That morning began the same as any other, but this time Aoife moved with a greater sense of purpose. She had finally taken control of her life, and she had made up her mind once and for all. She would go to Rin, ask to accompany him to Olmaea, and make a name for herself there. Even if that name was simply ‘mother’ or ‘wife’. She had no care for fame, or wealth, or title. If anything, trying to marry into land or a title would disrespect her dear Finni, and Lord Mattheson with it. She had lived a simple life until now, she would be content with a simple life in Olmaea.
But as she made her way to the library, something felt off. She couldn’t explain it, but all morning the feeling that something in the universe was wrong had been hanging over her head. To begin with, she had put it down to nerves or hunger, or perhaps even the smoke filled air, but now that she stood before the library, her second home, with that feeling bearing down on her like nothing she’d felt that day, there was no denying it. She made her way inside the library, despite her unease, and looked around the place.
The scholars that lined the walls were there as usual, and she could faintly hear children’s laughter coming from deeper within the library, most likely the result of a nanny taking her charges out for the morning. Lord Trowbridge sat in his usual spot, still clad in his tattered finery. As always, he tipped an imaginary hat to her as she walked past him—the two had become something of acquaintances over the last few months. As she walked through the library, finding nothing out of the ordinary or out of place, that feeling of unease only began to increase. How could something so normal and so uneventful have her so worried?
Her worries came to a head as she knocked on the door to the workshop and received no answer. A quick try of the handle revealed the door was locked, and a frown snuck onto her features as she walked back through the library. Of course it was always possible that Rin was tending to his other duties, and simply hadn’t been expecting her, but the door was rarely locked, even when she had come to visit him as a surprise. With Elias nowhere to be seen, the only hope Aoife had of finding either member of the family was to ask the next most frequent visitor of the library; Lord Trowbridge himself.
“Forgive me, milord,” she said quietly, bowing her head in respect. “I wouldn’t disturb you if it wasn’t important.”
Lord Trowbridge made no sign that he had heard Aoife, attention focused solely on his book. Now that Aoife was in closer proximity to him, she could finally see what sort of novel took his interest. A quick glimpse at the page’s contents informed the young woman that this particular tome was about mages, or rather the magehunts that happened long before she was born. She had never pictured Lord Trowbridge as a deeply religious man, nor a man interested in archaic history that no longer mattered—mages were extinct by now—but wonders would never cease. The old Lord seemed to sense that his actions were being watched, however, and he turned to look at Aoife with his cold, scrutinising eyes.
“Get to it, girl,” he said sternly, closing his book to further obscure the subject matter from her.
“I’m sorry, milord,” Aoife rushed out again. “I’d ask Elias, but I can’t find him, and I don’t have much time left now, and since the two of you are related… You haven’t seen Rinian by any chance, have you?”
It felt strange to call him Rinian twice in such a short space of time, but the boy had spoken often of his family’s displeasure at his self-appointed nickname, and while she knew Rin and Lord Trowbridge were only distant relations, she would rather play it safe than assume he was exception to the rule.
“Have you not heard, girl? He has left for the Royal City, to become a learned man.” Lord Trowbridge snorted out a laugh. “That the foolish boy thinks he must travel all the way to Olmaea to receive a sufficient education speaks volumes of his intellect.”
“What do you mean, Sir?” Aoife asked, trying to keep the annoyance out of her voice. Rin was one of the smartest people she had met, and were her opponent not a Lord, she would have seen to correcting him on the matter.
“The schools in Olmaea are no more exemplary than the schools here, but because they bear the Royal Seal everyone believes them to be better. If my young cousin read more non-fiction,” he paused, lifting his own book from the table as if to stress his point. “He would have discovered that simple fact. Rinian is only as smart as the books he reads, and unfortunately, his head was always lost in fiction. I assume you will return to the Cathedral now, Miss Olette?”
Aoife nodded at the old Lord, saying a pleasant goodbye despite her newfound animosity towards the man, and making her exit from the library. Frankly she wasn’t sure what to make of it all. She knew she’d told Rin to leave and to go to Olmaea, but she hadn’t expected it to be the very next day. And… hadn’t he said he would say goodbye first? None of it quite made up, but perhaps she had simply believed he cared more about her than he did. Not that that was entirely a bad thing. She pretended not to notice it, but there was no denying he followed after her like a lost lamb at times. And even though she didn’t share his affections, she couldn’t pretend it didn’t sting a little that he could abandon her so quickly.
With her plans scuppered and nothing else to occupy her time, the young orphan was at a loss at what to do. If Rin had already departed for Olmaea, realistically she had no hope of ever making it there, and if she had no hope of reaching the capital, what sense was there in leaving the Cathedral? And yet she couldn’t quite bring herself to go back just yet. She knew she still have five days before she turned eighteen, but going back now almost seemed like admitting defeat. If she left the heart of the city, she would be signing away her freedom. So the young orphan planned for herself her perfect last day.
She said her farewells to the statues of Droga and Brethin, and to the library itself, for she didn’t imagine a woman of the cloth would have much time to visit a library halfway across the city. She had thought to spend what money she had saved on a few books that she could keep in her room, but stubbornness wouldn’t allow her to spend it, some naive part of her still adamant that she would leave the Cathedral one day. Instead, she allowed herself to indulge in one of life’s finer delicacies for just a moment—chocolate. She had only eaten it once before. It had been a special gift from Niamh on her sixteenth birthday. To this day, she still wasn’t sure how Niamh had managed to afford it, but she appreciated the gesture all the same, and as she bit into the tiny bar she could afford, smooth, creamy taste washing over her tongue like a tidal wave of molten pleasure, she made a note to save some for her friend to repay the favour.
With the rest of the chocolate tucked safely away in her coat pocket, the young orphan set off to explore the rest of the city. A great river ran through its core that she had never been to explore. Her interest had always been the library, or the Cathedral, or whatever boutique Niamh wished to drag her to that day. The young orphan spent hours just watching the life on the river. Men sailed past on boats and barges and all manner or floating things. Some fished, some carried cargo, some housed extravagant seats where ladies in even more extravagant dresses sat and laughed and hid their faces with elegant lace fans. Dogs and children ran alongside the river, chasing imaginary prey. Sometimes the dogs would leap into the water, but the children never followed. Perhaps they couldn’t swim, Aoife thought. Not that she could swim either. If she fell in the river, she was certain that would be the end of her.
Aoife stayed by the river, watching the boats and the people come and go, until the sun started to dip behind the buildings in front of her. Life on the river began to slow as the light started to fail. The boats were all moored, the children and their dogs ran home, the fishermen that had been plying their wares threw the last of their stock back into the river and closed their stalls. The ladies with their fans were long since gone, and in their place were women whose corsets were laced far too tight, bosoms spilling from their dressed, and their makeup too thickly applied to be considered decent. Were these the infamous ladies of the night she’d heard rumour of? They laughed and joked with their gentlemen much the same as the elegant women had in the day, and frankly they were dressed much the same, some clad in more finery than others. She was sure it would be a great insult to either party to compare the two, but now that Aoife had seen them, she couldn’t see much difference between the two.
With one last glance at the river, the orphan pulled her coat tighter around herself and began the long walk back to the Cathedral. For the first time in her life, she witnessed the lamplighters breathing life into the oil lamps that dotted the streets. She had never seen the city at night, and part of her almost felt foolish for thinking that the streets existed in pitch blackness once the sun had vanished from the sky. The lamps didn’t give out much light, but following the trail of lights made her feel more safe, more comfortable.