Thicker Than Blood
Chapter 19 Our Corner of the Night
Our Corner of the Night
Our paths may be different, but our goals are the same.
- Elhaym Van Houten, Xenogears
The torches guttered on the walls along the corridor, throwing wild shadows. The pre-storm night wind that fought them also caught Schala's hair and robes, whipping them around her. The wind carried with it the scent of burning hair and honeysuckles.
Her keen ears caught Dalton's hoarse bellow over the wind and she ignored him. The hand print on her left cheek showed up bright against her pale skin, and blood trickled down from where Zeal's rings had sliced her face open.
"Princess Schala, wait one gods damned minute!"
Those cold, dark eyes narrowing ever so slightly at the corners. "Schala, I will not tolerate this behavior from you for even one minute longer. They are Earthbound, Schala. Have you forgotten what that means? Or do you enjoy whoring yourself to animals?"
Schala's mouth dropped open. "Mother, what are you talking about? I was healing them! I don't understand why you w--" A dark, crimson light slithered through Zeal's eyes, and Schala caught herself short. "Mother? Are you--" Zeal slapped her so hard that Schala fell to her knees, her ice-colored eyes wide in shock, her hand pressing over the cuts on her cheek in a futile attempt to stop the flow of blood. Cold fingers clamped onto her chin and forced her head around. Zeal's violet eyes bored into her own. The Queen's face seemed lined with steel and her teeth were clenched shut so hard the tendons stood out on her jaw. "Do not talk back to me, Schala. I am not in a mood for your bitching.'" "Schala, wait!" Dalton's shout broke her out of her thoughts. She increased her pace without turning around. "Listen--"
Schala's mouth dropped open. "Mother, what are you talking about? I was healing them! I don't understand why you w--"
A dark, crimson light slithered through Zeal's eyes, and Schala caught herself short.
"Mother? Are you--"
Zeal slapped her so hard that Schala fell to her knees, her ice-colored eyes wide in shock, her hand pressing over the cuts on her cheek in a futile attempt to stop the flow of blood.
Cold fingers clamped onto her chin and forced her head around. Zeal's violet eyes bored into her own. The Queen's face seemed lined with steel and her teeth were clenched shut so hard the tendons stood out on her jaw.
"Do not talk back to me, Schala. I am not in a mood for your bitching.'"
"Schala, wait!" Dalton's shout broke her out of her thoughts. She increased her pace without turning around. "Listen--"
"Fuck off, Dalton, I'm busy."
The Guard Captain nearly slowed -- anyone else would have fled at the acid in that tone. Then he narrowed his eyes and lengthened his stride, longer legs quickly closing the distance between them. The storm had not yet dropped any rain, but the air was damp and moisture clung to the walls. A few torches still guttered on the walls, casting Schala's face into a mask of shadows and blood. She scowled at her distorted reflection in the slick marble floor.
He caught her arm to make her listen and she wrenched it out of his grasp. Dalton clenched his teeth. "Your Highness, there is something very important I need to discuss with--"
Lightning flickered outside, briefly illuminating the wind-torn kingdom below before darkness reclaimed it. Schala hissed through her teeth, and for a moment he saw Zeal stalking alongside him.
Schala snarled at him. "Shove it, okay? I don't have time for--"
Dalton grabbed her shoulders and slammed her against the wall, leaning down toward her as lightning flashed once more. He caught her wide-eyed, breathless expression before the world went dark and the rain came crashing down.
The rain still poured when, much later, Schala opened the door to her rooms, her mind so far away that she didn't, at first, see Janus in a chair in front of the fire, and even then the shadows hid his eyes.
"Your clothes are soaked," he said. She tried to ignore the feeling of being scolded as she dried her hair with a towel.
"It is raining." She didn't notice the way his eyes narrowed at her absent tone of voice. For a while, only the sounds of the storm outside and the crackling fire broke the silence. Schala, lost in her thoughts, and Janus leaning forward in his chair to watch her.
"I sent Ivy back to her rooms," he said after a while.
She sighed, moving to sit in front of the fire. She gathered her long hair and brought it over one shoulder, out of the range of any errant sparks.
"Oh. Yes." Schala frowned. "That..." She narrowed her eyes at him. "That Earthbound child."
The irritation relieved most of the worry building in his chest. Probably she'd just worn herself out healing people. "Yeah."
Brother and sister glared at each other for another silent moment.
"So," she said after a while. "You're going to play stubborn?"
"Of course." Janus leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers. "Although, you could always make this easier on yourself and just let it go."
"Janus, you know I can't do that," she said, lowering her voice. Steam began to rise off her back as the heat of the fire dried her robes. "She is an Earthbound child using magic. Do you have any idea what this means for us? For our entire kingdom? Janus, our whole way of life is based on--"
"Why do you persist in thinking of me as some dumb child?" Janus did not bother to hide the condescension in his voice. "She's not an Earthbound."
"She's not an Earthbound."The whip crack of his voice silenced her, and this time when they glared at each other it was with real heat.
"I see," Schala said quietly after a while. "Would you care, then, Janus, to explain to me exactly what it is she's doing here?"
Schala watched thoughts flicker through his violet eyes as he decided what to tell her. "She's...helping me destroy Lavos."
"What?" The fire jumped a little in the hearth, beginning to dim. Neither took notice of it.
"Stay out of it. I don't want you mixed up in this, Schala."
She laughed. Outside the windows, the storm raged. "Oh, Janus. We are all mixed up in this."
He seemed to be considering her again. In the dying light of the fire, the shadows on his face were only that: shadows. She wondered what he saw when he looked at her. She wondered if he could see her shadows.
"What happened to your face?"
Shrewd kid, her brother. Always noticed the one thing you wanted to hide. "Mother slapped me."
He seemed unsure of himself, very much a child. She felt the straining wildness in her relax a little.
"Why were you in the rain?"
Damn him and his insight. "Why do you think?"
Janus stood up and came towards her, touching her face very gently. "Schala," he said, then hesitated before continuing. "She doesn't love you, Schala."
She had no idea where the tears came from, they just welled up and spilled over. Janus wrapped his arms around her until she could breath without sobbing. She pressed her face against his shoulder. He smelled like soap and books and her little brother.
"I'm sorry," he whispered, miserable. "I didn't mean--"
Schala pulled away to wipe her face. "No, it's... It's okay. You had no way of knowing." She could feel him building up to say something.
"You know I love you, don't you?"
"Of course. And I love you, too."
She looked up at him. In the moonlight, his eyes seemed almost crimson.
"Good night, Schala."
"Good night, Janus. Sweet dreams."
Long after he left, she sat in the silence and the dark and watched the stars come out.
Janus quietly closed the door behind him, his thoughts racing. So, she knew of Lavos's danger, then. And Zeal's too, although he knew without a doubt that Schala would never turn against the woman they called Mother. Janus would never understand why Schala loved her when Zeal clearly cared about her daughter only as a tool to fulfill her schemes.
It's sad, he thought walking toward his rooms, when children must protect each other against their parents. But then, who else was there? No one. He was on his own -- well, pretty much on his own. Ivy only counted as an ally because they had the same enemy. And he wanted to keep Schala out of their plans as much as possible. She had this silly idea that he was a child and shouldn't involve himself in adult affairs. Which was complete and total bullshit. (She knew it, too. She'd been officially welcomed to the court as Zeal's heir at his age.)
He wondered, opening the door to his rooms, where she'd really been--
Janus stopped. The moonlight beaming in through the windows gave him clear view. Some stupid bitch who didn't know how to follow orders... His stomach tried to claw its way up his throat and his skin felt like it was crawling off his body. There was always one. Always. He figured it wasn't too complicated. Earthbound could probably do it. But -- someone had cleaned his rooms. Some stupid ass bitch had been in there touching his things, contaminating every gods damned inch.
He looked down. His hands were shaking.
Janus took all of his things out of his room and arranged them in the hallway. His large collection of books (stolen from various sources) on magic theory -- a study that had begun as research into his lack of power and quickly deepened into genuine interest -- and all of his own notebooks on star formations he sorted by subject, then alphabetized them and piled them on a windowsill. He pulled all the blankets and sheets from his bed, folding them and stacking them atop the mattresses, which his pushed out of his room to a far corner of the hall. He would have Schala burn them in the morning. He stood for a long time looking at the remaining furniture; bookshelves, and his desk. In the end, he decided that they were only surface-contaminated. He pushed them into the hall with his other possessions, leaving only the bed frame in his room. This he disassembled, laying the parts in front of his door so that no one could simply walk in.
He filled a bucket with hot water and soap, rolled up his sleeves. He got on his hands and knees with a clean floor brush that he kept solely for this purpose. He worked slowly in the silver moonlight, and only the steady sound of scrubbing broke the silence. His hair kept falling into his face, and he finally broke down and tied it back. Despite the cold marble floor and the breeze from the open windows, his pale skin soon became covered in a thin sheen of sweat.
Janus worked with steady, single-minded intensity well into morning. Enlightened began their day early, and the few whose tasks brought them by the prince's room took one glance at the fierce, unhappy glare in his violet eyes and his tight-lipped expression before hurrying to Schala.
In a way, he liked cleaning. He liked the simplicity of it, the empty-minded focus required for the job. After a while, the anger faded as he fell into the familiar rhythm; sloshing the hot, soapy water on the marble floor, kneeling in the suds to scrub away the contamination, occasionally breaking the pattern for more water. Eventually, his hands began to bleed from exerting too much pressure on the rough wooden backing of the scrub brush, but Janus wrapped them absently with strips of fabric torn from the sleeves of his robes.
He remembered how everyone had acted the first time he'd done this. Like he was possessed or insane. Even Schala had been hard pressed to explain his actions.
Janus... What the hell are you doing?
He hadn't looked up at her, a frown of concentration etched deep on his face. She contaminated it.
...She cleaned it, Janus.
...She cleaned it, Janus.
Irritation flashed through him at her failure to understand, although he hadn't fully understood either. The bone-deep feeling of...violation that made his skin crawl.
He'd been...what, five? Six? In the years since, the palace cleaning staff had adjusted to his peculiarities. They left his room untouched, except for the occasional mistake. When she realized Janus would need some sort or permanent arrangement, Schala had a quiet talk with them. Ever since, Janus kept up the room himself; dusting, sweeping, mopping -- he even did his own laundry.
The need to keep his room free of contamination was, as far as everyone else knew, the extent of his strangeness. And he intended to keep their ignorance intact.
After he'd completed the plans for the Ocean Palace, Zeal seemed to forget Belthashar existed, and he took full advantage of this. The dream that had plagued him for the long months the Ocean Place took up his time could, at last, be realized. Now, today, Belthashar stood on the balcony of his room and watched the night slip away. Stars faded to the brightening sky. The completed blueprints lay on the desk in the room behind him, secured by a chunk of Dreamstone. He thought, maybe, a week for construction and then his dream would soar the skies of Zeal as it did his mind.
He did not seem to notice the trickle of blood leaking from his nose, but wiped it away absently and leaned against the railing.
Belthashar found it too easy to set his mind adrift in the world of facts and alloys and ratios of wind-shear to optimum craft speed. Turning his thoughts to simple, daily things required more and more effort. He stopped eating, and was secretly relieved when no one noticed.
Only a matter of time, now.
He stopped himself when this thought drifted quietly across the tempest of his mind. The Guru of Reason watched the sun rise above the clouds, his soul in a rare state of tranquility.
He thought, Isn't everything?
Schala looked up from the reports on the reconstruction of the Ocean Palace to meet the gaze of her little brother. He leaned against her desk, chin propped up in one hand, soft hair falling around his face.
"Mm. Kinda busy here, Janus."
The violet eyes narrowed. "Can't you take a break?"
She sighed, internally, and shoved an errant strand of hair behind her ear. "No. I'm sorry, Janus, but--"
He rolled his eyes. "Mother wants you to finish it yesterday, am I right?"
She glared at him but said nothing. What happened to the sweet little Janus from last night?
As if reading her thoughts -- perhaps he had -- he said, "The maids went in my room."
"I'll send someone to burn the sheets and replace the mattresses," she said, bending over her work again. He didn't move. "Really, Janus, I don't have time."
"But I'm bored."
"Get a hobby." Schala caught his eyes when Janus opened his mouth. "Other than complaining," she added, and returned to her books as he finally walked away.
She would, later, come to regret those words.
"You want me to what?"
Janus sighed and forked a hand through his hair. These people were giving him a headache. First Schala, now Ivy and he'd gotten no sleep. Something bad was in the works for an unsuspecting Enlightened today. He needed to relieve some stress.
"When it does come down to fighting Lavos, I'd like to have some idea of what I'm doing."
They were alone in the clearing in the forest. Ivy lay stretched out on her belly with a book and Janus had removed his shoes to dangle his toes in the water. Dappled-green sunlight filtered in through the branches and leaves above them, and the trees swayed and sighed gently in the wind. The scent of rain clung to everything, almost masking out the scent of all the blooming honeysuckles.
Ivy stared at him for a long moment in silence, dark blue eyes calculating. "Alright," she said finally, and stood up.
He blinked at her. "What, now?"
"Yes, now. Why, you got something better to do?"
Janus stood up, brushing grass from his robes. He tried and failed to hide his scowl of irritation. Smart-mouthed little bitch. He almost looked forward to Lavos, just so he wouldn't have to put up with Ivy any longer. The way she watched him now, her eyes dark, her expression carefully blank.
"Okay," she said, stepping close to give him a dagger that appeared from no where. "This is how you hold it..."
An hour or so later, he flopped back down beside the stream, trying to catch his breath. Ivy sat a little ways off, dangling her feet in the water as well. Silence fell between them. Janus stretched out on his back in the thick grass with his arms folded under his head. He allowed his eyes to flutter shut.
That was the best feeling in the world, drifting off to sleep. The only sound was his own breathing and the stream gurgling.
Ivy's voice shattered the peaceful world. "So, Schala doesn't care about what we're doing?"
Janus grit his teeth. "No," he said shortly, without opening his eyes. "I don't think she does."
Silence fell once more. Good. She'd gotten the hint. Maybe she wasn't as dumb as she seemed after all.
Damn. Then again...
He opened his eyes as wide as they'd go, and stared up at the branches above his head. "Yeah?"
"...Do you think Schala would teach me magic?"
He snorted. Hell no. Schala wouldn't give you the time of day. She thinks you're a threat to the Kingdom. I think you're too much of a bitch to be anything else. "No," he said after a while, "but you can still ask her."
It was the same everyday. It had begun the day after the tragedy in the Ocean Palace, nearly two weeks ago, and had not since ceased. Schala did not even look up from her work.
"Teach me, or I will teach myself."
"Then go," Schala said indifferently, turning one paper over and copying down formulas from a book. "Or do not go, but in either case you are standing in my light."
Movement. The candle was placed on the desk before her. Irritated, she looked up with narrow eyes and met Ivy's gaze as the girl quietly brought her hands together on the flame and extinguished it. They glared at one another in the darkness. Schala found herself thinking something she often thought when she met Janus's eyes: These eyes are not the eyes of a child.
"Teach me," Ivy said again.
The girl bowed her head and left.
Later that night when the castle had assembled for dinner, Schala found that scene playing over and over again in her mind.
The hands closing over the flame.
Beside her, Janus had been diligently sawing away at his food. The knife slipped and sliced into his hand. Nothing serious, but blood dripped into his broccoli before he could get his hand out of the way.
He growled under his breath. "Hells."
Pulling out of her thoughts, Schala said absently, "Don't use that kind of language. You're spending too much time with that girl."
Janus wrapped his hand in a napkin and picked up the knife again. He didn't look at her. "It is none of your business who I choose to spend my time with."
Schala's eyes narrowed very slightly at the corners. She turned to glare at him. The hell it isn't. "She is a bad influence on you. I would have thought you'd choose your friends more wisely."
Still not looking at her, Janus licked the gravy on his knife. He knew how much she hated it when he did that. "She isn't my friend," he said.
That caught her by surprise. "No? I thought--"
"You thought wrong."
There was a long pause as she considered him, then he turned to meet her gaze calmly, and once again Schala found herself thinking, These are not the eyes of a child.
"You and she are not...friends," she said slowly, watching as he meticulously separated bloody broccoli from clean.
"No." She recognized the tolerant yet impatient voice he used when speaking to someone he thought to be very stupid.
Janus speared a piece of broccoli on his fork and stared at it a moment. "We are...business partners," he said at last, returning to his meal and leaving her alone with her thoughts.
"Again," he growled under his breath, experimentally rolling the aching shoulder he'd landed on.
Ivy flipped the dulled practice daggers over in her hands so that she held them by the blades, offering them to him.
"You're going to hurt yourself."
"The castle is full of healers." Janus took the daggers and narrowed his eyes at her. "Again."
They circled each other in the long grass, one waiting patiently for an attack while the other searched for a weak point. He ignored the sting of sweat in the burst blisters on his hands. He lunged, she dodged. Thrust, parry, counter thrust, and they moved around each other with renewed caution.
The sun had yet to rise over the edge of the kingdom, and shadows covered most of the land. He moved carefully in the dew-slick grass. A few crickets still chirped, but most had gone underground with the first bird song rising from the forest that blocked off all but one side of the clearing. The other side was the edge to Zeal Kingdom, and a long fall to the world below.
"Schala was talking about you last night," Janus said, watching for an opening.
He lunged again. Ivy twisted her shoulder out of the way, grabbed his wrist and used his own momentum to roll him neatly over one knee and onto the ground.
Janus winced. At least this time he'd landed on his other shoulder. Ivy stood some distance away, waiting for him to stand up, holding out the daggers that she had, once again, taken.
"Don't you remember what I said about leaving your guard open? Something like, 'Don't do it'?" Janus narrowed his eyes, refusing to answer. "Again?"
He stood. "Of course."
They began to circle each other once more. He lunged, she dodged. Thrust, parry, counter thrust. Even in the weak early morning sunlight he'd broken into a sweat.
"Are you going to teach me how to use a sword when I learn how to use these?"
"I don't know how to use a sword. Once you're strong enough, I'm going to teach you how to fight dirty."
"Like an Alleganian?"
"I was thinking more like a girl," she admitted. Janus glared at her, and grit his teeth. Ivy smiled. "Good," she said. "You're getting control over your anger."
They continued the pattern of attack and dodge for a while in silence.
"Schala thinks you're a bad influence." She only narrowed her eyes. After a while, preparing to attack her again, he said, "I think she's right."
One moment he stood watching her, and the next he lay face down in the dirt with her boot grinding into his injured shoulder. He hissed an expletive through his teeth.
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?"
"That you're a bitch."
Ivy fought hard against the impulse to roll him over the edge of the kingdom. She settled for spitting in his hair and leaving him in the dirt.
Janus sat up and glared at her retreating back. "When are you going to learn proper respect for royalty, bitch?"
"When you learn to watch your mouth."
"I thought you said something about learning to control anger!"
Ivy turned around at the edge of the trees, her eyes blazing as brightly as his. "Fuck you, asshole! How's that for control?"
Rast: Life...really sucks, doesn't it? Like the whole universe is holding up a sign that says FUCK YOU.
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