I never saw her face the day she sent me to die.
Of course, it wasn't worded like that. The queen's proclamation was littered with niceties such as "mass murder", "atrocities against the human race", and lastly "a great act of mercy". When I heard the last one, a part of me felt like laughing. As if a life doomed to shame and solitude could ever be considered a mercy. My friends would have laughed too, had they not already been escorted away. I had been the only one who wanted to bear one last witness to the world of people I was leaving behind.
I knew they lay below, just beyond the balcony window. I could hear their cheers coalescing into a unified roar, like that of a wave preparing to crash down upon a lone figure huddled in the dark black robes of a prisoner. I could imagine them beyond the walls of impenetrable crystal, surrounding the castle in an attempt to catch a mere glimpse of their beloved queen.
I would have gladly changed my view for theirs. No matter where I turned my head, my eyes somehow always gravitated towards her. Glimpses of hair like fine-spun threads of silver cascading down her back, or of a flowing silk dress of starlight in the midday. Her entire body was illuminated by the noon sun glittering off the walls of the palace; the light blurred every edge of her. For a while, I entertained the notion that she didn't, couldn't exist. That I could stick my hand through her waist, and she would explode into nothingness.
I felt my hands shaking, but couldn't trace the emotion behind it. She was so, incredibly close. Mere days ago, if I had ever gotten the chance to stand this close to her, it would not have been a hand through her waist, but a sword. But life enjoys its karma. Standing to the side of the most powerful woman in the solar system, I was nothing.
Here was something that the adoring citizens of Crystal Tokyo would never notice: her shadow. It pooled like a dark train of her dress onto the balcony, cascaded down the short flight of steps, and raced to crash into me head on. I could feel it seep into my shoes. Pushing me. Even when there was no need. I already wanted to leave.
I could hear her continue to speak, but the words meant nothing to me. I only knew the gentle, lulling cadence of her voice as it hit all the right notes without a second's hesitation. Perfection.
The audience seemed to think so, too. When the queen finished, there was a great, fearsome roar of cheers and applause that would have instantly gobbled up her soft, demure voice. She was like a lamb, with a lion on her leash.
Then the lamb turned her terrifying face on me.
At least, I assumed she had. I had closed my eyes on instinct, for when the queen descended from the balcony, a torrent of blinding sunlight crashed upon my face. At once, I yearned for her shadow again.
I could hear the soft click of her heels in the empty antechamber of the balcony. No guards were present, not even her four Senshi. The Queen of Crystal Tokyo, alone with a man condemned.
Her footsteps stopped. I opened my eyes.
My gaze was snagged onto her silver hair fluttering at my right hand side. I followed its winding path, higher and higher, until I was able to register her full form, really and wholly present, as she stood beside me. She was perfectly motionless, hands folded in prayer, as she faced the opposite direction. My face to the sun, hers to the castle of crystal. There was hardly half a meter between us.
I couldn't see her eyes beneath the shadow of her bangs. "Take this," she said, her voice like the first drops of rainfall. She spoke out of the corner of her mouth, as if the words had to physically pry themselves from her lips.
I don't know how she did it; not for the slightest instant did I see her folded hands move towards me. Yet without so much as brushing against my shoulder, she had dropped a cold, tiny object in my hands. I could see the tip peeking out from my black robe. Crystal. Curious, I rolled the crystal prism in my hands, the way that one would roll a piece of clay to form a coil. Its edges were sharp, not blurred by the sunlight at all. After a short while, my palms stung with pain.
"It's a dream crystal," she said. I felt her breath make the nerve endings in my right cheek tingle. "Place the tip to your lips, and you will immediately fall unconscious for seven hours." Then, as if to clarify: "I'll be expecting a full report when you arrive on Nemesis."
The scent of dying lilies clung to her skin, flushed a rosy pink. I felt my lips curl. She was nervous. Afraid. So close she was, yet so afraid to touch me. And I'd be a fool to not know why.
As her prayerful hands fell to her sides, I took my chance. As I lifted my right hand to brush a lock of white hair from my eyes, I let my ring finger trail up the side of her arm. A second short enough to make the action seem accidental; a second long enough to make my intent undeniable:
What you've done today is on your head.
In a flurry of sunlight and silk, she was gone.
In her place came a pair of white-clad guards who weren't worth noting, not after the queen. They each placed a hand on my arm, as I did my best not to wince at the vice-like grip. Like a petal plucked from a flower, I knew at once that my freedom on this planet had been snatched up with a racing current.
With my head held high, I went to find freedom on a new one.
I waited three days to use the dream crystal.
During those long, long days, it served as a constant weight in my breast pocket. At times, I could swear that it was burning a hole over my heart, a punishment for not doing as she had instructed. But that was precisely the point. I hadn't given up my beloved home planet just to be dictated by her once again. So I forced down my curiosity, and I waited. What I was waiting for exactly, I couldn't quite say.
Only long afterwards would I understand: I was waiting to see her face.
With the doors to my chambers safely locked behind me, I took out the dream crystal. How bright it was, even in the perpetual shadows of Nemesis. The way its radiance spread seemed to fill the room somehow. After three days of aimlessly wandering a cold and empty citadel, I found myself grateful.
Taking a sip from a ornate crystal wineglass, I peered into the dream crystal, but instead of finding the face of Neo-Queen Serenity, my own violet eyes stared back at me. Violet eyes surrounded dark crescent moons and framed by locks of white hair. White, which would only turn whiter, not by the power of the Ginzuishou, but by a far greater power – age.
As easy as snuffing out a candle, I closed my shaking fist around my reflection. Then, without any further ceremony, I placed the crystal to my lips.
The queen hadn't been exaggerating about its immediate effects: all too soon, I became dimly aware of crimson wine spilling onto crimson bedsheets, a whiteness clouding my vision, and a gentle darkness lifting me up and under a current of racing water.
When I opened my eyes again, the crimson, the white, the black, and many other colors were already pooling back into the empty void floating around me. The featureless mist of a dream half-dreamt gave way to violet tapestries with gold embroidery, a long blue carpet the color of a sky I ached for, and a throne of purest crystalline white.
There was no disorientation on my part. The moment I felt my heart begin to race, I knew where I was: the throne room of Neo-Queen Serenity. The place where my brothers and sisters of the clan had been condemned.
At once, my eyes turned to the throne at the opposite end of the hall, but its occupant had abandoned it. Instead, I saw her off to the side, staring out a high-vaulted window overlooking Crystal Tokyo. Even then, I marveled, her face was still turned away from me.
I took a step forward, then another, but it made no sound in the dream. I wondered if she knew I was there. Most likely she did, for none could fool the goddess of the Silver Millennium. A lesson I had learned all too well.
However, if she was going to pretend to be oblivious, I saw no reason to deter her. Pausing about halfway across the throne room, I resigned myself to simply taking in the sight of Earth's sovereign queen. Away from the cheers of the crowds and the shadow of my looming banishment and the entire mutated planet, I found that I could see her more clearly. Her hair was two rivers of molten silver spilling over tiny gossamer wings, resting on the backdrop of a gown as pure white as newly fallen snow.
Of course, this was nothing new to me. I had seen the queen many times before; the artistic renderings of her beauty were as countless as the stars themselves. But seeing her in person, even in a dream, cast her loveliness in a whole new light – quite literally. Mere portraits couldn't capture the way that light didn't bounce off her, but gravitated towards her. It clung to individual strands of her hair and turned them silver, melted into her silken gown, sprinkled stardust onto her skin.
In that moment, I could never have imagined killing her.
Then she turned her smiling face towards me, at it was all I could do to not collapse onto the unfeeling crystal beneath me.
Where her eyes should have been, only two smooth patches of skin remained, as if she had never had eyes to begin with.
"Demande?" Somewhere, over the screaming bells crashing onto the inside of my spinning head, I heard her voice. "Is everything all right?"
My trembling hand crawled up my face, combed through my hair, and I felt that the blood had drained from my already fair complexion. I must have looked close to fainting. "Your eyes…." I somehow managed to say.
She placed a hand to her face, just below the eyebrows raised in bewilderment, then sighed. "You must forgive me," she said. "I neglected to explain the finer details before you left Crystal Tokyo. Presently, we're in your dream, your head, filled with your memories. You must not know what my eyes look like, so you can't see them."
"And what about you?" I asked. "What can you see?"
"Everything. The dream crystal is merely a way for me to focus the Ginzuishou on you, so that I may project my consciousness into your mind, your world comprised of your memories. Of course, I'm not truly present, but…" She glanced—at least, I assumed her unseen eyes were glancing—down at my hand, still holding the wineglass. She waved her hand, and the wine turned to water. "…you shouldn't underestimate my power here."
My eyes narrowed. Translation: Don't try anything funny.
I looked around at the dreamscape, filled with distant walls and vaulted ceilings and all the empty space I hated. "Why did you bring me here?" I asked of her. As the words echoed off the crystal walls, I internally winced. I sounded like a complaining child.
Her blank face, like a waxen canvas, still unnerved me. "Like I said before," she answered simply, clasping her delicate hands together, "I wanted to know how things are on Nemesis." She sounded like a mother asking if something was wrong when she knew damn well that everything was wrong. Condescending. Now that the initial impact of her beauty had faded, the desire to kill her rose again.
"And yet I'm not required to tell you anything, Neo-Queen Serenity." I had meant to say her name with scorn, but the melody of the words was too beautiful.
A second's thoughtful pause, then: "Would you like to sit down?"
My eyebrows disappeared behind my bangs. "What?"
She said it again: "Would you like to sit down?"
After a few seconds of me wearing an expression most likely akin to a stupefied toad, she raised her hands, and a divan appeared in the center of the throne room. It was a relatively simplistic thing, compared to the extravagance of the crystal surrounding it. The crème-colored cushions and purple throw pillows seemed to pale next to the queen's silver hair and soft white skin. Yet I couldn't help but notice one tiny detail: the tassels on the corners of the pillows were fixed in place by diamonds.
"This isn't going to be easy," she said as she took a seat on the divan, "nor would I expect it to be easy. You're right; I don't expect you to tell me anything. But"—The cold, biting ferocity in that little word was an all too stark reminder that I was speaking with the ruler of the world—"if you believe for one second that I sent you to the most distant planet in the solar system just to let you have free reign to plot against Earth, you're a fool."
Her frown flipped into a smile so jarringly that I could hardly say which one I preferred. She patted the cushion next to her and said, voice dripping with honey, "Sit beside me, Demande."
God had made sure that I was far from being a fool, and I obeyed.
"So, this is how the lovely Neo-Queen Serenity spends her resting hours: making housecalls to the damned," I said, more to myself than to her as I gazed up at the impossibly tall ceiling with the irrational hope of seeing the sky. "I suppose I shouldn't be surprised – a goddess would never let a trivial thing like sleeping deter her from ensuring the safety of the ones she loves."
The queen shrugged. "It doesn't make much difference to me." I couldn't understand how her hardened tone of warning had waned into something more… thoughtful? Fragile? Sad? "I'd dream of you anyway. I might as well change those dreams into something useful."
"So you are going to interrogate me."
She stared down at the hands folded in her lap, refusing to meet my eyes. "In a sense, but I wouldn't like you to think of it that way." She shook her head, revealing to me for a split second the sad little smile of a much younger woman. "My, that's so diplomatic of me to say. But no, I'm not trying to be a diplomat to you, Demande. Consider this me trying to convince you to return home. Because despite your past actions, I still consider you one of my subjects, and I know you still consider Planet Earth your home."
Not if it's yours, I thought, immediately struck by the bitterness of the words resounding in my head. "But I'm not one of your subjects," I chose to say instead. "You hold no power over me, Neo-Queen Serenity." I allowed myself a quiet smile at the snide in my voice. Yes, that was more like it.
"You're right, Demande. I don't. I can't tell you what to do. In fact, I was surprised that you didn't wait more than three days to contact me. For one who has defied me so undeniably, I would have expected you to take the crystal, shatter it, and have nothing to do with me ever again. And I wouldn't be able to stop you. You are within your right to sever all ties with my kingdom." She lifted her face, still bearing that sad little smile. "But I can still hope. I can still give you a chance. That's what I'm here to do, Demande."
For the strangest, strangest reason, the writhing in my stomach made me feel, for the very first time, like a guilt-stricken terrorist tried for crimes against humanity and banished to the ends of the universe.
I started as the queen stood up in a single fluid movement of silk and grace. "But not tonight."
"Wait – that means you're going?"
She nodded once, amidst the encroaching fog spilling from cracks in the crystal. "I think I've given you – no, both of us – enough to think about for the time being."
As I leapt from the divan, terror also leapt in my heart as I saw the queen melt into stardust before my eyes. She looked like she was dying. And I could never allow that.
"Oh, one more thing," she said, her voice floating above the mist that swirled around me as I ran through nothingness. "It's quite all right to hate me, you know. You wouldn't be alone."
When I threw up on the bedsheets, my head spun with the rancid stench of wine.
"I want to see it."
The single-minded resolve of my request was so fervent that I only vaguely registered that tonight's dreamscape had departed from the throne room in favor of the Lunarium. A kind of domed antechamber to the Crystal Palace, it displayed towering stained glass windows, each depicting a Sailor Senshi in battle stances made all the more fierce when blown up to twenty times their size. Their expressions of pride were as overbearing as the heat of summer's sun. The last two windows, the pair of windows farthest away from me, bore the image of King Endymion and Neo-Queen Serenity. No matter what happened that night, I vowed, I would never turn my eyes on them.
The afternoon sunlight streamed through the windows, turning the floor beneath me into a sea of hazy watercolors, yet the sun did not diminish the sight above my head. There, painted on a backdrop of deep indigo, were hundreds of constellations spinning around the moon, a pinprick of silver light at the dome's peak.
The queen, standing directly under that light, didn't need any further clarification. With the same eerily blank expression as last night, she folded her hands in prayer. When she opened them, like petals falling or lips parting, there lay the Ginzuishou cradled in her cupped hands.
"It's beautiful, isn't it?" she said while staring into its crystalline depths. I felt like she wasn't truly present, when she peered into the Ginzuishou and saw echoed back the heritage of a hundred thousand kingdoms, raised and razed, that etched themselves onto every single petal. I felt like I had lost her.
When she spoke to me again, her voice was like that of one still caught in a dream. "I imagine you remember it well."
How could I not? I'd remember it the same way I'd remember the last expression of a dead man. "Reasonably," I answered with a shrug. "I only saw it once."
"The day I came to stop Crystal Tokyo from burning."
"Yes. The one day I'll never forget."
It would be impossible for me to forget that day, the day that fires of earth finally conquered the blinding moonlight hanging over our heads. No matter where I stood, there could always be heard the sound of people crying loudly. I couldn't tell if they were the queen's subjects, or my brothers and sisters of the clan. Terror and madness, they blended together.
Marching through that fire, I felt untouchable. The road tore itself apart, and I walked upon it. A creature of shadow – there were no such things as humans that night – shattered a crystal statue of the queen, and I smiled at it. Chaos lived, and I liked it.
Those were the defining two hours of my life.
The untouchable goddess who dwelt in the castle, she didn't even need to walk amongst the flames. The highest spire of the Crystal Palace opened, and the Ginzuishou rose like a newly fashioned star into the sky. It didn't matter where you were in the city; its presence was unmistakable. I could only look upon it once, just seconds before wave after wave of searing light washed over the city. But the image had already been sealed onto the inside of my eyelids long after I ran for cover from its radiance. But there's no running from her.
I've read people's accounts of their purification by the Ginzuishou. Thousands upon thousands, yet they all seemed to use variations of the same words: Awe. Bliss. Peace. Tranquility. Serenity.
As I fell to my knees in the dirt, the only word I knew was fear.
"This is the crystal that saved me," said the queen, her words a soft, whispering wind in the Lunarium. "When the Dark Kingdom attacked the Moon Kingdom all those years ago, there was no hope for us except for this crystal. My mother sacrificed her life so that we could all be reincarnated. What destiny so cruelly tore away, the Ginzuishou gave me a chance to find again."
She raised her head to meet my eyes. "And yet you rejected it." An incredible sadness flowed from her, the kind of sadness that makes stars turn away from the earth and walk away with heads hung low. "Why?"
"Humans aren't meant to live forever. It's a blasphemy against God." It was the exact same testimony she had heard at my trial.
Her voice was as gentle and chilling as ever. "Says the man convicted of murder."
I had no answer for her.
"May I?" she asked after a long, unbroken silence.
I looked at her in confusion.
"The Jakokusuishou," she said, holding out a delicate white hand. "I'd like to see it, if that's all right."
I nodded; no use in refusing her. I unclasped an earring, fashioned from a shard of that dark, dark crystal, and dropped it into her outstretched hand. She closed her hand around it and withdrew as if she were seconds from touching a flame. She had learned from last time.
Unlike with the Ginzuishou, there was no awe-inspired admiration. Instead, she brushed the tip of her index finger along each edge of the Jakokusuishou, searching for any faults in the crystal. Finding none, she gave it back to me.
"How do you know about the Jakokusuishou?" I asked. "I didn't use its power during the attack on Crystal Tokyo."
Sadness fell over her like a cloud's shadow replacing the sun. And still, how lovely she was, with her slightly parted lips and bowed head hiding the missing eyes. "You'll find out soon enough. However," she said, raising her eyes and sending silver hair fluttering over her arms like bands of starlight, "I know you got the Jakokusuishou from the Death Phantom."
It took me a moment's pause to understand her. "Wiseman," I said, more to clarify for myself than for her.
"Death Phantom," she insisted. I was startled by the venom in her words. "That's his name. The name he taunted me with before I banished him to Nemesis. Do you trust him, Demande?"
A bark of laughter shot straight to the top of the dome and bounced off the stained-glass windows. "Trust a twisted old man like him? Don't take me as a fool, Neo-Queen Serenity. I'd never trust him." As the echoes of laughter dissipated, I turned away so that my face would be engulfed by shadow. "In truth," I told her, and was surprised at how coarse I sounded, trying to lift those words to the surface, "I'll never trust anyone."
She pitied me then, I knew. Dammit, why… why did I tell her that?
I blinked, and she was suddenly close, so impossibly close. The wide, open space of the Lunarium had shrunk and collapsed onto itself so that if she took two steps backward, she would hit the wall. The smell of dying lilies returned.
I recoiled at seeing her unseeing face in full view, but that only made her stretch out her hand even further. She brushed aside my hair with the back of her hand, then ever so carefully traced the black crescent moon insignia with her thumb. Her skin was young and soft and stolen.
"Oh, kami-sama…." Again, she sounded like a mother. "Demande…" Her brow was creased in worry, causing the mark of the Silver Millennium to take the appearance of a white circle. A full moon. "Do you think there could come a time when you could trust me?" Then she shook her head. "Oh, nevermind, it doesn't matter." She turned around in a whirlwind of skirts, and it was my turn to blindly, unthinkingly, stretch out my hand towards her. Only with her, she couldn't see me. My hand fell through empty space.
"I'll never forgive myself," she said, hugging her chest and gripping her shoulders so tightly that her knuckles turned white. "I know that there must always be incarnations of Chaos in the world, but you… you and your clan are human. You have no place in the clutches of the Death Phantom."
Silver hair swirled around her head as she looked over her shoulder at me. "If you listen to anything I say, anything at all, never trust that man. Every night before you come here, I hope you place a knife under your pillow. I hope you check under the bed for the monsters that are all too real on Nemesis. I hope you say a goodnight prayer to your God, any God, even ones who will condone murder, as long as they never condone that man. I hope and pray with all my heart."
She tilted back her head to stare at the constellations upon the dome. I thought I could hear a faint sound of a music box's lullaby descending from the rafters. "I should go; it's very nearly morning," she said before I could even get a word in. "I hope… I hope that when the Death Phantom shows you who he truly is, you'll come to see that I was right, and that you can trust me. Maybe one day you can tell me why you choose to defy the Ginzuishou. Why you hate me as you do."
"Wait!" I shouted as the stars from the dome of the Lunarium fell to the ground, their streaks of light leaving the nothingness of undone dreams in their wake. "I never said I hated you!"
"Oh?" said Neo-Queen Serenity, high-pitched and girlish and far too old to be eternally young. "Don't worry, you will. Trust me."
"A rose's allure is powerful, but its beauty is just to hide its thorns. Oh yes, I remember well the mind games of the White Moon Queen. She is infuriating, isn't she, young prince?"
I nearly hit my head against a bedpost when I awoke and saw Wiseman hovering in the corner of my bedchamber. He was shrouded in a cloak of shadow as usual, yet I could swear that beneath the hood of swirling darkness, he was laughing. Seconds later, I knew why:
He was holding Neo-Queen Serenity's dream crystal in his decayed and rotting hands.
"I should have expected it," he said while caressing the crystal facets with his gnarled, scaly fingers. "Of course she would want to monitor your actions on Nemesis. At heart, she's afraid, afraid of losing her power over you."
Thankfully, there was an unfinished glass of wine waiting patiently on the nightstand. Pushing away the bedsheets, I stood up and drained the glass so quickly that my head spun for minutes afterwards. However, it was better to be drunk than afraid. And in that moment, despite the exhaustion and the alcohol, that fear still pushed itself into the forefront of my mind: I couldn't let Wiseman shatter the crystal.
Then Wiseman spoke again. I heard the words, but couldn't grasp the meaning. I asked him to say it again, a gnawing dread pulsing through me all the while. He did, and I was so close to letting the wineglass slip through my numb fingers.
"How wise of the young prince to turn that power against her."
"What are you talking about?" I demanded, drawing myself up to full height.
"You know how the White Moon Queen wishes to control the Black Moon Clan," said Wiseman, "and you know she possesses the power to do so. Any lesser man would shatter the crystal out of fear. Yet you held onto it, bought into the White Moon Queen's charade, and used it to establish a fake trust with her. Aren't I correct, young prince?"
I nodded without thinking, though my head throbbed as my mind struggled to keep up. "Once again, your keen mind shows once again, Wiseman," I replied, letting the smooth, silky words flow from my mouth without so much as registering the taste. "I knew that the others in the clan would object to maintaining contact with Neo-Queen Serenity, so I kept it hidden from them. I am gladdened, however, to find you of a more tactical mind than them."
I winced at the sound of his knuckles cracking around the dream crystal. "And have you been able to win her trust yet, young prince?"
"I… I'll admit that hasn't been easy to convince her of a terrorist's change of heart, nor would I expect it to be. However, I am confident that the queen will be won over before we launch the attack on Earth."
I was amazed that despite all his power, Wiseman failed to hear my heart thrashing in my chest. "Excellent, young prince, because understanding the mind of the White Moon Queen will be the key to destroying her." A shudder that had nothing to do with the harsh cold nights of Nemesis passed through me like a ghost. "As you know, I won't be satisfied with her death alone, not after all she has done against me. Just as she has taken away our beloved planet, so too must we must first take away all that is dear to her heart. Her friends, her husband, her daughter, her planet, everything. You, young prince, will be the key to breaking her." Though his eyes were hidden, I could feel his gaze settle on me with the intensity of fire. "I trust that you will figure out what to do. Do not disappoint me."
"If you listen to anything I say, anything at all, never trust that man."
"In truth, I'll never trust anyone."
Not even you, I finished.
Now that the wineglass was empty, I could see my distorted reflection staring back at me, with my forehead widened so that the insignia of the Black Moon Clan took up a third of my face. There was black, I realized, and there was darkness. And how dark, how dark this would be next to the pure white mark of the Silver Millennium.
I raised my eyes to face the phantom haunting the citadel. "Of course not, Wiseman. But before such a victory can be achieved, I believe I must defer to your unique knowledge and experience."
"Oh?" He was laughing at me again. The inside of my skin crawled as I stared into the faceless face of the Death Phantom. Faceless, just like the queen.
Long ago, in books that have long since rotted away in the forgetfulness of humanity, there was an expression that when you stand on the edge of a cliff and stare into the bottomless abyss below, the abyss also stares into you. Facing off against Wiseman, I stared into the abyss, and saw only a mirror.
"Tell me about the day you were banished to Nemesis by Neo-Queen Serenity."
Chapter 2: Beautiful Queen of the Beautiful Planet
"Demande, am I a god?"
Though humanity had lost much through the ages, the art of symbolism was not forgotten in the Neo Silver Millennium. In order to ascend the main staircase of the Crystal Palace, one would inevitably pass by the Fountain of Silver, dedicated to the Moon Kingdom of old. The fountain's centerpiece was a twenty-five foot marble rendition of Queen Serenity, who held aloft in both hands a crescent moon. Water cascaded from both ends of the moon to batter the worn marble of the mother, and to fall like drizzling rain upon the daughter.
Her glass slippers were placed to the side as she dipped her legs in the fountain. With her elbows balanced on her knees and her chin propped up by her cupped hands, she tilted her head back to stare at her mother's face. The tips of her long silver hair drifted lazily beneath the water.
"You called me a goddess once, in the first dream," she added. "Of course, many people have called me that, but hearing it from you is different. It stuck with me."
I crossed my arms. "Do you think I would be foolish enough to oppose you if you were?"
"Oh, I don't know," she replied in a far off voice I hated. "I don't think that little of you. A hopeless fight would only give you more incentive to rise up. That's how humans work." She turned to face me, and once again, her missing eyes unnerved me. "Then again, according to you, what do I know about humanity?" I didn't hear any kind of reproach in her voice, just a quiet pensiveness.
I sat on the edge of the fountain, just inches away from her, as we faced opposite directions: I to the gleaming crystal tiles, she to the face of her mother. The statue cast a shadow over me, and I felt its chill. "My cat Luna once told me that my mother was rumored to be a descendant of the moon goddess Selene. I don't know if I've ever believed that, though."
"Because the Moon Kingdom wouldn't have fallen if she were?" I asked.
She shrugged, causing her hair to flutter and quickly settle along her arms, damp with fountain water. "I just… maybe because I was never thinking about it, but the few times I met her, I never got that kind of sense from her." She laughed a sighing hiccup of a laugh. "And I'd know, wouldn't I? After all, a godly aura isn't the kind of thing you can miss about someone."
"You can't look up at someone if you're the same height."
"Oh?" she said, giving me a playful smirk that left me breathless. "So you do think I'm a god?"
"Just playing Devil's Advocate." A moment later, I shook my head in quiet laughter. Ah, the irony.
However, Neo-Queen Serenity had the opposite reaction. "Is that what you're doing with the Black Moon Clan, Demande?" she asked with a soft accusation. "Playing the devil to my god because no one else will?"
My eyes narrowed. "This isn't a game to us, I'll have you know. We have our reasons for defying you. Do you think I would give up the planet I love on a whim?"
"Love?" she asked. "You burned people's homes to the ground, committed mass murder. Is that supposed to be love?"
"It was a challenge," I answered, matching her coldness. "A challenge for humanity to see if it still cared enough to fight. And from what I saw that day, I was disappointed. They only cried out to God, and to you."
"And I answered. I helped them. What's wrong with that?"
My fist collided with the unyielding marble between us. "Maybe humans don't need your help! Did you ever think of that? Did you ever think, when you stepped up to save the world, that maybe humans could have figured out what to do on their own? That maybe they should be challenged to do something with their lives, move towards something better?"
"Artists, inventors, and scientists still exist. Human creativity isn't stagnant."
"But we could have been so much more! My God, we could have been great! We could have colonized other planets, been known throughout the galaxy. We could have touched the stars."
"You could have become gods," she said coldly. "I assume you know the tale of Icarus well enough to piece together how well that would have turned out."
"You never gave us the chance."
Moments passed, the pitter-patter of falling water marking each one. I felt my burst of rage and indignation melt away, to the point that when Neo-Queen Serenity turned her face on me once more, I couldn't turn away. "Is that what I've done, Demande?" she asked in that same quiet tone that carried with it both searching and conviction. "Stifled human potential through the Ginzuishou? Is that why you refused the purification?"
I nodded without thinking. These dreams, these conversations, this woman before me compelled me to honesty I didn't know I possessed.
"Then let me ask you this: What do you believe the Ginzuishou does to a person?"
"It takes away a person's propensity for negative emotions. It provides people with an inner tranquility and peace." I paused. "It strips us of who we are."
"Yes and no," she said. She was smiling now, as she looked at me unflinchingly, and I couldn't help but notice the shimmering beads of water clinging to her hair and skin, adding yet another layer of light to her. "It'd be easy to wave a magic wand and make it so that no one could ever feel sad or angry or afraid ever again. It'd be easy for me to march to the end of the universe and destroy Chaos forever. But that's not how the Ginzuishou works. Magic artifacts are all too prone to theft or corruption, but not the Ginzuishou, because it isn't merely an enchanted crystal brimming with latent energy. Its power stems from the heart.
"One of the very first things I learned from wielding the Ginzuishou is that the positive bonds I have with others determines how much power from the Ginzuishou I can wield. The stronger the friendship, the stronger the crystal. Purification just expands upon that principle. When humans are purified, they're freed of the walls they build up around their hearts, the masks they wear to hide their true feelings. It forms a connection, an awareness. Like the stars in a constellation, there's a bond uniting every single person on the planet with one another. After that, you're never alone. I don't know what lie Wiseman planted in your head, Demande, but that's the truth, no more, no less. The power of the Ginzuishou isn't from gods, but humans. And you could find out for yourself if you were just willing to come home."
"Heh," I laughed, staring at the water and the star reflected within. "You'd like that, wouldn't you?"
When her tiny, delicate hands took my hands, so too did she take my breath. "Yes," she said, gently, drawing out the 's' in her breathlessness, yet her sincerity was so intense it frightened me. "Yes, I would."
In that moment, the full reality of my helplessness in her presence dawned on me. My eyes were wide, too impossibly wide, as they tried to greedily take in the moonlight shimmering in her hair and turning each strand a million different shades of silver. My head spun from the aroma of dying lilies. Too close, thought a distant voice inside my head. Too close. Come closer, please, before I can't take it anymore.
"Come on," she murmured to herself as I felt her unseen eyes searching mine. "Come on," she said again, the way you would tell a dying man to live one more day, and I couldn't tell if she was talking to me or to herself. "Pluto told me it's impossible. Everyone's told me it's impossible. Pluto told my mother about Queen Beryl's attack years in advance, but she still couldn't change what was written in the heart of Time. But let me," she pleaded to whatever cosmic forces were listening. "Let me do what Mother couldn't. Let me make a time paradox, or a tear in space-time, or something. Let me have this miracle."
She placed a hand over my heart, and sound of it in overdrive made me understand why I could never have her: she'd kill me if she came too close.
"Please," she cried, "let me change your mind."
Days, weeks, centuries passed with bated breath, but silence was my only answer.
She let her hand fall, and I could breathe again. "Not today, then," she said. "Then I guess you really do have to hate me."
Please, I thought, just today, just this once, let me leave. Let me be the one to get up, walk away, and leave her behind.
I blinked, and she was already gone.
"Okay, let's face the facts: You know, we know, and you know we know."
I couldn't help but smile at Rubeus. "I know."
"Good! So we can finally stop beating around the bush about it," he said, his steps falling perfectly in line with mine.
"You understand why I couldn't tell you about her, don't you?" I asked.
"Oh, sure I do." I narrowed my eyes as he gave me a sly grin. "You couldn't bring yourself to say the words, that even now, on Nemesis, you can't escape Neo-Queen Serenity's influence. Well, I guess that's a woman for you."
"Oh? So is that it? I've been hopelessly taken in by her allure?"
"Are you going to deny it?" he asked in a low, quiet voice.
My silence spoke more than enough for me.
"You're sick," he continued matter-of-factly. "You don't eat, you don't come out of throne room, and you definitely don't talk to us."
This is precisely why I don't wish to talk to any of you. A mother hen is the very last thing I need. "And am I supposed to explain myself to you, Rubeus?" I asked.
"Look, I'm not trying to reprimand you or anything,"—Oh, I beg to differ—"just remind you that we're all in the same boat here. So if you're concerned about something—because you can bet we're all concerned about you—we are your allies. You can talk to us."
I sighed in exasperation. Leave it to Rubeus to put himself on the high horse. "You forget your place, Rubeus," I declared, lifting my head even higher than before.
Rubeus chuckled. "Your groveling, good-for-nothing menial begs Your Grace's mercy."
As always, I never had it in me to stay mad at him.
I smiled in kind before the good mood passed away like a fleeting wind. "As you can probably imagine, it's difficult talking to her," I confessed. "Everything she says chips away at what I held true, but somehow I'm just more compelled to prove her wrong."
He lifted his arms in a carefree shrug. "Of course that's how it is." A light glinted in his eyes. "That's the allure of the chase."
Except when she disappears before I can take a single step. "And what if I don't want to chase after her?"
He stopped and turned to look at me, his eyes wide like a child's. "Really? Well, okay, you did a crap job by choosing literally the most ineligible woman known to man, but still, you can't quit now. Quitting would just show weakness on your part, and we can't have that from our fearless leader, right?"
I tilted my head back, gazing up at the ceiling that stretched into black nothingness. It hid the stars. Her stars. Her universe. "It doesn't seem very smart, pursuing madness."
"Smart?" he asked with a derisive snort that made me want to slap the smug grin off his face. "You should go to your friend Wiseman for that. You want me to tell you something smart, like you should just forget about her, or you should turn back before it's too late? It'd be a waste of time." He wasn't smiling anymore. "I can see it in your eyes. You can't give her up, not now."
"You make it all sound like some trite romance."
"Isn't everything trite nowadays?"
He followed my gaze, and I wondered what he saw in the vast darkness. For what it was worth, I knew what I saw when I looked at him. Despite the array of time-healed scars running across the toned muscles of a man, his rugged appearance couldn't hide what lay beneath: someone very small, fighting off feelings of being lost and alone in a very big world.
"This world rings empty." The words were spoken so softly, yet they were impossible to miss. "The people don't fight for anything. They do things because there's nothing else to do; there's no feeling that keeps them going. A whole planet of people doing their best to while away a thousand tedious years." The light of a nearby torch fell upon the angular planes of his face, keeping half in the light while leaving the other half in darkness. "I want to feel something," he said, clenching his fist at his side. "Even if it's pain, even if it's loneliness, even if it's heartbreak. Anything, as long as it rings true."
And then, as if he had suddenly fulfilled his quota of weighty broodings for the day, he tossed his head back and laughed, richly and deeply. "Well, you know all that," he said while casually running a hand through his crimson hair while we walked, as if to make sure it was unkempt enough. "My point is, don't just toss away how you feel about her. Those kinds of emotions are what tell you you're alive. Well, until Esmeraude hears about them, that is."
We laughed together, and a warm, forgotten feeling flowed through me. "Oh God," I said, ignoring the painful tightness in my chest as it remembered how to laugh, "you'd better start writing my eulogy."
"Pft, it'll be easy," he replied with a wave of his hand. Then he cleared his throat, made a show of brushing make-believe dust from his pants, and declared in a voice that echoed through the halls, "Here lies Prince Demande, the gallant, fearless leader of the Black Moon Clan. He showed great character development throughout his life, going from a bishounen badass with a heart of ice to screaming like a sissy when he died. He also had God-awful taste in women. Probably should have gone for this handsome devil instead, am I right? Alas, 'twas not to be. Moral of the story: never dye your hair white. Oh, and he still owes me ten dollars from that drinking contest yesterday."
"I take great offense to your entire speech," I retorted, smiling all the while. "I only owe you five. And God, talk louder, why don't you? Make sure she can hear the closing prayers, too."
He rapped his knuckles against the wall. "Good thing your room is soundproof."
I screeched to a halt. And today was going so well.
"Hey," Rubeus admonished, "she's worried about you, too. You should at least hear her out." When I kept my silence, he cast a wide-eyed, sideways glance at me. "So that's what she's done to you," he breathed. "Not even Esmeraude's good enough for you anymore."
"You know it's not like that. God, we've only done it when we're both drunk."
"You know it means more to her than that."
I take back what I thought earlier; it is really easy to stay mad at Rubeus. In fact, I can do it right now. The warm, comforting feeling from earlier vanished like a snuffed out candle. "Is Esmeraude supposed to even compare to Serenity?"
He crossed his arms and regarded me with a kind of disappointment. "She's supposed to be a loyal subject with a willing heart, as opposed to a dream of someone you'll never have."
I turned away from him then, and instead glared at the torch's shadows dancing along the door to my personal chambers. "I should have known you wouldn't have been so nonchalant about how to deal with her."
"To my credit," Rubeus said, "I did accept some things. Even if I could get you to stop seeing her, you'd still be pining after her. You're scared right now, and that will save you for a while. Help you keep your distance, even if it's a little, but not for very long. You are going to keep chasing her; there's nothing I can do about that. But all predators get tired. Everyone's got to hit rock bottom sooner or later. And when you do finally sort out all your feelings, you're going to need people around you."
My eyes narrowed. Well, definitely not you.
"Is that all you have to say, Rubeus?" I asked of him as I placed my hand on the cold doorknob. "I don't have time for trite meanderings." I watched his reaction out the corner of my eye, and smirked when he flinched at the words.
"No, actually, it's not," he said in a gruff voice, all the earlier friendliness gone. "I just want to say one more thing about this road you plan on going down."
"And what's that?" I asked, not trusting myself to look his way.
"Enjoy it while it lasts."
With the door safely locked behind me, I breathed a sigh of relief that was short-lived. Because I knew that when I managed to find the courage to raise my eyes, I'd be forced to confront her.
A sparkling evening gown with a slit that reached the bottom of her hip. A choker comprised of tiny chains of emeralds, along with matching earrings. Silky soft green hair that cascaded down her shoulders. Lips smothered in crimson lipstick. Smoky purple eyeshadow to offset wide, shimmering eyes. My proud, proud Esmeraude. Yes, I knew she would be unbearable that night.
She rose from the bed when I came in, and lifted her eyes to confront mine. The silence between us was stifling.
I sighed, and chose to adopt Rubeus' bluntness. "I hope you don't mean to patronize me like Rubeus," I said, taking a seat at the opposite end of the bed from her. My whole body was stiff, as if I were sitting beside a stranger. "I like to think my followers have at least some faith in my competence."
She shook her head, sending her jewels clinking together. "I only wish to understand, my prince."
"No, you don't," I countered. "You wish to convince me otherwise."
When she spoke again, her voice was soft and hesitant, a side of her I had seldom heard before. "Can you blame me?"
I let out a sigh, and buried my head in my hands. "Do you think I enjoy being like this? Do you think I'd hate to be convinced otherwise? But you can't convince me. You'll just be wasting your time."
I watched her shoulders tremble as a sob shuddered through her. "What an evil woman," she rasped through her held back tears. "She will pay for what she's done to you." Her voice rose in power, and she lifted her head high, an image of the proud ruler she could have been if I but only had a wiser heart. "I'll be the one to kill her," she vowed. "I'll kill her with my own two hands. I'll cut off that pretty hair of hers and strangle her with it, then shove her scepter down her throat for good measure. Then you'll be free of her, won't you?"
"She haunts me enough in the land of the living; I can't imagine what power she'd wield in the land of the dead. Can she even be killed?" I wondered aloud.
The bed shifted under me. Esmeraude moved closer, close enough for her to place a hand over mine. I glanced her way, and saw her eyes were dry. "Why do you doubt us now?" she asked of me. "What has she shown you to make you believe we'll fail?"
Compelled by an odd feeling of loneliness, I took the dream crystal out of my pocket and absentmindedly twirled it in my hand. "She's the most dangerous being I've ever known," I said, watching as spots of watery light reflected off the crystal and danced along the ceiling. "She makes longing the most wonderful feeling I've ever known."
What followed next were a series of odd reactions: Esmeraude let out a strangled kind of gasp, reached out her hand to me, then cried as she forced her other hand to pin her arm at her side.
I raised an eyebrow at her. "Esmeraude?"
Her hands curled into shaking fists, her nails digging crescent moons into her palms. Something inside me broke when I heard her desperate pleading. "Please, give me the crystal. Let me shatter it."
The words that followed were like a reflex. "I'll kill you if you do."
Her wavy hair swished through the air as she fell to her knees on the ground beside me. "Why hold onto it?" she cried. "Why keep torturing yourself like this? Isn't it better to break it in half and never see her again?"
I turned my head just far enough so that she couldn't read my face. "Didn't Wiseman tell you?" I asked in a flat monotone. "The secret to breaking Neo-Queen Serenity's spirit may lie within those dreams. I have to find out what it is, before she breaks mine more than she already has."
"That's just an excuse!" she screamed, and I winced as all people do when painful truths are said. "I can see it," she said, her voice hushed in her sadness. "If you could, you would spend the rest of your life in a dream with her."
I didn't have the strength of heart to deny it.
Finally, she found the strength of heart to ask the question I had been dreading. "My prince, do you love her?"
The mark of the Black Moon was suddenly a heavy burden upon my head. "No," I replied. "No, I don't believe I do. But in all fairness, I don't believe I love you either."
The two of us fell silent, though not from surprise. I had no doubt that she wasn't one to live in denial. Just false hope.
"What can I do?" she asked after a long, long while. "What can I do to take away the pain?"
The answer came so readily to my lips that I hardly had time to breathe. "This."
Then I pulled her up by her wrists and kissed her.
We fell backwards onto the bed, and natural, routine movements of our bodies fell into place. She threaded her fingers through my hair and used it to pull me closer. In turn, I ran a hand across her cheek, along her collarbone, only to pause at the nape of her neck, where I could feel lines upon lines of scars.
My heart tightened at that reminder. Violated by a man six times her age, but in the land of the forever young, no one could tell the difference. Now I wondered, as salty tears fell upon my lips, if she'd ever be able to forget.
Only when we were both gasping for breath did we break away. Fighting off the overbearing smell of perfume and the gnawing sickness tearing at my stomach, I held her to my chest and asked, "Will you help me forget her tonight, Esmeraude?"
I felt a strange sort of relief as the weight of her body pulled away from my chest, leaving me alone again. "I'm afraid not, my prince," she replied, somehow already standing at the door. "I think we'll both just end up remembering."
I had never found her more beautiful than when she said that goodbye.
Chapter 3: The Quality of Mercy
"I sometimes wonder if you have a list of common psychiatrist lines that you read from every time I come here."
The queen's laugh, sweet like the ringing of bells, blended with the chirping of colorful birds flying through the palace gardens. "Perhaps, but the question still remains: Tell me about your family."
That's not really a question, I wanted to say, but I held my tongue. A curious habit for a prince, I noticed. Yet the inclination towards civility had only persisted with each of these visits. A part of me knew all too well that this was her goal all this time, for me to let down my guard for her, to trust her. Yet looking back upon those days, I don't know if I ever did trust her, at least trust her in the way I imagined I would trust someone I loved. I don't know if I even respected her. All I knew was that like a cliff face pounded upon century after century by merciless waves, something had to give.
And spending lonely nights roaming the palace halls was a routine I was all too ready to give up.
"You've never asked me about them before," I said, though my voice lacked the guarded tone I had been striving for. Her presence took my words and melted them to butter.
I watched as Neo-Queen Serenity lifted her face to the sun and gazed pensively into its heart, as only a fellow being of light could do without falling blind. "It seemed appropriate to ask. It is Mother's Day, after all," she said, a revelation which took me by surprise. Dates were meaningless on Nemesis. The passing of time was marked by hazy blurs of empty days, sighs stretched into weeks, and her.
"You don't have to talk about your family, you know," she reassured me as she reached for her sixth buttered scone. "Trust me, I know it's hard."
It was the sight of the heavenly goddess of Earth gulping down a scone with zero regards to dignity that broke my stony resolve. "The clan is doing well," I said, then paused. Ever since these dreams had become a daily routine, I chose to remain in solitude most of the time, and when I was with them, we would be discussing plans I would never divulge to the queen.
Serenity seemed to pick up on my hesitation. "I do hope you don't choose to spend all your time sealing yourselves away in a dark chamber, plotting ways to kill me," she said with a laugh, before once again donning that soft, motherly tone that stopped just shy of admonishment. "What about your brother Saphir? How is he doing?"
"He's…." All of a sudden, I felt a burning shame in my cheeks, like a second fiery tongue that would not be held. How was my brother doing? In the few times I had given thought to it, I always assumed he felt just as I did. Hardened, impatient, brooding, calculating, and… lonely, too.
The singing of birds flying overhead was the only sound to break the silence as the queen sipped her tea. "Brothers are complicated at times, aren't they?" A sad, wistful smile tugged at her lips. "I had a younger brother, too, you know. His name was Shingo. Honestly, we didn't get along that well as kids. He'd always make fun of me for my bad grades, and I'd always hate to have him around whenever my friends came over. But…" She set down her china teacup with a tiny chink and sighed, her breath a puff of a long-past summer afternoon. "But we were still siblings, and I know I'd do anything for him, even if I'd never admit it to myself. Even if he'd stick out his tongue and say he could take care of himself without a dumb sister interfering. Siblings are funny that way."
My eyes widened: it was absurd, absolutely unthinkable to imagine that the heavenly queen of Earth could ever have been ridiculed.
Neo-Queen Serenity only shook her head, her bangs rustling like leaves riding a summer wind. "Oh, he never knew about me being destined to become a queen and harness the strongest magic in the solar system. If he had, I hope he would have at least made fun of my ballroom dancing or how I had the table manners of wild ostrich." She reached out a delicate, perfectly manicured hand for a crumpet. "I wish I had thought to bring a camera when I told my family who I was; his face was so ridiculous that I could have teased him about it for decades." Her laughter was like the tinkling of chimes, hollow and short-lived.
I felt myself shift in the chair and lean across the table, my attention fully drawn in by her words. This was history, ancient history, where the only undisputed truth among historians was that all attempts to ask Neo-Queen Serenity for her accounts ended in a resounding "no." But more than that, this was wholly, undeniably personal. I had the tiniest peak into her heart, and it was radiant.
"How was it, telling your Earth family about it?" How young my voice sounded when it was breathless.
By now I knew better than to perceive the shadow that fell over her eyeless face as merely imagined. "Oh, they absolutely refused to believe it when I first told them," she said. "Shingo even laughed in my face. I ended up having to transform into Sailor Moon and show them the Ginzuishou before they took me seriously. Honestly, with my parents, I wish it had been the case where they had already put the pieces together, but I guess you don't look for your lazy, crybaby daughter in the invincible, idolized Sailor Moon."
As she cupped her hands around the warm cup of tea and stared into the tiny, trembling waves, I had to swallow down the strange, irrational urge to wrap my arms around her. "I never liked having to lie to them about where I'd spend all those late nights alone," she continued. "It's way harder than you'd think, having a secret identity. I would have liked for them to know even a little bit earlier, because I never really saw them again after that. I mean, being Neo-Queen Serenity takes a lot of work, you know? But more than that, I don't think they were ever able to see Neo-Queen Serenity and their bothersome crybaby as the same person. They must have thought such awful things, like how they hadn't properly treated a future queen, or that their normal, boring lives couldn't be at all relevant to me. I don't know, honestly. After a few awkward visits to the palace, they stopped coming."
"I'm sorry," I said to fill the empty silence with equally empty words. My fist tightened around the hem of my cape, as if in pain. Maybe it was a feeling of wanting to share her pain, or an effort to keep that traitorous hand of mine from reaching out to hers. "Do you…" I paused, choosing my words carefully. "Do you ever regret it? Becoming who you are today?"
Resting her elbows on the table, the queen cradled her chin in her hands and let out a little sigh, a puff of a warm summer glazed in frost. "Regret's an odd feeling," she said. "It's a better version of me wanting to delete some previous version, even though that would entirely change who I am today. I have a prosperous kingdom, a kind-hearted husband, and a beautiful daughter. Yes," she added, more to herself than to me, "I really do have everything."
"'A defiance of God's laws...'" she whispered as she stared determinedly at her hands clasped in her lap. "You know, there are times when I can't find it my heart to blame you for thinking that way. It's so strange, to be given everything yet feel so… wrong about it. Like I took it somehow, as if God's grace is something you can pluck out of a tree. Maybe, in a way, I did."
She smiled again, and I wondered if those kinds of smiles were the only way she knew how to cry. "I'll tell you a secret," she said. "I've never thought of myself as particularly beautiful. I look so pale and ghostly all the time, no matter how much time I spend outside, and I miss the days when odango buns were a style that people laughed at. But I still remember that day, the day you went away, when I saw Esmeraude look at me for the first time. I don't think anyone, not even you, has hated me that much. And then I realized just what nine hundred years has done… it's bent the world to revolve around me. That's… that's how time feels after a while: it passes you by, it locks you out, and yet it holds you tight in order to prove to itself it's real."
"You…." Like so many times before, I couldn't speak in front of her. She was in a world of self-reflection all on her own. Anything I could say to her would shatter her.
As fate would have it, her words would shatter me.
"Well, at least nothing, even me, is meant to last forever."
Silence, yet screaming. All was quiet in the garden, yet so horribly, impossibly loud. The blood in my ears was deafening, the wind gently caressing the trees an impossibly agony, the rustling of Neo-Queen Serenity's dress too much to bear.
"You're mistaken, Demande," she told me simply, her unseen eyes boring directly into mine. "Whether humans are given one hundred years or one thousand, it's still only one impossibly small slice of eternity. Having a greater slice than the humans of old doesn't make me any more like a deity. If anything, that extra time is just more opportunity for me to make more mistakes, and God knows I haven't failed that principle. We simply can't do everything by ourselves, no matter how much time we're given, which is why we have to simply do what we can, then trust the rest to the future."
Then the queen smiled, sending another shattering blow to my frozen self. "Once Small Lady unlocks her power and reaches her full potential, I'll be able to leave Crystal Tokyo and the Ginzuishou to her. Then, after so long, I'll finally be able to apologize to my mom and dad and Shingo for… well, everything." Her cruel smile at last faded, like the harsh sunlight collapsing into dusk. "And now I'm sorry for you as well," she said, as the edges of the garden began to melt into whiteness. "Yes, now I believe you must hate me."
I was dimly aware of standing up and overturning the tea table, sending pastries whizzing past my head in an absurd display. How surreal it was, to see the queen of Earth stand there and sadly smile as jelly and cream splattered across her silk dress. How stupid. How absolutely stupid.
As always, I only found my voice after it was too late. "No!" I screamed, reaching out my traitorous hand to hold tight to hers. But true to the ghostly complexion she lamented, my hand passed right through to ball into a fist. "You… you're supposed to live forever! You can't die!"
"Cherish your brother," was the queen's only reply. "Otherwise, if I were ever to fall to my knees and beg for you to live forever, you may find just how cruel such a plea really is."
Cherish your brother, her words echoed through the dreary haze of wine-induced stupor. Yes, I thought as yet another booming knock sliced through my skull, I'd be sure to remember to do so… as soon as he fixes the dents he's putting in the door.
"Nee-san! Nee-san!" I heard him shout through five inches of iron and platinum, shaking ever so slightly as he threw his whole weight against the door. "Please, you can't stay in there forever!"
I leaned back and let another sip of wine trickle down my throat. His persistence was admirable, yes, but so too was his obedience, I knew. If Saphir truly wanted to force his way in, then the door, enchanted to withstand all intruders and attacks, would already be blown to smithereens. But the sun would never rise when there arrived a day he would defy me. I watched the violently rattling golden doorknob with a vague interest, then turned my attention to a topic of much, much higher importance.
Neo-Queen Serenity was not one for photoshoots; indeed, not one for leaving her own palace walls. But nine hundred years of being queen of Earth had led to the inevitable reality of portraits and statues and shrines of her prominently displayed in nearly every town, no, every residence on the planet. Regretfully, out of fear of letting her sacred image be horribly desecrated by terrorists (how they would ever find out, God only knows), they had only permitted me a simple holographic picture of her, a poor representation of her beauty by all accounts. Yet memories cling tightly to objects, and the memory of that day was more than enough.
"Nee-san, nee-san! W-Wait! You shouldn't run off without Mama!"
I heard Saphir calling, but I didn't even pause to glance back at him. I knew that sooner or later I'd find him, panting for breath as he ran behind me, with Mama nowhere in sight. Which, come to think of it, might not have been the best situation. It'd be much easier to see the festival from Mama's shoulders. The crowd was far too dense, a forest of legs balancing on tiptoes to see. But the sun was shining, and the air smelled of honey-drizzled sweets, and the whole world seemed to resound with an infectious excitement.
Saphir was still calling me. "Would you quit whining and hurry up?" I called over my shoulder as I darted around a vendor's cart. "We're never gonna get food standing all the way in the back!"
I attempted to cross in front of another cart, but luck wouldn't have it that time around. The cart veered off course and hit a group of tourists, resulting in an impenetrable wall of grumbling and complaints.
As I scurried back and forth, searching for an opening, Saphir caught up to me. "Nee-san, are you okay?"
My eyes glinted with excitement, just like all those around us who fell into excited murmuring as the queen's fanfare began to play, although mine was for an entirely different reason. "Bingo," I said with a toothy grin, my tiny hands scooping up scattered cartons of pocky sticks. My first criminal act, performed in front of Neo-Queen Serenity, no less. The jangling of coins in my pocket showed my honest intentions, but Fate enjoys her irony, I suppose, and little boys enjoy free food.
My brother's chubby face fumed red as he gratefully took his share of the pocky and waddled off to plop himself down under a tree. "We've been standing for hours," he complained as I sat down next to him. "What's so great about seeing the queen anyway?"
"Dunno," I replied, prying open the first carton and digging in. "I guess 'cause she's pretty, but everyone knows that. And you can see her in a museum or a book anytime. Dunno why it's a big deal to be seeing her now."
"Well there are some of us who don't want to miss hearing her," said a young woman, turning around to berate us. "Keep it down, will you?"
Saphir scowled in return. "Hmph!" he said, crossing his stubby little arms and turning to me. "That wasn't very nice of her, was it?" When I didn't answer, he sighed. "Mama had slurpies for us. I wanna go back and get slurpies, nee-san. Pleeeeease? Nee-san?"
I had just enough awareness of his voice to place a finger to my lips and shush him, not even glancing in his direction. Then without another word, I pointed with that same finger up, up to the balcony of the tallest spire of the palace, its peak melting through the clouds into heaven. I pointed up at the queen.
That was the moment when I realized that the queen of our earth had been trapped. Trapped in a world of stillness and stiltedness, of manufactured photographs and statues cold as stone. She had been pressed between the pages of a thousand boring history books, none of which gave rise to the idea that she needed to breathe. It was the first time I had seen how the slow rise and fall of her chest made her hair ripple like water. How her hair framed her face like a halo. She was an angel. And she was definitely high enough to play the part. I had to tilt my head back, so far back that all the blood rushed to my head and made me dizzy and focused and lighthearted all at once.
"She sparkles…" I breathed.
'The most powerful woman in the universe,' they said. For once, I understood what that meant.
"Nee-san…" Saphir whispered in a shaky little voice. "Why… Why are you crying…?"
"Tsukino-san! Tsukino-san, I found them!" shouted our neighbor, Furuhata-san, as he pointed to us and waved emphatically to the young woman pushing through the crowd.
Long navy hair that fell to her waist. Tiny arms laded with bags. Smoothies gripped in her unadorned fingers. Smiling amethyst eyes.
And no one standing beside her.
Saphir understood then.
"She's not the person I knew from that day," I said to myself. "She's less than what I saw, but so much more as well. She's…" I couldn't bring myself to finish, because the words wouldn't make sense. Because she walks like she's treading on thin ice, and she never lets me breathe when she talks, and sometimes her gaze passes right through me, and she has a certain way of smiling that's so much like crying, and she says so much that's important while never opening up her heart. She's spellbinding and radiant and heartfelt while still remaining what she's always been: wholly, undeniably cruel.
But truthful nevertheless.
Effortlessly, the doors swung open, leaving my brother a small, confused shadow against the light streaming in. "I've been lied to, Saphir," I said without turning to him. "I've been lied to all my life. I've been told that Earth had finally met with Paradise, and there's a goddess who dwells in a tower, and Father will always come home for Christmas. That love conquers all, love lasts forever, except when it doesn't. What am I supposed to believe in?"
"Nee-san…." He took one step forward, then another, until he was standing right behind me. "That's why we have to believe in ourselves. Why we have to fight."
A sad, short-lived laugh passed from my wine-stained lips. "We're a pretty messed-up bunch, aren't we? Fighting to feel pain, fighting to forget about the pain. Fighting to restore the glory of human nature, fighting to commit murder, the greatest taboo of humanity. Fighting to die old and decrepit, fighting to cut down the young and ever-beautiful. Fighting to destroy the false goddess. Fighting for love to mean something again. But maybe I'm tired of fighting for those things. Saphir… what if I just want to fight to have her?"
As if to pull me back from some great precipice, Saphir grabbed my hand. "Wh-What are you talking about, nee-san?"
Another laugh, just like the first. "That's just it, Saphir." I could feel my shoulders shaking in my weakness. "I don't know. I don't know what to do about her anymore. She represents everything in Earth I want to destroy, but… I can't bring myself to destroy her. I can't."
I buried my head in my hands, and for the first time in a long, long time, I cried.
My brother screamed.
The compact disk projecting the hologram of Neo-Queen Serenity was reduced to a few scraps of crystal embedded in my brother's fist.
Now came my turn to play the confused, trembling sibling. "Saphir… you're bleeding…."
He shrugged off my hand with more force than I thought him capable of. My voice failed when I saw his fists shake at his sides. "I won't forgive her," he vowed, his dark eyes too bright for the tears I had expected. "I'll never forgive that woman for what she's done to you. 'What if you want to fight to have her?' What about Mama? What about me? Aren't we worth anything? Or are you going to become like Father, so entranced by the Ginzuishou that he tired of a seven-hundred year marriage and went to serve as one of Serenity's idolizing servants? Huh?! Are you?!"
He jerked his head away, as if the sight of me and my pitiful resolve was suddenly too repulsive for him to bear. I couldn't blame him. "The fusion reactor is ready," he said in a cold monotone, all the fiery passion in his words now drained away. "The first monolith can be deployed at any time. We await your word, prince." That was his parting gift before the sound of the heavy doors closing left me alone in the dark again.
"So it's finally come to this," I said, partly to myself, mostly to the newcomer peering over my shoulder.
There was no creak of an opening door, no whoosh of magic to signal his arrival, but his presence was undeniable. I felt him, as if he and I were two musical notes matching each other's pitch.
"I've been waiting," I told him, "to see if your words held true. About the cruel goddess who descended from the sky to exact divine retribution upon you, the day you were banished to this place. And I won't deny its existence, but there's so much more. She's heavenly. She's ruthless. She's fathomless. She wields her heart like a weapon, and leaves me blind."
I saw out the corner of my eye Wiseman's glowing red eyes focusing on me. "Today is a pivotal point in time, not only for you, but the whole of mankind. Today, for the rest of time, can be remembered as the day humanity wholly resigned itself to the idyllic playground of a deity, or the day it rose up to stand alone by its own strength of will. And that decision lies solely with you, young prince."
When I kept my silence, he regarded me with a father's disappointment. "Look at you. You set out to destroy the White Moon Queen, and now, look at how she has destroyed you."
"Yes," I conceded. "I know. But no longer. I won't continue living in this way. Today, I intend to discover the truth."
"A woman or a goddess?" Wiseman said. "That's what the truth comes down to, is it not?"
I set down the wineglass. "Yes. You already know the answer though, I'm sure, and if I'm being honest with myself, I probably know, too. But that doesn't matter. Today, everything comes to an end."
I only saw her face the day she left me in my nightmare.
I opened my eyes and found myself in the same dark stretch of corridor where she had given me the dream crystal. Funny, how life comes full circle. I might have laughed, except I knew this meant goodbye.
I raised my eyes to see the pale pink curtains of the balcony hiding her from view, casting her into a mere silhouette. Her back was turned to me.
"What was the point?" I asked her, my voice low and thick with emotions I didn't care to name. "All of this, this game you've contrived, what was this supposed to accomplish?"
The queen raised her eyes to the sky. "I didn't lie to you, Demande," she said. "I did intend for these meetings to convince you to return to Earth."
"By playing mind games with me? By making me hate you?"
"It's better than having you love me. You're far too dangerous when you love me."
I took a step back. "How dare you talk to me about love. What the hell do you know about love?!"
At this point she was looking at me, her head tilted to one side in curiosity, but I didn't care. After all of her lies, I was going to be the one who would make things plain. "Famine. Poverty. Disease. Age. Untimely death. You've laid ruin to them all, but what's the one power that lies beyond Neo-Queen Serenity, Sailor Moon, the Senshi of Love and Justice? Love. You just can't make sure two people stay in love, can you? Because love just isn't a necessity anymore, is it? 'For richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, and as long as you both shall live.' Wiseman told me about those words. They were the words that used to seal a couple's love. But those don't mean anything anymore, do they? Love doesn't mean anything anymore. And if you don't believe that, tell me about your husband."
"Endymion loves me," she said softly, a cold undercurrent threaded through her words. "He always has loved me. I see his love when he looks at me, when he sees our child, when he holds me close. He's never strayed from me once."
"Of course he wouldn't," I answered bitterly. "That's exactly the point. Who would he possibly choose over you? But I don't know if there's a single man on Earth who wouldn't throw away everyone he supposedly loves if it meant having a chance with you."
"Oh? Every single person? And that would include you, too, would it not?" When I didn't answer her, she ran a worrying hand through her silver hair and sighed, the air from her lungs rustling the curtains. "Despite everything you say about fighting for the glory of humanity, I think you underestimate humans. More than that, I think you underestimate love. And that's why I pity you."
A numb kind of pain shot up my arm when I slammed my fist against a crystal pillar. "Damn you," I spat under my breath, while tears stung in my eyes from the sudden wave of sickly exhaustion. "Do you have any idea what this feels like? What it's like to stand here in front of you, night after night for months on end, and endure you? No, I don't think I'm even enduring you. I'm drowning, for the love of God, and you know it! Do you think this is fair? Do you think someone like me can withstand someone like you? Do you?!"
Even then, I refused to fall to my knees in front of her. All I could do was dig my nails into the pillar to keep myself standing upright while remaining all too aware of how sick and tired I was of the entire charade.
"How does it feel?" I finally asked in a low voice, weighed down with a deep-rooted weariness too much for my age. "To stand in the presence of someone like me?"
"It feels… human."
"Does that surprise you, Demande?" she asked me, as if I had the strength of will to answer her anymore. "That I've forgotten what it feels like?" Her silhouette made a sweeping motion across the veiled horizon. "If you've noticed, we've never met outside the confines of my palace. That's because I've seldom left these walls. And do you know why? Because I'm weak and I'm scared. I told myself that it would be for the best to lock myself away, to merely guide humanity instead of interfere with it, and look at the result. Nine hundred years, and interacting with a human being outside my family is just a distant memory. Somewhere along the line, at least in my mind, I became like the sun that blinds if it gets too close." Her voice fell to a hushed whisper. "I became scared of myself."
"I've been scared of you for a long time, Demande, longer than you know. But I've needed you, too. I've needed someone who doesn't bow to me, who stands up to me, who really hates me—"
The sudden silence was drowned out by the blood pounding in my ears. "Stop playing that mind game of yours, because it's not going to work. You think I hate you? I hate the world you've created. I hate everything you stand for. I hate the way you make me feel. But you?" My voice cracked, utterly shattered into the voice of the crying seven-year-old boy seeing his goddess for the first time. "I… I…."
"I want to see you," I said finally. "Just one last time. I want to see you one last time."
Neo-Queen Serenity paused, her hand quaking as it pressed against the curtains. "Very well," she declared, in a whisper so soft it was deadly. Then she yanked down hard, sending the curtain rod clattering to the ground, to let light come spilling through.
There was too much blood in my veins, far too much, as its strength propelled me forward. I heard the echo of each footstep hitting the stair but never felt the impact, not until all the steps were behind me, and I was standing on equal ground with the queen. Then, impact sent all the blood to a sudden, painful halt.
I could read her now, I realized, just by the lilt in her eyebrows and stiffness in her shoulders and the oval shape of her lips. She could see the sickness in me now, I knew. "You really do need me, don't you?" she whispered. Her words were as fearful as she had been that first day, and as cruel as she had been on the last.
There was no room in my heart for hesitation. I placed my hand on the small of her back, placing my fingertips on the bumps of her spine. With my other hand, I touched her cheek, letting my index finger trace a stray lock of silken hair. I memorized the smell of dying lilies, the sensation of her chest brushing against mine with every breath, and the taste of my silent crying.
Slowly, I moved my hand across her face so that it was covering the place where her eyes would have been. She gave a start, but didn't pull away.
There lay her foolishness.
My hand now had purchase on something that shouldn't have been there. Before she could protest, I dragged my hand up to cover the crescent moon on her brow. My hand dragged with it her upper eyelids, revealing two white, pupiless eyes shaking in absolute terror.
"Demande," she gasped while straining to keep her eyes rolled back in her head. "How—?"
I pushed her away, sending her stumbling back against the railing of the balcony. Above, a sunny sky smiled down at us. "You're always the first one to arrive and the first one to leave. That's because we're not inside my head at all. We're in yours, where you can cast a glamour over reality as much as you like. But dreams rely on unawareness, and now that I'm awake in a dream, you can't hide your eyes anymore. And the reason you never showed me your eyes in the first place is because…" A shudder tore through my body, splicing nerves in two and pumping the raw, all-consuming energy that was only a prelude to the Evil Eye. "…you're scared of mine."
"It was self-protection," she retaliated, now squeezing her eyes shut. "You and your clan want to kill me. Who could save me if fell under your control in a dream?"
A harsh red light eclipsed that of the full moon outside. "I suppose we'll find out."
The queen threw her arms open wide as if to embrace the raging whirlwind she had conjured. Her dress billowed around her, while her streaming hair whipped around her head in a frenzy. In the blazing radiance shining from the crescent moon upon her brow, I could hardly stand, let alone crack open my eyes to see the shimmering outline of an arm rise into the air. Only a loud cry and the sound of something breaking could confirm an impossible truth.
Neo-Queen Serenity had shattered the Ginzuishou.
Or so I thought. But like a planted seed, the crystal shards rose from the ground, sending a mighty shudder through the air. And through it all, just the thought of moving felt absurd, until I found myself trapped on all sides by towering crystal petals of the Ginzuishou.
Opening my eyes was the second foolish act committed during that farewell. The Ginzuishou had me ensnared me in a world of my reflections; a thousand Evil Eyes stared back at me with their crimson light. My own two eyes burned like fire. I fell to my knees screaming.
"So now you understand," she said, her words ringing loud and clear above my agony without her even raising her voice, "what wicked power Death Phantom wields. I suppose between the two of us, one can see all colors of the human race. How high people can rise, and how far they can fall. And now I understand," she added softly. "The past cannot be changed. Indeed, I'm only human."
She waved her hand, and the crystals began to shrink and coalesce into the Ginzuishou. "A goddess who's preparing to die, or a woman who rules the world? That's what you've been asking yourself, right? I suppose you've found your answer, just as I've found all of mine." I heard the click of her shoes approach my prone body, saw the ends of her hair glide just above the ground. Her shadow fell upon me, and at once, I wanted to shout how beautiful she was.
"I've been selfish," she admitted shamelessly, "but curiosity has burned in me from the moment I'll meet you a millennia ago. You fight to bring rise to strife and suffering, to cut your life nine centuries short, to see yourself wrinkle and die, to embrace every human fear from the dawn of time. You're unlike any demon of Chaos I've ever encountered, but I suppose that's the point. You're not born of Chaos. You're a human with a god's pride. Because you can't accept a gift, can you? You hate being indebted, having to rely on someone. It makes me wonder how you can be expected to love anybody. Because to you, nothing's worth having unless you fight for it.
"Perhaps that's why, irrationally, you fight to have me."
My head was still so filled with the memory of that burning light that I could hardly lift it. "My God," I whispered, making sure to articulate each word flawlessly despite being struck so low, "why haven't you just killed me already?"
In the weakness of my mind slipping in and out of darkness, I was visited by the impossible delusion of Neo-Queen Serenity crying.
"I like to think I'm being merciful," she said finally, giving me one of her sad little smiles. My eyes watered from how she was nothing more than light and stars and loveliness. Then in a flurry of moonlight and silk, she turned to leave me one last time.
I couldn't hear the sound of my heart beating. I could feel the spiking pain shooting through my body. I couldn't see anything as the goddess melted into light. But that didn't matter. I reached up, grabbing her by the wrist, and pulled, hard. She only smiled and brushed it off like it was nothing.
In life, I've learned there are moments, precious little moments, that we carry with us for the rest of our lives. From that day on, until the day of my death, this was mine:
"How sad for the young prince," that tender nightmare said to me. "In the end, he'd never get the chance to kill a goddess. Just little, old, tired, crybaby me."