Snowflakes kept falling on Emi’s head.
Her eyes were going to turn red soon if this didn’t stop.
She meant to wear a hat, but when she actually opened her closet to find one to suit her black dress, she couldn’t anything that matched. All that organizing she and Pip had done to her bedroom… it ruined everything. Just like the man whose feet were too big for his bed, nothing seemed to fit…
Those snowflakes were falling on her head. And they kept falling.
Emi stood by herself in the middle of a crowded gathering area near the statue of Jon Knoll, to whom Knoll Park was originally dedicated. Apparently that man was a direct ancestor to our present-day Tia Knoll, his great-great-great-great grandfather or something. The statue sure looked like him, too, minus the wig and dresses.
She felt a bit weird standing around with a bunch of students from a school she had never been to, all dressed in the same exact too-thin-for-the-winter uniform Beatrice sported almost every day. Then there was her, who had on an elegant and warm-colored dress. She stood out, and she was sure everyone was staring at her, making comments about her. Being in a crowd, and one where she looked unique, made her sweat from the stress, even in this weather. The things Emi did for Beatrice…
Despite being angry that they would leave so suddenly, she was also glad her parents were still out in Zahn; if they were here, she would never have been able to get out of all the stupid parties today. So many balls and dances and creepy older men hitting on her. And as unfortunate as it was, she was happy King Kline’s processions weren’t happening this year…
Yes, she had decided to be in favor of a hostile takeover of her kingdom’s government just so she didn’t have to go to as many parties this year. It was worth it.
Situated right in the center of Knoll Park, the Winter Ceremonies ritual was about to begin, and Knoll Park was soon to be shielded from harm for the rest of the year. Emi only knew the basics of magical incantations from what she studied to impress Beatrice, but she knew well that, when people channeled together their souls together with the correct strength, they really could do amazing things. And that’s how this ritual here was supposed to work.
A local priest, dressed in a traditional white-and-orange Elincian garb, began pounding on a drum to a rhythmic cadence. On cue, dozens of robed individuals, apparently Beatrice and her classmates, stepped out and encircled the Jon Knoll statue, taking each step in beat with the drum. They all had their heads down and Emi most definitely could not tell which of them was Beatrice herself, hard as she looked; anyone who says they can pick their loved ones out of a crowd like this are bald-faced liars.
One more priest, the man Emi identified as Beatrice’s teacher Mr. Statusian–she had mentioned him a few times and always mentioned his boyish good looks–stepped up in front of the circle of junior priest and clapped his hands. The drums stopped, and the park fell silent, aside from some chirping birds.
“We gather here to begin the Winter Ceremonies,” he shouted. “These junior priests, graduating this winter from the St. Helens Academy, have gathered here to send praise on up high and make sure the Gods know our devotion. If there are no objections, we will begin.”
Mr. Statusian waited for a moment, and then clapped once more. “Good. Junior priests?” The junior priests began moving their hands together in a rhythmic, circular motion. It was not in-sync, but instead staggered, each person’s orbit of hands leading into the next. It conjured up the image of a spiraling orb flowing through a field. At the same time, some of them also moved their positions forward or backwards. These things together made the image appear to move in and out of the depth of field.
The group continued this rhythmic motion, moving about until their formation was that of a sort of star, and then, all at once, they clapped their hands together bowed at a forty-five degree angle.
A glowing magical field formed in the spaces between them, casting a purple hue over the entire surrounding area. Like a funhouse mirror it warped the image in front of Emi’s eyes, and she could no longer clearly see what was going on except that the junior priests were staying in position. This energy was similar what she had seen in Runa’s laboratory, though unlike that time, the magic was not moving around erratically like lightning bolts, but instead focused in a steady position, almost standstill.
Silence struck the entire park, as if time had frozen just as much as the snow that covered the ground. And then, Emi had a sudden burst of inspiration about how to finish her machine. The way these junior priests had moved, the way they had created a picture with only their own movement… Wow. The gears in her mind began rotating, and– Well, she would think about it later. For now, she needed to pay attention to the ritual.
The silence was finally broken in a symphonic booming of voices. “Bk’Man, we honor Thee,” the junior priests said in unison. “Keep our winters wet and warm. Protect our city as we protect Your lands. And bless Knoll Park. Let Your delicate harmony wash over us.” They added something in a dialect that Emi couldn’t parse, and then unclasped their hands.
Immediately, the magical energy on the ground surged upwards into the sky, creating a literal barrier around the park so thick even snow could not pass through; it piled up at the top of the shimmering, purple dome thirty feet in the air.
After several moments and many gasps of awe, the junior priests threw down their hands all at once. The barrier dissipated and the snow gathered at the top came torrenting down.
A giant ball of snow and ice hit Emi in the head and covered her hair. That figured.
“Knoll Park has been blessed for the new year,” the junior priests said. “Thank you, people of Balarand, for keeping your spirits strong once again.” They exited just as they came. Apparently, the park was now blessed by the God Bk’Man.
The crowd cheered. Now that the Winter Ceremonies had officially begun, it was time to have some fun, with the knowledge of a safer Balarand at the back of everyone’s minds.
Emi had no idea how that barrier worked, but it was exciting to watch. The idea that someone could manipulate the forces around them with only the energy of their own soul, that someone could be greater than the nature that had shaped them… Well, it was very interesting. Though, she wondered why the barrier suddenly disappeared like that. From what little she studied about magical incantations, she couldn’t explain this ritual in the slightest. It probably took a better understanding of religious rituals to figure it out.
The life of a priest–or even a junior priest–intrigued Emi. Beatrice hadn’t much discussed the priesthood since they started dating, so all she knew was what she gathered from her history textbooks. And, unlike you, my little lazy grandchild, Emi studied a lot, so she was very well informed. She knew what the priesthood meant to Tsubasa, but most of all, she knew what it would mean if Beatrice became a priest.
Emi tried to keep it out of her mind, but if Beatrice really was going to go off and become some celibate warrior-monk off in the Frozen Desert, fighting sabertooth tigers or whatever priests did, then Emi was probably going to… Well, as long as Beatrice was happy with hunting giant animals in the tundra, that was what was important, she guessed.
Okay, perhaps Emi isn’t the best example of an educated woman. I stand corrected.
Anyway, she wasn’t going to think about that anymore, because Beatrice was here now, out of her robes and into a heavy winter coat. A boy in a tattered jacket followed closely behind.
“Emi, how did you like it?” Beatrice asked, giving her a quick hug.
“It was fantastic,” Emi said. “I’ve never seen something like that before. But.. Do you feel any different now? I don’t. Does that mean the ceremony failed?”
“That’s not how the blessing works,” Beatrice switched into lecture mode. “It’s difficult for humans to detect, because it’s not a physically occurring effect.”
Emi wasn’t quite convinced. “The barrier physically occurred, though….”
“Hi,” the boy said. “I’m Bodhi. Bodhi Makala.” He was nice, with a wide smile and light, turquoise eyes. He was what she always pictured when storybooks would feature a magical prince or dashing knight, his stature so tall and broad that you’d think he was a professional sportsman. He looked like a princely celebrity much more than he looked a low-class junior priest.
“Nice to meet you. Emi, current assumed head of the L’Hime Family household.” She extended her hand and Bodhi reluctantly shook it. She realized how formally she had just introduced herself, and with a half-lie considering that Ms. Khami was effectively the head of the household while her parents were away, even if Emi had legal status… Oh, why did she always mess up with things like these? And why were they still shaking hands?
Beatrice noticed her flusterations and put her arm around Emi’s shoulder, getting her to let go of Bodhi’s hand. “Sorry,” she said. “This is my girlfriend. She’s just being silly right now.”
Emi tried to giggle but it didn’t come out right.
Still… that word. Girlfriend. It made her heart melt just hearing it come out of Beatrice’s mouth.
“I’ve heard a lot about you,” Bodhi said. “You’ve got to be something special to get a girl like her away from studying all day.”
Beatrice rolled her eyes, but Emi laughed. “She still studies all the time, don’t worry. She wouldn’t be such a genius if she didn’t!”
“I’m no genius…” whined Beatrice.
“You’ve been a genius since we were toddlers,” said Bodhi. “Now you’re just old enough that it’s not scary to everyone.”
“Good to see Emi’s as beautiful as you deserve, though. That haircut is excellent.”
“Isn’t it?” Emi patted the back of her head, where there was once so much more hair covering it.
Beatrice sighed and mumbled something along the lines of, “…can’t believe you…”
“Well, nice to meet you, Emi,” Bodhi said. His smile, she realized, wasn’t as strong as when he introduced himself. “I have to go meet up with my family. I guess I’ll see you around, Bea?”
“Not if you call me Bea you won’t.”
He laughed, and said, “Well, I hope you do well in the Priesthood Exams. Beatrice.”
He left, and Emi wondered for a moment how much Beatrice realized about her own situation with that boy. Then… she felt a wave of bliss when she realized Beatrice’s arm was still around her.
“Let’s go explore the festival,” Beatrice suggested.
Alongside the Winter Ceremonies is the biggest festival of the year in Balarand, and perhaps all of Tsubasa. Hundreds of thousands go to Balarand every year for the Winter Ceremonies, from all across the entire continent. It truly is something special, I will tell you that.
Even during this time of occupation by Dannark, people from all over Elince still flocked to the capital to enjoy the festivities, and in this year in particular, Dannark citizens came in droves as well. There was hardly a hotel room open, hardly a shop with empty space during this year’s festival.
For as cold as the city was, the vibrant atmosphere of the Winter Ceremonies was as warm as the spiciest salmon bind.
Situated downtown was a massive display of snow sculptures of endless design, some of them so intricate and detailed that they could be looked upon for hours and still you could find new details to appreciate. One of the biggest sculptures was an entire miniature village of more than a dozen snow buildings and hundreds of snow people going about their snow lives. Another featured an expressive rendition of Empress Nievol’s face, though this sculpture was guarded closely by four Dannark soldiers and attracted few to give it a thorough examination.
Beatrice and Emi looked at a sculpture that seemed to be depicting two human children having a snowball fight, but the anatomy was misshapen in a way that made it look more like a fierce battle between humanoid snow leopards… or maybe a mating ritual between two birds.
It was a bit perplexing, and they studied it for far longer than it was worth.
And yet… There was something interesting about such an odd ice sculpture, something so…. Actually, both of them had become quite bored quite quickly.
It was better to try out all the snacks!
“I love food so much,” Emi said.
“You love food, and you love getting drastic haircuts without the faintest warning to your own girlfriend,” Beatrice said.
“You’ll never let it go, will you?”
“Not until I forget it thanks to too many sweets.”
Emi had already purchased and eaten three different stuffed salmon binds, each a different flavor from a different food stand. The marketplace always had these kinds of foods on sale, but on the Winter Ceremonies day, there were ten times the options, all with different prices and reputations to uphold.
If she were a more discerning girl, she would take the time to study the prices and figure out what was the best value for her money. That’s what Beatrice did right now, looking at two nearly-identical cake stands with as puzzling a look as she had given that snow sculpture.
“If it’s about price, I can buy you anything you need,” Emi said.
“No, no… it’s not that,” said Beatrice, her eyes locked on the two separate chocolate cake stands in front of her. The vendors were starting to get worried about her intent, intense staring. “I want to make sure any money I spend is a good choice. Even if it’s yours.”
“I could buy both of these stands and then make both of these vendors my personal chefs, Tris. It really doesn’t matter.”
Beatrice ignored that comment.
After several more moments of deliberation, Beatrice finally chose the cake stand on the right, buying one piece of chocolate cream cake. She offered a bite to Emi, and then nibbled at the rest.
“Wow, this is pretty amazing,” Emi said.
“You see? We’re getting our money’s worth. That’s why it tastes so good.”
Emi wasn’t really sure about that.
The parade down the Grand Concourse was about to begin, and thousands of Balarand citizens lined up along the bridges in wait.
“I used to come watch the parade with my parents every year,” Beatrice said. “I stopped going when I got older, because I thought it was boring to sit and watch carriages pass by for an hour. But I’ve realized something, Emi.”
“What is it?”
“Parades are pretty great.”
“You know, I used to be in these,” Emi said. “When I was little, they always made me play a snow fairy who circled around the main carriage throwing candy out to the audience. It was really tiring, you know!”
“You probably threw candy to me at some point.”
“Huh. Isn’t that weird? That’s another time we could have met but didn’t.” Emi thought back to that time, wondering how her life would have changed if she had, as a young girl, met eyes with this girl next to her.
How different would her life have been if she had met the love of her life that long ago? Her parents may have even approved of Beatrice if they had met at that age, even if she was a commoner. She would have never had to hear the name Lady Khara, or read the woman’s stupid letters, or deal with any of the nonsense that went along with an arranged marriage to someone she had never met.
Suddenly the parade stopped.
“What’s going on?” Beatrice asked.
“I have no idea.” Neither did any of the other people watching the parade, it seemed, as they looked around at each other and out at the floats with collective confusion.
A large group of men and women wearing bandanas over their faces entered the stopped parade procession and began blockading the carriages’ advance. They held up large signs that read, “Free Balarand!” The same man wearing the Mammoth mask in the style of the God Nexurk was in the protest group, and stood in the center, waving his arms around like he was conducting a worship song.
They quickly began their chant. “Winter Ceremonies are for Elince! Elince is not for Dannark!” It wasn’t a particularly catchy phrase, but some in the audience joined in and yelled alongside them. Emi was tempted to yell as well, but she knew Beatrice would get upset.
It was only a few moments before Dannark soldiers stormed onto the Grand Concourse. Soldiers entered and the protestors piped down, put their hands behind their backs, and surrendered themselves without hesitation. The soldiers rounded them up peacefully. One soldier threw the mask-wearing man onto the icy ground and kicked him, but it elicited no counterreaction.
As they nudged the blockade of protestors out, one officer unraveled a scroll and yelled at the crowds to disperse from the scene, ending the parade prematurely. People were slow to leave, despite the increasingly loud orders from the soldiers dispatched to facilitate it.
“Do you know what this is all about?” Emi asked. “If there’s anything specific that’s going on, I mean.”
“My Dad said they wouldn’t parade organizers to use the Jewel of Elince at the parade this year. That’s probably got some people angry,” Beatrice said, her tone muted and neutral. Emi appreciated that. “Let’s… let’s just go someplace else, I guess.”
“Agreed.” Emi leaned in and pressed her cheek against Beatrice’s.
“Ack, you’re so cold,” Beatrice said.
“Well, warm me up then.”
With the snow falling and festivities to participate in throughout the rest of the city, the two young women soon forgot about the disruption at the parade and proceeded to enjoy themselves elsewhere.
They passed a row of festival booths with fun games for children to play for prizes, and then reached one street intersection where an elderly man in a pointy hat was juggling tiny balls while telling kids a fairy tale story about the first Winter Ceremonies, held thousands of years ago. If there truly did exist people in this world who could perform magical feats on their own, surely it was this guy.
What a good day this had been, Emi thought. Together with Beatrice, watching her perform a sacred ritual, eating delicious cake. And now…
“You know, Tris…” Emi began. “There is still one thing we haven’t done together.”
“Have our first kiss.”
Beatrice audibly gulped. A kiss? Was she really ready for that? Were the two of them in a relationship long enough for that? What was the standard, here? Oh, why was SHE the one overthinking everything now?
“I think we should… kiss,” Beatrice said. “It’s the Winter Ceremonies, after all.”
“Yeah, whatever that means.”
They puckered up their lips and leaned in towards each other, Emi craning her neck down to reach her girlfriend–
But they stopped short.
“Actually, I think my lips are too cold,” Emi said. “They’re kind of chapped.”
“Yeah, it’s kind of dumb to do this in the snow.”
They both giggled nervously, thinking about how stupid this situation was, and why they were building up such a moment like it was something special. It’s not like kisses were the best thing ever, or anything…
Beatrice looked around, and then grabbed her girlfriend by the sleeve. “Let’s go in somewhere where it’s warm.”
They hurried over to a small shop that sold souvenirs to tourists, mostly wooden toys and other tiny trinkets. There was a log was burning in the fireplace, and both of their body temperatures raised instantly. Emi began licking her lips to make sure they weren’t as dried out, while Beatrice clutched hers with her gloves.
After a moment, it was time to try again.
“Okay, now we can do it,” Emi said.
“Yep. Here we go.”
They faced each other and took both their hands together and leaned in…
They planted their lips on one another. A good old-fashioned smooch.
Emi was stunned. She finally did it. She kissed her girlfriend. “Tris… I–”
Beatrice couldn’t help but squeal, and the whole shop turned towards them.
“Yeah!” she shouted, before literally running out of the shop. Beatrice felt so energized, so oddly powerful, that she couldn’t help it. She raised her hands to her mouth, looked up at the sky and screamed, “I kissed Emi L’Hime!”
Emi hurried after her but the power of love was not enough to overtake the speedy yelling girl. “Triiiiiisss…. What are you–”
“I kissed a gorgeous tall short-haired amazing woman!” she screamed again.
“Tris! You’re being a weirdo!”
“This is the happiest day of my life!” Beatrice stopped running and danced around in a circle. It was just so exhilarating that she– Ouch!
A snowball collided right with Beatrice’s face. When she turned to see the perpetrator, the would-be assassin, she saw only her girlfriend, her dark brown eyes morphed into the most mischievous glare imaginable.
“What was that for?” Beatrice asked.
“Revenge for running away right after we kissed! You have dishonored my family name.”
Beatrice bent a knee and began scooping up snow with her hands. “Is that so…”
“It most certainly is, my love.”
That’s when Beatrice saw it. Three snowballs in Emi’s left hand. A volley waiting to be launched.
“Winner gets to make the next kiss,” Beatrice said.
“I will not be defeated!”
And thus began the ultimate snowball fight in the history of mankind.