The rickshaw bounces so violently Licht feared his perfect teeth might shatter.
This is his first time hiring such a primitive transportation. And considering his intended destination, the decision was a good one. People who can afford carriages don't belong in criminal dens.
This is what he thought Heine was trying to teach him:
His connection with the common people— his ability to understand them and function among one of them— is a supreme asset for candidates of the throne.
Right now, even Father was having trouble finding the criminals. There are just too many layers the information has to filter through before it reaches the palace. Any official investigators are also too obvious and easily avoided.
No one but Licht could do this.
If they were to gather any information at all, they must hear it raw, from the source. And so Licht would pretend to be a runaway. He would play an arrogant but amateur bad boy, the black sheep of a noble family. Haughty enough to presume to join the crime syndicate of the city.
He could probably pull it off well enough— as it was mostly true.
Then, if he return alive, he's going to return with words. He's going to return with clues.
The transport clattered to a stop a ways away from the 'club.'
He paid the boy the smallest coin he possessed— judging by his reaction, it was still too much— and then made his way sedately down to the den.
Two burly men were loitering on the street, apparently drunk. Guards?
True to his thought, the farther one moved ominously closer as Licht made to enter the club.
He has a plan— a crazy, crazy plan. But for that to work, he had to be taken seriously. Part of that is getting inside the club without being beaten to a pulp.
"Hey, brat," one of the men stopped him with a huge, huge hand on one shoulder. Just the weight of it almost topple Licht's balance. "Where d'ya think you're going?"
The prince felt entirely too aware of his tender age of barely fifteen.
Yet, remembering the moment his teacher collapsed in a pool of blood— trying to teach even to the last moment— Licht locked in his mind the reason why he must do this.
He must play this right. He must be strong. A true candidate to the throne.
Licht heaved once, and succeeded in shrugging the big dirty hand off him.
"Don't you dare touch me. My appearance needs to be intact for us to swindle our fortunes."
The thug blinked in stupefied surprise, before bursting into a hearty laugh. "Us? Fortunes? What are you even talking about?"
"Well, I'm a lesser noble, but in a good light—" at this Licht moved closer to the door of the den, where twin lamps cast their shadows. He had taken the precaution to make himself a little dirty, and mussed his own hair into a tangled mess.
He attempted to smooth it back down now, to give a resemblance of his own self yet remain 'lesser' and unrecognizable.
"— A light like this, I look like a prince, don't you think?"
And then Licht grabbed the greasy doorknob, and shouldered his way inside.
When Heine woke, he felt like a vague memory— faint and incorporeal. Even his voice was barely audible.
He felt disoriented. And surprised. A revelation cycled, again and again, in his mind— 'Where am I?' and 'I'm still alive'.
Viktor wasn't actually in the room. This time it was actually Heine's mind playing tricks on him. "How is the king?" He croaked to one of the guards. This time his voice was stronger, but somewhat broken. "How long have I been out? Where are the princes? What about the assassins?"
The guards looked at each other in apparent confusion, then nodded to one another, the one by the door leaving— probably to fetch someone. The other bowed to Heine and begin answering questions and asking if he wanted anything.
Heine wanted to know, above any physical amenities. He croaked his questions, until water was fetched and many a question were answered before Viktor, in all his regal confidences, strode in.
For a long moment they all paused, gauging everyone else's reactions, deciding on the "proper protocol" to address the situation. No simple interaction was possible for the two of them… It had been like that for a long time.
Today, though, Viktor was more willing to break the taboos. For his own sanity. This last week had been uproarious and nerve-wracking for him.
"Heine, I was worried about you." Said the king, so informally that the guards blinked several times to make sure they heard it right.
"I am doing unexpectedly well," Heine said cautiously, "your majesty."
"Please leave us for now," Viktor said to the sentries, "but don't let down your guards. No one in or out until I say so."
"Yes, your majesty," the guards chorused and left.
"How did I even survived?" Asked Heine, a valid question considering the infection he knew he sustained.
"Desperation," said Viktor, "pure unadulterated desperation on my part. Heine, how are you feeling? We needed to use antibiotics that were still in development on your wounds. We don't know yet what could go wrong."
"Antibiotics." Heine repeated slowly, "I have read about the possibility of that. I didn't know it was being developed already."
"I will tell you all about it, once you've recovered enough. But now, just tell me how you feel."
Heine thought about it for a moment, and reported his own condition like he was citing a laundry list. The stiffness here, the pain there. He wasn't thirsty or hungry. A little too warm in the room. His head was clear and he felt lucid. At the end of it all he said, "And I feel pretty dirty."
Heine had been in these clothes for almost a week, with only a cursory cleanup for each bandage change and the general hygiene being observed only around his wounds to keep them from infection.
Over the pungent smell of antiseptics and various medications, it was not so noticeable, but it was far below Heine's personal standards.
It reminds him of living in the sewers— not a pleasant memory at all.
"I will have a guard prepare a bath and check with the doctors if we should watch for anything," then after a thinking pause, "you will need assistance."
Heine had not thought about that. Sitting still on the bed like this, he almost felt normal. Just a little stiff. But he was wounded, and though he survived an infection, it doesn't mean his injuries were healed. In fact many of them still sports thick black threads that hold the skin flabs together, which would pull painfully if he stretched too far.
"Maybe one of the servants…" Heine trailed off, and hid a grimace. He does not want anyone to help him with this. To be a nuisance to the people of the palace. To demand services he does not deserve. Food and clean clothes were one thing, asking this of them was an entirely different matter.
Viktor was smoothing his grimace, too, but his thoughts spin on a different thread. To let Heine be alone with someone in the bathing chambers, someone he did not know he could trust. There has been two attempts on Heine's life already, each requiring significant resources. Someone with resources would not have much trouble hiring a spy. Or several spies.
A third attempt wasn't unimaginable, even with staff that he knew personally. How much would it take to deceive him? Not little, but not inconceivable, either.
Viktor's stomach knotted painfully at the thought of this risk.
"I don't want anyone alone with you while you cleaned," he said, "at least, no one I cannot fully trust."
"Whom do you trust, then?"
"You," Viktor replied almost reflexively, then sighed and runs a hand through his blond hair, "though that doesn't help the matter much."
Heine spent the next few seconds well by suppressing a monumental blush that threatened to spill over the collar of his thin makeshift shirt.
"I'm flattered," he finally commented, "but I have to agree that it wasn't very useful."
"Yes," Viktor sighed again, "yes, I don't trust anyone but you and me and my sons right now. The last attack, all the soldiers inside were killed without a sound, and the guards outside didn't catch anyone sneaking up to the window. It speaks at the least of internal knowledge, and at the most, agents working here right under our noses."
"I am assuming the culprits has not been found then?"
A shake of the disheveled blond head. "The investigation has been at a stand-still since the prisoner from the first attack died."
Heine looked at him for a moment, a calculating look. Fortunately the redhead decided not to push the matter. Hostage treatment and the justice system is not a matter he had to discuss at this moment. But maybe later.
This could be a lesson for the princes.
"So," Heine said carefully, "what's on our agenda right now?"
"Secure the palace. Make sure that there are no other invasions or incidents. Make sure you recover. Make sure you're alright… Prepare for your evacuation…." Then the king added, sheepishly, "I can't quite think beyond that yet."
This time Heine tucked his head down and let his bangs cover the flush on his face. "We need to find another lead for the investigation."
"Yes. But first, let's get you cleaned and ready to go."
"We haven't decided on the helper yet. Nor the permissions from doctors." Heine pointed out, even though Viktor had flicked his hand and a stream of servants carrying a bathtubs and pails of steaming water and various bathing implements started filing in.
"That's settled," Viktor said, then leaned in to murmur in Heine's ear so the others can't hear, "I only trust two people in this palace right now," he said, "and that's you, and me."
Viktor waited as the implication slowly sank into Heine and disbelief flooded his expression. He kept silent as the servants work setting things up. This time, he couldn't suppress nor hide the red that went all the way to his ear tips.
When everyone left, Viktor proffered a hand to him and said, "May I help you?"
Clothed in fresh bandages and warm garments, Heine carefully let himself down on the wheelchair.
The contraption was a bulky wooden seat with smooth wooden wheels. Apparently a clockmaker has designed it specifically to Viktor's order, so that it could be self-propelled without anyone pushing him from behind.
A wheelchair, they call it. One of the firsts, and certainly the first that could be propelled by the patient.
Heine tried it, with a little difficulty because of the wound at his side, but was surprised at how easily and smoothly he could work the thing, despite his weakened state.
"This invention could be very useful for the public," Heine remarked, and for some reason Viktor smiled.
"It could be the king's gift to the people next harvest festival."
"That would indeed be wonderful."
"How is your new clothes?" Viktor asked, "Nothing too tight or rubbing the wrong way?"
"Very comfortable," Heine replied, fingering the strings that tied his collar up and the vest that was cut specifically not to press against his wounded side, "But I still strongly object to the Plan."
The Plan was, of course, a royal paranoid whim that Viktor devised after spending too many hours beside Heine's bed waiting for him to wake up.
Operating from the basis that there might be agents working against them here in the palace itself, and that Viktor's ability to focus depends exclusively on the safety of the people he cared about, the king decided that it was best to evacuate all crucial personnel to a safe spot outside the capital. He is going to sneak his sons and Heine safely out somewhere in the countryside, while he stays in the city and hunt down the criminals.
The princes had evacuated a few days ago, donning civilian clothes and slipping away individually and in secret, meeting up a few days from now at the countryside destination, and from then they were to send back a message.
Being highly secretive, neither the king's council nor any of the staff knew about this Plan until the princes were gone. By then, it become general knowledge, but no one knows where exactly the princes were heading— and the king is not about to tell.
Heine's case is both more and less complicated. While his injuries will make the traveling difficult, an unranked personnel being dismissed or sent out on errands is not at all uncommon. No farce was needed except more generic civilian clothes and the travel accommodations. No secrecy required.
Indeed, it might even be safer this way.
If the goal of the criminals were just to get rid of the Royal Tutor in order to gain the spot for themselves, Heine's safest bet is to resign and stay away from the palace.
On the other hand if they were wrong in their assumption, and the target is not power but some kind of personal grudge against Heine himself… Then sending him away, wounded and unable to defend himself, far from the heavy protection offered by the palace, this might even be a fatal move.
Viktor debated this with himself as they made their way down a deserted hallway, Viktor pushing Heine's chair.
The worst part of the scenario would be that Viktor wouldn't know if something happened. He would be far, far away. A distant bystander unable to help.
"Are you sure we have to do this today?" Heine broke the echoing silence of the hallway.
"I can't risk it any further."
"Not for one night?"
"Not even for one night. Heine, we can't trust anyone here right now. If we wait just one night, you might not wake up tomorrow."
Heine tilted his head back and eyed Viktor up-side-down. An unspoken conversation crossed the air between them:
'And what is one single death?' says the red eyes.
'It would mean the empire. It would cost the world if I let you die now.'
Viktor closed his eyes, felt Heine's gaze linger on his expression for a few seconds before he tilted his head back forward.
"Alright. Tonight. I'm sure we can pull it off."
"Hopefully without any casualties."
"Hopefully." Heine nodded gravely, looking straight ahead down the lonely hallway.
After a moment Viktor breathed, barely audible: "This would be the biggest mistake of my life if I am wrong."
They made their way down to a side gate. A carriage was in the process of loading up— medical supplies, food, water, amenities. A tall, well-dressed man was overseeing the loading, and Heine recognized him as his doctor.
No driver was in sight, though to be fair the preparations have not finished yet. The doctor assured him that the driver was simply sent on an emergency errand and would come back in no time.
"I will leave you to your journey then, my friend." Viktor said after parking Heine's chair in a shade near the carriage. "Stay safe."
Heine nodded seriously. The tightening of Viktor's hands on the wheelchair handle was not missed by the redhead. He tried to smile, but couldn't.
Viktor let go of the wheelchair and turned to go back.
Finally Heine said, "I won't let you be wrong."
Viktor felt the beginnings of a smile in his heart, and walked away, grim-faced. He could only hope for the best.