As the Eagle Flies
So we have finally arrived at the end of this story. I am filled with gratitude for so many people, in particular Wendy, my beautiful younger sister, and Alan, my good friend and editor (who has not seen an episode of Sailormoon and has still managed to get through this story).
And of course, I am so greatly thankful for all the readers who have taken the time to share their thoughts with me, and provide me with suggestions, criticism, and the occasional off-hand remark. Never have I dreamed of receiving more than one hundred reviews for a story, and here I am today, with the encouragement of all you wonderful people. Thank you for accompanying me on this journey so far, and I hope that you will stay with me until the end, no matter what you might encounter.
Finally, I have expressed quite a few sentiments about the entire process of writing this story and my thoughts on the ending, which you can find on my Livejournal, at mesmerising dot livejournal dot com. If you still have any questions after reading my long rant, then please feel free to ask, and I will endeavour to answer them to the best of my ability. Also, if you're kind enough to leave a review, please either sign in or leave your email address so I can thank you properly!
Again, thank you all so much for reading. This is for you.
It was sheer will that kept her atop the equally weary horse. Serena held the reins in one hand; she fumbled with the straps on her back with the other. Her fingers worked slowly, as if they were separated from the rest of her body, but she persisted. Slowing her mount from the uneven canter would cause her to lose her balance and her already precarious seat; continuing to advance at her rate would bring her within the range of the archers who had undoubtedly fixed their attention on her lone figure. She could afford neither. Her life now depended on her numb hand to untie the wooden shaft from her back and grasp heavy pole that bore the Royal Standard of Sairelle.
It occurred to her that although the tower guards would have a clear vantage, they would not be able to see the golden eagle against the black silk that had been rolled tightly and fastened to her back. Jadeite's warning to her, his parting gift, returned to her. Tristone was to give no concessions, and from her distance, they would not be able to determine she was of their blood.
The gray walls loomed before her. She could make out all three watch towers, the namesake of her city. Along the wall stood two dozen men, their bows drawn back, arrows aimed at her. She knew the wooden tips were not as sharp as they were poisonous—even the smallest graze would ensure that the deathly substance would travel through her bloodstream, stopping her heart. It would only be a matter of time.
But she would not be defeated, not when she was so close. The barest sensation told her her fingers had wrapped around the wooden pole, and with a half-anguished cry, she loosened it. Her grip was weaker than she expected, but though the standard shook, precariously close to slipping out of her grasp, the flag unfurled in the wind, flowing behind her in waves of gold and black. Armed with safe passage, Serena cantered towards home, every muscle in her body tight from the effort to complete the final journey.
She was greeted with a handful of armoured men at the gates. Recognising the attire as that of Sairelle's, Serena drew in a breath and straightened as much as she could in her seat.
"I wish to enter the city of Tristone." Her voice was coarse, but it rang out just the same.
"The city is in a lockdown," a man who appeared to be the Captain said. "No one is to enter the grounds."
"Do you wish to defy the command of His Royal Highness Prince Endymion?" The threat slipped smoothly off her tongue, and she was pleased to see the man grimace. "I do not tread lightly on this soil; the Golden Eagle of Sairelle does not fly without purpose."
The man considered this, but before he could announce his decision, a familiar voice commanded their attention.
"Where is the visitor who bears the Sairellen Royal Standard?"
The newcomer, a man in his prime whose long, white hair was simply a result of spending too much time thinking, stopped when he saw her. She held his gaze, and was starting to feel uncomfortable when he covered the remaining distance between them in a run, and dropped to his knees before her.
"Lady Angelline," he fumbled in their native Chistonian, "this is…we did not…I am quite…Welcome back, my Lady."
Serena thought she would have been glad to be reunited with one of her father's previous advisors, but she only felt a dull ache in her chest. Adopting a neutral tone, she said, "Thank you, Arthur. Please rise." He obeyed, and she studied him for a moment, noting there was a slight shift in his countenance that she did not understand. "How are Lunaria and Diana faring?
"My wife and daughter have never been better," Arthur answered quickly. He extended a hand to Serena, who complied by giving him the standard. "Would you like to be helped from your horse, my Lady?"
She nodded, and almost jumped when Arthur turned around and barked orders to the guards. "Are you curs all deaf and blind? The Lady requires your assistance. Get moving!" He looked at her again, a smile back on his face. "My Lady, I hope you will forgive the insolence of these men. I assure you that you will not be attended by incompetent servants."
It took Serena all her effort to return the smile. She had known Arthur ever since she was a small girl, and he had always treated her kindly when they ate together at one of her father's gatherings. She had known, to some extent, that the calm, pleasant exterior of the man covered a ruthless leader, but this was the first time she had experienced it firsthand. Now she could not help but feel angry at him, at herself.
"On second thoughts," Serena declared, "I believe I can manage such a simple task without probing hands and poor grips." Her feet already free from the stirrups, Serena lifted her right leg back over the horse, and slid to the ground. Her legs buckled immediately as they hit the floor, and her vision blurred.
The last thing she heard before she collapsed was the jarring tones of Arthur's voice calling for a physician.
The scent of frangipani from the sheets seemed foreign. Her joints were sore, but she was warm under the heavy blankets that were tucked in around her. Serena opened her eyes and struggled to sit up. It took a few moments for her vision to clear.
She was in a spacious room, draped with heavy silks, lit by the silver sconces that spread evenly along the walls. Beyond the curtains she saw that night had fallen. To her left sat a man she knew well; beyond him stood half a dozen maids, waiting for instructions. She knew this room, had spent almost all her life in this room.
"The Lady is awake," the man said quietly in the Common Tongue. At his words, the servants stepped forward, offering him the trays that were laden with instruments and dressings.
Her throat was parched, but she managed to rasp, "Andrew?"
He laid a firm hand on her arm, and coaxed her back down. "You are in no condition to speak, my Lady." He retrieved a bowl from a tray, and offered the straw to her. "Drink this, my Lady. It will help you regain your strength."
She obeyed, sipping and swallowing the bitter concoction. When she was finished, Serena sat up again, her gaze hard on Andrew. This time, he did not speak, and instead turned his attention to the jars lined on another tray. He selected one, and gestured for the servants to pull back her blankets.
"Your body is covered with numerous bruises," he said, "and most of the skin on your legs is covered with welts." She noticed for the first time that her thighs were wrapped in bandages, which Andrew was now removing. "I will clean your wounds again, and apply new dressing. How are you feeling otherwise?"
She had been in far worse conditions. Her body ached, but the pain was caused by riding hard for two days, not from being kicked and beaten by ruthless men. Observing Andrew's concern, she wondered how he would react, had he known about what Jadeite and his men had done to her.
"I am quite well," she answered, trying not to wince as the physician gently rubbed the ointment onto her irritated skin. Andrew was not convinced.
"Do you feel any particular discomfort elsewhere?" he persisted. "I have given you a physical examination while you were unconscious, but I am uncertain whether you have sustained internal injuries."
Serena understood and appreciated the concern, but brushed it off just the same. "I have no such complaints, Andrew. I can assure you that, apart from these skin deep wounds and a few stiff muscles, I am as well as I can be."
She felt guilty at having used a commanding tone with him, knowing that his low status did not allow him to contest her words. Of the many years Andrew served the Angellines, Serena had held nothing but respect for the man. He had been as easygoing and informal with her as before Tristone was attacked, but it was her attitude that differed. She was the one who had changed.
"I apologise for my impudence, my Lady." She could hear the hurt in Andrew's voice, but knew her actions could not be retracted. "I will not trespass in your presence longer than necessary."
Serena's sigh was audible, and Andrew paused in his work to direct a questioning look at her. "You know I don't like feeling bedridden, Andrew," she explained, "like the time I fell off my horse when I was little and broke my arm. Or the time I was convinced I could cheat the law of gravity by building myself wings and leapt off a table."
She saw the slightest twitch on Andrew's lips before he hid it by shifting his face as he continued to apply the ointment. "I believe I know the incident you're referring to," he replied. "Mistress was extremely displeased because young Master Samuel was impressed with your display and wished to re-enact it himself."
"So not only did I have to stay in bed for the broken bones to heal, I was further punished by Mother, who thought she could set an example of such misbehaviour for Samuel, even though he got the idea by the end of the first week. She always worried too much."
Andrew replaced the lid to the jar and started working on the bandaging. "Mistress loved you all, very much."
She understood that better than anyone, and the way her mother died ensured Serena would never forget the pure devotion of such love.
The room had fallen quiet, and Serena knew that memories of the attack were resurfacing in everyone's minds. The smell, the sounds, the taste of blood returned to her, and Serena saw not her clean, refurnished room as it was now, but the chaotic mess it was when the soldiers broke down the doors and seized her. She did not know that she had begun to shake, but Andrew's gentle grip on her wrist brought her back to the present.
"You have suffered through a lot, my Lady, but we are all grateful that you are still with us today."
Before she could question Andrew about how he had survived the attack, a voice outside the doors announced the arrival of Arthur. Andrew hastily placed down the bandage he was working on and rose to his feet. A quick, muffled exchange outside told them the man would soon be in their company, and all the other servants straightened too.
"Lady Angelline," Arthur said at the door, "although I understand that you are in no state to receive any visitors, I must speak with you at once."
Serena drew the covers to her bosom, and called out, "Please, enter."
The door opened and Arthur stepped inside, followed by a handful of guards. He took one look at the scene before him, and made his way to Andrew, slapping the physician before he paid heed to Serena.
"How long has she been awake?" Arthur's words were in the Chistonian language, a harsh sound that grated against her ears.
"It has not been long," Andrew replied. He was hit again, and this time was sent to the floor.
"I have been appointed to lead you infidels by a General of Sairelle himself," he said. "Take care to address me formally, you dog."
It hurt Serena to see Andrew touch his head to the floor. "I am not worthy of your presence, Lord Arthur."
Still unsatisfied, Arthur kicked the physician once, and was about to repeat his offence when he stopped himself and offered Serena a bow, a smile once again adorning his face.
"Such violence should not be carried out in front of a Lady," Arthur said in a way of apology, "but please be assured that this piece of filth will be punished accordingly."
The practice of beating and torturing servants into submission was not an uncommon one in Chiston, but her family had always looked upon it with distaste. Perhaps a few occurrences took place in her household away from Serena's eyes and ears, but never had anyone been treated so heartlessly in her own room.
"And what exactly was his crime, Lord Arthur?"
The man was taken aback by her candid question, and offered another bow. "He withheld information about your state of consciousness," he replied, "and addressed me inappropriately, my Lady."
Serena remembered marvelling over Arthur's strength and grace, and the politeness and reverence he had shown to her and her father, but she was no longer a naïve girl-woman. "I ordered him to attend to my wounds before calling my condition to your attention, as I believed my health was of the utmost priority. Do you think otherwise, Lord Arthur? Do I deserve a lashing too, to have defied your wishes?"
"Absolutely not, my Lady," he stammered, evidently surprised at the adversity he found in Serena. "I would not dare think of laying even a finger on Lady Angelline."
"And I was unaware of your elevated status," she continued, nowhere finished. "Which fool of a Shitennou decided that you were the most suitable person to lead Tristone?"
"My Lady, with all due respect, I believe that talk of such political nature should remain in the domain of men."
She raised an eyebrow, unimpressed. "And yet I have been bestowed with Sairelle's Royal Standard at a most crucial time in this war to relay commands to Tristone. Am I to be unsexed?"
Arthur hesitated, and it was long enough for Serena to establish her authority. "I did not intend to imply—"
"Perhaps I should strip you of your standing for your insolence."
Arthur searched for the words. "I am afraid you are not in the position to make such a decision, my Lady."
Her steel gaze was fixed on him. "You served under the command of my father," Serena said softly, "and I have succeeded him. You are of no position to assume that I am without power."
"I did serve His Grace once," Arthur said, "but he met his downfall against a stronger force. It is with that same power that I was given the right to rule Tristone, and it is irrefutable, even by you."
"And what of your lineage, Lord Arthur? Does this temporary—for I am sure not even the dullest of the Shitennou would have you as a permanent leader—appointment miraculously provide you with a superior ancestry that marks your ability to suit such a role?"
It was clear that Arthur wished to retort, but they both knew Serena had touched upon the foundation of their culture, the heritage that shaped their lives. The man could only bow deeply, and say, "It does not, my Lady."
"Then you will do well to remember that I am of the Angelline bloodline, and that you are answerable to me."
"My Lady, even my power here—before you graced us with our presence—was very limited. Tristone belongs to Sairelle now, and I only carry out the wishes of the foreign Lords that oversee our city."
"And when these Lords were too tired from beating Chistonian servants, you were assigned the task of seeing to their punishment?"
He had no answer.
"I see," Serena said. "I am honestly disappointed with our reunion, Arthur, though I know that the blame cannot be attributed to you alone. Perhaps our disagreement would not take place, were the circumstances of our upbringing different. But I now tire of this conversation, of your presence, and I bid you remove yourself from my room."
He took the order and dismissal without complaint, and muttered, "As you wish, Lady Angelline." Serena saw the scathing look he cast at Andrew before making his way towards the door, but did not broach the subject. Only when Arthur and his guards had left the room did anybody move again.
With a small nod to Serena, Andrew picked himself from the floor and resumed his work. As he finished applying the dressings, Serena observed his silent concentration, his avoidance of her gaze. She could not gauge what Andrew's reaction to her behaviour was, and for some reason, this unknowing nagged at her.
She waited until he had finished before speaking. "Pray, share your thoughts."
The physician ducked his head. "I am afraid that my thoughts differ greatly from that which we usually explore, my Lady, and they may be considered inappropriate."
The deliberate distancing hurt. She had learned that nobody could be trusted, that people were fickle and could easily change their opinions and loyalties, and the lesson was now taking her to a crucial point. Her only fear now was that she had not changed for the better.
"Do not be so quick to judge," she said. "And if you have made the mistake of making such hasty conclusions, then the least you can do is inform me of your standing."
"You have changed dramatically since I was last in your company," Andrew answered after some deliberation. "I am not sure what to make of it."
"The only constant we have in life is change," was Serena's reply. "I do not deny that my perspective has been broadened. But this is not the crux of the matter here, is it?"
Andrew shook his head slowly. "After Tristone was overrun and the late Lord Angelline was executed with his Lady, we held little hope for your return. We grieved for their deaths and for your capture, and if fate had not intervened, we would still be clinging onto our anger and sorrow."
Serena had some idea of what Andrew referred to, but she waited for him to continue.
"It was Seiya who spoke up to the Sairellens, on behalf of our people," Andrew said. "While Arthur and the other men who once served your father cowered out of sight, your blacksmith friend made a bargain with one of the Generals. If you would not come to any harm, and if the Sairellens will honour and respect the thoughts of our public, then Sairelle will receive our assistance. That was what was decided by us, without the influence of any dignitaries, and that was what we set out to do. Prince Endymion has been very generous with his assistance, and kept to his word by sending us all the resources we could ask for. Of course, he always implemented some of his men to rule over us, but those nobles are content to watch us from a distance and listen to what we have to say. We all thought these last few months would be a nightmare, having to obey the commands of a foreign ruler we hold no love for, but instead, we found something beyond our expectations: hope."
"And yet you are still unsettled," Serena said quietly. "Despite your preference of these changes over what once was of this city, something still troubles you."
The physician took Serena's hand, an intimacy he had bestowed on her since she was little. But this time, the older man was taking as much comfort as he was giving it.
"You left us as a girl, full of emotions and dreams that you allowed to flow freely and inspire everything you touched. You return to us as a woman who has learned to leash her thoughts and use them to do her bidding. I can only imagine the cruel truths you unveiled during your stay in Sairelle, truths that are haunting you even now."
Serena heard and dismissed his concern. "No matter how much we might wish to dwell in the past, there comes a point in time when we must all embrace our present and move forward."
"I can see the hesitation and doubt in your eyes, Lady Serena," Andrew replied. "You are trying so hard to distance yourself from your world, and it pains me to know that you are surely, albeit silently, suffering. You must know where your limits are."
"When it comes to ensuring the happiness of my country, of my people, then the sky is the limit."
Before Andrew could speak again, Serena held up a hand for silence. She had always disliked using her status to manipulate the actions of those around her, but it could not be helped. An extra moment spent with Andrew would push her closer to the verge of sharing more with Andrew; such a divulgence would not only be of no assistance to either of them, but had the potential to lead her astray. She quietly told the physician that she would like something to eat, and that she preferred to dine alone. The servants remained behind, but they were full of apprehension, and Serena knew there would be no more conversation for the night. She would rest now and gather her strength. Tomorrow, she would seek Diamond and play her final part in this twisted, elaborate game.
The five men rode on through the night, only pausing for a few precious minutes when they passed an inn to give their horses a drink and to quench their own thirsts. Their beasts were quickly rubbed down, drying them of their sweat, and their saddle and shoes checked. Then the men mounted them again and wasted no time in kicking them into motion.
The white grounds stretched before them, and if they took the time to look, they would have seen the moon shine on the thin layer of snow covering the deep imprints, telling them that another horse and its rider had travelled in a similar fashion only recently. But their minds were cleared of all thought save for the devilish determination to reach a single destination.
The Four Heavenly Kings and their ruler rode on.
King Diamond of Chiston did not need his page to announce his visitor to know of their identity. Word had reached his ears that a lone, cloaked rider spent two nights covering the grounds between Sairelle and Tristone, and the King had seen too many autumns not to recognise when hard work yielded to a successful harvest. But the page, the lanky little boy, had entered the large tent where he resided, and stammered that a Lady Angelline required his attention.
He liked the term 'required'; in fact, it was he who had insisted upon it being included into the protocols that dictated the behaviour of his subjects. Being 'required' meant that he was needed, that the King of Chiston held the power to every last grass in the kingdom. He doubted a day would ever come when his wisdom and authority were no longer needed.
The King smiled as he stepped into the next tent and saw its occupant. He reached out a hand and waited, smiling when the woman took and kissed it.
"Lady Serenity," Diamond said, taking his seat, "We see that you have no escort. Is it proper for a Lady of your status to be roaming, unchaperoned, in an area where many soldiers are eager for a conquest?"
"Your Majesty," she said with a curtsy. That was another particular protocol that he had defined: being addressed by the King was always to be taken as a compliment, no matter what the precise details were.
"Alas, hard times are upon us if our decorum is sacrificed for the sake of progress." The King waved a hand casually; a glass of wine was immediately brought to him. "Your father, were he still alive, would greatly disapprove of such forthright behaviour."
She remained silent; Diamond smiled as took a long drink of his wine, letting the taste spread and settle in his mouth.
"We see you have managed to both escape your captors and keep in good condition," the King continued. "We are very glad to know that after those lands become ours, we would not have to worry about replenishing their coffers. And you, our betrothed, are certainly very clever, to have escaped not only from Sairelle, but also from Tristone. Although there are some who regard the two as one; what are your thoughts?"
He did not like that she did not curtsy before she spoke, and her words did not help. "My home city was taken by Sairelle, and has been populated with their people and supplies. It would be foolish to still think of Tristone as belonging to Chiston, Your Majesty."
"Then you must hold the same sentiments towards Restille."
"I applaud you for your perception." Her voice irritated him. He visibly showed his displeasure, but it did not stop the woman from continuing. "I do wonder how much of our people's taxes you spent on bribing those in Sairelle to aid your cause."
"No more than Endymion has bribed those in Tristone," the King replied, perhaps too quickly. He sank back into his chair, and resumed his relaxed tone. "We have heard that this foreign Prince managed to somehow gather an army of Chistonians to rebel against their own King. Is that not ludicrous? The traitors shall all be hanged once they are caught. Along with the Prince, of course."
He studied her closely to see her reaction, and was only met with indifference. The look puzzled him momentarily, until he realised the implications, and asked, "And what are your thoughts on Prince Endymion?"
"A man deserves that which he inflicts upon himself," she said, almost too quietly. He knew Serenity Angelline to be a passionate, headstrong woman, one who would not stand so passively when she spoke about the enemy of her country.
Which meant this young lady was now another bargaining chip.
The knowledge thrilled him. "Indeed you are right. One should not go unpunished after they pillage and burn entire cities, and plunder the sweetest fruit of our kingdom."
"Perhaps you are confused in your recollection," she said mildly, "for though you have had enough women to fill the purses of every brothel in the lands, I do not believe that you have tasted a particular delicacy."
The enclosed space was suddenly hot; Diamond attributed it not to this glass of wine, but to the several others he had taken thus far in the day. The woman he had last night was nowhere near satisfactory, and the one who stood before him now was beautiful and within three strides. But it irked him to know that she, the one who had been in his possession first, had already been taken by Endymion. Even if Diamond had only intended to break and ride her enough for an heir to be produced, he wanted her to be untouched.
Before the King of Chiston could follow his thoughts any further, the woman spoke again, startling him. "You and I both know that the last thing I want is your affection."
"And yet you are still standing here."
She did not hesitate any longer to make her opinions known. "Stop this war, Diamond."
The words were so unexpected, so preposterous, that the King leapt to his feet. "If you utter such a thing again, we will see that you—"
"Hurt me, kill me, and you will no longer have the support of your populace." Her voice was calm, but he could see the storm that raged in her eyes. "Stop this war, Diamond. Stop it now."
It took him several moments to wipe the incredulity from his face, but he knew she would remember every last of those heartbeats. The King walked up to the woman, towering over her. "What makes you think we will even consider such impudence?"
"Because it is your only way of ensuring that I will do your bidding," she answered smoothly. "If you do as I ask, I will submit to you and your marriage, and unite the people in our kingdom so that they are once more obedient to you."
Compared to the woman who had evidently spent so many hours deliberating making such a move, Diamond was unarmoured in this battlefield. But he was not a novice, and knew he would not accept any conditions unless he had no other choice. Now was not such a time.
"The people you are so popular with, the filthy, uneducated peasants have no value to me. Why should we care about unity? It is best that they remain divided and leaderless; they follow orders best when they are scattered."
"They are uniting at this very moment," was the indignant lady's reply. "The only question is whether they are uniting against or for you."
He acknowledged the truth behind her words, but Diamond could not let that show. "Your theories, however amusing, serve no purpose in the real world. Perhaps our men can show you to a tent where you may lie down and accommodate, as women do best."
"Tristone is gathering an army against you," she said, as if she had not heard his taunts. "It comprises largely of Chistonian, soldiers and peasants alike. Imagine what your own army will think when they are forced to face their own kin in battle."
"They will think of those savages as traitorous cowards who are not strong enough to stand beside their own King. Our people have no reason to reconsider their loyalties."
She smiled at these words, a slight curling of her lips that mocked him. "No reasons indeed, Your Majesty. I see then that my time here is wasted, if you are so certain of your victory. But as I am not as courageous as the rest of your subjects, I believe I shall now take my leave and return to Sairelle."
"You will succeed in taking but two steps towards your goal before you find it obstructed."
She swept her eyes across his body in one swift movement. "Your Majesty's girth has increased significantly in the past few months," she said, this time with a curtsy. "I am afraid it will have quite an impact on your agility."
Diamond had heard many things in his life, but never had he been spoken to with such obstinacy. He clenched his fist, his voice rising to a shout. "Watch your words, woman, or we will have you whipped."
"I am trembling with fear."
The King was not amused. "Do not trifle with us. Your status and your life are in our very hands, and removing them is much simpler than you could imagine."
"Then I am sure you will benefit more by immediately issuing such an order and saving us both our time and breath."
He poured his rage into a single word. "Guards!" At the command, the two soldiers waiting outside the tent entered and seized the woman by her arms. But instead of protesting, Lady Angelline stood passively, her eyes fixed on his.
Diamond would not be unnerved by a woman. "Now would be the time to reconsider your loyalties, Lady Angelline."
"Now would be the time for you to reconsider your options," she said without missing a beat.
"And why would that be?"
"From the moment my heart stops beating, you will find that your own people will become your greatest enemy."
He did not wish to believe her, but her eyes were devoid of lies. "Then we suppose we must make you an example not through a quick death, but slow torture."
"Your aim may be able to instil fear in those not strong enough to openly oppose you, but know that they would quickly entrust themselves to a stronger ally should the opportunity present itself." When he did not respond, she continued. "You know my value, Diamond. I am worth far more to you alive and well than locked in a dungeon, or bleeding on a wooden platform."
The King studied her for a few moments, and then looked at the two men. He gave them an almost imperceptible nod, and they released her, bowing deeply. Only when they had left the tent did Diamond speak again. "You want us to call off the war against Sairelle that has been going on for the last year."
"And you want me to prevent the war within Chiston that has been brewing for even longer." She did not wait for his conformation. "It seems that we can either remain in this impasse or reach a compromise. The decision is yours."
He gave the pretence of considering her words for longer than necessary, but there was no doubt as to what Diamond would choose. He had worked hard enough to obtain the woman's hand in marriage, and it was almost a blessing to know that the spitfire would acquiesce henceforth. It was a heavy price to pay, but the King could not afford to lose his future Queen.
To an outsider it would seem that he and Endymion were on the same ground, having each wrestled a city from the other. But Diamond knew that there was more at play, that the worst blow the Prince of Sairelle could suffer was not one dealt by steel.
Because even if negotiations were made, lands were returned and treaties signed, the cerulean-eyed prize of the war would still belong to Diamond.
Darien and his four companions arrived at the gates of Tristone just as the sun resumed the daily ascension to its throne in the sky. The Prince wasted no time in gathering the information from the men who surrounded them. Serena had passed through the same gates only a day earlier, but had left again just hours before. He held up a hand to silence the men as they apologised over not knowing the exact nature of her departure. A quick glance at the Shitennou told him they had reached the same conclusion: Serena was already in the clutches of Diamond.
Darien was about to mount his horse again when Kunzite stopped him, and said in a low voice, "Our constitution may be superior to other men, but we need to eat and rest before we continue. To confront Diamond in this condition is folly."
The Prince heeded the advice, but it was clear that he would not be delayed for long. Orders for food to be prepared were relayed without most of its usual dignity, and the five men paid little attention to their environment. After a short discussion during their quick meal, the men parted to carry out their individual tasks. The Prince and heir of Sairelle would hold an audience with the King of Chiston, but he would not be alone. The army of ten thousand assembled by Seiya and gathered in Tristone would march on their own soil alongside five thousand Sairellen soldiers and this foreign Prince to meet those situated in the Fields of Atheria.
Within the hour, the men of the city were preparing themselves for battle. In the privacy of a lavishly decorated room, a Chistonian squire helped Darien into his armour. The chain mail went over his shirt, and though the metal wrapping around his torso was an added weight to his burden, it gave him just enough freedom to move. Next came the boots and the belt, both made of the highest quality and a snug fit. He adjusted his gauntlets that covered the length of his forearms, and then gestured for the squire to bring his sword, which he secured to the thick leather of his belt.
He was pleased to see that the exhausted horse he had taken from his stable in Sairelle was replaced with a powerful steed, fresh as the snow under his feet, black as the night. He was shortly joined by the Shitennou, and after exchanging a few short words, Darien mounted. With his four comrades beside him and a devoted army behind him, the Prince rode east, chasing the sun that continued to elude him.
The ground beneath him felt softer than back in Sairelle, and the horses did not make as much noise. Once winter melted into spring, the earth would be rich for planting. Darien wondered if he would be able to watch the people of Tristone work their fields when the time came. In the distance, he could see several mountains, covered in white. The few peaks in Sairelle down south lost their snow caps soon after the turn of the seasons was celebrated, but it seemed that the top of these mountains never saw anything else.
Darien tensed the moment they stepped into the Fields of Atheria. The smoke rising from the camps spoiled the otherwise picturesque surrounding, and the air had a sour taste to it. He gave a series of quick tugs to his reins, bringing his horse to a slower canter but not quite entering a trot. The Shitennou did the same, keeping their senses alert as they entered their enemy's territory.
A lone, mounted figure was emerging from the camp towards them, and they could soon see that he bore the Royal Chistonian Standard along with a white flag. Jadeite, who was the ensign of their party, acknowledged the call for truce by sending up their own white flag.
They stopped a few feet away from the messenger, who instantly began to speak in the Common Tongue, his accent heavy.
"His Royal Majesty King Diamond extends his welcome to Your Highness Prince Endymion and all those travelling with him."
"We appreciate being received in this manner," the Prince replied. "I have several matters to discuss with His Majesty, and I hope my company and I may continue to trespass on His Majesty's kindness."
"His Royal Majesty sends his apologies, for he is unable to hold a private audience with Your Highness. However, he would be more than happy to hold a conversation in public, if Your Highness is still inclined."
Darien kept his face neutral, but he did not understand why Diamond would opt for a confrontation that would be seen and heard by all their men. Although such a performance would ensure that the King of Chiston will have no choice but to hold to whatever conclusion they make, Darien had the uneasy feeling that he was stepping into the same trap. Any promises he made as the Prince of Sairelle would have to be kept, if his own word were to be trusted.
He had come so far, had taken so many steps of this long journey that turning back would not be an option. And somewhere within the tents stretched out before him, was Serena.
The Prince nodded. "We are very grateful for such consideration by His Majesty."
No more words were needed. The messenger turned his mount and headed towards the camp. Darien and his men followed him, careful to keep their horses at the dignified trot of the slow procession.
It was not long before they were met with the sight of Diamond's army, all fifty thousand men dressed for battle. A few paces before them was the King himself, astride a large, armoured horse. He was flanked by a few hundred cavalry, but it was not the knights or their steeds that caught Darien's attention. All the Prince could see was the lady to the left of the King, her back straight, head held high.
Darien's company stopped when they were in hearing range of their enemy, and they waited as the messenger rejoined the King of Chiston. An eerie quietness stretched between them, as if all the men were holding their breath to prepare themselves for what was to come. Even the horses were still, their ears flickered backwards as they waited for the instruction of their riders.
But no one moved. The gulf between them resulted from the doing of a handful, but they were all here to suffer the consequences. Darien could only spare a few heartbeats to study Serena, but although he was close enough to see her steady gaze, the distance made it difficult to determine where her attention was fixed. And he understood then that she had slipped out of his reach, that the decision she had made was as irreversible as the moment he looked into her eyes and gave her the name that was not his birthright.
The weariness of the last few days seeped through him, a layer of snow settled over him, numbing him. His right hand twitched as he struggled to keep it steady—the smallest tug of the reins would turn his horse around and take him home. It was duty alone that kept him facing his adversary, and even then, it almost was not enough.
But then Diamond spoke, his loud words carrying over the vast emptiness between them, and duty propelled the Prince of Sairelle back to the severity of his task.
"We have not had the pleasure of conferring in person," the King of Chiston said, "and we regret that the circumstance of our meeting is as unfortunate as it is."
Darien disliked the royal plural that Diamond used, but he could only incline his head in respect. "It is certainly a pleasure to hold audience with Your Majesty," Darien called out in response.
"As much as we would like to share such sentiments, Endymion of Sairelle" Diamond said, "we believe that a less solemn affair is currently impossible. We believe that you have two of our possessions—one has been returned to us, but not only are you still holding the other hostage, you have had no qualms about using it against us."
"I am afraid that is not the only animosity between us. It seems that the proud capital of my kingdom is currently occupied by your people."
"We must admit that this situation is rather convenient, for we are able to propose a trade without the fear of taking advantage of you."
Darien had foreseen this. "You wish to reclaim Tristone?
"We will relinquish Restille if you agree."
"As much I would like to enter such an agreement," the Prince replied slowly, "I believe that Tristone is outside my jurisdiction and I am unable to make any decision without consulting the people who reside in the city."
As soon as the words left Darien's lips, he felt the trap spring up around him.
"Is it not also convenient then," the King said casually, "that a large portion of those very people are here with us now? Men of Tristone, there is no doubt that your current leader holds the utmost respect for your opinion. However, such a man, no matter how honourable, will always be a foreigner to your language and custom. For the sake of your children, you should consider returning to Chiston and uniting once again with your homeland."
The soldiers behind Darien murmured at this, and though he longed to, Darien could not risk the backward glance that would be seen as weakness. The one drop of relief the Prince felt was from knowing that the Chistonians no longer trusted their King—and then he heard Serena's familiar voice, strong and compassionate, rising above the din of speculation.
"Men of Chiston," she said, "hear my voice. Yesterday, I was Fortune's Fool. Tomorrow, I will be the Queen of Chiston. Today, I stand before you simply as Serenity Angelline who was once the Lady of Tristone. My father, Duke Kendrick Angelline, has treated you kindly and kept the best interest of our city at heart until his dying moment. Tristone was once a happy and proud city, rich with laughter and music. Men of Chiston, we can be free of cares once more. The love I hold for my city, my home, is great—I swear upon my father's grave that I will never forsake you, should you choose to reunite with your King."
At the conclusion of her speech, the men started conversing among themselves again. Darien could pick up a few of their words, but most of the sounds in the rough language were lost to him. Then, before their attention could be restored, a single voice rang out from the masses.
"We trust your word, but we cannot trust the King's. Has he not simply asked you to speak on his behalf?"
The question was met with a murmur of agreement, but it was silenced by Serena's distinct voice.
"If you hold such trust for me, then you need not spare a thought for His Majesty's intentions. He had spent many years ruling alone, and in his loneliness and despair, has made several unfavourable judgements. But this will not continue. As the Queen of Chiston, I will do all in my power to ensure that every voice will be heard, every struggle seen, every wrong righted. A new dawn is rising, and its light is within your grasp."
Whatever hope that was left in Darien's heart left him as Serena uttered her last word. He did not have to look back to see the Chistonians, the men who were ready to betray their King, nod as they entrusted themselves to their future Queen. One by one they began to call out her name, until the scattered voices fell in beat with one another's and they chanted the name that had been etched in Darien's heart.
It took a few moments for their silence to be obtained again, but Diamond kept his hand held up long enough for the men to settle. Only when he was met with the utmost attention did the King speak again. "It seems that the people of Tristone have made their decision. Will you consider my offer now, Prince Endymion?"
The trap had led him to this point in time where the only option was to go forward. The public meeting had served Diamond well, and the people would brand Darien as a hypocrite if the offer was withdrawn. Swallowing hard, Darien let loose what was pervading his mind.
"Lady Serenity will be a kind ruler and a devoted wife. I extend my heartfelt congratulations, Your Majesty." The King's only response was to nod, and Darien knew this as the first step of his defeat. "It seems that, even should I wish to keep Tristone, it has now slipped from my hold. I will keep to my word, as long as Restille will be emptied of your soldiers by the full moon."
"Yes, I do fear that my soldiers grow homesick." The King turned to the knight on his right, and said loudly enough for all to hear, "Send word immediately for all men in Restille to retreat. We want there to be not a single trace of our people in Sairelle after the seventh day."
The hum of approval by the Chistonian men behind him made Darien grip his reins more tightly. It was hard for him to believe how quickly the men were already beginning to reinvest their trust in the King for his quick and seemingly honourable actions.
"And I will withdraw my people from Tristone too," Darien said. He waited for a moment before broaching the last remaining subject of their discussion; after this, there would be no reason to remain in Chiston, or to ever return again. "But I hope that this is not to be a temporary truce. To lose the capital of Sairelle to you twice is unfortunate; a third time would seem like carelessness."
An uneasy laughter rippled through the soldiers, and it only exacerbated his despondency. And then he finally heard what he wanted, declared to thousands of men who would hold the King to his word.
"The truce will last until my dying day, or until blood is spilt."
It took the barest of moments, but Darien closed his eyes, revelling in the peace that had finally been attained. "Our business is thus concluded. Thank you for your patience and understanding, Your Majesty."
With these words, the ten thousand Chistonian soldiers on his side of the divide started bristling, ready to leave. When Diamond gave a nod to Serena, his army reacted in a similar fashion. No order had been given, but it was understood that the fighting they had both feared and anticipated would not take place.
But Darien remained steady, and without his permission, the men could not leave. He turned to Shitennou, knowing that their silence throughout the exchange only signified how much more they had to say. He looked first at the leader of the Shitennou, and was not disappointed with Kunzite spoke immediately.
"Are you certain?"
Darien knew the General was not asking about the truce, but the Prince could not afford to dwell any further on Serena.
"The war will end," he replied firmly, "and thousands of innocent lives need not be taken."
Nephrite was not convinced, and he wasted no time in making his thoughts known. "You know he's just using her." At the Prince's strained silence, the General continued, his voice rising. "You did not ride non-stop for two nights to attain peace, Darien. A truce might have been established, but how long do you really think it will last? You have seventy thousand good men who are only hours away, and they will fight to the death for you."
"We have lost the ten thousand Seiya has gathered for us," the Prince said softly. "They do not want to fight. They are placing themselves in the mercy of their King, and however we might disagree with their decision, we should not condemn them for it."
Nephrite shook his head, knowing that his Prince was avoiding the crux of the matter. "She will not be happy. She has sacrificed herself for this, for the people, for you. You cannot allow this to happen, Darien. You cannot walk away from this with your honour still intact."
"Lord Nephrite, I am the Prince of Sairelle. My responsibility is to my people, not to my heart."
The declaration only served to fuel the General's passion. "No, this is not right… I am unable to allow this to pass…" Then, raising his voice into a shout, Nephrite broke the protocol the Prince had struggled to maintain. "Serena! You cannot do this! You are a strong woman—do not submit yourself to Diamond's rule!"
The shock that silenced the men spoke loudly of disapproval. Their attention was now turned to Serena to see her response, but the woman kept her chin high, her gaze on the distant horizon. Then, before Darien could react, the King of Sairelle pounced on the opportunity like a hungry lion. "Prince Endymion, we would not allow one of our subjects to speak so out of turn. Tighten your leash on your dog."
The tension had suddenly soared, but Darien would not let such a slur pass. "I will not tolerate such a contemptuous address to any of my people," the Prince warned.
"And we will not tolerate the disrespect with which your people have addressed Lady Angelline," Diamond replied in kind.
"Informality stemming from familiarity is not a sign of disrespect," Darien said. "Is it your intention to keep your future Queen from maintaining the intimate relationships she has thus developed?
"The Queen of Chiston is not permitted to partake in such scandalous activity," Diamond said. "Your enthusiasm about this subject makes one wonder about the promiscuity of the ladies in Sairelle."
The sneer was not lost to the five thousand Sairellen soldiers who had marched with Darien from Tristone. Although no one voiced their protests, Darien knew his men were burning with indignation.
But his moment of inattention gave Nephrite the opening he needed to speak again. "Serena, we both know that you deserve more than to be repressed by this King of yours until the end of your days. Do not disregard your own needs and choose to submit yourself to a man who cares nothing about you!"
Serena made a move to respond, but refrained when she saw the steely look that her King gave her. The silent exchange between the two pained Darien, but it was not in his right to comment. He had no reason to intervene, or to even observe. Knowing this, the Prince looked away.
Beside him, Nephrite kicked his horse and weaved through the Shitennou so that he was directly next to Darien. "You may think you are acting out of honour," the General said, "but it is only cowardice that permeates from your countenance." Then he turned towards Serena again, and shouted, "If you can forgive Diamond for all the atrocities he's committed, then surely you can forgive Darien for his!"
Diamond clenched his jaw. "I will not tolerate this any further," the King said. Then he addressed his Captain. "Give them a warning shot."
Without hesitation, the head Chistonian archer held up his strung bow, arrow already in place. He found his aim and loosened, watching the feathered fletching spin as it whizzed through the air. It was followed by a soft yelp, and a horse did a nervous half-circle as its rider's hand flew to his face.
It was Jadeite. Ever so slowly, the General lowered his arm, staring at the blood that smeared his gauntlet. He turned his head to face his Prince, and as he did so, a drop of blood slipped down his cheek, instantly staining the snow beneath him.
As the thousands of men comprehended the implication of red stain that was building in the snow, Jadeite lifted his head, and in a cold voice, said that which could never be retracted. "King Diamond has broken his word, and with it, the truce between Sairelle and Chiston."
To the ears of the Sairellen soldiers whose loyalties remained true, the single statement was enough of a declaration of war. In less than a heartbeat, horses were spurned on, swords were drawn, arrows were notched, and the fighting erupted on the Fields of Atheria.
As the five thousand Sairellen men closed the distance between them and their enemy, the Chistonian men who stood by Darien found themselves in a moment of conclusion. They had reached a point of reconciliation with King Diamond, but it was a verbal agreement that could not match the oaths they had sworn to Prince Endymion. When the first Chistonian Captain uttered a battle cry in their own tongue and charged towards Diamond's army, the rest of the men spurred into action and joined the voice with their own.
The triumphant shouts were soon followed by the clash of swords and the screams of those who failed to dodge an attack. Infantry, bowmen and cavalry alike were engaged in the throes of battle, taking down as many of their enemies as they could before they, too, were struck down. There was no finesse or beauty in their movements, only the frantic struggle of knights and peasants alike. The cacophony and the sea of soldiers made it impossible for Darien to maintain control of his mount, which had been trained to lurch forward at the smell of death. Forced into a fight he had prepared for but did not intend, the Prince drew his sword and held it skywards, desperately calling for order.
"Men of Sairelle, attend! Hold your horses and use only your shields; cease this immediately! Attend to me!"
He was unheard. Around him, the fight continued. Men on the battlefield showed no mercy to their enemies, and paid no heed to their leader; all they could hear was the promise of victory, of a better life.
In the flashes of metal reflecting the afternoon sun, Darien saw his own life. The happy, lavished childhood he had, cocooned in the love of his mother and father; the mischievous summers spent with the Shitennou as they shared lessons they learnt inside and outside the study; the long, painful years that followed his sudden transition from the boy who sneaked food from the kitchen into the man who ruled his kingdom; and the short, bittersweet months that resulted from his responsibilities and ambitions, where he found the one person with whom he was not afraid to share everything. His vision blurred with tears, Darien searched through the flurry of movement around him, and caught a glimpse of the golden hair and cerulean eyes that had turned his life into something he had never imagined. His heart overflowed with a warmth that was suddenly painful, and before he could free his head of the images that had sunk into his mind, Darien felt himself overcome with the sweet sensation of falling.
It was when the shouting ceased and his vision cleared to reveal the bright, cloudless sky that he felt a shiver crawl up his spine. His chest was heavy, and breathing had become a laborious task he had never before experienced. He was still reeling from the fall, but realisation dawned that something had caused the loss of his balance. He brought a hand to his chest, and when he lifted it, the Prince saw that the heavy leather of his gauntlet was darkened with blood.
A thud to his left alerted him that someone had dismounted, and he soon saw the face of Kunzite. Darien opened his mouth to ask about his condition, but found speaking was even more difficult than breathing. Then his gaze focused on the stern, sorrowful expression of his friend, and Darien needed to know no more.
The fighting had stopped as quickly as it had started. The men had cleared an area around him, and the Shitennou wasted no time in circling him. He fixed his attention to each of them in turn, but no words were necessary. Then they suddenly parted, and he found himself drowning in a pair of cerulean eyes.
Her tears were warm against his cheek, and Darien's lips curved into the smallest smile. He did not know how Serena had found a way through the chaos to reach his side, but he was beyond caring. All that mattered was that she was here now, and it would be his forever.
Her voice was as smooth and melodious as he had remembered. "You'll be all right, Darien," she breathed, giving him a gentle kiss. "You will survive this. We both will." Then, to confirm her words, she turned to Zoisite, and said, "It cannot be fatal. He is the Prince. He has the strength and means to recover."
The General took another look at his liege, then shook his head. "I'm sorry, my Lady. He has been struck by a crossbow's quarrel."
"Then remove it." It was a command, but it was to no avail.
"It has penetrated his armour and lodged itself in one of his lungs," Zoisite said, head bowed. "Nothing can be done for him now."
Serena opened her mouth to protest, but the Prince reached for her hand. She gently removed his gauntlets and her gloves, and held his cold fingers between hers. She shushed him when he tried to speak, and waited for the coughing fit to pass. His blood stained her cheeks, but she did not notice. Instead, Serena lowered her ear to his mouth.
"The war cannot continue," he whispered, struggling to form he words. "Our people deserve to live without fear of death." When Darien saw that she was about to protest, he tightened his hold on her hand. "You must do this, for me."
Time was slipping away from them faster than sand, but Serena understood his request. She rose to her feet, and looked at the men around her, then beyond them.
"Diamond did not capture Restille by force." Although her lips trembled, her voice was loud and steady. "He bribed the guardsmen with promises he never intended to keep. Our honourable King is only interested in land. He cares not for the people, nor for the notion of peace. I am ashamed to admit that in my desperation to protect the lives of my people, your people, all those who breathe under the sun, I exchanged my integrity for the façade of peace. But I will not longer deceive myself, or deceive you. Diamond has broken his vows to you on so many occasions, that it is not improper to retract your own oaths. As long as Diamond is in power, there will be no peace for either of our countries."
She retreated from the rising din of commotion to her words, and returned to her Prince. His hands, though cold before, were almost frozen. Serena brought them to her lips, and gave him what she could. He smiled at her in response, and the movement softened the lines on his face. For the first time, Serena saw the Prince as the man who had given her his heart. There were so many things she wanted to say, wanted to share, but the words and phrases that did not exist for them yesterday would not be found tomorrow.
But he did not need her to speak in order to know and understand. Then something shifted in his gaze, and he closed his eyes in bliss. "Listen," he said, his voice wavering as life left him. "Can you hear it? There it is, again."
At first she thought he had already travelled to a place she could not follow, but then, ever so faintly, she heard a long, pure note in the air that came and went, elusive as the moon, constant as the sun.
He needed nothing else when he saw the recognition on her face. "That's how an eagle cries, when he finally finds his mate."
And with a soft sigh, the Prince of Sairelle took his last breath.
Her silent tears fell and mingled with the crimson blood beneath them that had soaked the snow. She did not see the soldiers who had once been enemies walk beside one another in shared grief of their own losses, nor did she hear the roars of a King who was silenced by his own men. The Shitennou offered their support, but still she paid no attention to any other. Instead, Serena closed her eyes, softly, delicately.
Then she held his still hand to her own beating heart, and listened to the triumphant, piercing song with no beginning or end, as the eagles flew above them.