Somewhere, on a distant stage, in the quiet hours of the evening, someone was gently telling a story / someone was softly performing.
“Long ago, there lived a knight, who had a younger brother of whom he was very fond.”
“He was born with a frail body, but nevertheless aimed to become like his older brother by training every day. And one day, people started proclaiming that he had even surpassed the knight.”
“The knight became perturbed. He started worrying that he might lose his rank to his younger brother.”
— And so one day, he prayed to the gods. And unleashed a bitter curse onto the world.
That his dear, loathsome brother fall to an enemy’s arrow.
That the kingdom that betrayed him // that he betrayed, shall one day fall to ruin. That all the knights that had laughed at his arrogance and left him to rot — shall one day see the land that they worked so hard to build turn to ash and dust.
The curtain closed on a certain stage. The curtain rose on another.
She had never spoken the curse aloud. But the two of them met in that magical stage twice, and twice was enough. The first time, with their companions, a battle between their respective realms. The second, when they were alone, fighting as brothers // as sisters.
And as she clashed blades with her dear, loathsome sister — who had once shared a dream with her — Shiori saw through the regret and anger and bitterness and love and she realized
the weight of that curse that had been placed on her.
“Shiori. Pay attention.”
The words drifted in from somewhere, snapping Shiori out of her thoughts. She flinched, tried to clear the haze from her vision. The practice room came back into focus, the other Edels in position ahead of her. Her position was wrong, just a touch out of step. She whispered an apology, and moved into alignment.
The rehearsal continued. Siegfeld’s practice room felt stuffier than usual, somehow. Her body felt sluggish, and her mind threatened to wander to — some dream or another. She struggled to keep up. No one slowed down or even turned to look at her — of course not. They were Edels. She had to keep up.
Odd. Had she not gotten enough sleep? She thought that she had been taking care of herself.
“Okay! That’s the final set,” Michiru’s voice. At least she was present enough to know who was speaking this time. “We’re making good progress, though there’s still a lot of work to do before we’re ready for the Performance Festival. I’m sure you still remember all your steps for Elysion, but keep in mind that there’ll be some more revisions to the scripts and choreography. So be sure to stay flexible.”
The Performance Festival was going to be in a few weeks. And then, after that, finals — and the end of the school year.
This year, Siegfeld was going to stage a reprisal of the Elysion they’d performed in December, with an updated script and set. There wasn’t a whole lot of time to prepare, so it was easier to revisit a play they’d already performed than prepare something totally new. And — it was a rare chance indeed to showcase their best traits. It wasn’t every year that all of the Edels qualified for the festival.
Just thinking too hard about it was enough to make Shiori a little nervous. It was exciting. It was terrifying. It was going to be amazing.
“…so we can’t afford to let up now!” Oh, Michiru had kept talking. “But first, let’s take a break before continuing.”
The formation fell apart as everyone went for their water bottles. Shiori followed them, her mind still in a mild haze.
Everything hurt. That wasn’t all that unusual. The practices at Siegfeld were supposed to be like this. She could work through pain.
But that haziness was strange. She’d done this dance before. She’d performed Elysion before. These movements shouldn’t have been so difficult. She tried visualizing her own steps, the next steps, and her thoughts were scattering like dust.
It was a good time for a break. Water would help. Chattering in the air. Shiori could hear a conversation happening in the distance.
“Yachiyo, how are you feeling? How was Frontier? You still haven’t told us what the experience was like yet.”
“Yes, yes, I’ll get to it. But the Performance Festival is more important, isn’t it? …and what about Shiori? She was there too…”
“Oh right! Shiori!” — was that Mei Fan waving to her? “Are you alright? You look like you’ve got a lot on your mind.”
Shiori nodded. It was hard to think. It took her a bit for her to realize that Mei Fan had broken away from the group to talk to her.
“I didn’t get a chance to say this earlier, but I thought your Valentine’s Day performance was fantastic! And it must’ve been a lot of work to juggle that with our normal practice. So don’t worry if you feel like you should take it easy for a bit, okay?”
“Hey, how come I don’t get a pass to take it easy?” Yachiyo, probably?
“Mei Fan, don’t get carried away,” a harsher voice in the distance. That could only be Akira. “It’s been nearly a week. That’s more than enough time for an Edel to be back on her feet.”
Everyone was in good spirits, at least. One less thing for Shiori to worry about.
It was true that not much time had passed since that play at the mall. It was a lot to process in a few days, the highs and lows of finishing a show, the long, awkward conversation that she’d had with Fumi…but it wasn’t anything she hadn’t felt before. Akira was right. She should’ve been back to normal by now. If anything, now that her sister was at least speaking to her again, a great weight should’ve cleared from her mind.
— But there had been very little time to practice for the Valentine’s Day show, and Shiori had worked very hard to get it right. Enough that, once the weekend was over, it felt strange to not be at Frontier’s rehearsal room. Maybe she had overexerted herself a bit. She’d been feeling a bit off ever since that show.
“Shiori? Are you listening?”
Shiori looked up, saw that Mei Fan and Akira were both looking at her. The former with overt concern, the latter with the same stern expression she always had.
“Ah, I am now,” Shiori said. “Sorry. I got a bit lost in thought.”
She was fine. Fine enough to continue, anyway. This wasn’t a good day, but it probably wasn’t her worst.
“You’re apologizing unnecessarily again. Be sure to clear your mind before we return to rehearsals. Your movements always become stiffer when your thoughts weigh you down,” was Akira’s response, before she turned to Mei Fan. “And there you are. There’s nothing to worry about.”
They left her alone. Shiori drank some more water, in time to hear two claps from the middle of the rehearsal room.
Michiru’s voice rang out over the noise. “Okay, that’s enough talk for now. Let’s continue practice.”
They continued practicing.
They danced. Akira the Celestial Goddess, herself the Wind Goddess. Her mind was not in it but her body still remembered the steps, and Akira was leading and all she had to do was let herself be led.
It was a fog. She was getting out of breath a little too quickly. The scene ended and they moved on. Akira didn’t say anything, and Shiori couldn’t tell if she was satisfied or disappointed. Shiori knew that she herself was disappointed. It was as if she was trying to channel the goddess’s power, but instead had let herself be possessed.
By the end of practice, Shiori felt like she was going to collapse. Not the first time. She had a long way to go before she could catch up to the others, surely, and the routine of an Edel was still a struggle.
She could do better than this, though. Shiori staggered over to the wall, leaned against it as she caught her breath.
“Shiori. How’re you doing?”
She turned, and saw that Michiru was standing right next to her. When did she get there?
“Fine, I think,” Shiori said. How many times had people asked today? How many times had she replied? Fine, fine, she was fine, this was what it took to claim the stage —
“That’s good. Everything okay outside of practice? I know we’ve been keeping you really busy,” Michiru continued.
“My schoolwork’s fine,” Shiori said, frowned. “I’ve been feeling a bit tired lately, I guess.”
“You look it. That’s why I asked. Are you getting enough sleep? Eating well?” Michiru paused. “I know Akira’s always going on and on about how important it is to watch your diet, but you’re still growing. You have to make sure you’re eating enough first.”
Where was this coming from? “Um. I don’t think I’ve been doing anything different?” At least, she didn’t think she was sleeping any worse than usual, and Siegfeld’s cafeteria was still as good as always.
“Hmm…then let me ask. What did you think about today’s practice?” Michiru asked.
Oh. Of course.
“It didn’t go very well,” Shiori said. “Sorry. My head wasn’t in it.”
“Everyone has their bad days. But it’s up to us to learn from our mistakes and improve ourselves. And — it seems like to me you’ve been feeling stuck again for quite a few days now.”
A few days? Shiori had to admit that maybe Michiru was right about that. Michiru was good at reading people. And Shiori certainly was feeling — not right, somehow. But even she couldn’t figure out why everything was so difficult recently.
“You know that if there’s anything troubling you, you can tell Akira or myself, right?”
“It’s nothing, I think…” Shiori said. She shook her head.
“Then let’s see a better Frau Jade tomorrow,” Michiru said, a slight grin appearing on her face. “I know there was a lot going on recently, but that’s no excuse to take your rehearsals lightly. We Edels are the face of Siegfeld, after all.”
“Right. I’m really sorry that I’ve been slacking off.”
Yes, that must’ve been it. Maybe it really wasn’t a good idea to do an extracurricular performance. She must’ve been neglecting the skills she built up at Siegfeld.
To her surprise, Michiru’s face become one of confusion.
“…Huh. I was hoping that those words would fire you up, but you must be really tired. There’s nothing to be sorry about, Shiori. You haven’t been slacking off at all. But here at Siegfeld, we must always aspire to even greater heights. Continue to work hard, okay?”
Was Michiru disappointed?
“I’ll do better,” Shiori said.
It was a promise that was not a promise. Shiori wanted to say those words — ‘I promise’ — but they refused to leave her lips. It should’ve been a promise, because that was her duty as Frau Jade.
Either way, Michiru’s smile returned to her face, and she pat Shiori on her shoulder. “Yep, I know you will. We’re all counting on you.”
It couldn’t be a promise, because — because something in the back of her mind was telling her that she wouldn’t be able to keep it.
She felt a little better after unwinding a bit following practice. The pain was still there, but that was normal, very normal. Yachiyo had boasted once that a typical girl wouldn’t even be able to stand after a single rehearsal at Siegfeld. Mei Fan had scolded her for exaggerating, but Yachiyo hadn’t really sounded like she was exaggerating.
Shiori wasn’t sure if she could remain standing. (Hadn’t she gotten used to this?) But if she grit her teeth, she could walk. She was an actress. She had to show everyone the strongest side of herself.
“Are you really alright, Shiori? You still look troubled.” By the time Shiori finished up with everything, Mei Fan was the only one besides her in the locker rooms.
“Mei Fan-senpai…I’m fine. Probably.”
— though Michiru had mentioned that it was always easy to read the emotions on her face. There was always a chance that Mei Fan had seen right through her.
“Alright. But let me know if that changes!” Mei Fan’s expression cleared up. She didn’t seem like she would pry any deeper, fortunately. “Though — if you’re all set and ready to head back, do you want to walk back to the dorm together? I think Yachiyo’s staying behind a bit longer today.”
“Oh, sure,” Shiori said.
They walked back to the dorm together. It was very cold, which was not too unusual for the middle of February. The cold always made her movements that much stiffer. Another possible cause for her questionable showing lately.
“Rehearsing for Elysion again, huh…it hasn’t been that long since we performed it, but it feels like I’ve already learned a lot since then,” Mei Fan said. “I’m excited to see what changes will be coming our way.”
Mei Fan didn’t look like she minded the cold — she was as enthusiastic as she always was, even as her breath fogged up whenever she spoke.
“Mmm,” Shiori said. “I feel like I haven’t quite gotten used to it yet.”
“You did just finish up a different performance. It’s hard to just let everything go like that. Well, Akira-san can definitely do it no problem, but we’re all still working to catch up to her.”
Mei Fan wasn’t wrong. There was a lot that Shiori was still thinking about. “I suppose,” Shiori said.
She’d seen Fumi again, after however many months. She thought that, once that happened, her mind would be at ease. It had, somewhat, but not everything healed that quickly.
She’d already had something of a reconciliation with Fumi, her sister, the person she admired most. She still lived under the weight of Fumi, the former Frau Jade, the shadow that everyone at Siegfeld remembered.
She wished that there was more time for her to talk with Fumi, to be with Fumi. But the Performance Festival was in a matter of weeks. Shiori was busy. Fumi was also busy, busy with producing her own play with the rest of Rinmeikan’s Performance Association. Busy enough that when Shiori gave Fumi her chocolates and asked when they could talk again, they had spent a whole ten minutes trying to puzzle out their schedules — only to be left with ‘let’s get through the Performance Festival first’ as a conclusion.
“Though, it has been a while since I’ve had to express such rage,” Mei Fan had kept going. “I didn’t really think of it last time, but looking at the script again I think the Fire Goddess feels betrayed more than anything. I’ll have to see how I can work that into the performance. Well, assuming the new script doesn’t change that —”
— Mei Fan stopped, then frowned, staring intently at Shiori.
“Mei Fan-senpai? Is there something on my face?”
“Your hand,” Mei Fan said. “Er, I didn’t mean that your hand’s on your face — I meant…”
Shiori didn’t wait for Mei Fan to finish, and looked at her hands.
There was a light rash running across the backs of her hands, and some of the skin had begun to crack. It didn’t itch or anything, but she could imagine that in the future, it would. She hadn’t noticed it during practice. Had it just developed?
Thinking back, Michiru had suddenly asked her a lot of questions about her health. Was this why?
“What kind of lotions do you use? My hands used to do that all the time in the winter,” Mei Fan said. Shiori was barely listening. “It’s been pretty dry these past few days, which is probably why it’s happening now. I have some ointment back at the dorm that helps me a lot.”
Shiori had seen this before. It had been years upon years since the last time her skin had broken out in this way, but it was something that was impossible to forget.
Fumi was the one who first noticed the pattern. That every time, right before Shiori would get horribly sick, her arms and neck would break out, the red eventually spreading up to her face and down her back.
— But that was the past. The doctors had said that she would grow out of these illnesses. And she had grown out of them. Maybe this sense of dread didn’t mean anything anymore. Maybe Mei Fan was right, and it was just because of the dryness and the cold. The rash didn’t look quite like the terrifying red of her memories.
There was no sense burdening the others with useless information, not when there was something as important as the Performance Festival on the horizon. And it wasn’t like this was anything new, right? She’d practiced before in less-than-ideal conditions. When her joints were stiff enough that it’d be painful to dance, or when she’d had enough schoolwork that it was difficult to fit in enough sleep.
“Mei Fan-senpai,” Shiori hoped that her voice was more even than her thoughts were. “Do you think I could borrow some of your ointment tonight?”
If Mei Fan saw through her, she didn’t show it. Mei Fan smiled, pumped the air with her fist. “Of course!”
Shiori did not get terribly ill. The next day came and went, and she did not develop a scarily high fever, nor did she break down coughing. That much, at least, was a relief.
Mei Fan’s ointment was…certainly interesting. It smelled very interesting, and it burned when Shiori applied it, but she had to admit that it wasn’t an unpleasant feeling. But despite Mei Fan’s high praise of the stuff, the rash didn’t go away. At the same time, it also didn’t spread; the red only showed up in patches on Shiori’s forearms, on the backs of her hands. Same as the day before.
Nothing else had changed, either. She was still, inexplicably, so tired. Her joints still hurt, and not from the usual soreness. A little voice at the back of her head told her — that this was nothing to celebrate. She could still get sick later. Should she even be practicing? If she overexerted herself, surely she would get sick. If she stopped at all, surely she would fall behind.
She supposed that making everything better in one day was probably too much to ask.
Of course, the other Edels noticed the red. Shiori got a bunch of sympathies, and some well-meaning advice. Wear warm clothing. Make sure to moisturize your skin. Yachiyo had quite a bit more beauty advice, but it was difficult to listen to anything.
The tiredness persisted. Another bad day. Michiru approached her after practice, more seriously this time, and told her to go to the medical center.
Shiori went to the medical center. They gave her painkillers and some skin cream, and sent her on her way. Nothing was wrong with her, really, besides some inflammation, some fatigue. Standard fare for how much she was moving around. Nothing that couldn’t be fixed on her next day off. She needed some more sleep. How could she possibly fit in more sleep? She wasn’t even sleeping that badly. She had to endure until then.
‘Come to me if anything is troubling you,’ Michiru had said.
— What could Shiori even say? If she had a problem, of course she’d tell the others. She wasn’t sure what the problem was, if there even was a problem beyond her own lack of motivation. Everyone cared so much about her. Everyone would take their own time to help her, even though she had no idea how they could even help. She couldn’t afford to fall behind. She didn’t want to drag anyone else down.
But the days slipped by and the Performance Festival inched ever closer, and she wasn’t getting any better.
No matter what she tried, the tiredness was slowly catching up to her. She was losing time, valuable practice time. Blink, and suddenly everyone had moved on to the next movement. Lose focus for just a moment, and Akira would be there to reprimand her. “Shiori. We’re still in rehearsal. What’s wrong?”
Shiori would answer, if only she knew the answer.
There was still about a month until the Performance Festival. It was a lot of time, but Michiru knew from experience that it would never truly be enough time.
There were a few hiccups, but plans were proceeding smoothly.
At first, she’d wondered how everyone would take the news that they were going to perform Elysion for the Performance Festival. Michiru had justified it by saying that it’d be easier to revisit a play than learn a totally new one, but it was still a very ambitious move. Perhaps even a bit too ambitious: it meant updating the choreography to fit a stage that was very different from Siegfeld’s, and adapting the play to an audience that wouldn’t be familiar with the other two parts.
But as Michiru expected, the Edels were excited by the idea, and leapt at the opportunity for a challenge. Everyone loved Elysion so, had already grown fond of the goddesses they’d become. Michiru watched them as they experimented with new ideas, putting into practice the skills they’d learned over the past few months. Mei Fan and Yachiyo especially — they threw themselves into the roles. They hungered for deeper knowledge, they stayed late puzzling out the emotions they had to display, they sank their souls wholly into the stage.
The Fire Goddess and the Earth Goddess were rapidly evolving. As was Akira’s Celestial Goddess. Michiru didn’t even have to watch her to know that was the case.
Michiru had full faith that, in a few weeks’ time, they’d come to a conclusion. At this pace, the Elysion at the Performance Festival was going to be even better than the one in December. Everyone was fueled by pressure, by passion. Michiru just had to keep an eye on them so that the fire would not die down.
“Shiori! How are you feeling? Are you doing a bit better than before?”
“Michiru-senpai…I’m doing okay. Thank you for your concern,” Shiori seemed nervous.
“I was planning on staying a bit after rehearsal today and get some more practice in. If you want, you can join me.”
“Ah…” Shiori frowned quickly, and looked worried for a moment. “I probably should keep reviewing the dance, shouldn’t I? I’ll take you up on your offer. Thank you, Michiru-senpai.”
Compared to everyone else, the Wind Goddess hadn’t changed much at all. That was a bit of a surprise. After becoming Frau Jade, Shiori had improved by leaps and bounds over a few short months. If anyone was going to have drastically changed their performance, it should’ve been her. Not that Shiori’s Wind Goddess was bad — but as it was, it was falling out of place in the direction Elysion was moving.
“Shiori. Pay attention to your body’s movements. I know you’ve been getting better, but you’re still not quite ready yet to dance without thinking at all,” Michiru said. “Are you anxious about something? Your steps are wandering.”
“Leave all your other thoughts and feelings behind. The Wind Goddess hasn’t seen the Celestial Goddess in many, many years. How does she feel?” Michiru paused, looked around. “Though — I guess our Celestial Goddess isn’t here, huh? Let’s do that again. I’ll stand in as the Celestial Goddess.”
Michiru observed as Shiori repeated the scene.
— This was no good.
Shiori was just going through the motions. Like she didn’t care about getting better, or was too distracted to think about getting better. She went line by line, making thoughtless mistakes. She danced the same way, as Yumeoji Shiori, not as the goddess she was supposed to become. Michiru gave tips and pointers every time, but she found herself going around in circles. She’d never had to repeat her advice to another Edel.
“Okay, let’s stop here,” Michiru said. “It doesn’t look like we’ll make anymore progress tonight.”
“Right…” Shiori said, folding her arms across her body. It looked like it’d still be a week or two before the skin would fully heal. “I’m sorry.”
“No one can practice all day and night and expect continuous improvement. Well, except maybe Akira. We all have our limits.” Though — an Edel should always be able to recognize those limits and work around them. “I know that there’s a lot going on right now. And Akira and I did kind of spring the idea of doing Elysion again on everyone. Does it bother you that we’re going to perform Part I again so soon?”
Akira had mentioned once that Shiori had hoped to perform Elysion with Fumi. It was a dream that, obviously, could no longer come true.
“No. It’s exciting, really,” Shiori said. She didn’t sound terribly excited. If anything, Shiori sounded almost weary. “Thank you again, Michiru-senpai. I’ll keep doing my best.”
“That’s what I like to hear. We’re a little behind schedule, but it’s nothing that a little extra work can’t fix. Next week, I should have a lot more time for extra practice. We can keep working together, if that’d be helpful.”
“Ah, thank you…”
It’d also give Michiru an opportunity to keep a watchful eye on the younger girl, maybe give her a solid push or two. That was usually enough to chase away any distractions.
All the Edels had been hand-picked by Akira, by herself. A minor setback like this wouldn’t stop their performance.
Michiru’s job was to make sure of that.
One day, right before practice, Akira and Michiru came into the rehearsal room carrying a large pile of papers.
“Okay, everyone! I know it took a bit longer than we expected, but we finally have our revised script!” Michiru announced. “It shouldn’t be too different from what you’ve already learned, but we had to switch up the order of some scenes to fit it in the timeslot we have for the Performance Festival. For that reason, we’ll be starting off today’s practice with a quick script reading.”
Michiru handed out scripts. It did seem a bit thinner than Shiori remembered — she vaguely recalled something about needing to trim some parts to fit the schedule. She flipped through it, trying to remember what had changed. Why couldn’t she remember what had changed?
— “Such was my fate. It is in my nature to return to the earth; the domain of love was lost to me long ago. If I were to open my heart, I would only get hurt again.”
— “Are we bound only to the domains we rule over? Here I am now, on your earth, your soil. I descended from the sky only to satisfy my own curiosity. If we were to only follow the fate already written for us, what would be the point of existence?”
Wait, when had they gotten that far? Where were they now? Shiori flipped back through the pages, hoping she wasn’t too lost, knowing that she looked terribly lost —
“Shiori? Your lines?”
— everyone was staring. Yachiyo, her face drawn up in a slight frown. Mei Fan, her expression filled with worry. Michiru, serious but unjudging. Akira…
“Um…‘Oh, a visitor! A rare sight indeed. What brings you to my realm, O Wayward Goddess?’” This line hadn’t changed. “I —”
Akira’s voice brought the room to an absolute silence.
“That’s enough for today. Go home, and get some rest.”
“Take a look at yourself. You’re clearly unwell, and you’ve been making a lot of mistakes lately. Whatever it is that’s weighing you down, address it before you return.” Then, her expression softened, just a bit. “Don’t look so down. Part of it is my mistake. I should have told you this before practice started.”
Shiori stood there in silence for a bit, then lowered her script, and nodded. She tried to blink back the tears that were threatening to form, turned so that she wouldn’t see their faces.
“My apologies, everyone,” Shiori said. “I’ll be taking my leave.”
If anyone said anything afterwards, she was no longer listening.
Shiori had underestimated how terribly awkward it was to use the changing room by herself, when she should’ve been in rehearsal. She wanted nothing more than to go back and rejoin the others, but Akira had been right. She really wasn’t feeling right today.
Akira had also told her to take a look at herself. Right. Shiori quickly changed, then dragged herself to the mirror.
The face that was reflected back at her was ghastly looking. She was pale, excepting the places that were red and inflamed.
The red had spread further, creeping up over her shoulders, onto her chest. Slowly, over days, slowly enough that she had barely noticed it. It still didn’t itch, didn’t hurt, and had simply become a part of her. Her joints, too, felt stiffer and stiffer, like they were machines that needed to be oiled. Bit by bit, her body was transforming, warping into something completely unfamiliar. Swollen flesh and fragile bones that were hers // that couldn’t be hers. At this rate, the red would even reach her face — and then there would be no hiding it. She had enough trouble as is dealing with the weariness that had infected her expressions.
She felt almost monstrous. What a silly thought. She looked back at herself. The red had moved, certainly, but it wasn’t nearly as raw as it was days ago. The cracks had healed, and her hands were pretty much back to normal. Nothing else looked wrong or out of place. Yumeoji Shiori should’ve been the same as she had been.
Shiori could still improve. Akira and Michiru had been terribly patient with her, slyly pacing rehearsals so that she’d get more breaks, going through all the places where she was falling short. It wasn’t enough. She wasn’t enough. She knew she could hit the steps, yet the steps eluded her. She once had the stamina now to endure an entire rehearsal, yet as of late she was suddenly out of breath again, flailing madly to stay afloat.
What was wrong with her?
The medical center had run their standard array of tests and found nothing new. They gave her some supplements, just in case. It felt like a piece of her soul had been yanked out of her body, and her will had dissipated with it.
An unpleasant feeling. It almost would’ve been better to be sick. At least then, she’d know for sure why everything was so inexplicably difficult. But she wasn’t sick. She was overreacting. All the Edels must’ve gone through this much pain, if not more. She couldn’t be the only one to complain about it.
Was there something wrong with her?
Akira and Michiru had often praised her potential. Potential, potential, potential. It was such a hopeful word, it was such a vile word. She’d heard it since she was a child — so long as she worked hard and kept practicing, she should improve. That was the promise that she was always trying to fulfill, that was the curse that had always bound her. But now, Shiori wasn’t improving. They knew it, she knew it.
Maybe that was simply the limit of her capabilities. She was drawing energy from a finite well, and it was slowly beginning to empty. But, did that matter? As long as it lasted to the end of the Performance Festival, then things would be okay.
— Akira’s speech from the day they closed their last performance of Elysion had been burned into her. “It was a wonderful show, everyone. No one besides us could have taken it to this level. But this is not good enough. We must continue our training every day.” Shiori remembered how stern Akira had always been, how certain she was of a bright future. “The Performance Festival awaits us next. It may not be the point, but the public sees it as a competition between the schools. And so, it is a chance for us to prove our skill. We will face Seisho — and we will crush them.”
They had to crush Seisho.
Once, days ago, Michiru had asked her if she was upset that they were performing Elysion.
Shiori had to be honest with herself. The idea of performing Elysion again at the Performance Festival really was terrifying. She was special - the very first junior high school student to represent Siegfeld. The Edels were all special - they had all qualified together. It was a lot of pressure to deal with. Maybe she was imagining all these terrible things so that she’d have an excuse to quit the performance. Maybe she didn’t want to face those expectations.
Maybe if she had had the courage to say this at the very start, none of this had to happen. Maybe she hadn’t felt this way at the very start. She remembered being excited about a repeat performance of Elysion. Especially since it was the Performance Festival. Everyone would be there. Fumi would be there.
…all the more reason she had to swallow those fears. She couldn’t be the same Shiori she was as a child, a crybaby who always relied on everyone else. There was no time for her to rest.
— But Akira had told her to rest, and would definitely not be happy if Shiori tried to return to rehearsal. So for today…that’s what she would do. She made a promise to herself that this wouldn’t happen again.
Shiori couldn’t disappoint them. Akira. Michiru. Mei Fan. Yachiyo. When she had first auditioned for Frau Jade, they scared her, at least a little. They all seemed so serious, so dedicated, and so willing to cast their selves and their classmates aside in pursuit of the king’s stage.
But their passion was infectious, their dedication so admirable. They were all such lovely people, and they had become her cherished friends. They’ve already taken care of her so much, taught her so much, let her see the stage of her dreams.
Even if she had to throw the rest of her soul to the flames, she would rise to face the stage and repay them for everything.
The Performance Festival was edging ever closer, and almost everything was going according to plan.
The ‘almost’ was what bothered Michiru.
Michiru’s suspicions had been right. Something was going on with Shiori, something that was stopping her from being able to dedicate herself wholly to the stage. At first, Michiru had been willing to let it slide; whatever was ailing her hadn’t been bad enough to really cause problems.
Unfortunately, now, it was indeed causing problems. Shiori wasn’t performing as well as she needed to. The other day, Akira even had to send her home. She did not make it to school the day after.
The first years had already finished their work for the student council for the day, leaving Michiru and Akira alone at their usual spots. Akira, penciling in all the forms that should’ve been handled by General Affairs. Michiru, at the laptop, transcribing the other documents to Siegfeld’s archaic online database.
“How long will it be before Shiori returns?” Akira asked.
“She didn’t request another sick day. She should be back tomorrow.”
“What was wrong? Another cold?”
“I’m guessing, but it’s probably anemia. I saw some iron supplements on her desk when I visited.”
It had taken pretty much all of Michiru’s guile to learn that. She’d reached out earlier hoping for answers, but only got apologies and a half-baked ‘I’ll do better’. Shiori had said she didn’t know what the problem was. Shiori wasn’t that good at hiding her expressions.
Maybe Michiru was prying, but it would do them all no good if they didn’t even know why Shiori was out of commission.
“She was lying to us, then, when she said that nothing was different,” Akira said. “She hasn’t been eating well.”
Michiru wouldn’t have used that specific word. But it was true. Like her sister, Shiori was not good at lying.
Michiru had the feeling that if it could just be explained away with anemia, then Shiori wouldn’t have been so secretive about it.
“We’ve seen this before.” Akira said.
They’d seen this before.
The slow, gradual loss of focus. The frustration that should have been hidden away now bubbling to the surface.
Michiru had been watching Shiori closely, as she’d been watching all the Edels closely. Shiori had always been thoughtful, careful to think about how she approached each step and each movement. But as of late, there were more and more times where she seemed almost reckless, throwing herself into practice. Making mistakes, making the same mistakes, making the kinds of mistakes that Michiru had seen months ago in another Frau Jade. On some days, it really was like watching a shadow.
In that case —
“She’s probably aware of how this all looks,” Michiru said. “It feels like she’s been putting on a brave face for a while.”
“And doing poorly at it.” Akira kept filling out the forms which should’ve been Shiori’s job. “If she’s struggling so much to the point that she can’t even hold herself together, it’s up to her to recognize that and ask for help.”
Michiru closed her laptop. “…I thought we’d learned from our previous mistakes. The Edels are closer now. She trusts us. Or so I believed.”
“It doesn’t matter how close we are as people. Everything we do has to be for the sake of the stage. Beyond simply having the skill, you also need a certain mental fortitude to make it here. The Yumeojis must not have realized that.”
Akira’s voice was the same as it always was, harsh and cold and absolutely confident. A little too confident.
“You had your eye on Shiori for a long time now. You insisted that she become Frau Jade. Do you regret your decision?”
“No.” The only answer Akira could give. “I know Shiori can do it. She has the potential.”
“You sound frustrated.”
“Of course I am. I don’t doubt her skills or her talent. But if she doesn’t believe that about herself, then she might as well be throwing all that away.”
Akira finished filling out the forms. She took them, straightened them out against the desk.
“Do you think it was because of the Valentine’s Day performance?” Michiru asked. “It must’ve been hard on her, practicing for that in addition to the Performance Festival and the school assignments…”
“An Edel rises to any challenge.”
“I wasn’t going to say that she shouldn’t have done it. But there must be a reason why she’s being so shy again all of a sudden. Did something happen at that performance…?”
Michiru paused, deep in thought. She had watched, of course, and it had been a remarkable performance indeed. She heard later that Fumi had been in the audience. And the day after, Shiori’s mood was noticeably brighter than it had been for a while, before everything had started to fall apart.
Old ghosts will always haunt us, huh? Michiru made a face. The air seemed fragile.
Akira stood up, passed the finished forms over. Michiru sighed, opened the laptop back up, and began transcribing the forms. Yachiyo had offered to take over Shiori’s work, but Akira had insisted she do it herself. Maybe Michiru should’ve given the work to Yachiyo anyway. At least she knew how to operate a computer.
“I’ll talk to Shiori and resolve this,” Akira said. “If she is still concerned about her sister, then it is up to us to make sure that her concerns are addressed. It won’t turn out like last time.”
If they moved quickly, then yes, this could be resolved quickly. Michiru had been keenly listening in on the gossip. Sure, people were talking about Frau Jade, like they always did, and students had been expressing concern about Shiori’s mysterious skin condition. No one had cast any doubts on Shiori’s ability yet.
“The way Shiori is now, she won’t be able to give a good performance,” Michiru said. She couldn’t leave that possibility unspoken. “If that doesn’t change, then —”
“That won’t happen,” Akira said. “She was the only one who could be Frau Jade. We need her for our stage.”
Michiru kept typing away at her laptop. “What if she’s wrong? What if we were wrong?”
“We aren’t. This conversation is over.” Akira’s voice had all the confidence in the world. Enough that Michiru wasn’t going to argue. Michiru didn’t want to argue.
Silence fell over the student council room.
“I’m sorry. I’m doing the best I can, Yukishiro-senpai.”
Shiori felt like a broken record. Yes, she had made sure to sleep well. Yes, she was still tired. Yes, she was fine. Well enough to practice. Yes, she would be at practice. She would do better.
Everyone was trying to fire her up, she knew. She was trying to fire herself up. But the fatigue and the pain refused to go away.
“We need to know what’s wrong,” Akira said. “Otherwise, how can we fix it? We can’t afford to have any problems fester before the Performance Festival. Have you considered seeing a doctor?”
Yes. At least, she’d been to the medical center enough times that she felt silly. They told her to get more rest, and she had gotten more rest. They gave her medications. She had taken the medicine diligently. Nothing had actually improved. It must’ve all been in her head.
It was so simple. All she had to do was to clear her mind, focus on the rehearsal, let the results of all that practice take over. Focus, focus, focus — why was that so difficult?
“I know that there’s so much more I need to do,” Shiori said. Was she trying to convince herself?
Akira’s expression remained unchanged. “You shouldn’t push yourself to exhaustion.”
“What else could I do?” Shiori realized she was shouting, flinched and put a hand to her mouth. When she spoke again, her voice was quieter. “I told you before, didn’t I? That I must work harder than everyone else, that I must prove myself again and again. I can’t afford to stop now, not when the Performance Festival is so close.”
Akira said nothing. She looked pensive, as if trying to find a solution, her sight drifting down. Shiori followed Akira’s gaze to her arms. She’d taped them up, but it was still clear that the cracked red patches had spread all the way up to her shoulders. By now, Shiori had tried all kinds of creams and moisturizers and lotions, to no effect.
If only Akira could do something, anything, to make everything right.
“I can do it. Do you not believe me?” Shiori asked.
“No, I do,” Akira looked away, and Shiori followed her eyes again, towards the other Edels. And suddenly, Akira’s expression was harsh again. “But remember, Shiori. You have to always think about the best way to push yourself further. We’re all counting on you.”
And then practice was over, and Shiori was left alone in the rehearsal room. She took a breath, tried to clear her mind, and went to the locker room to join the others. She felt like she was being taken over by something foul.
The same words, the same thoughts, the same frustrations. Hadn’t she been here before? How many days had it been since she was truly in good form?
Mei Fan and Yachiyo were waiting for her at the locker room, but she told them to go back to the dorm without her. Shiori didn’t really want to talk to them right now. They’d too easily notice how lost in thought she was. She wouldn’t have answers for them, no matter what they asked.
Shiori went back to the rehearsal room. No one else was here. It was the perfect time to do a little extra practice of her own.
‘Your movements get stiff when you’re weighed down by your thoughts,’ Akira had said. If only it were so easy to clear her mind.
But that wasn’t quite right either. ‘You’re not quite ready yet to dance without thinking at all,’ Michiru had told her once.
There was a time when Shiori could find the balance between the two, right?
She danced. This was the dance of the Wind Goddess, who could laugh without worries, who made friends with all the woodland animals. Oh, they’d changed the step in the middle here, when the Celestial Goddess was to arrive. Shiori got it wrong, shook her head, and tried to get it right.
What was she trying to remember? What had she forgotten? Something was wrong, they knew, she knew, and there was nothing she could say that could help them fix it in time for the Performance Festival, and —
She danced, trying to collect her thoughts. It hurt, like something was stabbing into her chest, but she could deal with it. Everyone sacrificed for the stage. Everyone had gotten hurt for the stage. The pain grew sharper and more pronounced, and it only fueled her.
All the same thoughts, looping around and around in her head —
Ah. A new thought struck her.
That was why Onee-chan couldn’t say anything.
The Fumi she had met in the underground theater was the Fumi who knew why she had to leave Siegfeld. That version of her was able to answer Shiori’s accusations of betrayal, apologize, and begin the clumsy work of moving on.
— But the Fumi who had left, the Fumi of months ago — may not have known what was wrong. Or even if she had an idea, it wasn’t something that could be said. All she could’ve known was that it hurt. The Edels had been preparing for Elysion then, as they were preparing for Elysion now. It must’ve felt as pointless then for Fumi — as it did for Shiori now — to confide in them when there was nothing they could do to help.
All Shiori knew now was that it still hurt. Something was wrong with her, and she still couldn’t commit herself to figuring out what. Making that commitment would take up time she didn’t have, with no guarantee of any result. Better to push herself to the limit now, and worry about everything else after the Performance Festival.
…no, that wasn’t right, either. It would do her no good to overexert herself. She was still growing, after all. Who was it that told her that again? It was hard to think. It was already dark outside. The dance wasn’t coming together, but that was fine. It could be fixed later. She had to catch her breath.
She couldn’t catch her breath. Something was — wrong.
It had to be fixed it couldn’t be fixed it had to be —
A wave of dizziness hit her. Shiori shook her head, stumbled over to the wall, leaned on it. It was a little too cold, all of a sudden.
The first thing that came to her mind was annoyance. Of all the times for this to happen, it had to be now? No, that was wrong. She knew, long ago, that something like this would happen.
She sank down to the ground, reached out for her phone. At some point she had gotten her phone. It was difficult to stand, let alone walk. She wasn’t going to make it back to the dorm like this. She needed help. Fumi. Fumi would know what to do. She’d helped before — no. Not the time. It was late, too late. Fumi needed to prepare for her own show. Rinmeikan was too far away —
Shiori called someone. She thought she called someone. It was hard to tell. It felt a bit like her body was going to fall to pieces.
Everything caught up to her.
Michiru had been on her way back to the dorms when she got a phone call.
In the end, she forgot about the upcoming performance for the rest of the evening.
Shiori had been here before. The fluorescent ceiling lights, the white walls, the distinct, sterile smell of the hospital.
She was delirious from fever. Everything ached — different from how things ached after practice. The monitor she was hooked up to said that her vitals, at least, were normal — minus the fever. That meant nothing. Her vitals were always normal.
She was very familiar with this feeling. She knew that even if she tried to get up and move, she wouldn’t get very far. In the past, she would try to get up anyway, and Fumi would have to rush to her side and scold her.
That was the one difference. Fumi wasn’t here.
Somewhere, on a distant stage, someone was softly dreaming.
The kingdom was in mourning. The talented knight, who had once been entrusted with the king’s precious jade, had tragically passed away.
— Or so everyone believed. But the knight’s brother had held out hope that the lost knight was still alive. The brother mastered the spear and the arts, trying to reach out to the ghosts, and after grueling training — was able to recover the jade and become a knight himself.
The young knight was busy, having taken up his brother’s old responsibilities as Marquis. He spent his days protecting the realm, and his nights journeying afar and practicing his skills so that someday, he may find his lost brother.
One day, his journey took him to a fortune teller. Unfortunately, the fortune teller was unable to tell him anything regarding his brother’s fate. But the fortune teller still beckoned him to stay.
“There is something that you need to know,” the fortune teller said. “About yourself. But it is a truth you may not wish to hear.”
“Then even more, I need to hear it,” the young knight said.
The fortune teller nodded towards the knight’s right hand, which was holding tightly onto that jade. “You are valued greatly for the skill you have with your spear, for your knowledge of the arts. However, sometime in the distant past, a curse was placed upon your body, a curse that can never be lifted. The knowledge of the arts shall never leave you, but the curse will sap your strength and weaken your sword arm. You may find yourself unable to remain a knight. And should you insist on keeping ahold of that precious stone, you may hasten your own death.”
At that, the young knight smiled in relief. The fortune teller gave him a confused look. “You aren’t displeased?”
“Not at all,” was the young knight’s reply. “I always knew that this body was weak. I knew I had been cursed ever since I accepted the jade. No, even longer than that…I had my suspicions ever since I was a child. But now — thanks to you — I finally know that I was not simply imagining things. You have given me the gift of knowing what that curse is. Even knowing that it cannot be lifted is better than wandering in fear.”
There was a reason why Shiori’s body was like that. Why she was so tired all the time, even after having slept and eaten just like Akira had asked. Why her limbs and her chest always felt like they would be set aflame. The doctors nodded at her and said — that no, nothing about her experience was normal.
It wasn’t just a passing cold. It wasn’t that she was being lazy, or that she was buckling under the pressure, or that she wasn’t taking care of herself.
Her body had been attacking itself, destroying her organs — especially her joints, her lungs, her skin. It was a bit more complicated than that, and Shiori wasn’t entirely sure of the details. It was easier to think of it as a persistent curse.
“You were lucky,” the doctors said. “That you got medical attention so quickly.”
It was the lung damage that had felled her. She could have died. She hadn’t died.
She was still drifting in and out of consciousness. Her mind couldn’t hold onto everything they were telling her. There was something important she was forgetting, something that she should not be forgetting.
Still, it felt like she had found some light at the end of a long road.
Finally, it made sense. The weakness of her childhood. The pain that had claimed her every single time she performed, that she had gotten so used to. That she’d kept secret from the Edels, from her parents, from Fumi.
Finally, that long long curse that had bound her all this time had a name.