Therkla blinked her eyes once, twice as she found herself looking up at a wooden ceiling. The last thing she could remember was the struggle with Kabuto, and going unconscious in Elan’s arms. If this was the afterlife, then she felt it to be overrated, first impressions considered. Hell, she could still feel stinging in the arm Kabuto had struck. Therkla sighed slightly; it was times like these that she had wished she had considered a good-alignment earlier on.
“Hey there.” A soft voice whispered, Elan’s face coming into view. Therkla could feel her face slightly flushing at the sight of the bard, her heart fluttering lightly as she saw the expression of relief on his face. Smiling happily, Elan asked her, “How’re you feeling?”
“Better, seeing that the afterlife isn’t a total bust.” Therkla was surprised by just how weak her voice sounded, the fact that she still harbored a crush on the bard not helping. Part of her knew that it wasn’t real, that it was an image created for her in the afterlife to make her happy. Maybe it wasn’t even that; her spirit could be just trying to cope with death and had created a fictional Elan for her to pine over. Either way, she knew it wouldn’t last.
She began to fully realize her conception of what was happening could be wrong as Elan laughed, leaning against the post of the bed she was in and burying his face in his arms. She could make out a few tears rolling down his chin as he laughed, and she fought the desire to try wiping them away for him. “Ye got yerself awhile for you should worry about tha afterlife, lass.” A deep, strong voice she recognized as the dwarf’s issued from the foot of her bed. “At least, I pray ye should have awhile.” She watched as the figure of Durkon emerged into view and walked over to Elan. Patting him on the back, Durkon smiled softly as he said, “Elan, lad, pull yerself together. She’ll be alright.”
Sniffling a little as he ended his laughter, Elan wiped his eyes with his sleeve as he struggled out, “I was afraid I was going to lose another friend.”
Therkla fell quiet, and after a moment said meekly in a voice she barely recognized as her own, “How am I still alive? My Fortitude isn’t that good…”
“I cured ye, girl.” Durkon said simply. “Ye’d blacked out by tha time Elan’d brought ya to me. Ye’re a lucky one, ye are; I had na prepared Neutralize Poison fer the day, but I always keep a scroll as back up. The ability score drain, however, I didn’t have any scrolls for and hadn’t thought I’da needed any spells fer it out her on the ocean. I’ll have some prepared fer tomorrow, but you’ll have to deal with the weakness fer tonight.”
“And Lord Kabuto?” She asked simply. The silence that settled over the two was answer enough for her. Her right fist shook in an anger she was surprised to find she was still able to muster. Even after his attempt on her life, she couldn’t bring herself to hate the man that had effectively raised her and trained her for her position in life, despite how often she regretted some of the actions she had taken as House Kabuto’s highest ranked assassin even before meeting the northerners. Her voice regained some of its usual strength as she asked, “How?”
The two hesitated for a moment, Elan raising a finger as he prepared to tell her. “’E drowned.” Durkon interrupted before the bard could get a single word in. “He had a escape boat an’ Elan pursued him. Tha boat capsized during the fightin’ an Kabuto got knocked unconscious an pulled under. Elan tried ta save ‘im, but he’d drowned by the time ‘e could get to him.” Looking towards the bard, Durkon added sympathetically, “Isn’t tha right, Elan?”
“Yeah.” Elan said meekly, his smile nervous and faltering. “That’s exactly what happened.” His smile turned into a concerned little frown as he said, “I’m sorry Therkla.”
Therkla wondered if the dwarf knew Elan gave penalties to bluff checks. Maybe if it had just been Durkon himself to comment on what happened she’d have believed it. Then again, maybe not. She’d let the issue drop, for Elan’s sake. But she fully intended to find out the truth of her master’s death eventually, one way or the other.
She was taken by surprise, however, when a cup of tea was forced under her nose. The strength of the brew, she would have to admit, helped clear out any of the grogginess that had remained from her slowly recovering system. “Drink this.” A firm female voice said. Turning her head to the other side, Therkla let out a small, barely audible breath as she saw the newest participant in the discussion.
Miko Miyazaki, the most powerful of the paladins that made up the Sapphire Guard. Despite having never talked with the woman before, she was more than familiar with her; she had been a high-priority threat she and her men had worked to avoid during their attempts to take Lord Shojo’s life. Therkla had merely observed the woman before, sizing her up in case she had ever needed to confront the woman in combat. A few of her ninjas had the unfortunate luck to have run into the paladin during attempts on the previous Lord of Azure City’s life, and she had learned at least a few things about the way the woman fought from that. For a week after the battle, she and Kabuto had believed the woman had perished during the battle for the city. Needless to say, Kabuto was less than pleased when Miko’s presence had been discovered upon Hinjo’s junk. Considering the paladin’s noted fanatical loyalty to the throne, they had expected eliminating Hinjo would be a much more difficult task.
Yet Therkla had noticed a distinct change in the woman with her reappearance. She rarely left the room she had taken up on the ship, and when she did it was only for a few minutes to get some air. Therkla knew from her observations that Miko had always been solitary in nature, but just how rarely she left her cabin was extreme even for her. Even odder was the fact that she never wore the garb traditional given to the paladins of the Sapphire Guard, nor carried a proper weapon. Instead, she had taken to wearing a mere set of common clothes and carrying a shinai though, even then, Therkla had learned that Miyazaki was deadly even without a weapon.
Most telling was the pair of guards set outside Miyazaki’s room, no matter what the time of day was. For awhile, Therkla believed that Miyazaki had come down with some condition that had hampered her from fighting, perhaps a severe injury during the battle with the lich and its army, and was being guarded as a sign of respect for her service. Yet it had become clear that the dwarven cleric was high enough level to heal most, if not all, of the conditions the paladin could have been inflicted with. Whatever the case, the fact that Miko had been incapable of interfering had made it easier to plot against Hinjo than would have been expected.
Simply staring into the cup, Therkla took it, hesitantly. She held the cup in her hands, uncertain what to do with it. It was unlikely that the tea had been tampered with; it smelled natural enough, and Durkon and Elan wouldn’t have been permitted to help her if it had been planned to just kill her anyway. Still, she couldn’t shake the distrust bred in her towards her current captors, for lack of a better word, that had been bred in her by Kabuto.
“I know Miko can be mean and, well, scary sometimes, but her tea is actually pretty good.” Elan said in encouragement. “You should really try it.”
Therkla brought her eyes up from the cup to look at Durkon, to Elan who was smiling down at her, to Miko, who had moved over to the other side of the room and was sitting beside a small, planted tree, watching it intently as if it was the most important thing in the world. Cautiously, she brought the cup to her lips and took a sip.
Elan was right, the tea was wonderful. It had a balance between a bitter tang to it, and a slight sweetness. She found that she was soon no longer sipping it, but draining the cup, letting out a small sigh as she finished a put the cup at the side of the bed. She could feel the warmth of the drink settling through her, causing her to feel a pleasant weariness. She hadn’t noticed just how bad off her constitution score was until now; she was lucky that it hadn’t hit 0.
Putting a hand on his back, Durkon said to Elan, “I think we should leave ‘er to rest fer the night, lad.” Turning back to Therkla, he said, “Rest up, an’ I’ll have some spells to finish fixin’ up yer stats tomorrow.”
Therkla simply nodded in response to the statement, sinking in beneath the covers. She
could hear Elan wishing her a good night as she fell into a restful sleep.
When Therkla awoke again, she saw that Miko had hardly shifted from her position beside the tree. There was a small plate of food beside the woman now, and a small canister of water she was pouring into the tree. Groggily, Therkla asked, “Is it morning?”
“No.” Miko replied, placing the canister of water down beside her as she took up her plate. “You’ve been asleep for two hours, perhaps three.”
That was another difference Therkla added to her list about Miko; she had begun to talk in an overly formal tone, nearly reaching a monotone. Not that Miko’s speech hadn’t been absurdly formal before, but at least in Azure City there was clear emotion in the woman’s voice. It was usually irritation or self-righteous indignation, but emotion none the less. Now, it was like talking to a programmed magical message, absolutely no emotion behind it. Therkla found it incredibly disconcerting; something had happened to Miko, either in the city or on the ship that had clearly changed her.
An uncomfortable silence filled the room. Clearing her throat as grogginess left her, Therkla said, “The, uh, the tea you made was great. Did you come up with the recipe yourself?”
“Partially.” Miko responded, her eyes focused on the tree. Therkla noticed how meager and pathetic the small tree looked, completely barren except for a few leaves that clung desperately to its thin branches. “It was a recipe from the monastery I grew up in. I’ve made a few changes to it over the years to better suit my tastes.”
“Oh.” Therkla responded simply, shifting in her bed to face Miko more thoroughly. She could think of little else to say to the woman. What could she say? The two of them had nothing to relate on, aside from the fact that she had attempted to kill Shojo for years, and Miko had protected Lord Shojo for years. She soon found, however, that she was quite hungry, her stomach growling in protest. Looking at the plate Miko held, she licked her lips and asked, “Do you think you could see if they could get me a plate too?”
Therkla let out a small breath of surprise as Miko approached the bed and held the plate of food out to her, the paladin bowing her head. “Take it.”
“What?” Therkla said, eyeing the plate. What was the woman doing? In all her observations in studying the woman, she had never observed Miko demonstrate subservience towards anyone aside from Shojo.
“The food. It’s yours.”
“But your dinner…”
“I’m full.” Miko said emotionlessly. Therkla was at a lose; she found she couldn’t get a handle on the woman to any degree. So, slowly, she took the plate from the paladin’s hands.
“Thank you.” Therkla said lightly as she began to eat, watching as Miko took her place beside the tree yet again. Eating in silence for a moment, she finally couldn’t contain it any longer and asked, “What’s with the tree?”
She thought Miko hadn’t heard her at first, and was prepared to ask again, when the paladin finally responded. “After the explosion of Soon’s Gate, I found myself flung onto this ship, unconscious and near death.” Miko began, her tone of voice never changing. “In my wounded state, I had a visitation from Soon Kim himself.” Miko allowed the words to sink in for a minute, apparently expecting Therkla to be overcome with reverence. Therkla knew of Soon Kim, of course, but she barely considered him or had that much interest in him.
When she felt she had allowed Therkla enough time to think on the implication of such a vision, Miko continued. “In my vision, Soon Kim took me to the forest that lay behind the monastery I grew up in. There, he showed me three trees. The first was strong and stout, having been planted in good soil and surrounded by several other trees of its kind. The second tree was pathetic and withered. It was planted in the same soil as the first tree, yet faltered all the same, standing in complete isolation apart from the first tree.”
Miko fell into silence again, as if contemplating the story so far. Finally, she said, “The third tree was small and withered, just as the second one was, and was planted in poor soil. And yet Soon Kim showed me that, if it was shown care, it could grow to be as strong as the first tree. Once I was healed enough, I had asked to be allowed to raise a small tree in my quarters. I knew that the story was a parable, and yet I felt the desire to see if I could raise a tree as poor off as the third one shown to me to eventually bloom as that one had.” Miko paused once more before finishing, “In many ways, ninja, the third tree reminds me of you.”
Therkla nearly choked on the food she was swallowing. Fighting the lump down, she turned back to face Miko and, uncertain, asked, “What do you mean?”
“I mean that your master, Kabuto, was a corrupt near tyrant. A monster.” Miko’s voice remained as passionless as it had been the entire conversation, despite the fact that she had brought out some of the words that usually marked the most impassioned moments of anything she talked on. “Because of this, of the influence upon you, you should have ended up just as bad. And yet, you showed that you were capable of good in your rejection of him from what I was told by the bard. Despite the poor conditions in which you have resided, you were capable of becoming a force of good.” Pausing yet again, Miko added, “At one point, not long ago, I’d have assumed you’d have been incapable of good due to who you served. I’d have distrusted anything said by the bard, as well.”
“What caused the change?” Therkla asked, her voice becoming soft. She had been completely unprepared for Miko’s speech. She found herself drawn between being oddly honored and skeptical, as if the paladin was trying to somehow force some information out of her by softening her up.
“Along with the vision given to me by Soon, there have been a few other…events recently that have caused me to reevaluate what I thought I knew.” Miko responded, pouring a little more water into the base of the tree. “In many ways, I think the vision Soon showed me was supposed to relate to some of those I know. In the same way you remind me of the third tree, Lord Hinjo reminds me of the first.” Despite her monotone, it was clear Miko was unused to referring to Hinjo as her liege. “I had never expected it at first, but it’s clear to me now how honorable Hinjo is, and how well he can deal with our people. Perhaps he was always that way, and I merely never noticed.” Miko went quiet, and yet had turned her gaze from the tree to meet Therkla’s own.
After a few moments of silence, Therkla cut in, “And the second tree? Do you have a parallel for that?”
“And that would be?”
Miko’s gaze remained on Therkla for a second before slowly shifting back towards the tree. Still in a monotone, Miko’s voice took on a distinctly quiet tone as she said, “I feel tired. I think I shall be going to sleep soon.”
“Alright.” Therkla replied, placing her plate on the floor beside the bed. She realized that it would be best not to push the paladin on the subject; there was something clearly wrong with Miko. Not dangerous, but clearly out of whack. Adjusting the covers over her, Therkla said quietly, “Good night, Miko.”
Still gazing at her tree, Miko responded, “Good night, ninja.”
Therkla drifted off into a pleasant, dreamless sleep.