jueves, 3 de agosto de 2017

IN THE SHADES OF DAWNING - STORY THE SECOND

Right, that Macaron de Chocolat Snow Queen AU is scrumptiously being filled with goodness that I just had to make gush out of myself.


IN THE SHADES OF DAWNING

Story the Second:
Like Two Blossoms on One Stem

They were literally as different as day is from night; you would not find two maidens so starkly unlike one another within the reach of the whole province. Yet, in spite of the difference in temperament, in rank, and in upbringing between them, they were so close that they might as well have been more than friends or sisters.
Akira Kenjo was but five summers old, and her little sister Miku a bump under her mother's heart, when their strong suntanned father left in uniform to fight the King's men under the Queen's flag, worlds away from Ichigozaka --for the realm had been rent in twain by the worst of evils that could have befallen it: half the people fighting the other half, the left half confronting the right upon the field of battle-- never to return; instead a younger lieutenant arriving at the door of their little half-timbered red-shingle cottage, one cloudy day in mid-autumn, with the mournful news that his right-hand man, Ensign Kenjo, the best non-commisioned officer a company could ever have asked for, had taken within his own chest a volley of bullets aimed at the young lieutenant's heart. And Ensign Kenjo had reeled backwards, bereft of life, many red roses blooming between his collarbones and his waist.
It was a crushing blow to the Kenjos, especially to the children; Akira, who inherited the blood-stained military cravat the officer brought, would always remember that day, as well as the one when her mother, one week after the crushing frontline news -when peace had been signed at last-, giving birth too early to a fragile little life as all the blood drained off her own veins, closed her weary and teary eyes, and breathed her last through pale lips, on a middling black-draped deathbed.
The two fire-haired orphans were left in the care of a frail yet wise grandmother, Akira as the eldest having to grow tall and strong as the breadwinner of a poor all-female family of three, combining her school studies, which took up less and less time, with various odd jobs throughout the province. And she gained even more of her strength upon noticing that not only old Mrs. Tomi Kenjo, but also little Miku, without any friends among the children of her own age, would collapse on the ground in a pale, cold little heap whenever she was skipping, or playing hopscotch, or putting any other kind of strain on herself, Akira's sunburned and callous palms feeling the child's heart like the pitter-patter of rain upon windowpanes.
And thus, as she grew in strength of limbs, the elder Kenjo sister did grow as well in strength of spirit, weeding gardens, running errands, washing clothes, pulling carts in midsummer whenever the sturdy men who drove the carts for want of draft-beasts would collapse sunstruck in the middle of the way, clearing snow from doorways in midwinter with a borrowed spade; lending her heart and her right arm to whoever in distress crossed her pathway, no matter if she could earn any coppers, or even silvers, in exchange, or do the good deed for free.
At the age of sixteen, Akira Kenjo, sunkissed and fire-haired, towered above every other maiden in Ichigozaka town and its environs. She had taken to wearing breeches ever since the mourning for her mum had come to an end, feeling more confident when she could move each leg completely on itself, and locals and strangers alike often took her for a comely stripling, for the tall redhead's height, bearing, and the fact that her physique was broad-shouldered, flat-chested, and narrow-hipped enough, not to mention her slender waist being as flexible as it was resistant, her shapely limbs, the wispy copper streak that barely gilded her upper lip, or her deep contralto voice.
And Yukari Kotozume, the sheltered iris of the mansion gardens, slender and fair on her willowy stem, was among those who at first took Akira for a lad.
She had rarely ventured beyond the garden gate, finding more pleasure indoors lest the sun should mar her lilywhite skin and periwinkle eyes. The Kotozumes had once been a renowned family of the landed gentry, one of the most influential in the realm, but their influence had begun to wane with the new times that had come. Among other things, the Tategamis, an upstart household from the capital --of whom sharp whispers said that they had amassed their fortune upon orphans' tears and soldiers' blood, as arms dealers for both sides of the conflict during the now ended civil war--, had chosen Ichigozaka for their new seat --something about loss of royal favour at court-- and settled at their country estate uphill on the outskirts of town, bringing the latest foreign fashion and a lot of new reforms as the rulers of the province they had wrested from the Kotozume clan. But still their old-fashioned ancestral seat, the Kotozume Yashiki, lay on the downhill outskirts of Ichigozaka, championing the old ways literally and metaphorically opposite Tategami Hall. Still three generations of Kotozumes lived under the dark slate gables: the stern Lord Kotozume, proud of being a lord by blood instead of by achievements; his wise mother Shino, the dowager matriarch of the household... and Shino's granddaughter, His Lordship's only child and heir, the fair Yukari, as fair of heart and soul as she was of face, slender and purple-haired as the irises that grew around their gardens' koi pond.
She grew up a lonely child under watchful, piercing eyes, bearing alone the heavy weight of the family name upon her soft, narrow shoulders as she strained herself with her calligraphy, foreign languages, brewing green tea, playing the harpsichord, strumming the violin, and wearing the finest silks, quoting classical literature... to do everything right and thus be worthy of being next in line for the Kotozume surname. No friends had she made outside the estate walls, and few and far between were the suitors that came for her hand; her lord father and lady grandmother waking like fiery dragons for the precious amethyst damsel, lest any unworthy scoundrel might come and take her. 
For the same reason, she was rarely seen even in the yashiki gardens, whether at the tennis court --for she was given a good racket of her own, only if she would play in the morn and evening twilight-- or feeding the koi in the pond --which she did at the same times of day--: what if she ever collapsed, thirsty and flushed with heat, the lily on her face marred red by the sun's rays? 
Like a precious greenhouse flower, she thus grew up sheltered yet well-reared, slender of waist and limbs, generous of bosom, her amethyst locks cascading upon her soft shoulders, and her clever periwinkle eyes always winking a wistful, ironic glance, as a smirk constantly played upon the corners of her perfect lips. Her mind had blossomed as brightly as her physique; she was never without a book at hand, her left and right hand danced with the same prima ballerina deftness upon paper or upon the harpsichord keys, or wielding the violin bow --for, though born left-handed, Yukari had been taught to use her right hand as well since childhood, making her ambidextrous--, she discoursed learnedly on the conjunctions of the astrological signs and quoted the loveliest classical literature by heart... in short, she had an answer for everything.
And still, in spite of it, she would often grow weary, feeling her own heart throb every now and then... especially upon reading the lines of Portia or Desdemona, while dozing in the library over their sheltered upbringing and, while staring dazily, wondering why her heroines' words sounded like that; or watching the koi swim about in the pond as the deer-scarer went doink and July or August cicadas chirped, or springtime songbirds warbled, around her.
It was one day around May, when she had added one year to her three lustrums and the irises she and her elders loved so much --for an iris flower was the Kotozume house crest--, as Lord and Lady Kotozume were sleeping through the heat of mid-day, that she suddenly reflected upon her earnest discourses and decided to set foot, for the first time in forever, beyond the now narrow walls of the estate.
And it was then that a tall redhead, with sunkissed skin and gentle eyes, about as young as Yukari herself, stopped before the garden gate, drying up shimmering perspiration from her forehead with a swift right hand. Akira had passed many times by the Kotozume estate, but never ventured within its walls before... yet the honey harvest she had helped the beekeeper family with had been a harsh task worth its five silvers' price, unloading comb after comb into keg-sized pots, and the park fountain was still worlds away. She had overvalued her own strength, and the strain and the sunstroke had caught up with her! Weary, thirsty, and noticing the shade of a pine branch that crossed the garden wall, the stalwart redhead, had staggered and stopped for a rest when she suddenly saw a finely, though old-fashionedly dressed maiden as young as she was, at the threshold. But she was at first unsure if the damsel was real, right before she lost her footing and everything turned dark before her.
It was confirmed that the damsel was real when Akira Kenjo felt a cool, soothing drink as bitter as it was cool kissing her lips and coursing down her refreshed throat. She blinked and looked left and right into a pair of amethyst eyes, that wistfully looked back into Akira's own crimson orbs. Both young people were under the shade of a white parasol, lined with the most delicate lace.
"I could just not leave this fair stranger be," the damsel said with a soft silky curtsy, like a gentle mist or fluttering petals, holding a fine porcelain cup left-handed.
"I am... more dark than fair, but still, thank you very much indeed," Akira bowed her fire-red, short-haired head in response. The young noblewoman chortled, a noblewoman's laugh like a warbling spring.
"Hoo hoo hoo hoo! 'Tis but the duty of the noble blood," she replied, reaching out a lily-fingered left hand towards Akira's hardened right. "In fact, never had I done an act of kindness to the common folk before... Feel honoured to have had a Kotozume for a saviour... what is your name, young man?"
"Kenjo, Akira Kenjo," her head was still bent down, but she laughed earnestly, clutching her false ribs, shedding tears left and right, in her far deeper contralto. "A young man? I am but sixteen, and as much a maiden as you are..." and then, awkwardly, flushed now with feelings from within, she burst out, "Feel free to feel between these legs!"
And, seeing how these legs were so long and shapely yet there was no third limb between them, Yukari chortled once more, as the "young man" stayed with head buried in hands to conceal a flustered shame... yet the heiress's laughter soon spread to the one she had helped, and found a deeper, more earnest contralto echo, until the eyes of both swam in tears of joy.
And thus, after such an unusual chance encounter, both young girls locked eyes and, until the evening twilight called both of them home, one to lowly half-timber and the other to grand white walls, the strong orphan and the beautiful heiress told each other one another's lives. Akira got to know that her saviour was Yukari Kotozume, the only hope of her waning bloodline; while the damsel learned that the one she had taken for a stripling was the older sister of a faint-hearted little girl, both of them orphans of war... Little had both of them, with no time for making any friends until that day, known that there was someone else, so different and yet so alike, so close to them and so far overlooked... Yukari forgot her pride, and Akira her toil, and they saw one another's hearts in their eyes as they spoke of the weight on their shoulders, the tears they held back on their mothers' deathbeds... and everything grew lighter and warmer as they shared their sorrows, as well as their joys, with one another.
Springtime turned to summer, and summer to autumn, and autumn to winter, as Akira began to stop more times, whenever her errands drove her into the countryside and she was returning home, at the Kotozume Yashiki. And, convinced by the wise old matriarch that it would be better for his only daughter to see a little of the outside world, always in the shade of a spotless white lace-lined parasol, as long as she respected the nighttime curfew all year long and the midday curfew in the summertime, Lord Kotozume finally began to let her spread her wings. And in that summertime, sometime in the middle of the day, when the sun's rays fell like plummets on the ground and any effort would even strike the boldest young person senseless, Akira frequented the estate to quench her thirst with a cup of green tea and wash her face in the crystal-clear pond where a dozen brightly-coloured fish lay perfectly still in rank and file, all of them pointing in the same direction to breathe the same stream. In the grand shade of century-old pines and slate gables, the two young people read classical literature, often enacting favourite passages from Shakespeare and Ovid that Akira --now a welcome guest at the Kotozumes', especially since they learned that "he" was not a he-- never had had the time to discover, and neither Yukari had had the companionship to share. And, as the sun died down, the Kotozume heiress would give the red-haired, mannish maiden her spare racket and they would play a friendly match at the Kotozumes' court as tennis partners, always shaking hands and the loser taking her defeat in stride.
And the heiress had learned to know the commoners for whom her friend worked as well, from the beekeepers to the vegetable man, becoming at least good acquaintances with them and losing some --though not all-- of that cold, haughty touch and that wistful smirk in the process. Some people even said that Aoi Tategami, an only child of privilege as well, had never set foot outside her own garden walls and never smiled such a friendly smile at them as Yukari Kotozume had begun to do, following her Akira's lead.
Once Yukari got to know the Kenjos, the faint-hearted child and the bedridden grandmother, she began to be seen as a welcome guest within those modest walls as well, especially helping Akira in the kitchen, watering the potted red rosebushes on the windowsills, and impressing Miku not only with verses, but also with her deft skills as a tea-brewer and sweetsmaker, often bringing green tea, Eastern spices, and chocolate powder from the Kotozumes' kitchen to those humble red clay shingles to spruce things up, while also wondering what if she were neither an only child nor born with "blue" blood in her veins; in the same manner that the tall redhead was made to wonder about the light and the dark sides of Yukari's family situation. 
A common errand Akira did during the warm seasons was deftly plaiting willow-branch baskets that would be filled with flowers and fruit, for whoever needed a birthday, wedding, or confession gift, yet these baskets had so far looked from drab to mismatched; that had changed, however, since her friend of rank had begun to help her by arranging the flowers and fruits of the season in the loveliest and most suitable, harmonious ways possible, as Akira, Miku, and those who had commissioned the baskets admired Yukari's keen eye for detail and colour; a sense of beauty that formed those lovely patterns already within her mind's eye, just upon seeing which flowers and fruits were at hand and what the commission was.
No matter if Akira was a tad gauche or had a less than desirable singing voice, no matter if Yukari mostly seemed detached from others and a bit spoiled by her elders, the two maidens loved each other warts and all.
The lovely damsel being a late-spring Gemini, and the strong commoner being an equinoctial Libra, both of them born under air signs, confirmed and sealed the fact, perchance written in the stars --as Yukari said herself--, that they had always been and always would be meant for one another. They even have a few little verses from their heroine Portia, whom the heiress sees tall and strong and mannish Akira as, a little song which both of them have learned by heart:
"Tell me, where is fancy bred?
In the heart or in the head?
How begot or nourished?
Reply, reply!
'Tis engendered in the eyes,
with gazing fed, and fancy dies
in the cradle where it lies.
Let us all ring fancy's knell;
I'll begin it: ding, dong, bell!"
That winter, as the snow swirled outside and by a crackling fireplace, both Shino Kotozume and Tomi Kenjo told their respective granddaughters of the ice-hearted if not heartless Snow Queen, of the winter she brings southward while riding the storm, frosting windowpanes and branches in her wake with her signature of lacy ice flowers, and how she would waylay certain young people and spirit them away to her keep in the far north. While, under slate gables, Yukari shuddered and lingered curiously at once, Akira said, within half-timbered walls and in a defiant tone: "Let me shove her into the flames!"
And it is right this year, this year when both of them are seventeen --Akira having added a year to her short list with the recent autumn equinox--, that the Snow Queen's mirror has revealed them standing side by side in the evening sunset, a strong sinewy arm clasping a lily-slender waist in the evening light. Fire-red head by violet head, like two blossoms on one stem, like two crossed sceptres for royalty. Cheek to cheek and chest to chest, locked together in one nest. Coming home from chestnutting in the woods, Akira's left hand holding the loaded basket, full with the spoils of the twilit season. How unaware are they that the tie that binds them, now stronger than friendship and even stronger than a blood tie, is about to be put to the test!
Anyway, the two of them have already, baskets full of chestnuts, knocked at the Kenjos' door --there's still an hour or so before the curfew that requires Yukari to be home at least at sunset-- and made themselves at home; Akira will also take the chance to give Miku and Grandmother some nuts left over after she (Akira) and the heiress have had the kitchen for themselves. It's about right then when Yukari takes up the handwritten Kenjo recipe notebook and skims it for marrons glacés --candied chestnuts--.
"Akira! What about marrons glacés?"
"That will last until midwinter, we could in fact keep them 'till for Christmas," the bifauxnen agrees as she cracks a nut. "But we'll have to see to the nuts and the syrup today and mix them tomorrow; that will also give you enough time to get the spices from the estate kitchens..."
It would be jarring for Lord Kotozume to see his only daughter and heir cracking chestnuts by a commoner's side, but anyway, here they are, cracking nut after nut as the pot simmers gently on the fire. And soon the nuts are all in the pot, mixed with a spoonful of flour in the simmering water, getting as warm and soft as nuts can get. Meanwhile, Akira stirs them and Yukari peers into the notebook once more; soon the redhead has fished the chestnuts up one by one with a ladle and they're all cooling in a basket; time to make the syrup after the nuts are clean and scalded.
"Now for... half the sugar loaf?" the heiress inquires as she starts for the Kenjos' cupboard to fetch the heavy cone of sugar and the pincers to nip it off. Akira nods in reply as she watches her lady friend wave at her and start for the cupboard door. The silence is only broken by the crackling of the flames, the bubbling of simmering water, and a coughing fit. Yukari Kotozume puts her iris-embroidered handkerchief to her lips for a while.
"Are you all right?" the redhead, startled, turns around.
"Right... as rain," the other maiden's voice is slightly broken, reassuring Akira. "Just a spark from the fire." Then she gently opens the cupboard doors and takes up the sugar loaf.
If only they knew... It was not a spark from the fire at all, and that cough had not dislodged it; for it was and is a spark of the Snow Queen's mirror, that Mirror of Truth and Reason, which only shows reality as it is (remember it?), and which the wistful heiress has just breathed in, as intended... and, furthermore, that coughing fit has done nothing to expel the shard from Yukari's system at all, sucking instead the little crystal needle deeper in, into one of her lungs, even into her bloodstream, coursing --within the instant it takes for a young heart to throb once-- down surging rapids through a crescent valve, then rushing through a larger and more powerful one, shaped like an upturned bicorn hat... into the warm, rose-red recesses of the left ventricle, where, as the valve shuts, in a nook where two heartstrings branch off from one another, the mirror shard plunges, lodging itself there. Pretty soon, at least the left half of Yukari Kotozume's heart will become a lump of ice.
In response, the light-headed heiress feels a stabbing pain, like an icy bayonet, in the middle of her chest; and her good arm, her left arm, wavers with the same intense pain, dropping the sugar cone on the parquet floor, as she grasps the table with her right hand only, pale as her apron and gasping for breath. The pain will subside after a while, but the shard will still be there, gradually turning that heart into a lump of ice encased in steel.
Now Akira is understandably far more concerned than before, even turning as pale as her sweetheart. She is relieved as Yukari stands up, breathing normally, yet her face strangely pale and a piercing look in her eyes...
"Hoo hoo hoo hoo", a familiar noblewoman's laugh rings out, this time with a cold ring to it. "Why should I be doing this chore in the first place?" She gracefully kicks the sugar loaf, which Akira luckily picks up as Yukari, overturning the basket of autumn flowers --the last one of the year-- they had made together before the cooking and left to deck the table, then leaving for the estate and looking over her shoulder as she upturns the basket of chestnuts, replies with another piercing glare: "Keep on with those messy nuts, my dear peasant... let's see if I ever dare to come here tomorrow..."
Turning her back, the heiress shuts the door in her red-haired sweetheart's face, while Akira, stirring the syrup after having gathered the nuts, looks puzzled on. Even more puzzled as the young lady, from out the window, tears out a red rose from the planter boxes outside, followed by another, trampling the flowers underfoot:
"Curses! There's a bug on this one! And all of them are all wilting... The bloody bush is full of thorns... These weeds are all as rank as the drudges who grow them! Hoo-hoo-hoo!" 
With that cold noblewoman's laugh, and an icy smirk and stare, she turns her back upon the Kenjo cottage, as tears well in Akira's concerned eyes. These red roses, the only humble garden the Kenjo family can afford, stay fresh and scented even now in September this year... and yet the young Lady Kotozume has never been this harsh or critical before...
The next day, after finally getting a familiar knock at the threshold and Yukari at the door, our red-haired shero gets surprised when the other maiden has brought no spices and says she will only watch, not wishing to stain her precious fingers or her precious dress --even though Akira's brought her the usual apron!-- with that sticky, messy syrup. So our redhead has to make that batch of spiceless marrons glacés all on her own, while feeling watched over and an icy presence at the nape of her neck.
Upon returning home to the estate, and being told by her lady grandmother to read those Shakespeare verses from Romeo and Juliet that she was meant to study, Yukari shuts the folio in the old dowager's face and replies with the objection that literature is too painful for her. "Even Shakespeare?" No reply but a piercing glare, leaving Lady Kotozume puzzled as well.
"Othello," the heiress finally replies, piercingly looking over her shoulder. "Iago's part." It sounds far more like a command than like a courteous request.
She delivers the lines coldly, with a sinister sneer that would even have taken the real Iago by surprise. "I am not what I am." "I much show out a flag and sign of love; which is but sign." "If the balance of our lives had not one scale of reason to poise another of sensuality, the blood and baseness of our natures would conduct us to most preposterous conclusions." "Do it not with poison; strangle her in her bed."
Then, wondering whether she'll cast Akira as Othello, Cassio, or Roderigo (all three are flawed: that clingy commander, that lush of a lieutenant, that foolish fop!) the next time that the redhead comes, she shuts the folio once more. The part of Iago is the best one in the frozenhearted maiden's eyes; an emotionless, ruthless schemer indeed. Everyone else, in both the play and in real life, is flawed in one way or another... because of their feelings. That is what leads the schemer to tear them apart and take on them one by one. Peering at herself in the bedchamber mirror right before going to bed, she admits that she is flawless herself. Just like Iago. Everyone else is made for pulling their strings...
The next day, Akira visits the Kotozume estate, to find Yukari in the drawing room with an open folio. "I had been waiting for you." She has been perusing many Iago-centric conversations in the play all morning long, to see which one would do best to trick that tall, mannish redhead with her skin so burned in the sun.
She finally selects the one when Iago tries to coax Othello into doubting his wife. Act the Third, Scene Three.
"I speak not yet of proof. Look to your wife, observe her well with Cassio. Wear your eye thus, not jealous nor secure: I would not have your free and noble nature out of self-bounty and be abused, look to it..." There's something missing within Yukari Kotozume. While Akira had wavered at first when it came to playing Othello to her Iago --preferring Portia's fancy song--, the temptation scene was both dextrous and sinister, surprising a turn how her purple-haired princess nailed the part of the schemer. That smirk, that stare, that... everything is detached, not even playfully wistful as Yukari was before she met Akira. A cold shudder runs down the redhead's long spine as she steels herself to deliver the Noble Moor's lines:
"Why did I marry? This honest creature doubtless sees and knows more, much more, than he unfolds..." It would be tempting for the elder Kenjo sister to think Othello's thoughts as she reads aloud, and she wavers for a while... but maybe Yukari is playing the part as perfectly as she can, having this change of heart that surely must come from leading this double life I have led her into, Akira finally reasons, not with her head, but with her heart. There is still warmth within her, even though it be a flitting spark. No matter how harsh the young noblewoman becomes as the air grows colder with the changing seasons, there must be at least a tiny shred of feeling within her...
Akira loves Yukari in spite of her piercing stare and sneering smirk, in spite of all the brooding and criticism, beyond the change of heart. Like Desdemona loved Othello, like Ophelia loved Hamlet, seeing still a shred of feeling within the one she loves.
As the autumn months succeed one another, Yukari grows more detached and more critical, more elusive, for each and every day. As if the colder air had found a way into her heart... She no longer frequents the Kenjo household, saying that she would gladly tread the soil which peasants have so often trudged upon... with an ironic sneer. Not to mention that she no longer frequents Akira's employers either. And, when Akira comes to the Kotozume Yashiki, she always has to enact the part of the gull to an ice-cold Iago or Lady Macbeth, no matter how the sun-kissed redhead feels about her lady's perfectly fearful villainy... and, when the acting is finished, there the heiress remains without even waving her cheerful lover goodbye, with an absent gleam in hard amethyst orbs, ill-at-ease and longing for the night. There is something imperfect within her, in the way she blends with commoners, in the way she whisks her tea in the water, in the order of the strokes when it comes to calligraphy, in this key she has struck by chance on the harpsichord or with the violin bow to produce the wrong note, or somewhere else... or so she feels, ever since the fated mirror shard entered her heart at the start of it all...
Then she often sits up in her vast lavender-scented bed, in a passionate yearning, and, as if her hardened heart would break, gnash her teeth and try to force a teardrop that never left her eyes. And thus, for every time that "mannish fiendly peasant" came to the estate, she beheld her still-dear Yukari dwindle, not only growing detached and hard-hearted, and straining herself more and more with her heiress training, but also her hair growing thin, threadbare and a paler shade of violet, her supple limbs losing their sinew and becoming limp, and her fair face strangely pale and sinking in like her late mother's, and Yukari's own lady mother's, on their deathbeds... or like a waning moon that gradually was closer and closer to becoming a new moon, the fire of life little by little burning away. It comes as a miracle that she can find the strength to tear up those hideous wilting irises, shoving aside her red-haired friend who tries to protect the flowers, as Yukari turns her back on Akira and saunters into the mansion without even waving goodbye.
"Wait!" the redhead screams, seizing Yukari's left arm. "Wait..." That piercing stare as Yukari turns back and deftly slaps Akira in the face. Those violet eyes so icy that they make the bifauxnen wince more than the pain on her left cheekbone. "If I were only worthy... I am worthy of you... I would walk through fire and ice for your sake..."
Now packing Akira by both wrists, staring with that same piercing glare into the redhead's teary eyes, the violet-haired heiress coldly replies:
"And what about me? I have my creativity, I am sought after by suitors all over the world, I have realised my dream, my clan and our village think of me as a beloved daughter, I have good health, reasonable looks, everything one could want ... Do you know what loneliness is? Of course, you'll say. Don't lie to me. But you don't know what loneliness is like when you have the chance to be with other people all the time, when you get invitations every night to parties,soirées, opening nights at the theatre ... When men and women are always ringing you up, those who love your work, who say how much they would like to have supper with you - they're beautiful, intelligent, educated young people. But something pushes you away and says: 'Don't go. You won't enjoy yourself. You'll spend the whole night trying to impress them and squander your energies proving to yourself how you can charm the whole world. So I stay at home, go into my room and try to find the light, and I can only see that light when I'm working. And right now you're eclipsing the light by standing in my way." Freeing her captive's sore wrists, she swiftly and deftly shuts the door in Akira's face.
When all bright colour has left the autumn garden, in November, the hope of the Kotozumes sits equally pale and listlessly in a corner, her ribs threadbare, not even wanting to play Iago, feeding only on a cupful of rice and a cupful of pond water every now and then, before taking up the ivories or the paintbrush. And even coldly ranting at her own grandmother when the matriarch tells her that she should amuse herself and enjoy life as she once used to do...
One winter's day shortly after the solstice, with the first snowfall of crisp wintertime upon the streets and gardens of Ichigozaka, the heiress stretches out her left arm, the whole sleeve of her lilac coat, and invites Akira to have a peek at the snowflakes that fall upon it through a magnifying lens. Each and every lacy ice crystal is a perfect fractal six-pointed star or six-petal flower.
"As flawless as yours truly, aren't they? Each and every one is different, and, ironically... all sides of each and every hexagon are exactly alike and perfectly regular, until they liquefy... hoo hoo hoo hoo!" Never has her noblewoman's laugh rung any sharper.
That day in the evening, a snowstorm startles Yukari wide awake in the middle of the night. She wakes up all flustered, thirsty, perspiring, and decides to sneak out into the garden to make a snowball and refresh herself.
And, as she, dressed only in her night shift and still outside in the dead of the winter night, listlessly makes the snowball, she hears a faint tinkling of bells, as if from a carriage sleigh, right outside the garden gate. Raising her gaze, she beholds an open carriage sleigh indeed, drawn by a dozen large Icelandic horses as white as the crisp snow, and in the driver's seat sits a stranger wrapped in a strange blue longcoat or cloak lined with brittle lace and a matching shapka hat, not made of bear or fox fur but rather... of icy blue, tiny, delicate, piercing ice crystals. What's more, the stranger's attire seems to glow with an unearthly, dazzling bluish-white light...
Leaving the snowball on the ground, the snow crunching beneath her feet, Yukari Kotozume approaches the door as the lock frosts, cracks, shatters, letting the door open slightly and the wan maiden easily pass through. A slight friendly nod from the driver and Yukari is soon seated by her side. The seats are of ice, yet they feel like soft white satin. "What, are you freezing? Let me wrap my pelisse around you..." she hears a friendly mezzo voice and looks into the piercing, first-magnitude-star-like icy blue eyes of the Snow Queen (eyes so piercing and so cold that they seem to burn through Yukari's head into her brain, and through her breastbone into her heart, to pry deep into her thoughts and the few feelings left within her), so pale-skinned that her veins are seen through her translucent face, and throat, and wrists, the icy blue cloak wrapping around the heiress's shoulders and making her feel as deceptively warm as a draught of liquor would have made her feel. At the same time, the Queen cracks the reins and off the carriage darts into the open countryside. Though the heiress tries to scream for help, the words choke in her throat, as if they were frozen in there; she cannot even breathe. It seems that the carriage has grown wings; in fact, looking down, she sees Ichigozaka as a doll-town, the river and Mount Ichigo to scale... Looking in front, Yukari notices that the horses, white pegasi, have all spread their wings at unison.
"What's the matter, my girl? Still afraid?" Saying these words, the Queen of Ice, clasping her captive's slender waist, puts her lips to those of the Kotozume heiress and steals a fated kiss; Yukari feels the breathing of her new queen searing her throat and spreading throughout every pipe of her lungs, the blood freezing in her veins, once more that sharp pain in the heart like a blade of ice --that heart whose left half was already hardened: now the caulk of mirror-ice has spread to the right chambers!--, as she ceases to breathe and what little strength she had burning out, everything turning dark before her weary eyes... is she about to...?!
Only for an instant.
Suddenly she awakens, feeling as right as rain, in perfect health, no longer frightened or shocked, or feeling anything at all, in fact, she does not even feel at ease... By now the vast ocean is below them, the moonless night sky above... and the memories of her friends and family, and of the life she led, no longer within the one who once was Yukari Kotozume, now turned a blank slate.
She looks left and right, then curiously into the Snow Queen's eyes. Never has she seen such a clever and charming face, even seductive, that no longer looks like ice --her late lady mother and Akira existing no more for her--; truly, this is the liege lady under whose banner she will fight until she has solved the puzzle of her liberation. This is the most perfect person (if she can be called human) whom the frozenhearted, amnesiac maiden has seen so far.
"My given name is Yukari, but my surname... I cannot remember it, Your Grace. Yet 'tis an honour to serve under your flag. I am sure of how to write complex words in the correct way, with the precise stroke order. I can also play several villains by heart, and calculate with square roots and exponents not to mention the Gauss method... I am a virtuosa of the harpsichord and of the violin..." She coldly lists all of her skills, ending with her usual harsh noblewoman's laugh.
And, to her surprise, the Snow Queen, who has smiled in response to the skills on Yukari's list, bursts into eerily similar, yet more sinister laughter: "Hoo hoo hoo hoo! Then, my girl, we are certainly made for each other... Fear not, for nothing will stop us until we have reached my icy palace."
Daybreak is all winter long away in these Arctic latitudes, and direwolves howl on their hind legs as the carriage soars across the inland ice. The hastily flying pegasi have blurred to wayward storm clouds, and a faint crescent moon has finally graced the sky of the dark season, but Yukari cannot see it, her eyes shut once more as she sleeps dreamlessly in the lap of the Queen of Ice, whose right hand holds the reins as her left caresses the lovely young prisoner's cascade of amethyst locks...


ANNOTATIONS:

  • If you noticed the Goblin Market lines referenced in Story the First and in this one, congrats! Goblin Market is so similar to The Snow Queen --with some friendly lesbian siblingcest, and scrumptious poison fruit, added to the mix-- that I just had to take a few paraphrases from it. I just saw Yukari as Kai/Laura and Akira as Gerda/Lizzie, quite obviously.
  • And Portia's fancy song replacing the Brorson hymn is yet another lovely touch and strike of genius --they will say it as a duet in the finale!--. Fermat and fancy... not to mention a battle scene... 
  • Also, canon has it that Akira's birthday is in mid-September, shortly after the equinox --best not to forget it!--, while Aoi is a harvest-time/late-August Virgo (remember as well, and -- who would say it?) and Ciel a Leo who shares Harry Potter's birthday more or less.
  • Next chapter will see the beginning of Akira's quest and her entry into another province, as well as some HeartCatch characters, Old Mrs. Hanasaki (Kaoruko, née Godai - the closest thing to Olenna I have seen in anime aside from Shino Kotozume... getting ready to know her, that veteran warrior who devoted herself to plant life thanks to her cellist and lavender grower husband, would really mean a lot as a first mentor!) as the springtime witch, and some quite Ovidian flower dreams in her garden and greenhouse --also, more plaiting baskets of flowers!--:
-Iris, on Momoka's corsage (takes the role of the rose on the witch's hat=also, Momoka's stark resemblance to Yukari causes Akira to utter a Freudian slip as her memories surge back!)
-Sunflower (Clytie)... why are the things we long for the most so often out of our reach?
-Hyacinth (early modern tennis version=links back to Yukari playing tennis)... can the same hand that warmly caresses also strike a deadly blow?
-Brown Bulrush (Syrinx=faun changed to human "wicked assailant")... should might always make right even if innocence is a price to be paid?
-Lotus (links back to Miku=gender of the royal child being changed to female)... does love between a child and their caregiver last even after the child has come of age and/or the caregiver is gone forever?
-Narcissus... what is life actually like for a friendless person who only loves themselves and none other?
  • Looking forwards to that chapter as well?
  • Add that Mr. Kurumi will be daguerreotypist at the Court Gazette and Mrs. Kurumi the royal purveyor of court dresses...
  • And surely Cobraj and Kumojaki will appear as the ringleaders --those two gay men!-- for whom the Wild Azüre kids have become outlaws, in the Fifth Story. I thought Aoi going rogue on her own free will didn't fit at all and thought of an Oliver Twist approach, using these two cadres (whose personalities and colour schemes remind me of evil male counterparts of Yukari and Akira respectively: Kumo being an earnest and masculine redhead who values strength, Cobra a wistful and feminine purple-head who values beauty)...  There's a backstory too; one of a veteran one-eyed soldier and a disgraced foppish courtier who took to a life of crime, after losing the only lives they ever knew, and also fell for one another... As usual, the cobra will be speaking his usual French (allons-y, sang bleu...) in that flamboyant manner, and the redhead will be saying his end-of-sentence tic: how to English that hot-blooded "ze yo?!" The subtitle renders it as a simply over-the-top and imperious Large Hammy pattern of speech!! Also a bit of the fact that Kumo-kun will remind Akira of her late father... 


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