In one of the big armchairs of the saloon of The Windrus a ruthless, coldblooded killer sleeps peacefully. A blanket covers her from the shoulders down as if someone affectionately tucked her in. The same person would have been more than able to carry the sleeping woman to her cabin but dared not for fear of waking her up.
The woman is one of the most feared humans in the known world. She’s ruthless and completely without mercy but she has never in cold blood killed someone who didn’t deserve it. She’s slept for most of the night but in a moment a drop of saliva will spill from the corner of her mouth and wake her up running down her chin.
In sleep her face is relaxed and without tension. She looks to be at peace. When she was young she was beautiful and men would look upon her image with desire. She’s not yet old enough to be called it, but a hard life has worn her features beyond her years.
Her hair – long, straight and black - still shines with youthful luster. It’s her one concession to vanity and she cares for it with love and affection. During her rise to fame and infamy wearing one’s hair Veronica-style became something of a fashion statements among independent young women. Even now, black hair tied back with a wide white ribbon in a long ponytail is not an uncommon sight.
Last night she wore her hair loose. It fell down her back and shoulders like a waterfall of blackest ink. This morning, it’s still free, but it’s tangled like an old basket of yarn and it’ll take a good while with the brush to bring it back to what it was.
The saloon is dark and quiet. The crew turned off the lights as they left to let their commander sleep. It’s still early and the large windows open up to the darkness of a winter morning. No clouds obscure the stars and the moon and the chill bites the cheeks of anyone who ventures outside.
Snow lies white on the ground but the trees stand black and naked, whatever snow covered them long since fallen to the ground. Inside the saloon on the airship it’s warm and comfortable. In the fireplace a big old log is slowly burning. The ship’s steward tiptoed in a few hours ago to build up the fire in front of which his commander is sleeping. He pulled up the blanket covering the sleeping killer where it had slid off and quietly shut the door behind him when he left.
Feared and sometimes reviled the commander is loved and respected by the crew of the Windrus. Most of them have been with her for years. They’ve seen her through thick and thin and know her in a way that only comrades in arms can know each other. They know that while she’s done horrible things to the world she’s always had just reasons for it. They know that while she’s a coldhearted bitch she’s also a woman with a burden only she can bear. They leave her alone when she falls asleep. She sorely needs her rest and rarely gets enough of it.
She’s woken up now. The little drop of saliva grew too large and ran down her chin. A tired hand wiped at the wet trail and her eyes opened. Her look is first one of confusion and then of frustration. Cursing under her breath she throws the blanket off, letting it fall into a pile on the floor before picking it up, folding it and hanging it over the back of the chair.
It’s nearly six o’clock. Cook is in the kitchen preparing breakfast. The only other one awake is Ilyenar, the ship’s steward, but he’s an elf and never really sleeps anyway. The others won’t be up for a while yet. It’s been a quiet week. They arrived in Gosmarin eight days ago and have been moored up at a long-term docking tower ever since. The ship’s been repaired, the engines serviced and the stores resupplied. Now they’re just sitting there, waiting for something.
In the saloon, yawning and starring at the fire the paladin Veronica now knows the wait is over. Her god, Telos has sent her on a quest. She’s not set out yet but she knows she must and she’s not looking forward to it. This quest is a bad one. A heavy sigh is followed by a heartfelt curse and then she’s off to her quarters for a shower. It’s cold outside and she takes care not to get her hair wet. There’s time enough to brush out the tangles but she can’t afford to wait for it to dry.
An hour later she’s taking her breakfast in the ship’s canteen. It’s much too large for the crew she keeps, but it’s where Cook serves up the food and where everyone always eats. It’s just one of those things. It’s porridge, as usual, and she takes it with milk, cinnamon and honey, as usual. As she eats Ilyenar arrives.
“Veronica. Good morning.” He fills himself a bowl of porridge and sits down opposite her.
“Good morning Ilyenar, how stands the ship?” It’s a routine question and one she asks him every morning. On this day something in the way she says it isn’t ringing true and the elf is noticing. It’s part of his job, noticing things.
“All is well with the ship commander. How do things stand with you?” This isn’t part of their routine exchange. Ilyenar always knows the exact state of the ship and will make sure she hears of any little thing. He never asks her how she is. Before replying she sighs and stares off into the distance.
“I have a quest.”
“You have a quest. You? Not we, but you?” Again he pays attention and notices the distinction right away. Whenever Veronica has been sent on a quest in the past she’s referred to it as their quest, including the ship and the crew in the task that needs performing. In reality the quests are only ever tasked to her and her alone, but she brings her crew along and includes them in her work.
“No, this is just for me. I’ve packed my things and will set off once I’m done eating. I don’t know the exact nature of the undertaking, but I know it’s a big one.”
“Ok, I’ll inform the crew and let them know they can take a week off if they want to go somewhere. The docking fare has been paid for a month so that shouldn’t be a problem.”
Veronica gives him a long sad look. By elf standards he’s still young, barely a kid, but he’s got nearly eight times the number of years she has. He’s got a youthful, almost childish look to him. Usually he is alert and confident but right now he’s looking like a young boy realizing his first girlfriend is about to break up with him.
“I’m disbanding the crew. Issue everyone six months worth of payment from my personal account and let them know they’re free to seek other employment from today on. This goes for you as well but I’d like you to see to the ship first. Find her a long time land-dock and put her down there. If I’m not back in five years, have ownership transferred to yourself and do as you see fit with her.”
“Five years?” he’s looking at her as if in shock, spoon of porridge held forgotten halfway to mouth. His lower lip is quivering as if he’s about to start crying.
“Keep it together. You of all people should have known this day would come. This is the way it is and there’s no use crying over it. I’ve put the instructions down on paper for you so Church won’t give you trouble over it.”
Just like that she’s gone. First into the kitchen to pick up some trail rations she’s had Cook prepare and then off. In her quarters she dons her winter coat and hat, straps on her backpack and has a long last look at the small room. It’s not much, but it’s been her home for the last twelve years. She won’t miss it. This is where she’s kept her personal belongings, where she’s showered and brushed her hair, but more often than not she’s slept elsewhere. It's just a room.
She grabs the note from her little desk. On it are written the instructions she gave Ilyenar for what to do with the ship and what to tell the crew. It’s not much. She never was one for words. Outside the cabin door the steward is waiting. As she hands him the note he starts to say something but stops when she puts her hand on his shoulder. She tries to make it an affectionate, reassuring gesture but such is not her style and it’s more awkward than anything else. He will remember this moment for the rest of his life.
“Take care, don’t worry, I’ll be back.” Words meant for comfort said without conviction. She leaves the ship. The guards on the checkpoint between Gosmarin and the Republic are the last ones to see her. Alone and on foot the paladin Veronica disappears into the woods on the other side of the border.