It may not be the most mature response, but I cannot resist nodding at Oswald and Thaddeus, as we march towards the Labyrinth. Oswald continues looking over my head, again, but Thaddeus gives me a small nod in return. His jaw remains clenched though.
“We,” I say, with a practised flourish, “are the Maestro Guild.” I pass him our card, deliberately ignoring the others as they shrug, and Elise grimaces.
Thaddeus finally smiles. It doesn’t reach his eyes though.
“Well done for forming a Guild.” His seriousness finally rubs off on me.
“Thank you for pointing me in the right direction.” My Guildmates murmur similar words of gratitude.
“If you truly value his help, don’t go rushing to your deaths, Maestro Guild.” Oswald’s deep voice rumbles like thunder.
“Incredibly enough, that isn’t our intention.” Artemis’ snarky response mirrors my own thoughts. Helen steps forward, silencing her with a glare on par with the that of the intimidating guard.
“I claim responsibility for the Maestro Guild. I swear it on my family name.”
I open my mouth to protest, but also fall quiet when Helen turns her head in my direction, as if sensing my oncoming outburst. “Thaddeus, you have no responsibility for the Maestro Guild, their fate or actions, beyond this threshold. None.”
I see Thaddeus’ shoulders relax and at long last, even Oswald nods, before staring back up at the sky. I wonder who her family are, if they hold so much power that she doesn’t even need to mention their name.
“Now, if that is settled, I think our leader has a few queries if you would be so kind as to answer?” Helen pats me on the shoulder as she steps back. For a few moments, I forget how to do anything other than blink. What just happened?
“First of all,” Thaddeus begins, stern again, “have you been to the Atelier yet?” We nod in unison. “Your first mission, at the behest of the Outland Count, is a tradition undertaken by each Guild. A test of resolve.”
Meredith is hopping from foot to foot again like a cat on hot coals. I have no idea if she is excited or nervous. The bottles clink in her bag. She slows down as Artemis places a hand on her shoulder. I see Meredith quickly pat the other girl’s hand and the moment passes as quickly as it began.
“What do we need to do?” I ask, focusing on Thaddeus.
“West of here lies a small maze. To successfully prove yourself as a Guild, you must fully map this location and return with a shard of Iridescent Ore. The Outland Count himself will evaluate your efforts.”
“How do we get there?” I wonder aloud.
The others chime in identical deadpan tones, as if I have lost my mind: “Airship.”
In that moment, as my stomach lurches in protest, I legitimately consider walking to the ‘small maze’ no matter the distance.
“Speaking of which,” Thaddeus says with a small smile, “Yours is right over there.” Oh no. No, no, no, no, no.
Helen accepts the reams of parchment and pencils, as the others, clearly sensing my apprehension, steer me mercilessly towards our transport.
Meredith pats my head, as if I am a small child: “There, there. I have medicine for airsickness.”
I release a breath I didn’t know I was holding. “Thanks, Meredith.”
“I might have left it at the inn though!” I feel the blood drain from my face. “Just kidding.” She says passing me a vial with a crudely sketched airship on it. My poor heart can’t handle this, I think, as I stare at the clearly suspicious bottle. The pink liquid sloshes inside. Oh well. Exercising caution, I take a small sip.
When, I don’t immediately keel over, I swallow a mouthful, following Meredith’s advice. It’s…delicious?
“Artemis added forest strawberries to my recipe- it used to be incredibly bitter.” She chirps, sounding prouder of the other girl than her own creation. Her heartfelt praise makes me smile.
“You two are really close, aren’t you?” My voice comes out softer than I intended.
“She’s my everything.” Meredith says, her ever-present smile warmer and brighter than usual.
I glance over at Meredith’s ‘everything’, who is currently clambering up the main mast of the airship with reckless abandon. As if sensing our conversation, Artemis lets go with BOTH HANDS and hangs upside-down whilst waving in our direction. I can scarcely look, but Meredith waves back as if this is perfectly normal.
Elise is squinting upward, and a bad feeling washes over me, stronger than the memory of my airsickness.
I stand next to the petite girl I have barely spoken to: “Please tell me you aren’t considering using lightning magic to get her down.”
Her expression doesn’t change: “Okay, I won’t tell you that then.”
“Elise.” She finally blinks and Artemis reaches the top of the mast. She sighs as if I have ruined her fun and walks back to Helen, who is organising our supplies.
I stand and breathe for a moment. Who knows what could happen next?
My excitement is tampered by one small nagging doubt. “Hey, Helen.” I walk over and she smiles kindly, “What happened with the guards earlier?”
“That, I’m afraid, is classified.” She puts a finger to her lips, then turns solemn when she sees my face, “you are the official leader of Maestro Guild though, Marnie, if that is bothering you?”
“And you’re the unofficial leader?” I raise an eyebrow, but again she just laughs.
“I’m the supervisor if anything.” She pauses, “Marnie, I’m not going to steal your position or anything if that’s what you think and I’m sorry if I upset you.”
She seems so composed and mature. Like a parent. How can I compete with that?
“Hang on, let me phrase it more clearly.” She takes a deep breath. “I don’t want to be the leader.”
“What do you mean?” I whisper.
“I mean it. I don’t want to do it. At all. I took responsibility because I’m the oldest in our Guild and I didn’t want Thaddeus to feel bad. Or, gods forbid, stop us going into the Labyrinth.”
I understand her in that moment. I am horrified to find that my eyes have filled up. I have no idea why because I’m not sad.
We share a goal. That goal led us into becoming a Guild. We want to explore the Labyrinth. Together.
“Marnie.” I look up, “I take full responsibility for whatever happens in the Labyrinth, so go and be our fearless leader without worrying about that.”
I shake my head: “We’ll share it. Front line fighters together, okay?”
“Okay.” Helen agrees, before adding: “I’m guessing you might not want to steer the ship though?” The twinkle in her eye makes her look as young as Elise, who I have just noticed is watching the situation unfold, whilst snacking on dried fruit.
“I would be honoured if you could be our Captain.” I say, taking the hint. Helen claps her hands with glee, before blushing slightly, as if unused to expressing such emotion.
I grin at her, and even Elise manages a small smile.
The moment Artemis is coaxed back onto the main deck, with practised expertise from both Meredith and Helen, Maestro Guild takes flight.