Anelace drove forward, her sword slashing past Estelle’s cheek and narrowly missing part of her hair. Estelle, eyes narrowed, whirled out of reach and struck out with her staff, landing a hit on the back of Anelace’s knees with a solid thump. Anelace staggered but managed to regain her balance and dance backward just in time to avoid being whacked with the other end of the staff as it twirled. She raised her sword back to a defensive position just as Estelle brought the staff down and the weapons met with a clang and the scree of metal against metal.
Both girls were panting; they had been sparring for some time, but neither was willing to yield to the other. Zin and Agate stood by, watching with narrowed eyes as the girls fought to a standstill, Estelle leaning on her staff as Anelace sat with a thump.
“C’mon, can’t you go a little more? I bet you’ve got more in you,” called Agate, gesturing rudely at Estelle.
“Come over here and find out,” snapped Estelle. “We’ll see how much staff can fit between your ears.”
“Those are some big words from your rival,” Zin said to Anelace. “You sure you can’t finish this?”
“You’re really not cute, you know that, Zin?” Anelace said with a yawn. She flopped backwards to stare up at the vast starry sky-like expanse, books floating far over her head. “We’re done for the day.” Estelle slid down the staff to join her as they fell into a light doze.
Zin and Agate exchanged unsatisfied looks as Schera strolled up, humming a tune. “Tied it up and tired out, huh?”
“Yeah,” grunted Agate. “But when they wake up they can go again.”
“Nope, not the terms we agreed on,” said Schera. “Neither of them won? That means you both owe me 500 mira. Now pay up.”
Grumbling, Agate and Zin fished in their pockets and handed her the money. She shooed them away and walked up the steps to stand next to the girls.
Estelle opened an eye. “Are they gone?”
Anelace sat up. “Looks like. Good fight, Estelle.”
“Yeah, you too!” Estelle smiled. “I was still aiming to beat you, you know.”
“Oh, me too, don’t you worry. A silly little bet isn’t going to make me forget our rivalry.”
“Good.” Estelle slid her eyes to Schera. “But since we helped you win…”
Anelace finished, “I think we should get a cut.”
“Not a chance, ladies. But keep up the good work!” Schera laughed and headed on down the steps.
“Aww. I was hoping I could finagle a new plushy out of one of those three,” Anelace pouted as she flopped back to lie on Estelle’s stomach. “Guess you’ll have to do.” She snuggled in. “Mmph. Warm.”
“Where would you even get a plushy in here anyway?” Estelle pointed out. “You’ve been trying to conjure one up for days, ever since Renne brought Pater-Mater here, and all you managed to get was a creepy sheep doll-thing which we had to subdue and kick over the side since it just wouldn’t die.”
“Ugh, don’t remind me. I think I’ve seen it floating by a few times. I’ve definitely heard it bleating.” Anelace shuddered. A little time went by, the silence of the Garden loud against their thoughts.
“Anelace?” Estelle’s voice was unusually small. “I know we haven’t gotten to spend much time together here, but, um, I wanted to ask you as my friend and rival. Do you think Joshua and I are doing the right thing? With Renne?”
Anelace was still for a second. “Do you think you’re doing the right thing? You guys went wandering away, clear out of Liberl, certainly away from where I could follow you right now. Do you have a plan? Because we all know what’s going to happen when we’re finished here.”
“Joshua and I will lose her again.” Estelle sighed. “We wanted to talk to her, but she stays far away from us unless we have to go out into the planes, and we can’t afford to let our attention slip out there.”
“Do you love her? And you’ll protect her?” Anelace’s voice was solemn. “Don’t answer that because I know already. You’re gonna be great at this.”
Estelle huffed, but Anelace persisted. “No, but, Estelle, I wouldn’t be ready to take on that burden. Being a mom? It’s hard enough to protect my plushies, much less take on a kid.”
Estelle’s stomach shook Anelace’s head as she quietly chuckled. “You’re right about that. I don’t know about being her mom, exactly. I just want her to feel safe and loved. Just be part of our family. That’s what we Brights do.”
“Well, then, it sounds like you already know your answer.” Anelace grinned. “And then you’ll be so busy with Renne that I can have Tita alllll to myself.”
“Ha, oh, no you don’t!” Estelle sat up, dislodging Anelace’s head. “You ready to start again? We have to be prepared for whatever we find out there!”
Anelace rolled to her feet. “You bet. Thank Zin and Agate are gonna try to redeem their bet, go double or nothing against Schera?”
“Probably. Nothing else for those two to do in here besides spar themselves. But hey, we can’t have Schera winning all the time. Do you know which one bet on you?”
“Nah, neither of them would tell me. Pretty sure it was Zin, but neither of them would confirm or deny.”
“Smart guys. Well, if Agate bet on me, he’s about to win his mira back!”
“Oh, yeah? Well, Zin’s gonna buy me that plushy with the mira he gets off this match when I win!”
The two squared off, judging each other’s stance and timing carefully. When the moment was right, the match began anew.