful.
Neil’s nose scrunched and his brows furrowed and then, before they could blink, he curled up in a tangle of red and scarred pink, face hidden in a position they hadn’t seen him take in months.
Aaron dug an elbow into Nicky’s side as he snagged a surprised, silent Katelyn’s arm and led them both away. Erik slung an arm over the sputtering, confused man’s shoulders and did the same, though he headed for the galley. Andrew left without anyone at his side, expression bored. The others loitered, a little less obvious but still undeniably hopeful, and then they, too, began to break away.
Allison, a scowl on her face, turned on Jean. “That doesn’t look like something that likes the sun.”
Unmoved by her irritation, he narrowed his eyes and lifted his chin. “None of you have any idea what treasure you have.”
She rolled her eyes and turned on a heel for the sleeping quarters.
“We can’t just leave him in the open,” Matt whispered to Dan. She nodded, scanned the flat horizon, and bit her lip.
“Tomorrow,” she decided. “We’ll figure something out tomorrow.”
Leaving the tank in the middle of the deck, they returned to their tasks disappointed and not a little melancholy. One unreadable and one contemplative, Wymack and Renee were the last left watching the ball the sea creature made at the edge of his container.
Dinner came and went. Dusk came and went. Neil didn’t unravel or, as far as they could tell, move. Night came and went, and the crew slept; Seth and Kevin, the ones on watch, kept to opposite ends of the ship and didn’t bother the merman or captive. Morning came, nurse, cook and First Mate early to rise and thus relieving the patrol of their uneventful duty. Abby and Katelyn disappeared into the galley with cheery chatter; Dan waved them on and went to check Neil, glancing toward Jean only to confirm he was still dead asleep.
The sunrise chased away the dark with streaks of pinks and yellows, the air chill and the ship’s planks damp from the moonless night. Taking a breath made Dan feel certain she’d exhale a cloud, the brisk air cutting into her lungs. We should’ve put him in the hold, she thought, abruptly worried about how the dropped temperature might have sent the merman careening into shock. Aw, shit. This was a mistake, I’m going to wring that navy man’s ne-- but then she reached the tank and got a proper look at its occupant, and everything in her froze up for a reason unrelated to the morning chill.
Neil drank in the sunrise like it was the first he’d ever seen. Hands gentle on the walls, he had tipped his forehead against the glass and seemed to have forgotten how to blink. Behind him, his gills rose and fell in steady beats, red tail a loose, relaxed line with fins unfurled. Even a human’s approach didn’t break the trance the morning seemed to put him under; it wasn’t until Dan’s heart cracked and she crouched down to speak to him that he even acknowledged her presence.
It really was beautiful. She hadn’t taken the time to watch the play of light over the ocean’s deep blue since she’d been a little girl dreaming of leaving a hole in the small port-town wall behind-- not like this, anyway, without the press of the future or the crew or expectation on her shoulders.
Captain Wymack found her like that, crouched and leaning on the merman’s tank with her eyes on the ocean, and joined the two without a word.
The ship awoke piece by piece. The smell of seasoning and roasting meat wafted out from the galley; Renee, sleepy-eyed and languid, smiled at them, and swung a bucket to the sea to draw up water for her magicking; Wymack took leave back his drawing room as Nicky and Erik, stealing one last good morning kiss at the quarter’s doorway, appeared; Kevin, looking strangely uncertain and hating the fact he looked uncertain, woke Jean up with a boot to his side for a quiet talk; the twins exited behind them and split ways the second their feet crossed the threshold. With the sun hovering over the water, Dan could no longer excuse sitting next to Neil’s tank, and went to herd the meandering crew toward their morning tasks.
Under Neil’s guarded gaze, the lines were checked and a sail that had loosened in the night tightened. Under a cautiously curious look, they swept the deck, re-organized the hold now that it had much more space, and took lunch. When Matt reeled in a wriggling seabream, he hurried to unhook its mouth and drop it, still gasping for breath, into Neil’s tank. The merman stared, wide-eyed, as it frantically re-orientated itself and attempted to put distance between it and its new source of concern, blood trailing from its mouth. Matt, Dan, Renee and Nicky watched with varying levels of doubtfulness until Neil’s trance broke and he slammed the fish into the wall with his tail and fell upon it with unmatched fervor, jaw unhinged and mouth wider than it should have physically been able to be as the fish slid, whole, down his throat. That spectacle became the gossip of the day, though its storyteller would bounce with amazement or shudder in disquiet depending on who they were.
They also dropped in pieces of precious lime, curious despite themselves what might happen (the middle of the ocean, unsurprisingly, lacked grooves of seaweed to harvest). That, the merman nibbled on before making a face and attempting to shove it back out. Bolstered by the lack of hiding the merman had done that day, Nicky chided him on not eating his greens, to which Neil, very calmly, flicked the soggy, salty lime onto his boot.
A few people noticed the stack of cards under two painted cubes and half-hidden by a bristled brush, but a glance toward the silent Andrew made them reconsider bringing it up.
The sun set, reds and oranges reluctant to relinquish their hold on the sky to encroaching blue, and Neil fell into the same trance for it as he had the sun’s rising. This time, far more than half the crew joined him, though only Dan and Renee took spots by the tank.
Some discussion was given to covering the merman up, but any idea proposed - stacked crates, a burlap lean-to, ordering someone to block it with their body while looking innocent - would block the merman into his own quartered off space. After a day of seeing how he drank in the ocean like he could imagine himself back in it, no one had the heart to box him into wooden walls and an unchanging landscape.
More pressing were supplies and funds. After five weeks of a mooching stowaway and then the addition of two mouths - even if one of them didn’t eat potatoes or limes - their stores were running lower quicker than they should have. Worse, the Laughing Jackal had yielded a merman, not chests of gold or silver, and after the repairs, nights ashore and that merman not being sold, their coffers had dropped worryingly low. They could make it to the southern ports on what they had, but they’d need Neil to fetch a high price immediately after landing to keep their stomachs filled and ship afloat. They were their own makeshift, patch-work family-- they weren’t being paid to stay on The Fox beyond what they lifted and kept for themselves- so there wasn’t too much worry about cut wages, but a few of the crew had family they liked to send spare copper and trinkets to. Matt and Renee, to name two.
They needed a raid. They needed a target. Their blades were growing rusty, and the pilfered gun-powder and cannon balls collected dust.
“We could run ashore,” Dan pointed out by the helm where the Captain stood, his spy-glass pointed south. “There’s no major ports within a fortnight’s journey, but there are a few villages.”
“I’d be happier with a navy ship, Wilds.”
“We’re out of their typical waters. There’s no telling when we’ll next see His Majesty’s flag.”
“The local trade?”
“Spice and silk, mostly.” Dan’s nose scrunched, distasteful. “In smaller, lighter vessels with hired escorts. They must be keeping close to the shallow waters. We’d have trouble running one down without jeopardizing our stores.”
The Captain sighed, his spy-glass snapped shut and returned to his belt.
“If I may?” Broke in a light voice. They turned as one to face Renee, of whom stood with a fraying map in hand. “I have a friend within seven days’ travel of our current position. She has a considerable fortune that she wouldn’t mind trading for some aid.”
Wymack frowned. “What sort of aid?”
“Well.” Taking a step closer, she turned the map around to point out a small village set at the base of a mountain that looked to be penciled in personally rather than part of any manufactured map. “She’s a sooth-sayer, like me. She specializes in illnesses of the mind. For a dream and a nightmare, she’d be happy to compensate appropriately, and I’ve been told they fetch a good price.”
“I don’t want to sail a ship full of the brain-dead and hopeless,” Wymack said, sharp.
Renee shook her head. “The person she takes from won’t even remember to miss what they lost. It helps her patients, sometimes, to lose an ideal and fear so gently and cleanly. It has to be both, though. If you take one without the other, then you run the risk of reducing human into beast.”
“What’s it about a dream and nightmare that’s worth so much?”
With a sweet and patient look, Renee said, “They’re important components for her magic, but not many are willing to let her pluck and bottle pieces of their heart.”
Wymack and Dan shared a look.
“Run it over with the crew,” the Captain told his First Mate, “and tell me how many are willing. If it’s more than half, we’ll visit-- what was her name?”
“Betsy,” Renee answered. “But everyone calls her Bee.”
“Alright. Sure. We’ve got the grandson of a selkie and a living, breathing merman on board, why not rely on Betsy, the sooth-sayer from the foot of a mountain? Report back when you have their opinions, Wilds.”
“Yes, Captain. Renee? Maybe you should explain with me...”
Seagulls began to circle overhead and roost on their posts; before long, the flat horizon line became jagged, and taller, and eventually, resolved itself into a mountain shaped like a shark’s tooth, spiking high into the clouds.
First: their stowaway. Jean kept his mouth shut whenever they tried to question him on The Raven, but just as they grew sick of him eating their food while keeping his silence, Andrew approached the Captain and said Jean would trade all of Riko’s and His Majesty’s secrets that he knew if promised safe passage until they reached the southern port. The insider knowledge - an updated version, and not one clouded by Kevin’s fear-soaked loyalty to the Crown - was tempting, but more than that, the fact Andrew made the pitch had Wymack seriously considering the offer. The blond left with an unconcerned shrug when the Captain said he’d have to think about it, which was even curiouser.
(Unseen the night before: a series of questions tapped with a sharp claw against a calloused palm, Andrew’s annoyance rising higher and higher, and a card-game cut short for a staring contest over rolled and smoking tobacco.)
Wymack pitched the deal to Abby and Dan, one of whom looked skeptical and the other agreeing. That evening with Kevin and Dan as his witnesses, he approached the captive in question and gauged just how willing Jean was to spill the royal family’s secrets. The former navy officer initially staunchly opposed it, but after Kevin pointed out it was this or the bottom of the ocean, he acquiesced, and they set him up with his own task list and one of the spare hammocks in the sleeping quarters (previously belonging to the late Juan, which Nicky thought hilarious). The first night, Seth upturned Jean’s hammock, claiming he made too much noise in his sleep; it sparked an all-out brawl between Kevin and Seth which Andrew ended with a dagger pressed to Seth’s stomach, and the tension shifted from their temporary crewmate back to the two factions that composed The Fox’s pirates.
Which… was much lesser than a few months previous, as Matt pointed out one afternoon while Nicky and Allison discussed possible underwater fashion and didn’t even bother pretending they weren’t eyeing up Neil’s upper half. Stuck on the deck, there was no avoiding the merman or the merman avoiding them, and as he had when he’d first arrived, he brought the two groups together. Andrew’s lot continued to buck at Dan’s authority more than the rest and more than they should’ve been allowed, but Matt found Aaron more knowledgeable about non-magical remedies than he’d thought, and Dan occasionally tipped her hat to Kevin’s know-how about the proper way to tie an eight-follow-through.
The Captain learned about The Raven, and Jean fell into line with a focus too similar to the first month after they’d taken Andrew’s lot, including Kevin, on. While not necessarily finished, the stowaway problem became less of a problem.
The next issue was, of course, as was becoming a pattern: Neil.
It took five days and two game nights (now played on the deck, though blankets had to be broken out and the group in a tight semi-circle to fend off the night’s frigid chill) for him to warm up enough to interact with them beyond meal times. Unlike the matter of being left alone while they went to shore at Troy, he wasn’t so quick to forgive them for cutting him off a second time. He’d watch, and he’d swim his circles, and eventually he’d pick up the cubes and shift tiles around while in their presence, but he no longer mimed tricks or one-upped anyone looking to challenge him at something physical. It made most of the crew feel a spot of shame or irritation born from guilt, but the fact they couldn’t shrug it off meant it was probably deserved.
The best they got before reaching Betsy’s village was during game night under a waning moon and flickering lantern’s light. Seagulls slept in the nest, and the sound of waves lapping against the hull sounded louder than usual as they flipped cards and capitalized on bets. Jean wouldn’t play, preferring to watch, and Seth and Allison had long retired, their previous bickering over the merman temporarily forgotten.
Andrew, Aaron and Dan sat with their backs to the tank, Neil hovering over their shoulders with his old intent look. It made Katelyn and Nicky grin when they saw it, but the game in front of them kept most of their attention.
The pool of coppers, tobacco and jerky sticks came down to Dan and Andrew, the rest of the group distracted with jokes and rum. Dan wondered at the best play, her fingers resting on her end card; Andrew remained impassive, his own fingers on the card in the middle of his hand.
Behind Dan, Neil caught Andrew’s eyes and tilted his head to the right. A beat passed. Andrew moved his fingers over one, and, impeccably, Neil nodded.
He took home the pot for that hand, much to Dan’s astonishment and disappointment. “I’m positive I had you on the ropes,” she huffed as he took a bite of his prize. He didn’t respond, but she narrowed her eyes, thought about it, and twisted around to spy a too-innocent faced Neil not an inch from her shoulder, and mock-scowled at him, suspicious but unsure of what grounds she had to accuse a sea creature of not only figuring out the rules of a card game, but also helping someone cheat.
In other words, she held her peace until the next round, and kept the merman in the corner of her eye. That time, it was her and Aaron with the last bid; she snuck a glance back, her fingers over her second-best bet, and caught the merman’s eyes in time for Neil to glance left and give a nod when she obligingly matched the movement. Although she’s suspected, the confirmation when she soundly kicked Aaron’s ass and took the pool made her laugh until her sides hurt, and, out of a sense of fairness peculiar to her place as a raiding, daughter-of-a-bastard pirate, explained to her confused crewmates that none of them could sit with their backs to Neil any longer.
The merman looked downright offended at being outed after he’d helped her win, which was hypocritical since she was positive that was how Andrew won the last hand, but when she apologized by adding, “You know, maybe he could play - those are waterproof cards, aren’t they?” and everyone jumped at the opportunity to figure out how to incorporate someone who couldn’t pass cards or vocalize his opinions, he seemed to forgive her.
“There’s no way we can hand him over to a merchant,” Matt later said in the quiet of the sleeping quarters, Dan curled atop his chest and their legs tangled up. “He’s basically a person, isn’t he?”
“He’s a merman, not a human,” Dan whispered back, hearing the doubt in her own voice.
“Yeah, but… He really hates losing a card game for a dumb animal.”
That much was true.
Renee and Andrew ran patrol that night while the others slept off the rum. Renee took the upper deck, while Andrew tapped an annoyingly consistent beat on the glass until Neil visibly huffed and rolled his eyes and apologized for ‘sharing the cards with the others.’
That wasn’t the problem, barnacle-brain, Andrew replied, his frown distinct even in the dim light.
Isn’t it? You’re greedy with me.
Don’t talk about what you don’t understand. The stupidity makes me wonder how you managed to survive any of those scars.
The merman froze for a beat, then, mood sobered, slowly asked -- and it took a bit as Andrew pieced out what was a real pause and what was simply hesitation - Do you want to know?
No. You don’t really want to tell me.
At this the merman smiled, small and private, but before even half of his sentence could be communicated, Andrew cut it off at because being h-- with a flick of his hand. “Do you want them to think of you as human?”
Neil watched him out of one eye, his tail curled under him. When the answer came, he matched it with a determined set to his jaw. Yes.
They won’t sell me if they forget that.
“We can’t just let you go.”
He stood, flipped the flap over the grate open. Neil followed easily, fingers hooking around the grate without pause. “You’re human enough to know why not.”
Then I’ll wait until the spell is finished, came the reply, scratched without blood against a dry palm.
“And what? Flip-flop and gasp your way to the edge? You’re leagues from your home and friends. How many things around here could swallow you in one bite?”
No home, was Neil’s reply; in a flash, he flipped hand and tugged Andrew’s deeper in the water, making him stiffen minutely across his shoulders, last of family. Best swimmer. You should see.
“And yet, here you are. Caught.”
Eyes flashing in the moonlight, Neil dropped his hand and butted his head against Andrew’s still fingers, his hair thick and glossy and obnoxiously, supernaturally smooth. It lasted only a brief moment before the human took his hand back, mouth twisted down and eyebrows pinched.
Last of family, Neil repeated as he turned to leave, fins flared and tail-tip swaying back and forth like a cat biding its time for inattention to leave the bird cage open, I’ll survive. I always do.
At least they’d be able to harvest plenty of seaweed and moss for Neil, Matt said.
Could we not talk about the merman for one bloody second? Demanded Allison, her arm hooked tight in Seth’s.
Matt and Dan nonetheless explained fully while not feeling even a shread of embarrassment that they had to go ashore for a while, and they were sorry, but Neil couldn’t be left in the open. The merman took the explanation with a nod and distinct lack of panic. A bit of him looked wary, Dan thought, but less about the tarp they draped over his tank, and more over the fact they explained what they were doing to him at all. She didn’t fight the sympathy that welled up from that.
Betsy herself was an unassuming, kindly woman, her hut one that the village locals were loathe to disclose even when Renee professed old friendship with her. They were protective of their sooth-sayer; the old woman who finally pointed them in the correct direction praised Bee for lessening her late husband of his night terrors and her grand-daughter of her chronic listlessness, and made a not-so-subtle warning about what she would do to the ‘explorers’ if they harmed a hair on Bee’s head. It should have been ridiculous from a woman hunched over and in need of a cane to walk, but it had the Captain and Dan both sweeping the hats off their heads when they crowded into Betsy’s homely hut with Renee.
The first few hours were spent acquainting themselves with her. Once Betsy cottoned on to their aim, she refused to make any deal before she’d spoken privately with each of the crew members. Everyone was understandably hesitant, especially after Dan emerged from her talk with a peaceful, happy smile, but by the last person - Erik -- Bee was deemed to be a reliable individual and very, very good at her job, and of course they wouldn’t mind donating to her cause.
She’d need to visit them while they slept, she said. She needed a few days to prepare her materials for collections, would they mind waiting?
No, not at all, Wymack said, and then thought to himself, Is this part of her magic?
She smiled brightly, as gentle as Renee, and the Captain found himself a bit disquieted. He wondered where and how she’d come into the fortune she promised to trade them, a purse full of silver and two pure gold coins.
With Betsy’s seal of approval, the tavern-slash-inn agreed to put them up for free. They only had two rooms to rent, dusty and underused to boot, but everyone found space, and with Andrew and Kevin agreeing to row back to watch the ship, the nights in Palmetto passed easily enough. The village was as close-knit as it was small, but Bee vouched for them in the miniature market-place and meeting hall and before they knew it, aunties shoved warm bread in their hands with clucking tongues about watching your sea legs is making me dizzy, sailor, and miners left soot-stains on their backs and shoulders from celebratory end of the day pats, and young adults crowded around their table at the inn, begging for any scrap of news about the big, big world outside of their tiny, tiny village.
All in all, it was a disgustingly relaxing and peaceful four days before Betsy’s ritual, and Nicky might have cried one night into Erik’s shoulder about how friendly the people were, and everyone privately thought they could stay forever if only they didn’t have a merman to deliver somewhere.
Well. Almost everyone. Jean kept separate and suspicious, but then Renee and he visited Betsy’s house for a second meeting, and he left a little softer at the edges, a little more living and not just surviving, and soon enough raised a toast to Palmetto like everyone else in the tavern.
The night of the ritual came too quickly, sparking the first ripple of tension across their group since arriving. Andrew and Kevin joined them at the inn, which meant Dan and Matt had to transfer to Abby and Wymack’s room, and for a while, it seemed impossible they’d be able to sleep. Betsy arrived late, a bag stuffed with dried plants on her back and a basket filled with stain glass bottles on her arm. She did her best to soothe their worries, explaining in detail what she was going to do and what they might expect when they woke up, lighting incense at the doorway and chalking white runes at the windows in the moon’s light. Terse glances were exchanged between the crew members, bodies shifting restlessly on makeshift pallets, and then--
They woke up.
Glances were again exchanged, hands and legs examined, an odd emptiness in their chests and thoughts refusing to stick in their skulls. Bee smiled at them from the doorway, her eyes crinkled at the edges, and told them they should rest in Palmetto for three days more, and, like puppets, they agreed. She once more warned them of how their hearts would refill by the full moon, and they should expect periods of ecstatic euphoria and dreadful apathy, and that they shouldn’t worry about either, because it would pass, as all things do. Time would be their greatest ally, but if they wanted, they were welcome to stay and visit her to help with the process. Again, like puppets, they agreed.
She left the coins in an empty-eyed Wymack’s hand and took her leave, the bottles in her basket glowing as if rainbows incarnate.
Palmetto’s kindness became a blessing. The villagers didn’t pry even though The Fox’s crew felt willing to disclose every secret and bare any wound if asked. They knew they’d done a great favor for their sooth-sayer, and that was enough for most of the villagers to understand the need for distance.
In the late afternoon of the third day, it was Andrew who rapped on the doorway with his knuckles and, eyes on Aaron, said, “We need to pull anchor and sail on.”
“Why?” His brother asked, a bit of irritation breaking up his days-long apathy.
“Yeah,” Nicky piped up, though he didn’t sound like he’d mind doing much of anything, “what for? Palmetto’s nice. We should stay. Have you talked with Bee?”
“Yes,” Andrew said. “And she agreed. We need to spend our money and go.”
“Don’t tell us.” Aaron grumbled, eyes closed as he gathered the energy to stand. “Get the Captain.”
Andrew did. Wymack was harder to rouse even after three days, climbing to his feet only after Abby dropped his hat on his head and Kevin appeared at Andrew’s elbow and muttered unhappy agreement. The crew meandered in pairs and trios back to the rowboats, the coin shared between them and the butcher’s, fisher’s and farmer’s visited throughout the sun’s fading light. They climbed aboard The Fox only once the gibbous moon hung heavy in the sky, most of them shuffling to the sleeping quarters. Andrew beelined for Neil’s tank, pulling back the tarp and flipping open the grate without preamble; immediately claws hooked into the bars, and quizzical blue eyes peered up when all Andrew did was tangle up their fingers as much as Neil’s webbing allowed, his face absolutely blank.
After a moment, Neil read an unasked question in the look, and untangled their fingers to push his head against the grate. Andrew threaded fingers through thick hair to the first knob of a bumpy spine and further, tracing the edges of what appeared to be teeth marks and what definitely belonged to a dagger’s bite. Neil’s back rippled with tension at the touches, but he moved as Andrew silently directed, tilting to the right and left to let him map out the old, unforgotten experiences. He ran his fingers along Neil’s closed dorsal fin, the strong spines sturdy as a boulder in a rushing river.
“Neil!” Cut in a voice, and then, “Er, Neil?" And finally, “Oh, uh. Andrew.”
Neither looked over at Matt, his ecstatic grin fading with uncertainty and confusion. Dan appeared at his elbow a moment later, took in the scene, and pulled Matt back without comment.
They reeled in the anchor and sailed out in the morning, as quiet as a ghost ship.
In the midst of one such argument, Kevin had a blank-faced Seth by the collar while Allison towered dangerously close to Aaron, Matt and Dan silent and unimpressed at the outskirts. It looked as if Kevin would throw Seth overboard, their boots knocking as he shook the man and threatened to do it-- and then a clang! rang out, and another, and another, until everyone’s attention jumped to the middle of the deck.
Neil scowled back at them before he rammed his tail against the lid again, rattling it where it lay. Everyone blinked. The merman swam a tight circle, bunched himself at one corner, and surged upward, slamming into it with the full force of his shoulder and side. The lid shook. The lid jumped. Water dribbled down the glass sides in thick streams, and the fight’s tension dissipated abruptly as the pirates raced to check how secure the fastenings were.
Renee was called, and though she declared the spell in tact, everyone spent a moment anxiously watching Neil as he lounged on the tank’s bottom, face affecting an air of neutrality and what’s all the fuss about?
They put gunpowder sacks on top, just in case, and ran thick ropes over that to secure it.
“You are really twice-damned stupid,” Andrew told him later that night, his back against the tank and head tipped back to watch the stars. “What happened to your escape plan? You think you can move all that?”
Neil ignored him, spooled in a loose circle behind Andrew and playing cards against himself in a game that had more to do with matching numbers to formulas than luck.
Overhead, the moon hung full and bright.
Before any decisions were made, however, chores needed to be done, and everyone - Jean included - set about doing them. Lines were checked. Crates were organized. Old planks were carefully reinforced. The horizon was surveyed. The deck was swabbed. That night’s potatoes were peeled.
Kevin caught Neil watching him at the last, tedious job with something like smugness lining his face; straightening up with unwarranted indignity at being watched by a jobless sea creature, he acted before thinking and shoved a small potato into Neil’s newly cleaned water. The merman blinked, catching the root with an uncertain expression, and glancing up quickly when Kevin pointed at him and snapped, “Peel it!”
“Kevin, what the fuck?” Allison asked, hanging from the sail’s netting with both eyebrows up.
“No one gets a free ride,” he told her, his shoulders set in a stubborn line.
“He’s in a tank. Held captive. By us. And what’s he going to peel it with? His nails?”
“I hadn’t thought about that,” he admitted.
Neil looked up at him, bemused, before setting one sharp claw at the top of the potato and running it downward. The skin peeled up in a thin curl, white shining out underneath, and though his expression didn’t change, Kevin looked proud enough for him.
It did not become routine to give Neil potatoes to peel-- Katelyn chided Kevin on the one Neil successfully skinned, saying there was no way even boiling it would make her want to eat food that’d been marinated in merman-water--- but it made for an amusing story.
A few other moments as they drifted through warmer and warmer waters stuck out, as well.
An albatross took roost in their nest, which was fine and enjoyable until it began to pull insistently at their orange flag. Then Nicky had to scamper up to wave at it with a mop, and repeat the process three more times before the bird took the hint and flew off for good.
As Dan, Matt and Wymack enjoyed the sunrise by Neil’s tank, the merman’s fins flared and he pointed toward the southeast. Wymack took out his spy-glass to find what had him so lively, then laughed with amazement and passed over the spy-glass at Dan and Matt’s protests over being left out.
In the distance, too far for a human eye to catch, hump-backed whales breached the surface to blow out gusts of water. Their spray caught the morning sun and broke into rainbows, shimmering in brief snatches of splendor.
Another day, red came in the morning, and clouds chased them across the sea. Renee reported nothing to be worried about, that they would just want to doubly secure everything mobile and, of course, drop the sails. True to her predictions, the rain arrived first in a light sprinkle and then as a misty sunshower without any lightning or thunder. Abby thought to move Neil’s tank back into the hold for the duration, and most agreed, though others said he was much more secure in the strapped-down location they left him in; by the time they decided to move him and got soaked unraveling knots, Matt said, “Wait, hold on, look.”
Abby, Dan, Nicky and Erik - the ones determined to move him - turned to look. They’d grown increasingly aware of just how cramped the merman was in his tank, but in that moment, Neil didn’t seem to even realize where he was. He had his claws pushing at the flap, making it jump and jitter but never fully open, his tail writhing in muted frustration behind him.
Dan stepped forward to oblige in opening the flap, her clothes stuck to her skin and her hat heavy with water. Neil stuck his face in the grate within a second, blinking rapidly in the rain before smiling wide enough to split his face in two.
Then he opened his mouth and laughed.
The sound built up from an odd whistling wind to the happy chirping of a tern, dimmed and brightened and dimmed again and brightened again in a continually surprised, continually delighted cycle as the rain reached him. He scrabbled at the bars for a moment, claws catching and scratching the metal, but when the grate held, he simply shoved his cheek closer, laughter caught in his throat and smile soft as goose down.
At first, those watching stared in silence, emotions tangled up in their ribcages. Nicky was the first to break with a giggle, and Erik wrapped an arm around him and pulled him close as he dissolved into his own laughter; Dan and Matt followed next, nearly collapsing on one another; even Abby laughed as she pushed plastered hair back from her forehead, and the collective noise of a tank not being moved drew others to the doorways to see what was the hold up.
Soon enough, Allison yanked Seth into the rain for a spin, giving him a punch on the shoulder when he complained about his boots getting wet. Wymack joined Abby, though he looked more amused at her than fully comprehending what about the situation could be funny. Kevin and Jean tried to keep dry in the doorway, but Renee looped her arms around both of theirs and dragged them out with a light laugh, followed swiftly by Katelyn who demanded that Aaron taking her dancing in the rain. He had no choice but to oblige, though the small upwards quirk of his mouth said he didn’t mind too much.
Andrew drifted to the tank as everyone was wrapped up in their own worlds, quirking an eyebrow at the merman with his face pressed against metal bars. Neil’s eyes cracked open and he hummed at the other, a light, pleased sound that wove with the rain’s pitter-patter, before shutting his eyes and tilting his head. With a quiet snort lost to the weather, Andrew dug his fingers into auburn hair and scratched circles into the scalp, his attention caught more by the way Neil turned into jelly than the rain.
“We could just sell his old scales,” Dan proposed, the offer weak to her own ears.
“We could just… not sell any part of him at all,” Matt said.
“No, that won’t do. I like him as much as the next person here, but he has cost us a lot of time and money.”
“I can’t believe this is such a fucking problem. Isn’t this what you’d warned us about, Captain?”
“If you’re the only one with an issue about keeping him alive, Seth,” Dan snapped, “maybe you should leave.”
“Cheating death isn’t something anyone should have the power to do.” Wymack said, even and stone-faced. “Selling the whole package is off the table as long as that’s the result.”
“Maybe we could make a deal with him,” Matt tried, his eyebrows pinched and voice that of someone figuring it out as they went. “You know, get him to bring us something incredible from the deep. Or harvest pearls for us. Or lead us to treasure. Or…”
“That would take releasing him,” Renee said from over runes scrawled to keep the sky clear and ocean calm, “and I don’t think, no matter how friendly he acts now, that he’ll want to come back.”
“No.” Wymack sighed. “Unless there’s a long-ass leash you know of that could tie him to our ship, magic or otherw--”
The sharp clanging of a bell cut Wymack short, everyone in the room frozen stock-still. In the abrupt quiet, Nicky’s voice drifted into the room, muffled by space and wall: “Steady approach from North and port-side! Three ships, two scouts, one brig-- Captain! Captain! They’re flying His Majesty’s flag!”
The pirates scrambled from the drawing room to find Nicky pointing his spy-glass from the nest, and below him, Kevin and Jean unknotting and reknotting lines of the main mast, working with absolute concentration toward pulling the sails taut and catching the wind to turn. Matt fell in to help him without thinking, while Dan barked orders for everyone else to secure hatches, hide valuables and ready the cannons and rifles just in case.
“We’re flying the blue flag,” the Captain muttered to Abby, his own spy-glass out and focused on the rapidly approaching naval ships. “There’s no reason they should be interested in us. We’re far away from imperial waters.”
His scope finally found the largest ship’s name, and he paled.
“Get that merman into the hold!” Dan commanded as Nicky swung down, her own trajectory by-passing the tank for the gunroom. Within its water, Neil had flattened himself to the bottom, tail curled close and eyes flickering between everyone with concern and confusion.
“Don’t bother!” Wymack snapped back, tucking his spy-glass into his belt and racing for the wheel, “It’s The Raven. She knows we have Neil.”
“Are you kidding?” Allison yelled, her walk speeding into a jog as she made to pass out swords and scabbards.
“Captain, there’s no way we’re out-running those scouting ships. They’re going to cut in for The Raven to flank us.”
“Then make sure they don’t make it past us! Day, Boyd, I want all sails open on the double. Walker! Where’s my wind? Take theirs, I want them dead in the water. Moreau-- you’re with me. I needed to know Moriyama’s personal failings and sour history yesterday.”
The Raven, large brig that she was, fell behind her smaller companions in no time at all. Unfortunately, that made it evidently clear the scouting ships were headed directly for The Fox, one curving portside and the other swinging to the starboard on wind too conveniently flexible to be fully natural. Renee worked her own runes, but she’d set spells for calm waters and steady winds that needed to be undone, the magicks bucking under her supposed greed at begging for too much in one day. Their best bet was to out-last the scouting ships and keep from being pincered in. If they didn’t get tangled up in a skirmish, they could easily out-run The Raven, and lose her in the island that spread out from the southern land’s main stretch.
Their best bet was a crapshoot, which Moreau told him with the certainty of the damned. Wymack grit his teeth and snapped at him for being pessimistic, but as one scouting vessel pulled ahead of them while staying out of their cannons’ range and the other wasn’t far behind, he admitted Moreau had a point. Speed alone wasn’t getting them out of this one.
Then what was there? “They won’t fire on us as long as we’re in deep water,” Moreau promised. “They want Neil. They won’t risk sinking The Fox and losing him to the depths.”
So they had the advantage of being able to play a game of distance with cannonballs, but that would only last until they ran out.
They’d have to make each count.
“Uncover the tank and set it in the middle! If it’s Neil they need, I want us to be as unappealing to shove around as possible. The rest of you, ready the cannons.”
The scout aided by magicks clipped too close to their ship. Dan steadied the cannon, Kevin aimed, fired, and Matt scrambled to re-pack powder before iron crunching through wood could be heard. It hit and sunk a hole from the deck to the hull, the ship falling behind rapidly as its base filled with water. A few grim smiles were shared, hope snaking through their hearts, but the battle had just began.
While they focused on one, the other ship took the opportunity to cut hard into their range and, when Seth and Aaron’s shots went wide and sunk harmlessly into the ocean, raced their light vessel into The Fox’s path. At the helm, Wymack cursed and turned the wheel hard; the stiff sails refused to turn as nicely, and their old ship slowed to a crawl to avoid smashing nose-first into the scout’s. Wood splintered along the lighter ship’s side as they clipped each other, but The Fox powered through the encounter without much more than a dent.
Grappling hooks sailed from the scout’s deck to The Fox’s railing, three out of seven catching, the ends tied to strong posts and held by lines of black uniformed sailors. Nicky and Erik abandoned untying Neil’s tank and dashed to cut them free, but a rain of arrows drove them back. One crossbow’s bolt sunk deep into the mast, catching Nicky’s shoulder as he dashed for cover. Small though the ship was, His Majesty had staffed it well. The Fox rocked hard as the scout swung into her flank; not built to ram ships of her size, the scout’s siding began to collapse inward and sink, the ropes binding her and The Fox snapping under the strain.
With single-minded determination, the sailors aboard threw more and aimed crossbows at what bodies they could see, and, failing that, put holes through the sails, none of them abandoning their posts for the scant lifeboats visible on the deck.
“Creeps,” Allison snarled, leveling a musket out a porthole and taking a shot for the man at the wheel. The first shot missed, coating Allison in smoke and attracting the bowmen’s attention. Seth handed her the second loaded gun. That shot did not, and the man crumpled where he stood.
On deck, Neil turned in tight circles, fins flared and expression torn, red scales flashing in wrathful, impotent warning.
Truly, they could’ve taken the scouting ship easily. But the question hadn’t been if they could take the scouts - it was their escort, with her dark wood and red sails, that worried them. As the Captain yelled, “Portside! Less than a league! Hemmick, get that parasite off my ass!”
The Raven moved as a force of nature, a towering, creaking monster that cut straight for The Fox. She crawled with sailors in black and red, bristled with arrows and rifles, and, at her helm, carried the carving of a winged woman with arms outstretched, beckoning any who opposed her to try their best before she sunk them into the sea.
(The carving was modeled after the late Kayleigh Day, a master shipwright and principle designer for The Raven. A pity she hadn’t lived long enough to see her sail.)
Archers turned their attention to the portholes and Nicky raced to the remaining lines, sawing them free and clinging to the railing as The Fox rocked again, the abrupt release of pressure rocketing her forward. A lesser mast, peppered with holes, ripped apart under an abrupt gust of warm wind, but the others held strong; below, Renee scrawled yellow runes onto weathered wood and mixed dust with dried flowers, tossing one bowlful after the other toward the sky with steady, tense words.
The scouting ships sinking behind them left behind air pockets that sunk claws deep into their hull, trying to keep them in place to witness the sailor’s last moments. With the unnatural gust, however, they pulled away, jerking free with another shudder and tilt that put more than a few crewmembers onto their asses.
The Raven gave chase just a few degrees off from directly behind them. With The Fox’s slow start and the brig behind them catching the coattails of their gust, the two ships neither gave nor took from each other for a league, then two, then three. For a while, the only sounds were those of creaking wood, straining ropes, and shouting men and women. Wymack’s knuckles whitened on the wheel, Jean pale-faced behind him; Abby raced out to staunch the blood from Nicky’s shoulder; muskets and cannons were reloaded; in his tank, Neil continued circling, eyes hard and mouth shut tight.
Slowly, slowly, the darker ship gained on its target. The ripped sail fluttered in the breeze, the other masts containing similar, albeit smaller, holes. Without something to work through, not even magic could help them.
“All hands to the starboard!” Wymack called. Erik relayed it. Dan echoed it back. Cannons were rolled out from one side to the other, the ship underneath groaning as weight shifted too much to one side. As his crew fell into position, Wymack turned his ship hard, swinging her perpendicular to The Raven and edging fast out of her way.
A crossbolt smashed through railing and missed the wheel by an inch. Behind it was the brig’s Captain, Riko Moriyama’s face twisted into fury as dark as his ship.
Cannons were fired. Most missed, but one - again, aimed by Kevin - took out the end of a mast, wood splintering and falling into the churning sea below. As they reloaded, others aimed muskets, hidden behind upturned boards.
But in truth, they were a scant crew, five hands short of the typical minimum for a ship of The Fox’s size. In contrast, The Raven’s significant labor base took aim and, at the sharp call of a uniformed woman, fired as one. There was no doing anything but hiding under a barrage like that, and ropes snapped overhead as arrows and crossbolts cut through cloth and thin wood.
In the end, The Fox wasn’t fast enough to pull off Wymack’s pipedream. The brig’s heavy side clipped her flank and sent her twisting, everyone aboard tossed well off their feet lest they fall overboard.
Grappling hooks on chains were next, these fired from spring-loaded machines, digging deep into The Fox’s side and holding fast. They were, it could be noted, careful not to pierce anything near water-level. Wymack cursed, abandoning the wheel in favor of his sword, his crew similarly retreating to doorways and halls to draw steel under another shower of arrows. An order was given for the navy men to draw their swords as planks bridged the gap, polished boots stomping across in an unyielding swarm of black. No human prisoners! came the call; the pirates heard this, and a split-second decision from their Captain was made.
Two ships sacrificed for one mermaid.
Dan had been right. Neil was worth more than any diamond.
“We surrender.” Wymack called, sword lowered and free hand spread at his side. His crew boggled at the change, a few shouts startled out of denials and challenges. His face, already grim, grew darker. Behind him, Jean dropped his own sword, though the caught rabbit look in his eyes said he couldn’t believe it.
The sailors surrounded them and forced them to their knees while others dragged pirates from their holes, almost all of their eyes on their Captain. Renee and Andrew had their eyes elsewhere, but they kept their hands behind their heads as much as their fellows, falling to their knees when ordered.
Captain Riko Moriyama was last to arrive on the pirate’s ship, his hair slicked back and face smooth, uniform perfect and the medals pinned there shining. He tapped his finger on his sword’s simple, red-and-black hilt as he stepped first toward Neil’s tank, eyes skimming dismissively over Wymack and Jean and the rest of the pirates. The only break in his calm came when he spotted Kevin, whose eyes bore into the floorboards to avoid Riko’s; at his former First Mate, his eyes widened and he stilled mid-step, surprise turning his face young for one short second.
Then the look was gone and a sneer twisted in its place, a clipped, “How the mighty have fallen,” pause, “until they’re forced to crawl. Really, Kevin? You deserted His Majesty the King’s navy for this?”
Andrew made a move to stand, aborting it at the very last moment by virtue of a sword to his neck and Renee and Aaron nudging their knees against him hard.
One eyebrow raised, Riko laughed at the sight, flicking his hand dismissively at the crew as he refocused on his prize.
“My,” he murmured, running a hand where iron lid met glass and meeting the narrowed eyes of the merman inside, “you are something. But then, they always are.
“This one looks a lot like the last the King pulled in, doesn’t he? The same stubborn set to the jaw.”
“It does, sir.”
Riko patted the lid as if reassuring a dog of its good behaviour. Inside, Neil drew himself up as much as the low ceiling allowed, his fins flared and teeth bared. Riko eyed him, a mocking smile on his face.
“Admittedly,” he said, each syllable enunciated with sharp clarity, “she looked better strung up than in a box.”
Neil flinched hard, whole body wrenching away from the laughing Captain and coiling in the far corner.
“It’s incredible how long they can last out of water.” He continued airily, turning on a heel to walk back to the planks. “Not forever, of course - the longest managed a day, gasping and writhing on its hook - but letting them dry out removes the risk of ruining the scales. As you can imagine, that’s important.”
“What should we do with the pirates, sir?” The First Mate asked.
“Oh, them?” He glanced over his shoulder without regard or care. “Leave them in the hold. Be careful with the tank; after all the hard work that went into finding it, I don’t want it dying too soon.”
The Captain paused, one foot on a plank, his eyes raking over the motley crew.
“Kevin,” he said, voice light and perfectly benevolent. “It was you who took out one of our posts, wasn’t it? Your aim’s still remarkably accurate. We could find a place for you if you renounced this sad excuse for a ship.”
After Riko frowned and looked ready to take his offer back, Kevin dragged his eyes up from the floor to the uniformed man. The look on his face was set, and grim, and terrified, and determined.
“I’d sooner sink to the bottom of the ocean than spend one more second looking at you.”
Riko covered his grimace with a curled lip, expression nothing but cruel.
“Leave them in the hold.” He ordered, turning sharply to head back to his ship as his men snapped to attention. “After, burn this wretched boat to cinders. It’ll do the sea some good to have it off her waters.”
He stepped onto the plank. Some of his men moved to lift the tank. Others yanked The Fox’s crew to their feet, swords out to ensure cooperation.
A merman coiled in his corner and surged forward, shoulder rammed into heavy iron with all he had. It popped off like it was made of plywood, tipping over onto a startled sailor and knocking her flat.
Riko whipped around, sword in hand and face shocked. The merman’s long tail caught the tank’s edge and brought it crashing down with him, water flooding across the deck and knocking a few sailors off balance. The pirates took immediate advantage of the opportunity, daggers pulled and swords appropriated from their captors; the two sides clashed in a confused, messy tangle, one fighting for their lives and the others caught between duty and self-preservation as Riko yelled, “Watch the mermaid! Don’t let him escape! Don’t harm him, either!”
Neil thrashed like a wild thing, tail sweeping the feet out from under sailors and claws gouging deep lines into any who came close enough.
The Foxes had the element of surprise as well not having to fear Neil’s claws. The battle’s tide turned swiftly, sailors tumbling over broken railings or taking daggers under the ribs; as soon as he realized the favor was out of his court, Riko disengaged from Wymack, disarming the older Captain with a crack of Wymack’s wrist and fleeing for the makeshift bridge. He made it half-way over before Kevin lunged and caught him by the ankle and sent him sprawling on the board - the air knocked out of him, he twisted and gasped at Kevin to let him go, let him go immediately, have you changed that much, did we mean nothing?
Kevin flinched and let go.
Riko scrambled up, wobbled on abruptly unsteady wood, arms pinwheeling and knees buckling, a snarl sent for the two responsible to stop!, and then he was falling, gasping for help, and disappearing under the frothy waves between The Raven and The Fox.
Andrew and Jean fully unhinged and let the plank drop after him, its thick wood splintering against The Raven’s hull.
Though no sailor surrendered, the tight, intense skirmish finished soon enough. Blood streaked the deck or pooled under cooling bodies; by the end, against the sailor’s wholesale slaughter, The Fox’s casualties numbered one, Seth lost over the edge with Riko’s First Mate. The flurry of activity left a hollow ringing after the dust settled, no one walking away unscathed.
Dan’s duty was to her crew, not the merman. And yet -- before she knew about Seth, and before Allison knew about Seth, almost before any of them realized it was over - she stepped toward the gasping, fish-tailed body on the deck, halting only when Andrew snapped at her to stay back. He kneeled at Neil’s side, bloodied hands laid on the merman’s shoulder and heaving sides. It seemed the merman knew the fighting was over before the rest of them - or, maybe, he’d simply ran out of the energy to thrash.
“Neil?” She couldn’t help asking, not glancing away when Renee, her eye swelling, and Matt, holding his gashed arm, appeared at her sides.
Neil’s eyes, pin-pricks in a wash of white, rolled to find her, and then moved back to Andrew’s. Andrew ignored the new audience, expression shuttered.
The merman eventually raised himself on his forearms, head bowed low and gills gaping at his sides, his breathing making it sound as if he were hyperventilating. He began to pull himself toward the edge not connected to The Raven, tail a long, weakly wriggling line behind him. He was closer to the dark brig than the open ocean -- and yet, it still took Andrew’s voice to push Dan and the rest into action.
“Get his tail.”
His meaning became clear as he hooked his own arms under Neil’s and put his not inconsiderable strength to helping him toward the edge. Matt, Renee and Dan scrambled to comply, each hefting a section of red scales. Neil’s tail flicked in their hold reflexively, but as glassy blue eyes focused on who had him, it stilled and turned to heavy, still weight. His head lolled back onto Andrew’s chest, hair at last a tangled mess across his face and shoulders.
Together, even with their injuries, they made it to the deck’s edge in quick time. Neil squirmed when he caught sight of the ocean, his eyes glued to the horizon line. They hesitated for a moment, wondering if he would be okay despite the drop. His squirming turned into struggling. Andrew said, “On three,” and Dan said, “One,” and, “Two,” and, “Three,” and they tossed Neil overboard, watching as he twisted and turned mid-air before disappearing into the waves in a perfect streak of red.
They watched a moment longer, but the ocean stayed blue, its surface unbroken.
Then Allison screamed, high and full of grief, and the trio split off from Andrew to run to her. For his part, Andrew watched a moment longer before turning, too, and seeking out his brother.
There was clean-up to be done. They’d let the deck hands take their comrades’ bodies back, but the blood needed to be removed and weaponry cleaned. They took down the ripped sails and strung up their spares, turning the ripped material into makeshift bandages and tarps. People had to be packed as much as the ship - as long as they didn’t run into a storm (and Renee worked hard to make sure they wouldn’t), they’d make it to port without further trouble.
Last to go was the tank, spiderweb cracks running up from one corner and split clean down the middle on another side. It took days to find every shard. When one of the last pieces, too small to be clearly seen, stuck in Allison’s heel, she cursed that damned mermaid for never leaving them alone, and even once he’s gone, he’s a pain in my ass, and, that fish-brained fucker is happy wherever he is, I hate his guts, and once it was only her and Renee, let tears fall freely for Seth and only Seth.
Before they knew it, they reached port. Of course once they’d lost their reason for being there, it came too soon.
Jean left them with a quiet bow of his head and enough gold in his pocket for a horse and food for the road. He returned with all the gold still in his pocket, confessed he couldn’t remember the face of his father, and wondered if they would ever head back to Troy. He knew a shipwright there he owed a great deal to. Ever short-staffed and now down (two) more crewmates, they accepted him back without quibble or qualm.
They picked up a few other, new faces-- six, to be exact, putting them at last at the proper number for a ship their size-, but recruitment became tough with the battle heavy on their minds. They traded in silver and copper for food and supplies, and gold in for some of the south’s best repairwork. More than a few told them they should purchase a new ship altogether, that it would’ve been far more worth their money, but somewhere along the line, they’d grown attached to The Fox. No other ship, no matter how glossy and new, would have seen the shining coat of a mermaid or Captain Moriyama’s death. The quiet abated bit by bit, and they stopped watching the ocean’s surface for a flash of red bit by bit, and eventually, caught wind of their absurdly high bounty as issued by the King, which was new and impressive and the first real break in the overall gloom since they’d left The Raven behind. The new recruits sighed in relief and then swallowed excited terror, not having realized who exactly they’d signed up with until they caught sight of the wanted posters at their next stop.
Nicky once drunkenly told them of a time The Fox ferried a mermaid out from under the Crown’s nose, and how the iron lid with the runes that collected dust in the hold used to be part of his tank, and he used to play with these very cards, but none of them really believed him, and the other crewmates simply smiled or ignored the ramblings. Neil seemed like a hazy dream they’d all shared, and none of them were particularly keen to share him.
The sun rose. The sun set. Dan caught herself watching both wistfully before shaking herself back to whatever task she had at hand, turning her back on the beautiful streaks of pink, orange and red.
It was all back to life as normal for a pirate ship.
It started at dusk: melody drifted up from below, a sweet, kind, gentle song that led two new women and all the men except Nicky, Andrew and Erik by the nose to the ship’s edge. They peered over and smiled dopily at what they found, and it was only by the women’s quick intervention that they didn’t tip over the railing right then and there.
“But why not?” Matt whined, straining against Dan’s hold to reach for the ocean. “They’re so sweet! Can’t you hear them?”
“I’m only hearing something that’s going to get your dumb ass killed,” Dan hissed back, yanking him harder away from the railing.
Katelyn and Andrew both had Aaron by the shoulders, Katelyn pleading, “Aaron? Aaron! Come on, wake up!” while he shook his head and continued stumbling for the edge.
They dragged the men and recruits back, but once they managed to mostly corral them in the middle of the deck, the melody shifted into something deeper and stronger, and those under the trance began to fight with fervor to reach the edge. Abby had to wrap Wymack in a full-bodied hug to keep him from ripping out of her grip. Renee and Lizzy struggled to hold back Jean while Nicky had Kevin in a tight headlock. Aaron drew a dagger on Katelyn - Andrew knocked it from his hand and pushed him down. The two ended up rolling and scrabbling, one fighting to get away and the other fighting not to do serious damage, and it was only after Andrew heard Renee’s, “No! Watch out!” that he realized they’d rolled to the edge, and then gravity took hold.
They crashed into the water without breaking a bone only by virtue of their tangled bodies bumping and bruising into the ship’s siding and Andrew curving Aaron’s head into his chest; they both came up gasping, winded and disorientated, and absolutely surrounded.
Sirens were beautiful creatures, their skin gleaming like a translucent pearl or clear, clean water over a sandy beach. Hair fell in thick curls down their shoulders, their eyes akin to a watery abyss and their size twice that of a typical human. Their bodies were those of sensual women, all curves and temptation, legs strong and feet broad. Their song, it was said, could carry for leagues, and lead men and women alike from the safety of their beds to deep waters. Aaron tried his best to swim into the outstretched arms of one, its mouth slowly curving back to reveal blackened, needle-sharp teeth, its long tongue a slimy grey.
Andrew hooked his arms under his brother’s arms to drag him back, his legs kicking hard to keep them both afloat, but Aaron struggled like his life depended on being free, and the siren at Andrew’s side lunged forward with a cruel hiss, “Unwanted! Unneeded! Leave the weak to us!” and tore between the twins, one massive hand curling around his neck.
The one Aaron tried so valiantly to reach paused its singing, its head snapping to the side to glare beyond its sisters. Aaron was left blinking in a daze before another’s song turned his head, but then the one that had fallen silent screamed and disappeared downward as if snatched by a kraken. Andrew couldn’t see beyond the one choking him, but even that one grew nervous, the human in its hand forgotten as it glanced downward. He took the opportunity to smash his booted foot into its throat; it gasped and let him fall completely back into the water.
The sirens’ singing grew erratic, their numbers distracted with the discord in their ranks. Overhead, the sounds of fighting died down.
But that didn’t matter to those in the water. Another siren screeched as a red blur smashed into it, its sister pouncing on the intruder and tumbling underwater in a blue-red-blue tangle. One decided to make off with what it could and snagged Aaron by the arm, dragging him down and away -- Andrew forgot the blur, took a gulp of air and dove after him, snagging his twin’s ankle and dragging himself closer with that. Once within reach, he pulled his dagger and sunk it into the creature’s thigh; it screeched, the sound piercing through the water, and let go of Aaron in favor of Andrew. Aaron kicked to the surface, spell broken and lungs burning; as Andrew wrestled with the siren, he caught sight of his twin dipping back down to follow them, but then Andrew’s ears popped and his eyes burned from the salt and they were far, far too deep far, far too quickly.
He forced his eyes open, hand tight on his dagger. It wrapped a hand around his arm, fingers digging in tight. He didn’t think, simply shook the other knife from his sleeve and plunged it into the siren’s neck.
Its screech gurgled into nothing, black leaking in clouds from the wound, but still, it didn’t let go. He cut at its hand, desperation and the water’s weight slowing his motions, air bubbling from his mouth too fast and lungs burning, aching, demanding anything, water or air.
Vision hazy, he saw webbed claws dig in between human and siren. A flash of bright blue and whipcord of gleaming red, and arms wrapped around his chest and dragged him up, and the pressure in his head put spots in his eyes but then they breached the surface and he breathed.
Coughed. Sputtered. Wheezed. Coughed again, and let animalistic relief wash over him as he took grateful gasps of clear air, Neil’s support giving him time to collect his bearings rather than focus on keeping afloat. Warmth snaked around his legs, a there-and-gone touch of a twisting tail, and something older than their late night talks rang alarm bells in his mind but then there was space, there was breathing room, and Neil was just keeping afloat to give him time.
He could see Aaron treading water near by, his eyes too-wide and face on the wrong side of scared-but-trying-not-to-be, but he was physically fine, and right then, that was enough.
“You are an awful swimmer,” Neil muttered too close to his ear, voice exasperated and relieved and exactly what it should sound like, and if Andrew didn’t feel like his whole body was made of sand he’d kick the merman in his stupid gills.
“Unfair,” he gasped back, breath slowly returning, “comparison.”