Elainus was on patrol with Catonus through the streets of Aquiliea. Standard. Predictable. Every foot where it should be, every person where they belonged.
It was good, knowing where people belonged, where things belonged. It made it easy to tell when something was different, something was wrong.
Like Bakus today. Bakus always had three tables for his wares, and carefully had four rows of goods, neatly arranged on it. There’d usually be holes here and there, as he sold off his copper wares throughout the day.
Today though, he only had three rows. A small detail, nothing looking obviously wrong, but not all was right. The advantage of always being on the same beat, of talking with the same people. Being friends with most of the community.
“Bakus! How’s it going?” Elainus said, striding up to the table. Catonus kept looking around, keeping an eye on the rest of the going-ons of the street.
“Elainus! Fine, fine.” Bakus said, trying his normal cheer. Not quite making it.
“You sure? You seem a bit slim on the goods today.”
“Copper supply’s been interrupted. I thought the trader was late, but no, he never showed up. No idea what happened to him, but I’m a bit low on copper right now. It’ll be a few more days before the next one shows up. Till then…” He shrugged and gestured to his tables. “Fewer things to sell.”
Elainus made a mental note to stick around the area a bit more in the near future. It sounded like Bakus was going to be alright – a trader not showing up wasn’t the end of the world, but it meant his business would be a bit slower in the near future. The guard being around a bit more would discourage petty thieves, and give Bakus a bit more breathing room.
And, with this, he could kill two birds with one stone. He’d been planning this anyways, but was waffling over if he should or shouldn’t. This was the perfect little nudge into ‘should’.
He quickly looked over what Bakus had, until he spotted a nice, elegant copper bracelet, with fancy whorls and swirls that reminded him of the sea.
“How much for the bracelet? Elaine’s getting married, and I want to get her something nice.” Elainus said, bursting with pride and joy as he told Bakus, his mind wandering to his daughter that had caused him so much consternation and worry, so much joy and happiness.
Catonus coughed, having heard Elainus say this at least 40 times this round alone. Maybe 50? It was getting old, although he understood Elainus’s excitement. His only daughter was getting married!
Bakus named a price, and the haggling started. Elainus didn’t haggle very much. One part out of a superstition that it might bring bad luck, especially on a wedding present, to have too much haggling on it. One part that some people – he suspected his daughter included – weighted the value of an item by how much it cost. And one part trying to subtly lend a helping hand to Bakus, who’d need it in the next week or so. It’d be an insult to just directly buy it, but not haggling too hard was perfectly acceptable.
He dropped the bracelet in his pouch, and they carried on their round. People where they should be. Things where they should be.
Oh sure, it was a town, people were in constant motion, a constant state of change. But it was about the acceptable range. A woman, wearing clothes not as nice as usual? Could just be time for laundry. A woman, wearing a tunic with tears in it, who’s usually meticulous? Worth a quick hi, a quick check of how things were going. Don’t push too hard, don’t be nosy, but give people an outlet, a chance to see if they had a problem to chat with the guard about.
It was also a chance to keep telling people about Elaine. The town was a community, and everyone gossiped. People had told Elainus about happy events in their life often enough, that they didn’t mind hearing about his happy event.
After his round, he made his way home. Pushed the door open, and could immediately tell things were out of place.
First, Elaine’s cot was nicely made. She never made her cot. Her money rod, which she spent so much time and care carefully threading the little extra bits of money she got was empty. None of her usually strewn about clothes were present.
Most telling though was Julia, his light, his love, standing there, arms crossed, tapping her spoon on her arm.
“Do you know what your daughter has done now?” She said, glaring at him.
It was pointless to point out Elaine was their daughter when Julia got like this.
“If I had to guess, ran away from home?” Elainus said, putting the pieces of the puzzle together. It wasn’t exactly like Elaine was subtle, as much as she tried to be.
Like when it turned out she was the one breaking into the library at night, practicing how to read. Somehow, she thought they wouldn’t notice that she was always tired, with bags under her eyes, on the nights the library was broken into. That she’d been getting some lessons how to read, which occurred right before the library incidents started. That somehow, even spotting her running away from the library, she thought her own dad wouldn’t recognize her.
Elaine was as subtle as a brick when it came to keeping secrets.
“Exactly!” Julia cried out at him, menacing him with her spoon. “This is all your fault! I told you to leave the marriage thing up to me. I told you to let me ease her into the idea. But noooo. You knew better. You had to try and exert your authority.”
“On someone who looked up to, and takes literal lessons from, Artemis. Just how exactly did you see this going?” Julia said, getting a head of steam.
“I don’t want to hear buts from you!” Julia cried out, walloping him with the spoon.
It made a sharp crack as it hit his arm. It didn’t hurt, not in the slightest – Elainus had long since gotten enough vitality to ignore things like that. He still made a pained noise, like it had done something.
Julia’s life was hard enough. She knew she was powerless in the world, there was no sense in ruining the illusion that she had some small measure of control while at home, in the house. She knew it as well, which is why she never tried the stunt outside the home. It was more reassuring her that yes, he was listening, and yes, they were partners, a team. Anyone would say it was strange. It was just how they operated.
Bless Artemis for playing along.
A long argument ensued. From whose fault it was, to what to tell Citizen Prasinos, to what to do next.
After a few candles of arguing – more subdued, Elainus and Julia didn’t want the neighbors talking that much – something of a truce was established. They’d wait a few days to see if Elaine came back, as most runaways did, before talking with Citizen Prasinos, and letting him know what happened. However, the ‘what to do next’ was still a source of dispute, and they decided that better decision-making could occur in the morning, after getting what little sleep they could from the remainder of the night.
Elainus got up the next morning, and popped over to the barracks to request the day off. “Personal issues.” He mentioned. Another guard stopped him on the way out.
“Hey, I saw Elaine heading out the North gate yesterday. Did she make it back home ok? Is everything alright?”
Elainus’s mouth twisted a moment. “Everything’s fine.”
He jogged back home, only to find a courier waiting for him.
“Message for you. Would you like me to read it to you?”
“Sure, come in!” Elainus said, excited. News about Elaine, hopefully, although the timing of it was strange.
Julia came out, and they stood in the living room together, clutching each other, as the courier unrolled the scroll, and started to read.
I’m ok, and I love you both very much. I refuse to marry Kerberos, and I’ve decided to make my own fortune. I’ll be trying to meet up with Artemis – I’m sure she’ll be able to help. I’ll let you know when I’ve settled down somewhere.
Julia was practically crying at the end. Usually, couriers asked if a return message was required. This one was smart enough to read the room, read the mood, and quietly left, leaving the scroll behind.
“Well, she has a plan, which is more than most runaways could say.” Elainus said, trying to console Julia.
“So help me, if she doesn’t come back safe.” Julia said, threatening.
Elainus could only nod. He wanted to break down in concern as well, but had to be strong. They couldn’t both break down at the same time.
“Well, hey, at least she’s willing to let us know she can read now.” Elainus said, changing the topic of conversation.
“Think she’ll ever tell us her other secret? The big one?” Julia said.
“I hope she does. We can’t be too surprised that she seems to be god-touched, not after we had to pray so hard for her in the first place.” Elainus said.
Julia nestled her head against his chest.
“We got one. One. She’s it, our only child, our only chance. She needs to be safe. I’d call off the marriage in a heartbeat if it meant she’d be home and safe.”
Julia started crying. “I thought this was going to be best for her. I thought this would keep her safe, keep her happy, give her a better life, get her everything she needed in life.”
Elainus kept hugging her, consoling her.
A few days later, they accepted that Elaine had either successfully ran away, or had encountered some terrible fate. It was Elainus’s turn to break down, as Julia comforted him. The talk with Citizen Prasinos, Kerberos’s father, was awkward, but he was somewhat understanding. Kerberos was there for the conversation, and Elainus didn’t like the look in his eyes. It was the look of a predator, an angry one, and Elainus regretted not being more involved in the proceedings.
A conversation with Julia later indicated that she’d completely missed the look, and thought he’d looked nothing but concerned.
“A mask.” Elainus thought. Julia was fantastic in so many ways, but she didn’t have as much experience with the seedier, nastier side of humanity, the same way Elainus did. After seeing the look on Kerberos’s face after ‘his property’ had ran away, Elainus was determined to call it off.
When a trio of adventurers came by, saying they’d been hired to find Elaine, and help escort her home, it was all too obvious what was going on. Elainus and Julia refused to give them any help whatsoever, practically throwing them out of the house.
Almost two months later, the first two letters arrived, just a day or two apart. The first one was from Elaine.
Hey! It’s Elaine! I’m still alive and well.
I managed to bump into Artemis, and I’ve been travelling with her and her Ranger team. We’re in Virinum now! It’s both like Aquiliea, and not like Aquiliea at the same time. Lots of clay, not a lot of dyes. I hit level 128, and my classes merged! I’m a Celestial Healer now! The skills are so pretty, I’ll show you when I’m in Aquiliea next!
I’m staying with the Rangers for now – they’re all so nice! Julius is the boss, Origen is the strong silent type with a thousand tattoos, Maximus has been teaching me about the System, Kallisto’s really nice, Arthur’s the size of a mountain and can somehow vanish, and you know Artemis.
I love you two tons! I’m safe and happy. I hope things are going well!
“She’s alive! And with Artemis! Thank goodness, she’ll keep her safe.” Julia said.
Elainus raised an eyebrow.
“She got an advanced element already. Wow.”
The courier walked away happy, with almost two rods worth of a tip.
A second letter arrived, from Artemis.
You’re probably aware, but Elaine ran away from home. No worries, she’s safe with me and the other Rangers. We arranged a deal where she’ll heal us, and keep us safe, in exchange for some basic food, lodging, and minor pay.
Last few weeks have been hectic! Went through the Great Bamboo Forest again, saw some wild construction. Didn’t know you could make an entire village out of nothing but bamboo! The roads have been relatively safe, only the occasional little hiccup here and there.
Virinum has fantastic clay, and they make pots and jars, the best I’ve seen in the Republic. I wanted to send one to you, but the courier kept hemming and hawing at the price, and not promising that it’d be delivered intact.
Now he’s shooting me a nasty look.
Now he’s rolling his eyes.
Anyways! Elaine’s with me, and she’s safe and sound. Don’t worry.
PS: Elaine’s officially a Ranger now. See you in two years!
“WHAT DOES SHE MEAN, ELAINE’S OFFICIALLY A RANGER!?!?”
Julia’s scream could be heard through half the neighborhood.