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"Pour me another if you would."
Stark refills her cup, and Gwendolyne takes in the aroma before taking a sip.
"This tea is delicious. I'm so glad we invited you to our dinner," she says warmly.
"It's made from the darksage leaf," replies the paladin. "Good for improving memory and alertness as well as cleansing the body of impurities."
"Oh? I use that for some of my inks. Paladins drink it?" Melfina asks.
"Samurai actually. Something I came across in the Book of Bushido."
"Oh that makes sense."
Stark helps himself to several more slices of honey glazed ham, some asparagus, and potatoes. His mouth waters as he drips honey onto his biscuit. Honey wasn't something they ever served him when he was little, so he wasn't about to pass it up now.
"Bringing tea certainly isn't a worthy exchange for all this."
Gwendolyne smiles. "I don't expect you to be a master chef for your first dinner with us." Looking over to Melfina, "She's only up to biscuits after all this time."
"Hey! I thought they came out good!"
"Very," Stark says as he takes another healthy bite, to Melfina's delight. "How often do you do this?"
"Maybe once a month. We don't really have a set schedule. Just whenever the both of us are free."
"Well, it's all delicious," Stark assures them as he takes a little bite of everything.
"You are too generous," Gwendolyne insists. "You know who is actually a great cook? Cadence."
"I know. With all the time she spends traveling, I didn't think she would have time for cooking. But it turns out that learning from the cooks while she's on the road is one of her favorite things to do. And she gets to charm her way into an extra large helping or two."
"I don't know how she looks as good as she does with as much as she eats," adds Melfina.
"It's too bad we don't have an inn here in West Luna," says Stark.
The two ladies give each other a look, but he has no clue as to what it's about.
"To hear her play? Or taste her cooking?" asks Melfina.
"Uhh... either. Both."
"Maybe we'll ask her to join us next time," smiles Gwendolyne.
Stark looks at the two and decides it's time to talk about something else. "What about Lord Luna? Does he ever come to these dinners?"
"Oh no. This was kind of just our thing."
"And I don't really want to have dinner with my landlord. Not with someone who has had so much control over my life."
"But I always enjoyed my dinners with my Keeper, Brandon."
"Lord Luna is not my Keeper." Gwen puts a hand on Melfina's arm. "Nothing like it. I mean... I am grateful for what he did... I suppose... but there's no way that Lord Luna has been any kind of mentor to me. And Wayland was anything but."
"The High Father?"
Melfina nods. "Maybe I'm a little harsh when it comes to Lord Luna, but Wayland is definitely not the person you think he is," she says shaking a finger at him.
"He was your mentor?"
"Mentor! He didn't care about me. He was just trying to shape me into whatever way he saw fit."
"I'm sure that's how Brandon saw me as well," Stark says slowly.
"Will you just listen!"
"My parents... they were killed in the Dragon War two years ago. "They had the most successful shop in Luna, outside of those directly owned by the city. They were both mages and sold all kinds of magical goods produced by hard work and smart shopping, and they rented out space to select vendors, while making sure everything was sold at a fair price. Not the extortion you see all over the city now."
"Well, I loved it all, especially the scrolls and books. I loved seeing how writing the same word in a different style could give it a different persona. My parents were excellent mages, but their skill in inscription was average at best. After they introduced me to the Luna Library, I started spending most of my time there. The quiet within those walls was so freeing. I didn't understand why it was always so empty."
"For my tenth birthday, my parents paid for my apprenticeship with the holy mages."
Stark sits up.
Melfina rolls her eyes. "To become a scribe not a holy mage! My parent's shop was where I belonged. So anyway, Wayland wasn't the High Father at the time yet, of course. He was one of the holy historians, and he was the one who offered to train me."
"Things were good in the beginning. The lessons went well, and I learned quickly. He'd often tell me how much natural talent I had, and how he'd never seen anyone absorb it all so fast."
"As my training was nearing completion, he started pushing harder and harder to transition my apprenticeship from becoming a scribe, into becoming a holy mage. He said Luna would benefit greatly from my presence."
She glares back at Stark, daring him to speak. He smartly remains silent.
"Well I didn't want to. I didn't care about conducting services for paladins or revising their war manuals and whatever else they do. I wanted to learn magic. The real kind. Not just pray to some god and hope my wishes would be granted."
Stark opens his mouth, but Gwen quickly gives her head a small shake.
After Wayland saw that I wouldn't budge, he tried convincing my parents, but they stood by my decision. But he kept on coming back. It seemed friendly at first. But after each visit, my dad looked more and more angry. Eventually, dad just kicked him out as soon as he appeared."
"Well, Wayland didn't like that. He wanted me. He wanted me to become one of them. All of a sudden our area of Luna became reclassified, and our taxes rose. Taxes rose on our property, on our sales, on rental space, on everything! And we started getting fined for the most ridiculous of infractions."
"My parents refused to raise their prices. They refused to pass on this burden on to any one else, since the extra fines and taxes were a means to pressure me into my decision and were not just. So they worked longer and longer hours."
"I hated watching all this happen. I hated seeing how tired they were all the time. They kept up their smiles during the day. But it was all for show. I gave up, and told my parents that I'd do what he wanted. They were suffering because of me. But they refused. They wouldn't let me surrender. They told me that he was most likely responsible for initiating the changes, but he wasn't the sole person in charge, and there were limits as to what everyone else would let him get away with."
"Eventually my father filed a formal complaint against Wayland, and he stopped coming around, the fines stopped, and the tax burden lightened somewhat."
"I wish they hadn't decided to keep everything secret. Everyone loved my parents up until the day they died, never knowing what they had to go through. They protected me and treated everyone fairly even if they weren't."
"Wayland didn't have the power then that he has now. Things would have turned out much worse had he been High Father."
"Like now," says Stark.
Melfina began blinking away tears, so Gwendolyne scooted over and held her close.
It can't be.
"I'm sorry to hear you went through that," he says gently. "Holy mages shouldn't be causing that kind of strife. It goes against all we're taught."
Melfina doesn't seem to be really listening.
Eventually Gwendolyne looks up and breaks the silence. "I don't want to offend you in any way... but... I have a question about the holy mages."
"Yes?" Stark says.
"I've heard things from my brother, who's heard it from the lords and ladies of Luna. They talk about it as if it isn't a secret."
"Ok?" he replies.
"As paladins you're given a salary right? To get paid for... doing what you do?"
"Yes. Most of it ends up as an offering to God."
"Ok yeah, that's what I heard... It's admirable to believe in your faith, but you know... the holy mages just take that gold for themselves right?"
"Of course," Stark says, not knowing what the problem is.
"And you're fine with that?"
"Yes. Why wouldn't I?"
"They're taking your gold! I don't understand. If it's supposed to be an offering to your god, how can you be fine with the holy mages taking your offering for themselves? They might as well not give you that part of your salary in the first place."
"Oh, it's not that way at all, but I think I see I can see how it might seem that way. We tithe our gold to God. It's our act of giving what is ours which is important, not where it goes. Our choice. It doesn't matter what happens with it afterwards."
"Doesn't matter!" Melfina yells. "What if that gold went to arming guilds of thieves and murderers! What if it went to hiring more collectors to start fining people for the stupidest of infractions!"
Stark knows she's still upset, but he has to respond. "It matters of course, but the holy mages... don't do that," he says with a touch of doubt. "They spend that money back into Luna for the most part. Buying candles, furniture, food, inks, paper, and all manner of items. They also use it to pay for equipment, and celebrations. It goes to helping support every aspect of Luna's society from everyday items to the extravagant. Maintaining that flow of gold is integral to Luna's economy. That's what I was taught. If they didn't spend it. If no one spent it. The gold would pile up and be of no use to anyone."
"Candles! what use is that really! I can buy candles! Does that gold ever get put to any real use! Does they ever use it for anything that's actually significant!"
Stark waits a moment for her to calm down. Her earlier words had put doubts into his mind, and had shaken him. Her words now bring him into focus.
"They saved me," he says quietly.
"I didn't get a chance to remember my parents. They died before I had that chance. I grew up in an orphanage to the south. Old Lady Shandra couldn't really take care of us all, and we were slowly starving to death. During the winter when I was five years of age, she just went to sleep and didn't wake up."
"I don't know how they found out, but a holy mage showed up at our door a few days later and brought us to Luna. Fifteen of us had died or run off, but twelve of us were still left. They took us, and fed us, and told us we would be apprenticed out into whatever profession we desired, and they would cover the costs, as long as we were deemed worthy enough by our mentors. I chose to become a paladin."
"We would have all died if not for them. That's significant to me."
* * *
Don't let Mel know I told you. But I think she's gotten the attention of the High Father. Just something to be aware of. Hope you had fun at Lord Brighton's! There's some leftover ham if you want.
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