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the good ambassador

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“Anthy,” Akio says, driving her back to the dorm, “it’s time you come back home.”

He is in a good mood now that he no longer has to share her with Mikage and in a better mood that, between Mikage and the new groom, Utena has proved to be the one worth keeping. He has not yet ensnarled and embalmed Utena the way he has the others, so the whole process excites him. It makes him feel ambitious.

“Ah, brother,” she says, and his lip move up in a sneer. He goes through cycles where he prefers to give his orders while she’s on her stomach with his hand in her hair, but right now he wants to practice acting in a more princely manner. Play the long game. Tolerate her face. “You’re too kind. But Utena-sama must focus on her final exams.”

“How miserable.” He shifts gears, slowing. In his eyes she can see him calculating the best way to capitalize. He is capable of feeling, that is the thing. He is capable of feeling kind. His sympathy for his charges is truly felt, but never enough to override his sympathy for himself.

“Send her in tomorrow. I’ll let you know what the schedule is. ‘Touch base.’ That’s what they’re saying nowadays.”

“Oh my.”

He brings the car to a hard stop. The seatbelt catches her by the throat, clutching her shoulder and neck like a giant’s fingers. “And for god’s sake, Anthy. How long will you forget the flowers?”

The skin on her throat stings with a raw pain. She steps out the car, holding her schoolbag in front of her. She smiles through it. “Yes. Good evening, brother.”

***

She has not forgotten the flowers. Rather, it is that for the first time in many months she has homework to do. It’s her mistake. She assumed Utena would lose interest in her, that her vanity would manifest in Anthy gradually vanishing from her life and only reappearing when it is time for her to be a convenient prop—but irritatingly, while Utena is blind to some things, while Utena's own scholastic accomplishments are as thin as a whore's stockings, in the classroom Utena’s eye seeks her constantly.

They are sitting in the garden in front of their dorm. Anthy is composing an essay. Utena is solving algebra problem sets, the questions themed and specific: Say there is triangle XYZ. If X is the angle of Jupiter over the horizon at 1:04AM, and Y the angle of Venus at 4:17AM, what is Z? When Anthy took a look at the problem set, she thought: So that’s why Utena has been spending so many nights sighing at the windows with her compass. She assumed lovesickness, hoped for it so that Utena might suffer less when the time came. She should have hoped for Akio's car to spontaneously combust.

“Is it seventy-two?” Utena says, squinting into the night sky. She has not yet realized that the sun rises in the northeast in this time of year, and sits facing forty-five degrees in the wrong direction. Chuchu, sitting next to Utena, has his back to the star in question. He is drawing circles in the dirt with a compass.

“No, Utena-sama.”

She knows the answers, or could know the answers. Akio has an astrolabe in his office, a round disc that looks like a shield. He has charts with dates and times and diagrams. If she asks him, he might even tell her the answers, for a price.

No, she thinks. Better let her be. Akio will want to keep Utena in awe of astronomers.

“What did you put down for ‘the angle of Sirius above the horizon?’”

“Miki-san said he would help.”

“You can’t do that! What would Akio-san say?”

“He’ll lose his temper. He may even ground me.”

“Oh.”

“But I would still be allowed to accompany you on the duels,” she makes sure to add.

“Huh,” Utena says, still staring at the sky. She’s heartened by Utena’s indifferent response, how she does not try to tell Anthy that she shouldn’t be the Bride or that the duels shouldn’t exist. Her nobility is fraying at the hem.

But there are always surprises with Utena. Her smile for example, when she stops searching for stars that aren’t there, or the sweetness of her hand. They’re small and youthful, the hands of an inexperienced boy.

“Been a while since we’ve had any,” Utena says, and squeezes.

Of course, they’ll stay this way forever. She’s a girl, after all.

“My brother wishes to see you tomorrow,” she says, softly, demure.

“Really? Well—what about you? Are you going?”

“No,” she says. “I will be busy then. You know the way, Utena-sama.”

“I do,” Utena says. She lets go of Anthy. She brings her hand up to her face, and presses the ring into her lips.

***

In the afternoon, when Utena has gone to Akio, Anthy goes to the greenhouse. The chairman’s tower is visible from here. The top floors stand higher than the afternoon sun. The windows shine blue.

She checks on the roses. Green first, then two blues. Orange, yellow, red. And eight white roses.

These roses are bred to be like good daughters: quiet, complementary, and prone to scattering at the slightest force. They are put the furthest from the doors and protected by a cardboard wall from any stray gusts of wind. When she carries them to the dueling arena, she carries them in glass bell jars close to her breast. They are so delicate she can’t water them with a can. Instead she has to use an eyedropper on the petals, and a decanter for the soil. To remove bugs, she uses tweezers made from paper.

They are growing nicely. She blows, lightly, across one of the white roses. The buds waver but stay tall. One of the white roses is set separately from the others. This one, the largest of them and still wrapped around itself, is meant for Akio.

She looks to the tower. Her fingers prick themselves on Akio’s thorns. She drips the blood into the soil. Waste not, want not. That is what they say.

***

“Utena-sama.”

Utena is twirling her new pinwheel between her fingers. She stops. “Himemiya?”

“Will you be going outside tonight?”

“Himemiya,” Utena says, as though she’s just remembered something. “Akio-san’s given us a big help! Look.” She holds up the astrolabe—Anthy nearly chokes from surprise. “He says with this, all I have to do is stand in the right place and point.”

“Do you know how to use it, Utena-sama?”

“Nope. You?”

“No. Though I have seen it often. A friend of my brother’s gave it to him.” A sudden inspiration. Anthy looks down sadly and says, “That man is now dead.”

“Oh, no! Poor Akio-san.” She blows on the pinwheel. It moves in a slow, counterclockwise circle.

“He didn’t mention it to you?” Utena shakes her head. “Oh, my! And he didn’t ask for you to return it?” Another head shake. “He must like you very much, Utena-sama.”

“I wasn’t planning on keeping it!”

“Of course not,” Anthy says. She makes sure to look very mournful as she says this.

Utena huffs. The pinwheel spins and tangles with her hair. “I wasn’t going to keep it,” she says again. “It’s made of gold, after all.”

“It’s brass, Utena-sama.”

“Brass? Really?”

“Oh yes.”

The inside of the pinwheel is red, white, black, and pink. Utena sighs. The pinwheel’s wings flutter and slow. A wind blows through the trees, a bird goes silent. When a prince is sad, the world is sad with him; though when he is happy or angry or has an upset stomach, the world cares not a whit.

“I’ll have to go back once finals are over,” Utena says. She holds the astrolabe up to the light. Written in the metal is a set of tables, meant to help you determine the movement of the stars based on the time of year and your latitude. But it’s written in Greek and will be no help to Utena.

***

Juri stops by their dorm the next morning. Miki has asked her to deliver a message on his behalf: the CIA has taken him away so he can solve a problem in China, and he won’t be able to come tonight. But maybe tomorrow?

“Wow, the CIA,” Utena says. She holds up the astrolabe. She is in the center of a growing tornado of despair. “Juri-senpai, do you know how to use this?”

“If I did, what makes you think I would help you?”

“Friendship?”

“For your math worksheets?” She nods. “When I did this assignment it was different. They asked us to catch falling stars at certain coordinates.” Her gaze becomes faraway. “It’d take a miracle to catch one.”

“If you caught one, you’d be dead. They’re rocks falling from outer space, after all.”

She takes it from Utena’s hands and peers at the astrolabe with the mildest of curiosity. She gazes down the sights, and sees, suddenly, Anthy. She lowers her arms. “You’re still living with her?”

Even from the bed, Anthy sees Juri’s shoulders pull up, pull back. She has seen Juri like this before, normally just before she raises her hand. Anthy likes to think of how Juri looks when she’s in bed, one hand holding onto the locket and her eyes hunting for dreams beneath their lids. Did you know that some princes never sleep? They are too busy falling.

“Himemiya’s a great roommate. We had shaved ice again for lunch.” Utena pokes her calculator a few times, the tip of her tongue protruding from her lips. It’s yellow from the lemon.

“This thing won’t help you,” Juri says, pushing the astrolabe back into Utena’s hands. “Why agonize over this? We all know that the honorable prince Tenjou is no mathematician.”

“Hey!”

Juri takes Utena’s homework and pencil and writes the answers down for her. “The teachers are too lazy to change the actual answers from year to year. They only change the questions. Seems like more work to me.”

“Thanks,” Utena says. “I think.”

“Move out,” Juri advises. “Find a way to lock that person out of your room. You’ll sleep easier. Your things will stop disappearing.”

“I sleep just fine,” Utena says. “Besides, this belongs to her brother. I’m the one making stuff disappear.”

Even so, she rolls up her homework and tucks it into her uniform before escorting Juri to the door.

***

It’s nighttime when Anthy returns from her brother’s room. He was not angry when she told him of Juri’s interference. What shall I do to her, she asked, just before he grabbed her arm. His hand hovered in the air, wrist bent and fingers splayed, as though he was trying to shield himself.

Oh, Arisugawa. There’s nothing to do now. You’ve administered the poison already. She’ll wither away without you violating her. Stop scheming.

Afterwards, he asked her, Are you planning on taking those exams like some common schoolgirl? Don’t bother. Fall ill. Poison yourself, if you think that will kill you faster.

Things must be going well for him. She confirms it for herself when she finds Utena sitting on the grass, staring up at the dark sky with the astrolabe in hand. Anthy makes her approach a soft one. Utena, so absorbed in the sky, doesn’t notice her. Not until Anthy blows in her ear.

“Aaaackkk!” Utena yelps, and pitches to the side like an overturned cow. Watching her flail around, it’s hard to think of her as still worthy of Dios’ spirit, though she can imagine what interests her brother. Look at the shape of her bottom.

She stares only for a second. “It’s Utena-sama! I thought you were a statue.”

“Ha, ha,” Utena says, brushing grass off her uniform. “Himemiya, I think I’ve figured out how this works.” She sits next to Utena. Utena puts an arm around her and draws her closer, so they can look through the same sight. She’s so warm and so solid. She radiates vulnerability. “I knew Juri-senpai was lying about the tests. Look! This thing, it tells you the angles, like a compass. And this one, that’s Sirius, I think. See? The angle’s different.”

“Yes, you’re right,” Anthy says. She leans against Utena to absorb some of the heat, some of the comfort. She sees Utena’s eyes widen and cheeks go red. Perhaps she thinks she is saving herself for Akio? She slides her fingertips along the bony ridges on the back of Utena’s hand and says, “Utena-sama, do you have the correct plate?”

“Plate?” Utena says blankly.

Anthy taps the hard, solid back of the astrolabe, the one with arcs and circles carved into the brass. “Yes. My brother’s friend was Egyptian. So this astrolabe is only good in Egypt.”

“What?! Oh no! I erased Juri-senpai’s answers already.”

“It is all right,” Anthy says. She is considering telling Utena that she is not even looking at Sirius, but it is best to keep her morale up. “You can copy them off of mine.”

“I thought Miki was still with the CIA.”

“There are charts in the library. Just as Arisugawa-senpai says.”

“Oh.” She looks at Anthy with wide, blue eyes. “Is it all right to use them, then? We won’t get in trouble? I don’t know why I’m worried about getting in trouble.”

“You wouldn’t want to my brother to hear you have been cheating. I understand. Let me change some of these so they are wrong.”

“No, no. I’ll mess mine up instead. Can’t do anything right lately, anyway!” Her hand comes up to her mouth again, the one with the ring. Their faces are so close that Utena’s fingers are just inches from Anthy’s cheek. From this distance, she can see that Utena is not kissing the ring, but pushing the embossed seal against her face and resting her upper teeth against the swell in the metal. The moon gleams on the raised arcs of the rose petals, lighting one edge then another as the ring shifts against Utena’s lips, and turns the metal white as a scar on her boyish finger. “How did you know about the plate thing, Himemiya? I thought you said you didn’t know how to use this.”

“Did I say that? You must have misheard.” Look at how easily Utena becomes confused! She’s so trusting, so easy, so young. Unless that is suspicion in Utena’s eyes; it could be the moon. But she remembers Utena rolling her homework into her jacket, Utena and Juri chatting on their way to the main entrance and says, just in case, “Utena-sama… My brother’s friend… He showed me how to use it. When he passed, I gave this to my brother because I could not bear to see it.”

“Oh no,” Utena says. “Himemiya—Himemiya, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know. Should I throw it into the fountain? No! I’ll give it back to Akio-san.”

“Let me bring it to him.” She extends her hand. Utena’s fingers spread across the brass circumference, fingertips tracing the words and numbers. She wonders how Utena will react if she’s told the actual worth of the astrolabe. A few hundred million yen, or something like that. It’s an antique from the twelfth century.

Utena turns it over with a bright smile. It doesn’t waver or look regretful. Instead it’s strong, determined, and so kind, like a flower opening or light breaking open on a sword. Anthy holds the astrolabe to her chest, like an aegis.

“What was he like?”

Nothing, she wants to scream. He never existed. He’s not real. He’s made up. I have lied to you. I have been lying to you from the start.

“He was very kind. And he only drank buttermilk.”

“Did you like him? This is the first time you’ve talked about someone who isn’t part of the school. Himemiya?”

A minute passes. It’s hot, but there is a good wind; but during that minute the wind dies. Utena pushes her bangs away from her face, dragging her palm across her forehead; her bangs are long enough that they catch Anthy’s cheek and graze over her ear. She puts her hand on Anthy’s elbow. Her hand is still sweaty. For a moment Anthy thinks she will be kissed good night. Instead Utena flashes her one of her sheepish smiles, and hands Anthy a fistful of cookies, wrapped up in a napkin. “I went out with Wakaba this afternoon and she gave me these. I guess she’s practicing her baking.”

She takes a bite into a cookie. It’s salty. She takes another bite. The chocolate is too bitter. “It’s sweet,” she says.

“Really?” Utena says, in a way that makes it clear she hasn’t tried them. She takes a cookie for herself and bites in. Anthy watches. She expects Utena’s face to scrunch up, for Utena to say, Ugh, bleck! or one of those other noises she makes. Instead Utena says, “I bet these would go great with buttermilk.”

Anthy feeds the rest of the cookie to Chuchu. “Utena-sama, do you think Shinohara-san will ever forgive you?”

“For what?”

“For not helping her study.”

“Oh, she already has the answers. I haven’t seen a lot of her lately. I wonder why.” She strokes Chuchu’s head. She looks, for a moment, hunted and exhausted, just as weak as Akio needs her to be. Anthy is moved by this ragged, dirty love she once had for Dios, reappearing like a truant child at a stern parent’s door. She kisses Utena, her thumb braced against Utena's clavicle, her mouth wet and full of hope.

Utena’s lips hang open like a fish’s. Anthy might as well have sneezed in her face. For a moment she feels hate. She is good at feeling it.

“Utena-sama, the bugs are coming out. I’m going back now.”

“Okay. Me, too.” She follows Anthy, half a step ahead—princes, you see, have a way of doing that. At the door she stops and puts her hands on Anthy’s shoulders and kisses her, light and sweet. “Thanks,” she says. “I’ve been feeling off lately, but you fixed me right up again.”

“Oh, really, Utena-sama? I’m glad.” Utena grins at her and enters into the dorm, but Anthy lingers at the open door, growing warm. She wants to bring her hand to her lips. Out of the darkness, she sees Akio’s tower, watching the stars with his ever-present, baleful eye.