Ema let out a sigh and dug deeper into her bag of Snackoos. Though she'd tuned out, Prosecutor Sahdmadhi's voice was deep and melodious as he read through something in Khura'inese. They were seated in the gardens, on a small blanket, with an alarming amount of food spilling out from the basket he'd filled along the way. That probably meant it'd be a what--a twelve hour sermon? Wonderful. The prayer book was set on his lap, as he read off Khura'inese words she didn't understand. But damn, he read them well. The inflection, the tenor of Prosecutor Sahdmadhi's voice always got to her.
Even when she was getting a punishment. Like now.
Sure, the gardens were beautiful, with the lotus flowers and the backdrop of the tall and elegant buildings almost made it feel romantic–but that didn't make the fact that she was getting a Divine Punishment any better.
Ema reached for more comfort food. Why was nothing easy in her life? Everything had started going so great, and then, this happened. Or more precisely, him.
Sometimes he downright doted on her, to the point where everyone commented on how he'd taken a liking to her, other times he could be cold and distant, so much that it left her boggling and wondering if he had an evil twin hidden away all this time. Even though he'd thawed somewhat when Ga'ran's regime ended, that didn't change the fact that she was on the third punishment this week and she had no idea what the hell she'd done to deserve his wrath this time.
It was like she was stuck in Katy Perry's stupidly catchy song Hot n' Cold. (Prosecutor Gavin had always played old pop hits on a boombox while they worked, along with his own albums of course. He claimed it was to 'raise morale' but Ema was sure that it was to personally torment her. Due to all those years, the damn catchy lyrics would never leave her mind.)
Ema had sighed and snacked her way through the bag, but this time her patience was at its very limits. She could've solved at least two cases just in the time he'd spent reading some sermon to her that she couldn't even fully understand. Even worse, no matter how much she racked her brain, Ema couldn't think of a single thing she'd done to warrant this kind of punishment.
Could it have been some cultural thing she didn't pick up on? Ema had stayed up late last night searching in her well-thumbed through Khura'inese guidebook, and paid extra attention to the Don't do this in Khura'in! notes.
She hadn't insulted the queen, she hadn't made any atheism jokes recently, and she hadn't even insulted the Divination Seance. Hell, she hadn't even been late, and had taken minimal food breaks, and her desk was even clean. Compared to her days of working under Prosecutor Gavin, she was doing downright great in the work ethic department.
Yet somehow, she had managed to get herself in the time out chair.
Ema finished her bag and tossed it away with a muttered curse.
He looked up from his book. He was stupidly, ridiculously gorgeous in a way which made her heart do a somersault, which was most unwelcome, especially when she was this pissed at him. "Detective Skye, is something troubling you?"
"Is something troubling me? Is something troubling me?" Ema gestured towards the entire garden. "Yeah! You--this! I'm doing the best I can! I'm working really long hours, and I don't deserve to be taken to task constantly! I don't know what I did to get on your shit list, but this is the third time a week I've gotten a 'Divine Punishment.' I didn't mess up any of the evidence or presentations in court. In fact, I'd say I'm doing pretty damn good. So, if you have a problem with me, just cut my salary or fire me already."
His brow furrowed. "A Divine Punishment?"
"That's what you called it. Did you rename it into the Ema Skye punishment? You might as well have. All this time I thought you appreciated my work, but if this is the third sermon I'm getting in a week, then I'm obviously mistaken."
She got up and brushed the crumbs off her lap.
"I'm getting back to work. I get it, you think I'm doing a bad job and need to be lectured constantly. You don't have to rub it in for twelve hours."
He stared up at her, completely stunned. Ema didn't wait for his response. She got up, brushed off the crumbs and stormed off. On the way out, every single guard she met gave her some serious side eyes.
"Trust me, buddy. The feeling is mutual," Ema said as she pushed past them.
She tried to get back to the backlog—which was so staggering from the last regime, to say nothing of the daily grind of cases. However, she couldn't focus.
It was part fuming, then remembering how good he looked in the gardens, only to fume more. (How dare he be so damn alluring and attractive when she was busy being pissed off at him.)
Eventually, she gave up and took an early lunch.
She ended up in the small tea house in the marketplace. It wasn't Starbucks and ice cream, but it'd have to do. People had outright been giving her glares on the way here, which meant somehow she'd managed to pull some faux pas so bad that she'd pissed off the entire country. And she still had no idea what it could be. It was a sobering thought, considering her outburst.
She'd deal with that later. She'd done worse and hadn't been fired--though that'd been under Prosecutor Gavin.
Inside the tea house, there were a few small tables, all made with dark hued wood. Incense burners hung from the ceiling, with long ribbons covered with small butterfly beads. Something sizzled in a pot just beyond her vision. Incense, spice and tea were mixed together with the scent of Khura'inese sweets being baked and cooked.
Much to her relief, it was empty save for the owner.
Ema turned off her phone, and shoved it deep into her bag. She'd make up a lie soon enough. Just say her battery went out or something. Prosecutor Sahdmadhi still was learning about tech. He'd probably even buy it if she could keep her eye rolling to a minimum.
The elderly proprietress hummed to herself as she boiled more water. Her steel gray hair was pulled back into a tight bun, and her long dark green robes trailed on the ground as she walked. They were dark green in nature, with shorter sleeves than usual. Ema guessed that was to keep them out of the fire.
"Excuse me, Auhn'tie," Ema said. She remembered to bow, and hopefully kept the Khura'inese greeting intact. She was pretty sure she hadn't completely bungled the pronunciation of her title, Prosecutor Sahdmadhi had mentioned something about respect to elders being a very important part of Khura'inese culture.
The last thing she needed was to piss off yet another person inadvertently.
Auhn'tie rubbed at her back as she rose to consider Ema. "Ah, you're that foreign detective. What would you like today? Do you need help with the board?"
Ema puffed out her cheeks. Of course it was true, but now was really not the time to rub her nose that she was a foreigner in a land she still hadn't quite begun to fully understand.
Even worse, without Prosecutor Sahdmadhi to help translate for her, she couldn't fully read the text. Just the memory of him made her clench with something that wasn't entirely anger.
He could be an asshole, but damn if she wasn't attracted to him. Sometimes she even liked him—when he was telling her what a great detective she was, and how much he relied on and appreciated her.
A lot of good that did her now.
Sweet-talker, she thought to herself.
"Actually, just surprise me," Ema said.
"All right," she said.
Ema sat down and reached into her bag. The door burst open.
Ahlbi, and his squirming, fluffy dog rushed in so fast, he almost toppled over one of the chairs. Sha'do had gotten a lot bigger, too big to perch on his head and soon he'd outgrow the bag. Ahlbi grinned big.
"Ahlbi, you're getting so big, and so is that pup of yours."
Ahlbi beamed. "Ehe~ You really think so? Maybe one day I'll be as tall as Prince Regent Prosecutor Sahdmadhi!"
"Drink lots of yak milk, and you surely will. Now, what do you wish for?"
"A magatah'man, please!"
"I have some I just finished baking. It is nice and crispy and still warm, just as you like it. And you'll have the usual drink?"
"Yes, thank you!"
It was only then that he finally caught sight of her.
His little hat tipped at an angle on his head. "Oh, Detective Skye! I didn't expect to see you here."
At least someone in this country wasn't angry at her.
"A girl's gotta eat," Ema muttered.
Ema didn't look up as another figure stepped into the tea house. It was only when the cloak was dropped and the gasp of the others within the room that she looked up. She arrived without her menagerie of animals this time. As her silvery hair spilled out, she made a dramatic gesture. She was a spray of flower petals away from a magical girl transformation.
She stepped forward, pink robes and grace, and drank in their adoration.
Auhn'tie bowed low. "Pohlkunka! The Grand Priestess has graced us with our presence! Truly, we are most blessed!"
Ema inwardly sighed. This day was just getting better and better.
"Your Mercifulnessfulness, as honored as I am to be in your presence, is it truly all right to be without your guards?" Auhn'tie said.
Queen Amara bent to pet Sha'do. "Ah, but this little pup shall protect me."
Sha'do let out a few happy yips as she bent to scratch his long ears.
She'd better hope that the dog had hidden guard potential, because between all of them there was an old lady who had to be at least ninety, a little kid, and Ema who was all of 5'1. Plus her tongue was constantly getting her in trouble.
"I would be honored to protect you, Queen Amara!" Ahlbi said. He clutched his little fists, as if he could do anything more than distract someone, or possibly tickle them.
"Oho, I am sure you would." She turned towards Ema. "There you are, the Foreign Detective."
Ema grimaced. "Yep, that's me. 'That Foreign Detective.'"
The queen ignored her sarcasm, and continued serenely on. "Nahyuta is quite worried at your sudden disappearance and outburst," Queen Amara said.
"Tell him I died," Ema said.
The Queen sat just on the other side of her table without asking permission. Then again, she was considered practically a god here. Behind them, Ahlbi gasped. "Detective Skye is so blessed!"
Auhn'tie came close. Though Her wrinkled hands were hidden beneath the tray, but even Ema could see the slight tremble of both wonder and awe. "Your Mercifulness, please forgive me. I was awed by your sudden blessing. What may I serve you, in this humble abode?"
"I came here to speak to this detective. However, I will accept whatever gift you think is worthy."
Auhn'tie gasped. "Oh, but no mere drink of mine would ever be worthy."
"Now, now. Auhn'tie. I know your tea is storied across all the land. I personally have asked for it to be delivered to me within the castle for many years, even when people thought I had passed to the Twilight realm."
"Truly, I am honored," Auhn'tie said.
Auhn'tie laid down a cup before Ema. Upon a tray was also Ahlbi's treat.
"My apologies to serve a foreigner before you, Your Mercifulness. However, she ordered some time ago."
"Think not of it. I would never leave my subjects thirsty."
"A thousand thank yous for your eternal kindness," Auhn'tie said.
Queen Amara turned back to Ema, much to her displeasure.
"Now, I hear you had a bit of a fight with my son today?"
Ema's shoulder's tensed, and she looked away. So much for the possibility that Queen Amara really just wanted some tea. "It's not like that."
"Then tell me your side of the story," she said.
The last thing she wanted to do was talk out her issues with Prosecutor Sahdmadhi's mother—who was practically considered a god in this country. However, so much irritation had welled up in her, it boiled over and burst out.
"I keep getting punished when I'm doing my best! And now everyone hates me for some reason, and I didn't even do anything wrong this time. At least he could save until I mess up to hit me with tons of Divine Punishments in a week, instead of doing them over and over..."
Queen Amara furrowed her brow. "Punished? He did not mention that."
"Yeah! I'm getting a sermon almost every single night now. Today it was out in the garden and he was reading from some book. Three days in a row, for hours on end!"
"Reading, you say? Simply reading does not necessarily mean a Divine Punishment."
Ema plucked up a Snackoo and shoved it in her mouth. "Yeah, well, that's what happened before. I missed a blood spot because the lighting was poor and I got an eight hour sermon. Now I'm getting eight hour sermons on a daily basis. Except there was no missed evidence this time."
"Eight whole hours of hearing Prince Regent Prosecutor Sahdmadhi recite sutras? Wow! You're so lucky!" Ahlbi burst out. His eyes looked starry as he clutched his fists in sheer eagerness.
"You're welcome to take it," Ema said dryly.
"Yes, this foreign detective is truly blessed by our kind Prince Regent Prosecutor Sahdmadhi," Auhn'tie said.
"A blessing? Hardly! I had to do tons of paperwork and got a tongue lashing to boot back then. At least I haven't gotten hit with anymore paperwork yet."
Queen Amara chuckled. "Oho, so that's where the confusion sprung up. A reading could be to sway someone from a wrong path, but that isn't the only cause," Queen Amara said.
Ema tapped her lower lip thoughtfully. "So, what? Sutras have other meanings?"
"Yes, many meanings. Quite a bit can be said for context. Such as where the reading took place. As in the castle gardens...There with a packed lunch..." Queen Amara gave her a meaningful smile.
Ema stared blankly back. She took a nibble from her bag of Snackoos.
Queen Amara shook her head, with a slight smirk. She recognized the exact same expression when Prosecutor Sahdmadhi was mocking bluffing defense lawyers "Fine, I'll be blunt. This is no punishment; you're being courted."
Ema dropped her bag. Her treats spilled right over the table. At least they hadn't hit the floor. "Wh-what?? Pohlkunka!"
It slipped out so easily. Ema cupped her cheek in sheer shock. Maybe she'd picked up something of this country after all.
"But--how would that even work? It's just reading."
"Just reading? Oho, what a silly statement. It takes quite a bit of intelligence to memorize and understand many sutras, and dedication. Knowing Nahyuta, he picked the most complicated from the ancient form of Khura'inese that the Holy Mother spoke. Very few people could manage that feat." She glanced back at Ahlbi, and spoke more softly. "Also, it shows quite a bit of...stamina, and skill with the tongue, no?"
Ema's cheeks burned bright pink. "Oh! He--what? You mean all the time I was.... It was... oh no."
Her mind went back to the scene. The last few of their 'punishments' had been all really romantic. Beautiful gardens, a terrace overlooking Mount Poni Poni, he'd even brought lunch. And she'd gotten the wrong opinion and sulked, and sniped back at him the whole time. No wonder the guards were giving her the stink eye. Prosecutor Sahdmadhi had been doing the Khura'inese equivalent of having a rose in his mouth and sitting on a bed with silk sheets while Careless Whisper played in the background. She'd done the equivalent of ignoring her date to be on her phone the whole time, and then taking her drink and splashing it in his face before storming out. And he hadn't even deserved it this time.
Talk about a culture clash.
"T-they didn't mention this in the guidebook! I looked and looked and couldn't figure out what was going on."
"I doubt they would, it's rather, ah, personal."
Ema downed the rest of her cup in one gulp, and pulled out some dahmas, and tossed them on the table. "Keep the change, excuse me, I really need to get back. Oh and um--" what was her title again. Oh, fuck it. She didn't have time. "Thank you, Queen Amara!"
After the door had slammed behind her, Auhn'tie shook her head. "That is one brazen foreigner. She did not even remember your titles, Your Mercifulness."
Queen Amara chuckled. "If my son has any say in it, she would have no need of reverent titles, and anything less than 'mother.'"
Auhn'tie brought out the steaming tea and placed it before her with a bow.
Queen Amara took a long sip. "Ah...this has been one of the few comforts in life I had back then. Thank you for always making them for me."
Auhn'tie bowed low. "You have made this old woman very happy, Your Mercifulness."
Behind them, Ahlbi fed half his treat to his dog.
"Auhn'tie, another magatah'ma, please."
"Of course, my dear Ahlbi. I always make two when you come, for your little dog always eats so much."
Ema burst out from the tea house and dodged people strolling through the marketplace in her blind rush to the castle. She made it to the end of the marketplace road until she bent over and gasped for breath. Every muscle in her body was screaming in agony at the physical exertion.
When Athena had suggested Ema take up running, Ema had laughed--and then eaten another bag of Snackoos just to drive the point home. But as she took each exhausted step, she almost regretted it.
What the hell is up with this dramatic rush? Ugh, it's not like he's going anywhere. He's the Prince Regent, after all.
But she'd felt so desperate in that moment. He'd been trying so hard to win her over, and she'd unwittingly thrown it all back in his face. And most of all—she wanted to be won over. She wanted his attention. The thought that maybe he wasn't the asshole here just made her feel all the more determined to find him and, what? Admit that she'd been the asshole unknowingly all along?
Ema bent over. Dang, she really needed to get in shape. Also, running in heels? Not a great idea. She was going to have so many blisters after this.
She limped the rest of the way, past the disapproving guards, to the empty gardens. She'd finally figured out why they'd been giving her dirty looks. It only brought another layer: trying to figure out a way to get the Khura'inese people to forgive her mistake.
Was this really it? Had she completely blown their chance at romance before it even began just because she'd been too dense to realize the subtext, and had in fact mistaken it for some kind of disciplinary action?
The blanket and basket full of food had been folded away. A thousand bad possibilities from her sharp tongue unfolded before her. Transfers back, ending up working for Prosecutor Gavin again, and never getting to see him again.
Would the guards even give her the time of day, let alone where he'd gone to?
It's a modern era, cell phones exist.
She dug out her phone and turned it back on. Two missed calls, both from him. She got him out of
"Prosecutor Sahdmadhi? It's Ema."
A scroll was spread out on his desk., though it was too far for her to see what he had been reading before she came inside. The basket and blanket were folded neatly at the side, with several books set on top.
He said nothing as he rose. As usual, Ema couldn't read him. He had to be angry at her sudden outburst and horrible misreading of the situation, right? But he looked...calm. Or was that withdrawn?
Beside his desk was the picnic basket. He caught her glance, and looked away.
"I stayed up late baking in preparation. I thought they turned out well. At least the flowers hadn't wilted. I thought they would make a better second act."
Flowers and sweets too? Jeez, way to rub in the salt that she messed up and read the situation completely wrong. Ema closed her eyes tight. He really had made her the whole damn bower, and she'd figuratively kicked it to pieces.
"You made all that yourself—for me?"
He nodded. "Yes, I studied many books to figure out the right one. For example, I would not want to send the wrong idea by giving you yellow roses. As you know, the floral language of yellow roses is divisive. Though they are quite fragrant and beautiful, they are unsuitable as a gift."
Ema took a deep breath and started. "I didn't know, okay! I didn't even know you were trying to date me! I thought it was just another sermon, and couldn't figure out what I could've done to merit it."
He tilted his head as he tried to comprehend what she'd just said. "How could that be? I specifically asked you to meet me after work. I thought I was perfectly clear in my intentions."
"You told me to meet you then, and when you started the reading–I thought it was another Divine Punishment. Like I said..."
"A punishment? Why would I punish you? Your conduct has been exemplary, and truly above and beyond what I have asked. Every day I am more impressed with your work ethic, and skills. I thought I had been explicit in my appreciation of everything you do for Khura'in and me, but if you thought I was so angry at you, then surely I have made some failing somewhere..."
"I don't know that, either! Then everyone was being cold to me... It took your mom outright telling me to even figure it out." Ema's cheeks flushed bright pink at the memory.
He made an 'okay' sign with his fingers. "There is a sacred saying within your country. 'When you assume, it makes an ass out of you and me.' In truth, I was stubborn. I wanted to woo you in a traditional way, to show you the beauties of Khura'in, but my intentions were completely misunderstood. I must have read the sutras truly wrong for you to think they were as harsh as a Divine Punishment..."
"Yeah, sutras aren't involved in America. That's not how we date at all. I wouldn't connect it in my mind with anything but a Divine Punishment," she said.
He tilted his head in thought. "Not at all? I hadn't come across it in my studies, but I thought I simply hadn't uncovered it at all. After all, America must be enlightened enough to at least understand the grand romance of reading sutras to your beloved."
"Nope. Not even remotely. I'd never even run into them until I met you, outside of that one villain in Steel Samurai."
"The ways of dating I uncovered seemed inaccessible, such as going to a movie. The theater had not been built yet. Though the older courting I studied, from 1800 and earlier--it showed reading poetry to one another. And for other archives food was involved, and many pictures showed locales. I believe it was called a 'picnic.' Which is why I packed some food and chose the most beautiful places I could find."
Ema shut her eyes, and flinched. "Jeez, I'm sorry. I just really thought you were giving me a Divine Punishment over and over when I didn't even deserve it this time."
"But those are completely different sutras. I cannot fathom how they could even be compared. It is like your American saying---apples and oranges," he said.
Ema puffed out her cheeks. "I'm working really hard, but there's still a lot of nuances in the language in culture I just don't get. Maybe it'd be obvious to even a kid over here, but it isn't to me! To me a sermon is a sermon. I mean in retrospect, the whole thing kind of funny, actually..."
"No...I have made a grave mistake. You did not understand my intentions, and I thought you did. So I persisted–"
Ema cut him off. She might not have been able to know the ultimate fate of each case like he claimed to, but she could tell where this was going. "Look, I like you. I always have. That's not the problem. I just thought you were being a jerk to me for no reason, when I was the one being a jerk, though I didn't realize it. Maybe half the time we're getting in fights just because you're doing something completely normal–for you–and it makes no sense to me. It's just.. A complete culture clash."
He nodded. "This is a good lesson. We cannot assume that the other knows the subtle intricacies. When you accepted, I assumed you knew the connotations. After all, you are very intelligent and have acclimated to Khura'in very well. I often don't even have to help you order food when we eat together, and you are always impressing me with how you handle cases."
Ema couldn't help but flinch a little at that. All this time he'd been so wowed by her intelligence, he thought she'd get it. Half the issue was he thought too well of her.
And even worse, in retrospect, she could see the signs. The basket of food (that he'd prepared himself!) the flowers around them, the blanket beneath them and the book laid on his lap.
She'd just hyper focused on one thing and jumped to conclusions.
"Listen--That's just because I've been using translation apps more. I know how to ask 'where is the body?' and how to order food, but there's a lot I still don't know. Especially when it comes to religion. But everything's connected to Khura'inism here. I'm trying, but I'm a really long ways from understanding everything here."
"I see," he said.
Ema glanced down. "Did I... ruin us before we even started?"
"Come here," he said softly.
He encircled her, pulled her close. The brocade of his coat was rough against her cheek. She breathed in the scent of him, a mix of incense and the lingering sweets. "You have lost nothing. We are from very different lands. We must remember this at all times and never simply assume."
He kissed her forehead gently then, and broke away.
"Why did you stop?" she said.
"Because if I didn't, I would not stop at that," he said. "I would not stop at all."
Her face flushed pink. "Oh," she said softly. "Me too."
He looked past her, to something on his desk. Notes, maybe?
"While you were gone, I researched more ways to connect with you. Perhaps a better choice would be," he then made a solemn expression, and made an okay sign with his fingers, "Netflix and Chill."
She covered her mouth with her hand as she laughed. "Well, that's one way to cut through the language divide. That's just sex."
He glanced back, his green eyes wide in surprise. "What? I researched and found that Netflix is a streaming service, while 'chill' is a term for being relaxed. How would that translate to--" He cleared his throat, unable to say the words.
"It's like asking someone in for coffee after a date," Ema said.
"You say coffee but mean--sexual relations? But women are said to love Pumpkin Spice Latte. Is this a euphemism?"
"No, that's two totally different things."
He shook his head. "I still have so much to learn about your culture. And to think, I had the hubris to believe I had gained a better understanding."
"The dating game gets complicated. Even more when it's two really different worlds. ...You know, I did like you reading to me. Maybe we could have a do-over?"
"This time, perhaps not a sutra, but something you can understand better."
Ema smiled. "I've got just the idea."
Fifteen minutes later, the picnic was back on. She rested her head in his lap, as he read off poetry. It was in English this time. Maybe it wasn't quite the romantic feel of a book on his thigh, but her cell phone with Googled poetry worked well. At least until his order of several new volumes to read aloud to her came in.
He paused as he searched for a new poem.
"I could translate some sutras for you. Some context would be lost, but I think I could manage a fairly quick pace and accurate translation."
"Translate as you read? That'd take a ton of effort," Ema said.
"For someone else, perhaps. It would take longer with French, German, or Japanese, but with Khura'inese I can translate quite quickly. It is my mother tongue, after all."
"That's actually pretty hot," Ema said.
"Wait until I get to the next reading. It's a love poem from over two-thousand years ago. I discovered it amongst lost documents... it reminds me of you."
She smiled up at him. And when he leaned down to kiss her, no translation was needed at all.