A door to a pub swings shut.
Silence spreads through a room. Old men shut their mouths. Music fades from speakers.
No candles flicker. No one makes a move. Out in a kitchen a fan slows down and stops, and down in a basement, an old mouse pricks her ears and waits. A building holds its breath.
A paladin stares at a door.
Eventually, soon enough, half an eternity later, a paladin turns back to her pint. Heaves a sigh. Shakes her head. Lets her shoulders slump.
Alone. For the first time in years. Alone. No one watching her back. Alone. No one by her side. Alone. No one looking over her shoulder, asking questions, taking notes, demanding answers, poking, prodding, doubting.
A paladin is alone, and hints of a smile tug at a troubled face.
Tension drains from a room. Candles burn brighter. Breaths come more easy. Pints half empty become pints half full. Old men in a corner grin and sip their drinks. Behind a bar a big sister breathes a a sigh of relief, smiles, and gets back to work.
A young woman’s favorite song comes on – a hit from bygone days. Long summer evenings. Nighttime swims in the river. Afternoons on a blanket in a park.
A paladin smiles, and tiny flowers blossom in her hair.
It’s good to be back.
– – –
Paivi came out from the kitchen carrying a stack of plates – still tidying up after lunch. She glanced over at Toini and the nearly empty pint in front of her. Grinning, she set down her burden on the bar, reached for an empty glass, and put it under the tap.
“Thanks,” said Toini. She paused for a moment and then smiled. “It’s been a while. You’ll get me smashed.”
“Nonsense. You’ll be fine.” She flipped up the handle on the tap and winked. The beer stopped flowing. “No one’s getting smashed until I say so.”
Toini raised an eyebrow. “Very well then. If that’s how it is.”
“That’s how it is,” said Paivi.
She moved the pile of plates into a cupboard down below the counter and then she headed back out into the kitchen.
Smiling to herself, within and without, Toini drained the last of her pint. No point in saving it if there was more to come.
She hadn’t been drunk in ages. Sure, there was booze on board the ship. She ordered most of it herself, but she rarely tasted it. It was mainly for the crew, and even they tended to drink in moderation.
Three days. Two nights. Probably. She hadn’t had that much time to kill on her own in years – not off the ship. Locking herself up in her cabin to fast and meditate wasn’t quite the same.
There wouldn’t be any of that today. More likely her sister would have to drag her up the stairs and dump her on the couch in the apartment above the pub. Wouldn’t be a first.
Good thing she’d gotten Raoul out of the way. He’d have a field day with that. She’d never hear the end of it. Now, it was just her and her sister. Just like back in the day. If only Roy had been here it would have been perfect.
“Can’t you just leave without him?”
“What?” Toini looked up.
Paivi stood in the doorway to the kitchen. Leaning against the frame of the door, with a scowl on her face and her arms crossed over her chest.
What did she mean? She needed Roy on the team. She had to go get him.
“That guy.” Paivi nodded towards the door. “He’s an asshole and you know it. You’ll be better off without him.”
“Oh… Raoul…” Toini’s shoulders slumped. Why did she have to go and bring that up. “He’s not that bad. We just don’t get along very well.”
“No, he’s an asshole and you need to get rid of him.”
Toini sighed. “It’s not that easy.” She reached for her glass, remembered it was empty, and clasped her hands in her lap. “I have to have a chronicler, and he’s really good in combat situations.”
If she didn’t have a chronicler, she wouldn’t have a ship – wouldn’t have a crew. No funding. Everything would be so much more complicated.
“Combat?” Paivi raised an eyebrow.
“He’s saved my life nine times.” That’s the times she knew for certain it was all on him. “We work really well together in the field.” It was true. They did. Like rain and gravity.
Paivi snorted. “Didn’t look like it to me.”
Toini rolled her eyes. “It’s fine… It’s just…”
Her crew. Her responsibility.
It was she who’d hired him on. All those years ago. It was she who’d asked him to join her crew. Highest qualifications. Excellent recommendations. Not the other way around. Someone like she wouldn’t get a second chance at signing on someone like him. She’d been in the right spot at the right time and she’d gone for it.
He was good at his job. As good as they came. And he was crew. Her crew.
“It’s just we don’t see eye to eye on some of the day-to-day work.” On anything. Ever.
You had to stand up for your crew.
“You can’t stupid stand him.” With a sneer, Paivi stepped over to the tap to fill up the last of pint she’d left there to settle.
“Don’t be ridiculous.” Toini stuck her nose up. “Of course I can. He’s on my crew.”
“Yes. Yes of course.” Paivi placed the pint in front of Toini, smiled, and gently patted her sister’s arm. “You’re so happy to be rid of him your hair’s growing flowers.”
“What! No?” Eyes wide, Toini touched her hands to her hair and stretched her neck to get a better view in the mirror behind the bar.
Tiny flowers, white and pink and yellow, dotted her hair – lots of them, like sprinkles on a scoop of ice cream.
“No! Stupid hair.” She curled up where she sat, bowed her head and tried to hide her hair with her arms. “No no no.”
“Aw, don’t be like that.” Paivi giggled. “It’s pretty.”
Toini raised her head and glared at her, still with her arms around her head. “Shut up! I don’t do pretty.”
Paivi just laughed and shook her head. “Tsk tsk, shush now, you were always the cute one.” She raised her hand and wagged a finger at Toini. “Now sit down and drink your beer like a good little girl.”
“I’ll smite you.” Still glaring at her sister, Toini snatched up her pint and drank deep.
Stupid hair. So much for laying low and staying under the radar. Good thing there weren’t more people here. She glanced over at the two old men in the corner, but they seemed deep in conversation with each other – at least they didn’t stare at her.
It had been years since last she got it bad like this. Sure, every now and then a flower would sprout behind her ear, or a vine would wind itself down her back. Not like this though. Her hair was flowering like a meadow in spring.
The seed the old monk had planted in her side was making a fool of her again. It didn’t care what she thought. Didn’t care about her logic and reasoning. It just went straight for her deepest emotions, fed on those. The vines across her cheek probably had little butterflies along them as well now.
She tried to sneak a glance at herself in the mirror without being too obvious about it, but couldn’t quite make any details out at the distance. Well, whatever. It wasn’t like she could do anything about it now anyway. Just keep a good face and let herself be laughed at.
Her sister was probably right. She needed to get rid of Raoul. Not like she didn’t know. She hadn’t felt this free in a long time. How had it gotten that bad? Why hadn’t she realized sooner? Always working. Never a spare moment away.
And now, without any real warning and without any time to prepare, she found herself with nothing to do. She could just sit here, get drunk off her face, and pass out upstairs – and it wouldn’t matter at all. Her sister was here. It’d be fine. Everything would be fine.
She took another swig of her beer, licked the foam off her lips, and smiled.
Behind the bar, Paivi raised her hand and coughed into her fist. “It’s good to see you.” Her cheeks reddened a little, and she cast down her eyes.
“It’s good to be back.” Toini’s smile grew wider. She was home.
Paivi straightened up, shrugged, and cleared her throat. “I sent a message to Roy.”
“What?” The words hit Toini like a punch in the gut. “No! Please tell me you didn’t.” She mustn’t have. She couldn’t.
“But…” Toini’s mouth fell open. She grasped for words. “But why? I told you not to do it.” She’d been very clear about it. There’s no way she could have been misunderstood. Was it so hard to do as you were told.
“You’re not my boss.” Paivi held her head high and crossed her arms over her chest.
Toini’s face grew red. “That’s not the point.” Not the entire point at least. “You know what he’s like. What if he does something stupid?”
He would. She knew it.
Paivi shrugged. “He’ll be fine, and he deserves to know.”
Well, maybe he did. That wasn’t the point though. Toini heaved a sigh and hung her head. “I just wish you hadn’t done that…”
“Relax. It’s fine.” She rolled her eyes. “How bad can it be, and it’s done now anyway. Not much you can do about it.”
“It could ruin everything!” Toini stared at her. It could. Seriously.
Paivi sighed. “Don’t be so dramatic. It’ll be fine. Check with your god or something.”
Toini started to say something but stopped herself. Muttering under her breath she scowled at her sister, and then she lowered her gaze. She took a deep breath and slowly let it out again. Might as well.
She closed her eyes, and let her thoughts run their course, fade out, and disappear. Eventually, there was just she left, alone in the darkness of her mind. Warm. Comfortable. Safe.
Silent, she waited, and alone.
Time slowed down. Perhaps it stopped. Emotions settled. A great calm wrapped itself around her. Peace. And yet, she remained the only presence in the dark. Her god would not come. He saw no need to meet her. Gave no reassurance.
And wasn’t that good enough? Certainty grew on her, like lichen on a rock – slow, stubborn, unstoppable – until she knew.
– – –
Toini opened her eyes, blinked a few times, and squinted in the light of the candles. How long had she been gone? Was that a new song on the speakers? With a groan she raised her arms above her head and stretched. Definitely a new song. Never heard that one before. She’d been out a while alright. Her back creaked.
She felt along the counter for her pint. Found it. Drank. Slowly, the real world came back to her.
“Well?” Paivi still stood in the same spot where she’d stood before, but now she held a big cup of coffee in her hands. Steam rose from with it.
Toini’s face twitched. She grimaced, and took another swig of her pint. Still frowning, she set it down and glared at her sister. “I still wish you hadn’t done it.”
“Oh snap out of it.” Her sister rolled her eyes. “Roy’s a tough guy.”
“I said snap out of it!” Paivi interrupted. “You’re a big girl now.”
“Shut up!” Toini clenched her jaws together.
She glared at her sister. Her big sister. Always knowing better, always being right, always having an answer for everything. It was so unfair. Just because she was the little one. And then something tugged at her mind, and her cheeks grew warm and she wasn’t twelve anymore.
Toini took a deep breath. She looked at the pint in her hand. Not the hand of a little girl anymore.
She looked up at her sister – standing, while she sat – not so much older now. Almost the same age. Close enough not to matter anymore.
The frown disappeared from her face, and she raised her pint in salute. “Cheers.” She paused for a moment, and then she grinned. “Bastard.”
Paivi tossed her head back and laughed.
Toini rolled her eyes, and then she smiled. This was as it should be. Normal. Like it used to. It really was good to be back.
“Okay, so what’s the plan?” Paivi sipped her coffee and raised an eyebrow at her.
“What do you want to do – now that you’re here?” She nodded in the direction of the two old men in the corner, set down her mug, and grabbed two empty pints from the shelf behind her.
Oh, like that. “Nothing…” Toini lowered her gaze. She hadn’t really had time to think about it. Roy should have been here and she’d have helped him get sorted before they left. “I just need to lay low for a few days until the Orange Cream arrives and then we’re off again.”
Paivi began filling up the pints. Her jaw set, she stared at the liquid flowing out of the tap. “No plan then?”
“Good.” A smile tugged at her lips, and her eyes filled with mischief. “I’ll give Ali’ast a few days off and you’ll take his place.”
Toini froze, her pint halfway to her mouth. Slowly, she set it down again. “Uhm… Sure…” Carefully, she clasped her hands in front of her and looked up at her sister. “Mop the floors, do the dishes, that kind of thing?”
“Yes.” Paivi beamed at her. “And tend the bar – and you’ll have to wait the tables during lunch.”
“What?” Toini’s mouth fell open. “No!”
She couldn’t do that. She’d be found out. Something would happen and she’d have to interfere and the news would be out and the press would be on her and there’d cameras and journalists.
“I need to lay low and keep quiet. What if someone recognizes me.”
Her sister didn’t understand. It wouldn’t be safe.
Paivi sighed and placed her hands on her hips. “Toini, even I barely recognize you.”
Toini grimaced. “That’s not what I meant.”
“Whatever.” Paivi grabbed the pints she’d been filling and carried them over to the old men in the corner at the far end of the bar. “You’ll work the bar with me or I’ll send a message to Adrian too,” she yelled over her shoulder.
“You wouldn’t dare,” Toini shouted after her.
Paivi ignored her. She set down the pints by the old men, took their pay and brought them their change.
Eventually, she came back to stand in front of Toini again – her jaw set and her face serious. She fidgeted for a moment, stared off into the distance, and finally crossed her arms over her chest.
“Look,” she said. “I want to spend time with my sister.” Her lips twitched, and her cheeks reddened ever so slight. It was hard to tell in the light of the candles.
“I can’t close the bar, and Ali’ast hasn’t had a night off for ages. You can work here with me for the next few days and then…” Paivi stopped. She swallowed and blinked her eyes a few times. “And then you can run off and disappear and never come back again ever.” She sniffled, looked away, and rubbed at her nose with the back of her hand. “Okay?”
“That’s not…” Toini began, and then her sister’s words caught up with her.
Stabbed her like a dagger in the heart.
Her mouth fell open. Her eyes grew wide. Watered. She blinked a few times. Closed her mouth, lowered her gaze, clenched her jaws together. She grabbed her pint and clutched it until her fingers hurt.
“Okay,” she said eventually,
There was no other way. She had to. Paivi was right. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t safe – didn’t matter that it was the wrong thing to do. This was her last chance to really do something for her sister. Something that mattered – that could be remembered.
She’d deal with the consequences later.
Toini took a deep breath and raised her head. “Okay,” she said again, and then she put on her best mock serious face. “But I will not be dancing on the tables. Got it?”
Paivi scrunched up her face in a grimace, but her eyes shone like the sun. “Deal.”