It was three hours before the captain came for me.
I don’t know why it took him so long. Could’ve been he was calming down the crew, could’ve been he just wanted my bruises to ache. If I had to gamble, I’d say it was a mix of both. Not that it really mattered at this point. I’d made my last gamble hours ago, and I’d lost.
The captain studied me when he came in, his grizzled face unreadable. He stared at me, and I stared right back. After a minute of this, he sighed. “They warned me not to be takin’ ye on, boy. Said ye were nothin’ but trouble. I told ‘em to shove it. Ye seemed like a good lad, if a bit headstrong. Saw a bit of meself in ye, I did, so I figured I’d give ye a chance. Maybe workin’ the skies would straighten ye out, the way it did me.” The old man’s eyes softened, showing not anger, but a mix of disappointment and sympathy. I was surprised.
“Why’d ye do it, lad? At least tell me that. We be chasin’ that whale for months. And when we finally do have her, ye let her go. Why?”
I debated telling him. The spiteful part of me wanted to keep my mouth shut. To glare and glower until the end. But a small, reasonable voice said there was no point. It wouldn’t change anything. And while the rest of the crew were assholes, the captain had been good to me. He was the one who chased them off when the beatings started.
“I felt sorry for her,” I murmured, “she was scared. She—” I stopped. It made perfect sense then, but it sounded stupid now. “She… asked me to help her. I could see it in her eye.”
The captain shook his head. “Lad, ye’ve been listenin’ to too many stories. The sky whales be only just that – sky whales. No magic, no wishes, no more brains to ‘em than anythin’ else. And either way, we’ll find her again. Her, or another like her. Ye’ve not made a difference.”
“I made a difference to her,” I said, hanging my head. “What now? You gonna’ give me back to the crew?”
“Nay,” the captain shook his head again, “I no be doin’ that. They be wantin’ to beat ye to death at the least, and drag ye along under the ship at the worst. I’ll be havin’ no part in it.”
I could sense the but. “But?”
The captain sighed. “But I be in a pinch now. Those men were countin’ on that whale to fill their pockets. Some of ‘em be havin’ families to feed, and they can’t be doin’ that with no whale to sell. If I give ye to ‘em, they’ll tear ye apart. But if I don’t, they’ll tear us both apart.”
I shifted in my chair. “So what are we gonna’ do?”
The captain drew his pistol. “Ye came at me, and I put one right between yer eyes.” Ah, so that was his plan. Quick death for me, no mutiny for him. Except for the dead me part, it was a win-win.
“It be yer only way out, lad. Come on, up. A man should die on his feet.”
I wanted to resist, to fight back. But once again, there was no point. I rose, staring the captain down. He pressed his pistol to the bridge of my nose.
“For what it be worth, lad, I am sorry.”
My jaw clenched. “I’m not.”
The hammer clicked back, his finger went to the trigger. And my world was consumed by a blinding white light.
Everything happened at once. The deck disappeared from under me, and I fell until wet sand broke my fall. A wave of salty water rushed over me, making me thrash in panic as I scrambled to my feet.
When my sight returned, I was on a beach, sun high overhead and waves lapping at my feet. The panic rose again. I was dead, I had to be.There was no other explanation. Then I heard it.
A long, deep whale call, coming not from the world, but from in my own head. It drew my attention to the horizon, where I saw the speck of the great beast flying away. I didn’t speak whale, but I knew what it said, and it made me smile as I started to cry.