Sleep was hard to find, but not as hard as I thought it might be. Dinner was given to us, hard bread and chunks of stew (it was filling) and then the Captain slid up onto the bed, next to Sev, and raised an eyebrow at the lot of us. The professor found himself a pillow to lay across, and Irony, being a dragon, was dead asleep on the floor before anyone could ask her what she wanted. So I ended up across the foot of the bed, just outside of the reach of the Captain’s talons.
I played with my heart until I could sleep, rejoicing in the feeling of their familiar hearts, listening to the emotions rise and swell in their chest.
And most importantly, I could feel the Captain’s heart, less than a room away from mine. Close enough that I could reach out and touch her. That, that felt more like safety than a dozen spears.
The Captain had dove into hell to save a single member of her crew. What might she do to save me?
Sleep took me between moments, deep in the fortress.
We were awoken, or I was, at least, by breakfast coming in through the door, and the Captain gently nudging me. My hands flew up and rubbed at my neck to get feeling back into it, a dull ache from my position, and then she shoved a slab of salted pork and more bread in front of me. “Eat up, Charm, they’ll find something for you to do today.”
I rubbed sleep out of my eyes and squinted at everyone else in the room. They were dressed in new clothes, and the Captain tossed a mess of them at me and drew the curtain on the bed so I could get changed.
Considering that my old clothes were blood stained and less than great, I changed, trying to ignore all the people on the other side of the curtain, then crunched into the salt pork (not good) and dug into the hard bread (better). Then I joined the others, wearing bits of siren insignias.
“And what’re you going to do, Captain?”
“Train,” she grunted, shaking her head. “I know we’re on a time limit, but I already tried rushing my bitch of an ancestor. Irony!”
Irony jumped, thumping her head against the bed. She turned around, rubbing the spot she’d struck, and frowned. “Captain, I’m going with you?”
“Yes,” The Captain said, placing a hand on her shoulder. Then she stepped off and away, dragging the dragon behind her.
The professor sighed, watching them go. “I should’ve stayed in the military. Chain of command might’ve made more sense.”
“Why’d you leave?” I asked.
The professor closed his eyes. “Your captain’s right on quite a few accounts. There’s only so many ships you can raid and be told to never speak about before you get second thoughts.” He stood up and stretched, his tattered fur failing to muffle the pops from his spine. “So I’m an archeologist out to find the truth instead of burying it.”
“How’s that working out?”
“Ask me if I get out of this alive,” The professor said. He threw his head to the side with a nasty crack of his neck, loud enough to startle Sev, who leapt over the bed, and then threw his head to the other side for a slightly less loud crack.
He sat down on the bed, kicked his legs, and stared at the door. “She always drag you all into fires like this?”
“So far as I know her,” I said, truthfully. “She says it’s her duty to destroy things like this.”
“That’s an outdated belief,” The professor said. “That’s how it used to be, but now… now we’ve got militaries and squads to handle that. It used to be that the sea was dangerous, and every captain had a duty to fix that.” A pause. “Perhaps that’s a relic from the past we ought to bring back.”
“Like the Captain?”
“She’s no relic,” The professor snorted. “And you probably shouldn’t imply that around her, either.”
I laughed, and Sev poked his head up from hiding next to the bed. “Don’t insult the Captain like that! She’s perfectly aged, Charm.”
“I don’t even know what that’s supposed to mean. Like a slab of meat?” I asked.
“Laying with Sirens is an excellent way to wake up with scars,” The professor said. “Besides, she only has eyes for her first mate. I’ve heard her muttering for him.”
“Thyn?” I asked.
Sev slid across the bed, winced, and started to make the sheets. “They seem like they like each other.”
“Maybe,” I said.
A tapping at the door brought us to attention, and I opened it. Jerome sat at the other side, and pointed smartly at Sev and I, then gestured towards herself. She spun, gave a gesture that could only mean come hither, and with a shrug, the two of us followed.
We walked down long halls, ignoring the occasional smell of sweat from the training grounds, or the weeping smell of alcohol and blood from somewhere further ahead, towards the exit, and instead found herself in the kitchens. Jerome took up a seat on a table, leaning back against the wall. Another siren sat inside, a long knife in his hands, nimble and quick, flashing as she dug through piles of vegetables.
“Human,” he barked, pointing at the corner. It was strange to see a male siren, but I didn’t mention it. I walked over to the corner, and he rapped the hilt of his knife against a tub full of dough.
“This’ll make noodles for later. Get kneading.” he said. He turned, and gesturing at Sev. “You’re going to peel potatoes and carrots. You both know how to do that, right?”
“Yessir,” I said, saluting.
“Charm, he’s not your superior officer,” Sev said. “Only salute the Captain.”
“Right.” My hands were quickly occupied with dough and Sev with a peeler.
“Milady Pinion would like you to know that the human will be going to the clinic later.” the chef’s knife chopped through vegetables, hand over hand, and put them into a stew pot large enough to hold several small children. The ancient stove directed smoke out into a hole in the way, the fire roaring to try and impel the pot to boil. In a second pot, he threw an entire raw chicken, cleaned and deboned and drained of blood, into it, and let it sizzle against the heated metal.
I paused to smell it and relaxed slightly until the chef whirred around to glare at me. “Knead.”
“Alright, alright!” I said, kneading.
“I’ll admit I don’t understand why milady Pinion had decided not to keep you with the prisoners,” the chef said, still dicing. He occasionally checked the pot to make sure it was heating properly. “But you’ll be as useful as any other bird if you want to keep in my good graces. Jerome, are you just going to watch?”
Jerome gestured at the two of us, then pantomimed a knife motion, and the chef rolled his eyes and threw her a box. “Chop up these mushrooms. I’m sure if it comes to it, you can stab them with the knife if they get too handsy with the peelers.”
Jerome rolled her eyes, took the box of mushrooms, stole a knife from next to the chef, and slid off the table she’d been sitting on to chop them up. Occasionally, she’d flick one of up that didn’t look remotely like the others and toss it into a waste basket.
And that was how we passed the start of the day. Luckily, my mother had taught me how to make noodles back home, so it wasn’t hard for me to figure out how to handle the different dough, and the chef gave me an approvingly look after a while, throwing me yet another hunk of dough after he decided the first was pulverized enough.
At around noon, long after my hands had garnered the dull ache of work and long after we’d settled into a comfortable pace of lunch, and there were several several pots of soup and the chef had moved to cutting strips of noodles, mixing together a variety of sauces from heavy cream (it smelled like goats) and fond and stocks, a siren fetched me out of the room. The chef groused at her, shaking his head, and moved Jerome over to my job, as she’d gone through the mushrooms and had settled for helping him with roots.
This new siren, quite silent, brought me across the compound to the clinic, and let me step inside. Vali sat against one wall, one of her arms strewn with bandages and immobilized with wires and metal rods. “Well,” She said.
“Vali,” The doctor said. “I brought him as you asked.”
“Good,” Vali said, both of her working eyes settling on me. “You may go.”
“Are you sure, Vali? Maybe you shouldn’t be left alon-”
“Go,” Vali barked. The doctor sighed, shook her head, and walked off.
“She seemed like she knew you,” I said.
“That sounds like you’re accusing me of something,” Vali muttered. “Don’t. I’ve been here long enough that the memory’s rationalized me away, made me into a soldier.”
“Perhaps,” Vali said. She adjusted her arm, and hissed at the pain, turning like an angry cat to whack her cast against the wall.
She turned, both of her red eyes locked onto mine. “I shredded my wing for you,” She said, her chest heaving. “And you made it here alive,” her voice lost most of the vitriol, sliding into a more pondering tone. “That’s good. I’m good. We’re good.”
“You alright?” I asked.
Her eyes closed. “It’s been a while since I’ve had much of a hope anything. One siren hasn’t been enough to figure this out. I’m not bulletproof, my skin won’t turn aside spears, but now… how many did you say were here?”
“Dozens,” I said.
“Biggest amount that the island’s taken since I’ve been here,” Vali said, shaking her head. “This is a dangerous game, Charm.”
“I know,” I said. “But I found the Captain again, and she’ll-”
“She’ll what?” Vali asked. “She’s just as skin and bones as I am, I’ll bet.”
My faith died for a moment, and I desperately dug for wood to rekindle the fire. “Vali-”
“I want out of here,” Vali said, miserable. She moved the cast covering most of her wing over in front of her eyes and leaned back against the wall. “I ruined my wing for you, Charm, and I don’t know if that’ll carry over when we escape. I don’t know how any of this works.”
I opened my mouth.
“Being down a wing is better than not being free at all,” Vali said. “I know that.” She breathed in, and out, staring at the wall of the clinic. “I just wanted to say thank you. I wasn’t sure what you were going to do, but it was good enough.”
I thought back to the flash, and the utter horror that had settled over me, and winced, turning away from her. “I thought it was stupid.”
“Don’t say that,” Vali said, shaking her head. “It’ll only be stupid if you die and end up trapped here. I’ll watch it a hundred more times, and hate you more with each passing time you’re stupid friendly face dies before me.”
I winced harder.
“What’s the plan?”
“Pinion’s going to try and disable the human navy so they can’t blow the Venturing Owl out of the water before they evacuate.”
“Might work,” Vali said. “She did a similar plan when the rest of my party was here. That time it worked out.”
“Have you seen anyone else escape?”
“No,” Vali admitted. “But I know they got out alive. My Captain wouldn’t’ve let herself die to something this stupid.”
“But she left you behind,” I said.
“I died,” Vali grunted. “It’s a bit different.”
“How’s that-” She gestured at her eyes, and then tugged me in closer with her one working wing. I stared at the eye that didn’t belong. Rimming the interior were letters, tiny letters written in a language that I couldn’t read, so small that at a distance they resembled veins or motes of ink. My breath hitched, and they moved, sweeping small arcs across the degrees of her eye.
“What the hell even is that?” I asked. She pulled away, and the lid closed over top of the red surface.
“My safety,” Vali said, flatly. “When I was younger, I lost an eye to buckshot, and I made a trade I shouldn’t have to get it back. It’s not mine, and whoever it belonged to is greater than what a petty island can erase. I get brought back with it.” The eye twitched in her skull, and she shut her lids around it.
“What do the doctors say about it?”
“They won’t mention it,” Vali said. “But they look at it. I think they have their ideas of what it is and they’ve already made their peace with it.”
“Ask me that when I’m out,” Vali said. “This Captain of yours better be all she’s cracked up to be. You understand that? We’re dealing with the last battle of the war here. Not a lot of people got out of this one alive.”
Panic flittered across my heart. Vali sensed it somehow, and turned away, sighing. “Sorry kid.”
“I’m twenty,” I said, nearly automatically.
“I’m bitter and scared,” Vali admitted. “And I don’t know how to talk to people anymore.”
“And you’re in pain,” I said.
“That too,” Vali said. “But… I’m glad I made it this far.” A pause, something flittering across her working eyes, and then the far door started to open, and Vali went back to being slumped against the wall.
“Time’s up,” The doctor said. “Vali needs her rest. She’s been through quite the ordeal, hasn’t she?”
Vali’s red eyes flicked down at me, and I nodded. “I’ll let her rest.” Before I could turn around, she grabbed my shoulder with her good arm.
“Stay safe, Charm. I’m going to be on that ship heading out of here, and you better be there with me.”
The talons squeezed once, and then she let go and slouched back against the bed. “I’d give her some room,” The doctor suggested, not unkindly. “She was in their camp far longer than you were, you know.”
I carefully pried myself away from her, gave her a wave, and slipped back into the compound. I was scared. I was actually scared here. This was a bit bigger than a haunted ship, this place had taken lives, trained lives, many of them, and I was facing the recollections of a genocide. This was nothing less than a fight for everyone’s lives.
And that didn’t even start to get at the fact that these were my people. They had similar accents, similar skin, and the symbols were almost the same.
My people had done this.