The little café was nearly empty. It was the rain’s fault. It should have been teeming with life but it was not. The location was perfect, opening up on a small plaza just by a bend in the river. The plaza too was empty where it should have been full of tourists and locals enjoying the summer sun.
Inside the café sat Raoul. The only other guest had left half an hour ago and the girl behind the counter had grabbed a seat in a corner and was quietly reading a magazine. Occasionally her cell would beep as she got a message but other than that the only sound came from the rain outside. Music had been playing earlier, but it had stopped and the girl hadn’t put it on again.
Raoul didn’t mind. He liked music but the sound of the rain was pleasantly soothing as he stared out the window. The coffee had gone cold but he wasn’t yet ready for a third refill. There was a peace and a quiet like he’d not experienced for a long time and it was good just to sit there and watch the water falling from the sky.
On the other side of the plaza just on the edge of the river stood a little shrine. It was a small square structure, three walls and a roof. It opened up on the river and housed a wooden bench and a nondenominational altar made out of stone. The whole thing was plain, clean and modern.
They’d seen several like it in the cities along the river. In the south this type of mass produced shrine was nearly unheard of and, depending on where you were, unthinkable. Here in the mid-north they seemed to be both accepted and popular. The ones they’d seen had been clean and well tended with the only exception being one covered in graffiti.
They’d spent some time examining that one, to see if they could consecrate it or if they should report the defacement to Church. Eventually Toivo had concluded that the lines and squiggles covering the walls of the shrine weren’t actually heretical. Rather, she had explained, the tags were symbols of worship in their own right and no consecration was needed.
To Raoul it still looked like any other graffiti but then he was merely a chronicler and Toivo was a paladin. She was the mortal instrument of a major god and he was just recording her exploits for posterity.
He’d taken some picturtes and described their encounter with the shrine in his log but left it at Toivo declaring it not to have been desecrated. Priests and scholars could mull over the finer theological points of the matter in their own time. His job was to keep a record of what she did, not why she did it. If she felt she needed to explain her actions she’d let him know and would dictate her reasons for him to note down. Toivo being who she was though, that rarely happened.
That had been two weeks ago, east of here, further down the river, almost by the sea. Now they were in Kul Viller; back where it all started. Toivo had heeded the call to go back home and Raoul had tagged along in her wake. He always did of course, and rarely grudgingly, but this time it was different. He was going home for the first time in nearly a decade. They’d even discussed the possibility of him getting some time off to see family and friends. It was a risk but arrangements could be made if they were careful.
It probably wouldn’t happen, something always came up. Still, it was nice to dream; there was always the chance they’d have some time to spare while waiting for the rest of the crew to catch up. They’d left them in Gosmarin where Toivo had felt a sudden need to hurry. She’d ordered her captain to make for Viller Fort to moor up at the garrison and to send the rest of the crew on from there to Kul Viller by local transport. Then she’d put herself and her chronicler on the next International Rail bullet-train going west she could find.
The next four days had been a blur of trains and platforms, cheap junk food and restless sleep. Raoul was no fan of high-speed trains. No matter how smooth and quiet the ride he was never fully comfortable on board. Something about speeding through the landscape at three hundred kilometers an hour just didn’t agree with him. He found the elevated view and the more relaxed pace of their airship infinitely preferable.
They’d arrived in Kul Viller around noon, several hours ago now. It was almost evening and the rain was falling then as it did now. As they stepped off the train and onto the platform Toivo had visibly relaxed. The urgency and uncertainty that had plagued her on the journey had disappeared and she’d smiled for the first time since they’d left the south over a month ago.
Raoul loved it when she smiled. Toivo wasn’t bad looking - a little too short and a little too round but not unfit and not unappealing. Her face was plain and her blonde hair usually tied back in a simple ponytail. Her tendency to frown or scowl didn’t improve her looks but when she smiled she was beautiful. When she smiled the world became a little brighter and life a little easier. She maintained that it was one of her divine paladin gifts and smiled only rarely. Raoul argued that she simply had a wonderful smile but generally didn’t press the point as it clearly made her uncomfortable to talk about it.
It had been long since last, but when they arrived in her hometown she had smiled and it had made the days and nights on the train worth it. Then they’d gone to see her sister. Raoul had tried to talk her out of it. He’d warned against it and urged her to report to Church as was customary when arriving in a city but she would have none of it. She would see her sister and she would have pie and that was final. Church could wait.
Sitting there alone at the café and starring out at the rain Raoul had to admit to himself he was a little bit disappointed. He wouldn’t be able to visit his family unless time could be found after everything else was done and even then he’d need to be careful with security arrangements to make sure not to put them at risk. Toivo, in the middle of the day and against all common practices and recommendations, had gone straight to the pub her sister owned, with no advance warning of any kind. He’d have to talk to her about that. It really wasn’t safe, no matter what she said; it just wasn’t.
Paladins had enemies. The forces that opposed them wouldn’t hesitate a moment to shed the blood of innocents if they thought it would further their goals. They’d jump at the chance to hurt those bound to the paladin by love or blood. Toivo was strong and full of might, but her sister was not. Paivi was capable and could handle herself in a brawl, he knew that, but she wouldn’t stand a chance if any of Toivo’s more powerful enemies set out to get her.
That’s why he was so uneasy about their visit earlier that afternoon. If anyone linked the two sisters together it might compromise the whole operation. Toivo might be fanatically devoted to her god and her cause but even her resolve might waver if her sister’s life was in the balance. Things like that just could not be allowed to happen. He’d dedicated all of his adult life to the service of the paladin and he shuddered at the thought of it all going down the drain because of newbie mistake like visiting a family member. They’d been at it too long to just let it all go to waste.
Raoul got pulled out of his reverie by the sound of music. While he sat there starring at the rain and worrying about future possibilities the serving girl had ended her break and restarted the sound system. When he looked up he noticed her coming towards his table with a pot of coffee. He nodded. She filled him up and without a word left him alone again. She returned the pot to it’s spot in the machine and then disappeared into a back room on some errand of her own.
The music was slow and relaxing with a distinctly elven voice delivering vocals in a language he didn’t understand; probably one of their elder tongues. The song evoked feelings of warm evenings, open plains and beautiful sunsets. It didn’t fit at all with the rain outside but it did make him feel a little bit better about the situation. Maybe Toivo was right and it really was safe. After all, it wasn’t like her to be this reckless and she was a paladin. She probably knew something he didn’t.
Still, he really did have to have a word with her about it once she was done with her prayers and meditation, if nothing else just to still his own mind. She’d been out there quite a while now; well over two hours in the little shrine over by the river. She’d be sheltered from the wind, not that there had been any, but not from the cold. She must be freezing now. Not that she'd notice; once she got settled into her meditation she was completely oblivious to her surroundings.
He remembered once early on when it was just the two of them. They’d made camp out in the wild. Toivo had said she needed to meditate and pray and Raoul had decided he’d go to sleep in the tent. When he woke up the next morning she was still sitting there, chilled to the bone from the cold of night and wet with the morning dew but still deep in trance. When he roused her she’d been surprised to find that it was morning and as she stood up they’d both been startled by an angry squirrel who’d gone to sleep in a pocket in her jacket.
After that they’d decided he’d keep a more alert watch over her while she was in trance. It was proably time to go rouse her now. The café would probably be closing soon, but if he woke her up now she’d have time to warm up in here with a hot chocolate before they set out to find their lodgings for the night.
He hoped they’d stay at Church. There’d be rooms and beds for them there and they wouldn’t have to pay. But, as they’d still not declared their presence in the city it might be a while before they got some rest if they went with that option. Knowing Toivo she’d want to opt for some hostel or bed and breakfast to save them the hassle of formality that Church required. He’d try to convince her against that. It was better to have the hassle out of the way; delaying it would just increase the risk of delaying it further, and that was never a good idea.
First though, get her in out of the cold and get her something warm to drink. Raoul got his umbrella, told the girl behind the counter he’d be right back and to bring a cup of hot chocolate to his table. Then he went out into the rain to disturb the paladin in her prayers.