Chapter 24: Party at My Place!

“Isn’t this party great?” Touma shouted as he saw Emi walking by. He had a glass of Doros Prime in his hand, so he was most likely far past the point of sobriety. If her brother was no longer of a sound mind, that gave Emi legal recourse to ignore anything he said and grumble about having to wear this annoying dress.

The corset was so tight she felt like she was going to burst.

This party, being held at Emi’s house, was one of the biggest and most prolific of the year. Even though they had a large house, the sheer number of people here made it a relentlessly crowded experience. She finally understood why the L’Hime Family home was so spacious– it was all for this precise kind of event, for the occasions when occupancy went from fifteen to fifteen hundred.

To say that Emi hated crowds was to say that crows were black. And to say that Emi hated this party was to say that the sun rose in the morning, and the moons rose in the evening. To say that this was one of the worst events Emi had ever attended would only barely qualify as an exaggeration. 

The colors alone gave her a headache; every rich person here wore their own loud-colored dress, creating a clash of rainbows against the shiny gold-and-white decorations of the party itself placed around the foyer. It was so bright that the blind would grumble about it.

With such a massive number of people smushed into the foyer, the rich person smell was particularly pungent tonight. The odor of cheap perfumes, of white wine against bad breath, of wig powder and sweaty breeches. No matter how much money these people had, they somehow couldn’t prevent themselves from smelling like a rotten salmon bind.

Because the Empress-Consort was here to take part in the festivities, having already mingled into the crowd of colorful smelly dancers, so too were her contingent of Dannark guardsmen, two posted at every corner of the foyer and several more wandering in and out. Surely nothing would happen to her at a party like this, but the very threat of it was constantly reminded by the presence of all these gray-armored guards.

And to cap it all off, a small orchestral ensemble was playing traditional tunes, making the scene almost literally deafening at times. So, the perfect way to torture a young girl who didn’t even want to be here.

Emi hated crowds. She hated rich old people standing around laughing while they talked about bureaucratic drivel. She hated all of this! The stress was making her sweat her armpits off. Soon, she’d be just as smelly as everyone else.

Tia Knoll passed by, dressed up in a silk gown and wearing a jet black wig with hair going down to his waist. Many guests at the party were ogling him even as they ignored Emi and her expensive, hours-long-fitted dress. He was outstaging Emi and wasn’t even a girl. She really hated when he showed off his crossdressing skills at every single party and got the same rousing reactions each time.

“I have already received marriage propositions from ten suitors, including a noble from Dannark. Shall we compare numbers?” Very modest of him.

“Seeing as I’m currently engaged, I wasn’t keeping count,” Emi said.

“Well, I have a boyfriend, but that does not keep me. It’s all in good spirits.” 

“You’re a fiend.”

“Oh, Emi, you need to have some fun. Your brother certainly is.” He pointed to Touma, who had exchanged his glass of Doros Prime for the whole bottle. His arm was wrapped around the shoulder a woman who looked about as far gone as he did. They laughed so loudly Emi could hear them from here.

“If I don’t save him, he’s going to be knocked out and arrested for harassing the Empress-Consort, isn’t he?” Emi mumbled.

Tia kept playing with his wig. “You know, I wonder how long it would take me to grow out my hair as long as my wig. Though I would venture to guess it would be too frizzy to actually grow down like yours.” He reached over to start playing with Emi’s hair, but she swatted away his wrist.

“Don’t you dare.”

Emi’s mind, as stupid as it ever was, conjured up an image of her time with Beatrice, standing on a bridge and looking at the girl’s hair glistening in the moonlight, and she imagined herself reaching out and putting her hands through the curls.

No, please don’t do this, Emi, she thought to herself. She couldn’t bear to see Beatrice again, even in her mind. The way she felt when they held their hands together, the whole swirl of mushy feelings and soft warmth came back to her and sent her heart into a pitter-patter. A pitter-patter of the worst kind.

A partygoer bumped into her shoulder and made her jump. She clutched at her chest.

“Emi?” Tia seemed concerned for Emi’s welfare. “Corset on too tight?”

“Uh, no, it’s nothing.”

Sooner or later, she was going to be married to Lady Khara from Zahn, and she was going to continue her life as an international diplomat, travelling constantly, going to parties constantly, and having none of the life that she actually wanted. It would be like tonight, but for the rest of her life.

The thought of all of that just made her want to rebel, so, so much. To do something crazy. But it was a bit hard when she was being strangled by her own dress.

“Tia, what’s your plan for the future?” she asked. “You remember what we were talking about on the gondola the other day? I was just thinking about that, and… oh.”

He hadn’t heard her. Tia was turned around, caught up in a lively discussion with an older couple confused about his recreational crossdressing inclinations.

Emi sighed. She looked over across the foyer to Touma, who was tap-dancing and treading dangerously close to the fireplace. She decided she would simply go back to her bedroom, lock her door, and hope the party wasn’t so loud it prevented her from sleeping. 

But then–

She felt something–

A tap on her shoulder–

And right there, amidst the crowd of partygoers, were those same deep blue eyes, that same face full of freckles that always grabbed her attention so quickly. It was Beatrice Ragnell, dressed up in a dark outfit with a sash across her chest, and a short cape at her back.

She extended her hand towards Emi.

“A dance?”

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Chapter 20: Winter’s Onset

It was finally here.

The kind of weather that made Emi despise being outside.

After so much anticipation and buildup, the day of reckoning had arrived–here fell the very first snowflakes of the season. And how was she celebrating it? Riding in a gondola down the East Balarand with Tia and six students from the Bright School, the most prestigious private school in the city.

Tia didn’t even go to that school; he was taught at home by a private tutor, just like Emi. But such was his envious social ability that he was able to meet people his age just by going out and searching for them. It was a greater magic than any sort of incantation Emi had ever read about.

The Bright School students chatted away about classes and drama and all sorts of stuff that Emi had no involvement in whatsoever, while Emi stared out at the city expanse bundled up in two jackets and a thick toboggan. 

It had been over two weeks since she last saw Beatrice, and she felt miserable. Beatrice, the soldier that she was, had surely gotten over it, but the gaping wound in her own heart would surely remain like this for good.

That was for the best. She did not want to have the capacity to feel love for another; that would make her impending marriage to some woman she’d never met go much more smoothly. It would simply be a fact of life, in that case. Nothing special.

Emi looked past the canal to the city streets. There were fewer people out than usual, a side effect of the snow piling up on the walkways. There were Dannark guards posted outside a tiny bank building, standing firm at their post even as their metal armor likely began to freeze. A pair of greyback bears approached the guards. They paced back and forth, begging for food. The guards did not move, and the greybacks eventually gave up, scrambling away to find another group of humans.

Tia Knoll, as par for the course, was sitting there in a sensible white blouse to match the snowfall, but his skirt only went down to his knees. Surely he must have been freezing out there, his legs bared to the world like that! This man was crazy.

He appeared to notice Emi looking his way, and scooted across the seat, closer to her. “Is this not so much fun?” Tia asked.

“I wish you didn’t invite me,” Emi said.

At this, Tia merely laughed. “I only brought you out here to get you in the sun a little bit. And what do you know, we are receiving our first snowflakes of the season. Wintertime is upon us.” He stuck his tongue out and a snowflake landed on it.

The gondola was currently passing in view of the Eldin Bridge. If one crossed that structure and headed eastward, they would soon find themself in the Elincian countryside under Dannark occupation, where civilization was said to be bright and unstoppably beautiful. If one went the same distance westward, they would find themself on the front lines of the Dannark-Doros War. Both of those things were on Elincian soil. Their kingdom had it all.

Gods, it was like Emi was unable to think about anything remotely positive these days.

“So. My parents were talking to your parents,” Tia said. “Apparently your fiancee is finally coming to Balarand soon. Are you excited?”

“I’m, uh, excited.” She looked away and stared at the Eldin Bridge with all her might. “Sure.”

Tia shook his head. “Sure, except your parents also told my parents that when they told you, you would not tell them anything, and you ran up to your room crying.” That was a confusing string of words.

“How embarrassing. Why would they…” Ugh, her parents.

 “Well, they might not be telling you, but they are telling my parents who are telling me that they are worried you may cancel the wedding and ruin their reputations. And that you will be ruining your own future over youthful disdain.”

“Very telling,” Emi said. “They care so much.” She wasn’t sure she could roll her eyes any harder than right now.

“They do. They simply do not understand life outside of that of government officials. It is all social events and grand bargains and power plays to them. My parents are the same way, only with a massive textile business.”

“They really don’t care about me.”

“They do. But they also do not know of the girl.”

“The girl…?”

Tia flashed a knowing smile. “It has been many long years since you and I became acquainted, Emi L’Hime,” he said. “It does not take a master sleuth to figure out that you are in love.”

“I’m not in love,” Emi said. “I’m in a conundrum.”


“Uh, nevermind.” She thought that would sound better out loud. “Don’t tell anyone about it. Please.”

“Of course not. I am no coin-store floozy.”

“I know. Even a coin-store floozy’d have the decency to leave a grieving girl be.”

“Grieving?” Tia raised an eyebrow.

By this point, the others in the gondola, so absorbed in their discussion about the latest gossip surrounding who slept with who and when, had become a world apart from the two of them. Emi felt at ease to spill her guts out; Tia had that way with people. “I gave up on it. All of it. There was a girl, but I broke things off. No, it was mutual.” So obvious of a lie that she had to pause to keep from laughing. “But either way, it’s over. I’m just waiting for my fiancee to arrive and take me away forever so I can live a happy life as a housewife with six children and pose for the family portrait paintings every year or two.”

“So I am not to expect any new faces at your family’s party as I had suspected?”

Oh right, the big winter party was coming up really soon. The servants had already begun preparing the foyer for it, which was how Emi ended up on mop duty six days in a row. Her arms were going to be gigantic and muscular and there was nothing she could do to stop it.

“The only new face you can expect is if my fiancee makes a shocking appearance at an inconvenient moment when I’m dancing with another person and then cancels the wedding out of anger and jealousy.”

“You have thought this through.”

“It’s all I get to do between studying and failing to figure out how to build a gear box toy,” Emi lamented. Tia didn’t seem to quite understand what she meant, but he kept his cheery smile anyway.

The gondola passed under a small bridge, and Tia’s face was covered in shade for a few moments. All she could see of him were the whites of his eyes, and the whites of his far-too-shiny teeth.

Tia laughed. “I like you,” he said. “If I were a girl, I would probably eat you all up, with that gorgeous hair of yours.”

She looked at her hair. Gorgeous? More like, too long and always getting in her face. “And then I’m really glad you’re not a girl,” she responded.

“Me too,” he said. “By the way, I hope you do it.”

“Do what?”

“Abandon your family and run off with this girl of yours.” They exited the bridge and light reemerged on tia’s face. “It would be such a romantic endeavor.”

“Didn’t I just say that I’ve given up on all of that? It’s over,” Emi said.

“But you are also an overdramatic brat sometimes,” Tia replied. “You clearly do not mean what you say, even if you want to.”


“Your life is yours, not your family’s,” Tia said. “Run off, get married, have a family out in Fathie, become a travelling merchant on a ship, go foraging in the forests… Just do what you wish to do. Especially if it involves a girl you love.”

Emi gulped instinctively. “I’ll… think about it.”

As if she hadn’t been thinking about all of this for weeks now.

As if she hadn’t been constantly fretting about what she’d tell Beatrice all this time, why she had suddenly disappeared from her life. “Sorry, but it turns out I can’t see you anymore. I have to marry some woman I’ve never met.” It was so stupid! She had never been more frustrated in her life. Avoidance was probably the best tactic at this point.

…No it wasn’t.

“I know how hard it is to deal with your life under your family,” Tia said. “That is why I just ignore them completely. My grandfather almost died of shock when he first saw me in a dress. And I’ve done it ever since.”

“I wish it were that easy…”

“Well, we all rebel in our own way,” he said. “You just have to find yours.”

Whatever that meant.

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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…

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