|Lily in the Snow
Author: King of Kings PM
A king with a dark history, a sorceress seeking her own past, and a thief who would sacrifice all to save them both. Deadly secrets lie between them, and the deadliest of all might be their destruction.Rated: Fiction T - English - Fantasy/Romance - Chapters: 4 - Words: 22,912 - Reviews: 11 - Favs: 2 - Follows: 3 - Updated: 09-26-10 - Published: 04-09-10 - id: 2794891
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Chapter four: Vision
The cherry blossoms were in bloom. Liberated from the trees upon which they had originated by a strong, steady wind, the flowers twirled aloft, sometimes alone, sometimes in pairs, joined in mad aerial ballets. They came without end, like a magenta rainfall, until the entire world was consumed by bright, blithe pink.
Their scent permeated the atmosphere, but it was not the only one. A sweeter, more potent, less defined fragrance was almost hidden beneath it. It was the scent of fresh earth, of heavy rain, of wilderness, of the salt of the oceans.
It was not really a scent at all, but a sensual manifestation of corporeal energy. It flowed with and against the current of air, penetrated the rich earth and was drawn in like water by the convoluted roots of the cherry trees. It made its way up their xylems and spread out through their branches, brought them fully to life, lifted the veil of winter slumber, although the last remnants of snow still lingered in the cooler areas of the garden. They fed ravenously upon it, like it was the most vital of nutrients, and for them it was. Their natural growth quickened and was augmented by it, their leaves grew thicker, their flowers more lush and beautiful, their fruits juicier. They were far taller than the average of their kind and had lived far longer, granted unnatural longevity by this force.
In the midst of the gentle storm of petals, an auburn-haired figure danced, and it was from him the energy emanated, the essence of his very being, the one intrinsic ingredient which gave him substance. Its constant release was not planned, merely an inevitable consequence of the dance, the purpose of it. His movements were graceful, fluid, but without thought or conscious intention. He twisted and turned with the rhythm of all that was around him, like a flower bowed by the wind, not in humility but simple unity. He did not think; he did not see; he did not hear; he did not smell; he did not taste. All senses were gone, and he knew only the sensation of the air, the grass under his feet, the petals which caressed his face and his bare shoulders. They engulfed him, connected to him by tiny tendrils of formless energy. They shifted as he did, in perfect time with the cadence of his motions. They might have been a single entity, converged, eternally as one.
The forest of cherry trees, which covered nearly as much ground as the castle it encircled, was in turn encased in a much thinner ring of fig trees. Still guided solely by the endless concentrated mass of life which surrounded him, Kitsune moved to the periphery of the forest, to where the figs began. He reached out and took hold of a precocious fruit on the closest branch.
Before he could pluck it, however, a series of ambiguous, vaguely unpleasant images intruded into his mind and shattered his serenity. He stopped and opened his brilliant emerald eyes. He stared in unspeakable horror.
The fig dripped with blood.
He let out a little gasp of surprise and revulsion and jerked away. He stumbled, but performed an instinctive lissome sidestep and managed to maintain his balance. Completely convinced of what he had seen but unable to comprehend it, he lifted his gaze reluctantly to the fruit again.
The blood was gone.
He collapsed onto his knees. The breath seemed to have been knocked out of him. He could not understand what had occurred. Had it been an illusion? A hallucination? He had seen the thick crimson substance trickle down from the stem, over his fingers and into his palm. Even its scent, that heavy, wet, coppery odor, appeared to shroud him like a noxious mist. Yet he knew it had not been real.
A voice floated to him from somewhere above in the canopy, whispered its promise of ultimate finality, of some unfathomable, longed-for oblivion.
He covered his ears and lowered his head. "No," he murmured. "No, you are not there. You are not there! You are dead. You are dead!"
Something cold touched his brow. He looked up, but he already could predict what he would find.
Delicate white flakes descended from the pale skies. He held out an open hand, and a few of these flakes landed in his palm. When they came in contact with his warm skin, they melted, reduced to minute drops of frigid water.
"No," he repeated, more insistently. "No. You are gone. You are dead!" This last emerged as a tremulous but shockingly powerful scream that appeared to reverberated across the very firmament.
Something answered him. It did not speak in words, at least not in a language he knew, but its message was inexorably clear. He rose and whirled.
The wind changed direction once more, against him, ruffled and flattened the fine red pelt of the fox. The creature gazed at him with calm green eyes that glowed like jewels, his own eyes. It did not move, did not offer any indication of why it had come.
"No." His voice was faint, curiously flat. His expression was calm, detached, almost somnolent. He was as motionless as the fox, except for his hair, which billowed wildly around him and occasionally obscured his vision. A fine mist seemed to have draped over the world, transformed it into a surreal dreamscape, as ephemeral and inconsequential as the leaves above him and the fruit he had attempted to take.
He did not feel himself fall. He noticed only the slightest shift in perspective, a small tilt of the earth, like it had begun to flip over sideways. The fox watched him with those cold, furious, potent orbs. He could not look away, paralyzed by its stare, fascinated and terrified. Then he struck the soft grass, wet with unseasonal snow, and there was darkness.
As he floated on the edge of unconsciousness, not quite gone but no longer connected to any solid physical body, a spirit without independent cognition adrift in utter emptiness, he heard from the nothing a sweet, gentle whisper. It spoke to him, caressed him, allured him.
"You have eluded me too long, my love.
At first, Kitsune thought he was still in the Cherry Forest, and that disembodied whisper continued to echo in his ears. He experienced no fear, no sense of imminent danger, merely a deep and heavy weariness, almost resignation. The dream had not come, but he had not escaped whatever ghost haunted that ruined world. It followed him like a shadow, clung to him, desperate or simply ravenous.
It was a long while—or so it appeared to him, but he had no real perception of time; time and progression and evolution did not exist and were unneeded in this void of space he had been trapped in—before he realized it was not the voice of his nightmares he heard, but only the murmur of a peaceful breeze. Under it was the sound of flowing water. The grass beneath him was thicker, warmer, moist not with the residue of snow but with morning dew. The scent of cherry blossoms was not nearly as strong, either, or as ubiquitous. It was tinted with a new scent, as well, darker, not foul but somehow tenebrous, a scent which induced images of enormous caverns carved to unimaginable depths below the earth's surface, of flocks of ravens taken flight across the skies, so numerous they swallowed the Sun. There was the lightest pressure on his chest, so light he was hardly aware it was there at all.
The scenery had changed. He had been taken away, to another place, a kinder environment. He recognized the sensations, and the smells, at once.
"Karasu." The word passed almost silently through his lips, but it was enough. The weight lifted, and a cool, tender hand touched his cheek.
"Kitsune?" Karasu's voice, harsh even in its slightly effeminate tenor but as intimate and beloved as the little pink flowers that gamboled in the air all around them—Kitsune could not see them now, but he could sense them, tiny specks of heat that flew by like sparks—stirred him further from his brief slumber. "Are you awake?"
Kitsune opened his eyes. Karasu's pallid face hovered over him, as smooth and passive as always, yet marked with two dim lines of worry at the corners of the mouth. He was like a black and white jewel encased in gold, his slender form outlined with the glow of the rising Sun behind him. He might have been a dweller and hunter of the night, but in this moment he looked to Kitsune like a being of the divine, a being of light. Perhaps that same unseen entity which composed the miraculous magic song that brought life to that devastated land.
"Kitsune?" Karasu said again, quietly, uncertainly. How lovely he looked, but how frail…and how distant. As if he might slip away in an instant, out of reach, like a mirage.
Kitsune sat up. The movement dispelled the last traces of disorientation and sleepiness, and he regarded his surroundings with wide, alert optics. He saw he and Karasu were underneath the shade of the Great Cherry Tree, the largest and most ancient of all he had planted in this garden. The ground sloped gently in front of them, to a large pond, flanked by small but verdant bushes. The water was crystalline blue, serene as the pale skies, save for the sporadic ripples created by a fish that came in transient contact with the surface.
Kitsune turned to Karasu. The younger man appraised him closely. He was oddly tense, guarded, like he anticipated an attack…or something else.
"Kara. Did you bring me here?"
Kitsune pressed his fingertips to his brow. A dull pain throbbed in his left temple, not really much more than an abstracted nuisance. "What happened to me?"
"I was hoping you could tell me," Karasu said. "I found you in the Cherry Forest. You were not responding, so I…took you here. I thought…maybe…the tree would help you." He gestured to the Great Cherry. Kitsune glanced back, and smiled a little. The tree was like an extension of his own flesh, his own soul, like all the plants not only in this garden but in the kingdom as a whole, and he suspected it had helped him, had, whether unknowingly or by some primitive instinct even he could never begin to fathom, given him a portion of its old and powerful energy.
"I see." He reached out and laid his hand on the bark, worn nearly smooth by centuries of wind and weather. "Thank you," he whispered to it. As he did each time he endeavored to communicate with plants, he received a faint subliminal reply, a pulsation not quite of thought but of pure unadulterated feeling.
"Kitsune, can you tell me what happened? You have not fainted like that since…since Fuyuri left." Kitsune studied him, and realized suddenly how uneasy Karasu seemed. Not afraid, but very shaken. The halting way he spoke, the tremulous quality of his voice, were both highly unlike him.
Kitsune opened his mouth to tell the story with the unknowing eloquence with which he always relayed stories, whether mundane or intricate, but hesitated. He wanted to tell Karasu what he had seen and experienced in the Cherry Forest and how it had altered everything he understood and had come to believe, but a part of him rejected the idea with powerful insistence. He had, in all these years, never kept a secret from his life-long companion, not his most asinine, his most humiliating, or his most terrible. There was a complete, unspoken trust between them, a connection so potent and so essential to their independent beings it was as if they were not individuals at all but one, two sections of the same whole. Yet for the first time since he had rescued the boy from that damned village where he surely would have become another victim to the blind superstitious fear of the people he mercifully had no recollection of, he wondered whether it would be wise to tell Karasu the truth.
The reason for his reluctance was both selfish and selfless. The discovery of the tree which should no longer have been dead yet was had been troubling, but by no means conclusive. There had still been room to doubt, to deny, to consider alternative reasonable and utterly unconvincing explanations. What he had witnessed in the Forest, however, ultimately solidified their suspicions into irrevocable and unavoidable certainty. They could not ignore this. He did not think either he or Karasu were ready for this, and surely Akatsuki was not, the youthful magician who knew nothing of the power and cruelty they may have to face through legends based more upon the imagination of the bards who had relayed them throughout the centuries rather than indisputably proven fact, and therefore had no comprehension of the very real threat that hung over this kingdom now, like a guillotine blade prepared to descend. He did not want to put any of them in that position.
He looked again into Karasu's fathomless, unwavering, trusting eyes. Karasu looked back, his head tilted to the side at that sharp, oddly disjointed angle curious birds sometimes did, a gesture Kitsune found strangely endearing. It seemed so at odds with Karasu's typical attitude, yet so perfect. It was a paradox, like Karasu himself, an entity of the dark which had learned to love and live in the light. Seeing him that way, the boy he had taught to survive and who had in return taught him to live, melted the icy wall between them before it could be built.
Kitsune let out a soft, mellifluous sigh and lifted his gaze to the ambulant mass of pink above them. He began to speak, and at first the words tumbled incontinently out, merged and tripped over each other in their haste to be free and be gone, until at last he regained the natural calm he always possessed. Karasu listened without interruption, rapt, expressionless. He was the flawless antithesis of Akatsuki, who was the ideal listener, the one to gasp and exclaim in all the right places and alter his emotional reaction at the appropriate times and to the appropriate extremes. He remained as completely motionless as a statue, frozen in that rather peculiar posture he habitually adopted, a convergence of formality and informality which seemed it should have been impossible. After a while, one was tempted to wonder if he really heard them at all. Kitsune knew better. If Karasu was uninterested, he would simply leave, abrupt and unannounced as a butterfly frightened off. Karasu had never been one for politeness.
When Kitsune finished, which did not take long, a stunned hush befell them. Kitsune watched Karasu, a trifle anxious to see how the younger man would respond.
"Snowing?" Karasu said finally, flat, inflectionless. His countenance did not change. Yet Kitsune noted his rigid shoulders, how his lips thinned, how his complexion, already pale, became as white as winter skies. "It was snowing?"
Kitsune nodded. "Briefly, but yes. It was snowing."
"And you are sure it was not a hallucination, or a vision, or…whatever those things Akatsuki said he has are?"
"I considered that, but no. Akatsuki never described actual physical sensation in his visions, only the impression of such. I felt the snowflakes. They melted in my hair." He ran his fingers once through his auburn mane in emphasis.
"What if what you felt was only the impression of physical sensation, as well?"
"I am not Akatsuki," Kitsune said simply.
Karasu understood. "And your…your…"
"My Vulpes, yes. She was there."
"How?" Karasu demanded. "She is dead!"
"So we thought. Evidently we were wrong."
"Wrong? Kitsune, we saw her die! You said yourself you felt her go. Do you still feel it?"
"Yes." Kitsune laid a hand on his chest, over his heart. He could feel its steady rhythm beneath the flaccid cage of flesh. "There is still that hollow place inside me she once filled. Yet, in that instant I saw her, it was as if I was complete again. Fully complete. Now that place is empty, but I know she was there! She was alive!" He could not quite contain his excitement, and Karasu heard it. It seemed to trouble him.
"But how is that possible? She was dead. We know that. Setsuko was never dead. She was only sealed away. We knew eventually she would come back. But you cannot come back from the dead! So how could she…?" His eyes widened suddenly. "You do not think—"
"Setsuko revived her?" Kitsune finished for him. "Yes, I think she might have."
Karasu shook his head, incredulous, but at the same time unable to disbelieve. "Why? This proves once and for all the White Queen—"
"Please call her by her name, Kara. No one does. It is so tiring."
Karasu paused, and took a breath. "All right, this proves Setsuko is awakening again, but why would she bring back your Vulpes? Why would she bother? What could she possibly gain from that?"
Kitsune shrugged. "Why did she ever do any of those things she did? I am sure she has some purpose in mind for her, and certainly, it is nothing good. Not for us, anyway."
Karasu said no more for a time. After several moments of quiet contemplation, he asked the question Kitsune had pondered over and over since they found the aberrant tree in the forest, "So what are we to do now? Setsuko is coming back. We had hoped it would not happen, not now, but it has. Do we wait for her, prepare for war? You know if we try to alert the people, they will not believe, even if it is you who tells them."
"Yes, they will think I have gone mad. No, we will tell them nothing."
Karasu appeared surprised. "But—"
"We will protect them as we always have, from a distance, without their knowledge."
"They will notice something, Kitsune. They will feel her wrath. And they will turn to you for answers when they do."
"I plan to stop her before she can unleash that wrath upon them," Kitsune said smoothly, passive and serene as the waters of the pond, at least on the surface. Karasu could see the tempest which raged inside him in his emerald eyes, that inferno of potency and emotion that burned eternally under his skin.
"How?" he inquired. He had total, unquestioning faith in Kitsune's ability to accomplish what he proclaimed, but he could not see how such a thing could be done.
"I think you know the first step we must take."
Karasu regarded him solemnly. "Fuyuri."
Kitsune smiled, weary, humorless. "You and Akatsuki are right. It is time for her to come home."
"You plot against me."
Like a silent gust which heralds the end of autumn and the advent of the merciless winter, she felt his breath on her skin, lifeless, as everything about him seemed to be. His hands were on her shoulders, light and almost kind, but as implacable and unyielding as steel. His hair brushed the base of her neck, draped over her and merged with the black cascade of her own. Even it was without warmth, heavy as a suffocating blanket of snow over the ground.
Again he whispered in that soft, dead, cruel voice. "You plot against me."
She did not speak. She could not speak. She could not breathe. A violent shiver took hold of her spine, one of fear, disgust…and, stronger than either, lust. She did not know how he could induce such conflicting sensations in her, as Kitsune, her former lover and would-be murderer, once had. Perhaps that was what had drawn her to this man in the first place. He was so alike Kitsune, the Kitsune she had known, the beautiful, ruthless assassin and mercenary who had slaughtered countless nameless victims to steal their treasure and power.
"No answer?" He laughed. "So defiant. What are you planning? Do you think he will come back to you if you crawl to him and beg?" His fingers caressed her throat, an irresistible seduction, a subtle but clear threat that if she made one wrong move or said the wrong thing, they would tighten, and tighten, and tighten, until they crushed her fragile bones into useless powder.
She had not meant to reply, and was astonished to hear the dangerous words emerge from her own mouth, hollow and without force, but laced with angry truculence. His hands stopped. She felt him grow rigid behind her, but for the first time since he had taken her, a prisoner of her own free will, she experienced no sense of even instinctive terror for her life. From the moment she had seen Kitsune, she had felt distanced from this man, as though he was no longer of any significance. He would not harm her. All his rage, his desire to hurt, to hunt, and to kill, was reserved for another. She did not know who, but as he slept she had heard him mutter dark oaths, promises of a lethal reunion.
"And you accuse me of malevolence," he murmured, his tone a mockery of pain, a mockery of her. "How can you say such things? How could you contemplate treachery, after what we have been through together…?"
"We? There has never been any we. There has always been only you, isn't that right? You, you, you. Your anger, your hate, your need to escape. Your cowardice."
She expected him to be offended, maybe even wanted him to be, but he was as maddeningly calm as ever. "Do you think me so selfish?" he asked, still with that false wounded undertone. He wrapped his arms around her, pulled her close to him. His lips were at her neck, on the vein, below the throb of her pulse. They were so cold, but suddenly her body was very hot. It was torturous. It was unbearable.
It was wonderful.
"If you betray me, if you betray her…you will gain only death, Tenshi."
Now it was her turn to laugh, mirthless, harsh. "Death? Oh, Yoru! Do you know nothing?"
An abrupt, savage hiss issued from him. "Do not call me by that name!"
She went on, undaunted, as if he had not spoken. "You masquerade wisdom, but you are so ignorant, aren't you? Haven't you realized by now? You cannot kill me. Even the Queen cannot. I am already dead."
He pacified with chilling speed. That instant of fury might never have occurred. "I see," he said. Gentle as a mother with her infant, he laid her down in the moist grass, and kissed her. The touch was sweet as ice, devoid of affection, imbued merely with derision and abhorrence. "So you allowed him to take your life. Or did you hand it willingly over to him, like so many other women…and men…before you?" His breath was at her ear. "Would you sell your soul again to have him?"
"A thousand times," she said.
"Until he wanted you in return?" he inquired. He appeared honestly interested, but still he was laughing at her, still he looked down on her, like she was no more than an insect under his feet. Perhaps that was precisely what she had let herself become.
"That never mattered, as you should know," she said.
He descended upon her, and for a while, she was lost in fiery blackness.