I. White Rain
That afternoon in the garden is the first time you see snow.
After the Researcher installs the central water cycle, he takes you and Kurotaka into the garden to show you around. One day, the garden will be filled with life of all kinds, but for now it is only an endless expanse of white. Precipitation falls, feather-light, from the dense gray clouds that cover the garden's firmament. The drifting material is like the light rain that sometimes falls on the laboratory roof, except white, and slow, and cold. The Researcher calls it snow.
"How beautiful," you murmur, and hold out one hand to catch some.
A thick, soft layer of snow covers the ground, and it crunches and compacts beneath your feet as you tread carefully through the new terrain. Kurotaka brushes away the snow gathering on his coat, complaining about the cold, the damp, and how messy this all is. Behind you, the falling snow dusts away three sets of footprints.
The Researcher's voice breaks through the still, crisp air. "Shirofukurou, do you like it?"
You startle at the direct address. As the white bird, your task is to oversee the garden, and you should have no personal feelings toward anything in it. You try to think of an explanation, and come up with none. "I apologize..."
Kurotaka glances at you and makes a show of sighing, then returns to the futile task of keeping his coat free from snow. You watch the Researcher intently for a reaction, expecting a reprimand, but he does not seem upset at your misstep. If anything, he seems confused. "There's nothing to apologize for," he says.
Now that winter has been made, the next step in the construction process will be springtime. Kurotaka has shown you the blueprints: there will be greenery and life, and when the wind blows, the white flowers will drift from the trees to land on the ground, quite like this.
The Researcher continues, "Next time, I'll melt the snow and show you the budding greenery. Once spring comes, the flowers that fall will be just as beautiful...."
...for you. The Lord said that he will melt the snow for you to see the flowers. Suddenly, you don't feel the cold at all. You lower your eyes, but your heart leaps with joy. "Yes, Lord."
Then I'll wait for that day to arrive, Lord.
Some time before the garden's completion, the winter gets stuck.
The Researcher looks up at the sky, gray and heavy with clouds but stubbornly not snowing, and he sighs with infinite tiredness, his shoulders slumping barely perceptibly. The sight tugs at your heart. "Lord, is there anything I can do to—"
He ignores you, and throws you and Kurotaka out of the garden so he can tinker without interference. You stand outside the workroom, one hand poised over the closed door, but you do not knock. From inside comes the sound of movement and mechanical whirring.
Kurotaka comes up to you. "I told you we can't help, didn't I? This is work only the Lord can do, and he's not going to call for us, so you can stop waiting." He continues, "Come on. I know you're not going to follow me on break; why don't we go see a different part of the garden instead? The place where Kuroto and the Savior will be born."
You glance back longingly at the closed door once more, then turn and follow him.
This part of the garden is some distance from the central tower. Low elevation, moderate climate, and you can hear flowing water. It is still supposed to be winter in the garden, but when the mechanism caught, the cold also stopped. Small patches of snow have melted and revealed the soil beneath, and tufts of grasses and wildflowers emerge.
Kurotaka stoops, pulls out a handful of plants, and hands them to you. "I know you're waiting for someone else, but for now, you'll have to make do with my company instead."
The marsh marigolds lie in your hand, long green stems and pale yellow petals. They are very different from the snow, but also very pretty, and warmth rises in your heart as you hold them. You glance from them to him. "I don't mind it."
Kurotaka stops in his tracks. "Hm?"
"Nothing. I was just thinking out loud," you say happily, and leave him to it.
The Researcher fills the garden with mountains and forests, rivers and estuaries, dense cities and small villages, and animal and plant life of every kind. At the very end, he takes you and Kurotaka back to the center of the garden, where there is now a great forest and a tower.
"Take a last look around," Kurotaka murmurs to you. "After we go in, we won't be able to come back here again."
You look around, but there is nothing here you will miss. Your purpose is to maintain and protect the garden, and the Tower already holds everything you need. You could ask for nothing more — but for the Lord to visit, once in a while. You hold that unspoken hope in your heart, a gentle light like the morning sun.
You nod solemnly. At your side, Kurotaka does the same.
The Researcher drives the linchpin wings into the center of the garden, sets the System in motion, and departs through the veil to the laboratory to observe.
II. Dynamic Equilibrium
The two children are born into the world, Kuroto first, the Savior two years after. You and Kurotaka watch over them from afar as they grow up, counterparts and opposites, twin flowers in an overgrown plot.
When the world draws close to the tipping point, you take care of your remaining work and leave to locate the Savior; Kurotaka leaves to find Kuroto. The Liberation Army is a small encampment on the western side of the country, and the Savior is a personable young man named Chihaya, the head of the Liberation Army's son and right hand. He hears you out, then tells you, "I have no interest in such a destiny."
"That's all right," you say. "At least let me stay by your side." When the time comes, the choice will not be up to him.
For several years, you remain with him. You scout terrain and enemy movements for him, and use your vision of the garden to aid his plans. When he rides with his regiment, you follow him in bird form. In this way, the Liberation Army gains two allies: a tactician, and a white bird that represents their hope for a peaceful future.
Once, you ask Chihaya — he is the only human you know well enough to ask — "Why do people feel the need to take each other's lives?"
He sits across from you in an empty meeting hall, maps and missives scattered over the table between you, alongside two cups of tea. "There are many reasons, but this is mine: A long time ago, my father saved me from my burning village and took me in, and since then, I have had a dream to fight for. In order to make that dream a reality, we have to eliminate opposition to it. By conviction if possible, by force if necessary."
He refills both your cups, then continues, "Besides, isn't it the same with the Kuroto System? By taking the life of one, the rest of the world will be saved."
You smile, because your Lord has thought of everything. "The lives taken by the Savior don't count."
"They might not count to you and the System, but in the eyes of the people of this world, there is no difference." He continues, "But what about you, Shirofukurou? What will you do, for the sake of what you believe in?"
The Lord has given you your instructions, and all you have to do is carry them out, nothing more. You fold your hands. "I'm a guardian and an observer. My task is to watch over you, not to interfere."
Chihaya smiles. “If you say so, Shirofukurou.”
The Liberation Army has been at odds with the allied clans for many years, but as the winters grow longer and more bitter, the prolonged conflict has begun to weigh on people's hearts, and they too wish for an end to the hostilities.
Chihaya writes to the allied clans' current commander, the eldest son of one of the clan chiefs, a man named Sai. Ordinary land messengers cannot cross the neutral zone, so you volunteer to fly the letter to the allied clans’ base camp, and drop the message tube in front of the meeting tent as the commander passes by. Several days later, a reply lands in Chihaya's own hands in a very similar fashion. The watch reports that it had been delivered by a black bird. You suspect, but you aren't sure.
Many days later, passing through a valley, Chihaya encounters a scouting party. He glimpses their leader on horseback atop a cliff, his cloak flying in a great wind; you glimpse Kurotaka at the man's side. Even separated by a great distance, the world comes to a standstill around them both.
Chihaya tells you later, "It was just like you said it would be, Shirofukurou. The moment I saw him, I knew."
"But you will not confront him, and instead will keep working with him? Even though you are the Savior, and he is Kuroto?"
"I am my father's son and part of the Liberation Army first," Chihaya replies. "Sai may one day be our ally. I believe that he and I want the same thing."
You alight on Chihaya’s arm, fold your wings, and accede. You have told him the truth of the world and informed him of his purpose. What Chihaya does from this point is up to him, and you believe that when the time comes, he will do the right thing.
Chihaya keeps writing; so does Sai. After communication was established, the restrictions on the neutral territory were lifted. You no longer need to deliver Chihaya’s letters, but from time to time you glimpse Kurotaka circling the camp. Another several months pass, and an agreement is made: the clan leaders, led by Sai, will come to this place to negotiate the terms of an alliance. The meeting is arranged for the first day of spring, by the calendar year, but you know that at that time, it will still be winter.
On the arranged day, Chihaya stands with you at the doors to the town hall. The great bell tower chimes. Startled birds fly from the clock chamber. He turns to you and says, "Shirofukurou, you have followed me and watched over me for a long time. Now that it has come to this, may I ask why? Is there something you want from all of this?"
The wind sweeps past. Chihaya holds his coat closer; you remain undisturbed by the cold. You fold your hands. “There is nothing I want, and even if I did, it would be irrelevant. As the white bird, my task is only to watch over you."
"Birds of a feather know their own, Shirofukurou. Years ago, I told you about my father. You are also trying to fulfill someone's wishes, aren't you? The person who gave you the task of watching over the Savior?"
Put that way, you cannot disagree. "I am."
"Then that's it," Chihaya says with a smile. "Unless you truly wish for something, not a single thing in the world will change." Overhead, the bell strikes twelve. "I must go. It won't do for the son of the head of the Liberation Army to be late."
As he walks through the great double doors, you take flight, and alight on the roof of a nearby house. On the other side of the town hall, Kurotaka perches on the bell tower's ledge, also watching.
By the time the clocktower strikes one, everything has come to an end.
Chihaya tells the gathered clan leaders that as long as the agreement with the Liberation Army is not reneged on, he will keep this secret for them. The alliance agreement still garners the required seven signatures. The word released to the world is that Sai had perished in an accident.
Chihaya personally delivers Kuroto's remains to the allied clans. The day before the burial, Kurotaka perches by Kuroto's shroud — you do not listen in on what he says — then takes flight in the direction of the Tower, leaving only a birdcall and several black feathers. You remain with Chihaya a little longer. Now that the ending winter has been averted, spring has returned to the garden. The trees and shrubs are once more verdant green, and the warm wind brings insect calls, birdsong, and flowers that fall like rain from the canopies overhead. It really is beautiful. You wish the Lord was here to see it, too.
On the long return journey, Chihaya asks, "Is this the season you looked forward to so much, Shirofukurou?"
You smile at him. "Of course."
On the way there, you were accompanied by the other clan leaders; the return journey consists of just Chihaya and you. On long trips, Chihaya often plays music to pass the time, and now he raises his flute and plays you a song, which he tells you he wrote for the newly arrived spring.
"It is rather wistful," you observe. "Is something still on your mind, Chihaya?"
Chihaya completes the song and lowers the flute. "I am a little uncertain, Shirofukurou. All Sai's actions, up to that point, indicated that he wanted the same peace we do. Even though he turned out to be Kuroto, I think his wishes were similar to mine. Now, my goals have been fulfilled, but I can't help feeling that I also lost something very important.” He sweeps a handful of flower petals from his shoulder. “Much like how, when springtime comes, it also buries the winter with these white flowers."
“You’re a kind person, Chihaya.” In a world where people commit violence for far worse reasons, you thought his and the Liberation Army’s, if not justified, then at least worthwhile. “You only did what you came into this world to do, so there is no need for regret." It will not ease Chihaya’s burden, but it is the only thing you can say, as the white bird. "Where will you go from here?"
"My father's work is not yet done. There are still many preparations to be made. Now that the winter has ended, we can rest and recover our strength, and then we will continue on." He turns to you then. "Shirofukurou, will you keep following us?"
You have flown with Chihaya for so long, you had not considered the possibility that you must one day leave him. But now that your task is done, there is somewhere you must go. "My duty has been completed, so I will leave you, too."
"Of course." Then he smiles. "But I hope you'll meet the person you're waiting for, Shirofukurou."
You return to the Tower. Kurotaka is already there; the Researcher still has not returned. The translucent veil leading to the laboratory is silent. Perhaps the Lord is simply running late; surely he would not miss the springtime for anything. Soon, he will come back to this world. Soon, you will see him again, and you will walk together amidst the falling white flowers.
The translucent veil to the laboratory remains silent. You tell yourself it does not matter. The spring is eternal, and you will wait for him for as long as it takes.
(There is nothing else you can do but wait.)
"Shirofukurou? You don't need to wait there, you know. If the Lord comes back, no matter where we are in the garden, we'll know."
Kurotaka is looking at you with an odd expression, like pity. You tense. That is the very last thing you want from him — he who chose to become a bond bird, he whom the Researcher values.
(He who can still leave, if he wishes to.)
You drop your hand from the veil. "I'm not waiting," you lie.
On the first day of summer, you go up to the Tower's open roof, and hold up one hand against the sunlight. The wind tears at your face. Beneath you, the deep green forest canopy extends to the horizon.
Kurotaka comes to stand by your side. The wind atop the Tower is so loud you did not hear him approach. "It’s summer again, is it?"
It is the first time you are considering what will happen after the end of the world. When Kuroto was destroyed, the vessel of the world was emptied, but it immediately began to fill again. The seasonal cycle has also begun anew. The spring which should have been eternal is brightening once more into summer. Soon it will be autumn again, and winter. Below, the forest canopy rustles as a bird takes flight.
You close your eyes. "This changes nothing." The wind catches your voice and carries it away. "We simply move from a one-time model to an iterated one. The experiment did not end, only reset. The garden faces the same choice as before, but we have also learned something new. As long as the ending is averted in time, the world can still continue on."
Kurotaka regards you steadily. "Consider a third outcome. Before either limit is reached, the observer ends the experiment."
"Hm?" Does he know something you don't?
"Shirofukurou, you've only been entrusted with this one garden, so of course, it means everything to you. But to the Lord, this is only an experiment, and only one of many. When it becomes useless to him, he will..."
"What do you mean?"
He looks away. "It's nothing. As always, I was just saying what came to mind. Pay it no heed."
A tremor through the world startles you both: the Researcher has finally returned. You hurry back downstairs to the main hall to receive him, Kurotaka two steps behind you, but the Researcher does not even look at either of you as he walks past you and in the direction of the workroom. You wait, half-holding your breath, as he studies the world for a very long time.
Kurotaka stands next to you, a steadying hand on your shoulder. "We don't need to stay here." You ignore him.
After a long time, the Lord steps away and closes his eyes, and you can make out only a faint whisper. "How disappointing."
The words cut straight through your heart. "Lord," you say, terribly daring, although you have not been asked. "Even though the first cycle has failed, I believe that in the next—"
The Researcher does not stop, or even slow, or give any indication that he has heard you. Kurotaka looks from you to him, then steps forward. "Lord, before you go, at least give us our next instructions."
The Researcher spares a backwards glance only to say, "How terribly noisy."
With those words, the Researcher departs through the veil to the laboratory. Kurotaka goes after him. You try to follow, but the barrier at the world's edge prevents you.
... That's right. As the white wing, you are bound to this garden as its linchpin now. You stand with one hand on the translucent veil, trying to see or hear, but nothing comes through.
After a very long time, Kurotaka comes back. Immediately you ask, "What happened? What do we do now?"
You rarely see Kurotaka at a loss for words. Eventually he says, "He has gone to make more miniature gardens. As for this one, he left it to us."
In the event that an experiment fails, of course one must move on to a better hypothesis and a new model. In that case, the flawed model should be discarded. But the Researcher left this garden here, so he must want this experiment to continue. Although it failed the first time, it may still succeed...
(... "us"? Not you?
Kurotaka can go where he wishes, but you cannot leave this garden. The Lord left the garden here. You do not dare consider the possibility that those two things are connected.)
Kurotaka touches your shoulder. "Shirofukurou, say something, won't you? It's unsettling when you go quiet like that. I never know what you're thinking. This is why I didn't know how to tell you."
You blink. "The Lord left, but did he say when he'll come back?"
Kurotaka hesitates. "He didn't say anything about that."
"Is that so," you say softly.
The seasonal cycle continues. That winter, you go up to the Tower's topmost level, and open your hand to catch the first snowfall. The falling flakes gather on your shoulders and hair, catch on your eyelashes and land in your palm, where they melt and leave a faint, refreshing chill. Uncertainty has burned in your heart all through summer and autumn, but the cold wind now sweeps the doubts away, leaving only a clean, clear silence.
Kurotaka stands at your side, his black coat already covered in a fine layer of white. He has to hold his hat to keep the wind from taking it, you note with some amusement. He says, "You do like this season, don't you?"
You glance at him. You try to find an explanation, and come up with none. "I don't mind it."
"It's alright to like it, Shirofukurou. The Lord wanted you to feel at home in this garden, so he made you a winter bird." Kurotaka tugs at the collar of his coat. "I, on the other hand, think snow is cold and damp and gets everywhere..."
Something must have shown on your face, because he glances at you, falls silent, and resumes looking out over the snow.
The garden was built to self-regulate, and gradually, the System's internal homeostasis is reaching a stable point where it no longer needs the guardians' intervention. The bird in the cage continues to sing the same song at the same time every day. The black cat has left for the forest outside the Tower.
In the absence of work to do, Kurotaka has taken up drawing. He sketches everything in sight: the workroom and its instruments, the piles of books and ornaments he has accumulated over the years, the view of the forest from the Tower's top level, and you. The workroom is littered with these useless labors.
You continue to watch the garden. You calibrate and re-calibrate every system, maintain and repair every piece of equipment, from the central pillar to the timekeeping sand clocks, until you could do it in your sleep. You think about reprogramming the bird, then leave it. Flying to investigate problems in person is rather inefficient, so you put together mirrors that will let you see across great distances, and instantaneous movement gems that will let you move across them. You give one each to Kurotaka; you do not know if he uses them.
Every year, on the first day of winter, you go up to the highest level of the Tower to see the snow. This place, at this time of year, is the only time you feel at ease in the garden. When the snow falls, you remember your purpose. You are a guardian, the Savior’s protector, and the white bird.
Kurotaka no longer follows you out, citing the cold, but sometimes he remains in the stairwell and watches the snow with you.
A hundred years pass.
One day in late winter, when the stillness in the Tower grows too heavy, you fly to the edge of the garden where the ocean meets the dome of the sky, and place your hand on the great translucent barrier. No instructions are forthcoming, and you do not knock. Outside this world, beyond the white mist, the Lord is still working. Perhaps he may even spare the occasional glance or a thought for this garden.
Does he still work himself to exhaustion? Has he created new birds to help him? Has he made another miniature garden like this one?
The wind and the waves are your only reply. You realize with a pang that you no longer remember his voice.
En route back to the Tower, you pass by the place where you first met Chihaya. The Liberation Army has not been here for a long time, and the encampment has fallen into disrepair.
After your duties were completed, you left Chihaya’s side, but you looked in on him from time to time. When the dust of the conflict settled, the world separated into seven countries, each led by one of the seven clans. Chihaya's father became Emperor of the new nation of Sai, but Chihaya had declined the position of crown prince, citing no mind for governance. Instead, he took a military position at his father's side, started a family, and lived out the rest of his life happily.
It has been many years since either of them walked the world, but you think — those days flying with Chihaya really had been colorful.
Dusk is falling. The wind sweeps up the snow from the ground in great gusts, making it difficult to see, but even this way, the snow is beautiful. You are a winter bird, created to live and die with this garden, and you cannot find the snow anything but beautiful.
... What does the Lord think of snow?
He never told either of you, and you never dared ask. But if this miniature garden represents his ideals, then surely there must be something of his wishes in it.
Perhaps snow is grief. The tears the Lord sheds for the garden, because the people of this world will never change.
He’s not coming back. You've always known. There is nothing to be upset about.
If left out long enough, even a winter bird can feel the cold. The snow covers everything in clean, clear silence.
The voice is familiar, but when you try to see who it is, you cannot. Your eyelids stay stubbornly heavy, as does the rest of your body. "Kurotaka? How did you..."
"You didn't come back to the Tower, so I came looking for you. What are you doing out here in the middle of a snowstorm? Hey, don't sleep. When you're this cold you're not supposed to fall asleep. Shirofukurou—"
You think he is shaking you — you feel it only from very far away — and then you fall, as if from a great height, and land in a viscous black sea. So this is what teleporting alongside someone else is like; it is too much like being at his mercy, but you cannot summon the strength to break free.
"You're missing that person again, aren't you? Why are you so silly, Shirofukurou..."
Something brushes softly over your eyes, as light as feathers, and you fall into a long, deep, cold dream. It is a dream of this garden before it was finished, when there was nothing here but snow.
There is a little more than snow here now. Sharp silver moonlight fills the black sky. A white plain, uneven with ice ridges, stretches out before you, a dense forest on the other side. The wind howls by your ears, blotting out all other sound; it drags your cloak out behind you and sweeps the snow from the ground.
The Researcher is not here, but Kurotaka is, face tucked into his upturned collar against the wind, black cloak vanishing into the night at his back. He says, "Shirofukurou, after the Lord put a few more things in the garden, I came back to look at the snow. I wanted to see what you found so beautiful about it. You're right, it is very beautiful. But I think it is also very cruel."
"The Lord isn't" — his words are suddenly lost to the wind — "Shirofukurou. But if it makes you sad, then don't think about it. Keep doing your work as the white wing. Protect the garden, forever and ever, until he returns. Forever and ever, because he won't..."
The wind is loud, so loud it drowns out everything else. Kurotaka steps closer to you; you expect him to repeat himself, but he only takes hold of your shoulders and hugs you, blocking out the moonlight overhead, blocking out the wind and the drifting snow, blocking out the cold. Even though it is only a dream, you feel very, very warm.
He says by your ear, so quietly only the two of you can hear, "Shirofukurou, do you know, that's what that child wanted, too? For this world to continue on. So, don't worry, you won't be alone. I'll keep walking down this road with you."
Pale sunlight streams through the western window.
When you open your eyes you are in your room in the Warden's Tower, alone, with no recollection of how you got there. Outside your door, you find a single black feather.
In the resting room, Kurotaka is sitting in one chair with his legs up on the other, reading a hardbound book. You recognize the red cover; he never seems to make any progress with it. "You're awake," he says. Then, "Are you going somewhere?"
"I'm leaving. I won't be back for a long time."
He shuts the book and stands. "Where? For what? You could at least have a meal before you go."
"It's none of your business."
Kurotaka levels you with a strange look. "You'll leave all the work here to me? Aren't you worried I'll mess something up?"
Absurd. There has not been enough work in this garden for two birds for many years. Kurotaka knows that very well, so why is he asking? "Don't look for me again."
He reaches out as if to catch hold of you, but stops short. You ignore him. You go to the Tower's highest level and look out over the world: gray sky, white snow. The wind tears at your face and pulls your cloak tight across your shoulders. You close your eyes and step off. For a single weightless moment you freefall, the cold wind rushing up to meet your face, and then you extend your wings and glide.
At first, you fly to put as much distance as possible between yourself and the Tower. Then you fly because you no longer know what to do. From this vantage point, you can see everything in the world: its forests and mountains, its rivers and oceans, its great cities and small settlements. You see that it is beautiful. Every animal, every stone, every tree and every flower in this garden is precious, because he created it.
You could fly for a lifetime and still not escape this garden.
Dusk is falling when you alight on the border wall of Sai. The evening watch pays no mind to a mere passing bird. This is the place where the Savior met Kuroto. Many years from now, when it is time for the two children to reincarnate, their souls will be drawn back to this place.
"If you don't truly wish for something, then not a single thing in the world will change."
As a guardian and observer, you are supposed to be impartial, but—
Lord, you left when the garden fell short of your expectations. Even so, you let the experiment continue on. If this world eventually reaches the outcome you wanted, and makes your ideals reality...
... Then will you return to see it?
III. The Cage of Two Souls
You roost on the rampart until dawn, then fly for the capital city and the imperial palace.
At the gates, you inform the morning watch that you are an acquaintance of the late Lord Chihaya, come to seek an audience with the Emperor. The guards go terribly pale, and they nearly trip over their feet in their hurry to run away. Belatedly, you realize you might not have folded your wings in time.
The current Sai Emperor receives you and asks what you have come for. You give a respectful bow and say, "I only wish to observe what happens to the new world."
On account of your acquaintance with Lord Chihaya and your contributions in the Seven-Nation War, you are given a visiting scholar's position in the court. You establish a new workroom in the safety of your quarters, and collect a set of new instruments with which to watch over the world. You observe through your mirrors that Kurotaka remains in the Tower, a dark shadow flitting behind stone. You look for him often, because finding the black bird means finding Kuroto, and it is best to learn now before he makes plans to hide.
One winter morning, before sunrise, you walk through the palace garden beneath the gradually lightening sky. The apricot tree by the garden wall is flowering for the last time this season, pale blossoms encased in white hoarfrost. Time will bring the cherry blossoms, the tulips, the wisteria and the roses.
You look up at the sky — the glass firmament is obscured behind layers of pale gray clouds — and you sing, in a soft, weak voice that does not carry. It is an unremarkable song; you are no songbird, only a linchpin in bird shape, created to anchor the garden. But the first time you saw snow, drifting and falling from the sky like a slow and gentle rain, you still wanted to sing an elegy for the world.
The time has come for flowers to bloom, but instead, the world is covered in snow neverending. The snow is said to be the one who ends. The one who ends all, anathema...
The wind carries your voice away, leaving the garden silent, cold and white. No one is around to hear.
(You aren't waiting.)
The flowers outside your window change with the seasons, summer's hydrangea fading to autumn roses. Year on year, the vessel of the world continues to collect lost souls, and the winter also grows longer and colder. The snow and ice lingers past its time, through the end of the third month and into the fourth.
The throne has changed hands several times, and with every transfer of power, the imperial court is wiped clean and renewed, except for you. You are only a shadow most people do not remember, but recently, people have begun to notice. They say you have not aged a day since they first saw you, ten, twenty, fifty years ago. They say that when you came to the palace many years ago, you had wings, great and white.
In the history books, in the volume about the Seven-Nation War, there is a record of a man named Sai. For two years, he led the allied clans against the Liberation Army. He was among the first to envision the eventual alliance between the former enemies, but he died in an accident before he could witness the birth of the new country and the new peace. Now, someone uncovers a series of letters sent to the clans from a remote location in Sen. In those letters, Sai is addressed by an alternate name: Kuroto, the black winter.
The records also state that the last winter of that war had been so long and so cold, people feared that it would never end. The day the alliance agreement was signed was also the first day of spring.
"It is as if the world itself welcomed the formation of the new country."
The young man who brought the letters bows before the Emperor, one hand over his heart, but it is you he addresses. You are sure that you have never met him in person, but he seems inexplicably familiar.
"Lord Shirofukurou, do you have anything to add?"
"Only what I have always said," you answer. Your voice is still soft, but this time it carries. The court is silent. The name Kuroto still echoes through the hearts of everyone present, reminding them that there is someone else here who speaks that name. "The snow that falls more heavily every winter is a manifestation of grief. There is a Lord who looks upon this world and sheds tears for its sins."
Truthfully, the snow should have ended the war, but it did not. The fighting continued time after time between the seven countries, and now, the world is again threatened by the descent of 'the one'...
If you ask me the way to stop the grief, I will say, "There is only one. The world will continue if 'that' would end."
Autumn in Sai. The roses are in their last bloom of the season.
Kaina, the man who brought the letters, tells you that he leads the Third Corps, the regiment formerly known as the Imperial Knights. He tells you that he is Chihaya's descendant, and that he takes great pride in that fact, as well as a great interest in the Kuroto myth. That is how he located Kurotaka's correspondence from the Tower.
You say quietly, "You seemed very sure of my support."
"You are the mentor Lord Chihaya spoke of, are you not? One of the world's guardians, the white bird who protects the Savior, and the counterpart to the black bird who protects Kuroto."
That story had passed, first into history, and then into myth. "Captain, you believe in that fairytale?"
"I have spent my entire life tracking down proof that it is real. We want the same thing, Lord Shirofukurou. When the time comes for Kuroto to return to the world, let me help you."
It has been a very long time since anyone called you the white bird. It makes you smile. "Even though you are his descendant, the Savior's role is passed by the spirit, not by blood."
"That is true, but it will not hurt to have a backup plan."
A leaf falls from a nearby tree, lands on the surface of the lake and drifts away. Nearby, a crowd of older children skip stones over the water. An egret flaps its wings and calls indignantly. "Hey, don't bully the birds," Kaina calls over to them. Then, quieter, "They'll be safe from this lot when they fly away for winter. Although I wonder where they go."
They go nowhere. The end of the world, like the highest point in the sky, is a great glass barrier encased in white mist, although no one from this world will ever reach that place. But you smile. "Maybe they go to another country where the weather is opposite to ours, where it is warm when it is winter here. If such a place exists, I would like to see it one day."
Kaina has a flute with him, and now he plays a song for you, gentle notes ringing out over silent water. You have not heard that song for a very long time, but you will always know that melody. Flowers, returning for burial. When spring comes back to the world, it will bury the winter with white flowers.
"Captain, that song...?"
Kaina lowers the flute. "I have heard that it was written by the first Savior after the long winter ended. It has been passed down through the family to remind us of who we are, and the Savior's purpose. I have always wondered why it sounds so sad, even though springtime should be a happy season. You knew Lord Chihaya. Do you know?"
You remember Chihaya; you remember his uncertainties about Kuroto. At that time, you had considered them thoughtful, measured. Now, they leave you cold. There cannot be hesitation, and there cannot be regret.
You look up at Kaina and smile gently. "Captain, do you have doubts?"
He seems not to have expected that response. "No, Lord Shirofukurou."
The balance of the world shifts like sand through an hourglass.
As before, Kuroto comes into the world first. The moment the soul reappears, you track the family down. Without the Savior’s power, it is impossible to eliminate the abomination, but there are still measures you can take. You can still prove to the world, beyond the shadow of all doubt, that the stories of Kuroto and the Savior are true.
Lord, I will show you that this world is not useless.
You capture the woman and drag her before the imperial court, where you demonstrate in front of everybody present that everything you have prophesied is coming to pass. You will not stand by and do nothing; you will not let the world go blindly to its demise; you will not be silenced.
Later, when it has been brought away and locked up, and as the blood and remains are being cleaned from the hall floor, Kaina comes up to you and says, "Shirofukurou, was this necessary?"
Kaina has a wife and a child of his own, you remember, but pity for that is utterly misplaced. "Anathema," you say. Speak softly without yielding your position. "It is anathema, Captain. A monster and an abomination. It does not deserve pity or compassion, much less mercy. Or have you forgotten the oath you swore to eliminate the winter?"
"Even though Kuroto has come into the world, the ending winter is still very far away. Kuroto cannot be harmed by the hand of anyone aside from the Savior. So why..."
You close your eyes and fold your hands. "Twenty years is a long time to you, Captain, but to the world, it is nothing. You and I understand the monster this is, but the rest of the world must know, too. The world must know that Kuroto is a curse, and that when the time comes for it to be eliminated, its death is a blessing..."
Kaina says nothing, leaving your words to hang in the silence. They sound hollow, even to you.
Several days later, the child vanishes without a trace. You have been expecting this; you were half-waiting for a confrontation. But Kurotaka had only quietly slipped past the guard, stolen the child back, and left without a word.
Kaina comes to you to report the loss, and when you hear, the pen you are holding snaps in two. You drop the pieces onto your writing desk; ink blots the paper. "Please don't blame yourself, Captain. The black bird works by many means, and there is no way you could have prevented him." Your voice is steady, but your hands are shaking.
You discover a barrier surrounding the Warden's Tower.
As you contemplate what to do, the obstruction fades. Kurotaka must have noticed who his visitor is. He meets you in the main hall. "It’s been a long time, Shirofukurou. Why are you back?"
"I'm a guardian too," you say. "Do I need a reason to be here?"
"No, be my guest." But he stays where he is, in your way.
A familiar irritation rises. Unlike him, you do not do things for frivolous reasons. "Due to compounded rounding errors in the rain cycle, the eastern shore of Shi is suffering from droughts. You remember that we predicted this issue, but assumed the experiment would end before it presented a problem. You remember that it is not going to resolve itself. Since you have not fixed it, then let me do it."
He does not argue, and steps aside to let you through to the workroom. As you pass him, you notice he is still shielding himself. He has never raised the barrier against you before, but you think you know what it is for. He is protecting something.
You have not used these instruments for a long time, but the lenses and scales are still familiar under your hands. Muscle memory, nothing more. Kurotaka hovers as you work; likely, he has something to say but is not saying it. You ignore him. The least he could do is help — not that he ever has.
Hours later, you drop the last glass lens back into the box and restore the anemometers to their storage position. As you get up to leave, Kurotaka catches hold of your wrist. "Shirofukurou. That child and that mother, was it necessary to—?"
You regard him with an icy stare. He lets go like he's been burned, then continues unsteadily, "Violence was not your way of doing things."
Is that all he has to say to you? Instead of answering, you glance at the birdcage suspended over the corner table. In the base lies a heap of feathers and light bones, desiccated by time. "What happened to the bird?"
Kurotaka looks at the cage. "You were always the one taking care of it. After you left, I took the cage outside and tried to let it go, but it wouldn't fly away. Then it stopped eating and drinking, and eventually it..."
"Let it go? Do you know what the world is like outside the Tower? Do you think a songbird like that would survive a day?"
His expression goes stricken. Fierce satisfaction stabs through you at the sight.
"I can see, you know," you continue. "That you're protecting that. If you are going to fulfill your role, as you should, then you might do better not to think me so soft."
Kurotaka asks quietly, "Are you going to try to kill the child again?"
In the last cycle, by mutual agreement, you both left the children to decide. Even though you and he stand on opposite sides, you have never faced him directly, guardian to guardian.
— Opposite sides? Is that what you are?
"I've already tried once. Nothing has changed since then, so I am not so foolish as to try again expecting a different outcome." The thunder in your heart is muted by a blanket of snow, but blood still ekes from your clenched hands. "It's not me you have to watch out for, but the Savior. Years from now, when he comes here, he will carry a sword, and he will use it to protect what he cares about most."
You turn to go. Kurotaka stays where he is. "Shirofukurou, come back and visit sometime, all right?"
He always seems so sad when he looks at you, but you want nothing to do with his pity.
You ascend the Tower and take flight in a whirl of white feathers. Behind you, the outline of the Tower fades into the translucent veil of falling snow. Beautiful, hateful, and so very cold. Wind tears across your wings. The snow cannot hurt you, but in the end, you still fly alone.
The snow is grief, the grief of the Lord for people's sin. There is only one way to stop the grief. The world will continue if ‘the one’ disappears...
Even a bird in a cage still has a voice, and you will sing until your words reach the entire world.
IV. Falling Flowers
The child is the exact image of Chihaya when he was young.
The mercenary who brought the child tells you it was simple to separate him from his parents; far from putting up a fight, they gave the child up willingly for a token sum. They really are people of this world, but at least in this instance, it is you who benefits.
You go over to the child, stroke his hair, and soothe him gently with murmured words. Your sleeve falls over his face and comes away damp. He sniffles and looks up at you, pale eyes wide and shining with tears. "Sorry, I got your clothes dirty."
Chihaya once told you a story: a burning village, a man on a horse, an outstretched hand. Now you bend to look the child in the eye, smile warmly, and hold out your hand to him. "It's all right, Savior. From today on, I'll be your guardian."
From today on, you will be his whole world.
The boy does not remember his name, so you call him Hanashiro, and tell him that it means the white flowers that fall in spring like rain. Every night, you tuck Hanashiro into bed; you read him another chapter from Sai's history books, and you sing him to sleep. Hanashiro does not like the bloodstained stories, but he often asks you for another song, and another, until he can no longer keep his eyes open.
Very likely, he is only trying to delay his bedtime. But when you rise from his bedside, the warmth of his hair lingers on your fingertips, and you think: he is the first person who has asked you to sing for him.
Hanashiro has quite the habit of skipping class.
Ginshu has spent a good half of the afternoon pacing every hall and corridor yelling for Hanashiro, but when he goes out into the garden, you observe with some amusement that he does not think to look up. While his back is turned, you fly up into the foliage and perch on the branch next to the missing Savior. "Shh."
You both sit very still in the tree until the search party has gone back indoors, then you turn to him. "Is something the matter, my little Savior?"
He hugs his knees with his hands and says morosely, "Don't call me that, Shirofukurou. I don't want to save the world. I don't know that there's a single thing in it worth liking."
"Don't say that, Hanashiro. This is a beautiful world, with many beautiful things in it." Something occurs to you. "If you don't want to go to class, Hanashiro, then I'll give you permission to skip. Just for today, on condition that you go somewhere with me, all right?"
You help him climb down the tree, then take his hand and teleport to the other side of the city. It is early spring, and the cherry blossom forest blooms verdant and white, the path between the trees already strewn with fallen flowers. As you walk beneath the canopy, the wind covers you both in a rain of white. Hanashiro shakes his head to get rid of the shower, then looks up at you, eyes wide. "I've never seen so many flowers before."
You smile, and reach out to brush the remaining petals from his hair.
Hanashiro dislikes his entire rotation of tutors, but he will sit quietly if you tell him to. So you escort him to his lessons to make sure he goes, and when he is done for the day, you take him out into the palace gardens and walk with him among the trees and the flowers.
That summer, you sit with him beneath the hanging wisteria and play the koto for him, a string arrangement of the song Chihaya showed you many years ago. Flowers, returning for burial. You tell Hanashiro that the song represents a choice the world must make. When white flowers drift from the sky neverending, will it be the world, or winter, that is buried?
Hanashiro listens attentively as you play. A warm wind blows, lifting his hair, and pale purple petals cover your shoulders and his. As you pluck the last note and look up, the cadence echoes through the air, and he picks up a flower and lets it unfurl in his hand. “Shirofukurou, when I grow up, I’ll end the winter and bring back the springtime. At that time, will you teach me this song, too?”
You smile and reach out to brush the fallen flowers from his hair. “Of course, Hanashiro.”
That autumn, you take him by horse-carriage to Shi, where you stand with him at the eastern edge of the continent and look out across the boundless ocean. Over the rocky shore, great waves crest and break, and seabirds cry as they soar into the bright horizon. "See, Hanashiro? This is a beautiful world, with many beautiful things in it. And when you grow up, you'll grow strong enough to protect all of it."
At your side, Hanashiro stills, his small hand tightening in yours. He looks up at you, tilts his head, and says very seriously, "Shirofukurou, would you still like me if I wasn't the Savior?"
“Of course I would.” You lean down to look him in the eye, place both hands on his shoulders, and smile warmly. "But you are the Savior, Hanashiro, so need you ask that question at all?"
The Warden's Tower is empty.
You thought that Kurotaka and his charge were still hiding here, but the silhouettes and figures in your mirrors turn out to be only watercolor paintings and shadows cast by strategically placed black feathers. The real Kurotaka has long since taken his charge and fled. If you had not passed by on a routine flight and thought to check, you would never even have noticed.
Come back and visit sometime?
He knew you wouldn't. That's why he said it. The black bird's last mockery.
You dash the glass lens to the floor where it shatters against the stone.
Kurotaka has concealed his and Kuroto's life signatures, so that the Tower's instruments cannot locate them. You will have to search the hard way. No matter. Life always leaves a trace. You are the more diligent and conscientious of the two of you, and you will find them if you have to tear apart every corner of this garden to do it.
One morning in winter, Hanashiro finds you by the pavilion in the garden.
Everybody knows you come here in winter to look at the snow, but no one approaches. Now Hanashiro pulls his coat closer against the wind and asks, “Shirofukurou, what do you think about when you look at the snow?”
You turn to him and smile gently. “There once was a person who was saddened more than anyone by the wars. But he still said the snow was beautiful. So I wonder, what did he feel when he looked at the snow?”
Hanashiro asks quietly, “Who was this person? Do I know him?”
“You do, and you also don’t, Hanashiro. This is the person who made you the Savior of this world, and made me the white bird, your guardian.”
“Is that so? Is that who you are waiting for, when you come here?” Hanashiro smiles, but you think his eyes might fill with tears at any time. “I’ll go to class now, Shirofukurou.”
Without waiting for an answer, he turns and runs off, leaving you alone with the falling snow.
Springtime after springtime, the white flowers fall just like gentle rain.
When Chihaya met the first Kuroto, he had second thoughts, and he nearly failed. Now that the garden's white child has come under your protection again, you vow not to repeat those mistakes. When Hanashiro comes face to face with that, he must act decisively; he must not hesitate.
Another thing: those who die by the Savior's hand do not add to the death count of the world.
You help Hanashiro out of the teleportation portal and steady him on his feet. There is no sign of Ginshu and the Third Corps, but they must be on their way. The traitor ambassador is locked in a cell and chained to a wall, hands and feet locked together with heavy manacles: harsh treatment for a civil servant used to deskwork. True to his job, he immediately recognizes the Prophet and Savior of Sai. His eyes go wide and he begs first Hanashiro, then you, for mercy.
At your side, Hanashiro seems completely thrown. One hand rests on the hilt of his sword, but he does not draw it. His gaze darts wildly from the prisoner to you.
You place both hands on Hanashiro's shoulders, look into his eyes, and soothe him as best you can. "Not every sinner will look the part. When this man sold his country out, he became responsible for the deaths of hundreds and thousands. You know what you have to do. I know you can do it, Hanashiro."
Hanashiro's shoulders are shaking with silent sobs. Tears run down his face and he furiously brushes them away with his free hand. "I don't want to, Shirofukurou. I can't."
"Hanashiro, he asked you for mercy, didn't he? The best salvation for someone like that is for his death to have nothing to do with the destruction of the world. You're the Savior. In this world, only you can..."
Gentle words, like a finely sharpened knife, cut deep without drawing blood. Hanashiro is an intelligent child who understands why this must be done, and Hanashiro is a good child who does as he is told.
The world goes red. Hanashiro's sword falls to the ground with a clatter, metal screeching on stone. You pick it up and press the hilt back into Hanashiro's trembling hands; your own hands come away wet with blood. You hug him tightly and let him cry into your shoulder. "You did well, Hanashiro. You did so well." The stale air grows thick with the stench of damp metal and the sickening wet drip of blood onto dry straw.
Captain Ginshu arrives, and his expression goes rigid when he finds his prisoner already dealt with. You make a perfunctory apology and tell him what happened. Ginshu looks from the dead man to Hanashiro, sitting to one side with face pale and lips pressed into a thin line as he diligently cleans his sword. The captain asks in a strained voice, "Lord Shirofukurou, forgive me, but was it necessary to ask the Savior to do this? Isn't Kuroto the only person he needs to eliminate?"
"Of course Hanashiro has to do this." You shake your head. All of them only ask, is it necessary, is it necessary. Does no one understand? That needs to die; that is a goal that cannot, must not be compromised. Everything else is secondary to that —
(— if Hanashiro had been an ordinary boy, could he have held something other than a sword? Could he learn to play the koto, paint natural landscapes, play go, or write poetry and essays?
It is useless to wonder. He is the Savior, just as you are the white bird, and from the beginning, your lives have not been your own to decide.)
That night you pay Hanashiro a visit to see how he is doing, but he is not in his room. After looking in several places you find him in the garden, up the usual tree, and call out to him, “So that’s where you are, Hanashiro. Everyone has been looking for you.”
He climbs down quickly and dusts the twigs and leaves from his clothes. “I’m sorry to have caused trouble.”
“It’s all right, Hanashiro. I was just worried about you.” You reach out to ruffle his hair, but he flinches away. “When it’s spring, after your classes, we’ll come out to walk in the gardens again. At that time, I'll teach you music, all right?”
“No need,” he says. “I’m not a child any more, Shirofukurou.”
Once, Hanashiro’s eyes had been filled with reflections of you. Now there is only red, like stained glass silvered over with frost. Of course, you think. Hanashiro is no longer a child, and it is only natural that he no longer clings to you like one. This is the outcome you want, and the outcome that should come to pass, so why…
As you walk him back to his room, he keeps his distance. Outside his door, he turns. “Goodnight, Shirofukurou.”
You reach out, to ruffle his hair or pull him into a hug, but he has already gone in and shut the door. For a long time you stand there, one hand poised over the wood panel. The light inside does not come on. You do not knock, and you do not call out to him.
You find Kuroto in a remote location in the mountains of Gun.
The house where he and Kurotaka live is surrounded by many layers of cloaking protection, which Kurotaka flies several hours each day to maintain. Kuroto is a quiet young man who seems to have accepted his name without question or opposition. He maintains his household well, and never ventures farther than the village at the mountain's foot where the outermost barrier lies.
Once, and only once, you fly to the mountain range to see for yourself. You stop short of the outermost barrier and hover one hand over the transparent veil. If you call now, will the black bird answer?
Eventually, you leave without doing anything. It is better if Kurotaka does not know that you know where that is. There are still many years before the winter arrives, and Hanashiro is not yet ready for such a confrontation.
Hanashiro finds out Kuroto's location anyway — whether from Ginshu, or his tutor, or you left your workroom door ajar, you do not know. The first time he runs off there, you observe him, expecting nothing, hoping for everything. He meets Kuroto, and he does nothing. He returns to Sai, and he says nothing. He goes back there, again and again.
In the surface of a water mirror, you watch them from afar. The snow is cold, but the house is warm. Kurotaka shakes the snow from his hat and coat and hangs them up by the door, complaining all the time about the cold; Kuroto gets up to close the door properly, chiding him for tracking snow indoors. Hanashiro sits by the table, a cup of tea in hand, and laughs at him. With a pang, you realize you have not heard Hanashiro laugh like that for a very long time.
Twilight over Sai; it is growing too dark to see, and you let the scene in the water mirror clear to nothing. Wind whistles through the garden, over the parapet where you stand, through your heart.
Once, there was another Savior who questioned. Hanashiro might waver now, but when the time comes, he, too, will still do what is right. He must. He will, if you have to hold his hands and make him do it.
Summer fades into autumn, and the winter constellation grows bright. When the next winter comes, it will not end.
When Hanashiro returns, you wait a day to let him steady his heart, and then you go to see him. You place both hands on his shoulders; Hanashiro is nearly of a height with you now, and he no longer has to look up to meet your eyes. "It is understandable that on meeting him in person, you would feel at a loss. But you understand, don't you, Hanashiro? That everyone is waiting for you..."
Hanashiro smiles, sweet and desolate, and something in you breaks. You want to hug him and tell him you will stay with him, even after he has done his duty, even after he is no longer the Savior. But that chance passed you by years ago.
Hanashiro averts his gaze, steps back, and says with terrible calm, "I know what I have to do, Shirofukurou."
Does he? You are not sure; you have not been sure of Hanashiro for a very long time. In the surface of clear water, you see him make the trip to Gun one last time. You see him level the sword at Kuroto's heart; you see him drop it to the ground, and you see him take Kuroto's hand and run.
You and Captain Ginshu chase them all the way to the Warden's Tower.
Underhanded, bringing those two here. Kurotaka knows this tower is the center of the garden, and he knows you will have second thoughts before damaging it. But you draw on the Captain's residual power and throw yourself full force into the barrier, with vehemence. It shatters like glass beneath the impact. You hope Kurotaka feels every splinter and fracture.
When you reach the main hall, Hanashiro is staring Kuroto down, sword in hand, a terrible pallor to his face. You do not know what has happened to him these several days, but he must have suffered. Kuroto has closed his eyes, and makes no move to defend himself.
You say, "Do it, Hanashiro."
Hanashiro turns around; his eyes are blank, the color of blood. "Shirofukurou..."
When the Savior comes here, he will carry a sword, and he will use it to protect what he cares about most.
When Hanashiro runs the sword through your chest, the world around you fades to a long and ringing silence, before a strange sense of peace envelops you. Most likely, it is only the shock, but for a moment you had the thought: he really is the Savior.
"I'm sorry, Shirofukurou, but I found something more important to me than the world. Just as all you do, you do for that person, I, also..."
You try to reach out, but your hand is too heavy to lift. "Don't cry, Hanashiro. There's nothing to be sorry for. You were meant to use that sword. Kill Kuroto, exactly like this. You can still fulfill your purpose..."
... What will happen to the garden after one of the linchpin wings is gone?
A jewellery box with only one hinge might still be of use, but Kurotaka surely will not expend any effort to stop the garden from breaking apart.
The stone floor is hard against your back. Outside the Tower, the wind still howls, and the snow still falls from the sky in great gusts, slow, white, and eternal. You have been so preoccupied with hunting Kuroto down, you have not checked the balance of the world for some time. Maybe the garden is already past saving. Maybe it has already been lost for a very long time.
Is it only because you are losing blood, or have winters in the Tower always been so cold?
Hanashiro has gone, and Kuroto has gone. Kurotaka is the only presence you sense in the space, but when you try to look, you cannot. From far away you feel him pick you up; his coat against your face is rough, and damp from the snow. It is warm; it is familiar. As if he has held you this way before, but to your recollection, that has never happened.
"I never expected you would be the first to leave, Shirofukurou. There are many things I still haven't told you. For that, I am truly sorry."
Why tell you about secrets now, when it is far too late to bring them to light?
Why, only at this juncture, does he speak sincerely to you for the first time?
His hands tighten over your shoulders. Your blood must be getting everywhere. "Don't be afraid, Shirofukurou. You won't be alone. I'll walk with you to the end."
He is still warm when the entire world is cold.
Once, a white bird in a cage dreamed a very long dream, and hoped that at the end of a crystal ball filled with snow, it could still find spring.
Lord, you said you would melt all the snow and show me the springtime.
Lord, I'm sorry I couldn't stay to see you come back.