Have a Mara Christmas
The palace of New Maraqua shone with twinkling lights, powered by cheery holiday magic. Maraquan citizens swam to and fro in the marketplace just outside, gathering their last-minute purchases. Lilting music wafted through the water. Spheres of hot, self-contained Borovan exchanged paws, some tasting also of chocolate or peppermint. One such Borovan ball entered the mouth of a chubby Maraquan Gelert, who allowed the liquid inside to burst against her tongue. Mmm. There was nothing like a Borovan ball near the Day of Giving.
Behind her, she pulled a skiff of holiday items; gifts and decor to complete the Day of Giving celebrations. The Gelert brushed down her black-and-white uniform, making sure she hadn’t gotten any Borovan on it, and looked down at her list.
"Kelp wreaths...check. Kelp garlands...yup. Kelp ornaments encased in everlasting crystal...got ‘em." The Maraquan Gelert brushed her long ears back. "Phew. A lot of kelp this year. I suppose it’s rather in vogue ever since Caylis released her study on sustainable kelp farming." She glanced down at her uniform, which had, embroidered on the pocket, the word Kelp displayed. "Plus it’s just the name of the place."
The chubby Gelert hurried back to work, her powerful tail propelling her through the water. The little skiff floated behind her, and as soon as she pushed open the kitchen doors, she pushed it into place against the wall.
The kitchen bustled with activity. The chef barked orders while the sous-chef directed the cooks. A busboy swam past the Gelert, his apron covered in about twelve kinds of sauces.
"Hi, Amy!" the busboy said. "Did you get everything?"
Amy smiled at the Purple Flotsam. "Hey, Renaldo! I think so--but Chef Bonnapart will probably think of something he forgot, and I’ll have to go out again."
As if hearing his name--but Amy doubted it, as he was hard of hearing and wore a waterproof hearing aid--the Maraquan Lupe called out to Amy from across the kitchen.
"Amhythyst!" he said, using her full name. "We have guests! Get out there!"
Amy grabbed an apron and swam up to Chef Bonnapart. "Guests!" she exclaimed. "But we’re not open for the evening yet!"
The Lupe shook his head. "These are special guests. They’re welcome anytime, whether or not we’re open for regular business." He reached out and straightened Amy’s uniform collar with his flippers. "There, perfect. You’re my best waitress, so get out there and put on some charm! Give them their every desire! I want their visit to Kelp to be perfect tonight."
Amy nodded, her long ears swishing through the water, and darted out the door into the dining hall, still tying her apron around her waist.
The only occupied table sat in the center of the dining hall, beneath the pointed Staragus figurine at the tip of a huge, upside-down Underwater Decorated Tree attached to the ceiling above. Amy had suggested suspending it point-down, so that it wouldn’t take up floor space they could use for tables. Plus, with Kelp’s reputation for being Maraqua’s most innovative restaurant, they just had to do something different with their Christmas tree.
It seemed the table was occupied by two Maraquan Aishas, an Usul, and a Kyrii. Amy knew all Maraquan pets could breathe underwater, but the Usul and Kyrii gave her pause. The Usul seemed to just be the color Yellow, and the Kyrii Red. How could they be so deep underwater without diving gear? As she approached the table, she could see the Usul and Kyrii wore garb typical of the pirates who roamed the oceans above Maraqua: piercings, unbuttoned shirts, belts with sheathed cutlasses. The Usul had a kelp necklace around his ruff--very fashionable, given how popular kelp was these days--and the Kyrii had a gooey green potion set on the table in front of him. But nothing, no breathing apparatus, no scuba gear.
"Good afternoon," Amy said, as she approached the table. She put on a look of concern and turned to the pirates at the table. "Sirs, may I get you an air tank, courtesy of the house?"
"Nahhh," the Usul said. He twirled one finger through the kelp necklace around his neck. "This got me covered."
The Kyrii held up his potion bottle. "It’s magic, see."
Amy breathed a sigh of relief. "Excellent," she said. "I wouldn’t want to see someone drown while enjoying our hospitality."
"I wouldn’t mind," said one of the Maraquan Aishas. Her skintone seemed a bit more greyish and washed-out than the other Maraquan Aisha. "But I suppose it would be a lot of paperwork for Chef Bonnapart."
"Oh, Caylis," said the more vibrant Aisha. "We haven’t seen them since last Christmas, surely you don’t want them to drown already--they haven’t even had time to annoy you yet."
Caylis? That name rang a bell...both a scientific bell, and a historical bell. Amy’s mind began churning with the name. Caylis. Two pirates, an Usul and a Kyrii. Maraquan Aishas….
Amy clapped both paws over her mouth, her eyes round as dubloons. Caylis! Who had published the paper on sustainable kelp farming! Caylis, the witch who had fought years ago against Captain Scarblade! And so, sitting beside her--surely her sister, Isca, and their dearest friends, Captain Garin and Jacques the Swift of the good ship Black Pawkeet.
"You-you, you’re," Amy stammered through her clamped paws. "You’re the heroes of Maraqua!"
"Are we?" mused the Usul, Garin. He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Well, yeah, I suppose some people call us that."
Jacques, the Kyrii, elbowed his captain and grinned. "Some people? I’ll take the title, any day!"
"And what’s your name?" Isca asked.
Amy pointed at herself with a quivering paw. "M-me?"
Caylis rolled her eyes. "There’s no one else here she could be talking to."
"I’m-I’m, my name--is Amhythyst!" Amy blurted out. "But my friends call me Amy."
"Amy!" Garin said. "Good t’meetcha. Guess you’re our server today, eh?"
Amy nodded mutely and cast about for something to say. She’d waited on hundreds of tables, but suddenly, she’d completely forgotten everything she was supposed to do.
"Could we ask for some menus?" Isca gently prompted.
"Menus!" Amy exclaimed. "Yes! Of course!"
The Maraquan Gelert darted away to fetch a stack of Kelp’s menus. As she picked up the ornate menus, she took a moment to catch her breath. Isca! Garin! Jacques! Caylis! And Amy was waiting on them all! She inhaled deeply and exhaled slowly, calming her beating heart. Chef Bonnapart wanted her to put on her charm. She needed to act like these guests were no different than anyone else. They were just a group of friends out to eat together. Amy clutched the menus to her chest and closed her eyes for a moment. She reopened them with renewed determination.
"So!" Amy said as she swam up to the table. "What brings you four out today?"
"Oh, you know," Jacques said. "Garin and I just popped down for a bite to eat."
"We always meet up near Christmas," Isca said.
Caylis sighed and leaned back in her chair, arms crossed. "It’s tradition." The emphasis on "tradition" sounded less heartfelt, more...dry annoyance.
"Ohhh, come on, Caylis," Garin said. "You know you missed us."
As Amy set a menu in front of Caylis, she ventured a comment. "I read your publication, On Sustainable Kelp Farming in Maraqua and Beyond. A thorough study, really--I think it will really change kelp farming as we know it."
"You read it?" Caylis said, one brow creeping up her forehead skeptically.
Amy bobbed her head, her long ears swishing through the water. "I did! For my class in Underwater Conservation at the University of Maraqua. My break started last week after I took my finals, so I came back to Kelp to work until the new semester starts."
"Don’t underestimate your server," Garin said, lounging back in his chair with a grin. "You could be talking to the next Brightvale Scholar Award recipient."
Amy’s cheeks flushed deep purple at the compliment. "Oh, well, that would certainly be something," she agreed. "Though getting to Brightvale with flippers for legs is rather a challenge." She turned to Caylis. "But Caylis, I’ve wondered--and now that I have the chance, I just have to ask--the paper specifically adds ‘Beyond’ to the title, but you only talk about farming in the waters near Mystery Island and Krawk Island. Would you propose the same sustainability methods in the frigid waters below Terror Mountain?"
The Maraquan Aisha shrugged. "I didn’t conduct any experiments near Terror Mountain, so I can’t say definitively. My next study may focus on the temperature differences in Terror Mountain waters and the volcanic Moltaran islands."
Amy nodded, satisfied, and clasped her paws. "So! What can I get you all to drink?"
The four friends worked up quite a tab in the empty Kelp dining hall. Thornberry Brew flowed, platters of Ocean Delight Salad and Pate A La Kelp changed hands, and after Fish Specials and Ocean Platters, they ordered every dessert on the menu. Amy began to wonder if the four of them had eaten at all this week, with all the food they were putting away.
Garin pushed his empty plate away from himself and flopped back in his chair with a sigh. "Phew. One thing’s for sure--I’m not headed back to the Black Pawkeet anytime soon. I’m too full to swim all that way."
Isca giggled and patted her tummy. "We’ll accommodate you at the palace. And you know you’re welcome to stay for our Day of Giving celebrations."
"We’d love to, obviously," Jacques said. "But we’ve got an entire pirate crew to hand out gifts to on the big day!"
"I thought pirates didn’t give gifts," Caylis said. "Plunder and selfishness and all that."
Garin shrugged. "When you have a crew as loyal as ours, you bend the rules a little."
Amy gathered up the friends’ dirty dishes. "I hope you all enjoyed your visit."
"Certainly!" Isca said. "Thank you, Amy."
Amy smiled and whisked the dishes away to the kitchen. When she returned, she found them leaning intently over the table, talking earnestly amongst themselves. The Maraquan Gelert hung back politely, wishing to avoid disturbing their conversation. But Isca spotted her and beckoned.
"Amy," Garin said as she approached. "You were great!"
Amy’s cheeks flushed purple again. "Thank you! You’re too kind."
Jacques plunked a heaping bag of pirate’s gold on the table. "We always leave a tip!"
"And we have something else for you, as well," Isca said. She nudged her sister.
Caylis rolled her eyes and waved one hand. An amulet appeared, in the shape of a helix shell on a silver chain. The grumpy Maraquan Aisha took the amulet and held it out to Amy. Amy took it hesitantly, looking between the four friends, wondering what they were up to.
"Thank you," she said. "It’s lovely…"
"It’s magic," Caylis said stiffly.
Isca clapped her hands together. "It will allow you to swim in the air!"
"Swim in...the air?" Amy repeated.
"Yeah!" Garin said. He tugged at the magical kelp necklace around his ruff. "Like this helps me breathe underwater. With that amulet, you’ll be able to move through air like you’re swimming!"
"Which means," Jacques said. "Your flippers could get you to Brightvale to accept a Brightvale Scholar Award someday."
Amy’s eyes widened. She hugged the amulet to her chest and stared at the gathered company. "Oh…" she whispered. Her eyes watered. "Oh my Fyora...oh thank you!" In a fit of spontaneity, she threw her arms around Caylis’ neck and squeezed tightly. Caylis choked, though whether it was from the tightness of the hug, or just the affection itself, Amy didn’t know. She released the Aisha witch with an apologetic look. "Sorry. But thank you! Thank you, thank you, thank you!"
"Merry Christmas!" Isca said, her face wreathed in smiles.
Amy turned to her and hugged her, too. "I’m so happy I met you!" she said. She moved on to give Garin and Jacques their hugs, looping an arm around each of their shoulders and squeezing them at the same time. The Usul and Kyrii hugged her back, grinning.
"Merry Christmas," Amy said. "This is the most amazing gift anyone could have given me."
Garin grinned. "We won’t tell your parents you said that. You need to at least act excited when they give you your gift socks!"
Amy giggled and put her new amulet around her neck. The shell shimmered in myriad colors, depending upon how the light hit it. She smiled at her gift.
"Garin?" she asked.
The Usul raised his eyebrow at her.
"If I can move through the air now…" Amy took a deep breath. "Could I visit you and Jacques on the Black Pawkeet sometime?"
"Heyyy," Jacques said. "We could always use another shipmate!"
"Come anytime!" Garin said. "Isca usually knows where we are, so ask her to get in touch with us next time you feel like sailing."
"And you must consult with Caylis when she does her next kelp farming experiment," Isca said.
Amy turned to Caylis, the question shining in her eyes. Would the reclusive Aisha really want her around?
The sea witch huffed and waved a hand. "Fine. A research assistant wouldn’t go amiss. Consider yourself my intern this coming summer." She held up a hand as Amy twitched in her direction. "No more hugs. And no hugs this summer, either."
Amy folded her paws together to resist the urge to hug Caylis again. "Even if we make a scientific breakthrough?"
Garin smirked. "Come on, Caylis."
"A breakthrough? You’d have to celebrate a little!" Jacques said.
Caylis squinted at the pirates and grunted. "Fine. I will consider a hug if we make a scientific breakthrough."
Amy did an excited little wiggle-dance in the water and crossed her arms over her chest, gripping her own shoulders. "Pretend I’m hugging you now!" she said.
Caylis scoffed, and everyone laughed.
"Merry Christmas, everyone," Amy said.
"Merry Christmas!" chorused the heroes of Maraqua.
Well, except Caylis. She just grimaced.