Hands Held in the Snow
art by Mikyala Buan
I don’t believe in love at first sight.
You do? That’s because you’re still too young. It takes much longer in life to come to grips with the fact that love isn’t something that sparks out of nowhere. There are no soulmates, no destinies intertwined by the Gods. Love comes only when you work for it. The best we can hope for is infatuation at first sight, and that’s not quite as poetic.
What? You… Oh. No, me loving you at first sight doesn’t count, because I’m your grandmother. I’m talking about the romantic kind of love.
But, for all my skepticism, there’s one story I’ve heard over the years that’s made me question this belief. …Yes, it’s story time. Yes, this is does involve that centaur carving you found. I promise. I’m not senile yet– at least I hope not. Come, sit down, sit down.
Okay, are you settled? I’ve actually been meaning to tell you this story for a long time. The first time I heard it, it changed my perspective on a life I had thought was set in stone. And now I think you’re old enough to understand it yourself.
This story takes place in the old kingdom of Elince. Back in those days, the country had been occupied by its neighbor, the empire known as Dannark. You’d know all of this if you kept up with your history studies.
In the capital city of Balarand, it was a common sight then to see imperial soldiers patrolling the streets. Foreign flags flew freely on buildings, blue and green stripes speckling the city everywhere you looked. Dannark and all its soldiers brought a stifling air to the city, the dark chrome armor squeezing out of the lungs any hope of a return to normalcy. The people were mired in the thick tension of a war they never even saw.
But they kept up the illusion as best as they could. The people of Balarand went about their daily lives as best as they could, going to work and school, shopping on the weekends and holding festivals on holidays, carrying about as if their king hadn’t been deposed just months earlier.
And in this same way, there was a marketplace, bustling just as it would be in any other late afternoon. A statue of a long-ago queen in the center. A stretch of dozens of sellers, a hundred tables and booths set up, and thousands of people scouring their contents.
The town clock struck four, but you couldn’t hear its ringing for the crowd. It was that busy.
In this marketplace, there was a girl browsing through booths of produce. Her glasses were slightly askew, and her head was angled down. She inspected a row of cucumbers, her shoulder sagging from the bag of daily groceries strapped to her back.
“I’ll take two,” she said, placing a few copper coins on the seller’s table and putting the vegetables in her bag. She dusted off the long, hand-sewn skirt that lined her waist down past her shins– not because it was dirty, but due to force of habit– and merged into the mass of people walking up and down the street.
Her name was Beatrice Ragnell. A junior priest heading home from school. She had stopped by the marketplace to pick up groceries, and she began to make her way out.
Beatrice danced her way through the crowd, striding in a beeline towards the next intersection, taking a route so familiar her vision nearly glazed over into a blur. Her bag bobbed up and down as she took each long step, and the curls in her hair bounced along. The girl felt the rhythm of the day, felt the hustle of the tempo to which she set her daily life. She was headed home, and she was ready to be home.
The weather was nice and cool, the warm sun’s rays pushed back by the chilly wind. And the wind at that moment bristled up against a nearby tree. A leaf, a hardened survivor and one of the last still attached, broke away and floated downwards. It caught Beatrice’s attention, falling down past her ocean-blue eyes, past the speckled freckles sprinkled across her cheeks. Beatrice let her eyes follow the leaf until it rested gently on the ground at her feet. She studied it for a moment, and then looked up.
At the same time, in the same marketplace, there was another girl.
This other girl stood near the tables of fruits and vegetables with her hands clasped together in front of her. But she and her narrow, soil-colored eyes paid no mind to the items around her, instead casting her gaze at the crowd. She watched the people sauntering around as they shopped and haggled prices, the people standing by a nearly naked tree, chatting about their weeks. The small children sitting at the nearby canal that bisected the marketplace, dangling their legs and giggling about whatever children found funny.
It was loud, too loud for her to feel comfortable. But she allowed herself a rare moment to sink into the crowd, to absorb the marketplace and watch this world like a visiting ghost. To her, this place was a living book for her to read.
A cold gust blew through. The girl breathed in deeply and took in the air, hitting her throat and sending a stinging chill through her body. She shivered and shifted her stance, folding her arms together. These were the last throes of autumn, and she hated it.
An older man scooted up next to her, trying to get a look at the carrots behind her. She darted out of the way. Her face turned bright red as she realized she had been obstructing the way.
Her name was Emi L’Hime. Daughter of two of Balarand’s most important diplomats. She had been going for a simple stroll through the city on a day she was supposed to be writing a paper.
Emi took one hand from her folded-up arms to brush her thin, straight hair behind her ear, and she took a few steps backwards, out of the way. But then she felt a sharp pain in her thigh– she bumped into the corner of a table. A few onions tumbled off and thudded against the ground. The older man gave a look.
Still blushing, she bent her knees and crouched down to pick the onions up and place them back on the table– but stopped when something caught her notice.
At that moment, in this marketplace, in a street packed with people and bursting with noise of all sorts, Emi’s eyes lowered, and Beatrice’s raised.
And those two pairs of eyes met, and stopped on each other’s faces.
On an otherwise unmemorable day, Beatrice and Emi saw each other for the very first time. Nobody but the two of them could say what happened.
I can only guess that Emi’s eyes ignored the other girl’s tattered uniform, or her still-lopsided glasses. Likewise, I’m sure Beatrice’s eyes didn’t pay a single iota of attention to the dirt covering the hem of the other girl’s dress. The two saw only each other.
It lasted for two seconds. Maybe one. Both went back to their respective homes, had supper, read a book, and went to sleep. But they were equally and irrevocably changed by what happened.
Whatever Emi and Beatrice felt by meeting each other’s looks, it was no fleeting moment.
Was it love at first sight? I wouldn’t say so. But…
It was… something at first sight.