(Finalist, WSFA Small Press Award, 2010)

The pirate captain’s daughter had no name, although her mother’s land-born lovers, male and female, sometimes amused themselves thinking of names for her. Such strong hands, such a lithe frame, one might say, and suggest a name from an island known for its wrestlers. Another might admire the way her straight, dark hair was pulled back by pins with dragonflies on them, and name her after summer nights.

Once, a small woman, dark-skinned and improbably delicate, looked at her for an unnerving moment before suggesting that she be named after a certain type of two-handed sword that had not been forged for over three centuries. “You’ll grow tall like your mother,” she had said, “and like a fine sword you’ll wear leather stitched with bright thread.” The pirate’s daughter had liked that best of all.

But pirates upon the Unwritten Sea had traditions as surely as did their prey. No one traveled the Unwritten Sea save by poetry. For the little fisher-boats that never ventured far from shore, a scrap of chant handed down from parent to child might suffice. For the dhows and junks that ventured into the sea’s storms, cobwebbing the paths of trade between continents, more sophisticated poetry was required: epics in hexameter, verses structured around jagged caesuras; elegantly poised three-line poems with the placement of alliterating syllables strictly dictated. A poem would guide a ship only so far ahead and no farther, and one had to use a fitting poem for the weather, the currents, the tides, the color of light on the foam and the smell of the wind.

Lesser pirates might content themselves with smaller commodities: chests packed tight with baroque pearls and circlets of wire, rutilated quartz, and the bones of tiny birds, all cushioned with silk cut from the coats of hanged aristocrats; spices named after extinct animals, but no less potent for all that; oils pressed from the fruit of trees planted during meteor showers and comets’ passing.

Pirates of the highest tier, the ones whose names and exploits were discussed avidly even in inland cities like those of conquering generals and master calligraphers, raided poetry itself. To understand her trade, a pirate must be a poet herself, and could not take a name until she had scribed a poem in the language of her sea-yearning soul.

And so the pirate’s daughter had a problem. She didn’t want to leave the Unwritten Sea. Her mother had birthed her on this very ship, the Improbable Dragon, on a night when dragons blotted out the five moons with their battling, and their blood mottled the sea the color of bronze and copper. The sea’s dark waters had baptized her, staining the birthmark on her left forearm dark within dark, like a dragon-whelp curled within its storm-shell.

She knew that the Improbable Dragon had a vexatious preference for lines with an odd number of syllables, even when the form demanded otherwise, and that the sails and nets tore more easily when the ship’s will was thwarted. When she menstruated for the first time, she cut up her stained clothes and braided the rags together, then sank them into the sea with a lump of hammered iron as a pledge toward years to come.

The pirate’s daughter studied chapbooks stitched with tidy linen thread, borrowed from her mother’s hoard, and copied out poems into a journal of her own. She had stolen the journal from a merchant in a port where dancers wearing jewelry of heliotrope and moonstone greeted the ships each morning, and chaste priests in hair shirts blessed them each night. The journal was actually a ledger, but the pirate’s daughter was well familiar with double-entry bookkeeping—piracy was still a business, as her mother liked to say—and didn’t mind. The sturdy book with its sober black cover and binding was just the thing to remind her of how serious the matter was.

Though she might be her mother’s daughter, she had duties on board the ship. She scrubbed the deck; adjectives (in the languages that had them as a separate category of word) were the worst, staining the wood as deep as they could go. She helped the cooks prepare taro or dumplings or eel for dinner. She sat attentively at lessons in navigation, learning the coordinate systems and cartographic projections favored by scholars in nine dominant seafaring nations.

Let it not be said that the pirate’s daughter was not diligent, even during her chores. As she scrubbed or peeled or calculated, she thought of synonyms and homophones, words with branching etymologies across languages in different families. At night, during snatched minutes beneath the radiance of three moons near-full, she curled up in her tiny cabin, wondering why one poet scorned rhymed couplets when another wielded them like sword and dagger.

Alas, for all this, the pirate’s daughter knew herself to be no poet.

She tried, how she tried, essaying experiments with a child’s toy boat in a large pot borrowed from the sympathetic head cook. She filled it from the Unwritten Sea and watched her reflection in the inscrutable inky water.

The water wrote her face into adult possibilities, showing her as a duelist in a city where the lanterns were decorated with the wings of rare butterflies, or as a florist who garlanded the blindfolded runners of a foot-race as they bent their heads so she could select blossoms of good omen or ill according to what she read in their upturned faces; a courier changing steeds every waystation, from quagga stripes to dapple grays to skewbalds, all of them with wing-buds grafted to their sides to urge them to the wind’s own speed. She tried not to dwell on the fact that none of the images was of a pirate-woman, tall like her mother, wearing supple leather stitched with bright thread.

Instead, she attached a strip of her own poetry to the toy boat with her saliva, hoping water would call to water even if her words were weak. The poem itself was a shy thing, a tercet about the shape of salt crystals and the splash of tears on browning paper. Just from one end of the pan to the other, she wished the boat. No prayers.

Of course the pirate’s daughter knew of the many gods whose whimsy the sea was subject to, gods of seaweed and coral, shore and reef, dolphin and shark. There were gods who took the shape of long-limbed men and women leaping from the foam, and gods as insubstantial and mighty as the summer air. But the power she needed to rouse was that of the sea itself, and no gods would interfere with something so sacred.

The sea did not smile upon her tercet. The boat bobbed up and down in the pot, water sloshing its sides, but it did not move forward or backward or even sideways, even in response to the Improbable Dragon’s own motions. The pirate’s daughter, being young, was helpless to prevent the spill of tears into the pot. Still the boat did not move.

She repeated this experiment many times with the same rig, the same pot, the same inky water. It would not have occurred to her to doubt these small fundaments. No; any failure was inherent to her poetry. She was old enough to take responsibility for her own failures, as a proper pirate ought to.

Her mother was not unaware of these struggles. Everyone on the ship, from the quartermaster to the rats with their kind faces and clever hands, reported to her mother. But her mother lived by the code that all worthy pirates do, and so she, like the gods, would neither help nor hinder.

“Perhaps you should consider the possibility that this is not the profession for her,” the quartermaster said one night as he and the captain played wei qi with jade and onyx stones. The captain was letting the quartermaster win at the moment, a sure sign of her foul temper. When she was in a generous mood, she dispatched her opponents leanly and efficiently.

The captain scowled and made another suboptimal move. At this rate she was going to have to pull some extremely underhanded tricks to win. Not that she disapproved of underhanded tricks in and of themselves, but in wei qi, as opposed to the world, she sometimes liked to know that she was cunning enough to prevail without them. Conceding to the inevitable, she rearranged two crucial stones when the quartermaster wasn’t looking.

He looked back down at the go table. “That one,” the quartermaster said, pointing, then frowned. “What else?”

The captain chuckled throatily. She replaced the stone that he had correctly pointed out, but not the other. It was their rule.

They played several more turns. The captain purloined a piece or two.

“She’s young yet,” the captain said. “Somewhere in her is a sonnet, a pantoum, a haiku.” Her own name-poem had been a small saga in slant-rhymed couplets. After particularly splendid victories, the pirates recited parts of it in her honor.

“We must plan for contingencies,” the quartermaster insisted. He was a great believer in plans. The departure of a ship’s son or daughter was never a time for rejoicing. When it happened because the child had failed to write a name-poem, it was a dark omen. Certainly the captain had sacrificed black lambs and peacocks in the past to ward off bad luck.

People who left their ships without earning their names went by some other name in the wide world. Sometimes they chose those names. Sometimes others named them in the many ways names are chosen: by profession or distinguishing feature, by omen or favored animal. But anyone sensitive to the sea’s traditions would know what they had failed to accomplish.

“I will not give her up for lost,” the captain said, and that was that. If the crew stepped lightly around her for the next several days, why, the captain’s moods were like the sea’s. You crossed them at your peril, but they eventually changed.

The pirate’s daughter knew nothing of this conversation, and despaired. She had been her mother’s joy all her life. “I have three treasures weightier than gold,” the captain had said at the girl’s birth. “I have my ship, I have my tongue, and now I have a daughter.”

As the pirate’s daughter frowned over the scrawled lines in her journal, she wondered what her worth would be if she became a wanderer, a warrior, a weaver at the sea’s shores. What perils would the inland hold for her?

For once she closed the journal early and went on deck, light-footed, keeping to shadows. She didn’t have to venture far before she heard her mother’s voice raised in some navigational dispute. The voice calmed her. She might be an inadequate pirate, but nothing could take away her mother’s love, and the love of a pirate is fierce and true.

Months passed. In that time, the captain insisted on giving her daughter increased responsibilities, although the days of peeling tubers were not entirely over. The pirate’s daughter avidly watched the division of spoils after raids. The greatest treasures, tomes of poetry and literary concordances, were shared out between the captain and those whose bravery and cunning she wished to recognize. Poems published in such fashion were often inert, having had their virtue expended by some previous ship on a long-ago voyage.

Smaller items—robes sewn stiff with gold thread, scepters studded with electrum and aquamarines, clockwork birds that sang the name of your true love—were distributed generously to the rest of the crew. Even the pirate’s daughter received something for being the first to spy the other ship’s bouquet of sails, a ring of unalloyed gold. It was unadorned, but the band was satisfyingly heavy on her finger, like the best of coins.

At night she continued to read the poetry of ages past. She recorded the day’s chants and the prevailing wind; the fish that swarmed by the ship, some of which became dinner, their scales patterned with plural and mass nouns; longitude, latitude, the time at which a falling star winked overhead. But she performed no more experiments.

This time the quartermaster knew better than to bring up the topic of contingencies with the captain.

“I should have given her something greater than a bauble,” the captain said anyway, over another game of wei qi.

The quartermaster had already caught the captain cheating twice. It worried him. Ordinarily she was not so obvious. “There is plunder aplenty,” he said, thinking of other treasures they had accumulated: white wolves’ pelts, black hauberks so finely forged that they shone like fire, and nested boxes that whispered to you of your heart’s desire, every flattery you could conceive of, if you opened them. The Improbable Dragon’s hold contained many such things, and they were on their way to a peninsular port to sell what they could.

“I can’t give her what she needs,” the captain said. “I can’t give her words.” Her eyes glittered, although no tears fell.

The quartermaster was silent for a second. “She might visit you in port,” he said, knowing how laughable the suggestion was. Pirates did not keep to schedules. And they did not associate with those who had failed to uphold their ways.

“Oh, yes,” the captain said in her bitterness, “as though any daughter of mine would do otherwise. She would be a ghost on our threshold forever. She was born on the sea. It can’t be gotten out of her blood so easily.”

Bowing to necessity, the captain prepared to say farewell to her at the next port of call. Her black moods troubled the crew. No one questioned her devotion to piratical tradition, but neither did they doubt her affection for the girl who was rapidly becoming too old to stay unnamed upon the ship.

The quartermaster quietly pondered the matter of sacrificial peacocks, which would be difficult to obtain in the region. Should he substitute a firebird egg or a three-horned ram? Normally he would have consulted the captain, but under the circumstances he thought it wiser to take his best guess.

The pirate’s daughter could not help but be aware of these preparations. She did not fear for her life. Indeed, it would have been an offense against the sea to cast her overboard or cut her throat. When they set her ashore it would be with enough food and coin to make her way in the world if she was clever. In her meticulous manner she had begun eavesdropping on the crew’s conversations about the customs peculiar to this region, curfew hours and tariffs and taboos.

Two days’ journey from the port, the air stilled and the sea became flat and darkly glassy. Even the sky was the color of dull metal, with no hint of blue in it. The captain had expected such ill fortune. The sea knew what was to become of the girl baptized in its waters, the whispers said; the sea sensed her failure and was punishing the Improbable Dragon for it.

“Prepare the kestrels,” the captain said, in case those lesser sacrifices were necessary so they could reach port in the first place. If those didn’t work, they would fill nets with books: plays no longer performed yet studied still by scholars in island colleges; pamphlets lamenting the state of affairs in widely disparate polities; quartos containing the contradictory wisdom of men and women from different eras, with footnotes by acerbic and anonymous commentators.

Pirates never sacrificed poetry, even poetry leached of its virtue for seafaring purposes. You could not spend so much time navigating by words without coming to appreciate their beauty. Besides, the wisdom went, in some far future, the deeps of the Unwritten Sea would relent, and old poetry would become as new. In the meantime, the pirates sold volumes to scholars of literature and hopeful treasure-hunters who thought secret paths lay within the lines.

The pirate’s daughter watched from her perch amid the cobwebby shadows of the rigging. She didn’t flinch when the birds’ necks were wrung, or when their small carcasses, laden with rusted chains, splashed into the Unwritten Sea.

As her mother said the words of propitiation to the depths divine, the pirate’s daughter turned her arm over to inspect the birthmark. It had faded over time, as some did, even the dark stain on the inside. Yet she was no longer a child. Her eyes stung, but she would not give the ship her tears as she had in the past.

The sacrifice had no effect. The Improbable Dragon remained becalmed. Not the slightest ripple passed outward from the hull. Someone spat experimentally into the water, to no avail. The sea’s silence was absolute.

The pirate’s daughter scratched at her birthmark. At first she was disturbed by the sea’s stillness, having grown up to the sounds of wind and wave, the ship’s cantankerous creaking. It was as though music on a night for feasting had stopped suddenly, without explanation.

She scuffed the toe of her boot against the deck. Even that small sound seemed impertinently loud, now. It made her think about how music was composed both of sound and silence, and how both were necessary to define it. Her breath caught. Sound and silence, words and—

“Captain,” the pirate’s daughter said from her haunt. “I have a poem.”

It was presumptuous of her to say so, and would have been even if she had skill equal to that of the captain herself. It was a great honor to recite the first poem on those occasions when the ship proved unresponsive. This was a practical tradition: during a raid, there was rarely time to waste letting second-rate poets fumble with their forms.

The captain had not attained her position through kindness and sentiment. But she weighed her pragmatist’s instinct against the fact that no stranger-ship approached them. Their sole antagonist was the sea itself. All she would lose was her reputation for ruthlessness.

In the end her faith won out; if her crew respected her the less, why, she could win them back afterward. “Speak,” the captain said.

Her daughter went to the gunwale and breathed out over the waters. At first the crew thought she was nerving herself to the task and held silent. Then the captain’s daughter breathed again and again, wordless each time. The crew began to mutter among themselves: Had the girl gone mad? What trick was this?

The captain’s daughter opened her hand and let fall a single slip of paper. As it fell, it danced this way and that, tugged by the whims of a wind from nowhere. When the paper reached the sea, faint ripples pooled outward, then grew into waves, so that the sea became a broken surface of darker water and filigreed foam.

“What poem did you write?” the quartermaster demanded, forgetting in his anxiety that it was the captain’s place to speak.

The captain marked this. Nevertheless, she was smiling a fierce smile, a proud smile, and its echo was on her daughter’s face. Both mother and daughter stood tall, and if the daughter was not so tall as her mother, a few years remained during which that might change.

“Lacuna,” the pirate captain said, greatly satisfied. “Her poem is the poem that is all things in potential.”

The Improbable Dragon bobbed up and down in the water, slowly but perceptibly drifting forward.

“Have you thought of your name?” the captain asked.

The woman—no longer a girl—started to laugh. “I never thought of one,” she said.

The captain smiled in turn and had a team of fishers retrieve the paper from the water. It came to them readily enough.

Soaked as the paper was, a single word upon it could be read in sharp-edged ink. The sea had written upon the blank paper a name for the pirate’s daughter. We may say of this name that it meant nothing in any tongue the pirates had encountered, although perhaps some far scholar might find a possible root in some protolanguage. It had few syllables and was easily pronounced by them, and by many who would tell of her exploits in years to come.

In years to come, she would captain a ship called the Keenly Cutting Mirror, and fill books with her own sestinas and sijo, each with a scattering of pages left deliberately blank, each notable for how it evoked scenes as much by what was omitted as by what was included. Readers in times to come knew her poetry by those tomes; scholars sought patterns in the pages. When her own children asked her the meaning of those empty spaces, she gathered them into her arms and recited children’s verse, nonsense rhymes, random words in alphabetical order.

The older children did not understand. But the youngest smiled up at her and said her name to her, and that was good enough.

dedicated to Cassandra

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Yoon Ha Lee's short fiction has appeared on Tor.com, in Clarkesworld, and over ten times in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, including “The Mermaid Astronaut” in BCS Science-Fantasy Month 5, a finalist for the Hugo Awards. He is the author of the Machineries of Empire trilogy, and his standalone fantasy Phoenix Extravagant was released by Solaris Books in June 2020.  Yoon lives in Louisiana with his family and an extremely lazy cat and has not yet been eaten by gators.  Visit him online at www.yoonhalee.com.