Trades Chapter 3
Sticks and Stones
It was late afternoon, and...just quiet. Still so deathly quiet, as if the town itself had never changed in his absence. Granted, there was nothing unusual about that. However, after spending a year or two in circumstances that were constantly evolving, it was a little strange to him...albeit quite dull.
Well, not entirely dull. In fact, this new day had been full of a few surprises for him, as well as for the townsfolk. He was genuinely surprised to see not only how many people remembered him, but also how many people missed his presence. In fact, one or two people had bombarded him with questions. None of which pertained to how he was doing, but just where he had been.
The commotion didn't cease any when he went in to dine at his favorite tavern. Not only did some of the customers notice him, but a few of the employees there did as well. It was an odd feeling. It was as though he was home, and...well, he was, but...
A knock at the door interrupted before he could finish that thought.
The noise startled him for a second, but he then relaxed.
However, it resumed, and this time with more force.
Shu looked around the room as if in search of a servant to scold. It was only a second later that the fact finally hit him.
"Yes...that's right. I let them all go..." With a soft groan, he arose from his chair to greet the aggressive visitor. It was probably just another resident wondering where he had been. As unpleasant as it might be for him, however, he had to remain polite about it. He approached the door, opening it with disguised reluctance. And that reluctance completely escaped him when he caught sight of his visitor.
"What are you doing here?"
Unbeknownst to Shu, the young woman known as Apple had checked into the local inn that afternoon and had already set everything out for her one-night stay. As Shu was unaware of her presence in that town, so was she to his. Though she had been thinking of him for about half a day, she currently had something more important on her mind. The inn did have some decent food, after all...
In a somewhat brighter mood than she had been in the past couple of days, she headed down the stairs to join the growing crowd. The stable feeling would soon be disrupted as she walked in the middle of all the commotion...
"You guys hear that Shu was back in town?" said a man, who was sitting at a table with a group of male friends.
Apple froze in place, wide-eyed. Oh no. They can't be serious...
"Is he? I thought he moved to the castle at Northwind..."
"Yeah, but apparently he's taken some sort of leave, and...now he's spending time here. I guess he misses the atmosphere or something."
"Why'd he even move over there in the first place?"
"Good God, Nick, have you been living in a uterus for the past couple of years? The man was a strategist in the war!"
"I...I knew that! Shut up. Uh...the Alliance Army, wasn't it? Because if he was siding with Highland, I swear..."
"Relax! Of course it was for the State Alliance."
"Yeah...Shu did one helluva job. What a genius."
"Well, he had to be, considering what he had to start out with."
"What do you mean?"
"A completely separated region, not to mention a tiny army in shambles because of the last strategist..."
Apple stood there with the sudden feeling that someone had just thrust a knife into her heart.
"Oh...yeah, I think I heard something about that."
"Well, it's true. In fact, a lot of people died because of that strategist--"
"Yeah, yeah! Now I remember. God, what was up with that guy? Highland was serious! What was he even thinking?"
"Actually, I heard it was a she. Some young girl who offered her services for the time being."
"What?! That's ridiculous! But I guess it explains a lot, heh. Little girl probably didn't even know what she was doing."
Grrr... Scowling, Apple balled a fist tightly, the cruel words probing at her ego, or maybe just her soul. What a pig...
"Well, at the time, she was all they had. You settle for whatever you can get, I guess."
"Damn. Good thing Shu took over. That girl would've just gotten everybody killed."
"Yeah, you can't send a girl to do a man's job."
The quartet broke into laughter, which served to anger her more.
"Aw, come on, guys. Give her some credit. At least she survived long enough for Shu to take over! I mean, if that's one thing she ever did right..."
"Oh, that's cold, man. And so true!" The man slapped his companion a high-five while the others began to laugh once more.
"Hey, hey, hey!" said Nick, lifting his cup. "Here's to Shu. To the man who proved once again that war is now and forever will be..." He quickly lowered his voice, but not so much that Apple wasn't able to still hear him. "...a sport only for us men!"
"Hear, hear!" was the response from the rest of the group.
"Why that stupid little..." Apple growled quietly to herself, infuriated with their sexist attitudes. "And what would they know about war, those...those civilians? They probably did nothing but cower when their town was taken by Highland. They wouldn't know a battlefield from a rice field. Argh..." Her face was turning red, but then, she lowered her head with a dejected expression. Oh, who am I kidding? Everyone knows they're right. I nearly destroyed an entire army with my own two hands. People died because I was too stupid to come up with a decent plan. The entire future of a country was hanging in the balance and all I could do was make everyone run around frantically because I couldn't admit it was too much for me...
"Hey!" Nick called to Apple. "You're the one who checked in earlier, right? Come over here and join the party!"
Apple turned around slowly. Though she couldn't help it, she shot a glare to the man sitting with his chauvinistic group of friends. "Thanks...but no...thanks. I've got...things I have to do." With that, she headed for the exit of the inn.
"Huh..." The man looked at his friends, exchanging perplexed glances with them. "Was it something I said?"
"Er, well, are you going to let us in or not?" Viktor, who was one of the visitors, asked the former trader.
"Y-yes, of course," Shu said, turning to Flik, who was standing beside Viktor. "Please, come inside." He opened the door further, stepping aside in order to let the two men into the house. He then led them to the living room, where they all sat down in chairs.
Shu spoke up first. "You still haven't told me what you're doing here." His blank expression hid his mixed feelings.
Viktor smirked back at him. "Come on, is that any way to greet old buddies?"
"It is one way," responded the man. "I wish to be more amiable, but I'm in the dark here."
"Heh heh, sorry. We just happened to be passing through the area and overheard a few of the people talking about you. It's been a while, you know."
"Yes, it has." Shu paused as it all hit him. "My God, it has."
"Hey Shu, is something wrong?" Flik asked.
"No. I just..." His face displayed a brief stunnedness. "I've been so busy with work, I didn't notice the days slip by, and then turn into months..."
"Heh heh, uh-oh!" Viktor said in mock alarm. "Sounds like you'd better stop to enjoy the finer things, or one day you'll wake up to find yourself a bitter, empty man!"
"Oh, pay no attention to him," Flik said scornfully. "Every time Viktor wants to enjoy the finer things, my life flashes before my eyes."
"Be quiet," Viktor ordered him, though it came off as rather lighthearted. "Anyway, Shu, I seriously didn't mean to barge in on you like this. You probably have a ton of visitors today, and...well, just wanted to see how you were." He stood up, motioning to the man in blue to do the same. "Come on, Flik. Let's go see if we can hitch a ride back to Banner or something."
"All right. Nice seeing you, Shu." The two men started to head for the exit, but were intercepted by an unexpected request.
"Actually...I was hoping you two might stay."