In summer here
the humidity holds everything in one
exhale three months long. Next door,
Ellie sits cross-legged, breaking branches.
She lets them sink into the lake like
a ritual: an offering to the bluegills
who carry pebbles through sixty acres
of freshwater just to lay down
Captain Ceran of the privateer ship El Kapti held his breath as the words were spoken once more.
“Captain? I said it’s quite a calm night.”
The captain didn’t reply. He wished it wasn’t so calm. He wished there was a storm to break up the seas and send them back to port and away from this foreboding assignment. The water shifted very slightly, but still reflected the moon like a world-sized mirror. They might as well have been on land for how still the ship was.
First mate Bast seemed to feel he was being ignored as he began shifting from one foot to another. The captain usually tried to calm his second in command, who fidgeted when it was quiet, but he didn’t have the words tonight.
“Good night for fishing, I suppose,” Bast offered.
The captain nodded. The ship and its crew were silent as the grave, even the boards and nails of the hull had been oiled to smoothness earlier that day. Not for the first time, a man could be heard falling to the ground on the main deck, the slickness of the oil catching under his boots.
Somehow Bast had managed to stay standing. He always had enviable balance, thought Ceran.
After several more minutes of shuffling, Bast gave up on talking, and instead went below decks to see how the preparations were coming along. The captain, relieved that he didn’t need to speak for a while longer, looked down from the quarterdeck from which he could see the whole ship. Two large fishing nets had been installed on each side of the Kapti. The pulley system was much like that of small fishing boats with a set of wooden frames holding the nets out over the water, but the captain had arranged the weights so it would only take three men to work each net rather than the ten or more it would normally be needed to pull up prey this size.
“All’s well,” reported Bast as he returned to the upper deck. The captain nodded again and clenched his teeth. Quiet time was over.
He stood straight behind the ship’s wheel and cleared his throat. It wasn’t a particularly loud sound, but it carried in the dark. Everyone on the ship, or at least those in the captain’s sight, stood alert.
“It is time, men,” the captain said with all the confidence he could muster.
Everyone moved at once. Those not stationed at the nets began to bring up wooden crates from the lower decks. Once twenty or so crates had been set up around the edges of the deck, two men shuffled over to each, crowbars in hand. They ripped the wooden tops off, nails and splinters flying across the oiled surface.
The change in the air was immediate. The smell of the bait hit their noses with a physical waft, breaking through the dull smell of oily wood. The glass bottles filling the crates shined every color in the moonlight and filled the air with scents of lavender, violets, jasmine, and myrrh. One case was full of a musky scent that drifted through the flowery aura like a fox in a garden.
Several men covered their faces in dirty cloths, while others just scrunched their noses at the scents. One man began to sneeze, and was told to find someone below decks to switch places with. He hurried away and sent a man already prepared with a cloth back up.
“Hold now.” The captain could only whisper the command, his nerves working horrors on his breathing. This work had all been done for the sake of some eccentric landsmen, and the captain was unused to the terms of the agreement. El Kapti had seen plenty of defensive battles, and she was good for sneaking up on those who thought they were doing the sneaking. She wasn’t a fishing boat by trade.
Not a single man moved as they heard the first splash off in the distance. They were coming.
“Ready to haul,” said the captain. He kept an eye on the darkened horizon, where he was sure he could just see movement. The creatures were curious at the smell. But that would not be enough, according to the landsmen. The captain took one more look at the crates, bemoaning the value about to be lost, and nodded to the men at the crates.
The men on deck moved slowly but surely, each lifting a side of a crate up and onto the wooden rails that edged the deck. They listened carefully, both for the captain’s orders and the sound of their curious prey swimming closer. After a tense moment, the distant splashing seemed to stop all at once.
“Now,” whispered the captain.
The air was then filled with the sounds of crates going overboard and smashing into the water. A few emptied their cargo on the way down, and hundreds of ornate glass bottles fell to their demise. The water around the ship chopped away at both wood and glass, spreading the contents of both out into the water. Now the smell was ever more present as the deep, exotic perfumes came free and into the already salty air.
“Are you sure this is enough, captain?” asked Bast.
Had the captain not known his first mate very well, he might have thought this was a pointed comment. But Bast was not very skilled in the fine art of sarcasm, so Ceran resisted the urge to reply bitingly.
“All we could afford from our last venture,” he all but moaned.
Bast began to shift again, his face contorting as if he was struggling to find more words. The captain looked from his shifting first mate to the now choppy water, which shined with a myriad of colors from the bottles of perfume that had broken open. The stirrings of their prey had redoubled. The water turned white with small waves where the creatures were swimming. They were well on their way now. “Bast, if you have something to say, some point to make, you’d best get to making it. I haven’t the patience nor time to talk you tonight.”
“All of our last venture, sir?! How are we to pay for anything else? How will we even find a place to dock with these creatures? Surely those who are paying the commission wouldn’t tell anyone else what we’re bringing back?”
“We should only need to say who we’re working for and there will be space for us. The noble’s name is good as toll gold. There’s a fearful ring of rare pet collectors and exotic food connoisseurs in Marina, lad.”
“But sir, the chances of us catching more than one—“
“Are you doubting me, first mate?”
The boat had begun to rock in the newly created waves. Perfumed water crashed on the sides of the ship; flowers, foxes, and salt mixed in the air and morphed into a taste as well as a smell. The captain could see from his perch that some of the creatures were flinging the scented water into the air, almost deliberately.
“Ready at the nets!” said the captain, much louder now. Even though the creatures were in ear-shot, they were making too much noise themselves to hear him, or so he hoped.
From below, several voices rose up in response. The crew was ready, the nets prepared, all just waiting for the final order. When the scents of perfume and saltwater had nearly overwhelmed those around the deck, everyone tensed for a final few seconds.
“Raise the devils from the depths!” screamed the captain. He threw himself onto the ship’s wheel, turning it suddenly this way and that to agitate the water further. “The beasts get no more control here; reel them up!”
The sound of rope over metal pulleys ground against the crew’s ears along with the crashing waves and the captain’s shouts. But now there was also a rhythmic breathing as men on deck pulled the ropes taut. The rhythm caught like a plague, and soon even the men who were standing still, trying to keep their balance on the slippery shaking deck, breathed along with the pullers. The ropes strained and the pulleys squeaked. Only after several minutes of this did they all realize the waters had gone calm. The nets finally rose out of the water and slowly appeared above the deck.
And there they were, the ship’s smelly prey: mermaids, six or seven to a net. Each flopped around in the rope webs, their tails whipping side to side as if it would free them. Their movement made the air glitter; upon closer inspection the captain could make out colorful scales under makeshift belts and skirts, and a few ornate bottles hidden in the folds. They were all shouting obscenities in different languages, and a few were making choice hand gestures at the men on deck. Their wet hair flew around as they flailed, adding to the savage look their scrapped clothing gave them.
“Aye, shut your filthy mouths, sea witches. You’ll get no sympathy here!” The captain shouted on his way down the stairs, confidence rising from his stomach to his mouth. At least he hoped that was all that was rising. His jaw clenched as watched his men pull the flailing fishy nets, held by the wooden beams several feet above deck level, over the rails. There was a collective groan from the pullers as both rope and crewman released the tension holding the mermaids mid-air. Four full nets landed with a chorus of indignant gasps and wet thumps on the deck.
“You scoundrel!” shouted a dark-skinned mermaid to the captain’s right.
The captain, usually a man of few words, laughed as confidently as he dared. Mermaids were known for talking a man into the water, he knew. “I may be that, miss, but what man isn’t at least once in his lifetime? And surely you’d understand that, as your kind have been drowning them for sport since the dawn of seamanship.” He hoped the accusation would shut her up. Once he had begun to talk, he couldn’t stop. “And now we’ve turned the tables on you, tricky things! For what else would a salty seawoman want more than an hour or two of smelling nicer than the water in which you live? No woman on land or sea could resist the temptation of the finest perfumes in the known lands. How easily you fell for our trap, miss! And yet I am the scoundrel? No, certainly you are the more rascally of us here today, and we are the cleverer!” And then he began to laugh so loudly, he could feel the crew relaxing at his feigned assurance.
The mermaids listened and watched the captain with blank stares. The captain noted this, but was not surprised. These creatures drowned men at sea for fun. They’d probably heard their fair share of boasting by captains and crews alike.
“Now, I’m not entirely without honor, miss,” said the captain, feeling at least mostly in control of the situation. “Have you any last words before we lock you away in the brig till we reach shore?”
The dark skinned mermaid met the captain’s eyes and spoke two words: “Thank you.”
This did surprise the captain. Enough so that instead of immediately ordering their removal to the brig, he paused and stepped up to the net holding the dark-skinned one, careful to keep his balance on the oily wood.
“I said, thank you. You are a very generous man.”
A few of the men laughed at the statement. The captain was a bit more worried than he was amused, though. Captives were supposed to be sad or angry and beg for freedom, not thank their captors. But what harm could it do to have willing captives?
“Well, you’re welcome then, miss… Ah, do you wenches have proper names?”
A few crewmen chuckled again. Oddly, some of the mermaids looked amused as well, though the captain only had eyes for the brazen one in front of him.
She smiled and said, “You may call me captain.”
“Aye? And what are you captain of, then? An undersea crew? Have a few sunken ships to play pirate on, hmm?”
“Oh, no.” The mermaid waved her hand as if banishing the thought from the air. “I am captain of this ship you have given us.”
Several men burst out laughing. Ceran gestured grandly to the nets holding the mermaids, still tangled in wads of wet, salty hair and looped around a gilded tail or two. Given, indeed. This was hardly a wily mermaid’s trick; it may have even been a joke if the sea women had those.
The dark-skinned mermaid waved her hand again, but more decisively this time. The captain saw this as another dismissal of his words and made ready to order them all to the brig. It was about time to head home and get paid for this mess.
But at the move of the mermaid captain’s hand, the rest of the creatures moved in unison, each pulling a knife, or in some cases a broken-off spear head, from folds of their clothing. In seconds the nets were in bits on the deck. One mermaid, tangled in the web by her hair, sheared it all off in one movement, leaving her with a lopsided crop of auburn locks.
The next second the mermaids stood—balancing on the ends of their tails it seemed. As the captain watched, too intrigued to question it, the tails split and seemed to melt into the shape of feet and legs. In seconds the deck was full of women where once there were mermaids, the only remaining sign of their watery past a few stray scales lining their calves or shining just under their knees.
The crew, severely unbalanced by the sight of apparent magic, hardly had time to defend themselves when the women charged away from the nets, knives flying. Some men backed away a few steps, which was all the attackers needed to get them toward the rails and over them. Ten men were in the water with more on the way when crewmen from lower decks began rushing out, swords drawn.
Fortunately for the captain, this was more his crew’s style. In a sudden burst of instinctive war lust, he unsheathed his own sword and lunged forward to join the fray.
This movement landed him face-down on the deck tasting the oily, and now salty, wood. Damned nobles thinking a ship had to be shiny. He stood in time to see several of his men fall just as he had, only to be tied at the ankles with their own nets. Men were disarmed by wild women who had no trouble staying upright on the slick deck. The captain watched as one man steadied himself by holding onto the ship’s rails just as another man went down, sliding under the first’s legs and bringing him back to where he’d started.
The captain wasn’t one for fancy shows. He’d never been to a proper ball, or seen any ballets. But he imagined this must be what they looked like. The men may as well have handed their swords over for how gracefully they were disarmed and how smoothly they were felled onto the deck. The women, to their credit, hardly seemed bothered by the men’s weight, strength, or vocal volume as they used the remainders of the nets to disable and restrain the struggling crewmen.
Though he’d watched all of this with wide-eyed awe, the captain was surprised to find himself the last man free on deck with the women. The first few fighters could be heard trying to climb their way back onto the ship from the sides, but women posted around the rails kept them down.
“Now, gracious sir,” said the dark-skinned mermaid captain with a dramatic flourish of her knife, “if you would kindly hand over your sword, we’ll be on our way.”
When the captain finally found his voice again, he said, “Now ladies, if that is indeed what you are, there’s no need to be rash.” More scrapes from below; maybe his crewmen would get back on board yet. “We threw you an awful lot of perfume, rather lot of gold’s worth. Much more than my ship’s worth, I’m sure! Say you take the perfume, or whatever hasn’t floated off, and I’ll take my ship back—“
“I’m afraid not. The ship’s worth more than the sea-scented bottles now.”
“Aye, I’m sure. But say, then, that you just drop us off in Marina? Only we couldn’t get back without a ship.” A few men struggled against their binds, but had no success. Captain Ceran wasn’t sure if he should count himself lucky to be untied or not. “And we’ve got a few people waiting on us, you see.”
“Waiting for us you mean!” accused one woman, wringing her long blond hair out onto the deck. The water pooled over the oily surface.
“We certainly don’t sell our loyalties so easily as pirates,” said the mermaid captain, scowling.
“We’re not pirates. We’re privateers, m’lady.”
“You fight for yourselves either way.”
“But we were only acting on orders!” said Bast. The captain turned to his right and saw that his first mate’s attacker had gotten creative: the skinny man was not only tied up, but his ankle bindings were wrapped around the top of the railing so that he was almost upside down.
“The fact remains that you’re the leader here. So,” the dark-skinned mermaid paused and tilted her head slightly, “have you any last words before we send you below?”
One of the crewmen to the captain’s right laughed. “Foolish girls! This ship won’t last long in the hands of women.”
“Your dismissal of women is the reason this is happening in the first place!” shouted the blonde mermaid, jabbing a sword at the crewman.
One mermaid, covered head to toe in seaweed instead of clothing, leaned on one of the poles that had held the nets up. “You throw women off ships because you think they’re bad luck, yes? Well, we make a point of saving them and coming back to prove you right. Aren’t we helpful?”
The captain grunted. One woman, the only one wearing a full red dress, waved her sword in his direction.
“It’s more than you deserve, being pirated by beautiful women, you thieving, scoundrel, son of a—“
“Ladies, be courteous.” The mermaid captain sauntered forward to rest a hand on the human captain’s shoulder. “Surely this generous man will go quietly.”
“Not away from my ship!” Captain Ceran’s voice sounded more desperate than he’d meant it to. “I mean, we’ve never thrown a woman off this ship!”
“Bring a few on when we’re at port, in fact,” chimed in a crewman tied upright to the mast. The captain’s jaw set once more as he considered risking another face full of oily wood just to jump up and shut the man’s mouth himself.
“Aye, I’m sure.” The mermaid captain sheathed her sword in a leather band around her waist. “You can spend a little longer on your ship, generous captain. We’ll drop you off at the nearest isle.”
The captain’s heart sank. The nearest isle he knew of was still miles off the coast of Marina. Even adventurous nobles wouldn’t send someone out that far to retrieve them. There was no chance of getting paid now. And little, it seemed, of keeping his ship.
He didn’t fight as three of the mer-women dragged him over the wet deck to the rails and fastened his wrists to one of the fishing posts. El Kapti was never meant to be a fishing boat, and this was why. Fish were tricky. Men you could predict, fight, and trap, but fish with legs were too much. The water on the other side of the rail was no longer quiet or smooth, and the captain could see several of his men treading water below. They were all looking up at him, still waiting for orders.
The captain watched several long ropes fly over the sides of the ship and into the water. The men below grabbed them gratefully and began to climb. When they reached the rails, each was disarmed and lead to the trapdoors that lead below decks at sword-point.
“You stay down there till we reach land,” said the seaweed-covered mermaid. The men didn’t argue.
“One more for the fleet!” shouted the mermaid captain. The women cheered as they began the arduous task of moving the ship in the slight wind that was beginning to stir the air. Their leader leaned on the rail next to Captain Ceran and smiled. “It is a rather nice ship, sir.”
“Thank you,” Ceran sighed.
The now disposed captain felt seawater and perfume soak into his trousers. He’d have preferred water stained with gunpowder and smoke, but he got lilac instead. Battles never ended flower-scented. He felt the stares of his crew—if he could even still call them that—waiting for him to speak. He did not. The salty smell of the water had just begun to fight back through the nauseating mixture of perfumes and oil.
There was a splashing nearby as if someone was shifting nervously in the puddles left on the deck.
“Still a bit smelly out here, captain.” Bast’s voice waivered.
Ceran finally replied, “Aye Bast, but don’t worry. We’ll be drying on land soon enough.”
The shifting stopped and it was quiet again.