She meets him in the distant desert, a land of death and sand deemed uninhabitable by every scientist under the employ of Mercury. It smells of heat and sulfur, and a sun so hot there that it bakes the skin. She chooses it because it is so reviled. She never ventures to the ugly places, not anymore.
He waits for her on the edge of the horizon, a pale plot against the brown. She walks toward him as slowly as she dares, white veils and fabric wings fluttering in the dusty wind. She cannot feign surprise when he appears before her a moment after she has spotted him, his violet eyes sharp and strange in his pale face.
"I didn't think you'd come," the Prince of Nemesis says, his voice grasping at confidence but having the slightest shake.
The Queen of Earth tilts her head to the side, her gold hair slipping over her bare shoulder. "I invited you. It would be rather rude of me to fail to attend."
Demando's mouth twists into something equal parts rueful and wrathful. She knows immediately what he is thinking. "I thought they might stop you."
Serenity laughs quietly, both gratified and unsettled to see the effect it has on him, the awe and unabashed wonder on his face. No matter how many years go by, she does not get used to the effect she has on people. The prostration, the supplication, the worship, the reverence. As a girl, when she'd had a name instead of a title, it would have unnerved her to the point of tears. It's different now, more a memory of a feeling than a feeling itself. And no one ever looks quite so affected as Demando. She hates these feelings he has for her, loathes his obsessions and assumptions. But it gives her hope as well, for it she is to survive, she must eventually defeat him.
"I wonder if you expect me to be flattered when you constantly insinuate that I am merely a puppet on the throne."
Somehow, he manages not to look embarrassed, though she can tell he struggles. She almost laughs again when she realizes that the last time they spoke like this, face-to-face and no ceremonial posturing, she was a child not even 15 struggling to keep her footing around him. He seemed so charismatic and sure of himself them. Now she sees the cracks in his armor and knows that she is stronger than him. It saddens her beyond the telling of it. He's still alive, and all she can see is his wasted life.
"I know you are powerful, my White Phoenix."
She raises an eyebrow. It's a title she hasn't heard before. She wonders if Mars will take affront. "Serenity will do, Prince Demando."
He looks appalled; as though he is not worthy to say her name. "Your friends are powerful as well," he presses. "They may keep secrets and plot against you. You may trust them more than you ought."
She smiles kindly. "I trust my friends exactly as much as I should, Prince Demando." She does not say how much that is, because he will never comprehend its strength. Confusing him more seems cruel. She may be cold, now, but she tries not to be cruel.
His knuckles crack in his clenching fists. "Mars--"
"--can admittedly get carried away," Serenity interrupts. "She and Jupiter can be a bit... overzealous when it comes to my protection."
Demando's eyes darken. "People could have died because of their 'zeal.'"
Ah, yes, that stings. Sometimes she wonders if she is more marble statue than mother, wife, or even queen. It's a relief to feel genuine tears prick her eyes, to know she is still capable of demonstrative grief. "I cannot tell you how sorry I am about that."
"I know you are," he says. The adoration in his voice will surely haunt her coming nightmares. He does not reach for her, but he clearly wants to. "And I know they're not."
Serenity wishes she could deny this, but in truth, Mars and Jupiter both stand behind their extreme measures when it comes to dealing with the Black Moon rebels. And though she keeps her own counsel on the matter, Serenity knows that Venus silently agrees. Perhaps she even gave the order, which would only serve to fuel Demando's paranoia. Only Mercury urges for caution, though Serenity does not know how long she can count on even her, her first comrade-in-arms. She fears the day when Mercury chooses pragmatism over mercy is fast approaching, and then she will be alone.
"We're talking in circles," she says. "I am here to make an offer."
"And I'm here to listen to it."
She takes a deep, quiet breath. She has spent days rehearsing and finding just the right wording. She can only hope that he can be made to see reason. Only hope that he wants to circumvent war and bloodshed. It's a slim hope, she knows, but to protect her daughter from sorrow, she will cling to it until he tears it from her grasp.
"There is not a person left alive on your planet who began the rebellion," she begins. "The descendants are all that remain. They have been raised to hate me and anyone associated with the White Moon and Crystal Tokyo. And I truly believe they have that right."
Her eyes slide away from his face to the setting sun. She cannot bear to see his face in this moment, her darkest confession. "I regret the cleansing now. I went through with it because... well, the reasons really don't matter, do they? I thought it was a good idea: me. Not my friends, not my husband, but me. And now I rule over a race of immortals who cannot appreciate life thanks to boredom and melancholy. So few of us really smile meaningfully anymore."
She does not say that she numbers among them. Maybe he already knows.
"I don't know if I had the right or if I was righteous. I certainly meant well, but there's a saying about that, isn't there? I especially regret making it mandatory. Your ancestors were right to question me, though I still do not condone their terrorist actions.
"In the end, they were given a choice: a trial for treason which could end in a death sentence or exile. Many chose the latter. Those few who went to their deaths would likely think they made the better choice, considering what your home is like."
Out of the corner of her eye, she watches his eyes wide in sudden understanding. "You've been to Nemesis."
She shudders. Even the name sickens her. Their choice, not hers, meant to mark them in opposition to her. Sometimes she wondered if in naming the planet, they cursed it to work against its inhabitants. "I have. I don't know why I didn't go before. It never occurred to me, I suppose. Then suddenly it did.
"I walked the craggy black Earth, and I smelled the acid rain. I survived the squalls and comforted the screaming child. I wept for her pain and for yours, for everyone who ever woke to that black sun knowing what lay beyond the door.
“If I had known, I never would have let them go. I would have found another option, another planet. Perhaps I would have forgiven them entirely.”
“But you never would have stepped down.”
The smile she gives him aches. “No.”
Demando stares at her in silence, fascinated and unsure, aroused and repulsed. He teeters towards the madness that haunts her memory, but maybe, just maybe, she can coax him away from the edge.
“What are you offering?” he asks.
“Come back,” she says, and if it's a touch too pleading for her station, so be it. No one's there to criticize. “Come back to Earth. Wipe off those horrible marks and be of my people again. I will not cleanse any who do not wish it. I can even set up a conclave apart from Crystal Tokyo for those who don’t wish to integrate. Just come back to us. To me.”
He is tempted; a fool could see that. He longs to give his assent as much as an orphan longs for love. And he is an orphan in a way: a child abandoned by their queen mother. He wants nothing more than to run into her arms and accept her offer.
But that would be a gesture between equals, and she requires his supplication.
She realizes then that this is the one thing he will never concede.
“I can’t,” he murmurs, his voice almost lost in the wind. “I don’t think my people would agree, and… I bow to no one, Serenity. Not even you.”
Serenity shuts her eyes in defeat and resignation so bitter it tastes like ashes. She knows this rejection means war. She thinks of her husband who will wander the palace like a ghost for the better part of a year. Of her protectors, who will either guard the city in her absence or fall in its defense. Of her daughter, who will wander through time to try and save her. Of her own fate, trapped in a glass coffin.
A tear slips down her cheek before she can stop it.
An instant later, his thumb is brushing the water away. Her eyes fly open, and to her surprise, he does not look chagrined. By refusing her, he has taken his place as a fellow prince. A white king to her white queen. For the first time, she recognizes him as the larger than life figure of her youth.
“I’ll save you,” he whispers. It's like a benediction.
She will spend a year trapped in a glass coffin. She is not a statue, after all. She's a symbol, living her life through fairy tale trappings, and this man thinks he is the prince come to save her. She will never convince him otherwise.
Serenity shakes her head, but cannot bring herself to pull away. “You’ll never win.”
His fingers dig into her flesh a touch too hard. He relaxes his grip a moment later, but it’s too late. She knows how far he’s gone now, where she’s driven him.
When she first came to power, she would have wept against her husband’s chest knowing what she had inadvertently created. A hundred years ago, it would have ached and left her craving something she could no longer articulate. Now it just stings. This is the price she paid, the price she agreed to pay for all of them, even if she didn't fully understand the cost.
She slips away from him like a ribbon too thin to hold. “Poor white king with his delusions of grandeur.”
His eyes flash dangerously, a panther in the dusk. “Poor white queen in her gilded cage.”
An instant later, they have both vanished from the desert, returning to their respective kingdoms. They have told no one of this secret meeting, and they never will. No matter how many times Saffir asks after his brother's brooding silences. No matter how many times Endymion has to wake his wife from a nightmare. The white monarchs keep their counsel.
For the rest of her long, long life, Serenity never returns to the desert.