Nino's job, when all was said and done, was exactly as he had defined it to be before.
His job was to be dangerous and stand in front of a door, and oh man was he standing in front of one right that very moment.
An important door. Nothing more important than important doors and deciding who was important enough to enter important doors, now that was important. Now surely he wasn't remotely important enough for this particular door but he sure was allowed to be watching it, and he was currently, right that second, watching the hell out of that door.
God damn he was so bored…
Nino shifted in place, repressing a sigh and trying not to resent the elegant stone hallway he waited in. He was very close to the center of the castle so the architecture was at its finest, the hall he was helping to watch was literally attached to the throne room so it was about as deep into the castle as one could get. Normally he'd be excited about this since it was clearly something big, but when he had made his way to his post he became aware of just how many guards had been called. The hall was very large and had a good amount of entrances, but even for all those entry points the number of guards had seemed large to him. Essentially his entire unit was present, so he was a little chagrined to realize the assignment was nothing special.
Still though, it was a little odd. It spoke to the sheer volume of important people who had been called to this meeting, and part of him fought off a vague sense of unease.
When they had first stood by and allowed entrance, he had watched noble after noble pass through, whispering hurriedly and wondering why they had been summoned, a few looking stoic and calm as if they already knew.
Again he wished he had been stationed inside instead of out here, and he suppressed another sigh. Eavesdropping was one of the perks of the job to be honest, he might not get to make any decisions but at least he got to listen to some of them. Unfortunately, fancy people were usually careful about exactly where their guards were, so even when they paced the hallways and passed him by at his various posts he only caught bits and pieces, never enough to interest him.
It was drilled into the royal guards repeatedly that doing anything with any information you might happen to overhear was treason, and of course Nino had no genuine intentions behind knowing anything, but it was human to wonder. Something to think about other than doors at least.
It had been a little less than two weeks since his escort mission with the princesses, and though he had really tried his best not to expect anything fun he was dying for something interesting again. He had been pushed back to door duty like he had expected once he returned, getting congratulated by his Captain for seeming like he did a pretty good job but not giving him anything better really. He was off the guest rooms at least and had a little more variety than normal, but it was usually doors. Patrol once! But mostly doors.
It wasn't all dull and he still felt a lot of pride in his job, but he kept reflecting on that huge pinnacle of pride he had felt marching through the gates, bearing his seal and standing tall above the others, even just for a second. He was back to his normal armor and his normal places but he had a taste for it now and he was looking desperately for more opportunities to prove himself. Still though, he had been lucky for even that one shot, he had a feeling he was going to have to be patient.
He had seen the Princess twice since then, though she hadn't seen him. They weren't always required to wear their helmets inside the castle since it mostly just served to restrict vision, but one of the times she had passed him he had been forced to be wearing it. Some fancy someone had been visiting and seeing guards at the entrance with all the bits and pieces was impressive, he guessed, made them all look more uniform, but it meant that she had missed him. Not like she should have been looking for him, or like she might have even noticed but still, he had been essentially invisible in a line of identical copies as she went out with her father to greet whoever it was. Earl of whatever, he hadn't really been paying attention.
The second time he hadn't been wearing a helmet, or any of his armor actually, and she had missed him again. He had no chance of standing out that time, not like she did, and her gaze had passed right over him.
He had been in town in plain clothes for his own purposes, enjoying some time off and spending a little money he wasn't used to having yet. He had just bought a toy for his little brother he thought he might like and had been heading back to the castle to either send it or store it until he might see him again, when he got caught up in a large crowd around the castle gate. It didn't take long to figure that she had caused the disturbance, people of the kingdom calling out to their princess as she made a brief appearance of some kind. She was swarmed with guards obviously and far from the people she waved to, but he thought that she must still enjoy it. He imagined it must be pretty nice to have people crowd to you and call out to you adoringly, but as her eyes passed over him and cast out over all of the people who stood there he thought, maybe not. She stood tall and beautiful and separated, unable to pick out any of the faces or know their names.
There were parts to both sides, he supposed.
He had seen the twins only once, and they had actually been close enough to notice him. They were together, like always, walking obediently behind a pair of handmaidens taking them off for some lesson somewhere. He had been guarding a boring door during a boring day and was actually starting to space out a little when he turned at the sound of someone approaching, waking up instantly to see the two little girls.
It felt kind of silly, but he wanted them to notice him, sad when he saw how quiet and orderly they appeared. They were just children, but not here he guessed, not when their backs were pulled up and straight by the draw of the castle.
They were perfectly practiced, and as they started to pass by him he knew he didn't have much time to do anything, or even really have the opportunity to. However right as they were walking by, the senior guard he was paired with straightened to attention and gave a formal salute in acknowledgment. Nino quickly copied him, thrilled when Etta looked up at the movement and looked over them both. As soon as her eyes landed on him he gave her his warmest and friendliest smile, and a little nod of his head for good measure.
He couldn't deny the warmth that shot through him when she recognized him, her face lighting up and smiling back instantly. She waved at him and he risked a little wave too, and another for Ella when her sister got her attention. They only had a brief moment, unable to stop or slow but they told him good morning and said his name, and he said good morning as well. They looked over their shoulders for awhile once they passed him, glancing back a few times more as they walked the long hallway. They whispered to each other and smiled at a memory, hopping a little as they went. And suddenly they were children again.
He smiled thinking about it, trying to focus on his appointed stone hallway but distracting himself. It had made him wonder at what Alya might have done if she had seen him, that she might smile at the memory too. Her teasing goodnight hung in his mind and he shifted his weight again, aware of the fact that she was somewhere inside.
It must be really important then, this meeting. The King and Queen were both in attendance, as well as the entirety of the council and their board of advisers. Alya had entered with her parents from another entrance, he had just heard of them being there from the less important important people who came through his door. He couldn't imagine the twins being allowed though, not if it was something tense or gruesome.
Nino turned at a sound, any change at all enough to catch his attention when his post was so monotonous. He saw the guard appointed on the other side turn as well, both of them aware suddenly of a distant shouting from inside. Nino barely had time to shoot the other guard a look before a whole rabble of voices picked up in response, a whole crowd of people abruptly trying to be heard. There was a loud booming voice above all others, and then suddenly there was quiet, the room returning to its state of discussion in an instant and he knew that this must be the king.
The other guard raised an eyebrow, making a slight face of 'yeesh' before leaning back, both of them returning to their stance but still straining to listen.
It was completely impossible to hear any words, not even when a single voice shouted out in disgust, but the tone none the less worried him. He tried to just mind his business, but his thoughts turned to Adrien. He was definitely inside as well and he wondered if he would tell him if he asked… probably not though. Not like it was any worry of his.
He had managed to see Adrien once so far, and it had been honestly incredible. He had stolen a moment of his time during the night, going to his room after his last shift had ended. He had been in his room alone like he said he would be and seemed ecstatic to see him though he tried to hide it at first. He was quick to give some half-assed pretense to his own guard who was stationed outside and rushed him in, and the moment they were clear he dropped all formality like he did whenever they were alone.
He had clasped him warmly on the shoulder and ran off to grab him a drink, surprising him with his eagerness as they found a moment to just be people, like Adrien sought so desperately. It was a little difficult at first, but again Adrien's genuine nature always got the better of him. It never took long for him to forget that they were from utterly different places, even as they discussed their differences. They talked about farming and castles and cities and people. They discussed home and harvests and horses and wine, and they talked about fighting too. Nino was unsurprised to learn that Adrien had extensive training as a swordsman, having briefly saw his skill first hand when they had met in the woods what seemed like years ago now though it was only in reality a handful of months.
It had been forced to be brief, but it felt important, and good. It was nice that from the very beginning he had someone who was wholly on his side.
Now though Adrien was alone with whatever was burdening the state, but there was nothing he could do for that. He could listen but he doubted Adrien would speak, and suddenly he hated that he could give so little to him in return. Nearly nothing, except maybe friendship… from time to time.
They were all so far from him. And he was as close as he figured he would ever be. Closer than a farmhand at least, but more distant that a friend.
He could only be so much.
… but that wasn't that sort of the point of all this?
Nino frowned to himself as he stared out at nothing, only servants in sight as they waited to enter since the meeting was surely drawing to a close. He tightened his grip on his spear and grappled with himself, wondering again just how many rules he was daring to break here. Even his place at this damn door was a risk as far as societal norms were concerned, though for the most part that scandal had simmered down. Still, he should just be happy. And he was! He was grateful, but time and again he found himself wanting more, and wanting to do more and be more. He wanted to be a friend to a lonely prince, and he had already done a lot to be things he shouldn't so why not? Isn't that why he had snuck off to see him in the first place?
He was going to get hanged one day.
Nino snapped out of his grumbling commentary at the approach of a murmur, a budding sound building up inside the hall. The other guard he was with turned to face him and Nino mirrored him quickly, preparing to stand by as the nobles cleared the room.
The doors were opened by another luckier pair of guards from inside, both of them a higher rank than he or his companion. Promotions came with the cooler gossip, he supposed.
All four guards stood by in their various positions as people much wealthier than him filed out, and suddenly his perfectly memorized boring stone hallway was crowded with men. Some were old, a few were young, and all of them seemed…
Nino looked around, trying to keep the movement subtle so as not to stick out, but slowly scanning the faces he saw, noting how all of them appeared… unsettled. They all seemed keen to whisper but kept it tucked inside, waiting for another moment alone to discuss things too important for unimportant people to overhear.
Nino refocused as more disconcerted council members shuffled past him, all of them without exception engrossed in thought or some raging emotion they were keeping to themselves. Though the crowd was thick it was eerily devoid of talking, and Nino felt unease crawl beneath his armor.
Another man shifted in discomfort, though the burden he bore on his shoulders was not weighted in chain mail. Instead it was sagged with the mantle he carried, and his neck ached with the ghost of a crown he could not forget.
The Good King sighed, allowing himself a slight expression of frustration, if nothing more. He reached up a weary hand and held his face for a moment, looking at nothing and thinking of everything.
"Why do I feel like the more people who talk the less anything happens…" he heard his daughter mutter nearby, definitely intended for him to overhear and a much deeper sigh built in his chest before his queen spoke for him.
"The voices of the council matter Alya-,"
"Of course they do, the council I have no problem with. It's the ten men speaking for one opinion each that takes up so much time," Otis looked up in time to see his daughter sat with her back straight defiantly, matching her mother's gaze. "How many times do we have to listen to these people repeat themselves? We have said nothing new!"
"The entire meeting! That entire meeting was three things said five hours ago and a hundred iterations on each!"
"That's enough," Otis spoke pointedly, and though Alya's mouth was open she hesitated, and slowly closed it.
He watched her for awhile more, Marlena looking between them both before standing. She silently fixed her deep purple gown and stepped away, leaving the King with his daughter alone for a moment, the hall deserted except for a few trusted guards.
Otis watched her carefully and was unsure of how he felt about the way that Alya challenged him, refusing to look away even if she remained silent like he had ordered. Defiant in what ways she could be, and he couldn't decide if he was proud of that or not.
"I understand your frustration Alya," he said after a while, the first to look away as he usually was between them. "I was always the same, and clearly in some ways I still am. It's frustrating to go through these paces, but even if the people echo each other we have to listen to each. All of them deserve a chance to speak, and we can not proceed until we have heard them."
"I know that…" she said slowly, her understanding at war with her impatience, and he understood that too.
"Then exercise it. It is necessary now, soon we won't have the time to be patient. We must listen while we can listen."
The lull in conversation was thick with energy, and Otis was bracing himself for whatever Alya had brimming up from beneath the surface of her obedience, when the sound of a heavy door swinging open distracted them both and suddenly he had two incoming targets.
The connecting entrance to the throne room had been opened wide, allowing two little princesses to barrel inside from where they had been playing together with their handmaidens. They stormed by their mother who had gone to let them in, bringing a sudden and desperately needed warmth to the grim hall they wallowed in.
Ella ran forward to climb into her father's lap, her sister doing the same to Alya who seemed to accept that for now at least her time to argue had been lost. Otis was sure he had not heard the last of her opinions, but by his own advice he knew it was important to hear her too. Just hopefully when she was prepared to be a little more constructive.
Otis lifted up one of his youngest and allowed himself to be distracted by relief, glad to have his family here with him. He had more discussions on this matter to endure, but for now he could just indulge the babble of his twins, preferring this din to the one that had previously dominated the hall. He gently wrangled a wayward lock of his daughter's hair back into place as she spoke, ignoring her probing questions about the meeting and asking her instead about her games.
The twins took the bait easily, dropping the subject of their failed eavesdropping without much persuading. Alya was still ruminating quietly but did not shrug off her mother's gentle hand when she came up behind her.
It took Marlena a little effort, seeing as Otis was happy to remain where he was, but after a few gentle pushes she managed to get both Alya and Otis to their feet, the two of them carrying a twin each as she gently guided them to their rooms for some genuine alone time. She did not have much more time to see her husband before he was called away for more arguing, and she wasn't willing to lose this moment just yet.
Their group moved together towards the side entrance, choosing the most direct path to their rooms instead of the way they had come and allowing their guards to converge and trail behind them, more up ahead standing to the side to allow them to pass. They passed over the cold stone floor and yearned for the warm sunlight their sheltered walk back would give them, and would have been content in their family's quiet moment had an eager little nine-year-old not suddenly shouted,
The King looked down at his daughter in his arms with confusion, following her distraction and about to remind her to be polite when he spotted the guard she was practically falling out of his arms to wave at, and the poor guy looked like he was going to fry.
Nino was stood less than five feet away from the entire royal family, having been taken by surprise because he was kind of spacing out, but standing at electrified attention when he realized that the King and Queen would be passing through his watch. He had already been on full alert, straightening himself to stand as tall and firm as he could to look as impressive as the guards around who outranked him. He hated that he had done nothing to fix his appearance and resented that he was not dressed in full armor, having not anticipated their proximity at all. But this?
This was way, way worse.
Nino was stood ramrod straight as Ella excitedly greeted him, Etta now leaning over as well and calling to him too. From behind the great stature of the King he was aware of Alya sliding into view, noting him with a smile that quickly evolved into a smirk as soon as she saw how caught out he looked.
There was a moment where he did nothing, the King and now Queen fully regarding him where he stood, all of them looking at him while he just totally stood there, frozen.
It was the slight hesitation in Ella's wave that broke him out of it, his heart torn between refusing to move and saying something back, cause was he supposed to? The rule was speak when spoken to wasn't it? So-…
"H-hello Your Highness," he answered quickly, Ella's face lighting up when he acknowledged her. He tore his eyes away from the powerful presence of the King and smiled as best as he was capable. He gave another to Etta, too scared to risk a wave but bowed instead, sparing another 'Your Highness'. He thought he might be allowed to lapse into silence, but then Alya spoke up suddenly as well, clearly expecting her own.
"Hello Nino," she greeted him, smiling as he bowed but only because he seemed so uncomfortable, not for any desire for formality.
"Hello Your Highness," he said again, getting hung up on a 'Nice to see you again' or anything else and deciding to say nothing more. It took everything he had not to squirm, the Queen assessing him and asking her oldest present,
"Do you know this guard?"
They were all still stood in the doorway, the other guards getting tense at the proximity as well and Nino could see them shooting each other glances behind Alya's back, probably wondering what was happening just like he was.
"Yes Mother," Alya supplied happily, her smile audible in her voice. "Do you remember our trip out into the field a few weeks ago? Nino was assigned as our personal escort, he made quite an impression." Alya then stage whispered without really trying to hide anything, saying so that even he could hear, "Do you remember that bunny story the twins were telling?"
"Bunny story?" The King echoed aloud, and Nino thought he might collapse on the spot. To his absolutely profound relief however the Queen did not acknowledge her husbands questioning look, instead turning towards Nino with recognition.
"Oh yes! My daughters spoke of you, the guard who came from the territories. My husband mentioned you as well, I had wondered how you've been doing. It is nice to finally meet you."
Nino wasn't sure what he looked like in the moment, looking into the Queen's face and affronted with a powerful intimidation but also… admiration. The Queen was lovely and powerful, looking him in the eye and not shying away. She looked every bit like her children, but also holding a grace that they did not yet have, an elegant purple and gold dress cascading around her and trailing slightly on the stone floor.
The Queen's gaze was an intense and unwavering as her daughter's, and though he was taller than her he felt infinitely small in comparison. Still though, she smiled gently and greeted him with interest, like two people passing in a hallway.
"I-it's an honor, Your Majesty, to meet you," he barely managed, bowing as deeply as he was capable of.
He could hear Alya's tittering laugh though he dare not look away from the Queen, and he was sure he looked pathetic in the moment, so desperate to be viewed as impressive as the others but sure he was failing. Then again, he didn't see any of them getting talked to.
The King hummed suddenly, wrangling his daughter back into place in his arms. Ella looked up at her father, asking innocently, "Can he come with us? I want to ask him things."
"Yes! Like, have you done anything fun?" Etta piped up.
"Have you found anything new?"
"What were you doing?"
Nino wasn't entirely sure whether or not he was expected to respond when the King quietly corrected, "He is working right now my dear. Don't distract the guards from their duties."
Ella pouted as the King stepped forward, making it clear he intended to enforce the sentiment, even if he himself looked entertained.
The Queen laughed a little as her family started to head out again, sure the guard would appreciate a little room to breathe from underneath their attention. However she did not miss the warm, yet nervous smile he gave to her daughters, nor the tiny wave goodbye he risked when he thought she wasn't looking.
The twins were beaming over the shoulder of their father and sister, and though she only glanced back once Alya was smiling too, noticing her mother watching her and looking forward down the corridor.
Marlena could hear the guards whispering as they left, no doubt interrogating the new guy about what had transpired, though she hardly thought it was gossip worthy. The new recruit was hurriedly defending himself, and she had to restrain a chuckle as they finally moved out of earshot.
She turned her attention forward again, enjoying the sight of Ella sitting up in her father's arms telling a story as he just stared at her in amusement.
Etta took turns telling it with her sister as they walked, Alya occasionally nodding her head in confirmation whenever her father looked over at her in confusion.
However to all of their surprise the King eventually frowned.
"He sounds easily distracted," the King muttered, and Marlena watched as Alya suddenly jumped in, instantly defending him.
"He was alert the entire time father, it's why he even went with them. He played with them so he could keep a closer eye on them without ruining their fun, and he wasn't too proud to do it like some of the others may have been. He wanted to make them happy while not compromising their safety, that's what you want from the guard isn't it?"
"Yes!" Etta agreed from her sister's arms. "He said we could play as long as we let him play too, he didn't make us stop. We found the whole family of rabbits again because he helped."
"And he gave them such a nice memory," Marlena added in defense, matching her husbands unsure glance backwards with a slight shrug.
"Hm…" the king hummed again, looking down at Ella as she continued to squirm in his grasp.
"He was very nice to us. I like him."
"Are the other guards not being nice to you?"
"No they are. But…," Ella paused thoughtfully, nodding as she said, "He's nicer. He smiles more."
Otis hesitated, then decided to say nothing, mulling this over as the twins drifted towards new topics. They did not notice their father's distraction, as he distantly replayed the shouting and the nothingness of the meeting they slowly left behind them.
His steps felt loud to him, in the corridor.
He thought of those five repeated grating arguments, and accepted that the world around their gentle home was growing more dangerous, more restless. And for his daughters, he wanted them to be happy and safe, chasing pleasant memories of rabbits burrowed in a field before they were too old. Before they were forced to listen in frustration like Alya.
As much as he could let them play he would… without risking them. He and the farmboy were alike, in that way.
" NINO LAHIFFE! "
The name was shouted so loud, and so suddenly, that Nino nearly sliced his hand open in a fountain of blood, the sword he was cleaning jerking away from him as he jumped and clattering loudly to the stone floor of his chamber. One of the other guys he shared it with was in there too, sitting on his bed across from him, frozen stock still and staring at him fearfully.
Nino's heart was instantly racing as the captain's voice echoed through the guard rooms, and he knew she knew he was in there, and he had absolutely no idea what he had done wrong.
When she yelled his name a second time he scrambled to his feet, skittering into the hallway and nervously barking a reply. "Y-yes Captain!"
The plain stone chambers of the guard were uncharacteristically full, many of the simple wooden doors swinging open so the fellow members of his unit could poke their head out and look at him, and then the captain. However, as soon as they saw the fiery woman stood at the end of the hall with her armored hands planted firmly on her hips they instantly retreated, leaving the new guy to die.
There was a pretty decent handful of frightened looking men behind her as well, a couple gauging whether or not they could make it to their rooms before anything happened but too scared to pass her.
The short woman said nothing else, just standing there in the main chamber at the mouth of the hallway, waiting for him.
She watched him cooly as he approached, Nino unable to keep himself from glancing at her weapon which was, for the moment, still sheathed. He had never seen her without her armor on before and now was no exception, her entire visage terrifying and he was racking his brain for why he was in so much trouble right now.
He stopped about eight feet away from her, hands tight to his side as he stood at attention.
"Why, the hell, is it Lahiffe," she finally spoke, "That I keep hearing your name, everywhere I go?"
Nino paled slightly, managing a weak and questioning, "Ma'am?"
"For having no solid name I sure have been hearing about it a lot, far more than a member of the guard should be getting mentioned by anybody." She paused for effect, crossing her arms. "Let alone the Royal Family."
She examined his expression, unsurprised to see wild confusion running rampant. So she continued, staring him down and speaking firmly.
"You've been making noise, and I don't know what you've been doing but you're sticking out and I can't really make up my mind whether or not I think that's a good thing. Only thing I can think of is that special assignment I gave you and now, all of a sudden, I keep catching your name. Even though we've done hundreds of these types of jobs Lahiffe, every single day, for the first time since I've had this rank," she paused, drawing in a deep breath and freezing him solid with a look, "I've gotten a request."
"…request? Ma'am?" he said fearfully.
"Yeah. A request. For you.
From the King."