Maeve pressed the map she received from Garland on the table and slid the sheet of breathsteel over it. Their target was in the southeast corner of the archipelago. It was far from the fire isles. She wouldn’t have to see the remnants of her home. Garland clearly marked the Chapel of Oanh on the western shore of Clarestone Enclave but didn’t provide any specifics about the shrine or the crypt thought to contain the arc.
The sun warmed her dark skin. Few clouds marred the azure sky. Sunlight reflected from the honey brown wood of the quarterdeck, surrounding her within a halo of warmth. Maeve smiled as Jade and Bas loaded their supplies onto the ship.
Harley sauntered up to her and ran her fingers over the map. “Fairies tugging at your gut yet?”
Maeve rubbed her stomach. “The seiryu may have set up a warren in there.” She laughed, imagining a flock of the seahorse-like fairy dragons fluttering around in her abdomen on their butterfly-like wings.
Harley grinned and said, “setting out is always worse than any peril along the way. I hate anticipating all the things that could happen.”
Garland sauntered up the gangway, onto the ship.
After excusing herself, she went down to greet him.
Garland’s fine suit sparkled in the bright sun like the surface of a pristine pond. He didn’t belong on a vessel of this caliber. One day, the Buttercup would shine like a pearl on the ocean.
He handed her a folio of papers with that broad, overly friendly smile. “This is a sketch of the ark. I also included information about it and the crypt in which it is stored. I wish we had more to give you.”
“So do I,” Maeve said politely. “But it will have to be enough.”
Garland nodded and cast an eye over Bas.
“Is something wrong?” Maeve asked.
“Not at all,” Garland responded. “I am sure you and your crew will do just fine. I don’t want to keep you. May the winds be at your back and the sun in the eyes of your enemies.”
“And yours,” Maeve said, masking her surprise as he used the old windjammer’s farewell.
Maeve didn’t take her gaze off Garland as he disembarked from the ship. He furtively glanced toward Bas repeatedly. Why was he so interested in her crewmate? She returned to the quarterdeck and tapped the folio on her hand.
“What was all that about?” Harley asked.
“Garland was just giving us the rest of their intelligence on the arc and the island.”
“I meant the way he looked at Bas. It was like he expected to see someone else and was surprised by him.”
Maeve straightened up. “You’re right.”
Maeve opened the folio and flipped through the papers. Several contained a vague warning about a grave threat that sank ships and took all lives that fell under its gaze. An endless list of perils raced through her mind.
She mentioned it to Harley.
“That doesn’t bode well,” Harley said. “Could there be wyverns around the island?”
“Others would have seen them flying around. That wouldn’t be such a mystery.” Maeve turned southeast toward the mouth of the harbor. Beyond the wave breaker, her nerves always calmed. What haunted the waters between them and their target? “If they had a patrol fleet destroying ships that didn’t fly the right signals, there wouldn’t be enough survivors to report back.”
“Sailors’ gossip.” Harley giggled darkly. “If it were a ship, we would know.”
Once they stowed everything in the hold, Maeve walked through the Buttercup to ensure nothing was out of place. She loved the Buttercup and her crew—her friends—with all her heart. They were her family, and she would do anything for them. She stood on the quarterdeck, just out of notice. They laughed and told jokes. They needed to blow off steam before they embarked, so she went to her cabin and worked through her concerns in peace. There was no reason to interrupt their fun.
The next morning the wind was favorable and the sky clear. According to the weather witch report she purchased, this was the time to set out. While she didn't believe in omens, she made herself see it as a good sign. Whatever it took to avoid storms was worth the price.
Standing before the wheel on the quarterdeck, she pulled a disk resembling an ornate brass pocket watch from her waistcoat pocket and clicked the pin on the top.
Silver and steel spikes shot out from cardinal compass points and smaller golden pins halfway in between them.
This windjammer key was a gift from her mother. She set the key into an inset cut into the center of the wheel and turned it clockwise.
Phantasmal forms of sailors bled out of the aether into sight, and she shouted orders to set sail for Clarestone Enclave.
The phantoms raised the sails and performed most of the menial tasks aboard the ship, leaving the skeleton crew to keep them on target. Without the key, they would have needed a larger company than they could afford.
They left the harbor at Duskmere. The seas were calm despite the wind.
A couple of hours out of port, Maeve pulled out her spyglass and searched the horizon. There were no other ships in sight.
At dinner, Crane mentioned the lack of ships and they talked about the strange absence of trade.
Another day passed without the slightest hint of a ship. Where were all the other ships? They should have come across patrols from the isles. The admiralty court sent out patrols regularly and it wouldn’t be strange to encounter a Daskensian scout this far north.
Maybe the calm waters were an omen after all.
At around sunset on their third day out to sea, Jade walked up to Maeve with his arms crossed, rubbing his elbows.
“Something isn’t right,” he said. “I know that’s obvious, but I can feel it. My gills are tingling. They never tingle.”
“When was the last time you poured water over them?” Maeve asked.
“I am not a pup anymore.” Jade narrowed his small black eyes and crinkled the skin on his pointed snout. “They aren’t dry, it’s like they are moving. You know how your ears ring after you hear a loud noise? It’s like they are ringing, but I don’t know of anything capable of making them do that.”
“So they’ve never done this before?”
Jade shook his head. “It’s annoying, like an itch you can’t reach right between your shoulder blades, except I don’t know what would scratch them or soothe them.”
“Do you think whatever is keeping the sea so calm might cause it?” Maeve asked.
“I can’t think of another explanation. I don’t feel sick, and according to the medical ghost, I am fine, if you can trust him.”
Maeve laughed. “Do you want to turn back?”
“No. I just thought you should know.”
That night, Maeve dreamed of the beach where the Buttercup ran aground when they found it. The ship wasn’t there, but the large anchor stones remained.
A strange woman with skin like sapphire and hair like lapis lazuli sat atop a stone crooning a song softly to herself. Her hair flowed in the breeze like water down a gentle fall in a stream.
The song was in a language Maeve didn't recognize. Its vowels stretched out into long arias, broking sparingly for consonants or breaths.
Each note resonated within her chest, and her entire body vibrated from the music. Danger filled each intonation. The woman wailed as if she were in pain.
The melody itself warned her to stay away from the woman, to turn back and to leave.
Doom filled the air and whispered threats under the melody like its own harmony, promising destruction to anyone who didn’t heed the warning.
It grabbed her, catching in her throat like a word that would choke her if she didn’t say them. Life leaked from her body, like her soul threatened to bleed from her and leave her as less than a dry husk.
She started awake in her bed, unsure if it was the memory or the song itself still ringing in her ears.
Gomruth snuggled his scaly head into her side, and she petted him absentmindedly as she calmed her breathing.
Maeve couldn’t fall back to sleep. The melody haunted her like a lost song from her childhood. It was so familiar, but it eluded her.
It wasn’t as if it was a common tune. She’d spent so much time at sea, she hadn’t frequented many bars. Harley’s taste in music differed from its style. The Nimble Eel hadn’t had a band, a minstrel, or even a bard the last several times she visited. She hadn’t been to a concert in longer than she’d admit to herself.
Dread bloomed in her like strange flowers, basking in the song’s light. No matter what she filled her mind with, the melody persisted.
Crawling out of bed, she slipped on a pair of sandals and made her way to Harley’s quarters down the hall. A tinkle of glass told her that Harley had just poured herself a drink, so Maeve knocked.
Harley called out, “enter.”
Maeve opened the door and walked in to find her sitting on her bed cross-legged, staring into a small glass of whiskey.
“Bad dream?” Harley asked.
Maeve hummed the strange melody that lodged itself into her brain.
Harley hummed along with her. They both assumed the song originated in her music collection, and they spent the rest of the night going through her song crystals, hoping to find it.
The song wasn’t there.
As the sun broke over the sea, they went down to the galley for breakfast. Jade and Crane already sat at the table discussing the same song.
When Bas entered, he asked them what the song was they were humming.
“It was in my dream last night.”
Once they realized none of them could place the song that surfaced in each of their dreams, they started preparing food.
Jade said, “There are legends of sirens whose songs lured sailors to their deaths. Have you ever heard of one that drives people away?”
None of them had.
“What if this might be a sign the monks on Clarestone Enclave know we are coming?” Bas asked. “They may have invoked a spirit against us.”
They all agreed to be on high alert for signs of supernatural activity.
Throughout the day, as they sailed into the eerily calm sea, they kept catching themselves humming the tune and then winced when they realized they were doing it.
The next day, as they continued to sail over the glasslike sea, Maeve leaned over the railing a couple of times because something strange moved in the deep.
Except for the ship’s wake, the water was mirror-smooth. Her shadowed and distorted image peered back at her. The ethereal face from her dreams floated under the surface.
The face loomed up from the depths like a whale coming up to breathe. It moved alongside them like a reflection from above.
Maeve glanced at the sky and there was nothing but blue sky overhead, dotted by a few puffy clouds. None of them could have distorted in the water to resemble a face.
“What are you looking at? Dolphins or flying fish?” Bas asked, walking up next to her.
“Neither. Remember that woman I told you about from my dreams that sang that thrice-damned song? She was there in the water, just looking up at me like someone might examine fish in a tank.”
Bas stared into the sea. “I see nothing but us.”
“Me neither.” Maeve sighed. “Maybe I am under more stress than I knew. When we get back, I am going to a resort to relax for a while.”
“I’ll join you.” He elbowed her. “I know one that has the most accommodating staff of each and every gender. You won’t be able to not have a good time.”
Maeve smirked and shook her head. “You know I am not as—”
“Open, loving, and adventurous as I am?” Bas raised an eyebrow. “I know, but the waters are warm, the drinks intoxicating, and the food is delicious. If you want to partake in further adventures, it is good to know they are available. Besides, we will have enough money to be a little frivolous and still be responsible.”
“That describes someone I know very well.”
Maeve stared into the sea and hoped they weren’t being haunted by a sea spirit that meant to do them harm.