Welcome to White River
Dedicated to a special and real country, whose colorful history and culture inspired Ursus and Portia in turn. Although your culture is not my own, I hope you will accept this story as a tribute to your strong history and your beautiful people.
Portia Provoskia swept the dust from her skirt with a calculated flourish as she exited the small carriage. Her driver, a young Shoyru who talked with a thick Meridellian accent, handed the Halloween Ixi the small case that contained the few possessions she owned. "Welcome to White River, Miss." He crowed as she paid him his fare.
White River was a small village situated where the great White River (also called the Lightwater River) met the ocean that formed Meridell's eastern border. The town was split into two parts, joined together by a large cobblestone bridge connecting them. The town contained a small set of docks, suitable for fishing boats and a few smaller shipping vessels. The lighthouse to guide the wayward seafarers stood on the top of a cliff just to the south of the town. Her driver had said it was one of the most beautiful in the country.
For the next little while, this sleepy village was to be her home, assuming of course that she could find some form of work. The Halloween Ixi brushed back a tendril of her red hair, sweeping it under her flat brimmed hat. Grabbing her case, she walked briskly towards the local inn, pausing for a second to read the sign above the door. "Rusty Wheel Inn. Breakfast included."
She stepped inside and found herself in a cozy dining area, with handmade wooden tables and chairs arranged against the wall. She made her way towards the counter in the back of the room, and rang the small bell located there.
"Coming. Coming. Give me one tick." the voice was muffled, coming from a back room hidden behind the long counter.
A second later, a grease covered pirate eyrie made her way from the back to lean on the counter. Portia couldn't help but look the strange looking girl up and down. Her auburn hair was covered with a pair of leather and metal goggles, and her shirt and trousers were covered with soot and grime. She looked like she was from Moltara, although she didn't have any metal coverings on her wings, or any sort of metal on her body, aside from a gold earring in her right ear. A light brown tribal tattoo peeked out from her left arm as she leaned towards Portia.
"Whatcha' need miss?" she asked.
"I'll need a room for at least the next week or so." Portia replied.
The eyrie's eyebrows lifted at her accent.
"We don't normally get people from Ursus in Meridell."
"Well, that is a pity, I have found your countrymen to be quite warm,
inviting..." Portia began, her gaze cold and steady on the innkeeper before her. "And quite...accepting." She let the comment hang in the air for a moment before dropping her Neopoints on the counter.
The Eyrie nodded quickly, then handed her a small brass key.
"Room 304, just down the hallway there. I'm Valerie, if you need anything. I own this inn."
Portia nodded, then headed towards her room, and the rest she would find within. It had been a long hard journey.
Ursus is a country to the west of Shenkuu, known for its rugged mountain peaks, large timber forests, and it's cold temperatures. It is ruled by a small royal family, with the Tsar as its ruling member.
From its northern border, the mountains ran west all the way to the south of the country, and beyond them the frigid sea oft containing chunks of ice broken off from the glaciers of Terror Mountain, far to the north. In the central areas, the taiga, dense and thick forest full of wild creatures and rich earth. To the east, grassy steppes that provided the only viable way out of the harsh land.
As to the history, even the most distinguished scholars of Neopia had no exact idea. Some suggested that a band of sailors, originally hailing from one of the clannish islands near Meridell settled in the region, bringing with them their rough language, their long wooden boats, and their love of battle, intermingling with the native population. Others suggested that the natives were descendants of the first nomads from Shenkuu. But regardless of where they came from, the people of Ursus were said to be as tough as the land that made them. Comprising of fishermen, soldiers, hunters, nomads, woodsmen, and craftsmen. All considered as cold and harsh as the winters they spent drinking Kadvo, the Ursian grog, by the firelight. They did not often leave their motherland.
She was one of the few.
She did not shiver as the fall wind tried it's hardest to blow at her ruffled skirt. She quickly made her way down the main street of White River, crossing the cobblestone bridge that spanned the gap between the two halves of the town. She took a look around at the shops, searching for any signs indicating an open job.
"Excuse me, miss."
"Da?" she answered, then hesitated. "I mean, yes?"
She turned toward the voice.
Standing in front of her was a Halloween Ixi, much like herself, but with a
rather different set of apparel. He stood tall in a purple striped suit, with a richly embossed tie hanging around his neck. The object that stood out most to Portia however, was his purple top hat, also patterned and beautifully designed. Brown hair peeked out from under the hat, swept slightly to the side.
"You're that Ursian that's staying down at the inn." It was a statement, not a question.
"Yes. Portia Provoskia."
"Charrie Riddle. I'm the hat maker, and currently the interim mayor." "Interim?"
"The previous mayor did not file the taxes correctly for the town, and our
benevolent king did not exactly feel like granting him much grace on that score. He's currently spending the next few years in the castle dungeons."
"Understandable." She replied, her eyebrows slightly raised.
They walked together for a few minutes, not saying much.
"Portia, I have a question, if you do not mind." Charrie stated.
"What are you planning to do in White River?"
Portia narrowed her eyes at the Ixi, moving her hands down to her hips.
"Calm down Portia. I promise, I am not making assumptions. I have been to Ursus, and I find your people lovely."
She moved her hands from her hips, but still kept leveling her gaze at the hat maker.
"Mister Riddle, I find that so few of my countrymen ever experience the world at large. Those that do tend to cause my country to have a...." she searched for the word...."unpleasant reputation. As such, I tend to not be warmly received, if I am received at all."
Charrie was silent for a moment, pondering.
"I am searching for a job, Mister Riddle. A new life here in Meridell, if all goes well." Portia stated.
"Well it appears that you are in luck Miss Provoskia, I need an assistant at the Mayor's office to help me balance the books and a few other things while I try to find someone to take over the job. If you cannot find someone willing enough to accept you and give you a position elsewhere, why don't you give it a try?"
She studied his face for a moment, trying to understand the motivation behind the offer. She saw nothing but honesty there, and nodded.
"Very well. I will contact you in a few days if I am interested."
Charrie left her then, tipping his hat as he headed towards the other side of town.
He entered his shop with a flourish, placing his top hat on a rack near the
door and letting his brown hair fall into his eyes for a quick moment. He wiped his face with a handkerchief and headed towards the back of the shop. He made it about halfway across the floor before the bell rang and Leeanna O'Fallon was standing directly in front of him.
The stern Pirate Lenny was in charge of White River's only public library, and also one of the most notorious keepers of gossip in town. She didn't spread rumors, but she knew most of the goings on in the town before Charrie did.
"I heard that a young lassie from Ursus made her way into town today." She said. She spoke with a lilting brogue that was musical and dainty, much unlike her stern and fearsome appearance. Her hair was swept up and pinned tight, and her smile often appeared just as forced as her hairstyle. She looked at Charrie much as a Crokabek would look upon a delicious morsel of meat or bread.
"Yes Leeanna, she did."
"I heard you offered her the position of your assistant."
"Just for the time being. I need the help and she needs the income." "What do you know about her?"
"Many things. Just from our conversation."
"Oh, do tell?"
Charrie sighed. Being a good judge of people and personalities was a large part of his job.
"She's a native Ursian, although she downplayed it by buying some local clothing before coming here. Her accent is noticeable, but not thick, indicating she's had some education and has been in a position that requires communication skills. From her posture I'd say former government official or military officer. I'm leaning military because of her eye contact."
"What does eye contact have to do with it?"
"When I introduced myself as just the hat shop owner, she looked down at me, as if I was below her in rank. When I mentioned that I was the interim mayor, she began to meet my gaze. I earned her approval with my ranking."
"Observant. Go on."
"She left Ursus for some reason. I'm doubting that it's a good one. Few people who live in Ursus enjoy leaving it, particularly to start a new life. They're known to be patriotic and loyal. If she was part of the government, ether as a military officer or as an official, she would have even more of a reason to stay. But she left, and now she is here trying her hardest not to look Ursian."
Leeanna clucked her tongue, shaking her head as she did so.
"Charrie, you know that you cannot save every wayward soul you come across."
"Leeanna, you know that lecturing me on the subject isn't going to change my mind."
"But think of the gossip that will spread around town if you take that girl under your wing? You know well that I won't say anything, but many residents will wonder why you're trusting an Ursian girl."
"I think they will find that their judgements and preconceived notions about this young lady are wrong...with time."
Charrie walked towards the window, looking out at the town from behind the display showing his handiwork.
Leanna stared at him, and took in a breath. She hated to mention it, but it was for Charrie's own good.
"You know, saving every person out there isn't going to bring your sisters home."
The Ixi turned toward her, acting as if he'd been struck.
"W-what do you know about them?"
"Not much. Just that you keep pictures of them around your workspace in your shop and you never talk about them. That means they're either dead or estranged. I'm leaning more towards the latter since you receive daily correspondence through the post office."
Charrie nodded grimly.
"Leeanna, the issue you just mentioned aside, I have a good feeling about this girl. She could just be what our town needs."
"Charrie, have you ever thought that she may not be what the town wants?
Charrie grinned before replying "Aye. I do. I take it under consideration, but like any good parent, I think first about its welfare, then about spoiling."
She had looked in the windows, and found few places with vacancies. Of those places she had been turned away every time. Portia sighed in frustration. She considered again the offer by the mayor. She would need funds at some point. The small amount of pay she had hidden away over the past few months would only carry her so far.
She'd asked at the seamstress' shop, only to have the snot covered proprietor tell her that they had no openings. She'd inquired at the library, only to have the stern Lenny librarian staring daggers at her the entire time she was in the building. She took that as an automatic no. There were a few more shops, but there were no signs posted, and she'd had enough prejudice thrown at her after two weeks of searching. Time to call it a day.
She walked back towards the inn, but was quickly hailed by a young Pastel Xweetok. "Are you Miss Provoskia?" She panted, quite out of breath.
"Da. I mean, yes." The girl nodded, then pulled out a letter from a brown satchel.
"I'm Nellie. I work down at the post office. This letter came a long way, special delivery from the looks of it."
"Thank you Nellie. I appreciate it." The Xweetok nodded and went on her way.
Portia clutched the letter tightly. She recognized the postmarked seal. It was from Ursus. She was surprised that someone could find her this quickly. Who's was it from? She waited until she slipped back into her room at the inn to open it. It was from Ivan, one of her old friends. She breathed out in relief. The green Yurble would surely have some news from home. "And he won't tell anyone else where I am." She thought to herself.
She began to read.
I know that you must be surprised at this letter. But one doesn't become the spymaster for the Ursian military without having contacts beyond the barriers of the Rodina. They promoted Volkov after you left, he is now the general of our battalion. The men are just as pleased as you certainly will be at the news.
Portia scoffed. Volkov was half as competent as she was. A good military man and strategist to be sure, but he was harsh and did not care much for the day-to-day duties of taking care of the men. She read on.
Nicholai is upset, and rightly so. The Tsar does not have many friends, as you know, particularly one who has known him as long as you have. He has asked me many times if I know of your location, and I have told him that even if I did, I would not betray your wishes.
He wonders, as we all do...how you are doing and if you are happy. We hope that you will one day come back to the Rodina that you have loved so long. The hole you have left in the hearts of your men and in your Tsar are not so easily filled by others.
I told Nicholai that it was best to let you find your own way. He knows as well as I do that Alexei's death has changed you. But he wants you to know that there is a reason that we call our land our Rodina, or our motherland. Because although we can wander away from her at times, ether in thinking, spirit, or physical distance, she is still a part of us. She is still a place we can return to.
I urge you to return one day, if only to give Nicholai and I some peace that you are alive and well.
Your comrade in arms,
Ursian generals should not cry. To cry was to show weakness to those below you in rank. But today, Portia did not care. She wept, letting her tears cascade down her face and smudge the ink on the letter below her.
Ivan was right about many things. She'd known it would hurt when she left, however she knew that it was something that must be done. Alexei's fate had sealed her own as well. She could not go back to fighting as she once had.
The illusion had been shattered. All that was left was to pick up each piece and hope she would not be cut.
To be continued…