Working Title: How Far
Characters: Natalia, Guy, etc etc
Part 12 of ?
The palace was filled with people, important guests and their entourages, filling every available suite. Those who weren’t so fortunate or so important found themselves staying at the inns or relying on the hospitality of their fellow nobles.
The wedding was in three days now, and every day this week had involved some sort of activity or celebration, the regular pomp that surrounded a royal wedding. There had been Natalia’s birthday gala to open the festivities, an operetta, a parade, and today was the exhibition swordfighting tournament at the coliseum. All were invited to participate.
Guy was looking forward to this almost as much as he was the wedding. Exercising every morning should have been enough to ease his restlessness, but finding Natalia in the gymnasium with him didn’t work. As long as he had to work out with her in her tiny skirt, watching the way she and that skirt moved, he was never going to burn off this… energy.
Eleven days had become eight, then five, now three. He was just barely going to make it.
He’d gotten up an hour earlier this morning just to avoid her in the gym later, and now was heading back to his chambers to clean up before breakfast. Few others were yet stirring. Aside from the guards posted throughout the corridors, Guy was alone.
Solitude was welcome in its own way. Since coming back to Baticul, he’d gotten a taste of what royal life might be like. It was the smallest of tastes, of course, as he’d never have the same experiences Natalia or her father had endured. He’d joined Natalia for her meetings with her secretary and the protocol minister, which also served as tutorials for his place as prince. Even without ruling powers, he’d be by Natalia’s side for public appearances and political functions, each with its own set of rules and requirements.
Along with public appearances, his face was now everywhere, and anonymity was quickly becoming a thing of the past. Their official engagement portrait was hanging in the long gallery, while its image had been appropriated for a line of commemorative merchandise, both authorized and otherwise. They appeared together on everything from bottles of wine to playing cards to bars of soap.
It was surreal, and, yeah, okay, kind of cool. He’d started collecting some of his favorite pieces. Secretly. He wondered if Natalia did the same thing. Maybe he’d ask if he could find a way to bring it up without sounding like a complete geek about it.
As he turned down the corridor, he felt a prickling at the back of his neck. He’d felt it all week, like he was being watched.
Probably because he was.
But this was different. It wasn’t about being watched, but… being followed. Followed in a deserted hall? A hall that was deserted for the first time all week?
Was he being paranoid or particularly observant?
Slowly, he turned and glanced behind him. His eyes saw no one. His ears heard nothing, yet they strained for something.
He began walking again, and this time he knew he didn’t imagine the second set of footsteps. Quiet, muffled, but out of time with his own.
Guy ducked in the first open doorway—the library—and pressed himself flat against the wall. Better to be paranoid than unprepared. With the palace full of people, anyone could be coming this way for any innocent reason. But since the arrow incident, as they’d been calling it, he’d been waiting for the assailant’s next move. When it hadn’t come, Natalia had tried to pretend she wasn’t worried.
He knew her better than that.
The footsteps stopped outside the library door instead of continuing on. Maybe it was Natalia, looking for him, trying to sneak a moment of privacy before they had to endure another day of chaperones and activities and being the center of all attention. Maybe she didn’t want to wait three more days any more than he did and was coming here to make him her first breakfast.
Spinning this into a fantasy was beside the point and a distraction he couldn’t afford.
His dagger was in his boot, just as he’d shown Natalia, just as it had been since the day after the arrow incident, when he’d gone to the best weapons dealer in the city and bought the pair for the two of them. He hesitated to draw it. If he made a scene over nothing… threatening some high-ranking lord who could have him arrested and jeopardizing his and Natalia’s goals… their marriage….
When his unwanted companion entered the room, he made the quick decision to forget the knife and grab the intruder’s arm instead, twisting it behind them to give him the advantage. “Why are you following me?”
The girl was shaking in surprise and fear, and he immediately released her. “I beg your pardon, my lord.”
His paranoia led him to assault one of the maids in the midst of morning duties. “I’m so sorry, Eliza,” he replied. “I thought you were someone else.” How stupid was he? Like anyone could follow him with guards posted everywhere.
Eliza curtsied nervously, her long dark bangs covering her eyes as she stared at her shoes. “No, my lord, you mustn’t apologize.” Her voice was shaky. “Please, please, don’t fire me, my lord.”
“I was supposed to have the library ready early this morning for the guests, but everything has been so busy, and I… I….” She buried her face in her hands as she dissolved into tears.
Damn, but he’d stepped in it. She was afraid he was disciplining her for getting behind in her work. Where had she worked before that her employers would physically punish her?
Eliza had only been at the palace for a few weeks, and he knew all too well how demanding it was to serve the royal family in the slow times, without the bustle of such an event as a wedding. It took some getting used to, and while she should be reprimanded, he still sympathized with her.
He reached into his pocket for his handkerchief and offered it to her. He couldn’t bear to see a woman cry, or to be the cause of her distress. “It’s all right, Eliza,” he said gently. “Just get back to work.” Housekeeping fell under Natalia’s authority, and he knew she’d say he’d been too soft, but he’d worry about that later.
She nodded as she wiped her eyes with his handkerchief and twisted it in her hands. “Thank you for your kindness, my lord,” she said, curtsying again in a quick, agitated manner, before scurrying off.
Only after she left did Guy remember that she said she was supposed to be preparing the library, but as he looked around, he saw that it had already been done. There was an atmospheric fire crackling in the fireplace, and the curtains had been opened to allow the morning sunshine to pour over the carpets and couches. The bookcases had been dusted and the tables polished until you could see your reflection on the surface. Everything was tidy and welcoming.
She really had gotten her duties mixed up.
His little side-trip meant he was the last to arrive for breakfast. Even the king had beaten him to the dining room, which hadn’t yet happened since Guy had been back. “Good morning, Your Majesty. Natalia.” His bow was meant to be both deferential and apologetic. “Please excuse my tardiness.”
“Four minutes late,” Natalia said with a cluck of her tongue. “To the stocks with you.”
“Yes, tardiness alone is a grievous offense, but to make the king wait for his breakfast is an unforgivable transgression.”
Guy remained completely still until Natalia’s giggle reassured him that the king was joking. It was an understandable concern. He’d never known the king to joke before. “It won’t happen again,” he said—just in case—then took his seat.
Tea was poured and the fruit course presented before the conversation continued.
“Anything wrong?” Natalia asked him as she took a bite of poached pear. He found himself momentarily distracted as he watched her tongue dart out to lick the syrup from her fork. “Guy?”
What was he supposed to say? That he thought someone had somehow gotten into the palace despite heightened security and had been following him? Certainly they were all on alert, but that was a whole other level of paranoid. No one who wasn’t supposed to be here could get in. “No, nothing. Must have spent too long in the gym. Trying to get ready for this afternoon and everything.”
“About that….” The king hadn’t yet touched his plate. “Under the circumstances, Gailardia, I must insist that you withdraw from the exhibition.”
“I beg your pardon, sir?”
“The risk is simply too high. I cannot have you putting yourself into such an uncontrollable situation.”
This couldn’t be. He’d been looking forward to the exhibition all week. The balls and ballets and concerts were fine, but this was his chance to participate. To get out there and show everyone who he was and what he could do.
“What about Luke?” Natalia asked, interrupting Guy’s silent pity party.
“What about Luke?” her father answered.
“I know Luke’s signed up for the exhibition as well,” Natalia said. “Why don’t we pair Guy with Luke? They know each other’s styles well enough that it should be an exciting match-up.”
Who cared if it was breakfast and her father was sitting right there? He wanted to kiss her. If only the damn table wasn’t between them. “Yeah—I mean, yes, I think that could work, if Your Majesty has no objections.” If he had to watch the exhibition while he itched to be down on the coliseum floor, swinging his sword, sweating… if he had to sit there craving physical relief while Natalia sat next to him with her hands folded demurely in her lap…. “I’d very much appreciate the chance to participate, sir.”
“Hmm.” The king picked up his spoon and examined his reflection in the polished silver before answering. “I suppose that is an acceptable compromise.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty. I shall not let you down.” Natalia touched the tip of her nose with her forefinger, but Guy pretended to ignore her. He’d rather be obsequious than offend the father of his bride, especially three days before the wedding. They were so close. He couldn’t blow it now.
The first plates were cleared away and replaced and the tea refilled. Conversation once again halted while the kitchen maids moved in and out of the room.
“Along those lines, Gailardia,” the king continued as if there had been no interruption, “have you given any thought to your duties as prince of this kingdom?”
Guy speared his fork through the broiled flounder, piercing the yolk of the soft-cooked egg on top. “I thought I’d lay back eating bonbons while Natalia massages my feet and tells me how pretty I am.”
She rolled her eyes at this, but he would have sworn she was smiling behind her teacup.
“Yes, well….” The king’s sense of humor must have been an intermittent thing. “It is traditional for a non-ruling royal spouse to take up a cause or project for the benefit of the kingdom. Are you familiar with the rocket project in Sheridan?”
Familiar with it? Guy was practically obsessed with it. Many of the details were classified, but he had scrounged as many crumbs of information as he could from Ginji. And even Ginji had limited access to the project. “Some,” he answered. Was he drooling? Maybe the flounder was just particularly buttery this morning.
“Natalia has suggested that your mechanical inclinations would make you an excellent liaison with Sheridan’s designers and engineers. If you have no other preference, I’d like you to oversee this project, as well as the continuing Albiore project and any other developments. As with Natalia’s duties with the public works board, this would involve approving funding and providing regular reports and updates to the Council.”
“Really?” He would be in charge of Sheridan? He’d have clearance to the most exciting technological research since… well, since the Albiore? He tried not to bounce in his chair like a child waiting for birthday cake. Natalia was grinning at him now. She knew he could barely contain himself. “I would be most honored,” he said in his calmest voice. “Thank you, Your Majesty.”
“Once everything’s official, I’ll have you briefed, and we’ll see if it’s a good match for you.” The king said, then took a long pause over his cup of tea. “If not, we can move you to something more low-profile, like the Baticul Beautification Committee.”
And his bubble was burst.
Save for two guards near the door, Guy was alone in the arena’s warm-up area. He hadn’t seen Luke yet this afternoon, but he was probably in the waiting room at the opposite end of the coliseum. Guy was still considered the “visiting challenger” for purposes of this match, so he got the smaller space. Nephew of the king and third in line for the throne trumped princess’s fiancé, apparently.
Which was as it should be, of course.
He’d stretched and swung his exhibition sword around a few times, adapting his moves to account for its lighter weight, but now he was just fidgety, itching to go. One downside to participating was that he hadn’t been able to watch any of the other rounds; instead he had to listen to the cheering and wish he was out there. As a future prince-by-marriage competing against an actual prince-by-blood, their match-up was considered the highlight of the tournament and held for the end.
It was finally almost their turn.
Though it was just an exhibition, Natalia had presented him with her yellow scarf to show her favor. She’d kissed the silk before tying it around his upper arm. For luck, she’d said.
He idly rubbed the fabric between his fingers and smiled to himself. How much luckier could he get?
“Your match is about to begin, my lord,” one of the guards said, pulling him out of his thoughts.
“Thanks.” He took one last swig of water and prepared for his entrance.
As the cheers for the previous round died down, the announcer began his introduction. “And now the match you’ve all been waiting for! From the south end of the stadium, representing Grand Chokmah and His Imperial Majesty Peony the Ninth, and serving as champion of Her Royal Highness Princess Natalia, the challenger Count Gailardia Gardios!”
Yikes. That probably wouldn’t do much to endear him to the people of Kimlasca. It made him sound like an interloper. Or worse, like the emperor’s lapdog.
Still he entered to mostly cheers, louder from the Malkuth contingent, politely restrained from the Kimlasca side. As he took his place in the center of the arena, he bowed first to the emperor, then to the royal box. The king acknowledged him with a regal nod, and Natalia blew him a kiss. The cheering increased at this display.
Yeah, if anything, he was Natalia’s lapdog.
“And from the north end,” the announcer continued, “representing Daath and the Oracle Knights, and third in line for the royal throne of Kimlasca-Lanvaldear, let’s hear it for Baticul’s favorite son, Viscount Luke fon Fabre!”
The cheers for Luke were much more enthusiastic, but Guy wouldn’t begrudge him that. Luke was the light of the sacred flame, after all, and a true hero.
But none of that mattered. This was a fight, and Guy was going to make it a good one.
Luke walked to the center of the arena, just as Guy had, but with a stiff, arrogant gait. He was dressed all in black, including a balaclava that completely covered his red hair and left only his eyes exposed. If he was trying to be intimidating, it wouldn’t work. Guy just shook his head and chuckled.
“So, Luke,” he said, holding out his hand for the customary handshake, “would you like your ass kicked on the right or the left?”
His hand was ignored, and the eyes that stared back at him were brown.
It wasn’t Luke.
Natalia had her own selfish reasons for making sure Guy was included in the day’s exhibition. Since he’d been back, he’d been getting up early in the mornings to work out alone in the gymnasium. She’d hoped they’d find a post-breakfast routine together, but so far, it hadn’t happened.
It was a funny thing to miss, considering they’d only done it the once, but she’d liked having him there with her. And she’d especially liked watching him. He was quick, yet within each movement was a series of intricate steps, choreographed almost like a dance, and just as impressive.
She couldn’t blame him for going without her, she supposed. While she thought it would be nice to have some private time together, away from chaperones and meetings and events, he was still adjusting to the sudden spotlight and was sure to need time to himself to breathe. The microscope of royal life wasn’t for the timid, and he’d been thrown into the fire of it all this past week.
He never complained, and when she asked if it was too much for him, he’d grin at her and say it was worth it.
For that and everything he put up with, she blew him an extra showy kiss when he bowed toward the royal box.
“I hope you don’t mind,” her father said to her as Luke was being announced, “but I’ll be cheering for Luke. The emperor and I have a little side wager going.”
“Father, really.” Oddly, Luke didn’t bow, but she waved to him all the same. From up here, she couldn’t tell if he saw her or not. The downside of the royal box. The view might be an all-encompassing panorama, but the features of the participants on the arena floor were difficult to ascertain. Luke’s silly all-black costume made it even harder to gauge his expression.
“It’s only a friendly competition, Natalia,” her father reminded her as the match began. “And besides, the emperor has given me generous odds, so confident is he in your Gailardia’s abilities.”
“Well, my Gailardia is rather skilled,” she replied with a sly smile. “Prepare to lose.” She’d planned to cheer for both of her boys. With pride now on the line, Luke was on his own.
But Guy seemed slow to start. Luke’s first move was only barely avoided, and a deafening cheer came from the Baticul side of the coliseum as Guy stumbled to dodge the swing.
“Rather sluggish, you meant, my dear?” the king wheedled.
She childishly stuck her tongue out at her father and returned her attention to the match. If Guy hadn’t been ready before, that first swipe had woken him up. His feet moved just as she knew they could, nimble and balletic, and each thrust of his sword easily deflected Luke’s attempts at a strike.
Strange, though, that Luke wasn’t fighting in his usual manner. She didn’t recognize most of the techniques he was using. They seemed less graceful, less masterful considering the years he’d spent learning from Van and Guy. Instead his movements seemed rough and heavy, as if he were relying purely on physical momentum rather than arduous practice.
“Do you suppose Luke learned that style in Daath?” she asked her father, who also seemed taken aback by Luke’s choices.
But her father wasn’t the one who answered her.
“That’s not me.”
“I should have known you weren’t Luke,” Guy said to his nameless, faceless opponent as he blocked a particularly clumsy thrust. “You’re shorter than he is. And that’s saying something, because Luke is short.”
Taunting maybe wasn’t the best move, but his opponent was also proving to be voiceless. His fighting style was erratic and unidentifiable, but nothing Guy couldn’t handle. He had speed and technique, not to mention he’d learned from Pere, one of the best swordsmen of his day, and had fought in battles where his life and those of his friends had been on the line. Plus the fate of the world.
For all he knew, this exhibition had become life-or-death as well.
“So who are you?” Speed and technique would be his only advantages, as his opponent had the better weapon. Guy’s exhibition sword was light and flimsy, and each time it met the other, he could feel the heft behind proper steel. No doubt the blade had been finely honed before it was somehow snuck into the arena, and a real sword meant someone had connections. Even Guy had had to prove that he carried no other weapon into the coliseum. His dagger was back in his room. “Are you the one who threatened the princess? That’s treason, you know.”
Maybe the other man couldn’t hear him over the roar of the crowd. Whether it was Guy or his opponent who scored a point, the spectators cheered at everything. He’d thought to signal to someone that something was wrong, but he couldn’t afford the distraction of looking away. He had to keep it up until someone figured it out, or until he won, because like hell he was going to lose.
“Or someone hired you. Who was it?” Guy kept his voice calm, his motions fluid, even as his breathing became more ragged from effort. The worst thing to do would be to panic and give his opponent an opening. “Because I gotta tell you, the sooner you give this up, the easier it’s gonna be for you.”
While he tried to stay cool, however, the other man became more aggressive, and the crowd’s cheers became louder. Guy remained on the defensive, sidestepping and blocking each thrust that came his way, hearing the slash of the blades come through the air, hearing each clang of metal-on-metal echoing in his ears despite the noise all around.
“Do you really want to go down for this? Because you will.” He had to stay focused, controlled, not become reckless in an attempt to end this. As long as his energy lasted, he would prevail.
If this flimsy sword didn’t fail him first.
And where the hell was Luke, anyway?
“Luke?” Natalia looked from her cousin back to the match going on in front of her. “But you’re—”
“They told me Guy had to back out,” Luke said, his expression just as confused as hers. He was dressed in red and silver, not black, and the afternoon breeze ruffled his short hair. “I came up here to find out what the hell.” Both Natalia and her father continued to stare at him. “Oh, sorry, Uncle.”
“Who said this, Luke?” the king asked.
“I don’t know,” Luke answered with a shrug. “Those tin cans all look alike to me.” He pointed to the arena floor. “But there he is, so it must have been some kind of mix-up.”
It could be a mix-up, a mistake, but the way panic suddenly seized at Natalia’s heart told her this wasn’t true.
Somehow she’d convinced herself that the threatening letter was a coward’s way of going after her and her plans. That someone who would stoop to such a thing would never dare make a physical attempt on her life.
And now they’d finally made their next move.
“Father,” she said, the panic creeping into her voice.
The king was already standing. “Stop the match,” he ordered the nearest guard. “Stop it now!”
“Um, does anyone want to fill me in?” Luke asked, but Natalia was too overwhelmed with worry to answer him.
She’d been wrong. Whoever had threatened them wasn’t after her. They were after Guy.
And by insisting he compete today, she’d been the one to put him in danger. Despite the added security, the assailant got through.
How did they know? How did they do it? How was someone able to get past the guards, past Luke?
As she helplessly watched Guy fight below, it was so clear his opponent was an imposter. Even if he’d been using some arcane Daathic style, there was no pattern, none of Luke’s natural movements and finesse.
She rose to her feet and leaned over the edge of the box. “Guy!” she shouted, but it was no use. Her voice was swallowed up by the crowd around her.
“It’s okay,” Luke said, standing next to her. He had no idea. It wasn’t okay at all. It was her fault. She clutched blindly at his sleeve, desperate for something to hold onto. “Guy’s good. He’s got this.”
Guy was good, and she had faith in him, but if someone could impersonate the guards and Luke, there was no telling what else they were capable of.
How much time had passed since the match began? It felt like an eternity, time slowing as the royal guards finally poured into the arena like syrup on a cold morning, then almost stopping as they made to apprehend the assailant.
Knowing he was surrounded, he made one last desperate lunge toward Guy.
Natalia screamed and buried her face in Luke’s shoulder as Guy hit the ground.