Up, down, and across the path, until we were on the mountainside itself, and then like a flame following wood, we were in the very same building that’d nearly killed us a day or two before. Now, the lobby was covered in life and sounds. A harp played in the distance, echoing off of the polished walls, and artists sketched paint across a curiously marred stretch of stone. Our guard flashed a sign at them with her fingers, then clicked her talons against the floor when they didn’t notice her at first.
Recognition flashed, and then they ran off. The room was cold, warmed only by flickering torches, but lit by paint that gleamed in the mostly dark.
“So,” I said, looking at the guard. “What’s your name?”
She squinted at me for a moment, then slid her fingers together into something that looked like a lattice, splitting three long fingers with two others.
“Jerome,” the other harpy in the room said. “Her name is Jerome.”
“I’m Charm,” I said, ignoring the eyes in the room. I’d dealt with this before, but now I was even more at a risk of getting stabbed to death over it.
“I’m Irony!” she said, helpfully.
“We knew that,” the other harpy said. Jerome nodded her head politely at the dragon.
“Right,” Irony said. “Yes, you would know that, all things considered-”
The far doors opened, and a bird slipped out, gesturing at us, and Jerome led the way. Talons clicked against hard stone. The halls were immaculately painted, untouched by the light of the sun, though smog and haze from torches and had discolored some of the murals. There sat a great ship, venturing off into the distance- the Venturing Owl-
I paused for a moment, and stared at it, then looked back at Irony, who looked confused, then stared at it for much longer, her head tilting to the side until it thumped against her shoulder. “Wha?”
“That’s the Venturing Owl,” our other guard said. Jerome gestured at it meaningfully. “That’s the ship that brought us to the living seas.”
Irony’s jaw clicked together, and she tugged her clothes back in order. Her eyes didn’t leave the image of the ship.
That… that didn’t track. The Venturing Owl was the ship that was our ticket off of the island. How could it be the ship that brought them here in the first place- “Brought you from where?”
“From the place we were before. It was cold,” the guard said. “A ship just like it is going to come and take us from here; the ship of the royals. Built in its image…” She trailed off, a wistful look overtaking her stern face. “It’ll be the first time most of us have seen it. It’s been off exploring for so long…”
Deeper into the fortress I started to smell blood. It swam up from dark rooms filled with groaning bodies, and I smelt it across the Siren swinging from room to room, carrying a barrel of water and small clothes. I smelt fever stenches, sickly sweet herbs mixed with honey, and tree bark brewed into tea. Even the guards looked uncomfortable there.
Farther on we could smell food, though we passed wherever the kitchens and eating quarters were in favor of moving forward and then we finally hit the sting of armor polish and martial sweat.
Here, the guards paused and stared ahead. Jerome flicked her eyes down to mine, and gestured me forward. I stood beside her, and my stomach did a flip when I realized the smells were coming from far below.
Wood thumped against wood, and I stared, in the distance, as a Siren that could only be the Captain flipped a long stick of wood around like a deadly weapon, a sneer on her face. Across from her, a tropical creature sat, painted, immaculate, and clicking and clacking with ornamentation.
“You’re a bit too young for this challenge,” The tropical creature noted, her voice echoing off of the precisely carved walls.
“I refuse to be caged,” The Captain snarled. She was forced back, but she carried that momentum back against the wall and threw herself off of the corner, smashing her staff into the ground like a thunderclap, then just barely dodging out of the calculated swing of the woman in front of her. “And that’s what your plan is.”
“My plan,” The woman said, coldly. “Is what’s going to get us out of this alive.”
“My crew is among their number,” The Captain said. “I’d think you know what that’s like.”
“Your crew,” The woman said, and their staffs snapped together, hard enough that it echoed like a broken bone. “Matters less to me than our safety.”
“Just because they’re not Sirens,” The Captain said with a sneer.
“That’s right,” The woman said, and her staff lashed out and cracked the Captain across her side. She went down without a noise, but only for a second, the staff in her hands blocking the second strike, and she used the swing to vault back up into her position. “No other reason than petty racism is why I’m not letting you charge to your death.”
“I was placed here to protect as many of my people as I could,” The tropical siren said. “That’s why they named me Captain of the vessel coming to save us.”
“You’re an overgrown bureaucrat,” My Captain hissed, pressing the staff forward.
“And you’re a giant brat,” The tropical Captain said. “You look like my little sister.”
The Captain pressed forward, clearly straining with all of her might, but the Tropical Captain’s staff slipped, and she was simply faster, thwacking the Captain upside the head. She stumbled, and then fell over on the ground. The tropical bird pointed the edge of the staff at her throat. “Yield.”
The Captain glared at the other siren, a hiss on her throat, and then the staff poked against her neck. “I yield.”
“Good,” The Tropical bird said, offering The Captain her hand. “Now get up.”
“I hate you, Pinion,” The Captain scowled, but took the hand anyway.
“Your technique is lacking,” Pinion diagnosed, shaking her head. “You’d have several months before you were good enough to overthrow me, even if you do have talent.”
“You’re a bureaucrat,” The Captain muttered (the room picked up all of the noises, no matter how small). “How are you so good at this?”
“I am a member of the royal family,” Pinion said. “We’re all trained, no matter how far away our relationship is.” She turned, and flashed us a look, her blue wings fanned out behind her. “Now, it looks like your guests are back.”
The Captain’s head snapped up, and she stared at me for a long moment, then, as if none of her injuries had ever happened, she broke out into a dead run and then vaulted up, clearing the three meters we were up off of the ground with ease. Her wings snapped out and she landed next to us with just enough clearance that the edge of her wings brushed against my neck. “Charm!”
A few moments later, Pinion landed next to her. “This is your navigator?”
Her hand grabbed my chin and tilted it back and forth, swinging my eyes across her tropical form. She wore normal enough clothes, if woven in a spectacularly different style, oranges and greens that were fetching, even if there was a bizarre lack of emotion in her eyes. She reminded me of Harley; in fact, I could see a bit of Harley’s chin in her chin. “Yes Ma’am,” I said.
“You don’t serve her,” The Captain said. “You serve me.”
“Possessive,” Pinion muttered. “Making a human a Navigator is an interesting decision. What are your thoughts on that, sister?”
“I’m not your sister,” The Captain said, sounding rather sullen. “Charm’s a perfectly fine Navigator. Still learning, but-”
“Is this the friend you said was stolen?” Pinion asked.
“I saw Thyn at their camp,” I said. “He was being held in the cell next to mine.”
Pinion’s eyes dripped with interest, a strange look considering no emotions flittered across her black eyes. “You were in those cells?”
“I was,” I said. “I was freed by the Siren I was with.”
Pinion leaned forward. “Is that so? Did she make it out alive?”
I thought back to Vali, and the blood littering her form, and swallowed. I hadn’t forgotten about her in my excitement to be free, but I hadn’t given her enough thought.
Jerome flashed a sign at Pinion.
“Good, she made it out alive,” Pinion confirmed. “That makes this easier. Every person we save is another soldier to hold out with.”
“We don’t need to hold out,” The Captain said.
“You lost your challenge,” Pinion said. “I think that means you don’t get an opinion on this, no matter your credentials.”
The Captain scowled at her, but Pinion didn’t even look at her face.
Jerome flashed a sign.
“She challenged my authority,” Pinion explained. “On the account of wanting to hold out here as long as possible. We aren’t set up to deal any sort of blow to their ranks, not with what we have here, but we can all get off of here when the ship arrives.”
“Must be some ship,” I said.
“One of our largest,” Pinion said. “We’ll be living off of fish for weeks on end, mind you, but if what the Captain said about her cook is correct-”
“If you let him into the kitchens, you’d see,” The Captain cut in. Pinion ignored her.
“Then we’ll be in good hands. Elsewise, we’ll have to wait it out in this fortress. Charm, was it?”
“What did you see?”
“They brought me before the Colonel.”
“That hag,” Pinion muttered. “That hag has trailed us from island to island, burning everything in her wake. We’ve kept a step ahead… mostly… I’d think the Reaper-King were important to her if he were a man.”
“The other islands are-”
“Burned,” Pinion said. “And inhabited by their ilk. They’ve spread like a plague on our lands, chasing us out, piece by piece.” Emotion finally dwelled in her eyes, but it was a thick seated rage, smeared like honey across the black coals. I took a step back away from her, and Jerome took a step in front of me.
“Don’t worry,” Pinion said. “The Captain tells me that you were left for dead on one of the abandoned islands. We are nothing if not a race of outcasts at this point. Especially once this island falls.” Her eyes closed, and she twisted her head to look at the Captain. “And what of your ship?”
The Captain’s lips curled into a sneer. “Lost.”
“Lost? How so?”
“The seas are angry about your cowardice,” The Captain gestured. “How the hell should I know? I barely know where I am at this point.”
“This island has always been a queer place,” Pinion said, shaking her head. “Every time I close my eyes, I swear our numbers grow thicker, and the list of prisoners longer.”
The Captain’s eyes gleamed daggers into her back.
“No matter,” Pinion said, looking down at me. “Keep your dragon in order, and your Captain off of my back, and we’ll have no trouble with you, now will we?”
“No trouble at all,” I said.
“Good,” Pinion said, then slipped off back the way we’d come. “If anyone needs me, I’ll be in my office. I’m to keep track of the supplies we’ll need, after all.”
The Captain waited until she was gone, and only the guards were around us. “I loathe that woman.”
“I can tell,” Irony said. Jerome slid her fingers into a sign that was probably an acknowledgement, and that sent the other guard snickering.
“She’s being very polite to you,” The other guard said. “On account of what you brought with you, and who you might be.”
The Captain shook her head. “Can you lead us back to our chambers? I have things to discuss with my companions.”
“At your word, milady,” The guard said, snickering. “Next time she challenges you, her left knee’s been weak since she was small. I’d go for that.”
“Don’t patronize me,” The Captain said, her eyes nearly as angry as Pinion’s, and then they led us off.