“Beatrice! Why are you here?” Emi shouted.
“I came to meet you!” she said, just as loudly, mostly because the party was so loud she could barely hear her own voice. “I forgot you were having a big party. I just thought I’d dress up since your family is so rich and famous.”
“What do you mean, what?”
“I can’t hear you!” Emi yelled.
She had come over to this place to see if Emi was even around, but it turned out she was incredibly preoccupied at the moment. Like, the kind of preoccupation that involved a gigantic winter party.
Luckily, Beatrice had already put on her nicest outfit, a dress her mother had finished just last week. It was patterned after ancient Balarand fashion, but styled closer to a modern formal suit. In this case, though, the tie was replaced by a traditional sash across her left breast, and a cape that went down to her waist.
And Emi... Wow. Her fancy party dress shimmered in the bright lights of the chandelier hanging overhead, and made her shine so brightly Beatrice literally could not look away. She was THAT beautiful.
“It’s a bit hard to...” Emi took a step closer to Beatrice. S close their noses practically touched. She leaned in and spoke directly into Beatrice’s ear. “Can you hear me now?”
“I could hear you the whole time.”
Emi leaned in even closer. “I’m really glad you came,” she said. “I missed you.”
Beatrice ignored that for now. “My offer still stands. Do you want to dance?”
Without waiting for an answer, Beatrice put one hand on Emi’s waist and another one on her hand, and lifted up their arms.
She hadn’t even been listening to what kind of music the orchestra was playing, but she was sure they were both bad dancers anyway, so she just swayed back and forth. The crowd around them cleared out a little bit and gave them room to move around themselves.
They stared at each other. Sparks flared between their eyes and detonated in brilliant blue and brown bursts of bliss. Beatrice wasn’t sure her face had ever been this close to another’s in her entire life. It was a bit intimidating, enough so that-- oof!
She almost tripped over Emi’s dress and sent them both tumbling, but Emi caught them both. “Just follow my lead,” she told Beatrice.
Later, Beatrice would learn that Emi had been trained in formal dance all her life by her housekeeper Ms. Khami, that had performed at parties and recitals since childhood. But at this moment, Beatrice had no inkling of that; she simply thought the tension between them had been some sort of cooperative incantation, that it had generated an energy field that kept them in a constant spinning motion. Everything she told Bodhi about magic was a lie--love really was the most powerful force in existence.
It was warm.
Hand in hand, arm in arm, the two of them moved with the sweeping orchestral sounds, a dramatic yet romantic piece that oscillated between fast sections and slow sections, daring the dancers to keep up. The girls remained in sync, maybe not as much with the music as with each other. They created their own harmony.
“You know, you said rich people parties were terrible, but I really like this,” Beatrice whispered into Emi’s ear.
“Shut up,” Emi said.
“No, really, I do. All the beautiful dresses and fun music. It’s got a fun atmosphere.”
“I guess it’s not too bad.”
“Do I stick out if I’m just wearing this? I don’t have anything as nice as... well, you.”
“You look great.”
All this time, Beatrice had remarked to herself how beautiful Emi was, but this was the first time she had actually been able to see her up close like this for such a long time. Seeing the dimples on her smile, the freckle right above her left eye, the crackles on her lips from not enough moisture in the house...
She thought about leaning in to kiss her right this instant, but resisted the urge. Not while everyone was watching. Not until they could clear the air between each other.
But still... She enjoyed the dance.
Beatrice thought that this was the perfect setting to be with Emi. They walked down from the rich part of Balarand down towards Knoll Park, where they could stroll by the small canals that littered the southern portion of the city.
She was glad that she had decided to wear Mom’s outfit, after all. Emi had stared at it for a good five minutes without saying a word, so it appeared to be a very impressive piece. Thank you so much, Mom...
“So we’re going where?” Emi eventually asked as the two strolled down a busy pedestrian bridge, not yet holding hands. She was wearing the same dress from the party, an elegant, bright white and orange ballgown that went down all the way to her feet. It almost felt like Beatrice had kidnapped the girl from a wedding or something.
“I don’t know,” Beatrice said. “I had just finished some, uh, studying, and I thought I would see if you were home yet, to kill two birds with one stone. So we’re just strolling.”
“You shouldn’t kill birds. They’re nice.”
“Wait, what did you mean by ‘home yet?’”
“You were... gone, right? On some important rich person thing, maybe? I went to your house before and got turned away, so I...” Beatrice blushed because it seemed like Emi had no idea Beatrice had been to her house and now it sounded kind of embarrassing, maybe even creepy.
“Oh, Gods, I had no idea. I just... I’m really sorry,” Emi said. “I was probably home. It’s just that I was... studying a lot. My housekeepers probably didn’t want me to be interrupted.”
She hadn’t been gone? Emi had been in Balarand all along? Then Beatrice’s feelings hadn’t been for nothing. But somehow she felt even more confused.
“I thought they let you sneak out all the time?”
“Well, this time I... I thought it might be for the best,” Emi said.
Wh... What? What the heck was Emi talking about here? For the best? Did she intentionally ignore her for three weeks, or something? “Emi, what do you mean...?”
“I mean, I thought that I... We’re worlds apart, you know. Maybe my parents don’t approve of you and they’ll be angry if I show them to you. Maybe your parents will hate you because I’m part of a rich bureaucrat family that helped bring down King Kline. I don’t know. You’re a junior priest and... I’m just some girl. You shouldn’t even care about me.”
“Shut up,” Beatrice said.
“Seriously, shut up.” Beatrice was starting to get a knot in her stomach, and her face had turned red, and not from any cute blushing. “You don’t get to decide who cares about you. I’m not letting you push me away because of any dumb apprehensiveness.”
“No, but that’s what I wanted to... I’m sorry. I messed up.”
“Darn right you messed up,” Beatrice said. “I... I missed you a lot. I don’t want to be in a world without you in it, okay?”
Emi looked like she was about to cry, and then... she started cracking up laughing. “That was so cheesy.”
“Well, it’s true.” Now her face was red from blushing after all.
“And I agree with it. The past few weeks have been horrible for me. I don’t think I could ever bear to do that again. So I just want to say I’m sorry and I won’t do it again.”
“You’d better not, Emi.”
“I promise, Beatrice.” A snowflake floated down and rested gently on Emi’s nose. She stared at it for a second, blinking silently, before laughing once more. What a silly girl.
They stopped by another bridge over another canal. A gondola floated underneath it, with its gondolier standing by, arms folded as he waited for his next customer. Beatrice hadn’t ridden in a gondola in ages. It was so romantic! Maybe the two of them could...
“Do you want to... ride that?”
“Eh... Actually, last week I-- Oh. Yeah. Let’s hop on.”
“So, you aren’t mad at me?” Emi asked.
“I’m just glad you’re with me now,” Beatrice said. It was mostly true. Honestly, these past two weeks had given her a lot of time to process her feelings about everything, and it helped her realize her crushing anxiety about everything coming to her life soon. For all Bodhi said about her focusing on the present, she sure felt like the future was a looming brick wall she was right on course to smash into.
Did she really want to give up her life with family and friends to devote herself to the Gods forever? Did she really care about Emi so much that she would be willing to part from her singular dream? It was tough, and she felt guilty even thinking about that right now when such a wonderful girl sat right next to her.
The gondola gently rocked and they passed underneath another pedestrian bridge. The sun was setting earlier and earlier every day now, so it was already on the horizon, the sky glowing with oranges and purples.
“So, what have you been doing lately?” Emi asked.
“Practicing for the Winter Ceremonies,” she answered. “The graduating junior priests at my school are performing a magic ritual at Knoll Park. It’s really exciting.”
“Wow. That sounds amazing!”
“It’s a lot of work. We all have to coordinate together so we have to practice a lot, and no matter how hard we do, we won’t know if it all worked until we attempt the real thing. Not one of us can mess up.”
“Are you worried about it?” Emi asked.
“Not at all,” she said with a determined grin.
“That’s my Beatrice.” Emi’s face went flush. “Not that... I mean...”
“I know what you mean,” Beatrice said. “And you?”
“What have you been doing lately?”
“Oh, that. Me?” Emi put her finger to her chin as if she had been so busy that she was having to think hard about it. “Mostly just preparing for the party. The party that we skipped out on.”
“Hehehe. It was fun, though.”
“I think you would change your mind if you had to stay another two or three hours.”
“Do you want to go back? We’re headed that way, I think,” Beatrice said.
“No thanks,” Emi said. “Actually, I have been working on... Well, you’ll see.”
“See what? Oh, is this about those gear things you wanted to build?”
“It’s a secret.” Emi winked, and then giggled.
“Okay, that’s fine,” Beatrice said.
“You’re not going to pester me about it?”
“You said it was a secret.”
“But...” Beatrice burst out laughing, and Emi finally got the joke. “Oh. Well, trust me, when you find out, you’re going to be impressed. Unless I fail at it.”
Beatrice was curious, but it would be better to let the girl wait. Instead, all she did was hold out her hand. Emi took it, fitting her fingers snuggly into hers.
They sat in the gondola for a while longer, going down the canal as it cut west-to-east through the city and took them closer to Emi’s house. All that walking, and they were soon going to end up around where they started.
It was the journey that mattered, anyway. The quiet, gentle rocking of the boat, and the silent gondolier pushing an oar through the waters.
Emi shivered and squeezed Beatrice’s hand tighter. “It’s getting really cold out here...”
“Uh, do you want to borrow... uh, my sash?”
“It’s really cute, but no,” Emi said. “Maybe if you had something like a scarf.”
“Well then, we’ll just have to share body warmth, huh?”
“Oh, Beatrice.” Emi paused, as if to consider something important. “...Beatrice?”
“Can I call you something shorter?”
Beatrice’s heart stopped. “Uhh... like what?”
“I don’t know, Bea?”
“No way!” Beatrice shouted. “‘B’ is a letter in the alphabet. Not a name. I hate it.”
Emi giggled. “Okay, then how about Tris? That’s the other half of your name.”
“Nobody’s... ever called me that.” Beatrice pondered it for a moment. “Yeah, sure. You can call me Tris.”
She had to admit it sounded cute. And the way Emi said it, putting extra emphasis on the “chr” sound... Her heart was sent aflutter.
“But wait,” Beatrice added. “Nobody else gets to say Tris. Just you.”
“Fine with me.” Emi scooted closer to Beatrice. “What do you think we should do now?”
“Compliment each other?” Beatrice suggested.
“I like that idea. Here, let’s get off at this stop.”
The gondola came to a stop at end of the canal. Any further and they’d be heading into the Balarand River, and that was a longer ride than they ever wanted with this weather. Emi flicked the gondolier a gold coin and they went on their way, ready to wander aimlessly, hand in hand, as the sun disappeared and the stars came into view.
The sidewalks were clear, but piles of snow laid on either side of them. Those piles grew higher every day as the weather continued to chill and it was a wonder the street workers could keep shoveling the busy sidewalks every single morning without fail.
“So, compliments? Me first. I love the way you walk,” said Emi. “You always move around like you have a place to be, and you want everyone else to know.”
“I... do?” Beatrice had never in her life thought the way she walked as something that could be liked or disliked.
“And I love the way your eyes look at night, through the glare in your glasses. They’re like two miniature moons.”
“You’re the most beautiful person in the world,” Emi said. “The Gods envy you.”
“You’re making fun of me, right?”
“Not in the slightest. Your turn.”
“You’re really hot,” Beatrice said.
Emi’s composure broke down and turned to gelatin in an instant.
“And, your butt is really nice,” she added.
“Give me... cute compliments...” Emi muttered.
“I just did. Your butt is extremely cute. And, it may not be ladylike for me to mention, but you are very attractive in several other areas. Do you want me to continue?”
“You’re killing me here, Tris...”
“Don’t make me tickle you,” Beatrice said.
Suddenly, Emi snatched Beatrice’s glasses from her face and put them on her own. “Oh, don’t make me tickle you!” Emi mocked, regaining all the energy that had seemingly been sapped away moments ago. It was a ruse all along.
“Hey! Rude!” Beatrice reached for the glasses with her free arm, but Emi took a step away and she couldn’t reach them. She also gripped Beatrice’s other hand so that she couldn’t break free of their hand-holding. How devious...
“How do I look?” Emi asked.
“You look like you’re hurting your eyes.”
“How did you know?”
“Also... you look adorable,” Beatrice admitted.
“Good to know.” Emi handed the glasses back to her. “Maybe I’ll get some fake ones and wear them at parties.”
“That’s very odd, Emi.”
“Yeah it is, Tris.”
“Man, we’re going to have a lot of weird stories to tell our kids.”
Emi stopped and turned her head down.
She shouldn’t have said that. “Sorry, that was a bad joke.” They were having a lot of fun and then she had to go and ruin it all by saying something stupid.
Emi’s head raised. She looked Beatrice straight in her eyes and asked, “Tris, Will you marry me?”
...???? “No?” Beatrice said with great confusion. “Wh--What? Huh?”
Emi giggled. “Yeah. Sorry, I wanted to see what your reaction would be. I’m... kind of glad your gut reaction was no.”
“Why is that?”
“Because I don’t even have a ring to give you! What kind of woman would that make me? Or... is that a rich person custom?”
The sun had finally fallen behind the cityscape and darkness came upon Balarand. It would soon be time to depart; Beatrice wanted to spend every last second with Emi while she could.
“No, everyone does it. My Mom and Dad have them. They’re probably the most expensive things our family owns.”
“Besides a lovely, impossibly-gorgeous daughter,” Emi added.
“Oh, stop. Now you’re just getting creepy.”
“You’re the one who called me hot just a minute ago!”
“That was the truth. Now you’re just trying to get in my skirt.”
“You’re right, Tris, I am just trying to get in your skirt,” Emi said. She narrowed her eyes and chuckled.
“At least you're honest,” Beatrice said.
“Well, Is it working?”
Soon, their aimless wandering took them back to the same marketplace they had visited all those weeks ago, that same marketplace that led them to their very first encounter. The statue to some long-ago queen stood high in the center, and sellers hoisted booths all around it. There was enough to see that browsing was an activity all of its own. With all five moons shining from up high in the night sky and street lamps hanging from every pole, the marketplace was a beacon of brightness even as the rest of Balarand turned dark.
Beatrice loved being out here with all of this. Emi, with her stuffy parties and fancy dances, hadn’t gotten the chance to fully experience what normal folk in Balarand all got to do, so she really wanted to show her everything she was missing. And they got to do it all while dressed up like they were going to a big event.
Emi was still a bit wonderstruck, she could tell; she was staring at a stand selling wooden carvings of mythical monsters from faraway lands, and the vendor, currently carving something while not even looking at the knife or wood, noticed her interest.
“This one is called a centaur,” she told Emi. She took her knife from the wood and pointed it to one of the fiercer monsters in the row of carvings. “It’s half-man, half-beast, and roams the forests like a champion. No human would dare approach it without a full hunting party. You’d best stay away from one if you ever spot one.”
“Do you want it? Two gold coins.”
“Two gold coins?” Emi seemed offended by this offer. Beatrice was suddenly worried that she was going to make a bit of a scene. “You’re offering your services for far too low for what they are worth. I’m giving you six.” She took out her coin purse, laid out the coins, and took the centaur.
“I probably should start upcharging ladies in fancy dresses, huh,” the vendor said to herself.
“First a crab, now a centaur? How many terrifying creatures are we going to learn about from all these vendors?” Beatrice asked Emi, rolling her eyes.
“What do you mean?” Emi asked.
“Well, you know most of everything they talk about is fake,” Beatrice said. “Either they’re making up something for entertainment or they’re repeating stories by other people that aren’t trustworthy. A centaur? Maybe. But I can’t imagine anything like a crab could ever exist.”
“Huh, I’ve never thought about it like that,” Emi said. “I kind of always thought all the monsters they talk about really did exist, but maybe not anymore, so now they only exist in tales passed down over the generations.”
“Well, that’s a sign of an active imagination, at least.”
“Really rude,” Emi said. “Very rude.”
“What next, you’ll say your house has a fairy garden out in the back?” Beatrice teased.
But that teasing led to Emi tilting her head to its side. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, uh, rich people would have fairy gardens if fairies were real, and then young girls of all ages would get to play with them and learn valuable life lessons.”
“Fairies are real, Tris,” Emi said. Beatrice giggled, but Emi only nodded her head more feverently. “No, they really are real. They live near the Elinican coast, mostly. Have you really never seen a fairy?”
“You’re joking, right?”
“I don’t believe you,” Beatrice said. “You’re fibbing.”
“You’re being rude again.”
“Oh yeah? And what about this?” Beatrice moved her fingers around in one swift motion and seized Emi’s sides with one powerful pinch.
Beatrice let out a maniacal laugh.
Defenseless while holding the wooden centaur in her arms, there was nothing Emi could do but shriek and try to run away, but even that was impossible in Beatrice’s grip. Laughing and crying out, Emi relented and let her pull her closer.
Soon, Beatrice stopped pinching Emi and Emi stopped yelling, but they remained next to each other. They stared into each other’s eyes, trying to figure out something to say to one another, breathing in and out, slightly out-of-sync, with heavy breaths.
Beatrice had Emi to herself now. She was literally in her arms.
Would she...? Could she...?
After a few too many moments of deliberation, she decided not to take any rash action. She let Emi go. A smile returned to the girl’s completely-red face, and she tried to laugh off whatever just happened between them.
Whatever it was, it wasn’t important anyway.
“I’m too ticklish,” Emi said. “You’ve discovered my weakness.”
“I’m ticklish too, but you’ll never get me. I have defensive techniques learned under a hundred tickle masters. Every move you make I can counter back on you.” Beatrice narrowed her eyes and went into some sort of silly fighting stance. Emi burst into laughter.
When she calmed down, Emi then said, “Actually, Tris.... I want you to hold me again.”
“Hold me.” She took steps forward, pushing her body against Beatrice’s, leaning her head against her shoulder. Beatrice took her arms and hugged her, and took her in.
Emi was the most huggable person on the continent.
They sighed in unison, and began swaying their hips, rotating in a small, slow circle around nothing. In the middle of the marketplace, with a hundred people nearby, surely watching their every move. Beatrice didn’t care.
Her nose was overpowered by the thick, sweet odor of Emi’s perfume, stronger than anything she’d ever smelled in her life, so much so that, as she held her, she felt most of her senses--sight, taste, and smell--had completely shut down. All that was left was the feeling of her arms wrapped around the back of Emi’s dress, and her cheek rubbing up against Emi’s ear.
“I’m so cold,” Emi said.
“I offered my sash,” Beatrice replied.
“You’re so sweet.”
Soon, the embrace ended. The two girls continued down the marketplace, holding hands with one another, but soon found a crowd of people yelling and hurling angry insults.
“Give it all up!”
They went up to the crowd to figure out what was going on. There was a group of people holding up signs, and one in the center wearing an oversized Mammoth mask to represent Nexurk, the God of Power and War. He was already a source of controversy for how Dannark had treated His shrines, but the way they paraded out His icon like this...
Suddenly, the chants ceased and the crowd dispersed as quickly as they had come together.
When the scene became more clear, Beatrice saw several Dannark soldiers, most of them holding people in chains, and the man who had been wearing the Mammoth mask had been pushed onto the snow and bound up. “We are not conquerors!” one of the soldiers shouted. “We are keepers of the peace. But we do not tolerate violence!”
The girls decided to get away from this scene, but Emi found herself staring as the soldiers paraded around their newest arrests. “What was that all about?” Emi asked.
“Dannark soldiers breaking up a protest, I guess,” Beatrice said.
“Do they... do that a lot around here?”
They began walking away from the marketplace and back towards Emi’s home.
“Somewhere, practically every day.” Beatrice said. “People really don’t like Dannark presence around here.”
“Well... it’s probably not fair to them that they have to see a foreign nation patrolling their streets every day, and their King in exile simply because he wouldn’t let an Empire engulf our continent in war.”
Beatrice stopped. Wasn’t Emi’s part of one of the influential families supporting the occupation? Why was she against it? “Well... our King probably wouldn’t be in exile if he hadn’t been supporting a tyrannical dictatorship in Doros. Dannark may have issues, but Doros is killing its own people as we speak.”
“Doros and Dannark are one and the same. I hate them both,” Emi growled.
Beatrice pulled her hand away from Emi’s. They stared at each other again, though this time with the romantic tension gone.
“I just think it’s not as easy to choose. We don’t live in Torano where we can live free from the rest of the world. We can’t hate our neighbors, even if they hate us.”
“It bothers me that you don’t care that our own King is in exile and a foreign flag is--” Emi stopped herself. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “Let’s not talk about politics anymore.”
They never would again.
And on that note, they resumed the rest of their evening.
Beatrice and Emi were a world apart, even if they were so close in distance. She was a junior priest, the daughter of a librarian, while Emi was part of the rich elite. It almost felt scandalous for them to be associated with one another, let alone talking about political events like equals. They probably needed to be a bit careful in general.
But for now they would just be themselves.
And now, to my original question: Was it love at first sight?
What do you think?
Clearly the two of them were in love at this point. Even they knew. But this love, something so quick, so encapsulating... It certainly feels like love at first sight, doesn’t it?
You think so? I don’t quite buy it, myself, but maybe your youthful wonder is stronger than my old woman cynicism.
Whatever the answer may be, they were in love right now, and that was all that mattered to either of them.