Tressa blinks. She feels the protective hand on her still and she sees the woman with long brown hair in a red dress to whom the hand belongs. The merchant girl can't help but stare a bit, as the other woman was quite beautiful. It wasn't as though Rippletide didn't have its share of dames, her mom being no exception. But this woman's beauty is exotic, accentuated by her foreign clothing and vixen-like grace.

"Oy, oy, who're you?!" The pirate scowls, being pushed back by the blonde man, "Piss off!"

"Hey, you guys were about to attack some little girl!" The green vest man shouts back.

"Indeed," The woman's sultry voice drips with saccharine venom, "If you don't want a fight in your hands, you'd best leave these people alone."

The pirates still outnumber the strangers, and they know it. The leaders sneer a bit.

"Heh! You and what army, lady?"

"Would you like to see them?" The woman's eyes seem to flicker with something frightening.

"Excuse me!"

Tressa sees a blonde woman in white, the one from the passenger ship, stand before the pirates on the other end. She is joined by her strange entourage. Tressa vaguely recognizes her clothing as that of a cleric. The merchant with her seems to be trying to calm her down.

"Oh geez, we got a priest now?" The pirates scowl.

"You had best back off!" The cleric says, "I can't guarantee your safety if you don't stop harassing the townsfolk here!"

"What is the commotion here?" A tall swordsman and a shorter man with white hair walk over as well, "Alfyn, is something wrong?"

The pirates seem a bit skittish now, seeing more people gathering about the spectacle. The two leaders share looks before scoffing.

"Let's go. Waste 'o wine anyway!"

The pirates grumble as they pull out. The one who had attacked sheathes his sword and spits at Tressa's feet before hurrying after the others. They push past the cleric's party. The huntress' beasts growl at them as they leave.

The man in the green vest looks to Tressa, "You alright?"

"Uh...yeah, thanks..." Tressa blinks, looking to the eight strangers. She hoped they didn't see her legs shaking, "You guys really helped us..."

The nearby onlookers nod in agreement and murmur. Tressa mentally scathes at how the locals had done nothing.

"Hey, no problem! Ya were in a bind, weren'cha?" The blonde man grins, strapping his axe to his waist. He extends a friendly hand, "I'm Alfyn! And these're my friends Prim, Olbe- er, Berg, and-"

"Don't go around just giving out our names, idiot," The white-haired man grumbles in interruption.

"Are you alright?" The woman named Prim looks to Tressa.

"Are you all alright? Was anyone injured?" The cleric walks over, a tone of worry in her voice, "My goodness, I didn't expect to find curs so quickly upon landing... Thank the Flame nothing came of it..."

"I'm alright, hehe!" Alfyn grins, "Not a scratch!"

"Ophilia, you need to stop running headfirst just because you see some trouble!" The male merchant bemoans to the cleric.

"Ehe, sorry, Mattias..." The cleric named Ophilia chuckles sheepishly.

"T-thanks to you all, actually," Tressa stammers slightly, "You really helped a gal out there..."

"Pirates..." The finely dressed, black-haired man holds his chin in seeming thought, "I had heard of their presence in the Coastlands, but for them to be so prominent... They were flaunting themselves in the face of the public with no fears of reproach!"

"Uh, yeah..." Tressa glances around a little. The crowd around was beginning to disperse, including the belligerent sailors. It was just returning to the normal paced doldrum.

"If we're done here, let's get to the inn already," The white-haired man mutters, "Enough of helping people for today."

"Aw, Therion, don't be that way!" Alfyn chuckles, "We can have a look around still...!"

"Twould be wiser to find rooms first," The swordsman named Berg says prudently, "In a port town such as this, rooms must rotate quite frequently."

"Alright, alright..." Alfyn grumbles and pats Tressa's hat, "You take care, alright?"

"Uh... Don't treat me like a kid...!" Tressa manages to blurt out, taking her eyes off the rainbow puddle on the cobbled floor.

"Ah, sorry, sorry...!" Alfyn waves as he goes off with his bunch towards the inn.

"Mattias, we should find your friend with the medicine, right?" Ophilia looks to Mattias.

"Right. Oh, we should find a post for the horses too."

"Ah, I suppose this is where I shall go find my source..." The black-haired man waves to the cleric, huntress and merchant as he walks towards the shops, "I bid you all the best of luck. May we meet again!"

"... He be'en quite an odd character..."

Ophilia and her trio leave now, towards the south market area. Tressa is left alone in the square before the tavern as everyone else begins to go about their day, returning to normal. Just... the usual normal... Silent, she drags her feet a bit to return home with the wine, minus the rainbow treasure. The street sweepers will clean up the mess.

Therion grumbles a bit, sitting outside the inn on a street bench.

First thing he did today was wake up on the beach to the sound of gulls... and sea birdians. The idiot Alfyn and the princess herself were fending off the monsters from pecking them alive. The big lug joins in on the fight, spraying sand with his big, clumsy sword. Some wake up call.

Then, right after a half-assed breakfast of roast birdian, the big lug drops some supposed bombshell on him and Alfyn, saying his real name was Olberic or something. Therion might have heard the name before or something, but it meant little to nothing to the thief. Frankly, the apothecary was also a bit clueless on what the big reveal was supposed to mean.

"Olberic is the name of a famous knight from the fallen Kingdom of Hornburg," The princess finally told them. She found out already apparently.

"Uh huh..." Therion muttered, picking some birdian out of his teeth, "So?"

"Hornburg, uhh..." Alfyn pondered that a bit, "Hornburg..."

Before the dancer could start a lecture, Olberic stopped her, "Perhaps it is better this way. I preferred the name 'Berg' in order to keep a low profile after all."

"I suppose that is true."

Therion glanced at the dancer and warrior with a sideways look. He was sure they'd be the first to tear each other to pieces, given how they couldn't see eye to eye back in Cobbleston. Now, they seem like they've gotten over all that, including the insults. Therion would never.

"All right, so we still call ya Berg?"

"Either name is fine... But, in public, perhaps 'Berg' maybe wiser, especially in a place like the Coastlands," Olberic said pensively, "They might recognize the name 'Olberic.'"

"What are you, some sort of wanted defector?" Therion muttered. He knew vaguely about Hornburg. In thief circles, the talk was mostly about the treasures you could loot from ruins of ancient kingdoms. Hornburg is mentioned here and there on plundering raids. But a lot of the juicy stuff has faded out by now, picked clean by the vultures. From such a bygone relic, there wasn't much value left save for the stock in tall tales.

"... Something of the sort," Olberic said after a brief pause.

"... Well, now that that's out in the open, shall we continue?" Primrose stood, brushing sand off her dress, "We should hope to reach Rippletide by noon so we can have a proper meal. And baking in the sun like this is no good for the skin."

"Hey, that gives me an idea!" Alfyn went and picked up some broad, fallen palm leaves to hold over his head, "Tadaa!"

Primrose chuckled, "That's a wonderful thought, Alfyn... But I would prefer my hands free."

Therion rolled his eyes and started walking down the path himself. The others follow, with Alfyn being the usual goof and the other entertaining his antics. While the thief scowled every now and then at their idiocy, his pace doesn't quicken to leave them behind.

"Yer such a softie, Therion. Sentimental and soft..."

Therion growls at the voice in his head. That's exactly what Darius would tell him. That's exactly what he himself would think too. In fact, he was questioning himself. Why didn't he just leave them? It's not like his head said they were needed. But for whatever reason, he always kept nearby.

Is this supposed to be some sappy thing about the heart or something? He scoffs.

"Therion, I got the rooms!" Alfyn pokes his head out from the inn, facing the thief, "C'mon, you can actually sleep on a bed this time!"

This happy idiot, the spoiled princess, and the dumb-as-a-rock knight... Therion sighs and stands to follow Alfyn. At least they were paying for the rooms. The apothecary loops an arm over behind the thief's shoulders with a grin.

"We're sharing," The taller man says.

"Oh gods..." Therion groans.

Shortly after disembarking the SSS Tecura and heading off those nasty pirates, Ophilia is once again back to playing tourist. Rippletide is nowhere as luxurious as Atlasdam. However, the worldly treasures in its bosom were equally impressive. From a distance, the place seemed like a quaint fishing town. Up close, Ophilia could appreciate the bustling commerce at the forefront.

Even when they just docked, they were beside a merchant trader ship with beautiful blue sails and what seemed like chests and a king's ransom aboard. The blond captain had introduced himself as Leon when she asked.

"Welcome to the Coastlands," Leon warmly smiled and kissed Ophilia's hand. H'aanit stared at the gesture while Mattias laughed it off with a strained grin.

They talked for a bit about the trip and the weather before Ophilia heard the fracas between the pirates and some strangers and ran towards the fray to break it up. She got scolded by Mattias after as they went to go find a holder for their steeds, having parted ways with the professor.

"You're too kind to the extent you can be nosy," He huffed as he handed over the horse reins to a stable-master.

"Well, excuse me for trying to prevent evil before my eyes! We're taught to help others, Mattias!" Ophilia huffed back in retort.

"Tis no crime. And she haven no large trouble caused... Tis more than can be saideth for some others."

Ophilia and Mattias, knowing the huntress was referring to the trouble-prone scholar, chuckle at her remark. Even Linde and Hägen make the semblance of a snicker. Mattias says jokingly, "That doesn't count."

Now, they could see the markets in the daytime. Unlike the Atlasdam indoor shops, these were open-air markets, utilizing the regions temperate climate. If they tried this in Flamesgrace, the goods would freeze, undoubtedly.

She looks this way and that at the offerings of textiles, pottery, foreign food, trinkets...

"Here we are...!" They arrive before a table set in front of a tent. No one is manning the table. Mattias knocks on the table and calls for "William." After a few moments, from inside the tent emerges a hunchback man with a fez and a long face. Upon seeing Mattias, he makes a crooked smile at the trio.

"Mattias. How are ya?"

"Well enough, William," Mattias tips his hat, "How's the business going? Sounded like you were swamped with orders."

"Oh, indeed I was! I was planning to come make the trip to Flamesgrace … but then I was selling so well and, er, my customers were absolutely ravenous for this new stimulant I found that does wonders for under the sheets... If ya get my drift, hehe!" William eyes the huntress and cleric, "Oho, do you need any for yourself when you're... alone with these lovelies?"

"Ahaha," Mattias gives a flat, strained laugh, "No. Remember what I'm here for? The medicine? You said you had some?"

"Medici... Oh- Oh! Yes, yes, medicine, I remember. Oh, silly me, ho ho..." William goes to shuffle inside his tent. Ophilia says nothing, but his demeanor bothers her quite a bit. While within the tent, he continues to talk out to them.

"But yeah, I was on a roll! 'Was' being the key word..."

He returns to them with a wooden box. He places it before himself on the table, but he does not open it nor hand it over. Mattias frowns a bit.

"... So, is that it?"

"These pirates, I tell ya," William rambles on a seeming tangent, "They're killin' us merchants and good folk here. Pearl luster? Gone. Birdian arrows? Nope. Glass orbs? Uh-uh, forget about it."

"Uhm... were you robbed?" Ophilia asks as he rambles.

"Exactly, dear! Like many others, I was taken advantage of!" William exclaims, much to the annoyance of the huntress, "Something's got to be done, I tell ya!"

"... Oohhh no," Mattias shakes his head as he sees the other's angle, "We are not going to go fight pirates for you!"

"I didn't tell you to go..." William picks his mustache, feigning disappointment.

H'aanit narrows her eyes at William, "... Thou willen not selleth the tincture to us until we squaren with the pirates? Be'en this a practice amongen all merchants?"

"No, no, definitely not," Mattias says quickly, "William's just-"

"Quid pro quo, am I right, Mattias?" William chuckles, "Scratch my back and I'll scratch yours. See this medicine? Ain't no one else here got it. It's bloody difficult to get. And with my losses from piracy, I'm losing my shirt here! Wouldn't be fair, now, would it? Unless you got a nice fortune to share with ol' William?"

"How much?" Mattias presses his tongue against the inside of his mouth.

"2,000 leaves sound about good."

That did it for Mattias, "William, you slim-"

"Wait, Mattias! We need that medicine!" Ophilia protests, keeping the other back. She then looks with an indignant frown to William, "You aren't doing very fair business."

"All's fair in money, dearie," The shrewd merchant strokes his mustache, not sorry at all, "Besides, I'm sure the illustrious church has some way to pay such prices, what with its deep coffers and all."

"Well, I can say for sure we don't have that... and that is an exorbitant price for this medicine...!"

"Forget this guy, Ophilia," Mattias scowls, "I'm sure there's gotta be someone else here that's got some medicine."

"Medicine like this? Good luck!" William gives a scoff, "I'm telling you, I had to do a lot to get this stuff! Not every merchant's got apothecary connections like me!"

He is about to continue but H'aanit silences him with an icy glare. She goes to rub the cleric's shoulder, "Mattias hath right. We oughten looketh elsewhere afore this scalp man."

"... alright..." Ophilia sighs, "But if no one else …"

"Let's just go," Mattias ushers them away from the sneering face of William. His own countenance is rather dark.

Ophilia masks her worry, seeing Mattias' own face. She turns to the huntress, "Uhm... You needn't accompany us for our search... you have to go asking for your master, right?"

"Oh..." H'aanit pauses. She had almost forgotten she needed information on Z'aanta's whereabouts. It was a bit uncharacteristic for her to think beside the hunt at hand, "Aye. I... shallen go then..."

Her green-grey eyes linger on the cleric though, "... I willen meeteth thee back here in this commercial place, yes?"

"Mm... We'll be here..." Ophilia coils a stray hair behind her ear, lowering her gaze a little. She cannot hide her disappointment over the recent developments.

"... T'will be alright," H'aanit says, placing a hand on the cleric's head.

"...!" Ophilia finds herself nodding a little at the other's words, "...I … yes... I have... faith that the Flame will not forsake us."

Mattias' mood did not improve at her words.

Primrose and Olberic settle quietly into their shared room. Alfyn had offered to swap with Primrose, but she decided she might as well take her chances with the warrior after many a night spent alongside the thief. These rooms are quite generous, with beds for two in each, save one single. Thanks to Olberic's contribution, they were able to afford two rooms. He insisted that they not need to pay him back.

The dancer barely has anything considered luggage. She sits on the edge of the bed, looking at Olberic put down his things. He traveled relatively heavier than the rest of them, with a duffel slung over his shoulder the size of a large sack of potatoes. But he can afford to travel this way, having the stamina to carry such a load.

He would certainly be a catch for older women, maybe. But he might not be so old after all, if it was war which aged him. Primrose finishes undressing him with her eyes before kicking off her sandals and lying down on her bed. She drapes her arm over her eyes and focuses on her breathing for a second.

She didn't have time to mourn anymore. Sadiq is gone. The next step... She needs to see if there is a boat to the Frostlands at any time. The ports up north are thawed at times of year, allowing people to take a ship up to the frigid waters. If possible... she wanted to avoid traveling by land. If they went that way, it would be hard to avoid Noblecourt. She was in no mood for a walk down memory lane. It wouldn't help anyone for her to see those ivied walls and the fallen manor... if it was still around at all.

And her own dark little secret... Her hand reaches to lightly feel the dark marked skin. She hadn't been overdoing it, so the mark hasn't spread much. However, now, it became hard to sleep. The usual nightmares have changed into a dark void, where she is cold and alone, in a silent space. It was a nightmare in its own right. Hence, she had been forgoing sleep. Due to the nature of this power, she didn't have too much negative side effects to worry about at least.

"I will go out to see the wharfmaster," Olberic announces solemnly, "Will you be leaving the room?"

"... Likely so..." Primrose sighs, "You're bound for a ship as well?"

"My goal is in the Cliftlands... The ports there are treacherous, so I am unsure if I get a ship there. If not, I will try to trek there from the Frostlands."

"Hmm... Curious. Then our paths may align once again..." Prim mutters.

"... Excuse me then," Olberic leaves the room with a slight nod of acknowledgment.

"..."

As Olberic makes his way out of the inn, he passes the gossip of some sailors, as well as the lamentations of the innkeeper.

"Gods help me, another cancellation... This town used to attract at least three times as much suckers...! Now we gotta get by on slivers... Huy!"

"I hear another shipment to Grandport capsized near the Captain's Bane. Big surprise..."

"Hells, another big 'L'... Bad year for us merchants."

"Ya think Bifelgan's magic'll work anytime soon?"

"Fat chance, haven't ya heard? The number o'gates dropped again, 'cording to the Star Oracle's Index!"

"Bah, this is why I invested in the Steorra Navigator. Three thousand leaves in the hole I may be, but I'mma make a pretty buck and live even if it kills me!"

Olberic takes in the slew of bad omens quietly. The world seems to be falling apart at the seams. But those things no longer concern a hedge knight like himself. He no longer owes an allegiance to anyone. His lord is long dead. All he wants is to find that bastard Erhardt and put his own turmoil to rest.

Out in the city streets, the merchants and peddlers create the hustle and bustle amid the sea-salt air. There are small arguments here and there, with buyers and sellers calling each other cheats and swindlers. The law enforcement of Rippletide exists but is very spread out and decentralized. There is also a notable amount of corruption among their ranks. This explains well how pirates manage to bully merchants scot-free, as well as how underground venues of trade happen around the darker corners of the trading town.

The warrior makes his way past sellers hawking their wares and busy carts pushed to and fro with shipments of goods. At least there's nothing as violent as what happened with those sea dogs. He gets some directions from some townsfolk who didn't try to extort him out of "directional fees" and finally finds the ship roster master.

The little man with his big eyes and narrow chin nervously affixes his glasses with ink-stained fingers as his other hand scribbles away with a quill. He looks up to the towering warrior before his booth.

"Erm, can I, ahem, help you, good sir?"

"Hail. I am seeking a ship to the Cliftlands, if possible," Olberic keeps it brief.

"Cliftlands? Cliftlands... bad time of the year, my good man..." The roster master runs his finger down several sheets of parchments with scribbled charts, leafing through the registry, "...The last one, the Eltminister, left just yesterday, I'm afraid. Was bound for the East Bolderdrop port."

"Last one... for how long?"

"The next one going..." The little man licks his inky fingers and squints, "You're in for a long wait, I'm afraid. It'll be a few tendays before another ship bound for the Cliftlands comes here again!"

Olberic obscures his frustration and just lets out a deep sigh, "Anything for the Frostlands then?"

"That's leaving in about three days. The Ursula. Bound for the lower Flamesgrace port."

He may as well see if the others are also going his way so they can see if they could get a group rate buying together. The dancer did mention their paths might be aligning once more. Waiting three days though did seem a bit much, but it was likely safer than traipsing via foot.

"How many seats are left?"

"Most of the ship. Not a lotta takers this time around. The Kindling'll be a done deal by then," The roster master shrugs, "You buying? It's 50 leaves a seat. Comes with a cot, water, and some food."

"I'll think about it."

"If you'd like, there's the Nightingale setting off for Atlasdam port tonight. It's close enough to the Frostlands, no? Last minute sales, so it's got a discount price. Room and board, arrives next day, just 20 leaves."

Olberic gives a small laugh at the man's aggressive salesman pitch, "That's merely a stone's throw from these Coastlands."

"That's what you'd think! But there's monsters out on the roads these days. Why, just the other day, some fine gentleman practically begged for a seat on a ship as it was departing just so he wouldn't suffer the same fate as his mates who went by caravan!"

"I will have to discuss it with my travel mates," Olberic nods, "Thank you for your time."

"Their eyes pecked out by the birdians, I tell you! Just mere steps out in the North Rippletide Coast!"

Chuckling, Olberic leaves the ranting man to his day. As he walks back out to the main street and makes his way back to the inn, he contemplates a bit on the strange feeling he'd been feeling since he left Cobbleston with the trio. It was similar to his expeditions back in the Highlands … back when he was in the army with the other young men, with Erhardt. While he loved the people of Cobbleston, he did not feel this emotion around them, even when with the town watch. It had been a while that he no longer recognized this feeling.

Is this... camaraderie?

Cyrus pokes around the seaside records house, built in a small shanty just east of the wharf house. It is used primarily for trading and ship information. He frowns a bit seeing the barnacles creeping up the outside, as well as the sea scum that's accumulated near the floor in the corners. Some of the parchments perched in their shelves show mildew growing from the exposure to prolonged moisture in a dark and dingy shack by the sea.

"Erm..." The scholar clears his throat before the front desk. It is virtually deserted.

A man with a bandanna and sleazy odor shambles over from the cot where he was sleeping and looks to the scholar, bored, "Leaving or taking?"

"I beg your pardon?" Cyrus raises an eyebrow.

"Records. It's all either take or leave what ya want. Storage and, eh, whatever."

"Uh huh...," Cyrus frowns at the squalid status of the place. It was already nigh unbearable for him not to find someone to complain of such conditions to. Even if these were merely logistics of old ships and their materials, all such things ought to be preserved properly, "I'm looking for the records keeper Harold. I was told he knew an acquaintance by the name of Odette Azelhart."

"Harold... Oh, him. Yeah, he passed away a few months back."

"What!" Cyrus exclaims. Then he composes himself, "I-I offer my condolences... I did not know."

"Enh. No helpin' it," The young man picks his nose idly, "His place was ransacked by the pirates. He musta put up a fight, 'cuz they sent him right to the Hells with a ball 'round the legs."

"Such dastardly...! Whyever would they attack a mere record master? He couldn't have had anything of obscene value!"

"Them pirates do whatever they want, mate. Poor Harold just was in the wrong place. The house is sold by now too."

"What did the pirates take?"

"They say 'e was missin' a few books or two. Dunno what was in 'em that those sea turds would take. Dumb as clams, they be, ya know. Maybe treasure maps?"

Cyrus folds his arms in deep thought. It was a slim chance, but what if among those books held contact information to Odette?

"What of his untouched belongings?"

"Gone. Tossed out by the new owner."

Cyrus sighs, "Where can I find the new owners of this residence?"

"That ol' shack sold for a poor penny to Hagglin' Hilma. Can't imagine why," The sloven youth now proceeds to pick his ears, "She'll have to pour a seaload of money to make that thing market price."

"'Haggling Hilma?'" Cyrus raises an intrigued brow, "A rather... unflattering name, no?"

"She's a real pisser-puller," The other shrugs, "Don't earn a title like that otherwise."

"All right then, where might I find this Hilma character?"

"She's got her own corner at the market in the town south. Watch out or she'll bite'cher head off."

"Hmm, that must be quite some dental strength on her," Cyrus rubs his chin pensively, "Very well. Thank you for your time."

As he leaves the establishment, he walks right into someone running by. The impact leaves them both on the floor.

"Oof-!" Cyrus rubs his side a little and looks to make sure everything is in order on his person before looking to who ran into him.

"Owowowow..." Tressa quickly fixes her askew cap, "Dang it, watch where you're going!"

"Oh, my apologies... But I can almost be certain that you ran into me, miss...," A lightbulb goes off in the scholar's head, "Ah, you were that reckless merchant girl!"

"... Who are you again?" Tressa squints at the man, "You definitely look familiar."

"We met for a brief moment when you were being attacked by pirates," Cyrus blinks, "I don't believe I heard your name."

"You a merchant?" Tressa stands and dusts herself off, "No wait, you're dressed all wrong, even for the stuffy part..."

"I am no dealer of goods or commerce... What I market in has no tangible value," Cyrus stands as well, speaking with a tone of slight grandeur, "Knowledge."

"... So, you're a teacher, in other words," Tressa looks at the strange character with apprehension, "You do still get paid you know, based on what your courses are worth."

"That's not the point," Cyrus wags a slight finger, a lecture forming on his tongue, "When I say intangible value, I mean its value cannot possibly be accurately calculated on an abacus. What we learn now could well carry past today. Like a seed, knowledge fosters curiosity and inquiry, further allowing more inquisitive and innovative minds to blossom. There may be a tuition, but it cannot capture the true value of a good education!"

"That was probably one of the worst sales pitches I've heard for a school," Tressa snorts a bit, "I wonder how many students you have."

"How rude! Atlasdam Royal Academy boasts a considerable body of students!"

"Oh, you're from Atlasdam?" Tressa looks Cyrus over once again, "Hmm, I guess that explains the coat, actually. The design is a bit harder to make out on a glance..."

"Well, in any case," Cyrus smacks a fist on his palm, "I musn't get caught off track! I am looking for Hilma!"

"Huh?" Tressa gawks, "Haggling Hilma? You're looking for her? What in the name of Middlesea for?"

"I need to ensure that Harold's holdings are truly gone. If not, there may be a lead I can follow!" Cyrus looks to the other girl, "Which way to the south market, pray tell?"

"Well..." A quick buck idea makes its way into the opportunistic merchant's mind, "How about I do better? I'll be your guide! Only 15 leaves!"

"A guide? I surmised this to be a quick walk."

"Oh, you won't be sorry! Rippletide's got a few secret ways you can take to avoid the pickpockets and all that only locals like yours truly could know!" Tressa says with confidence.

"You certainly have the gumption unexpected of a child your age," Cyrus says with interest.

"C-child?! I'm 18, for your information!" Tressa folds her arms and looks with annoyance to the professor, "I am Tressa Colzione, merchant extraordinaire!"

"Oh, I see, you no longer have to comply with compulsory education," The oblivious scholar says.

"How old could you even be to call me a kid?" Tressa huffs.

"Why, I began my thirties just a few months ago!"

Tressa stares for a few minutes. This man is a scholar and thirty years old? Scholars, from what she's seen and heard, are usually at least a little wrinkly around the forehead from the stress of studying and managing pupils. This guy has none of that. He's pretty darn good-looking for his age. Tressa had took him for early twenties at most.

"No way!" Tressa exclaims at last.

"People seem awfully adamant towards my age," Cyrus blinks at her reaction, "Whyever could that be?"

"Because usually scholars are either wrinkled or middle-aged!" Tressa says with a slight laugh, "Well, at least they'd look a bit overworked."

"Hmm, I suppose that is a valid assumption. But nonetheless, I am wasting daylight! I must see Hilma!" Before Tressa can pitch again, he hands her 20 leaves, "Let us make haste!"

"Oh-uh, hehe, sure! Off we go!" Tressa pockets the easy money with a grin and skips off in stride, "Say, tell me a bit about Atlasdam, huh?"

"Oh, gladly. You seem like a curious youth," Cyrus smiles.

"Well, someday I want to be a merchant that's the best in Orsterra! I can't do that without expanding my horizons!"

"Indeed? Well then, let me begin with the initial history of the Atlasdam crown, which will better contextualize the later developments leading to the kingdom's rise..."

Tressa would come to greatly regret her curiosity.

H'aanit, Linde, and Hägen make their way around the less commercial parts of Rippletide. The streets here are less crowded, though this means little for their search. H'aanit was not that much of a people person, so it was difficult for her to talk to people. Her dialect did not help in the matter and people merely brushed her off. Wherever could Z'aanta have frequented? Gambling dens are obvious, but the public one had closed. He was also a big drinker, so she might as well hit up the pubs.

"Haven thee any recollection or fragment, Hägen?" She looks to the wolf as they walk.

Hägen shakes his head woefully. It was wishful thinking at best. Considering how long Z'aanta was gone, and how shaken Hägen was, such a place of hustle and bustle would be difficult for the beast to trace anything.

"Hey there!"

H'aanit turns to see a young man leaning over a barrel wedged between two buildings. He waves and smiles to her.

"Those be some nice pets you got! Hunter, right?"

"...Partners, not pets," H'aanit says with a slight sigh. She was getting tired of this sort of conversation with non-hunters.

"Right, right, sorry. We don't get a lotta your type passing here."

"What doth thou wanten with me?"

"Hey, I'm just makin' small talk. That wolf looks awful familiar, is all."

H'aanit's eyes widen, "Thou hath Hägen seeneth before? … Mayhap... with another hunter?"

"Aye, yep. An old man. He came a few … a few moons or so ago. Hehehe, caused quite a stir with his purse emptying!"

H'aanit internally curses her master for once again giving into his dreadful vices. But this news does lift her mood slightly, to hear he was here.

"Dost thou knowen anything about where he hath gone? Any notice?"

"Hmm... Normally, I'd have you maybe pay a bit for my time and attention, but-"

Before he can even make a pick-up line, H'aanit slaps down a fistful of leaves on the barrel before him. Her face shows no amusement. He swallows at her seriousness and takes the coins.

"He was with some knights from the church... heard 'em mention a thing or two about something near the Woodlands border of the Cliftlands. They took a boat, the Kurtschnitter, up there."

"...Back home...?" H'aanit mutters inaudibly. He had been so close to home and he never came back to even say hello...

No, she can't get hung up on that. It would have merely been a distraction, likely. A hunt means not losing sight of prey for idyllic side quests. Having been accompanied by the knights, Z'aanta was also probably under pressure to produce results befitting the best hunter of the Woodlands.

"I see. Thanken thee."

Before the lad can even ask her name, the huntress turns to make her way back to the market where the cleric is, vanishing into the crowds with the two beasts.

...

The warrior returns to the others in the inn. Alfyn was in the middle of sorting some plants he'd found, much to Therion's annoyance. They gather with the dancer at the inn lobby, which has a conjoined pub area.

"One stein of beer, please," Olberic looks to the others, "Would you like anything?"

"Water is fine," Primrose says.

"Ahh, I guess I should take water too. And make that two! One for Therion."

"Don't order for me, idiot," Therion mutters.

"C'mon, we can't just have ale and mead all the time! That's not healthy!" Alfyn grins.

Olberic smiles lightly and pays for all their drinks, "So you are a doctor to your companions."

"Well, I," Alfyn sheepishly rubs the back of his head, "I try! Ya know, you need t'keep yerself healthy! It's the best cure not to be sick at all!"

"That is wise."

Therion rolls his eyes, "Anyway, we getting a ship outta here or what?"

"There is a ship leaving for the Frostlands in three days' time. A ship will be leaving tonight to Atlasdam," Olberic receives his beer, "I thought it be best we convene about the decision of travel, since we seem to have similar destinations."

"This one has no destinations," Therion points at Alfyn.

"It would be best to move quickly," Prim sips her water, "What were the prices like?"

"Frostlands costs 50 a head. Atlasdam is 20."

"We may as well just go to Atlasdam then!" Alfyn says that like it's decided, "I'd hate to stretch our purse strings, and we can handle ourselves on the road!"

"Speak for yourself," Therion chugs down his water, "50 is a robbery, though."

"So, we leave tonight then?" Primrose thinks a moment, "Tis a shame we bought the rooms for the night. Such a waste."

"Tis a trifle," Olberic sighs, "Though, after we buy these tickets, we would be wise to replenish our funds. There will be little time to rest."

"Hmm... Maybe there's some odd jobs here and there?" Alfyn thinks, "Or like, a job listing?"

"You guys looking for work?" The bartender speaks up, "Try the merchant hall next to the Colzione trading post. They got a board o' bounties and errands for ya."

"Sweet!"

"Keep in mind that we are trying to leave by tonight. So, don't go taking any long-term jobs."

"I will go purchase the tickets then," Olberic downs his stein, "You three see to the job requests."

As the warrior goes off, the original trio find their way amid the hustle and bustle to the boisterous merchant hall. It is a large building with a stone front and archways before a spacious courtyard. There are shadier looking merchants hanging around the back alleys, where the back walls open out to rowhouses before the sea. Business here is forbidden, save the redemption of coupons, bounties, and bureaucratic processes. Adjoined to the main management is a house for fees and violations, as well as licenses.

The job board is right next to the membership desk. A few people look here and there, while others tack up their own requests. Since most of the people in this hall were merchants, there were few mercenaries looking for jobs.

"Oh boy," Alfyn looks at a request for flying fish spearing, "Flying fish?"

"Don't even think about it," Therion grumbles. He has his own eye on some missing cat poster. There are also some easy pickings for lost jewelry and those kinds of meager jobs. But at least they would be easy.

"Oho..." Primrose points to a poster on pirates, "This one seems interesting."

"We already fought bandits. I am not doing that again," The thief side-eyes her with annoyance.

"The reward's 10,000 leaves!" Alfyn's eyes bulge. He'd never even thought of such an amount of money before, "You'd be set for life!"

"Well, not exactly," Primrose laughs, "It is nice to have though... It seems to be paid by the local Merchant's association... No wonder, given the way those men come and act as if they own the place."

"Still not doing it," Therion folds his arms, "Not our problem."

"You fine folk would do best to avoid the fellows who don't listen to reason," A suave voice behind the trio says, "Not even the best merchant can buy back their life once it has been lost."

The three turn to see a well-dressed man with a blue scarf and sea-worn captain's coat. Despite the wear on his clothes, he exudes an aura of dignity on his body. Rather than looking ragged, he looked handsomely rugged. He has fair skin and grey-blue eyes. One of his eyes is covered by his platinum gold locks. His hair reaches down to the middle of his back.

"See, this guy knows what I'm talking about," Therion seizes the opportunity, "I almost got my head bashed in last time as it is."

"Why, hello there," Primrose looks the man over and bats her eyelashes a little, "Are you familiar with these pirates?"

"The ways of pirates are the same throughout the continent, and known to all captains worth their salt," The man bows lightly, "I am Leon Bastralle, captain of the trade ship, the Azure Wind."

"Oh, a captain... Gee, that's cool," Alfyn says in slight wonder. He'd heard tales of the swashbuckling, foul-mouthed men who ran the ships from Magg's tales back in Clearbrook. Leon has a more silver fox charm, appearing gentlemanly, but also with a dangerous allure.

"Charmed," Primrose extends her hand. Leon takes it and kisses it gently on the back.

"Might I have the pleasure of knowing the name of a beautiful lady?" Leon smiles with a wink, "And her fair bodyguards?"

"Bold, aren't you, captain Leon?" Primrose chuckles and avoids his query, "Would you mind telling us more about these pirate ways?"

"... Why, gladly," He seems to take no offense to the non-answer, "Pirates and bandits, brigands, and ruffians... all of them are dangerous people who have no mind for reason when it comes to getting what they want. Even if you quake before them, it only drives their ego farther. They do not hesitate to strike women and children. One who is not resolved to fight such characters ought not take a chance."

"Do not take our resolve lightly, captain," Primrose smiles, "But your concern is appreciated, and we will take your advice to heart."

"Great. Let's go find a cat then," Therion mutters impatiently.

"But... The people here need our help!" Alfyn looks close at the poster, "Today we helped but... what if someone gets hurt down the road? We ain't gonna be here then!"

"Not everyone has to be your problem," Therion runs an exasperated hand through his white hair.

"You folks were the ones who helped lil' Tressa!" A pudgy man with a white mustache approaches the party, "The gods bless ye! Are ya looking to rid us of the pirates too?"

"No, we didn't say that," Therion grumbles. Crud, they were attracting attention now.

"I don't know how much longer we kin' take with those sea dogs!" The man shakes his head ruefully, "Just last week I lost half my entire inventory to one of their seizures... They oughta be out at sea!"

"Ah, pushing the problem onto other people?" Primrose says with a glib smile.

"Better than here!" The merchant says indignantly, "Holed up in the Maiya Caves, hoarding like a dragon... Everything they've stolen in the last two years... Not to mention the lives they ruined..."

Therion feels dread as the old man's tales seem to be stirring that unwanted emotion in Alfyn. The stupid apothecary looks determined to do something about it. The thief can see the gears turning in his head.

"Now don't you start, you sour prat!" A shrill, bossy voice cuts through.

The people standing around groan at the voice. The party looks to a gaunt-looking woman with a glass eye and peg leg approach. She has an aura of demanding attitude and swagger, as well as the smell of alcohol.

"H-Hilma!" The mustached man visibly blanches. But he swallows and shoots back with a wavering tone, "I-I have every right to speak my mind!"

"Oh, stuff it, James," Hilma scowls, "Yer goods woulda stayed if ya had the brains and guts an' ya knew it! Yer too blubbery an' that's yer own fault!"

Other people in the proximity of the exchange gossip a little here and there, saying "It's Hilma again" and "That old crone?" But despite their dirty looks, none of them try to stop any escalation yet.

Therion looks around a little, his discomfort growing. It'd be best to pull out now and let these merchants sort themselves out. As he is about to call the dancer and apothecary, he sees the crack of shock on Primrose's mask.

"Hilma...?" The dancer breathes, scarcely above a whisper. Could it really be the same?

"You... You're a shame to all us merchants, Hilma!" James plucks up the courage, red-faced, to spit back barbs, "You do business with those curs!"

"Money's money, James. The one rule of merchants, an' that's commerce is king! We ain't that different! The best merchant takes the prize and the little merchants cry out their eyes!"

Other merchants roll their eyes. Primrose suddenly stands between James and Hilma, much to the surprise of everyone. Therion now tries to forcibly yank Alfyn out of there before they get caught up. Leon seems to be silently observing.

"Eh?" Hilma squints at the Sunland beauty, "Whaddayou want, slut?"

"You're Hilma?" Primrose asks with the slightest tautness in her voice. Running through her head are the things Sadiq and Yusufa had said...

"Anyway, mum remarried… and when the wartimes came, and things got tough… I was sold here to work before I was even thirteen…"

"I married Hilma. And Yusufa... was the only good thing to have come from that union... That woman! May venom run in those veins! She had our child sold!"

"Yeah, what of it?" Hilma looks with a bit of caution at the dancer. Primrose did not know what sort of hostility was oozing out of her at that moment.

"Do you recall your daughter, Yusufa?"

Prim did not expect the truth from the vindictive woman. But her words elicited the slightest of tells even the seasoned merchant could not hide from her perceptive eyes. The name surprised her. She did know something.

"Hmf! Never heard of it!" Hilma waves a hand dismissively as she turns to go, "Bah, wasting time talkin' to whores and cowards!"

"You sold her, don't you remember?" Primrose takes a step toward the retreating woman, her anger building, "You left her in a life of servitude to lechers!"

People around begin to murmur. Was the infamous rumor actually true?

Hilma turns around, scowling deeply as she berates the crowd, "Hey, y'all listenin' to some banged up foreign slut?! Shaddap an' mind yer own beeswax!"

Her good eye then narrows on the dancer, "As fer you, missy, I oughta cut ya a new hole fer yer men t'fill."

"You ought to be ashamed of yourself… you're no mother," Primrose hisses in response, "You should be arrested and throw in the gaols like the other criminals."

"Yer barkin' up a storm with no wind! Where's the proof?!" Hilma's spittle flies. Primrose quietly wipes her face and the merchant sneers, "See, all just gossip of some washed out whore."

Another merchant among the crowd, one with a cap and prominent bushy mustache, clears his throat, "Hilma, you should go…"

"Hmf!" Hilma scoffs and begins swaggering out, muttering curses, "Don't ye look at me like that! Wanna keep yer wanker?!"

Primrose sighs as she cleans her face with Yusufa's handkerchief. People linger a little longer, muttering their useless, mundane thoughts, having done nothing. Eventually, they return to their business as usual, even James, who wrings his hands and runs off to a shipment. Therion had managed to pull Alfyn outside by sheer will. It is Leon who approaches the dancer.

"Are you alright?" He asks in a very gentlemanly way.

"… I am fine," Primrose replies as she tries to get the inner flames to calm. Fanned by the inflammatory merchant's tongue, the darkness is threatening to spill out. She needs to get away while she still can control it…

"Excuse me…"

She runs out, ignoring Leon's words after. As she runs, she doesn't hear people shout at her, or Therion and Alfyn call for her. In her thoughts, she rams into a broad and unmoving object and she feels strong arms clasp around her.

"Unh-!" She bites back a small gasp.

"Are you alright?" Olberic says quietly. His hands gently caress her shoulders, "You're positively trembling. What happened?"

"I...," Primrose's breath hitches a bit as the darkness spikes. She takes a gulp of air, "I'm not... feeling very well, is all..."

"Prim!" Alfyn practically drags Therion with him through the crowd as he runs to catch up, "Huff, a-are you, huff, alright?"

"She says she is not well," Olberic's brow furrows and he picks up the dancer fluidly in his arms, "We should reconvene at the inn."

Therion is grateful for once to the warrior's suggestion. Here, the public is just staring at the odd crew. Some with crazy imaginations whisper about the muscled warrior carrying the beautiful red dancer.

"Yeah..." Alfyn frowns with a worried expression, "Who soured that woman's grapes?"

"Don't worry about it," Therion shrugs, "Out of our hair."

Primrose curls against Olberic's chest and grips the cloth of his outer clothing. The rage is choking almost, and she fights to keep her breath even. Images of blood and hatred barrage her mind. Yusufa and Sadiq... betrayed and left to cruel fates by this unscrupulous woman...! Prim doesn't even register the taste of blood as she bit her own lip.

"You must think lighter thoughts," Olberic says to her quietly as they make their way back. She glances up at him in surprise. He says nothing more.

Lighter thoughts...

"Azelharts wield in ourselves a power of darkness. It grows with our greatest passions and emotions, and ebbs with meditation and calm... You are still young, Prim, but you must learn to tame this power, lest it consumes you."

Her thoughts, having drifted to memories with her father, are distracted a little from the maddening urge to kill. The dancer leans tiredly on the warrior as they near the inn, and her breath calms significantly. They arrive back in her room with Olberic, where the warrior lays her down in bed. Alfyn helpfully takes off her sandals. Therion just shuts the door and stands by the entryway.

"..." Prim sighs, "Forgive me for that... unsightly outburst."

The dark power ebbs a bit as she calms. Her fingertips still tingle a little, as does the constriction on her chest.

"I'm jus' glad yer alright, Prim!" Alfyn says with a smile, "If we're goin' boating, better we ain't sick already!"

"I have bought the tickets for the Nightingale tonight," Olberic nods, "It is best we recoup our energies and ready for travel tonight. How did the search for jobs fare?"

"We're gonna go find a cat," Therion says quickly, before Alfyn could mention the pirate bounty.

"Hm, that doesn't sound like it would pay much."

"Well, I wanna go stomp those pirates," Alfyn says firmly.

Therion does a facepalm.

"Pirates? The fellows we saw in the morning?" Olberic looks to the apothecary.

"Mhm!" Alfyn takes out a copy of the poster he snagged before Therion dragged him out from the hall, "They're a buncha jerks! They took an entire guy's livelihood!"

"Please, that's how things work here. Who are we to judge," Therion tries playing it down with a nonchalant shrug.

"It is true... they seemed unpleasant, to say the least," Olberic thinks a moment, "But it wouldn't exactly be in the interest of time to take them down for us."

"Fighting pirates just about now sounds lovely," Primrose gives a small laugh.

Therion rolls his eyes, "Aren't you sick right now or whatever?"

"It was just a bit of a rage," Primrose sits up, "And a scuffle is just what I need to get it out of my system. It shan't take long."

"It is not wise to fight out of emotions like anger. That will make you vulnerable in battle," Olberic says, looking at the dancer and Alfyn.

"Good thing you'll be there to protect us then, won't you, sir knight?" Primrose's lips form a sly smile. Olberic merely mutters something in Hornburg's lost tongue.

"You guys just love getting in trouble, huh?" Therion mutters, "Well, count me out of it."

"You go find those cats, Therion!" Alfyn pats the thief's shoulder, "I'm countin' on ya! And so's the cat owner!"

Therion grumbles, "Gee, thanks for the pep talk."

"Then it's settled," Primrose swings her legs off the bed and stands, "We shall make haste for the caves the pirates are hiding at."

"Eh, she left for the hall?" Tressa scratches her head a little, seeing the sign on Hilma's sale area, "Huh. Well, she'll be back soon enough. She never leaves this place for long, save to gamble at night."

"Hmm, what a curious assortment..." Cyrus looks over the other things at the open-air market.

"Are you even paying attention?" Tressa looks at Cyrus with mild annoyance. After having listened to his lecture on the earliest history of Atlasdam Academy, she wants nothing more than to wash her hands of him, "You were the one who wanted to find Hilma!"

"Hm? Ah, yes, it seems she is unable to be reached at the moment..." He merely nods. Tressa smacks a palm to her forehead.

"Professor?" The familiar cleric group with beasts happens upon the corner of the market.

"Ah, Ophilia!" Cyrus waves, "Fancy coincidence, meeting you once more."

"Aye. Woulden thoughte I did thou leavest first," H'aanit says blithely. She rejoined with Ophilia and Mattias fairly early. She told them of her findings and her decision to accompany them back to Flamesgrace before making her way westward to the Cliftland and Woodland border.

"We've been around the market the whole day, haha..." Ophilia gives a weak smile, "Well, all over all the shops in town too..."

"Really? My, did it bear fruit?"

Ophilia sadly shakes her head. Mattias rubs the blonde's head.

"My condolences," Cyrus sighs, "I myself have not had the best of luck either. The acquaintance I sought is dead, and his belongings now likely lie with the pirates or in his abandoned estate..."

"The pirates..." Ophilia glances a bit to Mattias on the side before saying, "We'll have to deal with them."

"What?" Cyrus looks in surprise at the girl, "Heavens forbid! They are armed criminals!"

H'aanit is taken aback as well, "Ophilia, thou oughten rethink-"

"We've been around town all day and no one has the medicine except William! I need that medicine for his Excellency!" Ophilia says with desperate determination.

H'aanit looks to Mattias, as though expecting him to object. The merchant says nothing, having a somewhat complex expression of defeat on his face.

"You are indeed an iron fist hidden behind a velvet glove, Ophilia…" Cyrus rubs his chin, gears grinding, "… Very well! I shall assist you!"

H'aanit raises an eyebrow at the two of them before sighing with her beasts, "Twould not sitten well with me were I to leave Ophilia at the hands of you, scholar. I shallen comen as well."

"Wait, wait, wait, wait!" Tressa waves her arms a bit, "You guys are seriously going up against the pirates?"

"Yes!" Ophilia says with a resolute nod, "Then William will have to give us the medicine... Ah... Mattias..."

She looks to the other with apprehension, who merely pats her head before showing a small smile.

"I got it. Do what you have to do," Mattias says a bit ruefully, "It was my call to trust that guy after all."

"There's no way you could have known..."

Mattias shakes his head, "I'm leaving Ophilia to you then, H'aanit. I'm going to take care of some side business while I'm here."

H'aanit nods, "Worry thee not. Hadst thou not tellen me, I stille intenden to protect Ophilia with mine life."

"You take care then, Mattias," Ophilia points at the merchant's face, "Don't do anything reckless!"

"Like you should be telling me that!" He laughs.

"Well, I'm coming too!" Tressa announces suddenly, much to the surprise of the others.

"Absolutely not!" Cyrus says almost immediately, "You are much too young to be in such a dangerous setting!"

"I told you, I'm 18!" Tressa grumbles, "And I know those caves, unlike you outta-towners! Before the pirates went there, I went in once or twice to go stone-fishing!"

"Uhm..." Ophilia looks a bit skeptical, understandably, at the younger girl, "Wouldn't your parents be..."

"She be'en of age in the forest," H'aanit shrugs, "Haven a feeling I do that she hath her mind made up."

Hägen rolls his eyes while Linde goes to curiously sniff Tressa. The merchant girl giggles before resuming her tough front.

"I can help! Plus, they took something from me and all my merchant fellows! I can't just let that slide!"

"She's as headstrong as you, Ophilia," Mattias laughs a little, "You guys had better hurry though. Don't forget we have a ship to catch tonight."

"Ah..." Ophilia seems to falter for a second before looking to Tressa firmly, "Then you had better keep out of trouble all right?"

"Puh-leeze! You can't be much older than me!" Tressa waves Ophilia off dismissively, "I can take care of myself!"

"Oh dear..." Cyrus sighs, "I suppose we haven't a choice then..."

"Letten us maketh haste for the pirates then..."

"No, no, no!" Tressa wags a finger, "We can't just charge in without a plan!"

She then grins mischievously, "Don't worry though, I got an idea...!"