The path we took wasn’t quite the same path as before. The market was starting to slow. People traded out their stalls for other materials, turning from food and supplies into a circus of curiosities. Lanterns were on sale, glinting with hidden crystals, with merchants hawking their properties. Many wore lanterns themselves. The Captain ignored them before I could get much more of a look, dragging me through a hoard of beads and windsocks, thoroughly tied to prevent anything from getting out.
“Captain?” I asked.
“Keep quiet while you’re in there,” She warned. “Thyn and I can only keep you safe if you don’t make a nuisance of yourself. That bitch in the tower doesn’t have a marble of sense in her head.” She gestured at a marble salesman, who immediately started offering marbles of senses, and the Captain narrowed her eyes until he backed off and hid under his stall.
The road slowly sloped up and buildings thinned, and then stopped until all that was visible was a massive manor built at the very top of the half mountain island. “The Cat’s Paw islands are a series of mountains poking up from below,” The Captain said. “Each mountain top is capped with a house.”
“Oh,” I said. “Does that make them important?”
“It makes them… suspiciously egotistical,” She decided.
I didn’t comment on the fact that was probably hypocrisy. What was the point there?
The house was covered in lanterns, gleaming in a variety of colors. The guards at the front gate wore two each, hanging off of their shoulders. They didn’t stop the Captain as she wound her way between them and pushed the door open herself, nor did they try to stop me.
The inside was polished marble and tapestries, less of a trading port and more of a noble’s thick and decadent abode. The air smelled of incense, like the sea itself had been purified of anything worth talking about. The Captain moved forward, being careful not to shred the carpet underfoot in her talons. I followed. I didn’t have any such luck, and I swallowed at the trail of dirt I left on them. They looked like they cost more than my entire family had made in all of their lifetimes put together.
Then up the stairs embossed with brass, and then through a set of too-large double doors and then at the foot of a throne covered in precious stones sat-
Well, she was beautiful. Purples scales crested the frame of her head, and two horns sprouted from her temples, curling back around the top of her hair, pressing the purple strands back into form. She didn’t sit in the throne, she laid across it, bare legs trailing out of one side, and her head lazily hanging off of the other side. Her tail pooled beneath of her, completely scaled. “Ah, the navigator has finally arrived.”
“Yes,” The Captain said, short and curt. She walked forward, standing beside… Thyn, who was wearing what looked like a tuxedo, completely covered in a strange mixture of dark maroon and seafoam green symbols. He looked even more uncomfortable than I felt in my robes. “What do you need of him?”
“Nothing, nothing,” The dragoness said, not bothering to straighten up. “Just… a job offer.”
The Captain’s jaw clicked together. “He’s mine.”
“I do believe that’s his decision,” She said. “Unless you’re taken to writing up law backed contracts… which I think you’ve always been against. Come forward, Navigator.”
I hesitated, looking over at the Captain. I’d known her less than a week, and she was possessive, but she had still saved me from death. She gestured forward with a flick of her claws.
“How has the Lady Catastrophe mistreated you?”
I took a few steps forward, still silent.
“That is her name,” the dragoness said. “Catastrophe. The Siren of Bad Luck,” She gestured. “And you’re certainly not the navigator she left with, so I think you might know something of that luck. Where did they find you?”
“The navigator found him. You know navigators find navigators,” She said. “Some reaper had dragged him into the mists, and we found him before it was too late.”
“You won’t have to fear reapers here, on the Cat’s Paw. Our lanterns protect us from such petty trivialities.”
The Captain rolled her eyes. Thyn looked even more uncomfortable.
“And I can offer you a life of leisure, helping to guide ships here,” The dragoness continued. “Which is surely better than a short and miserable end at the foot of one of the Lady’s various feather-brained schemes.”
I bit my tongue. Was I supposed to say something?”
“Say something,” The dragoness said, her tone flat. “Or did she pluck out your tongue?”
“N-no, I can speak.”
“Milady,” she corrected. “I can speak, Milady. Milady Figyr.”
“Milady Figyr,” I corrected myself.
“Mistress of the Cat’s Paw,” She continued. “Grand Niece of His Majesty, master of all he can see.”
“Just call me Lady Figyr,” She said, shaking her head. “I can see you’re still reaper addled, aren’t you? Now, what do you think of my offer?”
“If you turn this down, I will lose a lot of respect for you,” Figyr said. “I am offering you a life of leisure, free food, and board, on this, a sliver of the grand kingdoms of the west. The only thing you would have to do is stay here.”
I swallowed. Not having to ever fight against a serpent again was tempting. But I definitely wasn’t qualified…
My eyes fell on the Captain, who was looking away from me pointedly. But the Captain was my best bet to get home. Nobody else seemed stupid enough or crazy enough to brave the Sea of Souls, but the first person to ever succeed?
That was a far better and winning proposition. Stay here in leisure… or maybe try and get my life back. I had family waiting for me. This wasn’t where I stopped.
“Milady Figyr,” I said.
“Grand Niece of His majesty,” She lazily added.
“I cannot leave my Captain’s side,” I said. “I owe her my life.”
I hoped that was the right bit to lean on.
“What is your life debt compared to leisure? You could serve at my side, in my rooms, among my servants!” Figyr said, her voice darting over into a wail. “We could be simply decadent,” She said. “Think it over?”
I swallowed. That all sounded good, but I was starting to get the impression, if only from the way Thyn was starting to look even more uncomfortable, that this wasn’t quite as good a deal as it sounded.
“Uh, no thank you.”
“Milady,” Figyr corrected.
“No thank you,” Figyr said. “Milady Figyr.”
“No thank you, Milady Figyr, Mistress of the Cat’s Paw, Grand Niece of his Majesty.”
She huffed, and straightened up, shifting the pattern of beads and silks on her form. Her stomach was still bare, and scattering of scales spread over where her navel ought to be. “A shame. I suppose that hag brained Captain had already sunk her claws into you. We’ll be without a navigator for weeks, and we might even starve to death, but I suppose, since you’d made up your mind, you don’t care about any of that!”
I took a step back.
“That’s a bit cruel,” The Captain said. Her name was really Catastrophe? There had to be a story there. “And you’re overstepping your bounds.”
“How do you figure?” Figyr asked.
“He is mine,” The Captain said. “Stop trying to guilt-trip him into changing alliances. He’s made his decision.”
She pouted on her perfect throne, and the Captain rolled her eyes. “We’re leaving,” She said.
“I do believe your ship is still in the docks,” Figyr said. “Watch your back. There’s been a rash of piracy attempts as of late, and I’d hate for you to lose The Song to petty fighting.”
The Captain’s hackles rose, and she stalked out. Thyn followed immediately, and I hesitated, hearing Figyr shift on the throne, and then beat a hasty retreat after her.
The Captain didn’t speak until long after we were out of the manor. The moon was starting to streak overhead, and her gleaming polish on her talons and lips glowed in the dark, a neon resonance. “That bitch,” She seethed.
“That was tense,” I said. Thyn shook his head.
“Good call,” Thyn said. “Figyr is… infamous for growing tired of her toys. I don’t want to see what’d happen to you after she stole you to spite the Captain.”
“That bitch!” The Captain repeated. “I do good things for her family, and this is how they treat us!”
“Why does she hate you?”
“I’m not trapped on a no-name series of islands at the farthest reaches of an empire, for one,” The Captain said. “Killing everything even remotely interesting in the name of safety.”
“And for two?” I asked.
“I stole her boyfriend,” The Captain shrugged. “I didn’t know he was her boyfriend at the time, but he ditched her at port and signed on to get away from her. She hasn’t let it go, especially since I took him about as far south as I’m willing to go, and he got off somewhere near the Spiders.”
“Oh,” I said. “Are the spiders really that bad?”
“Don’t ask that where anyone else can hear you,” The Captain said. “But the spiders are more than willing to trade in well, anything. They’re closest to the grand hells, after all, way down south where the land still bleeds. There’s a good trade for what makes beastmen free from their grand struggles down there, so the hell-folk can pretend to be as free as what they represent.”
“Ah,” I said, intelligently.
“And spiders are about the only people who’ll trade with them,” Thyn said. “So just be careful around them, if we ever do business with their kind.”
“We won’t be,” The Captain said. “Our next business is north, anyway.”
“What is our business?” I asked.
“Well,” The Captain said. “That can wait until after our ship is repaired. The fine folk at the docks should have that done in a few days; there’s good business in keeping the ships moving, and they won’t even try to rip us off.”
“If the Mistress of the isle hates us so much, why wouldn’t they?”
“You never rip off a Siren, if you can help it,” She grinned, showing off her painted talons. “Word spreads fast, and then, when you’re not looking, her sisters push you into the drink.”
I frowned. Thyn bared his teeth.
I frowned even harder.
“Come on,” The Captain said. “Back to the ship. Be especially careful to not leave anyone’s sight this time, I don’t want to know what wretched revenge scheme the mistress will try, especially since you threw her offer back into her face.”
I retreated back into the folds of the navigator robes. “Was what you said true about Navigators?”
“All navigators can find each other,” The Captain said. “Everyone with the talent can figure out where everyone else is, relatively. So all the major islands have Navigators on them, so ships can make their way there even when the sea decides to intervene. Very bad luck to go without one.”
“But I’m not a navigator,” I said.
“You don’t know that yet,” She said. “The navigator led us right to you, after all. ” She reached down and gently stroked the jewel hanging around my neck with two fingers. “See? It’s warm.”