Beatrice watched her Mom intently. So intently that it might have scared anyone that wasn’t family. So intent that, she had to admit, she wasn’t actually learning anything.
“This looks so hard,” she mumbled to herself.
But, apparently, she mumbled just loud enough, because her mother soon said, “Sewing is not like a book. You don’t master it by studying.”
“I wasn’t, uh, trying to study it,” Beatrice lied. “I was just watching my beautiful mother.”
“This is a very simple thing, sewing up a tear,” Mom said. “Nothing special.”
“You know, just because you’re doing something simple doesn’t mean you’re not beautiful!” Ugh, Beatrice hated when she deflected practically every compliment given to her. Why couldn’t she just say thank you?
“And… there it is. Your robes are good as new, as long as nobody looks too closely.” She held up the orange-and-white ceremonial garbs and showed off her sewing job.
See, Beatrice was almost always careful, but after practice today she was walking home when she saw a greyback bear scamper by and, uh, kind of tripped and fell on the sidewalk. She probably shouldn’t have been scared by a silly little animal (that was Emi’s job), and she also probably shouldn’t have been wearing her school’s official robes while walking home…
Well, the tear in her outfit had now been repaired, and she was hopefully going to get safe without anyone noticing. Otherwise, if they found out, St. Helens Academy would probably bill her family fifty gold coins just for the repairs, and that would be embarrassingly annoying.
“It looks amazing, Mom,” Beatrice said. “And I’m not just saying that. I really mean it.”
“I’ve been a seamstress for all my life. It really isn’t anything to thank me for.”
“But it is! I have you here to patch every hole and darn every tear. Almost every dress I own was made by you, including my own school uniform! Not a lot of people have parents so gifted, and I’ll never stop being proud of it.”
“And… I feel really bad for not trying to follow in your footsteps. Grandma and Great-Grandma were both seamstresses like you, but I don’t know the first thing about any of it. Most people don’t. It’s super special to know how to sew, and…” Beatrice cut herself off because she realized she had kind of changed the topic on herself. “What I mean is, do you think you could teach me to sew sometime?”
Her Mom sighed. “I suppose. If you’re going off to become a priest, you’ll need to know how to do this all on your own. I won’t be there to help you.”
“Oh, that’s right, I didn’t even think about… that.”
She didn’t think about that because, honestly, she hadn’t thought about the whole priesthood deal in a good week. Especially not the fact that she wouldn’t see her parents anymore except on rare occasions. And Mom seemed to recognize the fact that she hadn’t thought about it, which made Beatrice feel terrible. She felt like a selfish brat (and once again, that was Emi’s job).
“Please teach me how to sew, Mom!” she pleaded with renewed fervor.
“Alright, I will.” Mom began playing through Beatrice’s hair and messing through her curls. “Only if you promise me never to cut your hair short again.”
“It’s so lovely when it gets long, and then you always cut it short right after,” she said. “I love it like this.”
“I didn’t realize my hair was getting so long, wow.” Beatrice began tossling through her own hair and it hit her that, yes, her hair was quite a bit longer than it was when she started wearing it like this. “I won’t promise you anything, but I’ll make sure only to get haircuts you like.”
“That would make me happy.”
“When do we start?”
Mom looked extremely confused. “…Did you want to start right now?”
Dad came crashing through the door with an absolutely unexpected level of energy. He carried a sack of groceries around his arm and more in the bag on his back, and yet ran into the apartment as if he were a child hyped up on sugary salmon binds.
“What’s got him so riled up?” Mom asked.
“I have no clue.”
Both women started to get up from their chairs, but Dad beckoned them down. He began giving Beatrice a shoulder massage and said, “Did you know who I ran into today? Tia Knoll. Heir to the entire Knoll Family estate. Just walking into the library like it was nothing.”
“Well, it looks like he’s a friend of that Emi L’Hime girl, which means he could become a regular. And if he’s a regular… The library could receive millions of coins in donations!”
Emi… Oh, Emi was at the library all by herself, and presumably had fun conversations with Dad and with the single richest person in Balarand. That must have been a fun adventure, Beatrice thought. She was jealous she had to miss out…
“How was Emi?” Beatrice asked.
“Oh, her normal self. Ranting about a book she didn’t like.”
“That’s my Emi.”
“I mean, that’s my friend Emi, all right,” Beatrice said. “Anyway, you really think the Knoll Family would fund the library if the heir started to visit more often?”
“Well… I can dream, at least,” he said. His energy died down as the realism set in. He let go of Beatrice’s shoulders and moved to Mom’s. “What I don’t have to dream about is…. supper!”
“What’s for supper?” asked Mom.
“I’m ready for anything that isn’t vegetable soup again,” said Beatrice.
After hours of watching Runa Arakawa bumble around trying to repeat her apparent transmutation of insects into bunnies, Emi and Beatrice had finally left her house. She was never able to succeed at replicating that first step, let alone the step where she ended up incinerating the bunnies instead of merging their consciousnesses. It was horrific as it was entertaining.
Since they were so close to the river, they went to the harbor and took a late-night stroll down a nearby boardwalk. It was nearly empty; the floating docks had already closed up and the workers had gone home. All Beatrice could see were the lights on the boats shipping cargo up and down the river, and the sparks flying out of the still-operating smelt mill.
There were also two Dannark guards patrolling the area. They passed by the two girls, and one turned his pointed helmet in their direction. The helmet obscured his face except for his mouth, but he appeared to be giving them a look before he passed too far away to see them anymore. Apparently young women being out this late, this far out into the city, was definitely something to look down upon, even if not a crime to be punished for.
Beatrice noticed Emi grimacing at the soldiers, but grabbed her hand to distract her from her frustrations. Emi looked at her and smiled softly.
“Our day today ended up being a bit unfun, Emi,” said Beatrice. “I’m sorry we couldn’t go to Gonda Tower like you wanted.”.
“What? No, it was great!” Emi exclaimed. “Wherever you dug up that Runa girl, she’s the definition of fun. And Mrs. Arakawa’s cooking is delicious.”
“Oh, isn’t it?”
“Those pastries were to die for. You should have told me to eat them before Runa got her paws all over the plate!”
“Well, I’m glad I didn’t ruin the date, anyway,” she said.
“Tris… is that what this is?” Emi asked. “A date?”
“Uh, well, I don’t know. Is it?”
“I was hoping you’d tell me. Because I’m not sure.” Emi smiled broadly but for some reason it made Beatrice’s heart sink
She thought for sure that… well, with all the time they had spent together, all the romantic gestures, that surely this was a date. But… Well, Beatrice had called it a ‘date’ in her head, but she hadn’t confirmed it or anything. Neither of them had actually said the word. “Nevermind. It was just a joke,” she mumbled.
They sat at the boardwalk pier for a while and held hands while watching the ships float by. Behind them, the smelt mill blew sparks into the night sky, orange dots glowing behind them. It was very calm, but it had begun to snow as well. Emi was shivering, as usual. Beatrice didn’t understand how a girl born and raised in Balarand could have such a low tolerance for the cold.
“You think it’s about time to go home?” Beatrice asked.
“Yeah. I’m freezing out here.”
They walked back from the harbor, mostly silent as the two tried to keep warm for the forty minutes or so before they reached Beatrice’s apartment. This time, Beatrice had brought a scarf after all, just so she could hand it to Emi and make her smile. And smile she did. She took the scarf, pressed it up against her cheek, and then wrapped it around her neck. Seeing her happy made Beatrice tear up a little bit, she was so pleased. Was that normal?
Emi looked at her. She wiped off her face quickly so she wouldn’t notice anything. “So, Tris, I have an important question.”
“Why are you so cute?” Emi asked.
“Oh, stop it.”
“No, I seriously need an answer,” Emi said. “I demand one.”
“You demand one? Why don’t you ask your many servants to explain it, then?” Beatrice giggled, but she hoped that her joke didn’t go too far.
But Emi seemed to take it in stride. “My many servants couldn’t come up with a consensus. There was simply too much data.”
“Oh yeah? What was one data point?”
“There was a lot of debate over your eyes,” Emi said. “Some of them wanted to describe them as ‘sparkling like the Balarand River’ and some wanted to call them ‘glowing beacons lighting the way home.’ The research was split into two camps and the vote was very tough.”
“Wow, what trite phrases to describe my eyes,” Beatrice said. “Copying some romance book, I see. Your many servants should learn how to write with more poetry in their words.”
“Okay then, how would you describe them?” Emi asked.
“I can’t really describe my own eyes… But yours? That I can do.”
“Go ahead.” Emi looked into Beatrice’s eyes and fluttered her eyelashes.
“I would say, ‘Brown. Bountiful like soil. Bold like an autumn tree. Beautiful like roasted salmon on a cold night.’ How about that?”
“Am I a farmer now?”
“If your hair wasn’t so perfectly straight, you could be mistaken for one,” Beatrice said.
“Hm, I’d kill to have curls like yours. They’re so…” Emi took her free hand and began tousling it through Beatrice’s head of hair. “What do you do to get it like this?”
“Uh, it just comes this way. I actually thought it was kind of… bad?”
“That’s where you would be sorely mistaken,” Emi said. “Your hair and your freckles are like a two-part unit. They work together to create this beautiful woman nobody can look away from. And despite my high abilities, I too am afflicted by the curse. You are simply too powerful.”
“I never knew I was powerful. I have trouble carrying the groceries sometimes.”
“Power comes in many forms,” said the sagely Emi.
Finally, they came to the library, the midway point where they needed to separate as their homes were in the opposite directions. “I guess I’ll see you some other time,” Emi said.
“Yeah. Whenever that will be.” Beatrice smiled. She turned around and began walking away. Beatrice had briefly considered saying something overly sappy or romantic to her, but this day was good enough as it was. Having to handle Runa was probably enough for the both of them, so–
Beatrice stopped. “What is it?” she asked.
“I love you.”
Beatrice and Emi stood silently, looking at one another for an indeterminable amount of time. Beatrice needed to take a moment to process this and take it in her mind before she could respond.
Emi’s smile quickly disappeared as she scrunched the sides of her mouth together, and tears welled up in her eyes. She began to wrap her arms around herself. “I’m s–”
But then Beatrice smiled. “I love you, too, Emi,” Beatrice said.
There was a crystal explosion inside of Beatrice’s soul.
She had finally said it.
She said that she loved Emi.
“Good night,” Beatrice added.
Emi wiped her face off and grinned again, shedding a few of the tears that had built up. Beatrice took out a handkerchief and wiped her face. “Good night, Tris. Have a good rest before practice tomorrow.”
“I will, for sure.”
But Beatrice didn’t get any sleep that night. She was too busy screaming in excitement.
Do you know about Runa Arakawa? No, you don’t? Really? Oh, of course, forgot that you refuse to study your history books because you are a delinquent. If you did, then this entire story may be very different to you. Very well, then. I’ll let the girl speak for herself…
All that was in the air was the smell of melting rock and lake water. The ground was damp, and each step Emi took made a mushing sound that was growing increasingly difficult to ignore.
She’d never been this far north in Balarand. It was far past the castle and the wealthy neighborhoods, close to a river port where even in winter the place smelled vaguely of rotting fish.
Was she out of place up here? Would the people who lived here notice that she was one of the affluent, uncaring folk who let Dannark occupy their kingdom and overthrow their leader? She hadn’t dressed in anything fancy, but she still felt uncomfortable, like every passing person would probably pause and pick her out.
Well, if there were any ruffians that thought she was an easy mark, that was okay. Beatrice would be there to protect her. She knew magic and all that.
“So, Tris, you never explained,” Emi said. “Why are we going to some girl’s house?”
“She asked me to,” Beatrice said. “I don’t want to elaborate further and spoil the, uh, surprise.”
They had walked all the way up town, close to the port heading up the Balarand River, where the houses were less compact and the city wasn’t as bustling anymore. Both wore warm clothes to protect against the winter; Emi had a toboggan on her head, and Beatrice had a scarf wrapped around her neck.
Not more than a block away from the lakefront, they reached one unassuming, dark blue house with a nice porch, cozy with one floor. Beatrice walked up to the front door and knocked on it. Now they had to wait.
In the distance, off the shore towards the Balarand River, laid a floating dock where several ships were anchored down to unload goods without going all the way to the main port. Another two boats were there for repairs, after they had collided with one another just hours earlier.
In the other direction from the port, there was a large smelt mill, burning up ore and creating lead for use in materials of all sorts. Sparks of fire and billowing smoke flew out of the chimney at the top. This was certainly not an area Emi would have imagined to find houses in, but she had learned recently that a lot of her assumptions about life in Balarand were completely wrong.
“Now that we’ve known each other for a few months, I must reveal one more thing about myself,” Beatrice began, her tone taking a sordid turn. “I will share with you my darkest secret. My most tragic responsibility.”
With all this build-up, Emi couldn’t tell if she was being sarcastic or not. With all this build-up. Her heart raced.
A dainty old lady opened the door to greet them, and Beatrice gave a sigh of relief. “Oh, Gods, Ms. Arakawa, you’re still fine.”
The woman gave a wide smile and exclaimed, “Little Bea! Come on in!” Emi gave Beatrice a sly glance and she shot a dirty look in return.
They entered the house. It was small and homely, decorated with various knicknacks gathered from throughout the city, and a bookshelf filled with assorted titles–some fiction, some nonfiction, some religious.
“That’s a lot of books,” Emi said.
“Yep. Back when they lived near Knoll Park, I loved coming over so I could read. Back when I used to… babysit.”
Beatrice was a babysitter, huh? That was her dark scary secret? It sounded cute to Emi. She wondered what Beatrice was like around children. Oh no, she was blushing already.
“I’ve made you some pastries,” Mrs. Arakawa said, carrying a tray of baked goods towards the two girls. “You make yourself at home while Runa gets ready for whatever she’s got going on. Oh, that girl.”
Emi and Beatrice sat down on the couch, and Beatrice took one of the pastries. Beatrice took a bite and squealed. “Delicious.”
Emi didn’t eat anything and laid her head on Beatrice’s shoulder. “Are you ever going to tell me what’s going on?”
There was a loud banging sound from below them.
“You’re about to find out.”
A door at the side of the room swung open, and smoke began pouring out. A short figure wearing a blacksmith’s goggles emerged from the room, hands on hips in a defiant pose. Her face was covered in grime and soot. Emi jumped to her feet in shock.
She lifted the goggles off her face and gave a toothy grin. “You received my message. Excellent,” she said with a nasally snicker.
“Runa, hey, long time no see,” said Beatrice, cringing through her teeth.
Emi couldn’t place Runa’s age, but she definitely seemed a bit younger than the two of them. She was also a runt, standing at just over four and a half feet tall, with a plump face and bushy eyebrows. As a sign of a times, even a girl her age was already wearing ink-black lipstick.
She took off her gloves and walked over to the couch, where she took a pastry. She noticed Emi and glared.
“H-hi,” Emi greeted. “I’m Emi L’Hime.”
Runa grabbed Emi’s hand and kissed the top of it, leaving behind a dark smear. “You are a delight, milady.”
Emi stared at her hand for a second. She laughed in bewilderment. Beatrice rolled her eyes.
“Mom! I’m going to show these two my laboratory,” Runa shouted to her mother, who was in the kitchen making something.
“That’s nice, honey.”
“We’re going down,” she shouted again. She didn’t seem to need to ask for permission, but was seeking it anyway. Aw, she was a good kid at heart. “Follow me, ladies.”
They went into the smoke-filled room, which was actually a staircase down into a basement. “That’s the reason they moved away,” Beatrice said. “They needed a real house with a basement. For Runa’s work.”
“What work is that?” Emi asked.
Beatrice pointed towards Runa’s laboratory.
It was a chaotic mess of papers, runic symbology scrawled on walls and tables with rocks and tiny critters laying about. For anyone worried about cleanliness, this would be like looking at a warzone. Strangely, Emi felt a wave of calm wash over her instead.
“This is where I make the magic happen,” Runa proclaimed, stretching out her hands as if her laboratory were a natural wonder. “Quite literally speaking.”
She gestured to her table covered in large stones. “Right here is my golem dissection project. I have been trying to figure out what part of the rock is able to store magical energy and coordinate with other pieces to form the magical creature known as a golem. They have been known to form around pieces of ice, too, but last time I attempted to study one of those, it melted before the shipment arrived…”
“She shipped an ice golem to Balarand? Who is this girl?” Emi asked in a whisper as Runa continued rambling.
“Her father was a prominent businessman many years ago, but when he died, he gave his entire inheritance to his lover and newborn daughter instead of his wife and legitimate children. Ms. Arakawa is the fifth-richest person in the city.”
“Oh, wow.” Emi’s immediate thought was that Runa’s mother budgeted pretty well, then, from the looks of the house and area, and then realized that normal people don’t think about that kind of thing and she should stop being a rich brat.
“…And that brings us to the reason I needed to contact you so urgently, Ms. Ragnell,” Runa continued, talking like she were giving a lecture and not actually speaking to someone. “I have reached a crucial phase in the Homunculus Project.”
She beckoned to a table covered in glass, housing a dozen small rabbits jumping around and sleeping and eating from their bowls. “I have ventured into the furthest reaches of the fabric of soul magic. With this, I am one step closer to using the soul to create new life. I will become a God among mortals!” She cackled.
“What did you do?” Beatrice asked, peering at the rabbits closely.
“You cannot see? You were always rather simple, so I will explain. These rabbits, just one week ago, were no mere rabbits. They were insect larvae I found crawling outside my house!”
“Wow,” Emi exclaimed. “Pretty neat.” She had read about this sort of soul transfiguration magic when she was studying about magical incantations with Beatrice, but she thought it was only theoretical. This was certainly not theoretical!
“More than simply neat, my dear. I have transmuted them into new life, and now I will use this power to transmute them all into one being!”
She flipped a nearby switch, which set ablaze a furnace directly underneath the table full of bunnies. A large crystal dangling on a chain dropped from above and crashed onto the table. The crystal shattered and magical energy began swirling around inside the glass…
And then all the bunnies evaporated, dying in a fiery flash. Their bones turned to dust.
“That wasn’t supposed to happen… My calculations must be in error.” Runa ran off to a table to pore over some indecipherable papers, and left Emi and Beatrice to gaze at the carnage by themselves.
Beatrice looked down at the ground and covered her face with her palm. Her glasses tilted. “This was such a bad idea. I’m really sorry for–”
“This is so cool,” Emi said. “Thank you for bringing me here, Tris. I couldn’t have asked for a better date.”
“Okay, that’s enough for today,” said Mr. Statusian. “Remember, everyone leave the building by the top of the hour, and I’ll see you back here in the morning. We’ll be beginning our final days of practice, so I hope you are ready for some serious work.”
The class grumbled. Someone murmured that that whole “last day of class” comment way back when was extremely misleading, and another person literally growled.
Beatrice, of course, was extremely pleased with herself.
It was just a couple weeks until the Winter Ceremonies. She had long since mastered the rituals in execution, but she quickly learned that that wasn’t all the rituals were about; she also had to stay attuned to her magical partners around her. They had actually created a water generation spell by accident the other day, so it seemed that everyone was growing a lot closer together. Beatrice had even started hanging out with Bodhi and some of the others after practice sometimes.
Today was not one of those days, however. No time for hanging out with friends; she was about to meet Emi at the library for a date. They had spent many days together recently, but always ended up wandering around the city and looking for food to eat, not really doing anything special. This time, though, they were going to travel the Gonda Tower, the tallest building in Elince. Apparently, its top floor was so high that you could apparently see all the way across the kingdom if you looked out from the top floor. It sounded so romantic!
It was normally closed to the public, but as long as you had the right connections, that was no hurdle. Emi, of course, knew the owner’s granddaughter, Felisa L’Flare. It was great having a rich and famous girlfriend–er, friend who may or may not have been dating her. They hadn’t exactly clarified that just yet…
Beatrice grabbed her bag and slipped it onto her back. With the Winter Ceremonies practice and her relationship–if that’s what it was–with Emi both going strong, she had a strong smile on her face. She scurried over to the library, where her Dad and Emi were currently talking at the service desk.
Emi L’Hime. Sigh. The girl of her dreams, the main thing on her mind every time she closed her eyes. Beatrice could remember when she first saw her at the marketplace, all that time ago, and was instantly smitten. And as much as she tried to ignore it, her life was forever changed that day, she knew, because she found someone worth knowing for the rest of her life.
Just look at her. Wearing nothing more special than a turtleneck and a long skirt. She made no attempt to stand out, no attempt to separate herself from the crowd, and yet she was radiating. Tall, with shiny pale skin looking something out of the most vivid dream. Beatrice had held those curves in her arms, felt those thin hairs, breathed in the smell of shampoo and perfume. She was more than just beautiful. She was Beatrice’s. (Maybe.)
“Oh, Tris, hey!” Emi exclaimed as she saw her enter.
“Hey,” was what she said, but what she thought was more along the lines of, every time I see your dark brown eyes my heart is sent into a flurry, my mind hazes up, and my entire being is sent into a blinding hailstorm of affection. She only thought it, but she conveyed it with her smile.
“You’re friends with Emi L’Hime, Beatrice?” Dad asked. “I didn’t realize that.”
“Yeah,” Beatrice said. “We, uh, sit together at the study table sometimes. You never noticed?”
“Uh, no, I never pay attention,” Dad said, with a smirk that suggested he was not exactly telling the whole truth. “But she’s a good girl. She’s been coming to this library since she was about this high.” Dad held out his hand flat to measure about twelve inches.
“Your father’s the one who got me into my favorite book series,” Emi said. “It’s called The Elf Cycle. It’s a really great mystery series with a lot of action and adventure and romance.”
Ehh… Beatrice knew her Dad read pretty much everything, so his taste in fiction books was a bit… odd. She didn’t always enjoy his recommendations when it came to fairy tales and adventure stories, and she learned as much when he convinced her to go through A Beautiful Bloodbath when she was thirteen. Not a wise choice at all, Dad…
“I’m really glad you two have become friends, though,” Dad said.
“Heh, yeah…” Beatrice coughed, and then turned to Emi. “So, are you ready to go?”
“Go? Where are you doing?” Dad asked. “Wait–” he interrupted himself. “Oh, I almost forgot. You have a letter. Mailed to the library, for some reason.”
Who would send her a letter, and why here? With a moment’s hesitation, she broke the seal and tore it open. The letter read, in a scrawled handwriting:
“You must meet me IMMEDIATELY. I have made a new breakthrough! TOP SECRET. I need your help to align the spirits and perfect our society. If you do not arrive or send response in twenty-four hours, I will have to assume you have been apprehended by forces beyond your control and will be forced to take drastic measures.
“Is it something nice?” Dad asked.
“Oh, brother.” He rolled his eyes. “Do you need to go meet her?”
“I guess I do…”
“Who’s Runa?” Emi asked.
“Oh, Emi. We might need to postpone the, uh, thing.” She was trying not to be too explicit about their date plans around Dad.
“What, do you have to go meet them or something?” she asked.
“Yeah…” There was no way she could get out of meeting Runa, she knew, even as her mind flashed through all the excuses she could possibly use.
Although… Maybe this was a fortuitous opportunity after all. This could be a chance for a very different kind of date for Beatrice and Emi, and for Emi to learn more about her. Like marketplace traders often said, she could turn lemons into lemonade.
“Hmm…. Hm. This book report is of high quality. It appears you understood the material well,” Ms. Khami said. “I mistook your disdain for the readings for a lack of comprehension. I was wrong. Good work.”
Emi, sitting at the only school desk in her makeshift classroom, fought very hard not to squeal in delight.
It was rare for her to hear a compliment from Ms. Khami. But recently, especially as Emi had devoted more of her time to helping out around the house, her opinion of her seemed to have changed. She actually said nice things sometimes.
“It wasn’t the main reading that disinterested me,” Emi said. “I just didn’t like the contemporary analyses that went along with it. They all seemed so warped. Why did so many people adore the Fathie Empire back then? The Gang of Eight was ruthless, and if the Teal One hadn’t defected…”
“Then none of Balarand would be here today except in ruins, yes,” Ms. Khami said. “But people at the time did not consider what the future might hold. They were captivated by the Gang of Eight’s charismatic campaign and saw their destruction as acts of liberation. It is only in hindsight that we can truly understand what a decade of war did to our continent.”
“So what you’re saying is… Dannark and Doros are going to blow up Tsubasa if they keep fighting?” Emi asked.
“History is but a cycle of heroes and tragedy,” Ms. Khami said. “And with that remark, our lesson is complete.” She picked a book off her desk and shut it loudly to signify the finality of the event. “I hadn’t expected you to advance so quickly through this section, and I must admit: I have no further material to assign you, Emi. You are finished.”
“Finished? For… good?”
“Correct. You have finished the curriculum that I had developed for you when you were a child. You are officially an educated woman.”
Done with Ms. Khami’s lessons… After all these years, Emi never actually thought a day like this would come. She had somehow pictured in her mind getting married, growing older, with Ms. Khami still around still handing her massive, dull tomes on a near-infinite variety of subjects. It felt like just yesterday she was trudging through a near-incomprehensible textbook on economics, and now she was just… done.
“It is unorthodox, your improvement lately,” Ms. Khami said. “I had certainly not planned on you passing my magical incantations exam within a week, either; that was intended to take at least a month.”
“Oh, well I had help from a… friend.”
“Were you truly sneaking out of the house so often to… study? I can hardly fathom.”
“Sometimes. At the library, usually,” Emi said, feeling pangs of self-righteousness flash across her cheeks. “I was a better student than you thought, huh!”
“Well, your essays on interpersonal relationship politics were subpar, to say the least, but you have shown great development, Emi. You truly are the woman your parents have always wanted to be, if I say so myself.”
“Wish THEY’D tell me that,” Emi said.
“They try to, in their own way,” Ms. Khami said. “They are under a lot of pressure with their diplomatic missions. It’s very difficult to raise a successful, professional daughter in these times.”
“They could have sent me to school…” Emi muttered.
“Did you not appreciate my schoolings?”
That was a loaded question. “What I mean is, Reo and Touma both went off to Yates. Almost all my old friends in the neighborhood went to school in some far-away city in the mountains or by the coast. Why did you homeschool me?”
Ms. Khami looked off and laughed wistfully, as if that were also a loaded question. “I realize you are too young to remember, but when you were a very young child, you had many issues that needed special care. You weren’t very comfortable around strangers, and sometimes you would react in… outbursts of sorts. So your parents decided to let me teach you. You got over those troubles as you grew older, but with your apprehensiveness towards large social gatherings even now, we thought it might be best to keep you here in Balarand, with the rest of your family. In case you ever needed us.”
Emi looked down at her lap. She wanted to shrink into nonexistence. “That makes a lot of sense. I’m… sorry for being a bad baby.”
“You were a wonderful baby, and you are a wonderful lady.”
Did she really… mean that?
Speaking of ladies… Emi felt a new confidence inside her and decided to turn the tables on the conversation. “So I may be wonderful, but what if I don’t want to be married? Married to Lady Khara, that is.”
“Ms. L’Hime, you are going to be married at the end of the spring and you are going to love it, because that is what your parents wish of an important girl like yourself.”
“But I don’t want to marry someone I don’t love.”
Ms. Khami, still standing behind Emi, put her hands on her shoulders and began giving Emi a massage.
Their relationship over the years had always been fairly sour, but Ms. Khami had somehow persisted over all that time, never giving up even when Emi was at her most rebellious. Emi had been sure it was simply for the money, but…
“Your parents love you very, very much,” Ms. Khami said. “They’ve found a woman for you who will support you in whatever you want to do, and with your education you can be anyone. You won’t be shackled to the L’Hime Family any longer, if that is what you wish. You will have almost unlimited freedom in your life to pursue your dreams.”
“Except for love.” Emi sniffled thinking about having to leave Beatrice and never see her again. The exact thing she still hadn’t summoned the courage to mention to the girl. “I’ve never even met Lady Khara and yet I have to spend the rest of my life with her. Can’t you see how that’s unfair?”
“I have met Lady Khara, and I can assure you she is a wonderful woman. She would not be allowed to marry you if she was anything less. It may seem unfair for you now, but in twenty years you will laugh at all of this.”
“Okay, but why does this Lady Khara want to marry a young woman she’s never met?” Emi asked. “I’m a demon in girl’s clothing, in your own words.”
“Your strength of emotion is an asset as much as it is a shortcoming,” she told her, continuing to massage her shoulders. “There may be times when you are too much to handle, but there is a woman who is ready and willing to accept that with openness, honesty, and respect.”
“Yeah… there is,” Emi said, mostly to herself. It wasn’t Lady Khara, that was for sure. “Why can’t I marry someone of my own choosing? Someone I am in love with and want to spend the rest of my life with?”
Ms. Khami let go of Emi’s shoulders. “That is not for me to say. I was born into a poor family and the L’Himes took me in when I was young. I was raised by your grandparents more like your mother’s sister than a lowly servant, and I did not question their decisions for me because they shaped me into the woman I am today. All I can tell you is that your parents’ wisdom is greater than any youthful fling.”
“It’s not a fling. It’s…” A conundrum was what it was. Falling for someone while you were already engaged to another. “I don’t think I will be able to marry her. Not anymore.” Emi got up from her chair and faced Ms. Khami directly
“Your life is your own, in the end,” Ms. Khami told her. “But you are a member of a prominent family, and you were born into responsibility whether or not it is fair. Cheating on your fiancee will not only affect you, but your parents, and your brothers too.”
“I’ve thought about that a lot,” Emi said. “And my answer is… It’s really complicated.”
“That is is.”
Emi headed into the foyer. It was vast and empty as usual. With party cleanup long over, the L’Hime home was once more a large space filled with a bunch of rooms hardly anyone ever used, in enough space to house an orphanage or two.
“So, I’m really finished with all of of my studies?” Emi asked.
“Well…” Ms. Khami began. “I know that you are working on those little devices in your bedroom. I bought a few books on engineering and mechanics, and if you would like to look through them…”
“You mean, exactly the opposite of what my Mother said to do?”
Ms. Khami smiled. “Yes, but I–”
Ms. Khami rushed to the front door and opened it, before her expression flattened. “Oh. You again.”
“Hi, Ms. Khami.”
“Tris!” Emi ran past Ms. Khami and hugged Beatrice around the neck, squeezing as tightly as she could. “You’re here.”
“And so are you,” Beatrice said. “Do you want to…”
Ms. Khami shook her head, but smiled. “You and your deviancies. Be back before supper. Touma is coming over again.”
“I can’t promise anything, but I’ll do my best,” Emi said.
Emi and Beatrice left the house, hand-in-hand, and Emi took one look back at Ms. Khami before the front door shut.
“I came to meet you!” she said, just as loudly, mostly because the party was so loud she could barely hear her own voice. “I forgot you were having a big party. I just thought I’d dress up since your family is so rich and famous.”
“What do you mean, what?”
“I can’t hear you!” Emi yelled.
She had come over to this place to see if Emi was even around, but it turned out she was incredibly preoccupied at the moment. Like, the kind of preoccupation that involved a gigantic winter party.
Luckily, Beatrice had already put on her nicest outfit, a dress her mother had finished just last week. It was patterned after ancient Balarand fashion, but styled closer to a modern formal suit. In this case, though, the tie was replaced by a traditional sash across her left breast, and a cape that went down to her waist.
And Emi… Wow. Her fancy party dress shimmered in the bright lights of the chandelier hanging overhead, and made her shine so brightly Beatrice literally could not look away. She was THAT beautiful.
“It’s a bit hard to…” Emi took a step closer to Beatrice. S close their noses practically touched. She leaned in and spoke directly into Beatrice’s ear. “Can you hear me now?”
“I could hear you the whole time.”
Emi leaned in even closer. “I’m really glad you came,” she said. “I missed you.”
Beatrice ignored that for now. “My offer still stands. Do you want to dance?”
Without waiting for an answer, Beatrice put one hand on Emi’s waist and another one on her hand, and lifted up their arms.
She hadn’t even been listening to what kind of music the orchestra was playing, but she was sure they were both bad dancers anyway, so she just swayed back and forth. The crowd around them cleared out a little bit and gave them room to move around themselves.
They stared at each other. Sparks flared between their eyes and detonated in brilliant blue and brown bursts of bliss. Beatrice wasn’t sure her face had ever been this close to another’s in her entire life. It was a bit intimidating, enough so that– oof!
She almost tripped over Emi’s dress and sent them both tumbling, but Emi caught them both. “Just follow my lead,” she told Beatrice.
Later, Beatrice would learn that Emi had been trained in formal dance all her life by her housekeeper Ms. Khami, that had performed at parties and recitals since childhood. But at this moment, Beatrice had no inkling of that; she simply thought the tension between them had been some sort of cooperative incantation, that it had generated an energy field that kept them in a constant spinning motion. Everything she told Bodhi about magic was a lie–love really was the most powerful force in existence.
It was warm.
Hand in hand, arm in arm, the two of them moved with the sweeping orchestral sounds, a dramatic yet romantic piece that oscillated between fast sections and slow sections, daring the dancers to keep up. The girls remained in sync, maybe not as much with the music as with each other. They created their own harmony.
“You know, you said rich people parties were terrible, but I really like this,” Beatrice whispered into Emi’s ear.
“Shut up,” Emi said.
“No, really, I do. All the beautiful dresses and fun music. It’s got a fun atmosphere.”
“I guess it’s not too bad.”
“Do I stick out if I’m just wearing this? I don’t have anything as nice as… well, you.”
“You look great.”
All this time, Beatrice had remarked to herself how beautiful Emi was, but this was the first time she had actually been able to see her up close like this for such a long time. Seeing the dimples on her smile, the freckle right above her left eye, the crackles on her lips from not enough moisture in the house…
She thought about leaning in to kiss her right this instant, but resisted the urge. Not while everyone was watching. Not until they could clear the air between each other.
But still… She enjoyed the dance.
Beatrice thought that this was the perfect setting to be with Emi. They walked down from the rich part of Balarand down towards Knoll Park, where they could stroll by the small canals that littered the southern portion of the city.
She was glad that she had decided to wear Mom’s outfit, after all. Emi had stared at it for a good five minutes without saying a word, so it appeared to be a very impressive piece. Thank you so much, Mom…
“So we’re going where?” Emi eventually asked as the two strolled down a busy pedestrian bridge, not yet holding hands. She was wearing the same dress from the party, an elegant, bright white and orange ballgown that went down all the way to her feet. It almost felt like Beatrice had kidnapped the girl from a wedding or something.
“I don’t know,” Beatrice said. “I had just finished some, uh, studying, and I thought I would see if you were home yet, to kill two birds with one stone. So we’re just strolling.”
“You shouldn’t kill birds. They’re nice.”
“Wait, what did you mean by ‘home yet?’”
“You were… gone, right? On some important rich person thing, maybe? I went to your house before and got turned away, so I…” Beatrice blushed because it seemed like Emi had no idea Beatrice had been to her house and now it sounded kind of embarrassing, maybe even creepy.
“Oh, Gods, I had no idea. I just… I’m really sorry,” Emi said. “I was probably home. It’s just that I was… studying a lot. My housekeepers probably didn’t want me to be interrupted.”
She hadn’t been gone? Emi had been in Balarand all along? Then Beatrice’s feelings hadn’t been for nothing. But somehow she felt even more confused.
“I thought they let you sneak out all the time?”
“Well, this time I… I thought it might be for the best,” Emi said.
Wh… What? What the heck was Emi talking about here? For the best? Did she intentionally ignore her for three weeks, or something? “Emi, what do you mean…?”
“I mean, I thought that I… We’re worlds apart, you know. Maybe my parents don’t approve of you and they’ll be angry if I show them to you. Maybe your parents will hate you because I’m part of a rich bureaucrat family that helped bring down King Kline. I don’t know. You’re a junior priest and… I’m just some girl. You shouldn’t even care about me.”
“Shut up,” Beatrice said.
“Seriously, shut up.” Beatrice was starting to get a knot in her stomach, and her face had turned red, and not from any cute blushing. “You don’t get to decide who cares about you. I’m not letting you push me away because of any dumb apprehensiveness.”
“No, but that’s what I wanted to… I’m sorry. I messed up.”
“Darn right you messed up,” Beatrice said. “I… I missed you a lot. I don’t want to be in a world without you in it, okay?”
Emi looked like she was about to cry, and then… she started cracking up laughing. “That was so cheesy.”
“Well, it’s true.” Now her face was red from blushing after all.
“And I agree with it. The past few weeks have been horrible for me. I don’t think I could ever bear to do that again. So I just want to say I’m sorry and I won’t do it again.”
“You’d better not, Emi.”
“I promise, Beatrice.” A snowflake floated down and rested gently on Emi’s nose. She stared at it for a second, blinking silently, before laughing once more. What a silly girl.
They stopped by another bridge over another canal. A gondola floated underneath it, with its gondolier standing by, arms folded as he waited for his next customer. Beatrice hadn’t ridden in a gondola in ages. It was so romantic! Maybe the two of them could…
“Do you want to… ride that?”
“Eh… Actually, last week I– Oh. Yeah. Let’s hop on.”
“So, you aren’t mad at me?” Emi asked.
“I’m just glad you’re with me now,” Beatrice said. It was mostly true. Honestly, these past two weeks had given her a lot of time to process her feelings about everything, and it helped her realize her crushing anxiety about everything coming to her life soon. For all Bodhi said about her focusing on the present, she sure felt like the future was a looming brick wall she was right on course to smash into.
Did she really want to give up her life with family and friends to devote herself to the Gods forever? Did she really care about Emi so much that she would be willing to part from her singular dream? It was tough, and she felt guilty even thinking about that right now when such a wonderful girl sat right next to her.
The gondola gently rocked and they passed underneath another pedestrian bridge. The sun was setting earlier and earlier every day now, so it was already on the horizon, the sky glowing with oranges and purples.
“So, what have you been doing lately?” Emi asked.
“Practicing for the Winter Ceremonies,” she answered. “The graduating junior priests at my school are performing a magic ritual at Knoll Park. It’s really exciting.”
“Wow. That sounds amazing!”
“It’s a lot of work. We all have to coordinate together so we have to practice a lot, and no matter how hard we do, we won’t know if it all worked until we attempt the real thing. Not one of us can mess up.”
“Are you worried about it?” Emi asked.
“Not at all,” she said with a determined grin.
“That’s my Beatrice.” Emi’s face went flush. “Not that… I mean…”
“I know what you mean,” Beatrice said. “And you?”
“What have you been doing lately?”
“Oh, that. Me?” Emi put her finger to her chin as if she had been so busy that she was having to think hard about it. “Mostly just preparing for the party. The party that we skipped out on.”
“Hehehe. It was fun, though.”
“I think you would change your mind if you had to stay another two or three hours.”
“Do you want to go back? We’re headed that way, I think,” Beatrice said.
“No thanks,” Emi said. “Actually, I have been working on… Well, you’ll see.”
“See what? Oh, is this about those gear things you wanted to build?”
“It’s a secret.” Emi winked, and then giggled.
“Okay, that’s fine,” Beatrice said.
“You’re not going to pester me about it?”
“You said it was a secret.”
“But…” Beatrice burst out laughing, and Emi finally got the joke. “Oh. Well, trust me, when you find out, you’re going to be impressed. Unless I fail at it.”
Beatrice was curious, but it would be better to let the girl wait. Instead, all she did was hold out her hand. Emi took it, fitting her fingers snuggly into hers.
They sat in the gondola for a while longer, going down the canal as it cut west-to-east through the city and took them closer to Emi’s house. All that walking, and they were soon going to end up around where they started.
It was the journey that mattered, anyway. The quiet, gentle rocking of the boat, and the silent gondolier pushing an oar through the waters.
Emi shivered and squeezed Beatrice’s hand tighter. “It’s getting really cold out here…”
“Uh, do you want to borrow… uh, my sash?”
“It’s really cute, but no,” Emi said. “Maybe if you had something like a scarf.”
“Well then, we’ll just have to share body warmth, huh?”
“Oh, Beatrice.” Emi paused, as if to consider something important. “…Beatrice?”
“Can I call you something shorter?”
Beatrice’s heart stopped. “Uhh… like what?”
“I don’t know, Bea?”
“No way!” Beatrice shouted. “‘B’ is a letter in the alphabet. Not a name. I hate it.”
Emi giggled. “Okay, then how about Tris? That’s the other half of your name.”
“Nobody’s… ever called me that.” Beatrice pondered it for a moment. “Yeah, sure. You can call me Tris.”
She had to admit it sounded cute. And the way Emi said it, putting extra emphasis on the “chr” sound… Her heart was sent aflutter.
“But wait,” Beatrice added. “Nobody else gets to say Tris. Just you.”
“Fine with me.” Emi scooted closer to Beatrice. “What do you think we should do now?”
“Compliment each other?” Beatrice suggested.
“I like that idea. Here, let’s get off at this stop.”
The gondola came to a stop at end of the canal. Any further and they’d be heading into the Balarand River, and that was a longer ride than they ever wanted with this weather. Emi flicked the gondolier a gold coin and they went on their way, ready to wander aimlessly, hand in hand, as the sun disappeared and the stars came into view.
The sidewalks were clear, but piles of snow laid on either side of them. Those piles grew higher every day as the weather continued to chill and it was a wonder the street workers could keep shoveling the busy sidewalks every single morning without fail.
“So, compliments? Me first. I love the way you walk,” said Emi. “You always move around like you have a place to be, and you want everyone else to know.”
“I… do?” Beatrice had never in her life thought the way she walked as something that could be liked or disliked.
“And I love the way your eyes look at night, through the glare in your glasses. They’re like two miniature moons.”
“You’re the most beautiful person in the world,” Emi said. “The Gods envy you.”
“You’re making fun of me, right?”
“Not in the slightest. Your turn.”
“You’re really hot,” Beatrice said.
Emi’s composure broke down and turned to gelatin in an instant.
“And, your butt is really nice,” she added.
“Give me… cute compliments…” Emi muttered.
“I just did. Your butt is extremely cute. And, it may not be ladylike for me to mention, but you are very attractive in several other areas. Do you want me to continue?”
“You’re killing me here, Tris…”
“Don’t make me tickle you,” Beatrice said.
Suddenly, Emi snatched Beatrice’s glasses from her face and put them on her own. “Oh, don’t make me tickle you!” Emi mocked, regaining all the energy that had seemingly been sapped away moments ago. It was a ruse all along.
“Hey! Rude!” Beatrice reached for the glasses with her free arm, but Emi took a step away and she couldn’t reach them. She also gripped Beatrice’s other hand so that she couldn’t break free of their hand-holding. How devious…
“How do I look?” Emi asked.
“You look like you’re hurting your eyes.”
“How did you know?”
“Also… you look adorable,” Beatrice admitted.
“Good to know.” Emi handed the glasses back to her. “Maybe I’ll get some fake ones and wear them at parties.”
“That’s very odd, Emi.”
“Yeah it is, Tris.”
“Man, we’re going to have a lot of weird stories to tell our kids.”
Emi stopped and turned her head down.
She shouldn’t have said that. “Sorry, that was a bad joke.” They were having a lot of fun and then she had to go and ruin it all by saying something stupid.
Emi’s head raised. She looked Beatrice straight in her eyes and asked, “Tris, Will you marry me?”
…???? “No?” Beatrice said with great confusion. “Wh–What? Huh?”
Emi giggled. “Yeah. Sorry, I wanted to see what your reaction would be. I’m… kind of glad your gut reaction was no.”
“Why is that?”
“Because I don’t even have a ring to give you! What kind of woman would that make me? Or… is that a rich person custom?”
The sun had finally fallen behind the cityscape and darkness came upon Balarand. It would soon be time to depart; Beatrice wanted to spend every last second with Emi while she could.
“No, everyone does it. My Mom and Dad have them. They’re probably the most expensive things our family owns.”
“Besides a lovely, impossibly-gorgeous daughter,” Emi added.
“Oh, stop. Now you’re just getting creepy.”
“You’re the one who called me hot just a minute ago!”
“That was the truth. Now you’re just trying to get in my skirt.”
“You’re right, Tris, I am just trying to get in your skirt,” Emi said. She narrowed her eyes and chuckled.
“At least you’re honest,” Beatrice said.
“Well, Is it working?”
Soon, their aimless wandering took them back to the same marketplace they had visited all those weeks ago, that same marketplace that led them to their very first encounter. The statue to some long-ago queen stood high in the center, and sellers hoisted booths all around it. There was enough to see that browsing was an activity all of its own. With all five moons shining from up high in the night sky and street lamps hanging from every pole, the marketplace was a beacon of brightness even as the rest of Balarand turned dark.
Beatrice loved being out here with all of this. Emi, with her stuffy parties and fancy dances, hadn’t gotten the chance to fully experience what normal folk in Balarand all got to do, so she really wanted to show her everything she was missing. And they got to do it all while dressed up like they were going to a big event.
Emi was still a bit wonderstruck, she could tell; she was staring at a stand selling wooden carvings of mythical monsters from faraway lands, and the vendor, currently carving something while not even looking at the knife or wood, noticed her interest.
“This one is called a centaur,” she told Emi. She took her knife from the wood and pointed it to one of the fiercer monsters in the row of carvings. “It’s half-man, half-beast, and roams the forests like a champion. No human would dare approach it without a full hunting party. You’d best stay away from one if you ever spot one.”
“Do you want it? Two gold coins.”
“Two gold coins?” Emi seemed offended by this offer. Beatrice was suddenly worried that she was going to make a bit of a scene. “You’re offering your services for far too low for what they are worth. I’m giving you six.” She took out her coin purse, laid out the coins, and took the centaur.
“I probably should start upcharging ladies in fancy dresses, huh,” the vendor said to herself.
“First a crab, now a centaur? How many terrifying creatures are we going to learn about from all these vendors?” Beatrice asked Emi, rolling her eyes.
“What do you mean?” Emi asked.
“Well, you know most of everything they talk about is fake,” Beatrice said. “Either they’re making up something for entertainment or they’re repeating stories by other people that aren’t trustworthy. A centaur? Maybe. But I can’t imagine anything like a crab could ever exist.”
“Huh, I’ve never thought about it like that,” Emi said. “I kind of always thought all the monsters they talk about really did exist, but maybe not anymore, so now they only exist in tales passed down over the generations.”
“Well, that’s a sign of an active imagination, at least.”
“Really rude,” Emi said. “Very rude.”
“What next, you’ll say your house has a fairy garden out in the back?” Beatrice teased.
But that teasing led to Emi tilting her head to its side. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, uh, rich people would have fairy gardens if fairies were real, and then young girls of all ages would get to play with them and learn valuable life lessons.”
“Fairies are real, Tris,” Emi said. Beatrice giggled, but Emi only nodded her head more feverently. “No, they really are real. They live near the Elinican coast, mostly. Have you really never seen a fairy?”
“Oh yeah? And what about this?” Beatrice moved her fingers around in one swift motion and seized Emi’s sides with one powerful pinch.
Beatrice let out a maniacal laugh.
Defenseless while holding the wooden centaur in her arms, there was nothing Emi could do but shriek and try to run away, but even that was impossible in Beatrice’s grip. Laughing and crying out, Emi relented and let her pull her closer.
Soon, Beatrice stopped pinching Emi and Emi stopped yelling, but they remained next to each other. They stared into each other’s eyes, trying to figure out something to say to one another, breathing in and out, slightly out-of-sync, with heavy breaths.
Beatrice had Emi to herself now. She was literally in her arms.
Would she…? Could she…?
After a few too many moments of deliberation, she decided not to take any rash action. She let Emi go. A smile returned to the girl’s completely-red face, and she tried to laugh off whatever just happened between them.
Whatever it was, it wasn’t important anyway.
“I’m too ticklish,” Emi said. “You’ve discovered my weakness.”
“I’m ticklish too, but you’ll never get me. I have defensive techniques learned under a hundred tickle masters. Every move you make I can counter back on you.” Beatrice narrowed her eyes and went into some sort of silly fighting stance. Emi burst into laughter.
When she calmed down, Emi then said, “Actually, Tris…. I want you to hold me again.”
“Hold me.” She took steps forward, pushing her body against Beatrice’s, leaning her head against her shoulder. Beatrice took her arms and hugged her, and took her in.
Emi was the most huggable person on the continent.
They sighed in unison, and began swaying their hips, rotating in a small, slow circle around nothing. In the middle of the marketplace, with a hundred people nearby, surely watching their every move. Beatrice didn’t care.
Her nose was overpowered by the thick, sweet odor of Emi’s perfume, stronger than anything she’d ever smelled in her life, so much so that, as she held her, she felt most of her senses–sight, taste, and smell–had completely shut down. All that was left was the feeling of her arms wrapped around the back of Emi’s dress, and her cheek rubbing up against Emi’s ear.
“I’m so cold,” Emi said.
“I offered my sash,” Beatrice replied.
“You’re so sweet.”
Soon, the embrace ended. The two girls continued down the marketplace, holding hands with one another, but soon found a crowd of people yelling and hurling angry insults.
“Give it all up!”
They went up to the crowd to figure out what was going on. There was a group of people holding up signs, and one in the center wearing an oversized Mammoth mask to represent Nexurk, the God of Power and War. He was already a source of controversy for how Dannark had treated His shrines, but the way they paraded out His icon like this…
Suddenly, the chants ceased and the crowd dispersed as quickly as they had come together.
When the scene became more clear, Beatrice saw several Dannark soldiers, most of them holding people in chains, and the man who had been wearing the Mammoth mask had been pushed onto the snow and bound up. “We are not conquerors!” one of the soldiers shouted. “We are keepers of the peace. But we do not tolerate violence!”
The girls decided to get away from this scene, but Emi found herself staring as the soldiers paraded around their newest arrests. “What was that all about?” Emi asked.
“Dannark soldiers breaking up a protest, I guess,” Beatrice said.
“Do they… do that a lot around here?”
They began walking away from the marketplace and back towards Emi’s home.
“Somewhere, practically every day.” Beatrice said. “People really don’t like Dannark presence around here.”
“Well… it’s probably not fair to them that they have to see a foreign nation patrolling their streets every day, and their King in exile simply because he wouldn’t let an Empire engulf our continent in war.”
Beatrice stopped. Wasn’t Emi’s part of one of the influential families supporting the occupation? Why was she against it? “Well… our King probably wouldn’t be in exile if he hadn’t been supporting a tyrannical dictatorship in Doros. Dannark may have issues, but Doros is killing its own people as we speak.”
“Doros and Dannark are one and the same. I hate them both,” Emi growled.
Beatrice pulled her hand away from Emi’s. They stared at each other again, though this time with the romantic tension gone.
“I just think it’s not as easy to choose. We don’t live in Torano where we can live free from the rest of the world. We can’t hate our neighbors, even if they hate us.”
“It bothers me that you don’t care that our own King is in exile and a foreign flag is–” Emi stopped herself. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “Let’s not talk about politics anymore.”
They never would again.
And on that note, they resumed the rest of their evening.
Beatrice and Emi were a world apart, even if they were so close in distance. She was a junior priest, the daughter of a librarian, while Emi was part of the rich elite. It almost felt scandalous for them to be associated with one another, let alone talking about political events like equals. They probably needed to be a bit careful in general.
But for now they would just be themselves.
And now, to my original question: Was it love at first sight?
What do you think?
Clearly the two of them were in love at this point. Even they knew. But this love, something so quick, so encapsulating… It certainly feels like love at first sight, doesn’t it?
You think so? I don’t quite buy it, myself, but maybe your youthful wonder is stronger than my old woman cynicism.
Whatever the answer may be, they were in love right now, and that was all that mattered to either of them.
“Isn’t this party great?” Touma shouted as he saw Emi walking by. He had a glass of Doros Prime in his hand, so he was most likely far past the point of sobriety. If her brother was no longer of a sound mind, that gave Emi legal recourse to ignore anything he said and grumble about having to wear this annoying dress.
The corset was so tight she felt like she was going to burst.
This party, being held at Emi’s house, was one of the biggest and most prolific of the year. Even though they had a large house, the sheer number of people here made it a relentlessly crowded experience. She finally understood why the L’Hime Family home was so spacious– it was all for this precise kind of event, for the occasions when occupancy went from fifteen to fifteen hundred.
To say that Emi hated crowds was to say that crows were black. And to say that Emi hated this party was to say that the sun rose in the morning, and the moons rose in the evening. To say that this was one of the worst events Emi had ever attended would only barely qualify as an exaggeration.
The colors alone gave her a headache; every rich person here wore their own loud-colored dress, creating a clash of rainbows against the shiny gold-and-white decorations of the party itself placed around the foyer. It was so bright that the blind would grumble about it.
With such a massive number of people smushed into the foyer, the rich person smell was particularly pungent tonight. The odor of cheap perfumes, of white wine against bad breath, of wig powder and sweaty breeches. No matter how much money these people had, they somehow couldn’t prevent themselves from smelling like a rotten salmon bind.
Because the Empress-Consort was here to take part in the festivities, having already mingled into the crowd of colorful smelly dancers, so too were her contingent of Dannark guardsmen, two posted at every corner of the foyer and several more wandering in and out. Surely nothing would happen to her at a party like this, but the very threat of it was constantly reminded by the presence of all these gray-armored guards.
And to cap it all off, a small orchestral ensemble was playing traditional tunes, making the scene almost literally deafening at times. So, the perfect way to torture a young girl who didn’t even want to be here.
Emi hated crowds. She hated rich old people standing around laughing while they talked about bureaucratic drivel. She hated all of this! The stress was making her sweat her armpits off. Soon, she’d be just as smelly as everyone else.
Tia Knoll passed by, dressed up in a silk gown and wearing a jet black wig with hair going down to his waist. Many guests at the party were ogling him even as they ignored Emi and her expensive, hours-long-fitted dress. He was outstaging Emi and wasn’t even a girl. She really hated when he showed off his crossdressing skills at every single party and got the same rousing reactions each time.
“I have already received marriage propositions from ten suitors, including a noble from Dannark. Shall we compare numbers?” Very modest of him.
“Seeing as I’m currently engaged, I wasn’t keeping count,” Emi said.
“Well, I have a boyfriend, but that does not keep me. It’s all in good spirits.”
“You’re a fiend.”
“Oh, Emi, you need to have some fun. Your brother certainly is.” He pointed to Touma, who had exchanged his glass of Doros Prime for the whole bottle. His arm was wrapped around the shoulder a woman who looked about as far gone as he did. They laughed so loudly Emi could hear them from here.
“If I don’t save him, he’s going to be knocked out and arrested for harassing the Empress-Consort, isn’t he?” Emi mumbled.
Tia kept playing with his wig. “You know, I wonder how long it would take me to grow out my hair as long as my wig. Though I would venture to guess it would be too frizzy to actually grow down like yours.” He reached over to start playing with Emi’s hair, but she swatted away his wrist.
“Don’t you dare.”
Emi’s mind, as stupid as it ever was, conjured up an image of her time with Beatrice, standing on a bridge and looking at the girl’s hair glistening in the moonlight, and she imagined herself reaching out and putting her hands through the curls.
No, please don’t do this, Emi, she thought to herself. She couldn’t bear to see Beatrice again, even in her mind. The way she felt when they held their hands together, the whole swirl of mushy feelings and soft warmth came back to her and sent her heart into a pitter-patter. A pitter-patter of the worst kind.
A partygoer bumped into her shoulder and made her jump. She clutched at her chest.
“Emi?” Tia seemed concerned for Emi’s welfare. “Corset on too tight?”
“Uh, no, it’s nothing.”
Sooner or later, she was going to be married to Lady Khara from Zahn, and she was going to continue her life as an international diplomat, travelling constantly, going to parties constantly, and having none of the life that she actually wanted. It would be like tonight, but for the rest of her life.
The thought of all of that just made her want to rebel, so, so much. To do something crazy. But it was a bit hard when she was being strangled by her own dress.
“Tia, what’s your plan for the future?” she asked. “You remember what we were talking about on the gondola the other day? I was just thinking about that, and… oh.”
He hadn’t heard her. Tia was turned around, caught up in a lively discussion with an older couple confused about his recreational crossdressing inclinations.
Emi sighed. She looked over across the foyer to Touma, who was tap-dancing and treading dangerously close to the fireplace. She decided she would simply go back to her bedroom, lock her door, and hope the party wasn’t so loud it prevented her from sleeping.
She felt something–
A tap on her shoulder–
And right there, amidst the crowd of partygoers, were those same deep blue eyes, that same face full of freckles that always grabbed her attention so quickly. It was Beatrice Ragnell, dressed up in a dark outfit with a sash across her chest, and a short cape at her back.
There was a nice salmon restaurant near St. Helens Academy called Foron’s that students often flocked to after class. On most days, it found itself packed with teenagers relaxing, gossipping, and spending good coin on good food. Today. however, it found itself with only two occupants– Bodhi and his impromptu tutor Beatrice.
It was homely in that sort of grandmotherly way, the chairs and tables arranged so that it felt like every meal was a big family gathering, not that Beatrice would know. Unfortunately, with no other customers in the restaurant, it was spacious enough to make it feel like an uncomfortable afterparty, long after everyone else had stumbled out, leaving just these two behind to bask in the candlelight. There wasn’t actually a candle here, but the sun was already setting, so it was a bit dim.
The fish wasn’t as good as what you could find at the night markets, Beatrice thought. It was a lot more expensive, too; two silver coins for one plate of fish and one bowl of rice? She could have gotten three days’ worth of groceries for that. But it was still nice to branch out and try something new every now and then, she guessed.
“I really thought Naesala was going to show up,” Bodhi said. “But it looks like it’s just us two.” School uniform or not, he always had a cap on his head, and this time it was bright orange, clashing with the burgundy shirt and trousers he wore. It was intentional, Beatrice knew.
“That’s okay,” Beatrice said. “You wanted to study, and I said I’d help you study.”
“Yeah,” he said. “You’re a real good friend. Even if your hair’s getting too long for that face of yours.”
“What do you know about hair?”
“Nothing, I just think you look better with short hair, Bea,” he said.
“Beatrice, not Bea,” she said. “So, I bet you want to wait until we finish our food to start?”
Bodhi nodded and swallowed the piece of fish in his mouth. “Yeah, I think so. Maybe first we can–”
“What’s the fourth precept of ritual-making?” Beatrice interjected.
“Really?” He groaned loudly.
“Well, what is it?”
“The fourth precept is to avoid false speech,” Bodhi recited. “The spell will only work if your words are clear, concise, and projected loudly. The spell will register if your souls are attuned, and the better your speech, the more in-tune you will be with your partners.”
“Great work,” Beatrice said while cutting the head off the salmon and biting into its little fish face. “You might be an expert already.”
“Nah, we just drilled the darn precepts so much, I’ll never forget them.”
“That’ll help you out the rest of your life.”
“I highly doubt that,” he said.
“It helps everyone out, even if you don’t think about it that often,” Beatrice said. “Think about the discipline we’re learning by doing all this training. Isn’t that something?”
“It’s a lot less demanding than carrying stacks of leather strips back and forth all day.”
“Well, and think about the critical thinking skills we learn. Being able to analyze the Gods’ will and see the harmony of our…” Beatrice trailed off.
“Even you think that’s too ridiculous to finish your sentence,” Bodhi laughed. “The magic part is cool, but if everyone has to do it together, it’s kind of useless most of the time. I wish we studied more about real life skills.”
She didn’t respond.
“Well, anyway, I don’t get the whole deal with speaking spells or whatever,” Bodhi continued. “Why does it matter what you say instead of what you think? Shouldn’t group magic be like, some weird mind-reading thing?”
“It’s a lot simpler than that. You don’t HAVE to speak, but for untrained junior priests like us, nothing will happen unless we really sync-up well. Do you understand what I mean?”
“So what you’re saying is, if I’m together with someone who I sync-up with perfectly, we can hold hands and then create mega lightning bolts or something because our magic is so strong?”
“Not… exactly,” she replied. “Humans just aren’t that good at magic. Other creatures around Tsubasa can perform much more magic than us, like the striders in the Plebias Mountains. Striders can shoot beams from their antennae like it’s nothing, but it takes us a lot of work just to levitate a pencil. We can’t really get beyond that.”
“That’s a load of Mammoth crap,” Bodhi said. “But you know what? I think I understand how it all works.”
“Good. So then you think you’re ready to try it in action?”
“Well, I mean tomorrow at practice. We couldn’t do it just ourselves.”
“Oh… But… Why can’t we, Bea? I mean you and me, we could probably do a lot.”
“My name isn’t Bea! And– Huh.” Eh? Beatrice was taken aback by the question. “No, two people can’t do any magic ritual alone, not any worth anything. That’s for fairy tales.”
I sometimes snicker at Beatrice’s adamancy towards things she didn’t fully understand herself. Her explanations were foolproof with logic, and yet even as she said them, she felt a pang of sadness. Perhaps it was the faint memory of when she believed those very same things. Times when she ran around her bedroom with a stick and pretended to be a powerful wizard, or when she went to her first day of junior priest school with an oversized school bag on her back and eyes that twinkled like a newborn star.
Now with Bodhi, two years her senior but asking the same questions she had wondered about so long ago, she was struck with the realization of just how much time had passed since she entered St. Helens Academy. How much she had grown.
“It can’t be impossible,” he said. “If Mr. Statusian can do a little bit of magic on his own. And maybe, if he had someone else he cared about who could also do a bit of magic on their own. Then together, they could turn a little bit into a lot. It’s just math, isn’t it?”
Beatrice was instantly reminded of Emi, at a very inopportune time.
Gods, she missed her.
It had been long enough that she no longer thought it might be simply a sudden vacation, or punishment for staying out too late. It was either something serious, or Beatrice had greatly misinterpreted Emi’s feelings for her. As much as she hoped it wasn’t the former… It would make her a lot less upset than the latter.
And now, Bodhi basically bringing up the magic of love…
“Bodhi, the reason that it doesn’t work is…” Beatrice tried hard to figure out the right words to explain. “Magic doesn’t work without a lot of effort, not for any of us. Sometimes you might find someone where together you can make miracles, but that’s really rare. You have to be compatible and you have to be able to understand each other, and sometimes that just isn’t what some people want. And no matter how compatible you are, that doesn’t mean you can change things.”
“Are we talking about magic spells here, or…”
“Ah, never mind.”
Bodhi put aside his study materials and began eating his other salmon. “I gotta ask you something, though,” he said. “Why the priest stuff? Why do you care?”
Her answer was almost immediate. “Because I really appreciate the Gods and how they’ve helped out Tsubasa, and I want to devote my life to them.”
Bodhi scoffed. “You don’t care a thing about the Gods, Bea,” he said, his mouth full and voice muffled. He swallowed before he continued. “There’s got to be more to it than that.”
“I do too care about the Gods! Why would you even say that?”
“‘Cause in class you’re always talking about the rituals and spells and academic theory and whatnot. Like you’re a step beyond the class. You’re too smart to believe in the Gods.” He kept his smile, and paused for a moment before adding, “And even if you did, I never see you at church,” Bodhi said. “The priest at my church asked about you a few weeks ago.”
“Well, I just go to a different one,” Beatrice said. “My family visits the shrine to Bk’Man near my apartment. You know the one, right across from your store. We go every week.” Just because she didn’t attend church very often, it… It didn’t mean she didn’t have faith in the Gods. Just because she went to a shrine once a week, while her Dad went once a day, didn’t mean she was less of a follower.
He was incredulous. “Fair enough. I understand why you’d wanna be a priest. You get to travel the continent, seeing new places, helping other people, and making the world a better place. Plus, you get to learn magic, even if it’s about useless. I just don’t think the trade-off is so great. I want to have a family someday, myself.”
“I understand. It isn’t for everyone.”
“My pop would never forgive me if I ran off and joined the priesthood,” Bodhi said. “I got an apprenticeship coming up and then I’m gonna be running the whole place so he can retire. If I didn’t do that, nobody would be able to take over for him.”
It had been the only thing on Beatrice’s mind for most of her life, though, becoming a priest. Her parents had accepted by now that the Ragnell family was never going to carry on past their child, and their legacies would end with her death, however far in the future that may have been. She thought they had accepted it, at least. She never really asked what they thought about it.
Beatrice thought to her own Dad. He worked in the library, a publicly owned business that would be handed over to the other employees once he was gone. All of his expertise and knowledge would be passed down through his writing and his research.
But her Mom was a seamstress, a profession going as many generations back as the Ragnell Family line could carry. It was never a valuable line of work, but it had been the source of most of Beatrice’s clothing her entire life. And because she had never learned how to sew herself… it would disappear from the family line forever, whether or not Beatrice ever had any children.
“Not having a family will be really tough,” Beatrice said, finally. “I’m a little scared, but for now I’m not going to think about it. It’s not important yet.”
“Ha, just push it off ‘til the moment comes to decide. That’s so you. It’s why you’re so good at everything, Bea. You can just focus on what’s in front of you and pull it off.” He finished the last pieces of his salmon and set his utensils down.
“Th…thanks.” She paused for a moment. Focusing on what was in front of her… Huh. Something hit her. A restaurant worker came by to pick up their empty plates and clear off the table. “So, Bodhi, you would say it’s better to take advantage of the moment than to plan your life ahead of time?”
“Well, I’m saying you’re good at doing that. If you got the ability to do what you want, you should do it.”
“Well then…” Beatrice stood up from the table and pushed her chair in. “I’m sorry, but I need to go.”
“I have somewhere to be and I’m not letting it wait another moment.”
She exited the restaurant without another word, leaving behind a confused and probably disappointed boy.
Waiting for Emi this long was enough. She was taking it into her own hands.
Beatrice lowered her hands and heaved a sigh of exhaustion.
“That was…” Mr. Statusian said to the group of students arranged in a circular formation around a stand-in for the statue of hero Jon Knoll. “That was… Let’s practice it a bit better next time, alright?”
There were murmurs of resigned acceptance.
“Let’s finish,” he said. “Alright, be out of here in ten minutes, and I’ll see you back here tomorrow.”
Beatrice went into the dressing room and changed out of the loose clothing she had been wearing for practice. Sweat dripped from more places than she thought possible. Oh, Gods… She was very much not physically prepared for coordinating a mass magical ritual, and she could feel exactly the spots that’d be sore tomorrow morning.
With how these practices were going, she had no idea how they were going to be ready in time for the Winter Ceremonies, even if they were still a couple months away.
Okay, she was dried up and back in her school uniform, and now it was time to make her way home. She decided against stopping by the library–she’d given up going there every afternoon just to wait on Emi–but she did still need to go by the marketplace and picking up produce for her Mom.
She just wished she was less tired from practice. Who knew that practicing for a sacred ritual where most of the work was moving in a circle and chanting would be so physically taxing? It seemed so effortless to an outside viewer. And now she realized that that was because of how hard the performers practiced it beforehand. If only willpower alone could create magic spells, this would have been so much easier…
It was getting darker a lot faster these days; she remembered when the sun would still be shining high in the sky by the time she left St. Helens Academy; now, it was already at the edge of sunset, and several of the moons were visible in the sky.
Despite the growing darkness, and the growing aches in her body, Beatrice pressed on. At the marketplace she picked up a wheel of cheese, a bottle of wine, and some cloves of garlic. It was all costly, but hopefully together all of it would get the Ragnell family about a week’s worth of meals.
And then another few minutes of excruciating walking awaited her… before she finally arrived at her apartment and stumbled inside.
Look what the Mammoth dragged in… Wait, that didn’t even work as a joke. Beatrice was so exhausted from Winter Ceremonies practice that she couldn’t even muster her master wit.
Well, now she was home, and she had a bag full of produce to add to tonight’s onion soup. It was her Mom’s own recipe this time, so it wouldn’t be as much of a mediocre disappointment as the last time Beatrice tried cooking.
Speaking of Mom, she was right there sitting in her usual chair next to the supper table, sewing her current project together. She wouldn’t say what it was, but Beatrice had a feeling it had something to do with that ancient Balarand fashion stuff that Dad had been researching a while back.
“Hey, Mom, I got the vegetables you asked for,” Beatrice said.
Mom looked up from the outfit and smiled. It was quick, almost trained, but it looked genuine enough. “Thank you, Beatrice,” she said.
Mom, a princess-like figure who took everything about Beatrice and made it more extravagantly beautiful. A young Mom Ragnell would have been the catch of a century, and somehow, Beatrice’s own Dad snagged her like a salmon in a putcher basket. Maybe, with age, just as her skin and hair had lightened, her figure had lost some of that radiance, but it wasn’t enough to convince anyone that she wasn’t of regal descent in some distant family tree branch.
After just a moment, Mom moved back to her sewing, again focusing intently on her project. Whatever it was, it looked nice, some kind of gray top with navy… something, accenting it. Was it a… cape? Mom always made these kinds of nice outfits, made pretty much everything Beatrice had ever worn. It was a kindness that she would never be able to repay her for.
She wanted to reply, to say something, start a conversation with her Mom. But it was kind of tough. She stood there, put a finger to her bottom lip, and came up empty. Instead, she simply watched for a while longer. Studied the way she weaved her thread, the way her eyes followed along in a drifting motion, before jumping back to the other side as she started again.
Like performing a religious ritual, like taking all the information out of a book and laying it onto the page, her Mom created an entire piece of clothing with nothing but string and cloth, pins and needles, patience and practice. She had done this for so long that she hardly even had to take notice. It was as impressive as any incantation, any group spell. It was a whole different kind of magic.
For Mom, sewing was more than a hobby, then, perhaps. It was a whole life, and not one that Beatrice well understood… until now.
“I love you, Mom,” Beatrice said.
“I love you too,” she replied without hesitation.
Beatrice had never thought about how much it meant to her that her Mom made all these outfits for her, for the whole family. How in the world had she never realized her Mom was so… cool?
Once Mom had finished up the project for now, she went to the kitchen, and Beatrice followed her over to help her prepare supper. By the time Dad got home, there was boiling hot soup for the three of them, and there was nothing more Beatrice could ask for than that.
Beatrice looked at her Mom, skilled at everything she did, willing to set aside whatever youthful ambitions she may have had to raise a family, and wondered why she ever felt like the two of them were far apart. Aside from looks, and maybe interests, they weren’t apart at all. They were two beans in a barrel.
“Today’s the final day of classes,” Mr. Statusian announced to his students. The cheers were immense. “Settle down, settle down. This may be exciting news to those of you who are continuing their AA-grade studies in the spring, because you deserve a good break. But for those of you receiving your certificate next month, this is the end of your time at St. Helens Academy. Whether you try out for the priesthood, begin an apprenticeship, or simply move on with your life, I hope it’s been a fun journey, and one you can look back at with fond memories when you send your own kids here someday.”
There were murmurs throughout the classroom. A few sniffles.
Mr. Statusian continued. “However, you still have one task ahead of you– the Winter Ceremonies. We’ve been practicing this all autumn and now it’s time to choose which of you will perform the rituals to protect Knoll Park for the upcoming year.”
Mr. Statusian began listing off the students accepted to perform the ritual. And one thing Beatrice quickly noticed was that all the people listed were long-time students, the ones in the program for seven, eight, nine years, no matter their prestige or their grades. Even Bodhi got a spot, and his grades were… subpar.
Beatrice was ready for her name to be called, regardless.
Still very ready.
Yep, still waiting…
“And then last but not least, Beatrice Ragnell.” He paused for a moment. “If you’ve noticed, that’s every single one of you who has qualified for graduation. If you wish to join, there is a spot for each of you.”
“It’s not really a selection then, is it,” Beatrice whispered in earshot of Bodhi, who was sitting next to her as usual. But he had no snarky remark this time; he didn’t seem to have heard her in the first place. The smile he wore on his face was genuine. And it made Beatrice understand, if only just a little bit, what the point was for all this. One powerful parting memory with the academy so maybe you’d be more inclined to go to the church more often in the future.
She was so grumpy her name got called last, though. That had to have been intentional.
Everyone was finally excited about something together, though. That was nice. After all this practicing and studying for something nobody would ever have used… It turned out that they were going to be utilizing their group magic after all, all together.
Beatrice wished she had been a better friend to her classmates. She had pushed them away in favor of learning more intensely, but in the end, they were all in this together, and she was going to have to work with them.
After class, Bodhi lingered longer than usual. Once Beatrice gathered her things and stood up, he spoke. “Hey, uh…” he said, but trailed off from there.
“Good luck on the ceremonies.” Beatrice smiled even through her mild annoyance.
“Yeah, I hope you’ll be there,” he said.
“Of course I will, silly.”
“Well… Anyway, maybe you can help me practice a bit.”
“Of course. I’m sure you’re already great, though; you don’t need to worry.” He wasn’t all that great, but she was sure the practices he would be made to go through would be fairly rigorous.
Bodhi laughed. “No way.”
Mr. Statusian shouted, “Everyone has ten minutes to exit the building. My apologies.”
“Well, I’ll try and help you when I can. You know where to find me.”
Bodhi was nice. He was probably going to be a great shoe cobbler someday. She wondered if they’d be able to stay friends even after graduation, or if they had too little in common, in the end.
She wanted to help him, because he deserved it for being there for her even when other classmates were jerks. Or even when she was a jerk.
“Hey, Bodhi,” she said.
“You’re a good friend.”
If Emi wasn’t going to be around, Beatrice wasn’t going to let her mood sink. She had ambitions. She had friends. And now she had a new extracurricular activity to occupy her for the rest of the month. She had everything she needed here already. If she did see Emi again, then that would be great, but she wasn’t going to let herself get down. Beatrice had a ceremony to prepare for.