The crew stood on board in front of the Captain, long after we’d scurried on board. All of them were there. Some bore injuries, powder burns, and a single one had been bandaged for a sword wound.
All of them were there except Thyn.
Each step the Captain took on her pace grew more and more frantic as she listened.
Some three hours after we’d left, the reapers had come from the skies. Thyn had rallied the crew to a defence, telling them to shatter the skulls. After half an hour of fighting, he ordered the ship’s spirit to move the ship away from the island while they worked the sails.
The reapers came for the graduate students, and Thyn went down under a cloud of them, even as they shredded themselves against his spines, and then he was dragged, dragged, dragged, back into the island.
Each step drove the Captain’s talons into the wood of the ship. Not even the gentle babble of the ship’s souls soothed her, even though I’d seen her late at night listening to it like one could listen to a crew member. Through my amulet, I could hear her heart throbbing faster and faster in her chest, like a wild animal thrashing against a cage, and her blood pressure rose higher and higher like a roaring fire.
“Captain? Your orders?” Sev asked. His voice broke whatever spell had been cast on her, and she stalked past, leaving me and Sampson, and everyone else, to stare after her.
“Stay here,” She boomed from the hallway. “Keep the ship ready to go, and stay here while I think.”
This let the task of telling the crew what we’d done fall to me. I waited until the Captain was far enough away that the crew wasn’t nervous (which was hard, because no distant could make the crew less nervous after that display, and the loss of their first mate). I waited a tad longer, but they were all still anxious. Tails twitched. Feathers were still puffed up. For all the world they looked more like scared creatures than the crew who had managed to take down a serpent of death.
“We burnt out a reaper nest,” I said, finally. “And what we were looking for had already been destroyed when we got there.”
Heads slumped. Knees wobbled. Shoulders sank.
“Did we get anything from this?” Sev asked. I couldn’t meet his eyes, even if they were mostly buried behind fluff. The crew mumbled to each other, Sampson and Richard confirming my story, with a few more accentuations, highlights, false hopes, but the mood was still somber.
We’d lost, and even worse, we’d lost a member of the crew. A long term member of the crew, one that even the Captain trusted implicitly. Like a big brother, or an authority of his own.
And he was gone, just like that.
Sev’s massive hand settled on my shoulders, and he gently led me along. Everything was numb and distant now, the wreckage and awfulness of the day finally winding its way through what little defences I had.
Before I knew it, I was in the kitchen, with a potato peel, and Sev was working on dinner, seared shark meat and mashed potatoes. His knife went flick flick flick, separating the filets out from the bulk of the beast, still preserved, and I watched him, listening to the thump thump thump of the blade against the cutting board.
“Thyn’s been on longer than I have,” Sev started, quietly. “He fought the Captain, you know, back then. I was going to protect her, that’s what I’d been hired to do, and I just froze up completely, and she ducked under my arms, drew my own sword, and fought in my stead. It was the worst moment of my life, I think, watching my charge fight a street rat with delusions of grandeur.”
“Did she win?”
“Of course,” Sev said. “She’s an aristocrat with training, and he was a thief. No amount of street experience beats the hell that Sirens put themselves through, you know.”
His eyes closed.
“She pinned him by his wrists to the wall in one hand, and stole her wallet back from him, then turn and lied to the guards that it was a game they were playing and nothing more.” Sev tilted his head back. The thump of his knife stopped, and he heated up a pan on the stove, flames licking across the base of the cast iron. “How’re the potatoes?”
I looked down and realized I’d been peeling the same potato for the last minute and a half, and switched to another. Sev shot me a knowing glance and returned to manning the stove.
“They’re fine,” I lied.
Sev sighed. “He never really liked me, I think. On account of not being able to do my job. I think he thought I was a spoiled brat, hiding in the hold like this.”
“Do you think that?” I asked.
“It’s what my dad used to say,” Sev said. “It always felt weird, hearing my dad’s words out of a street rat like that, and I never knew what to believe. I trusted the Captain, and she said she needed a cook, and a handyman, and someone to do all the jobs that went undone around the ship.” he shook his head. “I shouldn’t talk about myself like this. Thyn was… Thyn was good. He was the second best guy to go to if you had trouble.”
“He warned me the Captain was going to get herself into trouble,” I said, idly. “Back at the Academy.”
“He was smart. In another world, he went to that Academy. Learned a bit of Navigator magics, made something for himself. This one, he was a thief.”
“It’s not fair, is it,” I muttered. “She wasn’t even there for him.”
Sev muttered under his breath for a moment, and reached next to the stove where the wine should be, and frowned. “Charm, we’re out of wine. Go to the Captain, see if she has anymore?”
I swallowed and looked out into the hall. “Are you sure that’s a good idea?”
“Just go do it,” Sev said, his voice flat. It didn’t sound right coming from him, like all the cheer had been carved out with a bloody knife, and I could see his hands shaking a little. “You knew him the least, so… maybe she won’t…”
He struggled with the words. Instead of watching like a voyeur, I left him there and crept out into the hallway. My hands stung where the potato peeler had slipped. The pain was grounding, and kept me from floating out of my own body on thoughts.
Instead, I felt peculiarly hollow even just standing there. I drifted past where the crew sat in their chambers, and it was almost nauseating with alcohol. Fine candies and chocolates were being shared with one another, spirited away from secret hiding places. A low hymn buzzed under the noise, some deep noise mixed in with draconic. Irony even sat in the mess, her dulcet tones now low and booming as she joined the mourning.
The professor howled softly beside her, and the graduate students were halfway through a bottle of dark liquid, half slumped against the wall.
It was a time of mourning.
It didn’t feel right joining them, not when I hadn’t lost as much as they had. Hands gestured for me to join them, and I hesitated, shook my head, and left them there despite the complaints.
The Captain’s hall had never looked more ominous. Not a soul shifted in that darkness, and the lantern hung like an old forgotten friend, half buried in a black funeral cloth.
The Captain’s quarters were dark. Regardless, I knocked at the door. Silence. Awkward, blessed silence.
Then; “Come in.”
The door creaked open, and the Captain moved in the dim glow cast from her soul sitting on the table back to her seat. A glass of red wine sat in front of her. She swirled it about, but didn’t take a sip. Fine candies, spun from sugar, honey, and chocolate sat across from her, untouched.
Books were opened, unread. Mirrors were shrouded.
“Ah,” The Captain said, her tone clipped. “Charm. You’re here. Not who I expected.”
“Who were you expecting?” I asked.
“My crew,” The Captain gestured, grandly. “Here to finally mutiny me.”
I winced. Her voice was off, slanted, like music played drunk. “Why would they do that?”
“I dragged them to a cursed island,” The Captain noted. “And we have nothing to show for it. We’ve lost my first mate to it, and we didn’t even rescue many people from the grips of it.” She swirled her wine glass, and the red splashed up. Without missing a beat, she caught it all before it could sully the books around her.
I was silent.
She gestured across from her. “Take a seat, will you?”
I sat down.
“This wine’s from a special bottle I was saving for me and Thyn,” she said. “To celebrate at the end of this. Don’t know why I opened it. Should’ve died with it unopened, after all of this. Maybe when I get back to port, I’ll get another. Try again.”
I couldn’t tell if she was talking about wine or a first mate.
“Jess was right,” she said, vaguely.
“To break up with me,” she said. “I’m crazed. Devoted. Angry. Manic.” She listed them off like a grocery list. “And I get the people I care about killed at a startling pace. Might as well call me Lady Death. Catastrophe’s underselling it.”
“Captain…” I said.
“Don’t,” she advised. “Sit down. Have some candies. The honey ones are from Folna’s home countries. Don’t tell her I have any, she’d get angry.”
I gestured at the honeys, and she glared at me until I unwrapped one and popped it into my mouth. When I’d been young, my father had gone on a trip with his lord for a long time. Several months. When he’d returned, he’d carried with him oranges from trees far to the south.
This tasted sweeter than that. I sucked on it for a long moment.
“The chocolates are from plantations that my family owns,” The Captain said. “I can’t bear to eat any right now. I’m just looking at them to remind me of home.” She swirled her wine glass again, but couldn’t bear to drink from it.
“Jess got them for me,” she said, her voice still off. “Said it might help me. All it did was fill my head with more adventures, I think.” She shook her head and leaned back in her chair. Her balance stopped her from toppling over.
I looked around a bit more. “Anything from…”
“Thyn?” she asked. “I couldn’t… I couldn’t get it out. You might be able to. Would you do that?” her voice was quiet. She gestured at the armoire behind her, and I crept over to it and opened it. Fine silks, fine dresses, fine clothes, many of which the average man would die to see the Captain in. “Below those useless things,” She said, gesturing with her talons.
She’d be just as deadly and be just the same as she always had been in them. I rummaged at the foot of the closet and found a small box. Wood, deep mahogany, and she gestured at it. “That’s the one.”
She gestured at the table, and I brought it around. “I’ve done you a disservice, I think,” The Captain said.
“I order you around, constantly,” she said, dimly. “I barely know who you are, only what I saw when I first met you, a wretch, a hair’s breath from drowning in the next wave, and I knew that one day you’d be the one riding that wave, and I wanted that by my side.”
“Can you see things like that?”
“Always,” The Captain said. “I traded my name so I could see more than anyone else. It was to chase after my mother, you understand,” she set the wineglass down and eyed the candies. The honey bit in my cheek was starting to fade away into my throat, which helped with damage the terror and fright had done to it the last few days. “I see these things. They dance in front of my vision, and I see what they could be in the future.”
She recoiled at the name and grabbed the box. Fine letterings riddled it, written in yet another tongue I couldn’t read or speak, and she plucked it open. With two fingers, she dug into the darkness and pulled out a knife. Wicked sharp, done up with fine gems, rubies encrusting the hilt, gold and dappled layers of silver wound together into an elegant piece.
“Stolen,” She said, answering both questions. “This was stolen. It was the last thing he took before I took him, you know. A piece this fine might’ve bought him a home in any number of places, but he left it to me when I hired him and Sampson.” She balanced the dagger on her finger tips, then spin it, smoothly between her long digits before sitting it gently back into the box. “For once, I don’t know where it’s from, or where it’ll go.”
I closed my eyes.
“It’s not your fault,” She said.
“I know,” I said. “Which means it isn’t yours.”
She breathed in. She held it, for an achingly long time. By the time I’d opened my eyes, she’d moved, dragging the jar that held her heart off of the shelf. It flickered under her fingertips. “I’ve always wondered why my heart came out like this. Does it mean we sirens truly don’t feel the same way as the rest of the mortals? I’d wondered if you, a human, would make the same sort of heart as a beastmen. Should we take this as proof that Sirens are very different from beasts and man alike?”
“It’s not your fault,” I repeated.
“In that case, do we feel different emotions? Are we ever so different? How far is that difference?” she continued, in a strange half ramble. She leaned forward, the box opening and the dagger in her hands again. “Do you think we go to the same place when we die?”
“I… I don’t know,” I said.
“Because, if we do,” she said, her voice straightening, like hammers against a molten blade. “If that’s the case, then I’d never see him again, and that would be hell itself.”
“…I guess…” I said. She straightened up and snatched her guns off of her bedside table.
“If that’d be the case,” The Captain said. “Then the only thing for it is that we’re going to have to rescue him after all.”
“What?!” I hissed at her. “He’s been taken by reapers!”
“They haven’t left the island,” The Captain said. “Everyone they’ve taken are still here.”
“I can’t sense them,” I said.
“There’s only one place that could be holding them,” she said. “And the only thing that could be making those eyes we saw.”
The Captain flicked the dagger in her hands, drew a hilt out from the box, and slid it onto her hip. Then she drew a sword from next to the cabinet, and then a thick heavy vest that she threw at me.
“This is a damned place,” she said. “Much like a ghost ship.”
Suddenly, things were starting to make sense, and I didn’t like it. “You can’t mean-”
“They’ve been taken by the island’s soul,” She declared. “And I, I am a captain. It is my job- no, my duty, to save them.”
“An island isn’t-”
“And why not?” She said.
“How would we even?”
“We’ll get captured by reapers,” she declared, and it was with that voice, that stupid voice that brokered no complaint, no changes to her course. “And then we’ll save them ourselves.” She snatched her heart and cracked open the jar. She made eye contact with me and then slid the corroded thing into a pocket.
I could hear it, beating to that crazed heart that sat inside of my Captain, and her eyes fell on me, daring me to disagree.
“The crew’s all drunk,” I said. “Who’ll join us?”
“Don’t worry about that,” she said. “The dragon’ll have a liver of cast iron, the professor won’t have hit the bottle, he’s too uptight and depressed for that, and Sev’ll have to drink a barrel before he’s out cold.”
“That’s your crew?” I asked.
“And you,” she said. “Of course. Else we might not be able to find them.”
“Charm,” she said, standing on her knees so we were on the same height. “You’re a member of my crew. I want you to understand that makes you mine.”
“I… I know,” I said.
“And I, the Captain, and a Siren, have a right to keep what is mine,” she said, languid, like the logic made sense. To her, to her ungodly mind, perhaps it did.
“And they have taken what is mine,” she said. “The only recourse is that I drag everything they have ever taken, kicking and screaming and desperate, out of whatever hell they have them in. They haven’t passed into the sea of souls. The Reaperking hasn’t taken a balance of their sins. They’re being held somewhere in the island.”
“So we’re going to save them.”
And that was that.