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Drabble V – Say Cheese

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The sky was clear.

The sun was bright, radiant with the optimism of morning rays.

The breeze was brisk, carrying the salty tang of adventure as it travelled through the docks to hail the arrival of an incredible presence.

Then, as if nature itself demanded it, the heroic figure fitting of this simple yet vibrant weather made her entrance by climbing to the very top of the ship's mast. Beams of light enveloped her silhouette, making her translucent like some sort of divinity as she leaped from such soaring height to enjoy the roars of rushing wind.

Unbounded by earthly fears, the lithe form landed effortlessly and barely made a sound as her feet touched the planks of the great vessel she single-handedly built and sailed across the grand seas. Oh the things she had seen and the deeds she had done! She was but a simple girl after all, yet the world adored her for her sheer charisma and enigmatic smile, bestowing her with all the luck as she made her way around the continents and left an everlasting mark in history.

What a revered adventurer she was!

After tying her beloved scarf on her head like a bandanna, she stretched her arms as if to receive the sky's blessing. Grinning proudly, the incredible sailor took a step forward in zest, ready to begin another amazing day.

And promptly tripped face-first with a very loud thud.

"You okay there, kid?"

Mariel rubbed her bruised nose as she slowly got up from the floor. She cursed under her breath, glaring irritably at the crooked nail sticking out from the plank. Damn little bugger, ruining her awesome fantasy like that!

The Hamster put on her most fearsome snarl and pointed at the blasted thing in a declaration of war. The small yacht she was standing on shook precariously at her abrupt action but she was undeterred.

"Uh, Mariel? Why are you squeaking at the ground?"

The Rodent puffed her cheeks indignantly and gestured at the sneaky spike with her crowbar. "That's between me and the nail, Bob."

Onean's sole shipwright laughed jovially at his new assistant and simply jabbed his thumb in the direction of a really worn boat beside her. "Take it easy, lil'gal. You can get back to that later. I need that one dismantled."

"Okay! I'll stack up any recyclable materials too!"

"That's a good lass. Oh, the kids are back too, you can do whatever you want with them, haha," the man's muscular silhouette moved and disappeared behind a ferry that was in the process of getting an upgrade and thorough make-over. "I'll be workin' on this beauty here if you need anything."

"Got it!" Mariel then mumbled, "we'll settle this later." She glared at the evil nail one more time before heading towards the dilapidated boat.

Being the cheerful Hamster she was though, her foul mood easily dissipated at the sight of a small crowd of children playing around the dock as they waited for her. The young Martens and Chipmunks always came to the port to play with the various gadgets and items Bob had lying around. The experienced shipwright had long taught the kids how to handle the objects without harming themselves, and since this area was much safer than the Feline-filled streets, they preferred to play here.

"Mary!" A Chipmunk hopped cutely and tugged his sisters' sleeves to get their attention, "what're you doin' today?"

"We want to help too!"

"Hiya you guys," the Hamster patted some of their heads as they clamored around her, "we're gonna do something fun today! We're takin' apart that boat!"

"Oooooh~"

"But we can't just tear into it like crazies. There are steps we must follow of course. Anyways, first things first," she pointed her crowbar at the small ship like a war commander would do with his sword, "we must clear off everything that's on it! Barnacles, weeds, cobwebs… LOOSE NAILS GNARRR…. And torn fishnets, so we can recycle the cleaned parts for Bob later!"

She then held her tool high in the air before swinging it down with a battle cry, "Now, chaaaaaaarge~!"

Laughing and giggling, the Hamster and the children dashed to the poor boat and began their annihilation plan!

Yesterday, the kids came to see who Bob's assistant was because no one had ever been able to help out with the ship repairs before. Once they got over the fact she was a teenage Hamster who could actually fix stuff, they became buds relatively quickly. Although, Mariel was confident that she could've gotten along with them even if it weren't for her impressive skills. Having been the unofficial babysitter throughout her eventful life, she was an expert at how to handle kids, stranger or not.

She genuinely enjoyed being around them though. Even if the task weren't forced onto her, she would've volunteered to look after children anyways because, to her, they were the living proof that the world was not completely jaded. Seeing their smiles were enough to nullify any negative things she had experienced and turn an ordinary day into an awesome adventure!

"Help me stack up these planks!" She called out cheerfully as she pried apart the worn wood from the yacht's structure. Fortunately, most of the material could still be used with proper application of varnish, much to her delight. She had learned to be resourceful at a young age, and discovering the recyclability of an item was one of life's greatest joy.

Her happy little helpers saluted and began working in teams to group the planks by size. Mariel smiled contently before returning to her task of pulling out the rusty nails and bolts. It was hard work especially for a Rodent like her, but years of experience must have helped her build up enough stamina. In fact, she was stronger and taller than most of her species, something she was infinitely proud of.

Vertalis was really one messed up continent, especially in comparison to this much nicer land of Riphaeus. Even the finest village she's been to couldn't compare to Onean, and apparently this town was only average in spite of how peaceful and comforting it was to the young Hamster already. She couldn't even imagine what Elaine's home Ahkalin was like.

It must have been a paradise!

Mariel paused in her work and rested her wrench on her shoulder as she thought about the pretty Husky. The Canines she'd met in the past were either arrogant or indifferent about an insignificant Rodent like her, but at least they were all fair. Elaine was completely different though, not just because she was so gentle and fluffy, but also because of how friendly she was in general. The ever-wagging tail was adorable to watch, as well as the cute little flicks those triangular ears made. It felt odd to be attached to a stranger, especially since Mariel had been proudly independent.

Last night had been the Hamster's first time to lie down on a mattress that wasn't full of holes or hard as a rock, so she felt so blessed to fall asleep on something so comfortable! She had to share the bed with the blonde because there was only one in the room, not that she minded though. It was another unfamiliar experience to cuddle with someone older, as she was usually the one coaxing her numerous cousins to sleep, but the Husky smelled so pleasant and safe that she had quickly drifted off.

Elaine also made her feel at ease around Clarice.

Shivering uncontrollably, Mariel gripped her wrench and tried not to think about gleaming fangs, bloody whiskers and slitted pupils. Malicious yowls and disdainful insults echoed persistently in her head though, so she had to take a few deep breaths before she could rein in her fear.

Felines were terrifying, for they could easily hurt her whenever they pleased and not feel any remorse about that.

Clarice's grin flashed in her head then, making her puff her cheeks in annoyance. Sure, the Lynxlioness had been harmless so far. Heck, she was even nice to the Hamster in spite of being so utterly infuriating. She hadn't laid a finger on the Rodent, nor did she spout any racial remarks.

However, who was to say that she wouldn't turn into another one of those abusive Cats? There was no guarantee, and considering the numerous times Mariel's been tricked, she'd rather not take her chances.

But Elaine seemed to trust Clarice…

The Hamster glanced at her trembling fists and sighed. Well, she'll have to get over her catphobia somehow before she could really decide on how to act around that Lynxlioness.

Hammy hammy hammy hammy~

She began to demolish an eroded part of the yacht with her trusty hammer while superimposing that super annoying grin on the worn wood. Yes, she must get over her fear so she could beat that stupid nickname out of that Cat. She liked her name dammit. What was wrong with Mariel, or Mary? It was one of the few feminine things about her so she held great pride in her name. Being an orphan, she also treasured the one thing her parents had given her.

Hamham hamham hamham~

The Hamster violently smashed the plank with renewed vigor.

Perhaps due to the adrenaline from her annoyance, she was able to completely dismantle the yacht and sort out the materials by noon, with help from the kids of course. In spite of the hard labor, this was a pretty straightforward job, unlike yesterday when she was helping Bob in fixing the interior of the ferry. Since the damage was near the hull of the ship, the repair was quite tricky but she managed to impress the man using her experience. She may not understand the complicated terms or the systematic steps, as she never had formal apprenticeship, she was able to follow the shipwright's instructions without any trouble.

"Great job, lass," Bob nodded approvingly as Mariel and the kids showed him their handiwork, "well, it's lunch break now so I'm goin' to Yvonne's market to grab a quick bite. Want me to get you anything? You're free to go meet up with your friends too if you like."

"Oh, I'm going to see a friend," Mariel smiled almost dreamily, recalling the delicious cookies Elaine fed her yesterday, "I'll be back soon in an hour or so, is that okay?"

"Sure thing! Okay, you kids, go get your lunch too."

The Hamster watched the children giving the shipwright a hug and waving at her before going back to their respective homes. It was always heartwarming to see an adult treating kids so kindly, which made her like the man a lot. On top of being popular with the local children, Bob was also frank and easy-going. Of course, because of her Rodent stature and young age, she always got teased no matter what and this employer was no exception. At least, he didn't scorn at her species.

She did wonder what race he was though. It was hard to tell because he didn't have a visible tail and he wore a bandanna as well as a facemask, something about protecting his nose from wooden shreds and boiler residues.

With her beloved utility belt clasped on her back, she skateboarded down the street hurriedly in the direction of Greene's Bakery. She wasn't able to avoid running into some Kodkods though, who began sneering at her the moment she sped by. Though frightened, she was reassured by the fact they could not catch up to her.

"Look it's that Rat again."

"Ugh, Rats… filthy bunch, those things."

Anger cancelled out some of the fear as she puffed up her cheeks. She despised being called a Rat more than anything! She never stole, worked hard and never lied! She accepted that she may not be the brightest bulb, but she was quite proud of her honesty and trustworthiness.

How dare they call her a Rat! If she didn't have the tendency to freeze at the worst time, she'd so teach those mangy Cats a lesson!

From a safe distance of course.

Her heart pounded uncomfortably fast, urging her to increase the space between her and those Felines. Damn her terror! What she'd give to be strong, to be confident of herself!

"Welcome to Greene's Bakery- oh hello, Mary."

Seeing Elaine's welcoming smile, the Hamster couldn't help but return the gesture. She tried to look casual as she walked around the customers to get to the cashier. Since there was a line, she opted to stay behind the safety of the counter with her friend. It had nothing to do with wanting to look brave and unaffected by some of the Feline patrons of course. No no, she wasn't trying to impress the Husky by fiddling with her skateboard as she waited for the pretty baker.

"I'll take over for now, Elaine," Joyce Greene patted her assistant's shoulder with a small, amused smile, "I can hear your friend's stomach from the kitchen."

The Hamster puffed her cheeks in embarrassment when she noticed how loud her tummy was growling. She frantically wiped her mouth just in case she's been drooling from all that delicious aroma too!

The older girl giggled amiably as she led the flustered Rodent to a small table at the back. "Oh, do not fret Mary. It was quite endearing, really, that my pastries would instigate such an eager reaction from your stomach."

"R-really?" Mariel rubbed her head sheepishly as she sat down, appreciating how the blonde was trying to make her feel better. "Well, y-you really are good with baking stuff… I mean the buns I had last night were probably the best food I've ever eaten!"

She wasn't flattering the Husky. The pastries… no, even the loaf of bread Clarice bought from the market tasted heavenly compared to the gruel and leftover grains she used to eat in Vertalis.

Elaine's cheeks flushed with joy, and Mariel happily watched the characteristic tail wagging from the compliment. It was then she realized that she had yet to speak with the Husky alone. Hopefully, she might be able to change the older girl's impression of a scaredy Rodent now that the Lynxlioness wasn't around to hinder her speaking ability.

Similar thoughts must have crossed Elaine's mind, for she took out a pan of freshly baked pastries from the oven, filling the air with mouthwatering aroma as she asked. "I have not had the chance to ask you before, Mary, so I was just wondering what your favorite food is…"

"Cheese!" Mariel blurted instantly, her mahogany eyes now dazed as she stared hungrily at the cheese buns.

"I am glad my instinct is correct," the Husky smiled amiably, "I noticed the way you were looking at the wedge of cheese yesterday, so I made a guess."

"Hmff'o'myy!" Though the food was still hot, it tasted so amazing that the Hamster automatically stuffed two pieces into her mouth, munching blissfully at the delicious cheesiness. Then she realized how rude this was so she quickly gulped down the food and repeated, "It's so yummy, it's just… there are no words!"

"Now now, you flatter me too much," Elaine giggled quietly as she nudged the pan towards the Rodent.

"It's true!"

"Is there anything else you like, Mary?"

"Well, I love all kinds of nuts too!" She wolfed down her fourth cheese bun without any trouble. She only recently found out her huge appetite, since she didn't have the opportunity to test her stomach's capacity in Vertalis.

"That is Clarice's favorite as well- oh dear," the blonde hurriedly patted Mariel's back when she choked at the news.

Unimpressed by the discovery that she had something in common with that annoying Lynxlioness, she mumbled, "Elaine… why is a nice girl like you travelling with a Cat like her?"

Before their arrival in Onean, the Husky had briefly talked about Ahkalin and her meeting with Clarice when the former was trying to calm down the frightened Rodent. While Mariel understood that traveling with someone was much better than being alone, surely there were more suitable candidates than a ruffian like that Feline?

"Clarice is very enjoyable company, and she also wants to see the world for herself," Elaine replied without any hesitation, her amethyst eyes brimming in certainty, "We both want to make a difference, no matter how little it may be. I cannot think of a better companion than her."

"Oh…" The Hamster was taken aback by how much the Canine trusted the Feline she just met several days ago. Was there something else that reinforced this inexplicable bond? Did it have something to do with this Kura girl she's heard a few times?

"Still… I don't get how you could just leave behind a nice family…"

She must have sounded bitter, for Elaine's ears drooped as she asked tentatively, "How about you, Mary? You mentioned that you are from the West. Did you come here to look for someone-?"

"Sort of," she looked down at the cheese bun in her hands and was overwhelmed by the surge of gratefulness, "Well, to make a long story short, I heard that my parents were caught up in the Beryn Invasion years ago, or the aftermath I'm not sure. My relatives never explained much and I never asked for more..." She paused, saddened not by her knowledge but more by the empty indifference she felt, "But because of that war, we Hamsters left Fenrisyr and have been travelling around since. We're always on the move because whenever something bad happens around the area, economically or whatever, it's always the Rodents that got the worst of it."

"I am sorry to hear that…" Elaine had an unreadable gleam of sadness in her eyes, so Mariel believed she truly meant her words. The Husky probably had relatives back in the Canine continent so might have been affected by the Invasion as well, directly or not.

"But yeah, anyways," the Hamster waved off the spell of melancholy, as she was not one to dwell on the unchangeable past, "I can understand your feeling of wanting to see the world though! I met a nice Shrew a year or so ago, and the nice lady told me that Wars didn't cause bad things 100%. The world might be more than just oppression and suffering. She said I'm still young, so I should go travel and decide for myself. So!"

She stood up energetically and tightened the bandanna on her head, "The moment I saw the opportunity, I stowed away on a ship. I kept hopping from ship to ship until the p- I mean, until I found one nice enough to drop me off near Zylo. I wandered in the forest for a bit…and the rest is history."

The Hamster tried to keep up her bright smile as she recalled her narrow escape from the slave traders in Zylo because apparently Hamsters were rare on this continent. The incident, however, reignited her extreme phobia of Cats, something she thought she had gotten over already after months of travelling by sea. Being the caring men they were, Paddy and Marty had pretended to be Cats, hiding their Otter tails to help her combat this fear. One time, Captain Rio had even called her brave!

But it looked like all that therapy went down the drain since she couldn't even go north to reach her original destination. The Rodent slumped in her seat, disappointed in herself, yet she wasn't unhappy by this turn of events. Captain Rio had mentioned this bar in the Riphaen capital, Kaltrea that was run by her sister Rui Brewfort. The Stoat's relative was probably just as jolly and brazen, and might have been able to help her settle down in this foreign land. However, now that she knew about the chaotic situation up north regarding the Rebels as well as her reawakened catphobia, she decided it was better that she stayed with her current two companions.

She really liked Elaine, and while Clarice was kinda annoying, she was also tolerable.

"Well, Mary," the Husky gazed at the younger girl with kindness as she reached over to lightly caress her head, "I am glad we found you in the forest. While I cannot promise you anything, as I am also a novice journeyer myself, I will try my best to make you feel at home around us."

The Hamster blushed slightly at her sincere words, but she was also surprised by how pleasant it felt to have her ears stroked. No one had ever done this before, so she closed her eyes and indulged in a few moments to be cared for by another person.

"C-can I call you Lain?" She squeaked hopefully, "I love your name b-but also I think maybe c-calling you by a n-nickname might make us closer-?"

Blinking, Elaine appeared so taken aback that Mariel regretted at being so forward. Of course, they barely knew each other and maybe the Husky was just being nice and tolerant.

"Lain… I like that," the blonde giggled affectionately, scratching the Hamster's ears under the bandanna one more time before pulling away, "We have a long trip ahead of us, Mary, I am certain we can become good friends."

The Rodent beamed at the acceptance, feeling lighter than air, but her euphoria was slightly dampened when the Canine suggested that she should try to open up to Clarice too.

"Sure, if she can stop being so annoying," Mariel puffed her cheeks and scowled, though inwardly she was already trying to plan a way to tolerate the Lynxlioness. Maybe if she didn't look at the Feline directly, so she wouldn't feel scared or irritated based on the older girl's voice alone.

She could easily pretend that the hyper, feminine voice belonged to a lively kid instead of a Cat.

"Here are some snacks for you later, Mary," Elaine walked the Hamster to the door and smiled kindly as she waved goodbye, "and try to come back to the Inn for dinner on time so the broth would not get cold."

"Okay!" She suppressed the urge to burst into a silly grin as she skateboarded back to the port. However, the giddiness was just too much and soon she found herself skipping down the street. What was this warm and fuzzy feeling? What the Husky did might seem ordinary from a bystander's point of view, but it meant a lot to her!

This must be similar to how a person would experience when a family member packed a lunchbox for her.

How nice would that be if it were real?

A family…

Mariel hugged the box of cookies like it was gold and returned to work with renewed vigor. When she arrived at the port though, she heard a distinct Feline hiss that almost made her drop the precious container. Shuddering involuntarily, she forced herself to take the few steps towards a high stack of planks and hid in the shades. The angry yowls got louder and made her limbs lock up in place as she huddled against pile.

You're okay. You're safe here. They won't get you. Just look at the sky, just look at the light… Her lips moved silently as she repeated the mantra, keeping her eyes fixed on the bright blue sky to reassure herself that it was still daytime. Once she could move again, she dared to peek at the spot in front of the ferry, where the argument was happening.

There was a teenage Wildcat whose arms were folded, obviously displeased, as she flicked her tail sassily at Bob. "I couldn't believe my ears so I had to come down here myself… you hired a dirty Rat? My daddy will hear this! You're going to lose your job, Robert!"

"Calm down, Sandra," the shipwright's gruff voice was light, as if trying to placate the girl, but he was indifferent to her threats with the way he casually leaned against the ferry. "She's the best assistant I've ever had. She knows what she's doing. If you want your cruise ready the day after your birthday, then you'll have to live with this. I can't possibly work on the boats all by myself, and there isn't a single person in town capable of repairing them."

"Wha-! This is madness!" The Wildcat screeched in rage and was rubbing her cheek for some reason, "what's with all the subhuman-lovers lately?"

"Sandra," Bob's voice was low with a hint of a growl, "I will not tolerate any of this around my workspace."

"Fine! Just make sure the Rat get the job done!" Hissing, the teenager flicked her tail before grudgingly storming away.

The disdain was so corrosive in comparison to the Kodkod's rude remarks that Mariel couldn't summon enough anger to combat her fear. She stayed at her hiding spot until her quivering stopped, and long after the Wildcat was out of sight. Sighing wearily, she remained slouched as she walked towards the shipwright, who seemed to have noticed her presence a while ago.

"Sorry about that, Mariel," he spoke earnestly, "I wish you didn't have to hear that."

"It's okay," the Hamster's small smile was sincere though, "you stood up for me, and that's more than enough."

"Heh, somebody's gotta speak up about this kind of stuff," he rolled his broad shoulders, cracking them with a satisfied grunt, "I do promise that it's probably the worst you'll see around here. Most of the folks here in Onean aren't actually that bad. Some know what's right and what's wrong, but none of them would do anything to stop the racism from spreading. They just ignore it exist, because it doesn't directly involve them."

"Right," the Rodent bobbed her head, having witnessed exactly what Bob described countless times, "But at least they don't actively encourage it either, and that's good."

"Optimistic lass, aren't you?" Even though only his eyes were visible, he must be smiling because of the way they crinkled in mirth, "That's the spirit! We need more youngsters like you. Now… the poor kids were all scared off earlier by that girl, so it's just you and me."

He tossed her some ropes and pointed at the fairly new boats. "I've seen you climbing around the posts, so I'm gonna get you to set up the masts and sails. We'll work on the rest of the repairs at night because I work best when it's all peaceful and quiet."

"Roger that!" Mariel was happy to be entrusted with the task and immediately resumed her job after she stashed the box at a safer location. Even though the halyard felt heavy on her shoulder, she was able to climb up the pole without any trouble, tying and knotting the lines at the desired locations. One by one, sheets and ropes were turned into sails as she tried her best to work efficiently, improving the time needed to climb up the mast each time.

Even then, it was early evening by the time she finished everything. Sweaty and slightly out of breath, she slumped against the cunningham of the last boat.

"I deserve this," she groaned but smiled fondly at the box of cookies in her lap. Before she began feasting on her snacks though, she saw a few kids approaching her in cautious steps. The Ocelot kittens all looked suspicious, but the curiosity in those wide eyes probably drove them to get closer to this unfamiliar Rodent.

Though surprised at their arrival, Mariel smiled and waved them over. Her fear of Felines didn't extend to children, perhaps due to their underdeveloped fangs and the fact that their mewls sounded cute, so she was able to treat them just as she would any kids.

"Are you sure we should go? I heard Sandy was getting all hissy earlier…"

"Yeah but Bob hired this girl, so she must be good!"

"Isn't she a friend of the crossbreed Cat those guys were talking about yesterday?"

"Oh oh I think she's also with the pretty girl working at the Bakery…?

"Then she must be cool too…"

"But still, Sandy said the Rats are evil…"

Mariel wondered why the Kittens sounded impressed by Clarice, who must be the Cat they were talking about, but she still went towards them and offered to share the cookies. That decided it for them, because they eagerly took a piece and immediately nibbled with happy smiles. Some were even purring, pleased by how delicious the snack was. The Hamster smiled in pride for her Canine friend when the Kittens took more cookies and looked relaxed around her now. Sure, she was disappointed that there wasn't any leftover for herself but hey, at least the kids weren't suspicious of her anymore!

She only had a few chances to interact with Feline children who were free from the adults' influence, but even then, she knew with the right encouragements and, more importantly, kind treatment, they would not hold the same discriminating attitude as the older ones.

Because that was what kids were. They were all fundamentally innocent and pure.

"You really have a talent with children," Bob remarked as he leaped down from the ferry and peered at the exhausted Hamster against the stack of crates. After the Ocelot kittens had opened up to her, they began playing games like tag and whoever could find the most loose nails and bolts. Against a group of kids with boundless energy, the Rodent had no chance. But now that the sun had set, their batteries ran out and so they were all curled up around the Hamster, mewing and in need of a nap.

"Thanks…" Mariel smiled faintly and stroked a Kitten's head. "Oh, I'm sorry about playing during work… heheh. I should've asked you what else I needed to do after I finished the tasks you gave me-"

"Naw, don't worry about it," the shipwright waved her off, his eyes crinkling again in mirth, "we got the whole night to work on the rest of the boats and besides, I prefer watching a Hamster playing with the Kittens. It's a nice sight to behold in this world nowadays."

She sighed in relief, glad that her employer was so tolerant of her, so she vowed to make it up to him by working extra hard later.

"Welp, it's dinner time," Bob picked up a yawning Kitten and gestured at the children, "I'll get these kids back home so you should tell your friends you'll be staying overnight. Remember to eat lots of food cuz you're goin' to need it!"

"Okay, I can do that," Mariel stretched after she grabbed her skateboard, "Thanks again, Bob!"

Fortunately, as it was dinnertime, most of the townspeople were either in restaurants or their houses, so she was able to head down the streets without any hassles. The lack of sunlight was already hindering her poor Rodent vision, making her hasten her pace as she tried to fight down the instinctive fear creeping up her back. She was not scared of the dark, but it was a different story since she knew there were Felines around the area.

She almost shrieked in fright when she heard quiet footsteps just up ahead at an intersection. She nimbly hopped off her skateboard and stuck close to the shadows, gulping as she squinted at the silhouette seemingly sneaking up on another figure even further ahead.

It was that Sandy from earlier, and she was trailing behind Clarice!

Did that Lynxlioness even realize she was being followed? And what was that rock in the Wildcat's hand? Was she going to attack the humming brunette?

Mariel gritted her teeth to stop the chattering as she thought about the incident with Bob and the Ocelots, making the connection that this Sandy girl must be angry at Clarice for some reason.

Angry enough to want to grievously hurt her.

The Hamster clenched her fists, inexplicably enraged, and found herself skateboarding down the street once again. The Wildcat noticed her right away, based on a haughty flick of her tail, but instantly dismissed her. The Rodent stuck out her tongue as sped by her target and inconspicuously dropped a small flask of oil.

Snickering, she turned corner sharply and burst into triumphant laughter when she heard a loud screech. Sandy must have slipped and stumbled spectacularly! Though the Wildcat's confused and wrathful yowls still caused goosebumps on Mariel's skin, she was already at a safe distance away.

Besides, justice was served!

"My hero~"

The Hamster blinked and skidded to a stop in front of Clarice, who was waiting with her arms opened. Seeing that the dumbfounded girl had no intention of falling into the embrace, the Lynxlioness then batted her eyelashes and tried to look bashful like some sort of rescued damsel.

"You saved me from the evil assassin! Oh how can I ever thank you?"

It might even have looked convincing if it weren't for that annoying grin.

The gears resumed working in Mariel's mind as she put the pieces together. "Y-you knew y-you were being followed?"

"Well of course," Clarice tilted her chin up and twirled her tail tuff, signaling that they should continue walking in case Sandy caught up to them, "I just pretended I didn't know because it's funner to see what that girl would do! I totally didn't expect you to save the day though."

Giggling, she winked and placed a hand in front of her heart. "I think I'm in love~"

Mariel twitched.

"So brave and handsome~"

"I just hate underhand methods!" The Rodent regained her ability to speak, keeping her gaze straight ahead not because she was frightened of the brunette's Feline features but because she didn't want to feel another surge of utter irritation by looking at that grin.

In fact, she had this urge to throw something.

"Aww, you wuv me too much to see me get hurt~"

"No!" Scowling, Mariel whirled around and pointed her finger at the smug Lynxlioness, whose fangs made her falter a little but her frustration was still winning, "You're annoying!"

"Because I'm a Cat?"

"No, you're annoying because you're you!" Though curious at that question, the Rodent replied honestly before glaring at the giddily twirling tail tuff. Well, maybe being a Feline had a little bit to do with it. Why won't the damn thing stop moving!

Seriously, this Clarice girl was so infuriating! Was she even a real Cat? Instead of being hateful and terrifying, she was just wacky in the head! She got that Feline arrogance, true, but not the condescending kind like Sandy's or other ones of her race. Mariel had never met a Lion, but she doubted they twirl their tail tuffs like this crazy Cat.

And that grin, god that grin!

It made her knuckles itch.

"I mean it, Hammy, I'm happy that you saved me~"

Hearing how sincere Clarice sounded, the Hamster decided to calm down and see what else the Feline would do now that she seemed serious. The younger girl was even prepared to let the stupid nickname slide too, but she squeaked indignantly when her taller companion tried to hug her.

"W-What do you think you're doing!" She held out her skateboard and backed away hurriedly, using it as a physical barrier.

"Hey now, I just want to thank you," the Lynxlioness grinned and grabbed the object, tugging casually as her tail twisted into an S shape.

"Gyaaahh hands off my skateboard!"

Driven by instinct, Mariel punched the Cat's unprotected middle, earning a pained caterwaul and making her loosen her grip. The Hamster hastily got on the equipment and sped away without looking back. It was only when the Inn came in sight that she realized she was no longer afraid of making contact with Clarice.

"Huh, weird."

Then again, that Lynxlioness wasn't like the usual Felines, so the Hamster's subconscious probably already grouped her into a different category.

"The annoying category," Mariel nodded solemnly, and found herself snickering teasingly as she waved at the yowling Clarice, who was trying to catch up. "Yup, that sounds about right!"

"Get back here, Hammy!"

"Eat my dust, Crazy Cat!"

Laughing proudly at her nickname for the eccentric brunette, she stuck out her tongue and hurried towards the Inn's entrance, where a familiar figure was already waiting with an amused smile.

"Lain! Hide me!"

"My, it looks like you two had fun," Elaine giggled softly as Mariel dove behind her just as Clarice got to the front.

"Princess, she punched me!"

"Oh dear."

"She deserved it!"

"What! Just when I thought you were the one!"

"W-w-what are you talking about, Crazy Cat?"

"Now now, let us go inside and enjoy a nice, warm dinner."

"Oh, okay Lain."

"Hey! How about my wound!"

Yup, Mariel decided she quite like how her trip to Riphaeus had turned out so far. It seemed like her dream of having an action-packed adventure just might come true after all.


"That Hammy!" Clarice yowled as she flopped on the wooden floor in the room the three of them were loaned to use during their stay here in Onean. Her stomach still hurt and it didn't help that she had a hearty serving of dinner that stretched her belly enough to feel the sore and slightly bruised muscles that Mary had hit. Though she was sure the area wouldn't turn black and blue, that throbbing feeling was still uncomfortable and lessened the nice sensation of being full and sleepy.

In spite of her inane complaints, however, she stretched on the cot she slept in, ready to just lounge and rest her weary body from a whole day of working. She and the Otter sisters had finished their rounds today, ending the Lynxlioness' contract with Mr. Simmons. Her earnings were meager but fair, and she was confident that the funds would last them for another town or two if she was truly thrift.

"She seemed quite cheerful today though," Elaine piped in as she carefully repacked washed clothes in her pack, evident that she managed to do laundry on top of assisting Joyce in the bakery. She then smiled as her tail wagged pleasantly, slower than usual but still effective in showing her thoughts. "Have you not noticed that she did not shrink away from you as much?"

"Really?" Truth be told, the brunette didn't remember much aside from the unexpected punch and the heavenly stew they ate for dinner.

"Yes," the Husky smiled serenely, "perhaps it is because of her work? She is probably enjoying it as much as I do."

"Maybe…" Clarice stared up at the ceiling as she lied spread-eagle on the cot, and the only motion she made were the tiny twitches of her tail. She chuckled in mirth though because she also didn't expect her Rodent friend to attempt to save her from Sandy, considering the fact that the Hamster feared Felines so much. But since she did, well, the brunette was more than happy to think that it was because Mary consideredher as a friend as well.

Even if the round-eared girl did sock her in the gut. Hard.

"What's up with her not sleeping here with us anyway?" She asked the blonde, who was securing the straps of her travel gear. The Rodent did mention something about more work but couldn't that wait until tomorrow? Now that they were somewhat getting along, Clarice wanted to spend more time just messing around with the Hamster.

"She told me that Mr. Robert needed to finish a project due tomorrow morning," Elaine explained with a soft sigh as she landed on the room's only bed looking a little tired, the only time the brunette noticed the weariness after all the hard work put in creating so many tasty treats. She still smiled though, showing that, though she was exhausted, she enjoyed working with the Sheep in the bakery.

The Lynxlioness pulled herself up from her warm cot and ignored her abs' protest as she did so. She then draped herself on the side of the bed, folding her arms under her chin as she twirled her tail in thought. Her Hammy should at least get extra payment for working throughout the night like that. Seriously, the poor thing was already so tiny that the lack of sleep wouldn't help any!

"My poor Hamster," she mewed and folded her arms, "her growth's going to be stunted."

Her murmurs perked the Husky's interest and tore it away from the notebook she had on her lap. Clarice recognized it as the journal she first saw in Elaine's room, the one that the blonde had taken with her on this trip. She tilted her head as the desire to inquire about the notebook took over her thoughts about Mary, but her princess-like companion had already mistaken her little mews as real pity for the Rodent.

"I am sure she will be fine," Elaine wagged her tail enough that the appendage thudded on the mattress. "In fact, she informed me earlier that she really loves working there."

"So…" Clarice tapped her fingers on the blanket in shallow contemplation, "if that's the case, do you think Hammy will stay here? Didn't she say that she was just looking for a place to live in, somewhere to work, settle down and—no! Bob's too old for her! I refuse! Daddy doesn't approve!"

That sudden outburst had the Canine blinking in surprise, "Daddy?" But she quickly recovered to put her friend's mind at ease, "I do not think that will be the case, Clarice. Mary never said anything about staying here in Onean at all so…"

"Well, yeah I know that," the Feline pouted as her tail tuff waved to and fro like an upside-down pendulum. "I just… well, unlike us, Hammy really doesn't have a reason to stick around, y'know? The poor thing really just wants a place where she'll be safe. I would… if I'm completely terrified of something."

She felt the bed shift underneath her after she focused her gaze on the cotton candy pink bed cover. And when she looked up, she found that the Husky was smiling at her and had leaned forward before she rested a warm hand on her forearm. Then, like a display of rare childish sweetness, Elaine lied on her stomach as well, facing her with a notebook nestled in her arms.

"Worry not, my dear knight," the blonde patted the Lynxlioness' hand and then the crown of her head, "your heroic page has not expressed a desire to abandon you." She giggled when Clarice's black-tuffed ears perked, "you are really attached to her, are you not?"

The brunette blinked and allowed the words to sink in a bit more before chuckling at her realization, "I guess I am. I think she's a good kid, yeah? And she's very interesting. Call it a Cat's curiosity, Princess, but I really want to… help her. Well, I guess help isn't the best word for it."

Elaine remained quiet though, like a professional shrink who allowed her patients to just blurt all their problems out. She supposed that that kind of approach was normally effective, but when one was on the receiving end of it, it was a bit embarrassing. So she no longer elaborated and merely grinned it off. After all, there was no point in telling the blonde that she somewhat felt guilty saying those words just now because it was almost as if she wanted to correct a wrong, when logically, there was nothing wrong, or fix something was not broken at all.

"I just want to be her friend," she admitted finally and with a good-natured chuckle. "You know how that is, right? Even if you just met someone who is completely different from you and everything, you still want to be that person's friend. That's the feeling I have for Hammy right now so… I hope she stays a little longer. Heh, even if she's more than a little annoyed of me."

The Husky folded her ears down as she giggled again, this time covering her mouth with an elegant hand. "Oh, nonsense. You are not annoying, and I am sure Mary is only jesting if she says otherwise."

Snickering, Clarice couldn't help but tease her blonde friend. "D'aww, thank you for the encouragement, Mom."

This immediately sprayed a dash of pink on the Canine's cheeks, "m-mom?"

"Yeah! You sorta sounded like one, Princess. Hehe!"

"Do you t-think so?"

"Yep, you have that maternal thing going on." The Feline explained, "at first it was only because of your proper speech, but now that I've seen more of you in the bakery and looking after Hammy, I'm convinced you're mommy material. Heh. It's cute though and I think Hammy looooves it. That silly smile she had after dinner says all!"

Satisfied with Clarice's cheerfulness, Elaine chuckled, "if that is a good characteristic to have then I am glad for I enjoy looking after you two, even if we have only been on this journey for a few days." She then pushed herself up and returned to her spot near the bed's headboard, looking a tad bit fluffier due to her plush pajamas. Now, the Lynxlioness was not sure where that garment came from or how more than two sets of clothing could have fit in the Husky's backpack, but she wasn't about to say anything. The young lady just knew how to make herself comfortable, a trait that was not bad to have.

"You're writing a journal?" The brunette asked as she rested her cheek on the bedside again, looking a lot like a pet ready to sleep by her mistress' feet.

"Yes," the Canine flipped a couple of pages and extracted a pen from the journal's folds. "There are a lot of interesting things that I must write down."

"Hehe, be sure to write about my awesomeness in there, Princess." The Feline pried herself off the bed and flopped back down on her cot, removing her ponytail tie in the process. She also unclipped her bangs and placed both the tie and hairclips in her satchel to be replaced again the next morning. She then ran her hand through her fawn-colored locks and continued her self-complimenting tirade, "because, admit it, that's the most interesting part of this trip."

"Of course. Although…" Elaine paused and gazed down at her friend on the floor, who then perked her ears and looked up at her in turn, "since Mary is not here, do you want to sleep on the bed?"

"Eh? Are you sure? I don't mind being down here, y'know. If I were you, I'd just go solo on that bed tonight because we'll be out in the wilderness again by tomorrow."

"Yes, but does that not apply to you as well?"

Grinning, Clarice stretched from her perch on the side of the bed, "I'm used to it. The feeling of sinking into a soft bed just feels weird after a couple of years sleeping in cots and on trees branches."

"Oh, but it is not that soft…"

The Canine's insistence made the Feline look at her in mischief. Did she really want her to sleep on the bed that much? "Tsk tsk, Princess, if you wanted to sleep with me you should've just said so~"

"W-well the decision is still up to you." Elaine tucked her legs closer to her, with her tail neatly kept still by her knees. She probably felt that she was being too pushy or something, a reaction that the Lynxlioness found cute. "I… I mean, the bed is big enough and…"

"Princess… you're blushing."

"A-am I? Forgive me, I am just…"

"And you're stuttering."

The Husky's ears disappeared in her hair after she had folded them down in embarrassment, probably due to being unused to offering such intimate invitations to friends. Did this girl really not have close buddies back in Ahkalin? Clarice found that very hard to believe simply because the blonde was so friendly and nice. Moreover, her cooking was bound to bait many people in liking her, just like how she kept the peace in the bakery yesterday by offering pastries to rugged and otherwise violent men.

The fair-haired girl averted her amethyst eyes to her lap, where her opened journal awaited her writings. "I only want to… make you comfortable, that is all."

"Aww!" The Feline purred in pleasure, loud enough that her companion could clearly hear. Not to mention, her tail was twirling its tuff so quickly that the black-tip visually looked like a little ring of happiness. Touched that her friend was so persistent about her well-being, she chuckled and just accepted the blonde's proposal by hopping onto the bed on all fours then rolling like the Cat she was to the empty side where Mary slept the night before. She felt the comfortable softness of the mattress on her back and couldn't help but sigh in bliss.

A good mattress was always welcomed, even if she was no longer accustomed to sleeping on them nowadays.

Pulling one of the pillows from near the headboard and hugging it to her chest, Clarice smiled up to the Husky, "thanks for the offer then, Princess." She then stretched and rolled on her stomach, "so what do you write in that journal anyway? It is like a diary or like a travelogue? Hehe."

"You can say that," the Canine unfurled herself and settled comfortably against the headboard once more, her fingers curling daintily around a shiny garnet-colored ballpoint pen ready to write her thoughts. "There are many things that I have experienced today and I am certain that I will have more to record in the future as we continue on this journey. It would be a waste," she smiled fondly on the blank sheet of paper, "if these experiences are not written down."

"Uh huh…" the Feline snickered, "I knew you were the sentimental type. Perhaps there will be a day there when you get to write that you've met your prince charming, eh~"

"Oh, quit teasing me," the blonde chuckled and wagged her tail in response to the friendly nudge her companion gave her.

"Or maybe your reunion with Puppy even." The Lynxlioness fished the black and white plushie that Elaine had taken with her on her travels. The fox plushie was still scowling deeply and looked upon her with unimpressed eyes. It really reminded Clarice of Kura, down to the fact that the tiny rebel looked at her with bewilderment, unable to understand her over energetic quirks. Playfully, she tossed the hapless toy in the air as she lied on her back, pawing it like a yarn ball before throwing it up again. This mischievous action elicited a soft giggle from the Foxroach's best friend, who didn't seem to mind her lighthearted torment of the stuffed toy.

"Y'know," Clarice piped thoughtfully, "the only thing missing from this toy is Puppy's distinctive yips. Hehe."

While the Feline continued to play with the fluffy little plush toy, the Canine quietly jotted notes on her journal, displaying a serene sort of focus that was potently reminiscent of the brunette's mother. The Lyxnlioness recalled how Clare would wear that fond yet almost invisible smile on her face whenever she read her precious novels and poems, and how her eyebrows would furrow whenever something climatic or heartrending was happening in them. Elaine showed the same stillness, if Clarice were to ignore the rhythmic tapping of that vanilla-yellow tail on the blankets. In fact, the blonde even furrowed her fair brows when she expected them to, almost like clockwork. And to this, the Feline couldn't help but chuckle as she cuddled the mini-Kura under her chin.

"How are you single…?" The brunette said without thinking.

"Pardon?"

Fortunately, the blonde was so into her writing that she didn't notice the silly question, so the Lynxlioness merely waved it off with a dismissive twirl of her tail tuff. It wasn't as if it was a meaningful one, and at most, it was just observational. For a moment, Clarice wondered if Miss Maid Marian here had left behind in Ahkalin a broken heart or two. She mentally snickered at the image of a throng of good school boys weeping by the Academy's gates at the departure of their beloved tutor while she outwardly grinned at Elaine, who looked at her with mild confusion before smiling in return.

The Lynxlioness watched as her friend placed the closed journal on the nightstand, where a moderately robust piece of literature awaited its mistress. She recognized the book as the Vendetta, one of the three volumes the blonde had taken with her before leaving her hometown. On the hardback's spine was the title engraved in bold and stylized font that looked rather intimidating for an epic. George Poplar's name was etched in bold cursive underneath it, like a reminder that a human being had created this monstrosity of a tome. Well, not exactly monstrosity. In Clarice's opinion, the Count of Mount Diablo was bigger but that particular tale was as gruesome and confusing as its title implied.

What truly lured the Feline's attention was the striking insignia pressed on the bottom of the book's spine. It was a circular emblem in the simplest way one could describe it, but its border was actually in the shape of a belt firmly fastened around a noble shield, on which a great claymore was superimposed. The shield was partitioned into quarters, and if she was not mistaking, two of the quarters exhibited symbols from old Samaria. It was what some books had called the endless knot, a proverbial symbol eternity and even immortality, the obsession of Serpents. The other two quarters had effigies of a stormy cloud pierced by a thunderbolt. Clarice found it weird, however, that the sun still peeked from behind the clouds, the symbol of Avian sovereignty.

"What's the book about anyway, Princess?" The Feline asked with utmost curiosity after she had rolled on her stomach again, her ears perked in interest.

"I have not read it yet but it is supposed to be about two friends, brothers-in-arms, who tried their very hardest to unite a war torn country." Elaine brushed her hands over the book's cover, tracing the intricate designs of the leather with her fingertips, "I am certain that it will be a grand journey, one I would love to see unfold."

"It sounds cool already! What's the name of the hero?"

The Canine opened the volume and gazed upon the table of contents for a long moment before flipping to the preface. "This story is about Hendrick the Valiant, and his best friend Rocor the Undying."

"Rocor…" Clarice spoke the character's name in an almost inaudible whisper. Like a sphinx's password, it seemed to open a Pandora's Box of chaotic memories, of jumbled puzzle pieces that the brunette thought she had already done away with. An inexplicable coldness seeped into her heart and filled a void that the name had carved and left in it. She had forgotten that such a space existed after years of seeing the world and living her life as a rogue vagabond, but it was there regardless, a blackness she didn't know how to fill.

Rocor was a name that her mother had whispered to her a long time ago, a mystery she wanted to solve and to conquer. Her impulsiveness was what led her here, through Artexercos, Kaltrea, Middleport, and Ahkalin, and that rashness was once fueled by that name. Sadly, many men were called Rocor, just like the character in Vendetta, and none of them was the man she sought for.

The fruitless search for help brought a wanton smile on the Lynxlioness' face, an expression that didn't go unnoticed.

"Clarice?" Elaine questioned worriedly, "Is everything well?"

"Huh?" The brunette blinked rapidly after having lost her train of thought, "oh, yeah. Sorry, just sort of blanked out there. Maybe I'm just tired or something… yeah, that's it."

"Oh…" It was obvious that the blonde only took her explanation half-heartedly, "then perhaps we should retire for the night."

Goodnights were uttered without any sort of tension because the Feline had already brushed off her inane worries the moment she realized that her friend might ask further. There was nothing she could tell, for she knew nothing, and therefore any elucidation would only consist of half-truths. She merely toyed with the Fox plushie, tugging on its whiskers and playing with its stubby legs, making it look like it was walking or dramatizing a script-less play. Soon enough, the lampshades were turned off and the Husky's breathing had slowed in the relaxed and even pace of slumber.

She also fell asleep not too long afterwards, with the black-furred toy watching over her with beady eyes on the nightstand.

However, a couple of hours later, she regretted sleeping on the bed.

Her bladder complained to her in the middle of the night. Though she didn't know what time it was exactly, she knew it was still in the small hours of the morning and therefore she couldn't possibly just hold it in until the sun rose. She shifted so she could roll off the bed but found herself rooted in place. Come to think of it, she thought, her right arm felt rather numb and she had been unable to feel it when her consciousness surfaced from its deep sleep.

Drowsily, Clarice opened her eyes only to discover that her friend had taken possession of her arm and was currently nuzzling it with a morning-chilled proboscis. So Canines really do have cold noses, the Feline thought to herself albeit groggily before she attempted to extract her limb from the blonde's hold. It didn't surprise her that Elaine would try and snuggle like this because, just last night, the Husky held Mary as if she were a stuffed toy, a fluffy thing to keep the blonde warm.

She just didn't expect her hold to be this… unyielding.

Nor did she expect her to whimper—or was that a purr?—at her when she tried to tug her arm free.

"Murrr…" the Canine crooned as she pressed her cold nose against the brunette's warm shoulder.

But I really need to go to the bathroom!

So Clarice tried again by slowly and carefully sliding her arm upwards and away from the blonde's own limbs. It was a delicate feat for she didn't want to wake the girl and have her discover that she still made her way to the washroom like a child in the middle of the night. No, that wouldn't do. That would definitely take points off her coolness factor.

Elaine rolled onto her back after losing her living body pillow but she still looked relatively undisturbed. The brunette actually found the sight of her friend all mussed and fluffy, with her pajama top haphazardly unbuttoned near the neckline, to be quite inviting. After all, the Husky was really warm to the touch, like a soft Teddy Dog with a built-in heater inside. Not to mention that she also smelled quite nice. Perhaps growing up near the many fragrant flowers of her home had something to do with it, as if the aroma had stuck into her very skin. Though sleepy, the Feline made a mental note to ask her friend if she used some sort of perfume.

"Hehe…" Clarice fondly tugged the thin blanket over the blonde so she wouldn't get cold in her absence. And for an extra measure, she also placed the black plush toy on Elaine's stomach, where it was immediately cuddled by the girl who tucked it under her chin.

The Feline yawned and walked towards the washroom as she scratched her stomach under her shirt, a sleepy habit she had had since she was a little girl. She briefly looked out the window, where the moon provided a bit of light in the room, and wondered how her other friend was doing.

After vowing to check up on Mary first thing in the morning, the Lynxlioness closed the door of the bathroom behind her, the thought of the common yet enigmatic name of the Vendetta's character forgotten like the click of the knob.


The next morning, after packing all their belongings, Clarice and Elaine left the town inn and were walking towards the docks with their luggage in tow.

"Do you think she is done?" The Husky asked as her pack's trinkets jiggled as she walked.

The brunette had her arms folded behind her back, smiling at the nice day that welcomed them as soon as they left the shelter. "She should be. As it is, Bob should be paying her overtime," she snickered and grinned at her companion, "more money, yeah?"

"She sure worked hard. I wonder if she had enough rest to travel today."

"Well," Clarice bumped her fist proudly on her chest, "if she isn't, then I'll gladly carry her! A knight leaves no one behind!"

Eager to meet up with her friend, the Feline hastened her steps until the Aslo River came within her sight. The river was a lot bigger than she thought it was, spanning many yards and making the town of Reft on the other side look rather miniscule. She had hoped that they could simply cross it by bridge because the river seemed really small in the map she had studied, but from the looks of things, Aslo was too large to support a bridge, or rather, the towns of Onean and Reft weren't wealthy enough to build one. The closest bridge that the Lynxlioness knew of was all the way to Zylo. Going there would prove to be a lengthy excursion, an unnecessary detour if they could somehow land a ride there.

She made a mental note to bug Bob to arrange a ride for his best helper yet.

As they walked, Clarice was also reading that morning's newspaper while munching on freshly baked buns with another hand, courtesy of Elaine. It had been almost a week—it was already February 21st after all—since she checked up on the news and it seemed like she missed quite a few details in these past several days. While Kaltrea was still closed and Torden was still being investigated, the clock of the metropolis kept ticking. One article reported that Princess Yasmine Gabria, the 7th princess of Tyradum, and Maya Berenguer, the Kaltrean Governor's daughter-in-law, had established a new branch of The Princess' Orphanage in Kaltrea. The reporter was worried, however, because the new establishment was dangerously near the building that was bombed during the rebels' escape from the Riphean capital.

"With every act of violence comes an act of peace," said the fierce yet noble-looking princess in the interview, "and now that the harbingers of disharmony have fled Kaltrea, I believe it is only right to offer the homeless and orphaned children of this city a place to call home, where they could eat, sleep, and learn in earnest."

The report elicited mixed feelings from the Lynxlioness. On one hand, she was thrilled that there was another branch of the Princess' Orphanage in the city, for the chain of welfare for children had a stellar reputation in Tyradum. Moreover, Princess Yasmine truly cared about her people and had made many similar projects to help Tyradum citizens, something Clarice certainly admired her for. She even tried to reach out to non-Felines by providing opportunities to work in many public service agencies to even out the racial landscape of workplaces.

On the other hand though, the brunette was not totally pleased with how the princess seemingly brushed off the events in Kaltrea and Torden. But then again, the media probably wanted the incidents to be forgotten by the masses, and therefore censored out of the papers.

She flipped the page and saw that the next article was about another royal. Princess Roxanna Helen, 10th Princess of Tyradum, had apparently refused yet another suitor. The poor guy was Sir Gregory Pierce, a noble knight from one of the three great Houses of Lions. The princess had been in many similar reports before, news that tabloid hawks swarm to get, because, being the youngest of the Cardinal royal princesses, she would be the last one to be betrothed. And at twenty years of age, Princess Roxanna was the most eligible bachelorette of the great Feline Empire.

Of course, there was also the fact that the youngest princess was also the Tyr's favorite. There were rumors that Tyr Ruryk was fiercely protective of his baby daughter, so Clarice was greatly surprised that a suitor was even allowed near Princess Roxanna at all.

"She's pretty," the Lynxlioness snickered, "in that wicked enchantress kinda way, but what the heck did I expect from a Cardinal? They always look like they're about to eat ya or something!"

"Now, now, that is not the way to speak of royalty, Clarice."

"Oh, right right," the brunette gallantly bowed to the Husky, "pardon my insolence, milady. I shall speak more properly about ladies of your rank."

She continued on her reading and sharing it with the blonde as they walked. The next report was about yet another royal, one that was rarely mentioned in the news. The tabloids typically flocked for scoops about the Crown Prince Malik's military exploits (and his apparently loveless life) and the second Prince Diarmuid's womanizing tendencies. Both men have been plastered on almost every headline since neither of the brothers showed any interest in taking a bride, so Clarice found it interesting to see Prince Sadat's name on the paper. The 5th Prince of Tyradum—or was it the 4th? Prince Cassander's death bumped him up right?—had allegedly struck or, as the tabloid articulately worded it, bitch-slapped a rude noblewoman who boldly claimed that he was homosexual.

"Pfft…"the brunette snorted as she examined the photograph printed on the newspaper. The Prince looked more than miffed and had a rather impressive scowl on his face as he snarled at the noblewoman by the edge of the picture's frame. However, the tactless emo side-bangs Prince Sadat had made a part of Clarice's mind wonder, and like a scanner or radar, she attempted to make conclusions about the guy for her own personal humor.

"Too bad it's in black and white," she muttered to herself as she twirled her tail tuff, "I wanna know if he's wearing lipstick or something." She then laughed at the disapproving look Elaine gave her, "what? Snow White's prince wore lipstick! I swear! Did you not read the first illustrated edition? His lips were redder than hers!"

"Oh, Clarice…" the Husky merely shook her head in mild exasperation, although she also seemed to enjoy the Feline's random banters.

"Besides…" the brunette rolled the newspaper and tucked it under her arm, "how cool would it be to actually have a gay prince? Those Lions are all macho men, and Prince Emo here is no exception, so what if one of them was just not a straight rod, y'know? Prince Sadat has always been a recluse … so maybe that's the reason. The poor guy, overshadowed by his titanic elder brothers." Laughing lightly, the Lynxlioness waved off her own amusement with a swish of her tail, "Bah, ignore me… hehe, it's just so much fun to make fun of the royal family, yeah? Because everyone else take them too seriously. As far as I can tell, they're just one big dysfunctional family like those in the afternoon sitcoms they show in Artexercos."

Once they arrived at the docks, the brunette immediately spotted the steam boat where she had left Hammy in when they began working for their travel funds. It was supposedly Bob's residence as well, since it was no longer fit to sail. There was tell-tale rummaging coming from the deck so Clarice immediately bolted from Elaine's side and ran up the ramp to greet her favorite Rodent.

"Hammy~ are you ready?" She announced stridently with her arms outstretched like a circus ringleader without the sophisticated top hat and fancy mustache.

The only response she got was a startled peep followed by an unceremonious clatter of tools being scattered on the floor.

"W-what are you doing here?" Mary shrieked as she quickly gathered her tools once more and stuffed them in her utility belt's pockets, "I thought I was going to meet you two in the Inn."

"Well," the Husky finally arrived on deck, "we thought that we should meet you here, since we were done with our responsibilities…"

"That and we had nothing to do. Hehe," the Lynxlioness hopped onto a crate and flopped her rear there as if she owned the place, "so you fixed everything?"

"Y-yeah… I'm just waiting for Bob to finish up down below. He said he would get my pay as he comes back up on deck."

The Hamster was smiling even though she probably worked through the night and that was quite relieving for Clarice. This meant that the girl really enjoyed fixing ships or just fiddling with things in general because really, why else would she carry a heavy utility belt around?

"So what did you do anyway?" The Feline asked as she looked around the ship. She knew little to nothing about boats so she couldn't really distinguish anything different on the one they were on.

"Oh, uh…" Mary stroked her chin and tried to think. "There were a lot of bad planks in the hull underneath so I replaced that, and there was also some leakage with the engine's compressor, so I fixed that as well. That one took a long time…" To show her exhaustion, the Rodent squeaked as she sat down on the deck as well, sounding like a bath toy and making the brunette want to squeeze her to get a similar sound.

"Well, then," Elaine procured a brown paper bag from her backpack and offered it to Mary, "You most definitely deserve this."

"F-for me?"

Clarice snickered as she watched her friend's cheeks puff up bashfully, "D'aww, would we let our Hammy go hungry? Of course not!"

Surprisingly, the Rodent shrieked at her and struck her knee with a wrench, causing a jerk reaction that just felt weird to the Feline. Not to mention that it hurt like hell, so much that she rolled off the crate in a ball of mewling Kitty.

"Oooow!" Clarice caterwauled pitifully on the floor.

"How hard is it to say my name? It's Mary!"

"Princess~ I'm being abused~ help meeee~"

"There, there…"

"Well aren't we rowdy this morning?" Robert finally joined them on the deck and closed the cabin's door behind him. He was still wearing his odd get-up of goggles and head and neck bandanas. He truly looked like an untrustworthy goon in some flicks or stories. It didn't help that the Lynxlioness couldn't see a visible tail. The urge to guess what he was had been really bothering her ever since she met the guy.

"So I double checked everything and all's well. Thank you Mary." The brunette couldn't tell if the shipwright was smiling or not, but at least the joyful tone of his voice pretty much summed up everything. To everyone's surprise, Robert suddenly took his goggles off and then the bandana that he wore on his head, revealing a pair of pointy triangular ears. Then he untied the kerchief he had wrapped around his face as well unveiling the most the distinct feature a person could have to distinguish his race.

"W-whiskers…" Mary squeaked quietly and stood frozen at the realization.

"You were Feline all this time!" Clarice yowled after she finally managed to stand up after the blow to her knee.

"Um… yeah," Onean's shipwright blinked in confusion, "I wasn't trying hiding it. All the cover was for practical purposes… why?"

The lack of tail and the affable nature made the brunette want to hit her face her palm.

Bob was a Bobtail Cat.

Duh.

"Is…something the matter…?" The man pulled a sizeable pouch of money from his pocket and offered it to Mary, "Well, I wasn't lying when I said that you were one of the best assistants I've had for a long time, so I added extra pay for you. The Campbells paid a handsome fee for getting their ships ready on time, so it's only right to share the bonus with you."

Clarice watched her friend closely, feeling a bit nervous because the Hamster just stood there frozen. She feared that the phobia would just come back after the gradual recovery the Rodent had by interacting with her. Unwilling to let that happen, she immediately went to Robert's side and slung an arm around the man's shoulder, "oho~ that's a lot of money! Good job, Hammy! Hehe, I think you made way more than Princess and I?"

She grinned widely, determined to instigate that spunk from the shorter girl, and was thrilled when sharpness returned in Mary's mahogany eyes. That meant that the Hamster had overcome her fear, at least for now.

The brunette smiled proudly when her friend lifted a hand to take the offered pouch of coins from Robert, even if the handywoman's hand was slightly shaking. It felt rather heartwarming to see the Hamster braving her fear. She was probably fighting it as hard as she could, and relied a lot on the memories of her employer being helpful and respectful. Yes, that was what Mary needed to experience and to learn, that not all Felines were bad guys.

The coins tinkled in the pouch as it was transferred from Cat to Mouse.

"T-thank you, Bob, for l-letting me work here."

The Bobtail smiled and held his hands akimbo, "don't mention it. It was a pleasure. Oh, and since you told me that you and your friends need to go across the river, I prepared a boat to take you to Reft whenever you're ready to go."

This news made all three girls perk their ears.

"Really?" Clarice grabbed the guy's shoulders and ignored the utterly confused expression on his face. "I love you, man!" She suddenly hugged the shipwright, "I was so worried that the money I made would only go to the ferry's fee. Thank you!"

"Uh… no problem…"

She then patted his shoulder after she pulled away, looking silly with that weird twinkle in her eyes. "You can marry Hammy. You have my approval! E-even if you are twice her age—yow!"

"What are you talking about, Crazy Cat?!"

"Did you just flying kick me?"

"Thank you for the offer, Mr. Robert," Elaine finally took over speaking to the shipwright, sounding far more eloquent that both the Hamster and the Lynxlioness combined. "We truly appreciate it." She watched her friends for a few more moments before continuing, "We would like to go to Reft today."

"Great," the Bobtail smiled, "then follow me."

It didn't take long before Clarice and her companions found themselves on a motorboat bound for the town across the Aslo. There, the Feline stretched out to simply enjoy the sun and the awesome breeze that swept her cloak in such an epic way that she even dared to stand on the front of the boat to catch all the wind. If it weren't for Robert's chastising, she would have probably spent the journey there, but she supposed that their driver needed to be able to see to avoid any floating debris or large rocks that jutted out from the shallow end of the river.

And so the, the valiant traveler simply sat down next to Mary, who was happily munching her breakfast and looking a bit bloated due to her stuffed cheeks.

Grinning, the Lynxlioness twirled her tail tuff, "thanks for getting us this ride, Hammy."

The Hamster paused from her chewing and looked at her with her eyes blinking unsurely. "But I didn't do anything. Bob offered it after all."

"Yeah, but you worked well enough to make him offer it. Hehe…" she scratched the base of her whiskers, "good job, kid."

Mary pouted and puffed her cheeks even more in indignation, "I'm not a kid. I bet you're barely older than I am."

"I'm eighteen."

"Yeah, well, I'm seventeen."

"What? No way!" Clarice yowled in disbelief, her whiskers flying up just as her ears sprung upright, "I thought you were only fifteen or something!"

"I'm not!"

"Hammy, you shouldn't keep this a secret from me~"

"You never asked!"

"Okay, fine then. What are your measurements?"

Mary gawked at the question and blinked once in confusion, "measurements of what? My height?"

The Feline laughed heartily as she expected the smaller girl to answer her in such a manner, "yeah, sure."

The Rodent smiled proudly, even toothily, so much that it seemed like the sun was being reflected from her face, making it unable for the brunette to look at her directly. "I'm quite tall for a Hamster, y'know?"

Inwardly, the Lynxlioness groaned as she squinted in order to gaze at her friend's very happy face.

"S-so bright…"

"What was that?"

"Oh, nothing," Clarice waved it off and leaned back on the boat's edge. Fortunately, this one was big enough that it wouldn't accidentally tip over if someone shifted their weight unevenly. "You're proud of what you do, huh Hammy? I could tell, you love your tools so it's easy to guess that you really like to fix things."

"I am," Mary nibbled on her bun rolls and took a swig of water, "it's very rewarding and it really keeps me occupied. It's really fun!"

"Hehe, since Princess already gave you cheese buns, I'm afraid I don't have anything better. Unless…" she smirked mischievously and reached for something in her knapsack.

"Huh?"

"You like the pure version instead." She pulled out the almost untouched portion of the cheddar cheese she bought from Yvonne the day they arrived in Onean. She hadn't been able to eat a lot of it because she was fortunate enough to have food readily available. The Simmons certainly had no problem sharing their lunch with her after she helped Nel from Sandy, and there was no need to mention all the leftover bread Joyce Greene had them eat by the end of the day.

She could almost see Mary drooling at the sight and smell of golden cheese.

"You can have it!"

"R-really?"

"Yeah, of course!"

The Hamster spared no time in taking the wedge from the Feline and flashed the latter another sunny smile before she began nibbling on it with her front teeth.

As for Clarice, she was simply glad that the Rodent was talking to her relatively normally now. She wished that the girl wouldn't hit her so often or so hard, but seeing that happy smile almost made the minor discomfort worth it. Snickering, she patted the girl's head, and then grinned at Elaine, who was fondly watching them from the across the boat. The blonde smiled at her and nodded, as if congratulating her for making a friend in Mary in spite their circumstances.

The fact made the Lynxlioness' heart swell.


"Bye, Bob!" Mary waved at her former employer as the Bobtail began his journey back to his town of Onean.

"Thanks again!" Clarice followed suit, flourishing her free arm as wildly as she could. Although she was sure that her exuberance only embarrassed the guy.

They were now in Reft, the town opposite of Onean by geography and also by… everything else. It was much shabbier than the northern river town. No more were the clapboard houses and the sweet smell of baking bread. Here, there were more dilapidated houses covered with fishnets. It was depressing in a way, but at the very least, they didn't have to stay here. After all, they have replenished their supplies enough that they could wait until they reached Erh, the first town to the east and the gateway to the Xu Dou Mountain Pass.

"Alright, mateys," the Lynxlioness announced to her party, "we'll just go straight to Erh. According to the map, we should be able to reach it tomorrow evening if we leave now. From there, we will restock and begin our hike through the mountain pass, which might take a week, give or take, to get through. But don't worry… even if we run out of food there, I can definitely hunt for all three of us. I'm pretty sure that mountain is full of leporis!"

"Erh…?"

"Oh, right," the brunette scratched her cheek, "I don't know where you want to go, Hammy. Princess and I are bound for Tyradum and since that place is full of Felines, I don't think you'd want to go there…"

Mary looked down on the ground, which made Clarice feel sad. It wasn't as if she wanted to leave the Hamster alone, far from it, but it might not be in the Rodent's best interest to go with them to the mainland.

"Um…I don't know where I should go either, so…" the shorter girl looked from the Feline to the Husky pleadingly, "c-can I travel with you two for a while?"

The brunette and the blonde looked at each other and smiled understandingly. Both of them wanted Mary to stay anyway.

"You're welcome to stay with us as long as you want, Hammy!"

"Yes, do come with us."

Clarice certainly didn't expect the tears to pool on the Rodent's eyes, because seriously, waterworks was too much and albeit over the top. They were very happy to have the Hamster with them!

"Aww, no need to cry, Hammy~"

"I-I'm not crying!"

"Yes, you are~"

"I'm not!"

"Well, where are you girls off to?" A deckhand of a fishing boat tossed a towel over his shoulder at the sight of the trio on their docks. He looked quite surprised, understandably so, because they probably didn't get a lot of visitors in Reft.

"Oh, hey, Pops!" The Feline greeted the man while she was still rubbing the Hamster's tuque, "we're off to the mountain pass. We're trying to get to the main land but with all the events in Kaltrea, Corkel Gate is closed."

The man scratched his beard and sighed raggedly, "I'm sorry to tell you girls but… the pass is closed off now too. They blockaded it yesterday because there were reports that there was a rebel base up there since the ruffians who fled Torden apparently all ran to the south. There have always been rumors going around that the rebels had dug a hole for themselves but I guess the army is taking that seriously now."

"What…?" Clarice exclaimed in disbelief.

"If you want to go to Tyradum," the man told them, "you'll have to travel all the way down to Rainwall, and take a boat from there to Riverdown. I'm sure the securities to the south would be a lot laxer than it is here in Central."

The trio stood there in shock, dumbfounded of the distance they must trek. Going to Rainwall would take months and many many miles because it meant that they would travel almost halfway through the whole continent on foot to get there. The brunette looked at her companions, who were as uncertain about this as she was.

"No way…" she whispered to herself. Even for a seasoned traveler, that kind of expanse was just daunting.

"Let us meet again someday, Clarice."

Kura's words echoed in her mind. It had only been weeks since they spoke, weeks since she regained the resolve she had lost. She couldn't possibly just throw in the towel now.

"Clarice?" Elaine looked at her with a question.

The brunette took a deep breath and exhaled just as profoundly, "I'm going to continue. I don't want my story to end so quickly."

She then turned to the other two, and to the Husky, she said, "Princess, it's not too late to go back. Traveling to Rainwall… it will take a very long time." She also glanced at Mary as she continued, "And it will be very dangerous."

"Clarice," the blonde stepped closer to her. The Lynxlioness was almost certain that the Canine would tell her that she would just return home, a decision that the brunette would completely understand. But instead, Elaine reached up and playfully tweaked her whiskers, "I am going with you."

"Y-yeah!" Mary seconded the Husky's words by bouncing up once, "A-and it's not like… I have anywhere to be. Y-you're nice enough to be with a-and you gave me cheese and—"

"Hehe, I get it, Hammy." She rubbed the shorter girl's tuque again causing the Rodent to squeak indignantly.

"Thank you, you two."

She then grinned at her friends, her precious companions, who took comfort in the fire that burned in her gaze.

"Mine will be a tale worth more than ten thousand pages!"

They adjusted their itinerary and turned away from the east to face the south with courage and faith that it would lead them to their still unknown destinies.


AN: We sincerely hope that this story won't actually reach even remotely close to ten thousand pages.

This also marks the end of CC's Arc I. Thank you for reading and please stay tuned for the rest of Book I.