"Very well. I shall see to it that she gets it."
"Great! Let's go, Oscar!"
The boy and his dog left the mayor's house, heading back towards the town to collect another five hundred beli for the job they just had done. That would be the end of their involvement in something they didn't know the full story of - and, in turn, starting the involvement of one of the residents of the house they had just visited. The housekeeper that had accepted the letter from the boy made her way up the stairs to the second floor of the house, going through the third door to the right, leading into the study. Behind one of the two desks in the room (otherwise containing three bookshelves, a couch, and currently a black cat with white paws sleeping on the windowsill) sat a woman with fair skin, long, blonde hair, blue eyes, and a white, loose-fitting dress over a somewhat protruding belly. She had two books open in front of her, and was writing something in one of them.
"Pardon my intrusion," the housekeeper said as she entered.
"That's fine," the woman replied. "Is anything the matter?"
"A young boy visited to deliver this for you," the housekeeper answered and walked up to the desk, handing over the letter she had been given. "He would not say who it was from."
"Oh, I see..." The woman took the note and inspected the front of it. Just one word... her name. Aniara. She unfolded it, quietly looking over the contents. The message within was evidently not a long one, as she put the note down and looked up after only a short moment. "This can't..."
"Is everything alright, milady?"
"Yes... it's just..." Aniara said before rising from her chair, closing the book she was writing in. Standing up, it was clear from the size of her stomach that she was with child. "Elsa."
"Prepare a bath. I need to... I will be going out."
"Certainly, milady. Should I tell the master?"
"No, no... no need. I should not be too long... I hope..."
"I understand. I will call for you when the bath is ready."
"Thank you," Aniara said as Elsa left. She sat down, reading the note again. "Rink... are you really..."
Rink had cleaned herself up to a degree she hadn't bothered with since they left Avasine - and not very often even before then. A hot shower, a full body scrubbing, hair washed and brushed, even an application of the little makeup she owned - some black mascara around the one remaining eye, light red lipstick and matching nail polish. Instead of the shirt and skirt combo she usually went with, she put on the one sundress she owned, a light pink piece with a faded violet diamond pattern on the lower half, in addition to putting on a pair of small silver earrings in the shape of roses. She looked at herself in the mirror, first smiling and then sighing. This was what she had always wanted to be, but never had been quite able to become... life hadn't taken her down that road. She had to admit it herself - it wasn't exactly an ensemble that suited her that great nowadays, if it ever had. The more elegant outfits she had sometimes been wearing when performing in Avasine had been helped by the dim light and the fact that people mostly weren't interested in looking at her when she was on stage, and when picking up girls she had relied more on words than looks. And, of course, helped by most of the people involved being at least a little tipsy.
But this was no time to second-guess herself. She left the inn, leaving a ฿500 coin with Wilhelm should the boy come back to ask for her before she returned, and ran into Mirise and Muse just as she went outside.
"Rink?" Muse said. "You look... fancy."
"I know it's not really my style," Rink replied. "But... just for this, I don't want to look so..."
"I think it looks nice," Mirise said with a smile. Rink replied with one of her own, accompanied by a light blush.
"You're going to meet with her, aren't you?" Muse asked.
"Yes... if she comes."
"Are you sure that's a-"
"I'm absolutely sure that it isn't," Rink replied before Muse had even finished her question. "But if I don't... I'll regret it even more."
"Well... good luck," Muse said, slightly hesitantly. "We'll... talk about the boat later, I suppose..."
"Yeah, I should go... I'll be back later."
"Good luck!" Mirise added as well, sounding more sure about it than Muse. Rink nodded and smiled, but as soon as she had turned away, the smile changed into a more hesitant expression. But if there was anything in her life she had to see through, it was this.
Over ten years had passed, but Rink still knew exactly what path she had to take. Just head straight through the first two crossroads, take a left at Jahn's field, down the nearly hidden path between the fence and the hedge. Then go straight ahead, past the grassy field where they used to play, and then turn right, take a left when having reached the birch trees, and continue straight ahead even where the path splits to the left and right after that - where following it to the left would eventually take one to the school building. Proceed over the hill, across a smaller field, over two more hills, and there, about a kilometer and a half to the west of the very center of the island, stood the tree. They would call it just 'the tree', it being an oak tree that was old already when they had been kids. This was Rink's current goal - the place where she hoped she would meet the person that had occupied a lot of her thoughts for the better part of two decades...
Eighteen years earlier...
With the birch trees to her right and a bag over her shoulder, eleven-year-old Rink Kazai was heading towards the school in the morning of a sunny spring day. She was wearing a yellow t-shirt, denim shorts with suspenders, and sandals on her feet. Her hair just about went past her ears, but messy at it was, wasn't exactly consistent. On top of it, she was wearing a short-brimmed light blue sun hat. Upon approaching the fork in the road, she saw a group of people heading her way - people she all recognized. Friends of similar age, among them Wilhelm and Selma. They were chatting and laughing, and one of the other boys of the group was carrying a ball.
"Hey, Rink!" Wilhelm said as he noticed her.
"Hi!" Rink replied.
"We don't have any teachers today, so we're going to head down and play ball," Wilhelm said. "You wanna come?"
"Is Anni there?" Rink asked.
"No, we haven't seen her today," another one of the boys replied. "She probably heard there wasn't any class today before we did."
"Wait, I'll go get her!" Rink exclaimed and ran off.
"Do you even know where she-" Selma started, but Rink was gone already.
"Rink never wants to play these days unless Aniara is around, does she?" Wilhelm chuckled as Rink reached the hill.
"She always tries to impress her," Selma added.
"Anni never wants to play, though," the boy with the ball said.
"She likes being around, at least," another girl said. "And we need to find more players anyway."
"Sure," the boy replied as they all continued towards the field.
Rink couldn't be sure about it, but she had a pretty good guess for where she'd find Aniara - more often than not, she'd be sitting in the shade of the tree, reading. As she reached the top of the third hill, it didn't take long for her to see that she had been right - sitting in the grass with her back towards the tree and a book in her hand was Aniara. Rink called out to get her attention before she had even come down the hill.
"Anni, Anni!" she shouted.
"Hm?" Aniara looked up at what was coming her way. "Oh, Rink!"
"Hi!" Rink said as she had come closer.
"We have no teachers today," Rink said, catching her breath.
"Yes, I heard," Aniara replied.
"So we're going to play ball on the field and you should come too!"
"Well, I don't think I'll play, but I'll come with you, sure."
"Okay!" Rink said with a big smile as Aniara stood up and followed her friend as they headed back over the hills, towards the field where the others were waiting. They had found some more players in the meantime, and with Rink and Aniara joining, there were sixteen of them in total, the youngest being nine and the oldest fifteen. As Aniara was content with just watching, the others split up into two teams before the ball was sent flying. It was a game somewhat resembling football, though the exact rules seemed somewhat up in the air - on each side of the field were markers that served as goalposts, and each team had a person guarding them. Any goal was celebrated (with Rink looking over at Aniara any time she hit the goal), but nobody really kept score, and it was evident that some of the older kids went easy on the younger ones. The amount of players on each team didn't exactly stay consistent, either - some more kids showed up to join the game, some were called home early, and some went home on their own accord around the time their school day would probably have ended. When the boy with the ball went home the game changed into some kind of impromptu tag/hide-and-seek variant, and eventually those that were left didn't have any real energy left, so the game just kind of stopped. Rink sat down next to Aniara, before leaning back and lying down in the grass, letting out a big breath of air.
"That was fun!" she said.
Aniara looked at her with a smile. While she hadn't minded being there, she hadn't actively watched everything the others had done, instead turning to her book on several occasions. "You did well."
"I'm tired. And hungry," Rink said with a laugh.
"Do you want to come over for some tea and cake?" Aniara asked.
"I don't like tea," Rink replied.
"But...?" Aniara said with a smile, this not being the first time they had this exchange.
"I like cake!" Rink happily stated as she sat up again.
"Let's go, then!" Aniara said as she stood up. Rink did the same and followed Aniara to her house, which stood empty as both of her parents were out working. Aniara prepared two cups of tea and a plate with some small cakes for the both of them on a tray, and they sat down in the grass outside thee house. Despite her opinion of it, Rink would always drink the tea Aniara served her, even though she hadn't liked any kind she had been served so far.
"Thanks!" Rink said as she finished her cake.
"You're welcome," Aniara replied, still sipping on her tea. "Nice day today."
"Why don't you sing something for me?" Aniara asked.
"Okay!" Rink replied. "What should I sing?"
"Well... how about that funny one you sang a few weeks ago?"
"Um... which one?"
"It went something like... up and down, something with a pig... you said your dad played it with you."
"Oh, the up-and-down song! Alright!" Rink exclaimed and started humming as she stood up.
As Rink finished the song, she threw her arms out and started laughing. Aniara was smiling at the nonsensical song as well, always enjoying whatever Rink sang for her. Rink's singing was even what had first brought them together - while they had seen each other previously, it was a few weeks after Rink had started school, at eight years old, that they first spoke. During the lunch breaks, Rink would sing to herself, and eventually Aniara had approached her and told her she liked her singing, and it wasn't long before they were best friends, spending more and more time together as time went by. From an outside perspective, it didn't really seem like the two of them had much in common - Rink was very excitable and social, Aniara was more reserved and reclusive. But they still stuck together, and Rink would go out of her way to involve Aniara in any group activities, even if Aniara preferred to just sit at the side and watch - something she never complained about doing, appreciating being a part of it, even if it was just a passive part. As a result, since Rink was well aware of what Aniara was like, they spent most of their time together as just the two of them. It was no secret that they were close friends, but the rest of their friends - mainly their schoolmates - didn't see much of how they actually interacted when together. With the size of the island, it wasn't much of a feat to spend a lot of time together without being seen doing so.
"What do you wanna do now?" Rink asked.
"Well, let's bring this in first," Aniara replied and stood up, picking up the tray. She entered the house with Rink following her, and after washing up the cups and plate, they headed into Aniara's room. On the wall directly opposite the door was a window, to the left a bed, and to the right a bookshelf and writing desk with a chair in front of it. Aniara sat down on the chair while Rink placed herself on the bed. "How's Jack doing? He's doing his apprenticeship, right?"
"He's good! And yeah, he and Powel are working for Felivo."
"The... tailor, right?"
"Yeah. That weird guy."
"I don't think I've met him."
"He speaks super weird. But Jack says he's the best at making clothes around here."
"Well, then Jack is probably going to become good at it too."
"He's already good, he always fixes my clothes when they get broken."
"Is he going to be a tailor too?"
"I think dad wants him to take over the fields, but he said he should learn to do something else too."
"Sounds like a good idea."
"What are you gonna do?"
"I don't know. I still have a couple years to decide..."
They spoke for a while before returning outside, walking around for a little bit. They didn't really have anything in mind, and didn't stray too far from Aniara's house. They picked some flowers, climbed a tree - or, more accurately, Rink climbed while Aniara watched her from the ground - and sketched some animals - or, more accurately, Aniara sketched while Rink watched her drawing with great amazement - before returning. To both of them, it mattered less what they actually did, and more that they could do it together. They went back into Aniara's room where she started drawing a portrait of Rink's face, eventually being interrupted by a knock on the front door.
"Who could that be?" Aniara asked as she stood up. Rink followed her to the door, which Aniara opened to reveal a boy in his late teens, with dark tan skin bordering on brown and short brown hair, dressed in a green t-shirt and blue denim shorts. "Oh, hi!"
"Hey. Oh, there you are," he said and looked over at Rink.
"Jack!" Rink exclaimed. "What are you doing here?"
"It's time to come home for dinner. Wilhelm said he saw you two together, so I figured you'd be here."
"Oh... okay!" Rink said and walked up to her brother before turning to Aniara. "I'll see you tomorrow!" she said with a big smile. Aniara replied by just smiling and nodding as Rink grabbed Jack's hand and the two of them left the house.
"You spend a lot of time with Aniara these days," Jack stated as they started walking towards their own home.
"Yeah, I like Anni!"
"You like her?" Jack asked.
"You reeeeeally like her?"
"I said yes!"
"Do you loooove her?"
"Y- no, shut up!" Rink said, red-faced. "Stupid Jack!"
Jack simply laughed in response, and Rink stuck her tongue out at him. Jack was only teasing her, as romance hadn't quite entered his little sister's mind yet, but he could tell the two were already very close. The sun had started going down by the time the two of them reached the Kazai household.
"We're home!" Jack said as they entered.
"About time," their father replied, coming out of kitchen. Cornelius Kazai, born Wrejk, was a large man in his mid-fifties, with light skin (and a suntan from working outside all day) and thick red hair covering his head down to his neck, a beard from ear to ear and a moustache under his nose. He wore a simple white buttoned shirt and denim pants with suspenders. He was somewhat heavy-set, but with the muscles one would expect from years of heavy farming work. "Jack, you come here and help me with the potatoes. Rink, you help your mother."
"Alright!" Rink said as the three of them went into the quite large kitchen. Next to the door was a table, where there was a bowl of unpeeled potatoes, a plate with some peeled potatoes, and on the floor a bucket of peels. Cornelius sat down and resumed peeling, while Jack started cutting the peeled ones into smaller pieces. Further into the kitchen, Rink's mother was standing at the countertop, cleaning some fish.
"Rink, will you set the table, please?" she asked. Sonya Kazai was a large woman in her early fifties, and a baker by trade. She had dark skin and curly, dark brown hair going just past her shoulders, currently dressed in a simple brown dress and a white apron. "Then you can do the salad."
"Okay!" Rink replied and started on the task she had been given, starting with bringing the plates over to the larger table at the far end of the kitchen, underneath a larger window. After also having taken care of cutlery, glasses and napkins for all four of them, she pulled up a stool next to her mother and climbed up so she could reach the countertop, where she started mixing vegetables into a bowl. With everyone at work, it wasn't too long until the family of four could sit down and enjoy their meal together.
"Did you do anything fun today?" Cornelius asked his daughter.
"Yeah, we didn't have any teachers, so we played ball, and then I did some things with Aniara, and then Jack came to get me!"
"How about you, Jack?" Sonya asked.
"I don't know if I'd call it 'fun', but I spent most of the day hemming," Jack replied. "Felivo says we've both got a knack for sewing."
"Always good to have a second skill," Cornelius stated.
"Yeah, you say that like... twice a week," Jack replied with a laugh.
"Do I, now?" his father retorted and chuckled. "Still true."
"But either way, I should be getting more advanced things to do soon," Jack continued. "Even if Felivo can be a bit... hard to understand sometimes."
"He was always a bit of a character even when we were growing up," Cornelius said. "Usually kept to himself, mumbling to himself, but he'd always find little details in everything nobody else noticed..."
The conversation continued along the same lines for the rest of the meal, until Rink eventually exclaimed "I'm done!" and pushed her plate away from herself. The other three finished their portions not long afterwards, and they all cleared the table together.
"Alright, time for you take a bath and go to bed," Cornelius said and put a hand on Rink's head, ruffling her hair a bit.
"Will you sing a song for me before I sleep?" Rink asked.
"Of course, but get clean and brush your teeth first!"
"Okay!" Rink replied and headed off to the bathroom. Twenty minutes, a quick bath and some brushed teeth later, Rink had changed into her pajamas and gotten into bed. Cornelius came into her room carrying his guitar, sitting down at a chair next to her.
"So, what do you want to hear?"
"If you say so," Cornelius replied with a chuckle as he slowly started strumming on the guitar. "Well then, let's go with this one..."