The silence in the room seemed almost oppressive, as if Miko’s words weighed down the atmosphere itself. Therkla found herself clenching and unclenching her hand, a subconscious reaction she had developed to keep herself from blurting out during moments of stress. That Miko would have snapped in some way wasn’t entirely surprising. Despite the collected demeanor the paladin had attempted to put, there was something clearly wrong with her if you but looked closer. In many ways, Kabuto had been banking on the woman snapping and being imprisoned as the most beneficial way of getting her out of the way while avoiding the distinct possibility of more of his House’s assassins dying then needed.
Though fighting it, Therkla allowed a small frown to form. It wasn’t that Kabuto necessarily cared for his ninjas; hell, he hadn’t even seen her as anything more than an important asset. Her death would have counted as a setback more than anything worth mourning. It didn’t bother her anymore (or ever again, she figured). She had long come to accept that the affection she had felt for the man was one-sided, that he’d never had seen her as the daughter figure she had wanted to be.
She shook her head as she looked over at the once-proud paladin who had been made nearly as humble after her fall. Miko had turned her attention from Therkla and Elan back to the tree, fixated on the plant. Therkla struggled to find something to say to the woman that could have any meaning to her. Her struggle ending fruitlessly, with her shaking her head in disappointment. Giving a small sigh, she turned to leave for breakfast. Elan lightly patted on the shoulder, smiling at her gently; what he lacked in intelligence and common sense, he seemed to be able to more than make up with empathy.
“Are you done then?” Miko asked, never turning to face the two of them.
Facing the door, Therkla asked “Done with what?”
“With your attempt to trap me.”
Therkla turned around, confounded by what the woman could be trying to get at. “Trap you?” She said each word slowly, as if only now discovering them. “Into what?’
“Do not play coy with me.” Miko’s monotone broke once more, this time into indignation, before resurfacing again. “You knew that I was under arrest, and simply wanted to know the cause. That is the reason you engaged me, to try and guile me into telling you what it was.”
Therkla turned back to face the paladin, her mouth hanging slightly open. Even if Miko’s pride had flipped itself over into humility, her paranoia was apparently still working at full force. “Miko, you’ve got it wrong.”
“Do I?” Miko asked blandly, raising an eyebrow as she turned her head to face the half-orc.
“Yes.” Therkla let out a small breath of relief. Even if so little had been said between the two of them, she wanted to get along with the paladin. After all, the two of them could very well be roommates for awhile if the fleet was still unable to find a port to settle in. They could very well be cellmates, all things considering, when the ships landed.
“Then you merely meant to embarrass me, is that it?” The sting of the question was elevated by the dull tone of voice Miko took.
“WHAT?” Therkla’s voice filled the room. She was surprised by how loud she could be; screaming didn’t tend to lend itself well when attempting to go unnoticed.
“You talked with me simply to get under my guard so you could force me to admit my faults for your own amusement.” Miko’s eyes stayed glued to the half-orc, emotion completely lost within them. “Why else would you show any interest in my exercise?”
“Maybe…maybe we should go.” Elan, forgotten and uncommonly quiet during the exchange between the women, implored. He hated seeing people fighting with each other, or being miserable in general. He’d found that it was a lost cause to try and cheer Miko up, but if he could find some way to keep Therkla happy at least, he’d take it.
“Go ahead. I’ll meet you in a minute.” The half-orcs’ voice remained calm, though Elan could hear the strain that had started to seep in.
“Therkla, are you…”
“Go.” her voice was a snarl, the small fangs at each side of her mouth seeming to become more pronounced. She felt a pang of guilt as she watched Elan sneak out the door, concern for her well-being still evident in his expression. Therkla averted her attention to the floor as she felt rage fill her, a rage she had struggled with for years. She told herself that it was simply an effect due to the orc blood that ran in her. She alone couldn’t simply have that much rage. Her fist began to shake, an outlet to keep her from completely letting the anger that ran through her take hold of her entirely.
Taking a deep breath, Therkla responded, “I wasn’t trying to trick you, Miko.” She monitored her voice, trying to make sure her mounting anger wasn’t becoming any more evident than it already was. “I just…I wanted to talk with you, and I didn’t know how to start.”
Miko simply stared at the woman for a moment. “And do you want to talk to me still?”
“Why wouldn’t I?” Her fist had stopped shaking, though remained clenched.
Miko stood up, eyes fixing on her tree for a minute before returning to Therkla again. “Really? You’d want to talk to a murderer?”
“It really wouldn’t be different than any other day for me.”
“None of the other murderers you know condemned an entire nation to destruction.” The neglect Miko had shown her own body was showing its toll more and more. Therkla found herself wondering when the last time the paladin had slept was. “If I had not slain Lord Shojo, Azure City would-“
“It would’ve still been overrun.” Therkla responded coolly. Maybe if she could find some way to nip the center of the self-loathing that had overtaken the woman, she could start to form some actual connection with her. “Listen, even if it was Lord Shojo trying to set up a defense, the nobles would’ve deserted him. Sure his death helped demoralize the people, but even the slight boost of morale he could have given wouldn’t have made a difference. There was just too much working against us from the start.”
“And that excuses my actions?” Miko’s voice was a hiss issuing through grated teeth, fury igniting in her eyes. Not desirable, but at least it was an emotion. Her body quivered for a moment, her voice cracking as she continued. “Do you know what it’s like to find yourself afraid to sleep? Afraid because you know the moment you close your eyes you won’t be able to get the image of the man who helped you achieve your potential…” tears began to form in her eyes, and she violently shook her head to be rid of them, “…who raised you…to see him die at your hands…to feel the warmth of his blood as it hits your face-“
“You’re not the only one who’s lost a father.”
“I’m the only one who’s murdered theirs, however.” Miko regained her composure, the fear and sadness leaving as if they had melded back into her. “For that, I intend to make sure I receive the punishment I’m due.”
Therkla found herself unable to keep her expression neutral, a frown overtaking her features. Attempting to talk with Miko, it seemed, entitled a constantly shifting set of emotions. “You made a mistake.” She said softly, attempting to return to the affable tone she had with Miko before. “You’ve realized you were wrong. You can still make up for it.”
“Maybe if you show you’re penitent, you’ll be shown mercy.” Therkla walked slowly towards the paladin as she talked. “Maybe they’ll send you on a quest or something to atone. You could become a paladin again.”
“A quest.” A corner of Miko’s mouth twitched slightly, curving into a small, pointed smile. “You think that’s all it takes to make up for what I did? To just wander around, smiting what I thought were ‘evildoers’ when the real evil-doer was with me the entire time.” Her voice had lifted into a hollow and ugly laugh. “Tell me, how would that solve anything?”
Therkla bit her bottom lip to stifle a scream. Despite having peered on several of the paladin’s conversations before, she hadn’t realized just how insufferable talking to the woman was until she had tried it herself. She could feel her fist begin to shake again, and attempted to stop it. “You’re right.” Her voice came out struggling for control. “Why go out and try to do some good in the world? You’re better off just sitting in a dark room, letting yourself wither away.” She let out a short cruel laugh. “You’re sure making a lot out of having survived a battle that killed most of your city’s defenders, huh?”
“You don’t understand.” Miko’s right hand shot out, index finger pointing at the half-orc. “You can’t understand.”
“I can’t understand what?” Therkla gave up any attempt to be polite to the woman. There was no warrior left in her, nothing to admire; just a withered shell. “What it’s like to lose something important to you? Something you lived for? You’re not that special, Miko.”
“I know I’m not special.” Miko turned and sat down yet again in front of the tree, resting her chin in her palm. “I’m nothing.”
Therkla turned away from the paladin and headed towards the door, boots stomping loudly on the boards of the cabin. She brushed past the guards beside the door easily and stomped towards the small group on deck eating their breakfast. She resisted the urge to strike one of the walls of the ship or the ground; any other time she had attempted to relieve her anger through a physical means, she’d simply wound up in a near rage. Besides, if Miko wanted to refuse any help given to her, to decide to simply rot away when she could be saved, then to hell with her, right? She wasn’t going to waste any more of her time on the woman.
Yet Therkla knew she was lying to herself. For some reason, she found she couldn’t let the idea of saving Miko go. She supposed it was due to the fact that of everyone left that had survived the battle and the following three months at sea, she was the most familiar with the fallen paladin. All of the years of spying on the woman on Kabuto’s orders had bred a sense of familiarity with the woman, despite the fact that Therkla had never tried to openly approach her until today. In an odd way, Miko was the only remaining piece of the life she had remaining from the destruction of Azure City, and she didn’t want to let it go.
Her thoughts were quickly broken as she lurched back, a plate of food nearly striking her in the lips. She was prepared to yell at whatever numbskull had thought forcing the plate towards her was a good idea until she noticed it was Elan. Smiling his goofy smile, he told her, “I saved you a plate.”
Therkla nodded and took the plate gratefully, smiling back. She didn’t trust herself to speak, not with her emotions strung so high. She sat down on deck and, taking up her chopsticks, began to eat. She let out a small sound of pleasure, the food still warm. The bard sat down beside her, and the two ate in agreeable silence with one another. Therkla smirked as she watched the blonde-hair man eat; he’d found himself overly clumsy with chopsticks, and hate taken to eating his meals with a fork he had apparently packed away with him. The sight was cute to her, in its own odd way.
She felt a far stronger wave of warmth enter her body as she felt a firm hand place itself on her back. “Restoration.” Durkon’s voice was soft and comforting, and she felt the remaining strength she had lost from the poison come flooding back into her. The dwarf sat down on the other side of Elan, resting his own plate of food on his lap. Looking towards Therkla, he asked, “Sleep well, lass?”
“For the most part, yeah.” Therkla rolled her head a few times, limbering up. Bowing her head slightly to the dwarf, she said, “Thank you. For saving me.”
Smiling slightly as he ate, Durkon replied, “Think nothing o’ it. It’s me duty in this life ta do so.”
Finishing his plate, Elan sat the empty dish and curled his arms around his legs as he sat. “So…” he began, voice brimming with optimism as he turned to face the cleric, “did you get a reply?”
Durkon’s smile faded as he shook his head, Elan sighing and looking down into his lap. Therkla felt a pang of jealousy shoot through her. Therkla hoped whoever the woman was that Elan was pining for was just as miserable as he was, was torturing herself to get in touch with him. Therkla took a hasty bite of her food, trying to drive her current pattern of thought out; she’d already gotten upset more than she needed to once today; no sense in doing it again.
“Do you mind if I sit here?” The new voice was strong, but considerate. Looking up, Therkla found herself facing Hinjo, the current lord of Azure City. Or, at least, its people. His upbringing and royal heritage was obvious, though he possessed a sense of humility that was welcome rather than stifling, as Miko’s forced one had been.
“I’d think ya should be free to.” Durkon replied amiably, trying to provide an optimistic mood to cheer up his companion. “It’s yer junk we’re all gathered on, after all.”
“So it is.” Hinjo replied, a smile crossing his lips as he sat across from them. “Even after all these months, I can’t get over the fact that it’s mine now.” Taking a small bit of food in his chopsticks, he said pleasantly as he looked at the ninja, “And you’re Therkla, correct?”
Therkla nearly choked on her food, eventually swallowing the painful lump of food as she overcame her shock. How the man could sound so pleasant towards her after the times she and her men had tried to assassinate him confounded her. Placing her plate on the planks in front of her, she bowed before the man as she said, “I am, Lord Hinjo.” She spoke quickly, nearly stammering the words out. She was unaccustomed to showing etiquette for nobility to anyone aside from Kabuto.
“Please don’t do that.” Hinjo replied quickly, waving a hand to have her sit back down. She was shocked by the young lord’s own embarrassment, making it clear that he still hadn’t become used to being looked upon as his people’s ruler. Sitting back down, she wondered how long it would take him to get used to it. He surprised her again when his voice returned to its pleased tone as he said, “Elan told me about you.”
Looking at her plate, she stated, “So you know I was behind all the attempts to kill you?”
“Yeah, but he also knows you tried to stop Kabuto too, and that he almost killed you for it.” Elan added hastily.
The bard’s words seemed to have little effect on the woman. Looking up at Hinjo, she asked with her best poker face, “So what now?”
Placing his own plate beside him, Hinjo matched her gaze as he replied, “I’m afraid yours crimes will have to be brought up with the magistrates and court once we land. Unfortunately, it would seem I’m the one quickest to forgive you for trying to kill me.” He offered this last bit cheerily. When Therkla’s expression didn’t soften, he added, “While your crimes would be severe, the fact that you eventually rejected Kabuto’s orders says something about your character. I intend to see if I can afford you some leniency.”
“You think a lot better of me than you should.” Therkla turned her gaze from the paladin, eyes floating to look at the floor. She was tempted to tell him that, if it hadn’t been for the bard, there was little chance she would have ever disobeyed Kabuto. She tried to cut that line of thought off; there was no sense is sending herself spiraling into self-loathing like Miko had.
“Maybe.” Hinjo replied, taking his plate back up as he began to eat again. “But I don’t think so. It’s a rare case when someone is completely beyond redemption. I’d be surprised if it was out of your reach.”
“What about Miko?” The words slipped out of her without thought. Therkla found herself surprised by her own question, having thought she had been able to push the woman out of her thoughts for at least a few moments. Instead, she found the image of the woman coming clearly to her mind, and the rage she had felt towards the slowly dying woman was replaced with sadness. Mouth agape, she grasped for something else to say as her dining companions stared at her for a moment.
Clearing his throat, Hinjo asked, “How much do you know about Miko’s…infraction?”
“Enough.” She mentally kicked herself for her rudeness towards the man. Swallowing, she replied, “I know what she did, but not why she did it.”
“It’s a long story, and not mine to tell.” Hinjo began, one of his palms unfurled in front of him as he spoke. Pausing for a moment, he continued, “I want to forgive Miko; the fact that she feels repentant for her actions shows that she realizes she did something wrong. But instead of working towards redeeming herself, she’s chosen to condemn herself. It’s as if she doesn’t understand she’s been given a chance so few others have ever had.” A bit of anger entered Hinjo’s voice as he spoke.
Taking a deep breath, he looked Therkla in the eyes. The half-orc was amazed to see genuine concern there, concern for a woman who had murdered his last living relative. His tone was almost pleading as he continued, “If she were to just try and help herself, to find a different way to express her sorrow for her actions to me, I’d do what I could to help her, to try and get her a sentence aside from what otherwise awaits her. To give her the chance to redeem herself.” He closed his eyes as he finished, “But she has to be able to help herself first. I can’t carry her load myself, and I don’t want to be forced to throw her aside and let her sink.”
The three sat in silence for a moment before Therkla took her plate and stood up. Wetting her lips, she said, “If you don’t mind, I think I’d like to finish my meal in my cabin.”
A small smile curved onto Hinjo’s lips as he bowed his head slightly. “You’re excused.”
Turning to leave, Therkla turned back for a short moment as Elan called out. “Hey!” The bard smiled at her, his voice enthusiastic as he said, “Good luck!”
Therkla smiled as she headed back to Miko.
Miko looked at the door as the half-orc slammed it shut. She sighed, a light rattling sound, as she stood back up. She felt bad at having spoken the way she did to the ninja. She was displeased by that; she had fallen into a comfortable numbness before they had placed the ninja in her cabin. At first, she had thought the other woman wouldn’t have been a distraction, that she’d have minded her own business as Miko would mind hers. She felt guilt at having treated Therkla the way she did, and found that her numbness hadn’t let her escape guilt’s grasp as she had thought. That bothered her, but she knew it wouldn’t do so for long.
She went over to the window curtains the half-orc had opened and closed them, plunging the room into the dimness she had grown accustomed to. She returned to her tree and sat down, gritting her teeth as her joints creaked in pain. She could feel her ribs digging against her chest and breathed in deeply, ignoring the pain. The pain would only be momentary now; soon, she’d settle into the numbness she had been looking for since the battle. She found her mind suddenly rolling back to Therkla, and she wondered which martial class the half-orc would pursue. She needed some more training before she could hope to use a shinai correctly, let alone a martial weapon.
Miko shook her head, driving the thoughts back. What happened to the half-orc wasn’t her concern. The only thing that mattered to her now was the pleasant darkness and her tree. One of the leaves from the tree’s thin, brittle branches fell from its spot, and Miko extended her hand to catch it. It lightly touched her palm and rested there, and Miko studied it; to her surprise, there seemed to be a soft, blue light emitting from it.
“You know, I don’t think the diet was necessary Miko.” The leaf slipped through her fingers at the sound of the voice, and Miko realized the light wasn’t coming from the leaf. It was coming from behind her.
“Hell, I always thought you were a bit skinny even before this.” Straining, Miko stood up again and slowly peered behind her. “You could have done with a bit more on your plate now and then.”
She felt the breath leave her lungs at the sight, her body trembling. He appeared as she remembered him, not as he was in his last years; old, but still powerful and regal in appearance, his hair a pepper grey instead of pure white, his posture straight and unstrained. But most of all she knew the smile; a small, ephemeral thing that seemed to say it was in on a joke few others knew or would ever know, a joke that never seemed to end.
“Hello, Miko.” Shojo said. “We need to talk."