A Short Story by Laura Seabaugh
“Hoy!” the captain shouted. “By my bootstrap.”
Kantile’s head spun in the direction of the door and she caught a glimpse of the captain filling the door frame before she dropped to the floor beside the bed. She’d been so intent on the keys that she hadn’t even heard the door open. She flattened herself against the bed frame, but there wasn’t enough room for her to hide beneath it. From her hiding place she could see the captain’s boots as he and an officer entered the room.
She took a moment to consider her options and tucked the captain’s log under her shirt. It was unlikely she’d escape the cabin without being caught unless she changed form. The keys were lying on the bed in plain sight. As discreetly as possible, she reached up and felt for the keys she hadn’t tried. She only had time to grab one before the captain started moving, and barely managed to slip it up her sleeve before he came stomping around the bed.
Both their eyes went wide when he saw her, but she was on her feet before he knew what was happening. The other man, an officer in fine shape, tried to beat her to the door. Fortunately even without being able to change form, the shapeshifter was a slippery little scalawag. She grabbed his shirt to hold him back as she lunged for the doorknob. She was only trying to get by him as she flung open the door, but in her haste she accidentally hit him in the face with it.
She rushed onto the deck and stopped, looking around. As much as she wanted to find the first mate, she had to get away and try the last key on her shackles. She took the stairs to the poop deck and shook the key from her sleeve as footsteps pounded after her. An officer grabbed her arm, knocking her off balance. The key flew from her fingers. She fumbled after it, missed. With a brassy chime, it bounced over the railing and got swallowed by the ocean.
So disappointed was she as she watched the dark waves splash against the hull that she didn’t notice Captain Seelig step up behind her until he started laughing. He ordered the officer to fetch her chains while others restrained her.
They clamped chains to her shackles and prepared the plank. They dragged her around and jeered and spat at her. They emptied her pockets, which was disappointing, but not as disappointing as their discovery of the ship’s log in her shirt.
“I’ll take that,” the first mate said. He claimed the log from the officers and walked away without contest.
Kantile gaped at him, only to have a gag shoved in her mouth. With a nudge from the officers, she took a step down the plank, except it was more like a shuffle with the extra weight of the chains. If not for the iron, she would have been happy to get off that ship. At the surface, it was going to be a fair day. The sun was rising through the mist in pale shades of pink and orange. The breeze smelled of salt and summer, and the sails flapped in sync with the waves lapping against the ship. It would be dark and cold in the depths below.
She took one last look over her shoulder and found no allies among the crowd. The captain stood back, arms crossed over his gut. “Perhaps you’ll find your key at the bottom of the ocean,” he sneered, stirring a rise from his officers. Then they released their end of the board and tipped her into the sea.
She floundered in the freezing waves as the ship’s wake pushed her away. The shock of the fall had frozen her lungs, and her limbs felt like they were made of clay. As hard as she tried to kick her legs and flail her arms, she found herself sinking. The shouts aboard the Zoarcid became muffled as the ocean closed around her. The last thing she saw was a faint dawning glow on the horizon before the waves swallowed her up.
Iron had always irritated her, but the iron around her ankles had never felt so heavy. She stared helplessly as the surface rose farther and farther away and the depths grew darker and darker. In her flailing and thrashing, her gag had come loose, but no one would hear her underwater. Her body protested the lack of air and, in a futile effort to breathe, found seawater instead. Then to her surprise, she felt the water flow through her gills. She reached up and found gill slits in her jaw, and yet she was feeling them with human fingers.
It was the most awkward thing, being half-shifted, but better than drowning. The iron burned her ankles and she could feel the strain it placed on her transformation. She was still sinking, having no energy left for swimming. Being surrounded by ocean was almost like floating in the cosmos. She was weightless, oblivious, and completely at the mercy of the elements. There were even stars glowing in the distance. Or suns, two of them, shining in the abyss.
They were almost upon her before she realized the shining objects were a pair of eyes, giant eyes with fiery light behind black slits. Their warm glow reflected on red scales. Air bubbled from snake-like nostrils, and the sea churned and swished as the creature wrapped his talons around her. Before she could say, “I’ve been caught by a dragon!” she was speeding to the surface in his grip.
The dragon swam like a frog, propelling them up with his wings. When they broke the surface, he placed her on the bridge of his nose and treaded waves. The early light made the dragon’s scales gleam like cut rubies. He huffed water from his nostrils.
Kantile coughed and hacked from the transition back to lungs. “I didn’t know sea dragons had wings,” she said, clearing her throat.
“I’m not a sea dragon,” the dragon answered.
“Oh.” She coughed.
A chuckle rumbled in the dragon’s throat. “Sorry to disappoint.”
She patted the top of his spiny head. “That’s okay. Thanks for fishing me out of the water. I was thrown off a ship.” She looked around. They were surrounded on all sides by ocean and sky with no sign of the Zoarcid. “The ship! We have to find it!”
“I plan on it,” the dragon replied. He started to swim. How he knew which direction to go was a mystery to the shapeshifter. “And when we do, we’re going to rescue her from all the vermin on board.”
“What about that first mate?” she prodded. “He’s especially devious.”
“Come now,” he mused, “I’m sure he’s not all bad.”
“He took the ship’s log and got away while the captain threw me overboard!”
“That he did. Your diversion gave him just enough time to stow it safely away.” There was a queer tone in his voice that made him seem to be speaking in third person. She had a hunch that her new dragon friend was in cahoots with the first mate.
The sea lapped up his sides as he glided across the surface into the rising sun. Kantile hung on to one of the spines that grew from the dragon’s nose and let the wind dry her hair. As fast as the dragon was moving, she could hardly sit still as anticipation thawed her limbs and brought a widening smile to her face. If there was one thing she enjoyed more than a mutiny, it was a battle.