Morning light tiptoes as quietly as mice over the decks of the port where the familiar chemical smells of hydrogen and gasbags drift. A steady breeze comes from the edge of Rephidim, laced with earth tones from the bared rock beneath the flying island, and great repair docks reach out over the edge to berth the larger battleships and freighters over vertigo-inducing drops interrupted only by wide-spread cargo nets. Creaky wooden stairs lead down from the smaller land-grounded bays to the dusty flat where less expensive airships float in port. Flags and sails of all colors fill the air, announcing their allegiances to the world. At this hour, workmen stretch and yawn as they amble to their posts and merchants bellow at sailors over cargo being transferred.
The Sunchaser hovers in place, held by moorings and a flexible walkway that leads up to the undercarriage deck. It's a mixture of old and new, an airship reborn from the ashes of the Battle of the Plaguebringers, as a zeppelin with an undercarriage built from the remnants of a wrecked airship of the same name. The envelope is not entirely round, showing the ribbing of its supporting frame underneath the fabric, and is emblazoned with a flamboyant yet sun-faded design depicting the sun god of Olympian mythos, Primus, riding a flaming ship through a sky full of depictions of the major constellations.
The figurehead on the "prow" of the undercarriage continues the theme of the envelope's design, fashioned to resemble an idealized female Solus in dramatically furling drapes the tragic Ikara, who fell deeply in love with the sun god, though he (being immortal) paid her no heed, and who was compelled to fly after him, higher and higher, until she flew too close, and caught ablaze.
Another, later (and more popular) version of the story adds a "happy" ending, with the gods showing mercy on Ikara, and raising her back to immortal life. And, so the legend goes, she can still be seen at times, chasing after the sun as the phenomenon that some others would refer to as a "sun dog".
Most of those milling about at the docks wouldn't bother to stop to ponder the mythic significance of the decor, however. Laborers carry luggage and supplies onto the vessel, which is fitted out to make a journey across the ocean, toward the continent of Ur … and the sky island of Caroban, which has drifted far from Rephidim. Even though slavery has been abolished in Rephidim, a large number of the dock workers are Savanites. After all, it's what many of them have been doing their whole lives, though there are a few younger workers as well.
A casual observer might mistake her for a Khattan prince's bride, what with the several layers of cloth swathing her feline form, but brown eyes and a peek of golden fur with black spots hint that a Savanite woman is among the passengers approaching the gangplank.
Near the gangplank, another Savanite woman her species more easily distinguished, adorned in a plain work-dress, woven leather headband, and a cowled cape stands, looking on … though she glances occasionally in the direction of the approaching stranger … and dips her head slightly as if in acknowledgement, before walking away, sparing only another glance toward a massive and grizzled-looking Vartan amongst the passengers waiting to board.
The Vartan reaches out a hand and gently brushes it against the departing Savanite, it's a touch that might be construed as a simple clumsy gesture to the casual observer. He's large even by the standards of his people and wears enough scars on his hide to show he's no fledgling. His feathers are a deep chestnut brown and he wears a patch over his right eye. Most of his other adornments beyond very simple clothing are his weapons, giving him the bearing of a mercenary or a guard. He holds himself close to the fancily swathed Savanite, adding to the image of being a guard.
As the obscured feline walks up to the gangplank, one of the younger dock worker Savanites walks by, carrying a case. The young worker turns around, glancing in the direction of the Vartan and his companion, and a sense of "deja vu" strikes the hippogryph, but the worker quickly turns away. He's dressed fairly oddly and it can't help but be noticed that he has a plantigrade leg stance.
Over on a crate near the edge of the boarding area, a foppish looking fox strums on a lute. His lyrics, perhaps thankfully, are unintelligible of the regular din of the dock activity, though the strains of his lute carry through on occasion.
A white-furred Eeee in robes of sky blue, with wispy platinum-grey hair, walks along, part of the group ready to board the zeppelin. She pauses, and then smiles and waves in the direction of the craft.
The Vartan raises an eyebrow at the dock worker, trying to recall if he knows of any plantigrade Savanites. His brows pinch together as another option creeps to mind, but neither are matters that he feels he should barge into for an explanation. He continues up the gangplank and presses a hand on his Savanite companion's shoulder. "It's a beautiful ship, isn't it? They've been growing more and more beautiful over the years. An odd trend, I suppose."
A winged Exile Envoy, it must be makes her way past several of the boarders, and goes over to hug the Eeee. Aha. It's Wynona Windcaller, to be certain.
The ship does indeed have a certain whimsical look to it, in addition to the obvious decor. It has several propellers to facilitate movement, but it also has a number fans and bellows and other moving parts that, to a mechanical eye, might seem entirely unnecessary. But then, some say that one needs lots of moving parts to make machines work better here.
The brown Vartan spares the Eeee another glance and then widens his eyes at the sight of Envoy. "Inri, Do you recognize those two down there?"
The veiled Savanite nods. The young dock worker turns again to glance at the Vartan and his companion … and then those eyes flash wide, and the dock worker looks away again. But there's no doubting what the Vartan saw that was no "he", it was a "she", and those spots were jaguar markings with a bit of shading added to make them look more like cheetah spots, with tear-marks as well. Just then, one of the bigger worker walks up and starts flashing signs at the younger dock worker. "Hey! You weren't picked for today's work, and I don't know you. Scram!"
Inri turns to look, then just nods quietly in reply.
spoof The Vartan frowns, his suspicions confirmed. "Go make sure our things are stowed away and our room is in order. you might also want to think about whether you wish to speak to them, if we're sharing a ship with them. I'll be right back, I have some business to take care of before we shove off." He starts to dig in his pockets and pulls out a handful of shekels, walking towards the larger dock worker.
Inri nods again, then continues on ahead in the procession up the gangplank. The dock worker turns from his signed tirade, when he sees the large Vartan approaching. His demeanor quickly shifts, and he uses large sweeping gestures part sign, part pantomime, since not all people know Silent Tongue "Sorry, sir, passengers that way."
The younger "dock worker", meanwhile, starts edging away, taking advantage of the older one's distraction.
"I understand handsign," the brown hippogryph glances sideways at the younger one. He throws a few tenner shekels towards the older and unshoulders his pack. "Let the young one work. I was young once myself and did work here. If it suits them, they can carry my bag. I have a bad shoulder and its starting to pain me."
The older dock worker blinks a few times in confusion at the arrangement, but then shrugs and signs, "As you wish, sir. Pleasant journey!" The younger one bows low, ears flushed pink, as a half-hidden hand signs, "sorry."
"Will you be traveling on the ship, little dockhand?" The Vartan tilts his head to the side. He does not hold himself or carry the tone of an angry father. In fact he seems to be going quite along with the little disguise. "Or are you just here to work?"
"Just to work, sir," the younger one signs. "I am not a stowaway."
The younger one's eyes sadly follow the robed feline making her way up the gangplank. "Just here to see things."
"Do you wish to travel on the ship? I can pay your way and will be in need of a porter." The Vartan doesn't follow the child's eyes, knowing where they point. "I understand."
The young one signs, "I am not an adventurer. I do not wish to be a burden. But if you greatly needed a porter, I would not protest." The child looks up at the Vartan's face with a wavering gaze. Somewhere behind, a couple of fliers the Exile and the Eeee, most likely take flight and leisurely wing over toward the rooftop of one of the warehouses.
The Vartan kneels down and digs a copper shekel from his pocket, gently placing it in the young "Savanite's" hand. "You are never a burden. The decision is and will always be yours. It will be a very hard trip, more one of exploration than adventuring. sometimes when you explore you find things you wish you hadn't, and other times you find great great treasures. If you wish to take it, the shekel will be enough for you to afford a cabin." He rubs his beak. "I shall be silent about the whole affair unless you wish me to be otherwise. One wouldn't want all of the Rephidim docks to think that I will buy them passage whenever they wish, after all." He smirks slightly.
The young one breaks into a big smile … and moves as if about to throw arms around the Vartan in a hug … but then shows a moment of self-restraint, and just bows low again. "You are exceedingly generous, sir! It is a shame not to tell all!" Then, the young one looks up again. "You may call me 'Watches-Quietly'. Can I carry something for you?"
"My name is Elijah, little one. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance." He rises up and pats himself down, finally pulling a small bundle of rags and a sewing kit for patching up his gear and a toolbox. "Here you are. I hope it's nottoo heavy. Now you'd best go and get your room settled with before the ship takes off."
Watches-Quietly bows again, then scampers off, coin in one hand, bundle in the other.
Elijah watches the cub scamper off and resists the urge to go follow after Wynona and Envoy. He's not entirely comfortable leaving Inri alone on the ship just yet and strides back up the gangplank to catch up with her.
A bit of shuffling along, and Elijah makes it onto the zeppelin. The undercarriage is not one of the sorts with a platform open to the air. Rather, it's mostly enclosed, though there are large windows ringing the outer walls, allowing a view of the outside, as well as ports that open up to perches outside for fliers to get in or out. Plus, it appears that there are climbing tubes working up the sides of the ribbing, and an observation platform supported on the very top.
"Pardon the distraction," the Vartan squawks as he catches up with Inri and places a hand on her shoulder again. "I just wanted to check on something. Is our room squared away?"
Inri nods, and hands the Vartan a key. "They gave me two keys. Room 8, second deck, starboard-aft quarter."
Elijah rubs the key with his thumb, polishing it a bit out of habit. "Let's get ourselves stowed then and get ready for takeoff. How are you managing?"
Inri nods. "Fine, thank you. They already put our luggage in. It's fairly professional … but then that's to be expected of most trans-continental journeys." She smiles faintly under her veil, then leads the way to a set of stairs going up to the second deck.
"My feathers itch, but I suppose I'll get used to it. My bathwater's going to look like I've been rolling in the mud for awhile though." He chuckles. "I feel naked. No robe, no armor. I keep feeling as though I should have something to pull over my face."
Inri's ears wiggle under her folds, and she climbs a short flight of spiral steps. The second deck looks much like the first, only slightly wider, given the shape of the undercarriage. Room 9, Room 8, and she unlocks the door. Inside, is a small but nicely appointed cabin, tastefully furnished with two bunks, and a mini-washroom.
"No sleeping on the floor at least." Elijah whistles appreciatively. "You know I was almost looking forward to it, except no doubt you'd trip over me in the middle of the night." He sets his pack down and stuffs it under the bunk for now. "Would you object if I invited Mage Envoy and Mage Wynona to join us for dinner tonight?"
Inri makes certain the door is securely closed, then cocks her head to one side, and signs, "Is Elijah inviting them, or someone else?"
Elijah seats himself on the floor, finding it the most comfortable spot for him for now. "My name is Elijah. I am not Zoltan anymore, and until I find my answers on this trip I am no longer Shadows. But I understand what you mean. I shall phrase my invitation in a manner that will let them know who I am, no matter what my name happens to be."
Inri nods. "And me?"
"That is up to you. I do not know your feelings on the matter, and I will not presume to hurl your identity at every person I meet. If you wish you can remain passive until you know if you can trust them or not." The Vartan's single eye looks down. "Although I will say that it would help Mage Envoy a great deal to hear from you. She feels that you hated her or at least held some great grudge against her. I have noticed that she seems to like to play the martyr, but I have heard that a great deal of that has faded over the years."
Inri frowns. "She is also the sort to love to find out mysteries, then 'hint' about them to total strangers … to get shocked reactions from them, I suppose. Do you think she could be trusted not to casually spread word of my existence?"
Elijah steeples his fingers, pressing the bridge of his beak against them. "Your story would hold quite a bit of shock value. Well, we could always meet with Mage Wynona and speak to her alone, perhaps get her opinions on the matter. I have not spoken to Mage Envoy in years, but when we did speak we made a peace of sorts." He rises up again. "Or perhaps the best measure would be for me to form my own opinions on the matter myself. If the airship is enclosed then that would mean that they would have to board before the ship took off, and if Mage Envoy is anything like she was before she will want to see things from the observation deck. Why don't you try and get some rest in here while I get my answers?"
Inri nods. "I would be fine with that."
The Vartan pockets his key and heads towards the door. "I'll be back soon, then. If you get anxious for something to do I have some books in my pack, or you can try setting up a sheet in the room for privacy." He pauses and gallantly kisses one of Inri's hands. "Can I get you anything?"
Inri signs, "Not just yet. I think I'll take the chance to get some rest. Shoving off from port tends to make me tense, after all, and if I can sleep through it, so much the better."
Elijah nods. "I'll see you soon then." He bows and steps out, heading towards the observation deck to watch the ship launch. Perhaps my new porter will be there as well, he thinks to himself.
The climb up one of the tubes is a bit cramped … and, in a way unnecessary, since he has wings, but simply fluttering around the airship when it's about to shove off from the docks tends to attract attention from porters who want to make certain there aren't any flying stowaways. Elijah manages to make it back to the top deck, which is more or less lined with other people who had the same idea, standing and waving … though, truth be told, the bulk of the envelope beneath the platform creates a considerable blind spot in the view of much of the docks.
Still, Elijah can see that Wynona and Envoy are still seated on the roof of a warehouse near the port, and it looks like all of the passengers have gotten aboard as well as any cargo.
There's a loud whistle, signaling the imminent departure.
Elijah finds a spot to sit and just quietly watches for now. He doubts that he should be leaving an airship with his daughter and best friend aboard just before it's about to take off. Maybe they're not riding after all, perhaps another time.
It looks like there's a stirring over at the warehouse, as the Eeee stands up from her perch on the edge of the roof.
Meanwhile, there are footsteps behind Elijah, as a young "Savanite" walks up "Watches-Quietly".
The Exile gives the Eeee a hug, then steps back and spreads her wings.
"She's in the room. Have a seat." The Vartan pats the spot next to him, keeping his eyes trained on the window. "I was worried to see you, but I'm dearly glad you came. Having a friend here gives me strength."
Watches-Quietly signs, "I said I wasn't ready to talk … but I had to see. I didn't mean to mislead. It was a last minute decision, really." She bites her lip, and scuffs her left foot on the deck nervously, then settles down on a deck bench.
Meanwhile, the Exile wings her way over toward the observation deck. An Aquilan porter can be seen to intercept her, but then waves her on. Envoy, after all, is pretty easy to identify and remember.
Elijah nods, dropping into a soft Vartan squawk. "This probably means that you don't have much in the way of clothing? We'll see what we can manage at the next port we hit. And I understand." He unfurls his wings a bit and fans them, opening some space around him in the crowd.
Envoy lands, and asks the porter, "Where will we be stopping next en route to Caroban?"
"Non-stop to Little Rephidim East," the porter replies, "then a jog to Ur, and a stop on the Gigi Coast." Just then, the ship starts moving out, and people along the port side wave and call out to those on the docks.
The Vartan leans forward and looks out the window, trying to catch whether Wynona boarded the ship or not.
No, Wynona just stands on the rooftop of the warehouse, waving at the departing zeppelin. It doesn't look like she's boarding.
"Another time then," Elijah pulls himself up and leans against the wall, he gestures to porthole and offers the young Savanite a look.
The Savanite looks out, her tail twitching as she peers at the retreating dock.