Ballad of the Venturing Owl (Part 6)

Irony wasn’t in her room. I still knocked and waited at the door for a moment, shifting my weight from foot to foot, and enjoyed, for once, the moment of being alone. Even being alone felt wrong, like a second skin that wasn’t quite pressed so I couldn’t feel it, like a shirt too tight and loose, buttons swallowing my breath like a snake. But being alone also felt right, because I didn’t have to look at the crook of a neck and pretend that I hadn’t seen something just like my mother dead on the floor.

It made it hard to breath, and it dove cold fingers into my muscles and tangled it up with my tendons until it was only the beating of my heart, off pace and off balance that kept me on my feet.

I can’t be sure how long I stood there in front of the door, chest heaving, pretending I couldn’t smell blood, until Irony cleared her throat behind me. I turned and threw her a harried look, eyes wide, and felt a beat of sweat roll down my cheek despite the relatively cool confines of this part of the ship, close to the water.

“You alright over there?”

I swallowed and leaned back against her door, reminded of the confines of the ghost ship, and the navigator’s mysteriously closed door, and how nice it would’ve been to just drift off with her. “No,” I said, finally, realizing I hadn’t spoken but just stared at her.

“I don’t think I’m alright either,” Irony said. “So we should stick together. You want to talk?”

“Is there anywhere to talk on this ship? Everyone- everyone that was there is-”

“Shhh,” Irony said, and very gently took my hand. “You look like you’ve gone powder shy. Come on, I know a good place.”

She led me down the hall, and then down the hall further, into a small room. At first, I thought it was pitch black, but I could still see the outline of my hands in front of my face. I could hear the gentle rocking back and forth of the ship in the waves, like an enormous child floating atop a pool of salt.

Irony gestured up, where a single red beam was cast. “This is where the ship’s soul rests.”

“I’ve never seen her,” I said, peering up. It was a distraction from thinking about how we’d nearly all died. I welcomed it like a prisoner welcomes the sun.

“It’s odd,” Irony said, leaning back, her scales glinting softly in the red glow. “From what I understand, Siren ships are normally more active than this.”

“I’ve met one or two,” I admitted. “One tried to drown me.”

Irony didn’t reply, and in the silence, I heard the ship burble and bubble and mumble like a young child might, quiet and soft. A little plaintive cry.

Irony tittered softly, her tail twitching behind her, and closed her eyes. “I think the redlight is lovely,” She said. “And nobody bothers you here.”

All I could think of was how tight and dark the place was, that queer room, half unfinished, with nothing in it at all except two people who ought to know better than to be so scared and hurt. “We’re heading to the Neverie,” I said.

“Good,” She said in reply. “That’s where Jericho ought to be.”

“Some coincidence, huh?” I asked.

“Of course not,” Irony said, shaking her head. “It’s a port for rogues. Jericho’s a heretic. There are few places on the sea that are safe from him, and the Order of the Lantern certainly wouldn’t take him in.”

“Who are they?” I asked.

“Ask Folna,” Irony said. “I’m fairly sure she’s part of the order. They make the Lanterns that keep away reapers and sea ephemera.”

I closed eyes and the room’s darkness became absolute. It sent a shiver down my spine. If I took a step into the darkness, perhaps it would take me and tug me down far below, into an endless abyss.

Then, at least, I could close my eyes without seeing the dead, human and siren, tossed together like salad.

“I hadn’t really thought about the professor until after we landed,” Irony said, quietly.

“You don’t have to talk about this if you don’t want to,” I offered. I wasn’t sure if I was up for it either- but if it wasn’t me, who would listen?

“I just feel so guilty,” Irony said, shaking her head. “Like if I’d cared more, there’d be more of him left, you know?”

It was the same reason I didn’t think about my family. The same reason watching the Colonel die hurt so much, the same reason why it kept getting tangled up inside of me.

“I know,” I said.

She relaxed, letting air hiss out between her sharpened teeth, and she sighed. “It’s a bit cramped in here for two. You want to leave?”

“If you need to be alone,” I said.

“Is there anyone you’d want to be alone with?” Irony asked.

I frowned at her.

“You know that this is only going to get worse from here,” Irony said. “Anyone in the Captain’s wake is going to be dragged into these again and again. No matter who they are. Especially you.”

Irony’s enthusiasm for the past had been well tempered by living through it. Hopefully, I’d be tempered as well, emerge from this stronger, more together, but all I could think was that I still felt molten and jumpy and out of it, an outsider who’d been burned on the radiance of the world I’d intruded upon.

I opened the door and slid back into the hallway, then offered Irony my hand. She looked over it like an artist might, taking in the larger details and disassembling them into simple shapes, and then shook her head. “I’ll keep the ship company, thank you.”

I didn’t have anything else to say to that, and she realized that, so she gave me a sad tiny smile and shut the door, and I scurried away feeling more useless than I had in days.

It was nearly nightfall, at that rate, so I hurried off to my room instead of lingering. I didn’t sleep so much as I lay there in a daze thinking of things, but despite that, I woke up rested.

If there was justice, I would’ve been bedridden and woken up covered in sweat and dreading the morning, but there didn’t seem to be, so I woke up rested.


I left the next day with Folna, and we set up a market stall. I stole over to the bakery and grabbed a few more rolls, stuffed one in my mouth, and offered the other to her. She gave it a curious sniff and then bit into it with a surprisingly dainty set of teeth. I didn’t watch her beyond that.

Most of the artifact we’d recovered already belonged to the academy, so we mostly sold trinkets and scales from the divine serpent we’d killed a month ago, whose scales were still gleaming in the dark. Funny how little that haunted my dreams compared to everything else.

Folna gave me a once over, and then a checkup to make sure my ribs were knitting (they were) and that my neck was fine (probably), and around lunch, shoved me off to go find something to do.

I only made it out of the market before the Captain found me, and put a hand on my shoulder until I looked up at her, and when that happened, she put a caramel into my hand. I unwrapped it and ate it, and she elbowed me. “Come on, brighten up a little. We’ve got another day here, after all.”

“Bit hard to do that,” I said, mouth full of caramel so sticky that strands hung between my teeth.

“I’ll take you to more lessons?” The Captain offered.

“For?” I blinked.

“Being a Navigator. You’ve got the basics down, that is, keeping us from being lost,” The Captain said, her other wing tugged in front of her like a cloak. “But there’s a bit more to it.”

“Like?”

“The best Navigators can breach open lies, divine truths, and walk on water,” The Captain said.

“Like your old Navigator?” I asked.

“He didn’t walk on water,” The Captain said. “But his scrying was the best in the land.”

“Do you think that he saw his own death?”

The Captain paused. While we’d been talking, she’d somehow managed to get me to the front of the academy, where we stared at the front doors together.

“Probably,” she said, her voice clipped. “He’d been looking for his family. On the other side, I mean. He refused to tell me what he saw when he scryed the lands of the dead. Apart from the Worm. He always saw the Worm.”

My eyes were filled with the radiance of a maw as large as the universe, and I missed the next step. The Captain’s talon shot out to keep me balanced before I fell on my face, and I brushed myself off before we kept going. “How’s Thyn doing?”

“He’s a bit scratched up,” The Captain said, apologetically. “But I really think we worked things out between the two of us. For now.”

I looked down at her talons, and then up at the slightly smug expression on her face, and swallowed, shaking my head. The Captain could do what she wanted, and I wouldn’t judge. She elbowed me again, and I managed a chuckle at least. “I’m glad to hear that.”

“I am too,” She said. “Now, can you find me Jess?”

I grabbed onto my heart, squeezing the little golden nodule between my fingers, and closed my eyes. I held my other hand out like a dousing rod and the Captain guided me down hallways until we stopped.

Jess was in a classroom teaching. If I craned my ears, I could just barely hear her talking about various shipwoods.

The Captain took a seat on a bench across the way, her eyes focused on the owl just barely visible through the thin slats of the window. Her gaze didn’t shake or shift, and she sat there, idly bouncing her leg over top of the other, talons just barely touching the stone with a steady click.

It was a good sound, better than the ship writhing on top of the ocean, and better than silence, so I closed my eyes and focused on that instead. Five, ten minutes, and the doors opened and the student navigators slipped out, apart from a few that lingered to ask questions.

Then Jess slipped out and glared at the Captain. “I was under the impression I cast you away to take your business elsewhere.”

“I can’t escort my star Navigator to your side?” she asked, cocking her head to the side.

“For what?” Jess said, her voice sharp.

“Lessons,” I said, peeling myself off of the wall.

“Oh,” Jess said, looking at me instead of the siren. “I suppose… we have room for a lesson today. If the Captain leaves us.”

“Really, I can’t listen in?”

“Your soul is as corroded as The Master’s teeth,” Jess said.

“Oh, it’s far worse than his,” The Captain said. “He has very good teeth.”

Jess raised a feathered brow, unimpressed, and opened up the other pair of eyes to further her glare.

“Fine, fine,” The Captain said, shaking her head. “I know when I’m unwelcome.”

“Do you now.” Jess managed to make her voice even flatter.

The Captain blew her a kiss, and then stepped off, clicking all the way.

“You used to date her?” I asked.

“She’s charming,” Jess said. “And she’ll do anything to make things right.”

“So why…?”

“There are some things you can’t make right,” Jess said. “And she learns lessons like that poorly. Enough about my lovelife, you sound like one of my actual students.” She gently took my hand, and then we made our way down the hall and towards her office. Without Vali and the Captain in it, it once again felt large and regal.