This “Lucky Encounter” themed chapter takes place between Chapters 65 and 66, so it’s near the end of the story. Please enjoy!
It was so warm this afternoon that Beatrice had rolled up her sleeves and tied back her hair. She had to actually take off her jacket and stuff it into her knapsack–it was either that or tie it around her waist, and she wasn’t a grade schooler, so into the bag it went.
It took a very long time, but eventually, Emi and Beatrice were able to get away from Lord Lau and his well-meaning tour guide mentality, and they went off to explore Mammoth Pass on their own.
The Mammoth Festivals went on for a month out of every year, so the entire city was lit up with ice sculptures and skating rinks and people bustling about. Because it lasted much longer than Balarand’s Winter Ceremonies, it was not a super-concentrated explosion of entertainment, but instead a shift for the entire city’s atmosphere. So it was festive everywhere you looked, but also much calmer. The lack of protestors everywhere probably helped improve the mood, too.
The two girls were now making up for all the lost hand-holding time from all the days being led through the city like a Mammoth herd along with all their wealthy companions. Beatrice still wore her traditional Balarand outfit, and Emi had on her warmest sweater and thickest of jackets. The woman truly did not like cold weather. It was silly, but Beatrice liked that about her.
“Where do you want to go now?” Emi asked.
“I don’t know, Emi,” Beatrice said. “You’ve been here before. Where do you recommend?”
“Well, I was always part of those big tourist groups of Balarand elites wandering around,” Emi said. “I’ve never been in Mammoth Pass with any free time before.
“Well, is there anything you haven’t seen that you want to?”
Emi paused. “Uhhh…” She seemed to be struggling to come up with anything at all. The sun was already starting to set, and Beatrice knew this was their last opportunity. Her foot automatically tapped against the wet stone sidewalk in anticipation.
“Oh!” she exclaimed, finally. “I remember. There’s a neighborhood where they do celebrations for the mountain tribes who still live here. Why don’t we go there?”
“That sounds like fun, I guess. What goes on there?”
“I don’t know. But there’s probably food.”
Eating was quickly superseding reading as Beatrice’s favorite hobby. She blamed it on the fact that Emi always offered to pay. As much as she tried to refuse, she couldn’t bring herself to turn down every snack that came their way. Or any of them.
They departed from the castle district and entered another section of the city, one where the curved towers disappeared and were replaced with more typical wooden structures. The stone-built buildings familiar in Balarand were not a common site here; structures were either built directly into the mountains, or made of simple wood. Beatrice guessed the risk of a fire was a lot less here considering how cold it stayed.
They walked down a street. A Mammoth trotted alongside them as a lacksidasial pace, and a parade of cheering people danced behind it. It must have been the world’s slowest parade, Beatrice thought, but they seemed to be enjoying it.
There on the street was a magnificent site, a marketplace-turned-party shining with lights and loud with music. Dozens of wooden stands sold all sorts of foods and trinkets. People jumped and jived, singing along to music in some language she had never heard before. It was lively and vibrant, almost intoxicatingly so.
This was the harmony of the Gods. Nature and humans having joyous fun together. Mammoths marching gallantly while people celebrated the turning of the seasons. Every element of Tsubasa working as ingredients of a whole. The gears in their grand machine turning in a rhythmic dance.
A man in an oversized mask came up to them and clapped his hands, shouting in that same language while gesturing for them to come closer.
Beatrice wasn’t quite sure–
But then Emi dashed forward and pulled Beatrice along into the dance circle. “Come on!”
“Oh, you know I can’t dance,” Beatrice said.
“But I can, so you don’t have to worry about it,” Emi said. “Let’s go.”
Emi held out her arm for Beatrice to join her. And, as if Beatrice was being magnetically levitated towards her girlfriend… she found herself caught in her arms.
Love really was magic.
“Care for a dance?” Emi asked.
“I guess so,” Beatrice said eyes dazed in bewilderment.
Emi, holding onto Beatrice’s fingers, swung around, vaguely matching the beat, and laughed. She lifted Beatrice’s arm into the air and twirled around underneath it.
Beatrice moved around trying to give her enough space to dance, but she mostly shuffled in place while Emi did all of the fancy moves. With all her studies and skills, she really wished she could do better than this, but she had finally entered the realm where her talent was of zero use.
“Tris, come on and get into the music,” Emi commanded.
“I’m trying.” The drums beat rhythmically, loudly, and the singer wailed out with a raspy fire. It was catchy and fun, but Beatrice didn’t feel the groove to move.
For a girl who dealt so poorly with large crowds and social events, Emi sure did like to dance. She guessed it felt more like a solitary activity for her, even if it was in the middle of a jumble of people. Though, it would probably be less solitary if Beatrice would join in…
Ah, whatever. Beatrice would try her best even if it turned out badly– she let the music take her and joined into Emi’s dance. They jumped and swayed and spun and hummed, kissed and laughed and shook and twirled.
The two went until well after the current song was over, until well after Beatrice was too tired to continue. She let go of Emi and dropped to her knees, panting.
“That was… fun…” she said in between breaths.
“You’re the best,” Emi said.
“Not at dancing…”
“Who cares if you’re bad or good? It’s supposed to be fun. Not all that rigid stuff they do at fancy parties.” She extended her hand and pulled Beatrice back on her feet. “Now, I did promise you food, Tris. What do you want?”
Her stomach gurgled loudly. “Every item from every single booth.”
“Okay, I’ll do it.” She flashed a grin that showed off her perfect teeth, that made her dark brown eyes sparkle.
Beatrice shook her head. “Marry me.”
“Uh… I’ll consider it,” Emi said.
Would she really consider it? It was a joke, turning the tables on that proposal Emi made all that time ago, back when holding hands and riding a gondola was all it took to send Beatrice into a lovey-dovey haze. It was a joke, but…
Honestly, if Emi knelt down and proposed to Beatrice right now, holding out a ring and letting that smile work its magic, Beatrice wasn’t sure what her answer would be. For a girl she had only dated for a matter of months, the answer should have been a flat “no way,” but… Given the moment and the fact that she had never loved someone so much in her life, given the fact that every part of her soul gravitated to those dark brown eyes and that tall, curved body and that warm palm rubbed up against her own… Beatrice would have to think about it.
Emi had said just a few days ago in the carriage, as Beatrice recited by heart, “I’m being completely serious when I say I’d follow you no matter what you do.” It kind of made her giddy to think about, even if it was most likely never going to happen.
Even if she knew the Priesthood Exams were just weeks away…
Beatrice knew she shouldn’t have thought of the Priesthood Exams at a time like this. The vortex of stress in the corner of her mind would do nothing to improve her mood. It had no purpose right now, right here with Emi. She could worry about that when they returned to Balarand. Up here in Mammoth Pass, right here on the busy festival street, there was no priesthood for her to waver on. no important life decisions to decide upon. There was only good food, fun music, and the love of her life by her side.
The two girls made their way to the food stands and saw a stand selling “striderskin bites,” which appeared to be, well, edible striderskin.
Striderskin is the chitin that the giant insects known as striders shed after moulting. Because they roam the Plebias Mountains, one of the coldest areas on the continent, they shed only on rare occasions, and hunters make a living off finding the skins and selling them. Killing a strider is nigh impossible, with their speed so fast it’s thought to be magic, so hunters make do with what’s left behind. The chitin is typically used for clothing, but Mammoth Pass is known for its striderskin delicacies. You think that’s gross? Me too. Very gross.
“I’ll take one box,” Beatrice said to the vendor.
Emi gave a look of disgust. “Really?”
“I have to try it. I’m so hungry.” Beatrice took the box, thanked the vendor, and opened it to reveal several bite-sized chips of what used to be the exoskeleton of a large insect.
She gulped, and then… chowed down.
“This is… not too bad. Chewy, but very savory.”
“Good for you, but I don’t think I’ll try it,” Emi said, waving the box away as Beatrice tilted it toward her. She turned around to a different table and bought a simple old meat spike. “I’m fine with some good old fashioned meat.” She put the stick in her mouth and removed the first two pieces with her teeth.
“What kind of meat is it?” Beatrice asked.
“I don’t know. Probably beef of some sort.” She turned around to examine the table more closely. The sign was in another language, though. “Yeah… I’m just going to assume that it’s beef and hope for the best.”
This whole district was strange and unfamiliar, and somehow that piqued Beatrice’s curiosity more than anything. Nowhere else in the larger continent of Tsubasa did such cultures thrive; as Dannark, Elince, Doros, and Zahn expanded over the centuries, many smaller places were absorbed into the larger countries around them. Their traditions did not die off completely, but many aspects of their former existences disappeared, including their languages.
To hear languages Beatrice couldn’t understand was such an interesting experience. It was the first time in her whole life she found herself in this situation, where the people around her celebrated and worshipped, sang praises to the Gods in tongues completely foreign to her. And for some strange reason, she felt excited. This… this was the rest of the world, as far away from her home as she’d ever been.
Whether or not Beatrice really became a priest, this is what she wanted to protect with the most of her power. The ability for people to feel comfortable, to feel powerful enough to celebrate whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted, however they wanted. She wanted to end war, to end the struggles of hunger and sadness. She wanted to see culture thrive, so every day in every city in the continent could be as festive tonight.
“I love you,” Beatrice said. She didn’t know why, but she just had the urge to say it.
“I love you too,” Emi said in return. Though, she seemed more preoccupied by the sights around them.
Like at the marketplaces in Balarand, it was more fun to walk down the long rows of vendors and simply look at the items for sale than to actually buy anything. Beatrice was not a fan of haggling, even though it was such a common exercise in places like this, so she found it more comfortable to simply browse.
Then– Gods, what was that?
There was a small iron cage with a flickering, winged creature darting about, clearly trying to escape. Beatrice had never seen anything like it. But the vendor selling it, a twirly mustached man with a hardened face, did not seem like he was the type to introduce his wares to a couple curious girls.
“Wow! A fairy all the way up here!” Emi exclaimed.
Wait, what? “Wait, what?”
Then Emi grew a devious, self-satisfied smile. “See! You told me fairies weren’t real! Look right here and take back everything you said.”
“A fairy… No way.”
Beatrice stepped closer to the cage and looked at the beast. The closer she looked, the more detail she could see on its… its remarkably creepy face. It had two eyes, a nose, and a mouth, but it looked more like a misshapen monster than a sentient being.
It met Beatrice’s gaze… and snarled.
She yelped and catapulted herself backwards.
Emi didn’t stop laughing for the next six minutes.
Eventually, they walked to what appeared to be the end of the tribal festivities, where the food stands were nowhere to be seen and the joyful music played faintly behind them. The moons shone bright in the sky, and the air was tinged with frost.
“Do you want to go back to the room?” Emi asked. “Or is there anything else?”
“Yeah, I think it’s about time,” Beatrice said. She was ready to get out of this cold weather and cuddle with her girlfriend, though she still felt like there was so much they could be doing in Mammoth Pass before they left.
“Let’s go back, then.”
They were not sure where they were, but because the castle stuck out in the skyline so prominently, it was very easy to figure out what direction to go in. So they made their way back, only to find more festivities going on in front of the castle. There was a great bonfire and many people, the same rich Balarandians they had travelled with, huddled around it for gossip and dance and drunk. They must also have been trying to make the most of their final day in the city.
Lord Lau was among them. He met their gazes lazily staggered over to them. “Hello, ladies,” he said. “Welcome back. Are you ready to have some fun?”
“Ah, no, we are just going back to the castle,” Emi said. “It’s gotten quite late.”
“Nonsense,” Lord Lau said. “Your parents would commend your good behavior, but–Hic!–they aren’t even here!” He began laughing.
Beatrice thought it was amusing, but it was probably more than a little bit embarrassing to the girl who had grown up under this old man’s care.
“Come on, Beatrice. Let’s go to bed.”
“You know, Ms. L’Hime, your new wife is a very nice woman,” Lord Lau said. “I used to have someone dear to me like her. But when she passed I felt a great sadness that has not left my being even after twenty years. Cherish your wife while you can.”
“We’re not married. Not yet at least.” Beatrice giggled.
Lord Lau looked off into the distance like he was trying to solve a mathematical equation. “Oh, that’s right. Your engagement is still tenuous, is it not. And the wedding is in the spring with the Moon Festivals. Or was it last spring? Didn’t your parents invite me to your wedding? I can’t quite recall at the moment. My–Hic!–apologies.”
What was this man talking about? Clearly he was inebriated past the point of coherence but he was kind of hilarious, Beatrice thought.
Emi, however, held a frightened face. Her chest puffed out with every breath, and her already-cold hand had become an icicle in Beatrice’s palm. “No, Lord Lau. You’re just misremembering things. I think you should take it easy,” she said. She giggled nervously. Beatrice raised an eyebrow.
“Well then…” He seemed to think long and hard about this. “Well, I hope you have a good night, Emi. And it was nice–Hic!–meeting you for this trip, Lady Khara.”
Beatrice looked at Emi, but she darted her eyes away.
The Northern Highway was the main road bisecting the kingdom of Elince, stretching from Balarand all the way to Dannark and beyond. It facilitated almost all travel throughout the main cities in the region, creating hubs of trade and commerce in between that lifted entire cities out of poverty.
And, in the middle of wintertime, the Northern Highway was a sight of great beauty.
Lake Ehota, frozen over in the middle of the winter, was a sight to behold. It was a vast expanse, going on for miles and miles all the way towards the Plebias Mountains, consisting of nothing but ice and falling snow. It carved up most of the scenery, a flat stretch of light blue going on past the horizon. A beautiful wasteland.
On the other side of the small road was a thick layer of trees, covered in that same falling snow. Occasionally a snow leopard could be seen dancing around as it looked for prey, or a pack of greyback bears could be seen playing around with each other, but other than that the forests were empty and quiet.
The weather outside must have been absolutely frigid. But inside a certain carriage were two certain young women who were currently focusing the entirety of each other’s attentions on each other.
Emi and Beatrice, wrapped up in a warm fur blanket and snuggled up on one of the carriage seats, had hardly looked outside for quite some time now, too busy tasting each other’s lips.
Beatrice had not done one second of studying during the trip so far. She felt somewhat guilty about it, but in the end she cared much more about her time with her girlfriend than becoming a priest, so she continued to savor every moment they shared.
Emi, by the second day, had given up trying to look nice in the brief moments when the caravan made rest stops, despite the many rich and noble people riding alongside them. She had slipped out of her formal wear and into a much warmer and much simpler leather coat. Together with the blanket and Beatrice’s arms around her, though, she was almost too hot at this point, and wanted to take the coat off. But that would mean letting go of Beatrice, something she was not willing to do right now.
They had individually wondered how long they could reasonably keep this up, kissing and cuddling and doing practically nothing else. It turned out that the answer was quite a while.
“I love you so much, Tris,” Emi said as she caught her breath.
Beatrice did not reply, and only leaned forward to kiss her once again.
That was answer enough.
The love shared between Beatrice Ragnell and Emi L’Hime was real. It was expressed in every shared glance, every giggle, every pitter-patter of the heart, and it carried itself through this trip towards Mammoth Pass.
Of course, it could not last forever. A few hours later, the carriages stopped, and so did they.
When this happened, it was for one of three reasons: it could be for the chefs to bring food to each of the riders, which they did four times a day; it could be to let riders experience a particularly scenic spot on the road; or it could be to let riders relieve themselves. From the way Beatrice leaped up and darted out of the carriage as soon as the wheels had settled, it was clear which of the three reasons this rest stop was for.
…Eww? You wish I didn’t tell you that much information? Okay, weirdo.
Later that night, Emi and Beatrice sat around a campfire, the carriage caravan parked on the side of the road. They would eventually return to their carriage to sleep, but for now they simply wanted to bask in the warmth of the embers in front of them. They shared a wool blanket and they held each other in their arms, though Emi had a cup of warm tea in one hand. Beatrice had both arms wrapped tightly around Emi, hugging her stomach.
Tia sat across from them, wearing a plain jacket and long skirt, smiling brightly. “You two are attached at the hip, surely.”
“If I let go of her she might escape,” said Beatrice.
“Help me…” Emi whispered.
“I have never understood how such completely separate people could meet and fall in love like you,” Tia said. “You are from such different worlds, a junior priest and a diplomat’s daughter. And yet… you made it work. How did you get past it all?”
The girls looked at each other, and Emi shrugged. “Who knows?” Emi said.
“I do,” Beatrice said. “We just ignored everything else and went for it. It might be stupid but that’s the only thing you really can do.”
Tia shook his head, smiling. “Pretty stupid indeed.” He met Emi’s eyes and raised an eyebrow. Emi blushed and tried to giggle to cover it up. “I know you’ll keep making it work. The Gods seem to have made you for each other.”
“Yeah, the Gods work in baffling ways sometimes,” Beatrice said. “Sometimes… I just don’t understand them at all.”
“I wish my boyfriend were here,” Tia said. “It has been so boring travelling in a carriage with a bunch of aristocrats I have never met before. They have interesting conversations, but they are all so stuffy and old and… Hey, I wonder… do you think I might join your carriage and–”
“No,” both of the girls said flatly.
Tia couldn’t help but laugh.
The mountains were drawing closer, and Emi stared out the window waiting and wishing for them to arrive already. Not that she didn’t enjoy this amazing few days lately, but she was so excited to show Beatrice around Mammoth Pass.
Plus, her girlfriend was starting to aggravate her with all the kissing. If she kept doing it every five seconds, she was going to make Emi start to hate the whole act. Hate kissing! Who could even cause such a thing?!
By now Beatrice had pulled out one of her study books given to her by Mr. Statusian, but she had barely opened it as she thought instead about her life with Emi. Obviously these past few days weren’t going to be indicative of the rest of their relationship, nor were the next few, but she really did realize that this woman really was someone she might want to spend a lifetime with.
That was the real magic here. Oh… wow that was so corny, even in her head. But it made her think…
“What will we be doing in five years?” Beatrice asked.
“Raising our kids,” Emi answered almost instantly. “You’ll be teaching at a small private school and I’ll be managing a shipping company exporting Runa’s exotic creatures to the rest of Tsubasa for a pricey markup. We’ll have three sons and a daughter.”
“Hector, Kano, Jean, and Emi Jr,” Beatrice said. “All in the next five years?”
“Of course. We’re both girls. We can push them out two at a time; we just have to work overtime at it.” Beatrice cracked up laughing, and Emi smirked as she continued to gaze out the window.
The carriages passed through a small logging village. It was covered in snow, but all its residents seemed to be hard at work tossing lumber into carts and throwing the twigs into a heaping burn pile. Right next to the road, a few kids were building a ten-foot-tall snowman. They waved as the caravan passed them by.
Even if Emi and Beatrice had led very different lives, they were still urban denizens of the great city of Balarand. Neither of them could really even imagine what life in a wintery village would be like. If they had met and fallen in love under those circumstances, then THAT would be a story worth telling.
“Maybe we could move out to the countryside,” Emi said. “Just live out in some cottage, farming and hunting for ourselves, not giving a darn about the rest of the world and all its wars and turmoil…”
“If we’re being serious here,” Beatrice said. “I’m not sure I ever want to settle down and have kids.”
“Really? Why not?”
“I’ve lived in Balarand all my life, living with two low-class parents. I’ve studied about the rest of the world and all the things and places in Tsubasa. I’ve been studying it so long that… I just want to see it for myself, you know? My parents settled down early and had me, and obviously I appreciate that, but they probably missed out on a lot of their adulthood that way. They might never have been able to travel or fulfill their dreams or make a real difference in the world, not in the way they wanted when they were our age.”
“Well, just by making you they sure made a difference in my world,” Emi said.
“Oh, stop it.”
“Make me,” Emi said. In response, Beatrice scooted over to her, grabbed her hand, and planted a kiss on her lips. The life drained out of Emi’s spirit. “Okay, Tris, fine. No more silly remarks. Please… Wait– keep cuddling me though.”
Emi giggled, then continued her thoughts. “I just think… even if we travelled around the world and acted like my parents trying to negotiate peace deals and end rebellions and write trade agreements, eventually we would want to settle down.”
“I don’t want to really do that kind of thing either,” Beatrice said. “Politics is boring. And you and I both know we don’t really like talking about that anyway.”
“Nope. And we definitely never will. But then if you want to make an impact on the world, then what DO you want to do? Like, in general?”
“I want to help people. Make the world happier. Bring harmony to all of Tsubasa. Like, have you heard of that movement in Zahn with schools? They’re introducing public education to every single town and village. Soon the whole country will know how to read, and that will help everyone! I want to do something like that.”
Emi refused to even hint that she knew (and was engaged to) the person overseeing that public education project. “Well, I won’t be inheriting much of the L’Hime Family estate, but… it’ll be enough to live on for a few decades, that’s for sure. That could always be a good asset.”
“I mean–” Beatrice paused to collect her thoughts. She wasn’t entirely sure what she was trying to say herself. “I mean, no wealthy people stuff. Just you and me and going around making people’s lives better across Tsubasa.”
“So like my cottage plan, but with a carriage?”
“Or just our own two feet,” Beatrice said.
“That sounds tiring.”
“It might be my ultimate dream. Am I weird?”
“We already know you’re weird,” Emi said. “As for your dream, Tris… Personally, I would love to raise kids and have a family and have a quiet, peaceful life. But… I don’t think it’s that powerful a dream. Not like yours. I’m being completely serious when I say I’d follow you no matter what you did. We’ve been together for a while now and I think I can say that for sure. You’re just so…” Emi trailed off and sobbed quietly.
“Emi, do you really mean that?” Beatrice felt tears welling up in her eyes, too.
“Why would I lie about that?” Emi laughed and cried simultaneously. “I love you.”
“Even if I’m some boyish peasant with ridiculous life goals?”
“You know good and well you are the smartest, most beautiful, most thoughtful complete jerk on the planet and don’t you deny it like you’re playing innocent!” Emi exclaimed.
Beatrice couldn’t help it– she kissed her again. Emi nearly fell over. A fire lit deep within Beatrice’s heart and burst out through her lungs: “I love you and all your weird quirks. When you blush it’s like I fall in love with you all over again. I wish your name was longer so I could give you a cute nickname. Your hair looks so much better when it’s short and I hope you never change it. Every time I look into your eyes I go nearly brainless. You’re radiant and dangerous, and–”
“No reciting poetry, Tris. That’s cheating.”
“Eh, I didn’t know you knew that one…”
“I’m smarter than I look,” Emi said.
“Don’t you start… Let’s just shut up and keep cuddling.”
Beatrice flipped through a cross-stitch book, trying to find a pattern that looked interesting. And easy.
She’d been practicing sewing for a few months now, but she still couldn’t manage much beyond very simple things. She could mend a tear, but she couldn’t come close to making an item of clothing. She thought cross-stitching might work, but… it was all a bit difficult for her. How did her Mom do all of this with her own two hands?
Meanwhile, Emi shuffled through some bags in the back of the carriage. The road was old and worn, however, and when a wheel rolled over a bump, Emi nearly lost her balance. She grabbed ahold of the seat with her knees and shook for a moment. Beatrice managed to suppress a laugh, so she wouldn’t embarrass her girlfriend more than usual.
When the girl continued to look even further, Beatrice could no longer keep her curiosity at bay. She asked, “What in Tsubasa are you looking for?”
“Just a minute,” she responded.
“You’re going to get hurt,” Beatrice said. “Why don’t you wait until the next rest stop?”
“Can’t,” Emi said. “Too urgent. It’s–Ah-ha.” She turned around and sat back down on the seat, now holding what appeared to be, well, a black metallic box of some sort. Beatrice couldn’t figure out what it was.
The front panel was white, lined into a grid of hundreds of tiny squares, and there was a crank on the side. But other than that, it just seemed like an oddly shaped, quite heavy box.
“I made this for you,” Emi said. “For a few months, I’ve been working on this project, ever since I figured out how to build machines. It took me until this week to finish, but I’m finally ready to show you.”
“Is this that secret you told me about way back when?”
“The same one.”
“So what is it, then?” Beatrice was overcome with curiosity.
“Okay, well, see all these squares on the front of the machine? They’re each connected to a gear in the inside, and from the way I programmed the turning positions, each time the gears turn, some of the squares will turn black, and some of them will stay white. Look.”
She turned the crank one time, and sure enough, some of the squares rotated, turning black, and forming the image of a horse, with a hill in front of it. It was crudely-drawn, but that’s saying a lot when it was made with squares on a machine.
Beatrice wasn’t expecting anything like this. “You can make art with machines? How did you even think of this?”
“Uh, I don’t know, I just put all the pieces together right.” Weird. If this weren’t Emi, she’d be suspicious that she were lying, but she could tell Emi genuinely didn’t know. “And that’s not it,” she continued. “I can program this box up to thirty two times in order, so the squares will flip or not flip in an order before it all turns back to the beginning.”
Emi again cranked the machine, this time faster and steadier. The squares changed. A new image formed. Wait, not completely new– it was like the horse had moved, like it was galloping towards the hill.
The more Emi cranked, the closer the horse got to the hill, until it made a big leap and cleared the hill in one bound. Then it continued walking… and another hill appeared in front of it.
Emi tapped a button underneath the crank and all of the squares turned white.
“Emi, this is the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen,” Beatrice said. “You made the picture move. It’s like the horse was really moving. I’m just…”
“You really like it?”
Beatrice got up–no, more like leapt- and hugged Emi around the neck. “You’re amazing.”
Emi started to cry. “Want to try it?” she asked.
And Beatrice took the machine and cranked it herself, watching the horse move and jump over the hill, and watching this little animated figure repeat the same action over and over again. It was so cute. And Emi had made this all by herself.
“Gods, this is wonderful,” Beatrice said. “Can you make more?”
Still crying, Emi nodded, and said, “I think so. I think I can reposition the gears and program it all differently to make a completely different picture. But last time I tried it, I messed up the whole thing. So for now… Sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry. You’re a genius.”
“I’m not a… Thank you, Tris.”
Beatrice didn’t get tired of this machine, not for the rest of the trip. All of the wonder of the Gods, all the harmony of nature, barely stood up against this box her girlfriend had made. It was just so… cool. Emi had created a harmony all of her own with this machine. A perfect ecosystem of gears and springs that somehow made a piece of moving artwork!
Humanity was amazing. Her girlfriend was spectacular.
Her eyes were going to turn red soon if this didn’t stop.
She meant to wear a hat, but when she actually opened her closet to find one to suit her black dress, she couldn’t anything that matched. All that organizing she and Pip had done to her bedroom… it ruined everything. Just like the man whose feet were too big for his bed, nothing seemed to fit…
Those snowflakes were falling on her head. And they kept falling.
Emi stood by herself in the middle of a crowded gathering area near the statue of Jon Knoll, to whom Knoll Park was originally dedicated. Apparently that man was a direct ancestor to our present-day Tia Knoll, his great-great-great-great grandfather or something. The statue sure looked like him, too, minus the wig and dresses.
She felt a bit weird standing around with a bunch of students from a school she had never been to, all dressed in the same exact too-thin-for-the-winter uniform Beatrice sported almost every day. Then there was her, who had on an elegant and warm-colored dress. She stood out, and she was sure everyone was staring at her, making comments about her. Being in a crowd, and one where she looked unique, made her sweat from the stress, even in this weather. The things Emi did for Beatrice…
Despite being angry that they would leave so suddenly, she was also glad her parents were still out in Zahn; if they were here, she would never have been able to get out of all the stupid parties today. So many balls and dances and creepy older men hitting on her. And as unfortunate as it was, she was happy King Kline’s processions weren’t happening this year…
Yes, she had decided to be in favor of a hostile takeover of her kingdom’s government just so she didn’t have to go to as many parties this year. It was worth it.
Situated right in the center of Knoll Park, the Winter Ceremonies ritual was about to begin, and Knoll Park was soon to be shielded from harm for the rest of the year. Emi only knew the basics of magical incantations from what she studied to impress Beatrice, but she knew well that, when people channeled together their souls together with the correct strength, they really could do amazing things. And that’s how this ritual here was supposed to work.
A local priest, dressed in a traditional white-and-orange Elincian garb, began pounding on a drum to a rhythmic cadence. On cue, dozens of robed individuals, apparently Beatrice and her classmates, stepped out and encircled the Jon Knoll statue, taking each step in beat with the drum. They all had their heads down and Emi most definitely could not tell which of them was Beatrice herself, hard as she looked; anyone who says they can pick their loved ones out of a crowd like this are bald-faced liars.
One more priest, the man Emi identified as Beatrice’s teacher Mr. Statusian–she had mentioned him a few times and always mentioned his boyish good looks–stepped up in front of the circle of junior priest and clapped his hands. The drums stopped, and the park fell silent, aside from some chirping birds.
“We gather here to begin the Winter Ceremonies,” he shouted. “These junior priests, graduating this winter from the St. Helens Academy, have gathered here to send praise on up high and make sure the Gods know our devotion. If there are no objections, we will begin.”
Mr. Statusian waited for a moment, and then clapped once more. “Good. Junior priests?” The junior priests began moving their hands together in a rhythmic, circular motion. It was not in-sync, but instead staggered, each person’s orbit of hands leading into the next. It conjured up the image of a spiraling orb flowing through a field. At the same time, some of them also moved their positions forward or backwards. These things together made the image appear to move in and out of the depth of field.
The group continued this rhythmic motion, moving about until their formation was that of a sort of star, and then, all at once, they clapped their hands together bowed at a forty-five degree angle.
A glowing magical field formed in the spaces between them, casting a purple hue over the entire surrounding area. Like a funhouse mirror it warped the image in front of Emi’s eyes, and she could no longer clearly see what was going on except that the junior priests were staying in position. This energy was similar what she had seen in Runa’s laboratory, though unlike that time, the magic was not moving around erratically like lightning bolts, but instead focused in a steady position, almost standstill.
Silence struck the entire park, as if time had frozen just as much as the snow that covered the ground. And then, Emi had a sudden burst of inspiration about how to finish her machine. The way these junior priests had moved, the way they had created a picture with only their own movement… Wow. The gears in her mind began rotating, and– Well, she would think about it later. For now, she needed to pay attention to the ritual.
The silence was finally broken in a symphonic booming of voices. “Bk’Man, we honor Thee,” the junior priests said in unison. “Keep our winters wet and warm. Protect our city as we protect Your lands. And bless Knoll Park. Let Your delicate harmony wash over us.” They added something in a dialect that Emi couldn’t parse, and then unclasped their hands.
Immediately, the magical energy on the ground surged upwards into the sky, creating a literal barrier around the park so thick even snow could not pass through; it piled up at the top of the shimmering, purple dome thirty feet in the air.
After several moments and many gasps of awe, the junior priests threw down their hands all at once. The barrier dissipated and the snow gathered at the top came torrenting down.
A giant ball of snow and ice hit Emi in the head and covered her hair. That figured.
“Knoll Park has been blessed for the new year,” the junior priests said. “Thank you, people of Balarand, for keeping your spirits strong once again.” They exited just as they came. Apparently, the park was now blessed by the God Bk’Man.
The crowd cheered. Now that the Winter Ceremonies had officially begun, it was time to have some fun, with the knowledge of a safer Balarand at the back of everyone’s minds.
Emi had no idea how that barrier worked, but it was exciting to watch. The idea that someone could manipulate the forces around them with only the energy of their own soul, that someone could be greater than the nature that had shaped them… Well, it was very interesting. Though, she wondered why the barrier suddenly disappeared like that. From what little she studied about magical incantations, she couldn’t explain this ritual in the slightest. It probably took a better understanding of religious rituals to figure it out.
The life of a priest–or even a junior priest–intrigued Emi. Beatrice hadn’t much discussed the priesthood since they started dating, so all she knew was what she gathered from her history textbooks. And, unlike you, my little lazy grandchild, Emi studied a lot, so she was very well informed. She knew what the priesthood meant to Tsubasa, but most of all, she knew what it would mean if Beatrice became a priest.
Emi tried to keep it out of her mind, but if Beatrice really was going to go off and become some celibate warrior-monk off in the Frozen Desert, fighting sabertooth tigers or whatever priests did, then Emi was probably going to… Well, as long as Beatrice was happy with hunting giant animals in the tundra, that was what was important, she guessed.
Okay, perhaps Emi isn’t the best example of an educated woman. I stand corrected.
Anyway, she wasn’t going to think about that anymore, because Beatrice was here now, out of her robes and into a heavy winter coat. A boy in a tattered jacket followed closely behind.
“Emi, how did you like it?” Beatrice asked, giving her a quick hug.
“It was fantastic,” Emi said. “I’ve never seen something like that before. But.. Do you feel any different now? I don’t. Does that mean the ceremony failed?”
“That’s not how the blessing works,” Beatrice switched into lecture mode. “It’s difficult for humans to detect, because it’s not a physically occurring effect.”
Emi wasn’t quite convinced. “The barrier physically occurred, though….”
“Hi,” the boy said. “I’m Bodhi. Bodhi Makala.” He was nice, with a wide smile and light, turquoise eyes. He was what she always pictured when storybooks would feature a magical prince or dashing knight, his stature so tall and broad that you’d think he was a professional sportsman. He looked like a princely celebrity much more than he looked a low-class junior priest.
“Nice to meet you. Emi, current assumed head of the L’Hime Family household.” She extended her hand and Bodhi reluctantly shook it. She realized how formally she had just introduced herself, and with a half-lie considering that Ms. Khami was effectively the head of the household while her parents were away, even if Emi had legal status… Oh, why did she always mess up with things like these? And why were they still shaking hands?
Beatrice noticed her flusterations and put her arm around Emi’s shoulder, getting her to let go of Bodhi’s hand. “Sorry,” she said. “This is my girlfriend. She’s just being silly right now.”
Emi tried to giggle but it didn’t come out right.
Still… that word. Girlfriend. It made her heart melt just hearing it come out of Beatrice’s mouth.
“I’ve heard a lot about you,” Bodhi said. “You’ve got to be something special to get a girl like her away from studying all day.”
Beatrice rolled her eyes, but Emi laughed. “She still studies all the time, don’t worry. She wouldn’t be such a genius if she didn’t!”
“I’m no genius…” whined Beatrice.
“You’ve been a genius since we were toddlers,” said Bodhi. “Now you’re just old enough that it’s not scary to everyone.”
“Good to see Emi’s as beautiful as you deserve, though. That haircut is excellent.”
“Isn’t it?” Emi patted the back of her head, where there was once so much more hair covering it.
Beatrice sighed and mumbled something along the lines of, “…can’t believe you…”
“Well, nice to meet you, Emi,” Bodhi said. His smile, she realized, wasn’t as strong as when he introduced himself. “I have to go meet up with my family. I guess I’ll see you around, Bea?”
“Not if you call me Bea you won’t.”
He laughed, and said, “Well, I hope you do well in the Priesthood Exams. Beatrice.”
He left, and Emi wondered for a moment how much Beatrice realized about her own situation with that boy. Then… she felt a wave of bliss when she realized Beatrice’s arm was still around her.
“Let’s go explore the festival,” Beatrice suggested.
Alongside the Winter Ceremonies is the biggest festival of the year in Balarand, and perhaps all of Tsubasa. Hundreds of thousands go to Balarand every year for the Winter Ceremonies, from all across the entire continent. It truly is something special, I will tell you that.
Even during this time of occupation by Dannark, people from all over Elince still flocked to the capital to enjoy the festivities, and in this year in particular, Dannark citizens came in droves as well. There was hardly a hotel room open, hardly a shop with empty space during this year’s festival.
For as cold as the city was, the vibrant atmosphere of the Winter Ceremonies was as warm as the spiciest salmon bind.
Situated downtown was a massive display of snow sculptures of endless design, some of them so intricate and detailed that they could be looked upon for hours and still you could find new details to appreciate. One of the biggest sculptures was an entire miniature village of more than a dozen snow buildings and hundreds of snow people going about their snow lives. Another featured an expressive rendition of Empress Nievol’s face, though this sculpture was guarded closely by four Dannark soldiers and attracted few to give it a thorough examination.
Beatrice and Emi looked at a sculpture that seemed to be depicting two human children having a snowball fight, but the anatomy was misshapen in a way that made it look more like a fierce battle between humanoid snow leopards… or maybe a mating ritual between two birds.
It was a bit perplexing, and they studied it for far longer than it was worth.
And yet… There was something interesting about such an odd ice sculpture, something so…. Actually, both of them had become quite bored quite quickly.
It was better to try out all the snacks!
“I love food so much,” Emi said.
“You love food, and you love getting drastic haircuts without the faintest warning to your own girlfriend,” Beatrice said.
“You’ll never let it go, will you?”
“Not until I forget it thanks to too many sweets.”
Emi had already purchased and eaten three different stuffed salmon binds, each a different flavor from a different food stand. The marketplace always had these kinds of foods on sale, but on the Winter Ceremonies day, there were ten times the options, all with different prices and reputations to uphold.
If she were a more discerning girl, she would take the time to study the prices and figure out what was the best value for her money. That’s what Beatrice did right now, looking at two nearly-identical cake stands with as puzzling a look as she had given that snow sculpture.
“If it’s about price, I can buy you anything you need,” Emi said.
“No, no… it’s not that,” said Beatrice, her eyes locked on the two separate chocolate cake stands in front of her. The vendors were starting to get worried about her intent, intense staring. “I want to make sure any money I spend is a good choice. Even if it’s yours.”
“I could buy both of these stands and then make both of these vendors my personal chefs, Tris. It really doesn’t matter.”
Beatrice ignored that comment.
After several more moments of deliberation, Beatrice finally chose the cake stand on the right, buying one piece of chocolate cream cake. She offered a bite to Emi, and then nibbled at the rest.
“Wow, this is pretty amazing,” Emi said.
“You see? We’re getting our money’s worth. That’s why it tastes so good.”
Emi wasn’t really sure about that.
The parade down the Grand Concourse was about to begin, and thousands of Balarand citizens lined up along the bridges in wait.
“I used to come watch the parade with my parents every year,” Beatrice said. “I stopped going when I got older, because I thought it was boring to sit and watch carriages pass by for an hour. But I’ve realized something, Emi.”
“What is it?”
“Parades are pretty great.”
“You know, I used to be in these,” Emi said. “When I was little, they always made me play a snow fairy who circled around the main carriage throwing candy out to the audience. It was really tiring, you know!”
“You probably threw candy to me at some point.”
“Huh. Isn’t that weird? That’s another time we could have met but didn’t.” Emi thought back to that time, wondering how her life would have changed if she had, as a young girl, met eyes with this girl next to her.
How different would her life have been if she had met the love of her life that long ago? Her parents may have even approved of Beatrice if they had met at that age, even if she was a commoner. She would have never had to hear the name Lady Khara, or read the woman’s stupid letters, or deal with any of the nonsense that went along with an arranged marriage to someone she had never met.
Suddenly the parade stopped.
“What’s going on?” Beatrice asked.
“I have no idea.” Neither did any of the other people watching the parade, it seemed, as they looked around at each other and out at the floats with collective confusion.
A large group of men and women wearing bandanas over their faces entered the stopped parade procession and began blockading the carriages’ advance. They held up large signs that read, “Free Balarand!” The same man wearing the Mammoth mask in the style of the God Nexurk was in the protest group, and stood in the center, waving his arms around like he was conducting a worship song.
They quickly began their chant. “Winter Ceremonies are for Elince! Elince is not for Dannark!” It wasn’t a particularly catchy phrase, but some in the audience joined in and yelled alongside them. Emi was tempted to yell as well, but she knew Beatrice would get upset.
It was only a few moments before Dannark soldiers stormed onto the Grand Concourse. Soldiers entered and the protestors piped down, put their hands behind their backs, and surrendered themselves without hesitation. The soldiers rounded them up peacefully. One soldier threw the mask-wearing man onto the icy ground and kicked him, but it elicited no counterreaction.
As they nudged the blockade of protestors out, one officer unraveled a scroll and yelled at the crowds to disperse from the scene, ending the parade prematurely. People were slow to leave, despite the increasingly loud orders from the soldiers dispatched to facilitate it.
“Do you know what this is all about?” Emi asked. “If there’s anything specific that’s going on, I mean.”
“My Dad said they wouldn’t parade organizers to use the Jewel of Elince at the parade this year. That’s probably got some people angry,” Beatrice said, her tone muted and neutral. Emi appreciated that. “Let’s… let’s just go someplace else, I guess.”
“Agreed.” Emi leaned in and pressed her cheek against Beatrice’s.
“Ack, you’re so cold,” Beatrice said.
“Well, warm me up then.”
With the snow falling and festivities to participate in throughout the rest of the city, the two young women soon forgot about the disruption at the parade and proceeded to enjoy themselves elsewhere.
They passed a row of festival booths with fun games for children to play for prizes, and then reached one street intersection where an elderly man in a pointy hat was juggling tiny balls while telling kids a fairy tale story about the first Winter Ceremonies, held thousands of years ago. If there truly did exist people in this world who could perform magical feats on their own, surely it was this guy.
What a good day this had been, Emi thought. Together with Beatrice, watching her perform a sacred ritual, eating delicious cake. And now…
“You know, Tris…” Emi began. “There is still one thing we haven’t done together.”
“Have our first kiss.”
Beatrice audibly gulped. A kiss? Was she really ready for that? Were the two of them in a relationship long enough for that? What was the standard, here? Oh, why was SHE the one overthinking everything now?
“I think we should… kiss,” Beatrice said. “It’s the Winter Ceremonies, after all.”
“Yeah, whatever that means.”
They puckered up their lips and leaned in towards each other, Emi craning her neck down to reach her girlfriend–
But they stopped short.
“Actually, I think my lips are too cold,” Emi said. “They’re kind of chapped.”
“Yeah, it’s kind of dumb to do this in the snow.”
They both giggled nervously, thinking about how stupid this situation was, and why they were building up such a moment like it was something special. It’s not like kisses were the best thing ever, or anything…
Beatrice looked around, and then grabbed her girlfriend by the sleeve. “Let’s go in somewhere where it’s warm.”
They hurried over to a small shop that sold souvenirs to tourists, mostly wooden toys and other tiny trinkets. There was a log was burning in the fireplace, and both of their body temperatures raised instantly. Emi began licking her lips to make sure they weren’t as dried out, while Beatrice clutched hers with her gloves.
After a moment, it was time to try again.
“Okay, now we can do it,” Emi said.
“Yep. Here we go.”
They faced each other and took both their hands together and leaned in…
They planted their lips on one another. A good old-fashioned smooch.
Emi was stunned. She finally did it. She kissed her girlfriend. “Tris… I–”
Beatrice couldn’t help but squeal, and the whole shop turned towards them.
“Yeah!” she shouted, before literally running out of the shop. Beatrice felt so energized, so oddly powerful, that she couldn’t help it. She raised her hands to her mouth, looked up at the sky and screamed, “I kissed Emi L’Hime!”
Emi hurried after her but the power of love was not enough to overtake the speedy yelling girl. “Triiiiiisss…. What are you–”
“I kissed a gorgeous tall short-haired amazing woman!” she screamed again.
“Tris! You’re being a weirdo!”
“This is the happiest day of my life!” Beatrice stopped running and danced around in a circle. It was just so exhilarating that she– Ouch!
A snowball collided right with Beatrice’s face. When she turned to see the perpetrator, the would-be assassin, she saw only her girlfriend, her dark brown eyes morphed into the most mischievous glare imaginable.
“What was that for?” Beatrice asked.
“Revenge for running away right after we kissed! You have dishonored my family name.”
Beatrice bent a knee and began scooping up snow with her hands. “Is that so…”
“It most certainly is, my love.”
That’s when Beatrice saw it. Three snowballs in Emi’s left hand. A volley waiting to be launched.
“Winner gets to make the next kiss,” Beatrice said.
“I will not be defeated!”
And thus began the ultimate snowball fight in the history of mankind.
“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.
Beatrice and Emi met back that evening at the front of the library, and Beatrice dragged Emi the short distance back over to the marketplace, the same one where they had first seen each other all those weeks ago.
The sun had begun to set, and two of the moons were already visible in the evening sky. Some street lamps had been lit, and scene around them glowed warmly, even as the weather grew colder and colder. It was as if the whole world had suddenly become tinted blue and orange.
“My parents always told me to stay away from places like this,” Emi said.
“Well, your parents are too overprotective,” Beatrice said. “Though, considering you’re a member of the L’Hime Family, they might be in the right. I can’t believe you’re the brother of Reo L’Hime! He’s so cool.”
“He’s… cool…?” Emi did not want to know the answer to this question.
Beatrice gave the answer anyway. “My classmates talk about him all the time. Some of the girls in my class have posters of him on their bedroom walls.”
They walked side by side down the long marketplace road, surrounded by shops and stands all over the place, and jam-packed with people in all directions. Emi tried to ignore the crowds but she was still getting apprehensive being so close to so many in such a small area.
Beatrice noticed. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah… I’m fine. Let’s just keep going.”
Neither of them intended to do any shopping this evening, but the smoky meat stands and glittering jewelry shining against the copious lanterns made the whole area fun to walk around in. The smell made it even better.
“And so you’re a junior priest, right…?” asked Emi, her smile wilting before Beatrice’s eyes.
Beatrice felt the color drain from her cheeks and promptly replied, “Well, a junior priest is just that. I don’t know if I’ll do it for real. It’s a big step, obviously. You know.” Beatrice rubbed the back of her neck. Emi felt satisfied with that answer for now.
“Of course. The future is always in motion, after all,” Emi then said.
“What do you mean by that?”
“It means I have no idea what I want to do with my life,” she said with a chortle.
Before Beatrice could say anything else, Emi’s eyes took notice of a booth displaying a set of bright, ruby-red earrings. She paused and let Beatrice walk ahead of her while she examined it.
They looked like they might make a wonderful present…
Emi glanced at Beatrice, then back at the earrings, then back at her. They were beautiful, but they wouldn’t suit her, she thought. Part of her appeal was the was she exhibited some sort of warm aura with her plain outfits and subdued smile, some sort of magnet where Emi was a very reactive metal. The way she walked, even, exuded a strong sense of herself; she swayed her hips like she had a specific purpose in every step, and yet carried herself lightly. These earrings didn’t capture that aura at all.
Beatrice, noticing Emi had fallen behind, stopped in her steps and turned back towards her. “What’s wrong?” she asked.
“N-nothing,” Emi said.
She noticed the stand selling earrings next to Emi, some of them about as red as the girl’s own face. Was Emi trying to buy her a present this soon into their… their evening together? A bit weird. Still, she was unable to stop a giddy smile forming across her face. “I don’t need anything,” Beatrice told her. “That kind of stuff they sell is usually junk anyway.”
“Oh, no,” Emi said, her voice perking up at the sound of being vindicated. “Don’t worry, I wasn’t going to buy them. They don’t suit you.”
“Wait, no, I mean…”
Beatrice’s stomach gurgled.
“I mean, I think I should buy us food first instead.” Good save, both of them thought. “I don’t think either of us have eaten since we went to the library, right?”
“I think you’re right. But I can buy my own food, you know!” What Beatrice didn’t say was that she only had three silver coins to spend and that was her entire allowance for the week. Emi, with a coin purse with more than Beatrice got in a year, hadn’t even considered the idea of running out of cash.
They stopped at a food stand offering one of Balarand’s signature dishes, the stuffed salmon bind. There were so many varieties it was hard to choose from, including fried rice, cream cheese, sour cream, and a near-infinite variety of vinegars and sauces.
Emi was a bit bewildered by the selection and decided to choose one at random. “I’ll have the spinach,” Emi told the cook at the stand.
“Ah, sorry, fresh out.”
“I’ll have the… grape?” That didn’t sound particularly appealing, but–
“Don’t got that either.”
“I’ll have the fried rice, then,” she said dejectedly. She liked fried rice salmon binds, but… they were far from her favorite, and on a night like this, for some reason, she was hoping for the absolute best.
Beatrice continued to look at the variety of options for stuffing, and her ears perked when she came across one unfamiliar term. “Crabspice?”
This question sparked a flash in the cook’s eyes. “Crabspice, yes. It’s a very strong spice found way out in the Torano Islands. You ever heard of there?”
“Well, yes,” Beatrice said. She knew of the Torano Islands, though only from their history with the ancient art of soul-taking. I’ve visited those islands only once; they are beautiful, but are a very limited trading partner these days, now that the fishing industry in Kent has become so prominent.
“But… what’s a crab?” Emi asked.
“I don’t much know myself,” the cook said, “but I’ve heard they are gigantic, terrifying creatures with pincers that could snap you or me in half in an instant. Whatever brave souls actually killed one, well… they’re heroes. Bringing it all the way to me, so I can offer it to the world. You wanna try?”
“Sure thing,” Beatrice said.
“It’s a bit spicy, you know.”
“Well… it IS called crabspice.”
“Are you sure, Beatrice?” Emi asked, having chosen the fried rice salmon bind. She hated spicy foods.
Beatrice shot a glare at her. She took the salmon, wrapped up in wax paper, and began chomping at what was once a member of one of the mighty Balarand Salmon shoals. Salty and savory.
“Spicy? Oh, this is nothing,” Beatrice said. “Emi, you’ve got to try this. It’s really tasty.”
“No thank you.”
She bit further into the salmon and reached a point of higher crabspice concentration. Extremely sweet at first. It was a bit hot, but Beatrice couldn’t resist eating more and more. But then…
The cook handed her a cup of water and she gulped it down in a single moment.
Beatrice, panting out of her mouth, said, “It’s… a bit spicy after all– Hic!” she put her hands over her mouth. “Oh– Hic! No…”
“You’ve got the hiccups?” Emi laughed.
Beatrice growled like a frightened animal. “Hic!” She grabbed another glass of water and drank it down. “Hic!”
“I’ve heard if you hold your breath a really long time they’ll go away.”
“I’ve heard you need to swallow a lot of sugar,” the vendor said, “I have a cream-filled salmon if you want it. Half-price.”
“No– Hic!– thank you,” Beatrice muttered.
They continued on towards their nonexistent destination, all the hustle and bustle of the marketplace at night a mere backdrop to these two girls hopelessly engaged with each other.
“I never stay out this late,” Emi said.
“Are your parents going to be mad at you?” Beatrice asked.
“Well, my housekeeper will.”
“Oh yeah, I forgot you’re–Hic!– a L’Hime. You have a very tough life.”
“Very. It’s not fun and games being in a diplomat’s family. Everyone blames your family for everything that happens, and my parents are always away, and then there’s so much pressure for you to act like– You’re making fun of me.”
“No, I’d be much too frightened to tease a diplomat’s daughter,” said Beatrice. She winked. Emi pushed her away playfully.
“I’ll have you know, my family–”
Emi shrieked as a small greyback bear skittered by.
Beatrice broke out in a riot of laughs and hiccups. “A greyback?”
“It’s not my fault!” Emi exclaimed. “They roam around the city all day and pop out of nowhere. They freak me out is all.”
“The most adorable animal in Balarand, and you’re scared of them… Oh, Emi…”
“What’s that supposed to mean…”
They were near the edge of the marketplace by now, the last few shops before the street ended and the city turned back into an orderly row of businesses and houses. The market stands here were quaint, often elderly people selling knick-knacks, or the down-on-their-luck hawking whatever they could find. They usually didn’t have much besides old junk.
Something odd caught Beatrice’s eye, though, and made her turn towards one of the booths. There were various metal objects placed around on the table. It certainly looked like old junk, but…
The seller, a mustached man in a turban, looked at the girls, his mouth neutral but his eyes smiling wide. “I see you’re interested in my machine.”
“Machine?” Beatrice asked.
Emi smirked, realizing she knew something that Beatrice didn’t. “Machines are little contraptions made of different parts. Put them all together, and they do stuff.”
“Uh… I don’t know.” That was the extent of her knowledge.
The man laughed. “They can do all sorts of things. This one, for instance…” He pointed to a large device with numbers protruding out of the front. “This one can calculate any math equation known to man. It’s the ultimate powerhouse. But, for you, maybe this will be more interesting.” He motioned to a small cube with a lever sticking out at its side. “Just crank this, and you can power the machine… giving it life…”
He began turning the lever in a circular motion, and a tiny twinkling bell started to play from inside the metal box. It was a simplistic nursery tune, but the fact that it was playing by itself just by moving the part outside… How did it work?
Suddenly, Emi was captivated. What kind of creation was this, that could–
BOING! A fuzzy greyback bear puppet popped out of the top of the box, its paws sticking out as if it were greeting you. Emi jumped backwards a full foot. Beatrice was, once again, incapacitated with laughter and hiccups.
“H-How did you…” Emi was at a loss for words, partly from shock.
“It’s the magic of machines,” the seller said.
He chuckled. “Only the magic of man, that is. The gears and coils inside work together to form a creation so divine, it rivals the Gods. We are our own clockmakers.”
Beatrice furrowed her brows, but didn’t say anything.
“And what’s this one called? This, uh, scary thing?”
“I call it the jack-in-the-box. Great for children. Do you want it?”
“Wow. How do you make one of these…” Emi was completely bewildered, but fascinated. You and I may take gear-powered devices for granted these days, but in Emi’s youth, it was almost mythical to see something as intricate as a clock being created for entertainment.
You could learn a lot from her. Or maybe not, what with all your gear rockets. You better clean those up after I finish this story.
“Buy it, and I’ll sell you the schematic,” the seller told her. “Then you can build your very own.”
Emi took a satchel of coins from her purse and plopped it onto the table. The money clanged against the wood with a loud thud. “How much?”
The seller smiled.
So that was how Emi ended up with a jack-in-the-box, and how Beatrice, the one with the school bag, ended up carrying it for the rest of their evening together. It was heavier than it looked, Beatrice came to learn.
After a while further, they finally reached the end of the marketplace, and there was a split. Directly ahead of them were two paths; north, with a short tunnel passing under the Grand Concourse that encircled the capital district, carriages and chariots speeding by at all hours; or south, in the direction of Beatrice’s apartment, and where Knoll Park and the Balarand Theatre had been situated for centuries and the cultured made frequent visits.
Without much deliberating, the two of them went south and walked across the narrow pedestrian bridge, passing over one of the countless canals running east-to-west throughout the city. Below them, a gondola floated gently in place, tied up to rest for the evening. The sun had finally disappeared under the curvature of the continent, and all five moons were shining on full display. It was like something out of a painting.
Emi stopped walking and looked out at the night sky, only the faint shadow of Gonda Tower sticking out as the buildings stretched on across the floodplains.
They were very close to one another, standing on this bridge. Beatrice exhaled, and her breath turned into a fine vapor in front of her. Emi’s did the same, and Beatrice watched as the girl breathed in again, and then shivered.
“Sure is getting cold out,” Beatrice said.
Emi felt a tickle of fabric on the back of her hand. It was from Beatrice’s coat; the two of them were so close that they were practically touching. With her eyes fixated on the canal and the rest of Balarand, she moved her hand just a little bit closer, continuing to brush it against the coat. If she really wanted to, she could reach out and touch Beatrice’s face, rub her fingers against her freckles. The only thing stopping her was the fact that that would be really strange and probably make her hate her forever.
It was a cliche to say she felt warm even in this sort of weather. But also, no matter her proximity to the girl next to her, Emi was too cold.
Beatrice, on the other hand, felt a little too hot, and wondered when she’d be able to set down her school bag. She was very concerned that her back was going to be all sweaty by the time she got back home. But she, too, felt the same feelings going through Emi’s head, I’m sure. As loath as she would be to admit it, Beatrice was smitten, her heart pulsing fast enough Emi could hear it. Nearly feel it.
They stood close to each other, angling their head to face the other without their noses getting in the way. They were very, very close.
Then Beatrice said, “I really like you,” and Emi, without thinking, took a full step backwards. “Oh.”
“S-sorry. I really like you too. I mean, I think you’re a likeable person. I, um, yeah.” Emi stepped back to her previous position, but Beatrice had already turned around and started walking away. Oh, Gods, why was she so bad at all of this…
There were more Dannark soldiers out patrolling past the pedestrian bridge, where the two were headed. This area, being the most “cultured” part of Balarand, was more tightly watched than anywhere else in the city, the pewter-gray armor of the foreign soldiers having become a fixture throughout the southern half of the city.
In front of the Balarand Theatre, built three thousand years ago by the Demigod Dramaturge, there was a small park consisting of scattered trees and sculpture. In front of the statue to Empress Nievol, there was a bench that the two sat down on.
Being the Empress’s own visage and a common source for protests, there were even more guards posted around this statue. But they didn’t seem to pay the girls any mind. They let their minds ease and let the rest of the evening pass them by.
It was the perfect place for people-watching, the perfect spot to gaze on the pretty, soft atmosphere of an evening in Balarand. Neither of them were concerned with that right now.
“I don’t– Hic!– do this enough anymore,” Beatrice said.
“This is the first time I’ve been out at night without my family,” Emi said. “Sounds like we’re both a bit unfashionable as human beings, huh?”
“We’re not very interesting at all, the two of us.”
Beatrice put her hand through her hair for a moment, feeling uneasy about being close to such a beautiful girl with her hair so messy right now.
Emi couldn’t stop thinking about how much she wanted to play with the curls in such a beautiful girl’s hair.
Emi’s right hand and Beatrice’s left hand were both on the bench, the sides of their pinky fingers touching. Beatrice moved her hand a bit closer, just to see what would happen, and her finger rested right above Emi’s. Emi pulled her hand away and closer to herself.
Trying to ignore what she thought was another embarrassing moment, Emi began a new topic of conversation. “I can’t understand how we never met before in the library,” she began. “Your father works there. I go about once a week. I think it’s some sort of force field that’s been intentionally trying to get us to avoid each other.”
“The Gods have their ways,” Beatrice said. “They didn’t want us to meet–Hic!–before, but now they do.”
“The Gods did this?”
“I highly doubt that. Maybe we’ve met before, but we just don’t remember.”
“I highly doubt THAT.”
“You’re right. I’d never forget you.”
Beatrice winked. Emi chuckled.
“But wait, there must have been some specific days we both were in there. What about National Reading Day?”
“I never go to that,” Beatrice said. “It’s always so busy in the library on that day I just stay home.” She gave it more thought. “What about King Kline’s Birthday? I did a lot of reading that day last year.”
“Nope,” Emi said. “I had to go to all the stupid parties for those celebrations.”
“I’ve never really thought about–Hic!– Ugh, nevermind…”
Emi giggled and blushed. Even her hiccups accentuated her magnetic aura. “You’re just so cute. Has anyone told you that?”
“Not really. So, uh, thanks.”
“You’re welcome…” Her blush certainly wasn’t going away.
“What about you?” Beatrice asked.
“Well… people constantly compliment me, but it’s mostly because they want to get in my skirt.”
“And this situation is different?” she joked. She tried to narrow her eyes and give a lascivious smile, but this look was interrupted by a, “Hic!” She sighed.
Emi was paralyzed with embarrassment at the very mention of that, joking or not, and tried to steer the conversation away. “Anyway, tonight’s been really fun.”
“It really has.”
“I don’t really want it to– Ack!”
Beatrice suddenly grabbed Emi’s hand and squeezed it tight. Emi struggled to get loose for a second, but when she realized what was going on, she relented and let Beatrice slide her fingers in between hers.
For everything that came before, this was the moment when Beatrice and Emi’s story truly began. It changed their lives. In a way, it changed mine too. One simple act of putting hands together, fingers intertwined.
They walked away from the marketplace, holding hands, not caring what anyone else would think about a junior priest and a rich layabout displaying their affection so publicly.
And they just walked around.
Eventually they ended up in Emi’s neighborhood, where Beatrice was taken aback by how large the houses were.
“This is crazy…”
“Have you seen the mansions around Lake Geoffrey?” Emi asked. “These are just dingy apartments compared to those.”
“I mean, apartments are fine. I just, uh…”
“I guess apartments don’t have a whole maid staff, or butlers and servants doing your every bidding.”
“That’s not… I mean, they usually don’t do everything I tell them to unless I pay them extra, though!” Emi stammered as she tried fruitlessly to offer a defense of her bizarre affluent lifestyle.
Beatrice shook her head jokingly, then asked, “Which one is yours?”
“That one.” Emi pointed over to her home with currently only two windows lit by candle, looking pretty uninviting in the middle of the night like this. “I’m probably going to get in a lot of trouble when I get back.”
“Well you don’t have to go back just yet.”
“I do… Any later and my parents will call the police to search for me. They’ll think I’m being ransomed or something.” Emi let go of Beatrice’s hand, slowly. “But tonight was great.”
“It was.” Beatrice set down her school bag and gave Emi the toy she bought. “Here’s your thing.”
“This is so cool…”
“So are you,” Beatrice said. “Um, when do you want to meet again?”
Emi tried not to let her good mood fade, but it was hard when she thought about a question like that. “About that… I don’t know. I have to help prepare for my parents’ big winter house party soon. Guests from all over Elince and Dannark will be there. And then I have to attend the party…”
“Parties are fun,” Beatrice said.
“You’ve never been to a rich party.”
That was true, though Beatrice thought it could never be any worse than those parties for Summer Break they always had at the end of the school term. The food they brought in was always pretty bad and the teachers played all the music, which usually meant it was done poorly. “Well, I’ll see you at the library sometime soon then.”
“I’ll… I’ll go every chance I get.”
“I don’t want to say it.” Emi was tearing up again; twice in one day. She couldn’t finish that word, because that would mean this night would be over, and time would have to pass before the next time she saw this girl. She couldn’t let it end.
“Then I’ll say it.” Beatrice took a step forward and extended her hand. “Goodbye.”
Emi shook it and cried. “Beatrice,” was all she could say. Beatrice gave a crooked smile–and then hiccuped one last time.