"Vaarsuvius, I have been called to Azure City for an important engagement. I believe I can trust you to watch the place for a few days?"
Vaarsuvius looked at Aarindarius and smiled. "That shouldn't be an issue. If I may ask, what is so important that you are called all the way to Azure City?"
"It's…Complicated. I am sworn to secrecy on the matter as well. However, I promise you that if you should ever get involved in this (Which I sincerely hope you don't), I will disclose everything."
Vaarsuvius sighed. "…I understand, and I trust your judgement."
Aarindarius smiled. "Then I will see you in a few days. Greater Teleport!" He vanished with a pop.
Landing at the docks in Azure City, Aarindarius looked at the Sending that was…Sent to him a few days before.
Aarindarius: Concerning Lirian's Gate. Utmost importance, potential emergency. Come to Azure City on solstice. Paladins will escort you to castle. Food, board provided. Lord Shojo.
He looked at the docks, and the children playing around them. Two young children struck him in particular; a boy and a girl, no more than five or six years old. The boy had a mop of blue hair, the girl's blue hair was tied back in a ponytail. Their clothes were baggy, worn and patched in places. They appeared to spend more time on the streets than off them. The girl threw what appeared to be a bag of rocks at the boy, hitting him in the back of the head. Aarindarius ran forward, ready to administer aid when the boy got up grinning.
"Oysters? You threw a bag of oysters at me?!"
"Well, it would have been a squid, but my parents sold them all earlier today!"
Aarindarius laughed to himself. He always loved kids. He walked through the streets, past a monastery, looking for the two paladins who would escort him to the castle. A young girl, about the same age as the other two children, but with black hair, was sitting outside the monastery, writing something in the dirt. The monastery bell rang and she ran inside. When Arrindarius turned back to the street in front of him, he noticed two young women walking towards him, clad in the blue armor of the Sapphire Guard. The shorter one approached and spoke to him first. "You are…Aarindarius, the elven wizard?"
She smiled and shook his hand. "I'm Jiang-Fan and this is my friend Cheska. We're the newest paladins of the Sapphire Guard and we've been selected to escort you to the castle. Come on." The two paladins strode through the streets, Aarindarius, following them.
Jiang-Fan and Cheska delivered Aarindarius to Shojo's throne room. They bowed to him and stepped back.
"Jiang-Fan. Cheska. Thank you. You are dismissed." The two left. Shojo stepped down from his throne and approached Aarindarius. He also noticed that a young child was in the room.
"…Lord Shojo, if I may, I think the child should leave as well."
"But that is Hinjo, my nephew and the heir presumptive. Even if he is only seven, he should be privy to these royal meetings, so he may one day learn to conduct them himself."
"…That may be, but I bring very bad news. I do not wish to terrify him."
"…Hinjo, go outside and play with the other children." Hinjo smiled and ran outside. Shojo looked at Aarindarius and began, "I summoned you because of your relationship with Lirian. She considered you a close confidant and friend. As you know, a few weeks ago, she vanished. There was a huge forest fire and her gate was destroyed. It is possible that it was a freak accident, yet we cannot rule out the possibility of something more sinister."
Aarindarius looked at Shojo. "I agree. I have tried scrying, Sending, even Plane Shifting over to the Neutral Good afterlife, yet she is nowhere to be found. As I see it, there are three possibilities as to what could have happened. The first one is out best-case scenario. There was a huge forest fire, whether by accident or design, and it destroyed the gate. Lirian managed to escape with her life and sought sanctuary. If this is the case, then she is most likely with Dorukan in Redmountain, considering their relationship and his preference for protective abjuration spells."
"But then there's the problem of contact."
He nodded, pleased to see that Shojo's mind was still sharp as ever. "Exactly. If this is the case, then she should have contacted me, or any of us, in some manner by now. The fact that she cannot be contacted leads us to the second theory: She died in that fire."
Shojo bowed his head in respect. Aarindarius did as well. The silence hung for a moment before Shojo asked, "But wait…If Lirian did perish in the fire, then…"
"Exactly. I should have been able to contact her when I Plane Shifted over to the afterlife. Which leads me to my final theory, the most likely and unfortunately the worst-case scenario," Aarindarius's eyes hardened as he continued. "That fire was no accident. Lirian was attacked. Something found out about the gates and planned to exploit them for their own nefarious purposes. Lirian fought to her dying breath, possibly setting the fire herself in a last-ditch attempt to destroy the gate rather than letting it fall into evil hands. But, even with the fire, a high-level sorcerer or wizard must have survived…Because if we can't contact her at all, then her soul has likely been bound."
The silence hung. Their eyes reflected each others' horror. Eventually Shojo managed to breathe, "…Twelve Gods."
"…Exactly…I think it is best that we discuss this further after dinner."
Even with the unbelievably lavish fare, the dinner was quiet and subdued. Both Shojo and Aarindarius sat quiet in contemplative thought. Afterwards Aarindarius met Shojo in a drawing-room. Shojo spoke first. "Where do you think they will strike next?"
"…I do not know. Most likely someplace isolated, away from cities and major trading routes. I do not think Azure City will be the next target."
Shojo breathed a sigh of relief. "And yet we must prepare for that day…I am not a young man anymore. I see the future in my nephew, Hinjo. Can you believe I am starting to grow grey? In thirty years, I will likely not be here anymore. I do not wish for my nephew to inherit such a danger…"
"Neither do I. I am no longer young, either. Look," Aarindarius said as he pulled back his hair. Shojo peered closer. The elf's light pink hair was now streaked here and there with gray. "Remember the last time we met? Only a few years ago? Look what has happened since then."
"We must always plan for tomorrow."
"And yet we must live for today."
"…Aarindarius…" Shojo stepped forward and put a hand on his shoulder.
"Dari, if you would. For people…Close to me." He looked at Shojo.
"Dari…I've missed you." Shojo pulled Aarindarius to his mouth with surprising strength for a man of almost fifty, and kissed him fiercely. Aarindarius returned the gesture with equal force. Shojo pulled the elf to him and motioned to his bedchamber…
"…I've missed that."
"No, I mean I've really missed that. You don't exactly get a lot of privacy once you become Lord of Azure City."
Aarindarius sat up in the bed and looked at Shojo. "I've been thinking. Why not increase the membership of the Sapphire Guard?"
"…That would be a good idea. Remember Jiang-Fan and Cheska? They're the newest recruits this year, but they're the only recruits this year."
"Why not recruit from other places?"
Shojo smiled. "Yes. You're right…Who says that poor children of the streets do not know the meaning of honor? I would say they have more honor than the nobles who disparage them! I can see it now, a new Sapphire Guard, one which does not discriminate based on class. Even a ditch-digger could become a paladin, if they were virtuous enough. A new Sapphire guard, with people who do not forsake their youth, instead using it to make themselves stronger. With people who will stand strong and endure against impossible odds. With people who will strive to see that justice is always delivered, even if it will lead to their own doom." Shojo smiled at Aarindarius again. "Why don't you stay here? Us, together."
Aarindarius looked down. "Believe me, I would want nothing more. But I have to go back. For one thing, a student of mine has promised to watch the house for the time I am here…This student has also just gotten married."
"Ah. I see."
"So I think it is in my best interest to return before they try going at it in every room of the house."
"…May the Twelve Gods bless you." He kissed Aarindarius again; the two curled up next to each other before falling asleep/atrance.
When Aarindarius returned home, he was somewhat surprised. Instead of a long inquiry from Vaarsuvius about the nature of his trip, instead Aarindarius received from Vaarsuvius a long angry tirade demanding to know why he had placed numerous protective enchantments on his rosebushes, scented candles, bottles of elven wine, and his very large, very comfortable, four-poster canopy bed.