Silver on Black
Sephiroth was waiting for him, sitting on his heels before the shrine’s solitary bell. He had already dressed himself in a black hakama and bound his long, silver hair in a band at his shoulders, the silvery lengths running as a streak of moonlight down his spine. His face still could not be seen through the veil of his bangs but for the firm and rigid set of his jaw.
His sights were set on the bell, taller even than he at full height and the width of five more men. On its well-weathered iron surface had been carved the faces of gods and demons, symbols both with and without meaning. He raised his head to examine every detail, up to the top of the bell, shrouded though it was in the shadows of the rafters.
He was a solemn, solitary figure in the half-darkness of the twilight. The sounds of nature had stopped in reverence of the hour, those who had come to pray had long since left, and even the priests had retired for the night. The shrine was still, but not at peace. Perhaps even the spirits had taken leave of their vigil when he who had slaughtered so much of Wutai had stepped across the shrine’s threshold.
How unfair, he thought, as this man was not here to profane this place. His notorious blade had been left behind, well off the hallowed grounds of the shrine, and he had even consented to be dressed in traditional Wutaian clothing in respect for the place and the occasion. Though some would say he was the spirit of war incarnate, he had not brought the taint of war with him to this place.
Or at least…he had tried.
“You do not look to be the destroyer of Wutai, young man,” he said in a dry, wispy voice, a small smile only just visible under the brim of his hat that masked the rest of his face.
Sephiroth lowered his head until his line of sight was parallel with the ground, but did not look away from the bell before him.
“You are Ryouan?”Sephiroth asked simply.
“I am,” the shrine priest said, hobbling forward with the assistance of his tall staff, its golden rings tinkling softly with each movement. “Hana-chan has already told you about me, then, and you hardly need any introduction. Shall we agree to dispense with the pleasantries?”
“Please,” Sephiroth said, and Ryouan took a seat on the floor beside him, facing the bell, as his silver-haired guest did.
A moment of silence passed as the two men sat in the shadow of the great bell.
“Have you come here to pray?” Ryouan asked, waving a weathered hand towards the bell.
“I was merely inspecting its design,” Sephiroth said without emotion. “I did not know it was even used for prayer.”
“Will you pray now that you know its purpose?”
Sephiroth’s lips curled into a wry smile. “I would not know how. I have never been taught to even believe in deity, much less worship.”
Ryouan folded his leathery hands in prayer position over his heart, bowing his head. “My heart is grieved with all that my granddaughter has told me. Allow me to pray for a moment, for the both of us.”
Sephiroth silently observed as the monk struck the bell, a low and sorrowful peal ringing through the empty shrine. Against that strong note, the monk’s three, slow claps sounded weak and frail, enveloped by the darkness of the shrine. Ryouan bowed his head as if in serene submission to that darkness, and prayed in silence until the bell’s resonant tones finally faded and died.
“Hana is preparing herself,” Ryouan said. “She has insisted that we proceed quickly. Are you of the same mind?”
“I am,” Sephiroth said. “I must return to Midgar tomorrow. I have only tonight to finish all the necessary preparations for our return.”
“To be so hastily married under the cover of night, to a man both a foreigner and a stranger…you must understand that it is not the way I would have chosen to give away my precious granddaughter.” His voice carried the weight of a thousand years of sorrow. Ryouan’s back bent under the burden, but he retained a quiet dignity still.
“I understand,” Sephiroth said. “Even so, I have spared time to do this as properly as the circumstances allow.” He continued slowly. “I do not know how these matters are conducted here in Wutai, but all the same, as I am sure you are already aware, I have come here to ask for Hana’s hand in marriage, and your blessing on our union.”
Ryouan sighed deeply, small and withered beside Sephiroth’s tall and proud form. One hand reached to softly stroke his chin. “I am glad that you have done this, at least. It must have been a terrible inconvenience to leave your post and your men even for this small gesture.” Sephiroth said nothing in response, and so Ryouan continued. “Let us begin, then. Tell me of your ancestry.”
“I know nothing of it. I was orphaned shortly after my birth, and I was raised as a ward of ShinRa.”
“No family?” Ryouan frowned. “Many Wutaian fathers would deny you their daughters for that alone. But,” he continued quickly to dispel the tension of an impending refusal, “it is of little consequence now. Do you make enough money to support my granddaughter?”
“You have a place to live?
“You vow to treat her with respect and honor her as your wife?”
“Do you anticipate children?”
This question was met with stunned silence. Ryouan laughed gently. “There is time to settle that later. He then nodded solemnly, all the laughter drained from his dark eyes. “And I will vouch for your honor. That is all that is needed for a proper marriage.”
“I am prepared to pay a dowry, as is the custom,” Sephiroth said.
Ryouan looked at the man, taken aback. “It’s hardly necessary. Traditionally it would go to the father, and I don’t know how much Hana has told you about that man but…”
“I do not offer it to him, I offer it to you.”
This did not persuade the priest. “I am on her mother’s side of the family. If she was still in high favor as a court lady, a mighty dowry would be demanded, perhaps even to me in light of her father’s betrayal.” He sobered sighed. “But as things stand today, there is nothing of meaning that you could offer to her ancestral family. They are dead.”
“You remain,” Sephiroth said. “And I want to do as much as possible in the traditional way, in case the legitimacy of our marriage should be called into question.”
Ryouan nodded, conceding. “Perhaps that is wise.”
“I know that priests have no need of money, and yet that is all I really have to offer. In exchange for her hand, I offer to pay for the repair of the shrine and restore the funds you use to support the poor or otherwise use as you see fit.”
Ryouan had nothing more to say, and humbly bowed his head. “An unusual and modest dowry to be sure, especially coming from you, but a fitting one. You are an honorable man to offer that, General. Hana will be pleased that her dowry will not be spent on frivolities, but on aid for her countrymen.” He wondered if Sephiroth had come up with the idea himself or if Hana had instructed him. He was a good man, or willing to take the advice of his wife – but not unlikely both. It was a good omen, and it brought a small breath of hope into Ryouan’s heavy heart.
“You approve of our marriage, then?”
Ryouan scratched the back of his head, looking up into the rafters. “You must understand. Race means nothing within these walls, and neither does the war. As removed as we are from the world, such political matters do not concern us. I do not hesitate because you are from the Continent, or because you have a personal hand in the war against our homeland. I hesitate because of…who Hana is, on both a personal and ancestral level.”
Sephiroth hummed a soft note of understanding.
“Has she told you of her ancestry?”
“She has told me enough.”
“I will not consent until she has told you everything. If you are to be accepted as a son of the Kazehawa family, you will take upon yourself responsibilities and dangers. Many have gone as far as to say that our family is cursed. I will not have you join with her to take upon this blight blindly.”
“I understand.” His gaze did not move. Ryouan was quite certain that he didn’t so much as blink.
Ryouan frowned. “Then I will leave it for the two of you to decide. There is only one last matter then….”
The priest turned his gaze to Sephiroth and studied him thoroughly. He knew that the General knew full well of what he spoke – it hung in the air like a pall.
“She has assured me,” Sephiroth said quietly, “that women in her station are used to being given in marriage, knowing much less about their husbands than she does.”
“You do not pretend to love her, then.”
The strong set of Sephiroth’s countenance did not falter in the slightest. “I do not,” he said.
The two men sat in the silence of the temple beneath the shadow of the bell. All the help of heaven had left the shrine, and both men felt the spirits’ absences.
“You are honest, at least,” Ryouan offered. “…And you know that her sentiments are the same?”
Sephiroth nodded. “We are under no illusions of romance.”
“This marriage reeks of misfortune,” Ryouan lamented. “Wutai would be offended because the formalities have been discarded, and the Continent would criticize you because there is no love. Neither land will accept this union. If I sanction this, I will be the only one!”
Sephiroth said nothing in return, and let the criticism fall like rain.
Ryouan straightened his robes, adjusted his hat and repositioned his body, shaking off emotion and once again falling into the role of the revered patriarch. “Hana has always been a different child,” he began. “Others with mixed blood have acclimated to one culture or the other or even to both, but whatever land she has been in, she has been rejected just as she has ultimately rejected them. She has no homeland…no home…not according to the law and not in her own heart. In her, each force of the East and the West is so strong that they cannot be reconciled with each other. This conflict…we had faith that it would settle with time, but it has not. She may be an exile until the day she dies.”
Sephiroth continued to listen without comment.
“I wish she would have been happy to take the hand of a court official and marry according to the old ways, but her heart beats too passionately for an arranged marriage. As she grew, I had hope that she would follow her Continental blood, and marry for love and find happiness there. Her mother…seemed to believe that as well.
“And that is my true grievance against what you are asking me to do.”
Ryouan reached into his robe and pulled out a tiny white flower, stem gently held between two fingers. Sephiroth turned, drawn by the powerful scent that the blossom exuded. “That flower…?”
“Do you understand?” Ryouan asked, taking the General’s gloved hand, opening his fingers, and placing the flower in his palm. In the gentle moonlight, petals of translucent pearl shimmered a soft silver on the black of his hand.
Ryouan rose to his feet, leaving Sephiroth on his knees, eyes intently on the small flower. “I will follow the Continental tradition of letting my daughter decide. Though I am afraid she can’t be happy with you, I recognize that my forcing her either way will only make her more miserable. I will discuss my concerns with her, and will leave the decision to the two of you. You are a good man; I believe that. If she consents, and you still wish to proceed after knowing the extent of the Kazehawa curse, then the both of you have my blessing, and I will perform the marriage immediately.”
Ryouan left the man before the prayer bell. As he left, hobbling with the aid of his staff, he longed to hear the peals of the prayer bell again, or anything to fill the bleak vacuum that had consumed the once sacred grounds.
“Why do you do this?” Ryouan asked, but Sephiroth was silent, Hana was not likely to speak, and the spirits were gone. There would be no answer to his question.
As Sephiroth rose to follow, the flower slipped through his fingertips. The frail thing fell as softly and silently as a feather, and he watched, transfixed, as it danced to its inevitable end.
The sight of the silver petals against the blackest of nights was burned into his eyes.