It took another day or two, about five days in all, before we were close enough to see land. The Captain gave me the telescope after vaulting up into the nest with the keen eyed crow and pointed at the mass at the very far distance.
“See that flag?” She asked.
I squinted and tried to adjust the scope until I could. Four lines under two triangles, like a staring face. “That’s a new symbol.”
“That’s the Academy’s symbol,” The Captain said. “They’re independent from His Majesty and from the Siren houses,” she explained. “Since they’re the only ones who can train Navigators, they have a decent bit of power. Not enough of it to remain perfectly independent, mind you, but enough to at least pretend.”
“What is so important about Navigators?” I asked. “I get they’re handy, but…? They’re just wayfinders.”
“Mm,” The Captain said. “There are places in the sea where directions stop working.” She gestured off the coast. “Where east and west get muddled, and north and south are suggestions. When you’re there, the navigator’ll give you a better chance of getting you out than a stupid compass.”
“Like the sea of souls?” I asked.
“Exactly,” The Captain said. “I know you don’t know what you’re doing, or how we got out of there,” She put a hand on my head and ruffled my hair, and I looked away. Was it really that obvious?
“But our navigator got us into there in the first place as well,” she said, smooth. “So we’d need one to get back.”
I cocked my head to the side. Surely there weren’t many places that wild out there?
“Don’t give me that look,” she groused, then laughed. “You’ll be worth the investment we’re putting in you, don’t you worry. Besides,” She said, taking up the telescope again. “You’re going to meet our sponsor when we hit land.”
“What’re they like?”
The Captain shrugged. “Not easy to describe. You’ll just have to wait. Think you can do that?”
I frowned. The dot on the horizon was only growing closer. “Do I have any choice?”
She patted me on the shoulder and swung off instead of replying.
That would be a no. I didn’t have a choice. Fantastic. Just what I needed.
We made landfall in the evening. Inspections went smoothly enough, and we were in the town before nightfall. The people were about the same as before, though their skins were tanner underneath of their feathers or fur or occasionally chitin, and they stared at us as we moved through. We didn’t carry ourselves like academic, and they could see that we moved without their caution and our assuredness of form came from entirely different places.
The entire dock was covered in stone walls and ornamented fortress architecture. Arrow slits and cannon mounts, though the gates were all raised and I could hear a party crackling across a few of the busy bars spiralling off from the town in front of the sprawling academy grounds that made up most of the island. This wasn’t an archipelago but a mountain poking up from the depths, half collapsed.
I could smell cooked fish from the doors as we passed by, and as torches flickered around us, burning merrily in their sconces, I turned and looked at the party I’d gone out with.
“Do we have rooms?” I asked. “Or should we go back to the ship? It’s getting late.”
“They’ll think it quite rude if we don’t go with them,” The Crow (I’d learned his name was Sampson) said. “Bags tend to be stupid like that.”
Thyn shook his head. “Be more polite, Sam. They’re giving us free food and board.”
“I know,” Sam said. “But I’m not wrong, am I?”
“Don’t I qualify as one of those bags?” The Captain said, and, and Sampson went straight, feathers puffing up.
“W-what? No way Captain! You’ve got way more sense than talons!”
The Captain laughed at him, then turned back to address my point. “They’ll be something prepared for us in the university proper. Try not to get separated, the parties here are the fourth best in the entire Living Seas, and I’d hate to have to ruin all of them dragging you out.”
I’d keep that in mind if I ever had a point I wasn’t worried to death. Or worried about what exactly being a human meant, if everyone assumed we were reaperkin.
We slid up to the door as a group of four. Thyn, his apprentice, the Crow, myself, and the Captain. Thyn knocked and we waited.
The doors opened after a moment, to a suit of armor and a monolithic helmet. They stared at us for a long moment, then gestured us inside. “Your rooms are where they always are.”
Those rooms were through several winding halls, where classrooms waited, embedded with a strange language I didn’t speak, and a few late classes involved chanting and waving of hands (magic?) before we found our way back to what could only be described as dorms.
The Captain took up a room to herself, and Thyn and the Crow picked a room together, and I slid into the third room, a rudimentary affair, but it had an actual bed that had been cleaned recently and didn’t smell like myself, so it was nice enough that I didn’t bother staying awake and wondering about my future, and instead just collapse into a pile on top of it.
It had a real pillow. A real actual pillow. I couldn’t ask for anything greater.
Then we slipped off into sleep.
In the morning, The Captain met me at the door. Thyn and Sampson were nowhere in sight.
“Just the two of us?” I asked.
The Captain swept past me, idly adjusting how her jacket fell across her bare stomach. “If we’re lucky, we can get in and out as quickly as we can.”
“If we’re lucky?” I asked, following after her when she didn’t stop walking.
“Charm, not every port is a good place to dally,” The Captain said, dryly. “Some are just bad places to stay if you like your throat intact, and others are-”
“Aunt Cata!” A voice squealed and I winced at the volume, turning just in time to see two arms wrap around The Captain’s center and squeeze down. I caught the expression on The Captain’s face switch from annoyed and worried to an almost plastered on expression of joy and familiarity.
“Oh, there you are kiddo,” The Captain said, patting her on the back. She was very careful not to let her talons touch the teen’s skin, far more careful than she’d been with any of her crew, including me. “I was wondering when you’d show up.”
“Did you bring Thyn with you?” The girl asked. She stood a head shorter than me, and her hair was streaked with white stripes and strands through the mess of auburn curls. She bore stubby claws on the end of her hands, and beady inhuman eyes. “Is he going to stay this time?”
The Captain carefully patted her on the back, then wormed a hand between her and the girl to separate the two of them. The teenager just gripped tighter. “Sorry… we’re not here for very long.”
The girl disengaged. Early teens, on second look, especially with the pout she put on. “You’re never here for very long.” Her face drooped into a frown that lasted less than a hare’s leap before it brightened back up.
“Well, what about Oliver? Everyone here’s curious about him.”
It took me a minute, a minute I was deeply ashamed of, to remember who Oliver was. Oliver was the name of the Navigator who’d found me and pulled me off of the rocks. The Navigator who’d later been dragged into the mists by Reapers. The man who was almost certainly dead.
The dead man whose clothes I was wearing.
The Captain’s smile dropped off of her face like rotten fish. “Yes well, about that…”
“You said you’d take him to his family,” The teen said.
“I did,” The Captain agreed. “He decided to stay.”
“Oh,” The teen looked down.
“Look, Maurice… we need to see your cousin about work,” The Captain said, extricating herself from her grip. The Captain’s purple eyes fell on me, and I swallowed, stepping forward. “Besides, my Navigator’s getting antsy, this close to the stones.”
“I’m going to be a navigator,” Maurice said, knowingly. “And then Cata won’t be able to leave me behind.”
I carefully pat her on the head, and was even more careful not to unspool the sleeves that were keeping my bare, unadorned arms from showing. Now was certainly not the time to reveal what I was.
I was already a shitty navigator, I didn’t need to be a spectacle too.
The Captain took a step back. “Is your cousin busy?”
“She’s always busy,” Maurice sniffed. “You know that.”
The Captain’s eyes closed. I could hear her counting her breaths. What exactly had happened there that made the Captain look so strained? “Can you see if she’s too busy to see me?”
“Oh,” Maurice said, sniffing. “Okay. We’ll talk later though, right?”
The Captain kept her eyes closed. “Of course.”
The teenager scarpered off, her bare feet clicking against the ground.
I waited a moment for her to turn the corner. “Fan of yours?”
“Don’t make jokes about that one, Charm,” The Captain sighed. “If there’s anyone who deserves to hate me…” She shook her head. “But that’s a story for another time. Just try not to ask her about it. You’ll…” She trailed off. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
She wouldn’t even meet my eyes. Instead, she slid over to one of the heavily wrought windows and opened it, changing it from slits to wide open. The sun touched her, and I could see her pinned down her feathers were, and the way her ears were sluggish to twitch in the light.
Well. It was good to know that something could bring her down, even if it was…
We were in Oliver’s port of origin. I frowned, and almost against my will, bit at the skin of my lips. The man who’d saved me was dead, and we were there with the people who knew him most. Suddenly, the Captain’s hesitance made perfect sense.
Maurice turned the corner, a bushy tail twitching between the legs her outfit (some school monstrosity of a skirt and emblems) and gestured us on. “She’s clearing out her schedule right now, just for you.”
“Great,” The Captain said, her voice strained. “I’m so glad to see you, Maurice.”
“You’ll take me along when I’m old enough, right?” Maurice asked. She bowed, looking me over. “Or is he going to stick around?”
My mouth went dry. I could feel just how little the Captain wanted this conversation, and it was definitely about something more than just Oliver.
“Maurice, your cousin?” The Captain asked, sighing.
“Oh, right,” Maurice said, and led the way. Banners stretched down the hall. Tapestries, more like, with little stories on them, great ocean ships with their names across them and the great deeds they’d done, and what could only be the names of the navigators that’d led them there.
The last two, hanging over an office with a candle inside of it, bore the name Oliver.
“Wait out here, will you?” The Captain asked Maurice, and gestured me along.
“You always make me wait,” Maurice complained.
The Captain took a deep breath and held it for a while. “When you’re… when you’re older, I won’t make you wait, alright? If you still want to go.”
“Of course I will,” Maurice said.
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” The Captain said, letting the breath go, and stepped into the office. I followed shortly after, and then she made sure the door was shut before we turned to face the rest of the space.
Every surface was a gleaming white. Polished marble, probably hauled out of some ancient quarry somewhere, sparkled and gleamed with the grit of the stone. Bookshelves broke up the expanse, giving some reckoning of distance where there otherwise wouldn’t be any. In the center, a great desk sat, carved out of the same material.
And behind the desk sat an owl. Her feathers were soft, and she was one of the more monstrous beast-kin I’d seen so far, except Sev. Every inch of her body was covered in smooth silky feathers. She gave a short noise at the sound of The Captain’s talons against the marble, and her head twisted, and then the rest of her body twisted.
She had four eyes, two rows set next to each other, each a beautiful vermillion. They flicked in concert, first to the Captain, then settled, with unveiled curiosity, upon me.
“You’re not Oliver.”