It took a very long time, but eventually, Emi and Beatrice were able to get away from Lord Lau and his well-meaning tour guide mentality, and they went off to explore Mammoth Pass on their own.
The Mammoth Festivals went on for a month out of every year, so the entire city was lit up with ice sculptures and skating rinks and people bustling about. Because it lasted much longer than Balarand’s Winter Ceremonies, it was not a super-concentrated explosion of entertainment, but instead a shift for the entire city’s atmosphere. So it was festive everywhere you looked, but also much calmer. The lack of protestors everywhere probably helped improve the mood, too.
The two girls were now making up for all the lost hand-holding time from all the days being led through the city like a Mammoth herd along with all their wealthy companions. Beatrice still wore her traditional Balarand outfit, and Emi had on her warmest sweater and thickest of jackets. The woman truly did not like cold weather. It was silly, but Beatrice liked that about her.
“Where do you want to go now?” Emi asked.
“I don’t know, Emi,” Beatrice said. “You’ve been here before. Where do you recommend?”
“Well, I was always part of those big tourist groups of Balarand elites wandering around,” Emi said. “I’ve never been in Mammoth Pass with any free time before.
“Well, is there anything you haven’t seen that you want to?”
Emi paused. “Uhhh…” She seemed to be struggling to come up with anything at all. The sun was already starting to set, and Beatrice knew this was their last opportunity. Her foot automatically tapped against the wet stone sidewalk in anticipation.
“Oh!” she exclaimed, finally. “I remember. There’s a neighborhood where they do celebrations for the mountain tribes who still live here. Why don’t we go there?”
“That sounds like fun, I guess. What goes on there?”
“I don’t know. But there’s probably food.”
Eating was quickly superseding reading as Beatrice’s favorite hobby. She blamed it on the fact that Emi always offered to pay. As much as she tried to refuse, she couldn’t bring herself to turn down every snack that came their way. Or any of them.
They departed from the castle district and entered another section of the city, one where the curved towers disappeared and were replaced with more typical wooden structures. The stone-built buildings familiar in Balarand were not a common site here; structures were either built directly into the mountains, or made of simple wood. Beatrice guessed the risk of a fire was a lot less here considering how cold it stayed.
They walked down a street. A Mammoth trotted alongside them as a lacksidasial pace, and a parade of cheering people danced behind it. It must have been the world’s slowest parade, Beatrice thought, but they seemed to be enjoying it.
There on the street was a magnificent site, a marketplace-turned-party shining with lights and loud with music. Dozens of wooden stands sold all sorts of foods and trinkets. People jumped and jived, singing along to music in some language she had never heard before. It was lively and vibrant, almost intoxicatingly so.
This was the harmony of the Gods. Nature and humans having joyous fun together. Mammoths marching gallantly while people celebrated the turning of the seasons. Every element of Tsubasa working as ingredients of a whole. The gears in their grand machine turning in a rhythmic dance.
A man in an oversized mask came up to them and clapped his hands, shouting in that same language while gesturing for them to come closer.
Beatrice wasn’t quite sure–
But then Emi dashed forward and pulled Beatrice along into the dance circle. “Come on!”
“Oh, you know I can’t dance,” Beatrice said.
“But I can, so you don’t have to worry about it,” Emi said. “Let’s go.”
Emi held out her arm for Beatrice to join her. And, as if Beatrice was being magnetically levitated towards her girlfriend… she found herself caught in her arms.
Love really was magic.
“Care for a dance?” Emi asked.
“I guess so,” Beatrice said eyes dazed in bewilderment.
Emi, holding onto Beatrice’s fingers, swung around, vaguely matching the beat, and laughed. She lifted Beatrice’s arm into the air and twirled around underneath it.
Beatrice moved around trying to give her enough space to dance, but she mostly shuffled in place while Emi did all of the fancy moves. With all her studies and skills, she really wished she could do better than this, but she had finally entered the realm where her talent was of zero use.
“Tris, come on and get into the music,” Emi commanded.
“I’m trying.” The drums beat rhythmically, loudly, and the singer wailed out with a raspy fire. It was catchy and fun, but Beatrice didn’t feel the groove to move.
For a girl who dealt so poorly with large crowds and social events, Emi sure did like to dance. She guessed it felt more like a solitary activity for her, even if it was in the middle of a jumble of people. Though, it would probably be less solitary if Beatrice would join in…
Ah, whatever. Beatrice would try her best even if it turned out badly– she let the music take her and joined into Emi’s dance. They jumped and swayed and spun and hummed, kissed and laughed and shook and twirled.
The two went until well after the current song was over, until well after Beatrice was too tired to continue. She let go of Emi and dropped to her knees, panting.
“That was… fun…” she said in between breaths.
“You’re the best,” Emi said.
“Not at dancing…”
“Who cares if you’re bad or good? It’s supposed to be fun. Not all that rigid stuff they do at fancy parties.” She extended her hand and pulled Beatrice back on her feet. “Now, I did promise you food, Tris. What do you want?”
Her stomach gurgled loudly. “Every item from every single booth.”
“Okay, I’ll do it.” She flashed a grin that showed off her perfect teeth, that made her dark brown eyes sparkle.
Beatrice shook her head. “Marry me.”
“Uh… I’ll consider it,” Emi said.
Would she really consider it? It was a joke, turning the tables on that proposal Emi made all that time ago, back when holding hands and riding a gondola was all it took to send Beatrice into a lovey-dovey haze. It was a joke, but…
Honestly, if Emi knelt down and proposed to Beatrice right now, holding out a ring and letting that smile work its magic, Beatrice wasn’t sure what her answer would be. For a girl she had only dated for a matter of months, the answer should have been a flat “no way,” but… Given the moment and the fact that she had never loved someone so much in her life, given the fact that every part of her soul gravitated to those dark brown eyes and that tall, curved body and that warm palm rubbed up against her own… Beatrice would have to think about it.
Emi had said just a few days ago in the carriage, as Beatrice recited by heart, “I’m being completely serious when I say I’d follow you no matter what you do.” It kind of made her giddy to think about, even if it was most likely never going to happen.
Even if she knew the Priesthood Exams were just weeks away…
Beatrice knew she shouldn’t have thought of the Priesthood Exams at a time like this. The vortex of stress in the corner of her mind would do nothing to improve her mood. It had no purpose right now, right here with Emi. She could worry about that when they returned to Balarand. Up here in Mammoth Pass, right here on the busy festival street, there was no priesthood for her to waver on. no important life decisions to decide upon. There was only good food, fun music, and the love of her life by her side.
The two girls made their way to the food stands and saw a stand selling “striderskin bites,” which appeared to be, well, edible striderskin.
Striderskin is the chitin that the giant insects known as striders shed after moulting. Because they roam the Plebias Mountains, one of the coldest areas on the continent, they shed only on rare occasions, and hunters make a living off finding the skins and selling them. Killing a strider is nigh impossible, with their speed so fast it’s thought to be magic, so hunters make do with what’s left behind. The chitin is typically used for clothing, but Mammoth Pass is known for its striderskin delicacies. You think that’s gross? Me too. Very gross.
“I’ll take one box,” Beatrice said to the vendor.
Emi gave a look of disgust. “Really?”
“I have to try it. I’m so hungry.” Beatrice took the box, thanked the vendor, and opened it to reveal several bite-sized chips of what used to be the exoskeleton of a large insect.
She gulped, and then… chowed down.
“This is… not too bad. Chewy, but very savory.”
“Good for you, but I don’t think I’ll try it,” Emi said, waving the box away as Beatrice tilted it toward her. She turned around to a different table and bought a simple old meat spike. “I’m fine with some good old fashioned meat.” She put the stick in her mouth and removed the first two pieces with her teeth.
“What kind of meat is it?” Beatrice asked.
“I don’t know. Probably beef of some sort.” She turned around to examine the table more closely. The sign was in another language, though. “Yeah… I’m just going to assume that it’s beef and hope for the best.”
This whole district was strange and unfamiliar, and somehow that piqued Beatrice’s curiosity more than anything. Nowhere else in the larger continent of Tsubasa did such cultures thrive; as Dannark, Elince, Doros, and Zahn expanded over the centuries, many smaller places were absorbed into the larger countries around them. Their traditions did not die off completely, but many aspects of their former existences disappeared, including their languages.
To hear languages Beatrice couldn’t understand was such an interesting experience. It was the first time in her whole life she found herself in this situation, where the people around her celebrated and worshipped, sang praises to the Gods in tongues completely foreign to her. And for some strange reason, she felt excited. This… this was the rest of the world, as far away from her home as she’d ever been.
Whether or not Beatrice really became a priest, this is what she wanted to protect with the most of her power. The ability for people to feel comfortable, to feel powerful enough to celebrate whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted, however they wanted. She wanted to end war, to end the struggles of hunger and sadness. She wanted to see culture thrive, so every day in every city in the continent could be as festive tonight.
“I love you,” Beatrice said. She didn’t know why, but she just had the urge to say it.
“I love you too,” Emi said in return. Though, she seemed more preoccupied by the sights around them.
Like at the marketplaces in Balarand, it was more fun to walk down the long rows of vendors and simply look at the items for sale than to actually buy anything. Beatrice was not a fan of haggling, even though it was such a common exercise in places like this, so she found it more comfortable to simply browse.
Then– Gods, what was that?
There was a small iron cage with a flickering, winged creature darting about, clearly trying to escape. Beatrice had never seen anything like it. But the vendor selling it, a twirly mustached man with a hardened face, did not seem like he was the type to introduce his wares to a couple curious girls.
“Wow! A fairy all the way up here!” Emi exclaimed.
Wait, what? “Wait, what?”
Then Emi grew a devious, self-satisfied smile. “See! You told me fairies weren’t real! Look right here and take back everything you said.”
“A fairy… No way.”
Beatrice stepped closer to the cage and looked at the beast. The closer she looked, the more detail she could see on its… its remarkably creepy face. It had two eyes, a nose, and a mouth, but it looked more like a misshapen monster than a sentient being.
It met Beatrice’s gaze… and snarled.
She yelped and catapulted herself backwards.
Emi didn’t stop laughing for the next six minutes.
Eventually, they walked to what appeared to be the end of the tribal festivities, where the food stands were nowhere to be seen and the joyful music played faintly behind them. The moons shone bright in the sky, and the air was tinged with frost.
“Do you want to go back to the room?” Emi asked. “Or is there anything else?”
“Yeah, I think it’s about time,” Beatrice said. She was ready to get out of this cold weather and cuddle with her girlfriend, though she still felt like there was so much they could be doing in Mammoth Pass before they left.
“Let’s go back, then.”
They were not sure where they were, but because the castle stuck out in the skyline so prominently, it was very easy to figure out what direction to go in. So they made their way back, only to find more festivities going on in front of the castle. There was a great bonfire and many people, the same rich Balarandians they had travelled with, huddled around it for gossip and dance and drunk. They must also have been trying to make the most of their final day in the city.
Lord Lau was among them. He met their gazes lazily staggered over to them. “Hello, ladies,” he said. “Welcome back. Are you ready to have some fun?”
“Ah, no, we are just going back to the castle,” Emi said. “It’s gotten quite late.”
“Nonsense,” Lord Lau said. “Your parents would commend your good behavior, but–Hic!–they aren’t even here!” He began laughing.
Beatrice thought it was amusing, but it was probably more than a little bit embarrassing to the girl who had grown up under this old man’s care.
“Come on, Beatrice. Let’s go to bed.”
“You know, Ms. L’Hime, your new wife is a very nice woman,” Lord Lau said. “I used to have someone dear to me like her. But when she passed I felt a great sadness that has not left my being even after twenty years. Cherish your wife while you can.”
“We’re not married. Not yet at least.” Beatrice giggled.
Lord Lau looked off into the distance like he was trying to solve a mathematical equation. “Oh, that’s right. Your engagement is still tenuous, is it not. And the wedding is in the spring with the Moon Festivals. Or was it last spring? Didn’t your parents invite me to your wedding? I can’t quite recall at the moment. My–Hic!–apologies.”
What was this man talking about? Clearly he was inebriated past the point of coherence but he was kind of hilarious, Beatrice thought.
Emi, however, held a frightened face. Her chest puffed out with every breath, and her already-cold hand had become an icicle in Beatrice’s palm. “No, Lord Lau. You’re just misremembering things. I think you should take it easy,” she said. She giggled nervously. Beatrice raised an eyebrow.
“Well then…” He seemed to think long and hard about this. “Well, I hope you have a good night, Emi. And it was nice–Hic!–meeting you for this trip, Lady Khara.”
Beatrice looked at Emi, but she darted her eyes away.
Okay then… Something was going on.
“Emi… who is Lady Khara?”
It was going to come up eventually, but maybe now wasn’t the best time…