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The Vines Cascading

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It is years into her tenure before Ruka asks her if she likes her work. They're walking on the long grassy strip from the Chairman's House to Nemuro Hall, bordered on one side by school buildings and on the other by Juri's wannabe fanclub. "None of your business," she answers from memory. She has herself occupied partially by computing tables in her head, and mostly by figuring out ways to make them challenging.

Then, she thinks, what memory?

They stop. Ruka cradles a finger against her chin, the gesture of someone who would never dream of instead gripping her throat. Shiori had done that too, but she had been honest.

"I hate to hear that," he says. "I'd have given up twice as much for you to achieve the greatest and most dazzling possibilities of your potential."

Heads pop out to watch them all along the corridor. Some are from classrooms Juri thought were empty. Ruka's gallantry is hard to deny, and inadvisable to resist; it doesn't surprise her that people stare at him and the blue front bangs that brush his forehead like burning copper. Ruka's insistence she act like she always did—fence, paint, go to class, although she's not sure she always did these things—has inured most of her fellow students to her Rose Bride regalia. She knew as a child there was value in being seen, and she learned long before her sixteenth term at Ohtori that whatever value it is, Ruka believes she contributes more than he does. Thus. She is seen and prized, daily, and not shunned like some witch.

"Well," Juri says, "I don't remember you putting this offer to me."

He looks pained. "It's not the only thing you've forgotten. I just wanted to know if you were happy—" he snaps his fingers. A few of their onlookers slink away or hide behind umbrellas. His still-curled fingers land on her wrist. "If you were getting what you wished for. I wished for magnificence, for you."

"I don't know what the hell you're talking about," she says, and crosses her arms. People scatter wherever she looks.

 


 

But she does know. Or, later, she does. Mid-afternoon and she's returned to the house that everyone calls the Chairman's, the one that she and Shiori usually have to themselves. She's wiping off her drizzle-touched coat when the blunt stabbing pain of something invading her head hits her, like an executioner's axe. Then a trickle of memory: Ruka showing her how to blink castles and swords in and out of existence, Ruka kissing her knuckles, Ruka saying They let me give my future for yours. The grip all his visions seemed to have on reality. For minutes she stands there, rag and coat in hand, processing.

"Juri-san?"

Shiori—she never forgot Shiori for long. "Did you need something?"

Shiori pads over to the window. "It's raining hard," she says. She laughs, the sound difficult and abruptly cut, like a violin plucked. "The Providence of Precipitation is mad at us. I think it has a grudge against your curls. I can't help but think our gardens are drowning for your sins."

"Look, there's no such thing to fret over."

But she wills their castle into the sky. Rain sprays off the towers above them and settles into a steady circle of downpour around the house and its inhabitants, drawing a blurry wet curtain between them and anything farther than a hundred meters; sun-glow disperses in the water, such that the full ring shines as spectrally bright as the flashbulbs affixed to the castle. They cannot see past it. Juri walks over to Shiori and clasps her shoulder. She tries, at least, Shiori having ducked, before she snorts and ducks in again, and allows Juri to lean on her back: her fidgeting body the first of three walls between Juri and the universe unknown. "Ugh. You're so—"

"Yes?"

"So," says Shiori. "So everything, trying to be everything. We're princesses, our house is whatever we want it to be. Can't you let a touch of levity into the world?" She waves at everything. The rings of lit parapets visible if they glance up, solemn as constellations; rain, the moat it and gravity are carving into the soil; Juri, poised over Shiori with a fencer's restraint, unwilling to support herself with sweaty fingers on the clear glass. "Look at what the world's doing with us."

A cosmic joke. Juri can fill that in. Shiori makes light of things when she'd rather not face them, but Juri is the Rose Bride, and she bears her own swords. Bears herself as well, with enough dignity to countervail all the hatred and happiness arrayed against her. She must weight herself enough to right the balance. In a way Shiori's right. Princes are rarely apt to stay in their castles, preferring far fields, higher fantasies, while a princess is the anchor of wherever she is quartered.

She will be here forever, but what a forever! Shiori's foot instinctively rises into flamingo stance when Juri is no longer stepping on it, but Juri is no creature lured by beautiful waters in the distance. The ruffles of her dress already ripple around her, coral wavelets. There's caulking to be applied, a door to close out the unfamiliar, birdsong to mar the shivery quiet you sense when the sky opens and lets loose its seas. It's a timeless business, keeping everyone else afloat.