The stale scent of accumulous dust filled their nostrils as a quiet stillness settled over them like a blanket. Compared to the boisterous affair outside, the shop retained a deafening silence that left their ears ringing as they peered around. Overlapping cases of deceased, exotic insects covered the windows, allowing only a few sunbeams to cast light into the dimly lit showroom. Another wall displayed a multitude of clocks, each set to a different time so that a different bell tolled every fifteen seconds. Lanterns, chandeliers, empty birdcages, and wheels of disparate proportions dangled from the ceiling among damaged pots and dented kettles. Behind the cashier counter, a stationary owl stared at the group from where it rested upon the horn of an enormous bull's head, mounted on the wall along with other breathless animals. Shelves and tables were lined with rusty garden ornaments, others held pewter dishes; hoards of archaic books filled every available crevice.
"What is this place?" Tarin muttered to no one in particular.
"Welcome," a small, chipper voice squaked from behind the counter, and they all blinked at the grey owl. The owl blinked back. “... to Bountiful Bibelots!” A stack of anthologies crashed upon the countertop, sending a cloud of dust into the air, and a miniscule man clambered up a hidden step-ladder. Choking on the filthy particles, he coughed, “The largest ─ ahaaah ─ curio shop in ─ aheh-heh ─ all of Marcelia!” The man’s hair jutted out of his head at odd angles, like a clump of sawgrass that had been left unattended for years on end, and his wrinkled clothes preserved his unkempt look as well. His smile beamed as brightly as the reflective glass of his circle-framed spectacles. “My name is Bertrand. How may I help you today?”
“Oh, we’re just trying to keep off the streets,” Levi answered, “the parade is quite,” he looked at Hataru, “distracting.”
“Ah, yes. I find the festivities to be much too loud for my taste, as well.”
Firious peeked at the street through a gap between cases of pinned dragonflies and quickly ducked away. Wild eyes darting around the room, he asked, “Uh, you don’t mind if we look around for a bit, do you?”
“Be my guest, sir! Let me know if you need anything; Asvoria and I will be here waiting,” he ruffled the owl’s feathers lovingly. The group dismantled among the miscellaneous antiques.
While wandering through the rows of artifacts like an archaeologist in a dig sight of ruins lost from time, the crown prince's eye caught sight of a peculiar figurine. Standing proudly and garbed in an ivory silk suit with matching top-hat and sleek black cane, the figure exemplified every aspect of a proper aristocrat, except that its head was not the head of a man, but of a cat with yellow fur and vibrant copper eyes that gleamed in the dull light of the shop. Intrigued, Tarin retrieved the anthropomorphic man from his home on the shelf and laughed aloud.
“Hey, Elden look! I've finally found you a husband!”
“Pardon?” Her viridescent eyes bulged.
“For as long as I've known you, I've never once seen you fall in love, and I worry that you might end up a dour, old spinster. As your dearest friend, I can’t let that happen. What do you think, Mr. Barron von Kitty, will this cat lady do?”
“I told you already, I'm not a cat!” Elden sputtered through loose lips, snatching the statue from his hands. She spun on her heels to walk away, but before she could stop herself, she spat over her shoulder, “And, for your information, I have fallen in love before.”
“Really?” Tarin watched her take three irritated steps before he chased after her. Leaning down to meet her gaze, his sincerely curious eyes inches from her own. “With whom?” For the first time in a long time, he noticed that her scrutiny wasn't filled with its usual poisonous daggers. On the contrary, she appeared more like the young lady he had befriended so many years before, like she did when the academy superiors had caught them practicing in the aviation simulators together after hours, perfecting their skills and building their trust in each other. She was in shock; the blood flushing through her cheeks gave tell that she was slightly embarrassed, but there was no sign of regret in her visage, merely the downcast light of a desperate plea to be left alone.
As intrigued as he was, Tarin was well aware of the cracked glass on which he now tread. Elden Stirling always wore a mask of stern strength, never giving a single soul a chance to look down upon her, but beneath her thorny shell, he knew to be a delicate, vulnerable woman. Seldom did the captain let this damsel out unprotected, but when she did, he knew to move with caution ─ pushing one wrong button could make her explode, pulling one wrong thread could unravel her completely. And of course, one of those awry strings was to let her know that he knew her sensitive side existed at all. It was best to pretend he saw nothing and give her time to readjust her red herring veil.
“Well, it doesn't really matter anymore. We… we just aren’t suited for each other.” Her shields crashed together like air-tight sealed doors. “But, you tell me, my prince, which is worse ─ still searching for a spouse at the ripe age of twenty-one, or lacking the ability to locate a simple knife at nineteen?”
“Touché!” he chuckled jauntily.
While the old friends continued to banter, Captain Levi covertly whispered into the ear of his eldest advisor, “Antenor, it seems the prince is still searching for his dagger, which means he must have followed the assassin here, and you and I both know that he wouldn’t be here unless he had reason to be.”
“You think this might be the location of another item on the list? Here, in Habar?”
“I do. Go find out what the clerk might know about anything useful.”
“Right away, sir.”
As Antenor promptly began a casual conversation with the clerk, the silver-haired captain joined his crew in meandering among the knickknacks. He scrutinized each curio with suspicious caution, his muscles tense with the expectation of the unexpected. At any moment, The Black and White Assassin could make an appearance, and Levi didn't want to be caught of guard.
"Are you alright?" a gentle hand tapped his shoulder, and he jolted.
"Princess," the pirate sighed, his adrenaline diminishing. "Yes, yes, I'm fine. Just,” he scratched his the nape of his neck, “antsy, is all."
Her lips stretched into a bemused, but sympathetic arch, "Did the dancing shake you up that much?”
“Ha, no that’s not it… but, hey, where did you learn to dance like that, anyway? You were phenomenal.”
“Mmmm…” she hummed, the sound of a reminiscent mind at work, “My mother was a dancer, one of the best, actually. She taught me the basics herself, and I continued taking lessons during my my schooling. It’s my way of remembering her, you know, to keep her close.” The princess grabbed a strange egg-shaped contraption composed of gears and coils from a table and inspected it with mild interest before setting it down again.
“Yeah,” he snatched the gadget back up and began to tinker with its pieces.
“You weren’t too bad of a dancer yourself, you know.” Hataru peeked at the pirate through her peripheral vision.
“That, my fair lady,” he chortled, his focus on the object, “is only because you’re such an easy partner to dance with.”
“Hmm… yes, that must be it. Though, I think you were doing just fine without me.”
“But not nearly as well with you.” He snapped the last gear into place, and placed the gizmo back on the table. Twisting a small key protruding from the top of the metal egg, he whispered enthusiastically, “Here, watch this.”As if alive, the egg, no bigger than the captain’s fist, vibrated and unfurled itself like a flower, revealing a mechanical swan that waddled about the table's surface.
The princess giggled when the bird stopped to flap its heavy wings. “How lovely!”
“Pardon me!” A tenuous voice squeaked as a pair of hands foisted a mountain of books upon the table, knocking the automaton to the floor where it crumbled into a pile of screws and bolts, causing the princess to yelp in fright. “Oh, sorry, there,” the clerk apologized, “don’t worry about that old trinket. Your friend suggested that one of these might appeal to you, filled with lots of interesting information. Enjoy!” bowing, Bertrand, left as quickly and silently as he had appeared. Shrugging their shoulders at one another, the captain and the girl both reached for a tome.
Hataru gingerly took a dust-caked volume titled Tales of Myth and Legend from the stack. Thumbing through the jagged, yellow pages, she perused the hand-written text and noted the detailed illustrations of various stories ─ the creation of the world, the creation of man, monsters killing heroes, and heroes killing monsters. A prickling sensation swept across her skin like a winter storm through a northern valley when she spied one image, however. In remarkable detail, a brilliant, flaming bird of prey with outspread wings emerged from the tip of a silver flute, ready to fly off the parchment at the princess. Fighting the urge to slam the book closed and throw it across the room, she turned to read the story that accompanied the frightful image:
The son of a female jinn and a human man, the malevolent Lord Andivad, Duke of Gloomorose, was known for his ability to manipulate the fiery element of his mother's realm, which he employed to rule his domain with violent cruelty. Men would beg at his feet for their lives to no avail; when he grew tired of their pleas he would simply set them alight with the wave of a jewel encrusted hand. Women and children were not excused from his wrath, either.
With such terrifying strength, the duke feared nothing ─ except death. In order to prolong his malicious reign, Lord Andivad forged an instrument of exceptional power. Dabbling in the dark arts, he ensnared the heart of a newborn phoenix within his favorite titanium flute. No longer a mere plaything, the instrument could summon the spirit of the slain, immortal bird of rebirth when played, and as long as the flute was in his possession, Andivad could never die.
Over the course of the next four hundred years, the duke took over the entire Pyronian Kingdom by force of flames. Entire villages were razed to the ground. There was never a shortage of victims to torture, and those who survived suffocated on the ash-filled smoke of their fallen brethren. Despite the perpetual glow of the duke's ever-burning fires, the world was a dismally dark place.
That is until Fate finally intervened, for no man can withstand such divine powers. On the anniversary of the flute's creation, a vast flood arose from the River Slukke, which flowed near the duke’s palace, dowsing the fires and drowning Lord Andivad. The flute was swept away in the current and not seen again for many millennia.
“Levi, look at this!” the princess said, placing a hand on his bronze biceps.
He scanned the page. “What about it?”
“The next item of the prophecy has to do with “melodic notes” right? What if this flute is the object that Kosu is looking for?”
“Sure, if that’s the case, but it might not be this specific instrument. There’s probably thousands of magical, music-making devices in the world; it could be any of them.”
“I know, but I’ve just got this feeling, call it a hunch,” she toyed with her sapphire ring necklace, “this is the right one. How many musical instruments with such power could there be?”
“I guess. But where would we even begin to search for it?”
“I’m not sur─”
Prince Tarin walked up to the table where they were standing and grumbled dubiously to the captain, “Your grouchy first mate says that the coast is clear for us to leave now.” Noticing the book, he inquired more politely, “Oh, what are you looking at, Miss?”
“Umm… just a─”
“Hey, I’ve seen that flute before! My uncle showed it to me when I was a boy. He keeps it in one of his treasure chambers now.”
“Oh! And, umm, where is that, exactly?”
“Here in Habar, I’d imagine. He’s the Head Chancellor”
Hataru and Levi snapped their heads and to stare at one another, wide-eyed. It couldn’t possibly a coincidence, could it?