Slipping into the middle of town and checking bars, I didn’t find them among any of the student affairs. Would be mages and actual mages traded stories of the mysterious hidden academs, which I didn’t care to hear about, though eyes settled on my uniform and a few saluted me as we walked off.
Vali shook her head. “I think I know where they might be. You’re not a drinker, are you Charm?”
“Never left home long enough for that,” I said. Vali scoffed, and then she took a spin down an alley and away from the ivory streets where the students were plenty, and more towards the back and merchant areas, like where Sev had taken me to see the blacksmith back on the Cat’s Paw.
Resting in the shadows, just upwind of where the fish merchants were busy (I saw Sev among their number, and figured we’d have good fish when we shoved off from port) Vali dipped into a bar marked by a sail and stepped inside. I found Sampson, almost immediately, tucked to the side with a set of dice, and he waved us over.
“There you are,” Sampson said. “Thyn said you’d be joining us eventually.”
“Did he now?” I asked.
“And-” Sampson squinted his crow eyes at Vali, cocking his head to the side. “I’m sorry-”
“Vali,” the three eyed siren said. “Vali of the Venturing Owl.”
“Right,” Sampson said, snapping the fingers of his offhand. Then he tossed the dice, squinted down at the results, cut a smirk and passed them to the next, a grad student who’d recently left out ship. The student glared at Sampson and took his throw. “You’re the Captain’s aunt.”
“Close enough,” Vali grunted. “Where’s the rest of the crew?”
“Off getting sweets, I reckon,” Sampson said. “A Master’s Menagerie Merchant’s in town, and we did just all get paid.” The crow looked up, raised an eyebrow at the student, and then took his coins off of the table. “I just got paid twice.”
The student glowered, and through his hands up. “Sampson, how do you cheat so well?”
“Bah,” Sampson said. “I’m just born lucky!”
The student huffed at him and took a drink out of a dirty mug, leaning back in his chair to point at him. “I’m sure my luck will return the very second you leave,” The student said.
“Is Thyn off with the merchant?” I asked.
Sampson stood up and swept his dice off of the table. “Hate to win and run, but duty calls.”
“Charm doesn’t remotely look like your duty,” The student grunted. “But sure. I’m tired of trying to figure out your tricks.”
“Don’t be so sullen,” Sampson crowed, laughing. “You’ll get there eventually!”
The crow stepped away from the table, and gestured at the wider room. A few of the other sailors peeled away from the ruckus, including the tiger who had gone with me on the ill fated trip into the ghost ship, Richard.
“Vali?” I asked. “Are you coming along?”
“I’ll stay here,” Vali said. “Too much sugar makes me nauseous.”
“Make it back to the ship on time,” I said, and instantly regretted it. I sounded like my mother. Vali looked more amused than insulted.
“You know you couldn’t get rid of me if you tried.”
Sampson led me out of the bar before I could humiliate myself anymore, and gently guided me through the crowds with a hand on my shoulder. When we were alone with the other sailors in an alley, the crow stopped. “Hey. The rest of us want to know if you five are alright.”
I blinked at him.
“We caught Sev crying his eyes out over dinner,” Sampson said. “It might be none of our business, but…we saw the bodies just as much as you did, down there. Is everything alright?”
“Five of us got out,” I said, and my heart gave an awful stutter. Because we’d gone in with four, and come out with five, and left one behind. “And-”
Sampson rested a wing in front of me, and for a moment all I could smell was black feathers. Richard flanked the other side of me, giving me a bit of support, and the other sailors fanned around us.
“The professor didn’t make it,” I said. It felt obvious, and trite to say it like that. “Thyn, Thyn got roughed up.”
“Tortured,” Richard corrected.
“Yeah,” I said, though that word was harder to get out than the previous dozen. “He did.”
“What about you?”
“I got choked,” I said. “A little. Roughed up, definitely. Was just- was pretty useless the entire time.”
Sampson took a step towards the end of the alley, and gestured for the rest of us to join him. “It’s… well, it’s not okay to be useless, but honestly, Thyn and the Captain, they’re better than a lot of us at this. Fighting unnatural horrors and the like. You don’t need to feel bad for not being good at that. Most of us here are just sailors out for coin and adventure.” Sampson kept gesturing until the rest of the sailors joined him
“If I keep getting dragged along-”
“Ay,” Sampson said. “But we’ll help you with that.” He stood up straight and gestured at the rest of the sailors. “We’re plenty peeved that she left without us! So the next time, we’ll just have to be good enough to get there!”
“Aye!” Richard said, grinning. “But, that’s another time. The Menagerie’s in town, so we’re sweeping by there.”
The path led us towards the port proper. Another ship bearing His Majesty’s banner had blown in, but more interesting than that, a ship with a handwoven flag stood at port, a gleaming shimmering rainbow mocking the dim sun, taunting the oncoming storm. At the front of the ship sat a man. Half a man, with the rest being spider. Many legs stretched behind him, so he straddled atop it like a centaur, and thus, he took up an utterly massive space. Eight eyes stood proudly atop his head, and he kept a solemn watch.
“Don’t mind him,” Sampson advised, stepping onto the plank. I adjusted my robes to make sure as little of myself was exposed as possible, and joined the crew mounting the ship.
“Have a good time,” The Spider greeted. “Or else.”
Sampson laughed. I stared at the spider-man, head tilted slightly to the side.
“Our transaction will be good, big guy,” Richard said, and the sailors barked out other bits and pieces of words. I managed to just nod my head. The Spider looked over us, his grin exposing long fangs, and then he gestured behind him at the door. It opened without a hand to do so. Sampson ignored the obvious trickery and stepped inside.
“Welcome to the Merchant’s Magical Menagerie!” The Spider said, and I hurried down into the depths of the ship to get the eyes off of me.
Instantly, I was greeted by smells of sugar and oil, and sugared oil and oiled sugar, and everything in between. I was prepared so little for it that I stopped midstep, and Richard bumped into me, pressing me onward. “Don’t hold up the line! We haven’t been in town for one of these in months!”
I marched on ahead, though the sides of the passage felt utterly claustrophobic, and only when we slipped into the hold did I see the source of the smell. Bins stood at attention, covered in sweets of all sorts, things I’d only heard of back home, and many things I hadn’t. Toffees and taffy, bits of things that might’ve been chocolate, great piles of caramel and a mess of flavored things in bottles. Behind a counter that felt as long as a mile, marked with hundreds of prices, another spider sat, a fine and proper poncely and princely suit atop his body. He watched us over top of a massive book. “Ah! Captain Catastrophe’s crew? Will she be visiting us today?”
“Probably not,” I said. Sampson rolled his eyes.
“She favors bon-bons. Do you still have those?”
“Of course,” The spider said, gesturing off in a far corner. “The Master knows she has a sweet tooth.”
“Does everyone know the Captain?”
“She hasn’t exactly been quiet since she showed up,” Sampson said. “When a Captain shows up carrying the heads of monsters and taking daredevil missions, word gets around.”
“She also delivers rare supplies for us,” The Spider said. Unbidden, I remembered the conversation that Thyn had with the Captain about dangerous runs, and wondered exactly how many of those were as dangerous as Outpost 5. Given her reaction… few of them. “So a minor discount for the lot of you! Stock up!”
“How minor is minor?” Sampson asked, squinting down his beak at the spider.
“Five percent,” The spider replied
Sampson shrugged. “Five percent it is! Stock up!”
I stood at the very center, half stunned, and watched the crew scurry about. Richard had an armful of lollis in half a second, and placed them gently into a basket. Bottles of brightly colored fluids were exchanged with talons, and bits of liquorice were made up.
“You look lost, kid,” The spider said, looking down at me. Considering he was as large as the average wagon, he really did look down at me.
“I’ve never had this stuff before,” I admitted. The Spider gasped, his mouth opening to show off every single sharp thing in his mouth, and then he started to rummage behind his counter. He pulled out a caramel, still painstakingly wrapped in a plastic pouch, and offered it to me, attached to a leg that ended in a murderous point.
“Here. Take this and enjoy this.”
“Uh,” I said, looking down at it. “What’s the transaction?”
“Enjoying it,” he said. “I give you this, and you enjoy it.”
I squinted at him. “What?”
“The store is covered in good things,” The spider said. “Like happiness, and hedonism. We get that from the customers, who shop here. In exchange for candy and also we get their money.”
“So… you’re not going to take my face?”
The Spider laughed. “Does this look like the Neverie? No, if the Master went around buying faces, he wouldn’t get to sell any candy!”
“So I take this,” I said, gesturing at the small caramel.
“Yes,” The spider said, expectantly.
“And in return, you want me to be happy,” I continued.
“So that the store will be happier-”
“And more people will buy candy,” The spider finished.
“And that’s it?” I asked.
“Take the damn candy, kid,” Sampson said, patting me on the shoulder. “The Master’s sweet. Don’t go accusing them of things they don’t do.”
I took the piece of candy, unwrapped it, and plopped it into my mouth. It wasn’t quite true that I hadn’t had candy before, but it was close enough. My mother very rarely candied things with sugar my father brought back from the lord, and she’d tried to teach me, but we’d ended up burning it so much that we’d never done it again.
But here, there was nothing burnt about it, there was only sweetness and butter and heavy cream. I forgot what I was doing and moved it about my tongue before sinking my teeth down into it. My expression went slack, and I toppled forward, catching myself on the counter.
“Woah,” I said.
“That’s right,” The Spider said. “Our business has been settled. Do you want to buy some candy, kid?”
I stared at the store around me, and dug into my talon purse, counting out coins by the feel of the hole in the center. I put out a dozen of the coins on the table, and the spider skewered and lifted them up through the hollow. “How much caramel will that buy me?”
He thought it over for a moment, clearly doing math in his head, then slung the coins into a jar behind him. He knelt down enough to use his human hands, and then brought forth a massive bag. He tilted a bin into it, then handed it over to me. It sat in my hand like a heavy weight, heavy enough to break open a skull.
I didn’t want to think about that, so I opened up the bag, removed a caramel, and put it right back into my mouth. It did the lion’s share of the work of chasing the thoughts away. “Is that all you need?”
“Myesh!” I said, brightly.
The spider laughed, shaking his head. “Well, if you need anything else, you know where to find me-”
“Actually,” The First-mate interrupted, stepping out from behind a bunch of bins. I startled, and he caught me before I slammed my hip into the counter. “Could you also get Charm some of those chocolates behind you?”
“The expensive ones?” The Spider asked.
“Yes,” Thyn said, slapping a much thicker golden coin on the table. I stared down at it, and Thyn lightly nudged me. “This is what His Majesty’s coin looks like. It’s called a golden royal.”
“That’ll buy you a lot of chocolate,” The spider noted.
“Is that so bad?” Thyn asked. “I have someone special to buy it for- and Charm’s going to help carry it.”
“Alright,” The spider shrugged, collecting the order. After a minute or two, he held several boxes in front of him. Thyn leaned forward, making his bandages stretched, and grunted from the pain. With an aggravated sigh, he gestured for me to carry the boxed, and he grabbed my caramels instead.
“Come on, let’s bring these for the Captain. She likes these things.”
“Tell the Captain that the Master’s still expecting her company over at Sugar-Foam!”
“I will,” Thyn said.
“Good luck,” The Spider greeted, bowing his head. I balanced the long boxes of chocolate in my hands. It was pretty good wood. Thyn stepped towards the stairs and I followed after him.
“How’re you feeling?” I asked.
“Better,” Thyn said. “Stiff, and I still hurt. The dreams’ll take longer to go away, how’re you doing with those?”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” I said, and stole another caramel to drive those thoughts away too. It didn’t keep the Colonel’s face, so like my own, from hovering in my eyes, if only for a moment.
“Careful,” Thyn said, a laugh buried in his voice. “These’ll rot your teeth right out of your skull. And-” He sighed. “The dreams’ll fade with time. In our line of work, you’ll find something else to replace them soon enough. What poor luck to have that happen in our second outing.”
“Could be worse,” I said, automatically.
“It could,” Thyn agreed, and we mounted the stairs together. “I just wanted to say thank you. For finding me.”
“The Captain would’ve found you eventually,” I said.
“I know that,” Thyn said. “But she didn’t, and you found me, and you came back for me, and that means a lot.” He gently ruffled my robes with a hand. “We’re in this mess together.”
“You’re going to be sticking around?” I asked.
Thyn reached into his pocket and pulled out a slice of candied orange and sucked on it for a moment, looking over the edge of the ship into the roiling waters of the living sea. “Like I have much of a choice. If I left, the Captain would burn herself out in a week!” His laugh was more like a bark. His teeth bit into the peel and then he munched the entire thing.
“We can’t have that,” I said. Even as I said that, I could feel the phantom hands around my throat again, and the pained breaths Vali took, half crucified.
“Besides,” He said, his voice lower. “It’s a good mission. Especially after…” He didn’t have to say it. We weren’t just chasing after history now, we were chasing after the Eye.
The Eye that had turned the western edge of the Living Sea into an undying hellscape filled with ghosts who stole souls. The Eye that had left on the Venturing Owl.
The Eye that would turn any person into a master of the seas, just through threat of use. Something like that couldn’t just remain out there for anyone to grab.
“Aye,” I said, adopting Sampson’s tones. “That’s… something.”
Thyn shook himself away from the rails and nodded at the guard spider. “Give your master our regards.”
“I’ll give Father your words,” The Spider said. “Keep breathing.”
“Aye,” Thyn replied, and then we slid off of the ship. “You’ll have to see about getting some taffy from the other members of the crew, it’s what the Master’s famous for.”
“I will,” I said, awkward. “Thyn, are you-”
“Okay?” he asked, plodding ahead with precision on the gangplank.
I nodded. He stared out ahead of him, his hands a slight tremor, and then he took out another orange slice and sucked on it.
“The tremors will stop soon enough,” Thyn said. “The rest- that’s for another matter, isn’t it?”
“I guess,” I said.
“Now come, if you linger on the docks too long, the students will come beg you for stories.” Thyn said, slyly, munching on the orange slice.
“The horror,” I said, flat.