The Red Impulse Chronicles #2 -- War and Peace Talks by RIgirl
Summary: Both sides in Franbell's civil war have agreed to peace talks and the Red Impulse team is called in to help keep the peace -- but one member begins to fall to pieces while another falls in love.
Categories: Gatchaman Characters: Dr. Kozaburou Nambu, Kentaro/Red Impulse, Original Character, Other Canon Character
Genre: Action/Adventure, Drama, Mystery
Story Warnings: Adult Situations, Death, Mild Adult Situations, Mild Violence, Strong Language
Timeframe: Prequel
Universe: Tenuously Canon
Challenges: None
Series: None
Chapters: 2 Completed: Yes Word count: 28970 Read: 1785 Published: 09/11/2013 Updated: 09/11/2013

1. Chapter 1 -- The Stargazers by RIgirl

2. Chapter 2 -- The War Makers by RIgirl

Chapter 1 -- The Stargazers by RIgirl
He waited until they were all seated before starting the briefing on the assignment Nambu had given them. When they were settled, and staring at him expectantly, Washio began.

“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.

“How so?”

“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.

Until now.

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?”

Oniishi nodded.

“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.

* * *
Chapter 2 -- The War Makers by RIgirl
They flipped a coin to see who would get to just sit and watch the bags go through the scanner and who would conduct the personal searches. As Ichiro’s luck had it, he got the thankless job of doing the searches for the first half of their shift.

Grabbing the metal detecting wand like it was a club, he positioned himself just behind the U-shaped freestanding metal detector and nodded to the guard set to watch the monitor. He, in turn, gave the sign to their head guard that they were ready.

This early in the morning, however, there were only a handful of people reporting for work, mostly on the janitorial staff. An oversized belt buckle worn by one man and a large hair clip on one woman provided Ichiro with all the amusement he would see during the first hour and he tried to stifle his yawns as time stretched out. He wished to hell he had been one of the ones that went to the palace. They, no doubt, were doing things far more exciting than this.

They’re probably having a grand old time, hobnobbing with the royalty and all of their hangers-on, he thought bitterly, while I’m stuck here in Dullsville. He smacked the wand against his open palm and one woman going through the metal detector jumped and stared at him. He gave her a smile and a nod, but her uneasiness did not fade. She grabbed her purse from the conveyor belt and nearly ran down the hall.

Even Ichiro had to admit that things picked up, though, as the time for the peace talks to continue approached and the representatives began to report in. A man carrying a keychain pocket switchblade was added to their collection of confiscated items, over the man’s protests that it had been a gift from his young son and that he had even forgotten it was attached to his keys.

“Don’t worry, sir,” Ichiro assured him in a monotone, “you can pick it up when you leave.” Ichiro tossed the keychain and keys into a plastic bag, sealed it, and scrawled the man’s name across the bag in black marker. As the man left, Ichiro tossed it into the basket under the scanner’s conveyor belt and returned to his spot.

Person after person went through the metal detector, the bored looks on their faces reflected in the guards’ own faces, each barely seeing the other. By the time they got to where Ichiro stood, they were hurrying to scoop up their items and head off to wherever it was they needed to be for the peace talks. Assistants, secretaries, and translators mixed in with the representatives from both sides, everyone keeping their silence and giving each other dirty looks.

So many people when it really should have been down to two people, as far as Ichiro was concerned. Get the Monolince King and the Indalu Prime Minister and lock them in a small room and don’t let them out until they’ve hammered out their differences. Doing it this way just meant too many opinions, too many chances of misinterpretation, too many voices to be heard.

Too many cooks, Ichiro’s mind echoed, slapping the wand against the open palm of his other hand, and they’re all playing the telephone game, only here, one wrong change in the message could mean the lives and deaths of citizens in two countries.

A few more people drifted past and it was only the buzz of the metal detector that jarred Ichiro out of his daydreaming.

“Please stand over here, sir,” Ichiro said, indicating the spot. The man’s face twisted up as though he smelled something distasteful.

“I beg your pardon, but I will not be treated like a common criminal because your faulty detector,” he retorted.

“Okay. Fine,” Ichiro snapped, “then go through the detector again.”

This the man did, and once more it went off.

“I’m sorry, sir, but I’m going to have to wand you,” Ichiro said, following the script that they told him to say.

“You will not lay a hand on me,” the man protested, “and, as it is, I’m late so I don’t have time for your shenanigans.”

Ichiro stared at the man, not sure if he were more dumbfounded over the fact that the man was protesting something as routine as being searched with a wand or the fact that he actually used the word ‘shenanigans.’

“I’m sorry, sir,” Ichiro apologized once more, though his voice was anything but apologetic sounding, “but I need you to step to the side so that the other people can get through.”

“This is an outrage,” the man declared, turning the heads of those trying to get past him. “You’ve deliberately and purposefully singled me out. I’ll have your job for this.”

Ichiro stared at the man. “I have done nothing deliberate, sir,” he replied between clenched teeth, “but give me a reason, any reason, and I’ll show you deliberate singling out.”

The guard at the scanner cleared his throat and Ichiro backed off as he saw the supervising guard come storming at them.

“Is there a problem here?” the supervising guard demanded as he walked up to them.

“Yes, sir,” Ichiro answered before the man could. “Detector went off -- twice -- and this gentleman is refusing to let me use the wand.”

The supervising guard stared at the man for a beat, taking in the name on his identification badge.

“Do you have anything in your pockets?” the guard finally asked. “A watch or belt buckle that could be large enough to trip the sensor?”


“Well, there you have it,” the supervising guard said to Ichiro and turned to leave.

“But something set it off,” Ichiro protested, waving the wand at the man. As it passed by the man’s coat pocket, it sent out a several beeps. Ichiro’s eyes met the man’s. “Would you please remove whatever’s in your pocket, sir?”

The man rocked back on his heels and took in the scene around him. People were watching now, more interested in the drama than they were in getting to where they needed to be. The man looked to the supervising guard, who gave an infinitesimally small nod of his head. Reluctantly, the man reached into his pocket and pulled out a small cell phone.

“That’s the problem, then,” the guard at the scanner remarked, turning back to his conveyor belt of purses and briefcases and computer carriers.

“I’ll have to take that ....” Ichiro began.

“Leave it,” the supervising guard snapped. “Let him have it.” He looked at the man squarely in the eye. “Just promise that you’ll leave it off until you return to the lobby. That good, sir?”

“Yes, thank you,” the man said gruffly, slipping the phone back into his pocket. He glared at Ichiro a heartbeat longer, then went on his way with a huff. Ichiro could hear him muttering under his breath in Monolincian, and was pretty sure what the man was saying was not complimentary.

Prick, Ichiro thought angrily. Get him outside in the street, and let’s see what a big man he is.

“Hey you,” a voice yelled out. “Can you get back to your station, please?”

Ichiro turned and the guard at the scanner pointed him back to his spot.

All of these people were pricks, Ichiro thought mutinously, and if they were all that arrogantly stupid, then they deserved what they got.

* * *

Even with keeping his head perfectly immobile, it still pounded to the point of pain. Add to it the lack of sleep and Riku found himself struggling with just being able to stand upright and awake during guard duty the following morning.

Maybe this was how they do it after all, Riku thought, squinting his eyes to keep them somewhat focused. Gerard and the rest of the men, he saw with a hint of envy, seemed none the worse, despite the fact that they had drunk far more and stayed up even later than he had.

Still, even through the haze, Riku sensed something was up, some tension in the hallway that had not been there before. He had hoped to speak to Oniishi, but the man had risen and left without Riku even knowing it. He had been late to breakfast, which had been fine with him as he had no appetite anyway.

Riku let his mind drift back over the events of the night before. There had been a definite undercurrent, a second conversation beneath the one being spoken aloud. Riku knew he was watched at every turn, his every move scrutinized, and not just because he was one of the new guys. Something in what one of the men had said ...

If only he could remember what that was ....

* * *

Oniishi tried to suppress another yawn and then stopped, holding his breath as he heard her girlish giggle. She turned in her seat to face him, her slender arm resting on the top of the carved, highly polished chair back.

“You know, if you went to bed at a more reasonable time, you wouldn’t be so sleepy now,” she observed, a teasing smile on her lips, her large dark eyes sparkling as though they shared a secret.

Carefully, Oniishi wrote out his question and held out the pad to her, bowing as he did so.

“And how would you know what time I went to bed?” She handed the notepad back to him with a smirk.

“You would be surprised who one could see taking midnight strolls through the gardens from up here.”

Oniishi stilled. She had seen him?

“You needn’t look so guilty,” she said in a low whisper. “I won’t say anything to anyone. But tell me, why were you out there so late?”

“Why were you?” he instantly wrote back.

She pursed her lips in thought. “I wanted to see if I could find Andromeda.”

“The constellation?”

Flake nodded. “What else?” she teased with a smile.

“And did you? Find it, I mean.”

“Oh, yes. And I seemed to have found Perseus, as well.”

Oniishi felt his cheeks grow hot at her comment. “I’m sorry,” he wrote. “It was just ....”

Her hand stopped his and he looked, startled at her touch. A smile that warmed her blue eyes beamed at him.

“Please don’t explain. It was sweet, but you must rest. Unless,” she added with another wicked grin, “you find me so dull that you prefer sleeping while you’re here.”

“Never,” he immediately scrawled out. She laughed and returned to her desk, her head bent over her books. Oniishi once more scanned the rooms, watching and listening and feeling much more alert than he had five minutes ago.

He had been standing back at his customary spot for about half an hour when a steady tapping made him look over at the princess. She flashed him a coquettish smile when she caught his eye. Flake motioned to him to join her. As he did, he gave a querying look.

“Do you enjoy what you do?” she asked, her voice low, as though the question were a secret meant only for him. “For a living, I mean. Did you always want to be a bodyguard?”

Oniishi dropped his gaze to his notepad, lest Flake be able to see the answer in his eyes. This was not a career he would have voluntarily chosen. In fact, it was not even close to what he had originally envisioned for himself back when he was young and the world was still full of possibilities.

Had it really been only a few years ago?

No, this was far removed from the path he thought his life would take, but he could not tell her that.

“I am enjoying it now,” he wrote and was rewarded by a delicate blush that heightened her color and brightened her eyes before she quickly looked away.

“I think you’re just trying to flatter me,” she demurred.

“No, but if you wish, I could do that easily as well.”

She laughed then and shooed him away from her desk as she turned back to her books. Another half an hour later, the small phone Oniishi had been given pinged with a message. He flicked on the phone and read it.

Princess Flake’s Amerisian teacher here for lesson. Am sending him through. Advise princess of same.

Oniishi looked up to find Flake staring at him curiously. He showed her the text message and she nodded.

“That’s right,” she confirmed. “He comes every Tuesday and Thursday.”

Oniishi texted the approval back and a minute later, a short older man, accompanied by the indomitable Lady Viviane, strode briskly into the room, doffing his antique bowler hat and bowing to Flake at the same time.

“Regrettably, we must start at once,” the Professor said by way of greeting. “All of this extra security has cost us valuable class time and I only have the one hour for you. Now, Princess Bianca, have you learned to conjugate the list of verbs I left with you last week?”

Oniishi tensed, avidly following the man’s every movement with his eyes, his intenseness rivaled only by Lady Viviane. The small man, however, barely spared either of them a moment’s notice and waited for Flake’s answer.

“Yes, I have them here,” she said, pulling a book out of the pile and tapping at her tablet for her work saved within.

“In Ameriese, Princess Bianca,” he scolded, then waited as the princess repeated her reply in the halting language unfamiliar to her tongue.

Oniishi tried to follow the lesson, but he had no affinity for languages and after awhile, the steady repetition of their voices, combined with the heat of the early afternoon sun that slanted into the room, nearly made him nod off several times, though he managed to jerk himself awake, just in case this man should prove disloyal to his pupil.

At the stroke of the hour, true to his word, the professor packed up his books and dictionaries and practically ran out of the room. Flake looked to Viviane, who feigned not to notice the Princess, until finally Flake spoke up.

“I think I would like to wear the green dress tonight after all, Lady Viviane,” she directed. “Would you be so kind as to get it ready for me?”

Vivane flustered a moment. “But, Your Highness, the blue one is so pretty ....”

“I wish to wear the green,” Flake insisted.

“Yes, Your Highness,” Viviane capitulated, turning to leave but not before giving Oniishi another scowl. As the door clicked shot, announcing that they were again alone, Oniishi jotted down his question and held the pad out to Flake.

“She truly does not care for me, does she?”

Flake shrugged. “I would not worry about Lady Viviane, if I were you. She mistrusts all males, especially those who are not Monolincian, and in particular those ones I ... well, never mind. Just know that it isn’t anything personal.”

Oniishi nodded, then wrote out another question. “Why did he call you Bianca?”

Princess Flake rocked in her chair, head tossed back as she laughed wholeheartedly. Oniishi simultaneously felt stupid for asking and thrilled to think that he heard her laugh without restraint. The second she stopped, he wanted nothing more than to make her laugh again.

“Because that’s my name, silly,” she answered breathlessly, amusement still sparkling in her eyes.

“But your name ... everyone calls you Princess Flake.”

“Mm-hmm,” she agreed, then elaborated. “Actually, my full name, the one I was christened with, is Princess Bianca Adelaide Sophia Gracenflake of Shordenecht. But since there’s already a Princess Bianca, that being my father’s sister, the Duchess of Yoare, everyone just started calling me Flake. That, and the fact that since I was quite young, I have had an obsession with snowflakes so put the two together, and there you are.”

“I would prefer to think it because, like a snowflake, there is only one of you in the world.”

Princess Flake laughed again, then mock-scowled at him. “Is that the poet speaking, or is it that you are just trying to flatter me again?”

Oniishi ducked his head to hide his smile, and his sheer delight at her teasing. All too soon, Lady Viviane and the two handmaids came bustling back, whisking Flake away into her chambers to prepare for dinner.

* * *

The end of his shift came not a moment too soon and Riku gratefully made his way down to the room he and Oniishi shared. He flopped down onto his bed and flung an arm over his eyes, waiting for the room to stop swaying, for the blood to stop pounding at his temples, and for his body to relax in its fight against gravity.

He awoke with a start, not even realizing that he had fallen asleep. Glancing over, Riku saw that Oniishi’s bed was still undisturbed, which meant that either the man had come and gone, or he had never returned. Riku glanced at the clock and grimaced to see that he had slept over four hours.

Heaving himself up and out of bed, Riku placed a steadying hand back on the mattress until he was sure he was balanced enough to go out. He had missed dinner, but the other guards who stayed in the rec room usually had snacks and such to go along with their dark beers and bitter ales.

As he made his made down the rabbit warren of hallways, Riku was struck by the peculiar feeling that there was no one there but him. There were no others in the hallway, coming or going, which could easily mean that those awake were already at their posts while the remainder were already asleep.

Except that it wasn’t that late. It was late, yes, but Gerard and the others had stayed up far later the night before, and so did a lot of others who had the next day off. Even at that, the hallways were too quiet -- no sleeping sighs, no snoring, no tossing or turning, nothing that gave any indication that there were any others in that vast wing except for Riku.

At the first common area, all was quiet. No televisions were on, no one sitting or lying on the couches. The games remained unplayed.

The dining area was no better, with everything cleaned and put away for the night. There would be no more activity until the cooks came in to begin the morning’s preparations.

As he came to the next empty common area, which was also empty of any living beings, Riku turned in place. Where was everyone?

Immediately, his heart pounded triple time and Riku picked up his pace, heading towards the last section that was open to the guards.

Had something happened while he was asleep? Suppose the palace had come under attack and he missed it? Even now everyone could be lying on a battlefield, broken, bloody, dead or dying, and all because he ....

“No,” he said out loud, just for the sake of hearing a voice, even if it was his own. That was not what happened. Not this time. He just had to calm down and find the others, that was all.

As Riku turned a corner, he slowed his steps as he neared an open door from which he could hear several voices. Did he advance? Just barge in? Suppose it was a meeting of some kind? He certainly did not want to interrupt something in which he had no business. Still, he did need answers, especially to his question of where everyone had gone.

He paused just outside the door, the voices from within low and intense, not at all what he would have expected of men relieved from their shifts, sitting around, relaxing. He took a silent step forward, bracing his shoulder against the wall to keep any telltale shadows from giving him away. He held his breath and tried to listen, bracing himself to try to follow brisk Monolincian and was startled to hear a different language instead.

And this one he knew far better than Monolincian.

“... is in place?”

“Yes, sir. All we need is the word and we can set everything here in motion.”

“And you’re sure that there is no one who will be able to intervene?”

“No, sir. We’ve made sure that all outsiders would not interfere and replaced them with our own, as ordered, and Borsheon is already on his way.”

“Good. Good. They had no business bringing in outsiders in the first place. This is not their country, the home of their ancestors. It belongs to us and only we should be the ones to determine its fate.”

“So, once this is done and over, we can then proceed to Phase Two?”

“As soon as we get the word from Borsheon, we can proceed, so make sure every detail has been seen to.”

“And are the replacements already set and in place?”

“So far as I know ...”

The voices stopped talking, and Riku held his breath. Had they heard them? Had they suspected that he had been eavesdropping?

Odder and odder, he thought as he leaned back a moment. He was still reviewing what he had just heard when the voices began again and Riku bent in closer to listen.

“....are we talking about here?”

“I’d say somewhere in the next twelve to twenty-four.”

“Sooner than that. It’s supposed to go off no later than two or three.”

“That soon?”

“Does that surprise you?”

“Yeah, actually. I thought they would have wanted to extend the talks ....”

“Shit on the peace talks! They are nothing but a monumental waste of time. They won’t let us go and we won’t agree with their terms. Only this will force their hands. With them gone and the problem here eliminated, we ....”

Riku practically ran half the distance back down the hallway, then turned and began to walk forward again, then pivoted to go back, then spun on his heel once more, unsure of what he should do and which way he should go.

“Theodore,” a voice said from behind him. “There you are! We have been looking for you. Come, join us. You are already two rounds behind.”

Almost relieved that he had a reprieve from making his decision at this very minute, Riku followed Stevan back to a small rec room that he had not been in before, giving only one last glance over his shoulder at the small room with its conspiring occupants.

* * *

The dinner routine was a repeat of the evening before, and once more, Oniishi found himself lying on his hard cot, his mind racing with all the ways that someone could infiltrate the palace and get to Flake, especially through that unguarded balcony.

Oniishi glanced over at Riku’s cot, but the man still had not returned and Oniishi could no longer wait for him to show up. He rose, quickly dressed, and crept out into the gardens. This time, he could see shadowy figures moving within the room.

Flake’s slender form and the more substantial figure of Viviane crossed back and forth, then one light went out, while the one in Flake’s bedroom remained burning. Then all was still and silent as before.

At the clock chime of one in the morning, Flake came out onto the balcony. With her, Oniishi sought and found the constellation of Andromeda in the night sky, but unlike her, he preferred to spend the time gazing at her rather than the stars. All too soon, she retreated back into her suite and turned out the light.

Did she know he was here again, he wondered, bracing his back against a low rock wall to get into a more comfortable position. That was when he saw it.

A darkness separating itself from the shadows in the window of Flake’s study. Oniishi’s eyes skipped over the two windows that separated the intruders and Flake. The light was still out. She did not know. Oniishi rapidly weighed his options.

He could text someone for help, but would anyone see it in time? And since Oniishi had been watching the princess’s rooms from the outside, that could only mean that the intruder came from within, which meant he had help, or else was known well enough to the guards and staff that his, or her, presence was not questioned, which meant that any message to the guards would only tip off the intruder if he was one of them. Unless the intruder did some harm to the guards.

Quickly, Oniishi sent a signal to Riku through the pager Riku had given him, and made his decision as he saw a pinpoint of light, no larger than the stars Flake had just been searching out earlier, bounce and bob in the darkness as the intruder moved through the room. He needed to stay here, as close to the princess as he could get.

Whoever it was, Oniishi realized, was searching through her desk, matching the placement of the room’s furniture with the position of the penlight. What could they possibly be looking for?

Oniishi glanced back at Flake’s bedroom window. Still no light, no indication that Flake knew. He could run in and try to get to her rooms, but then he would be behind the intruder, who would be closer to Flake and therefore able to hurt her, or even take her hostage. Oniishi stared at the palace walls. There was only one other way.

Moving as fast as he could while keeping to a low crouch, Oniishi ran to the building, positioning himself as close as he could to Flake’s window, but still away from the balcony. He paused for just a moment, long enough to scoop up a handful of pebbles and dirt and stuff them into his jacket pocket.

Oniishi eyed the building, weighing his options. There was no trellis with flowering vines conveniently nearby, nor did it look as though the old copper downspouts that lined the building at regular intervals, blue-green stripes against gray stone, would hold his weight. If nothing else, they would probably disintegrate at the slightest touch.

That left the tall decorative cedar trees that were ranged along the outside of the garden. Selecting the one closest to Flake’s window, Oniishi reached in to find hand and foot holds within the prickly branches. As he went up, the tree’s slender trunk began to bend, and Oniishi held still until the swaying stopped before resuming his climb.

He found that while he got close, he was still a few feet lower than Flake’s window. He climbed as high as he could go and then, when he was within throwing distance, Oniishi took a few of the pebbles and threw them at the window, hoping Flake would hear them. Their rattling against the glass sounded like rain and Oniishi held his breath, cautiously watching to make sure that the intruder did not hear them as well. It took two more times before Flake appeared, her eyes going wide at the sight of him hanging there, her mouth forming a small ‘o’ of surprise.

As she swung open the window, Oniishi placed a warning finger to his lips. Silently, she reached out and helped him into the room. As he reached out to her, taking a short leap from the tree and hoping his height and reach would be enough, the second he left the tree, he saw it bend, then whip back, its top nearly brushing the building, before shaking itself off and settling back to its usual position.

Using as many abbreviations as he could, Oniishi wrote out the situation. He saw her start with alarm, then look over her shoulder at the still-closed connecting door.

“What do we do? There’s another door out, over there ....”

But Oniishi was shaking his head. There was no way of knowing who was posted there, or whose side they were on. To open a door, any door, may well be inviting their own deaths. The faintest sound of soft shoe leather against polished marble tile whispered to them from the other side of the door, followed by a sliver of light along the door’s bottom edge, which then was extinguished.

The intruder was too close for them to run now and they were trapped. Or were they?

With no time to lose, Oniishi used hand gestures to get Flake to do what he had in mind.

* * *

For all that day, Masaki had baked on the roof with the other snipers, the glare coming off the windows on the surrounding buildings flash-blinding him and make bright spots dance in front of his field of vision every time he moved his eyes. Over and over, he blinked and scanned his section of the street once more, then did a slow visual crawl up and down each of the buildings. The men at the other posts moved only minimally as well, so that no extraneous movement or shadow would give their position away.

Now, in the welcome cool of the late night air, the darkness bathing his eyes and bleaching out the colors of the billboards and business signs and cars far below, Masaki had just finished his thousandth scan of the last building in his section and was just about to turn his head and begin the process again, when he saw the plume of a lighter gray against the darker gray of sky.

Then he heard, and felt, the concussive boom that followed a few seconds later. Masaki and the others instantly dropped to the asphalt roof, taking cover as best they could as the rolling gray enveloped them. Alvarez was instantly on his radio, and they could hear his screamed demands, even as the building down the street continued its slow, inward collapse. Quickly, Masaki and the other snipers threw dust covers over their rifles, leaving only the muzzles and sights exposed.

When five minutes had passed with no other explosive charges being set off, Masaki slowly raised himself up to peer over the ledge.

Just one building was affected, he noted, then realized that it had imploded, not exploded. All of the other building surrounding it were untouched. Not a single window broken or a scratch on them.

A stream of colorful curse words spanning several languages erupted from Alvarez as he clipped his radio back on his shoulder.

“What happened?” a guard to Masaki’s right asked.

“Are we under attack?” another guard from the corner opposite Masaki called out. “If so, I don’t see any troops yet down there.”

“Damned stupidity is what happened,” Alvarez answered. “You would think that they would have at least given us a heads-up.”

“So what did happen?” Masaki asked.

Alvarez walked over to the edge where Masaki was still crouched and pointed at the building that was now a pile of twisted metal rebar and concrete.

“Apparently, that building was scheduled for demolition and someone decided that a little nighttime demo would be fun.”

“So it wasn’t the Indaluvians?”

“No, it wasn’t the damned Indaluvians!” Alvarez snapped. “That building was razed so that one of the damned rinks could be built in its place.”

“A rink?” Masaki repeated. “What kind of a rink?”

Alvarez nodded, his disgust twisting his mouth. “A roller rink. For roller games. Apparently it’s the next big thing. Popular with all the kids right now. Hell, even my son is into it and he’s only nine. Someone got the bright idea to start a league, attract larger crowds, as a way of promoting Monolince and the tourist trade.”

Masaki looked at the gaping hole that used to be a building that stood there for well over three hundred years, now gone in the blink of an eye, to make way for the next ‘it’ thing.

“A roller rink,” he repeated softly. All that history gone, just for a little amusement.

“But why didn’t they tell us about this?” the young guard to Masaki’s left asked. “Couldn’t this accidentally be construed as ....”

In a panic, Masaki grabbed at his radio and called out to Washio. At the man’s static-y acknowledgement, and with a minimum of words, Masaki outlined everything he had just been told. By the time he signed off with Washio, Alvarez, likewise, finished up a conversation.

“It’s over with for now,” he announced, a trace of sadness in his voice. “We’ve been ordered to stand down.”

“The peace talks are finished?” the young guard asked, optimism lighting his face. The head guard snorted.

“They’re finished, all right, and now the war’s just going to pick up where it left off.”

“They didn’t reach an agreement about anything at all?” another guard asked, disappointment lacing his words.

“They’ve agreed to fight it out, does that count?” Alvarez replied with a weary sigh. “I’ve been told that as soon as the representatives take their leave, which should be soon, everyone else will be ordered out as well, so come on lads, gather your stuff and let’s see about securing the building once everyone’s gone.”

* * *

Maybe they were just all talk, Riku tried to rationalize, taking another swallow of his beer, watching the third dart game get underway. Men liked to brag, to seem bigger and badder in front of their friends than they really were. Maybe that’s all it was. A nudge at his shoulder broke his reverie. He looked over to find Gerard frowning at him, a few others staring oddly at him as well.

“Is ... is something wrong?”

“You want to tell us?” Gerard demanded quietly, moving within arm’s reach of Riku.

“What do you mean ‘maybe it is all talk’? Maybe what is?”

Riku felt the blood drain from his face. He had not been aware that he had spoken out loud, but obviously he had. It was a bad habit of his, one he had been trying to break ever since .... no, he couldn’t think about that now. He couldn’t let himself go down that path; there were things he needed to do first.

“Well, it’s just ... just ...,” Riku started, then stopped, the decision of whether or not to tell Gerard cramping his stomach into knots. He should be telling Borsheon, as he was instructed, but Borsheon ....

“Speak,” Gerard commanded gently, placing a hand on Riku’s shoulder. “We are all friends here, yes? You tell us what is troubling you, maybe we can help.”

Riku stared at Gerard a moment. When Gerard put it like that, it made it seem not so bad. After all, once they knew, the Monolincians themselves could decide what to do and it would not be all on his shoulders.

Riku nearly slumped with relief as the decision was made and he quickly told Gerard and his fellow guards about the inside plot he had just overheard and the names of those he could identify through their voices alone.

As he did so, though, Riku felt a wave of panic roil through him once more, as though he were afraid of being caught telling tales out of school. As if he should have been more loyal to Borsheon and his companions.

After all, they did have a good point that this was not his country, and really, none of his business how these people wanted their country to be run, and by who. Did he?

As he spoke, he wondered in the back of his mind, if he should even be saying anything at all. But it had been demanded of him, by the King himself and by his own commander, that if any of them saw or heard something questionable that they were to report it, Riku argued with himself, so what else could he do?

When he finished, Riku felt as though he had just made a huge mistake, especially when the men all turned into a huddle and began speaking in excited, rapid Monolincian. He wanted to run, but not only was he too scared to do that, the large men who surrounded would no doubt kill him if he tried.

He desperately wanted to page Oniishi, but knew that any movement now, especially one involving reaching into a pocket, would be interpreted as a hostile movement. Instead, Riku clasped his hands in front of his stomach and waited. Eventually, the Gerard turned to him, his expression grave.

“This is serous, these charges you bring up,” Gerard began, “and you name many men who have not only served Monolince well for a long time, but who I have known on a personal level for most of my life.”

Riku’s heart skipped a beat.

They didn’t believe me, he thought in a panic. They are going to take their side in this, even though I’m innocent, and they’ll ... what?

What could they do? Would he be imprisoned? Would his commander be able to get him out? Would Nambu? Or wouldn’t they even be told? Maybe they would just kill him and quietly dispose of his body. He knew it was done all the time .... Riku shook his head, as though it would shake the thought out from it.

No, Riku decided, they would find out. Eventually, they would need to come back for Oniishi, if he wasn’t dead already, or imprisoned himself, and when they did, they would ask about him.

Wouldn’t they?

Before Riku could think of an answer, he pulled his attention back to what Gerard was saying, obviously unaware of Riku’s mounting distress.

“It is saddening to think such violence would be used, when they could have come to me as honest men. We could have discussed this openly, but war does odd things to men. I should liked to have think that they would know the type of just ruler our King is, the kind of man I am, but things are what they are.”

Gerard turned to the guard nearest to him. “Take twenty of your most loyal men and round up those who have been named here now.”

“Yes, sir,” the under guard acknowledged with a slight bow. “Should we just detain them or have them imprisoned?”

Gerard hesitated, but only for a second, addressing the guard in his native tongue. “Place them in the detaining rooms. Separately, if you can. By now, though, I have no doubt that they will have worked out the story amongst themselves, but still, one never knows. Perhaps someone will forget a piece, or stumble on a bit of information, during interrogation. Call the Chief of Police as well. I want him to conduct these interviews personally, and I want to be present when he does, as I am sure the King will most certainly wish to be there too.”

“Yes, sir.”

With a curt nod, the guards moved to the door and left. Gerard turned to Riku.

“I must ask, why did you not tell of this sooner?” He bore into Riku with an accusing stare. “When you first heard it. When it could have been easy to stop. Why you wait so long?”

Riku’s mouth went dry. “I, uh, I don’t know. It didn’t seem to be my place, but then, then ....”

“You put everyone in danger,” Gerard charged and was satisfied to see Riku’s face go white. “But we will correct, yes? You did right thing and now we know, we can fix before ....”

At that moment, there was a loud scuffle of feet and the guard and his contingent that had just left appeared at the doorway once more.

“All of the doors leading out are locked and barred,” the guard informed them, “and there’s no way out.”

* * *

He moved with all of the stealth his years of training had imparted to him, and took stock of the room as he entered. To his surprise, Flake was not asleep in her bed, as he had assumed, but instead, she sat still in the darkness, at the small nineteenth century vanity table, looking into the mirror as though trying to see what she might look like asleep.

No matter, he thought grimly, whether they find her in bed or on the floor, the only thing that mattered was that they found her dead.

He crossed the room fast, before she could think or react, or even know he was there, his gun leading the way. He took aim and fired, his mind realizing even as he pulled the trigger that Flake was already moving sideways. The bullet shattered the mirror into a thousand twinkling shards which all reflected what happened next.

Before he could swing his arm around to take aim again, he felt the blow to his forearm, followed by a crushing grip around his hand and the gun handle, causing the gun to discharge yet again, this time puncturing the wall. When he looked, the intruder was startled again at Flake’s full height. That was when the intruder realized that his opponent was not Flake at all, but a man dressed in one of her robes and a wig that she had worn not that long ago for a costume ball.

And he should know. He had been there when Flake had cheekily dressed as Snow White for her sixteenth birthday.

Using his free hand, he struggled against this man, trying to break his hold while the man kept pummeling at him, trying to knock him down, if not out. Yet all the time they struggled, never once did the man let go his gun hand. As his wrist was squeezed tightly yet again as the man twisted his wrist back painfully, the gun discharged again, this time at the ceiling, sending bits of plaster down on the bed and on them.

It came as a surprise to the intruder, a split second for his mind to register what happened, but that second was enough and he felt his knee take a hard blow from behind, breaking his balance.

He felt himself falling through the air, then landing hard on the priceless oriental carpet. Blows rained down on him and then he found himself flipped over and face down, his one hand now pinned behind his back, while his gun hand was being crushed by a booted foot and the whole weight of the man on it. Reflexively, he let go of the gun and screamed as white hot pain shot through the joints of his arms and wrists.

* * *

They had been at it for hours, day slowly turning to night, but they never saw it, locked as they were in the conference room with no windows. Even their meals were brought in.

So it was the small, nervous movement, repetitively made, that first caught Washio’s bored eye.

With building curiosity, he watched the Monolincian representative, who sat just in front of where Washio stood, just slightly off to his right side. As far as he knew, all electronic devices were to have been either not brought in at all or left outside of the conference room entirely.

So, Washio thought, still watching the man’s movements, if he was not texting, which it sure looked like what he was doing, then what was he doing? Playing solitaire?

The man was on the bland side, nothing about him would scream out for anyone’s attention. Typical dark suit stretched over a middle-aged paunchy body, long out of shape if it ever had been in shape at all, his thinning light brown hair combed from one side to the other to supposedly conceal his obvious bald spot, but which just called attention to it instead. Reading glasses were perched at the end of the man’s hooked nose as he stared down intently at the table, looking as though he were reading his notes, but in reality, focused on the small device in his hands.

No, Washio decided, the man was definitely pecking at the keys with his thumbs, sending and receiving messages. But to who? And for what reason?

Voices spiked in anger ripped Washio’s attention away from the texter, and the two who were yelling pushed back their chairs, rising to their feet, each screaming over the other.

Washio cut a glance to the moderator, Vanwer, wondering why the man wasn’t callling for order, but since the arguments seemed to have woken everyone up, maybe he decided to let it go for a bit as entertainment.

“You can’t say what’s best for your own country,” the Monolincian representative that Washio knew only as Geran yelled, pointing a long, bony finger accusingly at his opponent, “so don’t stand there and try to tell us what’s best for ours!”

“We know this country better than you,” the Indaluvian representative shot back, raising a fisted hand. “We’ve ruled it longer than you indigents have, and we did it far better than you could have dreamed to. For such ingratitude, it would serve you all right if we just dropped you and let you flounder on your own.

“Do it, Jerae,” Geran challenged. “Cut us loose and I guarantee that you’ll be the ones to suffer.”

Jerae snorted. “We could hardly suffer considering how much in finances and goods we pour into this country, and you know it. Your people will starve in a heartbeat. None of you are willing to work, unless you have an overseer, someone to take care of you ....”

“That’s your opinion. Give us our freedom ....”

“Never!” Jerae interrupted, slamming his fist onto the table top. “Never we will let this province out our hands, which was first delivered to us by our great-great-great-grandfathers. This land has belonged to us for at least as long as it has belonged to you ....”

“But you don’t live here ....”

“Nor would I want to,” Jerae sniffed derisively. “There is nothing to recommend it that I can see, save what we provide to it.”

“Lies, and you know it. That’s the real reason why you won’t bend, not even a little, on any of these points ....”

“Not true. Say something reasonable and we might consider it.”

At that point, there was a muffled sound and the building shook. Dust sifted down from the ceiling tiles and the water in the glasses and pitchers on the tables rippled with the movement.

“What was that?” someone coughed out.


“There are no earthquakes here.”

“Then what?”

“Attack! It was an attack!” the bland representative in front of Washio yelled out.

At that pronouncement, utter pandemonium broke out, the representatives all jumping to their feet, speaking at the same time.

“I knew it! They lured us in here just so they could attack us!”

“So much for keeping your word!”

“We never should have trusted them!” was echoed on both sides.

Washio grabbed the small two-way radio at his shoulder and tried to contact someone from the outside in order to ascertain exactly what had happened. From across the room, he could see another guard doing the same thing, while the remaining two guards tried to calm the crowd.

“Everyone, please,” one of them implored, raising his voice, then finally climbing up onto a seat so that he could be seen as well as heard over the din. “Just take your seats while we find out what’s going on. For right now, this is the safest place to be ....”

“I want out!”

“This farce is over!”

“Never trust a Monolincian ....”

“ ... an Indaluvian ....”

“ ... all lazy bastards, they are ....”

“This is over, done.”

“Everyone, please,” the guard tried again, “just take your seats!”

Static crackled in Washio’s ear as he watched the crowd and stepped in front of the door ahead of the representatives leading the charge. The first of the men approached, but Washio gave them a cold stare and refused to budge. The lead man made a rushing run at Washio, and he met the guy solidly, deflecting the man with a shoulder block and used the man’s own momentum to throw and roll him to the floor.

“Sit down,” Washio roared, “or I’ll make sure the rest of you won’t get up again any time too soon.”

Slowly, belligerently, the men returned to their spots.

“Hey, you want to get off my chair,” an Indaluvian snidely asked the guard who had used his chair to stand on.

“Sorry,” the guard muttered as he climbed down.

“Yeah, I’ll bet,” came the brusque response.

Washio glanced at the clock. Over five minutes had passed now since the first repercussive shaking, and there were no more. Disgruntled complaints were made under the breaths of the representatives, which stopped when the guard opposite Washio stepped up to the podium.

“We just got word,” he announced by way of getting everyone’s attention. This was news to Washio, whose own radio was still out. “Confirming that the Indaluvians have broken their promise and their word,” he began, just as Washio’s own radio static grew louder and he heard a voice in his ear.

“Go on,” Washio replied louder, ignoring the hostile looks of several of the men nearest to him. It was hard to hear, but Masaki’s words were unmistakeable. “Got it,” Washio replied. “Over and out.”

Looking up, Washio faced the room and interrupted the guard who was speaking, nearly foaming at the mouth at the supposed terroristic threat.

“Lies are being told here,” Washio confirmed, “but it’s not the Indaluvians.”

“I knew it ...,” Jerae began.

“And it’s not the Monolincians, either,” Washio continued. “At least, not all of them.”

A collective gasp went up, and all eyes turned to him now. Washio stepped towards the man who had been texting earlier.

“You knew, didn’t you?” he charged, grabbing the man’s wrist.

“I ... I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

With his free hand, Washio reached into the man’s jacket pocket and pulled out the small phone he had been using.

“What kind of set up was this? Was it timed between you and Geran over there?”

“No. No, that’s not it at all ....”

“Then why don’t you tell how it is?”

The representative looked to Geran, who shrugged.

“You knew,” Washio went on, “you knew that the building half a block over was slated to be demolished, and in fact, the demolition had been postponed by the Town Council until after the peace talks, but someone else decided to move that date up, didn’t they?”

Geran’s mouth pursed. “It’s not like these peace talks were really going to go anywhere anyway. It was all just an inordinate waste of time, done to appease the U.N. and the rest.”

“So you thought that by using an explosion to your advantage, it would give the appearance of Monolince having yet another reason to continue to war with Indalu?”

“We don’t need any more reasons...,” Geran sneered.

“...and we will not rest until those responsible for this treasonous action is brought to justice,” Jerae broke in.

Representatives on both sides began yelling then, hurling invectives at each other. Washio’s eyes met the gaze of the guard still at the podium, and his mouth curved ever so slightly. At that moment, Washio knew that that was how the cell phone got through the check points.

Neither side had planned to actually come to a settlement, each only going through the motions.

And now, Washio thought sadly, the honest attempt by the U.N. lay in ruins by the two sides who wanted to war right from the beginning. Well, they got their wish.

Turning to the door behind him, Washio unlocked it as the other door on the other side of the room was also unlocked and opened.

There could be no peace while anger burned so brightly in the hearts of these people, Washio thought dispassionately. Let them fight and die, and when they are tired enough of the blood, the hate, the anger and the grieving, then we’ll all end up back here again.

But not until.

* * *

“Nonsense,” was Gerard’s first response. “There is always a way out, and I know them all.”

The guard hung his head and fell behind Gerard as he stepped past the men gathered at the doorway and strode down the hallway. Like obedient puppies, all of the other guards trailed behind him. When Gerard realized what they were doing, he stopped and turned to address them.

“Jonos,” he ordered, “you and Cacheon take three others and go to the south portal. Stevan, you take Anbrose and four others and head out towards the courtyards. Call me when you get there and tell me what you find. They cannot have blocked all of the passageways.” He looked to the remaining men. “The rest of you will all stay with me.” He laid a heavy hand on Riku’s shoulder. “Especially you.”

As they all moved out, Riku stayed close to Gerard, not because he wanted to but because the large man still held his shoulder in a vice-like grip. They moved fast, finding one passageway, then another, and all of them were locked, barred, or otherwise impassable.

“They have been busy, these coward bastards.” Gerard’s cell chimed as he kicked at yet another sealed door. “Tell me,” he roared into it.

The hallway went quiet as the conversation continued. He no sooner ended that one than the phone chimed again. This conversation was even shorter. Gerard snapped his phone off with disgust.

“All of the usual routes are blocked,” he informed them, first in smooth Monolincian, then translated for Riku and the handful of others. “These traitors were very effective, as they should be. We were the ones who trained them. However, they should have also known that we would not have been so stupid as to tell all our secrets, yes?”

He looked to Riku, who gave an uncertain shrug. Gerard clapped him hard on the back.

“Like a woman, little man,” he boomed out, as he began walking, “always keep back a little something for a surprise, yes?”

Though the other guards laughed in agreement, Riku had no idea what the large guard meant, but he certainly was not going to argue the point now. Gerard led his contingent of guards down one hallway, then another, at the third turn, Riku noticed something.

“These floors are sloped.”

“Very good,” Gerard nodded approvingly. “To be aware of one’s surroundings is good.”

“Where are we going?”

“You will see.”

Although Riku had been sweating, first from fear, then from the exertion of running from one door to the next, he could feel the change in the air, going from pleasant and unnoticeable to chilled and damp. Before he could ask his question again, Gerard halted them at a place that merely looked like a blank wall.

“We will go out through here,” Gerard determined, eyeing the wall. He stopped a few times, his eyes continuously measuring, squinting to see something that only he knew what to look for. When he seemed satisfied, Gerard lifted his massive leg and threw a kick, putting his foot to the plaster, once, twice, a third time until his foot went completely through it. Riku leapt back as bits of plaster sprayed into the hall.

“What the hell?” Riku squeaked, his eyes wide. Gerard grinned at him.

“I told you. I grew up here. I know all of the palace’s secrets. All of the them. My grandfather is the one who put this wall here,” Gerard explained, pulling at pieces of the plaster to widen the hole, several guards likewise clawing at it as well, “and I was the one who helped him when I was a boy. Looks like we will need to repair again, yes?”

Riku watched as the hole widened, revealing rough hewn stone walls with a low, curved ceiling going back for as far as the light dared to reach in, then all else was lost in the consuming darkness.

“Come, we will leave through the prison chambers. Machel, put in a call to the others. Tell them to stay where they are. Once we are through, I want you, you, and you, to go and free the others and head directly to the King and Queen’s chambers.” The named guards nodded and replied as one.

“Yes, sir!”

Bending nearly double, Gerard stepped through the hole, then waved a hand, indicated that Riku was to be the next. As he clambered in, he was nearly pushed down as the rest of the guards quickly poured in. Penlights blossomed like pinpoints of stars in the darkness, while those who had lights on cell phones quickly turned them on.

In the murky light, cobwebs laced the walls and ceilings, while faint scratchings of unhappy animals announced their displeasure at this sudden intrusion as the men pushed onward. The floor continued to slope down, then leveled out. The air was nearly frosty now and Riku wrapped his arms tightly around himself.

“Here, this way,” Gerard said, steering Riku with a hand still on his shoulder. Riku stumbled a bit as Gerard caught him, his eyes struggled to focus.

He still doesn’t trust me, Riku thought, but then, why should he?

“What is this place?”

“Used to be the torture chamber.”

Riku felt his breath hitch and he pulled back, his mind screaming at the word. Gerard laughed softly.

“I say used to, yes? Now, no more. Has not been for many centuries. There are no old bones left rotting in cages, none of the devices used, even. Is nothing but a large space for the vermin who like to throw parties here now. There is nothing left to say what it used to be anymore, and if you could see, you would know I speak truth.”

Nothing here, Riku thought uneasily, except the souls of those damned, tortured here and left to die. He knew about places like this all too well. The screams were absorbed into the stone walls, the floors, the very air that the torturers breathed until they, too, became as damned as those upon whom they inflicted pain. It was hell and it was real. This time it was real and not just a product of Riku’s mind. He shivered, but not from the cold.

“We will be through in short time,” Gerard assured him, picking up his pace. Riku allowed Gerard to guide him, keeping his eyes to the small round circle of floor that his penlight illuminated, afraid to look up and find a ghost death’s head leering back at him.

“Here,” Gerard said, stopping. Riku walked into the man and took a quick step back. “The door should be here. Hold this, and point them both to the door so I can see.”

Riku took Gerard’s penlight in his free hand and aimed both to the spot Gerard indicated. The men behind them likewise did the same thing so that the entire door could be seen.

It was one of those large, iron-banded wooden doors, made centuries ago, but crafted so well that it withstood the test of time. Gerard’s hands roamed over and around the door, as though searching for something with his fingertips. At first Riku thought perhaps the door opened with a hidden mechanism, like the ones seen in the movies all the time, but no. Gerard had merely been testing the door, to see if it would yield when he used the key that hung on the wall nearby. Gerard fitted the key to the lock and turned.

Then put his shoulder to it and tried to turn it again. He grunted with his effort, his fingers coming away with flakes of rust. He wiped at the bottom of his chin with the back of one hand.

“It gave a little. Give me more light here.” The men obliged and Gerard applied himself once more to the key and the lock. They heard the bolt inch back in rasping increments as Gerard kept rocking it back and forth until finally the bolt cleared the door jamb. Putting all of their combined weight behind the door, on counts of three, they slammed into with their shoulders until the massive iron hinges finally relented enough so that they could push their way out.

The moment freedom was at hand, the men scattered, off to carry out the orders Gerard had given to them.

But what about him? Did he stay with Gerard and his crew? Was it even safe for him to do so?

And what about Oniishi? He was supposed to have been guarding the princess, but had he been locked in as well?

This last thought spurred Riku to fish out his pager. The red indicator light blinked at him accusingly. Riku bit his lip when he saw what time the message had come in. Oniishi had contacted him, and now something happened.

“There have been gunshots reported,” a guard yelled from somewhere, “from the Royal family’s apartments.”

Riku looked up from the pager but did not move, still uncertain if he should break away and try to find Oniishi, which meant going back into the guards’ area, or follow Gerard and his men, even though he really had no reason to get involved any further than he was. He had done his bit, hadn’t he? He told of the plot, of what was happening. Why would they need him any more?

“Come,” Gerard said, breaking through Riku’s thoughts as he had broken through the wall. “We go.”

As Riku followed Gerard and his men, guilt swamped him and he prayed to whatever gods existed that Oniishi was unharmed, that he would understand why he did not respond right away like he said he would. Why he was with Gerard now.

Panic clogged Riku’s throat and his breath came in ragged gasps as he ran with them. He could not stand to think that he had let a team member down.


* * *

Light flooded the room at the same time a dozen palace guards came crashing through both doors. Oniishi blinked rapidly, trying to clear his vision and see the identity of the one who was pinned beneath him. He knew the face as it came into focus, and anger and disappointment bit through him when he realized who it was.

However, he did not let go or get up until he was sure that the other men were there to help Flake and not Borsheon. Surprise was evident on the faces of the men this traitor had once commanded, now no longer. He arched his back, twisting to see which of his guards brought him down.

“What are you doing here?” he snarled at the sight of Oniishi.

“I should like to know the same thing,” Viviane demanded as she pushed her way into the room, her wrapper flapping open, the curlers in her hair quivering indignantly, “and where is the Princess?”

As Oniishi reluctantly let go of his hold of Borsheon while the still loyal guards moved in, restraining Borsheon’s wrists and hauling the man to his feet, there was a scuffling sound from under the bed.

“I’m right here, Lady Viviane,” Flake announced as she pulled herself up from the floor. She huffed a breath at fluffy dust bunny that clung to her forehead and Viviane instantly began to try to brush off the rest of the clinging dust from her.

“I vow, you’ll be the death of me yet, Princess,” Vivane muttered, fussing over Flake, “and just what was he doing here in the first place? The King will have my head and his ....”

“Nonsense,” Flake scoffed, pulling herself out of Viviane’s grasp, but not far enough. The older woman immediately reached out again to pluck a gray piece of fluff from Flake’s shoulder. “First off, I’m a woman grown, so who is in my rooms, at my request, is at my discretion, and no one else’s.” She gave Viviane a pointed look. “Not even my father. And secondly, he was not here until this one broke in, so it would seem that he deserves our gratitude, not scorn.”

Viviane shot Oniishi venomous look that was anything but grateful and changed the subject. “Is Your Highness ill? Are you hurt? Shall I fetch the physician? Perhaps some tea to calm the nerves ...?”

Flake held up a hand to silence the older woman, who immediately stopped talking. She waited and they watched as Borsheon was frogmarched out of the room, until it was only the three of them.

As the last of the guards moved to leave, so did Oniishi, meaning to join up with Riku, whom he had seen standing in the hallway, anxiety written plainly on his face, only to be stayed by a light hand on his arm.

“Wait,” Flake said softly. “I should like to walk in the gardens.”

“Princess Flake, I really must protest. You should ...”

“I am far too upset to rest just yet, Lady Viviane,” Flake snapped, then turned to address Oniishi. “Please say you will accompany me for just a short walk to soothe jangled nerves.”

Oniishi hesitated and glanced at Viviane, whose displeased visage was not improved by her dramatic eye rolling. He looked back to the hopeful princess and nodded his assent. She smiled at him and giggled as he stripped off the bathrobe and wig, sending Viviane into another fit.

“Your good robe? You let him wear this? Why couldn’t you have at least ....”

Flake slid her hand shyly into the crook of Oniishi’s proffered arm and whatever Viviane said after that, neither of them heard it.

Once out in the chill night air, Flake breathed in deeply and, out of longstanding habit, looked up. Oniishi did as well and pointed out Andromeda to her.

“Yes, there she is. I wonder what it would be like, to be forever immortalized in the heavens.”

Oniishi made no reply and they strolled the empty pathways, the cobbled stones at their feet glowing silvery in the moon’s reflected light.

“Were you once able to talk?” Flake asked impulsively, “or were you always mute?”

Oniishi shook his head and took out his phone. In the illuminated text message box, he tapped his reply so she could read it.

“Not always. This happened just a short while ago.”

Surprise flickered through her eyes, now large and dark. “Do you miss it? Not being able to talk? Are they sure they can’t do anything to get your voice back?”

“They tell me I could speak, but with much pain and surgery. Not worth it. Had nothing to say. Until now.”

Flake read the message and Oniishi deleted it. They began walking again and, a few yards later, Flake turned to Oniishi once more.

“What would you say? If you could speak once more?”

“Your name,” he tapped out quickly.

“I would very much like to hear that,” she said with a wistful smile, then gasped. “You know, even after all this, I still don’t know your name. Your real name, that is.”

“But you do, Your Highness. You named me yourself,” Oniishi replied. “I am your Perseus.”

Flake’s smiled broadened as she threaded her arm back through his and they continued their walk, coming to one of the garden’s largest water fountains, its water still bubbling down the nymph’s pitcher and into and over the rim of the satyr’s cup, both frozen for all time with only the water moving between them.

“It would be fun to think,” she began, leaning over the wide stone ledge to skim her hand along the water’s surface, creating concentric circles that met and broke the ones formed by the nymph’s pitcher, “that we could just leave here, and all of this, and live free from worry, away from prying eyes.” She stopped when she saw the look on Oniishi’s face. “Oh, I know it’s not possible now,” she said lightly, lifting her hand out of the water, sending droplets like tiny diamonds glittering to the ground. “But maybe, if we had met in a different place and time ....”

Nothing could still come of this, Oniishi finished sadly in his mind. To be who they were now required them to live the lives they had. Alter one thing, and everything changed. She is only scared, and doesn’t know it. That is the only reason why she clings to me now.

“I would not see you changed in any way,” Oniishi responded and she smiled up warmly at him after reading his words.

They stood, facing each other for a moment, the light breeze stirring their hair and, for just a moment, the world only consisted of the two of them as they gazed at each other, willing themselves to remember every detail of a time that would not last beyond the next few minutes.

Flake placed her hands over his, stopping his message mid-tap. Oniishi drank in every sweet detail of her, so that even years from now, he would remember the wave in her hair, the sparkle of her eyes, the set of her pert mouth, and the look of what may have been, given enough time and different circumstances, desire.

He had once thought he had seen it in another’s eyes, and desire it was, but not for him. It was nothing like what he now saw in Flake’s eyes, which was reflected back through his own eyes. And she knew it, too. Could feel it. He was sure of it.

Never did Oniishi think he would know what people meant by love at first sight, but if such a thing existed, he imagined that it would close to what he felt now.

He swallowed hard and watched as she stepped in close, swaying towards him and he read her intent on her face and on her lips. He could not do it -- and he wanted to; oh, how he wanted to taste her lips just once! -- but he could not let her do this and regret. With his heart breaking as he moved, Oniishi took a single step back, raising his head to place a chaste kiss upon her forehead. Then he finished his message.

“We should go back in, Your Highness. It’s getting very late and there will be a lot to do tomorrow.”

“Or very early,” Flake replied stiffly with a wooden nod, the royalty in her coming to the fore. “Yes, let us go back in.”

She walked a few steps ahead of him now and he remained behind, both of them resuming their true roles. As they went back into the palace, Oniishi searched, but his Andromeda was gone, surrendered to the pinking of the sky and the new day that awaited both of them.

* * *

Though it was late, she was not surprised to find Princess Flake still out on the balcony.

“Come in, Princess,” Lady Viviane entreated from a respectful distance. “You should not stand there for so long in the night air.”

Lady Viviane waited for a response, but there was none, not even any indication that Flake had even heard her until she spoke.

“I still don’t understand why they had to leave. Will not the same dangers exist no matter what I go?”

“The dangers will exist, but they will not be as immediate as they are here, and you will still have palace bodyguards,” Viviane replied softly. “After these attempts, you know as well as I that sending you away to complete your studies would be all to the best. Besides, the King and Queen worry about you being so alone and isolated here. You need friends your own age, to get out more ....”

“And you?” Flake challenged, finally turning to face Viviane. “You believe this as well?”

“I --,” Viviane began, then faltered. “I should be sorry not to be able to see you every day, Your Highness, but things change, and we must accept those changes with the grace and fortitude as befits our stations in life.”

“That’s a pat answer and you know it.”

“Yes, Your Highness, but also a true one. And besides, we will be together again once you finish your studies and the troubles here are resolved. Your father is a wise man and this war will not last much longer.”

Flake turned back to face the garden and Viviane sighed, wishing she could do more for the princess, whom she had known since the princess was a mere babe-in-arms. Viviane knew Flake was upset at the loss of the extra bodyguards, particularly that one, and could also understand how being sent beyond the palace walls could make her feel vulnerable and scared, but it also seemed as though there was something else troubling her.

Over the past several days, Viviane had asked, time and again, and received the same reply each time. Viviane sighed again and turned to leave, sure that once Flake was settled at university, among people her own age, and not having to fear for her life at every turn, whatever it was that was bothering her would go away.

Flake heard Viviane leave, her footsteps echoing until the door opening and shutting signaled that she was alone once more. Flake tightened her hand ever so slightly, crinkling the square of paper she held, feeling its creased edges bite into the palm of her hand.

She did not need to unfold it to see what was written there. She knew the three lines by heart.

In the cold night sky
Remembering what was lost
Stars turn to snowflakes

She had found the note tucked among her books; she could only guess that he had somehow slipped into her rooms while they had been at breakfast, just before he left.

Flake looked up at the sky, her eyes searching for Andromeda.

Could he see it too, she wondered, wherever he was now? And would he remember her as she fondly as she thought of him?

Smiling to herself, Flake turned and went back into her room, tucking the poem back into the book she had found it and placed the book among the items she would be taking with her. She may never know his name, but her Perseus would stay in her heart forever.

* * *

“Man, am I glad that’s over,” Ichiro said the second they walked through the door to their own little building at the Hontworl airstrip.

“You’re not kidding,” Riku sighed as he dropped into a chair.

“What are you complaining about? You got to stay at the palace and see royalty and shit.”

“Oh, yeah, big thrill,” Riku replied sarcastically. “Stand around in one spot for hours and then get dragged through the damned torture chamber.”

Ichiro shrugged and grabbed a soda can out of the mini refrigerator. “At least they didn’t leave you there.”

Masaki gave a small laugh and automatically turned to see if Onishi were enjoying the exchange as much as he. To his consternation, however, Oniishi had not even been paying attention. In fact, without a look to anyone, Oniishi slipped outside again.

To the ones who just met him, Oniishi seemed more of a listener than a talker, but Masaki, who had known him for years, knew better. The more sign language they learned, the more verbal Oniishi became, almost as much as he had been before he lost his power of speech. So for them to have spent all of the time on the return trip back from Monolince without so much as two words from Oniishi, Masaki knew that something had happened.

Masaki looked to Washio, whose closed look could have meant anything. There was a slight movement of his head which Masaki took to be permission to go after Oniishi and he quickly followed his friend.

Masaki was startled again when he breezed through the door and nearly slammed into Oniishi’s back.

“Hi,” he said automatically, slightly flustered. “Didn’t expect you to be right there.”

Oniishi gave a small nod of acknowledgement and stepped away from the building, his eyes still scanning the night sky.

“Looking for something in particular?” Masaki asked, craning his head and looking at the stars, scattered glitter across black velvet.

Oniishi held his silence, even as his eyes picked out Andromeda. How could he possibly explain to Masaki what had happened over the last two days, when even he could not quite believe it?

This, he thought, was the very worst of their punishment, of being put into this group. There was no chance that any of them could just leave, just say ‘sorry, but I’ve found something better’ and go.

But then, he realized with a start, the same held true for Flake as well. When he really thought about it, her life was no different, save for the fact that he came into his through his own fault and she had been born into hers. All the same, she was just as trapped, just as unable to shake off the fetters and do as she pleased, when she pleased ... and with whom. The constraints to her life were just as tight as his, if not more so.

His eyes watered and Andromeda wavered in the sky.

Just be happy, Flake, he thought, and know that someone is thinking of you.

As he looked away, he blinked, and realized that Masaki was still standing next to him, waiting. Oniishi gestured in the curve of a question mark in the air.

“I’m actually waiting for your answer,” Masaki replied, his face solemn. “Seriously, are you okay? Did something happen that you want to talk about?”

Oniishi thought a moment, then pulled out his notepad. “No, I’m fine. It’s just ... I had a lot of time to think and I just came to some conclusions and made some decisions, that’s all.”

“Like what?”

“Nothing much. Nothing important,” Oniishi replied and snapped the notebook closed. Pocketing both pad and pen, he turned and opened the door, giving a bow and making an ‘after you’ gesture.

Reluctantly, Masaki went in with Oniishi following close behind.

He was no closer to finding out what had happened to Oniishi, but maybe, Masaki thought as they joined the rest of the team, all Oniishi needed was a little time and whatever it was would work itself out.

Oniishi gave Masaki a faint grin and touched the notebook tucked into his pocket. He had already written three rough drafts of poems, and had an idea for a fourth. One of these days, he planned to send Flake the perfect poem, a better one to take the place of the one he had left, something more befitting for a princess. Which reminded him.

Sliding out his notebook once more, he flipped to a clean page and wrote down his idea before it eluded him. He would take his happiness where he could, for as long as he could, while it lasted. Like knowing a beautiful princess for two whole days.

Some men did not even get that much, he reasoned, so he should count himself among the very fortunate.

Once his newest idea was written, Oniishi put the notebook away again and this time, when he joined the others, it was with a clearer mind and lighter spirits, knowing that the indelible mark that Flake had made on his heart and soul would remain with him forever, and was glad of it.
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