Flash Fiction: Wagers and Mermaids (1230 words)

Rescuing land-dwellers out of rowboats on the wide blue ocean was not part of Leonathan’s job description. However, from time to time, he was willing to do it, just for the entertainment.

He leaned against the wide rail of his ship, feet braced against the swaying deck. In the east, the ocean darkened at the horizon, turned a little hazy the way it always did right before land came into view. There was a straight breeze coming out of the north. It whipped salty spray across his face and through his hair. He held a hand up to shield his face from the water and the sun, but couldn’t see anyone in the boat. It bobbed like there was weight in the bottom, someone huddled beneath the steep sides maybe, but they were too far out and at the wrong angle for him to see.

“First round off the tap says it’s a fisherman who fell asleep,” Ricken said beside him.

Leonathan tilted his head considering. “Captain of a ship whose crew mutinied an hour out of port.”

“That’s about as likely as it being a beautiful mermaid lying in wait to entrap you with a smile and drag you down to a watery grave,” Ricken said.

“Well…” Leonathan laughed. “I’ll put my bet on that, then. It’s a beautiful, brunette mermaid with braids in her hair and a smile that would melt the stars.”

Ricken threw his head back and shouted up into the rigging. “What is it then, mate?”

There was a long moment of pause and Leonathan hid a grin behind his hand. Ricken listened, ear tilted up to the rigging while his eyes shifted back and forth between the rowboat and the ship tops.

“I swear,” Ricken murmured. “If he’s asleep again I’m going to…”

“It’s a girl, sir!” the mate up top shouted down.

Ricken turned all the way toward the tops at that. “A girl? What’s she doing?”

A fuller pause and the sailor called down less certainly, “Sleeping, sir? Or sunbathing? Or maybe she’s sea-sick?”

“Or, she’s lying in wait to drag me to a watery grave,” Leonathan joked. He peeled out of his jacket and yanked off his boots. “Permission to investigate, Captain?” he shouted to the older man standing on the poop deck.

“Granted,” the Captain told him without pause. “Come back in one piece, lieutenant, or I’ll make sure your eulogy is just one giant limerick about how you drowned one mile from port.”

“Aye, aye,” Leonathan replied and stripped out of his shirt. He threw one leg over the  rail, gave a wave to the deck crew and flipped over the side.

He hit the water with hard splash. The water stung against his bare skin and he let the coldness of it sooth away the hurt before he surfaced again. Shaking his hair from his face, he started straight out to get out of the pull along the hull, spun to find the rowboat and started straight for it. Everything about the act of swimming felt good, from the kiss of the spray to the strength of the water’s hold on his body and the tight stretch of his arms trying to pull against it. He gulped in air, filled his lungs and that felt good too, stretching every part of himself in a quiet game of speed.

The girl must have heard him coming, because she was sitting up when he finally touched the side of the rowboat. He gripped the edge with one hand first and smiled up at her. She looked seventeen, maybe a little older, with long dark hair braided over one shoulder. She’d been out in the sun enough to catch red streaks of sunlight and bind it into her hair. Her dress was loose and simple, tied at the waist with a wide band of cloth while her sleeves were rolled all the way to the elbows.

“Hello,” Leonathan said.

“Hello,” she replied blankly. She looked at him, then glanced up until she found his ship, then turned back to him. “Came from there, did you?”

“Yeah,” he said, treading water with one hand. “Care to come back with me?”

“No,” she said immediately.

Leonathan looked down. “Sorry,” he said. “I only meant that I’m here to help.” Pulling himself close to the rowboat, he hooked both elbows over the side to hold himself up. She scooted back immediately, set her back against the far side to keep the balance of the little boat. He extended a hand to her. “I’m Leonathan.”

Her eyes caught on his wristband, the gold-lined snake embedded in the leather. She tilted her head for one instant to see it in full, then looked back at him. “Huh,” she said. “Sea Clan?”

He nodded. “Kuros.”

“That’s what I thought,” she said. “Don’t forget people who wander around with a two-headed snake for a calling card.”

“But you don’t like us,” Leonathan said, putting his hand down, grin widening.

“I don’t mind you,” she said. “You give my da plenty of business down at his tavern. But I don’t need your help.”

He paused. “You’re floating in the middle of nowhere by choice then?”

“Yes,” she said brightly.

Leonathan blinked. “Yes? And you realize you’re right in the middle of current that’s taking you farther from land?”

“Yes. It’s taking me toward an island out there. Thought I’d take a break from rowing and let it do the work for a couple of hours.”

“An island?” He turned to look where she was pointing, but didn’t see anything.

“I’ll be there by morning,” she said.

“In a rowboat? You must be mad.”

“I’ve done it before,” she assured him.

He looked at her doubtfully.

“The first time was by accident,” she told him. “I’m not that out of my head.”

He nodded, not sure whether he believed her or not. “And what will you do then?”

“Collect five silvers from my idiot cousin who said I couldn’t do it,” she told him with a sly grin. Even slanted and half hidden, the smile was enough to make him watch her a moment too long.

“And you have a way to get home again?” he asked her.

She nodded. “I promise. A friend with a sail and everything is ready to fetch me.”

Leonathan nodded. It sounded mad, but too mad to be a lie. “Then, I’ll excuse myself back to my ship, if you don’t mind. It’s been lovely meeting you.”

“Of course, it has,” she murmured. “All you Sea Clan boys dream of meeting a girl on the water. I’ve heard your stories.”

He laughed. “If you make it to your island, come find me. I’ll give you a drink to go with your silvers.”

“I’ll hold you to it,” she told him. “Teach you to bet against me.” She smiled and stayed exactly where she was, carefully balancing the boat until he let go and slid away in the water.

A few minutes’ hard strokes against the water and he was close enough to his ship to catch a line when they threw it to him. He let them haul him in, tired, then clambered up the outside of the hull with their help.

“You owe me the first round,” he told Ricken, clapping him on the shoulder. “That girl’s going to be the death of me if I ever see her again.”

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