Chapter 42: Tinker

She twisted the screw in tight and fastened the entire thing together.

“There we go,” she said to herself. “It’s perfect.” She clapped her hands together and looked at the rest of the den, and to the fireplace, where Ms. Khami and several house servants were keeping warm on this particular evening. Emi got up from her chair and sat down closer to them, next to her friend Pip, and she beamed with pride. Nobody seemed to pay notice, though.

The fireplace burned hot, and the smell of wood permeated the room. It was a smell you could describe as pleasant, even when, with just a smidge of excess, its odor stained your clothes and made you reek for a week. At the risk of smelling bad, Emi wanted to be warm.

“Are you ever going to be done with that thing?” asked Ms. Khami, holding up a half-finished bottle of rice wine. 

“She’s already restarted it four times,” said Pip. “She’s never gonna have it ready.”

“Actually!” Emi shouted with one finger raised. Everyone looked at her and she realized she didn’t mean to be so loud. “Um, actually, I just finished. It’s ready.”

Ms. Khami clapped a few times. “Yay, Now you can help out on the balcony.”

“Eheheheheh. I can’t, because I have to pack for the trip to Mammoth Pass!” Emi cackled as if she had completed a new master plan. She knew how hard Ms. Khami was making all the housekeepers work on building the new third floor balcony, and if there was anything Emi was simply not cut out for, it was demanding physical labor. Her life was more cut out for the works of the mind–like this device here.

The large metal box she held in her hands was the most important thing she had ever created. She didn’t know that yet, but she had to have known its significance while she caressed its cool surface. It’s not prideful to admit something like that to yourself, and even Emi would have understood if she knew what would come from this invention.

“I’m just glad you finished,” Pip said. “Seeing that cute face of yours happy is–”

“So, anyway Ms. Khami,” Emi said. “I got fitted for the dress I will wear to the Mammoth Watching trip. Javert said it was his best work yet.”

“Javert never says anything that positive,” Ms. Khami said. “Are you sure it wasn’t an impostor?” She was drinking, all right. “Always hated that man…”

Pip laughed. While Ms. Khami wasn’t paying attention, she snatched the wine bottle and took a few gulps herself.

“He’s okay,” Emi said. “I’m not looking forward to meeting all the nobles and bureaucrats heading up with us, though… I wish we got to go alone.”

“Who’s this ‘we?’” Ms. Khami asked. “Oh, right. You and that girl. Don’t forget who it was who arranged for her to join you. If your parents ever found out I was helping you subvert your own engagement, that’d be the end of me. Well, not really, since I’m the best blazing housekeeper this side of the continent, but I’d rather them not know. You better play it safe, Emi Khara.”

“Don’t call me that.”

Ms. Khami rolled her eyes.“Have you told the poor girl yet? Or are you hoping your mechanical wonder box will make a good going-away present when you move to Zahn in a few months?”

Emi got up from her seat and huffed. “You’re mean when you’re drunk.”

“I’m not drunk,” she said. She grabbed Emi’s hand and pulled her back towards the chair. “You’re just being an unreasonable child. Just like your mother, that brat. When we were children, she was obsessed with writing her little books. Never did anything with them. Just whittled away her pencils, the same way you’re–”

Emi’s hands slipped, and she dropped the device. For one perilous second, everything looked lost. The gears and springs were going to go crashing onto the floor, destroying it all before she had even gotten the chance to show it to anyone. Emi’s eyes went wide, and she reached out to grab it–

–and caught it in mid-air.

“No!” Ms. Khami yelled. “I… Oh, thank Phyra, you didn’t– your box is alright.”

The entire room seemed to heave a sigh of relief. 

“Well, as I was saying,” Ms. Khami continued. “Your mother, she was such an annoying kid. I loved her, but she acted like a little sister even if she had five years on every maid in the household. I always had to–”

Pip got up and tapped Ms. Khami on the shoulder. “Let’s get you to bed,” she said. “And Emi, good work. You should get yourself some rest.” She winked.

“Maybe I could do for a nap…”

Pip helped Ms. Khami up and followed the woman hobble herself into her bedroom.

Emi went into her bedroom and gently set her creation on her desk before plopping down on her bed. She wasn’t going to let Ms. Khami ruin her mood. She was about to go on a romantic vacation with her girlfriend, and that was what mattered. She was in love, and that was what mattered.

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Chapter 32: Emi Helping Out

“Missed a spot.”

“I know, I know…”

The maid Pip dusted a bookshelf while Emi swept the floor. They had been doing so for almost two hours now. But finally, Emi’s bedroom was starting to look presentable enough that people could come in here without having a heart attack. 

Emi already missed the clutter so, so much. Her system… Her art… It was all gone.. How was she going to know what to wear every morning if it wasn’t staring her in the face the moment she looked at the carpet? And she wasn’t even going to bring up the horrific treatment done upon her desk.

Pip, for what it was worth, took it in great humor that a diplomat’s daughter would be such a slob. “You got enough closet space for a family of four, and you still throw everything on the floor,” she had said when they had first started. “Wish I could be your kind of rich.”

There was no point in Emi fighting it, because it was true. She was exemplary as an example of a terrible person. 

Now she was a terrible person with a clean room. With a few taps of her broom handle against the floor and dumping the contents of her dustpan into the wastebasket, Emi signaled her satisfaction in the day’s work. “Finally,” she said. “Good job, everyone.” It was just the two of them.

Pip laughed. “What the Mammoth crap are you talking about?” she asked. “We got a long ways to go.”

“I thought announcing it like that would make it look better…”


Okay, an hour and a half later, NOW they were finished with Emi’s room. 

Since work was over, Emi sat at her desk chair, showing off her latest creations to Pip, who laid belly-down on Emi’s bed, hands on her face and rhythmically kicking her feet in the air.

It was pretty annoying to have all her work-in-progress projects reorganized and all the spare parts sorted into little makeshift shelves. It was hard to remember exactly where she had left off. She might have to learn to live in this wretched way, where everything was put where it was supposed to be.

“I call this a tin man,” Emi said. She placed the metallic humanoid toy on the desk and wound it up a few times. When she let go, the thing clanged forwards in a straight line, moving all by itself. Its feet didn’t move, exactly–more like they made several tiny hops per second. Then it fell on its side and quickly lost all power. “I haven’t figured it all out yet, but what I want to do is have the feet move by themselves. I’m not sure if I can do that in a machine this small, though…”

Pip didn’t seem all that interested in the machines, but she was having a sporting time just seeing Emi have fun. “You sure caught onto this stuff real quick,” she said.

“What stuff?” Emi asked.

“The gear spring tinkering whatever, y’know,” Pip said. Her black-iris eyes blinked a few times, as if they were bewildered at Emi not understanding. “You started just a couple months ago, and you’re already building little toys and stuff. Probably takes a long time for most people to figure that kinda stuff out.”

“Oh, ha, no, it’s not very impressive. I got it all from this blueprint for a jack-in-the-box toy. Everything is based on what some other guy made.”

“Don’t sell yourself so cheap! You’re great.” Pip stopped kicking her legs, and then sat up in the bed, legs crossed. “Like, what in Phyra’s name’s that thing?” She pointed to the largest item on Emi’s desk, a boxy device with black and white dots scattered on its surface. “It looks like a really complicated book.”

“Oh, that doesn’t work at all,” Emi said. “It’s… Well, I’m trying to do something cool with it.”

“For your girl?”

Emi gulped. “My, uh, girl…?”

Pip giggled. “Everyone knows,” she said. “Don’t gotta worry about it. So, that a present for her or what?”

“Yeah, it’s going to be for her, if I can get it to work,” Emi said. “But don’t tell her, okay?”

“When am I ever going to talk to her?”

“Fair enough.”

Emi got up from her desk and put away the devices she had brought out. She guessed it really had been a pretty short time since she started studying mechanics in her spare time. It didn’t feel like she was doing anything special, though.

Maybe Pip was just hitting on her. 

Emi brushed the hair out of her face for what seemed like the millionth time today. “Ugh.”

“You good?”

“Kind of… My stupid hair is always bugging me lately.”

“When’s the last time you got a trim?”

“What, are you saying it looks bad?”

“Just asking how long it’s been.” Pip winked.

“It’s… Gods, it’s been a while, has it?” Since before the first time she met Tris, that’s for sure. No wonder it was feeling overbearing on her.

“Speaking of ‘been a while,’ where is that girl of yours?” Pip asked. “Doesn’t she usually come around this time every day so you two can go out and do whatever?”

“Not EVERY day,” Emi corrected. “It’s…. not every day, is it?”

“Just about.”

“Well, she’s really busy preparing for the Winter Ceremonies. She won’t be here for a few days, probably. I think.”

“Ah, yeah, that’s what my girl said at first,” Pip said. “Real busy with work. Then a week later, she’s decided it’s not working out.” She waved her hands with exaggerated emphasis. “Oh, y’know, my ex’s a haircutter. I can probably get you a discount. Want me to go check?“

“Enough with the hair already.”

“She’d probably say no anyway, on account of the breakup and all. She sucks, just like your girl if she’s gonna be all ghostly on you.”

“Tris– I mean, my, girl– I mean, my friend isn’t like that at all,” Emi said.

“ I just assume everyone sucks. World works better that way,” Pip said. “You’re okay though.”

Okay, she was definitely hitting on her now. Time to wrap it up.

“Hey, I was thinking about… going out, soon,” Emi said. “Do you mind if…”

“Want me to cover for you while you sneak out? Okay,” she said. “But don’t forget, you owe me a Doros Prime. I want that liquor cabinet key.”

“Yeah, yeah.”

“What do you see in her, anyway?” Pip asked. “What’s that girl got that some other girl don’t? She’s not rich or some cool soldier. Just a schoolgirl, no? So what’s she got?”

Emi sighed. “Everything.”

That’s all she said, but it’s not all she thought.

Beatrice Ragnell, the girl of her dreams. So tenacious, so fiery, so passionate, that Emi could feel her warmth, feel her arms wrapped around her even at this moment. Her eyes blasting out from her glasses, crystal-focused on what laid ahead, and she charged forward to meet it, no matter what faced her.

It wasn’t just that Beatrice was the most beautiful girl in the world, which was a scientific fact if there ever was one. It was that Beatrice was so strong. It was that she looked at something she wanted to accomplish, and instead of waiting around, agonizing over decisions or second-guessing herself, she just did it. She was someone who, just by looking at her, you knew she was going to change the world in a few years. She was going to be important.

And Emi wanted to be there for her when she did. No matter what it was, Emi wanted to be there, watching her, supporting her, cuddling with her. It’s not like she had any plans in her life, except maybe raise a family one day. Whatever Beatrice wanted to do, she was going to do it, throwing her small body into the fires and trials, destined to come back through the other side unscathed.

What a woman.

Emi waved to Pip and exited her bedroom. She left her house and ventured out to the edge of the Balarand River, where she watched the sun set and the tiny farm houses past the city fade into the night.

Her life really had changed a lot in these past few months. She met the girl of her dreams–no, the girl of her life. She finished her schooling, started helping around the house, got a new hobby. Her fiancee set the date for their wedding.

All of that came swirling together so quickly that it completely changed the course of Emi’s life. But she still felt like the same despondent brat that everyone hated, except for Beatrice for some reason. Why wasn’t she becoming a better person?

Why wasn’t she able to tell Beatrice the truth about her impending marriage? Why was she still sneaking out of the house? Why was she always so hard on herself?

Tough questions, no answers.

Emi wanted to change. She wanted to become a better person, become someone more like Beatrice. If her girlfriend had the power to help keep the harmony of the Gods and whatnot, then Emi had to have that same power within her. It was hidden way deep down, maybe, but she knew it was there.

As Emi passed the library without entering, she decided she would change to the best of her ability. And that change was going to start with this stupid hair always in her darn face.

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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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