The day Azu first catches a glimpse of the paladin is as unremarkable as the day before it. The sun beats down upon her back as she carries a basket full of homemade salves into the village center. It is the same mundane task she has been doing for months now. The same task that leaves her itching for something more.
It isn’t the paladin herself that draws Azu’s attention, plenty of merchants and charlatans speaking foreign sounding tongues wander into their village, but the armor she wears. It glints so brightly, Azu can barely stand to look at it without averting her eyes, but it is most unmistakably pink. She stands squinting at it for what must be minutes, before a gentle laugh pulls her out of the daze.
“Admiring my armor?”
She grins, and it is only then that Azu glimpses her face. Any words she might say die in her throat. The woman is the most beautiful person Azu has seen in what might be her entire life, and somehow it’s a beauty she lacks the words to describe.
The paladin’s dark skin is scarred and rough and yet Azu feels like she could easily take her hand in her own. Her lopsided grin sparks a strange comfort in Azu’s chest, not unlike a hearth. Her beauty is raw, and to Azu it almost feels like kindness.
She feels her face grow red as the paladin watches her with that playful grin, awaiting a response.
“I- No, I am not,” she manages to stammer out after what feels like hours.
The paladin’s grin doesn’t falter. “Of course. I’m sorry for making such an assumption.”
Azu only feels more flustered. She gestures clumsily to the basket, the little bottles within it clink softly. “I should be going.”
The paladin nods. “I wish you a wonderful day, wherever your journey may take you.”
Azu whispers a thank you she’s not sure the paladin can even hear and runs off past her, stopping only when she is sure that the paladin cannot see her. She sets down the basket and runs a hand over her freshly shaved head. She doesn’t understand why she is so flustered over this woman she barely knows, she doesn’t understand why this woman is standing in the middle of her village in the first place.
With a sigh she picks up the basket. The woman will be gone tomorrow she tells herself, then you won’t ever have to think about her again.
Of course she is wrong.
The next morning Azu finds her in the village center again, chatting with one of her neighbors. Azu tries to walk past her without being seen, but before she knows it, the paladin has excused herself from the conversation and is running up to her.
“Hello again!” she calls, a grin stretching across her face.
“Hello,” Azu mumbles. Her face already feels warm.
“Are you going somewhere?”
“Yes,” Azu lies. She wishes more than anything that she could stop being so confused, but at the same time she feels a twinge of sadness at doing so. She tells herself that is why she should leave.
“Do you mind if I walk with you?”
Azu hates how relieved the question makes her feel. There is something so inviting in this woman, and yet she feels like if she gets too close, her whole world could crumble.
“Why not?” Azu asks before she has the chance to convince herself not to. The paladin laughs and Azu feels something ridiculously close to hope in her chest. She swallows it down, before gesturing faintly for the paladin to follow her.
In the faint early sun, Azu can see her armor much clearer. It’s nothing like anything she’s ever seen before on a paladin. Outside of the blinding light, the armor seems to glow on it’s own, radiating soft pink light into the air around her. On each plate is an intricate carving of a small bird, a dove.
“So you’re with Aphrodite?”
She laughs again. “I thought you weren’t admiring my armor?”
“Perhaps I am today.”
“Fair enough. I am with Aphrodite, yes.”
Azu kicks a rock out of her way. “So you guys are really into romance or something right?”
The paladin just looks at her with an eyebrow raised.
Azu stumbles, “I’m sorry-”
“No, it’s okay. It’s a common misconception.” Her face softens. “It’s actually more about healing. There is so much more to love than romance. I personally believe that love is exceptional kindness. In that way, I love everyone. I suppose that’s why Aphrodite speaks to me.”
Although she doesn’t understand why, something inside Azu aches. “That sounds really beautiful.”
They walk in silence for a few minutes, Azu watching the paladin’s face intently.
“Is there anything you believe in?”
Azu doesn’t know why the question catches her so off guard. “I suppose not.”
“You don’t believe in anything ?”
“Well I know the gods exist, I guess I just never found any of them that really spoke to me. I don’t think I ever really tried to look. Outside of that, I guess I believe in many things. I believe in my family, I believe in this village-”
Azu startles at the question. “What do you mean ‘but’?”
“But you feel trapped don’t you?”
Azu narrows her eyes. “How would you-”
“Trust me, I know the itch when I see it. You love your people, but you need more.” Her voice is so nonchalant, it hits Azu almost as hard as the words themselves.
“I cannot possibly leave here.”
Azu cannot believe what she is hearing. “Because my family is here! I love them, I can’t just leave.”
The paladin stops walking and grabs her hand. Shots of electricity hum through her fingertips at the touch. Azu tries her hardest not to sink into the feeling.
“It is truly admirable how much you care about your family, but there is so much more you can do in the world. You don’t have to disappear from here forever, just let yourself do great things. I saw those bottles you were carrying yesterday, don’t you want more?”
Azu does want more.
“I know you have as much love in you as I do, I see Aphrodite in your eyes.” The paladin smiles and Azu doesn’t know if she wants to kiss her or start crying.
It turns out she doesn’t have a choice. Tears stream down her face in a mixture of hope, sadness, and longing. The paladin rubs her back in silence as she sobs into her hands.
“I just wish things made sense,” Azu cries.
“I promise they will one day.”
“I wish I knew how to feel about this, about you.”
The paladin stops. “About me?”
Azu nods, “I went about my life for so long feeling like something was missing, and then suddenly you show up and say you can fix it, even if it means abandoning everything I’ve ever known. You make me want to leave everything behind. I feel like I should be angry but instead all I can think about is holding your hand. You say you love everyone, and I think I do too, but I don’t understand the way I feel about you.” The paladin goes silent and Azu immediately regrets saying anything.
“I am so sorry, I-” she begins.
“Can I kiss you?”
Azu can barely stammer out an agreement before the paladin presses her lips to Azu’s. The paladin’s lips are so soft, Azu feels like she could melt.
When they part, the paladin wipes lifts a hand to wipe the tears off Azu's face. “Tomorrow I have to go back to the temple, you should come with me. It doesn’t have to be anything permanent, but I know that you would love it there Azu.”
Azu almost agrees with her before realizing what the paladin said. She takes a step back.
“What’s wrong?” The paladin’s eyes watch her with concern.
“How did you know my name?”
“Aphrodite sent me a dream. She sent me to you.”
Azu looks down. “Why me?”
“Because the love you possess for your village, the love you possess for your family, the love you possess for everyone is so strong Aphrodite could feel it.” The paladin cups her face, wiping away fresh tears. “You are beautiful and kind, and I am so grateful that I got to be the one to meet you.”
“I don’t think I can do it,” Azu mumbles, “I appreciate this so much, and I wish I could stay with you forever, but I can't just leave.”
The paladin’s face falls and when she smiles again, her eyes remain sorrowful. “Of course, I would never try to convince you to do anything you don’t want to.”
A moment of silence passes between them as they continue walking. “You know,” Azu says, “I never actually had anywhere to be in the first place.”
The paladin lets out a small laugh, “I figured.”
By the time they get back to the village, it’s late afternoon. The paladin wraps herself around Azu in the tightest hug she has ever received. Bits of armor dig into her skin but she can’t bring herself to let go. The paladin sobs into Azu’s shoulder and she can feel tears of her own run down her face.
When they finally pull apart, the paladin sniffles and wipes at her eyes. “I wish we could’ve had more time together.”
Azu is crying too hard to answer.
“I’ll see you again, I know I will,” the paladin says softly, “Until then, I will miss you more than I have words to explain.”
Azu cannot stop crying as she walks home. She’s always been one to fall fast for others, but never has she ever loved someone so strongly in such a short amount of time, and never has she had it taken away from her so quickly either.
She cries herself to sleep that night, memories of their goodbye etched into her eyelids. When she finds herself in the dream, she doesn’t realize what’s happening at first. She is sitting on a cliff top overlooking the ocean, a table in front of her. On the other side of the table sits a woman so radiantly beautiful that Azu does a double take. Where the paladin’s beauty was raw, this woman is ethereal. At once Azu knows who she is seeing.
Perhaps in the waking world she would bow or grovel, but she finds no desire to do so now.
“Why have you brought me here?”
The woman smiles, her smile as gentle and perfect as the rest of her. “In the kindest way possible, I have brought you here to tell you that you’ve made a mistake.”
Azu sighs, “I don’t want to, believe me, but I can’t just run away.”
Aphrodite walks over and cups her face. “My child, you aren’t running away if you’re running towards something. You can always return home, but you are wasting your talents here. I see you mixing salves day in and day out, hoping to help someone, I see the kindness in your heart.”
“I wish you could’ve told me this earlier. It’s far too late now?”
“She left already,” the words hurt Azu to say.
Aphrodite laughs, a soft chiming sound. “No she hasn’t. She loves you Azu, she is taking her time. She won’t leave until morning.”
“Alright, I’ll go.”
“I’m so happy to hear that! You better hurry though, dawn is breaking.”
The world around her began to fade. “Remember Azu, I am always with you.”
Azu wakes up to the first rays of sunlight. She sprints through the village, ignoring the stitches in her sides. She can’t bear the thought that she is too late.
Then she sees her. Pink armor still glinting in the sun, braided hair flowing out behind her, Azu almost starts crying with relief.
Before she knows it, she has wrapped the paladin up in the tightest hug she can muster.
“It’s me, I’m here, I am coming with you.”
The paladin beams at her. “Well we best get going if we want to arrive today.”
Azu grabs her hand and they walk off into the distance.