Sev’s gait didn’t crunch the wood underneath, but occasionally, we found a rotten board and I squeaked and leapt forward, and he ambled after me. “I’m the quartermaster,” Sev explained. “So we’re going to be looking to replace some of the swords and utensils we lost.”
“When did you lose swords?” I asked.
“The first time we tried to fight the serpent. That was before you were here.” Sev said, bobbing his head. He had some sort of a beak in the midst of his sheep like fleece covered face. He wore no clothes, unlike the bulk of creatures I saw, probably on account of being too fluffy for it to matter. “We had to give up a crate’s worth of metal just to get into the mists. A shame, it was good quality stuff, but you have to make offerings if you want to go into places like that.”
“Yeah,” I said, as if I knew, because everyone else assumed I knew. “Anything important?”
“We should be glad we didn’t get ensnared by any pirates,” Sev said. “Though the Captain has her ways of dealing with those things.”
“Is there anything she’s not good at?” I asked.
“Moderation,” Sev said, instantly. “And pretty much anything else, you don’t want to tangle with.” He boomed in laughter, and the crowded market split in front of him. Scents and smells floated up from the depths. I recognized a few of the spices from home, cinnamon here, what had to be a variety of peppercorn there, but most of the scents were buried under what smelt like fermented mint and something that was powerfully ash and grape.
Sev’s eyes, buried in fluff as they were, scanned, and he kept one massive hand on my shoulder (three fingers and a thumb) to keep me in sight. Up ahead, Folna was browsing, her fluffy wings shifting on her back as she browsed an array of flowers. She waved at us as we passed, hearing Sev’s heavy footfalls.
“So what about you?” Sev asked. “I can’t imagine you wanted to be our navigator. What about before?”
“Oh,” I said. Then I was a bit sad, because it reminded me how infernally far I had to be from home. “Fishing, mostly. I was going to head up to the academy, when I got a chance; dad’s been balancing books for ages, and he had a good favor for me.”
“What must it be like on the other side of the sea of souls?” Sev wondered aloud. “But I won’t pry, I can tell you’re homesick anyway.”
“Well,” I said, straightening up under the robes. At this point (the crowds were parting for Sev, since he was big and fluffy enough to tower over everyone else) we’d managed to get into the shade, and marketeers chanted overhead from second story stores to flying customers. “What about you?”
“Oh?” Sev asked. “Oh, right, you wouldn’t know. I’m from the far west,” Sev said. “And we came from the east. We’re basically on the other side of the map.”
People stared at Sev as he walked past. “But what did you do?”
“Oh,” Sev said. “I’m a crafts type of person. I make things; The Captain has me do repairs and spot jobs. I’m very good with my hands.” He wriggled his fingers at me, the fluff sheared off to reveal ashen grey skin. “Rest of my family…” He trailed off, shrugging. “Well, they’d be more interested in the swords we’re going to look at, rather than the pies I’m going to make for dinner tomorrow.”
“You’re the cook?” I asked.
“When we’re not all starving to death,” Sev laughed.
“Oh,” I said. The big guy shrugged and cleared his throat to keep the crowd out of his way. We dipped into cooler and cooler shades, the city growing more and more vertical, buildings on top of buildings. The sounds of the market grew more distant and the air grew cooler, and then everything smelled like ash.
“There we are!” Sev chirped, and he moved a little faster, sweeping forward. The smithery was off to the side, on its own small island, more of a hill standing up out of the water. A fence surrounded the half circle of land, bits of wire mixed in with nails and wood. “They keep it to the side so they don’t burn down the whole city on a bad day,” Sev said, conspiratorial. “Also, the smith hates people.”
I clasped my hands together under the robe. “Well-”
“Luckily, you’re the good luck charm,” Sev said, brightly.
I frowned, but we mounted the bridge (it didn’t even shudder under Sev’s weight) and slipped into the front room. It was a generous affair, though it stank of ash and coal, and Sev walked forward and rang the bell while I found a seat.
It took a while, but we heard the smith long before she arrived, swearing the entire way. She poked her head up, her skin a deep brassy red, and glared at us. “Whaddya want?”
“We’re customers!” Sev said brightly.
Her eyes narrowed. “What sort of customers. I can’t do anymore weapons for the week, so if you want those, scram!”
“Why can’t you do anymore weapons?”
“I ran out of blood,” She said. “And I don’t know where I’m going to get the blood of a wrongful killing at this time of day, not until the next shipment comes in.”
I blinked a few times.
“It’s so she doesn’t offend the island soul,” Sev whispered, far too loud. “Don’t worry about it unless you want to help.” Sev spoke louder. “We’re just here for some utensils. We’re out of forks.”
She blinked. “…You want forks?”
“And spoons,” He said. “Maybe a few butter knives.”
The brass woman squinted. “That’s all?”
“Oh!” Sev said, brightly. “And nails. Why, are you having lots of requests for swords?”
“Just the city guard,” She said. “They want more, on account of pirates.”
I frowned. “Pirates?
“You two don’t look like you’re from around here, so I’ll make it short. Everyone’s short tempered. We got attacked the other week, and they hauled off our last navigator,” She said. “So we’re having to wait until the navigator college sends another all the way out here, so the guard’s paranoid that the pirates will try to take over the entire island. Which is absolutely ridiculous, we’re far bigger than the outposts they took up north, but anything to expand the guard.” She shrugged, bonelessly. “So just forks and spoons and knives and nails?”
“Yeah, we can get the swords somewhere else.”
She brightened up. “Finally, someone with a lick of sense in their heads! I swear, if I see that antlered idiot trying to take a look at my money book again, I’ll see what he thinks about more caps on his stupid head!”
I squinted at the blacksmith. “So… how long?”
“A few days. I’ll need half up front, and half when I deliver. Standard rate.”
Sev dug into his fluff and pulled out a small purse marked with an emblem I didn’t recognize, and started counting out coins. “Do you take talons?”
“Of course,” the smith said. “We’re in the Cat’s Paw. Half our trade comes from the trading houses.”
“Great!” Sev said, and they argued and haggled for a while. I ran my fingers over the navigator’s sphere in my pendant, and sighed, looking out the window. Slowly, my gaze drifted east. Despite the distant, and despite the full weight of the sun, the horizon was dark and heavy with clouds.
I was very far from home. The place where I was supposed to be was on the other side of that cloud bank, from what I could tell, and no sane person would take me back. Not when the entire place was filled with… all that stuff we’d seen.
Gently, my eyes drifted towards the dock, where our ship sat. Like tiny dots people were gawking at the carnage.
The Captain certainly didn’t seem sane.
Maybe she was my best bet after all.
“There,” Sev broke form and tapped a few coins onto the table. “There’s your talons.”
“A pleasure doing business with you,” The brass woman said, then turned and swept away into the backroom.
Sev posed triumphantly for a moment, then paused. “Wow. I’m starving.”
“You’ve been eating nothing but crackers and salted pork for the last week,” I said.
“Good thing we just got paid, right?” Sev said, putting his hand back on my shoulder. “Come on, let’s see what this island has for food!”
And then we swept away from the forge-woman and back out into the island proper.
In the market place, Folna had set up a stall. Another beastman sat next to her, idly sharpening his horns with a small knife, while Folna showed off artifacts of unusual make and model.
Most of them were just scales. The crew had taken their time in the sea of souls to carve off keepsakes and trinkets and various bits and pieces they’d squirrel away in their clothes and belonging, and given the fact the scales were glowing in the darkness of the ship, or that the blood had turned into snakes before it’d been killed again, I couldn’t blame them.
We passed by them, with Sev waving and Folna’s eyes lingering on the bandages on my knees. They still weren’t healed yet, but I could walk without pain, and that was what mattered.
We found the rest of the crew in a bar on the dock, strapped into a massive ship, half beached on the rocky shoreline. Ropes and tassels and a heavy gleam kept the ship intact; it wasn’t hard to figure out, walking up the plank, that this ship still had a soul.
“What’s this place?”
“Oh, it’s The Battleship,” Sev said. “It’s a travelling bar. I’ve been here before, the food’s pretty great, though meat’s expensive.” He paused. “Not that any meat except fish is going to be cheap this far from the continent,” He said, laughing. We slipped into the belly of the ship, and the beastmen crew were hovering around a bar. An ethereal spectre manned the tables, a long thin string keeping her connected to the ship itself, a gleaming soul-stone set in the wall.
Sev elbowed me to keep from staring, and we slid down to join them. In the back, a kitchen brewed, hot spicy smells and thick mints slipping through the thin doors. The spectre slid drinks over to us without asking, and Sev tapped a few talons onto the table.
“So what do you want, food-wise?”
“Can I have something with eggs?” I carefully counted my talons. I had no idea what the exchange rate for these were. “Are those expensive?”
“Second cheapest after fish,” Sev explained. “It’s not like the oceans around here are going to run out of fish anytime soon, after all.”
“Right,” I said. The beastmen looked up from their heavy drinks and sauntered over, joining us at the table.
“Charm!” One toasted me. “Good to see you. We thought we might’ve scared you off.”
Many eyes lingered on me. “Not at all. Just uh- went with Sev to take care of business.”
“Ooo, does that mean we’ll have actual forks this time?”
“If the smith witch works out,” Sev said. “We’ll get everything we need.”
“I guess Thyn’ll be looking into getting us more gunpowder,” another muttered. “We were damn lucky that we didn’t get any backfires out there on the water. Honestly, we were pushing it.”
“Lucky,” One said, his hair made of a rippling band of fire and his eyes insectoid, who I dimly recognized as doing quite a bit of knotwork, “See, I told you that Charm was good luck. Just like my sire used to say.”
“Your sire was a drunken idiot,” another said, elbowing that one. “I should know, my mam favored him for too long.”
The first one huffed and crossed his arms, looking away.
“Mind your words,” Sev warned, good-naturedly. The spectre slid over; her legs were a long snake tail that stretched far into the backroom. “Vass!” He chirped.
“Sev,” The spectre greeted. “Are you here to empty out my stock of sausage again?”
Sev mournfully counted through his coins and shook his head. “My pay’s not that good, not this time.”
“A shame,” Vass said, running a hand through her hair. She was, perhaps, the closest to human I’d seen, minus the snake legs. If I just didn’t look under the table, and ignored the fact I could see through her… Who was I kidding, I was searching for things to think over. “We have heaps of it in the back, just waiting for someone to order.”
“What’s… in the sausage?” I asked.
“Offal, fish, a bit of pig from the last island,” She listed off.
“Offal?” I asked. “What kind?”
“An Offal lot of it~!” She laughed. The rest of the beastman laughed, but they were also most of the way to drunk on the Captain’s coin, and then I chuckled because I didn’t want to be left out.
I hesitatingly put another coin down. “Sausage with my eggs?”
“On the double,” she said, turning. She slithered away, her hips shifting to pivot across the floor.
“I wouldn’t eye her like that,” Sev said. “You’ll upset this ship’s captain.”
“She has one?” I cut myself off. “No wait, that’s a stupid question.”
The kitchen doors slipped over, and a catman, enormous and covered in shaggy orange fur like a house-cat, slipped out, a platter of food that still hissed with heat in his hands, and then he looked at the bar, where the beastmen had been, then over in the corner where we were resting, and brought out the plates. Tortillas and hissing crackling spice and eggs and sausage and seaweed.
While I wasn’t sure what to make of it, the crew dug in without hesitation. Sev watched them eat, his eyes jealous. At least, what I could see of them under his thick coat of fluff. “That catman’s the captain, for now.”
“She picks captains,” Sev gestured at the ship. “Pretty much all ships do, but Vass is a bit more free-spirited than most.”
I gave the catman my order, and he nodded his head politely. He stood nearly as tall as the Captain, who already towered over the rest of the men by a head, and mischief swam across his cat eyes.
He was, perhaps, the least human-looking out of all the creatures I’d seen so far. He sauntered off on the pads of his feet and slunk back into the kitchen.
“There there, Sev,” the bird from the crow’s nest said. “The Captain favors you, I’m sure she slipped you an extra coin to make sure you had enough to eat.”
“Oh!” Sev started. “You really think?”
“You kept us stocked with gunpowder during the fight,” the bird said, crossing his arms over his chest. He was thin and lanky, with the feathers and coloring of a magpie. “That’s gotta mean something.”
“Oh, well,” Sev said, and tugged the fluff out of his eyes. He had beady black things, as long as my index fingers. “Well, you know, you gotta make the Captain happy.”
The rest of the table sighed wistfully. One snorted and alcohol dripped out of his noise, and he clutched his snout and whined. “Yeah, you gotta keep the Captain happy. Or she might drag us back into the Sea of Souls for a second helping.”
“Why do you follow her?” I asked.
Everyone’s eyes flicked back to mine.
“She’s the Captain,” One said, as if that explained something.
Another nodded at that explanation. The Crow sighed. “Most of us come from islands where literally nothing happens, kid.”
“I’m 20,” I said.
“There’s a lot of sleepy islands where all the people do is herd sheep or guard ship-wood, or cities where there’s no work for people without training, and there’s a lot of places out there that haven’t been explored and just need a body daring enough to get there,” The Crow said, leaning back in his chair. “It’s seductive, just being out on the open water, and not being held to do the same thing your family’s always done.”
I blinked a few times.
“I… I guess that makes sense,” I said. “But why her?”
“She’s the finest Captain on all of the five seas!” The Crow barked. The rest of them started to toast to them, but at this point, they’d toasted and drank enough that two of them missed and the Crow barely ducked out of the spray of spirits. “And anyone who disagrees can fight me!”
Sev leaned over. He’d finished his entire mug, but he was twice as big as the others, and I privately thought it might take four times as much booze to send him dizzy. “She’s the Captain,” He said, solemnly. “And she’s going to explore every dark corner of the ocean if she gets the chance, and every one of us is going to see things that nobody else has gotten to see before. Do you know how many people have seen the serpents of death and lived?”
“Uh,” I said.
“Nobody!” Sev said, dropping the mug so he could gesture. “Nobody’s ever seen it before! And we saw reapers in their natural forms, too! And the obsidian islands jutting from the ocean,” he finished, wistfully. “Well, I’d never see that if I stuck back on the continent. And they’ll sing songs of us back at the floating bars of Neverie, and we’ll be celebrities when we retire!”
“If we get that far,” The Crow cut in.
“Sure,” Sev said. “When we get that far.”
“Come on, Charm. This has gotta be better than what you were doing,” Crow said. “Nav school’s gotta be boring as hell!”
I’d never gotten to go. I think, I think I remembered a ship, and then… a great tearing noise?
I looked down at my glass and sniffed. Some sort of heavy fruit juice. I drank, and it was sickly sweet, but it took the taste of salt out of my mouth, which was all I could ask.
“Don’t you guys miss your islands?”
There was quiet about the table.
“I miss bread,” The Crow said. “Bread doesn’t keep too well out on the sea, so it’s a treat I get when I’m in town. But back home, my parents baked all the time, and they had these sweet honey rolls… but now I’m a scout!” He flexed his wings. “And that’s all I need to be. When I make landfall, I can get all the rolls money can buy!”
The others shared similar sentiments, and I leaned back into the chair. They were all insane. But I understood their points, at least.
The catman swept through and set my food onto the table, and dropped a fork next to me. I pulled up the sleeves of the navigator’s uniform and dug in, greedy. It wasn’t the spices I was used to, but a fried egg was a fried egg, and while the sausage wasn’t quite the pork leavings I was used to, after a week of bare minimum rations it might as well have been ambrosia. I ate rapidly, tugged the tortilla up over the mess and cutting off hunks with the cutting edge of the fork.
“And really, is there anything better than shore leave?” The firehaired man asked. “Lots of cute girls to flirt with, bars to crash, things to buy, and a job that’s always waiting for us back at the ship. Way better than having to steal for a living, back on the continent.”
Sev blinked. “You were a thief?”
“Oh yeah,” The firemane said. “Captain nearly cut off my thumbs!” He gestured with his fork. “Thyn was with me then too!”
“Oh,” Sev said. “Huh. I guess she does take in all types.”
“You’d know that if you slept with the rest of us,” The Crow said.
“I’m a bit too big for that,” Sev said, gesturing at himself.
“Yeah,” The firemane said. “I can’t blame him for not sleeping with us. If he rolled over, we might all suffocate!”
Sev huffed and looked down at my plate. I’d just finished the rest of my juice and was pecking at the last of the eggs, giving up before popping the fried egg in my mouth and biting down so I didn’t waste the yolk. “You like that, Charm?”
There was a strange after taste of mint, but it tasted better than it had any right to. “Yeah, it’s pretty-”
The door to the hold slammed open, and the Captain stormed inside. Her talons clicked against the wooden floors, and she stomped over to the bar, slammed a bag of clicking coins onto the counter. “I’m paying off all the tabs now,” She said, her voice thin.
Vassilissa blinked at her. “Oh, you’re not staying?”
“No,” The Captain said. “The mistress of the isle wants words with our navigator.”
My stomach dropped. Oh, there was the lead weight again.
At least I’d gotten food this time.
“Come on,” The Captain said, gesturing with her wings. “Back to the ship. I’m sure your rooms are still watertight.”
“Awwww,” came the whine of the crew, but they sauntered off regardless. I moved to join them. The Captain slipped a leg in front of me before I could.
“Sorry Charm,” She said. “We’re not getting out of this that easily.”