"Thank you all for coming to listen to me again today," Rink said from the stage as she finished her set. "I hope to see you again soon."
Aside from going outside and grabbing some dinner from a food cart down the street, James had stayed for the whole show. He still hadn't been able to figure out how she could sing like that.
"Also, as we have business to discuss, I wish to call one mister Conrad backstage," Rink continued. "Don't try to hide, I see you there in the back," was the last thing Rink said before leaving. James hadn't quite been expecting to get called out in front of the entire audience, but got fewer sketchy looks than he thought he would as he made his way towards the backstage area - which really only was the corridor that held Sam's office, Rink's room and the stage entrance. There was no door, just a curtain separating it from the main lobby/bar area. Rink was standing next to the open door to her room when James approached her.
"Come on in," Rink said and entered. James followed and inspected the place - as much as there were to inspect. At least it seemed Rink liked keeping things fairly tidy, aside from some clothes on the floor everything was pretty clean. "Have a seat," she said and pointed at her desk chair as she sat down on the bed.
"So," James said again. "Was that really necessary?"
"It seemed efficient."
"Alright, you know why you're here," Rink said. "Tell me everything. Including your meeting with the mayor."
"Is that really necessary?" James asked.
"You want me to consider coming with you or not?" Rink asked in response.
"Oh, fine," James said. "So Mirise took me to her dad's house..."
So James told Rink the whole story, as detailed as he could recall. The house. Iza. How Theodore acted when Mirise was with them, and when she wasn't. Even the soup. How all his worries had been completely pointless given what Mirise had told him... and that Mirise was going to go with him.
"...so now I have a navigator. Should make it easier."
"You continue to impress me, mister Conrad," Rink said with a nod. "You wanted a straight answer, and I'd say you deserve one. I'm in."
"You mean it?" James asked.
"I very much do," Rink replied. "To tell you the truth, I've been considering it since you asked me the first time. You've shown me that you have a lot of heart, and a lot of drive... I appreciate that. I told you that. And I think a change of scenery is good for me."
"That's great," James said. "Welcome aboard," he added and stretched out his hand towards her. Rink raised her eyebrow, but accepted it anyway.
"Thanks," she said as she let go.
"Right, then... we should start preparing for the trip together tomorrow, and decide when we're going to-"
"We leave in nine days from now."
"That... works for me, should be enough time to get ready, but... we have to talk to Mirise too, and... why nine days?"
"Eight days from now, I'll be doing a show - and it'll be my two hundredth show here," Rink explained. "So I thought I'd make that my last one, and leave the following day."
"As long as Mirise agrees to that, fine with me," James replied. "Was there anything else?"
"Not really, no," Rink said. "I'll see you tomorrow."
"Yeah," James said as he stood up and started to leave. "See you tomorrow."
"You were right, by the way," Rink said as James put his hand on the door handle. "About the coat."
"Oh," was the only reply she got.
"But don't think I see you as some kind of replacement for him," Rink continued. James didn't reply as he left the room and went outside, feeling like he needed some air (and a drink) before going to bed.
The following day, Rink joined James and Mirise for their regular outing, to discuss the plans for the journey they had ahead of them. Mirise had no objections to the suggested departure date, and had already taken stock of her navigational supplies - that is to say, figured out what stuff she was missing to be able to do it while traveling and not just studying maps and weather patterns while in the same place. She also took it upon herself to start plotting their first course. As Rink insisted on taking care of everything that had to do with their food and water supply, James would concentrate on making sure that Cassandra was in top shape for the trip and make sure she had everything they needed. Since the cabin had been built with a sleeping space for only one person, they'd also need to figure out some sleeping arrangement for Mirise and Rink, not that that seemed like a big problem.
Over the course of the following week, the trio spent most of their free time preparing for the trip. Of course, Rink was the only one with an actual job, and she kept playing her shows - with nobody but Sam actually knowing she was about to quit. Mirise cleaned out her apartment, moving most of her things to the boat, and lived with Theodore for the last three days before leaving. With all they had to do, James and Mirise no longer met up every day, but obviously their paths still crossed and they usually at least had lunch together, with Rink joining in on occasion. As they weren't trying to hide anything, a few rumours about how Mirise and Rink had been seen carrying things to the docks, and some even pointing out one specific boat, popped up but nothing big was ever made of it, and no one ever asked either of the two about it.
And so came the day before they were set to leave...
Sam knocked on Rink's door. "You ready yet?" he asked.
"Coming," came the reply. "This has to be just right."
"It better be, the bar is packed with your fans," Sam said.
"Alright. This'll do." Rink exited her room and made her way together with Sam towards the stage entrance, where Ricky was already waiting. Sam was the first to step out on the stage and turned towards the crowd.
"Ladies and gentlemen, it has been wonderful to have your patronage over this latest year. I know many of you have come here only to listen to our unique entertainment."
Applauses and cheers filled the room, and Sam waited for it to quiet down before he started speaking again.
"Today will be special for two reasons. To start with, it will be Rink's two hundredth performance here."
More applause and cheering.
"But also, and more sadly, it will also be her last."
Various chatter followed by booing.
"She has decided that it's time to seek new horizons, and we're in no position to hinder her. I wish her all luck in her future endeavours, and I hope you all do the same."
A mix if cheers and boos.
"To thank all of you, she has promised that this will be one to remember. So, without further ado, let me present to you one last time - on piano, Ricky Saron, and singing for us, Avasine's magic voice, Rink!"
Sam left the stage as Ricky and Rink entered, drawing thunderous applauses. Ricky sat down at the piano, and Rink took her position in the spotlight. She was dressed in a simple but still elegant dark red gown, rather than her usual attire.
"Hello, everyone," she said to the audience. "Thank you all for coming to listen to my last show here. This time, we'll sing all through the night if you want, and any song you want to hear!"
The crowd started cheering loudly as she started her performance with an entirely new song she had written specifically for this day. Accompanied by Ricky, she bellowed out what could best be described as a power ballad in an impossible harmony.
Further back in the room, on the other side of Rink's throng of fans, James and Mirise sat at a table, enjoying a dinner Sam had told them would be on the house. James was enjoying a steak accompanied by a mushroom salad and red wine sauce with a dark ale to drink, while Mirise had received a well prepared fish that seemed to shine in the colours of the rainbow with a colourful assortment of vegetables on the side, having a glass of white wine with it. Mirise usually didn't drink alcohol, but had made an exception for today.
"Nice song," Mirise noted. "How does she do that?"
James shrugged. "Beats me. I've asked, but she won't say anything about it."
"We'll probably find out sooner or later."
"Well, yeah, if we're going to travel together..." James trailed off and took a bite of his steak before continuing. "I guess we don't really know that much about each other."
"I know you're both good people," Mirise said while sipping on her wine, "and that goes a long way."
"Maybe so," James said and returned to eating.
They had the rest of their meal mostly in silence, and an hour later they were just listening to Rink's performance. At quarter past twelve Mirise reported that she was going home to sleep, and two hours later James retired to his room as well. Rink showed no signs of tiring, though she had had a few drinks and quick bites in between songs. The requests from the audience seemed to never end, and Rink seemed adamant to fulfill them all. The songs continued echoing both inside and outside the hotel, and didn't end until the sun started casting its first rays over Avasine.
Unsurprisingly, Rink was still a bit hungover when she boarded Cassandra at noon. She had woken up in her bed with vague memories of having had company for the night, a memory compounded by being rather, let's say, sporadically dressed. She usually didn't get this drunk, especially not while performing, but it had been a special occasion. As she had already moved most of her stuff over to Cassandra, she only had a small bag left in her room. After collecting her last payment from Sammy, minus what was left on her unpaid tab, she left the Veranda Hotel through the front door. Despite all the attempts at providing a sense of closure for them with the performance of last night, many of her fans were waiting for her outside. She shook a lot of hands and signed several pictures before reaching the docks. It wasn't until she had actually gotten on board that her followers dispersed. James was already sitting on the deck, chewing on a sandwich.
"Good morning," James said in between bites.
"'morning," came the reply. "How much did I even drink last night?"
James shrugged. "No clue. You were still going when I went to sleep."
"Oh, well... are we all ready to go?"
"Cassandra is ready, but we're still waiting for Mirise."
"Huh. I thought I was late."
"Well, we said noon. She should be here any minute."
Sure enough, not even five minutes later, Mirise came into view. Not alone, though.
"Looks like we're getting a dignified sendoff," Rink said.
"Huh," James said as he himself noticed Mirise, accompanied by Theodore and Iza - the two of them carrying bags. James fell silent as they came within earshot.
"...and remember, there's all kinds of people within the Marines, so don't be sure you can trust them," Theodore said, his head turned to his daughter.
"I know, dad, you've said that four times since yesterday."
"Just making sure you'll be careful."
"I will! I have friends to watch out for me, too." Mirise stopped in front of the Cassandra. "Rink, this is my father, Theodore Lake."
"So you are the other one who is going to travel with my daughter? Good to meet you. Theodore," he said and stretched out his hand.
"Rink Kazai," Rink said and shook it. "I've seen you before, but we've never met."
"I know that James is a good man, and if you're going with him, I trust that you are a good person as well. Please, take good care of my daughter."
"We will, sir," James said. "But she's plenty strong herself."
"That may be, but I will never forgive myself for letting her leave if something bad happens to her."
"Don't worry," Rink said. "I give you my word, for as much as it's worth."
"Thank you," Theodore said. "Well then, let's get these on board..." Theodore and Iza handed the bags they had been carrying over to James and Rink.
"Even more luggage?" Rink asked as she grabbed one of the bags.
"Dad insisted," Mirise giggled and then turned to Theodore. "Well, we have to get going if we're going to catch the fortunate weather. I'll be fine, don't worry!" Mirise gave Theodore a hug and a kiss on the cheek before looking out over the horizon. "Alright. The weather's what I was counting on. Time to cast off!" She undid the mooring rope and jumped on board. Soon, James had gotten Cassandra out into the open waters. Theodore and Iza waved as the boat increased its distance to Avasine, with Mirise waving back. Soon, they unfurled the sails, wind filling the sheets.
"Alright," Mirise said to James and Rink as Cassandra started picking up speed. "There's still one decision left to make, and we have about ten minutes to do it if we're going to be as efficient as possible. What's going to be our first goal?"
"I thought you had already figured that out," James replied.
"Well... look here," Mirise said and took a map out of her pocket. She unfolded it and pointed at a spot in the center of it, with three drawn lines coming from it. "So, here's Avasine. With the streams, and the weather, there's three islands we can get to within three days - Doromu, Kurita or Topton. Any opinions?"
"Not Topton," James immediately replied. "I came from there. Not going back."
"Kurita or Doromu, then," Mirise responded. "What do you think, Rink? There hasn't been many traders coming to Avasine from Kurita recently, but there's a lot of exotic spices coming in from Doromu, if that makes any difference."
"Hmm. I've not been to either, but from all I've heard, Doromu is not a very nice place. I say Kurita. James?"
"No opinion one way or the other. Kurita sounds good."
"Kurita is is, then," Mirise noted and circled the island on her map. "I'll take care of the rest."
"At least we can make a decision," Rink said. "Now I think there's just one thing left to do," she said and stood up. James and Mirise just looked at each other as Rink disappeared into the cabin, soon returning holding a bottle of rum and three glasses.
"Oh," James said with a shrug as Rink handed out glasses and filled them up. She raised her own.
"To the journey," she said.
"To Cassandra," James continued.
"To new friends," Mirise added. They clinked their glasses together before downing their shots in one go.
Cassandra's first real journey had begun.