7. Good Friends
Ema leans back in her chair, smiling broadly. “Brava,” she declares. “Excellent work, Lai.”
Lai draws herself up to her tiptoes, eyes shining hopefully. Notebook Number Three is spread out carefully in her hands, in the way that choir members hold their songbooks, and she seems to be cradling it protectively. “What did you like about it? Besides the fact that it was about you, I mean.”
“Hmm…” Ema purses her lips, mentally constructing a critique. She knows that artists and writers – people like Lai – usually don’t want just empty compliments on their work; they want real, significant feedback, so they know that their audience was really paying attention and not just vacantly smiling and nodding the whole time. “Well, the changes you made to the story were very clever. You transitioned it into your genre of choice very well. Your prose is getting better, too. I can tell you’ve been expanding your vocabulary, and that gives the descriptions more impact.”
Lai’s face lights up like a fireworks display, and Ema grins. She always feels satisfied when she is able to make someone visibly happier, doubly so when that someone is a close friend.
“I hope you don’t think that I ruined your story, Ema. I mean, I know it’s a touchy subject and you probably could have written it better, but – ”
“No, no, you did just fine.” Ema waves one trim, manicured hand in the air dismissively. “Like I said, it was a hard adaptation, but you pulled it off. And I can’t write prose, anyway, so who am I to judge?”
Lai shrugs, still smiling, her eyes wandering over the décor of Ema’s office absently. She is probably already dreaming of her next plot, formulating a new story with which to hone her skills. Hopefully it won’t be about Ema this time. Not that Ema didn’t enjoy the little fact-based fairy tale about herself, Cade, and her former best friend Codi – she did, she truly did, but she is starting to notice an uncomfortable pattern in Lai’s behavior towards her. The young imp girl idolizes her in a way that slowly seems to be fermenting into jealousy. After all, Ema is always regarded as being stunningly gorgeous, while Lai is just sort of average-looking. Ema has her own private office and a wide range of clientele, and Lai works out of a cubicle and is forbidden from doing anything except paperwork. And Ema has a lot of friends and even a lover by her side, but Lai’s social circle is practically microscopic.
Lai hasn’t expressed any unhappiness or bitterness towards her lifestyle, but Ema can sense pent-up emotions in someone even before the person realizes it for themselves. After all, she is a psychologist…or, more specifically, an Emotional and Mental Associate. The impending metamorphosis of Lai’s feelings is beginning to agitate her, and she wonders where the line between admiration and resentment is located.
But for now, Lai is barely approaching that line. “I hope you don’t mind that I took a few…artistic liberties,” she presses ahead. “I know that you and Cade aren’t even engaged yet, but it’s pretty much a rule of fairy tales that the prince and the princess have to get married at the end.”
Ema laughs. “I wish that Cade and I could get married!” She figures that the only reason he hasn’t asked yet is because no one is quite sure how marriage legally applies to imps. After all, she and he are the first two imps to fall in love, which caused enough controversy to last a lifetime. She knows that Cade doesn’t like to stir up trouble, if he can help it.
“One thing I don’t understand, though,” she remarks. “Why did I have to be a princess at all? I mean, I could have just as easily been a peasant, and it would have taken place in the village…”
“Why did you have to be a princess?” Lai scoffs. “Look at you, Ema!”
Ema turns to the mirror mounted in the wall, which is angled in a way that allows her to subtly observe the expressions of patients (no…clients, she reminds herself) sitting on the couch. Her reflection gazes back at her with large, soulful eyes, and irises set at an enrapturing shade of warm hazel. Her skin is tanned, but not unnaturally so, accented with rosy pink in all the right areas. Perfectly blonde hair frames her face, tapering down into a neat ponytail that is casually thrown over the strong curve of her shoulder. Imps are usually notably attractive by human standards, but Ema’s designers really went all out on her. They knew that she would be spending every day with people who were not exactly mentally stable, and they wanted her presence to be a calming one. A single look in those eyes had to be enough to make youwantto open up to her. Whatever little tricks they tried are working beautifully. Ema has grown used to being able to charm most people on sight, which comes in handy sometimes, but is usually awkward and uncomfortable.
Ema knows coworkers who revere her, like Lai, and others who despise her for being so spoiled and privileged. Either way, there are very few people who actually think of her as a person. She is regarded as a celebrity, as a distant goddess, as a presence in the world to be either venerated or maligned. But she is more than that. Behind the pretty face are hopes, dreams, career goals, plans for the future, and emotions. It makes her uncomfortable to be near-worshipped, and it hurts her when she’s hated only because of her looks or her position. Like most imps, she has had very little input in her situation; the twists and turns in her life have just sort of…happened.
“Yes,” she sighs softly, “I guess I do look like a princess, don’t I?”
“Uh, duh,” declares Lai. “I read Grimm’s and Anderson’s fairy tales as research a while back, and half the time, they were practically describing you when they wrote about princesses!”
Ema smiles at her. At least she knows that Lai thinks of her as a person. While it’s true that Lai can sometimes seem like a member of the fan club, Ema doesn’t hold her against her. She’s young, after all – only ten years old, practically a child by imp standards. She just wants a role model to look up to, and Ema is more than willing to be that role model. She thinks that Lai shows potential, that the girl will surely succeed if given the right support…and if she gets her head out of the clouds. Creative interests are great and all, but she’ll never be able to advance if she doesn’t start paying attention to her career.
But Ema would never tell Lai this, so she just chuckles and responds, “I’m guessing that it was the other way around. My creators wanted me to look like a princess, for various reasons. And eventually I just so happened to find a prince who swept me off my feet.”
Lai tilts her head wistfully, hugging Notebook Number Three against her chest. “It really is a fairy tale ending,” she says, and awe and fascination are evident in her body language. “It’s so weird that things like that can happen, even in modern times. Even in real life.”
Ema shrugs, although these are really the subjects that she loves to discuss. “Well, some of the old aphorisms really do hold true. Everything happens for a reason, and there’s someone for everyone. I really do believe that, and the more I look around, the more real it seems. Cade and I were the first two imps to fall in love, but now, more and more imps are finding romance. Who knows? Your Prince Charming might show up one day.”
Lai lifts her chin indignantly. “Well, if he does, he’s going to need more than good looks and flowers to win me over. In fact, he’d have to take me on an adventure!” Her mouth curls upwards. “I’d love that, actually. Just me and the man of my dreams, off to see the world…”
“See the world, huh?” Ema smiles and shakes her head in amused bewilderment, as if she is speaking to a young child aspiring to be a superhero when they grow up. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d say that you didn’t like it here in Settlement 209.”
“It’s not that I don’t like it…” Lai spreads her arms and looks at her surroundings, unimpressed. “But it’s soboringhere, don’t you think?”
“It isn’t boring! It’sstable. It’s a safe place.” For most people, anyway…Ema knows that there are seedy regions of the settlement as well, areas where med junkies traverse the cracked-asphalt streets and illegal, addictive substances like Oblivion are passed out in every alleyway. But slums are a given in every city, of course. They’re simply unavoidable. Fortunately, Felix is well-off enough that she and his other imps never have to go anywhere near those places.
“But why do we want to stay in a safe place?” Lai persists. “All the braniacs on the spectrovision talk about how imps are strong and fast and have high endurance, how we can live on barely any supplies and would be perfect for exploring new lands! And yet what do we all do? We spend our time sitting pretty at cushy office jobs and let humans do the exciting stuff!”
Ema exhales roughly. “So you’d rather risk your life than stay where you are? Are you really that unhappy here?”
Lai drops her hands to her sides. “No, I guess not…”
“Besides, thereareimps who go on expeditions and such. Just not you. You know that it’s because you’re –”
“I know, I know.” Lai rolls her eyes. “I’m unsuited for dangerous expeditions, size defect, I was given my job in accordance with the value of life whether human or imp, blah, blah, blah. I’ve heard it all before.”
“Then you should know that you’re lucky to be alive. So show your creators that they didn’t waste their time. Make something of yourself.”
“Iwillmake something of myself.” Lai’s eyes roam over the walls pensively. “But who says that I have to be here in order to do it?”
Ema just shakes her head.