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.”
“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.