Nestled between the mangroves of the swamp on the south and the thickening forests and hills to the north, this small out-of-the-way hamlet is preparing for one of its many annual festivals. Ropes of spring flowers adorn the awnings of the small shops and cottages that squat around the bubbling fountain of the town square, and various colorful banners proclaim 'Market Days'. There is a certain fairy-tale atmosphere to the community, given that none of its denizens appear to stand taller than five feet: Stonebarrow is populated almost entirely by Skeeks and Kadies, with a small smattering of Lapis.
There are more booths set up than usual for the market today, since for the first time in memory there are merchants from outside of Stonebarrow as well as shoppers attending. Most notable are the large reinforced tents of the Mousse & Curl beauty salon, Dr. Fether's Chiropracty, and the Lapi Petting Tent (next to the corralled bunny petting zoo and the kissing booth). A long line of people are queued up for the popular dunking booth, which features Eric von Richebeau himself. It seems many Sylvanians are willing to spend a shekel to dunk a poodle.
Another addition is a multi-tiered dais in front of the fountain, where the reigning Frog Princess and her court of Frog Maidens presides. Each girl is wearing a sash proclaiming her to be the princess or a maiden, with one representative from of each of Stonebarrow's resident races. At the top tier is Amelia Blacktail, the Princess, wearing a green felt outfit consisting of a mini-skirt and halter top much like the one she wore during the original competition, save that this one fits and uses laces instead of buttons. The Maidens are on the dais itself, with Parsley Chalk representing the Lapis and dressed in a nearly identical outfit to Amelia's, save that the laces expose a bit more fur and Midge Sniffler representing the Akwavis wearing the same miniskirt and a felt bikini top to better show off her stunning blonde fur.
Finally there is Olivia Weaver standing in for the Skeeks, wearing a slightly longer skirt and a modified wench's blouse with a bit of hidden padding to replace the traditional corset (so that her belly is exposed) and still manage to fill out the square-cut bodice. Each of the girls is wearing a gold-painted tiara with a carved frog-face at the crown, although they've managed to obscure it somewhat by placing some of Olivia's cloth flowers into the frog's mouth.
A bit further from the central fountain, also sitting on a raised platform, is a complex machine that appears to be half wagon and half horrible insectoid monstrosity being tended to by a group of excited, if large, wolves.
Olivia tugs a bit at her blouse so that it sits properly across her chest without exposing too much. "Well, at least they let me lengthen the skirt," she sighs. Then she looks over at Amelia. "Doing all right up there, Princess?" she asks in an undertone.
Amy adjusts her own sash a bit, and waves to the crowd. "My face is starting to hurt from smiling so much."
Off to the side the gypsies have taken over a small section of the market. They're currently hawking some custom woodworking as well as some of the younger males running a few, erm, honest games. The gypsy dancers are also out in full force. A couple of them, a Lapi and Rath'ani, are luring over people to watch and hopefully tip the dancers with coin or trade items. Liliana is leading the dance that's currently going on right now, one involving a lot of transparent silks and snakey swaying of their bodies.
"I don't like this, Zahn. Too many people in town. They'll be after our plans, I know it. Especially those huge wolves. Look at their machines … and they don't look smart enough to have built it, so I bet they stole it," Gunther mutters to his brother, Zahnrad. Zahnrad reaches over and absently swats the back of Gunther's head, commenting, "Behave yourself. We need contacts outside this town if we're ever to be able to leave it. I certainly need equipment I can't get here."
Standing nearby the frog maidens is Olivia's mysterious stranger, or at least that could be him under that cloak. He's wearing a rather full hooded cloak the color of flame. Those that have seen him without it know that the bulkiness under it are his wings, but to everyone else he looks like a very buff sort of human what with how the hidden wings make his shoulders look. He stands now transfixed on the dancers, especially their shiny baubles.
The dancers are doing an excellent job of keeping the otters and visiting Kavi mesmerized, and thus earning the gratitude of the various plain-clothes militiamen scattered through the crowd. There are some grumbles from the Dunk-a-Poodle line however, as the tall, black poodle woman in a severe dress at the front has bought a ridiculous number of turns. "Really, Mother, you shouldn't be so… " Erik starts to say, before the bench falls out under him and he's dunked again.
The dancers are moving in exact step, their dangling jewelry and trinkets clinking with each snapping swap of their hips or arms. Every now and then, Liliana lets out a short whistle cue and their positions and movements change. Behind the dancers are the musicians, which consist of a couple drummers and a Korv on a strange stringed instrument.
Olivia takes her cue from Amy and waves into the crowd herself although with one eye kept on the cloaked figure nearby, just to make sure he's always within view. "Ah, the joys of being Princess," she mutters.
The mysterious and could it be garish? stranger near the Frog Court steps from one foot, then the other, and back again as he relives his legs from the wear of standing too long. Hidden by his cloak his face is largely obscure, as are his largely fresh-from-the-Skeek clothes. In fact when he moves glimpses of his sash and pants can be seen, and from the looks of it it's all-new except his boots. Those, well, those should probably be shot.
"Hi there, Olivia," says a smiling Skeek, who offers the woman a daisy. It's Beau Tailor, the fifth Skeek to give Olivia a flower today who had previously never spoken to her.
Yeesh… it must be the blouse, the Skeek thinks to herself. Aloud, she says, "Oh, hello, Beau," smiling in return and taking the proffered daisy politely. "How very nice of you! Enjoying the festival?"
"Oh, uh… lots of strangers in town for it," Beau Tailor says, and actually manages to make eye contact with Olivia for a moment. "Looking forward to the dance tonight, though!"
The insides of Olivia's ears redden as she remembers the dance. "Ah, y-yes," she stammers. "That should be, um, quite lively." Lively for whoever's toes I'm stepping on…
Beau smiles even wider, showing a few missing teeth, and tells Olivia, "I hope you'll save a dance for me!" He bows, and then turns away to vanish back into the crowd.
Olivia sighs and turns to deposit Beau's daisy beside her chair with the rest of the flowers. "Don't you dare laugh, Amelia," she says with just a hint of an exasperated smile. "I know you want to but don't. I'm not used to all this attention!"
"Well, it has to be better than getting just the attention of Igor, you have to admit," Amelia says to Olivia. Midge, who is practically bouncing in place, asks, "Igor? Isn't that guy from the castle?"
Olivia nods to the bouncing Midge. "Yes, he is much to my eternal aggravation, and that's a fact!" Then she grins at Amelia. "Yeah, I suppose a few missing teeth aren't as bad as missing parts of your whole body!"
Olivia has another observer … this one from the gypsy troupe. A male Skreek has been watching her, when he's not running one of the games, of course. Every now and then he's scribbling something down on some paper.
"Wow, so like, you know someone who lives in a castle!" Midge says to Olivia, getting a sort of unfocussed look in her eyes. "He must be a prince or something! Or like, enchanted so that he turns into a handsome prince when you snog him or something."
Olivia looks at Midge for one startled moment as if she's lost her mind. When her face clears, she states flatly, "Midge, he's more patchwork quilt than Skreek. Most of his body parts are sewed on. Literally!"
"You mean, he's like… a doctor?" Midge asks, wide eyed.
"He's… something," Olivia replies. "But I don't think he's a prince. And I'm not going to snog him to find out!"
"You are so picky, Olivia Weaver," Midge says. "I think I'd be flattered if a rich doctor who lives in a castle was interested in me, even if he is a little lopsided. I mean, Bobby Apple is missing all the teeth on the left side of his mouth but he's still a pretty good kisser."
While Midge talks, Olivia darts a glance over to the Skreek running games with the gypsies and one corner of her mouth twitches. Then she takes in the last bit of what Midge just said. "Uh, do I even want to know how you found that out?" she asks the otter and winks.
Gunther elbows Zahnrad and motions toward the group of girls dressed in green. "And see! It's Olivia, all green … and all those around her. I told you she had a horde. Ack, Amy is one! That's why she's been hanging around you," he says.
Zahnrad … well, he just rubs his temples. "No, Gunther. They're being town representatives. They're not a horde," he says through gritted teeth.
The cloaked stranger has an audience of admirers of his own, although they are less forward. Emmett Oggton is obviously watching the dancers, and not so obviously glancing curiously at Axel whenever he thinks nobody is looking. Less subtle is the little black poodle girl clutching a bunny to her chest who openly stares, trying to get a look past the hood of the cloak.
"Come see, come see!" bellows one of the Titanians around the odd looking machine. "Future of farming! Automatic self-propellellelled harvesting machine! With fully spinning flamethrower turret!"
"Eh? Automated? Okay, I have to see this," Zahnrad says and heads right towards the machine. He drags Gunther along … to keep him out of trouble.
Axel continues his one-foot-other-foot stepping, making him tilt from side to side. When Beau approaches Olivia he cocks his head curiously, peering oddly so that he favors one eye as he tilts his head, then he looks elsewhere. When one of the unfortunately common swamp bugs buzzes around his head he nearly knocks his hood off trying to bat it away.
"Hey mister, are you a dancer too?" the little poodle asks Axel. Her black bunny wiggles its nose at Axel as well.
The strange man blinks as he's addressed. He then looks around and, blinking again, looks down. His expression is a little surprised. Perhaps he hadn't expected to be approached, or at least not by someone so small. "Awrk?" he inquires.
Emily von Richebeau takes a step back at the strange noise from hooded man. "Are you a Wimmer? I heard some get really tall," the little girl asks.
"Wimmer, Wimmer," the man repeats as though tasting the unfamiliar word. "Am I a Wimmer?" He pauses briefly as he stares blankly past Emily before answering, "No, I don't think I'm a Wimmer. You are a … little girl. Poodle. With bunny. Are you going to eat that?"
Emily hugs the bunny tighter, causing it to kick a bit. "No! He's my Bun-Bun!"
Axel nods solemnly. "Yes, your Bun-Bun." Solemn, and non-comprehending. "So it's not to eat." Another pause, another blank look. "Yes. Pets." He suddenly grins. "I remember pets, it was a harder thing to understand." Then he brushes his cloak back and kneels down so he isn't towering over the girl. "My name is Axel Nadyenka. Some people aren't sure, but that's what it is. Now. Wasn't before, but I'm not supposed to mention that. What's your name?"
"Emily," says the poodle. "Emily von Richebeau. You're a funny looking man, Mister Axel. Are you a vampire?"
Axel seems to consider that as well. "I don't think so. No, I don't think I'm a vampire. I'm possessed." The second the word "possessed" leaves his mouth he looks stricken. "But I'm not supposed to tell you that. So it's a … " his eyes glaze, and the girl may suspect it's common whenever he can't find a a thought, " … secret, yes." Then he smiles. "I am a funny looking man, and a funny looking bird."
Emily chews on this information (literally, it seems). "Okay, you're a magical bird-man. Do you know the tooth fairy?" she asks, then smiles to show where a baby-tooth has fallen out. "I got 5 shekels last night for my tooth."
Axel's head tilts to the side. "Tooth fairy, tooth fairy. No, I don't think I know a tooth fairy. I know," he begins to count on one hand, "Olivia who is all alone, Zahnrad the white one, Isolde the witch, several gypsies, a few people from a caravan, and myself," he reviews helpfully.
"There are two of me, but only one," Axel adds as an afterthought, a bit like it might well be too obvious to mention.
"My daddy is a piggy," Emily replies.
"I think being a bird is better than a pig," Axel responds. "Yes. Being a bird. Didn't want to be, can't seem to stop thinking about it. Considering going with it. Seems right. Not sure why. Not sure why I have feathers either, but I'm sure I know why. I just won't tell me. Or don't know how."
"Birds have feathers," Emily points out. "And Creens too. But if you're a bird you're supposed to have feathers. Everyone knows that. You wouldn't be a bird otherwise."
Axel thinks on that as well. "You're right," he agrees after a moment with a tone of someone discovering something important. "I don't have scales so I am not a Creen, I have feathers, and I have wings, and I have the eyes." He points at them. They're rather hard to see with his hood up but looking closely one can see they aren't human at all. They distinctly resemble the eyes of a Rahktor, only the iris is dark red. "I wonder sometimes where my eyes went, but these are my eyes. They are now. So these are my eyes."
"Maybe my momma took your eyes," Emily suggests. "So she could have some in the back of her head."
"I should ask her," the stranger says consideringly. He offers his hand to the little girl.
Juggling Mr. Bun-Bun to the crook of one arm, Emily takes Axel's hand with the other. "She's over at the dunking booth," the little poodle explains.
Olivia sees Axel start to walk away with Emily out of the corner of one eye. "Don't wander too far, Axel!" she calls to him. Then she addresses Emily, "If Axel tries to leave the festival or if anything, er, strange happens, would you please let me know? I've been charged with looking after him for a while."
The little poodle nods to Olivia. "Okay! I'll watch him like he was my own pet!"
"Okay," says Axel. He begins walking that way slowly so that the little girl can keep up. He also stoops forward so he can talk to her more easily. This, of course, causes his wings to settle on his back such that they become quite a bit more obvious hidden under his cloak. It also does a bit to make him look like a stalking crow. "I like towns," he confides to the girl, "they remind me of home, but no one wants me help anymore. I can't hear them."
Axel gives Olivia a wave. "Going to find my eyes," he calls to her before walking further on.
Olivia waves back, although a bit uncertainly. "Um, have fun!" she replies. "Just stay out of trouble and come back soon!"
There aren't too many people around the harvester exhibit, possibly due to the smell of oil and kerosene (and Titanians). Up close, it's possible to peer past the various spinning blades, mechanical mandibles and other nasty looking bits to see a smaller lupine figure moving around within the framework, making adjustments with a set of small hammers.
"Hmm. What powers it?" Zahnrad asks loudly, hoping to catch the attention of one of the wolves. Gunther, meanwhile, is hackling up and looking rather puffy. Only the occasional glare from Zahn is keeping him in his place.
"Special mini-a-chair airship engine!" the shaggy Titanian proclaims, bending down to get a look at Zahn. "Wrot Brother's ex-clue-sieve dee-sign," he pronounces carefully.
Zahnrad blinks, then blinks again. "I want to see it," Zahn says flatly and looks back up at the wolf. "I've heard about them, and things they've built. I'm an airship designer, m'self."
"Okay!" the wolf bellows, and bangs on the side of the machine. "Orfull! Orfull! Little Kadie wants to see engine. He's got grease in his fur."
Zahnrad huffs. "Little, indeed," he mutters. While his attention is caught, unfortunately … Gunther has ducked down and slinked off into the crowd…
It takes a few moments for the other Titanian to wiggle its way out of the machine, but eventually she gets out and offers Zahn a paw. For a Titanian, Orfull Wrot is amazingly small… barely larger than Zahn. "Hi there," she says in perfect Sylvanian. "Orfull Wrot, of Rephidim," she introduces herself. She's got on a sort of cap with flaps on the side and goggles on top, and her overalls are so greasy it's hard to tell where they end and her thick black fur begins.
Zahnrad takes her hand and shakes it firmly. "Zahnrad Kettenrad Wingnut," he says as introduction. "I think I've heard of you. You managed a successful new airship … before it blew up. Most of mine have blown up too, admittedly. But, I hear you have an airship engine powering this thing … I'd like to see it, if you don't mind. I'm working up a design of my own. Few parts are prototyped out. Wanted to see what route you took with your design."
"Oh, I've been trying to solve the problem of combustion near sea level for some time now," Orfull says, and motions for Zahn to follow her into the guts of the harvester.
"Ah, you must be using an explosion drive design too," Zahnrad remarks as he follows her in. "I've got some prototypes for that, but really bad supplies. I'm having a hard time building something that can withstand the force."
It isn't hard for Zahn to see that two-thirds of machinery in the harvester doesn't actually do anything other than make it all more complicated. There are whirly bits, and bellows and bladders and far too much plumbing. Once they reach the engine itself though, it is a wonder to see: almost entirely metal, with eight piston chambers and a set of complex valves controlled by a clockwork timing mechanism. The smell of kerosene and oil is nearly nose-numbing.
"Ah, why do you have all the useless plumbing in here? All it'll do is break and it doesn't provide anything useful." Zahnrad comments as he looks around. He then blinks as he sees the engine. "Woah… " he says sounding in awe. "Yeah, metal would do it. But we have almost none around here." He immediately goes up to the engine, peering at it. "Wow, similar in concept to what I'm working on. I've only got a four-chamber design, though. My valve controls are a bit simpler than this … I've learned the more complex it is, the more often it just breaks."
Orfull nods a lot. "Yeah, complex is good! More things for Gremlins to break instead of important things, right, so breaks less overall!"
Zahnrad looks at the Titanian funny. "If it's simple, it doesn't have a way to break. Why, your valve system could be simplified without affecting the overall function. You'd just need a single rod and a couple gears, not all of this," he says motioning to the timing mechanism. "But, wow. It's really well done. You're lucky to have access to this sort of material," he says, sounding impressed and disappointed at the same time. He sighs.
"Complex works better," Orfull repeats, like a mantra. "See, five types of battery… one will always work, maybe. Got to have bellows. That's important. Less explosions with bellows. More tubes are better too. Like guts. More guts you have, better it works. It is… uh… some complicated term wizard in funny dress told me. Less machine-like and more animal-like is better."
"Er, why do you need a battery? I guess you're using it to get the fuel to ignite? You could do ignition without one, you realize. It would probably work better on the surface, too," Zahnrad remarks and scratches absently at his ear. "And your fuel feeds into the engine … I think you could improve them so you get the same amount of power. Only with less fuel."
"Couldn't get carburetor to work this low," Orfull admits. "Got uneven air-fuel mix. Most often cause of explosion." She taps on some cylinders near the piston heads. "So, made injector, see? Spray in fuel instead. Tie Creen feathers around them to fool gremlins."
"Ah, yeah. I was going to suggest an injector. Got the idea from a perfume sprayer and is what I'm basing my design on. It worked great for getting a mist of fuel and fire it directly into the chamber," Zahnrad says with a nod.
Orfull removes one of the piston heads (amazing what you can do with just hammers) to show Zahn how it's been grooved on the inside to propagate the combustion for better fuel efficiency. There are also three separate spark heads inside, for redundancy.
"You really don't need three igniti… " Zahnrad starts to say, then just shrugs, realizing it's sorta pointless to argue the fact. "Hm, didn't think of grooving the head like that, though. It … would improve the flow. Good idea."
Julia von Richebeau, mother to Erik and Emily, has finally used up all of her turns, much to Erik's relief and that of the others in the queue. The woman is now glaring at the Princess and her Court, and then the Gypsies, in obvious disapproval.
Axel catches sight of the older poodle and visibly winces, pausing in step. "Some people are scary," he tells the girl. For a moment he stands there looking at the woman, then back towards the safety of Olivia, before puffing himself up and continuing on. "Hello," he greets the woman as he nears, "do you know where my eyes might have gone?"
"What? Who are… " Julia von Richebeau starts to say, then notices the bunny in her daughter's arms. "Emily! What have I told you about playing with filthy animals! That thing is probably covered in fleas!"
"He's cleaner than papa," Emily says, stubbornly clinging to her bunny. "The Lapi lady washed him up just for me!"
"He's her Bun-bun," Axel adds helpfully.
"I don't care what… who are you?" Julia asks, noticing Axel again. "You aren't one of those gypsies are you?" she asks suspiciously.
Axel begins to answer the woman until her attention turns. He looks down at Emily as well, his expression curious.
"Oh no," answers Axel, "I'm definitely not a gypsy. I'm a bird. A new bird." He gives his best friendly smile.
"You look like a human to me," Julia says, disapprovingly. "A human with some sort of skin disease. But I can see you have your eyes. Goodness, you don't mean eyes that you eat do you? I know some Korvs are fond of them as a treat, but honestly… "
"Are they tasty? Rabbits are tasty, but some are pets," the bird-man says conversationally. "But no. I am looking for my eyes because these are not my eyes. I had eyes, but these aren't them. Well, they are my eyes. Now they are. So I think that means I have two sets of eyes, and these fit more, but I like my old eyes too. I wonder where they went. I asked me, but all I say is "my eyes are bird eyes" I think that means I don't know." It all comes off as a bit of a ramble. Very quick with sentences in bursts rather than spoken at a measured pace.
Julia reaches down and grabs Emily's hand away from Axel. "You are obviously either insane or related to that horrible Igor person, talking about switching body parts! Come along now, Emily, you are going to take a bath immediately."
Axel withers a little under the judgement call. "Oh," he breathes dejectedly. "Can't Emily stay with me? No one talks to me, but the children always used to. They always spoke to me, and I always listened."
"Well, there are plenty of other children about you can… talk to," Julia says, straightening up and practically dragging Emily away towards the inn. At least she seems to have forgotten about the pet rabbit for now.
The stranger breathes a sigh. "Towns were friendlier before," he complains to no one in particular.
"Towns are strange," comments someone near Axel. It appears to be a young Lapi boy, although one sporting a pair of Cervani-like antlers. He's holding onto a shepherd's staff, and wearing a long coat made of multicolored patches and nothing else.
"Ah, de maiden in green," comes the familiar voice of Djivan from behind Olivia. "I knew vou vere someone importan' in dis town." The Skreek slinks around and grins at her, then slinks up close to her. "I been missin' you."
Olivia jumps at Djivan's sudden, noiseless approach. "Djivan! Don't scare me like that, I'm nervous enough as it is about this whole Frog Maiden thing." She calms down enough to grin back at him. "Missing me, huh? You looked pretty engrossed in your games to me!"
Amelia, Parsley and Midge immediately focus their attention on Olivia and the gypsy.
"Oh, de games are jus' passin' de time before de dance," Djivan says and waggles his eyebrows. "Plus, dey help get me enough coin to try an' keep you all to m'self."
Olivia smothers a laugh and tries not to notice the stares of the other girls. "You'll be regretting those words when I step all over your feet!" she tells the Skreek. "I'm not the most graceful of dancers, you know."
"Ah, vell, tis a good t'ing Lily taught me how to dance, no? I can lead, no vorries," Djivan says leans in close, grinning.
"I've been taking some dancing lessons from Lily," Amelia says to Olivia (thus earning her looks from Parsley and Midge). "You should be able to pick it up easily… plus you'd get to wear all those colorful scarves! At least, for awhile… "
Olivia leans back just a tiny bit in her chair (for the sake of propriety) and replies, "Thank goodness for small mercies. If it were up to me we'd be tripping, not dancing."
"An' after de dance, I know a grea' quiet place we coul' go," Djivan says and winks.
"Ooo, the overlook by the banyans?" Midge asks, leaning across Olivia now. "Or the cave by the dam? The old watchtower? The mossy glade?" she asks.
Olivia shoots the otter girl a look. "I think we'll be able to pick something out on our own, but, er, thanks for the suggestions."
"So, you're really going out on a date with a gypsy?" Amelia asks Olivia, grinning. "How… well, okay, I suppose it isn't a big surprise, other than you actually dating… "
Djivan clasps Olivia's hands! "Oh, vonderful! Vou vill go!" he says, sounding absolutely delighted. "Vou haf made my year," he adds, leans in, and kisses her cheek.
Olivia's ears now turn a brilliant shade of magenta at being kissed right in front of everyone. "Only if you promise to behave like a gentleman," she tells Djivan after a moment's startled pause. Then her eyes twinkle. "Mostly."
The Skreek nearly grins from ear to ear. "I vill provise vou vill haf a good time," he says and releases her hands. He glances back towards his troupe and grumbles. "Vell, I shoul' get back. Befor' Lily notices an vells at me for bein' lazy."
Amelia leans over to whisper to Olivia (after making sure no otters are close enough to eavesdrop), "Just a word of warning… don't get your outfit wet. The felt isn't all that good a quality, and it could come apart."
Olivia nods and whispers back, "Thanks. I'll see that we stay away from water. And what, you don't believe I could ever go out on a date? Don't think I have any romantic feelings at all?" she asks, pretending to be wounded by the very suggestion.
Djivan takes a moment to run his fingers along Olivia's cheek, then slinks off back towards the other gypsies. It's a bit quieter over there now, as the dancers seem to be taking a break. Liliana is leaning against a wheel and looking out over those gathered.
Amy shrugs, and grins. "Well, I figured the local boys were just too dull for you, really," she says.
Olivia breaks her hurt act by leaning back in her chair with a smile. "Well, not that all of them are dull, you understand. It's just that… well, I don't exactly see myself getting settled in a small town like Stonebarrow. I want to see the rest of the world someday!"
"You mean, like, Trollhaven?" Midge asks Olivia, her eyes wide with wonder. "Or maybe even Justininople! I hear they have, like, dozens of shops and the streets are paved with, like, paving stones instead of cobbles."
Olivia laughs a little at Midge's usual over-enthusiasm. "Something like that, yes. I want to see how people live in bigger places, more far-away places. It ought to be interesting!"
Axel turns around and smiles a little for having found company so soon. "It wasn't like this before, all though it was also very like this. Before. I remember," he explains. Turning slightly he gestures towards the people, "Before, most would always talk to me, and they always thought I talked back." His head tilts. "Before, I lived in town, and everyone nearby knew my name. I didn't hear them all, but they knew me." He sighs. "Now no one does."
The antlered boy rubs his nose with the palm of his hand, then says, "I talk to the Rughrats. I don't think they understand me, but I usually can tell what they want. Was it like that?"
"Yes," Axel answers without his usual pause. "Yes, that was how it was. I knew what they wanted, and I tried to help. I couldn't, not enough, but I tried. They believed in me." The bird-man reaches up and rubs his temple. "It wasn't like that for me, I was … " he blinks, "a Rughrat. I didn't talk, I didn't think anyone listened." He laughs a little. "I see that they do, because I listened. I, me."
Pointing with he staff, the Lapi boy indicates a pen full of Rughrats that are apparently the main ingredient for a wool-shearing competition. "That's my flock. This is my first time in town."
"My flock is gone," Axel tells the boy sadly. The hand that had been rubbing his head reaches for his eyes instead, and he rubs just below them. His expression looks strained, sad, like he was trying not to think about it. "Another flock came and they went away. I think I was going to go away, too, until I came. Then I was together, and I am my own flock, and my own Rughrat."
With a cough, rumble and roar that sends everyone nearby diving for cover (and attracts a large crowd of otters) the huge harvesting machine comes to life as Orfull starts the engine for Zahnrad. Pincers pinch, blades spin, paddles flap and oily smoke billows from the rear end. The flamethrower remains quiet though. Why would farmers need a flamethrower anyway?
Hiding behind Axel so the bird-man is between him and the harvester, the boy asks, "Are you going to get another flock?"
Seemingly too distracted with his thoughts to mind the noise Axel neither notices, nor reacts, to the sudden roar. "I hadn't thought of that," he tells the boy who's now behind him. Turning to look over his shoulder he asks, "Do you know of a town looking for a shepherd? They'd have to be birds; I don't know how to help anyone else. I'm a bird shepherd, that's what I think."
"Birds don't need shepherds," the Lapi points out to Axel.
Axel does think about that one. "No," he admits, "I don't think they do. I've met a few since then, and they can help themselves. I think, now that I look at it, that they never did need me. They wanted me, and I wanted them. It was joy to help, and joy to be helped. They liked knowing someone listened. It was a sense of comfort, I think."
"Like a witch?" the boy asks the bird-man.
The bird-man blinks. "I think you're right," he says in agreement. "I was like a witch." It makes him grin amusedly. "But no hat."
"Okay, you need to make something to quiet it!" Zahnrad shouts at Orfull. Still, he watches the equipment in action, his own mind spinning with ideas and design changes he now wants to make. For a Kadie, noise and moving stuff really doesn't seem to bother him. "Say, if you have time, would you like t see what I've been working on?" Zahn tries to ask.
"Yah, sure!" Orfull yells to Zahn. Outside, an angry looking Rhian mare emerges from the Chiropractic tent and marches over to the noisy machine. After examining it for a bit, she gives it a good, well-placed kick that causes something to seize up, forcing the engine to choke and die. A small cheer goes up from the crowd.
"Dat da biggest Gremlin I ever saw," mutters the large Titanian outside the harvester. "She didn't even use a hammer… I am in love!"
"Great! I'll see you later tonight, maybe, at my place. It's the shop near the dam with a huge gear door," Zahnrad yells, even though the machine has stopped.
The dancers over at the gypsy side seem to be preparing to begin again. Liliana looks out over those gathered, as if looking for someone, then seems to sigh. She motions to the dancers and musicians to get ready.
A cloaked, hunched over figure approaches the dais, clutching a bouquet of very unusual flowers (some of which seem to be moving on their own) in mismatched hands. It pauses in from of Olivia, and suddenly seems indecisive.
Olivia clutches the arms of her chair as the hunched form stops in front of her. "Um, Midge?" she asks over her shoulder. "I think there's someone here you should meet… "
"Mithtreth Olivia?" the figure asks, sounding… well, disappointed really. "You've… changthed."
"Er… yes, I suppose I have a little," the Skeek replies to the figure. "It's because I was asked to be a Frog Maiden for the festival. The crown and outfit sort of come with the whole deal. Is that you, Igor?"
"Yeth, you remember me?" Igor says. "You looked better with all the pretty colorth, Mithtreth."
"Certainly I remember you," Olivia says politely, although she thinks, As if I could forget! "And I'm afraid green is the only acceptable color for being a Frog Maiden." Then she leans over to the golden-furred otter and says, "I believe you wanted to meet someone from Dontgointhe Castle? This is Igor, who is employed by Dr. Pike. Igor, this is Midge, another one of our Frog Maidens."
"Oh wow, so you're like a doctor then?" Midge asks Igor, holding out her hand and leaning over towards the patchwork Skreek. "More of a thurgeon, really," Igor replies, shaking the otter's hand and getting an eye-full of her bikini top.
Olivia hides a grin at the look on Igor's face when he comes face to face with the otter's… attributes. "Midge and I were just talking about the castle and she was especially interested in what life is like at such a place. I don't think you've been there yet, have you, Midge?"
"Oooo, I'd love to see the castle!" Midge says, practically squirming. "You'd give me a tour right, Doctor Igor?"
"I thuppoth it would be alright… " Igor says, already trapped.
"That's great! It sounds like you'll have a nice time," Olivia says smoothly, smiling at the pair of them. Her eyes, however, are glinting with suppressed laughter.
Zahnrad is finally making his way out of the machine. Unfortunately, he's gotten himself rather greasy in the process. "Thank you again for showing me your machine, Miss Orfull," he says. "It's quite remarkable … if a bit overdone."
"Yah!" the small Titanian barks, and is already moving in the opposite direction to fix whatever it is Dr. Fether kicked in. The larger, shaggier Wrot Brother is following the mare back to her tent, smitten…
Zahnrad decides he ought to check on Amy at this point and starts heading towards her. Apparently, he's forgotten he's lost Gunther…
"Hey, Amy," Zahnrad calls out as he gets closer to the frog princess court. "Are things going all right?"
Amelia tears her attention away from Igor and Midge to wave to Zahn. "Hi there Zahn, I'm going crazy. Did you come to see the big… ah… thing over there?"
"Did I ever! Miss Orfull let me inside. They have an engine design similar to what I'm doing! But, well, it's a bit overdone, really. She's coming by my shop later tonight to check out my designs," Zahnrad says as he wipes some of the grease off his hands and onto his shorts.
"You're bringing a Titanian to the dam?" Amy asks, quirking a grin. "Oh my… don't tell Gunther. Let him be surprised! Uh… you'll be here for the dance though right?"
"Uh, well, you've seen Miss Orfull, right? She's about my height. Not like she'll scare him," Zahnrad says. He then blinks and adds, "Dance? Well, I wasn't planning to, really. Why?"
"Why?" Amy asks coldly. "Well, I'll be there. But I suppose I can dance with anybody then."
Zahnrad winces. "No, I just figured you'd be busy! Thought the poodle would be occupying your time and didn't think you'd have time to really talk with me," he says quickly. "But, I can come, sure. It's no problem. I'll just need to get cleaned up."
Amelia nods. "Oh good, I'll save you a dance then Zahn," she says, her mood changing instantly. She also quickly looks to the sky, checking the weather.
Zahn's ears go red. "Ah, yeah, dance. Uhm, I'm not very good, but, I'd like that," he says quickly. "I'll try to find something nice to wear tonight."
"Have your mother help you," Amy advises.
"Hey, don't think I can dress nicely?" Zahnrad asks.
"I meant with the dancing lessons," Amelia notes.
Zahnrad looks embarrassed. "Oh," he says. "I hope the rest of your militia didn't give you grief after I left," he says, changing the subject.
"Oh no," Amelia says, smiling happily. "I'm the grief-giver when it comes to it."
"Every village needs a witch," the antlered boy points out. "I'm Kalvin Chalk."
"Aaah, it is Mister Nadyenka," comes the familiar (to Axel), voice of Madame Natasha. She's standing behind both Kalvin and Axel … apparently she came out of her wagon for a bit (and away from telling fortunes). "Vou seem more stable today."
"But what's a witch without a village?" Axel turns fully around and after looking at his hand as if he wasn't sure what it was offers it for a handshake. "I'm Axel Nadyenka."
Kalvin shakes Axel's hand, and looks up with wide eyes at the scary Khatta woman.
"She didn't bite me," Axel adds helpfully to Kalvin. "She did wonder if I would bite her though. I don't bite either."
The bird-man looks over his shoulder again. "Oh," he inhales sounding a little startled, "Lady Natasha, hello. Yes, stable, of course, might be. Not sure. You're not going to soak me are you? I've decided I don't like cold water."
"Only if vou pass out again," Madame Natasha says gently. She then looks down at Kalven Chalk and says, "And a good day to vou, Mister Chalk. Do not vorry, I don' bite."
"I bite," Kalvin warns, holding onto his staff. He doesn't seem too scared now though.
Madame Natasha waves her hand lightly. She then kneels down so that she's more Kalvin's eye level. "Vou have had a hard life, haven't vou?" she asks him.
"The Rughrats are nice," Kalvin says. "I stay with my flock all the time. Is that hard? People make me nervous."
"Vhy do people make vou nervous?" Natasha asks.
Axel watches Natasha kneel down, looking curious. "People make me nervous. I think it was easier when I wasn't the same, or when I was the same." He shifts from one foot to the other, tilting his head. "My flock was the most comfortable thing. I understand. These other flocks are scary."
"I'm cursed," Kalvin says to Natasha. "See?" He touches his antlers. "These mean I'm cursed, and shouldn't be with others or have kids."
Natasha offers Kalvin a small, sad, smile. "Being different doesn't mean vou're cursed, child," she says gently. "I am different too. But, I am not cursed."
"Do you have children then?" Kalvin asks, somewhat forwardly, of Natasha. He also looks to Axel as if to include him in the question.
The bird-man leans over to peer at Kalvin's antlers. He studies them a moment before shrugging his cloak back and unfurling his rather sparsely feathered wings, which he gestures to. "I have wings," he points out, "but I'm not cursed. Just possessed. It's not that bad."
To the question Axel responds, "Children? I think so, in a way, like Rughrats."
Natasha shakes her head. "No, child, I do not. Vell, none that I gave birth to. But, I suppose my tribe is my children, in a vay," she says.
"They don't seem like Rughrats," Kalvin points out, looking towards the gypsies.
"Oh, because dey aren't. Dey are people vho didn't have a home. De lost, as ve are commonly called," Natasha says. "Ve're all family and look after each other."
"You can't let a member of the flock get lost," Kalvin says, shaking his head. "They get stuck in ditches or eaten by predators. They're nice and all, but not very bright."
"There's a deeper nature behind lives. When you look deep enough, it's all the same. All the same. Everything burns, and though the light is always coming and going, and different in color, it's a the same," Axel explains. Then, after explaining, he gets a deeply befuddled look at having said it. He adds in uncertain agreement, "Um, like that."
Natasha stands back up and dusts off her dress. She smiles at Kalvin again. "Vell, sorry for interrupting vou two. I jus' wanted to check on Mister Nadyenka, vho seems to be doing better."
Kalvin looks up at Axel with the same expression children universally use when adults start spouting gibberish. Even Igor excuses himself to get something to drink, since he's feeling a bit dizzy a common side effect of being in Midge's presence for any length of time. The otter girl is left with the bouquet though, and watches in fascination as one of the flowers tries to climb up her arm.
For his part Axel merely shrugs in a 'I don't know either' sort of way. "Seemed like the thing to say. That happens some times," he explains.
To Natasha Axel offers, "Bye then."
"Be vell, Mister Nadyenka," Madame Natasha says. The Khatta disappears back into the gathered people, probably to head back to her wagon.
"You know interesting people, Axel," Kalvin says.
Axel looks around a moment before nodding. "It seems that way," he agrees. Hunching over, Axel folds his wings back up against his back letting gravity cause the cloak to re-cover them.
"Do you want to meet my flock?" Kalvin asks Axel.
Axel adjusts his cloak with a hand before nodding. "Yes, I would." He offers the boy his hand.
Kalvin takes the bird-man's hand, and leads him over to the pens. Some of his flock has already been sheared, while he explains to Axel their names, personal habits, personality quirks and other minor details.
Olivia glances at the crawling flower with a look of mild consternation. "Did Igor ever tell you what kind of flowers those were?" she asks, scooting a little to the other side of her chair.
"They're creeping somethings," Midge says happily. "Isn't it cute the way it tries to get to the sunlight?" Parsley also examines the bouquet, but most likely because she's feeling hungry.
"Well, just make sure it doesn't try to crawl on top of your head to get at the sunlight," Olivia warns. "Goodness knows when you'd be able to get it off!"
"Oh, and, uhm, you look good," Zahnrad says in a weak compliment to Amelia's outfit. "It's not really you, but it looks good. I think you look better in your regular clothes, though." Boy, Zahn's babbling.
"My regular clothes are a lot tighter than these though," Amelia points out. "But I won't be keeping these, since they can't be washed."
"Yeah, but … they're more you," Zahnrad says, stumbling over his own words. He then shrugs lamely and says, "Sorry."
"It's not like it could take root in my skull," Midge says to Olivia, giggling. Parsley doesn't look so certain though, and says, "It could… uh… tangle your hair." This seems to illicit more concern in the otter, who is very fond of her hair.
"Here," directs Olivia, "try holding out the bouquet off the side of the dais where full sunlight is falling. Maybe it will get the hint and crawl off your arm? Then you can drop it and let it, um, bask there or whatever it does?"
"It's okay, Zahn, none of us really look like ourselves in these getups," Amelia says. "Especially not Olivia, but I think that's more the padding than the color," she whispers. Meanwhile, the flower on Midge's arm takes the hint and goes along with the rest of the bouquet when the otter takes Olivia's advice.
Zahnrad nods. "Well, I should let you get back to being, er, princess-y. Say Gunthe… Oh … no," Zahnrad says and puts his hands over his face. "I've lost Gunther. This is bad. This is really bad." He smiles apologetically to Amelia and says quickly, "Gotta go!" The Kadie then darts off, looking for Gunther's tail sticking up in the crowd.
Olivia whews! silently as the 'creeping somethings' creep off the otter's arm and leave her alone. "That's better," she calls. "If the flowers start looking dried out, we can always splash water on them from the fountain."
Once again, the Akwavi are drawn to the Gypsy Dancers, filling their tip bowls with donations of… well, shiny pebbles, small fish and the occasional frog, cookie, or bottle of moonshine.
The dancers put on quite a show for the Akwavi, too. Some even go down and dance with … or against, them. Liliana included. But, to anyone watching, she still seems to look out now and then into the crowd, as if looking for someone.
"Gunther! There you are!" comes a shout from the petting zoo. "No, I don't want to 'pet' you, I'm just getting my brother!" comes the same voice a moment later. After a bit of commotion, Zahnrad emerges, dragging Gunther by his tail. Hanging from Gunther's tail are a few bunnies, and a Rughrat. "I was looking for evil!" Gunther protests indignantly. "You are evil," Zahnrad retorts. "We're going home. I have a date tonight with Amy and you're not messing it up." A moment later, Gunther says with a grin, "Will too!" Zahnrad, retorts, "Will not!" This goes on for the entire time the two are visible as they leave the village market, leaving quite a few people staring at them in their wake.