A human woman in a golden headdress and elaborate fur robes, a jeweled staff in her hand, peeked through the doorway. A spotted leopard prowled about her feet.
Aunbrel fell to one knee, dropping his eyes. "Bright Lady!"
A fair hand touched his shoulder. Aunbrel's tan skin darkened with a flush that crept to the pointed tips of his tall ears, in mortification at being caught out of uniform by Commander Lisia herself, the leader of all Hopestart. But the gentle voice that said, "Rise, Guardian. There is no need for such formality," held no rebuke, only a hint of amusement.
Reluctant, Aunbrel stood, eyes averted. With an elf's height, he towered over her, which only added to the sense of his own impropriety. He straightened his shirt cuffs self-consciously. "My apologies, Bright Lady."
Commander Lisia waved off his words. "There is no wrong to forgive. Be at ease ... Aunbrel, is it?"
His gaze jerked up to her face in a moment of surprise. Faint lines around her large dark eyes and at her mouth and jawline hinted at her age. Aunbrel dropped his head again quickly, giving an awkward nod. "Yes, Bright Lady." Her leopard sat at her feet, leaning against her leg and staring at him with unblinking eyes.
The Commander took a step back, dipping her hand to scratch the leopard's ears. "It seems there's light in this office every night, Guardian. Is it always you here?"
"Not every night, Bright Lady."
A smile played on her lips. "Almost every night?"
Aunbrel didn't know what to say to that. "I am only completing my work, Bright Lady."
"And perhaps the work of one or three others as well?" The Commander shook her head, smiling still. "Your diligence is commendable, Aunbrel. Relax." He would have rushed into a burning building at her command, or faced down a rioting mob, but Aunbrel had no idea how even to begin to follow that instruction. "I appreciate your service to my city, Guardian. And perhaps it is unfair of me to ask one more thing of you, but I shall."
"Bright Lady?" He raised his eyes to her lips, but no higher.
"Don't let the work eat you alive, Aunbrel." She touched his arm. "If you do nothing but Guard, you will forget the why of it. Do not allow yourself to become isolated, with no one and nothing to return home to. Remember to enjoy your life and the world you live in. Else what is it all for?"
"Yes, Bright Lady." Aunbrel had no idea how to follow that instruction, either, but there was no other possible response.
The Commander patted his arm. "Good night, Guardian." With her leopard beside her, she withdrew from his office. In the corridor, she shook her head and sighed to herself as she left.
Kinsley had been Aunbrel's partner in the peacekeepers since Aunbrel joined three months ago. Kinsley had been a Guardian for nearly thirty years, and no one would accuse him of working too hard. Not that he was corrupt, or bad at his job, exactly. Though Kinsley was lazy: he had a habit of splitting the two of them so Kinsley could take the shorter half of a patrol route, or sending Aunbrel to run errands or interview witnesses in inconvenient parts of the city. But that sort of thing had to be expected from a partner with seniority, and the old human had the insight and knowledge of law and regulation that one would expect from someone with his experience. If he left early every night to go drinking -- "You don't mind finishing up the casework, right, Aunbrel?" -- well, surely he'd earned that right.
The two were walking their usual circuit through the Iron District, narrow cobbled streets winding past dilapidated warehouses and aging smelteries, walls and roofs blackened by soot. Kinsley's pale face was open and smiling. He tipped his hat to the occasional passing human woman, offered a casual salute to human men, and a nod to members of other races -- elves, dragons, an unescorted panther. Aunbrel's own expression was grim, mouth thinned beneath an aquiline nose. After a little while, Kinsley elbowed him in the ribs. "Elf boy, you need to lighten up."
Aunbrel made an 'oof' sound and failed to lighten up.
Kinsley raised a graying eyebrow at him. "What's eating you? Your dog take ill?"
"I don't keep pets."
"Maybe you should start. Seriously, you look depressed even for you, and that's saying something."
"I am not depressed."
"Look in the mirror and you will be. You can't let the job get to you, kid. You work too hard." Kinsley slapped Aunbrel's back.
The tall elf sighed. "That's what the Commander said."
Now Kinsley raised both eyebrows. "The Commander was talking to you?"
"Last night. I am using too much gaslight at the peacehouse or somesuch, I imagine."
Kinsley laughed. "That'd be you all right. Look, it's been a quiet day. We wrap up this loop, why don't you come with me to the Drunken Scarab?"
Aunbrel rubbed the back of his neck. "I could stop by after I finished the day's paperwork."
The older guardian shook his head. "No no no. Just skip it. Take off early." At Aunbrel's look, Kinsley chuckled. "I'll let you in on a secret, elf boy: the paperwork's not going anywhere. You don't do it today, it'll still be there tomorrow. And the day after, and the day after that."
"Yes, and there'll be more of it," Aunbrel said sourly.
"Ah, you wait long enough, and some of it won't matter any more and you'll never have to do it at all. Don't give me that look, kid. I've been at this game longer than you have. Trust me, one night's not gonna kill any one." Kinsley punched his arm, and Aunbrel yielded with a nod.
[This is from the prompt tuftears left me last month, using cards he drew from the Tarot of the Cat People, and which I proceeded to not write. I finally coupled the prompt with a drawing by djinni and came up with "A Guardian's Companion". The cards Tufty drew are:
The Empress (right side up)
The King of Pentacles, reversed (7th picture in the link)
The Three of Cups, reversed (2nd picture in the link)
As short stories go, this one is not very short. There'll be another two or three parts. ]