Song of the Venturing Owl (Part 9)

It wasn’t that hard to sleep that night. Sure, there was a nervous energy in the few that were still awake, and the captain had stopped, if only for a moment, to talk to another night owl about something that I didn’t eavesdrop on, but I moved past them and slid into my bed. The gentle noises of the whispering ship kept me straining my ears to pick out words, but I couldn’t manage it.

Sometimes between stanzas or paragraphs, my eyes slid shut and I was out cold.

Morning came like a shotgun blast of activity, and three sharp raps at my door. “Charm!” Sev called out, hopefully. “Do you know how to cook?”

“Uh, a bit. Do you need something with eggs?”

“You’ve got twenty people on board who would love eggs,” Sev said, opening the door. He paused. “Throw your robes on, if you want. Else wise, get in the kitchen with me after you’re all ready.”

I joined him in the kitchen after a few minutes of stretching and getting ready. The navigator had less baggy clothes among his things. They were still too long, but at least it wouldn’t be hot next to the fire.

Sev balanced three chipped and half dented pans across a gleaming hot band of metal. The stove churned and spat smoke out the open window, though everything smelled like soot regardless. He looked up when I opened the door, and gestured for a pair of mitts in the corner. “There, can you help me with some of this?”

On the table behind him, a flurry of plates sat, some half full of salted pork, and others with bits of fish. Half of them were crowded with a fried egg. I grabbed the mits and slipped over to his side.

He slipped in a bit of bacon grease into a pan and let me take care of it. I cracked the egg.

For a moment, I was back home, with my mother, waiting for father to come back, and she was waiting on the front porch and I was making dinner, and the crackle and sizzle of the pan reminded me of the painting that hung in our front room, of a wide ocean with a rippling crest of foam, and a moon that wasn’t domineering the sky.

She’d been a servant, and made sure I knew how to serve, just in case.

Dad had never wanted that life for me.

Then I looked down and nearly burned the egg, and Sev looked up. “You alright over there?”

“Sorry!” I said. “I just woke up.”

I tilted the pan back and forth. The pan itself was monstrous, clearly designed for the use of someone a foot taller than me. Since the entire crew qualified, minus Folna… well, it certainly seemed like everything would be made for bigger people. After a moment, I grabbed a wooden spatula and flipped it over, grabbed from the pile of salt to keep it up.

“There we go,” Sev said, handing me a plate. “Oh, and leave one for the ship, she likes to be included.”

“Do most ships do this for their crew?”

“Anyone with a self respecting captain does,” Sev said. “The best way to stop a mutiny is through the stomach!” He chirped happily. Despite the fact that the average length of his hair was easily four inches, not a strand of his white fluff had gotten stuck in any of the eggs. He went back to handling the other two pans, and between the two of us, we managed to fill the plates up.

Granted, his eggs were way better than mine, but that was why he was the chef, and I was the Navigator.

I suspected he’d do a better job of the latter as well. Sev balanaced five plates on his big arms, and santered out, remembering to duck before he thumbed his head on the doorway. Then up the stairs.

I followed after, checking the oven to make sure it was off, and then greeted the morning sun. It was still the wrong color of orange, sitting on the horizon, but for once I couldn’t care. The beastmen slid forward and took plates off of us, and several who were without streamed into the kitchen to catch theirs before they were all gone, and then I took two plates, and Sev took two, and we made sure the First and the Captain had theirs.

We left one behind for the ship.

The Captain stood at the prow with a tea cup, chipped ornate china with silver embroidering, and raised an eyebrow at us. “You cook too, Charm?”

“Oh, he’s been helping me the last few weeks, Cap,” Sev said. “You know, since he was going so stir crazy.”

I’d dabbled here and there, in my attempts to get the crew to my side. I shouldn’t have bothered. After surviving a week, while they were still curious about me, none would try and bother me.

“Such a jack,” The Captain marveled. “Good for you Charm. Try and get some of the crew in on that.”

“Captain!” Sev complained. “That’s my job.”

“You’re also our quartermaster,” The Captain said. “And surely you can see how good it would be if everyone knew how to cook without making us sick?”

Sev sighed. “Alright Captain, I’ll try and get the others in on it too.” He reached over and placed one of his massive hands on my head. My entire head fit into the palm of his hands, and the fingers trailed over the front of my face like fat sausages.

“Good,” The Captain said. With three quick flicks of her fork, the egg disappeared between her teeth, and then the fish. She picked a bone out of her teeth and set it back down on the plate, then sipped at her tea. Thyn ate almost as efficiently, but he savored his pork with relish.

“We have tea?” I asked.

“It’s for me,” The Captain said. “It keeps me alert and focused.”

“You think there’ll be trouble?” Sev asked.

The sirens leapt onto the ship, and the plank was pulled back so the workers could get to work. Few were as tall as the Captain and their talons were shorter and stubbier. They looked more human and, more than that, more childlike; like their feathers were half formed even among the adults. The Captain’s eyes settled on them when she spoke.

“We are going through where the pirates had been,” The Captain reminded. “It’s the fastest way to get to the Academy and I have business there.” She looked away from the workers and gestured down into the hold of the ship. “Everyone else also has business there. After all, who else are they going to trust to ship compasses?”

“You went into the sea of souls with cargo?” I asked.

“My sponsor trusted that I would not be lost,” The Captain said. “And soon, so will everyone else.”

I gave her an odd look. Behind her, Thyn gave a quick shake of his head to tell me not to question it. “Are we good for pirates?”

“They won’t bother us for long.” The Captain gestured at the mast. I followed her finger. The scout, the thieving Crow who had joined with Thyn, was setting up a flag at the top. He stood on top of the nest, his talons gripping the wood, and tore off the covering for the flag, letting it drift down below. Sev squawked when it landed on his head.

The flag was mostly white, with a stark dark circle in the center. Three red lines underlines it, each with a dip in the center. The sirens working on board, who had not even looked up at the presence of freshly made food, stopped and stared at the flag. For a moment, there was silence, pure and simple, on board the expedition ship.

“The House of the Venturing Owl,” The Captain said. “Most should know what that means, at least.” She gestured with her fork. “And if not, well, there’s always a bounty to collect.”

At her words, the sirens went back to work. The tension dropped.

I helped Sev get the bag off of his head before he fell off of the ship, and the Captain nodded at me. “I wouldn’t worry, Charm. There are far worse things on the seas than just pirates, no matter what Figyr thinks.”

The ship was repaired fast. The workers didn’t say a word to the sailors, and acted like they didn’t exist except for moments where they stood in their way. Most of the damage had already been measured, and weighed, and communicated, so there was only the work of hammers, of wood, and most curiously, a woman standing on the edge of the prow, whispering soothing words to the soul embedded in the ship.

After that was done, things were somehow easier, and faster. With the ship itself eased, it could finally be allowed to heal.

With the map in the captain’s room, heavy paper and all, and the compass that sat on her desk, I didn’t need to navigate for now. Which meant I helped with the shuffle and bustle of ship life instead. Boxes needed to be pushed into place, and inventory had to be taken of the items we were responsible for. Boxes were cracked open and odds and ends counted.

The compass in my hand felt like an iron weight, and I hefted it a few times. “Why does the academy need this many?”

Thyn looked up from a stack of boxes. “Ah,” he said. “They give these out to graduates. A sort of good luck charm. Our navigator died with his; I’ll see if we can get you one when we’re there.”

“Thank you,” I said, automatically. “Are there a lot of navigators?”

“The Academy trains twenty or so a year,” he said. “I’m not really sure of their intake numbers; I wasn’t that interested in it when we were there last.”

“Why are we going there?”

“Our Sponsor’s there,” Thyn said. “It’s good to check in with them. After all, if we don’t, we might lose our very generous deal with them, and that’d be a shame.”

I closed my eyes, set the compass back down, and then went back to work. There were seven crates, and five of them were going to the Academy. The rest were odds and ends; one sat full of scales of the death serpents, and the other was packed full of objects I couldn’t even identify; heavy set rocks that gleamed with hidden depths.

When we were done, Thyn thumped me on the shoulder and shoved me off towards the cannons.

Sev very gingerly showed me how to prep charges for the cannons, but asked that I stay on the other side of the room from him when he did so, and that we do this several times before I so much as breathed towards the bags of powder.

I agreed.

The rest of the day we sat down and fixed up the nets. They were still full of holes, and if the ship wanted to stay off land for a while, we needed them to fish.

The Captain surfaced at some point, and with a wave of her arms, and the opening boom of her voice, the crew started to sing, and I joined in, even if I didn’t know the words. Nobody else did, so it didn’t matter. Then she retreated in the midst of it, and we sang several bars without her aid.

Then there was sleep, though I had to stay later to re-do several of the knots I’d tied. The fire-maned man didn’t begrudge me for it, and showed me how to do it a few more times.

I couldn’t help but think that something had forged these men all together, had smoothed out the anger and the rigidness and the pain and left behind these agreeable souls who lived for the sea.

I hated that I was right.