I had heard about them long before our first meeting.

A pair of women, one with exotic black hair, one with flaming red hair. Nobody really knew much about the black-haired one, except that she was the attendant and friend of the other. Rosalind’s name, however, had gained immense fame in the span of eight months – the rumours spoke of a woman with a voice so beautiful, simply hearing it was a better comfort than any other. Based on the information that had reached our ears, the pair moved around from city to city, holding “concerts” in the larger cities. “Concert” – a sort of performance that involved singing on a stage to a large audience. The word’s status had rapidly risen from being unknown to being a buzzword in a few short months – everyone knew what it was, and simply mentioning the word was enough to spark a conversation.

The pair had never visited Frunzeit, but even so, news about them had spread to us, as well. I remember several of the other boys being excited about it – they were scheduled to hold a concert in Frunzeit, and many of the thieves had already started setting aside money from their thefts to buy the tickets, scrimping on their meals and going for riskier but more rewarding marks. Even the Syrens – an all-girl group of thieves with beautiful voices who distracted marks by singing on the streets – had begun to talk about how they wanted to go hear this Rosalind woman sing.

As for myself, well, I admittedly found the whole thing rather silly. Why would I want to pay to hear somebody sing, at the cost of starving myself? If I wanted to hear someone sing, I could always do it myself, or sit by the wells and listen to the tunes of housewives, or maybe ask some of the Syrens to sing for me. Perhaps if I had the money to spare, I would have been open to the idea of spending it to hear a stranger sing, but my poverty kept me from entertaining the whim. Instead, as the other thieves were getting excited about Rosalind’s imminent arrival, I could only wonder at what kind of devilish magic had been cast to enthrall so many people and make them so willing to pay for a voice they had only heard of, rather than heard.

As fate would have it, I would have the opportunity to meet the practitioner of said devilish magic in person.

Of course, I didn’t know it was her – not at first. What I saw was a pair of women passing through the market, casually browsing through the offerings at each store. That they were tourists was clear to see – they were clearly unfamiliar with the area, and they stopped every few minutes to admire some sight or merchandise that caught their attention. Of the two, one was wearing a hood, with her face hidden. She would occasionally turn to the other woman – a tall woman with golden hair, dressed like a male servant – and say something, but other than that, she remained silent, allowing the other woman to lead the way. Despite that, however, I got the feeling that the relationship these two shared was one of mutual, equal friendship – despite the fact that appearances seemed to portray the hooded figure as subservient to the other woman.

The individual who caught my interest among the pair was this other woman – she seemed to be holding on to their collective purse. Whenever they stopped to make a purchase, it was the unhooded woman who paid – taking the money from a heavy-looking purse attached to her waist via a hook. The pouch clearly contained a good amount of money, and yet the woman brazenly displayed it at her side. Gripped by temptation, I decided to tail her for a while.

I followed the pair for close to two hours, going through various different market districts, with differing specialties. I kept a careful eye on the golden-haired woman, and found that apart from making payments, she paid no mind to her purse. She never even glanced down to check whether it remained at her side. She seemed completely mindless of her money, and walked while animatedly talking to her companion and to the shopkeepers that spoke up. She didn’t even check the purse after she bumped into a pedestrian – if that man had been me, her purse would have been lifted in the instant of contact. In other words, all indicators suggested that she was an easy mark. An easy mark with a large return. It hardly warrants mentioning that I could not ask for a better target. I made my decision and waited for my opportunity.

It took several more hours for that opportunity to present itself – in that time, the pair continued to explore the city, visiting a good number of shopping districts and seeing the sights. My optimal situation was to conduct the theft when the mark was in the middle of the crowd – they would be less likely to notice it, and they would find it harder to identify me if or when they did notice. Unfortunately, the places they went to after I had made my decision were those districts that were slightly less popular and had fewer crowds, such as the upmarket shopping street, the amphitheatre, and the building that had once been a branch of the Adventurer’s Guild, before the whole thing collapsed. I was about to despair when they stopped in front of an inn – I assumed that they were done for the day, and were going to retire to their rooms. But just as I was about to give up, I saw the hooded figure disappear into the inn, while my mark instead turned back and began walking in the direction of the market street where I had first seen her – and the pouch was still dangling at her waist. Praising my good fortune, I continued to tail her.

Finally, my opportunity presented itself as the sky was beginning to tint orange. The market street she had chosen to return to was the busiest in the city, and crowded at all times of the day. I slipped into the crowds and casually closed in on her, making sure not to stand out. The plan was to casually walk past her and, as I passed, quietly lift the pouch off its hook. With luck, she wouldn’t notice until it was too late, and by then, I would be far ahead of her. I continued to close the distance until I was almost right behind her, then reached out my hand for the purse.

I have often thought about why some rich people were so careless about their money. Money was an important resource to have, perhaps the most important. People were willing to kill in the name of money. And yet, why did some people – the easy marks – still walk around without minding their funds at all? The conclusions I had come to were that such people were either rich enough that the loss of the money meant nothing, or that such people were so naive as to think that nobody would attempt to steal from them. Sometimes, it was a combination of both.

But on that day, in that single encounter, I learned of a third explanation for carelessness.

My mark was not naive. Nor did she consider the money at her side to be insignificant. Her carelessness was not because of some belief that none would endeavour to steal from her. Her carelessness stemmed from her confidence that none who attempted that theft would succeed.

As my hand closed in on her pouch, just centimeters from touching it, I found a slender set of fingers wrapped firmly around my wrist. I froze and glanced up – the woman was still looking forward. I was clearly not in her field of vision. And yet it was a fact that her hand was restraining my wrist, keeping me away from her pouch. She stopped walking and turned her head to face me, her deep grey eyes betraying her amusement, her grip unrelenting. Her features were unusual – I had never seen an arrangement quite like hers. She flashed me a smile, clearly enjoying herself.

“A theft, is it? Took you long enough. I was wondering when you would make your move.”

That was my first encounter with the monstrous woman known as Elysium Ling.