by Serena W Sorrell

The crisp writing in her mother’s hand blurred as Janus’s tears soaked into the long thirsty paper and ink. All of the curiosity, the grief, the anger, the questions simply drained out of Janus. And she cried. She cried as the child who had lost her mother only days ago that she was. She cried for her mother, too; she had kept secrets from Janus to protect them, but in the end the safety Triv had hoped for had not lasted long at all. Had fourteen years in a life she had not wanted to live been worth it? Had her mother been happy living as they had? Janus wanted to believe her mother had never regretted her decision. Janus would take her mother’s letter as truth.

Janus took a shaky breath and steadied her heart and mind. Unfortunately, as she left the captain’s quarters, her feet had not been steadied. And Janus tripped on the door sill. Her arm shot out for a net of glass floats as she toppled forward; barely catching herself, she swayed back with the rocking baubles. Until one of the obsidian glass spheres unfurled itself and two small eyes peered through the netting.

“Oh, you poor thing. Been crying with those eyes, red as Nero’s fur. Come here, lassie.”

When Janus instead released the netting to swing back into place the soft‑voiced creature tittered and flicked its ears.

“Don’t you fret or be put off. I’m the doctor on board, had proper medical training and all, mind you. But you can just call me Dice, never you mind the Doctor bit. Now let me get you something for those puffy eyes and I’ll have Sven get you some hot tea to warm you up.”

At that decision Dice unfurled to her full length and dropped out of the netting. Black scales shone from the top of her head down to her fat tail. Whatever manner of animal she was the scales looked sharp enough to cut if Dice so chose. Janus wondered if doctor also meant she was the surgeon?

“Excuse me,” Janus found her voice at last. Dice turned her head back over her shoulder with the sound of the armor plates scraping over one another. “But, beg my pardon, what are you?”

Here again Dice tittered, softer than the sound her scales made as they jostled. “Why, I’m an obsidian pangolin. You’ll find us all to be an odd lot on The Menagerie.”

At that, Dice ambled away hunched over and on her hind legs, and disappeared down the steps leading below deck. Janus took in the ship then, alone to gawp at her surroundings at last. The sheen of the wood. The fine curves of the railings. The sails, tied, but a deep violet, almost black. Janus had turned only halfway around before there was a stamp at her foot announcing Jack’s presence. Janus looked down to the jackalope she had once considered eating or selling, very glad she had not.

“Well, Dice says she introduced herself already. If you’ve finished in Triv’s room then I’ll run the rest of the crew by. Needle you’ve met. She mostly stays in the water ‘less we need her airborne, and rarely on land. Had to fight her on who was going off to find you in fact. Convinced her I was a lot less conspicuous than a winged unicorn would be.”

“A unicorn? But she’s a narwhal…”

“Aye, and you know all there is about narwhals? Never minding she isn’t a narwhal at all, just easier for a unicorn to swim that way, s’all. Come along now.”

Janus followed Jack to the main mast considering the truth of unicorns and narwhals. She felt she was just at the edge of a proper conclusion when Jack kicked the mast.

“Oi, Charming! That’d be our boatswain,” Jack directed this to Janus before shouting again, “Charming!”

“No need to stomp around, Sir Jack. I am present.”

With a flap and almost silent flutter a conure sailed down to perch upon the railing behind them. Janus regarded the parrot. It seemed all the animals aboard could speak, but aside from that this seemed an ordinary conure at a glance. It wasn’t until Janus had been staring in quiet for more than a minute the changing colors of his feathers came to her attention. It was a slow thing, but gradually the conure went through every color of the rainbow.

“How beautiful.”

Janus had said the words before she could stop herself.

“And they call me charming,” Charming fluffed up looking quite pleased. He extended a foot as if to shake hands, “It is a pleasure to meet so lovely a miss, and to have her as our new captain is even more—”

“Captain?” Janus looked to Jack who was busy glaring (as well as a rabbit with antlers could) at Charming. “I am no pirate, and definitely not a captain.”

“Of course not, little dove,” Charming bobbed his shimmering head in a sort of bow. “My error completely.”

“If she ain’ the new cap’n then why’s she on board? Go on and throw her off.”

Janus hardly needed to search for the source of the animosity aimed at her as a firelight hopped toward them and came to a stop. The flames simmered and left the creature with glowing hot coals for eyes that burrowed into Janus with immediate dislike. De‑flamed, Janus could see the one who wanted her to disembark was a bright red mink, his fur bristled and sparked from his disdain.

“Janus. This rat is Nero, our gunner and general grump.”

“Rat? How’d ya’ like to be a roast rabbit?”

“I think your fur is amazing.” Janus said in truth.

“Oh no, I dun’ get charmed by some pretty words like bird‑brain there. If ya’ ain’ the cap’n then get off. Last thing we need is a human stinkin’ up the place.”

“Now you leave her be, Nero.” Dice hobbled up from the deck stairs holding a salve pot and being followed by an emperor penguin…wearing a chef’s hat. “Sorry about him, dearie, but pyre minks. I’ve tried just about everything to cure that temper of his, I have.”

“Temper!? Hmph, only one here with any sense, ya’ mean.”

“Oh, let her stay.” Needle joined in their conversation from the water below, “She’s Triv’s girl. She belongs here.”

“Right you are!” Jack agreed heartily. The penguin, who had yet to offer any opinion on the matter handed Janus a warm porcelain cup of tea, which smelled of sweet mint and chamomile. “What say you, Sven?”

The emperor penguin, who was only a little shorter than Janus, merely nodded without a word.

“Traitor!” Nero hissed, flames licking along his back as sparking off the end of his tail.

“Oh, if you are so against her being here why do you not take a swim then?” Charming cooed from his perch.

“Hah‑bloody‑hah, ya’ silver‑tongued swindler. Yea, let’s douse the pyre mink, so funny.”

Jack let out a long sigh and Janus assumed this sort of atmosphere was not at all unusual aboard The Menagerie. It was certainly lively. And mind boggling. Talking animals would be absurd enough. But they were not merely speaking. They were no manner of animal Janus had ever seen or heard of. And they were the crew her mother had captained.

“Well, what’s Kitty say?”

Needle asked from where she had flown up in the air, taking Janus by surprise she almost fell backward into Sven. He merely steadied her with a sturdy fin and patted her arm as though to reassure her. There was much nodding and a general consensus that Kitty really ought to have the final say in the matter. Jack mumbled that as quartermaster he had the last word in ship affairs until a new captain was appointed. No one but Janus seemed to have heard his complaint as they shuffled off calling for Kitty. Janus decided it was best to join their search, find Kitty, and be told she was in no way fit for life as a pirate. Surely her mother’s old crewmates would find some way to keep Janus safe until they found a new captain.

“Here Kitty,” Janus clicked her tongue, hoping to entice the cat from hiding as she would back home with the local strays, “Kitty, Kitty, Kit—”

“I heard you already, daughter of Triv, and I am here.”

An ashen cat with no eyes rasped at Janus from atop of pile of crates. The hollows where her eyes had been blinked, empty sockets, that Janus felt were somehow looking into her. This was Kitty. Of course it would be no normal cat on The Menagerie.

“At least you are accepting this as reality.” Kitty licked her paw before jumping to Janus’s shoulders, snaking around the back of her neck. “But I wonder if you desire this reality.” Kitty’s low voice tickled Janus’s ear and made her head feel heavy and cotton‑stuffed. “I see.”

Kitty hopped off Janus and immediately the sensation of drowsiness lifted. The crew had gathered around before Janus could even notice them. They looked, one and all, even Jack, to Kitty. Kitty in turn closed her empty eyes for a long time. So long it seemed she had fallen asleep in the statuesque sitting pose. At last the hollow pits in the gray face looked round to each crew member until they rested on Janus alone.

“She has the power to move the ship, same as Triv. She could be even better than her mother.” At this whispers went around the crew. “But she hasn’t the confidence yet. Janus, you still want to lead your old life, your mother beside you again. And not a one of us can blame you for that as we all feel the same pain and loss as you. But Triv is gone, and Caelus approaches with the betrayer in tow. You have to be prepared to face the future as someone new if you’re to captain The Menagerie; if not…you’ll be left with shadows of the past and, regrettably, little time. You’ve nothing behind you, Janus; you need to go forward, but the first step must be yours. After that we will all help you, as your crew, as your family.”

No one spoke for so long Janus wondered if Kitty had not somehow stopped time. Until at last Nero laughed with a bitter scoff.

“Her? Better than Triv? Yer getting’ old, Kitty.”

“Shush you,” Dice admonished Nero with a light smack of her tail, which the mink dodged gracefully. “Kitty said she can do it.”

“Aye, she can,” Jack said, “but she’d gotta want to.”

At that all eyes fell upon Janus. Each weighing her against the captain they had known before. How could Janus ever live up to whoever her mother had been before she had been her mother? What did she need to be a captain? Was it enough just to be Triv’s daughter? But it seemed her father was somehow an enemy of the crew, at the very least the word betrayer had been used. How could the daughter of an enemy and past captain belong here? This place, the crew, it was all more awesome than anything she had ever dreamed of. Triv had always called Janus levelheaded, logical, and fair. Right now she felt utterly helter-skelter; the world had gone completely absurd; and her mother’s murder was anything but fair.

“The poor dove is exhausted,” Charming perched upon her head and nuzzled her hair with his beak. “Let her have a day to digest this, yes? We can afford one more day, can we not, Kitty?”

Kitty’s tail flicked, her back to them as she sprawled on the wooden deck, “One. And only barely.”

Jack nodded, “Well, you’ve until tomorrow’s sunset to make your decision, Janus. I’m afraid we can’t offer ya’ more than that.”

From her toes to the top of her head Janus was numb. One day to decide her future. And one road lead to, apparently, a very short life. None of the crew seemed to be perturbed by any of Kitty’s prophetic diagnosis. Janus could stay, or go. And no one would stop her from leaving or ask her to stay. Instead they seemed to go back to their usual duties.

Janus watched as Charming whistled at the ropes and masts, the weights and ties moving without a touch from the sound of his song. Dice and Sven discussed what supplies they would need, edible and medicinal. Sven listened and nodded as Dice went over items as they came to her. Jack and Nero argued nearby over their destination; Jack wanted to go into hiding, but Nero was disgusted of their fourteen years of hiding like cowards. He was ready to fight. On slow, pedaling wings Needle floated in the air and tried to soothe Nero’s bloodlust. Whether they were talking, working, or arguing, everywhere Janus looked she could feel the camaraderie between the crew members. There was a history here. How could she become a part of a history that already was? Perhaps this had been Triv’s life once, but it was not hers.

(part one) (part two) (part three) (the end)

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