What makes Shirayuki such a delight to watch isn’t just her striking hair, but her warm, striking, magnetic personality, and the fact that she’s not perfect, or even fully formed; she’s still searching and exploring, working hard and learning something new every day, picking up stones in sequence as she paves her chosen path.
And yet, it’s not a path she needs or wants to walk entirely alone. Zen may be a prince, but first and foremost he’s a friends, and someone who can calm her of exam nerves simply by resting her hand on his…and certainly not by using his position to get her a job.
This week Shirayuki plunges into the world of court herbalism, first by meeting the castle’s chief herbalist, Garak, and then being given a small garden to tend and test her skills. She wants to do this right; gain the position with her own strength.
Zen, who as we know is under Shirayuki’s spell (who wouldn’t be?), is worried about her, so when he sees lights on in a greenhouse, he checks it out and they end up together, just before some unseen person locks them in together. His amplified concern is clear when she mentions a toxin in the water and he grabs her as if to save her life (the toxin isn’t harmful to humans).
What could have been a silly conceit, or an attempt to sabotage her exam through the appearance of nepotism, turns out to be something far more enticing, because Shirayuki changes the tone of the situation. Whether they’re locked in or not, she’s detected a toxin in the aqueducts that could kill everything in the garden if she doesn’t act quickly, even if it means having Zen help her. She simply rolls up her sleeves and gets to work.
The sun rises, and with it comes Garak to unlock the door with her assistant. She’s surprised to find Zen there, but when she questions why Shirayuki let him help, she frames it as a matter of his highness’ safety. She also asks Zen why he doesn’t just snap his fingers and make Shirayuki is a court herbalist with his authority.
Garak probably already knows the answer that Zen gives her: that would defeat the purpose. Shirayuki doesn’t mind the occasional helping hand, but she won’t have someone doing all the work paving the road ahead; that’s hers to pave.
Garak is impressed with Shirayuki’s skills, diligence, and I daresay wit, and passes her, making her officially an apprentice court herbalist. She’s paired with her superior Ryuu, who despite being a socially awkward little boy, is the herbalist version of Natural Police.
Ryuu also tends to go with the flow, so when a patient comes in and refuses to be treated by Ryuu (fearing he’ll be made a test subject), Shirayuki wastes no time putting the asshat in his place, showing us her short temper for baseless conjecture, ignorance, and general prejudice. Fire-kissed hair, indeed!
It doesn’t just hurt Shirayuki that the guy said those terrible things about Ryuu, but that Ryuu put up no defense. She’s been actively fighting for her freedom and her own kind of life for so long, she herself is ignorant to those like Ryuu who are more water than fire. When Shirayuki calls Ryuu “foolish” for telling her to let it go; it happens all the time, Ryuu is shaken, afraid he’s already ruined another relationship.
Still, the waterworks do come for Shirayuki when Garak, realizing she’s with Zen more than any of the other apprentices, decides to give her Zen’s medical records, so she knows what to do in “emergencies.” This isn’t something often given to a prospective girlfriend, but her position calls for it.
While I’m sure Garak probably saw it as a prudent, practical gesture, when Shirayuki reads through the journals intricately documenting the suffering Zen went through to work up his resistance to poisons, she is thoroughly shaken. And with good reason: she truly does care about Zen, and it’s more than fealty.
It turns out to be Ryuu, who sees her crying, who runs to Zen pleading for him to help her. Ryuu may have thought it was all his fault, but Zen knows that it’s his own. He also knows that Shirayuki isn’t going to turn her back at those records, but they might go down a little easier if their subject is right there beside her, alive and well.
That’s exactly what Shirayuki needed, and when she returns to Ryuu both apologetic and grateful, everything turns out to be fine. And with Shirayuki smiling brightly, practically, glowing in the daylight, Ryuu not only betrays a blush, but stealthily confesses his affection for his new apprentice by telling her the plant that was the focus of her exam is his favorite because it’s “red and pretty.”