Lily and Iris strolled casually along the docks of Saphiz, feeling the cool sea breeze against their skin. The docks were constructed of stone, with a number of bays where numerous ships of varying sizes were moored. The ship they were walking past, a colossal barge, impressive in width and height, was being loaded with weapons and armor by a number of shirtless labourers. Along the entire stretch of the docks were weathered men of varying appearances, sitting in chairs next to their ships, awaiting passengers to take on their cargo runs, for that little extra bit of coin.

The girls’ journey here had been rather uneventful, keeping to the roads, occasionally splitting off to hunt for food. The entire trek had only taken them three days, leaving them at the gates to Saphiz, whereupon the documents Serena had procured allowed them to enter the city with no issues. Naturally, excited as she was to head home, the docks were Lily’s first destination, even before finding an inn for the day.

Lily strolled up to one of the sailors, a bald, muscular, grizzled man with a sharp look in his eyes, standing with his arms crossed. He went topless, showing off his muscular build, and wore dark blue leggings, made from some coarse material. He regarded her, watching her with a scrutinising eye, taking in her admittedly simple attire. Then, he saw Iris’ much more extravagant clothing and sat up, giving a smile that showed off two golden teeth. Evidently he had come to the conclusion that Iris was a girl possessed of some money. Either that, or he thought she looked cute. Whichever it was, it worked out in Lily’s favor. The man stood up and invitingly waved his hand, showing off his ship – a large cargo ship, being loaded with sundry goods. In a deep, booming voice, he spoke in a tone that was evidently meant to be friendly.

“Well, how can I help you two lovely ladies today? This ship’s taking cargo to Narok’Tei, so if you’re going there, I’d be happy to let you tag along for a token fee. Of course, if you’re not going there, I might be convinced to take a detour, with enough extra payment.”

So it was the money, after all. Lily stepped forward and put on the sweetest smile she could muster, making sure to exaggerate her movement so that the coin pouch audibly jingled.

“So… How much to take us to Jin-Asalys? Just the coast will do.”

The man’s smile abruptly disappeared. His lips pressed thinly together, and he recrossed his arms in front of his chest.

“I don’t sail to that place. And I doubt many people around here will. Sorry, girl, but this is not the ship you’re looking for.”

With that, he sat back down in his chair and regarded them with a hard gaze that tolerated no further negotiation.

The feeling of unease which had sat in Lily’s heart since that day in Serena’s office grew stronger, gnawing away at her. Taking hold of Iris’ hand, she walked away from that man and continued asking the people on these docks for anyone who would take her to Jin-Asalys.

Few people even bothered considering the trip. Of those who did, about half refused. The remaining cited ridiculous prices that Lily had no way of affording. The cheapest she would find was a place on a small fishing barge for 300,000 Pars, offered by an elderly fisherman with numerous scars on his face. He told her he would be fishing within the area for several weeks, so she had about two months to gather the remaining 150,000 Pars she required.

Finding an inn and renting a room, she collapsed facefirst on the bed, frustrated. Sensing her tension, Iris crawled onto the bed and knelt next to her, massaging her shoulders, a gesture which Lily gratefully accepted with a smile. The smile soon faded, though, as her thoughts shifted back to her concern over her homeland.

Exactly what had transpired? She had initially thought that this continent was perhaps at war with Jin-Asalys, but even that could not explain the hesitation of the sailors; there was good money to be made in smuggling. Furthermore, both in Oparil and in Saphiz, the streets were bustling with life and positivity, nothing to suggest that the continent was embroiled in conflict. The conclusion this led to, was that something unforeseen must have befallen Jin-Asalys, and that, naturally, worried her.

As she lay, contemplating, with her mechanical companion rubbing the tension from her muscles with precision and speed, she heard deep, booming bells ringing from somewhere outside her window. She raised her head a little, and Iris, sensing her intent, paused her attentions, sitting back down on the bed. Lily patted Iris’ head lightly, then stood up, making her way over to the window.

Opening the window and observing, she noted a large number of people exiting a tall, white building across the street. Its facade was a tall, imposing, front with a steeple tower from which the bells were ringing. Along its front face ran numerous statues, carved from stone, and large panes made of coloured glass. It had three large wooden doors, which opened into the main street, and it was from these that people were currently exiting. All in all, it resembled a temple of one of the religious sects which Lily had known about, but painted completely in white. Most likely, Lily was looking at a building under the umbrella of the Church.

As the crowd thinned out, Lily spotted a number of people within the doorways, all dressed in white. Based on the variety in build and hair, they were a mixture of men and women. The men wore long, straight robes with long sleeves and a hood, with their robes tied around their waist using a single white rope. They wore simple leather sandals. The women, on the other hand, wore a white robe which crossed over their chest, with the sleeves flaring out near their wrists, causing a large clump of fabric to hang free from the wrist area. At the shoulders, the sleeves opened slightly, revealing the skin under the fabric. Around their legs they wore a large, pleated skirt, also white, tied high above the waist with a prominent bow at the front. Their feet were adorned with white socks that split into two at the toes, and they wore wooden sandals that seemed to have flat platforms under them. The women all had their hair tied back in a ponytail and fastened with a tight white ribbon.

Lily noted that the men and women wore greatly contrasting clothing; it seemed to come from two very different cultures. Yet the image presented was unified by the fact that all the men and women in the crowd wore a half-face mask, which they had lifted to their foreheads as they greeted the visitors who were leaving. The mask was, like the rest of their outfit, pure white, shaped like the visor of a helmet. Its sides flared outward into wing-like shapes, and its face was decorated with a number of intricate, symmetrical black markings, surrounding a central vertical eye motif. At the edges of the pattern, just before the visor flared out into the wing designs, there were a pair of markings in the shape of a small, stylised sword, one on each side.

Lily narrowed her eyes. It was rather obvious that these people were clergymen and women of some sort, and they were likely wearing official religious attire. That said, the incorporation of the sword, a symbol of conflict, into a religious pattern was unorthodox at best, and suspicious at worst.

She stepped away from the window and shook her head a few times to clear it. Perhaps some day she would have to butt heads with the Church. She would worry about it when that time came. For now, she had a more pressing matter to attend to. She needed to raise funds to pay for a trip home, since it was so unexpectedly expensive. Naturally, Serena must have known that she would encounter this problem, even as they were leaving Oparil. Lily smiled wryly as she opened the satchel and retrieved the letter of introduction.

She grabbed the letter and walked out the door, beckoning Iris to follow. In her left hand she ran her finger along her golden adventurer’s license.

A/N: In case anyone was wondering, those women are wearing white miko outfits. I tried to describe them without using culture-specific terms, but was hard. So yes, these women who are clergy members of an obviously Western-influenced religion are wearing Eastern ceremonial clothing. There is a reason for this. Probably. I hope.