The dusk set the sky aflame behind Max. The town was painted orange from the rays of the setting sun. The croaks of ravens filled the silent air. Max was walking down a hill back home from his daily physical training.
He never really liked Stratford Town. Max found the perks of a small community suffocating. He didn't want to know everybody's name, or walk down the same road every day, or look at the same ocean view every day. He wanted something more. He wanted to see the outside world, but his family had other plans for him.
Max absent-mindedly looked at the town at the bottom of the hill. It was small enough that he could see the entirety of the town from up on the hill he was standing on. He looked into the distance at the ocean behind the town. It was vast. Sunlight glimmered off the waves. He knew he would have done anything to cross that water to the other side.
Max shook his head and tossed his thoughts aside and continued walking, knowing that it was just pointless fantasy.
Before he got to the bottom of the hill, Max heard a quiet sob in the distance. He looked around to find the origin of the cry and saw a little girl about his age balled up against a wall with her hands around her legs and her face buried in her knees. He faintly recognized her from the events he was often reluctantly brought to by his parents. She was the daughter of the Stratford family head.
"Are you… Beth?" Max slowly approached the little girl and asked gently.
The little girl stopped sobbing and paused there for a moment, facing the ground. Then, she lifted her head and looked at Max with eyes full of tears.
"Y-Yes…" She said quietly.
"What's wrong?" Max crouched down to Beth's level and asked.
Beth didn't say anything. She just avoided Max's gentle gaze and looked back at the ground.
"It's okay, you can tell me." Max smiled.
He reached out his hand and patted Beth on her head. She jolted a little at first to Max's touch but didn't do anything to stop him.
"R-Really?" Beth looked back up and wiped the tears off of her face.
"Nobody will play with me…" Beth quietly made out those words.
Max was a little surprised to hear that. Beth was a very cute girl and seemed really nice. He couldn't think of a reason why she didn't have any friends. Then he remembered that every time he saw her at a social event, she would be alone. Max thought she must have been isolated due to her status. He felt sorry for the little girl crying all alone and decided to help.
"No problem. I will play with you if no one else will." Max grabbed onto Beth's hands and slowly stood up, helping Beth up as well.
"You will?" Beth was more uplifted.
"Yep." Max brought out the best smile he could.
Seven years later
"Good afternoon, Max, Mia." A woman greets Max as he enters the house of the Stratford family head.
"Hey, Aunt Sophie." Max's little sister, Mia, who is standing beside him, greets back.
"Good afternoon." Max follows suit.
"Your parents are already in the banquet hall. You two can go join them."
"Thanks, Aunt Sophie." Max gives a wave and brings Mia with him down the hall.
"I can't believe Beth is already 18 years old," Mia mutters beside Max.
"Yeah. My 18th birthday was just a couple of months ago. I guess we are both adults now." Max says.
"But don't get any ideas, okay? Just because you are both adults doesn't mean you can do whatever you want." Mia pouts.
"Hm? What are you talking about?" Max frowns in confusion.
Mia says nothing and just looks the other way.
Max has been inside the family head's house countless times now. As his immediate family is in the inner circle of the Stratford family, he is often invited to social gatherings inside the main residence.
Soon, they arrive at the entrance of the banquet hall. It is a huge open room with tables neatly organized around the hall. There are already many familiar faces in the room, and their overlapping chatters echo within the walls.
"Hey, Max, Mia." A young man standing around who is considerably older than Max calls out to Max and Mia.
"Hey, Gabriel." Max walks into the room and greets the young man. Mia gives a wave and a smile.
Gabriel is the first child of the Stratford family head, which means that he is the older brother of Beth.
"The birthday banquet will start in a bit once all of the guests get here. Just find a seat for now." Gabriel says.
Max sees his parents at the end of the hall already sitting at a full table. He walks to an empty one with Mia. He pulls out a chair for himself and his sister and they sit down.
"Max, have you decided what you want to do yet?" Mia asks.
Max's 18th birth has passed a couple of months ago. In Stratford town, the age of 18 is considered adult, and people of that age should already have decided what they want to be.
"I don't know. I will probably be a merchant or something. I want to see the outside world." Max says.
"You can't do that. You are one of the strongest in the academy. Why don't you join the Defense Forces?"
"Defense Forces? What's there to defend from? There hasn't been a Crack in 50 years." Max is getting somewhat frustrated.
He has been told countless times to join the Defense Forces because of his exceptional talent in almost every field of combat, but becoming part of the Defense Forces would mean devoting his life to Stratford Town, the thought of which would send Max into a panic.
"That's true." Mia realizes that it is a sensitive topic for her brother.
"What about you, Mia? You will be an adult in less than a year. Do you have anything you want to do?"
"I don't care. I will follow you wherever you go, Max." Mia smiles.
Max is happy to hear that, but he is also concerned for his sister.
"Do you not have anything you want to do that will make you happy?"
"Nope. I am happy as long as I am with you."
"You sure? Will you follow me even if I leave the island?" Max asks Mia half-jokingly while patting her on the head.
"Of course!" Mia answers with no hesitation.
Max has been on good terms with his sister since they were children. He is very protective of her and genuinely wants the best for her, which has made Mia develop a slight brother complex.
"Uhh. I am getting hungry, when is the banquet going to start?" Mia is acting spoiled since her brother is patting her.
"It looks like everyone is here. The celebrant should join us anytime now." Max glanced around the room.
Shortly, the sound of clinking glass is heard at the end of the room. Gabriel stands up from his seat and raises a glass. The room falls to silence.
"Good evening, everybody. I welcome you to my sister's coming-of-age banquet. Thank you for gathering here to celebrate this wonderful occasion together. Beth, please make your entrance." Gabriel says to everyone in the room.
The people, including Max and Mia, gather their attention at the door that is being slowly pushed open.
At the other side of the door stands Beth, in a gown of the same glimmering gold as her long, wavy hair. Her dress is embroidered with a crisp blue accent complimenting her sapphire eyes.
Max's heart skips a beat at the gorgeous aura coming off of Beth. She never likes to stand out, so she has always dressed plainly, which made her current profile a rare sight to behold.
Beth has an uncharacteristically classy and gentle smile on her face, but Max, being one of her two only friends for 7 years, noticed the pensive sadness in her eyes.
"She's beautiful." Mia quietly exclaimed beside Max.
The chill, night air encompasses Max as he climbs up the ladder to the shingled roof.
"I thought I would find you here."
Max gets on top of the roof and sees Beth already sitting there. Her hair is fluttering in the wind. She stares melancholically into the distant ocean. She turns around at the sound of Max's voice.
"Oh, it's just you."
"What? Unhappy to see me?"
Max approaches Beth and sits down beside her.
"You are too close."
"Do you mind?"
Beth says nothing.
"The stars sure are beautiful." After a pause, Beth says while looking up into the night sky.
"Yeah… but not as beautiful as you." Max gives Beth a smile.
"Shut up, Max. You are so corny." Beth lightly punches Max on the arm.
"Anyways, happy 18th birthday, Beth. I got you a present." Max pulls out a small, decorated box from his pocket.
"Oh? I got some really expensive gifts from elite families, you think I will like yours better?"
"Ouch. It's not polite to compare presents, Beth." Max sarcastically pretends to be hurt.
"My bad." Beth takes the box and looks at it.
Beth lifts up the lid of the box. In it is a brooch made of gold. In the center is a huge translucent gemstone with the same color as the ocean.
"What's this?" Beth is clearly trying to hide her fascination.
"It's aquamarine." Max points to the distant sea in front of them. "It came from the other side. Apparently, you can find them in the mines on the mainland. I asked Uncle Joseph to get it."
"It's so pretty." Beth is mesmerized by the light blue of the gemstone.
"I knew you'd like my present the most."
"Don't push your luck."
Beth pins the brooch onto her gown over her chest. She is happier now, but the sadness lingered in her eyes.
"Look at you, all grown up now. It feels like you were a crybaby just yesterday." Max teased.
"No one asked you, Max." Beth gives Max a light shove. He laughs.
"You got an idea what you will do?" Max asks.
"Not at all. I will probably join the Defense Forces. I got placed in the top 10 in the academy, you know?"
"Yeah, I heard." Max is a little disappointed that Beth might end up in the Defense Forces.
They sit there for a while, enjoying the chill breeze of the night.
"Hey, Max." Beth is trying to sound cheerful, but there is obvious sorrow in her voice. "I will get married soon."
Max just stares at the ocean.
He knows that it will happen sooner or later. Beth is one of the only two children of pure Stratford blood. Her father will marry her off to the second purest Stratford descendant of the elite circle to keep the bloodline as pure as possible.
Max has always tried to avoid thinking about that. They have been friends since childhood. He hates the thought of seeing Beth with anyone else, against her will no less. But now it is really happening.
After a moment of quiet, Max breaks the silence.
"You want to run away with me?"
Beth is caught off guard by Max's sudden suggestion. His tone makes it sound like not a big deal.
"W-What!? Like eloping? What makes you think I would want to get married to you?" Beth is really flustered.
"I didn't say anything about getting married." Max turns around.
Beth stares at Max. Her cheeks are bright red.
"R-Right." She says, then buries her face in her knees.
"I am just sick and tired of this town. It's suffocating to think that I will die here one day. I want to go see the outside world."
"No one is stopping you." Beth seems to have recovered.
"You, Beth. You and Mia are stopping me. I don't want to leave you both." Max is laying all of his cards down.
Beth blushes again.
"W-Why do you think I would care?"
"Well, do you?" Max looks into Beth's eyes. He is serious.
"A little…" Beth muttered under her breath, unable to keep her facade under Max's intense gaze.
"Will you come with me?"
"What about Mia?"
"I am sure she will follow me wherever I go."
Beth lowers her head. She is thinking it through. Max silently wishes for Beth to agree. He would have left the town regardless of her answer, but he knew leaving Beth behind would make him question his decision for the rest of his life.
"Fine, then. It looks like I've got no other choice."
The sadness that was just in Beth's eyes is instantly erased. Max smiles back. He feels like a boulder on his chest has just been obliterated. While they hastily decided to leave everything behind, it is no easy task.