The months that passed were filled with much the same. Aoife would rise, say her prayers, speed through her chores with Niamh so the two could race into the heart of the city. Niamh, as always, was soon found in the company of one man or another. Aoife never asked what Niamh did with them—she didn’t like to think about it. It wasn’t as if she and Niamh had already taken their vows of chastity, but Aoife had thought Niamh would at least keep herself pure until that day, or her wedding day. Perhaps—though the thought would never cross the girl’s mind—the issue was not with Niamh but with Aoife herself. She had spent all her life within the walls of the Cathedral, reading about brave knights and helpless virgins that needed to be rescued. She had spent her childhood in awe of saints and paragons, and had little experience of the outside world. And thus, the world would have to conform to her ideals. Ideals that had been formed from a society that hadn’t existed for hundreds of years. Times had changed, and she would simply have to change with them.

But there was always one person willing to play along with her. Rin, for all his faults, tried to act every bit the chivalrous hero from the stories of old. His mannerisms were too sheepish, his actions too impulsive, and his care for social etiquette was ghastly, but he still endeavoured to be the perfect gentleman that Aoife wanted. He couldn’t tell if Aoife knew he was only pretending, but if she did she never voiced it, and part of that worried him. He had spent his teenage years admiring Aoife from afar, and now that he had finally introduced himself and befriend her, for they were they were good friends by now, he did not want her to fall for the pretend version of himself. If he had wanted to keep pretending, he would have stayed at home, instead of moving to live with his grandfather.

But what if she learned the truth and mistakenly assumed he was mocking her by playing the chivalrous knight? Maker, that would be even worse. He had to come clean, surely, or it would be the death of him. He had waited too long to know this young woman to have it all thrown away for nothing. But… how? There was no easy way to voice it, and frankly the young Westerner had never been the best with words as it was. Elias had always blamed that on his son-in-law’s blood. “I’ll never understand why my daughter married a collier,” he would always say, with Rin quietly reminding him that his father was a stonemason, not a miner.

Regardless of his father’s profession, Rin was still born and raised in the West, along with his brother and sister, and courtesy of his accent, which he tried to hide at all costs, that stigma would never quite escape him, unless he made something of himself. He had thought once upon a time that he would like to be a scholar. He certainly had the thirst for knowledge for it, and he had substantially more than above average intelligence, but the young man liked to learn at his own pace, and his attention flitted from one subject to the next like the wings of a hummingbird. He couldn’t be sure, but something told him a pursuit of academia would not best suit him.

He was still lost in those thoughts when he heard Aoife’s familiar knock—he tried not to think about how sordid it made their arrangement feel—against the thin wood panel that concealed his grandfather’s workshop. Misguided dreams of studying would have to wait, he had his Lady to attend to. He rose to his feet from the chair he’d been resting in, greeting Aoife with his usual warm smile as she joined him in the confined space. The scent of the perfume he’d bought her clung to her hair and to her skin, and it filled the room with a heady floral aroma. Truth be told, Aoife didn’t care much for perfume, but Rin had given it to her as a gift, and it was only polite to make use of those gifts around the gifter, was it not? She had to scrub her skin raw before she returned to the Cathedral to make sure there were no traces of it but she would endure that if it meant retaining the highest of social graces. No one had ever accused her of having bad manners before, and she wasn’t about to disgrace that reputation now.

“You look troubled, Rin. Is everything okay?” the young orphan questioned, brows knitting together in concern as she noted the quiet emptiness behind Rin’s regular smiles and actions.

The apprentice paused a moment, gaze fixed on Aoife before his eyes were cast to his feet, absently toeing the ground as he tried to think of the correct thing to say. “I’m fine, Aoife, it’s just… We only have one chapter of this book left, and I can’t help but be concerned about what happens afterwards.”

“What do you mean?” Aoife asked.

“Well, once we’re finished, what if that puts an end to our friendship? My grandfather wants me to study in Olmaea—he says he thinks I have the makings of a genius.”

It wasn’t entirely a lie. His grandfather had said as much, and he knew the old man would appreciate him finally investing himself in something more than an unofficial apprenticeship, but his grandfather seemed to dislike Olmaea almost as much as he disliked Rin’s own father. Once upon a time, Rin had often asked why his grandfather liked the city so much—it couldn’t be because it was a city, given that they lived in a city as it was. As far as he was aware, Elias had nothing against the monarchy, so it couldn’t be the fact that Olmaea was the seat of the royal family. Each time he had asked, Elias had refused to talk about it, until eventually his grandson had ceased asking, but the curiosity had never gone away.

“Olmaea? All the way up in the North?” Aoife questioned, earning a small nod in response.

“Travelling isn’t much of an issue for me, though. I mean, I am from the Aur Valley. It’s in the West,” he explained, seeing the confusion on the brunette’s face. He couldn’t blame her, really. The only people that tended to know of the Aur Valley were people that worked in coal—miners, traders, servants. “I came here when I was ten, so moving halfway across the country doesn’t bother me much, but—”

“But you don’t wish to leave.”

Aoife knew all too well what that was like. She wanted nothing more than to break free of the Cathedral, spread her metaphorical wings and take in everything that the outside world had to offer. But the people she cared about would always be in the Cathedral. They would grow old and they would move on with their lives while she was off doing… Now that she thought about it, she wasn’t sure what she would even do if she left. What little money she had wouldn’t get her far, and the world wasn’t best suited for ladies trying to forge their own incomes. That future lay in a poorhouse, marriage or an untimely end. But was a life as a nun any better than that? Never having the chance to find love, or to raise a family. Living your life entirely in service to a deity Aoife wasn’t sure was even listening any more.

"I think you should go," she said after a while, voice disturbing Rin in his movement as he made his way to their book.

Perhaps it was merely a byproduct of the foolish longings of a young girl, but Aoife couldn't stand by and watch her new friend waste an opportunity like that. There he stood with the potential to do anything and he was going to take it for granted? Not on her watch. And while she would admit that she would miss her friend if he left for the capital, perhaps it would be the push needed to decide her own future. After all, if Rin was in Olmaea it gave her an excuse to leave the safety of the Cathedral. Maybe she could even make a name for herself in Olmaea, as unlikely as that would be.

The End

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