Chapter 66: Arrivals

Today marked the arrival of Emi’s future wife.

To mark the occasion, she wore a light blue springtime dress and tied her hair back into a ponytail, something she never did except on the most very special of occasions. She placed her bowtie on the top of her head, over her left ear.

Emi sat outside in her front yard, basking in the warm sunny weather and reading a book. It was the ninth entry in The Elf Cycle, just released, titled The Rise of Soonworld. And it was the final book in the series, she was starting to realize. Just twenty pages from the end, and the Golem and Ghost had finally confessed their love to one another. But it was too late–the Ghost’s spiritual energy was fading. Her mana had run out, and her energies were falling back into nature. The Golem had offered to absorb her, for them to become one, a single being living together forever. But the Ghost refused him; it was her time to leave and return to the astral dimension.

This book…

…really sucked.

It was clearly rushed out in less than half a year just to cash in on the popularity of the eighth one… And Emi never felt more disappointed in her life. 

Well, with the final book in The Elf Cycle a huge letdown, it was finally time to discard those last little bits of childhood that still lingered on Emi’s person and fully embrace the woman she was meant to be. Just kidding. Emi would never grow up, and she had come to accept that with the joy that only the silliest of weirdos could embrace in themselves.

Without even bothering to stand up, she closed the book, let it levitate around her, and then sent it through the window to her barren rebuilt bedroom. That was the only fitting way she could send off such a wreck of a novel.

Ms. Khami, followed closely behind by Pip, came out through the front door and looked down at Emi. The old woman put her hands on her hips and shook her head. “Still spending all your time reading cheap fiction, I see.”

“I’m a little devil,” said Emi.

“My little devil.” Ms. Khami looked better than ever. Back during the rebellion, she saw a side of her that she had never been privy to before– vulnerability, hopelessness, genuine anger. But all of that was gone, just like the third floor balcony that had been completely repaired. “They still aren’t here, are they? What could be the hold-up?”

“Customs must be difficult these days,” Emi said. “You’re the one that taught me all about trade and tariffs, so you should know.”

“Not me. Just the books I assigned.”

“This conversation is real weird,” chimed Pip. “It’s like you’re friends or something.”

Ms. Khami briefly smiled, then faked a stern look. “I’ll leave you be, then. Come, Pip. We have rooms to clean.” They went back inside.

Her heart started to fill with a sort of mix of dread and anticipation. She’d made peace with all of what was going to happen in her life, because that was the L’Hime Family way. She was going to take what might happen and turn it into something excellent. She would make something that her parents, that Reo and Touma, that Ms. Khami, could all be proud of. Something Beatrice herself could be proud of. She would certainly achieve all of that. But that assurance didn’t stop her from being incredibly nervous anyway.

 Finally, a single carriage pulled up to the house gate, and out stepped a portly man with a large waistcoat carrying large, clearly heavy bags. “Calling for the arrival of Lady Novella Khara,” the man shouted. “She is here.”

She was here.

Emi gulped, and then approached the carriage. She steeled herself, adopting straight posture and as serious a face as someone like her could make.

The door opened, and out stepped a slender, tall woman with rings on six of her fingers. She wore gallant black suit with a narrow white tie. Her hair was stringy, auburn, and her face was narrow, pink. Very handsome, if I do say so myself. One thing immediately struck Emi, though– Lady Khara was much younger than she ever thought.

In fact, she seemed nearly the same age as her.

“So this is Emi L’Hime, isn’t it?” the woman asked, her face entirely neutral. She used to always suppress her emotions in public as some sort of power move.

“It is she,” Emi replied. “Welcome, Lady Khara.”

Lady Khara stepped down from the carriage and extended her hand. “Call me Novella,” she said. “I’m going to marry you, after all. I don’t want you to sound like a servant or anything.” The woman extended her hand forward. “Nice to meet you.”

Emi took her hand and shook it with a firm grip. “Likewise.”

Novella smirked.

Emi did as well.

She had always imagined that Lady Khara was some middle-aged woman who wore long gowns that went down to her feet and had a serious expression on her face at all times. She wasn’t sure why the gowns part. But… this was certainly a surprise. Emi didn’t mind that she was a young woman herself, not that she had on a very well-fitting suit.

“So, is this your first time in Balarand?” she asked, keeping her grip steady.

“Actually, yes,” Novella said. “I wanted to arrive for the Moon Festivals precisely because that they your city’s most famous celebrations. I heard they are wonderful.”

“Well, the moons certainly are nice this time of year. But the Moon Festivals aren’t for a few more weeks. You know, when our wedding is set.”

“That’s okay. I’d like to get a feel for the city, anyway,” she said. “Perhaps you can show me around, Emi.”

“Perhaps, Novella.”

Emi waited for Novella to relent, to let go of her hand and end the shaking. She wasn’t going to let Novella get the upper hand here (literally), so she was going to keep shaking until her fiancee gave out. Novella seemed to be thinking the same thing.

“I must say, your hairstyle is exquisite, Novella said. “I expected much, but you exceeded all expectations.”

“Thanks. I changed it just for you.”

“I am incredibly flattered.”

“Don’t be. It’s only proper, after all,” Emi said.

The portly man folded his arms. “Ladies? Should we not be going inside, now?”

“After you, Emi.” Novella said.

“No, Novella, after you.”

Today marked the start of a new friendship.

<== PreviousNext ==>

Chapter 37: Sitting on the Couch

On a particular couch in a particular house, two girls sat side by side reading, and smiles shined on their faces.

Beatrice, free from her schooling duties and not yet deep into her Priesthood Exam studies, was finally reading a fictional book for the first time in a while–a mystery novel titled Hauntsgiving. It was the first part of a longer saga called The Elf Cycle, and this first one was about a dead mage’s spirit terrorizing a provincial town in some far-off land. 

So far, the book was… okay. The thrills were compelling and kept her hooked like a salmon, but the characters were two-dimensional stereotypes and there was little artistic depth to the story thus far. But Emi had asked her–more like begged her–to read the book, and she was willing to put up with any narrative deficiencies to keep her girlfriend happy.

Emi was on the eighth book in the same series, published just like week, titled The Last Gemini. It was an amazing adventure with the mage ghost and her mythical golem partner, following the two as they solved a series of grisly murders. She adored every mystery and every twist and every line of witty dialogue. The tragic star-crossed romance between the ghost and the golem, hopelessly in love but unable to admit it to each other in all their dual immortality…. It was an enthralling experience. Trapped in time, and trapped in romance…

The two women said little as they read. There wasn’t much to say. Well, besides one very specific phrase:

“I love you,” whispered Beatrice.

Emi giggled and her face lit up. She took a deep breath and inhaled her girlriend’s scent. It reminded Emi of the marketplace from all that time ago…The memory of autumn air blew against her cheeks. Sweet and crisp as ever. She could still see the tables of fruits and veggies; she could still taste the crunch of the salmon bind in her hand; she could still absorb herself in the deep lakes of Beatrice’s eyes.

Beatrice saw Emi’s look, felt Emi’s breath, and couldn’t help but blush as well.

It had been a long time since Beatrice and Emi had first met, since they first studied together at the library. Then, they were so ensnared by each other’s exuberant beauties that neither could keep their attention away from one another. Over time they had grown more comfortable together, more solidly in love, and that skittish infatuation had faded. Now, spending alone time together was no more nerve-wracking than taking a nap.

And speaking of that…

Beatrice set her book on the arm of the couch, stretched out for a moment, and then laid down and put her head on Emi’s lap. She closed her eyes. Emi’s thighs made for excellent pillows; they were firm, smooth, and wonderful.

Emi wasn’t about to quit reading her book, not until she figured out the golem’s hidden secret, but she felt the warm head on her lap and began moving her fingers through Beatrice’s winding curly hair.

“Mmmm,” Beatrice muttered like a purring snow leopard. She took her hand and rubbed her fingers on Emi’s face, down her pointy nose, over her lips, and then across her cheek and through her still-shockingly short hair. Emi let the girl’s soft fingertips send a jolt of electricity down her spine and overwhelm her senses, each and every one of them. She took the girl’s hand away from her hair and clasped it within her own.

Emi giggled again. “I love you,” she said.

But Beatrice had already fallen asleep.

It was a great thing, Emi thought, that their lives had ended up a lot better than that of the ghost and golem from The Elf Cycle. If Emi hadn’t sat down at the desk in the library that autumn day, they may have gone their whole lives without knowing each other’s embraces. And yet, due to whatever miracle of luck that graced them, she did sit down, and they did meet, and they were together now.

But even as she continued to flip through The Last Gemini, where it turned out that the dead mage may have been alive, but astrally-projecting her ghost body the whole time, a worrying thought scratched through her mind. Many worrying thoughts, in fact. Emi was notorious for her ability to fret and ponder over every little thing, whether that was about the secrets she kept or the clothes she wore or that embarrassing thing she said to a shopkeep six days earlier.

But then she looked down at Beatrice, sound asleep in her arms, and those worried disappeared. Because in reality, it didn’t matter what was coming, what worries she had or what insurmountable challenges faced them. Because they were in love.

Emi reached the end of her book; it ended with a captivating cliffhanger, but she couldn’t help but keep her attention on the woman laying on her lap, the woman holding her hand. She set it down and leaned her head back on the couch.

She could hear Beatrice breathing in, and out, and in, and out, and in… and out… Even the way she exhaled was cute. Without thinking, Emi matched the rhythm. Their tempos synchronized. Emi not only heard Beatrice, but felt her very being, in a sense. They breathed in and out together just like this.

With her free hand, Emi continued to play with Beatrice’s hair. She put her fingers into the jungle of curls, letting the hairs wrap themselves around her hand, and then unwind as soon as she pulled it through. Like a spring in a machine, they bounced back into their original positions. 

Life would be easier if people were built like machines, Emi thought. Life would be easier if…

Before she could do any further reflecting, she fell asleep.


Beatrice giggled as she entered Emi’s bedroom. “You must have tidied up recently,” she said. “There’s no way the Emi I know would be this clean.”


“Am I wrong?”

“W-Well, this is the new me, the new and improved Clean Diplomat Girl,” Emi said. She noticed her outfit from yesterday laying on the floor and kicked it under the bed. “How do you like the place?”

Beatrice took a tour around the bedroom, walking while rotating herself in a circle, apparently trying to capture it all. Emi didn’t think this was a good sign. Finally, she answered: “Your room is as big as my apartment.”

“I knew you’d say something like that…”

Beatrice went over to one of Emi’s closets and opened it to reveal even more space. “You have a closet you can walk in!” she exclaimed. “Who in the world needs so much room? You should be renting this place out to a whole family, and then you could make a whole bunch of money off of it.”

“I don’t exactly…” She didn’t want to come off as a rich brat. She had to watch her words. “One day, I want to give the whole place away to people who need it, if I ever can. Though, I guess my brother Touma will probably inherit the house, not me…”

“Touma L’Hime? THE Touma L’Hime?”

“Don’t you start that again,” Emi said.

Beatrice snickered. “Your room looks nice. Especially this painting over here.”

“Oh! Do you recognize it?”

“No, but it looks pretty.”

“It’s a famous painting called The First Winter Ceremonies, by Tormod Benici. It depicts, uh, the first Winter Ceremonies. He said he was inspired to make it after receiving a vision from Bk’Man Himself, so he used the stark white snow to plaster on a dreamlike haze to the whole event.”

“And you own this famous painting?”

“No, it’s just a copy,” Emi said. “The real one is up in a museum somewhere in Dannark, I think. It’s way bigger.”

“It’d be nice to see someday,” Beatrice said. “Maybe you could prove to me fairies aren’t completely fake nonsense.”

“They’re real!” Emi shouted. “I mean… They don’t live in Balarand so the painting isn’t accurate, but nobody said the painting was real… Well, I guess…”

Beatrice giggled. She loved seeing Emi flustered, no matter how easy it was to accomplish. In fact, she did it again by stepping to her side and wrapping her arm around her waist. She recoiled for just a moment, but then relaxed and let Beatrice hold her.

“Just the two of us in your bedroom…” Beatrice whispered.

“Just the two of us in my bedroom…” Emi whispered back in a much more apprehensive tone.

“Ah, I see. You must have cleaned up in here just for the occasion.”

“I… Uh–” Emi froze up for a second, then shot back to life in a burst of energy. She left Beatrice’s side and then walked over to a shelf containing a very familiar item. “Look at this! Remember this thing?”

“Oh, that’s the centaur carving from our second date!” Beatrice exclaimed. “I forgot all about that.”

“What a night, huh…”

“A gondola ride, a light snowfall, and a dance at a fancy party… That was an awful long time ago.” Beatrice let herself get swept up in the amazing memories of that night spent wandering Balarand with Emi.

“It hasn’t been that long,” Emi said. “Only a few months, I think.”

“But so much has happened since then. I feel like a completely new person by now.”

“You do?” Emi asked.

“Don’t you?”

“If I became a new person, you might not love me anymore.”

“There isn’t a world out there where I don’t love you,” Beatrice said. “That fact is etched into the fabric of the universe.”

Emi suddenly choked up and had to fight back the incoming tears. After a moment of sniffling, she calmed down and picked up the centaur carving. “Tris, can I give this to you?”

“Eh? how come?”

“I thought maybe you’d like to have it as a reminder of, um, how our love is etched into the fabric of the universe.”

“I’m not really big on gifts, and I know you aren’t either. So I don’t see why.”

“Not really a gift or anything,” Emi said, “but just so we can have something of each other’s to remind ourselves of… This is embarrassing to say out loud.”

Beatrice went over to Emi and kissed her on the lips. “You’re so sweet. I’ll take it. One day, I’ll give you something of mine, too.”

“That’d be great.”

“Of course, speaking of gifts…” Beatrice winked and put a hand on Emi’s cheek.

That same cheek, of course, lit up in rosy red. “Tris!”

“Hehehe–Oh, what’s that over there?” She pointed to a bundle in the corner of the room that was covered with a blanket. 

“It’s, uh, well, it’s just some blankets, of course! Yeah, just blankets.”

Beatrice’s eyes narrowed and she smiled slyly. “Yeah, just blankets. Not that mystery thing you keep mentioning, just some blankets. I get you.”

“Haha…” Emi’s laugh was incredibly insincere, but she was sure it fooled her. Definitely.

Next, Beatrice’s attention turned to Emi’s bed, freshly made-up and adorned with pillows of all sorts. Emi was actually proud to have made her bed, all by herself, with no help from anyone. It was a work of art that could never be replicated.

“That’s a really nice bed,” Beatrice said. “It looks so comfortable.”

Emi beamed. “Yep. It’s one of the best beds in all of Balarand.”

“Yeah, I bet it is. I don’t think I’ve ever even seen one this big, either. I’d love to try it out…” She took a hop and landed on the bed on her knees. “Gods, this is soft.”

“Haha…” Emi’s face had turned completely red. “Too bad we took a nap on the couch earlier. Hey, why don’t we go see some other rooms in my house? Doesn’t that sound fun? Here, I’ll show you to the storage room downstairs. It’s where my family used to keep the horses.” Without hesitating for a second she left the bedroom. 

Beatrice lingered in the bedroom for a moment. She wore a mischievous grin on her face.

<== PreviousNext ==>

Chapter 36: The Cure for Lame Feelings

“Gods, Tris, your hair is getting so long,” Emi said as she circled around to their usual table at the library. She sat down with her brand-new book and added, “It looks amazing, though.”

“Mm.” Beatrice sat at her side of the table, books and notebooks out, but her gaze was directed off to the side as she stared into the distance.

“Weird, isn’t it? When we first met, I was the one with long hair, now yours is just as long as mine used to be. Not that you had short hair back then. I think it’s better now, but it’s hard to say what your perfect hairstyle is. There’s a… Hey, Tris, are you okay?”

Finally, Beatrice snapped away from her trance. “Oh, Emi. Yeah, I’m okay. I was just thinking.”

“Hm, you don’t look okay.”

Beatrice’s shoulders slumped over. “You know me too well. I’m not feeling too great right now. I’ve got some lame feelings going on.”

“Oh, Tris,” Emi said with her most sickly sweet sympathy voice. “What’s wrong?”


“You don’t wanna talk about it?”

Beatrice shook her head.

“Well, that’s alright. Leave the talking to me.” Emi set down her new book and adopted the most confident, princessly posture she could muster. “See this here? This is my very own copy of The Last Gemini. What is The Last Gemini, you ask?”

No reply. Beatrice was back to looking lame again.

The Last Gemini is the eighth and newest book in The Elf Cycle, my favorite book series of all-time. It’s filled with romance and mystery and adventure and peril and every single page just hooks you because it’s all so exciting. I’ve recommended it to you before, but… You’ve just got to read this series, Tris! I’ve been waiting for years for the new one to come out, and so the moment it did, I went and bought one of the library’s copy. It’s sold out everywhere else. Nothing in the world is better than reading a book series with a loved one, so I really hope you read it someday.”

“Heh, Emi. My Dad loves that series too, you know.”

“Yep, he’s the one who got me into the series!” Emi exclaimed. “He left work early today just to get a head start on me. What a devious man.”

“So go ahead and get started,” Beatrice said. “I’ll just be here, um, being your friend.”


Beatrice gave a deep frown and said, “Actually, I do wanna talk about it. Emi, sweetie, can you move your chair over here?”

“You’ve never called me ‘sweetie’ before… Boy, this must be serious.” Emi took her chair and plopped it next to Beatrice. The moment she sat down, Beatrice rest her head on her shoulder. It felt like a big win, except that seeing her like this was certainly not giving a winning feeling.

“I talked to Mr. Statusian yesterday, you know, my teacher from St. Helens,” Beatrice said. “He told me… He told me that I…”

“Tris…” Emi put her hand on her thigh and let her take it. She squeezed the hand a lot tighter than Emi had expected.

“He told me I’m going to be something special,” she said. “Special as in the kind of priest who single handedly brings a new era for the church. What in Bk’Man’s name am I supposed to do with that kind of comment?”

“You’re already something special to me.”

“Shut up with your corny, lines, you amazing woman,” Beatrice snapped. “The Priesthood Exams are in a few months and if I pass, they’re going to offer me to join the church, and then I’m going to apparently become a hero across the world. And that’s everything I’ve always wanted, but…”


“Oh, Emi, I feel so lame. I can’t be a priest when I have my family and friends and you, can I? It’s… Ugh, I shouldn’t even be talking about this with you.” Beatrice buried her face further into Emi’s shoulder, like a bird taking roost.

“Why shouldn’t you be?”

“Because you’re… Because this is all about you.”

“Exactly why I need to–” Emi cut herself off the moment the image of Lady Khara popped into her head. Or, her imagination’s image of Lady Khara. “Tris, you don’t need to worry about me. I chose to love you and that won’t end for any silly reason like this.”

“Becoming a priest is silly?”

“Well…” Emi had to choose her next words carefully. “I want you to be happy, Tris. The most happy. You’re not happy now, and it’s starting to upset me too. So whatever I can do to help you, that’s what I’ll do.”

“You don’t have to do anything,” Beatrice said. “Just listening is enough, and you’re an amazing listener.”

“Thank you.” Emi took a deep breath and added, “But.”


“I have decided that I’m going to make sure you’re happy. I will be your guardian spirit, compelling you onto the path of harmony.”

“Why are you talking like that?”

“Let us go forth,” Emi said, taking her book and putting it into her handbag. “We will use the best parts of Balarand to cure the lame feelings of one Beatrice Ragnell!”

“Oh my, you’re in one of those moods again.”

“Indeed I am! Let’s head out on an adventure!”

Beatrice shook her head slowly, but she got up and followed her out of the library. 

Emi had the perfect plan.


But first, they had to get groceries.

Beatrice already felt a lot better, to be honest. Just talking a bit about her worries to Emi had cleared away most of the doldrums bubbling over inside of her. But Emi had acted with such decisive, adorable energy that it’d be a crime to stifle her now.

Even now here in the marketplace, as Beatrice picked out vegetables to bring back home for her Mom to cook, Emi was clearly restless, obviously antsy to get on with whatever crazy plan she had thought up. If they didn’t go do that soon, she was likely to explode outright.

“There’s a lot of the same vegetables here,” Emi said, not so subtly hinting that Beatrice was taking too long. She was starting to get annoying.

“I’m sorry, the selection isn’t very good this close to closing time,” Beatrice said. “Why don’t you go people-watching or something?”

“Oh, right. I’ll go do that.” Emi turned around in a huff. But then, of course, she actually did start people-watching.

It was hard finding the right produce when most of what remained were the damaged, unsightly, or just plain small ones that none of the morning shopper particularly wanted.

Beatrice decided not to turn this whole endeavor into some strange metaphor for her indecision and mixed feelings about the priesthood and about her entire life’s goals being turned into some looming threat, because she didn’t feel these vegetables really deserved the pain of being forced into that kind of weak comparison.

Instead, she found some acceptable-looking onions and daikons to–

“Oh, isn’t that your friend, that Bodhi guy?” Emi asked.


Beatrice turned around to look and see Bodhi, and there he was, walking by on the other side of the street. He noticed her, and then tipped his hat and waved his hand. But then he kept on walking and was soon enveloped by the crowd around him.

“Yeah, that was Bodhi,” Beatrice said. “Why did he… not come and say hello?”

“He didn’t want to bother you, I guess,” Emi said.

“But I haven’t seen him in ages. Where has he been lately…?”

“Hm.” Emi didn’t say any more than that, but her face seemed telling. Exactly what she was telling, though, Beatrice couldn’t quite discern.

That was so weird. Bodhi used always say hello. He even used to come to the library sometimes to see her, usually to nag her into hanging out with all his junior priest friends. Now that they had graduated, he seemed to be keeping a distance. Literally.

Now Beatrice was starting to feel bad again.

Emi noticed it and grabbed both of her shoulders. “Okay, you have your veggies. Now, let’s go cure those lame feelings of yours!”

“Okay, okay, lead the way.”

“I can’t lead if we’re side-by-side, you know,” she said.

“Is that a request to hold my hand?”

“You know it!”

Beatrice couldn’t help but smile at her girlfriend’s infectious silliness.

They walked a ways west in town, away from the library and Castle Balarand, away from the marketplaces and restaurants and towards a series of large apartment buildings. Beatrice hardly knew this neighborhood. But Emi did?

“Will you ever tell me where we’re going?” Beatrice asked.

“Don’t have to. We’re already here,” Emi said.

Here they were, standing in front of a building marked “Pets & Pleasure.”


They walked in and from that exact moment, everything clicked into place for Beatrice. She heard some growling and whimpering and other excited animal noises, then the odor of furry creatures hit her nose with some 

“My friend told me about this place,” Emi explained. “It’s a shelter for greyback bears that get picked up off the street and need a place to stay. It’s really important during the winter, where lot of stray greybacks face hunger and harsh weather, but it’s open year-round and anyone can visit.”

“I thought you hated greybacks.”

“I, uh, do. But I’m willing to put up with them to cure your lame feelings. Because guess what they have here? A cub petting area!” 

Aww, Emi was really putting her own feelings aside just for–Cub petting area?!

Beatrice dashed over to the tiny greyback cubs and nearly attacked them with love and affection. Awwwww wooooowww…

Emi did not join her in petting the cubs; in fact, she continued to keep her distance the entire time. For some reason, that just made Beatrice love her even more. All of this, just because she was feeling a little down today? She was the best. 

Wow what amazing creatures. Beatrice began petting two of them at the same time. It was a spectacular feat that made her feel so happy.

Nobody in the world deserved such a wonderful woman as Emi L’Hime. And nobody in the world deserved such wonderful furballs to pet for hours. But Beatrice had them both.

<== PreviousNext ==>

Chapter 27: A Letter: The Beginning

“Okay, that’s enough for today,” said Mr. Statusian. “Remember, everyone leave the building by the top of the hour, and I’ll see you back here in the morning. We’ll be beginning our final days of practice, so I hope you are ready for some serious work.”

The class grumbled. Someone murmured that that whole “last day of class” comment way back when was extremely misleading, and another person literally growled.

Beatrice, of course, was extremely pleased with herself.

It was just a couple weeks until the Winter Ceremonies. She had long since mastered the rituals in execution, but she quickly learned that that wasn’t all the rituals were about; she also had to stay attuned to her magical partners around her. They had actually created a water generation spell by accident the other day, so it seemed that everyone was growing a lot closer together. Beatrice had even started hanging out with Bodhi and some of the others after practice sometimes.

Today was not one of those days, however. No time for hanging out with friends; she was about to meet Emi at the library for a  date. They had spent many days together recently, but always ended up wandering around the city and looking for food to eat, not really doing anything special. This time, though, they were going to travel the Gonda Tower, the tallest building in Elince. Apparently, its top floor was so high that you could apparently see all the way across the kingdom if you looked out from the top floor. It sounded so romantic!

It was normally closed to the public, but as long as you had the right connections, that was no hurdle. Emi, of course, knew the owner’s granddaughter, Felisa L’Flare. It was great having a rich and famous girlfriend–er, friend who may or may not have been dating her. They hadn’t exactly clarified that just yet…

Beatrice grabbed her bag and slipped it onto her back. With the Winter Ceremonies practice and her relationship–if that’s what it was–with Emi both going strong, she had a strong smile on her face. She scurried over to the library, where her Dad and Emi were currently talking at the service desk. 

Emi L’Hime. Sigh. The girl of her dreams, the main thing on her mind every time she closed her eyes. Beatrice could remember when she first saw her at the marketplace, all that time ago, and was instantly smitten. And as much as she tried to ignore it, her life was forever changed that day, she knew, because she found someone worth knowing for the rest of her life.

Just look at her. Wearing nothing more special than a turtleneck and a long skirt. She made no attempt to stand out, no attempt to separate herself from the crowd, and yet she was radiating. Tall, with shiny pale skin looking something out of the most vivid dream. Beatrice had held those curves in her arms, felt those thin hairs, breathed in the smell of shampoo and perfume. She was more than just beautiful. She was Beatrice’s. (Maybe.)

“Oh, Tris, hey!” Emi exclaimed as she saw her enter.

“Hey,” was what she said, but what she thought was more along the lines of, every time I see your dark brown eyes my heart is sent into a flurry, my mind hazes up, and my entire being is sent into a blinding hailstorm of affection. She only thought it, but she conveyed it with her smile.

“You’re friends with Emi L’Hime, Beatrice?” Dad asked. “I didn’t realize that.”

“Yeah,” Beatrice said. “We, uh, sit together at the study table sometimes. You never noticed?”

“Uh, no, I never pay attention,” Dad said, with a smirk that suggested he was not exactly telling the whole truth. “But she’s a good girl. She’s been coming to this library since she was about this high.” Dad held out his hand flat to measure about twelve inches. 

“Your father’s the one who got me into my favorite book series,” Emi said. “It’s called The Elf Cycle. It’s a really great mystery series with a lot of action and adventure and romance.”

Ehh… Beatrice knew her Dad read pretty much everything, so his taste in fiction books was a bit… odd. She didn’t always enjoy his recommendations when it came to fairy tales and adventure stories, and she learned as much when he convinced her to go through A Beautiful Bloodbath when she was thirteen. Not a wise choice at all, Dad…

“I’m really glad you two have become friends, though,” Dad said.

“Heh, yeah…” Beatrice coughed, and then turned to Emi. “So, are you ready to go?”

“Go? Where are you doing?” Dad asked. “Wait–” he interrupted himself. “Oh, I almost forgot. You have a letter. Mailed to the library, for some reason.”

A letter?

Who would send her a letter, and why here? With a moment’s hesitation, she broke the seal and tore it open. The letter read, in a scrawled handwriting:

“You must meet me IMMEDIATELY. I have made a new breakthrough! TOP SECRET. I need your help to align the spirits and perfect our society. If you do not arrive or send response in twenty-four hours, I will have to assume you have been apprehended by forces beyond your control and will be forced to take drastic measures.

–Signed, Runa.”

Oh, brother.

“Is it something nice?” Dad asked.

“It’s Runa.”

“Oh, brother.” He rolled his eyes. “Do you need to go meet her?”

“I guess I do…”

“Who’s Runa?” Emi asked.

“Oh, Emi. We might need to postpone the, uh, thing.” She was trying not to be too explicit about their date plans around Dad.

“What, do you have to go meet them or something?” she asked.

“Yeah…” There was no way she could get out of meeting Runa, she knew, even as her mind flashed through all the excuses she could possibly use. 

Although… Maybe this was a fortuitous opportunity after all. This could be a chance for a very different kind of date for Beatrice and Emi, and for Emi to learn more about her. Like marketplace traders often said, she could turn lemons into lemonade.

What was a lemon?

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Chapter 4: Sneaking Out

Winter was coming.

In Balarand, far enough south that it was safe from raging blizzards and hair-freezing cold, this was not much of an ominous occasion. But for Emi, winter meant cold weather, snow, and being stuck indoors for months on end.

“This sucks,” she muttered to herself.

So on this autumn afternoon, when Emi was once again cooped up in her room because Ms. Khami wanted her to do the studying she had been putting off all week, she knew she needed to make the most of the nice weather before it was gone. She had to make the most of the time she had left.

Doing the opening-up-the-window-and-locking-the-door trick wouldn’t work this time, as it would be far too obvious to anyone who looked outside. So Emi decided on an alternate plan– she left her room and first looked around to see if any housekeepers were walking around. When she confirmed that there weren’t, she bolted out of her room and towards the housekeepers’ quarters.

None of the housekeepers lived permanently at the L’Hime Family House except for Ms. Khami, but some stayed for several days at a time when there was a renovation project underway or a party to prepare for.

At the moment, the quarters were completely empty. And all she had to do was open the side door, and…

There. She was out.

The air was crisp, just like Emi wanted. She took in a deep breath and took in a nice breeze, not too hot but not yet chilly. A whole lot better than the near-freezing temperatures from the other day. It was the perfect weather for reading, and quite possibly the last time it would be this good until next spring.

A complete change from the other day, her neighborhood was devoid of children, snooty girls in parasols, or practically anyone. It was like a ghost town right now, too early in the day for people to be back home from work, too late to see joggers getting their daily exercise. She didn’t do either of those, so she didn’t have much of a concept of why this area was so empty for so much of the day.

Emi began walking to the nearby public library as soon as she exited her neighborhood. Since she was supposed to be studying economics for her “classes,” she figured she could find a helpful book there that she could check out. Something a little less dull than the one Ms. Khami gave her.

See, what Ms. Khami didn’t realize was that Emi actually enjoyed learning about the various subjects she was schooled in. But making her stay in her house the entire time, trudging through such oppressively boring books, was a horrible way to get her to do anything. She yearned to learn, not to churn like butter, slowly mixing herself into insanity while sitting in her room. 

If she had to read a book about something as dry as economics, she was going to do it where the weather was good and the birds chirped from the rooftops, where she could look off to the skyline and see Castle Balarand and Gonda Tower beaming above everything else in the city. Otherwise, as interesting as it might have been, she was going to be asleep before she finished the first paragraph.

Emi really wished she could have had a better teacher than Ms. Khami. She was a good housekeeper, kept the servants in line, but the only teaching she ever did was making Emi read books and take tests, designed by Ms. Khami herself of course. Her older brothers went off to boarding school when they were half her age, but her parents apparently couldn’t be bothered a third time, so it was a decade of school at home for her. Maybe she could have signed up for junior priest school all on her own? It was too late for that, though. She was almost done, ready to become an adult and be married away against her will.

She sighed as she exited her neighborhood and came upon the nearest shop street, already bubbled up with foot traffic from people leaving work or looking for an early supper. The bakery had a line of people stretching back half a city block, as people waited eagerly to nab the last scraps of the day at a discounted price. Likewise, a food vendor at the side of the street was heating up her charcoal grill, getting ready for an evening of food preparation.

 If only Emi had left an hour earlier, she wouldn’t be forced to take the side street… But it was either that or enter the jumble of people meandering around. She shuddered and went through the dirt road in between two rows of tightly-packed apartments.

It was pathetic to see a girl, literally trained for public appearances, who couldn’t stand the sensation of being in a large group of people. Anytime she realized she was surrounded by others, she locked up, moved to the nearest corner, and stood there until the crowd dissipated. It was humiliating, but it was the only way she could survive it without going crazy. As much as she loved people-watching… it was difficult.

Two large apartment buildings in between one road meant that the path was covered in shade through much of the day, and it was a drastic decrease in warmth. Emi shivered and started to regret not bringing her silk coat. Likewise, thanks to the lack of space between the buildings, two storm drains running alongside the road were filled up with stagnant water that had overflowed from the latest rain, filled with algae. They gave off a green odor that reminded Emi of the benefits of living in a nice neighborhood.

As she exited the side road and went back onto one of the main streets, she was immediately assaulted by two young kids holding some Balarand Circle newspapers up at her. “Hey miss,” one of the kids said. “Buy a paper? C’mon, won’t you?”

“Ha, um, ha” was the only thing Emi was able to mutter, paralyzed with shock. She pushed past the kids and continued her walk, and they went and hawked other passersby.

The library was a way’s walk, around thirty minutes with the extra detour, but it was always worth it; Emi had read hundreds of books there, many of them on the recommendation of the very nice librarians.

In fact, as she entered the library, she saw one of her favorite librarians at the counter– a balding man with glasses named Earl. He was one of the resident experts on nonfiction, especially when it came to Elincian culture.

“Hi,” Emi greeted. “How are you today?”

“Welcome back, Ms. L’Hime,” Earl said. “Been a while since I’ve seen you around here. I’m pretty good, but the better question is: How are you?” He wore a goofy grin. Every time she saw that grin, her mind flashed memories of her Father back when she was young and they still used to play together. It made her appreciate Earl all the more.

“I’m okay,” she said. “I’ve been meaning to read some more books from here, but I’ve got a lot to study at home.” She shrugged to accentuate the sheer ambivalence she felt towards her schooling. “Today, I’m supposed to learn more about economics. My tutor gave me a book on the subject, but it’s… hard to get through.” 

“You like more narrative-driven works, right, Emi?” She nodded. Earl put his finger to his lip and thought about it for a moment. “So… let me think. Ah, I think there’s one for you, if you’re doing an introductory study. This is the basics, right?”

“Yes. Well, I think so. I hope so.”

“Well then, Popoclous’s Economic Theory should be a good selection. It’s more of an autobiography of Popoclous’s life than anything else, but his story wraps together lessons on money and production with tales of adventure and young love. It’s the oldest treatise on the subject that I’ve been able to find, at least as far as books written in Tsubasa go. I’m sure some faraway land on a faraway continent has written something older, but our knowledge of the continents beyond is still… Sorry. I was about to get carried away. Anyway, the principles are old, but they still apply well today. How about that?”

“That sounds really interesting, actually,” Emi said. “Adventure and young love?”

“I knew that’d hook you,” he chuckled. “Speaking of, are you still keeping up with The Elf Cycle?”

Emi nodded. “Is The Last Gemini out yet?” she asked, an eagerness of levels reaching panic in her voice. 

“Not yet, but the library already has twenty copies reserved from the printing press company.” Earl’s goofy grin gave way to a half-hearted attempt at professionalism. “So, Miss L’Hime. Would you like to read Economic Theory?”

“If it will tide me over until The Last Gemini…” All desire to learn was gone the moment she thought about her favorite romantic adventure series. There was very little room left in her mind for studying as she raced through it, thinking of her various thoughts and theories on how it was all going to turn out.

“Good. I’ll get the book for you.” Earl left the service desk and began rummaging around the shelves and shelves of books, some of them stacked two stories tall.

While Emi waited, she looked around. It was nearly empty today, probably because the weather was so nice. There were a few people sitting at desks and reading or studying or taking naps, though. One likely-homeless man sat at a desk off in the corner. Another person sat at one of the larger tables with several books and papers spread out across it. Other than that, it was almost like the library was closed. Must have been the weather. She, too, was going to ditch the place as soon as she got the book.

Earl passed by the person studying at the desk, and then that person looked up from their notes to glance at him. Emi turned her gaze to that someone, seeing their bouncy curly hair, and then their glasses, and then–

Emi’s heart stopped.

It was that girl.

That girl from the marketplace.

And her blue eyes, glowing as bright as the moons.

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