Choices - Chapter 1

© 1999 by E. Liddell


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Cass

It was the sound of crying that first caught my attention, drawing me along the hallway and into an area of the palace where I didn't normally bother to go. I probably should just have ignored it. But Great-Uncle Demantoid has always claimed that my special magical talent is getting into trouble, and this time wasn't going to turn out to be any exception.

I traced the sobs down a narrow corridor and into a small sitting room. They seemed to be coming from a tiny gap between a pillar and a potted plant. Parting the leaves, I managed to spot someone scrunched into the tiny space -- a relatively small someone, face hidden by a curtain of long, dark hair. A crying someone.

I knelt down to put our faces roughly on a level. "Cheer up," I said. "Whatever happened to you, it can't possibly be that bad."

The head snapped up, and I was treated to a glare from teary eyes. "What do you know? What can you possibly know about what I'm going through?"

It was a girl. She had black hair and dark eyes and looked to be about thirteen. Her clothes... just didn't fit her surroundings. Not servants' livery or a guard uniform, and not the rich silks and velvets of the upper class, either. Oh, her green trousers and white shirt were impeccably cut, but not from expensive materials. Either she was dressing down, or she was solidly middle-class. Not the sort of person you expected to find wandering around alone inside the Crystal Palace.

"Well, I can't, actually," I admitted. Although I've got problems of my own that might surprise you. "Why don't you tell me what happened? Maybe I can help."

She sniffled, then shrugged. "Why not? Maybe you'll at least listen to me. Those guys at External Affairs, or whatever it's called, wouldn't."

I smiled at her. "Of course I will. Say, why don't you unwedge yourself, and we'll go somewhere a bit more comfortable -- and private -- to talk." External Affairs? What had she wanted with the ministry whose main job was keeping relations between Crystal Tokyo and the Negaverse stable?

"Okay." She unwrapped her arms from around her knees, stretched out her legs, and tried to wiggle forward a bit. "Uh, actually... I seem to be stuck. Can you help me?"

Well, it took a little work, but eventually we managed to get her out. She offered me a tentative smile as she dusted herself off.

"I was really making an idiot of myself, wasn't I? Thanks for helping. My name's Sumire."

"You can call me Cass," I replied, and we exchanged bows. Just so long as she doesn't figure out what my real name is... I tugged absently on the hem of my too-short skirt. Sumire's eyes opened wide.

"You're a Sailor Scout, aren't you? I didn't realize -- I mean, I thought that all of the Scouts were older -- I mean --"

"Just a trainee," I said, cutting off her flood of words. "I may not make a career out of it." I didn't quite dare raise my hand to touch my neck, lest I draw attention to the thin chain of black metal that lay there, but I didn't need to touch the setting to be reminded of the small, hard object hanging between my breasts, inside my uniform, that represented my other choice. At least I seem to be taking her mind off her own troubles, whatever they may be.

"But why wouldn't you want to? I know a dozen people who would jump at the chance!"

"A dozen people who don't know what kind of work is involved," I said wryly. "I don't often have any time at all to call my own. But I'm done with practice for the afternoon. I don't know why I'm still wandering around in this getup. Just a sec."

Detransforming was quick. It also left me almost nude for a few seconds, but I'd been taught not to be ashamed of my body. A minute later, I was wearing my everyday shirt and trousers again.

"Much better." I flashed Sumire a quick grin of the kind that everyone always says reminds them of my mother. "Let's go."

I took her by the wrist and led her through the labyrinthine palace corridors. Most people would have been lost within minutes, but I had grown up here. Well, half the time, anyway. In a few minutes, we had reached the private wing that housed the royal family and the Sailor Scouts.

My room was a little tiny thing on the ground floor, near the back of the building. Its one redeeming feature was a sliding glass door that opened onto Queen Serenity's semi-private garden. I do love flowers and green, growing things.

I gestured for Sumire to take the desk chair, and prudently placed a box of tissues near her elbow before perching myself on the end of the bed. "So, what seems to be wrong?"

She sighed, but didn't burst into tears again. "It's my brother... my older brother, Taro. He ran away from home nearly a year ago now, and I've been trying to trace him ever since. I... I think he may have joined the Negaverse, but no one will let me get at the records to check, and they don't seem to be willing to check for me, either..."

"They wouldn't be. Ordinary people aren't allowed to search the Negaverse's records. If I remember what's in the treaty correctly, External Affairs can get at them, but only by sending a request to the Embassy, and they'd hold it there until it died of old age -- or, more likely, until the person making it died of old age. But maybe..." I gnawed on my lower lip for a moment. The Scouts and the royal family had special accesses, which I shared. It might be enough to at least let me perform the search, and after that... Well, I had resources. "What's your brother's full name?"

"Taro Kagami."

"Computer, records search," I ordered. "Negaverse immigration file. Taro Kagami."

"Restricted information." The voice had no apparent source inside the room, and Sumire gave a little start when it began speaking. "Provide access code."

I recited one -- not my Scout-trainee code, but the other one, the one I wasn't supposed to use here. A risk, but a small one.

A block of semi-transparent text appeared, floating in front of me in the air. I scanned it, frowning. The more I read, the less I liked.

I chopped my hand through the image, banishing the display. "Well, the good news is that there is an immigration record on him, which means that he's somewhere in the Negaverse. The bad news is that most of his record has been sealed by General Zoisite, the Prince Consort. Which might mean a lot of things, but I can't think of even one that I'd like to hear. Look, I may be able to find out more, but it's going to take a while. Can you come back here tomorrow?"

Sumire blushed. "Well, uh, actually I don't have anywhere to go. I... kind of ran away, too, and I don't have much money left."

"Stay here, then," I suggested. "Don't worry, it won't be a problem for me -- I was planning to go home to my parents' for the night anyway."

"Well, if you're sure..."

I correctly interpreted this as surrender. "Bathroom's next door, to the left as you leave the room. I'll tell the servants that you're here. See you in the morning." And I slipped out into the hallway and closed the door behind me before turning right, toward the stairs.

Sumire

I stared at the closed door. Well, that was certainly ...weird. It all happened so fast!

I wasn't quite sure what to make of Cass. She'd been very friendly, yes, and I liked her smile, but... there was just something strange about her.

I sighed and fingered the books on the shelf in front of me. All textbooks, with, from what I could see, an emphasis on politics and diplomacy and warfare. I made a face. Better her than me.

I really do wish I could remember which Sailor Scout had which color of uniform. Then maybe I could figure out who she is. She said she was in training -- how are new Scouts selected, anyway? Is it a hereditary position? If so, that means that she must be the daughter of one of the other Scouts. But I don't think any of them's been married long enough to have a daughter my age...

What difference does it make, anyway? I didn't come here to strike up an acquaintanceship with a Sailor Scout, I came to find Taro. If she can help me with that, I don't care if she's King Endymion's love child with a youma!

Taro, why did you have to do this to me? I thought you cared about me! Why couldn't you just wait another year? You would have been free, then, if it mattered so much to you, and I wouldn't have had to come on this wild goose chase.

I shoved my hands into my pockets, and started as I touched something small and hard. I'd almost forgotten that I had the little wand with me. It seemed to pulse with comforting warmth as I closed my fingers around it. It often did that.

I curled up in a little ball on the bed. Maybe if I managed to doze off, the rest of the afternoon would go by more quickly.

Zoisite

The second dart missed the target, bouncing off the wall and falling to the floor. I swore and levitated it back to my hand. You're slipping, my boy. Too much of the good life and not enough action. And when you got right down to it, sitting on my rump in this disused little room next to Malachite's study and throwing small projectiles around really wasn't going to improve matters. I should have been downstairs, working out. But I was too worried, and knew it. If I went to practice in my present state of mind, any of the better youma would be able to beat me, and that would completely ruin my reputation as the nastiest person in the Negaverse.

My next attempt to throw the dart missed as well, but that was because someone teleported into the space between me and the dartboard just as the little missile left my hand, and I had to use my powers to stop it before he got skewered.

<<Sapphire, what in hell are you doing here?>> I snapped.

<<Sorry to interrupt,>> the ex-Nemisian replied. <<I thought you'd like to know that someone was using the Crystal Tokyoan computer system to query a file that we locked.>>

<<Which one?>> Instantly, my attention was all on him.

<<Taro Kagami's immigration file. Whoever did it had legitimate access to Negaverse files, but I can't tell you anything more because a lot of requests from one of Nephrite's accountants hit the system right after that and most of the log had been overwritten by the time I got to it.>>

A thousand years ago, I would have cursed and sworn and thrown a temper tantrum and then gone out to spend a couple of hours on the practice fields after hearing a piece of news like that. But I wasn't quite the same person now that I had been back then. I was a senior General and Malachite's Consort now. I had responsibilities.

And so I found the time to state, <<Find some way to keep that from happening again, will you? And remind me why we thought that computerizing this place would be a good idea. Malachite's sure to ask.>> Then I cursed and swore and pounded the wall beside me for a while. It helped, but only a bit.

<<They found another one today,>> Sapphire stated after patiently waiting for me to finish. The man really is inhumanly serene. I don't understand how he manages it.

<<They're sure?>> I asked. Maybe I should go down to the practice area after all... I doubted the wall would survive another cursing-and-pounding session.

<<Afraid so. This one seems to have been hit several days ago, though. She'd never have been located if she hadn't come in under her own power. The bad news is, she was guarding one of the disused warp holes. One whose other terminus is in Crystal Tokyo.>>

I closed my eyes. <<So it's left the Negaverse.>> We made it far too intelligent... That had been my fault. I'd put a lot of myself into it. In a way, that had been inevitable, since my thoughts and my magic had shaped it. I just hadn't expected that idiot youma to make such a mess of things!

Actually, I had to admit that that particular youma had never registered much with me at all before the accident had taken place. As a general rule, I don't care about the cleaning staff, and do my best to forget that they're around and have access to rooms that I consider private. None of them would be stupid enough to cross me, anyway. I hadn't counted on any of them making such a mess of things through sheer incompetence, and I'd already had a word with Cuprite to make certain that he was more careful in the future about who he assigned to clean up after me.

<<Probably.>>

<<Damn.>>

There wasn't anything else to say.

Cass

I could have teleported home, I suppose, but my parents had always discouraged that. They were always so emphatic about the need to keep my two public personas as separate as possible. They were convinced that the public would have a hard time accepting me for what I was, and regardless of where I ended up choosing to spend my life, I would be a public figure. That was a given.

I snagged a maid on the way down the stairs and told her that Sumire was using my room. She promised to tell the housekeeper.

The Warp was hidden in the basement. Where else? There wouldn't have been any way to reach the Negaverse from the Crystal Palace at all if my father hadn't insisted on it. Most people used the big Warp down by the immigration and customs office, but that was just too inconvenient for Mom and Dad. Given their duties, they had little enough time together as it was, and they didn't want to waste any of it.

I stepped slowly through the blackness and emerged in a dim alcove on the other side. I pressed the palm of my hand against the green-veined stone of the wall, feeling the dim pulse of energy within it that wasn't quite life. Not exactly much of a "welcome home", but that was okay. It's difficult to think of the Negaverse as home, even for those of us who belong there.

"Who is it?" A voice floated up the hall from the sitting room.

"It's just me, Mom," I called back. "You're home early."

"Serena had to cut the Court session short -- she's exhausted most of the time now. I've been trying to convince her to let Almandite look at her. She never had this sort of trouble while she was carrying Rini, and I'm beginning to think that there's something wrong."

I smiled and shook my head. Even I would never have dared to call Neo-Queen Serenity "Serena", but Mina Aino-Tsumeta, AKA Sailor Venus, still saw our ruler as, first and foremost, her friend from junior high.

"Is Dad home?" I asked. "There's something I have to talk to him about."

"He's here, but I really don't think that now is a good time for you to see him. You know how irritable he can get when he's molting."

I sighed. "I'll take my chances. Thanks, Mom." But maybe I'd better go change first. Usually, the longer Dad has to relax, the more approachable he gets. Even when he's molting. I'm sure glad that power deformities aren't inheritable!

My room here in the Negaverse was bigger than the one in the Crystal Palace, and had a private bathroom and sitting room attached to it. Rank gives you privileges in the Negaverse. In Crystal Tokyo, all that rank seems to give you is responsibilities. That was why I lived here most of the time, except when my training as a Sailor Scout forced me to stay on the other side. I smiled and shook my head, remembering how I'd embarrassed my mother in front of Neo-Queen Serenity by comparing my room in the Earth Realm to a closet, back when I'd just begun my training.

I dressed with care, checking the mirror to make sure that the hem of my jacket was straight and that my spirit crystal was correctly positioned outside my uniform, instead of being hidden inside the way it was when I wore my Sailor uniform or civilian clothes. My hair was confined in a single braid -- my father's style, although I'm blonde and he's a brunette. My star-tipped Scout transformation wand went in a pouch that I wore at my belt.

Cassiterite, General of the Negaverse, I thought as I met the violet eyes of the girl in the mirror. I hadn't quite made up my mind whether or not I liked the sound of that any better than Sailor Venus, but I still had a couple more years before I would have to make up my mind one way or the other. After all, I was only four years old, although a human would have taken me for thirteen or fourteen.

I found my father in the first place that I looked for him: his study, a few doors down the hall from my little suite. He had a stack of papers in front of him and a pen in his hand, but he didn't seem to be doing much of anything except using his other hand to scratch at the little patch of grey down between his shoulder blades. As I watched, one tiny feather detached itself and floated down to the floor, vanishing against the grey stone.

<<Busy?>> I asked.

He sighed. <<I wish. Can't concentrate. What can I do for you, Cass?>>

He turned his chair so that he was facing me. There were dark circles under his eyes. Apparently, the itching from the molt had been depriving him of sleep again. His wings were a messy patchwork of old and new feathers. I smiled at him and perched myself on the bench beside the door.

"I need to know if there's a way to trace recent youma immigrants," I said aloud.

Dad frowned. "This isn't just a theoretical question, is it?"

"No," I admitted, and told him Sumire's story. "I get the idea that this brother of hers didn't think things through very well before he came here, and finding Lord Zoisite's seal on his file made me curious."

Dad's frown deepened, and his eyes went cold and hard in a way that I'd learned to spot. I wasn't just a girl having a casual conversation with her father anymore. I was a General-trainee being instructed by General Jasper.

"Zoisite almost certainly put that seal there for some reason other than just teasing you, and he really isn't a good person to tangle with. You'd be wisest to give this up."

I gritted my teeth. I knew exactly how dangerous Zoisite was. I'd felt those emerald-green eyes slice right through me more than once, and been lashed by his acid tongue. I'd never thought that the rest of his reputation was an exaggeration, especially not after I'd seen what he did to disobedient youma. Nor was I crazy enough to believe that my being a General-in-training would cut any ice with him. Even Morganite had only tried to play a prank on Zoisite once. He'd gotten off pretty lightly -- six months of maintenance supervisory duty on top of his lessons -- but that was only because his father, Lord Nephrite, was the most senior General. Well, unless you count King Malachite, but he doesn't use that title anymore. But anyway, Dad wasn't important enough to be able to get me off the hook, and I doubted that Grandpa Jadeite, who might have just barely enough influence, would even try. No, any punishment that came out of this, I'd just have to take like an adult.

"You're the one who told me that intrigue and backstabbing were long-standing traditions here," I pointed out.

"So they are," Dad admitted. His eyes softened again. "Still, you're just a beginner, Cass. Your mother and I don't want to see you get hurt. And Zoisite is not the best person to start with."

"I didn't exactly plan this in advance," I said ruefully. Then, in an attempt to get the conversation back on track, "Why would Lord Zoisite seal the record of a perfectly ordinary youma?"

Dad shrugged. "I can think of half-a-dozen reasons, the most innocent being that Zoisite is using that particular youma to clean up after him in his lab."

<<And the most sinister?>> I asked, suspecting that it was something that he didn't want Mom to overhear.

<<Well, the worst that I can think of is that he and Malachite wanted to start a threesome,>> he replied, winking at me. I rolled my eyes.

<<I'm sorry I asked.>> Not that they'd be likely to do anything like that. Even though most men who set out to become youma survive the process these days, there were still something-teen female youma for every male, which meant that the males were needed for stud service. Gods of Darkness, the things you have to learn when you're in training to be a Negaverse General! <<If I just walked up to him and asked him about it, how likely do you think it is that he'd give me an answer?>>

<<Not bloody very. No, you're going to have to do an end run around him. Or, if it's really that important to you, I might be able to liberate some of the records from Immigration when I'm on shift there tomorrow morning.>>

"Would you?" I favored him with one of my hundred-watt smiles. "Thanks, Dad."

<<Anything for my little girl,>> he replied, and smiled at me. <<Now, I really should get back to my paperwork...>>

I left the study feeling several pounds lighter, and virtually bounced along the hall to my room. An hour or so later, I joined my parents for an early supper prepared by our youma cook, and a few hours after that, I was in bed. All in all, a quiet night.

Jadeite

<<No question about it. This Warp's been used. Recently.>>

<<So where does the other end come out?>> Alex asked as I finished my check and turned around.

I closed my eyes, trying to remember. <<It works out to somewhere on the north edge of Crystal Tokyo. I think. I don't think it's been used since the twentieth century.>>

<<Hmmm.>> Alex reached out to rest his hand on... well, it wasn't really a tree. More of a mushroom that looked like a tree. Not that anyone except Alex would have cared.

I know that he hates it here. This isn't the sort of place that could ever be a real home to him. He belongs in the Earth Realm, the living world.

<<Stop that.>> Alex slapped me on the shoulder. <<Don't feel sorry for me, Jay. I stay here because I want to stay here. With you. So, are we going to continue the hunt tonight? I don't know about you, but I'm dead on my feet.>>

<<So am I,>> I admitted. <<And Amber's been wondering what I'm up to. I've been waiting for her to decide that I'm having an affair with you.>>

<<Jay, that's not funny!>> But he didn't smother his laugh quite quickly enough.

<<Well, if I tell her the truth, Malachite will have my head.>> As I wanted to have Zoisite's. This was all his fault. We'd recaptured his construct once already for him, and I had yet to learn how it had gotten loose again. Minus most of its clothing, apparently. He had let that one fact slip.

Alex had a faraway look on his face. <<There was a time...>>

<<...when Malachite wouldn't have reamed me out over something like this,>> I completed. There had also been a time when Alex and I were Weavemates. I missed that component of our old closeness. It should have been enough just to have him back, and for a while, it had been, but it seems that we can never be completely satisfied with whatever situation we're in.

<<We've all changed,>> I added, to fill in the silence.

<<I know.>> Alex touched the tiny bit of metal adorning one of his earlobes, ran his fingers lightly down the front panel of his jacket, and finally brought his hand back up to rest on his spirit crystal. It still gave me a bit of a shock, sometimes, to see him in his greys. The last time he'd been physically thirteen, none of us had ever heard of the Negaverse. <<I just think that, sometimes, I see it more than you do. The stuff that happened while I was dead doesn't seem entirely real anymore. I guess that's my way of coping. And I think we'd better get home now. Avi won't like it if you keep me out past midnight again.>>

I shook my head. This brother-as-grandson thing was just a little too complicated for me sometimes. <<See you in the morning, then.>> My breath formed a misty cloud in the cold air of the Negaverse's exterior as I initiated my teleport.

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