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Rain poured down on the roof of the inn,
along with an occasional hammering of hail.
The river that ran through Three-Town Fork
was flooding, but at least they'd had time
to lay down sandbags and protect the towns.
The inn was crowded as people took refuge
from the miserable weather, but the innkeeper
saved a space for Shahana and Ari
in thanks for their help against the smugglers.
They were shocked to see Johan
slog into the common room, muddy and dripping,
hauling a wet bag of gear along with him.
"Ladies," he said politely as he flopped onto the bench.
"The innkeeper directed me over here.
We just wrecked on -- oh, something, I didn't see it,
I was busy poling the flatboat. And the inn's out of rooms,
but the innkeeper said I could dry off by the fire
and have a bowl of soup."
"You can share our room," Shahana said.
"They gave us one for finding a den of smugglers."
"Stay here," Ari said. "I'll go get your soup."
"Thank you," Johan said,
raking his wet black hair out of his face.
Ari came back with a bowl of soup and a bun for Johan,
and a fruit dumpling to be shared as dessert.
"So you're a riverman, now?" she asked
as he dug into the soup.
"Not much of one, I suppose, without my flatboat,"
Johan said. "It was a fair job while it lasted, though."
"Here he is, boys!" crowed a voice.
"Oh no," Johan muttered, hunching lower.
But the rivermen eddied around him anyway,
slapping his shoulders and congratulating them.
"He's our hero of the day," the flatboat captain said.
"Without him, we'd be feeding the fishes alongside our cargo."
"He snuck away after he hefted us up on the docks, though,
the sly little blighter," said the second hand.
"You forgot your pay," the captain said,
and dropped a small clinking pouch on the table.
"And here's from the crew, a coin for each of us you pulled out,"
said the second hand, adding a knotted handkerchief.
Johan buried his face in his hands.
"I am not a hero," he said blurrily. "Please go away now."
"He's shy, too," the captain said, "but don't let him fool you.
He's a hero, right enough."
"Yes," said Shahana, "I know."
The captain nodded to her, and took his men away.
"Are they gone?" Johan asked.
"Yes," Ari said. "Did you really pull them out of the river?"
"Of course," said Johan. "I had to.
Some of them couldn't even swim.
I mean to say, what kind of imbecile works on a boat
when he doesn't know how to swim?"
He applied himself to his supper again,
plainly hurrying so as to escape more attention.
Shahana divided the dumpling
as Johan mopped his soup bowl
with the last scrap of bread.
"Is it really so bad to give your crewmates
a chance to express their gratitude?" she asked.
Johan tucked his chin against his chest.
"It hurts to be reminded of what I was," he said,
"though I can't seem to stop stepping on it anyway."
"Hm," said Shahana, glad to see him
eating his share of dessert rather than refusing it.
"Come upstairs," she said when he finished,
and Johan followed her as readily as Ari did.
"Hang up all your wet things," Shahana told him.
"Everything I own is soaked," Johan grumbled
as he obeyed. Ari helped him.
Shahana pulled out a spare shirt and trousers.
"Change into something dry," she said, and he did.
At least that stopped him shivering.
"Have you heard about Darthur?"
Shahana asked Johan.
His breath hitched as he replied,
"My mentor killed in battle, yes. Gailah sent me a dream.
There are not so many of us as there once were."
"You have me," Ari said softly,
"though I am not a novice in the bright temple."
"It is Gailah, not the temple, who makes a novice,"
Johan said, "or a paladin."
Shahana and Ari sat on the floor
and began the meticulous process
of cleaning and polishing their gear.
It was a familiar ritual, and they said nothing
aside from Ari murmuring verses --
she was still learning the names of all the armor pieces.
"May I ... join you?" Johan said hesitantly.
"Of course," said Shahana. She passed him
her breastplate and the little pot of polish.
Ari stroked an oiled cloth along her belt knife.
"Shahana, what makes a paladin, really?"
she asked suddenly. "Look at us --
we've hardly anything in common,
not to mention that crazy woman today."
Shahana wasn't surprised that the conversation
had come back around to this.
It was a weighty consideration, after all.
"What makes a paladin is partly the nature of the soul --
a certain clarity of purpose -- and partly a choice,
the willingness to serve," she said.
She stroked a whetstone along her sword,
listening to the whisper of stone on steel.
"But is it the gods who decide, or us?"
Ari asked. "Can anyone be a paladin,
or do you have to be something special?"
"It's both," Johan said suddenly,
picking up the thread of the lesson.
"It's something that you and the goddess
decide about together.
Some paths just ... need to be followed,
and this is one of them."
He laid down the polishing cloth for a moment
to interlace his fingers, then said,
"First you do something that makes Her notice you.
It can be anything -- a prayer, a valiant deed, a kind word.
Then She sends you a fallen star. Then you accept.
Then She fills you with Her power. Step by step."
Ari pulled out her fallen star and buffed it carefully.
"We met a paladin of Gorrein today,"
said Ari, and Shahana saw Johan's flinch.
"She made my skin crawl, but she said that
being a paladin was about following your heart,
not just about being good."
"No," said Johan, shaking his head. "You do
have to follow your heart, but there's more than that.
"I think being a paladin is about accepting power
and then giving it away, not clinging to it.
That's the hard part. Few people can do it."
"Well, I bet you know more about that
than Gorrein's crazy lady does," Ari said firmly
as she tucked her fallen star back into its pouch.
Johan scrubbed hastily at the breastplate again
but Shahana had already seen
how he had responded to a novice's questions.
"So how is your heart, Johan?" Ari asked.
"I'm not sure you were following it when we met last."
"It's still broken," he said with half a smile,
"but it's not quite as useless as it was before."
Shahana wondered what in the world he meant by that,
but he was already setting the armor aside.
"That reminds me," Johan said
as he rummaged through his pack,
"I have something for the two of you."
He passed a tiny packet to Shahana and one to Ari.
Shahana unwrapped hers to find a necklace
made from a piece of porcelain painted with roses.
Ari held up a matching necklace, face shining with joy.
"Thank you!" she exclaimed, throwing her arms
around Johan's neck and hugging him.
"It's the prettiest present anyone ever gave me.
But I don't have anything to give you."
"You gave me my heart back, I think," Johan said.
"I'd lost it for a while, until I met you and Shahana on the road.
I'm glad to have it again, even if sometimes
I cut myself on the sharp edges."
Ari sat back on her heels and put on her necklace.
She ran a finger over the shiny foil and said,
"Don't worry. Gailah will show you how
to cover the sharp edges with something wonderful."