Today is my stop on the blog tour for BBNYA finalist Our Bloody Pearl by D.N. Bryn. I am excited to be sharing an extract post with you all!
Title: Our Bloody Pearl
Author: D.N. Bryn
Release Date: 26th July 2018
Publisher: Bryn Books
Page Count: 206
Buy It Here (affiliate links): Amazon UK, Waterstones, Book Depository
The ocean is uncontrollable and dangerous. But to the sirens who swim the warm island waters, it’s a home more than worth protecting from the humans and their steam-propelled ships. Between their hypnotic voices and the strength of their powerful tails, sirens have little to fear.
That is, until the ruthless pirate captain, Kian, creates a device to cancel out their songs.
Perle was the first siren captured, and while all since have either been sold or killed, Kian still keeps them prisoner. Though their song is muted and their tail paralyzed, Perle’s hope for escape rekindles as another pirating vessel seizes Kian’s ship. This new captain seems different, with his brilliant smile and his promises that Kian will never again be Perle’s master. But he’s still a human, and a captor in his own way. The compassion he and his rag-tag human family show can’t be sincere… or can it?
Soon it becomes clear that Kian will hunt Perle relentlessly, taking down any siren in her path. As the tides turn, Perle must decide whether to run from Kian forever, or ride the forming wave into battle, hoping their newfound human companions will fight with them.
This adult fantasy novel featuring an nonbinary disabled protagonist is a voyage of laughter and danger where friendships and love abound and sirens are sure to steal—or eat—your heart.
Trigger warnings: mild gore due to carnivorous sirens and sensations of drowning.
There is one thing I know for certain: We were right to hate the humans.
HUNGER HAUNTS ME like a bull shark. With every roll of the ship, the gunk inside my stagnant tub sloshes against my waist, stinging anew. The tight wooden room’s stale air burns my lungs.
Steam whistles in the pipes that run along the walls, their copper gleaming in the dim ceiling light. My wrists throb where the metal cuffs locking me to the tub dig into my silver scales. The gill slits along my neck are clamped shut after a year without seawater and my head fins stick to my scalp like barnacles to rock.
I try to anchor myself with the memory of home, of fine sands and vibrant reefs, but I can barely recall the rush of the warm current or the thrill of the hunt. Even a single wrasse sounds like a feast now. Or a few human fingers.
At least I can still smell the sharp brine of the ocean. When the ship rocks, the small, circular window to my left reveals the sea rolling in an endless stretch of deep blue, begging me to return. The silhouette of an approaching vessel forms a blur on its horizon.
I squint at the hazy shape, but Captain Kian’s roar of irritation from an upper deck makes me recoil. My captor’s harsh voice is so loud it seems to shudder its way down my spine.
The new vessel leaves my sight as the ship I’m captive on—the Oyster— turns toward it. The steam stacks clatter to life somewhere beneath me. Fabric and metal wings stretch out from the sides of the Oyster, and the ship bursts forward, riding just above the crests of the waves.
The sudden change in speed shoves me backward, tossing up my putrid water. As the liquid recoils, it grazes my largest tail fin, lying limp over the far edge of the tub. For all the pain I suffer, I nearly forget my tail exists, its iridescent gleam washed away by the filth and grime of the tub. It must still be impaired from the massive, anchor-like weight my captor crushed it beneath when she first locked me here. I can’t bring myself to focus on its lifeless form for long. I wasn’t meant for this.
I need the sea.
The ship tilts, turning again, and the ocean rises into view. The vessel from earlier reappears, skimming above the shimmering crests, much nearer now. A marauder’s flag flies from its highest mast, a harsh scarlet with a crossed gun and sword, only a slight variation from the one the Oyster boasts. Just another pirate. Useless.
But this ship looks fancier than others the Oyster has fought. A series of small propellers spin in a blur along its scooping metal wings. Five main decks are visible, not including the levels piled at each end, all dark wood and silver finishings. Steam rises from four stacks sticking out of its back like mechanical dorsal spines. Its broad sails are in full bloom, pressed open like the stretched skin between an octopus’s tentacles.
Wisps of smoke stream from the approaching ship’s bow as its cannons fire. The Oyster rocks to the song of crunching wood. A rush of giddiness runs through me, and I tighten my hands around the edges of the tub. But then my stomach drops.
If the Oyster sinks, I sink with it, the metal weight trapping me inside this foreign container of wood until I’m crushed or I starve. A better death than what surely awaits me now, but death all the same. Not that my worries and hopes make any difference. The Oyster never loses.
The Oyster returns fire, its assault twice as powerful as the attacking ship. Before the cannonballs hit, a flash of light covers the sides of the enemy vessel, some form of translucent shielding unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I blink to convince myself it’s there. The cannonballs deflect off it, plunging uselessly to the water.
With the attacking ship almost upon us, the Oyster fires again. This time it’s not the harsh boom of the cannon, but a terrible, soft sputter. Purple light shoots from the Oyster, dividing and glowing like lightning. It hits the approaching vessel and engulfs it. Some of the crew jerk about and fall, near enough that I can make out their stunned faces.
The enemy ship loses speed until its hull hits the water, careening as it crashes into us. Its sturdier, propellered wings crush through the Oyster’s in a jarring twist of metal and fabric. Its hull slams against the Oyster, filling up my window and blocking out all but the faintest light. The tub rocks with such force that some of the foul water spills out of it, and pain shoots through my side as my ribs hit the edge. My chest burns, my heart rattling.
On the decks above, roars of attack and bellows of pain mix with gunshots and clashes of metal. The Oyster… boarded? The thought flounders through my mind as I struggle to process it.
Just overhead, the wood creaks under the weight of running feet. The sound dies in the bang of a pistol and the thud of a body. Slowly, a crack in the wood turns red. The liquid drips.
I lunge forward, catching the drop on my tongue. A soft, instinctive moan rises in my throat as the sharp taste spreads, hot and wonderful. The first fresh blood I’ve had in weeks. I open my mouth and let the rest drizzle in. What I miss trickles along my face, sliding down my neck and tinting the water pink. It’s not the ocean, but it feels better than the air or the foul stuff in the tub. I would bathe in it if I could.
As the sounds of battle fade, the ships slip apart, revealing a stretch of sea and sky beyond the window. One of the Oyster’s small, flying dinghies races through the air. Steam blows from the dinghy’s miniature stacks as a single massive propeller shoots it forward, its huge side fins providing lift. Captain Kian grips its sail, her dark hair pulled back in a low bun.
The sight of her drives a tremble down my spine, and I shrink back in the tub. She can’t see me in here. She can’t reach me. But even her gaze can hurt, the mere sound of her voice a tidal wave of silt and poison, stunning me from the inside out.
I force myself to watch her, because if I don’t, I’ll never truly believe she’s leaving the Oyster. Her first mate sits beside her, shadowed by the mast. A cannonball shoots by them, but they vanish into the clouds, unscathed. The attacker’s ship moves again, blocking the window once more.
I wait for relief to settle in. Kian’s gone—gone with her fists and her raised voice. And she left me behind. But I can’t feel her absence, not while the chains bite my wrists and the shouts of humans ring around me.
Beyond this bathtub room, the door to the main cabin rattles and opens with a bang. The thud of two sets of boots follow. A chill rises in my bones.
These new humans can be here for only one purpose: to learn how Kian captured my kind without succumbing to our songs. But what will they do with me? Kian held the other sirens she caught for a week or two, their voices echoing from the other end of the ship in choruses I can no longer create. Once we reached a harbor, they were sold to humans on shore. But through every cycle, Kian kept me.
I must have been the first she caught, the first anyone caught alive. I was her prize to herself for doing the impossible. My kind were untouchable— until Kian netted us.
Now, we’re the humans’ prey.
The hinges of Kian’s chests squeak, followed by the scraping and banging of drawers. Someone curses, their voice deeper than Kian’s. Their footsteps come nearer until they’re just beyond the door separating my little room from Kian’s large one. The latch opens with a ghastly click that jars my bones. Someone pulls the door outward.
I flinch away from the light that pours in from the large, ornate windows in the main cabin. Three orange shell lamps add to the radiance, glistening off the trinkets on the desk and accenting the golden embroidery on the bed covers. The gears of the hanging clock spin and click rhythmically.
Two humans stand in the midst of it all.
Both of them are broad of shoulder, with chests like mine, flat but with more muscle. The braided silver ring on the nearest one is something I’ve only seen worn in the right ear by the version of human they call a she. Her skin reminds me of the blotches of a flounder, patches of light and dark. Her straight black hair pools from beneath a broad-rimmed hat. The fluffy, blood- red feather tucked into the hat’s ribbon bounces as she moves, matching her swirling cape and tight waist cinch.
“Get out,” I tell her. I use the language of my kind, the words part vocal and part expression, with as much body signaling mixed in as I can manage, bound as I am. The humans understand nothing of it, but it feels good to speak in my own tongue. It’s a language where you sing your soul bare, where words are concepts you define with your whole being.
Her thin eyes narrow as she looks me over, curving like dolphins in mid jump. “That bastard kept one,” she mutters in the human speech, so rough and verbal and diminutive.
“I think you should close the cabin door, Simone,” her companion adds. Simone leaves my view, heading toward the front of Kian’s quarters.
The one who remains must be a he, his earring on the opposite ear and made of something shiny and brown. His skin is the color of the wooden wall I’ve been staring at for weeks, a million little dark spots coating every bit I can see. Around his face, a mess of hair spirals in all directions, forming coppery, stormy waves.
He’s tall for a human, but his light blue coat still caresses the back of his knees, the dark, rippling patterns on the edges contrasting with the deep golden vest beneath it. On his silken, brown belt lies both a pistol—which Kian once proved is good for three shots at close range—and a thin sword.
He whistles, standing in the doorway. “A live siren—can you believe it?”
My heart thumps like a fleeing fish and I hate it, but I can’t force the terror away. What does he want with me? What could he want, but to do to me what Kian has already done? Or worse.
The main cabin’s locking mechanism chimes and Simone returns. She leans against the wall at the other human’s side. “They’re smaller than I imagined. What do you think this one is, about eight feet long at most?”
“Their carcasses come in all different sizes,” he replies with a dry grin. “But a live siren, Simone. Captain Kian was a lucky bastard.” He steps into the little room.
I jerk away from him until the metal cuffs bite my skin. The bruises Kian left this morning show the reaction is worthless, yet some part of me still believes it will help, no matter how many times I’m proved wrong. But he doesn’t move to touch me. Instead, he steps back.
“Find a corpse, would you? I think I’ll be needing some entrails.” A salty smile hangs from his words, a cutting sort of amusement.
Simone snorts, her nose wrinkling. “It would be a pleasure, Dejean.” She sounds as though she means the opposite, but she makes her way back toward the door all the same.
“You’re the best first mate!” Dejean shouts after her. “Never replacing you.”
I stare at him. These are strange humans; Kian would have thrown a knife at her first mate on his way out. I shake the thought away. Dejean must not have enough blades to spare. Or maybe he’s saving them for me.
As he creeps across the room, I draw a great hiss up the back of my throat, wishing with everything I have that I could sing. But my gills clamp to the sides of my neck like barnacles, dried to a crisp. “I told you to get out.”
“It’s all right, pearly, I’m just gonna sit here. No need to be angry.” Dejean plops onto the floor, leaning against the wooden wall.
He doesn’t reach for me, not with fingers or fists. But he’s up to something. I don’t trust him.
“Sneaky, vile human,” I say. “What’s your game?” “What should I call you?”
“I don’t want your nicknames.” I have many already, all given to me by other sirens. But the humans won’t comprehend them any more than they could understand the rest of my beautiful, melodious language, and I have no desire to be labeled with his rough jabber.
“Right then. How does Perle sound? You do shine like one.”
I growl, leaning as far away from him as I can.
Dejean ignores the protest, humming. “Worth more pearls than I’ve ever seen in my lifetime,” he mutters under his breath.
Baring my teeth, I hiss again. I’m no treasure to be hoarded or traded, no matter what Kian thought.
The scruffy copper hairs that ride over his eyes lift. “You know some of those words, don’t you?”
“I’m not an animal.” But it matters little what I say; he’s just as dense as the rest of his barbaric kind. He’ll never understand me.
Kian’s cabin door opens with an ominous creak that makes me flinch even after watching her flee. The strong scent of blood precedes Simone’s entry. She’s pulled back her sleeves to her elbows, but scarlet from the fresh meat in her hands soaks the edges of them and drips along her breeches, staining the sandy fabric in splotches.
I’ve never felt so hungry before in my life.
“This is the most disgusting thing I have ever done. I do hope you’re happy.” She hands Dejean a liver.
He grips the organ with one hand and draws out a small blade with the other. “What about that time you fed a man’s privates to a shark?”
“He deserved it.”
“And the grave robbing expedition you took in search of cultist metal implants?”
“Skeletons don’t bleed.”
“I distinctly remember you shoving a woman’s severed finger down her throat once,” Dejean counters.
Simone huffs, moving out of view to bang around Kian’s room. “That was a personal grudge and shouldn’t be counted.”
“Fair enough.” With a shrug and a quick slice of his blade, Dejean cuts off a piece of the liver.
My mouth waters, and my stomach makes a noise I’m ashamed of. But when he shifts closer I jerk away, hiding my face.
“You can eat it. It’s all right.” His words are softened into what the humans seem to perceive as soothing.
I would much rather sink into a bottomless chasm, but I peek at him. He dangles the bit of liver just within my reach. It kills me to smell it, one snatch of my jaws away, but held by a human. I stretch my mouth toward the meat, so slow and cautious it’s agonizing. The metal cuffs dig into my wrist as I lean farther. I catch the liver between my teeth and yank the food from him.
It saturates my mouth with a jolt of everything I’ve been craving these last months and more. I devour it, far too ravenous to savor the sliver of blood- slick meat. I need the rest.
Dejean chuckles, cutting off another slice and scooting closer. He holds it out. His fingers look temping, but there’s not much chance I’ll be offered anything more if I bite them off. I take the liver out of his hand as delicately as my insatiable hunger will allow.
Oh merciful tides, it tastes divine.
Dejean scoots forward another fist-length, nearing the edge of the tub. Whatever his game is, he can keep playing it, because his offerings are the first fresh meat I’ve had in so very long. I should be embarrassed that a human could buy my trust with so little, but my stomach is larger than my brain will ever be. Most marine creatures are like that.
I savor the next piece, holding it in my mouth for a moment before scarfing it down like the rest. Dejean places a hand on the side of the tub. A hiss rises in my throat, and my subconscious screams for me to hide before he can hit me. I hide my face in my shoulder, a tremble running down my back.
He doesn’t sound as close. Forcing myself to look at him, I find he’s leaned away. He holds a bit of liver over the center of the tub, though. I take it from him slowly, catching the juice and blood that’s accumulated. It holds a different tang this time, as though mixed with the blood of another human. Cuts run along Dejean’s fingertips.
I stare at them, the red slits thickening until a drop of scarlet trickles down. My teeth must have nicked him earlier, yet he hadn’t made a sound. How odd. This is a very strange game, and Dejean is a very strange human.
He rises slowly onto his knees. I glare at him and fight the instinct to hide, but his gaze fixes on the metal around my wrists.
“Simone, you find a key yet?” he asks.
“Found eight keys.” Simone pops her head back into the little room. “What sort are you looking for?”
“Small. Brass or bronze. I’m thinking two bits, maybe three.”
“Here.” She tosses him one that’s the same color as my tub.
I flinch as he catches it, and it takes all my concentration just to steady myself. Whatever he needs the key for, I don’t want to be caught off guard. But then he slides it into the lock on the cuff around my wrist, and my heart stops. The metal unclamps with a click, and Dejean pulls it open the rest of the way. A rush of something hot and fierce pounds through me. I yank my hand out of the restraint, knocking my elbow into the tub’s edge in my hurry. Yelping, I pull it toward my chest, but my arm stays locked in its half-bent state, pain shooting up to my shoulder.
No. This can’t be. My arms are strong; not as powerful as my tail, but still sure and capable. I’m built for the water. The air should not hold me back. But it does. My arm refuses to bend or straighten fully, locked in the same position. I swing it about, slamming it against the side of the tub. Knives of pain spring from the sore on my elbow, and I shriek a raw, hideous noise that grates my throat.
“Easy there! You’ll hurt yourself.”
Dejean’s words sound distant to my ears, hidden in a rush like the crashing of the ocean, but the smell of the liver under my nose overpowers my fear. I snatch it between my teeth. He winces this time. I can still taste his blood.
He holds the next piece further out, but within reach of my freed hand. “Careful now,” he says gently. “Go slow.”
“Slow,” I grumble. I try it though. My arm tingles, tight and painful, and it shakes as I hold it in the air. But I can bend it a little more each time I move. I drop it back onto the edge of the tub, shifting my shoulder to avoid touching my elbow sore to the metal or my fingers to the restraint.
Dejean watches me, his gaze piercing. “You do know our language, don’t you?” He says it slow and precise, as though that will somehow help me understand him better.
“Again, not an animal,” I snap.
At least he has some level of comprehension. However small.
Dejean’s brows pinch, but he nods, his lips turning up. He continues to observe me so intently that I want to pull deeper into the tub just to avoid his gaze. I prefer this to fear though; more cringing, less quailing.
“Would you let me touch your arm?” he asks.
“No,” I hiss at him.
“All right, I get it.” He holds his hands up, palms facing me. I have no idea what he means by the motion, but his expression is open, submissive. “I just want to look at that sore. I might have something I can bandage it with.”
A bandage. Those are the white skins humans stretch over wounds. I don’t know if their healing techniques work on sirens, but the sores are painful. It might be worth a try. I hold out my arm to him, glaring as I do, narrowing my eyes.
The rough skin of his fingers makes me itch, but he stays clear of my more tender scales. “You should know, I have not the slightest idea what I’m doing.”
“This doesn’t look terrible. Sirens must be made of different stuff than humans.” Dejean’s finger brushes the edge of the sore, and I cringe, a growl burning up my throat. He lets go, handing me a chunk of liver. “Here. You did well.”
I move my elbow more this time. The muscles tremble, but it bends easier with each motion, mending itself in long, aching strokes. As Dejean stands, I jerk away, lifting my arm to protect my face. My hand smacks into my face from the force of my motion, and I stiffen in shock.
Smiling weakly, Dejean edges around the tub toward the port side. “You don’t have to go knocking yourself out to get me to slow down.”
“I could eat you, you know!” It rises as a growl at first, but the words become a whine, the air contorting my beautiful noises into something almost as ugly and rough as the human’s tongue. “I will someday, when I’m stronger.”
Dejean’s eyes sparkle. “That didn’t sound very friendly,” he chides, slipping the key into the lock of my other wrist restraint.
“I’m not friendly.”
The metal clicks open, and I draw out my other hand, carefully bending my arm a few times to work out the tightness. I drop them both into the water, but the foul stuff stings my dry scales. Drawing in a breath through my teeth, I yank them back out. I want to murder Kian, each of her crew members, and everyone who ever set foot on this terrible ship. Instead, I hiss at the liquid and cross my arms over my chest.
“I’ll be back soon.” Dejean stands. He heads for the door, taking the rest of the liver with him.
I twist to face him, gripping the tub with my hands, and scream, “Mine!”
He stops. The metal lances my chest as I throw myself against the side of the tub, grabbing for the rest of the liver. I can’t quite reach it.
With a dramatic sigh, he cuts off a large chunk of the meat and tosses it at me. “Go slowly. I don’t want you getting sick in here.” He waves the remaining half. “You can have the rest later.”
Then he vanishes, leaving the door to my room open. Kian’s cabin shuts tight and the lock clicks. Simone must have found the spare key to that, too.
I gnaw on the liver, trying my hardest to savor it. Some of the warmth is gone, but it’s still juicy and tangy, and I yearn for more. Out the port window, Dejean’s ship floats a fair number of dinghy lengths away. The nearest wing dangles, tilting the vessel slightly, and the steam stacks flicker with an odd light. They must be broken.
The glimpse of sea to either side of the ship stretches endlessly, tugging at me in a way not even the tastiest morsel can. If not for the weight pinning me to the tub, I could attempt an escape. But at least one door and two flights of stairs stand between me and freedom. With my arms so weak, I doubt my tail will be any better. If I stay where I am, Dejean may keep feeding me, and perhaps bandage my sores.
I huff to myself. What’s he playing at? He can’t be doing this for my sake. Maybe he means to sell me.
A shiver runs down my spine. At least as a captive on a ship, I can see the ocean, feel it rock beneath me, smell it in the breeze that comes through Kian’s cabin door. If these humans bring me onto land, I won’t survive.
The door thuds as it’s flung open. Dejean’s arm comes into view, but he turns away, dropping something off to the side as a new set of footsteps approach. Most of the light vanishes as he closes the door on me.
“I thought I said I was not to be disturbed.” His voice shifts away from the playfulness he takes with Simone and the thoughtful, soothing emphasis he uses on me. This new tone holds none of Kian’s harsh cruelty, but it sounds forced, as though he pulls his joy from beneath layers of wet sand, the emotion coming through blunted and coarse. “What do you need, Chauncey?”
“Just a report, Captain.” The crew member makes no mention of Dejean’s stiffness. “We finished the search of the ship.”
“And did you find them?”
“Not yet, but there are locked chests in the hull we’re still opening. We’ve also cataloged enough provisions to last a full crew two weeks. The damages along the port are nearly patched, and we’ve pulled the wings up. What would you have us do with Kian’s crew?”
“I’ll deal with them later,” Dejean says gruffly, even for a human. “You may return to the search.”
“Aye, captain.” Receding footsteps follow the words and Kian’s door closes once more.
I try to make sense of the conversation, but a missing piece seems to drift too far out to sea. Dejean has more sides to him than Kian. And he’s searching for something.
He opens my sliding door and enters, carrying a long tube, a stack of buckets, and absolutely no liver. He hands me one end of the tube.
“I can’t eat this.” I glare at him, but he only smiles in reply.
“Put it in the tub. I’ll bring you the liver once we’re finished.”
I lower the end of the tube into the water, slowly, waiting for something terrible to happen. Nothing does.
Scooting closer, Dejean spreads out the buckets in a row. He pauses. “How long can you survive without water?”
“How long can you survive without air!” I shove the tube back at him. Dejean scrambles to catch it. “Not long, I get it.” He scowls at the tube, but the expression fades when he looks back at me. “I just need to know how quickly I’ll have to refill the tub after the bad water’s been drained.”
Suddenly, I feel very small. Creeping my fingers over the side of the tub, I snatch the tube and shove it into my filthy muck.
“I guess that’s my answer?”
I nod, sinking away from him with a scowl. If I had any dignity left, I would try to maintain it, but Kian bled mine out, every last blistering tear.
Dejean sticks his end of the tube in his mouth, sucking on it until water siphons up. He drops it into the bucket, hacking out a mouthful of revolting liquid. “That is foul stuff.”
Humans are so strange. Though I suppose the way he holds his chest as he coughs and the wrinkles that form around his nose aren’t all that different from a siren. I focus on the water draining instead, listening as he shifts the tube to a new bucket in steady intervals.
Despite the rancidity of the water, it still feels wrong to draw it away.
Prickles run across my scales, up to the point where the weight presses down on me and I feel nothing at all. The little translucent fins along the side of my tail droop as the water drops beneath them, matching the state of my largest fanning fin where it slumps over the tub’s edge.
I flinch as Simone sets down two fresh buckets of seawater. The fresh, salty smell floods my senses. I coo at it in adoration.
“Noisy creature,” Simone mutters.
“I’m not opposed to eating you, too,” I mutter in return.
A small smile tugs at Dejean’s lips, but he shakes his head. “They’re just talkative.”
“Be glad they can’t serenade you right now.” Simone picks up two of the dirty buckets and carries them out.
The tube gurgles as the last of the old water siphons up, and Dejean sets it to the side. He pours the fresh bucket in. I want to sing, but I only manage a weak moan. Cupping the water in my hands, I splash it onto my face, letting it drip down my chin and across my clamped gills. Bliss.
Dejean fills the tub until it reaches the center of my chest, leaving just enough space that it won’t slosh out as the ship rocks. After the muck I had before, I prefer the fresh water to any meal. I can’t cover myself in it as I wish to, but it saturates my tail and my lower torso, relieving the itching that’s cursed me for months. I pour it over as much of my shoulders and arms as I can, letting my body soak.
As Dejean wraps my elbows in his mystical bandages, I avoid looking at him, avoid flinching every time his hands move too suddenly. If nothing else, the weird white skins seem to work as a decent padding against the metal. He finishes up the second one and moves toward my back.
Twisting, I snarl at him, my sharp teeth bared.
“I haven’t hurt you yet, have I?” He points out softly.
“Maybe not, but you will.” If I don’t eat him first. His aid only means he wants me healthy for whatever he’s planning. The healthier I am, though, the easier it will be to escape.
When he tries to edge around me once more, I give him a pointed look, tightening my round eyes. Very slowly, I lean forward. He slips as far as he can into the small space between the back of the tub and the wall, until I can see nothing but the fringe of his curls. My instincts send me mixed signals: scramble away or attack, hide my face or bite his off. But I ignore them. Staring at my fingers, I run them through the water. They glide, long and spindly in a lovely, deadly sort of way, pointed nails drawing no resistance.
Dejean pauses from his work. “Why can’t you sing?”
Curling away from him, I growl a warning. He must want to keep me mute. He’s afraid that if I could sing, I’d soothe him with my voice and eat him while he’s mesmerized.
I would, but that’s not the point.
“Did Kian do this?” A mournful tone seeps into his softened voice, distant and pensive: the sound of a somber memory. “Did she remove something of yours? Some kind of vocal cords?”
The sincerity in his reply stuns me and my brain goes numb. I shake my head. His melancholy still echoing through me, I reach up and brush my fingers over the gills on my neck, sealed tight from being exposed to the air for far too long. The flaps themselves hold no hypnotic ability; that power lies in the oscillating chamber they open to. No siren knows how it works, only that with it, we make a vibration that subdues any land creature. A beautiful sound; the song of the ocean.
I yearn to create that melody, but with the chamber hidden beneath locked gills, I can do nothing but growl and click and whine. I yank my hand down, hissing at Dejean for good measure.
He hums under his breath. “I understand, it’s very personal.” His fingers brush my shoulder as he wraps the bandage around my upper back. I scowl, but again, he catches me off guard with his words. “Maybe we can get them working again, once you trust me enough.”
He can’t know what he’s offering me.
Simone appears in the doorway to my little room. “Excuse my saying it, Captain, but you’re as dumb as they come. You shouldn’t be giving a siren any advantages. That creature will eat you the moment they can sing again.”
She’s not wrong.
Dejean chuckles, finishing with the bandage and standing. “Just as many humans want to stab me through—should I live in fear of adding to that list? At least Perle isn’t planning to dump me overboard for the minnows.”
“Crabs, not minnows.” I mimic a pair of crab pincers with my hands, baring my pointed teeth at Dejean.
He returns the motion, baring his own teeth in a way far more annoyingly friendly than I had. “Does that mean something? A lobster?”
With a scoff, I make the pincers less rounded.
“Crabs?” Dejean looks at me with so much elation that I barely manage to hide my amusement. After a nod from me, he repeats it louder, testing out the hand motion once more. “Crabs!”
Sighing, Simone shakes her head. “You’ll need to watch out for Kian.” She leaves the doorway, vanishing into the farther reaches of Kian’s cabin. “Especially since you’re playing with her pet.”
“This siren isn’t Kian’s anymore,” he snaps, though his bitterness seems directed elsewhere. “That monster’s not touching Perle again.”
“I’m not yours either,” I object. The thought of a future without Kian brings me some comfort though, as terrible and misplaced as Dejean’s beliefs about me may be.
Simone reappears, nudging around the puzzle of connected metal shapes Kian would spend hours detaching and then reconstructing in the dead of night. “They’re more intelligent than I anticipated.”
“It’s reasonable, isn’t it?” Dejean bobs his head, as though agreeing with himself. “Sirens are very similar to humans, physically.”
“They’re like an ocean monkey then?”
“A very bright ocean monkey, I think.”
I cross my arms over my chest, grumbling a noise between a hiss and a gurgle. “If you humans were any smarter than a bright monkey you’d know how dumb you are to believe that!” At least they seem to be learning, though. If they keep this up maybe they’ll be halfway intelligent someday. Dejean grins at me, and I snort. “As though you have any idea what I’m saying.”
He clearly doesn’t, but he continues smiling anyway, the expression only fading when Simone asks another question.
“Why are you doing this, Gayle?” Her brows crease and she stares at him in a way far too siren-like, with genuine worry and affection where gruff, selfish human nature should be.
Dejean avoids her gaze. When he speaks, his words come out in a hush. “I’m passing down my debt.”
“You know the sort of compassion you owe is lost on animals, even bright ones.”
“I like them better than people.” He cuts the rest of the liver in two, tossing me half of it.
“We agree on something!” Taking small bites, I savor it, the growl of my stomach mellowed somewhat.
Simone barks a laugh. “That murderous creature will eat your liver just as soon as the one you’re offering. Your debt is wasted on them.”
Again, she’s not wrong. Though with the weight still pinning me down, I would rather be handed free liver by Dejean than eat his only to have Simone starve me as punishment.
Dejean shakes his head in response. He leaves for a moment, but when he returns, he carries what looks like a big square sponge.
“Do you think you can lift your hips into the air for me?” he asks.
I figure he means to put the weird sponge under me—at least, the part of me not weighed down by a hunk of metal. I would prefer sand, but anything is better than the harsh grinding of the tub. Gripping its sides, I push myself up as far as I can, straining against the weight.
Dejean slips the sponge into the tub. It takes time for him to ease it into place. Having his filthy human hands in my water does not make me the least bit happy, but for this, it might be worth it.
“Hurry up,” I yowl at him. “I bet I could eat a little of you and get away with it.”
He makes that ridiculous cheerful laugh he seems so fond of. “Almost— there!” He pulls away.
The sponge stays in place as I sink onto it. Where I can feel it, the soft, squishy material cushions me nicely. Not like sand, but a worthy alternative.
Dejean hands over the last piece of liver. I savor it, sad for the loss. If there are any other viable livers on this ship, I hope he brings me them soon. He’s not like Kian; he seems to enjoy the aid he provides. Though why he would bother still troubles me.
He joins Simone in Kian’s cabin, but again, he leaves the door open. Out the large starboard window, the sun sinks into view. Both humans move deeper into the cabin, out of my line of sight.
“Did you find them?” Dejean asks, his voice low and grim.
“I broke open every damn chest in here, and the crew has searched the rest of the ship, but they haven’t turned up,” Simone replies, just as harsh. “They may not be here at all.”
“No schematics either?”
Silence follows, which must have included a head shake from Simone, because Dejean groans. The ship creaks, and far above someone shouts a command across the top deck. The stacks roar to life, and smoke trails into both windows for a moment before the vessel surges forward. Out the port side, some of Dejean’s crew still stand on his ship, waving us off.
“What if there are no blockers to stop the effects of a siren’s song?” Simone asks. “What if Kian was lucky, and found a way to catch them without making direct contact?”
“I don’t think so. As far as I can tell, Perle believes they can’t sing as a side effect of something wrong with their gills. I doubt Kian could have known that going into the hunt.”
“Then she took whatever blockers she had with her.” She leaves Kian’s cabin, Dejean following in her wake. “This attack has been for nothing.”
“We found Perle, and we took the ship intact.”
“One siren and a ship.” Simone snorts. “Perle is a prize on their own, but with the cost of repairing the Tsunami’s shield and Kian out there, likely vengeful… What good does one siren and a ship do us in the long run?”
“Maybe none.” Dejean’s next words are lost as he locks the cabin door.
He’s just looking for investments. Of course, that is the way his kind function. No honor, only greed and cruelty. I can’t trust the humans. But as I’m left alone with my thoughts, relaxed against the funny sponge, licking the last traces of liver off my nails, I realize something.
The pain is nearly gone.
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About The Author:
D.N. Bryn began writing short stories in middle school and has yet to stop. They received their bachelors degree in Biochemistry and Cell Biology from UCSD, and enjoy a day job involving respiratory disease research.
They bring their love for animals, science, and mythology into all their writing, and are passionate about creating inclusive worlds where a diverse array of characters can go on grand adventures without being hindered by social misconceptions based on their appearance, sexuality, or gender.
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