Friday, February 16, 2024

“The Captain's Mistake” • by Kai Holmwood

Charys made her way to the open-air ale stand at the center of the port, sat at the counter, and ordered her usual drink.

The seat beside her, not by accident, was occupied by a sturdily-built fellow in practical but expensive clothing.

“Are you the captain of one of the ships?” Charys asked as introduction.

The man turned to her and nodded. His face was handsome: rugged, but with clear intelligence in the eyes. He almost reminded her of Arrik, the only man she had ever loved—and the man whom the sea had taken from her. She pushed the ghost out of her mind.

“I am,” he said. “And you, miss? What brings you here?”

She felt his eyes roaming over her, taking in her garb: as practical as his, if more colorful. Maybe he noticed the body underneath too, but he had enough sense not to speak his assumption about her presence at the docks. “That one’s mine,” she said, jerking her head toward a ship as colorful as her clothes.

To his credit, his eyes widened only slightly. “My apologies, Captain. I underestimated you.”

She smiled at him. “Yet you accept it easily. For that, I’ll give you some advice I’ve learned after years sailing these waters.”

“I would welcome it.”

“Beware the strait,” Charys said. “It’s full of sirens. If you’re sailing their waves on a full moonlit night, there’s no escape. They’ll sing your men to distraction, then lure you off the ship for a night of bliss.”

“Then kill us?”

Charys laughed. “Goodness no, they aren’t violent. But you’ll lose sailing time, all for one night in a siren’s arms.”

“That… sounds terrible,” the captain said, but something darker gleamed in his eyes.

“The worst part comes after. I’ve heard sailors moaning for years about how no human woman can live up to that night. Really, it isn’t worth the risk of delaying your cargo. What did you say you were carrying again?”

“Rare Nemusian tea,” he said, but she could see his thoughts already elsewhere. “The full moon is tonight, isn’t it?”

“It is indeed,” Charys said.


Charys and her crew sailed into the strait that night as the siren songs skipped off the white-crested moonlit waves. All of her crew were women; she had long since found they were far less likely than men to be lured in by the call.

The rugged captain’s unmanned ship rocked in the waves, its sailors already on the sirens’ island.


The next night, as the moon began its slow slivering into darkness, Charys sat on a grassy hillock on the island with Liliana, her closest friend among the sirens.

“Would you like to try rare Nemusian tea?” Charys asked, gesturing toward the sealed container of hot liquid beside her. “I’ve come into a great deal of it. If you like it, I’ll bring you a bundle of the dry leaves.”

Liliana’s eyes turned sad. “Again, Charys? I’ve told you a hundred times that I wish you wouldn’t take advantage.”

“As though you don’t?”

“We sing our invitations to come give us children, but they are free to refuse. Very few turn down the offer, but that is their own choice. Besides, if you keep doing this, sooner or later they’ll figure it out and you’ll be hanged, or worse.”

Charys shook her head. “Being beguiled by sirens is one thing. Being raided by women while in your embrace is another. They wouldn’t dare admit it.”

“You’ll never stop, will you?” Liliana asked, the sadness in her eyes growing even deeper.

“Never!” Charys put on her best roguish grin to lighten the mood. “Not when there’s tea like this to be had. Try it, Lil.”

Liliana glanced at the vessel of tea, but didn’t reach for it. “Do you never wish our call spoke to your heart, Charys?”

“It would make my job quite a bit harder if it did!” Charys could hear her own forced lightness clashing against the waves and the moonlight. She sighed. “Sorry, I know you’re being serious.”

Liliana picked up the container and took a sip of tea, her eyes firmly fixed on the sea. “Has our call never pulled at you, Charys? Not—not even mine?”

“Never. No one has stirred me in years. Not since—” 

She broke off, unwilling to speak Arrik’s name aloud.

The women sat together in silence for a long moment. Finally, Liliana spoke. “We have sons and brothers, you know, living far from here in the Sea of the Lost. We don’t speak of them often.”

“Why not?”

“They’re too dangerous, Charys. We sing of a night of bliss, but they sing with the voices of the dead.”

“What do you mean?”

“They lure in ships by wearing the guises and voices of the lost, and promise one last night in the arms of the one you loved most.”

Arrik. She shivered. “Where exactly are they? So I can be sure to avoid them.” Something in the exchange felt familiar, like a mirrored echo of a conversation she had had a hundred times before, but her dead love’s face in her mind blocked out all other thoughts.


“Why did you lie to her?” Ligeia asked, as a ship draped in vibrant colors passed toward the distant Sea of the Lost. “If we bore sons, we would have no need of sailors.”

Liliana shook her head, swiping away a tear threatening to fall. “It had to be done. I pleaded over and over, but she would never stop raiding the empty ships, and word would have eventually gotten out. Sailors would have stopped coming, and our kind would die out.”

“The waters there are treacherous. Even if she survives, she won’t return to you.”

Liliana turned away from the retreating ship. “I know.” The tears insisted on falling now, as salty and grief-filled as the sea. “If we did have brothers and sons,” she whispered, “I think they would sing to me in her voice.”


Kai Holmwood holds an MA in Writing from the University of Canterbury in Aotearoa New Zealand and was awarded the H. W. Hill Prize at UC Berkeley. Her works have appeared or are forthcoming in Solarpunk Creatures, Stanchion, DreamForge, Flash Frontier, and elsewhere. She lives in rural Portugal with her Brazilian husband and two giant formerly stray mastiffs.






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GuyStewart said...

Though I'm not a fan of fantasy, this piece was lovely. Sad, poignant, written so that I could SEE the story and place in my mind's eye.

It was, in a word, "wonder-full".

Thank you.

Guy Stewart