Damsel In Shining Armor
Once upon a time there was a princess grieving over the deaths of her mother and father. Before this princess appeared a prince traveling upon a white horse. His appearance gallant, and his smile gentle, the prince enveloped the princess in the scent of roses, and wiped away her tears. "Little one bearing up alone under grief, please lose not thy strength and nobility when thou growest up."
The dragon lifted its great head, sensing the approach of sustenance. Yes, there it was, galloping down the path another white horse bearing another Prince in shining armour. The dragon crouched in contented anticipation.
A month now the dragon had held the Princess in her tower. And a steady stream of heroes had galloped up to rescue her the King had offered the traditional reward for Princess-rescuing and the dragon had waxed fat.
"O, brave Prince," the Princess whispered, peering out of her window, "leave me to my fate. Too many have died for me already."
But the Prince could not hear her, and galloped towards the dragon without hesitation. The Princess turned from the window, squeezed her eyes shut, and waited.
And opened them again when she didn't hear the expected scream and accompanying sound of crushed armor, but a reptilian screech of rage. Curiosity overcoming fear, she leaned out the window, but was too late to see more than the huge creature falling onto its side with an impact that made the ground shake. The Prince leapt from the steed and strode swiftly to the dragon's supine form. The Princess caught her breath as the monster began to move, but before it could do more than twitch, the Prince had lopped off its scaly head with one sweep of shining, highly polished steel.
The Princess stared for a moment before running down the winding staircase, her steps as light as her heart. She swept outside with hands outstretched, ready to meet her Prince.
And stopped as a cascade of very long pink hair fell from the Prince's helmet and she saw the Prince's young, well-sculpted, and very female face.
The she-Prince looked at the Princess's startled expression and smiled wearily. "My name is Utena," was all she said. "Come, I'll see you home."
The King was equally flummoxed as to what to do with his daughter's rescuer. After stammering his thanks, he said, "I, ah, had offered my daughter's hand to the one who rescued her, but that is, what would you ."
"Lodging for the night, and a few provisions for my journey, will be quite sufficient," Utena said quietly. She had said very little as the King thanked her, only listened with courtesy, as if the praise of a King was naught to her.
That, His Majesty knew the response to. He drew himself up. "The kindness I would show to any passing traveler, for the champion who saved the life of my only child? You must request more. Ask a boon of me."
And the Princess wondered why her rescuer looked so sad at those words.
Utena considered for a moment. "Then grant me sanctuary in this kingdom. Not for myself, but for someone who needs it badly."
"Your friend shall live safely and well in my kingdom, and none shall dare speak against her her?"
"Her," Utena confirmed.
"And where is she? Who is she?"
"I do not know where she is right now," Utena replied, "but when I find her, I shall bring her to you."
It was a pity, Utena reflected a few days later, when she was on the road again, that all Princesses were not so easily rescued. When it was only a matter of courage and swordplay, there was no trouble. She saved them from whatever peril lurked and they were free to live and love.
But there were some Princesses who needed rescue less tangible. Who needed to be shown something eternal.
"The only one who can save her is a Prince she believes in," Akio had said. Akio, the Prince in whom Anthy could no longer believe. How exactly had he lost faith like hers, faith she had been willing to die for? There was no way to pinpoint such a thing. No way to explain it.
"Then I'll become a Prince! I'll save her!" Utena had been a child when she first spoke those words, but they had shaped her entire life.
And he had assured her, then, "If you can retain that nobility even when you grow up, you may indeed be able to save her from her eternal suffering."
Was that it? Had Utena lost that nobility? Had her show of protecting Anthy been a mere excuse for her own conceit? Was that why she had failed? Or was the reason what Akio had sneered once she had been on the brink, she thought, of success? "You can't do it. You're a girl, aren't you? Besides, you don't have power. With power, anything is possible."
Anthy had said it herself. As she had literally stabbed Utena in the back, even as Utena was defending her. Akio hadn't been able to defeat her, but Anthy had. "You remind me of the Akio I once loved," Anthy had whispered as she pulled out the sword she had just run through Utena's body. "But you can't become my Prince. You're a girl."
Girl or not, Utena thought, I've saved a lot of Princesses.
Just not the one who mattered most.
The smudge on the horizon distracted Utena from her brooding memories and she spurred her horse to quicken pace. As she had thought: a village. Not a very large one. But where there were people, there tended to be Princesses in need of rescue.
The village seemed deserted. Which could only mean a gathering of some sort. A wedding, or a festival, or a disaster. She reined in for a moment, strained her ears, and then continued in the direction of distant voices.
The villagers were all gathered in the town square. Despite the distance, Utena suspected what they were about the moment she caught sight of them. She put on her helmet, lowered the visor and spurred her horse.
As she drew near, she could see the tall pyre mounted in the center of the square, and a corpulent man standing on a barrel beside it. And, a moment later, two strapping lads dragged a terrified young woman, a mere slip of a girl, to the pyre. She looked as if she were probably pretty when she was not in fear for her life.
As they bound her to the pyre, the corpulent man read aloud from a scroll. "Inasmuch as this woman has been found guilty of the crime of witchcraft, which she has in unholy fashion used to poison wells, kill crops, cause drought, bring illness upon the houses of the good folk of this town ."
"It isn't true!" the girl cried out. Her voice was hoarse, as if she had been screaming a great deal recently. Utena's eyes narrowed behind her visor.
"Hold there!" Utena shouted, deliberately lowering her voice. The villagers turned as one to look at her, startled. And a trifle guilty, like children caught at the cookie jar.
The corpulent man wavered, but tried to stand on his authority. "My lord," he began, with authority only slightly shaken. It never ceased to surprise Utena how easily people were fooled. Her voice was still too high for a man's, but they saw her armor and her sword and drew the only conclusion possible to them. "I am the mayor of this village, and this unwholesome woman has been found guilty"
Utena made ready to fight without troubling to argue. The villagers were peasants; they were not accustomed to standing against warriors. They withdrew in the interests of saving their own skins, and Utena galloped straight at the corpulent man, her sword pointed at the easy target of his extensive belly. A breath later he squawked and overturned the barrel in his haste to flee.
Utena severed the ropes binding the "witch" and sheathed her sword briskly. Then she leaned to take the girl's hand and help her onto her horse behind her. They galloped out of the village before the peasants could overcome their awe and burn the knight along with the witch.
An hour later, Utena decided they were beyond the villagers reach and it was more than safe to slow down. She smiled grimly to herself; the witch's arms were now wound very snugly around her waist, and the witch's bosom was pressed warmly to Utena's back. It seemed the witch was ready to ardently thank her rescuer.
Utena reined in beside a stream. The horse could stand to drink and rest, and so could the witch. Utena helped down the damsel no longer in distress before dismounting herself.
The witch stood close to her, looking up at her with a dreamy gaze. She was indeed quite pretty. A humbler Princess than usual, but a Princess nonetheless. Utena allowed herself to bask in that look before removing her helmet.
And waited patiently through the usual shock, and then the embarrassment as the witch flushed and stepped back, away from her.
Was this how Juri had felt? Seeing the girl she adored give her heart to a boy who had a fraction of Juri's merits, just because he was a boy?
And if any of the Princesses Utena had rescued had not withdrawn their tacit offers once they learned the truth, would Utena have accepted? Or would anyone who was not Anthy ever be enough?
Utena would likely never know.
"You aren't really a witch," Utena said to the flustered girl before her. It was not a question. They never were. Most likely the girl had refused to bed the wrong man, and he had taken his vengeance.
The girl lowered her eyes. "Girls who can't be Princesses have no choice but to become witches."
"Aren't you a Princess?"
"I tried to be. But I have no family, and so no dowry, and when the mayor's son fell in love with me"
Utena listened to the rest of the tale sadly, absently stroking her horse's mane as it drank. She had heard stories like this many times. Princesses needed rescuing from their courts as often as from dragons.
Some even needed rescuing from their Princes.
And had she indeed rescued Anthy? Akio had refused to tell her, when she had finally been able to return to the academy, where Anthy was, or even if she was still alive. All Utena had been certain of was, Anthy was nowhere to be found.
The witch was looking at her uncertainly. "What are you going to do with me?"
Why not what you were expecting me to do with you, when you thought I was a man? Utena thought wryly. Aloud she said, as she knelt to dip her handkerchief in the clear water of the stream, "A King owes me a boon. I asked him for sanctuary for a friend of mine, so you will be safe there."
"But what about the friend for whom you asked?"
Utena smiled gently as she straightened and began to gently dab her latest Princess's smudged, pretty face with the moist handkerchief. "When I asked for the boon, I did not know who the friend was."
The King accepted the "witch" without question. The girl was given a minor place at court, which assured her at least of comfort and safety. And if she still had no dowry, there were likely to be younger sons and middle-aged country squires about who cared more for a pretty face than a fat purse.
The King insisted that Utena join the court for a banquet, and rather than give offense, she agreed. Since leaving the academy, she had preferred to be alone most of the time, alone with her brooding.
But she accepted a place at the King's table for this one evening. She watched the Princess she had rescued give those men who paid court to her narrow looks, evidently wondering why none of them had got rid of that old dragon for her. She watched the witch flirt almost shyly with an older man who was past the years of handsomeness, but who looked kind and regarded the young witch wistfully. Utena watched all this, and more, and sat quietly at the court in which she had no place.
She never had belonged anywhere, not since her parents had died and left her alone. But then, if she had belonged, if she had been as others were, she would never have had any chance of rescuing Anthy.
But did you ever have a chance? she asked herself for the thousandth time.
She sighed and looked out the wide casement windows, which had been cast open to the warm evening.
And sighed again, for they looked onto a rose garden.
The King noticed her gaze, and her silence, and suggested gently, "Perhaps you would like to walk in the garden? The fresh air would do you good."
Do I look so haggard? Utena wondered, but inclined her head and thanked him graciously.
And in truth, she was grateful enough to escape to the garden. No one else was there. She was alone with the rosebushes rising from the wide expanses of jade lawn, and the rose vines climbing the trellises. Roses of every color natural to a rose blue or black or green roses only existed in the Dueling Ground. The fragrance filled her nostrils, evoking bittersweet memories of Anthy's greenhouse, and the hours Anthy had spent, alone amidst the roses like the Sleeping Beauty, waiting for a Prince to awaken her from her slumber. And Anthy had been slumbering. She had nearly always seemed entranced, never disagreeing with anyone, seldom expressing an opinion. Utena had come to take careful note of the rare occasions when Anthy seemed to show something of herself, when she showed some sign she possessed a will of her own.
Utena had believed that a few of those glimmers of Anthy's true wishes revealed a wish for her.
Or did you just wish that were so, Utena-sama? she asked herself ironically, ambling deeper into the garden, farther away from the voices of the diners. And, reaching a pleasant spot, she stopped and looked at the roses in the moonlight.
She was careful not to look at the stars.
After a long time, she heard quiet steps behind her. She did not look around. She hoped whoever it was would go away.
"Utena-sama," said a very soft, sweet voice.
It can't be. After all this time, it can't be.
But it was.
Anthy had hardly changed. Her smile held the same peaceful gentility. She had not aged a day. Her dark hair was tumbling loose, however, not pinned up as it had usually been at school. And she was wearing the full-skirted red dress of the Rose Bride, not the white-and-mint uniform of the academy.
The significant change, however, was in her eyes. They were still as green as emeralds, still beautiful. But now they were no longer empty, entranced, like those of a doll with no heart. Now they were alive, sparkling with will and vitality. And instead of being demurely cast on the ground, they were fastened joyfully on Utena.
Before Utena knew it, she had closed the distance between them and grasped Anthy's hand. And Anthy was real. Utena drew her out of the shadows of the trellises so the moonlight would fall on her face more clearly. She had to see. Not because Anthy was beautiful, though she was. But because she had to know if the sparkle in her eyes was genuine, or only some manifestation of Utena's own dreams.
And it was. The doll had come to life.
"Where have you been all this time, Anthy?"
Anthy was smiling tranquilly as ever. "I have been searching for you, Utena-sama. But you never stayed in one place long enough for me to catch up."
"Perhaps there is a bit of a witch in my latest Princess after all, then," Utena whispered. "But how did you escape your brother and his whole game of duels?"
"You freed me, Utena-sama. That is how you became a Prince." Anthy sounded slightly surprised, but gaining liveliness had not caused the loss of her serenity.
"But I failed," Utena protested, dazed.
"You did not. You opened the Rose Gate and gained the power to revolutionize the world. That is why you survived your wound. Your wound from my hand."
"But the world is not ."
Anthy caught Utenas other hand and clasped them both in her own. "You never wanted to revolutionize the world."
Utena could find no reply to that. It was only the truth.
Anthy continued softly, her eyes glowing with the warmth Utena had always believed was there, hiding just out of reach. "Everyone else who fought over me wished only to possess me. And they did not even want me, but the power that owning the Rose Bride could give them. You were the only one who wished to protect me."
Utena shook her head. "I didn't realize your suffering. It was my vanity to pretend to be a Prince and make a show of protecting you ."
Anthy let the words float on the rose-scented air for a moment before speaking again. "I could only be rescued by a Prince I could believe in."
Utena's heart leapt. "You told me that I couldn't be your Prince, because I was a girl," she heard her own voice saying.
Now Anthy's eyes showed that profound suffering Utena had only glimpsed on a few occasions before. "Even after I betrayed you, Utena-sama, you still fought to protect me. You even said, 'You don't know how happy I was, just being together with you.'" Anthy's affectionate smile widened. "My meddlesome hero. You gave me a taste of what you call 'friendship'. How could I not believe in you after that?"
Utena tried to swallow, and couldn't. Her voice was hoarse when she asked, "How did you escape your brother?"
"Once you made me believe in you, I was no longer imprisoned. I told him, 'Please go on playing make-believe Prince in this comfortable little coffin forever. But I must go.'"
"To find you. My champion. I am your flower," she said, just as she had all those years ago, after Utena had won her first duel for the Rose Bride.
Utena's spirits plummeted. She forced herself to release the slender brown hands clasping her own and step away. Then she turned, wrenching her gaze away from the precious sight of Anthy.
And almost laughed bitterly aloud, for caught in the thorns of the rose trellis that arched over the path was the star for which Akio had been named.
"I thought you said you were free," Utena said, her voice hard.
"I am." Anthy's voice was sweet. Only the slightest lilt indicated any difference from the docile Rose Bride of the past. "I have been saved by a Prince whom I can believe in."
Utena closed her eyes. For one shining moment, she felt only triumph. She had succeeded. She had freed the Rose Bride.
And the sadness of her renewed loneliness was only a piquant enhancement to that triumph. Because far more than wishing for Anthy to be with her, she wished for Anthy to be free from the torment in which she had been trapped for so long.
"Then you are not my flower anymore," Utena said. "You are free to do as you please."
Anthy laughed softly. Utena whirled around at the sound. Had she ever heard Anthy laugh before?
"You still have not lost that nobility," Anthy said. And that newly vital green gaze was still fastened on Utena, just as she had wished for it to be, for all this time.
Anthy walked towards her. Her stride was confident, not the aggressive stride of Juri or any of the other Duelists, but a quietly direct movement of the sort the old Anthy would never have made.
When Anthy was only a step away, she stopped, holding Utena's gaze instead of lowering her eyes modestly as of old. "You say I am free to do as I please?"
Not daring to think, not even to wish, Utena whispered, "You are."
And Anthy did something then that the old Anthy would never have done. She stood on tiptoe, placed one long-fingered hand to contour Utena's cheek, and kissed her.
Not a friendly or a sisterly kiss. The slow, tender, ardent kiss of a lover. Of a Princess for her Prince.
And Utena returned the kiss, letting fall away every memory of every Princess who had been startled and at a loss as to how to thank a female Prince, at last claiming the right of the champion.
When their lips parted, Utena clasped her Princess close, allowing herself for the first time to tangle her fingers in those flowing black locks, inhaling Anthy's subtle lily scent. And felt her blood catch fire as Anthy's hands slowly combed through her own hair.
"From this day, I am your flower," Anthy whispered again. Utena closed her eyes against stinging tears.
"And I am yours," she whispered back.