* * * * * * * *
I leaned on the fence and watched the human children at play. One boy in particular caught my eye. Perhaps twelve years old, with intense sapphire blue eyes and thick auburn hair that had been cropped severely short, he stood a little apart from the others, as though he felt he didn't quite belong. Suddenly, he looked up. I stiffened as our eyes met. There was a subtle aura of . . . not power, perhaps, so much as potential . . . which surrounded the boy. He was one of those rare humans with a gift for magic. With training, he might have attained the same level of power and skill as a very young Crystal Weaver child. And yet . . .
I broke the eye contact quickly, but not before I glimpsed an odd expression on the boy's face. The young one had also sensed something. I was certain of it.
I slipped away from the enclosed courtyard of the orphanage, striding down the busy street and trying to look as though I had somewhere to go and some reason to go there, instead of wandering aimlessly as I did.
In twenty years of wandering through the human lands, no one I had met had recognized me as anything out of the ordinary unless I chose to reveal myself, or was stupid enough to forget to put on my gloves in the morning. Until the boy. Could he be one of the Lost, who abandoned his heritage completely to live as a human? I rejected the possibility as soon as it occurred to me. Whatever power the child possessed had not been a Crystal Weaver's power. It was something human and unique, although I couldn't help but wonder what the boy would be capable of if--
Fool, I cursed myself. I am the last. There can never be another Crystal Weaver. If I try to pass my power to a human, I'll probably burn out his mind. In any case, that boy is too old. The strain of the transformation would kill him. It was difficult enough for our own children.
The wind that tugged at my hair also brought the stench of something rotting to my nostrils, and I cursed again, realizing that, in my preoccupation with the child, I had taken a wrong turn, and was now in one of the poorer districts. Unlike a human, I had no need to fear for my life or my purse in such places, but I still found them distasteful.
The merest flicker of energy drew my attention to one of the hovels that lined the street. A boy sat on the doorstep, enjoying what I assumed to be a rare moment of idleness. That faint touch of power had come from him. Was he--? Could he be--? Under the dirt, he had a fine bone structure, and the eyes that were staring down at the ground were slightly slanted, a rich jewel-toned blue. Familiar characteristics.
I concentrated my powers, trying to divine a little more about the person in front of me. Strong, yes. Very strong. There was a well of untapped potential there that cried out to me. And it was the right sort of power. The boy was a Crystal Weaver, or could have been if anyone had ever chosen to empower him, but there was something fundamentally human about him as well.
A part-blood, I thought, smiling thinly. I think I may just have solved the mystery of the Lost. Who would ever have thought?
I turned away quickly as the boy looked up, not willing to risk a repeat of what had happened outside the orphanage just a few minutes ago. Everything I had been taught had claimed that we Crystal Weavers were a race apart, incapable of mingling our blood with that of humans. Evidently, that was a lie. We aren't so different after all. So how much else of what I had been taught about these people had been lies?
My thoughts returned to that first boy, the one at the orphanage. I allowed myself to imagine him as he might become, tall and proud, auburn curls pouring down over his shoulders, his eyes glittering with a touch of elusive power, like the glitter of light on water. If I touched him, gave him the spark, was that what would happen? Or would his body be torn apart by the stress of trying to handle a kind of power that it had never been meant to endure?
My feet followed a path out of the poor neighborhood and back up toward the palace, where I was living, hosted by a generous king not yet so old as to have forgotten what the Empyrean had done to his people before we had driven them off. I wasn't about to disabuse him of the notion that my people had acted out of brotherly love, rather than a selfish desire to save our own skins.
The gate guards, although they looked askance at me when they thought my attention was elsewhere, saluted me politely and addressed me as "Lord Onyx", a title which I always found just the least bit hilarious. I had been born to a nation with no lords, where the only authorities were one's Center and the Council.
I was barely inside the gates when a page ran up to me.
"His Majesty's compliments, my lord, and he would like to see you immediately."
I nodded. "Lead on."
King Endymion IV was waiting for me in one of the small conference rooms in the west wing of the palace. The fact that he had chosen to meet with me alone, without even a bodyguard, told me that something strange was going on. Neither of us spoke until the page had been dismissed with a regal wave.
"You sent for me, Majesty?" I had decided, after a few moments of silence, that the king would never speak if left to himself, and thus took it upon myself to begin.
"Yes. Yes, I did." Endymion began to pace. "Onyx, why is the Silver Crystal in the hands of the Moon Queen?"
I shrugged. "Our leader chose to bestow it there. I can only guess at his reasons." Demantoid had been born with the gift of foresight, a rare, erratic thing. I had always assumed that he had been given a vision, and chose not to question his judgment.
"The Moon," Endymion observed, "was not the place that the Empyrean attacked."
"No. It wasn't."
There was a moment of silence.
"Majesty," I said tentatively, "am I to understand that you consider the Earth to be inadequately defended against a new Empyrean invasion? And that you wish to do something about it?" I was glad that my flesh-and-blood hand was invisible below the level of the table, because I could feel it shaking. The idea that was slowly forming at the back of my mind was incredibly audacious, but if it worked, I would never be alone again. "If I may be permitted to make a suggestion . . ."
* * * * * * * *
I had chosen them carefully: five boys, all with considerable magical potential. Only two of them showed traces of Crystal Weaver blood, but I didn't want to take the time for a wider search in the faint hope that I might discover others. It had been difficult enough to find these, and I had been forced to shell out a substantial amount of money to get the families of the three youngest to agree to surrender them to me. I was their legal guardian now. A father five times over, and barely a hundred years old. At home, it would have been surprising to find someone my age with even one child, which, I suppose, was part of the reason we had died out.
I watched the five of them covertly as I shepherded them along the corridor. They had no idea, really, what it was that I wanted them for. And I didn't intend to tell them, not until after it was done. Especially when I wasn't certain that I would succeed.
They were a motley group. The oldest, still dressed in the same rags that he had worn when I had found him, was the boy from the slums. Underneath the rags, he was almost painfully thin, his body struggling to reach the height his genes demanded despite the inadequate nutrition he had been receiving. Intense, slightly greenish, blue eyes darted back and forth, assessing the threat potential of everything nearby. He stiffened every time we passed a guard. He was going to be difficult to work with, this one. Difficult, but worth it in the end, if I could shape him into what I needed. From what I sensed, he was a leader born.
The next oldest still wore the uniform of the orphanage. His expression was calm and inward-turning, and I wondered what he was thinking. His eyes were a deeper, truer blue than the oldest boy's, and he stared straight ahead, almost without blinking. Every now and then, I sensed a faint flicker of undirected power coming from him.
The third oldest and the youngest walked together. They were brothers, after all, even if they didn't look much alike at first glance. The older of the two was blonde, with blue-violet eyes, whereas the younger had brown hair and dark eyes. When you ignored that difference, you could see the similarities, though, the near-identical shaped of chin and jaw, the little details of expression, the moderate height and medium builds. It had been the younger that I had really wanted. I had sensed from the first that he was a potential healer, which was a rare and valuable ability, even if it also meant that he would never be as strong a warrior as the others. The older boy had insisted on coming with him. I had seen no reason to argue with him. All fourteen of the children in that family had possessed at least a spark of magic. I might have taken a third, as well, if I hadn't already spotted the last boy.
He wouldn't have been most people's first choice as an Empyrean-fighter, I suppose. He was delicate, almost fragile, and small for his age. But his huge emerald-green eyes slanted slightly upward in his narrow face, and his features were finely crafted, verging almost on beautiful. Like the first boy, he was of Crystal Weaver descent, although he would never be more than moderately powerful by our standards. Which meant that he would be about as strong as me at my best.
I hadn't bothered to learn any of their names. By this time tomorrow, they would have new ones.
I still wondered if perhaps I shouldn't have tried for the girl I had spotted in the marketplace, as well, whose amethyst eyes and fine-boned face had suggested that she and I might also share a heritage. Next time, perhaps. This experiment was going to be difficult enough without my having to deal with the special tensions involved in creating and training a mixed-sex Weave.
I had requested and gained the use of the west tower from the king. It was in one of those somewhat rundown and less than central portions of the palace normally used for housing the poor noble relations who hung around the fringes of the court. Admittedly, even by those standards it wasn't in the best of shape, but it was far from the mainstream of palace life, which meant that it was isolated and quiet, and my charges would be less likely to fry someone by accident before they learned how to control their powers.
I ordered supper from the servants and waited with the children until it was brought, my presence effectively inhibiting any conversation that might have sprung up among them. I didn't want them getting to know each other quite yet. It could only complicate matters.
The oldest boy, whom I had decided to name Malachite, had terrible table manners. I sighed. One more thing that I would have to teach him. The others ate slowly and seriously.
I slid my hand into my pocket and touched the vial that I had hidden there. The apothecary had told me that it would put them out for hours, with no more serious side effects than the equivalent of a mild hangover. I hoped that he was right. I had slipped it into the water that I had used to dilute their portion of the wine, drinking the unadulterated stuff myself.
Sure enough, they were all yawning before the meal was entirely over. I chased them up to bed, applying a little magical persuasion to Malachite when he seemed reluctant to go. Then I went back downstairs and waited for half an hour.
It was dark out when I climbed the staircase again. I chose not to take a light with me. My night vision is not quite as good as a cat's, but it is better than any mere human's--another racial characteristic shared by all Crystal Weavers, or possibly a side effect of our powers. It occurred to me that, for the first time, I might actually be able to find out which of those explanations was the correct one.
The first door to my left was Malachite's. I extended my senses through the thick wood of the closed door, testing to make certain that he truly was asleep. He was the suspicious one, and it had occurred to me that he hadn't seemed to be drinking much at supper. But no, he seemed to be out cold, and I didn't think that my field imbalances had blunted my perceptions so much that I couldn't tell a conscious human from an unconscious one.
I rolled him carefully over onto his back. The moonlight striped his face with light and shadow. I removed my gloves and took his hands in mine. Now came the moment of truth. Did I have enough fine control back to do this, and would his body be capable of tolerating it?
Light glittered from my spirit crystal, set into the back of my prosthetic hand, as I gathered my energies. It was quality, not quantity, that counted here, and I refined what I had as best I could, stripping it of all elements of my personal signature. Then I eased a tiny trickle of crystal power into his body.
To my surprise, the response was almost what the later humans came to call "a textbook case". Two sparks of energy traced a pattern along his nerves to meet at the base of his skull, where they linked, reinforced each other, and shot back out through the rest of his body. There was a smooth hardness under my metal hand. His spirit crystal, a tapering white oval, formed from the tiny quantity of his personal energies that had been displaced by the crystal power. Even the shape was one of the common ones.
His mouth curved upward into a gentle smile as I slid the crystal into my pocket. The process would continue for some time yet, as the energy I had given him worked itself into every cell in his body, but essentially it was done. I had made a new Crystal Weaver.
There was one further detail that I needed to deal with. I pressed the palm of my flesh-and-blood hand against the center of his forehead and delicately, because even at the best of times this had never been a skill of which I possessed complete mastery, drew a veil over his memories. It wasn't a true block, and I neither needed nor wanted it to last more than a few months. All I required it to do was blur his past until I was certain that his loyalties weren't divided between humanity and his own people.
I had had one success, but there were four more boys, three of them fully human. The auburn-haired orphan, who in my mind I had already dubbed Nephrite, was the strongest of those. He was also the most expendable. The two brothers had family. It was due to these considerations that I moved to his room next.
He was already lying flat on his back. All I had to do was perch on the edge of his bed, take his hands in mine, and transfuse him with a little carefully purified power.
I observed intently as the little sparks traveled through his body. The paths they followed didn't quite match my experience of what was normal in an empowering, but they didn't seem to be causing him any discomfort. I even felt solid substance gather under my hand, and realized that there was a spirit crystal separating our palms. He shifted restlessly as I slipped it into my pocket to rest against the first. As I drew the veil over his memories, I sensed . . . a strangeness in him which I couldn't quite account for. Some portion of his being was trying to reach outside himself for I knew not what. Still, this was more success than I had really hoped to have. Strange or no, he was one of us.
The two brothers--Jadeite and Alexandrite, as I would call them--followed more normal patterns of development. As I had hoped, Alexandrite would be a healer. Training him was going to be difficult, however. Not having any significant amount of the gift myself, I knew only a little theory. Sending him to study with mundane physicians might help.
Zoisite, the green-eyed boy, was last, and easiest of all. Now I had only one more task to accomplish, and it was this one that would tax my powers to the limit.
I climbed the stairs to the next level of the tower, where my own rooms were located. I kicked off my boots and laid myself down on my back on the bed. I was fairly certain that I was going to lose consciousness immediately when I finished this. I had never been trained as a Weavemaker. Those who were, were generally at least as strong as the average Center.
I took the boys' spirit crystals from my pocket and arranged them in a row across my chest. One at a time. I picked up Malachite's crystal, the white one, and hung it suspended in the air, then positioned the others around it in a three-dimensional pattern with equal spacing. It was the simplest of the Weave patterns, that appropriate for a Battle-Weave like the one I had belonged to. Some of the larger ones involve up to twenty individuals and their crystals, but there was no way I would have been able to create a pattern of such complexity. I was going to be lucky if I managed to make this one work.
I took a deep breath, then raised my arm to trace the first line, from white crystal to green. A trail of black fire followed my finger. Then from white to blue, to yellow, to brown . . . Now around the edges, linking the lesser members to each other as they were bound to their Center . . . When I finished tracing the last line, the one running from the blue crystal to the green one, the entire design flashed, and I felt something snap into place as the color of the fiery tracery that bound the crystals together changed from black to white, suffused with Malachite's power, not mine. It only lasted for a second. Then, utterly drained, I let the crystals drop out of alignment.
* * * * * * * *
After I finally managed to open my eyes, I stared upward at the dark ceiling, trying to decide exactly what was wrong. I felt different, but was at a loss to describe exactly how. There was a hollowness inside me, a longing for something that had been taken away . . . or had I just never realized that it was missing, before? And at the same time, there was something new inside me, something for which I had no words. It was as though someone had scooped out a hollow in my soul, then filled the empty space with something which, although it was incapable of replacing what had been removed, was just as valuable in its own way, if not more so.
But it was difficult to detect fine gradations of feeling like those, since I also felt absolutely and totally rotten. My head was throbbing, I was nauseous, but also hungry and thirsty, and I was freezing cold. Severe pains, in my chest, my abdomen, and most of my joints, came and went. However, I didn't feel as weak as I would have expected if I had been really ill.
I propped myself up on one elbow, only then realizing that I was lying, stark naked, on top of the bedcovers (no wonder I was cold!), and drew back the curtains that covered the small window over my bed. My, it's a long way down. The view, gardens and a slice of town, was completely unfamiliar. And the sun was high in the sky. I knew, somehow, that I was facing almost due west. I had slept through the entire morning and missed lunch. That explained why I was hungry.
I turned back the blankets and burrowed underneath before looking around the room. It was as unfamiliar as the view outside. The amount of space first surprised, then pleased me. There was carpeting on the floor, but, like the curtains and the tapestries that softened the stone of the walls, it was faded and just a little threadbare. The furniture--a wardrobe, chair, desk, some shelves, a chest, and the bed I was lying on--was heavy and ungainly, and probably quite ancient as well, although it seemed to be reasonably well-crafted. In short, the room gave the impression of having been furnished with the cast-offs of a wealthy household.
My thirst was quickly reaching intolerable proportions. I decided that I needed to get up, get dressed, and find some water. The pile of grey-blue cloth folded across the top of the chest turned out to be a uniform of some sort. Mine. The uniform of the orphanage where I had been living. My nose wrinkled in distaste. But there was nothing else. It was that or the blankets from the bed. I compromised by wearing only the pants.
Outside my room was a circular corridor lined with seven identical oak doors in the outside wall. On the inside, there was only one doorway, slightly to the left of the one to my room, which gave access to an enclosed spiral staircase. Remembering the vaguely wedge-shaped design of the room where I had woken up, I nodded. This was a tower.
The two doors immediately left of mine were closed, but the two to the right were open. I stuck my head into the first room. It was virtually identical to my own, right down to the fact that it was empty of occupants. I felt something drawing me toward the next open door, and shrugged. It was as good a place to try as any.
Inside, a blonde boy a few years younger than me sat on the edge of a bed. He was supporting a smaller boy, holding him in a sitting position and steadying a pitcher so that the younger child could drink from it. I had the most bizarre feeling that I knew them both, but it took me a moment to place them. They were there. Last night. I wonder why I can't remember their names?
"Jay, I hurt all over," the little boy said suddenly. "Why can't we go home? I want Mommy."
"I know, Alex," the blonde boy replied. "I know. But you're sick, remember? You have to stay in bed until you get better."
I cleared my throat, or tried to, but it came out sounding more like a croak. "Uh, excuse me, but what do you have in that pitcher, and is there any more of it?"
The blonde boy shrugged. "It's just water. Bathroom's right next door."
"Thanks." I moved on. Sure enough, the door furthest from mine along the corridor concealed the plumbing. I drew water from the sink, drank my fill, and splashed my face, trying to get rid of a little of the muzzy-headed feeling that seemed to go with the headache. It made me feel a little bit better.
When I stepped outside again, there was someone standing in the hallway, his back to me. He was a little bigger than I was and probably a little older. He wore only a blanket, folded in half and wrapped around his waist. I felt that I knew him, too. He could, I realized after a moment, be another one of the boys I had been with last night. Last night. Everything that had happened then, and for that matter, everything that had happened before I had woken up here, was hazy in my mind, as though my life before today had been some sort of dream that I was only now waking up from.
I walked over and tapped him on the shoulder. "Excuse me," I said.
He spun around to face me. His eyes were glowing with a brilliant white light. Instinctively, I took a step backward and brought my hands up in front of me. Small tongues of blue fire licked over my skin. I knew that somehow, I was doing that, and that furthermore, I would be able to channel that power into an attack if I needed to.
I think--no, I know, because I could feel a resonance inside me that I knew was somehow coming from him-- that we were both deeply shocked by what was happening. I took another step backward and lowered my hands. The blue fire faded, but I could feel it lurking just beneath my skin, an insidious warmth. A mere thought on my part would invoke it again.
"Gods," I choked out, "what was that?"
"I was about t'ask ye the same," the strange boy said as the glow faded from his eyes. "Sorcery, belike, but I be not--I was not . . ." he corrected himself, his voice getting softer and softer. He ran a hand through his ragged black hair, and shivered. I felt like doing much the same. Sorcery. Magic. I . . . What was I now? Not human. Even the most powerful human mage would take several minutes of concentration to invoke the sort of power I had just called up without even thinking about it.
"Who be ye?" the other boy was asking. It took me a moment to understand what he was asking through that thick gutter accent.
"N-Nephrite." That was what came to mind when I thought about my name, but it didn't seem right, somehow.
"I be . . . Malachite," the black-haired boy said. I heard the hesitation, and realized that he didn't really think that was his name, either. But there was something tugging at the back of my mind, some tidbit of information about people who named themselves after gemstones . . .
"What in hell is going on here?"
Malachite had his back to the new arrival, and, intent as I was on chasing down my phantom memory, I hadn't noticed him until he spoke. This was the first adult I had seen here. He was a tall, thin man, with long, black hair that was just beginning to show a little bit of grey at the temples. His clothes looked like they had been slept in, and, incongruously, he wore gloves, but no footwear. I realized suddenly that his clothes probably had been slept in. They were the same ones he had been wearing when he had taken me from the orphanage . . . had it been only yesterday?
"I leave you alone for a few minutes, and you start trying to kill each other," he added, rubbing at the bridge of his nose. "I felt the power discharge all the way upstairs. You're going to have to be more careful, or someone could get badly hurt." His dark eyes flashed with what I can only describe as black fire, contradictory though that may sound.
"I'm sorry," I said. "To be honest, I don't even know what I did."
He shook his head. "You wouldn't. That's part of what you're here to learn."
The door beside him, which had remained closed up to this point, now swung slowly open, and a face peeked out.
"Ah, Zoisite, so glad that you could join us," the dark man said to the green-eyed child, who just stared back at him. "I suppose we should go and find the other two. I don't want to have to explain this more than once."
He led us the short distance along the corridor to the room where I had seen the other two boys, and knocked on the open door. "May we come in?" he asked, but strode through the doorway without waiting for an answer and immediately appropriated the desk chair, leaving the rest of us to fend for ourselves. I perched on the desk itself. Zoisite sat down cross- legged on the floor. Malachite remained standing, his body tense, relaxing only a fraction when he saw that the two new boys couldn't be any more than ten and six years old respectively.
"Before I try to explain anything, I suspect that introductions may be in order, since I doubt that any of you remember much about last night. I am Onyx."
"Jadeite," the boy sitting on the bed identified himself. "This is my brother, Alexandrite."
The rest of us gave our names. I mumbled mine when my turn came around, still trying to chase that elusive memory down the corridors of my mind.
There was a moment of silence when we had all given our names. Onyx looked around, and, as though noticing our varied states of undress for the first time, muttered, "This will never do," and waved his hand. My clothes changed instantly. I looked down. I was wearing an unfamiliar blue tunic and matching trousers, which in turn were tucked into high boots. The others were wearing similar outfits in different colors, and Onyx's wrinkled, slept-in clothes now looked as though they had been freshly washed and ironed. And he had somewhere acquired a pair of boots. Conjury on a grand scale.
That was when I remembered what sort of people chose to name themselves after gemstones.
"You're a Crystal Weaver!" I blurted it out without thinking.
Onyx's head dipped in acknowledgment. "Yes, I am. And so are you."
"That isn't possible!" I protested, while the others stared, apparently not understanding. "I'm human. Crystal Weavers are--" Not seemed just a little too bald a word, and I couldn't find a better one.
"A Crystal Weaver," Onyx corrected, "is any person who possesses a certain sort of magical energy. We'd always assumed that it couldn't be safely passed to a person whose parents weren't both Crystal Weavers. Recently, evidence was presented to me that suggested that we were wrong. You five are in the nature of an experiment. Some of you have traces of Crystal Weaver blood. The rest of you are completely human by ancestry. But you all have the power."
I stared down at my hands. Not human hands. Not anymore. Is that so terrible? whispered a tiny voice somewhere deep inside my mind. I had no answer for it. I couldn't deal with that part of what had happened, so I set it aside.
"Is that why we're sick?" Jadeite asked, providing a welcome break in my train of thought.
"You aren't. Not exactly." Onyx toyed with a strand of his long hair. It came to me suddenly that he didn't feel comfortable meeting our eyes. It was as though he felt guilty, for which I didn't blame him. He had an awful lot to answer for. "Your bodies are still trying to adapt to what's happened. Also, I drugged you last night. You'll start to feel a bit better once you're over the effects of that, but the physical adaptations can take quite a long time. I'm afraid that you're all in for a very rough year."
As though on cue, a sharp pain shot through my shoulder. A year!
"The exact form that the changes will take is different for each individual," Onyx was saying. "However, I can guarantee that you've all started aging very fast, at about twelve times the normal rate. That's where most of the pain is coming from, and it will continue for some months. Other than that . . . At least two of you are probably going to end up with some sort of slight physical deformity. I'm sorry about that, but I really don't have any control over it."
Malachite's eyes flashed white again. "An' what other little surprises might ye have t'spring on us?"
"I'm acting on King Endymion's orders," Onyx snapped. "If you don't like what I've done, take it up with him. In any case, it's too late to change anything now. I can't take back what I've given."
You're lying about something, I thought. I sensed a subtle falseness woven through this entire conversation. Or at least being very selective about which truths you're telling.
"Oh, I don't want ye t'take it back," Malachite breathed. A ball of white fire gathered in the palm of his hand. "And I'll kill ye if ye try."
To my surprise, I realized that I felt the same way. As a human, I'd had no future. Perhaps things would be different now. If even half of what I knew about Crystal Weavers was true, with this power, I would be able to do almost anything.
Magic is weirdly addictive.
"Why does the king need Crystal Weavers?" I asked, interrupting something that Onyx was saying. I knew instinctively that this was the important question.
Onyx hesitated, then said simply, "The king is afraid." And then he explained about the Empyrean and the war that had ended almost a decade before I was born. As he spoke, the shadows around him seemed to acquire faces. He was surrounded by ghosts, four of them. Only one face was at all clear. The shadow to Onyx's left was a man with long, light green hair, wearing bloody armor. He was looking down at Onyx, and the expression on his face was sad. The others, two men and a woman, I think, were indistinct.
I turned away, and, when I looked back, the ghosts, if that was what they had been, were gone. I never told anyone what I had seen. I didn't understand, then, how my powers worked, and I was afraid that people would think I was insane.
Onyx rose from the chair when he had finished speaking. "You're all at liberty for the rest of today. Lessons start tomorrow. Try not to fry anyone in the meanwhile." A flicker of shadow, and he was . . . just gone.
Malachite appropriated the chair. For a long time, we all just sat and stared at each other. Then Zoisite stood up.
"I'm hungry," he complained.
Jadeite grinned. Malachite shook his head.
"Well, there needs be a kitchen somewhere in this pile of rocks. What d'ye say that we go find it?"
* * * * * * * *
Two months later, I sat on the roof of our tower, staring up at the darkening sky. It had grown to be a habit of mine. I came out here to sit and watch night fall over the palace and the city that surrounded it while the others studied or did gods-knew-what. I wasn't quite certain why I did it. It just felt right, and I was beginning to learn that, as often as not, my intuition was magically- inspired.
Onyx said he'd never seen anything like it. Apparently, most Crystal Weavers didn't just get feelings this way, instead receiving clearer images or impressions if their powers ever tried to tell them anything at all. That made me a bit of an odd one out even in such a peculiar group as ours, and I had no really close friends among the others. Malachite occasionally made some effort to be friendly, and I did my best to respond, but we were from such different backgrounds that such attempts often ended in mutual bafflement. We were both gradually learning to fit into life here at court as the equivalent of minor nobles, and, in time, I supposed that would provide us with a mutually comprehensible framework for communication, but in the meanwhile . . .
<<Nephrite? Are you up here?>>
"On the east side," I replied. Having other people intruding on my private thoughts still bothered me, and I tended to speak aloud as often as I could.
The blonde head turned in my direction. Jadeite climbed the rest of the way up the stairs and walked over to sit beside me. "I don't understand why you come up here. It's just so . . . empty, especially at this time of day."
"Is something bothering you, Jaddo?" I knew that nickname annoyed him, but then, he had just annoyed me.
"I . . ." He sighed. "Just homesick for a home I can't really remember properly. I mean, I don't know what I'd do without you guys, but it's just not the same."
I nodded, keeping my eyes on the eastern horizon, where the first stars were just beginning to appear. My parents were dead. I knew that, and yet it sometimes hurt that I couldn't remember a face, a voice, a name. Onyx had told us that the blurring of our memories was a side effect of our empowerment and would probably disappear once our bodies completed their adjustment. But when he had said it, I had sensed something wrong with the explanation.
"I just wish . . ." Jadeite began.
"Yes?" I said when he didn't seem inclined to continue.
"I wish I could see how they're doing. My parents, my brothers and sisters. I worry about them constantly, even though I can't remember their names. So does Alex."
I shrugged. "There's nothing preventing you from going back, really."
Jadeite snorted. "Even if I could remember where to go- -Go back like this?" His sweeping gesture took in his entire body from head to toe. He was inches taller than he had been when we had arrived at the palace, and looked two years older, as did we all. Still, of all of us, he had probably changed the least. He even kept his hair cropped short, though it required an appointment with the barber every week. My own hair now poured down over my shoulders in a wave of auburn curls. Onyx had suggested it, and I had to admit that I liked the effect that I saw in the mirror.
"All right, I admit that it probably isn't one of my brightest ideas. Have you tried a divination?"
"With fire and water and mirrors. Every night since Onyx taught us the technique. Alex has been trying, too. Neither of us can pull anything up. Our memories aren't specific enough. We need a name or an image, or at least a place to check. And we don't have that."
I grinned. "Maybe your technique is at fault. 'The Stars know everything,'" I intoned in a portentious voice, jokingly imitating the Court Astrologer. Then I tensed and gave a little startled hiss as I felt my powers engage. I rubbed at my forehead, where an odd spot of tingling warmth had appeared. Jadeite was staring. I ignored him. "Powers of the Universe, I seek your wisdom," I continued more respectfully, not certain where the words were coming from, but noting again that they felt right. "Show us what has become of Jadeite's family!"
The sunset's light suddenly faded, leaving us in total darkness, illuminated only by the stars, which now shone overhead in their full glory. Then an image coalesced in the darkness in front of us. We were seeing the inside of a small kitchen, rendered even smaller by the fact that fourteen people were crammed into it, eating their dinners. Jadeite whimpered and reached out a hand toward the picture, but it went right through.
I managed to hold it there for several minutes, letting Jadeite watch as his family went through its evening routine, but it wasn't easy. It eventually faded, leaving me sweaty and panting.
"What in hell was that?" Jadeite asked.
"I have no idea," I replied, quite honestly. The sunset's light was back, now. I slumped, feeling drained.
"This from Nephrite-who-can't-perform-a-divination-to- save-his-life? And what was that symbol on your forehead?"
"Symbol?" I asked, non-plussed.
He drew a design in the air with his forefinger. Something vaguely resembling a stylized "ne" kana appeared, outlined in gold light. "It was sitting there, glowing, right between your eyes, the moment you finished your little bit of hocus-pocus."
I shrugged. "If I ever figure it out, I'll tell you. I've never seen that thing in my life before."
Actually, no one ever did figure it out, but we did eventually determine that the symbol and certain types of star- related words and images did help me to focus my powers. The amplification was substantial, but until I created focusing devices, it was exhausting as well. I rarely used those powers during the Silver Millennium, a point which was to cause me trouble later on. But that night, all of that was still in the future, and I went to bed baffled.
* * * * * * * *
I extended my senses to probe the garden on the other side of the wall. Deserted, as usual. Good. I wanted to be alone, if at all possible.
I gathered myself to jump, using a little of my power to boost myself over the top of the eight-foot-high wall. I landed clumsily, but that was all right. There was no one here to see me and insist that I behave like the young nobleman that I wasn't. That was one of the reasons that I liked this little triangular space full of greenery, which the gardeners always seemed to ignore.
I sat down on a bench, kicked off my boots, and dug my toes into the soil of a convenient overgrown flowerbed. It had been two weeks since I had first tried this, and I was still at a loss to describe the resulting sensation. It wasn't exactly heat or cold or tingling or anything else I had a word for. All I knew was that it felt good, and eased some of the aches in my bones. Growing up fast hurt. I was inches taller and knew I looked two years older than I had ten weeks ago, when I had first met Onyx. Still, if that was the price I had to pay . . .
I whistled and held out my hand. A small bird flew down and perched on my thumb, staring at me with beady black eyes. I took the slice of bread I had saved from breakfast out of my pocket and crumbled part of it into my palm. The little bird pecked at the crumbs, and was soon joined by two others. None of them was capable of producing much in the way of coherent thought, but that was all right. I found it relaxing. Animals and bigger birds all thought too much. I was just glad that my talent didn't extend to perceiving what was in the minds of the people around me. It was difficult enough to deal with what I had.
A column of blue flame flickered into existence somewhere off to my right. I sighed with envy. I hadn't quite mastered the art of teleportation yet. Onyx claimed it would come with time, but I didn't want to wait. It was embarrassing, being the youngest and the smallest. And the least powerful, although that didn't really have anything to do with the other two. It was just a coincidence that the oldest members of our little group of five had the most power. Or so Onyx claimed.
"So this is where you always run off to--Alex, what's happened to your feet?" Jadeite sat down on the bench beside me, looking concerned.
I shrugged. "I don't know. It just . . . happened. Onyx warned us about things like this, remember?" I pulled my left foot out of the soil. The toes were almost three times as long as they should have been, and tapered, with fibrous tendrils growing from the sides--almost like roots. The skin covering my ankles and the rest of my feet was thick, brown, and gnarled, like tree bark. They had been that way for a couple of weeks, now. I didn't have to roll my trousers up to know that the skin started to thin out gradually at around mid-calf, becoming almost normal by knee level. "It doesn't hurt at all, and as long as I keep my boots on, no one can tell."
"I'm going to kill that--"
"Jay, no. Please. I know you want to protect me, but you can't change what happened. I'm getting used to it. There are a lot of worse possibilities out there than turning into a tree from the knees down." I suppose it would have been different if the changes had been painful, but they weren't. In fact, those parts of my body were almost numb when they weren't in contact with the soil. Even curling my toes up so that they would fit into my boots didn't hurt.
Jadeite tousled my hair. "Hey, I thought I was supposed to be the one with the magic-inspired talent for reading people."
"I think protecting your relatives is as much instinct as thought," I said seriously, smoothing my hair back into place. It was getting long. Perhaps I should start braiding it. Or have it cut, but that was such a nuisance when it was growing so fast that you had to have it done every week. "Or maybe it has something to do with psychiatric disturbances. I am supposed to be training as a healer, you know." Which was a bit of a joke. How could he possibly forget? The three hours that I spent in the palace infirmary were almost the only times we were apart during a normal day.
"Yeah. I know. It all still seems so strange. When we came here, I don't think you even knew the word 'psychiatry', and now you're handing down judgments regarding it."
We sat in silence for a moment.
"Jay . . . Do you ever wonder about Mom and Dad? What they're doing?" I didn't dare say more than that.
"Nephrite managed to divine them for me, somehow. He's still trying to figure out how he did it, though. They're doing okay. Feeling homesick?"
"Kinda," I admitted. I stabbed my toes back into the dirt again.
"So am I," Jadeite confessed. "But I don't think we could go back, even if we could remember their names or where they lived. Chances are they wouldn't even recognize us. I mean, in a couple more months, I'll be old enough to shave." He rubbed at his chin. "Well, at least we've got each other."
I leaned against him. "Jay, promise you won't ever leave me. Please." That was my worst nightmare. I looked like I was eight, almost nine, years old, but sometimes inside I was still a very frightened six. My brother was all I had left of my old life.
"Of course I won't." <<After all, it isn't as though we can ever really be separated.>> His voice inside my mind, closer to me than I would have once believed possible. "But stop looking so gloomy." Jadeite stood up and cuffed me lightly on the shoulder. "You're It!"
And the serious discussion degenerated into a game of tag. I knew I would never be able to win--my legs just weren't long enough--but it was fun anyway.
* * * * * * * *
I paced while observing my charges at target practice. They had come a long way in just four months, but they had a long way further to go if they were going to be effective fighters.
Alexandrite was the worst by far, missing his targets as often as he hit them, even though he stuck to the most basic attacks. If I hadn't known how fast his abilities as a healer were increasing, I would have questioned my judgment in including him in the group in the first place. Even the handful of young human mages who used this area for training were better at this than he was.
Zoisite, although clumsy with forthcoming adolescence, approached his practice with a single-minded determination that more than made up for his shortcomings. He had already developed a variety of trademark attacks, including the vicious ice crystal javelins that he was currently using. Most of them were still of a type more effective against embodied creatures than Empyrean, but a few more months should see to that problem.
Malachite and Nephrite were having an impromptu competition, seeing who could shatter the most targets within a fixed time limit. So far, Malachite and his energy boomerangs were leading, but only by a narrow margin. Not for the first time, I wondered where the young Center had gotten the idea for such an unusual weapon.
Jadeite flung a disk of light at a target, missed, and cursed in language I hadn't thought he knew. I made a mental note to find out who had taught him words like that. Turning these five into young gentlemen capable of surviving in the environment of the Earthan court at the same time that I was trying to shape them into warriors wasn't easy, especially when I was a neophyte myself in the area of human politics, and I didn't need any corruptive outside influences making my job harder. I had been trying to keep them as isolated as possible for that reason.
"A fair job, all of you," I began, "but--"
"I doubt ye--you--" Malachite corrected himself, a spasm of anger briefly crossing his face, "could do any better." Physically seventeen and, although not quite as tall as I was, more muscular than I had ever been, Malachite was beginning to feel the need to test his authority. And I had to handle him very carefully. He was stronger than me in terms of sheer raw power, and had two good hands. Dealing with him required finesse, technique, and an occasional show of power or knowledge on my part. It looked like it was time for another one of those.
I strode over to an area where six undamaged targets were still showing and stood looking at them for a moment. I wanted this to be spectacular, and that meant taking out all six with somewhat less than six shots. But by leaning over to the side, I could line up those two behind one another, and if I played with the shrapnel a bit, I could knock that into place . . . Four shots for six wasn't bad at all.
I didn't bother with a fancy attack, instead using a raw bolt of power channeled through my spirit crystal and out the fingertips of my gloved prosthetic hand. I had taken out the first set of paired targets and the two singletons when the reaction hit me.
I had thought that, in the two decades since I had lost my hand, I had gotten used to pain. I was wrong. The waves of it that ran up my arm to the shoulder forced me to my knees. I made a hoarse sound somewhere midway between a moan and a scream, and cradled my forearm in my good hand.
Alexandrite was beside me immediately, and I felt the half-forgotten sensation of a healer's power probing me. Then he did something, and my arm went blessedly numb. Sharp spikes of agony still passed through my shoulder if I tried to move, but overall it was an improvement. I froze in the position I was occupying and tried to catch my breath.
<<This isn't good,>> the boy told me. <<I'm not altogether sure of what's going on, but it looks like some sort of reaction between your prosthesis and your power. Every time you use that hand as a channel, you're poisoning yourself.>>
I closed my eyes. So I'm destined to be crippled after all . . .
<<I'm sorry, sir.>> Alexandrite was watching me with--could that be pity? <<I wish there was something I could do. The only cure would be to get rid of the prosthesis.>>
I grimaced. <<Damned if I'm going to go through another amputation.>> And that was what it would take. Rutile's work had been good in that respect. The metal of my hand was bonded to the flesh of my arm. That, and a touch of magic, was what allowed it to look and move fairly naturally. I even had partial feeling in it. <<Anyway, unless you can regenerate my real hand once it's gone-->> I had been expecting the headshake. Full limb regenerations are complex work. <<--it's going to unbalance my energy fields again. That much upset might even make me start aging again. No, it stays. I'll just have to be more careful. Now get back to your practice, all of you!>>
As they obeyed, I shot my gloved hand a bitter glance. Betrayed by my body again. I had gotten used to being almost well over the past few years. My fine energy controls had been returning, my skill level back at almost what it had been during the Empyrean War. And now, I was going to have to go back to doing things the hard way, if I wanted to live. At least my personal energy fields were more-or-less in balance. And this was peacetime. So long as I kept myself from giving my charges any more personal demonstrations of attack technique, I would be all right.
I knew I was lying to myself. Sooner or later, inevitably, something would come up that required me to use the offensive aspects of my powers. Given the length of Crystal Weaver lifespans, it was inevitable. And the moment I did, I would make myself worse. My days were already numbered, even if the count was hidden from me.
Staggering to my feet, I glanced at the five youths. They were the only hope for the future, now. But whenever I looked at them with that in mind, I felt a vague unease.
Demantoid and I were only half-siblings, children of the same father but different mothers, and born almost five centuries apart. Our gifts were very different, but the tests applied to all Crystal Weaver children had shown me to have just the least touch of his precognition, always centered on predicting future danger. I knew that whatever I sensed for the five was still in the distant future. That worried me. If I could sense it now, when it was still so far away, whatever threatened them had to be truly catastrophic in magnitude. And I couldn't tell them, because I knew they wouldn't believe me. None of them, not even Nephrite, whose gifts in the areas of perception and divination only continued to amaze me even more as we charted their limits, had the least touch of precognition, and I had found out the hard way that none of them believed in fate.
I could only hope that I was wrong, and protect and prepare them as best I could, in case I could no longer be there when the time came.
* * * * * * * *
I didn't want Onyx to see my weakness, but when he collapsed, I was afraid. I may be stubborn, volatile, and bad- tempered, but I'm not stupid. I could tell that something was really wrong, and I knew I had already seen my real family collapse at the seams because of my father's injuries. Although the memories themselves were blurred and vague, the emotional reactions remained. I didn't want to see this little adoptive family fall apart the same way. I needed a little security in my life.
Fortunately, our mentor had the good sense to cut the practice session short after that, and we were allowed to go our separate ways. Alexandrite vanished to the infirmary, and Nephrite went to the palace library to study star charts. I never knew where Jadeite went. Actually, I didn't much care, either.
Malachite and I went back to the tower together. It didn't always happen that way. Sometimes he went off to hang around the fringes of the court and watch the power games the nobles played, but I think that he was annoyed about his little slip of the tongue back at the practice field. He had been working very hard on his accent and behavior for the four months the five of us had been together, and by that time he was capable of almost completely concealing his origins. The minor relapse must have been quite frustrating for him.
I was too agitated to concentrate on the magical studies that had become an increasingly large part of my life lately, so I decided to have a nice, long shower instead. Although most of our hands-on training involved the use of magic, we were also being trained in more conventional methods of fighting, and there had been a particularly difficult unarmed combat session that morning, resulting in massive bruises for me. I spent a lot of time being banged around when we were doing that sort of thing, being smaller than any of the others except Alexandrite. Skill can compensate for a lot, it's true, and I intended to become very skilled indeed, but when your opponent is equally good, it's the purely physical characteristics like size and speed that tend to determine who wins and who loses.
I locked the bathroom door and began to undress, but by the time I had my shirt and socks off, I discovered that I was crying. And I couldn't stop. The little world I lived in at the palace wasn't a perfect one by any means, but it was all I had. The knowledge that it might disintegrate was unbearable.
I sat down with my back to the wall and pressed my face against my knees. The tears kept coming, dampening my pants legs and leaving trails of moisture down my bare chest.
<<Zoisite, are you all right in there? Zoisite!>>
I couldn't collect my thoughts enough to respond to Malachite's question. Apparently, that frightened him badly, because a moment later, I saw blue streaks through the film of tears that was blurring my vision, and he was there.
He crouched down in front of me and pulled me gently against him. I buried my face in the silk of his shirt as he lifted me to my feet. I knew that my tears would spoil the cloth, but I didn't care. It was only conjury in any case. Lately, he had begun wearing the court styles rather than the plainer training uniforms Onyx had originally conjured for us. Dazedly, I considered switching myself. I liked the feel of silk and velvet under my hands.
With his arms wrapped around me, I felt warm and safe, and was finally able to choke off the torrent of tears that had been pouring from me. Nothing more happened. When I was steady on my feet again, he let me go and teleported away without saying a word, and we never talked about the incident afterwards.
But from that moment on, Malachite became everything to me. He was the most important thing in my world. It wasn't until a long time later that I came to understand what I felt about him, and what it meant, but I knew then that I would never be able to bear it if I lost him.
* * * * * * * *
Onyx's collapse had frightened me more than I cared to admit. I didn't like the man--in fact, I often came close to hating him--but there were few enough points of stability in our lives these days. I was worried more for Alexandrite than myself, really. If Onyx died, who would take care of us next, and would they allow us to stay together? If anyone wanted to separate us, there would be little I could do to stop them. Crystal Weaver or no, I had the body of a thirteen-year-old, and, as I had recently demonstrated, my control of my powers wasn't so wonderful yet. No one was likely to take me seriously.
My feet had followed a familiar path away from the training range, taking me into the palace proper. To the best of my knowledge, no one else ever used the little balcony above the throne room. It had probably been placed there for the benefit of archers, back in the days when this part of the Earth had been less than civilized. It was only within the last generation that the planet had been united under one rule, and there were still some barbarian peoples in the far west that were a little touchy about the concept.
I enjoyed watching the ceremonies that took place on a daily basis on the floor below, not so much for the content--I was too far up to hear what anyone was saying, anyway--so much as for the sheer spectacle of it all. Human behavior at its most extreme and ridiculous.
It was presentations today. A constant stream of dignitaries and nobles flowed in and out of the room, some of them wearing costumes that seemed wonderfully outlandish to me.
I found my attention drawn to one young woman, apparently a very junior noble. She couldn't be more than seventeen, and she looked nervous, uncomfortable with both the elegant formal gown she was wearing and her surroundings.
I decided that I wanted a closer look at her, and teleported down to the main floor, in the shadow of a drapery. Apparently, she was a relative or dependent of His Majesty, because she had to go up and present herself without the assistance of a sponsor. Endymion smiled encouragingly at her as she stammered her way through the formal words. Beside him, his daughter, Crown Princess Eos, did her best to appear attentive.
The young woman fled the throne room as soon as protocol would permit. I followed her as unobtrusively as possible, noting that, if she was headed for the east wing, which held the quarters normally given to the minor nobility and non-noble dignitaries and envoys, she had taken a wrong turn, into the nearly deserted north wing.
I caught up to her as she was standing at a junction in the corridors and nibbling at her lower lip. I deliberately scuffed my foot against the floor to draw her attention. She turned to me with a look of relief on her face.
"Please, can you help me? I seem to be sort of lost. I need to get to--"
"The east wing," I completed. "The second floor, probably. This way."
I threaded my way through the winding hallways to our destination with an unerring sense of direction, and had her in front of her own door in a few minutes.
"Thank you," she said, and smiled. I liked the way she smiled. "What's your name?"
To my own surprise, I said, "Please, let's not spoil this." I kissed her hand like an adult courtier, and slipped away around the corner before she could say anything else.
I won't claim that she haunted my dreams, or anything like that. Not the way that . . . someone else . . . later did. But I remembered her for a very long time.
* * * * * * * *
I released her when the dance ended and gallantly offered to fetch her refreshments, an offer which she refused, claiming that her brother had requested that she dance at least once that evening with his best friend. It was just as well, really. Her lack of mental capacity was beginning to bore me, although, since I had chosen her for precisely that characteristic, I had no right to complain.
I had been at the court for more than seven months, now, always dependent on Onyx's goodwill. Tonight was the first step in my campaign to change that. Akiko might be somewhat less than dazzling in the intellectual department, but she was of the nobility and could be persuaded to introduce me to a few of the more important members of the court. I was prepared to go to considerable lengths to cultivate her.
At a comfortable distance from the dance floor, I leaned back against a pillar and posed artfully. I knew that my appearance was striking, and there was always a possibility that I would attract someone's attention and be able to bypass Akiko after all. I did notice one young woman eyeing me with interest, and offered her my most charming smile. She blushed and lowered her eyes.
I considered asking her to dance. With her wide, pale green eyes and golden blonde hair, she wasn't unattractive. But she was dressed in a way that implied that she was a very poor relation at best, and perhaps only a very favored servant. She wasn't worth making Akiko jealous over. A few moments later, I noticed Nephrite talking to her, and silently wished him luck.
Four of us had decided to come to this little party: myself, Nephrite, Jadeite, and Zoisite, although I hadn't seen the younger two since the evening had begun. Alexandrite had gone to bed early in the anticipation of having to help treat a multitude of hangovers in the clinic the next morning, and Onyx . . . Actually, I wasn't quite sure what was with Onyx. Seven months of covert study had given me no more insight into the man and his motivations than I'd had when we first met. That he was uncomfortable at court was obvious, but I had yet to figure out what he was doing here at all. Unlike me, he had no interest in personal power.
Akiko had finished her mandatory dance with her brother's friend and was headed in my direction. I slipped through the crowd to meet her halfway. The expression she turned on me told me that my subtle manipulations of her emotional state were bearing fruit. She was trying to tell me that she was interested in more than just a dance or two. That was what I had been waiting for.
Glancing quickly around to ensure that her often over- protective brother was absent, I leaned down and kissed her.
I felt a sudden stab of pain inside me, but it wasn't physical pain, and it wasn't mine. Keeping my expression neutral, I traced the lines of power that linked me to the others. Alexandrite was deep asleep, Jadeite was radiating mild boredom, and Nephrite was actively enjoying himself. That left Zoisite, but he had blocked himself off.
I hugged Akiko briefly and kissed her on the forehead. "I'm sorry," I said. "I have to go. Hopefully, this shouldn't take long."
I disentangled myself before she could reply and slipped away through the crowd, homing in on the second youngest member of my Weave. I found him eventually in a curtained alcove. His expression was frightening, somewhere midway between tears and homicidal rage.
"Come with me," I told--no, more like ordered-- him, and pulled him with me in a teleport before he could respond.
Then we were outside, in the empty palace garden. The first snow had fallen some days earlier, and this wasn't a popular place in winter, so I was reasonably certain that we wouldn't be disturbed. I put my arm around him and drew him gently with me as I walked along a path in a direction that would take us farther from the bright lights of the palace proper.
"Tell me what's wrong," I prompted him, but he only looked away. <<Zoi, tell me. Please.>>
<<I don't know. I don't know, damn it! I'm just . . . so confused . . .>> He looked up at me pleadingly, green eyes shimmering with tears. <<That woman you were with . . . when you kissed her . . . I just felt so jealous! I suppose I was afraid that you liked her better than me. That you were abandoning me. I'm sorry.>>
I stopped walking and turned him to face me. <<Zoi, she's only a tool. I need an in at court, and she can give me one. Otherwise, we'll be dependent on Onyx for our positions for the rest of our lives. I don't want that. I don't trust him.>> How long had it been since I had really looked at Zoisite? In the moonlight, his fragile face was inhumanly beautiful, as though some sort of demigod were standing before me, dressed in emerald green velvet, with tears shining in his eyes.
Then I realized something, and mouthed an incredulous curse. Every single woman I had ever felt attracted to had been petite and blonde, with blue or green eyes. Like him. But none of them had ever been quite right. I reached out and pulled Zoisite against me, wrapping my arms around him and resting my chin on the top of his head. He didn't resist. His lithe body fit against mine in a way no woman's ever had.
Not sure if I was right or wrong in what I was doing, or if I cared, I relaxed my grip a little, stepping back just far enough to leave us standing face to face. There were no more tears in the green eyes, and the wonder in them as they looked up at me made my heart lurch. I closed my own eyes quickly and bent down. His lips tasted of the salt of his tears.
<<What . . . What are you doing?>>
I broke off immediately. <<I'm sorry. I didn't mean to embarrass you, or to frighten you. I won't do it again.>>
<<No, that isn't what I meant! I . . . liked it. A lot. But I've never felt this way before, and I guess I'm a little frightened.>>
I had never felt like this before, either. But I had finally managed to give my elusive new emotion a name.
<<Zoisite, I love you,>> I told him, and the wonder in his eyes reflected my own.
* * * * * * * *
I love you. The words echoed in my mind. Was that what this was? Love?
I reached up and ran my hands through his hair, soft and silky, the color of spun starlight. He stroked my face gently, smiling down at me in a way that pierced my heart. I only wanted to feel him against me, touching me, and . . . Actually, I didn't know what was supposed to happen next, but I trusted his ingenuity to supply it, and I wanted it more than anything.
<<Damned if I'm going to be able to go back to Akiko, after this,>> he observed ruefully. Akiko? Had that been her name? Her face, so terribly hated ten minutes ago, was already fading from my memory. <<Well, there will be other chances, I suppose. And you're more important. You're more important than anything.>>
<<Malachite?>> I stared up into those glorious blue eyes.
<<Can we go inside? I'm cold.>>
A soft chuckle. I so very rarely heard him laugh with genuine humor, even back in those innocent days. <<I'll admit, I chose this spot more for privacy than for comfort. Now, match me . . .>>
I coordinated my teleport with his. I'm always more comfortable if I make the transition for myself.
We ended up in his bedroom. I had been more than half expecting it, even though I still wasn't quite certain what we were about to do. (A few days later, Onyx belatedly gave me what I suppose was his usual lecture to young Crystal Weavers on sexuality and fertility control. Having already found out all I wanted to know about the former, and knowing that I would probably never have any use for the latter, I laughed in his face.)
Malachite removed the cloak that he had begun to affect lately and flung it casually over the back of his desk chair. Then he opened his arms to me again. I pressed my cheek against the midnight blue velvet of his tunic, and hoped that the night would never end.
* * * * * * * *
It was only two weeks later that the world almost crumbled out from under me.
The morning began as it often did. I woke with Malachite's arms clasped loosely around me, and just stayed where I was for a moment, watching him. The early morning sunlight spilling in from the window tinted his pale hair gold, and it made his face look even more exotically beautiful than usual.
I squirmed upward in his arms to kiss him. <<Wake up, sleepyhead!>>
Normally, his eyes would have opened and he would have kissed me back. This time . . . Nothing. His slow breathing showed that he wasn't anything like awake.
I disentangled myself and sat up. <<Malachite? Malachite!>> I shook him, gently at first, then hard enough to make his limp arms flop off his chest. There was no reaction, none at all. And I couldn't reach his mind. <<Alexandrite!>>
He appeared promptly, rubbing sleep from his eyes. <<What's wrong, Zoisite?>>
<<It's Malachite! I've been trying and trying, but I can't wake him up!>>
<<Calm down!>> He placed one hand on my arm. <<Now, let me see if I can find out what's wrong . . .>> He bent over Malachite and stayed there for several moments without moving.
<<It's some sort of power reaction,>> he told me. <<I don't think he's in any immediate danger, but I don't think there's anything I can do for him, either. Chances are that all we're going to be able to do is wait this out, and hope he recovers. I'm going to wake Onyx. Maybe he'll be able to help.>>
Wishful thinking, and I knew it. Alexandrite was already five times the healer that Onyx had ever been, just as I was three times as good a magical technician.
An hour later, I was dressed, and everyone had crowded into Malachite's room. Onyx, Alexandrite, and I were by the bedside, while Nephrite and Jadeite hovered in the background. Onyx examined my unconscious lover, then backed away shaking his head and rubbing at his right wrist as though it was hurting him again. Nephrite took his place. I held my breath. The peculiar talents of the auburn-haired boy--no, man, now--offered me a tiny bit of hope. But he, too, slowly shook his head.
<<You were expecting this, weren't you?>> Jadeite suddenly accused Onyx.
<<I knew of the possibility,>> the older Crystal Weaver corrected. <<It isn't unusual for very powerful Crystal Weavers like Malachite to be subject to some sort of systemic biochemical change late in their adaptive processes. Nephrite, I should warn you that you're also at risk.>>
Nephrite glared at him. <<Thank you for the advance warning. Now why didn't you tell us this in the first place?>>
<<Self-delusion, I suppose. I was hoping that it wouldn't be necessary. I only hope that Malachite doesn't suffer permanent damage from this.>>
I wonder if he felt those sapphire blue eyes still boring into his back as he turned and left the room. Since that incident on the practice field three and a half months ago, Onyx rarely teleported. In my opinion, that put him at a bit of a disadvantage.
Thinking about things like that let me delude myself that the cold knot of fear in my stomach wasn't there.
I sat by Malachite's side all day long and well into the night, eventually falling asleep in my chair, only to be woken by Alexandrite when he came in to check on us. He immediately ordered me into bed. I chose to share that of my unconscious lover rather than risk leaving him alone.
This went on for four days. My ninth birthday fell somewhere in that span of time. When I remembered that, I cried. Malachite and I had had such plans for that day . . . But eventually, the period of torture ended.
It was the middle of the night, and the word was deposited tentatively in my mind, but I instantly snapped awake. <<Malachite? Malachite, is that you?>>
<<You were expecting someone else? Zoisite, you're trembling!>>
Yes, I was shaking. The sudden release of tension left me weak with relief. <<You've been unconscious for four days,>> I told him. <<I was worried. Are you all right?>>
<<I'm fine. Sorry if I frightened you.>> He kissed me, and held me, and stroked my hair. Things proceeded from there about as you'd expect, and I went to sleep again comforted and content.
When I opened my eyes the next morning, he was already awake, waiting patiently for me to sleep myself out. Contented, I snuggled closer to him and looked up into his beloved face.
<<Malachite, your eyes!>>
<<What about them?>>
I showed him what I saw: Instead of being the green- tinted blue that I remembered, his eyes were the color of molten silver, with only the slightest bluish tinge.
He frowned and touched his forehead lightly, then sighed. <<I admit, that's going to take some getting used to. Does it bother you?>>
<<Nothing you are could ever bother me.>> And it was true.
* * * * * * * *
I stood in the shadow of a pillar, trying to make myself as close to invisible as was possible. I didn't really want to be here, but when I had spotted the name, that name, on the docket this morning, I had known that I would have to attend the court session. Nor had I dared to ask Onyx's permission. I didn't want him to know how much I remembered, how much Nephrite's divinations had told me.
I didn't know why it was so important to Onyx that we forget our pasts. It wasn't as though we could go back to our old lives. Not now. When I had left home eight months ago, I had been a child. Now I was a man, and a Crystal Weaver. I had passed my father in the street a week ago. He hadn't recognized me.
I've wondered sometimes if our mentor's attitude wasn't inspired by jealousy. His past was dead, and therefore, ours should be as well. Or perhaps he merely wanted us dependent on him. I suspect that the truth was a mixture of the two, combined with a hefty dose of self-delusion, which was one thing that Onyx always excelled at. But then, we never exactly worked with him to dissipate his misconceptions about us.
Each of us was slowly developing a mask to hide our true selves, our immaturity and insecurities. Nephrite's mask was charming and just a little cynical, Malachite's as arrogantly superior as that of any born noble, and Zoisite's was just a reflection of his stubbornness and flash-paper temper. I hadn't found one that quite fit yet, and so found myself trying on fragments of the others' public personae. Alexandrite was the only one of us who didn't have one. Perhaps he was the bravest of us all. But those masks hid us from Onyx just as effectively as they hid us from the courtiers.
I heard a name spoken, and turned my attention back toward the open court which I was supposed to be observing. The King of Earth held four of those sessions every year, in those days, where anyone at all could come and address their grievances to the throne.
Two men, both seeming ill-at-ease in their current surroundings, were led out into the center of the floor. I knew them both. One was . . . I believe the technical term is "a usurer". In any case, my family had owed him a considerable amount of money through no fault of their own, and been unable to pay it back. That was where the money that Onyx had given my parents for Alex and I was supposed to have gone, to pay off that debt. I had made my mother promise that. But apparently, it hadn't, or hadn't been sufficient, because the two of them were up in front of this court.
The other man's eyes, although I could not see them, I knew to be the same precise shade of dark blue-violet as my own. He was my brother, the oldest of the ten of us. He was limping, and the left side of his face was bruised and swollen. He looked defeated.
I didn't really listen to the case as they presented it. I had managed to get my hands on the report, then asked Nephrite to divine the real circumstances for me. My brother, despite the fact that he had clearly been brutalized by the loan shark's enforcers, was standing accused here. He had attempted to burn down the other man's home. While it was occupied.
His Majesty, Endymion IV, drummed his fingers on the arm of his throne, and the expression on his face, although it was so subtle that I doubted that anyone else would have been able to detect it, sent a cold shiver running up my spine. He beckoned to the herald who traditionally read the judgments. The latter cleared his throat.
"The accused is found guilty of attempted murder as charged, and--"
"No, wait!" I couldn't let this happen. Not to my brother. Not when it meant that he would be imprisoned, and my family handed another fine that it wouldn't be able to pay.
I pushed my way forward through the crowd, which made way for me. I was dressed as a minor noble, which made me someone reasonably important. The nobility rarely bothered to attend the open courts.
I dropped to one knee before the throne, and bowed my head. "Please, my king. I beg of you. Let him go free. I will pay his fines myself."
"I do not know you, Lord--"
"Jadeite, my king," I supplied. I glanced up from under lowered lashes and saw his eyes narrow. He might not know who I was, but he obviously knew what I was.
"Very well. If you pay his fines, and triple the amount of those fines as a blood price to the injured party, he may go free."
I nodded. I had expected something exorbitant like that, and come prepared. Diamonds are only regularly structured crystals, after all, and very easy to create with our kind of power, and they're worth quite a bit of money. I had sold three, down in the city that morning.
As I rose to my feet and turned to follow the guard who was delegated to show me to the cashier (kept carefully out of sight- -his Majesty couldn't been seen to be dealing in anything as vulgar as money), my eyes met those of my brother. Quite by accident. I hadn't expected him to be looking up, not when he had steadfastly kept his eyes on the ground through the entire series of proceedings. Even less did I expect what happened next. He mouthed a name, my name. Not "Jadeite". My old name, the one my parents had given me.
I clenched my jaw and turned away. Another man might have cried, but there were no tears in me, and hadn't been for quite some time.
And that was the end of it. I never saw him, or any of my other blood relations except Alexandrite, again, and they never tried to contact me, or I them. I think--I hope--it was out of respect for what they considered to be my wishes, and not in horror at what I had become.
* * * * * * * *
"I think I'll go down into town," I said. Onyx had offered us a few hours of free time. It was a rare gift, and I intended to make use of it.
The others had already made their plans, I think. Alexandrite needed to practice long-range teleportation, since he was still a bit behind the rest of us on the lesson plan. Jadeite would go off to do whatever it was that Jadeite did. Malachite and Zoisite . . . well, I could guess what they were going to do for the rest of the afternoon. They had been lovers for over a month, now, and showed every indication of being permanently attached to one another. In fact, when I had asked the Stars whether the two of them were soul mates, the response had been "yes". Or at least that was how I had interpreted it. The Stars may deign to drop me a little information occasionally, but they're often cryptic.
For myself, I just needed to get out of the castle for a little while. It just wasn't a place where I fit, somehow. Like the others, I drifted around the margins of the court, outside of its pecking order and politics (although Malachite had begun dabbling in those, and was beginning to build a reputation for himself), and I didn't feel comfortable there.
My boots clicked against the cobblestones as I walked down the city's main street, which stretched directly from the palace gate to the North Gate in the city wall. A few small personal fliers glided above me, but Earth never went in for the kind of heavy technology that you found on most of the other worlds. That may be part of the reason that all traces of the Silver Millennium were so thoroughly eradicated after the Negaverse attacked. Very little technology survived, and so much of the knowledge base required to build and maintain it was lost . . .
I'm getting ahead of myself again. Very far ahead of myself. So. I was walking in the city. It had been a mild winter so far, so there was no snow on the ground, only a few patches of slush. I did have something of a purpose in mind that day. I was almost out of pocket money, and I needed to sell another diamond. Considering the number of them that we sold in those days, it's surprising that there wasn't a glut on the market.
I never made it to the jeweler's.
I suddenly became very dizzy, and reeled back against the wall of a handy building to catch my balance. I realized that I was cold, sweaty, and panting for breath. Not good. Not good at all. I need to get home . . . People were staring at me.
I lifted my hand to wipe sweat from my face, and hesitated. I had evidently scratched my palm against the rough stone of the wall, because it was bleeding. It was the blood that held my attention. The drop that was trickling away down my wrist was brown, not red, despite the fact that it was still liquid. And the beads welling up to replace it were brilliant green.
I closed the hand into a fist. My ears were ringing, and I couldn't see properly, my field of vision turning dark around the edges. It was almost as though I was choking to death, but I could feel the air entering my lungs. Something's wrong . . . Am I dying?
<<Nephrite!>> Blue streaks flickered in front of me, and Malachite appeared, shirtless and barefoot. <<Nephrite, stay with me! We're going straight back right now!>>
We teleported then, but for me, it was several minutes before the resulting darkness ended. I could vaguely hear the others' voices filtering past the ringing in my ears and the darkness in my mind . . .
<<He's breathing, but he's not getting any air--oh, why am I wasting my time trying to explain?! Jadeite, do you see what I'm doing? Then take over from me and do exactly that!>>
"Is he going to live?" Malachite asked aloud.
"I don't know, damnit!" Alexandrite snapped back. "As long as Jadeite's and my strength holds out, we can keep him alive, but I don't know whether he'll ever really be all right again. This is more than just some pigmentation change. His entire biochemical structure is shifting. We're just going to have to hope that it's self- correcting, like what happened to you, because analyzing what's going on could take years, and I don't think he has that much time."
<<Malachite.>> I wasn't sure I could talk, but sending a message along the lines of power that connected us hardly took any energy at all.
<<I'm here.>> I felt him squeeze my hand, tried to return it, but wasn't sure that I succeeded. My hands and feet were numb.
<<Don't move, idiot!>> Alexandrite snapped at me. <<We can just barely get enough oxygen to your brain to keep you from suffering permanent damage if you don't do anything stupid like start thrashing around!>> I could sense the fear under it all. Physically, he was just barely fifteen. Mentally, he was only seven years old. And he was being forced to handle a major medical emergency, because he was the only healer here who knew crystal power from a hole in the ground.
<<I think you need to work on your bedside manner,>> I teased. <<I promise, I won't try to move again until you tell me that it's all right.>>
He snorted. I returned my attention to Malachite.
<<Sorry about that. But . . . if I don't make it . . . I want you to settle a score for me.>>
Onyx. He had lied to us from the beginning. It was all so clear to me now. I just hoped that that clarity didn't result from the approach of death.
Malachite squeezed my hand again. <<I know. One of my contacts at court was telling me that, now that we-the- pilot-project have been proven a success, he's supposed to create more Crystal Weavers. The king has already given his approval.>>
The rage I felt then shook me to the bones. How dared he make anyone else suffer? How had he dared to make me suffer? Perhaps I would have felt differently if he had been honest with us from the start, but he hadn't. What other appalling risks had we taken without knowing it simply because nothing had gone wrong and he hadn't seen fit to tell us?
I had never hated anyone before.
<<Try to rest,>> Malachite told me. <<We'll see to it, you and I, that he doesn't go ahead with this.>>
* * * * * * * *
When it became apparent that Nephrite would recover from his . . . problems, I did something that I had sworn I would never do. I went back to the ancient, empty city that had once been my home to burn a stick of incense on the altar of the gods of whom I was now the sole surviving worshipper. It occurred to me as I knelt there that I had never told the five youths now in my care anything about the rich cultural legacy to which it appeared they would be the sole heirs. I would have to change that, for them and for the others.
I had already selected those who would become the next two Weaves. Five of them were female, in the hope that there would be at least one couple who would be inspired to continue our race. But I had made the king promise to let me wait another month before empowering the ten new children, so that I could complete the training of the others. They had learned a great deal, and in fact were my superiors in many ways, but there were a few vital techniques that I had held back, among which was the procedure for empowering another Crystal Weaver.
Oh, they would have such destinies, those five . . . I already knew that Malachite would be the leader of a new race of Crystal Weavers. His power, now fully mature, was on a par with that of the legendary Adamant. Together, the five of them formed what was probably one of the strongest five-member Weaves of all time. In the old days, Nephrite, and probably Jadeite as well, would have been chosen to Center Weaves of their own.
I almost regretted binding them together immediately after empowering them, but I had never been particularly good at sensing the potential of immature powers, and these five had been such unusual cases . . .
Somehow, I had managed to delude myself into forgetting the faint shadow that hovered about them whenever I thought about their futures in their presence. The delusion wasn't fated to last, however.
When I returned to the palace, Malachite and Nephrite were together in the sitting room at the base of the tower. Concern damped my euphoria. Alexandrite had told me that Nephrite wouldn't be out of bed for several more days.
<<Are you all right?>> I asked him.
<<I'm fine.>> But he was pale and there were shadows under his eyes, and when I touched my good hand to his forehead, I discovered that he was feverish.
<<You are not. In fact, you're burning up.>>
He shook his head. <<This is my normal body temperature now. Biochemistry, remember? Alexandrite has certified that I'm well enough to get out of bed. And I'm damned glad he did, because the three of us have some business to settle.>>
They rose to their feet, flanking me. I couldn't help but feel the least touch of . . . fear? Why should I be afraid of them?
Malachite pulled me roughly along with him in a teleport. I couldn't seem to break free of him.
When I had been daydreaming about him ruling a new race, it had never occurred to me that I would probably become one of his subjects. That tremendous power of his was a fine thing when I controlled it, but I didn't think I was going to like being on the receiving end. And that seemed to be exactly what they intended for me. The question was, why?
We emerged onto the roof. Windswept, empty, and cold, it was a place where we were not likely to be disturbed. I made as though to leave again, but my teleport was aborted when a massive wave of force smashed me back into normal space before I could complete it.
"So," Malachite said. "Let's talk about the future, shall we? I understand that the king has commissioned you to create a new group of Crystal Weavers, now that we've demonstrated that such a thing is possible."
I shrugged. "That's right. If the Empyrean do come back, six of us aren't going to be enough. Three thousand of us were barely enough last time. And I thought that the others, at least, might not mind a little . . . female companionship." I glanced sidelong at Nephrite. It was too bad, really, that Malachite and Zoisite seemed to be so thoroughly attached to one another. Malachite's genes were too valuable not to be passed on.
"You amaze me," Malachite said. "You honestly don't have any idea, do you? You have absolutely no understanding of what it is that you did."
"Perhaps you could enlighten me," I suggested, puzzled.
Malachite reached out, grabbed my collar, and lifted, using just a little of his levitative skill to hold me up over his head with seemingly no effort at all. His eyes flashed blue- white as he softly said, "You lied to us. You bought and sold us. You pulled us into this without warning us of the risks we were running."
"I almost died, damn you!" Nephrite whispered from behind me. "Maybe, if I'd known, I'd have chosen to run the risk. And maybe I wouldn't. We'll never know now, will we? Because you never offered me a choice. You never offered any of us a choice."
"And if you think we're going to let you do the same thing all over again to some other batch of poor dupes, then you're out of your pathetic excuse for a mind," Malachite completed. Almost negligently, he threw me across the roof. I landed in a heap.
Picking myself up and dusting myself off, I said, "I did what I had to do. Surely you can understand that." But I was pleading. I knew I was pleading. And Malachite, although not yet the remorseless creature that he became later on, still had very little compassion for those he considered to be fools. His eyes were glowing. So were Nephrite's. I was getting a very bad feeling about the whole proceeding. Then Malachite raised his hand, and created one of the energy boomerangs of which he was so fond, and I realized that I had come to the end of all my choices.
I attacked as I had been taught: at full power and without warning. Black fire, concentrated by my spirit crystal, flashed from my right hand. But even without the amplification of his own spirit crystal, Malachite managed to divert it, creating a shield around himself and Nephrite. Seconds later, the reaction drove me to my knees, and that was when Malachite flung his boomerang.
"Kill me and you'll never know how to create others!" I shouted desperately. "The five of you will die alone!" I might have mentioned that I held their spirit crystals hostage, but none of them even knew what a spirit crystal was. Another gap in their education which I hadn't been planning to remedy until the last moment.
The boomerang wove back and forth in front of me, dealing me a series of shallow cuts before it returned to Malachite's hand.
"I already do know," he said with a thin smile. "I was awake the night you empowered us. It took me a while to analyze exactly what happened, but I'm fairly certain that I understand it now. And I've already explained it to the others. Understand this, Onyx. You own nothing we need: no thing, no knowledge, no power.
"I have no intention of killing you. I never did. But you need to understand that I am not going to let you ruin more lives. Now, get out of here."
I went, drawing some bitter satisfaction from the fact that Malachite had turned out to be every inch the leader I had believed him to be.
I couldn't tell King Endymion why I was suddenly forced to refuse his request. If I did, I knew that Malachite would kill me. And I had to make my refusal publicly, during the ceremony where Malachite and his Weave formally swore their obedience to the Earthan throne. Needless to say, the king was furious, and he exiled me. It was purely an unenforceable formality, since there's no way to prevent anyone who can teleport from going wherever he wants, but I wouldn't be welcome at court, or around my young ex- proteges, and Malachite would probably be able to sense my location from anywhere in the solar system anyway. Certainly Nephrite would be able to, if he bent his mind to it.
And so I walked meekly away from the broken pieces of my second life and boarded a spaceship, paying for my ticket with conjured diamonds. I chose my destination at random, not believing that any planet other than Earth could ever be my home.
* * * * * * * *
return to Index / go to Chapter 2
The Crystal Weaver Saga Index
The Nephrite and Naru Treasury