Fable - Ask A Matter of Debt

Takashi Haller

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It's been so long... Far too long since Takashi had set foot inside a walled city, as he stood mesmerized by Alliria's splendor. He had spent months wandering the wilderness, hunting his prey. He still felt the cold sting of those memories clawing at the back of his mind, the horrid screams of all the people killed by that demon. He did all he could to forget it, but it seemed his life was a cursed cycle of haunted dreams that would never be over.

The hunt for the demon had led across the continent and ended with its demise in a abandoned village near the city of Alliria, which seemed like a fit enough place to get some rest after the ordeal. It hadn't been a day since Tak managed to vanquish that foe, the bits of blood still displayed on his clothing but hidden by a leather cloak who helped him pass by as a normal traveler.

He wandered aimlessly after entering the city. He was never one to stay in such civilized and crowded places for more than a few days, bringing back memories of what it seemed like a whole past life, from his days as a kid overlooking the Black Bay all the way from Cerak's fortress. Compared to those slums, Alliria was a grand difference, and he noticed that life seemed to be easier around here - the people busy with their markets, smiles on their lips and coin pouches at their disposal ready to be spent on whatever their needs.

Still, they seemed to pay no mind to a simple traveler walking around with no clear intention. It wasn't until the night started to gather that Tak found something of interest to ponder, as he passed the threshold of Alliria's Inner City, ignoring the longing glare of a few guards as they looked upon his waist. Yes, his trusted weapon, evidently something to pay close attention to.

After crossing to a less crowded street, Tak stopped on his tracks. He had noticed several minutes before what was happening. Thugs, following him from afar and interested in what manner of possessions a traveler such as him could have. Takashi noticed more of the individuals coming from either sides now, blocking whatever escape route he could think of, and the few merchants who were busy closing their stalls bolted away as they feared the ensuing fight.

Tak's left hand slowly reached for his scabbard, tilting it slightly down as his thumb on the katana's guard slowly lifted it from place. The merchants returned to the street with several guards after they reported the situation, but they arrived to see the thugs all slain at Takashi's feet. The Allirian's guards started to circle him, weapons in hand and barking orders for him to stand down.

The young man still had his katana in hand, but he remembered some teachings of the past -- "A shinobi's best weapon is mercy. Be sure to remember that, Tak."

He remembered.

Takashi swiftly swung his blade in front of him before fitting it inside the scabbard and guarding it, waiting as the guards reached closer.

Divina Rosenstern
 

Divina Rosenstern

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"Stand down."

A voice rang out, hard and clear, from atop a destrier. A warhorse. What few could see the subtle insignia, it spoke of House Rosenstern; a White Rose, entwined with its' own vines, over a chevron blue and brown background.

"This man defended himself. Stand down," she spoke again, scowling. "By order of the Guild, this man is under my protection. Leave, or you'll be stripped of rank for disrespect." Icy blue eyes peeked from a simple brown hood, peering past the captain of the guard towards the newcomer. He looked as like an alleycat; more than able to defend himself... yet there was something to be said. Never mistaken an alleycat for one to grow fat at your feet.

Perhaps he could be useful.

"You there, come with me," she ordered coldly, turning her horse away. "Or stay with the guard."

Clearly there was no third choice. If he had the option, a horse was available for his use. But if he proved disappointing... well.

She could always clap him in irons later if he proved useless in following orders.

Takashi Haller
 
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Takashi Haller

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Takashi had already accepted his defeat in that complicated situation. Of course, he could easily dispatch those men before they noticed their own deaths, but what good would that bring him? The armies of men swooping down on him, with certain capture and execution later. The second chance he got at life, to do something good, would be gone to waste.

So he closed his eyes and waited for his bondage, which never arrived, supposedly thanks to a firm voice that made the soldiers pause their advance on that very moment. Tak opened his eyes, glancing upon a woman riding a rather decorated horse, the insignia next to the saddle almost gleaming in the night's light.

Someone important, the shinobi thought to himself. And surely, she commanded some importance, as the men all retreated after her threats, putting their weapons away and just waiting for the scene to unfold.

Tak looked at her, surprised with her words. A damsel saving him only to put him in her own type of chains, the chains of servitude that were well known to Tak given what his mother went through when he was but a child.

And yet, he felt obligated to follow that woman after she steered her horse away and bid him to go with her. But not because he feared going to prison if he refused, but out of honor.

A shinobi's honor, as Tatsuo used to talk to him about. She saved his life, after all.

After looking around to see the look of shock on the faces of those soldiers, and sensing the anger coming from the guard's commander, he let go of his scabbard and started walking towards the woman and her horse.

He glimpsed at her slightly, trying to get a sense of what had led her to do that, but only managed to say a few words of gratitude.

"I am in your debt, thank you."

Divina Rosenstern
 

Divina Rosenstern

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She did not answer right away, but instead nodded to one of the six men forming a tight guard around the two of them. "Barad, get this man a horse," she ordered crisply, her voice a tone not to be brokered with. Soon enough one was procured for him, a bay smaller than her own destrier, but a sturdy enough commoner's horse, similar to her guard. This one even had the symbol for her house on the pommel.

"No thanks necessary yet," she replied coolly, giving the strange-looking foreigner another side glance.

Silence reigned between them for quite some time. Though movement was slow through the streets, it was steady, with one guard spearheading the forward path, two aside, and three taking up the rear for a tight guard. Merchants and commoners alike made way for their path, but it was only when passing the gates of the inner city and down a stone path that she spoke again.

"You are my guest at Chateau Mor'dalaise; if you have any preference for food or drink, please request it now or suffer the abominable tastes of my staff in service. I am Lady Rosenstern. My staff will greet and direct you to the central gardens, where I will meet with you. I have some requests, which I hope you may fulfill."

It was then she glanced over at him fully. He would see a face of high cheekbones, of a race not dissimilar to his own, with dark brown hair and slightly slanted, cold blue eyes. "I will meet you within the hour, sir," and so saying, pulled her warhorse ahead of her guard through guarded gates.

From within...

The massive golden stone walls housed a small garden riot with exotic plants, a peacock strutting amongst the various paths of the vegetation. A modest manse sat within the opulently-vegetated surroundings, also of golden stone. He would be led first by horse, then on foot through an underground tunnel that sloped seemingly beneath the Chateau itself to a massive, sprawling garden. But unlike the bold front of the entrance...

This one seemed quiet, private. Many trails winnowed in and out of low-lying palms and feathery ferns; though flowers nestled bright and poppy against the green, it was all mystified by a lens of leafy canopy above, and all the paths mossed by years of damp and little sun. He would be led through this to a long oval stone table, from which a golden pool of sunlight rested, granted by tall, wide 'windows' of open space through the walls. From there, the view straight to the harbor could be seen.

The men which guided him would depart.

Soon, she would approach, it seemed. And if he requested any food or drink, it would be provided to him.

Takashi Haller
 

Takashi Haller

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He had to admit that he was quite intrigued with that woman. Tak had seen some noblemen and people of high standards when cruising through the streets of Alliria, but he guessed that she was a bit more than that.

Tak was taken from his thoughts after the arrival of a horse next to him, led by one of the guards commanded by the unknown woman. He always been a person to prefer a natural walk over riding mounts, the monks told him that in this way, one could feel the earth and take in all of its feelings, but he wouldn't refuse that opportunity now.

He got on the saddle and started riding the steed side by side with the woman, looking around and staring at the people who were still on the streets, watching them with bare curiosity. Tak also noticed the strength and size of her guard, which was quite unusual for a simple walk.

Expecting trouble, he thought, but the shinobi kept that to himself and his always silent mind.

After some time, he finally heard her voice in a calmer tone as she introduced herself with a rather difficult name. The pronunciation wasn't exactly known to him, and as important a name it was, Tak had never heard of it, but she did call herself 'lady'. That was enough to clarify some of Tak's questions.

He was left puzzled by her mention of requests but decided to continue being a simple companion on that walk, watchful and silent. It was then that Tak finally saw more of her face, being left stunned by her beauty. Not that he was used to seeing many girls on his travels around abandoned villages and wilderness, but she did have a certain grace to her features.

Tak couldn't help but show a short smirk at the sound of being called a 'sir'.

"I am Takashi, or simply Tak, if you wish", he answered in reply to her introduction. The walk came to a halt as they seemed to reach their intended destination, with the graceful lady going ahead and Tak being left to the care of her guards, who continued to lead him forward. Tak was mesmerized by the views of what seemed to be the lady's household, carefully looking at every single detail, especially in the gardens.

Tak and the guards soon left their horses to continue the rest of the path on foot, passing through a underground tunnel and then reaching a discreet entrance, which he presumed guarded the way for a quiet room, away from prying eyes. He was surprised to see more of the fascinating garden, and this one was even bigger than before, and the view from that place seemed to extend all the way to the other side of the city as Tak could see the harbor and some of its docked ships.

A wealthy life wasn't that bad after all, Takashi thought to himself as he kept admiring the view after the guards took their leave, before he noticed the lady's arrival due to her steps.

"Do you have an apple? It's been a few days since I had one", the shinobi said, his forearm resting on the end of his katana.

Divina Rosenstern
 
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Divina Rosenstern

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She had changed from her riding clothes to a simple gown of indigo blue; even despite the demure cut, it was of high quality, her footsteps near silent on the mossy paths. "Barad, apples please," came the quiet murmur to her head guard, then a pause. "And Goldenfall wine, please."

It was then she strode into view, head high and hair unbound.

"You're a far way from home, Takashi," she commented calmly, settling in a seat diagonally from him, eyeing him once more. "Please sit, there is no need to stand on ceremony yet."

Yet.

She waited until the requested items were given, the carafe of wine set down next to a wooden bowl of apples, two glasses set beside in case he imbibed. There were no servants to attend her; if it weren't for the hidden presence of guards, none would tell she was attended to by any staff. She poured herself a glass, but didn't drink yet, but held the glass in her hands.

"Would you be interested in employment?" she asked directly, staring at him as she held her glass in her lap. Despite her laid-back appearance, cold blue eyes noted every movement. Cautious. Curious, even analytical.

Takashi Haller
 
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Takashi Haller

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Takashi watched the woman carefully as she approached, taking him from the view of the harbor far away. He noticed she had changed her clothes, now wearing a beautiful dress that had him longing his stare at her for a few more seconds than he should.

His eyes fell to the ground as the lady mentioned that almost forgotten word on his mind. Home... That was also something of a past life, memories that he'd prefer to forget.

"I don't have a home", he replied a few moments after she sat down, signaling him to do the same. He looked over at the seat and then back at her before following suit, adjusting the scabbard at his waist so as to not make him uncomfortable in the movement.

An awkward moment of silence soon followed, as Takashi felt her cautious gaze upon him while he kept looking around, still taken by the beauty of that place. It was unlike anything he had seen before. Then came a guard with a bowl of apples and more items than he had asked, which Tak assumed was of the lady's doing. He left the items in the tables and quickly departed, but the young man wasted no time in reaching for one of the apples.

The taste of it... so sweet. Tak savored the fruit with each bite as the woman poured some of her drink in a glass. He took the last bite out of that apple as the lady talked to him once again.

Employment... That was a strange word to him. He knew it was common for people to work for coin, and that coin would help them live their lives in whatever comfort it could provide them, but it just didn't sit right with him. His 'job' was uncommon enough, and he never demanded rewards for saving people's lives.

And yet, there happened the exact opposite. It was a matter of debt, so Tak knew he was due to work for her to settle that. Maybe it could even give him a change of paces from hunting demons throughout the continent.

"You saved my life, lady. What do you need in return?"

Divina Rosenstern
 

Divina Rosenstern

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"Protection."

The word was short, succinct, and calm. She watched him as he seemed to inhale the apple with a detached sort of amusement in her eyes, head cocked subtly. "I have recently lost a substantial amount of my men to an attack of a rival, and I am seeking reliable men." Her gaze levelled on his coolly, taking a sip of wine. Perhaps he was trustworthy, but there was only one way to find out.

"Why are you here in Alliria?" she queried, pressing her cheek into a closed fist, which was propped by the elbow on the chair beneath her. "A young man without a home, yet with skill in the blade. Such things interest me, after all," she stated calmly, taking another sip of wine.

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Takashi Haller

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Protection, she said.

No doubt to Tak, that lady was someone of importance in that city. Her house was huge and she commanded a large force of guards, with enough influence to make even the city soldiers put down them their arms and turn from locking him up.

Takashi heard her explanation while paying attention to her gestures and the way she looked at him, almost like she was trying to figure out a puzzle. She didn't trust him, and rightly so. They had only just met, a stranger with a katana who killed about half a dozen men in the city's square, her city.

Before he answered, Tak reached for yet another apple to feed his hunger while she asked why he was there. The shinobi took a quick bite from the fruit and looked at her but quickly losing himself on his own thoughts.

Why he was there? Chance, perhaps? He needed a place to rest after killing that demon but he could've easily used the woods to do so, like he was doing for years, aside from the occasional grateful villager who'd offer him a warm bed to pass a night.

"I... don't know. I was passing by. It's been many years since I saw a city. And I've never been to...", he searched for the word in the back of his mind, the name that she just spoke.

"Alliria", he completed, while his gaze went all the way to those large windows, glancing upon the distant harbor once again.

Takashi looked back at her again after she took another sip of that strange, dark drink. He remembered his mother used to take many cups of that drink when she was home, but he never cared enough to ask what it was.

Skill with a blade... He truly was skilled, after years of training and many life threatning situations. He needed to be, for the things that preyed upon the good people of those lands were powerful. But maybe that lady needed those skills now? He questioned why someone as powerful as her could need someone like him. She did say she was attacked by someone...

"You were attacked, lady. Who attacked you? And why?", Takashi asked, his light blue eyes again fixed upon that woman.

Divina Rosenstern
 

Divina Rosenstern

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He was captivated by the view. Inwardly, she was pleased. It had taken her two years to create a wall that kept out the eyes of the city, yet framed a view of the harbor; this garden was her pride and joy, a result of her first marriage's culminations, and a botanist's dream. Several plants here were exotic, beautiful specimens she fought hard to earn.

At his question, she took one more sip of wine, watching his body language, his expressions. He seemed calm, even with her line of questioning. Enough to even eat another apple. "A woman in my position has enemies," she answered calmly, setting the glass down.

"I was overseeing my latest ships for their first voyage when my men were slaughtered," she answered calmly, but slight sadness touched her blue eyes. "I knew each of them personally. But this event means I am short of security. You have proven your senses are sharp, and your sword swift. I am interested in you and your skills, if you are interested in what I may have to offer."

Takashi Haller
 
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Takashi Haller

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Takashi paid close attention as she explained the need for his skills, surprised to see a slight opening to her fierce exterior as he caught a slight bit of emotion passing through her eyes. She was a good leader then, to feel the pain of losing those who work for you and not just think of them as meaningless lives... Tak remembered that Tatsuo once told him stories about that.

The young shinobi wasn't exactly a good judge of character, he was mostly too innocent and naive to sense the cruel manuevers of those more manipulative than him, but he knew then that this lady could be a genuinely good person. She saved him after all, not only that but she seemed to care about her people too.

Tak grew up thinking that powerful people didn't care much about the well being of the lesser folk, which is why he travelled the world and went to places where they're most vulnerable, to help them.

"Your men, you want to avenge them?", he asked, firmly. Judging by her story, perhaps there was more evil in a city like that than Tak could've imagined before.

Bad people murdering others... They were monsters as well then. It was his 'job' to remedy that.

"I am interested, lady", Tak answered, calmly and confident.

Divina Rosenstern
 

Divina Rosenstern

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She shook her head briefly, her gaze flickering back to his face. "Not avenge. At least not in the ways that might seem obvious," she answered calmly, steepling her hands together before her on her lap. "But to make sure that the mistake of surprise never happens again. Many people rely on my business... even that which is a business of plausible death." She was being brutally blunt, she knew, but if he couldn't stomach it she wouldn't be bothered.

You either thrived, or died in this world. And she had no intent on dying anytime soon.

"Do you have a named rate for your services?" she answered calmly, regarding him. "I haven't even laid out terms or possible conditions of your employ, yet you are interested. It puzzles me."

Takashi Haller
 

Takashi Haller

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Takashi raised a eyebrow after she bluntly mentioned the collaterals of her business, but he didn't flinch. He knew from an early age that people sometimes had to go to extreme measures to survive, and he was one of those people as well. Growing up in a poor and violent environment, Tak was no stranger to such situations.

He had seen his mother sell her body to ensure they had food on their table, and then he saw her wither away in her bed. The only path for him was to become a thief and make his own way out of that miserable life, but it didn't work out well in the end.

And alas, he was there. A survivor, more or less. And he intended on staying that way.

Tak looked at the woman a bit more confused with her words now. A rate for his services?

"Rate for my... services?", he asked, quickly scratching the back of his head. "I am not a mercenary or a soldier, lady. I'm just... someone doing my best to help."

His head went towards the other side of the gardens as he admired the varied types of flowers and decorations that enriched the place.

"We are of different worlds. I can barely understand some of the things you talked about, but you saved me from those guards when you didn't have to. That's all I need to know to be interested", Tak sounded much more mature than in earlier conversations, his face and eyes in serious concentration, barely looking towards the woman.

His interest lay in repaying that kindness and helping her as she helped him.

Divina Rosenstern
 

Divina Rosenstern

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A small trace of surprise flickered in blue eyes at his lack of understanding. So frequently had she dealt with the veiled threats, various power-hungry mongrels and generally rude people that meeting someone who wasn't a mercenary or a sellsword in its' own way was... interesting. In fact, he even seemed uncomfortable with such a notion of being viewed as a possible paid subordinate.. interesting.

She regarded him and gave a slow nod, assenting. "In the matter of debt, then..." she paused, fingers lacing together. "I do not consider you a subordinate. You may come and go as you please... but if I call, I expect your swiftest arrival." She let that sink in for a moment before continuing.

"In the interim, you will have room and board provided for you, should you wish it."

Takashi Haller
 
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Takashi Haller

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Although calm on the outside, Takashi was almost itching to get going on his "new job".

Personal protection wasn't something Tak did before, having lived all his life as a loner and hunting down his demons on his own wherever he passed, but being in such a grand city and meeting new, very different people gave him a new sense of excitement. He was also determined to do his best in helping the woman who saved him from a possibly long time in shackles.

Lady Rosenstern... That was the name. Pretty tricky for his own understanding, but with a bit of concentration, it was starting to roll off from the tip of his mind, though he'd stick with calling her just 'lady' for the time being.

He had felt a sense of relief after hearing the 'terms' of their arrangement regarding his debt and work, knowing that he'd be free to do as he wished even though he was bound to her for that time. Tak was very disciplined, but the common rules of men would never fit well with his methods. He followed the Shinobi Code, and that's enough for him.

Tak looked at the lady with a slight smirk after she finished her statement, nodding in agreement while keeping his blue eyes well fixed on the woman.

"I understand, lady. What do you need me to do?"

Divina Rosenstern
 

Divina Rosenstern

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A smile touched her lips, the thinnest veneer of friendliness allowed. Truth be told, he seemed a good sort of man; rare in a place of shadows and frequent threats. Even more that he was wise enough to know he owed a debt to her; though his was, no doubt, meant for a place of honor rather than a place of payment. She touched her fingers to her lips, contemplating a spot beyond his shoulder for a few moments.

She then rose, her voice light, cool.

"Walk with me a short while, if you would."

Takashi Haller
 

Takashi Haller

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He watched with the slightest of excitement that he was able to hide while the woman gracefully rose from her chair, gesturing towards him with a short smile while he stood surprised, still sat on his chair. She had requested his presence for a walk, no doubt to talk about his work, but it took a few more moments for Takashi to process it and quickly rise up from his own chair, taking the last apple from the bowl at the table.

The young man walked with a higher pace to his steps in order to catch up to the woman before she left him behind, to lose himself in those greenish mazes. He approached her side, apple in his mouth and his left hand resting upon the guarded blade on his waist, a common practice to avoid it hitting other surfaces and objects due to the slightly angled curves of a katana.

Tak took advantage of the silence between them as the walk started to amaze himself upon the wonders of that household, he had passed it too quickly as he was being escorted by the guards before.

Without care for being too direct and without even looking at her, Takashi spoke out of curiosity after another bite of his apple.

"You look... very young to be a powerful lady. I heard stories of them being very old and wise, like monks. The common folk in the poor villages don't usually like powerful people like you."

Divina Rosenstern
 
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Divina Rosenstern

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She blinked, regarding his words for a few moments. In truth, she wasn't content with sitting around, sipping wine and discussing politics. She was an aspirant, certainly, and a lady with ambition, but there was more to life than sitting around waiting for things to change. A small chuckle escaped her lips once more, and she tapped a finger to her mouth as though to contemplate the words.

"It's true... most of my privilege is sneered upon," she commented calmly.

"But if I troubled myself with the opinion of every man, woman and child that stared at me, I would no doubt be universally disliked. But I do not work my life on the opinions of others." Blue eyes gazed out one open window to the harbor, then swept back to him.

"I better myself because I better the rest, not just for blind ambition," she spoke softly, then sweeping her gaze to his. "I don't care for their opinions. If they don't like me, they don't have to eat the bread that they are paid good money to buy, or shelter that I build for its' better quality of their own lives."

She didn't care for their opinions of her, let them talk and reap their words. But how often did those that sneer at her unknowingly provide themselves from her brand?

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Takashi Haller

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He returned his sight towards the woman after she started speaking in response to his earlier questions, finding a bit of relief that she even managed to smile after his remarks. Her presence was somewhat of a question mark for Tak - not that he feared her, but she was so very different from the people he usually met. She carried herself with grace, importance and intent, and she commanded power and influence to make many people fall towards obedience.

Takashi had met powerful men and women before in his travels, but those were usually small noblemen being plagued by bandit attacks or a village leader seeking his help in killing a monster to guarantee his people's safety. But that lady... She spoke about providing for her people, and that she would bow to no one when they were the ones who needed her. He didn't know exactly what that entailed, only that she had people under her care and she felt the need to stand over them as a symbol of both power and protection.

On that, he could respect her. And perhaps, they weren't so different in that regard.

They stopped in front of another window, the lady quickly glancing towards the harbor and Haller soon following her gaze, admiring the view once again. Yet his mind was filled with thoughts and questions about that lady and her words. That short walk was giving him many things to think on.

She was strong, both in mind and spirit, and he admired the fact that she cared little about other people's opinions about her. That was something Tak learned throughout his life too.

A blade was heavy enough when held by a single person. There was no need for others to be clutching towards it and keeping it from being lifted. Freedom was a virtue that Takashi cared for highly.

"I see... Then you are a protector, of sorts? Like me?", he asked calmly yet his eyes were gleaming with curiosity, falling towards her as she looked towards the sea.

A protector... That's what Takashi liked to believe he was. His katana being not only a symbol of death, but hope. That's what Tatsuo taught him before he passed on.

Divina Rosenstern
 

Divina Rosenstern

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She considered his reply for a little while. In her own way, she was a protector... but it came with the role of being part of the merchant council. There was more to life than expansion for her own family. There were many other lives that weighed on that balance in her care, not just her own soldiers, but their families, her workers and the many she served as a politician.

A protector. A charming twist on things.

"I look after those who are not usually protected by the law," she spoke quietly, giving him a pointed look. "Or are downtrodden. It is the duty of those who rule here to look after their people.. and they are mine." A simple statement, so heavy with meaning.

One day, it would all be hers. And she had to maintain all of it. If she didn't, what sort of Lady would she be?

Takashi Haller
 

Takashi Haller

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He gave her a small but sincere smile as a reply, followed by a nod. Takashi had finally come to understand a bit more about that woman and her different ways of thinking. They belonged to separate worlds, but some of their ideals were very much alike and aligned, and that was a small comfort which Tak would take in being momentarily pledged to her. It'd bring him relief to know that he wasn't giving his sword to a bloodmonger bent on destroying everything with his help.

"Then I guess we're after the same thing, lady", he stated with another smile before starting to walk away, his head swaying to admire the rest of the garden as he walked by. "It would be an honor to help you."

He stopped before one of the bushes filled with flowers that he had seen earlier, kneeling down a bit to touch them and take in their aroma. Takashi loved the nature and all its elements, it was one of his major points used for concentration when he meditated while travelling.

Once a stray kid with a short temper, eager to jump into any brawl, Takashi learned about the nature and its pure essence with monks, who taught him all about discipline and respect. Balance, as they called it. Some would say balance is a fool's master, but he knew better now. Even the mightiest of swords could be easily destroyed if tempered without balance.

As he came back to his senses, Takashi could truly see the beauty of that vast garden, which prompted him to another question to the lady. After all, he couldn't being curious most of the time.

"Do you live here all by yourself, lady? My mother used to say that the noble families were so big that they could fill entire fortresses."

His mother told him many stories about the rich, as a way to compare their lives in misery to the ones who lived it in luxury. And yet, all he could see since entering that household was guards and servants.

Divina Rosenstern