Anastasia was not surprised to wake up to no pain; she had been healed from unconsciousness before and was familiar with the sensation. Her mentor took his hand from her face and smiled wryly at her.
“Next time,” Sir Tromar advised wryly, “run when I tell you to.”
Anastasia nodded and sat up from the bed. She looked around the room, then to the dwarven paladin. “Did we win?”
Tromar shook his head. “No. We made a deal. You’re to stay here, for a year and a day, as part of Aisling’s inner council. After, you will give your report, and we will render judgement.”
“You negotiated -”
Tromar cut Anastasia off with a swift gesture. “Yes, I did. And be glad of it, girl! There is more happening here than we understand. Shatterdown was a festering hellhole before Aisling, and now its people walk the streets without fear. I want to know why, and I need you to tell me.”
Anastasia crossed her arms with a distinctly irritated sulk. “Yes.”
“Yes what, squire?”
The young woman sighed. “Yes, Master.”
Aisling was waiting at the front gates to meet the paladins. She said polite goodbyes to Sir Tromar and walked him out herself, keeping up a seemingly interesting conversation on trade theory or some such; Anastasia was too busy glowering to take much note. She’d obey her mentor, but she didn’t have to be happy about it.
About ten minutes later, Aisling came back alone, with her hands in her pockets and a sideways smile on her face. The blonde woman stopped a few feet from Anastasia and cocked her head curiously, eying the paladin up and down.
“What?” Anastasia finally asked, exasperated. “Are you sizing up my coffin? Mentally undressing me? Why in all the gods’ names are you staring at me?”
“Mostly to see how you’d react to it,” Aisling admitted, with a shrug. “Come with me. And welcome to the Rabble and Scum, puppy.”
Ana took a step forward and raised an accusatory finger at Aisling. “No,” she said in a low tone. “You beat me in battle, you cut a deal with my master, and these are things I can accept, but you will treat me with respect or I will walk out those gates. My name is Anastasia Luxan. I am not your puppy.”
Aisling was silent for a moment, and then she nodded. “Ana it is. Though you might want to get used to people referring to you as ‘Bishop’ or ‘Your Grace’.” The Scarlet Princess began walking, and Anastasia had no choice but to follow. “My Scum are titled, as the ruling elite tend to be. People expected it. Your peers are Margrave, Contessa, Duke, and Sybil. And, no, they’re not really in the habit of sharing their real names.”
Anastasia gave Aisling a curious look. “Why not?”
“Three of them are wanted in several nations. Sybil just does it because the rest of them do.”
“…They’re evil too, aren’t they?” Anastasia asked gloomily. Her hostess laughed.
“Probably, yeah,” Aisling admitted. “You’re a lot more blunt than your mentor, you know that? But you’re right. Margrave’s a monster. Duke’s…well, you’ll see when we get there. And Contessa’s – honestly, Contessa’s not well.” Aisling’s tone softened. “If we’re being honest, I was hoping you’d be a good influence on her. I don’t know who broke that girl’s mind but she needs help.”
The paladin looked away, awkwardly, unsure of how to respond. “So…what about Sybil?”
“Runs the local hospital. Woman’s a saint,” Aisling said primly, accepting the topic change with a shrug. “You’ll like her. And she’ll like you, I think. I don’t think I could keep a lid on these maniacs without her.”
“You don’t seem to hold your subordinates in much esteem,” Anasastia noted, sparing Aisling a sidelong glance.
The blonde woman shrugged. “They’re…there’s a lot of very good things about them. They’re courageous, mostly loyal, smart, tenacious. But the only reason they haven’t burnt this city to the ground is me. Makes liking them without reservation a bit difficult. It’s part of why I want you on board, to balance them out.”
“And what am I supposed to offer?” Anastasia asked.
“Something we can’t,” Aisling said softly. “Hope.”
The paladin stopped up short and gestured to the city around her. “What’s that supposed to mean? Sir Tromar said this place was a pit before you came. These people live happily, freely, since you came.”
“I dunno,” Aisling said softly. She wouldn’t meet Anastasia’s eyes. “It doesn’t change much, here. One day is much like the next. I don’t think that’s hope.”
“You don’t know?”
“I gave up on hope a long time ago, Ana,” Aisling answered. “I get by on rage instead. Come on.”