Somewhere, on a distant stage, a kingdom was in crisis.
— The young knight took hold of his spear once more, his arm rotting from the shoulder down, and charged once more in the name of his kingdom.
Four Edels were gathered in the student council room before practice. A little less than a week remained.
“Shiori remains Frau Jade,” Akira said. “That was the decision we came to along with the Board.”
It actually hadn’t taken much to come to that conclusion, as Michiru had expected. Anytime you added someone new to a group, the entire group changed drastically. It took time to establish a working dynamic, time they no longer had.
“Thus, our options have dwindled down to two,” Akira continued. “Either Shiori performs as the Wind Goddess, or we go on as a cast of four with Yachiyo reprising the part.”
— There were still no guarantees.
“Whether or not Shiori can stand on stage — is up to her. If she can work herself to get her performance to Siegfeld’s standards. And — it is also up to us. If we can support her enough to do that.”
“Shiori is still resting today,” Michiru jumped in. “But starting tomorrow, she’ll be at rehearsal again. All of us have done everything we can to improve our parts. So…in the five days that remain, let’s work even harder to create a perfect show.”
With all five of them.
Shiori really did like being at Siegfeld’s gates at night. So many fond memories and so many painful memories had been made here. They’d all been burned into her, forged into her soul.
She had to do better than last time, so that she could prove to the others that their trust in her was not misplaced —
“I thought you might come out here again.” Akira was there, at the gate. What timing. “Were you planning on practicing by yourself again?”
“It’s still pretty cold out. We could use the rehearsal room. I have the key with me.”
“You’ll join me?”
“The Celestial Goddess is also present in all the Wind Goddess’s scenes, isn’t she?” Akira went through the gate, beckoned Shiori to follow. “It’s more efficient this way.”
They went to the rehearsal room, did some warm ups, and danced the dance of the Wind Goddess.
— The dance was a little different now. A touch more fragile. Filled to the brim with desperation, colored by a certain spite. Don’t let your personal feelings cloud the performance, Shiori had been told several times before.
No, that was impossible now. A part of her would always remain in those performances. After all, this was her Wind Goddess. No one else’s.
Everything ached. She could barely catch her breath. But she was used to it now, fighting through it now. The world fell away, until she could only focus on a fraction of it. The dance. Her burning limbs. The Celestial Goddess, anchoring her, refusing to let her fall.
— And then it was over.
“…you made it to the end of the dance,” Akira said.
Shiori couldn’t respond. It took all her strength to keep herself from collapsing.
“Now, it’s just a matter of perfecting it.”
“There. How does it feel?” Yachiyo asked.
Shiori looked at herself in the mirror. The face staring back at her was terribly pale, and unbearably worn out. But the outfit — which Yachiyo had just painstakingly fitted for her — was unmistakably one that belonged to a goddess.
Shiori looked at the mirror again, and the Wind Goddess gazed back at her.
“It fits well,” Shiori said, twisted herself around. She wasn’t sure how Yachiyo had done it. The designs that she had thought would stay only as pictures in that scrapbook had made it to reality.
“Oh? You sound uncertain,” Yachiyo said. “Something bothering you?”
“Um…” Shiori turned back, to the disaster that was currently the dorm’s common room. The Edels had pushed all the furniture to the corner to turn this into something that could resemble a dressing room, and scattered across them were several hangers and boxes that Yachiyo had used to move the costume here. “I hope it wasn’t too much trouble to bring everything here. I could have gone to the dressing room…”
“With how you were struggling through rehearsal today? It was definitely a good idea for you to come back and get some rest first. You look a lot better now.”
Shiori couldn’t argue with that. She had to ration her stamina carefully. But, still —
“I didn’t want to cause problems…” Shiori said quietly.
“Well, this is good for me too,” Yachiyo said. “Looking at you now, there’s still some pieces I can improve, so I’ll be keeping the costume in my room today. Don’t worry. I’ll make sure to get everything back for the dress rehearsal. And no, you’re not allowed to help me.” Yachiyo stepped closer again, peered at the outfit. “If you want any last-minute alterations, you’ll have to tell me now.”
“Can I try dancing in it a little?”
“Be my guest. Why else did we clear out the entire common room?” Yachiyo said, before walking over to the side of the room.
"Then — "
Shiori danced the dance of the Wind Goddess. Just a fraction of it, enough to see how the clothes would move. What a difference they made.
She stopped, tried to catch her breath. She’d already pushed herself during the day. She could still feel it. But the outfit was easy to move in, at least. She danced until she was back in front of the mirror, looked at herself once more.
Why did she kind of want to cry?
Yachiyo was looking at her with a strangely morose expression.
“Have you been bothered?” Yachiyo asked. “By all the rumors.”
Shiori had heard them, of course, ever since she started going to rehearsals again. No, she didn’t even need to hear them. She knew how she looked now. How everyone looked at her with a certain discomfort. More days than not, she was taking the wheelchair to rehearsals, so that she could conserve her strength for the all-important dance. People saw her use it, and whispered their doubts. How could she take to the stage like that? Did she even deserve to still perform?
“It’s hard,” Shiori said. “I want to prove them all wrong, show them that I can still do everything I used to.” The pain, the fatigue? All things she’d experienced before. She could go to class. Walk to rehearsal. Push herself more, more. “But — I have to save my strength. It’d all come to nothing if I falter at the Performance Festival.”
It hurt. Shiori walked over to the couch, which had been pushed against the wall, and sat down. Yachiyo sat down next to her.
“Sometimes, I still can’t help but wonder. Am I doing the right thing? For myself, for Siegfeld…” Shiori trailed off. She touched her face. It was a little too warm, and the skin was rough and bumpy.
The room fell to silence.
“There is nothing wrong with wanting to perform. You shouldn’t feel ashamed for wanting to act,” Yachiyo said finally, her gaze looking off into the distance. “Even here, not everyone will understand that.”
But then that sort of easy smile was back on Yachiyo’s face, and that casual lilt returned to her voice. “So, if anyone gives you anymore trouble, let us know, okay? I can’t compare at all to Akira-senpai’s wrath, but if you ever need me to chase someone away, I can probably do a pretty good job.”
Shiori couldn’t help but giggle at that. “Thank you, Yachiyo-senpai.”
Two days remained. Tomorrow would be the dress rehearsal. Her last chance to improve. To make sure that Siegfeld would crush Seisho and everyone else, like Akira promised.
Shiori lay in bed, even though it wasn’t that late. She felt miserable. She’d danced so much she felt like her legs would fall off. She thought she was going to lose consciousness several times. She thought she might die.
— What was she even thinking about complaining about? This was the decision she had made. She could’ve quit long ago. She could’ve taken more painkillers, the strongest ones, the ones sitting on her desk that she hadn’t touched. She didn’t want to take them. They worked, but they worked too well. They sanded down everything that could be painful, even the ambition, even the drive to improve.
She could live with a little pain.
Someone knocked on the door, then opened it without waiting for a response.
“Ah, Shiori, you’re here. I hope this isn’t a bad time.”
“Mei Fan-senpai. Please, come in.”
Mei Fan gently opened the door wider, and entered. She carried with her a pile of papers and a few books, which she set down on the desk.
“I went and got all your classwork for the week again,” Mei Fan said. “Although — most of this is review notes for the upcoming exams. A lot of it’s optional, and you shouldn’t have to think about it at all until after the Performance Festival. But I figured you’d want it anyway, so here they are.”
“Ah. Thank you.”
“No need! If there’s anything more I can do to help, please let me know! I don’t want you to have to worry about anything,” Mei Fan said, as she started organizing the notes. Shiori was just about ready to tell her to stop, when Mei Fan stopped on her own, looking at a book that Shiori definitely did not remember seeing before. And was a bit too thick to be class material.
“Mei Fan-senpai? Um…is that…?”
“Oh, this is mine, sorry. I use it as a guide in fortune telling,” Mei Fan said. “I was reading my fortune after class, and must’ve gotten it mixed up with the others.”
“It feels like it’s been a while since you’ve done any fortune telling, Mei Fan-senpai.”
Once, Shiori remembered Mei Fan offering to tell fortunes anytime one of the Edels was worried about something. She hadn’t even noticed that those offers had dwindled to nothing.
“I still do them, but mostly for myself nowadays. The fortunes themselves aren’t that important, but reading the book and casting the sticks helps me focus,” Mei Fan said.
Shiori missed them, a little.
“I see…can you do one for me, then?”
Mei Fan looked surprised, then smiled, then looked worried all in one breath. “I’d be happy to,” she said after her face settled down a bit. “But — are you sure? I thought no one wanted to hear the fortunes. It’s why I stopped talking about them.”
Shiori had heard the warnings from Akira, from Michiru. For whatever reason, only the bad fortunes came true, they said.
— But what Shiori remembered was that Mei Fan always looked so happy, so at ease with the divinations. If she could provide a sliver of that happiness now — and possibly quell her own doubts, then —
“Please. I want to know.”
Mei Fan smiled, though that smile seemed a bit deeper than usual. “Okay, then. I’ll go get my divination tools. I’ll be right back.”
They did a fortune telling. In the past, Shiori remembered that Mei Fan was always so relaxed during the process, carefully parceling out the sticks, forming patterns with them. But this time, Mei Fan looked serious, like she was really focusing. The divination almost felt sacred.
Shiori split the pile of sticks. Mei Fan carefully rearranged them, drew some lines on paper, presented them again. Shiori split the pile of sticks again. And again. The world fell away. The ritual repeated. Mei Fan arranged the pile, Shiori split it into two.
— And then it was over.
Mei Fan opened the book, the pages full of words that Shiori couldn’t read. She watched as Mei Fan scanned the page, her brows creasing further as she went on. Then she stopped, closed the book, and thought silently for a bit.
“I’m trying to figure out what this fortune is saying,” Mei Fan said. “Most fortunes are like that, actually — neither obviously good or bad. They’re all sort of like poems, and can be interpreted in a lot of different ways. But…hmm…as for what you got, I think this is what it means.”
Mei Fan’s expression was serious, almost a bit foreboding.
"You made your decisions long ago, and no fate can move that.
“You already know how this will end.”
You already know how this will end.
Yes, she did.
All the goddesses were waiting.
Shiori promised them, didn’t she? That she would perform all the way to the end. Even if her bones fell to pieces. Even if she had to gasp out every breath.
They had sacrificed for her.
Mei Fan, dutifully keeping track of her classwork for her, and helping her so patiently with everything she’d missed.
Yachiyo, who kept insisting on doing all the student council work in General Affairs, who stayed up late making the costume changes that Shiori had admired days before.
Michiru, taking extra time in rehearsals, giving her extra time in rehearsals to rest, always being patient with her clumsiness.
And Akira, who danced the dance of the Wind Goddess with her many times.
She had promised herself that she would throw her soul into the flames for them. She had, over the course of a grueling week, done just that.
It was time to let go of the last of that soul.
How uncomfortable the stage was, how painful the dance was. Once it was over, she could succumb to that pain. But not a second sooner.
She was there, in the audience, watching.
The pain and frustration would always stay with Shiori. This was her life now.
But it was fine. That kind of luck could befall anyone. She’d tasted that bitterness many times before.
To still be on stage, to have the opportunity to burn through the last of her strength here — this moment shall become another precious memory.
Look — at how far I’ve come.
— This was — the last dance of the Wind Goddess.
The Performance Festival came and went. The Edels put on their performance of Elysion, and everyone did the absolute best they could.
It was frustrating, how things turned out. The Elysion they put on couldn’t even compare to the one in December. At least, to the judges. Siegfeld did not reign supreme, as Akira had declared they would. The audience seemed enraptured as always, but it wasn’t quite enough. The applause that Seisho had received was just as deafening, if not even louder. The award ceremony had been almost painful to sit through.
— There were quite a few things that hadn’t gone to plan. But that was what Michiru expected. There would always be things that didn’t go according to plan.
There were going to be more changes to the plans. The Siegfeld students who came to watch would be perceptive to any weakness in the Edels — or anything they considered a weakness. There were probably going to be so many challenges once the new school year started; everyone wanted a chance to be onstage for Elysion, after all.
Siegfeld as an institution wasn’t going to change so easily.
…there was no use dwelling on this. The show had already ended, and may as well have blown away in the wind. There would be more stages in the future. There was somewhere else Michiru had to be.
“…Michiru-senpai? What brings you here?” Shiori asked, sitting up in her bed.
— the medical center really was out of the way of the main campus. No matter how many times Michiru made the trek, it surprised her with how long it took.
“To see you, of course,” Michiru said with a smile, before her face became a little more serious. “I wanted to talk a little about the future. But before all that — how are you doing?”
Shiori looked troubled for a moment. “Fine, I think. I’ve been making up work and taking exams, but they wanted me to stay here a bit longer. I don’t think I did very well on my finals…”
Another case of bad luck. Part of Michiru was surprised that Shiori had forced herself to take exams in her condition. Part of her knew — that there really was no other choice. The school year would not wait for her to end.
“But you didn’t fail them, right?”
“I don’t think so…”
“Even if you did, you’ve nothing to worry about. You’ve already made it through Siegfeld’s junior high division. You’ll automatically join the high school for the next school year.”
“Right…” Shiori said, before her eyes clouded over again. “If I can even keep up at Siegfeld like this…”
The weeks leading up to the Performance Festival must’ve been absolute torture, but Shiori had done it. She had performed, and danced the dance of the Wind Goddess —
— which had promptly landed her back in the medical center.
Michiru didn’t know the details — and didn’t ask — but it was clear that even now, Shiori was still fighting some pain. Michiru’s intuition had been right from the beginning. This wasn’t something that would go away.
“Next year…no, next week — I will no longer be Frau Saphir. And you will have completed your duty as Frau Jade. Whether you hold onto the title or pass it on — is now totally up to you.”
Michiru couldn’t tell what the future would hold. Maybe Shiori could do it, push this body of hers a little bit further, and keep performing. But it was much more likely that, for at least a small time — or maybe the rest of her life — she would have to give up the stage.
Either way, Shiori had been extraordinary. The Edels never quite said that to her enough.
“Congratulations, Shiori. You were the first Edel from the junior high school, and the first junior high representative at the Performance Festival from Siegfeld. I don’t know if they were worth the hardships you put yourself through, but they are real accomplishments, and they are worth celebrating. Whether you stay at Siegfeld or transfer somewhere else…I hope you continue onwards with your head held high.”
Shiori’s eyes widened. “You don’t think that it’d be wrong for me to leave Siegfeld?”
“Well, I’m obviously hoping you stay! But I don’t know if that’s right or wrong for you. The reality is that, while you’re ill, you may not have the opportunities you once did, and the school may not give you the support you need.” Michiru said. “But if you stay, you’ll still have all of us helping you, and Siegfeld is known as an elite school for a reason.”
Shiori nodded, but then turned away, looking especially troubled. “I — don’t want to let anyone down.”
Michiru smiled a gentle smile. "No matter what you do, some people will despise you for it. And some people will be inspired by it.
“It’s something you carry with you, alongside the stage.”
Somewhere, at the park she used to frequent, in the quiet hours of the evening — Shiori was alone, waiting for someone. She checked her phone, if only to make sure she didn’t miss something, but it didn’t take long for her to hear the sound of someone running over.
“Shiori! I’m so sorry I’m late. Work was really busy tonight.”
Fumi put her bag down, and sat down next to Shiori on the park bench. “How’ve you been?”
“Much better. I really scared our parents for a bit there…”
“The Performance Festival, right? Our parents aside — do you know how much you worried me?! When you didn’t make it out for the curtain call, I —” Fumi shouted, then sighed. “…I’m glad you’re doing better now.” She fidgeted a bit. “What did you think of it? The Performance Festival, I mean.”
Shiori, frankly, didn’t remember most of it after Elysion ended. She hadn’t been present enough to see anyone else’s performances; not Rinmeikan’s revived traditions, not even Akira’s long-awaited face-off against Maya.
Shiori looked down at the ground. “I’m frustrated. I could’ve done so much better in the past. I thought I’d conquered all of my weaknesses from when I was a kid, but now…I don’t know if I’ll be Frau Jade next year. Or rather — I really don’t think I will.”
The Performance Festival had just confirmed what she already knew. Stage Girl Yumeoji Shiori was dying. Not quite dead yet. The stage had not left her yet. But the reality was that her body wasn’t going to let her keep a performance up to Siegfeld’s standards all the way through.
“I’m sorry, Onee-chan. I wasn’t able to carry our dreams to the end.”
A silence hung over the park for a bit.
“If anything, I should be the one apologizing,” Fumi said quietly. “I’m sorry for leaving it all to you. It wasn’t a burden you were supposed to carry on your own.”
“The way I see it, it’s Siegfeld’s fault that things turned out like this. None of the other Edels could really do anything about that. No matter what they did, they were bound to the stage that the school provided. If there’s anything I regret, it’s that I dragged you into this dream of going to Siegfeld and performing Elysion together. We had no way of knowing what that would entail.”
“I don’t think it’s anything to regret,” Shiori said.
Fumi looked away. “I do. I left you with the burden of a broken dream, and with the shame of being related to the one who ran away.” She then took Shiori’s hand, looked at the cracked patches of red on Shiori’s arm. “You shouldn’t have had to prove anything. You should’ve been allowed to rest, until you were certain that you could stand on stage without any problems. There shouldn’t have been any shame for you in doing so.”
Fumi let go of Shiori’s hand, and Shiori let it fall to her side.
"Then I can say the same to you, Onee-chan. When you had to leave. It hurt a lot that you said nothing to me about it…but there shouldn’t have been any shame for you to step down from being Frau Jade. I should’ve — we all should’ve — understood that more.
“So don’t say anything more about regret. Regardless of how everything turned out…I’m happy I went to the Performance Festival.”
Fumi smiled, and her expression was so weary and also so tender. She reached out and ran her hand through Shiori’s hair, stopping at the rose pin, before tracing her finger across the edge of it. “I know. I’m proud of you, Shiori.” Fumi sounded like she might start crying.
Shiori didn’t say anything in response, and instead embraced her sister. This time, she could accept those words without tears. Despite all the hardship, she was also proud of herself.
They stayed there a while, before Shiori finally let go.
“How did your play go, Onee-chan?”
Another smile. “Really well, I think. Everyone at Rinmeikan is improving a lot. It might not be nearly as polished or demanding as Siegfeld’s productions, but we won’t lose in charm.”
“It sounds lovely. I’m sorry I couldn’t see it.”
“What are you sorry for this time? I heard from the others that you collapsed practically as soon as you got backstage after your part. You probably should’ve gone to the hospital. Or at least gone home to rest…and you probably shouldn’t be out here right now. You still look kind of haggard.”
“But I wanted to see you. You’re pretty busy, Onee-chan.”
“I could have gone to you. I should’ve. And — we’ll see each other back at home, anyway.”
“I know. Still…let me have this selfishness.” Shiori stood up, turned to face Fumi. “The stage hasn’t left me yet. Our dreams still stay within me. One day, we can yet perform together.”
She’d burned for the stage. Burned herself. Was it worth it? Shiori couldn’t say. The experience had been invaluable, and she had wholeheartedly pursued her dreams. She’d performed Elysion, and fulfilled a sliver of that long wish.
She was ill. She had been ill, she would always be ill, she had sacrificed so much of herself. Fumi knew, had to know. Neither of them could say anything. Shiori understood why Fumi had to leave, so long ago. Fumi must’ve understood why Shiori would so willingly cast herself to the flames. They’d felt that same obsession for many years together, after all.
The stage had not left her yet.
Even if Stage Girl Yumeoji Shiori had to die, she’d rise up once again. Even if it wasn’t on Siegfeld’s stage, surely there was a place at the theater for someone like her. Eventually, there would be a stage that’d accept her, even if she had to carve it out from nothingness herself.
Somewhere, on a distant stage —
Shiori smiled, knelt down, and took Fumi’s hand, gently folding it within her own.
“At long last,” she said. “I have finally found you. Do you remember me, brother? My brother, who was abandoned, who was betrayed, who everyone claimed was dead — I always prayed that one day, we could meet again.”
Fumi blinked, then looked down at their hands, and said nothing.
Shiori tightened her grip on her sister’s hand, trembling. “…why do you look so sad? There is nothing more to apologize for. There is nothing to grieve. Though I was cursed and wounded, and may never hold a spear again, I have no regrets.”
I found you.
I found myself.
I followed our dreams as far as I could carry them.