Chapter 7: A Solvable Puzzle

The girl at the service counter was about to leave.

Beatrice had been glancing at the girl and her distractingly full-figured body every chance she could get for the past several minutes, but the girl seemed to be looking off very intently at something else every time she took a glance… And now, after all this time waiting for a book from Beatrice’s father, she was exiting the library.

Wait, she couldn’t leave, not this soon! This was like some sort of puzzle for Beatrice. She saw an unknown but instantly-recognizable character at a sudden but crucial moment. That instantly-recognizable character was departing, but Beatrice wanted nothing more than to make her presence known to her. She needed to to seize the opportunity to chase her down before she disappeared from her life, possibly forever. And she only had one moment remaining. What should she do, what should she do… How could she solve this…

“Hey,” Beatrice said.

 The girl stopped right in her tracks. That wasn’t exactly a difficult puzzle.

She turned around. Their eyes met once again. Dark, deep brown, inviting and warm. Beatrice was having a hard time keeping eye contact, but she persisted. 

“Yes?” the girl asked, finally.

What did Beatrice want to say? What could she say?

“Come here often?” She immediately regretted her choice.

The girl took more than a moment to respond, saying, “Yeah, any chance I get.” She pressed her teeth to her lower lip, then added, “How about you?”

“Me too.” This was very strange. “And we’ve never… met before?”

The girl took a few steps closer towards Beatrice’s desk. “I really don’t know. Are you…”

“The girl from…”

“The marketplace?” They both asked in unison.

Wow, what a weird coincidence. The Gods worked in baffling ways sometimes.

The girl blushed and backed away a few steps. She fidgeted around like she was pained with discomfort. Was she about to leave after all?

“Do you want to, uh, read at this table?” Beatrice asked. “I feel awful taking the whole thing up by myself.” She tried to ignore the fact that almost none of the tables in the library were occupied.

“Of course,” the girl said. “I, uh, love reading indoors. I’m just going to–” She sat down in a chair across from Beatrice and sat down a book about economics. “–sit here and do some studying.”

“Okay, me too.”

Beatrice glanced over at the book that the girl had in her hands. It was Economic Theory, by Popoclous. Economics, eh? This girl was some sort of properly-educated type. Probably went to one of those really fancy private schools where they didn’t even have to wear uniforms.

Well… Now Beatrice was sitting right next to the most beautiful girl she had ever seen in her entire life. This was certainly happening.

She sighed, and then took a deep breath. The girl even smelled great. Some kind of faint perfume. A scent Beatrice couldn’t place, something sweet. She was a rich girl, that was for sure. But she was reading at the public library, for some reason. Didn’t rich girls have libraries at their own homes? They do, but as Beatrice had rarely encountered real wealth in her life, she didn’t really understand it. That was soon about to change.

She attempted to continue studying her book about magical rituals, but she realized very quickly that that was a lost cause. She was right here next to her, and Beatrice was just… going to study?

It is a well-known fact that you do not study with someone you are attracted to. It is a law of nature, part of the harmony of the Gods that, when you are with someone you fancy, your mind no longer possesses the capability to absorb information, to retain anything you have learned. Beatrice was understanding that fact right at this moment.

She was tall, elegant, wearing a fancy dress as if it were a casual shirt-and-trousers combo. But, as much as she looked the part, she didn’t carry herself like a princess. Biting her lip, hands clutching her books with an all-too-tight grip. She had an aura that snared Beatrice and refused to let go. Surely a creature had shape shifted into the object of Beatrice’s desire in order to take her away and suck her life force dry. But if this was how such a creature would do it, she knew for certain she would be too weak to resist. 

Beatrice’s only hope was to pray to the Gods that this wasn’t an illusion that sat next to this girl at the desk, because if this girl was real, it was quite possibly one of the best days of her life.

<== PreviousNext ==>

Chapter 6: What Do I… Do

The girl from the marketplace was sitting right there at that desk. Right there across the room. Emi was petrified.

It had been a few minutes since she saw her, and all she could do was stand there and glance every now and then. Earl seemed to be having a bit of a hard time finding the economics book he had recommended, so Emi was having to awkwardly stay there and pretend her insides weren’t disintegrating on account of the world’s greatest coincidence coinciding right before her very eyes.

A blonde-haired beauty, bespeckled and freckled and peering into her book with the intensity of a studious scholar. A girl who, from the first glance, absorbed all the breath in your body, leaving you suffocating, leaving your eyes sucked dry. This girl, whoever she was, already had the grace to show her presence to Emi once before. Now she was doing it all over again.

Emi wasn’t prepared. She wore the exact same dirty-hem light dress she had worn that day at the marketplace, just something casual for a trip to the library. She wore no makeup, hadn’t even combed her hair. It was one thing feeling panicked around crowds. It was another thing entirely feeling panicked because you decided to be a slob and then met the most beautiful girl in the entire world for the second time.

Balarand had a hundred thousand people, all living in fifteen square miles between the Balarand River and Lake Geoffrey. As cramped as the city was, it was still massive. There was no feasible way for two strangers to meet again, not so soon, not in a place like this. But it happened, and so… What was Emi going to do? Talk to her?

No way. Just look at her.

The girl was completely absorbed in her book. She took notes without even glancing away from the text. Emi didn’t recognize her uniform, but she was probably a student at one of those prestigious local private schools Emi’s parents never let her attend.

Yes, private schools were very common back in those days for the wealthy. Very strict, very stringent, very expensive. What’s that? You wish you went to private school? Well, sometimes I wish you got sent off to Yates for a year or two. You could really learn some discipline if your mother didn’t spoil you so much at home.

Anyway, as for Emi, she fought every urge to stare–her face was already red enough as it was. She truly had been cursed by the Gods, running into a divine creation at the least opportune time, in the least opportune way. The difference between them was staggering. 

The girl leaned over her desk, poring over everything, composed as she composed. Her lips were moist, her glasses rest gently on her nose. She was small, nearly dainty, but the large desk chair made her appear even tinier, like a doll brought to life, and somehow even prettier.

Compare that to Emi, who looked like she had just gotten out of bed, because she did, in a way, having only woken up about three and half hours ago. She carried no presence, because she had none. She was one with the background, and dangerously close to merging entirely with the service counter behind her.

If the girl actually took the time to look up and glance this way, Emi was pretty sure she would shrink into nothingness and disappear–that’s how powerful those blue eyes seemed.

It took a few minutes for Earl to return and finally hand her the book. A few harrowing, beautiful minutes. “Well, here it is. A tough one to find, because I sorted it in the wrong category altogether. I really should come up with some sort of numbering system for all these books.”

“Well, thank you, er, very much,” Emi said, her voice cracking. The tension in her voice was apparently very evident, because Earl’s eyebrow raised slightly.

“It’s due back in two weeks. Have a nice afternoon, Emi.”

Well, now that she had her book to study with, she was going to have a very nice afternoon indeed. But as for the girl at the desk… What could Emi even do? Was she really going to just pass up the opportunity of a lifetime to talk to the most beautiful girl she had ever seen just because she felt a bit awkward about it?

Yes, she was. Maybe if fate had something in store they’d meet once again, but for now, she was going to go outside, just like she had–


<== Previous Next ==>

Chapter 5: The Junior Priest Academy

“Beatrice, are you awake yet?” a voice called out from the other room.

“Uhh….. yeah….”

Beatrice shook her head back and forth to wake herself up. After her vision cleared up enough that she could make them out, she put her glasses on and tumbled out of bed.

She had a very peculiar dream last night. Something about… that girl from the marketplace. The two of them danced and laughed in a field of flowers, when a sparkling crimson gem fastened to a golden stand fell from the sky. The gem plopped down in front of them and shook the ground. It was the Jewel of Elince, the most prized possession in the kingdom. The two of them stopped for a moment to gaze at it, until it sprouted arms, legs, and a hat. And then it started dancing, too. That was when she finally woke up.

It had been almost a week since she saw that girl. Why was her mind still bringing her into these silly dreams?

After getting dressed in her uniform, a simple white-and-green buttoned shirt with a long skirt, Beatrice met her Dad at the front door and put her hands on her hips. “Three minutes and ten seconds,” she declared.

“You live dangerously, girl,” he told her. “Next time I’ll just leave without you. Unlike you, I have a job to go to.” He pointed to the kitchen counter, which had a few pastries on it. “Now grab some breakfast and let’s go.”

Beatrice wasn’t as much of a morning person as she liked to pretend. 

Still, today she and her Dad were going to have a lot of fun doing their most cherished activity– strolling to work and to school together. The two of them had walked together nearly every morning since Beatrice started classes as a junior priest. Her Mom went together sometimes, but she usually took the time for an extra hour of sleep.

Their apartment was near Knoll Park, a giant square of greenery in the middle of the expanse of buildings that made up most of Balarand. Knoll Park bordered the famous Lake Geoffrey, which was fed into by the Balarand River on which the city was built. But because the river was just so big, it flowed around the city to its east and west. Balarand was surrounded on all four sides by water, making it effectively a large island.

 Normally, an apartment this deep into the city would be very expensive, but theirs just happened to be wedged in between several larger buildings that obstructed the view of the rest of the city. It was affordable enough for how much Dad made.

They walked past the Wyvern Bridge and into downtown Balarand, where Dad’s workplace and Beatrice’s school were both located. Tons of shops, of course, meant that downtown Balarand was always busy even this early in the morning. People praying at the shrine to Dramaturge, people picking out quick breakfasts, and the early morning marketplaces selling produce. The pungent smell of fruits and vegetables, spices and meats, filled the air, and Beatrice’s nose, even from this distance away.

And of course, amidst all the everyday ruckus of a city morning, there was also an anti-Dannark protest at the foot of the newly-erected statue to Empress Nievol.

“They never stop, do they?” Beatrice asked.

“It’s their right,” Dad said. They stopped talking about it after that.

The two of them walked until they reached their spot, the tree in front of the intersection between Palace Path and the Grand Concourse, and bid their farewells. A few carriages passed underway as they hugged.

“I’ll see you after school, honey,” Dad said.

“Have a good day,” Beatrice said.

They parted ways and she walked another block further until she reached the St. Helens Academy. Being the smallest of the five junior priest academies in Balarand, it was far from the most prestigious in the kingdom, or even the city, but with tiny class sizes–hers numbered just forty–it had a personal touch few others could match.

Beatrice entered the school and walked through the corridor towards her first class–religious studies. The hallways were plain and brown, no stained glass windows, nor murals hanging up, nor trophies being shown off. The interiors in St. Helens were so simple they came off uninviting. But looking fancy served little purpose, Beatrice always thought; it was the classes that mattered.

She walked into the main lecture hall, where her friend and senior by two years Bodhi Makala sat at a desk. Despite his dark skin and smooth handsomeness, he wasn’t some rich aristocrat from the mansions on Lake Geoffrey; he was just a local kid. His father was a shoe cobbler near Beatrice’s apartment, and so the two had known each other for a long time before their junior priest days.

“Are you ready for another fun day at school?” he asked with feigned enthusiasm. 

All Beatrice could muster was a hearty “Hmph.”

Bodhi’s bright blue eyes, so light they were nearly turquoise, glittered at her with a captivating charm. She wasn’t sure if he knew just how pretty of a man he was, because he made no attempt to dress well or show off, usually wearing a cap on his head. But surely he knew about the eyes. There was no way he didn’t.

More students filed in, the ones Beatrice never had the courage to speak to because they were so much taller, so much older. Despite their general lack of interest, they carried themselves like veterans of the school in a way Beatrice couldn’t bring herself to understand. They were a bit intimidating. Not in the same way, as, say, a Dannark soldier, but she did have trouble fitting in with her classmates.

Oh, right, I forgot to mention: most junior priests take eight or nine years to pass all the required classes and finish their schooling. Some here were well into adulthood, though it was a rarer sight back then than it is today. Because of this, Beatrice was the youngest in her entire class, since she was someone who had reached the final AA-grade in just a few years. That sometimes made her stick out.

Beatrice didn’t consider herself a particularly good student. She just liked to do well. Even if everyone else disliked religion classes, even if she seemed to be the only one who ever cared, she wanted to excel. Otherwise, what was the point in even attending the junior priest academy?

Bodhi turned to her and snickered, “Look, Bea, your boyfriend is walking in.”

Mr. Statusian entered the classroom carrying a large scroll underneath his arm. Clean-shaven every time she saw him, baby-faced cheeks and skinny, he fit every stereotype of a religious scholar, except that he carried himself with the confidence of a body-building soldier. He was the youngest priest in Balarand and the top teacher at St. Helens.

“You’re really rude,” Beatrice told Bodhi. “And don’t call me Bea.”

Why were they friends again?

Sure, Mr. Statusian treated Beatrice better than most of the other students. But she also had the highest grades in the class, so it was completely fair.

The teacher set the scroll on the podium and unfolded it, revealing a series of intricate graphs and diagrams written in some foreign script. Beatrice didn’t recognize any of the letters.

Without even attempting to get the class’s attention, he barrelled into his lesson, saying, “So all of you can feel that autumn is here in full force. But do you know what that means? It means the Winter Ceremonies are coming up soon. And since you are AA-grade students, you’re going to be taking part.”

The chatter in the room hushed. Other than some coughing, it was dead silence. 

He continued. “However, what exactly are the Winter Ceremonies? I know all of you have gone out to watch the parades and visit your local shrines, but what do the junior priests do to help, and more importantly, why? What exactly is this scroll I have hanging up here? Mr. Makala, what do you think?”

Bodhi was caught completely off-guard and froze as soon as the dozens of eyes turned towards him. “Uhh…”

Mr. Statusian didn’t let his pause interrupt the flow of the lecture. “Nevermind. How about you, Mr. Naesala?” He pointed to a student a few rows behind Beatrice and Bodhi.

“They do all the… magic stuff that nobody else can, or something,” the young man answered, his voice quivering as he tried to think of what to say.

“That’s vague enough I can’t give you a yes on that. Anybody?” Mr. Statusian looked Beatrice’s way as he waited for someone to answer, but she wasn’t going to say anything. She hated speaking in class, especially when it would continue to earn her a reputation as the class suck-up if she did.

With nobody volunteering their voice for an answer, he sighed and waved his own hand as to gesture off the pressure everyone was currently feeling. “It seems was too caught up in the festivities to notice what your seniors did to honor Bk’Man.” The class elicited a few nervous chuckles. “Well… let’s start from the beginning. Yes, get out your notebooks. Come on, class time is valuable.”

He barely waited ten seconds before beginning his lecture: “So, as is the traditional story of our people, eons ago the Great Mammoths descended onto the continent of Tsubasa. Wherever their trunks moved to, life was breathed into being. Animals grazed on the grass they created, and other lifeforms sprung up from the dirt. All the trees, the flowers, the small animals came forth and populated the lands. But come wintertime, they were wiped out by the cold.”

Some of Beatrice’s classmates were groaning. This was probably the fourth time the creation story had been told in a lecture in as many months.

“The same thing happened every year. The Mammoths would create life, and the snow would destroy it. The Gods were displeased with the constant cycle of death and resurrection, finding it too taxing to deal with. So they assigned Bk’Man to oversee and keep life on Tsubasa stable and harmonious. And as He dealt with the seasons, so too did the Goddess Phyra deal with creating caretakers to bring Tsubasa into prominence, and Nexurk in imbuing power into its essence.

“What arose was humanity, the Mammoths’ servants who were tasked with bringing about harmony to the continent. Of course, humanity also brought war and disease and all our assorted struggles, but most importantly it brought civilization. So we celebrate what Bk’Man does for the passing of the seasons and keeping everyone safe through the weather by contributing ourselves to His honor. 

“Every living being has a soul with innate magical energy within, but humans have more than most, with some of our kind being strong enough to actually manipulate the magic around them–” Mr. Statusian clasped his hands together and stared down at the pieces of paper at his desk. They began to float! A few students clapped, though it lasted only for a brief moment before they fell back down.

“Of course, none of us alone are able to accomplish anything more significant than parlor tricks, but when we band together– just like forming a civilization– we can utilize the Church’s ancient rituals and harness the innate energy within us to perform magical ceremonies such as the one we will be discussing today.”

Mr. Statusian pointed to the scroll behind him. “This is the Winter Ceremonies document. We follow this guideline every single year to make sure that Bk’Man receive the thanks He deserves. And while the priests of Balarand are the ones who perform the most difficult rituals, the junior priests from the five academies put blessings and safeguards over key points across the city. And that will be the primary study subject for the rest of our class.”

The class chattered. Some of it was mumbling excitement, some of it was grumbles.

Bodhi turned to Beatrice and muttered, “Safeguards for the city? How come they didn’t safeguard us against Dannark, then?”

Beatrice shrugged. The Gods didn’t care about politics, was her only guess.

“I’ll give you more details in our next lectures, but for now just know that St. Helens Academy is responsible for Knoll Park,” Mr. Statusian said. “It is our school that rejuvenates the park every spring, and so it is of vital importance that we study the rituals closely. It may not be the most exciting topic, but…”

And that’s where most students’ attentions were lost. He continued to explain the Winter Ceremonies, but it was a bit too complex, even for Beatrice. This section would take months to get through, she could already tell.

After class ended, Beatrice exited the lecture hall with the others and saw a group of girls. “Hey, Beatrice, are you busy today?” one of them asked as she walked by. “We thought maybe you’d like to come along to Foron’s and grab a sandwich.”

Beatrice gave a small smile. “Sorry, I have some work to do today,” she said.

It wasn’t EXACTLY a lie… 

Though… she always felt uncomfortable having fun with the rest of her classmates. These were the people that blew off her favorite class and made fun of the fact she cared about studying. It would be weird to go out with them and switch gears all of a sudden, so she always had an excuse ready to get out of it.

Instead of spending time with classmates, Beatrice went to her Dad’s workplace to do some reading before his shift was over. Luckily, he worked at the library, so there was always something to look at. The collection stretched on for more books than any human could possibly read in a lifetime, and new ones came in every week. It was like paradise for someone like her.

She dropped her school bag on one of the open desks and then walked up to the service desk. That’s where her Dad usually was, when he wasn’t organizing and shelving.

“What’d you learn in school today?” Dad asked.

“Dad, did you know that the AA-grade students were involved in the Winter Ceremonies? I had no idea until today. I feel really stupid.”

Her Dad chuckled. “I think they don’t like to advertise too much it because students might drop out when they find out.”

“I don’t like having things sprung on me…”

“I know, dear. But I also know you know you’ll study everything there is to know about every magic ceremony on the continent by year’s end,” he said. “And since Mr. Statusian warned me ahead of time, I have a stack of books for your reading pleasure just ready to go.”

Her Dad gave her six books, some of them very thick. She smiled and accepted them, before hobbling back over to her desk and set them all down. Time to study.

 Or at least, that’s what Beatrice thought at the time. Because only minutes into opening the first book, she saw a figure with long, straight hair standing by the service desk. And that someone stood apart from everything else around her.

The girl from the marketplace. 

And her dark, soil-brown eyes.

<== PreviousNext ==>

Chapter 4: Sneaking Out

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.

<== PreviousNext ==>

Chapter 3: Beatrice Ragnell

“Everywhere you look, you can see the Gods’ delicate harmony in the world.”

That is the famous phrase written in religious texts, uttered by priests and servants alike. It refers to the ornate beauty, to the terrible power that the Gods had brought into their world, to Tsubasa’s intricate designs that work together like cogs in a great machine. Our continent is an island, far away from any other place, and as such, we are one organism, one body living together.

Beatrice often thought about the harmony connecting all living things together. Everything had a part to play. And to extend it further, every person’s actions had an impact on everything else. Be kind, and your warmth would reverberate across the continent. Do harm, and it would be a poison. Everything mattered.

For instance, the autumn leaves blowing through the wind. It was simply dead matter shed from a much larger organism, but to Beatrice’s eye, each leaf played an important part in the nature around it, providing food for animals, shelter for insects, and, with the passing of time, nutrients for the soil below. All of that coming from an element of creation so tiny you’d hardly stop to think of it.

Sometimes it wasn’t clear how everything fit into the grand scheme of things, but that was a matter of context and understanding. One may have thought that the packs of greyback bears roving around town scavenging through trashcans were a nuisance, but even they had their place, Beatrice would note to herself.

Of course at this very moment, crossing a bridge towards her home, a gentle creek flowing underneath, Beatrice wondered just how true this phrase rang. What place could ever be held in this world for such a girl like the one at the marketplace?

Brown eyes, sharp nose, flowing long hair… For what reason would the Gods ever have created such a beautiful woman, so stunning she distracted everyone around her?

It made her feel jealous that anyone could be as pretty as that girl while Beatrice herself was so plain. She tousled her too-curly hair and wiped at her too-freckled face, but that of course didn’t do anything to get rid of her boring features, which was all of her. She was the kind of girl people mistook for a young boy at a glance, the kind of girl people couldn’t pick out of a crowd even if they had a detailed sketch to go by.

Surely the Gods had a purpose for that, too, but maybe it was just to help spur her to excel at her junior priest classes. Because it’s not like she could have a social life while being the most physically unremarkable human to have ever existed and that would ever exist (at least that’s what she always told herself).

One day, she was going to become a real priest, and she was going to travel across Tsubasa and save every person she could. So it didn’t matter too much to her, in the end, how she looked.

The marketplace was close to her home, but it was always so crowded, and she struggled to make it home with her bags of food intact. Thanks to years of making the trip, though, she learned to navigate the sea of people fairly well. She never knew what kinds of interesting characters she’d meet at the marketplace, either, so it was always worth braving the crowds. After all, if she hadn’t gone in the first place, she would never have seen that really pretty girl, never gotten the opportunity for her eyes to absorb such a stunning image.

Everywhere she looked had signs of the Gods’ hard work of keeping the harmony. The city was safe, the skies were clear, and the air was crisp. A group of old ladies chatted about local gossip on a sidewalk bench. A mustached man on a dandy-horse cycled by and waved at Beatrice. No, she didn’t know who he was, but she waved back and gave a smile.

It was her goal as a junior priest to bring as much kindness to the city of Balarand as she was able. That included the grander, visible acts such as volunteering at the library, going out of your way to help the elderly and the sick, or preaching the virtues of the Gods. But it also included the smaller things, such as saying please and thank you, holding the door open for people behind you, or greeting the people that pass you by. Helping others.

If everyone made it their goal to be kind, the world wouldn’t be so filled with war and misery. But that wasn’t everyone’s goal. It was easy for Beatrice to notice that fact, each time she spotted the Dannark guardsmen that patrolled every city block. Still a rough sight that stuck out against the city streets.

I remember the first time I saw a Dannark soldier in full armor; she was covered head to toe in sharp, dull-gray metal, helmet completely covering her face. I couldn’t help but feel intimidated, and I’m sure Beatrice felt the same way every time she passed one of these guards. That was the intention behind the design. It was not a welcoming sight.

Beatrice soon reached her family’s home, which was located on the fourth floor of an apartment complex. Her parents had leased it out for about eight years now, which meant just four to go before they were given legal ownership… well, under Elincian laws, at least. She wasn’t sure how property rights worked under the occupation. Anyway, it meant they were just a few years away from selling and retiring to some coastal beach town, where the weather was warm and the cares were few. That didn’t sound too fun to her.

She knocked on the door and her Dad opened it. “Hey, Beatrice!” he greeted. “What’ve you got for us today?”

“I’ve got groceries, and I’ve got an empty stomach.”

“Leave the stomach and get in here!”

Beatrice giggled. 

The sight of her Dad was the sight of a smile–she hardly ever saw him without one. He fit all the stereotypes of a scholar, sporting a shiny pale crown where his hair used to be, a belly packing more pounds than a sack of potatoes, and glasses whose thick lenses masked the blue of his eyes. But that only made him more endearing of a presence, especially to his daughter.

They entered the apartment. Their home was as busy as ever, even with just the three of them. It was a bit small, only a single room for the kitchen, sewing table, and dining table, and then the bathroom and bedrooms. Some might call it cozy. But with the day’s activities on full display–a clothesline out on the balcony, a pot on the stove, papers strewn about on the kitchen table–it was a bit chaotic for Beatrice’s taste. She fought the urge to clean up after her parents’ messes and let them learn the value of organization.

Her Mom was busy sewing patches on an old outfit. She didn’t do much outside of the house that Beatrice knew of, but she took care of most of the cooking, cleaning, and scheduling for her daughter and husband. Today she wore the same neutral expression she always had on during focused activities, but it seemed more pleasant than usual. With age, her once-brown skin had faded over the into something resembling an olive, and her hair had gone straight from black to off-white in a matter of years. She had this spark of beauty, this air of near-regency about her, even if she didn’t carry herself as such. Sometimes Beatrice felt like she could hardly tell the resemblence between them.

Dad had been reading a book about the philosophical conundrums of an ancient civilization that inhabited the continent of Tsubasa thousands of years before Elince or Dannark or Doros or Zahn. Mom was good at making dresses and recently mentioned she wanted to try for something in the style of what the ancient people of this region might have worn. However, there was little surviving art of their fashion, so she was stumped. Dad, naturally, had been researching the subject ever since.

It wasn’t often two people were so in love after so many years together, but her Mom and Dad defied all expectations. Exceedingly so, sometimes. At family excursions Beatrice often felt less like a girl with her family than a third wheel on her parents’ dates.

“What are you making for us tonight?” Mom asked, her gaze still crystal-focused on the fabrics in front of her.

“Onion soup,” Beatrice said. “I’m going to try a new recipe.”

What she didn’t tell them was that she had no idea if it would be any good, but that would only be a problem if the recipe sucked. It came straight from her friend Runa’s mother, so it had to be good. While her friend was a bit, um, eccentric, her mother was one of the nicest ladies she’d ever met, and a great cook to boot.

So after some prepwork, Beatrice started a flame on the stove and set down a pot filled with diced onions, carrots, and just a few cucumber slices. She had major reservations about dumping cucumbers into this soup, but that’s how the recipe went.

That girl she saw in the marketplace had some onions in her hands. Maybe she was making onion soup tonight too. Though she looked a bit too proper to be making food for herself.

It was so strange that she could remember that girl’s face so vividly, even hours later. Any other time she noticed some random person on the street, their facial features faded fast. Could anyone really recall every beautiful person they ever saw? Unlikely. And yet, something about her stood out.

After another half hour, the onion soup was apparently done. She dipped a bowlful out for each of her parents and then for herself, and went to set them down on the dining table… except that ithe table was still covered in books and fabrics. “Supper!” she shouted to her parents, both absorbed in their current activities, Dad reading and Mom sewing. It didn’t appear to Beatrice that they even heard her. “Supper is served!” she repeated. 

“Oh, already?” Dad asked. “Let’s eat, then.”

“You have to clear the table off first…” Beatrice whined.

They did. After a minute of tidying up, they said a prayer and then all dug into the soup. It was… pretty good. Not great. An accurate summary of everything Beatrice cooked. The cucumbers had basically melted into the soup, so they tasted like mush. Surely she messed up at the recipe, because this didn’t seem right at all.

“So, how did your day go?” Dad asked, seemingly enjoying the soup just fine. “Anything fun happen?”

“Nothing special,” Beatrice said, declining to mention the beautiful girl she saw at the marketplace because that would be odd to mention to your parents. “My classmates are dumb and never want to learn anything new, so our group project went really poorly.”

“You mean in religion class,” Dad said with a chuckle. “You know not all students are there for the same reason as you.”


“’Well’ nothing, young lady. The Gods inspire people through different ways. Maybe some of your classmates have the same interest in history or woodwork that you have as a junior priest.”

It sure didn’t seem like it. Nobody at her school seemed to hold the same enthusiasm that she did, for any subject. Everyone simply wanted a graduation certificate so they could get out of there and start on an apprenticeship.

“Speaking of history,” Dad continued. “Did you know that the ancient civilization that used to exist in Balarand was known as Allanshoi?”

Beatrice sighed with a smile.

“Yes, sweetie, you’ve told us this several times,” Mom said. She was already finished with her soup and set the bowl aside to continue working on the dress.

“Yes, but did you know that the name was formed in the tongue of the Danites, the tribe that eventually settled in Doros and Zahn? Because of that, if we look to how linguistically the Danite language formed names, ‘Allanshoi’ is most likely a loanword from another language. And we can guess that ‘Allanshoi’ was probably something more like ‘Alnsay’ or even…” He took a dramatic pause. “Something like ‘Elinsay’.”

Beatrice was having a bit of a hard time following this line of thought.

Mom was similarly incredulous. “So what you are saying is that the ancient civilization called their land an older word for Elince?”

“That’s my conjecture,” he said. “I think whoever they were, our language is directly descended from theirs. Which in my eyes means we are the true heirs to whatever relics they may have, especially the artifacts in that museum that definitely do not belong to those–” He noticed his growing tone of voice and calmed himself down. “–those Dannark archaeologists who think they know everything.”

Beatrice’s Dad had had a hard time adjusting to life under the occupation. None of them were ever targets of punishment or arrest, and now that taxes were down, they had more money for themselves to spend; it almost seemed like a net positive. But because of all the cultural research Dad did, he loved the kingdom more deeply than even some of its rulers. 

“I think we just have to give everything some time,” Beatrice said. “We’ll keep up our hard work and one day Elince will be a better place. Dannark might not be as bad as they say.”

Dad grumbled. He was not very keen on Beatrice’s opinions on the occupation.

“Well, your studies haven’t changed, at least,” Mom said. “I’m really glad for that. If anything happened to your school…” She said she was glad, but she didn’t smile.

“It’s not like we follow different Gods or anything,” Beatrice said, trying to keep the mood up. “They’re probably giving my school more money, if anything.”

Speaking of school, Beatrice hadn’t looked at any of the material for tomorrow. She hated being behind during lectures, so she needed to fix that as soon as possible. “You can have the rest of the soup,” she said to her parents. “I’m going to go study.”

“That’s my girl,” said Dad.

Her room was a bit too small for a grown adult, but perfect if you packed the shelves just right and didn’t mind the small gap between the desk and the bed. She went over to that narrow space in front of her desk and promptly opened up her notebooks.

Beatrice was a junior priest, a trainee at a religious school dedicated to the Gods. Education certificates were required for almost any apprenticeship in Balarand, and it just so happened that the Church gave free education. School was very popular, but the required religion classes weren’t usually well-regarded by students.

Beatrice, though?

It was her actual, literal dream: she really wanted to become a priest, to help keep the harmony strong across the entire continent. 

So she studied away.

<== PreviousNext ==>

Chapter 2: Emi L’Hime

Emi could hardly stop herself from shaking. 

Her mind tossed around in a flurry. The wooden shops and stone-made apartments around her faded into mush; all she could see was the brick walkway and crunched leaves at her feet. She desperately hoped nobody would notice her heavy-breathing, heart-pounding, red-faced stagger. It was embarrassing.

But there was no chance people weren’t taking notice of a girl whose face was so bright she looked like she was having a heat stroke in the middle of this positively chilly weather. She was doomed.

She swept the bangs out of her face and grimaced. Was it really that girl? Was she the one making Emi feel this way?

Maybe. Something about the light ringlets covering the top of her head, something about those deep blue eyes that glimmered in a sort of trance that reminded Emi of… she couldn’t quite put her finger on it. Somehow, that girl had turned her into a nervous wreck, and a wreck that had persisted for several minutes now.

Why did the Gods even make people that beautiful?

Emi shook her head and tried to snap out of it. No use getting in a tizzy over something like that. She was not some silly schoolgirl. She didn’t even go to school.

The important thing at the moment was planning on how to get back into her house without anyone noticing she ever left. Seeing as it was already late afternoon, she would need to hurry before someone entered her bedroom and found out. But Emi was not a master of sneak skills for nothing. 

She crossed a bridge over a short canal, leaving the busy street shop sidewalks, and snapped her mind into crystal focus on her newest plan. Some might call her escape plans convoluted, even foolhardy. But they almost always worked.

As Emi entered the walkway to her neighborhood, as she watched a mustached man pass by on a dandy-horse, she settled on one of her old favorites. If her timing was right, she could be back home so quickly she could even finish her paper. 

The walk back from the marketplace was a straightforward stroll down grid-like streets, but her neighborhood itself was a different story. This road was a winding path looping around and back into itself, a small maze of tightly packed urban houses that built up three, even four stories. Effectively, it created a walled garden of wealth nestled in a tiny secluded corner near Castle Balarand. 

Instead of smushed-together buildings made of stone, these houses were made mostly of wood, mostly with design and comfort in mind. No house was identical to the next; each had the creative flair of the architect who designed it. The houses had gates, had yards of grass and cobblestone walkways. Their roofs were pointed high, the larger among them giving off the look of miniature castles, of barracks for an army of luxury. Several of Emi’s neighbors even had tiny ponds in their yards, with fountains in the center keeping the water fresh and flowing. 

In as tight a space as could be fit, the wealthy of Balarand had created their own little world. It was a feat that, even today, people would consider remarkable. 

The dense housing and winding street, though, made Emi wish it were faster to get to the rest of the city without a carriage.

As long as it took, though, her timing turned out to be impeccable– just as she presumed, there were three children, dressed in bright-orange tunics and brown breeches, playing and roughhousing out on the empty street. They screamed about, pretending to be warriors as they flailed sticks at each other. The usual.

This time, it appeared that the two boys were Elincian swordsmen, and the girl was a captain from Dannark. The girl found some sort of truce with her foes, and bowed to them. But as the boys approached, she drew her stick and bashed one of them on the head. The other boy cried out in grief for his fallen comrade, who had collapsed on the street, laying like a corpse.

They noticed Emi and stopped the play-fighting to wave, even the one on the ground. “Hey, Emi!” the girl cried out.

“Aren’t you three ever going to leave this place?” Emi asked. 

“I’m going off to Yates in the spring,” said the boy still laying on the ground. 

“Yates? That’s where my brothers went,” she said. “Good job on getting in.” She said this with only a hint of bitterness towards a life she never had, and even that was too much. It was improper to feel jealous of an eight year old.

“I don’t want to go to school,” the other boy said. “I heard that they make everyone go to bed at nine o’clock…”

“You’ll do fine.” Now that she had all three’s attention… “Hey, any of you want to make a buck?”

“What’s a buck?” they asked in-sync.

Emi reached into her purse and pulled out a silver coin. She flashed it around, and then flicked it towards the kids. The girl caught it and pocketed it. They understood. “I need you guys to go up to my house and knock on my door. One of you needs to pretend you’re injured and need help, okay? Do this for about five minutes and you’re all set.”

The kids had no objections; even among wealthy children, a coin was still a coin; they could split a salmon bind for that and munch on a tasty snack before supper with their parents none the wiser. 

A prim, parasol-wielding blonde, one of the more strikingly beautiful of Emi’s neighbors, walked along the sidewalk near the children. The look she gave the children, that she gave Emi giving the coin, went beyond confusion– it was nearly repulsion, the way she sneered in disapproval. It was something that would have given Emi shame, if she cared what any of her neighbors thought. This girl didn’t know a thing about her, and she wasn’t going to give her the chance to learn.

Emi led them towards her house, down the winding street, until they reached their destination. As long as the kids weren’t incredibly bad actors, she would be able to fool–

Ms. Khami, Emi’s head housekeeper and at-home teacher, was already standing at the doorstep, arms on her hips. Her long-grayed, matted hair impervious to the breeze, her sharp gaze offsetting any sense of homeliness her portly body might have suggested.

Ah, darn it.

The kids saw the woman’s furrowed brows and scattered. Emi’s shoulders slumped and she admitted defeat. Down a coin and didn’t even get to attempt her plan.

“Emi L’Hime,” Ms. Khami began. “You get inside this instant. Your parents are going to have some harsh words for you.”

She sure knew it. Emi was sure she was the only girl in town punished for trying to have some fun on a lazy afternoon. The girl in the parasol, as annoying as she was, at least was allowed to leave her own house. Not Emi. But what else was there for her to do in life but get in trouble for everything?

The two women went inside the house and into the foyer, where other housekeepers were bustling about making preparations for supper as if there was some sort of fancy feast lying in wait. Though with how well these housekeepers were paid, Emi figured, they darn better well have been acting like every night was a supper for the Royal Family.

The foyer took up so much space that there wasn’t much on the first floor to begin with, other than the kitchen, dining room, and a few side rooms for the housekeepers. It was busy at the moment for meal preparations, but it was typically as empty as Ms. Kahmi’s heart.

 They went up the main staircase leading to the second floor, where most of the bedrooms and bathrooms were located. Ms. Khami reached the door to Emi’s bedroom and fiddled on the doorknob, but it wouldn’t budge.

“I swear to you, Emi, I am going to get this lock removed someday,” she said.

Emi got her key out of her purse and unlocked the door. 

Her room was a bit messy, her bed undone, stacks of books scattered on her desk and her floor and a few behind her bed… She really needed to build a new bookshelf (or tell someone else to do it for her). Her dirty clothes from yesterday were no longer on the floor, but other than that it looked essentially the same as any other day. She almost wished some fiend would barge in and thief away some valuables just to mix it up.

“And look at that,” Ms. Khami said as she walked over to Emi’s desk and her notebook open to two blank pages. “You didn’t even bother to begin your paper before you thought you’d have yourself some fun.” She walked out, muttering something Emi couldn’t make out, but could only assume was something about how she would never make a good lady and would amount to little more than a nuisance to the family name.

She wanted to plop down on her bed and take a frustration-nap, but she knew supper would be ready too soon to bother. So she sat at her desk and gazed at the blank notebook she left. It was careless to so blatantly disregard her assignment. Next time she’d at least fill up a couple pages before she went anywhere. Not that it mattered what she was learning if it was only ever for a bunch of book reports.

Emi sighed loudly. Nobody could hear her, but she wanted to express her dismay to any possible hidden listeners. Perhaps that girl she saw at the marketplace had followed her home and snuck into her room, as it turned out she was some sort of anti-Dannark spy and wanted to abduct Emi for a hefty ransom. That would be a fitting twist to end her day. It would be more exciting than this, at the very least.

She plopped down on her mattress and groaned, waving her hands around as if she were a magician wishing the annoyances of her life away. Almost on command, a stack of books standing on her desk gave way to gravity and tumbled down, half of them crashing onto the floor.

It was like her room was destined to get messier and messier. She liked that.

Soon, the main foyer clock rang out six times. Supper time. Emi made her way downstairs into the kitchen. The housekeepers dissipated and returned to whatever parts of the house they usually holed themselves up in to kill time, or maybe to eat supper on their own. They never ate with the family. 

Emi’s parents were sitting next to each other on one side of the table, already slicing up a leg of ham and digging in. The two of them, the famous diplomats they were, always kept an air of formality, dressed up like their servants had prepared and made them up for an event. Her father’s hair was greased back, hiding streaks of gray behind glossy black, his reading glasses on even as he ate an evening meal. Her mother’s hair covered most of her face, but it was so stiff, so groomed that she didn’t seem to be bothered by it in the slightest. Neither her father nor mother took any outward interest in their food, nor in anything in particular. It was just the way they held themselves.

The other side of the table was occupied by her two older brothers, every bit as dark and handsome as their reputations would suggest, beautiful in that painted book cover kind of way. Despite an eight year difference between them, they looked like near-twins. Neither bore a bit of resemblance to Emi (at least that’s what she always told herself). Her older brothers rarely visited home anymore, so this unannounced visit came as a surprise.

Touma waved, his mouth full with mashed potatoes. As the eldest child and the heir to the household, Touma was in the process of courting a rather influential woman from northern Dannark, and it was an ordeal one could write a trilogy of novels about. Reo was in the military reserves as an Army Engineer and was expected to advance high in its ranks once a peace settlement with Dannark was reached. 

Emi always felt like the unwanted stepchild when both her brothers were over. They had already started to eat before she even came downstairs, so her worries were not completely unwarranted. She stood in the doorway as her family chit-chatted amongst themselves, nobody but Touma noticing she had entered yet.

“So, how is your pet project going?” Emi’s Father asked Reo. “The famous L’Hime Bridge?”

“We’re not calling it that, sadly,” Reo said with a laugh. “But it’s progressing nicely. It actually floats now, believe it or not.”

“I believe it,” Father said.

“We’re doing a test next week by sending the bridge down the Balarand River from Waterton, just to see how people manage to use it. If things go well…”

“Then we’re getting more commuting workers from the outskirts to take all the low-class jobs,” Father said. “Our own poor folk have it hard enough as it is.” Reo cracked a smile, thinking this was a joke, but Father’s face didn’t shift a bit.

Emi shrugged and sat down at the end of the table, without so much as a word from the others.

“Well, the bridge is mostly for military use, anyway,” Reo added. “So if we’re ever in another war… It’ll help out.”

“If we get in another war,” Emi’s Mother scoffed with a sharp exhalation. “We hope we’ve seen the last of that.”

“Amen,” all four said in unison.

Mother then turned to Emi and raised her glass. “Oh, Emi, nice of you to join us.” She said it with a smile right before downing whatever alcoholic drink she had in her hand. “Why don’t you have something to eat?” At this, she took some mashed peas and dumped them onto her plate, but after eating at the marketplace, she wasn’t very hungry anymore. Not that she was willing to divulge that fact to her parents.

“We heard about you sneaking out again,” Father said. “You worry Ms. Khami so much, you know. And your studies…”

“I’m sorry,” Emi said. “It won’t happen again.”

Reo and Touma started laughing. “You’re such a liar,” Reo said.

Father cracked a smile, too, but managed to straighten it out. “You really do need to focus on your studies more. An educated woman is a successful woman.”

“I know…” Emi took a piece of ham and chomped at it. She wasn’t hungry, but it was tasty.

Mother butted in with her own platitudes, saying, “We just want what’s best for you, Emi. You’re the light of our life, and we want you to be happy and healthy and comfortable.” She gave a cheery smile and took a sip of her glass.

“Which is why you’re marrying me off to some woman I’ve never met…”

Reo and Touma’s faces snapped towards Emi, and they exchanged glances with one another.

Oops. She didn’t mean to backtalk. And now she was never going to hear the end of this.

Mother’s smile turned into a distinct frown. “We just want what’s best for you, and we aren’t going to discuss this right now. Lady Khara is a wonderful woman, and you will love her when you meet her.” 

When she met her… Emi decided not to respond, because anything she said could and would be used against her.

“We’re actually heading out this week to delegate the border talks,” Father added. In all this war between Dannark and Doros, with Elince caught in the middle, it was her own parents who ended up doing a lot of the diplomacy trying to settle for peace. That meant they were hardly ever home. “We will ask her to write you a letter before we return, okay? Trust us, Lady Khara is a lovely woman.”

Reo coughed, and when Emi looked at him he quickly darted his eyes away. Both of her brothers pretended to be super-focused on eating their food, and Emi decided to follow suit. 

The conversation was certainly killed as far as tonight went, so there wasn’t much more discussion before she left the table and went back to her room to change and take a bath. 

Man, the dirt stains on her dress were never going to come out. Another thing for Ms. Khami to get angry at her about.

One would think having the life of a mid-level bureaucrat would be pretty easy. In a time when Dannark had entrusted the stability of their newly conquered territory to the officials already running it, it seemed like the perfect time for a family like the L’Himes. Emi’s parents had gone from office workers to full-fledged diplomats in a matter of months, and all it took was the overthrowing and exiling of King Kline’s entire family. 

One would think such a boost would make life a lot easier. But to think that about Emi, one would be wrong. Being holed up in an empty house with parents who were never home, being engaged to some noblewoman she’d never even seen a picture of… Yeah, she would say that life hadn’t gotten easier, not in the slightest.

Emi washed off and then got in the still-warm bath to soak.

<== PreviousNext ==>

Chapter 1: Their Story

Hands Held in the Snow

love at first sight hands held

Written by Thedude3445

Illustrated by Mikyala Buan

I don’t believe in love at first sight.

You do? That’s because you’re still too young. You’ll come to grips with that when you’re older. There are no soulmates, no destinies intertwined by the Gods. Love comes only when you work for it. The best we can hope for is infatuation at first sight, and that’s not quite as poetic.

What? You… Oh. No, me loving you at first sight doesn’t count since I’m your grandmother. I’m talking about the romantic kind of love. That kind of love where two people create real magic together.

I don’t think it’s real. But for all my skepticism, there’s one story I’ve heard over the years that’s made me question my belief. …Yes, it’s story time. Yes, this does involve that centaur carving you found in the attic. I promise. I’m not senile yet– at least I hope not. Come, sit down, sit down.

Okay, are you settled? I’ve actually been meaning to tell you this for a long time. The first time I heard it, it changed my perspective on a life I had thought was set in stone. And now I think you’re old enough to understand it yourself. 

This story takes place in the old kingdom of Elince. Back in those days, the country had been occupied by its neighbor, the empire known as Dannark. You’d know all of this if you kept up with your history studies. 

In the capital city of Balarand, it was a common sight then to see imperial soldiers patrolling the streets. Foreign flags flew freely on buildings, blue and green stripes speckling the city everywhere you looked. Dannark and all its dark-chrome armored soldiers brought a stifling air to the city. The people were mired in the thick tension of a war they never even saw.

The people of Balarand went about their daily lives, attempting to keep up the illusion of normalcy as best they could. They went to work and school, shopped on the weekends and held festivals on holidays, carrying on as if their king hadn’t been deposed just months earlier.

And in this same way, there was a marketplace, bustling just as it would be on any other late afternoon. A statue of a long-ago queen in the center. A stretch of dozens of sellers, a hundred tables and booths set up, and thousands of people scouring their contents. 

The town clock struck four, but you couldn’t hear its ringing for the crowd. It was that busy.

In this marketplace, there was a girl browsing through booths of produce. Her glasses were slightly askew, and her head was angled down as she inspected a row of cucumbers. Her shoulder sagged from the bag of groceries strapped to her back.

“I’ll take two,” she said, placing a few copper coins on the seller’s table and putting the vegetables in her bag. She dusted off the long, hand-sewn skirt that covered her from waist down to her shins– not because it was dirty, but due to force of habit– and merged into the mass of people walking up and down the street. 

Her name was Beatrice Ragnell. A junior priest heading home from school. She had stopped by the marketplace to pick up groceries.

Beatrice danced her way through the crowd, striding in a beeline towards the next intersection, taking a route so familiar her vision nearly glazed over into a blur. Her bag bobbed up and down as she took each long step, and the curls in her hair bounced along. The girl felt the rhythm of the day, felt the hustle of the tempo to which she set her daily life.

It was cool. The sun’s warm rays pushed back the chilly wind. And the wind at that moment rustled up against a nearby tree. A leaf, a hardened survivor and one of the last still attached, broke away and floated downwards. It caught Beatrice’s attention, falling past her ocean-blue eyes and the speckled freckles sprinkled across her cheeks. Beatrice let her eyes follow the leaf until it rested gently on the ground at her feet. She studied it for a moment, and then looked up.

At the same time, in the same marketplace, there was another girl.

This other girl stood near the tables of fruits and vegetables with her hands clasped together in front of her. But she and her narrow, soil-colored eyes paid no mind to the items around her, instead casting her gaze at the crowd. She watched the people sauntering around as they shopped and haggled. People stood by a nearly naked tree, chatting about their weeks. The small children sitting at the nearby canal that bisected the marketplace, dangling their legs and giggling about whatever children found funny.

It was loud, too loud for her to feel comfortable. But she allowed herself a rare moment to sink into the crowd, to absorb the marketplace and watch this world like a visiting ghost. This place was a living book for her to read.

A cold gust blew through. The girl breathed in deeply and took in the air, which hit her throat and sent a stinging chill through her body. She shivered and shifted her stance, then folded her arms together. These were the last throes of autumn, and she hated it.

An older man scooted up next to her, trying to get a look at the carrots behind her. She darted out of the way. Her face turned bright red as she realized she had been obstructing his view.

Her name was Emi L’Hime. Daughter of two of Balarand’s most important diplomats. She had been going for a simple stroll through the city on a day she was supposed to be writing a paper.

Emi took one hand from her folded-up arms to brush her thin, straight hair behind her ear, and she took a few steps backwards, out of the way. But then she felt a sharp pain in her thigh– she bumped into the corner of a table. A few onions tumbled off and thudded against the ground. The older man gave a look.

Still blushing, she looked down at the onions, ready to pick them up and put them back on the table– but stopped when something caught her notice.

At that moment, in this marketplace, in a street packed with people and bursting with noise of all sorts, Emi’s eyes lowered, and Beatrice’s raised.

And those two pairs of eyes met, and stopped on each other’s faces.

On an otherwise unmemorable day, Beatrice and Emi saw each other for the very first time. Nobody but the two of them could say what happened.

I can only guess that Emi’s eyes ignored the other girl’s tattered uniform, or her still-lopsided glasses. Likewise, I’m sure Beatrice’s eyes didn’t pay a single iota of attention to how overdressed the other girl was for a marketplace trip. The two saw only each other.

It lasted for two seconds. Maybe one. Both went back to their respective homes, had supper, read a book, and went to sleep. But they were equally and irrevocably changed by what happened.

Whatever Emi and Beatrice felt when their eyes met, it was far from fleeting.

Was it love at first sight? I wouldn’t say so. But…

It was… something at first sight.

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