Chapter 68: Harmonies

Atop the Gonda Tower, all five moons were in view, radiating in full bloom and showing off the entire city of Balarand.

Emi, for the first time in her life, realized that Balarand wasn’t exactly a city crossed by two rivers. More like… Balarand was one giant misshapen island in the middle of one big river. It was a revelation that put her entire life into perspective. She was an islander, living on an island city. 

It changed nothing, but still.

Emi and Novella stood at the edge of the roof and watched the stars sparkle in the night sky, watched the military patrols sweep the streets below. Peaceful, quiet, beautiful, but not exactly the kind of atmosphere that sets one at ease.

Behind them was a whole party of people. Emi’s Mother and Father squabbled about something or another. Touma had two Dannark noblewomen by his side and was about to be slapped by both. Reo stood alone watching the patrols with a pensive frown. Ms. Khami chatted with the recently-arrived Lord Lau, while his daughter was in the process of being seduced by none other than Pip.

A whole crew of Emi’s family and closest friends, and she ignored them all in favor of the woman next to her. 

To be fair, the woman next to her was Novella Khara, her soon-to-be-wife, and this woman was surprisingly adept at conversation. Even… a friend, perhaps.

Down below, large towers were being constructed on top of buildings all over the city, with large, rotating panels. They were called semaphore telegraphs, large devices that could be used to carry messages across long distances. The towers would rotate the panels to indicate a message, and then the next tower would replicate it until it carried all the way to the front lines of the Dannark-Doros War. While they were dwarfed by the size of Gonda Tower, even partway through construction it was clear they would change the shape of the cityscape dramatically. Never again could a rebellion break out when commanders across the river could exchange messages in an hour or less. Another new normal.

“A shame, isn’t it?” Novella asked.

Emi turned her head from the view below. “What is?”

“That we’re out here celebrating peace when these conquerors are installing towers to clamp down its iron fist.”

“Oh… Um, I’m not really into talking politics with a lover,” Emi said. “It’s kind of a rule of mine.”

“We aren’t lovers,” Novella said. “We’re merely fiancees.”


“Any further would be presumptuous to the point that I’d have to think you are attracted to me.”

“Well, you’re certainly attracted to me, and we ARE getting married in a couple weeks. So I guess that makes us pretty close to lovers.”

“But enough of lovers that you cannot talk about politics?”

“Sheesh, fine,” Emi whined. “I completely agree with you. I think it’s terrible what Dannark is doing to our city. But the rebels that attacked us did a bad thing too. Violence trades for more violence. And if the Dannark-Doros War gets any worse…”

“We’ll be in Zahn by then.”

“But my heart will still be here. I’m an Elincian through and through. A Balarand islander.”


“Nevermind. What I mean is…” Emi tried to figure out the right words to say what she wanted. “The rebellion, the occupation, the war, all of it is an injustice against the harmony of the Gods. My gir–my friend taught me a lot about the way Tsubasa works like a finely tuned machine, and right now, the springs are broken, so the whole thing’s falling apart.”

“An apt metaphor for a gear-head such as yourself.”

“No offense to you, but I don’t want to marry you for love or romance or any of that,” Emi said. “I want your noble status so I can better help the world. So we can better help the continent.”

“I see…”

“Tsubasa is in great trouble now, but we can fix it. There’s something I realized during the rebellion: we are important people. We have so many resources at our disposal, and we have the opportunity to use them to better the world. We can end the injustices and restore harmony to the continent. For years, people like you and me have sat on their hands doing nothing but keeping the status quo. But we can be the ones to finally change things forever.”

“Together, you say. You assume I wish to do anything of the sort.”

“You’ve already been doing your part. You were the education governess and helped an entire nation’s children learn to read and write.That’s amazing, Novella. Think of what we could do!”

Novella seemed to ponder this for a few moments. Then, she smiled softly. “It’s a good dream.”

“A darn great one, you mean.”

“I like it. Let’s bring harmony to Tsubasa.”

Emi L’Hime was soon to become Emi Khara. The Moon Festivals had drawn near, and wedding preparations were well underway. It was an exhausting process, enough so that this trip to Gonda Tower was one of the most refreshing reprieves she’d had in weeks.

“This woman of yours, this Beatrice,” Novella began. “She must mean a lot to you.”

“Yeah… A lot.”

“You still love her.”

“Of course,” Emi said. “She’s the woman who changed my life. She’s the reason I decided we’ll change the continent together. And she’s absolutely gorgeous.”

“I see,” Novella said. “The kind of love that doesn’t fade like a fire. More like… frost on the top of a mighty mountain.”

Emi nodded. “I’ll love Beatrice the rest of my life,” she said. “And probably more than ever knowing she’s out there doing the Gods’ work.”

“It almost sounds like you want to compete with her to better the continent more.”

Emi giggled. “Don’t worry, I warned her ahead of time. We’ll both be keeping score.”



“I fully expect to fall in love with you,” Novella said. “I must warn you ahead of time. I can’t imagine a life with you where I don’t.”

Emi felt her cheeks burn and averted her gaze. She back at the half-built semaphores and tried to think of any possible response she could give. What did you say to a statement like that?

“Hey,” Emi said. “May I call you Novi for short?”

“Uh, why?”

“It’s cute.”

“I’ll allow it, if I can call you Em.”

“That’s fine.”

“Novi and Em,” Emi said. “Sounds like a power couple in the making.”

“If that’s what you wish, Em.”

“I would say that I do, Novi.”

They smiled at each other.

Then– a tap at Emi’s shoulder. Pip, shoulder around Lord Lau’s very excited daughter, shouted at them, “C’mon you two!” It’s time to dance!”


“After you, my dear Em.”

Emi and Novella stepped away from the edge of the roof and joined the others in an impromptu dance session. Touma had pulled Reo into the spotlight and forced him into a musical pair, which sparked the rest of the family to move along with them. Even Emi’s parents began to dance together. Even Ms. Khami and Lord Lau of all people began to dance together. 

As if the entire tower had trapped in a magic spell, Emi’s family and friends froze before her in this moment of time. For however long she gazed at them, they stayed in place in this moment, like a grand painting with all its vivid strokes of color. All her loved ones gathered here to celebrate the night even in trying times.

In the midst of this scene, Emi could see the future before her. She would raise a family and become a devoted wife and make an impact on the world that only someone already born into privilege and wealth really could. She would give up her entire life to make sure that her descendants had a world to be proud of. She would serve Tsubasa like only a L’Hime could.

These past few weeks had been exhausting, but Emi felt stronger than ever. Finally, somehow, she had become like Beatrice, and it took her until this exact moment to realize it. 

She took Novella’s waist and worked her dancing magic.

<== PreviousNext ==>

Chapter 63: Safe House

By the time Beatrice could see again, she realized she was being pulled along by Emi, and they were running still through the streets near Castle Balarand. 

Emi looked back at her and shouted, “We escaped!”

“That was you!” Beatrice yelled back. “How did you do that?”

“I have no idea! The magic of love or something!”

Oh, this girl. 

Beatrice, Emi, Emi’s Father, and Runa were all safe, far away from the bulk of the fighting. Now that Dannark soldiers from the front lines of the war had arrived in Balarand, the rebels stood little chance–their forces had already begun to flee. The epicenter of the battle was still mostly around the castle, the entire area now surrounded in flames. The trek to the Tia’s safe house should have been a safe one.

 It wasn’t.

Rebel soldiers and Dannark soldiers alike broke away from their fights to attack the four of them. Apparently they were just too much of a prime target. It probably had something to do with the giant eight-foot-tall homunculus that ran beside them.

“Runa, can’t you make that thing go away?!” Beatrice yelled.

“Hasha is precious. You cannot make a scientific revolution simply ‘go away.’”

“I mean all these people are attacking us because of it!”

But, fortunately, the homunculus was attacking all of these people in return. It stopped running suddenly and plowed itself into the crowd, making its stand against, essentially, everything around it. There were far too many soldiers to keep it going. Nevertheless, it attacked them, swiping them to the floor and kicking one several feet into the air. 

 The homunculus was overpowered by the sheer number of attackers. But those attackers were no longer pursuing the four of them, and that would save their lives.

One of the soldiers sliced the beast in the gut. It screamed out and bashed the soldier to the ground. Its large, beady eyes shed tears at alarming volumes, and it wailed out like a child who scraped their knee.

“Hasha! No!” Runa screamed. “My creation!”

Sword still stuck in its stomach, the homunculus shoved away all the soldiers around it and ran off in a random direction.

With both the few remaining rebels and the newly arrived Dannark soldiers attacking it at once, the homunculus could not stand up to the struggle. It was going to go out fighting.

But the group didn’t look back to make sure. Even Runa kept her gaze forward. Beatrice could hear the sounds of wailing and slicing, but they grew fainter every moment. 

In the frenzy of a sudden monster attack, the soldiers became too distracted to pursue them, and by now not a single soldier followed. They made their way safely for the rest of their journey.

The safe house was a featureless home in the middle of a residential neighborhood, where the fighting had not spread and the streets were desolate. As hot as the fires had made the city, specks of snow still dotted the roof here.

Inside was a furniture-less room with nothing but dry food, water, and roll-out mats. Underneath one rug, though, was a secret latch that opened up to reveal an underground bunker. They climbed down the ladder and met the others.

Beatrice suddenly wondered if her own parents were okay…They probably were. If the fighting had mostly been contained to the central parts of the city, then her apartment near Knoll Park was surely safe. Dannark soldiers tightly patrolled the riverways, so the rebels would never have attacked there… she hoped. She had enough to worry about today, so that’s what she was going to tell herself.

They reached the others, exchanged hugs and cried together, and finally sat down, laid down, huddled together. It was finally time to relax a little bit.

Runa was devastated, to a point she was holding her head in grief. “My homunculus… My research…”

“It served us very well,” Emi said. “Thank you.” She gave Runa a quick hug, and Runa’s face turned blood-red.

“What is your story, girl?” Tia asked.

Runa shot a sharp glance towards him. “What’s it to you?” 

Beatrice realized this was the first time Tia and Runa had ever met. What a strange occurrence this was.

Beatrice sat down and Emi almost immediately collapsed, her head falling directly into her lap.

“Your hair’s getting long again,” Beatrice muttered.

Emi giggled. Then she let out the longest sigh ever recorded. Beatrice followed suit.

“Thank you for saving my family,” Emi said. “Tr–Beatrice…”


They sat like this in silence for a long time. There were ten people in this bunker: Emi, Beatrice, Emi’s parents, Ms. Khami, Pip, Touma, Runa, Tia, and Tia’s boyfriend whose name Beatrice hadn’t caught. And out of those ten people, not a soul had the energy to speak.

Beatrice ran her fingers through Emi’s hair. For some reason, it felt weird, even a little bit wrong. But it also felt great, so she didn’t stop.

The one thing that struck her most about this moment was the smell. That lingering scent of smoke and ash that clung to their clothes and hairs with a  tight grip. Pungent like burnt cheese. She hated it. But, knowing that she smelled exactly the same way, she let it pass with only a crinkle of her nose.

The silence in the room was broken by, naturally, Pip, who squatted on the floor next to the girls. “You did good, you two,” she said. “I coulda taken them, but…”

“Everything’s going to change, isn’t it?” Beatrice wondered aloud.

“It was always going to,” said Emi, her head still in Beatrice’s lap. “That’s how it works with the… Will of the Gods and… harmony… and…”

She had drifted off to sleep. Poor thing really tired herself out with all of that… whatever it was she did. Magic? If it was magic, it was a level far beyond anything Beatrice had ever seen or read about, but she had no other word to describe it.

After everything they had gone through… They had saved the prisoners in the castle. They had fended off Ulric Statusian. They survived to see tomorrow.

What was going to happen? Neither of them really knew, but at this exact moment, they were safe. That was all that mattered.

<== PreviousNext ==>

Chapter 62: All Her Will

Ulric Statusian faced Emi and stared her down. This was Beatrice’s former teacher, somehow now a leader of the rebellion. Behind him stood a number of rebels. The carried large spears and axes pilfered from the bodies of the Dannark soldiers they had slewn moments ago. And now this ragtag group of Emi and her friends and family had their only path out of this carnage blocked.

Emi had never talked to Ulric Statusian in her life, but from the moment he looked at her, she knew his feelings toward her. His scornful gaze told her everything she needed to know about how he would prefer the L’Hime Family end up.

Then, he stared at Emi; just her, nobody else. She stared back. She held a tight grip on the lance in her hands.

They kept at this for some time before either acted.

Ulric Statusian pointed his fingers at her and one of the soldiers shot an arrow–

–which Emi knocked away with a slash of her lance.

She had no idea how she did that.

Immediately, Tia and Emi’s Father leapt into the fray and blocked Ulric’s path to attack her again. Another arrow launched, and it whizzed past Tia so close it knocked the wig off his head.

“Wait, Mr. Statusian!” Beatrice shouted. She stepped in front of Tia and Emi’s Father. “Stop all this fighting!”

What in the Goddess’s name was that girl doing?! Emi ran in front of her protectors and joined Beatrice by her side. She raised her lance and pointed it at the rebels. Nobody would be falling for her sake, no matter what.

“What are you even doing here, Beatrice?” Ulric asked, his voice cracking and eyes quavering. “Of all people, I would never have expected you… Beatrice.”

“You shouldn’t be killing people!” Beatrice shouted.

“And you shouldn’t be protecting the very people that allowed Dannark to capture and arrest our own King.” His expression hardened and his composure returned. The L’Hime Family is the epitome of scum. It looks like you might be, too. You could have been special, Beatrice. You could have brought peace and harmony to the continent.”

“And I will.”

Ulric and some of the rebel soldiers took a few steps closer to them. “You’re a delusional love-obsessed fool. I was so, so wrong about you.”

“Shut up,” said Emi. “Talk to my girlfriend that way again and I’ll kill you.” She jabbed with the lance and forced the rebels to back up a step. “Tia, get everyone else to run to the safe house. We’ll catch up.” 

“Are you quite serious…?”

“Yes! Do it!” 

Tia complied, ushering everyone to flee with him leading the way. Only Father and Runa stayed behind.

Emi stepped forward and attacked, jabbing her lance at the rebels. They easily dodged, but one lost his balance and had to step backwards to catch himself. One advanced too close to her, so she kicked him in the stomach, pushing him on his back.

Ulric bashed his sword against Emi’s lance, but she pushed him away. She flipped around to make sure she was in front of Beatrice, who had nothing but a rusty rake to defend herself with. 

Never in her life had she dreamed she would be in a situation like this, but somehow, something inside of her had activated. She understood the world around her, and saw the battlefield for what it truly was–a series of gears and cogs, springs and levers, that together worked to create the ultimate peril. All Emi had to do was break the machine holding them back.

She struck at Ulric and hit his chest. He reeled backwards on instinct, but the lance cracked and his armor remained unpierced. Once he realized he was safe, a snarl grew on his face and he attacked with a fierce blow. 

Emi ducked to dodge, but, unfortunately, she was still a young woman who was decidedly out of shape. She couldn’t get out of the way in time, and Ulric’s sword bashed into her lance with overwhelming strength.

The lance snapped in two and flew out of her hands. She was defenseless once again. The others had long since escaped, but Emi, Beatrice, Runa, and Father were still there, now completely encircled by rebel soldiers. Dannark soldiers were also fast approaching from a few blocks away, the thuds of their marching boots growing louder by the second.

Emi’s Father held some rebels back with defensive moves, but it wouldn’t hold for more than a few more seconds. Runa was here, but instead of helping she was watching her homunculus off fighting on the other side of the plaza.

Their fight was over. But at least the rest of her family and friends were safe.

“All you’ve accomplished with your life, young L’Hime, is leading my brightest pupil astray,” Ulric said. “You’ve committed a greater sin against the Gods than any of your traitorous family, because you defied their very Will.” He grinned, revealing a missing front tooth. “When Balarand is free, no-one will remember the Ragnells ever existed.”

Beatrice started to advance as if she were going to attack with her rake, but Emi held her back. He said they had defied Will of the Gods, eh? Emi didn’t buy that for one second. The Gods were with her on this one.

Emi grabbed Beatrice’s hand and held it tight. “I will always love you,” she said. “That will never change.”

Beatrice nodded and tossed her rake to the side. “Me too. No matter what the world brings us.”

“Forever and ever.”

The rebels advanced from all corners. Ulric raised his sword high up in the air.

But, somehow, Emi felt at ease.

No, she hadn’t accepted her fate. In fact, fate was never a question in the first place. Because fate was just some bogus idea thought up by people too uncreative to build their own destiny. Fate was for people who had no magic in their lives.

Magic was a peculiar thing, Emi thought. It resided within the souls of every being, and yet it was nearly inaccessible, nearly impossible to understand. It was a lot like love. Sometimes, people might find someone where together, they can make miracles happen, and they can change the world with just their hands held in the melted snow, but it’s really rare. Too rare to even mention.

But when love was truly there, when Emi felt Beatrice beside her, all of those mysteries and qualms and caveats and drawbacks vanished. 

All her life, she had told herself she wasn’t good enough and she needed to change who she was to succeed. But right here, right now, at this exact second, Emi L’Hime realized all of that was a blatant lie. Magic was real and she was actually a great person all along.

Emi raised her free hand into the air, concentrated with all her will–all her love.

And then from that hand came a ball of light that exploded–literally exploded–

Every soldier, every rebel, every person in the vicinity except the four in the center of the blast, was knocked to the ground. Every single person, including those four, were blinded by a shining brightness.

The entire scene went white.

<== PreviousNext ==>

Chapter 61: Escape the Castle

“How are we going to get out of here?” Emi’s Father asked. He looked at Beatrice like she was a leader, like she was anything but a scared girl who rode in on a giant magical monster and closed her eyes so she wouldn’t see people being killed.

Beatrice, for what it was worth, kept her emotions under check. She was meeting Emi’s parents here, after all. It was the first time she had ever seen them outside of the portrait paintings that hung on the walls of their home. Both were skinny and static, the only two of the dozens who didn’t seem completely overwhelmed by the situation. They didn’t see Beatrice as anyone but a hero they could rely on.

Way, way too much pressure. So all Beatrice said was, “Just follow close behind. We’ll find a way out.”

It was a bit of a motley crew, a kind of pseudo-army that only emerged in the most extraordinary of circumstances. In the front of the group were Beatrice, and an Emi who refused to tread more than a couple feet away from her. There was Runa and her monstrous homunculus, as well as Tia and another tall, muscular young man who looked to be his boyfriend. There were Emi’s parents, as well as her older brother (but not the famous one), and a couple of her housekeepers. 

There was also a growing crowd of defenseless civilians following them like greyback bear cubs without their mothers. Practically every door they passed had more prisoners, and more people to free.

In front of one heavily locked door, two Dannark guards laid on the ground, either knocked out or deceased–Beatrice was too terrified to inspect closely–and one bloodied, bruised rebel stood, propped on her lance and barely conscious even as she watched the group approach. She was younger, unlike most of the soldiers, but it was clear she had no fighting spirit left inside her.

She didn’t make an effort to stop them. She only said, “You won’t… get away with this. Dannark will never win.”

Beatrice reached in her pocket and handed her a handkerchief. “Go home before something bad happens to you,” she told her. The woman accepted the handkerchief, but she didn’t move, and she didn’t reply.

Emi’s Mother, now armed with a pike herself, examined the door and shook her head. “It will take far too much time to break down these barriers. We must move on.”

“We have to get in somehow,” Beatirce said. “If the fighting in the castle spreads, the people in there could be in serious trouble.”

As they spoke, Emi stood in front of the door and raised her arm into the air. 


The door barricades ripped apart, and the entire door ripped off the frame and collapsed on the ground to reveal a large conference room filled with a great many prisoners.

The homunculus made a confused groan. Emi’s Mother and Father exchanged glances.

And Beatrice stared at her…

Unable to…

…What? “What?” Beatrice blinked a few times to try and process what just happened. “Emi… Huh?”

“Um, I don’t know, but I don’t really care,” she replied. “Whatever it is, it matters a lot less than us saving all these people who are following us now.

Emi seemed extremely unconcerned with the fact she just used magic to rip a door off its hinges. And now Beatrice was more confused than she had ever been in her life to this point.

Ms. Khami laid a hand on Beatrice’s shoulder. “Don’t worry about Emi,” she told her.

She was extremely worried, but she decided to hold that in for the time being.

“So, yeah, we got way too many people with us,” Pip said. “The moment we leave the castle, a bunch soldiers are gonna attack us, right?”

“Precisely correct,” said Tia.

“Then, uh, what are we doing? Do we got a plan?”

“We have a plan,” Beatrice lied.

“I have a plan,” Emi said. “First, tell me, Tris and Runa, how is the situation outside? Is the fighting contained to central Balarand?”

“Um, I think so,” Beatrice said. “There was nothing going on near the port when we were there. No fires or anything.”

“I know a safe house we can take refuge in around there,” Tia said. “But it is somewhat far away. Depending on the circumstances outside…”

“We can’t fit this many people in a safe house,” Beatrice said.

“We’ll have to help them a different way,” Emi said. “Back during the Gang of Eight Campaigns, Ulric Fathie and the Teal One were involved in many skirmishes where the Teal One would capture a fort, lead enemy troops in, and then abandon the whole thing once they picked off enough soldiers in the siege. They evacuated most of the troops by faking a frontal assault with only a very minor force that bided time for everyone else.”

“And we’ll… do that here?”

Emi nodded. “That’s our only chance to make sure all these people can escape. If we’re lucky, we can too.”

“Wait, WE’RE going to be the ‘very minor force?!’” Touma shouted. 

“Keep it down,” Emi said. “And yes, we are. You included. You’re a young man who studied and trained at Yates. Most of these people are middle aged bureaucrats who haven’t run a day in their lives. You’ve got to buck up and help us save these people’s lives.”

Touma rubbed the back of his neck. “When’d my sister get so cool all of a sudden?”

“Shut up and let’s plan this thing.”

Beatrice absolutely adored this woman.

In the next few minutes, they forged their plot. They split these helpless civilians into four groups who would flee the castle in four different directions. One tiny advance force, consisting of Emi’s family and friends, along with Runa and the homunculus beast, would crash through the front gates and attract as much attention as they could on their way to Tia’s safe house. Everyone had weapons they took from defeated soldiers they came across in the castle, though nobody but Tia and Emi’s Father actually knew how to wield any of them.

Hopefully nobody would die. And, in a major plus, Runa’s homunculus would definitely be the biggest distraction this side of an avalanche.

“And that’s the plan,” Emi said. “If you can’t fight, you should join one of the other groups and meet up with us later.”

Beatrice glance to Ms. Khami, who seemed to be nursing her arm and had no business on a potential battlefield. But she shook her head to dismiss such a glance. “I must say, Ms. Ragnell, you seem to think I can’t take care of a bunch of hooligans with farm tools.”

Emi’s Mother patted her on the shoulder and smiled. “We’ll be perfectly safe, um–”


“Yes, Beatrice. We are the L’Hime Family. Sis and I were schooled by Freda Hollow herself, the captain of the Elincian Royal Guard for thirty-eight years. Don’t underestimate experience.” Beatrice had no idea who that was, so her gloating went over her head.

Emi’s Father nodded. “We’re all ready.”

There was so much Beatrice didn’t know about Emi’s family, and this certainly wasn’t the time to be inquiring deeply about any of it. So she decided to trust them fully. No reservations now.

“Then let us enact our great plan,” said Tia. He held up his sharpened stick and charged without another second’s hesitation.

The rest followed. The entire group, all eleven of them, ran through the hallways and into the grand entrance, where most of the fighting had stopped. Judging by the bodies on the floor, which Beatrice tried hard not to look too much at, the rebels were not fighting a winning battle, because their bodies outnumbered Dannark’s five to one.

The homunculus roared and smacked a Dannark soldier who charged at them, ending the only serious threat they faced in the entire castle. So far, it had gone smoothly.

Then, the group exited the front door and emerged out from Castle Balarand. Immediately, they were greeted with the sight of bright red flames smoldering all over the city. At this point, there was no snow in sight; the heat of the fires, the dark ash in the sky had melted every last bit. Winter had come to a sudden and very violent end.

Right at the city center, there was a great battle ongoing, with soldiers from Dannark fighting with the rebels in a disorganized chaos. Arrows flew through the skies with every passing moment.

Dead men and women lined the streets, the vast majority of them wearing rags and simple clothing. Here, too, the Dannark soldiers that had fallen were very few compared to the untrained rebels. And, as the fighting continued, that difference would grow even more stark.

The screaming from afar wouldn’t leave Beatrice’s ears. She couldn’t tune it out.

Balarand had been reduced to a warzone. Destruction on a level that brought most of the group to tears. This was exactly what Elince tried to protect when it peacefully surrendered to Dannark. The entire reason for the occupation was to help prevent Dannark from invading and destroying the great city of Balarand.

And now…

Beatrice looked back to the castle behind them. Smoke rose out of the windows on an upper floor. Even this place was too dangerous to stay in, and it was supposed to be the safest fortress in the kingdom.

“I hate this,” Beatrice muttered. She didn’t want to look at any of this. But she couldn’t stop staring. “This is all so horrible…”

Emi shook her head. “We’ll make it through this. We have to keep going.” She looked around at the ground and saw a fallen rebel soldier with a lance near his side. So she held out her hand, and like a stick on a rope the lance flew into her hand. Beatrice did a double take. Emi gripped the lance with both hands and rest its sharp end on the ground.

Tia kept his eyes fixed forward. “Our distraction may not be necessary. The rebels are already breaking apart. We have an opportunity escape before the real battle begins.”

“The… real battle?” Beatrice asked.

“Dannark’s frontline soldiers must be almost here already,” Emi said with a gasp. “They sent word that quickly…”

“Indeed,” Tia said. “Nevertheless, we must charge forward if we are to reach the safe house without injury.”

“Let’s go!” Pip shouted.

A number of Dannark soldiers approached the group, weapons drawn and drawing closer. They separated into multiple flanks in an attempt to encircle the group.

Emi’s Father, sword in hand, rushed in front of the group, holding his hands up. “Stop! We are not rebels. We are civilians and part of the occupation government. Please… stop.”

The soldiers continued to advance, saying nothing. It seemed they were no longer accepting surrender as an option. And unlike the rebel soldiers they faced in the castle, these were professional fighters who wouldn’t fall to simple maneuvers.

“What do we do? Father, what do we do?” Touma asked. He held a sword in his hands, but he shook so much that he rendered himself effectively useless.

“We will defend ourselves. Stand back and protect Ms. Khami and your sister.” Her Father spread his legs out into a fencing stance. 

“Don’t worry about me,” Emi said.

Beatrice looked at Runa, waiting for her to react. She had been oddly calm, oddly quiet ever since she retrieved her precious plans from the castle evidence room. Runa noticed her gaze, then looked back at Hasha and asked, “Honey, are you willing to fix this for us?”

The beast grunted.

“Then charge ahead and break their formation!”

The beast grunted again, but did not move.

“Is it going to hurry?” Beatrice asked.

“Hasha does what Hasha wants,” she said. “We must hope my baby does what is in our best interest. Hasha, move!”

Hasha, it seemed, misunderstood the directions and ran off towards some other part of the skirmish, attacking other soldiers and knocking them down.

Beatrice sighed, then wondered if this would be the last time she ever sighed.

There was no need for its help, though. A dozen rebel soldiers stormed the area and caught the Dannark soldiers by surprise, knocking them over and driving their weapons into them. It was a quick rout and the scene was clear in two minutes or less.

“You must come with us,” one of the rebels said. “We’re regrouping back at the castle for a final–”

“Wait,” another said. It was– Ulric Statusian, a gash across his left cheek and spatters of blood dotted across his armor. “These aren’t allies. These are escaped prisoners.”

<== PreviousNext ==>

Chapter 60: Come On, Plan, Work…

Tia finished rubbing the long broom handle and whittling it down, until it was nearly sharp enough to qualify as a weapon. He had, without a knife, exhaustingly smashed the broomstick against the stone ground and then sharpened it until it became usable. It was the third try before it produced anything worthwhile, as the other two broomsticks ended up as splintered shards of wood on the floor. 

How he accomplished this, Emi had no idea. She guessed it was his years with private instructors who taught him every skill that might be necessary to run his family’s textile business one day. If survival skills were a a part of it, then his teachings were surely as strict Ms. Khami’s, but multiplied by ten times. And he was doing this all while dressed in a woman’s skirt, to top it off. There were reasons why Tia and Emi were friends.

“Are we ready?” Tia asked. He held out the stick towards the door, and Emi approached the door with a bucket full of powerful cleaning liquids in her hands. The rest of the group stayed in the back, protected by Tia’s boyfriend in case of trouble. 


“Let’s kick these guys to the ground,” Pip said.

Tia screamed out, “Help! Help! Fire!” and the others followed suit, making feigned cries of agony. Emi kicked at the door a few times for good measure.

There was a voice from the other side of the door. “What, a fire? Oh no, some traitors are going to perish in flames. That’s so tragic.”

He didn’t open the door.

“That plan didn’t seem to work,” said Touma.

“No, no it did not,” said Tia. “Is there anyone who could perhaps… break the door down themselves? Maybe with a group effort?”

“I saw Ms. Khami bust down Emi’s door once before,” Pip said. “Make her do it.”

“Please, I hardly budged and that thing opened,” Ms. Khami replied. “I have never used brute force for–”

“I distinctly remember some brute force used on that stray cat that snuck in when I was four or five,” Touma said. “It traumatized me for life.”

“That’s beside the point,” she said.

“As tough as Sis is,” said Mother, “She can’t break that door herself.”

“And why not?” asked Touma. “Maybe if we all help her, we–” 

“We really must be sensible,” said Tia. “This is not a time for joking around.”

The group argued amongst themselves about how to escape, but Emi stared at the door, locked and barred from the outside with at least one guard standing in front of it. She felt… something calling her to the door. 

It was something in her head she couldn’t begin to describe. Not a voice, not an image. Just a feeling, an emotion she couldn’t quite pinpoint, that directed the door to the forefront of her mind.

Maybe it was the fumes from all the cleaning chemicals, or maybe it was just hallucinations from being so utterly exhausted both emotionally and physically, but for some reason she held out her hand and began to move it around in a circle in the air. 

What was she… doing…?

All of a sudden–

–the door flung off its hinges and flew twenty feet in another direction. The pathway was clear.

It took a moment for anyone to realize what had just happened, but as soon as they saw the guard in front of them, they charged and attacked him, knocking him out in just seconds.

Emi stood in place, dazed and confused.

“Is anything wrong?” Tia asked.

“Uh, no?” she answered. “Let’s go.”

Tia took a few steps, looked side-to-side, and motioned. “It is clear. But I hear some yelling on the other end of the hallway, so be careful.”

The eight of them stepped outside the closet. Tia’s boyfriend and Pip took the front of the group, while the others stayed behind for safety. Even in the back, though, Ms. Khami held one of the broken, nearly useless broom handle shards as if she was about to be in the fight of her life. “I don’t like this one bit,” she said.

“It’s a lot better than being executed,” Emi said. She bent down and picked up the rebel soldier’s sword, which was surprisingly light. It was also unlikely to be a useful weapon in a fight for someone completely untrained like herself.

“Give it to me,” said Father. “I practiced fencing for eight years. Let’s see if I can jog the old muscle memory.” He twirled it around, trying to get a feel for its weight and shape. Emi couldn’t tell if he liked it or not.

“Just stay behind me and we will be okay,” Tia said. He had only a sharpened stick, but he held it with tight confidence.

“And me,” Pip said. She held only her own fists. Wait, didn’t she say she lost a fight earlier today…?

The group advanced down the hallway. They heard some banging on another door a little ways in. 

“Wait a minute,” Emi said. “I didn’t even think about that. We aren’t alone, are we?”

They opened ithe door to reveal another group of ten or twelve captive prisoners, some of them gagged with fabric in their mouths to keep from screaming. They freed those prisoners and added even more to their group.

“Thank you so much,” a skinny woman in a fur coat said. “What in the name of Nexurk is happening today? Why are the peasants revolting so… callously?”

Emi decided not to respond except by rolling her eyes.

“Well, that’s a bunch more people we have to protect,” Tia said to Emi, as if she were the leader of the group.

“Well, the more people, the more help we have, right?” She shrugged, unconvinced at her own statement.

“I know we have a couple weapons, but that doesn’t mean we can form our own army,” Touma said.

Father agreed. “If Tia and I are the only ones who can defend ourselves, we won’t stand a chance.”

“Hey!” Pip shouted. “You got weapons, but I got these babies. Nobody’s getting past–”


Pip froze and lost all composure.

The group turned around to find two older men holding gardening hoes like weapons, advancing towards them. 

“I don’t want to hurt you,” Tia said. “Just go home and nobody will remember any of this.”

“You’re all traitors,” one of the men said. “You have already hurt us beyond repair by giving our country to a bunch of tyrants.”

“You might be right,” Tia said. “I cannot speak for the actions of my family and peers. But right at this very moment, I am just trying to protect the people I care about. Is that okay?”

The men charged at them, so their answer was clearly given.

Emi took a step backwards, but Tia took one forwards. He jabbed his sharpened stick ahead and knocked the men off-balance. One of them swung his hoe, but Tia tripped him and he crashed on the ground. The other tossed his hoe aside and instead threw a punch. Tia swerved and dodged and shoved the man. He hit the ground the same time as the hoe he dropped.

These men weren’t soldiers. Not even close. They were just old men who wanted their home back. If only she could be sure her family would be safe, Emi might just have failed here on purpose for the sake of these desperate people.

Intentional or not, that chance to fail was growing greater by the moment. More soldiers ran down the hallway towards them… but they were not brandishing weapons, and they ran past the freed prisoners without a second glance. 

There were thuds of heavy footsteps, and then a gigantic monstrous being appeared before them. It was eight feet tall, with lanky arms and legs and an astonishingly ravenous glare. It groaned and balled its massive hands into fists.

The woman in the fur coat shrieked.

Pip, Tia, and Emi’s Father readied themselves for a fight. Even Emi’s Mother tried to keep herself composed. But this… this was a monster! What in the Gods’ names was such a beast doing here?

It looked at the group… but it didn’t attack.

It seemed perfectly docile now, despite its horrifying appearance.

Something about its face struck Emi as familiar, though…

Soon, two more figures ran up behind the monster–

Beatrice Ragnell and Runa Arakawa.

“Don’t hurt them,” Runa said. “They will be loyal subjects just like you, my lovely Hasha.”

Emi threw down her sword and ran over to Beatrice. And those pairs of eyes, glimmering brown and shimmering blue, met once again.

“You’re safe,” they said in unison.

Beatrice giggled. “We were coming here to rescue you, you know.”

“I… I worried so much about you,” Emi said. “With everything happening out there, I just…. I–”

Beatrice shut Emi up with a kiss on the lips. She felt that same spark of electricity she always did and hugged Beatrice as tight as she could.

She felt so safe in this moment, like everything had suddenly become completely okay. Of course, they were still in the middle of a rebel uprising in Castle Balarand. They were still in the depths of danger. But knowing Beatrice was okay at this moment still filled Emi’s heart with glee. 

“I love you,” Emi said.

“I love you too,” Beatrice said. “But we need to get out of here. The city’s on fire, and soon the castle will be too.”

<== PreviousNext ==>

Chapter 58: Capture

It was ironic.

Emi actually supported the rebels.

She felt furious after King Kline and the Royal Family were deposed, after the powerful families of Balarand refused to lead the battle against Dannark and simply laid down their arms to protect the peace. Dannark, after a few major military victories on the outskirts of Elince, was able to simply walk into the city. They literally marched in without a single casualty. 

Emi had wanted there to be more resistance against the occupation. She hated how quickly everything could change and wanted to see people invested in stopping it. Instead, Balarand continued into peacetime, with Dannark soldiers making increasing but small encroachments into their way of life, all the way up until… 

Today. The day that the city fought back. And they fought back against her own family.

Now she was confined in a cramped broom closet, somewhere in the middle of Castle Balarand, together with Tia Knoll and his boyfriend. There were several armed guards standing at the doorway, so they were completely trapped in here.

The door opened, and several figures were pushed in, one landing on their face.

Five of those figures were Emi’s parents and older brother Touma, along with Pip and Ms. Khami, who had been the one knocked down. For the first time she had ever known that woman, she looked old. Aged by fifty years in the single day since she last saw her.

She helped her to her feet and hugged her, then her parents.

“We’ll hold your trial together in a few hours,” the guard said. “You might escape the death penalty since your son is Reo L’Hime, but we’re still weighing our options. Just thought I’d let you know.”

Ugh. Reo. Even in the middle of a rebellion, was so popular for his stupid engineering projects that he was going to keep the L’Hime Family from being executed.

The ground shook. There must have been another explosion. 

The rebel soldiers were setting off explosives in certain areas of the city to draw attention and spread out Dannark’s relatively small occupation force. At least that’s what Emi figured from typical insurrection tactics. The Teal One used this same strategy to divide the Fathie Siege Force during the Battle of Balarand and pick off each legion separately, so they would be wise to follow that guideline. She realized her days of homeschool education were finally paying off with that kind of analysis. If only she could actually use that knowledge to get out of here…

Emi’s parents ran up to her and hugged her together. “You’re okay,” Father exclaimed.

“We were so worried,” Mother said. “Where were you?”

“I was with Tia,” Emi said, gesturing back to the two young men in the back of the closet. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. I’m sorry I never tell you anything…”

“It’s completely fine,” Father said. “We just worry about you…”

“I know you do.”

“If something had happened to you,” said Touma, “I don’t think I could have handled myself, my dear baby sister.”

“…Really?” Emi struggled to keep from rolling her eyes.

“How did it get like this?” Ms. Khami wondered aloud as Pip helped her to her feet. “Those cretins could have rebelled any time they wanted, but they waited until right as we finished remodelling the third floor balcony. If they destroy the house… I will personally kill every last one of them.” Emi knew she wasn’t joking. But she was in far too poor of shape to make good on her threat.

“Pip, why are you and Ms. Khami here?” Emi asked. “You aren’t rich or powerful. You’re just our housekeepers.”

“Well, I kind of…” Pip put her finger to her lips. “Well, today I learned I’m not good in a fistfight, let’s just say that.”

Emi didn’t know how to respond to that, so she said nothing.

Instead, she asked, “How are we going to get out of this? Do any of you know what’s going on out there right now?”

“No, we were rounded up a few hours ago,” Mother said. “They didn’t tell us anything.”

“And we were captured even earlier than that,” Tia said. Emi realized They must have struck at the Lake Geoffrey area first since the homes there were more isolated. This whole rebellion must have been lead by former Elincian soldiers, because these tactics were far too well-planned for a peasant uprising. That was sure to mean a whole lot of violence if anything went wrong.

Oh, Beatrice…

She had no idea where she was right now, but she hoped she was safe. Hiding at home, or fleeing the city if she could. She had no way of knowing where she was, but she had to hope she was safe, because that was all she could do.

Beatrice wouldn’t worry about things she couldn’t control. Beatrice was strong and dedicated and brave. Beatrice would keep her mine on the task at hand and accomplish it before anything else. So… that’s what Emi needed to do.

Her heart poured out of herself. Completely exited her being. She stomped on her emotions and took a crystal focus on the situation, just like Beatrice would have. Emi needed to escape, and make sure her family was safe at the same time. “There has to be a way for us to get out of here,” Emi said. “Does anyone have any ideas?”

“Absolutely not,” Ms. Khami said. “You are not going to do something foolish and stupid that will get you killed. I will not allow it.”

“You don’t have to,” Emi said. “I am my own person and I am going to decide my own fate. I won’t let any of you get hurt, even if it means I do.”

Tia said, “I think I may know what we can do. We are in a broom closet, correct?”


“Well then, we have all the supplies we need.”

<== PreviousNext ==>

Chapter 54: Sneaking Out…?

Emi stared up at her ceiling, as she tended to do for a while each morning before getting out of bed. She liked to make shapes and images in her mind out of the imperfect swirls of paint and indention. Over in the corner was a misshapen potato with one very large eye, and near it was a pridecow… but then she couldn’t see the animal anymore and her mind wouldn’t make the image again.

This was nice, but she needed something nicer.

Suddenly, she sat up in bed and looked around at her bedroom. Clothes strewn all over the floor and a stack of books toppled over. All just like she liked it. These days she made a conscious effort to lock the door every time she exited, no matter if she left the house or not, just to ensure no unwanted visitors could ever enter. If someone were to rearrange it from how she liked it, she wasn’t sure she could handle it.

But… she thought she was handling all of this fairly well. Ms. Khami hadn’t yelled at her in a really long while and since her parents weren’t home, that meant there was nobody willing to scold her no matter what she did–or in this case, didn’t do.

Today, though… felt different. Her parents arrive back in Balarand sometime this week, and they would most likely force Emi to get involved in whatever house parties or supper dates or brunch time meet-and-greets they had in store for her pre-wedding preparations. And thinking further, it was only a month, at best, before you-know-who would arrive. Soon there would be rehearsals, dress fittings, coming-of-age ceremonies, and the like. And it wouldn’t stop from there.

Emi needed to seize this day, then. She needed to jump at the opportunity to do something rash and dangerous and stupid while she was still unsupervised. 

She was going to sneak out of the house and go to the marketplace! The snow had mostly melted and the weather had warmed up some, so it was time for Emi to go on an adventure!

The levers pushed around in her mind, the springs pulled and compressed. She began to formulate a new devious plan she could use to break out of this self-imposed prison and escape the L’Hime Family home without anyone noticing. 

Yes… Ah, yes. Perfect.

She would have to slide down one of the pillars holding up the second floor balcony and enter the foyer, for maximum speed of course. But then there would be a high risk of being spotted by one of the many housekeepers cleaning or carrying things, so she would need to distract them first. She would do that by first going up to the third floor, where there is a lot of construction going on for renovations, and maybe… knock over a paint can while nobody was looking. It would get everyone’s attention and make a lot of people upset, which would provide ample opportunity to make her escape. Yes… this was a great plan.

So, Emi grabbed a few things she might need and stuffed them in her handbag, and locked the bedroom door behind her as she quietly looked down at the foyer and around at the second floor. There was… nobody here. Not a sound.

She ventured up to the third floor, and it appeared that this was the case here, too. Where was everyone? Was it time for a lunch break already? Emi had been sleeping in a lot lately, but this would be just too far.

Well, this just meant that escape would be a lot easier now. She made an even more risky move, hopping on a pillar and sliding from the second floor down to the first. One false move and she would have had a broken back, but… that was really fun.

Emi walked toward the front door. But as she did, she heard a rhythmic buzzing noise that grew louder with every step she took.

Pip and several other housekeepers were there in the foyer, standing in front of the door with an air of unease. They hardly seemed to notice Emi until she came their way. 

Pip met her gaze, but only for a second before her eyes darted away. “Hi, Emi,” she said, her cheerful, flirty attitude replaced by curt politeness. Ever since that day Emi dropped the sauce bowl and screamed at everyone, Pip had become a lot more distant. And now, with whatever was going on outside…

“What’s going on?” she asked.

“I don’t know… It sounds like…”

Well, if she didn’t know, Emi was going to go outside and find out.

When she opened it, she realized what it was– A crowd of fury-filled protestors standing outside the gates and chanting. Screaming. 

“Save King Kline! Save King Kline!” was the main message Emi could decipher, but it was supplemented by countless other yells and shouts. It was angry, but it also seemed sad, in a way. A protest with a broken heart. A protest like people were mourning something. She knew that feeling well.

And, at the same time, she realized her parents were here, too. She didn’t even know they were back. Their carriage was right in front of the gate and looked scuffed up and damaged. “Mother?” she asked.

 “Emi! What are you doing out here?”

“What’s… what’s happening, Mother?” she asked. “When did you get back?”

Mother, whose face was red and eyes were sore, wiped her face off with her sleeve and frowned. “We have just returned from our emergency negotiations in Fathie, and… Listen, dear. We will explain this to you inside. You shouldn’t stay out here; it’s not safe.”

Emi realized that she wasn’t going to be sneaking today after all.

Dannark soldiers arrived to break up the crowd, but many of the protestors refused to go without being beaten down. It erupted into a scene of violence. Emi flinched, wanted to look away, but knew she couldn’t. Knew she shouldn’t. 

Emi’s Father walked up to the front door. “Emi. Go inside.”

“Can’t you tell me what’s going on?”

“Come inside.” He walked past her and held open the front door for her.

The moment the door shut behind them, Mother once again burst into tears, falling to her knees and sobbing.

Father looked to Emi. “Your Mother and I tried to.. We did the best we could, and we failed the people of Elince. Our consequences were instant, as the protestors followed our carriage home. We imagine that… the rancor may continue.”

“I’m not sure I understand.”

“I– We– I’m sorry, Emi. You’ll have to excuse me.” Father had begun to cry, too.

Ms. Khami and the other housekeepers had come down to the foyer to see what all the commotion was about. Emi helped Mother to her, and then looked at Ms. Khami. “What’s going on?”

“Your parents were sent to Fathie to negotiate King Kline’s surrender,” Ms. Khami said. “They were trying to save him from being sent to criminal trial in Dannark.”

“And they failed,” Emi said, looking out a front window, and seeing the protestors past the main gate, continuing to chant to save their king’s life.

“Yes,” she said. “You had better go upstairs.”

And they failed.

The protests would continue on into the night, and then again into the next morning. No matter where Emi went in her home, she could hear the strained voices shouting through the walls.

<== 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 16: Letter from a Lady

Emi washed herself off and stepped into the steaming hot bath. Her body flared up and she let the water soak all the worries of another stressful day away. All she would ever need to be content in her life was a nice rice bowl and a soothing bath. Everything else on top of that was a bonus.

That’s what used to be the case.

Recently, it had become a bit different. One worry, one outside element, had decided to join Emi here this evening, like several before it, and prevent her from fully enjoying herself: no matter what she tried, she couldn’t stop thinking about Beatrice.

Was she in love?

And here was the age-old question that we all pose to ourselves. Is what we’re feeling right now, the way we think of that certain someone, really special enough to warrant using such an important term? Words are words, but when you’re wondering if you’re in love, words are like a barrel of blast powder waiting to be lit.

Was it love? And, was it love from first sight? I don’t know.

And as for Emi, she didn’t know either. Every time she saw Beatrice’s face, every time her arm brushed up against hers, she felt her core temperature rising, her cheeks blushing, her breaths staggering. A lump would form in her throat, as if she were about to spill tears.

She couldn’t even pretend what she felt was close friendship, or treasured kinship. They’d known each other, what, a month? But after their last meeting… Gods, that night.

It was undeniably, incontrovertibly, absolutely a romantic feeling that Emi felt. It was impossible to act like she didn’t dream about the idea of kissing her every time she saw her, every time she THOUGHT of her. Spending a whole lot of time fretting and skirting around the idea just seemed like a waste.

But that didn’t mean that she was in love. Surely love wasn’t her heart beating fast every time she saw someone. She could say the same thing if she saw a wolf or a boar. There had to be some specific identifiable trigger where she just… knew it.

Since she didn’t know what the trigger was, clearly she still wasn’t there yet.

It wasn’t love. Not yet.

Emi sank deeper into the bathtub and gurgled bubbles up to the surface. What a situation she was in right now…

If it wasn’t love, then it was a conundrum.

She kind of liked that. “She was in a conundrum with Beatrice Ragnell,” Emi said to herself.

Emi let the bath soak over her and she tried to enjoy herself.


“You look pleased with yourself,” Mother told Emi as they ate chilled clams at the supper table.

“Y-yeah,” she replied.

It was just Emi and her parents tonight, and her plates were set out for her right across from them, on the lonely side of a very long dining table. Something about this made Emi gulp. She felt an interrogation coming on.

“Ms. Khami tells us you haven’t been doing as well in your studies lately,” Father said.

“And you have been sneaking out,” Mother added.

Tonight was a scold-a-thon after all.

“I…” She couldn’t think of any good excuses for her actions without divulging her private romantic, uh, conundrum.

“We know she’s been too hard on you, but she just wants you to be the best version of yourself you can possibly be,” said Father. “We do too.”

“But what if I’m already the best version of myself?”

“Nobody’s the best version of themselves, Emi; that’s why we have to work hard.”

Emi vehemently disagreed but she decided to keep it in. She would be the mature one this time.

“You won’t have to worry about Miss Khami too much longer, though,” Mother said. “You’ll be traveling the world with your wife soon enough.”

Ugh. Not this again. How come she didn’t get a say on her own future? How come she was being married off like some painting being put up for auction? Nobody even asked her if she liked girls in the first place…

She did, but that was beside the point.

“By the way, Lady Khara is finally coming down to the city once her term as Bureau Governess is up. You’ll finally be able to meet her once and for all.”

“But what if I don’t want to meet her?”

Father scoffed, waving his hand about as if Emi had just told a funny joke.“Oh trust us, you will. She’s amazing; she personally brought public education to the entire city of Cannapak. Within ten years, every young boy and girl will know how to read and write and perform arithmetic, just like in Balarand.”

What did that matter to Emi? Anything at all? Anything?

“And there’s more,” Mother added. “As promised, Lady Khara has written a letter for you.” A servant appeared behind Emi, spooking her, and handed over an unopened letter, sealed with a bright red wax stamp and the insignia “KHARA” written on it.

Emi took the letter.

“Go ahead,” Mother said. “Read it. We want to know what it says.”

She did:

“To my Emi,

I find that these are troubling times that we live in, fraught with conflict and chaos. When I think of you, however, all that melts away. You are the solid object that keeps me grounded lest I float away into the etherflow. 

Your parents have been kind enough to tell tales of your beauty and sing great praises of your intellect. With a sharp nose and a sharp wit, you have been able to cut a great path for yourself in Balarand, and when we are united we shall cut an image for ourselves across the continent. Together we could bring peace between Doros and Dannark. Together we could shape mountains.

Your visage appears often before me in my slumber. A wife to call my own that will accompany me on this quest of my life, someone to bring me closer to the Gods, is all I have wished for in my years in this mortal world, and I am so grateful that you wish to be the one to fulfill this for me. I could not ask for more.”

What senseless drivel was this? Emi was almost taken aback by how inane Lady Khara’s letter was. She hadn’t expected much, but… this was even less than that.

She continued to read:

“I have talked a great deal about the timing of our engagement. It has been a long, arduous five years since we were first brought together by your family and mine, and in that time I am sure we have both grown immensely in our lives. As you have now come of age and I have entered the final stages of my role as Bureau Governess here in Zahn, I have begun to realize that we can put off no longer what we were made to do. I wish to finally meet you for the first time.

Our wedding shall be this spring, I have decided, and it shall commence on schedule with Balarand’s famed Moon Festivals. We will be married right under the stars and fireworks, a beautiful ceremony to befit a beautiful woman such as yourself. I tremble with excitement as I put this announcement to my pen. I apologize if my sloppy hand has tainted this letter, but I am too far gone in anticipation to hold my wrist still.

Please, write me back at your earliest convenience. I would love nothing more than to hear from my future wife before I hold you in my arms for the first time.



Oh my. I can’t say that was a particularly innovative letter. Honestly quite embarrassing. Emi was practically exhausted, the letter was such a chore to get through. She did think a wedding under the stars sounded romantic, but it was also–

Wait, spring? That was just months away. The winter would begin, and then in a flash… the wedding would be here. It had been years and years that her parents had been talking up this engagement and this Lady Khara woman, to the point that she had almost considered if it were an elaborate practical joke. But… it was finally happening. And there was little time left. Emi lowered the letter to her side and stared across the table at her parents. They both looked positively giddy. 

“Well, what did it say?” Father asked. “Did she perhaps mention something about… a wedding?” His eyebrows raised.

“Are you excited? Aren’t you proud such a wonderful woman? …Emi?”

There wasn’t a trigger to set it off. She didn’t even feel it coming until a drop hit the back of her hand. But for some reason, tears poured out of her eyes.

“Emi, what’s wrong?” Mother asked.

She pushed back her chair, ran off, and headed back into her bedroom. With a slammed door and a crash on the bed, she let her sobs run loose in the only place she felt free anymore.

She didn’t want to be married. She just wanted to spend her life here, just like now– a happy life for her friends and family and maybe Beatrice too. But that might be about to end, she realized. All in a matter of months, it was all going to be over.

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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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