Ballad of the Venturing Owl (Part 8)

Jess raised an eyebrow at him, and with the other hand, tugged his blade down.

“Down,” Rupert said to his guard, then turned to face Jess. “He gets jumpy when people touch me.” His voice was flat in understatement.

“Don’t touch my student,” Jess said, just as flat. “I get jumpy when people touch him.”

“You’d think you’d want to work with me more,” Rupert said. “Considering the position of this island.”

“The position of this island is as well as it has always been,” Jess said. “We train Navigators, and they guide the ships and help protect them from ephemera. That is how it has been for the last several hundred years.”

“Cannons have been getting better in that time,” Rupert said. “And guns, and swords, and sabres. Soon enough, we won’t need to rely on Navigators to deal with those things.”

“You overestimate both your power and your understanding of the sea,” Jess said, her voice growing lower. “What do you want?”

“Someone has taken apart your latest late professor’s office,” Rupert said, his voice cool and calm. “Hendrickson, I believe.”

“I am aware,” Jess said.

“There were documents and papers among them of interest for the academy on the mainland,” The lion cut in, taking a step forward. His tufted tail twitched behind him. “But most of the documents are now missing.”

“He left those documents to his students,” Jess said, shrugging. She let her fingers slide off of the guard’s sword, and at that dismissal, he sheathed it once again. “I imagine one of the grad students is dissecting them as we speak.”

“His Majesty has need of those papers.”

“I don’t see a signed document to that effect,” Jess said. “I believe that you want those papers, not that His Majesty needs them.”

Rupert’s eyes narrowed at her. “You’re harboring a war criminal on this island, Jess.”

Jess raised an eyebrow. “I thought it was a border skirmish, Rupert. There hasn’t been a war in the last hundred years.”

His tail twitched again, and I remembered to breath through the tension.

“And if I came back with those papers, would you allow me to search his belongings? He has access to some rare histories that are of interest to that state, from what our records show.”

“Ah!” Jess said, clapping. “I remember what you’re talking about.”

“Yes?” Rupert asked.

“Those books are not here anymore,” Jess said. “They were lent out to a professor from your mainland.” Her feathers shifted on her skin.

“I do believe you might be lying to me,” Rupert said. “You wouldn’t like what would happen if I found out your were lying to me,” the lion leaned forward.

Jess smiled at him. “Oh, no, I’m not lying,” she said, bowing her head. She just missed clipping his chin with the top of her skull. “But I can’t help you find who took the books.”

Rupert raised an eyebrow, unimpressed. “Whyever would you hesitate to help me?”

“We threw him out of the academy years ago,” Jess said. “He took the books with him.”

“So let me get this straight,” Rupert said, clearly fighting the urge to gnash his teeth. “The books, which are now illegal, and were marked as being in the possession of the late professor Hendrickson, which contain inaccurate histories of the Bleeding Lands, particularly regarding the Dragon Wars, are not only not in your possession-”

“That’s right,” She said, nodding her head.

“But are now in the possession of a heretic.”

“Right,” Jess said. “That we don’t know the location of.”

“Of course you don’t,” Rupert said. “You know, you seem to run a rather slipshod institution here, Jess.”

“Professor,” Jess corrected. “And it’s hardly slipshod. We lost those books many years ago, alongside many other texts that we were happy to keep.”

“A great loss I’m sure,” Rupert said, but his hands were twisting into fists. “You’re a very hard woman to work with.”

“A shame,” Jess said. “I was hoping we could be friends.”

Rupert’s grin slipped on like a mask, but his teeth kept baring themselves, curled over his lips. “And the rest of his papers, if I wanted to search them, have since gone missing.”

“Hardly missing,” Jess said. “I gave them to his students.”

“Which students?”

Jess shrugged. “I am a very busy woman. I cannot be sure which of his many students they have gone off with. He was a famously messy individual, regardless.”

All I could think about were the papers that had been tucked into the fold of his desk, hidden from sight, that Irony even now had on board our ship.

“Messy enough to not keep track of his papers?” Rupert asked, incredulous.

“Messy enough to get lost on an outpost with nothing on it,” Jess said, gently, and Rupert glared at her.

“Do you think I’m an idiot, Professor?” he asked.

“No,” Jess said. “I think you’re stepping on the toes of my mourning by demanding access to a dead man’s belongings, even as I’m forced to rewrite the next six months of classes and deal with dozens of students who have been traumatized by a venture gone wrong!”

Rupert looked like a cat who had been handed a mouse. “So your students-”

“If I catch you harassing my students,” She said, and all four of her eyes were open, and her wings were spreading until she managed to tower over top of the lion. “Professor won’t be the only thing you’ll be calling me.”

“And what else would I be calling you?” Rupert asked.

“Highest Navigator,” Jess hissed, and behind him, the door slammed open, bouncing off of the wall hard enough to rattle the tools on Jess’s desk.

Rupert glared. “You dare threaten-”

“I dare nothing,” Jess said, and her second pair of eyes closed. “I just wish to remind you that you are on this island at my word.”

“Yes…” Rupert said, his voice slightly more unsure.

“To deal with pirates,” She hissed the last word.

“Pirates,” Rupert said.

“And that if it comes down to it, and you so much as hurt a single student, I will not hesitate to throw you back out into the waters, goodwill be damned.”

“How… motherly of you.” Rupert shook his head, his voice low. “Are you sure I can’t convince you to help me?”

“There’s no convincing me about it,” Jess said. “I don’t know where the books are for your petty inquisition, I don’t know where the papers are, and most of all, I don’t think you should bother my students when they are still mourning the loss of a good friend and teacher!”

“Do you know anything at all?” Rupert asked.

“I know that if you stay in this room for much longer, I would be more than willing to demonstrate why I am called the Fire Starter in certain circles.”

Rupert glowered at her, but turned to face his guard. “I can see we’re not getting any further today. If you have need of me, I will be at the docks, on board my ship.”

“I know where to find you,” Jess said.

“Good,” Rupert said, a slight smile on the side of his face. “Don’t be a stranger.”

Jess growled and the lion walked off. With a sigh, she shut the door behind him, and scowled at the dent in the wall the handle had left.

“That was…”

“That was stupid,” Jess said. “I lost my temper with him. Stupid dragon,” She hissed the last part under her breath. “He keeps sending bureaucrats to try and charm me into joining his empire.”

“That was charm?”

“I prefer charm to guns,” Jess said. “He must’ve built his navy back up after the last war. Probably time for him to make another play for the island he missed.”

“Are there many of those?”

Jess leaned back, her feathers shifting on her back. “There are many islands that His Majesty holds in name only,” she said. She tugged her wings in front of her and smoothed down her plumage. “Who have not received reinforcements for the past decade and a half, and are mostly run by their previous governments, with a few dragons sprinkled inside.”

“And…?” I said, trailing off.

“It would not take much for them to flip back to favoring the sirens in all but name,” she said, flatly. “Effectively losing his stakes in the region. Now that there are pirates about, his commanders have been using it as an excuse to bully the islands with the remnants of his coast guard.”

“What about his navy?” I asked.

“He’ll keep it close at hand until he’s ready,” Jess said. “But-” She looked down at me. “I wouldn’t worry about it. The push probably won’t come for another few years, at least. Enough time for you to finish whatever Catastrophe has in mind, and hopefully solve your business.”

I shook my head. “But what about you?”

“What about me?” Jess repeated. “I’ll be fine. We have the greatest magicks here that have ever been controlled by mortals. We can push off some pirates if the time comes for it.”

I pursed my lips, and she patted me on the head with a wing and gently shoved me towards the door. Then she hesitated. “It would, perhaps, be best if you left tonight. He’ll start searching ships if he realizes your dragon is one of Hendrickson’s students.”

That settled into my stomach like a lead weight. “I thought you said you didn’t know…?”

“I don’t,” Jess said. “I do not know much of anything. I have some very educated guesses on a great many matters, but how many people truly know anything?” She shook her head and laughed. “Academic humor. I promised I wouldn’t lie to him, and I have not lied to him since he stepped foot. Good luck at the Neverie.”

Then she shut the office door behind me, and I trotted off.

Sev was walking down the docks when I was, two cloth bundles in his hands. He whistled and hummed and buzzed happily, his shaggy fluff waving back and forth in the sea blown wind. “Charm!”

I eyed the packages. “Is that-”

“It is!” Sev said, and his pace quickened. His pace quickening even slightly meant he outpaced me, since his legs were nearly double the size mine were, so I raced ahead to join him. Vali looked up from discussion with a few of the students and eyed us as we mounted the ship. With a gesture, she left the students behind her.

“Did you bring it?”

Sev shrugged the larger package towards her, and Vali caught it, her hand dipping at the weight, and then unfurled it. The massive spear wasn’t quite the same as it had been in the memory. The island had smoothed over the wear and tear from ages of use, had forgotten a few divots and cuts in the blade, and the restoration had done little to preserve the original beauty, even if the new mottled item had its own charm from the process.

Vali hefted the spear up, gave it a very slow twirl, and then turned the present it to the students. “Your restorers do good work.”

“So that’s what they’ve been buzzing over?” one asked, gently holding out a hand. Vali pressed the haft into the hand, and the student took it, gently, and flipped it over.

“Is that old siren?” another student said, fine ridges winding their way down his back like a lizard, breaking his almost human features. Vali stepped over, and lifted it up to the light.

“To the one who guides my path,” Vali said, squinting. “Signed with an H.”

I thought of Harley, and Atalanta, and laughed. “I wonder if they ever got together.”

“That’s a bit divorced from our time,” Vali said, shaking her head. Her eyes had a slightly haunted edge to them. “As beautiful as this is, I don’t think I should hold it for long.”

“Keep it in your room?” I asked. Vali pursed her lips, and then nodded, gently lifting it away from the two inspecting it again. They frowned, but ultimately accepted it, and then I gestured for them to leave.

Before they could, Sev unfurled the other package, and hefted the chef’s cleaver. There was no ornateness or message to restore, no hidden features or regalia that could be forgotten. There was only a chef’s knife, gifted with rippling bands of color where once had been smooth steel. He hefted it up to the light of the sun, and through those streaming lights I saw sadness and hope and joy on the great fluff-beast’s face, as hidden as it always was.

I bowed my head, and then he smiled, drifting towards the door below decks.

Vali stopped him before he could leave entirely. “Thank you.”

“It was nothing,” Sev said.

“I wouldn’t’ve thought of getting it restored,” Vali said, her voice thickened. “Not so soon, at least.”

Sev bowed his head. “It’s nothing. You have to do good things for your shipmates, it’s good for unity, right?”

“Right,” Vali said, shaking her head. Sensing an ending, the students left. I watched them as they left. Many were still bandaged, bore scars and healing scabs and bruises of their treatment. I knew a few of them hadn’t made it back.

We needed to move quickly, because I knew there was no way that the story was going to remain secret. I was just glad that none of them had touched the eye enough to know what it was.

A hollow fell onto my heart, because I didn’t know how the rest of the world would take it. Vali put a hand on my shoulder, then gently tugged me below ship.

“Try not to look like that,” Vali said. “You look like a sad puppy.”

I glared at her instead, and she smirked. “Better.”

“Any idea when the Captain’s having us ship out?”

“Tonight,” Vali said. “A message bird arrived to tell us to ship out as soon as we could.”

“Good,” I said. Vali ruffled my hair and moved off, but not before she said something else. “The Captain wanted to see you in her room.”

So I left.

Ballad of the Venturing Owl (Part 7)
Ballad of the Venturing Owl (Part 9)