The mask had appealed to her the moment she saw it. More than appealed, the frivolous thing had called to her. Leaving without it had been unthinkable from the moment she entered the shop.
It was a half-mask, made of some oddly thin and supple leather, dyed a rich red. A dainty gold beak marked the nose, while the rest was covered in short, downy crimson feathers, giving it a vaguely fluffy appearance and soft feel. The sides were cut to imitate plumage, the right sweeping down to frame her cheek, while the left swept up along her temple. Stiff, filigree lace fans in hues of red and gold created a semblance of a bird's crest across her forehead, before giving way to a cascade of feathers. An attached snood would hold her long dark locks out of sight, giving her the appearance of one gifted with vibrant plumage rather than mundane human hair.
It was gorgeous and flamboyant and overwhelming all at once. The need to own it was a compulsion, and she left the store – which she'd entered with the sole intention of browsing for costume ideas – with the mask carefully boxed.
Twenty minutes later she was in a kind of shock over her coffee, while Misao stared wide-eyed at the Mask. Both girls had separately come to the same conclusion that a creation of this nature deserved the capital letter.
"Where am I going to find a costume to match something as extravagant as this?" Kaoru lamented, even as she fingered the silky cascade of feathers. "How will I afford a costume to match this?"
"You could take it back," Misao offered, half-heartedly.
"I'd never make it out of the store," Kaoru returned. "I tried to leave without it, and didn't make it a block before I had to go back." She sighed, sinking back into the sofa morosely, her coffee cup held in front of her face. "Besides, it was a payment-in-kind transaction." No refunds, no exchanges. "This little beauty wanted to come home with me, and wasn't taking no for an answer. Does that happen a lot here?"
Neither Kaoru nor Misao was sure whence Kaoru originally came... just that it was obviously not Zmai. Their best guess – given Kaoru's coloring and faint accent – was Zharitsa. Still, she'd lived in Zmai's capital city for almost a year now, without anyone coming forward to claim her as a missing relative. She was unrecognized at the local embassies, and didn't match the description of any of the missing persons that had been reported in the last two years. Nobody knew anything about her. For all intents and purposes, she might as well have fallen out of the sky. Misao had befriended Kaoru when she wandered into the Aoi-ya, looking for work, and they'd since become almost inseparable.
Nevertheless, there were truths about life in Zmai that, if not exactly secret, weren't really talked about either, and they tended to surprise Kaoru on at least a weekly basis. Payment-in-kind had been one of those things: items that were purchased via trade rather than cash. Comparatively speaking, items demanding you take them home were far more rare, but not unheard of – and the reasons behind the items turning all clingy were proportionately more difficult to explain.
Misao had a strong idea about what was driving this one, and was quite happy to let someone else explain it after everything was settled. She hadn't been able to explain why some things required payment-in-kind; she certainly wasn't going to explain ancient Zmai courtship rituals. It was far too complicated and emotion laden. Let the man who'd made the mask sort it out.
So she hedged. "Yes and no. It doesn't happen everyday, but everyone knows someone it has happened to, so nobody will call you crazy."
"It should be illegal! What if hadn't been able to afford it?"
Which, Misao knew, would never have happened, but she wasn't going to explain that to Kaoru either. So she just shrugged. "What did you trade for it, anyway?"
"Three feathers, a lock of hair, and a kiss." The feathers were another mystery: at least a score of long red plumes had been tangled in her hair when Zmai's equivalent of a Coast Guard had pulled her out of the ocean. Sometimes Kaoru felt like she walked around with a sign proclaiming she had them, because they were most often the payment requested of her. Of the twenty, only five were left.
"A kiss?" Misao latched onto the important part of the payment, and leaned forward, demanding details.
That had been a first. Feathers and hair weren't unusual, but she'd never been asked for a kiss. Luckily for her, the proprietor – an ancient little man with horrible breath – hadn't wanted her to kiss him. "Yes, a kiss. He had an odd little booklet – sort of like a message pad – but the sheets were silk. He had me kiss one of those, like I was blotting my lipstick or something." It had made a gold imprint on the black fabric, despite the fact that she wasn't even wearing lip gloss.
"Oh, that is so... so..." romantic, she wanted to say, but Kaoru wouldn't appreciate it. "...different! Maybe someone has a crush on you."
Kaoru glared, but didn't otherwise respond as she put her coffee cup down to snuggle her new mask. Stroking the leather was soothing, which would probably disturb her if she thought too much about it. "What am I going to do? I can't afford an expensive costume, I can't go without one, and I can't stay home either."
Once a year the ruler of Zmai held a city-wide masquerade. The doors of the palace were thrown open wide, and the citizens of the capital and nearby surroundings welcomed. Women under a certain age weren't just encouraged but required to attend. Kaoru thought it a bit odd, but Misao said it was the way the country's rulers had selected their brides for generations. The masquerade insured that ladies and commoners were considered alike – an idea that Kaoru scoffed at, since it would be easy to tell them apart based on the quality of their costumes.
For her part, Misao knew Kaoru had absolutely nothing to worry about. With that mask in hand, she could enter any store in the city, and demand just about anything she wanted free of charge. Or at least a Zmai native could. She wasn't sure if this had ever happened to someone like Kaoru before. It was unlikely: Kaoru pretty much defined the word 'unique'. Unfortunately, there was no way to explain that without discussing the aforementioned courtship rituals, which Misao was steadfastly not touching.
"Don't worry," she said instead, "I'll help! I already finished my costume, and we have all week to work on yours."
"No buts! There are lots of leftovers from our costumes, we can start there!" Misao and her two sisters – Okon and Omasu – were all the right age for the masquerade, and her sisters had attended the prior two years as well.
Hesitantly Kaoru nodded, hope blossoming as the leather under her fingers turned warm.
For the rest of the afternoon they dug through trunks in the Aoi-ya attic, laughing uproariously at some of the things they found, but emerging with very little to show for their efforts: a pair of gold harem pants (apparently worn by Misao's oldest sister), fingerless red leather gloves, and low-heeled gold shoes. Kaoru was less than impressed, but Misao apparently had a vision. Over the next few days the vision became clearer, and Kaoru's enthusiasm began to build.
Dragging Kaoru and the mask – for comparison, she claimed - through every fabric store in town, Misao somehow managed to get fantastic bargains on lengths of filmy red and gold fabric, as well as a quantity of feathery trim. Okon – by far the best seamstress they knew – somehow managed to twine everything together into a combination bandeau-halter, the top layers of which were loose and flowing, shifting as Kaoru moved so that the trailing feathers and the handkerchief edge fluttered beguilingly.
Next, they tackled the harem pants, doubling up on the fabric and converting them into tight fitting leggings. A serendipitous trip to a clothing store – Kaoru hadn't seen any signs, but given the price they paid it must have been having a sale – garnered a long skirt in crimson leather. Once they were back at the Aoi-ya, Misao promptly took scissors to it, while Kaoru squawked in protest. The end result was an overskirt for the leggings: cut high and open in the front, before tapering back and down where it fanned out across the floor. They then set to work looping yards and yards of soft chiffon ribbon, along with the leftover feather trim, through slits in the leather. When they were finished, the back of the skirt was a full train of softly fluffy plumage in vibrant shades of red, yellow, and orange.
Put together with the shoes and gloves from the attic, and topped off with the mask, Kaoru made a gorgeous if somewhat untraditional firebird. Dangling drop earrings in topaz, garnet and gold, and a pair of matching gold armbands worn high on her biceps, completed the image.
An image that Kaoru found strangely familiar when she stared at her transformation in the mirror.
For all his calm appearance, Kenshin would have been sweating with nerves were he capable. Just one week ago the mask he'd made as a mating-token had been purchased. He'd awaited the news for nearly a year – a year that had been beyond difficult as he struggled to live with a soul-bond stretched near to breaking, and a heart that already had. For the briefest of moments he'd held her, his other half; then she'd been wrenched away, leaving him both more and less than he was before, crying out in rage and anguish. Yet the bond held – resonating with pain and fear before going almost silent, but holding – and that gave him hope. She had survived. She was out there, somewhere, waiting.
So he'd made the mask, using his own shed scales and all his finesse with magic to craft a semblance of her in the only form he'd ever seen. Then he'd trusted to custom and surrendered it to the match-makers so it could find its way to his mate.
Now it had, and while elated, he was also anxious. Would she be angry for his failures? Failure to protect her then, failure to find her sooner? Did she know what she had, why the mask called to her? Would he even be able to find her tonight? Knowing she would be there, wearing his token, was not a guarantee. It was unusual, but it had happened before that a couple would miss each other in the crush of bodies and the party's sheer size.
No, he would find her. Jaw set with determination, he settled the mask he'd crafted for himself over his features, and signaled the guards to throw open the gates.
Sword-calloused fingers brushed the scrap of black silk tucked into his belt. It was time to hunt.
Kaoru stuck close to Misao as they wended their way through the throng, progressing steadily toward the raised dias in the center of the throne room. The Zmai native had explained that they would present themselves to the emperor, first, and then would be free to join the dancing and feasting. Protestations that the emperor wouldn't want to meet her were blithely ignored. So Kaoru allowed the shorter girl to tug her along in her wake, while she surveyed the bright array of colors and fabrics with wide eyes.
After awhile, she came to realize that there was a preponderance of dragons present. Virtually all of the men wore dragon or reptilian masks of some sort, while at least half the women did as well. For an event planned a year in advance, it seemed an odd coincidence. Attempts to point it out to Misao and have her questions answered were shrugged aside.
Apparently, the people of Zmai were just fond of the scaley legends.
She also noticed a fair number of women about Misao's age dressed in white, and a few in silver. Misao, for that matter, was wearing white. Unlike the others, all of whom were covered from neck to toe in variations on the priestess-slash-nightgown theme, her friend had chosen a more form fitting crepe ensemble that left her stomach bare. Her skirt was floor length, with a slight train, and rode low on her waist. It looked somewhat like a sarong or pareo, with a front panel that dipped low, showing her belly button, before draping down in a soft cascade that was slightly longer than the front hem. The top had long, close-fitting sleeves and slim shoulders. Fabric criss-crossed over her breasts before rising over her shoulders into a wide hood that settled like a short cape on her back when not pulled up to cover her head. A second, far larger cape, decorated with a modern interpretation of Elvish runes along the hem, provided a dramatic back-drop, and softened the somewhat austere lines of the whole. The embroidery was an almost electric blue, and – along with the columbine mask in a matching hue – provided the only splash of color against the brilliant white. Finished off with white leather sandals, it was rather stunning in it's simplicity, while managing to appear flamboyant next to all the white nighties on display.
"What are you supposed to be, anyway?" Kaoru was actually a bit embarrassed that she hadn't asked before.
"A sacrificial virgin."
The blithe response stopped Kaoru dead in her tracks, and she pulled sharply back on Misao's hand. "You're a what?" she hissed, once their heads were closer together and she could be absolutely certain she hadn't misheard.
"A sacrificial virgin." When the older girl just continued to stare, Misao sighed and elaborated. "It's customary to wear white for your first masquerade, as a sign that it is your first, and that you've just come of age. And since the dragon theme is so popular," she ignored Kaoru's attempt to question that again, "it's become traditional to dress the part of the virgin, proudly sacrificed to appease the hungry monster." Misao didn't roll her eyes, but it was there in her tone. "Technically, it doesn't really matter what I think I am, as people will figure I've followed tradition." Grinning, she winked at Kaoru. "But just between you and me, I'm a rebellious Elven princess. I haven't yet decided if suspicious humans have offered me as a sacrifice or not."
Kaoru laughed, noticing – now that she knew to look – that the other girl's ears were slightly pointed, and wondered where she got them. "But are you a virgin?"
Linking arms with her, Misao really did roll her eyes. "Well of course! Elven princesses don't sleep around, you know."
"Not even rebellious ones?"
"Rebellion of the mind, my dear Kaoru, not the body."
Giggling, they resumed their progress toward the center of the room. Somewhat more relaxed after their banter, Kaoru began to notice that there was a pattern or rhythm to the flow of bodies around them. Men flocked around women in small groups, but some few ladies – most often those in particularly flamboyant masks – were rarely approached, and stood like isolated islands in the ocean of people. Misao had been stopped once or twice and asked to dance, her prospective partners taking the time to bow deferentially to Kaoru, but no one had actually asked the older girl for her company. It was almost as if they were ignoring or avoiding her, except they were being extremely polite about it.
Curious, she used their joined arms to steer Misao directly toward a knot of men. They were only a few paces away when the group turned as one and bowed to the two of them, even as they separated to provide a clear path toward the throne.
It was distinctly odd.
Before she had a chance to ask Misao about it – knowing in advance that her questions would most likely be brushed aside had yet to stop her from asking them – they cleared the edge of the crowd and Kaoru got her first look at the man on the dias. He was short and slender, radiating a power and presence belied by his size. Flame-bright hair was pulled back into a high ponytail, bound with a braided leather tie. He wore a slashed black leather jerkin, a purple silk shirt with black paned sleeves, black leather pants, and boots. Simple clothing that called all the more attention to the exquisite mask he wore – a purple dragon – and his unusual hair. At the sight of him Kaoru's stomach clenched into a hard knot, while her heart began racing. Most disconcerting of all, however, was the way her mind shrieked, MINE.
Kenshin paid scant attention to the women curtseying to him, going through the motions automatically while he searched for his missing mate. He could feel her – or, rather, the mask – somewhere close and coming nearer, but not yet in the small gathering around the throne. Then, as he bowed over the hand of some minor noblewoman, he not only felt but heard her as she instinctively protested his touching another. Releasing the woman's hand he took a step back, even as he raised his head to search. The room fell silent, sensing the energy of a royal purple scenting his mate.
There. She was tiny: shorter than he, graceful and slim. The firebird in human form. His footsteps were both swift and loud as he crossed the floor to her, feeling her trembling along the bond that was no longer strained with distance, as well as in the fine vibrations in the air around her.
Kaoru's eyes filled with tears as the man drew close. The Emperor of Zmai. She didn't know how or why but he was familiar, and a pain deep inside, long gone unnoticed, was soothed away by his presence. One pace away he stopped, stretching out his hand. The eyes behind his mask were a hungry amber, and somewhere, somehow, she'd seen them before.
"I know you," she whispered, even as Misao released her arm and Kaoru's hand moved of its own accord to clasp his, "I know you."
Then he was pulling her close, his arms warm around her, and the sense of relief was almost overwhelming. Something that had been broken for as long as she could remember was whole again. For a moment she allowed herself to slump against him, his strong frame easily accepting her burdens along with his own. In the distance a voice called for music and sound rose in answer, providing a distraction and affording the couple some privacy in the crowded room.
Her confusion and relief were communicated to Kenshin through both their bond and her body: although she knew him on a primitive, instinctual level, she did not remember him. Not truly. But she would; she just needed to relax, and the shared memory would flow from him to her, repairing what she'd lost.
"Would you like to dance?" Low, and faintly husky, his voice teased her ear. She nodded in response, needing to give her body something to do while her mind and emotions settled.
The beat was fast, the steps to the dance wide and sweeping. They circled each other only to meet, twine, spin, and part to do it all again. This, like the man himself, was familiar, although she'd never performed the dance before. Then suddenly she was remembering: a time when they'd moved together in another dance, diving and swooping and twining and climbing in the open sky. She remembered being happy, almost giddy. And then she was falling, knocked toward the ocean as he twisted and fought in the air above. Someone had been chasing her, and when she hit the water below she changed in order to hide. Cold and wet and dark and fear, both for herself and for him. A horrific wrenching as something was torn from her... and then waking in the hospital knowing little more than her name.
"I remember," she breathed, realizing only as she spoke that she'd closed her eyes to let the memories wash through her. "We were attacked." A pair of dragons crashing into them during their courtship flight, while wings, tails, and necks were entwined.
"Shishio and his consort Yumi, from a coastal province. A power play gone wrong." Kenshin's fingers stroked the bare skin of her back, their motion soothing. "I fought them both and won, but could not find you when it was over."
"... and I had no idea what you looked like." Their very meeting had been unexpected, unplanned. It had been centuries since a mating such as theirs had occurred: her kind wasn't even supposed to exist anymore. Too caught up in the exhilaration of finding her, and she him, they hadn't paused to talk or ask questions, just thrown themselves into the race. She'd flown a merry chase, forcing him to prove he wasn't only her match, but her better, a worthy mate. Interrupted, they had never taken human form, had no idea how to recognize one another.
Abruptly, he released her body to clasp her hand, turning on his heel to lead her away from the throng. Her feet followed readily enough, but her voice rose in protest. "Kenshin!" Distantly, she wondered how she knew his name, when they'd never spoken before. "Where are we going?"
"Someplace private," he answered, leading her up staircases and down hallways until finally he ushered her into an opulent bedroom. Spinning her around he backed her against the door as it closed behind them, then paused to frame her face between his palms, mask and all. "Right here." Sword-calloused fingers eased the leather away from her face, revealing her skin. "I need to know – if ever we're separated again, I have to be able to find you." His eyes had lost their amber color, shining a soft violet as they traced her features. "Beautiful."
Blushing, Kaoru reached trembling hands to return the favor, lifting the dragon mask to reveal his human features. The only surprise to greet her curious blue gaze was the faded scar on his cheek. It was almost as if she'd known what he looked like all along.
Seconds later he was kissing her, and as wonderful as flying with him had been, this was better. He tasted of smoke and cinnamon, passion and exotic fruit. Cupping her face in his hands, his thumb lightly stroking her cheekbone, he angled her mouth for possession, and laid claim. Her nails were digging crescents into the leather of his jerkin, and his eyes had gone dragon-amber again when next he raised his head. "Shall we finish what we started?" he whispered, voice lower than before. Finish what they began on that night a year ago, when dragon and phoenix had met and courted under the stars. All the hunger had come back in a rush at that first brush of lips and tongue. The bond between them sparked eagerly, aching for completion. Consummation.
Kaoru smiled, then hesitated with her answer already poised to be spoken. Fingers reached out to touch the discarded firebird mask as a frown knit her brows together in thought.
Shaking her head she set the mask down again. "So many odd things have happened since I came here," she answered. "Now I'm guessing it's all part of being in a country full of dragons?" she gestured at the mask and her costume as she spoke.
It was his turn to smile, as nimble fingers searched for and released the toggle behind her neck, loosening her top. "Yes. I'll explain it later. It's long and complicated." It hadn't always been, but the need to satisfy instinct while hiding from their human cousins had made it so.
She rolled her eyes, then reached for the laces at his throat. "Misao's been telling me that all year. Now suddenly it makes sense. Well... vaguely, anyway." Glancing up at him through her lashes, she let her tone turn teasing. "I know all about the gold fetish and the hoarding," she warned. "You don't get to lock me away with the rest of your treasures."
Kenshin laughed. "Not even if I stay with you and throw away the key?" Part of him deeply desired to do just that, to make sure nothing would ever separate them again, that he could spend the rest of his days just basking in her presence. For the moment, he satisfied himself with the feel of soft skin under his palms as he unwrapped the layers of fabric shielding her breasts.
Fingers tangled in his hair, Kaoru pretended to consider. "Maybe you can hoard me a little," she conceded, face upturned for his kiss. Her fingertips found the tie binding those vibrant red strands, and as she tugged it free she realized it was woven with both the hair and feathers she'd traded for the mask. When she pulled away his hand went to his belt, returning with the scrap of black silk she'd marked with the gold imprint of her lips. It's edges were frayed, as if he'd fingered it often in the past week. Eyes soft, she kissed him again, her touch feather-light. "Alright, you can hoard me as long as you need to, providing the bed is soft and I get to see Misao at least occasionally."
His laugh sounded again, even more joyous than before. Then he was picking her up, her clothes somehow discarded without her noticing, and tossing her on the bed.
"I'll spoil you, little firebird," he promised, following her down.
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