Therkla rubbed her eyes as she awoke, turning her head to the side slightly to keep from looking into the small beam of light that shot into the room from the window above her bed. Smacking her lips as she lifted herself out of the groggy haze that settles around everyone after sleep, she drew the curtains opened and turned her head from the window, briefly blinded by the early morning sunlight. She blinked a few times, letting her eyes adjust to the now sunlit cabin. She stretched as she got up from the bed, letting out a muffled moan as she felt her joints creak lightly. Not as bad as last night, but she hoped Durkon would come along soon with his spells to help her regain her remaining constitution.
Her ears twitched slightly as they caught a soft whistling sound. She leaped towards the bed and had to fight to keep herself from diving behind the other side. Her instincts had taken over and assumed the noise to be another assassin’s weapon, perhaps a dart or a thrown dagger that had just barely missed her. Perhaps it was Miko herself. Maybe Hinjo had decided to kill her anyway, and had placed her in the room with Miko in order to assure that it was done.
Therkla shook her head to clear her thoughts. Highly unlikely. Despite Miko’s seeming willingness to do anything for the Sapphire Guard and the Lord they served, Therkla doubted that the paladin would even consider attempting to stab an opponent in the back. Miko was too forthright and clear in her intentions, even in a battle. Therkla wondered if the paladin, even in the unsettling state that had fallen upon her, was capable of duplicity. Calming her breathing and attempting to settle down from the rush of adrenaline that had come over her, she turned around to see what the sound could have been.
It was Miko, though not attacking her. The paladin had taken a duelist’s stance, both her hands wrapped around the hilt of her shinai, swinging it down in what almost seemed a rhythm. Therkla nearly slapped her head in frustration with herself; observing Miko’s daily routine had been one of her first steps in preparing for the possibility of a confrontation with her that Therkla had taken, and she knew that the paladin always began her day with a short exercise ritual.
Still, Therkla couldn’t help but notice that the exercise didn’t seem to be doing much for the woman, despite the fact that Miko was exercising as vigorously as she usually did (at least, as much as she could in a cabin on a ship).The paladin’s muscle tone was clearly starting to atrophy, and in the better light of day, Therkla could see the clear outline of Miko’s shoulder blades jutting against her skin. If she went over and touched her, Therkla was sure she would be able to feel the paladin’s ribcage.
The ninja felt a jolt of sadness pass through her. Short and quick, but clearly there. Despite knowing the distinct possibility that one of the two of them could end up dead on the end of the other’s blade in fulfilling their duties, Therkla had always been able to appreciate the caliber of warrior Miko was. Or at least, had been; she wondered if the paladin would even be able to still swing a real katana in her current state. And with Kabuto dead, as much as that still stung her, Therkla found that she was free to apply herself to any new task she chose; at least, until the ships finally reached a permanent port, where she didn’t doubt she’d be put on trial for conspiring with Kabuto. But until that moment came, she realized that what she wanted to do was to help Miko regain what she had been; to find the reason she had sunken into the stupor she was currently in and lead the paladin back towards the warrior she had been. Back to the warrior that Therkla had secretly admired and considered her rival.
Clearing her throat with a short cough, Therkla called out in a light, what she hoped was pleasant, voice, “Good morning, Miko.”
“Good morning.” Miko responded, her eyes never moving from in front of her as she practiced. “Are you feeling any better.”
“A bit. I’ll feel better once Durkon get’s here.”
Miko let out a small sound of acknowledgement as she continued to practice. Tapping her chin, Therkla began to think of what to do next. Bantering and diplomacy weren’t exactly her strong suits, and despite her usual ability to judge others by their actions and voice, she found herself struggling with how to communicate with the paladin. Cautiously, Therkla walked over towards Miko and, gently wrapping her own hands around the hilt, attempted to take the shinai away.
She was surprised how little resistance she got from the paladin as she took the practice sword. Therkla wondered if Miko was giving it to her, or if the paladin’s grip on the sword was honestly that weak. Copying the stance Miko had taken as much as she could and tightened her grip on the hilt.
The blank expression that had remained on Miko’s face since arriving on the ship broke slightly as she narrowed her eyebrows. Her voice, too, allowed a little bit of emotion, of curiosity, to seep through as she asked the ninja, “What are you…?”
“Ha!” Therkla shouted, swinging the shinai down in front of her. She let a small smile creep on her lips as she saw Miko’s dumbstruck expression, the paladin standing beside her and having jumped back slightly from surprise. It wasn’t much, but she was glad elicited some kind of reaction from the paladin. “How was that?”
Miko merely stared at the ninja for a moment before letting out a befuddled, “What?”
“The practice swing.” Therkla clarified, freeing one of her hands to point at the bamboo sword. “How was it? I’m not used to using weapons much bigger than a dagger, maybe a short sword at largest.”
“And the reason you’re starting now is because…?” Miko let hang. Therkla’s smile grew a little wider as she saw Miko’s expression change to a cynical scowl. That, at least, was something that looked natural on the woman.
“I’m thinking of multiclassing a bit. Maybe into fighter. Considering yesterday, I could use the higher hit die for a bit. The Fort bonus too.” Shrugging, Therkla finished, “If I’m going for it, might as well train to use a higher damage weapon a bit too.” Raising the shinai again, she attempted another swing. This time, her grip on the hilt failed, and the weapon went flying out of her hands into the wall. Grimacing a little, she added, “I’m kind of hoping it’ll be a while before I level up again.”
Simply looking at the wooden blade for a minute, Miko went to retrieve. Therkla expected that Miko was tired of the little show she was putting on and intended to simply start practicing again herself. Therkla wasn’t expecting it when the paladin handed her the shinai again and said, “Grip it.”
Therkla took the sword and held it. Miko shook her head and said, “You’re holding it wrong. Place your right hand where the hilt meets the blade, and the left near the bottom.”
Readjusting her hands, Therkla held the sword out straight. It certainly felt better than how she had been attempting to grip it earlier. Standing beside her, Miko took the position she had been earlier. Looking towards Therkla, she said, “Now stance. Left foot forward, right behind, about an inch and a half apart. Bend your knees slightly to look your position.”
“Well, this is uncomfortable. No wonder you people have to rely on armor to avoid getting hit if this is what you have to do to swing a sword.”
“We’ll practice movement later. Let’s finish proper stance first.” The confidant, borderline self-righteous tone of voice that had characterized Miko for so many years was finding its way back into her voice. Therkla found herself glad to see the woman begin to recover her old self. She also found herself fighting the urge to whack the woman with the shinai for taking that particular tone of voice with her. “Now swing.” Miko said.
The swing felt far better to Therkla than it had before. Her arms had far greater freedom of movement than the cramped feeling of her previous attempts. She looked over to Miko and had to keep herself from sighing in irritation when the paladin said, “Better. Not good, but better.”
“Calm down, Miko. Don’t be overcome with emotion or anything.” Therkla retorted. Despite how aggravating the conversation was becoming, she was glad that she had at least been able to engage the paladin. If she just had a little more time, perhaps she could fully bring Miko out of the reclusive (well, more so than usual) shell she had kept herself trapped in.
“I’ll certainly work on it in the future, ninja.”
“Miko, I was joking.” Therkla responded, leaning against the shinai. “It’s Therkla, by the way.” Her voice becoming slightly more playful, she added, “Believe it or not, just because I was a ‘bad guy’ at one time doesn’t mean I’m some nameless evil.”
Clasping her hands together, Miko bowed solemnly as she said, “I apologize, Therkla. I did not mean to dishonor you.”
“Hey, come on.” Therkla said. She was slightly embarrassed at the reaction she had gotten from the woman. How Miko had transformed from stifling self-righteousness to unbearably meek confounded her. A part of her was disgusted by it, a mean, spiteful part she tried to keep bottled down as much as she could. “Don’t do that.”
She put a hand on Miko’s shoulder and was surprised by how quickly the paladin recoiled from her touch. She would have been offended, if she weren’t concerned by the fact that Miko’s expression had taken on the unreadable form it had earlier. She was about to say something before an enthusiastic knocking came from the door. “Breakfast time!” Elan’s voice drifted in through the door.
“Come in.” Miko responded, her voice returning to the monotone Therkla had been working so hard to get rid of. She kept her distance from the half-orc, eyes watching her as a small animal would watch a wolf in preparation to bolt.
Elan practically flung the door open, a smile plastered across his face with a plate of food in hand. “Good morning!” The young bard’s voice contained a constant musical tone, made more obvious whenever he was in a good mood. As far as Therkla could tell, he was nearly always in a good mood. Walking over to Miko, he handed the plate to the plate to the paladin, who meekly accepted it. If Elan was at all disturbed by the paladin’s bizarre humility, he didn’t show it. Turning to Therkla, he said, “Durkon should be up in a few…hours.” He gave a small shrug of helplessness; the dwarf had already proven himself a late sleeper when it could be afforded.
“I can wait.” Therkla responded, facing the bard but eyes pointed towards the floor. She knew that she’d have to get over the sweet young man eventually; he’d made it clear that friendship was as far as the two could go. But it would take time, and Therkla blamed herself entirely for it. She had been trained not to let others in. In her line of work, she couldn’t afford to let others in; who knew who might be another assassin or double agent, waiting to stab her in the back.
It was her fault for trying to reach out to another. Despite knowing that she was making a similar mistake by reaching out to the paladin, she couldn’t help it. There was something that fascinated her about Miko that had always fascinated her about the paladin. She had taken so much life in her career as Kabuto’s top assassin that for once, she’d like to see if she could actually help someone. Perhaps, finally, she could achieve some kind of change that others could acknowledge, that she could feel proud of for a reason than simply doing her lord’s will. “So, where’s my breakfast?” Therkla asked.
“Don’t you want to come eat with the others?” Elan inquired, tilting his head quizzically, a thumb pointing over his shoulder towards the door.
Therkla simply stood still for a minute, looking towards the paladin. Miko had taken her usual place by her tree, having put her plate by her side. The food remained completely untouched and forgotten, the woman’s attention focused fully on the plant. Turning to Elan, the ninja asked, “And Miko can’t come with us because…?”
Elan’s smile faltered slightly, a weak chuckle escaping his lips. “Well, ah, you see…Miko likes to eat in here because she…because…” Elan’s found himself debating between several different stories, yet didn’t feel comfortable with any of them. Not because they were bad stories; in fact, he felt that the story that Miko had become allergic to the sun had some potential. Yet he felt bad whenever he had to lie, especially to someone proving themselves as great a friend as Therkla had by showing a willingness to lay down their life for him. The guilt he felt for having to deny Therkla’s feelings didn’t help either. But he couldn’t tell the actual story behind Miko’s isolation, even if it was a good (but sad) story. Hinjo had made it clear that if her crime had become public knowledge before they found a new location to settle and re-establish a working government, they’d most likely find themselves fighting back lynch mobs attempting to get at the fallen paladin.
Miko settled the problem by simply stating, “I can’t leave the cabin.” The calm monotone of her voice sent a chill down both Therkla and Elan’s spines as she said, “I’m under arrest for treason.” Looking towards Therkla, she finished, “Surely you noticed I was under guard?”
“Treason?” Therkla’s voice was soft, as if unable to believe it. It made perfect sense, of course; there was little reason to put a guard around Miyazaki unless she had committed some sort of infraction, considering the paladin had proven herself more than capable of defending herself. But treason…it at least explained why the paladin had fallen into such a near stupor. “What did you do?”
“How did Lord Shojo die?” Miko asked. The question, which seemed so mundane, took an unsettling tone with the emerging information.
“He had a heart attack.” Therkla said weakly. The explanation had seemed plausible, considering Shojo’s known terrible health. Her mind had begun to reel as realization of what had truly happened began to unravel in front of her. She surprised herself in finding she was hoping Miko wasn’t about to tell her the truth of what happened, a truth she had already puzzled out.
Miko’s body shuddered for a minute, her head slowing tilting back before a slow, drawn out laughter emerged from her. “A heart attack.” Her voice retained its calm monotone despite the distortion of the laughter. “That’s what they told you? Shojo didn’t die from a heart attack.”
“I know.” Therkla’s voice was a whisper, her eyes locking with Miko’s. This couldn’t be real. All the observations she had made on the paladin, all the years she spent watching her, documenting her fighting style to prepare to take her down if it came to that in order to carry out Kabuto’s orders…she couldn’t have been that off base.
“Do you?” Miko’s face contorted into a smile, mirthless and cold and devoid of emotion, a simple reflex.
“Breakfast, breakfast, breakfast, breakfast would taste good right now.” Elan sung weakly, placing his hand on Therkla’s shoulder to try and lead her out of the room.
Therkla shrugged the bard’s hand off of her. Under any other circumstance, she would have treasured contact with the bard, despite knowing any other intimacy with him would be forbidden to her. “Miko…” She replied weakly, searching for something to say. Maybe she was wrong…after all, this was Miko Miyazaki, the Sapphire Guard’s most stalwart defender. Her observations had to be correct…she couldn’t have been wrong…
“You asked me if I knew who the second tree in my vision was supposed to be. A tree that, despite being planted in good soil, remained a pathetic, withered thing.” Miko’s voice remained emotionless, though Therkla could make out the beginning of a tear in her eyes. “That tree was me.” Taking a shaky breath, Miko’s voice broke from its emotionless charade, pain flooding through it as she proclaimed, “Lord Shojo did not die from a heart attack. I murdered Lord Shojo.”