The waves beat at the edge of the island, flecked with grey from the silty sand on the shore. The Captain stood on the prow of the ship, her mighty grey wings spread as far apart as she could manage, her talons dug into the wood for purchase. A storm brewed off of the horizon, dark clouds across the almost infinite expanse of flat ocean. Lightning touched down, far enough away that it looked more like the glint of a firefly rather than the tempestuous touch of the living sea.
Then she slammed into action, vaulting herself off of the side, and flew her way to the island proper for forewarning.
I stood to the side, my hand clutched around my Heart, the golden little necklace the source of my navigating magic, and tore my gaze away. It’d been just long enough for the rank aura of mourning to slacken, but not long enough for it to depart entirely. Sampson stood up in the crow’s nest, half slacking off, though I knew his scope was pointed solidly at the distant storm to keep watch. Thyn paced in front of the crowd we were escorting, his limp still solid and pronounced, his skin still broken with patches where his spines were regrowing and the stunned students kept their eyes split between him and the Academy, bright and bleary in the distance.
Vali leaned back against the wall leading below deck, all three of her eyes closed. I could count her ribs. She was still short of breath, consistently.
I could almost pretend that we hadn’t nearly died, if I tried. I didn’t.
Landfall snuck up on us like a rogue’s knife, and the Captain stood at the dock, surrounded by a number of official looking people. I didn’t recognize their number.
The plank was thrown, and locked in place, alongside the ship, and their number swept on board.
“-And what did you say this ship was for?”
“Archeology,” The Captain said, smoothly, her voice clipped. “I’m not entirely sure what His Majesty’s men want with my free trading vessel,” She said, shaking her head.
“Just inspections,” the beastman said. On his chest, just underneath of the lion’s mane that surrounded his head, a pin of a torch sat, rimmed with letters from a language I didn’t read. “You understand, don’t you?”
“Of course,” The Captain said, her voice strained into politeness. “I always follow port law, as you know.”
The lion turned and gave her a long look. The Captain’s face remained as calm as the sea before a storm. He shook his head. Gently, I tugged at my robes to make sure the facade was still intact.
We were relying on a lot of good will here, but if we were lucky, our ploy would pan out.
“I’ve heard that you recently returned from the Dead Sea,” the Lion said, glancing down at his clipboard. “Is that where you picked up all these stragglers?”
“Not at all,” The Captain said. “I was simply escorting these students home as a favor to Professor Jess.”
“Must be some favor,” The Lion said, stepping between their ranks. There was no hope in hiding the various bruises and injuries the students had on them. “Looks like they were in a war.”
I was glad my face was mostly hidden by robes, because I winced at that. I took a few steps back, sliding further into the crowd of college students. They were as nervous, if more nervous than I was.
“The far islands have their whims,” The Captain said, mysteriously. “Some of them you have to beat off with a sword and a rifle.”
“His Majesty’s armada knows all about that,” the lion said, shaking his head. “May I inspect your cargo? It says here that you’re carrying artifacts…? What sort of artifacts?”
“Some old things my family had lying around,” The Captain said. “Nothing too important.”
Vali’s eyes, tightly closed, twitched open, a single red eye gleaming at the lion on board.
“An old spear,” The Captain said. “Some bits of pottery and stone. Cloaks, old piece of armor. Nothing too exciting, I’m afraid. There wasn’t much left there for us.”
“His Majesty will want to know about such things.”
“I was under the impression that the Academy was neutral grounds,” The Captain said, gently.
“It is,” The lion said. “We’re merely stepping up protection for it. On account of the pirates.”
“Yes,” The Captain said. “I can see how the school might need protection.” She paused. “From pirates.” She gestured at Sev, the massive fluff beast pulling himself out of the cover of the stair well, and he started to bring up crates by himself.
“What matter of contract do you have him under?” The lion asked, curiously. “I wasn’t aware that family did much of anything outside of the continent.”
“Oh, he’s just an employee,” The Captain said. Her wings ruffled, the feathers curling. Her talons clicked with just that much more effort against the wood of the ship. She was growing agitated.
I didn’t like anything that could agitate her like that.
“Just an employee,” he repeated, writing down something on his clipboard. “Are you still unaligned with the siren houses, Miss-”
“Captain,” The Captain corrected. “Catastrophe, if you must have a name.”
“Captain Catastrophe.” He looked up at her.
“It’s not a family name, before you ask,” she said.
“And you are the Captain Catastrophe?” he asked.
“I am,” she replied. Behind her, Sev managed to cram himself and a crate through the cargo hold and up to the top of the ship, setting it down next to the crowd of students.
My robes only grew hotter as I grew more nervous.
“The very same Captain, who, under the banner of the Venturing Owl, broke our control of the port of rogues, the Neverie?”
“I might be,” The Captain said. “But nonetheless, I am unaligned now. And if it were to be my responsibility, I would deny it, surely, as my sister did most of the work. I would’ve been just a distraction. In that hypothetical situation.”
“In that hypothetical situation,” The lion said, sounding very unimpressed.
“Exactly,” The Captain said, spreading her wings. “But right now, I am a free trader, doing a favor for a friend, and escorting college students home, some of which may in fact be related to His Majesty.”
“Really,” The lion said, raising an eyebrow. “You’re going to-”
“Irony!” The Captain said, and the dragoness stepped out of the crowd of students. “Come say hello to His Majesty’s Finest!”
Her purple scales glinted in the light of the sun, though even that light was disappearing under the mass of clouds winding its way from the east. It was obvious she wasn’t done mourning, but, with a practiced ease, as she turned to face the lion, the evidence disappeared under a noble smile. “Hello inspector,” She said, bowing very very slightly.
The lion stared at her for a long moment. “Pardon my impudence, milady. Is this ship escorting you and your businesses?”
“She is,” Irony said, smiling like a noble might. “My apologies for not announcing it through the proper channels, it was really a spur of the moment decision. We all must do our part to extend His Majesty’s Truths, yes?”
The lion’s brow dropped, and he looked down at his clipboard. “So you would agree that these are minor artifacts-”
“And certainly not of interest to His Majesty,” she said. “They’re merely artifacts of the old savage Siren people, with nothing too interesting among them- unless you think a few rusted swords are anything to sneeze at.”
“I would not begin to suppose what is dangerous and what is not, milady,” The lion said. “I am merely doing my job.”
“Your job being to inspect ships to see if they are bringing dangers to the Academy?” Irony asked.
“Of course,” the inspector said. “You are travelling with Captain-”
“I am very aware of who I am travelling with,” Irony cut in. “I chose her because of her reputation. It would surely take some very stupid pirates to try and cross her, wouldn’t it?”
“I agree,” The lion said, his lips pressed together into a tight little line.
“Excellent,” Irony said, smiling pleasantly. “Be on your way, I have business to take care of on this island, and you’re impeding it.”
The lion made a single extra mark on the clipboard, and then looked at the small crowd gathered by the gangplank, shaking his head. Then he sighed, walked off of the ship after poking his head into a crate or two, and then left entirely, leading His Majesty’s workers away.
The Captain and Irony stood there for a long time, staring at each other, until Vali spoke up. “I wasn’t aware His Majesty was being so aggressive. Have things really changed that much?”
Irony looked over at Vali and sighed. “My grandsire is perhaps a tad upset at his slow progress at taking over these islands. I didn’t think he would try for the Academy like this-”
“Perhaps he really is concerned about pirates,” The Captain said, peeling herself away from the wall. She gestured at the students. “Nonetheless, these poor wretches have rooms to find, and classes to sign up for. Come on now,” She clicked. “Off of my ship. And you know what you’re allowed to talk about. If you really must mention some of your troubles, talk to Professor Jess.” Irony joined the students as they walked off, briefly flooding the docks with traffic. The last shot I saw of her had her lips once again turned down, and her expression cloudier than what was choking out the sun.
“Do we have leave of shore, Captain?” Sev asked, looking over the crates.
“As soon as you finish moving those crates over to the college,” The Captain said. “Thyn, if you’ll stay here and make sure nobody gets into too much trouble?”
Thyn ran his hands over his spines and popped a salute. “Yes Ma’am. Do you want me to chain and collar them as well?”
“Only if they’re particularly rude about it,” The Captain said. “If you’re too rude, make sure to collar yourself.”
“Yes Ma’am,” Thyn said, his salute turning more lazy. He turned, her firstmate managing a grin despite his injuries. “You heard her. Move our cargo and we get shore leave. In shifts. Hurry it up!”
I walked over to her side, and Vali joined me, putting her injured wing over top of my head and settling it on my shoulders as a rest. “And what shall I do?” Vali asked.
“Ma’am,” The Captain corrected. “What shall I do Ma’am. Or Captain.”
“And what shall I do?” Vali asked again.
The Captain huffed at her, shaking her head, and then gestured at the Academy itself. “You and I and Charm-” her eyes finally fell on me. “Will be having a discussion with Jess. Hopefully we’ll be able to weather the storm here, as well. I don’t think the crew will put up with too much before they’ll snap like twigs.”
“Throw them a few coins for the candy shops,” Vali suggested. “I think I recognize one of their ships at port.”
“Interspersed with His Majesty’s forces, no doubt,” The Captain muttered under her breath. “Just one thing after another.”
“They’re less deadly than the last thing,” I said.
The Captain put a hand on my head and ruffled my hair through the top of my hood. “Only marginally. Tax evasion is its own slow killer.”