Adrianna poked the fire with a blackened stick, staring at the smoke that rose up from the blaze. Padric slumped against a stump, his grubby face slack. He looked as if he was sleeping, but with his eyes open. He still held his heavy quarterstaff with both hands, however, so he didn’t look totally unalert.
Unfortunately, the man had no concept of watch shifts, so Adrianna had committed to staying up all night to watch over the children. Apparently, however, Padric had assumed the same role. It was like a game to see who fell asleep first. Adrianna had no trouble keeping awake, and glanced about every now and again to ensure that nothing was sneaking up on them.
Every now and again the fire blazed up and shone on the wagon. It was full of pillows, blankets, and sleeping children. It was prudent of Padric to park the wagon so close to the fire and let the horses graze. He was obviously experienced at what he did. What he did exactly was something Adrianna had trouble puzzling out.
“So…Padric?” Said Adrianna, trying to stir the man awake. Padric snorted and shook himself. He sat up and focused his eyes on the woman crouching close by the fire.
“What?” He said, quickly looking at the wagon.
“What exactly do you…do?” Said Adrianna.
Padric laughed softly. “Now, I’ll confess, no one’s asked me that before.” He chuckled. “Now, what exactly don’t I do these days? I drive people places, I ferry orphans, I drink the taverns dry. I’m a busy man, Adri.”
“But don’t you have some sort of job? Perhaps a family to take care of?” Said Adrianna. But Padric only laughed again.
“I’ve got me a family.” He said, jerking a thumb at the wagon. “And my only job is bein’ me. No one was a better Padric than I.” He took a scrutinizing glance at Adrianna. “What about you? What is it you do?”
“I’m…I was a soldier.” Said Adrianna. “But now I’m just a crazy woman reaching old age, looking to do some good before I die. I’m a fighter: if I don’t die with a sword in my gut I’ll feel that I’ve shortchanged myself.”
“Aye. I know the type.” Said Padric, pulling a pipe out of his back pocket that would logically have been crushed under him if he had been sitting on it for that long. He proceeded to light it and blow some smoke, which vanished on passing winds. “I once had a kid of me own. Lito was his name. He was happiest when in a fray with the other orphans, always braggin’ about how he was going to be a soldier when he grew up. I raised him as me own son and sent him off the day he turned twenty-two. A happier lad there never was.”
“A pity I never knew him in the corps.” Said Adrianna.
“A pity, sure. But you couldn’t have helped it.” Said Padric with downcast eyes. “Lito died five years ago. Someone…split his neck open in a foreign land. He had no parents except me…I was the only man at his funeral besides his comrades.” He paused. “Aye…Lito always wanted to conquer the world with his dreams. May the lad find rest in death.”
Adrianna was mortified at having disturbed such a sensitive topic with a harmless comment of hers. “Do…do you miss him?” She asked.
“Aye, Adri. Every day.” He said, blowing out another cloud of smoke and looking wistfully up at the sky. “But the dead have their place in the Afterrealms and the living have theirs. The best I can do is honor his memory and learn from my mistakes.”
“I can’t imagine what that’s like.” Said Adrianna.
But Padric waved his hand. “Ah, don’t be sorry. I still feel my lad’s death, but all the feeling in the world won’t bring him back to me. Best to live life for his sake, eh?” The two sat in silence for a moment while Padric smoked. “You got a husband of your own, Adri?” Said Padric.
“No. Never had one.” Said Adrianna. “When I was younger—and more brash—there was a handsome young captain in the corps. His name was…Nadaar. This was back when I was a younger, more naive cadet. He said he saw something in me and took a, er, special interest in my training. He was…kind. And brave. You could say that I loved him.”
“And did he love you?” Asked Padric, smiling.
Adrianna’s cheeks were burning with embarrassment, but even so, she smiled. She studied the fire. “What? Oh, definitely. He was smitten with me, and I with him. You know, cards, romantic notes, flowers, the whole deal. I trained with him for two years before he told me what was obvious between us: he wanted to marry me. I agreed, and the wedding was planned for the day after my next promotion.”
But Padric was silent, anticipating the next event. “Well, we went on our first mission together.” Adrianna continued, flushed. “It was a week or so out from the wedding, and Nadaar insisted that I come and assist him in an illegal contraband reclamation mission. We never had a proper date, so he suggested we do one in the only way he knew.” Said Adrianna. “We were confident the criminal hideout wouldn’t pose much of a threat. If only we knew how wrong we were.”
“How bad was it?” Said Padric.
“The force was three times the size of the anticipated strength, and we were alone. We were forced to make a quick getaway, but one of their boxes of stolen merchandise exploded and Nadaar shielded me from a blast of metal that would have killed me. I tried to get him back to the hospital, tried to save him. But he bled out his last in my arms—his last request being that I take his position as captain.” Her voice began to crack.
“Well, no other man had character like my Nadaar did.” Said Adrianna. “No man was worthy to replace him, not even his brother, Aledair. Aledair tried to propose to me after Nadaar died.” She sniffed, and then giggled slightly. “He was…well-meaning, that boy. If a little outspoken. But there was no one who could replace Nadaar.”
“Except…perhaps one. During my travels, I met a man named William Khan. He was roguish, cunning…a fierce warrior. He reminded me of Nadaar in so many ways. We went through hell together. But in the end…William died saving me, just like Nadaar did.” She looked down at the light wrinkles on her hand. “And now I’m an old woman, and all my romances have ended in tragedy. You’d think I would have learned something by now.”
“Love is an art no man—or woman, for that matter—knows how to tame.” Said Padric. “I’ve had a few women interested in me, but most of them were silly girls looking to take what little fortune I had and run off with it. I just don’t know how married couples manage to do what they do.” Said Padric. “But you’re a woman torn by many hardships, that’s plain. So where do you go next?”
“Well…truth be told, I don’t know.” Said Adrianna. “You could take me to Lorewater, and then I can get a lead on my prey. But then again, I could retire in a home for those declining in health. Die in bed somewhere.”
Padric coughed a laugh. “Somethin’ tells me that you’d hate that.” He said, winking. “So maybe you get a bead on this prey of yours. Maybe you catch it. Then what? Revenge?”
“Then justice.” Said Adrianna. Revenge was for enraged peasants. Justice was for the principled of heart. “Then I’ll haul my prey to the courts of law, where she’ll get exactly what she deserves.”
Triston signaled the all-clear to Rota, who tugged at Captain Steele’s longcoat. “We’re ready, friend Steele. It seems Triston has found your ship.”
“Please, call me Norman.” Said the captain. “You needn’t call me ‘friend Steele’ all the time.”
“Apologies, Norman.” Said Rota, bowing his head slightly.
Steele motioned to his crew whom they had just liberated from Jen’kor’s mercenaries. It had been a daunting task and Steele’s men were a bit worse for wear, but they had made it safely to the airport without much of a hassle.
Steele, Rota, and the crew then ran out from the alley that gave them cover onto a dirty, empty street. Triston, crouched behind a couple of barrels beside Steele’s ship which sat docked, pointed towards the vessel.
“I’ve removed the restraints that keep it docked.” Said the young man when the group was within hearing range. “Your ship should be flightworthy. Jen’kor’s next mercenary patrol is coming in about fifteen minutes, so I’d get moving if I were you.”
Steele’s crew surged onto the ship, eager to flee Kakothil. They ran around on deck with surprising stealth: apparently they sensed enemies were still about. They ran about their respective tasks and duties; hoisting the sails, prepping the wheel, and securing the ropes. Steele only watched silently. He turned to Triston.
“Lad, I won’t forget this.” He said, putting his hand on Triston’s shoulder.
“Consider it payback. You know, for the thing back in Raurok.” Said Triston. “We likely won’t cross paths again. I guess this is farewell, captain. Take care of yourself, okay? And your crew…and that fine ship of yours. Man, you have a lot of things to take care of, don’t you?”
“Aye, boy. It’s just that…” The captain studied the boards of the dock for a moment. “You didn’t have to save me. You know that. Why do you do this?”
“I may be young, captain, but I know my place.” said Triston. “To defend the innocent. Why do you think I came to this scummy town? I did it so that I could help people. So that I could be a hero. And these people need a hero.” He looked out over the ship, almost wistfully. “And especially since my…well, let’s just say that true heroes are in high demand. Besides…” he smirked boyishly. “…my friend needed adventures to write into that book of his. Wouldn’t do to read about The Inconceivably Dull Exploits of Triston and Rota, right?”
The captain chuckled. “I see.” He said. “Well, carry on, young hero. Help these people in whatever way you can.”
“Captain!” Called the first mate softly. “All’s well with the ship! We depart at your command.”
“Immediately, Burner.” said Steele, mounting the gangplank and boarding his ship. He walked over to the wheel and spun it a few times, getting a feel for its weight. He sighed with satisfaction.
Triston watched, leaning up against the barrels with his arms crossed. The ship rumbled to life, lifting off from the heavy planks of the port and moving out into the open air. The chains that held it fell uselessly to the ground, broken by Triston’s intervention. Steele’s vessel lifted up high off the deck and lumbered forward, gaining speed and soaring through the air, away from the airport platform.
Rota, as Triston now noticed, was standing at his side. He whistled. “Lucky man.” he commented.
“Luck to have such a ship, you mean?” Said Triston, putting a hand in front of his eyes to shield them from the rush of oncoming wind that blasted him from the ship.
“Lucky to have such friends.” Said Rota. “As am I.”
Triston looked down at his Pavarii friend. The rodentlike creatures hated to be called “mice” or, even worse, “rats”, but…mice they were. Although the eyes peering up at him in the darkness of very early morning were as human as any man he’d ever met, that didn’t detract from Rota’s mouselike tendencies.
“Lucky is right.” Said Triston. “This’ll go nicely in your book.”
Rota’s eyes widened. “Ah, yes.” He said, his hand twitching nervously. Triston knew he hadn’t gotten the chance to write in a few days, and that always made him nervous. “That could have been more dramatic, all things considered. But it should be fine. Do we have any other jobs while we’re out?”
“Nope. That was our only one.” Said Triston. “Looks like we’ve got some down time on our hands. I’ve checked the bounty register three times in the last twenty-four hours, so unless we go find some trouble we’ll be otherwise free.”
Rota muttered something that sounded suspiciously like a curse. “The last time we tried freelance contracting we almost got our criteen’sor shaved off. No, thank you, I’ll skip to government-issued bounties. Feel free to go collaborate with rival crime lords at your leisure.”
Triston stifled a laugh. Rota was getting a bit better at sarcasm and irony. Deep down in his friend’s character, he knew his tendency to be witty and smart was motivated by his desire to fit in and be liked. Sometimes his humor was a bit forced and his sarcasm a bit overdone, but Triston found the depth of character interesting. “Then let’s get back to the apartment.” Said Triston. “I feel like I haven’t slept in days. No crime lords for me today, thanks.”