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the taste of stone

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“After the young man had done what had been asked of him, he said to the spirit, ‘O dear brother, I weep for you. I have preserved your headstone and wreathed it with garlands—burned incense to clear the air of rot, and poured wine to slake your thirst—is there anything left that you wish, so that you can in turn fulfill my own?’”

“Stella… this spirit is stranger than the one in the last story. It even followed him into the bath! I don’t understand why the man doesn’t tell it his own wish now, so the haunting ends.”

“That’s true, he could ask the spirit to stop. Glen? You heard what Bart said—what about you?”

“… I… but Mother, do you think he really wants it to leave? It’s like he’s stalling; maybe he doesn’t want to be alone.”

“Well, let me finish, and see what you think at the end.”

*

If he were younger, Glen might have been more wretchedly certain of the old protest that he belonged—somewhere here at the very least, at Bart’s side, and not elsewhere or nowhere at all—but by now he held fewer delusions. The new head of the Belbania family had always looked at him with the eyes of one who might tread with the heel of his boot upon a worm, and watch its bisected remains wriggle; and so Glen recognized the cruelly perfect timing when he was called to the front lines—for Bart was away, and Dolgerg was not.

What words Glen could say meant nothing to Dolgerg, but he had said them still, hoping to wait for Bart’s return the next day so they could bid each other goodbye. Predictably, Dolgerg had not appreciated his ungrateful impudence for daring to want. So this is my punishment, he thought to himself, as he was promptly escorted from the Belbania manor, empty-handed—as he braced himself in ill-fitting gear for battle at the sound of enemy encroachment—as he lay among the bloodied snowdrifts, one gasping soul that littered the battlefield just as naturally as the dead—so this is my punishment, for existing.

But in existing, he could still dream, and gain for himself a moment of delirious respite: the warmth of his bleeding left arm dissipated and left his fingers tingling, the line between sky and snow thinned and vanished as both turned to colorless spots in his vision, the makeshift blanket of fallen snow numbed him and smothered the pain of his wounds… and when he woke—

*

—Bart wasn’t there. But I know he’s here. He was sitting by my bed. By my side.

She groped blindly at her neck. In the hollow dip above her collarbone, Hiroki found the necklace, Mother’s necklace, caught in her hair.

Not Mother’s necklace, she reminded herself. She stared at it, unblinkingly; counted from one to ten in deep breaths; then let the necklace, newly untangled, slip from her palm, and got out of bed. The dim light of dawn crept through her window and across the floor, coloring her skin a sullen tinge of rose as she glanced in the mirror. People said Hiroki looked like her mother; she wondered if she might now look like Stella, too.

But Hiroki couldn’t afford to be cheerless—it was Friday, and Minato High’s Class 1-4 was to go karaoke after school. So she watched her reflection put on a bright smile, and said to the mirror, “All right! Time to get ready! It’s going to be a good day.”

*

“I’m so glad you’re alive,” Cotton had told Glen, who never did get around to thanking him for it—not then, not at the academy, and not at the castle years later, because he found that he couldn’t express the immensity of his gratitude in words. At the border, Glen had prayed to the spirits of the dead that they could act as both witness and courier to hear and ferry his message—for if he was bound in death as in life by his enemies’ grudges or his own, could he even return to his brother? Who else would think of him? But he had not died, and Cotton was glad for it.

Once Cotton had taken his leave that evening, Bart reached out and wrapped his fingers loosely around Glen’s right wrist. “It’s been a good day,” he said, and to Glen his little brother’s words felt nearly as soft to his ears as the snow had been against his face. “Cotton came to visit, and we’re together again. There’s no need for you to think about what our older brother said.”

“I know,” Glen replied, his smile almost cleansed of bitterness. Your older brother? Oh, Dolgerg. Even half a worm can still keep moving.

“I’ll make sure you won’t be sent out again.” Bart tightened his grasp. “We aren’t even supposed to go to the battlefield until we’re fifteen. You’re recovering, and the border’s in a stalemate. I won’t leave the manor no matter where my duties are supposed to take me.”

“… Bart. I’ll get well soon.” Glen glanced down at his left arm, snug against his chest in a sling. “And I’ll go back with you to the academy, so you won’t have to worry so much then.”

You’re my big brother,” Bart said sharply. “Of course I worry! When I heard they shipped you out… oh. Here, Glen.” He let go of Glen’s wrist and searched his pockets, then offered Glen his handkerchief.

Glen pressed it to his face and let it soak up the tears, unbidden, that had blazed hot trails down his cheeks. If he were younger, Glen might have decided that he could repay his debt to Lord Frederick by staying at Bart’s side—but by now he knew himself better, if only a little bit. And you’re my little brother. What did his true bloodline matter in the face of love?

*

At the end of her last year of middle school, Hiroki remembered the blood on her hands—Bart’s blood—and walked out of basketball practice with the excuse that she was feeling ill. No one had dared question her when they saw her face. “You are looking awfully sick,” she was told. “Go home and get some good rest.”

Hiroki went home and got no good rest at all.

How neatly the sword had pierced Bart’s side, how messily he had bled! She dreamed that Glen had killed the attacker with a vicious thrust through the stomach (which was true); pulled a miraculously hale and hearty Bart to his feet (which was false); and, starting forward before he looked back, saw—

Oh, how Hiroki hated her imagination. It knew the truth well enough that even in her dreams it ensured Bart never died from magic.

She couldn’t give such an explanation to her parents, of course. Hiroki Yuu was an only child.

“Maybe it’s the stress of exams,” her mother speculated, rubbing Hiroki’s shoulders. “Let’s have yakiniku for dinner tonight, okay? Oh, Moto and Midou stopped by earlier this evening while you were asleep to drop off homework, since you missed a day.”

“Ah, I can’t forget to thank them then,” said Hiroki, pitching her voice to the perfect tone of wan determination. “Yakiniku! I’m feeling better now, so I can go back to school tomorrow.” School, where her worries ought to be grades and basketball; where she was as old as Glen had been when he nearly died at the front lines on the Zerestrian border, and was yet so unremarkably unbloodied in this new life, this new life where she was no one’s bastard—

—and no one’s brother: not now, not ever.

*

“‘O dear brother,’ said the spirit at last, ‘in fulfilling my desires you have fulfilled your own, for you alone have tethered me to this world through your respects paid. But even so the tether must break, for your bargain with the gods is void, and the dead must be parted from the living.’ And when he heard this the young man wept and kissed his brother’s headstone in despair, because he was both brave and foolish, and had dared to force the gods’ hand with deception.

“The spirit said to him: ‘You carry the dead in your heart but I weep for your dying heart. Break your tether as I break mine, and look to your life—for you have the world before you.’

“‘You will never again be in this world,’ said he.

“The spirit said, ‘Do you not remember my love?’

“‘I could never forget,’ said the spirit’s brother. ‘I will remember it all, if that will serve as a tribute to you.’”