Look! It's ASAP time!
Er... sorry... I know it's been a while!
Thanks for the support, Kirara, Valkriet, Sana!
And special love to Blurbie and Rena, as always.
Unified in surprise, if in little else at the moment, the three mortal members of the party spun to stare at the door. For a moment, no one moved, and the sound repeated itself, followed by a sickeningly jovial voice.
“Greetings on behalf of all Nightshade, honoured visitors from a far off land! It is I, Miio, come to provide succour!”
Edward, Mel, and Stella exchanged bewildered looks. After an instant’s thought, Mel backed away from the door and stuck a finger out at Edward before jerking her head at the door. ‘You deal with that,’ she mouthed.
‘Me? Why me?” he mouthed back. Before the exchange could turn into a silent debate, ‘that’, Miio, spoke again.
“Uhhh… right. Sorry about the uh, enthusiasm. I hope I haven’t offended you. Tala’ sent me up to help you settle in. Um, could I… come in?”
When Edward didn’t move immediately, Mel let out a sigh that was far more exasperated than she actually felt and pulled flung open the door.
“Ah, great! Thanks for opening the door! Not everyone d- whoa.”
Every instinct acquired through years of brutally hard lessons was suddenly ringing alarm bells in Mel’s head as the young man’s eyes locked on hers. Uh oh.
“Hello there, m’lady… I beg your eternal forgiveness for my unpardonable intrusion.” He bowed excessively, awkwardly low, taking her hand before she could quite get it out of reach. His lips pecking dramatically on her skin effectively derailed a comment about his comments.
“Bleah!” was all that she managed. He beamed at her fondly, like an old friend. It freaked her out with remarkable speed. Mel hauled her hand back, glancing back in time to see Edward’s face shift from a mischievous smirk.
“Welcome, ah, Miio. I’m Edward, this is Stella, and the one you’ve unpardonably intruded upon is Mel.”
“My lady…” he breathed, visibly entranced. Mel smiled weakly and twisted to look back at Edward, making a face. She masterfully resisted the urge to rub her hand. “Again, I must ask your pardon-”
“Not so easy, since you’re so unpardonable,” Edward quipped.
Miio’s cheeks flushed as he shrugged, smiling sheepishly. “I get a little carried away some, well… all of the time, really. But, ah, it’s so easy to do with all of this excitement! We just… we never get visitors.” To her relief, the redheaded boy who looked to be a little bit younger than Edward dragged his eyes away from Mel’s long enough to acknowledge her friends. “And such interesting visitors too! Everyone is talking about the Paladin, which is ah…” He peered hard at Edward, “Not you, I think, and guessing about your other companion, the cloaked one, who would be…”
After a moment of anxious hesitation, Edward decided denying Te’ijal’s existence was no longer an option. Even simple villagers could count. “Ah, not here, at the moment either.”
“Touring the village? It’s not wise after nightfall. Not very interesting either,” Miio added with a wink at Mel. “Since there’s no one else out and about, for fear of the undead.” A shadow crossed his face. “It can be dangerous, truly. Would you like me to fetch them back?”
“Uh, no, thanks. They’ve elected to spend the night outside of the village.”
Miio gasped audibly. “Outside? Close by? Why would they do such a thing with safety so
Mel and Edward exchanged glances, scrambling for an answer, but it was Stella who came quietly to their rescue. “Galahad’s companion, his wife, she is terribly shy, Miio, and prefers not to be surrounded when she might choose the peace and freedom of the forest. Please… don’t think ill of her, as she is kindhearted, only shy.”
The redhead shook his head. “No, friends…. you must not allow that, shyness or no. There are greater things to fear. Have you not been told there are vampires about? There are reasons that our visitors are few. Permit me to find them, please?” His concern was too blatant to be anything but genuine.
“It’s alright, Miio, really.” Mel assured him seriously, studiously avoiding the worry blossoming in Stella’s eyes. “Our friends are quite capable of fending for themselves, er… even against the undead. Uh, Galahad is a Paladin, as you’ve heard, and T- his wife is able to handle pretty much anything.” Her lips quirked up. “Even Galahad, which is saying something.” Her grin had a marked effect on Miio, and with a little sigh, he let it go.
“I do hope you’re right, m’lady. It would be a great tragedy, and a personal dishonour for me, as I have been charged with your comfort, if harm befell them.”
“Right. Dishonour. Terrible thing that. Well, thank you for you time. Sorry you’ve got to get home-”
Mel lifted her hand towards their overeager helper to usher him towards the door. She’d been shooed out of enough places to know how it was done… or so she thought.
Miio caught her hand and squeezed, bright smile having returned with vengeance. “It would be terrible. Are you hungry? Thirsty?” Mischief danced once more as his voice dropped. “Bored and looking for trouble.”
She didn’t have time to draw her hand back before Edward was suddenly between them, facing Miio, but very much speaking to her. “We have enough trouble, thank you. We have absolutely no need of anymore.”
“Mmm… well, you certainly seem sure about that, but her ladyship isn’t, unless I miss my guess.”
Mel opened her mouth, intent on taking the wind out of that billowing sail, but once again, Edward reacted first.
“She’s no lady! And… uh…oops.”
“Uh, Mel, I didn’t mean it that wa-“
She smiled sweetly. “Oh, I know Prince Edward-“ she jerked her head at the stunned noble. “He’s a prince, you know. Very hoighty toighty.”
“Mel…” Edward groaned, not quite begrudging her revenge for his hasty words. But the astonishment in Miio’s face…
“He’s right, you know. I’m no lady.” Mel grinned at him as she linked her arm with that of the delighted redhead. “Thanks for the reminder, Edward. You know, I am bored.”
“I had a feeling you were.”
“Well, aren’t you clever?”
“Too clever for my own good,” Miio agreed cheekily. “That’s what Tala’s always saying anyway.”
“Perfect. So, what do you do for fun around here?”
“Oh, this and that, mostly that. Of course, I am at your service if you require entertainment.”
“I think I like the sound of that, Miio.” She glanced back and Edward, who was caught somewhere between anger and dismay. “You can handle things without me for awhile can’t you? Good,” she finished quickly, before he could say anything. “Lead the way, Miio!”
“Uh, before we go, is there anything that you would like me to-”
“We’ll bring them back something for dinner, later.”
She practically dragged Miio a few steps before Edward got in front of her.
“Aren’t you forgetting something, Mel?” he asked edgily, pleading with his eyes.
“Oh, don’t worry,” she answered breezily. “I won’t be gone long. Besides… it’s not the end of the world, Edward.”
His hands clenched and unclenched. “Mel…” What if it is, Mel?
She ignored his silent question. “It’s not the end of the world. I haven’t had any fun in… well, it feels like a thousand years.”
“I wouldn’t put her in danger,” Miio offered placatingly, eyes darting between them.
Edward sighed. “I’m sure you wouldn’t. Believe me, she doesn’t need help.”
Mel’s expression softened slightly. “Can’t argue with that. Look, I won’t be gone long. I just need to… stretch.”
Edward didn’t nod, just watched unhappily as they left with a good deal less fanfare than when Miio first arrived.
He started at a light touch on his shoulder. “Are you alright?” Stella asked in her gentle way.
“I shouldn’t have let her go… but… I didn’t handle that very well.” He rubbed his face wearily. “And I complain that she’s got no tact.”
Stella smiled at him. “I think you two could compete… but you shouldn’t. She’s smart, Edward. Trust her.”
“Please, m’lady. I must-“
“I don’t want to be the cause of trouble for you. Realise that these vampires are not like you, Sir Galahad. They are not. They would not waste time talking to me as you have.” She tilted her head back and took a deep breath. “Promise me that you will be careful? I would not see harm- further harm come to you from these wicked creatures.”
Galahad smiled weakly. “You are kind, maiden, but there is no more harm that can be done to me. I have lost everything. I do not fear them…and I do not believe they will harm me. I am different from them, but they still call me kin.” His lips twisted into a grimace. “I am no kin of their evil kind.”
“But… you are married to one of them. Unwillingly,” she murmured, looking up at him with searching eyes.” Fighting back a smile at her persistent curiosity, he continued walking, forcing her to keep going.
“But you’re worried about her safety?” Galahad frowned and walked a little faster. “Mmm… I would think you would be relieved to be free.” There was a strange wistfulness in her voice that tugged at him.
“I long to be free of this curse. She… is likewise cursed.”
“So she is like you then? She repents her condition? Her prior actions?” Te’ijal stopped and touched his shoulder when he turned. “She regrets afflicting you?”
He laughed softly.
“No. not at all,” the humour left him quickly and he sighed. “Not at all.”
Her expression was troubled as she looked at him for a long moment… before walking again. “So… you have accepted your fate? That takes a lot of courage.”
He looked askance at her as that sunk in. “What are you saying? Aceeptance? Never… I fight as I can, but-”
“I am not slighting you, brave Paladin. I think now of my own faltering strength. Sometimes I think… it would be better if they were to catch me.”
Galahad very quickly found himself digging shocked and angry fingers into her arms. “Are you mad?! You would seek out your death? Or the endless curse of this vile existence? Have you so despaired of life? Or is that that you want adventure so badly?! Would you walk into their clutches then? Is that what will happen?”
“Ah! You’re hurting me,” she protested squirming in his grasp, voice soft, but strident in fright and surprise. He lessened his hold, but not by much.
“This thinking… You flirt with death. They would destroy you, as I have been destroyed. You will be corrupted…”
“Listen… listen for a moment.” She dropped her voice and stopped her struggles, eyes on his, pleading for calm. “I don’t want to be what you are, Sir Galahad. Are you mad? I despise those murderous creatures. Neither do I want to die, but… it is an escape, one with no blame, and no guilt. There will be grief of course, but-“
“I do not believe what you are telling me. I don’t think you begin to understand what you are asking. I am a vampire. I do not feed on mortals. I fight my own nature every hour, every minute. I know the relentless torment it is. As for no guilt, do you truly believe I could allow harm to come to you and not feel the burning weight of it on my soul for eternity?” He shook his head slowly. “What could cause you to think of such things?”
She did have the grace to look away from him, distraught. “We are not well acquainted… and you are a paladin-“
“You understand about honour-”
“There is no honour in this! Not in what I am, and not in what you consider, girl. You are only a child, yet,” he said softly. If it could, his cold dead heart would be pounding in his chest.
“But there is,” she insisted, eyes gleaming with intensity. “If you would hear me-“
“What of your sister! Your family? Have you considered them?”
“It is Ryllie I think of. I would not set a bad example for her. I would show her how to do her duty, and guard her honour; to do what’s right. I love the way of the paladin, Sir Galahad. Your way! She knows that. I will soon be bound in marriage to someone no one would choose willingly. He loves darkness, and all evil things. Does this not sound familiar? They fascinate him. Harlough’madi is a predator, good knight, and all of the young women of my village know to avoid him. He will not be a good husband, but my honour demands I go quietly to my fate. Ryllie will watch this. Young as she is, she knows to some extent the misery I am pledged to. It is why she seeks another option for me. There are few.”
He shook his head numbly. “I don’t understand. You… you said earlier he was a fine choice! Well-respected-“
“It is not proper to speak ill of your future spouse, whether there is truth in it or not.” A pang of guilt hit Galahad. Te’ijal had never spoken ill of him, in the long years of their bond. “As I have said, I have few options if I want to keep my honour. I can submit to him: a dreary and miserable life, but an honourable one. My mother wept my eighteenth birthday away thinking of it. Ryllie may not understand, but she does. My father says little. He is a good man, with no choice. I had another choice… I could have taken my own life, in honoured tradition. I had … I had tried to choose that fate, and asked Ryllie to be my second, but she wept and wept, just at the thought, and I could not consider it further.”
“How is them killing you any different than you killing you? Either way, you’re just as lost to her, and they may cost you more than your life…”
Te’ijal smiled sadly. “She will lose me either way. I cannot prevent that, but there is a particular darkness in abandoning one’s own life that I would shield her from.”
Galahad, still quietly reeling, shook his head mutely. “That you would consider such things… does me great sorrow,” he managed at last.
Her face fell into such dismay that he was tempted to embrace her. “Forgive me, Sir Galahad. You are…you are noble; a soldier of light. I did not mean to distress you. Truly, I will take no desperate action. I… it is only a passing fancy. I will think of you, and your courage. I pray that I may face my unhappy marriage with the dignity with which you have faced yours.” She gave him a hopeful look. “But… it is not so awful, is it? Do you not, eventually, grow in affection?”
“I do not know what to tell you,” he whispered, deeply troubled.
“You are afraid for her, though she wronged you. You care for her. Does she care for you too?”
“… in her way.” He raised his eyes to meet hers. “You do not have to hold to my courage. You have your own. You said that you had wanted to be one of my order, a Paladin.”
She took a deep breath.
Stood a little taller.
“Yes. Upon a time.”
“I would have found it an honour to fight by your side. Remember that we do not surrender.”
Te’ijal swallowed, violet eyes wide. Her heart thudding in his ears as she whispered.