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When the world took shape around him again, he was in what appeared to be a tent lit by torches holding some sort of glowing spheres. The floor and walls were covered with elaborate weavings. There was a table along one wall, and a wooden chest which was open to reveal a number of rolled-up scrolls inside. Three women in white robes stood facing him. Two of them had the cowls of their robes pulled up as hoods; the third was unhooded, revealing white braids coiled atop her head and a lined, fragile-looking face.
Before he could say anything, Naru's voice cried out from behind him. "Nephrite-sama!" He turned, and she flung her arms around him. She was wearing a white robe like those on the three older women, but trimmed at the sleeves and hem with gold.
Relief flooded through him, and an odd choking sensation arose in his throat. Remembering his brief, intense regret as the Crystal of Eternal Sleep had started to encase him, he put his arms around Naru and held her gently. "Naru-chan," he said. He had to force the words past the thickness in his throat. "What happened? Are you safe?"
"She is perfectly safe with us, Nephrite," the elderly woman with the braids said.
He let go of Naru and turned to face the women again. "What do you want with her?" he demanded.
"We are the Priestesses of the People of the Sun, and she is our Princess, Solaris. She is to take her rightful place, and defeat the enemy that threatens her people."
"You've heard of the Star Swallower, of course," the woman said.
"Actually, I can't say that I have," Nephrite said.
"The Star Swallower is a great threat to the Sun People. And, of course, to all other people of the Solar System." The last phrase sounded like an afterthought, as though everyone who was not of the Sun People was of little or no concern to this woman.
"The Sun People," he said. "There were the people of the Moon, and of Earth and the other planets, but of the sun?"
"We are a nomadic people. We are ruled by the sun, we receive our power from the sun. But of course we cannot live there. We made regular appearances in the courts of the Kingdoms of the Silver Millennium but maintained strict neutrality and independence. Unfortunately, the time has come when we are forced to compromise our independence. Though it shames me to do so, I must ask for your help, Lord Nephrite. The Star Swallower is a very powerful being. The only person who has the power to defeat it is our Princess. But even she is not strong enough to defeat it at this time.
"The one being in the universe that the Star Swallower fears is Metallia. It fled into hiding when Metallia nearly triumphed over the Kingdoms of the Silver Millennium. As long as Metallia has not suffered a final defeat, the Star Swallower will remain in hiding. Metallia is facing the first serious threat she has faced in thousands of years. We want you to fight for her and the Dark Kingdom, and ensure that she remains undefeated, at least long enough for our Princess to become strong enough to defeat the Star Swallower."
Beside him, Naru drew in a sharp breath. "You want him to go back to the Dark Kingdom?"
"The Star Swallower must be destroyed. In order to do this, you need time to become stronger. Therefore, Nephrite must devote all his energies to fighting against Metallia's enemies."
"But the Senshi are my friends!" Naru protested.
"And that is why you must never ally yourself with anyone," the shorter of the other two women said sharply. "It blinds you to the requirements of your own people."
Nephrite decided it was time to take control of the conversation. "Let me make sure I understand what you want of me. You want me to ensure that Metallia remains undefeated so that Naru will have time to become strong enough to defeat the Star Swallower."
"That is correct," the leader said.
"You don't think that Metallia is ultimately a greater threat to the Earth than the Star Swallower?"
The white-haired woman drew up her shoulders and made an angry sound. Evidently she was unused to being challenged. Then she closed her eyes and seemed to gain control of her emotions. "The Star Swallower is a threat to all planets and people everywhere. The people of Earth and the other planets were too closed-minded, too occupied with their own petty rivalries and problems, to look at the wider Universe and see what was happening. We, the Sun People, freed of ties to any one piece of dirt or selfish ally, were the only ones able to see the danger. Metallia is nothing compared to the Star Swallower. You must do as we ask, even if it means destroying these Senshi to whom our Princess has developed a foolish loyalty."
"I must? Why should I do anything for you, or for anyone but myself?" Nephrite asked. The priestess stared at him for a moment, speechless, as though she had never expected that he would dare to defy her. Nephrite let one corner of his mouth curl up in a once-familiar sneer. "Well? I'm waiting."
"You seem to care about this girl," the more slender of the two hooded women said. "She needs your help. She is going to have to fight the Star Swallower. She needs time to become stronger. Unless you want her to be overcome and destroyed, you must give her that time. Besides, if you agree to help us, you will be able to spend time with her. But if you won't help us, we will have to send you back to where you were."
"If I recall correctly," the first priestess said, "you were about to be encased in the Crystal of Eternal Sleep when we brought you here."
Nephrite hated being coerced into anything, but the women made a good argument. He didn't think they would let Naru go until she had done what they wanted her to do. In order for her to successfully carry out the task, she did need more training. And he wasn't exactly enthusiastic about being returned to Beryl and her damned Crystal. Well, he was very good at playing his own game while pretending to go along with what other people wanted him to do. He wasn't about to leave Naru alone with these women who wanted to exploit her, which was exactly what he had been trying to protect her from. Besides, he had to admit he was curious about this Star Swallower. If there was a malevolent being in the Universe more powerful than Metallia, he wondered why Beryl had never mentioned it. Beryl's attachment to Metallia was something he had never quite understood, and he was certain that Beryl wouldn't hesitate to join forces with a more powerful ally if one came along. "All right, I'll help you," he said.
Naru gasped. "Nephrite, you can't --!"
He squeezed her hand, hoping that he would have a chance to explain things to her later. In the meantime she would just have to have faith that he really had changed for the better.
The leader of the priestesses gave him a rather smug smile. "Good. I knew we could persuade you."
"I'm not done yet. I'll help you, on the condition that you let me train the girl my own way."
The smugness left the priestess's face. "Impudent, arrogant --"
He bowed slightly. "I'm sure that Queen Beryl would love to discuss my personality defects with you. In the meantime, do we have a deal or not?"
Her face twisted as she seemed to fight an internal battle. "Yes." She spat the word out angrily. "Bit if there's any sign of treachery from you, you'll find yourself trapped in the Crystal of Eternal Sleep before you know what's happening."
"I am well aware of my own interests in this matter," Nephrite said. "Now, if I may have a few moments to speak with my student?"
The priestess frowned. "Very well." She and the other two retreated to the far side of the tent, where they stood whispering among themselves.
Nephrite drew Naru to the opposite wall and sat down with her. "Isn't it possible to be alone?" he whispered.
"No," Naru said. "We're all stuck here together in this one room. They never go outside; I don't think there even is an outside."
"But they were able to get into my interdimensional pocket and take you, and also to take me from the Dark Kingdom. Which I have to admit I'm grateful for, but if they hadn't taken you I wouldn't have been there in the first place. There's a way to get in and out, and I'll find it."
"Nephrite-sama, you aren't really going to try to destroy the Senshi, are you?"
"Shh." He lowered his voice to the barest whisper. "Trust me." More loudly he said, "I'll do what I have to, to look out for my own interests." He watched her face, which was drawn in and troubled, until she suddenly looked back up at him, a light of understanding dawning in her eyes.
"I know you'll do what you think is best, Nephrite-sama," she said.
"Good." Then he lowered his voice again. Though what he was about to say was not as dangerous, it was certainly more difficult. "Naru-chan, there are some things that I haven't explained very well to you, and in that instant when I thought Beryl was going to trap me in Eternal Sleep, I regretted the things I haven't said."
"Nephrite-sama?" She gave him an uncertain look.
"Naru-chan. I know that in your world, at the age you are right now, a... a romantic connection between us would be considered inappropropriate. In another time and place there would be nothing wrong with it, and if we were in such a time and place I would pursue such a connection. As it is, if we are able to return to your world and go on living normal human lives, I will wait and be your friend until the time is right to take the next step." He fell silent, knowing that he had worded it badly -- he was far too formal, far too unemotional.
A smile bloomed on Naru's face, though after glancing at the priestesses she quickly suppressed it. But he knew she understood what he was trying to say.
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return to Index / go to Chapter 7
The Nephrite and Naru Treasury