Beatrice, Runa, and the giant hulking monstrosity carrying them on its back made their way towards Castle Balarand. Runa was giddy with laughter, but Beatrice was gripping the thing as tightly as possible. Her body was shaking more than even the bumpiest portions of that carriage ride to Mammoth Pass. This monster was moving so fast that she felt like her glasses were going to fly off at any moment.
She was on the back of a beast. An eight-foot-tall, humanoid beast. Its ears were so pointy she was afraid to touch them.
“I can’t believe you actually went and made a homunculus!” Beatrice shouted. The wise thing would be to do would be to be unassuming and try not to draw attention from the growing number of people outside as the sky grew dark from the ash rising across the city. The giant monster they were riding made that impossible, though. “And you used a human’s hair without their permission! That’s really rude!” That was not to mention the fact that it happened to be her girlfriend’s hair she used, making the creature all that more uncanny to look at.
Its lanky, hairless body made her quiver anytime she saw it, but its brown eyes resting their gaze on her tilled soil… well, she was pretty sure she knew where those came from. Nothing else bore any resemblance, but those eyes…
“I will do anything in the pursuit of domination,” Runa said. “I put none before that, not even myself.”
“What about a rebellion destroying Balarand and sending us into war with Dannark?”
“I will most certainly not allow that,” she said. “There is only one person allowed to conquer Balarand. Me.” Beatrice really hoped Runa grew out of her mad scientist phase soon…
Some Dannark soldiers jumped out from the shadows, lances pointed at the three of them. “Halt!” they shouted. “You cannot progress past this– Oh my Goddess!”
The homunculus charged forwards, knocking the weapons out of the soldiers’ grips and then literally tossing them aside.
“I’m thinking of naming it Hasha. Does that sound like a good name to you?”
Beatrice didn’t respond. There was no point.
On the side of the street, a pack of greyback bears howled, scared senseless by the horrific monster running past them. They bolted through the snow in the opposite direction.
Castle Balarand, now covered from corner to corner in rebel soldiers, was going to be impossible to get through. but that’s where all the prisoners seemed to be kept, and if Emi was going to be anywhere, it was probably there.
“We’re breaking into there just to save one measly woman?” Runa asked. “She is indeed beautiful, but that seems excessive.”
“And her family,” Beatrice added. “And any other people being wrongfully imprisoned by these people. We’re saving everyone.”
“What do they matter to me? Granted, they would surely become loyal subjects if I were to free them… But my plans better be in here, or I will be upset.”
“I think most of these rebel people are untrained civilians wielding weapons for the first time in their lives. It shouldn’t be too difficult.” Beatrice and Runa hopped off of the monster–er, “Hasha,” as it was apparently called, and stepped back from it.
Beatrice turned and looked at the homunculus. She tried not to cringe at its ugly, bulging face. It might have been the only chance they had to help, though. “I… can you clear out the soldiers up there?” she asked. It did nothing.
“Go on, you can do it,” Runa encouraged. “You’re mommy’s little sweetheart.”
On that note, the homunculus went towards the castle. There were screams and shouts, and soldiers quickly surrounded it, but they all went down very quickly. The homunculus only had to swing its arms from side to side to knock everyone around it out. At least, Beatrice desperately hoped they were only being knocked out.
After the field appeared to be cleared, Beatrice and Runa advanced. Runa patted the homunculus on its back, hopping into the air to reach it. “You’re such a good child,” she said. “You are going to have so many amazing siblings.”
“Come on, let’s go, Runa.”
They entered the castle with ease… only to find Dannark soldiers and rebel soldiers clashing by the dozens, slicing each other with swords and screaming out. Bodies littered the floor.
It was a terrifying scene to see, and one Beatrice took great pains to ignore. She tried to block it out as best she could and focus on the only question that mattered: where were the prisoners?
“Let’s find my plans!” Runa shouted.
The homunculus charged forwards through the frenzied fighting and Beatrice closed her eyes as tight as she could, just so she wouldn’t see the horrors they passed by. She only opened them when the screaming voices were well behind.
“We must find the evidence room and seize back what is rightfully mine.”
“Could we please free the prisoners first?!”
“And leave them to be caught up in the warring back there? I think not,” Runa said.
She may have been right. The castle was the epicenter for armed and bloody conflict, and releasing a whole load of unarmed prisoners into the middle of it was a recipe for disaster. They needed to act more carefully.
This was going to be tougher than Beatrice thought, if that were even possible.
Next, Lord Lau took Beatrice and Emi to a new sight altogether: the National Museum of Mammoth Pass, one of Dannark’s many cultural museums dedicated to preserving its history and art.
In Balarand, the construction of a museum shortly after the occupation was a source of great controversy. It housed the Jewel of Elince, the nation’s most precious artifact, and the occupational government refused to allow the people to take it out it during the Winter Ceremonies. Many boycotted the museum in protest, and there was word of serious financial troubles already.
Emi imagined there had been tensions about the same things here in Mammoth Pass long ago, but it had settled out over time. Would Elince ever become the same way? Would the occupation even last such a long time?
They entered the museum and were immediately greeted with a huge skeleton of a Mammoth on display, right at the entrance.
That seemed blasphemous to a high degree.
“Do not worry,” Lord Lau said. “It is merely a model. Mammoth bones always burned in this city, not stored and displayed. As if we were savages, really…”
“That wasn’t there the last time I came here,” Emi said.
“The Empress herself requested it last year,” he said. “They had to make do with an imitation, but it was the best that could be done without upsetting the Gods.”
Hmm… Emi didn’t like this.
Beatrice had come here, excited to learn a lot from the museum and even wore her traditional ancient Balarand-style outfit, the one with the sash and cape and everything. But the first thing here was a sight that could be outright blasphemous to her whole religion. Was this really okay? Emi wondered what Bk’Man would think if Balarand performed rituals to appease Him, but kept an effigy of one of His servants on display as well. It seemed mighty suspicious. She wasn’t the junior priest, though, so what did she know?
Her girlfriend seemed to notice the way Emi was fretting. “It’s fine,” Beatrice told her. “I think it’s pretty cool. My Dad would absolutely love this place.”
“Ah, your father is interested in this sort of place? He must be an esteemed scholar,” Lord Lau said.
“Not really,” Beatrice said. “He just likes studying about the ancient cultures in Tsubasa. They used to have more magic and completely different languages, apparently.”
“You must tell him everything you learn here, then,” Lord Lau said. “I will give you the most comprehensive tour I can.”
Emi most certainly did not want to be given the most comprehensive tour Lord Lau could give, because she had known this man for most of her life. If he spoke, they wouldn’t make it past the first exhibit by the end of the day.
“I do wish your Dad was here,” Emi said. “I love that man.”
“What do you know, I love him too,” said Beatrice.
“I wish I could have taken your whole family and shown them all of this cool stuff so they could be happy. But I’m not good enough yet.”
“Oh, don’t worry, Emi. My parents are happy just like they are. My Dad has to stay and support the library, because there aren’t many people who work there. And my Mom won’t go anywhere without him. So really, it’s okay.”
“If you say so…”
“Let us explore history and nature,” said Lord Lau. “Follow me. I shall show you the latest discoveries by researchers that have explored the northern portion of Tsubasa looking for preserved specimens of ancient life. So far, they have found a great number of promising…”
Beatrice began following him towards the exhibit on “Animals of the Plebias Mountains” and had a happy smile on her face. No! She didn’t know what she was in for!
She tugged on Beatrice’s jacket and whispered, “Come on. We need to get away from him.”
“What, how come?”
“…fifteen years since the previous fossil, and in that time they suspected the whole species was naught but a…” Lord Lau stopped and turned around. “Is anything the matter?”
“Nothing, we just need to visit the ladies’ room,” Emi said. She pulled her girlfriend with her towards the bathroom, but after they turned the corner towards a display of ancient tools used six thousand years ago, she stopped.
“What’s wrong?” Beatrice asked.
“Lord Lau lectures lots,” Emi said. “Once, when I was five years old, he told me about the Romance of Zahn, that old epic poem, and how the real-life events differed from the story. He went on for over six hours. I was five years old.”
“And you listened the whole time? That’s so sweet.” Beatrice leaned in for a kiss but Emi put her hand in front of her face. It was not a deserving moment, and Beatrice was not getting away with it.
“I just think that, even if this museum is really cool… maybe we should try to find more things to do since we only have a couple days left in Mammoth Pass.”
“But Lord Lau is so nice,” Beatrice said.
“You’re right, but… Oh hey, look at that.”
Emi walked up to a painting in this display of ancient traditions, titled The First Winter Ceremonies, by Tormod Benici. “This is the same painting I have in my bedroom. Isn’t that neat?” It was a swirling mix of blues and whites showing off ancient Balarand, with pink-hued decorations adorning the snow-covered buildings. Beatrice and her dark-gray outfit complimented the painting well.
“Why do you have a fake painting in your bedroom again?” Beatrice asked. “I think I’ve asked this before but I forget. It’s kind of weird, isn’t it?
“You haven’t, because the answer is… I have no idea.” Emi shrugged. “It’s been there since I was a child. I like it.”
“That’s cute. You’re cute.” Beatrice leaned in for a kiss, but was again rebuffed by Emi’s palm. Not right now buddy.
They passed by another small exhibit, one showing off magic golems, like the one Runa was working on in her lab. Right now, all that was showing was a metallic core, but there was a large crank in front of the display. Beatrice seemed to be intentionally ignoring it, but Emi stepped over to the display and turned the lever. As she did, a bunch of rocks on wires emerged from holes in the exhibit and moved close to the core, forming a humanoid body. Haha, it was a self-assembling golem using levers and pulleys. Emi thought it was so neat.
Beatrice had long since moved on from the exhibit, though. She really didn’t like Runa’s experiments, did she?
“Oh, Emi, look at this!” she suddenly exclaimed.
“Oh yeah, what is– Ack!”
Emi let out a shriek as she saw the next exhibit– a massive greyback bear, twice the size of a human. It was a fake model, painted, but still. Terrifying stuff.
“It appears that this was the greyback of many thousands of years ago,” Beatrice said. “They got smaller over time and now they’re just your friendly neighborhood scavenger. Man, this thing looks like it could eat a human though!”
“I wish I never saw this,” Emi said. “Knowing a creature like this ever existed is bad for my mental health.”
“You’ve got more problems than your mental health, so don’t worry,” said Beatrice.
Despite the brazen insult, Emi only giggled.
Lord Lau finally caught up with them a few minutes later when they were in an area that showed off the architecture of ancient tribes around the Plebias Mountains.
“Oh, there you are. I had wondered if you had not been suddenly whisked away by pesky spirits.” He saw the crude stone tools on display next to them and his eyes lit up. “Actually, this is a fine exhibit as well,” he said. “Elince had a wide variety of early historic traditions, but they were far from the first civilization to form on the continent. Did you know the earliest evidence of civilization on Tsubasa actually comes from the Frozen Desert? Archaeologists have scoured the mysterious region for clues to its history, but all that we can find are broken-down structures and tools like these, stretching back ten to twelve thousand years in the past. Because we cannot find similar evidence in the rest of the continent that is as old as this, we can only assume that the climate must have been significantly different back in those times, as…”
The Northern Highway was the main road bisecting the kingdom of Elince, stretching from Balarand all the way to Dannark and beyond. It facilitated almost all travel throughout the main cities in the region, creating hubs of trade and commerce in between that lifted entire cities out of poverty.
And, in the middle of wintertime, the Northern Highway was a sight of great beauty.
Lake Ehota, frozen over in the middle of the winter, was a sight to behold. It was a vast expanse, going on for miles and miles all the way towards the Plebias Mountains, consisting of nothing but ice and falling snow. It carved up most of the scenery, a flat stretch of light blue going on past the horizon. A beautiful wasteland.
On the other side of the small road was a thick layer of trees, covered in that same falling snow. Occasionally a snow leopard could be seen dancing around as it looked for prey, or a pack of greyback bears could be seen playing around with each other, but other than that the forests were empty and quiet.
The weather outside must have been absolutely frigid. But inside a certain carriage were two certain young women who were currently focusing the entirety of each other’s attentions on each other.
Emi and Beatrice, wrapped up in a warm fur blanket and snuggled up on one of the carriage seats, had hardly looked outside for quite some time now, too busy tasting each other’s lips.
Beatrice had not done one second of studying during the trip so far. She felt somewhat guilty about it, but in the end she cared much more about her time with her girlfriend than becoming a priest, so she continued to savor every moment they shared.
Emi, by the second day, had given up trying to look nice in the brief moments when the caravan made rest stops, despite the many rich and noble people riding alongside them. She had slipped out of her formal wear and into a much warmer and much simpler leather coat. Together with the blanket and Beatrice’s arms around her, though, she was almost too hot at this point, and wanted to take the coat off. But that would mean letting go of Beatrice, something she was not willing to do right now.
They had individually wondered how long they could reasonably keep this up, kissing and cuddling and doing practically nothing else. It turned out that the answer was quite a while.
“I love you so much, Tris,” Emi said as she caught her breath.
Beatrice did not reply, and only leaned forward to kiss her once again.
That was answer enough.
The love shared between Beatrice Ragnell and Emi L’Hime was real. It was expressed in every shared glance, every giggle, every pitter-patter of the heart, and it carried itself through this trip towards Mammoth Pass.
Of course, it could not last forever. A few hours later, the carriages stopped, and so did they.
When this happened, it was for one of three reasons: it could be for the chefs to bring food to each of the riders, which they did four times a day; it could be to let riders experience a particularly scenic spot on the road; or it could be to let riders relieve themselves. From the way Beatrice leaped up and darted out of the carriage as soon as the wheels had settled, it was clear which of the three reasons this rest stop was for.
…Eww? You wish I didn’t tell you that much information? Okay, weirdo.
Later that night, Emi and Beatrice sat around a campfire, the carriage caravan parked on the side of the road. They would eventually return to their carriage to sleep, but for now they simply wanted to bask in the warmth of the embers in front of them. They shared a wool blanket and they held each other in their arms, though Emi had a cup of warm tea in one hand. Beatrice had both arms wrapped tightly around Emi, hugging her stomach.
Tia sat across from them, wearing a plain jacket and long skirt, smiling brightly. “You two are attached at the hip, surely.”
“If I let go of her she might escape,” said Beatrice.
“Help me…” Emi whispered.
“I have never understood how such completely separate people could meet and fall in love like you,” Tia said. “You are from such different worlds, a junior priest and a diplomat’s daughter. And yet… you made it work. How did you get past it all?”
The girls looked at each other, and Emi shrugged. “Who knows?” Emi said.
“I do,” Beatrice said. “We just ignored everything else and went for it. It might be stupid but that’s the only thing you really can do.”
Tia shook his head, smiling. “Pretty stupid indeed.” He met Emi’s eyes and raised an eyebrow. Emi blushed and tried to giggle to cover it up. “I know you’ll keep making it work. The Gods seem to have made you for each other.”
“Yeah, the Gods work in baffling ways sometimes,” Beatrice said. “Sometimes… I just don’t understand them at all.”
“I wish my boyfriend were here,” Tia said. “It has been so boring travelling in a carriage with a bunch of aristocrats I have never met before. They have interesting conversations, but they are all so stuffy and old and… Hey, I wonder… do you think I might join your carriage and–”
“No,” both of the girls said flatly.
Tia couldn’t help but laugh.
The mountains were drawing closer, and Emi stared out the window waiting and wishing for them to arrive already. Not that she didn’t enjoy this amazing few days lately, but she was so excited to show Beatrice around Mammoth Pass.
Plus, her girlfriend was starting to aggravate her with all the kissing. If she kept doing it every five seconds, she was going to make Emi start to hate the whole act. Hate kissing! Who could even cause such a thing?!
By now Beatrice had pulled out one of her study books given to her by Mr. Statusian, but she had barely opened it as she thought instead about her life with Emi. Obviously these past few days weren’t going to be indicative of the rest of their relationship, nor were the next few, but she really did realize that this woman really was someone she might want to spend a lifetime with.
That was the real magic here. Oh… wow that was so corny, even in her head. But it made her think…
“What will we be doing in five years?” Beatrice asked.
“Raising our kids,” Emi answered almost instantly. “You’ll be teaching at a small private school and I’ll be managing a shipping company exporting Runa’s exotic creatures to the rest of Tsubasa for a pricey markup. We’ll have three sons and a daughter.”
“Hector, Kano, Jean, and Emi Jr,” Beatrice said. “All in the next five years?”
“Of course. We’re both girls. We can push them out two at a time; we just have to work overtime at it.” Beatrice cracked up laughing, and Emi smirked as she continued to gaze out the window.
The carriages passed through a small logging village. It was covered in snow, but all its residents seemed to be hard at work tossing lumber into carts and throwing the twigs into a heaping burn pile. Right next to the road, a few kids were building a ten-foot-tall snowman. They waved as the caravan passed them by.
Even if Emi and Beatrice had led very different lives, they were still urban denizens of the great city of Balarand. Neither of them could really even imagine what life in a wintery village would be like. If they had met and fallen in love under those circumstances, then THAT would be a story worth telling.
“Maybe we could move out to the countryside,” Emi said. “Just live out in some cottage, farming and hunting for ourselves, not giving a darn about the rest of the world and all its wars and turmoil…”
“If we’re being serious here,” Beatrice said. “I’m not sure I ever want to settle down and have kids.”
“Really? Why not?”
“I’ve lived in Balarand all my life, living with two low-class parents. I’ve studied about the rest of the world and all the things and places in Tsubasa. I’ve been studying it so long that… I just want to see it for myself, you know? My parents settled down early and had me, and obviously I appreciate that, but they probably missed out on a lot of their adulthood that way. They might never have been able to travel or fulfill their dreams or make a real difference in the world, not in the way they wanted when they were our age.”
“Well, just by making you they sure made a difference in my world,” Emi said.
“Oh, stop it.”
“Make me,” Emi said. In response, Beatrice scooted over to her, grabbed her hand, and planted a kiss on her lips. The life drained out of Emi’s spirit. “Okay, Tris, fine. No more silly remarks. Please… Wait– keep cuddling me though.”
Emi giggled, then continued her thoughts. “I just think… even if we travelled around the world and acted like my parents trying to negotiate peace deals and end rebellions and write trade agreements, eventually we would want to settle down.”
“I don’t want to really do that kind of thing either,” Beatrice said. “Politics is boring. And you and I both know we don’t really like talking about that anyway.”
“Nope. And we definitely never will. But then if you want to make an impact on the world, then what DO you want to do? Like, in general?”
“I want to help people. Make the world happier. Bring harmony to all of Tsubasa. Like, have you heard of that movement in Zahn with schools? They’re introducing public education to every single town and village. Soon the whole country will know how to read, and that will help everyone! I want to do something like that.”
Emi refused to even hint that she knew (and was engaged to) the person overseeing that public education project. “Well, I won’t be inheriting much of the L’Hime Family estate, but… it’ll be enough to live on for a few decades, that’s for sure. That could always be a good asset.”
“I mean–” Beatrice paused to collect her thoughts. She wasn’t entirely sure what she was trying to say herself. “I mean, no wealthy people stuff. Just you and me and going around making people’s lives better across Tsubasa.”
“So like my cottage plan, but with a carriage?”
“Or just our own two feet,” Beatrice said.
“That sounds tiring.”
“It might be my ultimate dream. Am I weird?”
“We already know you’re weird,” Emi said. “As for your dream, Tris… Personally, I would love to raise kids and have a family and have a quiet, peaceful life. But… I don’t think it’s that powerful a dream. Not like yours. I’m being completely serious when I say I’d follow you no matter what you did. We’ve been together for a while now and I think I can say that for sure. You’re just so…” Emi trailed off and sobbed quietly.
“Emi, do you really mean that?” Beatrice felt tears welling up in her eyes, too.
“Why would I lie about that?” Emi laughed and cried simultaneously. “I love you.”
“Even if I’m some boyish peasant with ridiculous life goals?”
“You know good and well you are the smartest, most beautiful, most thoughtful complete jerk on the planet and don’t you deny it like you’re playing innocent!” Emi exclaimed.
Beatrice couldn’t help it– she kissed her again. Emi nearly fell over. A fire lit deep within Beatrice’s heart and burst out through her lungs: “I love you and all your weird quirks. When you blush it’s like I fall in love with you all over again. I wish your name was longer so I could give you a cute nickname. Your hair looks so much better when it’s short and I hope you never change it. Every time I look into your eyes I go nearly brainless. You’re radiant and dangerous, and–”
“No reciting poetry, Tris. That’s cheating.”
“Eh, I didn’t know you knew that one…”
“I’m smarter than I look,” Emi said.
“Don’t you start… Let’s just shut up and keep cuddling.”
Beatrice flipped through a cross-stitch book, trying to find a pattern that looked interesting. And easy.
She’d been practicing sewing for a few months now, but she still couldn’t manage much beyond very simple things. She could mend a tear, but she couldn’t come close to making an item of clothing. She thought cross-stitching might work, but… it was all a bit difficult for her. How did her Mom do all of this with her own two hands?
Meanwhile, Emi shuffled through some bags in the back of the carriage. The road was old and worn, however, and when a wheel rolled over a bump, Emi nearly lost her balance. She grabbed ahold of the seat with her knees and shook for a moment. Beatrice managed to suppress a laugh, so she wouldn’t embarrass her girlfriend more than usual.
When the girl continued to look even further, Beatrice could no longer keep her curiosity at bay. She asked, “What in Tsubasa are you looking for?”
“Just a minute,” she responded.
“You’re going to get hurt,” Beatrice said. “Why don’t you wait until the next rest stop?”
“Can’t,” Emi said. “Too urgent. It’s–Ah-ha.” She turned around and sat back down on the seat, now holding what appeared to be, well, a black metallic box of some sort. Beatrice couldn’t figure out what it was.
The front panel was white, lined into a grid of hundreds of tiny squares, and there was a crank on the side. But other than that, it just seemed like an oddly shaped, quite heavy box.
“I made this for you,” Emi said. “For a few months, I’ve been working on this project, ever since I figured out how to build machines. It took me until this week to finish, but I’m finally ready to show you.”
“Is this that secret you told me about way back when?”
“The same one.”
“So what is it, then?” Beatrice was overcome with curiosity.
“Okay, well, see all these squares on the front of the machine? They’re each connected to a gear in the inside, and from the way I programmed the turning positions, each time the gears turn, some of the squares will turn black, and some of them will stay white. Look.”
She turned the crank one time, and sure enough, some of the squares rotated, turning black, and forming the image of a horse, with a hill in front of it. It was crudely-drawn, but that’s saying a lot when it was made with squares on a machine.
Beatrice wasn’t expecting anything like this. “You can make art with machines? How did you even think of this?”
“Uh, I don’t know, I just put all the pieces together right.” Weird. If this weren’t Emi, she’d be suspicious that she were lying, but she could tell Emi genuinely didn’t know. “And that’s not it,” she continued. “I can program this box up to thirty two times in order, so the squares will flip or not flip in an order before it all turns back to the beginning.”
Emi again cranked the machine, this time faster and steadier. The squares changed. A new image formed. Wait, not completely new– it was like the horse had moved, like it was galloping towards the hill.
The more Emi cranked, the closer the horse got to the hill, until it made a big leap and cleared the hill in one bound. Then it continued walking… and another hill appeared in front of it.
Emi tapped a button underneath the crank and all of the squares turned white.
“Emi, this is the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen,” Beatrice said. “You made the picture move. It’s like the horse was really moving. I’m just…”
“You really like it?”
Beatrice got up–no, more like leapt- and hugged Emi around the neck. “You’re amazing.”
Emi started to cry. “Want to try it?” she asked.
And Beatrice took the machine and cranked it herself, watching the horse move and jump over the hill, and watching this little animated figure repeat the same action over and over again. It was so cute. And Emi had made this all by herself.
“Gods, this is wonderful,” Beatrice said. “Can you make more?”
Still crying, Emi nodded, and said, “I think so. I think I can reposition the gears and program it all differently to make a completely different picture. But last time I tried it, I messed up the whole thing. So for now… Sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry. You’re a genius.”
“I’m not a… Thank you, Tris.”
Beatrice didn’t get tired of this machine, not for the rest of the trip. All of the wonder of the Gods, all the harmony of nature, barely stood up against this box her girlfriend had made. It was just so… cool. Emi had created a harmony all of her own with this machine. A perfect ecosystem of gears and springs that somehow made a piece of moving artwork!
Humanity was amazing. Her girlfriend was spectacular.
“Gods, Tris, your hair is getting so long,” Emi said as she circled around to their usual table at the library. She sat down with her brand-new book and added, “It looks amazing, though.”
“Mm.” Beatrice sat at her side of the table, books and notebooks out, but her gaze was directed off to the side as she stared into the distance.
“Weird, isn’t it? When we first met, I was the one with long hair, now yours is just as long as mine used to be. Not that you had short hair back then. I think it’s better now, but it’s hard to say what your perfect hairstyle is. There’s a… Hey, Tris, are you okay?”
Finally, Beatrice snapped away from her trance. “Oh, Emi. Yeah, I’m okay. I was just thinking.”
“Hm, you don’t look okay.”
Beatrice’s shoulders slumped over. “You know me too well. I’m not feeling too great right now. I’ve got some lame feelings going on.”
“Oh, Tris,” Emi said with her most sickly sweet sympathy voice. “What’s wrong?”
“You don’t wanna talk about it?”
Beatrice shook her head.
“Well, that’s alright. Leave the talking to me.” Emi set down her new book and adopted the most confident, princessly posture she could muster. “See this here? This is my very own copy of The Last Gemini. What is The Last Gemini, you ask?”
No reply. Beatrice was back to looking lame again.
“The Last Gemini is the eighth and newest book in The Elf Cycle, my favorite book series of all-time. It’s filled with romance and mystery and adventure and peril and every single page just hooks you because it’s all so exciting. I’ve recommended it to you before, but… You’ve just got to read this series, Tris! I’ve been waiting for years for the new one to come out, and so the moment it did, I went and bought one of the library’s copy. It’s sold out everywhere else. Nothing in the world is better than reading a book series with a loved one, so I really hope you read it someday.”
“Heh, Emi. My Dad loves that series too, you know.”
“Yep, he’s the one who got me into the series!” Emi exclaimed. “He left work early today just to get a head start on me. What a devious man.”
“So go ahead and get started,” Beatrice said. “I’ll just be here, um, being your friend.”
Beatrice gave a deep frown and said, “Actually, I do wanna talk about it. Emi, sweetie, can you move your chair over here?”
“You’ve never called me ‘sweetie’ before… Boy, this must be serious.” Emi took her chair and plopped it next to Beatrice. The moment she sat down, Beatrice rest her head on her shoulder. It felt like a big win, except that seeing her like this was certainly not giving a winning feeling.
“I talked to Mr. Statusian yesterday, you know, my teacher from St. Helens,” Beatrice said. “He told me… He told me that I…”
“Tris…” Emi put her hand on her thigh and let her take it. She squeezed the hand a lot tighter than Emi had expected.
“He told me I’m going to be something special,” she said. “Special as in the kind of priest who single handedly brings a new era for the church. What in Bk’Man’s name am I supposed to do with that kind of comment?”
“You’re already something special to me.”
“Shut up with your corny, lines, you amazing woman,” Beatrice snapped. “The Priesthood Exams are in a few months and if I pass, they’re going to offer me to join the church, and then I’m going to apparently become a hero across the world. And that’s everything I’ve always wanted, but…”
“Oh, Emi, I feel so lame. I can’t be a priest when I have my family and friends and you, can I? It’s… Ugh, I shouldn’t even be talking about this with you.” Beatrice buried her face further into Emi’s shoulder, like a bird taking roost.
“Why shouldn’t you be?”
“Because you’re… Because this is all about you.”
“Exactly why I need to–” Emi cut herself off the moment the image of Lady Khara popped into her head. Or, her imagination’s image of Lady Khara. “Tris, you don’t need to worry about me. I chose to love you and that won’t end for any silly reason like this.”
“Becoming a priest is silly?”
“Well…” Emi had to choose her next words carefully. “I want you to be happy, Tris. The most happy. You’re not happy now, and it’s starting to upset me too. So whatever I can do to help you, that’s what I’ll do.”
“You don’t have to do anything,” Beatrice said. “Just listening is enough, and you’re an amazing listener.”
“Thank you.” Emi took a deep breath and added, “But.”
“I have decided that I’m going to make sure you’re happy. I will be your guardian spirit, compelling you onto the path of harmony.”
“Why are you talking like that?”
“Let us go forth,” Emi said, taking her book and putting it into her handbag. “We will use the best parts of Balarand to cure the lame feelings of one Beatrice Ragnell!”
“Oh my, you’re in one of those moods again.”
“Indeed I am! Let’s head out on an adventure!”
Beatrice shook her head slowly, but she got up and followed her out of the library.
Emi had the perfect plan.
But first, they had to get groceries.
Beatrice already felt a lot better, to be honest. Just talking a bit about her worries to Emi had cleared away most of the doldrums bubbling over inside of her. But Emi had acted with such decisive, adorable energy that it’d be a crime to stifle her now.
Even now here in the marketplace, as Beatrice picked out vegetables to bring back home for her Mom to cook, Emi was clearly restless, obviously antsy to get on with whatever crazy plan she had thought up. If they didn’t go do that soon, she was likely to explode outright.
“There’s a lot of the same vegetables here,” Emi said, not so subtly hinting that Beatrice was taking too long. She was starting to get annoying.
“I’m sorry, the selection isn’t very good this close to closing time,” Beatrice said. “Why don’t you go people-watching or something?”
“Oh, right. I’ll go do that.” Emi turned around in a huff. But then, of course, she actually did start people-watching.
It was hard finding the right produce when most of what remained were the damaged, unsightly, or just plain small ones that none of the morning shopper particularly wanted.
Beatrice decided not to turn this whole endeavor into some strange metaphor for her indecision and mixed feelings about the priesthood and about her entire life’s goals being turned into some looming threat, because she didn’t feel these vegetables really deserved the pain of being forced into that kind of weak comparison.
Instead, she found some acceptable-looking onions and daikons to–
“Oh, isn’t that your friend, that Bodhi guy?” Emi asked.
Beatrice turned around to look and see Bodhi, and there he was, walking by on the other side of the street. He noticed her, and then tipped his hat and waved his hand. But then he kept on walking and was soon enveloped by the crowd around him.
“Yeah, that was Bodhi,” Beatrice said. “Why did he… not come and say hello?”
“He didn’t want to bother you, I guess,” Emi said.
“But I haven’t seen him in ages. Where has he been lately…?”
“Hm.” Emi didn’t say any more than that, but her face seemed telling. Exactly what she was telling, though, Beatrice couldn’t quite discern.
That was so weird. Bodhi used always say hello. He even used to come to the library sometimes to see her, usually to nag her into hanging out with all his junior priest friends. Now that they had graduated, he seemed to be keeping a distance. Literally.
Now Beatrice was starting to feel bad again.
Emi noticed it and grabbed both of her shoulders. “Okay, you have your veggies. Now, let’s go cure those lame feelings of yours!”
“Okay, okay, lead the way.”
“I can’t lead if we’re side-by-side, you know,” she said.
“Is that a request to hold my hand?”
“You know it!”
Beatrice couldn’t help but smile at her girlfriend’s infectious silliness.
They walked a ways west in town, away from the library and Castle Balarand, away from the marketplaces and restaurants and towards a series of large apartment buildings. Beatrice hardly knew this neighborhood. But Emi did?
“Will you ever tell me where we’re going?” Beatrice asked.
“Don’t have to. We’re already here,” Emi said.
Here they were, standing in front of a building marked “Pets & Pleasure.”
They walked in and from that exact moment, everything clicked into place for Beatrice. She heard some growling and whimpering and other excited animal noises, then the odor of furry creatures hit her nose with some
“My friend told me about this place,” Emi explained. “It’s a shelter for greyback bears that get picked up off the street and need a place to stay. It’s really important during the winter, where lot of stray greybacks face hunger and harsh weather, but it’s open year-round and anyone can visit.”
“I thought you hated greybacks.”
“I, uh, do. But I’m willing to put up with them to cure your lame feelings. Because guess what they have here? A cub petting area!”
Aww, Emi was really putting her own feelings aside just for–Cub petting area?!
Beatrice dashed over to the tiny greyback cubs and nearly attacked them with love and affection. Awwwww wooooowww…
Emi did not join her in petting the cubs; in fact, she continued to keep her distance the entire time. For some reason, that just made Beatrice love her even more. All of this, just because she was feeling a little down today? She was the best.
Wow what amazing creatures. Beatrice began petting two of them at the same time. It was a spectacular feat that made her feel so happy.
Nobody in the world deserved such a wonderful woman as Emi L’Hime. And nobody in the world deserved such wonderful furballs to pet for hours. But Beatrice had them both.
Beatrice watched her Mom intently. So intently that it might have scared anyone that wasn’t family. So intent that, she had to admit, she wasn’t actually learning anything.
“This looks so hard,” she mumbled to herself.
But, apparently, she mumbled just loud enough, because her mother soon said, “Sewing is not like a book. You don’t master it by studying.”
“I wasn’t, uh, trying to study it,” Beatrice lied. “I was just watching my beautiful mother.”
“This is a very simple thing, sewing up a tear,” Mom said. “Nothing special.”
“You know, just because you’re doing something simple doesn’t mean you’re not beautiful!” Ugh, Beatrice hated when she deflected practically every compliment given to her. Why couldn’t she just say thank you?
“And… there it is. Your robes are good as new, as long as nobody looks too closely.” She held up the orange-and-white ceremonial garbs and showed off her sewing job.
See, Beatrice was almost always careful, but after practice today she was walking home when she saw a greyback bear scamper by and, uh, kind of tripped and fell on the sidewalk. She probably shouldn’t have been scared by a silly little animal (that was Emi’s job), and she also probably shouldn’t have been wearing her school’s official robes while walking home…
Well, the tear in her outfit had now been repaired, and she was hopefully going to get safe without anyone noticing. Otherwise, if they found out, St. Helens Academy would probably bill her family fifty gold coins just for the repairs, and that would be embarrassingly annoying.
“It looks amazing, Mom,” Beatrice said. “And I’m not just saying that. I really mean it.”
“I’ve been a seamstress for all my life. It really isn’t anything to thank me for.”
“But it is! I have you here to patch every hole and darn every tear. Almost every dress I own was made by you, including my own school uniform! Not a lot of people have parents so gifted, and I’ll never stop being proud of it.”
“And… I feel really bad for not trying to follow in your footsteps. Grandma and Great-Grandma were both seamstresses like you, but I don’t know the first thing about any of it. Most people don’t. It’s super special to know how to sew, and…” Beatrice cut herself off because she realized she had kind of changed the topic on herself. “What I mean is, do you think you could teach me to sew sometime?”
Her Mom sighed. “I suppose. If you’re going off to become a priest, you’ll need to know how to do this all on your own. I won’t be there to help you.”
“Oh, that’s right, I didn’t even think about… that.”
She didn’t think about that because, honestly, she hadn’t thought about the whole priesthood deal in a good week. Especially not the fact that she wouldn’t see her parents anymore except on rare occasions. And Mom seemed to recognize the fact that she hadn’t thought about it, which made Beatrice feel terrible. She felt like a selfish brat (and once again, that was Emi’s job).
“Please teach me how to sew, Mom!” she pleaded with renewed fervor.
“Alright, I will.” Mom began playing through Beatrice’s hair and messing through her curls. “Only if you promise me never to cut your hair short again.”
“It’s so lovely when it gets long, and then you always cut it short right after,” she said. “I love it like this.”
“I didn’t realize my hair was getting so long, wow.” Beatrice began tossling through her own hair and it hit her that, yes, her hair was quite a bit longer than it was when she started wearing it like this. “I won’t promise you anything, but I’ll make sure only to get haircuts you like.”
“That would make me happy.”
“When do we start?”
Mom looked extremely confused. “…Did you want to start right now?”
Dad came crashing through the door with an absolutely unexpected level of energy. He carried a sack of groceries around his arm and more in the bag on his back, and yet ran into the apartment as if he were a child hyped up on sugary salmon binds.
“What’s got him so riled up?” Mom asked.
“I have no clue.”
Both women started to get up from their chairs, but Dad beckoned them down. He began giving Beatrice a shoulder massage and said, “Did you know who I ran into today? Tia Knoll. Heir to the entire Knoll Family estate. Just walking into the library like it was nothing.”
“Well, it looks like he’s a friend of that Emi L’Hime girl, which means he could become a regular. And if he’s a regular… The library could receive millions of coins in donations!”
Emi… Oh, Emi was at the library all by herself, and presumably had fun conversations with Dad and with the single richest person in Balarand. That must have been a fun adventure, Beatrice thought. She was jealous she had to miss out…
“How was Emi?” Beatrice asked.
“Oh, her normal self. Ranting about a book she didn’t like.”
“That’s my Emi.”
“I mean, that’s my friend Emi, all right,” Beatrice said. “Anyway, you really think the Knoll Family would fund the library if the heir started to visit more often?”
“Well… I can dream, at least,” he said. His energy died down as the realism set in. He let go of Beatrice’s shoulders and moved to Mom’s. “What I don’t have to dream about is…. supper!”
“What’s for supper?” asked Mom.
“I’m ready for anything that isn’t vegetable soup again,” said Beatrice.
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.”
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.”
“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.”
Beatrice and Emi met back that evening at the front of the library, and Beatrice dragged Emi the short distance back over to the marketplace, the same one where they had first seen each other all those weeks ago.
The sun had begun to set, and two of the moons were already visible in the evening sky. Some street lamps had been lit, and scene around them glowed warmly, even as the weather grew colder and colder. It was as if the whole world had suddenly become tinted blue and orange.
“My parents always told me to stay away from places like this,” Emi said.
“Well, your parents are too overprotective,” Beatrice said. “Though, considering you’re a member of the L’Hime Family, they might be in the right. I can’t believe you’re the brother of Reo L’Hime! He’s so cool.”
“He’s… cool…?” Emi did not want to know the answer to this question.
Beatrice gave the answer anyway. “My classmates talk about him all the time. Some of the girls in my class have posters of him on their bedroom walls.”
They walked side by side down the long marketplace road, surrounded by shops and stands all over the place, and jam-packed with people in all directions. Emi tried to ignore the crowds but she was still getting apprehensive being so close to so many in such a small area.
Beatrice noticed. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah… I’m fine. Let’s just keep going.”
Neither of them intended to do any shopping this evening, but the smoky meat stands and glittering jewelry shining against the copious lanterns made the whole area fun to walk around in. The smell made it even better.
“And so you’re a junior priest, right…?” asked Emi, her smile wilting before Beatrice’s eyes.
Beatrice felt the color drain from her cheeks and promptly replied, “Well, a junior priest is just that. I don’t know if I’ll do it for real. It’s a big step, obviously. You know.” Beatrice rubbed the back of her neck. Emi felt satisfied with that answer for now.
“Of course. The future is always in motion, after all,” Emi then said.
“What do you mean by that?”
“It means I have no idea what I want to do with my life,” she said with a chortle.
Before Beatrice could say anything else, Emi’s eyes took notice of a booth displaying a set of bright, ruby-red earrings. She paused and let Beatrice walk ahead of her while she examined it.
They looked like they might make a wonderful present…
Emi glanced at Beatrice, then back at the earrings, then back at her. They were beautiful, but they wouldn’t suit her, she thought. Part of her appeal was the was she exhibited some sort of warm aura with her plain outfits and subdued smile, some sort of magnet where Emi was a very reactive metal. The way she walked, even, exuded a strong sense of herself; she swayed her hips like she had a specific purpose in every step, and yet carried herself lightly. These earrings didn’t capture that aura at all.
Beatrice, noticing Emi had fallen behind, stopped in her steps and turned back towards her. “What’s wrong?” she asked.
“N-nothing,” Emi said.
She noticed the stand selling earrings next to Emi, some of them about as red as the girl’s own face. Was Emi trying to buy her a present this soon into their… their evening together? A bit weird. Still, she was unable to stop a giddy smile forming across her face. “I don’t need anything,” Beatrice told her. “That kind of stuff they sell is usually junk anyway.”
“Oh, no,” Emi said, her voice perking up at the sound of being vindicated. “Don’t worry, I wasn’t going to buy them. They don’t suit you.”
“Wait, no, I mean…”
Beatrice’s stomach gurgled.
“I mean, I think I should buy us food first instead.” Good save, both of them thought. “I don’t think either of us have eaten since we went to the library, right?”
“I think you’re right. But I can buy my own food, you know!” What Beatrice didn’t say was that she only had three silver coins to spend and that was her entire allowance for the week. Emi, with a coin purse with more than Beatrice got in a year, hadn’t even considered the idea of running out of cash.
They stopped at a food stand offering one of Balarand’s signature dishes, the stuffed salmon bind. There were so many varieties it was hard to choose from, including fried rice, cream cheese, sour cream, and a near-infinite variety of vinegars and sauces.
Emi was a bit bewildered by the selection and decided to choose one at random. “I’ll have the spinach,” Emi told the cook at the stand.
“Ah, sorry, fresh out.”
“I’ll have the… grape?” That didn’t sound particularly appealing, but–
“Don’t got that either.”
“I’ll have the fried rice, then,” she said dejectedly. She liked fried rice salmon binds, but… they were far from her favorite, and on a night like this, for some reason, she was hoping for the absolute best.
Beatrice continued to look at the variety of options for stuffing, and her ears perked when she came across one unfamiliar term. “Crabspice?”
This question sparked a flash in the cook’s eyes. “Crabspice, yes. It’s a very strong spice found way out in the Torano Islands. You ever heard of there?”
“Well, yes,” Beatrice said. She knew of the Torano Islands, though only from their history with the ancient art of soul-taking. I’ve visited those islands only once; they are beautiful, but are a very limited trading partner these days, now that the fishing industry in Kent has become so prominent.
“But… what’s a crab?” Emi asked.
“I don’t much know myself,” the cook said, “but I’ve heard they are gigantic, terrifying creatures with pincers that could snap you or me in half in an instant. Whatever brave souls actually killed one, well… they’re heroes. Bringing it all the way to me, so I can offer it to the world. You wanna try?”
“Sure thing,” Beatrice said.
“It’s a bit spicy, you know.”
“Well… it IS called crabspice.”
“Are you sure, Beatrice?” Emi asked, having chosen the fried rice salmon bind. She hated spicy foods.
Beatrice shot a glare at her. She took the salmon, wrapped up in wax paper, and began chomping at what was once a member of one of the mighty Balarand Salmon shoals. Salty and savory.
“Spicy? Oh, this is nothing,” Beatrice said. “Emi, you’ve got to try this. It’s really tasty.”
“No thank you.”
She bit further into the salmon and reached a point of higher crabspice concentration. Extremely sweet at first. It was a bit hot, but Beatrice couldn’t resist eating more and more. But then…
The cook handed her a cup of water and she gulped it down in a single moment.
Beatrice, panting out of her mouth, said, “It’s… a bit spicy after all– Hic!” she put her hands over her mouth. “Oh– Hic! No…”
“You’ve got the hiccups?” Emi laughed.
Beatrice growled like a frightened animal. “Hic!” She grabbed another glass of water and drank it down. “Hic!”
“I’ve heard if you hold your breath a really long time they’ll go away.”
“I’ve heard you need to swallow a lot of sugar,” the vendor said, “I have a cream-filled salmon if you want it. Half-price.”
“No– Hic!– thank you,” Beatrice muttered.
They continued on towards their nonexistent destination, all the hustle and bustle of the marketplace at night a mere backdrop to these two girls hopelessly engaged with each other.
“I never stay out this late,” Emi said.
“Are your parents going to be mad at you?” Beatrice asked.
“Well, my housekeeper will.”
“Oh yeah, I forgot you’re–Hic!– a L’Hime. You have a very tough life.”
“Very. It’s not fun and games being in a diplomat’s family. Everyone blames your family for everything that happens, and my parents are always away, and then there’s so much pressure for you to act like– You’re making fun of me.”
“No, I’d be much too frightened to tease a diplomat’s daughter,” said Beatrice. She winked. Emi pushed her away playfully.
“I’ll have you know, my family–”
Emi shrieked as a small greyback bear skittered by.
Beatrice broke out in a riot of laughs and hiccups. “A greyback?”
“It’s not my fault!” Emi exclaimed. “They roam around the city all day and pop out of nowhere. They freak me out is all.”
“The most adorable animal in Balarand, and you’re scared of them… Oh, Emi…”
“What’s that supposed to mean…”
They were near the edge of the marketplace by now, the last few shops before the street ended and the city turned back into an orderly row of businesses and houses. The market stands here were quaint, often elderly people selling knick-knacks, or the down-on-their-luck hawking whatever they could find. They usually didn’t have much besides old junk.
Something odd caught Beatrice’s eye, though, and made her turn towards one of the booths. There were various metal objects placed around on the table. It certainly looked like old junk, but…
The seller, a mustached man in a turban, looked at the girls, his mouth neutral but his eyes smiling wide. “I see you’re interested in my machine.”
“Machine?” Beatrice asked.
Emi smirked, realizing she knew something that Beatrice didn’t. “Machines are little contraptions made of different parts. Put them all together, and they do stuff.”
“Uh… I don’t know.” That was the extent of her knowledge.
The man laughed. “They can do all sorts of things. This one, for instance…” He pointed to a large device with numbers protruding out of the front. “This one can calculate any math equation known to man. It’s the ultimate powerhouse. But, for you, maybe this will be more interesting.” He motioned to a small cube with a lever sticking out at its side. “Just crank this, and you can power the machine… giving it life…”
He began turning the lever in a circular motion, and a tiny twinkling bell started to play from inside the metal box. It was a simplistic nursery tune, but the fact that it was playing by itself just by moving the part outside… How did it work?
Suddenly, Emi was captivated. What kind of creation was this, that could–
BOING! A fuzzy greyback bear puppet popped out of the top of the box, its paws sticking out as if it were greeting you. Emi jumped backwards a full foot. Beatrice was, once again, incapacitated with laughter and hiccups.
“H-How did you…” Emi was at a loss for words, partly from shock.
“It’s the magic of machines,” the seller said.
He chuckled. “Only the magic of man, that is. The gears and coils inside work together to form a creation so divine, it rivals the Gods. We are our own clockmakers.”
Beatrice furrowed her brows, but didn’t say anything.
“And what’s this one called? This, uh, scary thing?”
“I call it the jack-in-the-box. Great for children. Do you want it?”
“Wow. How do you make one of these…” Emi was completely bewildered, but fascinated. You and I may take gear-powered devices for granted these days, but in Emi’s youth, it was almost mythical to see something as intricate as a clock being created for entertainment.
You could learn a lot from her. Or maybe not, what with all your gear rockets. You better clean those up after I finish this story.
“Buy it, and I’ll sell you the schematic,” the seller told her. “Then you can build your very own.”
Emi took a satchel of coins from her purse and plopped it onto the table. The money clanged against the wood with a loud thud. “How much?”
The seller smiled.
So that was how Emi ended up with a jack-in-the-box, and how Beatrice, the one with the school bag, ended up carrying it for the rest of their evening together. It was heavier than it looked, Beatrice came to learn.
After a while further, they finally reached the end of the marketplace, and there was a split. Directly ahead of them were two paths; north, with a short tunnel passing under the Grand Concourse that encircled the capital district, carriages and chariots speeding by at all hours; or south, in the direction of Beatrice’s apartment, and where Knoll Park and the Balarand Theatre had been situated for centuries and the cultured made frequent visits.
Without much deliberating, the two of them went south and walked across the narrow pedestrian bridge, passing over one of the countless canals running east-to-west throughout the city. Below them, a gondola floated gently in place, tied up to rest for the evening. The sun had finally disappeared under the curvature of the continent, and all five moons were shining on full display. It was like something out of a painting.
Emi stopped walking and looked out at the night sky, only the faint shadow of Gonda Tower sticking out as the buildings stretched on across the floodplains.
They were very close to one another, standing on this bridge. Beatrice exhaled, and her breath turned into a fine vapor in front of her. Emi’s did the same, and Beatrice watched as the girl breathed in again, and then shivered.
“Sure is getting cold out,” Beatrice said.
Emi felt a tickle of fabric on the back of her hand. It was from Beatrice’s coat; the two of them were so close that they were practically touching. With her eyes fixated on the canal and the rest of Balarand, she moved her hand just a little bit closer, continuing to brush it against the coat. If she really wanted to, she could reach out and touch Beatrice’s face, rub her fingers against her freckles. The only thing stopping her was the fact that that would be really strange and probably make her hate her forever.
It was a cliche to say she felt warm even in this sort of weather. But also, no matter her proximity to the girl next to her, Emi was too cold.
Beatrice, on the other hand, felt a little too hot, and wondered when she’d be able to set down her school bag. She was very concerned that her back was going to be all sweaty by the time she got back home. But she, too, felt the same feelings going through Emi’s head, I’m sure. As loath as she would be to admit it, Beatrice was smitten, her heart pulsing fast enough Emi could hear it. Nearly feel it.
They stood close to each other, angling their head to face the other without their noses getting in the way. They were very, very close.
Then Beatrice said, “I really like you,” and Emi, without thinking, took a full step backwards. “Oh.”
“S-sorry. I really like you too. I mean, I think you’re a likeable person. I, um, yeah.” Emi stepped back to her previous position, but Beatrice had already turned around and started walking away. Oh, Gods, why was she so bad at all of this…
There were more Dannark soldiers out patrolling past the pedestrian bridge, where the two were headed. This area, being the most “cultured” part of Balarand, was more tightly watched than anywhere else in the city, the pewter-gray armor of the foreign soldiers having become a fixture throughout the southern half of the city.
In front of the Balarand Theatre, built three thousand years ago by the Demigod Dramaturge, there was a small park consisting of scattered trees and sculpture. In front of the statue to Empress Nievol, there was a bench that the two sat down on.
Being the Empress’s own visage and a common source for protests, there were even more guards posted around this statue. But they didn’t seem to pay the girls any mind. They let their minds ease and let the rest of the evening pass them by.
It was the perfect place for people-watching, the perfect spot to gaze on the pretty, soft atmosphere of an evening in Balarand. Neither of them were concerned with that right now.
“I don’t– Hic!– do this enough anymore,” Beatrice said.
“This is the first time I’ve been out at night without my family,” Emi said. “Sounds like we’re both a bit unfashionable as human beings, huh?”
“We’re not very interesting at all, the two of us.”
Beatrice put her hand through her hair for a moment, feeling uneasy about being close to such a beautiful girl with her hair so messy right now.
Emi couldn’t stop thinking about how much she wanted to play with the curls in such a beautiful girl’s hair.
Emi’s right hand and Beatrice’s left hand were both on the bench, the sides of their pinky fingers touching. Beatrice moved her hand a bit closer, just to see what would happen, and her finger rested right above Emi’s. Emi pulled her hand away and closer to herself.
Trying to ignore what she thought was another embarrassing moment, Emi began a new topic of conversation. “I can’t understand how we never met before in the library,” she began. “Your father works there. I go about once a week. I think it’s some sort of force field that’s been intentionally trying to get us to avoid each other.”
“The Gods have their ways,” Beatrice said. “They didn’t want us to meet–Hic!–before, but now they do.”
“The Gods did this?”
“I highly doubt that. Maybe we’ve met before, but we just don’t remember.”
“I highly doubt THAT.”
“You’re right. I’d never forget you.”
Beatrice winked. Emi chuckled.
“But wait, there must have been some specific days we both were in there. What about National Reading Day?”
“I never go to that,” Beatrice said. “It’s always so busy in the library on that day I just stay home.” She gave it more thought. “What about King Kline’s Birthday? I did a lot of reading that day last year.”
“Nope,” Emi said. “I had to go to all the stupid parties for those celebrations.”
“I’ve never really thought about–Hic!– Ugh, nevermind…”
Emi giggled and blushed. Even her hiccups accentuated her magnetic aura. “You’re just so cute. Has anyone told you that?”
“Not really. So, uh, thanks.”
“You’re welcome…” Her blush certainly wasn’t going away.
“What about you?” Beatrice asked.
“Well… people constantly compliment me, but it’s mostly because they want to get in my skirt.”
“And this situation is different?” she joked. She tried to narrow her eyes and give a lascivious smile, but this look was interrupted by a, “Hic!” She sighed.
Emi was paralyzed with embarrassment at the very mention of that, joking or not, and tried to steer the conversation away. “Anyway, tonight’s been really fun.”
“It really has.”
“I don’t really want it to– Ack!”
Beatrice suddenly grabbed Emi’s hand and squeezed it tight. Emi struggled to get loose for a second, but when she realized what was going on, she relented and let Beatrice slide her fingers in between hers.
For everything that came before, this was the moment when Beatrice and Emi’s story truly began. It changed their lives. In a way, it changed mine too. One simple act of putting hands together, fingers intertwined.
They walked away from the marketplace, holding hands, not caring what anyone else would think about a junior priest and a rich layabout displaying their affection so publicly.
And they just walked around.
Eventually they ended up in Emi’s neighborhood, where Beatrice was taken aback by how large the houses were.
“This is crazy…”
“Have you seen the mansions around Lake Geoffrey?” Emi asked. “These are just dingy apartments compared to those.”
“I mean, apartments are fine. I just, uh…”
“I guess apartments don’t have a whole maid staff, or butlers and servants doing your every bidding.”
“That’s not… I mean, they usually don’t do everything I tell them to unless I pay them extra, though!” Emi stammered as she tried fruitlessly to offer a defense of her bizarre affluent lifestyle.
Beatrice shook her head jokingly, then asked, “Which one is yours?”
“That one.” Emi pointed over to her home with currently only two windows lit by candle, looking pretty uninviting in the middle of the night like this. “I’m probably going to get in a lot of trouble when I get back.”
“Well you don’t have to go back just yet.”
“I do… Any later and my parents will call the police to search for me. They’ll think I’m being ransomed or something.” Emi let go of Beatrice’s hand, slowly. “But tonight was great.”
“It was.” Beatrice set down her school bag and gave Emi the toy she bought. “Here’s your thing.”
“This is so cool…”
“So are you,” Beatrice said. “Um, when do you want to meet again?”
Emi tried not to let her good mood fade, but it was hard when she thought about a question like that. “About that… I don’t know. I have to help prepare for my parents’ big winter house party soon. Guests from all over Elince and Dannark will be there. And then I have to attend the party…”
“Parties are fun,” Beatrice said.
“You’ve never been to a rich party.”
That was true, though Beatrice thought it could never be any worse than those parties for Summer Break they always had at the end of the school term. The food they brought in was always pretty bad and the teachers played all the music, which usually meant it was done poorly. “Well, I’ll see you at the library sometime soon then.”
“I’ll… I’ll go every chance I get.”
“I don’t want to say it.” Emi was tearing up again; twice in one day. She couldn’t finish that word, because that would mean this night would be over, and time would have to pass before the next time she saw this girl. She couldn’t let it end.
“Then I’ll say it.” Beatrice took a step forward and extended her hand. “Goodbye.”
Emi shook it and cried. “Beatrice,” was all she could say. Beatrice gave a crooked smile–and then hiccuped one last time.