My destination was a lone house, its door along an alleyway in the lower-class district of the city, just a couple blocks away from the tavern where I had first met Ruth. Its facade was a faded green, the paint peeling off in places. The door was made of old wood, well-maintained despite its age. I adjusted my collar and checked that the tickets were still safe in my pocket. Then I knocked on the front door. After a few seconds of waiting, the door opened, just a crack. A shockingly green eye peered at me from the darkness behind it, then the door opened fully to reveal Anneliese.
She was wearing her casual clothes – that is to say, a shirt and nothing else. Her hair was a tangled mess. When it came to her manner of dress, she tended to waver between two extremes: when working, she dressed daringly, wearing higher-cut dresses and cultivating a sensual, captivating appearance. When she was off the job, she dressed daringly in another way, often not bothering with wearing anything more than the bare minimum. That she had not answered the door in her underwear was a stroke of good fortune. The first few times I had seen her like this, I had been shocked and anxious, but I’d long gotten used to her slovenly ways.
“Well, well. Look at you, Glint. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you dress this nicely before.”
“I never had the reason to. Or the money, for that matter.”
“Wow, it’s kind of weird, seeing you dressed so nicely. A very big departure from your old look. Don’t you think the switch is a bit too drastic?”
I shot her a glare. She was hardly one to comment on drastic changes in appearance.
“…Are you going to invite me in, or are we just going to stand here and show the entire street your underwear?”
Anneliese grinned and made to unbutton her shirt, still standing in the doorway. I hurriedly pushed her back through the doorway and shut the door behind me. She put up no resistance when I pushed her, but once the door was closed, she looked at me with her eyes upturned, her body turned away from me bashfully.
“Oh my, how forceful. Pushing a young lady like myself through the door and closing it, so that nobody sees… so that it’s just the two of us… Am I to lose my innocence here and now, to this beast of a man…?”
I rubbed my temples, feeling the beginnings of a headache.
“Fuck’s sake, Anneliese. If you ever had any innocence, you probably threw it away the day you were born, I swear. And you’re supposed to be older than me?”
Anneliese dropped the ridiculous act and burst into laughter, ruffling my hair.
“Sorry, sorry. It’s just fun to tease you. I’ll head into the kitchen and get us something to drink, go wait for me in the dining room.”
Having slept several nights in this house, I had no need to be shown around. I headed right to the dining room – though considering the area it denoted, calling it a room was generous. The house was essentially made of four rooms: a kitchen, a washroom, a dressing room, and a single room that functioned as a bedroom as well as a dining room. It was a reasonably-sized room with seven beds crammed into it, with an old table in the middle, such that the foot of each bed was touching the table. That was where the Syrens ate and slept. Seven beds for seven girls, Anneliese included. I stood, wondering where I should sit. The last time I had been here, there were only six beds. The inclusion of the seventh left the table with nowhere for a guest to sit – my only option was to sit on one of the beds, but I didn’t feel right about sitting on a girl’s bed without permission.
As I was considering this, Anneliese emerged from the kitchen with a tray containing two dirty glasses, a bottle of beer, and a pitcher of water. She saw me standing by the table and quickly deduced my problem.
“Ah, just sit on my bed. I’ll sit on Lianne’s.”
A name I didn’t recognise. Probably the seventh and newest member. I knew that the Syrens had added to their number, but I knew nothing about the girl they had brought into the fold. Not that it was my business. More importantly, I kept my eyes fixed on Anneliese. Now that I had gotten over her state of dress, I realised that she was looking a little pale. Moreover, I could see her shivering slightly.
“Uh… Anneliese, are you okay?”
“Huh? Uh, yeah, I’m fine, don’t worry about me. Hurry up and take a seat.”
To prove her point, she strode forward with the tray – only to have her legs buckle beneath her. She lurched forward, the tray flying out of her hands. Moving quickly, I caught her before she hit the ground. As for the tray, a tree of condensed light materialised to hold it steady, with branches wrapped around the bottles and glasses. I hurriedly ferried Anneliese to her bed – the one closest to the door – and laid her down, then swiftly retrieved the tray and its contents. I could condense light into solid form, but I was still working on trying to make it last longer – at my current level of ability, I could only maintain the shape for several seconds, at most. I rearranged the glasses on the tray and set it on the table, then moved over to sit by Anneliese’s side. I placed the back of my palm against her head, then sighed in relief as I noted that her temperature was normal.
Anneliese pushed herself up into a sitting position.
“I told you, I’m fine. Just tired.”
“You don’t look fine. What did you do?”
“I had to pay rent yesterday. He brought friends.”
My eyebrow twitched. I was well aware of the arrangement between Anneliese and her landlord. It was the only way she was able to actually live in a house, rather than out on the street.
“You could have refused his friends.”
“He offered to waive the rent for next month.”
This was her choice. Even if I didn’t approve of it, it wasn’t my place to say anything. What she did, she did to protect the Syrens – her family.
“Have you told the new girl – Lianne, was it?”
“No, not yet. She’s only nine. She doesn’t need to know about this arrangement. We’ve told her I work a side job – which isn’t technically a lie. We’re just keeping quiet about what that job is.”
“So that’s why you’re the only one here today?”
“Yeah, the others took her out shopping. So she wouldn’t see me like this. Such darlings, the lot of them.”
Anneliese clapped her hands and shook her head, then crawled forward on the bed, positioning herself at the foot of the bed, such that the table was within reach. She cracked open the beer and poured it into one of the glasses, downing it in a gulp before turning back to me.
“Well then, that’s enough about me. Let’s talk about you. What the fuck was that speed? And that light thing? I don’t remember you ever being quite that athletic.”
“I’ve been training. I found a pair of teachers, they’ve been teaching me how to fight, and how to use my magic.”
“And I suppose your girlfriend from the other day is one of them? She certainly knew her way around a fight. A little old, though. I never knew you liked older women, Glint!”
“You’re right in that she’s one of my teachers, but I’ll say it again, she’s not my girlfriend, or lover, or anything like that. She’s my employer.”
“So… a sugar mommy? My word. To think the child I found on the streets would grow up to be such an incubus…! It makes mommy sad…”
Anneliese raised her hand to her eye to wipe away an imaginary tear. I rolled my eyes.
“Sorry, but a five year age gap isn’t quite enough for you to be my mother. And no, not a sugar mommy. An actual employer. Like, I got a proper job.”
“Oh? What kind of job?”
“I’m a lights technician.”
“What does that mean?”
“I’m still not entirely sure, but apparently I’m going to be using my magic to create light for a concert.”
“Wait, by concert, do you mean…?”
“Rosalind’s concert, yeah.”
“Wait, so your new employer is-”
“Rosalind, more or less. It’s technically Elysium, who handles her schedule and such, but I’m basically working for Rosalind now.”
“So… you got to meet Rosalind? And talk to her?”
“We have dinner together, yeah. She stays in the room across from mine at the inn. She’s also been teaching me how to read and write.”
I thoroughly enjoyed her sight of Anneliese staring at me slack-jawed. But, Anneliese being Anneliese, she recovered from the shock frighteningly fast.
“Well, well. Looks like you’re moving up in the world, Glint.”
“…Yeah. I guess you could say that.”
“So why’d you come to visit today? Knowing you, it can’t have been for idle chatter. You’ve always been too serious for your own good.”
I fished the tickets out of my pocket.
“Two reasons. The first is to give you these.”
“Wait, these are-”
“Tickets to the concert. The second-highest tier, too, so you’ll be right in front. Seven tickets, for seven Syrens. We would have given you the highest tier, but they’re already sold out.”
I held the tickets out to her. She looked at them apprehensively, then snatched them away, eyes going wide as she confirmed that they were indeed the second-tier tickets. Then she hugged me.
“Thank you, Glint. Thank you so much. The girls are going to love this!”
I patted her back as she hugged me, and continued speaking.
“Well, that was the first reason. The second reason… is to say goodbye.”
Anneliese provided no discernible reaction. Then she spoke, while still hugging me.
“Yeah. I work for Rosalind now, and she travels around. Naturally, that means I’ll be travelling too. I’m going to leave this town. I might not be back for a while.”
She said nothing for a while, holding me tightly. I felt something warm drop on my shoulder.
“…Glint, do you remember the day we met?”
I had been lost and alone, wandering the streets. I had wandered into this city from outside – I don’t remember from where. I had tried to steal an apple from a stall, but got caught. I had run, and run, and run, down numerous alleyways, and I didn’t know where I was, or how to get out, or even where I could go if I did find my way out. I had slumped down by a wall, accepting that I was going to starve to death. And then a girl, just a little older than me, had come up to me and offered her hand. She taught me how to steal, and showed me how to navigate the alleys. That was Anneliese, back when she was still just a member of the Syrens, and not its leader.
“Glint, do you remember the question I asked you back then?”
Back then, in that dark alley, when she extended her hand, she had posed me a very simple question that I had no answer to.
“Do you think you could answer it now, if I asked you again?”
“Then, here goes: What do you want to do?”
“I want to go out, and keep learning, and keep growing, until the day I can stand proudly as an equal to Rosalind and to Elysium. I want to become someone who can help them, who’s more than just a drain on their resources. That’s what I want to do.”
Anneliese pulled away from me. Her eyes were still a little wet. She grinned and ruffled my hair.
“That’s a good answer. You’ve really grown up, Glint.”
Then she hugged me again.
“If it doesn’t work out, feel free to come back. I know you’ve never thought of us this way, but to me, you’ve always been my troublesome little brother. You’ll always have a room here.”
“You mean the dressing room?”
“Hey, there’s a bed in it now.”
We both laughed and shifted to talking about matters of little significance, a flame of gratitude burning in my heart the entire time.