Note: This was written for the Yu-Gi-Oh Pairings Contest, for the prompt "Lackeyshipping (Crocketts/Isono)"
The room was dim and smoky, lit only by a pair of braziers filled with sullen orange coals. They sent up wisps of sweet perfume that fogged the already dim room with smoke, making it difficult to see anything at all. Pegasus knew what the room contained, though, without having to see it. This was his private sanctum, the room he went to when even the presence of his well-trained and unobtrusive servants was too much company. His greatest secrets were stored here, things he wanted no one else to know about, treasures too tempting to be safe. Just now, the dim light of those braziers cast just enough illumination to see one of those treasures, an oval mirror of black glass as tall as a man's arm was long. Though the surface was beautifully smooth, without a single flaw, it somehow failed even to reflect the dim light of the coals.
Pegasus, sprawled languidly in his chair, waved a negligent hand toward the mirror.
"Mirror, mirror, on the wall," he intoned, "answer thou unto my call."
Immediately, a face swam into view - a surprisingly human face, though its features were shadowed and colors reduced to gray and black by the murky glass. It bobbed slightly in a bow.
"How may I serve you, my lord?" it asked in an echoing voice.
Pegasus sat forward, his attention now engaged.
"Show me Seto Kaiba," he commanded.
The face in the mirror bobbed again, then vanished into blackness. A breath later, the glass began to emit a glow as bright as strong sunlight. Gradually, the light resolved itself into a view of a room very like the one Pegasus was sitting in now: the private chamber of a man of good taste and the wealth to indulge it. The room was richly carpeted, the walls adorned with finely embroidered tapestries with gems and gold thread winking in the light of many candles. The young man in the image was reposing in a chair that was probably the proudest creation of some master wood carver, its legs, arms, and back made up of intertwined dragons. Also, like the room Pegasus occupied, it appeared to be meant for privacy.
Well, Kaiba may have wanted it, but he wasn't going to get it. Pegasus smiled a little. No, Kaiba might have wanted a lot of things, but Pegasus wasn't about to let him have things all his own way. Propping his elbows on his knees, he rested his chin in his hands and leaned in to hear what the young man had to say.
Isono dropped to his knee in front of his lord and bowed his head in a gesture of deep servility. If he dared risk it, he would have prostrated himself on the floor, but Kaiba had expressed displeasure about people touching his precious oriental rugs any more than they absolutely had to. Kneeling was a safer option - surely safer by far than daring to approach Lord Kaiba as an equal.
"You may rise," said Kaiba.
Isono rose slowly, making a brief bow and murmuring thanks before allowing himself to fully stand. The gesture seemed to please the young lord, who relaxed and nearly smiled. Isono felt himself relaxing as well. Kaiba was a difficult man to deal with - some days servility pleased him; other days nothing could calm his temper. Even on his good days, he was known as a hard man, wise to every wile someone might try to use against him, ruthless in getting his own way. There were rumors that his father's murder, officially said to have been perpetrated by an assassin, had actually been performed by Kaiba himself. It was also widely known that men who opposed Kaiba too openly had a habit of simply vanishing without a trace.
Even so, Isono got along with him better than most people. When the elder Lord Kaiba had been alive, he hadn't just been known as a hard man, he'd been known as a madman, a warmonger who threw his people into battle again and again, conscripting the people of every new piece of land he conquered into his ever-expanding army. In Isono's view, Kaiba had done everyone a favor by killing the old man, and Isono himself had been more than willing to accept a few coins to say that he'd caught a glimpse of the assassin running over the rooftopss on the night of the murder. Before that time, he'd been a nobody, a mere under-clerk, but Kaiba had seen his willingness to serve and to turn a blind eye to his occasionally unsavory activities as worthy of promotion. Now Isono served as his factotum, managing all his day-to-day affairs and serving as his advisor and confidante. The fact that he'd been called into this private room instead of Kaiba's office suggested that it was advice rather than business talk that Kaiba wanted.
As it turned out, he'd guessed wrong. He couldn't have guessed what Kaiba really wanted.
"Isono," he said, straightening a little in his chair, "you have been a faithful servant for a long time, haven't you?"
"Yes, my lord," said Isono, wondering where this was going. "You know I only live to serve you."
"Very well put," said Kaiba. "I need a faithful servant - someone I can trust absolutely. Someone who is willing to do anything for my sake. That's you, isn't it?"
"Of course, my lord," said Isono. "Ask and I will obey."
"Good," said Kaiba.
He turned in his chair and reached for a box resting on the little table next to him. It was a heavy wooden casket, bound in iron, and heavy enough that Kaiba had to exert some effort to lift it. He rested it on his knees and unlatched the lid so that he could open it. When Isono saw the contents, his jaw dropped. The casket was filled entirely with jewelry, loose gems, and gold coins. With that sort of fortune at your disposal, not only could you buy yourself a nice little house somewhere and a bit of garden to go with it, you could probably buy the same for all your friends and family into the bargain.
Kaiba snapped the box shut again, making Isono jump.
"I need someone to deliver this," he said. "I don't want to send some sort of convoy that will attract the attention of bandits. I want one person who is willing to carry this to the edge of my land under cover of darkness. Most of all, I need someone who is willing to actually deliver this to where it's going instead of taking the money and never coming back."
"You can trust me," said Isono promptly. "But wouldn't it still be better to have an armed guard...?"
"No," said Kaiba sharply. "The more people involved, the more chances that someone will betray me. I want this job done fast and right, and that means you're going to do it. Is that clear?"
"Yes, of course," said Isono. "Where shall I deliver it?"
"Do you know the wizard who lives in the Gray Mountains?"
Isono was surprised all over again. "Pegasus? Yes, I know of him, but..."
"I have arranged for him to do a favor for me," said Kaiba. "This is his payment for that favor. He will be very disappointed if his payment doesn't arrive on time. You understand what will happen then, don't you?"
Isono nodded. He had only heard rumors of the wizard. Pegasus seemed inclined to keep to himself, lurking in his mountain hideaway and pursuing his esoteric research. Sometimes at night you could look up and see strange lights and oddly-colored smokes rising up from the mountains. Most people didn't dare have anything to do with him, and many of those who did try to intrude on his solitude weren't allowed to pass through his doors. A few never came back at all. Isono didn't like to think about what the man might do if he was actually offended by something. He really didn't care to think of what would happen if that someone was him.
"I'll deal with it, my lord," he said.
"Good," said Kaiba. He held out the casket to Isono. "Then take this and get going. The sooner you get there, the better."
Isono took the box, trying not to show the strain of carrying it. It was even heavier than it looked.
"I'll be back before you know it," he said.
Kaiba almost smiled. "I'm sure you will."
By the time Isono reached Pegasus's manor, he was almost glad to be there. Passing through the city had been fine, and riding through the farmlands had been rather pleasant, but by the time he'd passed beyond those and into the wild land that surrounded them, the sun had gone down completely, and he'd found himself traveling through the forest in near-total darkness. Only the light of the moon made it possible for him to discern the paler line of the road amid the shadowy trees. Isono was not a woodsman, and wandering through a dark forest at night, listening to the creaking of tree limbs and the noises of unseen birds and beasts had nearly been enough to undo him. When at last he saw the light of the manor up ahead, he nudged his tired horse from the plodding walk it had been using into a trot.
The manor itself was less impressive than he'd been expecting. True, it was larger than Kaiba's, but it was not the towering extravagance he'd imagined a wizard would live in. He dismounted as he approached the front gate, approaching it cautiously. There were lanterns hung on either side of it, glowing brightly, making him think he'd been expected. Isono dismounted and took the box from his horse's saddlebag, tucking it firmly under one arm.
"Hello?" he called. His voice sounded shaky in his own ears. "Er... Wizard Pegasus? I've been sent by Lord Kaiba..."
The gates swung suddenly and smoothly open of their own accord. Isono jumped backwards, and the horse gave a whinny and fled in fear. Isono ran a few helpless steps after it before giving up. He sighed in resignation, hoping that the wizard would have some way of getting him home again. He really didn't care for the idea of traversing all that way on foot. He could only imagine what people would think when they found his horse wandering alone without him.
Gathering his resolve, he walked slowly up the path to the front door. Dimly, he could see light slipping through curtained windows, but only from a few of them. It seemed to be just his luck that most of the household had already gone to bed. Would anyone be awake to meet him? Was he going to have to wander around this spooky place looking for a wizard who might not be very pleased to be bothered by him? He swallowed hard, his mouth dry with more than just the dust of travel, and raised his hand to knock.
Before his hand even touched the wood of the door, it was flung open by a well-dressed young man. He was tall and fair-haired, dressed in a long red robe, worn open over a ruffled white shirt, dark trousers, and talk black boots. The most striking thing about him was that one of his eyes had apparently been replaced by a crudely fashioned golden replica. Isono tried not to stare at it.
"Hello," said the man brightly. "You would be Isono, yes? Lord Kaiba's man?"
Isono made a little bow. "Do I have the honor of speaking to the Wizard Pegasus?"
"That's one way of putting it," said the wizard cheerfully. "I understand you've brought me a little gift."
Isono obligingly held up the box for Pegasus's inspection. Pegasus plucked the box out of his hands and opened it to study the contents. They must have satisfied him, because he closed the lid again with a nod of approval and tucked the box under his arm.
"Everything appears to be in order," he said. "Please convey my gratitude to your master when you return."
"I will be sure to do so," said Isono. He shifted uncomfortably. "I hate to trouble you, but my horse spooked, and I have no way to get home..."
Pegasus waved a negligent hand, and Isono jumped backwards again, half-expecting to find himself apported back home, or turned into a bird.
"Don't worry about that a bit," said Pegasus pleasantly. "While you are here, you are representing Lord Kaiba, and I intend to treat you as his representative in all matters. You will be given the same hospitality I would give him, were he to visit me. Are you hungry?"
Isono guardedly admitted that he was.
"Then if you will wait just a moment, I will see to it that all is made ready for you."
Pegasus ushered Isono into a cavernous entry hall and asked him to wait there, which he did with some unease. At the moment, it was lit by a single chandelier, made of gold and filled with candles, but he could see that there were many more lurking near the ceiling like great metal spiders. In the flickering light of the candles, Isono could make out glints of things in the shadows, though he could not quite make out what they were all supposed to be. Was that a statue there in the corner, or some sort of furniture? Were those frescoes or carvings on the ceiling? Was that a rug or just a figure in the tiled floor? The uncertainty made him uneasy. Isono was a literal-minded man, who preferred everything to be cut and dried. It was one of the reasons he was so faithful to Kaiba, who was, if a difficult man, then at least a meticulous one. Standing here in this amorphous place, watching the shadows dance and shift around him, gave him the uneasy feeling that at any moment the floor might slide out from under him, or he might suddenly turn into something else, or that the whole manor might melt away like so much smoke.
Pegasus returned a few minutes later stating that he had arranged for a room.
"I apologize for the informality," he said, as he began leading Isono up a flight of stairs by the light of a candle. "I keep few servants and entertain few guests, so at this time of night there is rarely anyone awake but myself. Still, I was able to arrange a supper for you and see that the guest suite was cleaned up. I'm sure you will be quite comfortable there."
The suite did turn out to be quite comfortable, every bit as fine as the suites Lord Kaiba and his younger brother lived in, save that they tended to favor cool colors, while this was done up in rich reds, warm browns, and soft shades of gold. There was indeed a dinner laid out on a little low table near the fireplace, which was lit and crackling merrily. The meal itself was a simple enough one, the kind of thing you'd expect to be thrown together for a guest who turned up hungry in the middle of the night: a little round loaf of bread, some slices of cold roast meat, a wedge of cheese, a bowl of sliced fruits, a little pot of butter for the bread, and a few small sugared cakes. There was also a little bottle of what turned out to be very good wine indeed, more than good enough to make up for the relative plainness of the meal. Since he hadn't eaten anything since lunch and had been riding hard all evening, he was famished, and he ate and drank with gusto.
By the time the wine was gone and the food was a memory, he was so tired he could scarcely keep his eyes open. Yawning hugely, he stood and half-staggered out of the little sitting room and into the bedroom he could make out through the next door. There was a fire lit there as well, making the room cozy, and the wide bed with its smooth sheets looked almost unbearably inviting.
As he was stripping off his travel-dusty clothing, a flicker of motion caught his eye, and he turned quickly to see what had caught his attention. There was a mirror just above the mantlepiece. He relaxed, laughing a little at his own foolishness. He really was letting this place get to him if he was being startled by his own reflection.
Perhaps it was just that he'd drunk too much wine, and that he was tired and disoriented by all the shadows and flickering candles in this place, but just for a moment, he'd been certain that the face he'd seen peering out of the mirror was not his own. Similar to his own, yes, but older, with grayer hair and narrower eyes. He stared at the reflection for a moment, but it showed him only his own face looking innocently back out at him. He shrugged and told himself it definitely had to be the wine. He let himself fall into bed, and the smooth sheets and soft mattress seemed to reach up and embrace him, drawing him down into sleep.
He awoke the next morning with sunlight streaming through his windows, birds singing in the trees, and much less of a hangover than he'd imagined he would. He felt a bit stiff and achy, which could be accounted for by the unwonted riding he'd been doing, but other than that, he felt fine. Something about the wine, perhaps? If this wizard could concoct wine that didn't leave you hung over in the morning, he was truly a power to be reckoned with. He stretched carefully, letting his eyes slide a little closer to shut. It had been a long night last night, and a few more minutes of sleep would be very welcome...
"Do you care for breakfast, sir?"
Isono twitched. He hadn't heard anyone come into the room, but while he'd been gazing out the window and contemplating his good fortune, a man had entered his room. He seemed pleasant enough - a fairly average middle-aged man, gray-haired but still well-built and fit, wearing the bland expression of a well-trained servant - but his sudden appearance was startling.
"Ah... not just yet," Isono managed.
"As you wish, sir," the man replied. "When you are ready, shall I have the meal sent up to you, or would you prefer to eat in the dining room?"
"The dining room," said Isono promptly. He didn't want any more people popping in and out of his room unexpectedly.
The man looked slightly less than pleased by this, but he bowed slightly and said, "As you wish, sir." He started for the door, then paused, looking as though he might be considering what to say. At last, he said, "I hope you will enjoy your stay here. Please let me know if there is anything I can do to make you more comfortable."
Then he departed. Isono took the opportunity to get up and dress, hurriedly, before anyone came to check on him. There was something about this castle that was making him edgy, and the fact that he couldn't put his finger on what it was made him edgier still.
While he was dressing, it occurred to him that the man he'd been speaking to seemed somewhat familiar. It took him a moment to realize that his was the face he'd seen peering out at him from his mirror last night. He shook his head. That was impossible, wasn't it? A mirror couldn't reflect something that wasn't actually in the room with him...
He let that thought trail off as he stared up at the mantlepiece. There had been a mirror there last night, he was certain of it. Now there was a handsome painting of a landscape hanging where the mirror had been. He scowled at it.
Something is not right here. I ought to leave as soon as I can...
Still, leaving was not something he ought to do without eating something first, and he couldn't get very far without at least some cooperation from the wizard unless he was prepared to go the whole way on foot. Well, perhaps he could ask the stranger who had spoken to him earlier. He looked like he would know what to do.
With that thought in mind, Isono walked out of his room and began trying to work out which way he was supposed to go to get to the dining room. Fortunately, the wizard's manor was far less confusing by day than it had been by night. Sunlight streamed through the tall windows, illuminating everything and seeming to fill every nook and cranny of the building with light. Now he could appreciate what a truly beautiful place Pegasus's manor was. Whereas Kaiba favored an air of heavy opulence, oppressing visitors with the weight of his displayed wealth and power. This place was light and airy, made of pale stone and blonde woods, the decorations subtly tasteful rather than overwhelmingly grand. Either the wizard elected not to pursue the acquisition of money, or he preferred to spend it on things other than impressing visitors he rarely got. Isono decided that if the box he'd delivered represented Pegasus's usual fee, it was probably the latter.
He was still admiring the decor when he noticed a flicker of movement out of the corner of his eye. He turned in place to stare at it. It was only a shadow, lying incongruously in a corner, somehow avoiding the omnipresent sunlight. He stared at it a moment, but it did nothing threatening. It just sat there, being a shadow, in a corner where there was nothing to cast it. He shivered a little and walked away very quickly, not looking back. If it was following him, he didn't want to see it.
He managed to find the dining room more or less by accident. He had been walking very fast, not looking too hard at where he was going, and somehow he had rounded a corner and gone through the door, and found himself looking at a long table of polished wood, so smooth that it gleamed like glass. A line of silver candelabrums, their candles unlit, was broken in the middle by a centerpiece consisting of a silver bowl of fresh flowers. The man he'd spoken to earlier must have been expecting and watching for him, because while Isono was still standing and trying to figure out how he'd gotten there, the servant popped out of a side door to stand at his side.
"Please, be seated," he said. "Breakfast will be ready momentarily."
Isono did as he was told. He felt a little ridiculous, sitting alone at that long table in that vast empty room. However, the servant returned only seconds later, carrying a large tray with professional skill. He set it down on the table and raised the silver lid to reveal a fine breakfast, still piping hot. A second trip produced a tea service, and the man poured a cup of tea for Isono without being asked, handing it over with a deft flourish.
"Is there anything else I might do for you?" he asked.
"You can tell me why I saw you in my room last night," said Isono shortly.
He expected a denial. Instead, the man said, "My apologies, sir. I was sent to check on you, to see if you were settling in properly."
"Sent?" Isono repeated.
The man nodded. "Let me try to explain. My name is Crocketts, and I am Pegasus's chief servant - the same to him as you are to your Lord Kaiba. The difference is that Pegasus is a wizard, and as such he has granted me certain abilities that make me more useful to him. Among these abilities is the skill of coming and going freely, particularly within the walls of his own castle."
"And that makes it all right to spy on me?"
Crocketts looked apologetic. "I regret the necessity. When Pegasus wishes for someone to obey him..." He trailed off, shrugging a little. "I am a useful servant to him, so he has bound me to his service very tightly. It is not easy for me to disobey his wishes."
Isono frowned a little. "So he's given you these magical powers, but now you're enslaved to him?"
"I'd call that too strong a word," Crocketts hedged. "I volunteered for this."
Isono put down the piece of bread he'd been about to bite into. "You volunteered?"
Crocketts nodded. "I have served Pegasus for a long time, longer than he has been a wizard. I intend to continue serving him for as long as I am able, in whatever capacity he requires of me."
"Your devotion does you credit," said Isono, and he meant it. He may not understand wizardry, but he understood loyalty.
Crocketts smiled slightly. "Sometimes I wonder. Is there anything else you'll be needing?"
"Not at the moment," said Isono, "but I would like to get home as soon as possible. Could you arrange transportation for me?"
Crocketts looked uncertain. "Are you in that much of a hurry?"
Isono found himself nodding. The castle, quite frankly, gave him the creeps, and no matter how hospitable its inhabitants were, he wanted to be well away from it as soon as possible. If nothing else, he wanted to make certain Kaiba knew he'd done his job properly.
"I'll see what I can do," said Crocketts. "In the meantime, I hope you will consider yourself at home here. No part of this castle is off-limits to you while you are a guest here."
"Thank you," said Isono, thinking, No part at all? But then, perhaps the wizard had ways of keeping people out of his private rooms. For all Isono knew, those private rooms weren't even in the castle at all. He had heard that wizards had ways of creating spaces that didn't exist in the normal day-to-day world. Some of them were said to rule over entire kingdoms that didn't exist on any map.
Crocketts departed, and Isono finished up his breakfast in thoughtful silence. He waited a while longer, lingering over his tea, but still the man did not return. At last, Isono gave up. If it was true that the wizard's servant could magically come and go at will, then he could surely find Isono when he wanted him.
With nothing better to do, Isono went exploring, thinking that he would try to find the stables and get out of this castle on his own, or at least hurry his departure along a little. His explorations, though, were less than encouraging. The sky seemed to have become more overcast while he had been dining, and the shafts of sunlight that had made the manor so beautiful before were gone. Without them, the pale stone and wood took on a grayish cast, making everything seem vague, almost foggy. The shadows seemed to be gathering more thickly, too. He could see them sliding around the bottoms of the walls like slinking cats, or bounding among the roof beams. The cobwebs in the rafters trembled slightly in the breeze of their passing. Isono walked faster, feeling fear well up inside him.
You're seeing things. Don't look at them. Don't pay them any attention. They aren't really there, and even if they are, they aren't hurting you. Just don't look at them...
His footsteps sounded very loud in the hallway, clattering and echoing as he walked. The sound unnerved him, and he paused in spite of his fears to let the sound die away. For a moment, all he could hear was the sound of his breathing.
It's so quiet here, he realized. That was what was so wrong with this place. All morning long, he hadn't heard a single sound coming from outside of whatever room he happened to be in - no bustle of servants, no distant chattering of gossips, no clatter of plates being washed, not even any voices from outside the windows. He hadn't seen another soul all day besides that man Crocketts.
Something is not right... Lord Kaiba, why did you send me to this place?
Before he had the chance to consider that thought any further, something grabbed at his arm. He cried out in terror and tried to wrench himself away. The hand let go, and he whirled in place just in time to see one of the shadows skittering away from him. He tried to flee, but there were more shadows now, clustering around him, reaching out with their spectral hands. He tried ineffectually to push them away, but it was like trying to hold back a river with only his hands. All rational thought fled from him, and he screamed like a child.
Somehow, a voice cut through his panic.
"Get out of here, all of you!" it barked. It didn't sound frightened at all, only annoyed, like a man scolding unruly dogs. Isono looked up to see Crocketts wading into the shadows, scowling at them and barking orders. The shadows slunk reluctantly backwards a few feet, but Crocketts continued to scowl at them.
"Go on," he said. "What are you waiting for? Get out of here, before I tell Pegasus of your disobedience and let him deal with you. Is that what you want?"
That must have been the right thing to say, because the shadows gave a little hiss of agitation and fled into the cracks in the walls. Crocketts sighed.
"I had hoped that wouldn't happen," he muttered.
"Pegasus's creatures. Magical constructs," said Crocketts. "I believe they were sent to keep you from leaving his sphere of influence."
"Why would he do that?" Isono asked.
Crocketts frowned slightly. "We do not often have visitors here. It is even more seldom that we have visitors who are likely to be of any use to him in his studies. I believe he saw what a useful servant you are to your master and was tempted to try to keep you here and make you into his own servant."
Isono drew himself up stiffly. "I would never betray Lord Kaiba."
"I know," said Crocketts, almost gently. "I can respect that. I am loyal to my master as well, even knowing what he is capable of. But Pegasus can compel you to serve him whether you wish to or not, and I won't let him try to force someone to serve him when their loyalties lie elsewhere. Come." He started walking briskly.
Isono jogged after him. "Where are we going?"
"Out," said Crocketts. "I'm going to try to get you back to your master." He paused. "It may not work."
"I don't want to spend another minute in this crazy place!" Isono insisted.
Crocketts only frowned and said nothing.
They hurried through the manor. Hallways and corridors seemed to sprawl out in all directions, in defiance of all logic and geometry. Isono tried to keep track of where they were going as they walked and found himself failing. There was, he thought, no way the building could be this large in conventional reality - it would cover the entire side of the mountain and be visible for miles away. And hadn't they just taken five right turns? Six? They should be going in circles, and yet he could have sworn that they were still following the same outside wall, and he knew that they had never lost sight of that courtyard with the fountain full of stone dolphins. And that statue of a woman picking flowers - he surely hadn't walked past that before.
"This place isn't real, is it?" he asked flatly.
"In some ways, that's true," Crocketts admitted. "It is being shaped and controlled by Pegasus's magic. He's trying to keep us from finding our way out, but I think I can still find a way." He stopped abruptly and turned completely around, ducking through a door that led, improbably, into another hallway. Isono had to break into a run to keep up with him. For a little while, they continued their erratic flight, finally ending up in a series of narrow corridors that were probably servants' passages. They didn't look like they were used often.
"All right," said Crocketts at last. "I think we've lost him for now."
"Why do you serve a man who does these kinds of things?" Isono demanded. "He's a madman!"
"He wasn't always this way," said Crocketts softly. "I knew him as a child, and served his father before him. I watched him grow up. He was a good boy - a shy, quiet child with few friends. When he was still quite young, his family arranged a marriage for him with a young woman whose family lands bordered their own. It was a good match for him. The two of them were friends from the start. I think for the first time in his life, Pegasus was truly happy."
"So where is she now?" Isono asked.
"That's the question, isn't it?" said Crocketts wryly. "She died. One of those summer bouts of flu that pass through from time to time. There was nothing anyone could do for her. When she died, Pegasus changed overnight. He became determined to understand the nature of death, to learn where her soul had gone and whether or not he could restore it. That is how he became so fascinated by magic. Do you have any idea how old he is? Older than he looks, that's for certain. So am I," Crocketts added, as an afterthought. "I chose this existence, to live indefinitely in service to my master, because I hoped that I could help him find what he was seeking, and that he might be happy again."
Isono said nothing. He was not sure whether to be impressed or horrified. Perhaps a little of both. And yet, if he'd been given the option, would he have done the same? Possibly. He'd said it himself when Kaiba had given him this mission: everything he had, he owed to his master, and his life was devoted to Kaiba's service.
"It isn't so bad," said Crocketts, as if reading his thoughts. "You get used to it after a while, and it does have its perks."
It was hard to be sure if he meant it or not. Something of Isono's doubts must have shown on his face, because Crocketts gave him a wry smile.
"Is your lot any better?" he asked. "Your lord isn't known for his mercy and compassion."
Isono started to speak up in defense of his master, but then stopped himself. It was true that Kaiba was not, in some ways, a good man. He had killed his father - but the man had been a monster, hadn't he? If he'd been allowed to live, he would have killed a great many more people with his endless wars. There were rumors, too, that he'd been making life a misery for both his sons, and even more than for himself, Kaiba looked out for the best interests of his little brother. You couldn't blame a man for wanting to take care of his family, could you?
Any more than you could blame a man for wanting to be with his lover?
But it wasn't as though Kaiba went around trying to hold people captive when they came to visit, just on the off-chance that they'd be useful. He had better standards than that! Occasionally, he might have to deal with someone who was actually causing trouble to him, but he always had a good reason for it.
And killing people is so much better, is it?
Anyway, the point was that maybe Kaiba wasn't such a good man, but he was a good master when you served him well and didn't disappoint him, and Isono had always been glad to do whatever it took to stay on his good side, even if perhaps sometimes they weren't always the most ethical things...
Maybe it wasn't such a surprise that he'd seen this man's face in his mirror last night. The two of them were on opposite sides of a playing field, but in all the aspects that mattered, they seemed to be very much alike. For a fleeting moment, Isono found that he was sorry that there was no way that Crocketts would ever consider coming over to work for Lord Kaiba instead. He would have been good company, Isono thought, and it would have been nice to have someone else around he could rely on. But no, it was obvious that Crocketts was too closely tied to his master to ever leave now, even if he wanted to.
It's amazing that he's helping me as much as he is...
They burst out of the passage and found themselves standing in a courtyard. Crocketts caught his arm and tugged him towards the gate to what appeared to be a stable. There were horses there, and Crocketts began hurriedly saddling two of them.
"Why are you doing this for me?" Isono asked, as he stood by helplessly. He could, just barely, ride a horse, but dealing with the tack involved was beyond him.
Crocketts gave him another of those wry smiles. "It seems like the least I can do. Consider it a professional courtesy."
And with that cryptic remark, he handed over the reins to one of the horses, then vaulted into the saddle of the other one. Isono scrambled to follow his example. Before he was even settled properly into the saddle, Crocketts spurred his horse, and Isono's mount took off after it without him even needing to guide it.
They raced out the front of the stables and down a packed earth track through the forest. The sky was still gray with thick clouds, as if it were about to storm, and the inside of the forest was nearly as dark as it had been at midnight. A wind roared through the trees, making them howl and moan with an unceasing noise that Isono could hear even over the pounding of their horse's hooves. He had the impression that the trees themselves were trying to oppose their passage, their branches whipping against his face and scratching at his clothes, but somehow the horses kept going.
"We have to get to the border!" Crocketts called. "Once we're outside the forest, things will be better."
Better? They wouldn't be safe? Isono didn't like the sound of that, but there was nothing he could do but follow.
The forest grew darker and darker as they went, the road becoming narrow and uneven. Sometimes the horses stumbled, and Isono was sure he would be thrown from his seat, but somehow he always managed to regain his balance and press on. More than once, he thought he saw black shadowy shapes racing through the woods alongside them. He was sure that at any minute, one would jump out into the road and block their path.
"Leave us alone!" he shouted. "I don't belong here! Let me go!"
To his amazement, the shadow things gave a hiss of dismay and retreated into the trees.
"That's the idea," said Crocketts. "They are only manifestations of Pegasus's will. As long as your will to return home is greater than his will to keep you here, they have no hold over you."
He wasn't sure that he believed that - they had felt very real when they'd grabbed hold of him - but it gave him something to think about besides the terror that was threatening to engulf him. He kept his eyes fixed on the road and thought as hard as he could about wanting to go home, to return to his safe, orderly routine, to tell his master how well he had performed in the face of overwhelming odds, and perhaps earn a word or two of praise. Perhaps there would be a reward. Surely all of this was worth some small token of appreciation...
Up ahead, he was aware of something glowing faintly. He looked up to see that they were approaching a... what? It looked like some sort of clear glass wall, which was nevertheless glowing faintly, shimmering with lights like the sparks in the depths of an opal. Isono was aware of his companion drawing himself together like a man about to take a flying leap into the unknown.
"I hope this works," Crocketts muttered.
In the next instant, the horses thundered through the wall, whatever it was, and they were out of the forest and riding along the broad, smooth road that led through the fields and farms that surrounded Lord Kaiba's stronghold. Isono could have sobbed with relief.
"We made it," said Crocketts, also sounding relieved. "We're out of Pegasus's sphere of influence. You should be safe now, as safe as you'll ever get."
"What do you mean?" Isono asked. "He isn't going to come after me, is he?"
"No, but..." said Crocketts uneasily. "Let's just get you home."
On that unencouraging note, the two of them continued in pensive silence. The trip seemed to take less time than it should have, but that might have been only because Isono was still so lost in thought, trying to figure out what had just happened to him. So much of what he'd experienced made no sense to him at all. It came as a surprise to him when he finally realized that they were drawing near the stables of Kaiba's manor. There didn't seem to be anyone around, which was decidedly odd - there should have at least been a stable hand to take their horses - but Isono was too preoccupied to give the matter much thought.
"Will you come inside?" he asked Crocketts. After all the man had done for him, it seemed to him that the least he could do was to offer him some rest and refreshment before he departed again, probably to face the wrath of his master.
Crocketts hesitated for just a moment before saying, "Very well. I suppose that would be acceptable."
They went into the building together. Isono had a fine suite of rooms, not too far from those occupied by Lord Kaiba and his brother, so that he could always be at their beck and call when they needed him. He was so pleased to see them again that he scarcely noticed that there didn't seem to be anyone else around. As soon as he entered his sitting room, he collapsed into his favorite chair with a sigh of exhaustion. It felt as though he hadn't bee home in months, perhaps years. At the same time, everything that had happened to him since Kaiba had handed him that box felt like something out of a bad dream. He was eager to slide back into his familiar role in the household, to spend his days calculating numbers and running errands amid the familiar hustle and bustle of clerks.
"I'm glad that's over," he said. "What was that all about, anyway? What happened?"
"It's difficult to explain," said Crocketts carefully.
Something about the cagy way he said it made Isono sit up a little straighter to look him in the eye. "Try."
"Very well," said Crocketts. "Are you familiar with the concept of mirror servants?"
Isono frowned a little. "I've heard stories about them. Wizards and things use them to collect information, yes?"
Crocketts nodded. "They occupy the space on the other side of mirrors. The mirror world is a spirit world, and its appearance is heavily determined by the expectations of the person observing it. It remains stable where it connects to the physical world via mirrors, but where there are no mirrors, its appearance can be altered by the will of the spirits residing there. Among other things, this makes it possible for a mirror servant to cross great distances in relatively little time, and are therefore able to gather information and spy on people with great efficiency."
"All right," said Isono, not sure where this was going. "So what's your point?"
"The point to this is," said Crocketts, "that in order to create a mirror servant, one needs a living human being to transform into one. One of Pegasus's theories is that, having access to the spiritual world as they do, a mirror servant might be able to locate the soul of his lost love. Failing that, one might be able to locate information that would aid him in his research. You, with your organized mind and efficient manner, are the perfect material for creating a mirror- servant."
Isono sat up with a start. "He wanted to... to turn me into a..."
"Yes," said Crocketts.
"Well, I'm glad you got me out of that," said Isono fervently.
There was a long pause. At last, Crocketts said, "I didn't."
"I didn't," Crocketts repeated. "All I did was get you out of Pegasus's influence."
"I don't understand," said Isono. He hadn't been turned into anything. He was still himself, and still in his home, not in some strange mirror world. His home... which was oddly silent, come to think of it. Had he seen anyone at all since he got here? Had he seen anyone on the road, or in the streets they'd passed to get here? Come to think of it, had he seen any streets?
"It isn't so bad," said Crocketts. "At least we'll be company for each other. It's been a long time since I've had company here. I at least wanted to start our association by doing what I could for you, and I knew you wouldn't want to spend the rest of whatever life you'll have bound to a master you didn't choose."
Isono shook his head in denial. "Pegasus wouldn't dare. Doesn't he know what Lord Kaiba will do when he finds out Pegasus has betrayed him like this?"
Crocketts set a hand on his shoulder.
"This may be hard for you to accept," he said.
"I trust you received the payment in good order?" Kaiba asked his guest coolly.
Pegasus took a sip of the wine he'd been offered and nodded his approval. "Oh, yes, everything was exactly as you'd promised."
Taking this job for Kaiba, he'd decided, had been a good idea after all, even if it hadn't panned out the way he'd hoped. After all, the materials for wizardry were often expensive and hard to come by, and even magic couldn't just pull gold out of thin air. The treasure Kaiba had given him would cover his expenses for a long time to come.
Still, it would have been nice if he'd been able to prevent the man Isono from slipping through his fingers. Two searchers, after all, would be better than one. He would have to discipline Crocketts for the stunt he'd pulled.
"And you got the job done?" Kaiba continued.
Pegasus nodded. "Exactly as you asked. A very neat job, if I do say so myself. Drugged his wine, put him to sleep, and did it all before he even knew what hit him. He probably hasn't even figured out what's happened to him yet."
"And you swear this will work the way you said it would?" asked Kaiba. "If I had to sacrifice a valuable servant for something that didn't work..."
"It will work exactly the way I promised," said Pegasus. "An undetectable spy and information-gatherer, completely bound to your will. If that is worth giving up your factotum, then all is well."
"Then let me see for myself," said Kaiba.
Pegasus waved a hand at the black mirror that was now hanging proudly on the wall where one of Kaiba's elaborate tapestries had been. "Try it yourself if you don't believe me."
Kaiba stood and approached the mirror. Copying the gesture Pegasus had taught him, he declaimed, "Mirror, mirror on the wall, answer thou unto my call."
Immediately, Isono's face appeared, looking pale and frightened even in the shadows cast by the dark glass.
"How my I serve you, my lord?" he asked.