We are not deserters. We are not thieves. But we have been named as such by the imperial navy. We are hunted by the ships we once called our allies. The empress gave our captain a precious treasure as a gift. It was but a gesture. In truth, the treasure belongs to the empire, as all things do. Our captain has taken it.
The warship Mynotragon.
Our ship is small by the navy’s standards, dwarfed by the frigates, and even more so by the flagship. But I felt that it was special before I came aboard. I knew a little about the vessel. For five generations, it had served in the empire’s navy. It had served at the pleasure of our empress’s family. It was among the oldest ships in the fleet. For that reason, many sailors were unhappy to have been assigned to it, believing it might be un-sturdy. After five generations—even if one of those was spent sitting in a dry dock—I should think the ship had proven its sturdiness.
There were many stories about the vessel, some historical, some fantastical, some true, and a few most certainly false. The first mate told us some of these as we took our rests during the days before we embarked on our first mission.
It was not just human hands that had crafted the vessel. Sorcery was used. Forbidden sorcery.
The name was chthonic and its meaning had something to do with “devouring.” And so on.
The first mate had stories about our captain too. The empress herself had chosen him to be captain of that old but esteemed vessel because of a mythic story from his youth, an encounter at sea that while not unique was quite rare.
Our empress was charmed by legends, preferring that her sailors bring her stories over silver, and relics instead of rubies. It had been so in her youth, and it was so now as she entered the prime years of her reign. When a ruler’s hair turned from night-black to moon-white, and the map of her life’s journey appeared on her face and on her hands, then would she attain supreme wisdom.
I was far from my prime years. It was my first tour of duty in the empress’s navy. My first time aboard a vessel larger than a fishing boat. I was scarcely sure of my duties, yet the one thing I was sure about was that I had been sent to the right ship. My ship. Old and weathered and worn. Hardened by battle and adventure. What could a new ship teach me?
If I had any doubts at all, and I did not, they would have been dispelled when I first saw the ship’s figurehead. Some complained that it wasn’t fearsome enough, like the toothy dragons and malicious demons mounted on the bows of other ships. But that was foolish.
I would wager our ship had seen the likes of merfolk and nixies, great whales the size of frigates, maelstrom’s that swallowed entire fleets. Our ship knew what the most fearsome creature in the sea was. No razor-toothed shark or great whale could compare to the many-armed creatures who ruled the seas. The figurehead was a great squid. In port, the beauty of the many curling arms and the resolutely narrowed eyes was admired. At sea, when the ship bore down on enemies, the striking harpoon tip of the squid’s head, the fierce wrath in those same eyes, would be dreaded. Sailors would draw away, fearing a monster had been summoned from the depths.
For days we made ready the ship, brought aboard provisions and cargo, checked for breaches, checked the rigging, and oiled the cannons. During that time, we also learned the ins and outs of our ship, every porthole, every stitch in every sail, every deck, and every bunk.
We would soon embark upon our first mission, to patrol our eastern shores for pirates.
The night before we embarked, the first mate gathered us at the docks and told us a tale about the ship and that figurehead.
We knew, of course, that there were peoples ruling the waters and the skies as we ruled the land. Long ago, we had ambassadors among these other peoples, as they had among us. There was a truce of peace between the three peoples. But we grew distant from each other. Those who ruled the seas and the skies were satisfied with their vast realms, but we who live on land were—and are—ever curious about what lies beyond. We are always searching. We are restless and we are curious. Or perhaps we were—and are—simply unsatisfied because we found our realm to be the smallest.
We had not heard from the other peoples who shared our world in so long that they became legend. And even those who believed that the peoples of the skies and seas were real, believed those peoples to be long gone. Some said the people of the skies ascended beyond the skies to the heavens and the cosmos, leaving behind as their ambassadors the ravens and the owls, wisest of the birds, but no longer rulers of the skies. Some said the peoples of the seas merely died away, or faded in their supremacy.
We began to explore beyond land and sea, for the skies were nigh unreachable.
We knew, of course, the tales of the many-armed rulers of the seas. They were a people so learned and wise that their heads had grown immense and their bodies were composed of nothing but arms made to reach out and grasp the world. Our two hands have enabled us to build great monuments, touch the tender faces of our children, pave roads, master fire, mold clay, fashion weapons, and create magnificent art. Imagine, then, what a people with many arms might create. Imagine how far the measure of their thoughts might pass beyond the measure of ours. They were bigger and stronger than us. Their realm was vaster. It was no wonder that we came to fear and envy them.
Perhaps that is why they gave us leave to travel over the surface of waters, even to visit the depths, and claim a few treasures. The many-armed people who ruled the seas had no such rights to wander upon the land. Some of them thought this unfair and would attack human ships. If caught, their punishments were harsh indeed. They were often banished from the seas and cast out onto the land that they coveted so much, dying there.
But there was one in particular who was given a different punishment. A young leader among his people from whom better was expected than to lash out against innocents for his grievances. He was punished with enchantments cast by both the two-legged and the many-armed. He was transformed into a wooden figurehead and mounted upon a ship that was given as a gift into the already-mighty fleet of a mighty emperor. He was to be imprisoned there until the wood wore away with the ravages of time, his body frozen, but his consciousness awake and aware of all that transpired. It was a torment that would surely drive him mad if the ship endured for the ages.
And the ship had indeed endured, for five generations.
Many of us grumbled about how we would fear to pass under the almost-human gaze of our ship’s figurehead that night. But the first mate was in a storytelling mood. When he finished the first tale, he told us again the tale of our captain, and how he gained the ship.
As a youth, our captain was a passenger aboard a merchant vessel that was caught in a sudden storm. Caught between lightning and mammoth tides, the vessel capsized, and all aboard were lost. He found his way to the surface by chance and clutched a piece of debris to keep himself afloat. The storm subsided as quickly as it had descended. Exhausted from surviving the storm and trying to stay afloat on the choppy waters, the young man who would become our captain, faltered, slipped into the sea, and sank from the weight of his clothing.
“The blood does boil when you sink so deep and rise too fast,” the first mate said. “But something—someone—curled one arm around the captain, somehow guarding his blood, and many other powerful arms pushed against the water. They ascended through the sea and burst above the surface.”
The one who saved our captain was no beast, no god, no unknowable monster. The one who saved my captain had eyes he could read, eyes that spoke of kindness, pity, sorrow, and curiosity.
Since that time, the captain had a great respect for the many-armed creatures who ruled the seas. They were not a dead and vanished people so far as he was concerned.
The empress no doubt found his story charming. Perhaps she envied him his encounter, a friendly envy, if there can be such. It was said that among the many stories she had collected over her reign, she favored stories of the sea and of the squid-folk.
Despite the first mate’s colorful story, I had heard that the empress had commissioned the carving of the figurehead herself. Though I preferred to believe it was hundreds of years old, it seemed more likely that the figurehead was new, for it bore few marks of weathering that I could discern. But perhaps, that too could be ascribed to the enchantments that were said to be hammered and carved into the ship.
Not all the sailors were intrigued by the first mate’s tales as I was. Most simply wanted to serve aboard a prestigious imperial vessel long enough to retire with the generous pension that would granted them upon the end of their service.
So it was that we embarked, an untried crew aboard an untried ship. We did not remain so for long. For half a year, we were deployed to fight skirmishes, mostly with pirates. I worked the galley, the rigging, the latrines. I worked the cannons and even learned to navigate. We would be sent into battle someday, and it would be no time to learn if we were hardy and quick-witted in the midst of a skirmish. When the time came, we would aide our navy in battles with the ships of our rival nation. They coveted the eastern regions of our empire, for there were caves full of unmined gold, and that rarest of precious metals, gleam. We were tasked with defending the eastern seas from invasion.
We did have a few skirmishes on our patrols. They were fearsome. I had never before been so close to cannon fire. But I always knew that we would prevail in the end.
Mynotragon was an old ship, but he was still stronger, better armed, and better manned than any pirate vessel we encountered.
We rescued treasure mostly. But once, we took aboard three families who had paid to have the pirates smuggle them into our borders. They were half-dead from thirst and hunger. And each of them suffered lashes. We took them ashore and to sanctuary. And left them with well wishes that their suffering was at an end.
When next I boarded, it seemed the fierceness had deepened in our figurehead’s eyes, eyes that were not round like a squid’s, but shaped like lemons or almonds, like human eyes.
Long had we gone without returning to shore for provisions. Too long. We hoped our supply of ammunition for the cannons would endure, but it did not. We had little left by way of long-range weaponry. In the midst of a clash with a pirate ship, we began to sail away. But this ship was smaller and quicker than ours, and its captain ordered them to nearly ram us. It was not their intention to actually damage our ship. A damaged ship would bring no gain. Their ship came alongside our own.
The pirates prepared to board, and we, the defending sailors, prepared to defend. As we took up arms, our ship suddenly pushed away from the pirate ship. We pulled up and arrested the few pirates who had managed to make it aboard and watched incredulously as the pirate ship tried to come about to make another go of us. We had our sails up and we were moving away. And the pirate ship’s hull had been breached somehow, several gaping holes were punched into the starboard side, and their foremast and rigging had toppled.
While it was baffling, we asked no questions, moving instead to make our escape. It was later that night, when we were safely in the company of a friendly frigate who had offered to escort us home that some of the sailors told of what they’d seen, though it happened so fast, they scarcely believed their eyes.
The figurehead had come alive, they said. Tentacles had uncoiled, wooden tentacles that punched mercilessly through the pirate ship’s hull and whipped about the deck until they knocked the foremast down. Still other arms uncoiled and pushed against the pirate ship. Then, just as suddenly, the many arms recoiled and all was done. The figurehead was still again.
Thinking the first mate would appreciate such a wild tale, the crew shared it with him. The first mate smiled and slapped the backs of the sailors who related the tale. And he proclaimed that they were indeed saved by their unlisted crewmate, the figurehead. But by his account, their pilot managed to turn them about, then ram and destroy the pirate ship, plowing into the starboard hull. Panicked pirates scattered before the fearsome figurehead.
I was confused by the first mate’s account. I had been on deck, and I did not recall us ramming the pirate ship. But it was the first time I was truly frightened that we might sink, or die, or be taken prisoner and tormented. I had not stopped to carefully observe every moment. In the frenzy of the battle, where thoughts were scattered by fear, and limbs moved by instinct, perhaps some of us did imagine all the tentacle-waving.
That very night, I had a dream, and in it, I conversed with someone I could not see about the story of the figurehead, the story that the first mate told. The next day, I found that a few other crewmates had similar dreams. Some of them had dared to ask the person they spoke with who they were.
And the person answered, “Mynotragon.”
The bolder ones among us reported their dreams to the first mate, who said it was curious, and he would take it to the captain himself. We worried that the pirate ship we encountered might have been carrying some drug that some of us had breathed in or touched somehow.
While we sailed home, the dreams continued. As the ship sat in harbor, the dreams continued. Even after I disembarked to take some respite on land, the dreams continued. I felt a hint of pleading from the voice in my dreams, a dignified entreaty, in the thoughts that conversed with my own thoughts.
I and some of the others gathered in a tavern the next night, huddled in a warm corner on a frosty eve. Winter had fallen while we were away. We spoke of our dreams and wondered if the first mate’s story, that legend about the imprisoned squid, was true. We could not well board our ship again until the mystery of our dreams was solved. Even if they were just dreams, they were powerful enough to distract us from our duties. If we were suffering from some affliction, we should remain ashore until we were well. I did not want to see Mynotragon embark without me aboard, but I would stay ashore to protect my crew.
We were less than a dozen. The captain could easily find other men to replace us until we were well. As one, we gathered the next morning and went to the first mate to tell him of our sacrifice. He assured us that our dreams were only dreams, and that we were expected at our posts as always in a few days’ time. We were soon to be sent into battle. It would not do for us to falter.
But he also told us to gather in the captain’s cabin at noon.
Only seven of us came to the captain’s cabin. The others had decided they would do as their first mate suggested and ignore the dreams. They were too afraid of losing their posts and being dismissed from the ship, or worse, from the navy.
As the captain rose to meet us, his face stern and unreadable, I too began to fear. Then the captain spoke.
“For me, the dreams began the moment I saw his face.”
He meant the figurehead. Those early dreams were all nightmares. The captain saw visions of shipwreck and storm. He felt terror and dread and rage. He sank beneath the sea, his limbs frozen, unable to swim, or cry out. At first, he thought he was dreaming of his own ordeal from his youth. But soon, he realized the visions and the feelings were not from his own memory.
It was the captain who told the first mate the legend of the figurehead. And it was the empress who told the captain. The tale was well-known once, but had faded from common memory. The first mate, thinking it made a good story, worthy of spreading among sailors at various ports to raise the ship’s prowess, told the crew the story. And so they believed they were only dreaming.
But the captain believed the tale now. He believed that the figurehead, Mynotragon, was trying to communicate with them. That he was pleading for help to free him from his prison.
A question rose in my thoughts and so steeped was I in the strangeness of our condition that I forgot myself and spoke aloud.
“Why after all these generations would he awaken now?”
The captain answered. “Perhaps because he has met a mind who has touched the mind of his own people.”
“Then it was no accident that the empress chose you,” the first mate said. “But that would mean…she knows…or suspects.”
One of the others, the pilot, spoke up. “Captain, I feel no ill will from this…creature. Perhaps the old tale is wrong. Perhaps he is no criminal. And even if he were, he has served his penance. If we found some way to help him, I do not think he would repay us with evil for good.”
“Poor creature,” the first mate said. “He doesn’t know that his people are dead.”
“Neither do we,” the captain said. “We were allies with the squid-folk once. Before our peoples grew apart. And it’s been so long, we think of them as mostly legend, and so perhaps do they think of us. Many believe they are not dead, but simply well hidden. The waters are deeper than the lands are vast.”
“True enough,” many said in reply.
The captain was moved by the kindness of the pilot and his suggestion that we consider aiding the figurehead. But he was still troubled by the sway that the squid, though frozen in wood, might have on our minds and even our actions. Mynotragon could reach into our minds when they were vulnerable, when our conscious slept and our unconscious lay open to influence.
As our ship waited in port for our next assignment, the dreams become more intense and focused. Fewer crewmates continued to receive the dreams, but those who did learned things that made them question old legends.
Mynotragon claimed to be a prisoner because he was a leader among his people, a leader who sought and spoke for truth and justice, and questioned the rule of those above him. He had sought the help of human allies and allies among his own squid-folk. And though many supported him in word, few were willing to stand with him. In a moment of petty rage, a moment he would forever regret, he tried to force both peoples to pay attention to his cause by seizing a human ship. He had intended only to frighten, not to truly harm. But he did not know his strength was so great against the fragile ship. It shattered in his grasp, and all those aboard drowned despite his efforts to save them.
He was not imprisoned, so much as he was cursed. His own people would never see or hear from him again, and the humans would have their vengeance in his humiliation, as a figurehead upon one of their ships.
Mynotragon had indeed gone mad after hundreds of years of imprisonment. And he had unwittingly driven many human sailors mad, when he reached out to them with his thoughts, projecting uncontrolled visions of horror and death, much like the nightmares that our captain had endured when Mynotragon first woke. And then, by some mercy, the prisoner in wood had fallen asleep.
He only woke again when our captain first came aboard. In those first days, as the ship was readied for its mission of patrolling the eastern shores, he remembered his story. In the days that followed, he listened to the crew, heard their strange dialect, and learned how much time had passed, and what had become of him. He despaired at not hearing any word about his people. He asked the one and only mind he could find and touch, the captain’s mind, in which he found a memory of his people. The captain’s memory of being rescued by a squid.
Mynotragon was as surprised as we were that he was able to move during the pirate attack. But he noted that it was only while the ship and crew was in danger. Once the danger passed, once the ship was moving away, his limbs began to stiffen, curling back to embrace the ship. Such had never before happened. He supposed it was a part of the curse, triggered perhaps by some remnant in the captain of his encounter with the squid-folk. But he did not truly know.
Mynotragon admitted to being a sorcerer himself, albeit one whose powers were diminished, not only by imprisonment, but by the vast stretches of time during which he did not exercise them. Sorcery was the reason he was able to reach their minds. Squid-folk could speak to each other’s mind freely, but could not do so with other peoples. Mynotragon had managed to bridge the gap between his mind and the captain’s first. After the pirate attack, he was able to do so with many more crewmates. He spoke to them all day, but they could only listen at night when their conscious minds were asleep.
Perhaps it was Mynotragon’s sorcery, his influence, driving us. It must have been so. Why else would we so blithely disobey our new orders? The captain called his first mate and the seven dreamers to his cabin three nights before we were to disembark for our first battle. Under the guise of allowing his crew their last hurrah, he had dismissed all other crewmates. The ship was ready. Full of provisions, all repairs complete. In the three remaining days, we were to take on some more cargo. We would be gone before then, but when the port-master found our berth empty, it would not be long before our own ships would be chasing us.
The captain had never again found that squid who saved his life, and never expected that he would. But he believed that perhaps he had been given a second chance. He had decided to investigate Mynotragon’s claims rather than abandon him outright and commission another figurehead.
Perhaps the empress had even intended it to be so, though she could not speak of it openly. Mynotragon had told them that it was the empress’s ancestor who had agreed to imprison him, in exchange not just for vengeance, but for the rights to mine pearls in the depths of the eastern seas, which in those days were guarded by the squid-folk. If the empress wished to make amends for her ancestor’s ill deeds, she could not do so openly without marring the name and honor of those same ancestors. Perhaps she had hoped that the captain she chose would be clever enough to discern her true intentions and brave enough to follow her will.
Of the seven dreamers, still more fell away, until we were only four. We hoped the others would not report on what we planned before we could embark. Perhaps they would find their way aboard other, less interesting, ships. They would be forgiven for they could say their captain abandoned them. And perhaps we who followed our captain would be shown leniency for we were only obeying our sworn duty to him. It was the captain who took the greatest risk. His actions would be marked as desertion and theft. He had at first considered taking the whole crew and trying to convince the admirals that the ship had gotten lost on its way to the eastern seas. But our destination was far too dangerous. The captain would not ask any crewmate to come with him unknowingly. We would suffer the wrath of the imperial navy when we returned, if we returned. But that was nothing to fear compared to where we dared to venture.
If the squid-folk still lived, they could remove the curse from Mynotragon. He was certain that a human sorcerer would not be needed. After so much time, he hoped that whoever ruled their eastern realm in the current age would forgive him his crimes.
And if the squid-folk still lived, then they would abide where no human ships could go. The great sea of perpetual storm that lay far beyond the waters of our empire.
We hoped we come go close enough for the squid-folk to hear Mynotragon’s thoughts, but stay far enough away that we would not be destroyed.
The days and nights were exhausting. Even with calm weather and no sign of imperial navy ships or any ships dispatched by our allies to hunt us, we were a handful of men doing the job of dozens. As the days passed, we began to hear Mynotragon’s thoughts even when we were waking, and we could converse with him, and even with each other, as he connected our thoughts. We could only send thoughts consciously, so none needed worry that a stray frustration or crude jest would reach the captain’s attention, or that of their other crewmates.
Our luck ran out when we were in sight of the sea of perpetual storm. Even from a distance, it was a frightful sight. Churning waters heaved below an eternally gray sky that swirled with storm clouds, shuddered with claps of thunder, and glowed with flashes of lightning so bright it burned any eye that looked straight upon it.
We had stopped a few times at remote ports, out of sheer necessity, hiding the escutcheon and the flags, colors, and insignias that announced our allegiance. We were unable to hide our figurehead. We had tried to unmount him. But we found we could not. He seemed fused to the ship as if he had been carved from the same piece of wood as the hull.
Word had spread, no doubt. But it was no navy ship that found us. It was a pirate ship, seeking the hefty bounty placed upon the captain’s head and the reward for the safe return of the ship. If the bounty specified that we had to be taken alive, no one had told these pirates.
They boarded at night. I was sleeping on the upper deck as I had taken to doing. Lying in a bunk in the mostly empty lower deck had come to feel eerie and unsettling.
It was not noise or native instinct that woke me. It was a voice in my dreams, urging me to rise. I opened my eyes and they were scarcely adjusting to the dim light of a quarter moon when I discerned a figure looming over me. All the lanterns were out. Some should have been burning. From my pocket, I pulled a stray match and struck it against the nearest bulkhead.
In the match’s tiny flame, the shadows of a scowling face shown above my own. The man held a sword. It was raised to strike me. Before I could utter a sound, before I could blink, something swept the man away. As he fell, I spotted a shadowy tentacle whipping through the air behind him.
I jumped up and grabbed the first weapon I could find, a small axe.
The invaders swarmed over the deck. A few were fighting the captain and crew. Some were pouring down into the lower decks. Most were circling the giant squid that sprawled across the deck. His two long tentacles lashed at the invaders, knocking them down. They swiped at him with swords and axes, stabbed his wooden form with daggers. Mynotragon seemed unbothered by any of the attacks.
Suddenly, there was light, from torches that the invaders were bringing aboard. They jabbed the torches at Mynotragon, trying to light him on fire. His arms were moving too fast to catch fire. But one of the invaders threw a lantern at him. The lantern broke against one of the coiling arms, spilling its oil. Another invader managed to touch his torch to the oil-soaked arm and it burst into flame.
At last, my jellied limbs toughened and I cried out as I lunged toward the invader who had set Mynotragon afire. I caught him by surprise, swiping with my arm and driving him back until he was trapped against the railing. I reached out and shoved with all my strength. He toppled overboard.
I turned in time to avoid the swipe of another invader’s sword. The man with the torch had been unarmed. And I had defeated him out of sheer luck. My limbs, my mind, remembered none of my training. I ducked out of the way. And again, a tentacle arm swiped through the air and saved me.
But it was not Mynotragon’s arm.
The ship tilted to port. Invaders and crew alike stumbled as massive arms three times the size of Mynotragon’s grasped the side of the ship and crawled over it.
Mynotragon’s wooden arm was still on fire. I grabbed a canvas tarp and struggle to weave through the new set of tentacles that reached across the deck. I crawled toward Mynotragon and threw the tarp over his arm, suffocating the fire.
As I did, something coiled around my hip and my chest, pinning my arms to my sides. My feet left the deck as I was lifted into the air. I felt the arms wrapping around me and sliding past each other as they tightened.
“Mynotragon!” I cried with what was to be my last breath.
Something whipped beneath my feet. A long wooden arm lashed at one of the arms that held me. With a sudden jerk, the arms around me loosened, and I dropped to the deck.
I gasped desperately as the ship tilted again, righting itself. The other squid had let go of the ship.
Even through my panic I heard his thoughts. I gazed up at the deck and saw the moving wooden form of Mynotragon, his eyes resolute and furrowed.
He was sending thoughts to someone in a language I could not understand. But I understood the feelings that accompanied the message. He was marking friends and foes.
I heard the shouts and cries of men—the invaders—amid the sound of wood crunching and large chunks of mast and rigging splashing into the sea. As I calmed, I was able to rise and see, in the light of fallen torches, a hulking figure, dragging the wreckage of a ship away, and with it, the sound of screaming pirates.
I turned to find Mynotragon, but he was gone. The captain was standing at the bow, peering down at the figurehead. The danger was gone. Mynotragon was once again an unmoving figurehead. The ship began to move, though the sails were furled, and the seas were calm. We were being pulled, dragged away like the pirate ship. We spotted them below the dark waters. Squids. They were immense. Mynotragon, whom I thought was a giant, seemed as a baby next to them. We grew nervous as we drew closer and closer to the sea of perpetual storm. But we did not speak, even to speculate, even to utter desperate prayers or empty words of comfort.
Somehow, I fell asleep. When I woke, the ship seemed at anchor. The captain was awake. He explained what he had seen while letting some of us doze. The ship was on the verge of the sea of perpetual storm. We could smell the lightning. Our bones quivered to the tune of the thunder. We were held in place by some of the squid-folk. He had tried to speak to them, with his thoughts, and failing that, with spoken words. But they did not answer. He had tried to speak with Mynotragon, but he too was strangely silent. For that, the captain feared. He feared that their unlisted crewmate, their friend, had died in the battle with the bounty-hunting pirates. He feared that the figurehead may be no more than a figurehead.
But he had maintained some small measure of hope in watching the other squids move their tentacles over the figurehead, as if studying it, and the ship.
For many days, we remained that way. Our rations would last for many days more, but with no way to tell the squid-folk that we would need to leave soon, we began to grow restless.
“Maybe he’s sleeping,” one of the crewmen said again, for we had repeated that thought since the first day that Mynotragon fell silent.
“I hope that is so,” the captain said. “But if they mean to keep the ship until he wakes, we will have to leave it.”
We began to ready our longboat. There were too few of us to row and we were too far away to reach any land before our rations of fresh water were spent. But we hoped that the squid-folk would understand and be kind enough to drag the longboat to a friendly shore.
As we prepared the longboat, we noticed one of the squids watching us with curious round eyes—unlike the narrow human-like eyes of Mynotragon. Before we could lower the boat into the water, that squid waved an arm, as if saying goodbye.
Suddenly, the ship began to move.
We were moving into the sea of perpetual storm.
“Captain!” I cried. “What do we do?”
We began to move so swiftly there was no time to run to the captain’s cabin for protection. We were all on deck. We would surely be struck by lightning. I drew cold comfort in the thought that a heroic death at sea was preferable to a lifetime of imprisonment for desertion. So I told myself as we passed into the sea of perpetual storm.
My skin crackled. And some force seemed to press upon me from all sides.
The sky above raged. And the seas below churned. But Mynotragon—the ship—was steady. And we, the crew, were unharmed. We were shielded somehow.
We heard a great splash, and we all knew what it was. We ran to the bow and looked down to find that our ship’s figurehead was gone.
The squid-folk had managed to remove him somehow. In flashes of lightning, we saw him, still wooden, limbs still frozen in place, being carried down into the depths.
Bobbing in the waters before the bow was that same squid we saw before, the one I thought was waving goodbye to us. She—I felt it was a she—peered at us again with her great black eyes. Again, she raised one tentacle and waved. This time I knew it to be an order to the other squids.
We felt the ship being tugged again, out of the sea of perpetual storm.
The squids dragged us out and I gasped again, as the pressure all about me vanished, and my skin ceased its crawling. They dragged us out to where they had found us and left us without another glance, or a word, or a thought.
The first mate looked out toward the sea of perpetual storm. “It doesn’t feel right to just leave him like that. What do you suppose his people will do with him?”
“Is he alive, Captain?”
The captain glanced between us all. “Do you feel that he is alive?”
We all looked at each other and nodded. There was no doubt that Mynotragon was alive. He had lived through five generations of imperial rulers in our realm. He certainly would not be defeated by a battle with some petty pirates.
But his fate, as our own, was uncertain.
I asked the captain if we would see him again, though I knew the answer. I expected him to say that we would meet again in the realm beyond life, as all friends do. But he did not answer at once. He peered out to sea.
“I fear we will,” he said, “for our two peoples are joined as the sea and the land are joined.”
“But surely it will be a happy meeting. Mynotragon is our friend now. His people should be our friends.”
“Friendship, yes. Therein lies hope.”
“Is it too much to hope that we will be pardoned if we tell the empress what happened?”
“I’m afraid it is,” the captain said. “We have deserted our posts to do a duty we were not expressly assigned to do. We cannot sail home.”
“Then where will we go?”
“We could buy our pardons, if we bring back treasure.”
I sighed. “Captain, I refuse to become a pirate.”
“There’s no need for that. We will not sully the name of this ship, or this crew.”
“But we cannot use the name Mynotragon anymore,” the first mate said. “He’s gone. And that name will be hunted within the borders of our country, and even beyond it, I fear. We’ve paid a great cost to help our new friend.”
“We have to keep the name, Captain,” I said. “What if we’re wrong, and he truly is dead? We should honor him by keeping his name alive.”
The first mate crossed his arms. He took a deep breath and peered at me. But at last, he bowed his head.
The captain put his hand on the starboard rail. He turned to all of us.
“Where we do we sail now, Captain?” the pilot asked.
“To the south. We’ll find haven there, and skilled carvers. We need a new figurehead.”
Tired and weary though we were, we moved into action. I was sure of my duties now, and I was still sure that I had been sent to the right ship. My ship. Old and weathered and worn. Hardened by battle and adventure.
Copyright © 2017. Story by Nila L. Patel. Artwork: “Mynotragon” by Sanjay Patel.