Somewhere in a one-bedroom apartment, Fumi was up a little later than usual trying to put together some props for Rinmeikan’s show. The Performance Festival was coming up soon. There was not a moment to waste.
The phone rang.
“Who in the world would call at this hour?” Fumi reached across to the table to grab it. “It better not be a spam —” and froze.
She had to take this.
“Yachiyo. Yes, I was awake. No, I can tell it’s important. What’s going on?”
The old kingdom was approaching a crisis, and the king’s most trusted knights were all being rallied to prepare for battle.
This was something they had known would happen. All the knights of the realm had sworn fealty to the king, sworn to protect their kingdom. They dedicated their lives to the king, and in return, the king blessed them and protected the land. They built that land together, atop a glittering stage.
Would you offer all your brilliance to the kingdom?
The young knight swore the oath when he received the jade. The fallen knight who was once his brother had sworn that same oath, a fact that only filled him with regret. The ghost of that fallen knight still lingered, screaming warnings to anyone who would listen. Hoping, desperately, that his still-living brother would listen.
If you truly believed in this oath, then what would wait for you at the end of this path?
— From the very beginning, Fumi had inflicted this dream upon them both.
If you dedicated your life to the king, was there any room left for your own soul?
— Even now, with her body in such a state, she knew that Shiori would attempt to stand on that stage again.
If the king ordered you to your death, would you follow your orders — and die?
“There was only one thing she told me, Fumi-san. You have your own performance to prepare for. She requested that you not compromise that for her sake.”
“Best of luck to you in the Performance Festival.”
“…and to you.”
The call ended, and Fumi looked like she was ready to crush her phone in her bare hand.
Then she took a deep breath, put her phone away, and looked at the half-completed props lying around everywhere.
The old kingdom was approaching a crisis. But the knight who lost the jade had died long ago.
There was no room left for his ghost to interfere.
It was lunch break. Normally, Michiru spent the first half eating by herself or with Akira somewhere on the school grounds, and the second taking a quick nap.
Today, she found herself drifting towards the student council room. And she didn’t feel all that much like napping.
Any of the student council members could spend their lunch break here, and the Edels would cycle in and out depending on their schedules. The only one that Michiru noticed would consistently be here for lunch break was Shiori, always the diligent one, who spent the time finishing up extra student council work. She enjoyed the quiet, or so she said.
But Shiori wasn’t here today. Maybe that was why Michiru decided to stop by. And it appeared that she wasn’t the only one with that idea; not long after Michiru arrived, Akira also entered the student council room.
They ate together in silence for a little bit. Akira’s expression was as serious as ever, but Michiru could tell there was an unspoken question hanging in the air.
“Yachiyo was the one who handled things last night,” Michiru said. “She was the one closest to the rehearsal rooms when I got the call. Shiori was conscious when they brought her to the hospital, but Yachiyo said she didn’t ask about anything else. It wasn’t the time for prying.”
“And that’s all we know?”
“That’s all we know.”
How long Shiori would be hospitalized for, whether or not she’d be able to practice afterwards, what was even wrong — they didn’t know any of that. The only confirmation that Michiru had gotten from Yachiyo was that Shiori did not look visibly injured. More likely an illness than an injury.
Michiru kept talking. “Siegfeld’s Board of Directors has some sway with the Performance Festival committee. If Shiori doesn’t recover…they may decide that we need to find a new Frau Jade, and use their influence to transfer Shiori’s invitation for the Performance Festival.”
“Do you think that’d happen?”
“It’s just a hypothetical. We have to be prepared.”
“With three weeks to the performance?”
“I’m sure Siegfeld’s Board could pull it off if they really wanted. Or we could double up the part. Have Yachiyo perform for both the Earth Goddess and the Wind Goddess,” Michiru said. “Mei Fan and I are on stage immediately before and after the Wind Goddess’s scenes, and we wouldn’t be able to change that quickly.”
Only Edels could perform Elysion. Siegfeld allowed no exceptions to that rule, not even for circumstances like this.
“…doable, but not ideal,” Akira said. “Either way, our rehearsal schedule doesn’t change. Our focus should remain on making the perfect performance.”
Michiru knew Akira’s focus wouldn’t waver. She wasn’t worried about any of the Edels, in that regard.
“That’s true. It all depends on what the Board decides. They probably know more about the situation than we do.” Michiru was a little concerned about that. They’d prioritize Siegfeld’s reputation and prestige over all else. What did that mean for Shiori? For herself?
— That train of thought was abruptly ended when the student council room’s door was thrown open, and Mei Fan burst into the room.
“Akira-san! Michiru-san! Is it true that Shiori’s in the hospital?!”
“…you’re indoors. Lower your voice, Mei Fan,” Akira said.
“Sorry!” Mei Fan didn’t really lower her voice. “And sorry I didn’t say anything sooner! I just saw all the texts from last night and came running as soon as I could.”
“Then you know everything we do,” Michiru said. “The Board hasn’t given us any directions, and Shiori hasn’t informed us of any new developments either. So as far as we’re concerned, we Edels are the only ones who know that she’s even in the hospital.” Well, she assumed that Shiori’s family knew too, but Michiru couldn’t even say that for sure. “On that note, please don’t say anything about this to the other students. We don’t want any rumors spreading.”
“I won’t! But I have a question. You said in our last text that we wouldn’t change the schedule at all. Shouldn’t we take some time to visit Shiori in the hospital?”
“That was my decision,” Akira said. “Like it or not, we are rapidly approaching a performance date.”
“Hmm, think about it this way,” Michiru said. “I’m sure Shiori wants Siegfeld to beat everyone else at the Performance Festival, regardless of what else happens. Would she rather we spent our time worrying over her, or perfecting the performance that we promised to put on? She’d probably feel guilty for keeping us away from the stage.”
At that, Mei Fan frowned, and noticeably backed off. She looked deep in thought for a few seconds, before her face relaxed and she nodded. “I trust your judgment, Michiru-san.” And then that fire was back in her eyes, the smile back on her face. “Alright. I know Shiori will be back with us in no time. I’ll work ever harder so that she doesn’t have to worry about a thing.”
— Something caught Michiru’s eye. Was that a shadow at the corner of the student council room?
“Say, Mei Fan, do you have a little free time?” Michiru said. “There’s still quite a lot of student council work for the end-of-year ceremony. Shiori was supposed to get this —” Michiru reached around, grabbed a stack of papers — “all properly bound and stamped to give to the staff, but she’s obviously not here. Do you mind taking care of it?”
“Of course not!” Mei Fan took the papers. “There’s still some time before lunch ends, so I can do that right now. Let me know if there’s anything else I can do!”
And then she was gone.
“…Akira, maybe you should go with her,” Michiru said. “Once we hand that in, they’ll probably give us a lot more work.”
— And with that, Michiru was alone in the student council room. Or, not quite alone. She watched that shadow, waited a few moments, and sure enough, Yachiyo stepped into the room.
“My, the student council room is popular today,” Michiru said. “Anyway, what brings you here, Yachiyo?”
“Me? You were the one staring daggers at me the whole time, Michiru-senpai. I figured you wouldn’t be too happy if I left without saying hello.”
“Hmm? What do you mean by that? I was simply wondering why you weren’t coming in.”
Yachiyo smiled slightly and shook her head. “Sure. Let’s keep it at that. For what it’s worth, I did try to stop Mei Fan from barging in.”
“Ah, that’s why you were here. It all turned out okay, though. We needed to talk about it at some point. And I still needed to thank you for taking care of everything last night.”
“I just did what any of us would do,” Yachiyo replied, her expression inscrutable. “If anything, it’s my fault that it got that serious. I knew we shouldn’t have let Shiori stay behind on her own yesterday.”
“And what would you have done? If she was feeling unwell, she could’ve told us. We can’t exactly read her mind, and we have our own parts to be concerned with.”
Then, Yachiyo leaned against the doorframe, and her body language lost its usual playfulness. “Are we seriously considering finding a new Frau Jade?”
“Were you listening to us?”
“Surely this is something that has crossed all of our minds ever since last night. Except maybe for Mei Fan,” Yachiyo said.
She had probably been listening. Oh well, it wasn’t something Michiru needed to press on right now.
“…there’s less than a month before the end of the school year,” Yachiyo said, her voice darker than before. “Are we really willing to take the title from Shiori right before she graduates? While she is ill?”
“If we must,” Michiru said. She could understand the frustration shooting through Yachiyo’s expression. But it was all up to Siegfeld’s Board. “You don’t have to worry about it, though. Something like this is the king’s responsibility.”
What else was there to say? Yachiyo said nothing, and Michiru said nothing, and lunch break was close to ending.
After Yachiyo left and the student council room settled back into silence, Michiru leaned forward in her chair, and rested her head on the table.
In the end, Shiori spent two days in the hospital. At that point, there was nothing that the hospital could do that Siegfeld’s own medical staff could not.
After Shiori was discharged, it was decided that she would spend a few days living in one of the rooms at Siegfeld’s medical center. The room really was quite nice: it was fairly spacious, and had all the trappings of the dorm rooms at Siegfeld, as well as an impressive array of medical equipment. But as nice as it was, it still felt like a hospital room: cold and impersonal and all-too-familiar.
They’d given her steroids for the inflammation, various other medications that may or may not help, and packets and packets of instructions. Avoid the sun. Do light exercise, symptoms permitting. Take the medications at these times. Be aware of all these side effects. Continue monitoring, monitoring, monitoring.
The times when the medical staff was around were simple. She’d been to the hospital enough times. There was nothing uncomfortable about it anymore. Do as she was told. Sit here, stand up here, check vitals, check everything else.
When she was alone, the only command was to rest. Do nothing. Let her tired body weave itself back together, except it was also destroying itself. That’s what the illness did. If she was remembering things correctly. Was she?
It was an illness without cure, only treatment. Trial-and-error, at that. What was the point if she couldn’t recover?
How strange it all was. She rested. She wasn’t in pain all the time. In those times, she almost felt like she could go back to school and perform. But there was a consistent, indescribable feeling of dread — that her body, her entire self was fragile. She was so terribly tired, yet not tired enough to go to sleep. She was bored, and her mind wasn’t grasping thoughts well enough to figure out how to quash that boredom.
Fumi always knew what to do.
Fumi wasn’t here.
She wasn’t going to ask Fumi to be here.
There was nothing to think about, there was too much to think about. Everything hurt and yet nothing hurt, this wasn’t the hurt of practice or the pain she filed away every time she performed, there was nothing telling her how far to push, how far to hold back.
She was lucky, she knew. She was not grievously injured, she was not dead, the illness was known and could be treated, if they could find the right medications, if she had time and rest and infinite patience.
But it was also terrible to be here, terrible to be thrust back into the nightmares of her childhood. They were such fond and awful times where there was nothing she could do but wait. It was terrible to know that if she pushed her body just a step too far, then all the luck she had garnered could be blown away in an instant and she’d never step on stage again —
There was nothing to regret. She had known long ago that for her to stand on this kind of stage was already enough of a miracle. The few short years where her body had molded itself to her will were already — a precious memory.
Time wound onwards.
After a few days, the fever had begun to subside, as did the swelling. The pain still came and went, as did the fatigue. She’d have to remain in the medical center, but she was mentally well enough to begin catching up on schoolwork.
The staff brought over her books and scripts. At the top of the stack was the revised Elysion. Ah. The Performance Festival. There was a lot of work to make up. She took the script, flipped to Act II.
Someone knocked on the door, then opened it without waiting for a response.
“Ah, Shiori! Good, you’re here. I was worried I had the wrong room. Can I come in?”
“Mei Fan-senpai? Isn’t today a school day?”
“Yes! The Edels have been pretty busy as of late. But it’s been days since you left the hospital, and I didn’t want to wait for a day off to visit. I got permission from the teachers to make up my work later.”
“The medical center is pretty far from the main campus though…you didn’t have to do that.”
“It was a nice jog. Ah — but if it’s a bad time, I could always come back later.”
“No, please come in. Sorry for making you come all this way.”
Mei Fan swung the door wider, and Shiori saw that she was carrying a small bouquet of flowers in one hand, a container of Chinese tea in the other. Mei Fan crossed over to the table, set the tea down, then turned to Shiori.
“The flowers are from all the Edels. And the tea is from me! You can still drink tea, right?”
Shiori thought for a moment. “I suppose no one ever said I couldn’t…”
— and she’d really missed it. There hadn’t been any at the medical center.
“Then let’s drink some now! Hold on a moment.”
Mei Fan dug through her bag. She pulled out two wrapped-up jackets from her bag. The first one contained a small teapot and a few cups. The second one contained a vase, which she used to carefully arrange the flowers. Then, without missing a beat, she put on the tea.
“Everyone misses you, you know,” Mei Fan spoke as she worked. “Akira-san has been even more intense than usual, and Yachiyo is actually being diligent for once. She’s been handling most of the work in General Affairs.”
“Sorry. I know I should be helping with the student council work —”
“Don’t apologize! And don’t worry about anything. We’ve been working hard to keep the student council up and running, so all you have to do is focus on resting and getting better.”
Getting better, huh? Shiori didn’t have the heart to tell her that ‘getting better’ was much more of a question mark than a guarantee.
The tea finished steeping, and Mei Fan expertly poured out the two cups, handed one to Shiori. “Here you go. Be careful, it’s hot.”
“Thank you, Mei Fan-senpai.” Shiori waited a bit, sipped on the tea. It was hot. And very good.
“I didn’t even know the medical center had its own rooms like this,” Mei Fan said. “How has it been, making up the schoolwork?”
“Not bad, actually.” Now that she wasn’t spending half her day in rehearsal, there was quite a lot of time to catch up on the lessons and finish her homework — even with all the tiredness.
“That’s good to hear. If you ever need anything, just call me and I’ll come running. I was going to pack a first aid kit, but then I realized that this place probably has everything already. Though if you want some more skin ointment —”
“I think I’m okay,” Shiori said.
Mei Fan chuckled. “It smells, doesn’t it? And stings a lot. But that’s how you know it’s working. I’m sure the medical center has something better for you, anyway.”
“Mmm. They’re still working to figure out what combination of medications is right,” Shiori said. “It’s why I’m here and not in the dorms.”
Mei Fan finished her tea, set the teacup down.
“It is a lot quieter here than the dorms are. Seems like a good place to get some rest without worrying about everyone else distracting you. I hope no one’s been bothering you too much. Oh, wait, am I bothering you?”
Mei Fan looked so concerned that Shiori couldn’t help but chuckle at her. “Not at all. I’m glad you came to visit. You’re the first visitor I’ve gotten since I left the hospital, actually.”
At that, Mei Fan looked even more shocked.
“Wait, I’m your first visitor? But it’s been days! What about your friends? Your classmates?” She paused. “Ah, right. We didn’t exactly tell the school you were here, since we didn’t want you overwhelmed by fans and onlookers. But that didn’t mean you couldn’t tell anyone what was going on.”
“Who would I tell?” Shiori replied. “The end of the school year is coming up, and everyone’s so busy — not just the Edels. And — truth be told, since becoming an Edel, it’s been hard to find time to keep up with anyone else. I feel like I left a few people behind, and I don’t want to impose on them now.”
It was her own fault. She’d spent all her time on work, on practice, on upholding Siegfeld’s ideals. As soon as she became Frau Jade, she’d noticed that distance between herself and the rest of her classmates.
“I see…” Mei Fan scratched the back of her neck.
“Ah, I didn’t mean to ruin the mood,” Shiori said. “I’m very grateful that you stopped by, Mei Fan-senpai.”
“Anytime! But I did want to say —” Mei Fan became serious. “— that this kind of thing is pretty natural here at Siegfeld. Everyone’s trying to shine, and the Edels have to shine the brightest. It’s not easy to reach out to people when you have to always be thinking about how people are looking at you.” She sounded like she was talking from experience. “But at the same time, everyone here is supporting you. Your fans and the audience all want to see you back on stage, and we Edels are all waiting for you to rejoin us as well.”
Mei Fan got up, took Shiori’s empty teacup, and set both her own and Shiori’s cup on the table next to her bag.
“That includes me, you know. I know you’ll be back on your feet in no time. And in the meantime, you can always call on me to keep you company. No matter what happens, know that I shall always be your friend and ally.”
Mei Fan sounded so hopeful that Shiori couldn’t say anything to contradict that. She was always so sincere, so genuine, and Shiori knew in her heart that Mei Fan would take her own words as though they were a promise.
“Thank you, Mei Fan-senpai,” Shiori said.
Michiru went to the student council room again during the lunch break. Somehow, she knew Akira would be there.
“We were wrong,” Michiru said, at last.
“We don’t know that yet,” Akira said in response.
“I don’t mean about Shiori’s role. We don’t know yet what will come out of that. Maybe she’ll recover quickly enough that she can still join us on stage. Maybe she won’t. The show’s in two and a half weeks.”
“Even if she comes back with only a day left, we can still perform. Shiori can do it, especially since she’s already performed her Wind Goddess before. It will not be ideal, but what does that change? We can still strive for perfection.”
Michiru frowned. “No, I know that. But we were wrong about other things. Maybe because we were trying to avoid our past mistakes.”
— This hadn’t been about Fumi at all.
Shiori hadn’t been hiding anything from them.
Shiori really hadn’t known.
Michiru still didn’t know too well what was going on. But Shiori had been surprised, Michiru had been surprised, even the medical staff at Siegfeld had been surprised that Shiori’s condition had worsened so quickly. To think that Michiru had thought Shiori was simply losing spirit, that a solid push should fix things.
Michiru sighed. She was usually so good at this kind of thing. Reading people, understanding them, figuring out where their talents and their weaknesses were. How could she have been so off?
That wasn’t too hard to figure out. Michiru knew she had her own blind spots. She had thought, over and over again — what she could have done differently, so that Fumi wouldn’t have had to leave. It was the biggest failure of her tenure as Frau Saphir, and perhaps too much of her effort had been placed in that direction. And she had been pressured, too, from the short timescale, the weight of the Performance Festival bearing down on them.
It wasn’t an excuse. To make a perfect theatre troupe, she had to understand her actors. But the show had to go on.
The student council room fell to silence, and it stayed that way for the rest of the lunch break.
On the next day off, Yachiyo visited the medical center.
“I was going to spend the afternoon scrapbooking anyway,” Yachiyo said. “It makes no difference whether I do it here or in my room. Least I could do is to keep you company. And this way, Mei Fan won’t berate me for making a mess.”
— So it was that Shiori’s table was now covered in papers.
Yachiyo worked quietly, her expression unusually severe. She wasn’t even looking at Shiori, but Shiori felt a bit like she was being glared at. The time ticked by in silence, until Shiori worked up the nerve to speak.
“Um…have I disappointed you?”
Yachiyo froze, stopping mid page-turn in her scrapbook. “What?”
“It’s just…you helped me a lot recently. With everything on Valentine’s Day, that show, helping me figure out how to receive chocolates, and then even giving me chocolate — I can’t help but feel that there’s nothing I can do to pay you back for it all.”
At that, Yachiyo sighed, and gently put down her scrapbook. “Oh, Shiori…”
Yachiyo looked — tired. She was still speaking like she always did, with that distinctive lilt, but to Shiori, it looked a bit like false cheer. Yachiyo’s eyes were also a little bloodshot, a telltale sign she hadn’t been getting much sleep. Shiori had a feeling she was to blame for that.
“It’s not just you,” Shiori continued. “I’m letting everyone down. I know I should be preparing more for the Performance Festival —”
“Aaand I’m going to have to stop you right there,” Yachiyo said. “Didn’t Mei Fan already tell you to rest? Sing you a lullaby or something?”
“Well, I can’t deny that that thought has been on our minds. What are we going to do about the Performance Festival, indeed…”
The room quieted, with a strange tension still hanging in the air. It was very different than from when Mei Fan visited.
“What would Akira-senpai say? That we all have great expectations for you,” Yachiyo said, then frowned. “That doesn’t seem right here, though. Siegfeld’s style is really, really good at making you find your limits, and then pushing you to reach them — but it makes no sense for situations like this. Am I disappointed? Of course I am. The stage isn’t the same without Frau Jade on it. But —” Yachiyo finished the page, flipped over to the next one. “I don’t even know who or what to be disappointed at. Being an Edel is sometimes more of a hassle than anything else.”
At that, Yachiyo closed her scrapbook, and stood up. Her expression had relaxed considerably, or maybe she had forced herself to act as though she was more relaxed. That slight smile was back on her face. Shiori couldn’t tell what she was feeling, and in this fog — it was hard to figure out what Yachiyo meant.
“Hmmm…it’s really too bad,” Yachiyo said. “They finalized the costumes a lot earlier this time. I did want to try my hand at making a few more modifications…”
“Mhmm.” Yachiyo walked over to Shiori’s bed, showed off her handiwork. Photos of starry dresses and ethereal accessories, all fit for the goddesses they would become. “Your skin’s been causing you problems, right? I was hoping that we could modify the sleeves for the Wind Goddess’s outfit. Use some loose, translucent fabric here…” Yachiyo pointed at her drawings “…and here, so that it doesn’t irritate your skin, but also doesn’t hide your movements.”
Shiori looked over all those photos and sketches, so carefully arranged.
“Can I see the rest of this?”
Yachiyo gave the scrapbook to Shiori. “Sure thing.”
The Board of Directors made their decision.
“Thank you all for gathering here today,” Akira said. All the Edels were in the student council room, faces serious. “As president and vice-president of the student council, Michiru and I were invited to attend the Board meeting to discuss the matter of Frau Jade.”
Michiru glanced over at Akira, whose expression was so flat she might as well have been reading off a script.
“The Board has recommended that Shiori voluntarily give up her position, and for the rest of us to find a new Frau Jade,” Akira continued. “If it happens within the next week, they can make arrangements with Performance Festival staff to ensure that all five Edels can perform.”
Both Mei Fan and Yachiyo had a reaction, though they were subdued. A subtle frown, a shifting of energy.
“That is all. Let’s get through all our student council work together,” Akira said.
— wait, that was it?
“Hold on.” Mei Fan. “Did they make that decision without even consulting Shiori? Last I saw her, she was still trying everything she could to prepare for the performance; she was reviewing the script for Elysion at the medical center.”
Michiru jumped in before Akira could answer. “Well, it’s not like the Board demanded Shiori’s resignation. Remember, it was simply a recommendation, and we haven’t gotten around to answering it yet. We still have to discuss this with Shiori herself, after all.”
But the ‘request’ may have just been a courtesy. If they pressed it at the next meeting, then —
“I can’t accept this,” Mei Fan said. “It’s not like we have no time. They’re giving up on her that easily? We’re giving up on her that easily? I told her that we were all wishing to see her get back on stage.”
“Then it was wrong of you to say that when you didn’t know the circumstances,” Akira said. “I know it pains you to be in this situation, but giving Shiori false hopes will not improve it.”
Mei Fan looked like she wanted to argue, then sighed, and looked very down. “No. You’re right. I’m sorry, Akira-san.”
“Are you angry, Mei Fan? Then remember this feeling, and use it to fuel your Fire Goddess. We need you on our stage for the Performance Festival.”
“I know,” was Mei Fan’s response, dark and quiet and brimming with fury.
— This was not a great situation. As much as they were training to be professionals, as much as they had to focus on their performance — all the Edels were still human. They had their feelings, and they carried their own frustrations. Mei Fan, with her angry outburst. Yachiyo, who had remained silent, but was staring daggers at Akira and Michiru. And Akira, who was certainly relying on all of her acting skills to ensure that she would not waver.
The institution wasn’t a human, and didn’t have those same feelings. All Siegfeld needed to care about was the performance, the reputation.
…It was going to be tough trying to raise morale for today’s practice.
With the tension still unsettled, the Edels began their student council work.
“There. That’s all of the work in General Affairs.”
As had been usual for days now, Yachiyo came up to Michiru with all the paperwork in tow, for both her own job as Treasurer and for Shiori’s. Michiru had created a schedule so they could trade off on the work, but somehow Yachiyo usually ended up getting to it first.
“Thank you. Great work today,” Michiru replied. “I’ll see you at rehearsal later.”
“Yes. See you later.”
Michiru gave Yachiyo a beaming smile, and Yachiyo returned a smaller one that was almost a smirk. And then she was gone, and the weight settled back on the student council room.
Mei Fan had left earlier, finished her work earlier, had wanted to do some extra practice earlier. Akira was still here, but she was so focused on filling out her paperwork she might as well have been a stone. Michiru went back to her laptop, idly sifting through tabs.
“Shiori’s been doing a little better,” Michiru said. “She finally returned my text. She might be able to return to the dorms soon.”
“But? Your voice isn’t as sure as usual. There’s a ‘but’ in there somewhere.” Akira kept writing as she talked.
“I heard that the doctors’ advice was for her to stop performing. For at least another month, maybe more. Light exercise is okay, but the demands of a full rehearsal, let alone a proper show, could cause her condition to worsen even more.”
“I see. Anything more?”
“I only know what I was able to get out of the medical staff. I wasn’t going to go and interrogate Shiori about this, you know. But — maybe we’ll have to, at some point.”
“Shiori has already been sick for many days now. People have already started spreading rumors. There’s talk among the students now that we might see a new audition for Frau Jade.”
“…we’ve seen this before too, haven’t we?”
Michiru leaned back in her chair, and stared at the ceiling.
“Hey, Akira? Where should our loyalties lie? With the school, with the stage, or with our friends?”
“The stage. Obviously.”
“Exactly. We dedicated ourselves to theater, and we must always act for the sake of a better performance. But it’s a bit more complex than that. As members of the student council, we have a responsibility towards making Siegfeld into a better institution, and we have to play by its rules and uphold its reputation. And as Shiori’s friends…”
— They were friends. Surely, Shiori saw the Edels as friends, and had placed all her trust and hopes in their hands. They had long since crossed that boundary of being simply ‘people who worked together’, and had begun entwining their lives, even outside of rehearsals. It was something that Michiru had encouraged, so that they may learn to trust more, so that they could become an ever more effective troupe together.
Their responsibilities as Edels, their passions to the stage, their bonds to each other. Any one of them could twist and fail, and bring all the rest of them down. It was their greatest strength, it was their biggest weakness. It was a response to a mistake of the past, where the Edels had not trusted each other enough. Maybe they had gone too far in the other direction.
"If this were my — our — troupe, the answer would be clear. Shiori is a valuable member of the team. We could reschedule her shows, make sure she is taken care of, and welcome her back once she has time to recover. You chose her for a reason, and we believe in her ability.
“…but this is not our troupe, and the title of Edel, though it has been bestowed upon us, belongs truly to Siegfeld. Only Edels can be onstage for Elysion, and only we Edels are supposed to be at the Performance Festival. The school Board demands we fulfill our duties and put on the absolute best performances we can. And they’ve already requested that we find a new Frau Jade.”
Akira took that moment to interrupt. “But they backed down. When we asked them if they would forcibly take the title from her.” Probably because that wouldn’t look too good for the school. “I didn’t want to say it in front of her, but I agree with Mei Fan. I still believe in Shiori. She will find a way to pull through.”
“I know. We’ve seen how she works. How much she pours herself into her craft, and how quickly she’s improved. No minor setback can cause her to falter.”
Michiru pulled open the computer, beckoned Akira over. After giving her a puzzled glance, Akira stood up, and looked at the screen with Michiru.
On the screen was a news article from a few years back.
“Do you remember this, Akira? This production of Cinderella…during the transformation sequence, when the pumpkin was supposed to turn into a carriage, the mechanism malfunctioned, and fell atop the lead actress. The resulting injuries were enough to end her career.”
Michiru flipped through a few tabs.
“Going back a little further…this version of Aladdin that incorporated some circus elements. One of the trapeze artists fell from the harness. It hadn’t broken or anything. She simply…lost her grip. She was a veteran; she’d done that show for 10 years, and even she was able to make that kind of a mistake. There were rumors later that she’d been hiding health problems from the rest of the troupe, but they were never confirmed.”
Another tab. A troupe that had to cancel their biggest show because the lead actor had developed an aggressive cancer. Another tab. A show that was stopped midway because a supporting actress had a heart attack on stage. Another tab. Another tab.
After a while, Michiru spoke again. “People get sick. Accidents happen. And sometimes, it really isn’t their fault…and it isn’t something that they can simply will their way out of.”
Akira looked at the screen, at the row of tabs. “You’ve been thinking about this for a while.”
“I wanted to see what the professionals did when something like this happened. But it won’t matter, in the end. Siegfeld’s administration holds the final say over what happens with the Performance Festival, and with our titles.”
Michiru closed out the browser, and turned to face Akira.
“We don’t know what the extent of Shiori’s illness is, but the way Shiori was talking about it, it probably isn’t something that goes away. Maybe the doctors are worried without cause, and she’ll recover in a few days. Maybe…it’ll impact her her whole life. We don’t know if she will ever be able to perform like she used to. Like how an Edel has to. And none of it will be her fault.”
“I believe in her as much as you do, Akira. I think that Shiori will do everything in her power to make Siegfeld’s stage perfect. But she’s young, and she’s ill, and we already know that she isn’t supposed to keep performing. And here at Siegfeld, that — isn’t acceptable.” Michiru got up, and closed her laptop. “If she were to meet our expectations, and then get seriously hurt — or die — would we be able to forgive ourselves? If it were you, what would you do?”
Akira was quiet for a few seconds, then spoke more softly than she should’ve as Frau Platin.
“Then I ask this of you, Michiru. If she would truly want to stand up on stage, despite everything — would she forgive us if we took that chance away from her?”
The questions lingered, with no answers in sight.
It took four more days for Shiori to be discharged from the medical center. She was still obviously unwell, but she was doing better, better enough that she didn’t need medical staff to check in on her at a moment’s notice.
At least, that was what Michiru had heard. She had a feeling that Shiori might have requested to move back to the dorm herself. Shiori was still not supposed to perform.
Regardless, Mei Fan had, of course, suggested that all the Edels keep her company during their day off, and this time there was no objection. They went to Shiori’s room, Shiori fetched a tea set they could all use, and all of the Edels were gathered now around the table for some afternoon tea.
Shiori did look better than what Michiru had seen of her in the medical center, but her face was noticeably swollen, and the rash had spread up to her face as well. It was a cold thing to think about, and thankfully it seemed no one would bring it up — but Shiori was not as beautiful as she had been. The other students would notice, and the audience for any stage would too. It would be something that they’d have to consider if she were still to perform.
At the same time, Shiori was still undeniably the same Shiori, with that fierce passion still lighting up her eyes.
The others were talking now about Elysion. Mei Fan, especially, going into detail about the intricacies of the Fire Goddess with great enthusiasm. It was impressive. Michiru had warned Mei Fan not to let too much of her frustration show, and sure enough, she had instead channeled it all into this passion. Shiori listened, before responding in kind, talking about her time in the medical center. The food, the staff, the times when the Edels would visit. She had been practicing too, and showed off a few of her lines as Wind Goddess —
— it was a little awkward. The Edels now had many days of experiences that she lacked. They’d moved on without her. Of course they did.
Michiru disengaged from the conversation for a moment, looked around. On Shiori’s desk, there was a truly impressive amount of medicines. And next to it, an electric wheelchair.
— Was everything going to be okay?
“So what does this mean?” Akira asked. Just in time. “Will you be going back to class? Joining us in rehearsal?”
“Not yet. I’ll still be catching up on schoolwork from here…and they said that they’d bring me the class materials. But at least the dorm is closer to the school than the medical center. If I need to, I can go to school to get things.”
“Do you think you can get back before the Performance Festival?” Yachiyo.
Michiru looked at Shiori’s face, and saw the answer plain as day in her darkened expression.
“I’ll make sure to be better by the Performance Festival. I won’t let you down on the stage,” Shiori said, though her voice was weak, punctuated by a coughing fit at the end. Shiori was an awful liar. “But it’ll still be a little time. The medicine has helped a lot, but they said that there might be a few side effects to watch out for.” And then she smiled. “Ah, don’t worry. I’m used to this kind of thing.”
Michiru did not doubt that.
Another day passed. As she said would happen, Shiori did not make it to class, or to the student council, or to rehearsal. But now that they were all back in the dorms, she could easily talk to any of them in the common room, or in their rooms.
Michiru sat at her desk in the dorm, trying to think.
How do we handle this?
There was little more than a week now to the Performance Festival. A seasoned professional could, with full-time practice, learn the role of the Wind Goddess in that time. But they weren’t quite professionals yet.
Though — everyone at Siegfeld had come here for Elysion. Everyone knew the story, the characters…they could learn how to become the Wind Goddess that quickly. Siegfeld, in the end, was an elite school.
Tomorrow, there’d be another meeting with the Board. There was no more room for delays. They still had their shortlist of Edel candidates from the last time they held the audition. They had to go through with the Performance Festival. The institution had to appear perfect, the story had to be thought through.
— How brutal the stage could be. A performance could never be repeated, and there were no second chances. Maybe what Shiori needed was to take some time off, and come back later…and the stage here at Siegfeld wouldn’t allow that. As an Edel, missing just a single step meant that someone else could take your place. It didn’t matter who was at the top, simply that the five spots on the stage were filled.
To stay on this stage, everyone had to hide their weaknesses. Maybe everything was okay, if they could pretend that Shiori was okay. Maybe Shiori had believed that she was okay, even as her body fell apart before her. It was simply what was needed to draw out her potential.
Well, that was how it was here at Siegfeld. Anyone who fought for a position on stage had to push themselves to the utter limit. Not everyone could make it.
— It was difficult, having to make that call.
She’d seen the anger that had emerged when they even suggested finding another Frau Jade. The Edels had gone through this before, but Michiru didn’t remember it being so painful last time. Why was that, again?
A moment of realization, from so many months ago.
Michiru had never blamed Fumi for leaving, but she couldn’t say that there was no resentment at all. The decision had been so sudden, and everyone had been taken aback. It was the first time in a long time that Akira had been so angry — at herself, at the world. And at first, Michiru had wondered — did Fumi hate them all so much as to inflict this wound upon them? To leave Shiori with so many doubts?
— Perhaps, in truth, Fumi had done them all a huge kindness.
Fumi had pushed all the blame to herself, leaving the Edels and Siegfeld itself untouched. And she’d left a whole three months before they were supposed to perform Elysion — enough time for them to find a new Frau Jade, and do rehearsals properly. All the hurt and anger had been directed outwards, and then became the fuel that was used to forge the current team of Edels.
Would Shiori do the same?
Michiru got up, and steeled herself. There really was no use delaying it, especially since Shiori’s room was right across the hall. Maybe she could do this gently, maybe Shiori would even agree with her. Shiori was always a little too nice.
Michiru went to Shiori’s room and knocked on the door.
Only the silence answered her.
Siegfeld’s gates always looked so impressive at night, with the buildings and walkways lit from below.
There was a wide open space in front of the gate, usually for students to gather before and after class and socialize. Now, emptied, it was far bigger than the rehearsal room could ever be.
No one was out here at this hour; Shiori had sometimes been here with the Edels this late, but only on days after a performance, when they had already closed the show and had to stay late to help clean everything up.
The rehearsal room was surely already locked up. If not, one of the others was still practicing. In either case, she couldn’t go that way, so here was the best she could do.
Even walking was causing her ankles to ache, so Shiori had used the wheelchair that her parents had insisted she take ‘in case’. How embarrassed she had been at first — but it truly was useful. Better to save what little energy she had for practicing.
Shiori got up, did some warm-ups, and danced. Everything in her brain and body hated this. Her steps were all shaky, her legs felt like they’d catch aflame, but that was okay. She had worked through pain. She knew why she was in pain. This is what the stage demanded.
This was the dance of the Wind Goddess, who could laugh without worries, who made friends with all the woodland animals.
This was the dance of the Wind Goddess, who had seen her fellow goddesses disappear to their realms, and slowly lose themselves in their duties.
— She broke down coughing halfway through. It was fine. She’d made it this far, so the medication was still doing better than she expected. It passed, and she kept dancing.
This was the dance of the Wind Goddess, who was overjoyed to see the Celestial Goddess, who was saddened to see how the emotions had emptied from her heart —
“What are you doing, Shiori?”
Shiori turned, saw Akira at the gate. Of course someone had been using the rehearsal room at this hour. She kept dancing, spoke between breaths.
“…are you going to tell me to stop, Yukishiro-senpai?”
“Will you stop?”
“Was that the Wind Goddess’s dance? You’ve fallen out of practice.”
“How could I not?” Shiori said.
Akira walked around Shiori’s improvised stage, carefully, until she was standing next to the wheelchair. She stared, without any remorse, without any judgment.
“Michiru was looking for you earlier,” Akira said, looked at the wheelchair.
“I didn’t expect you to be out here. You shouldn’t overexert yourself.”
Yes. Those same words — Shiori had heard them from everyone. She knew how bad she looked; the steps were wrong, her limbs felt like they’d fall apart, her face was at once pale and swollen.
“Were you two looking for me…to talk about my replacement?” Shiori asked.
Shiori exhaled. This was not the time to cry.
“And if I were to no longer be Frau Jade — would that be the last time I see you?”
“Hm? What do you mean?”
— This was the dance of the Wind Goddess. Shiori started dancing again, slowly, staring at Akira all the while.
“We only ever became friends because we were Edels,” Shiori said. “You’ve given me so much advice and guidance — and I’m always thankful for that. But there are so many talented students here at Siegfeld, who all long for that guidance, who would grow so much to gain it. I could easily be replaced, and a part of me always thought I should’ve been.” Shiori danced, the slow motions grinding down her bones. “The Edels…are now my closest friends. If I were to lose my title — would I be forgotten? Like Onee-chan was?”
— Shiori was certain she saw it. Akira’s expression, breaking down for just a moment. But then, she was back to her dignified, stern self.
“Do you really think she was forgotten?”
Shiori froze, mid-step. “No.” And then she kept going.
This was the dance of the Wind Goddess, who should’ve been free-spirited and carefree.
“I know that you have not forgotten her. All of you haven’t. But to the school, her time as Frau Jade this year may as well never have existed.”
“That’s the nature of the industry. We are never remembered for the roles we strived for and failed to get, or for the roles we turned down. It’s not something that you should take personally.”
The dance ended. Shiori took some time to catch her breath, and Akira waited for her. “It is personal, though. For Onee-chan, for me, for everyone here…getting into Siegfeld was the first step of our dream. We were all awed by Elysion, and we all wanted to be a part of it.”
Once, long ago, someone had cursed the realm, prayed for its fall —
“I didn’t know, coming in, that being onstage for Elysion would be forever out of the grasp of most of the students. Even if, in the end, they sacrifice themselves for the king’s stage — everyone came here for the sake of fulfilling their own dreams.”
Shiori started the dance from the beginning again, ignoring the pain ripping through her.
This was the dance of the Wind Goddess, whose anger could conjure fierce storms. Shiori channeled the storms, and let them become her own anger.
“Everyone loves the Edels, and are inspired by them. Everyone hates the Edels, and seeks to dethrone them. I only took on the position of Frau Jade because you insisted that you needed me. And now that I am useless, will you just as quickly throw me away?”
Shiori glared at Akira.
“On the king’s stage, is every student’s struggle just as meaningless?”
The dance stopped once more. Akira stood at the edge of the stage, unmoving.
“…you remain as compassionate as ever, Shiori. I admire that about you,” Akira said. She took a breath. “‘When one becomes a king their life is bound, and only when they die they will find happiness…’ There’s nothing more I can say to answer your words. Everyone knew, when they came here, that fulfilling their dreams was not a guarantee.”
The wind blew around them.
“I — I know I should probably give up my title,” Shiori said. “It’s unfair to the Edels for me to stay as Frau Jade, when I can’t perform as well as I’d like. But I…I won’t answer Siegfeld’s requests. I want to be selfish. I want to be there, onstage at the Performance Festival. I —”
This was the dance of the Wind Goddess, who had witnessed too much anger and sorrow.
“If I were to quit, then the story will be the same. Everyone will say it was because I wasn’t good enough, or couldn’t handle it, and that’s that. But it was never that simple. For me, and for Onee-chan.”
This was the dance of the Wind Goddess.
“And even if I do, what will happen to Frau Jade? If all of the recent Frau Jades have quit…would the title mean anything anymore? …I don’t want to leave that kind of legacy behind.”
This was —
“My resolve has not changed. The stage has not left me, and so long as I can move this body, it will not leave me.”
— the resolution of a cursed knight’s dream —
“I will surpass myself, and prove to you — that we are not cursed. That my family is not cursed, that Onee-chan was not cursed, that this title of Frau Jade is not cursed.”
— chasing hopelessly after his dead brother —
“Are you in pain right now?” Akira’s voice was neutral.
“Yes. But I can go on.”
“Have you warmed up properly?”
“Of course I have. Don’t tell me to stop now, Yukishiro-senpai.”
Akira sighed, then gave her a wry smile. “Don’t tell Michiru about this, alright?”
Akira closed her eyes, and stepped onto the stage. She opened her eyes, and was no longer Akira. The Celestial Goddess had arrived.
“This is…the forest of the Wind Goddess. Ah, how many eons has it been? The trees are far taller than the saplings I remember…the animals far more numerous.” She turned to Shiori expectantly.
“Oh, a visitor! A rare sight indeed. What brings you to my realm, O Wayward Goddess? I have not seen your face in far too long.”
“A passing curiosity, nothing more — or so I would’ve said. But the first realm I reached, I met with our old friend the Earth Goddess. She has changed.”
“So you finally learned of it, then?” The night wind blew around them. “The Earth Goddess has lost her happiness. She will never smile again.”
Shiori danced the dance of the Wind Goddess, and Akira moved in time with her. Not dancing, not yet — she took the heavy, stilted steps of a Celestial Goddess who knew nothing of her own feelings.
“Celestial Goddess, if you wish to see the Earth Goddess smile once more, you must first learn about emotions.”
The Wind Goddess offered her hand. The Celestial Goddess took it, and they danced together. A dance of the gentle breeze, a dance of a raging tornado — the stage was not real, and yet the magic was still there.
This was the dance of the Wind Goddess, who had always clung onto that tiny hope.
The pain overtook her.
“No…I have to keep going…I —”
— so many hopes and dreams were resting on her shoulders.
Shiori tried to continue the dance. Akira stopped. Shiori grabbed Akira’s shoulders, forced herself to stay upright.
“An Edel challenges any stage. Didn’t you say this, Yukishiro-senpai?”
Shiori gripped tighter, and realized that her hands were shaking.
“Didn’t I promise — that one day, I will dazzle you with my display of romance?”
She stopped to catch her breath, looked at Akira. Her lungs were on fire again. But if she focused, she could remain standing. She could, she could —.
“Is there nothing I can do to convince you that — I will fulfill them?” Shiori asked. She tried to hold back her tears. This was still not the time for crying.
— It was impossible. The tiredness caught up with her. Shiori let go of Akira, and sank down to her knees. Akira went away somewhere, and came back with the wheelchair.
“We should go back to the dorm,” Akira said.
Oh, it was too much.
Shiori cried in front of Siegfeld’s gates.
At some point, her tears finally dried. Akira stood there the whole time, in the cold, waiting for her.
“If you are to tell me to stop being Frau Jade…I cannot accept that. Not yet.”
Shiori turned to Akira.
“I want to show the world — show Onee-chan — that dreaming like we did wasn’t a mistake.”
— So, please. Accept this resolve.