Rink studied the wanted posters in front of her in silence for a while, before picking up the one depicting herself. The picture on it was a composite sketch, as opposed to the photos of Allen and Markus.
"Not the most flattering drawing of me I've ever seen, but they did capture my personality, don't you think?" she said with a chuckle. "But man, we haven't even been a crew for a month and we're already worth eighty million. Cool."
"Three bounties already and the captain's the lowest, huh. Don't see that often," Allen commented.
"They don't even know we're a crew and that I'm the captain yet."
"I get the feeling that that's not gonna last."
"Anyway... James, anything else?"
"We did ask about what was going on, and... as it turns out, the Marines are currently sort of occupying the city."
"They haven't really done anything, just... filled the city with Marines, which is putting everyone on edge, and having constant meetings with the mayor."
"So, they're flexing their muscles and hoping Theodore will flinch first."
"Sounds like Marine behaviour, alright," Allen said. "Roth's doing, no doubt."
"...hold up," Rink said and looked around. "Speaking of the mayor... where's Mirise?"
"Yeah, uh... that's the fourth problem. She took off to find her dad the moment we learned what was going on."
"Do the Marines know who she is?" Markus asked.
"They don't know she's with us, at least. Even if they did, if anyone can get through this city without being noticed, it's her. She knows this city better than anyone. But, even so..."
"She might be on her way to rush into doing something dumb," Muse said.
"That's kind of our thing, isn't it?" Rink replied with a chuckle. "Whatever she's heading into, she shouldn't be doing it alone while the city's swarming with Marines. While I might not know the city as well as her, I did live here for a year... I know my way around enough, and I was pretty popular around here. I can find allies here, there's many people that I've- that were my fans."
"Is that what you call them?" Muse asked with a sly grin.
"You shut your mouth. What I mean is, we can probably count on the citizens being on my side if we need it. They're definitely on Mirise's side. Everybody here loves her." Rink looked towards the city. "Plus... in my experience, even if the Marines recognize us, they're not going to do anything if we don't provoke them. That's just how it's always been in Avasine. They'll report it, and I have heard stories of ships getting apprehended as soon as they're out of Avasine's waters."
"So we'd basically be trapped here?" Allen asked.
"We could leave right now, letting Mirise deal with it on her own, and the Marines would never know we've been here... and anyone who thought I considered that option for even a second can get off my boat right now."
"So what's the plan?" Muse asked.
"It's probably not a good idea if all three of us are out and about, regardless... but we might need to get out fast. Allen, you're with me. We'll be going to the mayor's place to find Mirise. Markus and Charon, you stay on the ship and make sure we can leave at a moment's notice. Make damn sure the Marines don't know that this is our ship."
"Understood," Charon replied.
"James, you take Muse with you and head to the hotel. Tell Sammy that we might need some assistance or at least a distraction, and then... head to the market square. We'll find you."
"Should we disguise ourselves?"
"They might very well recognize us... but like I said, even if they do they won't do anything immediately, but the longer we can keep them from recognizing us, the better. Wearing cloaks won't hurt, there's people wearing all kinds of stuff here, but walking around with full masks on while the city's full of Marines just screams that we've got something to hide. Try to just... blend in with the crowd. There's always a crowd."
"Gear up, you might need it... and just head out as soon as you're done. Just don't start any trouble if you can avoid it."
"Have we ever been able to avoid trouble?" Muse asked as they left the room to get their weapons and cloaks.
"We can try," Rink chuckled.
James and Muse were the first to disembark, with Rink and Allen not far behind. Rink had put on her arm guard and made sure to have a couple of tuning forks on hand, while Allen hadn't needed to do more than put on his cloak. They tried to appear as inconspicuous as possible, making their way towards the mayor's residence in their hopes of catching up with Mirise.
"I've heard the Marines talk about this place, but never been here myself before..." Allen whispered as they walked through the streets, full of people as usual. "I can see why they want control of it."
"They've subtly tried for years, but doing it like this is new... and to think this is all because of me. Digging up stuff about me is probably their excuse for being here, too."
"How much do you think they'll be able to find out about you here?"
"More than they can ever figure out what to do with."
"Many stories going around?"
"Let's just say that if all the gossip about me in this city were true, I wouldn't have had any time to actually sing."
"Being a local celebrity doesn't only come with perks."
"What are they saying about you?"
"Nothing I can bring up in decent company."
"Yeah, but he's not here."
"Also nothing I want to get into while we're trying to be sneaky," Rink hissed. "Just be quiet, it's not far."
"Fine," Allen replied. A few blocks further towards the heart of Avasine, Rink turned into an alley.
"The mayor's residence is on the other side of this... and I'm hearing something there I don't like," she said.
"It's Mirise... and most likely a Marine."
"Arguing," Rink said as Theodore's home came into view for both of them. A Marine soldier was standing in front of the door, with a clearly agitated Mirise talking to him.
"I've told you! You gotta let me in!" Mirise said.
"And I've told you, nobody gets in here without permission!"
"It's my dad's place! You can ask anyone! They know me!"
"Even if that was true, it doesn't matter who you are. Look, little girl, just run along or I'll have to have my buddies take you in," the soldier said and turned towards a passing group of four other Marines. "Hey, I need some-"
"No!" Mirise shouted, and in a swift motion, brought her knee into the soldier's stomach. He grunted in pain, grabbing Mirise's arm.
"Hey! You need to learn some manners!" he said as the other Marines approached, soon surrounding Mirise.
"...so what was that you said about provoking them?" Allen, still hidden in the alley with Rink, asked.
"Yyyyeah, that's gonna complicate things. They still don't know that we have anything to do with it, but..."
"...but they'll take the excuse to get tough, and we're not gonna leave Mirise at their mercy."
"Pretty much... just gonna be harder to get in now that-"
"You go get her," Allen interrupted. "See you at the square."
"What do you mea-" was all Rink managed to say before Allen threw his cloak onto her and dashed out of the alley, transforming into half-beast form.
"Hey!" he shouted, getting the attention of every person in the vicinity, especially the Marines. "Don't you have anything better to do than ganging up on one girl?"
"The Wild Dog!"
"Yours truly, in person! With so many Marines in one public place, how could I resist making an appearance?" Allen said with a wicked grin.
"How did you get here?"
"Hitched a ride with a cargo ship! But I can't stay and talk... I've got other business to attend to!" he shouted and took off running.
"A-after him!" one of the Marines yelled, and save for the one holding Mirise, they took off in the same direction.
"Well, missy... looks I'll just have to take you in mys- ow!" The soldier reeled back, as if something had hit him, then looked at Mirise again. "What the- stop that, whatever it is you're doing!"
"I'm not doing anything! Let me go!"
"Oh, no, you're not going anywh-" was all he managed to say before something was pulled over his eyes and he was knocked unconscious by a strike to the back of his head, letting go of Mirise.
"Mirise! Are you okay?" the hooded person who had suddenly appeared next to her asked.
"Get in there, quick!"
"Oh! Right!" Mirise exclaimed and opened the door, Rink following and dragging the unconscious Marine in after her.
"This guy should be out for long enough... Allen drew everyone's attention away, but that was extremely irresponsible of you! I know you were worried about your father, but..."
"I had to see him!" Mirise replied as she closed and locked the door behind them.
"If you're gonna rush into doing something stupid, just don't do it alone. Make sure you've got someone equally as foolish with you."
"I... just had to..."
"So good thing for you you're on a crew with no shortage of people like that!" Rink said with a grin before looking around and listening. "There's only one other person in the building, upstairs... so if it's not another Marine..."
"And I doubt they would have posted a guard outside if there were any Marines in here."
"Let's go!" Mirise said and took off up the stairs, towards Theodore's study.
Theodore Lake was sitting at his desk when the doors in front of him were thrown open. Over the course of the last seven weeks he had had many visitors, nearly all of them Marine officers. But today's guest was one that he had never dared to hope for.
"Dad!" Mirise shouted as the doors opened.
"M-Mirise? How-" Theodore said and stood up, walking to the side of his desk. Mirise ran up and threw her arms around him, and he responded in kind before looking up to see that there was someone else here as well. "Oh... so you've returned as well."
"Mayor Lake, sir..." Rink said and bowed her head in his direction.
"Daaaaaad!" Mirise cried. "Are you alright?"
"Oh... yes, I'm fine, just shaken," Theodore replied and gently stroked his daughter's head while looking at Rink again. "That was quite the ruckus outside... your doing, I presume?"
"Ah, yes... this is... somewhat my fault, I'm afraid..."
"This is all my fault!" Mirise cried and let go of Theodore, taking a step back.
"What do you mean, your fault? They tracked me here."
"I'm the one who insisted on helping out mister Flint and miss Muse, and if we hadn't done that..."
"Girls! At this point, it doesn't matter whose fault it was. The Marines have had their eye on this city for a while, they just needed an excuse to take it by force..."
"They're pressuring you, I take it."
"Oh, yes... every day, they try to convince me to hand over control of the city. So far, they haven't prevented me from carrying out my duties as mayor, but I can't order them to leave, either. They monitor anyone who wants to come in, saying it's for safety reasons... but they don't even let Iza in."
"If there's anything we can do to help..." Rink said.
"I'll do anything it takes!" Mirise added.
"Mirise..." Theodore started. "Go make sure nobody else is coming... I need to speak with miss Kazai in private for a minute."
"Check on the guy too," Rink added.
"Oh... alright," Mirise replied and left the room.
"So... Avasine's 'magic voice', Rink Kazai. I never did get the opportunity to hear you sing before you left. And now, you're worth twelve million beli to the Marines... I saw the poster."
"Mister Lake, sir... I feel like I need to apologize, on... well, on behalf of my crew..."
"Your crew, is it now?"
"As of a few weeks ago, yes... I have become the captain of the New Harmony Pirates. And... this mess is definitely our fault, we... kinda broke into a Marine base to rescue a friend, and..."
"You need to leave this city."
"We'll... be heading out as soon as we're all back to the ship, give Mirise my-"
"And you need to take her with you."
"-my regards, and- wait, what?"
"Mirise. You have to take her with you. Promise me, here and now, that she'll be with you when you leave."
"I'm- I'm sorry, are you... and pardon me, but... are you crazy? We're the ones who caused this entire mess, Mirise should be where-"
"-where she's safe, miss Kazai," Theodore said to finish her sentence.
"But this is her home, this is... this is where she should be, especially now..."
"Now is when she absolutely shouldn't be here!" Theodore almost shouted. "Avasine isn't going to be a safe place anymore, miss Kazai. The Marines have decided that they will have it, but I'm going to keep standing firmly against them. But the longer I deny them, the more underhanded tactics they'll start using... it would only be a matter of time before they started using Mirise against me in some way. I can't have that happen."
"But even so..."
"I'm a merchant turned mayor, miss Kazai. I might have been able to fend off pirate attacks in my youth, but I can't fight the might of the Marines, so how do you expect me to protect Mirise here? But you, you and your... crew... you can. I don't know who else is with you, I hope that young man James is still among them–"
"–but if they are men and women like you and him, then I know there is no better place for Mirise to be now. She is part of your crew already, is she not?"
"Well, yes, but-"
"You're not saying you don't want her to come with you any more, do you?"
"Not at all... she's been an excellent navigator and she's plenty strong herself. It just... doesn't feel right to take her away from this. From you, when the city is being targeted. And everybody loves her around here, the citizens would protect her, wouldn't they?"
"I don't want to drag the citizens of Avasine into this any more than they're already going to be," Theodore stated. "If the Marines target Mirise, and the citizens retaliate against them for that... they'll end up arresting half of the city. My mind is made up, she's going with you and I won't take no for an answer."
"I... fine. I just don't think she is going to see it the same way."
"She'll have to. Just promise me that you'll keep her safe."
"Of course I promise. Without her, our journey so far wouldn't have been as smooth as it's been. She, along with our doctors, are the most important members of my crew... more important than even myself."
"Then I feel comfortable trusting you with her safety," Theodore said and held out his right hand. "Thank you... Rink."
"I will do everything in my power to protect her," Rink said and shook Theodore's hand right before Mirise entered the room again.
"There's Marines coming, dad," she said.
"Well then, I guess we're done here. Miss Kazai was just about to leave, anyway."
"It's been nice knowing you and everyone, Rink, and maybe we'll meet-"
"No time for that, Mirise," Rink said and nodded towards the exit. "Apparently, you're coming with me."
"I can't leave now!" she protested. "I have to help dad with all this-"
"You are to leave Avasine with miss Kazai... or, perhaps I should say with your captain immediately, Mirise," Theodore said with a stern face.
"Dad!" Mirise exclaimed. "No! I could never do that when things are like this!"
"Mirise, listen to me!"
"This is my home! I can't let it fall into-"
"Then it won't be your home any longer," Theodore said and closed his eyes.
"Mirise Lake, citizen of Avasine..." he started and opened his eyes. "As mayor of Avasine, I hereby exile you from this city! You are to leave immediately-"
"I have to help!"
"-and you are not allowed to come back as long as there are still Marines in this city!" Theodore finished and nodded towards Rink, before walking up to Mirise and pulling her into another big hug. "But as your father... I will miss you every second of every day." He let go and practically pushed the two women out the door.
"Gah, we don't have time for this!" Rink said in exasperation and grabbed Mirise's hand. "We really have to leave now, or else Avasine is going to be in even bigger trouble than it already is!"
"Captain's orders," Rink said and turned her head to look at Theodore. "Do you have a back door or something?"
"Use the fire escape," Theodore replied. "My bedroom's down the hall to the right, there's a ladder affixed to the wall outside the window. It just leads to a side street, but..."
"Better than the front door! And mayor Lake, sir... while I hope we'll meet again some day, I can't count on it... so I sincerely apologize for what's about to happen to your city."
"No need. I'm on your side of this conflict, even if I can't say that publicly... just protect her. She's more important to me than Avasine," he replied and closed the door as tears started welling up in his eyes.
As soon as they both were on the ground, Rink grabbed the dejected Mirise's hand again, otherwise she couldn't be sure she wouldn't run back to Theodore the first chance she got.
"Look... I know you just want to help your dad, but you heard what he said. He told me to keep you safe, and that's what I'm going to do," Rink said. "If the Marines saw him there with us, with me, they'd have even more of a case of him actively colluding with known criminals. We've gotta meet up with the others and get out of here."
"No buts, Mirise. Come on, we need to get to the market square."
"Because that's where we're meeting everyone else who also thought it was worth heading into a city full of Marines for you even though we've got bounties on our heads," Rink replied and started moving towards the planned meeting spot.
"I just hope Allen hasn't caused too much trouble..."
Mirise allowed herself to be led through the city she knew like the back of her hand, making no more attempts to get away. Rink noted that there were less Marines now than on the way to Theodore's place—Allen's doing, no doubt. She picked up some chaotic noises in the distance, so it didn't seem like he had been caught, at least. It allowed them to have an uninterrupted journey to the market square, where Rink spotted two cloaked figures at one of the stands. With Mirise in tow, she walked up to them.
"Any trouble?" Rink asked as Muse and James stepped to the sides, allowing Rink and Mirise in between them.
"No, but we heard some commotion... and given that he's no longer with you..." Muse replied.
"Yeah, Allen volunteered as a distraction... but he is coming this way, for better or for worse."
"Are you okay, Mirise?" James asked.
"Yeah, I'm... I'm fine... I just wish I could help dad more..."
"Did you meet with Theodore?"
"Yeah," Rink said. "And, you know... I think I finally understand what you meant after your first meeting with him."
"Is he doing alright?"
"He might have some tough days ahead... but he tasked us with protecting Mirise."
"That's a given."
"So how'd it go with Sammy?"
"Lots of Marines at the hotel, but we had a talk... he said he'd take care of it, but didn't go into any details."
"Okay... we better get ready to move, Allen's coming in hot."
"Alright," James said and glanced behind him. "Wait... where'd everyone..."
"What?" Rink said as they all turned around. "Oh, dear... I was too focused on Allen to notice."
In the short time they had been there, the market square had cleared out almost entirely. Only a few citizens and Marines were still around, and they were all at the fringes of it. It was the emptiest Rink had ever seen it at this time of day, but they didn't have much time to react as a large group of Marines running towards the square came into view, chasing a hyena.
"Alright, everyone, move! To Aniara!" Rink commanded as Allen crossed into the square, and the four of them took off running with Allen and the Marines. He caught up with them as they approached the end of the square, going towards the street that was the most direct route to the northern docks. But just as they were about to move onto it, a jet of flame shot across the street in front of them, making them stop for a moment.
"What the hell?" James exclaimed, as they also noticed that the Marines that had been chasing Allen hadn't followed into the market square. But before the five of them had the time to start running again, something else had appeared in front of them—a man with long, blond hair, wearing a Marine coat over a white and yellow uniform, as well as white shoes with steel tips and heels and studded white leather gloves.
"...oh, boy," Allen said as he looked at the man.
"Roland! And company."
"I should have guessed."
"Someone you know?" Rink asked.
"You could say that," Allen growled as he changed into half-beast form. "That would be Cacira... the captain of the Four Knights."