The Lure of the Land

The Lure of Land”

by Alexis Kaegi

Rosalia Duarte held on to the portside rail of La Canción with a white-knuckled grip that urged the ship on, as if she could will it faster, faster. Sea spray plastered her dark hair against her cheekbones and neck. Although she held rigid, her shoulders bowed forward in the posture of an experienced seamstress; her black mourning dress didn’t shroud her slouch in the slightest, despite its many hand-stitched layers and folds.

The ship’s workers gave Rosalia a wide berth. She assumed the women, hardened by years of salt lining their lungs, struggled to sympathize with the widows who paid to see the island where their dearly beloveds had perished. It was for the best—a crew in mourning wouldn’t navigate rough waters well. Mateo, in their eyes, suffered the same fate of all the other men who jumped overboard after the Sirens. The crew’s business counted on women like Rosalia to order a ship of female sailors to pay their respects out at sea, because only they could pass close to the Island of Sirens in safety. It was one of few ways a woman could make a life for herself in these parts, so whether they understood the sentimentality of the widows’ requests or not, she could see why they weren’t about to complain.

The sailors’ strange choices in fashion had caught Rosalia’s attention when she first boarded. Upon furtive inspection, she’d even caught glimpses of wax in their ears, hidden beneath carefully placed head scarves and caps and feathered earrings that muffled the sounds of a ship at sea. This, along with the sometimes-wordless way Captain Navar commanded the all-female crew, confirmed her suspicions: despite public belief to the contrary, women were not entirely immune to Singing.

Her interest in the sailors’ headwear died quickly after that, as recycled theories of her husband’s whereabouts bubbled to the surface and soured her curiosity. When his ship had come to port, Mateo and two sailors were the only ones missing. Rosalia didn’t know how he could’ve been stupid enough to jump, only that it’d been a deliberate choice to do so.

The sailors of La Canción had threaded plumes through their earrings for the same reason Rosalia had spent every last coin on Siren feathers a decade ago: their silencing properties offered invaluable protection. It took months to perfect an arrangement capable of muting even his mother’s damnable cockatoo, so to hear he had succumbed to the Sirens’ Songs troubled her deeply. The headpiece had kept Mateo alive and sane for longer than most merchants whose home port neighbored the Island of Sirens. Did he remove it too soon? Or was he attempting a rescue? She closed her eyes and breathed deeply to still her whirling mind. Now was not the time for theories, she reminded herself.

Other women may arrange this ship to pay their respects. Rosalia was here to make sure the man was either dead and an idiot or had a damn good reason to jump in and ruin her work.

“Land ho!” a voice called from above. Rosalia squeezed the rail even harder and skimmed the horizon for the island in vain. She kept a swell of grief at arms-length by telling herself he was alive. He had to be alive.

Captain Navar shouted quick instructions to her sailors, who bustled about piling rope and yanking on pulleys. She wore a blue double-breasted frock coat buttoned to the neck. Upon meeting her, the seamstress had identified the garment as a man’s, based on the oversized shoulders alone.

“Which side is it on, Captain?” Rosalia asked as Navar approached.

“Portside.” She joined the widow at the railing and leaned on her forearms. “We’ll pass by shortly, and you’ll have five minutes to pay your respects as you like. We’ll then be—”

“And the dinghies are suitable for use, I presume?” Rosalia faced Navar head-on, turning her back to the bow and the island-to-come.

Navar ran a hand through her hair and cocked her head. At least she forewent the naval cap, Rosalia noted. Still, her choice of short-cropped hair, while likely convenient, looked awfully masculine. She mentally filed away a few suggestions she’d have to share with her later, woman to woman. Wigs and sunhats and pins and—

Should we need them in an emergency, of course,” Navar said. “La Canción adheres to the highest standards of safety—”

“I’ll need three women to help me row to shore when we arrive. Please make the arrangements.”

Navar let loose a bark of a laugh. “That’s a new one,” she said, then beat her palm against the rail impatiently.

Rosalia privately filled in the rest: she probably had work enough to do without having to assuage the fitful fears of every widow at sea. Curious they didn’t assign so much as a deckhand to soothe their regular grieving passengers.

We’ll get close enough for you to see the shore, ma’am. I assure you that.”

The captain stepped away, but Rosalia pinched her sleeve and held fast.

“We’ll get close enough for me to walk upon the shore. I assure you that.”

Navar yanked her arm away. “And what in demon’s name are you going to do about it?”

Though she was at least four inches shorter than the captain, Rosalia lifted her chin in defiance. “It would be a pity if people learned women weren’t so immune after all. Some might think your excursions a little more dangerous than you let on.”

Navar’s jaw tightened. “You paid us a handsome sum, and here I thought it was generosity. I see I judged you wrong.”

They’re tight on money after all, Rosalia mused. A corner of her mouth quirked upward. She loved being right. She had offered twice the asking amount to buy some bargaining room, courtesy of her late grandmother’s estate. But now she saw how much more complicated it would be, getting a boat to shore. Without immunity to the Songs, it would be riskier than she thought for everyone involved.

You don’t have to pretend, captain. Your crew is creative, hiding the wax in their ears behind scarves and feathers. Except for you,” Rosalia said. “You haven’t got wax in yours.”

Navar stood still as a figurehead, her eyes searching Rosalia’s face. “No, I haven’t,” she finally said.

The widow’s mind whirred with the implications of this revelation, all but confirmed by Navar’s sudden softening. Judging by the amount of precautions the crew took to block out sound, La Canción had lost someone, maybe several someones, to the Songs. But Navar herself didn’t need the protection, and neither did the widows who took the trip.

I could make you headpieces that would drown the whole world out,” Rosalia said, her quieter voice offering real sympathy despite the ulterior motive. “You wouldn’t lose a single woman to the Songs ever again.”

Much good it did your husband.”

Aye, my husband was an idiot,” Rosalia said. “The headpiece worked for ten years; I have no reason to believe it stopped now. Jumping’s on him. That’s why I’m taking the dinghy, to bash his brains in, if the Sirens haven’t already.” It was a half-truth, one she knew would sound more appealing to a shipful of women hard on their luck. The whole truth was what she was really after: why did he jump?

Navar bared her teeth for a second. “He’s dead, Duarte.”

I hear the Sirens play with their food, let them starve to death first. If that’s so, his chances certainly improve with the headpiece on.” She leaned back on the railing, casual despite the mourning dress and the danger looming closer behind her. In reality, defending her husband’s life was making her rather light-headed. She decided to change the subject.

Are you and I really immune, then? Enough to go wax-less?”

No one’s truly immune.”

Rosalia raised her eyebrows. “Is it because we’re only interested in men, or—”

We’ve got women of every persuasion on board,” Navar said. “It has no bearing on immunity.” She gave Rosalia a cold stare before refocusing on their intended destination.

Rosalia opened her mouth to retort, then thought twice. She faced the sea as well, catching her first sight of the island: a thimble-sized blur interrupting the forever stretch of ocean. Her insides tumbled.

The Sirens don’t appeal to the flesh,” the captain continued. “It’s your soul they’re after, your emotions they pull on. And women like you, so used to airing your every thought and grievance—it just doesn’t pull as hard, to be heard like that.”

So… men are more inclined to it because they’re bottled up?” Rosalia pictured Mateo again, but it hurt too much to consider his reaction to the Songs; she tried focusing instead on the rocking ship, tilting to and fro.

They talk of women, drink, and politics. How many men do you know go any deeper than that with their mates?” She spit over the rail. “And just so happens many of my crew come from… less than ideal circumstances. They’ve much to hide.” Navar turned her hardened eyes to Rosalia once more. “Which is why I would urge you not to spread what you’ve learned here. You know as well as I what they would do to us if portside leadership caught wind.”

If the town council heard as much, they might very well pluck La Canción out from under Navar, tie up the sailors under her watch, and leave them to drown on the ocean floor. It would be a lesson to all in keeping women off seaworthy vessels and would only result in one less viable profession for her own gender. As a woman fortunate enough to make her own living, the prospect of causing such hardship weighed heavy on Rosalia.

Death by sea we’re prepared for,” Navar said, as if reading her mind. “It’s the one death we’ve all chosen by coming aboard. Every voyage, half my crew gets tied up below decks—the wax don’t work fully for them, same as the men. They get wool tied around their ears. I stayed with them once—the writhing and muffled screaming—some so worked up they tried chewing through the ropes. Mouths red and raw.”

She could sense emotion radiating off the captain. Immune as Rosalia might be as a ready gossip, Navar must be impervious to the Songs. Vulnerability clearly came easily to her, almost like an instinctual, protective reflex. And it worked—Rosalia could feel her own heart softening, despite her initial intent.

We work on opening up to each other, but it’s not always easy,” Navar continued. “For most of these women, for the ones from your grimiest streets, death by sea is still preferable to the alternative.”

Oh,” was all Rosalia could muster. She shuddered. If the townsfolk didn’t drown the crew, they might instead quietly assign half of Navar’s women to the very back alley houses they had managed to escape.

Five minutes, then,” Navar said, standing straight.

Rosalia whirled around. “Wait. I don’t even need to go farther than the beach,” she said. “And there’s something more.” She followed Navar as the captain motioned orders to the sailors who had gone still, the better to catch their conversation. “Do you know how much a handful of Siren feathers is worth, Captain?”

I don’t risk the black market,” she said, climbing the stairs at the stern of the ship.

Rosalia grabbed the front of her skirts to quickly scale them herself.

Twenty times what I gave you. Enough for a whole other ship, or a quick and easy retirement for you and several others. Enough that your women don’t have to go hungry during months with less Siren activity—”

And do you think these just miraculously appear to anyone who rows inland? Or are they welcoming gifts from the Singers themselves?” Navar said over her shoulder.

Rosalia rolled her eyes. “Listen.”

Navar turned and folded her arms.

Row me to shore. No one else has to leave the boat.” She pulled a tiny bottled scroll from the folds of her dress. “I’ll leave this above the tide line, just in case he’s alive. I’ll scour the beach for feathers; any I find go directly to you, or I’ll sew them into headpieces. We’ll be there and back before the Sirens even stir. You can bring your most resistant ladies—sailors, I mean. I’ll make silencing headpieces for the rest, once I’ve purchased enough plumes. You’d be cutting down risk to the point of erasing it.” Her heart was pumping, and her eyes were wide with hope. “Please.”

Navar bowed her head. “The ones we’ve lost haven’t even got families to mourn them,” she said, her voice low. “The sea is the only space we’ve been given. That we’ve taken. We risk the Songs for a chance at life, for a shred of independence.”

Captain,” a nearby sailor said, and both women looked portside to a lonely isle, a brush of green and white in the great blue expanse. Navar drummed her fingers against her arm.

You’ll give us twice the amount of headpieces, and more anytime we need ‘em.”

A tear of relief slid down Rosalia’s face, joining with saltwater halfway to her chin. She nodded, and the deck swirled into action.

It was Navar who now squeezed the ship’s rail. Half the crew scurried below deck, and La Canción rocked ever closer to the isle. Quietly, the Songs began.

Rosalia rowed as best she could in time with two other sailors and Navar. She didn’t have the skill or patience to learn the proper technique, despite Navar badgering her with directions. Her seamstress hands were well-worn and used to strain, but her arms quickly tired from pulling the water back and back and back. The captain quieted down the closer they got to the island, and the Song filled in the rest.

It was more like a wailing to Rosalia’s ears, and she questioned the sanity of men all over again. The cries were pierced with notes that were impossibly high—so much so that they were nearly shrieks. And under it all, the voices. Sultry, one could argue, but she found them rather desperate. Whiny. Oh, does that look difficult, they moaned. Come, take a rest.

The dinghy rattled upon rocks, jolting everyone in the boat back to the matter at hand. Rosalia yelped and dropped her oar, which Navar plucked out of the ocean behind her. The captain used her own oar to push off the sharp rocks, but the damage had been done—the pool of water already at their feet was deepening by the second. A rock had punctured a jagged hole in the bottom of the boat.

Everyone out. We’re close enough to shore you should be able to stand. Careful not to slip.” Navar wedged a foot between two large stones and stabilized herself before offering her hand to Rosalia. The seamstress took it and, with her other hand clutching the folds of her dress, splashed into the cool saltwater. 

She soon came to despise her choice of clothing; she had picked it for show at the docks, but didn’t think to pack a pair of trousers or anything sensible for the rowboat ride in. The beaded fabric weighed her down at every step, and she had half a mind to strip down and let the other women carry the soggy dress in the dinghy. The sailors and their captain each took an edge of the boat and floated it and the oars to shore. Rosalia picked her way behind them, nearly losing a shoe to a patch of sucking sand. But she persisted, falling only once in waist-deep water. 

The sailors had already examined the dinghy and decided on a course of action by the time she stepped onto the pebbled shore.

We’re going to need to gather some supplies,” Navar said loudly, to be heard over the inland wailing of the Sirens. “I’ll need two to stay and guard the boat—if they come, I don’t care how much you hunger for vengeance, do not draw blood.”

Rosalia scoffed. “How else do you expect us to defend ourselves?”

The two sailors looked at their feet, and Navar unhooked a hand axe from her belt. “Kill them, and you’ll be cursed to remain on their island alongside your husband, playing their game for the rest of your short-numbered days.” She waved her axe at all three of them. “Understood?”

The two sailors nodded, grim-faced. Rosalia took inventory of their weapons: a rusty short sword and a steel dagger with a nicely carved wooden hilt—more of a mantelpiece heirloom than a threat to supernatural beasts.

Paola, you stick with Rosalia.” Navar gestured to the sailor with the short sword. “Raquel with me.”

I’m going with you,” Rosalia said. With a few jerks, she ripped off the outer, beaded part of her dress and dropped it on the bow. “Keep that safe, if you would,” she said to Paola. When the sailors exchanged looks, Rosalia pulled on a coin purse attached to her waist by a string. “Look, you each get three coppers if it’s in one piece. Not a bead touched, understand?”

She flicked a single copper at each of them as payment up front. When she moved toward the line of trees, she saw Navar watching the interaction.

What?” she asked, innocently. “Those beads are like—like oars to me. They—keep me afloat.” 

Oars aren’t—” Navar stopped herself and rubbed her face. “This was supposed to be quick. Now we’re grounded, putting us all in greater danger. You owe those women a hell of a lot more than three coppers,” she said.

I’m going further in. It could mean finding Mateo.”

Or his body,” she heard one of the sailors, Paola, say to the other.

Rosalia ignored that.

Okay, fine. You with me. But make one rat-brained move and you’re on your own.” Navar flipped her axe in one hand as casually as Rosalia might flip a knitting needle.

Rosalia smiled, curtsied, and followed the Singing into the trees.

The Island of Sirens was rich with vegetation. It would have been difficult to traverse were it not for the countless men and women who’d stamped out trails through the underbrush over the last hundreds of years. Navar followed one such trail and described a tree with blue-tinted veins, as the cottony fibers found between the roots could repair the hole in the dinghy. Rosalia was more concerned about clues to Mateo’s whereabouts.

The Singing reached a crescendo as they maneuvered deeper into the jungle. Before long, Rosalia had to plug her ears with her fingers from the sheer force of volume. What was worse was the echo in her head afterward, as if the words that entered her ears then ricocheted off her skull. It hurts to lose the one you loved, they cried, the one who loved you in return…

Navar held her axe at the ready as though Sirens were poised to leap out from the trees. Rosalia couldn’t tell if the singing was for her or the captain—she herself had already empathized with how responsible Navar must’ve felt for every death on her ship. Still, the songs steered her every thought back to her husband.

Something moved in a clearing ahead. Rosalia picked up her petticoat, passed Navar, and broke into a run. As she burst through the last line of trees, she preemptively shouted out, “Mateo!”

The wailing stopped, and a calm, humming tune warmed Rosalia and sent goosebumps down her arms. Three winged Sirens perched on three differently sized rocks in the middle of an open spring. The one closest to her, white feathered and pale, had the body of a woman but scales for flesh. Its eyes, blacker than night, flickered over Rosalia’s physique; its hair, white as sand, spilled over one shoulder. Another stretched out tawny wings, its reddish-brown scales flashing in the direct light. The last, raven-black, huddled close to the rocks and hardly moved a hair, like an uninterested cat out sunning.

Navar stopped at the tree-line and must’ve crouched low—Rosalia could feel her pulling on her skirts, urging her backward.

You must be so tired, the tawny one said; the voice came from the Siren’s mouth but echoed louder in Rosalia’s mind. Come, sit with us.

“You—don’t affect me,” Rosalia said, though her once steadfast belief in that statement had long since waned. The hum drew her closer, like a lullaby luring a babe to sleep.

You’ve lost a loved one, poor thing, the white one cooed.

Rosalia swallowed. She nodded, surprised at the hot tears running down her cheeks. “My husband, Mateo,” she said, and his name pierced her reverie. “You know him, don’t you?”

Oh yes, said the white one. Him I know.

The black one opened her wings and beat them once, twice. She lifted up, feathers and air, and landed on her feet beside the widow, in front of Navar.

Your crew, we weep for them, she said.

Rosalia heard Navar’s hand axe clatter to the rocks. She half-turned, allowing for all three Sirens and the captain in her view at once. Navar was on one knee now, eyes unfocused. A scaly black hand caressed her shoulder, and tears welled in her eyes.

So much for immunity.

“Mateo—he’s still alive, isn’t he?” Rosalia reached out to get the black Siren’s attention, but it bared a mouthful of sharp teeth and she pulled her hand back. Her heart pounded, shattering the peaceful illusion of the humming. She bent down to pick up a fist-sized stone and turned to the other two. “Where’s Mateo? Who took Mateo?”

Why do you put them in harm’s way, dear one? We cannot help ourselves if food washes upon our shores—dead, dying… or otherwise.

Rosalia hurled the stone. It arched pitifully and dropped with a plop in the crystalline water. The tawny one screeched, and the black one lunged for Navar. Rosalia moved to pull the captain out of the way, until she saw a knife flash in the woman’s hand. Navar swung at the Siren and missed, and now both of them tumbled back into the underbrush.

Are—you—crazy?!” Rosalia managed between panicked breaths.

All three Sirens shrieked now, and their wingbeats sent bursts of dust into the air.

We’re going,” Navar said. “Now.”

But my husband—”

Damn your husband, Duarte,” she spat, and yanked on Rosalia’s arm.

As they struggled out of the underbrush, the Sirens flew above the tree line, directly toward the beach.

My crew,” Navar said. She sheathed the knife in her boot, grabbed her hand axe, and bolted down the trail.

Rosalia’s skirt was now riddled with sticks and burrs and bugs and leaves. She stumbled into the now-deserted spring, trailing wafts of dirt in her wake. Evidently, Navar had her own reasons for being here. So did she.

Calling out for her husband was pointless—he was either dead or deaf from her headpiece, and she was beginning to think herself daft for having believed the latter. Rosalia fought the instinct to run and pressed forward, peering behind every rock until she circled back to where she had started. She plucked two feathers out of the mud but couldn’t identify them as Siren, as caked and scraggly as they were. The monstrous wails started up again, and she slumped into a puddle of wet, dirty, tangled fabric. Her mind roosted on a nest of ugly thoughts.

Mateo had taken the headpiece off, knowingly. He had jumped in, willingly. He had abandoned her, intentionally. Her friends were right to doubt his sensibility, no matter how much Rosalia fought for it. He was, every bit of him, an absolute idiot.

It took a moment for her to realize the Singing had stopped.

Rosalia sniffed and reached for a handkerchief—finding none, she rubbed her eyes and nose in a less-dirty fold of her petticoat, ignoring the scratchiness of the lace on skin. She leaned on a palm tree to help herself up, then caught sight of a trunk with blue-tinted veins.

A trace of hope drove her to action. She scrambled for the roots and dug out a handful of fluff that hardened wherever it touched wet skin. Pocketing what she could, she staggered off toward the beach.

When Rosalia stumbled onto the shore, black hair clumped in knots, she faced several realities at once. Navar held out her hand axe, edge pushed against the white Siren’s neck. The sailors were in the beached dinghy behind her, bleeding from claw marks on their arms; Paola had lost enough blood that she sat slumped in Raquel’s lap, barely conscious. The other two Sirens hissed at a scruffy man wielding a torch. He wore a thick black headpiece over his ears that might have looked silly were it not for the winged creatures now backing away from the fire.

They’ll curse you, they’ll make your life hell,” Mateo said to Navar. He held one hand up toward her as if to say, easy there. He faced the ocean, which meant his back was turned toward Rosalia.

She made a sound that could have been a shriek or a sob or a yelp. Her hand flew to her mouth as the shock washed over her like seawater on an open deck.

Mateo?” she choked out.

Mateo did not turn at his name. He could not hear it. Instead, he checked back and forth between the two creatures and the one Navar held captive, making sure nothing happened while he wasn’t looking.

Let me handle this,” he shouted to the Sirens. “Off with you, or more blood will spill!” He waved the torch in their faces. They backpedaled and took flight, screeching their way back into the forest.

Give me one good reason,” Navar said. She had grabbed the creature by its hair to better deliver the killing cut. The Siren looked at Navar with pleading eyes.

Let me go, and I will make you rich, it said, and Navar grit her teeth.

Bull. Shit.”

The man knows not to hurt us. The man knows what we do.

The man knows not what I do,” she said, and reversed her axe so she could easily slash out at him backhanded.

Rosalia approached the scene with eyes only for Mateo, who now turned his attention solely to Navar and her Siren, palm up, gesturing for the captain to hand over the axe. He had grown a beard in the last two weeks that was black with soil and grizzled with neglect. The edges of his cheeks caved inward, and his torn clothes fell loosely about him as if they’d been stretched out. When she entered his peripheral vision, he instinctively brandished the fire in her direction. She gave a short yell and fell back over her skirt, and he pulled the torch back.

Rosalia?” he said in a voice too loud for the distance. He looked from her to the captain, who gave no acknowledgement. “No, it’s a trick. It’s a trick.”

Rosalia stood up carefully, still in a daze. He was alive—her headpiece had worked—he had jumped ship with it on, not because he had taken it off. And now they could leave here, together, on the dinghy.

The dinghy.

She pulled out the handful of root fiber for Raquel, who shifted Paola’s head onto the pile of torn skirt fabrics. “You’ll be okay,” Rosalia said, gaze still averted. “We’ll be okay.”

The captain—” Paola croaked, her voice eroded by pain.

Seems Navar had other plans in mind,” Raquel said, stuffing the fissure.

Rosalia quickly checked Paola’s wounds. Her shoulder was slick with blood, so she ripped off a length of fabric from her remaining skirt to wrap and stem what she could.

Please don’t, captain,” Mateo said, and Rosalia saw him inch closer to Navar.

I know how you feel, Camila Navar, the Siren said. Jealousy, that one may live while others perish. It isn’t fair.

Pretend not to care, ignore them, and they’ll lose all interest. We’re toys to them, understand?” Mateo talked over the top of the Siren, unable to hear it.

“They killed my crew,” she said. She flipped the blade of her weapon back toward the Siren’s neck.

Rosalia secured a final knot and stood. She took a few steps to better see Navar’s face. Convincing Mateo she was real would have to come later. “Listen to Mateo,” she said. “Maybe it’s best to leave them be.”

Think of your crew, the Siren said. How much they need you.

Navar blinked back a haze of tears. “Sofia. Renata. Isabel. Juana.” The axe pressed more firmly against the scaly white neck. “They needed me. You stole them from us, robbed them of their futures.”

It is the Fates who decide—

“If you thought you could steal from me, you must not be as clever as legend says.”

“Captain Navar. Think of what you’re doing.” Rosalia edged between her and Mateo, her hands up, dyed red from Paola’s blood and brown from digging in the earth. She felt Mateo glance toward her. He must think her some godly illusion, here to help him with this mad, castaway captain.

“I’ve thought long enough,” Navar said. “It was only a matter of time before someone got me to this godsforsaken beach.” Her brown eyes unfocused for a moment. “I finally walk in the same sands she did. The last land her feet touched.”

“Who?” Rosalia prompted. “Tell me.”

She wouldn’t want you to make a mistake—

“You must not know Inés like I do, you feathered snake.”

Navar slit her throat.

A spurt of pale blue blood, and the winged body slumped onto the shore, convulsing. Distant screams permeated the air.

“No!” Mateo shouted. He dug the torch into the sand and jumped toward the bleeding creature.

Who dares take the Song from a Siren? Who dares flee to the sea? The voices rang in unison, louder than before. She who shed our sister’s blood will ne’er set sail, will ne’er be free.

Raquel pushed the patched dinghy toward the water. “Rosalia! Help me!”

Rosalia pulled Mateo back to eye-level and kissed him. His initial shock softened into the love she had known, the love she would never doubt again.

“Come with us,” she said, pulling him toward the water and motioning with her free hand.

He shook his head no. “I can’t. I killed one, too.”

Rosalia stood still despite the push of waves on her calves. “What?”

“I’m cursed, Rosalia, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I never jumped, I swear it.”

The screeches were above them now. Rosalia looked up in terror as the tawny Siren descended upon a ready Navar. Prompted by her glance, Mateo turned in time to see the captain connect her first swing. But the black Siren dove down before she could pull back.

“Then why are you here?” Rosalia said, gesturing at the island.

“Pushed,” Mateo said. He pulled his arm from Rosalia’s grip. “Nothing can be done now. You must go. I can’t watch you die, too. Go!”

Rosalia choked back a sob and shook her head no, but Mateo rushed to the torch anyway. Navar flung off the black Siren, but one of her coat sleeves was already dark with blood.

Raquel grabbed the seamstress by the back of her bodice and hauled her into the water, into the dingy. She shoved her and Paola out to sea, then drew her short sword.

“What are you doing?” Rosalia yelled.

“I’m not leaving the captain, and someone’s got to row Paola back to safety. That has to be you, Duarte.”

“I’m not leaving him, I can’t,” Rosalia said, desperately paddling water with her hands.

What good does your death do?” Raquel gave her a cold stare. “Redeem yourself. Don’t let her die, too.”

Rosalia felt a hard pit form in her stomach and clenched her jaw. Sirens didn’t kill, not directly—Mateo was evidence enough of that. Still, the tangled mess of feathers and blood and fire and steel might prove otherwise. As the sailor ran into the brawl, sword raised, Rosalia picked up an oar. If nothing more, Mateo and Raquel were buying her time. They were buying Paola’s life, and hers. She couldn’t waste it.

Rosalia began to stroke, alternating sides as she pulled the water back, and back, and back. Paola blinked slowly, eyes reflecting the orange sunset sky. As long as her chest rose and fell, Rosalia had reason to row. She didn’t dare look over her shoulder.

It wasn’t until she was boarding La Canción that Rosalia remembered her letter to Mateo, curled up in its bottle. Undelivered, unread. The crew hauled Paola onto the deck, and one of them pulled out a bag of solvents and bandages to clean and better stymie the blood.

Rosalia had little time to unravel her mind, to mourn, to plan a rescue. Navar’s crew immediately bore down on her. They scratched for an explanation and, doubting her integrity, bickered over whether or not to throw her overboard. Traitor, coward, worthless, they all called her in turn.

Luckily, a woman named Lucia had the sense of mind to put Rosalia’s fate on hold until Paola regained consciousness. When she did, the sailor identified the widow as the one who had brought the root, tied her wound, and ensured her survival. Rosalia didn’t know whether to breathe a sigh of relief or regret as they shifted the sails, turning back to port before more lives were lost.

“Why would Navar risk herself like that?” the medical crew member pressed. Paola shook her head.

“For Sofia. Renata. Isabel. Juana.” Rosalia closed her eyes as she listed the names she hadn’t asked about, hadn’t known. “And Inés, most of all.”

Rosalia sewed as many headpieces as she could for the crew of La Canción. Despite the tragedy, the ship’s business hadn’t slowed and the women were back out to sea within the week. In the desperate hopes Navar may yet survive, Lucia took over her responsibilities without the title of captain.

Rosalia had hoped to return to the arms of sympathetic friends, but word spread of the state she was in when she stepped off the ship. Half-naked, the Albas said. Gone nutty, her neighbors agreed. The traders she once dined with now kept their noses down, bustling about papers whenever she paid a visit; even their wives turned their backs with a frown. This only worsened when the implications of Mateo’s plea dawned on her—he’d been pushed by one of his own. As for who, no one cared to guess.

She found more compassion from the crew aboard La Canción, though not everyone warmed up to her. Many hadn’t even heard of Inés, but the oldest among them confirmed the history. Lucia took Rosalia’s knowledge of the woman’s name as a crucial mark of approval; Navar had hardly spoken of Inés since her disappearance.

After selling her remaining inventory, Rosalia took up a new position as Widow Ambassador for the crew. She arranged clients and assembled supply crates for every voyage. Paola helped her toss them overboard in the hopes that they’d reach a safe and alive Mateo, Navar, and Raquel. Each crate also contained a bottled letter.

Before one such embarkment, a widowed passenger approached Rosalia as she hammered the last crate shut.

“Are you sure it’s safe out there? With them?” she asked in hushed tones, eyeing the female sailors as they busied about the pier.

Rosalia smiled and straightened. She hooked the hammer on the belt of her much more reasonable sailing skirt, which featured a shimmer of embroidered mermaids. “You have nothing to fear, dear—though I understand the lure of land.”

Her fingers instinctively brushed the sharpened axe on the other side of her belt—as familiar to her now as a knitting needle.

But if I’ve learned anything aboard La Canción,” Rosalia continued, “it’s that the only safe place for women is out on the open sea.”


Alexis Kaegi is a speculative fiction writer who feels most at home in the edges of fantastical worlds, where small occurrences have big implications. She has published stories with Deep Magic Magazine, Tree and Stone, and Flame Tree Press and holds an MFA in popular fiction from the Stonecoast Writers Program. These days, you’ll find her tinkering with branching narratives in Twine from her home in Seattle, alongside her spouse and their highly playful dog. You can follow her adventures at

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