The Captain’s office was generally the same since Shay had succeeded Kane, though perhaps a little cleaner. The chairs and rug remained. The shelves still held their same contents, dusted, but unchanged. The fire still crackled at a low burn. The pot which normally hung over it, with a dubious bubbling stew, had since been mercilessly scoured, hung to the side, and filled with French long bread and a tall sprig of lavender inviting all comers to take their fill. And instead of Kane’s sword propped in readiness against the desk, it was Shay’s. The sword, standing there, looked miserable, and bored if a sword can.
Shay had been pleased to discover there was a worn notch just so in the side of the desk, and another in the floor directly beneath, perfectly suited to hold her sheath. It had clearly been worn in by all the captain’s that had preceded her. Whether consciously or unconsciously they were all part of a tradition. It was inclusive, but her sword felt awkward there.
Shay took comfort in that nearly invisible notch. It seemed to her symbolic, representing the strength of the past for her to draw on, and it provided assurance that this would all out last her. It was a great comfort, but at the present moment she had a problem to deal with.
In fact the problem was the Captain’s desk. Not the desk itself, the emptiness of it. Only keen observers would have noticed the lighter shades of cleanliness. More people would cotton on to the bread. But everyone noticed the Desk. It seemed, ominous. It seemed to simultaneously lurk in a void, and dominate the whole space. No matter where you were in the room, you noticed it.
In the weeks since Shay had become Captain, she’d made it her mission to systematically eliminate the piles of paperwork that had buried the Desk for years. She had succeeded. Though it didn’t feel like it. The Desk now stood empty and clean. It was right, but felt like a mistake.
When the last tedious report on garrison supplies had been attended to a week ago, Shay had cleaned and polished the Desk herself. And there it sat pristine and horrible, with her sword propped just so, looking anxious to be gone and doing anything else. Shay sighed. She got up from the cozy chair across from the Desk and began a circuit around the room.
Every report, every piece of parchment, every paper, intended for the Captain went directly into Shay’s hands now rather than touch the Desk. She was painfully up to date on everything from Blackkoven’s latest atrocities, to complaints of missing cats. Each incoming note gave her an excuse to get up from the Desk and be about and doing. But now there was nothing to do, except pace and wait.
As she walked the office even peripherally the Desk demanded attention. She tried to ignore it, but it was impossible to stop thinking about it.
As she rounded the four sides of the room for the twenty seventh time she thought through just what she was doing. ‘North side, eight long paces, and a Desk in the center of the room. East side, fifteen long paces, an empty Desk. South side, eight long paces, step around the side table, there sits an empty Desk in the center of the room. West side, fourteen and one third long paces, makes twenty eight revolutions around the room. Infuriating Desk!’
Exasperated Shay threw herself back into the cozy armchair facing the awful Desk. Out loud she asked the Desk, “How can a building be off by nearly two feet from its exterior to its interior?” But this one was. She never would have noticed but that the pacing kept her from having to sit at the Desk. “That’s your fault.” She said to it. The Desk stood smugly mocking her.
Shay sat lounged back and low in the chair, elbows propped up on the arms, staring at the dark shining Desk, brooding. What was wrong? Why did this empty Desk defeat her? Why was she so uncomfortable sitting at it?
She’d used the Desk before as secretary. She’d sat at it as a Lieutenant on occasion. She’d been on both sides in many different situations. She’d even sat in various places on all sides around it during council meetings and officer meetings. One would be hard pressed to find a space in this office that held a surprise for Shay, or one that she hadn’t occupied in the course of her service. But now she was Captain it was like discovering a tack point first in the behind each time she sat down to the Desk. Why?
Everything was in good order. Everything was going well. Everything was fine. Surely an empty Desk was a good thing. Surely a well-informed Captain, with all the free time in the world was a good thing. Didn’t it mean she was doing a good job? And yet, to her, it felt wrong.
Shay rubbed the soft spot in between her eyes with steepled forefingers up to the hair line and down to the tip of her nose slowly, over and over again, and stared at the Desk as though waiting for it to do something. After the shadows in the room had changed a quarter of an hour, Shay quietly sighed out “Llw,” and got up. The Desk had won this round, and Shay needed help before she faced another.
She snatched her sword and sheath from the notch on the hateful Desk, she could practically feel their gratitude as she fastened them on her belt. Flustered she made a mistake tying the belt and her sword slipped, the sheath lightly knocking her ankle bone. Not enough to damage but enough to sting, and annoy. “Oh! For the love!” She hissed out.
Shay looked around the room as she refastened her belt properly. As she scanned the space she considered the window in the back. She thought of this as Kane’s window for she’d seen him on a few occasions escape the office through it. She briefly thought of going out this way, then decided against it. That was for emergencies. This, thing, this war, with the Desk was an annoyance, and it needed to be dealt with directly. The front door it would be.
Once she was suitably arranged she visualized running the gauntlet of the garrison. Invariably any time she stepped out this door a dozen questions ambushed her. Waiting till she heard nothing beyond she ripped open the door, and practically flew from the office, banging the door shut behind her. Down the stairs at a double time and out the front door of the garrison she bolted. She planned that, at such a speed, it was unlikely she would be stopped. Though her passing drew attention she was correct that no one called out, they could see she had a determined look about her, and so left her to herself.
At a quick trot Shay passed through the village and down to the split in the river. She followed the path along the smaller fork away from the heart of the village, and, after ten minutes, she came to the lesser crossing of the old stone bridge. Or Half Bridge as it was known. Long ago, one edge had crumbled away and it was no longer suitable for crossing except one at a time. It’s deteriorated usefulness made it an out-of-the-way spot that Shay liked very much.
As she approached, Shay paused to catch her breath. At a suitable distance she bellowed out as rudely as she could, “Petal! You old bilge pump clog. How are you?”
A rocky looking thing slowly unfolded itself from under the shadow of the bridge on the opposite side of the stream, and with languid, unconcerned motions, stretched and yawned, then scratched at an armpit before answering.
“Well if it isn’t little Shayen Locke. The squalling, infantile, shiny new Captain of the Order of the Rose.” The thing, which in the daylight showed to be a bridge troll, growled out in response. “I’m doing well today,” he continued, “how are you, you rat catcher’s daughter?”
Shay unconcerned with the insults, menacing size, and dripping wet monstrous nature of the troll, strolled up onto the bridge and, careful of her sword, sat down near the middle, legs dangling, without actually crossing over the center-line. That would have been rude without asking for permission first.
“Well you great odorous fustilug, I’m actually feeling terrible.” Shay crossed her arms and rocked back and forth a little. “The thing is, you bit of pond scum, everything is going really well. People are happy, and everything is tidy and well organized, it’s just me. I feel wretched.”
Petal looked taken-a-back and concerned, by Shay’s response. He walked through the stream to stand in front of his little friend putting dinner plate sized hands on either side of her sitting form. Shay knew that she was sitting a good six feet above the stream bed and that meant Petal stood nearly eight feet tall as he looked at her. She noted the comparison and was grateful that these exchanges of insults meant that they were good friends.
It had taken Shay some time to come to grips with the notion that shouting the rudest possible things at someone could really be terms of endearment. But that’s the way trolls were. Over time she had learned to laugh at the things he called her, she was grateful for the compliment of his friendship.
“Oh dear, you little hedge-born, cumber-world, what is the matter? Tell me all about it.” Petal responded with genuine care in his deep voice.
Shay unloaded her whole mind on Petal. She explained about the transfer of Captaincy, the hardness of the situation, her successes and failures, liberally mixing in insults as she spoke. She told Petal how she felt, all her concerns and her hopes. And, most importantly, she explained the Desk.
At the end of an hour, all spoken out, Shay hung her head in her hands and raked her fingers through her hair. Petal stood silently, waiting. After a moment or two She looked up at him and asked, “Alright, you garlic breathed, loud mouth, what do you think?”
Petal sighed, and put one great hand on Shay’s shoulder, “Well, you ungrateful, ronyon doxy, let me ask you a question: How many pickles are there in the garrison kitchen?”
Without pausing to think Shay responded, “163.”
Petal barked out a great low, “Ha!” of derision, then added, “Of course you know that! Of course you do. What a raggabrashed, lack wit you are. Why? Why do you know that?”
Absolutely startled by this line of questioning, Shay stumbled through a response. “Well, I mean, it was on a kitchen supplies report yesterday, you lumbering wretch. I didn’t mean to know it. I just remember it. Is it wrong to know that?”
“Oh Shay! You numb-skulled piker, the Captain doesn’t need to know that. Look you’ve got the right arrows but you’re aiming at the wrong target. It’s good to do your work, you’re just doing the wrong work.” Petal puffed out his cheeks, let the air out all at once, then continued. “There is no reason for you to know how many pickles are in your stores.”
He looked skyward as though pleading the divine for an intervention, then, locking her green eyes with his gentle, clear blue ones, further explained. “There is no need, whatsoever, for you, the Captain, to go chasing off after every last missing cat, or fallen bit masonry, or report of downed branches on the road! Your job is to care for the people in your charge, so that they can care for those things in their charge. They know their business better than you do. They send you these notes, these reports, for their benefit and your confirmation that they know how to handle it best. You don’t need to be everywhere doing everything. You have Officers and Swordsmen and any number of people to help you.”
Petal paused for breath, and Shay jumped in, “You don’t understand!”
Petal over-spoke her, “No! You’re a stumble footed burglar, and it’s you who don’t understand! You’re too efficient! You’re too on top of things.”
Petal released his hand from Shay’s shoulder and resumed his instruction using both hands to punctuate and explain, “Listen, I’ve watched all of you Captains over the years, ever since I followed pretty Miss Rhiannon here. And just so you know, you’re not the first foppish fool of a Captain to come wandering my way. The thing I’ve learned about Terrasylvae is, that it operates best with just a touch of chaos.” Petal paused and smiled.
With a smirk on his face the old troll continued, “If a person should be 90% honest to keep up good relations, well, then, Terrasylvae should only be about 80% efficient to keep people happy. Folks need to feel important, they need something to do. Or at least a perception that there is something to do.” Here he pointed a finger right at Shay. “If you’re running around doing everything for them, you’ll only wear yourself out, and no one will learn anything. Worse still, they’ll feel harried and anxious. When you, Captain-rocks-for-brains, relax, it gives them permission to relax.”
With both hands flourishing he continued, “It’s ok if the occasional cat doesn’t get found. They usually turn up around Haute anyway, and he sends them packing. Its ok if some things fail, and fail spectacularly.” Again he pointed right at Shay “all you need to do is care for your people, you care, and try to help them as best you can. Care and try. That’s what you do. You choose people over pickles. Every time.” Out of breath Petal stopped and waited for Shay to ponder.
Shay sat in stunned silence for several minutes, after all it wasn’t every day a bridge troll chastised you. Not that she could see it, but she looked away towards the garrison, internalizing the wisdom of the troll. It made sense. A lot of sense. Shay felt a little foolish for needing it to be pointed out. But it was a helpful perspective.
Carefully Shay spoke, “I think I see what you’re saying, you cantankerous old codger. But, what do I do? I understand the idea, but I need something to do.”
“Like all things, little mite, it takes practice. You find a way to prioritize people over pickles.” Petal answered. “Try this, try not answering the next report. Just ignore it. Don’t even look at it. Throw it away, burn it, I don’t care. Just don’t take care of it yourself.”
“But what if it’s important!” Shay protested.
“If it’s really important, the messenger will report it personally. And then you respond to them as a person. But even then, even then,” He punctuated with a finger again, “you don’t jump in and do it all, you involve them and work with them. People over pickles. Every time.” The troll relaxed and changed his whole demeanor. “Now, go away.”
Shay reached out and touched the troll’s shoulder briefly. “Thank you, you maggoty lump of bread.” Petal nodded once. Shay stood up, minding her sword and the center of the bridge, and headed back to the garrison.
On her way she made a conscious effort not to keep track of time or number of steps. She went unhurriedly and spent the journey thinking about the people in her charge as she went. As she passed by villagers they seemed to relax as she relaxed. They smiled as she smiled. It was a much more pleasant walk than she’d experienced earlier.
Upon reaching the garrison Shay found an uptight messenger waiting for her outside the Captain’s office. Her office. He had come from Senechal Damian, and seemed anxious to be on his way again. She invited him to bread and a seat. He declined both, and instead produced a sealed note which he urged Shay to take so he could be off. Against her nature she indicated that he should put it on the Desk. He tossed it there, saluted smartly, turned on a heel without being dismissed, and departed rudely without a word. ‘Practice.’ Shay thought. ‘It will take a lot of practice, and there will always be 10% of the people you can’t please, no matter what.’
After the messenger had gone, Shay walked slowly around the Desk. She unbuckled her sword and placed it carefully in the notch. It still seemed a little uncomfortable but leaned there as though it were willing to give it another try.
The little note sitting there on the shiny Desk seemed a bit like a coiled snake waiting to strike. Slowly Shay sat at the Desk, and watched the note for a moment. She reflected on Petal’s advice. Without looking away she pulled out a book from a side drawer and after several deep breaths she tore her eyes away from the note and began to read. A few pages in she was able to relax and eventually ignore the note. With a studied nonchalance she even put her feet up on the corner of the desk and leaned back in the chair.
Several people stopped in throughout the day and each time Shay closed her book and listened to them, asking them for their opinions on the matters they brought to her. She doled out advice or orders as needed, but mostly she listened.
By the end of the day there were three notes on the desk. All unattended. As Shay stood to leave she took the first, Damian’s note, and fingered it thoughtfully. She was almost certain of what it said. It was most likely the request for maps that they had talked about last week. But she couldn’t be totally sure. She lightly toyed with the seal tempting herself to take a peek. She swung her hips side to side in agonizing indecision for a moment. Then made up her mind.
To learn the lesson better, she was willing to take Petal’s advice one step further. To make it real to herself, she slowly walked to the fire, took a deep breath, and resolutely tossed in the note. If it were really important it would come up again. “People over pickles.” She whispered.
Just then there was a knock on the door. Shay watched till the note curled up into black ash, then called out, “Come in.” The door gingerly opened and Damian stuck his head through.
“Hey Shay, did you get my note?” He asked gently. His eyes flashed to the desk, yet rather than seeming upset at not seeing his note there, he seemed relaxed by the fact there was anything there at all. Shay registered his reaction out of the corner of her eye.
“I’m afraid I don’t see it Damian.” Shay answered. Turning from the fire to face him with a smile. “Why don’t you tell me what you needed?”
Damian’s smiled flashed and he walked in. “Do you have a minute?” He asked.
“Of course! How can I help?” Shay answered.