Beatrice had spent her entire afternoon at the library, yet again with the faint glimmer of hope that she would see Emi, but it didn’t end up happening. Instead she spent her day reading up on a book titled Theoretical Uses of Magic If One Were to Tap into the Soul Itself (Which Is of Course Impossible). It postulated that one could enter dreams, inhabit other bodies, even create a copy of oneself, if only the soul could be harnessed somehow. It speculated about a secret race of beings that inhabited the dream world, and were the conduits with which we could access the secrets of the Gods. While it was all certainly wrong, it was interesting reading, and she was quite engaged in thinking about how the author came to all of these grand conclusions.
However, for possibly the first time in her life, she felt nothing but disappointment to be reading a book. And she knew exactly why: It had been over a week since she last saw Emi, with not a peep from her since.
Maybe something had gone wrong? She had checked at Emi’s house, but some housekeeper woman turned her away when she tried to ask for her. It must have been something important; maybe Emi wasn’t even in Balarand at the moment.
Still, Beatrice felt gross, like her heart was covered in sludge and she could no longer move about without feeling pangs of anxiety. What if it was something she said on their last… date? What if Emi had simply found someone better, who was richer and taller and whose hair wasn’t a mess of curls and tangles?
Beatrice looked over at her Dad, who stood at the front counter as usual. He was reading the newspaper while waiting for an elderly couple to finish picking out books from the new releases. The two women looked far too feeble to be carrying so much at once, but they each had a basket full of titles to check out. It was good to see people loving to read books.
Emi and Beatrice both loved to read books…
She hadn’t told Dad about her, and as long as this current situation persisted, she definitely wasn’t going to. It was embarrassing to mention, and she knew how he would tease her about it, so it was best to wait until there was more concrete news to report. Hopefully he hadn’t picked up on it already.
…There she was, thinking about Emi again. She had to keep reading to distract herself.
When evening came and the library closed up, Dad came around to her desk and patted her on the back. “Studious as always,” he said. “But it’s time to go home for some supper. Mom’s making shepherd’s pie again.”
“That sounds good,” Beatrice said. “But I was thinking I might go out tonight and meet up with some friends.” This was a lie. She was planning on going over to Emi’s house again, just to try and see…
“Again? You must be making some close friends, Beatrice.” Dad gave a knowing smile, and Beatrice blushed. He knew. (Parents always know.) “Mom sure will miss you again. You know how she gets when she has leftover food.”
After a moment of deliberation, Beatrice said, “Okay, Dad. I won’t,” her heart sinking at even that hypothetical situation of meeting Emi dissipating. “I’m sorry about… going out a lot.”
“Whoever it is you’ve been spending time with, they must be very important to you. As long as you don’t neglect your schoolwork, that’s fine with us,” he said. “Though if you ever want to talk about it, you know we’re here. Me and your Mom.” He went back to the service desk and grabbed a few things, including a worn leather-bound book with many bookmarks sticking out of it.
“What are you reading there, Dad?” she asked.
“Oh, this? This is one of the oldest books in the library, titled Quest. It’s a novel written many thousands of years ago, in the time before Elince was united, and Balarand stood alone as a city-state. I‘m trying to use the depictions of city life here to figure out what the people of ancient times may have worn.”
“Oh, for Mom?”
“Yes, for Mom. I’ve gone through so many books lately and learned so many things about ancient Balarand, but there isn’t much detail on the fashion of the times. But this book has plenty of it. I think she will be very pleased.”
“Do you really?” Beatrice asked. “Lately Mom hasn’t been very talkative, and I’m almost worried that…”
“She’s a little melancholic? That’s what I’ve noticed, too. So I’ve worked extra hard and I think this is going to make her very happy.”
“Well, that’s good,” Beatrice said. She liked it when her parents were happy, and happy together. The way they looked at each other… she wondered how she seemed when she looked at Emi. At least, when she was ever around. “Actually, I do have a question,” Beatrice added. “How did you and Mom meet?”
Dad chuckled. “You asked that once. You were real little, and I was still real young, and all I told you was, ‘It was pure magic, honey.’ I guess that isn’t what you’re looking for in an answer now.” He went to Beatrice’s desk and sat down across from her. “I came to Balarand when I was about your age, looking for work after my father sold off his farm and moved to Fathie. I didn’t have a place to stay, any friends, or much of an idea of how the world worked, but I had a spirit to accomplish something. I just didn’t know what, yet.
“Then I saw your Mom on the first day, a seamstress’s daughter who lived on the corner of the first street I walked down, and after one look I knew I would marry her–she was the one. I introduced myself to her and told her as much, and she laughed me right off. She had as much right to; I was a street rat, for Goddess’s sake.
“So I kept at it. I worked as hard as I could, saved up money, and finally rented a place not too far from our home now. I asked her on dates, gave her presents, but nothing worked. She was persistent, even then. Eventually, after three years, on my way home from another rejection, I got hit on the head by an apple someone tossed out of a passing carriage. Knocked me out for two days.
“Your Mom cared for me, and then… something happened after that. We fell in love. And then we had you, and I got my degree at the Balarand College, and now I work every day to keep you two happy and safe. That’s our life story.”
“Do you think… Is that what you’re going through now?” Dad asked.
“I don’t know,” Beatrice said. “Probably.”
“Well…” Dad let out a sigh. “I know that this might be tough for you, what with your junior priest studies and all. You’re a good girl and you deserve to find yourself right now if you want. But you know you can’t take it with you. You’re supposed to love the Gods when you’re a priest.”
“I know, and that’s… something I’ve thought about recently,” Beatrice said. “I’m really worried about it because I’ve really started to care about someone and… Why can’t I choose both?”
“Take that up with the Gods,” he replied.
“I want to! I wish they would… Well, you know. I just want to do what’s right.” It felt so unfair to expect such absolute devotion when they wouldn’t even… she wasn’t sure where she was going with this.
“I don’t make up the rules. I just follow their Wills, because I know that will be the path to happiness,” he replied.
Beatrice wished she could feel as positively about it. “It doesn’t feel like the path to happiness. Maybe I… I don’t know.”
“It’s okay night now,” Dad said. “All I can say is right now, if you think you’re onto something, you should grab onto it. It’s okay to have a fling right now. Better to have one now than regret it later, right?”
“Now, let’s go home and meet that wonderful woman of mine.”
They journeyed home and Beatrice’s Mom greeted them with a scrumptious shepherd’s pie. Her smiles were never as bright and shining as Beatrice once remembered them, but she was glad to have someone who cared about her as much as she did.
She wasn’t sure how she was going to deal with the impending nature of leaving her family and friends behind to join the priesthood, or if she’d even end up doing it at all, but for now that was all okay. Her time with Emi was just a fling, for now. For now.
She really was. But after that night, school was the very last thing on her mind. It was like a completely different world to her.
Emi had taken her hand and placed it in hers, gazing at her with those eyes as dark and warm and deep as soil… She couldn’t believe that, after all that fretting and worrying and staying awake late at night thinking about someone she barely knew, she actually ended up with her hand grasped within hers.
Mr. Statusian was lecturing about something or another. Honestly, Beatrice wasn’t paying much attention right now, which was rare, but she knew she’d started all of this already on her own. One of the big downsides to studying outside of class was that she already knew all the material that was going to be discussed, and even if she made a valiant effort to participate in the lectures, she usually was not learning much new. Not listening to the professor, as was happening now, was not going to impact her life at all unless he–
“Miss Ragnell? What do you think?”
“Did you hear the question?”
“Yes of course, I’m just… Uhh…”
The entire class stared at her. Beatrice, the one who always came to class two weeks ahead on the readings, who sat back in her chair confidently any time a tough question was postured, now sitting in front of everyone caught off-guard in a complete daze.
She couldn’t take it.
Beatrice got up, took her school bag, and bolted out of the classroom.
She locked herself in the bathroom for a while, not to cry but so she could get some semblance of privacy and think about what the heck was going on with her. Even though it was not a difficult puzzle to solve. Obviously this was because of Emi. Well, not Emi as much as herself thinking about Emi.
That back there was just so embarrassing.
As much as she hated to admit it, she relished her status as the class suck-up, her position as the top student in almost every subject. Being a complete dolt in class and obviously not listening to the teacher would jst make everyone lose their respect for her. She wasn’t sure if that was what upset her so much, though. Maybe it was seeing the look on Mr. Statusian’s face when he realized she hadn’t been paying attention? No, it wasn’t that either.
Beatrice felt confused that anyone, even a girl as pretty and graceful as Emi, could make her act like this. It shouldn’t be like this. One girl taking priority over her life of service to the Gods? Being a junior priest was never that important, and even someone like her couldn’t treat it as more than it was, but this was Beatrice’s life. Or, it was supposed to be.
At the moment, though… ugh, what was she doing?
She walked over to the mirror and peered into herself, her mediocre appearance wrapped up in the guise of cuteness thanks to the St. Helens school uniform. They say looking into a mirror is a great gateway to analyzing the inner self, but at this moment, Beatrice felt more like it was a great gateway to annoying herself even more.
Junior priests didn’t need to look suave or sexy. They needed to think deeply, embrace compassion, and, of course, pay attention in class. Looking hot meant that you were exempt from things as lowly as a junior priesthood studying magic you could never pull off on your own. It meant you could go where you wanted, do what you wanted, be what you wanted. It meant you could change the world and accomplish great things even without devoting yourself to the service of the Church. You could make your own harmony… or… something.
She wasn’t sure what her mind was trying to tell her anymore, except that it refused to stop thinking about the other night.
Gods, she held that woman’s hand. Somehow, in some bizarre continent known as Tsubasa, someone as unremarkable as Beatrice Ragnell managed to hold hands with… well, with Emi L’Hime. She could practically imagine it right now, skin against skin, her thumb caressing her index finger…
…And this was what ended up getting her caught zoning out in class. Exactly this. Beatrice leaned her head against the mirror and gave a frustrated groan. She was hopeless, wasn’t she?
She stayed and sorted out her thoughts some more.
Beatrice left the bathroom about twenty minutes later and returned to the classroom. Class had already ended and most of her fellow students had long since left. The only person she saw was Mr. Statusian standing by his desk, hand on his hip as if he had been waiting all this time for her to return. She balled up her fists, sucked up her pride, and said, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have left class like that.”
To her surprise, Mr. Statusian didn’t laugh it off like she thought he would. Instead, he asked, “Do you want to talk about what’s going on right now? I’ve never seen you act like this way until the past few days and… If you need to talk about anything, anything you need to get off your chest, something like that, that’s okay.”
About what’s going on right now.
Beatrice very briefly considered telling her him everything, going into great detail about the girl she had spent the evening with who for some strange unexplainable reason had turned Beatrice’s heart into putty. “No, there’s nothing to talk about, I was just… having a bad day today.” She hoped that was a sufficient enough excuse and that he wouldn’t see through it. Trust me, adults always see through it.
The two exited the classroom and walked into the hallways.
“Well, don’t worry about that. It happens to everyone,” he said. “Everybody knows you’re one of the best students in this entire school. Whatever it is that’s distracting you will be over with pretty soon, and you’ll be right on your way towards making the priesthood.”
Beatrice’s face went ghostly white. “The priesthood,” she muttered, too quietly for her teacher to hear.
All these feelings in her heart, all the jumping around for Emi L’Hime, was running completely contrary to her life path, the path she had chosen for herself when she was just a child, standing four feet tall and pointing to her Dad at the old lady handing out food to the homeless. She was going to be the one to bring new harmony to Tsubasa, that’s what she always told herself.
Now, suddenly, after that night with Emi, thinking about that was almost an alien concept to her. Like a different person had dreamed it up, and she had simply inherited it along with all the other junk floating around in her mind. The only thought her mind would give her was this image of Emi in her arms, both of them old and wrinkled, sitting out on a dock and watching the sun set past the Balarand River, the sky purple and the endless farms and towns across the waterway going dark. Beatrice hated herself a little bit for how specific of a thought that was, and how much it plagued her imagination.
She would never speak of this to anyone, least of all Mr. Statusian.
“Now, there’s no homework for tonight,” Mr. Statusian said, bringing Beatrice’s attention back to their conversation at hand, “but I know you’ll probably do some studying anyway, so here’s some documents I compiled earlier that I can give to you for some extra reading.” He said this as if Beatrice would lap up any study material like a trained dog… Honestly, it was an accurate assessment on most days. But today…
Today felt like a completely different existence. A world with four moons, not five, or a world where tall people were discriminated against, a world where you didn’t need to become a junior priest to get a decent career in Balarand. None of that was real, but it might as well have been.
Her mind boggled.
“Thank you sir, but I don’t think I’m going to do much studying tonight,” she said. “I think I have something else planned.”
She said that calmly, but her heart was pounding. If Mr. Statusian knew what was going through her head right now, there would be no end to the shame it would bring him. His star pupil was a fraud.
“Are you sure? Well then, I hope you do whatever it is you want to do.” He stared at her, trying to analyze her, and Beatrice was doing a terrible job of hiding herself. But, after a moment, he relented, and his expression eased up. “I, on the other hand, will be going straight home to grade all of my students’ papers on the last essay. I’m looking very forward to seeing how you did.”
Oh no! Beatrice didn’t even know there was an essay assignment, let alone that one was due… She definitely didn’t do it! What was coming to her… ? What was happening to her…!?
“I’m just kidding with you,“ he said.
“Oh… Haha… Very funny…”
“I try to practice my joking skills with my students before I go home to my convent. Otherwise I get called Ulric the Plainsmith. That was my nickname back during training.”
“Oh, really? That’s oddly demeaning.”
Suddenly there was a loud banging on the wall. Mr. Statusian and Beatrice both turn to look, and it turned out to be a soldier from Dannark, their face completely covered by a helmet except for their mouth and chin. “This building is closing in five minutes,” the soldier said. “Gather your things and leave or we may place you under contempt of occupational law.” Their eyes were obscured, but their mouth had a stern frown that told that they were not going to skirt the law just because the people in question were a student and teacher.
Her heart had been beating fast from thinking about Emi, from trying not to let Mr. Statusian know what an emotional mess she had become. Now her heart was beating fast because soldiers were staring at her, pikes in hand.
“Come on, Beatrice, we need to get out of here. Thank you for your time,” Mr. Statusian told the soldier. “We apologize for inconveniencing you.”
Beatrice had no idea that the soldiers had encroached upon the junior priest academy. This meant that the new government was taking firmer control of the education system and that there may have been some sort of subversive movement or something along those lines. There had been quite a lot of protests lately, but those never involved the school, did they?
Despite her feelings on the subject, she couldn’t help shuddering. This wasn’t going to go over well with her classmates, that was for sure.
They hurried out of the school and Beatrice began walking home. Mr. Statusian followed her and caught up with her. “Hey,” he said. “I forgot to mention the other news from the lecture. St. Helens Academy has been put under tighter supervision starting today. A few of my coworkers have made some comments recently that were against the wishes of the occupation government and those remarks happened to be printed in the Balarand Circle. It may not be fair to the students, but… the school now has a curfew of ten minutes after the final class period ends. I don’t enjoy it myself, but the government has offered us very generous financial support. So…”
“So, it evens out?”
“You could say that.”
“But does that really make up for how harsh they’re treating the students?”
He smiled, but his eyes were glaring off at the soldiers patrolling the school grounds. “Well, personally– I probably shouldn’t tell you this– but I suggested to my co-workers that we refuse the money entirely. I believe suppression of our freedom to gather in a public space and communicate with one another has the mark of a very unprosperous occupation to come. I don’t like it one bit, but the majority of the teachers agreed more funding will help the school in the long run and I will support that decision.”
This was the first time Beatrice had heard Mr Statusian talk so openly about the occupation. She rarely talked about it with anybody other than her parents because as anyone knows, politics are not a good subject to make small talk with. It was a bit unnerving to hear his opinion so openly stated.
“Just… don’t write what I said down in the newspaper,” he added.
“I’ll try my best,” Beatrice said with a single laugh. “See you tomorrow, Mr. Statusian.”
“Yes, and good luck on your plans today.”
Thank you, but Beatrice didn’t need any luck, she thought as she made her way to the library. She wasn’t the type to believe in luck, not when the world was so intricately connected. The only differences were the decisions each person made.
Luck was only an excuse for those that made poor decisions, or those that thought the Gods were the only force in Tsubasa. As much as Beatrice had an inner fire of conflict inside of her, that was a mere ember compared to her desire to see Emi again. If there was anything in the world that mattered more at that moment, she couldn’t have named it.
She entered the library, said hello to her Dad, and sat down at a table. It was time to wait for the girl of her dreams.
But, it turned out Beatrice wasn’t very lucky today. Emi never showed up.
Beatrice and Emi met back that evening at the front of the library, and Beatrice dragged Emi the short distance back over to the marketplace, the same one where they had first seen each other all those weeks ago.
The sun had begun to set, and two of the moons were already visible in the evening sky. Some street lamps had been lit, and scene around them glowed warmly, even as the weather grew colder and colder. It was as if the whole world had suddenly become tinted blue and orange.
“My parents always told me to stay away from places like this,” Emi said.
“Well, your parents are too overprotective,” Beatrice said. “Though, considering you’re a member of the L’Hime Family, they might be in the right. I can’t believe you’re the brother of Reo L’Hime! He’s so cool.”
“He’s… cool…?” Emi did not want to know the answer to this question.
Beatrice gave the answer anyway. “My classmates talk about him all the time. Some of the girls in my class have posters of him on their bedroom walls.”
They walked side by side down the long marketplace road, surrounded by shops and stands all over the place, and jam-packed with people in all directions. Emi tried to ignore the crowds but she was still getting apprehensive being so close to so many in such a small area.
Beatrice noticed. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah… I’m fine. Let’s just keep going.”
Neither of them intended to do any shopping this evening, but the smoky meat stands and glittering jewelry shining against the copious lanterns made the whole area fun to walk around in. The smell made it even better.
“And so you’re a junior priest, right…?” asked Emi, her smile wilting before Beatrice’s eyes.
Beatrice felt the color drain from her cheeks and promptly replied, “Well, a junior priest is just that. I don’t know if I’ll do it for real. It’s a big step, obviously. You know.” Beatrice rubbed the back of her neck. Emi felt satisfied with that answer for now.
“Of course. The future is always in motion, after all,” Emi then said.
“What do you mean by that?”
“It means I have no idea what I want to do with my life,” she said with a chortle.
Before Beatrice could say anything else, Emi’s eyes took notice of a booth displaying a set of bright, ruby-red earrings. She paused and let Beatrice walk ahead of her while she examined it.
They looked like they might make a wonderful present…
Emi glanced at Beatrice, then back at the earrings, then back at her. They were beautiful, but they wouldn’t suit her, she thought. Part of her appeal was the was she exhibited some sort of warm aura with her plain outfits and subdued smile, some sort of magnet where Emi was a very reactive metal. The way she walked, even, exuded a strong sense of herself; she swayed her hips like she had a specific purpose in every step, and yet carried herself lightly. These earrings didn’t capture that aura at all.
Beatrice, noticing Emi had fallen behind, stopped in her steps and turned back towards her. “What’s wrong?” she asked.
“N-nothing,” Emi said.
She noticed the stand selling earrings next to Emi, some of them about as red as the girl’s own face. Was Emi trying to buy her a present this soon into their… their evening together? A bit weird. Still, she was unable to stop a giddy smile forming across her face. “I don’t need anything,” Beatrice told her. “That kind of stuff they sell is usually junk anyway.”
“Oh, no,” Emi said, her voice perking up at the sound of being vindicated. “Don’t worry, I wasn’t going to buy them. They don’t suit you.”
“Wait, no, I mean…”
Beatrice’s stomach gurgled.
“I mean, I think I should buy us food first instead.” Good save, both of them thought. “I don’t think either of us have eaten since we went to the library, right?”
“I think you’re right. But I can buy my own food, you know!” What Beatrice didn’t say was that she only had three silver coins to spend and that was her entire allowance for the week. Emi, with a coin purse with more than Beatrice got in a year, hadn’t even considered the idea of running out of cash.
They stopped at a food stand offering one of Balarand’s signature dishes, the stuffed salmon bind. There were so many varieties it was hard to choose from, including fried rice, cream cheese, sour cream, and a near-infinite variety of vinegars and sauces.
Emi was a bit bewildered by the selection and decided to choose one at random. “I’ll have the spinach,” Emi told the cook at the stand.
“Ah, sorry, fresh out.”
“I’ll have the… grape?” That didn’t sound particularly appealing, but–
“Don’t got that either.”
“I’ll have the fried rice, then,” she said dejectedly. She liked fried rice salmon binds, but… they were far from her favorite, and on a night like this, for some reason, she was hoping for the absolute best.
Beatrice continued to look at the variety of options for stuffing, and her ears perked when she came across one unfamiliar term. “Crabspice?”
This question sparked a flash in the cook’s eyes. “Crabspice, yes. It’s a very strong spice found way out in the Torano Islands. You ever heard of there?”
“Well, yes,” Beatrice said. She knew of the Torano Islands, though only from their history with the ancient art of soul-taking. I’ve visited those islands only once; they are beautiful, but are a very limited trading partner these days, now that the fishing industry in Kent has become so prominent.
“But… what’s a crab?” Emi asked.
“I don’t much know myself,” the cook said, “but I’ve heard they are gigantic, terrifying creatures with pincers that could snap you or me in half in an instant. Whatever brave souls actually killed one, well… they’re heroes. Bringing it all the way to me, so I can offer it to the world. You wanna try?”
“Sure thing,” Beatrice said.
“It’s a bit spicy, you know.”
“Well… it IS called crabspice.”
“Are you sure, Beatrice?” Emi asked, having chosen the fried rice salmon bind. She hated spicy foods.
Beatrice shot a glare at her. She took the salmon, wrapped up in wax paper, and began chomping at what was once a member of one of the mighty Balarand Salmon shoals. Salty and savory.
“Spicy? Oh, this is nothing,” Beatrice said. “Emi, you’ve got to try this. It’s really tasty.”
“No thank you.”
She bit further into the salmon and reached a point of higher crabspice concentration. Extremely sweet at first. It was a bit hot, but Beatrice couldn’t resist eating more and more. But then…
The cook handed her a cup of water and she gulped it down in a single moment.
Beatrice, panting out of her mouth, said, “It’s… a bit spicy after all– Hic!” she put her hands over her mouth. “Oh– Hic! No…”
“You’ve got the hiccups?” Emi laughed.
Beatrice growled like a frightened animal. “Hic!” She grabbed another glass of water and drank it down. “Hic!”
“I’ve heard if you hold your breath a really long time they’ll go away.”
“I’ve heard you need to swallow a lot of sugar,” the vendor said, “I have a cream-filled salmon if you want it. Half-price.”
“No– Hic!– thank you,” Beatrice muttered.
They continued on towards their nonexistent destination, all the hustle and bustle of the marketplace at night a mere backdrop to these two girls hopelessly engaged with each other.
“I never stay out this late,” Emi said.
“Are your parents going to be mad at you?” Beatrice asked.
“Well, my housekeeper will.”
“Oh yeah, I forgot you’re–Hic!– a L’Hime. You have a very tough life.”
“Very. It’s not fun and games being in a diplomat’s family. Everyone blames your family for everything that happens, and my parents are always away, and then there’s so much pressure for you to act like– You’re making fun of me.”
“No, I’d be much too frightened to tease a diplomat’s daughter,” said Beatrice. She winked. Emi pushed her away playfully.
“I’ll have you know, my family–”
Emi shrieked as a small greyback bear skittered by.
Beatrice broke out in a riot of laughs and hiccups. “A greyback?”
“It’s not my fault!” Emi exclaimed. “They roam around the city all day and pop out of nowhere. They freak me out is all.”
“The most adorable animal in Balarand, and you’re scared of them… Oh, Emi…”
“What’s that supposed to mean…”
They were near the edge of the marketplace by now, the last few shops before the street ended and the city turned back into an orderly row of businesses and houses. The market stands here were quaint, often elderly people selling knick-knacks, or the down-on-their-luck hawking whatever they could find. They usually didn’t have much besides old junk.
Something odd caught Beatrice’s eye, though, and made her turn towards one of the booths. There were various metal objects placed around on the table. It certainly looked like old junk, but…
The seller, a mustached man in a turban, looked at the girls, his mouth neutral but his eyes smiling wide. “I see you’re interested in my machine.”
“Machine?” Beatrice asked.
Emi smirked, realizing she knew something that Beatrice didn’t. “Machines are little contraptions made of different parts. Put them all together, and they do stuff.”
“Uh… I don’t know.” That was the extent of her knowledge.
The man laughed. “They can do all sorts of things. This one, for instance…” He pointed to a large device with numbers protruding out of the front. “This one can calculate any math equation known to man. It’s the ultimate powerhouse. But, for you, maybe this will be more interesting.” He motioned to a small cube with a lever sticking out at its side. “Just crank this, and you can power the machine… giving it life…”
He began turning the lever in a circular motion, and a tiny twinkling bell started to play from inside the metal box. It was a simplistic nursery tune, but the fact that it was playing by itself just by moving the part outside… How did it work?
Suddenly, Emi was captivated. What kind of creation was this, that could–
BOING! A fuzzy greyback bear puppet popped out of the top of the box, its paws sticking out as if it were greeting you. Emi jumped backwards a full foot. Beatrice was, once again, incapacitated with laughter and hiccups.
“H-How did you…” Emi was at a loss for words, partly from shock.
“It’s the magic of machines,” the seller said.
He chuckled. “Only the magic of man, that is. The gears and coils inside work together to form a creation so divine, it rivals the Gods. We are our own clockmakers.”
Beatrice furrowed her brows, but didn’t say anything.
“And what’s this one called? This, uh, scary thing?”
“I call it the jack-in-the-box. Great for children. Do you want it?”
“Wow. How do you make one of these…” Emi was completely bewildered, but fascinated. You and I may take gear-powered devices for granted these days, but in Emi’s youth, it was almost mythical to see something as intricate as a clock being created for entertainment.
You could learn a lot from her. Or maybe not, what with all your gear rockets. You better clean those up after I finish this story.
“Buy it, and I’ll sell you the schematic,” the seller told her. “Then you can build your very own.”
Emi took a satchel of coins from her purse and plopped it onto the table. The money clanged against the wood with a loud thud. “How much?”
The seller smiled.
So that was how Emi ended up with a jack-in-the-box, and how Beatrice, the one with the school bag, ended up carrying it for the rest of their evening together. It was heavier than it looked, Beatrice came to learn.
After a while further, they finally reached the end of the marketplace, and there was a split. Directly ahead of them were two paths; north, with a short tunnel passing under the Grand Concourse that encircled the capital district, carriages and chariots speeding by at all hours; or south, in the direction of Beatrice’s apartment, and where Knoll Park and the Balarand Theatre had been situated for centuries and the cultured made frequent visits.
Without much deliberating, the two of them went south and walked across the narrow pedestrian bridge, passing over one of the countless canals running east-to-west throughout the city. Below them, a gondola floated gently in place, tied up to rest for the evening. The sun had finally disappeared under the curvature of the continent, and all five moons were shining on full display. It was like something out of a painting.
Emi stopped walking and looked out at the night sky, only the faint shadow of Gonda Tower sticking out as the buildings stretched on across the floodplains.
They were very close to one another, standing on this bridge. Beatrice exhaled, and her breath turned into a fine vapor in front of her. Emi’s did the same, and Beatrice watched as the girl breathed in again, and then shivered.
“Sure is getting cold out,” Beatrice said.
Emi felt a tickle of fabric on the back of her hand. It was from Beatrice’s coat; the two of them were so close that they were practically touching. With her eyes fixated on the canal and the rest of Balarand, she moved her hand just a little bit closer, continuing to brush it against the coat. If she really wanted to, she could reach out and touch Beatrice’s face, rub her fingers against her freckles. The only thing stopping her was the fact that that would be really strange and probably make her hate her forever.
It was a cliche to say she felt warm even in this sort of weather. But also, no matter her proximity to the girl next to her, Emi was too cold.
Beatrice, on the other hand, felt a little too hot, and wondered when she’d be able to set down her school bag. She was very concerned that her back was going to be all sweaty by the time she got back home. But she, too, felt the same feelings going through Emi’s head, I’m sure. As loath as she would be to admit it, Beatrice was smitten, her heart pulsing fast enough Emi could hear it. Nearly feel it.
They stood close to each other, angling their head to face the other without their noses getting in the way. They were very, very close.
Then Beatrice said, “I really like you,” and Emi, without thinking, took a full step backwards. “Oh.”
“S-sorry. I really like you too. I mean, I think you’re a likeable person. I, um, yeah.” Emi stepped back to her previous position, but Beatrice had already turned around and started walking away. Oh, Gods, why was she so bad at all of this…
There were more Dannark soldiers out patrolling past the pedestrian bridge, where the two were headed. This area, being the most “cultured” part of Balarand, was more tightly watched than anywhere else in the city, the pewter-gray armor of the foreign soldiers having become a fixture throughout the southern half of the city.
In front of the Balarand Theatre, built three thousand years ago by the Demigod Dramaturge, there was a small park consisting of scattered trees and sculpture. In front of the statue to Empress Nievol, there was a bench that the two sat down on.
Being the Empress’s own visage and a common source for protests, there were even more guards posted around this statue. But they didn’t seem to pay the girls any mind. They let their minds ease and let the rest of the evening pass them by.
It was the perfect place for people-watching, the perfect spot to gaze on the pretty, soft atmosphere of an evening in Balarand. Neither of them were concerned with that right now.
“I don’t– Hic!– do this enough anymore,” Beatrice said.
“This is the first time I’ve been out at night without my family,” Emi said. “Sounds like we’re both a bit unfashionable as human beings, huh?”
“We’re not very interesting at all, the two of us.”
Beatrice put her hand through her hair for a moment, feeling uneasy about being close to such a beautiful girl with her hair so messy right now.
Emi couldn’t stop thinking about how much she wanted to play with the curls in such a beautiful girl’s hair.
Emi’s right hand and Beatrice’s left hand were both on the bench, the sides of their pinky fingers touching. Beatrice moved her hand a bit closer, just to see what would happen, and her finger rested right above Emi’s. Emi pulled her hand away and closer to herself.
Trying to ignore what she thought was another embarrassing moment, Emi began a new topic of conversation. “I can’t understand how we never met before in the library,” she began. “Your father works there. I go about once a week. I think it’s some sort of force field that’s been intentionally trying to get us to avoid each other.”
“The Gods have their ways,” Beatrice said. “They didn’t want us to meet–Hic!–before, but now they do.”
“The Gods did this?”
“I highly doubt that. Maybe we’ve met before, but we just don’t remember.”
“I highly doubt THAT.”
“You’re right. I’d never forget you.”
Beatrice winked. Emi chuckled.
“But wait, there must have been some specific days we both were in there. What about National Reading Day?”
“I never go to that,” Beatrice said. “It’s always so busy in the library on that day I just stay home.” She gave it more thought. “What about King Kline’s Birthday? I did a lot of reading that day last year.”
“Nope,” Emi said. “I had to go to all the stupid parties for those celebrations.”
“I’ve never really thought about–Hic!– Ugh, nevermind…”
Emi giggled and blushed. Even her hiccups accentuated her magnetic aura. “You’re just so cute. Has anyone told you that?”
“Not really. So, uh, thanks.”
“You’re welcome…” Her blush certainly wasn’t going away.
“What about you?” Beatrice asked.
“Well… people constantly compliment me, but it’s mostly because they want to get in my skirt.”
“And this situation is different?” she joked. She tried to narrow her eyes and give a lascivious smile, but this look was interrupted by a, “Hic!” She sighed.
Emi was paralyzed with embarrassment at the very mention of that, joking or not, and tried to steer the conversation away. “Anyway, tonight’s been really fun.”
“It really has.”
“I don’t really want it to– Ack!”
Beatrice suddenly grabbed Emi’s hand and squeezed it tight. Emi struggled to get loose for a second, but when she realized what was going on, she relented and let Beatrice slide her fingers in between hers.
For everything that came before, this was the moment when Beatrice and Emi’s story truly began. It changed their lives. In a way, it changed mine too. One simple act of putting hands together, fingers intertwined.
They walked away from the marketplace, holding hands, not caring what anyone else would think about a junior priest and a rich layabout displaying their affection so publicly.
And they just walked around.
Eventually they ended up in Emi’s neighborhood, where Beatrice was taken aback by how large the houses were.
“This is crazy…”
“Have you seen the mansions around Lake Geoffrey?” Emi asked. “These are just dingy apartments compared to those.”
“I mean, apartments are fine. I just, uh…”
“I guess apartments don’t have a whole maid staff, or butlers and servants doing your every bidding.”
“That’s not… I mean, they usually don’t do everything I tell them to unless I pay them extra, though!” Emi stammered as she tried fruitlessly to offer a defense of her bizarre affluent lifestyle.
Beatrice shook her head jokingly, then asked, “Which one is yours?”
“That one.” Emi pointed over to her home with currently only two windows lit by candle, looking pretty uninviting in the middle of the night like this. “I’m probably going to get in a lot of trouble when I get back.”
“Well you don’t have to go back just yet.”
“I do… Any later and my parents will call the police to search for me. They’ll think I’m being ransomed or something.” Emi let go of Beatrice’s hand, slowly. “But tonight was great.”
“It was.” Beatrice set down her school bag and gave Emi the toy she bought. “Here’s your thing.”
“This is so cool…”
“So are you,” Beatrice said. “Um, when do you want to meet again?”
Emi tried not to let her good mood fade, but it was hard when she thought about a question like that. “About that… I don’t know. I have to help prepare for my parents’ big winter house party soon. Guests from all over Elince and Dannark will be there. And then I have to attend the party…”
“Parties are fun,” Beatrice said.
“You’ve never been to a rich party.”
That was true, though Beatrice thought it could never be any worse than those parties for Summer Break they always had at the end of the school term. The food they brought in was always pretty bad and the teachers played all the music, which usually meant it was done poorly. “Well, I’ll see you at the library sometime soon then.”
“I’ll… I’ll go every chance I get.”
“I don’t want to say it.” Emi was tearing up again; twice in one day. She couldn’t finish that word, because that would mean this night would be over, and time would have to pass before the next time she saw this girl. She couldn’t let it end.
“Then I’ll say it.” Beatrice took a step forward and extended her hand. “Goodbye.”
Emi shook it and cried. “Beatrice,” was all she could say. Beatrice gave a crooked smile–and then hiccuped one last time.
Beatrice and her Dad passed by a shrine to Phyra, where people were lined up and performing their daily prayers. It was interesting to watch people so devoted that they went to these shrines every single day to increase their fortunes, or give their thanks, or make atonements, or do whatever else it was they thought necessary to appease Her. Beatrice had even heard that there were those that went to eight, even ten shrines a day, one for every major member of the pantheon that worked their magic in Balarand.
Even on a day as cool as this, there were still as many people waiting on the Gods as there were people out shopping in the marketplace. That never ceased to impress her, not one bit.
One thing Beatrice always appreciated was the way that the shrines in Balarand seemed to simply poke out of the cityscape. They were always small, always nestled in between two larger buildings, unassuming and wood-built, ancient and holy even as everything around them was modern, sleek, boxy. This shrine to Phyra was particularly tiny, consisting of just two steps for people to kneel and pray, and the tiniest little statue that acted as an icon for her presence. Size and grandeur didn’t matter, though, as long as the Gods deemed the shrine worthy, and as long as the people could reach it. That’s what the Church always said.
Beatrice thought it might be prudent to do some restoration work on these shrines to keep up the harmony a little better–some of them looked absolutely decrepit–but that would require more money than the Church was willing to give. The only small shrines that still looked in any way holy were the ones dedicated to Nexurk, the God of War, and that was a subject far beyond touchy in this city.
Dad didn’t seem to mind. He always prayed at the shrine to Bk’Man next to the apartment, across the street from Bodhi’s family’s shoe store. Every single morning, that bald head of his touched the wooden floor, his risk of a splinter growing more dangerous with each passing rainy season. She admired his devotion.
Soon, the two of them entered the library. Immediately, Beatrice made her way towards her usual desk, before her Dad was even able to step behind the service desk and prepare for work. “I can’t believe you are actually studying on your day off,” Dad remarked. “Isn’t there something else you could be doing with your time? It’s going to get too cold to enjoy the city pretty soon, you know.”
“Oh Dad, you know I love the winter,” she said. “I’m excited for the cold!”
“You’ll catch a cold, with that attitude,” he said.
Dad was always so concerned with his only daughter having a happy and pleasant youth when his only daughter cared more about succeeding at the goals she had set for herself. That daughter had already skipped breakfast today so she could get to the library early, and it showed from her lazy shirt-and-trousers attire and messy hair frizzing about in random directions.
“And I’m not studying, Dad, I’m just going to read a book,” Beatrice added.
“A book about…?”
“About, erm, the practical applications of soul magic…”
He shook his head slowly.
It wasn’t necessarily for school, but… she thought that it would better help her understand group magic rituals. Every time she saw Mr. Statusian use those sparks of magic he could summon, it made her giddy inside to try and train and do something like that herself. She wanted to get better so she could become the kind of priest that Tsubasa needed, someone who could help others, someone who could keep the harmony of nature and make the world a better place, even if that meant working to the point of exhaustion on a day off from school.
She probably did need to take it a bit easier.
But with her Dad being immediately greeted by several customers wishing to look up or check out books, she was now on her own for the next several hours of the day. It was time to sit down and crack open her academic text. She pulled out Fourteen Essays on the Study of the Soul and its Inherent Properties, and–
–And, from the corner of her eye she spotted something familiar.
Emi, over at a desk in the very corner of the library, silently reading a book of her own, titled A Yellow Romance. She’d apparently been here some time, already comfortable and leaning back in her chair.
Just as pretty as ever.
Beatrice’s face flared up. It had been so long since the last time she saw her that she was almost convinced it was never to be. It… had probably been less than two weeks in reality… but it still FELT like a long time.
After a moment of hesitation– why would she be way off over there anyway except to get away from distractions– Beatrice decided to approach and scope out the girl responsible for a lot of fretting emotions within her for quite some time.
She stepped closer and closer. She tried straightening out her all-too-plain shirt that had probably been wrinkled from the wind outside, and trying to make her hair look a little bit less like she hopped right out of bed with it… which she did. Having messy hair was a poor way to make friends. But it was her only option.
“Hi there,” she said to Emi.
Nothing. No reaction. She didn’t even glance her way.
Was it the way she said it…? She probably didn’t put in enough emotion into her greeting. Probably didn’t even notice she was there, considering how unremarkable and unimposing Beatrice was. She stepped even closer, to the point that there was no way Emi wouldn’t notice her standing right in front of her. “Emi, is that you?”
She was obviously ignoring her. Beatrice could take rejection, but not the silent treatment. This actually made her mad, and she was not going to stand for it. So she went back to her desk, took her school bag and library books, and placed them on Emi’s desk across from her.
“I’m just going to read right here, if you don’t mind.”
She didn’t respond, so Beatrice took that as a tacit acknowledgement of approval.
A little while passed. Unlike last time she was too flustered to study next to Emi, she was actually having a decent time. The fact that she was being a jerk and ignoring her was probably helping.
She read a good ways into the book, though the essays were all a bit boring because of the completely unscientific realm that they inhabited in their discussion of topics pertaining to souls. It was all essentially conjecture because none of these theories had never been successfully done. Body transfer, spontaneous mutation, soul chrysalis healing… All interesting on paper, but… Okay, not very interesting on paper either.
Her read was interrupted with a gentle tap on the shoulder, making Beatrice jump up in surprise.
“Hi, Beatrice,” Emi said, looking towards her but not making eye contact. “I’d really appreciate if, um, you moved somewhere else.”
“If that’s okay with you,” she said.
“I haven’t spoken to you in a couple hours,” Beatrice said. “What did I do?”
“Well, I haven’t, uh, I haven’t read a single chapter of my story since you sat down. I was trying to see if Princess Valentia would choose Lady Gwinette or Lordess M’tsargh’i, you know.” She let out a soft chuckle, but Beatrice couldn’t figure out if she was joking or serious.
“What does that have to do with me…?”
Beatrice was starting to feel a little guilty. She had apparently done something wrong, and she didn’t even know what it was. How could–
“You’re, um, incredibly distracting,” Emi said. “As a person.”
The nerve! Beatrice quickly stood up and began gathering her things to move tables. She wasn’t going to–
“I mean, distracting in a good way,” Emi added, even if that sentence was a bit nonsensical and did little to calm Beatrice’s mood.. “Because I really want to get to know you better and I constantly think about what I want to say to you.” Tears started to well up in the girl’s eyes. “And I’m sorry if I sound like a jerk.”
Beatrice sat back down. She felt the impulse to reach out and touch Emi’s face, to wipe the tears off her face. A girl that pretty didn’t deserve to cry.
Oh, she was actually doing it, her index finger catching a teardrop just as it fell from her eye. Beatrice pulled her hand away. “I’m sorry,” she said.
Emi grabbed Beatrice’s arm and pulled the hand back towards her. “No, I’m sorry. What I really meant to ask was, uh, do you want to… go anywhere sometime maybe, or… uh, anything like that?”
“Yes,” Beatrice said flatly. “I do.” She pulled her hand away again.
Emi’s face lit up. “You do?”
“Right now? Uh, okay.” Emi stood up for a second, then sat back down. “Actually, no, I want to finish this book first. It’s really good.”
“Oh, yeah, sorry,” Beatrice said. “I guess I’ll go read over there or something, so I don’t, uh, distract you so much.” She couldn’t help but giggle when she said this.
“Actually, I think I’ll go outside for a bit. I like reading outside better.” She did? Then why was she reading in here…?
“Yeah, I’ll wait for you,” Beatrice said.
“Thank you.” Emi sped out of the library.
Beatrice realized she was starting to get dizzy from her heart beating so rapidly. Now she was the one who was completely unable to read a page of her book.
Beatrice and five other students sat in a circle trying to storm up ideas for a group project to be presented at the end of class. To be more accurate, though, it was less a group project and more a group debate right now.
Beatrice wasn’t the type to contribute much to a big conversation and was currently sitting there, muttering to herself, and jotting down anything interesting she heard from the others. But the others weren’t saying much either. Why was nobody ever interested in working together for group projects? Why did they always go so poorly?
The topic was to argue anything from a headline in today’s Balarand Circle newspaper. There were literally a dozen options. But they hadn’t even picked anything out yet. And now they had twenty minutes left. This was communications class, far out of the realm of Beatrice’s interest or expertise, so there wasn’t much she could do.
The classroom, its students divided up into groups scattered around the place, had a special atmosphere reserved for the time of group projects, something nobody enjoys, and never will enjoy for the remaining history of mankind. The collective sense of frustration was so thick in the air that it was breathable. Or maybe that was sweat, because the fireplace was making this room quite warm.
“We gotta do the war story,” one of the girls said. “Dannark is gonna, like, use the new skirmish as an excuse to end the ceasefire with Doros. They’re gonna conscript all the Elincians so, uh, so they can kill all the young people and then there won’t be anyone else left to resist.”
“That’s a terrible topic,” Bodhi said. “How do you argue that?”
“Then do you got any ideas, shoe guy?”
“Obviously not.” Bodhi lowered his cap to cover most of his face, as if he were being cool or something.
Beatrice used to think this whole enthusiasm problem was endemic to religion classes– they were never going to use anything they learned in real life, so they never bothered to learn it in the first place. But communications classes were very important for adults trying to make themselves in the world, and still nobody really cared.
Only this time, Beatrice wasn’t exactly impervious to the criticisms she was mentally lobbing to her classmates.
She found her attention wandering even as her classmates spoke. Why were newspapers printed on such uninviting, rough paper, when they were read by literally tens of thousands every day? That question felt more interesting to her than anything they were currently doing, and she wasn’t even sure why.
“Well, we can talk about how they’re putting more guards at all the Nexurk shrines because of those protestors last week,” Bodhi said. “I think that’s a better topic.”
“Isn’t that the same thing?” the girl from before asked.
Beatrice butted in finally, saying, “Maybe it would be a better debate if we chose a different topic than every other group in the class.”
“Like what, Bea?” the girl asked.
“Maybe, uh, something about Reo L’Hime’s floating bridge test?”
They looked at her like she was crazy.
“Isn’t it kind of interesting?”
She faced the daggers of ten pairs of extremely unenthused eyes and felt herself shrink away.
“Whatever, it’s not like I’ll be doing this much longer,” said Bodhi in an admission of defeat. “My pop’s gonna train me the moment I get the certificate.”
“That’s pretty cool,” said one of the students. “You gonna give us free shoes?”
“Yeah, if you give me all the materials and then pay me to make it.”
The conversation then became about Bodhi’s shoe cobbling and the various designs he had been tinkering with in his filled-up sketchbook.
Honestly, it was incredibly annoying that she was going to fail this assignment because she couldn’t bring her classmates to pretend to care about this subject even a little bit. They weren’t going to figure out a topic to argue, and Beatrice wasn’t going to put in the effort to try and lead the group herself. Her frown deepened, and Bodhi seemed to notice that.
“Bea, don’t worry about it,” he told her. “You’ve got the best grades in the junior priest class like, ever. They aren’t gonna hold it against Ms. Ragnell if her slacker classmates do bad on one project.”
“My name isn’t Bea,” she grumbled. “It’s not my grades, though.” She felt really sad all of a sudden. “I guess I was really hoping once I reached AA-grade there’d be more people who… I don’t know. I like being a junior priest.”
“It’s pretty fun,” the girl said. “I like the Winter Ceremonies stuff we’re doing. This here is a load of Mammoth crap though.”
“I’d be a priest if it didn’t mean I have to become some celibate traveler the rest of my life,” another classmate added. There were murmurs of agreement.
“Well, I don’t exactly…” Beatrice cut herself off. She had that conversation with herself too often. The celibacy requirement was no small deal, that was for sure.
“Yeah, it’s a bit of a jump to make it into the priesthood,” Bodhi said. “I’m glad you like it so much, but none of us really want to do that with the rest of our lives. But we know how much it means to you to do well, so… maybe we should try something for this project. For you.”
“It’s okay,” Beatrice told him. “You don’t have to do anything for me.”
It was a bit of a self-pitying comment, but they took that as a resignation to abandon the group work assignment. They ended up picking the Doros-Dannark skirmish after all… just like every other group in the class.
Oh well. It wasn’t long before the Priesthood Exams and then everything would change.
Beatrice was certain her hands were still shaking. Shaking not because of the cool weather at night, or because of how darn heavy all the books were, but because of that girl.
Her name was Emi.
Wow; just wow. In all her life, Beatrice had never met someone so… distracting. As hard as she tried, she just couldn’t manage to take her mind away from the gorgeous human being who had sat right next to her. As interesting as her books were supposed to be, she barely read a chapter her entire time at the library.
Emi herself seemed incredibly distracted about something too. From the way she hastily left the library, there must have been something important weighing on her mind. She seemed like such a serious person.
She and her Dad entered the apartment and she set down her satchel full of academic religious texts. “I want to meet her again,” she mumbled to herself.
“What was that?” Beatrice’s Mom asked, in the kitchen area baking a shepherd’s pie.
“I said, uh, I want to eat here again,” she corrected. She was standing in the living room, right next to the dining table. “I mean– I like eating with you two. I love you so much.” She went over to give Mom a big hug, but her mom, holding a large meat pie in her hands, did not reciprocate.
“Are you okay?” Mom asked.
Dad gave out a hearty laugh. “She’s been acting like this all evening. We were walking back home, and I swear her face was blushing the whole way. I guess that wasn’t just her schoolbooks she was reading at the library.”
It was true her face had been blushing for a while after she left, though not in the gross way he was saying. She got almost no studying done whatsoever because of Emi.
Not to blame her, exactly, but… It’s hard to study when you’re right next to someone as pretty as Emi.
That handshake, though…
Beatrice couldn’t help but giggle again. How many girls introduced themselves with handshakes? It was one of the silliest things she’d encountered in a while. But even so, it set her heart aflutter, because it was just such a cute move. Emi seemed so prim and proper at first glance, but then just as you’d expect her to do some sort of “How do you do?” little curtsey she went and gave a handshake.
There was just something about her, that Emi.
Besides her marble-cut beauty, the painting-like proportions of perfect womanhood she represented, Emi had some kind of… aura about her. It was difficult to Beatrice to describe, especially without blushing in front of her parents. But she felt drawn to her, like if the two were connected by forces supernatural. Obviously that couldn’t actually be the case, but this feeling, this aura, acted so counter to that pale, stoic rich kid image she tried to convey. Instead, she projected this sort of– huggability?
Huggability sounded wrong, but it was the only word she could think of. Emi had every bit the essence of someone who Beatrice could warp her arms around and squeeze so she could make herself feel better. Feel better about how plain and boring she herself looked, maybe help herself stand out better by being literally connected to someone who was quite possibly a Goddess in human form who had descended into Tsubasa to see how her subjects lived their daily lives. She could hug a Goddess.
This sounded really weird and Beatrice didn’t want to think about it anymore. Luckily, the shepherd’s pie was ready.
The three of them sat down at the supper table together. Beatrice said a quick prayer to the Goddess Phyra and then they began each eating from their plates.
“Beatrice,” Mom said. “You will tell us if anything important happens in your life, won’t you?”
Ah, Beatrice blushed again. That was quick.
Did they suspect something? Well, obviously yes.
This would be the moment when many children of doting parents would rebel and make some growling rejection of their parents’ caring request, but Beatrice, her mouth full with mashed potatoes and fish, simply nodded.
“Good, because we’re always here when you need us,” Dad said. “When I was your age, I had it pretty rough. If I had had someone to talk to back then…”
“Then you wouldn’t have met me,” Mom said.
“Well, I guess that’s right. Oh, you.”
They nuzzled noses together. Beatrice tried really hard to ignore it. She loved them, but sometimes she couldn’t stand them.
Lovey-dovey couples were obnoxious, and Beatrice swore to the Gods she would never end up like that. She fantasized even at this moment about hugging Emi and smelling her sweet perfumed scent again, but she would never do that in front of others. Only in the privacy of… She wasn’t going to think about this anymore.
Beatrice swallowed a chunk of meat pie in one big gulp and then added, “Though… I do have a pretty important question.”
Her parents paused. “Yes, honey?” Dad asked, leaned forward as if she were about to announce a pregnancy.
“Is it normal for girls to introduce themselves with a handshake?”
Why did you sit down next to this gorgeous human being? Why did you say you love reading indoors? Nobody says that. It just isn’t said, you know. This was such a bad idea.
She wanted to read this Economic Theory book so Ms. Khami wouldn’t yell at her as much tonight, but she was incredibly distracted by the girl next to her.
Emi just wanted to talk to her and get to know her and stare at her curly hair. But the girl was, of course, reading through her book like crazy. She seemed completely into it, even when the book was something as boring as History of Incantations and a Treatise on Traditional Methods. She seemed like such a serious person.
She thought about saying something, about what the girl was reading and why she was reading it, something to start a conversation, but the way she was reading, she felt like if she interrupted her, she’d just give a glare and silently move to another table.
Economics was so dry, even with this book Earl had recommended… it was almost impossible to pay attention enough to read it when breathing almost literally down her neck was, well, her.
She kept looking at the girl, and sometimes the girl would look back at her. She started to realize that maybe she was a nuisance to her. It was just really tough to sit next to her and act like nothing was happening. What a bad idea!
Maybe she could stave off this awkward, petrifying feeling at the pit of her stomach by turning her attention elsewhere, anywhere but the girl sitting next to her. Perhaps the library shelves, stacked four, maybe five Emis high, would be of interest. There were so many books, some so far out of reach that you had to climb to the second floor balcony to retrieve them. Surely that wasn’t an efficient system without some sort of machine to lift you up easily, something other than going up and down the stairs every time you searched for a title. Someone should build that sort of machine, she thought, though she didn’t know a single thing about how machines were designed, how they were built. Maybe she would ask Ms. Khami to assign her some books based on that. Then she could impress the girl next to her with a new creation, one that would help out the entire library… Oh, this wasn’t helping.
Emi realized this was all a waste of time. Life’s way of telling her she was a silly, gullible human being and probably the Gods playing a practical joke. She hadn’t gotten any work done, even though that was the main reason she snuck out. All that had happened was that she got sucked into sitting with this girl who didn’t give a single care about her because she actually knew how to study correctly.
After a few more minutes of cursory book looking-over, she straightened out the desk and got up from her chair.
The girl looked up the exact same moment. Darn it, she was just being even more of an annoyance than she wanted to be. “Sorry,” she told the girl.
“Are you leaving?”
“Yeah, my parents need me back home to… go do some preparations for supper,” Emi lied. “I’d love to study some other time.” Clearly this girl did not want anything to do with her, but Emi was seemingly unable to turn off her politeness mode once triggered.
“Well, we’ll see each other at the library, I guess,” the girl said, giving a wide smile but her eyes giving away some sort of unhappiness. She was simply being polite, too, Emi was sure.
Well, it wasn’t like the two of them were ever going to meet again, not with how cold the girl had acted toward her, or with how being anywhere near her had sent Emi into an emotional frenzy just from how absolutely amazing she looked. Emi was a mature, proper lady, and knew that pursuing things that were gone, was an act of idiocy, she thought.
It is important to note here that Emi was not the sort of girl who exactly “got things” easily, hence her complete blindness to the actual situation here. You and I know what was going on, but Emi was quite out of the loop of her own feelings. It is worth at least a little pity.
“Uhh…” Emi stammered.
They locked eyes for a moment, and Emi was very unsure of what to say. This must have lasted for an eternity, at least until–
The library clock bell rang out to announce the top of the hour. Okay, it really was time for Emi to return home, if it was getting that late.
“Well them, um, yeah,” she said as a way to say goodbye. It was an attempt, at least.
Emi took one step towards the door, and then was frozen solid by a shout of, “Wait!”
She turned around. The girl had quickly bounded from her seat and hurried up to face Emi directly.
They stood so close, now… Emi tried as hard as she could to keep eye contact. She probably gulped.
“It was nice meeting you,” the girl said.
“Yeah, it was nice.” Emi extended her hand, and the girl took it.
“Well, that’s one way to make an introduction,” the girl said, giggling.
Emi tilted her head to the side. What did she mean by that?
“By the way, what’s your name?” the girl asked.
“And mine name is Beatrice. See you around.”
Beatrice. Her name was Beatrice.
Emi turned and left the library, but she was afflicted with a curse: a crackly grin that remained etched on her face for the rest of the afternoon.
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.
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–
“Beatrice, are you awake yet?” a voice called out from the other room.
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.
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.