And that’s their story–the story of two girls in love.
Was it love at first sight? I don’t know.
From the look on your face, I guess you don’t either. Not that a child like you would understand. Yes, yes, you’re not a child, you’re grown enough to make your own decisions, sure. But maybe I’d believe that a bit more if you ever cracked open your history books.
Well, it didn’t matter if it was love at first sight. In short time, the two grew a bond with a strength forged in molten flames. It was a short time that they grew together, but they never grew apart. For the rest of their lives, no matter how distant they may have been, they kept a shard of each other nestled in their hearts. That’s the kind of love that they built.
Hm? Come again? Oh, what happened after they parted?
Well, life ended up well for both women. Emi Khara went on to become a diplomat and inventor whose machines are still used in households today. Beatirce Ragnell became one of the most important priests of her time and revolutionized the Church’s role in health care. Their destinies did not converge again, as far as I’m aware, but they both ended up happy. That’s the important thing, after all.
As for Emi, well… I think you’ve figured her out by now. Yes, Grandma Em is the same girl from the story, what with her love of contraptions and that stupid Winter Ceremonies painting she’ll never throw away. I guess when she called me “Novi” that must have finally given it away. You certainly know what happened to her, I imagine, so I don’t have to explain.
No, you’ve never met her. She passed long before you were born.
In her younger years, Beatrice provided aid to civilians during the conflict between Dannark and Doros. Eventually she founded over two dozen hospitals, all of which run to this day. But she didn’t make it through the Great War. She was helping the evacuation effort in Fathie when a bomb struck her medic tent.
But she will always be remembered as a hero. After your Uncle Reo united Tsubasa and ended the war, he placed a statue of Mother Ragnell in Fathie City, right in the center of the downtown square. Next time we go there, you ought to take a look.
Actually, wait. Don’t go letting Grandma Em know I told you about her. She doesn’t like to talk about it too much. After she heard about what happened in Fathie… she was very sad for a while. You have to be sensitive.
What? What did you say? Oh, does she love me?
Dearie, that’s an easy question.
Of course she does.
Your grandmothers love each other very much. We grew to appreciate each other’s company, and we raised a whole family together. It’s been fifty-seven years since we wed and we’re still happy. If that’s not love, I don’t know what is. She loves her family very much, and we love her.
You know what? Let’s go find her. She’s probably out at the balcony watching the sunrise. We can surprise her and show her that wooden centaur you found. I have a feeling it’s going to make her happy.
What’s that? Whatever happened to that mad scientist girl?
That’s a story for another time. A very long one. By which I mean, go read your history books.
Dannark’s response to the rebellion was swift and harsh.
In the end, none of the rebels’ planned executions had occurred; the chaos caused by the homunculus helped Dannark retake the castle and any remaining prisoners had been freed soon after. It was unclear whether or not they ever planned to do anything beyond imprison and intimidate, anyway. The rebels were a mix of idealists and novices, so mass execution never truly seemed in the cards.
Dannark, on the other hand, had been carrying out sentencing from the moment the rebel leaders were captured. Beatrice’s teacher was one of them. Ulric Statusian was already scheduled to be shipped off to the Frozen Desert to mine for ore for twenty years. Nobody really came back from sentences like those.
Even after the main forces were defeated, pockets of resistance still sprang up throughout the city, ambushing patrols and trying to rally the people back towards their cause. It was futile but the honorable way to go out, Emi thought. It had been a week since the rebellion, and the fighting had died down, but it was not over completely, not yet.
The Jewel of Elince was placed back in the National Museum; the Balarand Circle halted publication; a full battalion of soldiers took up residence in the city barracks. King Kline had been spared an execution and returned to exile in Fathie, but everything else had gone completely in the direction of Dannark’s rule.
A new normal that would be here to stay.
Emi’s house had been damaged by the fires that spread across the city, but it was not completely destroyed, so it was already better off than the nearly completely destroyed Castle Balarand. Workers were currently rebuilding the parts of the house that did not survive, which included her bedroom and, of course, Ms. Khami’s entire brand-new third-floor balcony. Poor woman.
Her parents had zipped back to Zahn for yet another emergency mission. They offered to take Emi with them, but she insisted on staying. They hadn’t said anything about Beatrice, not a single mention. That was their way, and Emi realized she preferred it that way.
Fortunately, the southern portion of Balarand was almost completely unharmed. Beatrice’s parents were worried sick when their daughter (and Runa) never came back home, but when they returned he next day they had a reunion filled with tears from all sides.
It was almost like everything had returned to normal, since then.
Everything–including Emi and Beatrice.
Emi had stayed at Beatrice’s apartment for almost a week now, while her own home was under repair. It was about how you’d expect, after everything that happened.
While Beatrice cooked up some omelettes with rice for breakfast, Emi laid in the rock-hard bed in her bedroom. Their bedroom? It was nice to think about it that way, at least.
She looked out the window of the apartment and at the rising sun making its way towards the sky. The city, aside from the wreckage, was shining The trees bright green, their leaves swaying gently in the wind. Soon it would be day, and soon it would be spring as well. Something so haunting should never have been so pretty.
Beatrice finished up the eggs and entered her bedroom, sitting down at the foot of the bed. “My parents said it would be a good idea to get out of the city for a while,” she said. “Dannark is sending a regional governor with a direct line to the Empress, and… well, you know what that will mean.” Emi knew. Curfews, secret police, stricter laws, crackdowns on national flags and songs, the works.
Emi sat up. “I guess now’s a better time than ever to run away together, huh? I hear Mammoth Pass is lovely this time of year. We could go see the Mammoths again before they migrate north, then we could travel up the mountains and meet some striderskin hunters.”
“Oh stop,” Beatrice gently chided. She rested her hand on Emi’s cheek.
“I’m just kidding, Tris.”
Things had gone back to normal. But for Emi and Beatrice there were too many pained memories, too many shed tears, to ever truly revert to the status quo.
It was too complicated, and so they let things stay the way they were. A new normal.
“You know, Beatrice, I just realized something,” Emi said. “You still have that centaur carving sitting on your desk. That… really means a lot to me, you know. You actually kept it.”
“I couldn’t bear to break it,” Beatrice said. She sat down on the bed, facing away from Emi. “I tried my best, but… I loved you too much to hurt you that way.” Emi thought she heard a sniffle.
“It’s the same for me,” Emi said. “I kept your notebook safe on my d–” She cut herself off and gasped. “Gods, no. Your notebook.”
“My… Oh, Emi…”
The tears came immediately. “All my stuff, I can live without. I can always buy more clothes and gears and books. But your notebook… Beatrice, your notebook burned up. I’m…”
“Have the centaur carving back,” Beatrice said.
“No, that’s yours now!”
“It wasn’t a gift, it was just borrowing each other’s things. Remember? We said that.”
“We did say that…”
“So please, take it back,” Beatrice said. “I insist.”
Emi sat up and put her hands on Beatrice. She turned her head around and peered at her face, looked deep into those eyes whose irises swirled in a rainstorm. That same rainstorm that pulled her into the best months of her life.
“…I’ll take it,” she said, finally. She knew what it meant symbolically to take back something as important as that carving, but… she didn’t care about symbolism and all that Mammoth crap.
“So, uh, are your parents awake yet, Beatrice?” she asked.
Beatrice turned around and faced her body towards Emi, who was still sitting up next to her. “Not yet. They’re sleeping late this morning.”
“Let’s not wake them just yet. The rice won’t be done for a while,” Emi suggested.
“Yeah.” Beatrice leaned forward and kissed her on the cheek. She pushed her down onto the bed, then shut the door with her foot.
Emi, Beatrice, and Emi’s Mom and Dad sat around the kitchen table, silently eating breakfast together. The omelettes were certainly… okay, but nothing special or worth remarking about. That didn’t really matter to Emi, though. She just appreciated that Beatrice had cooked for her, had made something just for her. Every meal was a delight.
Beatrice’s Dad was reading a book in one hand and holding chopsticks in the other as he picked apart his eggs, and chuckled a bit. Emi looked closer at the book’s cover– it showed a single shrugging man with the title, What Do You Talk About When You Talk About Love? It didn’t look very appealing from this information alone, but Earl certainly appeared entertained.
Earl had looked a little sad recently, something Emi had never seen in the man before. Beatrice told her that Ulric Statusian had been a friend of his, and that he was still shaken up about everything. But with the library intact and a good book in his hands, it was good to see him in higher spirits, at least for the morning.
Beatrice stared at Emi, smiling. Uh, hey. What’s up? Emi took a big mouthful of rice. It was so sticky she couldn’t actually open her mouth to say anything.
She didn’t need to. All she needed to do was look into the gentle waves in Beatrice’s eyes and smile back.
“We have something to tell you two,” Beatrice’s Mom said, suddenly. “Your father and I…” She trailed off for a moment, and Emi averted her eyes. “Earl and I are taking a vacation.”
Beatrice jolted her head towards them in shock. She didn’t even have any words coming out of her mouth, just a couple grains of rice.
“Shizuka,” Beatrice’s Dad said. “Why now? I thought we were going to mention this after…”
“I thought they’d like to know.”
“Well… fine.” He set his book down, spine-up. “So, I got an opportunity to take a look at a large private book collection next week down in Kent, right next to the coast,” he said. “It’s not a certain opportunity, but… I’ve been told there’s a teaching position open at the local college if I want one.”
Beatrice gasped. “But you… but the library…”
“Well, we’re just going to check the place out and get out of Balarand for a few days, with everything going on right now. Since you have the exams coming up, Beatrice, we figured you’d, uh… want the house to yourself. So you could, uh, focus. On your studies.”
Beatrice glanced at Emi and then her face turned a vibrant shade of crimson. “Oh, uh, thank you. Thank you very much, Dad. And Mom. And… I really do hope you take the job. You should have been a teacher your whole life. I’ve always thought so.”
“You’ve… really?” Her Dad raised an eyebrow. “You never mentioned anything like that before. How come you never encouraged me, huh?”
Emi felt very much like leaving the table right now but she was only halfway done with her meal, so instead she sighed and let the family squabble go on around her.
“This whole time it was Emi. Wow,” Beatrice’s Dad said, chuckling as he cut into his potato. “Can you believe I’ve known your girlfriend longer than you?”
“I’m surprised you never introduced me to your daughter, Earl– er, Mr. Ragnell,” said Emi. “But I guess she was always so busy reading all the time.”
“I doubt I would have ever noticed you, I was so into my books,” Beatrice said.
“You and I both know that’s false.” Emi and Beatrice giggled together.
The four of them sat at the dining table; Emi tried to be as polite as possible, keeping a napkin in her seat and arranging all her utensils properly. The Ragnell Family home was small–genuinely not much bigger than Emi’s bedroom– but by no means was it too cramped for the four of them. Beatrice’s Dad flipped through the latest issue of the Balarand Circle as he ate, but otherwise, their attentions were all completely focused on Emi. In any other situation, this would have given her a panic attack. But now, because she had already stressed out enough about this event, she felt weirdly calm.
Oh Gods, was Emi relieved that Beatrice took this surprise well.
She had been unnerved to the point of shaking at the idea of meeting Beatrice’s parents, even if she had known Earl for most of her life. This kind of supper meeting was ridiculously important in a romantic relationship, and if she messed up it could doom things forever. It didn’t matter if she was overthinking things to the highest degree; this was a mission vital to the success of her continued existence as a human being.
So she had finally worked up the courage and told Earl herself. He helped him arrange the meeting and kept it all a surprise from her own girlfriend–at her dad’s suggestion–just so they could end up like this, happy together at the dining table.
Beatrice’s Mom was basically swooning at Emi. “When you said you had a girlfriend, I never expected her to be so….”
“So beautiful! I mean, look at her hair… It’s so nice and straight and…” Her Mom started playing with Emi’s hair. This was far from the first time someone had done this. For Beatrice’s sake, she let it happen.
“And your food is amazing, too, Mrs. Ragnell,” she told her, trying to keep from being too flustered.
“Oh, I don’t know if ‘amazing’ is the right word for it…”
“Mom, take the compliment.”
Beatrice’s parents were almost like older versions of her herself. It was so funny to look at them and then look at her, because she could perfectly picture how she would age. Her hips would widen, her curls would whiten, but those blue eyes of hers would stay just as vibrant and swirling She wanted to make the most of her time with Beatrice, but she knew she could be with her for a lifetime. Easily.
Was now the right time?
Of course, there was an ulterior motive to this family supper, which is much of the reason why she had wanted to keep it a secret from Beatrice. There was one more thing she needed to ask.
She’d been meaning to do so for a long while, but she had never found the right time. Now, with Beatrice and her parents together like this, it was the perfect opportunity for it.
If she could muster the energy to do it, that was.
Her palms started to sweat, and her appetite disappeared into the pit of her stomach. Her heart beat in doubletime. “I do have one request,” Emi said to Beatrice’s parents. She pretended that her nerves hadn’t already faded into uselessness, that she had the courage to say it.
“Go ahead,” her Dad said.
Here it went.
“My parents are arranging to meet with me at Mammoth Pass for that city’s own winter festivals in a few weeks, and I am allowed to bring a guest with me. As a way to introduce my parents to Beatrice, would you give your permission to let her travel with me?” She flashed a smile for good measure. That wasn’t so hard, now was it?
Beatrice was stunned, but her parents lit up in excitement.
“Going to see the Mammoths? That sounds like so much fun,” her Mom said. “I’ve always wanted to do that.” She was still playing with Emi’s hair, by the way.
“And in all my studies on ancient cultures, I’ve never been able to visit the cultural museum up in Mammoth Pass.” her Dad said. “But.. it’s quite a lot of time. It’s nearly a week’s journey each way, right? Even if you stay for only a few days, that’s still nearly three weeks’ time…”
“It just isn’t possible, is it?” Her Mom said, a complete reversal of her previous comment. “I mean… just think of the timing, with exams and all…”
Beatrice came back to reality and banged her fork onto the table. “Emi. Why didn’t you tell me about this before?” She looked stern, but Emi couldn’t tell if she was angry.
“I… I wanted it to be a surprise…”
“I need to discuss this with my parents,” she said. “Could you go wait someplace else?”
Emi looked around the apartment.
“Uh, go in my bedroom, I guess.”
Emi laid atop Beatrice’s bed, wondering why Beatrice had such a weird reaction to her proposal. It was supposed to be a nice surprise, and yet she may have gone and upset her girlfriend.
She closed the door and tried not to listen closely to the muffled voices on the other side of the wall, but it was hard not to at least listen to their tones of voice. There was no yelling, just the natural flow of a reasoned conversation, but it had been going on for long time already.
“..Never done anything you haven’t…” That came from Beatrice.
“…Studies and it isn’t a good…” From her Dad?
“…Too much, you always said. Why now? I’m ready, really. Really!” Beatrice’s voice was getting louder, which was probably not a good thing.
Oh, why did Emi do this? This surprise supper, this surprise request, anything involving keeping secrets. If this escalated into something between the Ragnells, she would never be able to forgive herself for hurting such a wonderful family…
Keeping secrets. That was practically all Emi ever did. She still hadn’t told Beatrice about her engagement. Hardly even hinted at it. And she was trying to get Beatrice to go with her on vacation. What a load of Mammoth crap she was.
Beatrice’s room was nice, at least. Extremely small, but that probably meant a lot less dusting for her housekeepers– er, for her to do. So tidy, too. Her desk spanned one entire wall except for the door while the bed spanned the other, and there was very little space between them.
How did Beatrice sleep on this thing, anyway? Emi’s bed was admittedly one of the softest ever, but this thing was like a stone slab. If this was how commoners were forced to sleep, she was okay with being a rich snob.
There on the corner of Beatrice’s desk, sitting on top of a stack of books, was the wooden centaur carving Emi had given her a while back. This was the first time she ever went into the girl’s room, and already she saw a symbol for their relationship displayed proudly. That made her heart melt away for a moment, until she realized she still needed to take something from Beatrice back to her own room. Hmm…
Eventually, the conversation ended, and Beatrice quietly entered the bedroom. Emi decided to pretend she was asleep to see what she would do. And what she did is pulled out her desk chair, flicked a candle on, and write in her notebook.
What? Was she studying at this hour? The madwoman!
Just as she was getting tired of doing this sleeping charade, Beatrice finished writing and tiptoed to the far side of the bed. She squeezed in next to Emi, sandwiching herself between her and the wall. The bed was far too small for two people to comfortably lay apart, so they were now in a very close cuddling position. She put her arm around Emi’s waist and breathed deeply, in and out. Her breathing soon slowed.
Oh no. Now Beatrice falling asleep, leaving Emi trapped here on this sheet of bedrock one might charitably call a bed. Laying uncomfortably with the most beautiful girl in the world cuddling her… What a dilemma!
“Tris, are you awake?” she asked, finally, doing her best to act like she was just waking up from a nap.
“Yeah.” she said. “My parents said yes, by the way.”
“Really? That’s amazing!”
“I’m sorry about earlier,” Beatrice said. “But my parents are very protective of me. They don’t like it when I spring big surprises on them.”
“They took it well when I asked them about having a supper together,” Emi said.
“ I told them about you a month ago,” Beatrice said.
“And… Can you not keep any secrets from me like that anymore? Tonight was really fun, but I was just really taken by surprise and it worried me a lot. Maybe I’m too much like my parents after all…”
“That’s not a bad thing,” Emi said. “Your parents are lovely. And so are you, Tris.”
“No more surprises, Emi?”
“I, uh, yeah. Yes.”
Beatrice hugged her tighter. Emi couldn’t see her face, but she hoped that Beatrice was as happy as she sounded. If those deep blue eyes of hers turned to pain, that would break her heart. “But you turned them around on it?” she asked.
“Maybe. My Dad seems fine with it now, and I guess my Mom is going along with it too. They weren’t going to allow it because all my exams are only a few months away, but I had a talk with them and convinced them that it might be the last big trip I get to take for a long time.”
“Because of… your priest stuff?”
“Yeah.” Emi’s heart sank just thinking about it. “But don’t worry about the priest stuff,” she said. “We’ll find a way to deal with it. If worst… If we… uh, well, I love you too much to just leave you be, Emi.”
“Thanks.” Her heart raised again.
“Also, my parents said I have to do a lot of studying while we’re travelling. Is that okay?” Beatrice asked.
“Have you been on the Northern Highway before?”
“No, I’ve never left Balarand.”
“You probably won’t want to study too much,” she said. “Trust me, it’s gorgeous. They don’t call it the Great White North for nothing.”
“I’ll do my best.” Beatrice squeezed Emi even tighter. She was so warm.
“No more surprises, Emi?”
But even still, Emi shivered.
When was she going to tell her about the wedding? Obviously not now, because that would completely ruin the mood. Maybe right after the trip? Or, if Emi introduced her to her parents at Mammoth Pass, that would be the perfect opportunity to shoot it all down at once, because they’d see what an amazing girl Beatrice was.
Or risk everything falling apart in front of her eyes. That would be… less optimal. But she was going to hope for the best, hope that “no more surprises” held true.
For now, though…
“Hey, Tris, can you turn around?” Emi asked.
“And face the wall? Why?”
“Okay.” Beatrice let go of Emi and turned on her other side. Then Emi wrapped her arms around Beatrice in return.
“It’s my turn to be there for you, Tris,” Emi said. “You’re the strong one, the level-headed one so much that I figured… maybe you deserve a rest.”
“I love you so much, Tris, and I’m so excited about this trip.”
“Three weeks to spend together. It’s a long time.”
“We deserve it,” Emi said.
“I feel like we’ve been in a relationship so long, but it’s only been… What, a few months?”
“A few months on the calendar, but a few lifetimes in our hearts.”
“Emi, that was the lamest thing you’ve ever said.” Beatrice adjusted herself and moved Emi’s right hand downwards, resting on her belly button. “Hold me tighter, please.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Is this okay?”
“You could afford to be a bit more courageous…”
Courageous. Emi hugged her girlfriend with a stronger embrace and thought about that word. Courageous…. Well…
“Hey Tris, do you think…”
“Do I think what?”
Emi kissed her on the back of the neck.
“I love you.”
Beatrice yelped and then covered her mouth with her hands. “Emi!” she whispered loudly. “What the heck are you doing? My parents are in the other room…”
“Oh! I, uh–”
Emi let go of Beatrice and sat up from the bed. Her hands began to shake. What did she think she was going to accomplish with all of that? What a moron. What a–
Beatrice, still laying on her side cracked up laughing. “Emi, I love you.”
“I’m so sorry.” Tears welled up in Emi’s eyes.
“You’re great. Maybe an idiot, but you’re great.”
“I’m so–Hey, I’m not an idiot!”
Beatrice sat up and nuzzled her forehead against Emi’s. “You’re smarter than I’ll ever be,” she said. “Not about everything, though.” She kissed her on the cheek and stood up from the bed. She went over to her desk and grabbed a notebook. “By the way, I wanted you to have this.”
“In exchange for the centaur carving. This is every note I took for every subject in my AA-grade classes at the junior priest academy. All of them for you.”
“For me? How come?”
“Just a keepsake, something to remember me by. And maybe I have some romantic notes scribbled in the margins here and there…”
“I’ll read every page.”
Beatrice giggled. “I know you will.” She handed her the notebook. “Now go home before Ms. Khami gets worried. We have a trip to prepare for.”
“Yes ma’am.” Emi saluted with the notebook.
If everything went well, this would be perfect. If it didn’t, everything could come crashing down. But Emi was willing to take those odds.
On a particular couch in a particular house, two girls sat side by side reading, and smiles shined on their faces.
Beatrice, free from her schooling duties and not yet deep into her Priesthood Exam studies, was finally reading a fictional book for the first time in a while–a mystery novel titled Hauntsgiving. It was the first part of a longer saga called The Elf Cycle, and this first one was about a dead mage’s spirit terrorizing a provincial town in some far-off land.
So far, the book was… okay. The thrills were compelling and kept her hooked like a salmon, but the characters were two-dimensional stereotypes and there was little artistic depth to the story thus far. But Emi had asked her–more like begged her–to read the book, and she was willing to put up with any narrative deficiencies to keep her girlfriend happy.
Emi was on the eighth book in the same series, published just like week, titled The Last Gemini. It was an amazing adventure with the mage ghost and her mythical golem partner, following the two as they solved a series of grisly murders. She adored every mystery and every twist and every line of witty dialogue. The tragic star-crossed romance between the ghost and the golem, hopelessly in love but unable to admit it to each other in all their dual immortality…. It was an enthralling experience. Trapped in time, and trapped in romance…
The two women said little as they read. There wasn’t much to say. Well, besides one very specific phrase:
“I love you,” whispered Beatrice.
Emi giggled and her face lit up. She took a deep breath and inhaled her girlriend’s scent. It reminded Emi of the marketplace from all that time ago…The memory of autumn air blew against her cheeks. Sweet and crisp as ever. She could still see the tables of fruits and veggies; she could still taste the crunch of the salmon bind in her hand; she could still absorb herself in the deep lakes of Beatrice’s eyes.
Beatrice saw Emi’s look, felt Emi’s breath, and couldn’t help but blush as well.
It had been a long time since Beatrice and Emi had first met, since they first studied together at the library. Then, they were so ensnared by each other’s exuberant beauties that neither could keep their attention away from one another. Over time they had grown more comfortable together, more solidly in love, and that skittish infatuation had faded. Now, spending alone time together was no more nerve-wracking than taking a nap.
And speaking of that…
Beatrice set her book on the arm of the couch, stretched out for a moment, and then laid down and put her head on Emi’s lap. She closed her eyes. Emi’s thighs made for excellent pillows; they were firm, smooth, and wonderful.
Emi wasn’t about to quit reading her book, not until she figured out the golem’s hidden secret, but she felt the warm head on her lap and began moving her fingers through Beatrice’s winding curly hair.
“Mmmm,” Beatrice muttered like a purring snow leopard. She took her hand and rubbed her fingers on Emi’s face, down her pointy nose, over her lips, and then across her cheek and through her still-shockingly short hair. Emi let the girl’s soft fingertips send a jolt of electricity down her spine and overwhelm her senses, each and every one of them. She took the girl’s hand away from her hair and clasped it within her own.
Emi giggled again. “I love you,” she said.
But Beatrice had already fallen asleep.
It was a great thing, Emi thought, that their lives had ended up a lot better than that of the ghost and golem from The Elf Cycle. If Emi hadn’t sat down at the desk in the library that autumn day, they may have gone their whole lives without knowing each other’s embraces. And yet, due to whatever miracle of luck that graced them, she did sit down, and they did meet, and they were together now.
But even as she continued to flip through The Last Gemini, where it turned out that the dead mage may have been alive, but astrally-projecting her ghost body the whole time, a worrying thought scratched through her mind. Many worrying thoughts, in fact. Emi was notorious for her ability to fret and ponder over every little thing, whether that was about the secrets she kept or the clothes she wore or that embarrassing thing she said to a shopkeep six days earlier.
But then she looked down at Beatrice, sound asleep in her arms, and those worried disappeared. Because in reality, it didn’t matter what was coming, what worries she had or what insurmountable challenges faced them. Because they were in love.
Emi reached the end of her book; it ended with a captivating cliffhanger, but she couldn’t help but keep her attention on the woman laying on her lap, the woman holding her hand. She set it down and leaned her head back on the couch.
She could hear Beatrice breathing in, and out, and in, and out, and in… and out… Even the way she exhaled was cute. Without thinking, Emi matched the rhythm. Their tempos synchronized. Emi not only heard Beatrice, but felt her very being, in a sense. They breathed in and out together just like this.
With her free hand, Emi continued to play with Beatrice’s hair. She put her fingers into the jungle of curls, letting the hairs wrap themselves around her hand, and then unwind as soon as she pulled it through. Like a spring in a machine, they bounced back into their original positions.
Life would be easier if people were built like machines, Emi thought. Life would be easier if…
Before she could do any further reflecting, she fell asleep.
Beatrice giggled as she entered Emi’s bedroom. “You must have tidied up recently,” she said. “There’s no way the Emi I know would be this clean.”
“Am I wrong?”
“W-Well, this is the new me, the new and improved Clean Diplomat Girl,” Emi said. She noticed her outfit from yesterday laying on the floor and kicked it under the bed. “How do you like the place?”
Beatrice took a tour around the bedroom, walking while rotating herself in a circle, apparently trying to capture it all. Emi didn’t think this was a good sign. Finally, she answered: “Your room is as big as my apartment.”
“I knew you’d say something like that…”
Beatrice went over to one of Emi’s closets and opened it to reveal even more space. “You have a closet you can walk in!” she exclaimed. “Who in the world needs so much room? You should be renting this place out to a whole family, and then you could make a whole bunch of money off of it.”
“I don’t exactly…” She didn’t want to come off as a rich brat. She had to watch her words. “One day, I want to give the whole place away to people who need it, if I ever can. Though, I guess my brother Touma will probably inherit the house, not me…”
“Touma L’Hime? THE Touma L’Hime?”
“Don’t you start that again,” Emi said.
Beatrice snickered. “Your room looks nice. Especially this painting over here.”
“Oh! Do you recognize it?”
“No, but it looks pretty.”
“It’s a famous painting called The First Winter Ceremonies, by Tormod Benici. It depicts, uh, the first Winter Ceremonies. He said he was inspired to make it after receiving a vision from Bk’Man Himself, so he used the stark white snow to plaster on a dreamlike haze to the whole event.”
“And you own this famous painting?”
“No, it’s just a copy,” Emi said. “The real one is up in a museum somewhere in Dannark, I think. It’s way bigger.”
“It’d be nice to see someday,” Beatrice said. “Maybe you could prove to me fairies aren’t completely fake nonsense.”
“They’re real!” Emi shouted. “I mean… They don’t live in Balarand so the painting isn’t accurate, but nobody said the painting was real… Well, I guess…”
Beatrice giggled. She loved seeing Emi flustered, no matter how easy it was to accomplish. In fact, she did it again by stepping to her side and wrapping her arm around her waist. She recoiled for just a moment, but then relaxed and let Beatrice hold her.
“Just the two of us in your bedroom…” Beatrice whispered.
“Just the two of us in my bedroom…” Emi whispered back in a much more apprehensive tone.
“Ah, I see. You must have cleaned up in here just for the occasion.”
“I… Uh–” Emi froze up for a second, then shot back to life in a burst of energy. She left Beatrice’s side and then walked over to a shelf containing a very familiar item. “Look at this! Remember this thing?”
“Oh, that’s the centaur carving from our second date!” Beatrice exclaimed. “I forgot all about that.”
“What a night, huh…”
“A gondola ride, a light snowfall, and a dance at a fancy party… That was an awful long time ago.” Beatrice let herself get swept up in the amazing memories of that night spent wandering Balarand with Emi.
“It hasn’t been that long,” Emi said. “Only a few months, I think.”
“But so much has happened since then. I feel like a completely new person by now.”
“You do?” Emi asked.
“If I became a new person, you might not love me anymore.”
“There isn’t a world out there where I don’t love you,” Beatrice said. “That fact is etched into the fabric of the universe.”
Emi suddenly choked up and had to fight back the incoming tears. After a moment of sniffling, she calmed down and picked up the centaur carving. “Tris, can I give this to you?”
“Eh? how come?”
“I thought maybe you’d like to have it as a reminder of, um, how our love is etched into the fabric of the universe.”
“I’m not really big on gifts, and I know you aren’t either. So I don’t see why.”
“Not really a gift or anything,” Emi said, “but just so we can have something of each other’s to remind ourselves of… This is embarrassing to say out loud.”
Beatrice went over to Emi and kissed her on the lips. “You’re so sweet. I’ll take it. One day, I’ll give you something of mine, too.”
“That’d be great.”
“Of course, speaking of gifts…” Beatrice winked and put a hand on Emi’s cheek.
That same cheek, of course, lit up in rosy red. “Tris!”
“Hehehe–Oh, what’s that over there?” She pointed to a bundle in the corner of the room that was covered with a blanket.
“It’s, uh, well, it’s just some blankets, of course! Yeah, just blankets.”
Beatrice’s eyes narrowed and she smiled slyly. “Yeah, just blankets. Not that mystery thing you keep mentioning, just some blankets. I get you.”
“Haha…” Emi’s laugh was incredibly insincere, but she was sure it fooled her. Definitely.
Next, Beatrice’s attention turned to Emi’s bed, freshly made-up and adorned with pillows of all sorts. Emi was actually proud to have made her bed, all by herself, with no help from anyone. It was a work of art that could never be replicated.
“That’s a really nice bed,” Beatrice said. “It looks so comfortable.”
Emi beamed. “Yep. It’s one of the best beds in all of Balarand.”
“Yeah, I bet it is. I don’t think I’ve ever even seen one this big, either. I’d love to try it out…” She took a hop and landed on the bed on her knees. “Gods, this is soft.”
“Haha…” Emi’s face had turned completely red. “Too bad we took a nap on the couch earlier. Hey, why don’t we go see some other rooms in my house? Doesn’t that sound fun? Here, I’ll show you to the storage room downstairs. It’s where my family used to keep the horses.” Without hesitating for a second she left the bedroom.
Beatrice lingered in the bedroom for a moment. She wore a mischievous grin on her face.
“I came to meet you!” she said, just as loudly, mostly because the party was so loud she could barely hear her own voice. “I forgot you were having a big party. I just thought I’d dress up since your family is so rich and famous.”
“What do you mean, what?”
“I can’t hear you!” Emi yelled.
She had come over to this place to see if Emi was even around, but it turned out she was incredibly preoccupied at the moment. Like, the kind of preoccupation that involved a gigantic winter party.
Luckily, Beatrice had already put on her nicest outfit, a dress her mother had finished just last week. It was patterned after ancient Balarand fashion, but styled closer to a modern formal suit. In this case, though, the tie was replaced by a traditional sash across her left breast, and a cape that went down to her waist.
And Emi… Wow. Her fancy party dress shimmered in the bright lights of the chandelier hanging overhead, and made her shine so brightly Beatrice literally could not look away. She was THAT beautiful.
“It’s a bit hard to…” Emi took a step closer to Beatrice. S close their noses practically touched. She leaned in and spoke directly into Beatrice’s ear. “Can you hear me now?”
“I could hear you the whole time.”
Emi leaned in even closer. “I’m really glad you came,” she said. “I missed you.”
Beatrice ignored that for now. “My offer still stands. Do you want to dance?”
Without waiting for an answer, Beatrice put one hand on Emi’s waist and another one on her hand, and lifted up their arms.
She hadn’t even been listening to what kind of music the orchestra was playing, but she was sure they were both bad dancers anyway, so she just swayed back and forth. The crowd around them cleared out a little bit and gave them room to move around themselves.
They stared at each other. Sparks flared between their eyes and detonated in brilliant blue and brown bursts of bliss. Beatrice wasn’t sure her face had ever been this close to another’s in her entire life. It was a bit intimidating, enough so that– oof!
She almost tripped over Emi’s dress and sent them both tumbling, but Emi caught them both. “Just follow my lead,” she told Beatrice.
Later, Beatrice would learn that Emi had been trained in formal dance all her life by her housekeeper Ms. Khami, that had performed at parties and recitals since childhood. But at this moment, Beatrice had no inkling of that; she simply thought the tension between them had been some sort of cooperative incantation, that it had generated an energy field that kept them in a constant spinning motion. Everything she told Bodhi about magic was a lie–love really was the most powerful force in existence.
It was warm.
Hand in hand, arm in arm, the two of them moved with the sweeping orchestral sounds, a dramatic yet romantic piece that oscillated between fast sections and slow sections, daring the dancers to keep up. The girls remained in sync, maybe not as much with the music as with each other. They created their own harmony.
“You know, you said rich people parties were terrible, but I really like this,” Beatrice whispered into Emi’s ear.
“Shut up,” Emi said.
“No, really, I do. All the beautiful dresses and fun music. It’s got a fun atmosphere.”
“I guess it’s not too bad.”
“Do I stick out if I’m just wearing this? I don’t have anything as nice as… well, you.”
“You look great.”
All this time, Beatrice had remarked to herself how beautiful Emi was, but this was the first time she had actually been able to see her up close like this for such a long time. Seeing the dimples on her smile, the freckle right above her left eye, the crackles on her lips from not enough moisture in the house…
She thought about leaning in to kiss her right this instant, but resisted the urge. Not while everyone was watching. Not until they could clear the air between each other.
But still… She enjoyed the dance.
Beatrice thought that this was the perfect setting to be with Emi. They walked down from the rich part of Balarand down towards Knoll Park, where they could stroll by the small canals that littered the southern portion of the city.
She was glad that she had decided to wear Mom’s outfit, after all. Emi had stared at it for a good five minutes without saying a word, so it appeared to be a very impressive piece. Thank you so much, Mom…
“So we’re going where?” Emi eventually asked as the two strolled down a busy pedestrian bridge, not yet holding hands. She was wearing the same dress from the party, an elegant, bright white and orange ballgown that went down all the way to her feet. It almost felt like Beatrice had kidnapped the girl from a wedding or something.
“I don’t know,” Beatrice said. “I had just finished some, uh, studying, and I thought I would see if you were home yet, to kill two birds with one stone. So we’re just strolling.”
“You shouldn’t kill birds. They’re nice.”
“Wait, what did you mean by ‘home yet?’”
“You were… gone, right? On some important rich person thing, maybe? I went to your house before and got turned away, so I…” Beatrice blushed because it seemed like Emi had no idea Beatrice had been to her house and now it sounded kind of embarrassing, maybe even creepy.
“Oh, Gods, I had no idea. I just… I’m really sorry,” Emi said. “I was probably home. It’s just that I was… studying a lot. My housekeepers probably didn’t want me to be interrupted.”
She hadn’t been gone? Emi had been in Balarand all along? Then Beatrice’s feelings hadn’t been for nothing. But somehow she felt even more confused.
“I thought they let you sneak out all the time?”
“Well, this time I… I thought it might be for the best,” Emi said.
Wh… What? What the heck was Emi talking about here? For the best? Did she intentionally ignore her for three weeks, or something? “Emi, what do you mean…?”
“I mean, I thought that I… We’re worlds apart, you know. Maybe my parents don’t approve of you and they’ll be angry if I show them to you. Maybe your parents will hate you because I’m part of a rich bureaucrat family that helped bring down King Kline. I don’t know. You’re a junior priest and… I’m just some girl. You shouldn’t even care about me.”
“Shut up,” Beatrice said.
“Seriously, shut up.” Beatrice was starting to get a knot in her stomach, and her face had turned red, and not from any cute blushing. “You don’t get to decide who cares about you. I’m not letting you push me away because of any dumb apprehensiveness.”
“No, but that’s what I wanted to… I’m sorry. I messed up.”
“Darn right you messed up,” Beatrice said. “I… I missed you a lot. I don’t want to be in a world without you in it, okay?”
Emi looked like she was about to cry, and then… she started cracking up laughing. “That was so cheesy.”
“Well, it’s true.” Now her face was red from blushing after all.
“And I agree with it. The past few weeks have been horrible for me. I don’t think I could ever bear to do that again. So I just want to say I’m sorry and I won’t do it again.”
“You’d better not, Emi.”
“I promise, Beatrice.” A snowflake floated down and rested gently on Emi’s nose. She stared at it for a second, blinking silently, before laughing once more. What a silly girl.
They stopped by another bridge over another canal. A gondola floated underneath it, with its gondolier standing by, arms folded as he waited for his next customer. Beatrice hadn’t ridden in a gondola in ages. It was so romantic! Maybe the two of them could…
“Do you want to… ride that?”
“Eh… Actually, last week I– Oh. Yeah. Let’s hop on.”
“So, you aren’t mad at me?” Emi asked.
“I’m just glad you’re with me now,” Beatrice said. It was mostly true. Honestly, these past two weeks had given her a lot of time to process her feelings about everything, and it helped her realize her crushing anxiety about everything coming to her life soon. For all Bodhi said about her focusing on the present, she sure felt like the future was a looming brick wall she was right on course to smash into.
Did she really want to give up her life with family and friends to devote herself to the Gods forever? Did she really care about Emi so much that she would be willing to part from her singular dream? It was tough, and she felt guilty even thinking about that right now when such a wonderful girl sat right next to her.
The gondola gently rocked and they passed underneath another pedestrian bridge. The sun was setting earlier and earlier every day now, so it was already on the horizon, the sky glowing with oranges and purples.
“So, what have you been doing lately?” Emi asked.
“Practicing for the Winter Ceremonies,” she answered. “The graduating junior priests at my school are performing a magic ritual at Knoll Park. It’s really exciting.”
“Wow. That sounds amazing!”
“It’s a lot of work. We all have to coordinate together so we have to practice a lot, and no matter how hard we do, we won’t know if it all worked until we attempt the real thing. Not one of us can mess up.”
“Are you worried about it?” Emi asked.
“Not at all,” she said with a determined grin.
“That’s my Beatrice.” Emi’s face went flush. “Not that… I mean…”
“I know what you mean,” Beatrice said. “And you?”
“What have you been doing lately?”
“Oh, that. Me?” Emi put her finger to her chin as if she had been so busy that she was having to think hard about it. “Mostly just preparing for the party. The party that we skipped out on.”
“Hehehe. It was fun, though.”
“I think you would change your mind if you had to stay another two or three hours.”
“Do you want to go back? We’re headed that way, I think,” Beatrice said.
“No thanks,” Emi said. “Actually, I have been working on… Well, you’ll see.”
“See what? Oh, is this about those gear things you wanted to build?”
“It’s a secret.” Emi winked, and then giggled.
“Okay, that’s fine,” Beatrice said.
“You’re not going to pester me about it?”
“You said it was a secret.”
“But…” Beatrice burst out laughing, and Emi finally got the joke. “Oh. Well, trust me, when you find out, you’re going to be impressed. Unless I fail at it.”
Beatrice was curious, but it would be better to let the girl wait. Instead, all she did was hold out her hand. Emi took it, fitting her fingers snuggly into hers.
They sat in the gondola for a while longer, going down the canal as it cut west-to-east through the city and took them closer to Emi’s house. All that walking, and they were soon going to end up around where they started.
It was the journey that mattered, anyway. The quiet, gentle rocking of the boat, and the silent gondolier pushing an oar through the waters.
Emi shivered and squeezed Beatrice’s hand tighter. “It’s getting really cold out here…”
“Uh, do you want to borrow… uh, my sash?”
“It’s really cute, but no,” Emi said. “Maybe if you had something like a scarf.”
“Well then, we’ll just have to share body warmth, huh?”
“Oh, Beatrice.” Emi paused, as if to consider something important. “…Beatrice?”
“Can I call you something shorter?”
Beatrice’s heart stopped. “Uhh… like what?”
“I don’t know, Bea?”
“No way!” Beatrice shouted. “‘B’ is a letter in the alphabet. Not a name. I hate it.”
Emi giggled. “Okay, then how about Tris? That’s the other half of your name.”
“Nobody’s… ever called me that.” Beatrice pondered it for a moment. “Yeah, sure. You can call me Tris.”
She had to admit it sounded cute. And the way Emi said it, putting extra emphasis on the “chr” sound… Her heart was sent aflutter.
“But wait,” Beatrice added. “Nobody else gets to say Tris. Just you.”
“Fine with me.” Emi scooted closer to Beatrice. “What do you think we should do now?”
“Compliment each other?” Beatrice suggested.
“I like that idea. Here, let’s get off at this stop.”
The gondola came to a stop at end of the canal. Any further and they’d be heading into the Balarand River, and that was a longer ride than they ever wanted with this weather. Emi flicked the gondolier a gold coin and they went on their way, ready to wander aimlessly, hand in hand, as the sun disappeared and the stars came into view.
The sidewalks were clear, but piles of snow laid on either side of them. Those piles grew higher every day as the weather continued to chill and it was a wonder the street workers could keep shoveling the busy sidewalks every single morning without fail.
“So, compliments? Me first. I love the way you walk,” said Emi. “You always move around like you have a place to be, and you want everyone else to know.”
“I… do?” Beatrice had never in her life thought the way she walked as something that could be liked or disliked.
“And I love the way your eyes look at night, through the glare in your glasses. They’re like two miniature moons.”
“You’re the most beautiful person in the world,” Emi said. “The Gods envy you.”
“You’re making fun of me, right?”
“Not in the slightest. Your turn.”
“You’re really hot,” Beatrice said.
Emi’s composure broke down and turned to gelatin in an instant.
“And, your butt is really nice,” she added.
“Give me… cute compliments…” Emi muttered.
“I just did. Your butt is extremely cute. And, it may not be ladylike for me to mention, but you are very attractive in several other areas. Do you want me to continue?”
“You’re killing me here, Tris…”
“Don’t make me tickle you,” Beatrice said.
Suddenly, Emi snatched Beatrice’s glasses from her face and put them on her own. “Oh, don’t make me tickle you!” Emi mocked, regaining all the energy that had seemingly been sapped away moments ago. It was a ruse all along.
“Hey! Rude!” Beatrice reached for the glasses with her free arm, but Emi took a step away and she couldn’t reach them. She also gripped Beatrice’s other hand so that she couldn’t break free of their hand-holding. How devious…
“How do I look?” Emi asked.
“You look like you’re hurting your eyes.”
“How did you know?”
“Also… you look adorable,” Beatrice admitted.
“Good to know.” Emi handed the glasses back to her. “Maybe I’ll get some fake ones and wear them at parties.”
“That’s very odd, Emi.”
“Yeah it is, Tris.”
“Man, we’re going to have a lot of weird stories to tell our kids.”
Emi stopped and turned her head down.
She shouldn’t have said that. “Sorry, that was a bad joke.” They were having a lot of fun and then she had to go and ruin it all by saying something stupid.
Emi’s head raised. She looked Beatrice straight in her eyes and asked, “Tris, Will you marry me?”
…???? “No?” Beatrice said with great confusion. “Wh–What? Huh?”
Emi giggled. “Yeah. Sorry, I wanted to see what your reaction would be. I’m… kind of glad your gut reaction was no.”
“Why is that?”
“Because I don’t even have a ring to give you! What kind of woman would that make me? Or… is that a rich person custom?”
The sun had finally fallen behind the cityscape and darkness came upon Balarand. It would soon be time to depart; Beatrice wanted to spend every last second with Emi while she could.
“No, everyone does it. My Mom and Dad have them. They’re probably the most expensive things our family owns.”
“Besides a lovely, impossibly-gorgeous daughter,” Emi added.
“Oh, stop. Now you’re just getting creepy.”
“You’re the one who called me hot just a minute ago!”
“That was the truth. Now you’re just trying to get in my skirt.”
“You’re right, Tris, I am just trying to get in your skirt,” Emi said. She narrowed her eyes and chuckled.
“At least you’re honest,” Beatrice said.
“Well, Is it working?”
Soon, their aimless wandering took them back to the same marketplace they had visited all those weeks ago, that same marketplace that led them to their very first encounter. The statue to some long-ago queen stood high in the center, and sellers hoisted booths all around it. There was enough to see that browsing was an activity all of its own. With all five moons shining from up high in the night sky and street lamps hanging from every pole, the marketplace was a beacon of brightness even as the rest of Balarand turned dark.
Beatrice loved being out here with all of this. Emi, with her stuffy parties and fancy dances, hadn’t gotten the chance to fully experience what normal folk in Balarand all got to do, so she really wanted to show her everything she was missing. And they got to do it all while dressed up like they were going to a big event.
Emi was still a bit wonderstruck, she could tell; she was staring at a stand selling wooden carvings of mythical monsters from faraway lands, and the vendor, currently carving something while not even looking at the knife or wood, noticed her interest.
“This one is called a centaur,” she told Emi. She took her knife from the wood and pointed it to one of the fiercer monsters in the row of carvings. “It’s half-man, half-beast, and roams the forests like a champion. No human would dare approach it without a full hunting party. You’d best stay away from one if you ever spot one.”
“Do you want it? Two gold coins.”
“Two gold coins?” Emi seemed offended by this offer. Beatrice was suddenly worried that she was going to make a bit of a scene. “You’re offering your services for far too low for what they are worth. I’m giving you six.” She took out her coin purse, laid out the coins, and took the centaur.
“I probably should start upcharging ladies in fancy dresses, huh,” the vendor said to herself.
“First a crab, now a centaur? How many terrifying creatures are we going to learn about from all these vendors?” Beatrice asked Emi, rolling her eyes.
“What do you mean?” Emi asked.
“Well, you know most of everything they talk about is fake,” Beatrice said. “Either they’re making up something for entertainment or they’re repeating stories by other people that aren’t trustworthy. A centaur? Maybe. But I can’t imagine anything like a crab could ever exist.”
“Huh, I’ve never thought about it like that,” Emi said. “I kind of always thought all the monsters they talk about really did exist, but maybe not anymore, so now they only exist in tales passed down over the generations.”
“Well, that’s a sign of an active imagination, at least.”
“Really rude,” Emi said. “Very rude.”
“What next, you’ll say your house has a fairy garden out in the back?” Beatrice teased.
But that teasing led to Emi tilting her head to its side. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, uh, rich people would have fairy gardens if fairies were real, and then young girls of all ages would get to play with them and learn valuable life lessons.”
“Fairies are real, Tris,” Emi said. Beatrice giggled, but Emi only nodded her head more feverently. “No, they really are real. They live near the Elinican coast, mostly. Have you really never seen a fairy?”
“Oh yeah? And what about this?” Beatrice moved her fingers around in one swift motion and seized Emi’s sides with one powerful pinch.
Beatrice let out a maniacal laugh.
Defenseless while holding the wooden centaur in her arms, there was nothing Emi could do but shriek and try to run away, but even that was impossible in Beatrice’s grip. Laughing and crying out, Emi relented and let her pull her closer.
Soon, Beatrice stopped pinching Emi and Emi stopped yelling, but they remained next to each other. They stared into each other’s eyes, trying to figure out something to say to one another, breathing in and out, slightly out-of-sync, with heavy breaths.
Beatrice had Emi to herself now. She was literally in her arms.
Would she…? Could she…?
After a few too many moments of deliberation, she decided not to take any rash action. She let Emi go. A smile returned to the girl’s completely-red face, and she tried to laugh off whatever just happened between them.
Whatever it was, it wasn’t important anyway.
“I’m too ticklish,” Emi said. “You’ve discovered my weakness.”
“I’m ticklish too, but you’ll never get me. I have defensive techniques learned under a hundred tickle masters. Every move you make I can counter back on you.” Beatrice narrowed her eyes and went into some sort of silly fighting stance. Emi burst into laughter.
When she calmed down, Emi then said, “Actually, Tris…. I want you to hold me again.”
“Hold me.” She took steps forward, pushing her body against Beatrice’s, leaning her head against her shoulder. Beatrice took her arms and hugged her, and took her in.
Emi was the most huggable person on the continent.
They sighed in unison, and began swaying their hips, rotating in a small, slow circle around nothing. In the middle of the marketplace, with a hundred people nearby, surely watching their every move. Beatrice didn’t care.
Her nose was overpowered by the thick, sweet odor of Emi’s perfume, stronger than anything she’d ever smelled in her life, so much so that, as she held her, she felt most of her senses–sight, taste, and smell–had completely shut down. All that was left was the feeling of her arms wrapped around the back of Emi’s dress, and her cheek rubbing up against Emi’s ear.
“I’m so cold,” Emi said.
“I offered my sash,” Beatrice replied.
“You’re so sweet.”
Soon, the embrace ended. The two girls continued down the marketplace, holding hands with one another, but soon found a crowd of people yelling and hurling angry insults.
“Give it all up!”
They went up to the crowd to figure out what was going on. There was a group of people holding up signs, and one in the center wearing an oversized Mammoth mask to represent Nexurk, the God of Power and War. He was already a source of controversy for how Dannark had treated His shrines, but the way they paraded out His icon like this…
Suddenly, the chants ceased and the crowd dispersed as quickly as they had come together.
When the scene became more clear, Beatrice saw several Dannark soldiers, most of them holding people in chains, and the man who had been wearing the Mammoth mask had been pushed onto the snow and bound up. “We are not conquerors!” one of the soldiers shouted. “We are keepers of the peace. But we do not tolerate violence!”
The girls decided to get away from this scene, but Emi found herself staring as the soldiers paraded around their newest arrests. “What was that all about?” Emi asked.
“Dannark soldiers breaking up a protest, I guess,” Beatrice said.
“Do they… do that a lot around here?”
They began walking away from the marketplace and back towards Emi’s home.
“Somewhere, practically every day.” Beatrice said. “People really don’t like Dannark presence around here.”
“Well… it’s probably not fair to them that they have to see a foreign nation patrolling their streets every day, and their King in exile simply because he wouldn’t let an Empire engulf our continent in war.”
Beatrice stopped. Wasn’t Emi’s part of one of the influential families supporting the occupation? Why was she against it? “Well… our King probably wouldn’t be in exile if he hadn’t been supporting a tyrannical dictatorship in Doros. Dannark may have issues, but Doros is killing its own people as we speak.”
“Doros and Dannark are one and the same. I hate them both,” Emi growled.
Beatrice pulled her hand away from Emi’s. They stared at each other again, though this time with the romantic tension gone.
“I just think it’s not as easy to choose. We don’t live in Torano where we can live free from the rest of the world. We can’t hate our neighbors, even if they hate us.”
“It bothers me that you don’t care that our own King is in exile and a foreign flag is–” Emi stopped herself. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “Let’s not talk about politics anymore.”
They never would again.
And on that note, they resumed the rest of their evening.
Beatrice and Emi were a world apart, even if they were so close in distance. She was a junior priest, the daughter of a librarian, while Emi was part of the rich elite. It almost felt scandalous for them to be associated with one another, let alone talking about political events like equals. They probably needed to be a bit careful in general.
But for now they would just be themselves.
And now, to my original question: Was it love at first sight?
What do you think?
Clearly the two of them were in love at this point. Even they knew. But this love, something so quick, so encapsulating… It certainly feels like love at first sight, doesn’t it?
You think so? I don’t quite buy it, myself, but maybe your youthful wonder is stronger than my old woman cynicism.
Whatever the answer may be, they were in love right now, and that was all that mattered to either of them.
You do? That’s because you’re still too young. You’ll come to grips with that when you’re older. There are no soulmates, no destinies intertwined by the Gods. Love comes only when you work for it. The best we can hope for is infatuation at first sight, and that’s not quite as poetic.
What? You… Oh. No, me loving you at first sight doesn’t count since I’m your grandmother. I’m talking about the romantic kind of love. That kind of love where two people create real magic together.
I don’t think it’s real. But for all my skepticism, there’s one story I’ve heard over the years that’s made me question my belief. …Yes, it’s story time. Yes, this does involve that centaur carving you found in the attic. I promise. I’m not senile yet– at least I hope not. Come, sit down, sit down.
Okay, are you settled? I’ve actually been meaning to tell you this for a long time. The first time I heard it, it changed my perspective on a life I had thought was set in stone. And now I think you’re old enough to understand it yourself.
This story takes place in the old kingdom of Elince. Back in those days, the country had been occupied by its neighbor, the empire known as Dannark. You’d know all of this if you kept up with your history studies.
In the capital city of Balarand, it was a common sight then to see imperial soldiers patrolling the streets. Foreign flags flew freely on buildings, blue and green stripes speckling the city everywhere you looked. Dannark and all its dark-chrome armored soldiers brought a stifling air to the city. The people were mired in the thick tension of a war they never even saw.
The people of Balarand went about their daily lives, attempting to keep up the illusion of normalcy as best they could. They went to work and school, shopped on the weekends and held festivals on holidays, carrying on as if their king hadn’t been deposed just months earlier.
And in this same way, there was a marketplace, bustling just as it would be on any other late afternoon. A statue of a long-ago queen in the center. A stretch of dozens of sellers, a hundred tables and booths set up, and thousands of people scouring their contents.
The town clock struck four, but you couldn’t hear its ringing for the crowd. It was that busy.
In this marketplace, there was a girl browsing through booths of produce. Her glasses were slightly askew, and her head was angled down as she inspected a row of cucumbers. Her shoulder sagged from the bag of groceries strapped to her back.
“I’ll take two,” she said, placing a few copper coins on the seller’s table and putting the vegetables in her bag. She dusted off the long, hand-sewn skirt that covered her from waist down to her shins– not because it was dirty, but due to force of habit– and merged into the mass of people walking up and down the street.
Her name was Beatrice Ragnell. A junior priest heading home from school. She had stopped by the marketplace to pick up groceries.
Beatrice danced her way through the crowd, striding in a beeline towards the next intersection, taking a route so familiar her vision nearly glazed over into a blur. Her bag bobbed up and down as she took each long step, and the curls in her hair bounced along. The girl felt the rhythm of the day, felt the hustle of the tempo to which she set her daily life.
It was cool. The sun’s warm rays pushed back the chilly wind. And the wind at that moment rustled up against a nearby tree. A leaf, a hardened survivor and one of the last still attached, broke away and floated downwards. It caught Beatrice’s attention, falling past her ocean-blue eyes and the speckled freckles sprinkled across her cheeks. Beatrice let her eyes follow the leaf until it rested gently on the ground at her feet. She studied it for a moment, and then looked up.
At the same time, in the same marketplace, there was another girl.
This other girl stood near the tables of fruits and vegetables with her hands clasped together in front of her. But she and her narrow, soil-colored eyes paid no mind to the items around her, instead casting her gaze at the crowd. She watched the people sauntering around as they shopped and haggled. People stood by a nearly naked tree, chatting about their weeks. The small children sitting at the nearby canal that bisected the marketplace, dangling their legs and giggling about whatever children found funny.
It was loud, too loud for her to feel comfortable. But she allowed herself a rare moment to sink into the crowd, to absorb the marketplace and watch this world like a visiting ghost. This place was a living book for her to read.
A cold gust blew through. The girl breathed in deeply and took in the air, which hit her throat and sent a stinging chill through her body. She shivered and shifted her stance, then folded her arms together. These were the last throes of autumn, and she hated it.
An older man scooted up next to her, trying to get a look at the carrots behind her. She darted out of the way. Her face turned bright red as she realized she had been obstructing his view.
Her name was Emi L’Hime. Daughter of two of Balarand’s most important diplomats. She had been going for a simple stroll through the city on a day she was supposed to be writing a paper.
Emi took one hand from her folded-up arms to brush her thin, straight hair behind her ear, and she took a few steps backwards, out of the way. But then she felt a sharp pain in her thigh– she bumped into the corner of a table. A few onions tumbled off and thudded against the ground. The older man gave a look.
Still blushing, she looked down at the onions, ready to pick them up and put them back on the table– but stopped when something caught her notice.
At that moment, in this marketplace, in a street packed with people and bursting with noise of all sorts, Emi’s eyes lowered, and Beatrice’s raised.
And those two pairs of eyes met, and stopped on each other’s faces.
On an otherwise unmemorable day, Beatrice and Emi saw each other for the very first time. Nobody but the two of them could say what happened.
I can only guess that Emi’s eyes ignored the other girl’s tattered uniform, or her still-lopsided glasses. Likewise, I’m sure Beatrice’s eyes didn’t pay a single iota of attention to how overdressed the other girl was for a marketplace trip. The two saw only each other.
It lasted for two seconds. Maybe one. Both went back to their respective homes, had supper, read a book, and went to sleep. But they were equally and irrevocably changed by what happened.
Whatever Emi and Beatrice felt when their eyes met, it was far from fleeting.
Was it love at first sight? I wouldn’t say so. But…