So, here's the Moonflower Parade.

I actually have a whole rant planned out, but I'll save that for the end. Hopefully, someone will read it.

Enjoy!


Friday, 1-6-400

Sixth Day: Moonflower Parade

Mama took me to the Moonflower Parade every year for seven years, until the eighth year, the year she died.

There was one float that always drew my attention: the Majesty's.

As his float passed, first in line, everyone else would begin to cheer, but Mama would remain silent. She would gaze towards him so steadily that I could almost feel the strength of her love and admiration. It burned.

The seventh year, I asked, "Why is it so plain?"

"The Majesty needs no decoration," she answered. "His presence is more than enough."

I didn't agree. He did not deserve her love. She was too good for him.

So, as she continued to watch his float slide past, I screamed with the crowd until the burn in my chest far surpassed the burn in my heart.

~=O=~

"My Lady, they are here."

"Bring them in."

Luka nodded and left. I slowly sat up, stretching to loosen my joints. They were early. I had just woken up from my afternoon nap.

Moments after I walked to the washroom, splashed water on my face, and walked back to my room, Luka returned with Gaku. The two of them were accompanied by a foreign woman who carried a large straw basket and wore a long white dress with a frilly, navy blue fringe.

"Lady Saku," Gaku greeted me, bowing.

"You remembered," I replied, pleased. "Greetings to you too, Lord Gaku."

He lifted his head to look me in the eye, and we shared a pleasant moment before the stranger butted in.

"My name is Ann," she said, bowing. She spoke with a slight accent; her r's were awkwardly rolled, and it sounded like she was holding her tongue against the back of her throat. "I am very . . . happy to be with Majesty."

Gaku must have noticed me stiffen, because he whispered something in her ear about titles and royalty.

Ann reddened noticeably before hurriedly amending, "Sorry. Not Majesty. A daughter of Majesty."

Feeling apologetic for my exaggerated reaction, I hurriedly assured her, "Please, don't be embarrassed. Are you my cosmetician?"

She smiled and nodded, her ochre curls bouncing up and down. "I am your . . . makeup and clothes person."

"Ann here will be helping you with your preparations," Gaku clarified. "She is very skilled. She will be finished quickly."

"Thank you, Gaku. Again, I apologize for yesterday's interrogation."

"I did not mind," he said, waving me away.

"Will you sit?"

"No. I will wait outside. Our carriage is at the front gate."

"Thank you."

He bowed and closed the door, leaving the three of us in my room.

Ann's meek demeanor vanished. She dropped the basket on the ground, clapped her hands, and approached me, squinting and making strange motions with her hands.

Almost immediately, I felt like a cornered animal.

"Miss Ann, do you require assistance?" asked Luka.

"I need a chair and long mirror."

While Luka obediently fetched the aforementioned objects, Ann pulled a slim golden dress out from her basket. Seeing my expression, she kindly murmured, "I can see that you are . . . worried. Sweet child. I will turn you into a blossom."

"I like cherry blossoms."

"No. A rose."

So, in the next few minutes, Ann turned me into a rose.

She began by helping me into the thin sleeveless dress. It was silky, tight, and hugged my chest and hips, and its top was lined with black frills. She adjusted a few areas, using small pins to lift up the bottom of the left side of the dress.

"Like a waterfall," she said in a satisfied manner.

She then brought out a long white coat with short puffy sleeves. She buttoned the only button on the coat, just below the top of the dress.

"That's enough for now," she said, looking me over while I tried to pull up the dress. "Leave it be, sweet child. It was made for you. Your . . . flatness will not affect it." She pushed me into the chair that Luka had brought in and moved the mirror in front of me.

"My flatness?"

"It is no matter. You are not very flat. Close your eyes."

Luka smiled encouragingly. Taking a deep breath, I complied.

My hair was tugged and pulled to one side. Light brushes danced over my face. Rough tips ran around my eyes, and some substance was applied to my lips. The coolness of a paintbrush slid over my cheeks.

At one point, Luka gasped, though nothing particularly painful had occurred.

"What happened?" I asked.

"Shush, child," Ann instructed. "Don't move."

A few more moments passed; only Ann's heavy breathing punctuated the silence.

"Open your eyes," Ann finally commanded, dragging the mirror over. "Look."

Slowly, I opened my eyes and looked into the mirror.

I had no expectations. Still, what I saw disheartened me. With just a little ink and a brush, I had become . . . Lady Rin Majesty.

"You are beautiful, My Lady," Luka whispered, smiling a thin-lipped smile.

I nodded mutely. I was beautiful.

My hair was tied high up and fell down my left side in gentle waves. Black shadows had been painted around my eyes, enlarging them. My skin was smooth, my cheeks were rosy, and my lips were full and crimson. An intricate design of ebony vines traced my right cheek, reaching around my eyes and down my neck, where it disappeared beneath the dress. A golden rose adorned my right cheek.

What an elegant representation of an official's wife.

"Not done yet," Ann said, pulling a few decorative black flowers out from her basket. "Stand up."

I rose from the chair, and she pinned the flowers to the dress so that they seemed like a continuation of the vines.

"A blossom," I said, echoing her words.

Once again, Ann shuffled over to the basket. She drew out a simple pair of golden slippers and motioned for me to hold out a foot.

"You can place them on the ground," I said uneasily.

"I will put them on. Come."

I cast a pleading glance towards Luka.

She nodded and approached us. "Allow me, Miss Ann," she softly said.

After staring at us for a moment, Ann drew back and let Luka help me into the slippers. Then the two of them stood back and allowed me to face the mirror and see everything in its entirety.

The symmetry was strange – the wavy hair and wavy dress cascaded down one side and the vines and flowers lined the other. I felt unbalanced and exposed.

"Thank you, Ann," I said. "It's wonderful."

"It was a pleasure. I will . . . escort you to the gate?"

"Please do."

As Ann walked out the door, I leaned close to Luka and asked softly, "How is it?"

"A very fragile rose, I believe," she answered.

Giggling slightly, I nodded. "Like porcelain." Then, in a louder voice, I said, "Bye, Luka. Don't wait for me tonight."

"Very well, My Lady."

She waved goodbye as we left. I looked back many times, even when her figure was gone, obscured by the forest trees.

Without Luka, the air felt cold. I silently shivered and wished for a thicker coat. Winter was officially over, but the occasional cold front would still come along.

"It is a warm evening," noted Ann.

"Yes. Very humid," I politely responded.

We fell silent.

Ann attempted to restart the conversation: "Are you fine without her?"

"Who?"

"Your slave."

"Luka is not . . . one night without her is fine."

Again, the only sound heard was the occasional chirping of crickets and the ever-present cry of cicadas.

And again, Ann spoke, "Do you . . . dislike the appearance?"

"Pardon?"

"You are uncomfortable."

"I love the appearance." The lie slipped off my tongue easily. I looked straight into Ann's eyes and said, very sincerely, "It's gorgeous. It's more than I could ask for."

She gazed at me through narrow eyes, and the air grew colder.

'Perhaps,' whispered the cherry blossoms, 'it is her eyes.'

'Or perhaps,' the crickets piped up, 'she sees through your lies.'

Tonight was a special night, and I wasn't prepared to take any cheek from rhyming plants and insects. I soundlessly told them to mind their own business, and then looked away from Ann, who began whistling a vaguely depressing tune that reminded me of 'Flutter, Flutter'.

Her whistle weaved through the air, drilling a hole through my skull. The sound wasn't particularly high-pitched or reedy – in fact, it was quite soothing. But in the quiet of the night, it was as piercing as a scream of a dying animal.

I gritted my teeth, resisting the urge to plug my ears. When the carriage became visible, I almost let out a sigh of relief.

Ann stopped whistling and said, sounding a bit regretful, "We part here." She grinned good-naturedly and patted my head. "Sweet child. There is no need to be so . . . stiff."

"I am not-"

She placed a finger over my lips and murmured, "Who are your words for, Lady Rin Majesty?"

Then she whirled around and headed towards the carriage. Speechless, I stumbled after her.

Lord Gaku was waiting, and in the light of the surrounding torches, I could clearly see his attire: simple black pants, a white shirt with a collar, and a loose black jacket. His tie was dark gold, and his hair was tied up into a ponytail with a golden string. A black, white, and golden rose was pinned over his heart.

Ann's voice was still ringing in my ears, but I managed to force out, "We match. And we're color-coded."

Smiling, he held out a hand and helped me onto the carriage. He climbed in and took his seat opposite me, while Ann sat outside next to the driver.

"You are stunning," Gaku said, raising my hand and lightly pressing his lips against my knuckles.

"As are you."

The carriage started forward with a jolt.

"Will we be riding in this?"

"No. The parade float is waiting at my residence."

"Ah."

I stared at my hands, which were trembling. Was it from the movement of the vehicle? Or the memory of Ann's words?

Or maybe . . .

"I do not mind," Gaku said quietly, "if you look out the window. I am not so needy that I cannot survive without a constant companion."

Barely able to believe my ears, I looked into his eyes. "Really?"

"Please."

"Then, if you don't mind . . ." I muttered, inching closer to the window. I hesitantly reached towards the covered window.

"Allow me," Gaku offered.

In one swift stroke, he lifted an arm and swept aside the curtain. The faint glow of fading sunlight illuminated the compartment, highlighting his features.

"You really are handsome," I said admiringly before facing the window.

"Thank you."

I barely heard his thanks. I was too busy staring.

My hand found its way to my mouth, where the palm pressed against my lips, holding back the sob that threatened to break free.

When was the last time I had been outside? Was it truly six years?

Had the outside world always been so beautiful? Had the sky always been so wide?

Good gods, I was nearly crying.

After giving me a moment, Gaku asked, "How is it?"

"Pretty," I managed to choke out.

"This is only grass and trees. Wait until you see the city."

"But – the sky!"

"I cannot imagine . . . I cannot imagine what you have lived like. If you would like-"

Before he could finish speaking, I shook my head and used a hand to dab at the budding tears.

"No. Ann's hard work can't go to waste."

I continued staring out the window. All I could see was the sky, stretching infinitely into the distance. There was no wall here to halt its progress.

"Look out the other side," Gaku suggested.

I took his advice and peeked through the second window. Once again, I was stunned.

"Is it beautiful?" he gently inquired.

"This is my first."

Since Mama's death. The first sunset since Mama died. But I didn't say that out loud.

"The first is always the most beautiful."

"That is true," I admitted. "Completely true."

Had the gods created something so indescribable? Were they the ones who had decided to paint such a canvas over the heavens?

"'Mine mortal eyes do deceive me,'" I muttered, so close to the window that my breath fogged its surface. "I cannot do it justice."

"Your reaction is exaggerated," he laughed. "Sunsets are a daily occurrence, and yet I feel guilty for taking them for granted."

"You should not. Anything will be taken for granted the longer it is retained."

"I believe you."

While I continued gazing at the sunset, Gaku lifted up the other window and stuck his head out. He yelled something to the driver, who yelled something in reply.

When his entire body was once against safely inside the carriage, I asked, "What did he say?"

"We will arrive at the city gates in a few moments. Prepare yourself."

"I have been prepared since this day began."

He dryly shook his head but made no response.

We did not speak through the rest of the journey, which wasn't very long but seemed to lengthen as the minutes passed by. Eventually, the carriage turned and the sunset was left behind. With nothing left to see, my eyes shut and let my ears take over.

I began to hear voices – loud ones, soft ones, high, low, deep, and nasally, blending together into a melody. This melody was different from those born of my imagination, because this one had a form and this one was real.

There were lights, too, flashing outside the window. They lit up the interior of the carriage, sometimes intensely harsh and sometimes tenderly warm.

When the carriage slowed and stopped, I braced myself. The volume of the voices increased. The lights burned brighter.

"Are you ready?" Gaku asked.

He held out a hand, which I gratefully took.

"Yes."

The door swung open, and Ann's face peered at us.

"Come down now," she called, winking. "Your fans are waiting."

"Wait," I stammered as Gaku pulled me out the door. "What fans?"

He didn't have time to answer before we were overtaken by a tide of screams and flashing lights.

"These fans!" Ann screeched, roughly pushing aside a red-haired girl.

Bewildered, I focused on Gaku's hand, which was pulling me forward. His fingers were clenched tightly, squeezing the blood out of my hand. Or was it my fingers that were clenched?

I stumbled along, pressed on all sides by a mass of hot, violent bodies. They were being held back by guards, but the efforts of the little men had very little effect on the crowd's excitement. It was like an enormous wave bearing down on me, tossing me around. I was more helpless than a pebble in the midst of a hurricane. As crazed faces swirled around me, a bubble of panic rose in my throat.

"Not now," I hissed to myself, desperately swallowing the bubble. "Not now. Not now."

Luka had showed me how to calm myself, but I couldn't remember. Think of something . . . anything . . .

". . . none may oppose the Majesty's words . . ."

Not that.

". . . cursed child!"

No.

"Dreamy cherry blossoms, please don't die . . ."

No!

". . . please don't die . . ."

A blast of coolness hit me, and then the deafening noise was suddenly cut off. I cautiously opened my eyes, which had somehow closed themselves. We were indoors.

"Lady Saku, are you hurt?" asked Gaku, towering over me. He was a black blob.

"You're tall," I observed in a slightly hysterical voice.

"Lady Saku?"

"Not now. I'm fine."

"Are you sure?"

"Fine. Luka?"

"Luka is not here," Ann chuckled.

"Wait a moment." Suppressing the urge to call Luka again, I breathed deeply a few times, waiting for my head to clear.

That was right. Luka wasn't here. Mama was gone.

When black spots no longer dotted my vision, I exhaled, "Sorry, Gaku. I was overwhelmed. Where's the float?"

"Are you sure?" He worriedly wrung his hands. "Fans often crowd around their idols, but I did not expect so many. I apologize."

"It's fine."

"But will you make it through the parade?" Ann questioned. "It's almost as bad."

Her words drained away any blood that had returned to my face.

"We will be above the people," Gaku said. "Ann, do not scare her."

"You tried to protect her, and look what happened. You underestimate your own influence, boy. I am being . . . practical."

I shook my head and pointed out, "Either way, there's no turning back now."

"Well said, sweet child," Ann laughed. "To the float now."

Gaku continued to glance at me from the corner of his eye, so I assumed the placid mask that had so often decorated my face. As we walked down the hall, he slowly relaxed and straightened his spine.

"You have a beautiful home," I observed. "The wood is unique."

He carefully examined the wall, as if he'd never noticed it before.

"It is the same wood," he replied, "but of a different style. A foreigner carved it for me."

"Ah."

I focused my attention on my feet.

"Are you uncomfortable around foreigners?" he curiously inquired. "I know that many are."

"No. I was fine with Ann, wasn't I?"

"True. Ah, but she is a half-blood, like yourself."

"I'm right here," Ann grumbled.

Gaku and I smiled at each other knowingly.

"Do you deal with foreigners often?" I asked.

He paused, and then said, "As often as the next person. Why do you ask?"

"No reason."

Our faltering conversation had lasted the entire walk. I glanced back at the hall, noting the richly embroidered carpet and the stained-glass windows. They were so different from the plain glass and woolen rugs at home.

We now stood in front of a pair of ridiculously tall doors. More intricate designs were carved into the wood, and the fading sunlight outlined them, augmenting their depth.

"Ready?" Gaku reiterated.

"No," I answered truthfully.

"I feel the same. Are you truly-"

Ann pulled open a door and pushed us out. "Go, sweet children," she whispered. "Have fun."

Then the door was shut, and Gaku and I stared at the flat, undecorated wood.

"Why are there designs inside, but not outside?" I wondered.

"I've never thought of it. It may be because this is a side door."

"Is the front door different?"

"I believe so."

He peeked at me from the corner of his eye. "You notice strange things, Lady Saku."

Choosing not to reply, I turned towards the float. Not surprisingly, it was in the form of a gold and black rose. The petals were wrapped around a tall, thin platform. Four brilliant white horses were harnessed to the front.

"Do all floats have a theme?" I asked.

Gaku climbed up and held out a hand, which I took.

"Yes," he replied after we were both standing on the platform.

"Who moves it?"

"We do."

He held out a rein and chuckled at my uncomfortable expression.

"I will do most of the driving. You stand straight and pretend to help."

"I can pretend."

Still smiling, Gaku faced the front and shook the reins. The horses began walking forward, perfectly synchronized.

"Do not worry. Ann trained them. They will not be difficult to handle."

Still following the road, the horses began turning around a corner.

"Ann is very important to you."

"Very. She has taken care of me since birth."

"Like a mother?"

He cleared his throat. "Yes. She is."

"That's good," I said softly, more to myself than to him. "Mothers are important."

"That is true," he said, turning to me and grinning widely. Seeing my wide eyes, he added, "I have good ears, Lady Saku."

"I'll remember that," I laughed lightly.

With that, I turned towards the front of the carriage, making it clear that I did not wish to speak. He frowned but took the hint.

Now, only the sound of the horse hooves remained to distract me from my thoughts. All else was silent.

The silence did not last long.

Clip-clop.

Blue eyes. Sky blue, light azure, deep cerulean. There were so many shades.

Clip-clop.

How was Len doing?

Clip-clop.

That song that Ann had been whistling . . .

Clip-clop.

Fluttering and fluttering away . . .

Clip-clop.

"Are we almost there?" I asked, partly out of desperation and partly out of impatience.

"Yes," he answered shortly.

I paused, taken aback.

Clip-clop.

"Gaku?"

"Yes, Lady Saku?"

"You are offended."

"No. Not at all."

"Are you sure?"

Clip-clop.

"Please do not distract me. I am driving."

He was most definitely offended. By what, I couldn't ascertain. But now that I thought about it, I had been rather rude earlier, stopping the conversation like that. Not everyone was likely to forgive me for my faults like Mama and Luka. Perhaps my social skills needed some fine-tuning.

While I continued to muse over my lack of decorum, he stared stonily ahead, more reserved than ever.

Then, as we turned yet another corner, he hesitantly began, "Lady Saku."

Clip-clop.

"Lord Gaku."

He glanced at me, and a ghost of a smile passed over his lips.

"You are not like other royalty."

"That is true."

"It is not just your background. Your character is unique."

"Luka is very similar to me."

"But she is not a cursed princess."

Clip-clop.

Ignoring the attack on my unlucky birth, I countered, "There are other people in the world with characters like mine."

"That may be so," he agreed, "but in my corner of the world, there are not."

"And?" I laughed.

"I am unaccustomed to you."

"I see."

"That is all," he said uncomfortably.

"Thank you, Lord Gaku, for sharing your thoughts."

For a moment, his eyes seemed to harden into the piercing gaze that most palace officials possessed – the mark of a lost soul, according to my mother. Then he turned away, and the moment was gone.

"No. Thank you, Lady Saku, for listening. I can only hope that you will soon open up to me."

Those were the last words he spoke that night. Afterwards, we were taken into the flow of the parade, and I lost myself in the never-ending night.

~=O=~

As always, the Majesty's ebony platform was first in line. It was a monolithic thing, imposing in its simplicity, pulled along by two arrogant black stallions.

I caught a glimpse of his solemn crimson gown before my body automatically shied away from the sight.

It was the crimson of death. He was wearing a funeral gown.

The Majesty was followed by Yuuma and Mizki. Theirs was an elaborate display. Behind them, a sword weaved through the folds of a flowery fan. Colorful ribbons surrounded the float, wrapping around the sword hilt and over their heads in an intricate canopy, and two attendants stood at the back of the large wooden platform, throwing flower petals into the air. They were dressed in gaudy kimonos and carried life-size versions of the sword and fan.

I allowed myself one cursory glance at their faces. Unfortunately, these years had treated them well, and the only signs of aging were a few wrinkles that actually enhanced the grace of their bearing.

Throughout the first six years of my life, these two floats had never changed, and they'd undoubtedly remained unaltered during my imprisonment.

We were third in line. Flanked by two columns of cheering citizens, we slowly glided down the boulevard and into the town square.

The town square was a large swath of cobblestoned land in the southern portion of the city. It was surrounded by a collection of ramshackle shops and stately business headquarters, along with the city church at the western end. On most days, booths dotted the edges of the grounds, filling the air with the sounds of squabbling storekeepers, yowling animals, and wailing children. An area of the square in front of the church was occupied by an enormous circular fountain, at the center of which was a platform. This was the platform where the Majesty or his officials made important announcements, handed out important prizes, and recognized important people.

Today, most of the square was packed with excited, loud people, all of whom were turned towards the passing parade.

As our float continued along the southern edge of the square, some of the cries died down and were replaced by a sort of hum – murmuring, I realized. They were surprised.

I'd been expecting this sort of the reaction, but something in the expressions of the young maidens nearest us made me warily glance down at the flimsy partition that separated the procession from the mob. Gulping, I gripped the railing of our platform and focused my eyes on the church. Its walls were as pure as those in my memories, but something about the building seemed much daintier than before. It used to seem so impressive – like a glaring jewel, all sharp edges and iridescence – to my juvenile eyes.

I sighed in relief when our float pulled in place next to Yuuma and Mizki's. To my complete shock, they politely waved and smiled at us.

While I gaped, Gaku returned the gesture, did the same to the float that was settling down to our left, and then resumed his inactive state.

I snapped back to attention. This was no time to wonder about the sudden friendliness of two of my greatest enemies.

The royal family was here.

Through narrowed eyes, I watched them come: The Empress, with her handsome son and his handsome wife; and those accursed concubines with their daughters and son-in-laws – or, in the case of Lapis's mother, a son-in-law-to-be. The arrivals were punctuated with dancers and marching band members, all of whom were practically oozing pride. This was understandable. Only the best of the best were chosen for the Moonflower Parade.

I tried not to let my eyes linger over Lapis any more than they'd lingered over the others, but it was difficult. When I'd last seen her, she'd been frustrated and disheveled. Her hair had been rudely yanked out of its bonds, and her eyes had been filled with tears. She'd been screaming at me, begging me to leave her alone.

Now she was surrounded by a glow of happiness, as pixie-like as the first day I'd seen her. Her arm was linked with the arm of a blond, one-eyed boy who appeared to be wearing a seaman's attire. This, presumably, was her fiancé. I noted with vague interest that he was a foreigner. They were everywhere now. The number of yellow heads in the audience was certainly greater than I'd expected.

A small gold and black bird flew past and circled over the heads of the audience a few times, catching my eye.

As the minor officials began rolling in, grouped according to the palace officials that supervised them, the surrounding noise decreased slightly. I continued to watch the bird. It gracefully swept through the air, spinning and twirling in a carefree, captivating dance.

Suddenly, the volume of the crowd began to reescalate, and I blinked. When my eyes reopened, the bird had disappeared.

Somewhat disconcerted, I turned back towards the southwestern entrance of the square. I knew what came next. The minor officials had never been popular. These reenergized cheers were not for them, but for what followed.

Here were the normal citizens, the ones who were outstanding enough to have been recognized by the Majesty, as well as the important non-officials who had somehow aided the government. Their quality and quantity changed each year.

Very few stood out from my memories: a cheerful clothes designer with a slight pink tint in his golden hair, wearing a tiny, rather silly black and white hat; an entomologist who had creepily realistic bug feelers perched on her head, and who was strikingly similar to Miku even with white streaks in her hair; an actress with beautiful silver hair and green eyes but a face so blank that I wondered if she could really act.

I leaned forward eagerly, wondering what they would be like this year. Judging by the liveliness of the crowd, this year's bunch would not disappoint.

One nondescript float passed, followed by three others. The crowd's deception became evident. These "outstanding" citizens were nowhere near as wonderful as the ones from my memories. Disappointed, I focused my attention on their features, trying to find something interesting there.

Those two foreigners had strange dirt-colored hair – were they half-bloods, like me? Perhaps not. For some reason, their expressions sent chills up and down my spine.

That musician had so much hair on his face – did it not tickle his nose? Was that the fashion these days?

That runner seemed more and more like Teto the longer I looked at him – was he her brother, or maybe even Teto herself in disguise? I wouldn't rule out the possibility. She certainly was strange enough to do something like that.

Like this, I amused myself until the end of the parade.

As always, with the last float came an explosion of energy. I winced, wishing I could cover my ears without seeming rude, and turned all my attention towards the final arrival.

The last celebrity was a young lady whose most eye-catching feature was the dazzling blonde, unkempt hair that hung down to her ankles. While I gaped at her revealing, form-fitting black dress, she smirked and waved at her audience, which was loudly chanting something that sounded disturbingly like "Lady Rin."

She yelled something at them, and they yelled back with renewed vigor. She yelled again, and they replied again. This process was repeated several times.

At some point, she turned slightly, and I started, realizing that she had a companion: a young boy, shorter than her, with hair just as stunning as hers, and bluish eyes.

My mind unconsciously compared the companion with Len, noting their similarities. I couldn't deny it. He looked like Len. But Len couldn't be here.

Their float drew nearer, and I found myself unconsciously leaning forward again, my eyes fixed on the boy. He couldn't be here. There was no way.

His words sprung up in my mind: "The famous singer, Lily-chan. You don't know her?"

And the chant of the crowd began to take on a new form: "Lily-chan. Lily-chan."

Was it possible?

The boy's face was blank, so different from the smiling Len in my memory. But there was definitely a resemblance there.

Gaku tapped my shoulder and motioned for me to lean back. Blushing slightly, I complied, glancing down to make sure my feet were steady.

When I raised my head again, the boy was staring straight at me, his mouth open. And I sighed, partly from relief and partly from shock. The mystery was solved.

Len was here.

For one long moment, I could not move. I gazed blankly into space, completely unable to react.

By the time I came around, his float was already behind me, and the Majesty was stepping onto fountain platform. He raised his hand. The crowd settled down. Soon, the only sounds were the howls of the wind and the cries of some inconsolable children.

"People of our Empire," the Majesty began, just as he always did. "I am pleased to see you here on this night. The Moonflower Parade is a proud tradition and one that I am proud to uphold."

I ignored the remainder of his introduction. He always said the same things. My eyes darted around restlessly, searching for that bird.

Where was it? I wanted to see it. Surely, that bird would have all the answers to my unanswerable questions.

The Majesty stood to the side of the platform, catching my attention. A hooded man stepped forward, handed the Majesty a cloaked object, and retreated.

And, as His Royal Majesty stood over that tiny little thing, the gods seemed to hold their breaths. We all knew what was in there. We all knew what would happen next. Our anticipation was almost unbearable.

"Allow me to present to you our moonflower," the Majesty whispered. His breathy voice spread far, carried by the wind.

With a great whirl, the Majesty pulled off the covering. At the same time, the lights around the square were extinguished, so that only the light of the full moon shone down on us.

Slowly but surely, the object on the platform began to shift and glow, brighter and brighter, until its radiance reached past our eyes and into our souls.

An audible sigh echoed through the square.

Here it was.

Our moonflower. Our beautiful blossom. Our supreme star.

Even I, for whom cherry blossoms were an irreplaceable existence, could not help but smile at the sight. Every year, it only grew more beautiful.

Legends spoke of fields of moonflowers that opened their glowing petals to the full moon every month. Now, only a few were left, and they were carefully maintained by gardeners in the palace, were never seen by the public, and only bloomed on this night, the night of the first full moon of the year. In a way, its rarity enhanced its beauty, making it all the more enchanting.

Someone somewhere began humming the moonflower song, the Requiem, and suddenly the city was filled with the sound of our song.

I did not sing. Instead, I closed my eyes and remembered.

~=O=~

"Hear the song?" Mama whispered to me.

I nodded. I liked this part of the festival most, because the flower was pretty and everyone hummed a pretty song together.

"This song has a story. It's about heartbreak and loss, but also about love and redemption. It's a beautiful tale."

Letting my voice die down, I gazed expectantly at her.

"Not now," she chuckled. "Maybe I'll tell it to you later."

When I didn't budge, she lifted me into her arms, holding me up so that I could see the moonflower.

"Look at it. Isn't it a beauty?"

This was the first time I'd seen it for an extended period of time; usually, she quickly lifted me up and set me down before anyone could complain that I was blocking their view. I carefully studied the distant light and nodded. "Almost as pretty as the cherry blossoms," I said.

Smiling, Mama gently chided, "That's sacrilegious."

I was confused.

"But I suppose you wouldn't know what that means," she added.

I made a mental note to ask Luka for the definition later.

Then Mama said the words I'd been yearning to hear all night.

"Come, sing," she urged me. "You know how I love your voice."

So I opened my mouth and let my song pour into the sky.

~=O=~

The Majesty's next words broke into my thoughts and stole my breath away.

"First, a moment of silence," he said, after the Requiem had died down, "for my deceased wife who died five days ago, six years ago, and my deceased daughter, who died that same day."

Everywhere, people put their head down in respectful silence. I could not do the same.

All I could do was stare straight at the Majesty and his crimson funeral gown, feeling some indescribable emotion well up inside of me. Was it sorrow? Anger? Hatred? Fear? None of those. But it was not happiness, either.

Good gods, I wanted to sing.

I wondered what Mama would think, if she were here. Would she hate this man who had killed her? Was she even capable of hate?

Why was he doing this? What good could possibly come from this?

How was it possible for the words of one man to have such an effect on me?

Why did I want to cry?

The silence dragged on, allowing my wild thoughts to run even wilder, entangling themselves in an impossibly tangled web.

I'd looked forward to this night for so long. And for what?

When the Majesty finally spoke again, I swallowed the lump in my throat and forced down my wayward speculations.

"Onto happier things," he said, gesturing towards the bringer of the moonflower to return. The flower was taken away, accompanied by another sigh, heavier than the first.

"My daughter, Princess Lapis Majesty, is now engaged to Lord Oliver of Scarborough. They will be wed this year on the tenth day of the third month."

The audience received his news with polite claps and a few whistles.

"My wife, Merli, will soon bring a new child into this world."

The audience took a few moments to react to this news, but its applause was genuinely celebratory.

"And one of the dear officials of our court, Gakupo Kamui, is now engaged to Lady Saku of our Empire. They will be wed on this day, one year from now."

My imagination may have been straying again, but the applause this time seemed a bit more strained.

"Until then, Lady Saku will attend Crypton Academy."

Ah.

I closed my eyes, feeling that familiar squeeze in my chest and shortness of breath. Of course, I could not allow myself to break down here. But I could certainly entertain the thought of it.

Was it not enough that I was already on the ground, writhing at his feet like a worm? Why did he continue to kick me?

~=O=~

"You know," Mama said, running a hand over the piano keys. "Sometimes, I wish . . ."

She'd been crying again. I could see streaks left over from her tears.

"Mama?"

"Oh, it's nothing. I'm just being silly again. Luka!"

Luka trotted over.

"Take Rin to our room. It's late."

"Yes. Please come, Lady Rin."

I dutifully followed Luka away, still staring at Mama, who was gazing at the piano keys with a strange expression on her face.

"Luka?"

"Yes, Lady Rin?"

"Is Mama sad?"

"She is happy to be here with you, I believe."

"Oh. I see. Would she still be happy if I weren't here?"

"I do not believe so, Lady Rin."

Luka held up my bed covers, waiting for me to climb into bed. After I settled into the mattress, she neatly laid the sheets around me and prepared to leave.

"Luka?"

"Yes?"

"Will Mama be sad when I die?"

Luka rapidly blinked a few times before replying, "You will not die, Lady Rin. Where did you hear such nonsense?"

"I don't know. One of Mama's visitors . . ."

"That was a terrible thing for them to say. Disregard them. Good night, Lady Rin."

"Good night, Luka. Tell Mama I say good night to her too."

Nodding, Luka stepped out of the room and began to slide the door shut.

I suddenly remembered something and called out, "Luka, you didn't answer the question."

But Luka didn't hear. With a gentle hiss, the door shut, and I was left sulking in the darkness.

~=O=~

The Moonflower Parade was drawing to a close. News had been announced, officials had been introduced, and all celebrities had been honored, save one. All the previous exuberance was gone; now, we prepared for the presentation of the final float with a sort of desperate passion.

"The lady you've all been waiting for," the Majesty called out, a smile in his voice. "She's beautiful, witty, and has a voice that many would die for – what do you think?"

"Lily-chan! Lily-chan!" the crowd shouted.

"Lily-chan!" the Majesty agreed.

The girl stepped onto the platform, smiling widely. "How're y'all doing tonight?" she called out.

Evidently, everyone was doing very well tonight.

"Thank you all for your wonderful support these past two years. I've had a great time singing for everybody, and I really cannot thank you enough for how much you've done for me."

She paused, allowing a few eager fans to shout out their replies.

"Of course, this has been a mutual love, am I right? Y'all enjoy my singing very much, dontcha?"

They agreed; they enjoyed her singing very much.

Pulling Len forward, Lily-chan added, "Before I forget, this young lad next to me goes by the name of Len Kagamine. He's a great friend of mine, as well as the top scorer in his grade, the top close-combat fighter, the top gunman, and the top heartbreaker. Just look at that smile!"

Len smiled warmly. Laughter rippled through the audience.

"I requested that we be introduced together because Len's really outstanding, and, well, don't we look wonderful together?"

Lily-chan hugged Len's arm and leaned her head against his shoulder, earning more laughter.

"So, I think that's all. Thank you again for allowing me to sing for you. I look forward to working with you again this year! Oh, and don't forget to buy my new album!"

Any desperate passion was gone. Lily-chan had transformed this mass of tiring souls into a sea of wild jubilation. The effect was extraordinary.

I watched their float leave, recalling the warm atmosphere that had surrounded the two of them. Lapis had been the same. All of them were so delightful, so happy, so attractive.

So far from my reach.

This knowledge tore down the wall of self-control that I had built around my heart. I began to shake, clutching the railing to keep myself from falling down.

Gaku offered a helping hand, but I shook my head, not caring that I was offending him again. At the moment, I did not care for anything at all.

And that was how I returned home: quivering and quaking in my unbalanced guise, feeling like I would throw up at any moment.

The trip passed in a haze. We arrived at Lord Gaku's house. Ann was not there. I was put in a carriage. Gaku watched me leave. Finally, finally, the gates of the Cherry Blossom Gardens rose up before us.

The coachman did not help me out; I stepped out alone, still trembling, and hurried through the gates. By the time they clanged shut, locking automatically, I was already far into the forest.

Luka was waiting in the doorway between our rooms. At the sight of her, the ball of tension in my stomach relaxed and my unruly body composed itself. The quivers and quakes were suddenly gone.

I could see it now. This was where I belonged.

"My Lady," Luka softly greeted me, inclining her head.

"Luka," I replied, gratefully yanking the bindings out of my hair and slipping out of my fancy attire. "How have you been?"

"I was reading a book."

"Sorry to interrupt."

"Do not be. How was the parade?"

"It was . . . not what I expected."

I bent down to pick up my nightgown, which was neatly folded at the corner of my bed. She stood still, waiting for me to continue.

"He wore a funeral gown. He acknowledged Mama."

"They say he has done so every year since the year of her death."

My eyes snapped to her face. "You knew? Why didn't you tell me?"

She calmly met my glare. "You never allow anyone to speak of the festivities, I believe."

Ah, that was right.

"Sorry," I mumbled.

"Does this change anything?"

I pondered for a moment before hesitantly replying, "Not really, I guess. It was just surprising."

"I see."

"You're disappointed."

"Not at all, My Lady."

Choosing not to voice my disagreement, I walked out, heading towards the washroom. Behind me, Luka picked up my discarded garments and quietly followed.

I bathed slowly under a steady stream of lukewarm water, pondering the day's events. Time passed quickly, so that more than half an hour had passed when I stepped out of the tub, though it felt like I'd merely hopped in and out. The day was speeding up, trying to draw to a close and force me towards tomorrow.

Luka was waiting outside.

"It angered me," I softly admitted, not daring to look her in the eye. "I had thought I was above that. The knowledge that I wasn't angered me even more."

"My Lady, you will soon accustom yourself."

"That's the point, Luka. I might, and then I might not."

"When you have married, perhaps-"

"Perhaps," I cut her off. "That's enough of that. Luka, did you notice Ann's eyes?"

She didn't even stop to think. "They were Lady Lapis's eyes, I believe."

"I thought so."

We had reached the main house. I settled onto my mattress while Luka slid shut the doors.

"Good night, Luka," I called out when all traces of moonlight had disappeared.

"Good night, My Lady. Was the flower beautiful?"

It took me a moment to comprehend her words, and then remorse flooded through my body.

"It was beautiful, but it was a lonely sort of beauty."

"Thank you, My Lady. Good night."

I closed my eyes and listened to the howls of the wind and the creaks of the wood.

This year would bring more surprises my way. I was sure of it. But at the moment, I couldn't focus my thoughts. Before slipping into my dreams, I thought of that bird. Was it still dancing in the air? If I ever found it, would it answer my unanswerable questions?


Let the rant begin.

writing this chapter was a PAIN, which was mainly my fault, because I'm so bad at writing descriptions and the more I wrote the sadder I got because it was so bad, which made me procrastinate to the point that I was writing, like, five lines per day, and sure, writing five lines per day adds up, but that's only true when you write every day, but I was skipping days, which only made it harder on myself to start writing again, and now I'm wondering what I was doing the entire time because I just sat down yesterday and today and found out that I was pretty much done with the stupid chapter *deep breath* so if I'd been a little smarter I'd probably already be on Chapter 6 by now, and for some reason, now that I'm done it looks much shorter and I want to revise but I won't, nope, not gonna do it, and worst of all is my stupid computer mouse that keeps double-clicking when I only click once, so things keep closing when they're not supposed to and I keep losing my saved stuff, haha FWP and gosh I'm tired, wow this run-on sentence is long arrrggggg

My inner editor really wants to fix that big mess up there.

Moving on.

! ! ! IF YOU SKIPPED THE RANT, START READING HERE.

If there were another genre space, I'd add Angst, because this story really does seem a bit angsty . . . and "angsty" is totally a word; the spell-check does not know what it's talking about.

Also, I'm SOSOSOSOSOSORRY for taking another few months to post one chapter. (But I can't promise it won't happen again.) However, I will try my best to write more regularly, for my sake as well as yours. I know you guys have other stories to read, but I still feel bad.

Any feedback about this chapter would be greatly appreciated. I won't ask for reviews often anymore - too lazy to type it out - but when I do, it would be really nice if people actually reviewed. Just find something to pick on. There's plenty. Please? With a cherry/grape (depending on your preference) on top?

And if you have any questions about the world in this story, please ask. For example, for the sake of the author's convenience, each of this world's 12 months has 30 days. Betcha didn't know that.

Wow, I had a lot to say. :/

On a side note, how would one go about getting a beta?

REVIEW RESPONSES:

~ Clavemien Nigram Rosa: Your review meant a lot! It told me that I'm getting the response I was hoping for - from one person at least. ;) Thanks!

~ RiaHiromishimo: Aww, thank you very much! :)

SONGS: "Dreams and Leaved Cherry Trees" by Aoki Gekko, "Requiem" by Peperon-P

Special thanks to all my reviewers and new and old favorites/followers! You know who you are. *less than 3* And, uh, kudos to anyone who actually read this far.

Sweet dreams . . .