As cantinas went, the nameless little dive on the third ring of Belarion Orbital Habitat held a singular charm. It was blissfully quiet. So many other cantinas felt the need to blare whatever passed for jaunty music in the local system. The nameless dive didn’t have that problem, largely because its enchanted music synthesizer had been blasted into ten thousand tiny pieces.
Even that wasn’t a guarantee of tranquility though. When music was missing, cantinas tended to have noisy patrons who filled the silence in with whatever idiocy came to their minds. The nameless cantina didn’t have that problem either however since its patrons were all mercifully unconscious.
Darius pulled up a chair to the table where Captain Okoro was sitting and plopped the last unbroken bottle of green spirits down beside a pair of small, mostly intact, glasses.
“They packed more of a punch than I expected,” Darius said, surveying the dozens of prone forms that were draped over the furniture or sprawled across the floor.
“It’s always the ones you don’t expect who put up the biggest fights,” Hanq said.
“Think Mel will be mad she missed this brawl?” Darius asked.
“Only if we tell her about it,” Hanq said with a smile.
“So how many guys would you say were here?” Darius asked. “Two hundred? Three hundred?”
“Oh clearly this was an entire militia hide out. Fully armed. Probably a thousand in enchanted power armor,” Hanq said.
“She’s going to murder us,” Darius said, unable to keep from giggling at the prospect of teasing his beloved brawler.
“I don’t know how you keep up with her,” Hanq said.
“What do you mean?” Darius said. “You’re the one who trained her. You’ve been keeping up with her since she was little right?”
“That girl? Nine hells no, she’s always set her own pace,” Hanq said. “Best I’ve done is managed to nudge her away from the really stupid mistakes I made when I was her age.”
“How did you two ever meet?” Darius asked. “I could never believe that she just stumbled onto a former Warlord who was also a master martial artist just when she needed training.”
“I know. You’d think there was some kind of spell at work there, but believe me, I checked and there wasn’t,” Hanq said. “How I remember it is that our meeting was all Mel’s idea.”
“What do you mean?” Darius asked.
“Well, you have to understand where I was at the time,” Hanq said. “I’d just gotten my crew together and conquered my first system when the Crystal Empress broke onto the scene. Like a lot of the Warlords in those days, I was young, strong as hell and smart enough to see the value of allies, especially ones you could sacrifice if the need arose.”
“That doesn’t seem like a solid long term strategy,” Darius said.
“Oh it wasn’t,” Hanq said. “The average reign for a Warlord was a decade at the outside. The smartest ones would pass their power onto a younger caster and retire somewhere with a shipload of money and enchanted objects.”
“Is that how you got the job?”
“No, I grabbed my system in a bloodless coup. The previous ruler was a cagey beast but he hadn’t kept up on the latest in security techniques. So I took the station that he had warded with spells a dozen levels deep and removed their ‘friend or foe’ recognition routines. Cut off his whole command infrastructure in one move.”
“I’m surprised it was bloodless.” Darius said.
“The old guy was smart enough to have the non-lethal defenses trigger first. Saved his life and left me with a clean conscience,” Hanq said. “Actually keeping the system wasn’t quite so bloodless though. Once word got out about the change in power a bunch of my neighbors decided to see if they could annex the system out from under me.”
“I’ve seen you work,” Darius said. “How many of their systems did you take?”
“Three,” Hanq said. “I didn’t even really want them but I had to collect a price for the trouble they caused.”
“Any of them live through it?” Darius asked.
“All of them actually, I needed allies after all and who better than a trio of Warlord I knew I could run rings around.”
“So what happened when the Empress showed up?” Darius asked.
“We had a huge battle. I almost had her at my mercy until all of my allies turned traitor,” Hanq said, hiding his expression with the glass of green liquer.
“Really?” Darius asked.
“No,” Hanq said. “Not even in my wildest day dreams. What really happened is one of her Crystal Guardians showed up. Not even one of the Prime ones.”
“They talked you into standing down peacefully?” Darius asked.
“Yes. She talked to us with her fists. I recall that her right cross made a very clear and concise case for why I should get out of the Warlord line of work and find something less dangerous like ‘stellar demolition’.”
“She beat you?”
“She beat all of us,” Hanq said. “All at the same time.”
“That’s when you took up martial arts seriously?” Darius asked.
“Oh no,” Hanq said. “I’d been serious about martial combat of all kinds for years. Since I could walk if fact. It’s why I was able to beat people into following me.”
“And the others didn’t betray you?”
“Not intentionally,” Hanq said. “We could have been better coordinated, but none of us were turncoats. We gave it our all, and hers was just better than that.”
“So what did you do afterwards?”
“After I got out of the Imperial medical facility?” Hanq said. “Well the first thing I did was refuse the commission they offered. My body was healed but my pride still in little pieces.”
“They let you go like that?” Darius asked.
“It was less a matter of ‘let me go’ and more a ‘failed to prevent my escape’,” Hanq said. “Since I was on the run I knew I had to disappear. Or at least that’s what I told myself at the time. Looking back, I wonder if I wasn’t running away from the guy I thought I was more than anything else.”
“Being a Warlord meant a lot to you?” Darius asked.
“At the time it was everything I was,” Hanq said. “You don’t get to a position like that without a certain mindset. I believed I was the strongest guy out there. And the smartest. And most fit to rule. Being a Warlord was about more than power. It was security. With me in charge I knew I could make sure nothing bad happened to the people that mattered.”
Hanq took a breath and looked down into the glass and the questionable green goo that sloshed inside it
“Then I wasn’t in charge,” he said. “And nothing bad happened. Things were even better in fact. And I wasn’t the strongest or the smartest or the most fit to rule.”
“That sounds brutal,” Darius said.
“It was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Hanq said. “Well, one of the best.”
“That brings us back to Mel I’m guessing?” Darius said.
“Eventually,” Hanq said. “There were days I was convinced she was the worst disaster ever to land in my life though.”
“Why?” Darius asked.
“Because she never gave up,” Hanq said. “She was relentless. I didn’t want to train her, not at first anyways. I gave her all kind of crazy things to do and she just kept doing them.”
“Yeah, I can’t say I find that hard to believe,” Darius said.
“So there I am, broken down, as low as I’d ever been, convinced that I had nothing left to fight for and there’s this little fuzzy haired stick of a girl who just won’t leave me alone!”
“Gods, I’m picturing a little Mel now being on your case 24 hours a day,” he said. “It’s horrifying.”
“You have no idea,” Hanq said. “The worst part was that she was terrible at martial arts. At least to start. But every day, she was there.”
“How long did it take her to get good?” Darius asked.
“I don’t even know!” Hanq said. “Like I said, she was always there and it was so gradual that I don’t think I noticed for a while how good she’d become. I think it was about seven or eight years ago that I noticed I was using anima while I was sparring with her though. That was probably my first wake up call.”
“Wait, you were spell casting at her back when she couldn’t cast spells?” Darius asked.
“It’s not as bad as it sounds, but yes, I’d started casting cantrip buffs to edge up my speed or recover from some of the hits she was tagging me with. Nothing obvious or overwhelming, but it was still a pretty terrible thing to do.”
“It sounds like it really pushed her training into overdrive though,” Darius said.
“I suppose it did, but she never noticed it either,” Hanq said. “To her I was just staying tantalizing far ahead of her, but always beyond a level she could reach. What she didn’t see was that I was cheating more and more every day to maintain that lead.”
“Why did you keep training her if it was that hard?” Darius asked.
“You know, after a while I asked myself that too,” Hanq said. “The real answer took me a long time to work out though. At first I thought I had a responsibility to her. The streets on Belstarius weren’t friendly to kids and Mel’s disposition made them particularly hostile to her.”
“I’m having a hard time picturing how she survived as long as she did without magic to fall back on,” Darius said.
“Some of that was me, some of it was the Sisters of Water’s Mercy,” Hanq said. “For an order of holy women, they could sure raise unholy hell when they needed too. Mostly though I think it was just that damn determination of hers. She dragged herself to my place more times than I can count all busted up and broken from some fight or another.”
“A trend that continues to today,” Darius said and took another gulp from his glass.
“At least she’s learned to hang out with medics and a support staff,” Hanq said.
“Sounds like she always had a support staff, even if she didn’t know it,” Darius said.
“I guess she did,” Hanq said. “Even from that first day, even when I was trying as hard as I could to drive her away, I still couldn’t let anything really bad happen to that girl. Busted more than few heads for her that I’m hoping she never found out about.”
“Why?” Darius asked.
“She had a bit of a temper when she was younger,” Hanq said. “I was trying to teach her to control that by showing her a good example.”
“And?” Darius asked.
“Well, let’s just say sometimes I set a better example than others,” Hanq said. “I mean I was an ex-Warlord. There are certain threats I can laugh off and others? Well, sometimes its best that nobody is able to find those particular bodies.”
“You sound as protective as my Dads were,” Darius said.
“I guess I was,’ Hanq said. “For a long time I’ve thought of Mel as the daughter I’d never have.”
“For what it’s worth, I think she still regards you as the closest thing she has to a father,” Darius said.
“I’m happier for that than you can possibly understand,” Hanq said. “But thinking about it, even that’s not why I never pushed her away, not even during her incredibly bratty years.”
“It’s hard to imagine Mel as a brat,” Darius said.
“Oh do I have stories for you then,” Hanq said.
“I’m kind of terrified our daughter will turn out the same,” Darius said.
“Oh, you’re planning to have a family now?” Hanq asked.
“Well, not right now, but someday, maybe,” Darius said. “If she wants to.”
“The probably the kind of thing you should talk about with actual words,” Hanq said. “And for the record, I am in favor of grandchildren.”
“Her mother said the same thing,” Darius said. “But you were saying you didn’t stick with her because she was like a daughter to you?”
“Yeah, when I look back now what I see is that I was just being selfish. It’s as simple as that,” Hanq said.
“How so?” Darius asked.
“I was lower than low when I met Mel,” Hanq said. “And she wouldn’t let me stay there. She wouldn’t let me be the ‘washed up ex-Warlord’ that I thought I was. She made be her teacher. She made be this incredible martial master. And you know what? It worked. I didn’t want to but every day I got up and trained with her. She got better, I got better and I found something.”
“A new person you could be?” Darius asked.
“Yeah, or maybe it was the person I always was,” Hanq said. “Without that Crystal Guardians I would have continued on being a Warlord and odds are I’d be dead by now. Without Mel though, I’d have wasted away to nothing. My body might still be walking around but fifteen years of the guy I was back then would have left that body without a heart or a soul.”
Hanq looked at the glass and could only see his own, honest smile reflected back at him.
“Mel’s saved a lot of people, but the first person she saved was me.”