The flea market in Ainsworth was crowded. Citizens wandering carelessly, butcher slamming their knife repeatedly to a poor slab of meat, and buyers haggling prices. The market left no peace to The Nomads who happened to be present in the middle of the mess. Aidan —a fellow Nomad— stared at the catastrophe around him in quiet disgust.
He saw that three Nomads scrambled away to buy food, while Eliza poked Aidan in his stomach and pointed at the fabric stall.
“I’m gonna look around, maybe there’s some interesting deals,” she said and winked, then sashayed away leaving Aidan alone in the wild crowd.
Aidan looked around, wondering what he'd want to buy in the market. He considered he could taste Ainsworth's decadent chocolate, but the queue was too long. The Nomads won’t stay for long, he thought and tried to ignore the rumbling in his stomach.
He strode away, hoping that he could find a place where fresh air was available. However, as he was walking out of the market, he could see a huge man with tall stature, yanked a girl’s hand into the alley. Aidan stopped on his track for a moment, replaying the scene in his head. Judging from the rough way the man pulled the girl and how she almost stumbled, he considered nothing good would come out of it.
His feet approached the alley and he hid behind the wall to peek. He could see that the man was pinning the girl to the wall, hard. His hand was balled at the girl’s collar and his expression was lethal. Whatever the girl had done, he wasn't going to let it loose.
To Aidan’s amusement, the girl looked at the brute with a determined expression and landed a kick on his crotch. It looked so strong that even Aidan cringed in sympathy for the man. The girl, free from the man’s grasp, ran away until the man grabbed her by her ragged burgundy coat and slammed his fist to her cheek. Any sympathy Aidan had for the man was gone, replaced with a feral anger.
Before the man had any chance to hurt the girl anymore, Aidan stepped in front of the girl and sent a punch to the man’s cheek. He knew that it wouldn’t keep the man down long enough because he’s no more powerful than that man. So he took the girl’s hand —luckily, she understood what he’s trying to do and quickly rose to her feet.
The man roared and chased them down the rowdy market. Aidan’s heart thumped with adrenaline, he didn’t know what he’s going to do if the man ever caught up. He definitely couldn’t protect both of them because that man was twice larger than himself. As if sensing his doubt, the girl shook his hand. He looked back at the girl, her eyes seemed to say ‘trust me’, and thus that’s what he did.
The girl pulled him along to her left, a smaller alley which was somehow piled up with abandoned market stalls. She tugged him to sit down behind the pile of market stalls and wait. He heard the man asking people if they saw a golden-haired girl and a black-haired boy. For a second, Aidan was glad that the people were careless about their surroundings and told the man they hadn’t seen them. It led the man to scamper away from the front of their alley, leaving only bustling crowd in his wake. Aidan heaved in relief and shifted his gaze to the girl. She's sighing as well and Aidan could see the forming bruise on her cheek —the result of the man’s punch.
The girl finally looked at him and smiled, “Thank you.”
Aidan noticed that the girl was mesmerizing in a conspicuous way. He'd walked through the market and hadn’t seen any Ainsworth citizens who held such a beauty. Golden hair tucked in a side braid, a few strands peeking out of their place. Her eyes were brown, warm and bewitching. As he traced her beauty, he realized he’d been staring when he saw her knitted eyebrows.
“It’s alright,” he said, his voice came out more awkwardly than he wished, “What’s his deal anyway?”
The girl scoffed, “I saw him stole from one of those poor children, so I decided to steal it back. He caught me though.”
Aidan nodded understandingly. If it were him, he'd do the same if he could. However, it took another level of courage to steal from a man twice your size and the girl here had done it.
“And do you succeed?”
Her eyes glimmered, “Yes.”
Aidan and the girl found the poor kid in front of a diner. She gave him his money back and he beamed. He thanked them both and waved a good bye.
“I didn’t know they’re so miserable,” she spoke as she looked at the kid wistfully.
Aidan stared at her in confusion, “It’s always been like this, in every part of the world. There are those who thrive and there are those who can barely live properly. If you come here, you’ll certainly see the latter.”
She regarded his comment with curiosity, “Every part of the world? You've seen them?”
Aidan nodded, “The Nomads travel everyday.”
He suddenly remembered something as he said it, the others must be waiting. He wanted to excuse himself from the girl, but then she said, “Really? Where to?”
He brushed his lock of dark hair self-consciously, “Everywhere, anywhere. Uh… look, I’m sorry but I have to go back to my friends. Can you manage on your own?”
He didn’t expect what the girl would say next, “Can I... come with you?”
Aidan’s eyes widened in shock. He knew that Nomads were welcome to anyone who’s been robbed of their home. Nevertheless, he felt doubtful to bring the girl with him. She didn’t look like a homeless person at all. She had a graceful beauty which he’d never seen, and though her coat was ragged, it wasn’t as ragged as others'.
“Don’t you have somewhere to come home?” he said.
It took her a few seconds to answer, “No.”
Aidan still felt hesitant, her answer hadn’t been very assuring. He let his sight travel on her expression for a while and then let out a long sigh.
“Alright then, come.” He knew that she's probably lying, or at least she hadn’t tell him the entire truth. Even so, he couldn’t seem to ignore her wish. For all her boldness moments ago, she looked so lost and desperate.
The Nomads weren't happy that he came so late to their rendezvous point. They seemed like they’re about to nag him but stopped when they saw him approach with the girl. Eliza stared at him in disbelief, in which he responded with a sheepish smile.
“What’s this?” Mir —The Nomads' captain— started, an eyebrow was raised.
“She’s—“ Aidan almost cursed to himself after realizing how little he knew about the girl. He didn’t even know the girl’s name.
“I’m Annie,” the girl chimed. She came forward and extended her hand for Mir to shake it.
“Your friend helped me when I was in a dire situation, and I consider that I want to join your journey. I find traveling to be a wonder,” she said.
Mir scrutinized Annie. Then looked at Aidan too sharply that he could feel the chill in his spine. Mir rarely looked at someone that way and he hated to be on the receiving end of that look. It's a quite uncomfortable seconds until Mir finally shook Annie’s hand.
“Fine, but you’ll be under Aidan’s care. You’re his responsibility,” Mir said to her in disdain.
“Move!” Mir commanded. The others followed Mir without question while Aidan gulped at her words.
Mir was always stern and righteous, Aidan knew that she did so to protect them. She'd always reprimanded the five Nomads whenever they made trouble, but that sharp look she gave him, it's reserved for someone who'd made a terrible mistake. Annie followed too, she spared Aidan a glance that seemed to ask ‘you coming?’ Aidan tagged along with a heavy heart, wondering what kind of mistake he'd made when he let the girl —Annie— joined the crew. She seemed harmless, he's sure nothing could go wrong. He calmed himself and tried to not imagine Mir’s sharp gaze and Eliza's concerned look.
Aidan started to think that Mir's paranoid about Annie. It'd been three days since their first encounter and everything's just fine. She'd fairly adapted to their living style, she didn’t complain, in fact she seemed to be enjoying it. She even got acquainted to the other Nomads. Annie had gotten close enough to Lylia, who loved to tell her stories about their travel. Eren, Lylia’s boyfriend, had also warmed up to her and told her jokes that triggered her laughter —which was a melodious sound to Aidan. He had wanted to be the one who made her laugh, but he's inferior to Eren in that aspect. Eliza and Mir was still strung up on their contempt over Annie. He'd asked Eliza twice about what she and Mir was worried about, and she only replied ambiguously.
He assumed that Eliza might felt betrayed that he'd found someone close —as normally he'd spend most of his time with Eliza, but ever since Annie’s arrival he'd been spending more time with Annie. What he truly didn’t get was Mir, who's silent and cold, unusual even to Aidan. Her gait was stiffer, her reaction more alert. However, whenever his mind strayed to his concern, Annie always came and swept it away with her blooming smile.
That night on the third day, The Nomads decided to rest in an inn at the border of Allenswein, a small village on the south of Ainsworth. It was the night of festivity in Allenswein, as it was Summer Solstice. Decoration had been hung on every building and loud cheerful music was thumping. Eren and Lylia had been excited to go, even Eliza who’d been brooding for days had perked up too.
“It’s wonderful,” Annie stated out of nowhere.
Aidan, who’d been walking beside her, asked, “What is?”
“This freedom, traveling, the world,” she said, she bore her brown eyes into his green.
He'd been wondering how Annie had always seen the world as if they’re magic. Everything that felt like a routine to Aidan, felt new to her. He wished to see the world through her lens and felt it with her heart. He never thought it’s possible for someone to love the world so much that every daily thing felt like a tiny adventure. He didn’t know what to make of this budding feelings, of the fondness he felt every time that melodious laugh rasped through his eardrums. At the very least, he knew that he admired and cared for her. Seeing her being so joyful, made Aidan willing to do anything to keep it that way.
“Don’t you want to go to the festival? I heard that Allenswein make the best one, even if they’re a small village,” Aidan had asked.
Annie smirked, “Of course! Tell me what I should wear to blend in.”
Aidan felt his cheeks heating up when he imagined Annie draped in Allenswein dress as Allenswein was a village with the best dress production. He's quite sure that Annie would’ve looked ravishing in any dress, especially in those of Allenswein.
“Surely you’ll look good in everything,” he said without glancing at her.
Lylia had asked Mir if they’re allowed to enjoy a night of festivity and Mir had agreed, she even wanted to join, which was an odd thing. Mir never liked festival. She tend to stay behind whenever the others were having fun. Aidan knew that and he added that to his Mir’s Weird Attitude List.
Before they went to enjoy the festival, they checked in to their inn. Each of them was given a key —Mir’s treat on special days. Eren and Lylia went joyously to their rooms on the right wing, although Aidan suspected they’re not going to each of their respective room. Eliza, still ignoring him, went to her room on the upper floor. Mir, Aidan, and Annie went to their rooms on the left wing. The walk to their rooms was uncomfortable as Mir was watching Annie as if she’s a dangerous animal. It's only when Mir had entered her own room and clicked it close that Aidan could exhaled the breath he’s holding.
“See you tonight!” Annie said and clicked her room open.
“Annie,” Aidan blurted out, stopping Annie in front of her doorstep. He nearly swore to himself for being such a dunce. He hadn’t planned to call her.
He summoned any word that popped up in his mind, “I’ll wait for you.” Which sent warmth to his cheeks.
Despite his embarrassment, he didn’t regret saying it because Annie laughed. His heart jumped a little. “Shameless, but adorable,” she said before she closed the door behind, igniting a spark in Aidan’s heart.
Aidan washed quickly. He put on his most decent clothes, which consisted of a navy blue tunic and grey pants. They didn’t even look suitable for festivity, but they’d have to make do.
Everything was peaceful until he breathed in a charred smell. He thought he was imagining it, or at least he thought wrong. Nonetheless, one could never be too sure, so he opened the door of his room. The burning smell was stronger outside and it was hot. Fire?
He was only about to tread down the corridor to find the source when he saw it. The fire was huge, engulfing everything in its path. He realized with horror that it'd burnt the right wing, where Eren and Lylia were supposed to reside. He quickened his steps to a run. No, he thought as he saw the blackened right wing.
“Lyls! Eren!” Aidan was close to tears. He was stopped by someone when he, in his state of desperation, almost jumped right into the fire.
“Aidan, stop!” It’s Mir, he’s about to yank his hand away from Mir to find Eren and Lylia but Mir shook him and told him, “They’re save! They’re outside!”
With that, Aidan sighed in relief. However, another scream jolted him from his trance. A familiar scream. Annie, he realized with horror. He freed himself from Mir’s hold, ignoring her plea to save himself. All he could think of was Annie, amazing and beautiful Annie, trapped inside her room.
“Annie!” His steps thundering through the corridor, it wasn't burnt yet, but Annie had screamed and he needed to find her.
In Annie’s room, a loud crash sounded and he felt cold all over his body. Somebody’s inside. He slammed his body to Annie’s door, it wouldn’t budge. Once again, with all of his might, he slammed it —uncaring of the pain seeping through his body. It opened.
For some reason, Annie’s room was burning and someone, a man with black attire, was choking her. Annie was struggling, she’d tried to kick him, but the man was utterly unbothered. He didn’t even seem to notice Aidan’s arrival.
Aidan found a fallen wooden bar. He swung it hard to the man’s head and it struck. The man fell, letting go of Annie. Annie gasped and almost fell unconscious before Aidan took her in his arms and carried her. “Stay,” he whispered and ran.
The outside wasn't heavenly either, it couldn’t serve as a refuge as much as the burning inn. There were a bunch of people clad in the similar black as the man fighting those in grey uniform wielding different kinds of weapons. Through the haze, Aidan could see the insignia on one of their uniforms, an upside down ‘A’ with three golden stars.
He scanned the crowd for his friends, yet it’s too chaotic and he couldn’t find them. In fact, he didn’t need to because suddenly someone struck the hilt of his sword on Aidan’s temple, making him fall.
The world seemed to sway, his head throbbed, he even spilled Annie on the ground. She rose and coughed, “Aid, you have to go!” Which wasn't clearly heard by Aidan.
“Your Highness!” The man who attacked Aidan came to Annie and checked on her.
“What happened?” Annie croaked.
“The anarchist! They saw and hunted for you!” The man yelled a little in the midst of the unfolding chaos.
The man looked back at Aidan and glared as if he'd harmed his Highness. Aidan murmured, “Annie?”
Her eyes were muddled with tears as she let go of the man’s hold and ran to Aidan, she held his hand, “I’m sorry, Aid. I’m so sorry.”
“We need to bring him. His Majesty will ask question,” the man said. Aidan could see that Annie shook her head, saying, “Please… let him go. He has his family.”
The man said, “I apologize Your Highness. It’s the protocol.”
Aidan's memories of the night was blurry, but he's sure whatever happened was real, for there’s no other reason why he’d be in Ainsworth's dungeon.
Annie was the princess of Ainsworth. His Majesty had sneered at him in disgust, thinking he took his daughter away. Annie, even that word had left a bitter taste in his mouth. She’s Antoinetta Ainsworth, the heir to the throne who wanted freedom. He didn’t understand how Mir had known that Annie was dangerous, as the anarchist were finding ways to kill the royal family, but Mir had always been the most observant out of all of them. She must’ve found the clue to Annie’s identity somehow.
It took two weeks for the guards to let him go, scarred and bleeding. He had no idea how to find his friends and he didn’t know whether or not they knew he’s still alive. He's alone and he’s lost everything. He wanted to spout questions, demanded the whole truth from Annie. Yet, it seemed the fate had different design.