Caroline decided to tour the city. The Capital of the Golden Empire was, as expected, huge! There were tons of monuments, historical sites, and entertainment to see and do. But right then, she was hungry. Walking around the Division’s Headquarters was surprisingly tiring.
After some thought, she decided to head to a high end shopping district. Apparently they had a really chick cafe along the main drag. Since coming to this country, she’d never eaten at a place that could even remotely be considered stylish.
As expected of the Capital, they took “high end” to a new level. All the buildings used huge white bricks, giving the city a clean, bright feeling. Instead of dirt roads, it was all cobble stone. And ten story buildings with actual elevators were common too. Indoor plumbing was everywhere and they even had toilets instead of outhouses. She almost cried when she saw the toilets.
After asking for directions several times, she made it to the Cafe. The “Blue Bird Cafe” it was called, with the entire interior design revolving around it’s name sake. Pastel blues and little bird designs were hidden everywhere. Even the stirring spoons had little birds on the handles.
She was fortunate that it wasn’t busy that day and got a window seat. Watching people from all over the Empire and beyond walk by was excellent entertainment. Hillsdale got it’s fair share of travelers too, but they were almost always from the Southern areas of the Empire. The Capital got people from every corner, plus quite a few foreigners. Even better, in this area of town, a lot of wealthy merchants and aristocrats shopped, so she got to see some really crazy foreign outfits.
“…oh, is that the Princess of Oreland?” A woman from a table just across from her commented to her companion while pointing.
“It is, it is! What’s she doing out without a guard!” The other lady responded excitedly.
Caroline had never seen a princess before, and leaned forward eagerly in her seat to get a better view.
“Who’s that man with her?”
“It’s someone from the Mage Division isn’t it?”
Yes, it was. Even with his hair grown out and tied loosely behind him, Caroline recognized the face. It was Thio.
“Is that her guard, maybe?”
“Pff, I hope not. How foolish would it be to have one Mage guard a Princess? That’s just ASKING for a kidnapping!”
Caroline frowned, her stomach was twisting uncomfortably.
“Oooh,” Squealed the first woman. “What if it’s a forbidden romance!”
The other giggled. “How exciting! Can you imagine?”
The twist turned into a sharp stab, causing Caroline to hold her stomach painfully.
There’s no way he’s dating a Princess, she thought heatedly. He’d tell me first, wouldn’t he? He wouldn’t just… date someone on the sly? No, no… he wouldn’t do that. We’re friends at least. And we promised Father Richard. Wait… that’s besides the point. He must be her guard, right? There’s no way he could attract the attention of a Princess. Ha ha ha. That’s right. Sure, he’s got those ridiculous eyes and flowing locks of hair—”
Caroline peeked at Thio and the Princess again and saw them laughing.
She sat up suddenly, chair clattering behind her, still holding her gut. The gossiping women were startled by her sudden movement, but she didn’t notice. Staggering to the register, she paid for her drink and food in the daze. Getting out of their was her top priority.
What road she took, how long she walked, she had no idea. All she remembered is that it was suddenly dark, and she realized she was lost.
Finally aware of her surroundings, she groaned. This was not a good part of town. As she was chastising herself for not paying attention, a group of men approached her.
They were clearly hooligans.
“What’s a nice lady like you doing in this part of town?” Their leader sneered.
“Just a little lost.” Caroline admitted, more annoyed with herself than scared.
“Oooooh, is that so?” The leader glanced at his partners, giving them a signal. “Why don’t you come with us? We’ll show you the way.”
Rubbing her temples, she exhaled. “Look, I’m not in the mood to deal with you guys.”
“That’s ok,” The leader leaned forward threateningly. “We’re in the mood to deal with you.”
Caroline patted herself off, examining the hooligan bodies scattered on the ground around her. She felt a little better, having vented her frustration on somebody else. Kicking the leader viciously on his side, she smiled cheekily.
“Now then, to find my way back to that Inn.”
She didn’t get the Inn until quite a bit later at night, and only because she found a City Guard to help her. Once in her room, she collapsed on the bed exhausted.
Tomorrow she was suppose to visit Thio.
She really didn’t want to.
Thinking about him at all made her feel miserable.
“Why am I even jealous?” She whispered into her empty room. “It’s not like we’re really married. It’s not like we even like each other. I only lived with him for a week. He was like a room mate, a really crabby roommate…”
She tossed in bed for a bit. “Ah… being jealous is really bad. I shouldn’t be jealous. It doesn’t make sense. We’re letter friends, penpals.” She bit her thumb nail anxiously. “If I meet him tomorrow, it’s gonna be really obvious I’m upset. He’ll ask why. I’m going to have to admit I saw him with the Princess and didn’t even say hi. It’ll get awkward. Reaaaally awkward.”
Taking the pillow, she punched it. “I don’t want to admit it. He doesn’t like me. It’s going to make our relationship super weird. Arg…”
After moaning about it, she suddenly cheered up. “I know. Let’s just avoid it. Yeah. If we don’t meet up, then it won’t be a problem. That’s it. That’s the way.”
Caroline fell asleep in total denial.
The next morning, she took everything really slow. From getting dressed, to taking a bath, eating breakfast, she went as slow as humanly possible. When she finally heading out the Division Headquarters, she took the long way and even got a little lost.
By the time she made it to Headquarters, it was past noon. She entered on the East Entrance, which was on the complete opposite side from LDF. By the time she arrived, it was 2pm, well past her meet up time.
As expected, Thio was not there. The man she met yesterday was, and ran up to her when she entered.
“What happened?” He asked anxiously. “We waited for hours but you never showed up.”
She made an apologetic hand motion. “Sorry, sorry, I woke up late and got lost getting here.”
This was technically, TECHNICALLY, the truth.
The Senior Mage sighed in relief. “Oh thank God! We thought you might have gotten mugged.”
“Nay, that happened last night.”
“Eh, it was nothing.”
“No… I’m pretty sure that’s something…”
“Don’t worry about it!” She smacked him on the arm enthusiastically. “I barely touched them and they surrendered! Anyway,” She rushed to continue. “I’ve got things to do today, so I’ll be going. Just thought I should stop by since I said I would yesterday.”
“Oh, right… do you want to leave a message?”
She made a show of thinking. “Naw. I’ll just pop by when I have the time.”
Before he could finished, she’d was already leaving.
“What on earth does Thio like about this girl?” The Senior Mage muttered at her fleeing figure.
Caroline felt guilty about standing Thio up. But the guilt didn’t compare to the intense desire to avoid immediate conflict. Rather than spend four more days in the Capital and risk bumping into Thio again (a real possibility considering what happened her first day), she decided to head to the Adventurer’s Guild and take on some Requests.
Since there was no one to stop her, Caroline pushed herself, taking on riskier and riskier missions. She’d figured out some time ago that her Excellent Health stat allowed her to gain strength at a faster rate than usual. Her physical strength and defense increased dramatically when she went to death’s door and survived. It reminded her of something from her past, a funny drawing of someone with yellow spikey hair surrounded by energy. She once again regretted that no one got the joke.
After four days of reckless behavior, she’d gotten significantly stronger. She’d also acquired a Handle by the Guildmaster in the Capital: “The Berserker Bear Claw”.
She almost cried. It wasn’t feminine or lady like or anything. It made her sound like a rabid animal. She tried to get it changed, but the Guildmaster insisted that it fit her fighting style (boxing with knuckle spikes) and it had real pizazz. Everyone else thought so too, because by the end of the week that’s what they all called her.
Caroline quietly admitted defeat and went home.
She didn’t once visit Thio.
When she got home, she was chagrin to discover that somehow the Hillsdale Guild knew about her handle. She complained bitterly to Mariel, who unsympathetically pointed out that if she’d behaved herself it would have never happened. And anyway, what was she doing taking missions during her vacation with her husband?
When Thio was mentioned, she couldn’t scowling. Her crankiness was not lost on her fellow Guild mates. They all knew something must have gone wrong, but when they tried to ask she just got snippy and told them to mind their own business. After she cracked a table in two, anger over it being brought up, everyone decided not to mention up again.
She did not write a letter to Thio that month.
I have written you twice before, and now I am sending this letter expedited with confirmation as well. I am seriously worried over here. Did you make it home safely? Please respond to this letter as soon as you receive it.
Caroline sighed. She’d left the first two letters unopened and stuffed in a bag on the wall. This one she’d been forced to open when the delivery boy had said he had to witness read with his own two eyes before he could count it as “confirmed”.
She sat at the small desk, a blank piece of paper in front of her. After hemming and haying, she finally managed to write:
I have arrived safely at Hillsdale.
My sincerest apologies about not getting back to you in a timely manner. When I arrived home, I ended up much busier than I anticipated.
I’m also sorry we did not get to meet while I was in the Capital. I was doing Guild work there, you see, and was busy most of the time. When I tried to get to the Division’s Headquarters, I got lost. For such a giant building, it’s certain difficult to find. That or I’ve got a horrible head for directions.”
Caroline paused, twirling her pen in her hand and biting her lip. Should she ask, or shouldn’t she? After debating for a bit, she finally jotted down:
“While I was in town, I heard there was a Princess from some place called Oreland visiting as well. Apparently she’s very well known, as people in the city were talking about her. Have you heard of her?
She writhed about whether to send the letter as written. The first half came off cold and the last half was about a strange topic. In the end, she determined to wait until tomorrow to make her decision.
To her surprise, the delivery boy was back the next day. Thio had been thorough and thrown money to the wind: Not only had he paid for confirmation, he then paid for return delivery. The boy would keep on knocking on her door every day until she got a letter sent out.
Annoyed and still feeling guilty, she stuffed the already written letter into the delivery boy’s hands. When he gave her a starry eyed star, she was forced to tip him as well.
A few days later, Thio responded:
Have I offended you in some way?
PS: There was a Princess. I was charged with escorting her.”
Naturally, Caroline dithered over the letter and it took a week before she could think of a decent response.
No, I’m not offended. I’m sorry if I sounded short in my last letter. Everything is well.
PS: Do Mages usually escort Princesses?”
His reply came back seven days later, to her surprise. He was spending a lot of money on mail…
I hope you really are being sincere about not being offended. There are no relationships in the world where people do not offend each other, at least on occasion. However, if a person is offended, but doesn’t tell the offender what they did wrong so they can repair the damage, that would be very cruel. Don’t you think?
As to the Division’s Headquarters being tricky to find… I do understand. It’s not near any government buildings and on the other side of town from the Army and Air Garrisons. I was lucky that the dorms I stayed in the first few months were located across the street. Otherwise I would have gotten lost too.
Mages don’t usually escort Princesses. Apparently this Princess didn’t want to be followed around by a bunch of “sweaty, burly guards” (her words, not mine). It was decided a strong Mage would be a good alternative. The Senior Mages then drew lots to see who would be forced to babysit her, and I drew the short end.
By the time I was done, my face was sore from forced smiling. Evans jokingly told me that I was scowling twice as darkly to make up for all the smiling.
Evans was the man you met at Division Headquarters. He’s a good friend of mine.
Caroline felt horribly guilty. But since she’d already lied numerous times, she felt trapped. She pondered what she could do by way of apologizing, without actually apologizing.
The solution came by way of Mariel. She had sewed a new shirt for her husband and was spending her spare time at work embroidering the shirt with family designs. Caroline had discovered that it was customary for families to have something like a crest, which they embroider on their clothes and bedding and pretty much anything made of cloth. Even the most wealthy townsfolk participated.
It occurred to Caroline that Thio was likely still embroidering his own designs. (Even in the Army, he was a penny-pincher by his own admission.) Since he was a man, and also busy, he likely didn’t put too much time into them. While Caroline was a rough and tumble gal, Mariel had forced her to practice her sewing and embroidery.
Mariel’s logic being: “A married woman who can’t sew and can’t embroider is a shame to the entire family. And since the Guild and Church is taking care of you, a shame to the entire community. I won’t allow it. So sit down, shut up, and learn.”
Caroline couldn’t really argue with that logic, so she’d done as Mariel commanded. That woman could be scary when she wanted to be. Now, two years later, she’d greatly improved her domestic skills. She was, at the very least, better than Thio.
Going to the general goods store, Caroline bought some of the best fabric they had, and some beautiful green yarn (which reminded her of Thio’s eyes). She put together a sturdy shirt, long sleeved since the Capital had harsher winters, and began embroidering. Now that she’d seen many different types of crests, she understood that Thio’s family crest was mountains and stars. She built upon the simple design she remembered seeing two years ago.
She worked on it for three weeks straight, even skipping out on some Guild Requests to make time for it. Once it was done, she very carefully wrapped it up and attached a simple note: “Mariel has been teaching me sewing and embroider for two years now. I wanted to show off my skills! – Caroline”