The latest victor vanished beneath the tiles, and the last of the roses left with her.
Anthy plucked a stray petal off her nose. Above was only the castle, ringed by a moat of clouds. Below, the low dappled hills. What of reality could by internecine encroachment find itself on Ohtori land sprawled beyond: the squat farmers' huts, unsightly with a hint of impending bulldozer, and a pond that nursed mosquitoes. By Anthy stood Akio, his palms dry over the jut of her hips. She had undressed as soon as Juri had swept past with Shiori's pink neck bobbing behind her towards the staircase, and the silk had fallen from Anthy's body like a splitting cocoon.
"Lovely," Akio said. Anthy tensed. He laughed the indulgent laugh of a teacher who thought his student would know better. "I mean Juri and her girl, the one she's loved longer than you and revolution. Didn't you look at her? What do you think they're doing? Fucking?"
"The students eat early on Saturdays. Shall we go home too, brother?"
"Wouldn't do to be late."
He folded her sash over his shoulder, a badge of rank.
They were to go driving at nine, but her sense of time often flashed here and not-there around Akio. Time and locale being similar artifices of thought, searching after her chronometry led the arena ground to give way as well. It was eight-twenty, Akio informed her, on the dimming floor of the Chairman's room. She straightened her glasses, tried to stand, and discovered her sense of place had been left behind on the arena's bridal platform; her elbow hurt where the corner molding wedged into it, and she was very glad Touga had yet to arrive. The Bride was the bride, always. No Ohtori girl had ever tripped during her wedding procession. And then Akio cradled her in the strong grip of his hands, and said it was eight fifty-five, and there had never been a clock in the Chairman's room to say otherwise. She put her dress on and offered tea to Touga with her stomach firmly in control; no Ohtori girl needed to eat more than the occasional choco biscuit and her heart to survive.
"He-ey, you called," Touga said, then immediately had the grace to look abashed. "Himemiya. Chairman. What are you showing me? Just celebrating my humiliation in today's duel?"
"There's no shame in losing a rose to Arisugawa-sama."
"Can't sleep with her, can't beat her," Akio said. "It's a double blow like no other for us, sister."
She considered this. Such a blow was practically kind, in her experience. In her experience, also, the truth stretched farther in Akio's voice than the spun-steel bridges over the courtyard, and the resulting structures felt just as firm to the girls and boys that trooped across on their promise.
"Please allow me to fetch more drinks for you, Kiryuu-san," she said.
Out they went to the gleaming mold of snake oil Akio called a car: man, boy, Bride, and beer.
In the car, Akio slid his hand under Anthy's skirt. Anthy ignored him, watched recognition land on Touga from the side mirror. One part scandal, eight parts affected boredom, and one furrowing of the forehead that might be inspiration; he had a sister. A tiringly headstrong one, apt to poke so hard at innocuous things that she'd stumble on truth.
"So, Juri," Touga said, looking as though he had discovered something revolting about Nanami after all. Perhaps it was from the beer, which she knew was vile. She'd brewed it. "You ever caught her?"
Akio smiled. "To tell the truth, she's not worth catching."
"Once upon a time there was a river god," Anthy murmured. "He loved the sun, and he wanted her, but she hung proud in the sky and he could not have her. There was a human girl with hair like the sun, gold as a lion, and a heart as ferocious, who slept betwixt his reeds. When the river god swirled to her feet and tried to rip her from the shallows she fought. Because she was as ferocious as a lion she escaped, but he had known this might happen, and he had never sought to trap her arms and legs. He took her soul and bore it down, so even on the darkest nights if you swim with clear eyes you can see gold glinting in the riverbed."
"The point," Akio said, without reproach, "is clear, I trust."
"That sounds like a story for children." A question. If Akio liked them, Touga could convince himself he did. Akio designed Ohtori's children for flexibility, like the spires of its buildings, all angling after the chairman's tower. Touga probably thought changes like this were Touga's own spontaneous pit stops on the quest for authority; Akio was synonymous with power in the language no student knew they spoke.
Akio grinned. "It's adults who learn what the stories are actually about. Do they still say a god just lets a girl sleep by him? Just sleep?"—this in the fond tones of reminiscence.
Anthy had once attended classes. She tried to remember when she had used her glasses to read books, when they had ever absorbed light rather than shielding her from it. There was math class, where the teacher mystified them with topology. A pot of water could become a signet ring and also a manacle, no meaning lost. Physics: all things big enough could become wells toward which other things sunk. Stars and castles, Anthy thought, and also images and cults of desire. Akio's nails drummed up her legs.
The car defied gravity, leaped. Akio pressed more clever fingers to her thigh, to a low whistle from Touga, and Anthy leaned so far back she could pretend she was in the planetarium. The morning star blazed down on the car like a winter fire.
She was the witch heart and the million swords and a girl who had shuddered, too old to shudder guiltily, when Akio had licked pomegranate off her navel. She had never wanted a follower or imitator, or any other flattery. She wanted someone to be her opposite and fight her. She'd never thought herself violent before, she realized, yet she'd known the truth of it long enough that it didn't feel strange to have her swords pointing outward instead of within. How many years? Years slipped past you in the hallways of Ohtori, smooth as Chu-chu on the hunt for milk. Better to count duelists. The last duelist was Touga, the next would be Saionji, and now Juri—
"I know." Akio's descent onto her chest was heedless of wheel and road. He turned his head enough to speak and display his wind-cut cheeks. "Arisugawa Juri. You could be her miracle if you weren't so dirty."
"She'll be back," Akio said, as though this return was something despicable he couldn't stop. "They remember more, each time they duel. They want more, they need more. And this academy opens its doors to those in need."
"What will be done for them?"
"We tell them what they've forgotten." A feeding tube through Ruka's chest, Anthy thought, while Shiori sings your name in the foil closet and devours you. "I'm grateful to you, you know, for helping them."
Encouraged recollection could do a better job of erasure than lying. Anthy felt fatality curdle in her stomach, like her attempts at casseroles or the crumpled boy from the thirty-ninth duel. The car shivered through her leather chair into her spine. "What would Kiryuu-san like to forget today?"
Touga thumped the seat. The sensation came distantly through the purring of the engine, the verge of something Anthy thought Akio intended to be pain. "Really, I'm here! We're in this together. Just let me know what you need, Chairman."
"You're very close to us, yes. That's why we want you to watch very carefully."
At first Anthy thought Akio would vault onto the hood. The move had won the impressed loyalty of many a duelist. But the car continued in aerodynamic motion, faster now, so Akio bore down on her with no more force needed than the wind slicing along his back. He drove himself into her so hard her eyes blurred. Then came his mouth, and she saw stars and stars, some alien galaxy full of them: a conflagration of fuzzy light patches on black, spreading to past and future, whiting out memory and anticipation.
Over her someone or two someones were moving; there was always someone spinning about on the circular road. She felt into the whiteness and gave it shape. Into her crown of hair Touga said, wonderingly, "Good night for a ride, yeah? This is the life."
They stretched out on the white sofa. Ah, Anthy thought, your long lean lean legs, made for fighting. Akio took her hands in his when he caught her looking.
"You cougar. Such an old-looking woman, sleeping with a chairman's boy."
"Once upon a time a chairman's boy liked young girls and boys," Anthy answered, "and he liked them, ever after. Oh. I'm sorry, brother, I didn't mean to hurt you."
"But you're wrong," he said. "We are only old relative to others' age: and a world shaken by its revolution will have no others that matter. If you and I don't duel ourselves from boredom, there will no one to wield swords, anymore. No one to see who or how we are. Does it ever trouble you? Could you live with your sword never unsheathed from your throat?"
There were many swords, Anthy thought, and none of them truly belonged to her. They merely found their way into her and, miniaturized by her will, formed hard clusters that served as her ribs and coccyx and skull.
She had called for shade over the windows, but Ohtori had its rules. The Rose Bride found herself atop the spiral staircase. Light found its way. The school had built itself in Akio's image; he always found his way, too.
A stream of—photons, she remembered, long-disused memories creaking—wrapped around her toes and neck, striped across her nails blue as a ribbon. Darkness was only absence of light. The light lay insistent pressure wherever it touched. She closed herself against the onslaught, willed blue and the red in her eyelids to run black. Akio's hair flashed purple where it brushed her throat. Close, she told her ventricles and epiglottis and every other muscle she could recall the names for, open, close, open, close—
"You would be lovelier," Akio said, "pale, with empty veins. My eternal girl, my very best thing, we'll try something new. Princes are good when they have demure girls. Won't you do your part? To make me better?"
She couldn't squeeze her eyes shut against Akio's gentle fingers tracing her brow. He looked as young and human as the rest of her world's denizens, and as terrifyingly beautiful before he slid his hand over her heart and pulled.
"The Rose Bride offers one sword to each duelist who owns her," she whispered. Curious, this miracle that let her draw breath through the smothering light.
"I fight for you every night in my dreams," Akio said. "Many, many engagements. Don't you think in a thousand swords there's more than one for your brother?"
"I'm sorry," Anthy said. "Only a duelist can take the swords—and you do not duel."
Akio shrugged. Draped over his shoulder, she felt him move as though bouncing on rock. "Not yet, sister. But I'll fight for you, in the world we make together, I'll fight for you with every sword there is. And then I'll throw them in the rubbish bin behind the greenhouse and we can sleep together in the open daylight."
She rolled off and knelt by his feet, kissed his ankles. Akio liked that, of course, and she liked his smile expansive, casting a shadow sufficient to cover her, the light in his eyes the only kind she could tolerate without pain. Or a reminder of things best forgotten. "Let's call Juri, if you like, play robbers and brides," she said, and felt the ley lines of Ohtori shift and converge on her like a fountain inverting. There they were. Juri was crouched not ten meters from the tower door, wrapped around a Shiori pretending herself pure even of kissing skill, both unaware of the discussion above them. Akio declared who the students ought to be, but Anthy knew where the students were and what they were made of. "She has a sword in her, too, if you wish to use one."
"And then she'll forget, to the best of your ability?"
"Sure." When Anthy had dropped her paper into the summons-chute, he spoke again. "It's an interesting inversion, don't you think? All these children have their heart swords free for the taking, and no one who cares to fight for them."
"Thank you," she said. "Anthy is so very glad that you care for her."
Juri took her damn time. By arrival the morning felt imminent, like a capital sentence. Yet it was reassuringly dark between Juri's comb-tousled curls and the small red mole on her breastbone, her uniform embossed by the jags of a pendant and chain. Redundant; Juri was a chain herself. Built of precisely efficient links muscle to muscle, plated with such versatility that insults and awe bounced off with equal ease, tensile. "Well?" she asked, undeterred by a two-sibling front.
Her lips bore clear evidence of what was well in Juri-land. Anthy looked down at Juri's feet instead. "Could you please come here, Arigusawa-sama?"
Juri, wary, stalked inward, worked a half-circle in the carpet. Clever, Anthy thought, and regretfully plunged her fingers into the uniform's bow and writhed. It went quickly, then. Anthy was familiar with the ball of torturous light that fissured her chest, watched fascinated as someone else performed the slow-mo explosion pantomime that was the Bride's headliner. The sword came free like baby teeth, and lay cool in her hand like it had never been sheathed at 37 degrees. Juri lost all animation. Akio reached over her, hand eager and ready.
Anthy stabbed Juri's heart-sword through his knuckles.
"God fuck shit," Akio said. Maybe she was the object or subject of the sentence. No matter. "Do you—what television have you been watching, Anthy?"
"Your show," she said, for the pleasure of it, then very meekly: "Good morning, brother. I think it would be kind of you if you would not try to have sex with me in front of other students. And—and please stay here for a moment," she finished, unsure of what else to say, and because Juri was staring at her like her really very beautiful hair was going to fall out of its own accord.
"Himemiya," she managed, "that's not—what you can—how you hold a sword."
"Is it not? I'm afraid I don't have much experience."
"You should forget you saw this. Thank you for your attendance, Arisugawa-sama."
"How do you expect me to?" There would be real damage to the carpeting after this incident, Anthy thought, pile shredding countable by the seconds of Juri's heels scraping her agitation. "I have a duty to the Council, to..." She faltered. "A fucking surgeon, other students..."
"Takatsuki-san? She's waiting for you, how unlike her."
"Not only her!"
"Anthy," Akio said, from some other building entirely. "Anthy..."
She took her glasses off and folded them in her hands. "You will only hear this once. Shiori is going to leave tomorrow, and when she returns she's not going to be the girl you think she is." She'd never been, Anthy didn't add; that would serve no one's purpose. "If you tell her you will taint her—further," she did add, and Juri flushed. "You bear the responsibility the school as a whole cannot bear. You will not taint them."
"How do you know?"
"You need to forget this!"
Juri's arrogant expectation of omniscience warred with her concern for Shiori, with the sheer incompatibility of many personal heart-swords existing and her encyclopedia of gossip and well-ordered courts. Anthy pushed, pushed. Reason won. "Don't call me again tonight," Juri said, and she was gone.
"She's going to have to forget anyway," Akio said, still bleeding. So unlike Dios. "By magic. You'll be chasing her down the stairs in that monstrosity of silk and brass."
It was swelteringly uncomfortable without the dress, that feeling of hot-and-sweat sluicing down her skin. "It's all right."
"How was that worth it?"
Her dress fluttered over her shoulders, blinded her finally in black/green, black/yellow, scarlet. She felt herself settle and chill, as though she were a meringue and not a body of flesh and aftershocked bone. "I am the Rose Bride," she said.
"And my sister—"
"And I want all of my engaged to be happy. While they can."