Under the Cherry Blossom Tree
“All right.” Ryoko took a deep breath. “Ready or not, here I go.”
I nodded, perhaps a little too nervously.
Fubuki’s eyes were closed and her head was tilted away from us.
“So Fubuki told you that Mari’s family has always been associated with the imperial family, correct?” Ryoko said.
“OK, so with all the wars, conquests and other imperial plus government (shogunate) expenses,” Ryoko snorted. “Who do you think handles the finances? After all, you need money for everything and there is only so much tax you can squeeze out of people before riots and other civil unrests happen…or in today’s case, massive exodus from the nation in order to live and work in a better country.”
“If there were one.” I said.
She looked at my direction seeking a hint for understanding. I nodded. She leaned back and threw her arms up and then proceeded to stretch while groaning.
“That’s where my family comes in. You see, we’ve been the real financial ministers for generations.” Ryoko said. Her voice was flat and her expression dull. “It’s simple stuff, really.”
My jaw dropped. “So your dad’s the financial minister? But I thought…”
“No, he’s not the guy that you see on TV.” Ryoko interrupted me. “It’s not that obvious.”
She stretched out again. “Our family runs the financial stuff behind the scenes. So no matter who’s the real Minister of Finance, we are in control.”
I gasped. “But that means that for all intents and purposes, your family has been running the nation for god-knows how many years? That’s…”
“…Corrupted? Well, yeah, you could put it that way.” She closed her eyes and leaned back. “At the end of the day, it’s not right for one family to inherit the duty of budgeting for an entire nation for nearly a millennium. But…” She searched my face and looked into my eyes. “But that’s this country for you. That’s the way it is.”
I shook my head and bit my lower lip. I understood why Mari never talked to me about her family as well as things that happened around her that didn’t make any sense ay all. “I think, at this point, that I’ve received too much privileged information and I’m not sure if I’m happy about it.”
Ryoko rubbed her temple. Her eyes were droopy with some puffiness. She let out a tired yawn. “I’m sorry to get you involved in this, kitten.”
I shook my head and didn’t speak.
“Perhaps I should continue from here.” Fubuki said. “Would that be all right, Miss Sanomiya?”
“Call me Ryoko. I hate that formality stuff.” Ryoko corrected her sharply.
Fubuki bowed her head. “As you wish. Then, I shall continue.”
“As Miss Kanazuki and Miss Ryoko’s families represent different factions in the government, there are other factions that aren’t happy with their families being in charge. These factions stir up troubles from time to time.” Fubuki cleared her throat, and continued. “What complicates matters is that both families have a very strict rule, which has been passed down since the ancient times.”
I groaned hearing “ancient times” for the gazillionth time. Fubuki cocked an eyebrow but continued. “Only males can inherit the family position and wealth. Or to put it precisely, the oldest male in the family inherits the power as well as the wealth and he can distribute them as much as he see fits.”
“What?” I gasped. “I know we live in this country, but this is 21 century! That’s…so dumb!”
Fubuki fidgeted a little, looking uncomfortable. She looked at Ryoko’s direction quickly. Ryoko gestured. Fubuki sighed and continued. “Maybe this rule is very much outdated, but with all due respect to either family, I will continue on with this talk.”
I was red with embarrassment but I wasn’t going to apologize.
“The problem with the current generation is that neither family has managed to produce a male child so far.”
“At least not a legit male child.” Ryoko snorted.
It was Fubuki’s turn to blush. She shifted in her seat. “Uh…In any event, as the current leaders of the two clans are no more capable for reproduction due to old age and health issues, the families are left with two options. One, have the two oldest daughters marry pre-screened male candidates from powerful families when the two reach 18 years of age. Two, change the rule and allow them to lead the clans when they reach 18 years of age.”
I couldn’t hold back any more. “So forgive me for being Miss Obvious but can’t they go with option two?”
“If only everything could proceed with such simplicity.” Fubuki corrected me, perhaps a little bit too sharply. “As the only child…”
“Legit child.” Ryoko interrupted. It was so unlike her to be rude. She also looked rather tired compared with how she usual looks.
“Yes, thank you, Miss Sanomiya. (Ryoko frowned but didn’t say anything) As the only legit child to have the possibility to inherit the wealth, either Miss Sanomiya or Miss Kanazuki makes a great target for destruction, which can mean a variety of things.”
“Or both of us.” Ryoko said. “All right, I’ll finish this.” She looked at me sternly.
“Here’s where you enter the picture.”
I blinked for a good while being dumbfounded but then it slowly dawned on me during the pause. A grin crept up my face despite my gargantuan effort to suppress it.
Ryoko reached out to stroke my cheek softly. Her hand smelled nice. “Yes, we both love you. So, if you were harmed in anyway, we would be emotionally devastated beyond repair and unable to lead our respective families.”
I almost fainted hearing her confessing like that. Ryoko always manage to be so sneaky. As my heart pounded, she continued with an unwilling look. “Or, if the fact that the daughter of either clan is in love with a girl gets on the news, our families will be disgraced forever and our positions would probably crumble, albeit slowly.”
Both Ryoko and Fubuki let out a long sigh. Neither of them spoke for a while and the silence was slowly tightening its grip on my chest.
My heart leapt but my eyes narrowed. “It’s not supposed to be this complex between…among us.”
Ryoko withdrew her hand from my cheek and I was slightly disappointed. She sunk into the leather seat with her shoulders slumped. “But it is.”
Leaning back, I closed my eyes and ran the information that I learned so far though my mind.
We were silent for god knows how long until the driver dutifully informed that we’re minutes away from school.
“Do we have any suspect?” I said.
“No,” Fubuki said. “And, in the case of investigation, it’s not ‘we’. At least, I was told by Miss Kanazuki that you shouldn’t be involved.”
“That is ridiculous, I’m already involved!” I said.
“Unfortunately, she’s right.” Ryoko said. “Fubuki, I mean.”
My triumphant look quickly reduced to a pile of disappointment. “What? But you just told me everything!”
“I told you everything so that you’d be ready for anything.” Ryoko snapped back. “I want you to be careful everywhere from this point on!”
“But I want to help…”
“How? What can you do?”
My eyes widened and my facial muscles tightened. Tension was mounting and I was heaping another pile onto it. “Well, I don’t know! But I’m involved so…”
Ryoko gripped my shoulders and looked into my eyes. “Listen very carefully, kitten. You’re in danger and that’s the last thing I want. I’m sorry that it came down to this. I never thought the rival factions could stoop so low but I was wrong. I must be responsible.” Her strength was hurting me. “I don’t want to see you get hurt.”
I looked aside. “You’re hurting me.” I was shutting down quickly despite the adrenaline that continued to rush through my body.
Ryoko cupped my chin and half-forced me to look at her. “I want you to be careful from this point on. You got that? In fact,” she paused and bit her lower lip before continuing. “Maybe you should stay away from me for a while.”
The silence that followed was so loud that it stunned me speechless. I sat and stared at her. My facial lines were tense and my mind refused to acknowledge what she said. My shoulders were hurting because of her strength.
Ryoko caught her self, sighed and withdrew her hands. I realized then she was on top of me, which would’ve made me glad in other circumstances. She sat back and held her forehead.
None of us spoke after that. The car slowly cruised through the familiar streets. I gazed outside. Students close to our age were walking lazily toward their respective schools. I studied their faces. Some of them were laughing and gesturing carelessly. Others were walking with drooped shoulders and sleepy faces. Still others were checking out our limo and spoke with probably hushed voices. The sun was out and everything took on a golden and glorious shine. It was so bright that the darkness within me screamed and retreated from it all. Sullenly, I pulled my gaze back and allowed it to land on a spot inside the limo but away from Ryoko and Fubuki’s faces.
Everything was normal outside.
Nothing was normal inside.
Will everything ever be normal again?
I chose to run.
I existed, therefore I ran.
I could feel Ryoko’s stare of disbelief burning into my back. I didn’t hear any footsteps and I figured she wasn’t going to chase me down. Perhaps my action stunned her. It certainly stunned me as I didn’t plan anything on our way to school.
I ran because it was hard for me to hear.
I chose to run because it was too much to bear.
I existed, therefore I had to run.
“Sayoko!” came Ryoko’s voice. It echoed in the distance and resonated in my mind.
I could swear I had never run so fast in my life.
It was the first time that I exploded with everything I had and more.
It was the first time that I really decided to do something.
It was sad that I decided to run.
And I thought I was pretty fast.
As soon as I heard Fubuki’s voice next to my ear, I knew it was over. She caught up with me instantly. But even before she could do anything, my legs gave out and I fell with my face forward.
I was caught before my face smashed into the ground.
I was surprised to see that not Fubuki’s hands, but Ryoko’s hands had caught me. Somehow, she got there just in time.
Feeling her hands around my thin waist, I tried to struggle out of her embrace. She clamped me down like a vice and I couldn’t move my arms. My legs were no good at that point and all I could do was thrashing around with my body.
“I’m,” Ryoko said. “Really, really tempted to slap you right now…STAY STILL!”
“Let me go! JUST LET ME GO!” I said.
She let go all of the sudden and I fell. I managed to turn my head at the last second to avoid falling on my nose.
Her guilt and other emotions rushed at me like a great river. “Oh kitten, I…”
“Please don’t.” Fubuki said. “Please let her be.”
There I was, face flat on the ground.
We stayed where we were for god knows how long before one of us sighed.
“I’ll stay as her guard.” Fubuki said.
“OK, then I’m gone for now.” Ryoko said.
With that, I closed my eyes and started sobbing. My left ear was on the ground and I could her Ryoko’s footsteps echoing away from me.
I stayed on the ground while Fubuki stayed next to me. The ground felt coarse and I had some gravel in my mouth; they were bitter with a slight taste of iron; I cut my mouth when I fell. My tears tasted salty as well and I thought about the way sea tortoise laid their eggs; these creatures always cry when they lay eggs. The dissociation of it all was making me dizzy. Or perhaps it was because I tried to sprint hard for the first time in my life (I’ve always found an excuse not to run in PE classes). Either way, it didn’t help that I wasn’t prepared for anything at all.
“You must be laughing at me inside.” I muttered.
“Actually, I’m just watching you.” Fubuki said.
“Right, my ridiculousness must be amusing.” I said.
“I honestly don’t have a response to that. I can tell you this: I’m not laughing inside or outside.” She said.
“That makes no sense.” I said.
“Glad to hear it.” She said.
I turned the other cheek. She was wearing white ankle socks and sneakers. For a powerful fighter her ankles were rather slim and delicate; it looked easily breakable. How did she catch up with me so fast? Oh right. It’s her. “Do I look funny?”
She tapped the ground with her right foot. “I’m just trying to watch out for you.”
“So that’s why you’ve been staring at me rather than looking for any possible signs of danger?” I said.
“There is no threat present.” She said dryly.
I chortled. “So you’re angry too.”
She let out a long sigh. “Permit me to speak freely.”
I braced myself. “Go ahead.”
“The situation did not call for your sudden action.”
I frowned. “I know, but I just had to get away...”
“Forgive me for asking but from who or whom? From us? But we are here to protect you.”
“No.” I managed with some firmness in my voice. “You’re assigned by Mari to watch me and you happened to run into Ryoko or rather, Ryoko happen to visit today and you happened to be around.”
I heard a sharp intake of air. “Perhaps you’re right. But the fact is that I’m here to look after you and Miss Kanazuki is worried about you and I…”
“What do you care?” I snapped. “It’s just your duty. Just because Mari told you to.”
“That’s not untrue, however, I…”
“You what? You’re just Mari’s watchdog.”
The air became so thick between us that a katana wouldn’t be able cut through it. I bit my lower lip and mentally cursed myself.
Fubuki sighed softly. “You may think any way you wish. But please, permit me to do what I’m assigned to do.” Her emphasis on “assigned” made me wince.
I squeezed my eyes shut, feeling bad. “Look, I…”
“Perhaps you should rest your mind as well as your body in the health room. Also, you must attend your classes.” She said.
I sat up and averted my gaze. “What if I just sit here all day?”
“Then I’ll be by your side all day. But I try my best to persuade you to do what you must do.”
I bit my lower lip again.
We became silent and neither of us said anything for a while.
She turned and began surveying the streets. There were no students in the street. The first bell had already rung.
Everything became distant. I was staring hard in the dark but my eyes found nothing. I ran, I fought and I searched. But still, nothing…