Ballad of the Venturing Owl (Part 5)

Thyn ruffled the hood of my robes again, and led me through the port. Here and there, fisherman pulled in catches, both professional and student, the only difference being a few years. Strange smells rang up from kitchens, mint leaves and fry oil, watermelon and nougat. The gulls overhead screeched for garbage, and in the distance, Sev cowered at their calls, hurrying back towards the ship. He joined us as we started aboard, carrying a massive amount of paper wrapped fish.

“Got a good selection?” Thyn asked.

“Yessir!” Sev said. “Salmon and that deep-fish the Captain likes so much.”

“I also like it,” Thyn said. “Can you show Charm how to prepare it later?”

“I was already going to do that,” Sev said. “The archeology department’s handling some of our latest acquisitions as well.”

I cocked my head at him, and then he pantomimed holding a knife, and I realized he’d taken the ancient chef’s knife to be repaired. “Vali’s as well?”

He bobbed his head. “I figured it’d be polite.”

“If we stay that long,” Thyn said. “I’ve got an ache in my right knee that says the Captain’s already found more mischief for us.”

“Really, your right knee?” I asked.

“That’s an old injury. You’ll have to ask the Captain about the Carnival,” Thyn said. “Turns out, some of her exes are actually still clingy.”

Sev shuddered. “I don’t want to think about the Carnival more than I have to.”

Thyn gave him a slight smile until the great fluff beast calmed down, and then disappeared below deck to stash his fish. “Come on, let’s hunt down the Captain.”

“Do you think she’s back yet?”

“She’s rarely away for long, even at port,” Thyn said. “She’s a creature of habit, just like everyone else. Come on.”

He gestured me forward, and I kept the chocolates balanced in my hand. The ship whispered and whimpered underneath our feet, the ship’s soul still not quite over the trauma anymore than the rest of us were, even if she hadn’t been trapped with us, nor had she seen the room with the sea of bones. Thyn reached out and gently touched the wood with the edges of his fingers, and I thought it might’ve calmed slightly.

Thyn knocked twice on the Captain’s door, and a flurry of movement from the otherside startled me. He caught the chocolates before they fell out of my grasp, though he winced from the effort.

“Yes?” The Captain asked. “Who needs me?”

“I do,” Thyn said.

Silence from the other side of the door.

“I brought chocolate?” Thyn tried, his voice turning it into a question.

“Is there anyone out there with you?” The Captain asked.

“Charm,” Thyn said. “Charm’s out here with me.”

Another silence. “You two may come in.”

Thyn opened the door. The Captain sat in the corner of the room, rimmed by books of many sizes and shapes, and a map spread across her bed. Her coat was popped a few buttons below what it normally was, though as we swept inside she popped it back up. “Captain-” Thyn said, his eyes falling onto the map. “Are you alright in here?”

“I’m fine,” The Captain said, though she clearly wasn’t. The few scrapes and cuts that she had taken were picked sore, including the one on her palm. “I’m… just nervous.”

Thyn took the box from me and offered it to her. She squinted her eyes, very bird like, and looked over the box, popping it open and instantly picking one labeled as a salty caramel and popping it into her mouth. While Thyn was watching, I stole my bag of caramels back from him.

“About?” Thyn asked.

She looked up at him. “I need a thief capable of stealing an angel.”

Thyn took in a deep breath, deep enough that it made every ridge and every spine sticking out of his body ripple and shake, and carefully placed the box into the Captain’s lap.

“You know what that means,” The Captain said. “But I didn’t know how to tell you.”

Thyn held his breath until his hands started to shake, and his eyes closed, and just as it seemed like he might explode, the air came whistling out of his mouth and he looked down at her. “Captain, I know I told you off about being reckless-”

“I know,” The Captain said, bowing her head. “I got another man killed.”

“That man would’ve been dead if we’d never arrived,” Thyn returned, his voice very quiet. “Charm, do you know anything about the Neverie?”

“The Neverie?” The Captain asked. “I thought Fangfall-”

“No,” Thyn said. “I received word that my old master, The Spider, has been making his home in the Neverie these days. He was finally caught out at Fangfall.”

“I know there’s a big party there,” I offered, and looked down at the map. Fangfall was a port to the east, a marker of the ship floating just off the shore of it, and the Neverie sat at the very middle of the map. The only island to the north of it, or the only feature, was a place labelled the grave of ships, and a few islands dotted the waters around the Neverie. Outposts 2 and 4. “And the Captain was fairly instrumental in keeping it free.”

“That was another time and another life,” The Captain said, popping another chocolate into her mouth. “How’d you know I’d need this?”

Thyn shook his head. “I’ve been your first mate for a long time,” he reminded her. “Enough to know what you want when you finally fall.”

“I can’t afford to keep failing,” The Captain said. “I saw the sister today, again, and she looked at me with the same eyes he had on his face and-”

“You’re a captain on the living sea,” Thyn said, evenly. “People die. It’s a dangerous place.”

“It’s a wonderful place,” The Captain returned. “I just find myself at the most dangerous parts of it. I wonder if it’s because of me, or-”

“There’s a weapon out there,” Thyn said. “Capable of turning an army into dirt. We might’ve been able to avoid going further if we hadn’t found that out, but now that we know, we have a responsibility to find it, and to take care of it. And take care of it soon.” There was a time limit. There was no telling how long the students could go without telling, and when others put together the dots…

The Captain chewed on her candy thoughtfully. “I would’ve thought you’d want us to stay away from it.”

“Do I have much of a choice now?” Thyn said, looking over at me. “I know what this means to you, and I know you can’t afford to let anyone walk who knows as much as I do.”

“Don’t talk about it like that,” she said, but couldn’t quite reach his eyes.

“It’s the levelheaded thing to do,” Thyn said. “That’s why you pay me.”

“I pay you for other reasons,” The Captain replied, finally wrenching her eyes up to his. “I enjoy having you around.”

“Back to the topic?” he asked.

“If we have to,” the Captain said.

He chuckled under his breath, shaking his head. “It may be suicidal to chase after-” He shook his head firmly. “For most people, it might be suicidal to chase after, but is there another crew on the entire sea that we can trust with it? I don’t know your mother-”

“I’m starting to think I didn’t either,” The Captain muttered mutinously.

“But I became your first-mate because I believe in you,” Thyn said, finally. “And if you intend on running us straight into the Kingdom of Heaven to figure out what’s happening… then I’ll still be on board, and I’ll join you in fighting. I’ve already gone through one afterlife with you, what’s another?”

The Captain looked up. “Could I have handled the island better? Should I have…?”

“I was on the ship,” Thyn said. “Surrounded by our sailors, who fought like the devil to protect me. If we hadn’t been on the island, perhaps I wouldn’t’ve been taken. Vali would be trapped, still, and all those students would be dead.”

“I noticed you were close to them, at the end,” The Captain said.

“I was forced along with those I had wanted to leave,” Thyn said, turning his head. He stared at a large portrait on the wall. “I had to listen to the stories they told themselves about who might save them. After a day or two, I told them that you were coming to save them, too.” His eyes flicked over to me.

“Then Charm arrived, and suddenly, my stories had meaning, had weight to them and-”

“You took their beatings for them,” I said, still feeling like an interloper.

“I did,” Thyn said. “Because I knew the Captain was going to save me.”

“You did?” The Captain asked, slowly standing up. She dislodged a few candy wrappers off of her clothes, and then stretched to her full height.

“Of course,” Thyn said. “And against my past judgement, I’m willing to go to the Neverie with you as well. Someone has to keep you grounded, after all.

The Captain’s purple eyes flicked off of Thyn, and then over to me, and then back to Thyn. “Charm,” She said, smoothly.

“Yes Captain?” I asked.

“Go prep the crew for the Neverie. Tell them that they’ve done such a good job lately I’m extending their shore leave.” I hesitated.

“Now,” The Captain snapped, her eyes focused on Thyn, and after a moment, I scurried off. Behind me, I heard a most peculiar thump, and then another, and then I was gone, a flush scattering itself over my face.

Most of the crew cheered when they heard the news, though Sev was off laboring in the kitchen, and Folna looked even more sour than she normally did, turning off and walking past me to find her rooms. I ignored Folna and slid into the kitchen instead. Vali sat on top of one of the tables, a peeler in her hand, and peeled carrots, shucking great strings of them into a bin in front of her. Sev chopped at the chicken, crunching bones and simmering them for stocks in a great pot. Both looked up when I peered inside.

“We’re headed to the Neverie next,” I pronounced. Vali kept her eyes on me but continued peeling. Her wing was once again done up in bandages, and a bloody edge rimmed them. Vali caught my eyes on it, and flexed it, a wince at the corner of her mouth.

“Folna thinks that if we’re lucky, we’ll be able to get more use out of it,” Vali said. “I’m not so sure, but-”

Sev clicked his knife against the cutting board. “The Neverie?” he asked. “I don’t think I’ve ever been there.”

“There was a big battle there,” Vali said. “Some ten years ago or so. Sirens and His Majesty’s forces tangled over the place. After a month or two, the Sirens came around to fighting for the port’s freedom rather than struggle with both the rogues on board and His Majesty’s forces alike.” She looked marginally grateful for the distraction. I kept my eyes off of her wounds, and hoped she could ignore the bruises still on my throat, though I knew they were starting to fade into greens and yellows.

“Were you there?”

“No,” Vali said. “I was off getting another eye at the time,” Vali said, baring her red pair. “They tended to keep their injured off the front lines.”

“Ah,” I said, intelligently.

“Ah,” She said, not quite mocking, but with an edge to it. Then she turned and looked over Sev’s handiwork. “The Neverie is also known as Shore Leave in certain circles. There’s enough memory palaces and red-houses to keep a crew company for months at a time, and some sailors never leave at all.”

“What happens to their ship?” I asked.

“It either leaves them, or joins the ranks of those roped together,” Vali said. “It’s not that far from the grave of ships, after all, and to be used as part of an island keeps the spirits happier than most anything else, I’ve found.”

Sev looked over at me. “Are you going to help with dinner, or are you still doing the Captain’s work?”

“I need to go find Irony,” I said, truthfully, and also because my hands shook at the thought of doing anything in the kitchen any time soon. The very instant I thought about peeling, and that rhythm, I started smelling blood.

I darted off before they could say anything, but I did catch the concern written across Vali’s face. Obviously, I couldn’t see much of Sev’s.

Ballad of the Venturing Owl (Part 4)
Ballad of the Venturing Owl (Part 6)