Chapter 32: Emi Helping Out

“Missed a spot.”

“I know, I know…”

The maid Pip dusted a bookshelf while Emi swept the floor. They had been doing so for almost two hours now. But finally, Emi’s bedroom was starting to look presentable enough that people could come in here without having a heart attack. 

Emi already missed the clutter so, so much. Her system… Her art… It was all gone.. How was she going to know what to wear every morning if it wasn’t staring her in the face the moment she looked at the carpet? And she wasn’t even going to bring up the horrific treatment done upon her desk.

Pip, for what it was worth, took it in great humor that a diplomat’s daughter would be such a slob. “You got enough closet space for a family of four, and you still throw everything on the floor,” she had said when they had first started. “Wish I could be your kind of rich.”

There was no point in Emi fighting it, because it was true. She was exemplary as an example of a terrible person. 

Now she was a terrible person with a clean room. With a few taps of her broom handle against the floor and dumping the contents of her dustpan into the wastebasket, Emi signaled her satisfaction in the day’s work. “Finally,” she said. “Good job, everyone.” It was just the two of them.

Pip laughed. “What the Mammoth crap are you talking about?” she asked. “We got a long ways to go.”

“I thought announcing it like that would make it look better…”


Okay, an hour and a half later, NOW they were finished with Emi’s room. 

Since work was over, Emi sat at her desk chair, showing off her latest creations to Pip, who laid belly-down on Emi’s bed, hands on her face and rhythmically kicking her feet in the air.

It was pretty annoying to have all her work-in-progress projects reorganized and all the spare parts sorted into little makeshift shelves. It was hard to remember exactly where she had left off. She might have to learn to live in this wretched way, where everything was put where it was supposed to be.

“I call this a tin man,” Emi said. She placed the metallic humanoid toy on the desk and wound it up a few times. When she let go, the thing clanged forwards in a straight line, moving all by itself. Its feet didn’t move, exactly–more like they made several tiny hops per second. Then it fell on its side and quickly lost all power. “I haven’t figured it all out yet, but what I want to do is have the feet move by themselves. I’m not sure if I can do that in a machine this small, though…”

Pip didn’t seem all that interested in the machines, but she was having a sporting time just seeing Emi have fun. “You sure caught onto this stuff real quick,” she said.

“What stuff?” Emi asked.

“The gear spring tinkering whatever, y’know,” Pip said. Her black-iris eyes blinked a few times, as if they were bewildered at Emi not understanding. “You started just a couple months ago, and you’re already building little toys and stuff. Probably takes a long time for most people to figure that kinda stuff out.”

“Oh, ha, no, it’s not very impressive. I got it all from this blueprint for a jack-in-the-box toy. Everything is based on what some other guy made.”

“Don’t sell yourself so cheap! You’re great.” Pip stopped kicking her legs, and then sat up in the bed, legs crossed. “Like, what in Phyra’s name’s that thing?” She pointed to the largest item on Emi’s desk, a boxy device with black and white dots scattered on its surface. “It looks like a really complicated book.”

“Oh, that doesn’t work at all,” Emi said. “It’s… Well, I’m trying to do something cool with it.”

“For your girl?”

Emi gulped. “My, uh, girl…?”

Pip giggled. “Everyone knows,” she said. “Don’t gotta worry about it. So, that a present for her or what?”

“Yeah, it’s going to be for her, if I can get it to work,” Emi said. “But don’t tell her, okay?”

“When am I ever going to talk to her?”

“Fair enough.”

Emi got up from her desk and put away the devices she had brought out. She guessed it really had been a pretty short time since she started studying mechanics in her spare time. It didn’t feel like she was doing anything special, though.

Maybe Pip was just hitting on her. 

Emi brushed the hair out of her face for what seemed like the millionth time today. “Ugh.”

“You good?”

“Kind of… My stupid hair is always bugging me lately.”

“When’s the last time you got a trim?”

“What, are you saying it looks bad?”

“Just asking how long it’s been.” Pip winked.

“It’s… Gods, it’s been a while, has it?” Since before the first time she met Tris, that’s for sure. No wonder it was feeling overbearing on her.

“Speaking of ‘been a while,’ where is that girl of yours?” Pip asked. “Doesn’t she usually come around this time every day so you two can go out and do whatever?”

“Not EVERY day,” Emi corrected. “It’s…. not every day, is it?”

“Just about.”

“Well, she’s really busy preparing for the Winter Ceremonies. She won’t be here for a few days, probably. I think.”

“Ah, yeah, that’s what my girl said at first,” Pip said. “Real busy with work. Then a week later, she’s decided it’s not working out.” She waved her hands with exaggerated emphasis. “Oh, y’know, my ex’s a haircutter. I can probably get you a discount. Want me to go check?“

“Enough with the hair already.”

“She’d probably say no anyway, on account of the breakup and all. She sucks, just like your girl if she’s gonna be all ghostly on you.”

“Tris– I mean, my, girl– I mean, my friend isn’t like that at all,” Emi said.

“ I just assume everyone sucks. World works better that way,” Pip said. “You’re okay though.”

Okay, she was definitely hitting on her now. Time to wrap it up.

“Hey, I was thinking about… going out, soon,” Emi said. “Do you mind if…”

“Want me to cover for you while you sneak out? Okay,” she said. “But don’t forget, you owe me a Doros Prime. I want that liquor cabinet key.”

“Yeah, yeah.”

“What do you see in her, anyway?” Pip asked. “What’s that girl got that some other girl don’t? She’s not rich or some cool soldier. Just a schoolgirl, no? So what’s she got?”

Emi sighed. “Everything.”

That’s all she said, but it’s not all she thought.

Beatrice Ragnell, the girl of her dreams. So tenacious, so fiery, so passionate, that Emi could feel her warmth, feel her arms wrapped around her even at this moment. Her eyes blasting out from her glasses, crystal-focused on what laid ahead, and she charged forward to meet it, no matter what faced her.

It wasn’t just that Beatrice was the most beautiful girl in the world, which was a scientific fact if there ever was one. It was that Beatrice was so strong. It was that she looked at something she wanted to accomplish, and instead of waiting around, agonizing over decisions or second-guessing herself, she just did it. She was someone who, just by looking at her, you knew she was going to change the world in a few years. She was going to be important.

And Emi wanted to be there for her when she did. No matter what it was, Emi wanted to be there, watching her, supporting her, cuddling with her. It’s not like she had any plans in her life, except maybe raise a family one day. Whatever Beatrice wanted to do, she was going to do it, throwing her small body into the fires and trials, destined to come back through the other side unscathed.

What a woman.

Emi waved to Pip and exited her bedroom. She left her house and ventured out to the edge of the Balarand River, where she watched the sun set and the tiny farm houses past the city fade into the night.

Her life really had changed a lot in these past few months. She met the girl of her dreams–no, the girl of her life. She finished her schooling, started helping around the house, got a new hobby. Her fiancee set the date for their wedding.

All of that came swirling together so quickly that it completely changed the course of Emi’s life. But she still felt like the same despondent brat that everyone hated, except for Beatrice for some reason. Why wasn’t she becoming a better person?

Why wasn’t she able to tell Beatrice the truth about her impending marriage? Why was she still sneaking out of the house? Why was she always so hard on herself?

Tough questions, no answers.

Emi wanted to change. She wanted to become a better person, become someone more like Beatrice. If her girlfriend had the power to help keep the harmony of the Gods and whatnot, then Emi had to have that same power within her. It was hidden way deep down, maybe, but she knew it was there.

As Emi passed the library without entering, she decided she would change to the best of her ability. And that change was going to start with this stupid hair always in her darn face.

<== PreviousNext ==>

Chapter 30: Bad Books & Good Friends

“…and that’s the end?!” Emi slammed the book shut and groaned loudly.

“Shhh!” someone replied.


Ugh. Five hundred and eighty-nine pages worth of sloppy writing printed on a bunch of pieces of paper. It’s an almost plotless, meandering piece of nonsense, and then it has the audacity to end on a cliffhanger?!

She wanted her money back, except this was a library book and she paid nothing for it. Libraries really were amazing, weren’t they? Still, she hated this book, probably the worst she’d ever read, and needed to rant about it immediately.

She stood up from her table and looked around for the nearest person she knew, and that happened to be Earl, who at the moment was up on a ladder rearranging books. Next to the ladder was a dolly filled with books recently returned by patrons or purchased by employees, at least a hundred of them.

“Hey, Earl,” Emi began without even checking to see if he was clear. “I finished the worst book I ever read and it’s making me really angry that I spent all that time reading something so bad, and I didn’t even feel fulfilled in the end. Did anyone even proofread that book? Did the writer even finish, or did she just give up? It’s completely ridiculous that I read all the way to the end of something that b–”

Earl interrupted Emi’s rant with a hearty laugh. He slid another book onto the top shelf and said, “Emi, I know how you’re feeling right now, but give me a second, okay?”

He climbed down the ladder and reached eye level with Emi. For a second there, Earl’s deep blue eyes made Emi’s heart swoon, just remembering that this man was fifty percent responsible for the continent’s most gorgeous woman. 

“Okay, now, what were you on about? A bad book?” Earl asked.

“Yes! It’s horrible. We should burn this book, it’s so bad. Not literally burn it, because that would be very bad for the world to burn any book, but at least keep it under lock and key in a section called “please do not read this.”

He laughed again. “Emi, what book are you even talking about?”

“Oh, oh yeah.” Emi went back to her table and shoved the cover in his face. “This one! This stupid piece of Mammoth crap!”

“Ah, you finished The Resurrected Dragon God? I thought that one was pretty good, actually.” He grabbed a stack of books and climbed the ladder once more.

“Well, I thought it was garbage!”

“And yet, you read every single page,” he replied from half a story above.

“I had to see if it got better… I hate not finishing books,” Emi said. “This one just happened to be a very tough challenge to get all the way through.”

“And why’s that?”

“It was so ridiculously dumb! The whole thing is about this boy in some faraway continent who was hit by a speeding carriage, and then he is reborn, but as a God, and a dragon too for some reason? The first five chapters had nothing to do with the rest of the story because he was just reborn anyway! And he’s so powerful that that there’s no point to any of it. Stories about fictional Gods are interesting sometimes, but this one was just so confusing. If he was a God, what was the point in going down to the surface world and fighting everyone in sight?”

“It’s all a metaphor for the Gods keeping the harmony,” Earl replied.

“I don’t know about that,” Emi said. “It sure didn’t seem like harmony when this dragon God kid beat up pretty reasonable folk just for disagreeing with him. It seemed like he killed half the world by the end of the book. And the people he romanced… For Phyra’s sake, is this guy going to kiss every single man and woman who he doesn’t kill?”

“Well, he IS a God now.”

“Stories are supposed to be about interesting characters and progress. Not about someone so powerful they never have to change. The only thing this dragon God kid changed was blowing up the world at the end of the book! Is that a cliffhanger for a sequel, or…”


“Oh, I… I kind of get it now.”

Earl came back down and says, “Yes, I think you’re starting to get it.”

“You’re… not supposed to identify with the dragon God and his power,” Emi said as if she’d fallen into some deep revelation. “The whole book is… a metaphor for the harm the Gods would cause if there was no harmony to keep.”

“Well, I wouldn’t put it that way, but you are on the right track, I think,” he told her. “The book is bad because its protagonist is bad. But he gives humanity a very important lesson. We must pray for our Gods to be powerful and kind, or else they won’t be able to help us in the right way. They could very well end up like the dragon God in this story.”

“I never thought of it that way… I still hate the book, but I almost respect it now, too.”

“That’s about how most people feel about it. It’s a very controversial book in Dannark, I hear. By the way, want me to put that book back for you?”

“Oh, sure thing.”

Earl went back up the ladder carrying Resurrection of the Dragon Dog back to its rightful place… out of the hands of any potential reader. “Of course, there was a dragon God worshipped in the Frozen Desert a long time ago. Its origins are mysterious and there is no evidence of followers anymore. That’s all we know.” 

“You sure know a lot about the Gods, Earl,” Emi said. “You’re like a walking encyclopedia whenever I need it.”

“Heh, my daughter says that, too. Sometimes I worry she only became a junior priest because I blabbed on about it too much.”

“Yeah…” Emi had a lot she could say, but nothing that wouldn’t compromise her secret relationship with Beatrice. She was a bit confused why they hadn’t told Beatrice’s parents yet, but whatever she was comfortable with, that was fine.

“Oh yeah, you and my daughter went to the docks the other day, didn’t you?”

“About a week ago, yeah, to see that Runa girl.”

“Oh, brother,” Earl said. “That Runa is something else…”

“I think she’s adorable. She’s the silliest person I’ve ever met, and I’ve met me. How old is that girl, anyway?”

“Oh, uh… Well, I don’t actually know. She always needed a babysitter back in the day, but I think that was a behavioral issue more than anything. Her mother thought she needed a friend. She might have be the same age as Beatrice…”

“Same age as Beatrice? That’s… A lot less adorable, if that’s true. But still a little adorable.”

“Speaking of adorable, can you hand me those copies of Brandy Family Picnic on the dolly?” Earl asked.

Emi found the books and handed them up to the ladder. “Aw, I loved Brandy Family Picnic as a kid. That was one of the first books I read here! Such a cute story.”

“I remember that time. That was when your parents still came by here to drop you off every week. You know, I never quite figured out why a wealthy family like the L’Himes chose a public library to take their daughter, but I’m very glad they did, because I wouldn’t have met that wonderful little child who would one day grow up to be you.”

“Awww… Wait, my parents used to take me here?”

“Of course. What, were you going to come by yourself when you were still four feet tall?”

“Uh… huh.” Emi shook her head like she didn’t know what he was talking about. Then her hair got all in her face. Ugh. “Somehow I don’t remember this. I guess I just thought I always came by sneaking out–er, by asking permission, which is what I always do.”

“I only met your parents briefly a couple times, but they seemed like wonderful people. I’m really glad for all the work they are doing for Elince right now. A lot of people might hate them, but they’re the only ones standing between Dannark and King Kline, and… they’re doing a good job.”

“To be honest, I try not to keep up with my parents too often. They’re not really… I mean, I love them, but…”

“I understand,” Earl said. He slid back down the ladder and pushed the dolly to another shelf on the library. Emi followed him. “I had a tough relationship with my parents, too. Enough that I went and ran away to Balarand the moment I came of age.”

“Maybe I should do the same.”

Earl laughed another time. “No offense, my friend, but you don’t seem like you could survive too well on your own.”

“You may be right…”

“But hey, if you ever feel like you’ve had enough with the life of luxury, you can always stay at my family’s apartment for a while. Or… I would say that, but we only have two beds and I doubt my daughter would be too keen on sharing.” He smiled as if he made a silly dad joke. Instead, it made Emi’s face turn bright red as her mind considered the scenario he presented to her.

“Ah, it appears Emi has been embarrassed by something,” a voice from behind said.

It was Tia Knoll, surprisingly wearing breeches and no wig. What the heck was he doing here? 

“Oh, wow, Tia Knoll, here in my library?” Earl seemed incredibly impressed. “Together, you two have more money than my entire apartment complex combined. And you’re visiting the public library. That’s got to be a sign of the times.”

“I am merely here to grab Emi for an important date we have,” he said.

“Tia, how did you even know I was here?”

“You are always here, if you are not at your home.” Tia grinned.

“You two are going on a date?” Earl asked. “But I thought… Hmmm.” His expression became perplexingly stern.

“No, no, no! Not a date date. Like just a normal event known as a date. We are not dating. Just an event,” Emi tried to correct desperately.

“She speaks the truth,” Tia said. “I tend to only have romantic interactions with other men.”

“Yeah! And we’re going to to this event known as… Uh, what event is this again?”

“It’s called, ‘Let’s go eat a late lunch and gossip!’ The best event.”

Emi frowned.

Earl was back to his normal self. “Oh, you young people are always the same. Well, enjoy yourselves. Come back if you ever want to read some books for free, not that you’ll ever need it.”

Just when Emi was starting to have a heart-to-heart with Beatrice’s own father, here comes Tia Knoll himself… Sigh.

Still… It was a very good talk. It was very weird to say this, but Emi realized today that Earl was one of her best friends. And that was nice.

<== PreviousNext ==>

Chapter 29: A Letter: Aftermath


After hours of watching Runa Arakawa bumble around trying to repeat her apparent transmutation of insects into bunnies, Emi and Beatrice had finally left her house. She was never able to succeed at replicating that first step, let alone the step where she ended up incinerating the bunnies instead of merging their consciousnesses. It was horrific as it was entertaining.

Since they were so close to the river, they went to the harbor and took a late-night stroll down a nearby boardwalk. It was nearly empty; the floating docks had already closed up and the workers had gone home. All Beatrice could see were the lights on the boats shipping cargo up and down the river, and the sparks flying out of the still-operating smelt mill.

There were also two Dannark guards patrolling the area. They passed by the two girls, and one turned his pointed helmet in their direction. The helmet obscured his face except for his mouth, but he appeared to be giving them a look before he passed too far away to see them anymore. Apparently young women being out this late, this far out into the city, was definitely something to look down upon, even if not a crime to be punished for.

Beatrice noticed Emi grimacing at the soldiers, but grabbed her hand to distract her from her frustrations. Emi looked at her and smiled softly.

“Our day today ended up being a bit unfun, Emi,” said Beatrice. “I’m sorry we couldn’t go to Gonda Tower like you wanted.”.

“What? No, it was great!” Emi exclaimed. “Wherever you dug up that Runa girl, she’s the definition of fun. And Mrs. Arakawa’s cooking is delicious.”

“Oh, isn’t it?”

“Those pastries were to die for. You should have told me to eat them before Runa got her paws all over the plate!”

“Well, I’m glad I didn’t ruin the date, anyway,” she said.

“Tris… is that what this is?” Emi asked. “A date?”

“Uh, well, I don’t know. Is it?”

“I was hoping you’d tell me. Because I’m not sure.” Emi smiled broadly but for some reason it made Beatrice’s heart sink

She thought for sure that… well, with all the time they had spent together, all the romantic gestures, that surely this was a date. But… Well, Beatrice had called it a ‘date’ in her head, but she hadn’t confirmed it or anything. Neither of them had actually said the word. “Nevermind. It was just a joke,” she mumbled.

They sat at the boardwalk pier for a while and held hands while watching the ships float by. Behind them, the smelt mill blew sparks into the night sky, orange dots glowing behind them. It was very calm, but it had begun to snow as well. Emi was shivering, as usual. Beatrice didn’t understand how a girl born and raised in Balarand could have such a low tolerance for the cold.

“You think it’s about time to go home?” Beatrice asked.

“Yeah. I’m freezing out here.”

They walked back from the harbor, mostly silent as the two tried to keep warm for the forty minutes or so before they reached Beatrice’s apartment. This time, Beatrice had brought a scarf after all, just so she could hand it to Emi and make her smile. And smile she did. She took the scarf, pressed it up against her cheek, and then wrapped it around her neck. Seeing her happy made Beatrice tear up a little bit, she was so pleased. Was that normal?

Emi looked at her. She wiped off her face quickly so she wouldn’t notice anything. “So, Tris, I have an important question.”


“Why are you so cute?” Emi asked.

“Oh, stop it.”

“No, I seriously need an answer,” Emi said. “I demand one.”

“You demand one? Why don’t you ask your many servants to explain it, then?” Beatrice giggled, but she hoped that her joke didn’t go too far.

But Emi seemed to take it in stride. “My many servants couldn’t come up with a consensus. There was simply too much data.”

“Oh yeah? What was one data point?”

“There was a lot of debate over your eyes,” Emi said. “Some of them wanted to describe them as ‘sparkling like the Balarand River’ and some wanted to call them ‘glowing beacons lighting the way home.’ The research was split into two camps and the vote was very tough.”

“Wow, what trite phrases to describe my eyes,” Beatrice said. “Copying some romance book, I see. Your many servants should learn how to write with more poetry in their words.”

“Okay then, how would you describe them?” Emi asked.

“I can’t really describe my own eyes… But yours? That I can do.”

“Go ahead.” Emi looked into Beatrice’s eyes and fluttered her eyelashes.

“I would say, ‘Brown. Bountiful like soil. Bold like an autumn tree. Beautiful like roasted salmon on a cold night.’ How about that?”

 “Am I a farmer now?”

“If your hair wasn’t so perfectly straight, you could be mistaken for one,” Beatrice said.

“Hm, I’d kill to have curls like yours. They’re so…” Emi took her free hand and began tousling it through Beatrice’s head of hair. “What do you do to get it like this?”

“Uh, it just comes this way. I actually thought it was kind of… bad?”

“That’s where you would be sorely mistaken,” Emi said. “Your hair and your freckles are like a two-part unit. They work together to create this beautiful woman nobody can look away from. And despite my high abilities, I too am afflicted by the curse. You are simply too powerful.”

“I never knew I was powerful. I have trouble carrying the groceries sometimes.”

“Power comes in many forms,” said the sagely Emi.

Finally, they came to the library, the midway point where they needed to separate as their homes were in the opposite directions. “I guess I’ll see you some other time,” Emi said.

“Yeah. Whenever that will be.” Beatrice smiled. She turned around and began walking away. Beatrice had briefly considered saying something overly sappy or romantic to her, but this day was good enough as it was. Having to handle Runa was probably enough for the both of them, so–

“Wait, Tris!”

Beatrice stopped. “What is it?” she asked.

“I love you.”

Beatrice and Emi stood silently, looking at one another for an indeterminable amount of time. Beatrice needed to take a moment to process this and take it in her mind before she could respond.

Emi’s smile quickly disappeared as she scrunched the sides of her mouth together, and tears welled up in her eyes. She began to wrap her arms around herself. “I’m s–”

But then Beatrice smiled. “I love you, too, Emi,” Beatrice said. 

There was a crystal explosion inside of Beatrice’s soul. 

She had finally said it.

She said that she loved Emi.

“Good night,” Beatrice added. 

Emi wiped her face off and grinned again, shedding a few of the tears that had built up. Beatrice took out a handkerchief and wiped her face. “Good night, Tris. Have a good rest before practice tomorrow.”

“I will, for sure.”

But Beatrice didn’t get any sleep that night. She was too busy screaming in excitement.

<== PreviousNext ==>

Chapter 28: A Letter: Runa Arakawa

Do you know about Runa Arakawa? No, you don’t? Really? Oh, of course, forgot that you refuse to study your history books because you are a delinquent. If you did, then this entire story may be very different to you. Very well, then. I’ll let the girl speak for herself…

All that was in the air was the smell of melting rock and lake water. The ground was damp, and each step Emi took made a mushing sound that was growing increasingly difficult to ignore.

She’d never been this far north in Balarand. It was far past the castle and the wealthy neighborhoods, close to a river port where even in winter the place smelled vaguely of rotting fish. 

Was she out of place up here? Would the people who lived here notice that she was one of the affluent, uncaring folk who let Dannark occupy their kingdom and overthrow their leader? She hadn’t dressed in anything fancy, but she still felt uncomfortable, like every passing person would probably pause and pick her out. 

Well, if there were any ruffians that thought she was an easy mark, that was okay. Beatrice would be there to protect her. She knew magic and all that.

“So, Tris, you never explained,” Emi said. “Why are we going to some girl’s house?”

“She asked me to,” Beatrice said. “I don’t want to elaborate further and spoil the, uh, surprise.”

They had walked all the way up town, close to the port heading up the Balarand River, where the houses were less compact and the city wasn’t as bustling anymore. Both wore warm clothes to protect against the winter; Emi had a toboggan on her head, and Beatrice had a scarf wrapped around her neck.

Not more than a block away from the lakefront, they reached one unassuming, dark blue house with a nice porch, cozy with one floor. Beatrice walked up to the front door and knocked on it. Now they had to wait.

In the distance, off the shore towards the Balarand River, laid a floating dock where several ships were anchored down to unload goods without going all the way to the main port. Another two boats were there for repairs, after they had collided with one another just hours earlier.

In the other direction from the port, there was a large smelt mill, burning up ore and creating lead for use in materials of all sorts. Sparks of fire and billowing smoke flew out of the chimney at the top. This was certainly not an area Emi would have imagined to find houses in, but she had learned recently that a lot of her assumptions about life in Balarand were completely wrong.

“Now that we’ve known each other for a few months, I must reveal one more thing about myself,” Beatrice began, her tone taking a sordid turn. “I will share with you my darkest secret. My most tragic responsibility.”

With all this build-up, Emi couldn’t tell if she was being sarcastic or not. With all this build-up. Her heart raced.

A dainty old lady opened the door to greet them, and Beatrice gave a sigh of relief. “Oh, Gods, Ms. Arakawa, you’re still fine.”

The woman gave a wide smile and exclaimed, “Little Bea! Come on in!” Emi gave Beatrice a sly glance and she shot a dirty look in return.

They entered the house. It was small and homely, decorated with various knicknacks gathered from throughout the city, and a bookshelf filled with assorted titles–some fiction, some nonfiction, some religious. 

“That’s a lot of books,” Emi said.

“Yep. Back when they lived near Knoll Park, I loved coming over so I could read. Back when I used to… babysit.”

Beatrice was a babysitter, huh? That was her dark scary secret? It sounded cute to Emi. She wondered what Beatrice was like around children. Oh no, she was blushing already.

“I’ve made you some pastries,” Mrs. Arakawa said, carrying a tray of baked goods towards the two girls. “You make yourself at home while Runa gets ready for whatever she’s got going on. Oh, that girl.”

Emi and Beatrice sat down on the couch, and Beatrice took one of the pastries. Beatrice took a bite and squealed. “Delicious.” 

Emi didn’t eat anything and laid her head on Beatrice’s shoulder. “Are you ever going to tell me what’s going on?”

There was a loud banging sound from below them.

“You’re about to find out.”

A door at the side of the room swung open, and smoke began pouring out. A short figure wearing a blacksmith’s goggles emerged from the room, hands on hips in a defiant pose. Her face was covered in grime and soot. Emi jumped to her feet in shock.

She lifted the goggles off her face and gave a toothy grin. “You received my message. Excellent,” she said with a nasally snicker.

“Runa, hey, long time no see,” said Beatrice, cringing through her teeth.

Emi couldn’t place Runa’s age, but she definitely seemed a bit younger than the two of them. She was also a runt, standing at just over four and a half feet tall, with a plump face and bushy eyebrows. As a sign of a times, even a girl her age was already wearing ink-black lipstick.

She took off her gloves and walked over to the couch, where she took a pastry. She noticed Emi and glared.

“H-hi,” Emi greeted. “I’m Emi L’Hime.”

Runa grabbed Emi’s hand and kissed the top of it, leaving behind a dark smear. “You are a delight, milady.” 

Emi stared at her hand for a second. She laughed in bewilderment. Beatrice rolled her eyes.

“Mom! I’m going to show these two my laboratory,” Runa shouted to her mother, who was in the kitchen making something.

“That’s nice, honey.”

“We’re going down,” she shouted again. She didn’t seem to need to ask for permission, but was seeking it anyway. Aw, she was a good kid at heart. “Follow me, ladies.”

They went into the smoke-filled room, which was actually a staircase down into a basement. “That’s the reason they moved away,” Beatrice said. “They needed a real house with a basement. For Runa’s work.”

“What work is that?” Emi asked.

Beatrice pointed towards Runa’s laboratory.

It was a chaotic mess of papers, runic symbology scrawled on walls and tables with rocks and tiny critters laying about. For anyone worried about cleanliness, this would be like looking at a warzone. Strangely, Emi felt a wave of calm wash over her instead.

“This is where I make the magic happen,” Runa proclaimed, stretching out her hands as if her laboratory were a natural wonder. “Quite literally speaking.”

She gestured to her table covered in large stones. “Right here is my golem dissection project. I have been trying to figure out what part of the rock is able to store magical energy and coordinate with other pieces to form the magical creature known as a golem. They have been known to form around pieces of ice, too, but last time I attempted to study one of those, it melted before the shipment arrived…”

“She shipped an ice golem to Balarand? Who is this girl?” Emi asked in a whisper as Runa continued rambling.

“Her father was a prominent businessman many years ago, but when he died, he gave his entire inheritance to his lover and newborn daughter instead of his wife and legitimate children. Ms. Arakawa is the fifth-richest person in the city.”

“Oh, wow.” Emi’s immediate thought was that Runa’s mother budgeted pretty well, then, from the looks of the house and area, and then realized that normal people don’t think about that kind of thing and she should stop being a rich brat.

“…And that brings us to the reason I needed to contact you so urgently, Ms. Ragnell,” Runa continued, talking like she were giving a lecture and not actually speaking to someone. “I have reached a crucial phase in the Homunculus Project.”

She beckoned to a table covered in glass, housing a dozen small rabbits jumping around and sleeping and eating from their bowls. “I have ventured into the furthest reaches of the fabric of soul magic. With this, I am one step closer to using the soul to create new life. I will become a God among mortals!” She cackled.

“What did you do?” Beatrice asked, peering at the rabbits closely.

“You cannot see? You were always rather simple, so I will explain. These rabbits, just one week ago, were no mere rabbits. They were insect larvae I found crawling outside my house!”

“Wow,” Emi exclaimed. “Pretty neat.” She had read about this sort of soul transfiguration magic when she was studying about magical incantations with Beatrice, but she thought it was only theoretical. This was certainly not theoretical!

“More than simply neat, my dear. I have transmuted them into new life, and now I will use this power to transmute them all into one being!”

She flipped a nearby switch, which set ablaze a furnace directly underneath the table full of bunnies. A large crystal dangling on a chain dropped from above and crashed onto the table. The crystal shattered and magical energy began swirling around inside the glass…

And then all the bunnies evaporated, dying in a fiery flash. Their bones turned to dust.

“That wasn’t supposed to happen… My calculations must be in error.” Runa ran off to a table to pore over some indecipherable papers, and left Emi and Beatrice to gaze at the carnage by themselves.

Beatrice looked down at the ground and covered her face with her palm. Her glasses tilted. “This was such a bad idea. I’m really sorry for–”

“This is so cool,” Emi said. “Thank you for bringing me here, Tris. I couldn’t have asked for a better date.”

She gave her a hug.

<== PreviousNext ==>

Chapter 27: A Letter: The Beginning

“Okay, that’s enough for today,” said Mr. Statusian. “Remember, everyone leave the building by the top of the hour, and I’ll see you back here in the morning. We’ll be beginning our final days of practice, so I hope you are ready for some serious work.”

The class grumbled. Someone murmured that that whole “last day of class” comment way back when was extremely misleading, and another person literally growled.

Beatrice, of course, was extremely pleased with herself.

It was just a couple weeks until the Winter Ceremonies. She had long since mastered the rituals in execution, but she quickly learned that that wasn’t all the rituals were about; she also had to stay attuned to her magical partners around her. They had actually created a water generation spell by accident the other day, so it seemed that everyone was growing a lot closer together. Beatrice had even started hanging out with Bodhi and some of the others after practice sometimes.

Today was not one of those days, however. No time for hanging out with friends; she was about to meet Emi at the library for a  date. They had spent many days together recently, but always ended up wandering around the city and looking for food to eat, not really doing anything special. This time, though, they were going to travel the Gonda Tower, the tallest building in Elince. Apparently, its top floor was so high that you could apparently see all the way across the kingdom if you looked out from the top floor. It sounded so romantic!

It was normally closed to the public, but as long as you had the right connections, that was no hurdle. Emi, of course, knew the owner’s granddaughter, Felisa L’Flare. It was great having a rich and famous girlfriend–er, friend who may or may not have been dating her. They hadn’t exactly clarified that just yet…

Beatrice grabbed her bag and slipped it onto her back. With the Winter Ceremonies practice and her relationship–if that’s what it was–with Emi both going strong, she had a strong smile on her face. She scurried over to the library, where her Dad and Emi were currently talking at the service desk. 

Emi L’Hime. Sigh. The girl of her dreams, the main thing on her mind every time she closed her eyes. Beatrice could remember when she first saw her at the marketplace, all that time ago, and was instantly smitten. And as much as she tried to ignore it, her life was forever changed that day, she knew, because she found someone worth knowing for the rest of her life.

Just look at her. Wearing nothing more special than a turtleneck and a long skirt. She made no attempt to stand out, no attempt to separate herself from the crowd, and yet she was radiating. Tall, with shiny pale skin looking something out of the most vivid dream. Beatrice had held those curves in her arms, felt those thin hairs, breathed in the smell of shampoo and perfume. She was more than just beautiful. She was Beatrice’s. (Maybe.)

“Oh, Tris, hey!” Emi exclaimed as she saw her enter.

“Hey,” was what she said, but what she thought was more along the lines of, every time I see your dark brown eyes my heart is sent into a flurry, my mind hazes up, and my entire being is sent into a blinding hailstorm of affection. She only thought it, but she conveyed it with her smile.

“You’re friends with Emi L’Hime, Beatrice?” Dad asked. “I didn’t realize that.”

“Yeah,” Beatrice said. “We, uh, sit together at the study table sometimes. You never noticed?”

“Uh, no, I never pay attention,” Dad said, with a smirk that suggested he was not exactly telling the whole truth. “But she’s a good girl. She’s been coming to this library since she was about this high.” Dad held out his hand flat to measure about twelve inches. 

“Your father’s the one who got me into my favorite book series,” Emi said. “It’s called The Elf Cycle. It’s a really great mystery series with a lot of action and adventure and romance.”

Ehh… Beatrice knew her Dad read pretty much everything, so his taste in fiction books was a bit… odd. She didn’t always enjoy his recommendations when it came to fairy tales and adventure stories, and she learned as much when he convinced her to go through A Beautiful Bloodbath when she was thirteen. Not a wise choice at all, Dad…

“I’m really glad you two have become friends, though,” Dad said.

“Heh, yeah…” Beatrice coughed, and then turned to Emi. “So, are you ready to go?”

“Go? Where are you doing?” Dad asked. “Wait–” he interrupted himself. “Oh, I almost forgot. You have a letter. Mailed to the library, for some reason.”

A letter?

Who would send her a letter, and why here? With a moment’s hesitation, she broke the seal and tore it open. The letter read, in a scrawled handwriting:

“You must meet me IMMEDIATELY. I have made a new breakthrough! TOP SECRET. I need your help to align the spirits and perfect our society. If you do not arrive or send response in twenty-four hours, I will have to assume you have been apprehended by forces beyond your control and will be forced to take drastic measures.

–Signed, Runa.”

Oh, brother.

“Is it something nice?” Dad asked.

“It’s Runa.”

“Oh, brother.” He rolled his eyes. “Do you need to go meet her?”

“I guess I do…”

“Who’s Runa?” Emi asked.

“Oh, Emi. We might need to postpone the, uh, thing.” She was trying not to be too explicit about their date plans around Dad.

“What, do you have to go meet them or something?” she asked.

“Yeah…” There was no way she could get out of meeting Runa, she knew, even as her mind flashed through all the excuses she could possibly use. 

Although… Maybe this was a fortuitous opportunity after all. This could be a chance for a very different kind of date for Beatrice and Emi, and for Emi to learn more about her. Like marketplace traders often said, she could turn lemons into lemonade.

What was a lemon?

<== PreviousNext ==>

Chapter 26: Unexpected Bonding

“Hmm…. Hm. This book report is of high quality. It appears you understood the material well,” Ms. Khami said. “I mistook your disdain for the readings for a lack of comprehension. I was wrong. Good work.”

Emi, sitting at the only school desk in her makeshift classroom, fought very hard not to squeal in delight.

It was rare for her to hear a compliment from Ms. Khami. But recently, especially as Emi had devoted more of her time to helping out around the house, her opinion of her seemed to have changed. She actually said nice things sometimes.

“It wasn’t the main reading that disinterested me,” Emi said. “I just didn’t like the contemporary analyses that went along with it. They all seemed so warped. Why did so many people adore the Fathie Empire back then? The Gang of Eight was ruthless, and if the Teal One hadn’t defected…”

“Then none of Balarand would be here today except in ruins, yes,” Ms. Khami said. “But people at the time did not consider what the future might hold. They were captivated by the Gang of Eight’s charismatic campaign and saw their destruction as acts of liberation. It is only in hindsight that we can truly understand what a decade of war did to our continent.”

“So what you’re saying is… Dannark and Doros are going to blow up Tsubasa if they keep fighting?” Emi asked.

“History is but a cycle of heroes and tragedy,” Ms. Khami said. “And with that remark, our lesson is complete.” She picked a book off her desk and shut it loudly to signify the finality of the event. “I hadn’t expected you to advance so quickly through this section, and I must admit: I have no further material to assign you, Emi. You are finished.”


“Finished? For… good?”

“Correct. You have finished the curriculum that I had developed for you when you were a child. You are officially an educated woman.”


Done with Ms. Khami’s lessons… After all these years, Emi never actually thought a day like this would come. She had somehow pictured in her mind getting married, growing older, with Ms. Khami still around still handing her massive, dull tomes on a near-infinite variety of subjects. It felt like just yesterday she was trudging through a near-incomprehensible textbook on economics, and now she was just… done.

“It is unorthodox, your improvement lately,” Ms. Khami said. “I had certainly not planned on you passing my magical incantations exam within a week, either; that was intended to take at least a month.”

“Oh, well I had help from a… friend.”

“Were you truly sneaking out of the house so often to… study? I can hardly fathom.”

“Sometimes. At the library, usually,” Emi said, feeling pangs of self-righteousness flash across her cheeks. “I was a better student than you thought, huh!”

“Well, your essays on interpersonal relationship politics were subpar, to say the least, but you have shown great development, Emi. You truly are the woman your parents have always wanted to be, if I say so myself.”

“Wish THEY’D tell me that,” Emi said.

“They try to, in their own way,” Ms. Khami said. “They are under a lot of pressure with their diplomatic missions. It’s very difficult to raise a successful, professional daughter in these times.”

“They could have sent me to school…” Emi muttered.

“Did you not appreciate my schoolings?”

That was a loaded question. “What I mean is, Reo and Touma both went off to Yates. Almost all my old friends in the neighborhood went to school in some far-away city in the mountains or by the coast. Why did you homeschool me?”

Ms. Khami looked off and laughed wistfully, as if that were also a loaded question. “I realize you are too young to remember, but when you were a very young child, you had many issues that needed special care. You weren’t very comfortable around strangers, and sometimes you would react in… outbursts of sorts. So your parents decided to let me teach you. You got over those troubles as you grew older, but with your apprehensiveness towards large social gatherings even now, we thought it might be best to keep you here in Balarand, with the rest of your family. In case you ever needed us.”

Emi looked down at her lap. She wanted to shrink into nonexistence. “That makes a lot of sense. I’m… sorry for being a bad baby.”

“You were a wonderful baby, and you are a wonderful lady.”

Did she really… mean that?

Speaking of ladies… Emi felt a new confidence inside her and decided to turn the tables on the conversation. “So I may be wonderful, but what if I don’t want to be married? Married to Lady Khara, that is.”

“Ms. L’Hime, you are going to be married at the end of the spring and you are going to love it, because that is what your parents wish of an important girl like yourself.”

“But I don’t want to marry someone I don’t love.”

Ms. Khami, still standing behind Emi, put her hands on her shoulders and began giving Emi a massage. 

Their relationship over the years had always been fairly sour, but Ms. Khami had somehow persisted over all that time, never giving up even when Emi was at her most rebellious. Emi had been sure it was simply for the money, but…

“Your parents love you very, very much,” Ms. Khami said. “They’ve found a woman for you who will support you in whatever you want to do, and with your education you can be anyone. You won’t be shackled to the L’Hime Family any longer, if that is what you wish. You will have almost unlimited freedom in your life to pursue your dreams.”

“Except for love.” Emi sniffled thinking about having to leave Beatrice and never see her again. The exact thing she still hadn’t summoned the courage to mention to the girl. “I’ve never even met Lady Khara and yet I have to spend the rest of my life with her. Can’t you see how that’s unfair?”

“I have met Lady Khara, and I can assure you she is a wonderful woman. She would not be allowed to marry you if she was anything less. It may seem unfair for you now, but in twenty years you will laugh at all of this.”

“Okay, but why does this Lady Khara want to marry a young woman she’s never met?” Emi asked. “I’m a demon in girl’s clothing, in your own words.”

“Your strength of emotion is an asset as much as it is a shortcoming,” she told her, continuing to massage her shoulders. “There may be times when you are too much to handle, but there is a woman who is ready and willing to accept that with openness, honesty, and respect.”

“Yeah… there is,” Emi said, mostly to herself. It wasn’t Lady Khara, that was for sure. “Why can’t I marry someone of my own choosing? Someone I am in love with and want to spend the rest of my life with?”

Ms. Khami let go of Emi’s shoulders. “That is not for me to say. I was born into a poor family and the L’Himes took me in when I was young. I was raised by your grandparents more like your mother’s sister than a lowly servant, and I did not question their decisions for me because they shaped me into the woman I am today. All I can tell you is that your parents’ wisdom is greater than any youthful fling.”

“It’s not a fling. It’s…” A conundrum was what it was. Falling for someone while you were already engaged to another. “I don’t think I will be able to marry her. Not anymore.” Emi got up from her chair and faced Ms. Khami directly

“Your life is your own, in the end,” Ms. Khami told her. “But you are a member of a prominent family, and you were born into responsibility whether or not it is fair. Cheating on your fiancee will not only affect you, but your parents, and your brothers too.”

“I’ve thought about that a lot,” Emi said. “And my answer is… It’s really complicated.”

“That is is.”

Emi headed into the foyer. It was vast and empty as usual. With party cleanup long over, the L’Hime home was once more a large space filled with a bunch of rooms hardly anyone ever used, in enough space to house an orphanage or two.

“So, I’m really finished with all of of my studies?” Emi asked.

“Well…” Ms. Khami began. “I know that you are working on those little devices in your bedroom. I bought a few books on engineering and mechanics, and if you would like to look through them…”

“You mean, exactly the opposite of what my Mother said to do?”

Ms. Khami smiled. “Yes, but I–”

Knock! Knock!

Ms. Khami rushed to the front door and opened it, before her expression flattened. “Oh. You again.”

“Hi, Ms. Khami.”

“Tris!” Emi ran past Ms. Khami and hugged Beatrice around the neck, squeezing as tightly as she could. “You’re here.”

“And so are you,” Beatrice said. “Do you want to…”


Ms. Khami shook her head, but smiled. “You and your deviancies. Be back before supper. Touma is coming over again.”

“I can’t promise anything, but I’ll do my best,” Emi said.

Emi and Beatrice left the house, hand-in-hand, and Emi took one look back at Ms. Khami before the front door shut. 

“So, where to?” Emi asked.

“Wherever,” Beatrice said.

And so they went.

<== PreviousNext ==>

Chapter 25: Literally in Her Arms

“Beatrice! Why are you here?” Emi shouted.

“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.”

They did.

“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.”

“Okay, 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.”

“They… are?”

“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?”

“You’re joking, right?”


“I don’t believe you,” Beatrice said. “You’re fibbing.”

“You’re being rude again.”

“Oh yeah? And what about this?” Beatrice moved her fingers around in one swift motion and seized Emi’s sides with one powerful pinch. 

“Ouch! Ouch!”

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!”

“Free Balarand!”

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.

<== PreviousNext ==>

Chapter 24: Party at My Place!

“Isn’t this party great?” Touma shouted as he saw Emi walking by. He had a glass of Doros Prime in his hand, so he was most likely far past the point of sobriety. If her brother was no longer of a sound mind, that gave Emi legal recourse to ignore anything he said and grumble about having to wear this annoying dress.

The corset was so tight she felt like she was going to burst.

This party, being held at Emi’s house, was one of the biggest and most prolific of the year. Even though they had a large house, the sheer number of people here made it a relentlessly crowded experience. She finally understood why the L’Hime Family home was so spacious– it was all for this precise kind of event, for the occasions when occupancy went from fifteen to fifteen hundred.

To say that Emi hated crowds was to say that crows were black. And to say that Emi hated this party was to say that the sun rose in the morning, and the moons rose in the evening. To say that this was one of the worst events Emi had ever attended would only barely qualify as an exaggeration. 

The colors alone gave her a headache; every rich person here wore their own loud-colored dress, creating a clash of rainbows against the shiny gold-and-white decorations of the party itself placed around the foyer. It was so bright that the blind would grumble about it.

With such a massive number of people smushed into the foyer, the rich person smell was particularly pungent tonight. The odor of cheap perfumes, of white wine against bad breath, of wig powder and sweaty breeches. No matter how much money these people had, they somehow couldn’t prevent themselves from smelling like a rotten salmon bind.

Because the Empress-Consort was here to take part in the festivities, having already mingled into the crowd of colorful smelly dancers, so too were her contingent of Dannark guardsmen, two posted at every corner of the foyer and several more wandering in and out. Surely nothing would happen to her at a party like this, but the very threat of it was constantly reminded by the presence of all these gray-armored guards.

And to cap it all off, a small orchestral ensemble was playing traditional tunes, making the scene almost literally deafening at times. So, the perfect way to torture a young girl who didn’t even want to be here.

Emi hated crowds. She hated rich old people standing around laughing while they talked about bureaucratic drivel. She hated all of this! The stress was making her sweat her armpits off. Soon, she’d be just as smelly as everyone else.

Tia Knoll passed by, dressed up in a silk gown and wearing a jet black wig with hair going down to his waist. Many guests at the party were ogling him even as they ignored Emi and her expensive, hours-long-fitted dress. He was outstaging Emi and wasn’t even a girl. She really hated when he showed off his crossdressing skills at every single party and got the same rousing reactions each time.

“I have already received marriage propositions from ten suitors, including a noble from Dannark. Shall we compare numbers?” Very modest of him.

“Seeing as I’m currently engaged, I wasn’t keeping count,” Emi said.

“Well, I have a boyfriend, but that does not keep me. It’s all in good spirits.” 

“You’re a fiend.”

“Oh, Emi, you need to have some fun. Your brother certainly is.” He pointed to Touma, who had exchanged his glass of Doros Prime for the whole bottle. His arm was wrapped around the shoulder a woman who looked about as far gone as he did. They laughed so loudly Emi could hear them from here.

“If I don’t save him, he’s going to be knocked out and arrested for harassing the Empress-Consort, isn’t he?” Emi mumbled.

Tia kept playing with his wig. “You know, I wonder how long it would take me to grow out my hair as long as my wig. Though I would venture to guess it would be too frizzy to actually grow down like yours.” He reached over to start playing with Emi’s hair, but she swatted away his wrist.

“Don’t you dare.”

Emi’s mind, as stupid as it ever was, conjured up an image of her time with Beatrice, standing on a bridge and looking at the girl’s hair glistening in the moonlight, and she imagined herself reaching out and putting her hands through the curls.

No, please don’t do this, Emi, she thought to herself. She couldn’t bear to see Beatrice again, even in her mind. The way she felt when they held their hands together, the whole swirl of mushy feelings and soft warmth came back to her and sent her heart into a pitter-patter. A pitter-patter of the worst kind.

A partygoer bumped into her shoulder and made her jump. She clutched at her chest.

“Emi?” Tia seemed concerned for Emi’s welfare. “Corset on too tight?”

“Uh, no, it’s nothing.”

Sooner or later, she was going to be married to Lady Khara from Zahn, and she was going to continue her life as an international diplomat, travelling constantly, going to parties constantly, and having none of the life that she actually wanted. It would be like tonight, but for the rest of her life.

The thought of all of that just made her want to rebel, so, so much. To do something crazy. But it was a bit hard when she was being strangled by her own dress.

“Tia, what’s your plan for the future?” she asked. “You remember what we were talking about on the gondola the other day? I was just thinking about that, and… oh.”

He hadn’t heard her. Tia was turned around, caught up in a lively discussion with an older couple confused about his recreational crossdressing inclinations.

Emi sighed. She looked over across the foyer to Touma, who was tap-dancing and treading dangerously close to the fireplace. She decided she would simply go back to her bedroom, lock her door, and hope the party wasn’t so loud it prevented her from sleeping. 

But then–

She felt something–

A tap on her shoulder–

And right there, amidst the crowd of partygoers, were those same deep blue eyes, that same face full of freckles that always grabbed her attention so quickly. It was Beatrice Ragnell, dressed up in a dark outfit with a sash across her chest, and a short cape at her back.

She extended her hand towards Emi.

“A dance?”

<== PreviousNext ==>

Chapter 22: Mother and Father and Daughter


It had barely been a month since Emi’s parents had come back to Balarand and they were leaving again.

The housekeepers were pulling double duty now, setting up for the big party that was just two days away, while simultaneously packing up bags in her parents’ bedroom and readying them to depart on another extended trip. They filled the bags with outfits and presents and alcohol, the exact same items they had unpacked just weeks earlier. Essentially, their entire bedroom was being disassembled, from the wardrobes and the cabinets to the covers on the pillows, making the room look more like an unused guest room. For how often they were gone, it sort of was one.

And of all places… they were going to Zahn again.

“And you can’t take me with you?” Emi asked. “You’re going to leave me behind again?”

Not that she wanted to go, especially not to the country where Lady Khara could show up at a moment’s notice. She was more offended that they hadn’t even had the nerve to warn her before they decided to go. 

Her parents, thin and spry, youthful yet reserved, looked at her not like a daughter, but like a target for negotiations.

“We need someone to take care of the household, and you’re responsible enough to do it,” Father said. “You have earned your place in our family.”

Then why were they trying to marry her out of it…

“Though, you would certainly earn your place more solidly if you would ever clean up your room,” Mother added. “What are you building in there, a weapon?”

“I’m learning about mechanics,” Emi said.

“I’ll have Ms. Khami strike that off the curriculum,” Father said. 

“It’s self study.” Neither of her parents faced her at this point, instead focusing their attentions on directing the servants who were packing either too many liquor bottles, or not enough. Neither deemed it necessary to respond to her, so she continued, asking, “And the party? You won’t even be here?”

This got Father’s attention, at least. He ran his hand through his slicked-back hair, as if pondering the appropriate response. “We tried to stay as long as we could,” he told her. “We wouldn’t be leaving before the Winter Ceremonies if it wasn’t important. You know how our work goes.”

“Do you at least know what it is, this time?”

“You know we can’t tell you that,” he said.

“And will you even be back in time to go to Mammoth Pass? Or is this another one of those months-long ordeals?” 

“You know we don’t know that yet,” he said in the exact same tone.

“Yeah, alright. At least I’ll have Reo and Touma, I guess.”

Mother and Father looked at one another. 


“Reo’s been called to the front lines for an engineering project. He couldn’t tell us more,” Father said. “He’ll be fine, I’m sure,” he added. “Nothing serious.”

Oh great, her brother was in grave danger, and she was expected to sit here like the calm and collected stoic she was apparently meant to be. Not fair at all.

“So I’ll have Touma, then. Great.” Touma and parties… Those two things mixed about as well as a greyback bear and a barrel of fish.

“We’ll make sure to get another letter from Lady Khara to deliver to you,” Mother told her. Another very important thing to add to make Emi feel better about herself. “That said, do you have your own letter to give to her?”

“Yes, I gave it to Ms. Khami,” Emi said.

She did write a letter responding to the flowery nothingness Lady Khara had first written her. It was a simple thank you note with as little emotion or opinion put into it as possible, and she explicitly made no mention of the impending wedding, as if to subtly discourage Lady Khara from going through with this foolish plan. This would eventually backfire when it turned out that Lady Khara had been utterly enthralled by Emi’s cutting curtness, but she had little way of knowing that just yet.

“Miss Khami!” Mother called out with that shrill voice she adopted when she yelled.

She entered the bedroom carrying a broom in hand. “Yes?”

“Emi’s letter, please.”

“Ah, here you go,” Ms. Khami said. “You are fortunate I did not mail the letter as I intended to later this afternoon.”

Mother took out her reading glasses and then unsealed the letter. Wait, why did she do that? That letter was not for prying– oh, whatever. She read the letter intently, making a “tch” every few seconds as she went through it. Finally, she looked up, put the letter back in its envelope, and shook her head. “I had thought your descriptive abilities were better than this,” she said. “This is not up to par.”

That was the point, but Emi was glad, in a perverse way, that Mother only saw it as weakness and not rebellion. It meant she wouldn’t have to actually explain herself. “I apologize, Mother. I will practice later.”

“If only we had the time to wait… Oh well. Lady Khara will soon get to know the real you.” She turned to Ms. Khami. “Please, teach our daughter better writing skills. No more of her mechanics, or whatever she’s studying.”

“Yes, of course,” Ms. Khami said, lowering her head slightly. “Emi, go to your room and I will hand you a new assignment soon.”

Oh, Gods, whatever.

She left the bedroom. The last thing she heard was her Father remark, “At least she seems like she’s in a better mood lately. I wonder what’s changed…”

Absolutely nothing, Father. Absolutely nothing.

<== PreviousNext ==>

Chapter 20: Winter’s Onset

It was finally here.

The kind of weather that made Emi despise being outside.

After so much anticipation and buildup, the day of reckoning had arrived–here fell the very first snowflakes of the season. And how was she celebrating it? Riding in a gondola down the East Balarand with Tia and six students from the Bright School, the most prestigious private school in the city.

Tia didn’t even go to that school; he was taught at home by a private tutor, just like Emi. But such was his envious social ability that he was able to meet people his age just by going out and searching for them. It was a greater magic than any sort of incantation Emi had ever read about.

The Bright School students chatted away about classes and drama and all sorts of stuff that Emi had no involvement in whatsoever, while Emi stared out at the city expanse bundled up in two jackets and a thick toboggan. 

It had been over two weeks since she last saw Beatrice, and she felt miserable. Beatrice, the soldier that she was, had surely gotten over it, but the gaping wound in her own heart would surely remain like this for good.

That was for the best. She did not want to have the capacity to feel love for another; that would make her impending marriage to some woman she’d never met go much more smoothly. It would simply be a fact of life, in that case. Nothing special.

Emi looked past the canal to the city streets. There were fewer people out than usual, a side effect of the snow piling up on the walkways. There were Dannark guards posted outside a tiny bank building, standing firm at their post even as their metal armor likely began to freeze. A pair of greyback bears approached the guards. They paced back and forth, begging for food. The guards did not move, and the greybacks eventually gave up, scrambling away to find another group of humans.

Tia Knoll, as par for the course, was sitting there in a sensible white blouse to match the snowfall, but his skirt only went down to his knees. Surely he must have been freezing out there, his legs bared to the world like that! This man was crazy.

He appeared to notice Emi looking his way, and scooted across the seat, closer to her. “Is this not so much fun?” Tia asked.

“I wish you didn’t invite me,” Emi said.

At this, Tia merely laughed. “I only brought you out here to get you in the sun a little bit. And what do you know, we are receiving our first snowflakes of the season. Wintertime is upon us.” He stuck his tongue out and a snowflake landed on it.

The gondola was currently passing in view of the Eldin Bridge. If one crossed that structure and headed eastward, they would soon find themself in the Elincian countryside under Dannark occupation, where civilization was said to be bright and unstoppably beautiful. If one went the same distance westward, they would find themself on the front lines of the Dannark-Doros War. Both of those things were on Elincian soil. Their kingdom had it all.

Gods, it was like Emi was unable to think about anything remotely positive these days.

“So. My parents were talking to your parents,” Tia said. “Apparently your fiancee is finally coming to Balarand soon. Are you excited?”

“I’m, uh, excited.” She looked away and stared at the Eldin Bridge with all her might. “Sure.”

Tia shook his head. “Sure, except your parents also told my parents that when they told you, you would not tell them anything, and you ran up to your room crying.” That was a confusing string of words.

“How embarrassing. Why would they…” Ugh, her parents.

 “Well, they might not be telling you, but they are telling my parents who are telling me that they are worried you may cancel the wedding and ruin their reputations. And that you will be ruining your own future over youthful disdain.”

“Very telling,” Emi said. “They care so much.” She wasn’t sure she could roll her eyes any harder than right now.

“They do. They simply do not understand life outside of that of government officials. It is all social events and grand bargains and power plays to them. My parents are the same way, only with a massive textile business.”

“They really don’t care about me.”

“They do. But they also do not know of the girl.”

“The girl…?”

Tia flashed a knowing smile. “It has been many long years since you and I became acquainted, Emi L’Hime,” he said. “It does not take a master sleuth to figure out that you are in love.”

“I’m not in love,” Emi said. “I’m in a conundrum.”


“Uh, nevermind.” She thought that would sound better out loud. “Don’t tell anyone about it. Please.”

“Of course not. I am no coin-store floozy.”

“I know. Even a coin-store floozy’d have the decency to leave a grieving girl be.”

“Grieving?” Tia raised an eyebrow.

By this point, the others in the gondola, so absorbed in their discussion about the latest gossip surrounding who slept with who and when, had become a world apart from the two of them. Emi felt at ease to spill her guts out; Tia had that way with people. “I gave up on it. All of it. There was a girl, but I broke things off. No, it was mutual.” So obvious of a lie that she had to pause to keep from laughing. “But either way, it’s over. I’m just waiting for my fiancee to arrive and take me away forever so I can live a happy life as a housewife with six children and pose for the family portrait paintings every year or two.”

“So I am not to expect any new faces at your family’s party as I had suspected?”

Oh right, the big winter party was coming up really soon. The servants had already begun preparing the foyer for it, which was how Emi ended up on mop duty six days in a row. Her arms were going to be gigantic and muscular and there was nothing she could do to stop it.

“The only new face you can expect is if my fiancee makes a shocking appearance at an inconvenient moment when I’m dancing with another person and then cancels the wedding out of anger and jealousy.”

“You have thought this through.”

“It’s all I get to do between studying and failing to figure out how to build a gear box toy,” Emi lamented. Tia didn’t seem to quite understand what she meant, but he kept his cheery smile anyway.

The gondola passed under a small bridge, and Tia’s face was covered in shade for a few moments. All she could see of him were the whites of his eyes, and the whites of his far-too-shiny teeth.

Tia laughed. “I like you,” he said. “If I were a girl, I would probably eat you all up, with that gorgeous hair of yours.”

She looked at her hair. Gorgeous? More like, too long and always getting in her face. “And then I’m really glad you’re not a girl,” she responded.

“Me too,” he said. “By the way, I hope you do it.”

“Do what?”

“Abandon your family and run off with this girl of yours.” They exited the bridge and light reemerged on tia’s face. “It would be such a romantic endeavor.”

“Didn’t I just say that I’ve given up on all of that? It’s over,” Emi said.

“But you are also an overdramatic brat sometimes,” Tia replied. “You clearly do not mean what you say, even if you want to.”


“Your life is yours, not your family’s,” Tia said. “Run off, get married, have a family out in Fathie, become a travelling merchant on a ship, go foraging in the forests… Just do what you wish to do. Especially if it involves a girl you love.”

Emi gulped instinctively. “I’ll… think about it.”

As if she hadn’t been thinking about all of this for weeks now.

As if she hadn’t been constantly fretting about what she’d tell Beatrice all this time, why she had suddenly disappeared from her life. “Sorry, but it turns out I can’t see you anymore. I have to marry some woman I’ve never met.” It was so stupid! She had never been more frustrated in her life. Avoidance was probably the best tactic at this point.

…No it wasn’t.

“I know how hard it is to deal with your life under your family,” Tia said. “That is why I just ignore them completely. My grandfather almost died of shock when he first saw me in a dress. And I’ve done it ever since.”

“I wish it were that easy…”

“Well, we all rebel in our own way,” he said. “You just have to find yours.”

Whatever that meant.

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