A Short Story by Laura Seabaugh
Kantile Warreth had never been afraid of drowning. She’d had plenty of seafaring experience in her lifetime, but she’d always been able to shapeshift, to become something compatible with the water, something with gills or at least fins. Most of the time, she’d simply turn into a bird and avoid the water altogether. In this case, she had iron shackles on her ankles, inhibiting her ability to change form. Every day she toiled on, swabbing, sweeping and scrubbing with that confounded metal weighing her down. And it was itchy.
Her story was the same as the rest of the prisoners aboard the Zoarcid: the dungeons were full, so the king put them under the charge of his appointed Captain Seelig to serve as the crew of his coastal trade ship. The prisoner crew was supposed to be grateful for the chance to serve their sentence outside the dungeon, but Kantile had yet to determine why. Every day it seemed someone would go missing, and there were rumors of people going overboard in the night.
The day began like any other on the Zoarcid. Prisoners scurried about their tasks with bare feet pounding the deck. Kantile started her shift humming an old pirate song about walking planks and feeding sea serpents, a tune that had been stuck in her head since she’d first stepped on board. She’d just picked up an empty bucket when the ship’s boy ran up to her and shoved a spool of twine and a large needle into her hands.
She cocked her head at the needle but asked no questions, knowing the rules about speaking while on deck.
It was he who spoke. “The main topsail’s got a tear. Climb up and fix it.” He pointed straight up the main mast.
Dumbly, she followed his direction and looked up. The entire ship seemed to sway as she searched the sail, but she became dizzy before she could get a good look. When she lowered her gaze, which was like coming back to earth, he’d run off. Climbing the mast would be a challenge, but it was better than bilge duties. She put the bucket back where she found it and stuck the needle and thread in the pocket of her pants. As she grasped the first rung of the rope ladder, she felt the eyes of most of the crew on her, officers and prisoners alike, though they pretended not to be looking.
She shrugged and took a moment to steel her nerves for the climb, feeling a little foolish. It wasn’t like her to be nervous. Why should she be afraid of heights if she could turn into any number of flying creatures? Climbing was tricky as a human, though, for a shifter bound by iron. She had no claws for grip, no tail for balance, and most two-legged people were naturally clumsy. She did her best to position her feet so her toes wouldn’t cramp as she took the climb one rung at a time.
By the time she was halfway up the mast, the deck was another world below her. The prisoners were like ants, worker drones moving in patterns on the deck. The ocean humbled even the Zoarcid as the vessel broke through the waves. At her height, everything was quiet except for the wind whistling in her ears.
Maybe she shouldn’t have looked down. The endless rocking of the ship was turning her stomach. A gust of wind tried to blow her from the ladder, and she spent a long time hanging in limbo as the ladder twisted and turned with her on it. Her hair whipped her face and got in her eyes, but she couldn’t get herself to free a hand and brush it away.
Better to look up, she decided. The crow’s nest was only a handful of rungs above her. If she could get to it, she’d be able to catch her breath and give her sore hands a break. Getting up there was slow-going and she was having trouble feeling her feet. She could almost touch the bottom of the crow’s nest when the ship leaned to its port side and she missed a step.
She clung to the ladder as her foot slipped and her legs swung free. The wind stole her breath away. She dangled in the air, feet kicking frantically, as the whole world tipped sideways in a blur of ocean and sky. She couldn’t tell if she was up or down. In the next tilt of the ship, she was tangled in ropes and rigging. She cursed and blinked watery eyes as she caught her breath. When she managed to swallow her heart back down and get her legs untangled, she pushed her human form to its limits, climbed the last five rungs, and tumbled into the crow’s nest.
For a while she lay in a heap at the bottom of the barrel-shaped station, knees curled to her chest, eyes squeezed shut. She flexed the cramps out of her hands and feet and took deep breaths until the pounding of her heart settled back into a regular beat. She didn’t realize she wasn’t alone until someone spoke her name. Her eyes slowly opened to behold the first mate with a letter in his hand.
“‘Kantile Warreth,’” he read aloud. “‘Convicted for stealing the identity of nobility at the Royal Council. Convicted for four counts of forgery. Guilty of bearing false witness to his Highness the King. Guilty of multiple counts of the obstruction of justice and several counts of escaping custody. Committed to the Citadel dungeon. To be bound in iron without reprieve.’”
She nodded, recounting her crimes as he recited them.
Glancing up, he continued, “‘Placed in the charge of Captain Seelig for the service of the Zoarcid until debilitating injury, incapacity, or death. Lost at sea.’”
“Lost at sea? Oh…” She looked back at him, catching on. “This isn’t about that night I told the officers their food was prepared wrong, is it? It really was, I mean—the cook said he could get fresher crab legs in the desert. But I’m not picky and I didn’t want to see it go to waste.”
“Uh—no.” The mate gave her a skewed glance as he folded up the parchment and stuck it in his pocket.
Before he could reach for his sword, she held out her hands. “I won’t tell the captain if you let me go. I’ll hide—you’ll never even know I’m on board!”
Something similar to a smile hid behind his beard. “I’ll let you live on one condition,” he said. “I’ve reviewed the papers of every prisoner on this ship. Some of them are murderers, some tricksters, some thieves, but they’re not sailors. Have you noticed your ‘crew’ getting mysteriously smaller every day?”
“Yes! I think the captain is—”
“Do you think he means to be rid of all of you? One by one in the dark of night? Until there’s no one left on board but himself and a handful of officers?
“I suppose so, but—”
“And how do you presume he’ll manage the ship with no crew?”
“Ah—” she interrupted herself this time, tapping her chin. “Why, I don’t know! The ship can’t possibly sail itself.”
“Are you sure about that?”
Her mouth opened and closed, but she made no sound. She looked long and hard at the man across from her and wondered if she should be questioning his sanity.
The mate, ignoring her concern, touched his palm to the mast in the center of the crow’s nest and sighed. “When I first laid eyes on this vessel, I was smitten. The Zoarcid is magnificent in form, impeccably constructed. Everything about her is, well…perfect.” Kantile looked up as he did and found not a single tear in the sail. “But, like you, she is the captain’s prisoner.”
“I’m not really a prisoner,” she argued, indignant. “You’ve read my record. It’s only a matter of time before I get out of these shackles.”
“And that’s exactly how I know you’re the one for this task. Now, the captain only leaves his cabin once a day, usually well into the fourth watch. He makes his rounds about the deck, inspecting the ship and checking the inventory. It usually takes him thirty minutes to make his way back to his cabin—longer if I stall him. I need you to sneak in there as soon as he leaves and search the cabin for the ship’s log.”
“Ship’s log? What do you want with that?”
“I believe it’s what controls the ship. The Zoarcid follows the captain’s orders regardless of what the crew does. It’s the only explanation. Have you noticed how far from shore we’ve strayed, all while your crewmates work to keep her on course?”
She checked the horizon. The morning fog had cleared, but no land was in sight. With the coastline out of view, there was no telling how far out they were. “I think we’re in trouble,” she concluded.
He nodded very slowly. “Anyone who isn’t worth money or power will be ‘lost at sea’ before we see land again—unless we can take the Zoarcid for ourselves. I know I would be a better master for her, and you’d have a fighting chance to escape.”
While he adoringly touched the ship, the shapeshifter took the moment to consider his request. Maybe the first mate was a fool for love, with foolhardy ideas, but she didn’t want to wait around to get thrown overboard. And deep down she thought she might enjoy a good mutiny. “I’ll do it,” she decided. “Tonight then?”
He gave her a nod. “Don’t get caught.”
The climb down the mast was easier than the climb up, but as Kantile’s feet finally landed on the deck, she found prisoners staring at her as if she’d grown fins. She knew that wasn’t possible while bound in iron, however, so she waved at them and treated the rest of the day like any other. She carried out the most grueling seafaring tasks as if she was born to swab the deck and clear bilge water.
At the end of her shift, she crawled into her sleeping corner and lay down just long enough for the others to drift off to sleep. As soon as she was sure no one would hear her get up, she sneaked out of the bunk and began her mission. She crept from shadow to shadow on her way past the officers’ bunks and paused on the stairs to the main deck. She scratched her head. Usually the ship idled overnight, but by the feel of it, the Zoarcid was moving.
The shapeshifter took a peek at the deck and plotted a path to the aft castle, assessing all the obstacles and hiding places along the way. There were a number of barrels, a few crates, two lifeboats, extra fishing nets, and a pile of coiled rope. The officers were nowhere to be seen, but if she craned her neck to look, she thought they might be loitering somewhere near the bow. She saw no sign of the first mate.
It was a long way from the stairs to the aft mast with nothing to hide behind, but fortunately, a helpful smear of clouds blotted out the moonlight. She darted for the mast. When she reached it, she took a moment to calculate the distance to the captain’s cabin. The closest place to hide near the door was behind the railing of the stairway leading to the helm. Light from behind the door made a suitable silhouette of the rail, and once the door opened, she’d be practically invisible—as long as no one decided to go her way.
Someone cleared his throat, alerting her to the first mate, who’d come to stand at the top of the stairs on the other side of the door. He met her eyes and nodded slowly, signaling the go-ahead. She took a deep breath and dashed for her spot, only to trip over an uneven floorboard and land flat on her face in front of the captain’s door. She looked up. The shadows of someone’s feet moved on the other side as the doorknob began to turn. Before the door could open, she rolled aside and scrambled around the railing.
“Never mind her,” the captain was saying. “She’ll be taken care of one way or another.”
Kantile’s heart flip-flopped in her chest as she thought he was talking about her. She crouched behind the rail as Captain Seelig and the ship’s boy emerged from the cabin. The captain was large, both in height and girth. He wore a wide hat with a bright green feather. His coat was trimmed in green and gold, sparing no expense.
“Captain.” On the opposite stair, the first mate stopped the captain from glancing her way.
“Dein,” the captain replied. “Explain to the young lad the reasoning behind my methods of discipline.”
The mate called Dein clasped his hands behind his back. “The ship is manned by lowlife criminals, captain.”
“Aye, you see?” The captain put a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Now get to the kitchen and bring up another cask for our officers. There’s a good lad.” As the boy ran off, Kantile tip-toed behind the captain and slipped through the open door.
The first mate diverted his attention long enough for her to sneak by him. “We have finished our rounds, Captain. Everyone is in order,” she heard him report before the door closed behind her.
Captain Seelig’s cabin was a chamber fit for a king. A fire blazed in the fireplace, along with several sconces on the walls. Everything was either furry or velvet. His furniture included all the ornamentation of the finest craftsmanship, reflecting the grandeur of the entire vessel. Kantile took a moment to admire the details as she surveyed the room for items of interest—for the mutiny, of course.
The first place she thought to search for the ship’s log was his writing desk. She found what appeared to be the log, but it was practically empty except for some scribbling she couldn’t decipher. She hoped it was what the first mate needed. None of the notes or maps offered any evidence that the captain was up to something. Even the log proved nothing about him except that he didn’t seem to do anything at all. She took the log and glanced toward the door. There was still time. It would be a waste to leave the cabin without at least taking a quick look for the keys to her shackles.
She checked the dining table, but found only wine glasses. She looked inside empty bottles and under the chairs. The tablecloth she lifted along with the hourglass centerpiece. She checked the weapon rack to find only weapons. She overturned the rug in front of the fireplace, scanned the mantle and peeked behind the frames on the walls. She even tried to turn the sconces to see if they would open any secret passageways. Sifting through the wardrobe, she checked all the pockets in every coat and trouser. She found plenty of things that jingled, but in all her searching she found no keys.
There was nothing under the bed or under the mattress or in the pillows. She did find a purse of money in the drawer of the nightstand, which stalled her for a bit as she admired the coins inside. It wasn’t in her nature to pass up free coin, but she would have preferred to find her key.
Then as she felt along the inside of the drawer with her fingernails she discovered that the bottom was loose! In the secret compartment, she found—at last—a ring of keys. She sat on the bed and tried the first key. No luck. There were as many keys as there were prisoners. One of them had to be hers. She removed each key from the ring as she tried them one by one.