“Beatrice, are you awake yet?” a voice called out from the other room.
Beatrice shook her head back and forth to wake herself up. After her vision cleared up enough that she could make them out, she put her glasses on and tumbled out of bed.
She had a very peculiar dream last night. Something about... that girl from the marketplace. The two of them danced and laughed in a field of flowers, when a sparkling crimson gem fastened to a golden stand fell from the sky. The gem plopped down in front of them and shook the ground. It was the Jewel of Elince, the most prized possession in the kingdom. The two of them stopped for a moment to gaze at it, until it sprouted arms, legs, and a hat. And then it started dancing, too. That was when she finally woke up.
It had been almost a week since she saw that girl. Why was her mind still bringing her into these silly dreams?
After getting dressed in her uniform, a simple white-and-green buttoned shirt with a long skirt, Beatrice met her Dad at the front door and put her hands on her hips. “Three minutes and ten seconds,” she declared.
“You live dangerously, girl,” he told her. “Next time I’ll just leave without you. Unlike you, I have a job to go to.” He pointed to the kitchen counter, which had a few pastries on it. “Now grab some breakfast and let’s go.”
Beatrice wasn’t as much of a morning person as she liked to pretend.
Still, today she and her Dad were going to have a lot of fun doing their most cherished activity-- strolling to work and to school together. The two of them had walked together nearly every morning since Beatrice started classes as a junior priest. Her Mom went together sometimes, but she usually took the time for an extra hour of sleep.
Their apartment was near Knoll Park, a giant square of greenery in the middle of the expanse of buildings that made up most of Balarand. Knoll Park bordered the famous Lake Geoffrey, which was fed into by the Balarand River on which the city was built. But because the river was just so big, it flowed around the city to its east and west. Balarand was surrounded on all four sides by water, making it effectively a large island.
Normally, an apartment this deep into the city would be very expensive, but theirs just happened to be wedged in between several larger buildings that obstructed the view of the rest of the city. It was affordable enough for how much Dad made.
They walked past the Wyvern Bridge and into downtown Balarand, where Dad’s workplace and Beatrice’s school were both located. Tons of shops, of course, meant that downtown Balarand was always busy even this early in the morning. People praying at the shrine to Dramaturge, people picking out quick breakfasts, and the early morning marketplaces selling produce. The pungent smell of fruits and vegetables, spices and meats, filled the air, and Beatrice’s nose, even from this distance away.
And of course, amidst all the everyday ruckus of a city morning, there was also an anti-Dannark protest at the foot of the newly-erected statue to Empress Nievol.
“They never stop, do they?” Beatrice asked.
“It’s their right,” Dad said. They stopped talking about it after that.
The two of them walked until they reached their spot, the tree in front of the intersection between Palace Path and the Grand Concourse, and bid their farewells. A few carriages passed underway as they hugged.
“I’ll see you after school, honey,” Dad said.
“Have a good day,” Beatrice said.
They parted ways and she walked another block further until she reached the St. Helens Academy. Being the smallest of the five junior priest academies in Balarand, it was far from the most prestigious in the kingdom, or even the city, but with tiny class sizes--hers numbered just forty--it had a personal touch few others could match.
Beatrice entered the school and walked through the corridor towards her first class--religious studies. The hallways were plain and brown, no stained glass windows, nor murals hanging up, nor trophies being shown off. The interiors in St. Helens were so simple they came off uninviting. But looking fancy served little purpose, Beatrice always thought; it was the classes that mattered.
She walked into the main lecture hall, where her friend and senior by two years Bodhi Makala sat at a desk. Despite his dark skin and smooth handsomeness, he wasn’t some rich aristocrat from the mansions on Lake Geoffrey; he was just a local kid. His father was a shoe cobbler near Beatrice’s apartment, and so the two had known each other for a long time before their junior priest days.
“Are you ready for another fun day at school?” he asked with feigned enthusiasm.
All Beatrice could muster was a hearty “Hmph.”
Bodhi’s bright blue eyes, so light they were nearly turquoise, glittered at her with a captivating charm. She wasn’t sure if he knew just how pretty of a man he was, because he made no attempt to dress well or show off, usually wearing a cap on his head. But surely he knew about the eyes. There was no way he didn’t.
More students filed in, the ones Beatrice never had the courage to speak to because they were so much taller, so much older. Despite their general lack of interest, they carried themselves like veterans of the school in a way Beatrice couldn’t bring herself to understand. They were a bit intimidating. Not in the same way, as, say, a Dannark soldier, but she did have trouble fitting in with her classmates.
Oh, right, I forgot to mention: most junior priests take eight or nine years to pass all the required classes and finish their schooling. Some here were well into adulthood, though it was a rarer sight back then than it is today. Because of this, Beatrice was the youngest in her entire class, since she was someone who had reached the final AA-grade in just a few years. That sometimes made her stick out.
Beatrice didn’t consider herself a particularly good student. She just liked to do well. Even if everyone else disliked religion classes, even if she seemed to be the only one who ever cared, she wanted to excel. Otherwise, what was the point in even attending the junior priest academy?
Bodhi turned to her and snickered, “Look, Bea, your boyfriend is walking in.”
Mr. Statusian entered the classroom carrying a large scroll underneath his arm. Clean-shaven every time she saw him, baby-faced cheeks and skinny, he fit every stereotype of a religious scholar, except that he carried himself with the confidence of a body-building soldier. He was the youngest priest in Balarand and the top teacher at St. Helens.
“You’re really rude,” Beatrice told Bodhi. “And don’t call me Bea.”
Why were they friends again?
Sure, Mr. Statusian treated Beatrice better than most of the other students. But she also had the highest grades in the class, so it was completely fair.
The teacher set the scroll on the podium and unfolded it, revealing a series of intricate graphs and diagrams written in some foreign script. Beatrice didn’t recognize any of the letters.
Without even attempting to get the class’s attention, he barrelled into his lesson, saying, “So all of you can feel that autumn is here in full force. But do you know what that means? It means the Winter Ceremonies are coming up soon. And since you are AA-grade students, you’re going to be taking part.”
The chatter in the room hushed. Other than some coughing, it was dead silence.
He continued. “However, what exactly are the Winter Ceremonies? I know all of you have gone out to watch the parades and visit your local shrines, but what do the junior priests do to help, and more importantly, why? What exactly is this scroll I have hanging up here? Mr. Makala, what do you think?”
Bodhi was caught completely off-guard and froze as soon as the dozens of eyes turned towards him. “Uhh...”
Mr. Statusian didn’t let his pause interrupt the flow of the lecture. “Nevermind. How about you, Mr. Naesala?” He pointed to a student a few rows behind Beatrice and Bodhi.
“They do all the... magic stuff that nobody else can, or something,” the young man answered, his voice quivering as he tried to think of what to say.
“That’s vague enough I can’t give you a yes on that. Anybody?” Mr. Statusian looked Beatrice’s way as he waited for someone to answer, but she wasn’t going to say anything. She hated speaking in class, especially when it would continue to earn her a reputation as the class suck-up if she did.
With nobody volunteering their voice for an answer, he sighed and waved his own hand as to gesture off the pressure everyone was currently feeling. “It seems was too caught up in the festivities to notice what your seniors did to honor Bk’Man.” The class elicited a few nervous chuckles. “Well... let’s start from the beginning. Yes, get out your notebooks. Come on, class time is valuable.”
He barely waited ten seconds before beginning his lecture: “So, as is the traditional story of our people, eons ago the Great Mammoths descended onto the continent of Tsubasa. Wherever their trunks moved to, life was breathed into being. Animals grazed on the grass they created, and other lifeforms sprung up from the dirt. All the trees, the flowers, the small animals came forth and populated the lands. But come wintertime, they were wiped out by the cold.”
Some of Beatrice’s classmates were groaning. This was probably the fourth time the creation story had been told in a lecture in as many months.
“The same thing happened every year. The Mammoths would create life, and the snow would destroy it. The Gods were displeased with the constant cycle of death and resurrection, finding it too taxing to deal with. So they assigned Bk’Man to oversee and keep life on Tsubasa stable and harmonious. And as He dealt with the seasons, so too did the Goddess Phyra deal with creating caretakers to bring Tsubasa into prominence, and Nexurk in imbuing power into its essence.
“What arose was humanity, the Mammoths’ servants who were tasked with bringing about harmony to the continent. Of course, humanity also brought war and disease and all our assorted struggles, but most importantly it brought civilization. So we celebrate what Bk’Man does for the passing of the seasons and keeping everyone safe through the weather by contributing ourselves to His honor.
“Every living being has a soul with innate magical energy within, but humans have more than most, with some of our kind being strong enough to actually manipulate the magic around them--” Mr. Statusian clasped his hands together and stared down at the pieces of paper at his desk. They began to float! A few students clapped, though it lasted only for a brief moment before they fell back down.
“Of course, none of us alone are able to accomplish anything more significant than parlor tricks, but when we band together-- just like forming a civilization-- we can utilize the Church’s ancient rituals and harness the innate energy within us to perform magical ceremonies such as the one we will be discussing today.”
Mr. Statusian pointed to the scroll behind him. “This is the Winter Ceremonies document. We follow this guideline every single year to make sure that Bk’Man receive the thanks He deserves. And while the priests of Balarand are the ones who perform the most difficult rituals, the junior priests from the five academies put blessings and safeguards over key points across the city. And that will be the primary study subject for the rest of our class.”
The class chattered. Some of it was mumbling excitement, some of it was grumbles.
Bodhi turned to Beatrice and muttered, “Safeguards for the city? How come they didn’t safeguard us against Dannark, then?”
Beatrice shrugged. The Gods didn’t care about politics, was her only guess.
“I’ll give you more details in our next lectures, but for now just know that St. Helens Academy is responsible for Knoll Park,” Mr. Statusian said. “It is our school that rejuvenates the park every spring, and so it is of vital importance that we study the rituals closely. It may not be the most exciting topic, but...”
And that’s where most students’ attentions were lost. He continued to explain the Winter Ceremonies, but it was a bit too complex, even for Beatrice. This section would take months to get through, she could already tell.
After class ended, Beatrice exited the lecture hall with the others and saw a group of girls. “Hey, Beatrice, are you busy today?” one of them asked as she walked by. “We thought maybe you’d like to come along to Foron’s and grab a sandwich.”
Beatrice gave a small smile. “Sorry, I have some work to do today,” she said.
It wasn’t EXACTLY a lie...
Though... she always felt uncomfortable having fun with the rest of her classmates. These were the people that blew off her favorite class and made fun of the fact she cared about studying. It would be weird to go out with them and switch gears all of a sudden, so she always had an excuse ready to get out of it.
Instead of spending time with classmates, Beatrice went to her Dad’s workplace to do some reading before his shift was over. Luckily, he worked at the library, so there was always something to look at. The collection stretched on for more books than any human could possibly read in a lifetime, and new ones came in every week. It was like paradise for someone like her.
She dropped her school bag on one of the open desks and then walked up to the service desk. That’s where her Dad usually was, when he wasn’t organizing and shelving.
“What’d you learn in school today?” Dad asked.
“Dad, did you know that the AA-grade students were involved in the Winter Ceremonies? I had no idea until today. I feel really stupid.”
Her Dad chuckled. “I think they don’t like to advertise too much it because students might drop out when they find out.”
“I don’t like having things sprung on me...”
“I know, dear. But I also know you know you’ll study everything there is to know about every magic ceremony on the continent by year’s end,” he said. “And since Mr. Statusian warned me ahead of time, I have a stack of books for your reading pleasure just ready to go.”
Her Dad gave her six books, some of them very thick. She smiled and accepted them, before hobbling back over to her desk and set them all down. Time to study.
Or at least, that’s what Beatrice thought at the time. Because only minutes into opening the first book, she saw a figure with long, straight hair standing by the service desk. And that someone stood apart from everything else around her.
The girl from the marketplace.
And her dark, soil-brown eyes.