4-3 Some Book Learnin’, also Not
Lotus narrowed her eyes pleasantly as she took in the gently musty smell of aged paper. Somehow, she could never get quite enough of it. It was comforting. It could be that it reminded her of her childhood. However, she didn’t care to think about it that hard. For now, she simply indulged in the beautiful serenity of silence and the smell of books. She tried her best not to think of what the books contained.
“Maybe we should burn down all the forests on the continent,” Edge’s contemplative voice cut through the silence.
As Edge’s nonchalant musing faded away and was replaced with the sound of turning pages, Lotus turned an incredulous look towards him. Then she leaned over and grabbed the book he was slowly flipping through. Ignoring his cries of complaint, she closed the book and looked over the cover. It was a simple leather bound book, like most in this section. The cover only had its title: On the Survival of the Human Species.
After giving the book a disapproving frown, she turned her gaze towards Edge. “What?” He asked defensively from across the couch. “After what happened before, he makes some good points.”
“I don’t think you’re ready to read this,” Lotus declared, carelessly throwing the book onto the short table in front of them.
“Bad stuff always happens in forests and caves,” Edge grumbled to himself, looking away from her, but occasionally fliting his eyes towards her to see if she was impressed. “could cut the number of bad things that happen in half.”
Lotus shook her head and picked up another book from a small pile beside her. “Here,” She said, throwing the book into Edge’s lap. “Read this instead.”
“What is it about?” Edge asked, looking over the book’s surface like it was some alien artifact.
“The wastes,” Lotus answered simply. “After you told me about what Evelyn said, I thought I’d research the subject. See if history could tell us anything.”
“What’d you find?” Edge asked, his gaze growing more intent, but showing no sign of actually opening the book.
“You can read all about it,” Lotus answered, narrowing her eyes to become motivationally judgmental.
“Yeah, but then I wouldn’t be able to hear your lovely voice,” Edge responded, giving the smile he thought was charming.
Lotus narrowed her eyes further.
Edge’s smile grew more determined.
Lotus rolled her eyes and said, “It’s hard to draw any conclusions. I’ve found some references to a time when monsters from the wastes were the problem of the day, but it was all in passing. They would talk about some story or expedition off hand, as if it was common knowledge. When I tried to find any of the records they cited, I made no progress. I think it’s all from a time before Narabesque was even a country.”
“Then we won’t find the records anywhere,” Edge declared with a frown.
“Nowhere except maybe with the elves, or some undiscovered dwarven ruin,” Lotus replied with a solemn nod.
“Calis Tha-“ Edge faltered, gave a cough, then continued, “The clockwork mountain.”
“If it’s locked up there, no one’ll ever read it,” Lotus responded bitterly.
She couldn’t help, but glower at the polished stone beneath her feet. She’d been brooding over this on and off for almost a week. There was nothing that could be done. That knowledge was all just lost, like so much over the ages. As if the ravages of time themselves weren’t enough, kingdoms would get ravaged by a millennial monster or a horde and disappear into the wilderness. Speaking on the scale of human history, it happened all the time. It made keeping track of events almost impossible. Lotus had to wonder how many tragedies, big and small, could’ve been avoided if people just knew what’d happened before.
“Well, if it’s happened before, the activity from the wastes shouldn’t become impossible to deal with, at least,” Edge declared hopefully, cutting through Lotus’s thoughts.
Lotus gave a wry smile and said, “The references I saw all mentioned the events as a mark of hope. Like, ‘if we can survive this, we can survive anything.’ As if we, as a species, almost didn’t live through the last time the wastes became active.”
“Did you find anything more helpful?” Edge asked. He finally opened the thick book she’d given him, but only thumbed through it randomly as he awaited her reply.
“There was something like a prophecy,” Lotus answered with a shrug. “About the monsters from the wastes bringing the end times.”
Edge stared at the book in his hands grimly for a few seconds. Then he looked up at the gentle, electric lights along the ceiling and said, “Well, before the founding of Narabesque, people were still using swords and spears to fight monsters. I suppose three monsters from the wastes every month would be pretty apocalyptic for them. How many armies of swordsman would you need for one catoblepas?”
“I think they’d use archers,” Lotus answered thoughtfully.
“You know what I mean,” Edge replied with a roll of his eyes.
“Yeah,” Lotus said simply, returning her gaze to her feet for a moment before looking into Edge’s crimson eyes and asking. “Do you really think we’re that different now? Even with all our advancement, a whole army can be taken out by one catoblepas if they got at it wrong. How long can the countries along the mountains last at his pace?”
“Decades… right?” Edge answered immediately, but quickly grew unsure of his own words.
“Decades sounds right, but what if it continues for that long?” Lotus bit the inside of her cheek as she vented the worries she’d been accumulating over the past week. She’d seen dozens of villages and towns snuffed out of existence over the years, but losing all the countries in the north was something else entirely.
“There’s nothing we can do about that, is there?” Edge answered, putting down the book and giving an unconcerned shrug.
“How caring of you.”
“Am I wrong?” Edge asked, raising an eyebrow at her.
He wasn’t. There was no point worrying over something they were powerless to control. Looking over his unconcerned face helped her to release her tension. Strange how that always worked. Still, she couldn’t let it all go. She wasn’t raised to let the lower- other- be unconcerned about the people.
“Champ’s been broody lately,” Edge’s abruptly transitioned to a new topic.
“He has a lot on his mind,” Lotus responded with a shrug. Lotus wasn’t unconcerned about Champ, but she also knew he had his own pride. Worrying over his problems for him wouldn’t make him happy.
“He needs a boyfriend,” Edge declared unilaterally, ignoring Lotus’s dismissal. “I don’t think he’s had a proper relationship since he joined the team.”
“Has anyone had a proper relationship since they joined the team?” Lotus asked critically.
Edge narrowed his eyes in response.
Lotus turned away and coughed once before continuing, “It’s hard to have a relationship with someone you can only see every six months. Unless you think the Newbie would be up for some advanced skinship…”
“Definitely not,” Edge responded quickly with a shake of his head. “Have you seen the kid look at Cauliflower?”
“There you go,” Lotus said with a flick of her wrist. “He doesn’t really have much relationship material around.”
“Even just having someone waiting at a port of call would be nice. Give him some hope in life,” Edge nodded his head in agreement with his own declaration. “We could probably get him that much.”
“As if that was our job,” Lotus rebutted with a roll of her eyes. Then he thought for a moment and asked, “Do you even know one gay man in Narabesque?”
Edge frowned at the ceiling for a while. Then he put on an exstatic expression and started, “I-“
“Champ doesn’t count.”
Edge’s face collapsed and he spent a few seconds trying to look sulky. When Lotus didn’t respond he straightened up and said, “We could probably find one.”
“Grab some random man off the street? We wouldn’t even know if they had anything in common,” Lotus rebutted, reaching her arms up and stretching over the back of the couch.
As she stared at the ceiling, she tried to think of what Champ’s ideal man would be. After slowly refining the image of a clown prostitute, she hurriedly dismissed the vision.
“They’d have at least one thing in common,” Edge declared with a conspiratorial grin as Lotus straightened up.
“Dick doesn’t count as a shared hobby.”
“It all depends on how you treat it.”
Lotus gave Edge a disapproving scowl. When she caught sight of his ruby eyes, she thought of something. “If you want to worry about anyone’s love life, it should be the Captain. He’s looked like he wanted to kill himself every nigh since he came back to the hotel.”
“He’s not going to,” Edge responded with a dismissive wave of his hand. Then he looked down and muttered, “Probably not…”
“The point is that he’s clearly unhappy. You should help him.”
“How would I?”
“Get him back with his wife,” Lotus answered in exasperation. She’d grown to understand Edge’s completely selective emotional literacy, but this was a bit ridiculous.
“I know at least that much,” Edge shot back defensively. “How do I do that, though?”
“If anyone should know that, it’d be you. You’ve been with him the longest.”
“You think that means I know the solution to the single biggest problem in his life?” Edge asked energetically. Then he grew a bit sheepish and in a quiet voice, he asked, “Besides, if he did go back to her, that’d be the end of the team… What’d we do then?”
“We could just work out of Narabesque. It’d be better for everyone to have some consistency,” Lotus answered easily. Then she made sure her pupils were fixed on his as she continued, “Even if he did leave, you could just take over. Everyone would follow you, you’re more than ready.”
Edge averted his gaze at her words.
Lotus gave a small frown in spite of herself. He lacked confidence in the weirdest areas. It was one of the childish things about him. Not an endearing one. She didn’t know how to cure him of it.
“Either way, it doesn’t matter,” Edge’s voice regained its vigor as he waved his hand in front of his face. “No matter how hard I try, I can’t make him go back to her. He has his principles.”
“His principles are stupid,” Lotus declared, narrowing her eyes at the distant figure of the Captain. “If he’s going to get this miserable, he should just be with her.”
“Can you really say that?” Edge asked, raising an accusing eyebrow. “You’re more cut from his cloth than me.”
Those words forced Lotus’s eyes towards the pile of books on the table. She thought back over her life. Childhood, leaving home, joining the team. Then she resolutely declared, “I wouldn’t marry a mad scientist in the first place.”
“She’s not a mad scientist,” Edge admonished forcefully. “From what I’ve heard, she’s just a mildly deranged scientist.”
“That does not sound any better.”
“She has a vision,” Edge tried again.
“Yeah,” Lotus responded with a half-smile. “She just wants to burn down all the forests in the world.”
“I still think that would be a good idea,” Edge replied, scowling at her defensively. “Get rid of all the trees, then the monsters have nowhere to hide. Everything’s nice and clear. Spot ‘em from miles away.”
“Cause we’ve never been ambushed from tall grass.”
“Then we can burn all the prairies down too,” Edge declared, refusing to back down as he held his head up high.
“What a beautifully bleak and blackened world you’ve envisioned,” Lotus responded sarcastically.
“It might not be pretty, but it’d be safe.”
“That’s true. I’m sure no one will be killed once everyone is already dead.”
“Of course it sounds bad when you put it like that,” Edge grumbled, turning away from her.
As silence once again descended, Lotus looked at the pile of books in front of her. It was her last day here for at least a few days. Once they were done with this job, they’d come back to report. Then there was no telling when they’d be off again. She should take the opportunity to read while it was in front of her, but she was having fun.
After struggling with a strange sense of guilt towards her future self, she said, “If you’re going to worry about anyone, it should probably be Cauliflower.”
“That’s a whole can of worms.”
“She needs someone she can talk to about stuff,” Lotus insisted. “Real stuff.”
“She can talk to Knot,” Edge responded dismissively. Then his eyes flitted about as he thought of something. Finally, he concluded, “I guess she doesn’t want to disappoint him…”
“Even I don’t want to disappoint him,” Lotus responded with a nod. “He has a drill sergeant aura that’s hard to shake.”
“Drill sergeant?” Edge asked, once again raising an eyebrow at her.
“Anyway!” Lotus raised her voice as she felt her face flush a bit. She was sure that’d been a common enough reference. “She needs to deal with her problems. Not just ignore them.”
“I don’t know any men in Narabesque, do you?”
“So It’s fine to grab anyone for champ, but you suddenly get all choosy for Cauliflower?” Lotus asked, raising an eyebrow of her own.
“It’s fine to pick anyone for Champ because he’s Champ. He’ll make it work.”
Lotus couldn’t argue with that and instead changed the subject. “I wasn’t saying she needed a boyfriend, anyway. Just someone to talk to.”
“Then you can talk to her.”
“Someone else,” Lotus declared hurriedly. “Someone not on the team would be good. Give a different feeling. Different perspective. Right?”
“You just don’t want to be bitten,” Edge’s insightful words made Lotus flinch unconsciously. “You know, I don’t think that’s a common thing. Kind of a unique situation.”
“Yeah,” Lotus said, glaring at Edge, daring him to argue with her. “I don’t want to be bitten in any situation.”
“You think we’re going to find someone off the street who’d be ok with that?”
Lotus met Edge’s eyes for a moment. Then she shrugged. “I guess we can’t really help with anyone’s problems unless we stop working so much.”
“Which we can’t afford to do,” Edge added with a nod.
Lotus leaned back into the small sofa as she tried to come up with ideas to make those words untrue. Then she caught sight of the clock on the opposite wall and frowned. It was almost time.
“How’s the Newbie?” she asked, after turning back to Edge
“We aren’t playing matchmaker for him,” Edge declared, crossing his arms over his chest. “He hasn’t earned it yet.”
“How would he earn-“Lotus asked, furrowing her brows. Then she shook her head and said, “No, how’s his training coming? It’s about time for me to head to the range.”
Edge shrugged. “He’s better than he was, but I’d still consider him more liability than asset.”
Lotus nodded. There was nothing to be done about it. The kid would need more training and experience before she’d ever trust him with anything. Let alone her life.
“Is there anything I should watch out for?” Lotus asked as she considered what was to come.
“He’s too green to have many bad habits,” Edge answered with a wave of his hand. “It’ll be fine. He’s an easy enough student.”
“If he’s easy, then why are you pawning him off on me?” Lotus asked dryly.
“Let me rephrase it,” Edge responded with a simple smile. “He’s easy to train once. Six days in a row without break, however, is not easy.”
Lotus pursed her lips and stared at the clock. She never should’ve agreed to step in for Edge. She’d never actually trained anyone before. She didn’t know if she could. Hearing how Cauliflower talked about scouting made her worried. How could she know she didn’t have the same attitude towards shooting?
After another twenty minutes of dealing with her worries, it was time. Lotus and Edge left the library and went their separate ways. Edge went off to do something stupid with Champ and Knot while Lotus headed for the shooting range.
There, she met up with the Newbie and took up residence in a booth. First, she had the kid empty one magazine into a target. She silently watched him take a firing stance and diligently put holes in the paper man. Once the gun clicked empty, she pulled the target back in and looked it over. Every round had hit the paper. That was better than she’d expected. One had even hit the silhouette man’s head. Though, she couldn’t decide whether that was progress or probability.
As the Newbie absent mindedly fingered one of the bullet holes, Lotus said, “You’re doing well, but try to visualize the shot more. Put your mind into the bullet and send it down the range.”
“Like… a brain bubble?” The Newbie asked hesitantly.
“No!” Lotus answered with a ferocity that surprised herself.
Seeing the Newbie cowering slightly, she tried to soften her expression and come up with another approach. She thought back to her own training all those years ago. It’d been long and hard, but at the same time not. She’d always wondered if he would’ve pushed her more if she wasn’t who she was. Asking questions like that didn’t matter much at this point.
She tried to focus on the details of what she was told, but nothing jumped out at her. Even if it had, she was being raised as a sniper. She had no idea what the Newbie would become, but he definitely wasn’t a sniper.
Lotus fiddled with her ear’s cartilage as she thought it over. Then something struck her and she nodded to herself. After replacing the perforated target for a fresh one, she sent it down the range. Then she turned to the Newbie, who was preparing to fire another magazine, and stopped him.
“Newbie, that guy is named Bob,” Lotus declared. As the natural embarrassment of what she was doing came over her, she took tight hold over her facial expressions.
“Who?” The Newbie asked, looking around the sparsely populated range curiously.
“Him,” Lotus answered flatly, pointing down the range. As the Newbie looked at her with a newly perplexed expression, she kept her face stony and continued. “Bob always dreamed of being a mercenary, just like you. He thought he’d get rich and famous saving people and become a hero, but the riches didn’t come in like he wanted and he took on side jobs to pay his bills. After a few years, he stopped bothering with the mercenary work and spent all his time ambushing merchant caravans and stealing their cargo. Every day he wakes up and says he’s going to change soon and go back to the path he dreamed of, but every day he doesn’t.”
“What is this about?” the Newbie asked, screwing up his face even more.
“Bob has two parents and two sisters,” Lotus continued, knowing that if she stopped to explain, she wouldn’t start again. “He writes to them every week and when those letters stop coming in, they’ll know what happened and be devastated.”
Turning towards the target, she finished “Newbie. Think long and hard about Bob and his life and everything you’ll be taking away. Then, kill Bob.”
After finishing her grand declaration, Lotus waited for a gunshot. When one didn’t come, she turned to see the Newbie, still staring at her in confusion.
“What is this about?” He asked again when he had her attention.
“You need to be ready to fire on people,” Lotus reluctantly elucidated. “Best to start getting ready for it now.”
“We don’t fight people,” the Newbie said, his face undecided whether it wanted to be confused or resolute.
“Not in general, no,” Lotus responded. “However, some things can’t be avoided. At the times when things are the worst, you might have to kill someone else. A highwayman, or a soldier, or even another mercenary. When it comes to that, you can’t hesitate. That’s why you need to be ready as soon as possible.”
“Have you… killed people before?” The Newbie asked, his eyes flitting around hers hesitantly.
Lotus paused for a moment. Then she said, “Kill Bob, Newbie.”
The Newbie stared at her for a while. Then he reluctantly turned to the target. After staring at the paper man for around five minutes, he closed his eyes and let off one shot. No hole appeared on the paper.
The Newbie turned to Lotus sheepishly. She gave him no particular reaction and merely said, “Think about it and try again.”
The training lasted another two hours and the Newbie was only able to slaughter five fictional people. However, that didn’t bother Lotus. That was what training was all about. You do something you’re bad at until you’re good at it.
Besides, it wasn’t her problem from this point onwards. The next day, they’d be headed to some dwarven ruins she’d never heard of. By the time they came back, Edge wouldn’t be able to claim he was “too tired to teach.”