Saori smiled to herself as she watched the young people, assembling near the forest, up and down the line of trees. It was a sight to see, she thought: girls, all turned out in their pretty dresses . . . young men with bright eyes and bashful smiles . . . To her, they rather resembled the storybook pictures of fairies or nymphs, playing in the darkened night . . . Torches driven deep in the ground illuminated the night in regular intervals as moths and other night bugs flitted around the dancing flames . . .
It was almost time for the search for the elusive fern flower—a flower of lore that was said to bloom only once a year: at midnight on the night of Ivan Kupala. It was said that anyone who saw the flower would get their wish—anything they wished—that it was a symbol of prosperity, luck, the ability to know right from wrong, and power. Legend said that the flower would point to a hidden treasure, a gift of whatever the heart desired . . .
Traditionally, the search was left to the young, the unmarried maidens with wreathes of flowers in their hair, and the young men who were looking for love. The maidens would be the first to enter the forest, and the men would follow. They’d forage together, and if they were lucky, they’d find the fern flower, and if they were luckier still, they might find true love in their search, too . . .
“Aren’t you going in?”
Blinking as she turned to smile at Yerik, she shrugged. “I . . . I don’t think so,” she said, biting her lip, trying not to sound or look disappointed. “Did you get un-engaged?”
“Fai’s talking to her father now,” he said. “He . . . wasn’t too happy about ending it. Seems that he was banking on the idea that she was going to marry the tai-youkai’s brother . . .”
“Well, I hope you learned your lesson,” she said, shaking her head sternly, crossing her arms over her chest as she tried not to smile since it really was a rather amusing thing . . . Still, on some level, she felt sorry for the girl. Of course, common logic might have dictated that, really, a proposal offered when they were just children couldn’t actually hold any kind of weight. Even so, she couldn’t entirely discount it. After all, that was the kind of thing that little girls’ dreams were made of, wasn’t it?
“Lesson learned, absolutely,” he said with a wolfish grin and an incorrigible wink.
“Okay, you’re off the hook, Yerik. When fiancees: two through five show up, you’re on your own,” Fai growled, striding over to cast his brother a very put-upon scowl. “Saori . . . You look . . . wonderful . . .”
She ducked her chin, held out the skirt of the rather simple, but pretty white dress. The skirt was a full concoction of white organza kerchiefs sewn together in such a way that it wasn’t at all sheer or see-through but maintained a hazy solid color and still moved so gracefully, so perpetually, that it seemed as though it were flowing. The bodice was fitted well, and the small cap sleeves were made in the same design as the skirt, albeit with much smaller kerchiefs, and the overall effect was pretty stunning, even if she did say so herself . . .
“Excuse us, Yerik. Don’t propose to anyone while we’re gone,” Fai said, taking Saori’s hand to lead her toward the forest.
“Wait . . . You’re going into the forest?” Yerik asked, sounding rather incredulous.
“Yes, Yerik, I am,” he said, giving Saori’s hand a little tug to get her moving.
“Oh, I . . . I don’t have a wreath,” she protested weakly, unsure if she wanted to go along with this or not.
He stopped, held up a beautiful wreath of ivy and salt-and-pepper baby’s breath and sweet little white rosebuds that she hadn’t noticed before. Gently, he placed it on her head, fussed with it for a minute. “You have one now,” he remarked. “You don’t want to miss this, do you?”
She gnawed on her lower lip, slowly shook her head. On the one hand, this was one of the parts of Ivan Kupala that she had looked forward to the most. On the other? Those questions that had plagued her since their arrival . . . She still didn’t know what to make of them, what to think . . . And . . .
But . . . But Fai . . . He looked almost . . .
‘Almost . . . what . . .?’
‘He seems almost . . . excited, doesn’t he? Like . . .’
‘Like . . . Like he wants to do this . . .’
He reached up, fussed with the circlet of flowers once more, fiddling with her hair, arranging her bangs, tucking her hair behind her right ear . . . Then he smiled a very small smile, but one that stunted her breathing, left her tinging where his fingertips had lingered against her skin . . .
“Go on,” he coaxed gently, jerking his head toward the forest.
She turned, watched as the other girls stepped into the trees. She glanced over her shoulder at him: he was standing in the same place, hands tucked into his pockets. He nodded once, and she turned back, drawing a deep breath as she followed the others into the wayward darkness.
The forest itself had been lit for the occasion, too: more of those tiny fairy lights, large LED lanterns fashioned to look like they’d been there forever on stone pedestals that lit the area here and there . . . Around the large lanterns were some smaller ones—ones that could easily be lifted and carried to light the way. Saori didn’t take one as she ventured past the first pedestal.
Something about the forest felt magical, alive. Maybe it was just the auras of the others—the underlying sense of excitement as they searched for a flower that did not really exist. It couldn’t, actually. Ferns were spore-reproducing plants. Biologically speaking, they could not flower. Even so, the lore was so precious, and, on a night like this one, it was enough to make one want to forget the science of it, even as a silly little hope spurred her on.
“Well, whether I want them or not, it’s kind of part and parcel with the title . . .”
Those words, whispered in her head, were enough to stop her in her tracks. The excitement she’d felt mere moments before seemed to evaporate before her eyes. Rubbing her forearms—the falling night temperatures were suddenly very apparent—she shuffled forward a few more steps.
‘Ask yourself this then: is this a deal-breaker for you? Supposing he really doesn’t want children or more than one child . . . Is that enough for you to want to walk away from him?’ her youkai asked in a gentle tone, almost as though it were trying to buffer her on some level.
She sighed, arms dropping to her sides as she wandered deeper into the trees. She couldn’t sense anyone near her, and that was fine, too. It was the most solitude she’d been afforded since arriving, really—a perfect time to think . . .
It wasn’t so much that she had to have a houseful of children, she supposed. In a perfect world, she wouldn’t mind having a large family, but she really didn’t want more than one or two at a time. She wanted them to be her focus, and the more children she had at one time, the less of her attention she’d be able to devote to each one. Fai would have to have at least one child, and that wasn’t the issue; not really. The real issue was . . . if he didn’t really want children, then just what kind of father would he be . . .?
She . . . She just didn’t know, and that was the part that was so hard to deal with. If he didn’t want children, would he at least try to humor her and the child? Or would he be the kind of father who closed himself away in his office all day, content to leave the raising of said-child to her discretion? Certainly, he wouldn’t be cruel or anything like that, but wasn’t apathy just as hard to deal with in the end? Children, after all, weren’t stupid creatures. They’d sense it—they’d know—whether or not they were wanted . . .
And the real question she had to ask herself was if she could deal with any of those scenarios, and regardless of how she felt about Fai . . .
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
She gasped, whipped around, only to come, face to face with Fai as he stepped out of the trees behind her. He had grabbed one of the small lanterns that cast a bluish-tinted glow, bathing everything in an ethereal kind of light. He stepped toward her, held up his free hand. She stared at it for a moment before slipping hers into it.
“You’re awfully quiet,” he said as he led her deeper into the trees with no real destination in mind. “Why are you so pensive?”
She didn’t know how to answer that, and she couldn’t quite bring herself to talk about it, either: to ask him the one question that was driving her insane. It wasn’t okay, was it? To demand answers about something like that . . . She had no right to ask because she had no right to try to negotiate if his answer was one she didn’t care to hear because if the tables were turned, if she felt that strongly about something, then she’d resent it if he tried to reason with her, tried to change her mind because it wasn’t something he believed or wanted, too . . .
Fai sighed. “This is the first time I’ve done this,” he admitted quietly.
She blinked. “The first time? Why?”
He shrugged. “Never met anyone I wanted to follow into the forest before . . .”
“But you’re supposed to look for the fern flower . . . It’s supposed to grant you luck and clarity and . . .”
He sighed. “It’s a little different, I guess, when you’re tai-youkai—or will be one day. You’re always . . . hyper-aware of everything—of how things appear, of how you’re perceived . . . Father told me that I should hold back, that things like this could lead to rumors, to innuendo that you’ll have to deal with later . . . So, it was easier, just to avoid it . . .”
She considered that, unsure, exactly, what he was trying to say or if he was trying to say anything in particular. “But you . . . You wanted to this year . . .?”
“Well, I . . . I mean, you . . . It’s your first Ivan Kupala,” he replied, downplaying his part in it. “Besides, I’ve barely seen you today, so . . .”
“And . . . And you wanted to spend time with me?”
He didn’t answer her, but he did give her fingers a little squeeze.
They wandered a little farther, the lantern casting misshapen shadows upon the dense foliage. The fairy lights still lit some of the tree trunks, and she had to admit that the overall effect was entirely sweet, mesmerizing . . .
“There was one year,” he said, his voice soft, “Yerik was small—maybe seven? And he was so excited, he ran into the trees before I could stop him. I ran to find him, only to discover that one of the maidens had caught him and was leading him around . . . What are the odds that he didn’t propose to her, too?”
She laughed, despite her own troubled thoughts. Somehow, in her head, she could see Yerik doing that . . . “So, what did you do?”
A strange kind of expression settled over his features: an amusement that was somehow tinged with a sense of sadness, too. “What could I do? I let him stay with the girl. She didn’t seem to mind, anyway. Yerik swore that he saw the fern flower—that it was this great, glowing red flower that rose higher and higher, that it burst open with sparks and flames and all of that . . . Of course, he was seven, and . . . and ferns don’t flower. Even so, I always thought that whatever he saw . . . I kind of hoped that it was real . . .”
He laughed suddenly, an almost embarrassed kind of sound, shaking his head, shrugging his shoulders in an almost offhanded way. “That . . . really seems rather stupid, doesn’t it? But I always thought that my own children—that I would find a way to make it happen—to make it so that they would always see the fern flower . . . I mean, I’m tai-youkai, right? Nature bends to my will, so if that’s the case, then . . . Then can’t I make it be so? Just for one night?”
She stopped in her tracks, her heart slamming hard against her ribcage. The question that had plagued her for the last couple days, and he . . . His own children . . .? He . . . He wanted to ensure that they . . . that they could believe in magic because . . .? It almost sounded as if . . . “Fai?”
She swallowed hard, placed a hand over her heart in an effort to calm her racing pulse. “You . . . You do want children, don’t you?”
He shot her a quick, questioning glance, but he shrugged. “Well, yes . . . One day, anyway. Right now, everything’s so . . .”
That made sense to her. Given how volatile things really were in Asia as a whole, she really couldn’t fault him for feeling as though he wanted to wait to start a real family . . . But he did want that family eventually, and that . . . That was enough for her.
The pall that had settled over her seemed to evaporate, and even the air in the forest felt lighter, freer . . . warmer and far more inviting . . . Suddenly, she wanted to laugh—really laugh—to throw her head back and dance and laugh and maybe even sing . . . She didn’t do any of those things, but she did hold onto Fai’s hand just a little tighter, a little more securely . . .
He sighed. “I realized when I was raising Yerik that children . . . They believe things. They don’t need proof. If you tell them something, they just believe it. It sounds stupid, doesn’t it? But . . . But it’s a reminder of everything that is possible, even when you know that it’s simply all illusion. I . . . I sometimes wish that my father had allowed me to believe things just a little longer. I understand why he didn’t. Reality is powerful—just as powerful as belief. Mother . . . She tried to get Father to bend on it, but he said that fairy tales would not help me lead the youkai. He was right, sure . . . Still . . .”
“And you don’t agree with that?”
The look on his face bespoke his conflicted feelings on the matter. She supposed she could understand that. “I can appreciate my father’s thoughts, but . . . But I don’t think I agree.” He grimaced. “I don’t think he was a bad parent. I just . . . I . . . I don’t know. I guess, having watched Yerik grow up, I see it from a different perspective. I wasn’t his father, but I . . .”
“I don’t know,” she ventured. “Maybe not officially, but do you think he remembers being raised by anyone else? He said . . . He said he doesn’t remember them—your parents. What he remembers is you, Fai . . .”
He blinked, his brows knitting together as he pondered what she’d said. “He never . . . He’s never told me that before—that he doesn’t remember our parents. I thought as much, but never asked, and . . .” He winced. “That hurts. It’s not his fault, and I don’t blame him. He was just a . . . a toddler back then . . . but . . .” He sighed, shook his head, and in that moment, he allowed her to feel it: his sadness, his pain—pain he’d carried around for years, that he held onto so selfishly, not because he was afraid or ashamed or anything, but because the last thing he wanted was for his own grief to burden anyone else . . . “They loved him,” he whispered. “They loved him . . .”
She stopped, pulled her hand away from him as she turned to look at him. Reaching out, touching his face, hating the idea that there wasn’t really anything she could do for him, she did the only thing that she could think of: she slipped her arms around him, wishing that there was something more—something better—anything at all . . .
He wrapped his arm around her, still holding onto the lantern with the other, but he accepted the comfort she afforded him with a sigh, with a grimace, with an easy acquiescence that she could feel.
“Stay with me, Saori,” he murmured, burying his lips in her hair. “Never leave me?”
“I won’t,” she promised, her voice muffled by his shirt, by his body, as she held him tight. “Fai?”
She leaned away, far enough that she could look up into his eyes. The colors seemed to sparkle, to flow, one into another in the hazy, bluish-white light of the lamp. There were so many things, all there in his gaze . . . A part of her understood those unspoken things. A part of her didn’t need words, anyway. “I . . . I want my children to believe, too,” she said. “Even if it’s something as silly as a fern flower, I want them to believe . . .”
He didn’t smile, but his eyes seemed to brighten. Then he dropped his arm away, reached behind himself to pull her hand free. “Come on. You . . . You’ll like this.”
She followed him, her gaze falling to her hand, clasped in his. It wasn’t a normal gesture for the Japanese, no, and wasn’t exactly a normal one for the Russians, come to think of it. For some reason, though, as long as it was Fai, she was all right with it, as he led her deeper into the forest.
They stepped out of a particular dense patch of foliage, and Saori blinked, slowly turning, taking it all in. They were still in the forest, but the area was more of a small clearing, but not quite. In the center of it stood a thick cluster of ferns—easily the largest plants she’d ever seen, and Fai set the lantern on a tallish tree stump before slipping his arms around her, gently pulling her back against his chest. “I always imagined that, if the flower did appear, it would do so here,” he said to her, his voice barely audible, even though he spoke directly into her ear. “It seems like the most appropriate place . . .”
“And it would appear . . . right there,” she said, pointing at the tallest growth in the middle of the cluster.
“I’d think so,” he said, letting go of her long enough to bring his arm up, checking the time. “If it’s going to appear, it’ll be in about five minutes . . .”
She turned her head, leaned to the side to see his face. “I thought you said you’ve never done this before. How did you know about this place?”
He shrugged. “I haven’t done this before,” he reiterated. “I’ve been in this forest lots of times, though.”
Turning her gaze back to the ferns once more, she figured that it made sense, though the idea that Fai had actually been considering it when he saw this area? Somehow, that was beyond adorable, in her estimation . . .
“Do you think we’ll see it?” she whispered, almost afraid to raise her voice as the sounds of the forest surrounded them. It was so peaceful, so magical . . . and she wasn’t entirely sure, but she had a feeling that it had everything to do with Fai’s presence . . .
He sighed, his breath, stirring her hair that had escaped the intricate braid that Arrida’s stylist had arranged. The warmth sent a shiver down her spine, and he wrapped his arms a little tighter around her. “Well, if we believe science, then no. But . . .”
She watched in silence as he held out his hand, palm up. After a moment, she slipped one of her hands onto his, also palm up, and she gasped as a quiet hum erupted in her ears. A moment later, a wispy tendril, then two, rose from their hands above her palm: one of them, a hazy burnished gold, the other, an iridescent, pearly white—Saori’s ceremonial color. “Is that . . .?”
Fai nodded. “My color, yes.”
She gasped as the thin wisps thickened, twisted around each other, undulating as the colors started to mix: an opalescent gold that swelled and surged. It looked like a bud, didn’t it? She shook her head, unsure if she believed what she was seeing.
And then, the petals of the flower burst open, unleashing a sparkling shower of glittering dust as the blossom burned bright, slowly turning above their hands like a hologram . . . Thick, long, pointed petals that curled back, revealing a lush ring of smaller petals as the delicate, glowing bloom shed more sprinkles, like diamond dust in the dark . . .
“That’s our flower, Saori,” he whispered in her ear.
She laughed softly, her eyes glowing in the light of the blossom. “Our fern flower . . .”
He laughed, too. “Yes.”