“Are you sure about this, Glint? It’s still possible for you to back out, you know.”
“Yeah. I’ve got no real attachment to this city, and I’ve already said my goodbyes. Besides, without me, who’s going to do your lights?”
“We could manage. Get another mage. It would be more expensive, but judging from the buzz of the town, it would be well worth the investment.”
“Right. Not to sound arrogant, but you’re not going to find someone with the same kind of training as I’ve received – as I’m sure you’re well aware.”
“Well, if you’re sure you want to tag along, then I have no objections. Not that I had any intention of letting you go, anyway. I’ve spent too much time and money on you to have you run off. I was going to take you by force if you’d said you wanted to stay.”
“I know. It’s the kind of thing you would do, after all.”
Elysium and I laughed together as we prepared the cart for departure. Today was to be the last day of our stay in Frunzeit, and soon we would be on our way to the next city. Over the last two months, Elysium had taught me so much, shown me so much, given me amazing opportunities to learn and grow. I owed her a lot, and if it meant continuing to work with her, and to continue developing my own abilities, I was more than willing to leave my city life behind. It wasn’t a particularly comfortable one, anyway.
Anneliese stepped out from behind the cart, moving over to us. She bowed deeply to Elysium.
“Ma’am, we’ve finished loading up the supplies. This should be more than enough to last you till you get to Holfarthen.”
Unlike her usual low-cut, slitted dress, Anneliese was dressed in a much more tasteful attire, with a long skirt that reached below her knees, a blouse that had actual sleeves, and a white apron across her front – she looked like an innkeeper at a quiet inn, a far cry from her previous dress which could almost be considered that of a whore. Elysium laughed and patted her on the shoulder.
“Thanks for the hard work. No need to be so stiff, Anneliese.”
“Ma’am, we owe you so much – this opportunity, this chance to find a better life for ourselves, we owe it to you. Good, honest work in a nice district, in the employ of the singer we adore – we couldn’t ask for any more than this. So please, accept our gratitude.”
Elysium lifted Anneliese’s chin, making eye contact with her.
“Gratitude is one thing, but this show of servitude is another. I didn’t hire a simple maid. I hired a witty, strong-willed young lady with a fire in her heart. You may be in my employ, but you are not in my service. Stand proud, Anneliese. I want you to stand alongside me, not to follow behind me.”
Anneliese’s eyes started to water, but she didn’t let them flow. Instead, she brought herself upright, standing with dignity, and nodded.
“Very good. Now, keep in mind your duties, manage this place well, and help it thrive.”
“I won’t let you down, Elysium.”
“I know you won’t.”
With that, Elysium turned toward the cart and boarded it, sitting in the driver’s seat next to Rosalind. I crossed around to the other side, where an empty seat was reserved for me next to Rosalind’s other flank, but as I was about to clamber on, I caught sight of Anneliese – she was looking in my direction, staring at me, and her eyes looked like she had something she wanted to tell me. I stopped my ascent midway. I looked to Rosalind, who just chuckled and pre-empted my request.
“Go. We’ll wait for you. You’ll come back, won’t you?”
“Of course I will.”
With that, I climbed back down and walked over to Anneliese. She broke into a sad smile as I approached.
“So, you’re really going.”
“I’m going to miss you, you know.”
“I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel the same.”
Anneliese had always been the only one in this city who came close to being my friend. If she hadn’t found me on that day… I shuddered to think what might have become of me. Dead in a ditch, perhaps. If I had any reservations about leaving Frunzeit, they could be traced to a worry about what would become of her and her family. But now that they had entered into Elysium’s employ, just as I had, I could leave with no worries. Still, I would miss her teasing company.
“It’s not going to be the same without you, Glint. This city. You’ve always been a part of Frunzeit, in my mind, and now that you’re leaving, it’s like I’m suddenly in a foreign land.”
“Even if it is a foreign land, it’ll be okay. You have your family. They’ll guide you and protect you against the ravages of your environment.”
“When did you become such a poet?”
“I’ve been studying.”
Anneliese quietly took my unresisting hand in hers and held it up, resting my palm against her cheek.
“Your hand… it’s so large now. So warm. You’ve grown up into a magnificent man, Glint.”
“I’d hope so. I can’t stay the dirty, starving boy forever.”
I briefly wondered what was going on, but quickly realised the direction in which things were developing. I felt a twinge in my chest as I prepared for what was to come. Anneliese looked at me with upturned eyes.
“Glint, I love you.”
Whatever I felt for Anneliese, it was not romantic in nature. I saw her as a friend – at best, as a sister. Perhaps it was simply that I had never been in love and thus didn’t know what it felt like, but somehow, I instinctively knew that I did not possess the same affection for her as she was professing to me. I gently removed my hand from her cheek, escaping her hands, and wiped away her tears.
“I’m sorry, Anneliese. I don’t think of you that way. You’re like a sister to me, but nothing more. I’ve yet to find anyone I care for in that way. I hope you can forgive me.”
Anneliese sniffed and wiped away the tears that she had refused to show Elysium. She addressed me with a pained expression.
“Ah, I think I sort of knew it would end up this way. It still hurts, though.”
“Stop apologising. It’s fine. I knew you didn’t feel that way, but… I had to get it out anyway. Since you’re leaving. I needed to say it. Ahhhh, getting rejected hurts.”
I said nothing more as tears continued to stream down her face, simply watching. After a few moments, when she’d sufficiently calmed down, she pulled herself back upright and addressed me with a smile.
“There. Got it off my chest. Now I can properly see you off.”
“I appreciate it.”
“You take care, you hear me? Don’t get caught up in anything strange. Listen to what Elysium says. Don’t get involved with anyone suspicious. Be wary of strangers. Don’t-”
I quieted her by hugging her tightly. She seemed so small. She was the older, but at some point, I had grown taller than her. As we were now, her head reached to just below my chin. I hugged her and spoke.
“Come on, Anneliese. I’m not a child anymore. I can take care of myself.”
From my vantage point, I could see her face turning crimson. Her expression changed from one of shock, to one of resignation.
“…yeah, you’re not a child anymore. When did you get this tall? And I thought you said you didn’t love me back?”
“I’m not hugging you as a lover. I’m hugging you as a younger brother, worried about his awkward older sister.”
I kissed her on the forehead.
“I’m going now, Anneliese.”
“…Safe travels, Glint… my troublesome younger brother.”
I separated from her and strode back toward the cart. When I ascended it this time, Anneliese again caught my attention, but this time she was waving goodbye. As I settled in, she shouted to me.
“Make sure to write to me and tell me how you’re doing, okay?”
I grinned and gave her a quick nod. Then Elysium took the reins and set the horses off at a trot. After we had traveled some distance, such that Anneliese could no longer be seen, she and Rosalind shared a look. Then Rosalind placed her hand on my head, ruffling my hair.
“My, since when were you such a ladykiller, Glint?”
Elysium chimed in, as if they had rehearsed this.
“Oh my, we should be careful. What if he steals our hearts next?”
I rolled my eyes at their teasing and issued a blunt retort.
“Right. That’s not happening. First, there’s no profit in it, so you’d never fall for me, Elysium. Second, Rosalind, you’re so in love with your singing that there’s barely space for anyone else. And third, I’m not interested in older women, sorry.”
“Oh my, is that why you rejected Anneliese? The poor girl. Right, Ros?”
“Indeed, to think that her first love was shot down for such an impure reason. Shame on you, Glint.”
Elysium and Rosalind instantly fired back, masterfully ignoring my barbed comments. The back-and-forth went on for some time, but despite my display of annoyance, I was in high spirits. This looked like it was going to be a fun trip. I looked forward to what kinds of new experiences awaited me on this path.