The wicked heroine, p.68
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       The Wicked Heroine, p.68

           Jasmine Giacomo


  Up on deck, Salvor was pinning Geret to the deck and roundly cursing his foolish sense of bravado. A bamboo ridge pressed into Geret’s cheek. Out of the corner of his eye, Geret saw sailors emerging onto the upper deck, wearing armor and brandishing long polearms.

  “They’re going to fight it,” he said in amazement, his words slurred against Salvor’s hand.

  “What?” Salvor said, looking up.

  Geret elbowed him in the jaw and flung him off, darting away toward the domed stairhouse. He was nearly at the door, which was overflowing with panicked passengers fleeing out onto the broad upper deck, when the great creature clinging to the bow of the Kazhak heaved, rippling its tentacles and pulling itself up onto the very ship itself. Though the stairhouse was right in front of him, Geret could see part of the creature, at least momentarily, above the roof, before it landed with its enormous dark red bulk across the bow. The sound of the splintering foremast cracked through the air.

  The impact was horrifying. Geret was thrown bodily into the stairhouse wall as the bow of the ship plunged deeply. He began to wonder whether he would die of crushing injuries, or of drowning. The sound of splintering wood was deafening. As he frantically grasped at a small wooden rail and held on, he saw Salvor, along with dozens of armed sailors, sliding helplessly toward the bow, tumbling madly and scrambling for something to arrest their descent.

  Screams came from within the stairhouse. Geret wasn’t sure who he pitied more, those scattered like discarded game pieces across the broad deck, or those still trapped inside.

  And then, over the din, he heard a familiar voice from within the stairhouse, demanding that someone continue to hold on. As the ship struggled to right itself, and its bobbing gradually grew less violent, he released his lifesaving rail and staggered to the doorway. He braced himself there with aching arms and squinted into the dimness of the interior.

  He blinked, wondering if he’d struck his head. Sanych swung madly in midair, clinging to a makeshift rope, while Meena was bent nearly backwards over the rail, clinging to its other end, a short distance from where he stood. Stowing his questions for later, he staggered along the tilted balcony, stumbling over other passengers in his way, until he reached Meena’s side.

  The rope she had wrapped around her waist was now tangled around her left arm, which dangled at a grotesque angle from the elbow, over the railing’s edge. Meena was arched sideways over the rail, holding herself in place with her feet, desperately jammed into the railing’s bars, which were creaking in protest.

  Geret grabbed her flailing right arm. “Meena! I’m here,” he assured her. He gingerly reached past her body and grasped the thick rope, pulling slowly. Once there was enough slack in the rope, Meena extricated her arm, gasped and sat down, cradling her injured limb. Geret swiftly pulled Sanych up to the railing.

  “Geret?” the girl called in surprise, over the shouts and screams below them.

  “At your service, Archivist,” Geret replied grimly, helping her over the railing.

  To his surprise, Sanych hugged him tightly for a moment and whispered, “Thank you,” before kneeling beside Meena. “I’d help, but Geret’s stronger,” she said, and Meena nodded in agreement.

  “What do I need to do?” he asked, not wanting to make Meena’s condition worse. “You can’t heal this?”

  Distantly, they all heard the forward cannons begin to fire.

  Meena looked back at Geret. “Not ‘til the bones are set back in position. It’s healed up around it already, but I rather like my limbs to be useful. Just hold my arm very, very still,” she said, offering him her left wrist.

  Geret grimaced at the thought of damaging her healed flesh just to set the joint right, but gripped her wrist and lower arm tightly in his strong hands. Meena breathed in and out once, then jerked her left shoulder back, using her whole body’s strength. There was a distinct click in her elbow, and she gasped in relief and smiled, flexing the joint.

  “Much better. Where’s Salvor? Shouldn’t he be guarding your eyebrows from too strong a wind?”

  “He slid. I don’t know how far. The creature has crawled up on the bow.” Geret gulped in spite of himself. “I’ve never seen…I don’t know…”

  “What does it look like?” Sanych asked, unable to help herself.

  “I didn’t get a good look at all. Its body is dark red, with at least two grey tentacles nearly as long as the masts. Meena,” he asked, “do they eat people?”

  “Not sure. This is a new one for me. Let’s get out of here and out onto the open deck.”

  The three of them made their way out onto the deck again, feeling the ship shift and roll beneath their feet. They crouched and moved along the outer wall of the stairhouse, keeping a hold on the polished rail, in case the creature decided to try and fling them along the deck again.

  At the corner of the stairhouse, Geret took a peek toward the bow, looking for Salvor. He didn’t see him immediately, and his gaze was quickly commandeered by the fantastical creature that claimed the foredeck as its own, over fifty paces away.

  The monster, Geret noted, was only dark red in body, and that color, amazingly, was flickering like the embers of a fire. It lay now along the long axis of the ship, two long tail-like appendages dangling off the port bow. They reminded Geret of a flycatcher’s tail feathers. The long tails connected to the brilliantly pulsing ovoid body and melded seamlessly into long, rippling, translucent fins that ran the entire length of the creature’s mantle, right up to its head. The creature’s eyes, large and greenly reflective, gleamed in the increasing darkness of twilight. All these features, however, paled in comparison to the eight pale-brown, sucker-covered arms that were exploring the nearest parts of the deck and twining around the second and third masts. When the creature reached higher up one of the masts, Geret had a momentary view within its mouth and saw an enormous, wicked-looking beak. It was easily twice as long as he was tall. He thought he even recognized the pair of grey tentacles that had shot from the creature several minutes earlier, now lurking to either side of the beak.

  “Folly!” swore Sanych, peering over his shoulder and startling him. “They’re going to attack it?”

  Geret looked again and saw the sailors gathered among the masts amidships, clearly hesitant.

  “Geret!” Salvor’s voice called from the sailors’ direction.

  “Salvor!” Sanych responded, hurriedly gesturing for him to join them. The man jogged up the angled deck cautiously until he slid around the stairhouse wall with them. He immediately grabbed Geret by his shirt front and slammed him against the wall.

  “Fool,” he said angrily, “you may not be required to listen to me, but for the love of all that’s wise, would you give it a try sometime? Say, maybe when your life is in danger?”

  “Salvor,” Sanych said, placing a hand on his sleeve, “he saved my life.”

  Salvor’s eyes lowered in Sanych’s direction for a moment, and he slowly released the prince, letting his feet touch the deck again. “Nicely done, hero,” he growled. “I swear to Wisdom, if you tell me you have some clever plan to save the ship from the sea monster, I will knock you out right here.”

  Geret glowered back at him. “I don’t. Do you? Because we could use one!”

  The ship heaved again, and everyone held on tight to the railing around the stairhouse. Sanych, now closest to the corner, took a peek. “It’s shifting onto the ship. It moved its tail up next to its body…and it’s changed color. Amazing!”

  Once the ship stabilized again, the others peered around the corner as well. The creature had altered its color to a pale brown. Everything from its tail to its arms had gone nearly invisible against the deck, and only the massive bulk of its body against the dying sunset gave away its presence.

  “How does it know what color the deck is?” Geret asked.

  The armed soldiers were milling, picking up courage to rush the creature. Even from this distance, in the gloom, the leaders’ imp
erative arm gestures were unmistakable.

  “The Deep Ones are powerful creatures,” Meena said quietly, gazing at the enormous brown bulk of the sea creature. “Surely they are also observant and clever.”

  The sailors found their courage and rushed madly at the creature, yelling at the top of their lungs. The humid air seemed to clog Sanych’s lungs as she watched them run to their apparent doom; she could not breathe, could not look away.

  The sailors reached the creature’s long slender arms and stabbed wildly at them with their glaives and military forks. A few sailors slipped past the arms and began trying to stab the head or eyes.

  “Why isn’t it retaliating?” Geret wondered, squinting in the dimness. The last oranges of the sunset flared off angled blades in the distance. The ship’s outer lamps hadn’t been lit yet due to the creature’s attack, and the top deck was dimming.

  “Maybe it’s–” Salvor began, but was interrupted by a new impact upon the ship. Something had struck them amidships on the starboard side, and the ship rolled slowly.

  “Another one?” Sanych said, turning to Meena.

  But Meena wasn’t there.

  “Meena?” Sanych called into the gloaming. She spotted a running figure that had nearly reached the port rail.

  Meena leaned over the edge for a long moment, then ran back to them. The serious look on her face forestalled all questions. “Brace yourselves,” she said, and hunkered down next to the port side of the stairhouse wall, clutching the wooden rail. Sanych joined her without hesitation, and the men crouched on either side of them.

  “Another enormous cuttlefish? Its mate?” Salvor asked quietly, fingers white on the rail. The sound of hundreds of sailors attacking the monster seemed very loud.

  “It’s not the same creature. Whatever’s down there has a dorsal fin and tusks. And it’s more than twice as big as the cuttlefish up here with us.”

  The ship juddered, seemed to pivot around its bow, where the onboard creature’s weight held the ship firm against the surface of the sea. The stern skipped across the water for a frighteningly long time before splashing back down. The long rudder snapped off with a great wooden shearing. The force of the sudden blow knocked everyone from the rail and slammed them back into the wall a split second later. They clung again to the rail as the ship rolled heavily. Screams of sailors who had fallen overboard carried up to the top deck. A few unlucky sailors who had been trying to gather in the sails lost their balance and were flung bodily to the deck or the sea below.

  Sanych raised a shaking hand to her bleeding forehead, to find Meena’s hand there at the same moment.

  “You’ll need your head tonight,” she told the girl, and quickly turned to Salvor and Geret, who were heavily bruised and dazed as well. The wound on Salvor’s cheek healed up along with his bruises, and his flesh rejected the stitches, shoving them out like unwanted parasites, leaving only a tiny scar.

  As she finished with her emergency healing, a massive fabric rip made the group look up in time to see the fourth mast collapse aft into the next mast in line. Their rigging became tangled, and the enormous sheets of canvas tore, stabbed through by falling spars.

  “At least it didn’t fall on us,” Sanych said, still crouching.

  “Another strike against the ship could jar it loose,” Meena said. “And I think I know what’s going on.”

  “What?” Salvor asked, as dozens of cannons on the port side of the Kazhak began firing their cannons down at the threat below the sea’s surface.

  “The creature in the water is hungry. The creature on the foredeck is supper. It’s up here thinking this ship is large enough to hide it. That’s why it’s not fighting back. It thinks it would give itself away by retaliating against the sailors. They’re probably not doing it much harm anyway.” She pulled a morsel of bread from a pocket and popped it into her mouth, chewing.

  “But the creature in the water seems to know where its food is hiding,” Salvor said desperately. “How do we make it go away?”

  “Hey, I’m hungry,” said Geret, watching Meena. “I could settle down with a nice plate of flash-fried seafood myself.”

  “Ugh!” Sanych replied, shuddering. “Flash-fried is nearly raw! They just wave it through a flame for a minute! It’s disgusting.”

  Geret shook his head, amazed that such a normal conversation was happening when they were about to die. And then, his whole body began to tingle with excitement. He breathed in slowly, savoring the realization he was having. “Yes. Wisdom, yes! It could work!”

  “What could work?” Meena asked, her voice keen.

  “Folly, I said no schemes,” Salvor growled, making a fist and reaching for the prince.

  He found himself flat on his back with Meena astride his chest, her own fist cocked above his face. He blinked.

  “Your view of the world tends toward the narrow, doesn’t it?” she asked, then continued without pause. “Let the man save your life, so you can continue to save his.”

  “You don’t even know what his plan is yet,” Salvor protested, a hand hovering protectively above his nose.

  Meena looked at him as if he were dense, then glanced to Geret.

  “We need fire,” the prince said. “And oil, lots of it. Meena, get the soldiers to quit attacking the monster and start carrying as much oil as they can from the fire deck. Sanych, I need you to go tell Galanishav what we’re doing. Salvor, as always, you’re with me.” Geret stood up, and Meena did the same, letting Salvor rise also.

  Salvor glared at Meena as she swallowed her bite of bread. “It’s not nice to play with people like that.”

  She smirked at him. “I never claimed to be nice.”

  “Wait, Geret, what are we doing?” Sanych asked, half-distracted by the others’ conversation.

  Geret grinned at her. “We’re going to feed the sea beast some flash-fried seafood.”

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