Winter was coming.
In Balarand, far enough south that it was safe from raging blizzards and hair-freezing cold, this was not much of an ominous occasion. But for Emi, winter meant cold weather, snow, and being stuck indoors for months on end.
“This sucks,” she muttered to herself.
So on this autumn afternoon, when Emi was once again cooped up in her room because Ms. Khami wanted her to do the studying she had been putting off all week, she knew she needed to make the most of the nice weather before it was gone. She had to make the most of the time she had left.
Doing the opening-up-the-window-and-locking-the-door trick wouldn’t work this time, as it would be far too obvious to anyone who looked outside. So Emi decided on an alternate plan– she left her room and first looked around to see if any housekeepers were walking around. When she confirmed that there weren’t, she bolted out of her room and towards the housekeepers’ quarters.
None of the housekeepers lived permanently at the L’Hime Family House except for Ms. Khami, but some stayed for several days at a time when there was a renovation project underway or a party to prepare for.
At the moment, the quarters were completely empty. And all she had to do was open the side door, and…
There. She was out.
The air was crisp, just like Emi wanted. She took in a deep breath and took in a nice breeze, not too hot but not yet chilly. A whole lot better than the near-freezing temperatures from the other day. It was the perfect weather for reading, and quite possibly the last time it would be this good until next spring.
A complete change from the other day, her neighborhood was devoid of children, snooty girls in parasols, or practically anyone. It was like a ghost town right now, too early in the day for people to be back home from work, too late to see joggers getting their daily exercise. She didn’t do either of those, so she didn’t have much of a concept of why this area was so empty for so much of the day.
Emi began walking to the nearby public library as soon as she exited her neighborhood. Since she was supposed to be studying economics for her “classes,” she figured she could find a helpful book there that she could check out. Something a little less dull than the one Ms. Khami gave her.
See, what Ms. Khami didn’t realize was that Emi actually enjoyed learning about the various subjects she was schooled in. But making her stay in her house the entire time, trudging through such oppressively boring books, was a horrible way to get her to do anything. She yearned to learn, not to churn like butter, slowly mixing herself into insanity while sitting in her room.
If she had to read a book about something as dry as economics, she was going to do it where the weather was good and the birds chirped from the rooftops, where she could look off to the skyline and see Castle Balarand and Gonda Tower beaming above everything else in the city. Otherwise, as interesting as it might have been, she was going to be asleep before she finished the first paragraph.
Emi really wished she could have had a better teacher than Ms. Khami. She was a good housekeeper, kept the servants in line, but the only teaching she ever did was making Emi read books and take tests, designed by Ms. Khami herself of course. Her older brothers went off to boarding school when they were half her age, but her parents apparently couldn’t be bothered a third time, so it was a decade of school at home for her. Maybe she could have signed up for junior priest school all on her own? It was too late for that, though. She was almost done, ready to become an adult and be married away against her will.
She sighed as she exited her neighborhood and came upon the nearest shop street, already bubbled up with foot traffic from people leaving work or looking for an early supper. The bakery had a line of people stretching back half a city block, as people waited eagerly to nab the last scraps of the day at a discounted price. Likewise, a food vendor at the side of the street was heating up her charcoal grill, getting ready for an evening of food preparation.
If only Emi had left an hour earlier, she wouldn’t be forced to take the side street… But it was either that or enter the jumble of people meandering around. She shuddered and went through the dirt road in between two rows of tightly-packed apartments.
It was pathetic to see a girl, literally trained for public appearances, who couldn’t stand the sensation of being in a large group of people. Anytime she realized she was surrounded by others, she locked up, moved to the nearest corner, and stood there until the crowd dissipated. It was humiliating, but it was the only way she could survive it without going crazy. As much as she loved people-watching… it was difficult.
Two large apartment buildings in between one road meant that the path was covered in shade through much of the day, and it was a drastic decrease in warmth. Emi shivered and started to regret not bringing her silk coat. Likewise, thanks to the lack of space between the buildings, two storm drains running alongside the road were filled up with stagnant water that had overflowed from the latest rain, filled with algae. They gave off a green odor that reminded Emi of the benefits of living in a nice neighborhood.
As she exited the side road and went back onto one of the main streets, she was immediately assaulted by two young kids holding some Balarand Circle newspapers up at her. “Hey miss,” one of the kids said. “Buy a paper? C’mon, won’t you?”
“Ha, um, ha” was the only thing Emi was able to mutter, paralyzed with shock. She pushed past the kids and continued her walk, and they went and hawked other passersby.
The library was a way’s walk, around thirty minutes with the extra detour, but it was always worth it; Emi had read hundreds of books there, many of them on the recommendation of the very nice librarians.
In fact, as she entered the library, she saw one of her favorite librarians at the counter– a balding man with glasses named Earl. He was one of the resident experts on nonfiction, especially when it came to Elincian culture.
“Hi,” Emi greeted. “How are you today?”
“Welcome back, Ms. L’Hime,” Earl said. “Been a while since I’ve seen you around here. I’m pretty good, but the better question is: How are you?” He wore a goofy grin. Every time she saw that grin, her mind flashed memories of her Father back when she was young and they still used to play together. It made her appreciate Earl all the more.
“I’m okay,” she said. “I’ve been meaning to read some more books from here, but I’ve got a lot to study at home.” She shrugged to accentuate the sheer ambivalence she felt towards her schooling. “Today, I’m supposed to learn more about economics. My tutor gave me a book on the subject, but it’s… hard to get through.”
“You like more narrative-driven works, right, Emi?” She nodded. Earl put his finger to his lip and thought about it for a moment. “So… let me think. Ah, I think there’s one for you, if you’re doing an introductory study. This is the basics, right?”
“Yes. Well, I think so. I hope so.”
“Well then, Popoclous’s Economic Theory should be a good selection. It’s more of an autobiography of Popoclous’s life than anything else, but his story wraps together lessons on money and production with tales of adventure and young love. It’s the oldest treatise on the subject that I’ve been able to find, at least as far as books written in Tsubasa go. I’m sure some faraway land on a faraway continent has written something older, but our knowledge of the continents beyond is still… Sorry. I was about to get carried away. Anyway, the principles are old, but they still apply well today. How about that?”
“That sounds really interesting, actually,” Emi said. “Adventure and young love?”
“I knew that’d hook you,” he chuckled. “Speaking of, are you still keeping up with The Elf Cycle?”
Emi nodded. “Is The Last Gemini out yet?” she asked, an eagerness of levels reaching panic in her voice.
“Not yet, but the library already has twenty copies reserved from the printing press company.” Earl’s goofy grin gave way to a half-hearted attempt at professionalism. “So, Miss L’Hime. Would you like to read Economic Theory?”
“If it will tide me over until The Last Gemini…” All desire to learn was gone the moment she thought about her favorite romantic adventure series. There was very little room left in her mind for studying as she raced through it, thinking of her various thoughts and theories on how it was all going to turn out.
“Good. I’ll get the book for you.” Earl left the service desk and began rummaging around the shelves and shelves of books, some of them stacked two stories tall.
While Emi waited, she looked around. It was nearly empty today, probably because the weather was so nice. There were a few people sitting at desks and reading or studying or taking naps, though. One likely-homeless man sat at a desk off in the corner. Another person sat at one of the larger tables with several books and papers spread out across it. Other than that, it was almost like the library was closed. Must have been the weather. She, too, was going to ditch the place as soon as she got the book.
Earl passed by the person studying at the desk, and then that person looked up from their notes to glance at him. Emi turned her gaze to that someone, seeing their bouncy curly hair, and then their glasses, and then–
Emi’s heart stopped.
It was that girl.
That girl from the marketplace.
And her blue eyes, glowing as bright as the moons.