She slipped into her room, and gestured at the map. “Did Jess teach you?” she asked, leaning back against her bed. It was an ornate affair, clearly lifted out of some place far more exotic and expensive than the confines of the ship. Ostentationery, as always, silk sheets and soft pillows. A far cry from mine, but I wouldn’t trade it.
“Can I see your heart?” The Captain asked.
I pulled the cord at my neck and revealed the orb. The emptiness in my chest felt like a yawning void, just taking it that far from my breast, but I kept it out. The Captain leaned forward and very gently took it into one of her hands, minding her talons so they only touched my wrist instead of the orb itself.
“Warm,” She commented. It still throbbed to the beat of my heart. “Bright, too,” She said, closing one eye and looking at it through the other.
“Is that good?” I asked.
“It’s a good draw for someone without an ordered soul,” The Captain said, taking a seat next to the map taking up most of the sole table in her room. “There are monks with far better draws, but they have practiced getting their lives in order.”
“And you?” I asked. “What would yours look like?”
She laughed, then gestured at a dusty jar on top of an armoire. “Sirens aren’t good for that sort of thing. If you’re curious…”
I picked up the jar and wiped the dust off of it. A pitted, corroded thing sat there, half fluid. It throbbed, distantly, barely a beat for every two of mine. I sat it beside her.
The Captain picked it up and stared at it for a long while. “So,” She said. “You’ve gone and mutilated yourself for me.”
“I guess,” I said, tugging my Heart back against my chest.
“Why are you sticking around?” The Captain asked. “Figyr would’ve been true to your word. As long as you were quick on your feet and interesting, she would’ve treated you well. And when she found out you were human, well, you’d never stop being interesting.”
“You did save my life,” I said.
“You don’t seem like the sort to obsess over honor,” The Captain said.
I sighed. “I guess… I’m not.”
“So why?” She asked. “I’m in the business of seeking out danger, Charm. It’d be good to know I can count on you.”
I swallowed. “…Well, you freed me from the sea of souls,” I started. “So…”
She quirked the eyebrow. “You want…”
“You’re the one that’ll be most likely to take me back,” I said. “To the other side of the mists.” The Sea of Souls had been a myth, a legend back home, a bare note on the horizon that ships avoided.
But that had been because of the reefs and treacherous waters. Not any sort of magic. That I’d ended up there.
“To the other side of the mists…” The Captain leaned back in her chair and kept balanced on two legs, her wings spreading to make the feat easier. The talons on her feet tapped at the top of the table, just shy of the map. She treated it with more respect than she treated most of the crew, and she treated the crew fairly well. “That’d be some adventure, wouldn’t it?”
I nodded slightly.
Her eyes closed. “I’m not going to lie to you. Going into the Sea of Souls was the single most dangerous thing I’ve ever done, and I’ve made a living off of dangerous stupid things.”
I swallowed. Her eyes remained closed. “I’ve dated Navigators who would claim the Sea of Souls were unsailable, that it was certain death. My own sisters-” there she looked pained. “Would say it was unchartable, that it was a fool’s errand.”
“But you did it,” I said.
“But I did it,” The Captain said. “It only involved fighting something that might as well be a minor god, and it only involved the services of the single greatest Navigator on the seas.”
My heart sank.
“Don’t make that face,” She said, her eyes still not open.
“How do you-”
“I can hear your heart rate,” The Captain said. “I never said I wouldn’t do it.” Her eyes opened just a hair, little flecks of amethysts underneath of heavy lids.
I blinked at her.
“I’ll just need another Navigator that good to do it.” Her talons twitched. “And the crew will have to agree.”
“What else?” I asked.
“I understand this is cruel,” She said. “You are far from home, and you are practically defenceless out there. Most ports will ship you back to His Majesty for being a curiosity, or worse, back home to the siren houses, or even worse, trade you to the spiders. You are a very valuable commodity.”
I looked away from her. It hurt to have it spelled out like that.
“You’re weak. You’re not a legendary warrior, and you’re not a daring ship captain with a hoard of bullets and crew members who would die for her,” The Captain said, slagging herself. She paused, thinking for a moment, and slid forward so her chair was on the floor, and pulled out a dusty bottle from underneath of the table. Two dusty shot glasses, which she cleaned with a delicate cloth. She poured amber liquid into both. It smelled exactly like varnish or moldered tree sap. “But-”
“But?” I asked.
She gestured at the glass. “Drink with me.”
I took the shot and gently tugged it away from the map. She ran her lips across the edge of the glass, but didn’t take a sip.
I did the same. It made my eyes water.
“But you have that at your disposal,” She said. “I will take your request in mind, but I’ll have you understand. What you’re asking is another suicide mission.” She leaned forward, taking the shotglass away from her lips. “And I finally have something to live for in this bitch of a world, Charm. I have something other than easy nights and a crew of jovial outcasts. I have something of the old glory I promised myself I’d find and-”
“Let me finish,” The Captain said. “I have my own things to finish. I have secrets to pry from the heart of this world. But, when I’m finished… when that final island is found, that final outpost is declared… I’ll take you there.” She raised an eyebrow, tilting the glass forward. “Toast on it?”
It wasn’t exactly what I wanted to hear, but it was the best I could hope for. What else could I say?
I toasted her glass, and we downed the shots. It burned like tar across my throat, but I held it back as long as I could, until it tasted like something had died, and smoke felt like it was pouring out of my nose.
“Until then,” The Captain said. “Welcome to the crew. The Venturing Owl will serve your purposes well, one day.”
That night I ran my fingers of my jewel of a heart, letting it flash light and keep the darkness away.
Then I fell asleep, throwing myself into it, trying to catch a glimpse, a single chance whisper of the ship that was the moon.
I didn’t hear anything but the sweeping of the ocean.
We left in the morning, after a last minute inspection to make sure the repairs were holding on the ship. They were, thankfully, so we didn’t have to rely on the kindness of the Academy, or worse, meet anyone else. A last roll call of everyone (Sampson came on board shortly before dawn, had a talk with Thyn, and then slipped under) and everyone calling out their names, and then we were off.
Outpost 5 was His Majesty’s name for the island, and the map that the Captain had in her quarters was based on a majesty map, with a few other bits pencilled in, hand drawn notes included, and lines demonstrating the various winds. The soul in our vessel would keep it going as best it could against the wind, if necessary, but at the end of the day, the wind was still the most efficient way to travel.
“No name?” I asked.
“That’s one of the crepuscular islands,” The Captain said, gently tapping her map. “A bit close to the sea of souls for the Sirens to settle for more than a few days every few years.”
Thyn looked up. “Any chance we’ll find ourselves meeting Sirens?”
“The chance should be minimal,” The Captain said, shaking her head. “Like I said. There’s nothing there that’d draw their attention.”
“So they let His Majesty have it?”
The Captain bit her lip. “No. I’m afraid the place is more than likely haunted with some sea happening. It’s been… oh, a decade since I’ve been there last, and if it was enough to drive those leeches off of it, there’s probably trouble brewing there. I just can’t imagine what it could be.”
“Hm,” Thyn grunted. “I don’t like this. Isn’t there anything else we can do before? To better our odds?”
“It’s just an island,” The Captain said. “It’s not like we’re going hunting for anything too wretched. Besides-” The Captain said, tracing a line on the map. She pointed at a dot marked by a lantern. “There’s a lighthouse here. We can ask what sort of things they’ve seen.”
“Slightly better,” Thyn said, relaxing visibly. “No offence Captain, but after how long we’ve been on the same ship, I prefer to have my gulls in a row.”
The Captain rolled her eyes. “The crew of The Song are more than a match than most of the soldiers on His Majesty’s fleets. They can handle a bit of sea spookiness at the end of the day.”
“I’m with Thyn,” I said, abruptly.
The Captain pouted, then shook her head.
“Fine, the lighthouse it is. We’ll have to go a bit lighter on the food, we’ll cut into our emergency rations if we’re not careful.”
“I’ll tell the crew,” Thyn sighed. “Charm?”
“Yes?” I asked.
“Go tell our guest that we’ll be a day later than we said we would.”
“Yessir,” I said, saluting.
“Don’t salute,” Thyn said. “It’s weird seeing a Navigator do that.”
“I rather like it,” The Captain said. “It makes me feel even more important.”
I didn’t know what to make of that conversation, so I adjusted the heavy robes I wore and slid off.
The dragon’s, room had been unpacked during the morning. Her bed was larger than mine, but she’d thrown her sheets over top of various boxes and equipments to make it that way, and she perched over top of the hard wooden bases like they were fine silk sheets. “Oh! The Navigator.”
“Charm,” I said.
“What a queer name,” Irony said, staring at me while upside down. An open book straddled her chest. “I can’t really talk though.”
“Right,” I said.
“What can I do for you?” She rolled right side up, snatched a bookmark off of the bed next to her, and slid it into the folds before snapping the book shut. Dust bloomed off of the edges of the tome.
I stared for a moment at her. Her tail twitched behind her, wriggling like a live snake. “We’re going to be taking a detour to a lighthouse,” I said. “To get a bit more information.”
“Ah,” Irony said, straightening up a bit more. “Is that wise? I don’t know how much food they had going in, and if they’ve been delayed this long…”
I winced. “Captain’s orders.”
“Oh right, yes,” She said. “I’m talking to the wrong person about that.” Her tail was distracting, so I looked at something else. A small shelf had been tugged out of a box, covered in books. A few gleaming jars sat, glass blown so thick that it obscured the contents of the jar. She followed my gaze. “Do you like my collection?”
“What is it?” I said, hovering in the door frame. She gestured at me to join her, and sighing, I slipped over to her side.
“Come on, I bet you’d find this interesting, being a navigator.”
“Right,” I said. What were we even supposed to find interesting?
“I got this specimen from the royal offices of archeology and esotericism.” She held it up and offered it to me. A gleaming dark pearl sat inside, reflecting a thousand colors I couldn’t name.
The jar was ice cold against my finger tips, and I swaddled my hands in my robes so I could hold it closer. “What is-”
“It’s an abandoned soul,” Irony said. “Shucked clean of the body that bore it in life, and held somewhere the reapers couldn’t get to it.”
Suddenly, the colors weren’t half as pretty, and I almost threw it back to her. “What?”
“It eats heat,” Irony said, shrugging. “My professor was using it to keep his drinks cold, and said I could use it as a paper weight. Pretty cool, huh?”
“Uh,” I said. “Y-yeah. Totally cool.”
She laughed. “You don’t need to lie to me.” Her tail tapped against my leg. “I can hear your heart beat, anyway. So it’ll tell me when you’re lying.”
“Really?” I asked, taking a step away from her tail.
“No,” Irony laughed. “You really have just spent all your time on the islands, huh?”
“Yeah,” I said. Which wasn’t a lie, if she could read lies. But would she lie about lying? I was starting to get dizzy.
“Well, Charm,” Irony said hopping back on the bed and rolling the ice cold jar between her hands. “Since we’re going to have an extra day to ourselves, what should we do while we wait?”
“Uh,” I said, intelligently.
“I don’t think I’m allowed to help the crew, and while my books are very interesting, I get a tad tired of them when there’s so many more interesting things I could be doing.” Her voice took on a sly tone.
Oh. Oh no.
Was she teasing me?
My cheeks turned red.
“Uh,” I said, very intelligently.
Her tail flicked between her legs, tapping briefly against the ground. “So…? I’m up for almost anything, really, as long as its in this room. Since your Captain might get upset if I hassle the rest of the crew.”
I swallowed. “C-can you-”
“Yes?” Irony asked, leaning in closer. She smelled like burning honey. Oh god.
“Can you tell me about the island we’re going to?” I said. For a moment, the light in her eyes, salacious and teasing, died, but a second later it reignited into something more primal and passionate. Like little stars had colonized her irises.
I needed to get away from this woman as soon as I could.
“Oh, could I?!” Irony said, her voice doubling in volume. “We’re only going towards what I-” and I was even louder, so I shushed her until she wasn’t half screaming “I think might be one of the more important stops in the entire ancient Siren island chains.”
“Outpost five?” I asked.
“Used to be a launching point for the territory that used to be the main Siren Empire!” Irony said. “Back before the Sea of Souls devoured it.”
I thought of the crowning obsidian spires and the cruel things in the mist and winced. “Oh.”
“By the by, how was it in there?”
“Dim,” I said. “Very dim. Everything was Amber.”
“Like your heart?” She asked, pointing at my necklace. It glinted faintly, highlighting my neck under my robes. I carefully tugged it free and held it out. “Almost exactly this color.”
Oliver’s, the old navigator’s, heart sat in the trunk in my room, buried in old clothes. I didn’t want to think about him, or his suicidal quest. Not anymore than I had to.
“Fascinating,” Irony said. “I’ve always thought that might come from the massive quantity of souls kept there. You know Hearts decay over time if they’re not well kept, and those are deposits of material created by the soul, so they could be continually creating and sublimating to make those mists.”
My face must’ve looked horrified. “I was breathing in soul gas?!”
“Possibly,” Irony said. “Did you bring back any samples?”
“Ask the Captain,” I said, flatly. “I was brought on late in that.” I instantly regretted saying that.
Her eyes snapped wide. I swore internally. “You were brought- YOU WERE IN THE SEA OF SOULS!?”
“Y-yes,” I said, taking a step back. Her eyes had gone wide enough that I could fit my thumbs in her pupils.
“Oh my, by my great great great uncle!” Irony chirped, hopping off of the bed. “Does that mean you were dead?”
“Well, I feel alive,” I said.
“Of course you would,” Irony said, starting to pace. “I mean, what are the odds that you’d even notice if you were dead if the reapers hadn’t thrown you into the sea? I assume that’s what they’re doing, what if they’re doing something else-”
“What was that about the Sea of Souls being on top of the old Siren empire?” I asked.
Her head popped up. “Oh! Right, well. That’s how the old stories go. The Reaper King grew jealous of the ostentationery of the Sirens and punished them by taking their homelands and leaving them stranded on their ships. At least, that’s the version we’ve been told. And that’s the Sea of Souls.”
“It wasn’t always there?” I asked.
“No, not at all,” She said. “My great great uncle can remember a time, when he was still an egg, incubating his several decades away, that his kind did not take to the sea for fear of the Siren fleet taking offence. Even if they were just the remnants of it.”
There was a lot to process there. A lot more than I could “He could remember being an egg?”
“He’s a great dragon,” Irony said. “From back when great dragons will ruled the bleeding continent, before they wiped each other out. They were, well, they were something different.” She laughed. “I guess it’s a bit weird, being related to a great relic and being interested in a completely different great relic.”
“Does, uh, His Majesty mind?”
“I’m a great Great Great grand niece,” she said, shaking her head. “And a twentieth child at that. He probably barely knows I exist, let alone that I’m not interested in studying the same dusty dragon sites as everyone else at the University. No, what I want to see it-” She swung herself over to the side, where her window sat. “That!” She pointed out at the ocean.
“Yeah,” I said. “It’s certainly something. Twentieth child?”
“Oh,” she blinked. “Well, dragons can have many children when they’re fertile. Not all at once, mind you, but-”
I held up my hands. “You know what, I don’t want to know that badly.”
She shrugged, and I kept my gaze pointedly away from her. “The dusty tombs of the Great dragons are all explored and numerated, and besides, coming up with something other than what’s established back home would be a major faux pas. Wouldn’t want to contradict history when there’s a living record of over five hundred years ago.” She winced, looking slightly pained. “Sorry for talking so much.”
“It’s fine,” I said. “I’m the one who delivered the bad news.”
“The point is,” Irony said, shaking her head. “Is that nobody knows anything that’s happened out here! I can study new things! Get my name out there! I won’t be just another dragonling that’ll end up with a desk job and a retirement plan.”
“Do all dragons get those?”
“We’re all technically royalty,” Irony said. She flaunted herself fetchingly for a second. “Looking for a prince /charm/ing to sweep me away.”
I swallowed. “I am definitely not that prince.”
“Aw, but your name is perfect for it.”
“I uh, think that I’d be overstaying my-”
‘I’m teasing, Charm,” Irony said. “You turn as red as a tomato, though. You sure you wouldn’t want to-”
“I’m fine!” I squeaked. “Why’d you end up at the Academy?”
“Well,” Irony said. “That’s a bit of a story and a half.” She giggled. “Would you buy that I’m too much for some people to handle?”
I gave her a look. “No, not at all. Who would ever say such a thing.”
She shrugged. “It boggles the mind, really. It’s fine, I’m sure that when I find my ticket to the history books, and write my theories and get them confirmed, I can get any number of prince charmings to come knocking on my door.”
I swallowed again. “Is uh, that everything?”
“Oh, no, sorry. Outpost five was an outpost for the Siren fleets,” Irony said. “So it’s very interesting from a scientific point of view. Just imagine all the lost techniques of shipbuilding that could just be sitting there.”
“And it’s haunted.”
“And it’s haunted,” Irony agreed. “Which isn’t so bad. I hear you sea adventures are great at dealing with hauntings!”
“I think the Captain does most of that work, I’m still new at the job.”
Irony scowled, her purple scales shimmering in the light of her lantern. She set the souljar to the side. “Fine, fine, I guess I’ll believe that. You wouldn’t be holding out on me, right Charm?”
I abruptly remembered I was very very human, and she was very very interested in the sea of souls, which was where humans were supposed to be from, and I blew air out of my nose. “No, I think I’m fine, thank you.”
“Huh?” She asked.
I swallowed, then turn and ran out of the room. Then I hid in the kitchen, because Sev was a giant warm blanket of fire, and if all else failed, she’d probably get distracted by him before she started teasing me again.
All in all, things were going fine.