Elysium and I walked through the streets, with Elysium’s inn as our destination. It was all rather abrupt, but she had arbitrarily declared that my term of employment had begun the very moment I had taken her hand. And then she had insisted that, per the terms of my employment, I spend the night in their inn. Well, not that it mattered; now or later made no difference to me. Besides, if it meant I could sleep in an actual room tonight, on an actual bed, I had no grounds for objections whatsoever.
It had gotten dark out; there were only a few people in the streets. The only shops still open were the taverns and the inns. Well, that’s not quite accurate. The brothels were still open, as well. But the streets along which we walked were among those considered more respectable – no establishments of that ilk lay on our path. The inn lay about an hour’s walk away from the street where I had exited – not an easy trek, after all the running I’d done. Still, I kept my complaints to myself. I was fully aware that Elysium was slowing her pace to match mine, so it would have been remiss to complain to my new employer on the basis of such a trivial thing.
As we walked on in silence, I could feel a number of gazes on me, directed from numerous individuals hiding in the shadows of alleyways, or on the rooftops. Of course, I knew who most of those glances belonged to. My fellow thieves were quietly watching me, no doubt curious as to what I was doing. It made me a little uncomfortable.
“Friends of yours?”
Elysium spoke up, interrupting my train of thought. No doubt she had noticed my unease. I shook my head.
“Nah. Well, not in any meaningful sense of the word, anyway. Acquaintances, maybe.”
I didn’t have many – if any – friends among the thieves. Sure, I knew most of their names and faces, but if I had to give away their hiding spots and identities to protect myself, I would do it in a heartbeat. Which was probably why even those thieves who called themselves my friends took care not to let me see their hiding places. Of course, it goes without saying that nobody had ever offered to share their sleeping places with me. I spent my nights hiding out in whatever small shelter I could find – a ledge, an untended stall, things like that. Those were the exceptions. Mostly I slept out in the open. It was the reason why the offer of shelter was so tempting for me – I had no refuge among the others of my kind. I could see a bit of shuffling happening within the alleys. I heard a crinkling sound – someone had stepped on a bit of broken glass, probably. I withstood the urge to call them out for their carelessness. Then I heard muffled voices as those around the offender chided them for the mistake, and was unable to prevent myself from breathing out a sigh of disappointment. Elysium glanced at me and laughed.
“Well, in any case, it’s a good thing you’re here with me then. If I was alone, maybe they would have attacked me by now! How scary…”
She hugged her arms, stooping over, her eyes worriedly shifting from side to side, as if she were genuinely afraid of such a possibility. I shot her a glare, disapproving of her exaggerated pantomime of fright. She immediately righted herself, laughing once more as she clapped my shoulder with a gloved hand and pulled me closer to her. Annoyed, I tried to push myself away, but quickly gave up once I realised I had no hope of winning against her strength. So, instead, I was forced to suffer the humiliation of walking down the streets, watched by my fellow thieves, while clasped to the side of an older woman – though she was admittedly an attractive lady. I heard wolf-whistles sounding from the darkness – they had completely dropped the pretense of trying to stay hidden. I felt myself blushing, and was about to request to be seperated, when Elysium interrupted me with a request, spoken in a low voice.
“Well, tell me about yourself.”
Her question threw me off. I wasn’t expecting it, especially in this situation. Perhaps she was posing it to take my mind off the many pairs of eyes watching us. It then dawned on me that the reason for this setup was so she could ask this question, while ensuring we weren’t heard by our invisible crowd of spectators – at the same time preventing me from dodging the question. Unfortunately, I was afraid I would have to disappoint her. I answered in an equally low voice, such that only she could hear.
“There’s not much to tell. I’m just a regular orphan thief. That’s pretty much all there is to me, really.”
“Then tell my about your magic.”
“Yep. That’s what I’m hiring you for, after all. Would probably be a good idea to find out more about what I’m paying for.”
“Well… as you know, I can use light-related magic. I can create it and vary its intensity. That’s all there is to it.”
“Can you remove light as well as create it?”
“I… don’t know. I’ve never tried.”
The alleys were dark enough without any kind of magical assistance, after all.
“When did you learn of your magic?”
“Uh, I guess I kind of… always knew it was there. Isn’t that how it normally is for everyone?”
“Is it? Huh. Interesting. Wonder how that feels.”
“Wasn’t it the same for you? As far as I’m aware, everyone should intuitively have at least a vague idea about their Affinities.”
“Ah, no, I can’t use magic.”
The casual way in which she stated that impossibility made me miss a beat and trip. Elysium caught me firmly and righted me, while continuing to walk without even slowing down. I felt myself lifted a bit off the ground for several seconds as she waited for me to recover, before setting me back down, allowing me to continue walking as if I had not tripped at all. Feeling extremely embarrassed about this lack of motor coordination, I covered my shame by raising a question.
“What do you mean can’t use magic? I’ve never heard of something like that!”
“As I said, I have-”
“…special circumstances, right.”
We continued walking for a while, then she asked me another question.
“Why didn’t you sign up with a magic school? I hear light Affinities are rare. If you attended school, you could probably have gotten a decently-paying job. Wouldn’t have to resort to thievery, at any rate.”
“Right. Sorry to break it to you, but school is expensive. If I could afford that, I wouldn’t be accepting your job.”
“Hm? I was under the impression that the Kingdom offered scholarships. And I hear the aptitude examinations are free. Couldn’t you have done well on one of those and secured yourself a scholarship? Sure, you would have had to study hard, but you don’t seem the type to shun hard work.”
I stared at her. She knew nothing of how the Kingdom operated. Did she have a sheltered upbringing or something? But something told me that was not the case. Something of the way she carried herself shattered any possibility of considering her sheltered. Well, regardless, I took it upon myself to educate her in the ways of the world.
“The aptitude exams are free to take, yes. They’re also only conducted for children up to the age of 9. Any older, and they claim it’s too late to start studying magic. And a major component of it is a written exam. In case you weren’t aware, around four-tenths of this country is illiterate. That’s higher than some other countries, yes, but that’s still almost half of the Kingdom who can’t pass the exam. And on top of being literate, you have to study for the exam – unless you’re naturally gifted, of course. Time spent studying means time not spent working, time not spent making ends meet. So in the end, the only people who can take the exam are those literate people, whose families or situations can afford allowing them to not work. And to get the scholarship, you have to score within the top 5 of the exam. It should be clear how impossible it is for an illiterate orphan like myself to earn a scholarship. And that’s even without taking bribery or politics into account. To the best of my knowledge, in the last decade, there has only been a single instance of a scholarship being awarded to someone who wasn’t in some way related to nobility – and she was a real genius, I hear. Six years old when she took the exam, got a perfect score.”
“Oh? What happened to that person?”
“Topped the academy for two years, then was expelled when the 2nd place student accused her of cheating on an exam. No proof, of course, but the accuser was a nephew of the King, so they couldn’t exactly dismiss the charge. She had her scholarship revoked. Nobody’s seen or heard of her since. She just disappeared.”
We lapsed into silence. I snuck a peek at Elysium’s face, hoping to see the look of horror that was undoubtedly plastered across her face as she realised the brutal unfairness of our Kingdom’s nobility. I’m not entirely sure why I was disappointed when I saw that she had no expression of the sort. I should have known that she was far too unusual to care about some unfairness that didn’t directly affect her. What I saw on her face was not shock, but thoughtfulness. She seemed to be turning over an idea in her head, so I left her to it. If nothing else, the talk had allowed me to forget about the many pairs of eyes that were lingering on us. Perhaps she was thinking about the country’s situation, and coming up with ways to improve it. Perhaps she was musing on the unfairness of the system. Perhaps she was thinking what she wanted to eat for dinner.
Whatever it was, it was none of my business.