Lady Araminta was seen off from the docks at Chenstowe-on-Sea with great ceremony if not much affection by her assembled family. She departed in the company of not one but two maids, a hired eunuch swordsman, and an experienced professional chaperone with the Eye of Horus branded upon her forehead, to keep watch at night while the other two were closed.
Sad to say these precautions were not entirely unnecessary. Lady Araminta—the possessor of several other, more notable names besides, here omitted for discretion—had been caught twice trying to climb out her window, and once in her father’s library, reading a spellbook. On this last occasion she had fortunately been discovered by the butler, a reliable servant of fifteen years, so the matter was hushed up; but it had decided her fate.
Her father’s senior wife informed her husband she refused to pay for the formal presentation to the Court necessary for Araminta to make her debut. “I have five girls to see established besides her,” Lady D— said, “and I cannot have them ruined by the antics which are certain to follow.”
(Lest this be imagined the fruits of an unfair preference, it will be as well to note here that Araminta was in fact the natural daughter of her Ladyship, and the others in question her daughters-in-marriage, rather than the reverse.)
“It has been too long,” Lady D— continued, severely, “and she is spoilt beyond redemption.”
Lord D— hung his head: he felt all the guilt of the situation, and deserved to. As a youth, he had vowed never to offer prayers to foreign deities such as Juno; and out of obstinacy he had refused to recant, so it had taken three wives and fourteen years to acquire the necessary son. Even then the boy had proven rather a disappointment: sickly and slight, and as he grew older preferring of all things literature to the manly arts of fencing or shooting, or even sorcery, which would at least have been respectable.
“But it is rather messy,” young Avery said, apologetic but unmoving, even at the age of seven: he had inherited the family trait of obstinacy, in full measure. It is never wise to offend foreign deities, no matter how many good old-fashioned British fairies one might have invited to the wedding.
Meanwhile Araminta, the eldest, had long shown more aptitude for riding and shooting than for the cooler arts, and a distressing tendency to gamble. Where her mother would have seen these inappropriate tendencies nipped in the bud, Lord D—, himself a notable sportsman, had selfishly indulged the girl: he liked to have company hunting when he was required at home to do his duty to his wives—and with three, he was required more often than not.
“It is not too much to ask that at least one of my offspring not embarrass me on the field,” had been one of his favorite remarks, when chastised; so while her peers were entering into society as polished young ladies, beginning their study of banking or medicine, Lady Araminta was confirmed only as a sportswoman of excessive skill, with all the unfortunate results heretofore described.
Something of course had to be done, so a match was hastily arranged with the colonial branch of a similarly exalted line. The rumors she had already excited precluded an acceptable marriage at home, but young men of good birth, having gone oversea to seek a better fortune than a second son’s portion, often had some difficulty acquiring suitable wives.
In those days, the journey took nearly six months, and was fraught with considerable dangers: storms and pirates both patrolled the shipping lanes; leviathans regularly pulled down ships, mistaking them for whales; and strange fevers and lunacies thrived amid the undersea forests of the Shallow Sea, where ships might find themselves becalmed for months above the overgrown ruins of the Drowned Lands.
Naturally Lady Araminta was sent off with every consideration for her safety. The Bluegill was a sleek modern vessel, named for the long brightly-painted iron spikes studded in a ridge down her keel to fend off the leviathans, and armed with no fewer than ten cannon. The cabin had three locks upon the door, the eunuch lay upon the threshold outside, the maids slept to either side of Araminta in the large bed, the chaperone had a cot at the foot; and as the last refuge of virtue she had been provided at hideous expense with a Tiresian amulet.
She was given no instruction for the last, save to keep it in its box, and put it on only if the worst should happen—the worst having been described to her rather hazily by Lady D—, who felt suspiciously that Araminta already knew a good deal too much of such things.
There were not many tears in evidence at the leave-taking, except from Lady Ginevra, the next-oldest, who felt it was her sisterly duty to weep, though privately delighted at the chance of advancing her own debut a year. Araminta herself shed none; only said, “Well, good-bye,” and went aboard unrepentant, having unbeknownst to all concealed a sword, a very fine pair of dueling pistols and a most inappropriate grimoire in her dowry-chest during the upheaval of the packing. She was not very sorry to be leaving home: she was tired of being always lectured, and the colonies seemed to her a hopeful destination: a young man who had gone out to make his fortune, she thought, could not be quite so much a stuffed-shirt.
After all the preparations and warnings, the journey seemed to her so uneventful as to be tiresome: one day after another altered only by the degree of the blowing wind, until they came to the Drowned Lands and the wind died overhead. She enjoyed looking over the railing for the first few days, at the pale white gleam of marble and masonry which could yet be glimpsed in places, when the sailors gave her a bit of spell-light to cast down below.
“There’s nowt to see, though, miss,” the master said in fatherly tones, while she peered hopefully. Only the occasional shark, or sometimes one of the enormous sea-spiders, clambering over the ruined towers with their long spindly red legs, but that was all—no gleam of lost treasure, no sparks of ancient magic. “There’s no treasure to be had here, not without a first-rate sorcerer to raise it up for you.”
She sighed, and insisted instead on being taught how to climb the rigging, much to the disgust of the sailors. “Not like having a proper woman on board,” more than one might be heard quietly muttering.
Araminta was not perturbed, save by the increasing difficulty in coaxing interesting lessons from them. She resorted after a while to the privacy of her cabin, where through snatched moments she learned enough magic to hide the grimoire behind an illusion of The Wealth of Nations, so she might read it publicly and no-one the wiser. The amulet she saved for last, and tried quietly in the middle of the night, while the chaperone Mrs. Penulki snored. The maids, at first rather startled, were persuaded with only a little difficulty to keep the secret. (It must be admitted they were somewhat young and flighty creatures, and already overawed by their noble charge.)
Two slow months they spent crossing the dead shallow water, all their sails spread hopefully, and occasionally putting men over the side in boats to row them into one faint bit of current or another. All the crew cheered the night the first storm broke, a great roaring tumult that washed the windows of her high stern cabin with foam and left both of the maids moaning weakly in the water-closet. Mrs. Penulki firmly refused to entertain the possibility that Araminta might go outside for a breath of fresh air, even when the storm had at last died down, so she spent a stuffy, restless night and woke with the changing of the watch.
She lay on her back listening to the footsteps slapping against the wood, the creak of rope and sail. And then she was listening only to an unfamiliar silence, loud in its way as the thunder; no cheerful cursing, not a snatch of morning song or clatter of breakfast.
She pushed her maids until they awoke and let her climb out to hurry into her clothes. Outside, the sailors on deck were standing silent and unmoving at their ropes and tackle, as if preserved in wax, all of them watching Captain Rellowe. He was in the bows, with his long-glass to his eye aimed out to port. The dark tangled mass of storm-clouds yet receded away from them, a thin gray curtain dropped across half the stage of the horizon. The smooth curve of the ocean bowed away to either side, unbroken.
He put down the glass. “Mr. Willis, all hands to make sail, north-northwest. And go to quarters,” he added, even as the master cupped his hands around his mouth to bellow orders.
The hands burst into frantic activity, running past her; below she could hear their curses as they ran the ship’s guns up into their places, to the complaint of the creaking wheels. “Milady, you will go inside,” Captain Rellowe said, crossing before her to the quarterdeck, none of his usual awkward smiles and scraping; he did not even lift his hat.
“Oh, what is it,” Liesl, one of the maids said, gasping.
“Pirates, I expect,” Araminta said, tugging her enormously heavy dower chest out from under the bed. “Oh, what good will wailing do? Help me.”
The other ship emerged from the rain-curtain shortly, and became plainly visible out the windows of Araminta’s stern cabin. It was a considerable heavier vessel, with a sharp-nosed aggressive bow that plowed the waves into a neat furrow, and no hull-spikes at all: instead her hull was painted a vile greenly color, with white markings like teeth also painted around.
Liesl and Helia both moaned and clutched at one another. “I will die before you are taken,” Molloy, the eunuch, informed Araminta.
“Precious little difference it will be to me, if I am taken straightaway after,” she said practically, and did not look up from her rummaging. “Go speak to one of those fellows outside: we must all have breeches, and shirts.”
The chaperone made some stifled noises of protest, which Araminta ignored, and which were silenced by the emergence of the pistols and the sword.
The jewels and the trinkets were buried amid the linen and silk gowns, well bundled in cloth against temptation for straying eyes, so they were nearly impossible to work out. The amulet in particular, nothing more than a tiny nondescript silver drachma on a thin chain, would have been nearly impossible to find if Araminta had not previously tucked it with care into the very back corner. It was just as well, she reflected, glancing up to see how the pirate vessel came on, that boredom had driven her to experimentation.
From the quarterdeck, Captain Rellowe too watched the ship coming up on their heels; his glass was good enough to show him the pirates’ faces, lean and hungry and grinning. He was a good merchant captain; he had wriggled out of more than one net, but this one drew taut as a clean line drawn from his stern to her bows. The once-longed-for steady wind blew into his sails with no sign of dying, feeding the chase still better.
Amphidrake was her name, blazoned in yellow, and she was a fast ship, if rigged a little slapdash and dirty. Her hull at least was clean, he noted bitterly, mentally counting the knots he was losing to his own hull-spikes. Not one ship in a thousand met a leviathan, in season, and cannon saw them safe as often as not; but spikes the owners would have, and after the crossing of the Shallow Sea, they would surely by now be tangled with great streamers of kelp, to say nothing of barnacles and algae.
(The storm, of course, would have washed away any kelp; but the spikes made as satisfying a target to blame as any, and preferable to considering that perhaps it had not been wise to hold so very close to the regular sea-lanes, even though it was late in the season.)
In any event, the pirate would catch the Bluegill well before the hour of twilight, which might otherwise have given them a chance to slip away; and every man aboard knew it. Rellowe did not like to hear the mortal hush that had settled over his ship, nor to feel the eyes pinned upon his back. They could not expect miracles of him, he would have liked to tell them roundly; but of course he could say nothing so disheartening.
The Amphidrake gained rapidly. The bo’sun’s mates began taking around the grog, and the bo’sun himself the cat, to encourage the men. The hand-axes and cutlasses and pistols were lain down along the rail, waiting.
“Mr. Gilpin,” Captain Rellowe said, with a beckon to his first mate, and in undertone said to him, “Will you be so good as to ask the ladies if for their protection they would object to putting on male dress?”
“Already asked-for, sir, themselves,” Gilpin said, in a strange, stifled tone, his eyes darting meaningfully to the side, and Rellowe turning found himself facing a young man, with Lady Araminta’s long black curls pulled back into a queue.
Rellowe stared, and then looked away, and then looked at her head—his head—and then glanced downward again, and then involuntarily a little lower—and then away again—He did not know how to look. It was no trick of dress; the shirt was open too loose for that, the very line of the jaw was different, and the waist.
Of course one heard of such devices, but generally only under intimate circumstances, or as the subject of rude jokes. Rellowe (if he had ever thought of such things at all) had vaguely imagined some sort of more caricaturish alteration; he had not gone very far in studies of sorcery himself. In reality, the line between lady and lord was distressingly thin. Araminta transformed had a sword, and two pistols, and a voice only a little high to be a tenor, in which she informed him, “I should like to be of use, sir, if you please.”
He meant of course to refuse, vocally, and have her removed to the medical orlop if necessary by force; and so he should have done, if only the Amphidrake had not in that very moment fired her bow-chasers, an early warning-shot, and painfully lucky had taken off an alarming section of the quarterdeck rail.
All went into confusion, and he had no thought for anything but keeping the men from panic. Three men only had been hit even by so much as a splinter, but a drop of blood spilled was enough to spark the built-up store of terror. The mates had been too free with the grog, and now the lash had less effect: a good many of the men had to be thrust bodily back into their places, or pricked with sword-point, and if Araminta joined in the effort, Rellowe managed not to see.
She was perfectly happy, herself; it had not yet occurred to her they might lose. The ship had been very expensive, and the cannon seemed in excellent repair to her eye: bright brass and ebony polished, with fresh paint. Of course there was a personal danger, while she was on-deck, but high spirits made light of that, and she had never balked at a fence yet.
“You cannot mean to be a coward in front of all these other stout fellows,” she sternly told one sailor, a scrawny underfed gaol-rat attempting to creep away down the forward ladderway, and helped him back to the rail with a boot at his back end.
The crash of cannon-fire was glorious, one blast after another, and then one whistling by overhead plowed into the mizzenmast. Splinters went flaying skin in all directions, blood in bright arterial spray hot and startling. Araminta reached up and touched her cheek, surprised, and looked down at the bo’sun, staring glassy-eyed back at her, dead at her feet. Her shirt was striped collar to waist with a long sash of red blood.
She did not take it very badly; she had done a great deal of hunting, and stern lecturing from her father had cured her of any tendency to be missish, even when in at the kill. Elves, of course, were much smaller, and with their claws and pointed teeth inhuman, but near enough she was not tempted in the present moment either to swoon or to be inconveniently ill, unlike one small midshipman noisily vomiting upon the deck nearby.
Above her head, the splintered mizzen creaked, moaned, and toppled: the sails making hollow thumping noises like drum skins as it came down, entangling the mainmast. Araminta was buried beneath a choking weight of canvas, stinking with slush. The ship’s way was checked so abruptly she could feel the griping through the boards while she struggled to force her way out through the thick smothering folds. All was muffled beneath the sailcloth, screams, pistol-shots all distant, and then for a moment Captain Rellowe’s voice rose bellowing over the fray, “Fire!”
But their own cannon spoke only with stuttering, choked voices. Before they had even quite finished, a second tremendous broadside roar thundered out in answer, one ball after another pounding into them so the Bluegill shook like a withered old rattle-plant. Splinters rained against the canvas, a shushing noise, and at last with a tremendous heave she managed to buy enough room to draw her sword, and cut a long tear to escape through.
Pirates were leaping across the boards: grappling hooks clawed onto whatever was left of the rail, and wide planks thrust out to make narrow bridges. The deck was awash in blood and wreckage, of the ship and of men, torn limbs and corpses underfoot.
“Parley,” Captain Rellowe was calling out, a shrill and unbecoming note in his voice, without much hope: and across the boards on the deck of the other ship, the pirate captain only laughed.
“Late for that now, Captain,” he called back. “No, it’s to the Drowned Lands for all of you,” cheerful and clear as a bell over the water. He was a splendidly looking fellow, six feet tall in an expansive coat of wool dyed priest’s-crimson, with lace cuffs and gold braid. It was indeed the notorious Weedle, who had once taken fourteen prizes in a single season, and made hostage Lord Tan Cader’s eldest son.
Inexperience was not, in Araminta’s case, a synonym for romanticism; defeat was now writ too plainly across the deck for her to mistake it. Molloy staggering over to her grasped her arm: he had a gash torn across the forehead and his own sword was wet with blood. She shook him off and shot one pirate leaping towards them. “Come with me, quickly,” she ordered, and turning dashed into the cabin again. The maids terrified were clinging to one another huddled by the window, with Mrs. Penulki pale and clutching a dagger in front of them.
“Your Ladyship, you may not go out again,” the chaperone said, her voice trembling.
“All of you hide in the water-closet, and do not make a sound if anyone should come in,” Araminta said, digging into the dower chest again. She pulled out the great long strand of pearls, her mother’s parting gift, and wrapped it around her waist, hidden beneath her sash. She took out also the gold watch, meant to be presented at the betrothal ceremony, and shut and locked the chest. “Bring that, Molloy,” she said, and dashing back outside pointed at Weedle, and taking a deep breath whispered, “Parley, or I will throw it overboard. Dacet.”
The charm leapt from her lips, and she saw him start and look about suspiciously, as the words curled into his ears. She waved her handkerchief until his eyes fixed on her, and pointed to the chest which Molloy held at the ship’s rail.
Pirate captains as a class are generally alive to their best advantage. The value of a ship bound for the colonies, laden with boughten goods, might be ten thousand sovereigns, of which not more than a quarter might be realized; a dower chest might hold such a sum alone, or twice that, in jewels and silks more easily exchanged for gold. Weedle was not unwilling to be put to the little difficulty of negotiation to secure it, when they might finish putting the sword to the survivors afterwards.
“I should tell you at once, it is cursed,” Araminta said, “so if anyone but me should open it, everything inside will turn to dust.” It was not, of course. Such curses were extremely expensive, and dangerous besides, as an unwitting maid might accidentally ruin all the contents. Fortunately, the bluff would be rather risky to disprove. “There is a Fidelity charm inside, intended for my bride,” she added, by way of explaining such a measure.
Weedle scowled a little, and a good deal more when she resolutely refused to open it, even with a dagger at her throat. “No,” she said. “I will go with you, and you may take me to Kingsport, and when you have let me off at the docks, I will open it for you there. And I dare say my family will send a ransom too, if you let Captain Rellowe go and inform them,” she added, raising her voice for the benefit of the listening pirates, “so you will all be better off than if you had taken the ship.”
The better to emphasize her point, she had handed around the gold watch, and the pirates were all murmuring over it, imagining the chest full to the brim of such jewels. Weedle liked a little more blood, in an engagement—the fewer men to share the rewards with after—but for consolation, there was not only the contents of the chest, but what they augured for the value of the ransom.
“What do you say, lads? Shall we give the young gentleman his passage?” he called, and tossed the watch out over their heads, to be snatched for and scrambled after, as they chorused agreement.
“Lord Aramin, I must protest,” Captain Rellowe said, resentfully. With the swords sheathed, his mind already began to anticipate the whispers of censure to come, what indignant retribution her family might take. But he had scarcely any alternative; exposing her to rape and murder would certainly be no better, and, after all, he could only be censured if he were alive for it, which was some improvement. So he stood by, burdened with an ashamed sense of relief, as she crossed with unpardonable calm to the pirate ship and the chest trundled over carefully behind her.
The Amphidrake sailed away to the south; the Bluegill limped on the rest of her way to New Jericho, there to be received with many exclamations of horror and dismay. The family of Lady Araminta’s fiancé (whose name let discretion also elide) sent an agent to Kingsport at once; followed by others from her own family.
They waited one month and then two, but the Amphidrake never put in. Word eventually came that the ship had been seen instead at port in Redhook Island. It was assumed, for everyone’s comfort, that the pirates had yielded to temptation and tried the chest early, and then disposed of a still-disguised Lady Araminta for tricking them.
Now that there was no danger of her rescue, she was much lionized; but for a little while only. She had been most heroic, but it would have been much more decorous to die, ideally on her own dagger. Also, both the maids had been discovered, shortly after their arrival in port, to be increasing.
Her fiancé made the appropriate offerings and, after a decent period of mourning, married a young lady of far less exalted birth, with a reputation for shrewd investing, and a particularly fine hand in the ledger-book. Lord D— gave prayers at the River Waye; his wives lit a candle in Quensington Tower and put her death-date in the family book. A quiet discreet settlement was made upon the maids, and the short affair of her life was laid to rest.
The report, however, was quite wrong; the Amphidrake had not put in at Redhook Island, or at Kingsport either, for the simple reason that she had struck on shoals, three weeks before, and sunk to the bottom of the ocean.
As the Bluegill sailed away, stripped of all but a little food and water, Captain Weedle escorted Lady Araminta and the dower chest to his own cabin. She accepted the courtesy quite unconsciously, but he did not leave it to her, and instead seated himself at the elegant dining table with every appearance of intending to stay. She stared a little, and recollected her disguise, and suddenly realized that she was about to be ruined.
This understanding might be called a little late in coming, but Araminta had generally considered the laws of etiquette as the rules of the chase, and divided them into categories: those which everyone broke, all the time; those which one could not break without being frowned at; and those which caused one to be quietly and permanently left out of every future invitation to the field. Caught browsing a spellbook was in the very limits of the second category; a bit of quiet fun with a lady friend in the first; but a night alone in the company of an unmarried gentleman was very firmly in the last.
“You aren’t married, are you?” she inquired, not with much hope; she was fairly certain that in any case, a hypothetical Mrs. Weedle a thousand sea-miles distant was not the sort of protection Lady D— would ever consider acceptable for a daughter’s reputation, magic amulet or no.
Weedle’s face assumed a cast of melancholy, and he said, “I am not.”
He was the by-blow of an officer of the Navy and a dockside lady of the West Indies sufficiently shrewd to have secured a vow on the hearth before yielding; accordingly he had been given a place aboard his father’s ship at a young age. He had gifts, and might well have made a respectable career, but he had been taken too much into society by his father, and while of an impressionable age had fallen in love with a lady of birth considerably beyond his own.
He had presence enough to appeal to the maiden, but her family forbade him the house as soon as they realized his presumption. She in turn laughed with astonishment at his suggestion of an elopement, adding to this injury the insult of drawing him a brutal chart of their expected circumstances and income, five years out, without her dowry.
In a fit of pride and oppression, he had vowed that in five years’ time he would be richer than her father or dead; and belatedly realized he had put himself into a very nasty situation, if any god had happened to be listening. One could never be sure. He was at the time only eighteen, several years from his own ship and the chance of substantial prize-money, if he should ever get either; and the lady’s father was exceptionally rich.
Pirate ships were rather more open to the advancement of a clever lad, and there was no Navy taking the lion’s share of any prize, or inconveniently ordering one into convoy duty. He deserted, changed his name, and in six months’ time was third mate on the Amphidrake under the vicious Captain Egg, when that gentleman met his end untimely from too much expensive brandy and heatstroke.
A little scuffling had ensued, among the officers, and Weedle had regretfully been forced to kill the first and second mates, when they had tried to assert their claims on grounds of seniority; he was particularly sorry for the second mate, who had been an excellent navigator, and a drinking-companion.
With nothing to lose, Weedle had gone on cheerful and reckless, and now six years later he was alive, exceptionally rich himself, and not very sorry for the turn his life had taken, though he still liked to see himself a tragic figure. “I am not married,” he repeated, and sighed, deeply.
He would not have minded in the least to be asked for the whole tale, but Araminta was too much concerned with her own circumstances, to care at all about his. She did not care at all about being ruined for its own sake, and so had forgotten to consider it, in the crisis. But she cared very much to be caught at it, and locked up in a temple the rest of her days, never allowed to do anything but make aspirin or do up accounts for widowers—that was not to be borne. She sighed in her own turn, and sat down upon the lid of the chest.
Weedle misunderstood the sigh, and poured her a glass of wine. “Come, sir, there is no need to be afraid, I assure you,” he said, with worldly sympathy. “You will come to no harm under my protection, and soon you will be reunited with your friends.”
“Oh, yes,” she said, unenthusiastically. She was very sorry she had ever mentioned a ransom. “Thank you,” she said, politely, and took the wine.
For consolation, it was excellent wine, and an excellent dinner: Weedle was pleased for an excuse to show away his ability to entertain in grand style, and Araminta discovered she was uncommonly hungry. She put away a truly astonishing amount of beef and soused hog’s face and mince pie, none of which she had ever been allowed, of course; and she found she could drink three glasses of wine instead of the two which were ordinarily her limit.
By the time the servants cleared away the pudding, she was in too much charity with the world to be anxious. She had worked out several schemes for slipping away, if the pirates should indeed deliver her to her family; and the pearls around her waist, concealed, were a great comfort. She had meant them to pay her passage home, if she were not ransomed; now they would give her the start of an independence. And, best of all, if she were ruined, she need never worry about it again: she might jettison the whole tedious set of restrictions, which she felt was worth nearly every other pain.
And Weedle did not seem to be such a bad fellow, after all; her father’s highest requirements for a man had always been, he should be a good host, and show to advantage upon a horse, and play a decent hand at the card-table. She thoughtfully eyed Weedle’s leg, encased snugly in his silk knee-breeches and white stockings. It certainly did not need the aid of padding, and if his long curling black hair was a little extravagant, his height and his shoulders rescued that and the red coat from vulgarity. Fine eyes, and fine teeth; nothing not to like, at all.
So it was with renewed complacency of spirit she offered Weedle a toast, and gratified his vanity by saying sincerely, “That was the best dinner I ever ate. Shall we have a round of aughts and sixes?”
He was a little surprised to find his miserable young prisoner already so cheerful: ordinarily, it required a greater investment of patience and liquor, a show of cool, lordly kindness, to settle a delicate young nobleman’s nerves, and impress upon him his host’s generosity and masterful nature. But Weedle was not at all unwilling to congratulate himself on an early success, and began at once to calculate just how much sooner he might encompass his designs upon Lord Aramin’s virtue. Ordinarily he allowed a week; perhaps, he thought judiciously, three days would do, in the present case.
Meanwhile, Araminta, who had spent the last several months housed in a cabin over the sailors’ berth, and was already familiar with the means of consolation men found at sea, added, “Winner has first go, after?” and tilted her head towards the bed.
Taken aback, Weedle stared, acquiesced doubtfully, and picked up his cards with a faintly injured sense that the world was failing to arrange itself according to expectations. The sentiment was not soon overcome; Araminta was very good at aughts and sixes.
Araminta liked to be on Amphidrake very well. The pirates, most of them deserters from the Navy or the merchant marine, were not very different from the sailors on the Bluegill. But they did not know she was a woman, so no-one batted an eye if she wished to learn how to reef and make sail, and navigate by the stars. Instead they pronounced her a good sport and full of pluck, and began to pull their forelocks when she walked past, to show they did not hold it against her for being a nobleman.
Weedle was excellent company in most respects, if occasionally inclined to what Araminta considered inappropriate extremes of sensibility. Whistling while a man was being flogged at the grating could only be called insensitive; and on the other hand, finding one of the ship’s kittens curled up dead in the corner of the cabin was not an occasion for mourning, but for throwing it out the window, and having the ship’s boys swab the floor.
She enjoyed her food a great deal, and was adding muscle and inches of height at what anyone might have considered a remarkable rate at her age. She began to be concerned, a little, what would happen if she were to take off the amulet, particularly when she began to sprout a beard; but as she was certainly not going to do any such thing amidst a pack of pirates, she put it out of her mind and learned to shave.
The future loomed alarmingly for other reasons entirely. If only they had gone directly to Kingsport, Araminta had hoped they should arrive before the ransom, and she might slip away somehow while the men went on carouse with their winnings. But Weedle meant to try and break his personal record of fourteen prizes, and so he was staying out as long as possible.
“I am sure,” she tried, “that they are already there. If you do not go directly, they will not wait forever: surely they will decide that I am dead, and that is why you do not come.” She did not consider this a possibility at all: she envisioned nightly a horde of chaperones waiting at the docks, all of them with Horus-eyes glaring at her, and holding a heap of chains.
“I must endure the risk,” Weedle said, “of your extended company,” with a dangerously sentimental look in his eye: worse and worse. Araminta decidedly did not mean to spend the rest of her days as a pirate captain’s paramour, no matter how splendidly muscled his thighs were. Although she depressed herself by considering that it might yet be preferable to a life with the Holy Sisters of The Sangreal.
She was perhaps inappropriately relieved, then, when a shriek of “Leviathan” went up, the next morning; and she dashed out to the deck on Weedle’s heels. Now surely he should have to turn about and put in to port, she thought, not realizing they were already caught, until she tripped over the translucent tendril lying over the deck.
She pulled herself up and looked over the side. The leviathan’s vast, pulsating, domelike mass was directly beneath the ship and enveloping her hull, glowing phosphorescent blue around the edges and wobbling softly like an aspic jelly. A few half-digested bones floated naked inside that transparent body, leftovers of a whale’s ribcage. A faint whitish froth was already forming around the ship, at the waterline, as the leviathan’s acid ate into the wood.
The men were firing pistols at it, and hacking at the tough, rubbery tendrils; without much effect. The leviathan leisurely threw over a few more, and a tip struck one of the pirates; he arched his back and dropped his hand-axe, mouth opening in a silent, frozen scream. The tendril looped half a dozen times around him, quick as lightning, and lifted him up and over the side, drawing him down and into the mass of the leviathan’s body. His eyes stared up through the green murk, full of horror and quite alive: Araminta saw them slowly blink even as he was swallowed up into the jelly.
She snatched for a sword herself, and began to help chop away, ducking involuntarily as more of the thin limbs came up, balletic and graceful, to lace over the deck. Thankfully they did nothing once they were there other than to cling on, if one did not touch the glistening pink tips.
“Leave off, you damned lubbers,” Weedle was shouting. “Make sail! All hands to make sail—”
He was standing at the wheel. Araminta joined the rush for the rope lines, and shortly they were making nine knots in the direction of the wind, back towards the Drowned Lands. It was a sorry speed, by the Amphidrake‘s usual standards; the leviathan dragging from below worse than ten thousand barnacles. It did not seem particularly incommoded by their movement, and kept throwing over more arms; an acrid smell, like woodsmoke and poison, rose from the sides. The men had nearly all gone to huddle down below, out of reach of the tendrils. Weedle held the wheel with one arm, and an oar with the other, which he used to beat off any that came at him.
Araminta seized his long-glass, and climbed up to the crows-nest to go looking out: she could see clearly where the water changed color, and the gorgeous blue-green began; the shipping lanes visible as broad bands of darker blue running through the Shallow Sea. The wind was moderately high, and everywhere she looked there seemed to be a little froth of cresting waves, useless; until at last she glimpsed in the distance a steady bank of white: a reef, or some land near enough the surface to make a breakwater; and she thought even a little green behind it: an island, maybe.
A fist of tendrils had wrapped around the mast since she had gone up, poisonous tips waving hopefully: there would be no climbing down now. She used the whisper-charm to tell Weedle the way: south by south-east, and then she grimly clung on to the swinging nest as he drove them towards the shoals.
What was left of the leviathan, a vile gelatinous mess stinking all the way to the shore, bobbed gently up and down with the waves breaking on the shoals, pinned atop the rocks along with what was left of the Amphidrake. This was not very much but a section of the quarterdeck, the roof of the cabin, and, unluckily, the top twelve feet of her mainmast, with the black skull flag gaily flying, planted neatly in a noxious mound of jelly.
The survivors gazed at it dismally from the shore, and concocted increasingly desperate and unlikely schemes for tearing away, burning, or explaining the flag, on the arrival of a Navy patrol—these being regular enough, along the nearby shipping lanes, to make a rescue eventual, rather than unlikely.
“And then they put out the yard-arm, and string us all up one by one,” the bo’sun Mr. Ribb said, morbidly.
“If so,” Araminta snapped, losing patience with all of them, “at least it is better than being et up by the leviathan, and we may as well not sit here on the shore and moan.” This was directed pointedly at Weedle, bitter and slumped under a palm tree. He had not been in the least inclined to go down with his ship, although he secretly felt he ought to have done, and it was hard to find that his unromantic escape had only bought him a few weeks of life and an ignominious death.
Araminta did not herself need to worry about hanging, but she was not much less unhappy, being perfectly certain the Navy would take her directly back to her family, under such guard as would make escape impossible. Nevertheless, she was not inclined to only eat coconuts and throw stones at monkeys and complain all day.
The island was an old, old mountaintop, furred with thick green vegetation, and nearly all cliffs rising directly from the ocean. Where the shoals had blocked the full force of the waves, a small natural harbor had developed, and the narrow strip of white sand which had given them shelter. Climbing up to the cliff walls to either side, Araminta could look down into the glass-clear water and see the mountainside dropping down and away, far away, and in a few places even the bleached gray spears of drowned trees below.
They had found the ruins of an old walkway, back in the jungle, while hunting: smooth uneven bricks of creamy white stone which led up and into the island’s interior; but none of the men wanted to follow it. “That’s the Drowned Ones’ work,” they said, with shudders of dismay, and made various superstitious gestures, and refused even to let her go alone.
But after three days and a rainstorm had gone by, leaving the black flag as securely planted as ever, hanging loomed ever larger; and when Araminta again tried to persuade them, a few agreed to go along.
The walkway wound narrowly up the mountainside, pausing occasionally at small niches carved into the rock face, mossy remnants of statues squatting inside. The road was steep, and in places they had to climb on hands and feet with nothing more than narrow ledges for footholds. Araminta did not like to think how difficult a pilgrimage it might have been, three thousand years ago, before the Drowning, when the trail would have begun at the mountain’s base and not near its summit. The men flinched at every niche; but nothing happened as they climbed, except that they got dust in their noses and sneezed a great deal, and Jem Gorey was stung by a wasp.
The trail ended at a shrine, perched precarious and delicate atop the very summit; two massive sculpted lion-women sprawled at the gate, the fine detail of their heavy breasts and beards still perfectly preserved, so many years gone. The roof of the shrine stood some twenty feet in the air, on delicate columns not as thick as Araminta’s wrist, each one the elongated graceful figure of a woman, and filmy drapery hung from the rafters still, billowing in great sheets of clean white. An altar of white stone stood in the center, and upon it a wide platter of shining silver.
“Wind goddess,” Mr. Ribb said, gloomily. “Wind goddess for sure; we’ll get no use here. Don’t you be an ass, Porlock,” he added, cutting that sailor a hard look. “As much as a man’s life is worth, go poking into there.”
“I’ll just nip in,” Porlock said, his eyes on the silver platter, and set his foot on the first stair of the gate.
The lion-women stirred, and cracked ebony-black eyes, and turned to look at him. He recoiled, to tried to: his foot would not come off the stair. “Help, fellows!” he cried, desperately. “Take my arm, heave—”
No one went anywhere near him. With a grinding noise like millstones, the lion-women rose up onto their massive paws and came leisurely towards him. Taking either one an arm, they tore him in two quite effortlessly; and then tore the parts in two again.
The other men fled, scattering back down the mountainside, as the lion-women turned their heads to look them over. Araminta alone did not flee, but waited until the others had run away. The living statues settled themselves back into their places, but they kept their eyes open and fixed on her, watchfully.
She debated with herself a while; she had read enough stories to know the dangers. She did not care to become a permanent resident, forced to tend the shrine forever; and it might not be only men who were punished for the temerity to enter. In favor of the attempt, however, the shrine plainly did not need much tending: whatever magic had made it, sustained it, with no guardian necessary but the deadly statues. And those stones along the trail had been worn smooth by more than weather: many feet had come this way, once upon a time.
“All right,” she said at last, aloud, and reaching up to her neck took off the amulet.
She was braced to find herself abruptly back in her own former body, a good deal smaller; but the alteration was as mild as before. She looked down at her arms, and her legs: the same new length, and still heavy with muscle; she had lost none of the weight she had gained, or the height. Breasts swelled out beneath her shirt, her hips and waist had negotiated the exchange of an inch or two between themselves, and her face when she touched it felt a little different—the beard was gone, she noted gratefully—but that was all.
The guardians peered at her doubtfully when she came up the stairs. They did get up, as she came inside, and paced after her all the way to the altar, occasionally leaning forward for a suspicious sniff. She unwound the strand of pearls from around her waist and poured the whole length of it rattling into the offering-dish, a heap of opalescence and silver.
The lion-women went back to their places, satisfied. The hangings rose and shuddered in a sudden gust of wind, and the goddess spoke: a fine gift, and a long time since anyone had come to worship; what did Araminta want?
It was not like Midwinter Feast, where the medium was taken over and told fortunes; or like church services at Lammas tide. The goddess of the Drowned Ones spoke rather matter-of-factly, and there was no real sound at all, only the wind rising and falling over the thrumming hangings. But Araminta understood perfectly, and understood also that her prepared answers were all wrong. The goddess was not offering a little favor, a charm to hide her or a key to unlock chains, or even a way off the island; the goddess was asking a question, and the question had to be answered truly.
Easier to say what Araminta did not want: to go home and be put in a convent, to go on to the colonies and be married. Not to be a prisoner, or a fine lady, or a captain’s lover, or a man in disguise forever; not, she added, that it was not entertaining enough for a time; but what she really wanted, she told the goddess, was to be a captain herself, of her own life; and free.
A fine wish, the goddess said, for a fine gift. Take one of those pearls, and go down and throw it in the ocean.
Araminta took a pearl out of the dish: it came easily off the strand. She went down the narrow walkway, down to the shore, and past all the men staring at her and crossing themselves in alarm, and she threw the pearl into the clear blue waters of the natural harbor.
For a moment, nothing happened; then a sudden foaming overtook the surface of the water, white as milk. With a roar of parting waves and a shudder, the Amphidrake came rising from the deep in all her shattered pieces, seaweed and ocean spilling away. Her ribs and keel showed through the gaps in her half-eaten hull for a moment, and then the foam was climbing up her sides, and leaving gleaming unbroken pearl behind. The decks were rebuilt in smooth white wood; tall slim masts, carved in the shapes of women, climbed up one after another, and vast white sails unfurled in a wind that teased them gently full.
The foam subsided to the water, and solidified into a narrow dock of pearl, running to shore to meet her. Araminta turned to look a rather dazed Weedle in the face.
“This is my ship,” she said, “and you and all your men are welcome, if you would rather take service with me than wait for the Navy.”
She pulled her hair back from her head, and tied it with a thread from her shirt; and she stepped out onto the dock. She was nearly at the ship when Weedle came out onto the dock at last, and called, “Aramin!” after her.
She turned and smiled at him, a flashing smile. “Araminta,” she said, and went aboard.
Note: “Originally published October 15, 2008, in the fabulous Fast Ships, Black Sails anthology of pirate stories edited by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer. Posted here January 10, 2009.” — Naomi