Disclaimer: I don't own any of the Fushigi Yugi or Middlemarch characters, places, etc.
A/N: This was a dream I had, and of course, much more fleshed out. I took myself out of it, because no one really likes a Mary Sue. And no, Mary does not stand for Mary Sue. Mary is Mary, and I liked that name. She's modeled very loosely after one of George Elliot's character from Middlemarch, whose name is Mary Garth, so there.
Chapter 1 - A Game of Numbers
The board hung ominously from one of the shops, painted in vibrant reds, auburns, and gold. On it hung a mess of numbers, jumbled about. In actuality it was a much simpler pattern to understand then to perform.
Mary stared at the brass knot before her, about as wide as her palm, and situated on the floor. On it, the number four was elegantly inscribed. She studied it intensely, pursing her lips, and looked back up at the board. It was far away from where she stood right now, and she had to squint to sharpen the edges of the painted numerals.
Well, the board really didn't matter at the moment. What was killing her was the time it took to race back and forth across this massive complex and stomp or slam all of the brass numbers down in the proper order. While her memory was fairly decent, she still had a time of pinpointing the exact location of over thirty different numbers, not even part of a series and having no specific pattern. How long had she been at this game now?
"Mary, why don't you sit down and take a break?" called an out of place monk at one of the thick wooden tables. She turned and looked at him, and he beamed at her with his ever-cheerful face. Mary decided a break wouldn't hurt her, and so strolled between the islands of wide, round tables, filled with laughing men and peppered with the occasional trill of woman's laughter. A broken mug punctuated the din, followed by a few shouts. Mary's eyes swept through the room to locate the trouble. It was quickly subdued as others at the table eased the anger.
"Any luck?" the red head beside the monk asked. He had on a wide smile, a few of the clasps on his tunic opened and a bit of heat in his cheeks. There was the smell of booze on his tongue.
"No," she moaned, putting her head on the table. She'd been at this for hours. Every time she got the puzzle wrong or ran out of time, the numbers rearranged. "What about you? Could you find anything out about Kendall?"
"Nothing, sorry," the monk shook his head. The redhead poured her a tiny glass of sake, the rice wine Mary had learned he was so fond of. "Tasuki, now's not the time for her to be drinking," the monk argued.
"Maybe it'll loosen her up," Tasuki answered. "Come on, you should have a drink too, Chichiri! If you stay so uptight all the time you'll get wrinkles!"
Mary was glad Tasuki was distracted and she didn't have to drink the sake. While she enjoyed drinking with Tasuki, she had no stomach for it in her current frustration. The thought of dimming her intelligence further made her insides curl.
It had been about two years she'd been looking for Kendall, and the sojourn had brought her here, to the Curled Horns Tavern. The last two months had been spent in the company of Chichiri the monk and Tasuki the…well, the Jack-of-all-trades. Mary had come across them staying at the same Inn, and Tasuki had invited her to drink. It ended up that the pair of them had no direction, and she was in sore need of some traveling companions to ward off attention. Her gray eyes and foreign face were enough to attract all sorts of unwanted mugs. Mary wasn't certain why she trusted the pair of them at a basic level, but had found herself better for it.
Mary looked around the Curled Horns, appreciating the communal tables and interaction between strangers. The atmosphere was easy and open, built in an expansive building, with polished, dark wood floors. All of the furniture was handmade, hewn from the woods around this small outpost. Various shops surrounded walls on all sides, the counters alive and buzzing with transactions between the mountain men that made the Curled Horns their home, and the colorful grab bag of vagabonds. They came in all sizes, shapes, and colors. Now that Mary had made it this far, she was not so much of an anomaly.
"Pretty soon we'll be the strangers and you'll have to protect us," Tasuki seemed to be following her train of thought, as he tried to discern the exact location of her gaze. Mary was studying the vibrant, geometric patterns on a desert traveler's cloak.
"A lot of good that will do you," she smiled, fiddling with the cuffs of her sleeves. She straightened the simple dress and apron, and tucked some loose hair behind her ear. Her eyes moved now to the evergreen trim and the earthy colored tapestries hung along the walls. Everything was dark and pleasant, giving the room an intimate feel in spite of the wideness. There had to be about ten different counters peddling goods. It was the largest complex Mary had ever been in.
"Well, I'm going to give it another try," she sighed, standing up and wandering back around the room. She relocated the brass knobs and carefully began memorizing the numbers again, as Chichiri circulated around the shops, asking for information, and Tasuki tried to pull up anything he could from drunken, loose lips.
The game reset itself three times as the light faded outside, and Mary grew more frustrated. She could have sworn that she'd been correct, and eventually enlisted Chichiri to help her. She and the monk had both done the last two rounds.
"That makes no sense…I could have sworn…" Chichiri scowled, rubbing his smooth chin. Mary was losing patience. She swirled around towards the tavern master's counter, and marched resolutely in his direction. "Mary, where are you going?"
"I'm going to ask the tavern master to stop tampering with my game."
"I'm not so sure if that's a good idea…" Chichiri warned her, taking a few steps to catch up.
The door opened and closed, cool air blowing into the warm room. Mary only noticed because she was passing by one of the fire pits, where a barmaid cursed as the embers were snuffed out. She tossed a glance towards the door, curious to see the newcomers, and absently admired the aristocratic features of a pale nobleman. She kept on her course, and suddenly became aware of just how loud her footsteps were against the wood. The slight heels of her boots had never rung so loudly in such a crowded room before.
Chichiri's hand caught on her elbow and he slowed her to a stop, his face tense. Even Tasuki, who was at a particularly loud and rowdy table, was quiet. All eyes had fallen to the nobleman she had glanced over. As Mary turned her attention instead to the monk, she noticed he held that peculiar mask of his in his free hand, his one good eye turned seriously on the new arrival.
"I have a bad feeling," he murmured softly. Mary followed his line of vision and her eyes caught on the nobleman's. A beautiful woman hung on his arm. They were both dressed elaborately in the style of Mary's countrymen, the woman in a tight corset and hoop skirt, made of heavy velvets and fine cloth, with her hair styled immaculately on a grand wire frame of some sort that had it roll and wave impossibly from her skull. The man stood in a high collared coat with lace bunched at his throat, and the finest riding boots Mary had ever seen. Both preferred rich shades of reddish purple, the man's ebony hair falling in a sheet of black to the small of his back, the woman with vibrant red curls.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, fellow travelers," the man addressed them grandly, his accent sharp and cutting. Mary winced, inadvertently taking a step closer to Chichiri as the man's piercing eyes swept the room. "Enjoy a drink on behalf of the Marcuccilli family. Please, it would be our pleasure," he waved his hand imperiously, and walked across the room to take a seat at a common table, with a number of people with lower stature. The people at said table stiffened, as if a chill had suddenly shot through their bodies. Even their hair seemed to stand on end.
Tasuki, seated with his back now to the nobleman, seemed to go rigid. He looked over at Chichiri and Mary with a grim expression, looking pale and disturbed. Chichiri made a minute motion with his head, and put a hand on Mary's back.
"Let's go talk to that bartender," he said softly, a nervous bustle filling the crowd. Mary seemed to be stuck to the floor, and it took Chichiri a bit of extra pressure on her lower spine to get her legs to move. When they did seem to peel off the floorboards, she stumbled a step or two forward, catching her hip on a nearby table. The noise seemed uncommonly loud. Both she and Chichiri hunched their shoulders instinctively, trying to slink towards the bar.
When they reached the raised wooden counter, Mary put her trembling hands on it and drummed her fingers uncomfortably on the surface. She stared at her bleary reflection, and then looked cautiously up at Chichiri. He was focused intensely on a few bottles of brandy across from them, and the hand he'd placed on her back had unconsciously bunched around the knot of her apron.
"He's watching us," Chichiri said. Mary had nothing to say to that, only felt his eyes as if they were a pair of knives on either side of her throat.
"What'll it be?" the bartender asked. Mary's eyes flickered upwards, and she saw the back of the nobleman's head, that sleek hair shimmering like a serpent's scales. Despite this, she felt his blazing focus on herself and Chichiri.
"Can you tell me a little about the gentleman that just walked in?" Looking back at Chichiri, Mary wondered at what point he'd put that uncannily cheerful smile back in place.
"Lord Marcuccilli? He's the landholder in these parts," the bartender answered. "A great patron of ours, though he lives a ways up in the western peak of the mountain pass."
"So he's a usual then?" Mary queried.
"Oh yes, comes as often as he can," the bartender smiled.
"Forgive us for asking. My traveling companion was just moved by his generosity," Chichiri indicated Mary, who turned to him with wide eyes and her lips pressed in a straight line.
"He's quite the handsome fellow, isn't he?" the bartender guffawed. "A good landlord as well."
"Only for good tenants. Tell me, Jasper, who are your guests?" Marcuccilli was suddenly on Mary's other side, smiling broadly. Every muscle in Mary's body went rigid. She stared directly ahead, and felt Chichiri take an ominous step closer to her side. Electricity seemed to leap between both men, and Mary could almost smell the charge building.
"The lady here's been at the memory game for some time," Jasper answered, indicating Mary. Her eyes shot to the bartender, still refusing to look in the direction of Marcuccilli.
"Oh? And how have you liked my little game?" the nobleman demanded her attention. Stiffly, Mary forced the joints in her neck to comply with the demands made on the muscles, so that her head turned as if on a rusty hinge. She met his auburn glare, and immediately felt a hazy disembodiment swelling in her mind.
"I must confess I'm not much of a fan, but I need to complete it," Mary answered, keeping her tones demure.
"That's a pity you don't care for it. I've always loved numbers myself," the nobleman sighed. "Alas, it's a bitter world when one is so factual."
"I can only imagine, myself given to irrational behavior and strong moods," she gave him the answer he wanted, sugar coated and topped with a slight lowering of the chin and a shy drop of her eyes to rest on his shoulder.
"What a quaint little creature you are." His smile was too welcoming. He lifted a hand to take her chin, when the large iron fan Tasuki always carried with him landed with a plop between Mary and Marcuccilli.
"Hey, Chichiri. You shouldn't be letting this guy hit on my girl," Tasuki complained, slinging an arm over Mary's shoulder and bellying up to the bar. Two months ago, when Tasuki had performed this same maneuver, Mary had been shocked at this blatant disregard of propriety. Now, especially as the redhead placed himself between her and the over interested nobleman, Mary just smiled at him. "Can't take my eye off ya for a second. So much trouble," Tasuki sighed.
"Tell me, where is it exactly that you come from?" the nobleman asked, ignoring Tasuki's interruption.
"Didn't you hear me?" Tasuki demanded, slinging the fan over his shoulder and pulling Mary tighter. "I said she was my girl. You wouldn't mind backing up a little, huh?"
"Such crude manners," Marcuccilli sneered. "Hardly becoming of the little diamond in the rough you've got there."
"Ah, forgive us. We're strangers here," Chichiri cut in, smiling apologetically. "It's been a long road, and we're all a little tired after trying to work out that puzzle. If you'd pardon us, we should get some rest."
The buzzing disembodiment got stronger in Mary's head for a moment, before Chichiri lightly patted her shoulder. It snapped away at once, as if a thickening connection had been shattered. Chichiri's smile grew almost imperceptibly darker.
"She looks a little dazed, hmm? Why don't you give her a hand upstairs?" Chichiri said to Tasuki.
"I'll give her more then a hand." Tasuki made a show of hefting Mary up.
"What're you doing?" she gasped, and Tasuki smiled.
"Just hang on," he answered, carrying her through the common room and up the curving stairs along one wall, between two shops. Mary was quiet, tapping her fingers nervously together, hoping she wasn't too heavy and Tasuki wasn't too drunk. She felt Marcuccilli's eyes on her all the way up, and did not feel warm again until they stood in their small, shared room, and Chichiri's monk staff tapped lightly on the floorboards once the door was closed. The spell seemed to shatter once more, and Mary breathed in a sigh or relief.
"He's creepy," Tasuki shivered, setting Mary down on her feet.
"He almost had you," Chichiri cautioned her.
"I looked into his eyes," she sunk down onto her bed, bending and untying her boots. She expelled a breath, and looked up at them. "Thank you, again."
"Don't mention it," Tasuki waved it off. Chichiri looked a degree more troubled.
"I think we'd better figure out that puzzle as soon as we can and move on," Chichiri warned her. She nodded. "Get some sleep for now. Tasuki, I'll wake you…" Chichiri trailed off, Tasuki already passed out on his own bed. The monk clicked his tongue, and Mary smiled. "I can't believe he even made it up the stairs, drunk as he was."
"You two are such good friends," Mary smiled, standing up and gently taking one of Tasuki's legs. She carefully worked a boot off. "You must have known each other for a long time."
"It feels like forever sometimes," Chichiri agreed, tossing a couple logs into the fire. Mary had been surprised at how easy it was to share chambers with the pair of them, but had never contested it. When she'd first teamed up with them, they'd slept outside around a campfire for two weeks before reaching civilization again, quite lost after Tasuki had accidentally used their map for a fire starter.
"It's always good to have someone who doesn't mind the most tiresome moments," Mary said softly, pulling the covers over Tasuki. She untied her own apron, and loosely plaited her mahogany hair. "Goodnight, Chichiri. Don't forget to wake me up for my watch too."
"Alright. Get some rest," Chichiri nodded, still pleasantly smiling. Mary put her back to him and burrowed deep into the covers, forcefully banishing Marcuccilli's stare from her consciousness. The last thing she remembered was the soft mumbles of a sutra coming in low tones from Chichiri, Tasuki's soft snoring, and the crack and pop of the fire.