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The Noblest Cause

Chapter Text

“I hear all my old universe is at war,” Charles said, trailing a reed idly in the water with one hand. “It’s a veritable apocalypse. Can you say apocalypse?” His pupil made an approximate noise, but Charles had proceeded to the next part of the lesson. “The root is Greek, the meaning obscured by religion, for it means revelation.” He sighed. “Well, war or merely war’s alarm, it has little to do with us either way, my dear, so it is the age of apocalypse for me, no matter how old this newsprint is; almost as old as you.”

The child looked up and smiled with her mouth open, revealing missing teeth. She tugged at his sleeve then raised both of her arms.

Folding the newspaper carefully away, Charles bent and picked her up with only slight difficulty. He had twisted his knee just the week ago and there was still a lingering twinge but the child was light enough and she had lost one of her shoe already while running up the stone path to find him. “Come now,” he said, “let us find your father. I hope he’s had better luck with his students, though you were doing very well until we got to the Greek and that was partly my fault for being so sentimental. You won’t tell, will you?” The child shook her head then giggled in his arms.

He carried her to the pavilion where people were clearing away platters. A man was scrutinizing half a dozen paintings laid out drying on a large table, frowning and smiling by turns, the former featuring more heavily.

“Mr. Munroe, I return to you your daughter,” Charles said, “though I fear she has lost a shoe.”

“You are very good with her,” Munroe said, glancing up in surprise, “she always runs to you.” He directed his attention to his hoyden daughter and once she was in his arms said, “Ororo, a half dozen people must be out of their wits for you and you don’t even have a full smile yet.”

After dispatching a boy to deliver the message of Ororo’s recovery, with her more or less sitting curled at his waist, Munroe solicited Charles’ opinion on the pictures, which consists of efforts that attempted to capture the same long green grass, the glittering pools of water, and the purplish mountains ranges beyond to varying success. He had come from a school that demanded more realism, but Storm’s people had a tendency to sketch abstractedly. Though generally dissatisfied, he emphasized to Charles that it was not a lack of ability for he had seen these same artists capture the movements of animals, details of flowers and the expression on each other’s faces to great and vivid detail without needing his tutelage. In general, he thought they had a better sense of light and shadow than those whom he taught in New York.

The suggestion that perhaps their abstract renderings simply reflected dislike to a landscape theme was met gloomily. As a very young man, Munroe had set up his easel and paints under drafty bivouacs while under fire. He perceived the the ability to capture a scene quickly on canvas a necessary branch of military skill, for it trained the mind in making salient observations and the body in precision and economy of movement. Art was an indulgence that a soldier could ill afford and David Munroe had a more thoroughly martial air, even with the child hugged against him, than anyone Charles’ had ever seen despite growing up familiar with the sight of soldiers and sailors.

Munroe even walked as other people marched, each step a precise stride, which he shortened considerably for Charles while they conversed and he tried to get Ororo to take the nap from which she had escaped.

Eventually he had the tea brought out and as Ororo slumbered on his chest, he noticed that Charles had grown quieter and was now gazing at her, wistful.

“Charles,” he said, quietly. “I know that you are eager to return to Westchester, but it is as impossible today as it was when you came, if not even more so, given that now another war separates you from yours.”

“But the war, no matter how great the scale in its inception, might have ended,” Charles said. It was more difficult today to keep silent. “The news is almost two years old, have you really received no word from the coasts, or anywhere? Can men not wish for peace after so long?”

Munroe sighed. He remained silent for a while, then said, “Perhaps when Storm ends court tonight, you might ask her again. She would not lie to you and her affection for you could make a husband jealous. It almost seemed that she knew you would be there.”

It was his usual tease, for Ororo’s eyes were blue, like Charles’ and her mother’s, while Munroe’s eyes were a brown so dark as to be almost black.

“I am fortunate to have her grace.” Charles was not quite able to be distracted, to smile, conscious of his good fortune despite the desire to be home-- more, to be in Genosha -- the same as he had when he finished off his letter to Erik, only a week before all his wishes were opposed.

Disembarked off of a pirate ship, weak from an agony that had passed undetected by others in a hold that smelt of bilgewater, he had been deposited at a Barbary port, separated from his friends, pillaged of all his remaining goods and became one himself.

For his blue eyes and reddish beard, Charles’ captors paraded him to the largest establishment specializing in similar import. He was housed with the other prisoners, each man, alpha or omega, though from diverse regions of the world, sharing the same reduced circumstances and awful future -- if it would even warrant the word -- which their jailer presented with admirable and disturbing clarity in several different languages: slavery.

The common patois the port employed was a pidgin mix of languages, somewhat recognizable in odd words and phrases. After a few weeks of puzzling the guards’ conversations, Charles became conscious that at this particular time in history, due to more frequent raids and battles both at sea and in the inner regions, of all the living spoils of war, young omega males commanded the highest price, for being stronger than females and as fertile; they were also considered better suited than alpha males for enslavement, being hardier in strange climates, and docile if breeded.

However, since there was no outward physical difference between alpha and omega males unless subjected to the most humiliating of exams where bribery of the examiner was common, bringing their appraisal into doubt for the potential customers who might also have taboos regarding the nature of the test, it was customary among the wealthier distributors willing to invest in a more profitable return to have the men isolated and kept until their agonies, which Charles eventually puzzled out as “heat” for English-- a word he had previously only known to apply to livestock-- at which point they would be advertised, and if unsold after the first few days, put to auction in the open market.

It was during that awful length of waiting until his value assessed according to the market that Storm arrived, her litter heavy with scent and gold and much discussed by the guards. But once Charles was dressed and released, it was an American who proclaimed that his queen had seen Charles in a vision and had purchased him to give him freedom and offer position in the household. What that position was, he wasn’t exact, but Charles had nothing except the suit of new clothes on his back and no choice when his worth had a price.

The journey back to home of Storm’s people, for no other names had been given and Munroe had been purposefully obscure, was two difficult months across the desert, and another month traversing a steep and rocky valley. In ordinary times, Charles would have marveled at all the strange sights that he saw. Independent, he could consider it a great adventure, but his weariness and David Munroe’s constant reference to home and the child his queen was bearing only made him heartsick, kept him forever looking backwards even as they marched beyond the sight of the sea; every step carried him further away from slavers, but also from Westchester, Genosha, from Erik and their children, the home he had made unawares but it seemed, would never see.

In the encircled lands that Munroe, expatriate of America, was calling home, Charles had no official duties. Still recovering from his journey, he acted as a royal retainer for Munroe to keep as a companion, listening to his worries about his potential child. It changed six months after Ororo was born, for then Storm summoned him.

She had all the trapping that could proclaim the supernatural: the crown, the sceptre, the imperious gestures- but Charles had came from a different tradition from David Munroe’s democracy. It was no vision that led her to pluck him before the auction block. Charles knew the difference between an abstract belief and polite fiction. Storm was royal; her kingdom rich, her messengers many, and she herself must wear many faces, even one that would deal with slavers and inquire after the source of their wares. She knew, for example, that he came off of HMS Phoenix, and was a scholar.

“David and I are attached,” she had said and Charles was fluent enough by then to know the significance of the word in this land, “and our daughter is proof of an attachment that would’ve been impossible in other times. He had journeyed far to see me and my mind had traveled further to meet his. We are bound tightly in turbulent times. The world is changing, Sir Charles. Wars surround us and if my daughter is to grow up in it as Storm’s daughter and become Storm herself, succor for her land and people, she must know, in safety -- because I am her mother -- what would serve her in times of danger. She must be learned and know how to learn in traditions foreign to us.”

And so Charles understood that he was to be a teacher and prisoner even like the ancients he had studied. He understood also, with a bitterness new to him, that his narrative had been merciful in its way: he had survived piracy; he lived in an oasis; he was fed and clothed royally; Ororo and her father were amiable companions. His shipmates and friends would’ve been fortunate to suffer the same.

But when the initial shock of his change in fortune wore away and his body fully recovered from the arduous journey, every new dish he sampled, every new wine he tasted, and every new marvel he encountered only made him wish to share the wonder only to find that there would be no one who would find it extraordinary and that his ordinary would be strange. And at every private agony, his heart craved more fiercely than his body ever did. In his loneliness, which come frequently, for Ororo was still young and had her nurses and carers and David often had his own duties, Charles imagined Erik, but not his his face and lips and hands and the perfection of his body which he had desperately wanted the first agony after Erik had left him and taken the children to Genosha, but of the time before- Erik sitting across from him, silent and smiling for the perfect understanding between them.

Nostalgia was dolorous in its hurt; it grew worse when he saw the newspaper, though it was French, found at the relay station where Munroe and he played a game of roundball with the new recruits just came up for their furlough. He did not know whether he was meant to see it at the refreshment tent, but the fellow who had it had been apologetic for accidentally tripping him at the game, and offered it to him when he asked.

Munroe saw him poring over it at lunch and then later, while he was making the final arrangement for his art lesson. He had lifted a quizzical eyebrow. Charles had seen the interest and fled, speculating wildly of all the newsprint did not say and growing sick of his own ignorance until Ororo found him.

In the evening, David Munroe made good on his promise and took him to dine with Storm.

He kissed her lightly on the cheek and asked: “Is there news of war or peace?”

She paused from trying to convince Ororo to eat her food and nodded at Charles seeing him enter. “Do you ask for yourself, or for Sir Charles?”

“Both. It is easy to forget that we can be affected as well,” Munroe said, sitting down cross-legged beside her in front of the low table. He shifted Ororo into his lap and took over feeding her.

“Do you still wish to leave?” Storm asked, turning to Charles.

“I wish to know whether my family is safe,” he replied, carefully. He would’ve been embarrassed to be intruding upon one of the rare dinners Storm could have with only her family present were he not so eager for any piece of new of his own. “The news I read is from two years ago, and it speaks of escalation of war, not of its ending when I had not even known it resumed.”

Charles disliked politics. It was the prevailing subject in Westchester ever since he could remember, but he remembered arguing with Erik about the intentions of French Directory, of monarchies, Republics, and revolutions that could create a Brotherhood of men while bringing the world around them into chaos. Erik had defended the revolution and the First Consulate; Charles had found the speaker more affecting than his subject. Erik’s face, lightly tanned from his fondness for the outdoors, had twin spots high on his cheek that turned the colour of coral as he spoke, his passion growing. Distracted, Charles had fantasized the colour in other circumstances. Its first realization occurred during a brisk dawn on an alcoved bed- but was now still only fantasy again.

And perhaps might even remain one even if he did return to Westchester. Erik had excited Westchester before; he likely would have done so again with much of Xavier estate at his disposal. Further, he had two children. Reasonably, Charles could not begrudge them another parent, but reasonably, it went against his very nature to dwell in uncertainties and be contented with ignorance.

“We are very isolated,” Storm said, “I am not without sympathy, but I cannot tell you what I do not know about affairs so distant. The roads have grown unsafe.”

Charles fell silent.

“But war and desperation can drive men where they do not wish to go,” David said, “and while it has led to my happiness, it has led me to find you and this place. A man you might help. A few you can direct elsewhere, but what if there are more?”

Storm looked at him, startled. After a moment, she said, “Cassandra is coming this year. She is already at the borders. Perhaps she will have news where I cannot, if you can suffer gossip and rumors in the same breath,” and sounded resigned.

Then they moved onto other topics and Charles must be content with what he was given.

“Who is Cassandra?” he asked Munroe when he got the chance.

“An agent of a merchant cabal of the Ottomans and a courtesan,” Munroe replied. “Rumor has it she’s so beautiful she can seduce kings and gods. She rides with the Mamluks in the desert and come so far in land every couple of years to collect the flowers of our Celestial plants. I have never met the woman myself, but the Mamluks are fierce warriors and rulers in their own right. Personally, I think she’s a spy for the sultan, though she pays handsomely for the plants and the cultivation of the plants has remained secret. Storm would say Cassandra can tell you more than you need to know of anything and more than half are improbable.”

“Hence the name?” But the reference was lost, so Charles contented himself with counting down the days and laughed at himself for being so eager to see a beautiful courtesan. Erik would not be pleased, but perhaps he would not mind when Charles tells him it was all for the longing to return to him.

There was a story that Charles was writing for him, for the children, a journal that would have a happy ending. It would be a confession and a plea if necessary. He had no faith in his letter’s delivery, though the feelings had remained constant. In the beginning and almost feverish with despair, he had rambled his frustrations and fears to anyone who would hear. The sentiments were simpler now: I had not meant to be away. I love you. Forgive me.

Munroe was with Storm the entire day, so Charles rode with the captain of the Queen’s Guard to greet the captain of the Mamluks. Cassandra was unmistakable beside him. While her companions wore a uniform of different colours her clothes and armor were entirely in black. She wore no turban, but had beneath her hat a veil over her face covered it entirely. As a slight figure sitting straight atop of a horse, it was impossible to see if she was beautiful as rumored. She had, Charles noted, unlike her companions, no sword at her belt though she had the brace of pistols and the easy way she directed her horse made Charles wonder at the use of the word “courtesan.” Was she a mistress or a courtier, or both, and to whom? The Mamluks were all alphas, but she was the only woman among them.

He had expected her to be dark, and she was, but only in her hair. Cassandra, at dinner, her head uncovered and in a loose tunic belted at the waist and white trousers, was as pale as himself with eyes the same shade of blue, without the trace of violet in Storm and Ororo’s eyes. She looked practically a girl, her skin still dewy with youth, the lines of her delicate face soft. There was a splendid charm to her shy smile when Storm introduced them.

All her movements were graceful. In conversation, she had a gaze that was almost mischievous. She reminded Charles strongly of the alpha women he had known in Westchester; the familiarity was almost comfortable, but her intelligence and her wit had a certain strangeness and sharpness that would abruptly remind Charles that she was not a young girl in costume at a masquerade.

Something in his thoughts must have showed, she said, in English with a strong accent that only made it lilting: “You are fantasizing a sad story for me, Sir Charles. I can see it in your face.”

“Am I so easy to read?” Charles asked, smiling, “but I admit to being curious man by nature.”

“And where do you seek your answers? I’ve met men who labour in libraries all hours of the day, trying to find them in books. They blind themselves by candlelight and moonlight and become disappointed by what the sun shows them.”

“Then their loss is a grave one. I know with certainty I won’t find you in any book,” Charles said. “No man would’ve been able to imagine you, for you are a marvel under the sun and a person entirely novel in history.”

The flattery was answered with a laugh, as bright and as light as the sound of silver bells. Cassandra was indeed beautiful, exquisite when she smiled; the blush in her face could’ve been painted by a Renaissance master’s brush. “Not so unique, I’m afraid. My story is the same as my Mamluk companions, though I had my mother with me and she gave me enough protection that I was educated with the sultan’s children. When I was grown, our patron had fallen out of favor, but I no longer required it. I had become as you see me, an agent of other people’s interests.”

And other people’s secrets, went unsaid, but otherwise she would not be here in Storm’s hidden kingdom, traveling with the Mamluks. It was an irresistible dare.

“And what if I express an interest?” Charles asked.

Cassandra lifted a perfectly arched eyebrow. “Surely you cannot be in need of Celestial plants when you reside in its only garden, or,” she lowered her voice, murmured, “or are you expressing a more personal interest? It is only fair to say that will not be here long.”.

She was sat next to him. Beside her was the Mamluk captain, who was talking with Storm.

Charles leaned in further until he could smell her perfume; he lowered his own voice, and said, “My personal interest tend to be in knowledge. As one traveller to another, tell me how to go home- beyond the African coast.”

His request surprised her. It made him play the part of petitioner when she expected a duel. She swirled the wine in her glass. She gazed at him beneath the sweep of her eyelashes. “And what will I have? I can afford very little on my own.”

“Anything I can give,” Charles said, truthfully. “If you can read my face and yet never denied the sad story I imagined for you, then I can at least offer you this: I’m growing acquainted with the mix of peoples that live in these empires, but you cannot tell me that you share the same heritage. Do you not wish to go home and be your own agent instead of other people’s, where you do not have to be constantly wary of your life, traveling with soldiers and weapons?”

Cassandra’s expression remained impassive. “I only said that our story is the same, and it could become your story, too. That narrative may unsettle you, but it is the only heritage that matters. I’ve never known another country or another way of life. Alphas find homes whereever we are, even if I am female, Sir Charles.” Cassandra was right, their stories could be the same, but Charles already knew enough of it to know its wrongs. He caught the longing in the reprimand.

“My name is Charles Francis Xavier,” Charles said, “I am from Westchester, which is near the Kingdom of Great Britain, and I think you must be from the same part of the world for seeing you reminds me of a home I still cherish. Home does not have to be so warlike. Why should you not be able to choose?”

Strangely, a shadow passed her bright eyes but it was chased away so quickly that Charles was uncertain if he only fancied it. Cassandra was silent for a while then said, “And will you take me to Westchester, Sir Charles Xavier? And find me my family?” And she was like the girl she might’ve been again.

Charles inclined his head. “If you desire it. I would offer you the the protection of my status and my wealth in Westchester when you return me to mine.”

She smiled softly at this, but there the topic was an end and Charles could not pursue it further. It was, however, the Mamluk captain who broached the topic of Charles’ leaving with them to Storm.

“He looks like her brother,” he said to Storm the next evening after spending a disconcerting amount of time staring at Charles. “The resemblance is striking to a stranger, especially when they’re both still and the similarities less confused by mannerisms. Perhaps his father travelled.”

Perhaps. Whether he travelled so far as to meet Cassandra’s mother was not impossible, though unlikely. Brian Xavier was not an easy man; in Charles’ memory, he had been a stern alpha, tall and grave, who seldom even smiled at Charles’ mother; he was a difficult master to his servant and an absent father for his son until he was of age to express an interest in the matters that involved Brian’s contributions to the Royal Society. Charles’ distance from his father had never lead him to seek an explanation why it existed at all. However, his father loved Raven, who was his undoubted favorite, being named heir to the Darkholme title if she would be an alpha and a greater settlement if an omega.

“Sir Charles is a teacher in his own country,” Storm said lightly, “a different disposition from Cassandra, I think, but if she want to claim kinship and Sir Charles agrees...” She let the words linger, casting a curious eye at Charles.

There were negotiations beyond what Charles understood, likely involving the price of the goods they had come to trade, but he knew family had precedence in almost all business in the desert and a claim of kinship was effective as a claim on the person.

As the days pass, with Munroe playing advocate on his behalf for Storm whose suspicions for Cassandra remained, Charles grew daring in his hope that he shall indeed see Westchester again.

A few evenings afterward the negotiation had been finalized, there was a knock on his door. Storm was outside.

He admitted her, a bit awkwardly, she had no attendants with her. There was a box in her hand that she set on the table. Although he was mostly packed, there was still tea kept warm on the burner. Charles poured her a cup.

“If you are determined to leave us then you must,” she said and took a sip of the tea, “I keep no slaves. I try to rule justly, and wisely, and be no one’s jailer.” Her eyebrow arched as Charles was about to protest, so Charles kept silent. “You know the way we came from the coast is not an easy road and you cannot take the same road back. I don’t know the countries Cassandra travel or what passport she is allowed. I cannot guarantee your safety, nor can I promise you her good faith. In fact, I’m inclined to advise you to be wary of her. She’s been slave longer than she has been free and there are scars that still leave a woman beautiful and clever.”

“I do not expect others to bear the responsibility for my own decisions,” Charles answered, wondering if Storm thought him seduced by something Cassandra had said, “I would’ve been a poor teacher if I’m so poor in wits or reason.”

Storm smiled. She tapped at the box in front of her then opened it. There were bundles of small packets, wrapped in red or black paper, the seal of the Royal Gardens on them. Charles suspected the contents, but couldn’t help being surprised.

“Consider them payment for the books and papers you’ve written for us,” she said.

Charles could not take anything he wrote of them with him. In exchange, it was a fortune in that box. While still at port awaiting his fate, Charles’ had only heard rumors of Celestial plant and its effects, for the guards were wary of the slaves coming across it and using it upon themselves. Desert travel- rather, all longer forms of travel were substantially more dangerous without it. It also allowed the pirates to remain at sea for twelvesmonths at a time or more without fearing their private agonies synchronizing to render them helpless.

“I know you wish to know the secret of its making,” Storm continued, “but that one thing I must keep concealed from you, Sir Charles. I do not even know it fully myself. Only its gardeners know the full process of growing, harvest, and the extraction of oils. Within the red envelopes are the crystallized refinement from the the life seeds, and within the black, death seeds. If you are not aware, these are ten times as potent as even the oils. The conversions accompany the packet themselves.”

Three drop of the oil of the death seeds could avoid an agony, six drops prevented a child, and half a measure would render an omega or even a woman barren while the life seeds had the opposite effect, so that even the barren may be fertile while lower doses induced agonies and cleavings out of time, leading even to children after one cleaving. At first, upon learning the cultivation of Celestial took place within Storm’s kingdom and apparently only within it, Charles had pursued the topic with Munroe, who would politely distract him from the discussion. Charles had often wondered what Henry would make of the plant, for having within it such power to influence life and reason so directly and with such potency.

It had taken a long time for Charles to realise how deeply the effects of the Celestial plants saturated every part of his life here. The leaves, much less potent, were so plentifully used even in everyday meals that the very nature of his own agonies had changed- that he could remember, clearly, who and what he longed for instead of being rendered almost insensate by the blind burning of his body. The agonies were both worse and better when even caught in the most terrible throes, enough of his mind remained that he could close his eyes and imagine Erik as clearly as if he would be beside him.

“You are very generous,” Charles said. In fact, he could not calculate the worth of the contents in the box even from just what he saw. Celestial plants were traded only in gold, silver, and precious stones and other treasures. For dried flowers, Cassandra’s caravansary had included acres of silk and chests full of pearls.

“I need not to say that you should keep them sewn into your clothes, but is not all for use for trade,” Storm said. “I know that in other lands without the plants’ use, people could forget even if their minds were unwilling. I also know that you are returning to home and your loved ones. For your sake, I wish time had made no intrusions to the constancy of your attachment.”

Storm had given some of the seeds for him, should Erik forget him. There were no cleavings in this kingdom implying a parting, but only attachment, for there was no forgetting and loss of reason even at the height of the agonies.

Charles’ could remember Erik and all the moments they had shared together instead of seeking another to slack the painful lust of his body, but Erik would have had no such relief. Charles had left him with vague words. As undeviating in affection as Charles remembered Erik, Wanda and Pietro rightly deserved contented parents who could give them all the affection they deserve.

It would be a long journey back. Charles was not naive. Despite his convalescence, he was not the same young man who had embraced Erik at Westchester port. That young man had never been denied in anything.

Would he, if he should find upon this return, that Erik and his children had a family with another, employ the life and death seeds for his own benefit? Would not that make him a poisoner or would he argue that for reason and desire both he had the first claim?

“I have shocked you,” Ororo observed. “It is not my intention. You are a good man, Sir Charles, for never being false of what you know or do not know or what you want. Ororo will miss you.”

“I will say goodbye to her,” Charles said. “And if she should ever come to Westchester, I will grant her every kindness within my power.”

Storm nodded, then left.

It was another week’s preparation before they could leave. They departed at twilight so that it would be morning when they reached the desert proper and still have hours to travel when the weather was cool enough.

“I wish you every luck on your journey home, my friend,” David said, his own gifts arming Charles’ person, “that yours have not forgotten you and you would find his affection for you as dear as you have for him. Think of us sometimes, remember the strange places you’ve been and the friends you’ve made. Perhaps Ororo and I will come and visit you when all this war is over."

Charles withdrew a ring from his pocket. He had his seal remade; this one was in silver and in a ring, but decorated with the flowers Ororo favoured. He gave it to David for her but not without regret and sense of relief, for Ororo was yet asleep and Charles could not be sure he could face her tears. He had known her from the cradle, taught her his words and languages and heard her childish babble as he had not his own. A hundred agitations struck him with the thought and unwilling that any of them should turn to bitterness, blinked away the sting in his eyes and said his goodbye to David.

Nevertheless, on the high pass of the mountain, he glanced backwards for his last look at Storm's green kingdom and found it curious that there was an ache in his heart as if he was leaving home. He had not remembered arriving there, only the comfort that eased his body even while his longing increased.

But home, he determined, was with his own family in his own country at the journey’s end. He rode on.

-=-=

Chapter Text

Erik was reviewing the proposal to establish Genosha’s own treasury when Darwin informed him that Victor Creed had knocked on his door and was now in the front parlor.

He went immediately and looked for him, but did not find him there. He followed the scoring on his floorboards and carpets toward the back of the house.

He heard Victor before he saw him.

“Aren’t you a darling, little one? You have such lovely hair, lovely eyes and your brother, too. I know people who offer an emerald as big as an egg for the pair of you, even two, given the times. Have you seen an emerald?” Striding toward them, Erik saw Victor flash something in his hand. Wanda reached for it. Erik stepped into the garden.

“Creed, stand aside.”

“Is that the way to greet an old friend in arms, Eisenhardt?” Victor asked, still crouching on the ground. “I’m giving gifts to these beautiful children. Are they yours?”

Erik ignored him, plucked the bauble out of Wanda’s hands, and asked a maid to take the children inside.”Tell Darwin to give you some strawberries,” he soothed them, then threw the emerald back at Creed who caught it with one hand.

“Why have you come? We have no more war for you.”

Creed sat in one of the garden chairs and stretched. His clothes were new, but sat ill-fitting on him, as if they were not his own. “Yes, everywhere is at war, and yet, oddly, not here. It has been a long time since we’ve seen each other, my brother in arms. Not since, so I recall, the week we took Genosha. It’s greatly changed now. To think Essex’ slaves and his half-feral vagabonds could pretend such gentility- he must be in apoplectics even in his grave.”

“Only if he could regenerate from dust,” said Erik.

“Other changes I find more peculiar and more disappointing: Darwin a nursemaid and you, Eisenhardt, playing lord of the manor. I saw Azazel wandering, muttering to himself, and I thought him half-addled until I realised he was simpering poetry. I laughed at him and he merely talked at me. What a fool he has become!”

“Your opinion, Creed, as ever, leaves something to be desired in both thought and delivery,” Erik said. “As you say, we have become a gentle folk. Peace has wrought changes on both land and people and I cannot say we are not the better for it. ”

“Now, that’s curious,” Creed said, “for this use “wrought” is of some concern. I’ve another little gift to dispense, but to you, though you might claim it as a mere return. Consider me then the Good Samaritan or is it the Good Galatian- one of the good, at any rate.”

He reached into a pocket and brought out something of a flattened disk, white, though the solid silver on the casing had blackened and the gold filigree work was all but gone.

Erik stared at it and could not speak.

“It’s a most curious tale,” Creed went on, “the travels a man could go on with enough gold, though they might be evil gold, as you reminded me so loudly when we parted, but even devil’s hoard could be spent at the furthest end of the world. I was at a fair, or a bazaar, as it was called there, and was surprised to see something that reminded me of you, Eisenhardt. I’ll always recognize your work, always tinkering this or that even when when we had no spare moment, though I do not recall you ever making something so nice.”

“Give it to me,” Erik said, voice hoarse.

“What will you offer?” Creed asked, slyly. “I paid very good price for it, for the vendor haggled me to the smallest coin, praising the delicacy of the catch and weeping over these fine faces as though they were memories his own children though clearly they bear no relation to either him or me.”

“You said it is a gift,” Erik said. “I’ll accept it.” He stood, for Creed tossed it up in the air and caught it again. “Or by the devil, Creed, I’ll take it from you!”

“So I did and so I will,” Creed said, passing it over, calmly enough, “but it was your work. Oh now, thought I, the calculator Eisenhardt grew a heart and got himself a little fool at last or Magda finally decided that she would settle with an alpha after all and damn herself to a lukewarm embrace in perpetuity.”

Erik said nothing, holding the locket in his hand, almost afraid to look, to be certain.

“But now I see you’ve children and only our inscrutable Darwin, though I still cannot believe it, which brings me to my next puzzle. I was looking for a war when I heard that there’s a rather exorbitant reward for news of a man named Charles Francis Xavier. I see it means something to you. His name had become quite famous, or should I say, infamous, as missing men with prices to their names usually are in certain parts of the world, so imagine my surprise -- it has been a week of such -- when I neared Westchester to learn that it was Erik Lehnsherr of Genosha who would give the reward.”

Erik swallowed. He gazed down at the battered case of the locket. He had given it to Charles. He must have carried it ashore, for it had not been in his sea chest and Erik had seen him made a chain for it. The chain was gone. Someone had destroyed the catch perhaps thinking to open it for some treasure. The cameos themselves were more or less intact.

“How did the man get it?”

“How do vendors get their wares?” Victor shrugged, spread his hands, “I was as curious as you are, but it is not far from the Barbary Coast.”

There was nothing pleasant that Erik could imagine that associated the Barbary coast and Charles except the one: that was he was alive.

“You will have your reward, Victor,” he said. “Thank you.”

With the instruction to put Victor Creed as far away from the nursery as possible, he headed up the hill to Raven’s residence.

“I’ve had news of Charles,” he announced in the front hall before anyone even took his coat.

Raven sat him in the drawing room.

She already had the place reupholstered in this season’s color. Erik disliked the dark turquoise, disliked even more that she had never asked him if she could make the changes. Nonetheless, it was all nothing now. Charles was alive and he would come back.

“Dear Erik,” she said, softly, with the air of long-suffering, “Charles has been more than two years gone; there’ve been money and time spent on rumors and lies. For the sake of Genosha, for the children, be reasonable. If Charles were here, he would not wish you to live on a false hope. It is an insidious influence that forces you to see what’s no longer there. You know that he’s gone. You’ve even had a monument made for him.”

But Erik had never been more certain that Charles was alive. He had dreamed, just the day before, of how Charles had been in Genosha. Charles at dinner, then afterwards, his pale face still ruddied by the game of cricket, speaking with him in a darkened hallway. Erik remembered very vividly how he wished to surrender and simply take what Charles seemed to be offering with every look, every word with the the warmth in his expression and in his voice. Erik had been held back by his own uncertainty. For the first time since his earliest childhood, he had wished to be both gentle and good and was afraid that he could not and fail the faith in those eyes.

It could’ve been a dream, but the tenderness of it remained with him into the morning. For the first time, there was no bitterness not to find Charles beside him, but only an expectation and the careful hope that he would be there soon. Erik had a very late start to the day, missed breakfast and wandered through the house, thinking that Charles could’ve returned late at night. He had hoped the same when Charles’ first left Genosha.

And like that first time, Charles was not in the house.

Creed’s presence had given him hope. He showed Raven the locket, explained how he had it made and how Victor Creed came across and recognized it.

But at the end of his story, Raven still did not believe Charles was alive.

“You don’t even believe it yourself, Erik,” she said sadly. “I’m glad that this token is retrieved, but there’s no reason to believe that Charles was alive when it was taken. Someone could’ve- Wait, Erik!”

But Erik was gone. He had gone looking for Charles once and he had found him. He would do so again, if only he knew which direction.

Creed was no longer in the gardens. A little distance away, surrounded by a hedgerow of flowers, he saw the monument they had erected for Charles and wished it unmade. They were bonded, surely, and though the mystical true pairs existed only in children’s tales, all children’s tale contained a seed of truth. Erik suffered from the loss of Charles’ by his side, but he had never believed him dead. Raven, for all her suitors, could not understand that if Charles was dead, Erik was certain he would be dead as well.

He found Creed in the hallway, pacing. He stood still seeing Erik approach.

“You cannot come simply to dispense gifts,” Erik said, “without offering an explanation for your return when Genosha is without war. You forget I know you, Victor, for all my perceived idle gentility. I can give you your reward, but what else do you want? what else can you tell me?”

And there was the expression Erik recognized and it unsettled him as much as it flamed his hope: Victor Creed- certain of an advantage.

“The question is, Eisenhardt, what else are you willing to offer?” Creed asked later on, in his study. “I’ve not been a good man in life, but you perhaps endeavored to be. Would any man or woman, alpha or omega, be welcome to Genosha if they’ve suffered and I give guarantee for their character?”

“Genosha’s a sanctuary,” replied Erik warily, “even yours. No matter what you’ve done elsewhere, you had a role in its freedom.”

“So I’ve heard, but this I need to ask. I would like it for someone else.”

“Who?”

“A girl, a good girl,” Victor hedged.

Erik tightened his hands, his heart beginning to pound faster. “But there’s a limit. I will not condone-”

“Clarice Ferguson,” Creed said, studying Erik and his reaction.

The name meant nothing to Erik.

“She is an omega. Her parents chose a husband for her. They were sick and poor and the girl was nearly grown. The man they chose for their daughter is a dotard and a boor so I presented myself.”

Erik went cold. Victor had always been Essex’s astute pupil. “As what?”

“The means to her freedom. She reminded me, you’ll laugh, but of me, when I was held, worse than a prisoner, treated like an animal only to obey and to amuse. But Clarice is only a girl. Her husband would be twenty years her senior, an alpha who hope for heirs and has a predilection for pain.” At Erik’s look of disbelief, he laughed, “I can always tell. I would show you Mr. Sugar’s secret houses, his torture rooms, the implements beside his bed, if you’re not convinced. He had lies for Clarice’s parents sweeter than his name.”

“What do you want me to do? She has parents. They would look for her.”

“They are dying. They were willing to marry her far away. Let her stay in Genosha. You govern this place; you’ve, furthermore, rights of the magistrate. You record the lives and deaths of all people here. Let her be Clarice of Genosha and so no one may claim her as an omega or as a wife unless she’s willing and in return I will tell you more of the precious Charles Xavier.”

He dangled the realization of all of Erik’s dreams before him but Erik was like Tantalus, hungry though he could not eat, thirsting though he could not drink. He wanted to agree to all of it immediately and knew he could not.

“I would offer her sanctuary regardless, if the lady’s willing, but I must see her to see her consent,” he said.

“You’ve turned out to be the better man among us, perhaps,” Creed said, and the expression in his face gentled more than Erik had ever known, “and I will not be cruel to you. Clarice would not like it. Your Charles Xavier was alive the last time I saw him.”

Victor’s words put caution in his hopes while Raven’s admonishments could not. Alive- but when? in what condition? Erik fought to contain his questions in the next hour, focusing instead on the matter of convincing Darwin that Genosha’s sanctuary was not brokered, but offered.

Clarice Ferguson was lodged at Freedom Arms, the only inn in Genosha. She was girl about fourteen or fifteen, though evident that she had recently been ill, still very pretty child who showed a remarkable gravity of her character having so many entering her room asking her questions. And once she began speaking, showed a very clear head. She told her tale much as Victor has related as Darwin beside them start drawing up the necessary documents for her new identity.

“You’ve told them about about Sir Charles?” she said to Creed afterwards, who was fussing over the arrangement of pillows at her back-- for she had excused herself to recline on the bed when it became evident that even sitting was too wearisome. Victor was a different person with her, he handed her a cup of tea, adding a copious amount of honey that was evidently her preference.

“Everything?” she narrowed her eyes as Victor made a noncommittal sound.

Darwin threw an amused glance at Erik, who couldn’t answer it.

“We must keep some things for ourselves,” Victor said.

“But Mr. Lehnsherr has already kindly agreed to us staying in Genosha and the man’s clearly suffering,” she urged.

“Eisenhardt has suffered worse. Would you like a plate of fruit to be brought up? Jubilee said you haven’t eaten all day and it’s near noon.”

“But what use is it!” she cried. “Why should he suffer? Why should anyone! You wouldn’t let suffering come to me!”

“Shush, my darling. You don’t know who he is. You are too young and too good to know.”

Erik turned to her, ignoring Victor’s glare. “If you’ve any news of Charles Xavier, Miss Ferguson, find it in your good heart to tell me. I promise you that I love him and he’s the father of our children and I have missed him for the years we’ve been parted,” his voice thickened, “I do not even know if he’s alive or dead. Any certainty would give me a measure of peace.”

To his surprise, this appeal sank into her into some difficulty. “But it is Mr. Creed’s tale to tell,” she said, “though I do trust you to give us safe harbor.” She looked at Victor, who sighed and got up from the table.

“Very well, come with me, Eisenhardt. I could not tell her all of it and I would not have her hear all it now.”

They went into the next room and perhaps still under the influence of Clarice’s expectation of his compassion, Victor told Erik to sit down before telling him how he had met and indeed spoken with one of Charles’ shipmates and learnt that they had been taken by pirates while on some sort of uncharted island. The man he met was an old tar and spoke, somewhat wistfully, of how his age had spared him and may even send him home or to the United States, unlike their poor Sir Charles, who had been taken directly to one of the largest slave emporiums and appraised so high that the French monks could not spare the ransom for one when there are many and neither was the Americans interested when they had their own to rescue as priority.

It was the first time Victor heard of Charles’ name. Curious, and out of almost a neighborly feeling for a ship that sailed out of Westchester, Victor had indeed tried to seek out Charles and had seen him in one of the nicer bagnios where the slaves were held.

By then, he had already found the locket at the bazaar and suspected of its connection to Erik.

“It must have been interesting, if any old sailor could reveal how Sir Charles almost didn’t come because of a certain scandal with a certain persistent gentleman; though the man was old, for he said Genoshan “King”. And if Genoshan had a king, it would be you, I think, unless Azazel has abandoned his vows. I thought it strange that you, given your history and ways, should’ve entangled yourself with someone from Westchester.”

“But you saw Charles?”

“Aye, I saw him. A fortunate man, for his picture children have his eyes and I heard his guards call his name. He answered like a native. Is he some sort of prodigy?”

Erik ignored this. “How was he? And if you have the gold and did not-” he couldn’t go on. It wasn’t fair to Victor, but surely it wasn’t fair to him to hear it second-hand, to be at once so near and so far from the happenings in the story.

“How was he?” Creed was incredulous. “Eisenhardt, Lehnsherr, whatever you call yourself now. Surely you remember how slaves fare? The world is all the same when it comes to cruelty. He was walking, speaking, had all his teeth and no marks on his back except for freckling. What else do you want to know? Calm yourself. You look like you’re on the edge of some attack. Should I fetch smelling salts? Clarice has some.” There was the scrap of a chair, Victor stood, but sat down again when Erik grabbed his coat.

Erik realised he was swaying where he sat. “He had chains,” he began brokenly, “he-” Charles, his beautiful love, his heart, and Erik could too easily imagine how Victor would know the state of Charles’ teeth or state of his back- Charles, who was meticulous about even the stains on his waistcoat beneath his jacket, who promised Erik....The letter and his locket seemed heavy as lead. “Go on,” he mustered himself with some effort, letting his despair feed into the anger that was building beneath his skin. “I must hear all of it.”

“I did inquire to the price. It was high, but I was rich and if it comes to it, ready steal, if necessary. It did occur to me that you might be indebted afterwards- after all, a lovingly made trinket carried on the person was a token. And I had room to haggle, they were still waiting for his agony.”

“Why were they waiting-” Erik stopped himself. They had reached the part of the narrative that Creed wished to spare young Clarice.

Apparently Victor chose to spare him of it as well, for he continued, “But the next day when I went back, partly to confirm Xavier’s identity, I saw him riding in a litter instead. I was too late. There was no inquiry necessary; the crowds were talking; he had already been purchased by some prince from a desert kingdom, for an exorbitant sum with all his fellows in the bagnio ransomed in the same sale. From them, I learnt that he was indeed Charles Xavier of Westchester.” Creed went on of how he encountered the name elsewhere in his journeys, courtesy of Erik’s generous reward, though the man remained elusive.

But Erik was no longer listening. Charles had been purchased. Erik was ill at the thought, though it had been fact for nearly three years. Charles, on display through the streets. The chronology of Creed’s narrative revealed all too easily when Charles’ agony would be taking place, for it had the same rhythm as Erik’s own when they parted. Except- while Erik buried himself and his madness in the privacy and safety of his own room, Charles would be suffering his in the company of strangers who did not need merely to desire him when they owned him. He maybe even be now in the possession of a man like Essex.

“I’m going to find him,” he told Creed.

“You look as white as a sheet. You probably can’t make it even across the hall.”

Erik drew a deep breath. He had made it so far. “What are the practises with omega male slaves?”

Creed, for once, looked hesitant. “Breed them or geld them, both, and seldom neither. Omega males are expensive because they are rarely enslaved. Religious taboos supposedly forbid their taking in their own countries. Xavier probably looked worse than you remembered, but his appearance is striking even amidst a port with so many peoples mixing. Perhaps they’ll use him even more gently if he does not fight.”

Erik closed his eyes. Of course, Charles’ appearance. It gave him no consolation when he understood too well the consumptive desire even when Charles presented himself, fully dressed, in the assembly in Genosha, only in the beginning of his private agony. “But they freed all the other slaves?” It gave him some hope that Charles’ masters could be merciful.

Creed shrugged. “I’m not one for empty comforts, but it is unusual, and kingdoms that could afford such strange extravagance would be far away. If Xavier went there, it would be difficult to leave again. However, it might have already fallen under the French.”

“I will look for him,” Erik said again, “he is not dead; I’m certain of it. He could not be; I would know.” Then, like a man dazed, he went out to the public room and then into the courtyard.

It was noon. The Genoshan sky was a brilliant blue. Erik thought of Charles and searched for something, that tenuous and invisible thread between them, that could perhaps tell him whether he was well. Darwin found him later and remained silent as Erik described what Creed to him and began to outline his plans. When he finished, however, Darwin regarded him as he would a madman.

“To hear you speak. Buy a ship! Hire a ship! As if they are easy. They’re not! A ship would need to be light enough to evade attention of the ship of the lines at the blockades at the Channel and at the African Coast, but also to withstand an engagement. At this point in the war, there aren’t many even professional privateers who could sail the course you intend. It needs technology we do not have. There would be no captain.”

“I will captain it myself,” Erik answered, stubbornly.

“You’ve learned to sail?” Darwin asked. “I must have missed it. I know you’ve been studying navigation, but you’ve never even set foot on a boat. Would you recommend a rifleman who only read of artillery on paper to engage a battlement with canons?”

“I will captain it if you will not. I strain our friendship to ask this of you, but I can’t be here when I know that Charles is somewhere else. He is alive! He must be! My sufferings would be less if he’s gone. I cannot believe that our bodies were made to be so tortured in longing and bereavement even- “ Erik stopped, recalled the other half of the conversation, “but I will not think less of you to decline. After all, you’ve never even met him and Genosha would need guarding.”

“But I have, I met him years ago, long before you did.” Darwin said, surprising Erik. “When I was a boy, my father and I lingered in Westchester for almost a year fixing some large house. While he worked, I waited for him in the garden and fetched and carried for him. Charles saw me from his study window, he later told me, and thought I could do with some company, but even then, I could tell he wanted some as well. Every day, he would come and sit with me in the afternoon with books and a basket of food. When he discovered that I could not read, he taught me so he could share his favourite stories. And after our lessons, we played games until he would be called home by his nurse, who would also slip me some sweet rolls.”

“You’ve never mentioned this.”

“There had never been an occasion. Sir Charles probably doesn’t even remember me, but the stories we read stayed with me, otherwise I would not have come with you to fight in Genosha. I had been a mercenary. I thought I had already fought my last. I had a good estate,a good living. Genosha wasn’t my war and no profit in it except I thought that I could be better than what I was if I fight, be a part of something greater than myself.”

“I had wondered why you stayed afterwards,” Erik said at length. “I thought you must’ve been tired.”

“I was that, as well, but when you said they were Charles Xavier’s children, I thought there was even more reason that I should guard them, for their father’s sake. No one expected a woodcraft’s black son to read. It gave me an understanding of the world and opportunities my own father never imagined. So if you say that Charles might be alive and that you intend to seek him, I will go with you- not only because you are my friend, but because Sir Charles had been kind to a poor boy who could’ve been easily swindled out of his own freedom if he did not know how to read or write.”

Erik sighed. “Except you tell me that getting a ship is impossible.”

“I said it is difficult, not impossible if you’re set on the course, but you’ll need a letter of a marque if you do not wish to be molested by British as well as French forces.”

“How can it be arranged?”

“It is not a matter of simply arrangement. It needs a signature, a royal signature.” Darwin peered at Erik. “And I’m at a loss to know any who might have influence to give us one.”

“Raven might.”

“If she believes you.”

“What does it matter to her? It’s only her brother, who might be alive!” Erik said and urged his horse to a canter.

“Perhaps only say that you need a letter of marque and not the reason!” Darwin shouted after him as Erik went to tell Raven that Charles was alive.

She looked at him with very bad grace at first, then grew horrified, though whether at the prospect that her brother was enslaved or at the idea he might have been all the time alive while she believed him dead, it was difficult to tell.

“Lilandra,” she said, when Erik mentioned the need for the letter.

“If you refer to Miss. Neramani,” Erik said stiffly, “I fail to see how she would help me.”

“She would help Charles,” Raven said, “and she’s in Parliament now. I can write to her, but we still need a ship.”

The “we” was unexpected. Erik had never been clear on Lilandra Neramani’s connexion with the Xaviers, or more specifically, Charles, except that she had counselled him against Erik, but he would have all the help he could have.

And for this same reason, he went to call Henry McCoy at Westchester, but not finding him at his house, accepted at an invitation to sup at Emma’s. He saw McCoy there. The man shrank from Erik seeing him and managed to avoid him until after dinner when Erik cornered him.

“She has not forgiven me,” Hank said sadly, “Is she still angry?”

There was no question whom they were talking about. Furthermore, Azazel had been paying respects to Raven for the last few years and he was Erik’s friend. Erik himself had little patience for McCoy for the very reason that Raven was avoiding him. Returning without Charles may not have been his intent, but nonetheless it had occurred.

Using that partially as leverage, he described his needs to McCoy, all in the hypotheticals, who went to the bureau and began sketching out the plans for a ship to Erik’s specifications with astonishing skill and efficiency.

The mystery was solved when McCoy confessed that such a ship was already being built and was still waiting for it yet to have a function.

“It needs cannons,” McCoy was saying, “but even the smallest carronades in their normal placements, if fired too closely together, could upset the yaw.” Then he brightened, “but I hear you’ve skill with metallurgy and engineering- perhaps you would be able to advise us?”

“Don’t let Tony hear your answer if it is yes, Mr. Lenhsherr.”

Erik glanced up. The speaker was a woman, but before he could recall an introduction, They were once again interrupted.

“Don’t let me hear what? Miss Potts, are you keeping secrets from me again? I have still not quite forgiven you concerning Lady Jean.”

Miss Potts sighed.”I wish I could. I only did my cousinly duty. She’s too young an alpha to be so abruptly introduced to your ways.”

“But going about with Summers should have no need for caution? He’s an alpha as well while I could promise her my devotion, in soul and body-”

“For only a week,” she finished primly.

Tony, or rather, Anthony Stark, scowled. He turned toward Erik and a smile lighted his countenance.

Erik nodded his acquaintance.

“Lord Stark now, Mr. Lenhsherr,” Stark corrected, “though I’m delighted that you’ve developed an interest in shipbuilding. McCoy is correct in saying there is such a ship. Though it’s more of Henry’s design than mine, the ownership in my name. She’s the Blackbird. It’s a sweet ineffectual name for a sweet and ineffectual ship for it has no armaments. The advice of a man with a particular understanding of the engineering of artillery could transform the war. You should come to my foundries some time, or I could show you my workshops.”

Miss Potts looked so displeased at the idea that Erik wondered whether Stark said it for her benefit.

“And is the ship for the navy?” Erik asked carefully.

But it was not. Tony explained that the Admiralty no longer has interested in these smaller ships with the war continuing; however, he emphasized, they would be interested in any new guns that the ships’ specific designs might innovate.

And Erik made an offer to buy the ship. It prompted a lengthy inquiry, for Stark had no lack of money but nevertheless seemed reluctant even to part with a vessel he considered seaworthy only in a very awkward manner. And still, he tried to convince Erik to arm her.

By then, the other guests have all left, Emma had joined the conversation.

“Privateering? Erik, an odd hobby to be taken up so late in life,” she remarked, whereupon Stark began to protest again that the Blackbird would not be party to war so directly and he would only submit it to the right cause; prizes were no concern when he had rule of the navy stockyards. Furthermore, for the same sum, Erik could get a ship himself if he would not be so eager for sail immediately.

Determined on his course, and yet somehow helpless surrounded by so many talking gliby at once, Erik at last admitted that he wanted the ship to find Charles whom he had reason to know was alive and in Africa.

This admission drew a silence.

“You are set on running through the blockades of two nations based on a rumor?” Miss Potts frowned.

“Yes,” said Erik.

“Based on a conviction, that most sacred and unbreakable association there could be between two individuals,” Stark took up the argument, stirred by Erik’s simple reply. “For a noble cause, the noblest! Am I correct, Mr. Lehnsherr, in saying that you intend to free your beloved, the father of your children, from barbarian slavery? Virginia, how could you not be sympathetic? It is Charles he intends to free. We shall ask old Jarvis for a letter of marque for Blackbird.” To Erik he added that Jarvis’ cousin was the First Lord of the Admiralty of Britain’s Royal Navy.

“Slavery is barbaric anywhere. Lord St. Vincent might find the cause frivolous in these times.” Potts said, with a certain resignation. “What about your children Mr. Lehnsherr? Who will look after them?”

But the matter was settled as far as Stark was concerned. Erik would see the ships armed. Henry, who admitted that he thought the success of the enterprise could redeem him in Raven’s favour, threw himself into refining the design. Stark entered the workshops over with every spare moment he had, pointing out improvements when he saw them with the excitement like a child with a new toy.

Traveling so often between Genosha and Westchester whenever he readied his plans, Erik tried not to think of how he must leave his children behind in order to look for Charles. There were moments where he thought that his children would hate him later for chasing after a phantom instead of staying by their side. The idea of orphaning them accidentally accompanied the assail of doubts, but to remain seemed equally impossible. Worse, he still had no answer to Miss. Potts’ question, for Raven was determined to come as well and Azazel with her, much to Henry’s displeasure when he saw him.

The solution presented herself one afternoon in Clarice Ferguson. For having obtained for her safety in residence, Victor would be leaving with Erik; the idea of war still had his attraction for him.

“My daughter can look after yours,” Victor suggested. It was a strange proposal but Darwin thought that the young lady, though omega and scarcely out of girlhood, who could wrangle Sabretooth to docility would be competent enough for two children, no matter how rambunctious. Furthermore, they still would have their nurses and servants with them.

Three months passed before they were ready to sail. Stark would accompany them for the first couple of leagues to see the guns fired and he could land at Portsmouth.

“I’m going to look for your father,” Erik told Wanda and Pietro in the morning before he left for Westchester, who regarded him solemnly with Charles’ eyes. For once, they did not seem to wish to talk; their father was like a story to them. Erik was at a loss to know what they thought every time he told them that he would be leaving soon. Helpless, Erik continued. “We finally know where he is, but it is very far and I don’t wish for him to be lost again coming home. So I will be gone, but I will come back.” Then he hugged them and kissed them and had to leave before his resolve crumbled.

He had been Eisenhardt, for they thought he had no heart; he had been a man as hard as iron and as dangerous as only a man who could be who had metal for heart.

Charles had proved the lie to that name, but Erik knew, as the ship sailed further away from land, that he had become no less dangerous. All his affection, all his longing, and all his days of hopeless agonies had converged into a determination that could find its expression more violent than any cold judgement in war.

Charles, Erik thought, I have tried, but I can wait no longer for you. You promised to be mine.

-=-=

Chapter Text

They travelled by dusk and twilight. Within a fortnight, Charles no longer recognized the horizons. The familiar mountain ranges disappeared from view though the stars showed that they had not travelled such a great distance that Charles would be unable to see the peaks on the horizon.

“It is Storm’s art,” Cassandra said, catching him puzzling when they were leaving camp. “See that purplish haze that you think is the dawn? Storm’s kingdom is concealed within- the mist rises from the damp of the grass and riverlands, but only a few paths would lead you there. The rest will leave you wandering in the mountains. Without invitation or a guide, the kingdom is impossible to find. The shroud has girdled it from view and those who would attack it.”

Charles tore his gaze away. He stopped wondering in which direction he could choose to walk if he wanted to go back. He understood, more, however, Storm’s attachment to David Munroe. It must have seemed very much like fate if he had indeed stumbled upon her kingdom. Charles did not remember entering the kingdom the first time, being ill and feverish, but leaving it, there were narrow and labyrinthine trails opened to vertical drops and swaying bridges that set his heart pounding.

It was of course entirely possible that Cassandra’s caravansary were not being shown the easiest path to leave and so, to enter.

Nonetheless, for all its trains of baggage, the caravan moved quickly. Even recovered at his full strength and perhaps stronger than he had ever been at Westchester, in part thanks to Munroe’s regimented expectations of household, Charles found the pace punishing. Cassandra seemed used to the fatigue, for she joked and laughed and talked during the day. Charles collapsed into his bedroll every evening with the murmured talks and singing of his travelling companions in his ears.

One evening found Charles, trouserless, wincing and tentatively touching the inside of his legs where the skin had been rubbed raw. With only his shirt preserving his modesty, one of the mamluks saw him, and crouched in front of him, then began poking at each sore, making Charles hiss. It was near evening, the smear of blood on his thigh looked very dark. The onlooker tsked then went to his saddlebag and offered him a small leather pouch. Charles opened it and nearly retched at the smell, upon a second look and holding his breath, he found a dark odorous clump within.

“Rub it on your skin then cover them,” Cassandra said, being nearby, “and you’ll heal properly.” Charles did so, still slightly dubious, but despite daily riding and bleeding afterwards, the wounds healed clean and he grew more used to the pace.

As Charles found enough breath to converse again, her accent changed to match his and gained facility in conversation not necessarily through meticulous precision, but rather the rhythm of the phrasing. When she asked for French from Charles, he found in her a genius in language that was startlingly familiar, more like Charles’ own than even his colleagues at the university or even Erik’s precise polyglotism.

She for her part was similarly satisfied that he was picking up, more quickly, the Arabic, which he recognized though never studied, and the language the mamluks sometimes used.

“Are there many Frenchmen at the coast?” Charles asked her one day, but Cassandra evaded the topic, and Charles did not pursue it further.

However, once they were out of the valley, they slowed, though Charles thought they would have hastened to their destinations. Cassandra’s studies, now that Charles’ body became accustomed to the demands of the journey, had now extended to the reading and writing of Latin alphabets.

They practised by firelight when they camped, tracing charcoal on the ground, or else the sand. The teaching distracted Charles from his growing impatience and it comforted to have the occasions to recall to her the books he had read and studied, and to talk of Westchester, his friends, and Erik and his children, until they could be familiar to her. Cassandra had a lively curiosity and a bright mind; when she recalled some factoid he did not remember telling her, it almost seemed as if he were conversing with a friend again.

The first settlement they came to was a city that opened its gates reluctantly. The bey, for Charles had learned to refer to the mamluk captain by his proper rank, hailed twice before they were let through, but once admitted, the welcome was dizzying.

Servants brought refreshment and fresh clothing and Charles enjoyed the warm water to wash the month of travel from his hair and skin. The house they were in was redolent of exotic scents, and vibrant tapestries hung from the walls.

At dinner, Charles was sat close to their royal host, who was apparently under the impression Charles was a mamluk himself and pressed a series of alarming questions at him which Charles volleyed carefully then with greater confidence, daring even questions of his own until a messenger came and interrupted the conversation and his host made his apologies and disappeared. No one else seemed to find it uncommon or rude.

“Religion forbids royal omega sons from going to war unless it is necessary, but only they can inherit,” Cassandra told him quietly English. “Every ruler you will meet from here is a son of his father. Their male alpha spouse goes to war on his behalf. His just returned.”

“That seems unnecessarily cruel,” Charles said, thinking of all the husbands and wives he had known in Westchester who waited for the return of their loved ones from distant cruises or campaigns and the soldiers and sailors who longed equally to return. “And hardly fair to the children of mothers. Alpha women can inherit in Westchester,” he added.

“The enthrallment of a male alpha prevents the military from falling into the hands of an enterprising commander or an ambitious courtier. A female or omega male could be got with child and usurp the line with the army at her back.” Cassandra said. “There is only ever one ruler. Mother’s daughters or sons are otherwise treated the same and if there are no omega sons from his father, the eldest omega mother-son inherits unless there is none, then the eldest omega daughter, but that occurs rarely.”

“And what if the omega male ruler is only inclined to females?”

Cassandra smiled. “You see the importance of our trade, then, and yet the royal enthrallment between omega and alpha exist by tradition and considered the proper inclination.”

With the aid of the Celestial life plants, all relations became possible. Charles had considered the interruptions of agonies in his life and in his thoughts merely part of existence and he had accepted as easily as he accepted his own mortality. Charles had dosed himself before he left Storm’s kingdom as he had been advised, but now he wondered whether the clarity of reason could also not be merciless and unnatural.

The wives and husbands from the various rulers and princes’ harems and seraglios led luxurious lives, but all their minds and bodies politicized to an extent Charles had never imagined possible.

“My name had been put forth since I was born,” an omega husband of one of their rare royal female hosts told him. “Omega or alpha, I was to be the ruler’s spouse for the strength of my house, for the enthrallment of our highness as according to a contract between our fathers.”

“And what of your family?” Charles asked. Omegas seldom conceived with each other, even as alphas did not, even if they were of opposite sex. And this particular queen, from what he observed, doted on her alpha consort.

“I am a second son. I inherit nothing of my own unless I make it for myself. If her highness favours me with a child, perhaps it could grant me my own lordship. If not, I serve her kingdom as well as protect my own family.”

Westchester was a port city, unlikely matches often occurred between men and women though their birthplaces might be leagues apart. Even the most advantageous prospects were sometimes broken by the fortuitous courtship by another. Charles could not imagine a marriage contract so fraught with uncertainties as one predetermined by their fathers. Agonies might never be shared until late into the marriage, if indeed they coincided for cleavings at all.

Without the imperative of an impending agony, he would’ve never known Erik. If they only had their full reason during all their associations, would Erik have loved him at all? Charles had other lovers, but none he had shared an agony a second or a third time, until it was his soul that seemed to answer Erik’s even for the gentler bodily pleasures. All of Charles’ education taught him that tempering the passions of the body with the mind was what distinguished men from beasts, that the agonies were visceral reminders of that thin divide, making reason more precious- but to have only reason and nothing of the body’s compulsions, did that allow men to manipulate their lives to their own will or merely to impose further strictures according to other people’s wills: duties, propriety, and responsibilities unending?

Charles had no role in the trade talks. Cassandra was known to them, that he was introduced as her brother seemed to surprise no one. High-born omega males seldom travelled far; by custom, they governed the kingdoms and by that same custom, they were not allowed to be enslaved.

If only he had known this earlier, Charles thought wryly when he learnt of it, he would’ve sworn himself to any god on any book to avoid being valued like chattel. There were servants bring food and playing music. Some of them were undoubtedly slaves, but some too, were mamluks once, though now only nominally.

And every city they visited, it was the same. They would enjoy its hospitality and while Cassandra and the Bey negotiated, Charles began to ask the questions his traveling companions evaded in answering. He spoke with their hosts and tried to understand what was happening in Barbary, which was difficult given that he was uncertain of how his actions would reflect on the standing of his companions.

It wasn’t until when they arrived in one of the largest cities they’ve visited and seemed to be prepared to stay longer than a few days that the boy who lit the bedroom lamps at night, became familiar and asked the questions that Charles hadn’t thought to ask: what happened to the female mamluks? why is there only Lady Cassandra with them?

“I’ve not seen them,” Charles replied, surprised that there were female mamluks.

“I hope they’re still around,” the boy said, apparently finding nothing strange in Charles’ answer. “We were all very frightened when Egypt fell. They say the French are like animals, preying on all.”

Surprised at this news, Charles did not answer immediately. “The French are men like you or me,” he said, after a moment.

The boy looked at him, expression strange. “But when Napoleon entered Cairo after defeating the mamluks, they were telling these horrible, awful stories-” And with all his descriptions, sounded more fascinated than frightened.

Charles, however, was. Storm’s words echoed back to him. Cassandra had not mistreated him. She called him her brother and had so far accorded him every courtesy to that name. And true to her agreement, they were heading north toward the coast. Charles had not been aware of the possibility that they were heading to war. But why had Cassandra deceived him? What could she gain by leading Charles into what seemed to be certain death? If the French army had landed and even conquered Egypt-- which Charles still found almost impossible to accept as fact-- it could not be a small force. The Mediterranean fleets of Europe must be even now patrolling the African coast. The next thought stuttered his breath and pierced his heart- he couldn’t go home.

Upon closer questioning, Cairo had fallen two years ago, only a little later after the newspaper Charles’ had found mentioning France’s successful Italian campaign and its new military hero: Napoleon Bonaparte, the Corsican who had made his name at Toulon.
Charles sought Cassandra and found her sitting cross-legged on a divan, talking to a group of young men and women as well as the more sociable of the scholars. Charles remembered meeting some of them in his tour of the museums. She sought him as an ally as another expressed doubt in the purity of any scholarship of people with commercial ties.

Charles answered, distracted, that inclinations of bias would only be of concern if Cassandra sought to teach under the guise of neutrality; otherwise, if both parties entered into the exchange with clear expectations, unless one pursued intentional deceit, true things, by their very nature, could not be altered.

Cassandra, amused, said, “But am I not a teacher when I have exclusive knowledge of a subject? when I alone provide the means to break or cause an enthrallment?” At Charles’ confusion, she continued, “Ah, but you do not call it that. You prefer to call them cleavings.” She explained for her audience, “It’s an English word for both joinings and parting, and just with that hint of violence in the meaning I know certain people prefer to increase pleasure.” Cassandra took a sip of the tea, her eyes mischievous.

“And what do you call it?” Charles inquired.

“Loving, surely, for it could not be lightly given without your body and mind being devoted in the same act and once given, it’s not a truth that could be altered.”

Erik had said much the same, Charles remembered. His heart and his life given an offer Charles could not accept without surrendering a part of himself he knew would be found wanting. In Westchester, there had been regret tainted with sensation of hands and mouth and tongue upon his skin, thus unworthy of memory in periods of clarity. Except, autumn came and Erik was there reminding him of the intelligent companionship that Charles had been pleasantly astonished to find in Genosha.

“I cannot believe that love should be defined by the madness of the body when reason has no control over its violence.” Charles said. “And love has given virtue and meaning to our existence even as reason does.” There were murmurs of agreement around him.

“Is love not violence? When Paris dooms Troy? When Dido stood on the pyre? Anthony and Cleopatra warred with Rome?” Cassandra asked. “The enthrallment is as part of the mystery of all the songs and tales of love. No love ever speaks only of reason even when it is only reason that separates men from beasts, the sinners from the godly.”

“And so the art of the mamluk is that they do not love? A celibate race has no hope of eternity,” one of the women said, mocking.

“There could be children without love, but they’re only flesh. What children could there be when they share neither our ways or our thoughts? Instead, we’ve companionship chosen for reason that could boast better and more loyal ties than either blood or love simply because it is freely given. ”

“Those examples of love as violence are only stories,” Charles said, “written and told to give it drama, to make it bear repeating and easier for memory. There are thousands more, between common people, that is no less than love, but preserves reason in its making, and does not imply violence against person or even property. Else, the race would be extinct and civilization extinguished.”

“My brother has always preferred books,” Cassandra said to her audience. “His ideals are admirable, but he has not seen that even common people suffer the violence from love. The mamluks do not love, but we travel and both hear and see the lives of many of those who do. I have a story that has never been told, because the principals are not famous. I will tell it simply because it is a simple story, unknown, and merely one among many of love’s wretched force.

“Once upon a time in a place faraway from the desert, there was a young woman who lived by the sea. Her mother died when she was young and she remained the only child of her father, a merchant of fabulous wealth. He had ships bearing his cargos to Venice, India, and the Americas. Though a merchant and a sailor, he delighted in knowledge. For the daughter, he invited the best scholars to be her tutors, and because she loved books, built her a magnificent library.

“For her sake, too, the merchant seldom captained his own ships, fearing that she would then be alone, for the seas were treacherous. Nonetheless, when she grew older, the sea-longing came upon him and he made one short journey and on that journey, he rescued a man from a shipwreck, a foreigner whose curiosity matched his own and whose address pleased him.

“The merchant invited the stranger to his house, to his symposia. There the merchant daughter met him and saw that man was young, intelligent, and handsome. He in turn admired her learning, and delivered to her haltingly in a tongue unfamiliar to him the poetry she had known since she was a child, but seemed to have had new charm because it was from him. After a while, the stranger left for his home but returned once a year to see the merchant and his daughter. When she was at the marrying age, her suitors crowded the streets. She had grown as beautiful as she was wealthy, but she in her heart she wished for her father’s young friend, and refused all others.

When the merchant died, his daughter inherited all his estates and businesses. When the friend returned, the enthrallment came upon them. He returned again the next time and found their mutual affections undimmed, they professed again their love and life between them took root.

“When he knew, he accused her of being a seductress, of having practised unnatural arts upon him so that he could not have resisted her, being female and omega. It was impossible, he said, weeping, his country did not admit strangers easily. Nonetheless, when he felt her quick with child, he could not bear to leave. They were married. At the birth of their children, he vowed they would be his family and home until the end of the earth. She, understanding, nonetheless saw how much he missed his own familiar world, and let him go when the air flew with rumours of war. Fearing the length and danger of the journey, he took only one child with him, and promised he would return for her so that they could make a new home together.

“He left, taking one half of her heart. Years passed, she waited, until war came to where she lived. Her household begged her to leave with them. She refused, still believing that the father of her children and her love would return. She was waiting when the fireships disgorged soldiers on the coasts. She waited as they entered the gates of her estate, the front hall of her house, through the doors of her great room. She waited as the last faithful servants were cut down in front of her, but her love never came home.”

The story ended. No one spoke until Cassandra continued again, in a voice more quiet than before, “There are many stories of alphas and omegas professing love. Men and women love in reason, even as she did when she turned away her suitors after he left that first time, or when he chose to return to her. We could argue that love was all reason until stone is dust, nonetheless, it would not exist without the enthrallment, and love’s end is always hope disappointed and expectations unmet. You could claim the story I’ve told was merely about the misfortunes of the world, but for love she waited, and only because love promised.”

Charles did not agree with Cassandra. All his education rebelled against the thought that cleavings were part and perhaps even the force given to love and not affection in reason. Nonetheless, he thought that Erik and his children waiting for him in Genosha, perhaps suffering for Charles’ absence because Erik loved him and yet he had failed his promise. He wished he could discern whether Cassandra’s story was one of her own inventions. She practised story-telling as an art, which had been Storm’s chief complaint.

“War always has many such stories,” a young man started speaking, “would we live in a world without war then love perhaps in its perfection, would have no sad endings.”

“Would that perfect world exist and peace prevailed? Would there be a tear at the corner of your eye?” Cassandra asked, sardonic. “Would love move you or anyone? I do not think you would argue otherwise against the revelations of the book. We know, in our souls, that love must exist, yet even without threat of war, the violence is subtler. You see, I did not even need to tell you the fate of the woman for you to imagine the worst.”

And so she won tears and an argument in one. Charles could not help being admiring while being appalled. Apparently, he was not the only one--

“Cassandra, we offer our condolences to your fallen and see your need,” one of the elder scholars speak up. “You have made your argument. We are agreed we will speak on your behalf. It had been only the scale that worried us, but now the necessity is pressing.”

Cassandra smiled again, inclining her head, as the conversations moved to lighter topics. Charles held his words until the hour grew so late it was only he and Cassandra in that room. Sometime, a supper had been prepared and the plates were now being cleared away.

“You have such a look of curiosity on your face, Charles.”

“She said, ‘your fallen’.”

“My brother mamluks,” Cassandra said.

“And your need?” Charles pressed.

Cassandra gave him a sharp look and said, “My sisters.”

“I had not known Egypt was in the hands of the French.”

“It fell almost year and a half ago,” Cassandra answered; steel came into her words. “Murad Bey and his mamluks failed in its defense. I thought you knew.”

Charles shook his head. He did not know whether to believe her. “And yet we travel north, toward war. Cassandra, I’ve told you how I came to be here. Tell me now, then, why have we been traveling? Where are we going?”

“I have my responsibilities, the trade must continue,” Cassandra said lightly, but with such a look of desolation in her face that Charles regretted his question. She continued, “Murad Bey lost Egypt to the French. He himself lived and fled with those in the garrison who could. Those who could not remained: those dead, those too wounded,” - she paused- “and those in heat.”

“What about the Celestial plants?”

Cassandra’s voice was a harsh whisper. “Sir Charles, Celestial plants, those that Storm let us trade, are precious. It is used to ease heat, not to avoid it altogether. The mamluks are all alphas, male or female, but to avoid inconvenient children when heat synchronized, the garrison rotations are also dependent upon sex.”

The boy’s words about the French came to Charles. He tried not to let the horror show on his face, but failed. Cassandra saw the change in his expression, said, “Napoleon wished to be seen as liberator and lawgiver in Cairo. He had commanded and chosen his troops personally. They extended every courtesy to the mamluks who were still there. We were the perfect hostages, for we had ruled Egypt, but were now too few in number to gainsay him.”

“And you escaped?”

“He was fascinated with us, but was also confused by us. We kept our faces veiled so he could not recognize us individually. I was not the only one who escaped, but I was to resume the trading route for the Celestial plants.”

For safety, Charles speculated. “It does not quite explain why you could offer me safe passage in return for an alien welcome across the seas.”

“Napoleon is in Syria. The ships of Great Britain and her allies patrol the coasts. The mamluk power in Egypt has failed. We have lost too many to rule again and desire now only our freedom. Is that reason enough for you?”

Charles accepted it, for he had no reason not to believe Cassandra. And yet, as they travelled, Charles became restless with this new information. As they continued north, however, Charles realised that for all of Cassandra’s promises, they were heading as straight a line as they could toward Egypt and the other mamluks, for all their friendliness, became silent or distracted him with other topics when he asked for maps of their route.

Even if Cassandra had told him of her intentions, Charles did not know that of the others. What did the Bey think, for example, of the freedom Cassandra confessed to want?

Whatever truths or half-truths, at the very least Charles discerned a name, a circumstance, and suddenly much of the conversations he heard made more sense. Now wary of Cassandra, he started explore any option open to him.

He was at the market when he saw a few men haggling over a few sticks of dried Celestial plants. He walked over, heard their prices, and had to hurry back to the palace to confront Cassandra.

She was sitting with the other mamluks.

“We’re heading to Egypt,” Charles said.

“Yes,” the Bey answered him, slanting a look at Cassandra. “But if you’re worried that we will ask you to fight, we will not. You’re not a mamluk. You’re not even an alpha. Cassandra has made other arrangements for you.” He made a sign. Cassandra sighed and gestured for Charles to follow her.

“You lied to me.”

“Sir Charles, calm yourself.” She called for tea. “You’ve heard the Bey. You will not be asked to fight.”

Charles drew a deep breath and said, “Yet I am asked to be party to the poisoning of the French army in Egypt.”

“Ah-” For a moment, Cassandra said nothing.

Charles drew no satisfaction from the fact. He recognized he was a prisoner to people who had more secrets and grievances than he knew. “I have placed my life in your hands and I believe when you said that you desire a certain kind of freedom that only I can offer you.”

“How did you know?”

“When prices of the Celestial plants rise instead of fall when you pass through, when all our hosts ask so solicitously after the mamluks of Egypt and of Murad Bey in Syria, and when you consider mamluk your true brothers-”

“And when you realise Napoleon has left Cairo for Syria and the British patrol the coasts so that the French is surrounded, you should also know that it is our only chance. They do not know of all the uses of the Celestial plants.”

Somewhere, Charles thought, there must been a history of such usage. The politics of the harems and the seraglios seemed even more complicated and deadly in retrospect. “Yet, I still cannot condone the poisoning-”

“You cannot condone?” Cassandra raised her voice. “What right do you to offer you an opinion?”

“You are poisoning an entire army,” Charles reminded her.

“I am making war upon my enemies with whatever advantage I have. It is no less and no more than what other wars do. You have read history, Sir Charles, is your own condemnation based on the fact that this particular method had never been tried on your own country?”

“You went to Storm under false pretences,” Charles said. “It is a method that has not been attempted in history, in this scale. You cannot predict what will happen or if it is only your enemies who will suffer.”

“Yet they will suffer,” Cassandra said. “It is enough. Our customs may seem strange, but you’re a stranger in these lands. It is best, I think, for you not to repeat what you have said to the Bey.”

Charles knew his dismissal and left.

He tried to comfort himself with the thought that he was not the one who made the decision or would be affected, and, as Cassandra said, had no right to give it judgment. The French, it seemed, had its civil violence spilled over to declare war upon all of Europe. Egypt itself was still mostly a subject of fascination from what he knew in books. He had no ties to either. He was a stranger in these lands, longing to desperately for home.

He could not stop the mamluks even if he wished to. The remaining flat pockets of the Celestial seeds Storm gave to him which he wore hidden in the innermost layer of his clothes could probably aid the mamluks’ effort, yet they were a gift meant for him and Charles, as he had said, could not condone the act himself. He had been too careless. The mamluks were the ruling class in Egypt- no one ever gave up power easily, less when they had cause for vengeance and no other home.

He woke up to Cassandra standing next to him, fully dressed and armed. Charles tried to move his arms, but could not.

“Do you think I will run away and tell the French not to drink from their wells?” Charles asked.

“I think you have the means to do so, yes.”

“I thought to go home,” Charles said. “That is all. I have told you my story. I am a scholar. I am neither soldier nor politician. I care for my studies, my friends, my family.” The bonds held fast. “Did the Bey command this? Or is it from your own initiative?”

“You would be dead if I had done as the Bey wished. The walls have ears, even ears that understand English, and he knows you less than I. The command was that you have until dawn to live.” Cassandra’s smile did not quite reach her eyes. “Do you remember the story I told, of the enthralled waiting for her beloved?” she asked.

Charles only thought of Erik and was briefly confused. “Did you invent it for my benefit?”

“It is a real story.”

“If it is a real story, then you know the parallels,” Charles said, desperate. “Have you come to warn me or to harm me?”

“Aren’t you even a little curious how I could know the story?”

Dawn was just lighting the horizons. Cassandra’s lovely face was pale by the light through the windows. Her eyes seemed more than familiar. A flash of insight came to Charles. “No,” he said, strangled.

“No, then, and nor shall I, but I should give you the name of the villain of the piece. Do you know his name, Charles Xavier? You should. I’ve never forgotten it. My mother spoke of him before the Russian soldiers came, then afterwards, on the long journey with the slavers to the sultan’s palace, inside the establishment his vizier granted us as tutor to the royal children, and on her deathbed she prayed that he was still alive. His name-”

Charles dreaded the hearing. Cassandra seemed faraway when she said it, “Sir Brian Xavier of Westchester.” She did not let him have time to recover, but cut his bonds swiftly with a small blade. “Come on, get dressed.”

She did not leave as Charles fumbled for his coat and his boots, and put on the cloak she handed him. When he was finished, she came to stand next to him in front of the mirror.

Within the gilded frames, their reflections showed the same height of two figures. Dressed in the cloaks that exposed only their faces, their colorings had perhaps but a shade’s difference, and side by side, their features appeared almost identical.
“You are my brother, you see how we are alike. As like as peas in a pod, as the phrase goes, though differently sexed,” Cassandra said. “Now we must go.”

Charles had no choice but to obey her. Her mood seemed strange as they rode out of the city out onto a road, then into the desert. She could have killed him when he slept, Charles reminded himself as they stopped at a dilapidated construction, what might’ve been once a watchtower.

The day had not yet warmed. Cassandra started a fire and brewed some tea. Charles tried a few question and received no answers. Somehow, he dozed. When he woke up this time, Cassandra was still there, watching him, expression contemplative.

“Where should I go?” he asked.

“There is a price on your head, Sir Charles, and not because of the mamluks. Everyone who’s been at port in Barbary knows the name Xavier, but none has my reason.”

“What is your reason? Why did you not tell me?” Charles whispered. He recalled Cassandra’s surprise when he told her his name at Storm’s table, which seemed like a memory from another lifetime.

“Come now, my sweet brother, would you have believed me? Do you believe me even now?”
Charles did, however, for now he recognized why Cassandra seemed familiar to him in a way that startled him sometimes. They did not always think alike, but the paths of her thoughts, while learning, had been far more natural to him than Raven’s.

“Let us both go back to Westchester,” Charles said and knew the futility of his appeal. The same mood took him sometimes, the determination for some objective that would not rest until its fulfillment. Poor Erik, he thought again, to suffer that mood in the multiple, though he would only know its source as Charles.

Cassandra continued, “Did you really think I can forgive our father so easily when he had left my mother and I to the wolves, though he promised to return? But you he took home, only because you are his son. Did he ever regret that you turned out to be an omega instead of an alpha? And looking as you do, as I do. We have our mother’s eyes, Charles.”

Charles wondered that he had not seen it before. The shape of Cassandra’s face and mouth had belonged to Brian Xavier, who had travelled to meet Cassandra’s mother, who had also been Charles’ birth mother as well, a woman Charles would never know, not even her name. He had her eyes, that was all.

Lady Sharon Xavier née Francis of Darkholme’s had cool grey eyes. Silver, according to her flatterers. She had married Sir Brian Xavier early enough that Charles had never even heard a whisper of doubt that he was not her son. Both Sharon and Brian had carried the secret to their graves.

Charles saw the irony of accusations of unnatural indifference in his life, for it could be nothing but natural, given his parentage. Cleavings, attachment, enthrallment, love, what had any of it meant- If not for meeting Cassandra, he would’ve never known that he had another sister, just like Brian must’ve intended.

“And you have explained our father to me, Cassandra,” Charles couldn’t help saying. “No, he never did quite like me. He must’ve seen her and he would’ve seen you.”

“I will have everything you’ve taken from me,” his sister said. “I will have all that was owed to me. Yes, first, the safety of Egypt from the French. Then I will have your Westchester, your Genosha. I do mean to go there.”

“Cassandra,” Charles interrupted. “When you were a child, I was one as well. When you were helpless, so was I. Brian Xavier’s been dead for the last fifteen years. He never told me about you or about our mother.”

Cassandra let out a cry, so soft that Charles almost missed it, except it was such a sound of anguish.
“I will have your Lilandra and your Erik and your children,” she continued, ”everything that was yours shall be mine.”

Charles tried to stand and realised he could not. His thoughts were muddled, confused. The world began to waver.

“What did you give me?” Charles asked, horrified. Cassandra remained silent. “Tell me her name at least.” Charles appealed, “Tell me the name of the mother that bore us before I die.”

“Never,” Cassandra said, “You are not fit for her name. I have no brother except brothers those sworn to me. But for her sake, I have not killed you.”

“And so will you truss me up to sell me?” Charles asked, bitter.

“We are not slavers! I neither kill nor enslave you. I will leave you to fate as Brian Xavier has left us to ours. I have given you landanum, though more than a drop, even,” Cassandra’s voice tolled like silver bells, “more than a spoon, mixed a little from a concentrate of the flowers.”

Her mouth opened and closed for another moment or two, but Charles heard no more.

It was a dark sleep, dreamless and unsettling. Charles came to at the sensation of hands grabbing at him. He kicked out in his sleep and felt air on his calves His eyes startled open and realised that there were two men, with the signs of being in the beginning throes of agonies. They had cut the bonds of feet and were pulling at his trousers, tearing at the buttons of his coat.

Charles thrashed, but there were two of them. Their blue uniforms were dusty but European. Charles’ shirt ripped. Bare hands fell on his skin. He expected the worst, but for a moment, there was only silence as the men blanched-

“Merde!” One of them swore, then scrambled to get away. The other followed him and was gone.

Waiting until his breath and his heart resumed their rhythms, eventually Charles sat up. He looked groggily down his torso and understood why they ran. Encircling his waist, beginning on his ribcage, was a rose belt of lesions. They had frightened his captors away. Charles touched one and hissed at the pain. He wanted to laugh, but there were tears his eyes. Struggling, he reached out and touched cloth. They had left him his clothes, albeit tattered and dirty. He dressed himself, hands shaking, and began to walk.

Dusk turned to dawn, then to full morning. The world was an endless desert. Charles began to hear voices. Impossible voices- Raven impatient on the pianoforte, Anthony exclaiming over LaGrange’s theorems, McCoy muttering to himself over a book…

He saw a familiar tall straight figure walking in front of him. “Erik!” he cried, and ran towards it, feet slipping on the shifting stand, but Erik didn’t turn and remained faraway no matter how quickly he ran. Finally, Charles collapsed.

He did not know how long he lay there on the burning sand, only that the day got brighter and hotter, but eventually he heard hoofbeats, the smell of animals overwhelmed him, and moving shadows fell over him.

He heard the crunch of sand as someone dismounted and moved by his side. A hand cradled the back of his head and water, blessed water, dripped onto his parched lips before he began to gulp and then cough.

“Who-” he gasped, his eyes slitting open against the shine of gold and silver.

“Colonel Kallark, of the Imperial Sh’iar Legion. Are you French or English?”

“Sh’iar,” Charles managed, before darkness took him again.

-=-=