It was just past noon, so the streets weren’t packed so much as they were scarce. A few restaurants bubbled with lunch going students, but it wasn’t exactly a prime season for visitors, so only the most popular joints were too packed for entry. After weeks of nothing but ship rations and literal memories of food prepared centuries ago, the Captain slipped into a bakery, pushed a few talons across the table (the Siren’s own hollow coin) negotiated a quick price, and left.
My fingers were sticky with cinnamon and pepper shavings, and my tongue burned with the sweet spicy glaze of the dragon roll in my off hand. Vali kept well out of my reach, nibbling more primly on a biscuit, and the Captain’s cheeks and lips were stuffed with some sort of fried food filled to bursting with a red bean paste.
We sat at a bench and watched the students move around us, like three statues in the sun, and then even the sun’s light was gone under the approaching storm.
“How long until the story gets out into the student body?” Vali asked.
“Three days,” The Captain said, shaking her head. “Most of them won’t know any of the really important details, and the few that do will have no way of getting their story across especially. All except…” Her eyes settled on me. My being human was going to come out. They’d all seen me in that memory, they knew about it, hiding it wasn’t going to be anything we could expect them to keep quiet on.
“You really think they’ll tell?” I asked, anyway.
“They’ve been missing for over a month,” The Captain said, leaning back. Before she started talking again, she noisily sucked her fingers clean of paste, her feathers ruffling from the taste. “They’ll be minor celebrities for weeks, and they’re already drinkers. Something’ll slip out.”
I pursed my lips, found another bit of glaze, and licked it off. Vali looked over at us with no small amount of distaste. “We should be gone by then,” Vali said. “I don’t want to have to answer any questions to His Majesty’s forces.”
“We’ll be gone when we’re gone,” The Captain said, vaguely. Her eyes flicked over to Vali’s. “While we’re sitting here… how long were you on that island?”
Vali opened all three of her eyes, and her third eye jerked one way, and then the other before closing securely. Her fingers curled into little fists, and her talons dug into the ground in front of her, marring the care she took in keeping them clean. Her lips opened, then closed, and she worked her jaw. I could see bits of biscuit in her teeth. “Twenty one repetitions.”
“Most of two years,” The Captain marvelled, leaning back. “That would be twenty deaths?”
“I didn’t always die,” Vali said, shaking her head a few times. “Sometimes I just didn’t live.” The words hung in the air like a criminal, and her eyes stared, glassily, ahead until she pulled her wings in front of her like a cloak. I put a hand on her shoulder and all three eyes snapped over to my fingers.
They stayed there until I let go. “Captain-”
“Jess is going to ask similar questions,” The Captain said. “Just a warning. You’re possibly the only Siren to ever be pulled out of one of those soul traps past the point of no return.”
“I have burned my share of trapped souls,” Vali said. “My Captain did her part in keeping the seas safe.”
“My mother,” The Captain said, and Vali twitched.
“I don’t recall My Captain having a daughter named Catastrophe. I do recall-”
“My mother,” The Captain repeated. “Taught me, perhaps too late, which rules I was to ignore, and which ones I was to obey-”
“-her having a pair of particularly ungrateful daughters, one of which swore to follow her aunt, and the other-” Vali continued.
“-and the most important rules she taught me was to kill that which was dead, and rescue that which was still alive-”
“-I can’t remember the name of, but was absent when my Captain went on her quest-”
“-and my mother is still alive, which-”
“Shut up!” I hissed at them both, and their lips shut at once. Both glared at me, realized they were doing the same thing, and then glared at each other instead.
“Captain, Vali served with your mother. Vali, my Captain is your Captain’s daughter and wants desperately to find her.” I gestured at both of them. “Figure the rest out.”
“She’s after the Venturing Owl,” Vali said, flatly. “I thought it was a stupid mission, and then she managed to throw ourselves into the past looking after it, and if she can do that and get out, she’s probably got a better idea of what to do than I do.”
“I know what she’s after,” The Captain said. “But now that I know what else is on board that ship-”
The Eye of the Worm, the terror that had turned the dead sea from living occupied territory into a hellscape of grasping creatures stealing souls from the living, was still onboard that ship, wherever it had ended up, and whoever found it would almost certainly find the eye. Whoever had the eye, well. Whoever had the eye could make another dead sea.
It was now even more important we find that ship. Even if I didn’t know what to do with the eye.
“I trust my captain,” Vali grunted, shaking her head. “She’ll keep it safe.”
“I need to get her back,” The Captain said, shaking her head. “We can chase after the ship later, I need to find her and bring her back to the houses.”
“Why?” Vali asked. “She’s still the leader of the House of the Venturing Owl-”
“She’s been gone two years,” The Captain ground out.
Vali’s eyes widened, and then she looked away. “Oh.”
The Captain shook her head. “I don’t want to fight over this. We both want to find her.”
“I hadn’t realized- Two years is a long time,” Vali exhaled, then looked down at her wings. “I’ve… missed my daughter’s birthday twice now. I’ve probably missed funerals, and…”
“We’ll find her,” I said. Both sirens looked down at me again, and Vali laughed.
“We’ll talk each other in circles for hours and Charm’ll just tug us right back in,” she said, shaking her head.
The Captain pressed her lips together into a thin little line. “I’ll cut to the point. Was there any particular reason why my mother was after The Owl?”
“Besides putting together the fame and fortune our house was supposed to have?” Vali asked. “She always had an interest in history.”
“Vali,” The Captain said, looking at the park in front of her. Nobody was listening. “Did my mother know about the Eye?”
Vali’s feathers shifted on her wings, and the scarred bird looked down, her eyes tracing over the scars that prevented her from flying. They might be healed yet, but it would be a very near thing. “I don’t know. She played her cards close. She’s a force of nature,” her voice went thin and reedy. “I… I don’t want to think she did, Catastrophe.”
The Captain closed her purple eyes. I could see the steady rise and fall of her chest, counted the seconds between them and realized she was taking deep breaths to calm down. “I don’t want to think she did either. Charm?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know her.”
She laughed. “Thank you for sticking around. I realize that you can put together why this is complicated- but we can discuss the rest later. Let’s go meet Jess.” She took a final bite out of her roll and stood up.
After a moment she turned to Vali, and offered the scarred siren her hand. She took it, and they stood up together. Then I joined the two of them and distantly hoped they might get along.
Jess’s office hadn’t changed. It was still pale white marble with a hoard of books, though the papers on the desk had been moved around, and a small seal sat on the wall, smelling of fresh ink and gleaming with His Majesty’s wax. The four eyed owl shuffled papers about, refusing to look up. “Catastrophe.”
“I do miss when you used to call me Captain,” The Captain said.
“I’ve never been a part of your crew,” Jess said, flatly.
The Captain grinned in reply, and Jess glared, standing up and hitting her over the head with a sheath of papers. Then her eyes moved over to Vali, sliding over the space where I was. “She’s new.”
“She’s a recent hire,” The Captain said. “That island you sent me to-”
“Was haunted by the soul of the island that refused to accept the genocide that occured there,” Jess interrupted. “Irony has already told me the details- and told me to send Charm over to her when you arrived.” The Owl’s eyes finally settled on me, and I stared back at her. “Three doors over,” Jess instructed. “I’ll be talking to Catastrophe and Vali while you’re gone, we have payment issues to barter over… among other things.”
“A shame we can’t do this more privately,” The Captain whispered. “I have so many pet names to remember.”
Jess’s feathers puffed up on her body, and she turned her sour glare back on the Captain. “Really, in front of your new crew member?”
“Vali has good taste,” Catastrophe defended herself, but gestured for me to leave. I scurried away, but not before I could hear the Captain take another blow over the head with a heavier stack of papers.
“Now, if we could talk about the issue of His Majesty-”
Three doors down I found the Professor’s room. The front of it was sheathed in a layer of dust, disturbed by the handprints around the door knob and a hand just under the name plate. I knocked twice, disturbing the dust a bit more.
Inside, something shuffled, then coughed, and then a minute later the door opened. Irony stood inside, a hand over her face, and a tear rolling down the corner of her cheek. She sniffed, congested, and then gestured me inside. “Charm!” She said, forcing enthusiasm into her voice. “I was just-”
I swallowed, and slipped inside. The Professor’s office was- well, it was what I expected a professor’s office to be. A massive map took up most of the wall, and given the spattering of tools on the table in front of it, it looked to be handmade. A few corrections had been sketched in on the placement of islands, in some of the farther ones, as many as miles and on the closer ones as many as a few yards. A compass sat on the desk, pointing unerringly northward.
She gestured helplessly at the map, and when I followed her fingers, I saw Outpost five, the very place we’d just returned from, with a small paper note attached that had Irony’s name on it. I swallowed.
Irony turned away, and coughed. “He wanted to wait for me, but I was a bit too long in transport,” she shook her head, eyes still watery. “What am I supposed to do with all of this?” she gestured.
Unbidden, memories of what he’d said in his last moments came to me. My head swam and I took a seat in a dusty chair. Comfortable, though the leather had cracked years ago and my robes stopped anything from being truly pleasant, as they always had. “He uh, he wanted me to give you a message.”
Her head snapped up, eyes flying around the room before settling on me. She crept towards the door and locked it. “He did?” She said, her voice almost manic in enthusiasm and intensity. “W-what’d he say?”
My eyes settled on a dusty suitcase in the corner, half shrouded by a filing cabinet’s shadow. “There’s a key in the suitcase,” I said.
Irony leapt on it like a dog did to meat, and pawed through it with a focus that telescopes would be jealous of. Sheaths of paper were carefully set to the side, covered in such lovely titles like “An exploration in minor Dracona” and “A survey of Deserted Islands, a comprehensive Treatise on the interaction between Empathy and Ephemera” and then dug farther and farther in until her fingers were scrabing against the leather lining. She hissed, narrowing her eyes, and then her rummaging became ever more frantic.
I walked over to her side and tried to help, but she butted me out of the way without a second’s thought, so I stood to the side and let her work.
She pawed through flaps and folders and even small trinkets covered in text I still couldn’t read before her claws found the base of the case and she tore at the fabric. Then and only then did she pull a key out from the mess.
“Okay,” Irony said, looking down at the small thing. It was tiny, with a head about the side of a fingernail. “Okay. So there’s a key. What else is there, Charm?”
“He said there were papers in the desk,” I said, taking a few steps away from her. “And you were to take them to Jericho.”
Irony’s concentration broke, and she turned and gave me a look. “Jericho?”
“Jericho,” I repeated. “He had a concussion at the time, maybe it’s nothing-”
“Jericho,” She said, shaking her head. “He’s an old co-writer of the professor. He’s been out of the academy for years,” Irony walked over to the desk. “Did he mention what papers…?”
‘He said they were in a hidden drawer,” I walked over to her side.
“Charm, use your Heart,” Irony looked up. “Look for locks.”
I stared at her for a moment, then dug out my necklace and flipped through the desk. There were many locks. Every drawer has a lock, in fact, enough that it was hard to parse through how many there were. I squinted at the locks, poking at them with my fingers. Irony grabbed at each one and tore it out of the socket, stacking them calmly on top of the desk. “This was his last request,” She said, when I looked at her. “So I should do it.”
She nodded, and I swallowed, because the brief glimpse I’d seen in her eyes looked like fire. The sort that would burn down the whole ship.
My heart rang that there were no more locks left after a moment, and I looked up at the various drawers, and then over at the key. If I were a professor… and I was in a school filled with people who could find things… how would I actually hide something? The locks would be a dead give away to anyone with a Heart, and yet he still had a key…
I ran my fingers over the interior of the desk, looking for answers, and found only screws and metal pieces holding the desk together. Irony tilted the key over and over again in her fingers, staring at the door, keeping a careful watch.
If I wanted to hide something, I’d put it somewhere nobody would think to look, and in something nobody would think to find. So it wouldn’t be in a drawer with a lock, and it wouldn’t be in a secret compartment, but instead… Irony tilted the key up into the light and my fingers knapped themselves against a hinge.
I squinted at the key and took a seat at the desk, put my hands on top of it and felt. Towards the back, the front part of the desk joined with the back part, forming a narrow gap, now choked with dust. I reached into the darkness of the desk and felt against the joints and hinges, then knocked once.
The gap was hollow through the desk, with just enough room for a few pieces of paper.
It wasn’t a key to any of those drawers… in fact it looked more like a screwdriver you’d use to take apart hinges. I grabbed it, tilted it, and reached into the heart of the desk. Irony leaned over top of me, her weight heavy against my shoulders.
I removed a screw, and then another, and then another, and the desk fell apart into pieces and an entire sheath of papers fell out of the cracks between the separate pieces of wood. Irony vaulted forward, clipping her scaled head against the top of the desk, and reeled back, staggering against the wall.
I picked up the results and arranged them into a more steady sheath and handed them to her as she rubbed her head. “These mean anything to you?” I asked.
She looked over them and frowned. “They’re in code,” she complained.
“He didn’t teach you any secret codes?” I asked.
“Do I look like some sort of code breaker?” Irony asked, shaking her head. “No, Jericho must have the key to this code… I just wonder what they’re supposed to be.”
I looked over at the desk, which was now in pieces, and the drawers, which were about to topple over, and considered how much of a pain it was to get to them.
Then I looked over the dust that covered every inch of the papers. “This is old stuff. He never took apart his desk to get to these.” I tried to picture it. A secret little line of papers hidden in his desk… and he’d have to take it apart nearly entirely to get to them. “This would have to be one of the last things he did before he’d leave,” I said out loud. “But if he did, nobody would think that something would’ve been hidden there.”
Irony whistled, and looked down at the papers again. Casually, she reached into a drawer, pulled out a folder, and tucked them inside, then tucked the folder into a larger folder marked with a compass and a map. “Well,” she said, brightly. “Thank you for helping me clear out his officer. Mind letting me move these things? I’d sure hate for this research to go to waste.”
Her grin was practiced, and the only reason I knew it was fake was because I’d seen her apply it.
It made my skin itch and crawl.