"Is it too late for me to back out of this whole thing?" James asked Mirise as she was leading the way towards the mayor's residence. For the occasion, he had dressed up a bit more than he usually did - which mostly meant adding a black tie to his usual attire, though he had also shaved and combed his hair, something he usually eschewed.
"It'll be fine," Mirise insisted to try to make him calm down. "Dad's not dangerous."
"Still, it's always scary when a girl takes you to meet her father," James explained and got a giggle as his only reply. "And this one's the mayor. I feel like I've already lost."
"Don't worry," Mirise tried to reassure him. "Just be yourself. He'll see you're a good person."
"Like that's going to convince me," James replied. "How do I even approach this? 'Hi, I'm James and I want to take your daughter away'? I don't think that's going to go over well."
"I already explained it to him when we spoke yesterday," Mirise said. "He knows you've asked me to travel with you. He didn't actually say if I could go or not, just... he just wants to meet you."
"Okay. Alright. Fine. I can do this," James said, mostly to himself. "Remember what you learned..."
"Oh, uh, nothing."
Their journey wasn't a long one - out of the hotel, past the market square, through the city center and one more turn to the right. The mayor's residence was somewhat less exclusive-looking than James had expected, a two-story building literally across the street - or across the bridge, as the case may be - from the city hall. It was fairly modest in general, and didn't look much different from the buildings around it - just a plain white structure with some windows. The only notable extravagant detail was a small, golden cat statue to the left of the front door.
"Are you ready?" Mirise asked James as she walked up to the door.
"No, but let's do it anyway," James replied.
Mirise knocked on the door, and it wasn't long until the upper half of it opened, revealing a middle-aged woman, with long black hair, in a maid getup.
"Hello, Iza," Mirise said.
"Oh, lady Mirise," she replied and then looked at James. "And you must be the lady's guest. Welcome."
"Thanks, ma'am," James said as the door was fully opened for them. The two of them entered, and James extended his hand towards the maid. "I'm James Conrad. Pleased to meet you."
"Iza Cabell," she replied and accepted the handshake - firmly, James noted. "The master is expecting you, please follow me."
"Lady?" James whispered to Mirise as they were guided upstairs.
"Iza's pretty insistent on things being formal," Mirise replied.
"When she needs to."
"I can hear you," Iza said without turning around.
"Sorry," Mirise said, almost reflexively.
"No need to apologize," Iza replied. "But there is no need to whisper about me. Mind your manners, always."
"Will do, ma'am," Mirise replied as they reached the second floor. Iza led them to a door, which she opened without knocking.
"Master Theodore, the lady and her company have arrived," she said as James looked into the room. It seemed to be a study, with many bookshelves along the walls, and a writing desk in the center. Behind the desk sat a man who seemed to be in his late fifties, with short black hair and a thin moustache, dressed in a tuxedo. He looked up from the book he was reading and nodded.
"Thank you, Iza," he said. "You may leave us."
"Very good, sir," Iza replied and left the room, closing the door. As soon as she was out of sight, Theodore stood up and rushed over to Mirise, giving her a big hug.
"Hello, Mirise!" he said with a laugh.
"Hi, dad," Mirise replied.
"And you must be James," he said as he let Mirise go and offered his hand.
"James Conrad, sir," James replied as they shook hands. "I'm humbled to have been invited here today."
Theodore laughed. "Theodore Lake. You can call me Theo, if you want."
"Huh," James said.
"Anything the matter?" Theodore replied.
"Well, no, just..." James glanced towards the door.
"I'm not quite as concerned with everything being correct and formal all the time as Iza," Theodore said. "She might be a bit imposing, but I wouldn't know what to do without her. She's been such a help, especially after Mirise moved out."
"She taught me a lot while I was growing up," Mirise said. "She's been a bit like a mother to me..."
"Oh..." James begun and looked at Theodore. "Pardon me for asking, but... is your wife no longer with us?"
"I've never been married," Theodore replied.
"So... what about your real mother?" James asked Mirise.
"Did Mirise not tell you?" Theodore said before Mirise had had the time to reply.
"I... guess I never did," Mirise said. "Theo is... not my real father. I don't know who my real parents are, but he's been taking care of me since I was a baby. He's the one who named me, too. So he'll always be my dad!"
"I see," James replied. "At least you didn't get your personality from her."
Mirise and Theodore both started laughing at the comment. "Imagine me being that formal all the time," Mirise said and put on as serious a face as she could. "Today we are going to visit one of Avasine's finest dining places, which has been here since the beginning."
All three of them chuckled at Mirise's impression, before James spoke up. "Say, that reminds me... Mirise said Avasine used to just be a trading post, and you're the first mayor. How did this city come to be?"
"Oh, yes," Theodore started. "I used to be a merchant here in West Blue. There were a few popular spots for traders and merchants to gather, and eventually a few more or less thought to be permanent structures were put up here. At first, it was just used as a trading post, then people started seeing some additional business opportunities. A food stand here, a carpentry shop there, offering accommodations for people who wanted a good night's rest before continuing the travel... more structures and bridges were put up, some people started living here, and before we knew it, it was becoming a real city, or at least a town at the time. So, there was a need for some organization of things... and that's something I helped out a lot with. Eventually, I believe it was about ten years ago, people believed someone should take even further charge of the city, and I was the popular choice for the position as mayor."
"It's been growing pretty quick, then," James said.
"From a trading post to the city in the middle of West Blue in the span of thirty years," Theodore replied. "It's been interesting."
"And you've been here your whole life," James said in the direction of Mirise.
"And now you want to take her away from here," Theodore said in a somewhat more serious tone than before.
"With all due respect, sir, I only asked her if she wanted to be my navigator on my travels," James said. "I'm pretty new to this whole traveling thing, and I need any help I can get."
"Mirise, why don't you go help Iza prepare the lunch," Theodore said. "I want to speak to James in private."
"Sure thing," she replied and left the room.
James swallowed. This was it, this was going to be the part where he got torn into by an angry father.
"So," Theodore spoke, "mister Conrad."
"Y... yes, sir?"
"I understand you've been spending quite a bit of time with my daughter."
"I've only been here a few days, sir," James explained. "She has been showing me around Avasine, and I'm very grateful for that."
"I've heard you've been involved in some tussles, too... you're not getting her into trouble, are you?"
"Not at all, sir. The first time I met her, she was being accosted by some thugs, so I helped her... well, knock them out. Then they found us again yesterday, but someone else intervened before there were any fighting. That's all."
"And you are willing to protect her if it should be necessary?"
"If the situation calls for it, but I assure you, your daughter is very capable of handling herself. She defeated a man twice her size without my help."
"You wouldn't happen to have any other intentions towards her, now?"
"Most certainly not, sir. She is quite beautiful, but all I want is someone who can guide me on my travels. I have come to understand that she knows much about the sea, even if she haven't been traveling before."
"So it is," Theodore said and stroked his chin. "Ever since she was a child, she has taken much interest in reading maps and studying the weather... and..."
"And what?" James asked.
"Oh, nothing," Theodore replied. "Now, about yourself..."
"What... what about me?"
"Who are you, really? Where do you come from, and what is your goal with your travels?"
"I was born and raised here in West Blue, on a large island in the northwest. I had a good upbringing, but... I lost my parents and my sister in..." James paused.
"In what?" Theodore asked.
"In... in an accident," James continued. "So I wanted to get away, see more of the world, and learn more about it. But I've come to the conclusion that it would be a bad idea to do it alone, so I wish to find companions. In truth, I don't have any end goal in mind."
"And would it only be you and Mirise setting out?"
"Well, to tell the truth... there is one more, a singer at a hotel here, and... she said that she might join me if Mirise does too. But even aside from that, from the first day I met Mirise, I considered the possibility of her coming with me. But I never brought it up, since I realized how much she loves this city."
"She certainly does," Theodore said. "And more to the point... the city loves her. If you take her away, there might be those that will not view you favourably..."
"Such as yourself?" James asked.
"I would have... other reasons," Theodore replied. "Keep that in mind..."
"I understand how well-liked she is here, and that's why I've hesitated," James said. "But... even if West Blue is a big sea... there's nothing that says it would be a one-way trip. I promise... I promise that if Mirise leaves here with me, I will one day bring her back."
"Is that so..." Theodore said and fell silent. James noted that he had barely changed his facial expression throughout the entire conversation, whereas James himself had been doing his best to hide the fact that he was practically sweating bullets. If Theodore had noticed, he certainly hadn't showed it.
"How has it been..." James begun.
"How has it been being a father to Mirise on your own?"
"I've had a lot of help," Theodore replied. "But... it changed my entire life, and was one of the reasons I felt I should settle down. The merchant's life is nothing for a little girl."
"Was it dangerous?"
"There were... incidents, yes," Theodore said. "But a merchant's ship is more of a target than a civilian one, I suppose... which reminds me, Mirise mentioned you had your own ship?"
"Built her with my own two hands, sir," James replied. "She made the journey to here without any problems... I'll look her over before leaving, to ensure she's ready."
"That's enough," Theodore said. James couldn't tell if it was good or bad. "The food should be ready by now."
"Oh, uh, alright," James said and followed Theodore to the dining room, where Iza and Mirise had already set the table. After partaking of a lobster soup lunch, Theodore informed James he needed to have a talk with his daughter and she'd let him know the answer later, so James left on his own. Feeling he needed a drink, and that he should be somewhere where Mirise could find him, he went back to the hotel. He found Rink in the same spot as yesterday evening, and sat down next to her.
"Welcome back," she said to him and took a drink from a glass of something red. "How'd it go?"
"You tell me," James replied and pointed at her glass. "Wine at this hour?"
"Huh? Oh, nah, this is just grape juice," Rink answered. "Someone doesn't let me drink much alcohol before a show," she said and nodded her head towards Sam.
"Just not fond of the prospect of replacing that many glasses again," Sam commented.
"Well, I need a drink, either way," James said and waved for Sam to come over. "So why are you in the bar now?"
"Talking to Sammy, and waiting for you, obviously," Rink explained. "So, spill it. What happened? You weren't gone that long, really..."
"Well... you've ever felt like - a beer, please - like you're being crushed by someone who's not even touching you?"
"Not exactly, but I think I understand what you mean," Rink said. "Was it really that bad? I haven't met the mayor, but he's always seemed like a nice guy..."
"It was less that he was the mayor and more that he was the father," James said as his beer was delivered and he started drinking.
"That makes more sense," Rink said. "So did you get any answer?"
"Not yet, no... I'm supposed to get it later, whatever that means. What about you?"
"What about me?"
"If she says yes, will you-" James was interrupted by Rink putting up her hand towards him.
"I'll answer that when I've heard her answer."
"Are you actually trying to make my life more complicated, or is that just a coincidence?"
"I'm going to regret asking you to tag along, aren't I?"
"Regret is a part of life."
"Are you planning on ever giving me a straight answer?"
"I don't have to."
"Even so, would be nice if you did..."
"I'll give you one when I have one," Rink said and emptied her glass. "Look, I get it, you want to know... but there's no point asking me when I don't know myself."
"You don't think I'm annoying, do you?"
"I like your character," Rink replied. "I told you before. You're honest. Sincere. I appreciate that."
"If I thought you were annoying, I wouldn't even consider traveling with you," Rink stated. "You're the first person I've met in a long time that I've felt I could... well, follow."
"But you don't know yet if you want to."
"That's about the long and short of it, yes."
Their conversation mostly died out after that, so they resumed their drinking - James finishing up his beer, Rink moving on to a glass of water - in silence. James was still not sure what to make of Rink - he still wanted her to join him, but was hoping to learn more about her before they were to leave, if she ended up agreeing. If they were to travel together, she'd have to let him get to know her better, anyway. But right now... it was more about Mirise. James didn't actually have high hopes for that, but...
The signal from the snailphone interrupted James's thoughts, and even before Sam had answered it he had a suspicion that it was for him - but at the same time didn't know why she'd call rather than just come talk to him. Then he realized he never actually told her he'd be at the hotel, so...
Sam tapped his shoulder. "It's for you. It's miss Lake."
"I figured," James replied and went to pick up the receiver. "Hi. Yeah, I just went back... now? By Cassandra. Alright, see you."
"Better news this time?" Rink asked as James went back to the bar to pay for his beer.
"Maybe... she wants to meet me at the docks right now," James replied.
"Good luck, then."
"You, uh, want to tag along?"
"What? Nah, I have a show to get ready for. I need a shower."
"Right. I'll be back to hear that, I hope."
"See you later," Rink said as he started to leave. But after a few steps, he stopped.
"That coat... that belonged to a former captain of yours, didn't it?" he asked Rink without turning around. Rink didn't reply at first, mainly pondering the meaning of what James had said.
"You're an interesting man, mister Conrad," she finally chose as her reply, also without looking at him.
As James walked up to Cassandra, he saw Mirise already sitting next to her.
"Hi," he said as he sat down himself. "So, you wanted to talk..."
"Yeah," she replied. "After you left, I spoke with dad."
"Well, we had a talk, and he asked me..."
"So, Mirise... what do you really think about that James?"
"More than anything, I think he's a good person... he's someone who can be trusted."
"Yes, he's... certainly something. The boy's driven. I like that aspect of him."
"What did you two talk about?"
"Just... things about his travels."
"Can I go with him?"
"Oh, Mirise... that was never for me to decide."
"You're not a child anymore, Mirise... you're a grown woman. What you do with your life is your own choice. As much as I'd like to have you stay here, close to me... if you want to leave, I'm in no position to stop you."
"So why did you..."
"I wanted to know what kind of person he was. If it was someone that I could feel safe knowing you're with..."
"And if he hadn't been?"
"I still couldn't have stopped you, but we'd be having quite a different talk. I've known... I've known you'd want to leave some day. There's something out there for you to find... right?"
"I... I've had a feeling, yes... something's..."
"Something's calling for you."
"Do you... know anything about that?"
"I know it's something that's important for you to find out on your own."
"...and that's about it. Well, the important parts, at least."
"So none of that was actually... gah! Well, I hope it makes your dad feel better that he made me feel terrible for a while."
"Really?" Mirise asked with a giggle. "But, anyway..."
"So... you're actually coming with me?" James asked. "For real, no joke, seriously?"
"I suppose I am," Mirise replied. "You wouldn't get far without me, anyway. I'm looking forwards to traveling with you, mister James."
"Can you call me just James?"
"Sure," Mirise said. "So... when are you... we... leaving?"
"Well... it depends," James said. "I have to ask..."
"Well, uh, to be honest..."
So James explained how Rink had played into the whole sequence of events. How he had asked her first, how she had brought Mirise into it. Mirise just laughed in response.
"So she's the reason you asked me?"
"Honestly, I considered asking you already that first night... but I never actually dared until she told me that if..."
"Well, you can tell her the good news, then. She seems like an interesting person. It'll be fun to have more people to go with."
"I don't know if 'fun' is the exact term I'd use given that it's her, but... interesting, definitely."
"Well... shouldn't you go back and tell her, then?"
"She said she had a show to get ready for... if I know her right, she'll pounce on me and ask me about this first chance she gets anyway. You want to come along and see it? Talk to her more?"
"I appreciate the offer, but I can't," Mirise replied. "I promised dad I'd have dinner with him today."
"Well then, give him my regards, and... my thanks," James said and stood up. Mirise followed suit.
"I'll see you tomorrow, then," Mirise said, still turned towards the water.
"Yeah..." James said before stretching his hand out towards Mirise. "For now, let me just welcome you as the navigator of Cassandra for the upcoming journey."
"It's my pleasure," Mirise said and shook it. As she let go, she jumped off the dock, taking James a bit by surprise.
"Whoa," was all he managed to say before Mirise's head reappeared above the water line. "Why'd you..."
"Oh, I'll swim home," Mirise said. "I love the sea, and swimming."
"I can see that," James said. "Bye."
Mirise said nothing more as she swam away, while James slowly strolled back towards the hotel. He deliberately took his time, taking some less direct paths, looking through shop windows and the like. As he finally walked through the doors of the Veranda Hotel, the lobby was filled with music - Rink's performance seemed to have started just recently. James took a seat at the back of the room, and prepared himself for the inevitable next part.