title: The Prophet and the Feather, One
word count: approx. 6530 in this installment
fandom: X-Men: First Class
Charles Xavier: the Most Serene Investigator
Moira MacTaggert: the Captain
Erik Lehnsherr: "Night's Beloved"
Emma Frost: Her Imperial Highness
Raven Darkholme: the First Court Lady
Kurt Wagner: the son of the First Court Lady
rating: a strong PG-13 in this chapter [will go up in the future]
notes: An expanded version of my quickfic strand of shadow. I was egged on to kind of do something more with it by both the person who prompted the fic [onnasannomiya] and by my dearest Keio - I mean, honestly, amazing art, what more can a girl ask for? Not related to Tales from Evening Fall. WIP.
warnings: implied child abuse, political infighting and shenanigans, things out of nightmares, and probably a bit of both spiritual and physical gore before it's done.
An old name, from an old word. A name that means prophet.
I have had the ability to speak with spirits for a long time. I have been shunned and hated for it, and I have been renowned for it, and it is my life’s work and my chosen task.
I believe in spirits, and in the way they affect the world, affect people’s lives. How they watch over the directions; over the wind and the waves and the great fields of rice.
I believe in spirits because I have seen them and their machinations, and because I was saved by them, when I was a boy not yet ten winters old.
I do not believe in destiny.
The dream is the same as it always is: it begins with a voice calling my name, bidding me follow and find the speaker, though I have never been able to do either.
It is not the futility that convinces me that I am dreaming.
Because the truth is that no one now living knows my name, the name I was born with.
Because no one living now cares.
When I open my eyes in the dream, I am a child again, and dressed in pale yellow and gray, and my sleeves fall past my hands, past my fingers stained with ink and ash.
Those were the colors of my mother’s house.
I do not see her in these dreams, but sometimes, when I wake up, I am certain that it was her voice calling my name. No one else in the court had quite the same voice – low, and rough, and by turns like a soft caress and like the rasp of a sword being drawn from its sheath, heedless of her words. She could banter with the ladies of the inner chambers and laugh with the gentlemen of the palace, and she could read from the sutras and from the scrolls of everyday tales, all in that same voice – a voice that was most expressive when she used it on others.
She always paid exquisite attention to rank and to the quality of her company, and she spoke to them accordingly, with the right amount of life and vivacity.
Tonight the voice I hear is not hers; the voice that calls my name does so gently.
It is nowhere near the tone my mother had taken with me. She always spoke to me in a harsh whisper, when she could still speak; and she spoke to me only to point out my faults, whether they be real or imagined.
I follow the echoes of the voice, of my name, down a series of long and winding corridors. With that unknown voice my name sounds like some kind of strange verse from foreign shores, or like a word from some other old language.
Under my feet: polished wood, and the faint smell of peaches and bitter almonds. The fumes of some strange incense, almost like ashes and almost like aged silk. It is a blend that I can neither completely identify nor duplicate, and perhaps that is because it changes from night to night – it burns in unseen coals, whose white smoke billows and curls around me with every step.
There are voices whispering behind me, but when I look over my shoulder there are no doors in sight, and the corridors behind me disappear into nothingness, into soft gray shadows.
Gradually the voices change, and fade, and with them vanishes the repeated call of my name. It is as if the entire Imperial court got to its feet, rank by rank in order, and began to leave, and I think of an audience being dismissed. It makes me wonder where the people are and where they are going, because there is no silence in the dream – my name, and then my steps, and now the rustle of leave-taking fills my ears like some kind of strange cresting wave, more and more and higher and higher, and then I wake up.
The sun is a faraway faint light on the eastern horizon.
The moon, too, is falling to its rest, and the stars are going out, hiding in the veils of cloud and dawn, one by one.
The wind is calling, a long and lonely mourning cry.
I struggle out of my bed and close the window, and my chamber is plunged into darkness.
I am cold, and with more than just the chill of approaching winter.
There is a sense of foreboding the has set its hooks into my skin, that pulls as though to wound. It cuts past the many layers of robes that I wear in order to sleep, and it cuts through the silk and cotton of my bedding.
I do not know why I am being sent a message, but it is a message I must heed.
I dress warmly, and the failing light does not hinder my efforts, nor does it impede my haste.
My hands are shaking, and with more than the cold, with more than the ferocity of the warning.
Three layers of robes, one on top of the other, and I line up the sleeves as best as I can. Blue and gray and green. It has been years since I’ve needed help to dress myself, since I had any servants to lay out my things and help me bathe and dress my hair, and even longer since I needed other hands to help me tie my sashes and make sure the ivory-pale robes of my office are in correct order.
I cover my left wrist up as best as I can, and I am thankful for the fashions that have not changed for one hundred years – men of Miyako still wear their sleeves to the base of the thumb, and many wear them longer, what with layers and overcloaks.
I can hide what is written into me, even when I am not wearing the white, even when I am properly cloaked and be-hatted and traveling on foot to some shrine or another.
I place my weapons in my sleeves. In the right, a fine dagger in a plain wooden mounting; red and black lacquer inlaid with a simple decoration of silver, gossamer-thin strands worked into the wood, and shaped like the webs that a spider spins in some quiet portion of a garden.
I can remember every single time I’ve had to draw that dagger from its sheath – every time I’ve had to choose to fight or else choose to die, and I bear the scars of those decisions still.
In the left, a folding fan of fine dark cherry, the slats carved with a character that means safety. The wood is well-polished except for the portions where the sheen has worn away under my fingers; the plain white silk-paper is of the highest quality, sharp creases and smooth luster, making the characters on the leaf stand out in their graceful strokes.
I can only read the characters when the fan is in use, and when it is not, the ink flows into almost-words.
There is an ivory box near my bed, yellowed and mottled from old age, something that travels with me wherever I must go, from the Imperial chambers to the lowliest forest retreat. It is small enough that I can easily tuck it into my robes should there be need of haste to move, as when fire or flood threatens. From it I take up my beads: if the dagger and the fan are my weapons, then these are my shields, and the only armor one such as myself can wear, against the malignancy of this world and all of the others.
There are three long strands, and I wrap and knot two of them around my right arm.
One hundred and eight tiny beads on the first one, plain polished coral on a strong double-stranded black cord – a gift from the teacher who discovered my abilities. She is gone, now, and I have reluctantly succeded to some of her titles.
Fifty-four beads on the second strand, strung on a fine white braid. They are roughly carved from plain pale wood, and the fine lines of the grain stand out, stained dark gray. A product of my own clumsy hands, created during the six months of the isolation ordeal – cut off not only from all human contact but from the words of all of the spirits in this transitory world, too.
The third strand is the shortest of the three, and is the one I’ve carried for the longest time: twenty-seven beads separated by knots, on a scarlet strand that is just long enough to loop around my left wrist twice. Each bead is as large as a child’s glass marble. In the weak light the beads throw off a dull sheen, as of an unpolished blade. The beads are heavy, and they absorb the warmth of my skin.
I do not know what these beads are made of, and I have carried them with me for the past ten years.
As I set my chamber in order and tie my hair away from my face, there is a timid rap on the door, and the page sticks his head in, and he very carefully does not meet my eyes. “Most Serene Investigator,” he says, in his high lilting voice. “You...you are wanted....”
“I know,” I say. “I was warned.”
The boy shivers from his black hair to his feet in their tidy white socks, like a leaf in a breeze, and he speaks to his feet when he speaks again. “The message said your errand was urgent.”
“And that is why I am coming, and in all haste, as to all summons from above the clouds.”
The boy shrinks away from me as I emerge from my chambers, from my lodging, and he stays inside as I step into my sandals and out into the street, into the strange faint shadow that precedes the Miyako dawn.
The carriage bears two distinct emblems: the crossed chrysanthemum and sword in silver, and the rising sun in scarlet.
I salute the woman leading the three outriders. “Captain,” I say, and she puts her hands to the sides of her helm, lacquered in imperial red and black, and pulls it off.
A beautiful face, and not in spite of the terrible scars: three deep parallel gashes running down her left cheek, to her neck, until they vanish beneath her robes and armor. Dark hair in a long braid, pulled forward over the right shoulder, and finished off with a wide strip of white silk.
“Investigator,” she says, in her cold whisper, and as she speaks the lines of scars and of authority and strain in her face shift and deepen. “No doubt you know the message that I asked your attendant to carry in to you. There is need of haste. I am not interested in having that...that blight here for any longer than it has to be.”
I nod, and I climb into the carriage, and the Captain keeps pace as we set off through the silent streets. Out of the corner of my eyes I can see her glancing in my direction, and I wonder what is making her worry, when we have worked together for some time now and she is one of the few who do not flinch at me, at what I can do, or at the services I must sometimes perform on behalf of the Empress.
She is one of the few who can look me in the eyes. My strange blue eyes, one of them dark and shifting through shades like the evening skies, and the other pale and cloudy and etiolated. The last trace of an old encounter, when I was a boy: an encounter that set me on the path I walk today.
And today I am brought to a dark bend in that path indeed.
The carriage and the outriders stop just outside the gate that leads to a ramshackle house in the Sixth District. Even from the street, I can see the gaping holes in roof and wall. The house is in ruins, an anomaly in this area of stately mansions full of accomplished and perfumed personages. In stark contrast, this place smells like unwashed bodies and animal blood and bones, fire and grease and neglect.
But that is not what makes the Captain and her men step back as soon as I’m out of the carriage; that is not the reason why she hesitates to step past the shattered vestiges of fence and gate.
They don’t need my sight, or my abilities, to see for themselves that this house is possessed.
And in my skin and in my very bones I can feel what is here – a purely malevolent aura that begins right at the broken doors and it rises up into the cold and into the darkness.
I cannot be alone when I face this.
I must call for help.
“Withdraw, Captain,” I call over my shoulder, and if my voice is distorted with fear and with disgust, then let it be so. They are only soldiers – they are only human, and they will have to forgive me for this little indiscretion. “To the compass points with you and your companions. Leave the carriage here to mark the north.”
“I am not going to leave you alone again,” the Captain begins – and then she stops when I turn around, and she watches me pull up my left sleeve, and I watch her steadily as the blood drains from her face, leaving her deathly pale even under the fierce face of her helm.
But that does not stop her from trying to dissuade me. “But Her Imperial Highness’s orders....”
I shake my head. “You know as well as I do that in a matter such as this, even Her words can be countermanded by the onmyouji, because she trusts them – she trusts us – to know what ought to be done. How to best remedy the situation, if it goes beyond her knowledge, beyond her abilities. And you of all people know that I am doing this precisely to keep you safe, Captain,” and I gesture with my right hand to the house. “This is not an enemy you can fight and win against.”
“Can you fight this?”
I smile, as coldly as I can, and I pull the beads on my left wrist free, and touch the marking that the gesture reveals.
A feather as long as my forearm, blacker than winter’s night, inked into my skin and still clear after all these years.
“I don’t intend to fight that by myself.
“So don’t worry about me.”
The Captain glares at me for one more moment – and then her horse rears up onto its hind legs as she digs spur into muscle, and I can hear her calling orders to the other two riders.
It’s easy to put her out of my mind, because when I touch the inked feather a memory of burning threatens to overwhelm me, terrible ghostly fire that eats at my nerves and at my thoughts, consuming me completely....
Until I hear a sound as of wings beating, and the shadow that falls over me is familiar – is beloved.
A heavy weight falls on my shoulder – not a hand, not precisely, because the fingers end in claws.
The phantom fire of my nightmares falters and fails in my companion’s presence.
His voice is deep and amused, when he finally addresses me: “A fine mess you’ve almost gone and landed yourself in, little magician.”
“And yet here you are,” I say over my shoulder as I pull out my fan from my sleeve.
I touch the fan to my lips and I breathe a prayer into the folded edges of the paper leaf, and then in one movement I snap the whole thing open.
The characters on the fan become legible for the span of a breath, and then they begin to writhe and to glow, curling lazily into circles, into light and smoke and life.
I watch my companion extend one hand to the lights and then they are searing white, and he flicks each in the direction of the house.
Something screams, too high and unearthly for human ears, as the characters shift and reform and become circles, one after the other settling around the ruins of the four walls.
I turn partly away from the house as the cleansing begins.
A soft brush around my shoulders, and I look up, into grave and fathomless gray eyes.
My companion is smiling at me, even as he wraps his wings closer around both of us, a protective circle, the tips of his feathers crossing over my heart. “Take courage, little magician, you have a task ahead of you yet.”
“And you?” I ask.
“My task? Surely you know what it is.”
“Tell me,” I say.
He shakes his head, just a little, but he is still smiling. “My task is you,” he says, low and vehement and determined. “I would not be here if not for you – the one whom I am bound to serve.”
“And there is not a day that passes,” I say, “that I am not thankful for you.”
“We will speak of this later. Eyes upon your task.”
I turn back to the house. The circles of light glow brighter and brighter still, and the four compass points burn like fierce flame – and I can feel my power flowing and surging in response, as I chant quietly in the overwhelming tense silence of this night. My beads rattle through my unsteady fingers as I fight the darkness that has taken over this house, that is threatening the Sixth District.
Something in there is seething with malice and a terrible kind of hunger, hunger and power enough to swallow the night and the world whole.
Terrifying scenes play out in my mind, behind my closed eyes. A world of teeth and broken bodies. The thin reedy echoes of faraway agonized screaming. Rivers of blood and of shattered bone.
It hurts, and it takes all my will to keep standing, and to keep fighting.
Because right here, right now, my companion and I are all that stands between Miyako and this strange evil, the evil that has festered here for a long time and undetected, if it’s this strong now. The evil that has silenced the chorus of nocturnal spirits that would be found here in the Sixth District: the spirits of firefly and of fox and of night-singing lark, the spirits of wind and of rock and of weeping willow.
The thought of it nearly drives me to my knees.
There is a quiet, angry sound that does not come from my mouth – and then there are hands on my shoulders, pulling me back up so I can keep standing, so I can keep looking at the house, so I can keep chanting.
“Courage,” my companion whispers to me, in his deep and stern voice. “Take my strength – I offer it to you, freely.”
He expects to be obeyed.
So I draw power from him, and from my laboring heart.
Finally, finally, I cry out a prayer to the night and to its great tutelary voices, and the wind blows away the stench of the house and its wrongness from my mind, from my breath – and I step forward, still within the protective circle of my companion’s wings.
The beads in my left hand glow with a bright and steady light as of the waxing summer moon.
“Help me!” I call.
“I will,” my companion says, speaking for all the other spirits calling to me in my mind.
I hold out my hands toward the house – and my companion reaches over my shoulders to wrap his hands around mine, around the beads and the fan.
Rough large hands holding me firm and steady, pouring warmth and power into me.
Together we cry banishment, cry protection, cry healing.
The house resists us for just a moment longer – before it suddenly collapses in on itself, silently shattering, and a dark monstrous face seems to rise up from the building. A huge mouth yawns at the sky, as though wanting to devour it whole, and I see massive black teeth stained with blood and pestilence.
It makes me fall to my knees in fear and despair, breaking my companion’s hold. I tremble, and so does my voice. “What is this – who is calling this? Someone has to have summoned that – or someone was made to summon it. Someone who is here, in Miyako! I have to know – I have to know!”
My companion is tense and his teeth are bared, and he is very nearly growling.
I feel him move when he gets to his feet, and I peer around his bristling wings.
The Captain has returned, and her horse is lathered and blowing hard, its eyes rolling in fear. “What in all the nine hells was that? And how is it that the other onmyouji didn’t even know it was there? Most Serene Investigator, what kind of problem are we facing?”
“I...I must meet with Her Imperial Highness,” I whisper.
“That’s where you should be going next,” she snaps. “Now answer me.”
“We will find out,” my companion says, suddenly.
She mutters rebelliously under her breath – and I brace myself for an argument, but it never comes. Instead, the Captain whirls away once again, and this time she merely gestures at her companions, and then they are riding away from us, from here, as fast as they can. I can hear the horses’ hooves clattering into the distance, in the direction of the Imperial Court.
“You spoke to her,” I say, at last, as the light of true dawn appears on the distant horizon.
“It was necessary,” my companion says. “I had the answer. You were unable to speak.”
“She doesn’t trust you.”
“As well she should not; there is no reason for her to do so. I am something she cannot understand, something that perhaps some prey-part of her might fear. For my part, I dare not trust her with anything, not a blade of grass nor a fruit fallen from some tree, and certainly not with jewels or the kind of treasure ordinary beings and humans might crave.
“And I cannot trust her to have your best interests at heart. You are not even in any condition to travel or protect yourself right now, and yet she peremptorily orders you to go to the Empress.”
“In the good Captain’s defense,” I say, and I do not know what heaviness is pulling me down, nor what force is making it so hard to get to my feet, “it was I who mentioned going to court first. And she is just trying to remind me of my duties – of the reason I wear these robes.” I pull at one of my white sleeves. “It is vital that Her Imperial Highness be told of what has happened here in the Sixth District.”
My companion frowns. “I can understand that you feel this cannot wait, but can you not send a message? You must rest. Not even I can guess how much of a toll this has taken on you, and you and I are linked to each other.”
The smile I turn on him only deepens his frown – and well it should, perhaps, because I may be smiling but there is nothing to smile about in my words. “My night’s beloved, you know as well as I do that if I sent a message to Her, and it fell into the wrong hands, all could be lost. Miyako could be lost. What we fought was just...just a trace, an inferior shadow of the enemy, and whoever or whatever was behind it is right here in this city, may even be right here in this district, and I cannot spare a moment to rest because I must spend every moment on the hunt. You know all of this to be true, and so you know that I cannot delay.”
He growls, then, and the deep sound is both comforting and terrible, and I hold up my hand to make him stop. “But if I must, if you will continue to insist, I will rest – but only after I speak with the Empress. I swear this to you, and I’m certain you will make sure I keep my word.”
“You cannot even walk,” he begins, but he sweeps his eyes over me, and then he picks me up in a strong, sure grip. “Hold on to me tightly.”
“I trust you,” I tell him. “It has been ten years since I placed my life in your hands, after all.”
“Then keep it, by all the benevolent spirits, by the moon and the stars. Beautiful and foolish child. Stay alive. That is not a request.”
“I know.” I close my eyes, and put my arms around my companion’s neck.
I whisper to him, a brief phrase in his own language of whistle and shriek, and the arms around me tighten. I can feel his hand as it cups the back of my head.
“I would do this for no one else,” he says quietly.
“Thank you,” I say.
And then the sounds of Miyako’s streets fall away. All I can hear is the strong beat of his heart, the steady sweeping beats of his wings. The wind roars around us, and here I can breathe freely – the air is pure and cold, a balm to my heart after the struggle of earlier.
I breathe in the breezes blowing from the mountains that surround Miyako on three sides. A natural fortification protecting this ancient city, great walls like a shield – and a trap, as well.
Miyako is neatly closed in on itself, safety and danger all at once, and no one knows this perilous balance more than the handful of men and women who serve Her Imperial Highness as onmyouji: Her sorcerers and soothsayers.
I know of only two other onmyouji in the entirety of the court. I am the youngest, and the youngest onmyouji ever appointed to serve the Imperial throne.
“We are here,” my companion suddenly says, and we land so smoothly I barely feel it – I can only watch the great backsweeping motions of his wings as we drop and then he’s standing on the ground. “I cannot go any further.”
Before us is one of the smaller gateways into the imperial residence – and here, the wall and the gate are also physical manifestations of the protective spells enclosing Her Imperial Highness and the men and women of Her court.
He cannot step into this place – the sheer amount of magical force alone would tear him to pieces, never mind the offensive nature of some of the spells.
I remember coming to the palace on the day I entered Her Imperial Highness’s service, and walking around these walls, seeing neither the wrought gates nor the representations of the Five Elements – I remember being blind to the opulent wealth of the court, remember being ignorant of the men and women walking up and down the halls, because I was too entranced by the magic sealed into the grounds, by the great protective wards surrounding Her Imperial Highness and her environment.
And I remember renewing the magic at the close of the old year and the beginning of the new, walking a slow circuit around the walls and saluting the five guardian beasts, shoring up the magic with my own blood and my own abilities.
I reach out for my companion’s hand, and I touch my lips to the gnarled knuckles. “I will come back, and you know that.”
“You must. I care not about your wards and your protections if they stand between me and you. I will tear them down myself, if you do not come back to me.”
I see him fly off, a flutter of well-known shadow just beyond my sight, just out of reach of my strength, as I enter the gated compound, and the muted whispers of the court fill my ears, as though my dreams were being played out in real life.
There are no spirits here; the wall sees to that, and so do we, as it is an important task for Her onmyouji. We banish the troublesome ones, and we ask the others to leave, and so the court is silent to my other senses – there are no spirits in the bamboo groves, no inhabitants of leaf and rock and peony bush. The rivers that wind into and around the great gardens merely babble over pebble and slope, and the flowers only bloom and do not sing.
When they see my white robes, when they see the markings of my office, the men and women in the corridors hurry out of my way.
I am announced at the bridge before Her Imperial Highness’s audience chambers, and a boy runs out to deliver Her response, and I try to smile at him, to encourage him – he stands up a little straighter, and smiles back, and he closes the sliding doors behind me when I enter the innermost room.
Candles in the four corners of the rooms, and curtain after curtain of fine silk, and blinds carved out of pale bamboo, and there are others in the room: the Captain still looks put out, as does her lieutenant; the Ministers of the Right and of the Left are frowning at their respective retinues; and the woman who leads Her Imperial Highness’s court ladies is watching everyone else with narrowed eyes.
The trailing edges of Her Imperial Highness’s robes are scarlet and gray and gold.
The other two onmyouji are not here.
As soon as I’ve bowed to the others She speaks from behind the white screen, in quiet and urgent tones: “Most Serene Investigator, I wish to hear your report. It is most imperative that I know what is happening to my home.”
I watch the Minister of the Left produce a fan and rap it quietly against his other wrist. I watch his face twist in irritation; it makes him look far older than he truly is. “Pardon me, Highness, but I truly do not think that this isolated incident is worth discussing. So there is sorcery being attempted within Miyako; there is a penalty, there is a right and just punishment, and then the matter is closed. We must speak of other things....”
“Silence,” She snaps, and the robes behind the white screen rustle. “How can you think this is an isolated incident, Minister of the Left? You live in the Fifth District, and had it not been for the valiant efforts of the Most Serene Investigator, perhaps I would only be hearing about you being found in the ruins of your home. Or perhaps there would have been no time to prepare before demons invaded the precincts of the Chrysanthemum Court! I will not consider this incident an isolated one. I will consider it as an act of war against Miyako, against my home. And I will do everything I can to protect this city.”
There is a long pause, and someone gasps, and behind the white screen I can clearly see Her shadow, now standing.
I have agreed with Her and opposed Her countless times, and today I can only feel relief that She and I are looking at the problem in the same way.
And then: “Most Serene Investigator, please forgive the Minister his interruption, and make your report, if you would.”
I clear my throat, and begin. “I was called to the house in the Sixth District after the...infestation had manifested itself, and so could not ascertain how the summoning had been performed. All of my efforts were focused on banishing the spirit that was attacking the house and whoever was in it.”
“Survivors?” the court lady asks.
“Apologies, madam, but there were none,” I say. “The spirit had devoured most of the mansion and any inhabitants it might have had by the time it was detected, by the time I arrived. What I can say for sure is that the spirit was strong. Immensely so. The Sixth District had fallen silent, and will likely remain silent for some time. I can only hope that the spirits who were able to flee that thing will deign to come back. The Sixth District would be far poorer for their loss.”
I watch her step behind the white screen and confer with Her. The lady is dressed in her usual layers of robes, white and blue and gold, and the scarlet hair ornaments that denote her rank. If we onmyouji are the final line of defense between the Empress and the dark spirits, this court lady is Her final bodyguard and shadow, whose duty it is to lay down her life for Her sake.
“You are right,” Her Imperial Highness says, suddenly, “and so we must act. Ministers, you may withdraw, and in the morning I will hear your plans for protecting the other districts of Miyako. I wish for this city to be protected, and this burden falls upon your shoulders. Summon your advisers if you must – but confer, and quickly, for time is short and we have much yet to do.
“Captain, I expect you to hold yourself and your soldiers in full readiness for the Ministers’ plans.”
The Captain rises smoothly to her feet, and she bows formally, and before she leaves, she says in a clear and ringing voice, “We are at your disposal.”
“I am protected by you and yours and I am not afraid,” the Empress replies.
“And by me,” the court lady murmurs at last, when the others have left the audience chambers.
“And by you. Now, help me move the screen out of the way.”
I cast my eyes down to the mats.
“No, look at me,” She says, and I do.
Scarlet and gray and gold robes. Green eyes, clear and piercing like fine jade. Golden hair falling to the mats in a shining river.
“You and my companion are the only ones who do not flinch away from me,” She says, kindly, as she sits at my side, as she takes my hands in hers.
“I do not fear you, my Empress,” I say. “No more than you fear me.”
“But I do,” She says, and she laughs and covers her laugh with her sleeves. “You and your strange blue eyes, and that immense power of yours. I have some small spark of ability, but it pales next to yours.”
“Then use it. Everything I have at my disposal, you have but only to command, and I will do my best to carry out your will.” I smile at her, and drop my eyes. “I will investigate the incident, naturally; this is what I can do, and you have named me to my rank for this reason.”
She nods. “Find out who did this, my friend,” She says. “The Sixth District is far too close to the Chrysanthemum Court. And you have said that the spirit you fought was strong. I want you to find out what is happening. I will not inquire into your methods – you must act as you see fit, and I and mine will not interfere.”
“I will do all I can. Let me rest for just a few hours and then I will return to the Sixth District, and start looking.”
“Rest for as long as you need. I want you at your best.”
The court lady escorts me out of the chambers, and she looks at me carefully, before she releases my arm. “Do not worry Her too much,” she says, and smiles kindly. “It is my job to look after the Empress when she is in one of her moods, and you are far too often the cause of her worries.”
“I am doing my job, and that is all,” I say.
“Do not go too far, is what I ask of you. I would not like to be the one who brings Her dire news of you.”
I smile. “I feel the same way.”
“Give my regards to your companion,” she says.
I retrace my steps and I am almost at the gate when the boy who conducted me into the hall calls for me: “Investigator?”
The boy is pale, and shivering, and I can guess why. “A message for me. Deliver it, please.”
The boy looks down at his feet. “The Minister of the Right bids you be careful, sir. You receive your orders from Her as they do. He prays you will be careful as you go about your tasks.”
“Is that all?”
I smile at him and I pass my left hand over his head, and the movement rattles my beads. “You’re safe,” I murmur. “I will be looking out for you and yours. Will you tell me about your family?”
“I am...I’m the son of the first court lady, sir.”
“You’re a brave one,” I say. “She ought to be proud of you. Remember to pass on this message to her.”
“But the Minister, sir?”
This time I must look terrifying to him. “Leave him to me. Leave them to me.”
The boy is still standing there when I walk out of the gate.
I turn the corner, and head back to my lodgings, and the sun rises at last.
There are eyes watching me every step of the way, and I banish them all, and that means that by the time I gain my chambers I am well and truly exhausted.
My companion is waiting for me, and I gratefully sink into his arms. “Sleep,” he orders. “I have warded this room. You will be safe here.”
“Who will keep you safe?”
The last thing I see is his smile. “May you never have to find out that answer, beloved.”
title: The Prophet and the Feather, Two
word count: approx. 3270 in this installment
fandom: X-Men: First Class
Charles Xavier: the Most Serene Investigator
Emma Frost: Her Imperial Highness
Raven Darkholme: the First Court Lady
Kurt Wagner: the son of the First Court Lady
rating: R in this chapter
notes: Continuing from Part One. Amazing art here. For onnasannomiya and Keio. WIP.
notes: rating increase in this chapter due to discussion of things out of nightmares, examination and discussion of dead bodies including those of children, and implied child abuse.
"Night's Beloved" is not in this chapter, but he will be in the next one; here we have a little backstory, and some plot.
I dream of corridors, and of a too-familiar pale ivory kimono.
It is the only item I have ever owned that had belonged to my father: one of the robes that he wore when he came of age, carefully preserved by his family, and then passed to me at last, when it was my turn to be declared an adult, and when I was charged with the duties and responsibilities of an onmyouji.
Fragile old silk, the ivory thread overlaid with dull silver in fine braided stripes, and clearly worn over and over again, the seams carefully stitched back together. Despite the years of being stored away in chests and boxes, despite being wrapped in strong paper to protect it from damage and from the elements, the robe is now too delicate for me to wear.
In my dreams, the beautiful old cloth is being unraveled – one fallen thread from one long sleeve, pulled and pulled and the thread disappears into the darkness, and I remember trying to gather it in my hands so that it would not be lost or broken, and so that I could find my way around the twisting corners.
I remember the silk falling around my feet despite my best efforts, fluttering weakly in the faint whispering wind that carries the mumur of those stranger voices, and I remember feeling entangled in the thread.
I wake up alone, and cold.
A shiver crawls down my nerves at the memory of being ensnared in that strange place, in that precious silk.
When I open my windows Miyako has disappeared in a dense fog, in a steady spray of smoke-like rain.
My page bows to me when I leave my chamber, and there is pity in his little face, and I sigh, and gather my robes as best as I can, before I have to step outside into the rain and the mud and the streets of the city.
With the weather in this lamentable condition there is no one to notice me or stop me from heading back to the Sixth District – and perhaps I am disguised, too. Perhaps my straw cloak and conical hat will distract people, prevent them from inquiring too closely, from identifying me.
These are clothes such as my companion would wear, if he were here, and should he wish to go about without attracting the notice of those who might see him as enemy or prize or hostage.
I hope I, too, am protected, and not just from the rain.
Only too late do I realize that my hat leaks, and by the time I arrive at the gate in the wall surrounding the Sixth District, my hair is streaming water into my face. I dash dark curling strands out of my eyes and push forward, and the storm only grows stronger and fiercer, and I am shivering in my cloak.
There is now a fence of some kind surrounding the house where the summoning had taken place: the wood is flimsy and cannot stop anyone from entering the ashen ground, but the poles are supporting great panels of cloth worked with Her Imperial Highness’s personal emblem, which are as good as a wall in serving as an interdict for the site.
The panels are joined by white ropes with red strands – sacred rope, such as is used to mark the boundaries of consecrated land – and from one of the knots hangs a wooden tablet inscribed with a prayer for protection.
The tablet glows faintly at my approach; I take it in my hands and trace the carved characters with my fingertips, and I can feel my power flowing into the enclosure of cloth and rope and wood, helping to shore up the protections already surrounding the site of the summoning.
How much does the Sixth District know of what happened here?
Who was here on that night, and who set the summoning into motion?
What else must I guard this city and Her throne and my dreams against?
There are still no spirits here, and the silence of the District is more than a chill in my bones. I whisper a prayer to the elements, to the rage of the storm – and I step into the enclosure, into the ruined house.
It still smells like burning and like sulfur and like blood, and I cover my mouth with my soaked sleeve and breathe carefully.
On my knees, into the sodden ash and into the scorched soil. Tiny rocks and splintered wood everywhere, every edge smashed and broken and sharp, slicing into my robes and into my skin. Soon my hands are covered with cuts.
Here is a small bone from a hand, blackened at each end. Here are the shattered pieces of a bone from the arm, roughly broken. A chip from a jaw. The sharp point of a rib.
Too many sharp edges.
Too many small bones.
Not even the rain can wash these remains clean.
There were children here, and they were part of the summoning. They may have been sacrificed to begin it, or they were consumed by the spirit after it was summoned.
How many children? Whose children were they?
I sift through the wet clumps of ash and I try my hardest to ignore the prickling in the corners of my eyes. I must ignore my emotions and think only of my duty – of the work that I must perform here. Weeping will not help these children, and will take away the strength I desperately need to hold on to, because there is no one who can help me here.
On my own, I examine the remains of the house, of the people who had been here.
A futile wish: to be able to speak to the spirits who watched over the family, over the children.
I will need to look up the names of the people who had been here; I may find their survivors or their relatives, or I may not. The Sixth District is home to the families of the women in Her Imperial Highness’s service, and to the families of the soldiers serving under the Captain. The Ministers and courtiers do not live here, but some of them visit mistresses in these neighboring houses.
I only hope that I will not have to investigate the entirety of the Chrysanthemum Court.
Not even Her warrant will help me, and not even the sword of the Captain can save me, if I should find myself in that situation – nor, perhaps, even the feather inscribed into my skin.
Ash in my mouth, on my hands, on my robes.
The rain here is foul with the odors of burning and of blood.
Where it falls within this enclosure it turns the remains into mud.
I approach the place where the center of the house must have stood, and I sweep away the ashes with my feet.
Faint edges of a circle – two circles, one inside the other. Broken lines everywhere, too many of them; some of these lines must be characters and some of them the shapes within the summoning edges.
I don’t have to take out the string of scarlet beads to measure this, to know that this is a large circle – larger than if I broke the cord and laid out the one hundred and eight in a straight line. It must have been, to hold whatever that demon was.
Such strength in these lines, though I can only read a handful of remaining traces now. Such power.
Such hatred of Miyako and of its people.
I think of my history lessons as I continue to clear the wreckage from the ruined summoning circle: how the onmyouji fought each other in the days before Miyako became the seat of the Chrysanthemum Court and the august personage who led it – how that Emperor revealed himself to be a powerful sorcerer as well. How he called all the others to his side – some through defeat in battle, some through diplomacy, some through pure conviction.
I think of the oath he exacted from all the onmyouji he won over, and I remember that he granted pardons to every one who took the oath, weak and strong alike.
That Emperor had been himself murdered by one of the men he pardoned.
And the other onmyouji had avenged him. Seven men and women, the most loyal of those who were still alive at that time, who made plans and put them into action. For five years they pretended to live dissipated lives. A public show of renouncing their spell books and their white robes, of throwing their knives and their fans and their beads and all their magical implements into the mountain rivers. Five years of hiding in the pleasure quarters. Waiting patiently until the murderer seemed convinced that he was safe at last from reprisal.
The strike at midnight: seven onmyouji with their hands joined so that they themselves were the magical circle, powered by the deepest cold of winter and the full moon, casting terrible death, and giving up their lives to restore their fallen Emperor’s honor.
The murderer had been found dead and unmarked and pale; and the seven went to their deaths with peaceful faces, when the weak winter sun rose above the horizon.
Their names were struck from the scrolls and from the records because of their renunciation, and even now, their gravestones merely read The Seven in Winter.
Every onmyouji knows who they are.
If only I could ask them to help me.
Familiar characters along the outer edges of the summoning circle, confirming my thoughts from earlier. A gateway into the fourth circle of Makai. I cannot make out the name of the dark spirit – I dare not unearth the entirety of the circle. Revealing half of it will be enough, and I inscribe counter-spells and protective wards at the compass points and break several other lines in the circle, sometimes with a rock, sometimes with a bone, and sometimes by stepping through.
The earth into which the circle is inscribed cracks and heaves beneath my feet, and something in the air within the enclosure seems to snap.
I can breathe freely, now, but every breath is slow and pained, and the rain mixes with the blood and the ashes on my hands, staining my sleeves black and red.
I can rest, if I make it to the palace.
I need to find the Captain, or the First Court Lady.
I want to find my companion, but not even he can do anything against this storm.
The spirits of Miyako lend me their strength and by the time I enter the Third District, I am awake enough to recognize the person following me.
Somehow I find the strength to smile, and I stoop beneath the awning of a candy shop, and the woman smiles tremulously after she catches sight of my hands – but she still offers me a cup of tea, and for that I am grateful. “It’s a terrible day out there, sir.”
“It is,” and I purchase a small bag of spun-syrup candy, and when the son of the First Court Lady peeks around the rain doors into the shop, I call out to him, and hold out the sweets. His fine lacquered conical hat keeps the rain off his face, and he is no doubt wearing several layers beneath his heavy cloak. “Hello, young one,” I say.
“Investigator,” he says, shyly, but he takes the bag and peeks in, and smiles. “Would you like some?”
“You’re very polite, Young Master,” the shop’s proprietor murmurs approvingly.
The boy blushes and ducks his head – and then he looks back at me and the expression on his face is familiar, and childishly grave. “I was sent to find you, sir.”
“I know,” I tell him, equally serious. “Am I to go to the Minister’s chambers?”
He shakes his head firmly. “No. To the Willow Pavilion. They are waiting for you there.”
“May I finish my tea?”
The boy nods, and busies himself with tucking a sweet into his mouth.
Again I exchange the cheerful industry and mischief of Miyako’s protector spirits and their songs for the cool delicate silence of the palace.
Again the looks from the people and the guards of the Chrysanthemum Court, but there are far fewer of them in evidence, and no one looks twice at my muddied hems or at my pale-faced little escort.
I follow him through the corridors, and try not to think of my dreams, or of following a thread of ivory silk over dark floors.
Doors opening and closing as we pass, out the other side of Her audience chambers and then through the gate that leads into the smallest of the palace’s private gardens.
The rain casts a misty cloak over the prized pale bamboo growing in a dense stand near the southern corner, over the seven memorial tablets arranged in a circle in the western corner. Flashes of color through the gray – vivid red and pale yellow, Her Imperial Highness’s colors.
There are voices murmuring here, too, but they are voices I know well, and I can smile, when the boy breaks away and runs laughing toward the pavilion tucked against the far wall of the garden. I can hear his voice and I can hear him saying my name.
The First Court Lady joins me on the footpath, and holds a red oiled-paper umbrella over my head. “We have been putting you through the nine circles, Most Serene Investigator,” she murmurs as she takes in my appearance, and she sounds truly apologetic. “We will have to find some way of making it up to you.”
“I must do what I must do,” I say, and she shakes her head and pulls me to the shelter of the pavilion.
I get down on my knees and bow to the Empress.
There is no space for a privacy screen in this pavilion; She is seated near the wall, and there is just enough space for kimono skirts to spread out, and then to admit one or two others to her presence.
She almost seems to glow in this soft muted space, in blue and pink and dark gray robes, and over all that a scarlet and white mantle.
“Most Serene Investigator,” She says, looking truly conflicted. Her expression wavers between concerned disapproval and sharp interest. “Are you all right? Do you require assistance? What have you found?”
“I have begun to look into the matter of the house in the Sixth District,” I begin, and I speak of the morning and of the silence, of the ash and the black circle left broken and inanimate. When I mention the bones the First Court Lady turns away and closes her eyes, and places her hands over her son’s ears.
I tell them of the characters that formed several parts of the circle – and She holds up a shaking hand, and points mutely to the west.
“Yes,” I say quietly. “I thought of them too. I remembered the Seven who avenged your ancestor, and I thought of the murderer.”
“Could he have returned somehow?” the First Court Lady asks. “Last night, I spent hours reading and rereading the histories, and all the accounts seemed united on this idea. That the corpse was examined and exorcised, and before the body was destroyed it was wrapped in amulets, as many as the remaining onmyouji could think of. They used every blessing they could remember, and many that they had to decipher, because the script in the oldes scrolls was difficult to read.”
“Some of the spells were written right onto the skin of the body,” Her Imperial Highness murmurs. “The ink was mixed with blood and purified water. On arm and on hand, on the face, on the feet.”
“And the body and the magic that was placed into it – all were consumed by fire,” I say. “Not in the places where cremation takes place normally. They chose a secret location and set prayers and wards on the very flames, and made sure nothing was left behind, not even ashes or dust. I remember my teacher’s tale of it – a tale she told only once.”
“It is a tale that does not bear repeating.” The Empress nods. “I, too, heard it from my older sister, before she died; she had it of her instructor, who set the fire that consumed the body.” She shakes her head, helplessly.
“A body,” the First Court Lady mutters. “Well, this part of the investigation I can take from your shoulders,” she tells me, and the smile on her face does not quite reach her eyes. “Your work will keep you in the Sixth District, and mine will take me to this secret fire from long ago.”
I cannot smile back at her. “It seems to be my fate, or my curse, that I am forever searching for things in the season of Miyako’s long rains.”
“There is no need for you to speak about your mother here, not even here,” Her Imperial Highness murmurs soothingly.
“I was not thinking of her, my Empress,” I say, and when I reach for the tea tray at the First Court Lady’s elbow I can observe, quite dispassionately, that my own hand is shaking. From the cold or from the memories I do not know. “I was thinking that perhaps pouring rain would still be preferable to a cave, and to being bound, and to waiting for an almost certain death – knowing that no one would come to help.”
Someone makes a noise at that, and I smile weakly at the son of the First Court Lady, who looks distressed. “I am sorry, little one. You should not have heard that. It is not a tale for you.”
“Or for anyone,” his mother says, quietly and sadly. She takes one of my hands in hers.
Her Imperial Highness offers me her hand as well. “Old friend,” she murmurs. “You must learn to let that go. You came back alive.”
I look away from them, and take back my hands, and I cannot see the garden.
When the rains come, when Miyako is wrapped in deep snow, the old scars around my eye will sometimes hurt, like sharp pinches that come and go.
I cover those scars with my hand, and I rise to my feet. Less than gracefully, perhaps, and I apologize as I step back down into the garden. “I should resume my investigations now that you have been apprised of my current findings. I will come back when I have something else to report.”
“Most Serene Investigator,” the Empress says, and her quiet voice carries all throughout the garden.
“Command me,” I say, and I summon all of my strength, and the little courage I have.
She is silent for a long time, and I at last look back at Her.
“Come back alive. The Chrysanthemum Court needs you.”
I meet her eyes. “I cannot make you any promises, my Empress, and you know this.”
“We do,” the First Court Lady says.
“I will do everything I can, then,” I say, and I walk away.