Shift World I Book IV Chapter 5
by Christopher W. Gamsby
Please use these buttons to change the Font Size on mobile!
Karp the Scorpion, Baln the Coral Snake, and Tark the Last Demon stood on the weather deck of Sea Breeze watching a young man inspecting a lifeboat. The ocean calmed since the end of the two-day storm that rocked the ship so violently that most of the passengers who weren't trained sailors only laid out in their beds patiently waiting for the storm to pass. Karp even learned later that both Baln and Tan stayed in her room just to chat while spending the time after feeling too sick to do anything else. Karp had assumed that her violent behavior must have warranted two guards, but that wasn't the case.
An improvised investigative group had been formed to identify the poisoner who targeted the shifters and, potentially, the crew. Since the sailors discovered the plot so quickly, no real damage had yet been done. However, that didn't mean a traitor should skulk about unimpeded. That lead Karp, Tark, and Baln to start interviewing the three newest crew members. Montis smashed planks that formed the body of a rowboat repeatedly with a wooden mallet. The sharp clacking sounds disturbed the otherwise calm sea air.
"are you trying to break that?" Karp managed to draw his attention in between strikes.
"What? No. Of course not!"
"If you knock loose a board, won't it make the thing sink or something?" Baln spoke with a teasing voice, and the young man turned and blushed a little.
"You feel the same way?" The boy casually addressed Tark, princess of the empire. Tark had an easy-going view on interacting with people of the world, and Karp didn't want to imagine her reaction if she had been The Demon's Wrath instead.
"I concur; this exercise appears counter-productive."
The young man sighed, put down his wooden mallet, and sat on a bench built into the tiny vessel. "Well, I grew up paddling around the waters near the Royal Port. And let me tell you, if that'd break a lifeboat, it's much better to know now than after you lower it into the water. We break it now, and it can be fixed before sinking in an emergency... isn't that for the best?"
"why do it now, though? shouldn't this have been done before departing?"
"It was, of course. After storms like we had, you need to test everything all over again, though."
"Why's that?" Baln asked.
"There's just too much stuff blowing around the deck hitting the boats. Plus, waves can come over the railing and crash into things. That much damage could make them unstable."
"would a boat that can't take getting hit by waves even be useful?"
"Haha! Lifeboats only stop you from drowning long enough to make it back to shore. You can't use them to cross the sea or anything."
"Meaning?" Baln pursed her lips.
"If you aren't within a few hours' row of the beach, you'll probably die even in a lifeboat." Montis pointed over the ship's port side. "With our header and the time since we pulled out of port, the beach should be about a two-hour row in that direction. You'd do well to remember that if there's ever an emergency."
"trying to save us, now?"
"I'm just trying to be helpful. No need for sarcasm."
Tark shook her head at Karp, who now felt sheepish.
"are we always going to be so close to shore?" Karp looked out into the water and only saw gentle waves drifting toward the horizon.
"No." The terse response left an unsatisfied look on the women's faces, so the youth continued. "As we approach the mountains that separate the world, we'll have to veer south to where we can pass between peaks. In a few days, we'll start to slowly pull away from the beach, and eventually, the rowboats'll be useless..."
"there's something i want to go back to..." Karp tried steering the conversation back to its original purpose. "you said you grew up near the royal ports in the creeping ice. does that mean the veterans on the ship can vouch for that?"
"Sure, most of them drank in the tavern with my pa. Back when he was still alive."
"do you ever work in the kitchen?"
"Sure, almost every new sailor works in the galley for years. Only way out, really, is if you become good enough at something else that's more important."
"i see. thank you, but we have to move on." Karp signaled for Baln and Tark to follow.
On the walk to meet Cogs in the ship's cargo holds, Karp spoke to the other women low enough that only they could hear. "he's reliable and considerate. he seems to have strong ties to the ship but has access to food being made, and being from the creeping ice's royal port, he probably could get his hands on time waster." Baln and Tark nodded at the summation and didn't seem to have anything to add.
The group wound through passageways made with dizzying precision. The walls, ceiling, and floor were all wood planks lined at clean angles. Karp tried navigating the interior using a series of shapes above each door like Nordic had suggested when they first arrived. However, she still found it too easy to mistake symbols. When that happened, she'd lose focus on if they moved forward or backward, and she'd need to find a room she recognized.
Even under those conditions, the group arrived at a cargo hold in the vessel's front-most section. Inside, Cogs stood with a clipboard counting small, round containers that sat in larger square containers. "Ok. Thirty-four. Exactly how many there should be!"
"Expound on your responsibilities." Tark addressed the young man who acted more like an accountant than a sailor.
"Princess! Of course!" The man straightened his back like he started conducting a salute but then hesitated. Karp guessed that the convoy's speculation on the type of greeting that would replace the current handshake must have thrown the young man off. "I'm a liaison between the merchants who are sending these goods and the ship's crew."
"so, you're not actually a part of the ship's crew?"
"What? Well, no, I am. Once my training's done, I won't be, however."
"who'll take your place?"
"No one, probably." The young man scrunched his nose.
"is it not an important job?"
"It's not that... It's more accurate to say that I'm training for a job that doesn't take place on a ship. I'm working here now so that when a ship pulls into port and the crew reports damaged goods, I can assess the accuracy of their claim."
"I bet the crew loves you then, making sure nothing 'falls overboard.'" Baln teased him, but the unusually series sailor answered earnestly anyway.
"It's all done for the empire! I'll put up with their dirty looks if it means strengthening our lords and ladies." Cogs beamed while looking at Tark, expecting some words of encouragement that would never come.
"how did you end up with a position like this? do your parents do something similar?"
"Yes and no. I'm from the Crossroads, originally. They're merchants from there that specialize in trade between the Arid Desert and the Lush Forest. They set this up in the hopes of arranging connections to the Creeping Ice." The young man's eyes beamed. "One day, maybe the empire will expand shipping, and then, we could be sitting at the intersection. We just have to make sure that happens!"
The young man's noticeable excitement reminded Karp of Slart, but she didn't believe the guy thought his plan through. The current Royal Port operated so far in the middle of nowhere that the convoys bringing goods to the ocean would just be better off getting it to their destinations directly. Someone convinced the boy's family they'd be some kind of shipping barons if they opened ports along the ocean and administering warehouses or trade routes. Learning how to slightly better detect petty theft wasn't going to make such lofty goals possible. Karp didn't want to explain this to the young man who convinced himself of upcoming greatness.
"do you two have any questions?"
"Do you partake in culinary responsibilities?
"Do I cook? No. I talked to the captain about it, and he agreed I'm too important to do that." The boy beamed, and Baln made a sour face.
"alright, we're ready to go. thank you." The group took their leave and walked out of the small hold. Their final destination was to speak with the apprentice cook helping in the ship's kitchen. Unlike the obscure barely-larger-than-a-closet hold, the group frequently traveled to the main galley to drop off food or attend meetings. The kitchen connected to that chow hall through a half-door.
The kitchen itself resembled one from an inn to a remarkable degree. A large stone charcoal barbecue where cooks could grill vegetables or meat sat in the room's center. Slow-cooked food could also be prepared in metal pots and pans, but workers cooked dishes requiring high heat on an iron stove. Burning wood or charcoal heated up the stove's interior to broil, and metal pots or pans placed on the iron cooking surface heated food reliably. Trying to boil water using a barbecue was nearly impossible, but the highly centralized heat made the task relatively simple on a stove. Karp did, however, wonder what would happen in case of a fire.
The person they searched for stood at a counter chopping vegetables and throwing them in a basket near his feet. Karp recognized the young man as the one Nordic taught how to tie knots on her first day on the ship. He nodded to the approaching women but didn't even slow his cutting pace.
"aren't you going to stop to talk to us?"
"Should I? It takes a lot of this type of work to make four meals a day. If I got in the habit of stopping, the food would come out late. Do you want to be the one to take responsibility for that?"
"ugh, i guess not." Baln chuckled at Karp's subdued response.
"I know this has something to do with that dinner, but what is it you want to talk about?" The young man moved on from cutting carrots to peeling potatoes with a steel knife.
"why do you think it has something to do with that?"
"What else could it be? I can't imagine someone tries to poison the whole crew, and you just want to inspect my food prep skills."
"was it you that prepared dinner that night?"
"Yes... but that probably means less than you think."
"Pretty much anyone could have come in here and sprinkled something in a pot sitting on the stove."
"shouldn't you have been here watching it?"
"I had to help topside to make sure everything was in order if a storm happened. The pot was clamped down during calm seas, so no point in waiting here." The young man stopped pealing to show the group a set of arms on the stove that held the galley's pots in place.
"Giving everyone access everywhere makes it difficult to narrow down the suspects." Baln absentmindedly spoke to the assistant cook while fishing a sliced carrot from the vegetable basket. "Unless, of course, you would just like to admit you did it..." Baln pouted and fluttered her eyes, but the young man scoffed.
"Are you joking me? Why would I do anything like that? I like it here, well, mostly."
"mostly?" Karp couldn't help but think about how poorly the cook chose his words. She was amused by the thought that Slart must have seen her in the same way. Slart could phrase her speech to exactly mean or not mean whatever she pleased. Her air-head sounding way of talking threw her negotiation partner off balance. Karp's presence put people on guard, and matching her terse responses rarely left her adversary a chance to talk too much.
"Most people aren't that capable. I'm even worse than others, I guess. Not that I'd expect people like you to understand..." Karp began to wonder if he had a response like that if he was really much younger than she had guessed. "My home village is a farming town, an hour or two walk from the Royal Port. For most of my life, they had assumed I'd just take up a hoe and join in, but it just never suited me. I left for the Royal Port and tried my hand at fishing but never did any better than catching my own food. Just too impatient, I think.
"One day, I was cooking what I caught, and Honet came walking up on the beach. He's the first mate here, but I had no idea. I thought he looked down on his luck like me. I split what I had cooked, hoping one day he'd do the same for me. You know, give to get. Well, I guess he liked it, so he invited me to join the crew as an assistant cook."
"Wow, it must have been really delicious! Will you cook for me someday?" Baln batted her eyes, but Voceroy only returned a strained glance.
"... but I cook for you every day... where do you think all the food comes from?"
"...right." Baln looked slightly embarrassed as her attempt to flatter him just made her look foolish.
"Besides, being a cook's not about making good food."
"oh? nordic said that a captain's only as good as his cook. what would he mean then?"
"I guess we have a slightly different view of 'good.' That's not to say the food a cook makes won't taste good, but if you took a ship's cook and threw them in a keep somewhere, the head chef will make food that's way more delicious. Probably incomparably more delicious."
"I am ashamed to admit that the ship's cuisine is palatable by commoner standards but pales when compared to the artisans I'm accustomed to..." Tark spoke hesitantly like she was sharing thoughts she frequently had but found too indelicate to share.
"See, she understands, I think... not sure, though."
"Hmmm... most people end up feeling that way. Then what did you mean by a 'good' cook?" Baln seemed just as displeased as Karp by the vague tone of the conversation.
"If you took that chef and put them in our kitchen, you'd see'm knocked down a peg or two. When he went from six assistants to doing most things himself, you'd see a drop in quality. No fancy chef would like the idea of using beef cooked at lunch in a stew for dinner. A regular chef would probably run out of ingredients too fast and focus too much on the meal they ate and not the next one. A skilled cook might only make food as tasty as a good inn, but they do so without any waste or fuss and non-stop throughout the day. I guess that's what the first mate saw in my cooking."
"hmm... i guess. as someone who's traveled to many towns, i can confirm that the food here's on par with some of the better inns." The young man beamed. "so, you're saying that the first mate could vouch for your story?"
"Well... I mean, yes. At least for meeting me on the beach and sharing dinner. I'm just guessing his motivation for inviting me." Karp began to suspect there may be an aspect of his story that's embellished or made up. She didn't imagine he had nefarious reasons with how forth-coming he'd been.
"well, if you two don't have any questions, i think we're done here." Karp looked to Tark and Baln, but neither motioned to make an objection.
Karp waved goodbye to the cook, and the group left the kitchen and headed topside. None of the crew performed maintenance on the weather deck, so Karp let out a big sigh. "that didn't help very much. we still seem to have three potential traitors and no clear motivation either way."
"Does your intuition provide insight into the scoundrel's identity?"
"ugh... not really. if i had to pick one person now, it would be voceroy."
"Really? Why that guy?" Baln spoke while she leaned against the ship's railing with her back slightly arched.
"just because he had the most opportunity, which means it's most likely him. plus, he didn't have a very compelling backstory or a long history with sea breeze. no complex reason." Baln sighed like the answer bored her. "what about you?"
"It's clearly the merchant. All merchants are scum who just want to exploit you for everything you have." Considering everyone close to Karp could be classified as a merchant, she found the reasoning shocking. "Well, I mean, not your family, of course. I'm sure they are nice..."
"that's really nothing more than bias, not a reason..." Baln's halfhearted qualification didn't stop Karp from becoming offended.
"Basically, what you said about Voceroy is true of Cogs. He has no real ties to the ship. It wouldn't surprise me if he didn't just start working here with a letter of introduction. Plus, since he doesn't do any real work, he could slip into the kitchen whenever he wants." Karp had to admit that Baln's reasons turned out to be worth considering, despite her poor phrasing.
"If I may pontificate on Montis, to maintain objectivity in our quarries and present a balanced perspective. His disposition and general lack of decorum could indicate a propensity to be easily manipulated by those inscrutable enough to sacrifice a pawn for their goals."
"so, we're where i said before, except montis seems less likely to be the traitor than the other two. i kind of wish there was an easy way of figuring this out. i don't think we get a second chance if we make a mistake."
"I kind of wish Boric was here..." Baln spoke with a rare, sincere admiration. "He'd know exactly what questions to ask and exactly what strings to pull to unravel their stories."
"i understand what you mean. if slart were here, i'm sure she'd know what kind of information we need to know to figure out if they're lying. i bet with her knowledge of the merchant network, she could tell right away if cogs was lying about his back story, at the very least. hopefully, the search for the time waster will bring us enough clues to narrow it down."
Karp stood in the shared berthing, watching an uncomfortable scene unfold. Compared to Karp's stateroom, which she used alone, each crew member slept on a series of three-high bunks anchored to the wall. The crew stuffed everything they owned in a container the length and width of the straw mattress. Lifting the hay-stuffed bedding off of its top granted access to the stored goods. Tark and her guard and a few high-ranking crew members rifled through the sailors' personal belongings.
Karp asked not to help for fear of having her skin exposed to the powdered version of Time Waster, and the others agreed without a fuss. But, since she wasn't actively rifling through people's things, she had the unfortunate ability to watch the crew's despondent faces. Sailors didn't earn much money, and what little they did usually went to their family in their home villages. While underway, bored swabs couldn't walk around the forest or go to a store or tavern for some company, which meant they only spent time using what they brought with them.
They now watched as untrusting strangers removed their personal belongings because one of their shipmates tried to poison them all. Baln the Coral Snake pulled out a hand-stitched outfit that looked made for a four-year-old. Tan the Wyvern pulled out a flat book and flipped through the pages. Her blushed face reddened, and she quickly tossed it back. Rong pulled out a set of wooden panels that appeared to be something of a puzzle or game, but he put it back when he couldn't find any hidden compartments. Tark the Last Demon stood closest to Karp. She pulled out hand-drawn portraits, presumable of the owner's family.
After checking the lockers one by one, they didn't find anything incriminating in any of the fifty searched lockers. The investigators firmly believed they'd find a lockbox in either Montis, Cogs, or Voceroy's bunks, but the search had been fruitless. In fact, most of the ship had already been looked over during some phase of the investigation. The list of possible hiding places dwindled to the point that the investigators started to brainstorm possible hiding locations.
Ban the Water Drake suggested that it could be behind false walls like the people in the upper-world did to store valuables, but Nordic the Shark shut down that idea as unlikely. Apparently, shipwrights designed vessels to slow flooding, and purposely creating weak points was simply not done. Tark suggested that if the traitor could be a shifter. Karp found that idea unlikely, or they wouldn't have bothered leaving the bucket full of evidence sitting out where anyone could discover it. Rong suggested that the person might move the drug away from wherever the group looked, but that seemed highly dangerous with everyone on guard and looking for suspicious activity.
That really only left the two options that either the culprit successfully snuck the drug topside and threw it overboard, or the investigators missed something obvious. In the latter case, the drug could still be located, which meant the group needed to work under that assumption.
"Shall we convene to determine our future measures?" Tark asked the group dejectedly after they failed to locate the poison.
"Excuse me..." Honet, the ship's first mate, spoke up. "Are you finished already? You haven't even checked the rookies' wallets yet."
"are you saying you think they have it on them?"
"Oh, haha, no. A rookie's wallet is the metal part over there that connects the joists." The first mate pointed to an iron hanger which connected the wooden beams that supported the next deck up with a beam.
"why are they called that?"
"Well, because rookies always take too much crap and fill up their lockers, so they need to store their goods elsewhere. Since they're plentiful and pretty easy to get to, we call 'em their wallets."
Tark signaled to Rong the Turtle, the only guard tall enough to look into the space between joists without getting a ladder or crate. "Oh, there's a little gap here." Rong's voice echoed around the room.
"Yes, well, that's only to be expected. No matter how good the carpenter, they can not cut the supports perfectly every time; that's why the steel covers support much of the weight. Some of the gaps are pretty sizable, and with the high sides in the wallets, you can actually hold quite a lot."
Karp contemplated the man's observations and felt even more shame. Someone like Honet or Nordic knew more about any topic of shipboard life than Karp, Tark, and Baln knew about their best topic. They should have been relying on seasoned veterans instead of blindly taking on the responsibility themselves.
"honet, are these wallets everywhere?" Karp spoke softly enough that none of the other crew heard her.
"They're on every deck with a floor above it. That means every room on the ship has them." Honet spoke quietly too, but he seemed unsure why talks about architecture were so secretive.
"does that mean the room above mine has these too?"
"I'm not sure who has which room, but if you mean the one they had that bucket in, then yes... Didn't you lot say you already searched there..." As he finished the sentence, the realization hit him that they had the worst possible people searching a ship.
"if you were the person trying to poison me, what would you do with the poison?" Karp already predicted his answer, but he had a look like he wanted to say something blunt but phrase it in a way as to not insult the ship's guests.
"I'd do nothing. After my ploy was discovered, either they found my stash, or they didn't. If they didn't, no need to worry. If they did, better to not bring myself in the open..."
"that's pretty much the answer i expected." After Rong finished checking the gap between all the joists, the group of shifters left a salty, muttering room full of sailors. Karp leaned into Rong and Tark. "i want you to follow me."
Karp led the trio from the crew berthing to the room above hers, where they discovered The Shark's ax and the bucket of Time Waster.
"rong, can you check the rookie's wallets to see if there's a wood container in one of them?"
Rong looked over Tark, who gave an approving nod. "Sure." Rong marched to each of the joists' intersections and looked in between the metal slats that bridged the connection. At the wallet nearest a stack of crates piled in the corner, Rong balked. He leaned in closer to get a better view and then began fishing inside with his fingers. After a minute, he pulled out a long, cylindrical wooden vial with a screw top.
"It feels like there's some kind of powder inside..." Rong gently shook the contents.
"i knew we were missing something simple..." Karp smiled despite realizing that even though they found the drug supply, it didn't tell them anything more than they'd already known.
Karp stood on the ship's stern, looking into the night air. During the day, an inexperienced sailor couldn't tell how fast the vessel moved because the landscape always looked like a waving blue ocean under thin, willowy clouds. At night, stars dotted the sky in an almost fixed pattern. Waves that trailed off into the distance disappeared much sooner, giving an even shorter visual perspective. The darkness obscured the sight of occasional narwhal, dolphin, whale, or fish that breached the ocean water.
A cold breeze whipped around the ship's superstructure, sending a chill down Karp's spine. Baln, Karp, and Tark agreed to wait on the ship's aft because they expected the bridge and lookout posts acted as a windbreak. Since wind blew from behind the boat to propel it forward, Karp began to wonder if they were just tricking themselves into feeling better. On the next gust, Karp shuddered and closed her yeti-skin cloak tighter.
"Ha. Do you ever plan on changing that outfit of yours?" For some reason, Baln found Karp's discomfort at the breeze amusing. Maybe she thought it funny that Karp felt cold despite clothing covering almost every inch of her body.
"should i wear something as revealing as you?" Karp thought her witty retort ended the argument, but a vexing pout crossed Baln's face.
"Oh?" Baln opened the top of her robe to expose her collar bone while still completely covering her body from the waist down. She sauntered to Karp, and each step held an unnatural cadence of both slow and quick movements. Almost reminiscent of a snake's hypnotic slithering, the motion put Karp on guard and set her heart beating faster. Karp noticed that Baln's robe parted enough to expose the upper breast for a moment during each cycle and then closed before the next step.
Karp found herself trying not to peep during those brief windows, but that resulted in her mostly avoiding eye contact altogether. That became less and less tenable as Baln approached close enough that her upper body pressed against Karp's. The cloak fully opened, exposing the cleavage of Baln's bosom from the top of her impractically designed cuirass. From that angle and the dull feeling caused by her own armor, the fire steel breastplate might as well have been a cloth shirt or corset.
Baln's lips slightly trembled in a pout that looked like she couldn't decide between a kiss or a whisper. Warm breath occasionally heated the cold skin on Karp's neck. Baln whispered, "How are you supposed to notice the dagger in my hand if you are too busy staring at my breasts?"
"huh?" Karp felt a sharp blow jab into her cloak and push into the gap between her underarm and cuirass. The strike pinched but didn't actually pierce her body. Baln giggled and pulled away, waving the handle of one of her daggers. After a moment of gloating, Baln shuddered and closed her robe tight.
"You're right, that was a little chilly, but I think you get it now, hmmm? This armor does serve a purpose too?"
"where would you even learn to do something like that?" Karp cleared her throat and tried to will away her slight blush.
"I guess you could say that's my purpose in the Dragon Guard. Rong is Tark's bones; he protects the princess as someone who'd never hurt 'my lady' and intimidates anyone that would even dream of trying. Boric is her brain, handling both tactical moves and the more mundane planning or whatever. Tan is her right hand, reaching out to others in friendship. I guess you'd say I'm her left hand, clutching a dagger behind her back for anyone that opposes her."
"that's your role as an assassin?"
"Hmmm... I mostly teased you just to prove a point. I guess I might attack a heavily armored person like that, but it would be much easier to just stab them while they sleep; if all I cared about was killing them, that is. I'd be more likely to do that to get information or steal from them."
"does that mean you've had to seduce a lot of people?" The words came out uncharacteristically shaky, which made Baln smile.
"It's so cute how uptight about sex you Foresters are. I guess the quick answer is no, not really."
"how's that possible? i can't imagine very many people that would have endured that without thinking..."
"Oh, is that what you were thinking about?" Karp tried shaking off the allegations, which Baln found amusing. "You have a very commoner way of thinking about seduction. The type of people I have to 'seduce' could just get a farm girl or servant any time they feel pent up. What they can't get and can't stand is someone willing to openly flirt but has no intention of going any further. I've even learned that many of them knew my identity but went along anyway. They want the dance, not the end of the night..."
"that works on everyone?"
"Not really 'everyone.' Some people push too hard, or some people seem uninterested, but there's usually someone close to the target I can manipulate well enough to get what I need."
"well... no matter what i wear, i don't think i'll be able to do what you do..."
Baln burst out laughing uncontrollably. Although Karp expected Baln to agree, she wasn't expecting such an extreme reaction.
"Oh, no. Haha. Not at all. I didn't think that for a moment.." Baln must not have even expected Karp to broach that topic, which made Karp wonder if she missed the meaning altogether. "I'm just trying to make the point that you should really be varying the armor you wear because in the future, what you have now will probably become a hindrance."
"well, i've never seen you wear anything else, and i'm guessing that clothing is from the arid desert, and so are the tactics..."
"No, not at all..." Baln shook her head. "This is the gear I only wear in the Lush Forest and the Crossroads. I could never wear this much in the Arid Desert."
"this much?" Karp unconsciously looked over Baln's body, even though a robe covered it from head to toe.
"Sure. In the Arid Desert, I usually only wear the plates with some light lacy clothing. Though when you're outside, you usually wear a light-colored cloth robe to block the sun. Inside and at night, warriors dress like I just said. Regular people would just have on the linen cloth, which most Foresters and all Nomads consider basically naked. An outsider like you could probably wear what I'm now without too much suspicion. Everyone would know you're not from the desert, though. You really couldn't survive in the desert-like that." Baln waved a hand over Karp to signify her leathers and armor.
"i'm in the desert in the shift world. i've had no problems there."
"That's because there're no people! You'd dry up too fast in the Arid Desert in this world dressed like that. People wouldn't let you near their wells or streams if you showed up looking like you're ready for war or something. It'd basically be an active declaration of aggression, which people take very seriously. You wouldn't be able to rest in the shade of people's houses for the same reason. I think that's one factor you completely forgot." Baln had a self-satisfied look.
"maybe, i guess."
"Exactly, and if you change up your armor now, you can get more used to fighting with different ranges of movement. I think you might find that to be a bit of an issue now..."
"Sure, in the Creeping Ice. You'll have to bundle up to stay warm, and many of your attacks rely on precision. That might be difficult when you find your outfit has suddenly changed and is much heavier." Karp nodded along with her line of reasoning. She'd never expected Baln's teasing to actually come from a genuine place of concern. Though, as she seemed to have a tendency to do, Baln suddenly changed gears. "I'm really jealous that you get to live in the Shift World's Arid Desert..."
"do you not like where you are?"
"That's an understatement. I'm in the Creeping Ice. It's too cold to spend much time there."
"you could always run through the crossroads and change region. if you started early morning and ran, it should be possible..."
"I can't get near the Crossroads to even try that out, get me? I'm in some kind of abandoned cave in the middle of the tundra. Everything outside is so frozen and cold that I can't even tell what direction the mountains are in, let alone how long it would take to get there. I'm just... stuck." Baln sighed and gave a slightly exaggerated pout.
"i might know of another way, but it could be dangerous..."
"I think that would totally be worth the risk." Baln suddenly spoke with an almost juvenile tone. "You other shifters talk about clearing dungeons like it's such a pain, but I can't imagine anything so pure. You go to a place, know you're in danger, and face that danger head-on!"
A realization struck Karp that she didn't even think about beforehand, "you don't really like all this subterfuge, do you?"
Baln nodded. "I do it because I'm good at it, but it's pretty tedious. You also never know if someone's going to poison you for revenge or stab you in the back. It's super stressful."
Karp began to wonder if her image of Baln was made based on the idea of an assassin. This daydreamer may more closely resemble her true self. "it's dangerous because i don't know if it'll work or where you might end up. you could end up missing years in this world or find yourself in the middle of the ocean. that's why i've avoided doing it for so long."
"Tell me! Tell me! I don't really plan on surviving this anyway..."
"if nort brings you to the shift world, you'll end up near the crossroads in the arid desert, if you shift back on your own without wili bringing you... you might be able to shift to the desert on your own. truth is, we have no idea what'll happen. maybe you shift back and end up in a cave in the tundra in this world. you could end up four years in the future somewhere else. what if you come back with no problem but still go to your old storehouse in the shift world like nothing happened?" Karp shrugged.
Baln seemed unfazed until she gave a quirky smile. "Nort is that cutie you travel with, right?"
"don't think about it." Karp deeply scowled, which was an unusual show of emotion. "he kind of has a little girlfriend. he's young and dumb and will take your teasing way too seriously even though you're so much older than him..."
"Huh?!" Baln seemed legitimately confused by the statement, and her usual, flirty demeanor disappeared. "How old do you think I am? He is, mid or late twenties? That's right at my age!"
"right... i sometimes forget he aged ten years at the last festival. still, he wouldn't understand you're just teasing him, and that'd be an issue. i won't let him near you if you can't even promise me that..."
"Fine with me..." Baln gave a non-committal shrug. "I don't like teasing people like that anyway. They get too clingy..."
"ok. that's good. i was actually going to suggest that you flirt a little with wili. he's the most lonely person i've ever met, and it could probably do him some good even though we both know that you'd be incapable of anything more than just a show." Baln looked at Karp as though something she said had been wounding. Given the conversation until that point, Karp thought she understood Baln pretty well and wondered what part of her words could have upset The Coral Snake.