Chapter Nine: The Gates of Sleep
By the time that day was over, I was exhausted but far from displeased. Shizuka tucked me into my silken sheets tenderly and brought me a cup of something sweet and hot.
"You're looking a mite feverish," she said, touching a cool, soft hand at my forehead. "So you should be getting some sleep soon…" I nodded and obediently drinking the contents of the mug.
It trickled down my throat and pooled in my belly, sending warmth throughout my body almost immediately. My fingers immediately went lax and I could feel her gently take the vessel from them as my head lolled back. I realized dimly that there were figures painted above my head, dark pictures with startlingly white faces and hands, like the pale cups of flowers blooming in a dark field or stars pinpricking the velvet heavens, with the dull gleam of gold and the glow of scarlet tracing through in thick swathes over me.
My eyes fixed upon the largest one, a sad man in heavy, olden style, face squared but handsome, his hand lifted as if in benediction, as his hair spread across the painted heavens of the bed in a flowing cloak. His painted, sorrowful eyes stared into me, pits of soft velvet darkness, never ending in their shadowed night. My own eyes fluttered closed and I imagined the man descending upon me to lay his hands across my face, leaving the scent of something sweet and the sensation of soft papery petals trailing across my face, as I heard the fluttering of wings…
My eyes opened again and the man was gone. My canopy was but a dark collection of indistinct figures of lighter black and shadowed grays against the midnight material. All at once I knew I dreamed yet every detail was clear, from the whispers of the silk sheets against my legs to the illuminated figure of the spindly-legged little receiving table by the brass knobbed door. Something was calling to me, words indistinguishable. Slowly, I sat up, feeling the velvet coverlet pooling in my lap as my fingers mindlessly traced over the gold stitching tracing out the indistinct figures of birds and flowers.
I looked around, searching for that source of sound, something that sung in me and made my heart ache. It was familiar, heartbreakingly so. My legs swung over the edge of the bed; I dared to go out into the chill. The first steps of my feet stung but dully. My head turned to the window and I padded there.
The moon was full tonight, crisp and enormous in the heavens. I put my hands on the cold glass of the windowpane and felt the chill pass into my flesh to my bones. The white pearl in the sky gazed at me with a black face, washing me over with silvery beams that held no warmth. My hands turned white-silver, the world shadowed and whitened, as I gazed out at the flickering pale trail the spherical lantern left upon the slowly swaying waves. The surf frothed white like lace upon a duchess's gown at the base of the cliffs, waves hurling like desperate lovers upon the unyielding rock. But something was down there; something was not right with how the waves danced below, a song echoing above the roar and sigh of the sea.
I do not know what happened as my feet padded away and the surroundings lightened and darkened. One hand reached to the side, feeling the wood panels of the palace and occasionally the cool molded metal of a frame. But soon the slick silken wood vanished and my bare feet no longer felt the jarring dual sensation of soothing soft carpet and stabbing knives.
The sea air was cold, knocking into me with its brisk saltiness and I near reeled from the sensation. I was no longer so protected from the chill anymore, this human form so much frailer out of the water. It was as I walked along the carven steps on the side of the cliff, going down to the water itself, I could hear the singing, no longer muted as if in a dream, but audible.
"Oh darling, my darling,
Wherefore have you left?
What treasures have lured you away,
Leaving me bereft?
None would tell us where you gone,
Leaving us in night's black hour,
Until we came here, desperate,
Away from our watered bower.
Why have you left us?
Why have you gone away?
Please come back, my darling,
To our happy days, our days of child's play!"
I put one hand on the damp stone, supporting myself as the wind pulled at me and sent me swaying. There, in the dancing waves beneath the moonlight, were my brothers. They were crying, the dampness on their faces not the spray and splash of the sea, but tears that even then, crystallized and became pearl drops that sank into the black and white waves to be forever lost except for those creatures of the sea and the arms of the ever-moving ocean. The moon and the darkness were kind to them, making weeping into an act graceful in the shadows, even beautiful.
"Yuugi!" Malik called out. "Please come back!" His hair was every which way, tangled like the locks of the sea witch, casting shadows over his handsome, distressed face.
"What have you done?" Honda cried in a voice harsh with despair. "You are of the sea, not a son of Adam!" His eyes were deep in that chiseled face, gray pinpoints of stormy anguish.
But Ryuuji was silent. His hair was slick, untied and pooling about him in a sheet of saturated black silk, vanishing into the water, and he went without his coronet. His face was dark, all shadows and angles now and his eyes held an emotion deeper than anguish and darker than despair. He only wept, without a sound or movement, except when his long lashed eyes blinked the slowly hardening pearl drops away to scatter those precious gems into the ocean without any further thought.
I was caught in his emerald eyes, blackened with despair, and my heart ached. My knees shook and I fell, crumbling into a ball in the steps. What had I done? That image of his face, utterly blank yet utterly twisted with torment, burned into my mind and haunted me. It accused me without voice endlessly until I lifted my head to look at them.
I smiled wanly and opened my mouth, pointing to my throat. Malik and Honda cried out in shock and dismay. Ryuuji looked like I had just taken a blade and put it through his heart.
My brothers came closer and beckoned me to them. I could not resist them this time, pulling myself to them. My slippers had fallen off sometime in my journey down here and my feet were exposed, white and delicate against the carved rock of the stairs, almost as coldly blue-pale as the marble.
My brothers held my hands and whispered things in the language the merpeople only knew, a fluid music that sons of Adam are no longer able to hear, for they block out the melodies of life for their own songs to rival what God there is in the heavens. Such hubris, such sadness… I let the cool wet fingers touch my own warm ones, for the first time feeling what how different my people were from the humans, for our skin was slick, covered in a layer of oil and slime, and faintly pebbled, as though a myriad of delicate scales lay just under the webbing of our flesh. Their hands were webbed, like the delicate feet and paddles of frogs, the membranes between their fingers stretching as they reached for me.
Ryuuji held me close after Honda and Malik fussed, not almost pulling me under like Honda or burying a wet face into my dampening night shirt like Malik. He merely held me as well as he could, hauling himself from the water to hold me like he had for so many years after our mother had died. His tears were hot and burned with bittersweet aching against my chest and shoulder.
And I cried as well.
I wept into his shoulder and his salt-sticky hair. I howled silently as my empty throat rasped and wheezed in airy sobs. It was for an eternity I was there, so close but so far from home, the place I had once been but now seemingly could never return.
I had given up what I have loved and known for what I loved even more dearly, so much like the desperate motions of the waves against the cliff face. But that did not mean it hurt any less.
When we parted, Honda and Malik came close, cautiously.
"It was for the prince, wasn't it?" Malik said softly, his eyes, blackened lilac in the night, all too knowing but fearful, unwilling to accept that truth.
"Why, Yuugi?" Honda asked in desperation, raw and simple. "Why?" His eyes were tarnished silver in the moonlight, bewilderment and betrayal on his face, accusing me with his simplistic view on life.
"For love," Ryuuji finally said. His voice was soft and raspy and was almost drowned by the sighing of the waves around him. He looked up at me. "You wish to have a soul."
I could only nod silently, unable to look at them any longer. Honda and Malik came close in frenzied whisperings, holding onto me, begging me to forget it all, to return to the sea, for it was clear I was so unhappy here… But Ryuuji halted them. He came to me again and reached up with his elegant sculpted hands to cup my face, dwarfed in their size.
Ryuuji kissed me and it was as bitter and sweet and fiery as the wine that had made me blush at Yami's first banquet. His lips were the briny bitterness of the sea but with all its cooling winds and gentle currents and warming surface. It was at once chaste and sensual, as we merpeople are, innocent and free in our uninhibited bodies but bewitching in our fey nature in the strange remolding of the human form.
"I love you," he whispered, and I could only look at him beseechingly, could only mouth the words to him as tears blurred once again in my eyes, and everything seemed to fade into a haze of gray.
I awoke in my bed to find a neat and ordered room, the window unopened and letting in the first dancing rays of a new sun. My eyes fell upon the canopy and could not find that man, that sad and stilted figure that was a white face against the lashings of shadow and chaos, only the trails of vines and blossoms. But as I slowly sat up, I found in my hand a single lock of Ryouji's hair, raven black and twined with sea kelp.
The days passed from then on. I painstakingly learned to read and write, a most difficult task but one I put much determined effort into, for I came to realize that in the strange script of the Sons of Adam, I could at last have a voice, if in ink and upon parchment.
Music came far more easily. Though I learned the flute, the lute, and the violin, my heart rested well with the spinet and the piano. Somehow, my thin, little fingers danced across the keys fluidly, without any trouble at all. The notes were too easy and I seemed to spring into the music easily once I had heard a melody, not needing the stacks of wrinkled parchment marked with lines and dots. I mimicked music easily, my ears registering the sound in an instant, but I strove to not merely mimic but to enhance.
The nobles whispered of my curious abilities with music and dance and fawned over me. One lady in particular petted over me, always gazing at me with enormous, mysterious amethyst eyes that rivaled my own in color. She was known as Lady Mai, of a good house that was known for powerful, wise women who truly deserved their House sign of a siren before the ocean. There was always a smile that danced on her red painted lips as she gently waved time to my music with a fan made of peacock feathers and white jade. She cooed over me and lavished me with sweetmeats, knowing my favorite marzipan figures and anise seed cakes. I was a pet to her and I delighted her, most curiously enough, despite the fact that she never once laid a hand on me that was amorous.
She had the makings of a musician, if only in knowing the sensuality of art. Her body was a work of art and she devoted every waking hour to the devotion of her particular art, which was in enhancing every aspect of her life, be it every gesture she made and every feature she had. She taught me sensuality, if indirectly, teaching me the arts of using carefully blended scents to beguile an unwary visitor and startle a paramour and moving the body to draw a watcher's eye to particular features. However, I saw a deep and ever present sadness in this sensual goddess's violet eyes, something that touched me. It was not my place to fix it as she was quick to hide it behind her carefully created mask. It forever struck me, that deep and impenetrable silence and soberness behind her painted face, beneath the wells of her enormous violet eyes. I would write a song for her not long after I met her, a sweet, sensuous melody that was accented by the chiming of bells, as those of a dancer's in a marketplace, and had a single violin crooning out a melancholy aria in its middle, too soon forgotten however, by the untutored listener, who would be swept away by its jaunty, infectious beat and lush, sensual tones.
I spent my days playing music as the prince entertained me. He was always a good friend and played a part in tutoring me. He protected me from too much of his Court, being a surprisingly shrewd Heir in looking past the venom behind the soft eyes and paws of the courtiers.
"They are like snakes," he would tell me as I fumbled through a copying exercise.
The amber shade of the lamp cast soft shadows on us both as my childish hands tried to painstakingly write. Unfortunately, I was not the best of writers and still struggled with the concept of letters and words. And I did not know how to ask my tutors to teach me something as simple as writing what I so wanted to say:
I love you.
I stopped though, welcoming the distraction as I reached for a handkerchief to futilely wipe ink from my fingers. The question must have been in my eyes as he smiled.
"You can raise them," he said, reaching over to gently clean my hands. "You can feed them, you can guard them… But you never know when they will strike."
He lightly pinched my hand and I squirmed, seeing a sudden shadow of darkness cross his eyes. "But never mind that," he finally said, with a chuckle. "I speak of dark things."
Yami brushed a bit of hair from my eyes. "And those things aren't for you, my innocent wildling from the sea," he said softly. "You look at me with those enormous violet eyes, so rare, so deep, and I instantly feel tainted like the darkness I am named for."
I blushed, swallowing and shaking my head to dispute it. He was anything but dark! He was sunlight, bright and golden and wonderful, frightening in his brilliance. That he would debase himself for me…
"I wonder where you have come from, child," he now said. "You have all the manners of a royal and yet… I have had men search and search for anyone who has lost family from any noble House. I wonder who you are…"
I looked at him and tried to tell him who I was with my eyes, those eyes that all said spoke more eloquently than my lips, even more than my song. I looked at his crimson eyes and told him who I was and where he had last seen me and that I loved him even more for his kindness and wisdom and strength-
"But it matters not," he finally said, breaking the spell. "We will continue to search for your home. But until then… I will have you as my ward, foundling, my beautiful dumb one." And he kissed my forehead chastely.
The witch came for me that night.
He was clad in black and red, toying with a glass of wine. "So affection continues to grow, my dear," he said lightly, sipping at the alcohol.
I glared. "Don't toy with me!" I snapped at him, my temper thin to his babbling.
He arched an eyebrow. "What troubles you?"
"Everything," I whispered. "I try to tell him that I love him but-" I stared at my hands. "My fingers always falter."
"It is part of the bargain, my dear," he said with a shrug, trailing fingertips around the rim of his glass.
"What?" I turned around to face him, incredulous.
"You don't think that it is due to your own idiocy that you cannot write properly, do you not?" A twisted smile started to cross his face. "No, my dear. I'm afraid your charms will have to do."
"You lied to me!"
"I didn't lie at all," he retorted smoothly. "I did tell you that you had it within you already to tell him all. Now it is his game, my love."
My fists clenched and I took one step to the witch. He smiled at me slowly. "By and by," he said idly. "I did make things easier for you, my dear. You realize that such little details as your status in the humans' Courts are not an issue, no? You are not put as a servant or your good name questioned, do you not realize?"
"Why?" I paused to consider it.
"Consider it a gift," he said with a decidedly complacent smile. "A bit of meddling here, a touch of memory."
"I thank you," I said as sarcastically as I could muster. "I can only wonder how you can do it."
One dancing mahogany eye smiled at me. "A witch must keep secrets now, my boy. I wish you greater luck than before."
The morning I awoke from that particular dream was one of the few times I came close to snapping at anyone without any particular reason.
Shizuka talked merrily of her brother on the mornings she came in to take care of me, a pleasant, never overbearing dialogue that always cheered me up and amused me even on that distinctly grouchy and gloomy morning after the dream, and eventually Yami introduced me to him. Jounouchi. I liked him immensely. He had a simplicity and courage about him that reminded me of Honda immediately. His humor was rough around the edges and he would never be any sort of scholar, but he had a good heart and kind eyes. He was like a good hound dog, faithful to a fault, though deadly when angered, like one of the enormous wolfhounds Yami trained deftly and loved so dearly.
Jounouchi trained me when he could in knife throwing and in simple maneuvers, after determining that there was no way I would be a swordfighter. Bumbling he may have been at times, oddly when Lady Mai was present, he was deadly with knives and in combat, being one of the best fighters of the Guard. Perhaps it was because he was distinctly common about it. He never cared much for strict rules or honor that nobility observed so "graciously" but fought to win, when it mattered.
Shizuka was his only family and he cherished her beyond anything. He currently was doing as much as he could to earn a stipend from the Crown enough to support her, so she did not have to serve at the Prince's castle. At times, he didn't know how to be around her, as she was as frail as a hothouse flower to him, especially with her growing blindness, but she loved him dearly. I admired their love for each other. Like for Lady Mai, I wrote a song for them, a child-like melody that was of flute and fiddle, of a soaring, sweet voice and a rougher, powerful voice that melded together in a balance of masculine and feminine. Jounouchi thought it touching as a gesture and sweet enough as a song but frankly beyond his own comprehension and I would hear Shizuka singing it from time to time with a look of quiet joy on her face.
Another man I would meet would be one of Yami's advisers, one Duke Seto of House Kaiba. Prince Yami was in his castle by the sea to live in apparent quiet debauchery (I had blushed when discovering this over gossip-filled tea time with Lady Mai and some of her peacock bright attendants), a distraction his parents offered for a year in celebration of his birthday. Yami however, was a shrewd man and was using the time to learn the finer points of rule, if only in recreating a Court to learn its currents and eddies and treacherous whirlpools in a smaller, controlled setting. He was creating his own Cabinet and his personal adviser was Duke Seto.
A distant relative of Yami's, Duke Seto was quite close to the line of succession and he and Yami had a tenuous relationship, though they were somewhat fond of each other, if only in a slightly condescending manner of two wolves vying for pack leader. Duke Seto unsettled me very much. He was cold, almost inhuman. He was hardly evil, no, it was more that he treated all impersonally and coldly, without inflection or tone.
Admittedly he was handsome however, with hair of polished mahogany that he wore cropped short, a conservative cut that was rather military, and a stern, handsome face that had the same sculptured beauty of a marble cliff face or an expanse of polished clearest ice and all the remoteness of those magnificent creations. His eyes unsettled me the most. They were a blue that was the color of a clear winter sky and sharp as ice, penetrating and inquisitive and as unreadable as the darkest depths of the sea. His was not a gentle beauty, not with his eyes so intense that it frightened and overwhelmed by power and sheer hue.
He gazed at me in suspicion, as though the witch's geas was not enough to hold him to accept me with a bland distance. His eyes always studied me and each time that ice blue gaze fell on me, I felt my spirit shrink inside me. I sought to see him, for I sensed something hidden inside him, the secret to his coldness. But never once could I penetrate his ice, for my efforts were as futile as a sparrow pecking at winter's hoary glaciers.
I puzzled out a song for him; it was the project that distracted me the most. I would sit up nights, pondering over pages of notes that I forced myself to painstakingly learn, instead of relying on sound alone to play my instruments. Yami listened in on one of my efforts on one of the rare days that Lord Bakura begged dismissal from my lessons for the sake of other business.
I pounded on the keys of the piano in a minor key, puzzling out the chords. My fingers were moved to a dirge, which I had been trying to avoid as much as possible. I frowned and forced the meter to a quicker tempo. But my fingers tapped out a staccato beat, which was not part of Duke Seto's temperament.
"It reminds me of someone," Prince Yami said slowly, considering a glass of wine. "A very familiar person."
I glanced at him, smiling a bit wryly and nodded. Let him guess; it would amuse him.
Yami delighted in puzzles and games, teaching me chess immediately and moving onto further games, including backgammon. He was currently occupied with learning a game from the East, a strategy game that was deceptively simple: capturing the opponent's pieces while claiming territory by setting down colored stones on a board. But, as we discovered, it was not so simple to win the game once it was learned.
The nobles within the court very quickly realized that the way to Yami's heart was not through flattery and appearances. The women abandoned their futile attempts in the finest arts of beauty to meet his eyes. It was in clever talk and cultured minds that attracted the prince and a love of games, though not those of intrigue but rather, wit and intellect. It was the women who studied who received his nods, women who would ordinarily not attract the attentions of a Crown Prince, women who were not with alabaster pale flesh and rose red lips, with bright jewel eyes and lustrous locks. It was clever women, facile women who gained his interest, though not necessarily in the art of coquettishness and flattery.
That was how he allowed Lady Mai to dominate his Court, for she was a clever, worldly woman.
"I would not protest in marrying her," he said as we rode along the coast. Riding had come quickly to me, fortunately, thanks to the strange affinity I had with the beasts of the land.
I shot him a horrified look, actual fear closing my throat and making my heart race. He didn't notice, only continuing, "At the least, she is a woman I can respect and admire. It is all we can truly ask for, no?"
I swallowed the lump that throbbed in my throat like a trapped dove and managed a shrug. He looked at me. "I suppose I must give up on the thought of love, dear foundling." There was a deep and profound sadness in his eyes.
I smiled sadly in return, wanting to erase that sorrow that had such deep roots in his very being. Guiding my horse, I gently came to his side, reaching to touch at his gloved hands. He looked at me in surprise as I then drew my hand away, blushing and looking away as my horse danced sideways.
My brothers came to me at night, when I would creep down at the darkest of hours to soak my burning feet within the cooling, soothing waters of the ocean. They would gather by me and tell me stories, of our father languishing but stern, a hollowing cliff face and the admirers lingering and sad, even as my brothers' damp hands would caress my bare feet. Their beautiful eyes cried over my burning limbs, in a vain attempt to steal away the pain, even as their tears hardened and fell to the sea as many countless seed pearls (1), each as fair as a winter moon.
They would tell me stories, Marik and Honda especially, of the beauties they had seen. They told me of princesses, fair and beautiful and compassionate, both of land and sea. One had eyes like the finest of sapphires, they told me, with lips redder than coral and her skin as luminescent as the pearls that lit our palace under the waves. One danced more gracefully than the long fingers of jade green kelp, swifter than any dolphin and just as elegant. One was wise and serene, each movement like that of a swan upon water, always clad in the white of winter and crowned with roses whiter than moonlight upon sea foam.
"She is as slender as a reed by the water," Honda told me one night, bringing me a necklace of jade that encircled the neck thirteen times with rosebud beads that were apple green and as clear as fine ice. "Her hair is but a silken curtain of the finest jet black, blacker than the night sky without the diamond pins of stars to hold it back, and her eyebrows are arched so finely, the wingtips of an albatross skimming the water. This, they say, is her necklace, made for her and her alone, for none have a neck as slender and delicate as hers."
Then they told me of princes, young and swift and handsome and heroic. One had skin like the sands of the coral reefs and was pliant as stalks of great ocean plants that were rooted to the stone of the bottom. One was keen as a young falcon and just as clever, working three times three times three riddles within a sun's passing. One was savagely beautiful as a shark and had a fin to match, all barbed flesh of beautifully mottled gray and the curving scythe of a tapered tail. Malik brought me a clever turban pin, of gold and copper and worked ivory that had a blade like a little knife and the spread plumage of a peacock worked in beautiful enamels of blue and green, with real blood rubies as the twinkling, arrogant eyes of the bird.
"The owner is a prince who has eyes blacker than sin and as velvet as the darkest night," he told me eagerly. "But they are shaped like fine almonds and lined with black paint to wings that extend back. His skin is brown and soft with fragrant scents and spices, his face is like a rose in its delicacy and beauty. His voice is soft and breathy and he stares at the sky like the falcon at his wrist, yearning and hesitant."
And I would play with their presents and smile at their tales, for I knew it pleased Marik and Honda to see me so amused. But as they left when the Dawn touched the horizon with fingers gilded with rose-gold and drew away the fading curtains of the Night, I would look at them vanish beneath the waves and drop their presents back into the sea, one by one, watching the waters close over my offerings.
(1) According to legend, pearls are the tears of mermaids. It's a pretty image, no?
Bonus points for the readers who get the movie references in here!
Official Author's Note: I know I haven't been good about updating. For that, I apologize. On top of writer's block, a fairly heavy student's schedule, and the accoutrements of society-dictated lifestyle, I find it hard to dedicate proper time for this. Don't worry readers, I won't be abandoning this! I'd expected to make this longer, but I doubt it will be the long saga I thought it would be, so… look for a conclusion, my readers and may it whet your appetite for more tales!