Actions

Work Header

Saturnine

Work Text:

1.

Iapetus had a small world.

That wasn’t to say that his home planet – Saturn, the planet of ruin and destruction – was a small planet. It was the second largest in this solar system, with many moons inhabiting its orbit.

No, Iapetus had a small world. There were few things with true meaning to him, and most of what he saw was therefore colorless – nothing to him.

The most singular person in his world, the very person his entire world, his soul revolved around, was his princess. The light of his life that gave color to his sight, the definition of his meaning, the star he orbited around.

Princess Makaria of Saturn.

2.

One soldier, born to each of the royal houses of the planets as princesses. Blessed and loved by their homes, destined to soar through the night sky among the stars.

The last of the solar system’s princesses was born on Saturn, and the soothsayers foretold of a star fated to bring about the end of all with her death.

The soldier of destruction.

Iapetus was too young to know what was said and done, at the time of Princess Makaria’s birth. By the time he was old enough to realize the world around him, his princess was a young girl who had never set foot outside the castle bestowed upon her at birth by the silver queen.

A young girl with old, old eyes, duty and destiny ingrained into her since birth, told of her death before she knew what it was like to truly live.

And he a young man raised from childhood to serve her.

3.

Saturn was the planet of silence, officially. Destruction and ruin, too. Rebirth as well, though no one ever seemed to remember the last one outside of Saturn itself.

Unofficially, it was the forbidden planet. An unsaid rule meant very few came to Saturn, as if the entire planet was infested with a plague. 

The laws of the alliance meant they could not place trade embargos on Saturn, or discriminate their products by enforcing high tariffs, and Queen Serenity herself was the biggest buyer of Saturnian goods, advocating for equal treatment for all residents of the Silver Millennium, but nonetheless, Saturn was mostly self-sufficient and kept to themselves, something Saturnians did for their own sakes and not the rest of the solar system’s.

All they sold to the rest of the solar system were Saturnian jewels, dark purple crystals that flickered mysteriously when held to the light and were excellent raw materials for illusion-making artifacts, and soil, the richest in all the solar system save for Terra’s, the actual forbidden planet.

In Mars to oversee trade for fire rubies and other goods, Iapetus cast a bored glance around the market. Yes, there was life, with children running around and merchants calling out their wares to passersby, but the planet itself was dry as a bone, with sand everywhere. Everywhere.

Perhaps the more forbidden a planet was, the richer the possibilities for life and growth, Iapetus pondered, mind idle in this gods-forsaken heat. A true wonder that the Martians were the people of war. Maybe the heat had permanently crippled their cognitive abilities, and that was why they were about passion and war instead of rationality and calmly thinking things through.

“I wonder how these fools will die,” said Iapetus, aloud this time. “Care to make a bet? I’m partial to clumsy mistake quickening their inevitable ends.”

“Iapetus,” Dione chided, more out of reflex than any intent to make him stop. He wasn’t bothered, and neither was she. On her part it was more a courtesy for those listening to give the barest of impressions that what they thought mattered. Compared to what he used to do, why, this was almost tame.

But as if he’d said something unbearably vulgar, the Martian merchants flinched. Iapetus mentally rolled his eyes. Cowards, the lot of them. Proud desert warrior race from the planet of passion and fire, and yet they balked at the inevitable. The children of Saturn were wiser about this fact of life than the entire planet.

Instead of actually rolling his eyes he smiled at them, the one he wielded like a dagger because it unsettled those that saw it and it always deeply satisfied him to see the usual reactions from the plebs. Flinching, sweating, averting eyes, and on one memorable occasion, wetting his trousers.

With the deals completed, Iapetus turned to sightseeing.

Mars was hot. It was a mostly-desert planet – something to be expected from the people that wielded fire magic in their blood, he supposed – and, well, it was hot. Not very impressive at all. Irritating, in fact.

Iapetus didn’t like the sweat the fiery heat drew out of him, hated how he was roasting in his dark clothes, and a part of him wanted someone to try insulting him or his planet so he could verbally eviscerate them if only to distract his attention from the wretched temperature.

But he didn’t stay indoors, in the cool shade with magic to chill the air to keep him from overheating. He took in everything – all the sights of the foreign planet, the sounds of the people talking about inane things he didn’t care about, the smell of foods sold by vendors and the hot sand baking under the sun.

Iapetus wasn’t impressed, but he took them in nonetheless, taking in the details obsessively. It was the reason why he came on these trips in the first place, when they forced him to leave the side of his princess.

4.

Dione was the first and only foreigner in his memory that came to Saturn out of her own will and requested citizenship. Before coming to Saturn, she was born and lived on the planet Cocoon, one of the planets allied to the Silver Millennium.

The Mauians that immigrated to the solar system stayed in the center of power, in Venus and on the moon itself, acting as advisors of the royal line. The warriors from Coronis were, by their bloodthirsty nature, drawn to the planet of war and swore service to Mars. Mermaids went to the planet of the deep oceans, Neptune, almost identical in environment to their home. Data analysts from Chu chose to go to Mercury for the technology and academies, where they could debate for hours with renowned scholars.

Dione was a rather special case, seeking out Saturn. It gave her no chances to make political alliances or connections, to seek citizenship from a planet ostracized by the rest of the solar system.

It was for that reason – that she had no real benefit to gain – and the fact that she was genuinely fond of his princess that Iapetus trusted his fellow retainer now.

5.

Because Princess Makaria could not leave Saturn – had never left Titan Castle since birth – her retainers stood as her representatives in events where someone of her station was needed for decisions, such as parties or negotiations for renewals or amendments to trade agreements.

If Iapetus didn’t have something important to gain from those, he would have let Dione take them all. For all that she was reticent, she had better diplomacy than he did. Half his words to anyone other than his princess ended up being what he thought to be the height of wit and sarcasm and was received as insults or threats by the other party.

Which was insulting. If he had wanted to threaten them, he would have, no wasting time with roundabout words or veiled insults, and then followed up by taking their worst nightmares and giving them horrors worse by ten, twentyfold. It was like they’d forgotten how he had made a name for himself.

At least he could take quite a bit of pleasure in how his targets reddened and spluttered. Knives needed to be sharpened regularly with whetstones, and the same applied for sharp tongues against skulls, thick or less thick.

But gain something from the painful trips away from Saturn he did, and Iapetus went on those trips despite how he suffered, dealing with pig-headed idiots while being forced to stay away from the most important person in his life.

After all, Dione was good at illusory magic, but she was no match for him.

6.

When they returned at last, their princess wasn’t in her usual spot – a seat, next to a large window that looked out to Saturn and its moons.

As usual, she met them at the foyer, as close to the door as she could be without crossing the boundaries she was forbidden to pass. When her violet eyes landed on them, the reflexive smile was like daybreak, the sun coming up from the horizon to peel back darkness after a long night.

Suddenly, the trip to the wretched planet of Mars was worth it, if only to see her smile like that. Every time, it never failed to make Iapetus feel like someone of worth.

He bowed and heard the faint rustling sounds from Dione’s side as she did the same. “Princess, we’ve returned from Mars.”

7.

The entire solar system trembled when the prophecy was made known – that the princess of Saturn would bring the end of their era with her death. There were riots, demanding the banishment of a princess from her own planet, and crimes against Saturnians outside their home.

Unrest and chaos were settled only when the verdict was announced – that the princess would be locked away, never to step foot outside her castle. For the sake of everyone’s safety, including her own.

The Saturnians protested to the treatment of their princess, to no avail. They were a part of the solar system, for good or bad, and pragmatically, they could not risk the worst-case scenario and go to war. They were never known as a race of warriors, had no chance of winning, and after losing a futile war who would protect their princess? With not even a home planet willing to speak up, or lay their life down for her sake, what would happen to her at the hands of the paranoid mob of a conquering army?

Hers was that of merciful death, not mindless slaughter or cruel destruction.

Saturnians were pragmatic, realistic people, skilled at keeping the silence. And silence could hold much meaning.

If the princess was to live for the rest of her life in her castle, never to walk even the ground of her own planet, then the Saturnians aimed to give her the best of everything, as their tribute to their goddess. The most scrumptious of foods and drinks, clothes made from the finest materials, the most beautiful and well-polished jewels, and so on. Everything they offered her had to be the finest, even if she was to use it only once.

The best, including the experiences of being in other places so that she would not live her entire life seeing only the same sights.

That was why Iapetus and his talent with illusory magic was chosen to serve her. Even as a child unaware of a world beyond what he could see, he was already fluent in the language of alternate realities.

8.

In Titan Castle, Iapetus recreated the sensation of standing in the desert of Mars. This trip had been to settle an argument that sprang up over a disagreement in renewing a contract. The Martians wanted to lower prices for their illusory gems. The Saturnian merchants had not gone along with their heavy-handed attempts at subtle threats and insults, and instead called for one of the two Torches of Titan Castle, the two souls given the right to stand in the stead of the absent princess of Saturn.

One of them, half of Saturn’s standing army, would have been more than enough. Dione alone would have been more than enough, because she was known as the last resort before him.

But it had been a few years since Iapetus left Saturn, and he clearly needed to remind Mars why it was a bad idea to insult his planet if a Torch was being called to settle the conflict.

Both Torches came, much to the delightful horror of the Martians, and the argument was very quickly settled.

That, of course, was not what he showed his princess. She didn’t need to see such things.

Before her eyes, Iapetus wove an illusion until her chambers were no longer in sight. In the place of familiar walls and furniture stood an open market, sand the color of a dusty, sun-faded red heated beneath the soles of their feet. Surrounding them were vendors, dressed for the climate of a hot, dry planet, calling to passersby to come try and buy their wares.

From one stall came the hot scent of spices, fragrant and strong. From another, where perfumes were sold in thick bars, an amalgamation of powerful scents came like a tangled bouquet of wildflowers ripped up from the ground. One vendor selling silks, hand-painted with vibrant colors, had her wares displayed so that they fluttered in the air and drew the eye. Behind them, out of sight but certainly not out of hearing, a man bellowed about love charms from Venus, guaranteed to earn the love of the person the user wanted.

Some walked through the marketplace with a purpose, treating the voices of the merchants as nothing more than background noise. Others, who had more time to spare and perhaps some coins waiting to be used for something special, kept their ears open, and allowed their attentions to be caught and pulled in like fish on a line. Potential buyers interested in what they were offered haggled, seeking to get what they wanted at the lowest possible price while the seller fought to achieve the opposite, to part with their goods at the highest possible price.

Small children ran through the markets, playing games and whooping as they wove between taller adults walking at slower paces. In their hands were sweets, perhaps bought with coin given to them by their parents, though they did not stay in small hands for long.

In the midst of his illusions, his princess stood, feeling the hot air press on her skin and enter her airways, letting the endless shades of red fill her eyes.

He didn’t like Mars, didn’t like any of the other planets. He didn’t enjoy the latest trip he made, hated the sand, the heat, the people. He disliked crowded places, and markets were some of the worst for him to deal with, if not the worst.

But the look of wonder as she explored the dream he wove for her made everything worth it in that moment.

9.

When Iapetus was first officially designated a Torch, just past a childhood full of training and lessons, he became aware of the world outside Saturn’s quiet domain.

Saturn had little influence over the politics of the Silver Millennium. In part it was because the planet was one with a scant population – ahead only of Pluto – and in part it was because they feared Princess Makaria.

It was clear just how they wanted to limit their sway, when looking at the two Torches. One, a foreigner, not born on Saturn. The other, a man just barely out of boyhood. There would always be a limitation to the power they could have, even when standing on behalf of the princess herself – and therefore a limitation on the voice of Saturn.

Life as second-class citizens. He had to sink or swim when representing his people, and one mistake would be fatal, not just to him but everyone else. He kept his silence, observed, treaded with caution – and, infuriatingly, their underestimating the boy-not-yet-man, their underestimating a Saturnian, was what kept him from being shredded. He wasn’t big enough a prize or player to be faced seriously.

It hurt his pride when he realized this, but he played it smart nonetheless, storing his seething anger for more productive ways.

But if dealing with the residents of the Silver Millennium was bad, the princess was worse. As if she wanted to embody the very thing she was destined for, she spent her days, listless and lifeless. Iapetus might have been chosen for his talent in illusions, in the hopes that Princess Makaria could see the world from inside her gilded cage, but never did she once order him to use his talents, leaving him to work on his skills as a politician and a paper-pusher. Whatever policies he wrote up, whatever questions he had about decisions he had to make in her stead, she merely asked what he wanted to do and encouraged him to do what he felt was right.

As if their future was not her concern. As if he, and all the Saturnians, had no worth, in the eyes of the Silver Millennium and their own princess.

When Iapetus first realized this, he raged, breaking everything in his reach. He released his temper only in his room, but the ruckus was loud enough to raise the dead.

In his case he drew the attention of the princess.

“Doesn’t it infuriate you?” Iapetus had demanded, back then. Until then he treated his princess with polite respect as he had been told and taught all his life, but his anger tore away his mask. How could she just accept such a thing? Why couldn’t she fight for herself, for her people? The Silver Millennium wanted her quiet as the dead, and so she had become that.

The princess held his gaze, eyes lacking emotions – no anger, no sadness, no fear. She might have been beautiful, befitting an incarnation of the goddess of destruction, but there was no life in her. A doll, with no voice, no heart, just going through the motions of living in her cage. “No.”

“No?” repeated Iapetus, and laughed without any true joy. “No. Because we’re all just going to die. Because none of us matter, is that it?”

It was not death that scared him the most. Not the end.

It was life, the suffering within it that made Iapetus hesitate with fear. If the end would come to all – and it would – then what was the point in living like they did, quiet as meek mice and hidden? Why not become the monsters they were expected to be, bringers of death? Why hold back at all?

Living was harder than dying. The latter came without struggle – even if they struggled to fight it, to flee it. Death always came. Memento Mori, every child of Saturn knew.

But living? Living was a fight, and when the entire solar system seemed to oppose their – his – efforts to live, then what was the point? What was the point when their own princess just waited for death, hers and theirs?

What point, what worth did their lives have?

Panting, Iapetus glared at his princess. What he said was more than enough to get him removed from his position as her retainer. If those of the court on Terra’s moon heard, they might have well called for his head, fearing his words would incite the princess into action.

She didn’t dismiss him, as she well might and perhaps should have.

Instead, Princess Makaria reached out and gently enveloped him into an embrace.

10.

“Who told you that you didn’t matter?” she asked, while he froze up. “Who lied to you about your worth?”

What stilled Iapetus was her contact, but what kept him from regaining his mobility was the quiet fury in her words. It was faint, but there, and compared to her usual quiet, stoic lack of expression, almost out of character.

She was angry. Not for herself, but for – him.

A part of him denied this reality, but the more realistic part of him, the part that made him an unparalleled genius of illusion magic, told him that this was all real.

Even if it didn’t make any sense.

“With my birth, the Saturnians paid the greatest price,” spoke Princess Makaria. Her anger was unfamiliar to him, but it was a quiet, cold thing. He could not see her face, not when she held him like this, but her small hands tightened on his back. “Their lives are theirs to live, because I am promised to vanquish destruction with my life for all those in this solar system. Their freedom is theirs, because I am the price for their liberty. Your life is yours, to do as you will, because I have guaranteed your deaths.”

Iapetus pushed her back, needing to break free from her hold. He needed to see her face, her eyes, because he needed to know the truth of her words.

Saturn’s princess did not fight him and released her hold. Her eyes were clear and firm, unshaking in their resolve.

Iapetus knew what lies looked like. He didn’t see a trace of falsehood in her.

“Don’t hold yourself back from living,” she whispered, eyes as violet as the finest of Saturn’s amethysts set in skin so pale it was nearly translucent, as if she wasn’t quite true flesh and blood. Fitting, because it felt like he was trapped in an illusion. “I am the consequence that was taken before you were aware, the price for all your actions, in the past and the future.”

11.

It wasn’t right, that a single person should bear such a heavy fate. It wasn’t right that one person had to give up everything for the sake of everyone.

It wasn’t right, but Princess Makaria had accepted the cruel fate she was given. More than that – she had seized it, torn the lion’s share so that Saturnians would not be crushed along with her under that heavy responsibility.

“Doesn’t it infuriate you?” Iapetus repeated his earlier question, but now he asked something else.

And with the change in what he asked, the answer he received changed as well. For the first time since meeting her in person, Iapetus saw her smile. The action filled her eyes with a gentle light, and she was no doll now.

She was alive, if only in that moment. “How could I be angry when it let me meet you and Dione?”

12.

Saturn had no army, in the traditional sense of the word. Every planet’s army, after all, required a sailor soldier to lead it, and their princess could not leave the castle, let alone transform. In that sense, the planet was similar to Pluto.

But more than that, no Saturnian was fond on the idea of fighting. Contrary to misgivings of outsiders, Saturnians weren’t obsessed with death, or causing it. They merely accepted it was inevitable and lived their lives, enjoying the peace and quiet of their silent planet.

As one of the two retainers who represented the princess, though, Iapetus made up half of Saturn’s entire military force. Until now he had kept his silence, bearing the scorn and contempt of outsiders looking down at him for being Saturnian.

Until now.

He debuted his power and the liberty his princess granted him at the interplanetary tournament, held in Jupiter.

Iapetus was chosen as a Torch for his natural talent in illusions, and they were his primary magic, the one he used like he breathed. Add in his skill in battle, and there was not a single opponent who met him on the stage that could defeat him. Some he tricked into making fools of themselves, fighting a foe that did not exist until he struck. Others – those he remembered being especially disdainful towards him, or any Saturnians – he gave special attention to.

“Surely this can’t be the best Mars has to offer,” Iapetus murmured, twirling his staff in idle circles. A few feet away from him, his opponent, on his hands and knees, threw up. The contents of his stomach were exposed to daylight, and whatever it had been, it couldn’t have been uglier going down than it did coming back up.

“I’ve heard that Martian warriors burn their enemies with flames until only ash remains,” he commented in a mild voice, like it was the topic of the weather he wanted to discuss. Something insignificant and idle. “Which means, I suppose, that you’re not used to seeing the bodies of the dead. At least, not for long.”

In the Silver Millennium, death – and births – were rare. When they happened, the Plutonian priests served as undertakers, preparing the bodies of the dead. Funeral rites were done according to the appropriate customs of the culture.

Martians cremated their dead after the rites were finished by the Plutonian priests. Fast, quick, and, Iapetus supposed, clean. Clean in the sense that rot and decay had little time to settle, though he imagined the smell of burning flesh might be worse.

Not so back in his home, where the Saturnians practiced excarnation. Their dead were placed in the Tower of Silence until only bones were left.

Just one body like those placed in the Tower of Silence was all Iapetus had shown his opponent. One rotting body with its flesh shredded and torn, bones poking out from the carrion, but one body.

Maybe it was the smell that had done it. The smell of rotting blood was quite terrible, after all. That was why the Tower of Silence was so high, to keep the stench from bothering the living.

Or maybe it was because the illusion made the man believe he was the dead body, rotting and being torn into by hungry vultures.

Well, whatever the reason, he still wasn’t impressed. Iapetus kicked the man in his ribs, and pressed his foot into his throat when he collapsed. A little more pressure, and he would die of a broken neck.

“You would think someone trained by warriors from Coronis would know better than to gag at the vision of dead bodies,” he said, but his eyes were directed to his next opponent. The woman named Phobos after her arrival and settlement in the Silver Millennium bristled at the taunt, to her and to everything she stood for.

In response to her anger, Iapetus stretched his lips into a smirk.

13.

He had never liked any of the planets, but his dislike for Mars, especially, was strong because they were too hot-headed, too fiery. Because they were the planet of war and yet, hypocrites that they were, did not realize the meaning of death as a blessing. He didn’t know if there was anything he could like about the planet.

Their princess, for all that she represented war, was glorified. Honored. She served the silver princess on the moon as one of her inner court.

What made war greater than death? Was war noble? Was it because the princesses were sailor ‘soldiers’, and thus their battles worthy of honor?

Of course not. Iapetus knew why his princess was locked in a castle, never to see the light of day. It was because she was powerful – too powerful.

The hypocrisy disgusted him, and perhaps it wasn’t the Martians who started it, but he disliked them quite a bit more than the other planets, nonetheless. No need for him to be fair if the world wasn’t.

Phobos was quite the fighter. As expected of the retainer serving Sailor Mars, and a warrior from Coronis.

She brushed aside the illusions of corpses. A crow by nature, Phobos wasn’t struck by fear at the sight of carrion.

In the end it came down to a physical brawl, and Iapetus set aside his skill in elaborate illusions to match Phobos in battle. Her dual swords might have looked like long feathers, but they were sharp enough to flay his skin into bloody ribbons of flesh, if he wasn’t careful.

“What are you up to?” Phobos demanded, after the latest clash between her swords and his staff.

Rather presumptive of her, to demand answers from him. They hardly knew each other, after all. Of each other, yes. Iapetus was aware of her as who she was, her background on paper, and he was sure the same applied to her in that regard.

But they didn’t know each other, not as companions, not as acquaintances, not even as enemies.

Iapetus didn’t owe it to her, to explain that for the first time in his life, he realized there was a meaning to it, that he understood at last the philosophy of Saturn taught to her children.

Only death was certain. Memento Mori.

But life was a blank space waiting to be filled.

“Just enjoying life,” he replied breezily, and struck with his staff. She blocked the blow to her head with the two swords, but by then he had already triggered the trap that had been built during the match.

Phobos was a great warrior, Iapetus would acknowledge that. In a ‘fair’ fight – that is, in a fight with no illusions – he would have likely lost.

Iapetus, though, had surpassed all the masters of illusions on Saturn years ago.

In respect to her skills as a fighter, Iapetus didn’t waste her time with the usual gruesome images. It probably wouldn’t even make her bat an eye, anyways – she was from Coronis, after all.

Instead, Iapetus overwhelmed her senses, flooding her sight, hearing and smell with an overload of information. It was blunt, it was crude, it was inelegant – but it was effective.

Having been on guard after seeing him toy with his opponents since the quarter finals, ready to notice the smallest discrepancies, her hyper-focused caution proved to be her undoing. It earned him a moment, and that was all he needed to win the tournament.

Phobos gagged when he smashed the staff into her solar plexus and recovered control over her senses only to find the staff at her throat. It was his win.

The crowd, shocked, was in silence. It was fitting to the victory of a Saturnian, and Iapetus much preferred it to rambunctious applause from a mindless crowd.

That day, Iapetus made a name for Saturnians – a name to be feared, and to not looked down upon. It was no longer ‘Saturn only has the two Torches’, but rather ‘the two Torches of Saturn are all the planet needs.’ It wasn’t just their princess the Silver Millennium should be wary of.

It was nice, Iapetus decided, as he was crowned champion by a Jupiterian with a forced smile, to live a life with meaning. He rather looked forward to it, for as long as it would last.

14.

The head of the merchants’ guild asked for a meeting.

Enceladus didn’t bother with niceties and got straight to the point, something Iapetus appreciated. “Will you explain to me why the Mercurians were so terrified they didn’t even bother haggling over the latest shipment of amethysts?”

Iapetus tipped his head. “You’re not one to play coy, Enceladus. Ask what you really want to know.”

The giant of a man who, in appearances alone, looked like he could crush boulders with his hands, sighed. “Iapetus, I understand your frustrations, but fear does not forge good relationships.”

Now that was a little presumptive, on his part.

“If you understood my frustrations, old friend,” said Iapetus. “You would not speak of ‘good relationships’ with me.”

The man who taught him how to wield the staff as a devastating weapon frowned. Those who didn’t know him might have been intimidated by his rough appearances, but he was the kind of man who wouldn’t harm a fly. Unless provoked with violence, Enceladus would never enter a fight.

Enceladus was too gentle a man, and for all that he had taught Iapetus how to fight, he had never been able to teach that gentleness along with his skills.

“Meeting hatred with hatred only creates a bigger mess.”

Iapetus laughed. “It’s not hatred, Enceladus. It’s fear.”

“That’s even worse.”

He smirked, but there wasn’t much joy or amusement in it. “Is it? Worse than how we’re already seen?”

Enceladus couldn’t say anything about that. Saturnians knew him, knew the efforts he put in to keeping trades fair, and they respected the man greatly for all his hard work.

The other planets? Judged him by his appearance, by his place of birth.

“If we must be seen with disdain and held apart from the rest of them,” Iapetus said, toying with a quill. Like all his quills, it was made from a scavenged feather of a vulture, the symbolic bird of Saturn. A bird with the keen ability to tell when life ended and death began, it truly fit their planet. “If they want to fear us like they do now, let me give them a tangible source of terror. Let me be the living boogeyman, the one that will punish them if they ever mistreat a Saturnian.”

It was a job he would relish greatly, for as long as he could.

“This will never let us be seen as equals worthy of respect,” Enceladus warned, and perhaps he was right.

On Saturn, the vultures weren’t worshipped, but neither were they treated with hate or disrespect. No Saturnian, not even a child, threw stones at the ugly birds. They lacked the beauty of doves, the wit of crows, the noble appearance of eagles, but they had their role An ugly job, some might say, tearing at the flesh of the dead until only bones were left, but a necessary one.

On other planets, Iapetus didn’t know how vultures were perceived, but he doubted they were well-liked.

Vultures, though, didn’t care about what others thought of them.

“They would never have done so in the first place,” Iapetus pointed out. “I would rather they treated us fairly out of fear, than look down upon us.”

Princess Makaria claimed to be the price for all Saturnians. If what she spoke was true, then what was the worth of a princess? And what did that mean, for the worth of the Saturnians?

If what she spoke was true, then the Saturnians were too valuable to be treated with the disdain they had been met with.

No one, therefore, could ever treat the Saturnians as second-class citizens.

Iapetus would make sure of that.

Enceladus tried, but failed to change his stance on that matter.

15.

He taught Dione how to use illusion magic.

Admittedly, he was a rather terrible teacher. He wasn’t the most patient of people, unless the subject caught his interest, and it was harder for him to understand why others didn’t get what he did immediately. Theory? Practice? It came to him too naturally to understand their thought process and explain it.

“Geniuses are rather terrible teachers,” Dione noted blandly. Neither a compliment nor an insult, merely a statement of fact.

His inability to explain meant he taught by demonstration. That is to say, sparring.

Coronis might have been the planet known for warriors in the Fauna Star System, but Dione was no pushover. She was already a natural at using spells involving fire, and her own innate powers as a resident of Cocoon meant she had tricks up her sleeve.

Or, in her case, wings.

“For something that looks so fragile,” he noted, when his staff was blocked by her wing. He had to disengage and leap back to avoid her own staff, jabbed towards his head. For all that she was mild in appearance – not counting her vibrant, eye-catching wings – Dione could be vicious in a fight. “Your wings are strong.”

Dione caught him by surprise, sweeping the staff below his feet while his balance was slightly off, and knocking him to his back.

“They are the manifestation of my powers,” she answered, extending a hand. He took it, because it was Dione. “As long as I live and draw breath and have the strength to continue fighting, as long as I don’t destroy them out of my own will, I can call them to me.”

That was enough training for the day. He picked up one of the two goblets and filled it at the fountain with clear, cold water. It was ice-cold against his parched throat, almost painful, but in a good way, like the sting of an ointment. “And would you? Want them to be?”

“Not usually, no.” Dione sipped at her goblet, not knocking back its contents like he had. “But if such a sacrifice was needed . . .”

She trailed off, her eyes vacant, but Iapetus noted where they were directed.

This was why Dione could be trusted, in the same way Enceladus could. She could be relied on to be steadfast.

She was predictable. They both were.

Ironic, then, that the two Saturnians with mobility were more predictable than the one who could not leave her castle.    

16.

If he taught Dione illusion magic, she taught him how to get long with other people.

Or, well, she tried to teach him to get along with other people, and he didn’t listen.

“You cannot use terror as the only method of interaction with other planets,” she warned him, voice low and quiet.

Those were rather familiar words. “Did Enceladus put you up to this?”

The look Dione gave him was chilling. “He talked to you about this and you still act like a fool?”

Iapetus pressed a hand over his heart and pouted. “Now that hurts.”

Especially since they were in Venus. Calling him a fool in a planet filled with those that followed their hearts and not their heads. Cruel.

Dione sighed. “Will you stop if the princess asks you?”

He let his lips curve into a smile. “Why, of course I would.”

It wasn’t a lie. He truly would stop, if Princess Makaria told him to. Orders were orders, after all.

But he would also lose any trust he had in her.

17.

Dione reported everything. All the insults, double-meaning threats, the not-so-subtle movements made to intimidate. Iapetus acted – and was – unrepentant.

Princess Makaria listened to all of them with a solemn mien, and when Dione finished, nodded and gave her verdict.

“Let him act how he wants.”

Iapetus smirked while Dione looked like she wanted to bury her face into her hands, but inwardly, he was just as surprised as his fellow Torch. Maybe even more so.

“Princess,” she groaned. “Please don’t encourage him. His behaviour is atrocious.”

But Princess Makaria merely shrugged. “It’s fine,” she said. “I will be the one to take the consequences.”

“See?” Even if he didn’t see, himself. Iapetus hadn’t predicted this.

When the princess cut off Dione’s protests and asked him to bring her the day’s afternoon snack, Iapetus left gladly. It was a poor coverup on her part, in an attempt to speak to Dione privately, but he left nonetheless.

For one, it was rather relieving to see how she was a terrible liar.

For another, he needed to clear his head, too.

18.

It wasn’t fair, that a single person should bear such a heavy fate. It wasn’t right that one person had to give up everything for the sake of everyone.

It wasn’t fair, but Princess Makaria had accepted the cruel fate she was given. More than that – she had seized it, torn the lion’s share so that Saturnians would not be crushed along with her under that heavy responsibility.

But even so – there was no benefit for her. She still sacrificed, this time for the Saturnians. She should resent someone. Either the Saturnians, or the rest of the Silver Millennium, for forcing her into such a situation. Old gods certainly knew he did.

“Doesn’t it infuriate you?” Iapetus had repeated, back then, unable to understand. How did she accept this?

“How could I be angry when it let me meet you and Dione?” she had replied.

Sweet words, from a naïve princess that had never seen the outside world, never faced the disdain, the distrust, the contempt. He did not trust them, at least to hold up against reality. As an illusionist who knew how to ensnare the senses, Iapetus didn’t trust easily. Those he did trust, like Enceladus or Dione, he trusted his ability to predict them. If he knew what they were likely to do, what they were thinking, he could trust them.

Iapetus could not understand the reasoning behind Princess Makaria’s willing acceptance of her sacrifice.

So he decided to test the truth of her words. He predicted that she would let him, to a certain degree, do as he wished. Freely, like she said.

But at a certain point, he guessed, she would say, ‘enough was enough’ and rein him in, stop him. And then Iapetus would have proven her lie.

19.

Phobos was too important a figure to harm permanently, and it was doubtful that the usual tricks of showing dead corpses was going to work from someone born on Coronis. Rot and death were what the crows of the planet dealt with. He might as well try to electrocute a Jupiterian.

But the minor soldiers were easy prey. The tournament hosted people from various planets. The inner four sent the most representatives, certainly, but even a few Uranians and Neptunians attended.

And his entry made for a Saturnian’s addition. What diversity, he thought sarcastically.

Saturnians, for all that the rest of the Silver Millennium liked to look down upon them for ‘reasons’, were underestimated. They weren’t known for being warriors like Martians or Jupiterians, weren’t as fast as Uranians, weren’t the swift swimmers Neptunians tended to be, weren’t known for their keen wit and intellect like Mercurians, weren’t the charming talented beauties of Venus, weren’t the solemn priests of Pluto.

They weren’t known. And that was an advantage in itself, one he fully planned to exploit.

In the preliminaries, Iapetus knocked out most of his opponents with his staff alone. The crowd had favorites, long-since established by tradition Saturnians had not participated in, and for the most part no one paid attention to him. He was an underdog that even the wildest gamblers wouldn’t take a second glance at.

It took the quarter finals for the audience and the other competitors to finally realize Iapetus was a threat. The quarter finals, and the Uranian that fell ungracefully to the dirt, screaming and clutching her legs. She would be fine, there would be no lasting damage to her body. Her legs weren’t necrotic like she saw and felt them to be right now.

The sure bet was Martians, for their innate passion and battle-lust. Or Jupiterians, for their mighty strength. Uranians, perhaps, for their speed.

No one expected a young Saturnian to win, or for the victor to be a master of illusions.

Iapetus pretended to not understand the outcry at his victory.

“Surely they’re not making all this unnecessary fuss over illusions,” he said, eyes wide in mock surprise. “It’s not even real. They’ve suffered no injuries, not even short-term ones.”

Only injury to the mind, because the images he showed them were the thing of nightmares. And he knew perfectly well that an injury to the mind was much harder to treat.

The rules for the tournament had been delightfully specific. No injuries that would be physically disabling.

No mention of mental trauma.

Oh, Iapetus was sure they would change those rules, iron down definitions to the last split hair because of him. He was positive that rumors of his cruelty, his viciousness would spread. He was one of the Saturnians with an actual rank, meaning his name and face were one of the most known among all his people.

He was rather hoping for it. He needed to see how far he could push before he crossed the line of the ‘liberty’ his princess had ‘bought’ for him.

20.

He didn’t need to go fetch the tea himself. Iapetus sent a solid illusion of himself and hid his presence, listening from behind the door.

“Princess,” beseeched Dione. “His behaviour will only grow worse, and he said himself he would only listen to you. These are not the actions befitting your representative.”

True words.

The princess didn’t deny Dione’s words, but neither did she agree with them.

“What made you come to Saturn and take the name ‘Dione’?” she asked instead.

Iapetus could only hear her voice, so he didn’t know what expression twisted Dione’s face, but from the slight pause, he was willing to bet that she was considering the meaning behind this change in subject.

“I left Cocoon,” said Dione. “Because I followed my instincts, and they led me to a planet where everyone said the princess of destruction lived.”

“And you did not fear me?”

“Death is a part of the cycle.” The words were firm, a resolve that could not be shaken. Cocoon and Saturn were similar, in their view of death – that it was natural, that it was necessary. It was why Dione adapted to Saturn easily, and why the Saturnians in turn accepted her without protest. She was the first foreigner to not wrinkle her nose at the philosophy of Saturn. “And we are all in the wheel, spinning onwards between Chaos and Cosmos.”

“That wasn’t an answer.”

There was a longer pause. “I feared the idea of you, at first. But it was my choice, to accept the position of your Torch, and when I saw you, I realized what drew me to Saturn, away from my home planet.”

“So it was instinct?” The questions were gentle, not accusing in any way, merely asking in a way that suggested the princess knew the answers. “Not out of your free will?”

“No.” Dione was firm. “Everyone on Cocoon knows how to find the home of the soul, but only a few ever choose to leave the home they were born into. I chose to follow my instincts, and I chose to take my name. I chose to stay and swear myself to you.”

“That’s a relief to hear. But Dione – Iapetus did not have the same choice you did.”

He had to replay the words in his head to make them out, absurd as they were. What?

“I took everything from him, Dione.” And Princess Makaria sounded worn out, tired, exhausted. As if she was carrying such a heavy burden it wore away at her. “I might not have meant to, but by my birth and existence, I robbed him of his choice. He was made a Torch without his consent, because he was a genius even at his young age and they wanted him to grow up loyal to me. He never had a choice.”

What?

His thought processes were hideously tangled up at this new perspective. He might have had issues with her listlessness, her inaction, but never once had Iapetus ever questioned his life. His childhood had been busy, yes, and intense with all his lessons, but he never hated them.

Iapetus detested the rest of the Silver Millennium. He did not dislike being a Torch. He liked being a Torch, for the most part, and if he had the choice, Iapetus would choose being a Torch over not being one.

A choice she was saying he had never had.

“Iapetus is ambitious, and gifted.” Dione, ever pragmatic and objective, pointed out the truth of what she saw. “Even if he had a choice, he would have never settled for anything less than the best of what he could achieve. He would have become a Torch. Later than now, but he would have.”

Very true. It wasn’t just him that knew Dione – Dione knew him, too.

“But in that case, that would have been his choice.” Princess Makaria’s voice was melancholic. “He is the only Saturnian whose freedom I could not fully guarantee.”

Iapetus could have been showered with ice cold water in that moment and he would not have been more stricken.

21.

“There is no such thing as perfect liberty,” said Dione at last. “We all have something binding us, somehow, somewhere.”

Princess Makaria kept her silence, and Dione sighed.

The conversation was over, it seemed, and just in time. His clone arrived with the tray. He took it, let the illusion fade away into nothing, and knocked on the door.

“Come in.”

Iapetus entered. Dione didn’t look satisfied in any definition of the word, but she said nothing to him.

“Thank you,” said the princess, when he set the tray down at her side. “Only two? Will you not be joining us?”

The excuse came easily and naturally. “I have some paperwork to see to, but thank you for the offer, princess.”

Princess Makaria nodded, but Dione’s eyebrow twitched. Not that he didn’t do his paperwork – all his duties, regardless of his personal like or dislike of them, was carried out perfectly – but he was hardly enthusiastic about it.

Iapetus left, the familiarity he had with the inside of Titan Castle the only reason his feet found the way to his office while his head was preoccupied with the clutter of confusion.

He never had a choice? He wasn’t guaranteed freedom?

First came anger, because he was proud, and pity was something he would never accept. If pity was the reason why she accepted his conduct, then she was sorely mistaken.

. . . in what? What could he do that would affect her the way he wanted? What did he want from her, anyways?

Then came the doubt. She had to be lying. She couldn’t possibly mean what she said. No one could possibly be that selfless, that sacrificial. Who did that? Who?!

Several hours of denial, frustration, disbelief, resentment, rationalizing and not getting any work done later, Iapetus was mentally exhausted and out of arguments.

There was only so much he could reason out, by himself. He had to confront the source, directly.

22.

Dione was away, likely discussing something with Enceladus.

The two of them were the only ones in Titan Castle.

“What would you do,” he asked. It was the final question, and how she answered it would determine what he did from now. “If I were to resign being your Torch?”

Her eyes widened in surprise at that. She really couldn’t hide anything, a part of him that still pushed the theory that she was lying noted. Either that, or she was an excellent actress.

Unlikely. To be a good liar meant to have experience in interacting with others. Iapetus built his skill in crafting a mask because from a young age he was a Torch, and he dealt with the politics, the people. Being an illusionist helped, too. To use it as a weapon like he did, he had to be intimately familiar with the darkness of hearts, all the fear, the desires that were hidden away. Sometimes it was about manifesting what one feared the most. Sometimes it was about manifesting what one wanted, desired, loved.

Princess Makaria had none of these advantages, and therefore had a far lesser chance of being an excellent liar, good enough to trick him. His own judgement, he had to believe if nothing else.

“I would,” Princess Makaria said slowly. “Let you go.”

“And if others disagreed?” Iapetus pressed on. He had to. “If they refused to let me resign, forced me to keep my position?”

If that was actually the case, Iapetus would likely make everyone’s life an absolute misery until they begged him to resign, but the princess didn’t need to know that. He wanted to know what she would do.

Princess Makaria considered her words. She considered them, Iapetus realized, with more deliberation than she had ever given the reports he or Dione gave about the decisions they made in her stead.

Why? What was it about this decision that warranted it more consideration than the policies of Saturn, or trade agreements, or anything Dione or he carried out?

“It would depend on who the opposing party was,” she said at last.

“If they were Saturnians?”

The princess of Saturn raised her eyebrows. “I doubt they would disagree.”

True. They’d just pick a new representative or let Dione handle it all. Dione might have issues with that, then, but she couldn’t very well stop him from quitting if the princess wouldn’t.

“Then, the Silver Millennium.”

Princess Makaria’s expression soured. “Somehow, I have a hard time imagining their protesting to your stepping down from a position of power.”

Incredibly true. He could imagine several people throwing parties in honor of that day.

“But if they tried to force me to do something I didn’t want to?” That was the question Iapetus wanted to know the answer to.

Asking if she would let him go, she had answered that. He was a useful person, the best illusionist on the planet. Losing him was a heavy loss, but as someone who was fine with being the scapegoat, and the price for her planet’s residents, she might not even feel the loss anyways.

To what extent would she be willing to protect the liberty she promised him? To protect him?

As she mulled over his words, a concentrated frown creasing her brows, Iapetus waited, palms growing sweaty. He hadn’t been this nervous since his debut as a Torch. Not the one where he was the dark horse at the tournament, but the first one, where he was officially given the title of a Torch and introduced to the Silver Millennium.

“Then,” Princess Makaria said at last. “I suppose I’ll have to try my hands at diplomacy.”

23.

Princess Makaria’s only social interactions were with the Torches. Titan Castle was not open to the general public, and those that did were never permitted to go to the upper floors, where the princess resided.

It was why the Torches had the power they did, because they were her mouthpiece, her representatives. They literally spoke on her behalf, and represented Saturn in her stead.

It was never Princess Makaria that participated in the interplanetary meetings, but either Dione or himself.

That she needed to try the diplomatic approach meant she would break her ways of social isolation, break her silence. It would make the leaders of the Silver Millennium, possibly the Silver Millennium itself, go in a state of deep panic, to say the least.

“Admittedly,” she spoke, voice soft like she hadn’t just indirectly threatened to bring the biggest political emergency in centuries for the sake of protecting his personal preference from outside intervention. “I might not be very good at it. After all, I can’t even convince my retainer of my sincerity. But I’m sure I can manage something.”

Iapetus felt lightheaded. It was possible that he wasn’t breathing, because his lungs felt petrified.

Maybe that was why his heart was pounding like it was, so loud and strong, demanding that he do something about – it. Whatever ‘it’ was. It was so loud that it filled his ears, and it surprised Iapetus that Princess Makaria didn’t seem to hear it.

24.

“Why?”

It just didn’t make sense to him.

Princess Makaria, somehow, understood what he was asking when he himself didn’t understand what he wanted to know.

“Because you are precious to me.”

Iapetus lost a fight he did not know he had been engaged in, and fell.

25.

He knelt at her feet, and bowed his head. Maybe she was right, maybe he had never been given a choice.

But Dione was right, too, saying that true freedom didn’t exist, that they were always bound to something.

If he was going to be shackled, regardless of the price Princess Makaria was willing to pay for him, then he would use that liberty to choose his own manacles.

“Iapetus?”

He would choose Saturn, and its tragic princess.

“I swear myself to you,” he vowed. “My body, my heart, my soul, all of myself, for now and forever. This, I swear out of my own choice.”

She gasped, and he wondered what expression she was wearing now, but he kept his head low, as the defeated should.

“You gave me liberty,” Iapetus said. “Then this is what I choose to do with that freedom you granted me. I choose to stand as your Torch, to represent your will and fight in your name. I choose to bear my title proudly and defend Saturn against whatever threats. This is my pride, my choice, my freedom.”

26.

Life was – better – after that. He was more content, more satisfied. Freer, despite all the responsibilities he had. He didn’t even mind interacting with the other planets, and instead of sticking to business, Iapetus went out of his way to find something, anything he could remember and recreate back in Titan Castle for the princess. Something other than bland marble halls filled with bickering idiots that tried his patience. No one wanted to see that, even if everything he showed her through illusions fascinated her.

Dione and Enceladus just seemed relieved that he stopped threatening and verbally eviscerating other people unless they started it.

“He was so edgy,” complained Enceladus, the teacup in his hands almost comically small in comparison as if he was holding a toy.

Dione nodded in deep agreement. “Technically, he still is edgy, but by comparison it’s quite an improvement.”

Enceladus drained the cup, and thanked Dione when she refilled it. “Well, if he keeps it up, it would be great.”

“Would the two of you please stop speaking as if this isn’t my office and I’m not right here?” Iapetus requested without any real expectations of them stopping.

“We weren’t aware you wanted to join the conversation,” said Enceladus, feigning surprise. The corner of his lips was tugging upwards, though, and he wasn’t doing a good job at hiding his amusement. “You were the one ignoring us, after all. Lady Dione had to bring tea herself.”

“Terrible hosting,” commented Dione. “I thought I taught you better.”

“Hilarious.” He shot them a half-hearted glare that had no effect. No Saturnian ever seemed scared of him in the same way the citizens of other planets were, and he didn’t want that, but sometimes it was a wistful thought to entertain.

They only smirked at him.

27.

That was how his life went, for decades. He served with pride, with purpose, and his life had meaning. His illusions he used to create sights for his princess, something beautiful she could enjoy.

“The talismans have been finished.”

Until it all came to an abrupt end.

Titan Castle was a gilded cage, but also, by that sense, a sanctuary. It wasn’t supposed to be breached, entered by anyone not permitted. Even regular Saturnians couldn’t enter the castle without explicit permission.

“They will seal Sailor Saturn in an enchanted slumber.”

Which meant that those fools running their mouths without a care for what they spoke were trespassers.

Iapetus should have known that all good things, like all things, came to an end. But if they thought he wouldn’t fight to keep that end from coming even a moment sooner, they thought wrong. He called his staff to his hands, felt its familiar grip, and began to pull up the magic within him to unleash everything he had.

Before Iapetus could let them experience actual hell, Dione’s hand clamped down on his shoulder.

“Don’t,” she warned him, and Iapetus knew why she stopped him. It would be a disaster of almost unsalvageable proportions if he killed the fools. Other than the speaker, an advisor from the castle on the moon, there were three others of significance.

The Sword of Uranus, one of the three Tridents of Neptune, and a Key of Pluto. They were important figures, similar to the Torches of Saturn in that they served as the representatives for their own princesses, who were busy protecting their domains.

None of that mattered for him, and it shouldn’t have mattered for Dione, either. Iapetus threw her hand off and turned to hiss at her, only to fall silent, stunned, at the tears running down her face.

“Once Sailor Saturn is sealed, the talismans will be placed on Uranus, Neptune and Pluto, respectively, and only when all three talismans resonate with each other will Sailor Saturn be able to awaken.”

The shock of seeing Dione’s tears weren’t enough to shut away his hearing, and Iapetus glared. If looks were blades, their shapes would have been unrecognizable as living beings, just blood, bits of flesh and chipped bones.

But his princess nodded. “That is acceptable.”

Iapetus all but tore Dione’s hand off him. “Princess!”

She already lived a mockery of a life, a pale imitation of all the honor and luxuries that were rightfully hers.

This sentence, as if Princess Makaria was a sinner being punished, meant that until her death she would be held in stasis. They were planning to take away the pale life she had, not allowing her what little she could enjoy. Cut away everything in her life, leaving only her death.

It was a cruelty even he might not have been able to inflict through his illusions, though he was certainly willing to give it a try.

28.

For the first time in his life, his princess gave him an order.

“Iapetus, Dione.” Princess Makaria stood at her full height. She was still too young, in body and soul, but she stood tall nonetheless, ready to accept whatever came her way. “Stand down.”

“My duties are to protect you,” he shot back. “This is-”

“The consequences,” Princess Makaria cut off his words. “Iapetus, this is an order. Stand down.”

Years ago, back when he questioned her motives, doubted her character, Iapetus might have been glad – in a twisted, disappointed way – to hear the words she spoke now.

But now, after choosing to serve her with everything he had, only to learn that there was more to the price she had to pay for him, for them, it just hurt him more.

“I’m sorry,” she added, quieter, but she didn’t rescind her orders.

Iapetus couldn’t disobey, and so he stood by as her eyes closed and didn’t open again.

And he did nothing, even as blood trickled down from his lips alongside his tears.

29.

Enceladus came to visit, despite Iapetus refusing to even look at his messages.

“Get out,” he growled. There was a goblet near him, stained with dried wine. He could throw that. And if Enceladus did not get the message, he would start using his illusions to make him leave.

“No one blames you,” said Enceladus, voice low and quiet.

That wasn’t what Iapetus needed to hear right now.

“Leave me alone.”

Enceladus continued as if he hadn’t heard. “We’re closing Saturn,” he continued. “No one wants to leave Saturn anymore. If any of the other planets want something from us, they’ll have to come to us, not the other way around. Dione was the one to decide, and I wasn’t sure if you knew.”

Iapetus hadn’t, but it was a good decision. Maybe they should have done it before.

But then he wouldn’t have been able to get any of the sights for his princess, wouldn’t have seen her enjoy the scenery she could never physically visit herself.

Enceladus reached over to pick up an empty bottle and sniff at its mouth.

“You’re allowed to drink and be a mess for only three more days,” he said like he was the boss of him, after wrinkling his nose at the scent.

Iapetus glared at him, but Enceladus didn’t even flinch.

“Get back to work, Iapetus. You’re a Torch – act like one.”

He was right, damn it all. Three days later, looking impeccable – except the fierce scowl on his face, promising murder, Iapetus left his chambers.

Dione only greeted him with a usual nod, like there was nothing out of the ordinary, but the silence between them was less familiar. It was cooler in temperature, missing a vital element.

He got back to work.

30.

Even as isolated as Saturn was from the other planets, even after they closed off the planet, they still got the news of what went on in other places.

Terra. War. An uprising, with the Earthlings deciding to revolt against the heavens.

Darkness, whispered the tense words, and for once the fear was directed to a different planet – the one planet no one in the solar system had feared, for the residents lived such short lives.

Iapetus didn’t care, just mechanically went through the news to check whether Saturn was affected. It kept his mind from constantly replaying the past over and over again, and asking ‘what if’?

What if he hadn’t obeyed his princess? What if he had just slain the bearers and bringers of bad news? What if?

The workload kept him from dwelling too deeply on those dreams, but it couldn’t stop him entirely. Iapetus suffered in all his regrets, and in his bitter fury he cursed everything.  

Let the silver kingdom suffer, he thought viciously. Let their precious citizens die. He wouldn’t miss them or mourn their passing. Eventually everything would return to the same, miserable routine his life had become until his time ran out.

31.

The light – a powerful pillar – erupted through Titan Castle, and his time was up.

Iapetus bolted towards her chambers, heart threatening to rip out of his chest in fear. No, no, no, it couldn’t be, she was still too young, her death couldn’t have come now.

He threw open the doors, unable to care how rude his actions were.

The sight of his princess, awake and on her feet, shouldn’t have brought him such terror and despair.

But it did, because she was armored as a soldier of the stars, and in her hands was the Silence Glaive.

Dione, who had either been there or had reached the princess before him, knelt silently, lowering her eyes towards the ground in deference.

Iapetus fell to his knees, but for a different reason. His sight wavered in his desperation, but his focus was on her, always her.

“No,” he begged, crawling forwards without regard to how pathetic he must look right now. If sympathy for her servant would stop her for even a second, then he would be the sorriest dog, the most pitiful insect that ever existed. “Princess, my princess, no.”

As a soldier she stood, the scythe of the death goddess in her hands, and yet she stood silently while he pleaded.

“You can leave the solar system,” he pleaded, words spilling out without elegance or control. There was none of his usual composure, or eloquence over his words. There was no time for that, no space in his mind to wax poetics. “You can stay in Titan Castle. You can do anything you wish now, and they cannot bind you anymore. You do not have to answer their call. You owe them nothing. Do anything you want, just – not this.”

Not her loyalty, not her dedication, not her mercy, and certainly not her life. She owed the damned souls that had kept her locked in a gilded cage nothing.

“Princess,” Iapetus prayed to his one and only goddess for his salvation, because he could not live a life where she did not. Because he meant nothing – nothing meant anything – if she did not live. “No.”

32.

His princess knelt before him so that their eyes were somewhat level.

“I’m sorry,” she said quietly, wiping away the tears he hadn’t known were falling down his face with her gloved fingers, the touch gentle on his cheeks. “I have to go.”

To give everyone a quick, merciful end. He shook his head, trying to protest, to convince her somehow to change her mind, when she leaned in and kissed him.

His mind completely blanked, and he didn’t recover even when she pulled back. This was a dream. This was a nightmare that had suddenly turned comforting, and any moment now he would wake up and reality would be difficult, but he could bear it so long as he knew his princess was alive.

Her lips had been soft against his.

He would have slapped himself if he was able to, and not to just wake himself up from this dream.

Sailor Saturn laughed quietly, and the sound was so faint it was more a sigh than anything. Then she took one step back. The click of her heel against the cool marble floor of the chamber snapped his mind back to reality.

Iapetus reached out. “Princess-”

Another pillar of light erupted, and the violet ray that was the soldier of silence soared out of Titan Castle.

33.

Outside the windows of Titan Castle, the sight of space, a black stretch of canvas speckled with the sight of Saturn’s moons and the lights of distant stars was cut by the clean light of purple soaring across it, racing towards the silver palace on Terra’s moon.

There flew their princess, out of her castle and out of Saturn for the first and last time in her life. Flying freely through the sky in the way only the sailors chosen by planets could, and she flew towards the destiny that had done nothing but burden her.

Towards her death, like a sacrificial lamb to the slaughter.

A strong grip grabbed his shoulder and pulled him up.

“There’s no time for this,” whispered Dione. She had been silent while Iapetus begged, but her eyes were rimmed red, and her voice was hoarse.

Iapetus didn’t bother shaking her off like he had when the princess was sealed.

“What could we do?” he spat instead, hating everything. Himself. The fates. Destiny. Terra. The moon, and all the wretched residents of the silver kingdom.

Almost everything. He could never hate her.

Dione opened her wings, the vibrant jewel-like colors of her scales glittering even in the dim light in the chambers.

“I will follow her,” she swore, her oath matter of fact. “All those from Cocoon know the paths of rebirth and reincarnation, follow the right path instinctively like butterflies homing back the paths of previous generations without fail.”

It took a moment for his thoughts to catch up with her words. “She will be reborn,” he realized. “You’re telling me – she’ll have a new life.”

Soldier of rebirth, the vanquisher of destruction and death so that hope could come forth one day.

The bearer of the greatest burden – and she, too, would get the second chance she gave everyone.

Dione nodded. “Will you follow?”

Would he follow, choose to be reborn to serve his princess again in his next life?

Without question.

“Yes.”

34.

Dione ripped off one of her wings, the only indication of her pain being the tightening of her jaw and a slight tremor of an eyebrow.

Before Iapetus could say anything, like the question at the tip of his tongue pondering the state of her sanity, she took the wing and slapped it over his chest. The wing began to dissolve into particles of amethyst lights that enveloped him like a shroud or a halo, and slowly faded into his skin.

“It will be a hard flight,” Dione whispered, pale from the pain. “With only one wing, your path will be painful to navigate, and there will be times when you will suffer, or wish to give up without knowing what it is you strive to reach for.”

She only had one wing behind her. A broken pair, for the other did not grow back. A sacrifice that required a great price.

Pain? Suffering? A hard flight?

So long as he reached the destination, the path didn’t matter to Iapetus.

“And yours?” he asked, because while nowhere near as important to him as his princess, Dione was still one of his people.

The woman from Cocoon that had come to serve the Princess of Saturn smiled faintly. “I will manage.”

Iapetus huffed out the closest thing to a chuckle he could manage. The end of everything was coming, and nothing was predictable except certain death. Even Dione, who he thought he knew and could predict perfectly, surprised him now.

It was a good kind of surprise, and Iapetus found he didn’t mind it one bit.

“I’ll owe you one, next time we meet.”

The smile deepened. “I’ll hold you to that.”

The purple light that was Sailor Saturn travelled fast – she was almost at the moon now, the executioner’s blade to be dropped on them all.

Iapetus could accept that. He always lived for her, and he was glad to die by her hands, not by anything else.

35.

The end of the world was nigh, and Saturn celebrated. Outside Titan Castle, the Saturnians had seen their princess, and brought out whatever they had on hand for the long-awaited festival. Special wines, saved for this very occasion, were opened and poured. Favorite foods, eaten and shared. Donning the best clothes they had, bright and colorful funeral shrouds, Saturnians filled the streets to pay tribute to the goddess that would banish destruction and bring rebirth.

This was the end.

“To rebirth,” Iapetus spoke, a toast to the beautiful moment of the inevitable end. “And to our goddess.”

Dione nodded.

36.

The silver kingdom crumbled away, the powerful, diverse magic of the solar system draining away – and with it all life on the nine planets.

Iapetus died laughing. The end was mercifully quick, and he didn’t feel a thing, except perhaps the ghost of soft lips on his mouth.


Bonus

1.

When Sawada Tsunayoshi burned away and purified the dark aura he wore, he didn’t just rip away Mukuro’s strength and intent to fight. He also cleared away the residue of the darkness he had lived through for five lives and bared to the surface of his memory the life of Iapetus.

Iapetus, the Saturnian who served and loved the tragic princess locked in her enchanted castle.

He had time, plenty of it, in the underwater prison of the Vindice, to go over a life before this one.

It didn’t make a difference, Mukuro told himself once he had gone over his newly discovered memories of a life before this one. Whatever emotions he had felt, whatever dedication he had sworn back then, it had no effect on him now. Iapetus was Saturnian, and dead.

Mukuro was a human of Earth, and though he knew what death felt like, had died five times before and murdered the boy he had been before on the cold surgical tables of Estraneo to rise as a monster of humanity’s own making, he was not Iapetus. Not Iapetus the fool, who fell in love with his princess and didn’t realize it, blinding his own eyes to his feelings until it was too late. Not Iapetus, who failed and accepted death without realizing that beyond death awaited a hell.

That life was useful only in that it taught him how to make illusions of a stronger caliber. Iapetus had used the magic of Saturn in his blood, and while Mukuro lacked that he had his own power.

Power was power, no matter the source, be it blood or unethical experimentation. The how of using it was similar, and the experience helped. If he ever fought Sawada Tsunayoshi again, the outcome would be vastly different. He had the experience of the best illusionist on Saturn at his access now, a man who, in the Silver Millennium’s equivalent of sixteen years old, had become a champion against some of the best warriors in the solar system and served as half of the military might of an entire planet.

But no use dwelling on what was.

He refused to accept that Iapetus affected him in any other way. It was a matter of convenience, that he saved the girl Nagi and offered a contract. It had nothing to do with the fact that her soul was that of Dione, battered and worn from reincarnating with only one of her wings to guide her. It was because he was imprisoned that he did not simply possess her and be done with it, and he had no other reason for offering her a mutually beneficial contract – one that would let her be whole even with her missing parts.

It was not to pay a debt of a life thousands of years ago, literal lifetimes before.

Mukuro never spoke to Chrome of Iapetus and Dione, or of a princess in a castle, cursed like she was from a fairy tale, only there was no prince for her, no true love’s kiss to save her. There was no point on wistfully pining after a fairy tale that wouldn’t come true.

2.

In all honesty, Mukuro had no intentions on possessing Sawada Tsunayoshi anymore. Or, in fact, an intention to continue his plans to destroy the world.

He still hated humanity, still hated the mafia. That was Rokudo Mukuro, pure and simple. Iapetus had hated the weak-hearted fools fearing his princess, but he had not truly known darkness, the evil of hearts like he thought he did.

It was Mukuro, who writhed on the clinical metal surfaces as knives cut into him and injected his veins with cold, dripping chemicals that hated the mafia, wanted to see them scream and bleed and burn.

But no, he would not aim to destroy the world anymore. He saw it all end once, and he could not bring about such an end, no matter who he possessed.

He had other priorities now, like breaking out of the Vindice’s prison again. It would be exponentially harder this time, especially since he had a bit of a record and they weren’t going to let their guards down around him, but he was in the business of the impossible.

Sawada Iemitsu, though, should not have known about his switched priorities. Perhaps he had guessed – accurately – that Mukuro’s first and foremost priority would be to break out, but it should not have been obvious to anyone that he had given up on going after Sawada Tsunayoshi.

So why the man was trying to recruit someone who had, very recently, gone after his son’s life with the intent to wear his body and bring ruin upon the world, and as his guardian of all things, Mukuro couldn’t understand.

“You are aware that I hate the mafia, yes?” he asked through Chrome’s body. One eye missing – a parody of how one of her wings, with a circle pattern like an eye, had been ripped off near the end of her past life – and organs destroyed, upheld only by his illusions. Incomplete.

Everything was a cycle.

But he wasn’t interested in the why, because this was an opportunity. A form of safety, to be provided for his new vessel and Ken and Chikusa.

Mukuro accepted.

(He had once been a guardian, a Torch – and this was a poor replacement to what he had been before. When back then the title had meant more, something he was proud of, would die as with honor.

The title felt empty, meant far less.

Because knowing that he once had a world, small or not, made the emptiness all the more clear to him – that there was little if not no meaning in his life, other than a goal he set with no real passion to it all.)

3.

Iapetus was not him. He was not Iapetus. He and Chrome were bound as they were by the convenience of the contract between them. It was a coincidence, that Lancia entered his life as an older brother figure who looked out for him, who taught him. A coincidence born out of his need for a strong fighter, an action of convenience the only reason why Mukuro had not killed him.

(It was not because Lancia offered him genuine kindness and affection, the first time he had ever received such in this life either. It was not.)

Remembering life on Saturn was irrelevant. Pining after a woman not in this world was irrelevant – and she couldn’t have been reborn yet because there were no mentions in this world of kingdoms in the heavens. He was born on Earth, not on Saturn, and he had to live as a Terran – as a human of Earth.

Mukuro told that to himself for so long that he believed it, but as was the case with illusions, sometimes there was a truth too strong for it to uphold. Reality crashed into his denials, and like a tidal wave destroying tissue paper, tore through them, washing them away and leaving him bare with the truth he had averted his eyes from for so long.

Five lifetimes had changed him, but fundamentally he had not changed.

And his core self had loved his princess with every fibre of his being, sworn his everything to her.

When he saw her, flesh and blood and real, truly alive and no longer trapped in her castle, suddenly nothing in this world mattered.

4.

Tomoe Hotaru did not attend Namimori Middle School and did not appear on the rankings of Futa de la Stella. Back then, Mukuro was too focused on world domination, had lacked the memories of his past lives other than knowledge of death and pain, the hells that granted him power at the cost of his sanity.

Memories clean and clear in his soul, the eye that gave him the powers of hell saw the essence within her frail body – the greater being she was, a goddess among men, the princess he could never fail to recognize.

And as the blood drained out of her already pale face as she stared, Mukuro knew she had recognized his soul, even the small bit he had left in Chrome for the sake of possession. Or perhaps it was Chrome she recognized, Chrome, who was Dione, who had served the princess just as he had.

Chrome’s soul – Dione, who left Cocoon and sworn her life and soul to Saturn, who ripped off a wing to ensure he would have a chance at finding his way back to the princess in the paths of rebirth – wavered as she, too, recognized who stood before them. Without consciously knowing the reason why, she fell into a kneel, and her one eye filled with tears.

Her memories and body did not recall the person before them – pale, dark-haired, petite, beautiful, heartbreakingly tragic and self-sacrificial – but her soul did, and the dissonance shook her.

With a quick pardon, he seized control over Chrome’s body while her mind wavered in confusion. Mist wrapped around Chrome, and then dissipated to reveal the illusion of his own form.

Call it vanity, call it a selfish desire for her to see what he looked like in this life. If he could not have his true form here, he would make do. That was what illusions were for.

The only thing he didn’t adjust was his kneeling, or the tears running down his eyes. It didn’t matter that Sawada Tsunayoshi or his two idiots were there, gawking. The only person he saw, the only focus in his sight, was her.

5.

He didn’t care about what happened to the rest of the Silver Millennium. The end had come, with the downward swing of the Silence Glaive, and that was it. For all their ignorant terrors it had been a mercy, and the inevitable fate of death had come to the fools and the wise alike, gentle and kind. Whatever sins they might have committed, it wasn’t his concern what happened to them afterwards.

His sins, on the other hand, were a different story.

A blessed being, born with the heaviest fate of them all, a saint to have endured the hatred and fear of the blind masses – she deserved nothing but the purest, the cleanest, the most beautiful things in the world. Those that served her should have been the most devout, loyal souls in existence, to even earn the right to touch the ground whereon she stood.

And here he was before her, covered in the filth of sin, stained to the bone, the soul, the exact opposite of what she deserved.

The blood on his hands, the lives he had taken – it wasn’t just that.

His greatest crime, his most terrible sin, was forgetting her like all those back in the silver kingdom did. For wanting to destroy this world without remembering her, and for denying her afterwards, pretending she had no value when she was priceless.

Mukuro couldn’t lie to himself anymore.

“I’m sorry,” he croaked, words that had been lodged in his throat for centuries and lifetimes finally able to come out to the person that needed to hear it the most. “Princess, I’m so sorry.”

Mukuro knew just how maddening it was, to not have control over his own body. He lived that life right now, confined with the liberties offered only by his dreams keeping him sane.

But to dream forever was another way to describe death, and for all his confidant fronts to Ken and Chikusa, he wasn’t sure if he could break out a third time. The Vindice were not to be underestimated, after all.

At least he could walk dreams. At least he had Chrome as his vessel, to turn away from the reality that was his prison underwater.

What had his princess had? Trapped in her own body, waking at last only when she was called to die, a life too short, and even that evanescent span was isolated, used to impress on her the importance of her death.

To die a sacrifice, for the filthy world that had always shunned her, always been eager to hide her away and pretend she didn’t exist for the sake of their perceived safety. Iapetus might have dealt in illusions and dreams, but nothing he could have enchanted was as grand or as influential as the one the residents of the Silver Millennium had woven over their own eyes.

The lie that everything was fine, that no one was unhappy in their world.

His princess had been his world. And she had been condemned to far worse, and even in the present time he had forgotten and denied her, and he could never be forgiven –

She cut off all Mukuro’s thoughts when she pulled him into an embrace. Kneeling as he was, his face was buried into the crook of her neck and collarbone as she wrapped her arms around his head.

“It’s you,” she said in a tongue lost to souls in the modern time, pale cheeks wet with tears as she cradled him to her like he was something precious she couldn’t bear to lose once more. “It’s you.”

6.

She forgave him easily.

Too easily. Mukuro protested despite the soaring of his heart, but she would not change her mind, insisted that he had nothing she needed to forgive.

“And don’t call me princess,” she added, tightening her hold on his hand. The hand she hadn’t let go since she remembered that they were in public, grabbed him and ran towards her house, dragging him while calling behind her that she’d explain later.

Her friends – his past enemies, so to say, current ‘allies’ – had not been happy, to say the least, but she would not be stopped. Mukuro snorted at the idea. Even back then, they had tried to stop her, kept her locked up for all her life. They had failed to keep the princess of Saturn locked away, in the end.

“It’s Hotaru,” she said firmly. “Tomoe Hotaru.”

Mukuro wanted to say a lot of things to that. He certainly felt a multitude of things. Conflict, at the very thing that bound them being cast away so easily. Happiness, that his princess finally got what she deserved – a chance to live a normal life. Worry and fear, that she would not want to have someone who was a living reminder of her times in confinement in her new life.

But her eyes were firmly fixed on his, and they were filled with warmth and joy and affection and –

His breath caught, and he forced a breath in. He had need of it, because otherwise he was going to collapse, and Chrome’s body wouldn’t take well to that.

“Hotaru,” he whispered. The name was sweet on his tongue, sweeter than even chocolate.

She reached up to touch his face, to brush away tears that had started running down his face again without his knowing. He hated the touch of another human being after the Estraneo, always wore gloves to avoid skin-to-skin contact, but this was different. Even through an illusion, on a body that was not his, it felt warm. Comforting.

“And yours?” Hotaru asked.

He might have chosen his own name, an act of defiance at the time to the wretched ones that had sought to control him, use him, but the meaning behind it was by no means something worthy of his princess. It was not a name he was proud of, not in this moment.

But it was his, pathetic as it was next to her light, and he could never lie to her.

“Rokudo Mukuro.”

Mukuro nearly regretted it when she looked like she wanted to cry, understanding without knowing the gruesome details that whatever the story behind his name was, it could not have been a pleasant one for him to experience. He was willing to cast it aside, take on another name if it would please her, when she smiled instead.

“It’s nice to finally meet you again, Mukuro,” she said. And if her name had tasted sweet on his lips then his name was sweet to his ears, when framed by her voice. “I can’t be your price or your consequence, and I can’t guarantee your complete liberty in this lifetime but – I can live my life, and if you don’t mind, I’d like to live it with you included in it.”

He was no longer the boy raised to serve her. Mukuro was a criminal, actually, and as if the universe wanted to taunt him, as if there was a scale holding him on one end of the balance with his princess on the other, Hotaru’s freedom to live coincided with his imprisonment. Irony was by no means enjoyable when it turned on him.

But the manacles he chose for himself in another lifetime were still his, and Mukuro would not trade them for anything. These were bindings he would wear gladly, the ones that held him securely to his world.

“There’s nothing I’d like more.”

He’d just have to make plans to break out of the Vindice’s prison as soon as possible.