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Oh god, my dream! I dreamed that you were dead,
Your mother hung above the couch and wept
Whereon you lay all white, and garlanded
With blooms of waxen whiteness.

- amy levy

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Go Not Gently
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Chapter Two - Bleeding From His Mouth

 

There's a kind of rhythm that comes from going to sleep due to being hit over the head very hard with something two nights in a row. I had a concussion that could probably win prizes, and a headache that could at least get Highly Commended ribbons.

Understand this: there are very few princesses who get knocked around. They're confined mainly to the kind of romance novels I used to read when I was littler to make my blood go hot and cold, and Garnet. I wasn't furious at my treatment so much as confused and bemused and a little bit frightened; I was thrown in a loop utterly by the crazy feathery clockwork toy who was -

Sitting on the dresser opposite my bed, when I woke up.

I woke up very quietly, a few steps at a time.

It was a room. Unlike the library, this room was sparkling clean and smelt a bit like polish and soap rather than the musty driedblood of the library. There were cracks in the walls, and the blankets thin and patched. They chafed roughly against my bare ski - bare skin. I had been stripped during the night, and since I had no other loonies to suspect around the place, all fingers pointed towards Black Tango.

Too many shocks. I was naked, I was in a bed. There was filmy soft light all throughout, highlighting the plaster whitewash of the walls, the cool stone in a room as devoid of moisture as the tower. Still in a desert. My captor, crouched with his shapeless knees up to his chest and his wings half-around him like a cloak, was watching me keenly - all black leather and horned hat and dark crescents of eyes.

Lying there, underneath those blankets, I ticked off the possible reasons he could want me. Uncle Artania had taught me this, in long lessons in politics. Politics was by far one of the more interesting of my classes; it was all backstabbing and greed and nastiness, just like a very good story.

Hostage. No. He wanted no bargain, though I had no idea of his goal. If I could find out his goal, then perhaps I could shed more light on my situation. His only apparent goal, though, was to cause mayhem and destruction and, following in the footsteps of all other maniacal villains I had known, obliteration of Gaia. Lacking in panache, maybe, but a safe bet - especially considering what the bastard had done to my Lindblum. But no, no hostage, though I was in good condition.

Food. No. Black Mages had, as far as I'd known, not had a taste for human flesh - despite the screaming stories of the Burmecian refugees. Vivi, in fact, had had a taste for trifle. (The night of Garnet's wedding we snuck down to the kitchens, at so early in the morning we couldn't believe it, and stole the remnants of the desserts under Quina's benevolent eye. He liked the custard and the jelly and the whipped cream. I liked the cherry pie. We talked about what we wanted to be when we grew up.)

Rape. Possibly he wanted me for the pleasures of the flesh. I discounted this theory almost immediately, since if he'd wanted that, I gathered I'd be much more sore between the thighs than I was currently. After all, I'd been out like a light, and as inexperienced as I was in the pleasures of the flesh, I knew very well that an unconscious body is just as good as a conscious one for needs - with the added bonus of no screaming. Besides, Black Mages were not exactly renowned for their love of fleshly things, having no easily found flesh themselves.

No reason to want me. I was definitely an uninvited guest.

Conclusion; he was going to kill me.

I sat up, careful with the blankets, more irritated than disgusted at my nudity as I primly pulled the covers up. He didn't seem to care, anyhow.

"Good morning, Princess." He had something in his hands; it was a little bell, and he was cleaning it with a cloth. It made no noise as he wiped it. "Did you sleep well?"

"Can we skip the pleasantries and get to the point, Tango? If you're going to kill me, I'd like to know so I can get dressed."

"Your dress is being cleaned," he said diffidently. "I'll find you clothes if you need them. Nobody will care, not around here. No witty banter for me? I like witty banter, you know."

"Do you have nothing better do to?" I asked him testily. "No more cities to blow up, or Lindblum to finish?"

"Lindblum was a test run." He shrugged one shoulder, setting down the bell, feathers ruffling softly. "I am aiming for Alexandria, which will be the first city I grind to rubble and people I mulch between my fingers. After that... it will all seem much easier."

"Look." Leaning back, I eyed him, resting down in the cool pillows with some relief. Gods, my head hurt. "You've already made two of the stupidest mistakes in the book. One, you're telling me your plan. Two, you haven't killed me."

The eyes narrowed to crescent slits. With a Black Mage, you had to read their eyes; this one was as transparent as glass. "What makes you think I won't?"

"Because you haven't yet."

"Maybe I'm fattening you up." The eyes changed, shifting from anger to extraordinarily uncomfortable amusement. "Maybe I haven't eaten in a long, long while."

"That joke got old quickly, Tango."

"Life gets old quickly, Eiko."

Petulant, petulant, and it was the first time he had used my name alone; salt and lemon juice, vindictive like spit. My head hurt again. I was only equipped for dealing with nice, calm, impersonal villains who probably wanted my money or were at least insane in a way I could understand and had a mustache they could twirl. Tango had no mustache, and whatever he was twirling, it was making me dizzy.

"So," I said. "Hand me a bone. What are you going to do with me here? How am I part of your master plan?"

He slipped down off the dresser to walk to the middle of the room. It was a strangely lavish one; the rugs on the floor had once been of superior quality, the furniture of fine hardwood, the gilt on everything gold and not sham. The threads in my patchy coverlet were silk.

"I wanted," he said slowly, "to kill you."

"Don't tell me you took pity on me." Pity was more than I could bear.

"No." The words were try and completely utterly truth. "I was going to kill you, Lindblum Princess. I was going to split you and scatter your pieces over your city like wet chunky ashes." He seemed quite coherent now, if disgusting. "But you pose no threat, and you are amusing, and you have a pulse. You cannot run off into the desert, and you cannot be rescued; the wards around this place are more than you can break, linden-bloom princess, so nobody can see you when your eyes are red from tears. You are to be a useful toy when I am uninspired."

"A toy." I was flabbergasted. How undignified. "That's all I am to you?"

"Better people have been toys to better masters, Carol," he murmured. "You will be a good toy, and tell me things, and breathe, when I want you to be good and tell me things and breathe."

"No!" This was worse than pity. "You exist only to kill, don't you? Kill me. I'd prefer to be dead than exist only for your twisted sake."

In a flash, he bounded over to my bed, leathergloved hands wrapping around my thin throat. I could hardly speak; I could hardly breathe. "Choose me," he hissed, "or choose to honestly die, here and now."

I wish I had been brave enough to choose death. I wish I had been brave enough to bite his fingers. But I am weak, and life was sweet, and death was so bitter; being choked, I immediately knew that there were far worse things than being kept around as a talking doll for Tango to play with. Not with the hope of getting out.

"You," I rasped, voice squeezed into half-oblivion, eyes clenching shut for fear they'd pop out as he bruised my throat. Now my throat would match my cheeks, darkened blossoming lavender, I knew without a mirror. "I choose you!"

He let go. He stepped back, not outwardly mollified, but his hands fell limp and he nodded at me shortly as he tucked them behind his back like a naughty child. His wings flared out slightly, soft with a noise like a sheet being billowed out to fold, and he closed his eyes so that underneath the brim of his hat there was nothing but darkness.

"So be it, milady," Tango said softly. "This room is being watched, so I recommend you do not leave it yet. I will get you fresh clothes. Green," he said decidedly, and he opened the door to the outside and shut it behind him.

I turned my head away into the pillow, still shivering at the violence. A part of me wanted to weep at my uncertain nightmarish future, but my cheeks remained as dry as the sand outside.

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He made me think of Vivi.

Not in personality, of course. Tango was weird and malicious and moody and quite obviously had some Problems only able to be cured with a double dose of Flare. Vivi... the Vivi I had prodded, teased, superciliously bossed around as a little girl. I did love him, like I loved Garnet and Freya and even yucky old Amarant, but I didn't know how to show it. I didn't know how to show any love back then, any except my fullblown melodramatic crush on Zidane. All the other love had been bred out of me in my childhood, dying when my grandfather died, dying when Mog died, held tightly and passionately to my moogles - though I couldn't often even show it to them. It was only later, under the gentle tuition of my mother and my father, that I learned my own halting love-yous.

So yes, he made me think of Vivi, as I lay there huddled under the blankets and my throat ached. He didn't deserve to die that way. As Zidane said, maybe we might have just postponed the inevitable if we'd talked him out of it - Black Mages never do live very long - but it didn't mean we felt any better. And I felt particularly horrible. Mean to him in ways that might have seemed vindictive all our friendship, and now I'd never be able to say sorry.

Black Mages. They never did live very long. Except for the Waltzes, perhaps? Was Tango running on a time limit? Oh, that would be sweet. Maybe I could help him along.

I dozed off, only to wake again when I heard the squeak of the door. I sat up, immediately expecting Tango, but a much smaller figure entered the room.

hats bobbing the entire village full soft tools-of-war-turned-farmers please please please

A Black Mage. A little bit smaller than me, but still recognizable. Oh, Gods, my eyes pricked with tears. A Black Mage.

He shuffled in, closing the door behind him. He was dressed in blue and red and green; his hat was carefully kept brown leather, and his eyes were gold and warm as sunshine. He carried a green shirt over one of his arms and laid it down at the foot of my bed.

"What's your name?" I asked gently, voice trembling in anticipation.

The mage looked up at me; yes, he heard me, yes, he understood! Fumbling with his gloves, he peered out at me from under the brim of his hat, straightening it absently. "Ah, your highness," he eventually murmured. "Name?"

"Yes, your name." You can help me get out of here, you're a Black Mage, even if you are helping Tango. Oh, I hope there's more of you, I can rescue you, we can put you in with Mikoto - "What people call you. All Black Mages have numbers."

"Fifty-six," he volunteered immediately. "But that's never been my name, your highness."

"Call me Eiko." I looked at him curiously. A very low number. I'd known a Mr. Fifty-Six once. He was obviously new-batch; but how? My heart began to clutch still. Mist. You couldn't make Black Mages from anything but Mist. "So what does Black Tango call you?"

"Master?" He looked even more startled, as if just reminded of Tango's existence. Ah, so that's who made them. "He... He just calls me..."

He was obviously uncomfortable, so I shook my head decidedly. "Never mind," I said, gentle. "Can I give you a name? To call you by?"

The mage folded the shirt at the foot of my bed, smoothing out all the wrinkles. I immediately stood and pulled it over my head; it reached down to my knees, and I hastily did up the other buttons. "If you like," he said, uncertain.

"Well." I went to look out the window, pulling the curtains aside. "How long ago were you made?"

"Four months and fifty-six days and thirteen minutes and twenty-eight seconds," was the immediate answer.

Very new batch. "Do you have many brothers and sisters?"

"There are a hundred of us at the moment." Tango had obviously not warned him off answering my questions. "There always are."

"What, a hundred of you?" I was confused. "Never any more?"

"We Stop after a year, your hi - Princess."

"Eiko." I nodded, slow. "How long has Tango been here?"

He blinked, slowly. "I... I do not know, Eiko. A very long time. I think. Longer than us. Longer than when we began."

Black Mages who lived for years and years on end, all raven-wings and dry bitter vengeance. We should have checked, Zidane; let not sleeping demons lie, if there is any chance of them waking up.

"Then it was summer here, when you were born."

"It rains in summer," he told me gravely. "We have to all go and dry our clothes every time they get wet, otherwise they rot."

"I'll call you Rain, then," I said, because I think I went to the Garnet Til Alexandros School Of Creative Nicknames. "If you don't mind."

"No." He seemed pleased, eyes bright. "I don't."

"What do you call the other Black Mages around you?"

Rain squinted a little. "Just... Brother," he said, as if it was the most natural thing in the world.

I missed Mogara. I wanted my mother. I wanted my father. I wanted my set of spanners and my airships. "I like that," I said softly.

I don't think he understood; just went on opening the windows and straightening things and smoothing the blankets over the bed. "The Master said that you weren't to jump out the window," Rain told me industriously. "He said that it's a long way down and that there's an antlion pit really close, who'd save him the trouble of having to eat you, he said."

A sudden burst of realization tugged at my brain. I reached up to push my glasses further back on my nose before noticing that they weren't there, and I swore. "My glasses! Where are my glasses?"

"I don't know," Rain said apologetically, bobbing on his big feet. "I'm really sorry. I didn't take your things away."

"I need them," I fussed. I didn't, not unless I wanted to read text without holding the book right up to my nose, but I felt naked without them. "If you see them, can you give them back to me?"

"Of course."

So sweet, obliging, friendly. My heart tore for a graveyard full of rotting hats and a chocobo called Bobby Corben. "Rain? Does this place have a name?"

"Yes," he said immediately. "The Desert Palace."

The Desert Palace.

That explained a great deal. One of the last places we hadn't touched of Kuja's various rats' nests; there had been too much magic overflow, too many traps a vindictive Genome had set for wary travellers, a home too much tailored for it's dead master. Peace brings laziness.

I raised my hand to touch my horn slowly, feeling the familiar velvety stub of the bone. "Kuja," I whispered.

Rain stiffened. "We do not say the Grandmaster's name."

Grandmaster? You mean you all really are associated with that bastard Kuja?" If I had had any hopes of this being a complete one-off and there were no more connections to Genomes or Terra or men who were prettier than women they were all shattered. I doubted that I had had any naïve hopes for that happening, really.

"We revere the dead," Rain said primly, with just a hint of pitying disapproval. "We do not speak his name. There are many names we do not speak, but we especially do not speak of the Master's father."

This was getting stupid.

It is one thing to be kidnapped. It is another thing to be kidnapped by a monster whose type was supposedly killed and all dead years ago. It is another thing entirely to discover that the monster is apparently the son of another monster who happens to be the extremely odd clone brother of a very good friend of yours who is almost your brother-in-law and who was the reason for a lot of destruction and why you sometimes have shapeless nightmares and I felt another headache coming on.

Noticing my distress, Rain gently lead me by the hand to sit down on a chair. All I could do was absently grip the sides, staring into nothing. Kuja didn't have children. Of course, as another Black Waltz and his creation, there was no reason why Tango couldn't be having a twisted fatherly relationship with ol' Pretty In Purple; it was just shortsightedly stupid, that was all.

"Rain?" I murmured. "Rain, if you help me get out of here, I could take you to a really wonderful place where the old Black Mages used to live."

"Black Mage Village." The sadness in his voice was palpable, and his knowledge surprised me. He was certainly no mindless doll-slave. "It is not a place for me or my brothers, Eiko. No, better to stay, better with people who love us. Life is but a brief candle, being a Black Mage."

"How did he find you?" I persisted. "He made you, didn't he? Nobody's ever done that, not since Vivi, and it even failed with Vivi and his children - please, Rain - "

He was shaking his head, tightlipped. "No," he said finally. "Please, no, no more of those. And - that is another name we do not speak. We do not speak his name. We do not speak the name of the other Genomes, we do not say the word Genome." He looked downright miserable about being made to say it.

"Why?" I asked, frustrated. "Why all this silence?"

"Because it ends in pain," Rain said simply, "pain, and a quicker death. He - he is unwilling - but he has such a temper..."

I knew who he was. Damned Tango. There was mist involved here, and strangenesses, and secrets. Maybe it was to my advantage that Tango was a completely raving loony - though, with the bruises hurting on my cheeks and throat, it would still be wise not to cross him.

Rain made a soft noise, drawing my attention away from myself. "Why don't you stay in this room," he suggested, "and I'll get you some food."

My stomach rumbled quietly at that mention. "Thank you," I said, and smiled; he looked meltingly relieved, beaming, that I was ending my crossfire of questions. I was not going to inflict those upon poor Rain. I was going to inflict them on Tango instead. Hopefully, Rain could get me some wood, or I could break a piece off the dresser; hours of prayer and sanctifying it should give me a useful wand, and then I could blast the son-of-a-whore - quite literally - to hell. Phoenix could get me home after that, now that I knew where I was. Relieved, I began to perk up; finally, a plan! "That would be lovely, Rain. I think I will stay here."

"The Master will be along soon," he hinted. "I will get you your food, and look for your glasses. Try not to aggrieve him, Eiko; his research makes him tired - "

I waited until the little Black Mage left, shuffling along. I wanted very badly to immediately poke my head out the doorway and look around, but I realized that if I did, I'd immediately go looking around desperately for an exit. I was too tired, too concussed and too hungry for that.

Instead, I immediately opened the drawers of the dresser and began shuffling through the contents, mostly empty. I was convinced that my being cloistered away in the Desert Palace - ha, Desert Prison! - was not going to last more than a few days now that I had my grand plan.

I was such a little fool.