On the day before the Captain left, she offered me the spear, tore it from my fingers, and gave me a smaller spear. Very gently, we circled each other, and she showed me the basics. A poke here, a press there, legs the proper distance apart, knees bent just so, just right for ease of motion.
She wasn’t a bad teacher.
The staff came down on my elbow, and I adjusted how I was holding it again. “Like this?”
“Like that,” The Captain said, her voice soft. “I won’t be able to teach you much now… but when we’re out, we’ll do more like this.”
“Yes Ma’am,” I said, finally giving respect to the right person. I took a step, and a flash of pain ran up my side. I paused, missing the next step, and the Captain narrowed her eyes at me. They twitched three times, flicking across my arms and legs before settling on my side.
“You never went to the doctor, did you?” She accused.
I dropped the staff and put my hands up. “Well, there were more important injuries to-”
She dropped her staff, kicked both to the side, and put a hand on my shoulder. “That- that seems like an excuse. Come on.”
I swallowed. I didn’t know why I didn’t want to be examined, but I desperately didn’t want to be. I shook off her hand, and she growled, putting her hand on the other shoulder. “Charm!” She said, sharply.
“I’m fine,” I said, and then she gently ran her other hand along my side until I winced at the bruises.
“That doesn’t sound fine,” She said, shaking her head. “That sounds like you’re still hurt.”
“I’m going to be hurt for a while,” I said. “That’s how that works. I’m just not as hurt as Vali was, or any of the others. I’m not dead or in danger and-”
She went down on her knees so we were at the same height, and with far more gentle grace than I thought she had left in her aggravated form, she tilted my head forward. “Charm,” She said.
I could feel her breathing against my skin, and for once, I became aware of just how much bigger she was than me. Her head was practically the size of my head and a half.
What the hell did the people here eat to get so big?
“Charm,” She repeated again, and this time my eyes found hers. “You’re important.”
I swallowed. “Wh-”
“You seem to be laboring under the delusion that you’re not important,” The Captain said, her voice cutting straight to the point. “That your injuries don’t matter. We’re going to the doctor to make sure you haven’t cracked any of your ribs. Do you understand me?”
I quivered in her grip. “Y-yes?”
“Good,” She said, bowing her head slightly, and the domineering aura left her as she stood up, brushing dust and dirt off of her knees, and held out her hand.
I grabbed it, and we left the practice room.
My stomach and chest wore yellow bruises like a second skin. The doctor looked over them, shaking her head, and gently felt along my ribs. The Captain stood beside me, looking over at the wall to grant me some small amount of modesty. It was more than I’d expected her to do.
“Well? Any broken ribs?” The Captain groused.
“I’m not finding any,” the doctor reported, poking a particularly sensitive bruise. I winced, and she pressed down harder, but with more even pressure. “Seems like the human got out of it alright.”
“He better have,” The Captain said, flashing an angry set of purple eyes on me. I looked away from her.
“Very close,” she said, poking at some of the harder darker bits. “Looks like he was kicked a good bit… Ah, right, you were with Vali, weren’t you.”
My mind flashed back to that moment, and my heart twinkled around my neck, beating in tune to how fast my real heart had been at that moment. I wrapped my fingers around it nervously. I’d been so close to death. I didn’t like it.
I didn’t want to think back that far, not for any longer than I had to.
“I still haven’t heard the full story about Vali,” The Captain said.
“We still haven’t heard the full story about you or your crew,” The doctor countered. “But we’re not going to question you too thoroughly; you’ve already fought for us.”
The Captain’s eyes flicked to the side, then across the bruises dappling my chest, then back to the side. “Hmph.”
“The island is unhappy with something,” The doctor said. “We haven’t figured out what, yet, but over the last few weeks of waiting for evacuation, its thrown people at us.”
“You didn’t get them all,” The Captain noted.
“Our scouts are good, but they’re not that good,” The doctor said, pointedly. I remembered Harley leaving me for dead and my fingers twitched.
“I’m sure,” The Captain growled, but before she could start on anything else, the doctor stood up and held her hands up.
“I’m done with my inspection. Charm needs to take it easy the next few days until the Venturing Owl arrives, but he doesn’t seem to have any broken bones.”
“Good,” The Captain said. “Can you leave the two of us alone?”
“Alone?” The doctor asked. When no further comments came, she shrugged and started for the door. “Don’t break anything. We’re out of almost everything except alcohol and painkillers, anyway.”
The Captain watched her leave, then waited several moments, several moments that gave my heart enough time to start to speed up.
“I don’t want to have to do that again,” She said. “Put your shirt back on if you want.”
I did. It gave me a bare moment of modesty, though I was sure the Captain had memorized the pattern of bruises. “You can look.”
She took up a seat on a table, her long legs flicking underneath her. She looked down at her talons, curling them until they almost touched her skin again. “I’m not the best at this conversation, you understand,” She said. “But if you need to talk to someone…”
“I’m fine,” I said. “Just… why are you being so nice?”
She looked up.
“We’re standing at…” I gestured around us. “This is the fall of your empire,” I said. “And my people- you’ve seen them,” I said, pointing at myself. “They did this.”
“They did,” The Captain agreed.
“Why are you… We’re from opposite sides of this,” I said, shaking my head. “I’m…” I didn’t know how to put it into words but I just felt it like guilt burning in my chest. I’d been taking up time since we’d gotten here, and I couldn’t help because I was weak, and they were strong, or had training, or or or-”
The Captain poked my side. I winced at the sharp talon against my bruises. Then she poked across my chest, each talon hitting exactly at another bruise.
“Certainly didn’t seem to help you here,” The Captain said, her voice straight to the point. “Whether or not they’re your kind, Charm, they aren’t treating you like you are, and they’ll be far more likely to kill you the next time you meet them. Besides,” She said, gesturing with her long wings. “This is four hundred years ago. I don’t see you murdering or killing any Sirens, and you’re not going to hold me guilty for doing the same to your kind, right?”
“This is a memory,” I said. “You didn’t kill any of them.”
She smiled wryly. “Ah, but my ancestor Pinion did.”
And there it was. “It’s not even remotely equivalent.”
“We can let the historians debate that,” The Captain said. “Right now, we need to get ourselves out of this alive, and then we can worry about that. Alright?”
“You’re… remarkably blase about this,” I said.
“I know quite a bit more than you about this,” The Captain replied. “Besides,” she added, almost an afterthought. “You’re a member of my crew. I am the greatest authority on this matter.”
And that was that.
Sleep. Cooking, cleaning, watching the doctors help Vali, muttered plans and whispered hopes, lunch, dinner, breakfast. The days slipped by like the wick of a candle. Too fast, too soon, and then it was night, and the Captain and Atalanta were slipping out into the darkness, Irony in tow. Other soldiers were with them, who I didn’t recognize, and Jerome waved them on as they left.
We’d lost days to preparation, days that we barely had to spare to begin with. Days where I’d tried to feel for the Venturing Owl, to see if it was really coming, days where I’d reached even farther, to where Jess rested, a tiny moving dot of a beating heart in the far distance. It wasn’t quite out of my reach but it nearly was.
I shifted uneasily, with Sev at my side.
“They’ll be fine,” Sev said, quite sure. I was starting to realize it wasn’t hope that kept him so sure, but experience, and a coping mechanism. The sun rose and set every day, he made lunch and dinner, and the Captain would always return. “Right?”
“I… I hope so, Sev,” I said.
“She’ll be fine,” The professor said. He looked scruffier and worse than he had in the week I’d known him. “She got out of one war, what’s another to hurt her?”
The professor kicked his feet against the ground, then shook his head. “Only thing we can do is prepare for more. They still outnumber us a great deal, and if they realize we’re holding out for something…”
“He’s right,” Pinion said, right behind me, and I whirled around. She caught my arms before I could strike her, a chill going down my spine. My hands shook. “Careful, you might hurt someone.” She dug her talons like dagger points into my skin for a moment, enough that I’d know my place, and then released, letting them drop back down to my side. “In the meantime, we need to prepare.”
Jerome flashed her a sign I didn’t understand. (I was starting to get them, but her hands moved so quickly). Pinion nodded. “They’re not stupid. While they only grow stronger by the day, they know that we’re at the very back at the evacuation. Every moment they deal with us is another moment they can’t deal with the rest.”
I swallowed. “So this isn’t the end?”
Pinion shook her head. “It’ll have to end soon. I don’t care how big their empire is, this mess of ships and supply lines can’t be easy for them to maintain. Someone on the other side of them is going to attack them, and they’ll be nigh defenceless.” Her eyes closed. “I hope it’s soon. I don’t know what the rest of command is thinking.”
There were more than just us in the hall, and they all looked upon Pinion with a mixture of reverence and fear. Fear of what she was saying, and reverence that she was still leading despite it.
She sighed and shook her head. “Keep helping us out, will you charm? We need the support. Professor, I’ve heard you’re good with tactics; I need you to look over something with me.”
“You trust me?” The professor asked.
“I don’t,” Pinion said. “But if you leave these halls, you’ve seen what the humans do to nonhumans.” She gestured with a wing towards Vali, whose casts had shrunk to a thin series of bandages that couldn’t hide what she was missing. “I suspect I can trust your self interest.”
“You’re right,” The professor said. “But I’m also here to free the prisoners among the human’s ranks.”
“A noble cause,” Pinion said. “If the time presents itself, I’m sure that we’ll help you. After all, they have many of our number with them.”
Jerome flashed her a sign, and Pinion’s eyes dilated and she looked away. Another bird landed behind Pinion. Pinion greeted her without looking. “Harley. Glad to see you back. What did you find while scouting?”
“They’ve made movements to the west of us, burning down the shipwood forests. The smoke is blinding,” Harley said, her voice flat and bare of affect. “I killed one who was out of position to remind them of where they were.” She gently set her bow against the wall and examined her arrows. I raised an eyebrow at her, and though her eyes fell on me, she didn’t respond beyond that.
“Good,” Pinion said. “We’ll need you here from now on.”
“Did I miss Atalanta?” Harley asked, looking up.
“You just missed her,” Pinion confirmed.
A sneer slid across Harley’s face, and she shook her head. “Always running ahead of me. I’ll grab her ear when she gets back.”
“Do that,” Pinion said. “As for the rest of you… The days ahead are going to be harder. I want you to stick to the plan in the worst case scenario, alright? This island still has tricks up its sleeves if the worst happens, and I want you all prepared to use them.”
Sev sighed. “When you say it like that…”
Pinion eyes flickered over him. “Did you volunteer to help prepare meals again?”
Sev’s eyes lit up with excitement, which was the opposite of what Pinion wanted. “Oh, can I? Chef said he’d let me use some of the rum this time!”
Pinion stared at him. “Well,” She said, not losing face. “We’ll look forward to the food keeping a bit of kick to it.”