"EH? A real Countess?! Ami-chan that's so AMZING!" Tsukino Usagi squealed into the receiver, flopping onto a spare cushion. "I'm so happy for you!"
Aino Minako, Kino Makoto and Hino Rei looked up from their cleaning duties in surprise, their faces alight with glee. "All right Ami-chan!" they shouted in unison so that Ami could hear on the other end.
On the other side of town, Mizuno Ami sat in her mother's study, her hands idly playing with some papers stamped with an official-looking seal, laughing at the animated chatter. "Arigato minna-san," she responded loudly. "I've been hoping against hope that they would even look at my application, let alone accept it!" She then whispered to Usagi, "I honestly can't believe my luck."
"You've gotta come over right away Ami-chan so that we see! You are coming right? You saaaid you would bring those German cookies your mama made, remember, Ami-chan?" Usagi asked, squirming in her seat in excitement at the thought of new sweets to try out.
"Please say you are, Ami-chan- maybe we can get her to actually help out around here!" Rei said over her shoulder, prompting Usagi to stick her tongue out in her direction.
"Amii-chaan tell Rei-chan to quit teasing me!" Usagi giggled.
Ami grinned. "Only if you promise that you'll help Rei-chan with the housework like you promised, okay Usagi-chan? "
Usagi clapped her hands together. "Okay! Then those cookies will be mine! Ja matte ne!"
"Ja ne!" Ami responded, then hung up the phone. She sat back in her mother's leather chair with a smile and took another look at the embossed papers with the melted-wax stamp and ornate signatures. She hadn't really thought much about what she had gotten herself into- applying to be the temporary live-in physician to a visiting Countess and dignitary- but she was nonetheless elated that she had been chosen, out of god knows how many applicants.
Of course, she thought to herself with a grin, considering that in a past life she had served as a faithful servant to the Princess of the Silver Millennium, it probably shouldn't have been that much of a surprise to her. Somewhere within her DNA, this level or servitude was something she was born to do. This opportunity- while momentous and important on its own merits, was really nothing more than a practice run.
A finger traced the signature on the last page as if lost in thought. It was clearly done by the ailing Countess herself- the lines were not crisp or fluid enough to come from a steady hand. "Crystal of Isleyon", Ami read aloud. Her brow furrowed in thought as she realized that she had never heard of such a county before. Perhaps it was an older, more rural dominion? Or maybe the spelling was just archaic. Whatever it was, the inquisitor in Ami was piqued.
A steady chime from a grandfather clock in the hallway brought her out of her musing. "Oh drat, I'm going to miss the bus!" Ami clucked as she carefully re-folded the papers and tucked them back into the manila envelope it arrived in, then got up to fetch her coat, purse, gloves and cookie platter. Usagi would never forgive her if her promised treats were late.
"Can I pick out a dress for Hotaru-chan, Setsuna-sama?" Tsukino Chibiusa pleaded, twirling on her seat while watching the older woman prepare a fresh bottle of baby formula. "I want her first Chirstmas get-together with us to be really special, so she has to look pretty!"
Meioh Setsuna laughed. "I didn't realize it was so important to you, Chibiusa-chan," she teased gently, causing the pink-haired girl to blush. "Go ahead, then- Hotaru's trunk is in Michiru-san's room."
Chibiusa hopped off the bar stool and hurried down the hallway in the spacious villa where she had spent the night with Setsuna and baby Tomoe Hotaru. Since the defeat of the Death Busters and Pharaoh 90, Hotaru's body had reverted to that of an infant, and the Outer Senshi trio of Tenoh Haruka, Kaioh Michiru and Setsuna took her in to raise and safeguard her. Chibiusa became a frequent visitor to the villa to watch and play with the baby whenever she was available- despite the obvious age difference she still regarded Hotaru as her best friend, and even baby Hotaru took a liking to Chibiusa as if there was a part of her that still remembered the friendship they shared not too long ago.
After a few minutes, Chibiusa reached the silver doors inscribed with the depiction of a mermaid- Michiru's quarters. Michiru herself was not home- she and Haruka had just finished travelling through southern Asia as part of a concert tour and were in the midst of flying back for the holiday- so Chibiusa didn't have to knock. Opening the door, she glanced around the violinist's modest yet luxuriously furnished bedroom, where she had often spent her time playing with Hotaru with Michiru on the queen-sized bed. Off in the corner of her room stood a tall cedar closet housing Michiru's numerous gowns and silks, and right next to it- as Setsuna had said- was a significantly smaller hope chest, with the symbol for Saturn painted on the lid in purple.
Chibiusa undid the latch and opened up the hope chest, taking out tiny gown after tiny gown and laying them out side by side to compare them. As she reached the 5th dress she noticed a curious trend- they were all a deep purple color with various fabrics, and adorned with faded brown ribbon, lace or bows. Her socks and shoes had a similar motif. Crinkling her nose in disgust, Chibiusa turned her head and shouted "Setsuuuna-samaaa! All of these dresses are UGLY!"
A few seconds later the dark-skinned Senshi appeared at the doorway, a towel over her shoulder and Hotaru resting in her arms as she fed. "What do you mean, Chibiusa-chan?"
"Have you SEEN these dresses? They're so odd! Why would you dress a baby in such brooding colors?" Chibiusa responded, pointing at a particularly odd velvet number with a brown tulle underskirt.
Setsuna sat down next to Chibiusa and proceeded to burp Hotaru, smiling pleasantly. "Chibiusa dear, are you familiar with the concept of color symbolism?" The younger girl shook her head, so Setsuna continued. "Well, we harbour associations to colors based on many different circumstances, and these meanings can vary from culture to culture. Take the color red. It usually signifies danger, a warning to stop or halt. Can you think of something else it can mean?"
"Exactly- now who do you know is quite fond of red AND fire?"
Chibiusa lit up. "Oh wait, Rei-sama! So she likes the color red because it resembles fire, like her powers?"
"Well that's quite possible- Rei-san may just like the color red. But as Sailor Mars, the Guardian of the Red Planet, she can't help but feel that connection to that color, and it shows in everything she does. Not everyone is like that, of course." Setsuna patted Hotaru's back again. "Now, do you remember what Sailor Saturn's colors were?"
"Uh, not really" Chibiusa responded. "I don't think I really saw her fuku."
"It's alright- it just so happens that purple and brown are the colors of Sailor Saturn's fuku. We don't know what the exact significance of those colors are to her as of right now, but it'll stand to reason that these colors speak to her the same way red speaks to Rei-san. So Michiru-san had several dresses made for her."
"I see..." Chibiusa said, fidgeting with the velvety dress for a moment, then made a face. "But Setsuna-sama, these ARE some ugly dresses, color symbolism or not."
Hotaru gave a little wriggle and suddenly spat up as if in agreement, and Setsuna laughed. "Actually I agree with you- but Michiru-san thinks they're darling. So let's say we get her dressed? We still have to meet those two at the airfield before we can go to Usagi-sama's party."
Chiba Mamoru had just closed the door of his apartment when his cellphone began to vibrate in his coat pocket. Fumbling for it blindly as he locked the door, he was surprised to see "Unknown Number" flashing on the screen.
"Moshi-moshi, Chiba Mamoru speaking."
"Ah, good evening Mr Chiba, I hope we haven't called you at an inconvenient time?" An unfamiliar woman's voice answered. Mamoru raised an eyebrow, puzzled. He had certainly never heard THAT accent before. "Um, no, I was just on my way out.. I'm sorry, but who is this?" he asked. He certainly was not in the habit of giving out his phone number to strangers.
"Ah. Pardon my manners Mr Chiba- my name is Nerissa Chambers. I'm an emissary of Her Royal Highness The Countess of Isleyon. We received your cellular number because you have listed as an emergency contact by Miss Ami Mizuno."
That's right, Mamoru thought, I had completely forgotten about Ami-chan's application. A few months back a very timid Ami had knocked on his door, requesting his permission to list him as an emergency contact on her application form, as she had no other adult figures to name aside from her ever-busy mother. Mamoru, of course had happily consented- as Usagi's friend, he'd do whatever he could to aid her. "Umm yes, that's right. Is something the matter?"
"Oh not at all. You'll be pleased to know that Miss Mizuno's application was approved, and that she will be serving Her Royal Highness for the duration of her visit to Japan." Nerissa responded rapidly. Mamoru smiled. "Ah that's great!"
"Yes, it will be a grand opportunity for her. We were trying to call her house, however, to relay some extra information to her, but were unsuccessful. That's why we are calling you, Mr Chiba."
Mamoru nodded, walking towards the garage that his car was parked in. "Alright then, what would you like me to tell her?"
"Please remind Miss Mizuno that she must report to the designated address indicated on her envelope no later than 10am on Tuesday. A chauffer will be there at promptly 10:05am to escort her to our living quarters. She should come prepared with at least two formal gowns with sleeves, to wear at official functions. Gloves and headpieces will be provided for her."
"Alright, sounds easy enough." Mamoru replied, "Anything else?"
"Yes. We'd like to request your presence there on Tuesday as well, Mr Chiba."
This made Mamoru stop in his tracks. "Mine? What for?"
"Miss Mizuno is still considered a minor under the laws of your country and ours," Nerissa explained. "A legal guardian or candidate-appointed chaperone must be there to sign additional paperwork to properly legalize this agreement. As you were listed as the primary adult contact, we must insist that you are there with Miss Mizuno. Will that be a problem?"
Mamoru scratched his head. I'm pretty sure I'm supposed to be taking Usako out that morning for Christmas shopping.. Drat. But this is important to Ami-chan. I'm sure she'll understand. "..Yeah, sure, I'll be there."
"Wonderful. We'll see you there then. Enjoy your evening, Mr Chiba." Nerissa said, and with a click, the call ended.
Mamoru got into his car, exhaling slightly. "Now I get to break the news to her. This oughta be fun," he joked to himself, plugging his phone into the hands-free module. A few seconds later, an engine's roar echoed in the quiet streets before a stylish black sports car pulled out of the garage and made a beeline for the Hikawa Shrine, sending the falling snow into a flurry in its wake.
"Phone On. Call, Usako."
...Maybe I should get her some flowers before I arrive.
In a stately castle in a completely different prefecture, the woman known as Nerrisa Chambers put down her pen and cellphone to return her glasses to her face. She exhaled in slight annoyance and rubbed her aching temples, then suddenly glared at the several handmaidens standing by the doorway waiting for instructions. "What, you think I'm paying you to be mannequins? Start sweeping or something! This place is a filthy hovel, and you KNOW Her Royal Highness has a weak immune system! If she so much as sniffles while we're here I'll hang you from the ceiling and use you as batting practice!" she snapped, causing the handmaidens to scamper out of the room, terrified. The giant teak doorway swung closed with a snap, and Nerissa was finally alone to her thoughts
She stood up and walked to the nearby balcony, resting her arms on the railing and taking in her surroundings. The countryside was covered in a gentle graying fog with pockets of glistening snow peeking through the cracks. Homes in the villages nearby seemed to have the tiniest yellow auras around them- no doubt the collection of fires and streetlights. Nerissa brushed some snow from the sleeves of her blazer and shivered slightly. Her hand absentmindedly travelled to her necklace- a simple silver chain with a medallion emblazoned with the symbol of Pisces- as she looked below her to see a navy-haired younger woman standing in the lower courtyard, beckoning to her. Nerissa raised an eyebrow, but eventually moved from her balcony into her office room again. Within a minute, the teak doors swung open again, held open by a blonde young man in a winter coat and carrying a suitcase, and the navy-haired woman stepped inside the room.
She was heavily pregnant and her hair looked slightly unkempt, but the younger woman couldn't look any happier- she seemed to have a healthy glow about her even though her complexion was quite pale from the cold. Nerissa nodded in her direction and asked with no emotion, "So I suppose this is the last bag?"
"Um, yes Miss Chambers. Lionel insisted that he helped me, even though it's really just a purse," the woman said softly, her words catching slightly on a gentle, Cockney accent. "I'm really sorry about leaving you all in a lurch like this. I know this must've been an extra burden for you.."
"On the contrary, Daphne." Nerissa sat on the corner of her desk and smiled, but her tone was without warmth. "We were able to find a replacement for you quite quickly. And I'm sure that by the time you're off your maternity leave we will be back in Isleyon and you'll be able to step right back into your duties."
Daphne fidgeted under her cloak and cast a nervous look at Lionel, who had shut the doors behind him and raised an eyebrow back at her. "Um.. yes, of course."
"Great. If there's nothing else then.."
"Actually.. can I say goodbye to her?" Her dark eyes seemed to sparkle a little at the question. "I would very much like to say goodbye. So that she doesn't wonder why I've gone."
Nerissa smirked at this request. "With all due respect to yourself and Her Royal Highness, Daphne, I don't think Crystal recognizes you from the various other shapeless blobs in her life."
Daphne smiled down at her belly and clasped her hands in front of her. "With all due respect, Miss Chambers, I think that you'd be surprised at what she's capable of, if one desires to be patient and work with her."
"Well that's the ticket there, isn't it? Alright, alright, you can go say goodbye to her. Come with me, last I saw her she was sitting in the parlour."
Nerissa got up and walked through a smaller doorway at the back of the room, and with another glance behind her to Lionel, Daphne followed in silence. The two women walked through several rooms filled with servants sweeping, dusting and otherwise making the castle look and feel as much as a small royal house in the European countryside as possible. Daphne swallowed thickly and sniffled through the dust, struggling to keep up with the taller woman in front of her. Finally they reached a larger room that was completely bare except for a chair, writing desk and a slightly larger, more ornate chair underneath a royal standard. In front of the throne was a large red rug, and sitting on it was the Countess herself.
The Countess was dressed in a gown made of silks and tulle as white as the snowfall outside and a thick wool cloak trimmed with ermine. Her short gray hair was pulled up in a netting and adorned with a white camellia and pearl headband. In fact, the only thing that wasn't white on her was a curiously shaped necklace, pinned onto her dress. She was smiling as she played with a small white dog in a golden collar with a ball, and Daphne cooed to herself and touched her own heart at the affectionate sight. Nerissa, however, was unfazed. "Your Grace, Lady Daphne is here to see you." The Countess dropped her hand as if she had been caught doing something naughty, the color draining from her cheeks. The dog rolled over onto its side and growled in the women's' direction. Nerissa made a face- she didn't like small animals- especially not dogs.
"Crystal... Your Grace.." Daphne started, moving from behind Nerissa and slowly starting to walk towards the Countess. "Crystal, it's Virgo, honey."
The grey-haired girl lifted her head slightly, glassy eyes looking off to the distance in a vacant stare. "Virgo?" a childish voice asked.
"Yes dear, it's Virgo.. do you remember me?" Daphne asked sweetly. Crystal gave no answer, her face still in a state of confusion. Nerissa rolled her eyes.
Daphne reached inside her travelling cloak and carefully pulled out a silver pocket watch. Now in front of the Countess, she slowly knelt down and patted the dog, who had stopped its growling and gave her free hand a lick. "And hello to you too, Yuki," Daphne chuckled. She then gently took the Countess' hand and placed the pocket watch in her palm, closing her hand around it. "Virgo.. Do you remember Virgo, Crystal?"
The pale fingers traced the surface of the object in her hand, running over the polished metal and fumbling over the symbol bevelled into the surface. "...Virgo," she repeated slowly, her eyes fluttering closed as if in thought. She then turned and placed a hand on top of Daphne's as if in recognition.
"Virgo!" she exclaimed confidently. Yuki barked almost as if in confirmation. Daphne beamed over her shoulder to Nerissa, who again had a look of utter indifference.
"Yes, Virgo. I have to say goodbye now, Crystal. Virgo has to go away." Daphne said gently, holding onto the girl's tiny hand.
"Away..?" Crystal struggled over her words. "Why Virgo leave?"
Daphne kissed Cystal's forehead, then placed the child's hand on her belly. "Because of this, dear. I'm going to have a baby very soon. I have to go take care of her."
Crystal closed her eyes as if she was trying to process this new information. "I'm going to have a little girl," Daphne continued slowly, "a little girl.. just like you. She's in my tummy now, but soon she'll be here with me. I have to go to take care of her."
"Don't leave..." Crystal mumbled, starting to cry. "Don't leave. Stay."
"Oh darling I wish I could.. but I can't. Not for a little while. But you'll have everyone else here with you! You won't be alone. You'll even meet a new friend. Won't that be fun?"
"...New?" Crystal sniffled. Yuki crawled into her master's lap and cocked her head.
Daphne nodded. "Yes, a new friend. And then you'll come back home to Isleyon, and I'll be there to welcome you. You'll see me again. I promise"
It took a while, but eventually Crystal stopped crying. Daphne dried her face and kissed her hand comfortingly, then placed their hands together on the Countess' slender stomach. "Blessings, my little Lamb," she whispered. At these words a small navy-blue gem on the necklace cord gave off a brief glow. She placed her pocket watch back in her cloak and then stood up, gently releasing the Countess' hand. After giving a respectful curtsey to the royal standard, Daphne returned to where Nerissa had leaned against the wall, watching the interaction silently. She gave the other woman a small smile as if she had just won a bet, and then continued through the hallway towards a waiting Lionel and her bags. Nerissa soon followed afterwards, giving a slight curtsey to Crystal's direction before departing without a word of goodbye.
Yuki the dog watched the two walk down the hallway until they were out of sight and then let out a little sigh. I rather liked that Daphne woman, she thought.
She was lovely, Crystal's own thoughts responded. I hope her baby is born safely.
Yuki got up and walked around Crystal's skirts. So now, we get a new person to stand in the House of Virgo. This might make things more difficult. A new person's habits to learn and plan around... this sets us back by about two weeks. A pause, and then Yuki added, I don't like it.
We'll do what's necessary, Crystal mused, turning her head slightly as if she could see the snowfall outside. Time is.. already short. We mustn't be deterred. And we mustn't fail.
Yuki barked twice and licked Crystal's face as if to say 'Well said.'