And that’s their story–the story of two girls in love.
Was it love at first sight? I don’t know.
From the look on your face, I guess you don’t either. Not that a child like you would understand. Yes, yes, you’re not a child, you’re grown enough to make your own decisions, sure. But maybe I’d believe that a bit more if you ever cracked open your history books.
Well, it didn’t matter if it was love at first sight. In short time, the two grew a bond with a strength forged in molten flames. It was a short time that they grew together, but they never grew apart. For the rest of their lives, no matter how distant they may have been, they kept a shard of each other nestled in their hearts. That’s the kind of love that they built.
Hm? Come again? Oh, what happened after they parted?
Well, life ended up well for both women. Emi Khara went on to become a diplomat and inventor whose machines are still used in households today. Beatirce Ragnell became one of the most important priests of her time and revolutionized the Church’s role in health care. Their destinies did not converge again, as far as I’m aware, but they both ended up happy. That’s the important thing, after all.
As for Emi, well… I think you’ve figured her out by now. Yes, Grandma Em is the same girl from the story, what with her love of contraptions and that stupid Winter Ceremonies painting she’ll never throw away. I guess when she called me “Novi” that must have finally given it away. You certainly know what happened to her, I imagine, so I don’t have to explain.
No, you’ve never met her. She passed long before you were born.
In her younger years, Beatrice provided aid to civilians during the conflict between Dannark and Doros. Eventually she founded over two dozen hospitals, all of which run to this day. But she didn’t make it through the Great War. She was helping the evacuation effort in Fathie when a bomb struck her medic tent.
But she will always be remembered as a hero. After your Uncle Reo united Tsubasa and ended the war, he placed a statue of Mother Ragnell in Fathie City, right in the center of the downtown square. Next time we go there, you ought to take a look.
Actually, wait. Don’t go letting Grandma Em know I told you about her. She doesn’t like to talk about it too much. After she heard about what happened in Fathie… she was very sad for a while. You have to be sensitive.
What? What did you say? Oh, does she love me?
Dearie, that’s an easy question.
Of course she does.
Your grandmothers love each other very much. We grew to appreciate each other’s company, and we raised a whole family together. It’s been fifty-seven years since we wed and we’re still happy. If that’s not love, I don’t know what is. She loves her family very much, and we love her.
You know what? Let’s go find her. She’s probably out at the balcony watching the sunrise. We can surprise her and show her that wooden centaur you found. I have a feeling it’s going to make her happy.
What’s that? Whatever happened to that mad scientist girl?
That’s a story for another time. A very long one. By which I mean, go read your history books.
Emi’s reaction was, beat for beat, the exact same as her Mom’s a week prior, and her Dad’s the following morning. It was amazing how people turned into exact copies when it came to complimenting fashion.
“It’s not even the official robes,” Beatrice said. “Just a casual uniform.”
“Fair enough, but… Oh, you look great no matter what,” Emi said.
“You’re just trying to get in my skirt, aren’t you?” Beatrice smirked.
“Well, Is it working?”
Emi shrugged. “Worth a shot.”
There was a small group gathered here to see Beatrice off. Her parents, naturally, and Emi, of course. But also Bodhi himself had arrived, which surprised her but warmed her heart as well. For some reason, Emi’s housekeeper Pip was also here, but Beatrice was pretty sure she had never actually had a one-on-one conversation with her before, so… Well, it was good to see her anyway.
The party was almost complete, but not quite yet, until… Huh?!
Tia Knoll and Runa Arakawa strolled to the gathering site, hand-in-hand.
When Beatrice saw this, she gasped. How did those two even meet? Certainly it wasn’t during the Battle of Balarand, was it? …Was it? In the stress of the moment, did they really look at each other and suddenly…
Beatrice was about to join her group of new priests who would take the next several weeks to hike towards their convent. She had complained about the carriage ride taking too long, but she was now regretting ever thinking such things. Hiking for WEEKS? It was going to be ruthless, she knew already.
“You know,” she said to Emi. “In the end, it turns out my convent is right near Mammoth Pass. I feel like that’s the Gods playing a prank.”
“Probably,” Emi said. “You’re going to be in for some tough winters, though. Do you have all your winter clothes?”
“Nope. Just what’s in my bag over there.” She pointed towards a large backpack with some food, a sleeping bag, and a few other supplies attached. It was really heavy and carrying that on her back for weeks was going to prove very tough, but she tried not to think about that right now. “I’m going to try to buy new clothes when I get there, but our allowances are very low, so it might be tough.”
“Well, the Gods will provide,” Emi said.
Beatrice wasn’t sure whether that was sarcasm or not.
“So, how’s, uh, Lady Khara?” Beatrice asked. “Is she, uh, treating you well?”
“Yeah,” Emi said. “She’s making me… uh, show her around town and stuff. She’s, uh, nice. You know.” Both of them burst into laughter just as much as they blushed.
Emi stepped back and let Beatrice’s parents give one last hug. “We love you so much,” they said together.
“And I love you, too,” she said. “I’ll try to see you during the Winter Ceremonies, okay?”
“You have to promise you’ll come,” Mom said. “We’ll come back up too, you know.”
“I can’t promise! That’s half a year away. I don’t know what my schedule will be like then.”
“Write often,” Dad said. “And tell me all about the convent. I have heard yours was one of the very first ever built. It must be so beautiful.”
“Well, you better write often about Kent too, then,” she said. “I really hope you enjoy it down there.”
“I just hope I figure out how to be a teacher,” he replied. “I’m already getting worried about it.”
She waved goodbye to Runa and Tia. “You guys better have a good time without me,” she said.
“Tia here has promised financing my research,” Runa said. “I could not imagine a better time than that. My quest for control of the fabric of reality has grown ever closer to completion.”
“Oh, Runa, you’re never going to give that up, are you?”
“Of course not. And I cannot forgive you for your transgressions against me. Leaving me in my time of greatest need, abandoning me to work with the Church… It breaks my heart, Ms. Ragnell.” Tia laughed, but Beatrice wasn’t sure whether he realized how serious Runa really was about all of this.
Beatrice said her goodbyes to Bodhi and Pip. “Thank you so much for coming, Bodhi. You’re a good friend, and I hope you can be a good friend to a lot of people someday.”
He snickered. “You say that like I don’t already have tons of friends.”
“Take care, Bea.” He tipped his hat down and gave a single not.
“Don’t call me Bea.”
Pip sobbed and blew her nose through a handkerchief. “Oh, Beatrice…”
“Oh, and, um, goodbye to you too…”
Uhh… Okay then…
“Well, it’s about time for me to meet up with my group,” Beatrice said. “I’m going to miss all of you so much. Thank you for coming here.”
One last thing…
She turned to Emi–
Who was holding a small metallic box in her hands. It looked a lot like the one that showed off the horse, the one Beatrice had broken so long ago.
“One last thing,” Emi said. “I made you a going-away present. For friendship.” She held the machine with both hands, and then used her magic to turn the crank. Still a show-off.
The machine showed Beatrice, her visage replicated on a board of hundreds of small squares, turned into a tiny animated woman. Her hair and all its curls flowed in the wind, and she was smiling, looking directly at the viewer.
The whole thing lasted for only two, maybe three seconds, before it looped back and started over. But she must have stared for a full minute before she looked away.
“It’s a moving portrait of you,” Emi told her. “I made it really small so that you can take it with you anywhere. But don’t try to reprogram it, or the whole thing will break. Trust me.”
“Oh, Emi…” Beatrice held a hand to her own cheek. “You know I can’t have possessions.”
“But… I love it.”
“I’ll let my parents have it.”
“But, if they take it, then you won’t have it. And then…”
Beatrice stepped forward and took both of Emi’s hands. “I’m never going to forget about you,” Beatrice said. “Never for my entire life. Just because we’re apart doesn’t mean you won’t have been the best thing to ever happen to me, okay? The Gods didn’t want us to be apart. They wanted us to be together, and that’s what happened.”
“I love you so much,” Emi said, tears already rolling down her cheeks. Her eyes glowed–those same bright brown eyes that sucked her into a portal of magic and romance that changed the course of her entire life. “I want to see you again, Beatrice… I know we promised not to say these things, but I can’t help it. I miss you already and you’re not even gone.”
“If the Gods Will it, we’ll meet again, okay? Whenever it may be.”
“Will you write letters?” Emi asked.
“I’m not sure if your wife will think that is appropriate.” Beatrice giggled, and then started crying as well. She let go of Emi’s hands and went back to pick up her backpack. Wow… this was so heavy. She really didn’t want to carry this on her back for ten hours a day.
“See you later,” Emi said.
Beatrice shook her head, smiling. “Farewell,” she said. Emi and Beatrice’s Dad hugged, and her Mom fiddled around with that mechanical contraption. Runa rambled about a new master plan, and Tia looked at Beatrice’s robes with a judging gaze. Bodhi’s looked off in another direction with his arms folded, clearly trying not to cry, and Pip had let her emotions flow, crying louder than anyone else around her. What a bunch of weirdos, Beatrice thought. Some amazing weirdos.
She let her mind paint a portrait of this scene, and keep it burned into her mind for the rest of her life. These were exactly the people Beatrice knew she had to protect. She was a powerful person who accomplished everything she set her mind to, and becoming a famous priest would be no harder than acing a test. But now, after everything, she finally had a reason behind her ambition. She would do everything she could to keep the smiles on these people’s faces bright and harmonious.
In her future, Beatrice would become a powerful and prominent priest. She would revolutionize the Church to actually help people, to actually bring the harmony it lacked so much in this time. Each person saved, each life given new breath, would be a new piece to bringing peace to this tumultuous continent. Everything Beatrice did would matter. It had to, or else all of this would be for nothing.
After one last moment of reflection, Beatrice waved to all her friends and family, and then walked away.
Beatrice and Emi were back in the marketplace once again, early in the day, so early the shops hadn’t yet opened, and the vendors were still placing their items. They walked side by side, close to each other but not holding hands.
The marketplace was crawling with guards and soldiers all over the premises, openly brandishing spears and keeping the place from achieving the lively atmosphere it normally would have. That was about the same as any other place in the entire city, though.
“Today’s the day,” Beatrice said. “Years of my life spent dedicated to one thing and now it’s here. Even a small rebellion couldn’t keep it away.”
“A rebellion of war, or a rebellion of love?” Emi asked.
“I hate you.”
“I’m okay with that.” Emi looked at Beatrice, one of those looks she gave when she was about to say something, well, Emi-esque. And sure enough, out of her mouth came, “Your new hairstyle is to die for, Beatrice.”
“You’ve said that like six times.”
“I know, it’s just… it’s so long, so luscious, so curly! Please, never ever cut it again. Keep it long forever.”
“That’s what my Mom told me,” Beatrice said.
“She said it because it’s true.”
“You know, your hair’s getting longer too, Emi. It’s really cute now. I’d almost forgotten what you used to look like.”
“Don’t pretend you can ever forget that moment we first met.”
“I know, I know,” Beatrice said. “Right here, right by… that stand, I think.” She pointed to a stall filled with onions and carrots.
“No, it was closer to the statue,” Emi said, beckoning to the stone visage of the stately royal woman right in the center of the marketplace.
“I… think you’re wrong.”
“Wrong is a state of mind.”
They went on like this for a little longer.
Spring in Balarand was Beatrice’s favorite. The air was crisp and cool in the mornings, not warm enough that she could ever sweat, but not so cold she had to wear extra layers. She took a deep breath and felt a wave of relaxation.
“I’m ready for this,” she said. “I feel great.”
“You’ll blow everyone away,” Emi said. “Is there any way I can attend? You know, to cheer you on?”
“It’s a private event,” Beatrice told her. “Only the judges and me.”
The two of them walked over to a fruit stand, where fresh crops brought in from outside the city were on display. There was a juicy red apple the size of a fist, and a basket of grapes too big for one person to eat by themselves, surely. The vendor, however, had not yet arrived to sell these items, and had left the table completely unattended.
“These look really good…” Beatrice said.
Emi extended her hand, and a few apples, a cluster of grapes, levitated from the table and flew next to Beatrice. “Here you go,” she said.
“I could never. Put those back.”
“Oh, I mean, I’m going to pay for them, I promise. Just catch when I say so.”
The fruits flew threw the air. Beatrice caught the apples and grapes, but then one apple tumbled out of her hands and onto the ground. Darn it.
Emi reached her hand out again, and then from her purse flew two silver coins that landed on the table with a clang. Then, after a moment of hesitation, she did the same with a gold coin as well. “That’s for the convenience fee.”
“You’re such a show-off.”
“I’m practicing my powers.”
“That’s what you said when my skirt magically flew into the air yesterday.”
“It was an accident, I swear,” Emi said. “Please believe me.”
Beatrice shook her head. “I’ll believe you someday. But you’ll have to earn my trust first.”
“I’ll do my best.”
“I doubt that.” Beatrice winked. “But, Emi… I just don’t get it,” she said. “How did you suddenly have these magical powers that nobody ever knew about? What in the Gods’ names is going on with you?”
“Well… I’m still trying to find out,” Emi replied. She gathered a few more fruit from various stands and tipped generously, all without touching any of the items in question. “Ms. Khami’s told me some. According to her, I was a bit, uh, difficult to deal with when I was young, and sometimes that ended up with smashed furniture. I needed very special care to train it out of me, and after that the family covered it up so nobody in the Church would come knocking.”
“Oh, that makes sense,” Beatrice said. “If word got out about your magic, it would really change a lot of what the Church teaches. They might force you to become a priest or something. And… you’re showing off by levitating fruit.”
“I’ll be fine.” Emi winked. “Let’s just enjoy our breakfast.”
The food was good, and company with a friend made it better.
Being friends with Emi again felt good. It felt nice, almost like things had gone back to normal. They hadn’t, not in the way either of them had wanted, but it was better just being together than fretting about normalcy. Normal was overrated.
Beatrice’s parents extended their vacation in Kent–it really sounded like Dad was going to accept the job offer–so she and Emi had the whole house to themselves for several weeks. That meant a whole lot of time spent together. They had fun, talked and laughed, went on walks, played card games, sometimes kissed, always cuddled. Beatrice had gotten used to seeing Emi’s pretty face every morning, seeing her shimmering brown eyes flutter awake as they laid in bed after a night’s sleep together.
And so maybe, they weren’t exactly friends, when Beatrice really thought about it. But that was the closest term she could find in her vocabulary. Anything more and it felt a little… They were friends, and that was the end of it.
The Priesthood Exams were this afternoon, and she wasn’t going to just pass. She was going to excel. Soon it would be time to fully focus, and so this morning with Emi, walking around the marketplace with no destination, was one final opportunity to relax. Not too much longer, and everything would be different again.
“Thank you so much for this,” Emi said, chewing on a grape and plucking another one . “For letting me stay with you, for… forgiving me, and for giving me a chance to forgive myself. If that means anything.”
“It’s been fun,” Beatrice said.
“And thank you for putting up with my stupid self-critical nonsense. It’s ridiculous how much I rag on myself…”
“You’re, uh, welcome.”
“And thank you for making me great meals all the time.”
“It’s nothing.” Beatrice flashed a smile. “You know my cooking’s not that good.”
“That doesn’t matter. You made it, and that means more to me than if a famous chef made me an elixir stew made from a thousand ingredients.”
“Ah, nevermind,” Emi said. “Thank you anyway, because… I love you. I mean, not like–well, yes like–uh, you know what I mean.”
“I love you too,” Beatrice said. “I’m sorry I can’t be there with you. All this anger in the world, all the strife… The Church is more important than ever. And that’s–”
“No, stop,” Emi interrupted. “We’ve been over this a million times. I understand and I’m not changing anything anymore, Beatrice,” Emi said. “I love you not for what you might mean to me in the future. I love you for right now. And that’s all.”
“You know that’s the kind of line that makes a girl swoon,” Beatrice said. “You’d better not use it on your new wife.”
“I can’t promise you that,” Emi said, giggling. “You know… the wedding’s getting pretty close. My parents are about to come back to Balarand to do preparations. I don’t know why the heck they still want to hold it here, what with everything, but for the first time in my life… I’m kind of looking forward to it.”
“And why is that?” Beatrice asked.
“Because once I become a noblewoman’s wife, I get to do whatever I want. If I have all this wealth and power just because of the family I was born into, then I need to make sure I earn it. I’m going to try and help out the world in my own way, just like you. And since you’ll be in training, I get a head start!”
“It’s not a competition, Emi…”
“Everything is, Beatrice.” She tossed a grape into the air, levitated it around in a circle a few times, and caught it with her mouth. “I have one request, though…”
“Don’t come to the wedding, please,” Emi said. “I don’t think I could emotionally handle that.”
“I think I’ll be leaving for training before then anyway,” Beatrice said. “Uh, assuming I pass the exams. But if I’m still here… I don’t know if I could resist. Seeing you up on stage bawling would make the rest of my life. Because…”
“Don’t say it…”
“Because you know I love making you cry, Emi.”
“You said it.”
Beatrice stepped into the examination room. Three judges stood before her, wearing veils over their faces so she could not recognize them.
The written exam had been a piece of cake. Now all that was left was performing for these judges her practiced rituals and incantations.
“Beatrice Ragnell,” one of the judges said. “Welcome to the practical portion of the Priesthood Exam. Are you dedicated to bringing harmony to Tsubasa?”
“Yes, I am,” she said. “With my life.”
For a short moment she thought Mr. Statusian may have been one of the judges sitting before her. It would have been an honor for her to perform everything he had taught her on this day… but there was no chance of that anymore, of course; he was in the mines in the Frozen Desert now. All over a failed rebellion that only made the occupation even harsher. It was tragic to even think about.
And right now was a very inappropriate time to be thinking about that, anyway.
Beatrice raised her right hand forwards, palm facing the judges.
It was time for Beatrice to begin her final step towards becoming a priest.
It didn’t matter to her how much faith she had in herself, or how much faith she had in the Gods, of how much faith anyone else had in her. She discarded any notions of her current life, any worries about the future, anything but her knowledge of the Church religion and the magical energy imbued in the souls of every living being.
She was going to succeed, because that was what Beatrice Ragnell did.
“Show us the register of incantations,” a judge said.
“Yes, ma’am.” She began performing the ritual to summon the good graces of the Goddess Phyra.
Ulric Statusian faced Emi and stared her down. This was Beatrice’s former teacher, somehow now a leader of the rebellion. Behind him stood a number of rebels. The carried large spears and axes pilfered from the bodies of the Dannark soldiers they had slewn moments ago. And now this ragtag group of Emi and her friends and family had their only path out of this carnage blocked.
Emi had never talked to Ulric Statusian in her life, but from the moment he looked at her, she knew his feelings toward her. His scornful gaze told her everything she needed to know about how he would prefer the L’Hime Family end up.
Then, he stared at Emi; just her, nobody else. She stared back. She held a tight grip on the lance in her hands.
They kept at this for some time before either acted.
Ulric Statusian pointed his fingers at her and one of the soldiers shot an arrow–
–which Emi knocked away with a slash of her lance.
She had no idea how she did that.
Immediately, Tia and Emi’s Father leapt into the fray and blocked Ulric’s path to attack her again. Another arrow launched, and it whizzed past Tia so close it knocked the wig off his head.
“Wait, Mr. Statusian!” Beatrice shouted. She stepped in front of Tia and Emi’s Father. “Stop all this fighting!”
What in the Goddess’s name was that girl doing?! Emi ran in front of her protectors and joined Beatrice by her side. She raised her lance and pointed it at the rebels. Nobody would be falling for her sake, no matter what.
“What are you even doing here, Beatrice?” Ulric asked, his voice cracking and eyes quavering. “Of all people, I would never have expected you… Beatrice.”
“You shouldn’t be killing people!” Beatrice shouted.
“And you shouldn’t be protecting the very people that allowed Dannark to capture and arrest our own King.” His expression hardened and his composure returned. The L’Hime Family is the epitome of scum. It looks like you might be, too. You could have been special, Beatrice. You could have brought peace and harmony to the continent.”
“And I will.”
Ulric and some of the rebel soldiers took a few steps closer to them. “You’re a delusional love-obsessed fool. I was so, so wrong about you.”
“Shut up,” said Emi. “Talk to my girlfriend that way again and I’ll kill you.” She jabbed with the lance and forced the rebels to back up a step. “Tia, get everyone else to run to the safe house. We’ll catch up.”
“Are you quite serious…?”
“Yes! Do it!”
Tia complied, ushering everyone to flee with him leading the way. Only Father and Runa stayed behind.
Emi stepped forward and attacked, jabbing her lance at the rebels. They easily dodged, but one lost his balance and had to step backwards to catch himself. One advanced too close to her, so she kicked him in the stomach, pushing him on his back.
Ulric bashed his sword against Emi’s lance, but she pushed him away. She flipped around to make sure she was in front of Beatrice, who had nothing but a rusty rake to defend herself with.
Never in her life had she dreamed she would be in a situation like this, but somehow, something inside of her had activated. She understood the world around her, and saw the battlefield for what it truly was–a series of gears and cogs, springs and levers, that together worked to create the ultimate peril. All Emi had to do was break the machine holding them back.
She struck at Ulric and hit his chest. He reeled backwards on instinct, but the lance cracked and his armor remained unpierced. Once he realized he was safe, a snarl grew on his face and he attacked with a fierce blow.
Emi ducked to dodge, but, unfortunately, she was still a young woman who was decidedly out of shape. She couldn’t get out of the way in time, and Ulric’s sword bashed into her lance with overwhelming strength.
The lance snapped in two and flew out of her hands. She was defenseless once again. The others had long since escaped, but Emi, Beatrice, Runa, and Father were still there, now completely encircled by rebel soldiers. Dannark soldiers were also fast approaching from a few blocks away, the thuds of their marching boots growing louder by the second.
Emi’s Father held some rebels back with defensive moves, but it wouldn’t hold for more than a few more seconds. Runa was here, but instead of helping she was watching her homunculus off fighting on the other side of the plaza.
Their fight was over. But at least the rest of her family and friends were safe.
“All you’ve accomplished with your life, young L’Hime, is leading my brightest pupil astray,” Ulric said. “You’ve committed a greater sin against the Gods than any of your traitorous family, because you defied their very Will.” He grinned, revealing a missing front tooth. “When Balarand is free, no-one will remember the Ragnells ever existed.”
Beatrice started to advance as if she were going to attack with her rake, but Emi held her back. He said they had defied Will of the Gods, eh? Emi didn’t buy that for one second. The Gods were with her on this one.
Emi grabbed Beatrice’s hand and held it tight. “I will always love you,” she said. “That will never change.”
Beatrice nodded and tossed her rake to the side. “Me too. No matter what the world brings us.”
“Forever and ever.”
The rebels advanced from all corners. Ulric raised his sword high up in the air.
But, somehow, Emi felt at ease.
No, she hadn’t accepted her fate. In fact, fate was never a question in the first place. Because fate was just some bogus idea thought up by people too uncreative to build their own destiny. Fate was for people who had no magic in their lives.
Magic was a peculiar thing, Emi thought. It resided within the souls of every being, and yet it was nearly inaccessible, nearly impossible to understand. It was a lot like love. Sometimes, people might find someone where together, they can make miracles happen, and they can change the world with just their hands held in the melted snow, but it’s really rare. Too rare to even mention.
But when love was truly there, when Emi felt Beatrice beside her, all of those mysteries and qualms and caveats and drawbacks vanished.
All her life, she had told herself she wasn’t good enough and she needed to change who she was to succeed. But right here, right now, at this exact second, Emi L’Hime realized all of that was a blatant lie. Magic was real and she was actually a great person all along.
Emi raised her free hand into the air, concentrated with all her will–all her love.
And then from that hand came a ball of light that exploded–literally exploded–
Every soldier, every rebel, every person in the vicinity except the four in the center of the blast, was knocked to the ground. Every single person, including those four, were blinded by a shining brightness.
Beatrice and Runa stepped outside to see what all the commotion was. There was a fire emerging in the direction of Castle Balarand, pillowing smoke rising into the air. What could it be? Beatrice quickly ruled out that Runa was enacting any of her schemes since she too seemed surprised. It must have been an accident, like a gunpowder spill or a kitchen fire raging out of control.
The fire was in the direction of Emi’s house…
Emi was probably okay. She may not have even been home, being the rich and famous elite she was. Likely she was out at some mansion by Lake Geoffrey, riding animals and drinking fruit juice and doing whatever rich people did in their free time.
…Beatrice felt like walking towards her house regardless, just to make sure it wasn’t affected by the fire. Despite the fervor on the streets with the protests, it seemed the most sensible thing to do. “Come on,” she told Runa. “We’re taking a walk.”
“But my mother told me not to leave your house or she’d shut down my laboratory for a month.”
“We’ll be back before she comes to pick you up,” Beatrice said. Runa’s mom was supposed to come by in fifteen minutes, so that was unlikely. But it was probably better anyway if she was able to impede Runa’s quest for world domination, even if only for a month. With whatever was going on, it was also possible that Ms. Arakawa was not going to be able to pick her daughter up soon after all. She had a bad feeling about that fire.
The mostly melted snow still laid on the ground, off to the side or on top of roofs. It was still too cold to go outside without a scarf and gloves. But the growing fires in the distance looked to change that. Beatrice couldn’t tell if it was just her mind playing tricks, or if there really was a growing warmth around the area.
They walked towards the city center and Beatrice quickly noticed an eerie calm had set over the streets. People were not emerging from their homes and the growing fire was seemingly being ignored. She noticed why as she grew closer and heard the banging of boots against the ground.
A group of two or three dozen soldiers, not in any consistent uniform and certainly not belonging to Dannark, marched down the Grand Concourse. In a cart that rolled behind them there was a cage full of prisoners.
The realization hit Beatrice like a brick against her skull.
This was a full-on uprising.
She and Runa rushed to the city center with all their speed; she didn’t take the time to explain the situation to Runa, because it was unlikely she would be able to understand the dynamics of the situation quickly enough, but she knew she needed to find her and make sure she was safe immediately.
The large fire was actually a controlled bonfire in front of the steps to the castle. There were a growing number of people gathering in a crowd around it, and many of these same men and women in ragged outfits were standing at the crowd’s center.
One man that Beatrice immediately recognized was Mr. Ulric Statusian.
This… couldn’t be happening.
Why was he…
How could he be…
Beatrice lost all ability for reason and rationality.
Ulric Statusian stood atop a box and shouted at the crowd, brandishing a sword up in the air. “We have had enough of the tyrannical rule of the Dannark Empire!” he shouted. “Just this week, Dannark demanded King Kline must be turned over, or else they will invade Fathie by land and sea. Will we stand for our ruler being treated like a common criminal?”
“No!” the crowd chanted back.
“We, the common folk of Balarand, will take back Elince for ourselves and destroy any traitor to the crown who stands in our way. We will save King Kline, and we will save our kingdom!
“There are people all over the city just like us who have joined the cause to protect Balarand. Look what we have captured–” He hoisted up a sparkling object instantly familiar to any citizen in the city–”The Jewel of Elince is ours. With this, our enemies are hopeless. We will triumph.”
The crowd went wild.
“Take up arms and join us!”
The men and women in uniforms began handing out weapons–everything from pikes and axes to sharpened gardening tools–to those in the crowd. They weren’t trained soldiers, but they were enraged and riled up, and things were sure to turn violent any moment now.
She noticed the cage of prisoners, now wheeled up next to the bonfire for display purposes. Judging by their clothing, those people consisted of the same types of folk that went to Mammoth Pass with her last month, still dressed in whatever fancy cloaks or nightgowns they wore before they were seized.
Ulric Statusian shouted, “These men and women have collaborated with Dannark to keep the power structure stable. These men and women compromised the integrity of our kingdom so they could keep their wealth, and we will not allow them to get away with their robbery. These men and women will stand trial for their crimes. If you find a traitor, take them prisoner and bring them to us!”
Emi… Her entire family… She begged her mind not to think about that right now.
Runa, who had been taking all this with an unusual sternness, said only, “This will negatively impact my plans for the Grand Experiment. We must find a way to stop this.”
“What can we possibly do?” Beatrice balked.
“We… Hmm, no. Not that either. We… Aha. We’re going to perfect my experiment and unleash it upon all who dare stand up to me!” With that, Runa took off in a sprint northwards. Ahhhhh…. No, no, not during the middle of an armed insurrection… This girl…!
Beatrice knew she needed to stop Runa before she got hurt. But just as she began to take her first step, her eyes met with Ulric Statusian’s. He smiled and his face brightened. He began walking through the crowd towards her. She took off in a sprint.
She didn’t want to be involved in any of this. And she didn’t want anything bad to happen to Runa. So all she could do was run.
“Wait up!” Beatrice shouted. Runa was fast, though. Way too fast. And Beatrice hadn’t done much physical activity since she got back from Mammoth Pass…
Still, the drive to not be captured by the rebels and to not let Runa do anything foolish kept her going, huffing and puffing all the way. In the middle of absolute chaos on the streets, and this girl was running? Why?
She must have run for twenty minutes before her strength finally gave out and she was forced to walk the rest of the way.
When she finally reached Runa’s house, her ultimate destination, she realized the entire neighborhood was deserted. No shops open, no kids playing on the street. If anyone knew about the rebellion, they were either hiding in their homes, fleeing the city, or joining in with the fight.
Balarand really was about to change forever, wasn’t it?
Beatrice entered the Arakawa home and went into the basement.
Runa was already back in her laboratory, yelling curses at the people who inspected it earlier in the day. “They stole my schematics!” she yelled. “How will I replicate my experiments now? This is a disaster, Beatrice. A complete disaster, I say.”
“Replicate what experiment? What are you talking about, Runa? Why in blazes are we back at your–”
Runa held up a finger to her mouth. “Shush.”
Beatrice was so flabbergasted by this command that she obeyed it.
Runa rummaged through a stack of books and revealed a stone protruding out of the wall. She pressed it inwards and another wall to the laboratory spun around, revealing–
“Oh my Gods,” Beatrice said.
“You’re safe. I am so pleased,” Runa said with a grin.
It was a monster.
A repulsive, nearly naked monster.
It was a large humanoid creature, breathing in and out quietly as it slept chained up to the wall. Its eyes bulging out of its eye sockets, its skin pale, its hands gigantic.
“I have made the world’s first homunculus,” Runa said. “I used naught but two bunnies and the hair of that beautiful companion of yours. But I must make more if I am to be successful. I must get those schematics back. Help me, Beatrice. You are my greatest hope. Rather, the most convenient hope.”
Emi and Beatrice laid on the huge bed, huddled up under the covers, looking deeply into each other’s eyes. They held hands, but with Emi’s grip so tight it left them both with great discomfort.
The moons shone through the window, but other than that, the room was in darkness.
“You’re getting married,” Beatrice said, her voice steady and measured. “You’re engaged to a noblewoman from Zahn you’ve never even met, and you’re getting married on the night of the Moon Festivals.”
“Y-yes.” Emi replied, her voice broken up by whimpers and sobs.
“You’ve known about this since before we met.”
“It’s been… a while. Five years, I think.”
“So that explains why you started avoiding me after our first date. You realized what was happening and you wanted to leave me alone.”
“I… I guess so. I barely remember.” Emi covered her face with her elbow, trying to hide her tears even as loudly as they came out.
“Why didn’t you tell me, then? If you had just been honest…”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I was scared. I’m still scared.”
Beatrice sat up and let go of Emi’s hand. “Why? Were you scared of what I’d think? That I’d stop meeting with you and having fun with you because you were engaged? Because you thought it’d hurt my feelings?”
“Did you really think it was okay to keep this a secret from me?”
A million little thoughts ran through Emi’s head right now, all of them covered in tears and bashing against each other in explosions of rationale and regret. She couldn’t think coherently enough to deliver any sort of adequate response.
All she knew was this: She had failed.
“I love you,” Emi eventually managed to say. “I really do.”
“No you don’t,” Beatrice said. “I’m just some… some fling before your real wife comes along.”
“No, that’s not true!” Emi shouted. “I don’t love her. I don’t even know her. What I said in the carriage, what I’ve said to you all along, it’s all true. There’s nobody more important in my life than you.”
“Then why wouldn’t you tell me about this?!”
Emi sat up too, and rested both hands against her temples.
Why, Emi? Why hadn’t you told her, huh? Can’t you think of a reason? Any at all?
“I won’t get married to Lady Khara,” Emi whispered. But her voice grew as she continued. “I won’t. I refuse. Tris, let’s run off together. We can get married tomorrow and go wherever we want! I’ll follow you to the ends of Tsubasa, no matter where you go. I swear it.”
“…No you won’t. Please stop… stop lying to me.”
“No, I‘m not lying!” Emi took a pillow off the bed and threw it as hard as she could towards a window. It bounced off and plopped on the floor. Both of them laughed, and for a moment everything felt okay again. But the softness faded back into the darkness, and Beatrice’s glare set itself back onto Emi’s face.
She continued. “I don’t even want to be part of my family anymore. The Ragnell Family is nice and fun and happy and you eat dinner together and your dad is amazing. The L’Hime Family is the opposite. We’re just desperate, conniving collaborators with Dannark and it’s all our fault those monsters rule over our country with an iron fist. I hate everything we stand for.”
“You’re going to bring politics into this? You know our rule.”
“I’m… I’m sorry.” Emi shriveled up and sank back into the bed. “All this time I’ve worried about what you’d think about me, as some sort of rich snob who doesn’t understand a thing about how the real world works, and if I messed up even a little bit, you’d…”
“I don’t know, desert me and join the priesthood.”
“And I thought I was the moron in our relationship,” Beatrice said. “I was never going to join the priesthood, Emi! Not after I met you. All this time I’ve been wondering if I was the weak link, if my indecision about becoming a priest was going to ruin our relationship and I was causing you so much stress.”
“It’s not, I promise,” she said. “I’ve always been worried but it’s not a big deal, because I… I know whatever choice you made will be the best one. You always make the right decisions.”
“You make me feel like such a jerk,” Beatrice said.
“Wh… What? What did I say?”
“Nothing, sorry. The priesthood doesn’t matter. I figured it out the plan. I was going to… I was going to take the exam and then I was going to decline it even if I passed… and then I was going to show the papers to you and tear them in half. And I… never told you, because I wanted to keep it a secret.” Beatrice’s lips quivered as she said what even Emi knew was a lie.
But it was a lie that made her heart just a little bit warmer. “Then why don’t we go? Why don’t we just fix this like we always do and move on? We can travel Tsubasa together and help people, just like you always wanted.”
“Because… Because you’re getting married, Emi. You can’t just run away from that.”
“Yes I can.”
“And ruin the rest of your life? Abandon a family that loves and cares for you?”
“That’s my entire plan,” Emi said. “I don’t care about them. I care about you.”
“You know you can’t do it…”
“Then it’s the same with you, Tris. You’re lying about making your mind up. I know you want to become a priest more than anything, because you are a wonderful woman who cares about the rest of the world and wants to actually do something about it. You’re exactly the person the Church needs, and you know it.”
Beatrice started crying, finally. “I’m so sorry…”
“It’s okay.” Emi reached in to hug her, but Beatrice rolled to the other side of the bed, facing away from her. Even so, Emi wrapped her arms around her and touched her cheek to her neck. She was so hot… Beatrice’s shoulders stiffened, and she took a sharp breath. But after a moment she relaxed. She took Emi’s arms and put them up against her chest. Her fingers traced down the line of her collarbone.
“It’s okay,” she repeated. “It’s all okay.”
“It’s not okay, Beatrice told her. “If we stay together, your parents will hate me for leading you from your role. My parents will hate you for making me crush my dreams. We’re… not supposed to do this, I think. The Gods don’t want it. But… even if all of that is true… do you want to do it anyway? Can we really run away together?”
Emi thought about this for a long time. All she wanted to do was turn to Beatrice, smile, and say, “Yes. Let’s go. I don’t care where; let’s just go.” She wanted so desperately to hoist her girlfriend up into her arms and sprint into the nearest church so they could be married and ride off into the horizon in their carriage. She had even suggested this very thing just minutes earlier.
But when she opened her mouth to speak, the words did not match.
“No, I can’t, Tris…”
“Don’t call me that. My name is Beatrice.”
Emi winced. “Beatrice.. I’m so sorry… I can’t let you abandon your dreams for me. I’m just some girl.”
“You’re not just some girl! How dare you. You’re the woman I’ve fallen in love with, and I’d give up everything for you.”
“You shouldn’t… I’m already taken,” Emi said.
“You can’t just stay and get married to someone you’ve never met. That’s just idiotic.”
“But isn’t that what I said a minute ago?”
“It– I don’t know, Emi. I just…”
“Maybe…” This argument was going around in circles. There was no way to resolve it. “Maybe none of this would have happened if I had been honest with you from the start.”
“You’re right, Emi, maybe you should have been honest,” Beatrice said. “Maybe I shouldn’t have been such an idiot.”
“This was all a mistake,” Emi said. “Coming here, talking about this, being…” Emi didn’t dare finish that sentence.
A silence permeated the darkness for some time. No more crying, no more talking. It was the kind of quiet that could only be broken in the same way as a fragile glass–with a sharp note.
And Beatrice was the one to break that silence: “I think I hate you.”
Emi gripped her tighter, buried her face in her back. “Me too, Beatrice.”
They stayed like this for a long time, holding each other in the night and filling the bed with tears. They hoped the light of the moons would guide them to some sort of healing… but they knew the glass had been shattered.
Emi was pretty weary of all this already, and it was only the second day in Mammoth Pass.
There was just so much wealth around her, no matter where she went. It was almost intoxicating, and not in a good way. She waddled through the snow alongside a large pack of rich individuals who all wore clothes that cost more than an month’s rent for apartment in Balarand. Emi knew that because she had checked listings for one-bedroom apartments across the city quite recently, not for any specific reason like that she was thinking about offering Beatrice a place for them to live together or anything. She was just curious, was all.
Of course, she was one to talk when complaining about rich people clothing, seeing as just this morning she had worn an ornate white dress dotted with pearls for the breakfast social. It was beautiful, but she felt its value deprecating by a coin every time she took a step.
Now, of course, she had on something much more, um, sensible. A custom design by her tailor Javert that looked cute, but had one fundamental flaw–its skirt went down only to her knees… She could feel her butt slowly morphing into an icicle just standing out here.
Right now, Emi, Beatrice, and the other people in their party were up on the cliffs of the Plebias Mountains. They watched the herds of Mammoths roam at the edges of the Frozen Desert, a vast wasteland taking up most of northern Tsubasa. Other than the Mammoths themselves and a few pridecow herds and hunter tribes, practically nothing could survive out there. In a way, that made the sight even prettier than it already was. Emi wasn’t sure why.
Her rich companions were using tiny handheld binoculars to watch the scene without straining their eyes, but Emi looked on from afar with her own two eyes. It was more fun to take it all in at once, she thought.
The Mammoths grazed the snowy ground, looking for shrubs and grasses, marching in their slow dance across the tundra. It was a sight that Emi knew well, from all her trips here with her parents, but, after all that had happened in her life these past few months, she felt like she was seeing them with a fresh mind. It was certainly interesting to see them while next to someone actually religious, someone whose entire life was predicated around keeping the same Harmony these Mammoths protected.
The way they moved around was so majestic and pretty, even as all they did was walk in a slow-moving herd, marching in a line so slowly it looked like Emi’s gear machine, but if it were being cranked too slowly. Beatrice must have been amazed to see the Mammoths, but Emi suddenly realized she was much more interested in seeing Beatrice as she looked at them.
Beatrice looked as uncomfortable as Emi felt, somehow just as weary of all this rich people activity as her, though not quite as shivering. Beatrice was probably getting the better end of the deal here. She was wearing her very nicest dress, the same Ancient Balarandian-style outfit she had worn to Emi’s house party all those months ago, but she had a coat over it and wore thick stockings to cover up her legs. It was still a bit thin, but unlike Emi, Beatrice could actually handle the cold because she was a grown lady.
Emi, on the other hand, was a child. A chilled child.
Gods, how do you even make a being like Beatrice Ragnell? With no conscious effort put into her appearance, she looked less like a pretty girl on a trip, and more like a frostbitten hallucination of a heavenly being who takes you away to the afterlife.
This girl was hers, Emi thought. Beatrice was hers, and she was Beatrice’s. She had snagged the ultimate prize– a woman who was not only beautiful, not only smart, not only so stubborn she would stop at nothing to achieve her goals, but someone who managed all of that without even thinking about it. Emi loved her so much.
Those stockings on her slender legs were stronger, more captivating than a fairy’s song. Gods, if it were just the two of them right now… Emi shivered and realized her fantasies were incredibly unrealistic sometimes.
Lord Lau crept up to Beatrice and tapped her on the shoulder, giving her a bit of a fright. Emi watched as the two of them exchanged friendly banter. She wasn’t sure wh the old man would think when she brought a woman who was very obviously not Lady Khara, but he hadn’t said a word, yet. Maybe he didn’t even realize it. Or maybe he was just on her side.
“This is your first time here, is it not?” Lord Lau asked Beatrice. He handed a pair of fancy binoculars to Beatrice. “The Mammoths are a glorious sight indeed.”
Beatrice took the binoculars. “Thank you.” She watched the Mammoths through them, and Emi watched her watching.
“These creatures can live for three hundred years, sometimes longer,” Lord Lau said. “Because humans are able to coexist with them peacefully, they have become increasingly plentiful across the continent. If you were to venture north into the Frozen Desert, you could find herds of them stretching on for a hundred miles as they migrate north and south along with the seasons. It is truly a thing of beauty.”
So was Beatrice, Emi thought. The beauty part, not the stretching on for hundreds of miles part.
Emi was currently shivering her butt off, wondering why in Phyra’s name she was fitted for a winter dress whose hem only stretched down to her knees, and she actually wore this dress to the mountains. In the middle of the snow. Javert finally got back at her for all those years of whining and fidgeting around… and she deserved everything she got.
What a price to pay to look as cute as she did!
Suddenly, Beatrice turned her binoculars and faced them towards Emi, as if she were observing her like a natural specimen.
One would suspect Emi would begin blushing and acting flustered by her girlfriend’s actions. One would be extremely correct.
“Tris, w-w-hat are you doing?” Emi said through chattering teeth.
Beatrice put down the binoculars and made a weird face. “Uh, nothing.”
“Give me those,” she said before yanking the binoculars away. “Maybe I should stare at you the same way, huh? How would you like that?”
“Please, like you didn’t all l–”
“I love you,” Beatrice said.
Emi blushed, and then put her free hand around her upper arm to show she cared.
She was so warm…
But then Beatrice shivered and pushed Emi away from her. “Why are you so cold?” she asked.
Besides that, this moment was almost perfect. The two of them standing next to each other, overlooking the quiet serenity of the most beautiful creatures in Tsubasa. Or, rather, the second-most beautiful creatures, ranked just behind this absolute monster of a woman. If the horde of other rich onlookers weren’t ogling the Mammoths all around them, this would be perfect. But Emi was okay with it being pretty close.
The Northern Highway was the main road bisecting the kingdom of Elince, stretching from Balarand all the way to Dannark and beyond. It facilitated almost all travel throughout the main cities in the region, creating hubs of trade and commerce in between that lifted entire cities out of poverty.
And, in the middle of wintertime, the Northern Highway was a sight of great beauty.
Lake Ehota, frozen over in the middle of the winter, was a sight to behold. It was a vast expanse, going on for miles and miles all the way towards the Plebias Mountains, consisting of nothing but ice and falling snow. It carved up most of the scenery, a flat stretch of light blue going on past the horizon. A beautiful wasteland.
On the other side of the small road was a thick layer of trees, covered in that same falling snow. Occasionally a snow leopard could be seen dancing around as it looked for prey, or a pack of greyback bears could be seen playing around with each other, but other than that the forests were empty and quiet.
The weather outside must have been absolutely frigid. But inside a certain carriage were two certain young women who were currently focusing the entirety of each other’s attentions on each other.
Emi and Beatrice, wrapped up in a warm fur blanket and snuggled up on one of the carriage seats, had hardly looked outside for quite some time now, too busy tasting each other’s lips.
Beatrice had not done one second of studying during the trip so far. She felt somewhat guilty about it, but in the end she cared much more about her time with her girlfriend than becoming a priest, so she continued to savor every moment they shared.
Emi, by the second day, had given up trying to look nice in the brief moments when the caravan made rest stops, despite the many rich and noble people riding alongside them. She had slipped out of her formal wear and into a much warmer and much simpler leather coat. Together with the blanket and Beatrice’s arms around her, though, she was almost too hot at this point, and wanted to take the coat off. But that would mean letting go of Beatrice, something she was not willing to do right now.
They had individually wondered how long they could reasonably keep this up, kissing and cuddling and doing practically nothing else. It turned out that the answer was quite a while.
“I love you so much, Tris,” Emi said as she caught her breath.
Beatrice did not reply, and only leaned forward to kiss her once again.
That was answer enough.
The love shared between Beatrice Ragnell and Emi L’Hime was real. It was expressed in every shared glance, every giggle, every pitter-patter of the heart, and it carried itself through this trip towards Mammoth Pass.
Of course, it could not last forever. A few hours later, the carriages stopped, and so did they.
When this happened, it was for one of three reasons: it could be for the chefs to bring food to each of the riders, which they did four times a day; it could be to let riders experience a particularly scenic spot on the road; or it could be to let riders relieve themselves. From the way Beatrice leaped up and darted out of the carriage as soon as the wheels had settled, it was clear which of the three reasons this rest stop was for.
…Eww? You wish I didn’t tell you that much information? Okay, weirdo.
Later that night, Emi and Beatrice sat around a campfire, the carriage caravan parked on the side of the road. They would eventually return to their carriage to sleep, but for now they simply wanted to bask in the warmth of the embers in front of them. They shared a wool blanket and they held each other in their arms, though Emi had a cup of warm tea in one hand. Beatrice had both arms wrapped tightly around Emi, hugging her stomach.
Tia sat across from them, wearing a plain jacket and long skirt, smiling brightly. “You two are attached at the hip, surely.”
“If I let go of her she might escape,” said Beatrice.
“Help me…” Emi whispered.
“I have never understood how such completely separate people could meet and fall in love like you,” Tia said. “You are from such different worlds, a junior priest and a diplomat’s daughter. And yet… you made it work. How did you get past it all?”
The girls looked at each other, and Emi shrugged. “Who knows?” Emi said.
“I do,” Beatrice said. “We just ignored everything else and went for it. It might be stupid but that’s the only thing you really can do.”
Tia shook his head, smiling. “Pretty stupid indeed.” He met Emi’s eyes and raised an eyebrow. Emi blushed and tried to giggle to cover it up. “I know you’ll keep making it work. The Gods seem to have made you for each other.”
“Yeah, the Gods work in baffling ways sometimes,” Beatrice said. “Sometimes… I just don’t understand them at all.”
“I wish my boyfriend were here,” Tia said. “It has been so boring travelling in a carriage with a bunch of aristocrats I have never met before. They have interesting conversations, but they are all so stuffy and old and… Hey, I wonder… do you think I might join your carriage and–”
“No,” both of the girls said flatly.
Tia couldn’t help but laugh.
The mountains were drawing closer, and Emi stared out the window waiting and wishing for them to arrive already. Not that she didn’t enjoy this amazing few days lately, but she was so excited to show Beatrice around Mammoth Pass.
Plus, her girlfriend was starting to aggravate her with all the kissing. If she kept doing it every five seconds, she was going to make Emi start to hate the whole act. Hate kissing! Who could even cause such a thing?!
By now Beatrice had pulled out one of her study books given to her by Mr. Statusian, but she had barely opened it as she thought instead about her life with Emi. Obviously these past few days weren’t going to be indicative of the rest of their relationship, nor were the next few, but she really did realize that this woman really was someone she might want to spend a lifetime with.
That was the real magic here. Oh… wow that was so corny, even in her head. But it made her think…
“What will we be doing in five years?” Beatrice asked.
“Raising our kids,” Emi answered almost instantly. “You’ll be teaching at a small private school and I’ll be managing a shipping company exporting Runa’s exotic creatures to the rest of Tsubasa for a pricey markup. We’ll have three sons and a daughter.”
“Hector, Kano, Jean, and Emi Jr,” Beatrice said. “All in the next five years?”
“Of course. We’re both girls. We can push them out two at a time; we just have to work overtime at it.” Beatrice cracked up laughing, and Emi smirked as she continued to gaze out the window.
The carriages passed through a small logging village. It was covered in snow, but all its residents seemed to be hard at work tossing lumber into carts and throwing the twigs into a heaping burn pile. Right next to the road, a few kids were building a ten-foot-tall snowman. They waved as the caravan passed them by.
Even if Emi and Beatrice had led very different lives, they were still urban denizens of the great city of Balarand. Neither of them could really even imagine what life in a wintery village would be like. If they had met and fallen in love under those circumstances, then THAT would be a story worth telling.
“Maybe we could move out to the countryside,” Emi said. “Just live out in some cottage, farming and hunting for ourselves, not giving a darn about the rest of the world and all its wars and turmoil…”
“If we’re being serious here,” Beatrice said. “I’m not sure I ever want to settle down and have kids.”
“Really? Why not?”
“I’ve lived in Balarand all my life, living with two low-class parents. I’ve studied about the rest of the world and all the things and places in Tsubasa. I’ve been studying it so long that… I just want to see it for myself, you know? My parents settled down early and had me, and obviously I appreciate that, but they probably missed out on a lot of their adulthood that way. They might never have been able to travel or fulfill their dreams or make a real difference in the world, not in the way they wanted when they were our age.”
“Well, just by making you they sure made a difference in my world,” Emi said.
“Oh, stop it.”
“Make me,” Emi said. In response, Beatrice scooted over to her, grabbed her hand, and planted a kiss on her lips. The life drained out of Emi’s spirit. “Okay, Tris, fine. No more silly remarks. Please… Wait– keep cuddling me though.”
Emi giggled, then continued her thoughts. “I just think… even if we travelled around the world and acted like my parents trying to negotiate peace deals and end rebellions and write trade agreements, eventually we would want to settle down.”
“I don’t want to really do that kind of thing either,” Beatrice said. “Politics is boring. And you and I both know we don’t really like talking about that anyway.”
“Nope. And we definitely never will. But then if you want to make an impact on the world, then what DO you want to do? Like, in general?”
“I want to help people. Make the world happier. Bring harmony to all of Tsubasa. Like, have you heard of that movement in Zahn with schools? They’re introducing public education to every single town and village. Soon the whole country will know how to read, and that will help everyone! I want to do something like that.”
Emi refused to even hint that she knew (and was engaged to) the person overseeing that public education project. “Well, I won’t be inheriting much of the L’Hime Family estate, but… it’ll be enough to live on for a few decades, that’s for sure. That could always be a good asset.”
“I mean–” Beatrice paused to collect her thoughts. She wasn’t entirely sure what she was trying to say herself. “I mean, no wealthy people stuff. Just you and me and going around making people’s lives better across Tsubasa.”
“So like my cottage plan, but with a carriage?”
“Or just our own two feet,” Beatrice said.
“That sounds tiring.”
“It might be my ultimate dream. Am I weird?”
“We already know you’re weird,” Emi said. “As for your dream, Tris… Personally, I would love to raise kids and have a family and have a quiet, peaceful life. But… I don’t think it’s that powerful a dream. Not like yours. I’m being completely serious when I say I’d follow you no matter what you did. We’ve been together for a while now and I think I can say that for sure. You’re just so…” Emi trailed off and sobbed quietly.
“Emi, do you really mean that?” Beatrice felt tears welling up in her eyes, too.
“Why would I lie about that?” Emi laughed and cried simultaneously. “I love you.”
“Even if I’m some boyish peasant with ridiculous life goals?”
“You know good and well you are the smartest, most beautiful, most thoughtful complete jerk on the planet and don’t you deny it like you’re playing innocent!” Emi exclaimed.
Beatrice couldn’t help it– she kissed her again. Emi nearly fell over. A fire lit deep within Beatrice’s heart and burst out through her lungs: “I love you and all your weird quirks. When you blush it’s like I fall in love with you all over again. I wish your name was longer so I could give you a cute nickname. Your hair looks so much better when it’s short and I hope you never change it. Every time I look into your eyes I go nearly brainless. You’re radiant and dangerous, and–”
“No reciting poetry, Tris. That’s cheating.”
“Eh, I didn’t know you knew that one…”
“I’m smarter than I look,” Emi said.
“Don’t you start… Let’s just shut up and keep cuddling.”
Beatrice flipped through a cross-stitch book, trying to find a pattern that looked interesting. And easy.
She’d been practicing sewing for a few months now, but she still couldn’t manage much beyond very simple things. She could mend a tear, but she couldn’t come close to making an item of clothing. She thought cross-stitching might work, but… it was all a bit difficult for her. How did her Mom do all of this with her own two hands?
Meanwhile, Emi shuffled through some bags in the back of the carriage. The road was old and worn, however, and when a wheel rolled over a bump, Emi nearly lost her balance. She grabbed ahold of the seat with her knees and shook for a moment. Beatrice managed to suppress a laugh, so she wouldn’t embarrass her girlfriend more than usual.
When the girl continued to look even further, Beatrice could no longer keep her curiosity at bay. She asked, “What in Tsubasa are you looking for?”
“Just a minute,” she responded.
“You’re going to get hurt,” Beatrice said. “Why don’t you wait until the next rest stop?”
“Can’t,” Emi said. “Too urgent. It’s–Ah-ha.” She turned around and sat back down on the seat, now holding what appeared to be, well, a black metallic box of some sort. Beatrice couldn’t figure out what it was.
The front panel was white, lined into a grid of hundreds of tiny squares, and there was a crank on the side. But other than that, it just seemed like an oddly shaped, quite heavy box.
“I made this for you,” Emi said. “For a few months, I’ve been working on this project, ever since I figured out how to build machines. It took me until this week to finish, but I’m finally ready to show you.”
“Is this that secret you told me about way back when?”
“The same one.”
“So what is it, then?” Beatrice was overcome with curiosity.
“Okay, well, see all these squares on the front of the machine? They’re each connected to a gear in the inside, and from the way I programmed the turning positions, each time the gears turn, some of the squares will turn black, and some of them will stay white. Look.”
She turned the crank one time, and sure enough, some of the squares rotated, turning black, and forming the image of a horse, with a hill in front of it. It was crudely-drawn, but that’s saying a lot when it was made with squares on a machine.
Beatrice wasn’t expecting anything like this. “You can make art with machines? How did you even think of this?”
“Uh, I don’t know, I just put all the pieces together right.” Weird. If this weren’t Emi, she’d be suspicious that she were lying, but she could tell Emi genuinely didn’t know. “And that’s not it,” she continued. “I can program this box up to thirty two times in order, so the squares will flip or not flip in an order before it all turns back to the beginning.”
Emi again cranked the machine, this time faster and steadier. The squares changed. A new image formed. Wait, not completely new– it was like the horse had moved, like it was galloping towards the hill.
The more Emi cranked, the closer the horse got to the hill, until it made a big leap and cleared the hill in one bound. Then it continued walking… and another hill appeared in front of it.
Emi tapped a button underneath the crank and all of the squares turned white.
“Emi, this is the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen,” Beatrice said. “You made the picture move. It’s like the horse was really moving. I’m just…”
“You really like it?”
Beatrice got up–no, more like leapt- and hugged Emi around the neck. “You’re amazing.”
Emi started to cry. “Want to try it?” she asked.
And Beatrice took the machine and cranked it herself, watching the horse move and jump over the hill, and watching this little animated figure repeat the same action over and over again. It was so cute. And Emi had made this all by herself.
“Gods, this is wonderful,” Beatrice said. “Can you make more?”
Still crying, Emi nodded, and said, “I think so. I think I can reposition the gears and program it all differently to make a completely different picture. But last time I tried it, I messed up the whole thing. So for now… Sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry. You’re a genius.”
“I’m not a… Thank you, Tris.”
Beatrice didn’t get tired of this machine, not for the rest of the trip. All of the wonder of the Gods, all the harmony of nature, barely stood up against this box her girlfriend had made. It was just so… cool. Emi had created a harmony all of her own with this machine. A perfect ecosystem of gears and springs that somehow made a piece of moving artwork!
Humanity was amazing. Her girlfriend was spectacular.
Her eyes were going to turn red soon if this didn’t stop.
She meant to wear a hat, but when she actually opened her closet to find one to suit her black dress, she couldn’t anything that matched. All that organizing she and Pip had done to her bedroom… it ruined everything. Just like the man whose feet were too big for his bed, nothing seemed to fit…
Those snowflakes were falling on her head. And they kept falling.
Emi stood by herself in the middle of a crowded gathering area near the statue of Jon Knoll, to whom Knoll Park was originally dedicated. Apparently that man was a direct ancestor to our present-day Tia Knoll, his great-great-great-great grandfather or something. The statue sure looked like him, too, minus the wig and dresses.
She felt a bit weird standing around with a bunch of students from a school she had never been to, all dressed in the same exact too-thin-for-the-winter uniform Beatrice sported almost every day. Then there was her, who had on an elegant and warm-colored dress. She stood out, and she was sure everyone was staring at her, making comments about her. Being in a crowd, and one where she looked unique, made her sweat from the stress, even in this weather. The things Emi did for Beatrice…
Despite being angry that they would leave so suddenly, she was also glad her parents were still out in Zahn; if they were here, she would never have been able to get out of all the stupid parties today. So many balls and dances and creepy older men hitting on her. And as unfortunate as it was, she was happy King Kline’s processions weren’t happening this year…
Yes, she had decided to be in favor of a hostile takeover of her kingdom’s government just so she didn’t have to go to as many parties this year. It was worth it.
Situated right in the center of Knoll Park, the Winter Ceremonies ritual was about to begin, and Knoll Park was soon to be shielded from harm for the rest of the year. Emi only knew the basics of magical incantations from what she studied to impress Beatrice, but she knew well that, when people channeled together their souls together with the correct strength, they really could do amazing things. And that’s how this ritual here was supposed to work.
A local priest, dressed in a traditional white-and-orange Elincian garb, began pounding on a drum to a rhythmic cadence. On cue, dozens of robed individuals, apparently Beatrice and her classmates, stepped out and encircled the Jon Knoll statue, taking each step in beat with the drum. They all had their heads down and Emi most definitely could not tell which of them was Beatrice herself, hard as she looked; anyone who says they can pick their loved ones out of a crowd like this are bald-faced liars.
One more priest, the man Emi identified as Beatrice’s teacher Mr. Statusian–she had mentioned him a few times and always mentioned his boyish good looks–stepped up in front of the circle of junior priest and clapped his hands. The drums stopped, and the park fell silent, aside from some chirping birds.
“We gather here to begin the Winter Ceremonies,” he shouted. “These junior priests, graduating this winter from the St. Helens Academy, have gathered here to send praise on up high and make sure the Gods know our devotion. If there are no objections, we will begin.”
Mr. Statusian waited for a moment, and then clapped once more. “Good. Junior priests?” The junior priests began moving their hands together in a rhythmic, circular motion. It was not in-sync, but instead staggered, each person’s orbit of hands leading into the next. It conjured up the image of a spiraling orb flowing through a field. At the same time, some of them also moved their positions forward or backwards. These things together made the image appear to move in and out of the depth of field.
The group continued this rhythmic motion, moving about until their formation was that of a sort of star, and then, all at once, they clapped their hands together bowed at a forty-five degree angle.
A glowing magical field formed in the spaces between them, casting a purple hue over the entire surrounding area. Like a funhouse mirror it warped the image in front of Emi’s eyes, and she could no longer clearly see what was going on except that the junior priests were staying in position. This energy was similar what she had seen in Runa’s laboratory, though unlike that time, the magic was not moving around erratically like lightning bolts, but instead focused in a steady position, almost standstill.
Silence struck the entire park, as if time had frozen just as much as the snow that covered the ground. And then, Emi had a sudden burst of inspiration about how to finish her machine. The way these junior priests had moved, the way they had created a picture with only their own movement… Wow. The gears in her mind began rotating, and– Well, she would think about it later. For now, she needed to pay attention to the ritual.
The silence was finally broken in a symphonic booming of voices. “Bk’Man, we honor Thee,” the junior priests said in unison. “Keep our winters wet and warm. Protect our city as we protect Your lands. And bless Knoll Park. Let Your delicate harmony wash over us.” They added something in a dialect that Emi couldn’t parse, and then unclasped their hands.
Immediately, the magical energy on the ground surged upwards into the sky, creating a literal barrier around the park so thick even snow could not pass through; it piled up at the top of the shimmering, purple dome thirty feet in the air.
After several moments and many gasps of awe, the junior priests threw down their hands all at once. The barrier dissipated and the snow gathered at the top came torrenting down.
A giant ball of snow and ice hit Emi in the head and covered her hair. That figured.
“Knoll Park has been blessed for the new year,” the junior priests said. “Thank you, people of Balarand, for keeping your spirits strong once again.” They exited just as they came. Apparently, the park was now blessed by the God Bk’Man.
The crowd cheered. Now that the Winter Ceremonies had officially begun, it was time to have some fun, with the knowledge of a safer Balarand at the back of everyone’s minds.
Emi had no idea how that barrier worked, but it was exciting to watch. The idea that someone could manipulate the forces around them with only the energy of their own soul, that someone could be greater than the nature that had shaped them… Well, it was very interesting. Though, she wondered why the barrier suddenly disappeared like that. From what little she studied about magical incantations, she couldn’t explain this ritual in the slightest. It probably took a better understanding of religious rituals to figure it out.
The life of a priest–or even a junior priest–intrigued Emi. Beatrice hadn’t much discussed the priesthood since they started dating, so all she knew was what she gathered from her history textbooks. And, unlike you, my little lazy grandchild, Emi studied a lot, so she was very well informed. She knew what the priesthood meant to Tsubasa, but most of all, she knew what it would mean if Beatrice became a priest.
Emi tried to keep it out of her mind, but if Beatrice really was going to go off and become some celibate warrior-monk off in the Frozen Desert, fighting sabertooth tigers or whatever priests did, then Emi was probably going to… Well, as long as Beatrice was happy with hunting giant animals in the tundra, that was what was important, she guessed.
Okay, perhaps Emi isn’t the best example of an educated woman. I stand corrected.
Anyway, she wasn’t going to think about that anymore, because Beatrice was here now, out of her robes and into a heavy winter coat. A boy in a tattered jacket followed closely behind.
“Emi, how did you like it?” Beatrice asked, giving her a quick hug.
“It was fantastic,” Emi said. “I’ve never seen something like that before. But.. Do you feel any different now? I don’t. Does that mean the ceremony failed?”
“That’s not how the blessing works,” Beatrice switched into lecture mode. “It’s difficult for humans to detect, because it’s not a physically occurring effect.”
Emi wasn’t quite convinced. “The barrier physically occurred, though….”
“Hi,” the boy said. “I’m Bodhi. Bodhi Makala.” He was nice, with a wide smile and light, turquoise eyes. He was what she always pictured when storybooks would feature a magical prince or dashing knight, his stature so tall and broad that you’d think he was a professional sportsman. He looked like a princely celebrity much more than he looked a low-class junior priest.
“Nice to meet you. Emi, current assumed head of the L’Hime Family household.” She extended her hand and Bodhi reluctantly shook it. She realized how formally she had just introduced herself, and with a half-lie considering that Ms. Khami was effectively the head of the household while her parents were away, even if Emi had legal status… Oh, why did she always mess up with things like these? And why were they still shaking hands?
Beatrice noticed her flusterations and put her arm around Emi’s shoulder, getting her to let go of Bodhi’s hand. “Sorry,” she said. “This is my girlfriend. She’s just being silly right now.”
Emi tried to giggle but it didn’t come out right.
Still… that word. Girlfriend. It made her heart melt just hearing it come out of Beatrice’s mouth.
“I’ve heard a lot about you,” Bodhi said. “You’ve got to be something special to get a girl like her away from studying all day.”
Beatrice rolled her eyes, but Emi laughed. “She still studies all the time, don’t worry. She wouldn’t be such a genius if she didn’t!”
“I’m no genius…” whined Beatrice.
“You’ve been a genius since we were toddlers,” said Bodhi. “Now you’re just old enough that it’s not scary to everyone.”
“Good to see Emi’s as beautiful as you deserve, though. That haircut is excellent.”
“Isn’t it?” Emi patted the back of her head, where there was once so much more hair covering it.
Beatrice sighed and mumbled something along the lines of, “…can’t believe you…”
“Well, nice to meet you, Emi,” Bodhi said. His smile, she realized, wasn’t as strong as when he introduced himself. “I have to go meet up with my family. I guess I’ll see you around, Bea?”
“Not if you call me Bea you won’t.”
He laughed, and said, “Well, I hope you do well in the Priesthood Exams. Beatrice.”
He left, and Emi wondered for a moment how much Beatrice realized about her own situation with that boy. Then… she felt a wave of bliss when she realized Beatrice’s arm was still around her.
“Let’s go explore the festival,” Beatrice suggested.
Alongside the Winter Ceremonies is the biggest festival of the year in Balarand, and perhaps all of Tsubasa. Hundreds of thousands go to Balarand every year for the Winter Ceremonies, from all across the entire continent. It truly is something special, I will tell you that.
Even during this time of occupation by Dannark, people from all over Elince still flocked to the capital to enjoy the festivities, and in this year in particular, Dannark citizens came in droves as well. There was hardly a hotel room open, hardly a shop with empty space during this year’s festival.
For as cold as the city was, the vibrant atmosphere of the Winter Ceremonies was as warm as the spiciest salmon bind.
Situated downtown was a massive display of snow sculptures of endless design, some of them so intricate and detailed that they could be looked upon for hours and still you could find new details to appreciate. One of the biggest sculptures was an entire miniature village of more than a dozen snow buildings and hundreds of snow people going about their snow lives. Another featured an expressive rendition of Empress Nievol’s face, though this sculpture was guarded closely by four Dannark soldiers and attracted few to give it a thorough examination.
Beatrice and Emi looked at a sculpture that seemed to be depicting two human children having a snowball fight, but the anatomy was misshapen in a way that made it look more like a fierce battle between humanoid snow leopards… or maybe a mating ritual between two birds.
It was a bit perplexing, and they studied it for far longer than it was worth.
And yet… There was something interesting about such an odd ice sculpture, something so…. Actually, both of them had become quite bored quite quickly.
It was better to try out all the snacks!
“I love food so much,” Emi said.
“You love food, and you love getting drastic haircuts without the faintest warning to your own girlfriend,” Beatrice said.
“You’ll never let it go, will you?”
“Not until I forget it thanks to too many sweets.”
Emi had already purchased and eaten three different stuffed salmon binds, each a different flavor from a different food stand. The marketplace always had these kinds of foods on sale, but on the Winter Ceremonies day, there were ten times the options, all with different prices and reputations to uphold.
If she were a more discerning girl, she would take the time to study the prices and figure out what was the best value for her money. That’s what Beatrice did right now, looking at two nearly-identical cake stands with as puzzling a look as she had given that snow sculpture.
“If it’s about price, I can buy you anything you need,” Emi said.
“No, no… it’s not that,” said Beatrice, her eyes locked on the two separate chocolate cake stands in front of her. The vendors were starting to get worried about her intent, intense staring. “I want to make sure any money I spend is a good choice. Even if it’s yours.”
“I could buy both of these stands and then make both of these vendors my personal chefs, Tris. It really doesn’t matter.”
Beatrice ignored that comment.
After several more moments of deliberation, Beatrice finally chose the cake stand on the right, buying one piece of chocolate cream cake. She offered a bite to Emi, and then nibbled at the rest.
“Wow, this is pretty amazing,” Emi said.
“You see? We’re getting our money’s worth. That’s why it tastes so good.”
Emi wasn’t really sure about that.
The parade down the Grand Concourse was about to begin, and thousands of Balarand citizens lined up along the bridges in wait.
“I used to come watch the parade with my parents every year,” Beatrice said. “I stopped going when I got older, because I thought it was boring to sit and watch carriages pass by for an hour. But I’ve realized something, Emi.”
“What is it?”
“Parades are pretty great.”
“You know, I used to be in these,” Emi said. “When I was little, they always made me play a snow fairy who circled around the main carriage throwing candy out to the audience. It was really tiring, you know!”
“You probably threw candy to me at some point.”
“Huh. Isn’t that weird? That’s another time we could have met but didn’t.” Emi thought back to that time, wondering how her life would have changed if she had, as a young girl, met eyes with this girl next to her.
How different would her life have been if she had met the love of her life that long ago? Her parents may have even approved of Beatrice if they had met at that age, even if she was a commoner. She would have never had to hear the name Lady Khara, or read the woman’s stupid letters, or deal with any of the nonsense that went along with an arranged marriage to someone she had never met.
Suddenly the parade stopped.
“What’s going on?” Beatrice asked.
“I have no idea.” Neither did any of the other people watching the parade, it seemed, as they looked around at each other and out at the floats with collective confusion.
A large group of men and women wearing bandanas over their faces entered the stopped parade procession and began blockading the carriages’ advance. They held up large signs that read, “Free Balarand!” The same man wearing the Mammoth mask in the style of the God Nexurk was in the protest group, and stood in the center, waving his arms around like he was conducting a worship song.
They quickly began their chant. “Winter Ceremonies are for Elince! Elince is not for Dannark!” It wasn’t a particularly catchy phrase, but some in the audience joined in and yelled alongside them. Emi was tempted to yell as well, but she knew Beatrice would get upset.
It was only a few moments before Dannark soldiers stormed onto the Grand Concourse. Soldiers entered and the protestors piped down, put their hands behind their backs, and surrendered themselves without hesitation. The soldiers rounded them up peacefully. One soldier threw the mask-wearing man onto the icy ground and kicked him, but it elicited no counterreaction.
As they nudged the blockade of protestors out, one officer unraveled a scroll and yelled at the crowds to disperse from the scene, ending the parade prematurely. People were slow to leave, despite the increasingly loud orders from the soldiers dispatched to facilitate it.
“Do you know what this is all about?” Emi asked. “If there’s anything specific that’s going on, I mean.”
“My Dad said they wouldn’t parade organizers to use the Jewel of Elince at the parade this year. That’s probably got some people angry,” Beatrice said, her tone muted and neutral. Emi appreciated that. “Let’s… let’s just go someplace else, I guess.”
“Agreed.” Emi leaned in and pressed her cheek against Beatrice’s.
“Ack, you’re so cold,” Beatrice said.
“Well, warm me up then.”
With the snow falling and festivities to participate in throughout the rest of the city, the two young women soon forgot about the disruption at the parade and proceeded to enjoy themselves elsewhere.
They passed a row of festival booths with fun games for children to play for prizes, and then reached one street intersection where an elderly man in a pointy hat was juggling tiny balls while telling kids a fairy tale story about the first Winter Ceremonies, held thousands of years ago. If there truly did exist people in this world who could perform magical feats on their own, surely it was this guy.
What a good day this had been, Emi thought. Together with Beatrice, watching her perform a sacred ritual, eating delicious cake. And now…
“You know, Tris…” Emi began. “There is still one thing we haven’t done together.”
“Have our first kiss.”
Beatrice audibly gulped. A kiss? Was she really ready for that? Were the two of them in a relationship long enough for that? What was the standard, here? Oh, why was SHE the one overthinking everything now?
“I think we should… kiss,” Beatrice said. “It’s the Winter Ceremonies, after all.”
“Yeah, whatever that means.”
They puckered up their lips and leaned in towards each other, Emi craning her neck down to reach her girlfriend–
But they stopped short.
“Actually, I think my lips are too cold,” Emi said. “They’re kind of chapped.”
“Yeah, it’s kind of dumb to do this in the snow.”
They both giggled nervously, thinking about how stupid this situation was, and why they were building up such a moment like it was something special. It’s not like kisses were the best thing ever, or anything…
Beatrice looked around, and then grabbed her girlfriend by the sleeve. “Let’s go in somewhere where it’s warm.”
They hurried over to a small shop that sold souvenirs to tourists, mostly wooden toys and other tiny trinkets. There was a log was burning in the fireplace, and both of their body temperatures raised instantly. Emi began licking her lips to make sure they weren’t as dried out, while Beatrice clutched hers with her gloves.
After a moment, it was time to try again.
“Okay, now we can do it,” Emi said.
“Yep. Here we go.”
They faced each other and took both their hands together and leaned in…
They planted their lips on one another. A good old-fashioned smooch.
Emi was stunned. She finally did it. She kissed her girlfriend. “Tris… I–”
Beatrice couldn’t help but squeal, and the whole shop turned towards them.
“Yeah!” she shouted, before literally running out of the shop. Beatrice felt so energized, so oddly powerful, that she couldn’t help it. She raised her hands to her mouth, looked up at the sky and screamed, “I kissed Emi L’Hime!”
Emi hurried after her but the power of love was not enough to overtake the speedy yelling girl. “Triiiiiisss…. What are you–”
“I kissed a gorgeous tall short-haired amazing woman!” she screamed again.
“Tris! You’re being a weirdo!”
“This is the happiest day of my life!” Beatrice stopped running and danced around in a circle. It was just so exhilarating that she– Ouch!
A snowball collided right with Beatrice’s face. When she turned to see the perpetrator, the would-be assassin, she saw only her girlfriend, her dark brown eyes morphed into the most mischievous glare imaginable.
“What was that for?” Beatrice asked.
“Revenge for running away right after we kissed! You have dishonored my family name.”
Beatrice bent a knee and began scooping up snow with her hands. “Is that so…”
“It most certainly is, my love.”
That’s when Beatrice saw it. Three snowballs in Emi’s left hand. A volley waiting to be launched.
“Winner gets to make the next kiss,” Beatrice said.
“I will not be defeated!”
And thus began the ultimate snowball fight in the history of mankind.
Everyone paused, They stood where they were, frozen in place for ten, maybe fifteen seconds. Nothing but the sound of the wind and panting students.
And only after that did everyone cheer.
Mr. Statusian clapped. “You did it. You’re ready for the Winter Ceremonies.”
The two dozen students standing in a ritual circle bowed in unison, and then said, “Thank you for the day,” before ending the practice.
To Beatrice, this marked the end of a grueling final month to her schooling as a junior priest. She and her classmates worked hard together to perfect the magical rituals that would protect Balarand from harm for the rest of the year. One mistake and it could doom everything. But they wouldn’t make a mistake, not anymore.
Practice was over, but it was already nearly dark. Snow blanketed the ground and continued to fall from the sky. Most headed home, since there was nothing much else to do but get some rest before the big day.
Beatrice looked around at her white-and-orange-robed classmates, the ones with whom she would be performing in Knoll Park tomorrow morning. Just one month ago, she was the only one with a care in the world about religion class or the spells and incantations they studied. Now, on the precipice of actually casting a grand magical spell, it was clear everyone was ecstatic.
That even included Bodhi, who approached Beatrice along with Mr. Statusian. Bodhi had been beaming every time she saw him lately, and that was the same now. Bodhi had already taken off his robe and put on a cap, which made Beatrice suddenly realize she was still in full ceremonial attire. She lowered her hood and greeted the two of them.
Mr. Statusian pantomimed jabbing Bodhi in the ribs with his elbow. “Look at our star kid,” he said to Bodhi. “I’ve never taught a class as good as this one, and it’s all thanks to you.”
“Yeah, Bea, you’re fantastic.”
Beatrice tilted her head to the side. “No? I didn’t do anything special. It was your teaching that helped everyone.”
They both laughed, and Mr. Statusian said to Bodhi, “See, I told you she’d say that.” Bodhi laughed. He turned back to Beatrice. “That’s why you’re going to make Elince proud one day. I’ve had groups in past years who really made me stay awake the night of, wondering if they would really pull it off. But I’m going to rest like a greyback tonight.”
“Seriously,” Bodhi told her, “I’ve talked to half the people in our class, and they all say the way you work hard is the main thing that got them going. Thanks a lot.”
“It’s nothing,” is all Beatrice could say to spare herself the trouble of trying to mitigate all this unearned praise. She failed to suppress a nervous laugh. “Anyway, I’m looking forward to tomorrow. It’s very exciting.”
Mr. Statusian took another look at Bodhi and then waved. “Well, I’ll see you two then. I’m off. Make sure to leave the premises before the school closes.” He turned around and left.
That just left the two of them.
Bodhi looked like he was about to say something, but hesitated for a second. His left hand tightly clutched the ceremonial robes he was holding.
“See you tomorrow,” Beatrice said.
“Yeah, see you.” He flashed a toothy grin, the last thing Beatrice saw before she scampered off, disrobing while walking. She wondered if he was going to ask her to go eat or something like that, but she would have had to decline, anyway– she had somewhere very important to be.
Beatrice traveled down the dim, snowy streets, the sun gone so early that she could have sworn she just ate lunch, and took in the all-encompassing wintery smell that permeated the entire city. It was the kind of scent of… well, ice, naturally, but also of smoky meat grilling by food venders, of the musty fur on the coats of nearly every person she passed.
But for everything, it was unmistakably, undeniably, that of Balarand. The city may have been under turmoil, may have been in a haze of tension as thick as the blistering, snowy winds, but it was still the only city she had ever called home. Beatrice was going to travel the world one day, going to make the world a better place. Or… at least, that’s what she had planned since childhood. But no matter where she went, she would never feel a home like Balarand, she was certain of that.
“That’s why you’re going to make Elince proud when you become a priest,” Mr. Statusian had said.
She had no idea what to make of a statement like that. One look at her girlfriend and her entire life went spiraling away. The Wills of the Gods wanting her to become a celibate warrior for peace, a paladin of harmony, all while Emi L’Hime was right there for her, someone she wanted to spend the rest of her life with. She was a gift from the Gods Themselves, surely. It was all so contradictory, so confusing that it made her want to figure out a spell to explode her own mind.
For now, though, she was going to put that off and focus on the present. Tomorrow, having fun and celebrating the Winter Ceremonies. Today, spending time with Emi.
In no time, she returned to the library, where her Dad was organizing some books– and where Emi was sitting at a table, reading. Beatrice went directly over to the table, and pulled out a book of her own from her school bag.
“Hi,” she said.
Emi returned her greeting with a quick smile.
Beatrice’s eyes popped open. “EMI,” she screamed.
“Hehehe, you finally noticed.”
“EMI, WHAT HAPPENED TO YOUR HAIR?!”
Where did it go? Did she drink an invisibility potion? Were those real?
Did Runa kidnap her and cut all her hair off for research?!
“I wanted to change my image up a little bit,” Emi said. “Looks pretty, doesn’t it?”
“Gods, I’m going to faint,” Beatrice said.
And then she did.
“Tris? Tris? Are you… Ah!!! Earl! Help!”
Unconscious or not, Beatrice was fine. In fact, she thought she just saw the human incarnation of the Goddess Phyra in front of her, at least until her vision blacked out. It was all good and fine… but maybe Emi could have warned her first?