Sparrow and Canaries
The sun had reached the top of Carapai’s dome, now sinking towards the port, where the Kraken still lazed on the airless current that held all along the polished marble docks. Its deck teemed with stevedores, just getting to checking the masts and wheels... meanwhile, the larder still wasn’t touched, supplies were still on their way, the barnacles still clung to the hull, the fresh water barrel has not been filled- was it a wonder why the timbers shook? Tarjen stomped back up the steps and into captain’s quarters, slamming the door in his wake, yet another “successful” attempt at negotiation. His eyes pulsed red, the edges of the crimson tinged with black, settling some as he made his way to his chair behind the desk. A sparrow tweeted excitedly at first in its faded copper cage, softening as the excitement outside its haven settled down and returned to cleaning its soft blue feathers. It wasn’t all blue; its chest and wings had a waves of sandy brown splashed on it, as if the blue splashed upon it like a great wave.
It stopped as Tarjen heaved a weary sigh, matching his chair’s creak, and he looked down at the letter he had written. It was on a bulkier scroll than normal, but he knew the sparrow, this breed of them, would have no trouble handling it. He read it over it once more, made sure it was proper and understood well enough only by those that knew, and rolled it as tight as he could until it was barely thicker than a Terrahn female’s pinky and half as long. Tarjen opened the cage, and the sparrow went still as his “arm” wrapped around it. The only movement it made was its head, turning side-to-side, looking at him with such inquisitive, beady red eyes.
“Easy does it,” he mumbled, taking his time to gingerly tie the scroll onto its black leg. It flexed its talons, just scratching at his gray “hand,” and he gingerly pulled the bit of strap until it was snug. He gave the scroll a tug; it held, but the sparrow wasn’t amused, uttering an angry squawk as it pecked thrice. Tarjen chortled as he put the bird back in the cage, and reached into the left drawer of the desk, pulling out a hand of fresh seed. He held it to the sparrow. It was a bit tentative about the offer, anxious, but finally decided to try, indulging as he poured it into the small bowl at the bottom. “There you go. That wasn’t so bad, was it?”
The bird didn’t answer. Not that it couldn’t, but it much prefered to follow the food. Tarjen simply watched the bird eat, the only sounds the soft scuffling of it picking through the feed and his chair, creaking as the ship did. So many feet trudged through its galley, its bowels, pressed with such urgency by his demand –but not showing any true want to follow through. He made sure that the larder would be stocked appropriately, at least, and even stood by and scrutinized as they patched the sails, but it wasn’t his job to oversee every single job.
That’s what his new skipper was for... absent.
“Rush me, will she?” He muttered, a touch of black fluttering over before overcome with blue. The sparrow had leaped onto the other side of the cage, spooked by his voice and the venom that dripped from it. “I’m sorry. Simply venting, my fine feathered friend. Go back to eating... go on...” He waited for the sparrow to hop back down, and the room filled with its soft shuffling again. This time it wasn’t even disturbed as he made a noise, as he let loose a soft sigh. “Enjoy it while you can. You have a long flight ahead of you once we breach.”
As I have a chore to do before we do.
He groaned, rubbing his “arms”. They were already starting to ache, knowing that he will be one of... probably only three on the oars, as well as on the mast spokes. The sparrow stopped a moment and looked at him, looked into his eyes, and ruffled its wings, as if it knew what he was thinking about. It understood, which was far more than he can say about half of the present company aboard, and he would choose to talk to this simple creature over the Itchyomen any day.
There was a knock on his door, and the devil, herself, walked in. Finally.
“Dare show your face now?” Tarjen said, the softness gone from his voice, and that was the sparrow’s cue to keep its head down in its food once more. “Tell me you at least have a status update on the stevedores.”
“The ‘help’ is done, yes,” Gale said. “We are ready to go.”
“Are we? Truly... Did they say so, and did you check?”
“Well, I would have, but they told me you already did.”
“... And you believed them? Like that?” He “pinched” his brow, shaking his head. “Which one told you this?”
“Think her name was Roe, sir.”
“Roe, huh... can you fetch her for me?” She nodded, and Tarjen heaved a heavy sigh, becoming as natural as breathing, as he reached into the third drawer down, pulling out a red velvet bag. He stood and lumbered around the deck, undoing the basic twine that kept it bound, loosing enough to reach inside just as Gale returned with a young-looking Itchyoman. She was at least a head shorter than Gale, and had bright blue scales. She, also, had no fins, an oddity of her race, instead lined with hard spines along her arms, legs, and back. “I take it you are Roe?”
“Yessir,” she said. So confident, so resolved... fading as Tarjen pulled what laid in the back free. “C-capt-”
“Gale reported to me that you told her the ship was stocked, cleaned, maintained, and ready... and that it had my seal of approval on it, at that.” Tarjen pointed the polished, black metal end of the bag’s lovely item at the Itchyoman, making her shudder. The room started to reek of its sweat, as well, running like rivers down her rippling scale, her four, white eyes locked on the item in his hand. “Tell me this: are all the tasks truly done? If you come clean now, your punishment will be far less severe... Well? Speak!”
The Itchyoman known as Roe recoiled when he barked his command. Even Gale winced and backed a touch, allowing Roe to. She was just out the door; she could have run, but neither dared to under his gaze, the red in them swirling down into the abyss, a pair of maelstroms that wanted nothing more than to consume and reap destruction. It was Natalie’s fury given form.
Roe chuckled, a sheepish sound, and tried to still her shakes by hugging herself, looking down at the ground at his feet.
“N-no, s-s-sir,” she stammered. “The tasks a-are not done.”
“Then why did you tell my skipper that they were, and that I had given confirmation?”
“I-i-it-I-it...” She gulped, choking on it a little, and panted as she shook her head. “It was merely a jest, s-sir. I... The Itchyoman were still bringing crates and such on-board and were scrubbing the barnacles off. S-she a-a-asked if we were done... and even swore off one of the stevedores as they bumped into her with a crate. S... she was blocking the boarding plank when she asked me.” She sobbed, and looked up into his eyes, her face wrought with despair. “It was merely a jest, sir! A joke. I didn’t mean anything by it. I mean it! Please forgive me, sir.”
Tarjen simply watched her, seen as her knees buckled and dropped her into ever-growing puddle of fear and shame. It had taken on a rather nasty shade of yellow, but at least it was running out of his quarters... He looked up at Gale, just as furious at her, and yet she still wore such a cocky grin.
Does this woman have no sense of fear... or is she too dense to know it? He thought, knowing the answer all too well. He heaved a heavy sigh, and motioned to Gale with the bag’s item. “Pick her up.”
He waited for her to do so, and he could see that there wasn’t even a glimmer in Roe’s eyes. Those four, white pearls had dulled to a stormy gray, stained red around their edges by the tears still pouring. She shuddered, legs trying so hard to collapse again, to buckle and welcome her arms’ embrace, but Gale kept her standing, forced her to watch Tarjen approach. He couldn’t stomp his “feet”, his boots tucked neatly still under the coat rack, but they were they slurped and pulled at the planks was no less imposing.
Tarjen stopped before her, and dug the handle’s end into her chin, raising it to look into his eyes.
“Thank you,” he said, and let her chin go. It stayed up on its own, her eyes digging in as he turned around and strolled back a step-
Only to wheel about.
Her screams dulled the buzz outside the ship, the drone in the city, already shattered by the crack of the cat o nine tails. The nine, jagged, iron hooks at the end of the well-oiled lines dripped with blood, while it ran freely down the girl’s front. Her brown burlap tunic had been shredded by the teeth, showing that she had a white belly, now stained red. The highest hook caught her across the shoulders, while the lowest tore into her legs.
She was finally allowed to drop to her knees, wailing as she held her middle, and added chunks of green to her lake, making the cabin reek with bile along with her natural fishy odor. Gale cupped her mouth, a glint of light, of actual thought, seen in her eyes at last, understanding what had transpired. Tarjen wondered if she knew it was wholly her fault as well, but he didn’t want to be selfish. Small miracles shouldn’t be frequent, after all.
Tarjen returned to his desk, sitting at it, and reached down into the drawer where the bag had been kept, pulling out a dingy rag. He cleaned off the tips, made sure the leather wasn’t stained, then put his toy back into its bag, easing it into those velvet folds, allowed to rest once more.
“Be thankful.” He stated, cupping his “hands” on the desk, his eyes still swirling with red and black. “Falsifying a captain’s orders is a grave offense. I forgave you for my skipper’s ignorance, but I could not let that go without consequence... Be thankful; that was merely a flick... Gale, get her off of my ship and request a stevedore to come clean up the mess.”
“Yes, sir,” she said, once again so cocky, and gave no thought (no surprise there) nor care to the Itchyoman that she hauled to her feet and rushed out of the room. She left a thick, splotchy trail of blood all the way to the steps, and most likely down them as well. Another Itchyoman wasted no time coming to clean it up, and this was the fastest he saw them work. What wonders a bit of assertiveness gives you... Gale returned all too soon, standing and slightly hopping before his desk. “She really should have known better than to lie to me. She must have known that was c-”
“How goes the recruitment?”
“Eh? Sir? What do you mean?”
He sighed, pinching his “brow” once more.
“You have been trying to find a crew, haven’t you? This trip was your idea, after all.”
“But I’m not the captain-”
“But you are the skipper, and I’ll assume you hadn’t, which, also, makes me wonder what you are truly doing here. You don’t show up all day save the dawn. You haven’t lifted a single finger to aid in any of the tasks, and now you are telling me you haven’t even started to find people to aid in this little expedition of yours that you have your heart so set on... Shame, really. With only the three of us on those oars, this is going to be a long, tiresome rise.”
“You haven’t forgotten our ambitious Cephamorian so soon, have you, or are you implying that you weren’t expecting to do manual labor at all?”
Gale scoffed, but her body language showed that he might as well have struck her with the whip, instead. She hugged her middle tight, and had been taken a step back, the blow turning her head as her cheeks burned from its lashes. She spluttered and scoffed, a small fire burning behind her eyes, trying so hard to stay alive; he felt a bit of pity for it, for it was not long for this world.
“Of course not!” She spat out at last. “I am simply surprised is all. I didn’t expect that you would put yourself on the same level as-”
“As what, skipper? Hmm? Finish your thought.”
“As... as a commoner.”
… Tarjen chortled as he shook his head, the red in his eyes rekindled, and stood. The light in the room seemed to dim as he made his way around the desk, passing the chest and his sword. He picked it up, letting it rap, tap, tap against the timbers as “feet” slurped and let the timbers thud in time with it, glowering down at her as she shrunk under his gaze.
“I am only going to tell you this once, Itchyoman,” he said, barely more than a whisper, but the room around his breath seemed to chill, making her shiver even more. “You better be listening, for if this ever comes up again I won’t hesitate to fillet and feed you to the denizens of Natalie’s realm.” He dug the pommel of his blade under her chin, an act that made her absolutely quiver, knowing what happened to the last person he had done it to. He made her look into his eyes... but found it odd she still had so much color in her cheeks... Regardless, he continued. “On a ship, no matter the task, great or small, tedious or grand, the crew, all of them, must come together to get it done. Position does not matter; it only gives a pecking order to who gives commands, but that does not mean you put everything on those ‘below’ you... If you can get it done in the same time you have to bellow to someone to do it, then you are a waste and will be replaced. Everyone... even the captain... is expected to do what they can to keep the ship running, to push on... Have I made myself clear?” Gale nodded, her seafoam green cheeks a sickly orange color from how red they had become, and he motioned to the door. “So, let us go find ourselves a crew.”
Gale continued to nod a moment before she closed her eyes, shaking her head fervently instead.
“N-no sir. I’ll go do it,” she said, her voice shaky, growing stronger as she stepped out of the captain’s quarters. “It was my responsibility after all. I’ll o-only be a moment... sir.”
She spun on her heel and hopped over the railing by the wheel down onto the deck. Her soft shoes scuffled away as she went down the board and into the streets, Itchyomen... and their crates pushed aside. Tarjen sniffed, grimacing at the stench she left behind. It was far... muskier than he remembered... He wanted to close the door again, but the room still reeked of her scent, the Itchyoman before, and the sheer amount of sweat and blood. So, instead, he plodded back over to his desk, and looked down at the sparrow in the cage. It was looking up at him through the bars, turning its head side-to-side, completely ignorant, blissful of what had transpired.
“I’ll give her this. She has heart,” he said as he sat again, and yawned. He opened the cage, and the sparrow hopped out onto his desk, seeming to skip between him then the fish chime to the right. It pecked at the silver lorimen, making them clink softly, seeming to make the school ripple with each small pick, pulling Tarjen into their soft colors. Light flashed on them, glaring into his eyes, each pass of those beams pulling forth images burned into his mind.
A saber. A flying dreadnought. Screams, arguing shadows.
He laid on the deck of the Scylla, looking up at that sword, gleaming with such fire from beady eyes, looking like a moon descending from the sky, burning across his-
His chair toppled as he bolted back out of it, clenching his “chest” as he panted. The sparrow took flight, chirping madly as blood pulsed in his head, making it ache with each passing wave it did over his eyes, red and black... and yellow intertwined. He finally caught his breath, and leaned on the desk, still panting, though soft.
“She’s wrong... or better be, for her sake,” he uttered, and the sparrow landed by his “hand”, looking up at him. “Baro is gone. He died that night... he died that night.”
Several hours passed before there was another knock on his door. Tarjen grumbled as he covered his face with his pillow, hoping it would not return for a second- thi- fourth- fifth time. He hoped the sixth time was the charm; instead, the door simply opened, allowing light through, hitting his eyes just right while silhouetting the horrid demon that awaited in its arch. He discarded the pillow, letting it fall back where his head once was as he sat up, wiping his face.
“I’m sorry. Were you trying to nap?” Gale said, walking into the room. “I didn’t realize... I can always come back later-”
“It’s fine.” He muttered, his voice catching at the end. He cleared his throat, feeling more than a touch a scratchy. Gale handed him a water skin; he accepted it, though disdainfully. He gulped down three mouthfuls, and coughed, handing it back. “Thank you... already finished recruiting?”
“I did as best as I could, but not many were up to the call of adventure.”
Tarjen stood, shaking his head as he held out his hand, stopping her.
“Tell me, exactly, what your pitch was.”
“The truth, of course. That we were going after the Scylla, at least its rumored whereabouts, and were wanting volunteers.”
“Volunteers... as in, not paying.”
She scoffed. “We’re not exactly getting a payment for this expedition –unless it pans out of course, so yes.”
“... But you say we did get some?”
She nodded, motioning to the door.
“Five, in fact. They are waiting on deck for you.”
Tarjen groaned as he took his first step, “feet” aching so much in their boots, but relaxed as he got into motion once more, stepping out before the wheel. Below, on deck, there was Ella, alongside four other faces. The Aceon from the other day, Ruu, was there, once more his spines out, quivering with excitement, as well as Roe, of all people. She was leaning against the center mast, still holding her middle, wrapped in so much gauze that it almost made her look pregnant. Other than those, though, he did not recognize the two Cephamorians, one doubled over his long, lanky limbs while the other was short and pudgy, nor the Itchyoman. They had their arms crossed over their leathery white chest, spotted with dark red spirals, seeming to interlink, while the left side of their head bulged with a flat crest, overshadowing its eye. The right, though, was a bright, blue pearl, with a shock of yellow in its center, seeming to sparkle as it locked upon him.
“And they all agreed to come without pay?” Tarjen said at last.
“Aside the lass who jumped you, yes,” Gale said, glowering at Ella.
“I’m... honored, then. Truly.” He cleared his throat, and fanned his arms to the crew. “I thank you for joining us on this trip. Though the reward may be great, the chance and risk are just as high. What we hunt for could easily spell our doom as it could easily fortune. So, if you have any doubts, you may choose to leave now. If not, you are free to head downstairs and make yourselves at home. Because the number of you is so slim, the chains will not be needed. Meaning you better hope this trip is smooth, if you choose to stay.”
The three, Ruu, Gale, Roe, and Ella all looked at him, all still, until Ruu trilled and rolled his left claw. A sphere formed as he did, bubbling and gurgling until with a soft clack of his claw it popped, and its wave rolled over them all. The Cephamorians clapped while the Itchoyman clacked its jaws. All but Roe and Ella headed downstairs, leaving Ella to approach Tarjen as Roe continued to slide down the mast, holding herself tight.
“They aren’t receiving pay,” Ella asked.
“Due to my intuitive thinking,” Gale answered for Tarjen, pushing in between. “After all, the treasure that awaits us can cover whatever they may have wanted, no?”
Ella’s eyes filled with red a moment before she shot a glance at Tarjen behind. He leaned on the wheel, looking down at the grate to the galley, shaking his head.
“They will get their payment,” he said. “If I have to take it out of my savings, they will receive it.”
Gale spun on him. “Sir-”
“They will not go this entire trip for nothing-”
“But what if it isn’t nothing? What if we do find the Scylla? And what about Roe? She already sullied your name; if anything, being accepted into your crew should be more than enough payment for what she d-”
“They will be paid regardless. All of them. There are no grudges on my ship... You are dismissed, skipper. Get them ready for the Current.”
Gale scoffed, ready to say something else, but stormed downstairs instead, hitting Ella with her shoulder as she passed. She pulled Roe to her feet and down into galley; Ella ignored her and climbed the last of the stairs, standing beside Tarjen.
“Were you telling the truth? About the dangers?” She said.
“You never truly know, lass. This is Natalie’s domain, after all, and, like her, it is just as mercurial. Better to warn them and keep them on their toes.” He pushed away from the wheel and yawned. “Help me on the mast wheel. The others shall man the oars.”
“And what about that wounded Itchyoman? She’s in no shape to help.”
“We’ll manage until she is back on her feet... I won’t deny her penance.”
Ella nodded, and followed Tarjen down to the grate, closing it firmly as they descended the twenty steps into the galley. They walked through the rows of oars, passed the drum, and down the hallway after it; Ella’s eyes lingered on the room furthest down and to the right, but followed him into the second door on the left, where a large, dark wheel sat. Twelve spokes jutted from it, each as thick as a Terrahn’s arm.
Tarjen leaned over it, getting his “hands” ready, and reached into his pocket, pulling out a dark whistle. He blew into it, but no sound escaped it. Instead, the ship rumbled. The Current pulled on it at last, and he started to push on the wheel, creaking as he grunted. Ella grabbed it a moment later, and her grunts joined his and the crews’ as they made their way up to the edge of the dome at last.