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It took longer than Seren had guessed it would for her heart to settle back down. She had a horrible headache, felt drained of all energy, and was still angry at Rive for complaining in the beginning about her idea, even though bed sheets were currently the only reason they were still alive.

“I don’t understand why this is hitting me so hard,” she complained, watching as Rive filled her cup with water again. Everything was okay, so she should be feeling normal, right?

“You, captain, have lived a very sheltered life.” Rive popped a piece of dried apple into their mouth. “Don’t say you haven’t, and it’s not a bad thing—it’s just a fact. You’ve never had a family member die. Never had a friend disappear and leave you wondering. Nobody around you has been badly injured or sick either. You’ve been the child the entire time, and your parents had all the weight on their shoulders that you feel now. If anything had happened to you, like what happened to me earlier, how do you think they would have felt? Acted?”

Images popped up in Seren’s mind. Her dad, after making sure she was okay, would have withdrawn into his room to meditate and told her father to be with her. Her father would have drawn himself up upright and lashed out at her for being asinine, and then continued through the whole alphabet before continuing in his side of the family’s native language.

“...maybe I shouldn’t have run away...”

“I didn’t say that.” Rive shook their head and clicked their tongue. “I think your parents are horrible people, but, I guess not too much since you turned out okay.”

“Gee, thanks.” She stuck her tongue out at them.

“Your father controlled you through Charming to do whatever he wanted.” Rive’s voice was dry. “That’s pretty bad, and it doesn’t matter if it made parenting easier for him. Not to mention all the guilt they both piled on you.”

Seren held her tongue. She had nothing to argue against Rive’s comment—she’d always hated the feeling of not being able to do what she wanted—but there was more to home life than her father’s control of Charm.

“Just... if this is how I felt after you almost died,” she explained, trying to piece together her thoughts, “I feel pretty bad for what my parents must be feeling right now. Horrible, in fact.”

“Don’t.”

She gave Rive a weird glance.

“Listen, I’m not saying don’t care about your parents.” They sighed and rubbed their head, the scratching sound loud in the quiet. “I’m saying that you shouldn’t try to guilt trip yourself by imagining what other people are feeling. One, it’s borrowing problems you don’t need, and two, sometimes it’s an ugly surprise when you think a person feels one way and they feel the opposite.” They rubbed harder for a few brief moments. “Ugh, I can’t wait until my hair grows back in!”

That made sense. Seren took a deep breath. There were a lot of things she needed to learn. Whatever challenges this adventure would bring, they would not be as easy to overcome as she’d originally thought. She gulped down the rest of her water, thoughts whirling. She also needed to grow up a bit, be more of an adult. Elements! Rive was the one who’d almost died and here they were, comforting her!

Seren was the captain of this ship. She was the one in charge. That meant she needed to step up and make sure she was taking care of her crew like her parents took... Seren shook her head at that thought.

“No, not like my parents.”

Rive gave her a confused look, and she blushed.

“I was trying to give myself a pep talk,” she explained, standing up to go sit on the bed and lean against the cushion. The textile feeling beneath her hands kept her grounded. “And I realize I want to be, for my crew, and I guess, for myself, what my parents never were for me. Understanding, strong, and supportive.”

“From what you’ve told me, I doubt your parents were weak. Are weak.” They shrugged at that. “But you know them better than me. I also don’t believe you’ll be like them in that regard. For one, you do realize you risked your life to save me, right? If my weight had dragged you down, or the sheet had tangled you up, you could have gone right over the edge.”

That... had never occurred to her. She’d been so caught up in making sure Rive didn’t die that she hadn’t thought about what might have happened to her if things had ever so slightly gone along a different path.

“I don’t see your parents doing that for another person. You’re already supportive, kind, and strong.” Rive rolled their eyes, but she could see the soft smile on their face. “You didn’t even use Bri threading you against her.”

“That’s because I’m a pushover.”

“It’s because you’re kind,” Rive corrected. “A lot kinder than I am.”

Seren snorted.

“You just hugged me as I cried into your chest and got snot all over you. That’s kindness; doing more laundry.”

The two of them laughed, and it was that action that finally carried a lot of weight off of her shoulders. She could do this. She could be a good captain. A caring captain. A captain who was worthy of the title. Her rising sense of confidence dimmed a little. Hopefully.

Rive stood up and made their way to the open trapdoor.

“Right, let’s get this ship anchored properly so we can see what’s in the town below.” They paused. “With three buildings, this place is going to be a disappointment.”

She laughed.

“I was kept on an island by myself for fifteen years—I’ll be happy exploring anywhere.” She followed Rive back down, through the tunnel, and where the bedsheets were still tangled on the floor. “Do you need my help with the engine?”

They turned to see her gathering the sheets back up.

“Nah, if you want to put those back up top, I should be able to move the engine into position.” They put action to words, adjusting their stance so their shoulder was against the heaviest part. “If this works, we should be close enough to anchor pretty soon.”

“We don’t have an anchor.”

“No,” agreed Rive, “but the landing place should. We can also see about getting one for the ship.”

Seren stifled a sigh and added it to her mental checklist. She untied the blankets from the engine so they wouldn’t impede Rive’s progress, then began pulling them after her as she made her way up again.

“These are going to need washing,” she groaned, taking in the dust smears and darker stains the fabric had picked up. “Repeated washing.”

For the moment, though, they couldn’t go back on the bed. She shoved them underneath.

“Hopefully, I won’t forget to do them later,” she muttered. The shellship was moving again, and after rinsing out the mugs they’d just used, Seren went outside to see how the landing was going.

The air was crisp after that storm, and she took several deep breaths. The last lingering bits of guilt fled before the sunlight in front of her. They weren’t gone; she wasn’t that naïve. But they also weren’t at the front of her mind, heavy and hurting, so she’d take this as a win. A quick glance at the landing section showed little progress, but up in the tree, perhaps, she could see further. Seren clambered over the shell lip and quickly made her way to the best branch in the tree.

The grey rocks below were growing larger, she noticed, and the area they were landing in was one of the few sections where there was more brown coloring.

“Still not sure if that’s earth or rock,” she wondered, pushing some of her wild-acting strands back from her face. “But it’s laid out in a circular shape, so I’m guessing it’s dirt.”

As they continued to descend, it became more apparent that there were two layers of rocks, grey ones laid over the brown and that part of the environment was waving up at them.

“I hope I’m waving back to someone, and not a flag.” She waved at a growing bit of red and gold.

The Picotree Drop continued to plummet, and when they were close enough that she could see the figure standing near the edge, she could also see that they were holding something in their hands. Seren slid down from her tree branch; this was what the landing section was for. Sure enough, the person grew larger and larger, and then they were within shouting distance.

“Hail the ship!”

“Hail...” Seren tailed off for a few seconds, then gathered her thoughts again... “Hail the ground!”

“If I toss the rope to you, can you catch it?”

“Yes!”

They threw a dark brown line at her, and she caught it with both hands. And then stared at it.

“What am I supposed to do with this?” she yelled back. The person—and they were less like the people she’d seen in Rive’s city of Viadora. Actually… now that they were close enough… They looked like a tall, shaggy bear. Which, even though this was new to her, she’d seen a few other beings in the ‘Shroom that resembled cats, sheep, and other animals, so why not bear?

“Where’s your hawsehole?”

“My what?”

“… It looks like a square, but it has a hole in the middle of it. That’s what you should tie the rope to.”

Seren looked around her, but couldn’t see anything like what they had described. Square, circle, triangle… nothing.

“I don’t have one!”

There was silence from the bear-person, and she looked around to see what else she could tie the rope to. If she opened the door, maybe it was long enough to tie around the top part? Or should she bring it into the kitchen and tie it to the table leg?

“The tree!” And then she was tossing the rope over the lip and climbing up after it, encircling the trunk. The shellship listed to one side, the end closer to the ground pointing to it, but then the entire ship leveled out. She climbed down just as Rive poked their head out through the doorway.

“Interesting.” They looked at her. “I’m guessing you anchored us to something?”

“The tree. And after a few seconds the ship evened out again.”

The two of them hesitated, and she was pretty sure the same look of confusion on Rive’s face reflected her own feelings.

“Is that a normal part of casting an air spell?”

Seren spread her hands out at the question.

“I don’t know. And it’s not like I can ask my dad either.”

“Something to figure out later then,” Rive shrugged, gave a grin, and bowed. “But for now, captain’s first.”

She nodded. The two of them walked to the edge and sat down, legs dangling over the side.

“Welcome to Azmar!” greeted the bear who’d thrown the rope. “My name is Tairdi Smartbones, xe/xem are my pronouns, and this is my landing strip.” There was a pause. “And, since you seem to be a little confused, I’m bearkin.”

“I’m Captain Serri of the Picotree Drop, ah, she/her.” Seren blushed. “I’ve never met a being like you before, so thank you for telling me more about yourself.” She turned to Rive and motioned for them to talk.

“What, you didn’t want to introduce me?”

She smiled at the cheeky answer.

“You can do it yourself.” And she wanted to hear how they did it, if they would choose engineer, or first mate, or another way.

“I’m Engineer Rive, first of the Picotree Drop’s crew, they/them.” They smiled. “What should we know about Azmar? It doesn’t seem like much is here.”

Tairdi let out a deep belly laugh, both hands smoothing down the fur along xyr sides.

“I can imagine so! What you see here isn’t the town at all! This is the aboveground section, and it’s mostly me. The biggest building here is my library, the smallest is a home I look after for a friend, and there’s one more place I clean in case there are visitors.”

“Oh.”

“Have you come here for a reason?”

Tairdi gave off an aura of excitement; it might have been the widening of xyr eyes or the perking of xyr ears. Seren and Rive looked at each other.

“It’s... a bit of a long story, to be honest,” she said, shrugging. “I was hoping we could find a threader here to help us out.”

“I like long stories,” Taidi said, grinning. “In fact, part of the reason I love being a librarian is that on slow days I can pick a book, any book, and learn something new. I’ve just put some tea on, so why not join me and regal me with your tales?”

Seren bit her bottom lip. She was a little hesitant, since that would take time away from finding a threader to re-thread the tree, but...

“There’s something else that might change your mind,” said Tairdi, leaning forward. “I’m a dowser, so if something or someone is close by, I should be able to help you find it, or them. I do ask for payment in advance, a basic charge that can be added to afterwards if your answer is further away.”

“Why? Shouldn’t it just be one charge?” asked Rive.

“Because dowsing takes a lot of my energy, which means I’m not able to do it often. Once a month if the eventual target is far away, maybe twice a day if I know the object or person is only a room away.”

“I wouldn’t mind going to see the library,” said Seren, looking at Rive.

“It’s gonna be a waste of time,” her engineer grumbled. “I thought you wanted to deal with that thread problem quickly.”

“I do.” She turned to Tairdi. “What’s the basic cost for one dowsing?”

“The first one’s free from anchor lot payment.”

Seren felt her face go paler.

“Payment?” she asked, clearing her throat and grimacing.

“I didn’t think a place like this would ask for payment,” said Rive, pointedly looking around. “It’s not like you’re offering what the ‘Shroom does.”

Tairdi stared at Rive for a few seconds, xyr jaw hanging. After a few deep chuckles, they shook xyr head and held out a giant paw, palm up. “First,” xe said, touching the claw nearest to him. “The Mushroom in Viadora is a company. That means they have enough coin behind them that they can pay beings to be at multiple captains’ services any hour, any day, of the week.”

Xe moved onto the next claw.

“Second, I’m the only one that is keeping this area clean and clear of debris. Mudslides, rockslides, all of those fun, backbreaking things. In fact, if it hadn’t been for me, you wouldn’t have had a place to land at all. And this area is not natural. Setting it up for anchoring ease took a lot of effort, and at some point in my life, I’ve come to the realization that I’d like to be paid for my time and energy. Third, I use the money to enlarge my library, which is free to use for as long as you stay here, so you also reap the rewards.”

Seren had nodded at reason number one and hadn’t stopped until Tairdi finished talking.

“I do want to pay you, even if only to have access to your library. The issue is that we don’t have any coins on us.”

Tairdi grunted.

“None?”

She shook her head.

“... Am I wrong to be thinking that there’s a very intriguing story behind your skyship adventure?”

Neither Rive nor Seren said or did anything, and Tairdi ended up nodding. Xe glanced at the two of them, first Rive, then Seren. “We should go on inside—”

“But we didn’t answer your question!” exclaimed Seren.

“You did, actually.” Tairdi showed off xyr sharp fangs in a full smile. “A lack of reaction was your tell. And since your tale looks as if it’s going to be an astonishing one, we can have a cup of tea over it.”

 

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About the author

CoffeeQuills

  • Tokyo
  • Dust Warrior

Bio: CoffeeQuills is a transplanted Floridian, living in the Land Rising Sun. They write for 4thewords (an RPG for writers) and in the twists of space and time created by caffeine, they enjoy coming up with stories all along the spec-fic range. Anything goes for this Hufflepunk, so hold tight and pretend it's a plan!

“This is who I am, right here, right now, all right? All that counts is here and now, and this is me!”

(Currently back after a long hiatus - apologies to those I owe chapters and mail too. The plan is to update fictions and continue with a once a week schedule.)

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