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.