“At 8 o’clock, approximately two hours from now, an unmarked U.N. transport plane will be arriving to take us to Monolince.”
Eyebrows were raised, but no comments were made. Washio waited a moment, then continued. “As I’m sure you are aware, over the next several days, there are to be peace talks between the Monolince Royal officials and the representatives of Indalu. We have been given a two-fold assignment. The first, to serve as additional manpower with no ties to either side at the peace talks. Apparently, tensions are higher than what one would normally expect, and neither side is very trusting of the other. It is thought that by bringing in men who have no stake in this, all officials involved would be assured of getting the same level of protection.”
“Have there been threats already?” Ichiro asked grimly, his mouth set in a thin line.
Washio nodded. “That’s what prompted Nambu into calling us in.”
Masaki smiled. “Not mention the small fact that we would also be serving as the ISO’s spies.”
Washio shrugged. “Certainly, if we come across information that could be useful, it will be reported back to the ISO, but for the most part, we will be enforcing peace and trying to forestall any attempts to disrupt the talks.” Washio stopped then, waiting, giving them enough time to process what he just said and the job that awaited them.
“And the second part?” Riku prompted, leaning back in the narrow wooden chair, the screws holding it together squeaking under his weight.
Washio sighed, knowing this next part would need to be handled with tact and finesse, but who had the time for that? Throwing that out the window, he simply stated it bluntly. “Two of us will be going to the Royal Palace, to serve as bodyguards for members of the Royal family.”
Interest lit the faces of the men. It was a troubled kingdom, but royalty was royalty and everyone knew such people lived very comfortably. An assignment that would be plum, and they all wanted it.
“The two in particular,” Washio continued, “are the Queen, and their daughter, Princess Flake.”
“I would think that they would already have enough men serving as bodyguards,” Masaki commented, a critical tone in his voice.
Washio nodded. “They do. Several apiece, in fact. But certain evidence has recently come to light that one or more of them may be serving as double agents, or if not, at least willing to turn a blind eye to those who are for the right price. And like the diplomats at the peace talks, there have been death threats issued against them. Even among their most loyal citizens, many are unhappy that the Royals are agreeing to these talks. They see it as threat that should be eliminated and if the King is not willing to do it, then they believe to install another who will.”
“They are talking treason?” Ichiro said in a near gasp.
“Something like, yes.”
Ichiro answered with a low whistle. “That’s something they never report in the news.”
“No, and they won’t either,” Washio answered sharply. “Everything, the death threats, the double agents, none of this is known to the general public. And it will remain that way.” Silence fell in the wake of those words and what they implied.
“Who would want to harm a young girl?” Oniishi hurriedly scrawled, appalled at the thought. “She has nothing to do with the politics of her country.”
“No,” Washio agreed, “she doesn’t. But it isn’t her personally that they see, it is what she, and her family, represents, and that makes it against her. The insurgents seem to think that if they can get to the Royal Family that way, they and their followers will immediately surrender in their grief and terror that more innocent lives will be taken.”
“And if not that,” Riku said wryly, “their own people will turn against them for trying to bring peace.”
“Such is the way of war,” Washio replied flatly, glancing at the the plain, round-faced analog clock on the wall. “We only have a few more minutes before we need to start getting ready. Any other questions?”
“So who will be going where, once we get there?” Masaki asked as he rose to his feet. “I’m guessing you’ll be one of the ones at the palace.”
Washio leveled a look at the man, amusement flickering in his eyes. “Actually, no. I plan on being present at the peace talks. In fact, Nambu specifically ordered it.”
“So, then, which of us will be going to the palace?” Ichiro asked, hope creeping into his voice.
From the moment Nambu instructed that two of them would be serving as additional bodyguards, Washio immediately knew one of the ones he would be sending. Of the four of them, Oniishi seemed to be the best suited, his manners and demeanor well suited to the quiet halls and habits of the Royal Family and, as he was the youngest of them, was probably least likely to terrify the girl.
As to who else would go, that took more thought. Ichiro had the rough personality that would be fine had it only been the guards to contend with, but even then, his history of violence would have precluded him. Riku had his problems, but seemed to have overcome them well. Only time and circumstance would say if he truly had exorcised his demons or not.
As for Masaki, for all of his joking and easy-going style, he hid his bloodlust well, except when he had a gun in his hand. Nambu had strongly suggested that Masaki, like Washio, serve at the peace talks. They needed sharpshooters and Masaki had the skill. Washio, too, was curious to see what Masaki would be like away from Oniishi. Was he merely putting on a good face for his friend, who had suffered so traumatically, or was he truly enjoying this, as he seemed to be?
Which left Washio with the biggest problem of telling these two men, who stuck together as if joined at the hip, that they would be going through this assignment on their own. Washio was not quite sure what he would do if the men refused to be separated.
No way to know but to find out, he thought resolutely.
“When we arrive at Monolince, Ichiro, Masaki and I will head towards the Convention Center, where the peace talks will be held. Riku and Oniishi will be taken by special car to the palace. I have been told that the head guard has already been informed and that Riku will join the general guards in protecting the palace, and by extension, the Queen, while Oniishi will be primarily protecting the Princess as one of her bodyguards.”
A stunned silence filled the room. Washio watched the two of them. Oniishi’s face paled slightly at the announcement. Masaki’s mouth creased into a frown of displeasure.
But no one seemed to fight his orders. So far, so good.
“All right, then,” Washio said, rising to his feet and turning towards the door.
“Just one question.”
Washio turned slightly and looked at Masaki over his shoulder. “Yes?”
“Why not me to guard at the palace, along with Oniishi?” Masaki argued. “I mean, I speak Monolincian. I could be of use there ....”
“Impossible,” Washio gave him a cold stare.
“Because you talk too much.”
Oniishi made a sound that he quickly covered with a cough, but he could not hide the mirth in his eyes. The other two snorted and likewise turned to coughing.
Masaki quirked a brow at his friend. “Oh, you think that’s funny, do you?” he asked wryly, the corners of his own mouth twitching. Then he sighed and broke into a full grin. “I suppose he’s right. You and Riku probably are the better choices.”
“And on that note, gentlemen,” Washio said as he opened the door and stepped through, “it’s time we started getting ready.”
* * *
Monolince was not what it had been the last time he had visited, Masaki noted sadly. Several years of civil war had taken its toll on the people and the landscape alike, and many of the cherished landmarks that he remembered as a teen were now gone, reduced to rubble or disappeared into the debris of war.
As promised, two vehicles met them at the designated place. One, a dark car bearing the Royal insignia on the doors, came to collect Riku and Oniishi. Washio spoke with the driver for a moment, then returned to where they waited. As he watched the car pull away, Masaki hoped that his friend would be able to hold up alone. Even now, Masaki still felt the need to protect Oniishi, though he knew Oniishi perfectly capable of taking care of himself.
Or so he hoped. Oniishi was young, and there was still that part of him that wanted to believe the good in people. Even after what happened. Masaki still blamed himself for that. He should have been there for Oniishi, especially when he realized what was happening, and yet he had failed him. Was letting Oniishi go now another mistake, or was it what was needed?
As their van pulled up and they got in, Masaki cut a sidelong look at Washio, who sat on the seat opposite him. The man’s face was unreadable and he sat there like a sphinx, keeping his secrets from the world, maybe even from himself.
Was this part of his plan, Masaki wondered. To separate him and Oniishi? Or had it simply been based on the skills needed for a particular job? Anything and everything was possible, he thought with a sigh. All they could do now was concentrate on the jobs ahead of them.
Within minutes, they found themselves at the building serving as the meeting place for the peace talks. It was an unassuming gray block of a building, with only the upper most row of windows not boarded up. Masaki looked up at the building’s grim, blank face and hoped that the prospect for peace within would not be so bleak. Hurrying, he trailed up the stone steps after Washio and Ichiro.
For such a large building, much of it was filled only with emptiness. Peering into the unused spaces as they moved from foyer to hallway, Masaki wondered what this building had been before, in its previous life. The faint shadow of name plate had been visible on the wall in the main lobby, but Masaki could not make out what it was.
A banking headquarters, maybe, he decided, or a brokerage firm that went bust when the war roared through the country’s capital city.
Washio halted them at a door marked ‘Security’ and rapped it smartly with his knuckles. The door flew backwards, revealing a group of men in various states of dress. The portly man who had opened the door had the unlit stub of a cigar tucked into the corner of his mouth and was held there by his tightly clenched teeth.
“You the new guys?” he asked superciliously around the cigar.
“Yes,” Washio answered, stepping in, Ichiro and Masaki following close behind. Behind them, the door swung shut of its own accord. Ichiro and Masaki looked at each other. It had not escaped either of their notice that this man had not asked for identification, nor any proof that they were who they said they were. If things were this lax now, they were in for a rough ride ahead.
“Your stuff’s there,” the man said, pointing down a row of lockers lining the far wall. “We’re not responsible if anything’s stolen or missing. Got thirty minutes before we start to sweep the building and give it all the once-over twice. Make sure you’re ready.”
As Masaki popped open the locker nearest him and removed the uniform denoting him as one of the security crew, he wondered again how Oniishi was doing ... and if his uniform looked any better than the mustard yellow jumpsuit he was holding.
* * *
He had heard of the phrase ‘looking down one’s nose at something’ but Oniishi had never seen anyone actually do it.
Even though the palace guard sent to escort them was only slightly shorter than Oniishi by a couple of inches, he still managed to incline his head and stare down at Oniishi and Riku as if he had just come across them in the street gutter and found them distasteful.
He was literally following the line of sight down his nose and it was a small miracle that he could even see to keep from walking into the walls. The thought made Oniishi smile, but he quickly bit the corner of his mouth. He needed to appear serious, not frivolous. He needed to keep his wits about him, to make sure that he was not duped.
Not for the first time, he wished that it had been Masaki who came with him instead of Riku. Not that he had anything against Riku, but Masaki was the one who kept Oniishi grounded, and Oniishi had a feeling he would need that here.
As they left the side of the palace that fronted a public street and walked through an open air courtyard which led to the private residential area of the Royal Family, Riku gave a low whistle.
“Some fancy digs they got here, considering what it’s like out there for the rest of the country,” Riku whispered under his breath. “Definitely have it easier than the poor schleps fighting for independence.”
Oniishi gave Riku a hard glare, hoping to silence him, but the palace guard had heard him anyway. He stopped abruptly and turned to them. His face was cold, his words like ice.
“We were led to believe that neither of you had a position in our country’s current situation,” he intoned, “but if that is not correct, you would be ejected immediately. We need to know that you will do your utmost to protect the Royal Family and if that is not the case ....”
Riku waved a hand at him. “Yeah, yeah,” he said almost flippantly, “don’t get your knickers in a knot. Someone tries to do anything, we’ll be all over them like white on milk, and those’re the only orders we have.”
Oniishi closed his eyes briefly, shaking his head and trying not to heave a sigh. If Riku kept this up, their first assignment might well be their last. Once more, Oniishi wished Masaki were here. He would have silenced Riku before it went this far. When Oniishi opened his eyes, he found the palace guard staring right at him. Another heartbeat longer, then the guard turned on his heel and they continued into the residential wing of the Monolince Palace.
It was no less grand or formal than the rooms opened to the general public, though looking around, Oniishi got the feeling of a shabby genteelness was the order of the day here. The carpets were sumptuous, but fraying at the edges, the flocked, ornate wallpaper from an age gone by was dazzling to the eye at first, but at second glance, one could see that it was worn in spots, peeling at some of the edges, and faded where the sun managed to slide its fingers through the slight gaps left the drawn, dusty velvet drapery that covered the long, floor-to-ceiling windows. Even the high vaulted ceilings, with its trompe l’oeil had the brown ruffled edges of water damage here and there.
In its glory, it must have been something wondrous to see, but now it sits in the middle of a ruined city like a once-beautiful woman who doesn’t seem to know that her looks are gone, Oniishi thought, trying to look around without being too tourist-y or obvious about it.
Up to this point, they had not seen another living being, but as soon as they turned a corner, palace guards lined the hallway. Though a few of them still carried the ceremonial pikes that those of their office had held for hundreds of years, all of them were also more modernly equipped with sidearms, Oniishi noted, his eyes taking in everything as they went along.
Then, to his surprise, the palace guard led them not to the Royal Family so that they could immediately begin their duty, but instead, opened a door leading to a stairwell. With plain concrete risers and steel handrails, it was an obvious add-on to the palace within recent memory, and clearly not intended for use by any of the Royal Family.
Three flights down, they found themselves in the servants’ area, complete with dining room, changing rooms, and recreational areas, where a handful of people lounged around, waiting until their shifts started, or resting as their work hours had just finished. A couple of men had stretched out on two of the five couches and appeared to be asleep, one with an arm flung over his eyes and the other snoring softly. The others in the room sat reading magazines or talking quietly. They stopped when they saw the newcomers.
“Here are a couple more new temp guards,” their tour guide informed those in the room, “this one,” he pointed to Oniishi, “will be serving the Princess, while this one,” an indication in Riku’s direction, “will serve in the ranks.”
A few of the men nodded at this, the sleeping men never woke. Most simply returned to their conversations. What care did they have for new guards?
Their guide turned to them. “Come, this way.”
To Oniishi’s surprise, just off of the large recreation room, there was a hallway with doors spaced every so often, like the dormitories back at his old university. At a door marked ‘312,’ their guide removed a key from the bunch at side and opened it, revealing two narrow beds, each with a folded uniform on it. He handed the key to Oniishi, then snapped off another one from his key ring, which he held out to Riku.
“This will be your room,” he informed them. “Because of the security issues, we must remain on palace grounds at all times, unless we are accompanying a Royal off premises. But do not get your hopes up. With the frequency of the death threats of late, none of the Royals seem very much inclined to leave the safety of these walls, nor is it advisable for them at this time.” He cleared his throat as Oniishi and Riku stepped into the room.
Bare white walls with no other adornment other than a small oval mirror just to the left of the door decorated the room. Two shallow cabinets stood at the ends of each bed. There was no window, nor any other furniture.
As if reading their thoughts, their guide continued. “Don’t think you’ll be spending a lot of time here. You’ll get eight hours of sleep, if you’re lucky. Until this threat has passed, many of us are now working double shifts. Some even more. The bathrooms are down the hall. Go out this door, turn to the right and you’ll find them. About nine or ten doors down from here. Most prefer to shower in the morning, so it’s crowded then. Plan accordingly, especially if you need to report in for a morning shift.” He cleared his throat and settled into the task of instructing.
“You will keep your person neat, clean, and presentable at all times and not just the times you are in the company of the Royals. If they request your presence, even if it is not your shift, you will report to them. All of this is non-negotiable.” He paused, taking a deeper breath, then went on. “You are to never address the Royals directly, nor should you look at them directly. If you must address them and cannot do so by their proper title and full name because you cannot recall it correctly, then simply refer to the King and Queen as ‘Your Majesty’ and the Princess as ‘Your Highness.’ Since you are both obviously not citizens of Monolince, there will be a certain amount of forgiveness in any breach of manners, save for those of the most egregious nature, which are those that would offend any one, of any nationality. Are we clear so far?”
Riku and Oniishi nodded and the man went on.
“Your duties,” he looked to Riku, “will be shared with the others. Your schedule will be posted daily, along with everyone else’s, on the wall in the dining room that we just went through. It will give you the Royal schedules, where you will be stationed and what position you will have. It may remain the same, or it may change. It is up to you to make sure that you know before you leave here.
“You, however,” he now turned to Oniishi, “will obviously follow a different schedule. The Queen has public duties, though they have been scaled back greatly, but the Princess does not. Therefore, her retinue of guards is quite a bit smaller, especially since she never leaves her suite for the most part and spends her time studying. This means that your time will be spent exclusively with her, or near enough to her Royal person, save for the times when you are relieved from your shift. At that time, you will return here until your next shift. Do not get any thoughts of wandering, or that you’ll have a lot of time on your hands. Like I said, we’re running double shifts, so when you’re off, you’ll want to use the time constructively, like for sleeping.”
The man paused, panting slightly. To Oniishi, it seemed as though he were running a mental checklist through his head. The guard gave Oniishi a hard look and continued.
“You are not permitted to roam the hallways, nor go about without express permission. Even though you will be with the Royals, you will not be extended any privileges beyond those of any other guard. Don’t think yourself above the rest of us guards just because you’re with the Princess, because you’re not. Now if you have no questions, I’d suggest you both get ready. If I am not mistaken, you each have a shift to report to coming up within the hour, so you had better be ready.” He turned leave when Riku lifted a hand to stop him.
“Beggin’ your pardon,” he said, the guard’s eyes narrowing ever so slightly at the mocking tone in Riku’s voice, “just one thing. If we have questions while we are on duty, who do we ask?
The guard looked at him a moment, thinking through this question. “If it is a general problem, any of the guards should be able to assist you. If you need anything else, something specific, just ask the Chief Supply Officer. We passed his office on the way here and anyone’ll be able to point it out to you.”
By the time the guard finished, Oniishi quickly held out his notepad. “If we see something odd, or need to report suspicious activity not in keeping with the normal routine of the Palace, who do we tell?”
“Me,” the guide answered immediately. “Anything like that, I should know first and I’ll let you know if it’s something to worry about or not.”
“And you are?” Riku asked, his voice tinged with sarcasm and distrust.
“First Royal Guard Borsheon,” he answered, his chest lifting up in pride. “Anything else?”
When both men shook their heads, Borsheon departed, leaving them alone. Riku closed the door.
“That guy’s a real piece of work. I hope they’re not all like that or this is going to be a long haul.” Riku beat his chest with fists. “Ooooo, me First Royal Guard.” He burst out laughing and even Oniishi smiled slightly. “Who’s he kidding? We spot anything, and he’ll be all over it because he just wants the glory for himself.”
Oniishi put a cautious finger to his lips. “They could be listening. In fact, probably are,” he quickly scrawled. Riku leaned in, read the message and frowned, then gave an uneasy look around the room.
“Well, if that’s the case, may as well give them something to watch then, eh?” Riku decided, stripping briskly out of his clothes.
Oniishi sighed again, then began removing his jacket. His hands hesitated at the turtleneck that he always wore, ever since that awful day, and he looked at the high collared dark blue guard jacket with its gold braided trim.
Maybe, he thought, no one would notice, or care. It would only be noticeable to someone who really looked, and who was going to really look at him? He slipped on the jacket, buttoned it up, then went over to the mirror. He turned his head this way, then the other way, scrutinizing his reflection. It should be passable ....
A shrill bell sounded, making both men jump.
“What in the hell was that?” Riku swore as he tugged up the tight fitting trousers and struggled to button them as Oniishi opened the door and peered out into the hallway. The hallway was filled with the rush of men, all dressed in their uniforms of the Royal Guard, streaming down and towards some unknown destination. Oniishi reached out and tapped a guy bottlenecked by the throng near him and gave him a questioning look. The man grabbed him by the arm and pulled him out.
“C’mon, what are you, crazy?” the man snapped at him. “No time to kid around. Didn’t you hear the bell? Everyone’s being called up for King’s inspection.”
As the men began to move, Oniishi found himself being pulled along with them, moving only because the guy who spoke to him never let go of his arm. Oniishi turned his head to look back, to see if Riku were following, but there were too many men blocking his view now. He hoped that Riku was able to at least lock their door before he left, but a little detail like that probably did not matter. If they wanted in, they most likely had ways in.
Hoping that Riku was just behind him, Oniishi followed the crowd and memorized the route they were taking as he went.
They followed a plain, unadorned hallway, tiled with aging linoleum that Oniishi estimated was probably older than he was, though the cream-colored walls looked as though they had been painted within the last decade or so. Scuffs and scrapes nicked the surface here and there from careless guards and servants in too much of a rush.
Like now, Oniishi thought, following the crowd around a corner. The trek was longer than he had anticipated and he tried to summon up a mental layout of the palace that he had seen so far.
Exactly where are we, he wondered. If he was not mistaken, they should be somewhere near the open air courtyard.
A gust of fresh air blew into the hallway a few steps later, so he knew they were close now, though not exiting directly out onto the courtyard, as Oniishi had initially thought, though they were close.
“Line up, line up,” Borsheon ordered as they poured in. Riku pushed his way to Oniishi and they took up the spots that were pointed out to them.
“Pre-sent,” Borsheon yelled and the guards all snapped to attention, heels together, backs straight, hands to their sides. Riku and Oniishi imitated the men around them, casting querying looks to each other.
Then a door at the far end of the courtyard swung open and all heads swiveled to watch the procession enter. As if the Monolincian men remembered at the same time, they corrected themselves to keep their eyes down, heads bowed slightly in deference to the Royal Family.
For it was the entire Royal Family, Oniishi noted with a start that the young woman with the King and Queen could only be the Princess. The one he was to guard. Though no one had given her age, for some reason, he had always pictured her as a little girl.
Instead, he found that she was nearer to his own age, perhaps only a few years younger.
So lost in his own thoughts, Oniishi belatedly realized that Borsheon and the King had been addressing the guards and he forced himself to look away from the princess, to the two who now commanded him.
“...and on that basis, we have stepped up our patrols, increased manpower, as you can see from the new faces among you ....”
Without moving his head, Oniishi looked sidelong at the men to either side of him. Who else was new here? What had been the protocol for making sure they were who they said they were? His commander had spoken to the driver of the car, but what did that prove? Once more, Oniishi focused his attention back to the ones who were speaking.
“ ... and will have double the number of men on duty at all times,” the King finished, then looked at Borsheon. “Your men appear ready. I pray that they are equal to the job that lies before them.”
“I assure you, Your Majesty,” Borsheon said, dropping into a low bow, “they are more than able to do what they must for the good of Monolince.”
“Excellent, excellent,” the King said, already mentally dismissing Borsheon and the guards that stood at attention below him. “I leave it to you then, to deploy your men and start the additional security at once. That is all.”
Borsheon placed a hand over his chest, decorated with enough ribbons and medals so that, even from where he stood in the back of the crowd, Oniishi could hear them click together. Borsheon then bowed lower.
“As you decree, Your Majesty.” Borsheon remained in that locked position until the Royal Family and their retinue of personal servants filed past him, disappearing out of sight through the door they had come through. The second they were gone, Borsheon straightened up.
“You heard the King! You have your orders,” he yelled out, “so stop wasting time and see to your duties!”
As he moved to the set of doors that he guessed would take him back to the Royal apartments, Oniishi felt a nudge at his shoulder and he turned to see Riku’s grinning face.
“So you’re headed there now?”
“Apparently, I’m on something called hall duty until shift change at midnight,” Riku said, his grin widening as they walked along, “but I suppose I’ll see you somewhere in there.”
Oniishi again nodded and Riku slapped a hand to his shoulder, while slipping something into Oniishi’s pocket. “You get into trouble, hit the red button on the pager and I promise I’ll come running, okay? I have a pager, too, so if you heard that thing squeal, come running.”
Then, like smoke, Riku vanished into the crowd of uniforms, leaving Oniishi to only stare after him and wonder.
Had Masaki put Riku up to this, he thought, fingering the small device. Or had Riku thought it better to keep some sort of link of communication between them on his own?
Oniishi sighed and buried the pager deep into the bottom of his pocket and headed to the suite of rooms belonging to the Princess. The time had come for him act like the bodyguard he now was.
* * *
At first, they had intended to stay together, but then Washio thought the better of that. The more they knew of the building and its layout, the better they would be able to react to any situation that may come up. With that in mind, Ichiro went down with a small group selected to check out the ground floor and basement, while Masaki went with the contingent to secure the roof and top two floors.
Washio, however, remained with the main group, securing the middle floors and the main conference room itself. Bomb sweeps were done using not only the most sophisticated electronic equipment available, but they also brought in dogs trained to sniff out just about anything.
Masaki watched as a team of these dogs were brought up and spread out over the flat-topped roof of the conference building, then turned away, his eyes critically scanning the neighboring buildings.
He could think of half a dozen different ways that terrorists, or rebels or insurgents or whatever they were calling themselves these days, could target the building and those within and he could only hope that the Monolincian police had all of their bases covered.
The building he stood at the top of was not as tall as some surrounding it, leaving the top floors and roof vulnerable. However, they seemed less concerned about an aerial assault than by one from the ground. More specifically, on foot. All it took was one desperate person with nothing to lose and many people lose everything.
Masaki gave the windows of the building across the street a circumspect look, then took out the rifle scope he had in his pocket to look at it better. Anyone could be hiding behind its mirrored windows, just as a snipe could easily be lurking on the rooftops above, watching them, even now ....
“We have sent men into those buildings,” a low-pitched voice said to his right, as if reading Masaki’s thoughts. He turned to see the short, muscular guard captain step closer. To Masaki, the man, Meja Alvarez, looked more rebel than Monolince Police, but looks, as Masaki found out, were more than just deceiving.
“We have covered every angle we could think of, and then some,” Alvarez continued in his heavy Monolince accent. “If you have any ideas, please to share with us, yes?”
Masaki acknowledged Alvarez’s words with a nod of his head, his eyes still scanning the towering forest of concrete around them, looking for that tell-tale flash of light from the barrel of a gun. There was nothing ... so far.
* * *
After seeing Oniishi head out to his assignment, Riku glanced at his watch, debating if he should report now and start his shift early, or simply wander around the common areas and kill time. In the end, the decision was made for him.
“Hey, come on, follow me,” a burly guard said, nudging Riku’s shoulder. When Riku just stared at the man, not moving, the man went on. “You one of new men, on guard detail, yes?” His words were heavily accented, but clear.
“Uh, yeah,” Riku acknowledged, drawing out the word.
“Same as me,” the man confirmed, slapping Riku’s shoulder once more, this time with the back of his hand. “You follow. I show.”
“Not really liking the way you put that,” Riku muttered under his breach, but reluctantly following the man anyway.
He was glad he did, though. Gerard, as he was known, knew most of the secret passageways of the castle.
“My family has served the Royals for generations. My grandfather was in maintenance and my grandmother was a lady-in-waiting, then my father served as guard, and my mother was housekeeping,” he explained, “so I play here, when small boy. I know all of its secrets. Things were different then.”
“Yeah, change sucks,” Riku agreed. Gerard gave him an odd look, then slapped a large hand on his shoulder again.
“Come, we are here.” Gerard pushed through an unmarked and unremarkable door and Riku blinked in wonder when he saw that they were now just outside of the hallway leading to the Royal family’s private apartments. It certainly beat the long haul back down to the servant’s area, then doubling back through the palace.
As they approached, Riku noticed a few other guards standing around, no doubt also waiting for their shifts to start as well.
“Hey,” Gerard said, tightening the hand still resting on Riku’s shoulder, his fingers clamping down painfully. “Come. I introduce.”
This was one man I would not want to arm wrestle, Riku thought, grimacing in pain as Gerard steered him to a cluster of men and said something in rapid Monolincian. Riku smiled at them and gave a small head nod when he heard someone say the name that he was now using as a cover, belatedly hoping that neither action was considered rude here or mistaken for something more hostile.
You’d have thought I’d learned my lesson by now, he moaned mentally, but the guys standing around barely gave him a moment’s consideration. He relaxed slightly, but not for long. At a signal he neither heard nor saw, all of the guards lounging around suddenly snapped to attention and lined up in two rows.
“We go in now,” Gerard explained, pushing Riku into the line next to the one in which Gerard himself stood. “We stand facing, yes?”
“Uh, sure,” Riku said with a shrug and another smile. “Why the hell not?”
All talk abruptly ceased as the tall doors swung open. With more ceremony than Riku could have thought possible, or even necessary, the guards being relieved marched in a column, two by two, between the columns that Riku, Gerard and the other incoming guards made.
As the outgoing men moved, so too did the ingoing, until each new guard took the exact spot just vacated. They halted, waiting. After the space of five seconds by Riku’s count, at another unseen, unheard signal, the guards stepped as one, pivoting on their back feet, so that they now faced each other, their backs to the wall, hands to their sides if unarmed, or just one hand up if they were holding a ceremonial pike.
This is it, Riku thought with dismay, shooting a look to Gerard. Though the large man’s facial expression never changed, mirth glittered in his eyes.
Stupid, Riku berated himself. He should have realized that Gerard just wanted a front row view of the new guy pulling this kind of assignment. If nothing else, seeing someone struggle would relieve the boredom.
Riku mentally calculated the time. Without being able to glance at a clock, or even casually glanced at his wristwatch or cell phone, he tried to think how much time had passed since they had all gathered in the center courtyard. Then there was the time of the presentation, minus the time it took them to walk here, line up ....
Riku nearly gasped, but caught himself and tried to keep his face neutral, especially when he realized that he, and the others, would be doing their statue impersonations for the next 540 minutes.
How in the hell was he going to last, he worried, as another, even more dismaying thought came to mind. Were they ever relieved for any breaks? Meals he could miss, but what about rest room breaks?
Suddenly, he regretted the second cup of coffee he had had at breakfast and even sorrier that he put the thought into his mind.
He shifted his eyes once more to Gerard and realized that the man’s eyes have never left his face. A subtle shift of his eyes and he saw that the others nearest him were likewise watching him. Their expressions never changed, but Riku got the distinct feeling he was being laughed at and that knowledge alone forced him to shift his eyes to a point just slightly above Gerard’s head.
If they could do this, he resolved, steeling himself for what must be endured, then so can I.
Then he sighed and figured that surely there was only 530 more minutes left and tried to convince himself that that was not such a long time. Not really. Not in the scheme of things, like empires rising and falling, the building of the pyramids, the raising of cathedrals, the creation of art. The duration of a holiday fruit cake.
* * *
He paused at the door, caught between two thoughts. Did he just go in and silently take up his position, as he was expected to report in, or did he knock, somehow announcing his presence, to alert those inside that he was here? Oniishi stared at the glossy paneled door for a moment longer, then tapped it lightly with his knuckles. The door immediately swung open to reveal the sour-faced Royal Guard Oniishi was to replace.
“You’re late,” the man growled as he stepped back to let Oniishi in. Oniishi ducked his head in apology. The man he was to replace inhaled and opened his mouth for another comment, but was effectively silenced when a middle-aged woman swept into the room and began speaking.
“Oh, good, you’re both here,” she said as she walked in, her bearing and stout body plowing into the room like a battleship through a rough sea, ignoring the tension between the two men. She marched right up to them and addressed Oniishi first.
“I am Lady Viviane, and I serve as the Princess’s Head Lady-in-Waiting,” she said, eyeing Oniishi all the while. He returned the favor, taking in the woman’s short, graying hair and steely gray eyes were made even more gray by the lilac and lavender dress she wore, and her thin lips were firmly set as though she facing a distasteful foe.
She went on. “The Princess is not only a young lady of refinement, so I will ask you to keep your rude comments to yourself, but she is also a student, which requires her total concentration on her studies. Therefore, in order for her to concentrate on her work, she will require total silence. No scuffing, sniffling, or snuffling whilst you are here.” She gave Oniishi a cold look. “They assured me that you can be quiet,” she gave the guard next to Oniishi a pointed look and a scowl, “unlike some.”
Oniishi straightened up, hands at his sides, and gave the woman a slight bow. As he suspected, the deference seemed to mollify her somewhat.
“Very well then,” she deemed, her heavy face softening slightly, “you may follow me. And remember, you are not to address the Princess directly and speak only when spoken to.”
Oniishi stared at the her lavender back as she turned and walked towards the inner rooms, never looking back to see if he were following. Oniishi gave the other guard an inquiring look. He shrugged, obviously no longer caring what happened. He was now off duty.
“Good luck,” the guard breathed under his breath as he made to leave. “You’ll need it.”
Seeing himself about to be left behind, and not wanting to incur Lady Viviane’s disapproval twice in the same number of minutes, Oniishi hustled after her sweep of skirts.
The first thing Oniishi noticed about the room was that there appeared to be no other doors, beyond the one he entered and one set in the wall at the end of the room. High vaulted ceilings with Greek inspired decorative moldings soared above his head, with a lone chandelier hanging from the center. The light was not on, as there was still sufficient light coming in through the balcony doors and high windows, but Oniishi could imagine the light that it must have been able to throw off when turned on.
Enough to guide in a jet, at the very least, he assessed, craning his head to examine the rest of the ceiling, then following it down the light green papered walls, with panels marked out with thin white strips of decorative moldings.
Really, Oniishi thought critically, was there not one spot in this palace that was not ornate or overly done? That was when his eye fell the room’s sole occupant.
Once more, the Princess’s youth and beauty struck him and he quickly dropped his gaze, not just because it was protocol, but because he knew if he looked into her face, he would be unable to look away.
From the corner of his eye, he could see Lady Viviane nodding approvingly, her hands clasped at her waist and she gave a short bow to the Princess.
“Your Highness,” she said in a low, modulated voice, “I beg of you to forgive my interruption, but I wanted to introduce the newest man who has been assigned to your personal guard so that his presence does not startle you. He has been apprised of his role, and what is expected of him, so rest your mind on that point.”
“I do not see why all the fuss,” Princess Flake said with a sigh and pout, pushing aside the book she had been holding. “I am perfectly capable of taking care of myself...”
“I know you are, Your Highness,” Viviane interrupted, “but given the current goings on ....”
Princess Flake waved an impatient hand. “There could hardly be any place more secure. It isn’t as though there aren’t enough guards crawling the palace as it is. A bird couldn’t smuggle in a worm without Techa knowing and Borsheon signing off on it.” She angled her head and studied Oniishi. “You find that amusing?”
Oniishi bit back his smile and looked up, startled that she had spoken to him. He shook his head, trying to put a more serious expression on his face, watching as she flicked a dismissive hand to Lady Viviane, who steadfastly pretending not to see.
“So you think I am not amusing? That seems even worse,” she challenged with an impish grin. His brown eyes went wide as they met her twinkling blue ones, and he felt the blood drain from his face. There was no right answer to that, and even worse, she knew it.
He looked helplessly at Lady Viviane, but the good woman suddenly seemed to have developed an intense interest in the red carpeting and did not look up. Oniishi was already reaching for his notepad and pen when Princess Flake spoke once more.
“Oh, that’s right,” she said, quickly stepping over to Oniishi and placing a staying hand on his arm. “I’m terribly sorry. I just remembered. They told me that you couldn’t speak, correct?”
Oniishi nodded, his senses swimming with nearness of her, the light flowery fragrance of her perfume enveloping him. It was a scent that he had smelled before, then it occurred to him. She smelled like Spring.
“It’s fine, really. I guess I won’t need to worry about you making any indecent comments now, will I?” she half-joked, squeezing his arm lightly before removing her hand and returning back to the small escritoire she had been sitting at when they came in. The small, delicate piece of furniture was piled high with books and papers, her laptop nearly engulfed by the towering tomes.
Once she was seated, she looked to Oniishi. “Well, then, we must get on with our work, shouldn’t we?” She then turned her gaze to Lady Viviane. “You may go as well, Lady Viviane. I’m sure we’ll be just fine. Oh, and I was thinking of wearing my pink dress to dinner tonight. You know, the one with the bell sleeves and flower embroidery on the bodice?”
“Yes, Your Highness,” Lady Viviane acknowledged with a bow. “A very good choice. You will look stunning in it and the dignitaries will be most taken with your beauty.”
Princess Flake looked over to Oniishi and rolled her eyes. “You are dismissed.”
Viviane straightened up, but hesitated. “Are you certain that Your Highness would not like me to remain, just for a little while? I could always let one of the girls ....”
Her mistrust of Oniishi was palpable, not that Oniishi blamed the older woman. He was not from Monolince, and had no ties to it or the Royal Family. For all she knew, he could have just walked in off the street and come right in.
Which was, now that he thought about it, almost exactly what had happened. How could they know, truly, that he would risk his life for hers?
“Quite certain,” Flake said firmly, then retrieved the book she had put down and began reading once more.
Lady Viviane gave a harrumpf of displeasure, but since she was dismissed, there was not much more she could do without being considered insubordinate.
“You can stand there, over there, by that door with Hatime,” she instructed coldly, taking our her frustration on Oniishi.
Oniishi glanced around the room, which could have easily contained the house and yard he grew up in within its walls, and where the Princess no doubt had planned on staying for quite a while yet. He quickly assessed all points of entry, then shook his head and pulled out his notepad.
“I shall stay there, by that archway leading to the balcony,” he quickly scrawled. “I am to be a bodyguard, not just a palace guard, and to protect the Princess, I need to be close enough to her to do just that.”
“Perhaps, then, I should stay after all,” Lady Viviane answered. “As I am her Head Lady-in-Waiting, it would not do for me to leave her alone in the presence of ....”
At her words, Flake looked up from her reading. “What is it?” she interrupted. “What is the problem, Lady Viviane?”
“Your Highness,” Viviane said within a sigh, “he seems to think that he needs to be closer to you to protect you rather than across the room where all of the other guards have had no problem with standing.”
“And that would require you to remain here why?”
“Because who would protect you from him?”
Oniishi nearly choked at the older woman’s words, and Princess Flake stilled a moment, then laughed merrily.
“Truly, Lady Viviane, you come up with the oddest things sometimes! Somehow, I do not think I need have fear of this one. You may go and allow us all to get back to our work.”
“But Your Highness ...” Lady Viviane sputtered. Oniishi gave the older woman credit for trying her best, but she was ultimately defeated in the end.
“You may go.” Though low and soft, spoken without any trace of anger or malice, the order was firm and unyielding. Lady Viviane sighed, gave Oniishi another hard look that promised pain and punishment if he failed to keep his word, and gave her final bow to the Princess before leaving the room.
Flake’s eyes followed Oniishi as he took up the spot he had indicated to Viviane that he would, near the paneled wall, just on the other side of an oval mirror that hung on one side of the archway leading out to the balcony. For him, it was an ideal location. Not only could he see the palace grounds through the open balcony on the one side, but the placement of mirrors meant that he could see the other side of the grounds through the mirrors.
And if anyone entered by any interior door, Oniishi would only need to take two steps to the Princess, whereas anyone else would have to travel the entire length of the room. He glanced out the archway to the grounds below as Flake settled in and began her studies once more.
* * *
After the sweep, they all went to their assigned posts, the tension in the building almost palpable. Washio had left Ichiro at the front, assigned as one of the security detail who would alternately conduct searches of anyone who entered the building and make rounds throughout the building to make sure no one gained unauthorized access. Masaki, on the other hand, was to remain on the roof with the other snipers to make sure nothing attacked the building from without. Washio, meanwhile, stepped forward and took his spot by one of the two doors leading to the main conference room.
He was one of only four guards allowed within the conference room itself, and even that, he had heard, was highly contested. The Monolincian Royal Council members wanted even more protection, at least one guard per representative, especially in light of the King himself being present, but the Indalu officials refused to participate if more than eight guards total were in the room at any given time. They had bargained it down to four guards within the room and four guards posted right outside the doors.
Washio watched as each side’s representatives filed in, the men and women glaring at each other as they took their seats. It was not an encouraging sign. Once all of the representatives were present and in their places, with the King being the last in, Washio turned and caught the door handle with his hand, slowly pulling it shut. One of the guards at the other door did likewise. Now, no one would be able to leave or enter without special leave to do so until the end of the day.
Once the doors closed, the two leaders of the quarreling factions stood at the same time.
“With all due respect,” the King said with a bow towards the other man, “I will start these negotiations, Councilman Vanwer.”
“All due respect,” Vanwer echoed coldly, almost mockingly, “I will start, Your Majesty.”
It took everything in Washio not to roll his eyes and tell both pompous asses to just sit the hell down and start the damn meeting already.
The room fell silent for a heartbeat, then a woman on the Indalu side stood and cleared her throat.
“Why don’t we set aside normal protocol for now,” she suggested in a firm, clear voice that carried all the way to the back of the room where Washio stood, “and simply start this process? We have a long way to go and only a short time in which to do it.”
“I second,” an older man on the Monolincian side said with an accompanying wave of his hand. Vanwer’s mouth twisted.
“So be it. We have drafted up several points that are non-negotiable ....”
As they dived into the nuts and bolts of the settlement talks, Washio tried to keep his mind engaged, active in his role as a guard, but there were times when he seriously considered switching places with Ichiro or Masaki.
Whatever they were doing, at least they were not stuck listening to this pissing contest, Washio thought sourly.
* * *
The door opened softly and a young woman carrying a tea tray entered. Wordlessly and without a sound, she carefully placed the contents of the tray onto the low table set before a pink and white striped brocaded love seat. When she finished, she tucked the tray under her arm, and bowed in the direction of Princess Flake.
“Your tea, Your Highness,” the girl announced in a light, thin voice that was almost immediately swallowed by the vastness emptiness of the room. She bowed again and, without waiting for a reply, left.
The moment the door shut, Princess Flake set down her pencils and sketch pad and stretched her arms over her head. She rose and walked across the room to the small sitting area and dropped gracefully onto the small love seat. She then looked to Oniishi with a pointed stare.
“Come,” she ordered, “and have tea with me.”
Oniishi blinked in surprise and he immediately glanced down the room to the opposite end where another guard stood at the door.
“Never mind him,” Flake said impatiently, a crease marring her smooth white brow. “I wish you to have tea with me. In fact, I command it.”
Oniishi took a deep breath and reluctantly left his post and walked, stiff legged, to where the Princess sat. He was about to sit on a small chair that he hoped could hold his weight, when Flake spoke again.
“Not there,” she said, shifting over on the love seat and patting the cushion next to her. “Sit by me so that we can have a nice chat.”
Once more, Oniishi looked to the other guard in the room, but he remained immobile, his face unreadable. If the man had any objections to the Princess’s request, or Oniishi’s obeying, he gave no indication of it. Oniishi gently sat at the edge of the love seat, angling himself so that the chair’s polished wooden arm dug into his back. Only then did he realize that there were, in fact, two cups set out. Flake picked up one and poured the tea from a small teapot that looked too delicate to Oniishi to actually be of any use. She poured water into the second cup and handed it to him.
“Cream and sugar are there, and there,” she indicated nod of her head to each item named. “Please, fix your cup however you like.”
Oniishi poured a splash of cream into his, not even bothering to stir it, while he watched as Flake took her time, adding just so much, not too much, not too little. Then she selected the smallest silver spoon Oniishi had ever seen in his life to stir it for a few moments.
“Now then,” she said, sitting back a little and beaming a shy smile at him, “I guess you’re wondering why I asked you to join me.” Oniishi nodded, and his eyes automatically looked down the room to the other guard, who did not acknowledge any of this in the least.
“Don’t worry yourself over Hatime,” Flake said, following his gaze. “He already had his turn, the first day he started working for me, as did all of the others. That is how Gresa knew to bring two cups, you see.”
Well, that explained one mystery, Oniishi thought.
“I like to get to know those around me on a more personal level,” Flake went on, selecting a lacy cookie from a dish in front of her. “I depend upon you to help make my life easier, and in some cases, for my very life itself, and I like to know who each of you are, you see.” Oniishi nodded. “Do you have any questions so far?”
Oniishi thought a moment, then set his cup down and took out his notepad and quickly scrawled it out.
“What are you studying?” he wrote, then tentatively held out the notepad.
“Fashion,” she replied instantly, then smiled. “Ultimately, I would like to design, to have my own fashion line, maybe. Cali, a dear friend and mentor of mine, says that she could probably get me an internship at the fashion house that she is currently working in.”
“And that would be good?”
Flake’s smile broaden and her eyes sparkled as she spoke. “That would be wonderful. Cali has risen quickly in the industry and she expects to launch her own fashion house soon. Of course, she’s very talented, but I like to think that I possess a small bit of talent as well. Wait right here.” Flake set her cup down, rose to her feet, and went over to her desk. After a moment, she selected a sketch pad, flipped it open and walked back to where Oniishi sat. She rejoined him and held out the pad. “Well, what do you think?”
Oniishi smiled politely, painfully aware that she was eagerly waiting to see his reaction.
“They are very well done,” he wrote, “but I must confess, I’m not really the one to ask about fashion.”
Flake gave a small smile and pulled the sketch pad onto her lap. “Not many men are, I suppose, though there are a few. For example, if I had my way, I would not have you in that particular shade blue.”
Oniishi frowned and looked down at the Palace Guard uniform he had put on without a second thought. “What’s wrong with it?” he wrote.
“Well, for starters, the color is all wrong for you,” Flake said, narrowing her eyes to give him a good look-over, a finger tapping her chin in thought as she did. “And last I looked, our guard uniforms did not have an extra collar.”
He colored at the fact that she had been the one to notice the turtleneck. He met her eyes and she smiled at him. Oniishi relaxed ever so slightly. If she was going to call him out for changing the uniform, now would be it. Instead, she picked up her earlier thought.
“No, blue doesn’t suit you at all,” she considered, still studying him intently as she mentally went through colors. “A bolder color, I think.”
Oniishi raised a brow at her.
Flake’s smile broadened. “Yes,” she decided. “I would put you in something bright, something bold, something that would make your dark hair and eyes stand out.”
Oniishi ducked his head, feeling the blush rise to his face at the thought of this beautiful girl dressing him. He looked over his shoulder to the spot where he had stood, wondering if he should not return.
“What of you?” Flake asked. Oniishi snapped his head back to look at her.
“I don’t really think about colors,” he wrote, slightly confused. “So long as everything matches, I don’t really care.”
Flake giggled and the sound warmed his insides. It was sound he could listen to for forever.
“No, silly,” she admonished, tapping his arm with a light touch of her fingertips. “I meant, what did you study? Or what do you like to do when you’re not working?”
Oniishi blinked at the question. It was not something he had ever considered before. What did he like to do?
“I train,” he wrote.
A slender eyebrow arched up. “As in freight and passenger, or model?”
Now it was his turn to smile. “No, I train, as in sit ups, push ups, running, going through obstacle courses.”
Flake delicately wrinkled her nose. “That doesn’t sound like fun.”
“It’s not,” Oniishi admitted, “but it helps me do my job properly, and that’s what counts.”
Flake nodded in agreement, a thoughtful look on her face. “So, then, what do you do when you’re not on assignment and you’re not training?”
Again, that tinkling laughter filled the room and Oniishi smiled with the joyful pleasure of knowing that he was the one who made her laugh.
“There must something else, though,” she persisted. “Something of beauty in your life, something that makes you want to get up in the morning.”
Oniishi thought a moment about his mornings lately. If anyone of them slept in even a minute late, Washio would rip the blankets off of the offender and literally overturn his cot so that he fell to the floor. That was enough of an incentive to make any man voluntarily get up, but it wasn’t something that he really wanted to admit to Flake. So he dug deeper into his past, until he recalled something he enjoyed back when he was a university student, before all of this happened to him.
“There is one thing,” he wrote, “but you must promise me to not tell anyone.”
Flake’s eyes opened wide and she leaned forward. “Is it a secret?” she whispered. “I just love secrets.”
“Yes,” he assured her, “it is a secret. The other men would have no pity on me if they found out that I like to write poetry.”
“Do you really?” Flake nearly squealed, then clapped a hand over her mouth and they both looked down at Hatime, who stood as still as a statue at his post. Together, they turned their heads and their eyes met at the same time and they grinned.
Oniishi felt like dancing. He shared a secret with Princess Flake!
A clock chimed from somewhere in the next room and Flake rose to her, Oniishi quickly following. She leaned in to him.
“I would love to read one of your poems,” she whispered. “Will you promise me that I may?”
Oniishi nodded, before absurdly realizing that everything he had ever written was long gone. Still, he would have promised anything, everything, just to see her smile at him once more.
“Wonderful,” she said with pure delight, “and I shall hold you to your promise, because I really do mean it.”
As she returned to her studies and Oniishi to his post, he spent the remainder of the afternoon trying to think of something even remotely poetic that would impress the princess.
* * *
After a few more minutes that felt like years, Riku decided that if someone wanted to come up with a perfect torture, this was it. He tried not to scrunch up his face as he attempted to stifle a sneeze, but it was not easy and Riku knew he was in trouble when Gerard’s eyes narrowed infinitesimally in his disapproval.
Yawning, and the ability not to, was another problem, along with slumping his back to the wall or shifting his weight from one foot to the other.
And what the hell did these guys think of while they stand here, hour after hour, he wondered, suppressing a sigh.
He would have killed to see what time it was. Then again, at this point, he would have killed simply for the relief of being able to move, to do something.
Just when he was certain that they had been left here as a cruel joke, he heard a faint rustling at the end of the hallway and Riku straightened up, hope lurching through his heart. Was it ... could it possibly be ... Yes!
He was nearly giddy with relief when the doors opened and he saw the twin columns of guards set to relieve them. Just as they had when they came in, as one, the guards stepped forward, Riku and Gerard coming within arm’s reach of each other, and then turned, pivoting on one foot, to face the door to freedom.
At the movement, the world spun and Riku nearly fell over, his legs trembling after having been locked into one position for so long. Only Gerard’s elbow, which he stuck out, kept Riku from falling. Regaining his balance, he marched with the rest of them out between the lines of their replacements. Once the hallway doors were shut, the guards broke up their lines and headed to the stairwells.
“Not bad, for first time,” Gerard appraised as they walked down, Riku hanging on the handrail, still not trusting the rubbery feel to his legs.
“Thanks. Means the world to me.”
“You come. Have dinner with us. We tell you what you do wrong and what you can do to correct.” Gerard grabbed Riku by his upper arm and began pulling him in the direction of the dining hall.
So much for saying no, Riku thought resignedly. Besides, he was hoping that after ten hours of enforced silence, these guys might feel chatty enough to talk to him and tell him about life inside the palace. Media loved inside stories and he heard they were willing to pay quite a bit ....
* * *
The edges of the sky deepened to a pink that made it seem more like seashell than sky. Like they were in a giant mollusk, Oniishi thought, then cringed at the simile. He had a long way to go in the poetry department if he ever hoped to write something worthy enough of Princess Flake.
A slapping sound made him quickly turn his attention to where Flake sat, and he blinked in surprise as he realized that it was her, packing up her sketchpads and books. Again, she lifted her arms and stretched, smiling at him as she did so.
At that moment, the same clock as from before chimed the hour and a light rap resounded from the door that Hatime stood near, as though the person in the hall had waited for the clock to announce their presence.
The sound made Oniishi jump, his hand automatically reaching for his weapon even as Flake gave the order for Hatime to open the door. Oniishi relaxed slightly as Lady Viviane swept into the room, though now two young women followed in the wake of her billowing skirts.
As though caught in her current, like flotsam and jetsam, Oniishi thought, then cringed once more.
“It is time to prepare for dinner with your father, the King, and your lady mother, the Queen,” Viviane announced as she strode the length of the room, “as well as with some visiting dignitaries from Dokoaru, so I thought it best to lay out several of your best gowns, so that Your Highness may choose the one you prefer best, in case you changed your mind about the pink.”
Viviane stopped walking the moment she finished speaking, standing several yards away from Flake’s desk, her hands clasped at her ample waist. The two girls behind her mirrored her stance.
“Yes, of course. Thank you,” Flake murmured, rising from her seat, and heading to the door closest to her, the one that Oniishi had seen, but had not seen anyone come and go from until now. Viviane hurried to the door, her hand upon the knob so that she would be ready to open it for Flake, the two young girls still trailing after her.
All, however, came to an abrupt stop when they realized that Oniishi was following behind.
“And where do you think you’re going?” Viviane demanded haughtily, anger flaring in her gray eyes.
Oniishi sighed and pulled out his pad. “We’ve already been through this. It is my job to protect the Princess,” he wrote, “so wherever she goes, so do I, for as long as it is my shift.”
Viviane marched back to where Oniishi stood, then leaned forward to read the pad that Oniishi held out for her. When she finished, she straightened up once more.
“Certainly not,” she replied, her shoulders rising in her indignation. “There is no place for a men ... any man ... to be in the Princess’s private rooms while she is dressing. I’d have Hatime in her room before you, and he is remaining out here. So you have two choices. You can either stay here with Hatime while the Princess gets ready, and join us when she is done, or you could do what others have done and stand watch in the hallway from the other entrance. But I assure you, young man, you will not enter these private rooms.”
Oniishi quickly summoned up a mental image of the palace map that he recalled seeing in the servants’ quarters earlier.
No doubt the others preferred the main hall, he thought. From there, they would be able to see other people, perhaps pass along messages or gossip. At the very least, they would have the company of other guards to relieve the boredom. But his comfort was not the reason why he was here.
“That may be in my best interest, but not the Princess’s,” Oniishi argued back.
“And I am telling you, you are certainly not permitted in Her Highness’s private chambers, and certainly not her bath, so you will just have to figure it out on your own. From here. After all,” Viviane summed up, “even Her Majesty is entitled to some modicum of privacy.”
Oniishi stared at her a moment, then looked to Flake, who seemed highly amused at their exchange.
“And what privacy does she have with the three of you hovering around?” he wrote back. Viviane’s eyes widened at the affront, but Oniishi was beyond caring. If he could see the weak points, so, too, could any potential assassin or kidnapper. If they were to attempt anything, as Washio had told them had been threatened, it would be while she was alone, not when there was a bevy of people always around her. Even the three women could easily be overpowered. So, then, what to do? He had to think fast.
“The bathroom has no windows, correct?” he wrote.
Viviane leaned over to read, squinting her eyes and moving her lips as she did so.
“That is correct,” she confirmed.
“Then she can prepare in there, and have all the privacy she desires, while I stand guard in the room next to it.”
“This is preposterous,” Lady Viviane huffed out in exasperation. “We’ve never had this issue come up with any other guard. I do not understand why you are choosing to make this so difficult. What you are proposing ....”
“Is what?” Flake inquired as she walked to here Viviane and Oniishi stood. She held out her hand and Oniishi surrendered his notepad to her. Flake quickly read his comments, then returned the pad.
“Very well then, that is what we shall do,” Flake decreed and turned to leave.
“But Your Highness ....”
Flake spun on her heel to address Viviane. “You cannot fault the man for wanting to do his job properly, and I would not want to prevent him. Only consider what it is he is assigned to do, Lady Viviane.”
“Yes, Your Highness,” Viviane replied sullenly as they all entered the private sitting and bedroom of the Princess.
Though there was quite a bit of furniture contained in the rooms, the sheer vastness of them seemed to dwarf the artfully arranged seating areas. To Oniishi’s untrained eye, it looked like a hotel lobby or the dioramas set up in some museum instead of the rooms of a young girl who lived in them on a daily basis. There were no personal touches, save for a grouping of silver-framed photos on a small writing desk, nothing that Oniishi would not expect to see in an ordinary hotel room.
It seemed too anonymous for someone so remarkable, he thought as he looked.
“Mind you don’t touch anything,” Viviane admonished when she saw him glance at a large vase of flowers on a nearby pedestal table. “That vase is Shoskenian, a gift from then-sheik, back in the 1800s, and the table was a handcrafted gift from the legendary woodcrafter, Millenhouse, during the revolution of 1756.”
Oniishi nodded and wondered if Viviane could rattle off the details of every item in the room. Perhaps that’s what she did all day while Flake was studying or at her classes. The thought made him smile, which he promptly suppressed, but not before Flake saw and sent him a querying look. He shook his head and looked away, a hot blush touching his cheeks.
The dinner dress chosen and prepared for Flake to wear that evening was hanging up on a dress form, though the rest of the items that went with it were laid out on the bed. These items were quickly snatched up by Viviane and the two women and all four proceeded in a stately march to sequester themselves within the bathroom.
Oniishi shook his head and went about investigating the rooms. His shift would be ending, no doubt around the time when Flake retired for the night.
So, then, where would his replacement be posted? Obviously not in the bedroom or adjoining rooms.
Probably the hallway, he thought uneasily as he cast a look at the large glass double doors leading out onto yet another balcony. And yet another way in. He walked over to the doors and looked down.
How often did the ground patrols go by at night, he wondered, making a mental to check the schedule. And would they be enough?
Queasy as to what that answer might be, Oniishi pushed the thought aside and spun on his heel as the inner door opened and Princess Flake swept into the room, Viviane and the other two trailing behind like wayward ribbons. Even if Oniishi still had the power of speech, he did not think he would have been able to say a word. Beyond a doubt, she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.
As it was to be a diplomatic dinner, Princess Flake had a slender crown set upon her dark tresses, which were smoothed down and coiled into an elaborately woven chignon at the back of her head, giving her an elegant profile when she turned her head. The silver overdress of her pale pink gown, lightly embroidered at the sleeves and hem in an equally pale, clear pink, made the diamonds at her throat and wrists seem to sparkle, while giving her clear skin a luminous glow.
As she walked past him, Princess Flake met Oniishi’s stare as though wanting to see his opinion of her, then she quickly averted her eyes, a delicate blush heightening the color of her pale cheeks.
“Humphf,” Viviane snorted as she stomped by, her small eyes getting even smaller as she glared at Oniishi, as though he had said or done something questionable, then sharply swiveled her head as if to prove that she was simply going to ignore him.
* * *
The food was bland, but solid and plentiful, and Riku shoveled in the dry meat, boiled potatoes, and vegetables with the gusto of a starving man twice his size.
“For skinny man, you eat well,” the one guard, Stevan, remarked. Riku recognized him as being the guard who had stood directly to Riku’s right side when they were on duty.
“Eat and drink what you will now, but tomorrow be cheap,” Gerard advised.
Riku paused. “Cheap?”
“Miser?” Gerard suggested.
“Stingy?” Riku countered. Now it was Gerard’s turn to look puzzled.
“Do not eat so much,” Gerard clarified. “Fifteen hours standing on a full stomach, no good.”
“Not to mention on a full bladder,” Riku added. The few men who understood him laughed, then translated for those who only spoke Monolincian, then they laughed as well.
“So what have you learned from first day?” Gerard asked, pointing a half-eaten chicken leg at Riku. “I see you move too much.”
“Yeah, well, about that,” Riku said, wiping his mouth with a napkin and turning slightly in his seat to face Gerard. “I mean, I know we’re supposed to be protecting the palace and all, but I don’t see how we’re doing that by just standing in the hallway, you know?”
“Do not you worry,” Gerard said, picking up his cup and giving Riku a mock salute with it. “The palace is well watched by those who know how.”
“Experienced guards, you mean?”
“Is what I just said, yes?”
“So what we’re doing ....,” Riku broke off when he heard the suppressed snickers of laughter. Riku gave them a hard look as his mind processed the realization. “Okay, so if this is such a low position, then why were you guys doing it just now?”
“We wanted to see what kind of men you new boys were,” Gerard said matter-of-factly, then tore the rest of the meat off the chicken leg he still held, his teeth flashing white for just a moment as he chewed.
“Oh really?” Riku retorted, stabbing a few vegetables onto the tines of his fork. “So what kind am I?”
Gerard shrugged. “Not bad. In time, you be okay. That one, there?” He aimed his knife towards the table behind theirs. “That man, never make it, and good riddance to him.”
Riku studied the man a moment, then turned back to Gerard. “So I’m just okay, huh?”
“You move too much.”
“Yeah, you mentioned it before. So, uh, let me get this straight. You put the inexperienced guys on the inside, while the more experienced guards patrol around elsewhere?”
“No,” Gerard answered, slapping Riku’s hand down, his fork clattering to the table. Gerard leaned in, his face hovering near Riku’s. “Every job is important. There are no places for inexperienced. But Monolince takes care of Monolince.”
“But you just said ....”
“I said palace is watched by those who know. You say experienced. Guarding hall is for the untried and untested. To see what they made of.”
“So it is a form of torture?” Riku muttered under his breath.
Gerard gave a laugh. “Is hard, yes? But it teaches, yes? Discipline, stamina, and, if you stare enough at same small space, if something is not how it should be, you see right away, yes?”
“Yeah,” Riku nodded in reluctant agreement. “Hadn’t thought of it like that.”
“See?” Gerard laughed, slapping Riku hard on the back, his good humor restored once more. “You still learn, eh?” He looked around the table at his friends. “Now that we done, we go to have fun, yes? You come.”
“Depends,” Riku answered warily, rising to his feet with the rest. “What’s considered fun around here, and does it involve any more standing?”
* * *
All during the dinner, Oniishi stood as the other bodyguards did, with his back to the wall, along with the Royal guards, who were ranged along the table, each standing behind the chair of the one he was assigned to protect.
Oniishi’s eyes bored holes into the back of the guard who stood so close to Flake, though he could not have said why he hated everything about this man he did not know, save for the fact that he was standing so close to Flake. Oniishi watched his every movement like a hawk. One wrong move and he was ready to take the man down in thirty-five different ways.
The dinner itself was a lesson in pageantry, each course presented and served with a lavish display, even as the last course was being quickly removed. There was polite conversation in small pockets as the table was too long for everyone to be included in any one conversation. But as far as Oniishi could tell, it did not really matter because the conversations were kept to the light and polite while the bigger, more political and emotional charged topics were studiously avoided.
Flake was seated between an ambassador from Ameris, an older man who ended every sentence with a laugh, and a thin young man who was vastly entertaining to Flake, and even from this distance, Oniishi could catch the silvery tinkle of her laughter.
He tried to keep a bored, disinterested look on his face, staring with a scowl at a spot on the far wall, a portrait of some distant relative no doubt, the ruffled collar and stiff coat no doubt contributing to the stern, unhappy look on the man’s face.
However, Oniishi knew he was unsuccessful when Flake looked at him over her shoulder and caught his attention. Her smile warmed him and her eyes sparkled with impish glee.
“My cousin,” she mouthed, tipping her head slightly to the young man.
Oniishi inclined his head ever so slightly as Flake turned back to her dinner companions.
It shouldn’t matter, Oniishi chastised himself. She spoke with and sat next to hundreds of people, and would continue to do so, long after his assignment here had ended. They only just met, even, he continued on, so it really shouldn’t matter.
Except that it did.
* * *
Darts, he quickly found out, was the game of choice, which did not sound like much fun, until he watched guards who were well and truly inebriated trying to throw them.
Gerard, he noted, stood well behind the tipsy players, bottle in hand, as he cheered them on.
“You not drinking,” Gerard pointed out, tapping his bottle against the one Riku held. The other man’s observation had surprised Riku. After the first bottle, Riku had taken to nursing the second, wanting to keep his wits about him. Riku looked at the bottle, then gave Gerard a lopsided grin.
“I am, just not as fast as you guys,” he explained. “You all seem to have cast-iron stomachs for this not to bother you. And besides, I should probably turn in now. I have the first shift tomorrow morning.”
“For why?” Gerard demanded. “Is not this exciting?”
Riku gave a laugh. Trying to see a bunch of guys hit a target that small while they were drunk was amusing, but this was not why he was here. He needed to remember that.
“Yeah, it’s great, but like I said, I’m on in the morning ....”
“So what?” Gerard dismissed with a shrug of a shoulder and a swig from his bottle. He lowered it, swallowed noisily and gave Riku a wink. “We are on then too. Is good place to work off hangover, yes? Nice and quiet with no moving?”
Riku stared at the man a moment. “You mean to tell me that you guys were all hung over?”
“Nooooo,” Gerard immediately denied. “I said it was good place to work off hangover, not that we were, yes?”
“Yeah, sure,” Riku agreed, but something niggled at the back of his mind. Something that he did not like, but could not place.
“Good, so you play next game with me, yes? And then Stevan can play winner. Jonos, another two bottles over here. Drink up, Theodore, and then we toast again.”
* * *
Back at their room, Oniishi was mildly surprised to see that Riku had not yet returned. Given the time, Oniishi had assumed that Riku would have long since been relieved from his post. Having the room to himself, Oniishi paced its length a dozen times twice over, and then, having nothing else to do or anyone to talk to, Oniishi went to bed, trying to will himself to sleep.
He had just drifted into a light, uneasy sleep when the thought of that unprotected balcony woke him up. He lay there, trying to convince himself that men who had been guards for far longer than him were protecting Flake, but his mind would not let it go.
Quickly, Oniishi rose and dressed, then slipped out of the guards’ residential area. He went silently through the hallways, taking the same path as they had earlier the other day and found himself in the lush garden, the splash of water from the main fountain burbling happily in the darkness.
Whenever he encountered another palace guard, Oniishi simply acknowledged them with a nod of his head, which was returned unquestioned.
Too easy, Oniishi thought in dismay. They made it too easy for people to come and go and never once do they question it. He hurried across the manicured lawns and found Flake’s balcony. To his surprise, the square of the entrance was still illuminated, the block of light like a painting on a dark wall.
Oniishi cautiously scanned the grounds around him. Every tall shrub, every statue, was suspicious, hiding a potential killer. Positioning himself so that he had a clear view of Flake’s balcony, but well-hidden in the shadowy shrubbery, Oniishi crouched low and settled in.
He would, he figured, keep his own watch until he saw her light go out, then he would leave. He glanced up again. The light was still on.
What had happened to keep her awake, he wondered. Was it fear for her life? Her family’s? The trouble in her country?
Or was it more mundane, like an upcoming exam or term paper to be done?
Oniishi shifting his weight slightly, easing the cramping muscles in his legs and heard the clock tower across the courtyard chime the hour. Almost as if on cue, a movement at the balcony caught his eye and Oniishi watched, spellbound, as Flake opened the doors and stepped out into the night air. The wind immediately threaded its fingers through her long hair, now worn loose and down over her shoulders and she pulled the wrapper she wore closed as the playful wind snapped its hem and toyed with the gauzy nightdress she wore underneath.
She paused just shy of the balcony’s heavy stonework balustrade and looked up. Reflexively, Oniishi twisted in his spot, trying to follow the direction of her stare. It was a clear night and the stars glittered companionably.
Oniishi watched her a moment longer, then began to scan the gardens, straining his eyes to see if they had any other company besides the stars.
She was making herself a perfect target, he thought nervously. Why didn’t anyone warn her? Or maybe they had, and she didn’t care.
He did not know why, but that last thought made him angry. She, of all people, should have cared the most. She was a princess, and young, and beautiful, and he was willing to die for her, if need be, and yet here she was ....
Oniishi abruptly pushed the thought aside and surveyed the grounds once more. To his utter relief, as he finished his round, Flake disappeared back into her rooms. A few minutes longer and the lights went out.
Maybe just a few minutes longer, Oniishi decided.
He ended up keeping his watch until the sky paled with the beginning of a new day and only then did he return to his quarters and fall into a deep sleep.
* * *
“They got nothing accomplished?” Masaki said in disbelief, shaking his head.
“Well, I wouldn’t say nothing,” Washio said wryly, pulling a clean t-shirt over his head, his hair still wet from his shower. “They did manage to find middle ground as to where to order lunch over the next several days.”
“You gotta be shittin’ me,” Ichiro moaned, rolling onto his back, his cot squeaking loudly at the movement and shift in weight. “We’re gonna be here forever, aren’t we?”
“We’re here for as long as we need to be,” Washio replied coldly, pulling the blanket down on his own cot, “but I can tell you that, at the rate they’re going, this will take more than a few days, unless a minor miracle occurs. If,” he added wryly as he headed for the door, toiletry kit in hand, “they can manage to agree to anything at all.”
After Washio left, Masaki punched at his thin pillow. “I hope Oniishi and Riku have it better than this.”
Ichiro raised his arms and folded his hands behind his head. “What’s his deal anyway?”
Masaki paused at the edge of his cot. “Who?”
“The mute guy,” Ichiro clarified, angling his head to look at Masaki. “I mean, you guys are friends, right? Or are you, like, his caretaker? Is he retarded or something?”
Masaki felt his hackles go up as his chest tightened in anger. “No, he is not developmentally disabled,” he said coolly. “It was an unfortunate accident not too long ago that rendered him unable to speak. We are friends and he does not need anyone to take care of him.”
“Oh, well, no offense,” Ichiro said breezily, either ignoring Masaki’s tone or nor caring. “I was just wondering, that’s all.”
Masaki made no reply to that; he was too furious. Instead, he turned on his side to face away from Ichiro. A few minutes later, Masaki heard Washio return. The lights went out in their room and he listened as Washio settled into his own cot. Once it was dark, Masaki turned onto his back and stared up at the blackness above his head.
We’ve only been together for a few weeks, he thought miserably, squinting into the darkness, as if he could read the future there, and yet it was already starting. Is that what they all thought about Oniishi, or just this jackass?
Masaki fell asleep before he could answer his question.
* * *
It was later than he expected by the time he returned to their little room in the residential area, and Riku was surprised to see that Oniishi was not already in bed asleep. Riku wobbled slightly as he pulled his boots off, letting them thud to the floor.
He had not intended to drink more than two bottles of the brown liquid that passed for beer in Monolince, but when Gerard pressed a third bottle on him, Riku found that he could not refuse it without insulting this man who was now his friend.
Now, however, he was beginning to regret it.
Uniform jacket, shirt and trousers followed the boots and Riku crawled into this cot. It had been a long day, and a longer night, but he had found out some things that he needed to run by Oniishi.
With any luck, he thought just as sleep claimed him, he would be able to get up early enough to speak with Oniishi before their next shifts started.
* * *