Claire led them from the Pearl-Eyed Girl and through the center of town again. It was still packed. In fact, it was even more than before, all still watching after the Garolot.
Why? Olivier thought. Red still tinged his vision, growing as he counted the gawking heads of that ignorant mass. It wasn’t causing that much destruction.
It was true. Aside the building it emerged from, which had its share of attention, it only destroyed the path leading out of the town. No kiosk was crushed, no cart even dinged. Some barrels were destroyed in the path of the falling rubble, but they were already cleared. Yet people were still frozen, like statues, sentinels of the holes where it had stepped. It was almost dainty in places, pinpoint to avoid them. Yet the buzz, the main idea of that gathering that seemed to swarm and bleat was who was going to go take care of it.
Take care of it? Olivier thought, trying so hard to hold onto that crimson veil. His arm, especially, enjoyed the idea. Some of the lines were already leaking again, but it faded with each breath, with each wash of the cold rain, making him stumble as they pelted him mercilessly. It was a marvel he was still standing, let alone walking, but he managed to follow through the crowd while staying upright and along another path, this one heading towards the Faun district.
Unlike the nook they traveled through to come from the Itchyoman district, this road went uphill. It came to the edge of the wall that surrounded the city before evening out and seemed to simply... erode. Vines and trees grew with such abandon, hollowed out to make houses for the Faun and the stray Natorei. Olivier looked back, down at the town, and could just see through the fog and rain the storehouse they exited from far to the south, the streets to it hidden behind thick canopies and that roiling, settling blanket.
How come I never noticed this area before? He shook his head, knowing the answer all too well: he never paid attention before. He never had reason to. He was there, originally, to find Ponitius, and that’s what he did. From there he followed the cobbler-pirate to the storeroom, keeping his head low. By Durnst’s order... In fact, he never questioned any of it. He followed without wonder nor worry, which now made him shudder. Was I always like that?
“We’re here,” Claire declared, and stopped Olivier with her hand, stretched out across his chest. Anni bumped into him from behind, and all three stood before a large, well-lit tree. Its sign was carved into the bark above the “door”, thick ribbons of heavily interwoven silks. Reds, yellows, and purples were all tied together, gently swaying with the wind and unperturbed by the squall slamming around them. They were nailed into the base of the sign, depicting a Faun, one of the bovine origin, sticking out their tongue in a foolish, exaggerated fashion as they laid in a bed, all tucked in. Above it, carved in crude, Faun lettering, was the name of the inn: Milked Silly.
Claire eased the ribbons aside, and soft light poured from within, wrapping, warming Olivier’s chilled bones in its embrace. There was a counter straight across from them, twelve, arduous, languishing steps, with a guest book and quill laying and waiting on it. The counter, itself, seemed carved out of another tree, one that grew inside it and was sheered down into a crescent stump.
The wall behind it was lined with old, iron keys, the roots, themselves, used to make the hooks, while four tables were carved out for the main room. Each one had four, decorative chairs, not carved but brought in, clashing against the natural timber around. Their backs had white silk sewn into them, matching their white cushions and the tablecloths placed upon the tables before them.
The other walls of the rounded house were lined with more silks, thicker in areas, hiding doorways and stairwells. More ribbons spooled overhead, some laden with large baskets of flowers, leading back to the walls in grand sweeps. There were numerous paintings, depictions of elegant Faun and Terrahn at majestic tables, or with Natorei enjoying mugs of ale by the fire –and, speaking of fire, there wasn’t a single one inside the tree. Instead, soft, yellow orbs bobbed here and there, giving the entire tree a soft glow. A welcoming glow. A warm glow.
The silk beside the counter shuddered, and a Faun stepped out of it. Specifically, his horns pierced through them. Each was as long as an Aqua Alliance oar, and thicker than Dervalan’s fists. They curled back around his soft, slightly pointed ears, spiraling twice before brandishing out towards his black snout, and yet they were dwarfed by the man, himself. He was easily twice Olivier’s height, or easily fit two of Dervalan into his chest alone, leading to trunks for arms and hands that would make many a melon worry for its life. It was a wonder he could find a tailor to knit him a long enough nightshirt, but he did. It was made of more of the soft, white fabric, complimenting his coal black fur. However, it seemed the tailor was bested, the nightshirt ending just below his knees, barely keeping anything hidden as he stretched and yawned.
The Faun walked behind the counter and picked up a pair of glasses, putting them on his snout. His soft, blue eyes blinked so much, trying so hard to wipe away the sleep that had settled on them, knowing all too well he would be returning to it.
“A bit late for an inn, is it not?” He mumbled. Sleep still held to his words, and most were lost to another yawn. When he finally blinked his eyes open again, he finally noticed the three. Finally noticed Olivier. He cleared his throat, and rapped his fist on the counter, his cheeks filling a bit with red. “Look. I don’t know what you three are up to. I really don’t want to or care to, but I’m going to have to charge extra.”
“Wait. Why?” Olivier said, which only made the Faun blush harder. He couldn’t really see it, though; the red had returned in full force.
“Well... you know.” He rolled his wrist, his face almost scarlet. His nightshirt, also, started to raise a touch, allowing his tail out behind, the thin, bushy thing flicking hard and fast. “Cleaning costs, maintenance- we’ll say four-hundred. Four-hundred is fine for- just... four-hundred.”
“And what’s the normal price?” Olivier said, and shivered at how cold his own voice was.
“That’s a little extreme isn’t it? I don’t smell that bad, do I?”
The Faun groaned, and shook his hands and head, on the edge of violent. His tail was already there, after all, slapping at the lowest row of keys, just above his waist.
“N-n-never mind! Nope. Not... just not dealing with this. I did not want to wake up to... whatever this is! By Terra, it’s been a weird week. First that Zephyrian gets a room, then you three-” He huffed, turned to a snort as he regained composure, and his tail settled as he rolled his wrist to them, bowing his head as he did. “Pardon my manners. I am Jack Marton, owner of the Milked Silly.”
“I am Olivier-” Olivier began.
“Captain. Olivier.” Claire “answered” for him. She then introduced herself and Anni, giggling as she purred and pawed at his chest, kneading it softly. “And, no, this is not that sort of visit.”
Jack adjusted his glasses, all heat flushing from his cheeks, though still eyed her hands.
“‘Captain’ Olivier, eh? That would explain what you are doing here. The Zephyrian invite you like the others?”
“Invite?” Olivier said.
“Others?” Claire cut in. Again. “What others?”
“You tell me,” Jack said, looking more sullen now that everything was “cleared”. “You and the others have been coming in all night. I keep hoping it’s to rent rooms, but it is always to go to his.”
“Considering how much you tried to charge, I’m not surprised,” Olivier grumbled.
Jack snorted again, turned into a yawn, waving off Olivier’s remark. He pointed to the right wall, to the thick ribbons set in the center.
“His room is down those stairs. Third door on the left. Now, unless you really plan to rent a room, I’ll take my leave until the next one ‘drops’ in.”
“Is it still four-hundred?”
“For you? Eight. ‘Captain’ Olivier should be able to pay that, eh?”
Olivier scoffed, finding himself leaning towards the counter, his hand burning bright, but was pulled away by Anni, following after Claire once more. They crossed the room, to the silks Jack specified, where a staircase awaited behind. It didn’t go straight down but spiraled around, as if chiseled out a few feet from the trunk of the tree. Each step had been polished, pristine, now marred and sullied by the mud and blood on Olivier’s boots. He pounded it in, and made sure it was dug in deep whenever he slipped. Which was becoming quite frequent, but not only because of malice. Exhaustion and fatigue were starting to get the better of him, but he would hold out. He must hold out.
Around and around the steps went. The soft orbs followed ever after, dulling the thumps and taps they made on those steps. The end seemed like it would never come. How deep did the tree run? Surely they already passed city level; were they in the roots? Or, perhaps, it was the sheer number of steps with very little incline that was befuddling Olivier. It seemed like ages before he had to turn left, and even then he was certain the tree was not that wide. It didn’t make any sense to his slowly failing mind.
Thankfully, though, they reached the bottom soon enough. Claire practically ran to the door, but held her excitement back as she gave it three, soft raps. The three held their breath, listening intently, hearing as feet shuffled to the door. Voices murmured inside, soft, but there was no hiding what they belonged to. There were several Terrahn, at least one Faun... but no Zephyrian.
The Terrahn that opened the door was a plumper lass. Her fair, heart-shaped face creased with as much puzzlement as the three in the hallway. Dark bags hung under her eyes, her face weathered over the years, yet her eyes still held such light. Warmth seemed to radiate from those bright epidotes, making the yellow in the center of those green gems burn and flicker.
“And who may you three be,” the Terrahn asked. Her voice cracked a touch, laden with exhaustion. She huffed, fighting back a yawn, and placed her fists on her hips, them and the rest of her covered in a plain, yellow dress. It had a large red bow tied around its middle, almost as bright as her hair, tied back into a tight bun. “Don’t tell me you’re more players.”
“Players?” Olivier said. “I don’t... we’re looking for a Zephyrian.”
“Aren’t we all?” Another Terrahn exclaimed. His voice was rather wheezy, both light yet heavy. It seemed to ebb and flow and swish with the booze still stewing in his mug –what was left of it. He was a squat fellow, pushed a bit away from the table to make room for his belly, but it seemed more so he could lean his chair against the right wall. Before him was a grand round table, stacked high with coin sacks and cards, surrounded by eighteen chairs that still made it seem it could fit thirty more. Only eight of the seats were filled, with the one straight across from the squat Terrahn empty Reserved.
The Terrahn groaned as he let his chair fall forward again, rapping his pudgy fingers against the table, yet the weight was deceiving. There was clear muscle to be seen through the loosed buttons of his velvet brocade, topped with a tuft of white hair, matching what strands remained by his ears. His head was polished, gleaming brighter than his almandine peepers, extra red this night.
He took another drink from his mug, spilling some of it down his pointed chin, and burped, waving it towards the three.
“Come in! Come in!” He boasted, guffawing as he hiccuped. “Join the fun.”
“Don’t mind if we do,” Claire said, almost singing it, and weaved her way passed the Terrahn at the door. She sat at the table beside the other Faun, a bit taller than her yet somehow shorter as Claire turned her attention their way. Claire gasped, and hugged the long-eared Faun, purring. “Beatrice! It’s been forever.”
“Claire,” she murmured, shrinking even more into her brown cut-off top. It was rather risque, not something you would normally see, nor her short-short shorts, leaving her long, long, lanky white-furred legs free for all to see. She growled, and gave her a dark look. “What are you doing here? I thought you were in Narvaal.”
“I met a fellow. A captain.” She nudged her head towards Olivier. He sat to the right of Beatrice... while Anni sat to his right. “Bea, meet Captain Olivier.”
The Faun turned her wide, blue eyes to Olivier, and he could see her tiny, pink nose twitching away as she looked into his eyes.
“Nice to meet you,” she said, and Olivier saw she had two, long teeth in front, hidden again when she closed her mouth. She had a soft face, and not only because of the white fur on it. Beatrice turned to Claire again soon enough. “That doesn’t answer why you’re here.”
“To play, of course,” she said, giggling, and reached for the cards.
Stopped by another Terrahn.
He looked almost the same as the squat fellow, save for his extra weight went into his length rather than his width. His hair, also, was still a deep shade of copper. His eyes had no touch of ale in them, his reflexes sharper than his gaze, shuffling the deck as he held them under his eyes.
“So you two know each other?” He said. His voice, too, far sharper than the squat Terrahn, but still had a similar flow. He scooted a bit closer to the table as the woman from before moved between him and, Olivier assumed, his father, sitting in one of the four empty seats there. The others remained silent, gathered to the Terrahn’s left, talking among themselves –save to hear whatever may be shared between Claire and this Terrahn, of course. He looked at Olivier, at Anni, and snorted. “You four all know each other.”
“Well, I know Claire,” Olivier said, clearing his throat. “I don’t... really... know the other two.”
The Terrahn leered at Claire, sneering.
“But you three Faun all know each other, don’t you? You just so happened to net... him along for the ride.”
“Play nice, Armoore,” the squat Terrahn said, guffawing. “They are here to have fun. Like us.”
“But nothing. They haven’t shown any ill intent. Yet... For all we know, they are simply here to play a few rounds while waiting for our wonderful host.”
“Speaking of, what do you know about him?” Claire said, shrugging. “I mean, a Zephyrian just inviting people to his room to play a few games? Sounds rather... eccentric.”
“You got me. I don’t even know his name, though I bet you all know mine.”
“Sadly,” the Terrahn lass grumbled.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t,” Olivier said, chuckling sheepishly.
“I doubt you would have. Many sea folk don’t know the Ferin’s.” The squat Terrahn chortled as he offered his hand to Olivier. “I’m Gram... This here’s my son, Armoore. He’s my youngest, but has a gift for people. Reading them. It’s why I put him in charge of armor fitting. You know how many people lie about their waist? It doesn’t matter really when it comes to clothes, as long as the tailor eyeballs them, but armor you have to be meticulous. Say an adventurer out of his prime flubs about his chest, see. He’s probably going off when he had his first set made, but hasn’t noticed the extra flab grow over time, so now the armor is too tight, he can’t breath well, it’s restricting, and, suddenly, he’s out in the desert parched and dying and trying to pry the armor off as it eats into his s-”
“I think they get it,” Armoore cut in as he took Olivier’s hand in kind. He nodded, grunting an acknowledgment, all the while still staring into his eyes... as well as shuffling. One-handed. “So, how does one... like you get to become captain? Y... You are a real captain, right? Didn’t lie about it impress the lasses... did you?”
“Honestly, I wish I wasn’t,” Olivier stated. Truer words have never been repeated... He drew his sword, holding it up before them, “but this, and what another friend keeps saying, says otherwise.”
“A sword?” The plump lass said, laughing. “Did a watery tart toss it at you from a lake?”
“No, but watch what happens when I do.”
Olivier tossed the sword aside, clattering against the left wall, and all eyes turned to it. In fact, it was rather odd; there was no bed in this room, only the table, chairs, and orbs. Where did it go? Had the host had it moved by the innkeeper at his request, or did the Zephyrian move it after the fact?
Regardless, everyone’s attention was on the sword... and how it still laid over against the wall. One by one their gaze returned to Olivier... and he was starting to feel a little hot under the collar with each passing second the sword simply stayed there. Red pulsed a touch into his vision, glowering, glaring at the blade, as if it knew, as if it planned this!
Olivier... cleared his throat, and stood from the table.
“One moment,” he said, and walked out of the room. He did not stop until he reached the stairs, and even then he started to climb them, waiting, hoping, watching his sword’s sheathe. He refused to blink, refused to look away. His eyes started haze, to water, but he held on. He could still see it, clear as day. The rest of his vision may have faded out, but he would watch that. He will not let it make a fool of h-
The orbs that lined the hall dulled a moment.
It may not have been long, but the stairwell was pitch black. When the lights returned, though, all Olivier saw was red. The sword was perfectly content in its home again... One good thing came from his ire: he heard the people in the room gasp. Their voices buzzed into the hall, quieted again as he returned to the room and took his seat.
“How did you do that?” Armoore said. His voice was shaking... but... Olivier simple shrugged- jumping as the Terrahn lass stood and moved around the table. She leaned over Olivier, humming softly in his ear, while her hands roved over his tunic.
“Oh my. You’re more exotic than I thought,” she said, trying to make her voice, if Olivier had to guess, flirtatious. “I’m Loralei, by the way. Loralei Belehue. Owner of the largest tavern down by the port.”
“Leave him alone, Lorie,” Armoore grumbled, and gestured to Claire and Anni. “It looks like he has enough stragglers.”
“Excuse me?” Anni, Claire... and Olivier all said at once.
Claire tittered, shaking her head, and waved it off. “You’ve got the wrong idea. I am but his humble servant. I can assure you I have no interest beyond that.”
“And I only met him,” Anni said.
“See? He has no one to give him... companionship,” Loralei said, squeezing his chest. “Ooh! You’ve got some muscle.”
“… Help?” Olivier said, almost a squeak. All strength he mustered, all courag he steeled... were gone. He was simply... shocked with how quick her mood had swung, with how forward she was. He had never seen a woman so... forward before, without even the taint of alcohol on her breath. Yet the others treat this with such brevity, as if this was normal... His eyes pleaded, staring still at Armoore, begging him to do something as the Terrahn cougar continued to touch and squeeze his chest.
Armoore heaved a heavy sigh, and walked around the table. He had to pry Loralei away, costing bits of Olivier’s tunic as he did, but he managed to do so. He kept a firm grip as he lead her back to her chair. She tried to stand, but he simply leaned back, laid his leg across the table, barring her from going around.
Gram was leaning against the wall, as well, drinking from his cup, allowing Olivier to relax a touch.
“Right. So are we going to play or what?” Loralei said, her voice hard. She still stared at him, though, the gleam in her eye making him feel very... very small... Olivier stood, yawning, but made sure that he had a hand on his sword.
“Actually, if it’s all right with all of you, I would like to go over to that corner and take a nap,” he said. “I’m sorry. It was nice meeting you all, but I’ve been up far too long.”
“It’s alright, little fella. You can always get into a game later,” Gram said, chuckling, but Olivier didn’t care what he had to say. He trudged over to the door and settled to the left of it, laying down. As soon as his head touched the soft, clay floor, the cool earth that had been polished and smoothed out, he could no longer fight sleep. It had been a long day, and that ordeal with Loralei finally put him over the edge, welcoming the dark at last.