It was past the time when Caltha was supposed to be back from work.
While Crolis paced around the front porch, Astrum stood beside the doorway, holding the jamb. He was staring at the gate.
“Hey, didn’t you mention you had an older brother?” Astrum began. The wait and silence made the air tense.
“You never told me what happened to him.” The boy urged.
“Do I have to? I mean, why are you suddenly interested?” Crolis looked at Astrum when he took a turn in his direction.
“Well, Caltha’s not here yet.” Another way of saying tell me something to fill the wait.
“Fine.” There was a momentary pause which made it look like Crolis tried to remember who his brother even was.
So he began to recall. “Like you, we were orphans. And we never really saw eye to eye. Our ideals in life just never coincided.”
“What’s coincided?” Astrum interjected.
“It means you need to let me finish talking.” Better than saying the blunt alternative. Shut up.
Astrum sucked his lips inward, his eyes were wide. Crolis was never patient with him to begin with. At least he never raised his voice or slapped him senselessly unlike some of the other boys’ parents.
“I wanted to restore our family’s name back in the ranks,” Crolis went on. “He wanted to serve in the royal family. One thing led to another, until I found my way in the service of Caltha’s parents.”
Crolis went silent as if thinking about his brother was an act of betrayal on himself.
Before Caltha was born, High King Arren waged a war meant to subjugate neighboring kingdoms. Soon turning them into the duchies of Flesperia.
A second war happened, a Civil war this time. Opposing sides within the kingdom ravaged the land into deterioration. A war that murdered Caltha's parents as a child.
“Didn’t you say Caltha was a Maharlika?”
“Well, she still is even if we’re not in Obsidia.” A Flesperian duchy.
The Maharlikas were the antiquated warriors of Ancient Flesperia. Today, they were aristocrats. And Caltha Verbana Phlox was no ordinary person, at least not to Crolis.
Leaving Obsidia during the war, he made a promise to his Lord and Lady Phlox to watch over Caltha. A task he took since the day they took him in and gave him more than he bargained for.
Crolis stopped walking, worry was on his face. “You know, there’s a reason why I dissuaded her from employing full-time.”
“Is this why you wanted her to take half a day's shift only too?”
“That, and one thing else.”
Before Astrum could ask about that other thing, they heard footsteps approaching. Through the steel gate’s latticework, they saw figures approaching. To Crolis’s relief, Caltha was among them.
Oddly enough, Randa and her employer, Doña Varda, were with her. They appeared disheveled and tired, and that did not speak accordingly to Crolis. Something went wrong.
He opened the gate to let the ladies in. Astrum slammed himself to Caltha, hugging her. Caltha patted him in the back before ushering her shaken companions into the house.
Caltha offered them a change of clothes while Crolis ordered some kitchen hands that dinner be served for their guests.
When they’ve finally settled down, Crolis sat with them. “What happened?”
“Bounty hunters,” Doña Varda shook slightly before eating her soup.
“It must have something to do with the poster people were talking about in town,” Randa added. “We’ve heard of recent attacks with people involved in medicine and such.”
“I’ve heard about that,” Crolis’s brows furrowed. “You were a target. They tried to take all of you.” He looked at the three ladies before settling his gaze on Caltha.
A silence passed between them. Caltha understood the look Crolis was giving her. She did not want to hear what was to come next.
Making the decision himself, Crolis spoke to her employer. “Doña, this may not be the right time, but please accept Caltha’s resignation. Understand that I do not want to put her in any harm as someone who looks out for her.”
“No. This is the second time something like this has happened. I will not risk a third attempt. You heard Randa. They are targeting people who have something, anything, to do with the same career. They won’t choose whether you’re a third-class herbalist or the best cleric in the empire. They will take you in the slightest chance you might be the person the High King is looking for,” he turned to Doña Varda. “Please.”
The old woman didn’t have to consider. Even if Crolis was not her father, she saw his determination to keep Caltha safe.
Doña Varda waved a hand and referred to Caltha. “My dear, what the Archii said makes sense. I am, though it pains me to say it, willing to relieve you. Randa,” she turned to the other, “if you decide the same, I won’t have a problem with that either. Better to prioritize your safety first.”
Caltha’s heart sunk. She wanted to do this job. It was all she could put an excuse into. Sitting still, doing nothing in the confines of these walls suffocated her. She wanted to at least be useful somewhere. But her mahiqa restricted her. “Doña...”
“But,” Doña Varda raised a finger, “should this disturbance subside, I am willing to accept you back.”
Those were the conditions. But how long would this last? She didn’t know. She remained silent, gripping her skirt into a fist by her sides. She shook her head slightly then vanished from the dining hall.
Astrum wanted to follow her but remained behind one of the chairs. He had no idea what to say to her if he followed. For now, he decided to grant silence where he couldn’t help.
After watching Caltha walk out, Crolis sighed and turned back to the table. “How big was the damage?”
Randa replied in a hurry. “Oh, they managed to break the windows and trash some of my best handmade pots. Not to mention cut our power supply before they started dragging us out of the shop. Luckily, someone was there to help us escape.”
Randa’s face lit up but sunk as fast as a blown candle. “I couldn’t recognize the man. It was dark. But he managed to hold his ground against those three men.”
Crolis had doubts. He was unfamiliar with the shadows that lurked when no one looked.
He had seen several lost and stolen commodities distributed throughout the city. In areas where the impoverished were in need the most. It was a hunch, but he figured there were unnamed Samaritans in the city of rust. It could be the same entity that helped these ladies out of danger. If he could only get a name.
After the meal, Crolis asked some of his servants to escort Doña Varda and Randa to their respective homes. Just in case there was a continuation to hostility’s edge that they faced earlier.
“Do consider sending Caltha back to me when all this is over. I’ll need hands to restore my losses. Plus, she’s really good at floriculture. She’s even learning herbal medicine after pestering me about it too. You get the idea.” Doña Varda told him before they parted which left Crolis one more thing to consider.
Crolis debated whether to follow-up on that discussion with Caltha, but knew better than to feed fire a fuel it doesn’t need. He often reminded her that the mahiqa she had was the thing that might dig her grave one day.
Who knew that the High King swept news that someone with this power still lived? Had he issued the search to claim back its power? He clenched his fists.
It felt like a long night for those who waited in worry, but for the victims, it was longer.