Chapter 13: Library Encounters

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?”

Still nothing.

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.”

“Wh… what?”

“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…?”

“You’re, um…”

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.”

“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.

<== PreviousNext ==>

Chapter 9: Distracting

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?”

<== PreviousNext ==>

Chapter 6: What Do I… Do

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

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

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

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

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

No way. Just look at her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


<== Previous Next ==>

Chapter 5: The Junior Priest Academy

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

“Uhh….. yeah….”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Have a good day,” Beatrice said.

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

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

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

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

All Beatrice could muster was a hearty “Hmph.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why were they friends again?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It wasn’t EXACTLY a lie… 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The girl from the marketplace. 

And her dark, soil-brown eyes.

<== PreviousNext ==>

Chapter 4: Sneaking Out

Winter was coming.

In Balarand, far enough south that it was safe from raging blizzards and hair-freezing cold, this was not much of an ominous occasion. But for Emi, winter meant cold weather, snow, and being stuck indoors for months on end.

“This sucks,” she muttered to herself.

So on this autumn afternoon, when Emi was once again cooped up in her room because Ms. Khami wanted her to do the studying she had been putting off all week, she knew she needed to make the most of the nice weather before it was gone. She had to make the most of the time she had left.

Doing the opening-up-the-window-and-locking-the-door trick wouldn’t work this time, as it would be far too obvious to anyone who looked outside. So Emi decided on an alternate plan– she left her room and first looked around to see if any housekeepers were walking around. When she confirmed that there weren’t, she bolted out of her room and towards the housekeepers’ quarters.

None of the housekeepers lived permanently at the L’Hime Family House except for Ms. Khami, but some stayed for several days at a time when there was a renovation project underway or a party to prepare for.

At the moment, the quarters were completely empty. And all she had to do was open the side door, and…

There. She was out.

The air was crisp, just like Emi wanted. She took in a deep breath and took in a nice breeze, not too hot but not yet chilly. A whole lot better than the near-freezing temperatures from the other day. It was the perfect weather for reading, and quite possibly the last time it would be this good until next spring.

A complete change from the other day, her neighborhood was devoid of children, snooty girls in parasols, or practically anyone. It was like a ghost town right now, too early in the day for people to be back home from work, too late to see joggers getting their daily exercise. She didn’t do either of those, so she didn’t have much of a concept of why this area was so empty for so much of the day.

Emi began walking to the nearby public library as soon as she exited her neighborhood. Since she was supposed to be studying economics for her “classes,” she figured she could find a helpful book there that she could check out. Something a little less dull than the one Ms. Khami gave her.

See, what Ms. Khami didn’t realize was that Emi actually enjoyed learning about the various subjects she was schooled in. But making her stay in her house the entire time, trudging through such oppressively boring books, was a horrible way to get her to do anything. She yearned to learn, not to churn like butter, slowly mixing herself into insanity while sitting in her room. 

If she had to read a book about something as dry as economics, she was going to do it where the weather was good and the birds chirped from the rooftops, where she could look off to the skyline and see Castle Balarand and Gonda Tower beaming above everything else in the city. Otherwise, as interesting as it might have been, she was going to be asleep before she finished the first paragraph.

Emi really wished she could have had a better teacher than Ms. Khami. She was a good housekeeper, kept the servants in line, but the only teaching she ever did was making Emi read books and take tests, designed by Ms. Khami herself of course. Her older brothers went off to boarding school when they were half her age, but her parents apparently couldn’t be bothered a third time, so it was a decade of school at home for her. Maybe she could have signed up for junior priest school all on her own? It was too late for that, though. She was almost done, ready to become an adult and be married away against her will.

She sighed as she exited her neighborhood and came upon the nearest shop street, already bubbled up with foot traffic from people leaving work or looking for an early supper. The bakery had a line of people stretching back half a city block, as people waited eagerly to nab the last scraps of the day at a discounted price. Likewise, a food vendor at the side of the street was heating up her charcoal grill, getting ready for an evening of food preparation.

 If only Emi had left an hour earlier, she wouldn’t be forced to take the side street… But it was either that or enter the jumble of people meandering around. She shuddered and went through the dirt road in between two rows of tightly-packed apartments.

It was pathetic to see a girl, literally trained for public appearances, who couldn’t stand the sensation of being in a large group of people. Anytime she realized she was surrounded by others, she locked up, moved to the nearest corner, and stood there until the crowd dissipated. It was humiliating, but it was the only way she could survive it without going crazy. As much as she loved people-watching… it was difficult.

Two large apartment buildings in between one road meant that the path was covered in shade through much of the day, and it was a drastic decrease in warmth. Emi shivered and started to regret not bringing her silk coat. Likewise, thanks to the lack of space between the buildings, two storm drains running alongside the road were filled up with stagnant water that had overflowed from the latest rain, filled with algae. They gave off a green odor that reminded Emi of the benefits of living in a nice neighborhood.

As she exited the side road and went back onto one of the main streets, she was immediately assaulted by two young kids holding some Balarand Circle newspapers up at her. “Hey miss,” one of the kids said. “Buy a paper? C’mon, won’t you?”

“Ha, um, ha” was the only thing Emi was able to mutter, paralyzed with shock. She pushed past the kids and continued her walk, and they went and hawked other passersby.

The library was a way’s walk, around thirty minutes with the extra detour, but it was always worth it; Emi had read hundreds of books there, many of them on the recommendation of the very nice librarians.

In fact, as she entered the library, she saw one of her favorite librarians at the counter– a balding man with glasses named Earl. He was one of the resident experts on nonfiction, especially when it came to Elincian culture.

“Hi,” Emi greeted. “How are you today?”

“Welcome back, Ms. L’Hime,” Earl said. “Been a while since I’ve seen you around here. I’m pretty good, but the better question is: How are you?” He wore a goofy grin. Every time she saw that grin, her mind flashed memories of her Father back when she was young and they still used to play together. It made her appreciate Earl all the more.

“I’m okay,” she said. “I’ve been meaning to read some more books from here, but I’ve got a lot to study at home.” She shrugged to accentuate the sheer ambivalence she felt towards her schooling. “Today, I’m supposed to learn more about economics. My tutor gave me a book on the subject, but it’s… hard to get through.” 

“You like more narrative-driven works, right, Emi?” She nodded. Earl put his finger to his lip and thought about it for a moment. “So… let me think. Ah, I think there’s one for you, if you’re doing an introductory study. This is the basics, right?”

“Yes. Well, I think so. I hope so.”

“Well then, Popoclous’s Economic Theory should be a good selection. It’s more of an autobiography of Popoclous’s life than anything else, but his story wraps together lessons on money and production with tales of adventure and young love. It’s the oldest treatise on the subject that I’ve been able to find, at least as far as books written in Tsubasa go. I’m sure some faraway land on a faraway continent has written something older, but our knowledge of the continents beyond is still… Sorry. I was about to get carried away. Anyway, the principles are old, but they still apply well today. How about that?”

“That sounds really interesting, actually,” Emi said. “Adventure and young love?”

“I knew that’d hook you,” he chuckled. “Speaking of, are you still keeping up with The Elf Cycle?”

Emi nodded. “Is The Last Gemini out yet?” she asked, an eagerness of levels reaching panic in her voice. 

“Not yet, but the library already has twenty copies reserved from the printing press company.” Earl’s goofy grin gave way to a half-hearted attempt at professionalism. “So, Miss L’Hime. Would you like to read Economic Theory?”

“If it will tide me over until The Last Gemini…” All desire to learn was gone the moment she thought about her favorite romantic adventure series. There was very little room left in her mind for studying as she raced through it, thinking of her various thoughts and theories on how it was all going to turn out.

“Good. I’ll get the book for you.” Earl left the service desk and began rummaging around the shelves and shelves of books, some of them stacked two stories tall.

While Emi waited, she looked around. It was nearly empty today, probably because the weather was so nice. There were a few people sitting at desks and reading or studying or taking naps, though. One likely-homeless man sat at a desk off in the corner. Another person sat at one of the larger tables with several books and papers spread out across it. Other than that, it was almost like the library was closed. Must have been the weather. She, too, was going to ditch the place as soon as she got the book.

Earl passed by the person studying at the desk, and then that person looked up from their notes to glance at him. Emi turned her gaze to that someone, seeing their bouncy curly hair, and then their glasses, and then–

Emi’s heart stopped.

It was that girl.

That girl from the marketplace.

And her blue eyes, glowing as bright as the moons.

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Chapter 3: Beatrice Ragnell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Leave the stomach and get in here!”

Beatrice giggled. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Beatrice sighed with a smile.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s my girl,” said Dad.

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

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

Beatrice, though?

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

So she studied away.

<== PreviousNext ==>