“Save our souls,” said the parrot.
Sam clung to the wreckage of a mast as the sea churned about him. Blood dribbled from the swelling ruin of his left eye and the saltwater pain in the shredded remnants of his leg throbbed with every heartbeat. Somehow, none of it seemed to hurt.
Well, maybe the absence of pain wasn’t that mysterious.
He tipped back a bottle of rum held in his free hand. Most of it ran into his beard or the sea, but Sam didn’t mind. Enough went into his mouth for his purposes. You didn’t need a lot of rum to get drunk when you were bleeding to death.
“Swab the decks, ya lazy buggers!” said the parrot.
A wave crested, broke against the lingering wreckage and ocean spray hit the back of Sam’s throat as he opened his mouth for another swallow.
He coughed, belched in proper maritime form, then pursed his lips and blew the sea out of his beard.
The bottle of rum, which had found its way to him in the flotsam, rested in the crook of his arm. He held it close, taking the same comfort from it as a sleeping child might take from the heat of its mother’s bosom.
“Hoist anchor and raise sails!” said the parrot.
Sam tightened his fingers around his whistle. He’d taken a good dunking in the sea but the cord around his neck had carried the whistle through the waters with him. He’d had that whistle for near thirty years and it had barely left his neck in all that time. There were notes he could play to summon help. He seemed to recall having played some of them not too long ago. There were other ships. That damnable Sarpent couldn’t have killed everyone. There could be help out there. All he needed was a single powerful breath.
Too bad the whistle was broken.
“Come on boys, keep the wind at our backs!” said the parrot.
All things considered, Sam preferred this outcome. His crew was dead. The Sarpent had done for them. Every man of the sea knew once those godsdamned tentacles began wrapping themselves around your ship you were as good as dead. Even though Sam had killed the beast, it wouldn’t be right for him to live. A captain went down with his ship. That was a law as old as the world.
“Throw your backs into it, you lazy curs!” said the parrot.
If Sam had ever had a home, it was the sea. What more could a man ask for than to die at home? It would be selfish to ask for more. Let alone when he had the finest rum ever smuggled in Shen Anrath.
“I won’t have none of this laying about, there’s work to be done!” said the parrot.
Sam spared a glance for the parrot. It was perched on the apex of his belly. The parrot was a red, blue and green mishmash. It appeared either to have flown through an exploding paint manufactory or been vomited upon by a rainbow. The monstrosity had been the property of Sam’s cabin boy and hadn’t had the requisite loyalty to drown with its young master.
“Get up you lazy bugger! The day’s wasting!” said the parrot.
Unfortunately, it had the best memory of any parrot Sam had ever heard and had been lambasting him since shortly after he’d set his harpoon into the Sarpent’s eye.
“Piss off,” said Sam.
“Aye aye Captain!” said the parrot.
No matter what Sam said, that was how the parrot always responded. Sam would have swatted the thing if he wasn’t so focused on dying.
“Heave, boys! Heave!” said the parrot.
He stared into the cloud covered sky. The rains were letting up. Weather was unpredictable like that out this close to the Rim. The Storm Wall could get moody and you’d have snow, lightning, hail and sunshine inside of an hour.
“Watch your ass, or I’ll have it off the plank!” said the parrot.
Sam had maybe an hour before he bled to death. He’d made a tourniquet out of his belt and cinched it tightly around his leg, but he couldn’t stop all the bleeding. He wasn’t even sure he particularly wanted to. Bleeding to death would be preferable to drifting out here until he died of thirst or another Sarpent found him.
“A captain…” he began, but the parrot cut him off.
“Is a model to his crew!” said the parrot.
He glared at the bird. It turned away from him, as if embarrassed.
“A captain goes…”
“To the ends of the earth to do his duty!” said the parrot.
The infernal creature was quoting from Sam’s speeches to Benn, his cabin boy. He’d lectured the boy in private when he’d taken his dinners. It’s what Sam’s first captain had done for him. What right did the parrot have to say such words at a time like this? When a man was trying to say his last words and make his final peace?
“A captain goes down…”
“Into the belly of hell to do his duty!”
The wind picked up. Startled, the parrot took flight. Sam for a horrified moment forgot he wanted to die and with kitten-weak arms clung to the mast. By some miracle, he did not fall off and drown, although he lost hold of the rum. He almost swam after it but he had a duty to try and survive even if he did not particularly want to.
Finally, Sam managed to catch hold of some rope that had been tied around the mast and halted his slide.
It was one of the great curiosities of his life on the sea that Sam’s only true fear was drowning. Not because he couldn’t swim or because feared death but because it would be humiliating for a seaman of his caliber. Captain Sam Hyrd drowning? It’d be like a cow choking on grass or a bird falling off a cliff.
When the wind calmed, Sam found himself once more on his back, now sure that his hour of life had been reduced to minutes by the ordeal. The tourniquet had come loose and the blood was gushing. Yet there was again the sense that all was well. The sun had come out. It hit Sam’s face like a warming golden force. For the first time since he was a boy he felt at peace. Dying at home and with the sun in his face to boot. There even seemed to be a rainbow. A triplet rainbow no less, bright and vibrant, and those were damned rare even out here by the Rim.
“A captain goes down with his ship,” Sam said at last.
He smiled, a smile of quiet dignity and ancient grace that stretched his old weathered face and salt-and-pepper beard into something that was, if not truly beautiful, at least fascinatingly ugly.
He was ready to die now.
He opened himself up to the bounty of the universe, to the untold adventure that waited-
“Eek! Eeeeee! Eeeeeek eeek eeeeeeee!” said the parrot.
“Mother of the Deep, can’t a man die with some dignity!”
He opened his eyes, searching for the evil thing. That cursed parrot had learned a few sounds wherever it went. He’d see how much it like being strangled to death.
Something touch the back of Sam’s legs.
The smile, already gone from his face, turned into a scowl. His heart stopped. The blood, whatever was left of it, ran from his face.
He’d killed it.
He’d killed the thing that killed his crew. He knew he had. He knew it!
“Eeeeeek! Eeeeeee eeeeeee eeeeeeeeee!”
Impossibly, Sam’s hand formed a fist. It shook, but it was a fist all the same. Sam was the first man in two-hundred years not sailing under a white flag to kill a Sarpent. Maybe the first man ever in history to do it with nothing but a harpoon. But if that thing was pulling some kind of resurrection from out of the Deep hell that Sam had sent it to, well then, Sam reckoned he’d go down in history as the first man to kill a Sarpent with his fist.
It was close.
With every shred of his will, Sam turned his head. There was a face there, gray and smiling. Eyes like the rainbows he’d seen in the sky moments before. The terror vanished. His fingers relaxed. Flippers joyfully slapped the surface of the sea.
He must finally be dead! And it was true! When a man of the sea died, he got taken away by one of the Friendly Folk!
The Friendly was joined by four others of its kind. They pushed at the mast. When Sam began to slip, two others pushed at Sam himself. He barked a laugh. This was what he supposed he had always hoped. This was what he had wanted to come After. To swim the seas forever!
He glided through the water like a fish. Like he himself was a ship. If this was how they moved, no wonder the Friendly Folk had a smile worn right into their faces. As if in a dream, Sam’s thumb found the finger holder on the bottle of rum. They’d swam right past it.
The Friendly Folk turned Sam about. He could make something out on the horizon. White sails. White flags. Angardi flags.
Truth swallowed him like a vortex.
“Godsdamnit,” said Sam.
He was alive.
There was a very disturbing chance he was going to live through this.