A New Start
A long, winding line of people that doubled back on itself numerous times was created in front of the entrance to the defunct guild branch. A table with a lamp and a pen was set up, with Rosalind seated behind it, still in her concert dress. At her side stood Elysium, hands behind her back as she watched the approaching people with a smile. On my part, I stood at the front of the line, ushering the people in the line forward whenever it came to their turn.
All of them clutched in their hands a woodprint painting in a wooden frame that bore Rosalind’s likeness, depicting her with her eyes closed and her lips open, hair splaying around her, as if she were in the midst of singing. There was a conspicuous amount of empty space on the left side of the portrait, which was perfect for this little event.
One by one, the people in the queue stepped forward, bearing their woodprints. As they stepped up to her, Rosalind smiled at them and signed in the empty spaces on the woodprints with a flourish. As she signed, she also struck up a conversation with the audience member whose turn it was, accepting and thanking them for words of support. If the individual was one who had attended a prior concert, she would address them by name. If this was, instead, the person’s first time attending, she would ask for their name. She perfectly remembered all of their names, not hesitating for even a moment before addressing them. It was an extremely impressive feat of memory.
So as to keep the light-hearted atmosphere, none of us wore a watch, nor was there a timepiece anywhere in sight. However, to prevent any one customer from taking too much time, after Elysium had approximated thirty seconds, she would gently inform the customer that their time was up. If they attempted to argue, Elysium would simply repeat her request, but in a much lower voice, one that carried a clear warning. Most people backed down after that. Those that didn’t were forcibly removed.
Incidentally, both the woodprint provided and the privilege of having it signed by Rosalind were opportunities accorded to those who had A and B tier tickets. B tier tickets were approximately double the price of C tier tickets, the lowest tier, and the only difference between B and C tiers were the availability of a chair and the right to this signature. A tier tickets provided the same benefits as B tier, with the inclusion of having their seating area be isolated from the rest of the crowds and placed at the optimal distance for watching the stage. A tier ticket-holders were also entitled to a handshake with Rosalind on top of the signature. For those few, minor advantages, A tier tickets were priced at double the price of B tier tickets. I found it remarkable that Elysium had managed to get patrons to pay large amounts of money for a service that objectively served no purpose. Remarkable and also a little frightening. That woman understood how crowds behaved, she knew how to manipulate her audience. I had the suspicion that if she ever decided to, she would be perfectly capable of destroying a country through the power of words alone.
As the hours passed, the crowd dwindled as each individual was given their purchased right to Rosalind’s signature. The A tier ticket holders were given priority, followed by the B tier ticket holders. Finally, the line trickled down to the last seven people in the queue: the Syrens. They had lingered around outside for some time, waiting for the crowd to disperse before joining the queue. With the exception of Lianne, the youngest girl, they were all wearing similar clothes – a low-cut dress that showed a generous amount of cleavage, with a slit along their skirts that revealed a flash of their legs. As for Lianne, she was wearing a cute pink dress that seemed designed to accentuate her young age. In addition, she was clutching on to a large teddy bear, about half her size. The teddy bear’s skin was uneven and lumpy, as if whoever had the job of stuffing it had made a mistake with the amount of cotton to use. Of course, that was just how it looked. I caught Anneliese’s eyes and gave her a grin as she walked up to Rosalind, pointedly looking at the teddy bear. She sighed and rolled her eyes, but otherwise returned my grin.
Instead of ushering them in one at a time, I ushered in all seven girls to speak with Rosalind at the same time. Then I glanced at Elysium. She nodded her approval, so I had one of Bainel’s men take over my initially appointed task of stowing the cordons that had formed the outline of the queue, then walked over to stand beside Elysium, waiting for the Syrens to be done speaking with Rosalind. Once they had received their signed portraits and thanked Rosalind, they turned around, making to walk off, but Elysium spoke up with a wry smile.
“So, how was the haul?”
The Syrens froze and tensed, ready to run, but Anneliese breathed a heavy sigh of resignation and turned back to face us. Then she reached her right hand into the area between her breasts and withdrew a small pouch filled with coins. Seeing her, the older Syrens followed suit, with Lianne finally placing her teddy bear on the ground and untying a ribbon on its back, opening a seam that revealed a large number of purses and coins. Anneliese addressed Elysium.
“Well, there you have it. I guess you’re going to turn us in?”
Elysium laughed and shook her head.
“No, no. These are your spoils.”
Anneliese blinked, surprised.
“…Eh? But I thought you said not to steal anything during the concert.”
That was the warning Elysium had told me to give them – if she caught them stealing anything during the concert, she would report them to the guards. And yet she was now showing leniency. Of course, I had gotten to know Elysium well enough to know what she was up to, and why she didn’t intend to turn them in. So, with that in mind, I spoke in her place.
“Indeed, you were warned not to steal anything during the concert. But the concert is now over, is it not?”
“Glint is exactly correct. I was watching you throughout the concert. You never left your seats. Therefore, it stands to reason that any theft you performed was performed after the crowd had begun to disperse – which means that by that point, the concert had already ended. Anything that happens after the concert to our patrons’ belongings is no longer our responsibility, and therefore none of our business. Rather, the fault lies on them for not taking care of their own belongings. That said, I hope you didn’t steal too much from our less wealthy customers. They have a hard enough time affording our tickets as is.”
Anneliese finally recovered from her surprise and laughed.
“No, no. We made sure only to target the A tier and B tier ticket holders while waiting for our turn to queue.”
“Then all is well. Still…”
“While I may be lenient, others may not be quite as kind. If you stay on this path for much longer, you might one day end up in a situation you can’t escape from. For example, if I had decided to be more vindictive, you and your family might have been imprisoned. And especially for girls as young as you, that’s hardly a desirable outcome. The life you lead is a dangerous one. And, for you, Anneliese, an unfortunate one.”
Anneliese shot me a glare.
“What the fuck, you told her?”
I averted my gaze. I had, in fact, informed Elysium of Anneliese’s circumstances. There were various reasons for it, foremost among them being because I wanted to ask a favour. Anneliese’s eyes bored into me for several moments, but the fire in them was abruptly extinguished as she slumped, resigned. Meanwhile, Lianne tugged on Anneliese’s arm.
“Anne, what did she mean?”
“…She just means that I’ve been doing this longer than the rest of you, so I’ve gone through more hardship.”
“…it’s okay Anne, I’ll always be here to help you out!”
Then she hugged Anneliese tightly. Anneliese’s face relaxed into a smile as she patted Lianne’s head. Then she turned that same, sad smile toward us, and responded to Elysium’s statement.
“…Be that as it may, what choice do we have? We can’t read or write. Nobody wants a shopkeeper or a barmaid from off the street. All that’s left are jobs which involve physical labour, and nobody’s willing to hire women for those jobs. Girls on the streets – girls like us, they become whores. I refuse to let that happen to my family. I refuse to let that life befall Lianne. And so, all we can do is steal. There’s no other option. There’s nothing else we can do.”
“Ah, but there is something else.”
Anneliese barked out a laugh.
“What, pray tell, might that be?”
“Tell me, do you know about the Serene Ezov?”
“Hm? Of course I do. It’s the chain of shops the two of you set up to sell tickets and… wait… you don’t mean…?”
“I knew you’d understand. As it happens, we are in dire need of staff for the Ezov, and since we will be leaving this city soon, we don’t have a lot of time to find capable personnel. If you’d be so inclined, I’d like to offer the position to you girls.”
The Syrens looked to each other and murmured in low voices, surprise evident in their expressions. Anneliese herself was slack-jawed, surprised by the sudden offer. I felt my lips curling into a smile as I got to watch her astounded face. It was a rare sight indeed. She quickly collected herself and spoke again, though she was trying to hold back her excitement.
“Please don’t joke with us. We can’t read, we can’t write. We don’t know the first thing about running a shop. There’s no way you’re serious about this… is there?”
“Oh, I’m plenty serious. You girls are bright. Very much so. You decided to wait outside the queue and commit your thefts, because you knew that the crowd, caught in the excitement of meeting Rosalind, would be less attentive of their purses. You in particular, Anneliese, should give yourself more credit. The fact that merely attending our concert was enough to give you the idea of holding your own as a distraction to steal with ease – that fact belies your wit.
Of course, you won’t be alone. I’ve consulted Bainel on the matter, and he’s agreed: he will be arranging for a teacher – someone to teach you how to read and write, as well as someone who will teach you the basics of managing a business. If it’s you girls, I’m sure you’ll pick it up quickly. That is, if you accept. What do you say? Will you come work for the Ezov?”
Anneliese immediately opened her mouth to reply, but Elysium cut her off by placing a finger on her parted lips.
“Not now. This is a major decision. Accepting this means you’ll have to give up theft – you’ll have to give up the life you’ve been living up to now. You’ll stay in the living quarters above the new Ezov – that’s a requirement for all our employees. That you would not be allowed to steal from the customers should go without saying, but you will no longer be permitted to steal at all. We cannot allow the Ezov to be associated with criminals, after all. If I hear that you have been carrying out illegal activities while in the employ in the Ezov, be assured that I will not be lenient. In many ways, your new job might be harder than theft, but it will, at least, be a proper job. By accepting this offer, you agree to give up your current way of life. It’s not a decision you should make on your own.”
Elysium withdrew her finger while she continued to speak.
“Go back for now and discuss this with your family. Discuss it well. If all of you agree to throw away your current way of life and embrace a new one, then come to the Ezov tomorrow, two hours after noon.”
With that, she turned and left to follow after Rosalind, who had long since departed for the changing room, leaving myself alone with the Syrens. They looked at one another, and then at Anneliese. Then Anneliese looked at me. Her lips parted, and she spoke, her voice hoarse. Her eyes looked a little wet.
“…Glint, did you do this for us? For my family?”
Anneliese, overwhelmed with emotion, looked more vulnerable than I had ever seen her. I was sure that if I answered in the affirmative here, she would have hugged me, or kissed me, or some combination of the two – she looked on the verge of doing so even as I considered my answer. Indeed, it was true that I had asked Elysium whether it was possible to give the Syrens the job, as a favour. It was also true that if I had never raised the issue with Elysium, this opportunity would never have presented itself to the Syrens.
But Elysium had rejected my request. Rather, she had said that she would make the decision based on the conduct of the Syrens at today’s concert, on the condition that I was to keep the fact that they were being tested a secret. We had both predicted all their actions, right up to the point where we had offered them the chance of running with their loot or turning it in to us. If they had chosen to run, it would have meant that they were little more than common thieves, and we would not have made the offer. However, they chose to face the consequences of their crime. And that meant that they were more than just criminals, that they could be made to be more. In other words…
I stepped in close to Anneliese and placed a gloved hand on her head, enjoying the opportunity to play the role of the older brother, a reversal of our usual position. When I had come up right next to her, I spoke into her ear, lound enough for the Syrens to hear.
“No, Anneliese, you did this for your family. All I did was prepare the stage.”
Then I let my hand fall back to my side and turned away from the Syrens, following after Elysium, whose back was still barely in sight. Behind me, I heard joyful chattering and the soft thump of someone getting hug-tackled.