It took 43 seconds for Rink to stop laughing at James. He briefly wondered if she ever stopped to breathe.
"Come on, how was I supposed to..." James said, slightly red-faced.
"You spent days... and she never... and you didn't ask... and oh my god," Rink said in between her bursts of laughter.
"Of all the people I'd run into, I get the mayor's daughter..." James said, mostly to himself.
"I thought that was the whole reason you hung out with her!"
"I helped her, and she showed me around as thanks! That's all there is to it!"
"Oh, my god..." Rink said before collecting herself and taking a deep breath. "Still, I like that..."
"What?" James asked.
"You're an interesting man, mister Conrad," Rink said. "You're sincere."
"You have an air of honesty about you that you don't see every day," Rink said. "I can appreciate that."
"So what are you going to do now?" James asked.
"Well, right now," James said.
"My plans until the evening got freed up, so..."
"You want to hang out with me?" Rink asked.
"Well... if you don't mind," James said. "I still haven't gotten any answers about you."
"Don't expect any," Rink said. "But sure, why not? You're quite different from most people who'd want to spend time with me."
"How many people do you think would want to have lunch with the mayor's daughter and the most famous singer in town?" Rink asked in response as she continued walking towards the docks.
"Well... a lot, I guess," James replied.
"But you didn't care about that," Rink said. "It didn't matter to you that that's what we are. You considered us equals. Don't get me wrong, I love all my fans, but it's refreshing to meet someone like you."
"What do you mean?" James asked.
"A lot of people are quick to put you on a pedestal just because you're famous," Rink said. "It's made it hard for me to make any real friends, despite all the fans I have."
"Well, I liked your shows..." James started.
"But why did you like them?"
"Like I said, the way you sing... it was something new," James said. "So I wanted to ask you about that."
"You took an academic interest in it," Rink said. "That's something new for me. Most people don't really care about how I do what I do."
"So... how do you do it?" James asked. "Like... that thing you do when you sound like you're more than one person singing."
"Oh, the fractal harmonies?" Rink asked.
"...is that a real thing?" James replied.
"As far as you know. We artists have our trade secrets," Rink replied. "More to the point, what's your deal?"
"Why are you here? Why did you come to Avasine?"
"Oh, I've started a journey, and Avasine was my first stop," James replied. "To prepare for what's to come."
"Where are you going?" Rink asked.
"Wherever I end up," James replied. "I don't have a goal. I just want to see the world."
"Not been around much?"
"No, not... not by myself," James said. "Or, rather, not on my own terms."
"Finally got a chance to be independent, eh?" Rink said. "So how are you getting around?"
"I have my own boat," James replied. "I'm docked just around here."
"You built your own boat?" Rink asked with a voice that hinted at the speaker being impressed, but trying to hide it.
"Well, I had help, but yeah," James replied. "You wanna see it?" he asked before catching himself with a chuckle.
"Sure, why not?" Rink said. "And what's so funny?"
"I just remembered that I did the same thing with Mirise the first day we met," James replied.
"So that's your idea of a good date?" Rink asked. "'Hey girl, want to see my boat?'"
"I guess I'm just proud of it," James said.
"You should be," Rink said. "Building a boat... that's not something you just 'do', you know. It takes effort."
"Yeah," James said with a nod and a smile as he spotted his boat close by. He stopped and stretched out his arm towards it. "Allow me to introduce you to Cassandra."
"Huh." Rink looked down at the boat in front of her. She wasn't a very large vessel, obviously not designed to hold a lot of people. One cabin at the back, a storage hatch on the deck in the front.
"What do you think?" James asked.
"She's small, but..." Rink said, trailing off for a few moments, searching for the words.
"Small but looks quite seaworthy," Rink responded. "I've seen worse full-size ships. I'm impressed."
"Thanks," James replied and sat down on the edge of the docks. Rink sat down to his left.
"So how's your journey gone so far?" Rink asked. "You must have sailed here from somewhere."
"Not... not that well," James admitted. "Took longer than I had expected... ran out of food."
"Seriously?" Rink asked while stifling a giggle. "Didn't anyone teach you to plan ahead?"
"Well, I know that now," James replied. "And that's what I'm doing now. I'll be here until I know I can continue, which... is either until I learn to... or find..."
"Sounds rough," Rink said before James turned to her with a snap.
"Rink!" he exclaimed.
"Since when are we on first na-"
"Come with me!"
"Eh?" Rink said before falling silent and blinking a few times, as if to ascertain that she had actually heard him correctly. "Excuse me?"
"Come with me," James repeated. "You have experience with traveling, don't you?"
"Well, I... do, but... not with navigating, and... why would I go with you, for that matter?"
"You said it yourself, didn't you?" James started. "You have everything here to the point that you're bored with it."
"I... kinda said that, but..."
"That's why you stopped hanging out with your fans after your shows, isn't it?" James asked.
"You figured that much out, did you..."
What James had said was the truth of the matter. It was a sense of longing for something that had made Rink go off to be on her own after her shows, and she had often been drinking by the docks. She had been on the go for a while before she came to Avasine, stayed a while in one place before just taking some passenger ship to another place... but even that had started getting old for her. She would often remember a time when she had been traveling on a ship with a larger group, a group of friends... until it had ended very abruptly. Traveling on her own terms, with friends... maybe it was the change of pace she needed.
"Maybe you're right, mister Conrad," Rink said and traced the right arm the coat hanging over her shoulders with her finger.
"See this coat?" Rink asked and held up the arm.
"What about it?" James asked in response.
"It used to belong to someone I once traveled with," Rink said. "Someone I looked up to."
"I thought it looked too big for you," James said.
"That's why I just wear it like this," Rink said and raised her arms to spread the sides further. "You remind me of him."
"So does that mean-"
"You're driven," Rink said. "I like that."
"So, are you-"
"I want to see more of that."
"What do you mean?"
"I want to see just how strong your conviction is," Rink said. "That girl. Mirise."
"What about her?" James asked.
"If you can get her to join you, I'll consider it," Rink replied.
"...what," James said in a slightly defeated tone. "You want me to... asking you was one thing, but..."
"You think I'm easier than her?" Rink asked, obviously faking offense.
"Well... you've been traveling around already, she's lived here all her life," James replied. "And she's the daughter of the mayor, so how am I..."
"Maybe it's time for her to seek new horizons, then," Rink said. "Weren't you having dinner with her tonight?"
"With all the time it sounded like you've spent with her you have to have thought about it already," Rink said. "Think about it a little more, and I'm sure you'll come up with something," she continued and stood up.
"Where are you-" James begun.
"It was enjoyable to talk to you, mister Conrad," Rink said, interrupting him. "But the rest is up to you."
"Right..." he replied before Rink left, leaving him sitting on the dockside. He sighed and looked at his boat. "So this is what I get. I try to get one of the city celebrities to join me, and she tells me to get another one to join me first. Is this even worth it? What do you think... sis?"
Cassandra, naturally, didn't reply.
Exactly five hours, sixteen minutes and thirty-nine seconds later, James met up with Mirise outside of the hotel. He was nervous when she approached, but not enough to make her notice it.
"Alright, are you ready for another one of Avasine's best?" she asked, cheerily.
"Definitely," James replied. "Where are we going today?"
"Giovanni's," Mirise said as she started walking with James in tow. "Best pizza in town."
"Sounds good to me," James said. "So, uh, what did your dad say about earlier?"
"Oh, it was nothing, really," Mirise replied. "Since nothing really happened, there wasn't that much to say. It was just the usual, be careful, let me know if they cause any more trouble, all that."
"That's good," James said. "So, well, about your father..."
"What about him?" Mirise asked.
"Uh... Rink told me he's the mayor."
"Yes, I... oh, wait, you didn't know that? I never told- oh, I'm so sorry!" Mirise exclaimed. "I'm so used to people knowing that, I thought you knew already!"
"I... didn't, but... no harm done. I'm just glad you can still hang out with me."
"Oh, that was never any issue," Mirise said. "It's not like my dad can tell me who to hang out with or not... well, he might try, but I don't listen. Parents, right?" she continued with a laugh.
"Yeah, heh... parents."
"What are your parents like?" Mirise asked.
"Well, I... haven't seen them in a while," James said.
"I thought you had just started your trip."
"Yeah, but... something happened when I was eighteen, and... it's a long story," James replied. "If it's the same to you, I'd rather not talk about it right now."
"Alright," Mirise said. "Sorry."
"It's okay," James said. "So, this place we're going..."
"It's one of Avasine's oldest establishments," Mirise explained. "I was just a baby then, but dad has told me that it started as just a food stand when Avasine was a small trading post, and as it grew, he stuck around and it became Avasine's first restaurant when people actually started living here."
"A real piece of history, then," James noted.
As the locale in question was situated in the center of the town, it didn't take long for them to reach it. Then again, for someone who knew the city like Mirise did, nothing took very long to reach. It wasn't a big place - there were two tables on an outside patio, and another three tables inside. Mirise led James inside and they sat down at the sole free table on the inside. There didn't seem to be much staff, either - James only noted two people there who weren't guests. One of them came up to their table with a bottle of sparkling water and turned to Mirise.
"Hello there, Mirise!" he said. "What can I get you and your friend?"
"Good evening, Gio," Mirise replied. "A special for two, please."
"Excellent," he replied and disappeared back behind the counter, where the kitchen was in full view for the patrons.
"That's it?" James asked. "No menu, no anything?"
"You want the best, you have to know what to ask for," Mirise replied. "Trust me on this one."
"Well, I guess you'd know..."
After thirty minutes of waiting (during which James at various points attempted to collect himself enough to ask Mirise the question but never managed to get it out) the man who had taken their order returned to their table and placed four bowls of different sauces on it, and then followed up with a rather large, round wooden plate, on which was placed a colourful creation of the same size, hot enough that some of the cheese was still sizzling. James looked at it in awe - the sheer number of things on it, the composition, how it seemed like every bite of this would reveal an entirely new flavour.
"Pretty nice, isn't it?" Mirise asked with a smile.
"...I feel like I don't even want to cut into this thing," James noted. "So is there anything else I should know before I do anything?"
"Not really. Just cut a slice wherever you want and add sauce if you want," Mirise explained as she had started helping herself to a piece. "You got salted olive oil, spicy marinara, gorgonzola sauce and truffle sauce."
"If you say so," James said and proceeded to get a slice, drizzle some olive oil over it and bite into it. It didn't take long until he had finished the slice, and immediately went for another.
"Told you it was good," Mirise said in between bites.
After finishing their meal and paying (2600 beli, a price which James found expensive but had to admit was worth it), they stepped out into the streets. Avasine's nightlife was in full swing, but after the meal they'd just had, James just wanted to go to bed. But there was still that one thing...
"I'll see you tomorrow, then," Mirise said and turned around. James looked at her, closed his eyes and swallowed.
"Wait!" he said and exhaled. Mirise turned back to face him. "I want to... I want to ask you something."
"You've been an excellent guide ever since I came here," James said. "I appreciate that... and I wonder if you would continue guiding me."
"I can keep showing you around..."
"I mean... the first day we met, you said something about knowing how the sea flows," James continued. "I've gotten the impression... you know something about that."
"...yes," Mirise replied, starting to realize where this was going. "I have... certain knowledge, yes."
"Come with me on my trip," James said. "Be my navigator."
Mirise was silent for a while as she looked around herself, then back at James.
"I can't give you an answer right now, mister James," she finally replied. "It's true that I've felt a... call from somewhere else, but... you're a good man, and I trust you. If I were to leave, I wouldn't mind if it was with you... but I can't just..."
"I understand," James said.
"I will give you an answer," Mirise said. "That's all I can promise you."
"That's fine with me," James replied.
"...see you tomorrow," Mirise said and disappeared down the street. James sighed, wondering if what had just happened was good or bad.
He returned to the hotel. There was no show today, so the bar/lobby was fairly empty. Rink had apparently decided to stay in today, as she was sitting at the bar, chatting with the bartender. James walked up to her, and she turned to look at him.
"So, how'd it go?" she asked.
"I... don't know," he replied with a sigh. "I asked, but... got no answer."
"Hey, Sammy, get him a beer and put it on my tab," Rink said to the bartender and turned back to James. "The important part is that she didn't say no, right?"
"Oh, I guess," James said as a glass filled with beer was placed in front of him. Rink ordered another one for herself, and the two of them drank mostly in silence until the sound of a signal from the front desk rang through the room, the distinct call of a snailphone.
"Who's calling at this hour?" Sam said and walked over to the front desk, picking up the receiver. "Veranda Hotel, manager speaking. Oh, miss Lake! What's that? Yes, I do believe so, hold on..." Sam lowered the receiver and turned back towards Rink and James. "You're James Conrad, right?"
"Huh? That's me, yes," James replied. "Why?"
"Call for you," Sam said and pointed to the receiver he was holding. James walked up and had it handed to him.
"Hello? Yeah, I got that it was you... you have? You what? He what? Tomorrow? I... okay. Bye," he ended the conversation and hung up. He returned to Rink, with a facial expression that could lead one to believe he had seen a ghost. "What have I done to deserve this? This is all your fault!"
"Um... okay?" Rink said.
"So that was Mirise..."
"Yeah, I heard. Good news?"
"Well, apparently she talked to her dad about what I had asked... and now he's invited me to his house tomorrow!" James half-screamed.
"An invitation from the mayor?" Rink asked and raised her eyebrow. "Not bad."
"This is all your fault, you know," James replied.
"Hey, I didn't know-"
"You did," James said and downed what was left of his beer in one gulp. "Thanks for the beer," was his final comment - not entirely without sarcasm - before he left the bar to go to his room.
"Sooo..." Sam said, turning to Rink. "Want to tell me what that was all about? Why is the mayor interested in him and what does miss Lake have to do with all of this?"
"Ah, yeah, guess I should have mentioned it before," Rink replied. "I might be quitting soon."
"That's a shame," Sam said. "And he's got something to do with it? There's nothing I can do to make you stay? You've been the best entertainment this hotel has ever had, you know."
"You've been nothing but helpful to me, and I've enjoyed it here..." Rink started. "But no, it's all for personal reasons. I'm starting to get a bit bored, so I figured traveling might help..."
"And you're going with him?"
"Well, he asked me to come with him... I wanted to see how convincing he could be, so I told him that I'd consider it if he could get Mirise to come with him as well. They've been hanging out the last few days."
"Hah!" Sam exclaimed with a laugh. "You're a cruel one, you know that?"
"Maybe so," Rink said with a devious smile.
"So... when do you leave?"
"Well, I don't know if I am yet," Rink answered. "If I am, I'll keep playing my shows until I leave... aren't I coming up on number two hundred soon? Been like half a year since the hundredth."
"I think so," Sam said. "But I'll have to check the books."
"Oh, well, get me another," Rink said and pointed to her empty glass.
"Are you sure?" Sam asked.
"Eh, I'm not even slurring yet," Rink replied with a chuckle.
"If you say so." Sam refilled her glass, and Rink resumed her drinking. A couple of pints later, what once had been regular banter between the two of them had degenerated into Rink's insistences she hadn't hit her limit yet barely even sounding like actual words, and it wasn't until Sam turned off the lights that meant the bar was closed that she dragged herself back to her room. Luckily she didn't have to climb any stairs to reach it - it was on the ground floor, just past Sam's office, and had always been meant as a staff room.
It was a pretty small room, really only consisting of a bedroom and a bathroom. The only furnishings were a bed, a writing desk with a chair and a storage chest. Rink didn't need more - she had never been much for luxury. Getting to live in the room for free was part of her salary, anyway.
She removed her coat and managed to hang it on a hook on the wall. She let her hair out of the ponytail she had had it tied up in, changed into a nightgown and laid down on the bed. She fell into a drunken slumber almost as soon as her head hit the pillow.
Up in his room, James was still lying awake in his bed, trying to figure out how he'd gotten into this mess, if it was worth it, and more than anything, if it was too late for him to back out of the whole thing.