Ballad of the Venturing Owl (Part 7)

“I noticed that you and Irony cleared out her professor’s room,” the owl noted. “He was an interim professor- but he’ll be missed, deeply.”

I flashed back to a dark tunnel, fire, blood in the air, my heart throbbing like a drum, and shook like a leaf.

“Wearing your heart around your neck might make you more prone to emotions,” Jess said.

“How?” I asked. “You seem so-”

“Years of practice and years of mistakes,” Jess said. “I used to be quite the firebrand.”

When I didn’t reply, she clarified.

“Literally and metaphorically.”

“You could set fires?” I asked.

“Most Navigators discover one or two paths that they are better at than others. I am very good with conjuring fire, like those that trail around the mast of ship’s, Crow’s Eyes.” Ball lightning, St Elmo’s fire, the breath of a waiting god-

“Can I do that?”

“You’re exceptionally new. In a few years, maybe.” Jess said. “May I see your heart?”

I undid the chain and held it out to her. She ran her fingers along the knot I’d tied in it to keep it around my neck after having it snapped, and gently squeezed the golden thing that hung there. I felt an unpleasant twinge in my stomach.

“It’s still attuned to you,” she said, looking up. “You’re still who you used to be.”

“I’m easier to startle,” I said. “And I keep thinking about-”

She held up a hand. “We all learn how to deal with trauma,” She said. “Some people figure it out very quickly. Others stuff it away where it can’t hurt them, or where it can’t hurt anyone else.” Her eyes settled over my shoulder and to the door, where the Captain might’ve been if she hadn’t run off.

“Which is better?”

“Dealing with it,” Jess said. She held up the hand again, cutting me off before I could even start. “I understand you might not be able to. But as the Navigator, there will come times when people will rely on you to be the master of your emotions, instead of the other way around. You became a Navigator because you were lost. Don’t lose yourself again. And just because not everyone can deal with it doesn’t mean they’re wrong or weak.”

“What does that even mean?” I asked.

“I’m going to teach you how to meditate.”

Something in my face fell, because she looked up at me, opening her second set of eyes. “Do you want to learn more? You’d have to learn how to meditate regardless.”

“Alright,” I said, swallowing back indignation.

She handed me back my heart, and I tied it back up around my neck. She reached into her feathers and pulled hers free, then clasped it in her hands.

“Normal folks, those who have not striated their heart as we have, might have more trouble than we do, as Navigators,” Jess instructed, and her heart gleamed betwixt her fingers, casting light.

“But we have hearts,” I said.

“We do,” Jess said. “Our hearts are who we are. There are two methods,” she said. “On how to do this quickly. One is to use our hearts as a reservoir, and shove everything that is bothering us inside of it.”

“That sounds… easy enough. Metaphorically,” I said.

“As I said before, that’s not a good way of handling it,” Jess said. “But it is an option nonetheless.”

“If it’s not a good way, why are you bringing it up at all?” I asked.

“Because sometimes we don’t have the luxury of waiting until we can deal with it the proper way,” Jess said. “When your comrade has been cut down in front of you and his last words have been lost in the gurgle of what used to be his throat, do you take the time to meditate on it to deal with the overwhelming fear and pain?”

I stared at her, and her eyes were wide and wild. “I don’t know if-”

Her hands came crashing down on the desk, and I jumped at the noise, so similar to the sound of heavy boots on a cave floor and suddenly my eyes were full of a burning village and a woman standing over top of me, knife pressed inches away from my right eye and in the next instant the chair came tumbling down next to me and I was on the ground, dazed, staring up at the ceiling. It was painted to resemble the sea, islands dotting it like a child’s map.

Jess sighed. “You can take your seat again. I trust I’ve made my point?”

My heart beat in my chest like a drum, and I could hear the dogs in the tunnels again, could smell blood and metal polish, and could feel Sev’s heart under my fingers, throbbing as he howled in pain-

“Yes Ma’am.”

“I’m a professor,” Jess said.

“Yes Professor,” I corrected myself.

“Take your heart,” She said. “Into your hands.” she demonstrated.

I wrapped my fingers around it and felt it thrum. Almost instantly, I closed my eyes, and felt dozens, almost a hundred other hearts throb, gleaming and hanging around the throats of the other Navigators. So many of them were here, and so few of them were here as well.

“And instead of focusing on everything around you,” She said and her voice came from all at once. I turned and in my mind’s eyes she, and only she, as I could see nothing else and taste nothing else, but I could hear many other things, stood like a radiance creature, thick lines of ink marring the placid paperlike shadow she cast in my mind. Like thin canvass over the light of the sun.

“Yes?”

“Focus on nothing,” She said. “You’ll find yourself instead.

My eyes came open. She stood just as she had in the heart-sight. “Nothing?”

“Nothing,” she said. “The universe is ultimately nothing, after all, but a correlation of tiny specks, collaborating to pretend to exist. The only thing we can confirm is real is ourselves.”

“I don’t like that thought,” I said.

“Navigators get to lift up the veil and stare into the heart of the world,” She said. “I don’t imagine that we like most of the things we see out there.”

I closed my eyes again, clutched at my heart, and instead of throwing myself out to listen and hear and taste and feel the chaos around me I tugged myself back in. My hearing became circular and insular, internal, until I could hear the minor noise of my joints, and the fluid passing through my veins, and the very tiny actions of even my eyes.

“Deeper,” She whispered, distant as a candle on a passing ship, gleaming in the pitch of night.

I tugged myself deeper still, and instead of the heart clutched in my fingers, I heard my own heart. It was hard as a rock and twice as brilliant, and it beat, steady, a lub-dub, a lub-dub, a lub-dub.

It was strange to think that a fist sized chunk of meat kept me alive, but that was how it worked for creatures. Winding around it, almost ephemeral, I could hear the hollow that had been carved around it, and I could listen to how it distorted the beat, not enough to hurt or hamper, but enough to mark it differently and taste the gleaming metal that might be mined. I was fairly sure that I’d never find it without the slippery trace of the Navigator’s hearing.

“Do you see yourself?” she asked. “Your brain does your thinking, but your heart does your living. Both are important. Can you hear yourself?”

I could hear myself quicken at the sound of her voice, could hear my heart throb again and again and again until it practically ached from repetition.

And yet… it was soothing to hear myself, to minimize everything else. “I can,” I said.

Fingers touched mine, and gently I was roused and brought back into the land of the living. I touched down, and my eyes fluttered open, and the panic that had been chasing and ribbing at my thoughts for the last hour or two had vanished, left behind by a peculiar and placid calm.

“That’s how you center yourself,” she said, smoothly. “Remember who you are.”

“What if I’m not that person anymore?” I asked.

“Then be the new you,” she said. “We are a continuation, a succession of selves, carved up like masks, arranged on a stage. None are more real than the last, and the operating actor beneath the mask is a muddle and mixture of all those shapes and places and faces.”

“I… don’t really get that,” I said. “I get, obviously, that I change over time, and that I am different with different people.”

“Those experiences change who you are,” she said, simply, and flatly. “I’ll be honest with you, I deal with people with far less emotional intelligence than you on a regular basis.”

The mysticism had come to an almost terminal halt. I fluttered my eyes to blink it away, and she leaned forward. “Charm,”

“I have another name,” I muttered under my breath. She arched an eyebrow. “Never mind. Charm is it.”

“I’ll be blunt with you,” Jess said, flat. “You’re on board the most dangerous ship on the Living Sea. The Captain is drawn, like a moth to the flame, to her goals and dreams, and she will drag everyone with her to the edge of death.”

“I know,” I said. “We… we lost-”

She held up a hand and cut me off before I could finish the thought. “You’ll encounter worse things out there,” She said, gesturing up at the painted mural. “I just want you to figure out a way to cope.”

“I-” I breathed in, and then breathed out, and let it tickle across my teeth and tongue, and I found that focusing on it had made the pain more distant, and breathing easier had made it easier to bare, and the terror wasn’t quite there either.

“I’m guessing that was your first death?” Jess said, not unkindly.

“Except for the old Navigator,” I said. “Is it wrong that one feels worse than the other?”

Jess shut all four of her eyes. “You were hardly attached to these seas when you saw him die. You hardly knew him for more than a day, and you fought beside the professor. It’s only nature that would become attached to the professor-”

“He saved me,” I said. “He convinced Sev to fight.”

Jess’s eyes were closed, but her ears twitched. “Hold that thought we have-”

Someone knocked on the door smartly, impetuous and yet refined. Jess’s feathers puffed up, and she growled under her breath. She marched over to the door. “I’m with a student, can’t this wait?”

The door opened before she could get there, revealing the lion who had been harrassing the Captain at the docks. He stepped inside, and his gaze settled across the robes keeping me shrouded. “He’s one of your students?”

I tucked my heart back into the folds of my robe and stood up. “Is that a problem?”

“I don’t recall a Navigator being registered to that ship,” The lion said. “Weren’t you trying to keep track of all of the Navigator’s trained here?”

“He wasn’t trained here, Rupert,” Jess said.

“But he’s your student,” Rupert said, crossing his arms. Behind him, a guard stood, cloaked in heavy armor. Every so often, my eyes would twitch over to him, and I’d have to fight to see the differences between this set of armor and the armor I’d been running from for the last week. “Shouldn’t-”

“He was taken on as an apprentice by a recently fallen member of the staff,” Jess said. “So he was not put through the normal registration practices. He’s been reporting here between ventures for finishing lessons.”

Not entirely inaccurate, I’d admit. I could admire that.

“Even so,” Rupert said, taking a step towards me. “He should be registered. With the given slew of kidnappings, keeping track of Navigators is of utmost importance, don’t you agre-”

Jess snagged his arm before he could reach me, and I stared at him, hoping that the robes kept me covered. The last thing I needed was for someone to discover I was human- especially considering that was a ticking time bomb to begin with from all the students we’d saved.

In the next instant, the guard had his sword at Jess’s neck.