Book 2 Chapter 2
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Three nights later, a grand banquet was held to honor the betrothal of Prince Endymion of the Earth to Princess Serenity of the Moon. The white marble banquet room shone in the glow of a hundred globes of magical light. There was elegant music, sumptuous food, glittering conversation. Nephrite, staring moodily into his glass of red wine, ignored all of it. He had spent the last three days kicking himself over how he had ended his conversation with Naru in the kitchen garden.
He had tried to seek her out to apologize, but she had managed to avoid him very thoroughly. Whenever he finally caught up with her, she was hurrying off somewhere else, or deep in conversation with someone else.... She seemed to almost be making a point of the fact that she was avoiding him. Tonight she was sitting behind the royal table, ready to attend to Queen Selene and Princess Serenity. Every time Nephrite looked at her, she was looking away from him.
And who could blame her? The thought of the hurt and humiliation he had caused her was painful to Nephrite. If only she would let him apologize and explain, if he could tell her that he was only trying to obey his king, that he wasn't really so careless of her feelings, surely she would understand....
"Hey." Jadeite pushed Nephrite's shoulder, sloshing the wine in his glass.
Nephrite looked at the blond Guardian sitting next to him. "What?"
"I think they like us." Jadeite gestured to a table across the room, to the right of the main table where the King, Queen, Prince, and Princess sat. This table was occupied by the Senshi Princesses from the other eight planets. Four of the girls, the Inner Senshi, who were closest to the Princess, were whispering and laughing as they stole glances at the table where Endymion's Guardians sat.
"Mmpf," Nephrite said noncommittally. He was too occupied with wondering how to get Naru to listen to him to worry about a table full of giggling girls.
"Look," Jadeite said, now shaking Nephrite's shoulder so that the auburn-haired Guardian had no choice but to pay attention. "That one, the beautiful one with long black hair. That's the Princess of Mars. She keeps looking at me. And the one next to her. The Princess of Jupiter. I think she likes you."
Nephrite glanced at the girl Jadeite indicated. She was rather pretty, with big eyes and a thick mane of brown hair caught up in an elaborate hairstyle. He had heard that Makoto of Jupiter was a more than competent fighter, which was a good quality in a guardian, but Nephrite wasn't sure it was so desirable in a ladylove. Besides, she was rather tall for his taste, and he really did prefer redheads, though he had never realized it until a few days ago.
"Which ones do you like for Zoisite and Kunzite?" Jadeite continued.
"Hard to say," Nephrite muttered. If Jadeite only knew... He felt sorry for any female who ever fell in love with one of those two.
Something caught his eye, a flutter of blue dress and red hair behind the royal table. Nephrite looked in that direction, and saw Naru hurrying out of the banquet room to the hallway. "Excuse me," he said to the other three Guardians as he rose quickly from his chair and strode towards the door nearest his table.
She was well ahead of him, walking purposefully down the marble hallway towards the Queen's apartments. "Naru!" he called out.
She stopped, turned, saw him. She chewed her lip while looking between him and the direction she had been headed in. While she hesitated, Nephrite caught up to her in several long strides. "Naru, I've been trying to apologize to you for three days. I was unforgivably rude."
She held herself very straight and looked away from him. "It's quite all right. You needn't worry about my feelings. I'm only a servant."
Before he could stop himself, Nephrite put a hand on her shoulder. The short sleeves of her gown rode low on her shoulders, and his fingers encountered warm, smooth flesh. "Naru, listen to me. It isn't like that."
"How is it, then?" She still wouldn't look at him.
"May I be honest with you?"
"I would appreciate it, Lord Nephrite."
"I - Naru, I don't want to just use you. We only met a few days ago, but I've been watching you for a long time, and you mean so much more to me than that. But there can never really be anything between us. I'm trying to be careful, and do what's right."
She tried to move away from him, but he tightened his grip on her shoulder. "Please try to understand," he whispered.
"We're both such puppets," she finally said, her voice low and bitter. "Slaves to protocol and propriety."
A tear had begun to slide down her cheek. "I don't see why people like us even have hearts. We're not allowed to use them." She pulled free of his grip and ran down the hall in the direction of the Queen's rooms.
Nephrite ran after her, and caught up with her in only a few steps. He seized her by the hand, spun her around into his arms, and kissed her as he had never kissed any of his lovers, kissed her as though he were trying to say without words everything that came flooding into his heart.
Finally he pulled away and let go of her. He and Naru were both a bit unsteady on their feet. "What was that for?" she said breathlessly, her face slightly flushed.
Nephrite thought it over. It had been foolish, getting carried away like that. "I don't know," he admitted. "It just seemed like the right thing to do."
A shy smile stole across her face. She put her hand in front of her mouth in a gesture that was already sweetly familiar, and glanced up at him sideways through her long eyelashes. "Well," she said. "Maybe it was."
They stood there a moment, neither of them knowing what to say next, until Naru said, "I'm sorry, the Queen's waiting for me to bring something to her. I'd better hurry." She turned and ran down the hall.
Nephrite stared after her until he realized he was grinning like an idiot. He forced his face back into its customary detached, cynical expression, and re-entered the banquet room.
The situation had grown worse. The four Inner Senshi were whispering and giggling and waving at the Guardians. Jadeite, Zoisite, and Kunzite were smiling and waving back at them. Nephrite puzzled over that. Jadeite flirting he could understand, but Zoisite and Kunzite? They must have decided that the Senshis' admiration of them would be a perfect coverup for their own relationship. He supposed he didn't blame them, but it hardly seemed gentlemanly.
The Princess of Jupiter's face lit up when she saw that Nephrite had returned, and she waved at him. He gave her the politest nod he could without encouraging any ideas she might have. She would be a highly suitable match for him, but at the moment he was in no mood to contemplate making a political marriage.
Finally, Naru returned from her errand and took a seat behind and slightly to the right of the Queen, between her and Serenity. Nephrite found it hard to take his eyes away from that part of the room, even though Jadeite kept nudging at him, trying to make him pay attention to the Princess of Jupiter.
The banquet dragged on and on. The official announcement of the betrothal was made, and brief congratulatory speeches were offered by various court officials and the guardians of the Prince and Princess. Nephrite stood and said something short and meaningless that sounded good. The Prince and Princess briefly thanked everyone for their good wishes, then King Arrendel and Queen Selene had their turns to make speeches about how the match was good for the continued stability of the Solar System, and so on. Bored stiff, Nephrite swirled the dregs of his fifth glass of wine around in the goblet and watched Naru. Her manners really were impeccable, despite her disparaging words about protocol earlier in the evening. She sat still and silent in her chair, looking down at her hands which were folded in her lap, a pleasantly neutral expression on her face.
"Hey." Jadeite nudged Nephrite's shoulder, as King Arrendel was droning on about some treaty or other. "You're ignoring the lovely Princess Makoto."
Nephrite looked at his comrade, one eyebrow raised disapprovingly. "Shh."
"Oh, come on, you can't pretend you're paying any more attention than I am," Jadeite whispered. "Kunz sent a note over. We're all going to meet the girls in the garden when this thing's over."
"No one asked me if I wanted to."
"Why wouldn't you want to? Makoto's pretty, and she obviously likes you."
"No thanks. I'm fed up with the entire female species." With one exception.
"It'll be fun. We'll find some more of this truly admirable wine to take with, and just have some laughs."
"Hmmpf. Well, if there's going to be wine... Oh, all right."
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After the banquet ended, after everyone except for the servants had left the hall, Naru was supervising the laundrymaids who were gathering up the elegant embroidered table linens. All the gossip among the servants was about how the Prince's Guardians had arranged a rendezvous with the Inner Senshi in the palace gardens. There was a great deal of speculation on the potential matches, with most of the servants agreeing that Lord Nephrite and Princess Makoto of Jupiter were admirably suited for one another.
Naru tried to block out the gossip and not let it upset her. She shouldn't be surprised, she told herself. That was the sort of woman he was destined for. Besides being a Royal Guardian of the Realm of Earth, he was himself of princely blood. He wasn't meant for a mere serving girl.
Naru scolded herself for her discontent. Her dream had come true. She had met him, they had talked, he had even kissed her. What more could she possibly expect? Not that he would marry her - the very thought was ludicrous. He had said he didn't want to use her, but if that was all she could have of him, she would take it and be glad of it.
"Naru!" Serenity's voice echoed through the nearly-empty hall.
Naru turned. "Serenity!" She hurried over to the Princess. "Aren't you supposed to be in bed now?"
"How can I sleep tonight? I'm engaged - Mamo-chan and I are finally engaged! I'm so happy, I couldn't possibly sleep. Will you come walk with me in the gardens?"
In the gardens... Where Lord Nephrite was walking with Princess Makoto, maybe even falling in love with her. But Naru had a duty to Princess Serenity. If she didn't go with the Princess, the Princess would go by herself, which was unthinkable. "Yes, Princess."
The Earth cast a bluish light through the gardens, which were also lit by softly glowing globes, which floated at regular intervals along the paths. There was laughter in the distance, a group of men and women. "That's my Senshi with the Guardians," Serenity whispered excitedly. "Let's go spy on them!"
That was the last thing Naru wanted to do, but Serenity had already started off in the direction of the laughter. The group was gathered on a small round patio made of pink marble paving stones, seated on benches or leaning against the low wall that surrounded the patio. Serenity and Naru hid in the shadow of a tree across from the group.
Nephrite was one of the ones standing; Makoto sat on a bench next to where he stood. All eight were holding goblets, and Lord Kunzite was pouring out more wine. Lord Jadeite was perched on the wall with his arm around the shoulders of the Princess of Mars, and Lord Zoisite and Ami of Mercury were sitting together on a bench, talking.
Nephrite looked bored, as he usually did when he was in a group. He stared off into the darkness beyond the patio, ignoring the talk and laughter around him. About the only times that Naru could remember him not looking bored were when he was engaged in swordfighting practice. Or the times when he had been alone with her. He didn't seem to be particularly enthralled by Princess Makoto's company. Or maybe he's just shy, Naru sternly told herself. Or uncomfortable around a lot of people. Stop trying to fool yourself.
"Come on," Serenity whispered. "I want them to know I saw them. Then I can tease the Senshi and they won't be able to pretend they don't know what I'm talking about."
"We can't!" Naru protested. She didn't want Nephrite to think she was spying on him; that would be too humiliating, after everything else. But, again, Serenity started off by herself, leaving Naru no choice but to hurry after her.
The Princess paused where the walkway passed the patio. "Good evening, Senshi, Guardians," she said in her most regal voice. Everyone stood; the Senshi Princesses curtsied, the Guardians bowed. Naru, finally catching up with Serenity, dropped a curtsy as the nobles resumed their conversation and Serenity walked on.
When Naru straightened up, she caught Nephrite's eyes. The look of raw longing on his face stunned her. She couldn't move, she could only stand there and stare back at him. In a slight but unmistakable gesture, he raised his wine glass to her.
Princess Makoto was saying something to him. He didn't respond. The tall princess looked at Nephrite, then followed his gaze to Naru. Naru felt her face flame. She turned and ran into the darkness, following one of the smaller, unpaved paths through the gardens. Tears stung her eyes. Who was she fooling? She could never be anything to him, no matter how much they wanted each other. He would marry a princess, and she would remain a servant and provide meaningless diversions for visiting noblemen and bear an illegitimate child just as her mother had done.
A pain in her side finally forced her to stop running. She leaned against a tree and cried, ashamed that someone might hear her but unable to stop herself.
Don't despair, child.
Naru looked around, startled out of her crying, but then realized the soft, chiming voice was speaking inside her mind. Who are you?
Through the hazy Earthlight, a sparkling net of stars suddenly came into view. They seemed to move about, as though in a stately, elegant dance, and in the pattern of their dance Naru saw something that took her breath away though she never could have said exactly what it was. A glimpse of something eternal, something beautiful beyond words... He is our favored child. What he longs for, he will have. We will see to it.
Gradually, the stars faded back into the misty, bluish light. Naru wiped the last tears from her cheeks. It was crazy, it had to have been her imagination, yet she felt a peace that she had never known before. What he longs for, he will have.... Somehow, some way, someday, she would have what she longed for, too.
She set off through the gardens, looking for her errant Princess.
* * * * * * * *
Zoisite and Kunzite were together in Kunzite's bed. It was late at night and the palace was silent, and they had triple-locked the door with the strongest ward spells they knew, but there was still a risk they could be discovered. If their King or Prince required them during the night, they would have no choice but to respond. Zoisite hated it that he and the silver-haired Guardian couldn't be open about their love.
"Kunzite-sama, are you sure this is a good idea?" Zoisite asked plaintively.
"Absolutely. The stability of the planetary alliances would be increased considerably. And, with Endymion married to Serenity and the four of us married to the Inner Senshi, King Arrendel's court would become the center of power in the Solar System."
"Why does it always have to be power and politics with you? Don't you care about anything else?"
"I care about fulfilling my duty: protecting the Prince, promoting peace and stability throughout the solar system, and increasing the glory of the Realm of Earth. Remember, Zoisite, those are your duties too. And you are hardly one to accuse me of being too interested in power."
Zoisite pouted. "You only care about duty. You don't care about me."
Kunzite took some time to disprove this statement. "There is another advantage to my idea," he said a while later. "Who would ever suspect a couple of happily married men of doing something like this?"
"I don't think I could fool anyone into thinking I was happily married. I mean, you know, what a husband's supposed to do, I've never done it and I don't think I can...."
"Don't you worry about that, my little golden rat," Kunzite breathed into his ear. "I'll teach you how to manage it...."
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The next week and a half were taken up with preparations for the grand ball in celebration of Prince Endymion and Princess Serenity's betrothal. Naru was kept running from dawn to midnight supervising the preparation of guest quarters for the royalty and nobles who were arriving daily from the other planets, assigning lady's maids to those ladies who hadn't brought their own servants and briefing the servants who had accompanied their mistresses, handling requests for seamstresses, special meals, extra bedding, flower arrangements, a thousand and one things being demanded by women who were used to having every little thing exactly to their liking and who couldn't bear a moment's discomfort or inconvenience. On top of this she still had her usual duties to Queen Selene and Princess Serenity.
She frequently saw Lord Nephrite as she hurried from one job to another, but she literally did not have a minute to sit down during the day, much less stop and talk to him. On the other hand, he didn't seem to be making any particular effort to pin her down. It was just as well, she told herself. What could possibly come of any conversation they had, except for more confusion and frustration? It was best if she just immersed herself in her duties.
Her moment with the stars in the garden seemed ever more dreamlike, less real, in the frantic activity of preparing for the ball, and the glimpse she had had of something eternal and beautiful gradually faded from her memory.
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The Moon Kingdom was famous for its balls and parties, but this ball outshone even the most splendid rumors. Hundreds of light globes shone their light down from the high domed ceiling of the gleaming white marble ballroom. The ladies all wore elegant, flowing silk gowns in a brilliant rainbow of colors, the men were resplendent in black and white formalwear. The music was exquisite, the wine was incomparable.
Like the other Guardians, Nephrite wore his formal black dress uniform. The high-collared jacket was trimmed with scarlet, purple, and gold braiding and gleaming gold buttons. A colorful mosaic of medals and ribbons decorated the left side of his chest. His black trousers were creased to lethal sharpness and tucked into high black boots that had been polished till they seemed to glow with an inner light of their own. He wore blindingly immaculate white gloves and a perfectly useless, but beautifully jeweled, toothpick of a dress sword at his hip.
He had danced with most of the ladies of the Moon Court, and a good portion of the visiting noblewomen, and each of the Senshi. Kunzite had arranged for the Guardians to have three dances with the Inner Senshi. Nephrite supposed that, in theory, dancing was an enjoyable thing except that it had to be done in the midst of a large group of people. He also preferred to be able to converse with his dance partner, but while Makoto of Jupiter was an excellent dancer, they hadn't found a lot to talk about during their three dances.
After the third dance with the Princess of Jupiter, he excused himself to go find another glass of wine. Glad of the break, he found a chair against a wall and sat there to observe the festivities. He would have to dance with Princess Serenity at some point, after she and Prince Endymion had danced their first dance of the evening, the formal Engagement Waltz. In the meantime, he was happy to rest his feet and give this excellent wine the attention it deserved.
He hadn't noticed if Naru was at the ball, hadn't even had a chance to look for her yet. Now, through a brief break in the swirl of dancing couples, he glimpsed her in an opposite corner of the room. She was sitting with a group of quite elderly ladies and gentlemen, stitching at a piece of needlework. The next time he was able to see her through the crowd, she was arranging a blanket over the lap of an old man who was looking distinctly discontent.
It had angered Nephrite to see Naru being run off her feet the last ten days. At first he had wanted to talk to her, to explain about being in the gardens with Princess Makoto, how it hadn't been his idea and he would have preferred to be with Naru. Then he realized that every minute of her time that he took was another minute that she would be up past midnight tending to her vastly increased duties. So he had left her alone.
And now, tonight, she was rewarded for her hard work by having to sit in attendance upon those who were too old or infirm or sour-tempered to dance. It was intolerable. Nephrite drained his goblet, set it down on a nearby table, and made his way around the room to where Naru sat.
He had never seen anyone so beautiful, he thought, getting his first good look at her of the evening. She wore a high-waisted gown of layer upon layer of sheer blue silk, each layer embroidered all over with silver thread. The short sleeves were set well down on her shoulders, revealing creamy, fair skin, and the low-necked bodice set off her full breasts most admirably. Her red hair was caught up in a complicated arrangement of curls and braids, leaving long wispy tendrils trailing down her back and around her face and shoulders. Nephrite just stood still for a moment, admiring her. An old woman spoke to Naru in a high, complaining voice; Naru answered with a patient, gentle smile, and was rewarded with a "hmmpf" and further complaints from the old woman.
What a waste, Nephrite thought. She should be the jewel of the dance floor, not stuck in a corner tending to ungrateful old grouches. He approached her, bowed, and held out a white-gloved hand. "Will you dance, Miss Naru?"
She stared up at him, speechless for a moment. "I --," she finally said. "I should ask the Queen's permission, first."
"Come with me," Nephrite said. "I'll ask."
Hastily, her hands fumbling, she took a pair of short white gloves embroidered with white silk flowers from her needlework bag, pulled them on, and took his hand. He led her to where Selene sat enthroned with the Princess, Prince, and King Arrendel. "Mama," Serenity was saying, "it's my engagement ball, why can't Mamo and I dance yet?"
Nephrite bowed deeply before the Queen. "Your Majesty," he said, "I beg your permission to ask your maidservant Naru to dance."
The Queen looked at Nephrite, then at Naru, who was wringing her hands nervously. The she smiled, an elegant, gracious smile. "Permission granted."
Nephrite bowed again and said, "Thank you," while Naru happily said , "Thank you, my Queen!" Then he took Naru by the hand again and led her to the dance floor.
She was not an experienced dancer, but with Nephrite firmly leading she seemed to float in his arms. He would have been content to dance in silence, but Naru finally spoke. "You dance very well, Lord Nephrite. Do you like to dance?"
"I suppose so," he answered. At this particular moment, he liked it very much. "I dislike the large parties where most dancing takes place."
"I never get to dance," Naru said. "But dancing with you, I feel like I know how."
They danced in silence a little longer. The waltz ended and a new one began, but they did not even leave the floor in between songs. "How long have you been in Queen Selene's service?" Nephrite asked.
"All my life, I guess. I was born in the palace - my mother was a lady's maid to the Queen. She died when I was born, so the Queen had me brought up with Serenity, who is only half a year older than I am. Even when I was little, I was supposed to kind of keep an eye on the Princess, keep her from getting into trouble with these ideas of hers, things like that. And I guess I started helping her dress, fixing her hair, things like that, when I was about five. They've both been very kind to me, and Serenity and I really are good friends."
Nephrite thought of a small motherless girl giving up even her very early childhood in service to the Queen and Princess. Could any amount of kindness make up for what had been lost? Had she ever known what it was like to be held and loved and cherished, to be valued for herself rather than for the service she could give? He himself barely remembered what that was like; he longed to give her that feeling, to rediscover it for himself....
"How about you?" Naru asked shyly. "How long have you been a Guardian?"
"Since I was ten. My family has traditionally supplied Guardians to the royal house. When Endymion was born, I was in the appropriate age range, so I was sent to live at the palace and accepted as a Guardian soon afterwards. My name was changed to Nephrite, one of the traditional Guardian names, from whatever it used to be - I don't even remember my original name any more - and I was adopted out of my birth family into the Lineage of Guardians. My family is no longer my family, and I haven't been home since the day I was sent away."
"So we're both alone," Naru said after a moment.
One wall of the ballroom was lined with glass-paned double doors leading out to the Grand Balcony on the front of the palace. Two sets of doors had been opened, to relieve some of the heat that had built up in the ballroom. A few couples were going in and out, seeking fresh air or a moment of privacy. As they danced, Nephrite steered Naru towards the open doors, then took her hand and led her outside.
They stood at the wall overlooking the gardens in the bluish Earthlight, the night air soft and barely cool against their skin. The laughter and music from the ballroom was a distant, festive sound. Nephrite put his hands on Naru's smooth shoulders and made her face him. "Naru, ever since I met you I don't feel alone any more."
Her wide blue-green eyes met his. "But -"
"I know. I know all about our different stations, and our obligations and duties and what's proper and what isn't." He drew her close, then kissed her. Their mouths were warm and pliable against each other, they seemed to breathe each other's breath, inhale each other's life. They clung tightly to each other, Nephrite crushing Naru's soft form against him as her hands gripped his shoulders and tangled themselves through his hair. Finally, Nephrite moved his mouth from Naru's and dragged a trail of kisses along her jawline to her ear, then down her neck to her bare back and shoulder. She sagged slightly in his arms. He longed to keep going, to taste the soft flesh above the neckline of her dress, but stopped himself. They were in a public place, and he didn't want to do anything to damage her reputation. Reluctantly, he moved his mouth back to her ear. "Naru, my love, even if this is all we can ever have of each other, I will at least be grateful for having known you at all."
She was crying quietly. "I don't want this to be all we ever have together. I know you're being honorable, and that you don't want to use me or anything, but -"
"Shh," he hushed her gently. From the ballroom came the King's voice, giving some speech, then applause, then the orchestra struck up a new song. Nephrite knew that Endymion's engagement gift to Serenity was a star-shaped locket that played this song when it was opened, and that the song, specially composed for that purpose, had also been arranged for orchestra for the formal Engagement Waltz.
"Hear that?" Nephrite whispered.
"It's Serenity and Endymion's waltz," Naru answered.
The first time the waltz was played, the betrothed couple would dance to it by themselves. Kunzite had been talking about having the Guardians dance with the Inner Senshi the second time it was played. Nephrite didn't think about any of this; he and Naru were alone on the balcony, in a world of their own.
He held Naru's hand and bowed over it. "May I have this dance, Naru?"
She smiled gently. "Of course you may, Lord Nephrite."
He took her into his arms and they began to waltz in the Earthlight to the wistful, mysterious music coming from the ballroom. Nephrite thought that if he could hold her like this for the rest of his life, he would never want anything else. How could he, when everything that mattered was already in his arms?
Enjoy it while it lasts, Nephrite. It was the same voice that had come into his head a few times before, taunting and tempting.
Nephrite's dancing faltered for just a split second, then he recovered himself. Get the hell out of my mind. I will never join you.
Laughter. I've heard that before... What if I told you that one of the other three has already sworn to me?
I wouldn't believe you. We may not always get along, but I know that none of the Guardians would ever join you. We will fight you to the last drop of blood in our bodies.
How heroic. More laughter. Whether or not you or any of the others ever join me, know, Nephrite, that all this will end, your world will end, and there will be nothing left but darkness, and there is nothing you can do to prevent it. You might as well be on the winning side.
Nephrite drew Naru closer to him as they danced beneath the distant, brilliant gaze of the stars. He would never swear allegiance to Beryl. He would fight her to the death. It was his duty and his privilege to give his life to protect the Prince and the Realm of Earth from her evil. And although he finally felt as though he had something to live for, he would gladly die to protect Naru.
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Lyra's Children Index / go to Book 2 Chapter 3
The Nephrite and Naru Treasury