Chapter 26: Unexpected Bonding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


“Finished? For… good?”

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


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

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

“Oh, well I had help from a… friend.”

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

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

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

“Wish THEY’D tell me that,” Emi said.

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

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

“Did you not appreciate my schoolings?”

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

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

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

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

Did she really… mean that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That is is.”

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

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

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

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

Ms. Khami smiled. “Yes, but I–”

Knock! Knock!

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

“Hi, Ms. Khami.”

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

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


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

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

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

“So, where to?” Emi asked.

“Wherever,” Beatrice said.

And so they went.

<== PreviousNext ==>

Chapter 22: Mother and Father and Daughter


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mother and Father looked at one another. 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Emi’s letter, please.”

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, Gods, whatever.

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

Absolutely nothing, Father. Absolutely nothing.

<== PreviousNext ==>

Chapter 18: Making the Most of It

Emi’s bedroom was a mess. 

Yes, even more than usual. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And yet…

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

And for some reason, she was enacting those plans. 

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

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

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

So close.


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

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

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

“But it… looks clean…”

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

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

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

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

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

Now… how did one use a mop…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You sure? You ready for this?”

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

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

<== PreviousNext ==>

Chapter 10: Never Felt Freer

“Emi? Emi? I’m talking to you–”

Emi slammed the door and turned the lock.

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

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

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

“Woo-hoo!” Emi shouted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Beatrice,” she whispered.

Her name felt so nice to say.

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

Emi put three fingers on her lips.

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

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






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

“I-I-Um, who is it?”



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

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

No comment.

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

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

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

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

“That’s a lie and you know it.”

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

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

Tia was right. 

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

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

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

“I hate my schooling,” she said.

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

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

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

“Only for… all day.”

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

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

“And that, I await.”

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

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

<== PreviousNext ==>

Chapter 2: Emi L’Hime

Emi could hardly stop herself from shaking. 

Her mind tossed around in a flurry. The wooden shops and stone-made apartments around her faded into mush; all she could see was the brick walkway and crunched leaves at her feet. She desperately hoped nobody would notice her heavy-breathing, heart-pounding, red-faced stagger. It was embarrassing.

But there was no chance people weren’t taking notice of a girl whose face was so bright she looked like she was having a heat stroke in the middle of this positively chilly weather. She was doomed.

She swept the bangs out of her face and grimaced. Was it really that girl? Was she the one making Emi feel this way?

Maybe. Something about the light ringlets covering the top of her head, something about those deep blue eyes that glimmered in a sort of trance that reminded Emi of… she couldn’t quite put her finger on it. Somehow, that girl had turned her into a nervous wreck, and a wreck that had persisted for several minutes now.

Why did the Gods even make people that beautiful?

Emi shook her head and tried to snap out of it. No use getting in a tizzy over something like that. She was not some silly schoolgirl. She didn’t even go to school.

The important thing at the moment was planning on how to get back into her house without anyone noticing she ever left. Seeing as it was already late afternoon, she would need to hurry before someone entered her bedroom and found out. But Emi was not a master of sneak skills for nothing. 

She crossed a bridge over a short canal, leaving the busy street shop sidewalks, and snapped her mind into crystal focus on her newest plan. Some might call her escape plans convoluted, even foolhardy. But they almost always worked.

As Emi entered the walkway to her neighborhood, as she watched a mustached man pass by on a dandy-horse, she settled on one of her old favorites. If her timing was right, she could be back home so quickly she could even finish her paper. 

The walk back from the marketplace was a straightforward stroll down grid-like streets, but her neighborhood itself was a different story. This road was a winding path looping around and back into itself, a small maze of tightly packed urban houses that built up three, even four stories. Effectively, it created a walled garden of wealth nestled in a tiny secluded corner near Castle Balarand. 

Instead of smushed-together buildings made of stone, these houses were made mostly of wood, mostly with design and comfort in mind. No house was identical to the next; each had the creative flair of the architect who designed it. The houses had gates, had yards of grass and cobblestone walkways. Their roofs were pointed high, the larger among them giving off the look of miniature castles, of barracks for an army of luxury. Several of Emi’s neighbors even had tiny ponds in their yards, with fountains in the center keeping the water fresh and flowing. 

In as tight a space as could be fit, the wealthy of Balarand had created their own little world. It was a feat that, even today, people would consider remarkable. 

The dense housing and winding street, though, made Emi wish it were faster to get to the rest of the city without a carriage.

As long as it took, though, her timing turned out to be impeccable– just as she presumed, there were three children, dressed in bright-orange tunics and brown breeches, playing and roughhousing out on the empty street. They screamed about, pretending to be warriors as they flailed sticks at each other. The usual.

This time, it appeared that the two boys were Elincian swordsmen, and the girl was a captain from Dannark. The girl found some sort of truce with her foes, and bowed to them. But as the boys approached, she drew her stick and bashed one of them on the head. The other boy cried out in grief for his fallen comrade, who had collapsed on the street, laying like a corpse.

They noticed Emi and stopped the play-fighting to wave, even the one on the ground. “Hey, Emi!” the girl cried out.

“Aren’t you three ever going to leave this place?” Emi asked. 

“I’m going off to Yates in the spring,” said the boy still laying on the ground. 

“Yates? That’s where my brothers went,” she said. “Good job on getting in.” She said this with only a hint of bitterness towards a life she never had, and even that was too much. It was improper to feel jealous of an eight year old.

“I don’t want to go to school,” the other boy said. “I heard that they make everyone go to bed at nine o’clock…”

“You’ll do fine.” Now that she had all three’s attention… “Hey, any of you want to make a buck?”

“What’s a buck?” they asked in-sync.

Emi reached into her purse and pulled out a silver coin. She flashed it around, and then flicked it towards the kids. The girl caught it and pocketed it. They understood. “I need you guys to go up to my house and knock on my door. One of you needs to pretend you’re injured and need help, okay? Do this for about five minutes and you’re all set.”

The kids had no objections; even among wealthy children, a coin was still a coin; they could split a salmon bind for that and munch on a tasty snack before supper with their parents none the wiser. 

A prim, parasol-wielding blonde, one of the more strikingly beautiful of Emi’s neighbors, walked along the sidewalk near the children. The look she gave the children, that she gave Emi giving the coin, went beyond confusion– it was nearly repulsion, the way she sneered in disapproval. It was something that would have given Emi shame, if she cared what any of her neighbors thought. This girl didn’t know a thing about her, and she wasn’t going to give her the chance to learn.

Emi led them towards her house, down the winding street, until they reached their destination. As long as the kids weren’t incredibly bad actors, she would be able to fool–

Ms. Khami, Emi’s head housekeeper and at-home teacher, was already standing at the doorstep, arms on her hips. Her long-grayed, matted hair impervious to the breeze, her sharp gaze offsetting any sense of homeliness her portly body might have suggested.

Ah, darn it.

The kids saw the woman’s furrowed brows and scattered. Emi’s shoulders slumped and she admitted defeat. Down a coin and didn’t even get to attempt her plan.

“Emi L’Hime,” Ms. Khami began. “You get inside this instant. Your parents are going to have some harsh words for you.”

She sure knew it. Emi was sure she was the only girl in town punished for trying to have some fun on a lazy afternoon. The girl in the parasol, as annoying as she was, at least was allowed to leave her own house. Not Emi. But what else was there for her to do in life but get in trouble for everything?

The two women went inside the house and into the foyer, where other housekeepers were bustling about making preparations for supper as if there was some sort of fancy feast lying in wait. Though with how well these housekeepers were paid, Emi figured, they darn better well have been acting like every night was a supper for the Royal Family.

The foyer took up so much space that there wasn’t much on the first floor to begin with, other than the kitchen, dining room, and a few side rooms for the housekeepers. It was busy at the moment for meal preparations, but it was typically as empty as Ms. Kahmi’s heart.

 They went up the main staircase leading to the second floor, where most of the bedrooms and bathrooms were located. Ms. Khami reached the door to Emi’s bedroom and fiddled on the doorknob, but it wouldn’t budge.

“I swear to you, Emi, I am going to get this lock removed someday,” she said.

Emi got her key out of her purse and unlocked the door. 

Her room was a bit messy, her bed undone, stacks of books scattered on her desk and her floor and a few behind her bed… She really needed to build a new bookshelf (or tell someone else to do it for her). Her dirty clothes from yesterday were no longer on the floor, but other than that it looked essentially the same as any other day. She almost wished some fiend would barge in and thief away some valuables just to mix it up.

“And look at that,” Ms. Khami said as she walked over to Emi’s desk and her notebook open to two blank pages. “You didn’t even bother to begin your paper before you thought you’d have yourself some fun.” She walked out, muttering something Emi couldn’t make out, but could only assume was something about how she would never make a good lady and would amount to little more than a nuisance to the family name.

She wanted to plop down on her bed and take a frustration-nap, but she knew supper would be ready too soon to bother. So she sat at her desk and gazed at the blank notebook she left. It was careless to so blatantly disregard her assignment. Next time she’d at least fill up a couple pages before she went anywhere. Not that it mattered what she was learning if it was only ever for a bunch of book reports.

Emi sighed loudly. Nobody could hear her, but she wanted to express her dismay to any possible hidden listeners. Perhaps that girl she saw at the marketplace had followed her home and snuck into her room, as it turned out she was some sort of anti-Dannark spy and wanted to abduct Emi for a hefty ransom. That would be a fitting twist to end her day. It would be more exciting than this, at the very least.

She plopped down on her mattress and groaned, waving her hands around as if she were a magician wishing the annoyances of her life away. Almost on command, a stack of books standing on her desk gave way to gravity and tumbled down, half of them crashing onto the floor.

It was like her room was destined to get messier and messier. She liked that.

Soon, the main foyer clock rang out six times. Supper time. Emi made her way downstairs into the kitchen. The housekeepers dissipated and returned to whatever parts of the house they usually holed themselves up in to kill time, or maybe to eat supper on their own. They never ate with the family. 

Emi’s parents were sitting next to each other on one side of the table, already slicing up a leg of ham and digging in. The two of them, the famous diplomats they were, always kept an air of formality, dressed up like their servants had prepared and made them up for an event. Her father’s hair was greased back, hiding streaks of gray behind glossy black, his reading glasses on even as he ate an evening meal. Her mother’s hair covered most of her face, but it was so stiff, so groomed that she didn’t seem to be bothered by it in the slightest. Neither her father nor mother took any outward interest in their food, nor in anything in particular. It was just the way they held themselves.

The other side of the table was occupied by her two older brothers, every bit as dark and handsome as their reputations would suggest, beautiful in that painted book cover kind of way. Despite an eight year difference between them, they looked like near-twins. Neither bore a bit of resemblance to Emi (at least that’s what she always told herself). Her older brothers rarely visited home anymore, so this unannounced visit came as a surprise.

Touma waved, his mouth full with mashed potatoes. As the eldest child and the heir to the household, Touma was in the process of courting a rather influential woman from northern Dannark, and it was an ordeal one could write a trilogy of novels about. Reo was in the military reserves as an Army Engineer and was expected to advance high in its ranks once a peace settlement with Dannark was reached. 

Emi always felt like the unwanted stepchild when both her brothers were over. They had already started to eat before she even came downstairs, so her worries were not completely unwarranted. She stood in the doorway as her family chit-chatted amongst themselves, nobody but Touma noticing she had entered yet.

“So, how is your pet project going?” Emi’s Father asked Reo. “The famous L’Hime Bridge?”

“We’re not calling it that, sadly,” Reo said with a laugh. “But it’s progressing nicely. It actually floats now, believe it or not.”

“I believe it,” Father said.

“We’re doing a test next week by sending the bridge down the Balarand River from Waterton, just to see how people manage to use it. If things go well…”

“Then we’re getting more commuting workers from the outskirts to take all the low-class jobs,” Father said. “Our own poor folk have it hard enough as it is.” Reo cracked a smile, thinking this was a joke, but Father’s face didn’t shift a bit.

Emi shrugged and sat down at the end of the table, without so much as a word from the others.

“Well, the bridge is mostly for military use, anyway,” Reo added. “So if we’re ever in another war… It’ll help out.”

“If we get in another war,” Emi’s Mother scoffed with a sharp exhalation. “We hope we’ve seen the last of that.”

“Amen,” all four said in unison.

Mother then turned to Emi and raised her glass. “Oh, Emi, nice of you to join us.” She said it with a smile right before downing whatever alcoholic drink she had in her hand. “Why don’t you have something to eat?” At this, she took some mashed peas and dumped them onto her plate, but after eating at the marketplace, she wasn’t very hungry anymore. Not that she was willing to divulge that fact to her parents.

“We heard about you sneaking out again,” Father said. “You worry Ms. Khami so much, you know. And your studies…”

“I’m sorry,” Emi said. “It won’t happen again.”

Reo and Touma started laughing. “You’re such a liar,” Reo said.

Father cracked a smile, too, but managed to straighten it out. “You really do need to focus on your studies more. An educated woman is a successful woman.”

“I know…” Emi took a piece of ham and chomped at it. She wasn’t hungry, but it was tasty.

Mother butted in with her own platitudes, saying, “We just want what’s best for you, Emi. You’re the light of our life, and we want you to be happy and healthy and comfortable.” She gave a cheery smile and took a sip of her glass.

“Which is why you’re marrying me off to some woman I’ve never met…”

Reo and Touma’s faces snapped towards Emi, and they exchanged glances with one another.

Oops. She didn’t mean to backtalk. And now she was never going to hear the end of this.

Mother’s smile turned into a distinct frown. “We just want what’s best for you, and we aren’t going to discuss this right now. Lady Khara is a wonderful woman, and you will love her when you meet her.” 

When she met her… Emi decided not to respond, because anything she said could and would be used against her.

“We’re actually heading out this week to delegate the border talks,” Father added. In all this war between Dannark and Doros, with Elince caught in the middle, it was her own parents who ended up doing a lot of the diplomacy trying to settle for peace. That meant they were hardly ever home. “We will ask her to write you a letter before we return, okay? Trust us, Lady Khara is a lovely woman.”

Reo coughed, and when Emi looked at him he quickly darted his eyes away. Both of her brothers pretended to be super-focused on eating their food, and Emi decided to follow suit. 

The conversation was certainly killed as far as tonight went, so there wasn’t much more discussion before she left the table and went back to her room to change and take a bath. 

Man, the dirt stains on her dress were never going to come out. Another thing for Ms. Khami to get angry at her about.

One would think having the life of a mid-level bureaucrat would be pretty easy. In a time when Dannark had entrusted the stability of their newly conquered territory to the officials already running it, it seemed like the perfect time for a family like the L’Himes. Emi’s parents had gone from office workers to full-fledged diplomats in a matter of months, and all it took was the overthrowing and exiling of King Kline’s entire family. 

One would think such a boost would make life a lot easier. But to think that about Emi, one would be wrong. Being holed up in an empty house with parents who were never home, being engaged to some noblewoman she’d never even seen a picture of… Yeah, she would say that life hadn’t gotten easier, not in the slightest.

Emi washed off and then got in the still-warm bath to soak.

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