The Cost of Immortality
A/N: This was a ficlet I wrote for the prompt: "Surely you must know - you must know it was all for you" sent by an anon on Tumblr. At the time, I'd just finished watching The Mummy 3 and, for all its faults, kinda loved the Zi Yuan/General Ming premise. If you remember that, you might know where this is going. If not… well, enjoy the ride.
(One of these days I'm gonna write a full The Mummy AU for TCR, but today is not that day!)
It is winter, the first time he meets her.
It is winter, and the air is frosty and the ground is icy and he can't quite believe that the homely little cottage before him is home to a witch.
But still, he knocks, because he's chased down more dead ends than he can count, and what difference will one more make? He knocks, and a young woman answers, as ordinary as the cottage she inhabits, except for the crow atop her shoulder, and he allows himself to think that this time, maybe this time, he's finally found the answer he's been looking for.
And he bows and introduces himself and he can tell the crow doesn't like him, but she smiles when he explains his quest awkwardly in a language he has learnt from dusty books, and she doesn't shut the door in his face so he has to hope it is a good sign.
"Immortality?" she echoes. "Why, that's easy. Tell your king to eat healthily, exercise often, and mind his own business. Works wonders."
And, in another time, another life, he might have smiled and thanked her and moved on to the next dead end, but this is this time and this life, so he smiles and thanks her and tells her of the tales that have brought him here. Of the woman who lives by herself in the mountains, who never ages and never sickens, and who knows the secret to eternal life.
"Life is quiet here," she tells him in return. "People tell tall tales to keep themselves entertained in these cold months. There is nothing for you here. Go home."
"I cannot," he says, and she pauses in closing the door.
"You've lost your home?" she asks softly.
"Those the king sent out in pursuit of immortality cannot return until they are successful," he says, and although he never intended it, he sees pity creep into her brown, glimmering eyes. Maybe the rumours are true. Maybe they're not. But he cannot force anyone to answer to a king that is not their own. Will not. He tips his hat and steps away. "I'm sorry to have wasted your time, miss. Have a good day."
He hesitates. "What?"
She steps out from her house, and in the cold winter sunlight, her eyes seem to glimmer more than ever. "My name is Haru. I thought you should know that, if we're to be travelling together."
And he doesn't question why she changed her mind, or if she even does hold the secret to immortality, although he suspects an answer to both. Instead, he tips his hat again, his shoulders dipping into a short bow.
It is spring when he brings her to the king's court.
They have travelled across the globe, through the winter, and the snowdrops and crocuses are just beginning to flower as they step back onto his home soil. The air is soft and the world is bright with freshly-grown green and it is a far cry from the snowy mountains of her country. From one island home to another, and she seems to shine in her nominal season.
She stands before his monarch - an ageing man sprawled back in an oversized, extravagant robe and an oversized, extravagant throne - and Baron translates as she promises immortality. She spins an explanation of elements and magic and the age trapped within those that are ageless, and other things he doesn't fully understand, and neither does the king, but she speaks with knowledge and all the king cares about is his immortality.
In the autumn, she assures.
In the autumn, when the harvest moon comes, will she be able to administer the secret of immortality.
And so the king dismisses her with a wave of his hand and assigns her to the care of the man who found her.
Spring lingers, and so does Haru as she stands at the garden gate, while Baron returns to a home he hasn't seen in nearly a decade. She sees the burden of his lost years weigh heavily on his shoulders as he hesitates, but he knocks anyway, just like he knocked at her door half a world away, and a woman opens it. She is their age, tall but not as tall as Baron, bundles of blonde almost-white hair bouncing around her face, and the world goes quiet for heartbeats.
Haru is sure she sees Baron hold his breath.
And then the woman squeals and throws her arms about Baron and draws him into a bone-crunching bear hug that seems at odds with her refined attire.
Baron freezes, and then his arms slowly find their way around the woman. He collapses into the embrace, his shoulders shaking and the resigned strength draining from his body, and Haru drops her gaze from the tearful reunion.
The woman drags Baron inside, calling to the rest of the household, and Haru watches as friends and family converge on their returning companion, and she can't help but linger at the doorway.
Toto clings sharply to her shoulder as if he knows the thoughts running through her head, and he's known her for so long that maybe he does, and she wants to reassure him that he's wrong, that his companionship is enough, but doesn't know if that would be a lie. She watches the people of Baron's life celebrate his return, and she grieves at the lonely existence of an immortal.
Spring passes, but Baron does not.
He has a lifetime to gather back together, a decade's worth of normality to reclaim, but even so, he stays by her side. As she learns about the country she will call home for the next six months and the local knowledge she needs for her promised magic, she also learns of the occupants of the von Gikkingen household.
She learns of Louise, the woman that greeted them upon arrival and Baron's twin sister. She is the reason Baron's affairs are still in order, even after all those years. She speaks enough of Haru's native tongue to converse, and quickly picks up more, her accent rough but her vocabulary natural and, when Baron isn't around, Louise often is. Haru wonders if the two siblings are consciously sharing the duty of protecting her between them both.
She learns of Muta, the chef and Baron's closest friend. He speaks none of her language, but that doesn't stop him talking. He tries a few recipes from her home country and, although he doesn't always get it right, he does try. He is blunt and coarse and Haru spends many days helping him work on his latest attempt at Nippon cuisine.
And then she learns of Baron.
She doesn't mean to, but she does.
She learns his laughter and his smile and the secret amusement in his eyes as his sister tells stories from their childhood. She learns his good tea and his bad tea and the way it tells his quiet thoughts. She learns the sound of his walk, the tap-tap-tap of his cane and the purposeful beat of his strides, and she doesn't know what to do with this information or why it matters, but it does.
She learns of family and friends and sometimes she wishes she had not.
It is summer when something unspoken changes between them.
It is summer, and the air is hot and heavy and the gardens ablaze with scent and colour, and Haru finds herself lingering longer in the outdoors with Baron instead of inside with her research. They talk and they laugh and at some point during those sun-soaked hours something settles between them.
They don't name it.
But it's there.
It is summer, but no season lasts forever.
It is the end of summer when Baron realises a terrible truth.
He has been watching her work for months now, accumulating ingredients and researching volumes in his library, learning about his country and its people, and although she explains her work the best she can to him, something is amiss.
"I cannot simply use the same ingredients I would in my home country," she explains when the king's lackey visits to check up on her progress. "Every land has its own type of magic - I must use the innate magic of your kingdom to make this work. You believe that cats have nine lives, so an element of that must be included. You put stock into the agelessness of your trees, so that plays a part also. To make this magic work, I must know the folklore and beliefs of your people."
Baron dutiful translates, and he translates well for the king's lackey asks little more, but the king's lackey doesn't know Haru enough to see the flickering lies in the corner of her mouth. Maybe it's not all lies. It probably isn't. But there's just enough.
"Tell me truly," he asks one day. "Are you making eternal life?"
She smiles, a wan smile that reminds him that he's not dealing with a mortal, but someone, something far, far older. "Oh, immortality cannot be given. You are either born with it, or you are not."
"So it is impossible."
"The type your king wants, yes."
"Then what are you doing?"
It is autumn when the king arrives.
He comes in pomp and circumstance, and it is still a month before the harvest moon, but still he comes and the quiet comfort of the von Gikkingen home is thrown into disarray.
Haru stands at Baron's side and plays the part she is expected to perform, mute and dignified and oblivious to the way the king's gaze roams over her. Something has changed in his attitude, and maybe it's because the time is approaching and maybe it's because the reality of what he asked has dawned, but there is a new interest in the way he looks at her.
There is an instinctive desire to move closer to Baron, but she sees how closely she is watched by the royal entourage and decides against it. Still, she can't help but lean towards Baron as the king takes her hand and raises it to his lips, and her preference doesn't go unnoticed by all.
"Baron, tell her how good she's looking today," the king drawls, and Baron hesitates at the command. He meets her gaze.
"The king wishes to compliment you on your appearance," he haltingly translates.
"Tell him how presumptuous he's looking today," Haru returns, and there's only the slightest flicker of unease in Baron's eyes at her echoing back a phrase in a language she claims ignorance on, but there's also relief. However politely Baron is obligated to translate his monarch's words, she won't miss anything. Still, her reply won't do quite yet. She gives a small shake of her head and amends, "Thank him for his words."
Baron does so, but the king doesn't move on. He keeps her hand in his own, and she pins down the fluttering sensation of a bird in a cage. She seals it away with a thin smile.
"I've been thinking," the king says, and Baron doesn't start to translate and she can feel he's waiting as tightly as she is to hear where this is going, "that once I am immortal, I will need an immortal queen to rule alongside me."
Baron inhales quietly, but sharply. "Sire…" he begins.
"Tell her that, as thanks for her work, she shall be married to me. It's only fitting for the great service she's done this kingdom."
And Baron moves his gaze to hers, and she can see in his eyes that she knows what has been said and she knows the tone of a man who will not be moved, but still she must try.
"The king wishes to repay you for your efforts with his hand in marriage," he relays anyway. His tone is light, but his eyes are not.
She bows, even as tightness fills her lungs. "Thank him, but tell him I do not do this for any reward."
The king only smiles at her answer. "Tell her I insist."
It is autumn, and the harvest moon is nearly upon them.
Baron lingers by her, her almost-constant companion since the king made his intentions known, and although the air is still warm from summer, it feels cold inside the von Gikkingen home.
"You should go," he tells her.
"Go where?" she asks.
"Anywhere. As far from the King as you can get."
"I do not fear the king," she answers. "And I will not run."
"You should. He is unaccustomed to not getting what he wants. I don't know what he'll do."
"I am not another possession for him to add to his collection."
"He does not know the difference. And he will not care. Haru, please–" His voice gives, and for a moment, there is nothing but a broken silence between them. "Why did you come?" he asks eventually. Quietly. "You never planned to give the King immortality, did you?"
"No," she answers.
And she looks to him with those eyes that have seen centuries pass and empires rise and fall, and she smiles. "I came because a tired, homesick man turned up on my doorstep, and I took pity. Sometimes, it's as simple as that."
"And why stay?" he asks.
Something flickers over those eyes. A half-lie forms in the corner of her lips.
"To see this through."
It is autumn, and the harvest moon is on the next moonrise.
Baron has tried to stay by her side, but even he can't protect her against his king's command, and so when the king requests an audience with Haru, he can do nothing but accept.
The king comes with a translator of his own - an elderly scholar and adviser, whose tired eyes and resigned tone betray a lifetime of dealing with his king's fickle temper.
"So, Miss Haru, I hope you've had time to think over my offer," he begins, and Haru doesn't need to ask which offer, for there's only one he could mean. She waits for the translator - Natori, he introduces himself - to finish converting his monarch's words before responding.
She bows her head, slow enough to be respectful, but curt enough to not spend a moment too long letting the king out of her sight. "I have, and I thank you for your kindness, Your Majesty, but I am not interested in a throne."
The king smirks at Natori's uneasy translation. "Come now, babe, what chick doesn't want a throne? You want to go back to that rural little backwater you came from? I'm offering you riches, clothes, jewellery. Luxury you could not begin to imagine."
Natori stumbles a little in translating that. He doesn't include the babe comment, Haru notices, and he softens his monarch's sharp dismissal of her homeland. Still, she keeps her smile polite, and bows again.
"I have lived long enough to know that life is more than clothes and riches," she says. "And I have no desire to rule anyone. Thank you for your offer, but I still must refuse."
And that's when the king's smile flickers.
"Natori, please tell her that unless she wants harm to come to her nice host, she'd better rethink her answer."
Her blood runs cold, and even Natori looks twice at his king.
"Your Majesty…" he begins.
"Just tell her."
There's an apology in his eyes, but Natori relays the king's words, and even he cannot soften the threat.
She meets the king's mismatched eyes. "Why?"
"You are immortal, like I will be. Powerful. With a queen like you at my side, no one will be able to stop us."
"You cannot earn my love with threats," she says.
"I don't need to. You will forget the baron in time, and you will have an eternity to learn to accept me." He smiles, and it's the smile of someone who has won. "So, what do you say?"
Something shifts inside Haru. She takes the offered hand.
"No harm will come to Baron," she says.
"Of course," the king replies, and he doesn't realise it's not a request.
It's a promise.
It is autumn, and the harvest moon is upon them.
Haru does not tell Baron of the king's threats, for she knows he would tell her to run, run despite the danger hanging over his own life, and she cannot do that.
Instead, she sits with him in the hours before the ceremony, a soft, gentle silence settled between them and she wishes it could stay this way forever.
But nothing lasts forever. Not even for an immortal.
"What are you going to do?" Baron asks, and it's the first time he's brought up the subject since her admission on the impossibilities of immortality. "The King expects eternal life. If you can't deliver…"
"There's more than one way to skin a cat," she answers, and she thinks of the sleepless night she spent the evening before, pouring over her research and tweaking the enchantments she has crafted, and her heart breaks and hardens at the same time. She leans in and gently kisses him. "Everything is going to be fine. I promise."
He looks to her like he wants to believe her. "No one can promise any such thing when it comes to the King."
"He's never dealt with me before." She smiles and collects up the tea she's made. "One last drink for luck," she says, and she hopes he cannot taste the magic imbued into the liquid, nor see the plea for forgiveness in her eyes, and she kisses him one last time.
It is autumn.
She sets the potion before the king and steps back. He eyes the liquid with the first dredges of caution, and mutters something to Natori.
"The King wants you to know that if this harms him in anyway–"
"I know the consequences," she says. "And he will not suffer by my hand."
Natori gives her a strange look, and she wonders if his grasp of her language is enough to recognise the careful loophole she has left. If he does, he doesn't convey it. He nods to his king and under the light of the harvest moon, the king drains the vial.
A glow runs inside the king's skin, like magma beneath the Earth's crust, and the onlookers of the court step back. Only Baron stays where he stands, close at her elbow. When the light fades, the king is smiling and there's an energy to him that old age had once faded.
He meets Haru's gaze and the smile sharpens.
"Guards. Seize the Baron Humbert von Gikkingen."
Baron doesn't move, but Haru does. She grabs the king's arm and, in perfect Albion, says, "You promised."
The king freezes at the clear words, but only for a moment. The smile almost holds begrudgingly respect at her little deceit. "I lied."
There's a pained gasp as Baron is dropped to his knees
Haru's grip on the king's arm tightens. She doesn't look back to Baron, refuses to see the confusion and fear in his eyes. "I'll say this once: If you do this, you'll only bring ruin to yourself," she warns.
The king laughs. "I don't think you're in any situation to threaten me. Now, stand aside. And don't worry," he adds with that same victorious smile. "You have an eternity to forget him."
Guards pull her back when she doesn't move, but she doesn't fight back. She can only watch as the king approaches Baron. He takes a sword from a guard.
"Baron Humbert von Gikkingen, you have been found guilty of treason against your king and country. Any last words?"
"I never betrayed you, my king."
"You threatened to take what was rightfully mine," the king replies. "She will never truly belong to me while you still live."
Baron's gaze flickers from his monarch to Haru, and realisation dawns. "She will never belong to you," he promises. His eyes stay on Haru, and there is an apology in them for leaving sooner than he had planned. "She will never belong to anyone but herself and she knows that."
The king shrugs. "We'll see."
He runs the blade through Baron's chest and there is a cry as two hearts break. Haru's legs shake, but do not give way, and her breathing is sharp and her head is full and there is nothing but fury in her. The coldness that has lived within her since the king's ultimatum takes form and she does not fall.
She brings her gaze up to the king's.
"You should not have done that."
The king smiles. "In time, you will see that it was necessary. He was nothing. But we… we will be so much more…" He takes a step towards Haru, and then stops. He frowns, and looks down to the front of his robe.
A dark red stain blossoms across his chest.
That smile slips.
There is movement from behind, and the king looks back to see Baron unsteadily rise to his feet. There is no blood where the sword pierces, and no blood on the blade as he pulls it free. Baron looks to Haru as his breathing changes, hollows, like wind through branches.
She smiles, but it is a tearful, remorseful smile, and she shakes her head. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I only wanted to protect you, even if…" She swallows. "This was for you. You must know it was all for you."
There is a roar, and she tears her gaze away to see the king collapse. "What have you done to me?" he bays, and the blood seeps out and his oversized, extravagant robe is red, red, red and he sinks to his knees in a mess of outrage and pain. "I was meant to be immortal! You said–"
And she steps up to the king and the guards step back and there is something otherworldly about her as she kneels down before him. "I thought you might break your promise, but I wanted to give you a chance. I tied Baron's life to yours - if you attempted to kill him, your blow would backfire onto you. I told you that you wouldn't suffer by my hand, and I meant it." She smiles without pity. "I did warn you."
She rises back to her feet as the king falls and she steps over him to Baron. There is a magic spreading out from his wound, not the crackling glow of the king's potion, but something else, something that leaves grain lines and fur in its wake, and Baron reaches out to Haru as she nears.
"What's happening to me?" he asks, and his voice is already beginning to alter.
She curls her hands around his, and that same sorrowful smile tugs at her lips. "I made you immortal," she whispers. "It was the only way to save you in the time I had. I'm so sorry."
"I thought you said immortality was impossible."
"The king wanted it without any consequences," she says. She watches as Baron's face changes shape, those emerald eyes growing angular and sharp. "And magic doesn't work that way. This was the immortality I had planned for him before… before things changed. I never meant… but I couldn't let you die."
The magic settles down, and Baron extracts one hand and slowly passes it over his face. He feels the feline angles of his head and the thick ginger fur and the wooden skin running beneath it all, and she can see him recall the elements of the immortality spell she'd made. She sees the pieces slide into place.
He doesn't speak, and Haru doesn't expect him to.
"I can't undo it," she whispers. "I'm sorry. I would if I could, but–"
A gloved hand cups her cheek and brings her back around to face him. "You don't need to apologise for saving me."
"I cursed you."
His gaze seeks hers out and she sees a gleam she knows so well in those feline eyes. "There are worse things than eternity." He grins. "Even with the fur."
"Eternity is a very long time."
"Eternity isn't long at all," he promises, "when I'm with you."
It is autumn, and everything has changed.