“Alright, that’s it! I’ve heard enough of your sighing, Missy!” Firious wagged a grouchy, sausage finger towards the princess as the group arrived at their seventh peddler’s booth that morning. “You’ve been sniveling ever since we set foot in town, and I’ll tell you, it’s getting under my skin! How am I supposed to concentrate on our inventory checklist with you boo-hooing all the time?”
Hataru grimaced, “I’m sorry, Firious.”
“Not as sorry as I am!”
“It’s just that… being in this place… it’s very nostalgic for me, especially at this time of the year, with the Marcelia Day Festival and all. Plus, I’m worried about Zeph─ ”
“Well, why don’t you and your ‘nostalgia’ go someplace else, so I can do my job, hmmm?” the old sky pirate barked.
“I ─ alright. I’m sorry.” Hataru sighed again, making him cringe. Once again feeling useless, she studied the familiar hue of the chestnut soil beneath her feet as she walked over to join Antenor and the two other crewmen who had come along.
“Ignore him, my dear. He’s just upset about the costs of all the repairs from the Kresreb incident,” the kind, old man chuckled gently. “Here’s something to cheer you up,” he handed her a small pouch. “The Captain asked me to give this to you, in case you saw anything that took your fancy.”
“What is it?” Curious as a cat, she peered inside to find twenty pieces of gold smiling back up at her. “Oh, no, I… I couldn’t! I don’t need anything, really. I’m perfectly fine!”
“Aww, don’t worry, Miss! The Captain just want’s to make sure you’re happy,” chimed a gangly, unshaven fellow with a rosy nose and tousled, dirt brown hair topped with a tattered hat. “That’s how he expresses his emotions, you see; he gives people presents. Right, Cedy?”
Cedy, a round man with chocolate skin and a dark pencil mustache, smiled reminiscently, “Yeah, I remember, when he was… oh… fourteen or so, he sliced my hand open by accident during one of our ‘sword-n-claw’ lessons, as we called ‘em. The young captain bought a special ointment for my wound the very next day, and he completed all my daily chores until it healed. I can still see him swabbing those decks as if he weren’t the captain’s son, just like an ordinary airman.”
“So he’s a gift-giver,” she mumbled, unconsciously fingering her sapphire ring, “that actually explains a lot.”
While the captain and his first mate finished gathering supplies for the ship, the tetrad of shoppers continued along, goggling the interesting local ornamentation. Navy blue banners garnished with the country’s iconic emblem ─ a nobel wolf standing guard over its people, ready to leap to their defence at a moment’s notice ─ waved from every visible balcony. Festiv baskets filled with cerulean flowers embellished every lamp post on the street, and every wall was plastered with eye-catching posters advertising the annual Marcelia Day parade; not a single square inch of municipal property lacked at least a small trace of patriotic jubilee. A few blocks down the street to their left, a children’s choir robed in uniforms, embroidered with the gallant lupine hound, belted out their allegiance in perfect harmony. In the opposite direction, a boisterous band of aged men made merry with their instruments while their wives danced playfully to the upbeat tunes. Even the majority of the shops held holiday sales and displayed trinkets of all sorts, gilded with national symbols.
Gazing at a glass case of golden pocket watches engraved with the Marcelian canine, Hataru looked up at the thin, stubble-chinned man, her eyes wide with alarm, her cheeks bright red, “I can’t believe this!”
“What’s that, Miss? Is something wrong?”
“I just realized I don’t know your name, which is rather embarrassing since we’ve been living on the same ship for almost two weeks now.”
“Nah! Don’t worry too much, Miss! This fellow right here,” he gestured to Cedy, “hardly knows his own name, most of the time. Don’t you, Cedy?”
“That’s not true! My name is… uh…” Hataru tried hard to suppress her snickers.
“See what I mean, Miss? Nothing for you to worry about! But I’ll tell you, his name is─”
“Just wait! Gimme a minute, would you?” whined the gargantuan.
“Cedy, you’ve been given a whole lifetime to remember it, and you still can’t! What do you think one minute’ll do for you?”
“I… I dunno…”
“That‘s what I thought, you old lummox, you. What would you do without me?” he jocularly clouted his friend’s arm.
“This!” Cedy swung back, full force, barely missing the lanky man’s noggin as he ducked to avoid the exuberant blow.
“Oh, ho, ho! Is that so? And what if I did this?” The smaller man charged forward, his arms open wide for a tackle. This maneuver failed, however, when Cedy merely blocked his advance with the palm of his hefty hand.
“I’d do this!” Their playful banter and wrestling continued, creating a rumpus of commotion worse than a herd of cattle in a porcelain shop. At one point, Cedy shoved his chum back against the glass display cases of wolf-embossed time-telling devices, which Antenor, who had still been studying its contents, was forced to prevent it from shattering on the ground. Of course, this evoked quite an outburst from the pot-bellied shop owner, who sharply began roaring at the buffoons tumbling around his booth. The woman whom the merchant had been assisting stared aghast at their obscenity and quickly ushered her children away from the scene, much to the peddler’s dismay.
During her travels on the Jupiter’s Revenge, Hataru had grown accustomed to the rough housing of Levi’s men. She’d bewilderedly watch them pound, pummel, whack, and wallop each other in all hours of the day. Nothing that these two men before her were practicing was new to her eyes. However, this was not the Jupiter’s Revenge nor the place to be behaving like clowns, and Hataru was not going to stand for it.
“Gentlemen?” she asked quizzically. No reaction. “Excuse me?” Still, no reaction. “GENTLEMEN!” she spat with the venom of a viperess. Immediately, the ruckus ceased as all four men within the tent stared bulge-eyed at her. The princess looked down at the two crewmen grappling at her feet, her eyes filled with disillusion. Both men gulped when she cocked her head and smiled sadly. “You still haven’t told me your names, you know?”
“Oh… ah,” the angular man choked. Jumping to his feet, he removed his hat and took a deep, stiff bow, “Kurt Emmet, at your service, Miss! And this here,” he gestured to Cedy, who was attempting to mimic his friend, “is Cedric Gallagher.”
Her smile brightened and her warmth returned, “It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Emmet and Mr. Gallagher. Captain Levi should be done with his shopping by now, don’t you think? Shall we go find him?”
“Ah… right away, Miss!” they stuttered together.
Facing the peeved peddler, Hataru apologized, “I apologize on behalf of my friend, here. I’ll buy one of your lovely baubles to compensate for their unruly disruption.”
The merchant, too, was caught off guard by her surge of sincerity. “Of… Of course, ma’am. Take your pick.”
As graceful as the princess she was, the beautiful young woman perused the showcases lined along the counter until a certain silver compass caught her eye. “That one.” she beamed and handed the man sixteen gold coins. Head held high, Hataru exited the tent with her spirits reignited to their usual fervor. “Come on, boys, let’s go find your captain.”
After thirteen minutes of weaving in and out of the masses of festival-goers, the princess’ worries began creeping up her back like a horde of giant, hairy arachnids. “Where could he be hiding?” she mumbled as she craned her neck to peer around a man cavorting through the crowd atop a pair of brilliant blue stilts.
“Finding a man with long, silver hair, one golden eye, and one metal claw is a lot harder than it looks,” Kurt explained, “isn't it, Cedy? Do you remember the time we all went searching for him in that dark forest?”
“As if I could forget! That was one of the most frightening days of my life. And then when we found him... and all the blood... oh, I can't even imagine what his father was feeling…”
“If we had only caught that darn bear! I would've skinned its hide and used it as a throw rug, and then, when it got dirty from everyone wiping their muddy shoes on it, we could’ve all had a field day beating the dust out of it with a stick!”
“Nah... seeing that thing would have scared the young captain half to death!”
“What would have scared me?” a familiar voice interjected from behind. There he stood with all the glory of the dawn, the morning sun kissing his moonlight hair like a lover’s embrace, the phenomenal Captain Levi Spry.
“Oh!” the spindly man jumped, “Nothing at all, Captain! Nothing at all!”
Without missing a beat, his trademark smirk of mischief spreading across his face, Levi cocked back his head, “So where are the four of you off to?”
“Looking for you, Captain,” Antenor reported.
“Well, you’ve found me!” he laughed, “Firious wanted to check over a few more items, so I let him be. You know how he gets. Mind if I join your little party?”
“Of course not, Captain. We’ve just been meandering about, seeing the sights.”
“Sounds exciting!” Together, the group moved onward, navigating the crowded street as if they were explorers seeking the treasures of a new world. Minutes turned into hours as they passed fountain pens filled with squid ink, two-headed snake skeletons, and mechanical pet parrots among many other interesting artifacts.
While the others inspected a barrel of exotic jumping beans with fascination, Captain Levi took the chance to cautiously approach the princess as she sorted through a variety of silk handkerchiefs. He bit his lip, wondering if she would shy away from him again, as she had been doing for the past week. “Ah... Hi, Hataru” he chirped, his voice an octave higher than usual.
“Hello, Levi.” Her radiant smile held the splendor of the sun, desiccating the tears of dismal storm clouds.
“Woah!” the melodramatic man grabbed at his heart and pretended to stumble backward, feigned astonishment smeared across his face. Then, as if he had spotted an abnormality, he leaned in closer to study her face, “Hey, have your teeth always been that white?”
“What?” she giggled, “I suppose so...”
“Oh, I must have forgotten, since I haven’t seen them in a while.”
Nodding her head in apology, “Yes, please forgive me. I haven’t been a very good guest have I?”
“Well, I haven’t been the best of hosts, either,” he shrugged and offered her his left hand, “Call it even?”
Hataru held up a finger, “Hold on.” She walked over to a merchant and exchanged two more of her coins for a cobalt kerchief. When she returned, she handed it to him, “Here, now we’re even.”
“What’s this?” He looked at the blue bundle in his hand.
“Open it up, and see!” Intrigued, he unfurled the soft fabric. “I heard that you enjoy giving gifts, so… I thought you might like receiving them, too.”
“Wow,” he breathed. In his hands rested the silver compass she had purchased earlier, shining with august majesty. The attention to detail on the compass’ cover, plated with precious metals, would impress even the greatest of artists, depicting the lifelike profile of a silver grizzly with solemn, gilded eyes that stared unblinkingly at the captain, twinkling with a sense of wisdom and understanding. “Hataru, this is beautiful! … but… I can’t accept it.”
“Ah, but, Levi, you must!” she retorted accusingly, conspicuously fiddling with the ring dangling at her collar bone.
The captain raised his hands in surrender, flashing her his quirky grin, “As you wish, Princess,” and fastened the compass to his belt and tied the kerchief around his head. The quintet soon continued on, wandering the streets to see what they could see. When they entered the provender district, the smell of baking delights invaded their nostrils like an enemy army on a raid, and all five of their stomachs erupted with loud, growling pleas for aid in fending off the savage attack of hunger.
“Alright, friends,” Levi snickered, “go fill your stomachs!”
Grinning from cheek to cheek, Kurt and Cedric glanced at one another then scampered away screaming something along the line of, “Pork chops and toffee!”
Antenor shook his head, “I don’t know where they get all that energy. Levi, what do you─” he sniffed the air, “Is that bacon? I… I’ll be right back…” and then the old man disappeared into the crowd as well.
The princess and the pirate dissolved into a fit of laughter. “Your men sure are… compelling,” she wheezed, clutching her stomach.
“Ha! I think you mean compulsive.” He rested a hand on her shoulder, “Now, my fair lady, tell me, might there be any ‘tastes of home’ that you are craving?”
She took a one-eighty view of the many delicacies of her hometown, “Um…” Her eyes locked on a baker’s table at the end of the street, “I know just the place!” Taking him by the hand, she flew through the throng of people. “Back when I was young, when my mother first became ill, we sold one of her famous dessert recipes to a baker’s wife in order to pay for her medication. I wonder if they still use it? I’d sure love to taste my mother’s cooking again.”
The baker’s table stood grandly before them moments later, decorated with more desserts than Levi could name and enough sugar to give a man diabetes by just looking at it. Decorative cups of chocolate fluff and tiny, pink cakes topped with raspberries graced the booth alongside apples impaled upon wooden sticks and encased in a thick, red candy coating. An assortment of miniature pies and cookies also made their debut with style. The sight of the display made Levi’s mouth water and his teeth ache at the same time.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” Hataru asked the portly woman behind the table, “do you have any of your strawberry shortcakes left?”
“Oh, I’m sorry, dear,” the woman cooed, “Just sold the last one to a little boy a few moments ago, I did. Come by my husband’s bakery tomorrow, and I’ll make sure we have some more!”
Like a delicate flower cut at the stem by the florist’s sharp blades of death, the princess drooped. “Is that so? In that case, I think I’ll have one of those peanut butter cookies. They were my father’s favorite.”
“Alright, and for you, sir?” the corpulent woman’s flesh jiggled when she turned to Levi.
“Ah, the same for me please.” He traded her the payment for the bag of cookies. Handing one to the princess, the pirate sympathised, “I’m sorry they didn’t have what you were looking for. We can stay till tomorrow if you’d like, anything to make you happy.”
“Oh, no, Captain. I’ll be fine. I don’t want to make all your men wait for me. Thank you, tho─OH!” Hataru walked straight into a man’s muscular back. “I’m so sorry, sir! I wasn’t looking where I was going! I… I… I know you!”
Drawing the attention of a gaggle of gossips in the street with his lofty stature and striking features, the man stood erect with a look of amazement equal to that of the princess. His auburn hair, feathering out like a regal crown atop his head, was collected in a spruce ponytail at the nape of his neck, accentuating his warm, brown irises. Though she was certain she had never seen his face before, a voice of recollection told her that she had, maybe years ago or maybe in a dream. However, it was not this hint of familiarity that revealed his identity to her, but his dapper blue jacket trimmed with gold. “Prince Tarin, is that you?”
The prince flashed her a tantalizing smile, causing many of the whispering maidens ogling him from a distance to keel over. “Why, if it isn’t the beautiful miss I met atop the mountain! I take it that you’re doing well?”
Hataru dipped into a low curtsey, “Yes, thank you, your highness.”
“What brings you to Habar?"
“I could ask you the same thing," she quipped, recalling their last conversation.
"No, no, no," he waved his finger in jest, "I asked first, so you have to answer this time! But for the record, we are in my country, you know."
“Oh, right. How could I forget... Well… I,” her tongue was tied in more knots than a ball of yarn at the mercy of a rowdy kitten, "I... grew up here, in Habar, actually, but I… I’ve recently been… traveling with─”
“With me,” taking a step closer to the princess, Levi gave the prince a one-eyed glare, “as a ward on my ship.”
“Oh, yes!” Hataru concurred, “This is Captain Levi Spry. He’s been very good to me during our travels together. Captain Levi, this is Prince Tarin Vallor of Marcelia.”
“Yes, yes. You were the chap dueling The Black and White Assassin, weren’t you?” Tarin exclaimed. “You put on quite a show! I must say I'm impressed. He almost got the better of you, though, didn't he? You're lucky I was there to help.” The prince's ego raked unintentionally sharp claws across the captain's pride. A silent growl rumbled in the pirate's throat as his glare intensified, but he was cut off before any spiteful words could escape his lips.
“That must have been the best toffee I’ve ever tasted. Don’t you think so, Cedy?” Kurt and Cedric bursted into the circle of acquaintances with Antenor not far behind.
“Yes, it went really well with my pork chops.”
“Ah, but I’ll bet it wasn’t as good as my bacon! You boys haven’t lived until you've tasted Marcelian Bacon!”
Tarin interjected, “He’s right. Marcelian Bacon is world renowned. You have excellent taste, sir. Are these more friends of yours, Miss?” he asked the princess. Hataru nodded and introduced them one by one. The prince smiled, “Pleased to meet you all. I’m glad you are enjoying the Marcelia Day Festival!”
Shouts of surprise and irritation from the masses announced the arrival of another acquaintance of the princess as he frantically barrelled through the crowds. "Levi!" Firious squeezed between two swooning, prince-crazy girls who yelped in alarm. "Levi, we've got trouble! Look at this!" He waved a sun-bleached leaf of paper in the captain's face.
Snatching it from his hands, Levi peered at the weather-worn parchment, and his already petulant demeanor grew more dour still. "This is not good," he sighed heavily.
Intrigued, Hataru and the others leaned in to see a highly detailed portrait of the distressed pirate's visage; all of his features were accurately portrayed ─ his nose, his chin, his hair, everything except his eye-patch, which was drawn on the wrong side. "By order of Chancellor Edric Raedwulf, chief justice of Habar," the princess read aloud, her voice cracking into nothing more than a whisper, "WANTED, dead or alive, Captain Levi Spry, for multiple accounts of theft and piracy across Marcelia. Reward: Two thousand dollars. Levi, what does this mean?"
“It means we need to get out of here before some squealing fink recognizes him!” the first mate grumbled.
“But... but why is he on a WANTED poster?”
"He's a pirate!" the Marcelian prince hissed, stepping between Levi and the princess. "Get behind me, Miss! You can never trust his kind." He reached for his sword, and the captain mirrored his movements. "You say she is your ward, sir? I'll bet you kidnapped her! Didn't you?"
"Wait! No!" Hataru put her hand on his shoulder, "He did not abduct me! In fact, he rescued me ─ multiple times! I've been traveling with him by choice!"
The prince ignored her protest, "I ought to turn you in right no─!"
"Prince Tarin! Your highness!" The blue-clad man was interrupted by a sharp, alarmed voice, "My Prince, trouble!" All heads turned to see a blue-clad woman slip out of the crowds, her fiery hair fluttering behind her.
"What is it, Elden?" Halting where she stood, she shifted her weight to one foot and folded her arms across her chest, glaring at him as a school teacher glares at a misbehaving pupil. "Err... What is it, Captain Sterling?"
"That's better," she muttered before continuing, "Your uncle has been alerted of your presence here, sire, and under your parents' instructions has issued a unit of his personal guards to escort you to his estate." Tarin groaned. "They came to search my ship about an hour ago, and, I swear, if they've broken anything, you’re replacing it!
"Where are the guards now?"
"I had my men distract them so I could slip away to warn you, but they could be here any minute. You need to hide. Now." To prove her right, a squad of six buff men materialized out of the crowd only a few yards away and begin sifting through the floods of people, heading in the group’s general direction.