Title: Quaint Little Concept
Version: Manga (Silver Millennium)
Twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree…
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon lover…
– Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Kubla Khan
Sweet like honey to my soul,
Sweet you rock and sweet you roll
Lost for you, I'm so lost for you.
You wear nothing, but you wear it so well...
— Dave Matthews Band, Crash Into Me
The gardens of Magellan Castle were famous throughout the solar system, both for their beauty and the sheer range of plants that Queen Ishtar had managed to cultivate. The atmosphere of Venus was not exactly conducive to plant life; it was not conducive to any kind of life. So the gardens were seen as a miracle and it was considered a great privilege to be shown around them. Kunzite was very aware of this and that was why he was determined to secure a tour for the Earth group. As leader of the diplomatic mission, it was up to him to show that they were worthy of such an honour, and so he did everything that he could to impress the Venusians. He smiled and nodded and was as charming as he knew how to be… which was a lot more than you might have suspected from his normal manner. Certainly, it seemed to work on the Queen, who announced that she would allow Lord Kunzite and his delegation to have a tour of the gardens on Freya’s Day.
“Freya’s Day is the beginning of a week of festivities as the Venusians celebrate fertility and love,” Kunzite explained to the other members of his delegation in private. “Naturally, they will be at their most powerful so I want all of you to be on your guard. There is no telling what might happen.”
“What about you, Lord Kunzite?” questioned Pelagius, who was in charge of group activities.
“I shall attempt to explore the gardens more fully once the tour is over… perhaps there are some plants we can take back to Earth,” Kunzite added thoughtfully. “I am sure the Queen would not mind us taking some cuttings.”
“She wouldn’t mind you taking some cuttings,” remarked Rosamond, the oldest in their group and unofficial confessor. Everybody else chuckled. It had been remarked that the Queen had taken something of a fancy to Kunzite, despite the difference in their ages. Indeed, this liking had been responsible for their smooth progress in the talks. Kunzite found this discomforting: that diplomacy could hang on the whims of one person went against everything he’d been taught, but the Venusians didn’t seem to care. They had no trouble in bending or ignoring the rules if they saw fit. He cleared his throat.
“I will see what her Majesty thinks of the idea,” he said calmly. “We all need a good sleep tonight. The last thing we need is someone yawning while walking around the gardens and starting the rumour we found them boring.” He smiled a little. “Even if that turns out to be the case.”
They all laughed and retired to their chambers. Kunzite’s were slightly separated from the others, as befitted the leader: he had to walk up some stairs and turn a corner. As he turned the corner, he stopped. There was a girl standing there, but not by his door. Kunzite’s corridor had open windows that looked down onto a courtyard, where a fountain bubbled and the pink walls were starred with night jasmine. The girl was standing and looking out of one of these windows, one hand placed on the carved brickwork as if she were posing for a painting. Perhaps she’d heard him coming. When she sensed his gaze, she looked at him and smiled. Her charm was softer than most Venusians, but it was also stronger, just as the finest fishing nets catch the most elusive fish.
“May I help you?” he enquired, taking a deep breath.
“Maybe,” she answered, turning slowly. Her hair was long, even for a Venusian: down to her waist. It was pure gold, but that was not particularly noticeable, most Venusians were fair-haired. There was a lot of gold around Magellan Castle in general. Kunzite was secretly sick of it. He longed for green and blue, red and brown. And that was why her eyes caught his attention: a pure blue with spots of gold around the pupil. He’d only seen those eyes once before in all his life. They were the Queen’s eyes.
A whisper of warning ran down his back. “To whom do I have the pleasure of speaking?”
“My, we are formal,” she said with a laugh. “But since you ask so politely, my name is Aphrodite.”
“Princess Aphrodite,” Kunzite said, feeling his stomach lurch for some reason.
She laughed again. “Plenty of girls are called Aphrodite, what makes you think I’m the Princess?”
“Your eyes,” Kunzite said, standing outside his door so he could enter his room if necessary. “You have the same eyes as your mother.”
Aphrodite pouted for a moment. “Most people don’t notice. Oh well…” She flicked this away with her hand and smiled at him again. “I came to tell you that I will be your guide around the gardens tomorrow, Lord Kunzite.” She tipped her head, looking at him from under her eyelashes, a movement that she’d obviously practised. “I hope you don’t mind.”
“How old are you?” Kunzite demanded.
The flirtation vanished from her face and she looked irritated. “That is all you have to say? You are being escorted around the gardens of Magellan — a great privilege — by the Princess of Venus herself, and all you can say is ‘how old are you’?!”
He stepped forward, surprising her so that she took a step back and found herself against the wall. “You look sixteen but from the way you act, I’d say younger.”
“Why is this important?”
“Why are you avoiding the question?”
“I don’t see why my age affects your tour, unless you think I’m too young,” she snapped.
“I don’t think you’re too young to take us on a tour of the gardens,” Kunzite said, thinking it best to pacify her. “I’m sure you know just as much about them as anybody.”
Her eyes flashed: the gold spots seemed to widen, almost forming a ring around her pupil. “But you think I’m too young for something, that much is obvious.”
“I think you’re too young to be hanging around a corridor at this hour waiting for a stranger.”
“Ah.” She smiled, the irritation vanishing. “But you’re a noble man, Lord Kunzite. Everyone knows that. You would never take advantage of a sweet young girl like me, would you?” She stepped forward, gazing up into his eyes, so fresh and appealing.
“No, I wouldn’t. Not even if she begged me with everything she had… like you,” he added, watching as she flushed with anger. “Why don’t you go and flirt with someone else, your Highness?”
“You’re not that much older than me, don’t try and tell me what to do!” she retorted, narrowing her eyes. “I shall call for you tomorrow at nine o’clock sharp, Lord Kunzite. Be ready… or I’ll come inside and wake you myself.” She smiled and stood on tiptoe to whisper in his ear. “Tomorrow is Freya’s Day. Let’s see how you stand up to me then.”
He closed his eyes and she laughed, then danced away. Kunzite waited until she was gone before unlocking his door and throwing himself inside his room. His throat was dry and his heart was pounding. He dropped onto the bed and lay there, trying to calm himself down, but this proved difficult, and he was almost certain that he knew why.
Kunzite had never felt any particular attraction to the women he encountered in his life on Earth. He appreciated their looks, their bodies, but none of them really touched him. As he grew older and saw how interested Jadeite and Nephrite became in girls, he began to wonder if this was normal. Even Zoisite expressed more interest in the female sex than he did. For a while, Kunzite had assumed this indifference towards women meant that he liked men instead, but he didn’t feel attracted to any of the men he knew, either: Zoisite would have been the most likely candidate, considering his acknowledged beauty, but Kunzite only felt affection for his younger comrade (and sometimes a great deal of irritation). He had wondered about Endymion, but… no. And so he’d come to the conclusion that he wasn’t sexually attracted to either men or women, that he was basically asexual. This hadn’t bothered him too much. It was sad that he’d never get married or even find a basic companion, but he wouldn’t have to deal with the messiness of love and sex, either. Now his heart was pounding over a slip of a girl who just happened to be the Princess of Venus.
“Well, that explains why I’m not attracted to men or women,” he muttered. “I’m not attracted to adults at all. I’m a bloody paedophile. Marvellous. And she seems determined to get something out of me and tomorrow is Freya’s Day. This situation just keeps getting better and better.” He sat up, undressed himself and got under the covers. He needed to get as much sleep as possible if he was going to survive tomorrow with any kind of dignity. Surprisingly, he slept well, so deeply that it seemed as if evening had turned to morning in the blink of an eye. He looked at the clock on the wall: an hour until she called for him. Time enough to get ready and send messages to the others about who would be giving them the tour. He could already hear the chanting coming from the palace temple in the eastern wing, intermixed with singing that tugged at him with its longing. When he looked out of his window, he saw that decorations had already been put up: dahlias and marigolds and flowers which did not grow on Earth. Perhaps Aphrodite would know their names.
At nine o’clock, he heard three knocks on his door and had to clear his throat before calling out, “Come in!”
There was a moment of silence and then the door opened and she stood there. Kunzite felt his throat dry up and gripped the edge of the bed so he wouldn’t leap to his feet. She was wearing a tiara today, set with topazes and yellow diamonds, and earrings sparkled against her neck. Her shoulders were bare… in fact, most of her chest was bare: the rest was covered by aquamarine gauze, which was held by a tight jewelled band that was designed to look like seashells.
Of course, he thought. Aphrodite, born of sea foam. How very clever.
“Has your mother seen you in that?” he asked, amazed at the steadiness of his voice.
She laughed, high and clear. “This is my official dress for Freya’s Day, Lord Kunzite. Of course my mother has seen it. She approved it.” She smoothed a hand over the gauze. “Do you like it?” Her voice was low, coaxing, and he felt the pull in his belly, the invitation to stroke that gauze himself.
“We do not dress children like that on my planet,” he said, standing up slowly.
“I should hope not,” she laughed. “But I am not a child, my lord. On this planet, you stop being a child as soon as you enter puberty.” Her eyes darkened. “I have been a woman for some time.”
Dear Gaia… “Obviously that’s a matter of opinion,” he said, walking towards her, his fingers itching to explore that inviting cleavage.
She looked up. “So you still think I’m a child?” she challenged.
Kunzite hesitated. It occurred to him that if he was a paedophile, he would not really be excited by all these womanly curves she was displaying for him. That was reassuring but it didn’t make him any less of a pervert. She was still a young girl. “I think you’re young and you don’t really know what you’re doing.”
Aphrodite smiled, secretive and knowing. “That makes two of us, doesn’t it?” She turned away before he could reply. “We should go, the others will be waiting and the gardens are large.”
Kunzite was glad to follow her because he knew that with the others there, he could regain some control. He was not surprised that they all stared when Aphrodite arrived or that some of the men went red and dreamy-eyed. Aphrodite obviously enjoyed the effect she was having but she did not lose her poise. She greeted them all and told them that she would answer any questions they had. Since it was Freya’s Day, it was important that they stay on the paths and not stray too far from the main group.
“I can’t guarantee what you’ll find in the undergrowth,” she added with a mischievous smile. “We Venusians take Freya’s Day very seriously and celebrate it wherever we can.” Her meaning was clear and most of the group blushed. Rosamund caught Kunzite’s eye and he looked away, knowing that his thoughts were written all over his face.
“We’ll start with the sea garden,” Aphrodite announced, walking forward, quite unabashed at how naked she was. “This way, please.”
Each garden was designed around a theme. The sea garden had planets from Mercury and from Neptune, and even some from Earth. Kunzite recognised thrift and bulrushes and sedge grass. The garden had paths made from crushed seashells, while the flower beds themselves were edged with scallop shells that glimmered blue. The gates were decorated with mother of pearl, which threw rainbow light on the walls and made the visitors feel as if they were underwater. Kunzite felt Aphrodite’s hand brush against his.
“Do you like the sea?” she asked in a low voice.
“Yes,” he said honestly.
“The first time I ever saw the sea was when I went to the moon,” she said softly. “It is not possible to have a body of water on Venus. It evaporates too quickly.” She reached out and touched the soft pink flower of a thrift plant. “I couldn’t believe it… the sight of so much water… it was overwhelming.”
“Earth is more sea than land,” Kunzite replied, looking at the curve of her neck and shoulder, noticing the faint gold glimmer of her skin. “You must see that from space.”
“Yes, I see the blue… but knowing that it is water and actually seeing it… they are two different things.” She looked up at him, her eyes suddenly darker. “You understand that, don’t you?”
Kunzite looked back. For one moment, he could see just how young she was, and he felt old in comparison, old and wise. “Yes,” he answered. “I understand.”
“I thought you would,” she murmured, and then she turned and pushed open the gates. “This way!” she called to the others. “If you want to see all the gardens before lunch, we mustn’t linger Not even if we want to,” she muttered in a lower voice.
Kunzite followed her. He’d almost forgotten how early adolescence was such a mixture of highs and lows: one moment your mood could be sky high, the next you could be in a pit of despair. He was grateful that he was past that stage but the reminder made him feel a little more sympathetic towards Aphrodite. She was at the mercy of her body just as much as he was.
The next garden was a herb garden, fragrant with rosemary and lavender. Kunzite felt homesickness suddenly grip his heart like an illness. He could see from the expressions on their faces that his companions felt the same way. He was suddenly hungry for the gardens of Elysion, for the smell of the woods in midsummer and the familiar beloved horizon of the purple and brown mountains, beyond which lay his home. He was tired of this planet. He wanted to go back to a world where the atmosphere encouraged life, not death.
“Is something wrong?”
He turned, startled. Aphrodite had a hand on his arm. She looked genuinely worried.
“I miss the Earth,” he said briefly.
“It must truly be a beautiful planet to cause such longing,” she remarked.
“Many have called the Earth beautiful, your Highness,” Kunzite replied, his eyes lingering on her face. “But I call it home. And that would make it beautiful even if it was the ugliest planet in this solar system.”
She blushed, she actually blushed. “How right you are,” she said, turning away. “Home is always best, isn’t it?”
He didn’t have the time to reply. She’d already moved on, gathering the group and directing them through the gates (entwined with honeysuckle) to the next garden, which was full of climbing flowers in various pastel colours. It was obvious that this was Aphrodite’s favourite garden. She paused at various places, touching the flowers and pointing out the garden centrepiece: a statue of Eros, lithe and tall with copper-tipped arrows. They looked very sharp, even if they were made of stone.
“Don’t touch any of them,” Aphrodite warned with a laugh. “Or you might just find yourself falling in love with the first person you see.” As she said this, she glanced at Kunzite and raised her eyebrows, as if daring him to ignore her words. Kunzite looked away: he had no intention of touching anything that would mess with his emotions.
Afterwards, they went through dahlia and rose and desert gardens and ended in a garden that seemed almost dead, all the flowers closed. “This is the moon garden,” Aphrodite explained, caressing the white bud of one flower. “All the flowers here only bloom at night. It’s very popular for courting couples.” She glanced at Kunzite again, a smile flitting over her lips, obviously recovered from her melancholy mood. He almost smiled back at her before remembering how she might take this gesture.
“This is where the tour ends, ladies and gentlemen. The palace green is through those gates just there. Feel free to wander about, but since it’s Freya’s Day, I can’t guarantee that you’ll like what you find.” She laughed.
“Do you have an official role today, Princess?” Rosamund asked politely. She had not been impressed by Aphrodite’s dress, either. In fact, Kunzite was sure that he had heard her tut under her breath as Aphrodite appeared. He had found that strangely reassuring. Of course, she was too professional to let her disapproval of Aphrodite’s dress show on her face.
Aphrodite smiled a little. “I shall assist with the ceremonies tonight… traditionally, Freya’s Day is a day for plighting your troth and weddings, since marriages made on this day are said to last for life. Wedded couples ask my mother to bless their union, and this year, I will be blessing the betrothals.”
“But you’re not betrothed yourself?” Rosamund asked.
“Some might say I’m too young.” Her eyes flicked to Kunzite’s face. “No, I am not betrothed. Not yet. But that doesn’t prevent me from blessing other people’s betrothals, fortunately.” She clapped her hands, the little girl shining through for a moment in the anticipation on her face. “I hope you’ve all enjoyed the tour.”
There was a definite murmur of agreement and various people said ‘thank you’, then they all moved out of the gate onto the green. Kunzite lingered to make sure that they had all left, which meant that he and Aphrodite were the last people in the garden.
“Did you enjoy the tour?” she asked, sounding almost anxious.
“Yes. I can see why the gardens are so famous. Your mother has accomplished a lot.”
“You like plants, don’t you? I saw you… looking at them, examining the leaves.”
“Yes, but I don’t really have the time to grow any myself. I have… other duties.”
“Yes… it’s always difficult to find time for ourselves, isn’t it?” She looked sad for a moment, so sad that he reached out and put a hand on her arm. Something shocked his skin and he pulled back as she looked at him, eyes wide and dark.
“Did you feel that?” she said.
“Feel what?” he asked, playing for time.
“You know what,” she insisted. “That energy.”
“Static,” he said, forcing himself to be calm.
“From what? You’re wearing natural fibres and I’m barely wearing anything.” She was staring at him. “You’re not just a military commander, are you? You have power… you have power over something or I wouldn’t react like that.” Her eyelids lowered. The child disappeared and the nascent woman suddenly appeared. “Like calls to like.”
“We’re not alike,” Kunzite said, his voice almost unrecognisable, harsh and angry. “And even if we were, nothing would ever come of it, Princess.”
Aphrodite went red. “What makes you think I want something to come of it?”
“Oh, so you’ve just been making eyes at me to pass the time?”
“Naturally, I hope you didn’t assume I was serious!” she threw back. “After all, why would I be flirting seriously with an Earthling—?!”
The gates slammed behind him, an angry crash that cut off her words and breath. For a moment, she stared at them. Then she felt tears of frustration come to her eyes. She hadn’t meant to say that. She hadn’t meant to say any of it but how could he deny that spark and then tell her it was useless? Aphrodite felt like kicking the wall. She felt like running after him and screaming that he was cold and heartless, just wait, she’d make him sorry for saying no. She stayed where she was and clenched her hands into fists, taking deep breaths so that she didn’t start crying.
Kunzite wasn’t sure where he was going, he just knew that he had to get away from that girl before he hit her or kissed her. Neither action would be good and it was highly probable that kissing her would actually be worse. Rosamund was sitting under a tree making some notes. Kunzite sat down next to her and tried to calm himself down.
“Something wrong?” Rosamund enquired after a few moments.
Kunzite debated lying but decided there was no point. “That girl,” he said through gritted teeth.
“Mm, I noticed she liked you.”
Rosamund looked up, her grey eyes warm with amusement. “You didn’t notice?”
“I noticed her fluttering her eyelashes,” Kunzite said, glaring into the distance. “But according to her, she only did that to pass the time.”
“Well, of course she’d say that. She’s very young and she’s very proud. She’s not about to admit that she actually likes you, especially when you think so little of her.”
“I don’t think little of her!” Kunzite protested and then he felt himself blush as Rosamund raised her eyebrows. “I just wish she wouldn’t try so very hard to be seductive.”
“She’s a Venusian, Kunzite, what do you expect?” Rosamund demanded, flipping the page over and continuing her notes.
“Venusians are seductive without trying. She tries. Far too hard. Like she thinks she has to act for me…”
“That’s what young girls do, Kunzite. They try and be what they think you want.”
“I want her to stop pushing me,” Kunzite muttered. “Ever since I’ve been here, I’ve been under some sort of assault almost every day. I thought her mother was exhausting but Aphrodite’s worse…”
“Worse because she’s younger and she has less control over her emotions? Or worse because she’s available?”
Kunzite felt his body jerk at that word. Available. Of course. That was what Aphrodite had been trying to tell him: that she was available. Not betrothed but ripe for it, certainly wanting it. He swallowed, thinking of the way she’d looked at him. “Both, I suppose,” he said.
“Of course, today is the day for it,” she mused. “If you made an offer…”
“Rosamund! You know I can’t do that!”
“I don’t see why not. She wants it… I don’t think the Queen would object.” Rosamund looked at him. “I don’t think you’d object, either.”
“Now you’re teasing me.” He sighed. “A marriage between the Princess of Venus and an Earthling prince… no, it wouldn’t work. Even if her mother agreed, the other planets would be outraged. Besides, she’s a lady-in-waiting to Princess Serenity, I know that much. That’s a vocation; you can’t retire or leave.”
“You don’t have to get married immediately,” Rosamund said, looking amused. “Things change. Look at where our planet is now. Even five years ago, a diplomatic mission to Venus was only a dream, but Endymion changed that and you helped. Imagine where we could be in another five years.”
“She’s too young…”
“Rubbish. She’s fifteen, you’re seventeen. That may seem a big gap to you now, but two years is nothing. She’ll be on your level in no time, if she isn’t already. She certainly wants to be.”
Kunzite felt himself blush again. “Rosamund…”
“I’m only pointing out the obvious, dear boy. She likes you so much that she has no idea what to do with herself… and you like her back. I’ve never seen you so agitated over anyone, except Endymion. It says something about her that she’s managed to get under your skin, young as she is.”
Kunzite felt more agitated than ever. He stood up. “I’m going for a walk.”
“Suit yourself,” Rosamund said placidly. “You won’t manage to walk her out of your head.”
Kunzite decided not to reply to this. He strode off, making for his room. He would have liked to hibernate the day away, but this was not possible. His presence was required at all the official celebrations and there were many. He spent most of the afternoon at a banquet (full of edible aphrodisiacs) watching as various couples formed in front of his eyes; after the banquet came the blessing ceremony and he had to stand there and watch Aphrodite bless betrothal after betrothal, which involved her kissing each party on the cheek. He could feel Ishtar watching him and tried to look as blank as possible.
“Are you betrothed, Lord Kunzite?” she asked as the last couple came up to be blessed.
“No, your Majesty, I am… unattached,” he said, rejecting the words ‘single’ and ‘free’.
“Nobody’s caught your eye?”
“Having someone catch my eye isn’t grounds for a betrothal, your Majesty.”
She laughed, rich and low. “Quite right. There are other things to consider: breeding, alliance… but liking your betrothed is also important. Aphrodite’s had a couple of offers from the Martian princes already — there are eight of them — but she said no… I think Erinya’s told her too much. Rather self-absorbed, apparently.” She smiled. “That wouldn’t be a problem with you.”
Kunzite wished that he could get up and leave but it was impossible. “I’m only human, your Majesty,” he said, keeping his eyes fixed on Aphrodite’s shoulders. “I do not claim to be perfect.”
“Perfection isn’t necessary, it’s compatibility I’m looking for. Compatibility is one of my specialities… I can sense it, almost smell it. Comes with the job, you might say.”
“And has your daughter inherited that ability, your Majesty?” Kunzite enquired, interested but also rather unsettled.
“I think so, but she’s young and it takes a lot of patience and willpower to control it… she has willpower in plenty but patience… patience eludes her at the moment. Unless she really wants something; then she’s one of the best strategists I know.” Ishtar laughed and Kunzite wanted to laugh with her, though his laugh would have been ironic. As if she’d read his thoughts, Aphrodite turned and looked at him over her shoulder, right in the middle of the court, and smiled at him. Kunzite felt like hitting her.
Not right in front of everybody, you stupid girl!
“It’s so nice to see Aphrodite focus on something,” remarked Ishtar, who’d read the gaze in a second. “She can be very scattered if it isn’t something to do with Serenity. What have you been doing to my daughter, Lord Kunzite?” She was smiling widely, her mind obviously running riot. Kunzite wanted to die on the spot.
“I have done nothing, your Majesty,” he whispered.
“No, I suppose you wouldn’t actually need to do anything with that face,” she replied almost wistfully, startling him. Before he could reply, she stood up and clapped her hands. “Let the recently wedded couples who wish to have my blessing come forward.” Then she turned her head and smiled. “You do not have to witness this. If you wish to stretch your legs, please go ahead.”
Kunzite was only too glad to ‘stretch his legs’. He rose, bowed to her and left the room, feeling everyone’s eyes on his back. He walked quickly, out of the palace and down the steps to the green, breathing in the scent of evening grass. Lights had been strung from tree to tree: they glowed softly, pink and gold, casting strange lights over the paths and flowers. He knew this was probably a bad idea but he didn’t care. He needed to be outside. There were no mountains but he could go to the herb garden, breathe in the rosemary and thyme and ground himself somehow. He felt weightless and lost away from Earth, from Elysion, from Endymion and his companions. He was always seen as the strong one, the independent one, the rock of the group, but the truth was that he did need them. A rock with nothing to hold it down can be used by anyone. He’d never been so aware of that truth. He passed through the moon garden, despite the smothered exclamations at his rudeness, through desert, rose and dahlia and finally he was there, among the herbs, their smoky scent curling around him. He sat down on the bench in the centre of the garden (even the centrepiece was welcoming) and clasped his hands, bending over and breathing in.
“I thought you might come here.”
He started up and saw her standing there, the soft light caressing her figure so that she seemed like a vision. He almost wished that she were. A vision could not touch him or be touched. She was still in that dress: the gauze looked more substantial in this light, which was a small blessing.
“Why can’t you leave me alone?” he muttered.
“Do you really hate me that much?” she said, and her voice trembled.
“I don’t hate you, I just wish you’d stop bothering me. Go and find someone else to play with.”
“I’m not playing!” she cried and marched up to him, fists clenched. “Why can’t you take me seriously?”
“I would if you’d stop pretending.” He looked at her. The bench was on a small platform, but sitting down, their heads were on the same level. It made things a little easier. “You don’t need to play the seductress, Princess. You don’t need to try so hard.”
Her cheeks darkened and she looked away, looking oddly vulnerable. “Men here like seductive women. They liked to be chased.”
“Well, I’m not from here, am I?” Kunzite said gently. “I don’t like being chased. It makes me irritable, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. And it doesn’t help that I’ve been chased almost from the moment I got here. I’ve had to deal with constant mental assault, Princess.”
“Then your master should have picked someone less handsome.”
He stared at her. She stared back and then laughed in disbelief. “Haven’t you ever looked in a mirror?”
Of course he’d looked in mirrors. But Zoisite was the pretty one, Jadeite had the charm and the daring, Nephrite was funny (to say nothing of his muscles) and Endymion was Endymion: tall, dark and dashing. He was the tall, silent one. He’d never really thought about whether he was appealing or not. It wasn’t important. Aphrodite was still staring at him. She sighed and reached out, tugging at a lock of his hair. “Platinum is seen as the most beautiful colour on Venus, Lord Kunzite. And green eyes are rare here… the fact you have both makes you very striking.” She smiled a little, teasing. “A prize worth winning.”
“Terrific,” he muttered.
“You should take it as a compliment that so many people like you!”
“It’s rather difficult to feel complimented when I’m fending off charm offensives every day. The last thing I need is you practising your charms on me. Go and find a Venusian boy.”
“And who do you suggest?” she asked, looking at him, her lips pressed together. “If I practised on anyone here, it would be all over the court. And I can’t practise on the moon… I don’t have the time. My options are limited.”
“Is that why you chose an Earthling?” Kunzite asked with some irony.
She bit her lip. “I didn’t mean it.”
“Oh, you didn’t?”
“Haven’t you ever said something you didn’t mean?” she demanded.
“No,” Kunzite said simply. “I mean what I say. But then, I think before I speak.”
“You’re so sure of everything, aren’t you?” she asked, wistful again. “You never ever doubt yourself.”
“Comes with age,” he said, trying to reassure her.
“You can say that but I bet you were just as sure at fifteen as you are now.”
“Not all the time. And I’ve doubted myself plenty since I came here.”
“I would never have guessed,” she said honestly. “You would make a wonderful diplomat… or spy.”
“You wouldn’t be so bad, yourself,” he murmured. “If you just toned it down a little.”
“Like this?” He froze as her hand touched his chin and then slid downwards, stroking his neck.
“Better,” he said, swallowing. Her eyes darkened and he groped for a different subject. “Why did you smile at me like that in the throne room? Everyone saw.”
“I wanted them to see,” she said, her voice low and strong. “I wanted them to see exactly who I’d chosen.”
Kunzite closed his eyes. “It’s not possible, Princess,” he said wearily. “I told you that earlier.”
“What’s not possible?” she asked, laughter in her voice. “I’m not talking about betrothal, Lord Kunzite. I’m not talking about anything long-term. I’m talking about choosing you. Today is Freya’s Day, or had you forgotten?” She traced his lips with her finger. “I’ve never had a lover before…”
Kunzite felt his whole mind judder and stop for a few seconds. Then it started up again about ten times faster. He pulled away. “Lover?!” he repeated, far too loud. He stopped and said it again, much lower. “Lover? You’re a princess!”
“And?” She stared at him, puzzled, and he realised she was completely serious. He wanted to grab her shoulders and shake her, except that once he touched her, he’d probably end up doing something else.
“You’re a princess,” he repeated. “You can’t… we can’t…”
“Oh,” she said, her face clearing. “I see! You think that because I’m a princess, I can’t make love with anyone before marriage.” She laughed. “That quaint little concept you call ‘virginity’. Which only applies to high-born females, of course. Anyone from the lower classes can fuck around as much as they like.” She smirked. “You know, I think that makes up for my Earthling remark.”
“No, it doesn’t,” Kunzite said, irritated. “You knew better about that. I didn’t know anything about this. I know that Venusians do not agree witih monogamy—“
“Wrong again!” she retorted. “We don’t believe in two people being tied together if the relationship has died. We don’t believe in monogamy being a prison. If two people are unhappy together, they should be allowed to end the relationship, instead of being told that they are weak or evil and that they are going to be eternally condemned for their actions. This is the planet of love, Lord Kunzite. If there is no love, there is no bond. And if there is love, why worry about silly things like ‘virginity’? What matters is the bond between two people, whether they both want the same thing.”
“You are a princess, what you do has repercussions on an interplanetary scale; you may wish you could give your body to anyone, but you cannot.”
“I’m not giving my body to just anyone, though, am I?” she whispered, bending forward, their noses touching. “I’m offering it to a prince of Earth… a warrior, a diplomat, a gentleman… not often you find those qualities combined.” Her hand slid down his chest and he shivered. “The question is… do you want me? That’s what I want to know. If you say no, I’ll leave you alone, I’ll be a good girl. Tell the truth now.” Her eyes were so dark, hypnotic. Her lips were slightly parted, full and red. Perfect for biting.
“I can’t,” he whispered.
“But you can,” she whispered back. “I’m giving you permission. Nobody is going to know, Kunzite. Just you and me and the stars.” She moved and suddenly bit his lower lip gently. She’d certainly been kissed before, he thought hazily. “If you don’t say anything, I’m going to take that as a ‘yes’.”
Nobody is going to know. The magic words. She must have known they were the magic words. He reached forward and did what he’d been wanting to do since the morning: he slipped his hands inside the gauze and cupped her breasts, the flesh so warm and soft against his palms. She gasped, high and thin, and her head tipped back, eyes closing as he stroked them with sure fingers, feeling the nipples harden almost instantly. When little noises began to come out of her mouth he stopped and took his hands away. She opened her eyes.
“Not here,” he said quietly, his mind clearer than it had been for a while. “If we’re going to do this without being discovered, we need to be somewhere private… preferably a place that only you know about.”
She took a deep breath and nodded, wrapping the gauze tighter around her as she thought. “I think… yes,” she said. “Yes, that would be perfect. It’s not too far and I don’t think anybody else knows about it.”
Kunzite stood up and stepped down from the platform. He felt strangely relaxed: there was no need to fight anymore, he could follow his instinct, do what he wanted. He took her hand and held it gently. “Show me,” he said.
Aphrodite nodded, blushing, and smiled up at him for a moment, the happiness almost too bright to bear, before she turned and led him toward a door he hadn’t noticed before. It was so small that he almost had to bend double when walking through it.
“Pull it shut; if it’s open, someone will notice.”
He did so and then she moved forwards again, leading him down a path that was bordered on both sides by a high hedge, possibly laurel or something similar. Neither of them spoke, but her grip was firm and her step didn’t falter. There would obviously be no second thoughts where she was concerned. Somewhere in the back of Kunzite’s head, a small voice was saying that he ought to stop now while there was time, this was insane, he couldn’t sleep with a Venusian princess, there would be consequences. He ignored it. He had always listened to that little voice, always done his duty, but for once, for once he would listen to his body, his heart. For once he would do what he wanted to do, not what he should do.
The path came out onto the green, but they were very far from the palace, which could just be seen through the trees that were now dotted around them. Aphrodite turned. “This is my orchard,” she said softly. “It’s where I played when I was a very small girl. It’s always been my special place.”
“I’m honoured,” Kunzite said, looking around. He could see why a child would like playing here. The trunks were easy to climb and slightly twisted, the wood warm to the touch. The branches were long and thick, perfect if you wanted to be alone. For a moment, he was back home, lying in the branches of the oak tree, feeling the wind move over and around him, hearing his father’s voice call him. Then Aphrodite moved and he was fully in the present. She was removing her tiara. He walked forward and held out his hand. She glanced at him, smiled shyly and placed it on his palm, as if this were some sort of ceremony. Perhaps it was. He hung it with equal gravity on a low branch, then untucked his tunic from his trousers and pulled it over his head. She breathed in sharply and he looked up, wondering what was wrong.
“Muscles,” she said faintly, pointing.
Kunzite looked down. To someone who hadn’t seen Nephrite’s chest, he probably did look quite muscular. “Yes,” he said, hanging the tunic on another branch. “Muscles.” Then he had to swallow a gasp because her arms were around his waist and she was running her tongue over his skin, tracing his ribs, biting his knuckles. He grabbed her waist and pushed her back. “Don’t,” he said, voice rough. “Or I’ll have you against the tree trunk.”
Aphrodite did not look disgusted or even scared. “Is that a promise?” she asked, her eyes roving up and down his body.
“No,” he said, pulling her into his arms. “The idea might be appealing but the reality would be very different.”
She pouted. “Pity. I like the idea of you being out of control—!” The last word turned into a gasp as he ran his hands down her body, gently unwinding the gauze. She recovered and laughed, twisting for him, pirouetting on her feet like a dancer. When there was no more left, he folded the gauze and draped it over the branch that held her tiara. It was so light that the branch didn’t even bend. When he turned back, she was blushing and smiling.
“We match,” she said happily.
“It seems so,” he replied, reaching forward and cupping the back of her head, sinking his fingers into the thick mass of her hair. Her eyelids fluttered and she tipped her head back. “You see?” he murmured, bending down and kissing her neck. “This is what I mean by toning it down. By not pretending. You’re you and that’s all you need to be for any man… believe me…”
She trembled. Her hands slid up his chest and along his shoulders, feeling their way, lingering over his biceps. Then she put her hands on his stomach, curled her fingers and raked her nails over his belly. He felt the sting as she broke the skin but he made no sound. When he opened his eyes, there was something wild and fierce in her gaze.
“To mark you,” she whispered. “Because you’re mine.”
He pulled her hair in retaliation and captured her gasp with his mouth. He’d meant it to be a punishment for the scratching but he should have known better. As soon as their lips touched, the kiss turned into something else, a feast of licking and biting and sucking. Her arms wrapped around his neck and he pushed her against the tree trunk, not caring if he bruised her, not caring if she cut herself, he needed her, and it was a while before he pulled himself back, before he realised that his hips were driving into hers so hard that she was moaning. It was a very good thing she was still wearing her skirt, he thought, loosening his hold so that she sank against the trunk, gasping, her chest heaving.
“They say… still waters run deep… but I never knew just what that meant… until now,” she panted. “You run very deep, don’t you? I’d never have guessed.”
“You’re not meant to,” he said, hardly recognising his voice, it was so deep and rough. She pulled him forward against her and he felt her teeth latch onto his neck, pain mixing with pleasure. He groaned and she sighed in response, licking the area gently before nibbling her way down to the crook of his shoulder, where she bit harder than before so that his body tensed in response.
“You mark me but I don’t mark you?” he whispered.
“Go ahead and try,” she answered, lifting her head and smirking at him, her eyes dancing with light.
Kunzite didn’t think, didn’t question. He dropped to his knees, pushed her skirt up and bit her inner thigh. She jumped but the only sound she made was a tiny, tiny gasp. He noticed that she grabbed his head as she did so, keeping him down there. He looked up at her and saw that she was watching him, alert but unafraid. In fact, she looked more aroused than ever. Without breaking the gaze, he turned his head and bit the opposite thigh in exactly the same place. Her body shuddered underneath him and she arched her back, head resting against the tree bark as she moaned. Kunzite felt a primitive satisfaction burn through him.
“There,” he said, knowing it showed in his voice. “You’re marked.”
Her eyes opened and she looked down at him. “Kiss me,” she said, almost begging. “Kiss me and strip me and don’t make me wait any longer, Kunzite, please.”
“As my lady commands,” he said softly, undoing the belt and watching as the material slithered to the ground. He picked it up and hung it next to the gauze. Stains would make people suspicious and yet he didn’t want her to lay on the bare ground. He picked his tunic off its branch and turned it inside out, then laid it down. When he looked up, he saw that her eyes were soft, almost wondering, and he felt his heart pound faster. “I want you to be comfortable,” he said.
Aphrodite walked forward, knelt down and then leaned sideways, moving her legs so that they were now stretched out in front of her. She leaned forwards and tugged gently at his trousers. “Are you going to take them off or am I?” she asked.
“You can if you like,” he said, thinking it was only fair since he’d stripped her. She beamed and began to undo the laces at the hips, swift but careful. When she finally pulled uncovered him, she looked like a child in a sweetshop, excited and gleeful and awed all at once.
“I didn’t think it would be so big,” she said, reaching forward, but he moved away, quickly stepping out of the trousers and hanging them on a branch, a little embarrassed.
“Meanie,” she accused.
“I want this to be right,” he answered, turning around. “And it won’t be right if I come early, will it?”
She pouted and then shook her head. “No. I s’pose not.”
“Well, then.” He knelt before her and kissed her again, soft and reassuring. The reassurance was not needed. She kissed him back with utter abandon and all his ideas of moving slowly went out of the window because suddenly he was on top of her and they were rolling around, legs and arms entwined, and she was whispering his name, begging him to do it now.
“Hold still, then,” he said, and she stopped play-struggling and lay back, suddenly submissive. “How’s this?” she asked, spreading her legs very wide. He could feel how wet she was and it made him shudder.
“It’s good,” he said, forcing himself to respond. “Very good. Aphrodite…”
Her eyes shone. “You said my name.”
“Aphrodite,” he repeated, and she closed her eyes, as if the sound were too much for her. “It might hurt a little at first.”
“It won’t hurt,” she whispered, sounding very sure of herself. “I know it won’t. Not with you.”
Kunzite thought she was being a little idealistic. “It might hurt a little but I’ll go slowly. You can tell me to stop at any time.”
“You can stop talking and do it,” she retorted, smiling.
He had to smile back at her. “All right,” he said, feeling happier than he had for a long time, moving around, feeling for the opening so that he could get the best position.
Aphrodite smiled dreamily at him and ran a hand through his hair. “I’ve wanted this since the first moment I saw you,” she said and he felt a thrill run through his blood as he pulled back, ready to fulfil her desire and his.
They both froze. Aphrodite closed her eyes. “No,” she whispered. “Oh no, not now, not him—!”
“Who?” Kunzite whispered, his heart now pounding from fear. “Who is it?”
“I know you’re here, Aphrodite!”
“It’s Artemis,” Aphrodite said in a dull voice, “my guardian.”
“And if he finds us like this, he’s going to kill me.”
She nodded, her eyes shut tight. She looked like she was going to cry. “Can’t you just do it quickly?” she whispered.
“That would really hurt you and it wouldn’t be right,” he whispered, although he’d been considering the option only a few seconds ago.
“I wouldn’t mind…”
“Yes, you would,” he replied, unhooking her arms from his neck and pushing himself backwards, feeling every inch of his body scream for her.
She grabbed at him desperately. “Don’t go, please don’t go.”
Kunzite would have liked nothing more than to lay her back on the ground and make love to her, Artemis be damned. If it hadn’t been her first time, he might have done so, but it was, so he couldn’t. He pushed himself onto his feet and grabbed his trousers, stepping into them and lacing them up hurriedly, the leather cold and painful against his erection. “Tunic,” he said through gritted teeth. He could hear Artemis coming now, moving through the trees.
Aphrodite got up, not meeting his eyes. She even turned the tunic the right way before handing it back to him. He pulled it on, heedless of the dust and dirt and tucked it into his trousers. “Hadn’t you better get dressed?”
She folded her arms. “What does it matter?”
Even though he knew that he should be going, Kunzite stepped forward and turned her face to him. “Because you don’t want him to see you like this,” he said gently, stroking her cheek.
She looked back at him, her eyes glittering with tears, beautiful and fragile. “It’s not fair,” she said, her voice barely a whisper. “Why can’t I have what I want, for once?”
“I’m wondering that, myself,” he replied, bent forward and pressed his lips against hers. He heard her sob and pulled away. If she started crying, he wouldn’t be able to leave her, he knew himself too well. “Dress yourself.”
She took a deep breath and nodded. “I will. Go, go quickly.”
Kunzite lingered for one more moment, aware that he would never see such beauty again, then he turned and left at a loping run. Aphrodite watched him go. She could have screamed with frustration. She wanted to run after him, to follow him back to his room and finish what they’d started but she knew that Artemis would follow her tail. She took a deep breath, pressing the tears down, calling up all her years of training and then closed her eyes, concentrating. She held her hands at her collarbone and moved them slowly down her body. As she did, so a dress formed around her, yellow, with a scooped neck, much more demure than the one she had discarded. Her ‘diplomatic’ dress, as she called it, the one she wore to other courts.
The change was not a moment too soon. Artemis strode through the branches and stood before her, the air around him almost sparking with his anger.
“Where is he?!” he demanded.
Aphrodite raised one eyebrow at him. “Who?”
“You know who! That EARTHLING, that scum you led here, don’t try and deny it, Aphrodite! I saw you look at him during the blessing ceremony! You couldn’t have been more obvious! To choose him for your first—!” A high, undulating growl came out of Artemis’s throat, a cat growl, designed to unnerve. “He’s not fit to kiss the ground you walk on! How could you?!”
“There is no one here, Artemis,” Aphrodite said in a bored tone. “Take a look.”
“I don’t need to look, I can smell him! I can smell both of you!” He spat like a cat, showing that the smell was disgusting.
“Yes, well, you don’t need to worry.” Aphrodite held her chin higher. “Nothing happened. You can be proud of yourself.”
Artemis looked startled for the first time. “Nothing happened?”
“No. Nothing.” Aphrodite spat the word at him and then she moved, brushing past him, walking back to the palace.
“I’m going to my room, Artemis. And I don’t want anyone coming near me. Especially you.” She put all her frustration into that word, all her bitterness, all her longing. She would not forgive him easily for taking this opportunity away from her. And she would not forget Kunzite. Even if she had to take another lover, she knew that she would remember him. As far as she was concerned, he was hers. She had marked him, she would mark no other man, not as long as she lived.
It was bitter comfort, but it was better than nothing.