The striped Xweetok looked up at the ship. For the most part, it looked as normal as any ship could be, with its great blue and cream sails, polished deck, sailors shouting or following orders, and passengers walking up the gangplank. However, two more sails were fitted on the sides of the vessel, made to look like wings folded and awaiting flight, and wires kept it in place on its perch atop the mountain, alongside its fellows. A family of regally dressed Myncies rushed past her and boarded the ship, chatting excitedly about what lay beyond the mist, beyond the mountains, and beyond their home.
“You comin' aboard, miss?”
She blinked, clutching her suitcase close to her and gazing down at a pirate Kiko. “Unless ye'd rather take the next ship t'Meridell an' stay a little longer,” he added, grinning toothily. “'Tis a lot easier t'have that arranged.”
A shake of the head told him her answer.
“Well then, up ye go! We got four hundred and fifty miles, an' we're leavin' in ten!”
“R-right,” the Xweetok said, hurrying up the gangplank, as fast as her paws could carry her. She felt a cool breeze upon her cheeks, lifting her fur, almost as if saying goodbye.
Goodbye, she thought with a sigh, gripping her suitcase a little tighter.
* * *
It would be my honor to not only let you interview me, but also to have you at our house. You can stay as long as you need to.
P.S. I heard from Chaden that this would be your first time in Meridell. I hope you enjoy it here!
Salita folded and replaced the letter in her pocket before continuing to stare out into the distance. As the airship glided placidly through the cloudy haze, she could see snatches of the green landscape below, the mountain ranges far ahead, and her beloved Shenkuu behind. Arms resting on the wooden rails, she closed her light blue eyes for a moment and tried to imagine what Meridell would be like. Though she already knew what to expect to some extent, it was a different thing entirely to actually see Turdle races, taste the freshest vegetables, feel cheese as she rolled it down a hill, and of course, converse with the subject of her article. The striped Xweetok recalled her editor, a plump spotted Kau, clapping her back repeatedly and laughing uproariously before declaring with extra flourish, “Aren't you excited? Not only are you going to Meridell, you get to meet Reuben of Trestin himself!”
Reuben of Trestin.
She quickly smoothed out her purple blouse and turned away from the scenery, deep in thought. Should she have turned down that assignment? She didn't have the heart; Chaden had been very convincing and she couldn't bear to turn that eager smile of his upside down, crush his spirits...
But Reuben, his weapon making business and his roguish grin were famous... so famous that Salita wanted to crawl into her quarters and never show her face. Though she had expected something like this to crop up in their coverage of the ongoing war in Faerieland and how the rest of Neopia dealt with it, she never thought Chaden would give her this particular job.
Not only was Reuben a prominent stop for the fighters who could afford stopping by Meridell for arms, the white Blumaroo was also distinguished by virtue of being related to a young warrior rumored to be part of a prophecy that promised to end the chaos and predicted the downfall of the warped Draik sorcerer who was the mastermind behind it all. At least I'm not interviewing Rohane or any of his friends, Salita thought, trying to calm herself. Besides, it was hard to reach those particular adventurers, especially since they hadn't been sighted in a while. Still, she shuddered at that possibility; she wouldn't be able to handle it...
“Are you okay?”
Salita gasped and whipped around, clutching at her chest. She let out a long breath when she saw that it was only a small faerie Mynci playing with what looked like a tiny Shenkese headdress, looking up at Salita as though the latter were a revered creature who had just emerged from a legend – and seemed lost in the real world.
“Were you cold?” the youngster asked, tilting her head from one side and scrutinizing the Xweetok with wide hazel eyes.
“N-no,” said Salita finally. “Shouldn't you be with your parents?”
“Even if I get lost here, my brothers and sisters can find me easy,” the Mynci replied as though they were conversing about the weather. She smiled; one of her loose teeth were missing. “'Sides, my parents aren't here – we're gonna see 'em, and then go back to Shenkuu together!”
“They live... in Meridell?”
The Mynci replaced her headdress – which was a nice shade of violet and went quite well with her robe; it looked like a fascinating costume. “Nope, they just visited their friends. And I'm excited – I can't wait to see 'em too!” The faerie Mynci started bouncing and clapping her hands; her headdress was in danger of falling off, and Salita found herself wondering how many times it would topple during their journey.
“Sounds like your parents have some nice friends...”
“Uh-huh... but you're sure you're okay, right? What's your name?”
“I'm Salita. What about you?”
“Nairi... take care of yourself, all right, Miss Salita?” The Mynci made an awkward curtsy, and Salita made a move to catch her if she toppled over, but Nairi kept her balance. And as quickly as she had come, she ran off.
The striped Xweetok shrugged; it was best for her to return to figuring out how to face Reuben when the ship touched Meridell, and for Nairi to return to her family.
However, she couldn't deny that she enjoyed Nairi's company and knew that, somehow, she needed it.
* * *
But the next day, when she emerged from the refectory after breakfast and walked down the corridor to her quarters, she was greeted by a tug on her long black skirt and a tiny voice coming from somewhere around her waist.
“Hello, Nairi... don't you think you should stay with your brothers and sisters instead?”
The faerie Mynci stroked her chin, deep in thought. “Well... they're still asleep... at least, most of them are...”
“You know, Kanairiyen, she's right. At least I know you weren't making up stories when you said you were with someone called 'Miss Salita'.”
The two of them turned around – Nairi almost tripping over Salita's tail – to face another Mynci, this one taller than both of them, and well-built. He was clad in a long blue robe adorned with soaring Draiks made of cloud and trimmed with silver thread. A sheathed blade was strapped to his sash, its handle glinting in the morning sunlight – and at the sight of the weapon, Salita couldn't help but take one step back. She also noticed the golden badge on the Mynci's chest, a diamond-shaped crest with two crossed blades over a cherry blossom... and opened her mouth to speak, but no words came out.
For a while, at least.
“... Lord Zeo... of Silangan,” she managed to whisper, bowing and feeling her knees turn to jelly. What was more surprising than the arrival of such an aristocrat was the fact that Nairi abruptly detached herself and hurried to cling to Zeo's leg.
“Of course I wasn't, big brother!” Nairi – Kanairiyen – exclaimed. “I met her yesterday, and she wasn't looking so good, so I stayed with her a bit...”
More shocking still was the fire Mynci's reaction. He patted her on the head, taking care not to dislodge her headdress. “Okay, okay. Just don't go running around again; we're almost there.” And to Salita he bowed and said, “I must thank you for watching our youngest sister yesterday and even now, though she wasn't with you for too long.” He grinned and proffered his free hand, which the striped Xweetok took with some trepidation that she tried to disguise. “By the way, I'm only Lord of Silangan while our parents are in Meridell. Call me Zeo – it's a lot easier.”
* * *
“Because she is the youngest, we do everything we can to protect Nairi – so until today, she hasn't left our manor,” said Zeo as the three of them sat in the shade, sipping tea that had a strange, nutty taste – or in Nairi's case, drinking Stramberry Juice. Salita kept her hands in her pockets at all times; they wouldn't stop trembling, and she tried her best to focus on what he was saying instead of who he was. “I guess we're partly to blame for her escapades, but she's good and hasn't caused trouble, at least.” He pinched Nairi's cheek and received a glare in return.
“I was good, wasn't I, Miss Salita?” the faerie Mynci pressed before disappearing behind a book of Shenkese faerie tales. Salita simply nodded.
“So you already know we're going to see our parents... and their comrades in Meridell. What about you?” asked Zeo, leaning back and staring into the vast expanse of the sky. “What brings you on an airship bound for a western kingdom ruled well by the wise King Skarl?”
A few tense – well, tense for Salita – seconds passed. “I'm... I'm going to interview someone,” she mumbled more to herself than to him.
Salita dithered, and reached for the teapot. She only spoke again after pouring herself another cup and gazing deep into the light orange liquid within. “I'm... going to see... Reuben of Trestin, the weapon smith. You know him, right?”
Zeo's chuckle had an almost musical quality to it, like solid wooden charms clacking gently in the wind. “I see. You know, he forged this fine blade I carry with me. In fact... I think Mother and Father may have gone to see Master Reuben as well when they arrived in Meridell. He is quite an accomplished smith – and also quick on his feet and with his daggers.”
The Xweetok didn't say anything and chose to drink some of her tea, gripping her cup so tightly that for a moment, she wondered if it would shatter in her hand.
Raising an eyebrow, the lord observed, “You're practically the first Neopian I've ever met who wasn't excited about seeing Reuben. Would it be all right to ask why?”
Salita's throat suddenly went dry, and she busied herself with examining the floral design of her teacup. But when she met Zeo's eyes again, she gave him a single nod.
“I'm... it's just that... he's really famous. Just about everyone in Neopia knows his name and what he does, and he gets a lot of customers not only because he makes good weapons, but also because his family is impressive. His father was a knight, and his brother leads a group of heroes who have already saved four Neopian lands from all kinds of trouble and are surely on their way to a fifth, since they're in Faerieland with that war going on...” The words tumbled out before she could figure out another way to say what she wanted to say, and a tiny voice in her head berated her for sounding so foolish in front of a Shenkese lord. “And... uh, I guess I don't know how to talk about really personal issues with him like, yeah, his family and the situation in Faerieland now that King Terask has taken over...”
He snorted at the name. “That cowardly Draik only hides behind his fighters. Ever since the day he declared himself the supposed king of Faerieland, we haven't seen hide nor hair nor filthy claws of the guy. Anyway... Salita, are you scared of meeting Reuben?”
Yes, about as scared as I am of you, the Xweetok answered mentally. Another part of her mind raised a counterargument. If she was so scared of Lord Zeo, then... she should have run away by now, but here she was, still drinking tea and having a casual conversation with him. But she would never forget that he was a noble. And yet... as they continued to talk and share the same ship...
“I don't know.” Salita settled for a safe answer, but found herself affirming his statement. “Well... since he's so... famous...”
She felt like jumping out of her fur when the fire Mynci reached out and gripped her shoulder. It was strong, a real warrior's grip, but with an aura of reassurance.
“You know, even though he's way up there with the rest of Neopia's greatest swordsmiths, bow whittlers and warriors, Reuben is a nice guy. He's fun to talk to, cracks the best jokes, and is one of the strongest people I know in more ways than one. I should know... I'm one of his most frequent clients.” Zeo stroked his chin and surveyed an Elephante whistling an old sea shanty while swabbing the deck. The sailor twirled his mop once as if dancing with it, and danced out of sight, presumably to swab more of the deck. “You'll like him, I can guarantee it. So don't worry so much.”
“But... I'm a journalist... and I'm going to ask him a lot of things that he might not want to...”
“Didn't I say he's one of the strongest people I know? He won't burst into tears or throw you out if you ask too much. I mean, he doesn't really mind when customers come to his shop only to ask about Rohane. Reuben wouldn't mind entertaining you.”
Salita pursed her lips and recalled Chaden's note. “Well... now that you mention it, he said he didn't mind letting me stay at their house... ”
“See? You have nothing to be scared of.”
At first glance, the striped Xweetok wouldn't have guessed that a seasoned, illustrious warrior like Zeo would say something like that. Maybe he was right; she shouldn't be getting so worked up over an interview. Besides, had been able to speak to Nairi without a problem... on one hand, Salita had no idea that Nairi was actually Kanairiyen of Silangan, the youngest heir of their clan. But now, Salita had just shared how she felt about her current assignment during the ride to Meridell not only with someone she had newly met, but with someone like Lord Zeo. Some of the butterflies in her stomach were settling down, though...
Was there really nothing to be scared of?
“Maybe... maybe I was...”
“Miss Salita was scared of something?” Nairi piped up, snapping her book shut. “Miss Salita, I thought you were all right!”
* * *
Salita's hands were folded primly over her lap as the carriage clattered through the hills and down a path carved through a forest. The forest wasn't too dense, but the path seemed almost forgotten, with blades of grass growing through the gaps in the cobblestone and creating patches of green on gray and brown. She looked back; she could no longer see the harbor, and the ship had surely left by now.
The carriage continued on, emerging into a vast verdant expanse. Soon she could make out houses against a backdrop of towering mountains and surrounded by hills known as the Hills of Trest.
The village of Trestin.
She balled her hands into fists and focused on what she and Zeo had discussed on board – and the fact that she had conversed with a famous figure. Two, actually, counting little Nairi. If I was able to talk to them... then I should be able to face Reuben. I can't turn back now... Chaden and everyone else is depending on me to get a story from him. Who knows... Closing her eyes, she reflected, retrieving her memories of yesterday and two days ago.
You have nothing to be scared of.
Besides, she reminded herself in an attempt to allay her fears, you could have been assigned to interview Rohane himself, that heroic yellow Blumaroo who's been traveling the world and righting every wrong he finds. Now... that would have been a bigger job...
A halt and the creak of the carriage door told the Xweetok that she had arrived. She got off with her suitcase and paid the Usul driver and his Uni comrades, who sped down a dirt road and promptly disappeared. It was mid-morning, and Trestin was bustling with activity. A yellow Kacheek herded several Babaas past her, raising his straw hat in greeting. A red Aisha passed with a basket of bottles. But Salita barely paid any attention.
She was too busy staring at the shop, with the sign that said Blades 'n' Bows for all to see and a smithy right next to it. Outside was a somewhat tarnished anvil and an unpainted picket fence, the place where Reuben had posed for many a photograph with his usual smirk and laid-back demeanor. A purple Tonu emerged from the shop, beaming as he held a longbow close to himself and muttering something that sounded like, “Excellent price for such an excellent piece of work...” He passed by her, continuing to exalt the maker of his purchase.
Salita had traveled four hundred and fifty miles for this. It was now or never, and she already had a few days to prepare herself. She took a deep breath, put on her most professional smile, and stepped forward -
“You might want to settle in and take your other things inside our house first, you know. I think we'd have a much better interview if you weren't weighed down with your luggage.”
While Salita made a mental note to never let anyone sneak up on her like that again, a pair of able, somewhat calloused hands took her suitcase from her – hands that belonged to a white Blumaroo. He was slender but sturdy, dressed in a long-sleeved beige shirt, long navy trousers and black boots. At his belt were two daggers – no, three. “You must be Miss Salita, the reporter,” he said, grinning. “I know you already know me, but for the sake of formality and all that, hi, my name is Reuben, purveyor of this humble weapon stand, and big brother to Rohane, the insanely famous swordsman who's currently busy helping Faerieland fight for their freedom.” With a chuckle, he gestured toward the house on the shop's right.
“Oh... thank you very much,” said the striped Xweetok, slightly taken aback.
“I've also asked the rest of the gang to take care of things over there.” He jerked a thumb at his shop offhandedly. “We can have the interview inside – in the living room, and even have lunch if it takes that long.” Reuben laughed. “Not that I mind if it does.”
Salita was silent, gawking at her interviewee and her suitcase. She hurriedly rummaged through her head for something to say, but came up with nothing until he spoke again.
“Well, what are you waiting for?” he asked, flashing a crooked grin before setting off for his house. “If you're waiting for my little brother for a double interview, you might want to start with me and just come back another time.”
I probably look stupid, standing like this in front of my interviewee. If Zeo could see me now, he'd crack up...
“All right,” said Salita, hurrying after him. As she stepped off the path that led to Blades 'n' Bows and waded through the grass, her mind felt as though it was beginning to settle, like her stomach when the butterflies began to vanish one by one. Only a few words remained... a few words that helped her remember why she had traveled 450 miles, how to get through what she was here for in one piece, and the fact that Reuben hardly acted like the exalted weapon smith he was made out to be – not that he wasn't.
You have nothing to be scared of.
It took her 450 miles to realize it, but as she listened to Reuben tell a story about an overeager Neopian Times reporter who went to his shop practically every week just to hear stories about his and Rohane's shared childhood, she knew it was better than never, and worth a few days of brooding.
This was her destination, but the journey, though short, had been just as significant.