“You will be beautiful,” her new handmaiden says. Cool hands card through the ratty mass of her hair, easing a comb through it. “You already are beautiful, ma petite, though you may complain now.”
Himiko lifts her chin, staring at the reflection in the mirror. She sees a stick-limbed spot-faced twig of a little girl couched before someone smooth-skinned and pale even without paint; it’s like a bug bowing before a cherry tree in full bloom. With a sigh, she drops her head again.
“No, no, ma petite,” her handmaiden says. She slides two fingers under Himiko’s chin and tips it up, then leans their cheeks together. “I have *seen* this, and I see it now. You have a smile that will rival the light of the sun.” For a moment, that lovely face falters, something quietly grieving in her eyes–but then it’s gone, and her smile is brilliant as before. Her long hands rise up, fingertips pressing gently at the corners of Himiko’s eyes. “And I will teach you how to see that for yourself, along with everything else.”
He doesn’t want to feel sympathy for the Knight–pathetic thing that he is, lurking jealously behind the prince everywhere–but in the end, he’s not sure he’s any different. The prince’s attention should be for a princess, since this is a fairytale, but he hordes it anyway, jealously. He wonders if how it would be if he’d been a daughter instead–Odile to Tutu’s Odette. Would there be more light in the prince’s eyes, looking upon him? If he could properly dance the part of the maiden in the pas de deux, would he be able to fly–?
The girls of their class cluster and giggle nervously whenever his gaze happens to wander in their direction, but they all fall silent when they catch sight of him. Even the Knight doesn’t intimidate them half as much. Some of them like it better, actually, to watch him wind his arms around the prince’s neck and whisper in his ear. He can see the romances forming behind their starry eyes, clearly as if they were written across the pages of a book.
It makes him a little sick. In the end, there’ll be no room for him but as the instigator of tragedy: the Knight will be killed, the Princess will disappear with her love on her lips, and the Prince …
Rue tightens his arms around Mytho’s neck and kisses his cheek; the taste on his tongue is bitter as his own name.
It isn’t traditional, of course, but with her brother following in their father’s footsteps and her little sister too young to even begin considering options yet, she makes up her mind.
“It won’t be easy,” her father says, his face lined from years of work and smiling; his expression is solemn, but there is a twinkle in his eyes. “Are you sure?”
With a flourish, she draws herself up to ramrod attention, saluting him smartly, as she’s seen soldiers do in parades. Then she can’t maintain it any more and flings herself into the chair opposite of him, resting her chin on her hands. “I wouldn’t be doing this if I wasn’t sure,” she says. “I really want to do this–I’ll be able to protect all of you, this way.”
Her father laughs. The sound is just a bit rueful. He reaches out and ruffles her hair; she leans into it happily. “Your mother will probably have other things to say,” he says. “But you’re a good girl, and your heart has never led you wrongly. You’re smart enough to match any man in the army, don’t let them convince you otherwise.”
“Even an Oak?” she asks, peeking at him from under her lashes. She’s grinning, a little–she’s only met the son of the Oak family a couple of times, but she’s heard enough of the rumors to know. Her father snorts and gives her head a gentle shove before he sits back.
“Especially an Oak,” he says, and winks. “Not that you heard me say that.”
Mikage winks back. “Of course not,” she says. Excitement bubbles in her skin like a physical thing, and a moment later she’s out of the chair and bounding off to find her mother. In her heart, she’s already flying.
“Ara ara,” she says, fan fluttering just under her laughing eyes. “How improper, Hiromasa-sama! And when you have a princess to court!”
Hiromasa’s mouth remains half-open, his greeting strangled in his throat on the first syllable of Seimei’s name. She snaps the fan shut and points at him dramatically, and the smirk on her face is unmistakable. Somewhere in the gardens, hidden by the half-closed doors, Mitsumushi giggles.
“Broad daylight may be explained by one thing or the other, but this is this and that is that,” says Seimei. “What if your princess finds out?”
He continues to gape for a moment; his mouth moves several times before he can make sound come out. “S-S-Seimei! Wh, what are you talking about, this isn’t, this is–!”
“Business?” Seimei’s fox-eyes go wide and innocent. She could almost pass for a young girl. “Ara ara, what sort of business could that be! And at this time of night!”
She laughs aloud and sits up; her long hair trails over her shoulder, unraveling from its customary blade. The unwelcome thought, as before, comes up: that Seimei is a very beautiful woman, and that if she simply tried, she could rival any woman of the court. He’s tired, though; it has been a long day, and every poem he has tried to compose has been little more than trash. He cannot imagine reciting it, especially in front of Fuji-hime.
“Quiet is sometimes the most precious thing, isn’t it,” she says, and there is something like sympathy in her voice. She pats the space beside her. “I have good sake and good company. Will you?”
Hiromasa hesitates. His fingers twist in their sleeves. He crosses the short distance and sits beside her, and watches as she pours sake for them both. “I have actual business,” he protests, before he drinks; it is cool and sweet against his lips.
“Of course,” Seimei says, and lets silence take over.
“HOW WAS I SUPPOSED TO KNOW,” Horohoro wails, only it sounds more like HW WSS SPSD TNO with his face swollen as it is. He flinches when Manta slaps a final bandaid over his nose.
“We all knew,” Yoh drawls lazily. He’s lying on the floor, arms folded under his head. “I mean, it’s not like it wasn’t obvious. You should learn to knock before you barge into the bath.”
“But–but!!” Horohoro’s hands make cupping motions. “Her sister’s such a babe, and–she had–you know!!” His hands flex again. “And her mom, too! Chinese women aren’t really supposed to–you know! But they did, and their LEGS, and–!”
Lazy as a cat, Yoh rolls onto his side, facing away from Horohoro. “Ahhh,” he says, “good luck.”
“Eh? Ehh??” He looks around for a moment, confused–Manta has gathered up the first-aid kit and is scurrying away, faster than his little legs should, by all rights, move. “Ehh, what, what–”
Behind him, the door slides open. A killing aura fills the air.
“… She’s behind me, isn’t she,” Horohoro says, with some despair.
“Groveling works, sometimes,” says Yoh, before he turns up the volume of his headphones, the traitor. “But only after you’ve bled, first.”
They don’t pair her with Mytho, to her frustration. She’s too tall, too imposing–she needs a matching partner, one that suits her better than delicate, slender Mytho. In fact, the instructor says, clapping his paws, if they bind her small breasts down, she could easily play the role of knight instead of princess. Most of the other girls begin whispering behind their cupped hands at this; in their eyes she can see their imaginations at work. Like a flock of drab little birds they twitter and flutter. She ignores them and looks over the crowd.
Rue smirks at her, poisonously sweet and deceptively encouraging. Her eyes glitter like the edge of swords. Her lips move in words that Fakir doesn’t bother trying to read.
Mytho tilts his face up to look at her, so quiet and still. He says, when the instructor prompts, “You will be a good knight, I think,” and his tone is hollow as always. His eyes move dispassionately over her, then slide away like water. As always, he is courteous and distant, and she wonders if he even realizes what sort of defeat this is for her, to give up her place at his side–his protector and his guide and his guardian–to anyone else.
Fakir bites the inside of her cheek until she tastes blood, and just nods, accepting her assignment.
“Well, isn’t that peculiar,” the fox says. His green eyes glitter as he looks her up and down. The look in them irritates her: the instinctive lust of the young and male coupled with the exacting consideration of his kind. “You use fire, but you smell like ice. What’s that in your blood, anyway?”
She fixes him with her most withering glare. It only makes him grin back at her, showing all his teeth. “I’m just asking,” he adds. “Since it seems we’ll be working together, we might as well get to know each other, hm?”
“No,” she says, flat. “I don’t care to be friends with idiots.”
“Ah, I’m hurt,” he says sweetly, and she wonders how idiotic the humans in his life must be, to not see through that facade to the cold-eyed fox under the warm thin skin. “I’m wounded to the heart.”
“Assuming you have one,” she says, and leaves before he can reply–but she can feel his eyes tracking her the whole way, long after she knows she’s out of sight.
She made no sound, but he knew she was there long before she settled herself against his back, arms hooking around his throat. She smelled of dust and torn vegetation. She must have been out in the roses again. He tried not to respond to her presence, but his back stiffened regardless; if she noticed, she gave no physical indication.
“Brother,” she sighed into his ear. “You didn’t come home last night.” Her nose pressed into his hair, the point sharp against his scalp. “Ah, and you’ve been smoking again. It’s an unpleasant habit.”
Gil didn’t look at her. The inside of his mouth tasted like ash and blood from where he’d bitten the inside of his cheek raw. “I had a job,” he said. “Some of us have to work.”
“We don’t have to,” she corrected. Her lips pressed briefly against his temple as she spoke; her fingers carded through his hair. “There are others who can do that sort of thing.”
He shrugged abruptly, shaking her off, and took a few steps to put space between them before turning. She met his gaze evenly, her head listing to one side; she was dressed in frothy black silk today, the sleeves and skirt layered and flared out. Dark green ribbons had been braided into the long pale tumble of her hair, framing her pale lovely face. She looked like a doll plucked freshly down from a store shelf, in spite of the green stains on the fingers of her white silk gloves. She was lovely and so entirely viciously, jaggedly broken that even he could see the fractures.
Victoria’s lips curled into a smile. “Brother,” she said, and opened her arms. “Come kiss your sister hello.”
it hurtsithurts it hurts it
(The man’s fingers are cold on her fevered skin and it almost feels good, but then they curl and her body twists at the sudden starburst of pain and rips through her. Her throat is too raw to scream, so she can only gasp for air, so cold that it tears at her lungs. The moon over his shoulder is red–or maybe there’s blood in her eyes, she can no longer tell–and then the knife-edge of his smile fills her vision entirely.
“Not exactly my type,” the man says, and she can feel characters erupt in burning lines on her skin, draining the strength away from her, “but it’s really remarkable, the resemblance–“)
She doesn’t scream when she comes awake, but it’s a near thing. Her eyes fly open and her hand lashes out, striking against something solid. A moment later, her wrist is enfolded in a careful warm grip, and then she actually looks, and it’s Tsuzuki’s worried face hovering just above hers. There’s a mark reddening on his cheek, but he just smiles at the shock on her face, something gently relieved in his eyes.
“Ah, good,” he says. “You were dreaming.” He lets go of her wrist and sits back so she can sit up. “Better now?”
Hisoka puts a hand to her throat. Each breath tastes raw and metallic as blood. But he’s looking at her with those big stupid puppy eyes, and something in her gut lurches. It feels nothing like those stupid novels that Wakaba reads on her breaks and daydreams about–it feels real, and raw, and too uncomfortable to look back. If she let him, if she showed any sort of sign at all, she knows he’d call this whole thing off, and it makes her angry–she doesn’t want to be seen as weaker, or in need of his coddling, no matter how recently Kyoto is behind them. She ducks her head.
“Yeah,” she mutters. For a moment she tightens her fingers at her throat, trying to breathe through it. “Better now.”
“Did you know, that thing in the brig thinks I’m doing all sorts of horrible things to you right now.” Elegant as a cat, the Master hitches one hip up onto the edge of the table, leaning forward until his forehead presses against the bars of the gilt cage. “Thousands of years old, and he’s still got this outdated notion of chivalry, of all things! He thinks I’m angry because you rejected me once, or something, like I’m one of your silly flings–I guess he’d know about that, wouldn’t he? You were quite pretty this time.”
The creature in the cage blinks slowly: once, twice, and says nothing. The Master laughs, his voice dropping to a more intimate tone, and he curls his fingers around the cage’s thin bars.
“You and I know better, though,” he said softly. “You remember, don’t you? You can’t hide it from me, Doctor.”
Within the cage, the creature sighs. “We were very young,” comes the final, breathy reply. “And very stupid.”
“Ran away and never stopped running,” the Master whispered. “Until you became mother and destroyer both. Tell me, Doctor, was your precious Earth thinking of you when they came up with that concept?”
There is no reply. He starts to hum, quietly, swinging the cage.
“Maybe it’s not wrong,” he says. “What that little pet freak of yours thinks. Maybe I am just jilted. What do you think of that?” He gives the cage a good hard shake, sending the fragile little thing inside stumbling. “Where were you, Doctor? Tell me? Where were you?”
His voice rises until it echoes off the walls; he snaps his mouth shut with a click of teeth and shoves the cage, so that it continues to swing wildly on its own momentum for long seconds. In the dark, he sees wide dark eyes staring back at him. Even shrunken and reduced down, there are traces of the classmate he’d once known–those eyes are still entirely the same. He meets them for a moment, unblinking as a cat.
“I was there,” he says quietly. “I saw everything that happened when you were gone.”
The Doctor says nothing at first. Then, very softly: “I’m sorry.”
A laugh breaks before he can quite stop it. “Sorry!” he gasps, tears of mirth in his eyes. “Sorry! No, Doctor–” he shoves at the cage again, sending it spinning wildly, “you’ll be sorry. I’ll show you–this time, you’ll see everything.”
On a certain Sunday, when Gilbert Nightlay was eighteen years old, he came to an epiphany about breasts: namely that one, he rather liked them, and two, he was apparently not horribly discriminatory about whose he liked, seeing as the open vee of skin exposed at Break’s throat, like an arrow pointing to the generous outward swell of her chest, had clearly and utterly captured his attention. At some point during the warm day she had tugged out the collar of her shirt without any real care about how public the park was. Gil sat with his knees pressed resolutely together and his fingers interlaced tightly, and tried not to look.
A lucky man could have gotten away with that–a few helpless sidelong glances, and that would have been the end of it.
Gil was not–and had never been–a lucky man.
“Ah! You’re peeking, you’re peeking!” a voice shrilled, and suddenly that damnable doll Emily was in his face, its stitched grin wide enough to fill his vision. “Gil’s a per~vert!”
He let out an undignified yelp, flailing backwards to get some space, but then Xera Break was looming before him, and that little triangle of skin he’d caught out of the corner of his eye before now mere inches from his nose. Another button had come undone at some point, and now he could see the shadowed curve where her breasts pressed together. She smelled a little like dust and lilac.
“Well, well,” she said. She caught his chin with one finger and pushed until he was forced to look up, straight into her one glittering eye. “Has Gilbert finally hit puberty?”
“We worried!” Emily squawked from her shoulder. “You’re such a worthless guy, Raven!”
“No, no,” Break tsked. “Just slow. Sometimes people take longer to develop than others!”
“Worthless! Totally worthless!”
“Now, now.” Break waved a finger, her expression sincere. “We don’t call valuable resources ‘worthless,’ Emily! For shame.”
Gil sank down low in his seat, covering his face with his hands. A moment later, he felt long thin fingers curl in his hair, pulling until he was forced to look up. Break smiled at him almost gently, though there was a glint in her eye that made his throat close up and his feet cold.
“However,” she purred, “should milady ever be troubled by your wandering eyes …”
She didn’t finish the threat; he rather thought she didn’t have to. She leaned closer, and now he could smell something metallic under the lilac perfume–something a little too much like blood to be anything else. Somehow the one finger under his chin had turned into several, nails pinched into his flesh. “Do we understand each other?”
He swallowed and nodded.
She leaned in as he remained frozen and slightly terrified and touched her lips to his eyelid. He flinched and felt her lips spread into a smile. “Good,” she said. “I’m glad we understand each other.”
“It’s not that I don’t understand,” Kagura said. “I do, really. A woman’s heart is a terrible thing to toy with.
“But,” she went on, folding her fingers together into position, “I’m a woman too, after all. And I share even less than you.”
The ghost wailed as it was exorcised, clawing viciously at the air, twisting in on itself until it vanished. Kagura watched until there was nothing but a faint twinge in her chest to indicate anything had ever been there. She rubbed a thumb between her breasts, counting heartbeats, then went outside. The barrier had shattered, and on the ground all around her, men were beginning to wake up–most of them, anyway; a few were too still and cold to ever move again. She went straight to Haruka’s side and crouched beside him.
“You know,” she said, “Haruka is veeery good about doing what Youko-chan teaches, but maybe–juuuust maybe–he should tone down the gigolo act, hm?” She leaned her chin on her hands and stared down at him.
He opened one eye and glared at her. “I only did it because you told me to,” he said. “I don’t know why I bother to listen.” He sat up and looked around. “Where did it go?”
“We had a little chat,” Kagura said. She smiled. “It won’t be bothering anyone else, any more.”
“I, uh,” said Eres. “Do we have any rags?”
Lucille looked blank. “Rags?”
“I. Well.” Eres rubbed the back of his head. “I sort of–need one.”
“The piano’s clean, though,” he said, still blank. “I mean, maybe Gwin has something?”
Eres stared. “Those’ll have varnish all over them, right?”
“Probably?” Lucille set his chin on his hands, blinking. “He probably has polish, too, though I don’t know why the piano would need anything like th–ow!”
Kohaku removed his fist from the back of Lucille’s head. “That ain’t what the brat’s askin’ for,” he said, then jerked his head to the side. “I got a few. You’ll have to get your own eventually, got that?”
Eres stared. “You know what I–”
Kohaku snorted. “Of course,” he said. “It’s that problem, isn’t it? That problem.”
“…” said Eres.
“That problem? There’s a problem?” Lucille looked from one to the other, a bit wide-eyed. “What problem, no one told me there was a problem, come on–”
“N-no,” Eres said, staring at Kohaku’s indifferent face long and hard. “There’s no problem at all.”
Shuri is eleven years old when she decides she wants to go into the military; she decides this while watching her mother adjust her father’s coat before a party, and he looks quite dashing, in her opinion. There is no man more handsome than her father in that moment–he looks respectable and wise and wonderful, all things an Oak should be. She wants that too, she decides, so her decision is made. She tells him that very night, and his eyes crinkle up with the force of his smile, so she knows she’s made a good decision.
“I was afraid,” he said. “Oaks are always politics or military, but Papa didn’t want to force you into anything you didn’t want, especially if you’d rather go Mama’s path into politics. But it’s in your blood, isn’t it? That love of order and your destiny for greatness.”
Shuri beams, proud of herself. Of course she wants to be lovely and gracious as Mama as well, always splendid in her fine dresses–but the uniform calls to her, with its shiny buttons and crisp lines. “Yes, Papa,” she agrees. “I’ll do anything I have to for our family! And for you!”
He laughs aloud, his voice deep and echoing; Shuri can hear the cheers of the people in the sound. “That’s my girl,” he says. “I’ll talk to Miroku. We’ll get you signed up, and you’ll show this generation just what it is an Oak can do.”
Two weeks after returning from Inaba, there is a letter without a return address. You open it late at night, after your parents have gone to bed: you recognize the handwriting, and it’s oddly similar to your own. (You wonder if that’s why your uncle suspected you, and for as long as he had.) You have to wonder where he got the materials to write this letter, or the time or ability to send it, but here it is, in your hands.
All it says is: “So you did find out the truth. I wonder what she thought of you. I still do.”
You wonder if he ever went to Izanami’s lair himself and what he might have seen there. A sudden impulse strikes, to write him back and ask him directly. It passes after a moment, and instead, you go to bed.
Exactly two weeks after that, another letter comes: this one has a dried rose pressed between the pages.
“Maybe if we’d met first, things would be different.”
You want to write him back and tell him no, you don’t think so: you can remember how he looked at Yukiko, how he’d watched Rise, how he’d been unable to look away from you the whole time you’d stood in Magatsu-Inaba, his eyes tracing along your throat, over the shallow rise of your breasts. Maybe if that stupid Konishi bitch hadn’t been so frigid, maybe if that Yamano whore had actually been compassionate, none of this would have happened.
You throw away the letter, but keep the rose.
Two weeks after that, you happen to be up late enough, and the TV is one. At precisely midnight, the TV screen fritzes into static. You look up, and there’s a human figure in the midst of all that white noise, waving slowly. The minute changes, and the shape is gone.
The day after that, Yousuke calls, excited and nervous, and tells you Adachi killed himself last night. Or that’s what Dojima-san says, guess he couldn’t handle being in prison; he used his sheets to make a noose and hang himself, serves the bastard right, don’t you think?
You think of the previous midnight, and say nothing.
Now I lay me down to sleep, he whispers, hands clasped. I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
He’s so tired these days, so tired that even breathing takes a heroic effort. He counts himself lucky that Yuri is so unobservant: he still thinks they’re just good friends and nothing else–it’s easy enough to laugh off the double-vision and the trembling of his hands as just regular travel fatigue. The others are beginning to suspect, but only Zhuzhen knows the whole truth. Alex prefers it that way: the less who realize, the better. If anyone knew–if anyone told Yuri–
Guard me Jesus through the night …
“I’m glad you’re here,” Yuri tells him, jostling him a bit with one elbow. His smile is the dearest thing Alex thinks he’s ever seen. “You gotta take me to meet this uncle of yours when things are over, okay? We’ve earned this vacation.”
He smiles a little, and in his heart of hearts, he hopes that he’ll see the rest of this quest through to that day. “All right,” he says. “But you will have to learn your manners. Domremy is a small town, you needn’t shock them.”
“I’m always a gentleman,” Yuri argues. “Have a little faith in me, okay?”
“I will when I see it,” Alex says, innocently, and doesn’t fall over when Yuri smacks him heartily on the back, though the blow feels like it rattles his heart in his ribcage.
And wake me with the morning light.
“You’re nesting,” said Connor. Surprise thickened his accent considerably. “Look at you! How many of those do you even have?”
Dana crossed her arms over her chest, meeting his gaze evenly. “There’s only the one,” she said. “I named him after you.”
It was almost worth the aghast look on his face, and the uncomfortable way he shifted his weight back towards the door. “Good lord, woman,” he said, “the Gathering’s near-upon us, and here you are, traipsing around you’ve got all the time in the world–”
“It’s been ‘upon us’ for nearly a century now,” Dana said. She raked a hand through her hair, leaving half of it vaguely on-end. “What’s wrong with wanting to be a little happy, before then?”
“What happens if someone comes for your head?” he snapped. Angry again (he’d been angry for years now, angry as he’d been the last time she’d seen him), he pushed off the wall, advancing. “What happens if you make a damnfool mistake and lose it? A family’s not ours to have, Dana; if it was, we would’ve died like normal people like the good lord meant for us to–”
Before he could get close enough to finish his point (she wasn’t sure he even knew, exactly, what he wanted to do), she had her sword out, the point resting against his throat. He stopped at once. They stared at each other for long quiet moments; she spared a moment to be glad that his namesake was such a heavy sleeper.
“He’ll be provided for,” she said quietly. “All my assets go to him, if I die.”
Connor’s eyes narrowed. “It’s still a stupid thing,” he said softly. “You haven’t changed your name in all these four centuries, Dana, and there’s hunters coming out of sewers like rats. I hope to God you know what you’re doing.”
She didn’t move, but he did, and the point of her blade nicked his neck. She watched the bead of blood well up and trickle down his throat, the injury healed by the time it reached his collar. “I do,” she said quietly. “God help me, I do.”
“Ehhhh, isn’t it difficult?” Kayo asks, her melting brown eyes wide and guileless. “Being a woman, traveling like that? Isn’t it scary?”
The medicine-seller only smiles. She doesn’t move from her perfect seiza position, long elegant hands folded in her lap. She’s a little like a doll, Kayo thinks, like the ones she’s seen in very fancy stores, and servant-girls can only peek inside. “It is what it is,” she says. “No more than that. No less.”
“So it’s difficult, then?” In spite of herself, Kayo inches closer. There are dreams crystallizing in her mind every time she blinks her eyes. “It’s really really difficult, but you persevere no matter what? Every day, every night, one lone woman against the world–!”
“Ah,” says the medicine-seller. Her voice is very quiet, but it feels almost like a physical shock, cutting through Kayo’s words and leaving her dumb with surprise. Under the pale fringe of her bangs, her eyes are beautiful and flat–really very much like a doll’s. Kayo looks into them and feels cold. The medicine-seller is talking now, and it takes her a moment to tune in: “… an ordinary humble medicine-seller. That’s all.”
“Hmmmmmm.” Kayo leans back a little. She feels oddly disappointed. “It’s not exciting at all?”
“No,” the medicine-seller says. She smiles again, and this time Kayo thinks she sees fangs in it. “Not at all.”
When she first realizes it’s jealousy she feels, part of her is horrified. Kairi is her friend–one of her best, and so much more understanding and sensitive than Sora. It’s still the crux of it, though: Kairi is one of her best friends, but Sora is the best, the only boy on the entire island who looks at how freakishly tall she is and isn’t afraid or stupid about it. Sometimes she despairs of his actually understanding anything, but he treats her like a person and like a friend, and she can’t help but be stupidly, desperately grateful for it.
And yet: they’re getting older, and instead of looking at her, Sora’s attention keeps wandering. He watches Kairi with a hopeful bright smile and brief shy glances, and hardly seems to notice when Riku is there until she’s in his face, impossible to ignore. Everything in him is focused on Kairi, Kairi, Kairi, and Riku feels the separation as keenly as a physical loss. She feels restless in her own skin, trapped within the limited possibilities within Destiny Island.
When the witch comes, whispering promises and prophecies, it’s the easiest thing in the world to take her hand.
The first time she meets her new boss, she has to admit, she does not think very much of him: he is small and nervous, with an unkempt mustache and nervous fluttering hands. She worries what sort of leader he will actually be, when he cannot even look her directly in the eye and mumbles his words until they slur together. His handshake has clammy palms, and he mumbles fatherland, fatherland over and over. He is not the first who made such a mistake about her, and he likely won’t be the last. All she can do is try to meet his eyes when he’ll let her and prove herself to be exactly as she says: his pride, his fatherland, all that he plans and hopes and dreams for.
And if there is madness in his eyes, the few times he can make himself look at her, then perhaps it’s only her imagination. She will choose to believe in him, and hopes in her heart that it will be enough.
She’s never been a good cook, despite the efforts of her mother and grandmother to teach her. She waits for too long, so things get crisped black, dried out, or both–food doesn’t speak to her the same way arrows do. The rhythms of archery and the practice range are entirely different from those of the kitchen, which is a mystery that continues to elude her. Her grandfather always just laughed at these failures: Shizuka is suited for other things. She’ll find her own place without forcing anything.
Years later, she unwraps the bento that Watanuki has packed for her: karaage chicken, kinpira gobo, gomae, everything deftly laid out for the perfect balance of colors, ignoring the ranting that comes from his mouth and instead paying attention to what’s hidden in the food. There is care and respect here, for the food as much as anything else.
She doesn’t smile, but she eats all of it: she thinks someday, he’ll realize what it means.
The most unfair thing is that, for all that it skulks in the shadows of society and operates outside of the rules set by the other Great Houses, the Nightlay family still has its own rules, and these will be never be broken. The family will always be led by a man–the Duke is the one who will attend meetings with the heads of the other Houses, who makes the assignments and decisions for the rest of the family, and there can be no exception. Ever.
So it means that the single trueborn child of the Nightlay family–the one who has direct blood connection to the ancestors–is stuck sent going to school to learn ridiculous unnecessary things (if there was any hobby more useless than embroidery, she didn’t want to know of it) while her birthright is handed off to an interloper, a fake, whose only asset is that he was born a man. And never mind the elder of that pair–the family doesn’t care that she wears trousers and carries a gun and is how Pandora keeps a leash on the family: she’s neither blood nor male, brought in and kept only to make sure the heir is satisfied.
And that’s what builds into the total unfair situation: that they brought in two when they needed one. Elena could train until her hands are worn and tough as leather from fencing, study until she knew the rules of society better than her father himself, and it would all come to nothing.
She slams her fingers down hard on the keys of the piano, and doesn’t move until long after the discordant echoes fade away.
“I think the best part will be when puberty comes,” Etna gloats.
“Eh? Why’s that?” Flonne blinks, cocking her head.
“‘Cause the Queen was, you know–” Etna makes a cupping motion at her chest. “She had a nice body. So in a few more centuries …”
Flonne’s eyes go wide. She covers her mouth. “Oh,” she squeaks. “Oh, no.”
“Oh, yes,” Etna beams. “I can’t wait.”
One winter day, the princess saddles her horse and goes riding. She leaves behind a note and takes only enough provisions to last the day. Down to the field she goes, her pace slow and easy. Under the steel gray of the winter sky, she dismounts and spreads out a blanket, sitting cross-legged atop the dry dead grass. She pours wine into two glasses; one of these she holds up and tips, until the liquid spills out into the cracked earth.
“I think this is enough of a happily ever after,” she says. In the chill, her breath steams faintly. “Till I die, anyway, and I’m not doing that for a while. Not even for you.”
A breeze cuts through the field, sliding tiny icy fingers through her hair, rustling through the corpses of grass. You’d be surprised at how patient the dead can be. Don’t be so arrogant, no one else would be willing to wait.
“I’ll be satisfied with that, then,” she says, and drinks her share.
“It will be a wonder,” she growls, “if my partner survives this exam.”
Razette trills, reaching up to pat her cheek with one small damp hand. She leans into it with a muttered sigh.
“The idiot can’t even be bothered to pay attention in lecture, let alone actually do any work,” she goes on. “I asked if he’d done any sort of studying lately, and he started rattling off the three sizes for the female acolytes–including mine!” For a moment she clenches her hand into a fist, and contemplates the memory of her partner’s smirking face. “I swear, if he tries anything more–”
“He will be spoken to,” a deep voice says behind her. She spins around in surprise, blinking up into Bishop Bastien’s serene face.
“Ah,” she says, not quite embarrassed. “Sir, I didn’t mean–”
“He’s still very young,” Bastien murmurs. “And very … fond of the idea of ‘sowing his wild oats,’ so to speak, before this exam.” He puts a hand over his heart, meeting her eyes directly. “I’m sorry, Trainee Castor. He’ll be dealt with.” He cracked his knuckles abruptly and turned his back. “I promise you that.”
“See,” she tells Razette, watching him go. “That is a true gentleman of the church. If Frau could be more like him, then …”
Razette folds her arms on the stone edge of the fountain and leans her chin against them. She flips her tail idly through the water, and makes no reply.