Author's Note: This shortish fic is a woefully late Happy Happy Birthday present to the beautiful and talented and gorgeous and kind Erin (dA: Nijuuni), without whom I would not be in this fandom at all! It is an attempt at interpreting her gorgeous artwork, also entitled "Untouched." (Clicky-link in my profile.)
I started writing this over two months ago (urgh) and am only now posting. However, I'm almost done, and hope it will all be up very soon. There will be three parts. (LOL Lauren, I swear this is a coincidence!) XD Also, Erin did give me permission to take this in a different direction than the drabble she wrote along with the artwork, in case you were confused. (Her drabble was too much genius for me, I couldn't measure up.) ^_^
Special thanks to my own "language tutor" Katja (dA: Memorialfire)! And thanks as well to the friends who have encouraged me!
A very merry un-birthday, Erin! I hope you like it! ^_^
Notice! (Sept. 2011) I'm leaving this story up for the sake of those who like it, but don't expect any more ARR in the future. I'm happy if you enjoy this, but my experimental attempts to enjoy ARR (in any form) are over, and the verdict is: I'm not a fan. Sorry. ^^;
Preface: The Captain, the Assassin, and the Prince
The castle blazed with light, gilded white towers shining gloriously into the frosty blackness of the February night. It rose over the capital, as exalted above the rest of the city as its inhabitants were over the lowly commoners. A beacon in the early winter night, the castle welcomed those of high birth, calling the nobles and the wealthy of the kingdom to come, come and gather, come and dance, come and shine in the glory of their prestige, come and celebrate the long-awaited announcement – the Prince was finally engaged.
Beyond the wide-flung gates, past the enormous doors, the interior of the castle was drowning in light. What did it matter that the night was dark and cold, the streets emptier than usual as the commoners sought the security of their homes? Within the castle, everything was warm and alive with excitement, everything glittered richly. Gold gleamed and jewels sparkled – an unashamed exhibition of wealth.
Room after room opened to welcome the finest in the land, and every room was fabulously decked out, yet none so ornate and grandiose as the ballroom. The center of the occasion and the destination of every exalted guest, the ballroom stretched almost beyond the reasonable definition of a room, so vast was it, so lofty its domed ceiling. There, raised on a dais to be in full view of the entire assembly, three empty thrones waited, ready to be occupied by the most privileged persons of all – the centers of the entire kingdom's attention.
The Regent, the Prince, and the foreign Princess – the future Queen.
Wine and champagne and delicacies both rare and delicious were profuse, dancing and laughter and high spirits filled even the seemingly endless space in the ballroom, and the hour drew close for the arrival of the hosts.
At last, all activity halted on cue from the trumpets, and all the anticipation contained in hundreds of shining eyes was turned to the entryway as the Grand Regent, Lord Marluxia, was announced and welcomed in with fanfare and honor. The political ruler of the kingdom stepped forward gracefully, every inch of his powerful frame effortlessly carrying the weight of his total authority forward with calm ease as he stepped up to his throne above the gathered guests.
His deep, resonating voice broke over the hushed crowd, speaking gracious words of welcome before, in turn, announcing the greatly worshipped future King – Prince Axel.
The fanfare that welcomed the Regent was nothing compared to the celebration at the appearance of the kingdom's future ruler. The Prince. The beautiful, adored, magnificent Prince. The young man who was born to rule, and who would now be stepping into his place as King, once his marriage was celebrated this summer with even more glory than his engagement was now calling forth.
The Prince waved calmly to the crowd, smiling a little, though his expression remained customarily serious. He spoke no words to the people upon reaching his throne, only waved to them again. It was Lord Marluxia who addressed them again, introducing the most anticipated guest of the evening.
The foreign Princess – Princess Kairi, the future Queen. A general gasp greeted her appearance as she began to all but float toward the thrones, for even among all the richly ornamented ladies present, she outshone each and every one. She was bright – almost too bright to look at directly – encrusted with jewels beyond counting. As she reached the dais, Prince Axel stepped forward, offering his hand. With flawless, practiced motions, the Prince and Princess bowed to each other before the enraptured room. Then, descending to the ballroom floor arm-in-arm, the future King and Queen danced a perfect waltz before floating on the sound of applause back up to their thrones. It was a stunning performance for all to see, when the Prince held the Princess and they danced. It was like a living painting, the dark, vibrant royal navy of his suit looking beautiful alongside her glittering pale pink and white gown; as they stood together, the dark and light colors seemed made to complement each other. A perfect couple, a perfect marriage, such a perfect sight.
Then, with a wave of the Regent's hand, the music began again, the dancing resumed, the celebration continued, and for hours and hours the world was light, light and beauty and happiness, long into the night.
The beams of light from the magnificent castle shone into the night, illuminating the enormous gates as well as the guards who stood like gilt statues at attention. Their patrols were perfect, synchronized, as much for show as for security. Once an hour, the soldiers would report to the lieutenants. The lieutenants, posted at each gate, looked dutifully severe – they must be ready at all times, for their captain would make his rounds several times throughout the night, checking in on security and confirming that no laxity would invade the ranks on this momentous night.
With a light stepping sound at a quarter past two, the lieutenant at the main gate heard the captain approach.
"Report." Came the curt command as the lieutenant saluted.
"All quiet, sir. No disturbances reported. Guard will change at the half-hour, in fifteen minutes."
The slender leader nodded approval, tugging absently at the finery he wore, the silver chains on his arms formal insignias of his rank. "Very well. Carry on." And, without any further words, he turned to continue on his rounds of the gates before his steps would direct him back to the ballroom. Long, bound-back strands of red hair swished at his back as the military commander strode somewhat lethargically. The longer he could take making his rounds, the longer he could be away from the painfully bright ballroom, the painfully sharp eyes of the women, and the painfully strained performance of royal engagement.
Could he really be the only one who saw what a miserable farce this was?
From a rooftop some distance off, whipped by the endless, icy wind, another figure assessed the castle. Yet this was not an examination of defenses, nor was the watcher standing tall like a soldier, nor were his eyes hazy, distancing themselves from the display of light. No, much unlike the captain of the guard, this watcher's eyes shone slightly as they gazed upon the beautifully lit castle, not seeing but easily imagining the scene within, for he knew what the occasion was. And he did not stand soldier-straight, yet neither did he slouch like a lowly criminal, but his bearing was relaxed, at perfect ease. And there was nothing cowed in this figure, as most commoners were wont to be, looking upon the castle. Instead, there was a faint sense – something in the tilt of his chin, perhaps – of ownership over the spectacle.
There was something for this watcher here, and he was ready to come and possess it.
The very corner of his lips curled slightly in a cruel smirk as he contemplated the sight. The newly-introduced couple would be dancing their first waltz now…could he even hear the faintest strains of the instruments? Or was that just the music of the bitter wind?
It didn't matter. He could see it all happening in his mind, in the dark and the cold from afar, and he didn't have to enter into the bright ballroom to see the couple, and he didn't have to see with knowing eyes like the captain of the guard to already be aware, as few were, that there was never a fairy tale or infantile game of make-believe like this political marriage proclaimed tonight.
But all that would wait. He had time. For now, he would watch from the darkness.
And the light would never touch him.
Colors danced, vague and indistinct…hazy. Blurred. Colors swirled and mingled, and the light was so bright, so painfully bright. Lids slipped slowly down, shutting out the light and the dancing colors, longing only for the end of this interminable night.
A bare second later, a gloved hand lightly touched his shoulder, and Prince Axel's eyes snapped open at the attendant's gentle reminder to stay awake or disgrace himself and his country in front of the foreign guest. The shapes refocused sharply, the finery and frills too distinct, too sharply revealed in the light. Weary green eyes slipped sideways, taking in the attendant's apologetic wince, boredly moving on to the lady beside him. The pretty stranger he was to marry, at his uncle's insistence.
It would be an excellent political alliance.
She didn't even speak his language. He knew three lines of rehearsed formality in hers.
The clinking of crystal was too harsh, the orchestra's playing too monotonous, everything was just too much at…what was it now? Four in the morning? Oh, skin and bones groaned for satin sheets and soft pillows, his chest ached to be free of the vest that tightly hugged his lean frame, his eyes smarted and blinked again and dreamed of the soothing darkness of his bedchambers with all the lights doused.
An hour or two more…it was more than half over. Just as he was about to yawn, forgetting to catch himself, the attendant leaned over and murmured, "Would you care for more wine, my Prince?"
Sucking in a breath and forcing the yawn impulse away, Axel blinked heavily. "No…no, but I would like a cold drink of water…"
The attendant nodded hesitantly. "I may be a moment then, my Prince. I do not think there is water being served. But I will find what you request."
Axel only nodded his assent. He wasn't supposed to thank servants.
He nearly closed his eyes again before the lad reappeared, a gold goblet in hand. Axel took it gratefully, sipping the clear, cold water, glad that the opaque drinking vessel prevented his uncle from seeing that he drank water at a ball. Those sharp eyes would have not missed the sight, and he would have heard of his uncle's displeasure later. The Grand Regent was stern with his nephew, Prince or not.
The drink relieved him immensely – it always grew so hot at a ball – and Axel could not stand on ceremony for once. Gratefully, but very, very quietly, he whispered to the boy, "Thank you." The attendant was sharp enough not to react or insist aloud that Axel needn't thank him, drawing the Regent's attention. He merely nodded and withdrew to his place again.
Axel's tired eyes returned to the ballroom, scanning the gathering again. He was just making a game out of how many black suits he could spot – black was rather unfashionable for men at the moment – when he spotted one figure in particular. Rather than a jacket, only a black vest covered the white shirtsleeves, which disappeared again into the black gauntlets, silver chains showing the rank of captain.
His eyes remained fixed on Reno, the captain of the guard, until the man, lazily sipping champagne, turned his dull eyes toward the dais and saw the Prince watching him. Across the room, their eyes met, and Axel wished desperately that he could at least talk to his captain during this tedious affair. But no, he was here to be seen. Reno was also obligated to attend, but Axel knew he also took advantage of his obligations to get away from the ballroom as much as possible. He was thoroughly envious.
Reno could see that. But at least he was sympathetic. Axel could see the smirk of understanding turn to a wince of sympathy. Reno's thin, muscular shoulders helplessly shrugged as his head shook just enough to throw a few pieces of red hair into his face. The man impatiently brushed them back as Axel sighed. Reno understood, but couldn't do much other than this slight commiserating from afar. And apparently, it was time for rounds of the gates again, because he waved absently to Axel – a small, discreet gesture – and headed for the doors once more.
And the Prince longed to follow, thirsted for the cold night air and the soothing touch of the wind raking through his hair.
But he stayed in his place – royal, worshipped, alone.
To fanfare and applause and toasts and honor, the royal hosts departed just before dawn. Their glory having lifted from the ballroom, the guests that had gathered like so many moths to their beautiful flame began to disperse, some to fine lodgings, many to their homes in the capital city, and a privileged few with distant blood ties to the royal family were led to their rooms in the castle.
The parting words between the affianced couple were brief and rehearsed and cordial, and the foreign princess left for the chambers she was occupying during her stay, maids following her in a small flock.
The parting words between the Prince and the Regent were brief and necessarily polite, and the Prince was not reprimanded at once, which was a good sign. The Regent may still have some nitpicking point to mention tomorrow or the next day, but it was nothing severe enough to warrant immediate chastisement, which allowed Prince Axel to relax one degree further when out of his uncle's presence.
Attendants trailed the Prince to his own chambers, hurrying to keep up with the quick strides of his long legs. Heavy eyelids and a nagging headache were focused on one thing – sleep. Axel barely glanced sideways, then, when another figure emerged from a side hallway as he passed, easily falling into step with the Prince as the attendants parted, leaving room for the captain of the guard at the Prince's side.
For some moments, neither spoke a word. The two red-haired men merely paced forward rapidly in silence, boots clicking against the marble floors in unison. As they approached Axel's chambers, the Prince finally did glance to the side momentarily. Looking ahead again, he questioned in a dull voice, "I take it there were no security issues of consequence."
With a voice just as expressionless, the captain gave a routine answer to a routine question, "No, no issues at all, my Prince. A perfectly quiet night."
The Prince hummed briefly, and did not speak again.
Attendants opened his door for him, and Reno's steps continued to match his as he entered his room. Attendants brought forth a change of clothes and offered various things – a bath, refreshment, assistance in changing – but Axel dismissed them. Reno leaned a narrow hip against the back of a settee, watching without comment as the attendants finally left, the door closing softly behind them.
Axel collapsed into a large chair – his favorite – with a loud exhalation. Reno also visibly relaxed, slouching around the settee and flopping onto it with absolutely no military grace or form left in his bearing.
"You look as miserable as I feel…maybe more so," the captain wryly observed.
Axel ground the heels of his palms against his eyes. "I hate balls so much." It was only a mumble…almost a pout from the grown Prince.
"No argument here."
Axel shot the faintest glare at his oldest friend. "At least you can get some air."
"Yes, yes," the other man answered, "you undoubtedly have it worse."
It was a subject hardly worth discussing anymore – they had had this conversation after every ball for years, and the conclusion was always the same. Still…it was a slight comfort to Axel to hear it again. Reno knew that.
The Prince finally dragged himself back to his feet and began stripping away the finery and lace with unconcerned, efficient movements. His jacket landed on the chair, boots were kicked away, belts cast aside, and the hated vest removed with a sigh of relief. Soon Axel stood in only his slacks, combing long fingers through his loose red hair a few times before reaching for the nightclothes.
Reno sat helping himself to a glass of water from the refreshments set out on the end table in spite of Axel's denial of wanting them. He sipped the clear liquid, modestly showing decorum by pretending to ignore his Prince changing…yet, like always, his clear blue eyes strayed up from the glass slightly as he drank. The distant, disconnected glaze in them didn't flicker or fail, they only lingered a moment on Axel's bare upper body before turning back to stare into the clear water in the glass.
Concealment was an old, familiar habit.
When Axel's hands began to unfasten his pants, Reno stood and walked over to the window, drawing aside the rich velvet drapes just enough to allow him to gaze into the night. The very faintest touches of gray were seeping into the black sky, beginning to define the shapes of houses and buildings and the great cathedral in their midst. The city would be wakening soon, the paupers and merchants rising to their work as the nobles and rulers retired to their beds.
He sensed stillness behind him and turned to see Axel dressed again in loose bed clothes. He already knew what was on the Prince's mind.
"How do you like her?" He also already knew the answer.
"I hate her." Axel sighed again, swiping a hand down his face. "I mean…I don't. I don't hate her. She's pretty and seems…nice enough. She doesn't deserve to be hated. But…" Frowning deeply, he collapsed into his chair again, a moment later shifting to pull his jacket out from under him and throw it with irritation on the floor. "…I don't want her, and I have to take her, and that makes me hate her." He looked up to Reno, who listened. "It isn't fair. To either of us."
The captain heard the slight pleading in the Prince's tone and sympathetically shook his head, joining him again. "Of course not. Nothing about this whole birth thing is. You know that."
"I know." Axel nodded, agreeing unhappily. "Still…I wish."
Understanding, Reno patted the Prince's shoulder, his hand lingering there only a moment. Then, denying himself the indulgence of comforting the Prince further, he stepped back.
"You should rest now, my Prince."
Axel nodded, resignedly rising and moving toward the enormous bed.
"Sleep well, my Prince."
A tired hand waved, and the captain turned and left.
Pausing outside the Prince's door, Reno shoved two hands through his hair, gripping harshly for a moment before letting the red strands go, sighing heavily, and turning his steps away from the royal chambers toward his own wing of the castle.
Since they were children, he'd known this would happen one day. Since they were boys playing knights and dragons in the garden, when Axel's parents had still been alive…this had always been in the future. It had been there before Reno had begun to wish, for his own reasons, that it wasn't. And now it was here, in the form of a lovely foreign Princess, and she was fair and her country was an excellent prospective ally that would strengthen their borders significantly, and she was a stranger and he wanted her to leave, go back to her country and never set foot here again.
Instead, she would soon be back, after returning home for a few months, and the captain of the guard would soon be kneeling to her and pledging his loyalty to his new Queen. His stomach turned with displeasure at the thought, but his refined features remained schooled into a bland expression, his eyes as vacant as ever, revealing nothing.
As he left the royal wing, he was passed by an attendant escorting a guest. He paid little attention to them until they were quite near, and then something about the guest caught his eye. The tilt of a fine chin, the calm confidence in those startlingly blue eyes, or perhaps the golden halo his hair seemed to become in the dimmed light. Whatever it was, Reno's attention was momentarily caught, and for a moment those deep blue eyes met his.
Was that…a bold stare? A confident smirk on those pale pink lips? Reno blinked, and it was gone. The guest nodded demurely to him and passed on without pausing.
Reno was tempted to slow, to stop, to turn and look back…but his boots continued mechanically clicking forward. His head did turn, however, and a glance back over his shoulder followed the receding figure, noting the smoothness of his stride, the elegant frills around the collar and cuffs of a long, swaying coat that hung from his slender frame…
And nothing in his appearance warranted the chill that traced whisper-lightly down Reno's spine as he looked at the young man.
In the darkest shadows of pitch-black chambers, the Regent sat and waited. The knock came and he called, "Enter," in a low, even voice. When the lone figure stepped into the room, the large wooden doors swinging quietly shut behind him, and knelt in the darkness before him, the Regent remained still. Quiet. Waiting with the smallest smile touching his lips. He did not speak, though the moments drew long, and the kneeling figure remained immobile.
But the waiting young man was not to be cowed by the silence of the most powerful man in the kingdom. At length, the bowed head was lifted, an intent, purposeful gaze piercing directly into the Regent, seeming to locate the eyes that watched him in the dark and throw a challenge right back at them. Both men smirked slightly, one knowing that he had won, the other knowing that he had learned what he wanted to know about his visitor.
Low and smooth, the Regent's voice spoke without prelude. "You are the best assassin in the Thirteen Kingdoms of the known world." It was not spoken as a question. For answer, the kneeling assassin merely persisted in his fixed gaze unflinchingly.
Marluxia was pleased. "I have called you here to solve a problem for me. If you manage to do so satisfactorily, your reward will be nothing less than a king's ransom. However, I will warn you that it is somewhat more complicated than a simple assassination."
"I certainly hope so." The assassin spoke for the first time, his voice low and mild, pleasant even, and soft. Refined. Lacking the rough depth of a fully-matured male voice. "If it were not so, the task would not interest me enough to accept."
Marluxia only nodded approvingly. "Well, let us see if this interests you. Prince Axel must not marry the foreign Princess and ascend to the throne. It is not yet his time to overtake my position as ruler of this kingdom…nor is such a time likely to come." The last words were spoken slowly, with intent.
"And the reason I cannot simply kill him, securing your reign forever?"
"Because, if he dies now, it would not so secure my reign." The Regent rose and paced to a window, the heavy drapes of which were shutting out the faint morning light. A sliver of gray dawn reached into the room as the Regent glanced out over the city.
"Prince Axel is extremely popular among the people, common and noble alike. He is young and attractive and filled with potential in their eyes. I am tolerated as the current Regent because of my faithful loyalty to him – to the Regent's task of raising up the Prince into a great King. For my excellence in this work, I am well-approved as a Regent. However," he let the curtains fall and turned back to his listener, "if the Prince were assassinated, not only would it look far too suspicious, but a popular future ruler would be cut off in his prime. The people would be disappointed. No matter how well I have ruled as Regent, I would be reviled as King.
"That is why," he continued with a small, crafty smile, "I have instead planned for the Prince to slowly degrade himself in the public's eye, until he should, seemingly by his own irresponsibility and foolishness, bring about his own ruin and death. I, of course, will publicly strive to prevent this ruin, and succeed the throne as a far brighter prospective King than the dissolute Prince."
A sharp gleam in blue eyes. "I find it interesting that with such a plan in place – a plan which would seem to require some time to affect – you would choose this time to insist on an engagement that would hasten the Prince toward the throne. I have heard correctly? The Prince would be King already, were he married? Only that condition remains to be fulfilled?"
"An interesting law in our land, if I do say so…one I am quite fond of, particularly since it does not affect me." The Regent smiled coldly. "Yes, I am the one who forced this engagement forward, and I am the one who will pay you to see that it is broken off."
The assassin asked no question, merely waited for the Regent to explain.
"The political ramifications of this engagement are weighty, and the situation is tricky. This alliance is precious – I have chosen this Princess specifically because an alliance with her country will prove invaluable to ours. And it is my intention to have the Prince himself nearly ruin this alliance, allowing me to step in and save it. That will become part of my means for undermining his credibility and ruining him prior to his death, which will come later. The Prince himself, however, requires careful handling on this point, because he has a strong sense of noble duty to his kingdom. He will marry the foreigner because he sees it as his responsibility, unless someone is able to convince him otherwise."
"Perhaps you shouldn't have given him such a duty after all," the assassin boldly declared.
Marluxia smiled grimly. "A good Regent strives to bring the Prince to his throne."
An echo from the darkness, "So of course, as a good Regent, you must allow the public to see you endeavoring to bring this about. I see."
"I am a perfect Regent." A nod. "And so Prince Axel is engaged, at my insistence, and all are aware that I have been responsible for finding him this perfect bride and profitable alliance. It would not do, then, to have my pick be suddenly found to be an adulterous, unfaithful girl. Therefore, I cannot cast that accusation on her, giving the Prince the most obvious means of breaking his engagement.
"Instead," the Regent paced back to his chair and sat again, "I must find a person who can seduce him away from his duty until he is willing to break with her. Then he will bear the blame among the people for losing her. However, privately I will craft a means for her to be found unfaithful as well, in order that my negotiations with her country may continue. Both will be at fault, not just our Prince, and I will be able to save the alliance without the marriage. The Prince will fall in the people's sight, and I will rise."
"I suspect the role you imagine for me in this; however, please do go on."
Airily, the Regent concluded, "You will seduce the Prince until he cannot bear to marry that Princess. I will handle the rest of his demise from there, once you have his promise not to marry her – a promise, mind you, that you know he will keep."
An eyebrow arched in the darkness, yet even with the encroaching dawn, the Regent could not see it. "And why an assassin for this job? A prostitute seems more appropriate."
A dark pause. "Merely because, if you fail and Prince Axel will not break with the Princess, my last resort will be to kill him before he marries. Efficiently and with no chance of failure on that point."
"There are female assassins you might have chosen…"
A broad smirk from the Regent. "I think you will find, once you begin the mission, that I have some excellent informants. You are a better choice."
"What if I have no taste for such a mission?" Arms crossed, a challenge perceptible by the dimmest rays of dawn that penetrated the room.
"Again, my sources are quite good. I think you will find that the price offered overcomes any dislike of the task…you who are known to accept any assignment if enough money is offered."
A wicked smile returned to the fair assassin's face. "Well. You are informed. All right. I accept."
The deal was struck in the darkness, the assassin departed in darkness, and the Regent remained for some time, concocting and refining his schemes in darkness until at last he retired to his luxurious bed.
The entire week following the welcoming ball was consumed with endless meetings between the Regent and the foreign ambassadors who had accompanied the Princess. Axel was required to meet with his fiancée daily, for private dinners and tea and arranged walks through his castle's grounds. It was also decided that he should take the Princess on a carriage tour of the capital; the Regent and ambassadors would also join, following in a second carriage. The royal procession through the capital would be a marvelous sight for all the citizens, and the guests would surely be welcomed by crowds pressing to get a glimpse of them in every street they travelled.
The royal guard was kept very busy by this particular event, and Reno, as captain, spent considerable time planning the route and assigning soldiers throughout the city. His work was overseen by the Grand Regent, who demanded that all be made perfectly secure, and who wished to show the guests the very best parts of their city. The plans were then presented to Axel, and Reno personally saw to the task of coaching the Prince in the route, explaining to him the sights that the Regent wanted him to point out to the Princess. The foreign-language tutor had to be on hand at least once, translating a few of the most crucial words for the Prince and creating a list for him to study, so that "cathedral" and so forth could be pointed out to the Princess in her own language.
It was a patch measure meant to make the whole expedition justifiable, but Axel still felt that a tour would do the Princess no good at all, even with a few words mixed in that she could understand. He wished with all his heart that he didn't have to spend the extra time in that carriage, playing guide to his fiancée.
"Katedral…markedsplads…torvet…flod…perhaps someone would care to tell me how to say 'damn it all'?" Prince Axel sarcastically muttered under his breath, out of his language tutor's hearing. The foreign words were a troublesome jumble of sound to him, and apparently his pronunciation was hopeless. The tutor kept correcting him over and over, yet Axel couldn't hear the slightest difference between what his tutor said and what he echoed.
Reno, who had been idly paging through one of the books of foreign words while the tutor worked on the tour list he had given him, glanced up with a bored expression. "Try telling her this: Dine bryster ser dejilige ud."
The tutor hadn't heard, for Reno had spoken somewhat quietly. Axel made a face. "Sounds like someone choking on their own tongue. Dine… bryster ser… dejilige ud?" Unfortunately for the Prince, he didn't know to keep his voice low. The tutor, hearing him, looked up in shock, face almost as red as the Prince's hair. He spluttered for several moments, switching between recognizable and foreign words rapidly, before he managed to compose himself. With a stern face, he instructed the Prince to most certainly not say that in anyone else's hearing, least of all the Princess'.
Axel, confused, glanced at Reno, whose lips were trembling with the effort of not smirking broadly. His blue eyes, however, gave him away, glinting wickedly. Axel's green ones narrowed in response, and he suspiciously snatched the book from Reno and began scanning the pages the other redhead had been examining, searching out the words and puzzling together their meaning. After several minutes of deep concentration, a heavy crease between his brows as his lips silently formed the strange words, Axel's eyes began to light with comprehension.
"Dine bryster… 'Your breasts look delicious'?" His voice was high with shock as he looked at Reno in disbelief. The captain of the guard clamped a hand quickly over his mouth, but not before a snort of laughter escaped. Face flushed from the struggle of remaining calm, he nodded at the Prince, who slowly seemed to catch up to Reno's amusement. Soon, the Prince and the captain were both snickering like schoolboys, just as they had often done years ago, trying to conceal their laugher from the tutor who, like all Axel's tutors, had good reason to glare sternly at the red-haired pair.
All too soon, however, the fun was over. An attendant came to announce that Axel was wanted for tea with Princess Kairi, and Reno was forced to finish his work with the tutor alone, postponing the rest of his explanations to Axel for another time.
The crowds were thick and noisy and excited, even in this out-of-the-way town square. The royal carriages would pass here, perhaps even stopping a moment to look at the ancient fountain the square boasted. The general populace was eager for a glimpse of the foreign Princess, and gathered there in hopes of seeing her fair face.
Among the commoners was one specific watcher – a golden-haired young man. Dressed with more refinement than the average person on the street, yet not excessively fancy, he waited in a very specific spot – a window above a tavern that looked out to the fountain and the street below.
Roxas had very specific information that led him to choose this spot – he knew exactly where the carriages would stop, which direction each carriage would face, and which side would hold the Prince and which the Princess. He knew how long they would be there, and he knew exactly where to place himself and how to dress to make sure that he caught a very specific eye.
The wide open window allowed warming sunlight and a chilly breeze to wash over him, rustling through unruly blond locks and occasionally making his loose white linen shirt billow around him. Roxas was aware of these things merely as far as they were going to make a visual impact. He was aware of the crowds of people so far as they might interfere, but that was unlikely, and he gave them very little attention as a result. And he was aware of the passing of time so far as it steadily counted down to the moment the carriages would arrive. The cold, at least, should have affected him, sunlight or not, but it didn't. Nothing broke his perfect calm.
And so, unperturbed by anything in surroundings or any nervousness regarding his plans, which he knew were perfect, Roxas waited.
When the carriages arrived, he automatically stood. When they stopped, he leaned out of the window, affecting interest. His clear blue eyes immediately found the Prince – it would have been hard to miss that bright hair – and, as planned, the young future King was angled perfectly, his window facing Roxas directly.
Blue eyes locked onto the Prince's face, and Roxas trained his attention there, unfaltering as a few moments passed. The extremely bored-looking Prince was pointing at the fountain and apparently struggling out a difficult word for his Princess, who listened attentively to him and then obediently turned her gaze to the marble statuary. The Prince did not bother to look with her at the familiar monument, but gazed wearily out at the people, attempting to school his face into its usual public expression – serious but kind.
Roxas waited, and it was only a few predictable moments before the stirring wind caught his clothing and hair again, and the movement drew green eyes upward.
The blue eyes of the watcher were ready, instantly meeting the Prince's. A slow, warm smile broke over Roxas' fair face, spreading to his eyes and making them sparkle entrancingly. He looked utterly beautiful.
He could just see the surprise flicker in the Prince's expression as Axel caught his breath. Roxas maintained the stare and the effortless beauty, refusing to release Prince Axel's eyes, while another part of his mind took advantage of the moment to carefully examine and analyze his target, memorizing every detail he could see, for later reference.
He well knew how inappropriate it was to hold the Prince's eyes thus, but that was a part of the plan. Prince Axel was not going to call the guard to arrest him for it, after all. It was easy for Roxas to see that Axel was not that man – a man that would, seeing a lovely boy, immediately know what he wanted and take advantage of his position to grasp it without hesitation. No…Axel was not the despot to imprison and rape the object of his desire.
Nor, however, was he apparently the pining romantic he might have been. Roxas noted this with great interest – for, when the carriages began moving again, Axel's gaze only lingered on his for a moment. His head only turned slightly to continue looking at Roxas. Then, he turned back to his fiancée, and he did not look back again.
A spineless, foolish Prince would have turned and held his gaze until people and buildings intervened between them. However, Roxas also knew that he did not need to worry that the Prince's self-control meant his mission had failed – that one, brief moment of lingering had communicated enough. Satisfied, Roxas made note of the small details he had gathered about Prince Axel's character, and turned to depart the tavern, the faintest, pleased smile ghosting over his lips.
The next day, the captain of the Royal Guard had to meet with the Prince again. The following night would be another grand ball, this time as a send-off for the foreign guests. Guard duties and soldier stations had to be explained to the Prince and Regent again, and the Regent had approved them already. It only remained to inform the Prince.
Reno needed only the smallest fraction of the time he was allotted for this meeting. "My Prince, the Royal Guard will be arranged virtually exactly as they were for the welcoming ball at which your engagement was announced." Having made his official report, bored to the core with his own statement, Reno flopped lazily down on his favorite settee in the Prince's chamber, where he had come to make the report while the Prince was busy approving many other details of castle preparation for the event. This mainly consisted of him stamping his seal on a lot of papers, next to the seal of his uncle, who approved them first.
Axel, however, didn't respond to Reno's dull report, nor were his hands busy with stamping, nor were his hazy eyes fixed on the papers. Chin in hand, he was staring quite vacantly off into space. As soon as Reno was comfortable, he noticed this.
"My Prince." No response. "Hey!" Axel raised one eyebrow slightly and hummed faintly, still staring into the distance. Reno scowled and unceremoniously threw a pillow at him, snapping Axel out of his reverie immediately.
"Did you hear me at all?" Axel gave a quick shake of his head as he attempted to refocus.
"Ah, I'm sorry Reno, what?"
The captain of the guard sighed and repeated his report in an even flatter, exaggerated monotone. When he finished, he gave the Prince a very pointed look, raising his eyebrow and asking sarcastically, "Did you hear that time, my Prince?"
Axel was now attentive enough to catch all his friend's implied annoyance, and he glared and grunted his acknowledgement. Nothing further out of the ordinary happened; Axel stamped papers and Reno helped himself to the ever-present refreshments and the two friends talked lazily about nothing of consequence, avoiding, as usual, the subject of the foreign Princess.
Reno wondered to himself what Axel had been thinking of, but he supposed that it was probably his unhappily engaged situation. It was certainly a frequent troubler of Reno's thoughts. Suspecting nothing more, he did not bring it up or ask Axel about it. Neither of them wanted to discuss the Princess if they could help it.
Axel's head turned every time a blond head passed him. Every blue suddenly looked dull to his sight. And no matter where or when, if he closed his eyes, he could picture so vividly the most perfect smile he had ever seen, hovering close, yet still completely out of reach.
The evening of the farewell ball for Princess Kairi and her ambassadors arrived, a biting chill in the calm night air. The stars twinkled with razor clarity in the sky; they were almost painful to look at. Or at least, Roxas thought so.
The young blond was dressed beautifully, no attempts made now to achieve a simple elegance. His suit was rich, midnight black – a bold move, taking a stand against fashion – and the jacket had long coattails and dark fur lining the collar and cuffs. He was almost monochromatic in black and white, but for the deep blue ribbon at his throat. Not that his eyes needed help standing out and capturing attention, but it couldn't hurt. This was an important night.
No one saw him slip from the shadows. The guard met him as he came behind another party, and assumed he was with them. He showed his beautifully embossed invitation – a gift from the Regent, naturally – and was bowed to and welcomed. If the soldier thought it strange that this one guest had no title before his name, he knew better than to question one who held a royal invitation.
Roxas approached the castle, the sharp stars vanishing into the black sky as the light of the magnificent building outshone them, sending its beacons of joy into the cold night once again. The blond's face was trained into a calm, aloof expression, softened slightly by a touch of a smile. As he stepped into the light and was surrounded by it, his dark clothing seemed to absorb the glitter all around him – unlike many of the other guests, men and women alike, he did not sparkle and reflect back more brightness. He was in the light…but not of it.
His steps never faltered until he reached the ballroom, where the royals would be introduced again. He took no wine or champagne. He swiftly analyzed the room and the placement of the thrones, then chose a spot as perfectly visible as the one in the town square had been.
The faint smile stretched slightly as the Regent, Prince, and Princess were introduced, and this time, it was not forced. Roxas…was rather looking forward to this.
In spite of his report to the Prince, Reno did have a slightly different setup to oversee at this ball. Apparently, Prince Axel had found time between his endless meetings with Princess Kairi and other foreigners to give the Grand Regent an extremely hard time over the issue of being "chained to his throne all night," as he put it. The Regent had allowed himself to be persuaded after Axel had threatened to do "something drastic," and Reno had been told to rearrange the plans for heavier security within the ballroom. At the same time, he had to keep the appearance of soldiers to a minimum, so as not to dampen the mood with too much military presence.
Thus, while there was a decorative guard set around the ballroom and every other room open to the guests, there were also many trusted soldiers in attendance under the guise of nobles. They, like Reno, circulated seemingly at random, however, their movements from room to room were much more carefully planned than it appeared. Reno himself was far busier at this ball, for not only did he have to monitor the gates, he had to make a complicated circuit of the rooms within, checking with his agents for any word of disturbance or suspicious activity.
Reno would have very little time to relax at this ball, but he didn't mind. Keeping busy made the night pass more quickly, as besides, it meant that Axel would be free to come down and mingle a bit during set times of the night.
Not that Axel wanted to mingle with nobles. Reno was well aware that the Prince hated that, particularly when those nobles were women, fawning all over him, curtsying and smiling too much and laughing until he wanted to hit them. He'd confessed this to Reno and only Reno – his lack of chivalrous feelings would have shocked anyone else. Yet the Prince hoped that, now engaged, he would be spared some of this attention.
The real reason he wanted to be free to walk about, as he told Reno, was merely to stretch his legs.
Reno didn't know of any reason deeper or more important than that.
Axel didn't think there was the slightest chance that a closer look among the guests would reveal anyone who might have been in a common tavern that week. Still…
The royals had taken their places, where they would remain for the first hour, the Prince and Princess had danced their obligatory waltz, and the music had resumed for the guests. It was probably an entirely different concert from a week ago, but it all sounded the same to Reno as he sipped from a tall glass of champagne and scanned the crowd, preparing for his first tour of the checkpoints.
A few scattered spots of black – less than the count of one hand's fingers – dotted the ballroom, but Reno didn't note them with more than a glance. He cared very little for fashion – his clothing was a formal modification of his military uniform, nothing more. Others who chose to wear black held no interest for him.
No so for Prince Axel.
Within fifteen minutes of sitting down – fifteen minutes of staring glassily at nothing, seeing nothing, hearing less – his boredom had swallowed him whole. He was already itching for a chance to get up and walk a bit. Green eyes woke up and began to search the ballroom for Reno – his plan was to try to procure a glance of sympathy from his friend. Somehow, he felt like it might comfort him a bit.
Almost the moment he began to search for spots of black, he started, shoulders tensing slightly with a shiver as he noticed one solitary figure. The person was somewhat far, so he couldn't really be sure…but the bright blond hair and something about the posture of the young man in black made him sure enough. He could feel the stare, just as much as he had felt it and nearly drowned in it two days before.
From that moment, no matter who tried to distract his attention – the Regent, the attendants, or even the Princess – one eye remained carefully trained on that figure, determined not to lose him.
The time could not pass quickly enough. Axel was desperate to be free of his throne. And one thought beat through his mind over and over and over.
When I am near to him – when he stands directly before me – will he meet my eyes as boldly as he did from a distance? Will his smile shine as fearlessly as it did then?
More than anything in the world, he hoped so. Someone who doesn't cower or flatter…please be real.
When the Prince descended from the dais, Roxas, having already begun to stroll about once he was sure Axel had caught sight of him, turned his meandering steps in a very specific direction.
Axel was moving in his general direction, but not with hurry or apparent purpose. Roxas waited until he was sure the Prince could see where he went, then left the ballroom. An adjoining parlor contained many more guests, refreshments still abundant. Roxas selected a place near the far door and waited until the Prince entered. He took just long enough leaving the room, allowing Axel to see him go.
And so it progressed through two more rooms. Roxas was well aware that the Prince's travel would necessarily be slower, as nobles would constantly stop him to offer their congratulations and pay lip service to the Prince. However, he was patient. He had all the time he needed.
Where is he? I saw him come in here…where did he go now? Ah! Wait…no! Leaving again? Slow down! I must hurry, mustn't lose him…
The Prince had begun his approach casually, meandering from smiling guest to smiling guest, but now the endless smiles that intervened between him and the mysterious blond boy were beginning to frustrate him. Anger began to gnaw within him at the delays, at so many people causing him to nearly miss the boy. If he lost track of him in one of these rooms, he wasn't sure he'd be able to find him again. And he had to. He had to see him, speak to him, learn his name at least.
Finally he made it to the last door he had seen the blond youth slip through, very nearly brushing aside two women without even a word. Once through the door, his eyes were instantly searching again.
He found himself in a quiet smoking parlor, a nearly-deserted retreat, the only people in the room a small group of very old men who sat around puffing pipes…and there! The blond boy, taking a glass of champagne from the beverage table!
Axel felt his stomach nervously twist as he realized he had done it – he had caught up with the blond youth. His eyes began to devour the details he could now take in from a closer range as he slowly walked toward the beverage table too. A slight frame, thin but not too delicate, hugged becomingly by the black suit. Hair so golden, slightly tousled…he could imagine a wind rustling through it even now. The young man sipped leisurely from his champagne class, and his face in profile looked like a work of art, the delicate lips that touched the glass, the fingers that held it lightly…everything about him was perfect.
And then he caught sight of Axel as the Prince neared, and his large blue eyes blinked, surprised. He quickly set the glass aside and bowed low.
"My Prince." The usual mode of addressing him had never sounded so musical as now, spoken low by this clear, lovely voice.
Axel nodded his acceptance of the greeting, swallowing. "I bid you welcome to the castle. I do not recognize you, sir. You are?"
The blond head lifted again, and Axel felt a shiver of delight as the blue eyes unhesitatingly met his, just as he had hoped. "My name is Roxas, my Prince."
"Roxas," Axel repeated. "It is a pleasure to meet you." Oh, why was that faint suggestion of a smile in those clear blue eyes making it so hard to keep his breathing steady and normal?
"I am deeply honored by your notice, my Prince." Humble words, a humble bow of the head, but nothing muted or cowed in his eyes, only a flash of boldness that lent his smile an almost alluring quality. Now, if only he wouldn't turn into one of those miserable flatterers…
"Congratulations on your engagement to the Princess Kairi…" Ugh, not those words again… Axel was about to be disappointed. "…I would wish you a happy and prosperous marriage, but…" The young man's – Roxas' – voice lowered slightly, becoming nothing more than a murmur, "…from what I can see, happiness might be a futile hope. Therefore, I wish you…a prosperous rule." Lips curling again, Roxas raised his glass from the table toward Axel, then sipped his drink.
Axel was shocked. The boldness required to say such a thing to the Prince…it was very nearly suicidal. And yet, that daring was not what shocked him the most. Rather, the very fact that Roxas had noticed, that he could see what no one else seemed to…it took the Prince's breath away. He never thought of how obviously different his behavior around the Princess would have been, even in public, had they been in love.
He was just considering remarking on some aspect of this when Roxas continued, setting his drink aside again. "But perhaps I should not presume to understand your affairs, my Prince."
It felt to Axel as if someone had held out to him a choice and wonderful prize – some priceless treasure that he had always desired and never realized it – and then snatched it back. He was left with a newly-awakened hunger for that treasure, and could only reflexively reach after it.
"No…" His voice sounded somewhat breathy, but he didn't notice, so focused was he on the bold glint that still shone in Roxas' eyes. "I…that is, your presumption…is not wrong, I think." There was no thought in his mind for whether or not he should admit such a political secret to an unknown youth.
Blond eyebrows rose slightly. "I am sorry to hear that, my Prince." There was no trace of flattery or false sympathy in him at all. To Axel's great wonder and relief, there was only genuine concern. "It is a tragic circumstance for any man, high or low, to be tied to an unwanted companion for life."
Having someone sympathize with him – truly sharing his feeling, not agreeing because he was the Prince – was a veritable paradise for Axel. He was unaware of the happy light in his eyes, or the growing smile on his own face.
"I think so too." And he was grateful, given the topic, that the old men who sat smoking seemed not to have noticed him, seemed deaf to the soft conversation. They were virtually alone. "I think…that all people should be free to make their own choice in marriage. No one should be denied at least the chance to fall in love."
The smile on Roxas' lovely face grew a few degrees broader at this, and the young man stepped forward slightly. His soft, low voice had suddenly become teasing when he spoke. "Oh? And has my Prince taken such a chance for himself? Is there some other lady who has managed to capture your heart?"
Axel swallowed, reddening unconsciously. "There…there is no lady," he denied hoarsely.
Roxas didn't blink. "Mmm…too bad. You must take advantage of your last few months of freedom, my Prince, and find yourself a lover. I'm certain that anyone would be happy to have an affair with a man like you." He didn't say any lady, and he didn't say Prince…the words Roxas omitted were as intentional as those he spoke.
Axel felt gooseflesh race over his body. "But…wouldn't that be a mistake? If it was true love, and we had to part when I marry…" When had Roxas gotten so close? And…was that entrancing scent coming from him?
"Well," the blond still smiled, but with less teasing now…a gentle smile. "Who can know the future? Perhaps it would work out somehow…in any case, I have heard it said that it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. I feel that…love would be worth any risk." He smiled again, sweetly. "Don't you?"
Axel could only nod. Roxas held his enthralled gaze for a long moment, smiling the whole time, then dropped his eyelids as he slightly inclined his head.
"I wish you an enjoyable evening, my Prince."
With that, he stepped away, passing Axel, who remained frozen, but not with the shock of a person walking away from him without being dismissed.
He was reeling, his heart racing, his mind spinning drunkenly, when a sudden terrified panic gripped his stomach with fear that Roxas was gone, never to reappear. He spun quickly – the blond was still there, at the door! "Roxas!"
The young man turned, looking surprised, as Axel closed the distance in a few long strides. Almost breathless, he gasped, "Can I invite you…that is, will you come to tea with me at the castle sometime?"
Roxas blinked, then slowly smiled, then bowed. "My Prince, you may summon me whenever you wish. I am at your complete disposal."
Axel relaxed slightly, his cheeks flushing. "Where will you be, so that I can find you?"
Roxas' smile grew broader again. "There is a tavern by an ancient fountain…"
"Yes, I know it," Axel hurriedly agreed. Roxas only nodded, not revealing any further reaction.
"If you send a message to the owner there, he can reach me at any time. I will come…as soon as you call."
With that, Roxas bowed again, and again, the blond departed without waiting for the Prince to dismiss him.
Axel didn't notice. He felt light, giddy…inexplicably happy.
When the captain of the guard found him – reprimanding him in low tones for disappearing and worrying him – Axel allowed himself to be led to his throne again without complaint. Nothing penetrated his haze of elation for the rest of the night…except, perhaps, spots of black in the colorful crowd. But none of them were Roxas.
But that didn't matter. He would see Roxas again. Soon.