I knew a dismissal when I heard one, so I swallowed and gave a bow. She nodded, accepting my dismissal, and then I turned and walked back into the hall.
It was barely the afternoon. That felt incorrectly after staring at the apocalypse, having my heart torn out, or seeing just how grating the Owl teacher could be.
I swallowed, steadying my breath over the course of a few minutes, and then the Captain peeled herself off of the wall beside me. “She wasn’t too hard on you, was she?”
“I’ve been waiting for you to speak up,” The Captain said. “Don’t tell me I surprised you.” She shook her head, snickering.
“You did-” I started, lame.
She patted me on the shoulder. “You’re not the worst or meekest to make their way out of her office, Charm. I wouldn’t feel bad. Can you show me your heart?”
I held it up. She eyed it, tilting her head this way and that. “That’ll do, I think, for making sure we get out of the next trap.”
“Did you get the compasses out of the hold?” I asked.
“Of course,” The Captain said. “That is how we’re getting paid, after all. Stories, compasses, and other things…” Her hand drifted up to her coat. I could just tell she was feeling the weight of the strange key she held there, close to her own heart.
We were both carrying strange weights, I guessed. “Are we sleeping here again?” I asked.
“If you want,” The Captain said. “Your room at the ship is still waiting for you.”
“I think I’d like that.”
The walls of the Academy seemed less welcoming now that someone had been arm deep in my chest.
“Good,” The Captain said. “We won’t be here for much longer.”
“Can…” I trailed off for a moment, watching her expression. “Can you take me back to the ship? I think I need to lie down for a bit.”
She didn’t laugh this time, merely bowed her head forward, hand still on my shoulder, and then she led me away. “Long day?”
“There’s a lot going on here,” I said, quieter.
“There always is in academic halls,” The Captain said. “You might get used to it later.”
“But not now,” I said.
“Not now,” she agreed.
She left me on the ship, taking a moment to make sure I was alright, and finally, doused in the light of the lantern next to my bed, and the air filled with familiar smells of old meals and the sun on salt, I relaxed, setting my heart on the bed next to me.
I breathed in, and closed my eyes.
I could hear a bit more, just through the fluttering of my heart. The pitch of the boat, distant noises of the port, a revel happening, just over the next hill. It was muted, and far away, but I wouldn’t’ve been able to pick that out before. I just had to breath.
Pretend it was alright (It wasn’t) and that it was just another tool to get me back home (It wasn’t) and relax.
I spent the afternoon, and then into the evening there, just breathing, trying to forget the seven fold endless eyes of The Worm, her crystalline servants, his many teeth, and the endless swarm of hypotheticals he feasted upon.
At some point, I gave up on trying, and just listened to the pulse and pound of the ocean, and strained my ears, strained desperately, to try and hear the call of the Venturing Owl far overhead.
I fell asleep before I got anywhere with it.
The next day started quiet. Few people had decided to stay on ship. Sev woke me up just after midday, apparently remembering I was on board, and he bowed politely, his massive form holding out a few eggs. “Ah, there you are. Captain said you’d be joining me for lunch.”
I squinted at him. “Why aren’t you out on the island?”
The big fluff shook his head, his eyes closed. “Oh no, we’re a bit far to the north for that. I might be welcome for now, but I don’t want to see exactly how long I’d be welcome.”
I took the plate from him and we walked over to a table we’d set up near the kitchen. Sev worriedly clicked his claws against the surface, waiting on his eggs to finish frying up. “Why wouldn’t you be welcome?”
Sev shook his head again. “My father…” He trailed off, clearing mulling it over. “Maybe I’ll talk about it later,” He decided. “But the southern half of the sea is far more comforting than the northern half.”
“Alright,” I said. I didn’t understand at all, but… he clearly didn’t want to talk about his family, and his family was the clear problem. I wasn’t going to push. Not on what was probably my friend.
The meal went well enough (eggs, always eggs, we had so many eggs) and we stretched the next few hours as far away from the academy as possible until long after the sea birds had decided we were alright and started harassing Sev for table scraps. Sev had chased them around before beating a hasty retreat with birds landing in his fluff by the time I heard the Captain coming.
This wasn’t exactly an unfamiliar thing, hearing the Captain coming long before she arrived, but I still perked up to see what was going on.
“-And I’ll expect that you follow those simple rules, understand?” The Captain barked.
“Yes Ma’am!” I managed to catch them walking down the docks. We were far and away from anyone else by matter of choice, so it wasn’t hard to find them. The Captain walked, prim, proper, tucked into her half jacket to make room for her wings, her long talons clicking smartly against the floor, and behind her a dragon walked. Purple scales cast a petty snow like appearance across tanned skin, and two long ears twitched out of the mess on her head. A long swishing tail tapped between her thighs, more than half hidden by the thick pants she wore.
She was almost the spitting image of Figyr.
Was that racist?
“And if I find out you haven’t been following the rules,” The Captain warned, her voice getting lowered.
“Captain,” Thyn said, sighing. “Perhaps we shouldn’t be trying to scare off the archeologist before she’s even on the ship?”
The Captain clutched her chest and leaned back like she’d been shot. “You wound me, Thyn. Whatever did I do to have such a disloyal first mate?”
“Too many things,” Thyn said. “Too many things.” His eyes settled on me as I stared at them. “Oy! Charm! Get down here!”
I looked over at the Captain, who nodded once, and I scampered down the ramp and joined them. “Spent the entire day on board?” The Captain asked.
“Sev and I did a bit of cleaning,” I said. “Then the birds found him.”
The Captain snorted behind her hand, then gestured at the dragon behind her. She smelled faintly like incense and charred paper, and she saluted quickly when she saw me.
“Navigator!” The dragon said. She had a voice a bit like honey. Burning honey. I didn’t know what to make of it. “A pleasure to meet you. I hear you’ll be the one guiding us to the island!”
I was? That was news to me. I had a feeling the map in the Captain’s quarters was going to be doing the lion’s share of that.
“Yes ma’am,” I said.
“Don’t ma’am her,” The Captain cut in. “She’s a passenger, she’s below everyone on board.”
“Oh,” I said. The dragon cocked her head to the side.
“I can’t believe I get to be onboard the Venturing Owl. Is it true you navigated them through the Sea of Souls?”
The Captain quickly stepped in front of the dragon, cutting her off from my sight. Thyn walked past me, up the ramp. “Yes, and it was a very trying experience, and if you want more information, you can wait six months for Professor Jess to publish our exploits.”
“Excellent, I’ll wait until then!” The dragon said, stepping on the plank. “Oh, I’m Irony. I’m a specialist in golden age Sirens. And a few other things.” She gave me a wink.
“Yes,” The Captain said, her voice slightly strained. “Yes, you came with a warning.”
“For what?” The dragon asked, cocking her head to the side.
“Oh, well, as long as it’s forewarned,” Irony shook her head. “My luggage’ll be fetched in the hour, I believe, I have a few grad students doing most of the hauling.”
“You’re a professor?”
“Heaven only knows,” Irony said. “But they’re very handy when you give them the right carrot.”
I wasn’t sure what to make of her, even as she sauntered on board. She moved like she had stepped into some holy hall, even if the ship still stank of snake blood, (no matter what we did, the smell wouldn’t go away) and even if the Captain glared at her as she walked.
“Something wrong, Ma’am?” I asked.
“I don’t care that much for dragons on my ship,” The Captain muttered. “But if this is what it takes…”
“What exactly are we doing?” I asked.
“Exactly what it says on the tin,” The Captain said, shaking her head. “We’re escorting her to her dig site, and we’ll see if we can find our keys yet.”
“Why?” I asked.
The Captain went a tad quiet, and I turned to look at her. She had an uncharacteristically serious look, and her hands were together, prying at her own joints. “Does it matter? We’re doing a good favor for a friend.”
“That’ll help you,” I said.
“Yes,” The Captain said. Her hand drifted over to the pocket that we both knew held a key. “And it’ll help all of us, in the long run. Do you trust me on that?”
“I…” I started.
Sev ran by, squawking in fear, with a hoard of seabirds streaking after him, clawing and screeching.
“Sev, stop running!” The Captain called. “You’ll just make them think you still have food!”
“Captain!” Sev yelped. “HELP!”
“Ugh,” The Captain grumbled. “We’ll talk more about this later. Try and not get on the bad side of our guest, I still don’t have a proper feel for her, and I’m suspicious as hell of anything with that color of scales being on this ship.” Then she vaulted on board and chased after Sev.
After a few minutes, the Captain managed to untangle the birds from Sev’s fluff, and the graduate students arrived, pushing a series of crates on a mover. They tinkled and moved with tiny glass noises, and I winced when they set it down on the deck. One winced just as hard, his long lion tail flicking behind him. “Oof.”
I nodded in sympathy.
“Well,” The grad student squinted into the hold. “You sure it’ll be safe for her?”
“She’s… well, she’s a lot of the charm around here,” The graduate student laughed. “Even if she’s a bad luck charm.”
“The Captain’s also a bad luck charm,” I said.
“Only if you’re not on her side,” The student said. “I mean, if you buy the port tales and stuff. What a Captain to serve under…”
“Yeah,” I said, awkwardly. We made idle chatter (Apparently there was a restaurant in town that served bread fried with cheese, and that was an interesting prospect there) until Thyn emerged from the depths of the ship, a few members of the crew behind him, and slipped the crates and boxes off into the doorways.
“You’ll get on a ship soon,” I said, watching the two graduate students.
“Yeah,” He said. “I’ll end up on the next expedition ship His Majesty sends out.” He sighed. “In two years.”
“Same,” the other said, shaking her head. She had two long jointed ears, like a jackal’s, though a muffled ruff of scales drifted down her neck and trailed across the exposed band of her black skin. “Hopefully, the same ship, so I don’t have to wait the court’s version of a year.”
“How long’s that nowadays?”
She shrugged. “Time’s relative, you know, when you’re an immortal dragon,” she said. “Especially one with so much territory.”
“Ah,” I said, intelligently. “I’ve been out on the sea for so long; it’s nice to get away.” I was lying, I had no idea.
“Yeah,” The first said, dreamily. “I bet.”
They left after a few more minutes of that, not that I could blame them. Then I walked back up into the ship.
The Captain moved about, showing Irony her way around the ship, and pointing out her quarters, where her various baubles and glass jars had been moved, and advised her to find a way of keeping them all safe when they would inevitably encounter rough water. Irony began repacking everything while I watched from a nearby doorway.
The Captain’s eyes snapped up and over to me, then followed my gaze. She quirked an eyebrow. I blinked at her. I looked back at Irony, then back at the Captain. She quirked the eyebrow higher.
I shook my head very quickly, and the Captain snorted, then walked off, wiggling her finger in a ‘come hither’ gesture. I followed after her.