The Red Impulse Chronicles #2 -- War and Peace Talks by RIgirl
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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?”

“No.”

“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.

“Earthquake?”

“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.

Again.

* * *

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.
~ Table of Contents ~
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