"How long has it been?" Kirie asks.
Mafuyu doesn't respond. She can't remember the last time he did. At first they talked a lot, passing memories back and forth like a cup of wine shared between friends. But some time ago - she doesn't know how long - that changed. He became quiet. Now when he talks, it isn't to her. His voice is distant, like an old gramophone recording, and threaded with the sound of rain.
He's still there, she's sure of that. He sits at her feet with his back against the Gate. If she wanted, she could see him, in the blue light of will-o'-the-wisps, but she hasn't the strength to spare. Still, it helps, just to know he's with her. Even if he never talks to her, it helps, a little.
She sinks into a kind of dream-memory. She and the young man she once loved, walking in the garden in spring. There were fences all around her, but she felt free then. The sky was a dome overheard, not a square cut out of the wall, and the sound of the wind and leaves and birdsong was everywhere, buoyant and wild.
The gates at her back surge suddenly apart, feeling for her weakness, bringing her back to the dark. The dark says, in a voice she knows well, You don't even remember his name. You thought you were free, but you got him killed, and no one in the world remembers who he was.
"Mafuyu," she says, but that's not right. The darkness always speaks the truth. She forgot that man's name a long time ago.
The rumbling of the Malice dies down, and then the silence underground is seamless. No slow sifting down of dust, nor settling of rock, nor flowing water. There's nothing but pain to let her know she still exists.
She remembers how he came to her room one day when the light was fading. She remembers the look on his face as he stepped inside and looked at Kirie in her cage. "You live in there?" he said, in a voice she can't recall now. But when she said in all innocence, "Yes, this is my room," he suppressed his own reaction, and sat on the other side of the bars to talk to her. "Like the Tale of Genji," he said, but she didn't understand him.
Ten years. Ten years of seclusion, and ten to the ropes. That's what she was meant to give; that's what she was for. How long has it been now?
In her dream he tells her the names of the flowers again. Irises, bluer than the sky, grew at the edge of the Abyss. He told her they stood for good news. Why good news? she asked. Can't you guess? he said in return. Because they bloom at the beginning of summer.
Another wave of Malice rolls against the gate, and she cries out. The doors open a little further every time, stretching her ragged. She's getting weaker. She was the strongest of all the girls in the region, and still, all her life bought was a decade or two.
She closes her eyes. She has the sense of having stepped in out of bright light. Now she's somewhere airy and green, a room full of flowers. Their scent overwhelms her. And he's there, the man she's been longing to see all this time. He turns with a slight smile, as if he's been waiting for her too, and says -
The Malice surges again before she can hear what he will say. It's a tide, battering at her endlessly. She spent most of her life in preparation for suffering, but it was always taken for granted that there'd be an end in sight.
She wants to see Mafuyu again. Its the last of her power, but she makes a little light, gives a little of her soul to the fire.
The eerie blue glow lights up the narrow chamber. Shadows go spinning upwards, through the cracked ceiling, and she looks down eagerly at the space where she knows he's sitting. It takes her a moment to fully understand that he's not there. No one is by her side, no one at all.
Sometime in that long silence, Mafuyu disappeared. She never felt it, never got to say goodbye - just like the other one she loved. She's been alone all this time.
She looks around her new prison, her cage of stone, and catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror on its pedestal. She's shocked at how little there is left. She's little more than a shred of mist clinging to the face of the ancient doors. It seems impossible now that she should have held them shut so long.
The light flickers and dies at last. There's no more. She closes her eyes to hold onto the after-image as long as she can.
The Malice lets out a roar of triumph, and the doors -
- of the train roll back. Kirie lets the stream of people carry her out onto the platform. She's always sad, somehow, when train journeys end. For a little while, she had something in common with all these strangers diligently avoiding eye contact, and now it's over. They go their separate ways.
Even after months in the city, the moment when she steps out of the station is always exciting. Something about the sight of the buildings all around, towering overhead and crowned with blue sky - it makes her feel that anything is possible. She's free.
There's a flower shop she always passes on her way home, and on a whim, since it's a special occasion, she decides to go inside instead of just glancing through the window. She steps in out of the dazzling sunlight into a cool and pleasant glade - or so it feels. The windows take up two full walls, but all the sunlight is filtered through leaves. She's instantly surrounded by the overwhelming smell of plants, earthy and green, sharp and slightly pungent, with the occasional note of sweetness when she passes close to an orchid in bloom.
The man behind the counter has his back turned, busy at the work-table with an expensive-looking arrangement, but his welcome sounds friendly. She has the strangest feeling that when he turns around, she'll understand everything.
Then he does turn, and he's just an ordinary man, handsome but ordinary, with a pleasant customer-friendly smile. "Welcome," he says. "Are you looking for anything in particular?"
"Oh," she says, confused and slightly embarrassed. "No, not really." Then, when he keeps smiling at her, she feels the need to add, "I just moved into my own apartment, and I can't hang anything on the walls, so... flowers would make it brighter."
"You never need a reason for flowers," he says cheerfully. "But if they're the first ones you're getting for a new home, make sure to choose the right ones. They all have meanings, you know."
She looks around at the potted cacti and spider plants, the bright bouquets of lilies and freesias, feeling suddenly intimidated, as if they might have ulterior motives she can't guess at.
"I don't know anything about that," she admits. "Can you recommend something?"
"Personally, I think I'd go with..." He comes around the counter, brushing a few crumbs of green florist's foam from his apron, and moves over to a bucket that seems to be full of purple frills, like a swarm of butterflies at twilight. "These," he says, checking the banded bouquets for the best quality, though they all look the same to Kirie. "Irises," he adds, seeing her blank look. "They mean good news. You can't go wrong with that."
"I think I heard that somewhere before," she says vaguely. Something about the air in here is making her light-headed. Can pollen do that, even if you're not allergic? They grow on the edge of the Abyss, she thinks. They bloom at the beginning of summer. Where did she hear that?
He takes two bunches from the bucket of water and presents them for her inspection. He holds them deftly and carefully, without crushing the stems. She notices his hands more than the flowers - there are lines of green sap under the fingernails, but the white cuffs of his shirt are clean.
"They're pretty," she says, meaning the irises. "I'll take them."
From somewhere in the back of the shop, she can hear a radio with the news on. The volume is low, but just now everything comes to her with unnatural clarity. The reporter is saying the earthquakes in the north are getting worse. Last night a whole village just vanished, swallowed up by the ground.
Kirie rubs her wrists and wonders why that should trouble her the way it does. Of course it's a horrible thing to happen, but horrible things happen everywhere, all the time. It's just an old superstitious fear, leftover from elementary school, from the day the teacher said to look up the newspaper for the day they were born, and hers -
"Is everything all right?" the man says. He's looking at her with a frown, but she thinks his concern is genuine.
She finds the name of the obliterated village in her mouth, ready to be spoken out loud - she feels she ought to say it, and then again, and again. She should say it. If she were alone she might do so, on her knees for hours, digging her fingernails into her wrists as the ache gets worse and worse and a voice in her head says not to forget her duty. But he's there watching her, and she forces herself to say instead, "Just listening to the news."
"Awful, isn't it?"
"There was an earthquake the day I was born," she says. She doesn't say that it was in the same area, or that it was the beginning of an unusual period of seismic activity in that region. She's not sure why she's telling him anything at all. She hasn't talked to anyone about this for years. "After everyone found out, they said I was bad luck. Like I was responsible for it, by being born. I know it wasn't true, just a thing that children say to be cruel, but still, when I hear news about earthquakes..."
She looks up at him, expecting to see him looking bored or fixedly polite, or worse, wary, wondering why a stranger is telling him something so irrelevant. But his expression is solemn.
"Sometimes I feel like that," he says, surprising her. "I wake up with the feeling that I've done something wrong and I can't remember what."
"You do?" she says doubtfully, wondering if he's just saying it to make her feel better.
"But I think if you're a caring person, you sometimes feel guilty just for being happy when other people aren't. You have to remember, it's not your fault."
She nods and tries to return the smile he gives her. He holds out the flowers. "Come back and tell me if they make you feel luckier," he says.
As she steps out into the summer light, the unease she felt listening to the radio report begins to roll away, like a cloud drawing back from the sun. The colour of the flowers fills the lower edge of her vision, and the sky is blue above, the sort of sky you only see when summer is just beginning. The colour chases away the memory of earthquakes.
Good news, she tells herself, holding the flowers closer. They have no scent, nothing except the faint sharpness of sap, but the colour is enough, bluer than the sky. She makes sure to hold them with her hands in the same place as his were. Only good news from now on. She thinks of his kind smile, and his clean shirt cuffs, somehow so endearing.
Next time she'll ask him to tell her the meanings of more flowers. And when he's told her their names, and she's learned them all by heart, she'll ask his name too. Somehow it seems strange that she doesn't know it already, without being told.
She smiles at her own foolishness, lowering her face so the iris petals brush coolly against her warm cheeks. As if she could forget something so important.