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.
And that’s their story–the story of two girls in love.
Was it love at first sight? I don’t know.
From the look on your face, I guess you don’t either. Not that a child like you would understand. Yes, yes, you’re not a child, you’re grown enough to make your own decisions, sure. But maybe I’d believe that a bit more if you ever cracked open your history books.
Well, it didn’t matter if it was love at first sight. In short time, the two grew a bond with a strength forged in molten flames. It was a short time that they grew together, but they never grew apart. For the rest of their lives, no matter how distant they may have been, they kept a shard of each other nestled in their hearts. That’s the kind of love that they built.
Hm? Come again? Oh, what happened after they parted?
Well, life ended up well for both women. Emi Khara went on to become a diplomat and inventor whose machines are still used in households today. Beatirce Ragnell became one of the most important priests of her time and revolutionized the Church’s role in health care. Their destinies did not converge again, as far as I’m aware, but they both ended up happy. That’s the important thing, after all.
As for Emi, well… I think you’ve figured her out by now. Yes, Grandma Em is the same girl from the story, what with her love of contraptions and that stupid Winter Ceremonies painting she’ll never throw away. I guess when she called me “Novi” that must have finally given it away. You certainly know what happened to her, I imagine, so I don’t have to explain.
No, you’ve never met her. She passed long before you were born.
In her younger years, Beatrice provided aid to civilians during the conflict between Dannark and Doros. Eventually she founded over two dozen hospitals, all of which run to this day. But she didn’t make it through the Great War. She was helping the evacuation effort in Fathie when a bomb struck her medic tent.
But she will always be remembered as a hero. After your Uncle Reo united Tsubasa and ended the war, he placed a statue of Mother Ragnell in Fathie City, right in the center of the downtown square. Next time we go there, you ought to take a look.
Actually, wait. Don’t go letting Grandma Em know I told you about her. She doesn’t like to talk about it too much. After she heard about what happened in Fathie… she was very sad for a while. You have to be sensitive.
What? What did you say? Oh, does she love me?
Dearie, that’s an easy question.
Of course she does.
Your grandmothers love each other very much. We grew to appreciate each other’s company, and we raised a whole family together. It’s been fifty-seven years since we wed and we’re still happy. If that’s not love, I don’t know what is. She loves her family very much, and we love her.
You know what? Let’s go find her. She’s probably out at the balcony watching the sunrise. We can surprise her and show her that wooden centaur you found. I have a feeling it’s going to make her happy.
What’s that? Whatever happened to that mad scientist girl?
That’s a story for another time. A very long one. By which I mean, go read your history books.
Emi’s reaction was, beat for beat, the exact same as her Mom’s a week prior, and her Dad’s the following morning. It was amazing how people turned into exact copies when it came to complimenting fashion.
“It’s not even the official robes,” Beatrice said. “Just a casual uniform.”
“Fair enough, but… Oh, you look great no matter what,” Emi said.
“You’re just trying to get in my skirt, aren’t you?” Beatrice smirked.
“Well, Is it working?”
Emi shrugged. “Worth a shot.”
There was a small group gathered here to see Beatrice off. Her parents, naturally, and Emi, of course. But also Bodhi himself had arrived, which surprised her but warmed her heart as well. For some reason, Emi’s housekeeper Pip was also here, but Beatrice was pretty sure she had never actually had a one-on-one conversation with her before, so… Well, it was good to see her anyway.
The party was almost complete, but not quite yet, until… Huh?!
Tia Knoll and Runa Arakawa strolled to the gathering site, hand-in-hand.
When Beatrice saw this, she gasped. How did those two even meet? Certainly it wasn’t during the Battle of Balarand, was it? …Was it? In the stress of the moment, did they really look at each other and suddenly…
Beatrice was about to join her group of new priests who would take the next several weeks to hike towards their convent. She had complained about the carriage ride taking too long, but she was now regretting ever thinking such things. Hiking for WEEKS? It was going to be ruthless, she knew already.
“You know,” she said to Emi. “In the end, it turns out my convent is right near Mammoth Pass. I feel like that’s the Gods playing a prank.”
“Probably,” Emi said. “You’re going to be in for some tough winters, though. Do you have all your winter clothes?”
“Nope. Just what’s in my bag over there.” She pointed towards a large backpack with some food, a sleeping bag, and a few other supplies attached. It was really heavy and carrying that on her back for weeks was going to prove very tough, but she tried not to think about that right now. “I’m going to try to buy new clothes when I get there, but our allowances are very low, so it might be tough.”
“Well, the Gods will provide,” Emi said.
Beatrice wasn’t sure whether that was sarcasm or not.
“So, how’s, uh, Lady Khara?” Beatrice asked. “Is she, uh, treating you well?”
“Yeah,” Emi said. “She’s making me… uh, show her around town and stuff. She’s, uh, nice. You know.” Both of them burst into laughter just as much as they blushed.
Emi stepped back and let Beatrice’s parents give one last hug. “We love you so much,” they said together.
“And I love you, too,” she said. “I’ll try to see you during the Winter Ceremonies, okay?”
“You have to promise you’ll come,” Mom said. “We’ll come back up too, you know.”
“I can’t promise! That’s half a year away. I don’t know what my schedule will be like then.”
“Write often,” Dad said. “And tell me all about the convent. I have heard yours was one of the very first ever built. It must be so beautiful.”
“Well, you better write often about Kent too, then,” she said. “I really hope you enjoy it down there.”
“I just hope I figure out how to be a teacher,” he replied. “I’m already getting worried about it.”
She waved goodbye to Runa and Tia. “You guys better have a good time without me,” she said.
“Tia here has promised financing my research,” Runa said. “I could not imagine a better time than that. My quest for control of the fabric of reality has grown ever closer to completion.”
“Oh, Runa, you’re never going to give that up, are you?”
“Of course not. And I cannot forgive you for your transgressions against me. Leaving me in my time of greatest need, abandoning me to work with the Church… It breaks my heart, Ms. Ragnell.” Tia laughed, but Beatrice wasn’t sure whether he realized how serious Runa really was about all of this.
Beatrice said her goodbyes to Bodhi and Pip. “Thank you so much for coming, Bodhi. You’re a good friend, and I hope you can be a good friend to a lot of people someday.”
He snickered. “You say that like I don’t already have tons of friends.”
“Take care, Bea.” He tipped his hat down and gave a single not.
“Don’t call me Bea.”
Pip sobbed and blew her nose through a handkerchief. “Oh, Beatrice…”
“Oh, and, um, goodbye to you too…”
Uhh… Okay then…
“Well, it’s about time for me to meet up with my group,” Beatrice said. “I’m going to miss all of you so much. Thank you for coming here.”
One last thing…
She turned to Emi–
Who was holding a small metallic box in her hands. It looked a lot like the one that showed off the horse, the one Beatrice had broken so long ago.
“One last thing,” Emi said. “I made you a going-away present. For friendship.” She held the machine with both hands, and then used her magic to turn the crank. Still a show-off.
The machine showed Beatrice, her visage replicated on a board of hundreds of small squares, turned into a tiny animated woman. Her hair and all its curls flowed in the wind, and she was smiling, looking directly at the viewer.
The whole thing lasted for only two, maybe three seconds, before it looped back and started over. But she must have stared for a full minute before she looked away.
“It’s a moving portrait of you,” Emi told her. “I made it really small so that you can take it with you anywhere. But don’t try to reprogram it, or the whole thing will break. Trust me.”
“Oh, Emi…” Beatrice held a hand to her own cheek. “You know I can’t have possessions.”
“But… I love it.”
“I’ll let my parents have it.”
“But, if they take it, then you won’t have it. And then…”
Beatrice stepped forward and took both of Emi’s hands. “I’m never going to forget about you,” Beatrice said. “Never for my entire life. Just because we’re apart doesn’t mean you won’t have been the best thing to ever happen to me, okay? The Gods didn’t want us to be apart. They wanted us to be together, and that’s what happened.”
“I love you so much,” Emi said, tears already rolling down her cheeks. Her eyes glowed–those same bright brown eyes that sucked her into a portal of magic and romance that changed the course of her entire life. “I want to see you again, Beatrice… I know we promised not to say these things, but I can’t help it. I miss you already and you’re not even gone.”
“If the Gods Will it, we’ll meet again, okay? Whenever it may be.”
“Will you write letters?” Emi asked.
“I’m not sure if your wife will think that is appropriate.” Beatrice giggled, and then started crying as well. She let go of Emi’s hands and went back to pick up her backpack. Wow… this was so heavy. She really didn’t want to carry this on her back for ten hours a day.
“See you later,” Emi said.
Beatrice shook her head, smiling. “Farewell,” she said. Emi and Beatrice’s Dad hugged, and her Mom fiddled around with that mechanical contraption. Runa rambled about a new master plan, and Tia looked at Beatrice’s robes with a judging gaze. Bodhi’s looked off in another direction with his arms folded, clearly trying not to cry, and Pip had let her emotions flow, crying louder than anyone else around her. What a bunch of weirdos, Beatrice thought. Some amazing weirdos.
She let her mind paint a portrait of this scene, and keep it burned into her mind for the rest of her life. These were exactly the people Beatrice knew she had to protect. She was a powerful person who accomplished everything she set her mind to, and becoming a famous priest would be no harder than acing a test. But now, after everything, she finally had a reason behind her ambition. She would do everything she could to keep the smiles on these people’s faces bright and harmonious.
In her future, Beatrice would become a powerful and prominent priest. She would revolutionize the Church to actually help people, to actually bring the harmony it lacked so much in this time. Each person saved, each life given new breath, would be a new piece to bringing peace to this tumultuous continent. Everything Beatrice did would matter. It had to, or else all of this would be for nothing.
After one last moment of reflection, Beatrice waved to all her friends and family, and then walked away.
Atop the Gonda Tower, all five moons were in view, radiating in full bloom and showing off the entire city of Balarand.
Emi, for the first time in her life, realized that Balarand wasn’t exactly a city crossed by two rivers. More like… Balarand was one giant misshapen island in the middle of one big river. It was a revelation that put her entire life into perspective. She was an islander, living on an island city.
It changed nothing, but still.
Emi and Novella stood at the edge of the roof and watched the stars sparkle in the night sky, watched the military patrols sweep the streets below. Peaceful, quiet, beautiful, but not exactly the kind of atmosphere that sets one at ease.
Behind them was a whole party of people. Emi’s Mother and Father squabbled about something or another. Touma had two Dannark noblewomen by his side and was about to be slapped by both. Reo stood alone watching the patrols with a pensive frown. Ms. Khami chatted with the recently-arrived Lord Lau, while his daughter was in the process of being seduced by none other than Pip.
A whole crew of Emi’s family and closest friends, and she ignored them all in favor of the woman next to her.
To be fair, the woman next to her was Novella Khara, her soon-to-be-wife, and this woman was surprisingly adept at conversation. Even… a friend, perhaps.
Down below, large towers were being constructed on top of buildings all over the city, with large, rotating panels. They were called semaphore telegraphs, large devices that could be used to carry messages across long distances. The towers would rotate the panels to indicate a message, and then the next tower would replicate it until it carried all the way to the front lines of the Dannark-Doros War. While they were dwarfed by the size of Gonda Tower, even partway through construction it was clear they would change the shape of the cityscape dramatically. Never again could a rebellion break out when commanders across the river could exchange messages in an hour or less. Another new normal.
“A shame, isn’t it?” Novella asked.
Emi turned her head from the view below. “What is?”
“That we’re out here celebrating peace when these conquerors are installing towers to clamp down its iron fist.”
“Oh… Um, I’m not really into talking politics with a lover,” Emi said. “It’s kind of a rule of mine.”
“Any further would be presumptuous to the point that I’d have to think you are attracted to me.”
“Well, you’re certainly attracted to me, and we ARE getting married in a couple weeks. So I guess that makes us pretty close to lovers.”
“But enough of lovers that you cannot talk about politics?”
“Sheesh, fine,” Emi whined. “I completely agree with you. I think it’s terrible what Dannark is doing to our city. But the rebels that attacked us did a bad thing too. Violence trades for more violence. And if the Dannark-Doros War gets any worse…”
“We’ll be in Zahn by then.”
“But my heart will still be here. I’m an Elincian through and through. A Balarand islander.”
“Nevermind. What I mean is…” Emi tried to figure out the right words to say what she wanted. “The rebellion, the occupation, the war, all of it is an injustice against the harmony of the Gods. My gir–my friend taught me a lot about the way Tsubasa works like a finely tuned machine, and right now, the springs are broken, so the whole thing’s falling apart.”
“An apt metaphor for a gear-head such as yourself.”
“No offense to you, but I don’t want to marry you for love or romance or any of that,” Emi said. “I want your noble status so I can better help the world. So we can better help the continent.”
“Tsubasa is in great trouble now, but we can fix it. There’s something I realized during the rebellion: we are important people. We have so many resources at our disposal, and we have the opportunity to use them to better the world. We can end the injustices and restore harmony to the continent. For years, people like you and me have sat on their hands doing nothing but keeping the status quo. But we can be the ones to finally change things forever.”
“Together, you say. You assume I wish to do anything of the sort.”
“You’ve already been doing your part. You were the education governess and helped an entire nation’s children learn to read and write.That’s amazing, Novella. Think of what we could do!”
Novella seemed to ponder this for a few moments. Then, she smiled softly. “It’s a good dream.”
“A darn great one, you mean.”
“I like it. Let’s bring harmony to Tsubasa.”
Emi L’Hime was soon to become Emi Khara. The Moon Festivals had drawn near, and wedding preparations were well underway. It was an exhausting process, enough so that this trip to Gonda Tower was one of the most refreshing reprieves she’d had in weeks.
“This woman of yours, this Beatrice,” Novella began. “She must mean a lot to you.”
“Yeah… A lot.”
“You still love her.”
“Of course,” Emi said. “She’s the woman who changed my life. She’s the reason I decided we’ll change the continent together. And she’s absolutely gorgeous.”
“I see,” Novella said. “The kind of love that doesn’t fade like a fire. More like… frost on the top of a mighty mountain.”
Emi nodded. “I’ll love Beatrice the rest of my life,” she said. “And probably more than ever knowing she’s out there doing the Gods’ work.”
“It almost sounds like you want to compete with her to better the continent more.”
Emi giggled. “Don’t worry, I warned her ahead of time. We’ll both be keeping score.”
“I fully expect to fall in love with you,” Novella said. “I must warn you ahead of time. I can’t imagine a life with you where I don’t.”
Emi felt her cheeks burn and averted her gaze. She back at the half-built semaphores and tried to think of any possible response she could give. What did you say to a statement like that?
“Hey,” Emi said. “May I call you Novi for short?”
“I’ll allow it, if I can call you Em.”
“Novi and Em,” Emi said. “Sounds like a power couple in the making.”
“If that’s what you wish, Em.”
“I would say that I do, Novi.”
They smiled at each other.
Then– a tap at Emi’s shoulder. Pip, shoulder around Lord Lau’s very excited daughter, shouted at them, “C’mon you two!” It’s time to dance!”
“After you, my dear Em.”
Emi and Novella stepped away from the edge of the roof and joined the others in an impromptu dance session. Touma had pulled Reo into the spotlight and forced him into a musical pair, which sparked the rest of the family to move along with them. Even Emi’s parents began to dance together. Even Ms. Khami and Lord Lau of all people began to dance together.
As if the entire tower had trapped in a magic spell, Emi’s family and friends froze before her in this moment of time. For however long she gazed at them, they stayed in place in this moment, like a grand painting with all its vivid strokes of color. All her loved ones gathered here to celebrate the night even in trying times.
In the midst of this scene, Emi could see the future before her. She would raise a family and become a devoted wife and make an impact on the world that only someone already born into privilege and wealth really could. She would give up her entire life to make sure that her descendants had a world to be proud of. She would serve Tsubasa like only a L’Hime could.
These past few weeks had been exhausting, but Emi felt stronger than ever. Finally, somehow, she had become like Beatrice, and it took her until this exact moment to realize it.
She took Novella’s waist and worked her dancing magic.
To mark the occasion, she wore a light blue springtime dress and tied her hair back into a ponytail, something she never did except on the most very special of occasions. She placed her bowtie on the top of her head, over her left ear.
Emi sat outside in her front yard, basking in the warm sunny weather and reading a book. It was the ninth entry in The Elf Cycle, just released, titled The Rise of Soonworld. And it was the final book in the series, she was starting to realize. Just twenty pages from the end, and the Golem and Ghost had finally confessed their love to one another. But it was too late–the Ghost’s spiritual energy was fading. Her mana had run out, and her energies were falling back into nature. The Golem had offered to absorb her, for them to become one, a single being living together forever. But the Ghost refused him; it was her time to leave and return to the astral dimension.
It was clearly rushed out in less than half a year just to cash in on the popularity of the eighth one… And Emi never felt more disappointed in her life.
Well, with the final book in The Elf Cycle a huge letdown, it was finally time to discard those last little bits of childhood that still lingered on Emi’s person and fully embrace the woman she was meant to be. Just kidding. Emi would never grow up, and she had come to accept that with the joy that only the silliest of weirdos could embrace in themselves.
Without even bothering to stand up, she closed the book, let it levitate around her, and then sent it through the window to her barren rebuilt bedroom. That was the only fitting way she could send off such a wreck of a novel.
Ms. Khami, followed closely behind by Pip, came out through the front door and looked down at Emi. The old woman put her hands on her hips and shook her head. “Still spending all your time reading cheap fiction, I see.”
“I’m a little devil,” said Emi.
“My little devil.” Ms. Khami looked better than ever. Back during the rebellion, she saw a side of her that she had never been privy to before– vulnerability, hopelessness, genuine anger. But all of that was gone, just like the third floor balcony that had been completely repaired. “They still aren’t here, are they? What could be the hold-up?”
“Customs must be difficult these days,” Emi said. “You’re the one that taught me all about trade and tariffs, so you should know.”
“Not me. Just the books I assigned.”
“This conversation is real weird,” chimed Pip. “It’s like you’re friends or something.”
Ms. Khami briefly smiled, then faked a stern look. “I’ll leave you be, then. Come, Pip. We have rooms to clean.” They went back inside.
Her heart started to fill with a sort of mix of dread and anticipation. She’d made peace with all of what was going to happen in her life, because that was the L’Hime Family way. She was going to take what might happen and turn it into something excellent. She would make something that her parents, that Reo and Touma, that Ms. Khami, could all be proud of. Something Beatrice herself could be proud of. She would certainly achieve all of that. But that assurance didn’t stop her from being incredibly nervous anyway.
Finally, a single carriage pulled up to the house gate, and out stepped a portly man with a large waistcoat carrying large, clearly heavy bags. “Calling for the arrival of Lady Novella Khara,” the man shouted. “She is here.”
She was here.
Emi gulped, and then approached the carriage. She steeled herself, adopting straight posture and as serious a face as someone like her could make.
The door opened, and out stepped a slender, tall woman with rings on six of her fingers. She wore gallant black suit with a narrow white tie. Her hair was stringy, auburn, and her face was narrow, pink. Very handsome, if I do say so myself. One thing immediately struck Emi, though– Lady Khara was much younger than she ever thought.
In fact, she seemed nearly the same age as her.
“So this is Emi L’Hime, isn’t it?” the woman asked, her face entirely neutral. She used to always suppress her emotions in public as some sort of power move.
“It is she,” Emi replied. “Welcome, Lady Khara.”
Lady Khara stepped down from the carriage and extended her hand. “Call me Novella,” she said. “I’m going to marry you, after all. I don’t want you to sound like a servant or anything.” The woman extended her hand forward. “Nice to meet you.”
Emi took her hand and shook it with a firm grip. “Likewise.”
Emi did as well.
She had always imagined that Lady Khara was some middle-aged woman who wore long gowns that went down to her feet and had a serious expression on her face at all times. She wasn’t sure why the gowns part. But… this was certainly a surprise. Emi didn’t mind that she was a young woman herself, not that she had on a very well-fitting suit.
“So, is this your first time in Balarand?” she asked, keeping her grip steady.
“Actually, yes,” Novella said. “I wanted to arrive for the Moon Festivals precisely because that they your city’s most famous celebrations. I heard they are wonderful.”
“Well, the moons certainly are nice this time of year. But the Moon Festivals aren’t for a few more weeks. You know, when our wedding is set.”
“That’s okay. I’d like to get a feel for the city, anyway,” she said. “Perhaps you can show me around, Emi.”
Emi waited for Novella to relent, to let go of her hand and end the shaking. She wasn’t going to let Novella get the upper hand here (literally), so she was going to keep shaking until her fiancee gave out. Novella seemed to be thinking the same thing.
“I must say, your hairstyle is exquisite, Novella said. “I expected much, but you exceeded all expectations.”
“Thanks. I changed it just for you.”
“I am incredibly flattered.”
“Don’t be. It’s only proper, after all,” Emi said.
The portly man folded his arms. “Ladies? Should we not be going inside, now?”
Beatrice and Emi were back in the marketplace once again, early in the day, so early the shops hadn’t yet opened, and the vendors were still placing their items. They walked side by side, close to each other but not holding hands.
The marketplace was crawling with guards and soldiers all over the premises, openly brandishing spears and keeping the place from achieving the lively atmosphere it normally would have. That was about the same as any other place in the entire city, though.
“Today’s the day,” Beatrice said. “Years of my life spent dedicated to one thing and now it’s here. Even a small rebellion couldn’t keep it away.”
“A rebellion of war, or a rebellion of love?” Emi asked.
“I hate you.”
“I’m okay with that.” Emi looked at Beatrice, one of those looks she gave when she was about to say something, well, Emi-esque. And sure enough, out of her mouth came, “Your new hairstyle is to die for, Beatrice.”
“You’ve said that like six times.”
“I know, it’s just… it’s so long, so luscious, so curly! Please, never ever cut it again. Keep it long forever.”
“That’s what my Mom told me,” Beatrice said.
“She said it because it’s true.”
“You know, your hair’s getting longer too, Emi. It’s really cute now. I’d almost forgotten what you used to look like.”
“Don’t pretend you can ever forget that moment we first met.”
“I know, I know,” Beatrice said. “Right here, right by… that stand, I think.” She pointed to a stall filled with onions and carrots.
“No, it was closer to the statue,” Emi said, beckoning to the stone visage of the stately royal woman right in the center of the marketplace.
“I… think you’re wrong.”
“Wrong is a state of mind.”
They went on like this for a little longer.
Spring in Balarand was Beatrice’s favorite. The air was crisp and cool in the mornings, not warm enough that she could ever sweat, but not so cold she had to wear extra layers. She took a deep breath and felt a wave of relaxation.
“I’m ready for this,” she said. “I feel great.”
“You’ll blow everyone away,” Emi said. “Is there any way I can attend? You know, to cheer you on?”
“It’s a private event,” Beatrice told her. “Only the judges and me.”
The two of them walked over to a fruit stand, where fresh crops brought in from outside the city were on display. There was a juicy red apple the size of a fist, and a basket of grapes too big for one person to eat by themselves, surely. The vendor, however, had not yet arrived to sell these items, and had left the table completely unattended.
“These look really good…” Beatrice said.
Emi extended her hand, and a few apples, a cluster of grapes, levitated from the table and flew next to Beatrice. “Here you go,” she said.
“I could never. Put those back.”
“Oh, I mean, I’m going to pay for them, I promise. Just catch when I say so.”
The fruits flew threw the air. Beatrice caught the apples and grapes, but then one apple tumbled out of her hands and onto the ground. Darn it.
Emi reached her hand out again, and then from her purse flew two silver coins that landed on the table with a clang. Then, after a moment of hesitation, she did the same with a gold coin as well. “That’s for the convenience fee.”
“You’re such a show-off.”
“I’m practicing my powers.”
“That’s what you said when my skirt magically flew into the air yesterday.”
“It was an accident, I swear,” Emi said. “Please believe me.”
Beatrice shook her head. “I’ll believe you someday. But you’ll have to earn my trust first.”
“I’ll do my best.”
“I doubt that.” Beatrice winked. “But, Emi… I just don’t get it,” she said. “How did you suddenly have these magical powers that nobody ever knew about? What in the Gods’ names is going on with you?”
“Well… I’m still trying to find out,” Emi replied. She gathered a few more fruit from various stands and tipped generously, all without touching any of the items in question. “Ms. Khami’s told me some. According to her, I was a bit, uh, difficult to deal with when I was young, and sometimes that ended up with smashed furniture. I needed very special care to train it out of me, and after that the family covered it up so nobody in the Church would come knocking.”
“Oh, that makes sense,” Beatrice said. “If word got out about your magic, it would really change a lot of what the Church teaches. They might force you to become a priest or something. And… you’re showing off by levitating fruit.”
“I’ll be fine.” Emi winked. “Let’s just enjoy our breakfast.”
The food was good, and company with a friend made it better.
Being friends with Emi again felt good. It felt nice, almost like things had gone back to normal. They hadn’t, not in the way either of them had wanted, but it was better just being together than fretting about normalcy. Normal was overrated.
Beatrice’s parents extended their vacation in Kent–it really sounded like Dad was going to accept the job offer–so she and Emi had the whole house to themselves for several weeks. That meant a whole lot of time spent together. They had fun, talked and laughed, went on walks, played card games, sometimes kissed, always cuddled. Beatrice had gotten used to seeing Emi’s pretty face every morning, seeing her shimmering brown eyes flutter awake as they laid in bed after a night’s sleep together.
And so maybe, they weren’t exactly friends, when Beatrice really thought about it. But that was the closest term she could find in her vocabulary. Anything more and it felt a little… They were friends, and that was the end of it.
The Priesthood Exams were this afternoon, and she wasn’t going to just pass. She was going to excel. Soon it would be time to fully focus, and so this morning with Emi, walking around the marketplace with no destination, was one final opportunity to relax. Not too much longer, and everything would be different again.
“Thank you so much for this,” Emi said, chewing on a grape and plucking another one . “For letting me stay with you, for… forgiving me, and for giving me a chance to forgive myself. If that means anything.”
“It’s been fun,” Beatrice said.
“And thank you for putting up with my stupid self-critical nonsense. It’s ridiculous how much I rag on myself…”
“You’re, uh, welcome.”
“And thank you for making me great meals all the time.”
“It’s nothing.” Beatrice flashed a smile. “You know my cooking’s not that good.”
“That doesn’t matter. You made it, and that means more to me than if a famous chef made me an elixir stew made from a thousand ingredients.”
“Ah, nevermind,” Emi said. “Thank you anyway, because… I love you. I mean, not like–well, yes like–uh, you know what I mean.”
“I love you too,” Beatrice said. “I’m sorry I can’t be there with you. All this anger in the world, all the strife… The Church is more important than ever. And that’s–”
“No, stop,” Emi interrupted. “We’ve been over this a million times. I understand and I’m not changing anything anymore, Beatrice,” Emi said. “I love you not for what you might mean to me in the future. I love you for right now. And that’s all.”
“You know that’s the kind of line that makes a girl swoon,” Beatrice said. “You’d better not use it on your new wife.”
“I can’t promise you that,” Emi said, giggling. “You know… the wedding’s getting pretty close. My parents are about to come back to Balarand to do preparations. I don’t know why the heck they still want to hold it here, what with everything, but for the first time in my life… I’m kind of looking forward to it.”
“And why is that?” Beatrice asked.
“Because once I become a noblewoman’s wife, I get to do whatever I want. If I have all this wealth and power just because of the family I was born into, then I need to make sure I earn it. I’m going to try and help out the world in my own way, just like you. And since you’ll be in training, I get a head start!”
“It’s not a competition, Emi…”
“Everything is, Beatrice.” She tossed a grape into the air, levitated it around in a circle a few times, and caught it with her mouth. “I have one request, though…”
“Don’t come to the wedding, please,” Emi said. “I don’t think I could emotionally handle that.”
“I think I’ll be leaving for training before then anyway,” Beatrice said. “Uh, assuming I pass the exams. But if I’m still here… I don’t know if I could resist. Seeing you up on stage bawling would make the rest of my life. Because…”
“Don’t say it…”
“Because you know I love making you cry, Emi.”
“You said it.”
Beatrice stepped into the examination room. Three judges stood before her, wearing veils over their faces so she could not recognize them.
The written exam had been a piece of cake. Now all that was left was performing for these judges her practiced rituals and incantations.
“Beatrice Ragnell,” one of the judges said. “Welcome to the practical portion of the Priesthood Exam. Are you dedicated to bringing harmony to Tsubasa?”
“Yes, I am,” she said. “With my life.”
For a short moment she thought Mr. Statusian may have been one of the judges sitting before her. It would have been an honor for her to perform everything he had taught her on this day… but there was no chance of that anymore, of course; he was in the mines in the Frozen Desert now. All over a failed rebellion that only made the occupation even harsher. It was tragic to even think about.
And right now was a very inappropriate time to be thinking about that, anyway.
Beatrice raised her right hand forwards, palm facing the judges.
It was time for Beatrice to begin her final step towards becoming a priest.
It didn’t matter to her how much faith she had in herself, or how much faith she had in the Gods, of how much faith anyone else had in her. She discarded any notions of her current life, any worries about the future, anything but her knowledge of the Church religion and the magical energy imbued in the souls of every living being.
She was going to succeed, because that was what Beatrice Ragnell did.
“Show us the register of incantations,” a judge said.
“Yes, ma’am.” She began performing the ritual to summon the good graces of the Goddess Phyra.
Dannark’s response to the rebellion was swift and harsh.
In the end, none of the rebels’ planned executions had occurred; the chaos caused by the homunculus helped Dannark retake the castle and any remaining prisoners had been freed soon after. It was unclear whether or not they ever planned to do anything beyond imprison and intimidate, anyway. The rebels were a mix of idealists and novices, so mass execution never truly seemed in the cards.
Dannark, on the other hand, had been carrying out sentencing from the moment the rebel leaders were captured. Beatrice’s teacher was one of them. Ulric Statusian was already scheduled to be shipped off to the Frozen Desert to mine for ore for twenty years. Nobody really came back from sentences like those.
Even after the main forces were defeated, pockets of resistance still sprang up throughout the city, ambushing patrols and trying to rally the people back towards their cause. It was futile but the honorable way to go out, Emi thought. It had been a week since the rebellion, and the fighting had died down, but it was not over completely, not yet.
The Jewel of Elince was placed back in the National Museum; the Balarand Circle halted publication; a full battalion of soldiers took up residence in the city barracks. King Kline had been spared an execution and returned to exile in Fathie, but everything else had gone completely in the direction of Dannark’s rule.
A new normal that would be here to stay.
Emi’s house had been damaged by the fires that spread across the city, but it was not completely destroyed, so it was already better off than the nearly completely destroyed Castle Balarand. Workers were currently rebuilding the parts of the house that did not survive, which included her bedroom and, of course, Ms. Khami’s entire brand-new third-floor balcony. Poor woman.
Her parents had zipped back to Zahn for yet another emergency mission. They offered to take Emi with them, but she insisted on staying. They hadn’t said anything about Beatrice, not a single mention. That was their way, and Emi realized she preferred it that way.
Fortunately, the southern portion of Balarand was almost completely unharmed. Beatrice’s parents were worried sick when their daughter (and Runa) never came back home, but when they returned he next day they had a reunion filled with tears from all sides.
It was almost like everything had returned to normal, since then.
Everything–including Emi and Beatrice.
Emi had stayed at Beatrice’s apartment for almost a week now, while her own home was under repair. It was about how you’d expect, after everything that happened.
While Beatrice cooked up some omelettes with rice for breakfast, Emi laid in the rock-hard bed in her bedroom. Their bedroom? It was nice to think about it that way, at least.
She looked out the window of the apartment and at the rising sun making its way towards the sky. The city, aside from the wreckage, was shining The trees bright green, their leaves swaying gently in the wind. Soon it would be day, and soon it would be spring as well. Something so haunting should never have been so pretty.
Beatrice finished up the eggs and entered her bedroom, sitting down at the foot of the bed. “My parents said it would be a good idea to get out of the city for a while,” she said. “Dannark is sending a regional governor with a direct line to the Empress, and… well, you know what that will mean.” Emi knew. Curfews, secret police, stricter laws, crackdowns on national flags and songs, the works.
Emi sat up. “I guess now’s a better time than ever to run away together, huh? I hear Mammoth Pass is lovely this time of year. We could go see the Mammoths again before they migrate north, then we could travel up the mountains and meet some striderskin hunters.”
“Oh stop,” Beatrice gently chided. She rested her hand on Emi’s cheek.
“I’m just kidding, Tris.”
Things had gone back to normal. But for Emi and Beatrice there were too many pained memories, too many shed tears, to ever truly revert to the status quo.
It was too complicated, and so they let things stay the way they were. A new normal.
“You know, Beatrice, I just realized something,” Emi said. “You still have that centaur carving sitting on your desk. That… really means a lot to me, you know. You actually kept it.”
“I couldn’t bear to break it,” Beatrice said. She sat down on the bed, facing away from Emi. “I tried my best, but… I loved you too much to hurt you that way.” Emi thought she heard a sniffle.
“It’s the same for me,” Emi said. “I kept your notebook safe on my d–” She cut herself off and gasped. “Gods, no. Your notebook.”
“My… Oh, Emi…”
The tears came immediately. “All my stuff, I can live without. I can always buy more clothes and gears and books. But your notebook… Beatrice, your notebook burned up. I’m…”
“Have the centaur carving back,” Beatrice said.
“No, that’s yours now!”
“It wasn’t a gift, it was just borrowing each other’s things. Remember? We said that.”
“We did say that…”
“So please, take it back,” Beatrice said. “I insist.”
Emi sat up and put her hands on Beatrice. She turned her head around and peered at her face, looked deep into those eyes whose irises swirled in a rainstorm. That same rainstorm that pulled her into the best months of her life.
“…I’ll take it,” she said, finally. She knew what it meant symbolically to take back something as important as that carving, but… she didn’t care about symbolism and all that Mammoth crap.
“So, uh, are your parents awake yet, Beatrice?” she asked.
Beatrice turned around and faced her body towards Emi, who was still sitting up next to her. “Not yet. They’re sleeping late this morning.”
“Let’s not wake them just yet. The rice won’t be done for a while,” Emi suggested.
“Yeah.” Beatrice leaned forward and kissed her on the cheek. She pushed her down onto the bed, then shut the door with her foot.
Emi, Beatrice, and Emi’s Mom and Dad sat around the kitchen table, silently eating breakfast together. The omelettes were certainly… okay, but nothing special or worth remarking about. That didn’t really matter to Emi, though. She just appreciated that Beatrice had cooked for her, had made something just for her. Every meal was a delight.
Beatrice’s Dad was reading a book in one hand and holding chopsticks in the other as he picked apart his eggs, and chuckled a bit. Emi looked closer at the book’s cover– it showed a single shrugging man with the title, What Do You Talk About When You Talk About Love? It didn’t look very appealing from this information alone, but Earl certainly appeared entertained.
Earl had looked a little sad recently, something Emi had never seen in the man before. Beatrice told her that Ulric Statusian had been a friend of his, and that he was still shaken up about everything. But with the library intact and a good book in his hands, it was good to see him in higher spirits, at least for the morning.
Beatrice stared at Emi, smiling. Uh, hey. What’s up? Emi took a big mouthful of rice. It was so sticky she couldn’t actually open her mouth to say anything.
She didn’t need to. All she needed to do was look into the gentle waves in Beatrice’s eyes and smile back.
“We have something to tell you two,” Beatrice’s Mom said, suddenly. “Your father and I…” She trailed off for a moment, and Emi averted her eyes. “Earl and I are taking a vacation.”
Beatrice jolted her head towards them in shock. She didn’t even have any words coming out of her mouth, just a couple grains of rice.
“Shizuka,” Beatrice’s Dad said. “Why now? I thought we were going to mention this after…”
“I thought they’d like to know.”
“Well… fine.” He set his book down, spine-up. “So, I got an opportunity to take a look at a large private book collection next week down in Kent, right next to the coast,” he said. “It’s not a certain opportunity, but… I’ve been told there’s a teaching position open at the local college if I want one.”
Beatrice gasped. “But you… but the library…”
“Well, we’re just going to check the place out and get out of Balarand for a few days, with everything going on right now. Since you have the exams coming up, Beatrice, we figured you’d, uh… want the house to yourself. So you could, uh, focus. On your studies.”
Beatrice glanced at Emi and then her face turned a vibrant shade of crimson. “Oh, uh, thank you. Thank you very much, Dad. And Mom. And… I really do hope you take the job. You should have been a teacher your whole life. I’ve always thought so.”
“You’ve… really?” Her Dad raised an eyebrow. “You never mentioned anything like that before. How come you never encouraged me, huh?”
Emi felt very much like leaving the table right now but she was only halfway done with her meal, so instead she sighed and let the family squabble go on around her.
By the time Beatrice could see again, she realized she was being pulled along by Emi, and they were running still through the streets near Castle Balarand.
Emi looked back at her and shouted, “We escaped!”
“That was you!” Beatrice yelled back. “How did you do that?”
“I have no idea! The magic of love or something!”
Oh, this girl.
Beatrice, Emi, Emi’s Father, and Runa were all safe, far away from the bulk of the fighting. Now that Dannark soldiers from the front lines of the war had arrived in Balarand, the rebels stood little chance–their forces had already begun to flee. The epicenter of the battle was still mostly around the castle, the entire area now surrounded in flames. The trek to the Tia’s safe house should have been a safe one.
Rebel soldiers and Dannark soldiers alike broke away from their fights to attack the four of them. Apparently they were just too much of a prime target. It probably had something to do with the giant eight-foot-tall homunculus that ran beside them.
“Runa, can’t you make that thing go away?!” Beatrice yelled.
“Hasha is precious. You cannot make a scientific revolution simply ‘go away.’”
“I mean all these people are attacking us because of it!”
But, fortunately, the homunculus was attacking all of these people in return. It stopped running suddenly and plowed itself into the crowd, making its stand against, essentially, everything around it. There were far too many soldiers to keep it going. Nevertheless, it attacked them, swiping them to the floor and kicking one several feet into the air.
The homunculus was overpowered by the sheer number of attackers. But those attackers were no longer pursuing the four of them, and that would save their lives.
One of the soldiers sliced the beast in the gut. It screamed out and bashed the soldier to the ground. Its large, beady eyes shed tears at alarming volumes, and it wailed out like a child who scraped their knee.
“Hasha! No!” Runa screamed. “My creation!”
Sword still stuck in its stomach, the homunculus shoved away all the soldiers around it and ran off in a random direction.
With both the few remaining rebels and the newly arrived Dannark soldiers attacking it at once, the homunculus could not stand up to the struggle. It was going to go out fighting.
But the group didn’t look back to make sure. Even Runa kept her gaze forward. Beatrice could hear the sounds of wailing and slicing, but they grew fainter every moment.
In the frenzy of a sudden monster attack, the soldiers became too distracted to pursue them, and by now not a single soldier followed. They made their way safely for the rest of their journey.
The safe house was a featureless home in the middle of a residential neighborhood, where the fighting had not spread and the streets were desolate. As hot as the fires had made the city, specks of snow still dotted the roof here.
Inside was a furniture-less room with nothing but dry food, water, and roll-out mats. Underneath one rug, though, was a secret latch that opened up to reveal an underground bunker. They climbed down the ladder and met the others.
Beatrice suddenly wondered if her own parents were okay…They probably were. If the fighting had mostly been contained to the central parts of the city, then her apartment near Knoll Park was surely safe. Dannark soldiers tightly patrolled the riverways, so the rebels would never have attacked there… she hoped. She had enough to worry about today, so that’s what she was going to tell herself.
They reached the others, exchanged hugs and cried together, and finally sat down, laid down, huddled together. It was finally time to relax a little bit.
Runa was devastated, to a point she was holding her head in grief. “My homunculus… My research…”
“It served us very well,” Emi said. “Thank you.” She gave Runa a quick hug, and Runa’s face turned blood-red.
“What is your story, girl?” Tia asked.
Runa shot a sharp glance towards him. “What’s it to you?”
Beatrice realized this was the first time Tia and Runa had ever met. What a strange occurrence this was.
Beatrice sat down and Emi almost immediately collapsed, her head falling directly into her lap.
“Your hair’s getting long again,” Beatrice muttered.
Emi giggled. Then she let out the longest sigh ever recorded. Beatrice followed suit.
“Thank you for saving my family,” Emi said. “Tr–Beatrice…”
They sat like this in silence for a long time. There were ten people in this bunker: Emi, Beatrice, Emi’s parents, Ms. Khami, Pip, Touma, Runa, Tia, and Tia’s boyfriend whose name Beatrice hadn’t caught. And out of those ten people, not a soul had the energy to speak.
Beatrice ran her fingers through Emi’s hair. For some reason, it felt weird, even a little bit wrong. But it also felt great, so she didn’t stop.
The one thing that struck her most about this moment was the smell. That lingering scent of smoke and ash that clung to their clothes and hairs with a tight grip. Pungent like burnt cheese. She hated it. But, knowing that she smelled exactly the same way, she let it pass with only a crinkle of her nose.
The silence in the room was broken by, naturally, Pip, who squatted on the floor next to the girls. “You did good, you two,” she said. “I coulda taken them, but…”
“Everything’s going to change, isn’t it?” Beatrice wondered aloud.
“It was always going to,” said Emi, her head still in Beatrice’s lap. “That’s how it works with the… Will of the Gods and… harmony… and…”
She had drifted off to sleep. Poor thing really tired herself out with all of that… whatever it was she did. Magic? If it was magic, it was a level far beyond anything Beatrice had ever seen or read about, but she had no other word to describe it.
After everything they had gone through… They had saved the prisoners in the castle. They had fended off Ulric Statusian. They survived to see tomorrow.
What was going to happen? Neither of them really knew, but at this exact moment, they were safe. That was all that mattered.
Ulric Statusian faced Emi and stared her down. This was Beatrice’s former teacher, somehow now a leader of the rebellion. Behind him stood a number of rebels. The carried large spears and axes pilfered from the bodies of the Dannark soldiers they had slewn moments ago. And now this ragtag group of Emi and her friends and family had their only path out of this carnage blocked.
Emi had never talked to Ulric Statusian in her life, but from the moment he looked at her, she knew his feelings toward her. His scornful gaze told her everything she needed to know about how he would prefer the L’Hime Family end up.
Then, he stared at Emi; just her, nobody else. She stared back. She held a tight grip on the lance in her hands.
They kept at this for some time before either acted.
Ulric Statusian pointed his fingers at her and one of the soldiers shot an arrow–
–which Emi knocked away with a slash of her lance.
She had no idea how she did that.
Immediately, Tia and Emi’s Father leapt into the fray and blocked Ulric’s path to attack her again. Another arrow launched, and it whizzed past Tia so close it knocked the wig off his head.
“Wait, Mr. Statusian!” Beatrice shouted. She stepped in front of Tia and Emi’s Father. “Stop all this fighting!”
What in the Goddess’s name was that girl doing?! Emi ran in front of her protectors and joined Beatrice by her side. She raised her lance and pointed it at the rebels. Nobody would be falling for her sake, no matter what.
“What are you even doing here, Beatrice?” Ulric asked, his voice cracking and eyes quavering. “Of all people, I would never have expected you… Beatrice.”
“You shouldn’t be killing people!” Beatrice shouted.
“And you shouldn’t be protecting the very people that allowed Dannark to capture and arrest our own King.” His expression hardened and his composure returned. The L’Hime Family is the epitome of scum. It looks like you might be, too. You could have been special, Beatrice. You could have brought peace and harmony to the continent.”
“And I will.”
Ulric and some of the rebel soldiers took a few steps closer to them. “You’re a delusional love-obsessed fool. I was so, so wrong about you.”
“Shut up,” said Emi. “Talk to my girlfriend that way again and I’ll kill you.” She jabbed with the lance and forced the rebels to back up a step. “Tia, get everyone else to run to the safe house. We’ll catch up.”
“Are you quite serious…?”
“Yes! Do it!”
Tia complied, ushering everyone to flee with him leading the way. Only Father and Runa stayed behind.
Emi stepped forward and attacked, jabbing her lance at the rebels. They easily dodged, but one lost his balance and had to step backwards to catch himself. One advanced too close to her, so she kicked him in the stomach, pushing him on his back.
Ulric bashed his sword against Emi’s lance, but she pushed him away. She flipped around to make sure she was in front of Beatrice, who had nothing but a rusty rake to defend herself with.
Never in her life had she dreamed she would be in a situation like this, but somehow, something inside of her had activated. She understood the world around her, and saw the battlefield for what it truly was–a series of gears and cogs, springs and levers, that together worked to create the ultimate peril. All Emi had to do was break the machine holding them back.
She struck at Ulric and hit his chest. He reeled backwards on instinct, but the lance cracked and his armor remained unpierced. Once he realized he was safe, a snarl grew on his face and he attacked with a fierce blow.
Emi ducked to dodge, but, unfortunately, she was still a young woman who was decidedly out of shape. She couldn’t get out of the way in time, and Ulric’s sword bashed into her lance with overwhelming strength.
The lance snapped in two and flew out of her hands. She was defenseless once again. The others had long since escaped, but Emi, Beatrice, Runa, and Father were still there, now completely encircled by rebel soldiers. Dannark soldiers were also fast approaching from a few blocks away, the thuds of their marching boots growing louder by the second.
Emi’s Father held some rebels back with defensive moves, but it wouldn’t hold for more than a few more seconds. Runa was here, but instead of helping she was watching her homunculus off fighting on the other side of the plaza.
Their fight was over. But at least the rest of her family and friends were safe.
“All you’ve accomplished with your life, young L’Hime, is leading my brightest pupil astray,” Ulric said. “You’ve committed a greater sin against the Gods than any of your traitorous family, because you defied their very Will.” He grinned, revealing a missing front tooth. “When Balarand is free, no-one will remember the Ragnells ever existed.”
Beatrice started to advance as if she were going to attack with her rake, but Emi held her back. He said they had defied Will of the Gods, eh? Emi didn’t buy that for one second. The Gods were with her on this one.
Emi grabbed Beatrice’s hand and held it tight. “I will always love you,” she said. “That will never change.”
Beatrice nodded and tossed her rake to the side. “Me too. No matter what the world brings us.”
“Forever and ever.”
The rebels advanced from all corners. Ulric raised his sword high up in the air.
But, somehow, Emi felt at ease.
No, she hadn’t accepted her fate. In fact, fate was never a question in the first place. Because fate was just some bogus idea thought up by people too uncreative to build their own destiny. Fate was for people who had no magic in their lives.
Magic was a peculiar thing, Emi thought. It resided within the souls of every being, and yet it was nearly inaccessible, nearly impossible to understand. It was a lot like love. Sometimes, people might find someone where together, they can make miracles happen, and they can change the world with just their hands held in the melted snow, but it’s really rare. Too rare to even mention.
But when love was truly there, when Emi felt Beatrice beside her, all of those mysteries and qualms and caveats and drawbacks vanished.
All her life, she had told herself she wasn’t good enough and she needed to change who she was to succeed. But right here, right now, at this exact second, Emi L’Hime realized all of that was a blatant lie. Magic was real and she was actually a great person all along.
Emi raised her free hand into the air, concentrated with all her will–all her love.
And then from that hand came a ball of light that exploded–literally exploded–
Every soldier, every rebel, every person in the vicinity except the four in the center of the blast, was knocked to the ground. Every single person, including those four, were blinded by a shining brightness.