Summary: Third in the Paladins Series: Winter has come and, with it, brought a much needed lull in the war. However, on the peaceful border between Vasconia and Lloegyr, pirates have begun raiding in the absence of soldiers to protect the town.

Lord Odilon Yvain, leader of the largest trading company in the kingdom, finds himself the target of these unseasonable pirate attacks. To protect his people, and to continue serving his king, he is sent to find and recruit the rogue paladin.

Elaine Honorine separated herself from the paladins years ago, focusing all of her time on the singular goal of finding Pirate Blue Bird. When Odilon and Nina, leader of the paladins, offer her the information on where Blue Bird makes port, she unwillingly accepts their aid.

But the lull in the war does not mean the battles have stopped, and Blue Bird is the scourge of two generations. As they journey together, Odilon finds himself equally fascinated and annoyed by the rogue paladin and her endless supply of secrets, lies, and fierce, foolish independence.

The Most Skilled Paladin

Panting, tears streaming down her face, Elaine struggled to keep up with her mother as she pulled her along by the wrist. Blood, fresh and hot, flowed over their connected hands. Elaine couldn't see where it was coming from. She was scared to know.

The two of them ran across the backyard of their house. Her mother didn't dare even glance back. She was focused only on running and getting her daughter away.

But, Elaine had to look.

Their home was going up in flames. The orange and yellow light had eaten through the roof where the blaze had been started. It would burn down through the floors as the night wore on. No one was making any attempt to stop the fire.

As her mother pulled her away, Elaine could see the front of the house. She could see the unfamiliar men taking things from the house. Valuables. Boxes. Dresses. Anything that held any worth. It was all being stolen. Anything that might remain would be eaten by the fire.

Even out here, far past the yard, and into the fields, Elaine could feel its heat on her face. She knew fire was dangerous. She had received the warning plenty of times when getting too close to the fireplace. But her child's mind had been completely unable to imagine the horrific magnitude of seeing a fire that devoured a house, sending up plumes of smoke dark enough to blot out the moon.

Looking back as she was, Elaine didn't see the ditch before she had already tumbled forward into it, hand falling from her mothers. Pain erupted on her knees as she skinned them on the dirt. She started crying immediately.

Her mother didn't give her time to do more than that. Turning back, she scooped her daughter up into her arms and turned to continue her desperate flight.

But, now Elaine could feel the hot blood pouring out onto her chest. She could see her mother's pale face and her wide, terrified eyes.


"Keep your head down, Elaine!" She grabbed her head and forced it into her shoulder.

Elaine could still lift her eyes and see over it to the house. It was growing smaller as they ran away from its shadow. The fire was eating at the upstairs now. Where Elaine's room was. She whimpered, reaching back uselessly.

A breeze came across the land and blew the smoke away. On the far side of it, Elaine could just barely see the outline of a ship.

And the dark flag flapping at the top of the main mast.

Her mother tripped and staggered. She barely avoided falling, her arms tightening around her daughter to keep from dropping her. Elaine turned to see her face, but the hand at the back of her head kept her in place.


"I'm fine..." She panted, struggling to run again.

The blood trail she left behind was as obvious as it was thick. Elaine tracked it all the way to the back door of their house where the two of them had escaped from. Would it take long for those men to find them?

"Mama, where's papa?" Elaine trembled, crying in earnest. "I want papa!"

Her mother didn't respond. Elaine clutched her desperately, praying for her father. She was sure that if her father was there, none of this would be happening. He was so big and strong. Surely, he would be able to save the two of them.

Their desperate flight continued until the house was approaching the horizon. Her mother just kept running, pushing desperately forward into the tall grasses of the Great Plains. Uncaring of where she was going, just trying to get away.

Elaine watched her home, her town, disappear through a pair of wide, frightened eyes of the most startlingly bright shade of blue.

Once again, her mother tripped. This time, she wasn't able to catch herself. She had only enough strength to turn, grabbing her daughter tightly. Her back hit the ground, both of them now hidden amongst the tall grasses.

Elaine lifted her head, watching as her mother tried to push herself up to no avail. The dark red spot over the wound on her chest wasn't growing anymore. But her mother had never looked so pale, her eyes glassy and far away as her grip loosened.

"Mama?" Elaine pushed herself up, down onto her knees at her side. Their dresses, caught in the drying blood, struck together when she tried.

"My love..." She touched Elaine's face, smearing more blood across her face.

"Come on, mama." Elaine pulling on her arm. "We have to run..."

"I'm sorry..."

Elaine shook her head, tugging harder. Her mother couldn't be moved. Her hand was so cold when Elaine caught it as it fell away.

"Elaine, promise me something." Her mother whispered to her, voice hoarse. "You have to promise me, okay, love?"

Elaine sniffed, nodding as seriously as she could. She was just a child, but she knew that something was wrong. It filled her with terror. Old enough to understand death, not yet old enough to realize that her mother could die, she felt only nameless fear at seeing her like this. But she nodded, because she could do nothing else.

"Promise me..." Her mother was panting, struggling to stay awake. "Promise me... that you will never give yourself to a rich man for a comfortable life."

Elaine frowned, confused. "Mama?"

"Promise, Elaine. You must always stand on your own. Never be a rich man's mistress. Never accept the comfort of an easy life over... over..." Her breath hitched. She struggled to bring in another one, but she couldn't push her voice past the heaviness weighing her down.

It was all she could do to hiss, to whisper, "Promise..."

Elaine sniffed, nodding. "I promise, mama. I promise."

A faint smile, barely the ghost of a grin, appeared on her mother's beautiful, pale face.

It faded immediately as her body went limp. Her head fell to the side, her arm suddenly weighted in Elaine's lap.

"Mama?" Elaine grabbed onto her. "Mama! Wake up! MAMA!"

Screaming, Elaine shot up in bed, hand reaching out for a body that was no longer there. She stared, wide-eyed, into the open air. Her past playing in her mind as the phantom screams of her childhood reached out to her through the years.

Groaning, Elaine slumped over. She grabbed onto her face. She smacked her head.

"Get out of there..." She growled, tears falling down onto her lap.

It was just a dream. A dream of a memory so vivid that, with each nightmare, Elaine felt like she was living it all over again.

She wiped her hand angrily over her face, tears drying quickly as she forced them away. How pointless, crying over something that was already done and past.

Blowing out a long breath, Elaine lifted her head and let her gaze travel over the room that she had been calling hers for the last few weeks. It was an inn room, but it was the longest she had stayed in any one place in quite some time. She would never call it home, but she supposed that it was as much hers as anything could be.

It was dark in the room. The drapes over the single window beside the bed had been drawn tight, blocking out any light. Though, a tiny strip of morning sun could be seen barely peeking out over the top.

Elaine squinted at it angrily. Sighing, she dropped back onto the pillow. Her short cap of blonde hair flopped out around her head as she covered her eyes.

"That damn dream..."

How many times was that now? Could Elaine not go even a single week without those memories eating at her? How long would this have to happen before it was over?

Loud sounds from outside in the hall had her turning her head over. She looked at the crack beneath the door as someone walked by, yelling at someone who was with them. They seemed to be arguing over money. One of the drawbacks of living out of inns, Elaine could count on one hand how many times she had woken in a quiet environment.

Then again, with her dreams, it didn't really matter.

Groaning, she pushed herself up again. She grabbed the drapes hanging beside the bed and threw them open. Bright sunlight exploded in the room and she cried out in pain, closing her lids against the morning rays.

As her eyes grew accustomed to the light, she yawned widely. Sitting there in front of the window, wearing a shirt three sizes too large that fit her more like a dress, she stretched her arms overhead. The long, expansive sleeves fell down around her shoulders until she dropped her limbs down and they slid down again, covering her hands completely.

Eyes, so blue it startled most people, opened and she looked out over the town that she had been living in for the last few weeks. Caieta. Situated nearly perfectly on the border between Vasconia and Lloegyr, it was a busy trade hub. Easy to get lost in. Full of bars and pubs. And an excellent place to find the sort of odd jobs that Elaine thrived on.

Honestly, she hadn't meant to stay here for so long. Normally, she wouldn't. There was just something nice about the energy here. It almost reminded her of the excitement and pacing in Gwenael, the capital city of Vasconia. On a much smaller scale, of course, but it certainly had the same feeling. She found herself enjoying it.

She might even stay here through the winter. The glass of the window had already frosted over through the night. The weather watchers were saying it might snow soon. Winter was heavy on the land, and Elaine felt no great hurry to leave this town and get out into the elements in an attempt to find somewhere else to stay.

Turning, she threw her feet over the edge of the bed. And hissed at the cold wood. She forced herself to put them down and stand, scratching at the shaggy mess her hair had become while tossing about in her sleep.

Everything that Elaine owned was in this room. Nothing was unpacked, in case she had to quickly get them together and leave. Two massive trunks, both larger than she was, were pushed against the walls, blocking what little furniture the room had. Split between the two were all of Elaine's earthly possessions. The left one, the one she moved towards and opened, had her clothes. She grabbed the first thing she saw and let the lid drop back into place.

As she turned around, her eyes immediately fell on the doll that had fallen off of the bed and landed on the floor.

Elaine cried out, clothes dropping from her hand, as she rushed forward. Frowning, she gently lifted the doll up into her hands. Exceedingly gentle, afraid that something might have broken when it fell over, she ran her fingers across its delicate porcelain face, searching for any signs of a crack or imperfection.

The doll wasn't as fragile as some others in her collection. Which was the chief reason that she normally felt safe sleeping with it. However, she also normally didn't thrash about so much that she would toss it so roughly from her bed.

Elaine often had dreams of her past. They haunted her, hounding her subconscious. All of them centered around the same day. Thankfully, for her own sanity, not all of them featured the moment of her mother's death.

That was probably why it was affecting her so much now. When was the last time she had dreamed of that particular scene?

The shaking of her own hands as they ran over the cutesy face of the doll surprised Elaine. She lifted one hand from the porcelain face, staring as her fingers trembled almost imperceptibly. Normally so steady and calm, Elaine felt betrayed by her own body.

Her fingers clenched into a tight fist. She turned away in disgust at herself.

Weakness. That's what this was.

It was gone. It was the past. She was no longer a weak and helpless child that could only sit around, watching her mother die or her house be burned.

Lowering her traitorous hand, she turned her eyes back to the doll.

The rosy cheeked girl had long, red ringlet curls and bright red lips against a pale face with emerald green eyes. Always set into a perceptual smile. She looked so happy, content forever to be wearing the ruby red dress her creator had made for her and staring out at the world without ever being able to interact with it.

No cracks. No flaws. One of her curls had been mussed by her landing, but it was easy to fix back into place.

Elaine sighed as she set the doll back onto the bed, nestling her against the pillow where Elaine's head had been resting just a moment ago.

The doll had been crafted with the latest fashions, popular right now in the capital. At least, insofar as Elaine understood such things. The billowing skirt, emphasizing her hips, contrasted with the tight bodice that cinched around her tiny waist and chest. She was hardly a child's toy. The doll was intended to be collected and placed upon a shelf.

In that, Elaine felt completely separate from the porcelain figure.

Short, shaggy hair. Willowy frame hidden by oversized clothing. The only thing Elaine could say about her that held any real beauty were the bright blue eyes that rested in her head. Such a vibrant color often caused people to quickly look twice.

Beside the porcelain doll, she looked like a poor child's ragged, aged toy.

Elaine took hold of herself, turning away and blowing out a deep breath.

What depreciating thoughts she was having this morning. It had to be a result of that dream. The effects of it were still clinging to her, pulling down on her mood. Some part of her still expected, when she looked down, to see the stain of her mother's blood on her sleeping shirt.

It had been over ten years, closer to twenty now actually. Yet, the flashes of the event still held the power to rock her to her core.

Elaine turned from the bed and returned to the clothes that she had dropped. They lay in a sad, misshapen pile that became a sad, misshapen lump when she scooped them into her arms and held them to her chest.

The inn room that she had purchased came with a private bath. Just another one of the luxuries that made her reluctant to leave this place. Most inns that she stayed at had public bathing areas. There were times that the public baths didn't even allow for separation of the genders, or put up only a small screen in a vague attempt to do so.

The private bath wasn't large, but the water was hot and she allowed the heat of it to soak into her skin as she ran the soap roughly over her arms and chest. Trying to banish the feeling of blood that had long since been cleaned away.

Cleaned and freshly dressed, Elaine stepped back into her room and carelessly threw her sleeping shirt onto her bed. It smothered the doll and she stopped, turning back.

A long sigh escaped her throat as she returned to the bed. She pulled the shirt away and picked the doll up gently. She wasn't mussed by the clothing that had covered her head, but Elaine gently patted down her curls anyway.

She turned with the doll to the second chest in her room. The larger of the chests. This one was locked, and almost always remained so. The key to it was kept on her person at all times. With the doll cradled in her arm, she freed the lock and lifted the lid.

Nestled inside, packed with an infinite amount of care, were the other dolls in Elaine's collection. Each one more flawless than the one she currently held. Ranging from the size of her palm to the size of her torso. They weren't toys. They were collectors' items and each doll had been crafted with the sort of attention reserved for artistic pieces.

The top layer of the collection rested on a bed of velvet cloth. There was another layer of dolls beneath it, and another beneath that. Five layers in total, with the final layer resting on its own cushion that Elaine had placed in the box.

There was no more space in the box. Each doll had her own spot, with just enough room that no others were touching each other. She didn't want to risk paint being scratched or transferred. There wasn't any space for the doll currently in her arms. Which was why she had been sleeping with it in the first place instead of allowing it to rest with the rest of the collection.

Elaine bit her lip, scanning the interior. Mentally moving the dolls inside around to try and find a place for the doll she carried.

She was going to have to buy a bigger trunk. Though, it was already difficult enough to travel with this one and its brother. Any bigger, and it wouldn't be practical.

Then again, it was hardly practical now. And, if she had a bigger chest, she would have more room to grow her collection.

It was a hard battle that she fought with herself near constantly. There was nothing to be done about it now, she didn't even have the money to buy a new trunk. So, she pushed it from her mind as she reached inside to adjust the dolls.

Elaine couldn't make them all fit without touching if she added this last doll. She could, however, adjust two of the larger ones on the top so that their dresses covered their delicate, porcelain skin and she could lay this doll on top of them.

It made the entire trunk look disorganized, but Elaine closed and locked it again before she could change her mind and pull the doll out once more. She knew it had been a mistake to try and sleep with it before she had done so, but she didn't think she would have thrown it from the bed.

Sighing, now freshly changed and ready for her day, Elaine finally left the room. Her hair was still damp and she didn't particularly care. The inn was heated by a series of steam channels that powered the lights and fought off the cold. Until she had to actually step outside, the area felt warm and comfortable to her, even wet.

She was a common sight around the inn now. One or two other patrons were staying here on a semi-permanent basis, but they tended to be loners like herself. Most of the others were actual travelers looking for a place to stay.

Though the inn had four different levels, it didn't have the money to splurge on an elevator and Elaine had to walk down all four flights. It didn't bother her, as she had requested a room on the top floor to begin with. Those were the rooms with the private baths. The luxury was worth the extra effort required to reach it, in her mind.

The top three floors of the inn were devoted to patron rooms. Each floor becoming more luxurious than the last. It wasn't a high end establishment, but it did all right for itself, and it didn't mind spending the profits on bettering their service.

The bottom floor of the inn had rooms for the staff, and, more importantly, the large pub that brought in a greater profit than even the rooms. It was open to the public, regardless of whether you were a guest or not. The owner often acted as the bartender. Her three kids cooked, cleaned, and maintained the inn itself, along with their spouses.

The family atmosphere that their combined efforts gave the establishment was rather comfortable. Even to Elaine, or maybe especially to Elaine, who hadn't lived with a family in a home since the day her mother died.

The thought, reminding her of the dream, hit her rudely again and she shook her head, getting angry at herself. She wished she could just purge the memory from her head and rid herself of these obnoxious feelings once and for all.

That desire accompanied her down the last staircase, fading only when she pushed open the door to find the pub already in full swing. Alcohol wasn't being served, not this early in the morning. However, there was breakfast for those that couldn't or didn't want to eat at home. And transients and travelers were already checking out the job board.


Elaine hadn't even made it two steps across the room when the angry shout stopped her.

Sighing, she turned as the owner came stomping around from behind the bar. The rag she had been using to clean was hastily shoved between her belt and skirt, gray and red hair flying backwards as she approached.

"Morning Despina." Elaine turned with a false, bright smile.

"Don't you 'morning' me!" Despina lifted a finger, jabbing it against Elaine's chest. The bony digit made her grumble, falling back a step.

"What are your fingers made of? Rock?" Elaine rubbed her chest, looking up at the taller, more imposing woman with an impertinent scowl.

"Do you know what yesterday was?"

"Er, either the fifth or the thirteenth. Kind of hard to-"

"It was payment day! Long term guests pay at the end of the week. And you are late. Again."

Elaine gasped for effect. "Was that yesterday? My goodness, how time flies."

Despina growled, crossing her muscular arms across her chest. "I like you, Elaine. I really do. You're better than some of my guests. But you have this annoying habit of forgetting payday. And I told you last time that I'm not letting you string me along for half of the second week again."

"You know I'm good for it. What's the problem?" Elaine turned, unhappy.

"The problem, Elaine, is that I might like you, but I don't trust you. And you didn't even finish paying your tab for the last week. You owe me this week, and more!"

Elaine blew out a long breath, shoulders sagging down. It was so annoying to try and get money around here. She had a reason for coming to Caieta, and it wasn't to spend all of her time trying to collect money to pay the innkeeper.

"Why don't you just tally it all together, and I'll pay you when I leave?"

Despina laughed at her once without humor. "You think I was born yesterday? You're a slippery one, Elaine. But I'm not chasing after you anymore. You think you can just keep sneaking out of here and I won't notice?"

"Well, it worked last week-"

"You owe me for this week, plus the three days you missed last week!" Despina raised three rock-like fingers up into Elaine's vision as though to ensure that she understood. "Three!"

"All right! All right! Keep your apron on." Elaine held up her hands, stepping back from her anger. "I'll get you your money."

"You will!" Despina put her pointing finger right back into Elaine's face. "Or, I'll be calling the guard to take your sorry butt to prison. I don't tolerate freeloaders. If I don't get my money by tonight, you'll be trying to sneak past the guard tomorrow morning."

"Yeah, yeah..." Elaine blew a lock of her own hair from her face as Despina turned on her heel and began marching away. Since she couldn't see, Elaine stuck her tongue out at her back.

How annoying. Elaine's normal method of earning money wasn't really conducive to getting a great deal of it in a single day. She had always intended to pay in full. This was one of the problems with staying in one place for too long. This sort of thing was beginning to feel too much like making rent payments.

Sighing, Elaine turned her eyes across the room. She didn't really want to stoop to this. She had her own agenda, after all. But it was either earn the money quickly, or deal with the guards tomorrow and make a scene.

She picked the lesser of the two annoying choices.

The job board was set up near the double door entrance to the inn. Most inns and shelters in cities had similar things where travelers were likely to see them. It was a place for residents to put up job offers to people who didn't have or need permanent work, but still needed to make some quick money. Elaine didn't usually use the job boards because she had her own talents and skills that were enough to feed and house her.

She couldn't deny their convenience though. Papers with descriptions of the job requested and how much the employer was willing to pay were tacked to the board. People willing to work them took the paper to the employer and the deal with struck.

As Elaine approached, she saw someone take a paper requesting aid with restoring the roof of a storehouse that had been damaged. Two men remained, arguing over a selection of different jobs to decide which ones they could do.

She stood to beside them, ignoring their conversation as she looked across the board. A lot of the offers were for easy things that were either time consuming, hard labor, or both. The sort of thing that needed to be done, but no one wanted to do them. Cleaning sewage pipes, building a brick wall, helping someone move their furniture. Easy.

However, they also didn't pay very much. The one offering the job set their own price, and it was decided by those picking it up if the job was worth the cost. These little things would be easy to do, but wouldn't get her the money she needed to pay off her tab.

The higher payer ones, unfortunately, involved a larger investment of time. Guard the family farm for the weekend. Help build an entire house. Clean and restore an airship. Again, things she was rather certain she could do and would definitely give her the money she needed, but it wouldn't be ready in time.

"I said, no!"

The sharp whisper from the two arguing men finally caught Elaine's attention. She turned her eyes over curiously to see they had picked a paper. However, the man holding it appeared to be the only one excited about the job. The other guy was shaking his head quickly.

"No way. Absolutely, no way."

"What are you being scared for? Do you not see how much they're offering?"

"Yeah, do you know why? Because this is outright suicide!"

Curious now, Elaine lifted herself up on her toes so she could see past the man's hairy arm to the paper that he held. He was obviously trying to keep it hidden. And, when she saw the gold amount written across the top, she could see why.

That would pay for her current stay, and a few weeks in advance. She wouldn't have to worry about Despina nagging her for some time.

What kind of job-

"Hey!" The man holding the paper caught her trying to peek and he quickly smacking it to his chest, hiding it from her. "This is ours, kid. Shove off."

"Who are you calling a kid?" Elaine asked, dropping back down from her toes. She was shorter than him, by a fair amount, but she definitely wasn't a kid.

"It's not ours!" The other guy said at the same time. "I'm not doing it."

"Stop being a coward. It's fine."

The other man continued to refuse. Elaine stared at them for a moment more, but she was being ignored as unimportant. Which suited her fine. It worked out well. When the first man became frustrated with his partner, he finally dropped his hand from his chest to yell at him-

-and Elaine snatched the paper from his fist.

"Hey!" He turned, grabbing for it.

Elaine ducked neatly under his hand, reading the paper without looking up. A grin pulled across her cheeks at the offer.

"'Take care of the raiders who keep attacking my vineyard.' That's it? Easy."

"Don't be stupid, kid." The second guy told her, crossing his arms. "It's not just talking about a small band. That group of raiders is an entire company, and they're skilled fighters. This is something for the guard or maybe the military to take care of. That vineyard owner is a fool."

Elaine smirked at them. "Haven't you heard? There's a war going on. There's no military coming to save you from this, and the guard is stretched thin because most of them joined the military. He's not a fool; he's desperate. Luckily, so am I."

"Boy, you go out there, you're going to get killed."

She had started walking away, but the call brought her up short. She turned, blue eyes flashing angrily at them. "I am not a boy!"

They stared at her as she turned to stomp out. She heard them whisper behind her-

"Did you see his eyes? Creepy..."

"Did he just say he wasn't a boy?"

Slamming the door of the inn close behind her, Elaine turned to continue up the street. After so much time in Caieta, she knew the location of things rather well. Including the vineyard indicated on the job flier. Though, it was made that much easier by knowing that there was only one vineyard here. While not large, it was respectable and produced some fine quality wines.

At least, as far as she heard. She had never tasted it herself. She wondered if the owner wouldn't mind parting with one of his bottles along with the payment.

Judging by the look on his face when she knocked and she held up the flier, she wondered if he was going to pay her at all.

"Are you lost?" The older, bearded man asked, frowning at her up and down.

"This is literally the only vineyard for leagues. How could I possibly be lost?" Elaine raised a calm eyebrow. "You're the one with the raider problem, aren't you?"

"Well, yes, but I was expecting a band of people." He crossed his arms, leaning against the doorframe of his rather simply styled house for a man that had enough money to own and operate a vineyard. The trees of which she could see just beyond the hastily constructed wooden fencing.

"Oh, that's why the reward is so large." Elaine beamed, reading the number again. "You were expecting me to split it between a group. Well, anyway. Do you have the money? I'm in a bit of a hurry, and I'm going to need it by tonight."

The owner's eyebrow rose. "You don't get paid until the job is done."

"That did not answer my question."

The man sighed, obviously annoyed that she was wasting his time. "Yes, I have the money. But I-"

"Perfect!" Elaine beamed, storing the paper into a pouch on her belt. "Then, just point me in the direction of the raiders, and I'll be on my way."

"Look, boy..."

Elaine growled, but the man didn't notice as he looked her up and down. His grimace deepened as he took in her unimpressive appearance.

Thin, a bit on the shorter side, and obviously not someone of means. Her tunic was baggy and shapeless, falling around her thighs like a particularly short dress. Though, her legs were concealed by a pair of equally baggy trousers that were likely only being held in place by the belt he could no longer see after she dropped her tunic over it. She didn't even have on proper boots. The slipper style shoes were plain, ragged, and likely easily lost. Shaggy hair looked unkempt and covered her forehead inelegantly, though the locks did nothing to conceal her dazzling blue eyes.

To the owner's gaze, he saw a young man who probably hadn't even reached adulthood yet looking for trouble, completely unaware of how much danger he could put himself in.

Elaine crossed her arms as he looked her over. "Have a portrait painted, why don't you?"

"I appreciate the offer, lad, but I need real help. If you want money so badly, I never turn down field hands. You can-"

"I am not trimming trees and picking fruit."

"It's winter. There's no need for that this time of year."

"Not my point." Elaine blew her bangs from her face. "Just tell me where the raiders are, and get my payment ready. How many did you say there were?"

"It's nearly a hundred men." He gave her a hard look.

Elaine whistled, impressed. She touched her chin, thinking. "Nearly a hundred, huh... Let's round that up to a full hundred just to make it easier. So, a hundred men. Sunset isn't for another... what do you think, ten hours? That's ten men an hour... Yeah, that should be fine. Now. My direction?"

The owner rolled his eyes. "Boy, I am tired of this joke-"

Elaine grabbed his beard, yanking him down so she could look him in the eye. The force surprised him and his eyes widened as he pulled against her grip ineffectually.

"Call me a boy one more time," she growled as he struggled. "Tell me where the raiders are, and you better be good for the money, or I'm coming after you next. Understand me?"

Coins jiggled loudly as the sack of gold hit the bar. Despina stopped in the middle of cleaning the wooden surface as she blinked down at the bag.

Elaine sighed, rotating her sore shoulder as she sat down. "You have anything to eat? I'm starving."

Despina narrowed her eyes as she stored the rag in her belt. She picked up the sack and opened it, jaw slacking when she saw the amount inside.

"What did you do?!" She hissed, shutting it quickly as she looked around.

This late in the day, the pub part of the inn was crowded. Guests and patrons alike had gathered to buy food, drink, and fun times. Someone in the corner was playing a stringed instrument set across his lap while a buxom young lady sang and danced beside him. Much to the enjoyment of the male patrons who toasted her and threw coins at her feet. Mostly bronze and a few silver. These weren't the kind to be able to afford gold on a common dancer.

Elaine ignored them as she did her best to recline back into the bar stool. She frowned at Despina's question.

"What is that supposed to mean? I got you your money. Was that not what you wanted?"

"I will not have ill gotten gains in my establishment!"

"Oh, come off it." Elaine rolled her eyes. "Money is money, what does it matter where it comes from?"

"Elaine, I swear-"

"Calm down." Elaine smirked at her red face. "I got it by doing a job for the wine maker."

"The wine maker?" Despina frowned, looking from Elaine to the job board.

This late in the day, there was no one gathered there to find work. People would occasionally come in to place a job offering so that it would be visible when people began looking in the morning again, but it was too late to choose a job now.

Despina usually allowed the board to operate on its own, only going over to dust it when the need struck. She was only aware of a few jobs, and usually only because they were attention catchers. The raider problem for the vineyard owner was one such job. But, she knew that Elaine couldn't possibly have defeated an entire company of raiders on her own.

Unconcerned, Elaine was rubbing her sore shoulder now, almost ignoring Despina. She didn't look any more ragged or unkempt than normal. Despina didn't know Elaine all that well – she tended to keep to herself – but she was sure that Elaine was the type who would steal if it benefited her. Which caused Despina some concern...

Elaine lifted her gaze and caught the suspicious stare. She grinned.

"If you want to ask the vineyard owner if it's true, you can go right ahead. I got you your money on time, plus payment for next week. That's all you wanted, wasn't it?"

Despina sighed, storing the money under the bar so she could count it later. "Elaine-"

"Now, about dinner?"

Despina glared at being interrupted but she turned to get a plate from the kitchen.

Elaine watched her go, still grinning. As soon as she was out of sight, Elaine turned and looked back into the bar. She resisted the urge to continue working her arm around. The injury was a minor one, mostly it was just aching right now. An ache that existed deep in the bone, and there was a marvelously colored bruise across her shoulder and chest where she had been hit.

Sighing, Elaine leaned back on her good shoulder. She looked out at the others that were enjoying their evening with a bored eye.

She had missed an entire day of work to do this. Of course, now she wouldn't have to worry about paying for the room for a while, but it still felt like a waste of time to her. When she considered all that she could have gotten done...


The sound of wood hitting wood turned Elaine around. Despina had placed a wooden bowl onto the counter. The contents appeared to be some sort of stew created primarily with vegetables. Elaine made a face.

"Don't you have any meat?"

Despina glared at her. "No. We don't. Eat your stew."

Elaine sighed. "I want meat."

"Are you a child?"

"At heart."

"There's a war going on, Elaine. Times are lean. You're lucky that we even have food."

"If that's your idea of what it means to be lucky, please don't ever wish bad luck upon me."

Elaine took the spoon that Despina held out to her and sighed over the bowl. Not that the scent coming off of it wasn't tempting, but after such a hard fight, it would be nice to enjoy a juicy piece of pork or maybe a side of beef.

She sighed as she dipped her spoon into the vegetable stew. She knew that Despina was right, and that most of the food currently being produced went to the army, but she couldn't help but pine wistfully for what she couldn't have.

Still, at least the spice trade through Lloegyr and from the Aqua Isles remained undisturbed. Though the dish was mostly vegetable based and lacked the savory, meaty flavor Elaine desired, it didn't actually lack for taste.

She chewed, disheartened, on the offering as Despina went to get her some bread. She placed a slice down beside the bowl along with a small pat of butter. Elaine beamed happily as she quickly spread it across the bread. She then dipped it into her soup before ripping off a bite. The combination of spice and butter made her hum happily as she chewed.

Despina watched her with a frown as she returned to cleaning the counter.


Her name, softly spoken, made her open her eyes. Despina was frowning down below the bar at the bag of gold she had stashed out of sight.

"You didn't really defeat an entire company by yourself, did you?"

"No." Elaine sighed. "They were exaggerating a bit on the numbers. They didn't even reach a full hundred. It was closer to seventy-five. I lost count somewhere along the way though, so I might be off on my number, too."

Despina stared at her. At the flippant way she had spoken. It seemed unreal. Elaine took another bite of the stew-soaked bread, frowning when Despina continued to stare.

"What?" She asked, frowning. "Is there something on my face?"

"Elaine... are you..." Despina's voice faded in awe.

Elaine's expression darkened unexpectedly. She lowered the spoon back down to the bowl, blue eyes flashing in a way that sent chills down Despina's spine.

"Am I what?" She asked, voice cold.

The rest of the question froze in Despina's throat. Elaine just glared at her, waiting. She already knew what the innkeeper wanted to ask, but she wasn't going to answer it. The look in her eyes dared her to keep voicing it.

A loud smack at the other end of the bar made Despina jump, a squeak escaping her throat. Elaine turned more calmly to the man who had slammed his hand down. He laughed, holding up his mostly empty mug. He had turned it upside down and the few drops he hadn't managed to drink dripped onto the freshly cleaned bar.

"Hey! Despina! Gi' me more!"

Despina blinked at him rapidly, still startled from the look Elaine had given her. For a moment, she didn't even realize what the other man had said. The dripping of ale onto her bar broke the spell and she frowned at him.

"Sorrel, you're drunk."

"Yes, I am!" He pointed to her, laughing as he fell over the bar. He began banging the empty cup – still upside down – against it. "Another, woman!"

"No." Despina flung her rag down, annoyed. "You're not getting anymore. Turn the cup around, you fool, and stop banging it. You're leaving marks."

The announcement clearly annoyed Sorrel. He began trying to argue, but his slurred speech lacked the logic of sobriety.

Elaine ignored him, returning her attention to her stew. She just wanted to finish eating so she could return to her room. It was a bit too early in the evening for her to sleep, but she didn't feel like staying down here, watching as everyone enjoyed themselves.

Though she fully intended on staying out of the drunk Sorrel's business, it was clear that he wasn't willing to leave anyone out. His slurred voice began raising in pitch, kicking up a larger and larger fuss in an effort to get Despina to get him something to drink. It was obvious he intended to annoy her until he got what he wanted.

Sighing, Elaine lowered her spoon into the bowl. Her eye was twitching. It would probably be better to just go to bed now. She wasn't all that keen on eating vegetable stew anyway. There would probably be eggs for breakfast and she would rather wait for that than eat this in the company of a loud, drunk idiot.

Despina cried out and Elaine's eyes sharpened on the scene.

"Come on!" Sorrel smiled at her brightly, eyes barely focusing.

He had taken her by the hand and pulled, forcing her to lean across the bar and the edge of it was digging into her chest. She tried pulling back, but the drunk idiot was stronger than he looked and he had the advantage by already having her off balance.

"I jus' wan' one. One teeny, tiny li'le drink?" He took her other, thrashing hand, keeping Despina spread out along the bar as his mug hit the ground. Others were beginning to take notice now and, while a few looked uncomfortable, no one was making any attempts to stop him. "I'll be good, Despina. I jus' wan' one more."

"If you think I believe that..." Despina growled, trying to pull her hands back. The angle she was laid out made it difficult.

"Despina-a-a-a..." His voice dragged out, holding onto the last vowel. "I promise to let you go if you promise to give me-Urgh!"

The wooden spoon that slammed, handle first, into his temple was more of a surprise than anything. It hit his head with a surprising thud and he released Despina to grab at his injured skull. He turned with a glare as the spoon clattered away.

Elaine was the only other person in sight. She calmly ate the bread she was dipping into the stew in the absence of a proper spoon.

"Hey!" He snapped, getting back to his feet from the stool. He wobbled a bit, but he was able to keep his balance as he advanced.

Elaine kept eating calmly.

"Hey!" He pushed at her shoulder. "You threw a spoon at me!"

"Huh?" Elaine looked at him stupidly. "You talking?"

Growling, Sorrel grabbed her bowl and threw it backwards, spilling stew and vegetable chunks all across the bar. Despina cried out in dismay at the mess, but she didn't attempt to get any closer to Sorrel again.

"That was mine." Elaine glared, lowering her bread. "Now you owe me supper."

"Sorrel..." Despina frowned, unsure of what else to say. She wanted to warn him, but that dark look Elaine had given her flashed into her mind and she was afraid to try speaking.

Sorrel didn't even seem to notice she had spoken. He was trying to get in as close as possible to Elaine's face, breathing ale tinted breath right into her nose.

"Back off, kid. What's a boy like you even doing in a pub?"

Elaine's eye twitched. "I've had just about enough of people calling me a boy today."

"Hey, Sorrel."

A hand appeared on his shoulder and a smiling man pulled him back.

"Leave them alone, man. Come back over here. Look, you can have the rest of mine."

Sorrel knocked the mug away, sending it clattering it across the floor. "I don't want yours! I want mine! Despina, I said give me a damn drink!"

Despina crossed her arms, unmoving.

"You should listen to your friend," Elaine warned, voice low as her patience ran thin. She had been tired just a moment ago, but hearing yet another person label her as a boy was quickly breaking her out of the desire for rest.

"You threatening me?" Sorrel growled, returning to glare into her face. Then, deliberately, as though he knew it were annoying her, he added, "Boy?"

Elaine kicked out, planting her foot into his gut. He immediately gagged, falling forward, she drove the point of her elbow onto the top of his head.

"Hey!" His friend reacted immediately, aiming to throw his own punch at her.

Elaine kicked back, sending her stool to the ground. She hit with it, rolling away and coming up on her feet. Two more men had run over. One quickly kneeled down beside the dazed Sorrel, but the second, obviously just as drunk, glared at her hatefully.

"You starting something, boy?!" He snapped at her.

Almost calmly, Elaine kicked off her shoes. She sent the plain slippers towards the bar, putting her bare feet onto the wooden floor. She turned to him, anger flashing in her eyes.

"Come on, girls. If you think you can take me."

"Elaine!" Despina tried to yell at her to stop.

Too late. The drunker friend charged at her, yelling as he drew a cheap dagger from his belt. Elaine saw the dull flash of metal and her body turned as his arm shot past. She grabbed his wrist and used his own momentum to turn her body and drive her elbow back onto his neck.

She hooked her leg around his and, as he was falling to the side, jerked it up. She grabbed it. Grunting in effort, she threw him away.

With a crunch of wood, he hit a near table. The two men eating lost their meals and drinks in the same moment as he rolled off and hit the ground. They turned angrily to her. Elaine met their heated gazes with one of her own.

"You want some, too?" She asked, raising her fists.

Sorrel's second friend, screaming, charged now that her back was to him. Elaine dropped as he tried to grab her. She came up again, taking him by the outstretched arm, and used his momentum to throw him over her shoulder and onto the ground.

The men she had disturbed were standing.

"I said, stop it!" Despina yelled.

Her voice was barely heard as more people began standing. Some to escape, most to put their weight into the fight.

Elaine snarled, turning to face her next opponent.

The sounds of shattering glass and splintering wood caused Odilon to pause as he frowned at the brightly lit windows of the pub from the empty street. Shadows moved quickly beyond the windows, but he couldn't see much through the slightly opaque curtains.

"Are you sure this is it?" He turned to his companion as a loud cry of pain erupted from inside.

Nina sighed, crossing her arms. "This is it."

Odilon looked back at the pub. Aside from the lamps burning at the corners, the street was dark. The only other illumination came from inside this establishment. Every other business had closed up for the night. Soldiers, under Nina's command, had blocked off the street at each exit and the near alleys. She was taking no chances.

"Seems like a... charming place." Odilon struggled to think of something nice to say.

Nina let her arms fall to her side. "I'm sure it was quite nice. Until Elaine got here."

"You're sure she's here?"

"An entire company of raiders destroyed in a single day by a single person? Even if it's not her, we have to find out who did it. Though, if I was putting money on anyone, it would be her."

"I don't think I've ever formally met Elaine. She's... nice?" Odilon looked back at the raucous noise coming from inside the pub. The sounds of the fight weren't diminishing. If anything, they were only getting louder.

Nina didn't say anything, which didn't fill Odilon with very much confidence.

"Nina, I appreciate what you're doing, but I don't know that we should be trusting someone who, er..."

Nina chuckled at his hesitancy to speak ill. "You're such a gentleman. Believe me, Lord Yvaine, for this job, you want Elaine."

Odilon wasn't sure he was inclined to agree.

Of all of the paladins of Vasconia, the Lord's chosen warriors, Elaine was the only one that actively refused her role. Though war raged, she did not head the calls to assist the country that she had sworn a sacred oath to defend.

They called her the Pain Collector, the Blood Bearer. Those were her official titles on the Holy Record given to her by the master of the Sacellum himself, Master Eneas. And, if those were the things that the kindly old man thought to call her, Odilon wasn't at all certain that he wanted to meet the beast-like woman in person.

As though to punctuate his thought, the sound of shattering glass turned both Odilon and Nina to look as a man was thrown bodily through the front window. He groaned in pain where he lay on the ground, bleeding from the broken glass that now surrounded him, as the curtains from inside danced out on the breeze.

Nina sighed. "I suppose I better go in there and stop her."

Odilon wasn't worried for Nina's safety. She was the leader of the paladins and, despite her thin, willowy build, she was a highly skilled fighter. More than that, she had the power that the Lord had blessed her with, marking her as a paladin.

When Nina opened the doors, Odilon grimaced at the bedlam that he saw inside. A large, undulating mass of people were destroying furniture and each other. Blood splatters coated the floor but were quickly smeared by stomping feet. It was hard to tell who was even fighting whom. It all seemed to be a chaotic mess.

"Do you see her?" Odilon asked, pulling his fur scarf from his neck as they stepped in out of the cold.

"Not yet. Hold this for me." Nina passed him the coat that she wore around her shoulders. Odilon obligingly placed it over his arm with his scarf.

Nina stretched her arms before charging into the fray. Her body turned into a blur as she moved. Nina's power, that of speed, gave her a distinct advantage in fight. Usually not in large ones put in small spaces like this, but Odilon was certain that she could handle a group of untrained, drunken brawlers without aid.

Calmly, he skirted around the edge of the fight. His eyes scanned the area quickly, searching for the proprietor. Though he didn't know the woman, she was easy to distinguish by the look of horror she had while standing behind the bar, watching as her establishment was destroyed.

Odilon moved towards her, standing on the other side of the bar beside someone who was more focused on picking apart a piece of bread. As though the fight weren't even there.

"Excuse me." He smiled at the woman. "Is this your pub?"

Her eyes sharpened on him. She looked at the fine cut of his coat and furs and was instantly suspicious of him. "Who are you?"

"I would like to apologize for this mess." He said, quite sincerely, as he reached into his coat. He pulled out a purse filled with gold coins and placed it on the bar. "Please, take this to pay for the damages."

The owner frowned but she reached out for the purse. Her eyes widened when she opened it up and saw the golden coins spilling out. Their shine caught the attention of the other person sitting at the bar and they stood up to get a better look.

Then turned, blonde hair waving in front of a pair of stunningly blue eyes.

"Where'd you get that?" Elaine asked him, impressed. She repeated the same action Despina had just made, looking Odilon over quickly.

His long, black coat was of a far higher quality than anything she would have expected to see in this common part of town. As were the fine leather gloves, real fur scarf, and glimmer of gold that she could see around his earlobe.

He was obviously wealthy. Aside from that, he was also handsome. His perfectly styled brown hair and flawless skin spoke to a great deal of care and expensive creams. He stood with the confident air of nobility, and smiled at the two women with a surprising amount of kindness.

"Why are you paying for this?" Despina asked, hand tightening over the gold. "This isn't your fault."

"It's fine." Odilon smiled at her. "I like doing things for others. It makes me feel nice inside. Please, take it. For my sake."

Despina blinked at him, a pink blush staining her cheeks. The way Odilon smiled was enough to set her heart racing. She turned quickly, letting out a breath as she grabbed for her chest. Elaine watched the movement with a raised brow.

She turned back to him. "What did you say your name was?"

He turned his smile onto her and Elaine stiffened in surprise. How was it possible that a single smile could make a man so handsome?

"I didn't." He held out his hand. "My name is Odilon Yvain."

Surprised, Elaine took his hand. It took her a second to realize why that name was familiar. "Wait, you don't mean Yvain as in... the Yvain Trading Company?"

"The very same. And your name..." He lifted her hand to his mouth and kissed her knuckles. "Miss?"

Stunned, Elaine just stared. He continued smiling, as though he knew full well the effect he had on the female species. He probably did. The cad.

"Miss?" He repeated patiently.



She jumped, jerking her head away. Turning, she stared in surprise at the sight Nina made, standing in the middle of a pile of men who were groaning and crawling away from her. Elaine had been so focused on Lord Yvain that she hadn't noticed the fight dying down behind her.

Quickly, she forced a smirk on her face as she leaned back against the bar. "Nina? Is that you? Have you gotten skinnier?"

Growling, Nina began stomping towards her deliberately.

Odilon frowned. "Elaine? You?"

She tossed her messy hair with a shake of her head, sending it more into her eyes than out of them. After she had put Sorrel and his friends on the floor, she had no reason to stay in the fight. So, she had extricated herself from it. She didn't particularly care that it had still been ongoing. They would tire themselves out eventually, or someone would stop it. And someone had.

Admittedly, she hadn't expected that person would be Nina.

"What are you doing out here? Don't you have a war to wage?"

"I do. And I don't have time to be chasing rogue paladin, yet, here I am."

"Paladin..." Despina whispered, face going pale. The word set the other patrons murmuring.

Elaine sighed. "Now, look what you've done. That kind of thing isn't easy to keep secret, you know. It's going to be all over town by tomorrow night, and you've just made my task that much harder."

"Actually," Nina smirked, crossing her arms, "I've made it easier."

Elaine raised a curious eyebrow.

"What would you say if I told you that I've found a way for you to get what you want, and to serve your position as a paladin at the same time?"

"I'd say, why do you think I care about serving my position as a paladin so much?"

"You swore an oath, Elaine."

"And see how far that's gotten me?" Elaine shrugged. "But, you've caught my interest. I'll listen. Despina, how about some more of that stew?"

Despina didn't move and Elaine pouted.

"Shall we speak over there?" Odilon suggested, pointing to a corner table that had managed to survive the brawl. "For a little more privacy?"

Nina nodded and began walking that way. Odilon followed her and, after sighing exaggeratedly, Elaine did the same.

She never liked talking to Nina. Her commander was always angry at her. Probably because she refused to fight for their causes or serve the church as loyally as the others did. Not that Elaine had any problems with the church or the war, she just had more important issues to handle.

Like a gentleman, Odilon held out the chair for Nina. Then, came around to do the same for Elaine. She was surprised and watched as he moved to take his own seat. She couldn't remember the last time that someone had held a chair for her.

"I hear you got engaged." Elaine started, turning from him and smirking at Nina. "To the crown prince himself. You aim high, Nina. I have to admire your ambition."

Nina glowered at her. "I don't have time for your attitude, Elaine. I've got far more important matters to deal with on the other side of the country."

"What's the problem? It's winter. Wars always slow down in the winter." Elaine sat back, tapping her fingers on the table. "Enjoy the respite. It will go away the moment spring comes."

"There's more to life than this war, and the strain the war has put on our supplies means that everyone is going through shortages. I have to return to the capital rather quickly so I can help their majesties see the country through this winter."

"Then, why are you here?" Elaine's sharp blue eyes caught on Nina's violet ones. "You and I both know that there's nothing you can offer me, and no threat you can levy, that will make me forget my mission. And, since you didn't bring Lea with you, I don't think that you're intending to remove me from the ranks of the paladins. Lord only knows why not. So, what do you want?"

"You should have better manners, Elaine. I brought you a gift."

"Oh? And what is that?"

"Exactly what you've been chasing all these years." From inside her dress pocket, Nina pulled out a long scroll. She tossed it between them. "Your revenge."

Elaine stared at her with suspicion for a moment before reaching out. She took the scroll and unrolled it curiously. The map she found herself looking at was a detailed print of this region. The Lloegyrian-Vasconian border. It had Caieta circled with her name written beside it. On a few other cities, those closer to the northern edge of the border, there were towns with red 'X's beside them. Most had only one, a few had two or more. They became denser the further north the towns ranged. The closer they came to the intersection between the three kingdoms.

"What is this?" Elaine asked, looking up.

"Each of those 'X's marks a place where there has been a pirate attack."


"Since winter started." Nina finished darkly.

Elaine lowered the map, frowning. "Pirate attacks stop in the winter."

"Usually, yes. But, as you can see, they haven't yet." Odilon interjected, frowning. "Each place that is being attacked is near destroyed each time. Most of them are trading locations. Usually, they're my businesses, as well."

"Someone is targeting Lord Yvain's trading posts." Nina crossed her arms. "And, I think I have a good idea as to why. Sybille figured it out."

"Do tell." Elaine set the map down, her interest securely caught. "What does the prodigy strategist think?"

"As things are now, Gascony is in a rather precarious situation. They control Antonin Pass, which means they have near constant access into Vasconia. However, a strong winter storm would be all it takes to close the Pass. If that were to happen, their army would be left cut off and vulnerable."

"Any storm strong enough to close the Pass would affect our armies just as badly." Elaine spoke calmly, unimpressed.

"But, it does leave them a bit more exposed than General Didier would like. Especially as they are the only things we're focusing on. Sybille has proposed that these pirate attacks, ongoing well past pirate season, are likely the fault of Gascony. She believes that the pirates are being paid to stir up trouble. Keep us busy and unfocused, and attempt to fracture our forces. If I have to order part of the army to the Lloegyrian border to protect the towns from pirates, that weakens us considerably."

"I agree. It would be stupid for you to do so."

"We can't let things continue, however. We need to see to the safety of our people. Furthermore, Lord Yvain and his trading company are the ones supplying the military at the current moment. His posts and his routes are the only reason that our army is well supplied. Weapons, food, even mail. Which is likely why they seem to be targeted above the others."

"I'm honored to serve my king in this capacity." Odilon shook his head. "I cannot, however, ask my employees to continue risking their lives without doing anything to protect them."

"Probably smart. It's a good way to lose employees if you don't." Elaine turned back to Nina. "You've yet to explain why you're all the way out here, talking to me, though."

Nina took her coat from Odilon and reached into the pocket. "It seems that there's only one pirate fleet that's being used. They fly the same flag at each raid. I thought, considering who they are, you might have a vested interest in helping us."

She pulled a scrap of paper from her pocket and tossed it onto the map. The hastily scrawled symbol was a familiar one to Elaine. A goblet holding flames over a sword placed behind it. The artist had an unsteady hand, and it wasn't a perfect representation of the real symbol.

That didn't make it less recognizable.

Elaine's fist closed over the paper, crumpling it in her hand. She growled at Nina.

"Pirate Blue Bird." Nina supplied unnecessarily.

"He's in the north now?" Elaine asked, voice low.

"Apparently, he is. And, as a special gift to you, Elaine, we've even managed to narrow down where he makes port."

Elaine's head shot up. "Where? Tell me!"

Nina shook her head. "Is that how you ask for something? I think not. We'll tell you where we've tracked him. In return, you will go with Lord Yvain to find him."

"You're sending me pirate hunting with a merchant? No offense." She smirked at Odilon. "But, you don't look very useful in a fight. I don't feel like acting like a bodyguard for a few weeks."

"Oh, there's no need for that." From inside of his coat, Odilon pulled what was unmistakably a weapon. Though, Elaine didn't recognize it. "One of Felicie's hand canons. A gun, as I believe she calls it. The design isn't perfect, but I'm helping her test it out. This shall be my protection. I don't need you to defend me. In fact, it is my airship that we'll be using for me to take you up north."

"You're going with Felicie and Colette." Nina added. "They'll be your allies. I can't afford to give you a fighting force, so it will be only the three of you."

"Who is Colette?"

"The newest paladin. She's in charge of the front lines. Since they're at a bit of a stalemate at the moment, she will be assisting you instead."

"You're giving me the wall-crawler and a green paladin as backup on a merchant ship chasing down the most ruthless pirate in two generations. I feel so secure in the success of this mission."

"You should." Nina smirked. "Since you're going to be leading it."

"I never said I would do it."

"But you will. You won't pass up this chance. You've been chasing Blue Bird your entire life. I've just given you the means to find him. You can't say no."

Elaine wanted to argue with her, but she couldn't. She wanted to snatch the map away already and begin her journey north. However, she noticed that Nina had made sure not to include where she thought Blue Bird's home port was on the map.

"And, what exactly is it that you're wanting from me?" She growled, waiting for the ax to fall on her head. Because Nina wouldn't give her this for free.

"Find Pirate Blue Bird. Kill him or take him prisoner or whatever you desire. Take your revenge with our blessing. In return, you find out who has been paying Blue Bird to attack us, and how he's getting the information to know where Lord Yvain's trading posts are."

"And, what's to stop me from just tracking him down myself from what you've just told me?"

"Blue Bird's port, as far as we can tell, is inside of Lloegyr. As much as you are a rogue and refuse to do your duty, you are still a paladin of Vasconia. You cannot border cross without royal permission from the queen of Lloegyr. Take the mission, and you will have access to the papers you need. Lord Yvain has them."

Elaine was tapping her fingers again. She was thinking quickly. Not exactly trying to find a way out, but trying to figure out how to fit this in with her plans. It was true that Nina was giving her the easiest path to what she wanted. However, she didn't much appreciate the idea what she was being forced into helping the other paladins.

Still, everything she had been chasing was right in front of her now...

"I don't know who Colette is, but she and Felicie better stay out of my way."

"They'll be assets to you, I'm sure."

"I highly doubt it. You should probably just take them back to whatever role they were filling before. I can do this on my own."

Nina got to her feet, looking down at Elaine. "You are not alone. We are all with you. That is what it means to be a paladin. We help each other."

"No. We serve the kingdom as puppets of the church."

"Servants to the Lord."

"Isn't that what I just said?" Elaine smirked, leaning onto her hand. "You're not sending them with me to help. You're sending them along so they can watch me. Make sure I'm doing as I'm told."

"You're paranoid."

"That doesn't mean I'm wrong."

"Elaine, if I wanted you watched, I wouldn't be sending Colette or Felicie to do it. I would send you with Lea."

"Ooh. Scary." Elaine grinned.

"Don't mistake me." Nina's eyes flashed. "I still can. Lea is watching the front lines so Colette can help you. However, she has been put on alert. At my word, she will head to your location immediately."

Elaine rolled her eyes.

"I mean it. I will sever your connections with us. I will have her remove you from our ranks. You have been a rogue for long enough. You swore a vow to protect Vasconia, and I have allowed you to flagrantly break that vow for years. No longer. I am giving you your revenge, Elaine. In return, when you are done, you will come back to the capital and serve."

"I knew it would be something like that."

"The kingdom needs you."

"The kingdom seems to be doing just fine without me."

"You don't seem to realize. We're losing this war, Elaine. You are the most skilled paladin. There is no fight you can't win, and no situation you can't break yourself out of. You're insufferable-"

"Thank you."

"-but you're also invaluable. I have to return to the capital. You will go with Odilon. He will see to it that you have everything you need. Good luck, Elaine."

"I don't need it." She glared angrily at Nina as she began walking away.

It wasn't so much the task she had been set that bothered her. It was the threat inherent within it.

Turning, she focused back on the handsome, young lord. If she remembered correctly, he was considered the most eligible bachelor in all of Vasconia for his wealth and position. He smiled at her and she distrusted him immediately.

"Let me make something clear," she said to him, "when I say that I work alone, I mean it. I don't need your assistance either."

"Whether you need it or not, you have it." Odilon nodded to her as he stood. "I have a room ready for you on my ship. We can go now if-"

"No." Elaine stood as well. "It's late. We're not leaving tonight. The winds are worse at night, it would be stupid to try taking off now. We can leave in the morning. I'll have my things packed by then."

"Then, I'll send a servant to assist you in bringing them to the docks-"

"No, thank you. I don't need the help."

Turning, she walked away from the table. Trekking barefoot through the mess she had started left out on the floor from the fight.

Odilon watched her go, face devoid of expression. So, that was the paladin they called the Pain Collector.

She really did seem to live up to her name.