Chapter 18: Making the Most of It

Emi’s bedroom was a mess. 

Yes, even more than usual. 

Nearly her entire wardrobe from the past two weeks laid on the floor. Useless, stupid gears were littered around like marbles thrown by a mysterious child. One of her many stacks of books against the wall had toppled over, and she had made not a bit of effort to stack it up.

Instead, she studied quietly at her desk, of course also covered in gears and books. Today, she was learning the military history of Ulric Fathie and the Gang of Eight Campaigns.

She didn’t even bother locking her room today, so Ms. Khami and any number of housekeepers could walk in and out doing whatever they needed. Emi’s parents were at Castle Balarand for a meeting with occupation government officials, so it was just her and the housekeepers, as usual.

Emi was increasingly interested in figuring out whether the Teal One would defect to Elince and fight the Fathie Empire, but she felt distracted. Perhaps, her room was at the point of mess where she could no longer concentrate. Or, maybe, it was something a little easier to explain.

She looked back at the intricate mess she had designed, the art piece made up of mounds of clothes dirty and clean, of springs and cogs, of screw plates and one calliper. Lots of cold metal, easy to stub a toe on, the ultimate source of pain. Well, the second-ultimate source, anyway.

Somehow, she felt like she had ended up creating something that symbolized her own life in all of this. All these gears and clothes strewn about, and all those images of that blue-eyed wonder Beatrice shattering her heart every time she closed her eyes.

Emi couldn’t bring herself to see the girl again.

Just as Emi had decided to purchase an entire set of gear box tools to tinker with, and quickly gave up in a dramatic fit, so too had Emi fallen into a great conundrum with a beautiful girl, and was now leaving her behind as if she never existed. It was eating her up inside, but with the letter she received, she knew there was no better option than to give up now.

And yet…

For some reason, ignoring the story of Ulric Fathie in front of her, Emi’s mind, or rather the cogs and gears inside of it, began to formulate a new elaborate scheme to get her out of the house without anyone noticing. For some reason, those plans had her sitting at the library, waiting for Beatrice with open arms.

And for some reason, she was enacting those plans. 

If the housekeepers had already finished cleaning–and they seemed to have, she noted as she peeked out the bedroom door– she could probably exit through one of the backroom spiral staircases that led to the barn nobody ever used. It had become a storage room ever since the L’Hime Family’s last horse died, but housekeepers often used it in break times, so it was risky. 

This was starting to get exciting, Emi thought as she dressed up in winter clothing and prepared to brave the cold. She hadn’t snuck out in so long that it was starting to get a little boring, just asking permission and leaving through the front door. She took one look back at the useless, unused gears laying all over her bedroom, and wondered if maybe she was overthinking the symbolism for dramatic effect (she was).

But as soon as she closed her door and locked it– she saw Ms. Khami staring up from the foyer. “Miss L’Hime, where do you think you are going?”

So close.


With four other housekeepers helping, Emi was given a mop and bucket of water right in the foyer.  

“You want me to clean ALL of this?” Emi asked Ms. Khami. This house was so wide, so spacious so uselessly big.

“Of course! We will be helping,” Ms. Khami told her. “But you have to learn what a proper lady goes through, and life is not about sneaking out and having fun. It is about being your best self and sometimes that best self has to mop a large room.”

“But it… looks clean…”

“Nothing is ever as clean as it can be,” Ms. Khami said.

“You know, I employ all of you, and this isn’t fair, and–” Emi stopped herself before she said something remarkably stupid. “I understand.”

She’d basically holed herself up in her room for the past two weeks aside from obligatory social events, and she had been making her fair share of messes around the house. It certainly wasn’t becoming of her to yell at housekeepers who had done nothing wrong and always provided valuable help through everything.

It was her fault for not letting Beatrice know what was going on in her life sooner, about the engagement that had hung around her neck for the past five years. It was just that she felt so scared about everything and she didn’t know what to say, and… that was no excuse. No excuse for how she was acting right now, either.

So Emi was going to help out Ms. Khami, because she deserved to be a real part of this household now and again. Ms. Khami was actually smiling for once, and it made Emi smile back, in turn. She was actually going to help.

Now… how did one use a mop…

The maid next to her, a girl her age who must have been a recent hire, noticed Emi’s apprehensive attitude. “Are you having trouble?” she asked.

The girl had jet black hair with eyes to match, and sported a goofy grin. Her hairstyle was nearly identical to Emi’s, but long, going well past the shoulders.

“Yeah, I have no idea how to mop, um… Miss Maid.”

“I’m Pip,” she said. “I really like your house, Miss L’Hime. Let’s get it clean!”

“What do I do, just…” Emi sloshed the mop around in some water and slinged droplets all over the floor.

Pip shook her head, and then wiped a speckle of water off her cheek. “You princesses don’t do much work around the house, do you?”

She wanted to say she was only a diplomat’s daughter, but she decided to refrain from overexplaining things that made her out to be even more of a brat than she really was. “No, I don’t… Can you, uh, help me?”

“You sure? You ready for this?”

“Yeah, what’s so hard about mopping a floor?”

The next two hours were some of the most grueling of Emi’s entire life.

<== PreviousNext ==>

Chapter 16: Letter from a Lady

Emi washed herself off and stepped into the steaming hot bath. Her body flared up and she let the water soak all the worries of another stressful day away. All she would ever need to be content in her life was a nice rice bowl and a soothing bath. Everything else on top of that was a bonus.

That’s what used to be the case.

Recently, it had become a bit different. One worry, one outside element, had decided to join Emi here this evening, like several before it, and prevent her from fully enjoying herself: no matter what she tried, she couldn’t stop thinking about Beatrice.

Was she in love?

And here was the age-old question that we all pose to ourselves. Is what we’re feeling right now, the way we think of that certain someone, really special enough to warrant using such an important term? Words are words, but when you’re wondering if you’re in love, words are like a barrel of blast powder waiting to be lit.

Was it love? And, was it love from first sight? I don’t know.

And as for Emi, she didn’t know either. Every time she saw Beatrice’s face, every time her arm brushed up against hers, she felt her core temperature rising, her cheeks blushing, her breaths staggering. A lump would form in her throat, as if she were about to spill tears.

She couldn’t even pretend what she felt was close friendship, or treasured kinship. They’d known each other, what, a month? But after their last meeting… Gods, that night.

It was undeniably, incontrovertibly, absolutely a romantic feeling that Emi felt. It was impossible to act like she didn’t dream about the idea of kissing her every time she saw her, every time she THOUGHT of her. Spending a whole lot of time fretting and skirting around the idea just seemed like a waste.

But that didn’t mean that she was in love. Surely love wasn’t her heart beating fast every time she saw someone. She could say the same thing if she saw a wolf or a boar. There had to be some specific identifiable trigger where she just… knew it.

Since she didn’t know what the trigger was, clearly she still wasn’t there yet.

It wasn’t love. Not yet.

Emi sank deeper into the bathtub and gurgled bubbles up to the surface. What a situation she was in right now…

If it wasn’t love, then it was a conundrum.

She kind of liked that. “She was in a conundrum with Beatrice Ragnell,” Emi said to herself.

Emi let the bath soak over her and she tried to enjoy herself.


“You look pleased with yourself,” Mother told Emi as they ate chilled clams at the supper table.

“Y-yeah,” she replied.

It was just Emi and her parents tonight, and her plates were set out for her right across from them, on the lonely side of a very long dining table. Something about this made Emi gulp. She felt an interrogation coming on.

“Ms. Khami tells us you haven’t been doing as well in your studies lately,” Father said.

“And you have been sneaking out,” Mother added.

Tonight was a scold-a-thon after all.

“I…” She couldn’t think of any good excuses for her actions without divulging her private romantic, uh, conundrum.

“We know she’s been too hard on you, but she just wants you to be the best version of yourself you can possibly be,” said Father. “We do too.”

“But what if I’m already the best version of myself?”

“Nobody’s the best version of themselves, Emi; that’s why we have to work hard.”

Emi vehemently disagreed but she decided to keep it in. She would be the mature one this time.

“You won’t have to worry about Miss Khami too much longer, though,” Mother said. “You’ll be traveling the world with your wife soon enough.”

Ugh. Not this again. How come she didn’t get a say on her own future? How come she was being married off like some painting being put up for auction? Nobody even asked her if she liked girls in the first place…

She did, but that was beside the point.

“By the way, Lady Khara is finally coming down to the city once her term as Bureau Governess is up. You’ll finally be able to meet her once and for all.”

“But what if I don’t want to meet her?”

Father scoffed, waving his hand about as if Emi had just told a funny joke.“Oh trust us, you will. She’s amazing; she personally brought public education to the entire city of Cannapak. Within ten years, every young boy and girl will know how to read and write and perform arithmetic, just like in Balarand.”

What did that matter to Emi? Anything at all? Anything?

“And there’s more,” Mother added. “As promised, Lady Khara has written a letter for you.” A servant appeared behind Emi, spooking her, and handed over an unopened letter, sealed with a bright red wax stamp and the insignia “KHARA” written on it.

Emi took the letter.

“Go ahead,” Mother said. “Read it. We want to know what it says.”

She did:

“To my Emi,

I find that these are troubling times that we live in, fraught with conflict and chaos. When I think of you, however, all that melts away. You are the solid object that keeps me grounded lest I float away into the etherflow. 

Your parents have been kind enough to tell tales of your beauty and sing great praises of your intellect. With a sharp nose and a sharp wit, you have been able to cut a great path for yourself in Balarand, and when we are united we shall cut an image for ourselves across the continent. Together we could bring peace between Doros and Dannark. Together we could shape mountains.

Your visage appears often before me in my slumber. A wife to call my own that will accompany me on this quest of my life, someone to bring me closer to the Gods, is all I have wished for in my years in this mortal world, and I am so grateful that you wish to be the one to fulfill this for me. I could not ask for more.”

What senseless drivel was this? Emi was almost taken aback by how inane Lady Khara’s letter was. She hadn’t expected much, but… this was even less than that.

She continued to read:

“I have talked a great deal about the timing of our engagement. It has been a long, arduous five years since we were first brought together by your family and mine, and in that time I am sure we have both grown immensely in our lives. As you have now come of age and I have entered the final stages of my role as Bureau Governess here in Zahn, I have begun to realize that we can put off no longer what we were made to do. I wish to finally meet you for the first time.

Our wedding shall be this spring, I have decided, and it shall commence on schedule with Balarand’s famed Moon Festivals. We will be married right under the stars and fireworks, a beautiful ceremony to befit a beautiful woman such as yourself. I tremble with excitement as I put this announcement to my pen. I apologize if my sloppy hand has tainted this letter, but I am too far gone in anticipation to hold my wrist still.

Please, write me back at your earliest convenience. I would love nothing more than to hear from my future wife before I hold you in my arms for the first time.



Oh my. I can’t say that was a particularly innovative letter. Honestly quite embarrassing. Emi was practically exhausted, the letter was such a chore to get through. She did think a wedding under the stars sounded romantic, but it was also–

Wait, spring? That was just months away. The winter would begin, and then in a flash… the wedding would be here. It had been years and years that her parents had been talking up this engagement and this Lady Khara woman, to the point that she had almost considered if it were an elaborate practical joke. But… it was finally happening. And there was little time left. Emi lowered the letter to her side and stared across the table at her parents. They both looked positively giddy. 

“Well, what did it say?” Father asked. “Did she perhaps mention something about… a wedding?” His eyebrows raised.

“Are you excited? Aren’t you proud such a wonderful woman? …Emi?”

There wasn’t a trigger to set it off. She didn’t even feel it coming until a drop hit the back of her hand. But for some reason, tears poured out of her eyes.

“Emi, what’s wrong?” Mother asked.

She pushed back her chair, ran off, and headed back into her bedroom. With a slammed door and a crash on the bed, she let her sobs run loose in the only place she felt free anymore.

She didn’t want to be married. She just wanted to spend her life here, just like now– a happy life for her friends and family and maybe Beatrice too. But that might be about to end, she realized. All in a matter of months, it was all going to be over.

<== PreviousNext ==>

Chapter 14: An Evening in Balarand

Beatrice and Emi met back that evening at the front of the library, and Beatrice dragged Emi the short distance back over to the marketplace, the same one where they had first seen each other all those weeks ago.

The sun had begun to set, and two of the moons were already visible in the evening sky. Some street lamps had been lit, and scene around them glowed warmly, even as the weather grew colder and colder. It was as if the whole world had suddenly become tinted blue and orange.

“My parents always told me to stay away from places like this,” Emi said. 

“Well, your parents are too overprotective,” Beatrice said. “Though, considering you’re a member of the L’Hime Family, they might be in the right. I can’t believe you’re the brother of Reo L’Hime! He’s so cool.”

“He’s… cool…?” Emi did not want to know the answer to this question.

Beatrice gave the answer anyway. “My classmates talk about him all the time. Some of the girls in my class have posters of him on their bedroom walls.”



They walked side by side down the long marketplace road, surrounded by shops and stands all over the place, and jam-packed with people in all directions. Emi tried to ignore the crowds but she was still getting apprehensive being so close to so many in such a small area.

Beatrice noticed. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah… I’m fine. Let’s just keep going.”

 Neither of them intended to do any shopping this evening, but the smoky meat stands and glittering jewelry shining against the copious lanterns made the whole area fun to walk around in. The smell made it even better.

“And so you’re a junior priest, right…?” asked Emi, her smile wilting before Beatrice’s eyes.

Beatrice felt the color drain from her cheeks and promptly replied, “Well, a junior priest is just that. I don’t know if I’ll do it for real. It’s a big step, obviously. You know.” Beatrice rubbed the back of her neck. Emi felt satisfied with that answer for now.

“Of course. The future is always in motion, after all,” Emi then said.

“What do you mean by that?”

“It means I have no idea what I want to do with my life,” she said with a chortle.

Before Beatrice could say anything else, Emi’s eyes took notice of a booth displaying a set of bright, ruby-red earrings. She paused and let Beatrice walk ahead of her while she examined it.

They looked like they might make a wonderful present…

Emi glanced at Beatrice, then back at the earrings, then back at her. They were beautiful, but they wouldn’t suit her, she thought. Part of her appeal was the was she exhibited some sort of warm aura with her plain outfits and subdued smile, some sort of magnet where Emi was a very reactive metal. The way she walked, even, exuded a strong sense of herself; she swayed her hips like she had a specific purpose in every step, and yet carried herself lightly. These earrings didn’t capture that aura at all.

Beatrice, noticing Emi had fallen behind, stopped in her steps and turned back towards her. “What’s wrong?” she asked.

“N-nothing,” Emi said. 

She noticed the stand selling earrings next to Emi, some of them about as red as the girl’s own face. Was Emi trying to buy her a present this soon into their… their evening together? A bit weird. Still, she was unable to stop a giddy smile forming across her face. “I don’t need anything,” Beatrice told her. “That kind of stuff they sell is usually junk anyway.”

“Oh, no,” Emi said, her voice perking up at the sound of being vindicated. “Don’t worry, I wasn’t going to buy them. They don’t suit you.”


“Wait, no, I mean…”

Beatrice’s stomach gurgled.

“I mean, I think I should buy us food first instead.” Good save, both of them thought. “I don’t think either of us have eaten since we went to the library, right?”

“I think you’re right. But I can buy my own food, you know!” What Beatrice didn’t say was that she only had three silver coins to spend and that was her entire allowance for the week. Emi, with a coin purse with more than Beatrice got in a year, hadn’t even considered the idea of running out of cash.

They stopped at a food stand offering one of Balarand’s signature dishes, the stuffed salmon bind. There were so many varieties it was hard to choose from, including fried rice, cream cheese, sour cream, and a near-infinite variety of vinegars and sauces.

Emi was a bit bewildered by the selection and decided to choose one at random. “I’ll have the spinach,” Emi told the cook at the stand. 

“Ah, sorry, fresh out.”

“I’ll have the… grape?” That didn’t sound particularly appealing, but–

“Don’t got that either.”

“I’ll have the fried rice, then,” she said dejectedly. She liked fried rice salmon binds, but… they were far from her favorite, and on a night like this, for some reason, she was hoping for the absolute best.

Beatrice continued to look at the variety of options for stuffing, and her ears perked when she came across one unfamiliar term. “Crabspice?”

This question sparked a flash in the cook’s eyes. “Crabspice, yes. It’s a very strong spice found way out in the Torano Islands. You ever heard of there?”

“Well, yes,” Beatrice said. She knew of the Torano Islands, though only from their history with the ancient art of soul-taking. I’ve visited those islands only once; they are beautiful, but are a very limited trading partner these days, now that the fishing industry in Kent has become so prominent.

“But… what’s a crab?” Emi asked.

“I don’t much know myself,” the cook said, “but I’ve heard they are gigantic, terrifying creatures with pincers that could snap you or me in half in an instant. Whatever brave souls actually killed one, well… they’re heroes. Bringing it all the way to me, so I can offer it to the world. You wanna try?”

“Sure thing,” Beatrice said.

“It’s a bit spicy, you know.”

“Well… it IS called crabspice.”

“Are you sure, Beatrice?” Emi asked, having chosen the fried rice salmon bind. She hated spicy foods.

Beatrice shot a glare at her. She took the salmon, wrapped up in wax paper, and began chomping at what was once a member of one of the mighty Balarand Salmon shoals. Salty and savory.

“Spicy? Oh, this is nothing,” Beatrice said. “Emi, you’ve got to try this. It’s really tasty.”

“No thank you.”

She bit further into the salmon and reached a point of higher crabspice concentration. Extremely sweet at first. It was a bit hot, but Beatrice couldn’t resist eating more and more. But then…


The cook handed her a cup of water and she gulped it down in a single moment. 

Beatrice, panting out of her mouth, said, “It’s… a bit spicy after all– Hic!” she put her hands over her mouth. “Oh– Hic! No…”

“You’ve got the hiccups?” Emi laughed.

Beatrice growled like a frightened animal. “Hic!” She grabbed another glass of water and drank it down. “Hic!”

“I’ve heard if you hold your breath a really long time they’ll go away.”

“I’ve heard you need to swallow a lot of sugar,” the vendor said, “I have a cream-filled salmon if you want it. Half-price.”

“No– Hic!– thank you,” Beatrice muttered. 

They continued on towards their nonexistent destination, all the hustle and bustle of the marketplace at night a mere backdrop to these two girls hopelessly engaged with each other.

“I never stay out this late,” Emi said. 

“Are your parents going to be mad at you?” Beatrice asked.

“Well, my housekeeper will.”

“Oh yeah, I forgot you’re–Hic!– a L’Hime. You have a very tough life.”

“Very. It’s not fun and games being in a diplomat’s family. Everyone blames your family for everything that happens, and my parents are always away, and then there’s so much pressure for you to act like– You’re making fun of me.”

“No, I’d be much too frightened to tease a diplomat’s daughter,” said Beatrice. She winked. Emi pushed her away playfully. 

“I’ll have you know, my family–”

Emi shrieked as a small greyback bear skittered by.

Beatrice broke out in a riot of laughs and hiccups. “A greyback?”

“It’s not my fault!” Emi exclaimed. “They roam around the city all day and pop out of nowhere. They freak me out is all.”

“The most adorable animal in Balarand, and you’re scared of them… Oh, Emi…”

“What’s that supposed to mean…”

They were near the edge of the marketplace by now, the last few shops before the street ended and the city turned back into an orderly row of businesses and houses. The market stands here were quaint, often elderly people selling knick-knacks, or the down-on-their-luck hawking whatever they could find. They usually didn’t have much besides old junk.

Something odd caught Beatrice’s eye, though, and made her turn towards one of the booths. There were various metal objects placed around on the table. It certainly looked like old junk, but…

The seller, a mustached man in a turban, looked at the girls, his mouth neutral but his eyes smiling wide. “I see you’re interested in my machine.”

“Machine?” Beatrice asked.

Emi smirked, realizing she knew something that Beatrice didn’t. “Machines are little contraptions made of different parts. Put them all together, and they do stuff.”

“Do… what?”

“Uh… I don’t know.” That was the extent of her knowledge.

The man laughed. “They can do all sorts of things. This one, for instance…” He pointed to a large device with numbers protruding out of the front. “This one can calculate any math equation known to man. It’s the ultimate powerhouse. But, for you, maybe this will be more interesting.” He motioned to a small cube with a lever sticking out at its side. “Just crank this, and you can power the machine… giving it life…”

He began turning the lever in a circular motion, and a tiny twinkling bell started to play from inside the metal box. It was a simplistic nursery tune, but the fact that it was playing by itself just by moving the part outside… How did it work? 

Suddenly, Emi was captivated. What kind of creation was this, that could–

BOING! A fuzzy greyback bear puppet popped out of the top of the box, its paws sticking out as if it were greeting you. Emi jumped backwards a full foot. Beatrice was, once again, incapacitated with laughter and hiccups.

“H-How did you…” Emi was at a loss for words, partly from shock.

“It’s the magic of machines,” the seller said. 


He chuckled. “Only the magic of man, that is. The gears and coils inside work together to form a creation so divine, it rivals the Gods. We are our own clockmakers.”

Beatrice furrowed her brows, but didn’t say anything.

“And what’s this one called? This, uh, scary thing?”

“I call it the jack-in-the-box. Great for children. Do you want it?”

“Wow. How do you make one of these…” Emi was completely bewildered, but fascinated. You and I may take gear-powered devices for granted these days, but in Emi’s youth, it was almost mythical to see something as intricate as a clock being created for entertainment.

You could learn a lot from her. Or maybe not, what with all your gear rockets. You better clean those up after I finish this story.

“Buy it, and I’ll sell you the schematic,” the seller told her. “Then you can build your very own.”

Emi took a satchel of coins from her purse and plopped it onto the table. The money clanged against the wood with a loud thud. “How much?”

The seller smiled.

So that was how Emi ended up with a jack-in-the-box, and how Beatrice, the one with the school bag, ended up carrying it for the rest of their evening together. It was heavier than it looked, Beatrice came to learn.

After a while further, they finally reached the end of the marketplace, and there was a split. Directly ahead of them were two paths; north, with a short tunnel passing under the Grand Concourse that encircled the capital district, carriages and chariots speeding by at all hours; or south, in the direction of Beatrice’s apartment, and where Knoll Park and the Balarand Theatre had been situated for centuries and the cultured made frequent visits.

Without much deliberating, the two of them went south and walked across the narrow pedestrian bridge, passing over one of the countless canals running east-to-west throughout the city.  Below them, a gondola floated gently in place, tied up to rest for the evening. The sun had finally disappeared under the curvature of the continent, and all five moons were shining on full display. It was like something out of a painting. 

Emi stopped walking and looked out at the night sky, only the faint shadow of Gonda Tower sticking out as the buildings stretched on across the floodplains.

They were very close to one another, standing on this bridge. Beatrice exhaled, and her breath turned into a fine vapor in front of her. Emi’s did the same, and Beatrice watched as the girl breathed in again, and then shivered.

“Sure is getting cold out,” Beatrice said.

“Sure is.”

Emi felt a tickle of fabric on the back of her hand. It was from Beatrice’s coat; the two of them were so close that they were practically touching. With her eyes fixated on the canal and the rest of Balarand, she moved her hand just a little bit closer, continuing to brush it against the coat. If she really wanted to, she could reach out and touch Beatrice’s face, rub her fingers against her freckles. The only thing stopping her was the fact that that would be really strange and probably make her hate her forever.

It was a cliche to say she felt warm even in this sort of weather. But also, no matter her proximity to the girl next to her, Emi was too cold.

Beatrice, on the other hand, felt a little too hot, and wondered when she’d be able to set down her school bag. She was very concerned that her back was going to be all sweaty by the time she got back home. But she, too, felt the same feelings going through Emi’s head, I’m sure. As loath as she would be to admit it, Beatrice was smitten, her heart pulsing fast enough Emi could hear it. Nearly feel it.

They stood close to each other, angling their head to face the other without their noses getting in the way. They were very, very close.

Then Beatrice said, “I really like you,” and Emi, without thinking, took a full step backwards. “Oh.”

“S-sorry. I really like you too. I mean, I think you’re a likeable person. I, um, yeah.” Emi stepped back to her previous position, but Beatrice had already turned around and started walking away. Oh, Gods, why was she so bad at all of this… 

There were more Dannark soldiers out patrolling past the pedestrian bridge, where the two were headed. This area, being the most “cultured” part of Balarand, was more tightly watched than anywhere else in the city, the pewter-gray armor of the foreign soldiers having become a fixture throughout the southern half of the city.

In front of the Balarand Theatre, built three thousand years ago by the Demigod Dramaturge, there was a small park consisting of scattered trees and sculpture. In front of the statue to Empress Nievol, there was a bench that the two sat down on.

Being the Empress’s own visage and a common source for protests, there were even more guards posted around this statue. But they didn’t seem to pay the girls any mind. They let their minds ease and let the rest of the evening pass them by. 

It was the perfect place for people-watching, the perfect spot to gaze on the pretty, soft atmosphere of an evening in Balarand. Neither of them were concerned with that right now.

“I don’t– Hic!– do this enough anymore,” Beatrice said.

“This is the first time I’ve been out at night without my family,” Emi said. “Sounds like we’re both a bit unfashionable as human beings, huh?”

“We’re not very interesting at all, the two of us.”

“Not really.”

Beatrice put her hand through her hair for a moment, feeling uneasy about being close to such a beautiful girl with her hair so messy right now. 

Emi couldn’t stop thinking about how much she wanted to play with the curls in such a beautiful girl’s hair.

Emi’s right hand and Beatrice’s left hand were both on the bench, the sides of their pinky fingers touching. Beatrice moved her hand a bit closer, just to see what would happen, and her finger rested right above Emi’s. Emi pulled her hand away and closer to herself.

Trying to ignore what she thought was another embarrassing moment, Emi began a new topic of conversation. “I can’t understand how we never met before in the library,” she began. “Your father works there. I go about once a week. I think it’s some sort of force field that’s been intentionally trying to get us to avoid each other.”

“The Gods have their ways,” Beatrice said. “They didn’t want us to meet–Hic!–before, but now they do.”

“The Gods did this?”

“Well, yeah.”

“I highly doubt that. Maybe we’ve met before, but we just don’t remember.”

“I highly doubt THAT.” 

“You’re right. I’d never forget you.”

Beatrice winked. Emi chuckled.

“But wait, there must have been some specific days we both were in there. What about National Reading Day?”

“I never go to that,” Beatrice said. “It’s always so busy in the library on that day I just stay home.” She gave it more thought. “What about King Kline’s Birthday? I did a lot of reading that day last year.”

“Nope,” Emi said. “I had to go to all the stupid parties for those celebrations.”

“I’ve never really thought about–Hic!– Ugh, nevermind…”

Emi giggled and blushed. Even her hiccups accentuated her magnetic aura. “You’re just so cute. Has anyone told you that?”

“Not really. So, uh, thanks.”

“You’re welcome…” Her blush certainly wasn’t going away.

“What about you?” Beatrice asked.

“Well… people constantly compliment me, but it’s mostly because they want to get in my skirt.”

“And this situation is different?” she joked. She tried to narrow her eyes and give a lascivious smile, but this look was interrupted by a, “Hic!” She sighed.

Emi was paralyzed with embarrassment at the very mention of that, joking or not, and tried to steer the conversation away. “Anyway, tonight’s been really fun.”

“It really has.”

“I don’t really want it to– Ack!”

Beatrice suddenly grabbed Emi’s hand and squeezed it tight. Emi struggled to get loose for a second, but when she realized what was going on, she relented and let Beatrice slide her fingers in between hers.

For everything that came before, this was the moment when Beatrice and Emi’s story truly began. It changed their lives. In a way, it changed mine too. One simple act of putting hands together, fingers intertwined.

They walked away from the marketplace, holding hands, not caring what anyone else would think about a junior priest and a rich layabout displaying their affection so publicly. 

And they just walked around.

Eventually they ended up in Emi’s neighborhood, where Beatrice was taken aback by how large the houses were. 

“This is crazy…”

“Have you seen the mansions around Lake Geoffrey?” Emi asked. “These are just dingy apartments compared to those.”


“I mean, apartments are fine. I just, uh…”

“I guess apartments don’t have a whole maid staff, or butlers and servants doing your every bidding.”

“That’s not… I mean, they usually don’t do everything I tell them to unless I pay them extra, though!” Emi stammered as she tried fruitlessly to offer a defense of her bizarre affluent lifestyle.

Beatrice shook her head jokingly, then asked, “Which one is yours?”

“That one.” Emi pointed over to her home with currently only two windows lit by candle, looking pretty uninviting in the middle of the night like this. “I’m probably going to get in a lot of trouble when I get back.”

“Well you don’t have to go back just yet.”

“I do… Any later and my parents will call the police to search for me. They’ll think I’m being ransomed or something.” Emi let go of Beatrice’s hand, slowly. “But tonight was great.”

“It was.” Beatrice set down her school bag and gave Emi the toy she bought. “Here’s your thing.”

“This is so cool…”

“So are you,” Beatrice said. “Um, when do you want to meet again?”

Emi tried not to let her good mood fade, but it was hard when she thought about a question like that. “About that… I don’t know.  I have to help prepare for my parents’ big winter house party soon. Guests from all over Elince and Dannark will be there. And then I have to attend the party…”

“Parties are fun,” Beatrice said.

“You’ve never been to a rich party.”

That was true, though Beatrice thought it could never be any worse than those parties for Summer Break they always had at the end of the school term. The food they brought in was always pretty bad and the teachers played all the music, which usually meant it was done poorly. “Well, I’ll see you at the library sometime soon then.”

“I’ll… I’ll go every chance I get.”

“Me too.”




“Good what?”

“I don’t want to say it.” Emi was tearing up again; twice in one day. She couldn’t finish that word, because that would mean this night would be over, and time would have to pass before the next time she saw this girl. She couldn’t let it end.

“Then I’ll say it.” Beatrice took a step forward and extended her hand. “Goodbye.”

Emi shook it and cried. “Beatrice,” was all she could say. Beatrice gave a crooked smile–and then hiccuped one last time.

<== PreviousNext ==>

Chapter 13: Library Encounters

Beatrice and her Dad passed by a shrine to Phyra, where people were lined up and performing their daily prayers. It was interesting to watch people so devoted that they went to these shrines every single day to increase their fortunes, or give their thanks, or make atonements, or do whatever else it was they thought necessary to appease Her. Beatrice had even heard that there were those that went to eight, even ten shrines a day, one for every major member of the pantheon that worked their magic in Balarand.

Even on a day as cool as this, there were still as many people waiting on the Gods as there were people out shopping in the marketplace. That never ceased to impress her, not one bit.

One thing Beatrice always appreciated was the way that the shrines in Balarand seemed to simply poke out of the cityscape. They were always small, always nestled in between two larger buildings, unassuming and wood-built, ancient and holy even as everything around them was modern, sleek, boxy. This shrine to Phyra was particularly tiny, consisting of just two steps for people to kneel and pray, and the tiniest little statue that acted as an icon for her presence. Size and grandeur didn’t matter, though, as long as the Gods deemed the shrine worthy, and as long as the people could reach it. That’s what the Church always said. 

Beatrice thought it might be prudent to do some restoration work on these shrines to keep up the harmony a little better–some of them looked absolutely decrepit–but that would require more money than the Church was willing to give. The only small shrines that still looked in any way holy were the ones dedicated to Nexurk, the God of War, and that was a subject far beyond touchy in this city.

Dad didn’t seem to mind. He always prayed at the shrine to Bk’Man next to the apartment, across the street from Bodhi’s family’s shoe store. Every single morning, that bald head of his touched the wooden floor, his risk of a splinter growing more dangerous with each passing rainy season. She admired his devotion.

Soon, the two of them entered the library. Immediately, Beatrice made her way towards her usual desk, before her Dad was even able to step behind the service desk and prepare for work. “I can’t believe you are actually studying on your day off,” Dad remarked. “Isn’t there something else you could be doing with your time? It’s going to get too cold to enjoy the city pretty soon, you know.”

“Oh Dad, you know I love the winter,” she said. “I’m excited for the cold!”

“You’ll catch a cold, with that attitude,” he said.

Dad was always so concerned with his only daughter having a happy and pleasant youth when his only daughter cared more about succeeding at the goals she had set for herself. That daughter had already skipped breakfast today so she could get to the library early, and it showed from her lazy shirt-and-trousers attire and messy hair frizzing about in random directions.

“And I’m not studying, Dad, I’m just going to read a book,” Beatrice added.

“A book about…?”

“About, erm, the practical applications of soul magic…”

He shook his head slowly.

It wasn’t necessarily for school, but… she thought that it would better help her understand group magic rituals. Every time she saw Mr. Statusian use those sparks of magic he could summon, it made her giddy inside to try and train and do something like that herself. She wanted to get better so she could become the kind of priest that Tsubasa needed, someone who could help others, someone who could keep the harmony of nature and make the world a better place, even if that meant working to the point of exhaustion on a day off from school.

She probably did need to take it a bit easier.

But with her Dad being immediately greeted by several customers wishing to look up or check out books, she was now on her own for the next several hours of the day. It was time to sit down and crack open her academic text. She pulled out Fourteen Essays on the Study of the Soul and its Inherent Properties, and–

–And, from the corner of her eye she spotted something familiar.

Emi, over at a desk in the very corner of the library, silently reading a book of her own, titled A Yellow Romance. She’d apparently been here some time, already comfortable and leaning back in her chair.

Just as pretty as ever.

Beatrice’s face flared up. It had been so long since the last time she saw her that she was almost convinced it was never to be. It… had probably been less than two weeks in reality… but it still FELT like a long time.

After a moment of hesitation– why would she be way off over there anyway except to get away from distractions– Beatrice decided to approach and scope out the girl responsible for a lot of fretting emotions within her for quite some time. 

She stepped closer and closer. She tried straightening out her all-too-plain shirt that had probably been wrinkled from the wind outside, and trying to make her hair look a little bit less like she hopped right out of bed with it… which she did. Having messy hair was a poor way to make friends. But it was her only option.

“Hi there,” she said to Emi.

Nothing. No reaction. She didn’t even glance her way.

Was it the way she said it…? She probably didn’t put in enough emotion into her greeting. Probably didn’t even notice she was there, considering how unremarkable and unimposing Beatrice was. She stepped even closer, to the point that there was no way Emi wouldn’t notice her standing right in front of her. “Emi, is that you?”

Still nothing.

She was obviously ignoring her. Beatrice could take rejection, but not the silent treatment. This actually made her mad, and she was not going to stand for it. So she went back to her desk, took her school bag and library books, and placed them on Emi’s desk across from her. 

“I’m just going to read right here, if you don’t mind.”

She didn’t respond, so Beatrice took that as a tacit acknowledgement of approval.

A little while passed. Unlike last time she was too flustered to study next to Emi, she was actually having a decent time. The fact that she was being a jerk and ignoring her was probably helping.

She read a good ways into the book, though the essays were all a bit boring because of the completely unscientific realm that they inhabited in their discussion of topics pertaining to souls. It was all essentially conjecture because none of these theories had never been successfully done. Body transfer, spontaneous mutation, soul chrysalis healing… All interesting on paper, but… Okay, not very interesting on paper either.

Her read was interrupted with a gentle tap on the shoulder, making Beatrice jump up in surprise.

“Hi, Beatrice,” Emi said, looking towards her but not making eye contact. “I’d really appreciate if, um, you moved somewhere else.”

“Wh… what?”

“If that’s okay with you,” she said.

“I haven’t spoken to you in a couple hours,” Beatrice said. “What did I do?”

“Well, I haven’t, uh, I haven’t read a single chapter of my story since you sat down. I was trying to see if Princess Valentia would choose Lady Gwinette or Lordess M’tsargh’i, you know.” She let out a soft chuckle, but Beatrice couldn’t figure out if she was joking or serious.

“What does that have to do with me…?”

“You’re, um…”

Beatrice was starting to feel a little guilty. She had apparently done something wrong, and she didn’t even know what it was. How could–

“You’re, um, incredibly distracting,” Emi said. “As a person.”

The nerve! Beatrice quickly stood up and began gathering her things to move tables. She wasn’t going to–

“I mean, distracting in a good way,” Emi added, even if that sentence was a bit nonsensical and did little to calm Beatrice’s mood.. “Because I really want to get to know you better and I constantly think about what I want to say to you.” Tears started to well up in the girl’s eyes. “And I’m sorry if I sound like a jerk.”

Beatrice sat back down. She felt the impulse to reach out and touch Emi’s face, to wipe the tears off her face. A girl that pretty didn’t deserve to cry. 

Oh, she was actually doing it, her index finger catching a teardrop just as it fell from her eye. Beatrice pulled her hand away. “I’m sorry,” she said.

Emi grabbed Beatrice’s arm and pulled the hand back towards her. “No, I’m sorry. What I really meant to ask was, uh, do you want to… go anywhere sometime maybe, or… uh, anything like that?”

“Yes,” Beatrice said flatly. “I do.” She pulled her hand away again.

Emi’s face lit up. “You do?”



“Right now.”

“Right now? Uh, okay.” Emi stood up for a second, then sat back down. “Actually, no, I want to finish this book first. It’s really good.”

“Oh, yeah, sorry,” Beatrice said. “I guess I’ll go read over there or something, so I don’t, uh, distract you so much.” She couldn’t help but giggle when she said this.

“Actually, I think I’ll go outside for a bit. I like reading outside better.” She did? Then why was she reading in here…?

“Yeah, I’ll wait for you,” Beatrice said. 

“Thank you.” Emi sped out of the library.

Beatrice realized she was starting to get dizzy from her heart beating so rapidly. Now she was the one who was completely unable to read a page of her book.

<== PreviousNext ==>

Chapter 12: Fitting

Emi had been standing for over an hour, and it didn’t seem like she was going to stop anytime soon, but at least she was getting some reading in.

Her current book was an epic poem written early in Elince’s history called The Inundation. Being as it was, it was extremely dry and loquaciously written, even if it was supposed to be a tale of war and romance among the three municipalities that eventually merged as one after the Treaty of Balarand.

The current section was about a captive princess being rescued by a knight in shining armor, but unlike the typical fairy tales, it was a ruse by the princess, who collaborated with her captors in order to defeat her own kingdom’s champion.

It had yet to become interesting, but she was unable to put the book down and get another, so she stuck with what she had. 

One day, I’m going to make you read The Inundation, too. What, you think you’ll be able to decide on your own what you’ll read? Not when you fail out of school because you’re off building gear rockets in the backyard. I swear, sometimes… You have a lot in common with this Emi girl. So you’d better pay attention.

“No, no, stop moving around,” scolded Javert, the tailor who was taking a third round of measurements because apparently the first two times weren’t accurate enough, or something. Either her admittedly-above-average sizes were fluctuating wildly every moment, or else this tailor was just a dumb jerk.

Doing a dress fitting for a single outfit for a single party was unnervingly annoying by itself. Having to re-do it completely halfway through because Ms. Khami soured on the low-cut neckline on the one she had originally picked out had sent Emi completely over the edge.

She simply didn’t care anymore.

The last party Emi went to over at Tia Knoll’s mansion was fine enough without having to strangle herself in a corset and act like some modest princess-in-wait. This new winter party wasn’t for a good month or two and she was already having to suit up just because the Dannark Empress-Consort was going to show up for a couple hours. Oh, how the conquered live to appease their oppressors.

Why her parents wanted to treat her like a delicate prize to be won when she was already engaged to some noblewoman off in Zahn was beyond her. If a Dannark Prince took a liking to her, were they suddenly going to break the wedding off with her current fiancee and trade her up? Did it work like that in the realm of mid-level diplomacy?

The idea of being married, being forced to give up everything in her life to serve the whims of her family with no regard to her own feelings… It strangled her more than any dress ever could. It made her want to be strangled.

At least she could read whatever books she wanted, she guessed.

She felt a sharp pain at her scalp and yelped. The tailor had yanked her hair for a moment, but now he was the one grumbling. “You ought to get a haircut,” he said. “Hair’s getting far too long.” Did he pull on her hair by accident? Or did he really just… Oh, whatever.

Emi took a look in the mirror, looked at herself wearing this currently still-oversized dress, the same dress she would likely be wearing to the winter party in the near future. It suited her, she would admit. Her parents were paying very good money to ensure that it suited her, though, so this was to be expected. And even though it suited her, it was too bright, too flashy for her tastes.

Maybe it was just her. She had been groomed to be as beautiful as she could be, the spitting image of her parents and all the wealth they had given her, but maybe it was just overkill. Her princessly demure image was offset just a tad by her curves, just a tad by her knife-sharp nose, just a tad by her height. None of that she could control, but it was like she was being fit into a box that she wasn’t the right size for, being groomed for a role that didn’t work for her.

One day she’d fix all of that. She swore to the Gods, whichever ones were listening, that she’d fix all that. 

Emi had finally reached the point in this epic poem where the captive princess was prepared to pull her ruse on the champion and capture them. However, the champion knight had just been revealed to be none other than the princess’s younger sister.


This was fairly compelling. Something about this poetry was starting to get to her. That or the standing for hours was making her light-headed. Was this really a true story, or loosely based on one? You could never tell with these epic poems. She wanted it to be real, because she wanted to be a part of this kind of story. Whether it was the captive princess or the champion sister, she didn’t care.

Speaking of reading… What was she going to do when she went to the library tomorrow?

That Beatrice girl hadn’t been there the last few times she visited, but she also had been going in the mornings lately so she could sneak back in time for lunch.

Tomorrow she was going to time it just right. She was going to time it right and end this stupid fantasy of hers forever. 

Why was she obsessing over a girl she’d met only once, twice if you really stretched it? Probably because there was nothing better to do this time of year other than complain about the weather getting too cold and remark with sadness about the slow but inevitable passage of time. This was obviously just some sort of schoolgirl crush and she needed to get over it quickly. Beatrice was a very serious person and heavily concentrated in her studies, whatever they may have been. Emi was just some spoiled rich girl complaining because her very expensive dress didn’t suit her as well as a different very expensive dress. 

Not to mention the being-engaged-to-a-noblewoman thing. She didn’t even want to consider the possibility of these two events intersecting. It would remind her far too much that her fate was sealed.

She decided she was going to go to the library, pretend Beatrice didn’t exist, and let this whole thing dissolve from there once the girl expressed her mutual disinterest in Emi. It would be the perfect practice for her arranged marriage– getting over a girl she liked by convincing herself that it wasn’t real. (In reality, such a practice would be very harmful, and I recommend you never do it, but Emi was not always the most clear-headed of thinkers. I will admit she was hardly ever a clear-headed thinker.)

After that, though, Emi could forget about that curly-haired beautiful jerk, about that stupid handshake, about that really embarrassing thing she did with saying her name over and over again… all of it.

“Ouch!” The tailor had pricked her with a pin.

“That is what you get for moving about,” he shouted.

Why couldn’t she just be over with him, too?

<== PreviousNext ==>

Chapter 10: Never Felt Freer

“Emi? Emi? I’m talking to you–”

Emi slammed the door and turned the lock.

Ms. Khami continued to yell through the door about how much trouble she’d be in when her parents returned to Balarand or how she wouldn’t eat supper for a week. None of these threats ever went anywhere. She was a terrible little thing, so much worse than her brothers, sure, but she couldn’t care less. Ms. Khami would get over it. 

In the confines of this bedroom, the only things that mattered were Emi and whatever she cared about. The bed was bundle of twisted blankets, the desk was littered with loose papers, and the floral blouse she wore yesterday still laid on the floor in wrinkles. Just how Emi liked it.

She hopped on top of her bed and jumped up and down. She was sure Ms. Khami could hear her mattress springs bouncing around, but ultimately the only thing she could do about it was grumble and hope in vain that Emi’s parents would decide to punish her.

“Woo-hoo!” Emi shouted.

She never felt freer than when she trapped herself in her bedroom.

With a partly-deliberate twist she flipped herself around and landed on the bed butt-first. She laid down, spread out all her limbs, and heaved a long sigh. For a few moments she stayed there just like this. When she started getting more than a little drowsy, she turned her head on its side and focused her eyes on an old painting on the wall. It was a Tormod Benici painting of the First Winter Ceremonies–a duplicate, obviously, since the original was a priceless artifact kept in a museum in northern Dannark.

The painting was pretty, even if it wasn’t real. It showed a stark white snowscape with men and women in heavy winter clothing gathered around in a circle dancing over the Jewel of Elince. A flock of fairies accompanied them, and a runic symbol glowed in the sky. No matter how much Emi disliked the winter, she loved this painting.

She loved this painting, and she loved her bedroom, itself a work of art in its own way. Every bundle of dirty clothes on the floor, every stack of books laid haphazardly against a wall, every souvenir from her parents’ trips placed in prominent but ill-fitting spots specifically to show her ambivalence towards them… It was Emi’s own masterpiece, her own creation. 

This bedroom was her sanctuary, a place where she controlled the elements, regardless of if those elements were nothing more than her personal possessions. As long as she stayed in here, she could throw around whatever she wanted, or jump on her bed whenever she wanted, or feel whichever emotions she wanted. 

There was a certain irony, then, to her sanctuary being the place she was constantly trying to sneak out of, but it felt like it was a natural contradiction. Emi had freedom, so long as she chose to be in here. She was free from her annoying housekeeper nagging her about everything, free from an arranged marriage she never had a say in, free from the worries of meeting the most gorgeous human being and completely flubbing it.

She tilted her head back toward the ceiling. That girl from the library… from the marketplace… her name was Beatrice. What a cute name. Pretty uncommon these days, too.

“Beatrice,” she whispered.

Her name felt so nice to say.

If it weren’t for that stupid handshake… Why did Emi shake her darn hand? Normal girls didn’t do that. Especially not with each other! She refused to forgive herself for something so egregiously embarrassing. Her face must have been blood-red the entire time she was walking home. It was red even now.

Emi put three fingers on her lips.

“Beatrice,” she mouthed, letting herself feel her lips move as she said the name. “Beatrice. Beatrice. Beatrice.” 

Such a pretty name. She let her mouth keep saying it, let her mouth keep smiling like it belonged to a madwoman. Her mind imagined going back to the library, seeing that curly head of hair, putting her hands through it. Yes, that was a good plan.






The loud knocks startled her and completely took her out of the moment. It was still Ms. Khami, but she did not begin this time with yelling and complaining. “Ah, Emi, there is a guest for you. Shall I let this one in to see you?”

“I-I-Um, who is it?”



She got up from her bed and unlocked the door. Seconds later, a boy dressed in a cardigan sweater and extremely tight pants entered the room. He wore a smug grin and a long black wig that glittered against his shiny bronze face. She was fairly sure he literally put glitter in his wig (something that would be proven true in later years). This was the nobleboy Tia Knoll, the nearest thing Emi had to a close friend.

“I apologize if I have interrupted anything important,” he said.

No comment.

Emi kicked her floral blouse under the bed to hide the slobbish nature she was so proud of just moments earlier. “So what brings you by today?” she asked.

“I was just in the neighborhood,” Tia said before giggling uncontrollably. Tia lived in one of the large mansions outside the city, on the southern banks of Lake Geoffrey, an area worlds away from even Emi’s admittedly nice house in central Balarand. He was obviously not simply taking a stroll, if that’s what he was insinuating. “I would like to, if you are willing, cordially accept the invitation to your parents’ winter party this year.”

“Oh… I had forgotten there was one,” Emi said. It was one of the big ones, too, judging by the name winter party. That wasn’t good. “I wonder if I can get out of it.” 

“Your parents will most likely force you to attend,” he said. “I do not care much for these kinds of parties myself, either, so I understand your struggle.”

“That’s a lie and you know it.”

He giggled. “Well, I do fancy meeting new cute boys on occasion, but as for this party, I doubt it will be too interesting in that regard,” he said. “However, it will have many Dannark nobles coming down to visit Balarand for the first time since the occupation. Many chances to network with the bureaucrats, in other words.”

“I guess I’ll be seeing you there, then…”

Tia was right. 

Emi’s parents always held these horrid house parties that went on forever and had hundreds of wealthy people drunkenly dancing around and all those customary preparations and fancy dresses and utter foolishness. If she could, she would desert this lifestyle forever… but she had no choice in the matter. Or any matter, as long as its boundaries were outside of the domain of her bedroom.

Emi wondered why Tia even bothered to personally drop by rather than send a letter in the mail, except that he wanted to see Emi’s unfortunate reaction to the impending party. In that case, he got exactly what he wanted.

“I see you are getting a lot of schoolwork done,” he said, looking over at Emi’s desk, which was covered in notebooks and books. Economic Theory laid in the middle, a dozen or more bookmarks sticking out.

“I hate my schooling,” she said.

“Such is the lot of those of us too special to be sent away to boarding school,” Tia lamented. “I sometimes long for the thrill of living abroad. But my place is at my home.”

“I’m hardly special,” Emi said. “Oh wait, you were talking about you.”

“You’re too hard on yourself,” he said. “I think you have been cooped up in this room too long.”

“Only for… all day.”

Tia smiled broadly and his eyes narrowed. “Perhaps you need a new hobby.”

“Maybe, but I have to get ready for this big party first,” she said.

“And that, I await.”

In that case, there were sure to be plenty of preparations to be done. There went her dreams of being able to go to the library much anytime soon. And so went her chances of seeing Beatrice anytime soon.

Emi would have been upset if she didn’t expect things like this at every corner. This was her natural mode of life, after all…

<== PreviousNext ==>

Chapter 8: Sitting Together

Emi, Emi, Emi… what were you doing?

Why did you sit down next to this gorgeous human being? Why did you say you love reading indoors? Nobody says that. It just isn’t said, you know. This was such a bad idea.

She wanted to read this Economic Theory book so Ms. Khami wouldn’t yell at her as much tonight, but she was incredibly distracted by the girl next to her.

Emi just wanted to talk to her and get to know her and stare at her curly hair. But the girl was, of course, reading through her book like crazy. She seemed completely into it, even when the book was something as boring as History of Incantations and a Treatise on Traditional Methods. She seemed like such a serious person.

She thought about saying something, about what the girl was reading and why she was reading it, something to start a conversation, but the way she was reading, she felt like if she interrupted her, she’d just give a glare and silently move to another table. 

Economics was so dry, even with this book Earl had recommended… it was almost impossible to pay attention enough to read it when breathing almost literally down her neck was, well, her. 

She kept looking at the girl, and sometimes the girl would look back at her. She started to realize that maybe she was a nuisance to her. It was just really tough to sit next to her and act like nothing was happening. What a bad idea!

Maybe she could stave off this awkward, petrifying feeling at the pit of her stomach by turning her attention elsewhere, anywhere but the girl sitting next to her. Perhaps the library shelves, stacked four, maybe five Emis high, would be of interest. There were so many books, some so far out of reach that you had to climb to the second floor balcony to retrieve them. Surely that wasn’t an efficient system without some sort of machine to lift you up easily, something other than going up and down the stairs every time you searched for a title. Someone should build that sort of machine, she thought, though she didn’t know a single thing about how machines were designed, how they were built. Maybe she would ask Ms. Khami to assign her some books based on that. Then she could impress the girl next to her with a new creation, one that would help out the entire library… Oh, this wasn’t helping.

Emi realized this was all a waste of time. Life’s way of telling her she was a silly, gullible human being and probably the Gods playing a practical joke. She hadn’t gotten any work done, even though that was the main reason she snuck out. All that had happened was that she got sucked into sitting with this girl who didn’t give a single care about her because she actually knew how to study correctly.

After a few more minutes of cursory book looking-over, she straightened out the desk and got up from her chair. 

The girl looked up the exact same moment. Darn it, she was just being even more of an annoyance than she wanted to be. “Sorry,” she told the girl.

“Are you leaving?”

“Yeah, my parents need me back home to… go do some preparations for supper,” Emi lied. “I’d love to study some other time.” Clearly this girl did not want anything to do with her, but Emi was seemingly unable to turn off her politeness mode once triggered.

“Well, we’ll see each other at the library, I guess,” the girl said, giving a wide smile but her eyes giving away some sort of unhappiness. She was simply being polite, too, Emi was sure.


Well, it wasn’t like the two of them were ever going to meet again, not with how cold the girl had acted toward her, or with how being anywhere near her had sent Emi into an emotional frenzy just from how absolutely amazing she looked. Emi was a mature, proper lady, and knew that pursuing things that were gone, was an act of idiocy, she thought.

It is important to note here that Emi was not the sort of girl who exactly “got things” easily, hence her complete blindness to the actual situation here. You and I know what was going on, but Emi was quite out of the loop of her own feelings. It is worth at least a little pity.

“Uhh…” Emi stammered.


“Well then….”

They locked eyes for a moment, and Emi was very unsure of what to say. This must have lasted for an eternity, at least until–


The library clock bell rang out to announce the top of the hour. Okay, it really was time for Emi to return home, if it was getting that late.

“Well them, um, yeah,” she said as a way to say goodbye. It was an attempt, at least.

Emi took one step towards the door, and then was frozen solid by a shout of, “Wait!” 

She turned around. The girl had quickly bounded from her seat and hurried up to face Emi directly.

They stood so close, now… Emi tried as hard as she could to keep eye contact. She probably gulped. 

“It was nice meeting you,” the girl said.

“Yeah, it was nice.” Emi extended her hand, and the girl took it.

Firm handshake.

“Well, that’s one way to make an introduction,” the girl said, giggling.

Emi tilted her head to the side. What did she mean by that?

“By the way, what’s your name?” the girl asked.

“I’m Emi.”

“And mine name is Beatrice. See you around.”


Beatrice. Her name was Beatrice. 

Emi turned and left the library, but she was afflicted with a curse: a crackly grin that remained etched on her face for the rest of the afternoon.

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Chapter 7: A Solvable Puzzle

The girl at the service counter was about to leave.

Beatrice had been glancing at the girl and her distractingly full-figured body every chance she could get for the past several minutes, but the girl seemed to be looking off very intently at something else every time she took a glance… And now, after all this time waiting for a book from Beatrice’s father, she was exiting the library.

Wait, she couldn’t leave, not this soon! This was like some sort of puzzle for Beatrice. She saw an unknown but instantly-recognizable character at a sudden but crucial moment. That instantly-recognizable character was departing, but Beatrice wanted nothing more than to make her presence known to her. She needed to to seize the opportunity to chase her down before she disappeared from her life, possibly forever. And she only had one moment remaining. What should she do, what should she do… How could she solve this…

“Hey,” Beatrice said.

 The girl stopped right in her tracks. That wasn’t exactly a difficult puzzle.

She turned around. Their eyes met once again. Dark, deep brown, inviting and warm. Beatrice was having a hard time keeping eye contact, but she persisted. 

“Yes?” the girl asked, finally.

What did Beatrice want to say? What could she say?

“Come here often?” She immediately regretted her choice.

The girl took more than a moment to respond, saying, “Yeah, any chance I get.” She pressed her teeth to her lower lip, then added, “How about you?”

“Me too.” This was very strange. “And we’ve never… met before?”

The girl took a few steps closer towards Beatrice’s desk. “I really don’t know. Are you…”

“The girl from…”

“The marketplace?” They both asked in unison.

Wow, what a weird coincidence. The Gods worked in baffling ways sometimes.

The girl blushed and backed away a few steps. She fidgeted around like she was pained with discomfort. Was she about to leave after all?

“Do you want to, uh, read at this table?” Beatrice asked. “I feel awful taking the whole thing up by myself.” She tried to ignore the fact that almost none of the tables in the library were occupied.

“Of course,” the girl said. “I, uh, love reading indoors. I’m just going to–” She sat down in a chair across from Beatrice and sat down a book about economics. “–sit here and do some studying.”

“Okay, me too.”

Beatrice glanced over at the book that the girl had in her hands. It was Economic Theory, by Popoclous. Economics, eh? This girl was some sort of properly-educated type. Probably went to one of those really fancy private schools where they didn’t even have to wear uniforms.

Well… Now Beatrice was sitting right next to the most beautiful girl she had ever seen in her entire life. This was certainly happening.

She sighed, and then took a deep breath. The girl even smelled great. Some kind of faint perfume. A scent Beatrice couldn’t place, something sweet. She was a rich girl, that was for sure. But she was reading at the public library, for some reason. Didn’t rich girls have libraries at their own homes? They do, but as Beatrice had rarely encountered real wealth in her life, she didn’t really understand it. That was soon about to change.

She attempted to continue studying her book about magical rituals, but she realized very quickly that that was a lost cause. She was right here next to her, and Beatrice was just… going to study?

It is a well-known fact that you do not study with someone you are attracted to. It is a law of nature, part of the harmony of the Gods that, when you are with someone you fancy, your mind no longer possesses the capability to absorb information, to retain anything you have learned. Beatrice was understanding that fact right at this moment.

She was tall, elegant, wearing a fancy dress as if it were a casual shirt-and-trousers combo. But, as much as she looked the part, she didn’t carry herself like a princess. Biting her lip, hands clutching her books with an all-too-tight grip. She had an aura that snared Beatrice and refused to let go. Surely a creature had shape shifted into the object of Beatrice’s desire in order to take her away and suck her life force dry. But if this was how such a creature would do it, she knew for certain she would be too weak to resist. 

Beatrice’s only hope was to pray to the Gods that this wasn’t an illusion that sat next to this girl at the desk, because if this girl was real, it was quite possibly one of the best days of her life.

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Chapter 6: What Do I… Do

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

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

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

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

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

No way. Just look at her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Chapter 4: Sneaking Out

Winter was coming.

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

“This sucks,” she muttered to herself.

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

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

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

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

There. She was out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes. Well, I think so. I hope so.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emi’s heart stopped.

It was that girl.

That girl from the marketplace.

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

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