Notes and Disclaimers: Maria-sama ga Miteru and Lillian Academy are the creation of Konno Oyuki, and the property of Konno Oyuki, Shueisha and Geneon Entertainment. The characters are  my own, but they (and the title) have been inspired by the work of Yoshiya Nobuko, and a small drawing from the 1920's that I adore.

This is the final installment of this Forest of Thorns series. It is my hope that this story ties the whole thing together into one continuum. If you enjoy this series, and even better, if you "get" what I was trying to do, please email me and let me know! I long to hear from my more intelligent readers!

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Snapdragon (Forest of Thorns - VI)


The first day I saw her, I knew there was something special about her. It was the entrance ceremony for the new students and, even as she walked by with the rest of the first-years, something in the air seemed to sparkle around her with an indefinable sense of *being there* in the moment. I knew that I wanted to get to know this young woman and that our lives were surely to be intertwined.

April in Musashino is still a little chilly. My father encouraged us, myself and my three brothers, to take exercise regularly, preferably in the form of a brisk walk. So it was that early every morning, I would put on my good wool coat with the fur collar and the red hat with the flower, take my gloves and head out for a short walk. I would like to say that I varied my steps, but the truth is, I rarely did. There was something about our campus, about Lillian, that drew me body and soul, so again and again I found myself tracing familiar paths around our hallowed school.

To be truthful, that day, I was a little more energetic than usual. I was, as of that day, a second-year at Lillian Girl's Academy - I found myself feeling ever more excited by the prospect. New students would join us, new projects would be inaugurated, a whole new year was about to be born, and I, Tamamushi Himeko, was about to be a part of it. I think I can be forgiven for this feeling, for there was much to be excited about that year. The old Emperor was ill, true, but the Crown Prince and Regent was ready and willing to step in to see a new age begin for Japan - and wasn't Lillian itself celebrating a quarter of a century of existence? Yes, it was going to be a glorious new year and I was going to eke every ounce of enjoyment I could from it. I could barely wait.

I returned home just as the sun cleared the mist, and later, entered the school gate with warm sun shining on me through trees just beginning to burst with color. It was April in Lillian.

My classmates and I passed the morning watching the new prospects with a mixture of glee, derision and surprise. When *she* walked by, surrounded by a group of admirers, I actually took a step forward, but stopped, embarrassed by my reaction. After all, she was barely a first-year, hardly something worthy of my notice. Then it was time to take our places, and the school year officially began.

I learned, through means subtle (and not nearly as subtle as I would have liked) that her name was Koike Sumi. She conveniently joined the flower-arranging club, of which I was also a member, which gave me the chance to befriend her. We did not spend every moment together, but those we did were some of the most pleasant moments of my young life.

As the weather warmed, I took to arriving at school early and walking the grounds for my early morning exercise. Sumi joined me when she could, although living at such a distance from the school made it more awkward for her. Nonetheless, she would join me from time to time, and we shared confidences, and hopes and dreams, as young women will.

I had grown up in a house full of boys, as the third of four children, hence my rather silly nickname, Mitsumushi. My mother had passed away with the birth of my younger brother, and I had been reared with love, alternately over- and under-protected by my somewhat bewildered father and brothers. Father had remarried a pleasant enough woman - we held each other in mutual respect, and occasional affection. But all along, I had long desired another to share my heart with; a confidant, a friend, a sister. Sumi was all that to me.

It was autumn before I knew it. The Emperor was gravely ill - he would not last the year. We walked quietly past Maria-sama and prayed for good health and good fortune, both for our country and our families. Sumi no longer joined me on my early walks, but that came as no surprise. The weather was colder, the distance was greater for her. I walked in the mornings alone.

It was early October when I first saw them. I was taking my exercise, perhaps for the last time that year, on school grounds. It was unseasonably cold and dank, with a heavy mist in the air. I was using a path that took me to the most remote corner of the grounds. As I came upon a little grove of trees, all grey and stone-colored that day, I saw them. Sumi and another girl. They stood, as still as the trees that surrounded them, as if they too were stone. They had their hands clasped, but neither movement nor sound came from them. I stopped, watching the tableau, waiting for them to move. After a very, very long time, Sumi pulled her hand away and bid the other adieu. They walked out of the grove, together, but apart, and I followed them with my eyes and my heart. My only thought at the time was that soon, too soon, I would see pain in Sumi's eyes.

As the morning progressed, I remembered the name that Sumi had once or twice mentioned, another girl with whom she had become close. Sumi, who was always surrounded by admirers, Sumi, around whom the very air shimmered, would blush and smile at the mere thought of this friend. I smiled at the Sumi in my mind and vowed to be strong for her.

Days passed, and I managed to learn little from Sumi's words, but much more from her actions. Her time was spent more and more with this friend, and her heart yearned for her when they were apart. I felt no jealousy - this surprises me even now, to think of it - but I did feel great concern for her. I sought to become a source of comfort and solace, even when she could not tell me why she was hurting. I knew, but I never told her more than this - love is precious, in any form, and should always be treasured.

Winter came and a pall settled over the country. It seemed like we were all waiting for something to happen. I, particularly, spent the winter watching. Watching Sumi fall in love, watching her suffer, watching her soar. I couldn't do much more than watch and smile and offer her a shoulder on which to cry when she needed it. Christmas was coming, and I wondered whether the blessings of the birth of Maria-sama's son would see us through the season.

It was the day before Christmas. I was addressing the members of the flower-arranging club, examining the decorations for the party that was to be held by the school council, when Sumi came in, exceptionally late. She looked terrible, barely eking out a greeting and apology for her tardiness. Our president scolded her gently, and told her to remain when the rest of the club had left. In punishment for her lateness, I suggested, she should assist me with a few last-minute tasks.

When the others had left, murmuring over Sumi's appearance and demeanor, I pulled her aside. She looked up at me, her eyes hollowed and red-rimmed. She opened her mouth, but I put my finger on her lips to quiet her.

"I know," I said and pulled her to my chest. "I know." I held her while she cried, my uniform bunched into her fists. Her tears were warm on my skin, her sobs heart-rending. I said nothing, but just continued to hold her while she mourned her loss.

We sat together quietly, long after the rest of the students had left. I was flouting school rules, but I didn't care, my responsibility to Sumi was greater. When she had ceased to cry, I asked her if she had anyone she could talk to, her mother, someone.

"Not my mother," she said, shaking her head. "And I don't have any brothers or sisters, you know that. No one cares."

I thought about that, while she snuffled beside me miserably. I reached out and took her hand, drawing her attention to me, away from her own misery.

"I care." I said. "I'll be your sister. You can tell me everything and I'll never judge you."

She stared back at me uncomprehendingly.

"We'll be..." I searched for the right word; we couldn't use English, since the nuns at our school were called "sisters." Naturally, we couldn't become true siblings. Yet, I wanted us to be closer than true friends - and in some dim corner of my mind, I wanted to be part of the movement towards sisterhood which I had heard of. I chose the only other language with which I was familiar. "We'll be ‘soeur,’ you and I, and you can call me onee-sama." I looked down at her with an eager smile just to see her give a tiny nod of acknowledgement. I drew her into an embrace with one arm and patted her gently with my other hand. "Now tell your onee-sama everything."

And she did. When she was done, I pulled her to her feet and we walked back to get our things. I tucked her into her coat and put on my own, then put an arm around her and headed for the gate.

It was very dark on the streets - it was much too late for both of us to be out. The cold was penetrating, but I could feel her shivering next to me and I willed myself to be warm.

"Do you remember what I always say?" I asked, as we made our way towards my house, and the promise of a hot bath and a meal and a soft bed.

"What? That love is precious and should be treasured?" Her voice broke on the word "love."

I nodded. "You know, one day, you'll look back at this, at your love, and you'll be glad that all this happened. Not glad that it hurt so much, just happy that you were able to love like this at least once."

She shook her head, unable to accept my words.

"And you'll always have me," I squeezed her shoulders. "Because we're sisters, now, right?"

Sumi looked up at me with a wan smile. "Right."

And, at that very moment, the clock struck.

It was midnight.

It was Christmas.

I looked back at my new little sister. "MerryChristmas."

"Merry Christmas," she replied.

When we entered my house, the first thing I heard was the sound of the radio in my father's study. The Emperor was dead. Long live the Emperor.

A new age had begun.



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