I spent half of the next day next to Folna, sitting on a stool beside her. People walked by and ignored us, for the most part, apart from a few who lingered, their eyes locked onto the strange gleaming scales we kept in the darkness. The price was relative, depending on how much Folna could get out of them.
“What’s up with them?” I asked, as another left and disappeared into the milling crowd. “And why are there so many people here?”
“They’re sea folk,” Folna said. “They’ve had a taste of exploration now and again, and they can remember the feel of it in their blood.”
“Is that… healthy?” I asked.
“Mm,” Folna murmured. The wings on her back stretched, showing off her insectile scales just underneath of her fluff. “It depends on what you mean.”
“Is it a compulsion?” I asked. “Are they sick?”
“No,” Folna said. Then she paused. “Perhaps. Have you never stared at the sea and wondered what else was there? It’s hard to go back to normal after that. Those folk’ll either find a way to manage themselves, go stir crazy, or book a slot on an expedition fleet.”
“Is that what happened to you?” I asked.
“No,” Folna said. “I’m here for more personal reasons.” She began sorting the scales into piles based on sizes.
There was a dismissal in her tone to not ask further than that. I didn’t pry. I was still new to the crew and I’d need good friends to get what I wanted.
I was still curious.
“Did you all just get scales?”
Folna chuckled. “No no, this is just what the crew picked up. There’s a pot this goes to; the Captain gets her share, and we get the rest. This isn’t the first time some horrible monster had died straddling The Song.”
“Thrifty,” I said.
“It keeps the ship tidy,” Folna corrected. “And I don’t have to worry about anyone breaking their legs tripping over dead bodies.”
“So what else do you have besides scales?”
“The Captain keeps the interesting tidbits in a locked room,” Folna said. She gestured vaguely. “I don’t know who in town it is, but just about every large city has someone willing to pay for some of the stranger things out there.”
I poked at one of the lanterns hanging off of our stall. A gleaming crystal cast the light, a flickering spark trapped inside like a mosquito in amber.
“Maybe not this one,” Folna mused. “They’re surprisingly well equipped for dealing with The Other here.”
“They’re supposed to keep Reapers away,” Folna said. “You remember those from the mists, don’t you?”
I did. I wish I didn’t. I especially remembered them from my time on the rocks, where they bobbed up and down just out of sight. One time, I’d gone to sleep only to wake up with one hovering just out of reach, empty skull peering into my own.
Maybe it needed a replacement head.
“They like to pick off smaller islands,” Folna said. “Not this one, it’s too large and well lit, but recently, a few of the light houses have gone dim from it.” She reached out and tapped the lantern a few times, her eyes distant. “I wonder if Cat’s Paw will trade some of these… Probably not. The Mistress is paranoid at the best of times.”
I could see that at least. If she wasn’t paranoid, she was greedy, or spiteful.
A man slid out of the alleyway, carrying his own light with him, and squinted at the scales. It took me a minute to recognize him as the inspector from earlier, antlers festooned with light and silver. “Are all of these safe?”
“Is anything safe?” Folna asked, rhetorical.
“The mistress does not like contraband on her shores,” The inspector said. Folna sighed.
“The creature they come from is dead. Classically, that means they’re not likely to harm anyone.”
“And do we live in a classical world?” The man asked, gesturing around her. “Sirens and beastmen are living together. Dragons are out on the water, and the reapers are taking those who aren’t dead yet.”
“It came from a very classical place,” Folna said. “Is there anything more classical than the lands of the dead?” She asked.
The antlered man looked like he’d bitten into a particularly sour lime. “I expect,” He said, leaning forward, and squinting at the pile of glowing metal. “If anything happens with these, your ship’ll be a memorable one, and you’ll want to clear port as soon as possible.”
“Then nothing’ll happen with them,” Folna said, evenly. She crossed her arms under her chest and glared. “Unless you think we’re liars. It was the blood that was bad, not the scales.”
The man huffed at her, and his eyes slid over to me. “What say you, navigator? Are the scales safe?”
I blinked at him a few times. “The Captain says they are.”
“And do you follow her every word?” The antlered man asked.
“If she came at you with a knife, and told you to jump into her pot of sweet-meat, would you agree then?” he asked, leaning forward. The lanterns cast wild shadows across the interior of the stall, and the scales positively gleamed with the light from the flickering crystals inside.
“That’s a bit far,” Folna argued. “I’ve served with her for years and-”
“The Lady Catastrophe,” The man said. “Isn’t known for her years of excellent service, or her track record,” He pulled back, careful not to clip his antlers against the top of the stall. “Isn’t that right?”
“The Captain,” Folna stressed. “Has done nothing untoward in years.”
“I’d think about the Siren’s taste for flesh if I were you,” the man said. “And what it means to serve on The Song.”
I followed Folna’s example and crossed my arms under my chest. It wasn’t quite the same, given the robes.
“Are you going to buy?” Folna asked. “You’ve already inspected our cargo once.”
“The Mistress likes to make sure that even inspected goods pass future tests.” His eyes closed. “She’s good that way.”
“Right,” I said.
“Keep my words in mind, Navigator. I doubt you’ve fallen completely under her spell.”
“I will,” I said.
Come nightfall, the Captain’s crew were all back on board. She paced the top deck in front of them, clearly enraged, her talons clicking heavily against the wood. “We’re moving to the other side of the island chain,” she said, gruff.
“What about our repairs?” Sev asked, poking his head up from the hole still left in the center of the deck. It had been mostly repaired, at least; there was only the hole large enough for the monster’s head. The ship’s soul echoed his question in a sibilant hiss, and I grit my teeth. Even after a week or two of that, I wasn’t used to it in the slightest.
“They’ll be taken care of at the other dry-dock,” The Captain said, gritting her teeth. “I don’t feel like being peppered and harassed by the Mistress’s men any longer than we have to, and the repairs have at least gotten us seaworthy.”
I didn’t see what was sea-worthy about the holes still left in the ship, but most of the work had been diagnostic and replacement, so that didn’t come as too big of a surprise.
“We’ll still be on the island for the next few days, if you have any business to take care of, but do not be surprised if we leave early. The islands have made it rather clear that we’re not welcome here any longer than we have to be.”
“What about hospitality?” one of the crew asked.
The Captain turned and flashed him a sharp smile. “I think we both know how long hospitality can last with an enraged dragon.”
I didn’t but I guessed about three seconds, give or take how long it took to burn down the ship. Any longer than that and I didn’t have a clue.
“Everyone on board?” The Captain asked, turning to look at Thyn. The spined man counted across their number, pausing on the last with his finger on me.
“All accounted for, including Charm.”
“Excellent,” The Captain said. “I’d hate to lose my streak of keeping my crew intact to a chain of islands so civilized the islands have specific kinds of blood they crave.”
We shoved off late in the day, and brought the ship to bear around the island. From this angle, it was far easier to see how overgrown with city and colonization the structure was. Bridges were festooned and anointed with lanterns, and they were thick, sturdy constructions, capable of bearing the weight of wagons and the occasional packbeast without trouble. The first island was completely city, through and through, with just the two clearings I had seen earlier. The other islands had more green, and the green only expanded as we passed by their number one by one.
The bridges lost ornateness, but not lanterns, not until the very last island, which had a smaller dock. The dock still had about as many ships as the Mistress’s side of the chains, and as evening swam in, the ship slid in for repairs. The Captain vaulted off of the side of the ship and landed, per normal, as we hauled out the gang plank for inspections.
Another Siren slid out of the shack, rubbing sleep out of her eyes, and squinted at the Captain. She had a shock of yellow feathers, interspersed with dyed bands of light blue. In the flickering light of the torches, I made out a flash of recognition on her face, and then the Siren’s mouth snapped shut and she slid past the Captain without a word. She moved around the lot of us on deck without saying anything as well, waiting patiently until we got out of her way.
Inspections were swift and professional, without a hint of the irritation or the hostility of the other side of the island. The other Siren simply didn’t talk to us or interact with us in any way short of doing her job. She hopped off the side when she was done, and then slipped back into her shack. After a moment, the Captain left the building with a bag in her hands.
“Are we clear to dock here?” Thyn asked.
“We are,” The Captain said. “I’d like everyone to stay on board or on the other islands if possible. There’s no need to bother the Sirens here if we can help it.”
She looked pensive, and her lips were pressed together hard enough to make the pink of them disappear. She huffed, looking up at the moon, and then sauntered off to her quarters, ignoring the rest of us.
“Is she alright?” I asked, looking over at Thyn.
“Siren business,” Thyn shrugged. “I wouldn’t get involved, you’ll just get very angry very fast. I’d take her words to mind as well. Don’t harass the Sirens. They’re a lot less civil than the dragons are.”
I thought back to Figyr and shuddered. How could someone get less civil than that? The crew meandered about on top of the deck, and a few slipped off back into the city, walking across the bridges. The rest dipped back under deck and slipped into their bunks. I stayed on top of the deck with Thyn until he left as well.
Then it was just me on deck, looking up at the bands of stars, thick as cloth, draped across the heavens. The moon rose in its heavyset arc into the heavens, and I took a seat at the rear of the ship, careful not to trip into the hole on deck, and pulled out the trinket around my neck. I undid the clasp and hefted it up.
It gleamed dim amber in the distant lantern lights, and sat, slightly warm, in the palm of my hand. A navigator.
I had the feeling that meant more than they were saying. I’d had that feeling for just about everything that had happened so far; there were layers after layers of implicit and explicit histories and rules I was missing. When I’d been in front of the Mistress, they’d felt suffocating.
But here on the ship, there were less of them. The Captain seemed more than willing to let me tag along on her ship, content to have just saved me. We hadn’t even talked over the human part, not for long. I didn’t have the horns of the beasts or the wings of the Sirens, but as long as I kept it covered in my robes, maybe it wouldn’t even matter.
About half an hour after everyone else had left, Folna slipped onto the ship, fluttering her wings in the moonlight. She nodded at me and then slipped down. She had her own room as well; the ship needed her surgeon as rested as possible.
Then the ship’s soul whispered. I listened to the sibilant hiss, but she didn’t use words. Just soft sounds, like the rustle of the waves against the keel of the ship, or the soft shake of tree leaves in salty winds. It was relaxing.
I closed my eyes and tried to focus on… navigator things. Despite my best efforts, nothing happened. A blood vessel throbbed in my head and I glared at the rock.
“Aren’t you supposed to do something?” I asked.
“Don’t try and force it,” The Captain said.
I started, falling off of the step, and her hands snatched my robes before I could fall towards the open wound in the ship. She tugged me back from the edge.
“When did you get there?!” I hissed.
“A while ago,” She said, shrugging. “Looked like you needed the company.” Her voice had a most amused growl to it.
I put a hand over my heart and tried to get it to stop throbbing my chest and went back to staring up at the stars.
“Something wrong?” She asked.
“I just don’t know so much,” I said.
“That’s the default state for everyone.” The Captain said. “Most of us know mostly nothing at all. Just idiots shadowboxing around what small things we can see.”
“That…” I said. “Really doesn’t help me now.”
She shrugged. “Helps me. If someone knows more than I do, then I just remember they still know mostly nothing.”
“…Mature, and philosophical,” I said.
“I try,” The Captain replied. I looked over at her. Her feathers were lit by the pale moonlight, and her lips and nails still gleamed with the polish from her time with the Mistress; it clearly didn’t come off that easily. “Trying to be the navigator?”
“You said it yourself,” I said, gesturing vaguely into the dark. “We need a navigator.”
“We also have a map,” The Captain said, amused. “It’s a very good map that someone paid a lot of money for.”
“Was that someone you?”
“No,” She said, laughing. “But it’s fairly accurate. Has a star guide so you can get about where you need to go. Not as good as a navigator, but it’ll get us where we’re going next.”
“How do you do this?” I asked.
“This?” She replied.
“This,” I said, gesturing at the ocean. “There’s a soul in this ship, and there are island souls, and there are reapers, and dragons, and Sirens, and spiders. There’s just so much out here.”
“You take it a step at a time,” She guessed. “Learn it bit by bit. And, if you don’t understand something, you can just leave it to me, you know. I am the Captain,” it wasn’t a harsh reminder.
I sighed. Everyone telling me to leave it to her didn’t make me feel any better.
“If you’re at a… hm… restaurant. Say you’re washing dishes,” She said. “Do you know how to make the chef’s secret recipe?”
“What?” I asked.
“Fine, you’re waiting tables,” She said. “Taking orders. Are you going to make the soup the customer suggested, or are you going to trust the chef to have it ready on time?”
“I guess I trust the chef,” I said.
“Trust the chef,” She said. “I have been on the water for as long as I can remember, and I haven’t yet died. That’s a good streak.”
“How old are you?” I asked, looking at her.
Her eyes twinkled. “Now that’s just rude to ask, Charm.”
“I don’t know anything about anything,” I said. “This side of the sea of souls is… just so odd.”
“What’s odd about it?” She asked.
“Everything’s so… wild.” I said. “The worst I had to worry about was wolf attacks, or maybe a ship hitting a big storm.”
“Hmmm… I guess being in the land of the dead makes your reaperness less exotic,” She said. “Anything really bothersome?”
I gestured up at the sky. The moon sat, three times too big, coating everything in silver light. “The moon’s wrong.”
“The Venturing Owl?” she asked, laughing. “What’s yours like?”
“Smaller,” I said. “Less that. The Owl? Like the ship’s name?”
“The ship is The Song,” she said. “Of the Venturing Owl. We’re a song, a movement, with progression and swelling and growth and complexity, and then we’ll have an ending one day, and we’ll be picked up at bars and sung off key in the mouths of drunks.”
“Why’s it called the Venturing Owl?” I asked.
“That-” The Captain started. “That’s a long story. Do you really want to hear it?”
“I can’t sleep,” I said.
“Well, you might have noticed the Sirens are a bit different from the beastfolk.” She gestured down at the hold below her.
“That’s because we’re the original people on the sea. These islands? They all used to belong to us,” her voice took on a wistful note. “Every inch of the seas were ours, once. From the mouth of hell to the kiss of heaven, the waters were ours. Before the sea of souls arose from the broken gates, the waters were ours. There was a great golden fleet, laden with all the treasure the world had ever had or would ever give, and we ruled the islands and the seas, and even the souls of the world knew our dominion.”
“A great king of the dead grew jealous that we, the living, had managed to create a treasure greater than that of all of the dead,” she said. “And threw a hurricane at us. A living maw of teeth and biting winds. Our ships shattered, and our way of life fell to a grinding halt until there were only six of the ships left.”
I looked up at the moon.
“One of the ships left early, on a quest to find the islands upon which most of the treasure had been kept. A treasure greater than life, which had always been kept away from the King of the Reapers.”
“And?” I asked.
“Well,” The siren said, gesturing at the moon. “The ship’s still looking, up in the heavens, where all the stars sit like twinkling coins. The Venturing Owl’s still looking and searching.”
I thought it over for a while. She was quiet, and when I dared to look at her, the moon sat like a gaeas in her eyes, taking up her entire pupil.
“Is that true?” I asked.
“Who knows,” She said, shrugging. “But if you’re ever lost, you can navigate by the Venturing Owl,” She laughed. “They had a navigator on board, you know. If you’re very lucky, and very quiet, I hear Navigators can feel the moon.”
I closed my eyes.
“But you should get some sleep,” The Captain suggested. “We’ll be leaving as soon as the repairs are done, and I can’t have my good luck charm half asleep when it’s time to shove off.”
“Hey, Captain,” I said, as she started to stand up.
“I’m always available to my crew,” The Captain said. “After all, I expect the world from them.”
“Not the moon?” I laughed.
“No,” The Captain said. “Not until we steal it.”
Then she walked off.