It was finally here.
The kind of weather that made Emi despise being outside.
After so much anticipation and buildup, the day of reckoning had arrived–here fell the very first snowflakes of the season. And how was she celebrating it? Riding in a gondola down the East Balarand with Tia and six students from the Bright School, the most prestigious private school in the city.
Tia didn’t even go to that school; he was taught at home by a private tutor, just like Emi. But such was his envious social ability that he was able to meet people his age just by going out and searching for them. It was a greater magic than any sort of incantation Emi had ever read about.
The Bright School students chatted away about classes and drama and all sorts of stuff that Emi had no involvement in whatsoever, while Emi stared out at the city expanse bundled up in two jackets and a thick toboggan.
It had been over two weeks since she last saw Beatrice, and she felt miserable. Beatrice, the soldier that she was, had surely gotten over it, but the gaping wound in her own heart would surely remain like this for good.
That was for the best. She did not want to have the capacity to feel love for another; that would make her impending marriage to some woman she’d never met go much more smoothly. It would simply be a fact of life, in that case. Nothing special.
Emi looked past the canal to the city streets. There were fewer people out than usual, a side effect of the snow piling up on the walkways. There were Dannark guards posted outside a tiny bank building, standing firm at their post even as their metal armor likely began to freeze. A pair of greyback bears approached the guards. They paced back and forth, begging for food. The guards did not move, and the greybacks eventually gave up, scrambling away to find another group of humans.
Tia Knoll, as par for the course, was sitting there in a sensible white blouse to match the snowfall, but his skirt only went down to his knees. Surely he must have been freezing out there, his legs bared to the world like that! This man was crazy.
He appeared to notice Emi looking his way, and scooted across the seat, closer to her. “Is this not so much fun?” Tia asked.
“I wish you didn’t invite me,” Emi said.
At this, Tia merely laughed. “I only brought you out here to get you in the sun a little bit. And what do you know, we are receiving our first snowflakes of the season. Wintertime is upon us.” He stuck his tongue out and a snowflake landed on it.
The gondola was currently passing in view of the Eldin Bridge. If one crossed that structure and headed eastward, they would soon find themself in the Elincian countryside under Dannark occupation, where civilization was said to be bright and unstoppably beautiful. If one went the same distance westward, they would find themself on the front lines of the Dannark-Doros War. Both of those things were on Elincian soil. Their kingdom had it all.
Gods, it was like Emi was unable to think about anything remotely positive these days.
“So. My parents were talking to your parents,” Tia said. “Apparently your fiancee is finally coming to Balarand soon. Are you excited?”
“I’m, uh, excited.” She looked away and stared at the Eldin Bridge with all her might. “Sure.”
Tia shook his head. “Sure, except your parents also told my parents that when they told you, you would not tell them anything, and you ran up to your room crying.” That was a confusing string of words.
“How embarrassing. Why would they…” Ugh, her parents.
“Well, they might not be telling you, but they are telling my parents who are telling me that they are worried you may cancel the wedding and ruin their reputations. And that you will be ruining your own future over youthful disdain.”
“Very telling,” Emi said. “They care so much.” She wasn’t sure she could roll her eyes any harder than right now.
“They do. They simply do not understand life outside of that of government officials. It is all social events and grand bargains and power plays to them. My parents are the same way, only with a massive textile business.”
“They really don’t care about me.”
“They do. But they also do not know of the girl.”
Tia flashed a knowing smile. “It has been many long years since you and I became acquainted, Emi L’Hime,” he said. “It does not take a master sleuth to figure out that you are in love.”
“I’m not in love,” Emi said. “I’m in a conundrum.”
“Uh, nevermind.” She thought that would sound better out loud. “Don’t tell anyone about it. Please.”
“Of course not. I am no coin-store floozy.”
“I know. Even a coin-store floozy’d have the decency to leave a grieving girl be.”
“Grieving?” Tia raised an eyebrow.
By this point, the others in the gondola, so absorbed in their discussion about the latest gossip surrounding who slept with who and when, had become a world apart from the two of them. Emi felt at ease to spill her guts out; Tia had that way with people. “I gave up on it. All of it. There was a girl, but I broke things off. No, it was mutual.” So obvious of a lie that she had to pause to keep from laughing. “But either way, it’s over. I’m just waiting for my fiancee to arrive and take me away forever so I can live a happy life as a housewife with six children and pose for the family portrait paintings every year or two.”
“So I am not to expect any new faces at your family’s party as I had suspected?”
Oh right, the big winter party was coming up really soon. The servants had already begun preparing the foyer for it, which was how Emi ended up on mop duty six days in a row. Her arms were going to be gigantic and muscular and there was nothing she could do to stop it.
“The only new face you can expect is if my fiancee makes a shocking appearance at an inconvenient moment when I’m dancing with another person and then cancels the wedding out of anger and jealousy.”
“You have thought this through.”
“It’s all I get to do between studying and failing to figure out how to build a gear box toy,” Emi lamented. Tia didn’t seem to quite understand what she meant, but he kept his cheery smile anyway.
The gondola passed under a small bridge, and Tia’s face was covered in shade for a few moments. All she could see of him were the whites of his eyes, and the whites of his far-too-shiny teeth.
Tia laughed. “I like you,” he said. “If I were a girl, I would probably eat you all up, with that gorgeous hair of yours.”
She looked at her hair. Gorgeous? More like, too long and always getting in her face. “And then I’m really glad you’re not a girl,” she responded.
“Me too,” he said. “By the way, I hope you do it.”
“Abandon your family and run off with this girl of yours.” They exited the bridge and light reemerged on tia’s face. “It would be such a romantic endeavor.”
“Didn’t I just say that I’ve given up on all of that? It’s over,” Emi said.
“But you are also an overdramatic brat sometimes,” Tia replied. “You clearly do not mean what you say, even if you want to.”
“Your life is yours, not your family’s,” Tia said. “Run off, get married, have a family out in Fathie, become a travelling merchant on a ship, go foraging in the forests… Just do what you wish to do. Especially if it involves a girl you love.”
Emi gulped instinctively. “I’ll… think about it.”
As if she hadn’t been thinking about all of this for weeks now.
As if she hadn’t been constantly fretting about what she’d tell Beatrice all this time, why she had suddenly disappeared from her life. “Sorry, but it turns out I can’t see you anymore. I have to marry some woman I’ve never met.” It was so stupid! She had never been more frustrated in her life. Avoidance was probably the best tactic at this point.
…No it wasn’t.
“I know how hard it is to deal with your life under your family,” Tia said. “That is why I just ignore them completely. My grandfather almost died of shock when he first saw me in a dress. And I’ve done it ever since.”
“I wish it were that easy…”
“Well, we all rebel in our own way,” he said. “You just have to find yours.”
Whatever that meant.