Caduceus was unused to spending the solstice away from his home.
Well. If he was being honest - and he always tried to be honest -- Caduceus had to admit that he was unused to anything that had happened since he had left his home.
He was used to the land. The sea was formidable -- difficult to understand. To be on it, to be begin with, one must be separate from it. What was the use of being “on the sea” when one wasn’t even on it? The boat got in the way. Caduceus was used to the earth underneath his feet; finding dirt in his claws after a day of gardening.
But, of course, without the boat, there was nothing stopping the sea from swallowing anything put into it. Caduceus remembered their strange descent down to the shipwreck: the strange fall without any falling sensation in his stomach. The buoyancy of the water that should have held them but instead let them fall ever down, and down, and down.
So the sea was a strange and unfathomable creature, and was yet too far away. Caduceus wondered how those who lived on the sea, like Fjord, managed to do it. No solidity under their feet, no predictability, no landscape except the horizon? No comfortable cabin with seven teacups?
Caduceus missed his home with a low, gnawing hunger. He missed the thirty seconds it took to cross from his front door to his vegetable patch and kneel to check on the sprouting plants; he missed the feeling of the cool earth pressing damply against his knees. This, this ship that they had stolen from a pirate they’d gotten twisted up with? It was full of secrets held by a dead woman. Caduceus didn’t know the planks of this deck as well as he knew the crannies of his family’s ancestral home.
He missed the clean smell of mushrooms growing fat and proud. He missed tending the plants with all his concentration, knowing that nothing could cross into his family’s land without his knowing of it. Here he was on edge all the time, even when he didn’t mean to be.
More than anything, Caduceus missed the knowable. Everything in his home had a history to it -- the doorjamb made with newer wood because his oldest sister had tried a druidic spell on the old one that made it sprout new branches; the corner of the temple that had housed a nest for each baby firbolg that had come along; the tea cups that had been donated by a cleric who visited Caduceus during one of the snowiest winters to date.
Caduceus had learned how to speak to the Wildmother in that home. He had chosen his life path there. He had grown food in her honor, and learned how to cast magic spells, and dug his fingers into the loam to feel the natural magic of things growing and dying and feeding the circle of life.
The Wildmother seemed far away, here. Caduceus didn’t know what the circle of life was like in the ocean. He wasn’t sure that he cared much about finding out.
“Hey, Deucy,” said a brisk voice. Beau climbed up on the railing that Caduceus was leaning on and plopped down next to him, falling easily into a cross-legged sitting position. As graceless as Beau was, she was never clumsy. Caduceus thought it would be nice to have Beau’s forward-driven passion. She was always ready to charge into battle; she seemed to know where she wanted to go. Not like Caduceus; not always looking backward, wondering how much he should regret.
“Hey,” he said.
Beau peered at him. “You okay?”
Caduceus waved a hand. “Woke up on the wrong side of the bunk, I guess.”
“Well, me and Fjord were going to have another look at the maps and see if we can figure out where we’re going next. I figure it’s something everyone should be in on, so if you want to join us, you can.”
“Oh,” said Caduceus. “Thanks.”
He heard chattering approaching across the deck. Nott and Jester, from the sounds of it.
“But what if the snake people were really people-snakes!” Nott was saying.
“That’s silly,” Jester scoffed. “Hey, Beau, do you think some of the snake people had snake dicks too?”
“Uh, I dunno,” said Beau. “I wasn’t really looking. I was running for my life, mostly.”
Caduceus couldn’t take it anymore. He couldn’t hear anything more about the dangers they sought, or the ocean, or their ill-planned travels.
He got up and walked away.
“What’s wrong with him?” he heard Nott say. Caduceus sloped down the rungs to the lower deck.
That was rude. He chided himself as he continued down the short, sloped hall and found his bunk. He would have to apologize to them. He had been unbearably rude. And Beau would be hurt that he walked away from her.
He sat on the bunk and felt the sea rock the ship like it was trying to get to him.
Someone knocked at the door. “Hey, Caduceus. It’s Jester. I was wondering if you wanted some company?”
Caduceus self-consciously straightened from his slouch. It wouldn’t do to show Jester just how self-pitying he could be. “Sure. Come in.”
The door cracked open, and Jester peeked through the gap. “Hey,” she said softly.
Caduceus smiled at her. Smiles came naturally to him around Jester. “Hey.”
Jester opened the door a little more and slipped through. “Are you okay? I noticed that you seemed a little distracted, so I wanted to make sure you were okay. Because it’s okay if you’re not okay!” Jester stepped a little bit into the room, moving as she always did with a little spring in her step, like she was planning out a jig in her head. Caduceus liked that about her: she was always moving, always thinking of her next great prank. Even when she was still, her mind was whirring. Lately her mind had been turned sharply toward their mission -- whatever that was. Jester, at least, seemed as perturbed as Caduceus was by this strange poking at ancient gods and underwater temples.
He looked down at his hands, at fingers that had not dug into the soil for many weeks. If anyone would understand missing home, it would be Jester.
“You know,” he said, his voice gravelly, “I missed the merrysage vines turning color.” He knew that Jester wouldn’t have any idea what that meant. “When they turn color, I know to start covering the roots of the smaller plants with leaves, because the really heavy snow will come soon.”
“Oh, really?” said Jester with interest. She sat down next to Caduceus. He felt her tail, more lithe and sturdy than firbolg tails, swish behind them.
“No one’s told the trees where to put their leaves,” said Caduceus. He had told the trees that he was going, but he wasn’t sure if he had really gotten his message across. What was one trip to such long-lived trees? They wouldn’t care about Caduceus’ short-lived plants; they wouldn’t try to cover them with leaves.
“Don’t worry!” said Jester. “I bet your trees are very smart! They’ll know where to put their leaves.”
“They aren’t my trees,” said Caduceus, chuckling a little at the thought.
Jester fluffed the skirt of her dress thoughtfully. “Your trees are surrounded by that curse, right?” she said. “Are you worried about your home getting swallowed up by it?”
There it was, the thought Caduceus had been trying not to think. He nodded stiffly. “That’s one of my worries, yeah.” His home where he had learned how to speak to the Wildmother, the last place of solace for travelers in the wood -- disappearing while Caduceus was searching for his selfish purpose -- the ever-present gnawing hunger of longing opened into something as terrible and deep as the sea; pulling him down, down, down.
“Breathe, Caduceus,” said Jester. Her hand landed on his middle back. Caduceus sagged into her touch. To his surprise, he found her other hand covering his; he flexed his fingers and managed to clasp her hand in a gesture of thanks.
“I remember,” he said. Jester had told him to breathe before, when he had fallen apart on the deck of their previous ship. And here they were again, Jester helping him breathe while Caduceus questioned his choices that had led him to this point.
Jester leaned against him. Her hand was rubbing comforting circles into his back, now. “You know?” she said. “You’re important to us, Caduceus. I’m really glad you’re here.”
Caduceus blinked slowly. That was. That was really good. That -- Well, for once, Caduceus was lost for words.
Caduceus knew that he sometimes took too long to think of responses. He was an odd conversationalist and most of the time he was left behind while the group moved forward with plans and jokes and jibes. He knew that he would have to think for a long, long time to tell Jester just how much it meant that she was glad that he was here. How much it meant for him to be here, away from his curse-encroached woodland home.
So instead, he said, “It’s my birthday.”
Jester let go of his hand and shot up with a gasp. “It’s your birthday?!” He expected her face to be fake-shocked, but her eyes were wide and horrified. She covered her mouth with both her hands. “No wonder you were grouchy! We didn’t have a party planned for you!”
Caduceus shook his head, laughing. “No, no. That’s not what I--”
“We have to fix this immediately!” Jester exclaimed. “Come on! It was a surprise, but you have to come with me right now!”
She grabbed his hand and pulled him up. “Oh,” said Caduceus as he narrowly avoided hitting his head on the door jamb. “I, er, hope I haven’t caused too much consternation... “
“Don’t be silly!” said Jester with a steely voice that he was coming to learn meant that she was on a mission and would not be dissuaded.
She led him to the kitchen -- the galley, as he had learned -- where it seemed most of the Mighty Nein were already assembled.
Nott saw them enter and dropped into a crouch. The fact that she was perched atop Yasha’s broad shoulder didn’t impede her movement. “Get out, get out!” she hissed, flapping her hands at Caduceus. “Don’t look!”
“No, it’s an emergency!” said Jester.
Nott pointed at her. “Traitor!”
Jester stomped her foot. “Listen!” she said. “It’s Caduceus’ birthday!”
No one in the kitchen seemed to give Jester the reaction she was expecting. Nott nodded, looking a bit confused; Beau, who straddled a chair backward, said, “Oh. Huh,”; and Caleb looked up from his book to say, “I see.” Yasha didn’t stop stirring something in a large bowl.
“Scrap all the plans!” said Jester. She waved her hands at Nott in a frantic sign to stop. “We have to throw the biggest, best party for Caduceus!”
Caduceus felt it was time to step in. “Now, I don’t need a big party,” he said. “I just wanted to share that it was my birthday with you because, well, it’s important to me.”
“But obviously you were feeling bad because it’s your birthday and no one was celebrating it!” said Jester.
Caduceus opened his mouth his refute her point, but really… that was the crux of his issue, wasn’t it? That he missed the familiar and comfortable on the day that held the most importance to him?
“I… guess so,” he said slowly.
Jester clapped her hands. “Then we’ll have a party! It won’t be as good as the ones my mama throws for me, but, you know, we can still put on a really good party!”
Yasha turned to look around. “So should I get rid of the salad?” she asked.
Caduceus peeked into the bowl Yasha had been stirring. Strings of wet, dark weedy leaves swirled listlessly around chunks of hardtack. Clumps of oats, occasionally dampened in spots by what smelled like rum, dotted the sides of the bowl.
“We were making a salad for you, Mister Clay!” said Nott eagerly. “We know you don’t eat meat.”
Yasha looked at Caduceus and nodded. “I got the seaweed,” she said. Now that she mentioned it, her hair was rather damp.
Caduceus looked between their serious faces. “That’s… very sweet of you,” he said. “Out of curiosity, I’d like to know: how many salads have the two of you had?”
“Uh, one,” said Nott. She screwed up her nose in an attempt to think. “But it was mostly grass. And it was when I was starving.”
Yasha simply said, “I eat meat.”
Caleb cleared his throat. He had closed the book he had been reading. “It seems to me,” he said quietly, “that a birthday requires cake.”
“Yes!” squealed Jester. “That is exactly what we need!”
“Do we have the ingredients for a cake?” Beau asked. She turned to Jester. “You can conjure food, right?”
“That’s right! Oh, but it doesn’t taste very good. And a cake needs to be delicious,” Jester said decidedly.
“What about fish?” asked Nott. “Can cake be made out of fish?”
A soaked Fjord appeared in the doorway, holding a fistful of dripping seaweed. “I got more salad makin’s,” he said. His eyes fell on Caduceus. “Oh, hey. I guess the surprise didn’t last for long, huh?”
Jester advanced on Fjord with her hands outstretched, warding him off. “We’re not making a salad anymore. We need fish!”
“But,” said Fjord, holding up his prize.
“Fish!” said Jester, pushing Fjord out of the room.
“I don’t eat fish,” said Caduceus.
Nott turned disbelieving eyes upon him. “But they’re not meat!”
“They’re made of flesh,” he explained.
“If you say so,” said Nott dubiously. She jumped down from Yasha’s shoulder and raced out the door, her raggedy tail waving behind her. “Fjord! Ix-nay on the ish-fay!”
“What is a cake usually made of?” Yasha asked.
Jester gasped. “Yasha, have you never had cake before?” Yasha shook her head. Jester dropped her voice to a whisper. “Yasha, have you ever had a birthday before?”
Yasha shrugged. “We didn’t really celebrate those things, we I come from. I’m not sure what time of year I was born.”
“Oh my goossssshhhhh,” said Jester, clutching at her face.
Caduceus felt responsible, somehow, for her anguish. And he also felt a little bad that Yasha had never celebrated a birthday. “They’re nice,” he told her.
“What is it… for?” asked Yasha.
Caduceus shrugged. “Celebrating your existence, and remembering that you’ve achieved another year of life.”
“Family,” said Caleb. Caduceus looked at him in interest, but Caleb’s head was bowed. He traced arcane patterns on the small, utilitarian table. Caleb cleared his throat. “Birthdays are for gathering with family.”
“And being happy!” Jester added.
“It’s also the solstice, right?” said Beau. She looked at Caduceus with an uncanny insight. “You must have special traditions around your birthday.”
Caduceus felt a pang of that loss again. “Oh, well… Not many lately, since my family left home on their own travels.”
“Hmm,” said Jester. She tapped her cheek with a talon, face screwed up in thought. “Maybe we can make new traditions, then. Fjord!” she said, seeing the person in question coming back into the room. “Do sailors have solstice traditions?”
“Uh, not really,” said Fjord, looking uncomfortable at being put on the spot. He sat down next to Caleb, bumping his shoulder against Caleb’s in the confined space. “We usually share a cask of grog with the crew--”
“Hear, hear!” cheered Nott, who entered the galley behind Fjord.
“--but the ships I sailed on never had very elaborate celebrations.”
Caduceus cleared his throat. “I’d like to propose a new tradition,” he said to the room at large, but looked at Yasha. “If you’re alright with it. Since you don’t have a birthday, really, would you like to share mine?”
Yasha blinked at him, taken aback. “Are you sure?”
Caduceus inclined his head and smiled. “Of course.”
Yasha looked around at the rest of the Mighty Nein. Jester gave her an enthusiastic thumbs-up. “Do I have to do anything?” Yasha asked.
“Just be here with us,” said Caduceus gently. “That’s what family does.”
“I…” Yasha hesitated. She raised her hand, as if to brush something away from her face. She was blinking quickly. “I, yes. I would like to. Do that.”
Caduceus caught her raised hand in his own hand. He held it as Jester had held his, and tried to send Yasha the energy that Jester had given to him earlier. Breathe.
He caught Yasha’s eye. After a moment, she smiled.
“This is amazing!” Jester clapped and threw her hands in the air. “Two birthdays! Now our party is going to be super-duper amazing! Nott, let’s make a cake!”
Nott cheered and joined Jester in rummaging around in the food stores.
“Maybe see if there’s a recipe book around,” Caleb suggested.
Yasha untangled her hand. “I will go help them,” she said, and made her escape.
“Ow, Nott, don’t use me as a springboard,” Fjord was saying as Beau sidled up to Caduceus.
“Hey,” said Beau. She made an effort to lean against the nearest stable surface. She looked uncomfortable, which in Caduceus’ limited experience with her probably meant that emotions were forthcoming. “So. Uh.” Beau shifted her weight, scratched her bicep, rocked back on her heels. “What did you say after we fought that dragon? That we could be ‘good’ for the group while they were feeling bad? No one can be ‘good’ all the time. So, like, we can be good for you when you’re feeling bad. You know. If you want us to.”
Caduceus reflected that for someone with such high emotional embarrassment, Beau had a thorough vocabulary of kindness.
He smiled at her. He was really fond of her; of this whole group, strange quests and terrible salads notwithstanding. “Thank you, Beau. I appreciate it. But I, ah.” He looked over at the group that was bickering and collaborating as much as any born family. “I think I’ll be okay for a good while.”
“Caduceus!” shouted Jester. “We’re going to make a carrot cake! You’re going to love it!”
“Ah,” said Caduceus. He could hear Beau stifling laughter next to him. “That is going to be…” He hesitated, and decided that honesty was, as always, best. “A disaster.”
Jester lifted a whisk in cheerful defiance. “Then you’d better help us out!”
“Well then.” Caduceus directed a smile, an honest smile, at Beau. She smiled back. “I suppose we’d better go and help.”