Miko awoke to the warmth of the late afternoon, her eyes squinting against the light pouring in from the window. She groaned as she stretched her arms, her drowsiness dispersing as she swung over to the edge of the bed and put her feet on the floor. She had trained herself to wake to full attention as soon as possible; who knew what might ambush her during the missions away from home.
She looked around the room to find she was alone. Miko was shocked to find herself feeling a pang of loneliness, of wishing that Therkla was in the room with her. The only other creature she had ever found herself longing for the company of was Windstriker; to miss another, and one she had known for only a day, disoriented her. Miko tried reminding herself that despite the pleasant demeanor the half-orc wore, she had been a ninja in the employ of house Kubota, and had tried to take the lives of Hinjo and anyone who supported him. She couldn’t let her guard down around Therkla; couldn’t allow herself to trust the supposedly repentant assassin.
Rising from her bed, Miko headed towards where her tree was. She squinted her eyes in curiosity as she approached the plant; something was different about it, though she couldn’t tell from a distance. Getting down on a knee beside the tree, she ran a hand across a branch in wonder. The tree which had been barren and that she had grown certain would soon die had begun to bud. They were small and fragile, but life and color was returning to it. A warm feeling swelled up in her as she looked at it, felt the small buds running across its branches.
She gasped and twirled to face the door of the cabin as it swung open. Miko found herself irate at the fact that she had become so easy to surprise. But worse was the sensation of fear that so quickly followed on surprises’ heels. After not feeling the sensation for years, she could say that fear was a reaction she hadn’t missed.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to startle you.” Therkla replied from the doorway, a jug of water in her hand. “Feeling better?” she asked, walking over to where the paladin was kneeling.
“I am.” Miko responded. She attempted to keep the barriers of distrust she had begun to set up against the half-orc secure, and found that she couldn’t. There were simply too many holes in the fortification she was trying to build, and she was both angry and delighted that it was such a shoddy defense.
Laying the jug in front of Miko, Therkla gave no response as she sat down beside the woman. Nudging the paladin slightly, she said, “You should drink something. You have to be thirsty, and the only water I’ve seen you with you’ve been giving to your plant.”
Her distrust reeled as Miko took the jug in her hands, shouting at her to be careful, that the ninja could have poisoned it. For once, Miko paid it no heed; as far as she could tell, she was the last person who had the right to distrust another, and the story that Durkon and the bard had related to her showed that Therkla had done more to show she was repentant than she herself had. Miko let out a content sigh as the water hit her throat, and she took a long draught before placing the jug back down.
Taking the jug up and taking a drink herself, Therkla stated, “So when do you plan to talk to Hinjo?”
Miko felt like a weight had been placed in her stomach and then dropped. Even if she had come to the conclusion to seek atonement, she was dreading having to speak with Hinjo. “I don’t know.” She responded, pulling her legs close to her and wrapping her arms around them. “How can I even face him?”
“Yeah, it’s awkward talking to someone you tried to kill.” Therkla murmured.
“It is not only shame at speaking with someone who I attempted to kill.” Miko’s voice caught in her throat as she said, “With someone whose uncle I killed.” Her gaze became fixated on her palm. “There’s so much more blood on my hands than that.”
“You can’t blame yourself for what happened at Azure City, if that’s what you’re still doing.” Therkla responded, offering the paladin the jug of water once again. “I’ve been over this with you; I don’t think the guard could’ve done any better than they did, with or without Shojo. There’s no point in blaming yourself for it.”
“It isn’t the people of Azure City that I’m talking about.” Miko responded, taking the jug from the ninja. “What worries me is the sin I may have committed by all the lives I’ve taken on my journeys, all the beings I had been certain were evil and had slain.”
“Yeah, but couldn’t you detect evil and all that?” Therkla asked as the paladin took a draught of water.
“I could.” Miko put the jug back on the ground, gaze meeting Therkla’s. “But if the chance exists that I could be redeemed, what if some of those I slew in haste could have been redeemed as well? What if all of them could have been changed, could have been saved?”
Miko watched as Therkla thought in silence for a moment. She noticed that when the half-orc became lost in thought, she would tap a finger against the tusk that jutted out to the right of her mouth. She wondered if the ninja even realized she did it, and Miko was surprised to find herself wanting to touch the woman’s tusk as well, if just out of curiosity. Finally, Therkla responded, “Honestly? I’ve never really understood the whole good and evil conflict.”
Miko scoffed at the statement. “What is there to not understand”
“For one, why fight each other?” Therkla responded, an open palm held out in front of her in curiosity. “I don’t get why you good and evil types have to go at each other all the time. It seems like you’re both more concerned with destroying each other than taking care of yourselves. Is it really that hard to just leave one another alone?”
“If good did not counteract evil, then there would be no world.” Miko said. Despite trying to push it down, she couldn’t help herself from indulging in the indignation that came with the issue. “You cannot reason with evil; it’s all consuming. If allowed to grow, it would destroy everything one could survey.”
“I doubt it.” Therkla’s response felt like a hammer blow to the chest for the paladin, and Miko felt her grip on her legs increase. “I mean, yeah, there are some evil characters like that, but that kind of thinking tends to be self-destructive. It’s really just the chaotic evil alignment. What about the evils you could reason with, like the lawful and neutral varieties?”
“You cannot reason with evil.”
“Well, maybe you could if the two of you stopped trying to slam swords into one another.”
“And what would an assassin know about non-violence?” Miko hissed. “The entire point of your profession is to murder others under the orders of your superior. Your attempt to justify evil as reasonable is just an extension of your own guilt.”
A small pang shot through Miko after she finished, and she found herself regretting her statement. She shuddered as Therkla turned away from her, and Miko fought the urge to grab the half-orc, to keep her from leaving her alone in the cabin. With a small swallow, she whispered, “I…I apologize. It would appear that I still cling to notions that I have no right to champion.”
“No, it’s fine.” Therkla responded. “There’s some evil in me. But on the other hand, I think there’s some good in me too. I think that’s the way it is for everybody; no one is completely good or evil. I think if you don’t do both, you’ll go crazy. It’s great to do good, but I don’t think it’s wrong to indulge in some evil now and then.” She looked into her open palm, transfixed. “Though I wouldn’t say you need to be proud of the evil you do.”
Miko thought for a moment before replying, “I am afraid that…I do not understand.” Her voice was small, like a child asking a parent for guidance. “A paladin is the embodiment of all that is good. Even the slightest bit of corruption in one’s soul could cause you to fall.” She gritted her teeth, not out of anger as much as trying to maintain control. “It would not have mattered if my crime had been simple theft. Once a paladin commits a crime, she falls. And since only I have fallen in recent memory, it is clear there are those who are pure good.”
“Or that you were wrong. Evil comes in different doses; maybe the little sins everyone commits doesn’t cause a paladin to fall.”
“What if the sins that do are unforgiveable?”
“I don’t think there’s such a thing as an unforgiveable sin.” Therkla responded. Miko felt an odd sense of warmth from the ninja’s gaze, though she couldn’t discern why. “And if there is, I don’t think what you did was one.”
“Maybe.” Miko replied, her gaze drifting from the half-orcs eyes to the floor. Clenching a fist, she said, “At the same time, I’m not certain.” She gave a weak smile as she finished, “I’ve never been indecisive until recently. I suppose it’s a little late to have learned that.”
A small shudder ran through Miko’s spine as Therkla gave a small laugh, and she was surprised to find her smile growing a bit stronger. “Better late than never, I suppose.” Therkla responded, placing a hand on the paladin’s shoulder.
Miko was shocked at the half-orc’s touch. She had always thought the creatures’ skin would have a fair rougher texture, and the smoothness of Therkla’s hand took her off guard. She bowed her head again as she felt heat coming to her cheeks. “Yet I can’t help but believe that I’ve perceived the truth of the matter far too late.” Her voice was weak, not from shame but embarrassment and her inability to shake off how nice the half-orc’s touch felt. Her voice grew in strength as she continued, “I’m terrified that when I ask for forgiveness, I’ll be told no.” Turning her head to hold Therkla’s gaze, Miko finished,
“I’d always thought the worst thing that could happen to me was to feel pain. I realize now just how much worse the sensation of fear is.”
“Just now?” Therkla asked, raising an eyebrow. “How is that even possible? Everyone feels fear.”
“Paladins do not. We are gifted with courage by the Twelve Gods.” Thinking for a moment, Miko finished, “I suppose, then, I never knew true courage. Perhaps, in the end, I’m merely a coward. Perhaps that’s why I’m trying so hard to run.”
“You don’t give yourself enough credit.” Nudging the woman, Therkla added with a small wink, “Bet you never thought you’d hear that, huh?” Miko couldn’t help but smile a bit more at the woman’s words, despite trying to fight the urge to do so. “But seriously, I’d think that at least some of the courage you showed was your own. You just need to reassert it.”
Therkla shrugged her shoulders as she stood up. “That’s for you to find out, really.” She extended her hand to Miko. “But I think asking to atone is a start.”
Miko took the half-orc’s hand, and was sickened to find that she needed the help in order to stand back up. She would have to get back in better shape if she hoped to complete whatever quest she might be sent on in order to atone. She would go and tell Hinjo of her decision to do so now, in order to take advantage of the small bit of courage she currently possessed. It took her a moment to process that Therkla was saying something. Looking up at the half-orc, Miko’s expression faltered into a small frown as she saw the discomfort on the ninja’s face. “Therkla?” she asked, attempting to keep concern from edging into her voice. “Is something wrong?”
“No.” Therkla responded, and Miko noticed to her surprise that a bit of color had come to the half-orc’s face. “But, uh, you can let go of my hand now.”
Slowly, Miko looked down to see that she had continued to grasp the ninja’s hand. Letting it go, the two women drew their hands back to themselves, silence permeating the room. After massaging her hand in embarrassment, Miko asked, “Will you come with me?”
“What?” Therkla responded, the area of her cheeks turning a darker shade of green.
“Come with me.” Miko repeated. “To see Hinjo.”
“Are you sure you want others present?” Therkla asked, her voice growing oddly small. “I mean, wouldn’t that be a kind of private matter?”
“I need to see Hinjo while I can still muster some courage.” Miko said, eyes never drifting from Therkla’s. “And I need whatever support I can get.” It felt odd, to ask for help, and yet she felt relief at asking for it as well.
Therkla stood there in silence, and Miko feared that her request would be denied. She contained a sigh of relief as the half-orc replied, “Alright, Miko. I’ll come with you.”
Side by side, the two women headed out on the dock to find the young lord of Azure City. Miko recoiled as she opened the door to the cabin, the sunlight coming in nearly blinding. The few times she had gone out on deck, she had done so only after darkness had fallen. The only sunlight she had seen for the last three months had been through the curtains of the window in her room.
Miko stiffened as Therkla put a hand on Miko’s back. “Careful there.” Therkla said playfully. “Gotten too used to low-light vision, huh?”
“I will be fine.” Miko responded, taking a step out onto the deck. Even through her blurry vision, she thought she could see that several of the dockhands and people aboard had stopped what they were doing to observe the recluse who had set foot out on deck after so long. To stare at the convict as she prepared to beg.
Run back into your hole a small girl’s voice echoed in the depths of Miko’s mind Hide and don’t come back you sinner you fool you murderer
Miko gritted her teeth as she made her way on deck, Therkla helping to guide her until her eyes adjusted to the light. She kept her gaze straight ahead to look out for Hinjo, not avoiding the gaze of the others on deck, but not attempting to meet them either.
She let out a sigh of relief, and yet tensed, as she spotted the man beside the edge of the ship. He was talking with Lien, the only other paladin to have survived the battle of the city. From what she could tell, the two were talking about how to contact the hundreds of paladins that had been abroad during the battle, to see who still lived and hadn’t yet tried to gain contact with the city again.
Miko stepped forward slowly. She stopped for a second when Hinjo and Lien’s gazes fell on her, but then continued until she was only a few feet away from Hinjo before falling into a bow. “May this one speak with you, my lord?” Miko’s voice gained the formal tone it had possessed for so many years, even if she didn’t feel like it.
“You may, Miko Miyazaki.” Hinjo replied. His tone was friendly, though he stumbled slightly in speaking, unaccustomed to talking formally to begin with, and even more so when being addressed as the lord of Azure City.
Miko broke her bow as she spoke. “My lord, this one acknowledges her crimes…” she found herself unable to keep her gaze directed at Hinjo. The man’s expression was one of sincere concern and compassion, and Miko turned her gaze to Lien. “…and she wishes, lord that…” she found the pity that Lien looked upon her with no better than Hinjo’s compassion, and Miko dropped her gaze to the deck as she finished, “…that you know she apologizes for the crimes she has committed, and wishes to atone.”
Miko sucked in a short breath as she felt Hinjo put his hands on her shoulders. “Look at me, Miko.” Hinjo asked, and Miko lifted her head to look at her master. Her body shuddered slightly, confounded by the compassion the man seemed capable of for her. “I forgive you, Miko Miyazaki, and accept your desire to atone.”
Don’t deserve it the child inside chided her Don’t deserve it at all never ever deserve it
Despite her attempt to fight it back, Miko felt a tear roll down her cheek. Her voice had become a croak as she asked, “I don’t understand. How can you forgive me so easily? How can you not wish to punish me?” Miko felt someone take her hand, and by the smoothness of the touch, she knew it was Therkla. She clasped it, grateful.
Wiping away the tear, Hinjo replied, “Because I can tell you’re sincere, Miko.” He smiled slightly at her, “And you’ve punished yourself for the last three months in ways I don’t think I could have come up with, and vengeance wouldn’t solve anything. Forgiving you doesn’t mean I don’t still feel anger, or that what you did doesn’t hurt. But it does mean I can understand, and that I want to give you the chance for redemption.”
“I thank you, my master.” Miko said, bowing once more to the paladin as he moved back to his previous position.
“I’ll have to speak with the magistrate so we can prepare for it, as well as decide an appropriate task for you to complete in order to atone.” Hinjo stated. Smiling a bit, he asked, “Of course, I’m betting you know the basics about our traditions for atonement.”
“Certainly, my lord.” Miko replied, and out of habit she began to recite the code and formalities of the matter. “A paladin of the Sapphire Guard who wishes to atone will be monitored through scrying during their quest, and subjected to testing to verify they had found no way to deceive the scrying via both magical and mundane means. A repentant receives no equipment aside from a set of mundane armor and weapons, as well as a weeks’ worth of field rations. The paladin receives no money or magic items aside from what he or she might receive from the generosity of those they might meet on their quest.”
“That’s insane.” Therkla cut in, and Miko blushed slightly as the half-orc’s grasp on her hand tightened.
“Therkla…” Miko began.
“Considering how high level she is, and the severity of her crime, you’re going to send her on a high-level quest.” Therkla continued. “Which means she’s going to end up encountering creatures that have damage reduction. How the hell is she supposed to survive fights with them alone and without magic items?”
“If the paladin is truly repentant, she will make enough of an impression on those she meets to receive aid.” Lien replied. Miko was struck by Lien’s tone. Despite having little contact with her, she knew the blue-haired paladin to be capable of keeping a level head, and the hatred and distrust that seemed to brew under her voice towards Therkla took Miko off guard.
“Lien…” Hinjo interjected.
“Yeah, because everyone out there is just so swell, huh?” Therkla responded. Miko’s body shuddered slightly as she felt the half-orc brush against her as she came closer to her. Miko could feel Therkla’s hair sway against her shoulder.
“You have a cynical view of others, assassin.” Lien responded coolly. “I guess you should expect that from someone who’d kill others from the shadows for pay or personal benefit.”
“At least I don’t hide the fact I’m killing them by sending them out to die alone.”
The silence that surrounded the four of them seemed to stop time itself. It broke as Lien, shaking her head in disgust, began to approach Therkla saying, “Don’t act as if you understand our ways. Someone who’d condemn others to death from behind a puppet hardly has that right.”
Miko could feel Therkla’s grasp, and body, tense. Without thought, Miko found herself stepping in front of the half-orc, attempting to block the path between the ninja and the paladin.
“Lien.” Hinjo said, his voice strong but not judgmental.
Lien stopped where she was. Taking a breath, she headed back to her position beside Hinjo. Turning her gaze back to Therkla, she said bluntly, “I let myself get out of hand. I apologize.”
“Same here.” Therkla responded, and she relieved her grasp on Miko’s hand slightly. Silence once again fell over them, before Therkla broke it once more. “Let me go with her.”
Miko’s head snapped to her side to look at the half-orc. Lien prepared to interject, to oppose the notion, and then stopped herself before she could overstep her bounds. “A repentant can accept the aid of anyone who wishes to help them.” Hinjo replied. “Of course, whether or not the help is accepted is up to the repentant.”
Therkla looked to Miko, their eyes meeting. Miko felt warmth rising, both inside her and to her face, before she turned back to Hinjo and said, “I accept.”
A small smile crossing his face, Hinjo nodded before saying, “Then yes, Therkla, you may go with Miko.” He laid his hands out in front of him in a show of helplessness as he said, “Realize, though, that considering your current position, you’ll be under surveillance as well. Is that acceptable?”
“It is.” Therkla bowed slightly to the paladin. She thought for a minute before saying, “Thank you.”
Hinjo nodded in the direction of the two women before looking out over the ocean again, returning to his own thoughts. As they walked towards their cabin, Miko turned to the half-orc and asked, “Why?”
Therkla shrugged. “Why not?” she replied. “We’re friends, after all.”
“Friends?” Miko let her tongue roll around the word. In her life, she had only ever had one friend. To think that she might have another was incomprehensible to her. “But we’ve only known each other for two days.”
Smiling at the paladin, Therkla responded, “You know, there’s only one friend I have that I’ve known for longer than that. For me, two days is enough to call you friend.”
Miko was silent for a moment before responding, “Thank you, Therkla.”
Neither woman noticed that they remained hand in hand as they walked to their room.