Jerome found me, lost, a few passages over from the room we’d shared the night before. She shook her head, snapped her fingers at me a few times to make sure I was paying attention, and gestured at me to follow. I did so, not only because I was lost (being able to tell where people were meant nothing if there was solid rock between you and them) but also to not offend her.
Her talons were the only noise on the hard stone floor, and I hummed under my breath to try and keep the silence away. Some old song I couldn’t remember, something I’d heard my father sing once.
Then Jerome led me past the kitchen, and over to the room we’d first gone to, but this time, down on the floor instead of up on the balcony. Irony stood in the middle of the room, her chest heaving, half bent forward, her hands clutching a weighted staff, clearly meant to be a spear.
“Again,” Atalanta, the harpy who had wanted to kill me earlier, grunted, and then she whirled, slowly, with Irony. Their staffs clashed against one another, and Irony grunted inelegant and failed to wrest the larger bird away from her. Atalanta pushed forward and sent her falling onto the ground.
To the side, The Captain sat, sweat dying across her exposed skin. She looked up, her eyes falling first on me, then Jerome behind me, and then she gestured for us to sit. Jerome remained standing, but I sat next to her.
The Captain radiated heat despite the sweat, and the siren had a strange scent to her, half blood, half salt, like someone had bloodied the ocean. “Tell me,” The Captain said. “Was Thyn in good health when you saw him?”
“I didn’t see him,” I said. “Not for more than a second. I heard him.”
Her eyes closed, and her talons dug into the wood of the bench. “Was he alright, Charm?”
“He was fine,” I said.
“But they-they execute people.” The Captain didn’t look at me.
I remember the smell of Vali’s blood, and the Captain over top of me, pummelling me, driving the air from my lungs, and the certainty that I was about to die. “They do.”
“They do,” The Captain repeated. Her eyes rested on Irony, watching her stand back up. Her hands clutched at the spear, though there was a tremble in her arms, and her scales were splattered with dust.
Jerome gestured behind her, and the Captain turned to look at the motion, so she repeated the gesture and signs, a great flurry that the Captain understood and I didn’t.
The Captain sighed. “You’re right,” she shook her head. “There’s no point in them killing the prisoners, not yet. Especially since they’re not sirens.”
“They’re eating their food,” I said.
The Captain breathed in audibly, held it long enough that I saw her ribs straining beneath her great form, and then she let it out. “They are,” The Captain agreed. “But I need hope, Charm.”
“Is Jerome our personal guard?” I asked.
The Captain turned and quirked an eyebrow at the other bird. Jerome paused, thought it over, and then signed a specific combination that was unlike the others.
Sirens had wings, so every sign could be far more complex than what I could do with my hands. There were the hands to consider, but there were also the flexes of their wings. I couldn’t follow it.
“Oh?” The Captain asked. “You’re under Pinion’s orders?”
Jerome nodded once.
The Captain turned and looked back at the performance in front of her. “Could you beat Atalanta? She seems very good.”
Irony took another step in the wrong way, took the heft of the spear into her gut, and fell to the ground, gasping for breath.
Jerome shrugged in response.
“I’d be interested in watching you fight,” The Captain said. “I’m not going anywhere, I still can’t feel my legs from the first few hours. I let myself get rusty with the spear.”
Jerome squinted at her, then shook her head a few times. She turned to watch, and Irony was already walking over with Atalanta at her side.
“Jerome,” Atalanta said. “Care for a spar?” Before she could reply, Atalanta had thrown the staff at her, and Jerome had caught it.
Two great birds stood in the center of the work room. They were both taller than the Captain. Perhaps the sirens had gotten shorter in the intervening centuries, or perhaps they were just of a different stock that hadn’t made it down the line. The Captain leaned back, her talons resting against the bench.
“If Thyn is dead here, it’ll be my fault two fold,” she said, almost conversationally.
“Ho-how do you…” Irony said, struggling to catch her breath. “F-figure that?”
“I led him here, despite this complaints,” The Captain said. “And then I could not beat Pinion to force her to save him.”
“That’s what you were doing?” I asked.
“She refused my rescue mission,” The Captain said.
“Your…” Irony held up a hand, wanting more time, and she got it, the Captain staring dully ahead. Jerome and Atalanta were the same height, had the same reach, and neither were in it to drive the other into the ground from exhaustion. “Your plan wouldn’t’ve worked.”
The Captain’s eyes closed. “You’re right.”
“But we’re going to get him back,” Irony said. “And the rest of the students. However many are left.”
The Captain was silent on that front.
“What’s Pinion like?” I asked.
“She’s not quite what I was expecting,” The Captain said. “I thought… perhaps, she might be more like me. Or more bureaucratic. Not… so stressed or burdened.”
Jerome pressed forward with her staff, and swept Atalanta away from our benches.
“Maybe she’s just scared,” Irony thought aloud.
“Maybe,” The Captain said. “But I don’t know how comfortable I am with the idea that she’s that scared. I know- I know this is a bad memory for the island, but I wanted to believe that my ancestors were better than they are.”
“They’re just people,” I said. I wished I had the Captain’s problem with my ancestors. I could still see the Colonel in my mind’s eye, more concerned with disobeying protocol than the fate of one of her prisoners. “They’re just trying to get through this.”
“They’re not people,” The Captain said. “They’re memories. They- they’re etchings of people that used to exist. They’re all dead now, certainly, it’s been hundreds of years since the fall. I just wanted…” She shook her head.
“I know,” Irony said.
“You do?” The Captain quirked a tired brow.
“I’m a student of history,” Irony said. “And my first few years were a study of my family’s history.”
“I guess you’d have a better idea than I do,” The Captain said.
“Just on what little there’s left of that time,” Irony said. “There’s centuries destroyed by dragon fire, over on the bleeding continent. Not a lot left, but what few scraps you can scavenge… It’s not as heroic as my liege wants it to be.”
“Your liege?” I asked.
Irony shook her head. “All dragons are royalty- but some dragons are more royal than others. I’ve been overstating how close I am. It’s… habit.”
“Thank you for telling us that,” I said. I wasn’t sure what else I was supposed to say there. The Captain wheezed for a moment until I realized she was laughing.
“You sure you want to be an archeologist?” she asked.
“What?” Irony asked, stretching out. The siren clothes weren’t made for the dragon’s much different proportions, and it dragged us to expose the place where her naval ought to be, if she weren’t born from an egg.
“I could use a firestarter on my crew,” The Captain offered. “You’d get to see sights like this all the time,” she gestured ahead, to the duelling birds. “Imagine the books you could write.”
Irony looked confused, and honestly, quite a bit frightened at the idea, but she was also intrigued. “Is that how you got Charm on board?”
“No, they found me starving to death and lured my onboard with cheese and bread,” I said.
“Oh,” Irony said. “Would I also get that cheese and bread?”
“Of course. Sev’s been asking me to help him make cheese,” The Captain stretched out, petting both of her hands behind her head. I barely avoided getting smacked by her wings.
“I’ll think about it,” Irony said. “In the mean time… well, there’s a lot to consider. Getting out of here alive, for one.”
“Aye,” The Captain said.
“Aye,” I agreed.
The two birds paused at some unspoken moment, and Atalanta rubbed at a spot where Jerome had scored a hit on her. “That’s going to bruise.”
Jerome scratched behind her head, whisking away sweat into her feathers.
“Good show,” another voice said, and Pinion slipped out from one of the balconies. She hopped up on the edge, then drifted down, using her wings to slow her descent, then landed next to the two of them. “Showing the newcomers how to fight?”
“Yes Ma’am,” Atalanta said, sharply. Jerome nodded in affirmation.
“Good,” Pinion said, sweeping over to stand next to the three of us. “I’ve been told that you,” she gestured at me. “Are responsible for returning Vali to us. I had been afraid that she was dead like the rest of her scouting party, but… I am relieved she is back.”
“She surrendered?” Atalanta asked, cutting in. “That’s-”
“We don’t have a lot of fighters left on this island,” Pinion said, flatly. “Surrender is prudent. I’m interested in keeping our lives, not pointless batches of honor deaths.”
Atalanta bristled, shaking her head sharply. “What about-”
“We’re not having this discussion,” Pinion said, clicking her talons against the floor. “If you want to die, you can die after we’re off of this rock. Otherwise, you’re going to fight to keep yourself, and everyone else, alive. You got it?”
Atalanta sighed. Pinion turned to glare at Jerome. “Double for you.”
Jerome pointed at herself.
“Yes you,” Pinion said. “Your father would be upset if you died under my watch, and he’s been a better friend to me than most have.”
Jerome blushed slightly, looking away from Pinion, and the royal bird sighed. “Atalanta, Catastrophe has volunteered to join your plan to sabotage the enemy vessels.”
Atalanta turned and looked over the Captain.
“As has Irony,” The Captain clarified. Irony whined in pain.
“Good,” Atalanta said. “I’ll admit, I wasn’t sure why I was training with you today, but in that case, we’ll be doing flying runs the rest of tomorrow.”
“Our evacuation arrives in mere days,” Pinion said. “I don’t have to tell you what’ll happen if the Venturing Owl is destroyed before we get on it.”
The words carried a double meaning for the three of us on the bench. If the ship was destroyed, we were trapped.
I swallowed, feeling a lump in my throat.
“Thank you princess,” Atalanta said. “I won’t let you down.”
“You’ll let me down all the more if you find yourself in a grave doing this,” Pinion growled. “And just think of how Harley would feel.”
“She came to me,” Pinion said, dressing her down. “And begged me not to let you do this, because she thinks this is another way of getting honor for your family. Tell me it isn’t-”
Atalanta swallowed. “My family was-”
“You have more family,” Pinion said. “On the ships to the east. You have us. You have Harley, you have the soldiers you’ve trained.”
“And they’re just supposed to be a replacement?” Atalanta asked, glaring at the others (The Captain, Irony, and myself) who dared to be here for this conversation. “Just like that?”
“Not just like that,” Pinion scolded. “But if you die, they’ll never be good enough. If you die, who’ll teach the next generation about your family?”
Atalanta’s shoulders fell. “I’m sorry princess.”
“You should be,” Pinion said, shaking her head. “I have better things to do than make sure my warriors aren’t completely suicidal.”
“Any word from the other islands?” Atalanta asked.
Pinion shook her head again. “I’m afraid, that as far as I know, we’re the last. The humans have bases and are setting up supply lines from their land all the way up our islands. I’m-”
“Princess,” Atalanta said. “When we leave… what’ll stop them from chasing us?”
Pinion’s eyes turned flinty and sharp. “I wouldn’t worry about that. Worry about what’s happening now, not what might happen later.”
“Drop it,” Pinion said. “Fight like this is the last battle, and you have a nest to return to. Everyone else is.”
Then Pinion turned and stalked off. The Captain watched her go, a strange tension in her shoulders.
“I can’t believe she did that in front of all of you!” Atalanta said, frustrated. She paced, snatched up her staff, and pointed at me.
My eyes went wide. “What?!”
“Do you have any training?”
The Captain stood up, despite her fatigue, and shielded me from the angry siren. “He’s not a combatant.”
“Fine,” The Siren groused. “You’re already up for another round?”
“Bitch,” The Captain swore, and snatched her staff off the ground.
“Comrade,” Atalanta said. “We’re comrades.”
“Good,” The Captain said. “Putting you in your place will be good for the cause.”
Jerome gently put her hands on mine and Irony’s shoulders, and stood up, leading us away. The Captain and Atalanta’s jeers and shouts only grew louder, punctuated only by the staves colliding with one another.