The Unorthodox Expedition: Part Six
"You must be joking! We can get zeenanas for half that price at Krawk Island! And they probably taste mush better than yours!" Lucille Harmond exclaimed indignantly.
The shopkeeper scowled. He had long since lost patience with the economical brown Acara. "Like I said, ma'am, these are authentic Mystery Island zeenanas. If you're not pleased with the price, you can just go to Krawk Island and buy those pathetic excuses for zeenanas!"
"I daresay I shall! Come along, Sam." Lucille swept away arrogantly, perhaps to argue with the man at the fish stall. If she kept that up, Sam thought they may be chased out of the marketplace soon.
The small green Ogrin was nearly overwhelmed by how different, how exotic, how new everything was to him. He had never left Krawk Island; not once. Sam tried to experience ten things at once: the colorful little petpets, the sparkling necklaces, the fanciful little seashells, the pounding music coming from a band in a street corner that made him want to dance, or at least drop a few Neopoints into the straw hat they had placed on the ground, earning him a wink from the lead drummer.
His Warf had his head poking out of Sam's rucksack, and yipped whenever he spied something particularly exciting.
They had arrived at the island late last night, too late, the Captain said, to go explore. So, Sam had spent a sleepless night on Contemplative Philosophies, waiting for morning and adventure.
Sure, shopping may not have been what he had in mind, but it was still quite exhilarating. Everything he saw was new and filled him with wonder.
Mrs. Harmond seemed to be heading back the way they came. That would not do; Sam still had a few things he wanted to see. He tugged on her hand to get her attention.
Lucille stopped walking and leaned towards him. "What is it?" she asked, not unkindly.
Sam pointed at himself, jerked his thumb over his shoulder, then pointed at Mrs. Harmond, and gestured beyond her.
"You want to stay here?"
He nodded. "Alright, but meet me by that fruit stall in exactly an hour." She ruffled Sam's mane like an affectionate aunt and walked away.
Sam turned around and went back to the street band, the music pulling him closer like a magnet. The drummers and flutists were still playing away, seemingly oblivious that their audience consisted of only a little Ogrin.
Sam got tired of that after a while, so he started wandering through the stands, looking at their often colorful merchandise. Captain Harmond had given him some money to spend, another new thing for Sam. Whenever Ben had given Sam money, it was accompanied with instructions like: "Get two apples from that Aisha", or "You need some new shoes. Steven has a black pair that should fit you". Now, Sam could spend the money any way he wanted.
He decided against buying food; it would be gone too quickly. Instead, Sam wanted to get something for Lilith. He hadn't properly thanked her for the Warf, which he had decided to call Ben. It was almost funny that the namesake of the hyperactive, curious puppy was a crotchety old blind man.
Lilith Ferrars, Perseus, and Sebastian Duske stepped off the Tiki Tours cart and stretched.
"Don't forget to pick up some souvenirs from the office," the little coconut JubJub said, almost desperately.
"Of course not," Sebastian said reassuringly.
Once they were out of hearing distance, Lilith said, "That wasn't worth the time or the money."
"I agree." Sebastian looked at his watch. "That wasted about an hour; how about I take you to lunch to make up for the Tiki Tours?"
"I'd love to, but maybe we should meet up with the others." Perseus seemed annoyed that Sebastian hadn't included him in his offer. Sebastian meant the both of them, he knew, but a little acknowledgement would have been appreciated.
"Later, then," Sebastian said easily, "but do you know where the inn is?"
"Well, no. Don't you?"
"You're the navigator here! I can't tell right from left, to tell you the truth."
"Okay, okay. Well, my compass is still in my pocket, and if we can make it back to the harbor we should be able to find it." Lilith pulled the compass out then and found south. "That way," she said, pointing.
They started walking, in silence at first. It was a hot, humid day. The air seemed too heavy to inhale.
Then Lilith said, almost to herself, "I remember the first time I used a compass." Sebastian looked at her, but she seemed to be lost in her own thoughts. "I was always fascinated with the one Father had," she continued. "Nancy saw me playing with it one day and decided to teach me how to use one. So, she made a compass out of paper, with a pencil for a needle. We walked around the garden, turning the needle whenever we changed direction. I was around seven then, and that just confused me to no end." Lilith came back to the real world, realizing she might have said too much.
"Who's Nancy?" Sebastian asked, in an attempt to vanquish the heavy silence that followed her revelation. Perseus could have bit him.
"My... aunt," Lilith didn't want to answer, but she owed him an explanation. Even if it was false. "Mother was often ill, so she would come over to take care of me."
Sebastian noticed she felt uncomfortable about the subject, and said no more on it, focusing on the grass beneath his boots for a while. "So, we're probably going to look for the treasure tomorrow. What do you think it could be?"
"Gold? Jewels? The usual, I suppose," Lilith said, grateful for the different topic.
"I didn't think that would interest a Brightvalian scholar," Sebastian pointed out.
Lilith shrugged. "Maybe they wanted some more money to build a school or something."
"I thought it might be a lost civilization or an ancient library; something more... intellectual."
"Who's next?" Henry Chum asked, as Edwin pushed his latest winnings into a rucksack.
The brothers were in the third pub they had visited that day, after cleaning out the pockets of nearly every patron in the other two. The islanders were beginning to seriously suspect that the mutant Ixi was cheating at, well, Cheat, but not in the way you were supposed to cheat in Cheat. Anyway, they were too afraid to call him out on it because of the huge mutant Bruce looming in the shadows who seemed to work for the Ixi.
This pub in particular was exceedingly shady, with questionable characters lurking in the corners, and shadows that seemed... heavy.
No new players came forth. Henry was beginning to grow bored with cheating at Cheat. A glance at the clock told him it was just after noon.
"Come, brother. We're finished here," Henry said, standing up. He strode out of the room with his brother close at his heels, leaving the islanders to wonder who he was.
"Is everyone here?" Captain Harmond asked, in a loud voice for Old Phil's benefit. The crew was sitting at a long table at an inn called "Shem's Inn". It was a rather expensive establishment, despite the unimaginative name.
"We're still waiting for Mr. Duske and Miss Ferrars," Professor Winthrop said.
"Let's just start without them," Henry Chum said, in a voice that implied he had been waiting for ten years instead of ten minutes.
Sebastian and Lilith burst in presently, red-faced, and panting and laughing at the same time. Perseus appeared behind them, less out of breath, but just as amused.
"You're late enough," Elizabeth Steele said haughtily.
"Sorry, sorry," Sebastian gasped, "But we ran into some conspiracy theorists, who were claiming that Faerieland was still very much in the sky."
Lucille Harmond sniffed. "That can only be expected, from the hooligans who run about this place." She was still miffed that the shopkeepers at the marketplace refused to accept her prices.
"Well, now that we're all here, let's get to business," said Captain Harmond, leaning over a detailed map of Mystery Island, "Idiot Professor, if you would explain our course."
"Of course, sir!" Cornelius said, straightening his spectacles. The speckled Lenny took a deep breath and began, "I compared the treasure map, over here on the right, to this map of Mystery Island. As you can see, on the treasure map, here, the path begins from the beach near the harbor, and we travel north to this place, right here. This is a rather rough diagram; hurriedly drawn perhaps, so it was hard to tell where it was leading." Cornelius turned his attention back to the more recent map. "The Captain and I spent the morning figuring it out, and, as you can see, our goal is Techo Mountain."
A murmur of curious wonder from the assembled, followed by a question from Edwin Chum.
"Er, what's th-that, Professor?" He was pointing at the verse on the treasure map, saying: Pieces of eight, pieces of ten. Wandering hermit, inhabiting no fen. Hearken, explorer, rise and then; Pieces of eight, pieces of ten.
"Oi! Tha's just loony ramblin', it is! Poorly written, too!" said Old Phil, after being told what the paper said. He couldn't read, you see.
"Loony or not, it's probl'ly important. We can't make head or tails of it, so the idiot Professor and I were hoping you lot might have an idea," Captain Harmond said, taking a long draw from his pipe.
There was silence as everyone racked their brains for a clue. Finally, Sebastian spoke. "I think I've heard of this 'wandering hermit' before."
"Do tell." Henry Chum rolled his eyes. Everyone besides him leaned closer to hear.
"Well, my mum was from Mystery Island, and she used to tell me stories her mum used to tell her. There was one about this wandering hermit. There was this royal Shoyru from long ago, about the time of Meridell's first war. He was nobility, from Meridell itself, and came to Mystery Island as a sort of ambassador. Bored with life, the man was, until he met an islander girl. That part was a little vague, but apparently she taught him about the beauty of life; stop to smell the roses and whatnot." Sam's brown eyes were wide and dreamy. He looked as if he was miles, perhaps eons away.
"Tragedy befell, of course," Sebastian continued. "The girl's father, a chief or something, didn't approve of their attachment. He sent warriors to have the nobleman killed. His daughter found out, though, and threatened to kill herself if he was hurt. The chief disregarded her "impulsive threat" and went right on sending the men. She did it, though. Kill herself, that is. Her father found her just shy of death and panicked. He called off the death mission, in a sort of desperate attempt to get her back. She died from poison anyway, the chief died of grief, and the nobleman wished he could die, because she was gone. He stayed on Mystery Island for the rest of his life, driven quite mad, and chasing what he believed to be her lost ghost, calling to him from beyond. Not sure where the hermit part came in, but he wandered quite a bit."
Everyone fell silent. Such a story, even told in such an indifferent way, could only strike a chord in their hearts, however small.
Cornelius Winthrop cleared his throat, and tried to bring everyone back to the point. "Th-that may be quite helpful, Mr. Duske. Any other ideas?"
Lilith mentally shook the last shreds of fancy from her mind and said, "Hearken, of course, means listen, but I suppose that and the "rise" part will make more sense once we get to the mountain."
"O-of course," the Professor agreed.
Lilith wasn't done. "But, what about the hermit part again? What's a fen?"
"Ah! Well, I looked that up, and a fen is a sort of marshy terrain."
" 'Ow can ye hold a marsh?" Old Phil asked grumpily.
"This is all very tricky business! I'll tell you right now, I don't approve of riddles," Lucille Harmond declared.
"Your approval has nothing to do with it, woman," Captain Harmond said, "Anyhow, the most important thing right now is to get started. It's too late to start off today, so we'll leave early tomorrow morning. Miss Steele!"
"Sir?" she asked in an extremely bored tone.
"You have the job of finding us a guide to Techo Mountain."
Elizabeth bristled. "Why me, sir?"
"Someone has to do it." It was all she got for an explanation.
Lilith Ferrars was sitting up in bed, putting the last touches on her drawing of Old Phil. Perseus was fast asleep at her feet, and probably dreaming of running from the way his long Seti legs were twitching.
Elizabeth Steele burst into the room, looking quite exhausted and irritated. She had had a bad time of finding the guide; half the blokes who approached her were convinced she was looking for a doctor, for some reason.
"Oh, you're back, Lizzie," Lilith said. "Did you find us a guide?"
Elizabeth cringed, for reasons unknown to the white Lupess. "Yes," the yellow Xweetok said, through gritted teeth. She bustled about near her bed, trying to avoid more conversation.
"Who is it, Lizzie?" asked Lilith, who, not being blind, had noticed the discomfort the little nickname gave Elizabeth, and was trying to coax her into an explanation. "Who's the guide?"
Elizabeth was silent for a while. Voices from the first floor of Shem's Inn floated up through the floorboards. Then, almost too quietly to hear, she said, "Don't. Don't call me Lizzie."
Lilith was a bit surprised. She had been expecting Elizabeth's usual cold anger in response to her off-handed teasing.
"Whyever not?" she asked.
Elizabeth scowled, more out of habit than real irritation, and said, in a world-wearied way, "Why should I tell you? What difference does it make to you, anyway?"
"It probably wouldn't benefit me," Lilith said, "But you may feel better for the telling." Flimsy reasoning, they both knew, but the story had been burning inside Elizabeth Steele for so long, it was enough to convince her to let it out.
Elizabeth sighed and hugged her knees to her chest where she sat, in the middle of her bed. "Anna used to call me that. Anna was- is my twin sister." She paused then, wondering if she should continue. The green eyes watching her from across the room convinced her to keep going.
"There isn't much to tell. We were best friends, she was murdered by muggers, end of story," Elizabeth said in an unfeeling tone, briskly beginning to get into bed. Outside, a warm tropical shower caressed the streets and buildings.
Across the room, Lilith was still trying to process the information. Anna? Twin? Murder? Trauma?
Elizabeth, under the covers, stared at the ceiling. She was seeing something other than the knots in the wood and a mold stain in the corner, though. "Just killed her... and ran away... as if her life wasn't worth some cash." She spat out the last word like a curse. "She went out one day to buy groceries; she liked going alone sometimes. On the way there, she walked past an alley, and some people stabbed her and took all of the money. A neighbor came over later. He told me a dead body had been found. Anna was late, but I assumed she had just lost track of time."
Then, after a while, "Lilith... is life really worth nothing?"
"Any life, even that of a Slorg, is more precious than the world ten times over." A Shenkuuvian adage, learned from her grandmother.
To be continued...