Would you rather: face a hoard of enemy soldiers or eat a live octopus?
Prince Damon stared at the writhing, eight-legged creature in horror. The bulbous head lay flat on the wooden deck, and the black eyes stared up at Damon. A gust of wind hit and the sails flapped and the mast groaned as the deck pitched. The little creature started to slither away, but a bare foot kicked it back into the middle of the circle of onlookers.
“Go on,” one of the sailors said.
“Eat it,” another prodded.
Damon swallowed hard, trying to keep from throwing up at the mere thought of those tentacles sliding over his tongue and down his throat. The suction cups holding on to the roof of his mouth in an attempt to live.
Jack, the first mate, nudged Damon with his elbow and spoke softly in his ear. “No one on the crew is going to respect you unless you eat it.”
Damon shouldn’t have to earn the crew’s respect. He was their prince, they all swore allegiance to the crown before the ship left port. One word from him and any man here would be tossed overboard.
Yet he’d heard the sailors whispering when they didn’t think he was around. Whispers of his humiliation in the battle for the Folded Pass. Rumors that he’d run away to save his own skin. Rumors that his father had spent a great deal of time squashing.
Rumors that were true.
Jack sighed. “I’ll show ye.” The grizzled sailor stepped forward and held out his hand. One of the deck boys placed a slender stick about the length of Jack’s forearm in his palm. The first mate reached down and grabbed the octopus by the head and plucked it off the deck. The tentacles tried to coil around Jack’s hand and wrist, but Jack wrapped the head around the stick and then continued to wrap the rest of the body and legs until the creature was bound.
The sailors began to chant. “Eat it, eat it, eat it!”
Jack gave Damon a wink right before he shoved the slimy head of the creature into his mouth.
Damon almost dry heaved.
Jack sucked the rest of the octopus in as if it were noodles. He gave Damon a wink and then swallowed.
A cheer rose from the sailors, and one of them hit the golden gong that hung next to the wheel.
“Ah!” Jack said as he clapped Damon on the back. “Now it’s your turn.”
“You have another?” Damon asked in a weak voice.
“Aye.” The first mate waved a hand and another creature, slightly larger than the first, landed on the wooden deck with a splat. It immediately began to crawl away, but the sailors pushed it back at every turn.
Jack held the stick out for Damon. He leaned close. “Do this and you’ll be one of the crew. Refuse and they’ll believe the tales about Folded Pass.”
Damon’s father said if he didn’t cast off his cowardly ways that he shouldn’t come back. If this crew didn’t trust him, then he’d likely end up at the bottom of the ocean, and while the thought of eating the octopus send waves of prickly disgust and fear through him, the urge to stay alive overpowered it.
Damon grabbed the stick and reached down to grab the octopus. The squishy head retreated from his touch, and the tentacles flailed as he stood. Before he could think too much about it, Damon followed Jack’s example and wrapped the doomed creature around the stick. He took a breath, trying to mask the scent of the creature with the rancid smell of the sailors around him, and opened his lips.
He’d been hoping more for noodles, but the head was large enough that he had to open his mouth like a snake eating a rat. His tongue shied away from the trembling flesh, and one of the tentacles clung to his thumb.
“No chewing. Just swallow,” Jack muttered.
Something between a sob and a laugh escaped, and Damon shoved the living thing into his mouth.
His lips closed around the end of it, and for a moment he imagined eating a piece of fatty meat. Then the meat inside his mouth moved and his stomach heaved again.
The sailors roared.
“Swallow,” Jack said.
Damon nodded. He could feel the octopus moving in his mouth, trying to find an escape. Damon tried to swallow, but nothing happened. He gagged, heard the sailors chanting “Eat it!” and finally forced himself to finish it.
A roar of approval went up from the men on deck.
“Open your mouth!”
Damon did so, still wanting to throw up and imagining the creature trying to hold on as it slid down into his gullet.
Someone hit the gong.
Tears ran down Damon’s face, but no one seemed to notice as the sailors rushed him, patting him on the back and congratulating him.
Damon tried to answer, but could only nod.
He should have stood his ground in Folded Pass. It would have been easier than this.