Sandra’s Point of View:
“Come on,” I anxiously whisper to myself.
Eyes closed, focusing solely on the stick in my hands, I slowly expel my mana, trying to force it into the wood.
I can sense the mana escaping from my hands, and I can push it towards the stick, but the material's natural mana resistance easily brushes off my attempts to earn the Inject Mana skill. Gritting my teeth in frustration, I release more mana, hoping that increasing the amount will better my chances.
“Take it, damn you!” I finally lose my patience when the wood resists my mana for the thousandth time, unfazed by the level of mana I'm expelling. Opening my eyes, I stare down in anger at the ordinary twig in my hands. The stick didn't come from some magic tree or anything special like the blacksmithing logs Aaliyah works with; it's just a standard stick I picked up outside the house.
Aaliyah made it sound so easy when she explained to me how she unlocked Inject Mana. Just force your mana into an object until you break past its natural barrier, she said. Look for a weak spot in the barrier, she suggested. I didn't have the heart to tell her I can't even sense my own magic resistance threshold, let alone anything outside my body.
Any mage with Sense Mana at level 10 can vaguely see how mana flows inside yourself. When you push the skill to level 20, you can tell roughly how much mana is inside something if you're close enough. Your internal mana senses become stronger, with 20 being the level most magic teachers require their potential apprentices to have. At level 30, you can sense the finer details of how mana moves around you and is the general mark that you’re no longer a novice apprentice.
I followed my teacher's lessons and meditated multiple times a day in Drey to get Sense Mana to level 30, at which point I was complimented for my hard work and the rate that I was improving.
I continued training like that and thought it was special to get Sense Mana to level 39 by the time I finished my apprenticeship under my Master. Nearly 20 levels, I almost doubled my skill's level in five years. And Sense Mana isn't like other tier 2 skills; you can't just improve its level by activating it over and over like other low tier skills; you need a talent few in the world possess.
I was proud of the level I reached… until I was shown what real talent looks like.
I wonder if my old Master has returned to Drey? Part of me wants to take Aaliyah to him and see his reaction when she displays her mana skills. He would droll on and on about how great of a mage he was and how only a handful of mages in the area were better than him. If he was telling the truth, then that just shows how shitty the local mages are.
My Magic Master explained to us how you only need to get Sense Magic to level 30 to be an effective mage and that it was our more active magic skills we should focus on, like chanting. I can only now see how limiting his advice truly was, and my family paid him a small fortune for it.
Sure, I can cast spells, but I have nowhere near the flexibility of Aaliyah. She can fly just by manipulating the mana under her feet. One time one of my fellow apprentices jokingly asked our Master when he would teach us flight magic. Our Master spent the next half hour berating us for asking for the impossible. Spells to make you hover are tier 4, and full-on flight magic is classified as tier 5. We were told we would have to sell our souls just to see the incantation for such a spell, let alone to have the skills actually to cast it.
And yet, every morning, I spot Aaliyah doing what my Master said was impossible and without a spell to boot. Most of the villagers don't notice because she still runs close to the ground, but you can see that Aaliyah's feet never actually touch the ground if you look carefully.
I’ve talked to Aaliyah multiple times about how she does it, and it all comes back to her mana manipulation skills. Aaliyah seems to freely manipulate mana into practical skills; just a few days ago, she showed me how she figured out how to attach her hammer to her back with threaded magic.
I was excited to hear how she did it and was happy for Aaliyah's success; however… I couldn’t help but feel jealous watching her.
I might be able to pull off the same feat with a few lower-tier spells, but the mana expenditure wouldn't make it feasible. Also, keeping multiple spells active for an extended period of time puts a considerable strain on the mind because you need to visualize the spell continuing to work.
Of course, Aaliyah doesn't have such a problem because her skills allow her to treat mana like it's physical. Compaction, turning it into threads, directly injecting and absorbing it, mages can only dream of the stuff Aaliyah does with her magic. Aaliyah told me she ties each construct she creates to her mana network, so once she forms them, they hold until she reabsorbs the magic. She circulates the same mana that flows through her body into her Mana skin and vice versa, making her skill essentially part of her body. The control that must require! The fact alone, she can freely manipulate her mana outside her body is honestly a bit scary.
It isn't healthy to compare myself to her; I know that, I have to shake my head to try and dismiss those negative thoughts. Sadly, I can’t help but think about how I’ve been trying so hard to bridge the gap between us, only to no avail. I would feel better if I could reciprocate knowledge with her, but my contract with my Master keeps me from teaching Aaliyah even the most basics of spells I know. I keep asking for her to teach me more and more, without doing the same in turn. Aaliyah even let me help her deciphered the engraving ink. She says she couldn't have done it without me, but I'm fully aware it would've just taken her longer.
To add even more insult to injure, I've yet to learn a single one of her mana skills, despite her best efforts to help me. I love Aaliyah like a little sister, but it's just so damn frustrating! I can’t hang my head any lower.
“Having a hard time?” A voice in front of me asks.
“AAAAAaaaaaaaa,” I jump and scream, tossing my stick in the direction of the voice.
“Hey," Richard raises his arm, blocking the small twig before it can hit him in the face. "You shouldn't throw things," he jokes, unknowing that I was a second away from casting a fireball spell at him.
Richard smiles down at me while I bring my hand up to my chest, trying to quail my beating heart. His mirthful look slowly fades as he realizes that he really did frighten me. "I'm so sorry," he bends down and sits next to me on my meditation cushion, wrapping his strong arms around me.
“You should be,” I hiss.
"I greeted you when I walked into the house; I thought you knew I was there," Richard quickly explains himself.
My meditation station isn't that far away from the front door, and I didn't even notice him enter and approach me. Great, now I'm slacking even when I'm not practicing magic.
“What’s wrong?” Richard asks in a concerned voice, pulling me closer to him.
“Why does something have to be wrong?” I stubbornly try to pull away from Richard, but his loving grimp keep me in place. I bet Aaliyah could get out of this.
"Because something is bothering you." Richard releases his grip just enough so I can look up into his eyes. Confronted by his worried expression, I let out a soft sigh; Richard knows me so well.
I stop resisting and let Richard pull me back into his chest protectingly. “I haven’t seen you like this since you were having trouble with that one spell back in Drey, but something tells me this isn’t just magic related,” he softly coos and starts stroking my hair. “Does it have something to do with Aaliyah?”
I can't help but twitch when Richard says his sister's name, all but confirming his suspicions. "What made you guess that?" I mumble into Richard's chest so quietly that I'm not even sure that he heard me.
But of course he did, Richard chuckles and moves on from stroking my hair to tenderly rubbing my back. “It’s no secret that you’ve been avoiding her recently,” Richard points out to me.
“I haven’t been avoiding Aaliyah. Tomorrow I’ll be spending all day with her,” I tell Richard.
“That’s because tomorrow is the two of yours 'magic study day’. Besides your meeting tomorrow, when was the last time you hung out with Aaliyah?”
“She and I have just been busy lately. I’ve been working on my magic, and Aaliyah is finishing up her arrows today.” I don't want to talk about this. Can't Richard be a bad boyfriend for once and let me sulk by myself?
“Uh-huh,” Richard isn’t convinced with my excuse. “And that’s why you threw a stick at me,” he whispers into my ear.
“I threw a stick at you because you frightened me,” I remind him, starting to get a little frustrated while blushing.
“And not noticing me when I walk into our house?” I can hear the mirth in Richard’s voice.
I know what he's doing; Richard is trying to prod me until I slip up and tell him what he wants to hear. Too bad for him; I'm not that easy. "That's right; you shouldn't frighten people. Next time you might get more than a stick thrown at you,” I make an empty threat.
“I guess I’ll need a helmet from Aaliyah then. Can you please ask her for one for me?" Richard makes light of my threat, knowing I would never intentionally hurt him.
“Why are you here?” I decide to try and move the subject of our conversation away from Aaliyah. “Didn’t you leave for work two hours ago?”
“It was three hours ago, sweety,” Richard chucklingly remarks. "And if you're asking why I'm back, I'm guessing you forgot what I was doing today." Thankfully my face is still buried in Richard's chest, so he can't see my blush deepening from his comments.
“Today was the day I sit down with your father and Salus to discuss the possibility of setting up a wall around the village,” Richard reminds me.
Oh yeah, I forgot Richard was meeting with Dad today. Multiple people have been asking for a wall since that Scholl platoon marched up to our village, and Richard eagerly volunteered to come up with a design. Richard spends a few hours working on his plans every night, and I forgot that he mentioned that he finished them a few days ago. "How did Dad and Salus like your design?" I happily ask now that the conversation isn't revolving around my relationship with Aaliyah.
“They called it ‘bold’ when I showed it to them,” Richard stresses their choice of words.
“They didn’t like it? Do you want me to go talk to my dad?” I quickly offer my help.
“There’s no need for that,” Richard tells me in a cheerful voice. “The two of them were just concerned with the scale of my designs. I had to go into greater detail about everything, but I slowly got the two of them to see how the village could make my plans work.
"That's wonderful," I exclaim. I know just how much work Richard put into the design of his wall. Once it's completed, the village won’t need to worry about monsters attacking for a long time, and even if they do, with Richard’s wall in place, there will be little chance of people getting hurt.
Wait! “So, if they agreed to your design, why are you back home?” I again question Richard about his spontaneous visit.
"I came home to grab my notes on the approximation on how much material the wall will need. I need a lot of stone for parts of the wall, and there are only two people I can ask for help.”
I can feel Richard gazing down at me, no doubt with a cocky smile on his face, proud of himself for how smoothly he shifted the conversation back to Aaliyah.
“Would you like to come with me? It looks like you could use a break anyway?" Richard's sweet voice nudges me to agree.
It doesn’t look like Richard is going to take no for an answer. Letting out a small sigh, I decide to agree with him and get this over with. “Fine, I’ll go with you. But I really am trying to work on my magic, and I won’t stay if your discussion takes too long.”
“You’re the boss,” Richard happily agrees. Standing up, he offers me his hand.
“I can still get up on my own,” I huff, angling myself so I can comfortably get to my feet without putting unnecessary pressure on my midsection. I’m almost through my fourth month of pregnancy, and though my stomach isn't that big at this point, I'm already finding that I need to move around differently as my belly continues to expand.
“I’m sure you can,” Richard beams down at me. He reaches over and gently takes my hand into his own, “but an extra hand always helps.”
I accept the offer and let Richard help me to my feet. I've never told him, but I love it when he acts all chivalrous with me; it's like I have my own personal knight. Only my knight builds castles rather than defends them.
Richard continues to butter me up when we reach the front door, where he bends over and helps me put my shoes on. If he continues to act like this, I won't be able to stay mad at him poking his nose in my and Aaliyah's business.
Arm in arm, we leave our house and slowly make our way through the village. Richard remains conscious of our pace, slowing his steps to not put any unnecessary stress on me.
But halfway through the village, Richard can’t help himself. “So, Aaliyah, what’s going on there?” Richard likes to point out that I'm like our moms, but I think he doesn't realize he has these stubborn moments too.
“I don’t want to talk about it, ok,” I whisper as we walk past a small group of villagers enjoying the spring sun.
“Did my sister do something?” Richard pushes the subject. “I can try and get her to apologize, but if I’m honest, I don’t think I can take her.” Richard gives me a meek look, and I can't help but laugh, which prompts him to smile.
"Don't worry; I don't think I can take her either." As soon as those words leave my mouth, I’m reminded that I'm falling further behind Aaliyah. Richard notices the change in my expression, and I think at that moment, he realizes what's been bugging me.
“Weren’t you the one who’s told me multiple times I shouldn’t compare myself to my sister," Richard says in a quiet yet caring voice. "I thought we were both happy with all the progress we've made," Richard's hand hovers down to my protruding belly, “I know I am.”
“I’m happy,” I snap back, finding my hand naturally moving to my stomach in a protective matter. “It’s just,” I hang my head in shame.
"It's hard watching Aaliyah improve as she does," Richard finishes my sentence for me.
“Yes,” I mumble in a barely audible voice.
A silence falls over the two of us as we walk past the village’s new armory. Unwilling to let Richard see the defeated look in my eyes, I focus on the new building. The square building is rather plain, but the size is impressive. The structure looks like it could withstand anything with walls made from large stone blocks and the thickest tree trunks around. I wouldn't start chucking fireballs at it, but I'm sure the building could take a stray spell or two.
Richard said the armory was designed to store all the weapons and armor Aaliyah made for the village and act as a bunker should the village be attacked. If another goblin hoard or a large group of bandits were to approach the village, the armory would be a safe place for the children and elderly to take shelter along with anyone else who couldn’t defend themselves.
The twin doors at the front of the armory are wide enough for four people to stand side by side. They're made from a bone larch tree, Richard explained to me that it was a very durable wood that Richard's dad had to look for specifically. You can see the steel fixtures holding the structure together were made with a lot of care, yet another example of Aaliyah's masterful craftsmanship. Even when she's constantly busy, Aaliyah didn't hesitate to offer her services while Richard and Salas built the structure.
As we pass by the armory and through the rest of the village, I feel confident enough to talk as we step into the forest now that there aren’t any wayward villagers nearby. “I’m having trouble unlocking a skill.”
“The one you’ve been trying to get?”
So, Richard noticed. "Yeah, it's the skill that I need to start practicing enchanting with Aaliyah."
"I see," Richard hums in thought. "I can see how that must be frustrating, but what does that have to do with my sister? You'll figure it out eventually."
“I don’t want to wait for eventually! I’m already having trouble keeping up with Aaliyah, and the longer I take, the more of her time I waste.”
“What makes you think you’re wasting her time?” Richard prompts me to continue explaining, and now that I’ve started, the words just pour out of my mouth.
“She spends so much of her time trying to help me learn new mana skills, and I can’t teach Aaliyah anything in return. Did I tell you she contacted Silver Herd for me?”
“I believe you mentioned it,” Richard nods along with me.
"Yeah, did I also tell you how much the materials I need cost?" I frown just thinking about it.
“You might have left that part out, but I take it they’re expensive.”
"That's an understatement," I grit threw my teeth. "Aaliyah told me there are material shortages thanks to the war, and even selling to me at cost, I’ll probably need a handful of gold coins!”
Richard grimaces at the price; he knows being a mage, money has a different value to me. Materials, magic items, my apprenticeship, everything having to do with magic costs leagues above everything else. If I had graduated my apprenticeship a few years ago and had time to use my craft in the city, I might be able to afford the cost of a few gold coins. I'm not complaining that we left for home after I finished my apprenticeship, especially after what happened to Drey soon after leaving, but I knew coming straight home would leave me a poor mage.
I knew it would take me a while to build up a decent income, but I didn't expect to need to get my hands on magic materials so early. I planned to use my magic around the village and charge my father a residence tax. That’ usually what elderly magic users do, when they want to retire someplace out of the way. A residency tax is a flat monthly payment that a mage charges for helping out a town or village.
However, because my parents, the village headman, sponsored my magic education, I would only charge a third of the usual rate until the village expanded a bit and most of my debt was paid off. I figured I'd still need a few more years of practical study before I needed to expand my horizons, giving me plenty of time to save up some coin. I mean, who needs magic gear as soon as they finish their first apprenticeship anyway?
Too bad that sentiment only lasted until Aaliyah showed me her fancy amulet.
Seeing my distress, Richard tries to make me feel better. "We can try and scrape the money together. I'm sure if I asked, your father would front me the money for my part of constructing the wall."
I smile at Richards's offer but slowly shake my head back and forth. "There's no need for that; Aaliyah already offered to pay for everything."
“She did?!” Richard is surprised to hear that.
“Yep, only needed to see me frown at the mention of the price before she told me she would handle it.”
“Oh!” Richard looks like he’s starting to see what has me upset.
"She takes the time to teach me even though I'm not improving, she's paying for what I need, and I can't give her a single thing in return!" I wipe the corner of my eyes, damn hormones, I'm frustrated, but this isn't something I should cry over.
“You helped her with the engraving ink,” Richard reminds me.
“Helped,” I frown. "It's only thanks to Aaliyah's ridiculous skills that we progressed as we did."
“You don’t mean that,” Richard wraps his arm around my shoulder.
“Oh, no?” I scoff at Richard’s platitudes. "I could barely follow along with half the things she was talking about. How the mana was moving inside the engraving ink, I was lucky I could sense the reaction inside the ink when it took place."
“But I heard you experimented without Aaliyah plenty of times.”
“Yeah, but Aaliyah was always nearby, and she always kept an eye on what I was doing. Whenever I did something right, she was there to point out whatever I did. I don't think she even realized it, but it was only thanks to Aaliyah's comments that I 'helped' as much as I did. If anything, I've only been holding her back to increase my own skills," I depressingly admit.
“That’s not true.” Bless Richard for standing up for me, but he doesn’t know what I do.
I stop walking in the middle of the forest trail and look Richard in the eyes. With no tears to cloud my vision, I flatly ask Richard, "Do you have any idea how many skill levels I've gained since we came back to the village?"
Richard is confused by my question and remains silent under my gaze. Pulling up my status page, I tell him how quickly my skills have increased since I started working with Aaliyah.
LV: 41 Experience: 8,746/69,380
Status Points: 0
Running (LV18), Writing (LV37), Mathematics (LV26), Cooking (LV34), Dagger skills (LV7), Meditation (LV39), Sense Mana (LV42), Chanting (LV54), Mana Manipulation (LV19), Expel Mana (LV31), Recall Spell (LV27), Quick Casting (LV14), Alchemy (LV12), Dancing (LV7)
“I’ve gained three levels in Sense Mana, five in Mana manipulation, four in Expel Mana, plus learning my two newest skills! Alchemy and Dancing might only be tier 1, but both required Aaliyah’s help to obtain!”
"I think you might be exaggerating," Richard motions for me to slow down and take a breath. "Mom, Dad, and I," Richard counts off on his fingers. "All three of us also unlocked the dancing skill after practicing a few times with Aaliyah; it isn't that important."
I doubt Richard would be saying that if he watched Aaliyah spar with Tabitha. "And Alchemy?" I challenge back. "You know alchemists are just as fussy about accepting apprentices as mages are. Will you tell me unlocking Alchemy wasn't a big deal?"
“Well… no,” Richard stumbles to answer.
“And what about my other skills?” I press forward, making Richard take a tentative step back. "My mana skills are my most important skills and the hardest to level. In the last four months, Sense Mana, Mana Manipulation, and Expel Mana have seen the same growth as my entire final year under my Master."
“That’s a good thing,” Richard tries to point out the bright side to me.
I shake my head. “You’re still not seeing it. Compared to our time in Drey, what’s different since we returned home?”
Richard seriously ponders over my question while I wait for a response. “Well, we spend more time together,” he beams at me. “We both get to see our families. The two of us are starting a life together.”
I watch Richard's loving eyes drop to my stomach, and I have to hold back some tears. If I don't get what I'm feeling off my chest, it might destroy my friendship with Aaliyah. Clearing my voice, so I don't sound like I'm ready to cry, I tell Richard the problem with what he just told me.
"Exactly, we have more time to spend with our families and each other. I haven't increased my training regimen; if anything, I've cut back on my practice time." I don't mention how part of my mana pool is dedicated to protecting our child. "And yet, my skills that should be getting harder to level are increasing on a monthly basis.”
Richard gives me a look that says he doesn't understand why I'm complaining about being able to level my skills. "Everything falls back to Aaliyah," I tell him. "Every time she has a chance, Aaliyah tries to explain how she improved her skills, not caring how busy she is. She's fighting that crazy woman, so she's safe when she goes to Scholl. She puts her all into her crafting so the village is armed and so that she can leave money behind for her family. And now she's paying for all the materials that I need to learn one of the most desired professions in the world."
“I didn’t think about it much while we were deciphering the ink because I was excited by what I was learning, but now that I’m sitting on the sidelines, I can’t help but notice how much I’m leaching off Aaliyah!” Trembling, I ball up my fists in frustration. “I could pretend I was helping her more than I was while we were working on the engraving ink, but now… now I’m not even doing that anymore.”
Richard wraps his arms around me, supporting me as I bare my soul. "When Aaliyah was still little before I left the village, I could talk freely about what I learned from Anastasia. Now I'm under this stupid contract limiting me from teaching Aaliyah even the most basic of spells. What was even the point of me even leaving the village in the first place? If I stayed behind, I probably could've just practiced with Aaliyah, and if the rate at which I'm gaining skills is any indication, I probably would've been better off that way."
“So, nothing good came out of time in Drey?” Richard quietly asks me.
“You know I didn’t mean it like that.”
“It’s ok,” Richard rocks back and forth on his feet. “I now know what's been bothering you, and I know what you're feeling. Remember how much I complained about Aaliyah and how much she always seemed to overshadow what I did. She doesn't brag about her skills, but when she tries to help you with everything, you can't help but feel a little incompetent next to her. You don't want to be mad at her because of how much she cares for us, but you can't help but compare yourself to her."
Just the way Richard can put my feelings into words somehow makes me feel a little bit better. Just knowing there's someone who gets me completely lifts a part of the weight off my shoulders.
“And I think you're undervaluing what we learned in Drey. We might not have gone to the capital, but we've seen what's outside the village for ourselves. We know what things are worth and how the world operates; do you think Aaliyah can say the same thing? By what you’ve told me, my sister already has a warped sense of money, and I doubt that won't be the only eye-opener she faces when she leaves the village."
I can picture Aaliyah walking down a street, stopping at a stall for some food, and trying to pay with a gold coin. Thought the thought brings a small smile to my face, I wouldn't exactly call knowing the price of bread, or what type of coins you're supposed to use in different areas were the best trade-off to where my skills would be if I stayed in the village with Aaliyah.
Sensing he hadn’t convinced me yet; Richard makes a point I haven't thought about. "Alright, what about what you did for the village?"
“Are you talking about me turning the fields over?”
“Yes,” Richard looks at me with a bit of a smug look. “Could you have done that if you never went to Drey?”
“No, but a simple earth spell isn’t comparable to literally running through the air.”
"And which of those was more helpful to the village?" Richard's grin gets a bit bigger. "People are saying thanks to you; the village will have its best harvest ever. Can Aaliyah do that? I don't think so. Sure, I'm going to ask Aaliyah for some stone from Del-Razen's quarry, but who's going to be the biggest help in helping me magic up a proper wall?"
“You know I can’t conjure up a wall, right?” I look at Richard dubiously.
"I know," he leans forward and kisses me on my forehead. "I've watched you practice your magic for the last five years; I have a pretty good idea of what you're capable of. Even with just the help of your more basic spells, we'll be able to construct the wall a lot faster than otherwise. You might not be able to do what Aaliyah does, but she can't do what you do either."
"And that's supposed to make me feel better about myself?" I ask a bit sarcastically, wryly looking up into Richard's eyes. "Alright, smart guy, now tell me why I shouldn't feel jealous, and what I should do about paying her back for all her help?"
Richard chuckles, "Silly; you're already paying her back by being her friend." I narrow my eyes venomously at him for saying such a cheesy thing, but that only makes Richard laugh more. "I'm serious; you should know by now Aaliyah doesn’t want anything from you, well, maybe more time to hang out with you, but that’s it.”
“That doesn’t exactly help me pay her back,” I deadpan.
“Then tell her you’re going to pay her back,” Richard suggests to me.
“And where am I supposed to get enough gold by the time she leaves?”
“You don’t need to pay it all back all at once,” Richard tells me with a smile. “Just tell her you’ll give everything you owe her to our parents; I’m sure Aaliyah would be more than ok with that.”
That's actually a good idea; how come I never thought of that? And since when did Richard get so good with relationship advice? "So smart. Who are you, and what have you done with my fiancé?” I playfully ask.
Richard bashfully rubs the back of his head. “I just know what it’s like living with my sister, and I have a bit of experience resolving conflicts.”
Now that gits me to raise an eyebrow.
Richard explains, “You forget you weren’t the only one who improved in Drey. I was promoted to be a general foreman, and it was my job to direct a crew of workers.”
“And now you give expert relationship advice?” I don’t buy that for a minute.
"I solved arguments between the workers," Richard responds. "Laborers are a tough bunch, and it's easy for them to step on each other's toes for the simplest of reasons. My boss told me as the foreman; I either need to fire people or resolve the issue. Fire too many people, and there isn't anyone to work with, so I had to learn to talk down two men ready to rip each other apart with their bare hands. The problem between you and Aaliyah is serious, but I don’t think the two of you are at the point of killing one another," he jokes. "Tell Aaliyah you'll pay her back and teach her about what it was like to live in Drey; I'm sure that's just as important as the magic lessons she's giving you."
“And my jealousy? You haven’t mentioned anything about that yet.”
Richard’s smile slips a bit, “Can I tell you something between the two of us?”
“Of course,” I reassure him, Richard’s secrets are my secrets.
"That feeling of jealousy is likely never going to vanish." I flinch hearing Richard going from sounding so positive to so negative in a split second.
“Does that mean you’re still jealous of your sister?” I tentatively ask.
Richard doesn't nod his head, but I can see the answer in his eyes; there's the shame of jealously there, just like me. "I'll always be at least be a little jealous of my sister's achievements. It doesn't mean I don't love her and support her, but… Aaliyah can be almost too perfect. She never stops improving, and no matter how hard you try, you'll never catch up to her. I noticed it when we were kids, and I'm sure you've seen it after spending enough time with her, but no matter what Aaliyah does, she succeeds. Succeed might be the wrong word; I wouldn't say she can master anything she tries, but rather her growth just can't be matched. Aaliyah picks up new skills like they're scattered on the ground and never lacks some sort of inspiration."
“And how do you deal with knowing that?” I ask the thousand gold question.
"Well, as I said, I'm her older brother. Even if I'm jealous of Aaliyah's success, I'm still happy to see her improving if you can believe it," a complicated smile crosses Richard's face. "You need to come to terms with both feelings, despite how conflicting they are.”
“And give up catching up to her,” I sigh and hang my head.
“No!” Richard reaches under my chin and tilts my head back up. “Never give up trying to catch up to Aaliyah.”
“Didn’t you just say like three times that it’s impossible to catch up to her?” I’m confused by Richard’s mix messaging.
"I did, and it's probably true," he shamelessly admits. "But that doesn't mean you can quit trying to catch up to Aaliyah. I may never reach her level, but I will damn well try. Use the jealousy to stay motivated; if you wanted to get stronger, then become stronger. The jealousy may never vanish, but you don't need to let it control you. I told myself I'd stop trying my hardest when my jealousy vanishes; until then, I'll keep improving. And who knows, maybe the gods will pity me and offer me a blessing," Richard wholeheartedly laughs.
“Thanks, Babe,” I hug Richard after his laughter starts to calm down.
“Anytime, Sweety. If you ever can’t talk to Aaliyah, you can always come to me. I’ll always be on your side,” he stresses.
"Well, now that I know you can give decent advice, I might just have to do that," I smile at Richard. "In fact, we should probably have discussions like this every night; that way, we'll always know how the other is feeling."
"Wait, what!" Richard's eyes expand to the size of dinner plates.
“Yeah, that sounds like the perfect idea,” I reiterate.
“Hold on now, every night?”
I laugh at the look of horror on Richard’s face. It takes me laughing for five minutes before Richard realizes I was joking.
“Ready to see Aaliyah?” Richard asks me before we continue to Del’s clearing.
Feeling much better, I nod, and the two of us continue our walk hand in hand.
I still need to have a discussion with Aaliyah, but I no longer feel like I need to avoid her. Richard gave me a lot of good advice, and I'm going to take it to heart.
I'll find a way to pay back Aaliyah for everything she's done and everything she'll do.
And I'll keep training. I'm still going to try and unlock Inject Mana, but I've been putting off practicing my spells for far too long. I can't focus on what Aaliyah can do, I need to focus on what I can do, and I can cast spells. My original goal was to learn magic to improve the village, and I can't forget that.
"I love you," I whisper, leaning in close to Richard.
“I love you too,” he responds without missing a beat.
How was I lucky enough to find such a great man, I think to myself as we continue down the forest trail towards my friend.
Towards my rival.