A paladin finishes her meal. Scrapes her plate clean. Downs her beer. Done.
Without a word, but with a smile, a big sister clears a table. Picks up plates and cutlery, glasses and napkins. Carries everything off. Leaves a paladin alone with her thoughts and memories.
Here she has sat before. By the fire in the snug in the pub in the oldest part of town. She and her sister. She, her sister, and their friends. In another life.
A young woman puts another log on the fire. Kneels on the floor and warms her hands on the flames. Warms her cheeks. Smiles at the butterflies in her belly. Her new life lies before her. A letter of acceptance. A position at the academy. A chance at a proper life.
She’ll join the army. Be an officer, have a career, a command, maybe see the world. A young woman will stand on her own two feet and start her life anew. She’ll cut loose and hoist her own sails.
Her sister will understand and soon enough her friends will too. This is who she is and this is what she wants. The city can’t hold her back and no one will stop her, for she holds the winning hand of life in her own trembling fingers.
She must tell them. Her sister. Her friend. The rest of them. Everyone.
A young woman’s face glows with anticipation and joy. Brighter than the flames on the hearth. Smiling, she rises to her feet. Ages. Travels. Dies, and lives.
Where a young woman once knelt, a paladin stands – far from the dreams and hopes of what she longed to be. Her smile does not shine, but her eyes hold a warmth all their own.
– – –
Toini turned away from the fireplace and sat down in her chair.
In another chair, near the opening of the snug, sat Raoul. He’d come back while she put the log on the flames. She’d heard him, or heard someone and assumed it was him, but hadn’t bothered about it. Nothing would happen to her here.
“Hey.” Toini nodded. “Welcome back.”
“How did it go? You okay?”
She studied him for a moment. “No.” A wry grin tugged at her face, and then she sighed. “I’m fit for duty, but it’s a lot to take in. I’ll need some time alone once we’re back on the ship.”
He knew the deal. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d locked herself up after a quest. As a paladin she was never off duty, but sometimes her god required her in far away places, and she did a lot of traveling. She loved sitting by the window in her cabin and looking down upon the world. Her world.
It would have to wait though. There were other things to do.
She took a deep breath, sat up a little straighter, and smoothed out her face. “My mother is dead. My father is in jail.”
Raoul looked at her. Stared, for just a moment, and then he looked away. “That’s gotta hurt.”
“There’s more, but it can wait.”
“I understand.” He fidgeted for a moment. “Did you ask about your friend?”
“No.” Toini sighed. “There was no time. I’ll do that now when she comes back. She’s bound to wonder why we’re here.”
“Yes.” Raoul nodded. “Yes indeed.”
And then neither of them said anything else, and they waited in silence.
A little bit later, Paivi showed up in the snug again. She set down a tray with three pints of stout on the table. Gotecan Black, no doubt. Each with a thick layer of creamy foam on top, almost green in the light of the dim pub.
“Here.” Paivi grinned at the two of them and put out. “Good for washing down the meal. Nice and slow now.”
“Thank you.” Toini nodded, and reached for her pint.
Raoul did the same.
Soft creamy foam, thick against her lip – and then the thick dark liquid slipped into her mouth. Autumn. Nostalgia. Wet leaves on the ground. Wind howling down the street and tearing at the trees. Knitted sweaters. Woolen scarves. Black clouds over the lake, bringing in an early evening and a storm to last the night. Good friends, harsh weather, and a brew that puts the gravel in your gut.
Toini sighed and closed her eyes. This was the stuff. And now to find that old friend.
“Ah, that was good.” Smiling, she set down the pint on the table.
Beside her, Raoul nodded.
Paivi grinned at her. “Only the best for our guests.”
“Yes, so, about that.” Toini shifted in her seat and cleared her throat.
“Yes…” Paivi dragged out the word. Long and slow – expectant.
Toini lowered her eyes for a moment, looked at her black pint where a drop of foam slowly made its way down the side, glanced over at the fire and the dancing flames, and then back to her sister again. “I guess you’re wondering why I’ve come here now?”
Her sister sat stock still, not smiling, not saying anything else – most of all not cracking any stupid jokes about how it was completely natural for her little sister to come waltzing in for a pint after a decade of being thought dead.
In a way, it would have been easier if she’d made some quip about it. Something to lighten the mood a little.
Toini too sat silent. Collected her thoughts. Tried to think of where to start, what to explain, how much to include.
Let’s just go with it. “I’m here on a quest.”
“A quest?” Paivi tilted her head and raised an eyebrow.
Raoul cleared his throat and turned to Paivi. “A quest is a kind of holy mission.”
“Well, duh…” Paivi rolled her eyes at him, and then she grinned. “I know what a quest is, but what’s it about?” She sipped her bear and a glint of mischief sparkled in her eyes. “You’re not going to smite me for my heretical ways are you?”
“That’s not a joking matter.” Raoul glared at her. “She’s done that you know.”
“Shut!” Toini snapped her fingers, and her hand flew out to point straight at him.
They stared at each other for a moment and then Raoul bowed his head and looked away.
Toini nodded, and turned to her sister once more. “I’m here to find a new member for my crew. There’s a slot open and it needs filling.”
“What?” Paivi’s jaw dropped. “No way.” Chuckling to herself she took a big swig of her beer. “No stupid was. That’s out of the question. I’m not going to join your crusade. I’ve got a pub to run.”
This is where it was going to get awkward. Her sister would laugh her out the door.
Toini smoothed out her face and swallowed. “It’s not you.”
Paivi snapped her mouth shut on her chuckle and a deep frown appeared on her face. “Heh, okay. So what about those security concerns you talked about? Don’t they apply anymore.”
“No.” Raoul shook his head and put on his reassuring smile. “You’re fine.”
“Yes. They still apply.” Toini glared at Raoul. This was her talk. She didn’t need his interuption.
“Heh?” Paivi looked back and forth between the two of them. “They do or they don’t.”
Toini took a deep breath. “They still apply, but part of the quest is to seek you out. Ek wouldn’t do that if it wasn’t safe.” She leaned forward and grabbed her pint from the table.
“So I’m under some kind of divine protection now or something?”
“No.” She took a small sip and pondered for a moment. “It’s just safe for me to visit you now.”
As far as explanations went, that was pretty bad. She couldn’t put it any better though. It was just the way it was. Her god wouldn’t ask her to do anything that put her safety and integrity outside of her own sphere of influence.
Theologians still argued about the how and why of that, because sometimes it did happen anyway. She would just have to take it on faith that this wasn’t one of those times and that her sister would be safe.
“Uh…” Paivi frowned. “Okay?”
“Look.” Toini set her pint down on the table again. “Ek’s a mean, ruthless bastard of a god, but he’s not stupid. He knows the risks, and he wouldn’t gamble on something like this.”
He wouldn’t. He just wouldn’t.
“Heh… So what does your Ek need me for?”
Toini tensed up. Here it came. “You know where my new crew member is.” She felt her jaws tense up as she tried to force herself to keep her face straight.
“I do?” Paivi’s frowned grew deeper.
“Yes, you do – and you will put me in touch with him.” Her cheeks grew warmer.
“Oh, will I now? Paivi crossed her arms over her chest and scoffed at her. “You haven’t even told me who it is.”
She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. She cleared her throat, smoothed out her face, and tried not to blush but failed miserably. “It’s Roy.”
Across the table, Paivi’s mouth fell open. Her eyes grew wide, and she stared at Toini like she’d grown a second nose.
Then she howled with laughter.