Ballad of the Venturing Owl (Part 9)

“Are you happy here?” The Captain asked, not looking up from her talons. She was curled up in the corner again, a vial of paint beside her, and delicately making sure that her talons were well cared for. It was hard to look away from, an odd display of femininity entwined with the Captain’s essence, who had frankly evolved beyond gender in her constant arrogance and confidence and bird brained audacity.

She’d gone with purple today, a few shades darker than Irony’s own scales.

“Happy?” I asked.

“I said it would be a while before I could help you,” The Captain said, looking up at me. “Now you can see a bit why.”

“Did you know about the eye?” I asked.

She looked back down at her talons for a moment, then flexed them so they curled. “I knew that something had happened at the edge of our world,” She said, after a time of flicking them so the air would dry them. “I did not know the specifics, but I knew my mother wanted to know.”

I sat on the edge of her bed and she watched me. “I’m not unhappy,” I decided. “There’s a lot of strange scary things here.”

“I know,” The Captain said. “But there’s also beautiful things here. We’re going to see both of those on the Neverie, you know.”

“We are?” I asked.

“We are,” The Captain confirmed, but didn’t extrapolate her words. “You’re not unhappy,” She said. “But are you happy?”

I tried to think that through. It was… this was very different from the other side of the dead sea. Things were far simpler there. There was less magic for one, and there were no sirens, and there were no giant islands with memories.

But there was also no Sev, and no Sampson, and no Vali, and no Thyn, and no Captain. They were… They weren’t quite my friends, but there was something to fighting against the unknown that united us.

Perhaps we were friends. I had a bag of caramels in my room that I could chew on when the times were bad, and I never really felt like I couldn’t talk to anyone. (Except when I did).

“I think I have friends here,” I decided.

Her eyes were flecked with something like sadness, a glossy sheen that wasn’t so different from the polish on her talons, and then she blinked it away. “Good.”

Then there was more silence. I was starting to get the impression that the Captain truly wasn’t so good at these tight moments. Did she feel as vulnerable here as I did during fights? Did her overwhelming offence leave her grasping when the time came to defend and reveal herself?

“Sev hasn’t talked to me yet,” she said. “I know he saw battle there. Folna’s told me about his wounds.”

“He did well, I think,” I said.

“I promised him he wouldn’t have to fight anything with a face,” she murmured. “Shame how that went, isn’t it?”

“Oh,” I said, wishing I was a bit more intelligent so I could figure out what to say there. But I wasn’t.

She leaned back, spreading her feathers, and sighed. “It’s fine,” she said, shaking her head. “I’ll talk to him when he’s ready.” She looked up. “When you’re ready to talk about it, or want to talk about anything, you’ll know where to find me, right?”

I gave her a tight smile, and as she looked over it, it changed into something more real. “I do,” I said.

“Good,” She returned the smile, amplified across her tanned face. “Now, unless you want to help me with the other foot, scram!”

I laughed, and left the room.

We left later that night, just as evening hit and Thyn had confirmed that everyone was on board that needed to be on board. Irony waved farewell to the students that had gathered to watch us go, and I stayed thankfully out of sight and watched them from the shadows of the stairs.

The storm struck us in the middle of the night, buffeting us with waves and slapping the deck like an angry hand, and the ship’s soul wailed just as loudly as the booming thunder. Late at night, I heard the Captain, her talons clicking, venture into the depths to the strange room where I’d seen the flickering heart of the ship, and soon after the wailing stopped.

When we emerged in the morning, Sev handed me a fishing pole and the two of us sat and fished, baiting the hooks with bits of food that had gone bad due to our unscheduled recent stay. He caught far more fish than me, though the Captain joined us, flying in low and snatching one up out of the water to fling it on deck. It flapped and splashed about uselessly until she cut it open with her talons.

At noon, Sev left to prepare lunch, and I joined Sampson in picking over the ship to look for anything that needed fixing. A few of the windows had been rattled in the storm, and between the two of us, his feathered wing on my shoulder, we managed to tighten the screws and bolts that kept them in place.

In the evening we had fish, salted, and I shuffled about with Sev to make sure everyone ate, and heard muffled noises from Vali’s room. I knocked once, twice, and then when she didn’t leave, hesitated, and then knocked again. Her bad arm came out, revealing the room, lit up by almost a dozen different light sources, and then seized the tray and dragged it in with her before shutting the door with a slam. I stared for a moment, wondering if I should do something about it, then decided to leave her alone.

At night, the ship’s whimpers were quiet if omnipresent, and the Captain’s talons clicked through the hallways. A door opened, and then closed. The ship stopped whimpering, and then the Captain’s talons marched back up the hallway.

In the morning, just past dawn, the ship changed course. In the distance an island bloomed, but we headed away from it, giving me just a brief impression of a landscape lit up by a single giant pyre, smoke trailing up into the sky above.

By noon, we’d left it far behind, and instead the sea’s surface was split by coral in the distance, great reefs poking up out of the water. The Captain remained on deck, barking out orders here and there, and everyone (including me) scurried about to keep the ship away from the reefs, even as we stayed firmly in dark blue waters.

We stayed in those reef strewn waters for the next several days, which fed into each other, broken only by fishing, and sleeping, and the lessons that the Captain gave me of the area.

On the fifth day of travel, I smelt rot and decay, old wood and tousled stone, and then underneath of it all, sweet fruit. By the end of it, the night was lit up by torches and gleaming lights, and the quiet of the sea’s waves were shattered by faint, if omnipresent music. As the day wound on, the music became louder, and louder, until I could hear it between my ears and hummed it while I wasn’t paying attention. Day crept into night, and then just as the dawn came a figure flew like a dagger off of the island.

The profile was a siren’s, and the Captain stared at it for a time, brow furrowed, and stole the spy-glass from Sampson. He cawed indignantly at her, and sulked while she stared.

She needn’t have bothered, because the form grew larger and larger until a siren slammed home onto the ship. She was large, with a decent amount of weight (a difference from the Captain who was slim and optimized for flight) and long black feathers slid up her throat, with a stripe of white in the center to emphasize the underside of her chin like a cufflink.

She puffed up, her talons digging into the top deck of the ship, and then she hissed at the Captain, wings outspread.

The Captain stared at her blankly. “What?”

The other siren hissed again, glaring at her. “You are not lodging this ship at the Neverie! It’s too good of a ship!”

The Captain blinked. “I’m sorry… who are you?”

“Ford,” The siren said, bowing to everyone but the Captain. “And if you think you can abandon this one, just because the soul is a little underdeveloped, I’m going to beat you with your own flag!”

The Captain breathed in, then out, the effort making her lips shake. “You’ve got me misunderstood.”

Ford narrowed her eyes, hands on her hips. “And what other reason could you possibly have for being here, Catastrophe?”

“Oh, good,” The Captain said, her voice thick with sarcasm. “The welcoming crew knows I’m here.”

Thyn slid out of where he’d been hiding, and the Captain held up a hand to stop him from slinking any further. He stopped in place, and the siren looked pleased.

“I could be visiting,” The Captain suggested. “That is something I can do from time to time.”

“See to it that it stays a visit,” Ford said, glaring at her. “You’re lucky I tolerate you here, given-”

“Given what?” The Captain asked, her voice as smooth as velvet. “Given what you think is right, I’m surprised you’re offending your honor by even talking to me.”

“Well,” Ford said, straightening up. Her eyes fell on the Captain’s decidedly beastly crew, then up at the flag flying. “You’re still running their colors.”

“I don’t particularly care what they think of me,” The Captain said. “But I do have to fly something, and I was born to the house of owls,” she smiled, baring a decent chunk of her teeth.

The goose huffed, and paced on the ship. “I’ll require an inspection-”

“What is it you even do, Ford?” The Captain said, coolly.

“I keep the ships intact,” Ford said. “I hardly need another captain hoping to retire here to mess up my plans.”

“Trust me,” The Captain said. “I am not going to retire here. There’s too little land and too many idiots.”

Ford barked out a laugh. “That’s the truth.”

“But I don’t see what colors you’re from,” The Captain said, pointedly.

“I work under the Loquat’s banner, currently,” Ford said, stiff. “If you want to make a big deal of that, go ahead.”

“I’m not,” The Captain smiled. “I’m just glad to have another siren willing to speak with me at all.” She dug into the pocket of her coat, and pulled out a small piece of chocolate. “Candy?”

Ford huffed at her, but stomped over, talons clicking, and took the chocolate and stuffed it between her set of surprisingly sharp razor teeth. I stared.

“Keep your navigator close now,” Ford said. “One of the Neverie’s hubs is missing theirs.”

“Strange how that seems to be a trend,” The Captain said.

“They say there’s pirates involved,” Ford said. “The toll today is 12 talons.”

“There’s a toll now?” The Captain asked, arching an eyebrow.

“There’s a toll since I took over. I don’t work for free,” Her hands were back on her hips, and her teeth were streaked with the raspberry preserves from inside the treat.

“Good,” The Captain said. “Never work for free-”

“If you can help it,” Ford muttered. With the two of them side by side, the other siren’s hips were farther apart than the Captain’s which gave her a strange, almost comedic sway when she walked.

The Captain snorted. “Precisely. Now, if there’s nothing else…”

Ford held out her hand expectantly, and the Captain made a show of sarcastically counting out every coin, and then Ford huffed, straightened her feathers, and glared at the rest of the crew. “Don’t cause trouble, or I’ll have to get myself involved.”

“Is that so much of a threat?” The Captain asked.

“I can be quite loud when I want to be,” The goose threatened. “And the Loquat favors me, I believe.”

“He probably finds you hilarious,” The Captain said, shaking her head. “If that’s all?”

“That’s all,” Ford said.

“Then get the hell off of my ship!” The Captain shoved her, and the goose squabbled, flailing her wings, and then, with another angry hiss, she turned and vaulted off the side, throwing out her arms to catch the wind.

“That… “ I started, unsure of what to say. “That happened.”

“You heard her!” The Captain said, turning to look over the rest of the crew. “Mind yourself, and don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”

“Captain-” Thyn started.

“Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do, and also don’t do anything stupid or illegal.”

“You could’ve just said don’t do anything stupid or illegal,” Thyn muttered.

“You’re lucky you’re cute,” The Captain grumbled, and then she turned to look at the island approaching. The first I saw was a pier. It was long, longer than I’d ever seen it, and the sea shifted in front of it, changing from a steady deep sea proper for sailing into the same dense cluster of reefs and nightmarish rocks that we’d been avoiding, steadily, for the last several days.

The Captain sighed, and for once, waited until we were on top of the pier before marching off the plank like everyone else. “It looks like the master of this island has deigned to make us take the long way.”

“How do the ships even get in?” I asked.

“The reefs shift,” Thyn said, eyeing the long pier. “The very longest way, Captain. Did you offend the man last time?”

“I did leave without a goodbye,” The Captain said. She stomped a foot down on the wood to show it was stable. “Come on. The wood’s safe, safe enough to get most of us onto the main islands.”

“He can shift the reefs?” I asked, staring incredulously at the sea below.

“It’s his island,” The Captain said. “This is one of the last true wild places this side of the sea. He can do as he pleases.”

Ballad of the Venturing Owl (Part 8)