Chapter the Eighth, in which the crew of the HMS Selene
has an encounter of startling proportions.
Halfway up the shrouds on the mainmast, where he’d been climbing to take the look-out, Matthew Vale spotted the approaching craft first. Fifty miles out from America’s mid-Atlantic coast, enemy ships and merchant vessels came in view almost every day, and their tonnage, rigging, and number of guns were recorded. The ships usually turned tail the moment they saw the HMS Selene’s colors.
But this one was unusually small, and it didn’t turn away.
Matthew called out the direction, and the officer of the watch, Lieutenant Vale, came to the rail with his spyglass. Thomas Vale was Matthew Vale’s older brother and his greatest source of annoyance, greater than below- decks pranks and stale bread and trousers that were two inches too short because he’d outgrown them, again. If Matthew got any sort of advancement on the ship, the crew said it was his brother doing him favors. If he made the least mistake, Tom never let him hear the end of it. Tom had gotten him the spot as midshipman on the Selene, the smartest 28-gun frigate in the service, he was sure, and he ought to be grateful. He supposed he was, except that Tom was so insufferable about it.
Matthew hopped back to the deck and joined him, shading his eyes to peer out. The way the object moved against the waves, it was clearly a boat and not some trick of the light. He was nearly ready to ask Tom for the spyglass to better see for himself.
A half-dozen sailors and younger officers gathered to see what the fuss was about. Then Captain Humbolt arrived, and they parted to make way. Perfectly turned out, dark hair in a neat tail and not a fleck of lint on his blue coat, Humbolt was a serious young captain. He stood now with his hands folded behind his back, frowning out to the horizon.
“A vessel of some sort, sir. A launch, I think. No more than twenty feet.”
“What’s such a craft doing so far out at sea? How is she rigged?”
Tom lowered the glass and looked out with his naked eye before trying the glass again, as if one or the other might be lying to him. “Not at all, sir. A single mast but no sails.”
“But she’s going so fast, she’ll be on us in minutes!” Matthew blurted, and Tom glared. Matthew ducked his gaze and added a conciliatory, “Sir.”
“Fair question,” Humbolt said. “How is she moving?”
“I…sir. I cannot say.”
“You don’t know?”
“I don’t believe it.” He handed the glass to Humbolt so he could look for himself.
Matthew was leaning over the rail, as if that would make the view clearer. The launch was indeed approaching, traveling against the wind, plowing through churned-up water and leaving a great, frothing wake.
“My God,” the captain breathed. “What is it?”
A white flag tied to the mast became visible. Humbolt gave the glass back to Tom. “Well, let’s see what this is about. Sergeant, let’s have a couple of your men on hand, just in case.”
“Aye sir,” the marine sergeant said, and barked to-arm commands to a couple of his soldiers.
“Heave to, gentlemen,” Humbolt said.
Heave to, heave to, the command went out, and the ship turned against the wind, the sails went slack, and the Selene lurched in the water.
They could all see it now. The little boat was being towed by some…creature. A sort of harness made of what seemed to be canvas looped around a thick, tapered head. A swarm of impossibly long tentacles rippled and writhed, propelling it through the water, pulling the ship behind it and leaving a churning wake. A great squid, as long as the launch itself, its slippery red-orange skin contrasting with the black of the water and the white foam of the chop.
A single figure stood at the prow and gave a sharp whistle. The squid rolled, reversing course, its tentacles resting. The boat slowed, and the splashing stilled. The creature reached coiling limbs up the side of the craft as if resting there, and the figure patted the curve of slick flesh as one might pat a horse after a ride. A great black eye as large as a fist rolled to the edge of the water, unblinking. Matthew swore it was studying them.
Then the figure looked up, and the second wondrous thing about this scene struck them. It was a girl.
She was perhaps Matthew’s own age of fifteen. She wore a brimmed cap over thick brown hair pulled back and tied with a scarf. The rest of her attire was that of a common sailor—loose trousers, shirt and kerchief around her neck, all well worn, as if she had been at sea for some time.
Tom said to Matthew in an aside, “Don’t you have someplace you’re supposed to be, Vale?”
“I was just going up to the look-out when I called the warning. Still looking out, I wager. Sir.”
Tom scowled, and Matthew stood his ground. He wasn’t going to be chased off so easily.
“Hello there!” the girl called.
She waited. The captain and much of the crew of the Selene, lined up along the rail, stared back, dumbfounded. For Matthew’s part, he had a thousand questions but dared not speak before Humbolt did. However, the captain seemed a bit dazed.
Finally, Tom called down. “Are you adrift, miss? Do you require assistance?”
“Do I look adrift? We can go faster than you!” the girl replied. “I want to trade information!”
Part of what distracted them: the squid remained in constant motion, one tentacle slipping from the craft’s side, another curling up to take its place, its sloped head dipping under the water and rising up again. Its movements were so smooth, steady—graceful, even. Entrancing and unsettling.
The marines at the rail raised their muskets. Quickly, the girl leaned over the side of her little sloop and pulled the ends of a pair of knots—good slip knots there, Matthew noted—and the canvas harness came loose. She touched a curl of one of the leviathan’s limbs, where it writhed above the water. Matthew didn’t hear, but saw her lips move. “Go, go,” she said, and the beast sank below the surface without a ripple.
She put her hands on her hips and looked up at them. “You going to shoot me? I’m unarmed.”
Still, the captain seemed at a loss.
“This might be a trick, sir,” Sergeant Johnson of the marines murmured to the captain. “She might have powder or something tucked in there to blow us up. Never mind what that monster might do to us.”
Johnson was right to be suspicious. She was American—her accent proved that—and their countries were at war, after all. But Matthew thought the idea that she could be a threat was absurd. Her boat was tiny and mostly empty, with just a few boxes and barrels tucked away, and a canvas lean-to tied up in the back for shelter. As fast as it had been moving it couldn’t be carrying much cargo at all, never mind enough gunpowder to do damage.
Humbolt recovered, tucked hands behind his back again, and glared down at their visitor. “We’ll hear her out.”
“You’re not thinking of taking this seriously, sir,” Tom said.
“Lieutenant, she’s got a kraken at her beck and call. I’m inclined to take her very seriously.” He called to the girl. “We’ll throw you a line and let down the ladder—”
“Oh, I don’t think so. You get me on that ship of yours and what’s to stop you from taking me prisoner?”
“I promise not to take you prisoner,” Humbolt said tightly.
“Right,” she said, her lip curling.
“I refuse to have a conversation shouting at each other like this.”
Matthew saw a flush rising up the captain’s neck. He had probably never had a girl talk to him like this in all his life.
“How about you come down in your launch and we can talk face-to-face?” she answered.
“And come within the grasp of that beast of yours?”
“Archi won’t hurt you.”
The squid had not fled far—one of its tentacles reached up from under the craft, where it had retreated.
“Archi?” Tom muttered, disbelieving. “She’s named it?”
Matthew very much wanted to go down in the launch and have a closer look.
The girl knelt and splashed her hand in the water, and that great sloped head and black pit of an eye rolled up to look at her.
“Archi, toss them up a fish. A peace offering.”
The creature’s movements were boneless, sinuous. Fascinating to watch, as each tentacle moved independently, releasing the sides of the little craft, pushing off, slipping soundlessly underwater. One of the longer tentacles, which had a flat sort of grasping paddle at the end of it, lingered above the chop, looking for all the world as if it waved before it slipped into the blue.
The girl smiled pleasantly, as if this were all quite ordinary.
“What’s your name?” Matthew called, because no one had thought to ask yet.
“I’m Margaret Carver, out of Mystic, Connecticut. And who are you, Midshipman?”
He started to answer, but Tom grabbed the shoulder of his coat and pulled him back from the rail. Matthew supposed he ought not to say or do anything, but the captain and other officers seemed far too distracted by the scene before them to notice Matthew’s outbursts.
A sudden, churning spot on the water rose up near Selene’s hull. The squid emerged, and they got their best look at it yet. Matthew wrenched himself from Tom’s grasp to be able to see better. Faces peered out of the gun ports below deck to watch.
The creature was longer than Margaret Carver’s boat. Thirty feet, likely. As much as he tried, Matthew could not count the number of limbs, but there were two of the longer ones, tipped with the flat diamond of flesh. The rest were in constant motion, keeping it afloat and on the move. Its color was muted coral, mottled on its head, growing pale farther down on the limbs, which were covered in round stickers.
With a lurch and a muscular flick, the creature tossed a large fish up and over the Selene’s side. It flopped on the deck, as they all stumbled out of the way. The thing was still alive, twitching as its silvery mouth worked. A tuna, as large as one of the boys. A fish that large would provide a good meal for the whole crew.
“Please,” Margaret said. “I just want to talk, but I can’t go aboard your ship. It would upset Archi.”
That was the best argument of all. No one wanted to upset the kraken. Humbolt ordered the launch readied.
Matthew was at the launch in a heartbeat, determined to be one of the party going to meet Miss Carver and her creature. Easton, the Jamaican-born bosun’s mate, was put in charge of lines and oars, and Matthew made himself useful so no one could tell him to go away. Also along were Sergeant Johnson, a pair of able seamen for the oars, and of course Captain Humbolt and Lieutenant Vale, who kept glancing at Matthew as if he wished him elsewhere. Whether to keep Matthew safe or to keep him out from underfoot, who could say? Either way, it was a wonder his expression didn’t freeze in that scowl. If they could go a week pretending they didn’t know each other, things would be better between them. But their mother had implored Tom so tearfully to look after his younger brother, and Matthew was so determined to look after himself, that they were constantly at odds. Matthew had no one to complain to; Captain Humbolt had brought Matthew on board as a favor to Tom, and while Matthew believed he’d earned his place several times over, how would he ever know?
The launch was lowered to the water, and the party climbed rope ladders down into it. Now, the Selene was a wall beside them, ocean chop slapping her hull. Margaret Carver’s craft lay before them, an odd little island. A pale length of squid flesh hooked itself on the side beside her, and the black eye came up for a moment, then sank back under.
“What in God’s name are we doing here?” Humbolt murmured, staring across the water at them. “Easton, bring us forward. Make sure Selene keeps hold of that line.”
The launch rowed forward, and the line holding her to the ship remained secure. Not that Matthew believed the line would hold if the creature decided to grab them and pull them under. Now there was a bracing thought.
Easton set Matthew to watching the line to the ship, to see that it didn’t tangle. Easton himself was at the rudder, directing the oarsmen. Johnson gripped his musket tightly. Miss Carver wasn’t armed, Matthew wanted to remind them. She had come to them in good faith, even if she did have a monster with her.
“Hello!” she greeted them. Humbolt ordered them to halt still several yards away.
The squid, Archi, sank beneath the surface and out of sight. It knew a threat when it saw one, Matthew thought.
“Miss Carver. I am Captain Rafe Humbolt. You said you have information.”
“I do. And I only need the answer to one question in return.”
“Does your navy know you’re out here selling in their secrets?”
“Nothing like that,” she said. Her nose was freckled, her hands rough, like a sailor’s. “You think the navy tells a girl like me anything? But I can tell you what I’ve seen with my own eyes.”
The launch shifted as they all leaned forward to hear.
“I’ve seen the pirate. Off the Carolinas. I think the ship is resupplying from the islands.”
The pirate. A great hulking ship with steel in her hull, indestructible, preying on merchant ships of all nations. Along with tracking the American navy and privateers, the Selene had been sent to hunt this scoundrel that struck in the dark, pressed crews, and burned ships to the waterline rather than capture them. Humbolt and Tom exchanged a glance. How could this girl have learned what they’d missed?
Matthew could have told them the answer: hauled by her creature, Margaret Carver’s boat could move swiftly, stealthily. Be gone before an enemy knew she was near. The Selene had only seen her because she’d wanted them to.
“And what pirate would that be?” Humbolt said, rather stiffly and unconvincingly.
“You know what I’m talking about. You’re out here tracking ship movements, merchants and privateers and everything in between. But this is something different. A big ship flying no country’s colors, hunting both sides.”
“The Carolinas, you say?” Humbolt said. “This is a guess?”
“We saw them. A ship of the line, three masts, two decks of guns. No flag. I wrote down the position.” She drew a slip of paper from a pocket.
“If she can even take a proper position,” Tom said as an aside, smirking.
“I can, and I did.”
“You might have been sent to lay a trap,” Tom countered.
“If I were going to lay such a trap, I’d have left myself adrift and begged for help the minute you pulled alongside. Played the victim and appealed to your sense of chivalry. You’d have done anything I said, after that.”
“She’s got you there,” Matthew said, nudging his arm.
“Quiet, Vale,” Tom said curtly, blushing.
Humbolt sniffed. “I’ll take that note of yours, and thank you. Now what’s your question?”
“Have you seen a ship called the Sparrow? An American merchantman out of Connecticut. Not large, crew of twenty and only five guns. She was headed for Calais six months ago but vanished. Have you had any word of her?”
“You think the pirate might have gotten her?”
“I don’t know. There’s been no wreckage found. But I can’t lose hope of finding her.”
“What’s this missing ship to you?” Tom put in. “Some sweetheart on it?”
“My brother, William,” she said.
A silence followed this. They might have teased her for a sweetheart, for playing the part of a despondent lover in a story. But not for a brother. They were most of them someone’s brother. Did any of them have a sister who would go out to sea to search for them, if they went missing? Likely not.
Movement caught Matthew’s gaze. A shadow glided beneath the surface near the launch. The water was murky; he couldn’t see Selene’s hull more than a foot or two down, but the ripple flashed. A surge of narrow flesh, a whip of grey—then gone. The creature, right under the launch and none of them the wiser. Was this the start of some sort of attack? He didn’t think so, not with Selene watching over them.
He reached. Held his hand flat just a few inches above the water—and there it was, tinged pink above and ghostly white underneath. It rippled, surged, expanding bonelessly, drawing back. The narrowest tip of tentacle broke the surface and brushed his palm. The touch was soft, alive. The creature smelled thickly of fish, and a salt mist rose from it.
The tentacle slipped back under the water, and Matthew remained frozen, hand above the water, skin still tingling with that alien touch.
Margaret smiled at him across their two bows. “She likes you.”
He smiled back. He couldn’t not. “How did you meet her?”
“I rescued her. Found her trapped in a tidepool when she was no bigger than my hand. That she stayed around after was her choice.”
The squid, Archi, lurked under both their craft—that’s how large it was. It, she, though Matthew wondered how Miss Carver could know it was female. The tentacles drifted, waving like streamers in the wind.
“I might very well be able to help you, Miss Carver,” Humbolt said.
Matthew glanced at him, surprised. He was sure they hadn’t seen the Sparrow and had no news of a small American merchant ship gone missing. Perhaps the officers simply hadn’t seen fit to inform a lowly midshipman like him. Tom sat impassively, his expression like stone.
The captain said, “We’ve recorded a number of ships matching that description. I can send a message to the admiralty asking about this William Carver, in case he’s been pressed.”
She brightened. “I’d appreciate that.”
“I need to check the logs for the exact records—are you sure you won’t come up and have a cup of tea?”
“No, thank you. We’ve got a lot of miles to cover. But I’d be grateful if you could give me anything about those ships’ last positions.”
“Certainly. Give us half an hour to copy them for you.”
Humbolt’s smile was broad and suspicious. Margaret Carver had no way of knowing that Humbolt never smiled, not like this.
“Then I’ll give you this.” She reached across the bow with the folded page recording the pirate’s position.
Humbolt nodded to Tom, who reached across the space to take the paper from her.
“Shouldn’t take long, if you’ll kindly wait,” Humbolt said.
Its eye at the waterline, the creature draped a pair of tentacles over the side of Margaret’s craft. Matthew swore the pair exchanged a knowing glance.
“Easton? Let’s go,” Humbolt ordered.
Easton called the orders, the ladder came over the side of Selene, and the officers climbed up while the crew worked to secure the launch. Matthew hung back, still intrigued, trying to imagine the leviathan—Archi—as a small creature no bigger than the girl’s hand. Perhaps she had been like a duckling and imagined the girl was her mother. However had Margaret thought of harnessing Archi and traveling the seas? She was arranging the harness now, lining up the canvas straps, and the creature tipped itself, offering its head to put the loop around, preparing to continue their voyage.
Could others of its kind be lured from the deep? To think, a ship need never be becalmed again, and how wonderful to have it hunt fish.
Easton glared at him, urging him up the ladder. They couldn’t bring up the launch until he was off it.
“It was nice to meet you, Miss Carver,” he called to her across the water.
“And you, Mr. Vale.” She raised a hand to wave a farewell.
The squid raised two tentacles to wave at him, and somehow he felt honored. Archi hadn’t waved at Captain Humbolt.
Matthew arrived back on the Selene’s deck in time to hear Humbolt speaking to Tom.
“What a marvel. What a wondrous pair these are. Lieutenant, do we have any amount of netting aboard? Or rope and canvas enough to make…let’s say an enclosure, rather than a trap.”
“We’ll have to move quickly so they don’t suspect anything.”
“Perhaps if we can lure the creature away from her somehow… I don’t know the least thing about squids. What might we use as bait?”
“Sir!” Matthew said. “You can’t!”
Humbolt glanced over, his brow raised, while Tom’s gaze held murder. When he’d come aboard, Tom had emphasized that any mistake Matthew made would not only damage his own future prospects, but Tom’s as well. This was exactly the sort of thing Tom had been talking about.
“She came to us in good faith, sir,” Matt said. “It seems…dishonorable to trick them.”
Tom gave him such a look, as if he could wish him to vanish. “You forget your place, Vale.”
Humbolt was calm, as if Matthew’s outburst was so inconsequential it didn’t even warrant a reprimand. “We’re at war with America, she is American. We are within our rights, I think. I would even say it’s our duty. Now, make yourself useful, Mr. Vale.”
The simple dismissal was better than he deserved. “Yes, sir,” he answered, and followed Tom below decks to the sail room.
Tom recruited a couple of seamen to help, and they sorted through stores to find equipment that might serve. There was netting, coils of spare lines for the shrouds and stays that could be used to secure a great thrashing beast. They might coat canvas with tar and thereby make a container that would hold water. One of them suggested stuffing the creature into a barrel, but it was acknowledged that they didn’t have a barrel big enough to contain the squid, unless it was dead.
Matthew couldn’t countenance this. “Tom. We can’t do this.”
“It’ll be just like catching frogs in the pond back home.”
“A thirty-foot frog! Do you really think that creature will let herself be caught? That Miss Carver will allow it without a fight?” Just because she hadn’t revealed a musket or two among her stores didn’t mean she didn’t have them.
Tom huffed a frustrated sigh. “Captain Humbolt is determined.”
“He won’t be the one down there trying to stuff a dozen tentacles into a canvas bag. It’ll be Easton, or Johnson, or Young Joe facing the danger. Or all of them!”
“We are all prepared to face danger in the service.” They stretched out the canvas and secured lines around the edges. Once they’d tangled the squid with the netting, they could dip the canvas bag in the water, ease the squid over top, and lift. Tom sent the men up on deck with the contraption to report to Captain Humbolt.
Matthew took hold of Tom’s arm. His brother had always been so tall and strong, so admired. He already had a decade in the navy and Matthew was bobbing along in his wake, trying to keep his head above water. He’d always looked up to Tom—had he ever had a choice not to? He suddenly realized that he was now only a couple of inches shorter than his brother. Another year or so, they’d be eye-to-eye.
“You know it’s wrong. She came under a flag of truce and the captain would betray that—”
“These circumstances are…unusual.”
“Well yes, of course they are or we wouldn’t be talking like this. But it isn’t fair, she’s on a quest, and she asked for help—”
Tom leaned back, tilted his head. “Have you gone lovesick on me, Matt?”
“No! I just—” He blushed, because he might perhaps admire anyone who had tamed a giant squid and trained it to go in harness across the ocean. “I think we could win more advantage befriending Miss Carver and Archi than by capturing them.”
Sullenly, he said, “Yes, sir.” He expected his brother to sneer and put him off again. Use his rank and quash Matthew, as was the right and proper order of family and navy both. But he didn’t.
“Matthew. You mustn’t question orders. I know it’s difficult for a clever boy like you, but you’re a naval officer and you must—”
“But if the orders are wrong, what do you do?”
Tom pressed his lips in a line. “There’s nothing to be done. Now, come up and let’s get this over with.”
“I just need a moment to gather myself. Sir.” He straightened his spine and smoothed out his coat in a show of steeling himself. Stiffening his upper lip and all that.
“Very well. Don’t take long.”
Tom went up the stairs through the hatch.
Matthew raced to the midshipmen’s berth and his sea chest. He had a couple of small bottles that had held ointment and remedies of one sort or another, but they were empty now and more importantly, the corks were still good and tight. He got out his letter writing kit, and made himself slow down or he would spill the ink and break his pen. He didn’t need to write much, just a few words.
It is a trap. Flee.
He managed it without making too much of a mess. Blew on the strip of paper to make it dry quicker—waited only as long as he dared—then rolled it up and stuck in the bottle. Pressed the cork in extra hard.
He knew exactly where Carver’s launch sat, outside the Selene, and he counted back gun ports to find the right spot. There. He clambered past the secured gun and pressed himself to the port. There she was, leaning up against the bow, looking up at the Selene’s main deck.
“Miss Carver!” he hissed, and threw the bottle out the gun port before anyone could see. Heard the splash. He didn’t dare linger to see her reaction—he’d be found out any moment if he stayed. But he caught a glimpse of her eyes widening in her freckled face. She had heard him, she had seen the bottle.
He raced up on deck before Tom could miss him.
The netting and large stretch of canvas were laid out on the deck. Tom was arranging seamen around it, to help with the deployment. They were crouched low, out of sight of the water, and keeping suspiciously quiet.
Captain Humbolt surveyed the activity from the quarterdeck. The purser ran up then with a folded letter, which he handed to Humbolt, who strode over to the side and held it up enticingly. The bait.
“Miss Carver,” Captain Humbolt called down to her. “I have the information for you. I’ll lower it down momentarily. But I wondered if we might see your extraordinary creature one more time before you go on your way.”
She was standing in her craft, a small bottle in hand, cork still secured. She had retrieved the bottle but had not read the message. Matthew despaired.
“Vale. Come help with this,” Tom commanded, and Matthew nearly cursed at him. In her boat, Margaret Carver was leaning over to touch the water. Archi had risen to the surface. Most of the squid was visible now, an astonishing sight, the big sloping head, the mass of tentacles trailing after like a banner. The sea monsters in the old stories were real, and here was the proof.
“Mr. Vale!” Tom called again, lifting the tarp. Some of the others already had the net near the side, ready to throw over, waiting for Humbolt’s signal. Matthew went to join his brother, preparing to once again implore that they needed to leave off, to stop Humbolt somehow. And destroy both their careers in the process.
“Let’s get this in place, shall we? We must follow orders. Trust me.” Tom said this last slowly, carefully. And for just a moment, he wasn’t Lieutenant Vale anymore but Tom, his older brother who taught him to fish, dried his tears when he was small, and never shamed him for having those tears in the first place. Matthew had almost forgotten.
“Yes, sir,” Matthew breathed.
They pulled the canvas to the side, and four men lined up to throw the trap over, right after the net.
“Now!” Humbolt called, chopping his hand.
The net went over the side, and Johnson came up with his musket, aimed at the water.
Matthew was ready to tackle the marine, but Tom held him back, and things happened quickly. A great thrashing in the water meant the net had hit its mark. The creature seemed to expand, its head puffing out, all the tentacles curling and reaching, but they quickly became tangled in the net’s fibers, and as it twisted in an attempt to free itself, it became more bound. Its splashing sounded like a storm, the terrible wracking of waves.
For some reason Matthew expected Margaret Carver to scream, but she did not. Instead, she grabbed her own musket from some hidden nook. She aimed it at Humbolt.
“Put that down or we’ll shoot your pet,” Humbolt said sternly, the amiable mask gone. “Be easy, Miss Carver, I mean you no harm but I can’t let you simply leave. Not with so wondrous a creature.”
At the captain’s command she lowered the weapon. She would not risk Archi.
“Lieutenant, at your leisure,” Humbolt said to Tom.
Matthew was ready to shout, but Tom caught his gaze and glanced down at the corner of the tarp he was holding. Just for a moment, then he looked away.
The knot holding the rope to the grommet there was done wrong. It would slip loose the minute anyone pulled on it. The lieutenant nodded slightly, and handed the end of that rope to Matthew. Matthew set his jaw and nodded back.
The scene below was strangely quiet. There should have been cries of terror, shouting. But the squid seemed to have no voice and could only splash its displeasure. Miss Carver’s anger was quiet.
“You are a bastard, Captain,” she said.
“I am an officer in His Majesty’s navy doing his duty.”
“Same difference.” Margaret had taken up a knife and swung a leg over the side of her boat, foot dangling in the water, and started cutting at the net. Humbolt didn’t seem bothered—she couldn’t possibly free the squid before they got it secured in their trap. She reached out, patted one of Archi’s writhing tentacles, whispering wordless comforts as she cut. Tears might have dampened her cheeks, or it might just have been splashing seawater.
At Tom’s direction, they lowered the canvas to the water. Matthew’s heart was in his throat. He wanted to apologize, to call to her that all would be well, to have patience. She was in such a panic, and while the leviathan made no cry, its flesh trembled and its color seemed to grow pale.
The tarp filled with water, sinking to form a bag that they worked to draw under the thrashing squid. Margaret eyed the canvas in a panic and cut faster, calling to Archi to be calm so she would not cut her by accident. Under her touch, the squid stilled. The net was falling away, the squid would be free of it—but not before the canvas closed around it.
“Now,” Tom said.
The men pulled hard on their lines, to draw up the canvas around the squid. Matthew pulled extra hard—and his line slipped free as the knot failed. He fell back on the deck as a shout went up. There was a great splash, and a young woman’s victorious cry.
Matthew scrambled to look over the side.
One end of the canvas flapped loosely, spilling out water—and yes, squid. Archi tumbled back into the sea, shedding cut pieces of netting as she went, flicking them away with shuddering tentacles.
On the Selene there was some confusion as lines became tangled and officers and seamen stumbled into each other trying to sort out what had happened. Captain Humbolt cursed.
Then, the small boat moved. It was being pushed. The creature had come half out of the water, wrapped a pair of tentacles around the side, and the rest churned under the surface to propel the craft and Margaret away. She was still perched on the bow. Her cap had fallen off, her brown hair was wet and stuck her to her cheeks and shoulders, but she laughed.
“Till next time!” she shouted, waving.
Grinning, Matthew enthusiastically waved back until Tom poked at his shoulder for him to stop. Right. This was supposed to have been a failure. He schooled himself to appear somber.
“Sorry sir,” Tom said evenly. “Something must have happened with the line. I take full responsibility.”
“I don’t suppose the odds were ever good that we could carry that thing back home.”
Tom waited a polite beat before answering, with a convincing tone of disappointment, “No, sir, likely not. It could be the creature was far more powerful than we realized.”
“I still wonder how she tamed such a beast,” Humbolt said.
Kindness, Matthew wanted to say. Wasn’t it obvious?
The captain added, “Ah well, it would have been quite a thing to bring to the Royal Academy. Perhaps another time.” Tucking his hands behind his back and donning his customary frown, Humbolt walked back to the quarterdeck.
Margaret and Archi were far distant now, a speck amid churning waves. Matthew watched until he could no longer make them out in the chop. He hoped she found her brother.
“Convincing performance, Vale,” Tom said, coming alongside him.
“Yes, sir. Thank you. Likewise, if I may be so bold.”
“You may not. Aren’t you supposed to be on look-out up the mast?”
From the quarterdeck, Captain Humbolt spoke to the sailing master, who then called out orders. A new heading, and the crew raced to adjust sails, rigging for speed.
“That’s south, isn’t it?” Matthew said. “Weren’t we meant to continue north up the coast?”
Tom said. “Looks like we’re going to the Carolinas instead.”
The Carolinas. To hunt the pirate.
(Editors’ Note: “The Book of the Kraken” is read by Joy Piedmont on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, 39B.)
© 2021 Carrie Vaughn