Choices - Chapter 7

© 1999 by E. Liddell


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Jasper

"You little idiot!" Zoisite's eyes were blazing. Cass was shrinking back, but she still somehow managed to meet those glowing eyes. "What did you think you were doing? Well?"

Malachite grabbed his lover's wrist as the shorter man raised his hand to strike. "Enough, beloved." <<Save it for the demon,>> I thought I heard him add, but I wasn't sure. "The question, however, stands," he told my daughter. "You knew that the purpose of this operation was to capture or kill the demon, at any cost. And yet you let it get away. Why?"

"So I made a mistake," Cass said.

"A General of the Negaverse cannot afford mistakes," Malachite said coldly.

Unfortunately, my daughter chose that moment to let her contrary streak come to the fore. "You speak as though you've never made any yourself, my King. Who was it that let himself and his entire Weave get captured by Beryl and brainwashed into leading her troops?"

Oh, no, a little voice said inside me, she's done it now. Malachite's face, which normally shows very few signs of expression when he's being official as he was there, contorted into an expression of utter rage. I couldn't remember ever having seen him so angry. Even Zoisite looked worried.

"You have no right to judge my actions!" our King said, reaching for Cass's collar as his eyes flared blue-white. I reached out and grabbed his wrists, which made him turn his burning gaze on me.

<<Enough,>> I stated. <<Please, my King. She's only a child.>> And I was damned if I was going to hurt my daughter. I didn't want to contemplate what he might be capable of doing in this mood. You don't want to underestimate the abilities of a man who has the Negaverse's premier torturer as a lover.

We stared at each other for a minute or so. If he turned this into a contest of magic, it was all over. I was no match for him there, although I stood a good chance of winning any challenge involving physical strength.

Malachite shook me off, stating savagely, <<I should never have given you permission to marry that Sailor Scout. She's corrupted you and completely ruined your offspring.>>

My own eyes were glowing as I replied, <<You keep Mina out of this!>>

<<Both of you, stop this.>> I breathed a sigh of relief as my father intervened. <<You should be impressed that Jasper's managed to instill any kind of sense of honour in his daughter, given where she's grown up. She was trying to fulfill a promise to a friend, Malachite. You can't blame her for that. I know she hit a sore spot just now, but she's only a child. You can't expect her to understand how, or why, that unthinking comment of hers hurt you.>>

Our King's eyes weren't glowing anymore, and his expression had gone from hot rage to a more normal kind of frosty anger. Thank the gods, he's coming out of it. He actually appeared to be in control of himself by the time he turned back to Cass.

"Trainee Cassiterite." His voice was flat. "You have disobeyed a direct order. There was a time when I would have killed you for that. Fortunately for you, that time is now long past. Unfortunately, given your actions here today, I can never trust you again. Therefore, your punishment will be as follows.

"I hereby strip you of all rank and of your Negaverse citizenship. You will be permitted within the bounds of my kingdom only on the same basis that your mother is -- that is, as your father's guest. And if you ever enter my presence again, I will show no mercy." His eyes flashed again, reinforcing that threat.

Cass's face had gone grey-green-white. I moved closer to her, wrapping an arm around her shoulders and furling a wing over her to draw her in close.

<<It'll be all right,>> I told her. My poor daughter.

But both of us knew that it wasn't likely that anything would ever be all right again.

Serenity

"Mom, are you all right?"

"I'm fine," I soothed my daughter. "Your brother's getting rambunctious, that's all." I glanced at Darien, but he wouldn't meet my eyes. He and I both knew that what I had said was a half-truth at best.

The full truth was that our son and Phoebe's Ward were combining to drain my energy as surely as any demon. I'd known that it was considered wise for the women in my family to do our reproducing earlier in life, but it wasn't until I'd conceived my second child that I'd understood why.

Even though being the anchor for Phoebe's Ward is a completely passive task and I'm not the ward's main power source, it still places a strain on my body, especially when the demons are restless within their prisons. They'd been very restless lately. And bearing a child was an additional strain, and I was no longer as young as I had been when I was pregnant with Rini. The two tasks together were almost more than I could handle. So I rested as much as possible and did as little work as I could get away with, allowing Darien and Rini and even Sammy to take up as many of my usual political tasks as they could.

And that was why I refused to use the Silver Crystal. Oh, I could have done it, I knew that, but if I did, I would probably miscarry, and my son would be born too premature to survive. I knew that I would never be able to conceive again.

I glanced down at the case. I'd had it removed from the closely guarded little room at the back of the castle and placed in here, where it would be close to hand if things got desperate. The Crystal winked up at me from its bed of dark velvet. There was something... wrong... about it. Sinister. I'd been feeling something odd around it for months.

I looked away again. No. Or at least, not except as a last resort. And there were other possible last resorts. One of them was standing right beside me, running her hands through her impossible pink hair. The other... Well, time enough to think about that if we needed to do something. I wasn't sure if he could use it, anyway. Until Malachite had wielded it against the Empyrean, the Silver Crystal had never been used by anyone except the female heirs of Phoebe in the direct line. I wouldn't ask my brother to try unless we became truly desperate.

Or I could lend it to Malachite again... no, we're not in anything like that level of trouble. And it was shameful to admit, but I still didn't quite trust the white-haired Crystal Weaver. Giving him my most powerful weapon wasn't something that I was willing to do unless the entire world was threatened, and this was only one small demon. More powerful than a youma or a Cardian or a Droid, but still not that much of a danger.

"Your Majesty?" One of the ubiquitous servants had stuck his head into the room. "General Jasper wishes to see you on a matter of some importance."

I nodded. "Please inform him that I'll be there shortly." I shot an apologetic glance at Darien. It had been weeks since we'd last had a free hour to spend together during the day like this, and now it had to be interrupted. Not that I was really being very good company, I suppose, but still...

I collected Mina and Lita on the way out. They'd been playing cards in the anteroom while I tried to spend a little quality time with my family. Normally, there would have been only one Scout on duty while I was in the private wing, but with the demon on the prowl, the guard had been doubled.

Jasper was waiting in a small room down the hallway, one of the disused and almost completely unfurnished ones. He wasn't alone. Lying on the floor were three... I wasn't quite sure what they were, to be honest. Near-human creatures, all securely bound, two with vines and one with more conventional rope. And in Jasper's arms, sheltered by his wings, Cass stood. She was in her Scout uniform, but her face was an odd, pasty color, and her eyes seemed a bit glazed, not focusing on us. Mina gasped, and I made a gesture which released her to join her husband and child.

"What are these?" I asked.

Jasper shrugged. "I suppose you might call them demonic votaries. They're poor unfortunates that the demon caught and corrupted. We figured that your Crystal would do a faster and more effective job of cleansing them than we can."

I nodded. "It will be a useful exercise for Rini, in case..." I'd gotten to know Jasper fairly well, over the course of his marriage to Mina, and I knew that he was bright enough to fill in what I hadn't dared say. Instead, I glanced at Cass, now in Mina's arms, knowing that something was wrong there but not daring to ask the question directly.

Jasper shook his head, which probably meant, I'll leave it for her to explain when she feels ready. Then he wrapped his wife and daughter both in a quick, tight embrace. Mina tilted her head up for a kiss.

"I have to go back and help the others search," I heard him say. He didn't ask if they would be all right. I suspected that there was something so wrong with Cass that it was going to be a long time before she was all right again. Then there was a swirl of phantom purple feathers, and he was gone.

"Serena, are you in here?" This time it was my brother, not a servant. When he saw what was laid out on the floor, Sammy's eyebrows rose, causing the crescent moon on his forehead to disappear behind his bangs. Eyebrows and hair were both white- -they'd started to grow in that way after I'd used the Silver Crystal on him. Even his eyelashes were pale. He looked very sharp in the blue and silver uniform of the space fleet, like a true member of Phoebe's line, instead of a cheap counterfeit I'd created to save us from extinction.

"Is there anything I can do to help?" he asked.

I sighed. "Get Rini, please. She's in the sitting room down the hall. And tell her to bring the Crystal."

He waved his hand in the general direction of his forehead in a sort of vague imitation salute. "Will do. Just a sec."

As he closed the door, I glanced at the clock on the far wall. Almost dinner time. But I suspected that I was going to have to put up with the cook scolding us for letting his creations get cold again.

There was still a lot left for us to do before we could eat.

Cassiterite

I wrapped my arms around my pillow and buried my face in it, muffling my sobs. How could he do it? Damn him!

It was like the world had suddenly dropped out from under me. Cast out. Cast out? I still felt like I was going to be sick, or something.

I ripped the chain that supported my spirit crystal off over my head and dangled it in front of my swollen, reddened eyes. The swirl of gold and violet looked like it was mocking me. Child of two worlds indeed. And how long will it be before you offend Serenity, too, and she takes what little you have left away from you?

I almost threw the crystal across the room, but I stopped myself. If I damaged it, it would kill me, and I wasn't ready to die yet. No, not yet. Not quite.

So I put the crystal back where it belonged, rolled over, and stared at the ceiling while tears rolled silently down my cheeks. I hadn't realized how much of me was invested in my image of myself as a warrior and a Negaverse General. I didn't want to be only a Sailor Scout, a glorified bodyguard to Neo-Queen Serenity.

Well, all right, to be fair, that wasn't all that the Scouts had ever been. They'd fought Beryl and the Dark Moon and helped carve out the kingdom of Crystal Tokyo. But that had been years ago, in their glory days. These days, all they ever seemed to do was stand around the Crystal Palace and baby-sit the royal family. The Generals... Well, their job might not be as pretty as that of the Sailor Scouts, especially not where it involved maintaining discipline, but at least they changed things, and left some sort of lasting mark on the world. They were leaders, not just guardians. They had... power? Is that what I want? The ability to order other people around? Or is it just that I hate being ordered around myself?

I had the weird feeling that the floor was dropping out from under me again. That's why Malachite was so angry about me, when I said that about him and Beryl -- not just because he hates being mistaken, but because he used to be her flunkey, and he hated being reminded of that.

I couldn't imagine hating anyone that much, not even Malachite himself. Which means that I've been lucky, I suppose. Until now.

I'd lost the life that I'd discovered that I wanted, and now I had to figure out some way to get it back.

Someone knocked on the door.

"Go away," I said, thinking that it was probably my mother, come looking for an explanation. I didn't feel like explaining anything, just then.

<<Cass...>>

<<Alex? What are you doing here? Aren't you supposed to be with the others, looking for the demon?>>

<<I was worried about you. The hunt's kind of petered out. Pyrope offered to take charge of the youma, and everyone else went home.>>

The door opened and shut, and I felt a weight deposit itself at the foot of the bed. I continued to stare at the ceiling.

<<Damn it, Cass, you're scaring me!>>

"Really? I can't imagine why."

<<Because I care about you, cousin.>>

"I'm not sick," I snapped. "You don't have to practice your bedside manner on me, General Alexandrite Landry-Tsumeta." It really wasn't fair, when you got right down to it, that Alex had gotten promoted over not only my head, but over Opal's and the twins' as well.

<<I've told you this before, and I know you don't believe me, but I'll tell you again: I didn't ask for this. It was Malachite who decided that he wanted to promote me to General so young. I was willing to wait. I wanted to wait, but he wouldn't...>>

I glanced away from the ceiling for a moment. Alex was staring out the window, twisting the end of his braid in his hand. He had an all-too-familiar, vaguely haunted expression on his face.

<<Stop that,>> I ordered him. <<I'm the one who's supposed to be depressed around here.>> I'd known Alex ever since we were both two months old, and there had always been something just a bit peculiar about him. He'd always seemed to be too old for his age.

<<Sorry. You've got enough problems of your own right now.>>

I swatted him lightly on the thigh. <<And misery does not love company, you know. If you're not going to help me, go away and be gloomy somewhere else.>>

<<Sorry,>> he repeated, then went back to staring out the window for a moment, although he tossed his braid back over his shoulder. <<You know,>> he stated at length, <<knowing Malachite, he's already cursing himself for allowing himself to lose his temper and throw you away. If you manage to impress him, he might reinstate you.>> His mindvoice shifted weirdly as he finished the last sentence, sliding deeper on the last few syllables, until it almost seemed like a grown man's voice. It wasn't the first time that I'd noticed him doing that, but whenever I asked him for an explanation, he changed the subject.

<<And how do you know so much about how Malachite thinks?>> I asked.

Alex shook his head. <<I have Lord Jadeite as a working partner, remember? He shares his memories with me, sometimes.>>

Which might even have been the whole truth. <<So how do I impress Malachite?>>

Alex shrugged. <<Your guess is as good as mine,>> he admitted. <<Look, I really should get going. I didn't tell anyone that I was coming here, and I'm afraid that Mom and Dad might worry.>>

I snorted.

<<Hey, it isn't funny,>> he stated. <<You try being the only General in the Negaverse who's still subject to a curfew some time. Bye, Cass. Take care of yourself.>>

I went back to staring at the ceiling as I listened to the door open and shut again. If I manage to impress him... How do I impress Malachite?

Then it came to me. It was crazy, it was reckless, and it would probably get me killed. It was also completely and absolutely appropriate. Our King would appreciate the irony, if nothing else. Well, so be it.

I laughed. Then I got started on my preparations.

Alexandrite

There were almost no pedestrians in the area when I dumped the sack on the ground. Most of the ones that were around were staring at me, though. It isn't every day you see a kid dressed in a Negaverse uniform walk into a public plaza in Crystal Tokyo carrying a bag of fertilizer, I guess. I didn't care. Let them stare. I was more worried about other things.

I almost blew it. Again. It was so damned difficult, sometimes, to remember that I was just supposed to be Jay's ten-year-old grandson, not his brother. In fact, I slipped up in little ways so often that every youma in the Negaverse probably knew that there was something odd about me. Cass almost certainly did. She'd been raised alongside me this time, to the point where I sometimes found myself wanting to treat her like a sister. But I'd never quite dared. I was afraid that that would be the thing that would finally make me make a slip.

I ripped open the plastic bag lying on the stones in front of me and began to apply its contents to the roots of the half-dead oak tree that we'd sheltered underneath on our way to the park... had it only been eight or nine hours ago? I used my powers more than my hands, trying to enrich the soil without disturbing it and the tree that was rooted in it, but I was still glad that I'd cast a self- cleaning spell on my gloves.

When I was done, I reached down into a nearby water main and teleported up a bit of its contents, sprinkling the liquid around the roots of the tree. Then I kicked off my boots and walked forward, sinking my toes deep into the slightly muddy soil with a sigh of relief.

I rooted myself good and deep, wrapped my arms around the trunk of the tree, and pressed my forehead against its bark. It felt... very good. I could lose myself in the feel of the earth and the slow life-rhythms of the tree. And for the first time since I'd become involved in hunting the demon, I began to relax.

I wanted to do more for Cass, I admitted to myself. But I hadn't known how.

You can only do as much as you can do I reminded myself. But I'm a Healer. When I see pain, I want to smooth it away, make it disappear. Even if it's just a tree's pain, and not a friend's.

Let it go.

I let it all flow away from me -- my doubts, my self-pity, my feelings of guilt and irritation. There had been a lot of guilt, lately, and a lot of doubts.

I wanted to help Cass because I almost understand how she feels, I realized. Her two worlds were the Negaverse and Crystal Tokyo. Mine were the past and the present. But we were still the same, in a way.

I managed a tired smile. Well, I hope she has an easier time figuring out how to deal with her problem than I've been having dealing with mine.

Then my head snapped up. I told her to impress Malachite. Surely she couldn't -- she wouldn't -- do anything as stupid as what I think she might do... No, not even Cass could be that crazy.

But I'd reckoned without Cass's brash courage and her habit of not properly thinking things through. I should have gone and checked on her right then, but instead I sighed and leaned against the tree again.

Even though everything turned out more-or-less all right in the end, I was to regret that very much, later on.

Goto Chapter 8


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