Things were not fine. At around midnight of the third day, after Irony had snuck out of her room and bothered just about everyone on board until the Captain had crossly ordered her back into her room instead of bothering anyone else, and then the Captain had spent a long night squinting at the stars to figure out where they and if they’d drifted off course (we had, but not enough to matter) we encountered the lighthouse.
We nearly rammed into it, actually, because the light wasn’t on.
There was no feverish pointing at people or volunteering of people to explore. The Captain, grave as midnight, her face lit by the Venturing Owl above, pointed at Thyn and Sampson, and they departed the ship in one of the spare boats we had.
The rest of the crew watched, nearly unblinking, while they slipped inside. I watched as well, standing next to Sev and the tiger man.
“I don’t like this,” Sev whispered, long after the door at the base of the structure had shut. “I don’t like this at all. What’s to stop someone from plowing into the reefs?”
Irony was among those up on the deck, and she sat, staring at the monolith, her arms crossed over her chest, and didn’t say a word one way or another.
Some ten, twenty minutes, or maybe two or three hours, it was impossible to tell by the moon and time trickled like stuck sand in that dark space, the light up top sputtered to life, and spun, smoothly, rotating in place.
Then there was a long time, which was only punctuated by three gunshots that rattled my teeth and made my heart tremor and nearly lurch through my teeth, where I found my fingers wrapped around the gem hanging from my throat and then the Captain, Sampson, and Thyn walked out of the microscopic door at the base.
The Captain carried a corpse. There were no other words. She set the body down, vaulted on board, then walked inside. A few minutes later, she returned with lamp oil, vaulted back to Thyn and Sampson, doused the body, and lit it up.
We stared at it until the dawn was starting, and the corpse had been turned to mere bones and ashes, and the gentle sea winds tickled at the edges of it, leading it into the abyss of blue below.
“Two months,” The Captain said, when they reboarded. “Two months since the man died. His soul was gone, the windows were all open, and the light had been blown out by the wind.” She looked up at the beam of light penetrating for miles in the dim gloam of the lapping sea.
“Natural causes?” Sev spoke up.
“No,” The Captain said. “He had a gun in his hand and a knife at his feet. The Reapers came for him, and there was nobody else to help him. He kept the light going for three weeks, waiting for the ships that were supposed to be at Outpost 5 to save him.”
Thyn shook his head. “We kept his books. We’ll find his family next time we’re at that town.”
Catastrophe made a flourish with her hands, then shook her head. “I don’t like this reaper business,” she said, her eyes settling on me. I shook my head back at her. “I don’t like how it’s escalating. Dragon girl-” She shook her head. “Irony, your coworkers, might…”
“I know,” Irony said. “I’d thought they might be, but…”
The Captain turned and looked into the distance. On the horizon, where the sun was rising, we could see a faint line, like pepper flakes on the distance where the planet fell into the void. “Only one way to find out.”
“Captain…” Irony trailed. “Why do you need me there? You don’t seem like the type to accompany just anyone on something like this.”
The Captain was silent. When she spoke, her voice was softer. “Believe it or not, Irony, we’re not that different. I want to find out what happened all those centuries ago, and I’m willing to do nearly anything to get there.”
The crew were terrified, their eyes fixed on the dawn, with the lighthouse flickering behind them, and then Thyn stood up straight. “Well crew,” he said, when the Captain remained silent. “We’re going to find those people on that island,” He said, pointing straight ahead. “And we’re going to help them, and then we’re going to drag them back to their homes. Because we are The SONG!” He said.
“The song,” I said, quieter. Sev was louder.
“We’re The Song!” he boomed. “And we’re the living!”
“We are the living,” The tigerman said, shaking his head. “And we’re not going to let the reapers get the better of us! RIGHT?!”
“RIGHT!” Thyn said. “We are The Song! They’ll sing ballads about us. Thyn, the Daring! Sev, the crafter! Charm, the Navigator! Sampson the Brilliant!”
The tiger cut in. “Richard, the Benevolent!”
And the rest of the crew cut in with their own epithets, though they grew more and more silly as time went on.
“And Captain?” Thyn asked, elbowing the Siren.
“And the Captain,” She finished, turning away from the sun. “The Captain’s going to fix all of this, if she has to.”
And she said it in the same voice she used when she said she’d steal the moon, like that ridiculous request or desire was as easy as making a cup of tea, or getting Sev to bake. That she was so certain that she’d be the one to do it, and we’d be the crew to help.
“Wow,” Irony said, under her breath. “She’s really something.”
“I just don’t know what she is,” I admitted.
“I think that’d spoil the mystery,” Irony said.
And then we slipped back under the deck. There was a world out there that needed our help, and secrets to pry screaming out of their catchholes, their secret places, their hidden compartments.
And I thought I could do it. At least, with this crew by my side.
Even if the spectre of death still hovered over us.
The days slid across each other like tiles in a puzzle, and the horizon crept closer and closer. Pepper flakes in the sun turned into a distant half crescent moon, with mountains raising up over the shore.
The crew grew antsier and antsier and the days went on, and Irony grew more and more desperate for attention and then sullen in turn. When I woke up at night, it was to quiet whispers and crew members up on deck, staring pointedly into the placid stars, talking and sharing stories with each other.
Even the Captain grew worried, though I could only tell from how quiet she’d gotten. Her booming voice hadn’t carried through the ship in several days when it became my turn to sit up on the deck at night.
Sampson sat staring up at the stairs, pointedly looking away from the moon. His dark eyes flicked over to me.
“Hey,” I said, quietly.
“Hey yourself,” he said. “You can’t sleep either?”
My hands drifted under my outfit to roll over my heart, the little amber orb putting out enough heat to make me feel more comfortable, even if it didn’t help me sleep. “Yeah.”
“It was like this last time,” Sampson said. “Before you got on board. The Navigator was a lot less friendly, and the Captain talked even less.”
“Oh,” I said. I took a seat next to him. “What are you looking at?”
“You ever hear of the- of course you haven’t,” Sampson laughed. He gestured up at the stars. “Do you see that swath over there?”
Here, the stars were thick as syrup, great bands unaffected by even the tracest amount of smoke and torches and lanterns. No coal smudged the horizon here. I tried to squint and follow what he was pointing at until he gently set his head next to mine so I could follow his finger tips.
Three stars twinkled next to each other, almost overlapping. “Those are the Siblings.”
“Where do they lead?”
“They’re the stars that’ll lead me home one day,” Sampson said. “Back to the continent, where I came from, where the thieves run thick as oil and the streets are crowded with the filth and the poor.” His voice managed to sound wistful.
“You miss it?”
“Like a sore wing,” Sampson said, flicking one of his feathery appendages. “But yeah, I guess. There’s a lot out on the sea you don’t know, but there was almost nothing I didn’t know about that place.”
“What was it called?”
Sampson laughed. “I came from a part called Thieves-home. But it’s known as Fifth-nest to the dragons. A rotten oozing sore for the dragon’s palatial cities and gleaming castle walls.” He paused. “It’s nothing special. Where’d you come from?”
I laughed. “It won’t mean much to you.”
“Might as well,” Sampson said. “Besides, half the crew think you’re from some hidden royal line or some garbage like that.”
“What?” I asked, giggling. “Not at all. I’m from River’s-End. It’s a little port town that bubbles with traffic on the way to the islands. My family’s served the liege for generations, and-” I sighed. I remembered the little house I’d grown up in, the tattered books my father had dragged in to make sure I could read, times tables and math practice and the slap of the ocean against the shore, forever present in the distance.
It was different on this sea. But not so different.
“I was going to make something of myself,” I said, leaning back against the wood. I could still hear the ocean, even here, and it was the same sound. Everything else might be different, but I had that at least. “Dad was going to get me out to the academy, and I’d’ve been able to go anywhere. Serve any of the lords. And then-”
My head ached trying to piece together the days before I’d ended up in the sea of souls. They all blurred together, muddled and mixed, like a jamjar made of the dregs of the batch. It wasn’t going to work, even if I forced it.
“Well, you ended up dead,” he guessed.
“I think there was a storm,” I said. “I remember, on the ship, was I being transported, or were we fishing, the sea was unmanageable, awful, wretched, and then-”
“You don’t have to go on,” Sampson said. The ship’s soul had been quiet for the entire talk, but I could hear it listening, a slight whisper on the wind, or water passing across rocks.
“I was going to make something of myself,” I said, shaking my head. “And now I’m stuck here!” I gestured at everything and anything. “This wasn’t where I was supposed to be.”
My breath turned into sharp little hisses in my chest, and the amulet around my neck throbbed uncomfortably quickly.
“Hey,” Sampson said. “Hey, are you alright?”
I held up a hand, and clutched at my chest. The amber orb flashed in my clothes, illuminating my skin. Tears ran down my cheeks. “I’m just stuck here, and I don’t have any control here either.”
Two warm wings wrapped around me. Sampson clicked his beak next to my ears. “Shhhh,” He said. The warmth was distant, the robes were thick enough to block it at first, but it trickled in like a blanket. “You’re fine,” he said.
“I was going to make something of myself. I was going to make them proud,” I said, but my voice was quiet.
“I think you’re doing a good job already,” Sampson said, and we were both very still. “I bet your family’s never fought sea monsters before, or discovered lost treasures, or-”
“Yeah,” I said. It didn’t really make me feel better, but the tears were starting to dry anyway, and then there was just the infernal shakes. “W-why have you stuck around?” Hurriedly, I wiped away the tears.
Navigators probably didn’t cry.
“On this ship?” Sampson asked, then answered before I could. “I guess I told you already but-” His beak clicked. “That wasn’t really the reason. I was just tired of being where I was. It was the same thing, day in and day out. Begging, thieving, dodging, hiding,” Sampson’s voice had lost some of the wistfulness. “Bowing to someone else’s orders… Well, it’s not hard to see why Thyn and I ended up going with the Captain when she offered something else.”
“You were ordered?” I asked.
“Mm,” Sampson grunted. “There’s always someone higher than you in the gangs. You followed their orders, or they made you remember to follow their orders.” He gestured up at the Siblings, the cold stars still twinkling in the sea breezes.
They didn’t seem quite so bright or friendly.
“At least here, following the Captain’s orders keeps me fed, and mostly above the law.” He laughed again. “You okay kid? I can let go if you want.”
“I’m twenty,” I said. “I’m not a kid.”
“Yeah, sure,” Sampson said, untangling his wings from me. “Just try to remember that we’ve all got each other’s back out here, even without the Captain. We’re all sailors, and tomorrow, maybe the next day, we’re going to be heroes, too.”
“Yeah,” I said, still unsure.
Sampson shrugged. “Want to hear about more of the stars? The thief-lord used to take us and teach us them, so if we ever got lost in the marshes we’d be able to find a way home.”
“…Sure,” I said.
And the crow started the laborious process of teaching his navigator the stars.