There was a wall of water across the End of the World.
Utena knew that it must be a dream. She’d fallen asleep very early in the evening, and she’d been having a convoluted and pointless near-nightmare, which she was watching from a distance outside and above herself. She didn’t think there was much point to dreaming about a wall of water, but she was fairly certain she’d wake up presently, because they’d be home soon, after all. Akio’s car was going terribly fast, as usual, and if she thought a little, she knew that she must still be sitting in the front seat of it. If she concentrated, her eyes would even open slightly, pulling her back down into her body, but she could see nothing out the window but the darkness and the street lamps. Wind was whipping at her hair and blowing it into her mouth. If she let herself drift, however, she could see the End of the World from above, and there was a wall of water across it, a great endless wall of water like a wave forever just about to break, blue and green and wine-dark and shot with lines of bubbles and foam. It glowed with phosphorescent flashes, the aureoles of the streetlights appearing to move across it, although the water was actually moving towards them and the street lamps were perfectly stationary. It didn’t seem to matter very much. She was going to wake up any minute.
It mattered to dream-Akio, though, and she saw him furiously wrestling with the steering as the wheels of the car became entangled with thousands upon thousands of water-lily stems. The car was hydroplaning, suddenly, as more water and more lily pads poured gently and noiselessly across the road around them, and the streetlights started to blink. There were rose stems intermingled with the lilies. She could smell the blossoms. She thought that she would have to tell Anthy that someone had developed an aquatic strain of climbing rose. Even a driver of Akio’s capacities could not keep the car from slewing around and around in the increasing rush, and she wondered detachedly when he was going to give up. The noise of the water around the wheels made an odd chiming sound, like bells in the distance. There were droplets caught in her hair, on her forehead. It all felt very real, except that she was still watching herself from over her shoulder, and so knew that she was still asleep.
Akio did not give up on trying to force control back into his possession until they had actually hit the wave.
She saw the dream-Utena, sitting in the front seat, slide into the wall of water like a fish, curling in a boneless ease, her rose-colored hair showing dark through the water, her skin an astonished translucent golden, bubbles coming out of her mouth. The wave rushed toward her, and she hit it as though it were a wall of stone, shocked force of sea-foam in her eyes and nose. Suddenly her two selves were one and entirely real, and she was floundering, flailing, trying to find her way out or up or over into air and breathing in water with a kind of inevitable shock of wrongness, which would have caused her to scream if she had had any air in her lungs. The wave was a whirling torrent around her, heaving her upward and inward, and the taste of the water in her mouth contained no salt at all. Her eyes closed against the force of it; she tried to cough and couldn’t.
Was this drowning?
Something grabbed her by the scruff of the neck, something hard and firm and sharp, and jerked her with a violence more thorough than the water. Air, when she met it again, seemed an unfamiliar element. The world spiraled sickeningly until she found herself kneeling on soft sand, current splashing about her knees, leaning forward and coughing and retching. The scent of roses was overpowering, and there was a smell, as of hot stone or earth, that she could not identify, a sharp and clean smell.
When she sat wearily back into the sea-bed, she first saw the lion.
For a moment she thought that she might still be dreaming, since she felt no surprise and no fear. There was a light about the lion, faintly, and she could not tell whether he was standing in the water, or sitting in it, or standing or sitting somehow just above the water. He had no relation to the water at all. She discarded the idea that he was anything other than an absolute reality the moment she looked into his eyes.
Yes, those eyes said, you have been sleeping. Now, for the first time, you are awake. At last! There was a kind of joyous weariness in the way the lion held himself, with his strong shoulders a little slumped, and his mane pouring around them like honey in the unmoving light. It was hard to stop staring at him, but she knew she had to risk looking around her. There were no signs of Akio, or of the convertible, or even of the road. The wall of water stood unchanging, and the night sky above them was filled with stars.
She swallowed. “Do you know what happened to the person I was with?” she said, knowing from the expression of the lion that he could speak if he wanted to.
“He has gone back into the world,” said the lion, in a deep and musical voice. “He is looking for you there. He will find his own images of you, and return to betraying them. Do not fear for that one: he cannot be harmed in his own place.”
She looked around again: stars, and sea, and night, no land in view, and the sea less than six inches deep. Water-lily stems were twined around her ankles, and the lily blossoms and roses lay on the ocean like a sudden frost sprinkled with blood.
“Where are we, then,” she asked, a little put out, “if we aren’t in the world?”
“We are on the edges of my own country and the home of my father,” said he. “Here we will speak for some little time, before you go back into your own place.”
“I need to get back,” she said. “I have someone waiting for me.” Anthy would be worried, about her and about Akio.
“What has waited from time’s beginning can wait for you a little longer,” he said. “Daughter of Eve and Lilith, will you walk with me a while?”
She got to her feet, awkwardly. Her shoes were filled and squelching, and the stems in the water clung to her. The dye of her cherry-striped dress was running red-tinged down her legs. It looked like blood. She winced a little when she saw it, though there was no pain.
“I can’t stay long,” she said.
“There is no time here,” he said, and somehow she found herself believing it. Utena took a step towards him and nearly fell; her legs did not seem to carry her. “If your wound pains you,” he told her, “you may put a hand into my mane, as we walk.”
“I wasn’t hurt at all,” she said. “It was just water... Did you pull me out of it?” She reached out to the soft fur anyhow, wanting to feel it, and see if the light that shone from him could be touched. His mane tumbled through her fingers like gold velvet, rough and warm and heavy, and the feeling that came over her was suddenly familiar.
“When I was very small,” she said, “I met a prince once. He was very kind to me.” She looked down at the ring on her finger. “Was that you, too... sir?”
He laughed, and the sound was startling, a deep swift sudden mirth. “I am a prince,” he said, still laughing, “and the son of an emperor. However, you and I never met before I pulled you from the ocean. I wanted to meet with you, and talk as princes talk together. Indeed, I wanted to warn you, if I might.”
“Warn me?” She did not know what he could be talking about.
“Warn you,” he said, “if you will listen to the warning.”
“Why wouldn’t I?” She heard annoyance in her voice.
“Well, you haven’t listened to anyone else’s, before,” he said mildly, and then, turning swiftly toward her, fiercely, in an instant: “And do not say that you have received no warnings, child! The very roses in the garden have been warning you, and the stones of the walls. Everyone who loves you has warned you, and there are more of them than you know. Now you have taken harm that may be deadly. Prince or princess, will you listen?”
Utena shrank back from him a little, startled and just slightly frightened. His eyes were painful to look at, and a faint sound like the ghost of a growl was coming from deep in his chest, a growl that rose and climbed into a full-throated roar that resonated in her own rib cage. “Listen!”
“I am,” she said, stung to the quick, “but you haven’t told me anything yet!” She glared back at him, and then realized that they had the same expression and that she must look like she was about to growl herself. The silliness of that struck her, and she relaxed a little, seeing him settle back and draw himself together into a seated posture like a sphinx. His voice was serious, when he spoke to her again, but calm as well, as if it were water running too swiftly to ripple.
“Do you know what men have often called the Star of the Morning?” he asked her.
“Akio?” she said. “He said that he was named for the planet Venus, once.” He had pointed out the planet he was named for on the planetarium ceiling, but what she remembered most vividly from the conversation was his arm warm around her shoulders.
“They have also called it something else,” the lion said, and growled again a little, quickly, as though he spoke of a well-known and well-hated enemy. “I cannot tell you what that name is. But he means you harm, and every harm, and more than harm. He means harm to her also, and worse than he does to you.”
There was only one person he could mean by ‘her’, if he were talking about Akio.
“But Anthy is his sister,” said Utena. (A flash: she had seen something, something that was wrong: she would not remember it. Had Anthy betrayed her?) “He cares for both of us. He wants us to be like the Gemini, the twins; he said that when he told me about his name.” He had said they were even more beautiful than the Gemini. He had said that he wanted her to be Anthy’s friend.
“He does want you to be alike for him. He has already made you very nearly similar. You share the same misfortune, like the Gemini, who shared one death between them.” Utena could not make out the meaning of that. “Look to your wound, princess. You are bleeding.”
The dye from her dress was still running down her legs, red and black in rivulets, gleaming in the starlight and the light of the lion. She dabbled a finger in it. It was not dye. It was too thick and it smelled of meat when she held her finger to her face. There was a deep and grinding pain at the core of her, now, that she could feel faintly, in the distance, if she thought about it, if she thought about it hard, if she thought--
Utena remembered, suddenly, what Akio’s hands had looked like on her breasts, and shuddered, and burst into tears.
She suspected, when she returned to thinking clearly, that the memory of what Akio had done to her and with her would never be entirely clear in her mind. It came to her in flashes that were mixed with her crying and screaming and punching the sea floor. The memory itself was full of gouges of non-being, moments that could not be recovered from whatever confusion he had mixed into her brain. But she knew enough to tell her what she did not want to know, and there was a small cut on the knuckle of her thumb, where she had bitten it when she kept herself from calling out his name. Akio. She would not call it now, not even to curse him.
She found herself after some time punching at the lion, who stood patiently and let her pummel him weakly with her fists, not trying to reassure her, or stop her, or move out of the way. She wept until she was limp and weak and gulping, rubbing her face against his mane and hearing the soft, heavy rhythms of his breathing. The heavenly smell that floated up around her lulled her, as she pushed herself into his shoulder, and she clutched him as the weeping finished itself in her, and then she held on to him.
She was never sure if she had fallen asleep grasping him, in her sheer exhaustion; only remembered drowsily lying across the lion’s back, one hand trailing in the water below them, sending up a small ripple as they paced smoothly along. The sand flowed into the holes made by his steady footprints, but only her hand woke a noise in the water as they walked parallel to the line of the wave. They had been traveling a while before she could speak again, in the drowsy, resigned tones of one who has been ill a long time.
“Everything was telling me about it, wasn’t it? And Himemiya-- how she must be hurting. I told her that I wanted her to come to me, and then I didn’t see that everything she did was saying it. I should have seen, I should have guessed, and told her that I knew, and then we could have fought him together. Maybe then I could have set her free.” Himemiya. Oh, Anthy.
“No one is ever told,” he said, “what would have happened.”
“No.” She swallowed. “I can see that. I’ll just have to get it right this time. When I go back. I’ll tell her I know then.”
“When you go back, you will not remember this.”
“No,” she said, “No!” But it had as much truth in it as everything else the lion had said to her.
“This is outside space, and outside time, as you know them,” he said gently. “It is not my own country, even though I rule over it. You will not remember, when you return to your home.”
She gulped. What was she going to do about it? “It can’t be hopeless,” she said. “I want to kill him. I can’t just forget all about that too, can I?” She knew she had already forgotten many things that should not have been lost. This would only be another.
“You can and you will,” he said, and she heard sorrow. “But there are three things I will do for you.” He stopped his measured pacing. “Get down from my back, Daughter of Eve and of Lilith.”
She slid down into the warm sweet water, hating the feel of it on her bare legs, even though it washed the blood away from her ankles.
“Do you see the sword that stands with hilt above the water?”
Utena looked away from the wave, following the flashing gaze of the lion, and there, indeed, it was, a small sword, stuck straight up into the seabed, bright above the lapping foam. It was as yet unrusted. Starlight glinted off the pommel.
“It was left here by a brave and noble warrior. He became a prince in my land forever, though he would look very strange indeed to you, if you saw him. Take it with my blessing and with his. Add it to the strength of your own heart, and laugh with it in his honor.”
She sloshed over to it and put her hand on the hilt. It was a perfectly made sword, but the scale it had been forged to was not the scale of a human body. It was shorter than her arm, all told, but still it was razor sharp, and a delicate copper design lay gleaming along the spine of the blade. She thought she saw the letter ‘R’ worked subtly into the pattern.
It was beautiful, and she smiled, looking at it, a sudden, fierce smile, and turned to the lion, and the blade flashed upward in salute. The lion’s light caught on the point, speeding downward to make a star of the ring in her hand. “Grant me the power to bring the world revolution,” Utena whispered, not sure whom she was speaking to, and then she was no longer holding anything, but there was bright strength running through her, and a need to fight, or to laugh as he had told her, or to dance.
She turned to the lion. “Ride on me,” he said, and that same joy she felt was made apparent in his voice, as though it now were putting off a robe and rising out of sleep into the sunlight. Utena ignored her silly dress and vaulted to his back, only to find when she reached it that she was wearing her dress uniform, and his golden mane and her rose hair streamed backward into mingled banners in the sudden wind of the lion’s running. Far away from the wall of water he sped, so smoothly that he might not have been moving, and the sea deepened around them, splashing foam and spume and lily petals over their heads as the water drew up to her knees and his shoulders. The foam that slid between her lips tasted like light, too sweet and strong to bear and too delicious to shut out, and she laughed as he laughed, almost the laughter of one creature.
He whirled when the wave was only just in sight, turned to run again towards it in a slow-rising lope, still laughing, and while they were still an unlikely distance away from it gathered his back legs and sprang, higher than she had ever seen anything jump. The water passed beneath them, and then the crest of the wave, not even brushing Utena’s bare feet as they floated over its endless pouring ripple.
On the other side of the wave was the End of the World. Beyond it was a dazzling darkness, which shaped itself into showing like a cliff against the night sky, like unthinkably tall mountains, and a smell of trees and brooks and rivers and flowers and fruit mingled, but the night sky was darker than the cliff, because the cliff was covered with stars.
The stars were singing, a high thin wild clear sound. Their long hair glittered and the light their feet cast made rippling shadows on the waters. They were dancing a pavane in pairs and trios, curtseying and swaying like trees on the hillside, and the trees were bowing and swaying in return. The eyes of small animals were torches and jewels of all colors in the starlight, and silver roses grew where the tread of the stars had touched.
When they saw the lion, they swept in an instant into kneeling, like an indrawn breath, and stretched their arms out towards him.
“Hail, Aslan!” the stars cried out in chorus, before moving back into the dance again, as the lion flew like the stately sun over the great space beyond all worlds, and their dance was even more joyous than before, so that mirth flowed in it like the grace of the lilies. Utena wished she could dance too, with Anthy, there on that hillside, with the stars pinwheeling around them, and overhead the mountaintop like the shadow of a castle.
Aslan’s front feet landed lightly on the soft turf, and leapt forward to make way for his back ones; but no sooner had those powerful hind claws touched than he twisted round again, gouging a great divot in the grass and pushing back out over the immense gulf. Rising wind stung her eyelids and brought tears into her eyes, the air roaring in her ears as if it were a second lion. Yet he turned so fluidly that Utena was not pressed at all to hang onto him.
“One glance only, Daughter of Eve!” he cried back over his shoulder as they arced forward. “And, prince... be ready with your sword.”
Akio was waiting at the borders of reality. Akio was wearing clothing she had never seen on him, a silvery-white dress uniform, and he was taller than the wave, and his teeth were bared in surprise or threat or both. They were coming toward him too fast for thought, too fast for action. She knew he saw her, arrowing towards him on the lion’s back, and she felt her own teeth bare in a feral grin, and there was a sword in her hand. It might have been the Sword of Dios. It might have been the gift of the sea-bed. It did not matter and she did not look. She pointed the tip of it between his eyes.
He tried to reach for her, knowing there was no time yet commanding as he had always been, meaning to pull her into his arms and wrap her again in delusion. Her sword point did not waver and the lion’s speed did not slacken, a bright flash through the night, a rush of triumph against the darkness, like a song. Akio staggered back, wrists crossing in front of his face to parry her inexorable thrust, and while he was off guard she laughed or sobbed in fierce mad pleasure and pulled her swordpoint down and to the right.
Rose petals fluttered from his breast pocket, and in the lion’s roar she could hear the sound of bells.
Akio was gone from in front of her as though he had never been there, and she was no longer mounted on Aslan’s back; there were many more rose petals, dark red, white, purple, pouring around her in a cloud throughout the rushing blackness, and then the purple petals were Anthy’s hair spreading in sudden stillness. Anthy, much older or ageless, looking up at her and laughing and weeping together, and the petals were catching against her mouth and dampening in patches with her tears.
Utena reached for Anthy’s hand, but their fingertips only brushed as she fell downwards, the speed lent by Aslan waning, and she tumbled through nothingness until she saw, below her, Akio’s car, and herself asleep in the front seat, and knew she was coming to the world again.
“Remember!” she called to herself, with great urgency. “Remember that outside of time you have already beaten him!”
She could not really hear her own voice, but as she slipped into her dress and her seatbelt and her body and knew she was forgetting, she felt a small, wicked smile curve her sleeping lips, for Akio to notice, and to wonder at, and fear.
She hoped he feared her.