Sev managed to haul an entire crate of supplies by himself. We’d brought enough to supply the entire expedition, which was supposed to have twelve people. It was more than enough for three. The parrot, Terry, stuffed his face with bits of cheese and smoked sausage, while the deer, Linda, nibbled more plainly on the bits of ruffage and hard tack we’d sent over.
The professor ate readily from the salted shark, which neither of his students were willing to touch. I ate a piece of it. Rich, salty, and just so very wrong tasting.
It wasn’t bad.
The Captain sat down and waited, patiently, while Folna inspected her hand for any other splinters. “So,” She said, looking at the three of them. “I was expecting more of you.”
“They’ve been dragged off,” The professor said.
“Dragged?” The Captain asked, quirking an eyebrow. “Not taken?”
“The reapers here,” The professor started. “I don’t know if you noticed, but they don’t fly.” bits of shark blood ran into the bandages that Folna had wrapped him in to inhibit movement. Folna’s eyes narrowed and she glared at him, which the professor ignored, handily, tearing into a bit of the eggs that Sev was cooking up around the fire they’d gotten.
There was a camp on the top of the cliff, surrounded by a thick thicket of trees. “So they haven’t vanished into the sea of souls,” The Captain said, running her fingers across her thumb on her right hand. Thyn sat beside her, quiet.
“That’s what I was thinking,” The professor said. “But we’ve lacked the manpower to do anything about it.”
“Well,” The Captain said, her eyes flicking over the crew.
“Captain,” Thyn said, dark. “We’re rescuing these people.”
“We are,” The Captain said.
“These three people. That nearly died today.”
“Yes,” Terry agreed. “I’ve been on this island long enough, I don’t think we have nearly enough people to try a rescue. We should go to the nearest King’s port, collect the guards from there, and burn the island to the ground.”
“That’ll take nearly two weeks,” Linda argued. “They don’t have two weeks! Two weeks is how long it took us to nearly starve to death!”
The professor stared off into the distance instead of joining the conversation. Shyly, Irony crept from the side of the camp to sit next to him. “I’m glad you’re alright,” she said.
“Irony,” the professor said, shaking his head. “You’ve found me at an awful time. I’ve gotten all my students killed, and I don’t know what to do.”
“Linda’s right,” The Captain said. “If we leave and get reinforcements, there’s no telling what’ll happen to those trapped in reaper hands.”
“If we don’t leave and get reinforcements, none of us came prepared to deal with an entire infestation of reapers!” Thyn argued. “We’ll get torn apart, just like they did. We’re not an army, Captain.”
“How did the dig go?” The Captain asked, looking at the professor. “We came here to collect your results.”
“It was going well, and then the sailors abandoned us in the middle of the night, and the reapers started circling,” The professor said. “We had a few areas of interest marked down before we had to abandon that forward camp. The reapers were thickest around the last area we had marked; we lost contact with them first.”
“It’s suicide to go back,” Terry argued. “I don’t care how good you are at this. We need to go.”
“They’ll die without us,” Linda said, darkly. “We either save them now, or they’ll be gone forever.”
Terry clicked his beak. “What’s better, Linda? All of us dead, or some of us making it out?”
“Captain,” Thyn said. “I’m with the bird.”
“It’s a shame you’re not the Captain then, isn’t it?” she asked, shaking her head. “Have you any idea where they might be being held?” she asked, addressing the professor instead.
“Not at all,” The professor said, trying desperately to clean his glasses. Irony leaned against his side, mostly silent. She was solemn for once. “They’re… well, they’re gone from what I can tell.”
“Captain,” Thyn warned. “We came here on a rescue mission.”
“We did,” she agreed again.
“Not a suicide mission.”
“One day,” The Captain said.
“What?” Thyn said, startled. “One day what?”
“We’ll give it one day,” The Captain said. “To see if we can find out what happened here, and see if we can help. If we can’t then we leave.”
“That’s… more sense than I thought you’d have,” Thyn said. The Captain was looking pointedly at Linda.
“One day?!” She scowled. “You might as well just start carving their graves, Captain.”
“You’re asking me to risk my crew,” The Captain said. “If the situation is as dire as I think it is… Charm? Your thoughts?”
I startled. “What?”
“What do you think we should do? You’re the navigator, after all.”
She was asking me because I should know more about the reapers than anyone else. Except, that knowledge wasn’t something I had. Those were assumptions I hadn’t bothered to overturn.
So what were my options?
At my silence, the rest of the crew, and even the academics, turned to look at me. I felt color flush up across my cheeks. “O-one day seems good,” I said.
“Good,” she said. “We’ll be using your navigator skills tomorrow,” Thyn nodded at her side.
Sev was silent.
“Don’t think I didn’t notice you were ready to help,” The Captain said, eyeing Sev from the side. “That means a lot to me. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome, Captain,” Sev said. “Sampson said he needed everyone, and I uh, well,” he buried his face into his own fluff in embarrassment.
“How is it,” The professor said, eyeing Sev. “That a siren captain ended up with a member of His Majesty’s Finest warriors?”
“That’s a long story,” The Captain said, holding up her bandaged hand. I could tell just by how Folna was glaring, that the wounds weren’t that serious. After a moment, the Captain reached over, grabbed one of the bottles of high proof from the supply cabinet, and poured it over her hand to clean it. Folna’s glare tripled.
“And where have I seen you before…” The professor asked, trailing off. “No, no way. Lady Catastrophe?”
The Captain’s eyes closed, and slowly, she turned to look at the professor. “I’m sorry, if we used to date, I have no idea who you are.”
“What?” The professor yelped. “We didn’t date. You’re the Siren who broke His Majesty’s blockade of Neverie!”
The Captain’s smile went from understanding, if confused, to strained, and stretched, like someone had smeared it unwillingly across the head of a bird. “Ah,” she said.
“What on earth did we do to end up with you here?”
“That was quite a long time ago,” The Captain offered. “Nearly a decade, in fact.” Behind her, Thyn had stiffened, and even Sev looked surprised. “And I’d advise you not to talk about it.”
“Why would I-” Irony elbowed the professor.
“Hendricks, she is going to try to save this expedition,” she reminded, quietly. The Captain’s eyes settled on Irony, and the dragoness shrugged slightly. “If she asks you not to talk about her past, then don’t talk about it.”
The professor sighed. “I’m sorry. I’ve made a career out of overturning old things. I suppose I should settle for overturning the histories of dead things for now.”
The blockade of Neverie? I remembered mention of Neverie as a port with parties on it, but it had been under His Majesty’s control and the Captain broke it?
The Captain had been involved with the border skirmishes?
I didn’t like it.
The Captain sighed, shaking her head. “Folna, Charm, Irony… Sev, all of you except Thyn, if you don’t mind, I think I have to have a talk with the first.”
“Charm can come,” Thyn said.
The Captain stared up into space, her eyes arcing over to the moon resting too large in the sky. “Fine. Charm, you can come.”
Thyn stood up, and then the three of us left, sweeping off to the side, in a small narrow hollow.
“Captain,” Thyn started.
“Catastrophe,” The Captain corrected. “If you’re chastising me, I’m hardly your Captain.”
“We can’t stay here,” Thyn said. “The whole island’s swarming, and someone needs to go back and make sure a light house operator gets out here, or there’s not going to be much of any rescue that ever gets here.”
“One day,” The Captain said. “I just need one day.”
“One day-” Thyn blinked. “You need one day?”
The Captain’s eyes closed. “Charm, you’re here. If it was anyone else, I wouldn’t show you, alright?”
“Show me what?” Thyn asked. I shifted uncomfortably at the cave entrance. The Captain undid one of the pockets of her coat and pulled out a thin pouch, blue lined enough that I couldn’t get a sense of what was in it, and just like before, pulled out the small key.
“This is a key,” The Captain said.
Thyn squinted at it for a long moment, cocking his head to the side. “A key…?”
“It’s one of six,” The Captain said. “One for each of the six houses of Sirens.”
His eyes went wide. “Captain, this is…” he trailed off, looking at me in particular. “Why’s he know and not me?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” The Captain said. “He was there when I showed the sponsor. He hardly knows the significance anyway.”
I gave him a disarming smile. Thyn sighed. “Captain, I know this is-”
“My mother went missing hunting after these,” The Captain continued. “As did my father,” She gestured. “ And now, I have one of them myself.”
“I get that,” Thyn said. “But what does that have to do with this?”
“This,” The Captain said, pointing at the ground. “Is the port that the Venturing Owl departed from.”
“…The actual ship?” Thyn said, his voice growing soft with wonder. “It departed here?”
“That’s what the stories say,” The Captain said. “The old ones, the ones you only find on yellowed paper in forgotten desks in your mother’s office in hidden drawers,” she clarified, as if that was a normal occurrence.
To a siren, it very well might be. Thyn sighed. “Captain-”
“If there’s a lead, I’ll find something here,” The Captain continued. “And I won’t have to nearly kill the crew to get there.”
Thyn’s eyes flashed. “I’m just getting tired of these stunts, Captain.”
“I know,” but the Captain wouldn’t look at him. “We won’t have too many of these. After all these years running cargo in dangerous conditions, avoiding blockades, being so very alone on the living seas, we’re finally going to do it.”
Thyn’s eyes settled on Charm. “You needed a fresh navigator who won’t report what you’re doing to the Academy, right?”
The Captain looked like she’d bit into a lemon. “That obvious?”
I shifted my weight from foot to foot. “Is that where I come in?”
“Tomorrow, we’re going hunting,” The Captain said, turning away from her first. “For people, and treasure. I want to see if these academic types have discovered what I’m looking for, and we’re going to see if we can find their people as well.”
“Is that something I can do?” I asked. I felt the pendant around my neck throb with anxiety.
“Of course,” The Captain said. “Your job is to navigate.”
“I don’t like staying here,” Thyn said. “It’s dangerous. Very dangerous, and we’re risking more than just our lives.”
“I know,” The Captain said, and it wasn’t a dismissive noise, it was a half miserable noise. “But now or never.”
“Is there nowhere else we can go to get this information?” Thyn asked. “I haven’t asked much about where you came from, Captain, but… you’re a Siren. Surely there are others-”
“You haven’t asked much about my past, Thyn,” The Captain said. “And I haven’t asked about yours, either. It’s been enough that we both have done as we said we would, and I have freed you from your old life, and saved other lives, and made a menace of us on the ocean. A lucrative life free from your thief-lord and my own ball and chains.” her amethyst eyes settled on mine. “And we invaded death and stole away one of his children.”
My tongue was dry in my mouth.
“One day,” I said.
“One day,” The Captain agreed. “And then we alert the guards, rally the troops, and we wait the months it takes for them to clear out this infestation.”
“One day,” Thyn sighed. “One day Captain. But if any of us gets hurt…”
“Don’t you think I already know that?” The Captain cut in, sharp as a razor. “The Worm take you, Thyn. You signed up to work at my side!”
“One day,” Thyn warned.
The Captain deflated slightly, her hands adjusting her coat so it hung more firmly off of her shoulders. Behind her, her wings flicked across the rends scored into the cloth. “One day.”
The Captain stepped outside of the cave and leapt up into the air.