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On to this story…
Luna v. 4.2 was written for the Aria's Ink Valentine's Day Fairy Tale Challenge. The story is based on the Brothers Grimm's version of Puss in Boots – SailorMoon-ized, of course.
"Who can tell me the dates of the Seventh World War?" Professor Haruna paused to scan the class, then sighed. "Anyone other than Miss Mizuno? No? All right, go ahead Ami."
"The Seventh World War took place between 814 and 829, third human era," Ami said, not even looking at her notes.
"Very good. Mr. Gregowski, can you tell me the main parties of the Seventh World War?"
Piete Gregowski scrolled hurriedly down his auto-pad, text a blur on the single sheet of flimsy electrode-covered paper, until he found the proper point in his notes. "It was the, um… the European Union, the Eastern Union, and the Southern Hemispheric Union."
"That is correct. And what, Miss Tsukino, was unusual about this particular world war, as compared to the previous six?"
Startled, Usagi looked up from her sketch of the common rose-tulip hybrid and gawked at Professor Haruna. "I'm sorry, what was that?"
With a scowl, the professor stormed through the isles of students and snatched away Usagi's auto-pad. "This is not art class, Miss Tsukino," she scolded. "We are discussing the Seventh World War. Can you tell me what was unusual about it?"
Usagi glanced at Ami who was trying to mouth something to her, but she couldn't tell what it was. With a blush rising on her cheeks, she guessed, "Because… it was the first time they used androids to do the fighting?"
Professor Haruna pursed her lips and stared at Usagi for a silent moment, before rolling her eyes skyward. "Because that is technically correct, I am not going to dock points from you, Usagi. But the answer I was looking for is the motivation behind the war. Does anyone know? Anyone other than Miss Mizuno? Fine, go ahead."
"Unlike the previous six wars which had all been fought for primarily religious and territorial reasons, the Seventh World War was fought over natural resources."
"That is correct, of course." The professor approached the front of the room and typed a few commands into the wall-mounted keypad. The lights dimmed and a hologram of the Earth spun into view. Haruna gestured to a particular spot on the globe and it lit up a bright green. "This is the island of Greenland in the year 812 T.H.E. As you all know, centuries of global warming had turned this once icy landscape into the lushest land in the world, as well as the only remaining natural rainforests and fresh water. This is the land that was fought over. Of course, as you know, the European Union and the Eastern Union formed an alliance in 826 and were able to defeat the Southern Hemispheric Union, eventually banning them to the experimental colony on the Moon. It was named the Silver Millennium, and the monarchy that was formed as a result exists to this day. Did you have a question, Usagi?"
"Yes, Professor Haruna. I was wondering if we all fought so hard to win Greenland, how come we don't live there now?"
"Excellent question. There was about a fifty year span following the war during which there was mass immigration to Greenland. Its population multiplied by the hundreds within just a few short years. As even such a prosperous piece of land could not support such life, it eventually became oversaturated and what was once so desired for its natural resources became nothing more than a giant industrial landscape. Luckily, by the time this happened, scientists had introduced horticultural cloning into our ecosystem. This, along with the efficient methods of H20 cleansing already in place, allowed us to build out own rainforests and start repairing the Earth's natural resources elsewhere on the planet."
"So all those people that died in the war really died for nothing?" Usagi asked. "They could have just waited fifty years and all their problems would have been solved?"
"We cannot rewrite history, Miss Tsukino. Though it is easy to say what people shouldhave done more than four hundred years ago, it is impossible to truly put ourselves in their position. Besides, if I know the human race, I know that they would have found something else to fight over eventually. Yes, Mr. Dotziev?"
"Do you think it's true that we're about to enter into our first galactic war?" The class turned to Stanley, who always sat in the back of the room and never made any comments. It was clear by the look on Professor Haruna's face that she wished he hadn't made that particular comment either, but Stanley continued, "Because I was watching the news a couple days ago and they were saying that Queen Beryl of the Moon Kingdom was threatening war against the Earth unions. Do you think she would really do that?"
Haruna turned away and punched another code into the keypad. The globe flickered away and the room's lights returned. "You all know that the Earth's royal family is in negotiations with the Silver Millennium. It does no good to speculate on such things," she said tersely. "Now then, I mentioned cloning earlier, which brings us to this month's zoology assignment."
With a unanimous groan, the class turned away from Stanley just as Haruna was opening the large closet beside the room's floor-to-ceiling windows. Usagi let her eyes drift out over the gardens of the academy, which were famous worldwide for their experimental hybrid collections, and easily Usagi's favorite place in the world. Still, she'd heard that the gardens on the Moon were even more spectacular, that they even had original, non-altered roses, though Usagi wasn't sure that was true. She shook her head, Stanley's words coming back to her. The thought of impending war terrified her and she tried to ignore it whenever it was brought up.
"Now then, I asked the biology class to clone twenty extinct species for this assignment."
Usagi turned back to the front of the classroom. Haruna was taking cage after cage out of the closet and setting them in the front of the room. Usagi didn't recognize most of the animals.
The class was full of excited whispers, until Haruna hushed them and held up a piece of paper. "I've already pre-selected who will be receiving each animal," she said, to a chorus of disappointment. "I've tried to match up your personalities with an animal that would suit you. Before the turn of the twenty-third century it was very common for people all over the world to own domesticated animals. They called them 'pets' and they were a normal part of everyday life. Of course this practice was banned after much research showed that keeping an animal within unnatural confines was akin to cruelty. But my hope is that during this assignment you will not only learn of the animal's characteristics and physiological traits, but that you will also come to understand something of a human-animal connection, which some socialists hypothesize helps to develop compassion and responsibility within young people."
Haruna took a deep breath and nodded in the direction of the animals. Most of them were asleep in their cages. Even those that were awake looked indelibly bored. "All right then. When I call your name, please come up and take your animal. Ami, we'll begin with you. You get this guy here, who is called a bloodhound. Dee Dee, this is a boa constrictor. Joseph, you will have the ant farm. Yes, these guys here. Don't be fooled, scientists speculate they are quite bright for their size. Piete, you will take the orangutan. Usagi—"
Usagi held her breath as Haruna touched her hand to the top of a cage, eyes glued to her assignment list.
"This is a cat. They were the most popular house pet on Earth for many centuries and, oddly, one of the few animals that seemed to thrive in domesticity. Once pets were banned, the population of small felines depleted rapidly, until…" Haruna shrugged mindlessly. "Anyway… I don't think you can get into too much trouble with it." The last of Haruna's words were muttered beneath her breath and ignored as Usagi nervously approached the small cage. Through the bars she was met with two vivid red eyes staring at her with an expression of uncanny wisdom.
"Hello, cat," she whispered as she picked up the cage and returned to her desk. She couldn't help feeling a tinge of disappointment as her peers continued to receive their
assignments. The cat was cute, with a body covered in shiny black fur and a long, slender tail that curled around its feet. Even its perky ears, silky whiskers, and dainty little paws contributed to its general adorableness, and yet…Usagi had been hoping for something a little more exotic. Cats may have been extinct for hundreds of years, but there were still stories about them, and paintings, and, of course, robocats. Whereas the other animals being distributed to the class were so unusual, so unexpected. She was sure she'd never heard of a tarantula.
There was a gentle knock on the door and soon the vice-principal's shiny bald head was poking into the classroom. He cleared his throat, which everyone knew was his nervous tick. "I beg your pardon, Professor Haruna, but I'm afraid I need to steal one of your students. Is a Miss Usagi Tsukino present?"
In a matter of moments Usagi could feel every eye in the classroom boring into her. Her stomach clenched. What had she done now?
Haruna nodded. "Usagi, stand up. How long will you need her for, Dr. Toulouse?"
He cleared his throat again and shrugged stupidly. "The rest of the day for sure, I'm afraid to say. And… and perhaps even longer." Then he cast his eyes on Usagi and they were so filled with pity that she felt her heart stop. She tried to shake off the awkwardness and began mindlessly collecting her things. When she glanced up again her eyes met with Ami who was watching her with terrified curiosity.
"All right, then…" said Haruna, all terseness gone from her voice. "Usagi, the first assignment is to research the general history of the animal and see if you can pinpoint some factors that led to its extinction."
With a nod, Usagi slung her bookbag onto her shoulder and took hold of the cat's cage in both hands. She shuffled past Dr. Toulouse without looking back at the classroom, her head clouded with uncertainty. She couldn't imagine what would be so important that she would need more than a few hours off from classes. Her mother would never allow her to be absent so long—she of all people knew how easy it was for Usagi to fall behind in her studies.
Then Dr. Toulouse laid a thick hand on her shoulder that was clearly meant to be comforting as he guided her down the hallway. Panic rolled up inside her.
"I'm so sorry, Miss Tsukino."
Usagi sat stone-faced on the living room sofa, staring silently at the wall. Her tears had dried up for the time, though she didn't doubt there were more lurking somewhere just beneath the surface. The words of the police officer rang in her ears.
My sincerest apologies for your loss. Such an untimely death. Is there anyone else, any other relation…?
There were none, of course. She was the only child and if she had any living relatives her parents had never mentioned them. At least, none on Earth. Her mother had sometimes hinted at a long line of relatives living in the Moon Kingdom, and Usagi was sure she'd heard her parents discussing Usagi's elder cousin once, but it had been a long time ago. And even if it was true, and Usagi could somehow find those relatives, what difference would it make? Who would ever claim her?
At least the house was hers, the attorney had told her. She wouldn't have to move, and the loan was paid off, so she had no worries.
No worries were his exact words. She'd wanted to strangle him but she didn't have the strength.
She collapsed onto the arm of the sofa, the familiar wall of the living room seeming peculiarly empty. The whole house was filled with solitude and shadows.
What was she going to do?
She closed her eyes as another bout of tears welled up inside them.
She was startled by soft fur brushing against her ankle. Jerking up, Usagi looked down to see the cat at her feet, watching her with large red eyes. With a groan and a hand to her heart, Usagi slumped back into the cushions. "You scared me, cat."
The cat nuzzled her ankle with its cheek again before bouncing onto the couch beside her. There it took a moment to clean its small black paw, before climbing onto Usagi's lap with caution. Usagi watched it, at first not inclined to touch the thing, but she soon found that her hand couldn't resist the silky fur. "Oh, cat…" she murmured, followed by a sniffle. "They're gone. They're really gone, and I'm all alone…. Tears were already flooding her eyes, her voice already wobbling. "All I have is this empty old house and… and a silly old extinct cat that I'm going to have to give back when the assignment is o-" Her voice cracked and she dissolved into sobs once more while the cat curled up in her lap and set its head on top of her thigh.
A long while later, when the crying had ebbed and Usagi sat hunched over her legs with the cat wrapped in her arms, did she suddenly sit up with startled curiosity and turn toward the cage that she had carried home from school. The door was wide open. She peered down at the cat who was watching her again with its calm red eyes. Usagi furrowed her brow. "How did you get out of your cage?" she asked, her voice strained from the tears.
Still settled on Usagi's lap, the cat craned its neck to peer at the open cage, then faced Usagi again. Slowly, it pushed itself up onto its forepaws and folded back onto its hind legs and—Usagi thought—cleared its throat.
"It was quite simple, really," the cat said in a feminine, metallic voice. "The door latch is right outside and my paws are small enough to fit through the grate. If they had been smart, they would have used an electric keypad, which at least would have taken time to rewire, but I suppose they didn't think they had anything to worry about."
Usagi gaped at the cat's wise expression, before stammering, "I didn't know cats could talk. I wonder if Haruna knows…. If not, that could be really excellent for my grade….
The cat shook its head. "Actually, I'm afraid cats can't talk."
"Not a cat, of course."
Usagi blinked. "You're not?"
The cat shook its head once more.
"Then what are you?"
With a twitch of its whiskers, the cat lifted and licked its paw, before scrubbing furiously at its forehead. A moment later, a bright golden moon was glowing above its eyes.
Usagi gawked at the mark. "Hey, that's kind of like…" She paused, then realized she was only talking to a cat and there was no cause for vanity, and so pulled her bangs away from her forehead. "Look, I have a crescent on my forehead too." Her own birthmark was only a vague mark of discolored skin, a mar upon her otherwise perfect complexion, and not nearly as pronounced as the metallic spot on the cat. And yet she'd hated it from the time she'd developed a sense of what was beautiful and what was not and determined that a horrid mark in the middle of one's face definitely fell into the not category.
Luckily, it could easily be covered with bangs.
"It is not such a bad mark to have, Usagi. Why do you hide it?" the cat asked, to which Usagi stuck out her tongue.
"Maybe not such a bad mark for a cat, but it's life or death to a teenage girl. So, then… I still don't get it. Are you a cat with a tattoo or what?"
She couldn't be sure, but she thought the cat had just rolled its eyes.
"No, Usagi. I'm a Luna."
Usagi's eyes rounded. "Seriously? A real Luna?"
"Yes. Version 4.2, to be exact."
"But then, why are you posing as a cat in a high school zoology project? I mean… aren't Lunas only made for the royal family? You're an awful long ways from the palace….
"It's only thirty miles, Usagi."
Having never been to the palace, and having a terrible instinct for distances, Usagi thought that thirty miles seemed an awful long ways, but she didn't argue. "But still, how did you get way over here? And why?" She gasped, excitement flushing her cheeks. "Are you on a secret mission from Prince Endymion?"
"He was crowned eight years ago, Usagi. It's King Endymion."
Usagi wrinkled her nose at the title. Like every red-blooded girl in the Earth Kingdom, ages 13 to 26, Usagi had a terrific crush on the prince, and the term king made him sound so old, so she simply couldn't attach it to him. Nevertheless, she let the Luna have its way.
"And I'm here because," it continued, looking suddenly unsure, "they recently found a fault with the 4.2s." Her eyes watched Usagi for a reaction, but there wasn't one to watch for. "And were recalled." Still, Usagi only stared. "In order to be deconstructed and our parts used for the new batch of Lunas, version 4.6."
Usagi's mouth formed a wide O in understanding.
"And what's worse," Luna grumbled, her little feline face the picture of disgust, "they're making the 4.6s in the likeness of dogs, andDalmatians at that! It's perfectly despicable."
"So you ran away to avoid being taken apart."
The Luna nodded, eyes once again trained on Usagi's face. "And you must understand, Usagi, that that makes me a fugitive, and if you choose to harbor me, you will be an accomplice—and that could mean legal implications for you."
Usagi's expression changed to nervous fear. "But I couldn't send you back if they're just going to take you apart! You seem like a perfectly fine Luna to me!"
The tiny cat mouth seemed to twitch in a smile. "Thank you, Usagi. I had hoped you would feel that way. And I intend to repay you for your generosity."
"You don't need to repay me."
"But I will do so anyway, and happily. I have heard your cries for your guardians and I see that you are a good person who has been thrown into a horrid situation. I also see that you bear a striking resemblance to…"
"To who?" Usagi asked when the Luna fell silent.
"Well, perhaps I shouldn't tell you this, but… to the late Queen Serenity."
Usagi's eyebrows shot up. "Queen Serenity… the Moon Queen?"
"Yes, before Queen Beryl took the throne, of course. Anyway, I think that your looks could be a strong asset to us. And I do hope to set things right for you… as much as I am able."
Not sure how to respond, Usagi gave a little shrug. "All right, Miss Luna… can I call you Miss Luna? Are you female? Do Lunas have genders?"
The Luna tittered. "Luna would be fine. But remember, we must not let others know that I am truly a Luna 4.2."
"Sure, sure. So, if you wanted to help me, maybe you could help me get an A on this zoology project..
"Oh, darling Usagi," Luna chortled, and it was an awkward sensation for Usagi to feel patronized by a robotic cat, "I have much bigger plans than simply achieving a high score on a homework assignment."
"Yes, indeed. But I may require some small assistance from you."
"First, do you think you could find me a pair of boots?"
"Your visit to the Moon Kingdom is scheduled for the third week of this month, Your Highness. The steward is almost finished with arrangements, and Queen Beryl is expecting you for an evening gala that first evening."
Endymion groaned and slowly slid his eyes away from the glass dome ceiling. They landed on his first advisor with little more than contempt. "A gala, Malachite? Why on Earth would she want me to attend a gala?"
Malachite shrugged, his expression full of sympathy. "To begin the week with a celebration of the history between the Earth and the Moon… before negotiations can begin. And I'll beg you to get into practice of saying 'why on the Moon,' not on Earth, Your Majesty. Beryl is not understanding about such things."
Endymion returned his eyes to the ceiling. His fingers pounding against the arm of his golden throne were the only sign of nerves. "Am I going to have to dance with her at this… gala?"
"It would probably be beneficial. You know that our best chance up there is to flatter the queen's vanity until she no longer wishes to start a war."
"I'm just afraid she's going to start wishing something else."
Malachite set his hand on his king's forearm, effectively silencing the nervous thumping. "Endymion, though it would be the greatest sacrifice a man has ever made for his people, you must understand that, should Beryl propose an alliance in the form of marriage…"
"I know," Endymion spat, shoving Malachite away with a swipe of his arm, before returning his fingers to their constant drumming. "I know the truth of the situation, Malachite. But I do not wish to think of it any more than necessary."
"I entirely understand, Your Highness. Shall we commence with your itinerary?"
Endymion nodded, but before Malachite could continue, the sound of hard-soled boots clacking on the marble floor drew their attention. Jadeite, another of Endymion's trusted advisors, appeared at the other end of the throne room, smiling in amusement.
"Your Highness, there is a messenger here to see you," he said, followed by a small chortle.
"The king is not taking guests at the moment, Jade."
Jadeite waved the comment away with his hand. "But you should see this one. It's just so darn cute!"
Endymion traded a curious glance with Malachite, and slowly leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. "All right, Jade. Show him in."
"If he's dared to bring in another group of gaggling village girls…" Malachite murmured beneath his breath. But it was not a group of village girls that proceeded into the throne room, but rather a small, fur-covered black animal with a crescent Moon on its forehead and a pair of miniature leather boots on its hind paws. The Luna walked stiffly on the two boots while its front paws dangled in front of it, holding a small cotton pouch.
"I'm pretty sure it's a version 1.4, which makes it practically an antique," said Jadeite, watching the robotic feline slowly make its way up toward the throne. "They were the only ones ever made to wear human clothes… isn't that right?"
"I believe so," Malachite drawled. "Though I've never seen one myself. It's a wonder it's still ticking."
"What is the pet likeness?" Endymion asked as the Luna came to a stop before the throne's platform.
"A cat," both his advisors responded in once. Malachite added, "A house cat. Most of the old Lunas were made to represent cats, as they were once such popular pets. Of course, the trend started to die out once people realized we could robotize even the most exotic of animals."
Endymion nodded. He, himself, had grown up with a chimpanzee Luna, v. 3.6. Something between a playmate, a studying buddy, and a teddy bear, it had been the best friend of his childhood.
"Hello, Luna," he greeted the cat. "I'm told you have a message for me?"
The Luna swept into a low bow, showing no signs of wobbliness on its boots. "Yes, Your Majesty. I bring you a gift." It held out the little cotton pouch, which Jadeite retrieved and took up to Endymion. It was much lighter than Endymion had expected when Jadeite dropped it into his hand. He turned the package over, wondering at the softness of whatever was inside, before opening up the tiny drawstring and tilting it over.
A lock of fine golden hair, tied with a small velvet ribbon, tumbled into his palm. He blinked at it and knew that Jadeite and Malachite were staring at the hair with the same confusion that he felt.
Mindlessly running his thumb over the hair, he cast his gaze up at the Luna. "And this is…?
The cat bowed again, more extravagantly now that it did not have the pouch to hinder it. "It is a lock of my mistress's hair, Your Highness. She is the most beautiful princess of all kingdoms, and I do not think you will argue that she has the finest, most golden hair one has ever seen."
Endymion couldn't help smiling at the cat, even as his fingers caressed the silken gift. "No, I do not think one would argue. And who is your mistress, Luna?"
Standing up taller than seemed possible, the cat proclaimed, "She is Serenity, the lost Princess of the Moon Kingdom."
Endymion's eyes bugged and he could see his two advisors shuffling uncomfortably out of the corner of his gaze. He cleared his throat, his fist closing over the hair. "My dear Luna… there is no long lost princess of the Moon. The late Queen Serenity only had one child, who did not live longer than a single week of its life. The closest next of kin, and only rightful heir to the Moon Kingdom, was the queen's niece—Queen Beryl."
The Luna's whiskers twitched, as if it were smiling. "You have no doubt heard the rumors, Your Majesty? That the rightful heir did not die in infancy, but rather lives to this day as the rightful queen?"
Endymion gulped, but could not answer. Of course he had heard the rumors—everyone had. But he also realized that they were little more than wishful thinking. Beryl was a cruel and stingy ruler. People only wanted some sort of hope that there was another option, some other queen who could someday overthrow her. He had certainly entertained the fantasy himself, but it was unfounded. There was no Moon Princess.
"Please thank your mistress for the thoughtful gift," Endymion finally answered, holding the small velvet ribbon between his fingers.
The Luna bowed once more and turned to leave. The throne room was filled with only the clomp-clomping of its little boots until it had gone.
"It is an impossible rumor," Malachite said, arms folded over his chest.
"I know it is."
"She is not the first to falsely claim a right to the Moon Kingdom."
Endymion nodded, twisting the lock of hair around his fingers. It slid like the finest silk over his skin. "And she won't be the last."
Malachite held out his palm. "We must not begin to entertain the possibility of another heir. Should Beryl discover that we are holding out hope for another, I assure you, all negotiations would be canceled and war would be inevitable."
"I am not entertaining any possibilities," Endymion said, eyeing Malachite's open palm. With a sigh, he gave the lock of hair and the little cotton pouch to his advisor. "It is a lovely dream… but there is no Moon Princess."
"Ow! Luna, that hurts!"
Luna sighed. "Well if you would hold still and relax, Usagi, it wouldn't hurt so much," she muttered through a mouthful of bobby pins. "Plus it would make my job a lot easier. I'm not exactly equipped with hairstyling tools." She gripped the hairbrush between her forepaws again and pulled it through Usagi's long blonde hair. She knew that she was partly taking her stress out on the poor child, but she didn't pause to think on that. It had been over a week since her visit to the Earth King and she was anxious to move her plans forward before he should forget about her "mistress" and the tale she'd told him.
"You're going to leave the bangs, though, right?"
Luna tsked. "You should not be so embarrassed by your birthmark, Usagi. I find it to be quite the appealing embellishment to your lovely face."
Usagi grimace. "You sound like my mother, and I never believed her when she said it, either. You better leave the bangs."
"Fine. I will leave the bangs."
"Good. But I still don't understand why I have to wear this silly hairstyle anyway."
"Because it is the royal hairstyle of the Moon Kingdom. You can't expect people to mistake your identity if you don't look the part."
"But Luna, I'm not the lost Moon Princess. I've never even been to the Moon. And my parents were just… just…" Her voice broke on the fresh pain of their loss.
Usagi's sudden complacency allowed Luna to twist up the second half of hair into a signature bun-and-ponytail. Satisfied that the bun would suffice—though she knew she would have to work on perfecting the technique—she spat out the pins and came around to the front of the bed. Usagi had started to cry again, swiping at the tears that dripped down her rosy face, her body wracked by the occasional shudder.
"Usagi, dear," Luna murmured, crawling onto Usagi's lap. The girl mindlessly reached down to scratch her neck, and Luna sensed guilt and affection welling up in her electronic heart. "Perhaps this is all moving too quickly. I apologize if I've been pressuring you. I know that you're still in mourning."
With a sniffle, Usagi pulled Luna to her stomach with one arm and blindly searched the nearby side table with the other until it landed on a box of tissues. "I miss them so much, Luna."
"I know, child."
"And I… I just don't know what they would think… about all this. If they knew that I was claiming to be the daugh-daughter of Queen Serenity and not th-them. It doesn't seem fair."
"I understand that you want to honor their memory, Usagi, and they would understand that too. You aren't doing any of this to spite them, but rather to improve your lot in life. And of course they would want you to have the happiest, most secure life you could, and that is what I intend to get for you. If they were here, I'm sure they would agree that this is going to be the best thing that ever happened to you."
Usagi inhaled a wobbling breath and blew her nose. The tears had momentarily ceased, but it always took longer to regain control of her erratic breathing. "What exactly do you think is going to happen to me? After we tell everyone that I'm the lost Moon Princess? I mean, Queen Serenity is already dead—there's just Beryl up there now, and… and from what I've heard of her, claiming to be a relative may not be the best idea."
"Don't you worry about all that, Usagi," Luna said, placing her paw down on the girl's hand. "I will take care of Beryl and the Moon Kingdom. You just focus on reading those books on Moon history that I got for you, and I will take care of everything else."
Heaving a sigh, Usagi threw the used tissue at the wastebasket across the room. It bounced off the rim and landed on the carpet. "When do you think I can go back to school? I'd like to see Ami…. And even though Haruna was really understanding about my new situation, I doubt she'll give methat much of an extension on this zoology project."
"Don't worry about school right now, Usagi. We have much bigger things to do than sit in a classroom." Seeing that Usagi was more disappointed than excited by the prospect of no impending school, Luna leaned forward and nuzzled her head against the girl's arm. "Why don't you call Ami and invite her to go shopping this afternoon? It will be a welcome break from all your reading, and I was hoping to find something at a pawn shop."
"That's a good idea," Usagi said—and it did sound like a pleasant distraction, even if shopping didn't hold half the appeal that it had just weeks ago. "What are you looking for, Luna?"
"Oh, just a little something."
"Do you have documentation of your property rights?" Endymion asked. The man before him teetered uncomfortably on his feet and slowly shook his head. He had a bowler cap clutched in his hands—a fashion trend that just seemed to keep coming back—and a truly embarrassed expression upon his face. Endymion sighed. "Not a contract? A title? State markers? Anything?"
"I am sorry, Your Majesty. This land has been passed down through my family for centuries. The papers… they could have disappeared ages ago!"
Endymion glanced at the opposing party—a stout man in a suit who hadn't even tried to hide his smug smile from the farmer.
"What are the specifics of the property?"
The question was posed in order to give Endymion time to think without looking like he was staring off into space. As the farmer rattled off acreage and square footage, crop yields and cattle counts, Endymion searched the recesses of his imagination for some law that could allow him to decide in the farmer's favor. He claimed that all the property was his, had been his father's before him and his father's father's father's father's some time before that. Problem was—he had no proof.
The slimy merchant, on the other hand, had a finely printed document stating that one-third of the property (incidentally, the third that included both the farmhouse and the most fertile land), in fact belonged to him, as part of a family settlement that dated back to long before either of them were born. It wasn't clear why the merchant's family hadn't staked their claim ages ago, when the papers were first signed. But it was very clear why he wanted it now. Property had gone up twenty-two percent in only three years and rural land was becoming harder and harder to come by; this man was set to inherit a gold mine.
Endymion hated these cases. It had always been the king's duty to hear and decide at least a dozen civil cases each week, as selected by the court. Sometimes it was a pleasure to be one-on-one with his citizens. To help solve their problems. To listen to their adoring words as they expressed their joy and honor at meeting him—which always made him feel like maybe he wasn't doing such a bad job in his father's place after all.
But most of the time he hated the civil cases. The courts tended to give him the trouble cases—those in which everyone wanted to award the "good guy," but had no legal reason to do so. Because the king's wordwas law, Endymion didn't really need to worry about legalities, he just needed to choose a winner and call it a day, end of story. But he didn't like to take advantage of that. The laws had been written over hundreds of years by men much wiser than he, so there had to be a reason for them.
And there had to be a way to let this poor, humble, honest farmer keep his land—without the king looking like a softy.
"Pardon the interruption, Your Highness," said Nephlite, Endymion's legal advisor who presided over these civil cases and documented the results, "but it appears that someone in the audience would like to speak."
Drawn from his reverie, Endymion watched as a small black cat in leather boots approached out of the audience. He recognized the Luna immediately and sat up straighter with surprise and—he would be ashamed to admit—a touch of excitement. The Luna walked between the two opponents, who both watched it with unbridled curiosity. After all, everyone knew of the Lunas, of course, but it was unlikely that either of these men had ever seen one before. The right to own one of the robots belonged strictly to the royal family. It had been discovered long ago, when they were still a relatively new invention, that their intelligence combined with their remarkable ability to talk their way into (and out of) anything could make them not only valuable messengers, housekeepers, and friends, but also weapons.
Luna stopped before the platform and dipped into her low bow. "My sincerest apologies for interrupting the proceedings, Your Majesty, but I believe I have information that pertains to this case and may influence your decision."
Endymion glanced at Nephlite, who only shrugged back at him.
Drawing herself up to full height in the small boots, Luna proclaimed, "The Statute of the State of Argentina, where this debate originates, Section 621.8, which deals with the signing, selling, claiming, and ownership of rural land capable of producing crops and raising livestock, states that the gaining of any right to a piece of land must be acted upon within six years of that gaining, or the land either reverts to the original owner or, in the case that no original owner can be put upon, auctioned off to a public bidder. The purpose of the law is, of course, to ensure that all farmland is continually working at its maximum capacity to prevent famine and the deficiency of other natural resources in the state."
Raising his eyebrows, Endymion turned away from the cat and looked at his advisor. "Is that true?"
Nephlite shrugged and turned to a secretary who was recording the proceedings in a hologram recorder. "Is that true?" he asked, and the secretary immediately turned to her international law book and typed in the state statute and section in question. A moment later she looked up at Nephlite and nodded.
Nephlite turned to Endymion and shrugged again. "I guess it is."
The king turned back to the Luna and smiled his appreciation. "My thanks for this information, Luna."
The Luna bowed and retreated back into the audience, loitering near the front row, while Endymion made his ruling. He could now legally rule in favor of the farmer and his family, as the merchant's ancestors had failed to stake their claim within the first six years of signing the agreement. The merchant's grumblings meant nothing to Endymion—the farmer's smile and adamant gratitude meant everything.
Endymion breathed a long sigh of relief when the two men left, followed by the rest of the audience—who appeared to be mostly family members of the farmer come to support him in his case.
"That's the last one for today, Your Majesty."
"Wonderful," Endymion said, but he was not looking at Nephlite. His eyes were once again trained on the cat that stood before the rows of chairs. "It is a pleasure and honor to see you again, Luna."
The cat approached the two men and dropped into her signature bow again. "The honor is all mine, Your Majesty. I am glad that I could be of service."
"Yes, I think I may need to install a new rule—that a Luna is to be present at the proceedings at all times. I do not think anyone else has so much brain capacity for legal minutia."
"It is a gift bestowed upon us by our creators."
"And why have you returned, Luna? I doubt that it was in order to watch the ever-fascinating civil court proceedings."
"Not entirely, Your Majesty. I have come to bring you another gift from my mistress: Serenity, the Princess of the Moon Kingdom."
Endymion's heart throbbed, though he thought he did a good job of keeping his face complacent. Beside him, on the other hand, Nephlite's sudden jolt was unmistakable.
Clearing his throat, the Earth King sat back against his throne. "Another gift from the lost princess? She is being too generous."
"She admires you greatly, Your Majesty," Luna answered, reaching into her boots and withdrawing a glittering golden chain. She held it up to the king, but it was Nephlite who stepped forward to retrieve it.
The few moments that passed in the transition of the gift from cat to king saw Endymion's pulse speed up and his mouth dry—though he couldn't account for either symptom. His nervousness surprised him. His excitement was downright terrifying.
He held out his palm to receive the gift, and Nephlite murmured, "A locket, Your Majesty," before dropping the small chain into the king's hand.
The locket that swung from the end of the gold chain was star-shaped and polished to a glistening shine. It was good-sized; larger than a strawberry but smaller than a peach. By running his thumb over the sides of the locket he could feel an almost undetectable hinge and lock.
"Your princess is too kind," said Endymion, gazing up at Luna.
To which the cat shook her small head—the shining Moon emblem on her brow flickering in the castle lights. "She is not too kind, Your Majesty, but rather she has the perfect amount of kindness, goodness, and generosity as to befit any ruler of her stature."
The king's lips crept into a smile, but then Nephlite was at his side, whispering into his ear. "Your Highness, this is little more than a bauble. It could be bought at any flea market. It signifies nothing of this… this imposter."
Endymion's fist tightened over the locket and he inhaled sharply, slightly embarrassed at the anger Nephlite's words stirred in him. His advisor was probably right. The necklace, he was sure, meant nothing—symbolized nothing. The Moon Princess was a myth. Clearly, Luna's mistress was delusional.
Running his nail along the edge of the locket, he felt a subtle click. The locket opened up on his palm and he found himself staring down at a simple ink drawing of a classic silhouette—this of a girl with her head held regally high, her nose petite, her lips (he could not be sure) seemed to be smiling the slightest bit, and the picture ended with the gentle curve of her bosom. And her hair—two perfectly round buns on top of her head with streamers flowing down.
"It proves nothing, Your Highness," Nephlite whispered beside him. "Any street artist will draw…"
"I know, Nephlite," said the king, snapping the locket shut. The cat was watching him, wide-eyed and eager to return a message to her mistress. "Please thank your mistress for the beautiful gift," he said.
Luna bowed majestically once more, before turning to walk crookedly out of the throne room. Endymion watched her go, mindlessly wrapping the chain around his wrist and telling himself he would get rid of it as soon as he was back in his chambers.
It wasn't the truth, though. Ever since Malachite had taken the lock of golden hair away from him, Endymion had found himself dreaming of it—the feel, the color, the way the light caught on the strands, even the subtle scent. Though he knew it was ridiculous to entertain fantasies of the lost Moon Princess come to retrieve her kingdom—and the privilege to marry the Earth King and forever bind and ally the two worlds—Endymion couldn't help it.
The dream was simply too much of an improvement upon reality.
"When we arrive at the Moon Kingdom, we will be provided with a hover carriage to take us to the palace. It isn't a long ways to travel, and I'm told that the scenery is like nothing here on Earth."
Endymion smirked at Zoicite, though his fourth and final advisor was too busy analyzing the itinerary before him to notice. "Believe me, Zoicite, no matter how lovely the scenery is, I would be perfectly satisfied to never lay eyes on it."
Zoicite glanced up, but it was Malachite who spoke. "Such comments better not follow us to the Moon, Your Highness. You never know where Beryl has placed her spies, and it will not do for her to know of your disrespect."
Sighing, Endymion leaned back in the hover carriage and gazed out at the sweeping landscape. Sometimes he got so caught up in day-to-day ruling that he forgot to appreciate the magnificence of the planet he ruled. Before him he could see towering, snow-capped mountains that disappeared in a purple haze and, just off the road, a golden field dotted with wildflowers of all colors. Endymion could pick out the rose-iris breeds and the tiger tulips, but that is where his knowledge of botany ended.
"When we reach the castle," Zoicite was saying, "we will be shown to our rooms, which I have of course requested be in the same wing. We will be given one hour to prepare before we are to meet the queen and her court for Moon-wine in the Earth-side parlor. We should be there just in time to see the sunset."
"Sunsets on the Moon are spectacular," Malachite said. "I remember them from the days of Queen Serenity."
Endymion cast an unimpressed eye at his advisor. "Such comments better not follow us to the Moon. I'm sure Beryl would have your head for referring to her predecessor."
Malachite glared, but did not dispute the claim. They all knew Endymion's words harbored some truth. "I was hoping to give you something to look forward to, Your Highness. You look so glum."
Endymion turned back to the Earth's landscape, spread out before him in a perfection that could never be recreated. He couldn't help wondering if, once he and Beryl were wed, he would ever see such beauty again. Would his bride ever visit his home planet, or would he be confined to looking out at the Moon's chalky craters for all eternity?
"I can't help it," he sighed a moment later. "I feel a little bit like I'm being taken to my execution."
His advisors could say nothing to console him, so the following minutes were filled with only kept thoughts and Zoicite's shuffling of papers.
Then the silence was broken by a shrill cry for help.
"Help me! My mistress! My mistress!"
The five men in the hover carriage exchanged glances but it only took a moment for Jadeite to shift the carriage to a slow crawl and then a jerking stop, settling down on the gravel road.
"Help me, please!" the cry continued.
The door slid open, allowing sunlight to flood the small carriage. Malachite was the first man out—always cautious. The rest followed, with Zoicite urging the king to stay put lest it was some sort of plot against the crown, but Endymion ignored him and followed his companions out of the carriage anyhow.
No sooner had his boots landed on the road did Endymion see a small black cat wobbling toward them as quickly as it could in little leather boots.
"It's the Luna!" Nephlite said, and they all gawked as the breathless robocat plodded toward them.
"Please, you must help me! My… my… oh! Your Highness!"
"Luna?" Endymion started. "What are you…?
"Apologies for my rudeness, Your Highness, but there is no time to explain. My mistress needs your help!"
"The princess?" he asked, ignoring the warning glares that his advisors cast at him.
"Yes—Princess Serenity. Please, follow me!"
Usagi let her breath out slowly, floating just beneath the surface of the water and delighting in the feel of the air bubbling up from her lips and rushing toward the surface. The sun was shining bright in the late-afternoon sky, sending a thousand shards of light flickering on the crystalline surface above her. And while the lake was not warm by any means, it also wasn't as freezing cold as she'd expected it to be and her body had adjusted quickly so that—as long as she stayed in the water and did not venture into the crisp, dewy air above—she could relax without chills.
She was beginning to see Luna's point. She had been doubtful, to say the least, when Luna had insisted she go skinny-dipping in the lake. After all, it wasn't far off from the road; what if someone saw her? Or what if she got pneumonia? Usagi just wasn't the skinny-dipping type.
But Luna had insisted that it would cleanse her spirit, calm her thoughts, and reinvigorate her body. And—surprise of surprises—the cat seemed to be right. Usagi couldn't remember feeling more refreshed, more serene, more content. She thought she just might have to make a tradition out of this.
Emerging from the shallow depths, she gulped in the air and took a moment to revel in the purity of the water and the warmth of the sun on her soaked skin. With a happy sigh, she slicked back her hair, feeling the ends floating on the lake's surface around her waist, and prepared to plunge down into the water again.
When she turned around to see if Luna was still waiting for her on the nearby shore.
Usagi ducked back down until the water came up to her chin, wrapping her arms over her chest and staring at the five men staring back at her.
They gawked and Usagi gawked back.
They blushed and Usagi felt the unmistakable rush of heat to her own cheeks.
She was just about to draw on her very limited supply of naughty words when Luna darted out from between the black-haired man's legs and rushed to the shore.
"Princess, princess!" she cried. "I've brought help!"
Usagi blinked and managed to stutter, "Help?"
"Yes, after those cruel bandits stole your clothes and threatened to do such awful things if you came out of the water."
Luna tsked. "Oh dear, I do believe she is going into shock. We must get her out of the water. It is a miracle that your carriage came by in time and scared the bandits away before anything truly horrible could happen."
"A miracle…" Endymion murmured, unable to tear his eyes away from the water nymph before him.
And it was about this time that Usagi realized that A. this was another one of Luna's crazy plans, and B. the impossibly handsome man before her, with the broad shoulders and the ebony hair, was none other than the Earth King, Endymion. Her poor heart, not yet recovered from her first scare, was sent right back into overdrive and the threatening blush was finally allowed to bloom over her cheeks.
"Perhaps if there was something you had that she could put on? My mistress is quite modest."
"Of course!" Endymion said, shaking himself from his stupor and unpinning the cloak that rested on his shoulders. "It isn't much, but I hope this will do until we can find something more suitable."
Usagi nodded slightly at the cloak, her chin dipping into the water. "Thank you, Your Highness." She hesitated, waiting, before finding the courage to add, "Perhaps if you could divert your eyes…"
"Oh—of course, of course. Men, divert your eyes."
Almost grateful for the order (they were not sure they would have had the willpower to look away on their own), Endymion's four advisors spun around so that their backs were to the distressed girl. There was another pause before Endymion straightened with a jolt and cleared his throat. "And me too—of course," he stuttered, turning his head away with the cloak draped over one arm extending toward Usagi.
Steadying her nerves, Usagi hopped out of the lake, snatched the cloak from Endymion's arm, and tied it around her body in one fluid movement. It was made of the softest dark green cashmere that Usagi had ever known. It smelled vaguely of soap and fragrant wood, and it was so long that nearly a foot of its length dragged on the muddy shore.
"Thank you," she said when her modesty was intact once more. As an afterthought, she whisked her fingers through her bangs quickly to make sure they were properly covering her unsightly birthmark.
The men slowly turned back to her, cautious until they realized that little more than her collarbone was still visible.
"I'm only glad that we could be of assistance," Endymion started, still having something of an uncertain, wide-eyed look when he gazed at Usagi. "That we happened to be passing by…"
Usagi nodded. "I am forever in your debt," she said, thinking that sounded like something a princess might say.
"Not at all," Endymion answered with a halted chuckle. "Actually, I should be thanking you. How rude of me."
"Me? What for?"
"For those lovely gifts you sent."
Usagi gawked at him, bewildered. She hadn't sent any gifts to the king—had she? Actually, she could remember writing Prince Endymion a love letter in second grade… but she was pretty sure he wouldn't remember that, especially when every girl she knew had written him a love letter at one point or another. Often on a dare.
But then a glance down at Luna, who was giving Usagi such a look that she was surprised a hole wasn't burning into her forehead, made it quite obvious that Usagi had sent something to King Endymion. Or, rather, Princess Serenity had.
She cleared her throat and tried to smile graciously. "I'm glad that Luna was able to deliver… them?" Luna nodded. "And I sincerely hope you… um… have enjoyed…"
"I have," Endymion interrupted, lowering his eyes. "Actually, I… the locket…. He raised his fingers to his collar. Usagi wondered if they were actually trembling or if that was just her imagination. Then his fingers hooked over a chain around his neck and pulled a small golden locket from the confines of his shirt.
Usagi instantly remembered it as the small locket that Luna had purchased days before in a downtown pawn shop. Endymion looked purely embarrassed to be caught with the thing near his heart. Usagi's feelings were more mixed. A little bit of elation—after all, couldn't this only mean that Endymion had been thinking about her? But also the first signs of terror that Endymion and his advisors would figure her out. That they would suddenly see through the web of lies Luna had come up with. And then what would they do to her? To both of them?
Endymion suddenly pushed the locket back beneath his shirt, his cheeks glowing, and Usagi realized that he'd been waiting for a response. Any response.
"I'm sorry," she said, torn from her silence, "I'm just speechless. I mean… to meet you, after all these years. And… and it's the strangest thing, but I almost feel as though I've met you before."
The relief in the king's eyes was unmistakable. "I feel the same…" He paused to clear his throat, casting a sideways glance at his companions, before adding, "Princess."
This must have been the last straw, because with that Malachite stepped forward. "Your Highness, I'm afraid we mustn't delay any longer. Beryl would not like to be kept waiting."
Endymion nodded without enthusiasm, unable to take his eyes from Usagi. Her hair was drying quickly in the sun, glittering with every shade of gold he'd ever known. "We can't leave her here."
"I will send for another hover carriage," said Jadeite. "And ask them to bring more suitable clothes." He met Usagi's gaze and tilted his head toward her with a curious smile. "Something made for a princess, of course."
"And then she can be returned to her home, and we can continue on to the Silver Millennium," Malachite said sternly, the matter settled.
But Endymion couldn't stop fidgeting with the chain around his neck and the cuffs of his shirt, even as Jadeite wandered back to their craft and paged the castle. Even when the lost princess batted her long-lashed blue eyes at him and repeated her gratitude. And then he heard himself asking, "Would you like to come with us? To the Moon?" much to the detriment of his peers.
"To the Moon?" Usagi gaped, casting her eyes up to the sky without thinking. The white globe hung just over the horizon, pale in the afternoon sun.
"Your Highness is very kind," said Luna, standing back on her booted hind legs. "But we would not wish to impose upon your hospitality."
"Of course you wouldn't," said Zoicite. "And I'm afraid my king speaks too rashly. It is best, of course, if you do not attend this Moon visit with us."
"Because, Your Highness, I am certain that Beryl would not appreciate you bringing along some young… beautiful girl when there is the possibility that your engagement will be announced on this trip."
Usagi's breath caught. "You're engaged to Queen Beryl?" she blurted, unable to hide the disgust. She had heard tales, of course, of the cruel dictator-queen who ruled the Moon. Would Endymion really attach himself to her?
"No, absolutely not," Endymion responded—desperate, stern. Never had he felt so guilty as when looking at her lovely, disbelieving face. And never had he felt so guilty for saying something that wasn't necessarily a lie. In the corner of his eye he saw Zoicite fold his arms and glare at him, and so he added, "At least… not technically. Not yet." He sighed, wanting to explain himself further, but knowing that it wasn't really in his power to do so. Engaged or not, he knew that he had to marry Beryl—for the good of his planet.
Besides, he wasn't betraying anyone, especially not this supposed Moon Princess. He didn't even know her.
"My Mistress has never been to the Moon," Luna stepped in. "At least, not since her birth. When the queen died, Serenity here was whisked away to the Earth within hours—as a means of protecting her. Everyone knew what a heated battle there would be for the crown. How ruthless Beryl would be. How she would stop at nothing… even if it meant murdering her own infant cousin." Luna sighed, her red eyes peering up at the Moon. "But I, on the other hand, was a loyal Luna to the King and Queen for many, many years. I was created there by one of the greatest inventors of all time, to be a servant and friend to the royal family. That was a rich and happy time, before Beryl's dark reign began. I miss those times, and I miss the Moon and the kingdom…. I feel that I would like to see it again."
"And you should see it again," Endymion urged. "And you, too, Serenity. You should see your home, the place where you came from."
Usagi's heart lurched. Despite the king's sweet, pleading gaze and the urgency with which he spoke—like he was determined to keep her by his side—his words could not take on the meaning for her that they should have. Defiance welled up inside her and she wanted to tell him that her name wasn't Serenity. That she wasn't from the Moon. That she was simply a commoner, caught in this crazy cat's maze of lies and tales.
But Luna started speaking before Usagi could sort out her thoughts and give them both away. "Your Highness, we would be most honored to join you on your travels. But before we agree, there is something you must know first, for we would not wish for you to unnecessarily endanger yourself."
"And what is that?"
"When Queen Serenity was lying on her deathbed, she called me to her side," Luna explained, not a hint in her tone that she could be lying. "And she told me to take away and protect her baby girl… until the day came when Princess Serenity could return to her home and stake her rightful claim to the crown. That time is now, Your Majesty. And I do intend to see to it that my mistress is given what rightfully belongs to her."
Usagi could not lift her jaw. Was Luna being serious? Did she actually intend to instate her as the Queen of the Moon? Was she crazy?
"You cannot mean," said Nephlite, tucking his hands into opposite tunic sleeves, "that you intend to overthrow Queen Beryl?"
It was exactly what Usagi was thinking, but nothing could have prepared her for Luna's response.
"I can," said the cat, whiskers twitching. "And I will. The people of the Moon have suffered far too long. It is time they had their true queen back—a queen who will rule by grace and justice, not cruelty and greed."
"Hear, hear," said Jadeite, who was met with a smack on the arm from Malachite.
"Your Highness, may I have a word with you?" the silver-haired chief advisor said, grabbing Endymion by the arm and pulling him away before the king could respond. The other advisors followed. When they were out of earshot, Malachite turned his king to face him and hissed, "This isridiculous. We absolutely cannot take them to the Moon with us. I forbid it."
"Why not?" Endymion asked, honestly baffled. "It seems they have every right to go to the Moon with us."
"They are imposters," Malachite growled.
"You have no proof of that."
"And you have no proof that they aren't. Endymion, how many news articles and broadcasts have you seen over the years talking about different girls who claimed to be the true heir to the Moon Kingdom? How many dozens of girls, all over the world, have tried to convince others that they were the lost princess? And how many of them actually were?"
Endymion looked away, jaw muscles flexing. "But she's…"
"What? She's what, Endymion? Gorgeous? Charming?"
"I agree. But those things do not make her a princess."
"Maybe it doesn't matter."
"What are you talking about?"
With a groan, Endymion raked a hand through his hair, finding it difficult not to glance at Serenity by the lake. He seemed to be suffering from the most unusual withdrawal of the mere sight of her. "Maybe it doesn't matter if she's the real heir or not. Who cares if she's an imposter?"
"Are you listening to yourself?"
"Look, Beryl is a disaster. She is a terrible ruler and by all logic she should be overthrown, only everyone is too afraid of her to try it. Don't you think this girl has the potential to make a much better ruler, regardless of her ancestry?"
Malachite drew his brow down in a glower. "You are letting your hormones speak for you. If we take this girl to the Moon with us, knowing that she intends to call herself the true Queen of the Moon, not only are we putting her in immense danger, but we will forever destroy the possible alliance between the Moon and the Earth. It will mean war. Do you really want to put your people in that situation?"
It was the only thing Malachite could have said that had the potential to deter Endymion. He felt his hope dwindling with the words, all of which were true. He and his advisors would be accomplices to this traitor. Making the whole Earth Kingdom an enemy to the Moon.
And there would be no way that Serenity would escape with her life if Beryl found out.
A humming from the road told them that the second hover carriage had arrived. Endymion turned back to see the lost princess crouched down on the sandy shore talking in hushed whispers with the Luna. His green and black cloak still clung to her curves and bunched up in piles around her, wet and dirty. He noticed that the cat was pulling something out of her boots and handing it to the girl—bobby pins, he soon realized, as she masterfully tied her hair up in to two signature golden buns on top of her head. His heart skipped.
"All right," he whispered, more to himself than to his advisors, and started heading back toward the girl.
Usagi glanced up at the king as he approached. She tried to smile at him as she stood, but it was hard to do above the cloudiness in her thoughts. So much was happening, so quick.
"The other carriage has arrived," Endymion said, gesturing toward the road. "We can get you into proper clothes."
"Thank you," she said.
"We are most grateful for your kindness," said Luna. "And my mistress and I have been discussing your previous offer and how we do not wish to burden or endanger you."
Endymion nodded and opened his mouth to tell them his decision, when Luna interrupted. "And so we've come up with something of a plan."
"Yes. We think it best if we simply tell Queen Beryl that Serenity is an ambassador."
"Well… I was thinking the Earth state of Sweden. She has those blue eyes that are supposed to be common there."
Luna nodded. "We will tell the queen that Sweden is looking to expand its shares of Moon resources and stocks. Perhaps in Moonstones… I hear they're quite popular in Europe right now."
Endymion cast his gaze from the cat to the girl. She was standing with perfect posture and a serene smile—a look befitting a princess, or an ambassador. "Do you know anything about Sweden?"
Slowly, Usagi shook her head. "I don't, Your Majesty. But I don't think Beryl will, either."
And because Endymion hadn't really wanted to turn her away to begin with, he agreed. Malachite did not approve, of course, but he knew better than to question Endymion's decision again. Foolish or not, he was still the king.
Usagi could tell that Endymion was anxious for her to pay attention to him again. The shuttle trip from the Earth to the Moon's main dock had been full of conversation—just between the two of them, though. His advisors seemed rather sullen and suspicious, which filled Usagi with nerves. But the king himself had doted on her since the moment she'd put on the silk and taffeta gown. He had offered his hand to her when they were climbing up onto the shuttle. Chosen the seat next to her for the ride, despite the fact that there was a lonesome, heavily-pillowed chaise lounge meant specifically for him near the front of the cab. He had asked her questions about her life on Earth, where she had grown up and gone to school. At first his incessant curiosity made Usagi concerned that he was looking to catch her in a lie, but eventually she figured that he honestly wanted to know about her. And her story became easier to tell when she could incorporate her real life into it. She told him about her parents, only substituted that they were adoptive parents that Luna had tracked down when she was an infant. She told him about her classes, though left out her poor grades. She told him about her best friend, Ami, and felt a dull pang in her heart. She hadn't seen Ami in almost two weeks and wondered, with the way her life was headed, if she would ever see her again.
In return, Endymion had confided some very deep fears about ruling. After all, he'd taken the throne when he was only fifteen, and though eight busy years had passed since then, he still sometimes woke with a feeling of terror to know that the weight of the world was on his shoulders. He told her about his advisors, and how they had become more like friends to him.
He had not mentioned his imminent betrothal again.
The conversation had ended abruptly, much to Endymion's dismay, when they had landed on the Moon. Leaving the shuttle, Usagi had lost her breath at the sight of it. The landscape glittered silver in the hazy daylight. There was a subtle wind in the machine-generated atmosphere, the Moon's life-support system that Usagi had learned about in grade school. She didn't remember how all of it worked, but she knew that scientists had spent decades perfecting it. In the end, they had re-created the Earth's atmosphere almost exactly, from the weather system to the mix of gases that made up the air. In fact, they had improved upon the Earth's age-old atmosphere. The Moon never had droughts. It never had tornados. It never had forest fires.
When Usagi had been taught all this she thought that the reason the Moon never had forest fires was because there wasn't any forests. And she thought that the machine scientists had created must surely be so big and ugly that it ruined the whole look of the place. But she was wrong, she saw now, gazing out over the Moon's surface. In the distance she could make out a forest that stretched to the horizon in a blur of golds and reds. And the machine was nowhere to be seen; she would later learn that it had all been installed underground.
All of Usagi's dreams of a chalky, dusty Moon were blown away in the subtle autumn breeze. The glorious gardens that rimmed the dock, the filtered sunlight that was the perfect temperature on her skin, the sight of the Earth shining bright blue in the sky…. Usagi had discovered heaven. And forgotten all about the handsome king beside her.
They boarded another hover carriage to take them to the castle. Endymion sat beside her again, without question, but once he saw that her attention had been completely stolen away, he stopped making attempts to recapture it. She watched the shimmering landscape—new lakes, new trees, new fields—brush past them, and Endymion watched her, unable to stop smiling at her awe.
"I know this place," Luna said suddenly, standing on a chair with her two paws on the window sill.
Usagi did not know if Luna was lying. She knew that Luna had made up the story about her being the Moon Princess, but she wondered if the other elements of the story had been true. Maybe Luna really had been created on the Moon and served the king and queen. Maybe Luna really had escaped when Beryl began her rule. Maybe she really did intend to overthrow the queen and put Usagi on the throne instead.
She no longer knew what Luna was planning, and she was nervous, but she also had hope. After all, if it hadn't been for Luna, Usagi was sure she never would have met the prince or been taken to this magnificent world.
Nephlite leaned over the arm of his chair and peered out Luna's window. "You have been here, you say?"
"Yes. I used to take walks out here with other Lunas and the castle staff. Even the queen would join us on occasion. We are close to the castle."
"We would take picnics sometimes, under that cherry blossom tree. Do you see it, U-Serenity?"
Usagi flinched at the near slip-up, but no one else seemed to notice. She saw the cherry blossom tree, standing alone in a large field of tall green grass and purple wildflowers. "It's lovely. Perhaps you and I will have to picnic there sometime soon, Luna."
"I would like that very much, mistress." Luna cast her red eyes up at Usagi and seemed to be smiling. "Perhaps, if it wouldn't be too much trouble, I could get out here and meet you later at the castle. I would love to see some of these places that I haven't seen in so many years."
"It wouldn't be a problem at all," said Endymion, and though Usagi was a little scared to be left all alone in her play-acting, she could see that Luna was honestly excited to strike out on her own, into the Moon's heavenly landscape.
"You can find your way to the castle all right?" Usagi said as the hover carriage came to a standstill.
"Of course I can—it's straight up this road. I remember it quite well."
Nephlite opened the door and Luna wasted no time in bowing to the men in the carriage. "I trust that you gentleman will watch over my lady until we meet again."
"You'll be at the castle in time for our meeting with Beryl, won't you?" Usagi asked, panicking.
"But of course, Princess. I would not miss it for the world."
With that, Luna bounded down the small retractable steps and onto the cobblestone road.
Malachite turned to Usagi with a frown as the steps were withdrawn and the carriage door closed. "I certainly hope she doesn't intend to call you 'princess' while we're in the castle."
Usagi laughed uncomfortably as if Malachite was joking. "Me too."
Within moments, Zoicite had reprogrammed the carriage's navigation system and the machine took off again in the direction of Beryl's palace, but not two breaths later there was a strange shuddering in the carriage's engine, the blades beneath the craft stopped turning, and the hover carriage fell the whole three feet to the Moon. Usagi yelped and grabbed for the first thing in reach—Endymion's arm. Jadeite was jostled off his seat and Nephlite hit his head on one of the computer side panels with a thud.
The carriage was soon filled with only the sounds of rapid breathing and the quiet whirring of the blades as they came to a slow stop beneath them.
"Zoicite, what happened?" Endymion asked, wrapping his fingers around Usagi's hand in instinctive comfort.
"I have no idea, Your Majesty. It sounds like something went wrong with the engine."
"You don't think Beryl would have sent a faulty carriage to transport us, would she?" Jadeite asked, lifting himself back into his seat and rubbing his knee where it had hit the floor.
"Why would she do that?" Malachite muttered. "She has no reason… at least, that she knows of." He added this last bit with a disapproving glance at Usagi.
"Besides, it was working fine a moment ago," Zoicite said, flicking through options on the navigation panel. "Something must have happened while we were stopped. Perhaps something got lodged in the blades?"
"I suppose someone should go check it out, then," said Endymion, "or call to the castle and alert them of our situation."
"I'll go," said Nephlite, opening the door and hopping out onto the road. The air that seeped in from outside was warm and fresh and Usagi couldn't help but think that there was no better place in the universe to be stranded. Thinking this, she unconsciously tightened her grip on Endymion's hand, and he squeezed her back. Her heart fluttered.
"Don't be scared," he said, glancing at her with a confident smile. "We'll get it figured out and be back on the road in no time."
She smiled back at him, marveling at their sudden closeness, the depth of his eyes, the near-invisible dimple that appeared on his right cheek when he smiled in that certain way. Truthfully, she answered, "I'm not scared at all."
Luna nodded to herself, watching from the tall grasses as Nephlite emerged from the carriage and began searching around its base. He was joined by Zoicite and Jadeite as they tried to deduce the cause of their sudden mechanical failure.
Convinced that her small sabotage had worked, she turned and began sneaking off through the field, staying low to avoid detection. Her boots made it awkward going, but she would want them for later and had no other way of carrying them, so she trudged on.
She had no doubt that the advisors would eventually find the small red wire that had become inexplicably disconnected in the engine and they would be on their way. She only hoped that it would give her enough time to lay the groundwork for this last essential step of her plan.
When finally the carriage was out of sight, she returned to the road. Her travels were easier going being able to walk on her hind legs again, and the day was filled with the sweetness of grass and gardenias. The Moon's weather generator had given them a perfect afternoon for their travels—the sun was bright but not too hot, the breeze was tame and refreshing, the only clouds in the sky were bright white wisps. Luna couldn't help but wonder if the queen had ordered that the weather be perfect to greet her very special guests. Either way, it fit perfectly with Luna's plans.
Not a mile later, Luna came across the first sign of the Moon's residences. There was an apple orchard along the road in which the trees produced the most glossy-red fruit Luna had ever seen. A group of nearly a dozen workers meandered through the orchard, some up in the trees' boughs, tossing the most sun-touched apples down to their peers who waited in the shade with large barrels.
"Good day, my fair people," Luna greeted them when she was close enough.
The workers all turned to her, surprise evident on their faces to see a talking cat in boots. Or perhaps they were most surprised to see a cat at all—after all, most members of the feline species had been extinct for hundreds of years.
"Good day," said one of the women, a beautiful young girl with thick black hair tied at the nape of her neck. Though the weather seemed mild to Luna, this girl was flushed in the face from exertion, and she took a moment to roll up the sleeves of her work tunic.
"I am a visitor here from the Earth Kingdom and felt inclined to stop on my travels and tell you that this is the most glorious apple orchard I have ever come across. Never have my eyes seen such perfectly ripe and ruby red fruit. I am sure we have nothing on our little planet to rival it. Could you tell me who is the owner of this orchard?"
The girl laughed, but it was not a joyful laugh but rather one filled with bitterness. "Well, good creature, your compliments are well-received by my family, the Hinos, who have worked this land and harvested these apples for four generations. For all purposes, it is our orchard, and we take great pride in it. But in the eyes of the law, I'm afraid the orchard truly belongs to Queen Beryl, as does all the land that you can see from horizon to horizon."
Luna took a moment to scan the world, from horizon to horizon, and then turned back to the girl with an understanding nod. "And before Queen Beryl reigned, did this land belong to the throne?"
Snickering, the girl took an apple from a nearby barrel and began mindlessly inspecting it for bruises or blemishes—and apparently finding none. "Of course not. Queen Serenity was as fair a ruler as there ever was. She believed that a person's hard work spoke more of their property rights than what could ever be written on a sheet of paper. It was not until Beryl became queen that our land was confiscated, along with almost all of the profits."
"It is a sad tale. I see that the new queen is full of greed and I feel for your plight. However, I bring you what may be hopeful news."
"And what would that be?"
"That the lost Moon Princess, the only heir of Queen Serenity, is at this very moment on her way to the castle to claim what is rightfully hers."
The girl dropped the apple and all of the workers, who had drifted back to their work, turned to gawk at Luna again. It seemed that even the birds in the trees had ceased their songs.
"There is no Moon Princess," said the girl.
"I assure you there is, and when she is queen, she will be a fair and wise ruler. She will pass by this very orchard today. I am certain that when you see her, you will recognize that she is your true queen, and you will assign your loyalty to her, so that she may have the power of the people of the Moon to stand up against Beryl's tyranny."
Luna bowed elaborately and dared not let the girl and her fellow workers overcome their shock before she took off down the road once more in her little leather boots.
Another mile down the road, Luna came to a vineyard. Row upon row of grape vines grew upon wooden trellises and stretched as far as her eyes could see. The sun glinting off the leaves made them appear gold and each bunch of grapes contained the plumpest, deepest-purple grapes that Luna had ever encountered.
It was not until Luna had almost reached the end of the vineyard did she hear human voices. Following one of the paths between the grapes, she came to a low stone fountain that was filled with grapes instead of water, and three young girls were dancing around in the grapes with the hems of their skirts tucked up into the ties of their aprons.
"Good day, fair maidens," Luna said, and their cheerful dancing and laughter quickly came to an end as they stared at the booted cat. "I apologize for my interruption, but I am a simple visitor from the Earth Kingdom and I could not help marveling at the most divine grapes I have ever seen. I have no doubt that you also produce the most splendid wine on the Moon."
One girl—a brunette and the tallest of the three by some inches—beamed down at Luna and clambered to the edge of the pool. Sitting down, she swung her legs over until her bare purple feet dangled in the sunlight. "In fact, we do produce the most splendid wine on the Moon. In fact, Kino Vineyard wines are among the most praised of anywhere in this galaxy."
"Is that so?" said Luna, admiring the surrounding grapes with newfound awe. "And you must be of the Kino family. This is your vineyard, then?"
"Well, I'm Lita, the youngest of the Kino family, yes. But… well, it is our vineyard, and has been for many years, but… the land really belongs to Queen Beryl." The queen's name was spat as if it was a sip of stale wine.
"I see. And I assume the queen has raised your taxes?"
"And she surely monitors your profits so that she can take far more than her own share?"
"It is a tragic tale, my dear Lita. But I bring you news which could change the fate of this fine vineyard."
Lita crossed her arms and leaned forward. "You don't say. What news might that be?"
"Only that Queen Serenity's heir, the lost Moon Princess, is at this very moment on her way to the castle to claim what is rightfully hers. I know by the look on your face that you do not believe in the legend of the Moon Princess, but I assure you it is true. She lives. She will be queen. And she will rule with the same kind and generous heart of her mother."
Slack-jawed, Lita glanced back at her two companions, who were using their purple-speckled aprons to wipe the sweat from their brows. "Did you hear? This creature is saying that the lost Moon Princess is going to come reclaim her throne and save us all."
One of the girls guffawed, though her laugh lacked enthusiasm. "Well, by all means, let her come. The current regime is certainly doing us no good."
Taking the girl's words as a sign of approval, however sarcastic, Luna continued, "The princess shall pass by this very vineyard today, and you will see that she is your true queen. I ask that you willingly assign your loyalty to her, so that she may have the power of the people of the Moon to stand up against the wicked Queen Beryl."
She followed this with her fancy bow again before scampering off toward the road without looking back.
After another couple of miles, Luna spotted the queen's castle. It sat atop a hill, sparkling in the sun's waning light as if it was made of marble and Moonstone. And perhaps it was. Though it was still a long ways off, Luna could make out pillars and spires, balconies and towers, and—all around its base—a quaint town full of little blue and white houses that were dwarfed by the immense and beautiful palace.
At the base of the hill, Luna came to a garden that filled her gaze with every color of the rainbow, compacted onto petals and blooms. The fragrances that assaulted her little cat nose made her dizzy with delight—jasmine, sweet pea, roses, and thyme were only the beginning. Never had Luna seen so much beauty in one place.
As she passed by a cluster of sunny yellow daylilies, she heard a quiet humming and soon noticed a girl kneeling beside one of the flowerbeds, slowly picking out all the tiny weeds that were encroaching into the flowers. She had a pretty heart-shaped face and waist-length blonde hair tied back in a bright red bow.
"Good day, my lady," greeted Luna.
The girl yanked out one more weed before pausing to look over at Luna. Surprised, she straightened and threw her handful of weeds into the small pail at her side. "Good day."
"I must say, these gardens are so lush, so fragrant, so full of life and color, that I have been positively knocked out of my boots to see them. I am a traveler from the Earth Kingdom and while we have many gardens on our planet to be proud of, none of them come close to comparing with this one. Are you the keeper of these fine flowers?"
"I am, indeed. Mina Aino, at your service."
"Lady Aino, I think that I will be dreaming of this place for the rest of my days. I am certain it rivals the rumored gardens of Eden!"
The girl gave a tickled laugh and pushed herself off her knees to sit cross-legged in the middle of the dirt path. "You flatter me too much! I only give these flowers a place to grow and ensure that they are given water and nutrients. It is a simple person's work and unworthy of such grand praise, but I beseech you just the same for your kind words."
"I will accept your modesty, even if I do not agree with it," answered Luna. "So this garden must belong to you then?"
Mina shrugged. "I feel that it is my own, as it has become a part of me, and it was my own hands that planted and tended each flower. But the land upon which it grows belongs to Queen Beryl, and she has on more than one occasion threatened to destroy the garden if I do not pay the taxes she continues to raise."
"I cannot imagine how a person could even think to destroy such a masterpiece."
"I confess, nor can I. But I am told it is valuable property that would serve the kingdom well as an aircraft port."
"An aircraft port!"
"Yes. I guess visitors from other planets complain about having too far to go between the current port and the palace."
"That is a true shame. I have just come from the port and it has been the most delightful road I have ever traveled upon. Beryl should be ashamed for wishing to destroy such a gift for mere convenience. Let us hope it never comes to that."
"That is my only wish, every day."
"And I do think that I can give reason that such a wish will be granted."
"What do you mean?"
"My lady, I am here to tell you that Princess Serenity, the true heir to the Moon throne, has returned to the kingdom and seeks to reclaim her crown."
"Princess Serenity?" Mina said, lowering her voice to a hush as if the queen could hear her from way up on top of the hill. "But everyone says she's dead!"
"It is a lie that was created to protect her from the wrath of Beryl. She has been safely hidden away all these long years, but now she has returned. The Moon will soon be ruled by a kind and compassionate queen once more."
"It would be a dream, and yet I hesitate to believe it lest your words prove false."
"I do not fault your skepticism. But listen, the Moon Princess will pass by your garden before the sun sets this evening, and then you will know that I speak the truth. You will no doubt recognize her as the true queen and I beg you to assign her your so that she may have the power of the people of the Moon to reclaim her rightful crown."
With that, Luna swept into her lowest bow yet, before turning and rushing out of the garden and toward the enormous castle.
Usagi was forced to pull her hand out of Endymion's grip, having no reason to leave it there and feeling a little embarrassed for touching a man who would likely soon be betrothed to the Queen of the Moon. It nearly broke her heart to do it, though; to lose the warmth and softness of his skin. And his hands felt so big and strong wrapped around her tiny fingers that she found herself longing to feel them against her again. Holding her hand. Rubbing her back. Pulling her toward him in an embrace—she shivered with delight to think of how big and strong his arms would feel if they were to encompass her petite form.
Endymion had glanced at her, surprised, when she released him and returned hands to her lap, as if he had forgotten that they were touching at all. Then he quickly turned away and stared at some spot on the carriage floor, pursing his lips together.
They could hear Nephlite, Jadeite, and Zoicite shuffling around outside, opening compartments and fidgeting with parts of the carriage's mechanics. Malachite sat opposite Endymion and Usagi, looking toward the open door and pretending that he wasn't watching his king and this supposed princess from the corner of his eye. "I'm sure it won't take but a minute for them to fix it," he muttered.
Usagi turned to look out the window and spotted the cherry tree that Luna had said she recognized. Usagi had not been able to tell if Luna was lying or not. "Wouldn't it be ironic if Luna made it to the castle before we did?"
"Terribly ironic," Malachite drawled, clearly not wanting to think it might take them that long to get the carriage going again. He seemed to be growing more uncomfortable by the moment, like a chaperone forced to watch two unruly teenagers.
Endymion turned to Usagi, unable to help the smile that crossed his face when he looked at her. The sun from the window caught on her eyelashes and made her eyes sparkle like pale blue diamonds. Her hair seemed to be made of pure gold. Her features were so soft, her posture so regal, that it amazed him to think that no one had suspected before that she might be the lost Moon Princess. She seemed to belong with the beautiful perfection of the fields and trees and flowers laid out before them.
He longed to tell her how beautiful she was, but he held his tongue. Such words were not to be spoken before his advisor. More importantly, such words were not to be spoken by a king who may be soon married to another woman.
He sighed instead.
"I can't imagine what's taking them so long, Your Majesty," said Malachite, mistaking Endymion's sigh for impatience.
"Perhaps you should go check on them," suggested Endymion, peeling his gaze away from Usagi with some difficulty. "They may need your help."
"I'm sure they can handle it on their own."
"But four heads are better than three."
Malachite frowned at the trap he had walked into. Usagi was still staring out the window, perhaps pretending that the conversation held no interest for her, but Endymion was looking straight at him, no subtlety in his hinting.
"As you wish," he finally said, no subtlety in his irritation, either. He stood and dipped his head toward his king and left the carriage with his head held high.
It was only after Malachite had left that Endymion realized that perhaps wanting to be alone with Usagi was not such a wise idea. He looked over at her from the corner of his eye and immediately felt a stirring of desire in the base of his stomach. His heart seemed to expand to the point of bursting through his ribcage. He had to tighten his hands into fists to keep them from reaching out to her. He could barely breathe, and the fact that she seemed the picture of calm perfection, despite their solitude, only made his need for her even greater.
"I had no idea the Moon would be so beautiful," Usagi murmured, her sweet, chiming voice breaking into his thoughts and restoring a bit of Endymion's lost sanity. "Look, you can see the Earth up there." She pointed, and Endymion was forced to lean toward her to peer up at the sky and see the small blue Earth looking bright and insignificant beyond the clouds. His pride for being the ruler of such a beautiful planet started to well up in him, but it was almost immediately forgotten when he caught the faintest whiff of vanilla and strawberries, which he was sure was coming from the girl before him.
He sat back and cleared his throat of the knot that had lodged there. "Luna didn't tell you how beautiful your home was?"
Usagi caught a breath and turned away from the window. She was glad to see that Endymion did not seem at all suspicious, only curious. With a shrug, she answered, "Well, she told me some things, of course, but I don't think beauty like this can ever really be explained. Her description did not do it justice."
Endymion nodded. "I hope you'll be able to see more of it while we're here."
"I thought this was your first time being here as well."
Usagi's lip quirked into a grin. "Then why aren't you as awe-struck as I am?"
It seemed a silly question to Endymion as he looked into her angelic face. He couldn't remember ever being more awe-struck in his life. "I am," he said, his voice dropping to barely above a whisper. "I never could have imagined such beauty."
Endymion's low voice and intense gaze sent a shiver down Usagi's spine. Her whole body seemed to be suddenly trembling, wishing that he might touch her—even kiss her—and yet also terrified that he might do the same thing.
"Would you like to go for a walk?" he asked, interrupting her delicious fantasies.
"Sure. We can start heading toward the castle and when the carriage is fixed, they can pick us up on the way. It's a perfect day for a walk, don't you think?"
The grin that lit up her face was akin to the sun rising over the horizon. Endymion thought he might melt from euphoria.
"That sounds wonderful! But… do you think Malachite will mind? He seems a little… protective."
Endymion chuckled. "Oh, I think he will mind very much. Come on."
Though Malachite did cast a disapproving glare at his king when Endymion told his advisors of their plan, he said nothing. Zoicite suggested that one of them might follow along, to make sure nothing happened to them, but Endymion waved the suggestion away with a flick of his wrist. "Don't be ridiculous. It's just a stroll through a bunch of fields. What could possibly happen?"
And with that, he and Usagi were on their way toward the castle.
The walk began awkward, as all such walks do, with Usagi thinking up things she could say that wouldn't give away the falseness of her stories, and Endymion thinking up things to say that wouldn't make him sound like a blabbering goon.
"I do think I'm officially in love with the Moon," Usagi finally said, smiling adoringly upon the blue wildflowers at her feet.
Endymion raised his eyebrows, wishing that he had the courage to take her hand. "Perhaps we've both fallen in love today."
Usagi's heart stirred at his words and she had to convince herself that he, too, was talking about the Moon. What else could he possibly be talking about?
And yet the tone of his voice, and the way he had looked at her in the carriage…
"Tell me more about your parents," said Endymion. "Your adoptive parents."
Usagi shrugged. "They were the most wonderful parents any girl could wish to have."
"It must be hard for them to see you come here and… and put your life in danger, even if you are the rightful queen."
Guilt started to build up in Usagi's chest, but she tried to squash it down as best she could. "They died, actually. Just a few weeks ago."
"Oh… I'm so sorry."
She had no response.
"I know there isn't really any consolation, but for what's it's worth… I know just what it feels like to lose your parents."
"I remember when the king passed away," Usagi said. "It felt like the whole Earth was mourning for him."
"Yeah… he was a good king. And a good father."
"You've been a good king, too."
Endymion couldn't keep the smile down. He met her gaze, amazed at the pride and assurance her simple words could stir up in him. "Thank you. I'm sure that you will make an equally good queen."
Usagi turned away and kicked at a stone in the path. The compliment was bittersweet. Though Usagi felt pleased that Endymion could feel such confidence toward her after only just meeting her, she was also terrified at the prospect of being made queen—queen of anything, much less the entire Moon. She was not prepared. She didn't know anything about ruling a kingdom. She realized that she'd been in denial since the moment Luna had told her of this whole kooky scheme. It would never work, she had told herself. There was no way Luna would be able to introduce her to Endymion, overthrow Beryl, and instate Usagi as the true sovereign. There was simply no way, and so she needn't worry herself about it.
But now—she had met Endymion.
And Luna had told him that she was going to make Usagi the queen.
And he believed her.
Everything was happening too fast.
"Are you all right?"
Usagi didn't know how long she'd been frowning at the cobblestones beneath her feet, but as soon as Endymion returned her thoughts to the present she realized that her heart was beating uncontrollably and her face was flushed. Endymion reached for her, wrapping his fingers around her elbow.
"My name is Usagi," she blurted, wondering why she felt suddenly light-headed.
"I beg your pardon?"
She looked up at him, still amazed each time she met his gaze that any man could possibly be so handsome. And here he was—touching her. Looking at her with such concern and compassion that it only made the faintness worse.
She took a deep breath and took his wrist in her free hand, the connection perhaps the only thing keeping her on her feet. She thought of telling him the truth. She could tell him everything, right now. End the charade. End the risk of actually winning, of actually being made queen. She could go back to Earth and be a normal teenage girl again.
And Endymion would forget about her.
"My parents… they named me Usagi."
And he would marry Queen Beryl.
"I don't understand."
Usagi tore her eyes away from him, licked her lips… and could not bring herself to tell him the truth. "They couldn't call me Serenity," she said, her voice wavering. "No one could know that I was the princess, so they called me Usagi instead. Something about an old Japanese legend, about a rabbit on the Moon. It's the name I've known my whole life. Serenity doesn't sound right to me… that's all."
The legend story was true; her parents had named her after the rabbit on the Moon. If only they would have known how appropriate the name would some day be.
"I see," Endymion said. He looked the slightest bit relieved. "I'll call you Usagi then."
She forced a smile. She still felt frightened and weak and ill-prepared, but her name on Endymion's lips helped to drown out a lot of those feelings.
They started walking again and the conversation became lighter. Suddenly Usagi felt that she could tell him anything—anything but the ultimate truth, of course. She told him about her parents, her school, Ami. In return, Endymion told her more about his parents, and growing up with tutors and mentors, and how his favorite part of ruling was seeing people's faces light up when they met him, like it was some great honor. Like they all felt that somehow they were part of his family, and how he so often felt connected to them, like maybe they were all part of a collective being. He told her how he thought he'd never get used to it.
As they walked, they eventually came to an apple orchard. The leaves shaded the road as they passed beneath and Usagi couldn't help but praise the fruit in the trees—as glossy and ruby-red as any she'd ever seen on Earth.
"I see some people up there," Endymion said, gesturing to a group of workers who were gathering apples. "We'll ask them if we can have one."
When they reached the workers a moment later, Endymion called out, "Pardon me, good people, but are any of you the owner of this fine orchard?"
The group turned toward them and it was as if they had each seen a ghost. One woman dropped her sack, scattering red fruit around the little trail. A man nearly fell out of one of the trees.
Finally, a girl with fine black hair approached them. Her eyes were glued to Usagi, searching her face with wonderment. Usagi couldn't help but take a nervous step back, glancing at Endymion from the corner of her eye, though he seemed equally bewildered.
"Can it be true?" the girl whispered.
"You… you look justlike her…"
"I look just like who?"
"The queen," said the girl. She turned back to her companions, who all had the same stunned expressions, before returning her gaze to the two confused strangers. "You look just like Queen Serenity. I-I didn't believe the rumors at first… that there was a lost princess… or that she might be returning to us. But… but how else…? She paused, looking torn and unsure for a moment, before her face took on a look of relief and sudden certainty. Her decision made. "Princess," she said, smiling at Usagi. "My name is Raye Hino. I vow to be your loyal servant as long as I am able to serve."
Usagi blinked. Glancing over Raye's shoulder she saw that the people who were in the trees had clambered to the ground and they were all dropping to one knee. Raye was the last to kneel, taking Usagi's hand in her own and touching her forehead to Usagi's knuckles.
"Your Majesty," Raye continued, "thank you for returning to us. Thank you…. Thank you for offering some hope against Beryl!"
Usagi was so shaken that by the time she had let each of the workers touch her hands and praise her and offer their loyalty, she had forgotten all about the delicious-looking apples.
Not long after they had left the orchard, she and Endymion came to a vineyard filled with leafy vines and lush grapes. Endymion chuckled, hoping to break the awkward silence that had befallen them since the strange happening in the orchard, and joked, "You could probably use a nice glass of wine right about now, couldn't you?"
A little laugh escaped Usagi, her thoughts still clouded. "It really doesn't sound too bad."
She couldn't imagine how someone could mistake her for the princess. Luna had told her that she bore a resemblance to Queen Serenity, especially when her hair was up in the royal style, but could they really look that similar?
And it was unnerving, also, to think that now there were people on the Moon who truly believed their princess had returned, and that she would save them from the tyranny they suffered from.
It was an awful lot of responsibility that brought all her feelings of inadequacy rushing back.
Her head was so full that she didn't realize they'd come across more people until Endymion was speaking to them.
"Pardon me," he called out, and Usagi looked up to see three girls traipsing through a vat of grapes, crushing them beneath their bare feet. "My companion here is in need of a glass of your best wine. Who is the owner of these vineyards so that I may request one from them?"
The girls all stopped their wine-crushing and stared at Endymion and Usagi. Or, rather, they mostly just stared at Usagi. Feeling a sense of déjà vu, Usagi couldn't help crowding next to Endymion.
The tallest girl, a lanky brunette with emerald green eyes, hopped out of the pool. Dirt clung to her damp feet and she left a trail of purple footsteps as she neared Usagi.
"Why—by the goodness of all the stars in the heavens," she muttered, eyes sweeping over Usagi's hair and face and body. "You really are Princess Serenity."
Usagi gulped, not knowing how to respond.
Then the girl laughed, a sound so joyful that it lifted Usagi's heart. "It's a miracle," she said through the laughs. "Princess, my vineyard is yours. Everything I have is yours, if only you will rid of us of that witch in the castle."
Heart pounding and palms sweating, Usagi forced herself to speak. "I'll try my best."
Lita insisted that they take a bottle of wine with them on their travels, but Usagi had declined the offer until finally Lita gave up. She no longer wanted the drink. Though she still could not clear her head, she didn't think that the tipsiness of alcohol was the proper solution. Something was happening here on the Moon, and somehow she'd gotten herself into the middle of it.
She just didn't know how to get out of it—or if she was even supposed to try.
"Look—there's the castle," said Endymion, interrupting her thoughts once again as they continued down the road.
Usagi's breath was stolen by the beauty of the palace on top of a hill. The sun was moving toward the horizon, turning the sky orange and pink. The same colors reflected off the silvery surface of the castle, making it appear as if it were part of the sunset.
But then Usagi's appreciation was stolen away by something much more simple—a garden. It came all the way to the side of the road so that creeping thyme spread through the cracks in the stones and the heavy heads of poppies and tulips draped out over the path. "Oh, it's gorgeous!" she breathed, inhaling the thick fragrance of jasmine. "Have you ever seen anything so lovely?"
"Only one thing," Endymion said, though Usagi hardly heard him, so entranced was she with the beautiful garden. "What is your favorite flower here?"
"I could never pick a favorite."
Endymion laughed, somehow having known that she would say just that. "Then I will see if I can pick you one of each. You will arrive at the palace with your pockets full of posies. I think I see the gardener over there."
They approached the lithe girl with silky blonde hair just as the last drop of water dribbled from her watering can.
"Pardon me, but this garden is so beautiful that my companion here has been positively struck speechless by it. We would like to take some flowers with us on our journey if that is all right. Could you tell me who is the owner of—"
"Princess!" the girl yelped, dropping the watering can.
"Oh, dear," Usagi muttered beneath her breath as the girl dipped into a curtsy.
"It… it is you!" she stammered. "I heard rumors but I… oh, have you really returned to reclaim your throne and do away with that horrid fake-queen Beryl?"
Usagi couldn't imagine how rumors of her had traveled even faster than she and Endymion, and desperately hoped that such rumors hadn't yet reached the queen, otherwise she and Endymion could be in a right bit of trouble once they reached the palace.
"How did you recognize me?"
The girl tilted her head as if it was a silly question to ask. "You're a spitting image of your mother, you know. And the hair doesn't hurt, either. But—here, please, take as many flowers as you would like. Everything in my modest little garden belongs to you, Your Highness."
In the end, Usagi left with a simple yellow dandelion. It was a weed amidst the roses and Mina knew she was going to have to pull it out anyway, so Usagi was happy to take it with her.
As she and Endymion rounded the road that led to the little village that led to the castle, Endymion reached up and ran the tips of his fingers through her feathery bangs. Her heart skipped and she reflexively pulled away.
Seeming ignorant to her sudden discomfort, Endymion said, "Perhaps you should take your hair down before we get to the castle."
So she did, and while people in the town gave her curious glances as she passed—as if they were seeing someone familiar that they just couldn't place—no one else dared call her Princess.
Queen Beryl sat at the throne while one of her pages prattled on about the arrangements for King Endymion's visit. She wasn't really listening. She despised being asked to deal with insignificant details of etiquette. She didn't care if the king had been given a room with a north facing view or a west facing view. She didn't care if the cooks had chosen not to prepare the near-extinct goose because Earth people were supposedly sensitive to that sort of thing. She didn't care what kind of carriage had been sent to retrieve the king and his escorts or what kind of music had been chosen to be played at the ball tonight.
She cared only that her plans were finally executed according to plan.
She cared only that Endymion saw things the way she saw them. That a bond between the Earth and the Moon was necessary, and if such a bond was not formed, she would simply be forced to declare war upon the poor planet. She intended to be Queen of the Earth and no silly Earth King was going to stop her.
And it certainly didn't hurt that the king was so desirable. He would be a lovely adornment to her side.
She smirked to herself, tapping her white-lacquered nails against the arm of her silver-plated throne.
"And one other small thing, Your Majesty."
"What is it?" she drawled, her eyes drifting closed in boredom.
"King Endymion, uh… well, he hasn't arrived… yet."
This caught the queen's attention. Her eyes snapped open, pinning upon the servant with an icy stare. "What do you mean he hasn't arrived yet? Should he arrived by now?"
"Y-yes, Your Majesty. He was scheduled to arrive just over an hour ago… We don't know what could be holding him up….
"Well find out," Beryl spat, her knuckles turning white. "Because if he doesn't show up in time for the ball tonight, which I am so graciously throwing in his honor, then I will not be pleased, do you understand me?"
"Yes, Your High—"
"And if I am not pleased by the end of this evening, I promise that you will be even less pleased, is that clear?"
"Of course, Your Highness. I'll find out right away where the king is and when he will be arriving."
Beryl flicked her hand toward the servant with a grunt and the poor boy skittered away, leaving Beryl to fume to herself while more servants rushed around the throne room, finishing their preparations for the evening's events.
Embarrassment was not an emotion that Beryl was accustomed to feeling, and she would not allow the Earth King to make a fool of her. She silently swore that if the king did not arrive in time for the ball, in time to make the announcement that they were to bind their alliance through marriage, then she would order the release of the bombs on the planet Earth before the sun rose again.
Her thoughts were harbored with such fury that she did not notice the newest servant until she had called for the queen's attention three times.
"What is it? What do you want?"
"I apologize for interrupting, Your Highness, but there is a visitor here who says they bring you a very important message."
"Is it King Endymion?"
The girl flinched and shook her head with full regret. "It's a Luna, Your Highness."
"What would I want to speak with a Luna for?"
"It says that it's from the court of King Endymion… and brings news.. I'm sorry I don't know more…"
"Fine. Send it in."
The girl curtsied and bustled away. A moment later, a small Luna, this one in the form of a black cat with a crescent Moon atop its forehead, entered the throne room and approached the queen in leather boots.
Beryl squinted at the robocat and bellowed long before it had reached her platform, "What do you want? I am told that you bring news of Endymion and I demand to know at once."
Luna's whiskers twitched into a smile, infuriating the queen greatly, and she did not bother to speak until she had clopped her way all the way to the base of the throne's platform and dipped into her signature bow.
"Well? Get on with it then."
"Your Majesty, I am a Luna version 4.2. You will not recognize me, but I was a resident of this very castle some 16 years ago, before you even came to this kingdom, at a time when the Moon was still ruled by the good Queen Serenity."
Nearby servants froze at the name of their former queen. One girl stumbled on her own feet and dropped a large tray full of fruits. Normally such a mistake would have been punishable by lashings, but the queen did not even notice. She was too furious, too livid, to think of anything other than the insolent Luna who stood before her and dared utter the name of the Moon's dead queen in her presence.
Feigning ignorance of the queen's anger, Luna continued, "And during that time, Queen Serenity gave birth to a baby girl. It is rumored, of course, that young Princess Serenity died not long after her birth, but I have always had cause to believe that she actually survived and was only taken away from the kingdom after her mother tragically passed away a few short days later, so that she might be protected from those who would have her killed in order to claim the throne for themselves."
"How dare you insinuate—"
"And I now know that I was right. Princess Serenity lives! And she is coming to the palace, here, now, to claim the crown which is rightfully hers!"
"That is enough! Guards! Arrest this traitor! Take the blasted thing to the melting rooms and have it turned into silverware. I intend to eat my breakfast with it in the morning."
A couple guards shuffled forward with hesitation, casting glances between each other.
"I said arrest this Luna now!"
Prompted by Beryl's screeching, the guards grabbed Luna beneath her front legs, dangling her between them.
"Your Majesty, he's arrived!" cried the page, bursting through the small crowd who had gathered around the throne. "King Endymion has arrived!"
The words had hardly escaped the boy's lips before the grand doors to the throne room swung open and Endymion and Usagi paraded in.
"There she is!" bellowed Luna. "All hail Serenity, the true Queen of the Moon!"
Endymion and Usagi froze as they were faced with a crowd of shocked faces. Luna's cries continued to ring out over the stunned silence "Long live Serenity! Queen of the Moon forevermore!"
And then Luna's words were overshadowed by Beryl's hysterics. "Capture her! She is a traitor! An imposter! Take her away! Kill her!"
Spurred by the screeching of their queen—things never did bode well when she was unhappy—a handful of guards moved toward Usagi. Endymion grabbed her arm and pulled her harshly behind him but it was no use. He had no weapon, his advisors still had not made their way to the castle, and he and Usagi were surrounded on all sides. Though he tried to grapple with the first guard who approached them, he was easily beaten and within moments he and Usagi were both held with their hands forced harshly between their backs.
"Beryl, what is the meaning of this?" Endymion roared. "Do you treat all your invited guests in such a manner?"
Fuming, Beryl stood from her throne and pulled herself to full height, fingernails digging in to the flesh of her palms. "Dare not speak to me as an ally, Earth King. You were a fool to bring this imposter into my kingdom, and now you both shall pay the price for your insolence. Let all citizens of the Moon know that there is no Moon Princess! I am your one and only sovereign. This girl is a traitor to the crown and she will be punished!" The queen paused to catch her breath. Her face was flushed with anger, her chest erratic in its breathing, her knuckles white from clenching too tightly. "Guards, take these traitors to the dungeons. They are to be killed at the first light of dawn. And tonight—we declare war on the Earth!"
"Do not listen to this brute!" Luna cried, kicking her booted heels in an effort to free herself from the guards' grip. "This is Princess Serenity! If you harm her, you will be the traitors!"
"Let her go!" yelled Endymion. "She has done no harm!"
Though the guards seemed filled with uncertainty, casting each other wary glances and moving only in jilted steps, no one dared speak up against the queen.
Until one servant stepped out of the crowd and blocked the path of the guards. She was a short woman, round about the middle, with wisps of gray hair peeking out from beneath a pale pink handkerchief and a stained yellow apron tied below her bust. She was in no way threatening, which is perhaps why her next words came as such a shock to all who watched her. "Stop this, this instant! I know of a way we can prove, once and for all, who is the true queen."
A hush fell over the chaos. Even Beryl's tirade fell short against the woman's claim.
"If you take this poor girl away only to discover that she spoke the truth, then it will be a decision we all regret for the rest of our days."
Though Usagi felt compelled to tell everyone that it was Luna who was doing the speaking, not her, she kept her mouth shut. She was terrified to the point of shaking, held limply between the two muscled guards, and sick to her stomach at everything that was happening. Her—a prisoner of the Moon Kingdom. Her—to be killed at dawn. A war declared against Earth. And Endymion….
"Take her away, too!" Beryl growled. "And anyone else who dares speak up against my orders!"
"Let her speak," yelled Luna. "Or are you too much of a coward, Beryl? Are you afraid to think this girl might just be the real queen after all?"
"She is not the queen!"
"Then let this woman prove it."
At that moment, it didn't seem to matter what Beryl said next, as the guards had loosened their grips on their captives and stood patiently waiting for the servant woman to continue.
Finally, Beryl conceded through clenched teeth. "Fine. Prove to these imbeciles that this girl is nothing more than a fraud."
The woman nodded, slowly. Her eyes were glued to Usagi, showing no signs of her intent. Usagi held the gaze, gulping, wondering what evidence this woman thought she could give. And then there was a sinking in her stomach. Because if the woman really could prove, one way or another, that Usagi was the Moon Princess… then she could also prove that Usagi wasn't.
"I have been an honest and devoted servant to this crown for three generations," the woman said to the crowd, although her piercing gaze did not leave Usagi. "I have worked in the kitchens, in the gardens, and even as a midwife. I was present the day Princess Serenity was born. I cleansed here and wrapped her and placed her in the arms of her mother, only moments before the queen's spirit left this world for the stars."
Though such obvious admiration for the former queen was not usually tolerated in Beryl's presence, she held her tongue at the woman's speech.
"And I recall, quite clearly," the woman continued, "that the baby princess had a birthmark."
Usagi tensed. Her entire body began to tremble, her eyes going wide in terror. The true Princess Serenity had a birthmark. This woman would know. This woman would know that Usagi was an imposter. She would know that Usagi was not the princess.
And then, she, and Luna, and Endymion would all be executed for their crime.
She wanted to come clean. To beg and plead for her life and life of her companions, but she couldn't speak. She couldn't even move as the woman approached her.
"If this girl is the true Princess Serenity," the woman continued—the crowd shuffling forward to watch, "then she will have a pale, almost indistinguishable mark in the shape of a crescent moon, right in the center of her forehead."
Usagi's jaw dropped. Her body was immobilized as the woman reached forward and parted her bangs, so that everyone nearby could see the small crescent-shaped spot she had spent her life trying to hide.
A gasp spread out through the crowd. Beryl, watching from her raised platform, stretched her neck to see the results of the woman's test, but she was too far away to see any such birthmark. And yet it was clear by the crowd's reaction that something had been discovered.
"Good people of the Moon," the servant woman said, her serious face lighting up in a grin, "this girl is your true queen! She has returned to claim her throne!"
And the cheer that followed shook the very stone of the castle walls.
"It is a lie!" Beryl screamed, her world crumbling around her as the guards released the girl and the Earth King and gently returned the Luna to the marble floor. She shook her head, tugging madly at her fire-red hair. "You fools! Are you so easily tricked?"
But everyone was ignoring her, until Luna piped up, "Take this fake queen to the dungeons for now. Queen Serenity can decide whether or not to pardon her at a later time."
And without argument, the guards did just that. They swept toward Beryl and grasped her beneath her arms, before stealing her away from the overjoyed crowd. Her screams echoed through the throne room and slowly, slowly died away.
And in the middle of that crowd, Usagi found herself looking onto a sea of unfamiliar faces who all looked back as if they knew her—grinning, clapping, bowing, cheering.
Endymion wrapped a protective arm around her shoulders. She was trembling, terrified that they might want something from her. Terrified that they all expected her to be something she simply couldn't be. Terrified that all of Luna's plans had come to fruition after all and now, suddenly, little unimportant Usagi was Queen of the Moon.
Luna trotted out between the legs of the onlookers and approached Usagi with a look of self-pride and—Usagi thought—admiration. As the crowd watched, Luna bent her knee and kneeled in her little leather boots.
It wasn't long before everyone in the room had followed suit, falling to their knees and bowing their heads and murmuring the simplest, most common of words: "Long live the Queen."
And then the room began to spin and Usagi collapsed into Endymion's waiting arms.
"Usagi. Usagi, wake up now."
Usagi furrowed her brow and raised her arm to block the light that threatened to intrude upon her sleep. "Luna?"
"I'm here, Usagi. How are you feeling?"
"Oh—Luna, I was having this dream…. You made me queen….
She heard Luna's chuckling, always too human sounding to be robotic, or feline. "It wasn't a dream, Usagi. You are the Queen of the Moon now."
Pulling her arm away, Usagi squinted into the cat's red eyes. "What do you mean?"
"Look around." Luna gestured with her front paw and Usagi forced herself to sit up and survey the room. She was lying on the softest, thickest feather mattress she'd ever imagined. The linens were all creams and ivories and golds and a fringed canopy hung above her head on four cherry-oak columns. Beyond the bed she could see an elaborately carved armoire, a marble-topped vanity, and a set of double doors that led onto a balcony overlooking a landscape filled with gardens, vineyards, and orchards. The sun had just dipped beneath the horizon, setting fire to the seam between Moon and sky. "This is only one of the guest's quarters," said Luna. "Some of your servants are working on setting up the queen's suite for you right now—returning it to just how Queen Serenity had it, before Beryl took the throne."
"Oh… Oh no," Usagi moaned, falling back onto the overstuffed pillows and covering her face with her hands. "Oh no. Oh, Luna… this can't be happening. What are we going to do?"
"Whatever do you mean? Everything has gone perfectly. You are the queen."
"I know, I know. Please stop saying that!"
"Luna, I… I didn't think it would ever actually work!" she cried. "I can't be a queen! Look at me. I'm only sixteen years old. I don't know anything about ruling a kingdom. I'm terrible at geography, I flunked political science, I can't even balance my automatic checkbook, let alone take care of the economics of an entire kingdom! This is a huge disaster!"
"Usagi, please, calm down and listen to me."
Usagi whined and kicked her feet against the covers, but was able to cease her rambling.
"You can do this. Not only that, but you must do this. The people of the Moon are counting on you."
"But why me? Why couldn't you have chosen some other unsuspecting girl, one who might actually have a clue?"
Luna's whiskers twitched in that annoying way of almost-smiling she had. "Do not be afraid, Usagi. This is, in fact, your destiny, and you will do just fine."
"It is not my destiny! I'm just a normal girl! Oh—that woman!" Memories of the throne room flooding her head, she clasped her hand to her forehead. She could picture the birthmark that was there, horrid as ever, just as it had always been. "How did she know? Could she see it? Did you tell her about it?"
"I'll explain everything to you later, Usagi. But first… there is someone outside waiting to see you."
"No—I don't want to see anyone right now."
"I think King Endymion will be awfully disappointed to hear that."
Usagi groaned. "Oh no. Endymion… what am I going to tell him?"
"You can tell him whatever you like, Usagi. You are the queen now. And I'm afraid I simply don't have the heart to turn him away, as he's been pacing the hallway for over an hour waiting for you to wake up. You're just going to have to see him."
Without waiting for an argument, Luna leaped off the bed and left the room. Usagi sat up again and fidgeted with the covers. She was still wearing the silk and taffeta gown that had been given to her beside the lake, thousands of miles away on her home planet of Earth. Could those simple times really have been mere hours ago?
Endymion announced himself with a gentle knock on the doorframe. Usagi sucked in a breath when she met his gaze—deep and cerulean and overflowing with concern.
"Usagi," he said, an uncertain smile lighting upon his lips, emphasizing that endearing dimple so rarely shown. Usagi tried to smile back at him but found it more difficult than she would have imagined. Nevertheless, she was glad he'd called her by her real name.
"You can come in."
"How are you feeling? I know this is all an awful lot to take in at once…"
Usagi lowered her eyes to the pristine comforter, watching her fingers tie themselves into knots on top of it as Endymion settled onto the bed before her. "I'm feeling…" Terrified? Sick? Lost? Helpless? "…overwhelmed."
"It will pass," he assured her, placing one of his large, warm hands over hers, effectively ceasing her squirming.
"I'm not so sure it will."
"You're going to have to trust me on that, Usagi," he said. His fingers gently caressed her knuckles and she found that she couldn't stop watching them. "I know it's hard—I mean, I've been there. You feel like you've suddenly been thrown into this role that you're completely unprepared for, and you're worried that if you mess it up you might not be able to fix it again."
"You're not helping," she muttered, and was met with a lighthearted chuckle.
"But you won't mess it up, Usagi. Yes, it's scary, but you're going to be fine. The people—they already love you. You just have to be true to yourself and everything will fall into place."
"You don't understand. How can I possibly be true to myself?"
"It isn't as hard as it sounds, Usagi. You have to trust your instincts. And also… trust the people that you surround yourself with. You'll have Luna still, of course. And advisors, and assistants, and…" Endymion reached forward with his free hand and tucked a finger beneath her chin, forcing her to meet his gaze. "And you'll have me."
Usagi blinked at the tears misting in her eyes and had to look away. There were too many emotions filling her up—not only the fear and anxiety that threatened to squash her, but also the euphoria of being so close to Endymion, the delight that coursed through her at his touch, the dreamy perfection that it could have been… if only the situation were different.
She tried to gulp down the catch in her throat and shook her head. "But I won't have you. You have to go back to Earth and rule your own kingdom, and I'll be stuck up here."
"I thought you liked the Moon."
"Oh—it's fine, but… I just… I never planned for any of this to happen." She choked on the last word, the tears finally forcing their way down her cheeks. Within moments, Endymion had wrapped his arms around her and pulled her against his chest. And Usagi discovered that she had been right. Despite everything else, there was no lovelier sensation than that of his strong arms engulfing her.
It only made her cry harder.
"Listen, Usagi…" he said, licking his lips and holding her so tight that he seemed afraid she would try to fade away. "I will be here to help you through this… if you want me."
"But… you have… I don't…"
"No, just listen." Endymion pulled away, just far enough that he could look into her glistening eyes. She thought—for sure—he would kiss her this time, but he didn't. Instead he told her, "I was seven years old when Queen Serenity became pregnant, and within days it was decided that if the queen had a baby girl, she and I would be betrothed." He paused and tightened his hold around Usagi's arms. "It was decided because… because the Moon and the Earth needed to form an alliance…. It would be the most beneficial for both of our people. And then, of course, Serenity died, and everyone thought that the baby died too… and Beryl took over. She's almost ten years older than me so it didn't really seem to occur to anyone that the same arrangement could be made until recently, when the threat of war started, and even then… I mean, you saw how much I dreaded the prospect. The thought of marrying her, of all people…. He cleared his throat, staring into her eyes, more terrified than he'd ever been in his life—but it was a different kind of terror. "And then I met you," he said. "And you said that you were the true Moon Princess. And I thought… I thought that if it was true… ifyou were the one that I was to marry…"
Usagi's gaze changed by the instant, from curious, to surprised, to a concerned, nervous frown, the tears left forgotten on her damp cheeks. "But Endymion, I would never start a war with the Earth."
"No, that isn't…" Endymion sighed and a crimson blush flooded his face. "I know you wouldn't. What I mean to say is… Usagi, I think I may be falling in love with you."
He watched her reaction, saw the sharp intake of breath, the stunned eyes, the tensing shoulders. He slowly lowered his arms and took up both of her hands, cradling them before his chest as if he could make her understand what he was saying by the erratic, uncontrolled beating of his heart.
"And that is why I want to marry you. Yes—I think you would be a great queen for my people. And yes—I think it would be diplomatically beneficial. But more than anything, I just really, really want to spend the rest of my days at your side. And I know that it's all so sudden and you certainly have enough to think about as it is, but it just seems so… so…"
"Right," Usagi whispered, unable to take her eyes off of him.
"Yes—exactly. Do you know what I mean? Do you… could you feel it too…?
An unbidden wail escaping her, Usagi pulled her hands from Endymion's grasp and collapsed onto the bed. "I can't. I'm sorry, but I can't!"
Endymion could only stare as she cried into the blankets, her hair looking like strands of silken gold against the ivory linen. Suddenly trembling, he turned his head away, not sure if the sharp aching in his chest was only his pride… or something much worse.
Gulping, he nodded. Licked his lips. Stared through the window at the blue Earth hanging in a star-speckled sky. "I see," he murmured. "Of course… of course you don't have to marry me, Usa… Serenity. I only thought…"
"You don't understand," she said, her voice muffled in the bedding. Pushing herself onto her forearms, she swiped at her eyes but kept her face turned away from him. It didn't matter—he couldn't dare to look at her anyway. "Endymion, I'm so sorry. It's just… I can't marry you. Because I can't be queen. I'm not Princess Serenity."
Endymion frowned and forced himself to cast his eyes toward the girl, sideways, afraid to face her completely lest his heart shatter from the sight.
She couldn't lift her head. Her fists balled the bedcovers up beneath her face. "It's true. It's all been one big lie. I'm so sorry, Endymion. I wanted to tell you…. But it all happened so fast and now… now…. But I can't keep pretending like this."
"Usagi, wait. Look at me."
She sniffled but didn't move. She couldn't face him now, as nothing more than a silly commoner, after what he had just told her. She was sure he was seeing her as the imposter she really was. Realizing his stupendous mistake of ever thinking she could be something special.
His hand touched her lower back, much gentler than she would have expected. "Usagi, please."
Slowly, uncertainly, Usagi forced herself to sit up, but only when he cupped her face between his palms was she able to make eye contact with him. "Endymion, I'm so, so sorry."
"Stop it, you're talking nonsense."
She shook her head. "I'm telling you the truth, like I should have from the start. I'm not Princess Serenity. My name is Usagi Tsukino. My parents were regular citizens. I was born in Japan, just 30 miles away from the castle."
"Luna was given to me through a zoology assignment in my class. I didn't grow up with her. I just met her three weeks ago, the same day that my parents… my real parents… died. And then Luna figured that since… since my family was all gone and I didn't have anyone else, and because I looked so much like Queen Serenity, that… that I could pass for the lost princess. It was all her idea, but it seemed like such a crazy scheme that I just went along with it… she's so convincing when she wants to be."
"Yes, she is," Endymion muttered, his gaze drifting off into space as he went over all the conversations with the cat… and her mistress.
"But I never thought anything would come of it. I didn't think… I didn't know I was going to meet you. I didn't realize Luna was going to overthrow Beryl. I didn't plan for any of this!"
"What about the birthmark?" he asked, his brow furrowed.
"I don't know. I mean—I do have a mark, see?" She lifted her bangs up so that Endymion could see the little moon-shaped pigmentation on her forehead. "I was born with it, but I don't know how that woman knew. I'm sure I never met here in my life. I think Luna must have told her about it, somehow. Either way, I mean… I guess it's a good thing that we aren't all waiting to be executed right now, but it doesn't change the fact that this is a huge disaster!"
"It's okay, Usagi," said Endymion, lowering his hands from her face and allowing them to pass down her shoulders, elbows, forearms, tracing the smoothness of her skin until they mindlessly laced with her fingers.
"But don't you see? I'm not supposed to be the queen. I'm not supposed to be anything!"
"I don't think you're right."
Usagi gaped. "But Endymion—"
"Just listen to me a moment. When you've ruled a planet for eight years, like I have, you get a kind of instinct about people. The good guys and the bad guys and who you should elect as officials and which officials should be taken out of power, that sort of thing. And I… I see in you a potential… Usagi, I honestly meant it when I said that you would make a wonderful queen. You're compassionate and generous and, clearly, very honest."
"But I'm not the queen!"
"But does that matter?"
No response came to her, and so she just stared into Endymion's pleading gaze with a slackened jaw and disbelieving eyes.
"I mean—Beryl was a horrible queen. The people of the Moon deserve much better than that. Do you think they care if their new ruler is biologically related to the previous queen? Not really. They just want to be treated fairly again."
Usagi forced her mouth closed and unconsciously tightened her grip around Endymion's fingers. He welcomed the touch.
She hadn't really considered it like that before. Was it really such a big deal if she wasn't blood-related to the crown? Beryl was blood-related, and look what a problem that had turned out to be.
"But I'm still… I'm still not prepared for this. I still don't know anything about ruling a kingdom. I mean… there are laws and taxes and things like that to worry about. I'm completely in over my head."
Heart thudding, Endymion raised her hands to his lips, kissed her knuckles and tried to smile. "At the risk of being rejected a second time… I'm still offering to be here, to help you through all that…"
Usagi couldn't believe it when she felt tears filling her eyes once again, her cheeks still flushed from the last bout of crying. "You… you don't hate me? After lying to you?"
"Of course not. In fact… it's strange, but I almost feel like I might love you even more now. I feel like I know you a little better. But… Usagi, you don't have to make this decision now, of course. I know there's a lot for you to think about, and you're overwhelmed by it all, and I don't want to pressure you into…"
"Of course I'll marry you!" she breathed, every nerve in her body trembling.
Endymion paused mid-word and, after a moment's hesitation, stammered, "You will?"
Usagi nodded vigorously as the first tears escaped through her lashes. "Of course! I just… I just can't believe that you would want to marry me. But… I can't imagine ever feeling this way toward anyone else…. And itdoes feel right, somehow."
A laugh bubbled up from Endymion. "It does—exactly! So then… you'll be my queen, and you'll rule the Earth with me, and I'll rule the Moon with you…"
"Oh, this whole ruling thing…" Usagi muttered, her rollercoaster of emotions sweeping her along from despair to elation and back again.
"Usagi, don't worry about it. I promise, we'll figure it out together."
He ran his fingers along her cheek, unable to keep the grin at bay, until she couldn't help but return the smile. And then he leaned forward and kissed her, gently, simply, un-rushed, and Usagi discovered that she had been wrong. There was a lovelier sensation after all.
Luna waited as long as she could in the hallway, listening with her supersensitive ears to Usagi's confession, chewing her claws as she waited for Endymion's response, and then thanking all the stars in the solar system at their eventual betrothal. It was clear that their conversation had finally dissolved into intimacy—just as it should have—and yet time was running out. There was still a gala to attend that evening and ambassadors from all over the Moon were waiting to see their new, unexpected queen.
And they were sure to hear about an Earth alliance after all.
Knocking on the door, Luna traipsed into the bedroom in her leather boots. Endymion and Usagi were still cuddled together on the bed, wrapped up in each other's arms, though they pulled apart (to some degree) when the cat entered.
"Luna!" Usagi exclaimed, her face flushed and her voice full of mirth. "You won't believe…"
"I think that I would believe it, Usagi. Congratulations to you both." The royal couple blushed, but the embarrassment was ignored by the cat as she gestured toward the hallway with one paw. "And now I have something to show you that I think perhaps you won't believe. May I have a moment of your time?"
Usagi traded looks with Endymion, before nodding her head and crawling out of the bed. Her feet were bare and her dress was full of wrinkles, but she hardly seemed to mind as she followed Luna out into the hallway, Endymion not far behind.
The hall was lined with damask wallpaper and plush carpets. Along the wall were dozens of paintings of men and women, often middle-aged though sometimes very youthful, and wearing clothing of all different periods.
"All of the portraits you see depict rulers of the Silver Millennium," said Luna, prancing down the hallway without bothering to look up at the portraits until she came to the very last painting in the hall. "This one here being, of course, the good Queen Serenity."
Usagi looked at the painting and felt her heart stop. She was staring at her own eyes, her own mouth, her own golden hair.
"You got your nose from your father, as you see," Luna said, gesturing to the portrait of the man beside Queen Serenity's—a handsome, broad-shouldered man who did, indeed, have Usagi's nose.
"But… but this isn't possible. I had parents!"
"I know it is hard to comprehend, but everything that I have said has been true."
"Luna?" Usagi found it difficult to breathe and instinctively reached for Endymion's hand.
"You see, Usagi, when Queen Serenity died, you were taken to the Earth to be raised as a commoner so that Beryl would never see you as a threat and seek to have you murdered before you could be queen. You were given to a married couple who were kind and generous people who could not have children of their own. They welcomed you into their lives and raised you as their own, always knowing that someday you would have to leave them and fulfill your destiny as the lost Moon Princess."
Usagi shook her head, a lump clogging her throat. Unsteadily, she raised her hand to trace over her birthmark. She'd hated it since she'd been old enough to feel vanity, had always tried to keep it well out of sight, but now she wondered if it wasn't something of a blessing. Her one connection to her true past that no one could take away from her.
"Why didn't anyone tell me?"
"I am sure your parents had intended to, but were perhaps waiting for you to get a little older. After all, traditionally an heir must be at least seventeen before they are crowned supreme ruler. I think maybe they were waiting for that day to tell you."
Usagi stared at the pictures of her parents through watery eyes. "If-if they would have lived…"
"Then you would have grown up a princess—betrothed, perhaps ironically, to Endymion."
"And I wouldn't have known my mom and dad."
Luna lowered her eyes. "It is really quite lucky that I found you. I came to the Earth many years ago in search of you, worried that Beryl would cause too much damage to this kingdom before you returned to us, but I was eventually kidnapped by the Luna Control Agency who thought that I had neglected my post at the Earth palace. I eventually escaped them and was able to play the role of a cloned cat… which brought me into your classroom. And I knew from the moment I saw you that you were the true Moon Princess. You are unmistakable."
Usagi turned to Endymion, bewildered. She gestured toward the two portraits. "Look… it's my parents."
"I know. And everyone's right. You do look just like your mother."
She wrapped her arms around herself, feeling so weak that the slightest breeze could topple her over. "Endymion, I…. I'm really the Moon Princess?" It was posed as a question, her head still too full to believe any of this was more than a dream.
But Endymion only nodded, smiling, and pulled her into his arms. "And soon you are going to be my queen."
The evening's gala was one of the most joyful events in Silver Millennium history. The people who attended the celebration were overjoyed to meet their new queen and discover that she did, in fact, resemble her mother as much as people said—both in looks and in personality. The announcement of a royal engagement only furthered the people's delight, as the Earth King was known far and wide as a just and generous ruler, and finally there was an alliance formed between the two planets that successfully put an end to all talk of impending war.
Endymion and Serenity, who continued to be called Usagi by her close friends for the rest of her days, were married one month later in the Hino apple orchard. Everyone drank Kino Family wines—truly the best in the galaxy—and Usagi's bouquet was made from true roses straight out of Mina's little modest garden.
Though it still took a long while for Usagi to become comfortable in her new role, she discovered that Endymion was right—her responsibilities were made much simpler when she surrounded herself with intelligent and trustworthy advisors. The first of her advisors was Luna, who was only too happy to continue assisting her mistress. She continued to wear her little leather boots so that everyone who saw her would know that she was the Luna who had returned to them their lost Moon Princess. Usagi's second advisor was the most brilliant girl she knew—a natural genius in geography, political science, andeconomics—her best friend, Ami.
Soon after the wedding, a decree was passed to cease the deconstruction of all past versions of the Luna, and Luna v. 4.2s were specifically given the highest ranking of robo-animals.
Hence, life on the Moon was returned to its former splendor. Hundreds of years later the reign of King Endymion and Queen Serenity would still be known as the Moon's golden age, ruled by the finest, wisest, and happiest royal couple that any world had ever known.
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