Beatrice and Emi were back in the marketplace once again, early in the day, so early the shops hadn’t yet opened, and the vendors were still placing their items. They walked side by side, close to each other but not holding hands.
The marketplace was crawling with guards and soldiers all over the premises, openly brandishing spears and keeping the place from achieving the lively atmosphere it normally would have. That was about the same as any other place in the entire city, though.
“Today’s the day,” Beatrice said. “Years of my life spent dedicated to one thing and now it’s here. Even a small rebellion couldn’t keep it away.”
“A rebellion of war, or a rebellion of love?” Emi asked.
“I hate you.”
“I’m okay with that.” Emi looked at Beatrice, one of those looks she gave when she was about to say something, well, Emi-esque. And sure enough, out of her mouth came, “Your new hairstyle is to die for, Beatrice.”
“You’ve said that like six times.”
“I know, it’s just… it’s so long, so luscious, so curly! Please, never ever cut it again. Keep it long forever.”
“That’s what my Mom told me,” Beatrice said.
“She said it because it’s true.”
“You know, your hair’s getting longer too, Emi. It’s really cute now. I’d almost forgotten what you used to look like.”
“Don’t pretend you can ever forget that moment we first met.”
“I know, I know,” Beatrice said. “Right here, right by… that stand, I think.” She pointed to a stall filled with onions and carrots.
“No, it was closer to the statue,” Emi said, beckoning to the stone visage of the stately royal woman right in the center of the marketplace.
“I… think you’re wrong.”
“Wrong is a state of mind.”
They went on like this for a little longer.
Spring in Balarand was Beatrice’s favorite. The air was crisp and cool in the mornings, not warm enough that she could ever sweat, but not so cold she had to wear extra layers. She took a deep breath and felt a wave of relaxation.
“I’m ready for this,” she said. “I feel great.”
“You’ll blow everyone away,” Emi said. “Is there any way I can attend? You know, to cheer you on?”
“It’s a private event,” Beatrice told her. “Only the judges and me.”
The two of them walked over to a fruit stand, where fresh crops brought in from outside the city were on display. There was a juicy red apple the size of a fist, and a basket of grapes too big for one person to eat by themselves, surely. The vendor, however, had not yet arrived to sell these items, and had left the table completely unattended.
“These look really good…” Beatrice said.
Emi extended her hand, and a few apples, a cluster of grapes, levitated from the table and flew next to Beatrice. “Here you go,” she said.
“I could never. Put those back.”
“Oh, I mean, I’m going to pay for them, I promise. Just catch when I say so.”
The fruits flew threw the air. Beatrice caught the apples and grapes, but then one apple tumbled out of her hands and onto the ground. Darn it.
Emi reached her hand out again, and then from her purse flew two silver coins that landed on the table with a clang. Then, after a moment of hesitation, she did the same with a gold coin as well. “That’s for the convenience fee.”
“You’re such a show-off.”
“I’m practicing my powers.”
“That’s what you said when my skirt magically flew into the air yesterday.”
“It was an accident, I swear,” Emi said. “Please believe me.”
Beatrice shook her head. “I’ll believe you someday. But you’ll have to earn my trust first.”
“I’ll do my best.”
“I doubt that.” Beatrice winked. “But, Emi… I just don’t get it,” she said. “How did you suddenly have these magical powers that nobody ever knew about? What in the Gods’ names is going on with you?”
“Well… I’m still trying to find out,” Emi replied. She gathered a few more fruit from various stands and tipped generously, all without touching any of the items in question. “Ms. Khami’s told me some. According to her, I was a bit, uh, difficult to deal with when I was young, and sometimes that ended up with smashed furniture. I needed very special care to train it out of me, and after that the family covered it up so nobody in the Church would come knocking.”
“Oh, that makes sense,” Beatrice said. “If word got out about your magic, it would really change a lot of what the Church teaches. They might force you to become a priest or something. And… you’re showing off by levitating fruit.”
“I’ll be fine.” Emi winked. “Let’s just enjoy our breakfast.”
The food was good, and company with a friend made it better.
Being friends with Emi again felt good. It felt nice, almost like things had gone back to normal. They hadn’t, not in the way either of them had wanted, but it was better just being together than fretting about normalcy. Normal was overrated.
Beatrice’s parents extended their vacation in Kent–it really sounded like Dad was going to accept the job offer–so she and Emi had the whole house to themselves for several weeks. That meant a whole lot of time spent together. They had fun, talked and laughed, went on walks, played card games, sometimes kissed, always cuddled. Beatrice had gotten used to seeing Emi’s pretty face every morning, seeing her shimmering brown eyes flutter awake as they laid in bed after a night’s sleep together.
And so maybe, they weren’t exactly friends, when Beatrice really thought about it. But that was the closest term she could find in her vocabulary. Anything more and it felt a little… They were friends, and that was the end of it.
The Priesthood Exams were this afternoon, and she wasn’t going to just pass. She was going to excel. Soon it would be time to fully focus, and so this morning with Emi, walking around the marketplace with no destination, was one final opportunity to relax. Not too much longer, and everything would be different again.
“Thank you so much for this,” Emi said, chewing on a grape and plucking another one . “For letting me stay with you, for… forgiving me, and for giving me a chance to forgive myself. If that means anything.”
“It’s been fun,” Beatrice said.
“And thank you for putting up with my stupid self-critical nonsense. It’s ridiculous how much I rag on myself…”
“You’re, uh, welcome.”
“And thank you for making me great meals all the time.”
“It’s nothing.” Beatrice flashed a smile. “You know my cooking’s not that good.”
“That doesn’t matter. You made it, and that means more to me than if a famous chef made me an elixir stew made from a thousand ingredients.”
“Ah, nevermind,” Emi said. “Thank you anyway, because… I love you. I mean, not like–well, yes like–uh, you know what I mean.”
“I love you too,” Beatrice said. “I’m sorry I can’t be there with you. All this anger in the world, all the strife… The Church is more important than ever. And that’s–”
“No, stop,” Emi interrupted. “We’ve been over this a million times. I understand and I’m not changing anything anymore, Beatrice,” Emi said. “I love you not for what you might mean to me in the future. I love you for right now. And that’s all.”
“You know that’s the kind of line that makes a girl swoon,” Beatrice said. “You’d better not use it on your new wife.”
“I can’t promise you that,” Emi said, giggling. “You know… the wedding’s getting pretty close. My parents are about to come back to Balarand to do preparations. I don’t know why the heck they still want to hold it here, what with everything, but for the first time in my life… I’m kind of looking forward to it.”
“And why is that?” Beatrice asked.
“Because once I become a noblewoman’s wife, I get to do whatever I want. If I have all this wealth and power just because of the family I was born into, then I need to make sure I earn it. I’m going to try and help out the world in my own way, just like you. And since you’ll be in training, I get a head start!”
“It’s not a competition, Emi…”
“Everything is, Beatrice.” She tossed a grape into the air, levitated it around in a circle a few times, and caught it with her mouth. “I have one request, though…”
“Don’t come to the wedding, please,” Emi said. “I don’t think I could emotionally handle that.”
“I think I’ll be leaving for training before then anyway,” Beatrice said. “Uh, assuming I pass the exams. But if I’m still here… I don’t know if I could resist. Seeing you up on stage bawling would make the rest of my life. Because…”
“Don’t say it…”
“Because you know I love making you cry, Emi.”
“You said it.”
Beatrice stepped into the examination room. Three judges stood before her, wearing veils over their faces so she could not recognize them.
The written exam had been a piece of cake. Now all that was left was performing for these judges her practiced rituals and incantations.
“Beatrice Ragnell,” one of the judges said. “Welcome to the practical portion of the Priesthood Exam. Are you dedicated to bringing harmony to Tsubasa?”
“Yes, I am,” she said. “With my life.”
For a short moment she thought Mr. Statusian may have been one of the judges sitting before her. It would have been an honor for her to perform everything he had taught her on this day… but there was no chance of that anymore, of course; he was in the mines in the Frozen Desert now. All over a failed rebellion that only made the occupation even harsher. It was tragic to even think about.
And right now was a very inappropriate time to be thinking about that, anyway.
Beatrice raised her right hand forwards, palm facing the judges.
It was time for Beatrice to begin her final step towards becoming a priest.
It didn’t matter to her how much faith she had in herself, or how much faith she had in the Gods, of how much faith anyone else had in her. She discarded any notions of her current life, any worries about the future, anything but her knowledge of the Church religion and the magical energy imbued in the souls of every living being.
She was going to succeed, because that was what Beatrice Ragnell did.
“Show us the register of incantations,” a judge said.
“Yes, ma’am.” She began performing the ritual to summon the good graces of the Goddess Phyra.
And she smiled.