| This Fanon Contains Spoilers!
This Fanon may contain some spoilers! Read at your own risk!
On a busy day in Kumerson, two figures relive the past while creating new memories. Will they find the peace they seek, and begin a new journey? Discover what awaits the chronicles of Lawrence and Holo when their tales are reopened and a new chapter begins!
Note: this is intended to be read after volume 17, as a sort of "after story".
~ ~ ~ ~
"Can I help you?"
The bell on the door had stopped ringing, and the man behind the counter was eying him suspiciously, but Edgar remained still. The moment he had stepped into the building he felt a presence next to him, and he froze the moment he laid eyes on it.
"Ah, that.. well, it's a bit of an in-joke. Don't let it get to you."
Despite the man's dismissive tone, Edgar couldn't help his reaction. He'd always hated coffins, and where he came from, it was considered bad form to leave them standing. Moreover, this one was more fit for an ox than a man. Its size alone was cause for alarm, but it was also a discouraging sign.
"If you say so. It's just the last thing I'd expect to see in a merchant's guildhouse."
"Heh.. you're hardly the first to say that."
The man seemed more interested in wiping the glasses in front of him than talking to Edgar, but that didn't matter. Edgar was here for a reason, and the man hadn't failed to notice that.
"So what business brings you to our guild this fine day?"
Edgar wondered if the man had mistaken him for a wayward junior apprentice. He had to admit he probably looked the part, but he wasn't a local and putting on airs would be counterproductive. He might as well walk up to the bar and cut to the chase.
"Well, I can't rightly say it's business, but I was sent here on a bit of a quest for information."
The man's eyes visibly narrowed as Edgar set some coins down on the bar. For a moment, the two of them stared at each other as Edgar prayed that the beads of sweat on his back wouldn't appear on his face. In the end, the man accepted the coins and smiled as he pulled a rather impressive-looking book out from under the counter.
"Heh.. what's your name, boy? I don't reckon I've ever seen you around."
"Edgar. Edgar Joam."
The man scribbled in the tome before producing a small scrap of paper. Edgar knew it was just a custom, but he really didn't have the patience for this sort of thing. He only knew that such formalities were considered necessary to merchants, so he forced himself to wait. He intended to put all of the advice he'd been given to good use.
"Well then, Mr. Joam, welcome to the Rowen Guild branch of Kumerson! How may I help you?"
Being called "mister" made Edgar twitch in irritation. Thankfully he had come to visit at a time when he knew the guildhouse would be empty, so only he and the man were present to notice.. and the man would hardly care now that money was involved.
"Truth be told, it's a bit of a long shot. But I was sent here to find a merchant named Guy Batos."
For the first time in their conversation, the man seemed genuinely interested. Edgar was taken aback, knowing that merchants in the man's position didn't react so openly when doing business. Was he not taking Edgar seriously?
"Well lad, you've come to the right place, but I'm afraid your timing's a bit off."
"..Oh? Then Mr. Batos still visits this guildhouse?"
"Wellll.. in a manner of speaking."
The man's index finger stopped tapping the counter and pointed up behind Edgar. For a moment, the hair on the back of Edgar's neck stood on end as he realized what the man what was pointing at. There was a reason it was a discouraging sign. Mr. Batos was a merchant belonging to the Rowen guild.. a man often described as "coffin-like."
"Why don't'cha take a peek inside?"
Edgar took a breath and pushed his chair back a pace. He got up, approached the giant coffin, then swallowed as he looked it over. From its size, it was clearly a prop. He didn't have to search for the hinge on its side to know that. He obviously wasn't the first person to sneak a peek inside, but even being next to a prop coffin unnerved him.
Muttering to himself, he pushed his boyish nervousness down to his feet and swung open the great lid of the coffin. As expected, it was devoid of any ghoulish corpses. In fact there wasn't even a trace of dust. The only thing inside was a memorial plaque that gleamed in the low light of the guildhouse. Edgar's heart continued to sink as he made out the words on that plaque.
"To the esteemed Rowen guild.. in memory of our renowned Mr. Batos.. from the Friedhof family.. whose business rests assured in legend.. as the only coffin-makers to lay a coffin to rest in another coffin."
Damn. If Batos was gone, they would have to do this the hard way.
~ ~ ~ ~
It didn't quite sink in just how tired he was until Edgar stepped back out of the guildhouse. The moment he did, he felt another presence next to him, but this time he sighed as he turned to face it. Sure enough, it was exactly who he was expecting.
"I take it the Devil's luck wasn't with you either, huh Anya?"
The girl beside him raised her face for a moment, but it soon dropped back down again. She hugged her knees and rested her chin on them before concealing a sigh of her own, by blowing a lock of her hair in frustration.
Her answer was cruelly succinct as always. Anya wasn't one for conversation. In fact, Edgar had been counting the number of times she even bothered to strike up a conversation with him. Suffice it to say that their trip had been quite tedious thus far. In all of his fourteen years, he'd never met someone his age who was less talkative and more dour than he was.
He could tell she had good reasons to be withdrawn, however. If his hunch was correct then he had no right to make her any more miserable. He had half a mind to ask her if she had tried reading a certain book again while waiting for him, but thought better of it. If she could do anything but hug it, they wouldn't be in Kumerson right now.
"So no one in the market knows about Mr. Batos, either?"
Even if she had her reasons, Edgar had no desire to be treated like a servant. He wasn't above venting his frustrations, even if it meant toying with her a little. He felt he deserved that much, having been dragged all this way without so much as a word of thanks. He wanted her to know how it felt to be kept out of the loop.
"Please tell me you at least have another lead."
Anya hugged her knees even more tightly and her hair slid forward, obscuring her face. Once again she was testing the limits of his patience with her brooding. He could hardly be faulted for chuckling a moment later, when he heard a loud grumble from her stomach. In turn, she could hardly be faulted for shooting him a sharp glare. She finally smelled what he was carrying.
He couldn't contain his laughter any longer when her pout twisted into a vicious sneer. She turned away with an indignant "hmph," leaving him to wonder what he'd done to have this girl sent his way. He couldn't believe she'd even made it to his village on her own. Not this girl, who would defiantly put a barrier of hair between herself and her only companion, just to nurse her wounded pride.
She feigned indifference until he handed her the entire freshly-baked bun he was carrying. No sooner had she snatched it away then it was already being stuffed into her mouth. Edgar didn't mind, though. In fact it was a bit of a relief; Anya hadn't eaten anything that morning, and there was something rather endearing about the way she glared at him out of the corner of her eye.
"You know, you'd be pretty if you didn't wrap yourself up like an old lady."
Her nose wrinkled and she turned away again, as if to make it extra clear that she wasn't interested in hearing his voice. He had to admit that it was a nice change to see her acting like a normal person, and not some wounded animal. He hated it when people put on a tough front while begging others for help, no matter their circumstances.
"Well, just be thankful the guy in there took pity on us, or you'd be starving by the time supper rolls around."
She paused for a split-second before popping the last bit of bun into her mouth. He debated whether to tell her that he'd only been offered it because his own stomach had grumbled, but his gut told him that wouldn't be enough to make her respond. Maybe if he told her she'd eaten his share? No, he'd already told her he preferred rye bread, so she'd just tell him to eat their stale provisions.
Hey, wait.. why was he trying to cheer her up when she didn't want to be cheered up?
"Alright, well, let's get going. We don't have time to waste. I just spent the last of our money to-"
He felt his jacket catch on something as he stood up, and was surprised to see Anya clutching it with a stern look in her eyes.
"What are you hiding?"
He stopped short as her eyes narrowed. What nerve! Not one word of thanks, not one explanation of why her book was worth all of this trouble, and now she was accusing him of keeping secrets from her? He blinked stupidly for a moment, then decided that he too could play that game. He stomped off ahead, pulling his coat free and leaving her behind.
To think that he'd actually been looking forward to this trip. He really was an idiot.
~ ~ ~ ~
Her voice made him flinch. Even their footsteps sounded ominous in the dead silence of this place, and neither he nor Anya had spoken for a while.
"You're sure you know where you're going?"
It was a fair question, or would have been if she'd asked it from the start.
"Yes, to Mr. Ruben's house, like I said."
"And how about the way back?"
He narrowed his eyes in irritation. He finally understood why his father was so annoyed when his mother pestered him like this.
"Actually~ I'm not so sure anymore.."
As he'd hoped, Anya stopped walking entirely. He turned with a smirk to see how scared she was, but only ended up gasping at the icy glare he received. Having his lungs filled with the stench around them was too much, and he began coughing.
He wiped the tears from his eyes and looked up at her as she continued.
"I'm quite sure we've been down this alley already."
"Of course! All the alleys here look the same!" was the response running through his head, but he decided not to voice it. It wasn't her fault that everything was so eerily similar, right down to the dilapidated window shutters, crumbling walls, and strange ladders that went to second story windows like they were meant for quick escapes.
"No, we haven't been here yet. Look."
He pointed at the ground ahead of them as he caught his breath.
"That's the first reddish puddle I've seen.. all the others have been more of a green, right?"
There was something about her reaction that gave him pause. It didn't carry her usual traces of feigned ignorance and open contempt.
"You.. really couldn't tell?"
Her arms instantly folded across her chest and she puffed out her nose.
"How could I! It's so dark in these alleys!"
"Don't tell me you.. can't see colors?"
In lieu of answering she stomped ahead, proceeding down the alley.
"Oh wow.. so it's true.."
He chased after her as she vanished around the next corner, only to run smack into her.
"At least I'M not hard of hearing."
"H-huh.. yeah, you're right, I am.. how'd you guess?"
She was spot on. He'd always been half-deaf in his right ear. With an indignant "hmph!" she turned and walked away again. And yet, he didn't back down or get nervous; he just rushed right back up to her.
"It explains why you're always bumping into me."
She sounded displeased. But even if she was upset with him, Edgar had already gained control of the conversation.
"Ohh.. so that's why you always switch to my left side when we walk.."
She sighed, obviously irritated, but said nothing. He felt compelled to continue.
"Y-yeah, that's why my dad won't let me work with him.."
Edgar kept up with Anya until she finally slowed down. She really didn't have much choice; only he knew the way. And yet, before he could tease her about it, she questioned him. Unwittingly, she had just wandered into their first sincere conversation.
"And how did YOU guess about me?"
"Well, my gran told me there are people who can't see in color, but I couldn't believe it."
He waited for a moment to give Anya a chance to chime in, but she didn't. He wondered if she was doing it on purpose or if she was just lost in thought, but when he opened his mouth to keep talking, she finally answered.
"I just can't tell red and green apart."
"Oh.. that must be a pain. With your luck, you'd pick the one unripe berry in the bush."
His playful jab earned him a playful jab back, right in the shoulder.
Just like that, the cursed mood of the alchemist's quarter had been lifted. Edgar led on, both on foot and in their conversation. The two of them walked side by side (with Anya on his left, of course) as they brought cheer to a place that had been bereft of it for a long time.
She complained about how her father teased her with sour apples in place of sweet ones, and how she wished she could see all the colors of autumn. In turn, Edgar explained how unnerving it was to be caught in a crowd, unable to tell where noises were coming from, and how he had come to prefer the relative peace of the wilderness.
They exchanged bitter tales about how their families only knew of work, not play. They wondered if that's why they'd grown up to be so serious. Anya couldn't believe Edgar had almost died, until he showed her the scar where he was trampled by a mislead horse. In turn, Edgar learned more than he ever wanted to know about running a business.
But then, just as quickly as their apprehension had vanished, it came back in full force. They had finally arrived at their destination. Ahead of them was a building that looked like some rank amateur had tried copying the other houses, but failed. It leaned slightly forward and to one side, almost as though it was looming down to stare at the two of them.
That was the only sound that Anya could manage as she studied the jagged outline of the roof. It looked like a murder of crows had silently perched on it to ward off any would-be callers. The whole place exuded an unearthly quality that even made Edgar think twice about approaching it.
"Well, here goes nothing.."
He walked down the path to the front door and solemnly raised the heavy knocker. He then froze for a moment, debating whether just knocking on the door might make the rickety-looking building collapse on top of them. In the end, however, the knocker struck the door twice with a haunting sound.
"Hello? Is anyone home?"
He heard nothing but his own echo, followed by the same utter deadness that permeated the area. His heart sank.. had they been led on a wild goose chase?
"Um! I was told that this was the place to visit if I wanted to purchase a crate of white feathers?"
Allegedly, that was the code that one had to utter to be granted an audience with Mr. Rubens, the building's occupant. Edgar didn't say it out loud, but this didn't seem like the kind of place where people turned lead into gold; wayward children into frogs, perhaps..
His brow furrowed. This wasn't good. He could sense no life on the other side of the door. This was their only remaining lead, though, so what choice did he have? He reached out to the door knob, ready to give it a pull, but then felt a tug at his sleeve. He looked down to see Anya looking up at him.
It was clear that she wanted him to stop, even if he didn't want to. It wasn't until she tugged his hand off the doorknob and shook her head that he finally decided to give up. If it was just up to him he would have gone inside, but there was something about the look in Anya's eyes that unsettled him.
She nodded resolutely, clearly not just backing down from cowardice. The look on her face reminded him of how people looked as they watched a coffin being lowered into the ground.. like it was on a path that should not be walked by the living. It made him feel like his heart was being buried as well.
He stared into her eyes until Anya finally looked down at the ground, dejected. That made him want to kick the door in spite. Damn! And he'd just finally managed to cheer her up a little! Was this how their quest would end? Just a gloomy, wordless trudge back out of the smelly alchemist's quarter?
~ ~ ~ ~
"Hey lad.. mind peeling these while you're at it?"
This was quite a contrast after the silence of the alchemist's quarter. The furnace-like kitchen was small, stuffy, and understaffed, but it was his only refuge from the noise outside. He could still hear the children in the other room laughing, running, and making merry like it was their only mission in life.
"Where's the peeler?"
"Oh ho.. never done it with a knife?"
Edgar didn't like being treated like a kid. Of course he knew how to peel vegetables with a knife. It would just take a little longer, and they had a mountain of food to prepare. He pushed his personal feelings aside, however. They were in an orphanage, so reacting like a child now would only justify being treated like one.
"Ooh.. we've got a natural here!"
The woman changed her tune the moment Edgar started peeling. He was used to this. He would make do. His hands might be small, but they could handle a knife. As the first skin he peeled fell to the ground in one long strand, the woman whistled and clapped her hands delightedly.
"My my.. I can see who does all of the heavy lifting in your home!"
He really didn't like being treated like a kid. Being praised for something this simple was just dumb. That, and it made him feel stupidly proud. He had to push that pride out of mind before it showed up on his face, so he focused on the peeling and just hoped he wouldn't blush as the ladies evaluated him.
"With such a fine helper, we'll be done in no time!"
She said that, but of course the ladies were out of his league. They could even merrily chat and laugh while they prepared their own dishes. Being the youngest was always hard on Edgar, but he couldn't help that. Besides, it wasn't really what was bothering him. Someone had to help out, after all.. he just wished he didn't have to do so by himself.
"I may even fall for our little prince!"
"A pity, Ida.. t'would appear he's already caught another's eye!"
He knew what the woman was joking about; he'd already caught a glimpse of the tiny face with blue eyes peeking at him from the door. It vanished the instant he turned to look, only to reappear after a tiny yelp. A shy little girl had just been pushed out into plain sight, presumably by the other children.
"Pipin! That was mean!"
And there was Anya, quickly coming to the rescue. The girl hopped behind her, looking every bit as timid as a newborn fawn hiding behind the legs of her mother. But this baby fawn was on the verge of tears, so Edgar sighed to himself and wiped his hands before walking to the door.
"Now, now.. Emma, was it?"
The girl shrank back as he approached, then meekly nodded as he crouched down to face her.
"You can't let them walk all over you like that. If you don't stand up to them, they'll tease you to no end."
Emma buried her face in Anya's skirt, but it soon became clear that she was actually drying her tears. She then put on a strong face and did her best to look Edgar in the eye while she nodded.
"That's a good girl. Well, since you were the only one brave enough to come ask, you're the only one who gets a treat before supper."
He opened his closed hand slowly to reveal a fig, at which point the little girl's face transformed into a festival of joy. She quickly took the snack away and scampered off down the hall, guarding her treat jealously.
Hearing her name called out like that, she finally stopped and ever so slowly turned around.
It wasn't quite a proper "thank you," but with her mouth full it would have to do. Anya had already rushed to wipe Emma's mouth before her shirt was soiled by her treat. Edgar shot the other kids a disapproving smirk before walking back into the kitchen, where he promptly received a knock on his head.
"You sly dog! Now she'll be expecting treats every night!"
The head cook was obviously teasing him again. He had to put on a strong face too.
"Don't worry. Just get her to help out first if she wants one."
"Oh? So that's what happened with you, is it? Seems like your mother's raising herself a fine boy!"
Edgar finally smiled, but it was a sad one. Hearing the word "mother" always made him react wistfully; he missed his mother as dearly as he missed his gran. Just like that, he felt like a helpless little boy again. He didn't even mind that his hair was being tousled by the woman.
"Alright! Let's get back to work! The kids won't be feeding themselves!"
She'd noticed his reaction and changed topics, but if there was one thing Edgar was good at, it was moving on. He shook his head firmly. They had work to do. He might not like being treated like a kid, but where else were two penniless children going to spend the night?
~ ~ ~ ~
A clinking pile of plates was as apt a metaphor as any for Edgar's mental state. His hope for a quiet and uneventful supper proved naive. The moment he tried to sit down next to Anya, his seat was suddenly occupied. The miscreant in his place smirked back at him, and the chair on Anya's other side was also taken by another boy.
Well, that was for the best. Edgar had been next to Anya for a while now, so he might as well breathe freely while he could. He smiled to himself and reached out for the nearest dish on the table, only to be struck unexpectedly. He stared at the tiny hand that had smacked his, then looked to his right and saw two blue eyes glaring at him with disapproval.
"You forgot to say Grace."
Edgar blinked at little Emma, unsure how to respond. For a split-second he swore his grandmother was sitting there beside him, chastising him for the slightest dinner table informality. He sighed and nearly gave up like he always had, until he recalled what happened earlier in the kitchen and flashed her a tooth-filled grin.
"Don't you bully me, you little scamp! I didn't see you thanking the Lord for that treat I gave you!"
Soon his tormentor had burst into uncontrolled laughter. He chuckled evilly at her plight as the room was filled with her ticklish response. It cheered him up so much that he dropped his guard, and only stopped when his head received another knock.
"Hey! No roughhousing at the dinner table!"
He looked up defiantly at the head cook, but she only winked at him and placed her palms together. As her eyes closed, Edgar turned back and saw that Emma's eyes were already shut too, with her tiny hands also politely joined. He then spun around instinctively to face Anya (who hadn't shown any knowledge of religious rituals) and saw that she had betrayed him as well.
The faint trace of a smile was on her face, making it clear that she knew what was going on. The onus was on the guests to recite table prayers, and she wasn't about to do it. He had half a mind to feign ignorance so she would have to say Grace, but he took the high ground. People were waiting to eat, after all. His solemn recitation was as brief as his nerves allowed.
However, when he finished and his eyes reopened he noticed an unfamiliar face at the table. An old, wise-looking woman had sat down at some point without him noticing. She was now eying him suspiciously, though her eyes seemed less malicious than inquisitive. Still, seeing the wrinkles under them crease ever so slightly made him worry whether his lackluster prayer had upset her.
"Were you the one who made this, boy?"
For a moment he wasn't sure what she was asking, but his eyes soon sprang back to life and he quickly noticed that she was holding a bowl full of soup. The soup that he'd prepared himself.
"Oh.. um, yes?"
Why was his hair standing on end? He'd never reacted this way to anyone. Something about this old lady felt.. odd to him. If a warm smile hadn't slowly spread across her face, Edgar might have stopped breathing entirely.
"I knew it. Nobody ever makes this sauerkraut soup anymore."
He wasn't sure whether she was complimenting or chastising him, so he simply nodded his head. He then risked a peek at Anya, and saw a barely-contained grin on her face. She was really enjoying this. However, the old lady seemed to notice his glance, and slowly set her eyes on her.
"Ah, I suppose you were the one who taught him how to prepare it?"
That was the first time Edgar saw Anya react in such a horrified manner. Her face dropped instantly, like a scolded child. Wow, had she gone pale? He wasn't sure whether to grin at her comeuppance, so only half of his mouth turned upward into a goofy smirk that he'd never made before.
"Well.. either way, you have my thanks. None of these old hens has ever gotten the spices quite right."
A silence fell over the entire table as each of the cooks looked at one another, as though exchanging some secret wordless dialogue.
"My my.. earning the approval of Ms. Diana? You ARE a fine lad!"
The head cook shot Edgar a playful smile, but that only made him feel less comfortable. Ms. Diana, on the other hand, had already begun savoring the soup, slurping it slowly like a vintner sampling the first batch of the season. It seemed she was being sincere in her appreciation, albeit uniquely so.
"Th-thank you very much.."
He nervously smiled, hoping that was what she wanted to hear. His eyes darted over to Anya again, but she was still cautiously eying Diana. Emma, on the other hand, looked up at him with a proud smile and nodded as if to say "good answer!" He finally breathed out, wondering what on earth he'd done to deserve all of this.
A moment later he finally realized that Emma was actually holding up a bowl of soup she had poured for him. In fact, she must have been patiently holding it up for quite some time now. He graciously received it and smiled back at his new friend, then rolled up his sleeves.
She was right! Supper was a battlefield, albeit a merry one; there wouldn't be any food left for them if he didn't get his act together! He quickly snatched the nearest dish, and before Emma could so much as blink he was already hovering a generous helping over her plate. Delighted, the little girl grinned even wider and nodded her approval.
~ ~ ~ ~
Unexpectedly, Edgar didn't have to clean up after supper. The children ended up helping for once. Of course, it wasn't out of the goodness of their hearts, but at least they did help; all Anya did was boss them around. Edgar wanted to take his mind off of her selfish attitude, but he was shooed out of the kitchen before he could wash even a single plate.
"Now now, you've done more than enough. Just go and deliver tonight's special treat."
With that, the woman pushed a plate into his hands and smiled. He gave up, realizing that his last duty of the day was to deliver dessert. He supposed he might as well; the woman was already cheerfully clattering up the kitchen with the others, so he wasn't going to find any peace here.
However, like the other children he wasn't being helpful out of the goodness of his heart. He just knew that the instant he stopped moving, he'd be out like a light. It had been a long day, and he had so little to show for it. He wanted to feel useful to someone, since there wasn't anything more he could do for Anya.
He could already feel sleep overtaking him as he crept down the hallway, but he snapped out of it when he heard a chorus of childish gasps from the room ahead. He paused for a moment to listen in, and was surprised by the voice he heard. The elderly Ms. Diana was telling the children a story, sounding every bit as engaged in the tale as her devoted young audience.
Edgar opted to wait a while longer. He didn't want to ruin the story by blustering into the room with dessert. Besides, there was no rush. In truth he missed listening to stories like this, so before he knew it a smile had crept onto his face and he stood there eagerly listening in. Which story was it?
"And then what happened, Ms. Diana?"
"Well, you see that greeeat big wolf.. came crashing down, right on top of the poor sheep!"
Another round of gasps later, and Edgar's hand was covering his face in embarrassment. Not this story..
"But! Before the wolf could close her jaws, she heard a cry from between them to stop!"
The children were enraptured by her storytelling skill. Clearly, Ms. Diana had told this story many times now.
"Well, that wolf stood there, her jaws half-open, as the sheep told her that he knew! He knew where her home was!"
It was a popular children's fable; one that Edgar had enjoyed when he was younger. But unlike the eager children before Diana, it no longer held any sway over him. Maybe it didn't feel right if his mother and father weren't acting it out for him, or maybe he was just too old for such a silly fairy tale.
After all, it was about a huge wolf and a simple-minded sheep, and everyone knew how such a story would really end. But in this one, when the sheep came across the injured wolf, he offered to take her home in exchange for his life. The wolf was unable to find her own way back, so she reluctantly agreed.
"So that greeeat big wolf spared that sheep, and in thanks he let her sleep on his fluffy, fluffy back."
Diana truly was good at telling stories. Edgar took another quick peek into the room and saw the children crowded all around her, like baby chicks reaching up to their mother for more. But what shocked him was the sight of Anya listening in just as intently, like she was spellbound.
Oh well, he might as well join in while he could. He crept into the room slowly, so he wouldn't disturb Diana's performance. He was quite good at sneaking around, so only Diana seemed to spot him. Anya didn't even react until he sat down next to her, and even then it was by breathing in sharply.
"Ms. Diana, who was the shepherd?"
The story had progressed to the point where the wolf and sheep had met a shepherd. The sheep, who couldn't help his meek nature, was beguiled and lead astray. Edgar always hated this part, because he could tell that the wolf was being dishonest about her feelings. It wasn't until the sheep was about to be butchered that she finally saved him.
Even now he felt annoyed that the wolf in the story was made out to be a hero. The sheep never got any credit. The wolf was always complaining about the indignity of having to travel with a mere sheep, and he just took the abuse. Edgar would never permit such a thing to happen to himself!
He suddenly spied Anya trying to snatch a cookie off of the plate. What a sneaky girl! And she seemed so engrossed by the story, too! If little Emma hadn't smacked it out of her hand, she would have already bitten into it! Needless to say, Emma's vigilance was rewarded with the first cookie.
"The wolf ran and ran.. but the sheep was nowhere to be found. Would she have to find her way home all alone now?"
The kids were hanging onto Diana's every word, so they barely noticed Edgar as he handed each of them a cookie. Last of all were his and Anya's cookies, and she snatched both of them with narrowed eyes. It wasn't until Emma broke off a piece of her own cookie for Edgar that Anya finally grumbled and handed one back to him, mostly intact.
"The butcher raised his cleaver hiiigh into the air.. but just before it came crashing down, the sheep heard something even more chilling."
All of the kids howled in unison, clearly having heard this story before. As their flurry of giggles subsided, Diana continued. But not even their howl could save Edgar. His eyes were already closing. He wasn't going to last much longer.
"Right! The wolf had come to save her companion!"
What a fantastically dumb story. No knights. No dragons. Not even a lesson worth learning. It was just about a wolf who refused to acknowledge the sheep that lead her home, even though she had him carry her on his back when she felt lazy. And yet, it was always the sheep who needed saving somehow. It was all so very.. childish..
He stared off into space as he nodded off, wondering why this story felt so fake. It was almost like someone had taken the real story and dressed it up for children. After all, these stories were usually based on real people, so why did they go with a wolf and a sheep? He kept mulling that thought over as his eyelids drew closer.. closer..
A shock suddenly ran up his spine. In an instant he completely forgot about the story, his fatigue, and everything else. A hand had suddenly been placed in his, but it wasn't small enough to be the one that had smacked him earlier. He instinctively knew whose hand it was, but he still looked down to confirm. He had absolutely no clue how he should react.
All of a sudden, his entire world had been thrown into disarray. He just sat there, doing his best to listen intently to Diana with the rest of the children. His back was stiff as a board, his face was flushed, his breathing was uneven, and he was too terrified to even glance to his left, but it felt like none of that mattered as long as he held on tight.
~ ~ ~ ~
Edgar plopped down into bed face first. He was so tired it felt like he might sink into the mattress and vanish without a trace. What a night. Not only had Diana narrated well past the children's bedtime, but the reason Anya had grabbed his hand was to drag him into performing it with her.
Of course the kids loved their act, but Anya loved it most of all. She played the role of the wolf with relish. She growled as she recited her lines and even howled when the sheep came back to the wolf, after leaving him behind only to be tricked into a hunter's trap by a wily fox (of course, the story still made it sound like it was the sheep's fault and that she didn't need saving).
Lucky for Anya, Edgar was too tired to fight back. In fact, he was so tired that he played the perfect sheep. Still, if she hadn't been right beside him, he would never have had the willpower to make all of those embarrassing bleating and baaing noises, just like his father always made when he played the sheep. Did his father also only play the sheep because his mother dragged him into it?
Oh jeez.. what now? He could barely hear Anya through his right ear, so he slowly turned onto his side and did his best to intone that he really didn't want to chat.
"What was your mother like?"
Was this girl made of bad timing and ill intentions? He was far too tired for this.
"Why are you asking me now..?"
He couldn't help but whine a little bit.
"No real reason.."
Yeah, right. He hated it when people said that.
"Just say what you mean.."
He heard Anya fidget uncomfortably as she worked up the courage to speak her mind.
"I just.. wonder what it's like to have a mom."
Strange.. the way she worded it made it sound like she never even knew her mother, but how could that be? The sleepy cogs in his mind began creaking back to life, and he grumbled for a moment before humoring her.
"Really warm. Really.. safe. Not like being with dad at all."
It seemed like she was being sincere, but what she said next threw him completely off guard.
"That's how it felt like being with dad."
His eyes slowly opened wider.. past tense?
"Then your dad's-?"
But if it was her dad who just died, and she never knew who her mother was.. what did that mean? Had her mother abandoned her, or had she died while Anya was an infant? Either was so horrible that Edgar was extra glad he hadn't pressed the issue earlier.
Anya breathed out unsteadily as he said that, making him wonder if the wound was still too fresh for her to discuss.
"Why? I dragged you out here, I'm the one who should be sorry."
Despite her words, she spoke in a confrontational tone. She probably did regret getting him swept up into this, and yet he wanted a word of thanks, not an apology.. even if he was no longer sure that he deserved any.
"No, I should.. ugh.. let's just split the difference and call us even."
He really didn't want to talk about this kind of thing right now.. why did she have to have such poor timing?
"Do you.. not like your father?"
It was like she was taking her time on purpose, letting him almost fall asleep before rousing him with another question.
"What are you talking about?"
"You just.. didn't seem to get along very well."
Edgar knew he was going to get cranky very soon, so he opted to be brutally honest. Maybe that would deter Anya for the night.
"He's.. alright. He just has to work hard all the time, even with my big brother helping him. I'm useless, after all."
She stirred uncomfortably when she heard that. Good, maybe she'd finally stop talking. He really needed sleep..
"Dummy.. You're just like daddy.."
After a brief pause, he finally heard what sounded like sniffing coming from her direction.
"I just don't understand you."
The moment she said that, he realized that both of them had the same problem. He had been doing his best to understand her, but clearly he'd failed.. and not for lack of trying. But he was truly exhausted, so all he could do was let her continue.
"Dad never cried.. even though I could tell how much he wanted to.."
Why was she letting it all out now? It almost felt like he had stepped on that great wolf's tail.
"And he pushed himself so hard.. everyone asked him not to, but he just kept writing that stupid book and running the business.."
Edgar sighed and stared at the ceiling as Anya gently wept. What was he supposed to say? That life was hard? That things would get better? That she was accusing him of bottling up his feelings, when she was doing the same?
"So you ran away from home too?"
As expected, Anya stopped sniffing long enough to pay attention. He sighed and took it from the top.
"Back when mom died, everyone was so sad.. but she never wanted that. So when I started to feel sad too.. well, I ran away."
It was now Anya's turn to listen. If he wasn't going to get any sleep, he might as well do the talking. The problem was that he'd never really been given the chance to talk about himself. All he ever did was listen. He didn't know how to tell stories, not even his own.
"Heh.. I think you're the first person I've said this to.."
It wasn't easy, but he told her about how he fled to the local church to hide from everyone. There was a secret spot there where no one would think to look for him. A place that only he and his grandmother knew about. He'd followed her there before, but she didn't know it; he was supposed to be playing with the other children at the time.
Anya heard all about how he'd made his way into that dark cellar with only a candle, and found nothing but books inside. Well, almost nothing else: he was far more interested by the odd hole in the wall. He should have been terrified to see that dark tunnel, but instead it felt like the perfect place to run.
"It went on forever. It sure was creepy. But it wasn't until the candle in my hand began dying that I realized how scared I was."
Anya's breathing had steadied. She was meekly urging him on like the tired children had urged Diana earlier. He told her about how that eerily-round tunnel felt alive somehow; walking through it was like walking through a dream where you could hear the very world around you breathing.
"You should've heard me bawling when the candle finally died. I cried and cried.. I cried until I wasn't even scared anymore. Then I cried for my mom until I couldn't cry anymore. And then.. somehow.. I must have cried open a hole back to the real world."
Edgar had stumbled his way out of the cave somehow, only to find himself completely lost. His parents had never taken him to this strange place, and he didn't even have any tears left to shed. Thankfully, he didn't meet the business end of a bear or a slow freeze to the death, but his solemn-looking grandmother.
"Oh boy, I'd never been so happy to see gran before that. She didn't even scold me for running away; she scolded me for stepping on the altar of the god who lived in that cave! I'd been walking in Lord Truyeo's burrow and I didn't even know it. Pretty crazy, huh?"
He chuckled as he said that last part. It felt like a knot in his stomach had finally unwound. It sure was nice to have someone listen to him for a change. He finally saw the appeal of it. In fact, he wanted to return the favor.
"Heh.. but listen to me go on. Dad sent me to help you find out what's written in that book, not tell you my embarrassing stories. What language is it in, anyway?"
What a clumsy attempt to change the topic. As expected he heard no reply, just astonished silence. And yet, Anya didn't burst out into laughter. Edgar didn't even hear a single stifled giggle.
Still nothing. He wondered what was going on for a split second, but then the cruel reality of the situation hit him: he heard a gentle snore from Anya's direction.
"What? You've got to be kidding me.."
Jeez.. what was wrong with her? How dare she keep him awake just to fall asleep on him? Had he been pouring his heart out to nobody? He raised up the pillow that was under his head and pressed it over his face.
No one heard his muffled scream. Anya's snoring barely broke its rhythm. She was the first person he'd ever shared his pain with.. and she couldn't even be bothered to stay awake. He flung the pillow back onto the bed beside him, wondering just what he'd done to deserve all of this.
~ ~ ~ ~
He was running now, and terrified that he wouldn't make it in time. It felt like the world was closing in around him, trying to swallow him up in darkness. The candle in his hand grew dimmer and dimmer as his mother's back drew further and further away. He chased her, but no matter how hard he ran she was getting smaller and smaller.. until the candle finally expired.
What a nightmare! He hadn't had that one for a long time, had he? A bead of sweat trickled into his eye, making him wince and rub it furiously. He was still panting for dear life as his eyes adjusted to the dark, until he finally spotted something just as unsettling in the waking world.
He looked at the bed beside his, and then back at the window just in time to see the top of her head vanish beneath the sill. What was going on? Was he still asleep? Before he knew it, his blanket had been cast aside and he had scrambled to the window.
"What is she-?!"
There she was on the ground, having skillfully made her way down the bricks that jutted out along the wall. This wasn't like her. What was wrong? She was looking up at something, and his eyes traced up to see what it was.. but it wasn't the moon. No, this was something surreal.
Was that.. a bird? But it was huge! It couldn't be real! It stood on a chimney, illuminated by the moon like some ethereal phantom. Whatever is was, it eyed Anya for a moment and then turned around and spread its wings. Edgar quickly looked down just in time to see her speed off after it.
He scrambled out the window. Climbing the cliffs back home wasn't a problem, so this wall was nothing to him. Of course he was still half asleep, so before he realized how stupidly he was behaving he tumbled half a story to the ground. It finally (and literally) hit him: he definitely wasn't dreaming.
And yet the last vestiges of his nightmare were still with him as he chased after Anya. He couldn't catch up to her, no matter how hard he ran. He could see the faint light around that great bird flickering out between the buildings as Anya chased it, and for some strange reason he felt like he had to catch her before the darkness swallowed them both up.
As he ran his feet grew steadier and his mind more lucid. He soon realized where they were going. Somehow, he understood.. and soon, he smelled all of the confirmation he needed. They had to have been running non-stop for a good while to have made it to the alchemist's quarter that quickly.
In fact, he was panting by the time they made it there. Anya seemed oddly fine, but he was still exhausted. He forced his tired legs to carry on, but he couldn't keep sight of her. If his mind wasn't so sharp with directions he might have been found days later, sleeping in the noxious air that hugged the ground here, never to wake up again.
But he knew their destination. His heart kept pumping until he finally made it to that rickety old building, and then he swore it stopped beating altogether. Under the pale moonlight, that twisted place looked more like the lair of some infernal witch than just a decrepit abandoned home that might collapse on top of him.
Had that wayward girl been entranced by some spirit of the night? He had to save her! It was just like her to follow the Devil into Hell.. but how could he possibly do it? No witch would fall for a frontal assault. The only way that kids escaped from witches in those old fairy tales was by tricking them.
Ah, of course! All of the buildings here were the same! Without stopping to think, Edgar had already sprinted to the other side of the building as stealthily as he could. Sure enough, there was a ratty old ladder climbing straight up to a second floor window. He didn't care about how tired he was anymore, he just shot up that ladder and fumbled for his trusty knife.
"Open.. damn you..!"
He ran the blade between the closed shutters until he found the latch, and then he pulled it hard. He could hear himself cursing under his breath; he wasn't about to let Anya die here. He'd brought her to this place, and already failed to help her once. Not again! He wasn't going to-
He wrenched his knife violently and the blade snapped off. He nearly lost his balance as the shutters flung open and his broken knife tumbled down to the ground. That was fine. He wasn't interested in looking back. He never lived in the past, and he wasn't about to let Anya become a miserable part of it.
He planted his feet on the floor inside and let his eyes adjust to the scene before him. There were books everywhere in this small room, and some of them looked like moonlight hadn't graced them for a very long time. As their ink glistened, he realized that his suspicions were correct: those weren't letters, they were runes.. these were spell books!
Witch! Witch! Edgar's fists balled up and he grit his teeth. Anya was definitely in trouble! But he had no knife anymore. He had to settle down, or he would only be joining her as the witch's supper. Supper? Of course.. that's what he was smelling, wasn't it? The stench from outside was mixing with the smell of cooking inside!
His heart pounded as he crept up to the door and slowly pulled the knob. He prayed that it wouldn't creak, and for once his prayers were answered. He breathed out and made his way down the perilously dark hallway until he came to its end. He was right, only a witch would have a twisted staircase like this!
It felt like he was descending into Hell itself as he walked down those winding steps, but Edgar conjured up whatever bravery he had to conquer those fears. This was nothing, he told himself, he had hunted wild animals! He could get the drop on this witch for sure! But he hadn’t made it much further down those eerie stairs before his blood ran cold.
There below him was Anya, staring down at a great bubbling cauldron. And right behind her was a tall dark figure, sneaking up like some corrupted nun ready to push her in. Come on, Anya! You have to turn around! His thoughts were scattered, but he really didn't have the time to do anything else.. she was about to become the witch's supper!
He flew down the rest of those stairs and caught a glimpse of both Anya and the witch looking up at him, startled. Good! He'd caught the fiend off guard! All he had to do now was-!
Snap? Why was he looking up at the ceiling? Oh god! He was falling! Falling!
With a thud, the terrible creeping darkness finally caught up to Edgar and engulfed him in its grim embrace.
~ ~ ~ ~
His mother was calling his name as she gently rocked him back and forth to rouse him. He smiled ever so slightly, despite knowing it would reveal that he was already awake. He loved playing with her like this, especially when she was rousing him from his midday nap for supper.
Ah, what a comforting smell.. they were having the same soup again tonight. He breathed in deeply, knowing that his father would secretly be quite disappointed, but would still smile warmly at his mother. He hated that soup, but they could hardly afford anything better. Edgar had to grow up fast, so he could help them out.
Wait.. why was mom shouting? And why was she pushing him around like this? Was that smoke he was smelling? No, it couldn't be; he knew what a fire smelled like. This wasn't the grain dust from the mill, either. Where was he? This smelled more like those old books in his grandmother's secret cellar..
And since when did his mother's voice sound like Anya's?
He jumped to his feet, or would have had his head not immediately fallen back to the ground with a thud. He groaned as it throbbed with pain. His eyes slowly cleared as the pieces fell into place: the smells, the broken staircase banister high above him, the wrinkled old face looking down on him..
"Hold still, young man! How many fingers do you see?"
It seemed that Ms. Diana wasn't a witch about to devour him after all. Indeed, he could see several heavily calloused, yet frail-looking fingers placed in front of his eyes. He vaguely recalled being asked this very same question once long ago, and wondered what the point was.
Ms. Diana nodded slightly and her talon-like fingers retreated. Did all grandmothers have hands like that, or was he overthinking things? He saw a beautiful feather in Diana's hair, so maybe that was why he was suddenly thinking about birds again? He recalled the majestic bird that had lead them here, and felt confused. He must have hit his head harder than he thought.
When he heard a loud sniffing sound, his attention faltered and he slowly turned his head to face Anya. She was crying for his sake? He wanted to see, but by the time his gaze fell upon her she had already rubbed her tears away and was looking down on him with a look of pure contempt.
"What were you thinking, you idiot!?"
Idiot? Ah, right, he was one, wasn't he? Just his luck that he ran to save her, only to find out that he'd been utterly wrong in the first place. What kind of knight did he think he was, anyway?
"I'll NEVER understand you boys! You're all so.. ARGH!"
She didn't need any saving from some half-deaf twit that couldn't even work in a mill. Who was he kidding? Every time he let his heart beat too strongly, it ended the same way. For all his family’s words of wisdom, Edgar still couldn't help but be such a.. boy.
"Hmm.. I also wonder. The look in your eyes as you ran down those stairs.."
Ms. Diana took it upon herself to chime in, looking down on Edgar like a mother hen upset with her chick. His face was already red, so all he could do was turn away.
"You clearly thought me a witch."
Anya positively exploded.
"Yes.. I have seen that look enough times to know."
"Edgar, how could you?!"
Anya leaned over him as she shouted, apparently dissatisfied with the thought that he wouldn't see how angry she was. Even his bad ear could hear her furious breathing. Diana continued.
"But.. what I don't understand is why?"
Edgar wanted to be anywhere else. He wanted to hide so badly that he would have pulled one of the bookshelves on top of himself to be buried under all of those books. How could he possibly tell them why he thought Diana was a witch? It was so-
"How childish! I thought you were better than that!"
Anya's words might as well be a sword delivering the killing blow.
"Indeed. 'Tis almost as though Anya never told you anything at all."
A sharp breath later, and Edgar's eyes were obscured by a lock of Anya's hair. That was quite a flinch.. Anya was definitely shocked. And why wouldn't she be? It almost seemed like Diana knew everything.
"I know your kind, boy.. there must be a reason you came, even knowing this was a private matter for her."
Ah, so that was why Anya had said nothing. Edgar brushed the hair from his eyes to get a look at her face, but he instantly regretted it. Her face was so white it looked like she might pass out. Her eyes flitted around in a panic until they finally focused on his. "No fair," he thought, "don't look at me like that!"
"Uh.. y-you see.. I.."
He stammered out a string of nervous non-answers as he desperately searched for an excuse.
"I wanted to make sure she'd make it safely, so I.. I secretly sneaked out of the window after her.."
He knew Diana was up there, somewhere above Anya. He could practically feel her unrelenting gaze. She was glaring at him with those scrupulous eyes of hers, almost like Anya wasn't even there.
"And.. I saw her come into this old house.. so I had to follow her somehow.."
He was really sweating now. How could he make up an ending that fit? There was no way Diana would buy this. Hell, she probably knew what he was thinking already! But Anya's lip was twitching, and her eyes kept staring at him like she was begging to be saved, so he had to go on.
"So I went up the ladder out back, and I sneaked in to keep an eye on her.."
Diana definitely wasn't going to let him off the hook for this one. But he had no choice now; he just had to get it over with and reveal how stupid he actually was. If he didn't, this interrogation would never end.
"But there were all these spell books inside.. and then when I came down the stairs, I saw her standing next to a bubbling cauldron.."
He swallowed hard, hoping his pride would go down his throat along with what little moisture remained. Oh God, this was mortifying..
"A-and I saw someone sneaking up behind her, like they were going to push her in.. so I-"
"You ran down the stairs, without checking if they were steady, and here we are."
Edgar closed his eyes. He didn't want to see them laughing at him; hearing them would be bad enough. And yet, he heard no such thing.
"I see. I didn't realize you cared so much about her."
His eyes shot open like he'd just been punched in the gut. Anya was peering down at him in utter shock as well. His lips were now quivering, opening and closing as his eyes nervously flitted around. But nothing came out of those lips, because he had no idea what was supposed to come out of them.
"And for young Anya to come rushing to your side like that.. perhaps there is some magic involved in this tale after all."
Anya flinched again, but this time a few talon-like fingers suddenly appeared on her shoulder, as if to steady her. Should he look up at her? Edgar felt like he was walking on a precipice and couldn't look down. His eyes remained locked on Diana's hand, not daring to turn any closer to Anya's face.
"Well then. I believe I can forgive him for his.. misinterpretation. What say you?"
It took a few more seconds for Anya to force out the tiniest of affirmations. She then pushed herself back up as if it was a great struggle.. as if the mere weight of Diana's hand was too great to defy. Edgar was left alone, and with absolutely no idea what he ought to do. Looking at Anya was out of the question, so all he could do was lie there and try not to think about what had just happened.
~ ~ ~ ~
This was unbearable. And not just because of the heat he felt as he loomed over the cauldron. He sighed and stirred the giant ladle, then lifted it up carefully and took another sip.. but it still wasn't right.
"You wouldn't happen to have any peppercorns?"
If the bay leaves and other spices weren't put in early enough then this kind of soup would taste wrong, especially if one didn't use a meat stock. However, Edgar wasn't about to let the whole cauldron go to waste.
"..Peppercorns? Hmm.. perhaps I know someone who might."
"Oh! And caraway seeds! We'll need more of those, too.."
Diana had of course been cooking up a pot of the same soup that Edgar had made earlier. Apparently she was more inspired than he expected, but this specific sauerkraut soup needed more attention than people often realized. Thankfully, she was also quite keen on getting the job done right.
"Hmm.. I'll go see if old Heinrich has any. I shall return in a heartbeat."
Heartbeat? Was she still teasing them? He strongly suspected she was; his own grandmother tended to be vague about such things, even if she was laughing on the inside. Edgar was so annoyed that he didn't even stop to think about the implications of Diana's statement until Anya chimed in.
"..There are others living here?"
Edgar's hand paused as he reached out for more onions.
"Why yes, child. There are many."
With that, Diana disappeared behind the foreboding front door of her home. With her gone things would probably be even less comfortable, so Edgar began to slowly and loudly chop onions. He was hoping beyond hope that he wouldn't have to face Anya just yet. It was a foolish hope.
"Wh-whoa! Where did you-"
"Tsk. You really are too jumpy."
She'd crept up on him yet again. This time, unlike his usual tiny reaction he nearly tossed the knife into the cauldron. After what they'd just been through, it was intimidating to be this close to her.
"If you creep up on me like that, of course I'll jump!"
He turned away and kept right on working with his back to her. And yet, it was Anya who pressed the conversation this time. That wasn't all: she pushed up right next to him, placing her head against his shoulder. He finally turned back, only to see her looking up at him curiously before he swiftly turned away again.
"So father was right.. it truly does work."
Edgar had never chopped onions so quickly in his life. He forced himself to slow down and decided to not bother responding.
"Edgar.. when you said you were useless earlier.. why did you say that?"
It was just his luck that Diana had plenty of barley rinsed and drained already. All he could do to keep busy was chop more onions, and Anya had clearly figured that out. There was simply no way he could ignore a girl leaning against him and talking directly into his ear. Especially not after his earlier revelation.
"Well.. because I am? I mean, I can't help my dad at the mill. I was only trouble for gran. Even you didn't need my help in the end. I'm completely useless."
Knowing her, a brutally honest response would be the quickest way to get her to back down. Given her reaction earlier that night, he suspected that she would probably get upset if he said something like that, then spew some insults and be done with it. And yet, she simply sighed.
"Idiot. Just like daddy."
He wanted to retort, but a part of him knew that she wasn't quite done yet; he remembered how his parents acted in these situations. Time passed as he continued mechanically chopping onions, and sure enough, when he finally couldn't take it any longer she finally continued.
"Hey.. do you really think I'd look prettier without my headscarf?"
There was probably no easier way to fluster a boy then to randomly change topics to something like that. Edgar stopped chopping entirely, but he refused to give her the satisfaction of being compared to her father again. He just knew that's what would happen if he got flustered, so he turned his head and looked deep into her eyes.
"Yes. I do."
Anya took one look at his grimly-determined facade and snorted.
"Ahaha!! That doesn't work at all when you're crying, Edgar!"
Argh! Of course, the onions! He quickly rubbed his eyes, only to regret it the very next instant. This girl was going to be the death of him, wasn't she? He blinked stupidly for a while as the fog lifted from his eyes, and there before him stood someone he had never seen before.
He already knew that Anya had a lot of hair from how tightly-bundled her scarf was.. but this was so impressive that he ended up gulping hard. Not a boy in his time could resist falling for a girl with such lovely auburn hair down past her waist. In fact, princes would be courting her in a couple of years, were it not for..
"Can I touch them?"
For the first time ever, he saw Anya fidgeting nervously like a normal girl her age. The next few moments would remain forever ingrained in his memory as he caressed those furry points on her head, only to have them twitch as though they were being tickled.
He couldn’t believe it.. were those wolf's ears? If someone were to ask him what the most incredible night of his life was, right now this would be it. He could only stare at Anya until her face finally turned red and her mouth became a thin line.
"Before you ask, they're a real pain! They hear too much unless I fold them down, and I have to hide them from everyone with these annoying scarves! It's all so.. so.."
Anya turned back and glared at him, her arms still folded across her chest.
"Well.. I guess that's as good a word as any."
He'd heard legends of children who were born like her. The Church considered them evil, so usually they were either locked up like dark family secrets or left out in the wild for nature to run its course. Her father must have truly loved her. He could see why she held him in such high esteem.
Edgar had always wondered what it would be like to meet someone like Anya, and now he was face to face with her. He knew it must have taken a lot for her to share her secret with anyone, and yet the words that came out of his mouth were not the ones he thought he'd ever say in this situation.
"I sure wish I had ears like those.."
He wasn't one to blurt things out carelessly like that so he nervously looked down to see her reaction, wondering if what he said was good or bad. However, Anya just put her hands behind her back, drew in closer and looked up at him with a sadistic grin on her face.
"Isn't there anything else you'd like?"
He wasn't quite so childish that he didn't know what that phrase really meant. He'd secretly seen his mother use a similar method to fluster his father, and he already knew far more than he felt he should about "what he'd learn when he was older." He wondered if Anya knew as well; given the look on her face she probably did.
"Ahaha!! That doesn't work at all when you're blushing, Anya!"
At first she pouted, but slowly turned it into a gentle smile. She then moved up next to him again and set her head on his shoulder. This time, Edgar wasn't nervous. In fact he really didn't mind this at all. At least not until-
Both he and Anya flinched in unison this time. Very sharply. Both of their heads then turned slowly toward that ominous front door.
"You two should not be so quick to leave your childhoods behind."
~ ~ ~ ~
"Well, wouldn't'cha know it, but the whole keg just shot up into the sky, right then and there!"
Heinrich's narration came complete with gesticulation and a grand "whoosh" noise. Edgar did his best to smile, even if it ended up looking awkward. He'd had far too much excitement for one night, and far too little sleep.
"Did'ja ever find that keg?"
"Haha! Nope, I sent it so far into the swamp that not even that old hound Batos could sniff it out!"
Alchemists sure were a strange lot. A quick round of feigned applause later and Heinrich was back in his chair, having bowed for both his performance and in order to pass the torch on to the next speaker. Unfortunately, the next speaker happened to be Edgar.
"So pray tell, lad, where'd you learn to cook krautnika so well?"
It seemed like the man that had kept things going so far was going to make Edgar continue the conversation. Diana happily stared at him and sipped her soup. Anya tiredly surveyed the table between polite sips of her own. He wasn't going to get any help from them.
"Well, my mom was from a poor fief where they didn't get to eat much except thin soup and crusty rye bread. I was always helping her cook, so I picked it up from her."
"Ah.. right, right.. I knew the stock was a bit thin, but I've never heard of anyone salvaging Ms. Diana's concoctions-"
The man ducked (albeit too late) as a spoon was sent flying his way. Edgar didn't even have to look to know who flung it at him, but if the man was going to be good-natured enough to take a proverbial arrow for him then Edgar had no choice but to offer an interesting story.
"My dad's a miller you see, so times are always tight. Mom was good at making soup, but he was secretly really sick of it so he'd always be bringing home.. interesting ingredients. One day, he finally hit on something special."
Edgar was surprised to see everyone hanging on his word. At first he thought they were just humoring him, but then he noticed that Anya was also peeking up as she sipped her soup. Apparently there was something about secret recipes that always perked everyone's ears up. He couldn't resist but prolong their misery a little.
"So after all those 'concoctions' that nearly drove my brother mad, we finally had a good one. I really miss helping dad out. I was always catching rabbits and finding herbs and such, but I never would have guessed in a hundred years what the real secret was."
"Oh, come lad, you're overdoing it now."
It seemed that even Diana's patience had its limits. Edgar courteously bowed his head and continued.
"Well, in the end it wasn't mushrooms, or garlic, or even some rare meat that did the trick. It was apple juice! Oh boy, if only I had some for tonight's batch.. you guys wouldn't believe how good it tastes."
The table didn't stir at all. Edgar wasn't worried though. It would take a few seconds for it to really sink in. Who would believe that adding something so sweet to something so sour would work? Everyone always tried adding spicy things, salty things, meaty things, and even flour to their sauerkraut soup.. but never fruit.
"Apples..? With sauerkraut soup? I see.."
"True, you do wash the sauerkraut so it's not too bitter.. that would help bring out the sweetness, wouldn't it?"
"Makes me wonder what kind of apple would work best."
Unfortunately, Edgar didn't know just how keenly interested alchemists were about such things. Rather than simply getting a delighted or surprised reaction, the table bustled for quite some time as the men exchanged all sorts of ideas. Even Diana was drawn into their discussion. It dragged on for so long Edgar began feeling uncomfortable.
"Lad, I don't know how, but you've actually managed to get me interested in soup."
"No kidding! I spend so much time melting stone and metal, but I never even considered experimenting with food."
Edgar didn't like being the center of attention, but what truly bothered him was the distant look on Anya's face. His heart sank as he realized why. She wasn't here talking to Diana about her father's book.. she was listening to strangers talk about soup! All because of him! Thankfully, Diana seemed to have noticed as well.
"It seems that will have to do, fellows.. I fear that not all of us are night owls."
"Ah.. of course you're right, Diana. We'd best be gracious that we had such a fine meal and take our leave, huh Heinrich?"
"Aye. I'm just thankful that my peppercorn's gone to good use for once. You're welcome back any time, my fine young friends!"
Edgar was surprised by how quickly the men changed their tunes. Clearly it was Diana who held all of the sway here, even if they were on friendly enough terms to toss spoons at each other. At least they weren't bad people; in fact, they had already cleared the table and rushed off with Diana in tow.
"Um.. sorry, Anya.."
She finally lifted her eyes and looked at Edgar straight on, but said nothing. She simply sighed and set her head down on the table like a grumpy child.
"Well, at least we'll soon hear what's written in that book of yours."
She didn't budge; it was like she was was trying to ignore him. He narrowed his eyes.
"Say.. where is your book, anyway?"
Her shoulders shrugged and she sighed even louder, but still didn't turn to face him. Now he was annoyed. He hated passive-aggressive behavior with a passion.
"Jeez.. will you forgive me if I go get it for you?"
She spoke those polite words with such spite that he couldn't take it anymore. Damn it, he knew he'd screwed up! There wasn't any need to rub his nose in it!
He rudely pushed his chair back, then stomped off to find her book. Two could play this game. He'd find her book and slam it on the table in front of her, so she knew how it felt. But.. where was it? It wasn't like her to leave it alone, yet it wasn't on her lap or under her chair.. where had she left it?
He fumbled around the room in search of it, and just as his frustration hit its peak he heard her softly giggling. Sure enough, she was watching him with a smile on her face. Even more strangely, her legs were playfully swinging under the table, like a little kid.
"You're.. sitting on it, aren't you?"
Thankfully, she didn't get any more of a chance to make a fool out of him. The men suddenly burst back into the room, shooed by Diana straight to the front door. All they could manage was the briefest of farewells before they were pushed outside and had the door shut behind them. Diana then breathed in deeply as she turned around.
"Well now. I daresay that we are fortunate to be rid of those two after a story like that."
Edgar purposely sat down next to Anya so he wouldn't have to look at her. And, just to make it extra clear, he sat on her left so he wouldn't have to hear her either. Of course she wasn't about to be bested, and Diana's words gave her just the ammunition she needed.
"Yes, it seems that boys just can't help themselves whenever stories are involved."
Diana smiled at her, then at Edgar. He was doing his best to pretend he'd heard nothing at all. He hoped that his silence would win the argument and make up his earlier mistake, but Diana seemed to pick up on just how he wanted to retort.
"As I recall, some girls also become quite boyish during a good story."
Edgar knew that Anya's eyes had narrowed, but he didn't dare confirm his suspicion. He was trying to find a topic to switch to before he burst out laughing. Unfortunately, there was only one topic on his mind that didn't involve that blasted soup.
"Ms. Diana? Should we really be eating and talking here?"
Diana raised an eyebrow in response. Worse, Edgar could suddenly feel Anya's eyes boring holes into his head. Why? Had he misspoken?
"..Why do you ask, child?"
"Well, um, isn't this Mr. Rubens' home?"
Diana smiled at his reply, but it wasn't a warm one.. only polite. Beads of sweat were forming on his brow. Anya couldn't contain her rage any longer.
It was now clear that he was (once again) ruining her chance to ask Diana about her father's book. But the sweat on his brow threatened to drip down if he so much as flinched, so his eyes remained fixed on Diana's face. She stared back at him incredulously for a moment before answering.
"Why, yes it is.. Dean Rubens, at your service. My friends call me Diana."
Edgar's mind suffered a bit of a collapse when he saw her bow her head. He couldn't believe he hadn't put two and two together himself. Mercifully, Diana shifted her attention to Anya so he could pull his foot out of his mouth.
"You truly have your mother's temper, young one."
In a strange twist of fate, Anya's anger seemed to melt away the moment she heard that.
"You.. knew my mother?"
Her response was so unexpected that Edgar couldn't help but look at her (though this time he kept his mouth firmly shut).
"Of course. Did your father not tell you about our meeting?"
Lucky for him, Diana asked precisely the same question he had stifled. After all, Anya was always going on about her father like he had taught her everything.
"No, he was always reluctant to talk about Kumerson. He only told me that a family friend named Dean Rubens lived there, one of the wise ones like my mother."
"And you believed him?"
Anya reacted with bewilderment.
"Yes? Why would he lie? Besides, I knew it was true the moment I saw you. Especially after seeing how much you unnerved Edgar. He may not seem like it, but he can be.. surprisingly astute."
Despite her grumbling tone, Edgar's eyes widened. He didn't know what "astute" meant, but it sounded suspiciously positive. Was she.. praising him? Without realizing it, he was staring at Anya like a dog that had heard a strange noise. When he finally saw her eyes momentarily flit in his direction, he lost it.
"More astute than your father, you mean? Well.. I daresay that man was astute in his own way. At least, enough to pass on and leave me with the task of telling you this story. Well played, Mr. merchant.."
In his stupor, Edgar didn't even hear what Diana said. It didn't matter in the slightest to him. Not only was Anya finally talking to Diana about her father, but she was praising him! The joy in his heart had spread onto his face, and from the faint blush on hers, Anya had surely noticed.
"Th-Then father kept that from me on purpose? But why?"
"Oh, I believe I can hazard a guess. But 'tis a long story, and an old one. My memory is quite fuzzy on the details, and I so despise fabrications.. even my own. Oh, if only I had a written account.."
As Anya's face grew grim, Edgar realized just why she had been sent his way. For such an eloquent girl she really didn't understand the nuances of conversation. It seemed to take all of her courage just to begin one, and any minor setback stole all the wind from her sails. If she truly couldn't tell what Diana was playing at, then even an idiot like him might have some use after all.
But Edgar knew how proud Anya was, so he couldn't just spell it out for her. This girl would rather beg his forgiveness than face Diana earlier, so he had to clue her in more subtly. Thankfully he was sitting right next to her, so all he had to do was slowly reach his hand out toward the "written account" Diana was referring to..
Anya promptly leaped off of her chair. Her reaction was so fantastic that it overshadowed all of his earlier fluster. Was she for real? He simply couldn't believe this was the same girl that had boldly nuzzled up next to him with her head on his shoulder.
For the second time that evening, two red faces slowly turned toward Diana in unison. Needless to say, Anya's was an even deeper shade when she finally realized what Edgar's hand was actually doing.
~ ~ ~ ~
Large cauldrons were such a pain to wash. It was tiresome enough scrubbing them without having to roll them around all the while. Edgar used to think he was blessed to have parents who let him do adult tasks like this, but now that he was older all that gentle "that's our big, strong boy!" encouragement felt more like a trick than a privilege.
This was just the kind of tedious work that made one's mind drift off to other topics, which was the real reason Edgar was upset. After her earlier misunderstanding, Anya had moved to sit across the table from him, next to Diana. That way she could even use the excuse that she just wanted to remain as close to her precious book as possible, the clever girl.
Diana remained her usual cryptic self, simply leafing through the book instead of reading it out loud. The only noises she made were hums and meaningless utterances like "I see." At first Edgar was impressed by how quickly her calloused fingers turned those pages, but soon he began to doubt that she was actually reading them.
Worse, every time he stole a glance at Anya, she had pretended to ignore him. He couldn't tell what her problem was anymore. He'd apologized for his mistake, but she hadn't returned the favor. It hurt too much to assume that she didn't even trust him that much, so he guessed it had to be something else.. but what?
His hands kept scrubbing the cauldron more and more fiercely until water was splashing everywhere. And yet, what made him stop all of a sudden wasn't a concern that the floor was getting wet. It was something else entirely, something he couldn't believe he had forgotten.. he would soon have to return home.
It took his hands a while to begin moving again, and this time they splashed around even more furiously. Why didn't he want to think about this? Why was it bothering him so much? After all, his father had simply told him to help Anya find out what was written in her father's book. That was his quest, and it was about to be fulfilled.
He should feel proud! He was only fourteen, and yet he'd taken a stranger to a distant city all on his own. He'd kept that dour girl company knowing full-well that this was just an excuse to get out of home for a while. There was nothing to regret; he'd worked his hardest and found "Mr." Rubens, even almost hurting himself in the process.
And yet here he was, unable to reconcile his feelings. Why was he even still here, rolling someone else's cauldron over so it could dry? After all, this was a private affair. Shouldn't he go back to the orphanage? Anya didn't want him next to her; she'd made that abundantly clear. So why did he want to be next to her? Why was he being such a kid?
Before he knew it, he was already walking back to the table, no longer even caring if his frustrations were written on his face. This was just about him getting his dues; he wanted to know what was written in that book too. Didn't he deserve at least that much? To hell with "privacy.” To hell with the seating arrangement. He wasn't going to back down now.
"Ah, you've finished, have you lad? Good, so have I. Shall we begin?"
Diana had to be fooling around. Maybe she just wanted him to clean the cauldron first? Well, even if that was the case, it was worth it to see the look on Anya's face. It seemed like she was at her wit's end; like any more waiting would crush her entirely. Edgar took his time to sit down, then solemnly nodded.
"Then let me tell you the story of a certain wolf and her sheepish companion."
What? Edgar couldn't believe his ears. This fable again? Diana seemed to be hoping for his reaction (and Anya's as well).
"But first I should tell you the part that your father never knew."
Diana eyed Anya closely, who looked every bit like a confused puppy. Edgar, too, must have had a similar look, judging from the way Diana was smiling.
"Long, long ago, there was a fierce pack of wolves. Not ordinary wolves, of course, but proud and noble ones who fancied themselves the benefactors of their forest home. They named it Yoitsu and kept it a beautiful place for many years, becoming revered by all who knew them."
There was something about the way Diana told stories that sucked a person into them. Although Edgar wondered where she was going with her tale, he could at least tell that it wasn't going to be a children's story this time.
"One day that pack had a young pup.. their first in a long time. She had a striking auburn tail that was so lovely it became her name: Holohka, or 'little ear of wheat.'"
Edgar was watching Anya out of the corner of his eye. There was something odd about the serious, resolved look on her face. It was like she'd lived her entire life to hear Diana tell this story.
"Well, like all ears of wheat, she wasn't little for long. She learned everything they could teach her, but her appetite was insatiable. Before long, the old forest of Yoitsu just wasn't big enough for Holoh. She soon bid farewell to her pack, and left to start her own.. as is the custom among her kind."
Diana was soon recalling bits and pieces as she spoke, as though this wasn't a story she had memorized entirely. It almost felt like she was sifting through the sands of time to unearth an ancient forgotten relic. Edgar's interest climbed as she described the trek of that great wolf, who came to be known as "Holoh of the Wheaten Tail."
"Finally, after all of her exciting indulgences, Holoh had found a new place to call home. The sleepy little village of Pasloe needed her far more than Yoitsu ever had. Of course, that was the only way such a proud creature could justify the true reason."
This was the first time Edgar had heard this part of the story. It was somehow refreshing to hear about the great wolf as more of a playful creature trapped by circumstance than a domineering one.
"Wolves, you see, do not understand love the same way people do. To them, it is a thing of loyalty to family, not of romantic longing. But, since she had arrived in Pasloe, her Wheaten Tail was wagging peculiarly and she did not know why. Why was she drawn to this strange fool of a human? What made her want to gobble him up?"
At this point, Anya finally couldn't contain herself.
"That was my father?"
Diana turned to face her, but her reply wasn't what she expected.
A troubled look then crossed Anya's face, and it remained there for quite some time as Diana continued.
"She called herself the Wisewolf, but wisdom is something that is earned, not learned. Many years passed before Holoh realized the cruelty of life. The youth she had fallen for was suddenly a youth no longer. In her devotion she had fulfilled her promise to him, but all that remained were a few scattered memories of what could have been."
Anya's expression was slowly becoming more and more distraught as the story went on. Hearing Diana mimic the wolf's howl of mourning, however, reminded him of Anya’s ears. So that great wolf in the children's fable was really her mother.. but then wouldn't that mean the sheep was actually her father?
"Time marched on, and Holo watched over Pasloe as she had promised, but entire lifetimes passed by as she mourned. When she finally raised her head and looked around, she found that she had been forgotten. She had become nothing more than 'Holo' - a legend people joked about and held insincere festivals for."
Anya nodded for Diana to continue, presumably less concerned about her mother's plight than the fact that she had fallen for someone other than her father. Edgar knew the kinds of questions she was swallowing, but he felt it was no longer his place to ask them.
"In the end, there came a day when Pasloe no longer needed her at all. Now without purpose, all she could do was return to her old home. But which way was it? She couldn't remember anymore. She was all alone, and stuck in the last place she wished to be, until one day-"
"My father arrived?"
Anya's patience was obviously a facade; Edgar could practically see her eyes smouldering. She was quite hung up about this.
"Indeed. One day, another foolish youth appeared in Pasloe, with the same broad heart, same foolish smile, and even the same inclination to speak with his horse.. and this time, there was something that drew her even closer."
Anya remained silent for some time, trying to deduce what it might be that her mother had fallen for. Diana, of course, played along and waited patiently for her guess.
Edgar finally learned what Diana's unbridled laughter sounded like. As she fought back tears, an awkward smile formed on Edgar's face as well. Anya just seemed so serious about her reply.. what kind of impression had her father left of her mother?
"His selflessness! He was the only wheat merchant who even bothered to go to Pasloe anymore, so she quickly came to find him intriguing. She could sense he had skill enough as a merchant, and that it was his heart that was holding him back. He just couldn't be as selfish as the other merchants Holo had seen over the years."
Anya's eyes widened. Slowly, her head began to nod. Apparently, she agreed with this assessment.
"Now that I think of it, dad was a bit of a soft touch. I mean, business has always been good, but I've often felt it could be even better."
Diana simply smiled, then finally began relating the story written in Anya's book. It spoke of how Anya's father and mother first met, and Edgar quickly found himself intrigued by the odd struggle they were swept into. By the time they were in the catacombs under Pazzio, he wanted to see them for himself. But what came next truly shocked him.
"She tore her sleeve in desperation. Soon his arm was bandaged by his once-expensive clothes, but still his eyes refused to open. 'Lawrence!' she shouted, 'Lawrence!'-"
Edgar suddenly jumped up when he heard that name. He couldn't help it; that was the first time in the entire story that Anya's father had been mentioned by name. Could it be?
"Kraft Lawrence? That wheat merchant?"
Diana looked up at him, evidently stunned. Anya too, but she quickly narrowed her eyes.
"Yes, that's my father's name.. why?"
This was too much! Edgar was already wondering where he'd heard the strangely-pronounced name "Holoh" before, and now he could finally put two and two together. Everything he knew about his home village came rushing back into his mind.
"No way! That guy saved my village! He's the one who taught us how-"
He suddenly realized how silly he was being, and trailed off.
Unfortunately for him, Diana wanted to hear more. Edgar would have to complete his thought now; Anya's eyes were narrowing even further.
"Um.. he taught us how to make cookies. S-sorry! I didn't mean to-"
Anya's jaw literally dropped as she stared at him.
"Like the ones we ate earlier?! I knew they tasted familiar!"
She was staring right into Edgar's eyes. He just stared right back, dumbfounded. After a few moments, she finally seemed to realize how she’d reacted and sat back down, embarrassed.
"Y-yeah.. my gran always liked Tereo's original honey cookies best.. I guess they must have been his recipe.."
Diana took the opportunity to chime in.
"Your grandmother.. was she by perchance named Elsa?"
Edgar was completely overwhelmed now. He nodded in amazement. Maybe the world truly was a smaller place than it seemed.
"Yes.. she was.."
Diana's hand shot under her chin, and she squinted at Edgar the same way she had when they first saw one another at the orphanage. He felt just as unnerved now as he did then, but this time the sensation was fleeting.
"Ah, now I know what is so familiar about you.. you look just like your grandfather Evan around that age."
"Wait.. you knew my grandpa when he was my age? Just how old are-"
He instantly bit his tongue to shut himself up, but of course the damage was already done. Even Anya's wide eyes were now narrowing again, and her crumpled lips showed just how close she was to snapping at him.
"Um, never mind."
He sat back down slowly, like he was backing away from an angry dog, and made a mental note: Anya was right, he really was too jumpy.
~ ~ ~ ~
Edgar was doing his best to keep calm and collected as Diana spoke, but not Anya. The moment her father's first adventure with her mother came to an end, Diana was inundated with questions, most of which she couldn't possibly answer.
"Was mom really a giant wolf? Why didn't she transform into a giant wolf sooner? How could dad even forget she was a giant wolf?"
However, Diana gently brushed Anya's questions off like she was just another child listening to a fable.
"Now now, let's just see what the future held in store for them, shall we?"
Anya was clearly annoyed, but she backed down. Perhaps she realized how unreasonable her questions were, or maybe she just couldn't contain her interest any longer. One thing was certain, however: Edgar was no longer a factor. Anya hadn't so much as glanced in his direction since her earlier outburst.
He was good at listening, so he could keep up with what Diana said easily enough, but the second story was the one he'd always liked least in the children's version. It was the one where the sheep had to be saved by the very wolf who caused the problem and still somehow got to be the hero. This version was just as hard to take seriously.
"'Twas no specter or mercenary which stood before them, but a shepherd! A shepherd, aye, and yet under the hood was no disconcerting sorcerer's countenance, but a fetching maiden with eyes pure! The wolf's greatest enemy was before her!"
At least all of that silly talk of "the wolf's greatest enemy" now made more sense to Edgar. Knowing it was a shepherdess, not a shepherd, made all the difference in the world. Still, he had to admit that it was far more harrowing to think of the sheep's fate in this version, had the wolf not rescued him. That, and the ending made him chuckle.
"'Holo.. yes, I do believe that name springs best to mind' said he, to which the stubborn girl next to him backed off meekly, saying naught but a well-earned 'fool'."
The end of this story was met with precisely the same look on Anya's face. It was obvious that she had just as many questions as the last time. Indeed, Diana seemed to be eagerly and patiently waiting for a dam to burst. It was a bit surprising, then, that only one question finally escaped Anya's lips.
"I'm completely lost. It's like they don't even know they're in love?"
"Young lady, love is like a village with no walls.. often you may already be in love without realizing it."
Anya didn't accept that answer for a second.
"But the story seems so undecided.. after their first adventure it was clear they were in love, so why is it so vague now?"
It was a point that Edgar hadn't even considered.
"Ah, then the next story should bring the answers that you seek. However, I fear I shall have to deviate a little from what's written this time."
"The reality differs in some respects.. this book was written from your father's selfless perspective, after all."
Anya didn't seem to understand what Diana was working toward, but Diana reassured her that it would all make sense. Indeed, as she read the next story it became clear why Diana would have more insight to share.. she was a central character! In fact Edgar's face went red when he realized he'd made the same mistake that the "sheep" had.
"'Dean Rubens at your service,' spoke the woman with raven-black hair who stood before him, 'yet you may call me Diana.'"
Of course, this was where Anya would surely look over at Edgar, so he quickly put his head down. He didn't really want to hear this story. It sounded all too familiar to him, and he already knew where it was going from their earlier play-acting that night. The wolf was going to get angry at the sheep for letting her fall off his back, and he had to chase after her to prove his loyalty.
And yet, this version of the story was the furthest thing from Edgar's expectations. In fact, before he knew it his head was raised again, and he was gauging Anya's reactions as her fury rose and rose. Her eyes were practically ablaze by the the time the shoe dropped and her mother exploded at her father.
"What?! Why did father walk away? And why did mother LET him walk away?!"
Edgar was glad her ire wasn't directed at him for once. Diana waved her off, however. With a "hmph!" Anya sat back down and listened. Her fingers kept clawing into the edge of the table as the story become more and more ridiculous. As for Edgar, he'd never heard anything so embarrassing in his life. He didn't know whether to feel sorrier for the sheep or the wolf.
"WHY would she leave the marriage certificate!! Does she know nothing about men?!"
Edgar looked up at Anya incredulously, unsure whether she was being serious. Did she really think she knew any better?
"Child, you must remember that your mother was not in her right mind.. she had just discovered that her home was long destroyed, and her trust in the person she cared for had just been shattered."
"B-but he threw his life away for her! Twice! Why does she never chase after him!?"
Edgar found himself nodding. Anya had finally hit the nail on the head. This was a question he wanted answered too, ever since he was a child listening to his mother and father tell their version of this story.
"Ah, for that, I shall have to share another part of the tale your father never knew."
Given that Anya was practically grinding her teeth at this point, it was obvious that Diana had been intentionally toying with her for effect. Diana truly had a knack for getting her audience involved.
"A certain raven-haired woman sat up from her reading. Her front door had suddenly been flung open, and the fell creature that had opened it was staring at her with blood-red eyes. In the guise of a human she was hardly intimidating, but her wrath more than made up for her diminutive stature."
Now this was more like it. Edgar was already smiling, eager to learn what had happened when the lead character met the narrator.
"It was as though fire had met ice. The wolf stared down at the bird, who simply rose up to greet her. It was the bird, after all, who held all of the cards in this little game."
Edgar was so swept away by Diana's storytelling that he didn't even stop to piece together what was happening. It was too exciting to hear that the great wolf from his childhood stories had actually met her match; the old fable didn't even mention this showdown, let alone count it as a battle of wills.
"'You shall write me a letter! One that I might pass along to another!' commanded the wolf, her upper lip twisting into a snarl to reveal a fang. 'Oh? And might that other be someone I know? Mayhap a certain traveling merchant?'"
The ensuing verbal dispute was full of wonderful phrasing that Diana had quite clearly embellished with flourishes of her own.
"'I have no time to humor you, bird! Not all of us are content to wither away reading books!' spat the wolf, despite her voice ringing more shrill than she realized. The bird knew she had the advantage."
It was a joy to learn that the wolf was so distraught that she couldn't even face the sheep anymore. Every step she had taken brought her closer to learning the truth about the sheep's confusing actions, and yet each step was the very cause of those actions. She had herself enacted a dispute that would otherwise have never existed.
"'And that is my situation! Are you satisfied now? There is another who will be seeking me, so I have no further time to indulge your lust for prying into my affairs! Write that letter now, so that I may end this foolishness without wounding that fool's masculine pride!'"
Diana was practically re-enacting their conversation now; it almost felt like the two characters from the story were actually in the room.
"'Ah, I see.. you are worried about wounding his pride? Well, then, who am I to refuse such a request? Normally, I would reject such a bold defamation of the truth, but I shan't get in the way of a wolf and her prey..'"
Diana had Edgar and Anya hanging on her word so intently that even the slightest pause was torturous.
"'..but lo, you are the one with the gifted ears.. be those footsteps I hear?'"
It seemed that Diana was enjoying the story as much as they were. The old woman mimicked the look on Holo's face when she realized who was walking up to the door, then rose to her feet and climbed the spiral staircase that Edgar had fallen from. She peeked back at the children to show them exactly where the Wisewolf had perched to elude her "prey".
"Of course, it goes without saying that the wolf overheard even the most hushed of words that 'proud' young merchant uttered."
Said merchant had stumbled his way into a clever solution for the non-problem he was convinced existed. As he begged Diana for the means to defeat the prince that threatened to steal his companion away, Edgar could barely contain his chuckles. The wolf was right there! She could end it all with but a word! It was clear whose pride was actually at stake.
"'I am trying to recover a piece of cargo that has fallen from my wagon! Having re-evaluated its value, destination and transport, I now realize that it is a piece I simply cannot afford to lose!'"
Diana's impersonation of Lawrence was so amusing that Edgar expected Anya to frown; this was her father being presented in such an ill light, after all. And yet she didn't seem to be bothered. Was this how the man who saved his village had behaved? Edgar blinked for a moment in disbelief, but when he looked back up at the broken banister of Diana's staircase, he realized he truly had no right to judge.
He quickly turned his attention back to Diana's narration. It was quite an exhilarating tale, despite its ridiculous nature. That mighty wolf had been brought down so low that she had been tricked by a "mere" bird, one who could practically read minds. Wait.. a bird? If Anya had those ears, then could it be that the bird he'd seen earlier that evening was-?
Edgar jumped in his chair, and saw both Diana and Anya looking at him. For a moment, he was so scared he forgot to breathe; what was going on? Of course, it was only Diana's impression of Holo's reaction to her "game," but it sure felt like he was being singled out.
"'See here! I have no mind to play your games!' snarled the wolf, practically growling under her breath. But the merchant's disposition was plain as the nose on his face, and the bird felt it was time for the wolf to learn a valuable lesson."
Holo's wrath was allegedly so great that she would have ripped Diana's throat out right then and there, had she not exploited Holo's weakness. Lawrence had just rushed outside to win her heart back, despite it never having left his side. Poor Holo was caught at the mercy of the very person she had tried to extort.
It had been a long time since Edgar was so swept up by a story. It was much more entertaining than the version he had heard earlier that night in the orphanage. He even wanted to shout at Lawrence to not give Holo up, then laughed out loud when a boy saved their relationship with a courageous shout of "I fell in love with Miss Holo the moment I first saw her!"
Still, after all that intensity even Diana had to take a break. Which was all well and good, because Anya looked like she was about to cry. Of course, that stood to reason: she had just been listening to how close her mother had come to losing her father, and if that had come to pass she would never have existed.
"But why? Why did father take all of the blame?"
That was the only question that came out of her mouth after blubbering for a few moments. Clearly, she still had more questions than answers, but it seemed the girl was finally too overwhelmed to go on hearing about her father's meekness around her mother.
"Child, like all good men, your father had a strange way of making it impossible to know whether it was foolishness or genius that hid behind his eyes. Were it not for his selflessness, your mother would have left him before the story even began."
"B-but then why did he stay with her, if all he ever got was grief?"
Edgar regarded Anya with a skeptical eye. Surely she couldn't have missed the not-so-secret reason?
"Anya.. a story is only a story; what truly happens between the lines only the authors know for sure. But I can tell you this much: it is obvious that your father made certain.. omissions for the sake of your mother's pride. Believe me, she must have given him more than grief."
Anya seemed completely oblivious to what Diana was implying, leaving Edgar at a loss. He dreaded the thought of being stuck having to explain THAT to her. Besides, he just knew Diana would make him do it, so he finally broke his long silence in an attempt to change topics.
"Uh.. maybe Anya would feel better about one of the later stories?"
"Why yes! Skipping ahead may be a good idea. However, I believe I need a rest first. Would you mind fetching some honey from old Heinrich for me? I would very much enjoy sampling one of those cookies everyone so regards."
Edgar felt a chill run up his spine, but he kept a straight face.
"Um.. sure, I suppose I could make some.."
"Then go, both of you. Let me read in peace and quiet for a while."
Both of them, together? Damn! Diana really could read minds!
~ ~ ~ ~
When Edgar and Anya set foot outside, they found themselves in a new world. It seemed that the alchemist's quarter sprang to life at night. It was positively bustling now, with a person on almost every street performing some form of alchemy. Which was all well and good, given how sullen Anya was. Edgar hoped it would provide a distraction, so he decided to take the long way to Heinrich's home.
At times it felt like they were walking through a town full of fairy tale characters. Some were like witches with bubbling cauldrons, others were like wizards creating all sorts of sparks and flashes. And yet, Edgar couldn't enjoy any of it while Anya was so dejected. Especially when he knew their time together was coming to an end.
"Are you.. upset?"
Her sudden question felt like it came out of nowhere. He was stunned.. wasn't she the one who was angry at him?
"No, why would I be?"
"You've.. just been so quiet. I thought I upset you."
So when he talked, she wanted him to shut up, but when he didn't talk, she thought he was angry? What a strange girl.
"Nope. In fact I thought you were mad at me."
He sighed a long-suffering sigh, but it wasn't directed at her. Sometimes it felt like the two of them lived in different worlds.
"I was keeping you from hearing what's written in that book of yours, wasn't I?"
Anya shook her head, but didn't give any further reply. He wasn't sure what that meant, but he figured it was a sign that she'd at least gotten over that issue. He turned his eyes back to the road ahead, suspecting that there wasn't anything more to say. He really should have known better.
"You really aren't upset?"
He shot her a tired stare.
"Jeez.. if you keep asking me that, I will be."
Her lip twisted into a strange wince, like she wasn't sure if he was telling the truth. But he wasn't upset with her at all. In fact, he hadn't mentioned the real reason at all, thinking it would be unfair for him to bother her with it now.
"What makes you so sure that I'm upset?"
She turned and looked away this time, leaving him utterly mystified. He put his hands in his pockets, and decided to let her collect her thoughts. They walked side by side for a while, until he finally couldn't take it anymore. Sure enough-
"After you left to wash the cauldron.."
Her timing was as impeccable as always, but her response was beyond his expectation. What did this have to do with him washing the cauldron?
"..Ms. Diana kept reading and reading and reading, until I finally couldn't take it anymore. So I thought to myself, 'why not go help Edgar out?'"
Uh oh. He didn't like where this was going.
"But I just couldn't bring myself to join you, because, well.."
She finally turned back, and looked him straight in the eye.
"You mumble a lot when you think you're alone."
Of course.. her ears! She must have been listening in! But what had he been mumbling? From the look in her eyes, he wasn't sure if it was good or bad, so he quickly searched his memories. He remembered washing the cauldron, and being frustrated.. yes, even upset. It was because..
He must have been mumbling about having to go home. Damn.. was that why she was so depressed?
Great. Now he felt even worse. Not only was she more confused by her parent's relationship than ever, but she was also worrying about him the whole time? He didn't know what to say. Life was just tough sometimes, and neither he nor she could do anything about it. Still, looking at her now all he could see the same desperate girl that had come to his family for help.
She had arrived in Tereo looking like she was at her wit's end, especially when it turned out that Edgar’s grandmother had already died. His father had taken one look at her state and refused to let her go on by herself. But he wasn't able to go to Kumerson with her, and Edgar's brother was also needed at the mill. The only one left to go with her was Edgar.
Besides, his brother didn't know the first thing about travel, and his father was far too antisocial. Even if they didn't bumble their way down the wrong path, could they have shared this adventure with her? Edgar couldn't picture it. Besides, she came to them, so it was family business. Edgar really was the only one who could take her to Kumerson.
And now, their task was nearly over. At best he could only take her back to Tereo. There was no way his dad would let him travel to those heathen lands of the north. Neither of them wanted to part, but no matter how hard he stared into her eyes, or she into his, they had no way out of this.
He should be happy that she wanted to stay with him, but instead he felt miserable. And so, he did all he could do: smile and keep walking with her, doing his best to remain by her side as long as possible. Sadly, he was out of time to come up with ideas for extending their time together; the moment they turned the next corner, they would be on Heinrich's block.
Edgar would have to shelve his thoughts and focus on the task at hand: making the most delicious cookies he could. His grandmother had always told him that good food made good memories, and that bit of wisdom had never failed him before. He would make sure Anya remembered him fondly. He took a deep breath to steady his nerves before knocking on Heinrich's door.
"Let me guess.. Diana sent you two here to fetch something?"
Heinrich quickly divined their purpose and courteously showed them inside. The moment Edgar mentioned honey, he vanished into a back room in search of it. While he was gone, Edgar and Anya had time to look around his strange home. It was true: even the most similar-looking buildings could differ greatly on the inside.
Foodstuffs were strung up everywhere to dry, and endless rows of jars and bottles sat on shelves lining the walls. The overall effect was a bit creepy, but in just the way that a child would enjoy. A couple of skulls wouldn't feel out of place here, and if a few frogs and snakes were slinking around they would only add to the charm.
Edgar stood in the middle of the room soaking in the atmosphere. In the meantime, Anya stalked its perimeter to get a closer look at everything she could. It was almost like being in the middle of a fairy tail. All the while, they heard the sounds of Heinrich shuffling around, throwing out the odd comment as if he was really just excited to have visitors.
"Have you kids ever been to an apothecary before? Better be careful! Some of that stuff's poisonous!"
From his tone he was obviously joking, but even so Anya stopped dead in her tracks. She had been eying a curious-looking jar of murky liquid, which seemed to have something floating inside of it. With her finger suspended in midair like that, Edgar just couldn't help himself. He verrry slowly crept up behind her as her finger continued moving, and just as she was about to gingerly tap the jar-
Anya pounced several feet straight into the air, and when she landed the sound of many clattering jars was heard. But Edgar wasn't rolling on the floor with laughter. Had he just seen.. what he thought he had? Her hands quickly pressed down on the back of her skirt, and she turned around with an expression so sour it could have curdled milk.
Edgar's most amazing night had just become even more amazing. He stood there, jaw dropped, as she stared back at him red-faced. Her expression slowly twisted into one of pure loathing and she stormed out the door. But still he stood there, completely awestruck, until Heinrich popped back into the room.
"What's going on out here?"
Heinrich's eyes followed Edgar's, but the door had already shut and Anya was gone. Edgar finally snapped out it and briefly apologized before snatching the honey from Heinrich and running after her. The jovial apothecary was left scratching his head in bemusement as he watched the boy leave.
~ ~ ~ ~
Edgar instinctively chased after Anya, but his mind was elsewhere. He just couldn't believe it.. a real tail! Incredible! Sure, it wasn't a magnificent one like her mother's, but it moved and everything! How had she kept it hidden from him all this time?
For the second time that night, he turned a corner only to run smack into her. Like the last time, she was waiting to give him an earful of her thoughts.
"If you tell ANYONE about this.. so much as a peep-!"
This time, however, she didn't get a chance to finish talking. Edgar was far too excited. In spite of the wrathful expression on her face, he had even grabbed her shoulders.
"You're amazing, Anya! You're like a fairy tale hero come to life!"
Her mouth quickly shut, but her face crumpled up like she didn't know what expression to wear. She quickly tore herself free of his grip and stomped off with a loud "hmph," but Edgar didn't let her leave his sights this time.
He kept up while staring at her, in the hopes of seeing her tail swishing around under her skirt. Really.. how did she keep it hidden? Was it just not that big? Maybe.. she could control its size?
"Can you transform as well?"
With that, Anya finally stopped and he felt a sense of dread. She didn't turn around to face him, but her shoulders were shaking and she seemed to be staring at the ground. For once, he'd been so caught up in wonder that he hadn't considered her feelings.
As he reached out to touch her, she spun around. She was on the verge of tears, but true to her lineage she wasn't going to shed them without a fight.
"No! I can't! I'm just a normal girl, not some monster!! Why do I have to have these.. these.. things!?"
In a flash, she had torn off her headscarf and begun clawing at her ears, like they were weeds she needed to pluck out.
He quickly grabbed her hands, fearful that she would hurt herself. She struggled violently to break free, so he quickly did what sprang to mind: he hugged her. He hugged her so tightly that she couldn't even wrench herself free, and then clung onto her until she finally gave up and let her tears fall.
It was a surreal moment for Edgar. He'd comforted people before, but never hugged them. He'd heard them cry, but was never quite moved like this. There was a lump in his throat and he could feel her flinch each time she sobbed. There had to be something he could say to comfort her.. but unfortunately, he was no poet.
"I think they're lovely! I really do!"
Agh.. that was terrible! He instantly went red in the face and hugged her even more tightly, hoping she wouldn't notice.
"I-I mean, who cares what others think! Wh-what do they know anyway?!"
Why did he have to stammer like this when he was nervous?
"I know I'm useless, but you.. you're special!"
She really was special to him, wasn't she? She was the only one he'd ever wanted to comfort, the only one he'd ever chased.. even after promising himself that he'd never end up like this. She could cry in his arms all night if she had to. He didn't mind, as long as it was her.
He'd even let her get away with such a meek challenge, if that was what it took to cheer her up.
"Well.. you're resourceful. You made it all the way to Tereo on your own."
This was called "fishing for compliments," wasn't it? He'd heard of this from his father. He knew what he had to say.
"And.. you're REALLY pretty.. I don't think I've ever seen anyone so beautiful."
His face was beet red, but apparently that still wasn't good enough. Was his dad wrong, or did Anya just want to hear more compliments?
"You're smart, too.. I mean, you know all about those 'current sea exchanges,' and if you hadn't told me, I'd probably go my whole life without knowing I was.. 'astube..'"
Anya snorted, then broke out into a fit of giggles. Was this how it was supposed to go? Wasn't it the girl who was supposed to blush in this situation? He had to be doing it wrong. Sure enough, she finally pushed him away to reveal a tear-worn face, but it had an awkward smirk on it.
"Jeez.. it's 'CURRENCY exchange.' You know what? I take it back: you're not astute at all. You really are just a dummy."
He wasn't sure how to react to that. He still didn't know what astute meant, but it kind of hurt to know that she was revoking her earlier praise. He grimaced, studied her face for a change in expression, then shrugged his shoulders when it didn't happen.
"Well, whatever," he thought, "At least I'm not a sheep." She could think whatever she wanted to. He had cookies to bake. He pushed his weight forward to walk, but then tensed up when she latched onto his arm like a wife walking home with her husband.
"But you know.. I think that's what I like about you."
His confused heart was no longer able to settle down. He would never forget how tough it was to walk straight with her leaning into his right side like that.
~ ~ ~ ~
If there was one thing that Edgar took solace in while baking, it was how brutal the process was. Beating the hell out of dough, stirring everything into an indistinct blob, then setting flames on it was all quite cathartic. Especially now that he had Anya buzzing around him like a fly.
Diana was gone when they returned. Edgar was concerned that Anya would be upset, but the moment she confirmed that her book was safe, she dragged him to the table and made him prepare the dough. He soon realized why; the look on her face was the same happy one she wore when she discussed her father.
From the look in her eyes she had no clue what the recipe actually was, even if she'd always helped her father make them. And so, she insisted upon watching him. It was deviously simple, but terribly easy to mess up. It all came down to a delicate balancing act, one that Edgar had begun learning when he was a small child. It was Tereo's specialty, after all.
However, even he eventually smiled when he saw a blob of dough on Anya's nose. She wasn't much use when it came to mixing or kneading the dough, but she truly had a knack for shaping the cookies. His smile turned into an ear-to-ear grin when he realized which shapes she was trying to make.
He was soon helping her figure out how to create those shapes. He wondered if it was just another of her whims, or if she was doing this in order to thank Diana. At any rate, it was invigorating to actually have fun baking cookies again. It had almost become a chore to him ever since his mother died.
Not long after that, they were carrying a tray out to the communal oven. Edgar was surprised to see it properly fired despite being unattended. Perhaps the alchemists simply took turns to watch over it, and he and Anya were fortunate to come here at the right time? There wasn't even any bread being baked inside.. quite unusual.
Anya marveled at the flames that licked above Edgar's head as he pushed the shovel-like peel into the oven. He was used to it, but she steered clear. She was probably familiar with regular hearths, but bakers had to live by these flames and it was Edgar's fate to become a baker in Tereo. He'd sooner die than become a cobbler.
"It's not as scary as a mill."
Anya seemed to feel more comfortable when someone was talking, so since they had time to kill he told her all about the more mundane aspects of running a mill. Locking and unlocking the waterwheel so the millstones wouldn't grind away for nothing, carefully sweeping and measuring the ground flour, customer's endless complaints.. every dull detail.
It wasn't until Anya was truly bored that he finally smiled and told her the real terrors of a mill. For instance, replacing worn-out millstones could be a life-ending proposition. They were heavy and could easily crush a man. In Tereo alone, several graves were marked with broken pieces of millstones. Edgar intentionally steered clear of the more gruesome details, but Anya's face was still grim.
"I guess it's a good thing you're not going to be a miller, then."
"What's that supposed to mean?!"
He playfully shoved her, and she shoved him right back. Soon they were giggling, as any tired children would in the wee hours of the morning. With the two of them filling the otherwise-empty square with mirth, it wasn't long before the sounds and smells attracted attention.
"Ah, look Karl! It seems we have these delightful imps to thank for this!"
"I see, Ella.. where on Earth did you two rascals appear from?"
A small crowd soon encircled them, marveling at the sweet scent of the cookies. It felt even more like the two of them were caught in the pages of some fairy tale. Much to Anya's delight, they were now the center of attention. Her curiosity was boundless, and it seemed like she felt right at home in such a discordant crowd.
But Anya's delight was Edgar's chagrin. Each time she politely stopped talking, he had no voice to latch onto; just an array of unfamiliar and indistinct murmurs. He couldn't make out anyone's conversation. He couldn't even tell if anyone was talking to him. He sat there smiling for Anya's sake, but it was a fake one.
It wasn't long before he just couldn't take it anymore. He hopped up to retrieve the cookies, having the convenient excuse of not wanting them to burn. He hoped it would be enough of a pretense to leave. He really didn't want to ruin Anya's fun, but he had to get out of here.
However, the heavy peel was trembling as he raised it.. what was going on? This wasn't normally a struggle for him. Oh, of course.. it was his hands that were trembling, not the peel. He even felt light-headed. Why did this always happen? Why was he such a child? Why couldn't he just get used to being in a crowd?
This wasn't good. The cookies were going to fall into the oven at this rate. He swallowed hard and tried to plant his feet. The peel was tottering so precariously that he didn't even dare to move. He was doing his best to hold it steady, but his strength was failing. He was going to ruin everything.
Just then, he felt two arms wrap around him from behind. He looked down and saw two familiar hands holding him tight. Thank God! That was all the encouragement he needed. But strength was another matter entirely; at this rate, the cookies would burn before he could even pull them out of the oven. He had no choice.. he couldn't let her hard work go to waste.
"H-help me pull them out, Anya.."
He couldn't believe he was saying something so pathetic. He wasn't particularly proud, but shouldn't he be more ashamed of himself right now? He actually needed her help just to take a few cookies out of an oven. And most emasculating of all: he truly wanted her help.
"Aw.. look Ella, they made cookies! What's that one? A sheep?"
"Oh, so that one must be a wolf! How adorable, she's riding on the sheep's back!"
Hey.. it was true.. the cookies had slid in just such a way that the howling wolf looked like it was sitting on top of the sheep. He was so far gone that he hadn't even noticed. If Anya wasn't there behind him, he probably would have collapsed by now. He managed to squeeze out a "thank you," but he wasn't sure if Anya could even hear it.
~ ~ ~ ~
Edgar watched as Anya meticulously laid their cookies out on the dining table in Diana's home. A shortbread wolf was soon howling at the moon from atop her sheep, while a bird perched on a nearby tree watching them. Of course, Anya couldn't resist eating a cookie, but Edgar knew she would. That's why he'd made one shaped like her father's book.
The two of them then sat at the table, confused by Diana's long absence. Edgar wondered if they ought to go find her, but Anya felt that they ought to leave her be. She didn't seem to be thinking very hard about it, though. In fact, he could tell that she was on the verge of falling asleep. It seemed it was now his turn to keep her awake.
"Hey, did you notice the name of the orphanage?"
"It’s the Amarti Foundling Home."
Edgar couldn't help but smile at the sight of her tiredly playing with one of the tree-shaped cookies. She was barely paying attention to him. She'd tried so hard to keep him awake earlier, and now he was able to return the favor (albeit for a less devious purpose).
She looked back up in a daze. She'd finally connected the dots. A moment later, her face scrunched up in displeasure and she set her head back down on the table. Obviously, she'd rather not talk about Amarti, which made him the perfect topic for the moment. She was the one who taught Edgar how effective that tactic was, so fair was fair.
"It's the only orphanage around here, you know. I asked."
Her face was turned away as she lay over the table. She was probably pouting. Why was she so teasable?
"You'll never guess who their 'patron saint' is."
He intentionally emphasized his words to make it obvious. She stopped fidgeting with the cookies, and he soon heard an amusing shuffling noise from under her skirt.
"You don't wanna guess?"
She sighed, but he could tell it was a happy one.
"I'd really rather not."
Edgar knew that if he got up to check, she would be grinning from ear to ear.
"Your mom must have been just as beautiful as the stories say."
Anya remained quiet, and simply resumed playing with the cookie in front of her. Here was his chance!
"I'm glad it runs in your family."
After a brief pause, the cookie was flicked over to him so sharply it broke in half.
"Oh will you just eat one already? You talk too much."
Her phrasing was harsh, but her voice felt warmer than the noon sun.
"Why thank you."
He took his time to savor the cookie on purpose, hoping it would annoy her sensitive ears to hear him nibble on it for so long. However, it turned out that he didn't have to kill any more time - the front door suddenly swung open.
Whoever it was, Edgar had never seen him before. However, he'd seen that same grim look on people's face many times in his short life, and soon it was on his and Anya's faces as well.
"Please come with me. Ms. Diana has collapsed."
~ ~ ~ ~
The next few minutes went by so quickly that Edgar was literally left behind. In a flash, the previously-lethargic Anya had grabbed her book and darted out the door.
"What about Edgar?"
"He'll catch up! Tell me the way!"
It was fortunate that he didn't have time to think, or Edgar might have felt slighted by that. When he finally realized he had to move, he mimicked Anya's behavior and simply grabbed the first thing in sight before giving chase.
His plaintive yell was swallowed by the dead air around them. How he guessed which way the two of them had gone was beyond him, but Edgar made his way after them with the tray of cookies in hand, like some cheeky thief fleeing the scene of a crime. Thankfully it wasn't long before he caught up.
Anya and the man soon vanished inside a building and Edgar followed suit. From its exterior, he got the impression that it wasn't like the other buildings in the quarter, but it wasn't until he entered that he realized why. It was unlike anything he had ever seen.
There were beds everywhere, like some sort of barracks. Yet, they weren't filled with soldiers resting for an upcoming battle. In fact, only a few beds were presently occupied at all. His eyes scanned the premises in disbelief, wondering what kind of strange inn he was walking through, until he spotted Diana.
In the end there had been no need for them to run at all. In fact, the man was panting loudly and wiping his brow with a disgruntled look on his face. Anya had left him no choice but to relay the directions as she ran, so he had to keep up with her. Her expression said it all.. she must have assumed the worst.
"Ah.. she left you behind again, did she?"
Diana spoke in a hushed and frail voice as Edgar approached, looking very much like she was ill. Anya didn't even react but Edgar seized up for a moment, finally realizing that he had indeed been left behind. He quickly banished the thought from his mind and spoke between heavy breaths.
"Here.. is your order.. Ms.-"
Anya took one look and gasped. She snatched the tray from Edgar, then turned away from Diana and started putting the cookies back in order. They had of course been thrown into chaos; some were even broken. Diana chuckled at their combined fluster and the man finally shook his head and took his leave.
"Well then. I'll leave you three to discuss things. Don't scare them too badly now, Diana."
It seemed as though everyone in the quarter knew Diana well enough to be on a first-name basis with her. Edgar dim-wittedly stood there as Anya scrambled to sort out the tray. Was Diana ill or not?
"T-then you're alright, Ms. Diana?"
"Yes, child. I just have not had this much fun in a long time. I fear I pushed myself a bit too far."
Edgar was used to old folks being strong-willed. Given Diana's intensity, he hadn't even stopped to consider her age or condition. Looking down at her now, it sank in that she was just like his own gran: her strength was a facade. Not even the wise ones could escape the ravages of time.
"I am quite honored that you two saw it fit to run to my side, but please remember to take care of yourselves as well."
At first it was strange to hear that from someone who had just collapsed, but when Anya finally spun around and placed the tray of cookies on Diana's bed, it became clear just how tired she was. Her irritability suddenly made sense. She had been hiding her own exhaustion.
"We're young. We'll survive."
Her tough words made Edgar breathe out a sigh, which of course earned him a sharp glare. It was like clockwork; she acted tough, he reminded her that she didn't have to.
"Anyway, I hope you like these cookies. Anya worked really hard on them."
He didn't have to look at Anya's face to know how red it would be, but Diana wasn't going to let a chance to tease Anya slip by.
"So I see.. I do believe her parents would be just as red if they saw this tray."
Edgar smiled and finally received a playful punch to his shoulder. He knew Anya had no way to respond that didn't signal her defeat, so he saw it coming a mile away. However, he didn't expect her hand to linger there. That was surely her way of paying him back; there was no way he could resist taking her hand and blushing in the process.
"Heh.. if only the two of them could be as honest as the two of you."
It would be a while before Edgar could respond, so Anya had no choice but to change topics on her own. She plopped her book down on the bed and stammered out a deflective challenge as best she could.
"O-of course! W-were they ever honest with each other?!"
Diana smiled and benevolently stopped teasing.
"Of course they were. Your mother was just set in her ways, much like all of us old folks."
As expected, Anya had used up all of her energy just to start this conversation, so Diana continued.
"It was doubly difficult for your mother, because she was a wolf."
At this point, Edgar knew he had to force himself to talk, or the conversation would come to a complete stand-still. He kept a firm grip on Anya's hand and did his best to speak for her.
"Her kind has always been low in number. Not only are they fiercely proud and selective, but they also find it difficult to conceive."
Edgar noticed Anya's eyes subtly widen at that remark. Diana's earlier words echoed through his mind: "One day that pack had a young pup.. their first in a long time." This didn't seem to be an easy topic, so perhaps it was for the best that he was the one who was talking.
"So Anya's parents had a tough time having a baby?"
It seemed as though Diana was reluctant to continue, but she did. This subject needed to be addressed no matter how unpleasant it was.
"Indeed. In fact, it took them several years just to conceive. Thus it is.. difficult to appreciate how devastating the results were."
Diana had set the stage as gently as she could, but it was no less horrible to hear about Holo's breakdown when her first child was born prematurely, and died in her arms. Holo's deepest fear had been realized, and only months after her pregnancy had filled her with hope and joy.
"Lawrence did everything he could, but it was as though Holo shut down entirely. For days, she stared off into space, unable to even look at him. He had no choice but to shoulder everything on his own, business and all, as she struggled just to wander around their home, carefully avoiding the nursery that he had hastily set up for their child."
It was a great shock to Anya to hear about all of this; so much so that her fingers had intertwined with Edgar's.
"Ultimately, it seemed that there was nothing Lawrence could do to bring Holo back to reality, so he put all of his affairs in order and once again placed his shop on hold. There was only one thing that he could do for Holo now, so he did it."
Holo drifted in a stupor for weeks, making it possible for Lawrence to do the one thing she didn't want to do: he took her back to her homeland. She needed to be reminded of why she shouldn't trap herself in the past. She was so emotionally numb that it wasn't until they were nearly there that she finally realized where he was taking her.. and then she finally fell apart entirely.
"Lawrence held Holo as they wandered through her once-fertile forest home. Even his trusty horse seemed to understand why he had been brought out of retirement for this journey. If this was the only way for Holo to shed her tears, then it was best that she shed them to water the soil of her ancient home."
Holo had been unwilling to go back to Yoitsu, and every time Lawrence suggested it she ignored him. Now he finally understood why: she didn't want him to see her this way. Not when he was already so worried about her future. Especially if her worst fears came to pass and she could see no future for herself.
Her old family was gone, and she felt incapable of starting a new one. Lawrence was the only thing she had left. And worst of all, he knew it. He would shoulder all of that responsibility himself if he had to. That was just who he was. Holo knew that all he wanted was a family, and he wanted to remind her that she was enough. He would stay by her side, even if they couldn't have children.
Anya breathed out as though she had been holding it in for a while. Having heard about her mother's immense pride, her immense fears, and now her immense struggle, she now realized just how deeply her parents love was rooted. Holo was tragically dishonest, but only because her existence was a tragic one.
"Lawrence was fully devoted to Holo. He smiled as best he could and held her, until she finally mustered the courage to do what had to be done. He then waited for her, listening to her howls of mourning and resisting the urge to howl along with her.. he had a different role to play for her sake. It wasn't until her great voice grew too hoarse to continue that her tremendous footsteps slowly returned to him."
Edgar wasn't really a fan of this sort of story, but he had the feeling that it was the only kind that would work for Anya. She was the type who resisted happiness.. it ran in her blood, after all.
"When Holo finally transformed back into a human, however, she was no longer a maiden. You see, we wise ones aren't ageless. We simply age differently. Yet, because of her wolf sensibilities and her immense pride, Holo had been caught as a maiden for centuries. In fact she panicked, until she saw the look in Lawrence's eyes."
Diana paused for dramatic effect.
"Lawrence had always wished he had fallen for someone a little.. fuller in figure. The era where she could use her maiden charms to fluster was over; she would now have to learn how to fluster him with womanly advances. Our kind age by passing our very essence to our offspring, you see. Even if they do not survive."
Edgar almost snorted when he heard that Lawrence preferred someone "fuller in figure," but Anya's hand suddenly tightened, and with their fingers still entwined it made him wince in pain. He turned to stare at her, wondering if she did it on purpose.
"And so, a new chapter of their lives began. Holo was too stubborn to give up, even if she needed Lawrence to remind her of that fact. He'd seen her cry so many times that she was determined to even the score."
Edgar had a feeling he knew where this was going.
"Indeed. She eventually did see him cry as he held their next, and healthy, child in his arms. But that was only the first of five times his tears spilled. Poets love to joke that a man only lets himself cry in one situation, and your mother made sure he shed them. They had five strong children, and with each one he only grew happier and the two of them grew older."
This time Edgar did laugh, but Anya quickly put a stop to it with an elbow to his side. Diana continued.
"Even so, you are also quite fortunate to be alive, my dear. Your father secretly always wanted a daughter, you see, and your mother knew. She wanted very badly to grant him that wish. Sadly, only one of you were fated to survive your birth, but it seems like your mother gave you everything she had left to give."
Anya's lips quivered, but no words came out of them. Regardless, Diana took that as a cue to continue.
"And so your father's worries for her future came to be for naught. He didn't even have time to worry about his own. His love for you was as strong as his love for your mother. He lived as long as he could, believing that she was watching over the two of you, wanting to prove to her that happiness does live on."
"But then why were dad's stories about mom always so.. miserable?"
It seemed that Anya wouldn't take Diana's word for it. Perhaps she just needed to hear it straight from the horse's mouth. Diana seemed to understand this, but clearly there wasn't much she could do to help.
"Child, with a man like him, and a mother like yours, every story will sound miserable. Again, it's what happens between the lines of the book that reveals the happiness therein."
Anya shook her head in frustration. She was clearly annoyed and confused, and wasn't going to accept Diana's cryptic words at face value. At this rate, it was inevitable that she really needed to hear her father say, in his own words, just how happy he was. Sure enough-
"I do not understand. Here, maybe it will make more sense after you read some more."
She practically shoved her book into Diana's arms, with the same impudent impatience that her mother was so known for. Diana's smile broadened, but her expression became more pained.
"I fear that I am quite indisposed at the moment.. perhaps you could settle for another reader?"
Neither Anya nor Edgar knew what Diana meant. Who else could possibly read the book? Edgar looked around for a moment, wondering if the man who lead them here might be the one she was referring to, but when he heard Anya force out a surprised "ah!" he turned back.. only to see Diana looking straight at him.
"Yesss~ knowing your grandmother, you can't have escaped her infamous lessons."
Edgar blinked for a moment before it dawned on him that Diana meant his gran's reading lessons. They were infamous? True, they were borderline torture; his grandfather and father both complained about having to endure their brutality. Indeed Edgar knew first-hand how brutal, having been unable to escape them himself. But still..
"Edgar? How on Earth would he know how to read business language?"
Diana laughed out loud, but it only lead to a coughing fit. Concerned, the children rushed to her side, but soon she waved both of them away.
"Business language? Merchants write in the language of the Church, because it is commonly understood. If you had taken your father's lessons more seriously, you would have known that."
Anya recoiled as though she was frightened by Diana's prescience.
"H-how did you know know I didn't take his lessons seriously?!"
She spun around and stared at Edgar, tightening her grip on his hand again. He winced and shook his head nervously, but Diana cut her off before she could accuse him any further.
"Child, your father has kept in touch with me ever since we met. What else do you think he would say about you, besides endless words of fatherly praise?"
Anya forced herself to calm down in the face of Diana's challenge, not wanting to reveal any further weakness in her defenses. She truly was the daughter of the wolf and sheep, Edgar marveled.
"As for you, young Edgar.. you need not be so hard on yourself. Even if you do not know the big words, you can still pronounce them, yes? Our resident wordsmith will surely handle the rest."
He nodded his head, impressed with Diana's reasoning, but then realized the subtext she was dancing around.. he knew how to read Anya's book all along! She hadn't even given him a chance! Half of him wanted to call her out for it, but he settled on gripping her hand extra tight while staring at her.
"What do you think, Anya? Should we give it a try?"
She didn't dare look in his direction, but he kept the pressure on until she finally cracked and stole a tiny peek at him. Her face then quickly turned red and dropped, but just as quickly rose and fell again to turn her shameful display into a mechanical-looking nod of affirmation. Diana didn't miss a beat.
"Then, by all means. I should very much enjoy being the audience with the cookies for once."
~ ~ ~ ~
Edgar had never read so much in his life. It was an excruciating experience, not to mention an exhausting one. It was one thing to have his gran spurring him on to learn letters and words, but if he had to sum up what it was like to read for Anya and Diana, he would generously call it "humbling."
His narration was rife with pauses and mispronunciations until he finally got the hang of reading in the candlelight. Even then, the next story in the book turned out to be another highly embarrassing one for poor Edgar. It was the story of how his grandparents had met the legends who saved their town.
Edgar was about ready to faint when his gran did in the story. Was she really like that when she was his age? And was his grandfather that way too? And that was nothing compared to how Lawrence and Holo acted; they were downright ridiculous! At least Edgar could say that his grandparents were still children at the time.. what excuse did Lawrence and Holo have?
Needless to say, Anya had enough by the end of the story. Just the mere mention that her father was the one who had to suggest extending his journey with her mother was unbearable to her. Before Edgar could even ask any questions on her behalf, she already politely excused herself and told them she was returning to the orphanage.
Edgar's normal instinct would have been to run after her, but he'd reached his limit as well. He just sat there for a minute, unable to believe that he'd managed to get through that entire story. At this rate, he'd be out of excuses to travel with Anya in no time, and if the stories were all this embarrassing, he wasn't sure he'd survive the ordeal.
"Oh? Are you not going to chase after your little sparrow?"
Edgar nodded his head, but otherwise remained motionless. All he could do right now was stare at the ground. In spite of everything, he had wanted to cheer Anya up, but she was obviously just as miffed at her mother and father now as she had been since she heard their first story.
"Is there anything in here that'll convince her, Ms. Diana?"
"That is difficult to say.. she clearly has a deep need to hear things put plainly, but that is something her parents struggled to do. Thankfully, she may not need to find her answers there."
Diana moved her hand out from under the cover of her bed, and placed something gently into Edgar's hands. It was a letter with a large, shockingly white feather sticking out of it.
"Granted, 'tis not quite an entire crate, but if you place that feather on the door to your room, they shall let you rest as long as you wish. If Anya still cannot sleep, then that letter should put her mind at ease."
Edgar nodded again and smiled in thanks. Diana smiled back, then let herself sink even deeper into her bed.
"Don't worry.. you've come this far, and your journey is just beginning."
Diana was obviously just as exhausted as they were, so Edgar thanked her properly and bid her farewell. He then tucked the letter and feather into Anya's book and walked away.
Was it his imagination, or did Diana say something? He turned around, but her eyes were closed. She seemed to be resting peacefully already. In fact, the mere sight of her made him yawn. He slapped his cheek and rushed out of the building. After all, if Diana had said anything, it would have been "goodbye."
He wondered if Anya would be there just around the corner as usual, but she wasn't. Did she only do that when she was upset with him? Ah, it was probably best not to overthink things. His mind was probably too full already anyway. He might as well just take solace in the fact that Anya had left the book with him for once.
By the time he caught up to her, it was obvious that her exhaustion was slowing her down. He normally had trouble keeping up with her when she was irate, but she was trudging along despite having left Diana only a few minutes ago. It was probably a good thing they were going back to the orphanage right now.
He smiled and looked at her face. Was she already acting tough again? He intentionally bumped into her as payback; he had all the excuses in the world, and he knew it would make her smile.
"We're both late. Sun's coming up."
Anya finally looked up into the sky and realized that it was indeed getting brighter. The sun would soon be poking up over the horizon. The two of them had been up pretty much the entire night. He'd never done that before. He didn't think it was even possible, but here he was.
"Heh. I get to find out what it's like to sleep in all day."
For his part, Edgar was glad they had been moving around so much. He would have been asleep long ago otherwise, and never learned so much about his hometown and grandparents. But despite his attempts to keep her going, Anya was too tired to reply. Tiny grunts of acknowledgment were the best she could manage. He had to try harder.
"Hey, I've been meaning to ask.. why are you so uncomfortable around Ms. Diana?"
This time Anya didn't so much as peep.
"Is it because you were worried she wouldn't read your book because you thought she was a man?"
"Or maybe you just don't like birds?"
Anya looked over at him, obviously wishing he would shut up.
"Don't tell me you were also scared she was a witch?"
She bumped back into him and rudely snatched away her book, but finally leaned into him again.
"Be quiet. You're putting me to sleep."
He chuckled, but abided. They were nearly back at the orphanage anyway, and that gave him the excuse to take her hand again. She sighed, but didn't stop him. They silently walked back the rest of the way, taking in the sights of Kumerson at dawn. Apprentices their age were scurrying around like mice, and shop stalls were being opened by weary-looking merchants.
It wasn't long before they were climbing back up to their second-floor window. As he pushed Anya up to the first ledge, he wondered where she kept that book hidden on her person. She must have sensed his gaze, given how quickly she scampered back up the wall. For a moment he wondered if she'd abandoned him, but her arms soon reappeared to help pull him up.
Before he could properly thank her, however, she had already hopped into bed and flipped the covers over herself. If she wasn't even going to take off her robes, then she must still be upset about her mother and father. "Oh well," he thought, "at least this way she'll let me sleep."
Of course, he really should have known better. The moment he lay his back on the bed and felt his eyes closing, he regretted his naive optimism.
He knew what was coming, so he grumbled his response. Sure enough-
"On second thought, don't be quiet. I'd like to hear you read some more."
He turned only his head toward her, and sure enough she was lying on her side with a tired grin on her face, holding her book out to him. She really was going to be the death of him. The sun was already rising, and he'd been up all night, yet she still wanted him to read to her. But there was no way he could reject those pleading eyes.
It was for the best. He had forgotten all about Diana's feather anyway. He lifted himself off the bed with the heaviest grunt of exertion he could muster, and took the book from Anya. A moment later, he heard something shuffling around under her covers, and realized that only one thing could be making that noise.
Stifling a smile, he opened the book, pulled out the feather, and took his time to carefully open the door to their room, place the feather between its boards, and silently close it again. He then opened her book once more, pulled out Diana's letter, and closed it. Sure enough, Anya's tail had stopped wagging by then, and her smile was gone.
"I'm rather indisposed, though, so you'll have to settle for something shorter."
He unfolded the letter and began to read it.
"To my precious wayward daughter."
For a split-second, he froze as he realized exactly what he was reading. He then smiled broadly and did his best to clearly enunciate each word for Anya.
"No doubt this letter has been delivered to you on the back of a most distinguished bird, whom I count a dear and trusted friend. You may entrust your very life to her; indeed, without her you might never have come to be. Yet I am certain you have already come to learn this by now, despite your hatred of the written word."
So far so good.. Anya's interest would surely have peaked.
"I must apologize for instilling such a hatred in you, but please understand that my book was a labor of love for both you and your mother, and the only way I could ensure our chronicles will survive us. It is for that reason that I leave this letter with Ms. Diana, as I am certain you will find your way to her once I leave this world."
So her father had thought that far ahead.. now that was more like the hero Edgar envisioned saving his town.
"Your impatience will precede you, however, and I fear that it is no match for Ms. Diana's playfulness. As such, I write this letter to reassure you of what I know you will need to hear from me directly. Firstly, that your mother and I will always be watching over you. That much is now obvious, I trust, given the aid you discovered on your little adventure?"
Edgar peeked over the letter, but Anya wasn't moving. He knew better than to assume she was asleep, however, so he simply continued.
"Second, to congratulate you! There was never any doubt in my mind that you would depart of your own volition, but it takes untold courage and fortitude to leave the comfort of one's home. You truly are your parent's daughter, oh apple of my eye. Just leave the toilsome inn to your noble brothers, and continue making all of us proud!"
It was impressive just how well her father knew her. He seemed to know exactly what she would want to hear.
"And finally I wish to beg you to not commit too many of the errors that we, your parents, committed. You far exceed us, dear child, but I fear that you share our temperament. I can only hope that you will find a companion worthy to hold your hand, and sooner rather than later. Please do not chase them away or easily let them go, like a certain Wisewolf and her foolish merchant nearly did."
Edgar couldn't help but smile awkwardly; it somehow felt like her father really was watching over her, even now. He secretly hoped that he counted as someone worthy of holding Anya's hand.. but since she wasn't facing him with scorn right now, and he didn't want her to, he opted to not pause for too long.
"You have just taken the first step to striking your own path, my dear. It warms my heart to know that you will continue seeking happiness, even during such surely dark times. I do wish I could have stayed with you longer, but it seems your mother's jealousy will not permit me to be with any other woman, not even you. I must now join her, lest she begin fearing that my love for her has tarnished."
Edgar breathed out a small sigh of relief as he read the final passage.
"Please, do not mistake our parting as a sad one. I know you are more than ready to face this troublesome world, compared to this old man, who had to be abandoned in an unfamiliar land to find his own bearings. So go, my precious Anya! Find your own joy, whether it be a humble dream for a family like your parents, or something worthy of song for centuries to come."
It was a bit difficult for Edgar to read such a letter, having never gotten along too well with his father. But it ended before a knot could form in his throat.
"Forever your loving father, Kraft Lawrence."
That was that. The room was full of naught but silence and sunshine right now, but soon it would be filled with the sounds of a bustling new day. Edgar set the letter down, climbed out of bed, and walked over to the window. He closed the shutters, and soon was closing his eyes. He would eventually hear Anna's gentle snores, but until then it was his duty to leave her to her own thoughts.
~ ~ ~ ~
For once, Edgar's weary eyes opened without a dream lingering behind them. He was looking at the ceiling of the orphanage guest room, and it was still light out, but there was one thing missing: He didn't hear any gentle snoring to his left. Indeed, when he turned his head there was nobody there to greet him. For just a moment, it felt a bit odd to not have her there.
This wasn't good. She was the first thing he thought about when he got up. He was getting too used to having her around, and he'd still not figured out a way to stay with her. He quickly got up and splashed his face with the cool water from the wash bucket in the room, then felt even worse. It was, after all, the same bucket of water that she must have used to wash up earlier.
He shook his head to stop thinking about it. He should just be glad the orphanage thoughtfully left a spare washcloth. He'd misplaced his handkerchief somewhere last night, and knowing all the places he'd been he didn't even want to go looking for it. It was probably in some nasty puddle of greenish slime along with his broken knife.
Jeez.. it was clearly well past noon already. Why hadn't Anya woken him up yet? He quickly caught himself thinking that and smiled. He'd best stop thinking altogether. Counting chickens before they hatched was stupid; first he had to find a way to keep traveling with her before they finished reading her father's book.
Since that book wasn't here, he'd better get moving. Even Diana's feather was conspicuously gone when he opened the door and trudged down the hallway. It wasn't long before he heard the same childish clamor he'd heard the night before, in the same large room at the end of the hallway. He made his way there and listened to the commotion.
"Ah! You caught me!"
Once more he was standing at the door, smiling at what he beheld. There was Anya, surrounded by the children, obviously playing a game of tag with them. She really did have a childish streak.. maybe that's what he liked about her? More pressingly, perhaps it was good that she had someone like him to keep an eye on her.
A naughty boy suddenly yelped in pain and placed his hands on his head. He turned to spot the person who had knocked his head, and was met with the same disapproving smirk he'd seen the night before. But not even the nastiest of glares from young Pipin could faze Edgar.
"You'd be wishing I'd stopped you if you actually took a peek under her skirt. She only LOOKS kind."
Anya shot both of them a nasty glare; one that put Pipin's to shame. That was enough to convince Pipin that Edgar wasn't lying, and he ran off in frustration. Edgar watched as the other children took off after him, with little Emma at the forefront, leading them in a chant of "Lecher! Lecher! Now he's on a stretcher!" Soon, the room was empty save for Edgar and Anya.
"Really now.. I've never heard of a wolf who lets her tail get caught so easily."
Anya shot him an incredulous stare and pointed at where her ears should be under her scarf.
"Do you really think I didn't know you were there to save me?"
It was impossible to tell if she was serious, or just putting on a tough act to save face. Maybe it had actually been a bad idea to teach her how her mother and father behaved. Edgar's hand raised up behind his head to sheepishly rub at the soreness her words had inflicted, but she quickly read his body language and continued talking.
"Besides, I had to keep the kids from waking you up. Pipin's quite a devious little brat.. you wouldn't believe how he wanted to wake you."
Anya's eyes narrowed ever so slightly. Perhaps she'd noticed Edgar's unease? He quickly held his hand out to her, and she matter-of-factly accepted it.
"Where shall we go?"
"Nowhere in particular."
With a nod, she let him lead her on. As they walked, he wondered if all girls were this flighty. Here she was, taking his hand even though they'd only really gotten to know each other a day ago. If he failed to find a way to travel with her, would her affections just as quickly transfer to the next boy?
"You know, I've been thinking.."
For a split-second he wondered if she was listening to his thoughts. Her eyebrow raised as he flinched.
"Well, I had plenty of time to think about it while you were asleep, right? I wonder if there's anyone else still alive who knew my parents."
"You mean people they met in other cities, like my gran and Ms. Diana?"
Anya nodded her head, but she was staring off at the sights and sounds around them like it was just a passing thought. She probably had seen through him, but Edgar chose not to overthink things. He could play along without getting suckered by her teases.
"Well, Kumerson's really not that far from a lot of the places in those books, so I guess you could always go find out easily enough."
She leaned in a bit closer, but still looked away while they walked. He could tell she was concealing a smile.
"I suppose I could. I made it to Tereo on my own, after all."
He smiled back, but deep inside he was struggling to maintain his composure. He really didn't want to be teased right now.
"True. You won't even need to lug around that book much longer, now that we're almost through reading it all."
She turned and flashed him a brilliant smile. Clearly she was enjoying this. Like mother, like daughter. She was letting him lead her as he might, but rather than feel happy and secure in her trust, he felt dismayed.
"Well, it wasn't too tough finding a companion in Tereo, so if I ever grow bored I'm sure I'll find one worthy of holding my hand."
"Let’s just hope he’s willing to chase after you.. it hurts."
He couldn't help but resent her teasing, even if only a little. A boy his age should be thinking about how they looked to passers-by as they walked hand in hand, but he was too preoccupied with their imminent parting. He had to change topics before he ruined the time they had left together with his dour mood.
"So.. why did you go to Tereo, anyway? Aren't there better places closer to your home where people could read business language?"
She took a moment to reflect, then turned back to him with a definitive answer.
"No. Of the people my father told me about, I felt I could trust your grandmother and Ms. Diana the most."
It was the kind of sentence that would usually end a conversation, but after a moment of silence she kept talking.
"Besides.. I don't really like big cities like Gerube. They make me feel.. small."
Edgar was surprised to hear her admit that, but even more surprised when he considered where they were right now.
"But you're alright with a place as big as Kumerson?"
"I wasn't at first. That's why I was glad Tereo was on the way."
Again, it felt suspiciously like Anya was finished talking, but she continued a moment later.
"You know, when your father told me that your grandmother had already passed on, I was scared out of my mind. I mean, what was I even doing? I ran away from home. I was alone no matter where I went. And when I heard your father say he wasn't going to let me go to Kumerson on my own, I took one look at your brother and started shivering."
Edgar chuckled, but he didn't like being compared to his big brother. He was what people called a "strapping young lad," while Edgar was basically the runt in his family. Nothing like his intimidating big bro, who seemed to tower over people with his arms permanently crossed, like he refused to be looked down upon just because he was a miller.
"But your father kept loudly shouting 'Edgar!' like he was calling some sort of ogre. I was so scared I couldn't move."
She shyly looked Edgar in the eyes.
"I can't say how relieved I was when I saw that it was you running up to the house."
Not fair. How could Anya tell him something like this so casually, even turning her head away like it was the toughest admission she'd even forced out of her lips? He wondered what he could possibly say right now until she decided to twist the knife.
"I knew I'd have no trouble with you."
If she hadn't tightened her grip on his hand and leaned in even closer, Edgar would have stopped walking in shame. She really was going to be the death of him. She wasn't looking at him, but he couldn't tell if she was giggling because she was embarrassed or because she was happy to make him flustered. He forced himself to say something so she wouldn't get the last word in.
"Well, I guess I can live with that."
With a deep breath, he kept walking beside her as their footsteps slowly began to match in pace. It was starting to feel natural walking beside her, cheering her up and being cheered up. But how long could this last? At this rate he wouldn't be able to stay at her side much longer. That was the reality of their situation, no matter how much he wished it wasn't.
Only his father and brother lived with him at home; could he really abandon them? They'd be in trouble if he wasn't there to help them out, wouldn't they? Sure, they looked down on him a bit, but they were family. Once he'd finished his little quest here, he had to go back. He'd finish reading Anya's book soon enough, even if he tried to stall.
He suddenly realized that she was looking at him, puzzled. No, wait, it wasn't puzzlement, it was concern. Soon it became a sigh of disbelief.
"Are you really this dense?"
She was staring at him incredulously, but he wasn't sure why.
"You're still worked up about having to go home, aren't you?"
"Of course! I don't want to say goodbye to you so soon!"
It was the first time he'd ever blurted out his feelings so honestly, so he couldn't look her in the eye afterward. He just kept walking while looking ahead of them, doing his best to keep from racing off ahead of her in embarrassment. Why was she making him state the obvious?
"Dummy. I don't want to say goodbye yet either."
She sighed and kept walking, but sure enough, she hadn't finished talking yet.
"You really are just like daddy.. loyal to a fault."
For once, he didn't feel bad about being compared to her father; instead he felt confused. How was he being loyal? He was going to desert her to go back home, wasn't he?
"I'll bet it never even crossed your mind that you could just stop reading a few pages from the end, huh?"
He stopped walking in disbelief, and their hands finally disentangled. So that's what she meant. If his quest was never completed, he didn't have to return home. Damn.. it was so obvious. His hand was covering his eyes, and she was staring up at him as though she just had to get a good look at the expression he was concealing.
"Yeah.. that's definitely what I like about you. I can see why mom liked it so much, too."
He tried turning his head away, but seeing her stretch her hand out to him for once made that impossible. He swallowed hard, hoping his pride would sink down past his feet and into the ground, somewhere where he'd never feel it again. He forced a smile and took her hand. Soon he was awkwardly walking beside her as she practically skipped down the street.
Well, if Anya wanted him to stay with her and his family didn't, then what was he worrying over? His father and brother were tough; they could fend for themselves. Besides, he knew in his heart that he'd sacrifice more than his pride for Anya. He no longer felt useless, not when he was with her. In fact, he was already gently pulling her hand, knowing exactly where to take her.
"Hey, where are we going?"
It was time to prove he could still be of use to her, no matter how marginally. Their footsteps were already matching again, but passers-by could eye them all they wanted. He didn't care. He wasn't a merchant, he didn't have to worry about his reputation. In fact, that was for the best where they were headed.
"Like I said.. nowhere in particular."
He wasn't even trying to hide the bright smile that had appeared on his face. He wanted her to see it. She already had fun teasing him, now it was his turn to tease her back. Besides, she knew the place they were going to, she’d just never been inside. It was of course the guildhouse which was just now coming into view.
She seemed apprehensive as they walked up to the door, but it was alright. There would be no patrons inside right now. All the merchants and apprentices were at their busiest this time of day, just like yesterday and every day before that. Nobody would show up here until dusk, when it was time to brag about their profits over a round of beer.
"Come on, come on! There's someone I'd like you to meet inside."
Anya's nervousness only increased as they he held the door open for her and she crossed the threshold. The bell above the door jingled as she hugged up closer to him, veering away from the giant coffin on their left. Her father had just died, so she probably didn’t want to see any coffins right now. But that was hardly the reason he'd brought her here. No, the reason was-
"Welcome back, young sir! Oh? And who's this lovely damsel..?"
The old man's voice trailed off as he caught sight of Anya's face. She was still clutching Edgar's arm, and had just now turned her face enough to give him an uncomfortable sidelong glance.
"Anya, I'd like to introduce you to Master Yule Landt of the Rowen Merchant's Guild. Master Landt, I'd like you to meet Anya.. Anya Lawrence!"
When their jaws both dropped, Edgar knew it had been the right decision to bring her here. After all, Anya wanted to meet more of the people her parents knew, so who better to start with than Master Landt, the little boy who had saved her parent's relationship by telling her father that he loved her mother?
"THAT Yule Landt?!"
Sure enough, Anya had already figured it out. He really liked that bright, childlike honesty of hers. If she wanted to go chasing legends that badly, who was he to stop her? As long as he got to be there holding her hand, he would join her.
~ fin ~