They say the party was your family. In some ways, that quote made sense. These are the people you would live and die for, carried and fuelled by the love for family, even if the said family was found.
That love is beautiful. It has moved mountains, literally or metaphorically; it has moved people into an adventure that changed their lives. But this sort of love is false. It is coddled and made only possible not because the people wanted it but because it was needed. Co-operation was needed to survive. Being kind was needed to survive.
Not to lessen those of purer hearts, for love can even come from basic manipulation. But really. When you’re nothing but tools for entertainment, is everything you are or anything at all genuine? Or was it all fabricated for God’s amusement and fondness?
...Of course, it was real. Gods like perfection, and love is everything but perfection. And it shines most when it surrounds the imperfections of every damned human. This is why the most crucial factor of the healing potion is not Love but the intent of Love. The intent of love and honey to sweeten the taste is needed, especially for young children or adults with picky taste buds.
- Health Potion Recipe, Transcribed by Ootori Mahiru.
She hated her sisters. Shiori didn’t want to hate her sisters, but it was hard to remember when they acted like this. Stupid, arrogant top stars of the Kirin Temple. Shiori hated it all— she hated being related to them when they were like this. Unfortunately, this was more common than Shiori could stomach.
“Y’know I’m not a child anymore.” Shiori yelled. She didn’t attempt to hide the bite and the anger in her voice. She stormed away from Mahiru’s house the second they were out of eyesight, leaving her sisters in her dust before they caught up to her. “You two can stop acting like you know better than me.”
“Shiori,” Fumi sighed as she caught up first, reaching out to Shiori with her gloved hands. “Shiori you know it’s not because of that.” Shiori stopped reluctantly; she didn’t want Fumi to actually use magic to stop her. She did it before once they were younger, and it was humiliating. Still, Shiori didn’t turn around to face her. And when Claudine came into view in the corner of her eye, Shiori avoided her too.
“No,” Shiori drawled, rolling her eyes as she kept her eyes to the sky. “It’s because Mahiru is an exiled member of society, an anarchist who is against the mighty Kirin.” She spat the statement out like it was rotten food, the snarl and sarcasm dripping down her teeth.
It was always the same old excuse. The same old reason why Shiori’s sisters, acolytes of the Kirin, kept saying to get out of trouble. Mahiru was a bad person. Mahiru shared anti-kirin propaganda. Mahiru was dangerous. They always told Shiori off for associating with Mahiru, for going out of the city to befriend her in the little shop.
They never even bothered to tell her why.
If she wanted to know why Mahiru was a “menace”, she needed to be an acolyte too. When Shiori first heard that, she laughed. She’ll be an acolyte, but then she wouldn’t learn the information cause it was “too dangerous” for her, or she would be too young. Or even worse, her sisters, aka her higher-ups, wouldn’t tell her just to “protect her.”
She was 20 years old, now nearing 21. She wasn’t a child needing protection, even if her sisters kept acting like she was. Besides, they can’t precisely preach safety when they failed her already after their mothers died.
It may have been years— but she still couldn’t forgive them for abandoning her when they were kids.
“Shiori,” Claudine said with a tone that was stern as always. Like it was to a menace of the public instead of her little sister. Claudine stepped in front of her, and Shiori closed her eyes out of stubbornness. She didn’t see Claudine’s shoulder sag, but the tired, disappointed sigh told her about it instead. “Shiori, I’m not going to tell you off about Mahiru this time but you need to watch how you say things. People won’t like that tone.”
Something about that last sentence forced Shiori’s eyes to open, the green shade turning acidic as she sneered at Claudine.
“People won’t like that tone,” she repeated; the frustration of the hypocrisy made Shiori shove past Claudine. “Just like people wouldn’t like that tone you used against Mahiru in the shop?” She walked faster, her fists clenching tight against each other. She can tell her sisters didn’t follow her, and for once, she was glad. “Consider this even,” she murmured under her breath. She couldn’t do much for Mahiru, but she was delighted she could at least do this.
“Did you really have to do that?” Fumi asked, pinching her nose as she stood next to Claudine. Claudine was staring at Shiori’s leaving figure, a contemplative expression on her face. “She’s already mad at us.”
Fumi didn’t like how strained their relationship had become over the years when Shiori turned 18. Then again, she was the one that moved out of the temple that all three of them called home ever since their mothers died. Fumi still couldn’t figure out a reason why— and she was the reasonable one.
“It’s not my fault that Mahiru deserved it,” Claudine grumbled as she kicked a stray pebble to get out some of her pent up frustration. Claudine glanced back at the dirt road that led to Mahiru’s shop. “Why can’t Shiori understand that Mahiru is dangerous behind that kind facade?” She snorted, kicking another pebble that was close to her feet. “She’s lucky that I’m holding back.”
Fumi sighed at Claudine’s words, playing with the strings of her gloves to destress. If she wasn’t due for a ceremony soon, she would remove the glove entirely and play with the rose ring. Despite being Claudine’s twin, Fumi was the unfortunate one who was born a few hours later. This meant she was now the middle child mitigating Claudine and Shiori’s constant fights. Especially when it was about Mahiru.
Even then, Fumi knew that her attempts at being a neutral party were poor. She knew, and Shiori knew that she was more biased for Claudine’s view since Fumi was an acolyte too. She was in a different branch than Claudine, Runes, and Magic instead of Weaponry Combat, but she was an acolyte nonetheless.
That meant neutrality was hard when she knew things the public would never understand. Mainly because she was Daiba san’s personal student after she rescued her when she was a child. There was stuff Fumi couldn’t even say to Claudine unless they graduated. So telling Shiori anything important without Daiba san’s permission was difficult without putting a target on her back. Shiori had every right to get angry at them for keeping secrets, but they had to keep it a secret.
Loose tongues made heads roll— at least that was what Daiba san preached.
“Look,” Fumi said as she raised her hands up in pre-self-defence. Claudine rolled her eyes. “Playing the devil’s advocate, you didn’t exactly help by smashing her potion in the store.” Fumi then winced, remembering how quick she was to antagonise Mahiru when Claudine got involved. “And the attempted extortion probably didn’t help either.”
“Look I just saw her stupid face and I just wanted to punch it,” Claudine scowled, the vitriol hatred rolling off her tongue. The hate then simmered into what it really was deep inside, behind the surface rage and hate— to something only Fumi knew and saw. The hues of worry dampened Claudine’s eyes; the fear stretched her lips to a frown. Claudine placed a stray hair behind her ear— a rare exposure of Claudine’s rose stud piercing. “I don’t like Mahiru’s influence on Shiori.”
Claudine shook her head at the thought, and the hair fell forward, hiding the earring once again.
Fumi shook her head. The weight of her own rose ring underneath her gloves felt heavy. Whilst she knew why Claudine hated Mahiru, she never fully understood the hatred, or at least this depth. If Fumi’s own reasoning for not liking Mahiru and being weary of Mahiru from Nana’s warnings was a lake, then Claudine’s was a trench underneath the sea. Her hate would be powerful enough to create volcanic islands. For now, it was subdued, spitting only hot air up to the surface above.
“Come on Kuro,” Fumi laughed as she slapped Claudine’s shoulder. “We don’t need to worry about her now, we’re graduating from being acolytes today remember?” She nudged her side, a cheerful smile on her face. “We’re finally going to get what we came for after 15 years. When we graduate no one can tell us what to do.”
“Yeah,” Claudine laughed, her worry easing away to the wind. “Yeah, we don’t need to hold back anymore— we’re going to graduate.”
“We’re going to be heroes,” Fumi grinned, whispering the words like it’s a birthday wish before the blowing of the candles. “Just like we always planned as kids.”
“The Hero and her lancer.” Claudine mirrored Fumi’s excitement, the smug smirk on her face as she wrapped her in a side hug. “The brains and the brawns.”
“Why do you put me as the sidekick?” Fumi laughed as she pushed Claudine away. “I could be the hero for all you know.”
“Please since when did a mage become a hero,” Claudine scoffed. She placed her hands on her hips before she pointed at Fumi. “You’re more of a merin type, all assistant but more powerful when we’re in the side plot.”
Fumi cocked one of her eyebrows up, looking up and down at Claudine’s chainmail armour. “You only say that because you got all the muscles huh, miss berserker.”
“Oh how dare you!” Claudine yelled, but there was no bite in her carefree smile. Instead, she chased after Fumi, uncaring how she was literally proving Fumi’s point. Though it seemed Fumi didn’t matter either.
“Aren’t you glad Mahiru didn’t join in after all, Claudine?” Fumi laughed as she ran. However, she halted immediately when she didn’t hear Claudine’s steps behind her. Her eyes widened, her hand immediately went to her face when she realised what she did.
“AND THEN SHE GOES AND REJECTS TENDOU MAYA’S OFFER!” Claudine yelled again, kicking not just a pebble but a larger stone into the wall, making a crack in the defence.
Fumi followed up Claudine’s outburst with a loud groan of her own, only partially muffled with her face in her hands. She will allow herself a moment of self regret before she assured the guards nearby that no— there wasn’t an attack. It was just her sister being rowdy.
Neither of them noticed that Shiori didn’t go too far. That she was looking back when she heard them laugh, that her anger faded away from the longer she looked. They didn’t notice the way her eyes narrowed with guilt, her upper lip wobbling with hesitation. Neither of them saw the way the familiar, nostalgic hint of family bonding shined in her eyes before it dropped entirely.
The conflict of whether she should laugh with her sisters already ended as soon as it properly began. She couldn’t laugh with them, even when the desire to join ached her chest so hard she forgot to breathe.
For all her years living here, Shiori never learnt the proper name of the city. She called it Kirin City because the Grand Temple was in the centre of it. But when she moved out of the temple when she was a teenager, she never bothered to learn the city’s real name. Though Kirin City would have to do considering everyone’s near fanatic worship and praise to the Kirin God.
No shops were open as far as Shiori could see, weaving and passing through the celebrations out on the streets. She made her way to the Grand Temple itself, overwhelming in its obnoxious design. It was decorated with towers reaching the heavens, patterned tiles that mimicked the pattern of a giraffe. She doesn’t know why the animal of worship was a giraffe. Then again, Shiori never paid attention to her religious studies when she was in the temple.
“Ma’am you need to be escorted to the side,” a guard up ahead called, forcing Shiori to stop and observe. Shiori kept one hand deep into her satchel, holding the book she may or may or not took from Mahiru’s shop. She didn’t want the book to be taken, not when she planned to at least transcribe the potion she was working on after the ceremony.
“And let you ruin my cake I made for the heroes?” A lady, roughly around Shiori’s age or older, scowled, refusing to bridge. Shiori rolled her eyes and immediately walked away, moving away from the apparent crowd. She sneaked through the villagers, making her way to the side entrance of the temple.
Whilst there were enough guards around, most of them focused on the main entrance for the growing fans that Claudine and Fumi had. It didn’t make the sides bare of protection, but there was a small amount for Shiori to be comfortable with. She pulled herself up on a large crate, sitting there cross-legged when they moved to block her path. The reaction made Shiori snort. They were quick to forget her appearance, even when she was the infamous black sheep of the Temple.
Since a more subtle path to the temple was blocked, there was nothing for Shiori to do but sit and wait for her sisters. Which was just marvellous . The championing heroes, the two best acolytes of the generation and saviour of the city, needed to escort their wayward sibling for the ceremony. How glorious.
Of course, Shiori knew better than to say that out loud. Any sort of criticism would lead to a lecture of gratefulness from random strangers. How dare Shiori criticise the people who saved her life and many more from the Aftermath Plague . Completely unaware that the actual person who saved her life was the person her sisters despised, Ootori Mahiru.
A commotion and the stride of military boots next to her stirred Shiori out of her thoughts. Still, she didn’t budge from the frantic whispers of the guards, the quiet gasps and awed heavy breathing. There was only one person who could garner that sort of reaction who weren’t her sisters. Yet Shiori wouldn’t be bothered to look their way, not when her eyes were focused on the crowd lining up for her sisters.
“I’m honoured you would spare your time with me, your grace,” Shiori commented, seeing the person’s shadow on the ground near her. Already the awed whispers turned to low murmurs, of gossips and stories Shiori knew all too well growing up. Shiori was glad she went ahead. Claudine would have her head for showing disrespect towards her teacher.
It was a good thing that Tendou Maya didn’t care for these small moments of disrespect in her old age.
“Oh believe me,” Maya grinned as she looked over the youngest of the sisters she sheltered growing up. “The honour is mine Shiori, it’s why I invited you to the best seats after all.”
Shiori nodded as she finally turned her head to face the infamous Tendou Maya with a low bow out of gratitude. To do any less would just ask for unnecessary troubles from the other acolytes. The reputation of her sisters won’t stop them from showing their unwavering respect to Kirin’s finest warrior. Shiori can still remember the “private lessons of respect” scattered on her body in her youth.
When Shiori raised her head, she was struck with the sunlight in her eyes and the picturesque view of Tendou Maya. Her hair was a dutiful silver and parted almost perfectly on her scarred brows to create her iconic set of bangs, and the rest was draped over her shoulders like a cloak.
A charming smile of wisdom and kindness matched her sharp violet eyes, the golden monocle on her left eye emphasising the experience she held. A navy silk scarf lined her neck, tucked into the finely pressed linen shirt. Her black waistcoat, often barren, held the medals she earned on her left breast. Something she must’ve added for the occasion, Shiori realised.
Her black leather gloves were part of her standard attire from what Shiori could remember, but the elegant coat of blue hues and gold was new. Yet it’s been 2 years since Shiori last saw her properly, and she couldn’t tell if this part of the outfit was ceremonial or not. The pressed white breeches were ceremonial that much Shiori could tell, sophisticated Tendou Maya was, but the combat was always part of her attire. Much like that rapier at her side, sheathed at Maya’s waist.
“You dressed up well, your grace.” Shiori complimented with a genuine smile. She ignored the stares of the other guards watching, aware of their jealousy and the way they checked her out in comparison. Claudine’s mentor, their higher up and role model, was dressed to the finest whilst their troublesome sister was in nothing but casual work clothes.
Maya’s grin widened, her hands fell to the cuffs of sleeves, adjusting it with pride. “Today is the day Kuro would graduate so a sense of formality is naturally required.” Shiori’s smile faltered a bit at the mention of Claudine; she hasn’t used the Kuro nickname for so long. She hasn’t called Fumi’ Onee chan’ either for a long time.
Shiori forced a smile to return. There was no time for those thoughts now, not when they graduated today. “I’m fine,” she lied. “I just noticed how Fumi thought they wouldn’t graduate.”
“Your sister’s concern is fair since Daiba san is a harsh judge.” Maya rolled her eyes, leaning forward to whisper in Shiori’s ear, carefully pushing the hair away. “But between you and me, no matter what would happen in the ceremony, your sisters would graduate today.” She pulled away, winking at Shiori with that mischief only seen in grandmothers.
Shiori opened her mouth but quickly shut it at the sudden screech in front of them. Her head whipped around to the source, her closed lips turning into an uncomfortable frown. Together Maya and Shiori observed how the crowds started to part, and there at the mouth of the split ocean of admiration and respect was her Shiori’s two sisters.
Saijou Claudine: dressed in her armour of chainmail, iron plating and a cocky smirk. She was known as the heartbreaker of maidens, Tendou Maya’s champion, the master of the broadsword. The same one that was sheathed on her hip, mirroring Maya’s own rapier. She was the youngest acolyte to ever be recognised as a hero in the making and the fastest one to gain Maya’s trust, or so the gossip goes.
Then there was Yumeoji Fumi, Kirin’s best mage under the elusive Daiba Nana. Whilst her merits aren’t as known as Claudine’s achievements, her intelligence and attunement to Kirin’s magic was something else entirely. She could memorise any rune and can do spells without a book to bind them to. Moreover, her calmer attitude played well with Claudine’s hotheaded personality, and together they made history at the moment.
Shiori heard all these titles, accomplishments and more growing up. She heard all of them and the unspoken expectation that she would be the best of all of them— had she actually followed in their footsteps. There was a branch of alchemy and potion making amongst the acolytes, but that didn’t matter to Shiori. She wanted nothing to do with Kirin’s temple, not after everything.
“It’s seen as an honour to be related to your sisters,” Maya mentioned. They watched the guards struggling to keep the crowds back, desperate to catch Fumi and Claudine’s attention. Shiori hummed, patiently watching as the cheers became louder and louder. She wondered if her sisters would spot her in the crowd. She wondered that if she was just another face to them. They didn’t spot her so far, and the anticipation corroded at her heart like it was acid.
“Then is it a dishonour for those sisters to be seen being related to me?” She countered so quietly that it wouldn’t be heard above the noise. She glanced up at Maya, the unspoken truth leaking through the words. Did the people, did her sisters , hate that she was related to them but didn’t follow in their footsteps?
Maya chuckled. Her eyes were still on her sisters. “You’ve grown sharper.”
A double meaning response— the perfect non-answer. Not that Shiori minded. For all their faults and arguments, she didn’t want to know how she would feel if Maya said yes. She loved her sisters, even when loving them made everything hurt more.
There was no other conversation to be had, so Shiori joined Maya watching her sisters say their hellos and write on parchment for their autograph. Any hope that they would spot her face in the crowd ebbed away in pieces—bit by bit like water trickling through cracks in a container.
“Is Mahiru already inside for the ceremony?” Maya asked once everything was over.
Shiori shook her head. “She declined your offer, your grace.”
A low sound left Maya’s lips. Shiori glanced up before blinking away in surprise at the split-second emotion she caught in Maya’s eyes. When Shiori focused again on whatever she saw, that malice, that flash of hate and disgust appeared to have never existed.
“A shame then,” Maya sighed. Disappointment, but not the vitriol hate Shiori saw, was seeping out through and through. “Your sisters are probably going to go through interviews by the journalists. We still have around 45 minutes until the ceremony begins properly.” She paused and looked at Shiori. “Shall I escort you to our wing Shiori?”
Shiori looked once more to the crowd. To the path her sisters left behind, she deemed by herself and everyone else around her, whether they admitted it or not, unreachable. She nodded once and stepped off the crate. It was time to see her sisters graduate.