* * * * * * * *
The next day at the hideout, Nephrite wrote out all of his calculations. He reviewed them carefully several times over, and,, after making a few adjustments came to the conclusion that they were flawless. Then, remembering all the times his over-confidence had ruined his plans, he reviewed them several more times, substituting slightly different variables each time. Finally he was as certain as it was possible to be without actually trying them that they were indeed perfect.
Naru was in the yard doing speed and endurance exercises. One of the most important lessons he had tried to teach her was that you couldn't count on being able to take down an enemy with only one or two or even three attacks. This was another area where his over-confidence had been his downfall. He hadn't learned until it was too late not to turn his back on an enemy who only seemed to be down. You had to keep attacking until you were certain they wouldn't be able to attack again. Naru was now able to launch five or six identical attacks in quick succession, but her endurance for a long fight still wasn't where he would like it to be. He also wanted her to have a wide variety of attacks and be able to mix them up effectively. If she used the same attack more than a few times, the enemy would quickly learn to identify and counter it. He had to admit that the priestesses had been more helpful in this area than he had, teaching Naru the various possibilities for using Sun Power. The Sunspot Flare was a particularly nasty attack, and it had very nearly taken him by surprise the first time she used it. The difficult part was switching from one attack to another in quick succession, and he had also instructed her to practice that this morning.
But now the preparations were complete for their trip back to the Silver Millennium. He had taken into account the need to merge with their previous selves and observe what happened without acting to change things. That would be the hardest part -- resisting the urge to change what had happened instead of merely observing it. They would also need to reappear in the hideout at precisely the same moment when they left, so that the Priestesses would not notice they had been gone. This meant that the hideout and their portal to and from the Silver Millennium would have to be very firmly anchored in that instant of time, which was not easy. Still, this would be the best method for learning the things they needed to know. Memory was incomplete, inaccurate, and biased. Only direct observation of the actual events could be trusted.
"Naru! It's ready," he called outside to her, as though calling her in for a lunch he had prepared. He had thought about making some sandwiches, but a jump like this was best made on an empty stomach.
She came running in, breathless and flushed. He brushed a few strands of flyaway hair from her face. "I see you've been working hard."
She nodded, still trying to catch her breath. "You've figured out how to get to the Silver Millennium?" she whispered.
"Yes, I'm as certain as it's possible to be that my calculations are correct. It still isn't guaranteed that we'll be successful; there's always a tiny chance of error. Are you sure you're willing to go through with this?"
"Yes," she said. "I'm not scared, and I trust you. And, well, wherever we end up, at least we'll be together."
Again, Nephrite wondered if his certainty was nothing more than the over-confidence that had gotten him into trouble so many times. Then he pushed his doubts away. Self-doubt would cause him to hesitate and question, which would undermine the strength and accuracy of his portal-making. "Good," he said. "Hold on to me while I form the portal. Don't move, don't say anything, no matter what. And in just a few moments we should be far in the past, in a civilization that you never even dreamed of."
Naru stood in front of him and wrapped her arms tightly around his waist as though embracing him. With a little luck, if the priestesses were watching, they would think that was all it was. Then, using the calculations he had worked out, he searched the time-boundaries of his hideout for where they touched the Silver Millennium. Once he found the spot, he searched until he located the exact point in time and place he was looking for -- the Earth's Grand Palace, at the coming-of-age ball for Prince Endymion. That was the only festive occasion he could remember where all the rulers of all the kingdoms of the Silver Millennium would have been present on Earth at the same time; the ball in his memory, where he had seen Naru.
He found his target, anchored the far end of the portal to it, then pulled the connection back through space and time to him and Naru. He couldn't make any obvious gestures with his arms, but with discreet movements of his fingers, buried in Naru's hair, and silent invocation of the power of the stars, he opened the portal and stepped through, with Naru holding tightly to him.
* * * * * * * *
The ballroom glittered. That was the only word Naru could think of to describe it. Lamps glowing in a hundred different colors combined their light into a brilliant illumination that glittered like a diamond. The delicate, festive music sparkled. The men shone in black formalwear or sharply-creased military dress uniforms, their medals, sashes, and dress swords gleaming in the diamond light. The women glowed in flowing silk gowns and elegant jewels, their shining hair caught up in myraids of swoops and curls. Elegant groupings of gilt and velvet chairs were arranged around the edge of the ballroom. The fanciest chairs in each group were occupied by richly dressed men and women wearing crowns and tiaras.
These were the rulers of the Kingdoms of the Silver Millennium. Naru suddenly realized that she knew exactly where she was and what was happening. It was very strange, this sensation of being completely new in an unfamiliar place while at the same time knowing she'd been here all along. Deja vu, she thought, then went back to observing Prince Endymion's grand coming-of-age ball. Prince Endymion himself sat at the head of the ballroom with his parents enthroned on either side of him. Naru and her attendants had made the obligatory courtesies to their hosts, but had not made the circuit of the room to greet the other royalty in attendance.
Naru watched groups of richly-dressed guests moving from one gathering of chairs to the next, bowing, curtseying, kissing hands and cheeks, chatting as though greeting old friends, although the 'old friends' might be fierce military or economic rivals. On this night, all were friends. Except for Naru and her three priestesses, representatives of the last, dwindling remnants of the Sun People. She had been the last infant born to the Sun People, and there would be no more. Naru herself would live her life under the eyes of her priestesses until she was too old to bear children, bound by the unbreakable taboo against marrying someone not of her people, and then one day she would die and there would be no more Sun People.
She didn't want to grow old alone, unloved, childless, the last of her kind. She watched the dancing couples, the groups of people visiting each other, and wished she was one of them. She wished that instead of the heavy white robe, plain except for the gold braid at the sleeves and hem, she was wearing silks and jewels. Green, she thought, or maybe greenish-blue. That would go well with her eyes and hair and complexion. Or maybe that shimmering gold silk... She imagined the feel of the soft, ruffled sleeves, the air of the ballroom moving across the skin of arms and shoulders and throat, silk swirling around her legs as she turned and spun in the arms of one of the handsome men. The gentlemen in black formalwear looked quite elegant, but she found her eyes drawn to the men in military uniforms. They were so dashing, with their medals and the swords at their hips.
"Princess Solaris," a woman said, using Naru's formal name.
The gracious, cultivated voice startled Naru out of her thoughts. Someone had actually spoken to her! Naru recognized the tall, slender woman with long silvery hair, wearing a low-cut white silk gown that clung to her generous curves, as Selene, the Moon Queen. Beside her stood a young woman about Naru's age, with long golden ponytails, wearing a more modest dress of white silk ruffles. Usagi, Naru -- the other Naru -- thought, recognizing her. Princess Serenity.
Naru dipped a curtsey to the Moon Queen. "Queen Selene. Princess Serenity." Her priestesses, she realized to her embarrassment, remained silent and still. Naru spoke quickly to hide their rudeness. "It's very nice to see you. Isn't it a wonderful ball?"
"Yes, it is." The Moon Queen smiled. "Although I have not yet seen you dance. I came to see if you are well, and to ask if you have given any more consideration to our invitation to join the Senshi."
Before Naru could think of what to say, Sifabi spoke up. "Princess Solaris has no interest in lowering herself to become your daughter's servant."
Naru's face burned, and she closed her eyes in shame and dismay. Surely it was this unbending pride of the Sun People that had been their downfall. She opened her eyes again and forced herself to answer the Moon Queen, though she was still too embarrassed to look directly into her face. "As you see, your Majesty," she said, trying to keep her voice as humble and polite as she could, "it isn't possible. But I thank you for your kindness and regard." She glanced at Princess Serenity as she spoke, addressing her words to her as much as to the Queen.
"Of course," Queen Selene said. She glanced past Naru's shoulder at the priestesses standing behind her, and Naru knew the Queen understood that it wasn't she who objected but the other three women. For one wild moment Naru thought of defying them and doing what she wanted instead of always allowing herself to be controlled by their rules and restrictions.
But she was too young. Although nearly of majority age, she still had so much to learn about the power she had been born with. If she remained insufficiently trained, the power would eventually overcome her and destroy her. Or, at least, that was what the priestesses always said, and she wasn't sure she was brave enough to see if they were wrong.
And then there was the duty that had been drilled into her since she was just barely old enough to understand the words, the duty to find a way to defeat the Sun People's greatest enemy, their greatest mistake --
Naru caught herself on that thought. Their greatest mistake. The other Naru who seemed to be inside her mind, observing, curious, strangely disconnected but still avidly interested in what was going on, seemed to take special note of those words.
Naru wasn't sure what the connection was between the Sun People and the Star Swallower. For some reason, it had singled them out as the target of its malice, and she had overheard snippets of whispered conversation among the three Priestesses about the time before the Star Swallower had first appeared. Regardless of what the Star Swallower was or how it had come into being, though, Naru knew it was her duty to protect her people, or what was left of them, from it. Not to mention the rest of the solar system.
Queen Selene and Princess Serenity were already walking towards the group from Venus. Naru watched as Princess Serenity and Princess Minako greeted each other with embraces and kisses and eager chattering. It certainly didn't look as though Serenity was treating the other girl like a servant. In fact, it looked like they were friends. Naru watched them enviously. She wanted a friend her own age, someone she could tell things to that the three elderly priestesses who constantly trailed her around would never understand. Someone she could laugh with and talk to about the beautiful gowns and the handsome men. Three other girls, the Princesses of Mars, Mercury, and Jupiter, joined Serenity and Minako. After more excited greetings, the five laughing young women linked arms and made their way over to one of the refreshment tables, where mountains of cream cakes and bright-colored fruits and bowls of sparkling punch awaited them. The priestesses hadn't let Naru have any of the refreshments, telling her that it was against their customs to eat such rich food. Her stomach grumbled, already finished with the customary supper of bland gruel they had made her eat before they came to the ball.
Naru sighed and shifted from foot to foot. The priestesses had also refused to allow chairs to be set up for them. It would be beneath their Princess's dignity to sit. Naru didn't really understand the reasoning behind this, but she could never get a word in with the three of them, and any arguments she made would be ignored anyway.
"Good evening. Princess Solaris, I believe?" The new voice, this one masculine, startled her again. Naru looked at a broad chest clothed in a dark blue military uniform, with shining gold buttons and a festive array of ribbons and medals pinned on the left side. Her gaze went upwards to a handsome, elegantly-sculpted face with deep blue eyes, framed with flowing auburn hair.
Nephrite-sama, that oddly detached voice inside her whispered. But of course she knew that. She had glimpsed him during her previous diplomatic visits to the court of Earth. Lord Nephrite, one of the Shitennou, Prince Endymion's mage-guardians. And here he was, talking to her. She wasn't going to let Sifabi dismiss him before she even had a chance to say anything to him, but she couldn't think of anything to say. "Lord Nephrite," she managed, and bowed her head graciously to him. He was a prince in his own right, ruling over a large region of Earth.
"I would be honored to have this dance with you," he said.
He wanted to dance with her! Naru opened her mouth to accept the invitation, but Sifabi stepped forward. "It is not the custom of our people to dance in this manner," the priestess said, "so I'm afraid it is impossible for the Princess to agree to your request."
Naru's heart sank. But along with the usual disappointment and embarrassment, she felt something hot and strong boil up inside of her. "I'm sorry," she murmured to Nephrite.
"Of course. I understand." He gave her a stiff little bow and then walked away.
Naru spun around to face the priestesses. "How dare you?" she whispered furiously. "How DARE you? You've forgotten that I am the Princess. The Queen and Lord Nephrite were addressing me, not you. How dare you think you can speak for me?" Trembling with anger, she clenched her fists, restraining the urge to strike out at their stern, immovable, superior faces.
"You are young and ignorant, Princess," Sifabi said. "You still have much to learn of our ways and of your powers. You are the one who must uphold the pride and traditions of our people."
"WHAT people?" Naru demanded. "We don't have any people left except for a bunch of -- of dried-up, closed-minded old relics who are going to die off before long anyway and then I'll be the only one left! Why should I care about our pride and our traditions? I want to have friends, I want to marry someone and have children. I don't want to end up old and alone." Abruptly, she turned away from them. Sifabi grabbed the sleeve of her robe, but Naru jerked it free and hurried away, pushing her way through the crowd as quickly as she could.
Finally free of the constant attendance of the three priestesses, Naru wasn't sure what to do with herself. Her stomach rumbled again, so she headed for the refreshment tables. The Senshi Princesses were clustered there, chatting and laughing amongst themselves. She smiled and nodded at them as she approached but they didn't appear to notice her. She helped herself to a cream cake and glass of punch. Then she noticed another table piled high with sliced roast meats and fresh-baked breads, so she went over and added a roll and several slices of meat to her plate. Suddenly, juggling the full plate in one hand and the glass of punch in the other, she felt awkward. There was no way she could eat in front of all these people. She was going to spill and make a fool of herself.
She looked around for a private place to take the results of her foraging, and spotted a glass double door that was open to the grand balcony outside. Naru made her way towards the door, holding her breath the whole way, terrified that she would trip or bump into someone and spill her food.
It was much cooler out on the balcony. Naru hadn't realized until now how hot it was in the ballroom. Or maybe it was just her embarrassment and her heavy white robe that were making her feel overheated. There were a number of small round white tables on the balcony, each with two or three elegant white wrought-iron chairs next to them. Naru found a table a distance away from the couples who strolled on the balcony or leaned against the balustrade, talking, laughing, and kissing. She sipped some punch and nibbled on the cream cake, watching the couples out of the corner of her eye and hoping that no one had noticed her.
She finished the cake and started on the rest of her food, tearing open the roll and piling meat on top of it. She hadn't seen how anyone else was eating these things, but at this point she didn't care. She was just so glad to have a chance to sit down and eat some of the delicious food, and she had gotten over her initial discomfort at the thought that anyone might be watching her. Indeed, no one seemed to even notice her
"Ah, here you are."
Lord Nephrite had caught her with a mouth full of bread and meat. Chagrined, she held her hand in front of her mouth to conceal her chewing, while with the other she motioned to the other chair at the little table. He sat down and set his glass of wine on the table. "I looked for you again, but you had disappeared," he said. "How did you get away from them?"
Naru finished chewing and swallowing her bite of sandwich. "I got mad at them, and reminded them that I'm the Princess, not them. It won't last."
"Well, then, let's take advantage of your freedom while we can," he said, and offered her his hand. "We can hear the music out here, so will you honor me with this dance?"
Naru glanced towards the doorway from the ballroom to the balcony. With her luck, the three Priestesses would be coming through it right now, ready to drag her back inside. But they were nowhere to be seen. She placed her hand in Lord Nephrite's, and allowed herself to smile. "I would be happy to."
He returned the smile, and led her to an open area where they could dance without bumping into tables or other guests. When he took her into his arms and put a hand at the small of her back, Naru thought she would melt from happiness. "I've never danced before," she said, looking up at him.
He had already started moving, guiding her carefully through the basic steps of the waltz. "It's easy. I'll lead, you just go where I take you."
"All right." As he instructed, she let herself move as he guided her. He was very careful, never stepping too fast or too far, and soon she felt more confident. It was almost like flying, this graceful, lilting movement.
Too soon, the music ended. They were near the balustrade overlooking the Palace's extensive gardens. Still holding her hand, Nephrite led her to the carved marble railing. Instead of looking down at the gardens, he pointed up at the sky and began telling her the names of the stars.
"I never knew they had names," she said.
"These are just the names they're known by in the civilizations of the solar system. They have other names, which they only reveal to those who learn to speak with them."
"Do you know those names?"
"Some of them."
"What do the stars say to you? Do they tell you the future?"
"No, not really. When I'm making a decision they'll tell me the implications of the different choices, but not in any detail, and of course the actual decision is up to me. I can use their power for other things, too."
"I wish I was allowed to make choices."
He smiled down at her. "You did this evening, when you walked away from those three."
"I wish I was brave enough to do that more often. One day they'll be dead and I'll be alone and I won't know how to do anything without them telling me."
"I think you'll find a way," he said. "You're doing very well on your own right now." He put his hand gently under her chin and lifted it so she was looking into his eyes. "I've been noticing you for a while now. I'm glad I finally got to meet you."
"So am I. I mean, I noticed you too. I'm glad I got to talk to you."
"I have the feeling this won't be the last time," he said. Then he lowered his face to hers and kissed her, very lightly and softly. Naru's knees seemed to turn to water, and lovely shivers ran all up and down her back. She had never imagined that being kissed by a man would be this nice.
Then he glanced up, and a corner of his mouth twisted up wryly. "Here they come." He stepped back and Naru turned to see Sifabi, Serare, and Issoril hurry through the doorway. They headed straight for her.
"Here you are. Return to the ballroom at once," Sifabi said without acknowledging Nehprite's presence. She took Naru's arm and dragged her back into the bright, stuffy ballroom. Naru went without resisting; she could pretend to be docile and cooperative for now. She had the memory of her first kiss, and Nephrite's suggestion that there might be another one sometime. She had found the courage to break away and do what she wanted; surely she would find the courage again.
* * * * * * * *
Darkness suddenly surrounded her, along with a sensation of cold and disorientation. Then Naru found herself back in the hideout with Nephrite, her arms still wrapped tightly around his waist. The only thing she could think about was how he had kissed her at that long-ago ball.
"Hold on, we're not done," he said. "I've located the place where you meet the Star Swallower." Before she could say anything or even adjust to the change in their surroundings, he invoked another portal, and the world dropped away again...
* * * * * * * *
return to Index / go to Chapter 11
The Nephrite and Naru Treasury