Do you know about Runa Arakawa? No, you don’t? Really? Oh, of course, forgot that you refuse to study your history books because you are a delinquent. If you did, then this entire story may be very different to you. Very well, then. I’ll let the girl speak for herself…
All that was in the air was the smell of melting rock and lake water. The ground was damp, and each step Emi took made a mushing sound that was growing increasingly difficult to ignore.
She’d never been this far north in Balarand. It was far past the castle and the wealthy neighborhoods, close to a river port where even in winter the place smelled vaguely of rotting fish.
Was she out of place up here? Would the people who lived here notice that she was one of the affluent, uncaring folk who let Dannark occupy their kingdom and overthrow their leader? She hadn’t dressed in anything fancy, but she still felt uncomfortable, like every passing person would probably pause and pick her out.
Well, if there were any ruffians that thought she was an easy mark, that was okay. Beatrice would be there to protect her. She knew magic and all that.
“So, Tris, you never explained,” Emi said. “Why are we going to some girl’s house?”
“She asked me to,” Beatrice said. “I don’t want to elaborate further and spoil the, uh, surprise.”
They had walked all the way up town, close to the port heading up the Balarand River, where the houses were less compact and the city wasn’t as bustling anymore. Both wore warm clothes to protect against the winter; Emi had a toboggan on her head, and Beatrice had a scarf wrapped around her neck.
Not more than a block away from the lakefront, they reached one unassuming, dark blue house with a nice porch, cozy with one floor. Beatrice walked up to the front door and knocked on it. Now they had to wait.
In the distance, off the shore towards the Balarand River, laid a floating dock where several ships were anchored down to unload goods without going all the way to the main port. Another two boats were there for repairs, after they had collided with one another just hours earlier.
In the other direction from the port, there was a large smelt mill, burning up ore and creating lead for use in materials of all sorts. Sparks of fire and billowing smoke flew out of the chimney at the top. This was certainly not an area Emi would have imagined to find houses in, but she had learned recently that a lot of her assumptions about life in Balarand were completely wrong.
“Now that we’ve known each other for a few months, I must reveal one more thing about myself,” Beatrice began, her tone taking a sordid turn. “I will share with you my darkest secret. My most tragic responsibility.”
With all this build-up, Emi couldn’t tell if she was being sarcastic or not. With all this build-up. Her heart raced.
A dainty old lady opened the door to greet them, and Beatrice gave a sigh of relief. “Oh, Gods, Ms. Arakawa, you’re still fine.”
The woman gave a wide smile and exclaimed, “Little Bea! Come on in!” Emi gave Beatrice a sly glance and she shot a dirty look in return.
They entered the house. It was small and homely, decorated with various knicknacks gathered from throughout the city, and a bookshelf filled with assorted titles–some fiction, some nonfiction, some religious.
“That’s a lot of books,” Emi said.
“Yep. Back when they lived near Knoll Park, I loved coming over so I could read. Back when I used to… babysit.”
Beatrice was a babysitter, huh? That was her dark scary secret? It sounded cute to Emi. She wondered what Beatrice was like around children. Oh no, she was blushing already.
“I’ve made you some pastries,” Mrs. Arakawa said, carrying a tray of baked goods towards the two girls. “You make yourself at home while Runa gets ready for whatever she’s got going on. Oh, that girl.”
Emi and Beatrice sat down on the couch, and Beatrice took one of the pastries. Beatrice took a bite and squealed. “Delicious.”
Emi didn’t eat anything and laid her head on Beatrice’s shoulder. “Are you ever going to tell me what’s going on?”
There was a loud banging sound from below them.
“You’re about to find out.”
A door at the side of the room swung open, and smoke began pouring out. A short figure wearing a blacksmith’s goggles emerged from the room, hands on hips in a defiant pose. Her face was covered in grime and soot. Emi jumped to her feet in shock.
She lifted the goggles off her face and gave a toothy grin. “You received my message. Excellent,” she said with a nasally snicker.
“Runa, hey, long time no see,” said Beatrice, cringing through her teeth.
Emi couldn’t place Runa’s age, but she definitely seemed a bit younger than the two of them. She was also a runt, standing at just over four and a half feet tall, with a plump face and bushy eyebrows. As a sign of a times, even a girl her age was already wearing ink-black lipstick.
She took off her gloves and walked over to the couch, where she took a pastry. She noticed Emi and glared.
“H-hi,” Emi greeted. “I’m Emi L’Hime.”
Runa grabbed Emi’s hand and kissed the top of it, leaving behind a dark smear. “You are a delight, milady.”
Emi stared at her hand for a second. She laughed in bewilderment. Beatrice rolled her eyes.
“Mom! I’m going to show these two my laboratory,” Runa shouted to her mother, who was in the kitchen making something.
“That’s nice, honey.”
“We’re going down,” she shouted again. She didn’t seem to need to ask for permission, but was seeking it anyway. Aw, she was a good kid at heart. “Follow me, ladies.”
They went into the smoke-filled room, which was actually a staircase down into a basement. “That’s the reason they moved away,” Beatrice said. “They needed a real house with a basement. For Runa’s work.”
“What work is that?” Emi asked.
Beatrice pointed towards Runa’s laboratory.
It was a chaotic mess of papers, runic symbology scrawled on walls and tables with rocks and tiny critters laying about. For anyone worried about cleanliness, this would be like looking at a warzone. Strangely, Emi felt a wave of calm wash over her instead.
“This is where I make the magic happen,” Runa proclaimed, stretching out her hands as if her laboratory were a natural wonder. “Quite literally speaking.”
She gestured to her table covered in large stones. “Right here is my golem dissection project. I have been trying to figure out what part of the rock is able to store magical energy and coordinate with other pieces to form the magical creature known as a golem. They have been known to form around pieces of ice, too, but last time I attempted to study one of those, it melted before the shipment arrived…”
“She shipped an ice golem to Balarand? Who is this girl?” Emi asked in a whisper as Runa continued rambling.
“Her father was a prominent businessman many years ago, but when he died, he gave his entire inheritance to his lover and newborn daughter instead of his wife and legitimate children. Ms. Arakawa is the fifth-richest person in the city.”
“Oh, wow.” Emi’s immediate thought was that Runa’s mother budgeted pretty well, then, from the looks of the house and area, and then realized that normal people don’t think about that kind of thing and she should stop being a rich brat.
“…And that brings us to the reason I needed to contact you so urgently, Ms. Ragnell,” Runa continued, talking like she were giving a lecture and not actually speaking to someone. “I have reached a crucial phase in the Homunculus Project.”
She beckoned to a table covered in glass, housing a dozen small rabbits jumping around and sleeping and eating from their bowls. “I have ventured into the furthest reaches of the fabric of soul magic. With this, I am one step closer to using the soul to create new life. I will become a God among mortals!” She cackled.
“What did you do?” Beatrice asked, peering at the rabbits closely.
“You cannot see? You were always rather simple, so I will explain. These rabbits, just one week ago, were no mere rabbits. They were insect larvae I found crawling outside my house!”
“Wow,” Emi exclaimed. “Pretty neat.” She had read about this sort of soul transfiguration magic when she was studying about magical incantations with Beatrice, but she thought it was only theoretical. This was certainly not theoretical!
“More than simply neat, my dear. I have transmuted them into new life, and now I will use this power to transmute them all into one being!”
She flipped a nearby switch, which set ablaze a furnace directly underneath the table full of bunnies. A large crystal dangling on a chain dropped from above and crashed onto the table. The crystal shattered and magical energy began swirling around inside the glass…
And then all the bunnies evaporated, dying in a fiery flash. Their bones turned to dust.
“That wasn’t supposed to happen… My calculations must be in error.” Runa ran off to a table to pore over some indecipherable papers, and left Emi and Beatrice to gaze at the carnage by themselves.
Beatrice looked down at the ground and covered her face with her palm. Her glasses tilted. “This was such a bad idea. I’m really sorry for–”
“This is so cool,” Emi said. “Thank you for bringing me here, Tris. I couldn’t have asked for a better date.”
“I came to meet you!” she said, just as loudly, mostly because the party was so loud she could barely hear her own voice. “I forgot you were having a big party. I just thought I’d dress up since your family is so rich and famous.”
“What do you mean, what?”
“I can’t hear you!” Emi yelled.
She had come over to this place to see if Emi was even around, but it turned out she was incredibly preoccupied at the moment. Like, the kind of preoccupation that involved a gigantic winter party.
Luckily, Beatrice had already put on her nicest outfit, a dress her mother had finished just last week. It was patterned after ancient Balarand fashion, but styled closer to a modern formal suit. In this case, though, the tie was replaced by a traditional sash across her left breast, and a cape that went down to her waist.
And Emi… Wow. Her fancy party dress shimmered in the bright lights of the chandelier hanging overhead, and made her shine so brightly Beatrice literally could not look away. She was THAT beautiful.
“It’s a bit hard to…” Emi took a step closer to Beatrice. S close their noses practically touched. She leaned in and spoke directly into Beatrice’s ear. “Can you hear me now?”
“I could hear you the whole time.”
Emi leaned in even closer. “I’m really glad you came,” she said. “I missed you.”
Beatrice ignored that for now. “My offer still stands. Do you want to dance?”
Without waiting for an answer, Beatrice put one hand on Emi’s waist and another one on her hand, and lifted up their arms.
She hadn’t even been listening to what kind of music the orchestra was playing, but she was sure they were both bad dancers anyway, so she just swayed back and forth. The crowd around them cleared out a little bit and gave them room to move around themselves.
They stared at each other. Sparks flared between their eyes and detonated in brilliant blue and brown bursts of bliss. Beatrice wasn’t sure her face had ever been this close to another’s in her entire life. It was a bit intimidating, enough so that– oof!
She almost tripped over Emi’s dress and sent them both tumbling, but Emi caught them both. “Just follow my lead,” she told Beatrice.
Later, Beatrice would learn that Emi had been trained in formal dance all her life by her housekeeper Ms. Khami, that had performed at parties and recitals since childhood. But at this moment, Beatrice had no inkling of that; she simply thought the tension between them had been some sort of cooperative incantation, that it had generated an energy field that kept them in a constant spinning motion. Everything she told Bodhi about magic was a lie–love really was the most powerful force in existence.
It was warm.
Hand in hand, arm in arm, the two of them moved with the sweeping orchestral sounds, a dramatic yet romantic piece that oscillated between fast sections and slow sections, daring the dancers to keep up. The girls remained in sync, maybe not as much with the music as with each other. They created their own harmony.
“You know, you said rich people parties were terrible, but I really like this,” Beatrice whispered into Emi’s ear.
“Shut up,” Emi said.
“No, really, I do. All the beautiful dresses and fun music. It’s got a fun atmosphere.”
“I guess it’s not too bad.”
“Do I stick out if I’m just wearing this? I don’t have anything as nice as… well, you.”
“You look great.”
All this time, Beatrice had remarked to herself how beautiful Emi was, but this was the first time she had actually been able to see her up close like this for such a long time. Seeing the dimples on her smile, the freckle right above her left eye, the crackles on her lips from not enough moisture in the house…
She thought about leaning in to kiss her right this instant, but resisted the urge. Not while everyone was watching. Not until they could clear the air between each other.
But still… She enjoyed the dance.
Beatrice thought that this was the perfect setting to be with Emi. They walked down from the rich part of Balarand down towards Knoll Park, where they could stroll by the small canals that littered the southern portion of the city.
She was glad that she had decided to wear Mom’s outfit, after all. Emi had stared at it for a good five minutes without saying a word, so it appeared to be a very impressive piece. Thank you so much, Mom…
“So we’re going where?” Emi eventually asked as the two strolled down a busy pedestrian bridge, not yet holding hands. She was wearing the same dress from the party, an elegant, bright white and orange ballgown that went down all the way to her feet. It almost felt like Beatrice had kidnapped the girl from a wedding or something.
“I don’t know,” Beatrice said. “I had just finished some, uh, studying, and I thought I would see if you were home yet, to kill two birds with one stone. So we’re just strolling.”
“You shouldn’t kill birds. They’re nice.”
“Wait, what did you mean by ‘home yet?’”
“You were… gone, right? On some important rich person thing, maybe? I went to your house before and got turned away, so I…” Beatrice blushed because it seemed like Emi had no idea Beatrice had been to her house and now it sounded kind of embarrassing, maybe even creepy.
“Oh, Gods, I had no idea. I just… I’m really sorry,” Emi said. “I was probably home. It’s just that I was… studying a lot. My housekeepers probably didn’t want me to be interrupted.”
She hadn’t been gone? Emi had been in Balarand all along? Then Beatrice’s feelings hadn’t been for nothing. But somehow she felt even more confused.
“I thought they let you sneak out all the time?”
“Well, this time I… I thought it might be for the best,” Emi said.
Wh… What? What the heck was Emi talking about here? For the best? Did she intentionally ignore her for three weeks, or something? “Emi, what do you mean…?”
“I mean, I thought that I… We’re worlds apart, you know. Maybe my parents don’t approve of you and they’ll be angry if I show them to you. Maybe your parents will hate you because I’m part of a rich bureaucrat family that helped bring down King Kline. I don’t know. You’re a junior priest and… I’m just some girl. You shouldn’t even care about me.”
“Shut up,” Beatrice said.
“Seriously, shut up.” Beatrice was starting to get a knot in her stomach, and her face had turned red, and not from any cute blushing. “You don’t get to decide who cares about you. I’m not letting you push me away because of any dumb apprehensiveness.”
“No, but that’s what I wanted to… I’m sorry. I messed up.”
“Darn right you messed up,” Beatrice said. “I… I missed you a lot. I don’t want to be in a world without you in it, okay?”
Emi looked like she was about to cry, and then… she started cracking up laughing. “That was so cheesy.”
“Well, it’s true.” Now her face was red from blushing after all.
“And I agree with it. The past few weeks have been horrible for me. I don’t think I could ever bear to do that again. So I just want to say I’m sorry and I won’t do it again.”
“You’d better not, Emi.”
“I promise, Beatrice.” A snowflake floated down and rested gently on Emi’s nose. She stared at it for a second, blinking silently, before laughing once more. What a silly girl.
They stopped by another bridge over another canal. A gondola floated underneath it, with its gondolier standing by, arms folded as he waited for his next customer. Beatrice hadn’t ridden in a gondola in ages. It was so romantic! Maybe the two of them could…
“Do you want to… ride that?”
“Eh… Actually, last week I– Oh. Yeah. Let’s hop on.”
“So, you aren’t mad at me?” Emi asked.
“I’m just glad you’re with me now,” Beatrice said. It was mostly true. Honestly, these past two weeks had given her a lot of time to process her feelings about everything, and it helped her realize her crushing anxiety about everything coming to her life soon. For all Bodhi said about her focusing on the present, she sure felt like the future was a looming brick wall she was right on course to smash into.
Did she really want to give up her life with family and friends to devote herself to the Gods forever? Did she really care about Emi so much that she would be willing to part from her singular dream? It was tough, and she felt guilty even thinking about that right now when such a wonderful girl sat right next to her.
The gondola gently rocked and they passed underneath another pedestrian bridge. The sun was setting earlier and earlier every day now, so it was already on the horizon, the sky glowing with oranges and purples.
“So, what have you been doing lately?” Emi asked.
“Practicing for the Winter Ceremonies,” she answered. “The graduating junior priests at my school are performing a magic ritual at Knoll Park. It’s really exciting.”
“Wow. That sounds amazing!”
“It’s a lot of work. We all have to coordinate together so we have to practice a lot, and no matter how hard we do, we won’t know if it all worked until we attempt the real thing. Not one of us can mess up.”
“Are you worried about it?” Emi asked.
“Not at all,” she said with a determined grin.
“That’s my Beatrice.” Emi’s face went flush. “Not that… I mean…”
“I know what you mean,” Beatrice said. “And you?”
“What have you been doing lately?”
“Oh, that. Me?” Emi put her finger to her chin as if she had been so busy that she was having to think hard about it. “Mostly just preparing for the party. The party that we skipped out on.”
“Hehehe. It was fun, though.”
“I think you would change your mind if you had to stay another two or three hours.”
“Do you want to go back? We’re headed that way, I think,” Beatrice said.
“No thanks,” Emi said. “Actually, I have been working on… Well, you’ll see.”
“See what? Oh, is this about those gear things you wanted to build?”
“It’s a secret.” Emi winked, and then giggled.
“Okay, that’s fine,” Beatrice said.
“You’re not going to pester me about it?”
“You said it was a secret.”
“But…” Beatrice burst out laughing, and Emi finally got the joke. “Oh. Well, trust me, when you find out, you’re going to be impressed. Unless I fail at it.”
Beatrice was curious, but it would be better to let the girl wait. Instead, all she did was hold out her hand. Emi took it, fitting her fingers snuggly into hers.
They sat in the gondola for a while longer, going down the canal as it cut west-to-east through the city and took them closer to Emi’s house. All that walking, and they were soon going to end up around where they started.
It was the journey that mattered, anyway. The quiet, gentle rocking of the boat, and the silent gondolier pushing an oar through the waters.
Emi shivered and squeezed Beatrice’s hand tighter. “It’s getting really cold out here…”
“Uh, do you want to borrow… uh, my sash?”
“It’s really cute, but no,” Emi said. “Maybe if you had something like a scarf.”
“Well then, we’ll just have to share body warmth, huh?”
“Oh, Beatrice.” Emi paused, as if to consider something important. “…Beatrice?”
“Can I call you something shorter?”
Beatrice’s heart stopped. “Uhh… like what?”
“I don’t know, Bea?”
“No way!” Beatrice shouted. “‘B’ is a letter in the alphabet. Not a name. I hate it.”
Emi giggled. “Okay, then how about Tris? That’s the other half of your name.”
“Nobody’s… ever called me that.” Beatrice pondered it for a moment. “Yeah, sure. You can call me Tris.”
She had to admit it sounded cute. And the way Emi said it, putting extra emphasis on the “chr” sound… Her heart was sent aflutter.
“But wait,” Beatrice added. “Nobody else gets to say Tris. Just you.”
“Fine with me.” Emi scooted closer to Beatrice. “What do you think we should do now?”
“Compliment each other?” Beatrice suggested.
“I like that idea. Here, let’s get off at this stop.”
The gondola came to a stop at end of the canal. Any further and they’d be heading into the Balarand River, and that was a longer ride than they ever wanted with this weather. Emi flicked the gondolier a gold coin and they went on their way, ready to wander aimlessly, hand in hand, as the sun disappeared and the stars came into view.
The sidewalks were clear, but piles of snow laid on either side of them. Those piles grew higher every day as the weather continued to chill and it was a wonder the street workers could keep shoveling the busy sidewalks every single morning without fail.
“So, compliments? Me first. I love the way you walk,” said Emi. “You always move around like you have a place to be, and you want everyone else to know.”
“I… do?” Beatrice had never in her life thought the way she walked as something that could be liked or disliked.
“And I love the way your eyes look at night, through the glare in your glasses. They’re like two miniature moons.”
“You’re the most beautiful person in the world,” Emi said. “The Gods envy you.”
“You’re making fun of me, right?”
“Not in the slightest. Your turn.”
“You’re really hot,” Beatrice said.
Emi’s composure broke down and turned to gelatin in an instant.
“And, your butt is really nice,” she added.
“Give me… cute compliments…” Emi muttered.
“I just did. Your butt is extremely cute. And, it may not be ladylike for me to mention, but you are very attractive in several other areas. Do you want me to continue?”
“You’re killing me here, Tris…”
“Don’t make me tickle you,” Beatrice said.
Suddenly, Emi snatched Beatrice’s glasses from her face and put them on her own. “Oh, don’t make me tickle you!” Emi mocked, regaining all the energy that had seemingly been sapped away moments ago. It was a ruse all along.
“Hey! Rude!” Beatrice reached for the glasses with her free arm, but Emi took a step away and she couldn’t reach them. She also gripped Beatrice’s other hand so that she couldn’t break free of their hand-holding. How devious…
“How do I look?” Emi asked.
“You look like you’re hurting your eyes.”
“How did you know?”
“Also… you look adorable,” Beatrice admitted.
“Good to know.” Emi handed the glasses back to her. “Maybe I’ll get some fake ones and wear them at parties.”
“That’s very odd, Emi.”
“Yeah it is, Tris.”
“Man, we’re going to have a lot of weird stories to tell our kids.”
Emi stopped and turned her head down.
She shouldn’t have said that. “Sorry, that was a bad joke.” They were having a lot of fun and then she had to go and ruin it all by saying something stupid.
Emi’s head raised. She looked Beatrice straight in her eyes and asked, “Tris, Will you marry me?”
…???? “No?” Beatrice said with great confusion. “Wh–What? Huh?”
Emi giggled. “Yeah. Sorry, I wanted to see what your reaction would be. I’m… kind of glad your gut reaction was no.”
“Why is that?”
“Because I don’t even have a ring to give you! What kind of woman would that make me? Or… is that a rich person custom?”
The sun had finally fallen behind the cityscape and darkness came upon Balarand. It would soon be time to depart; Beatrice wanted to spend every last second with Emi while she could.
“No, everyone does it. My Mom and Dad have them. They’re probably the most expensive things our family owns.”
“Besides a lovely, impossibly-gorgeous daughter,” Emi added.
“Oh, stop. Now you’re just getting creepy.”
“You’re the one who called me hot just a minute ago!”
“That was the truth. Now you’re just trying to get in my skirt.”
“You’re right, Tris, I am just trying to get in your skirt,” Emi said. She narrowed her eyes and chuckled.
“At least you’re honest,” Beatrice said.
“Well, Is it working?”
Soon, their aimless wandering took them back to the same marketplace they had visited all those weeks ago, that same marketplace that led them to their very first encounter. The statue to some long-ago queen stood high in the center, and sellers hoisted booths all around it. There was enough to see that browsing was an activity all of its own. With all five moons shining from up high in the night sky and street lamps hanging from every pole, the marketplace was a beacon of brightness even as the rest of Balarand turned dark.
Beatrice loved being out here with all of this. Emi, with her stuffy parties and fancy dances, hadn’t gotten the chance to fully experience what normal folk in Balarand all got to do, so she really wanted to show her everything she was missing. And they got to do it all while dressed up like they were going to a big event.
Emi was still a bit wonderstruck, she could tell; she was staring at a stand selling wooden carvings of mythical monsters from faraway lands, and the vendor, currently carving something while not even looking at the knife or wood, noticed her interest.
“This one is called a centaur,” she told Emi. She took her knife from the wood and pointed it to one of the fiercer monsters in the row of carvings. “It’s half-man, half-beast, and roams the forests like a champion. No human would dare approach it without a full hunting party. You’d best stay away from one if you ever spot one.”
“Do you want it? Two gold coins.”
“Two gold coins?” Emi seemed offended by this offer. Beatrice was suddenly worried that she was going to make a bit of a scene. “You’re offering your services for far too low for what they are worth. I’m giving you six.” She took out her coin purse, laid out the coins, and took the centaur.
“I probably should start upcharging ladies in fancy dresses, huh,” the vendor said to herself.
“First a crab, now a centaur? How many terrifying creatures are we going to learn about from all these vendors?” Beatrice asked Emi, rolling her eyes.
“What do you mean?” Emi asked.
“Well, you know most of everything they talk about is fake,” Beatrice said. “Either they’re making up something for entertainment or they’re repeating stories by other people that aren’t trustworthy. A centaur? Maybe. But I can’t imagine anything like a crab could ever exist.”
“Huh, I’ve never thought about it like that,” Emi said. “I kind of always thought all the monsters they talk about really did exist, but maybe not anymore, so now they only exist in tales passed down over the generations.”
“Well, that’s a sign of an active imagination, at least.”
“Really rude,” Emi said. “Very rude.”
“What next, you’ll say your house has a fairy garden out in the back?” Beatrice teased.
But that teasing led to Emi tilting her head to its side. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, uh, rich people would have fairy gardens if fairies were real, and then young girls of all ages would get to play with them and learn valuable life lessons.”
“Fairies are real, Tris,” Emi said. Beatrice giggled, but Emi only nodded her head more feverently. “No, they really are real. They live near the Elinican coast, mostly. Have you really never seen a fairy?”
“Oh yeah? And what about this?” Beatrice moved her fingers around in one swift motion and seized Emi’s sides with one powerful pinch.
Beatrice let out a maniacal laugh.
Defenseless while holding the wooden centaur in her arms, there was nothing Emi could do but shriek and try to run away, but even that was impossible in Beatrice’s grip. Laughing and crying out, Emi relented and let her pull her closer.
Soon, Beatrice stopped pinching Emi and Emi stopped yelling, but they remained next to each other. They stared into each other’s eyes, trying to figure out something to say to one another, breathing in and out, slightly out-of-sync, with heavy breaths.
Beatrice had Emi to herself now. She was literally in her arms.
Would she…? Could she…?
After a few too many moments of deliberation, she decided not to take any rash action. She let Emi go. A smile returned to the girl’s completely-red face, and she tried to laugh off whatever just happened between them.
Whatever it was, it wasn’t important anyway.
“I’m too ticklish,” Emi said. “You’ve discovered my weakness.”
“I’m ticklish too, but you’ll never get me. I have defensive techniques learned under a hundred tickle masters. Every move you make I can counter back on you.” Beatrice narrowed her eyes and went into some sort of silly fighting stance. Emi burst into laughter.
When she calmed down, Emi then said, “Actually, Tris…. I want you to hold me again.”
“Hold me.” She took steps forward, pushing her body against Beatrice’s, leaning her head against her shoulder. Beatrice took her arms and hugged her, and took her in.
Emi was the most huggable person on the continent.
They sighed in unison, and began swaying their hips, rotating in a small, slow circle around nothing. In the middle of the marketplace, with a hundred people nearby, surely watching their every move. Beatrice didn’t care.
Her nose was overpowered by the thick, sweet odor of Emi’s perfume, stronger than anything she’d ever smelled in her life, so much so that, as she held her, she felt most of her senses–sight, taste, and smell–had completely shut down. All that was left was the feeling of her arms wrapped around the back of Emi’s dress, and her cheek rubbing up against Emi’s ear.
“I’m so cold,” Emi said.
“I offered my sash,” Beatrice replied.
“You’re so sweet.”
Soon, the embrace ended. The two girls continued down the marketplace, holding hands with one another, but soon found a crowd of people yelling and hurling angry insults.
“Give it all up!”
They went up to the crowd to figure out what was going on. There was a group of people holding up signs, and one in the center wearing an oversized Mammoth mask to represent Nexurk, the God of Power and War. He was already a source of controversy for how Dannark had treated His shrines, but the way they paraded out His icon like this…
Suddenly, the chants ceased and the crowd dispersed as quickly as they had come together.
When the scene became more clear, Beatrice saw several Dannark soldiers, most of them holding people in chains, and the man who had been wearing the Mammoth mask had been pushed onto the snow and bound up. “We are not conquerors!” one of the soldiers shouted. “We are keepers of the peace. But we do not tolerate violence!”
The girls decided to get away from this scene, but Emi found herself staring as the soldiers paraded around their newest arrests. “What was that all about?” Emi asked.
“Dannark soldiers breaking up a protest, I guess,” Beatrice said.
“Do they… do that a lot around here?”
They began walking away from the marketplace and back towards Emi’s home.
“Somewhere, practically every day.” Beatrice said. “People really don’t like Dannark presence around here.”
“Well… it’s probably not fair to them that they have to see a foreign nation patrolling their streets every day, and their King in exile simply because he wouldn’t let an Empire engulf our continent in war.”
Beatrice stopped. Wasn’t Emi’s part of one of the influential families supporting the occupation? Why was she against it? “Well… our King probably wouldn’t be in exile if he hadn’t been supporting a tyrannical dictatorship in Doros. Dannark may have issues, but Doros is killing its own people as we speak.”
“Doros and Dannark are one and the same. I hate them both,” Emi growled.
Beatrice pulled her hand away from Emi’s. They stared at each other again, though this time with the romantic tension gone.
“I just think it’s not as easy to choose. We don’t live in Torano where we can live free from the rest of the world. We can’t hate our neighbors, even if they hate us.”
“It bothers me that you don’t care that our own King is in exile and a foreign flag is–” Emi stopped herself. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “Let’s not talk about politics anymore.”
They never would again.
And on that note, they resumed the rest of their evening.
Beatrice and Emi were a world apart, even if they were so close in distance. She was a junior priest, the daughter of a librarian, while Emi was part of the rich elite. It almost felt scandalous for them to be associated with one another, let alone talking about political events like equals. They probably needed to be a bit careful in general.
But for now they would just be themselves.
And now, to my original question: Was it love at first sight?
What do you think?
Clearly the two of them were in love at this point. Even they knew. But this love, something so quick, so encapsulating… It certainly feels like love at first sight, doesn’t it?
You think so? I don’t quite buy it, myself, but maybe your youthful wonder is stronger than my old woman cynicism.
Whatever the answer may be, they were in love right now, and that was all that mattered to either of them.
Why did you sit down next to this gorgeous human being? Why did you say you love reading indoors? Nobody says that. It just isn’t said, you know. This was such a bad idea.
She wanted to read this Economic Theory book so Ms. Khami wouldn’t yell at her as much tonight, but she was incredibly distracted by the girl next to her.
Emi just wanted to talk to her and get to know her and stare at her curly hair. But the girl was, of course, reading through her book like crazy. She seemed completely into it, even when the book was something as boring as History of Incantations and a Treatise on Traditional Methods. She seemed like such a serious person.
She thought about saying something, about what the girl was reading and why she was reading it, something to start a conversation, but the way she was reading, she felt like if she interrupted her, she’d just give a glare and silently move to another table.
Economics was so dry, even with this book Earl had recommended… it was almost impossible to pay attention enough to read it when breathing almost literally down her neck was, well, her.
She kept looking at the girl, and sometimes the girl would look back at her. She started to realize that maybe she was a nuisance to her. It was just really tough to sit next to her and act like nothing was happening. What a bad idea!
Maybe she could stave off this awkward, petrifying feeling at the pit of her stomach by turning her attention elsewhere, anywhere but the girl sitting next to her. Perhaps the library shelves, stacked four, maybe five Emis high, would be of interest. There were so many books, some so far out of reach that you had to climb to the second floor balcony to retrieve them. Surely that wasn’t an efficient system without some sort of machine to lift you up easily, something other than going up and down the stairs every time you searched for a title. Someone should build that sort of machine, she thought, though she didn’t know a single thing about how machines were designed, how they were built. Maybe she would ask Ms. Khami to assign her some books based on that. Then she could impress the girl next to her with a new creation, one that would help out the entire library… Oh, this wasn’t helping.
Emi realized this was all a waste of time. Life’s way of telling her she was a silly, gullible human being and probably the Gods playing a practical joke. She hadn’t gotten any work done, even though that was the main reason she snuck out. All that had happened was that she got sucked into sitting with this girl who didn’t give a single care about her because she actually knew how to study correctly.
After a few more minutes of cursory book looking-over, she straightened out the desk and got up from her chair.
The girl looked up the exact same moment. Darn it, she was just being even more of an annoyance than she wanted to be. “Sorry,” she told the girl.
“Are you leaving?”
“Yeah, my parents need me back home to… go do some preparations for supper,” Emi lied. “I’d love to study some other time.” Clearly this girl did not want anything to do with her, but Emi was seemingly unable to turn off her politeness mode once triggered.
“Well, we’ll see each other at the library, I guess,” the girl said, giving a wide smile but her eyes giving away some sort of unhappiness. She was simply being polite, too, Emi was sure.
Well, it wasn’t like the two of them were ever going to meet again, not with how cold the girl had acted toward her, or with how being anywhere near her had sent Emi into an emotional frenzy just from how absolutely amazing she looked. Emi was a mature, proper lady, and knew that pursuing things that were gone, was an act of idiocy, she thought.
It is important to note here that Emi was not the sort of girl who exactly “got things” easily, hence her complete blindness to the actual situation here. You and I know what was going on, but Emi was quite out of the loop of her own feelings. It is worth at least a little pity.
“Uhh…” Emi stammered.
They locked eyes for a moment, and Emi was very unsure of what to say. This must have lasted for an eternity, at least until–
The library clock bell rang out to announce the top of the hour. Okay, it really was time for Emi to return home, if it was getting that late.
“Well them, um, yeah,” she said as a way to say goodbye. It was an attempt, at least.
Emi took one step towards the door, and then was frozen solid by a shout of, “Wait!”
She turned around. The girl had quickly bounded from her seat and hurried up to face Emi directly.
They stood so close, now… Emi tried as hard as she could to keep eye contact. She probably gulped.
“It was nice meeting you,” the girl said.
“Yeah, it was nice.” Emi extended her hand, and the girl took it.
“Well, that’s one way to make an introduction,” the girl said, giggling.
Emi tilted her head to the side. What did she mean by that?
“By the way, what’s your name?” the girl asked.
“And mine name is Beatrice. See you around.”
Beatrice. Her name was Beatrice.
Emi turned and left the library, but she was afflicted with a curse: a crackly grin that remained etched on her face for the rest of the afternoon.
You do? That’s because you’re still too young. You’ll come to grips with that when you’re older. There are no soulmates, no destinies intertwined by the Gods. Love comes only when you work for it. The best we can hope for is infatuation at first sight, and that’s not quite as poetic.
What? You… Oh. No, me loving you at first sight doesn’t count since I’m your grandmother. I’m talking about the romantic kind of love. That kind of love where two people create real magic together.
I don’t think it’s real. But for all my skepticism, there’s one story I’ve heard over the years that’s made me question my belief. …Yes, it’s story time. Yes, this does involve that centaur carving you found in the attic. I promise. I’m not senile yet– at least I hope not. Come, sit down, sit down.
Okay, are you settled? I’ve actually been meaning to tell you this for a long time. The first time I heard it, it changed my perspective on a life I had thought was set in stone. And now I think you’re old enough to understand it yourself.
This story takes place in the old kingdom of Elince. Back in those days, the country had been occupied by its neighbor, the empire known as Dannark. You’d know all of this if you kept up with your history studies.
In the capital city of Balarand, it was a common sight then to see imperial soldiers patrolling the streets. Foreign flags flew freely on buildings, blue and green stripes speckling the city everywhere you looked. Dannark and all its dark-chrome armored soldiers brought a stifling air to the city. The people were mired in the thick tension of a war they never even saw.
The people of Balarand went about their daily lives, attempting to keep up the illusion of normalcy as best they could. They went to work and school, shopped on the weekends and held festivals on holidays, carrying on as if their king hadn’t been deposed just months earlier.
And in this same way, there was a marketplace, bustling just as it would be on any other late afternoon. A statue of a long-ago queen in the center. A stretch of dozens of sellers, a hundred tables and booths set up, and thousands of people scouring their contents.
The town clock struck four, but you couldn’t hear its ringing for the crowd. It was that busy.
In this marketplace, there was a girl browsing through booths of produce. Her glasses were slightly askew, and her head was angled down as she inspected a row of cucumbers. Her shoulder sagged from the bag of groceries strapped to her back.
“I’ll take two,” she said, placing a few copper coins on the seller’s table and putting the vegetables in her bag. She dusted off the long, hand-sewn skirt that covered her from waist down to her shins– not because it was dirty, but due to force of habit– and merged into the mass of people walking up and down the street.
Her name was Beatrice Ragnell. A junior priest heading home from school. She had stopped by the marketplace to pick up groceries.
Beatrice danced her way through the crowd, striding in a beeline towards the next intersection, taking a route so familiar her vision nearly glazed over into a blur. Her bag bobbed up and down as she took each long step, and the curls in her hair bounced along. The girl felt the rhythm of the day, felt the hustle of the tempo to which she set her daily life.
It was cool. The sun’s warm rays pushed back the chilly wind. And the wind at that moment rustled up against a nearby tree. A leaf, a hardened survivor and one of the last still attached, broke away and floated downwards. It caught Beatrice’s attention, falling past her ocean-blue eyes and the speckled freckles sprinkled across her cheeks. Beatrice let her eyes follow the leaf until it rested gently on the ground at her feet. She studied it for a moment, and then looked up.
At the same time, in the same marketplace, there was another girl.
This other girl stood near the tables of fruits and vegetables with her hands clasped together in front of her. But she and her narrow, soil-colored eyes paid no mind to the items around her, instead casting her gaze at the crowd. She watched the people sauntering around as they shopped and haggled. People stood by a nearly naked tree, chatting about their weeks. The small children sitting at the nearby canal that bisected the marketplace, dangling their legs and giggling about whatever children found funny.
It was loud, too loud for her to feel comfortable. But she allowed herself a rare moment to sink into the crowd, to absorb the marketplace and watch this world like a visiting ghost. This place was a living book for her to read.
A cold gust blew through. The girl breathed in deeply and took in the air, which hit her throat and sent a stinging chill through her body. She shivered and shifted her stance, then folded her arms together. These were the last throes of autumn, and she hated it.
An older man scooted up next to her, trying to get a look at the carrots behind her. She darted out of the way. Her face turned bright red as she realized she had been obstructing his view.
Her name was Emi L’Hime. Daughter of two of Balarand’s most important diplomats. She had been going for a simple stroll through the city on a day she was supposed to be writing a paper.
Emi took one hand from her folded-up arms to brush her thin, straight hair behind her ear, and she took a few steps backwards, out of the way. But then she felt a sharp pain in her thigh– she bumped into the corner of a table. A few onions tumbled off and thudded against the ground. The older man gave a look.
Still blushing, she looked down at the onions, ready to pick them up and put them back on the table– but stopped when something caught her notice.
At that moment, in this marketplace, in a street packed with people and bursting with noise of all sorts, Emi’s eyes lowered, and Beatrice’s raised.
And those two pairs of eyes met, and stopped on each other’s faces.
On an otherwise unmemorable day, Beatrice and Emi saw each other for the very first time. Nobody but the two of them could say what happened.
I can only guess that Emi’s eyes ignored the other girl’s tattered uniform, or her still-lopsided glasses. Likewise, I’m sure Beatrice’s eyes didn’t pay a single iota of attention to how overdressed the other girl was for a marketplace trip. The two saw only each other.
It lasted for two seconds. Maybe one. Both went back to their respective homes, had supper, read a book, and went to sleep. But they were equally and irrevocably changed by what happened.
Whatever Emi and Beatrice felt when their eyes met, it was far from fleeting.
Was it love at first sight? I wouldn’t say so. But…