Aoife was left in a stunned silence as she pulled herself away from the book’s pages. She had heard her fair share of rumours about the monarchy, but never anything this depraved. To accuse the prince and princess of incest? And the crown prince of murder and regicide? It was… Well, it was treason. Treason was almost as bad as sacrilege, in the young orphan’s eyes. Her world was miles away from the royal pantheon, and she knew it was incredibly unlikely she would ever meet any of the royal family, but she loved her king and her country. She wouldn’t have such slander spread about their ancestors, though part of her couldn’t help but wonder if it was true. Why else would someone have gone to such great lengths to document it? Surely the royal family tree was readily available for anyone to view, unless that had been doctored? It made the young woman’s head hurt to think too much about it.
Rinian, on the other hand, found it all incredibly fascinating. The scandal, the drama, the debauchery. Oh, it made his heart soar. What an incredible rush one got from reading about such things! Perhaps that was just a result of his agnostic beliefs; the thrill of reading something the rest of the world would find incredibly taboo, perhaps even worthy of punishment. He was a law abiding citizen, there was no doubt of that, and he would never dream of breaking the law, but he would always allow himself this one indulgence.
“What is this?” Aoife asked eventually, breaking the silence that hung between them. Part of her found it hard to believe such a book could even exist, let alone be kept in the former capital. Why would someone document such dangerous and scandalous knowledge? Had someone intended to use it against the crown? She’d heard stories of revolutions in far off lands, but as far as she knew, all had failed. A scandal like that would certainly have shaken the royal family from favourable view.
“No one is really sure,” Rin said, turning to the book again, flipping through the pages delicately until he found what he was looking for. “Very few people know of this book, even fewer know a copy still exists.”
“Is it dangerous?”
“In the right hands, anything is dangerous. There are a lot of people that would pay their entire estate for this knowledge.” Rin paused, a gleeful look in his eye. “Why don’t we make a deal? For every story you read—and enjoy—I get to ask you a question.”
A frown creased Aoife’s brow at his suggestion. Behaviour like this was terribly improper, especially for a young woman who was soon to become a Sister of the Church. But the allure of knowledge—especially such restricted knowledge—and of new stories was too great to resist. She could pretend she was the great warrior Arsinoë, who used her wit to gain advantage in battle, and her allure to gain advantage in politics. Even Aoife had to admit the idea of going down in history to the same impact as Arsinoë was a little more exhilarating than she was comfortable with, but comfort be damned, she was going to do her best to do the warrior justice.
“Deal,” she said, eventually voicing her compliance with Rin’s idea.
The smile that spread across Rin’s face suggested all too well that he hadn’t been expecting her to agree. Neither party would be aware of it yet, but it would be this arrangement that would tie the two youths together for the longest of times and the hardest of struggles. But those days were a long way off. For this short moment, all the need concern them were the stories in old books, and lazy afternoons spent in the warm embrace of the library.
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.
Rin looked as if he wanted to protest, and truth be told he did. He wouldn’t voice it out loud yet—perhaps never—but the thought of leaving Aoife behind had an inexplicable sense of sadness fogging his mind. He knew it was madness. They were friends, sure, but when it came down to it, they barely knew each other. And yet despite that, when he looked at her, he knew she was the girl he wanted to marry one day. Swanning off to Olmaea for four years, at the very least, wouldn’t do wonders for that plan. He supposed he could always propose now, but what if she said no? She had her ideals, after all, and he could already imagine the scandal that follow an uncourted engagement. Not only would he be leaving Aoife behind, but he could potentially be leaving her behind as a friend as well. He would rather have her as a friend than not have her at all.
And so his protests died before he had even given proper thought to voice them. Instead the young man was silent, taking his seat beside Aoife once she had made herself comfortable at his grandfather’s desk. He knew his grandfather didn’t approve of them reading from the book, but there was little the old man could do to stop them during working hours. No matter where he hid it, Rin would always be able to find it, and so the old man simply resigned himself to feigning ignorance on the matter should his grandson ever be discovered. The less he pretended to know, the less his protege would get in trouble, or so he hoped.
The final story in the book, as the two youths would discover, was marginally less interesting than the rest of the book. It spoke of a prophecy from years ago which should have seen the monarchy tossed from their throne, and the wildsmen restored their rightful lands. Given that King Ruben sat on the throne and his son Nox was soon to act as his father’s successor, the prophecy contained on those delicate papyrus sheets was clearly a farce, and a disappointing end to the duo’s adventure. The two sat in something of an awkward silence, neither quite willing to close the book and truly put an end to things, or to believe that what they had read was really the end. For Aoife, this moment would act as her first lesson in life’s disappointments.
“Is that it?” Rin spoke, question hanging in the air, not really directed at anyone in particular.
He turned the page, as if he were expecting to see some other entry concealed behind it, but all that greeted him was the back cover of the book, yet more etchings of wolves scrawled onto it. And that was just a further insult in the young apprentice’s mind. For all the imagery the book had presented, there hadn’t been one mention of anything even remotely close to a wolf. What was the point in decorating a novel with such specific detail, without giving a single mention of the detail in question? It just didn’t make sense to him.
“Don’t let it disappoint you, Rin,” Aoife said, hand resting on his arm to try and comfort him, the way she’d seen young ladies do to their brothers and fathers.
Rin heaved a sigh, shrugging off Aoife’s hand as he closed the book in a decidedly frustrated manner. He knew he’d never hear the end of it if he’d damaged it, but frankly he felt it deserved a little rough treatment. He’d make it up to Elias later. He rose from his chair, leaving Aoife with little to do but watch and wait for his tantrum to run out of steam, and paced around the cramped workshop, gangly limbs disrupting his grandfather’s work more than once.
“Don’t let it disappoint me?” he echoed, fingers running through his hair, messing up its perfect styling. “Aoife, all this was supposed to be for something. It was supposed to have some grand epiphany at the end, not a load of old bollocks about some fake prophecy.”
“What are you talking about? Rin, it’s just a book, please calm down,” Aoife said, frowning.
“You can’t tell me you weren’t expecting something more than that, Aoife,” he asserted, turning to face the young woman. “Why would a book like this be banned, if not because it spewed some sort of heresy? Why all the wolves? Maybe there’s a page missing. Yes, that must be it, we’ll have to find it.”
“If it’s missing, it’s likely gone for good. I know you said your grandfather restores banned books, but I doubt any other man takes that duty as seriously. Or would you scour the world for something that might not exist?”
"Yes, I would," Rin said moodily, arms folded across his chest as he sulked.
"Then go to Olmaea, study at the university there, and then try to find it. That way you get the best of both worlds."
"And what about you?" Rin asked, temper starting to cool once more. "What will you do? You only have a week to decide now."
Aoife was quiet then. She’d been trying to pretend that her birthday wasn’t drawing ever closer, but between Rin and Niamh, it had been hard to forget. Niamh had been pressuring her to stay, and Rin had been pressuring her to leave, and neither party were willing to compromise or even entertain the idea of doing the opposite—something all the more confusing in regards to Niamh, given her eagerness to arrange a good marriage for herself and be rid of the Cathedral once and for all.
“I think I’m going to stay,” she murmured, eyes downcast as she spoke. She knew Rin wouldn’t approve, but despite all her dreams and ambitions she knew that, realistically, she didn’t have a life outside of the Cathedral. She would sooner remain in service to the Maker than risk destitution and other unspeakable things.
The look in Rin’s eye said he wanted to protest, but the young woman could only silently thank him for keeping his opinions to himself. She took one last look at the book they’d shared, carefully slipping off the delicate white gloves she’d grown so accustomed to wearing, before getting to her feet, skirt filling most of the cramped space.
“Thank you for showing me this regardless, Rin.” She offered her friend a smile. “I’m sure you’ll do brilliant at university.”
“I never said I was going,” Rin countered, but Aoife flashed him a knowing look. “I still have a month, Aoife. I won’t leave without saying goodbye, I promise.”
Aoife gave her friend another smile, moving across the room and wrapping the young man in a hug, an action most unbecoming of a woman who held herself as highly as Aoife did. With one last farewell, she let herself out of the workshop, pausing just long enough to allow Rin to follow, and then she was gone.
Rin was lost. Aoife and his grandfather both wanted him to go to Olmaea, to study, to become a learned gentleman and make something of himself. Though he’d long since distanced himself from the man, he knew all too well his father wouldn’t approve of that plan of action, either. His family were labourers, not scholars, and as long as his father’s shadow hung over him, he would never forget that. He wanted to go, but in his gut he knew something wasn’t right. Something would go wrong, or maybe something was going to happen that he had to be in Eturia for. He couldn’t explain it, but something was keeping him rooted in his second home, and he wasn’t going to leave without finding out what. The hopeless romantic in him hoped that thing was Aoife, and that his destiny was to save Aoife from a life in a habit, but he knew that was likely little more than a pipedream. Still, that didn’t mean he couldn’t try anyway.