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No time to relax. Melfina examines her diminishing supply of magical reagents. Why can't it be easier to restock regs! It seemed as if everyone dabbled in magery from at degree or another. It was good for business but frustrating when low on supplies. Gathering reagents was out of the question. With the amount she needed, it would be even more time consuming than chasing down stocked supply shops. Some shops hire help whose sole job is to go from shop to shop, waiting for fresh shipments, but that wasn't an expense she could cover.
I need to be able to carry more each trip! She sighs in frustration. Later… I'll solve that later . If there is a later. I should have told him one week, not two. What if he's late! What if Lord Falcon changes his mind? What if he already did? What if he found someone else to make it? What if he doesn't buy it!? Why did I procrastinate! Melfina shakes her head as if to shake off the mounting pressure pressing all around her.
The first quarter payment was almost due, and she hadn't be setting money aside. Dividing her time between library and shop didn't help matters either. But it's out of her hands now, and going about her normal business keeps her from falling into despair. At least business was good today, but the grind of making scroll after scroll, and keeped stocked with supplies for those scrolls was a consequence of that.
She lets her arm do the work while her mind constantly churns from subject to subject – what she was doing with her life, ideas for her books, the nature of magic, and organizing and acquiring more books for the library. The notebook she always has nearby is and eclectic mix of all of these thoughts, and is also her escape from the troubles of life.
"But no matter how many… the center…" Melfina says to herself, thoughts not even fully finished in her own head before dismissing them. She hears a careful knock, and finds Stark appearing. "Excuse me, merchant vendor."
Melfina lifts a hand, and hides a smile, and finishes writing down her current thoughts before replying. His use of her formal title always made her smile. Never so he could see it, of course. The respect in his voice expects professionalism back. And his voice really does say it with respect, it's not just a simple greeting for him. He doesn't just see a girl, one who's probably younger than any other he's seen. Her age isn't an issue when it comes to her level of skill, but not everyone has seen it that way.
"Yes, guard captain?"
"Do you have a moment? I was wondering if you could answer something for me."
"Of course," she motions to the chair across from her, "sit."
Stark sits, and removes his gauntlets while she pours him a cup of water.
"I've been watching the traffic in and around West Luna. There are a lot of strange people at night, when, as far as I can tell, all shops are closed. They head somewhere further west. Often, they move as if they don't want to be seen, and I doubt the hoods of their cloaks are used only to keep out the cold. I don't like it."
Melfina knew what it was all about, but she let him finish, enjoying how clueless he was.
"It's nice to hear how seriously you take your position, guard captain." And she really has felt safer since he was hired. Reminiscing about that first meeting always puts her in a good mood. She certainly would be afraid to face him. He doesn't wear all the armor he wore that day, but it still looks heavy and strong. "It's the Infinite League. That guild owns several places out west. Lord Luna hasn't figured out how to deal with them just yet. Their services attract a certain kind of people."
"I've never heard of them."
"Good to hear," Melfina says with a knowing smile. "I didn't think you were the type though. They have a couple of real shops, but they revolve around their main business," she pauses, making a bet with herself as to what his reaction would be, "They run a whorehouse."
His face goes blank, and can't help but giggle at his expression. I win.
"Just because they've been outlawed in Luna, doesn't mean they won't pop up somewhere. They just make too much money. And since Luna withdrew its protection around here, they set up as close as they dared. We're just unlucky enough to be in the way. I don't know the League members personally," her mood darkens a little, "but one time one of their stupid, drunk, dirty clients dropped an oil lamp near the shop and almost set the place on fire!"
"I see," he says grimly. "Thank you, merchant vendor. That's cleared things up. I'll watch out for them."
She glances down, and her notebook sparks a thought. "Can I ask you something?"
"What were you doing the other day? Were you meditating? You're not a mage…" she trails off, confused.
"Oh that. Yes. But not what mages do, I believe. It's a concentration technique. To clear the mind so the body reacts as efficiently as possible. To be used in battle, but it can be trained outside of it."
"I've never heard of that."
"It's a bushido technique."
"The samurai? But you're a paladin," she says tilting her head with a puzzled look on her face.
"Yes. To both. All paladins must choose a secondary area of study. Some choose healing or tracking or even something like fishing. We all learn a little bit about several disciplines, but we must choose one to concentrate on. Our diversity, alone and as a whole, is what makes us the best, both inside and outside of battle."
"Why choose that? I don't think I've heard of anyone who knows bushido."
"I didn't, actually," Stark answers in a tone that is both ashamed and proud at the same time. "My Keeper, Brandon, insisted on it. At that time, no paladin had ever chosen bushido as their Concentration. Or since, I think. The Tokuno borders are still too freshly opened for it to have spread far. Keeper Brandon thought it was time the Order learned."
"If there aren't any others, who teaches you?"
Stark answers frankly at first, but his voice picks up an intonation that Melfina knows she must have herself when she talks about her books. "I learn on my own. They have their own form of the Book of Chivalry. I was given a copy. I was unsure about it at first, but… after just skimming through it, I could already see that there was a strong code of honor that applies to everything they do. It is compatible with the code of chivalry in so many ways. I've learned so much studying it."
"But… if you're the only one, why would they get rid of you?"
Melfina regrets her question as soon as she's finished asking. Something about it changed his mood. All the life she just saw is gone. He's not just quiet, he's… elsewhere. Is he that ashamed from being dismissed? That's stupid, he did the right thing.
"They didn't, I'm still a paladin. It was the Luna Guard I was dismissed from." A moment of silence lingers between them. "But now I'm a guard for West Luna. I should get back to that." He doesn't even bother to put on his gauntlets. He picks them up as he stands and walks toward the exit.
She almost lets him leave, not sure what just happened, but she manages to call out before he's gone.
He stops, not turning around to face her.
He whispers, "I should have gone after the Dungeon Slaughterer."
"So you wouldn't have ended up here?"
The strength seems to pour out of him as his shoulders slump. And although his back is facing her, she see the shallow breaths, and can hear the tears wanting to come out.
He talks more to himself than to her, each word more painful than the last, as if each were slowly peeling away a piece of his soul. "Focusing on my duties keeps me from remembering. At night… I can't stop… There was so much blood… Staying behind… it didn't help. They were right to get rid of me. There was so much blood. Nothing I did... I couldn't… It didn't… I…"
Melfina rushes to him, but she didn't know how to comfort him. She squeezes his hands, the only place with no armor. Melfina tries making eye contact, but his hollow blue eyes just look through her with anguish.
"It wasn't your fault. You know that right? You did all you could."
Her words sap the strength in his legs and he falls to his knees. "It wasn't enough. I couldn't save him… I…"
...couldn't save him, she reads from his lips as his voice gives out.
"Sometimes that happens. Guards–"
Stark continues over her, oblivious to what she's saying. "My brother… he always looked out for me. Defended me. Some kids tied me to a tree once, and left me out in the snow. When he noticed I was missing he came after me. He got there at the same time as the wolves. He fought them off. He lost two fingers, but he fought them off. And he made it so the kids never messed with me again. And he'd do all kinds of small things like always give me the bigger half of whatever we ate."
"Then when the Order said they couldn't take him, that the Guard was as far as he could go, he always trained with me, made sure I was doing well. I didn't stay behind to save the others. I only tried to save him." Stark looks up a bit, and his haunted look rips into her. "That's why… that's why I failed. I forgot my duty. I became selfish. And I was punished."
She doesn't know what to say. She rests his head on her shoulder and he manages to whisper one last sentence before he breaks completely.
"He said he wanted to go to Heaven."
Time passes, neither know how long, until it's all fully released. She helps him up, providing what strength she can.
He picks up his gauntlets puts the armor on, outside, as well as in. "Good day, merchant vendor, I have to get back to my duties."
This whole time. He's been hiding. "Stark," she says gently, "call me Mel."
His eyes remain still, but his minds struggles to shut everything out, including herself. But her words had been enough. "Mel," he answers back, voice steadier, soul mending. He then nods and walks with strength, returning to his duties but not his isolation.
* * *
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