The sun shined down upon the trader’s path, warming the wagons and carts of its keepers. A line of them had begun from Narvaal, bound to the east, meeting the sun in its climb along the way. They would come to the Crossroads, a small fort, garrisoned by the Church of Terra’s finest, where they would take inventory of the merchant’s goods and then send them off. They could head north to Terra and the Granite Gate, continue east to Lam Berel, or south to Berian, the final port before the isthmus to Tartarus. It would be treacherous to try to cross it, especially during this time of year. The waters of the Agnosim Sea were far more mercurial, quicker to anger and whip into a torrent than the calm glass that was the Barator, but The Hollow paid greatly to any that passed, in more ways than one. Often than not the choice to depended on how hardy the pack mules were, and how much heart they shown. If they froze, showed hesitation even for a moment in crossing, it was simply another group lost to Natalie’s domain, and The Hollow still received their goods.
The final caravan outside of Narvaal finally closed its doors, and its horses, four of them in two lines placed squarely in an iron bracket, snorted as a whip cracked. The grass by the crater still held night’s dew, growing thicker, denser with each day. The trees were starting to change but still held onto their green luster. Even then, the earth, the soil had. Gone were the days it was a deep, rich brown, but a soft beige. No flowers budded beside the walkways, beside the lean-to’s nor the tavern, ushering in the beginning of Halsom at long last.
Much to Olivier’s misfortune.
He shivered horribly in his jacket, wrapped twice around him as he huddled inside, leaning against the wall of the tavern. His eyes ached, and would probably be held open with icicles if it were any colder, watching the town, waiting, seeing if Squall would return. He had awoken before night fell and gone downstairs to the revelry. Tables had been packed, once more topped with tall, overflowing mugs as people guffawed, bleated, and made all sorts of melodious chaos. Bethilius was by the “band”, whooping and cheering as he danced to their songs, while Ponitius kept himself at the bar, downing drink after drink. Avin, and, thankfully, Fili, were nowhere to be seen -Natorei didn’t often stay up- but Squall suffered a similar fate.
Olivier carefully made his way through the crowd, at times dancing and sliding out of the way. Especially by the gambling table. That spotted Faun was at the head of it, surrounding by wallets of coin, more added as another round of jeering exploded. The bushy-maned Faun was there, as well, which Olivier could only chuckle. A wonder he had any money left to squander, but the spotted Faun was working on fixing that.
He reached the bar in one piece, and tapped Ponitius’s shoulder. What the old Terrahn said at first will forever be a mystery, but, as he spun around and blinked a few times, the glower he had changed to a wide smile. His next sentiment was still lost to the annals of time, but he took a drink, cleared his throat, and gave himself a hard smack, sputtering.
“Alrigh, lash. Sleep we?” He “said”. He held up his hand, two fingers pointed out at the bar’s keeper, a dark, tall, but very bulky Faun. “Coplimensh ash alwaysh, Lohosh. You arry the ood shtuff ash alwaysh.”
“That I do, but I think you had enough,” the Faun said.
“Oraly ffor the besht.” He hiccuped, guffawing as he fell off his stool onto the one on the left, and laid there, propping his head off on his (wobbly) arm. He was still beaming at Olivier, though faded to worry, seeing the look on his face. “Whash the maer?”
“Have you seen Squall,” Olivier asked.
He mumbled something that was even more incoherent than before, but at least motioned to the entry... almost rolling off his stools as he did. Olivier followed it, and walked outside, where he took his place as sentry, waiting. But there had not been a hint of hide nor scale of her since the day before. The pinch of ear that made her run off still laid before the tavern, but it had been beaten into the soil by the merchants and revelers. As morning came and the newest round left, the doors had been opened and left that way by Lobos. He saw Olivier there, went back inside, and returned with a hot mug of a bitter-tasting drink, though it might as well have been the sweetest ambrosia Oliveir had at that point. He sipped on it, letting it warm through all of him, while Lobos hummed, tending to his bar. His broom scraped against the boards, sometimes turned to soft growls as glass clinked.
When the drink finally warmed him enough, Olivier managed to break the ice on his neck and look inside. From what he could see, aside Lobos and Ponitius on the ground, there were three Faun still there, playing cards. Bethilius was with them, taking up the fourth seat, but he was passed out. He had two bottles in-hand and a bright bit of cloth tied around his forehead. Its two, knotted ends wafted gently in the soft wind that blew through the crater, stirring with his mane, seeming to make his head lull side-to-side. A certain Natorei had come along during the dawn and found the Faun. He “marked” his cheek with pink energy, leaving a slew of crude drawings and words before heading off for the rocky pass, where a blue light had flew off to.
Why did she go that way? Olivier wondered, thankful to be sure but dreadfully curious. He dreaded to know the answer as the blue started to grow from the cavern, but settled as the pink flew by, meeting there. And, somehow, his cheeks were warm enough to smile. Guess I owe Avin.
But his thoughts returned to Squall... and the information they both knew, taking his smile. Even as cold as he was, he found himself feeling even more frigid. If she didn’t come back, then that means he would have to face Ponitius and Bethilius, tell them himself... He would be alone.
His head jerked back to the path, neck cracking loud in the morning air, hoping, praying she would appear somewhere in that courtyard.
His heart fluttered as she did.
She had come down the bridge from above, from one of the Natorei homes beside Strix’s, and was taking her time to reach the ground. Olivier, though, found himself on his feet. All stiffness, aches, pains, gone as he lumbered, walked, jogged, dashed, sprinted at her. Squall rounded the final post, the final bridge down. She had been looking down the entire time, and hadn’t realized Olivier was even there until she did step down onto the courtyard and looked up.
Just as he was barreling into her.
She made a curious sound as she was knocked off her feet, a cross between a gasp, a yelp, and a quack. It was all shock, and with that shock all fatigue was gone as she saw it was Olivier. He chortled as he stood, rubbing his shell, and the world was far less yellow as he offered his other hand... before realizing he was extending his right. He shook his head, and changed them, quick to pocket it once more.
“M-morning,” he said. “I was worried last night. I... I was wondering if you were going to come back... a... at all, I mean.”
Squall scoffed, and grunted as she pulled herself up --with his aid.
“You aren’t getting rid of me that easy,” she said, chuckling, but sighed as she rubbed her own head. “Sorry, though. It simply was... well, with the stress with Strix, then those drunken fools-”
“I understand... So... did you tell Ponitius about my... you know?”
“The fact that I’m the c-”
“Oh. That. No, not yet.”
The smile vanished from Olivier’s face; a small surge of yellow tinged his eyes.
“That means Bethilius doesn’t know yet, either.”
“Or your lovely lady friend or her keeper.”
More yellow crept into his vision; he hadn’t even thought of those two. Avin wasn’t an issue, but how would Fili react? What would she do with that? What would she do with him!
“So where did you end up last night,” Olivier asked, trying to keep his mind shifted away from such a predicament.
“At Avin’s. I was pacing the bridges above for the longest time, but then he showed up and said that I could. Really nice guy; even made me a cup of tea to calm my nerves.”
“A... are we talking about the same person?”
A sigh descended from the heavens, and a pink light descended from on high. It wasn’t there before, in that cascading landscape of yellows, peaches, and reds, but it grew to its full, pink glory as Avin settled on Olivier’s shoulder.
“No trust in me, I swear,” Avin said, clicking his tongue. “I thought we were friends, Olivier. For shame. Shame, I tells ya!” Olivier pulled out the leaf, smirking and chuckling in silence as Avin did audibly. “You wound me, sir! Why must you brandish your leaf so quick, and so frequent? Even after I lead your foe astray, no less.”
“I don’t know... because it’s a pretty leaf?”
“Wait. Is he why you keep it?” Squall chided in. “What’s the story behind it?”
“Nothing!” Avin stated, taking on a rather ludicrous accent. “Absolutely nothing! The leaf simply has ways of making you talk, lest the beatings continue until morale improves!”
Squall simply... blinked, too lost for words. She stared at the Natorei and Olivier as they wheeled about and returned to the tavern.
“By the way,” Olivier said, climbing the steps to the tavern. “Where did you send Fili?”
“I told her that Lobos said you went for a jaunt this morning. She should be back soon enough.”
In the time Olivier left to meet Squall, one of the other Faun at the table left, leaving only the bushy-maned Faun and his spotted friend. He was softly purring; he seemed to have her on the ropes, down to only a white slip, the rest of her clothes made as collateral. Feo may have been in a similar position, but Olivier could see his hand. He could see he had a solid straight, but, any moment, she would use the cards in the fold of her arm --which, now that Olivier was paying attention, he could just see the red edges against the orange-and-brown of the spots of her fur.
She must have felt him looking for she tucked her arm a bit more. She growled, soft, directed, and it pulled Olivier’s gaze up to meet hers. Her amber eyes seem to pierce right into his heart, seeming to freeze it, daring him to say anything. Olivier, though, had no real intention, and simply stepped over Ponitius, manning one of the stools. Squall sat beside, still staring at the Natorei, but she had no choice but to pay attention to the card game as they played their hands.
The entire tavern shuddered as the wild-mane Faun roared. He slammed his hands into table, sending clothes, wood, and wallets fliying before he stormed off, but that was only the beginning of the cacophony. Bethilius brayed, crying out as his chair creaked eerily through the tavern halls, echoed along the walls until, with a shattering crack, he grunted and hit the floor. His hooves clomped as he clambered to his feet, and he neighed and danced and skittered in place, trying to gain his balance among the wreckage.
“What in Ignes’ name?” Ponitius grumbled, yawning as he sat up. He wiped at his eyes... blinking quick as he saw the spectacle before him, then guffawed. “Now that’s something you don’t see everyday.”
The Faun finally found his footing, clomping hard on a pair of dirty black leggings, glowering at Ponitius as he stood.
“Morning,” he said, groaning as he stretched. “Man... I slept like a log. How about you guys? Betty? You look like you had one helluva night.”
Ponitius motioned to his face; Bethilius wasn’t sure what he meant, but rushed over to the stairs. There was a mirror there, hung beside a soft blue orb, dimmed for the morning. He traced the lewd drawings, his pants turned to snorts and growls as the pink of the energy still pulsed, though it wasn’t really necessary. The culprit was already giggling and teetering on Olivier’s shoulder.
Bethilius nickered as he shot a dirty look at the Natorei, regaining composure, but that didn’t change the look in his eyes, a cross between indignant and morose.
“Any news yet from Strix?” Bethilius grumbled at last.
“Well-” Squall began.
“No.” Olivier said. “Nothing yet.”
“I hope it’s soon.” Bethilius stated. His tone was sullen, and seemed to strike out towards Avin. “The sooner we leave the better.”
“Good. Then we’re on the same page,” Avin said, chuckling. “I can’t wait to get moving.”
Bethilius’s look before paled to the fire that burned in his eyes now. He looked up at Olivier, then at Ponitius, his eyes always twitching, darting back to the Natorei.
“Don’t tell me he’s... Is he!”
“I suppose he is now,” Ponitius said, guffawing as Bethilius wheeled and ranted to himself as he rushed out of the tavern, joining in chorus to the Faun’s still rumbling back.
Ponitius sighed, and yawned again, rolling his wrist to Olivier.
“Well, let’s go bother Strix anyways. Who knows? Maybe she found enough to at least get us started. I’m already tired of all this waiting.”
“If you didn’t have to turn around for the Falchion,” Squall muttered, almost singing it.
“Yes. Sailing off into the sunset? Really?” Strix said as she fluttered in through one the entrance. She had the journal with her, a bright, silver mark jutting through a quarter of it. “We have need to discuss in my office.”
“Have you had any rest?” Avin said.
“Yes. I have. Four hours’ worth, and even that was an ordeal to get.”
“You already found something?” Ponitius said.
“Maybe. It seems too coincidental not to go check, anyways, and I can always study the tome more in-depth along the way.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Avin said, and stretched, reclining on Olivier’s shoulder. “Never been sailing before. This should be fun.”
“You’re coming along, Avin?”
“Seems that way,” Olivier said.
“But what about Fili?”
“What about Fili?” Avin said, chortling as the hall filled with a scornful scoff. A bright ball of blue burst through one of the rooms, darting over to the pink on Olivier’s shoulder, almost slamming into it.
“Oh! So that’s how it is, huh? Just leave me behind and go on a cruise with my true love! Was that why you sent me on that farcical chase!” She shrieked, turned to whimpering as she flew before Olivier. “Were you going to leave without me, Oregano?”
“For calling him a spice, he should double-time it.”
“Quiet, you!” She sniffled, and hugged Olivier’s nose. “I want to go, too... I’ll die without you!”
“I mean, he does have final say,” Strix said. “He is the true captain of the Scylla.”
“What?” Avin, Fili, and Ponitius all said in unison... much to Olivier’s disdain. His eyes were completely yellow, marred by blue, shaking as Strix blinked, looking at them.
“I take it neither Squall nor Olivier told you?”
“It slipped my mind, okay?” She exclaimed, her cheeks rosy. “At least they know now.”
“Sadly,” Olivier grumbled, so low that he doubted any of them heard.
“Except Betty Boy,” Ponitius said, and heaved an exasperated sigh. “Now this is a wake-up call. I would have preferred a cup of tea, but this works for me.”
“That’s a shame. I was going to brew a pot before we left,” Strix said.
“Don’t stop on my account! I’ll drink it.”
“I know you will.”
She tittered as she floated away from Olivier, heading out the window. The others followed, even Fili though it took a bit of “coaxing” from Avin to pry her from Olivier’s face, but Olivier remained seated, still stricken, as if turned to stone by Strix’s sudden declaration. For the second time, she made it seem so nonchalant, such a nonissue, but to Olivier, of all people? She might as well called him a god, or the descendant of one... How does one truly accept that? His whole life, he was a nobody, treated like scum... and now?
He... laughed. What could he do but laugh? This was one huge joke. He thought he could sleep it off, that it was all a dream, but it was never that simple, was it... There was a soft purr in the air. He looked up, and saw the spotted Faun was still in her seat, tugging at one of her whiskers as she counted her winnings. Her eyes fluttered up, watching outside; Olivier wondered why, but lost all pondering when her gaze snapped to him.
She stood, and sauntered over to him. He saw she had a long, lanky tail, jerking to stay up before lulling back down with each step, rising as her purrs grew louder.
“I don’t think we’ve been introduced,” she said. Her voice might as well have been her purr, both rolling like velvet from her maw. She held out her hand, their tips ended with yellow claws, retracting, showing a bit of money tucked in the palm. “I am Claire.” Olivier shook her hand, his suckers pulling the small pouch free, and greeted himself. She shook her head, though, chuckling. “I think you mean Captain Olivier.”
“You heard us, huh?”
“How could I not? Sounds absolutely delightful... Besides, I have a proposition. If you do not mind, I’d like to go with you.”
“W... what? Why?”
She shrugged. “Eh. I’ve grown tired of staying here in Narvaal. Feo was fun for a while, but I think Lobos is getting tired of replacing the table.”
“I was already tired when it first happened,” Lobos grumbled. “The only reason I let you stay was because most of the profits still came my way.”
“Sadly, but I think it’s time we parted.”
“I’ll miss you, but I’ll definitely be thankful that you’re gone.”
She chuckled as she stuck out her tongue, but pulled it back in as she looked Olivier’s way again.
“So what do you say? Want to get into even more shenanigans, Captain Olivier?”
“I... I, uh...” Olivier cleared his throat, shook his head, and closed his eyes, trying to settle himself. Another person on-board wouldn’t be such a bad idea, but can he trust her? She seemed like one of those sorts his father would throw out of the store all the time- and what about the purse she just gave him? Was that because he had stayed quiet, or was it a bribe to allow her to come along... He opened his eyes, shook his head again, and exhaled. Slow. “I’ll... I’ll let you know once we come down from her office. If that’s okay?”
“But of course. Take your time. I’m not going anywhere.”
She winked at him then returned to her chair, lost to her humming and purring again as Olivier made his way outside. He had to wait for Bethilius and the wild-maned Faun to pass inside, both looking a bit embarassed. Bethilius moreso, if not morose, already grumbling his apology to Lobos, holding three, fresh brooms. However, he did not stay to watch them repay; he had his own ordeal to endure.