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Ruby & Charlotte & Ryn “Fritz”



Count Damien’s sudden appearance in the tavern was not entirely unexpected, but two other things were. One was that he was accompanied by Dr. Williamson and the city guards. The other was the fact that they left almost as soon as they arrived. Ryn regarded the door the men exited with confusion. He couldn't tell what kind of game Count Damien was playing. Did he come to check if Ryn and Lady Vikena really went to the Tough Tavern? Why, then, did he need to bring Dr. Williamson and the guards? Ryn was missing an essential piece of information, that much was clear. What was unclear was whether this had anything to do with Duke Vikena's disappearance.

Another matter that had been bothering him was the bartender. Right before Count Damien busted open the door, the red-haired woman began vigorously mopping the floor leading to the stairs. It was a hasty job, as if her life depended on it, and she would have been more meticulous if she had more time. She then dove behind the bar, head first, as soon as she could.

When the guards disappeared up the stairs, Ryn walked straight to Marceline. One look at the blood-stained mop and some pieces of the puzzle started to put themselves together. Some time during the alcohol showdown, Ryn heard someone run into the tavern and up the stairs. It happened so fast that he only managed to catch a glimpse of someone in black, but it would not be too farfetched to suspect that the blood came from the individual. However, he had not the foggiest idea if the blood was theirs or someone else’s. Could it be that Count Damien came to the tavern for a reason other than Lady Vikena?

Lady Vikena… Who followed the person in black upstairs. Where the guards headed.

Ryn bolted towards the stairs and skipped a couple of steps at a time to reach the second floor quicker.

“How dare you attempt to barge into a woman’s quarters! She was changing!!”

Ryn halted. The guards were standing in front of an open door, Lady Vikena glaring at them.

“Is this how you boys plan to get a glimpse at a woman? Because the lord only knows that one would never choose to be in your presence otherwise!” Another person inside the room stomped their feet. “Well? What are you looking at!? If you have nothing to say, then get out! A woman with short platinum hair and not wearing black approached the door and slammed it in the guards’ faces. The guards exchanged dumbfounded looks at each other before deciding that it would be in their best interest to wait for the woman to change her clothes.

Seeing that Lady Vikena had everything under control, Ryn quietly retreated back to the bar. He stared at Marceline, “If there’s other evidence you want to hide, now’s your chance. The guards are distracted.” He leaned over the counter to look at the bloody mop, then looked at the items the bar had available. “Since it’s fresh, I think you can still remove the blood with just cold water.” Marceline stared quizzically back at him. “If that doesn’t work, you can try using baking soda... Although I personally prefer hydrogen peroxide.” His response only deepened the lines between her brows. Ryn raised his hand to wiggle his finger, “Tick-tock.”

Charlotte glanced at Ruby once the door was closed. “I have a feeling they weren’t satisfied with that answer. They may return so you may want to change your clothing..” She commented lowly. Charlotte nervously twirled a lock of hair around her finger as she started to pace around the room, deep in thought.

Ruby hesitated, then nodded at Charlotte. She searched around the room for something more appropriate to wear. “I cannot stand knights!” She announced while sorting through her crates of clothing. A sudden burst of anger pulsed through her, and she grasped one of the crates and chucked it at the door. Charlotte blinked in surprise, simply staring at the door after the crate had hit it.

“I do not want them coming back here,”Ruby stated roughly, then sighing as her anger subsided. “But if you don’t mind, I want to help you look for your father!” She proposed, not looking to take no for an answer. She then pulled out a dark purple, cotton dress from her trunk. It looked a bit dirty, but Ruby held it up to her body and threw Charlotte an inquisitive look.

”Oh. That’s lovely. The two of us are both in shades of purple. We’re a pair of grapes, aren’t we?” Charlotte first commented, giggling a little at her only little quip. She turned on her heels to give Ruby privacy as she changed, continuing on to address her proposal, “You really want to help me? You don’t have to but… I suppose maybe it’s not so much an intelligent idea for you to stay here right now anyway..”

”Yes!” She bellowed, turning around, “If I am going to be dragged into this, then something of some excitement must happen.” Ruby sounded a bit insensitive, eager to be a part of something inconsistent with her everyday doldrum life. “Besides, two heads are better than one. I can be your lookout!” Ruby finished changing into her purple day dress, doing a thrilled little jump at the thought of going on a perilous adventure. Starting to steer off course, questions began coming to her mind. “What is your father like?” she asked.

Charlotte gave the girl a small smile, “ An adventure it is then.” She then moved to slowly open the door, peering outside. The guards had moved down the stairs; it seemed as if the way was clear before them. Though, she did recall that Marcy had stated that the people of the bar were not supposed to let them leave. She wondered if they could perhaps hang their heads and quickly make their way out with Fritz. She glanced back over her shoulder at Ruby, dimly aware of her question as she had been considering her thoughts, “ He’s only slighter taller than I with a mustache and scars on his face. His clothing is very expensive-looking… His facial expression… He probably would look sad if you saw him.” After preparing herself with a low inhale, she took a step down the stairs. “Well. Down we go.”

Ruby did not reply as she thoughtfully pictured the man in Charlotte’s description. A sad man with nice attire and scars on his face. That should be easy enough,Ruby thought to herself. She glanced down the stairs and promptly followed after her.

Ryn was sitting at the counter when the two came down the stairs. He smiled at them, “Good evening.” He said to the platinum-blonde he saw upstairs, before turning to Lady Vikena, “Any luck?”

Seeing the short version of the answer on her face, Ryn said, “I should inform you that Count Damien and Dr. Williamson dropped by.” He pointed at the entrance.

Charlotte had also smiled upon noticing Ryn, moving closer to address him, “Hello again! … This is Ruby, she wants to help us search... Ruby, meet Count Fritz. ” She gestured to Ruby, then to him as she spoke. Her lips parted to speak in regard to his second statement when the red-haired girl from before suddenly launched herself over the bar. She threw her arms around their shoulders and began to talk lowly in their ears. Ruby had waved to Count Fritz enthusiastically.

“We’re going to talk about what just happened. Outside.” Marcy abruptly ordered. Her gaze slid to Ruby and a smile lit up her freckled face, “Ruby Booby. Guess you finally met Persephone…If you guys tell me what’s going on with Seph, I will help you all get out of here without issue from Olga.”

“Yeah I met her; why didn’t you tell me about her living up there?” Ruby asked but Marcy had mouthed later, waving her question off.

Charlotte pursed her lips but had braced herself ahead of time she’d have to tell Fritz and Ruby what she had been told for the sake of their safety. “Alright. Is that okay with you two?”

“Sure.” Ruby said with a shrug.

Outside? Ryn looked to see where Olga was before whispering to Marceline, “Are you allowed to do that, Ms. Marceline? I was under the impression that you were ordered not to… for ‘safety’ reasons.”

Marcy’s arms moved out from around them, “I am definitely not supposed to, but….” She nodded toward the other side of the room, where Olga could be seen now speaking quietly at a table with the two guards from before. “Now or never.”

Tick-tock.

Once the group had made their way outside, Charlotte came to stand before them and took a deep breath. “Alright, well, Seph was quite upset when I approached her… She said that she stumbled upon a corpse with an ax embedded in her head. Mind you, I had to push for this information, so I do believe she was truthful with her words. The poor girl was traumatized.”

“Oh.” Ruby was taken aback.

Marcy’s expression broke. “...That explains the blood. Ugh… Poor Seph. Poor dead person.” She jumped practically with wide eyes as the reality dawned on her, “Oh God. The guards think she did it because she tracked the blood here. Persephone would never do that to anybody!”

“Yes, I do believe that is the case. Normally, I’d suggest she aid the investigation with what she knows… But King Edin is sometimes a little hasty with his executions. I don’t blame her for laying low for now.”Charlotte explained sadly.

The ginger groaned audibly and threw her head back to glare at the sky as if it was the cause of all their problems.

Charlotte rubbed her arm as she spoke again. “Um, so given that there’s a potential ax-wielding murderer about, I think we should be cautious and...“ Her gaze moved to Fritz. ” It goes without saying that I am very concerned for my father’s wellbeing currently.” He nodded in agreement.

Murder? Ryn rubbed his chin thoughtfully. Murder would explain the presence of the guards, but what of the count or good doctor? It was possible that they were witnesses to the murder, however, considering the time span and last location they saw him at, Ryn doubted Count Damien was one. If he was a witness, then it was odd that both Ryn and Lady Vikena did not notice such an event happening. They came straight from the Damien estate to the Tough Tavern then were promptly trapped in by Count Damien’s orders. If the murder happened before they arrived to the estate, then the count’s demeanor was as much out of place as his order to keep them in the tavern was. Why did he want them to stay at the tavern? Did he think they were involved in some way? Then they should have captured them when he spotted Ryn. Could it be, as Olga said, that it was for their own— no… Lady Vikena’s safety?

Assuming he wasn’t a witness, then the question was why he was so interested in this particular murder. Murder was, from what Ryn could gather, not uncommon in Sorian. What was uncommon was when the murder victim was a person of some import. “Does Count Damien normally involve himself in murder cases?” Lady Vikena had shrugged at Ryn, indicating this was news to her as well. If Lady Vikena did not know Count Damien as a man who would investigate murders, then it was more likely that he personally knew the victim so took it upon himself to take part in the investigation. Not the best idea… too much emotion and assumptions involved to not be biased. Then again, maybe the count wanted to be part of the investigation so that he could frame someone he wanted to get rid of.

Ruby was trying to absorb the details of what was being said. ”M-murder case..MURDER!?” She had agreed to look for Charlotte’s father–but this– it was more than Ruby knew how to handle. As her panic grew, she began biting her nails and pacing back and forth at the thought of an ax embedded in a girl’s head. At this point, Ruby desired to bolt from the situation. She looked over at Charlotte and said with great distress in her voice, ”You know, I don’t know if I can be of much help here… with a m-m-murderer on the loose. You see,” Ruby started laughing hysterically out of nervousness. ”My brother Jack will be worried sick if I do not show tonight. I totally forgot! For his sake, I should probably stay back.” The adventure that Ruby had been excited about was now of no interest to her. She liked the idea of a dangerous escapade, but once she realized the real danger that was present, her mind changed.

“Wow. Ruby…You’re a chicken. Marcy was struggling not to laugh at her. She started to mock her with chicken noises and waved her arms about, despite being scared herself. The night was awfully silent and dark. Knowing there was an ax-wielding maniac made Marcy slowly step back into the tavern, clucking the whole way, ” Anyways. I gotta, uh, bartend. Good luck! Bye!” She shut the door rather hastily.

Ryn stared wide-eyed at the closed door. Well, at least this saves us the trouble of getting past the guards. He hoped the red-haired barkeep did not get into serious trouble for letting them out like this.

Charlotte could not quite blame Ruby. It was not like she had a weapon nor had she herself ever encountered anything of this nature. They were in very much the same boat. As for Fritz, she had no idea what he could handle. Her own hands were a little trembly at the moment. She was surprised she wasn’t acting more like Ruby at the moment but it might have been because she was more afraid for Lorenzo than herself currently. “Ruby, if this is too much for you, you don’t have to come.” She assured her.

Ryn looked at Lady Vikena, confused as to why they were taking Ruby along. It was one thing if the girl knew this Persephone, but it was clear from her exchange with Marceline that she was not even aware that they lived in the same place. He then reminded himself that technically the same could be applied to him. He also did not have to follow Lady Vikena, but he was going to do so anyway. So why not take Ruby along? She may even have some insights into things that only the locals were privy to.

”Chicken!?” Ruby raised her fist and shook it toward Marcy, who had already entered the bar. As terrified as Ruby was, her ego stood strongly in the way. ”No, no. It is not too much. Do you know how many potential murderers I have encountered in my time on the streets? I could have easily had a..an ax thrown at my head.” She trembled, attempting to sound unphased. ” You’re right..you need me. I will just quickly let Jack know that I have business to attend to.” She shot Charlotte an awkward wink, letting her know that she could keep a secret.

“Okay, but let me know if you are afraid. We’ll take you back home any time... If we stay close and be careful, I’m sure we will be okay. There’s three of us.” Charlotte said with a smile, though perhaps a nervous one. After Ruby had alerted her brother, the three had made their way down the road toward the library. She paused suddenly as she caught sight of red footprints in the dirt. She frowned, kneeling down to get a better look. “I-I think that’s....” Her gaze followed the trail footprints forward. They led up to an alleyway across from the library. She glanced up at the others with a worried expression.

Ryn sighed at the amateurish work the guards were doing at preserving evidence. The red footprints may not be vital in the grand scheme of things, but they were evidence nonetheless. Ryn expected a little more surveillance. If the guards’ only link between Persephone and the murder were bloody footprints that could be easily tampered with then their charges wouldn’t hold up in any decent court. On the flip side, it could mean that the Caesonian judiciary did not require solid evidence to convict someone in practice.

“Would you like to see the scene, just in case? We may not find anything related to your father, but it won’t hurt to check.” Ryn turned to Ruby, “I can go alone, of course, I wouldn’t want either of you to be scarred from… well, let’s just say that it might still be gruesome over there depending on how far along the forensic team is.”

Charlotte had initially grimaced before she rose up to her feet. After a moment she looked at him and said, “It is best we stay together.” In every novel she had ever read, splitting up always went dreadfully wrong. As much as she was not excited to see anything that could be in that alleyway, she did not want to see Fritz go in, only to be never seen again.

Ryn studied the two women’s faces before he started towards the alleyway.

Ruby was at the point of trying to stay agreeable; besides, she felt more comfortable going as a group rather than straying off by herself. She gazed at Ryn with apprehension as he walked toward the alleyway. Then, she stiffened up and said shakily to Charlotte, “After you, new friend!”

Charlotte paused to pick up a rather large stick. With a tight grip, she raised her body. She glanced at Ruby and nodded, bracing herself as she moved forward toward the alley.

That was when the sound of something moving made her halt. ”Count Fritz. Oh God. Wait.”She whispered as loudly as she could to him.

Her eyes widened as a shadow began to grow on the ground, the silhouette of someone approaching down the alleyway growing with every moment. The tension was palpable and Charlotte was starting to lose the cool she had been holding on to. With rising panic, she suddenly grabbed Ruby’s arm and held the stick outward as if she was going to threaten the person with it. As it became clear the approaching person was about to emerge, Charlotte had squealed a little, flinching.

When Ruby felt Charlotte jolt against her arm that she had grabbed onto, she could feel her panic. This uncertainty caused Ruby to panic as well, and as she heard the rustling of leaves in front of them, she let out a loud screech– “aaaAHHHHHHH!!”

That was when a ferocious, furry being revealed itself! It was a black kitten with small legs and big eyes. He was perhaps a little cross-eyed at that. The fur stood up on the cat as he hissed and arched his back. Though absolutely tiny, the feline was absolutely ready to take on all three of them.

If hearts could appear in Charlotte’s eyes, they would have. She dropped her stick and immediately moved forward. Then she put her hands on her knees as she bent down. “Oh my goodness, look at you. The kitten charged at her. She watched with a huge smile as he scampered toward her with a loud, angry meow. Once in front of her, the black furball got up on its hind legs in a strange attempt to look menacing. However, it fell onto its back and then started frantically trying to roll over. “Oooh brave warrior..” She cooed. Kneeling down, she offered a hand to the kitten. His face scrunched up. With laid-back ears, he sniffed Charlotte’s hand, still growling. “Come now, you need to settle down. You are misbehaving.”

Ruby came bounding up to it and immediately scooped up the kitten to give it a kiss on its head. It screeched and jumped out of her hands. Charlotte was quick to gather it in her arms and held it close to her, petting him gently yet stubbornly. The cat did indeed begin to submit to the gentle pets but he still hissed.

As Lady Vikena and Ruby had been engaging with the cat, Ryn took a moment to move into the alleyway… To find… nothing. Absolutely nothing. Not a single guard, forensics team, or pool of blood. The crime scene was practically spotless. Ryn narrowed his eyes. The Caesonian law enforcers apparently were more adept at making evidence disappear than preserving them. Not the least bit surprising, I suppose… His mind was about to wander to a time long past before he forced himself to remain in the present. Stay focused.

He swept through the alley, confirming that it was the cleanest it had ever been in a long time. They even picked up a lot of the litter commonly seen in these types of places. Unfortunate that it had to take a murder to make that happen in this part of town.

As Ryn returned, he stopped in the middle of the alleyway and then lowered himself close enough to the ground to sniff. Whoever cleaned up the mess must have decided that splashing water was enough to hide evidence of murder since he could still smell the blood. There was also a hint of alcohol, though he wasn’t sure where it came from. He picked himself up and turned his attention higher, to the walls of the neighboring buildings and their rooftops.

The clouds above parted, allowing for the moonlight to illuminate the dark alleyway just enough for Ryn to notice the twinkle of a small glass vial. He picked up the vial. It could have been random trash, but the purplish red drops of liquid piqued his curiosity. He brought the vial closer to his nose. It was the same smell from the ground. Then it clicked. It was wine. … Wine? Who would put wine in a vial?

Ryn walked back to Lady Vikena and Ruby who were acquainting themselves with a black cat. “I’m sorry ladies for making you wait. It seems the authorities have cleaned up most of the evidence,” He showed them the vial in his hand, “except for this.”

Ruby took the vial in her hand with a quick snatch and peered at it closely. She opened it up and took a big sniff. “Wooooowee! That is wine. I suppose it won’t matter if I take a drink?” She said with a big smile, holding the vile open near her mouth. But she hesitated to continue until there was reassurance from the others.

“Uhhh maybe you should refrain.” Charlotte suggested nervously, coming closer as she hugged the hissing kitten in her arms. “We don’t know what’s in there, Ruby.”

Ruby’s boldness to drink from a random vial that was laying around in a dark alley made Ryn smile just as broadly as she was. “You most certainly have a more daring spirit than I, Ms. Ruby. Buuut… please do keep in mind that it’s a mysterious vial that was left at a crime scene. A murder scene I might add, so I’d be… cautious. You never know.” As Ryn spoke, he slowly lifted his fingers towards the kitten, but stopped short from actually touching the frightened creature. He left his fingers hovering within sniffing range of the cat and avoided making direct eye contact with it. Ryn would have felt a random lick against his finger. Then came another hiss. “Do you think it’s expensive wine?”

Looking disappointed, Ruby slowly moved the vial away from her mouth. “Looks expensive! I mean, why else would it be in a vile?” She held it out for the others to reach. “I will refrain.. for now.” Her face held an uptight expression before she started scanning the room for other souvenirs.

Charlotte moved to put the kitten down, only for it to scramble up to her shoulder and cling onto it. She glanced towards it and he met her eyes, giving her another hiss but his body language was fearful. She smiled to herself then reached over to take the vial from Ruby, both for her own good and to inspect it. The only way to answer such a question was to taste it. She imagined that even if it was poisoned, then a little dab on the tongue wouldn’t have been potent enough to do much. And if the person had been killed by ax, poisoned wine was unlikely. However, she was apprehensive. She paused for a while as if bracing herself, then tapped her finger in the wine ever so lightly and tapped it on her tongue. It wasn’t enough to tell its quality, but… ” I think this is the wine that was served at the ball…Peculiar.” Her eyes rose to meet the others, “To the library?” Once they had agreed, the trio was back on their original route, now with a furry friend still rooted to Charlotte’s shoulder.

Ruby watched with surprise as she dabbed a little on her tongue. How come I couldn’t any…

When Lady Vikena tasted the wine, it left Ryn stupefied. Since the murder was committed using an axe, he thought a poisoned vial of wine would be overdoing things —leaning on the theatrical even—, but it still never hurt to be careful. There were plenty of poisons in the world that required very little of it to be lethal. Yet Lady Vikena decided to take the risk. Even Ruby would have done it had he not asked her to err on the side of caution. Ryn was not sure if he should be impressed by their courage or be deeply concerned for their safety and the lack of venturesomeness on his part. Should he not be just as daring as they, more so if he wanted to be the kind of effective leader that brought about change?

He stared at Lady Vikena, waiting to see the signs of poison taking effect. When it did not, Ryn told himself that he should check again later. In the meantime…

The same wine served at the ball, huh? Peculiar indeed… The wines served at the party were of the variety that the average person would find difficult to obtain. Though not entirely impossible, especially tonight.

As the library came into view, Ryn spoke up, “Lady Vikena, in the tavern, I heard from the owner that it was Count Damien who ordered her to keep us in the tavern.” Lady Vikena’s gaze shot to Ryn. “She said she was told it was for our own safety… it may have to do with this murder, or maybe it doesn’t, but… I just thought Count Damien’s actions felt out of place. Especially considering—...” Ryn stole a glance at Ruby’s direction then returned his eyes to Lady Vikena. He was not sure how much detail he should divulge to their new acquaintance. “What you’ve told me about him.”

” When my mother died, Count Damien made no move to involve himself in the investigation. I don’t think he did when my blood-father did either…” If one was paying attention, they would have noticed a flash of anger briefly cross her expression. ”...I agree it’s out of place. He involves himself in many affairs he should not, but only when it benefits him… I don’t have a good feeling in my tummy. “ With a frown, she looked at Ryn, ” I have quite a bit of investigating to do…. Though most likely, this will occur after I finally get some sleep tonight.”

Ryn nodded before turning to Ruby, “Does Ms. Olga work for Count Damien?”

”Nah. Think she owes him or something though. “ Ruby had answered.

And there it was, the wiggle room.

Once inside the library, they discovered it was grand inside with more books than one could imagine with a high-glass ceiling that allowed them to see the stars above. It was dim and quiet, with barely anyone inside at the late hour. Charlotte moved forward as the moonlight glimmered down on them, ”Lorenzo!” She called, enticing somebody curled up in a chair to shh her, but she could not be bothered to pay them any mind other than to apologize quickly. It only took a few minutes of searching from then on to figure out Lorenzo wasn’t here either. With distress, she sat down in a chair and buried her face in her hands. The cat was now seated on her lap and nibbling on the fabric of her dress.

… Will I ever see him again? … I don’t want to lose my family a third time.

A hand reached over to touch her shoulder. When she looked up, she saw Fritz sitting next to her. He was smiling at her reassuringly, “You will, Charlotte.”

One way or another. “You will see him again.” Ryn’s hand moved to the kitten and scratched its chin long enough to make it purr. A soothing rumble that never failed to make him feel better when he felt down. “We only searched two places… both which Count Damien suggested and it’s only been a few hours since Mr. Benjamin last saw your father. It’s too early to give up. Lorenzo is out there.” Dark eyes held Lady Vikena’s blue eyes. He nodded slowly, “yes?” Lady Vikena smiled faintly and nodded, though there was some residual fear in her expression. “Yes,” he reaffirmed.

Ryn stood up from his chair and bowed. “Forgive me if I have offended you for being overly familiar, Lady Vikena.” He straightened himself up, “There were not that many people left in the library, but Ruby and I asked around to see if anyone might know something. Apparently, there’s a secret party being held tonight. Very exclusive, invite- only, by the sounds of it.” Ryn wondered if it was the one and the same invitation the Danrose children had.

“Thank you Fritz.” Charlotte reached out to take his hand and squeeze t gently. ”I appreciate you being so nice to me tonight… You’re right I shouldn’t give up. I’m just a little overwhelmed.” She sighed, composing herself as she straightened as well. After a pause, she lifted a nearby novel from a side table called ‘The Great Hero of Avalia,’ Charlotte managed a playful smile, tapping the book with her finger. ” If the brave Darius did not give up when the odds were against him, then neither shall I…. As for that party… I have no idea where that could be. ”
Wayra
Time: Evening
Location: The Park of Sorian

The scent of iron rode the wind and traveled through Sorian, fading in intensity and blending with other scents as it sailed through the air. By the time it reached Wayra’s nostrils, there was little left of the original smell. Yet Wayra could tell it was fresh blood from a life that was snuffed out much too early. As tragic as it was to hear the end of a song, this was nothing new here. There were plenty of other stories that came to an abrupt end tonight. If others cared enough to be more attentive, they’d’ve noticed it too. Not that it would change anything even if they did.

Sorian, the supposed grand jewel of Caesonia, reeked of rot. This place has been stagnant for much too long. Because nothing changed, the city decayed, infecting the very foundation with a taint. It would only be a matter of time till the infected pillars collapsed under the weight of the elite, crushing everyone below them in their wake. No one would come out unscathed from it. Even the highborn wouldn’t be immune to the consequences. Not if something changes soon. Perhaps, in their limited wisdom, it was what the crown was attempting to do by extending their annual party invitation to Alidasht.

A zephyr whispered to Wayra to look up. They raised their heads just in time to watch an owl release whatever it held in its talons. Wayra grabbed the furry thing before it hit the ground and examined it more closely. A headless, legless, tailless “rat”. Wayra brought the rat closer to their nose to sniff it. The pelt was definitely that of a rat, but this thing came from the freckled Varian. The unmistakable odor of his pipe seeped deeply into the fur. Wayra turned the rat around in their hands for a bit before plunging their fingers into its belly. The threads that held the skin in place snapped, allowing the entails —a cloth— to spill out. A cloth that smelled primarily of the dark-eyed Varian but also had a strong scent of another person. Snot and tears from another person. It wasn’t the best quality of ingredients they’ve ever worked with, but they’d have to make do.



Karleen
Time: Evening
Location: Danrose Castle Basement

To Karleen, the lifestyle of the upper class was something that came straight out of a fairy tale. The glitz and glam were candy to the giantess’ eyes, making her heart skip a beat just looking at them. The soothing music, enticing aromas, and delectable treats only added to her awe. How much she wanted to revel in the fantasy for a while longer. On the other hand, she knew she couldn't. Parties had to come to an end at some point, and she had to be grateful for even being able to set foot in the castle.

Though the muscles in Karleen’s face didn’t move an inch, inside the woman smiled at the thought of being able to walk freely without shackles. A simple action that so many on the surface took for granted. Something that Karleen could now do, just like the commoners.

The life of the upper class might’ve been what the giantess dreamed of being a part of, but for the better part of her life, Karleen believed that the life of a commoner sounded too good to be true too: the autonomy —no matter how limited—, to be able to claim something as your own, to have a name that was not just a string of numbers and letters. Foreign concepts, outlandish ideas, dreams worth fighting tooth and nail for. While she understood that some people considered these to be the bare minimum for a decent life, anything more than these was a luxury Karleen couldn’t afford… At least, it used to be.

Karleen glared at the old map in her hand before looking at her surroundings. The corridor was made almost entirely out of stone and little else. A stark contrast to everything above ground.

For some reason, Karleen imagined that the basement of a castle would look a lot prettier. She got the idea stuck in her head because everything else the aristocrats had was overly fancy. Surely their dungeons were gold-plated, diamond-encrusted labyrinths that sparkled even in the absence of sunlight. But no. Not only were the halls dark and dingy like the underground cells she grew up in, but they were somehow colder in every way imaginable. The fact that Karleen had a hard time telling the difference between the storage, servant’s quarters, and the dungeon area spoke volumes as to how the crown thought of its servants. This thought would only be strengthened as Karleen explored the corridors.

The halls were eerily quiet. Many of the servants were still working upstairs, either cleaning up after the guests or serving them. It made snooping around the basement much easier for the giant woman, but it also made her uncomfortable. The only thing that kept her from focusing too much on her discomfort was to concentrate on the search, which worked for a while. As she continued her exploration, however, she began to notice a faint sound bouncing off the surrounding stones. The soft cracking came at a steady rhythm, faltering every now and then. The sound became louder and louder as Karleen walked about, until it was loud enough for her to recognize what it was.

Memories of her childhood rushed towards her, slamming her mind violently against her skull like waves ramming into the rocky shore. She would’ve drowned in it, but she learned how to float above it when it tried to drag her down. As familiar as the basement was to her childhood home, this place was not it. Karleen was no longer that child. She is stronger, tougher. It’ll all be fine.

The giantess gathered herself and continued forward, but quickly backed away when she was about to turn a corner. There was a servant, a middle-aged woman, standing with her arms folded and a sour expression. She was glaring at the direction where the sounds were coming from. Karleen could tell it was a room, but from the angle she was peeking in from, she couldn’t tell what kind of room it was.

After one particularly loud crack, the sound stopped. The servant visibly relaxed. Whatever happened in that room reached its end, or would’ve if whoever was in there kept their mouth shut. Voices coming from the room were too quiet for Karleen to catch, but whatever was said resulted in a sudden whack, which startled both the servant and Karleen.

“That’s enough!” The servant shouted before storming into the room.
The voice that spoke up tried to sound calm, but the strain in their voice made it obvious that they were anything but that. “You really need to train the servants better.”
“She served her punishment. Anything more than that and I’ll have to—…”
“What?” This time the voice that cut in made no attempt to hide its owner's contempt, “Do what? Report to the king? The queen? And what do you think they’re going to do to me?” The silence that followed was the answer. “Exactly. Not a goddamn thing. That’s what… Ooor what? Are you going to sleep with His Majesty to make him do what you want again? Like how you rode him all the way to head housekeeper?”
The scoff came from someone else, “You’re one to talk.”
“… Say that again.”
“Gladly, I said you’re a miserable sack of sh*t who gets off on tormenting people who can’t fight back and sucking Edin’s—”
“Riona!”
The other person was cackling when the woman named Riona restated her previous comment, “Ooooh, I’m going to savor the day you finally break.”
“You had 12 f**king years to try and I’m still here. What’s wrong? Losing your touch?”
“Hmm…” There was a pause. Karleen imagined the person taking their time looking Riona over. “I don’t know about that. You put up a brave front, but the cracks are showing… it won't be long…”
“Stop it, the both of you!” The servant shouted, “Riona, you’re dismissed. Go patch yourself up.” When Riona didn’t answer fast enough the woman sternly commanded, “Now.” The servant’s attention turned to the other person in the room, “As for you, even the King has his limits. Do you have any idea how hard it is to hire—…” The heavy wooden door closed, muffling the argument that ensued inside.

The dark haired woman who limped her way out of the room had the same look about her as the children who just survived a deathmatch in the arena. That moment when the adrenaline’s effects ran its course and everything that it had been numbed came crashing down. The fear, the pain. Everything. The woman tried to take a step, winced, and stumbled forward. She caught herself from slamming into the wall with her hands, but she didn’t move from that position. Karleen could hear the woman’s breathing turn ragged.

Back when Karleen was not “Karleen,” whenever unpleasant thoughts became powerful enough to paralyze her, she learned to free herself from their binding hex by filling her mind with her favorite things. Like the taste of sweets, the feeling of a full stomach, the warmth of the sun on her skin, pretty dresses, and fluffy stuffed animals. At the time, they were just figments of her imagination, stuff so distant that she never knew them in person, but close enough to know that they were real outside the steel bars. Karleen’s desire to experience what their masters prevented them from doing drove her to fight no matter how hopeless the situation became. She was going to live her life to the fullest and die happy; the chance she robbed others of would not be wasted.

But whatever strings that propped the maid up were none of those things. Not a single joyous, uplifting thought. What sort of cheerful thought made a person sweat bullets and claw at the stone walls like they were trying to dig their way out of their prison? The maid was trying to keep it quiet, but the echo chamber-like quality of the corridor made it impossible to hide the shortness of her breathing. The woman stood there, writhing with her inner demons, until the worst of the emotional waves subsided enough for her to catch her breath and stop trembling. She pressed her flushed forehead to the cool stone.

The maid took a few steps closer to the wall until her shoes touched it. Either she was trying to fuse into the wall or attempting to siphon the durability of the stones. Even if she succeeded in doing either, it was entirely pointless, because all rocks, great mountains included, eventually succumb to weathering and erosion. With time, it starts to break down, and bits and pieces of it are carried far, far away. Just like this maid. Riona might’ve avoided completely breaking apart in the past 12 years, but those years were taking their toll. The cracks were there and maybe there were chipped off fragments that she wasn't even aware she’d lost. It was, as the other person in the room said, only a matter of time until the maid shattered into pieces.

In an ideal world, the strong would’ve protected the weak before such things happened. If there were none, then the weak supported each other to become strong as one. But Sorian was far from the ideal world. Here, the strong butchered or leached off of the weak, and the weak trampled over each other if necessary. The weak had to become stronger if they wanted to survive. If that maid fell down, no one would be there to help her back up. That’s how it worked underground, and Karleen expected no less from Sorian on the surface. It was the one law that applied to both sides of the capital.

For the time being, all Karleen could do was pray —to the apathetic divine forces that be— that the maid found something else to live for. Something that could make life a little more bearable, if not make her smile from the bottom of her heart. A reason to hold on just a little longer… just a little bit longer.
Fritz "Ryn" Hendrix

Time: Evening
Location: The Tough Tavern
Interaction(s): Olga @princess (Collab)

Though there were those who believed that the world revolved more or less around the Three Kingdoms, Eromora was home to countless cultures. As someone who worked in an international trading company, Ryn had the privilege of experiencing if but a fracture of it and he learned a lot from it. This included lessons such as how alcohol was an excellent drug for impairing people’s inhibitory control, no matter where they hailed from. The higher the blood alcohol level, the looser one’s tongue becomes. At times, this aided in the formation of bonds; at other times, it ruined them beyond repair.

As soon as Lady Vikena walked away from Ryn, he began the process of building a rapport with the tavern patrons. Many of them were friendly enough, willing to engage in conversation with the man who paid for their drinks. As they conversed, though, Ryn realized that the people in the tavern were either strangely tight-lipped, especially when the conversation even lightly touched on Duke Vikena, or truly clueless. Yet, all were coordinated in their insistence to remain unforthcoming on the matter. Gazes that floated over to the bandana-wearing woman every now and then, tipped Ryn off that the reason for this was because she instructed them, verbally or by less direct means like a meaningful glare or accosting someone normally everyone else would have happily ignored if it meant less trouble for them. No one would tell him anything unless he took her down first.

With alcohol, naturally.

Ryn popped a small tablet in his mouth along with some protein-rich finger food he ordered to fill his stomach and waited long enough for it to settle in before he approached the woman with the bandana. He challenged the woman to a drinking contest: they would drink the strongest liquor the tavern had to offer until it was obvious that one of them wouldn’t be able to handle another sip. With a bit of teasing and calling her a milk drinker, the bandana woman accepted.

At first, everyone seemed to believe the woman had the game in the bag. Even ignoring the fact that, as the others put it, the woman’s blood was made up of mostly alcohol, it was evident by body size alone that Ryn was at a disadvantage. So many were mildly impressed when Ryn looked perfectly fine after his third shot. Around the fifth shot, people were surprised that his cheeks were barely pink. The atmosphere started shifting after the seventh shot. Ryn looked like he was just about to get tipsy while the bandana woman’s face became flushed. There were people who accused the bartender of watering down the alcohol. However, that was quickly disproven with a sip of Ryn’s cup. By the eighth shot, a number of spectators began to consider the possibility that the small black-haired “boy” had a chance of beating “the boss.” At shot number eleven, Marceline was forced to declare Ryn the winner. Had he not cheated, Ryn would have been on the floor at shot number six.

Ryn helped “the boss” to her feet and excused themselves to a table off to the side after asking for some water. Once the woman sat down, Ryn sat across from her and took her wrist into his hands, fingers pressed lightly against it. He checked the clock on the wall to make sure his counting aligned with it before leaning closer to the giant woman. For a few minutes, they engaged in the typical small talk. He learned that her name was Olga. She lived in a nearby house and she owned this tavern. Her favorite color was red and she secretly loved bunnies but hated any sweet foods. Her dream was to continue living the life she was. Olga’s physiological signs strongly suggested that she was telling Ryn the truth up to this point. Now to see if she would keep this up.

“Do you know who Duke Lorenzo Vikena is?”

Olga had nodded nonchalantly, “Yeah. The man has big house down the street. Comes to stay there every so often then goes back to Veirmont. Never come here though. No, no…” She was honest with her words. Olga was never one to lie, unlike her sister Helga who worked in the castle. She was sure glad that woman was far away.

“Did you see him tonight?”
She shook her head. “No. Lorenzo boy never come in here.”
He clarified, “You didn’t see him outside the tavern either?” She shook her head again.

“Why did Count Damien order you to keep us here?” He asked the question with such confidence that it sounded like he already knew Count Damien was involved, but in truth, it was a hunch at best. The only reason why Lady Vikena and Ryn even passed by the Tough Tavern was because Count Damien pointed them in this direction. According to Olga, however, Duke Vikena never stepped foot in the establishment before. Then there was the question of how they knew who Lady Vikena was. Of course, it was possible that all of this was pure coincidence, but everything seemed too planned out to be just that. Had they gone to the library first, would they have encountered the same interference by a different group of people?

Olga leaned on the tabletop and gestured him closer with her finger. She then whispered in his ear, “Calbert’s boy Henry came to window. Said two with dark hair in ponytails: Lady Vikena and you. ‘Cept she has pretty ribbon. Haha! …So I see you two, I close door. Henry told me this is all for safety so I tell my staff. “ She paused to take a puff of her cigar. After an exhale and thoughtful pause, she added, “He seemed shaken up.” She shook her body for a moment and widened her eyes to dramatize the effect of one who was afraid. “Something bad going on I think.”

Ryn frowned. Why would Count Damien want to keep them trapped here? Or was it Lady Vikena specifically he wanted in one place? Did the “bad something” have anything to do with the duke? At least it was clear that Count Damien had control over certain districts. Enough influence to make people follow his orders at a drop of a hat. Not a good sign, but perhaps there was still some wiggle room.

“All for whose safety?” Ryn flipped his ponytail with a smile. “What kind of danger does some duke’s daughter and a pip-squeak with matching hairstyles pose to you and your staff?” He replaced his smile with a concerned look as he leaned in closer to Olga. “He’s… not threatening the people here… is he?” He purposefully kept “he” vague in hopes that Olga would fill in the rest.

Olga chuckled at the sight of him flipping his pony tail. ”No. Danger to you. Not to us. Something-”

Marcy ran away from the side window, mop in hand. Olga paused, mouth still agap as if to continue speaking as she started mopping the walkway to the stairs. It did not make sense to Olga why she had done so at first. The eyes of many followed the sight of the frantic mopping. She watched Marcy then dive behind the bar with the mop.

Then the door burst open to the sight of Count Calbert.



Udo
Time: Evening
Location: Danrose Castle ~ Harbor

The cool summer night breeze sent shivers down the east islander’s spine. He tried to shield himself from it by snugging further into the muffler, the redheaded scoundrel probably nicked from some poor soul. To anyone else, the wind was pleasant to the skin, but the Northern Kingdoms’ summers were much too dry and cold for Udo’s taste. It was no wonder a majority of its citizens were so pale.

He hoped that standing outside for hours would’ve acclimated his body to the temperature, but much to the warrior’s dismay, it never happened. He was tempted to drink the vodka stashed away in the saddlebags on his horse to get warm, but unlike some people, Udo preferred to stay sober while on the job. So he opted to jog in place as he waited.

After the majority of the party attendees had departed, very few people trickled out of the castle, making it much easier to identify who left the premises. The first notable person to leave unattended was Baron Asteroth Hugonin’s ward. Some farmboy, if sources were to be believed. Though Udo was skeptical that that's all that there was to it. Two of them placed their bets on Kazumin being an illegitimate child of some nobility; Peter thought he was a royal bastard. Considering Edin’s promiscuity, it wouldn't be the least bit shocking if they found out that he sired half of Sorian’s younger population.

The second group of people was hard to miss. A large carriage carrying Callum, Anastasia, and some other prominent figures crossed the drawbridge and made its way down Edin Avenue. Udo climbed onto his own horse and followed the group from a safe distance, being extra cautious to not be spotted by another carriage that followed suit. Once he witnessed the carriages arrive at the harbor’s warehouses, Udo dismounted.

It was somehow simultaneously too lively and too quiet at this hour of the night. Udo spent enough time with Crosswinds Tradings to know how harbors looked at night and yet… The warrior scanned his surroundings. Aside from the guests who he assumed were summoned here, he spotted a number of people patrolling the area. Guards, most certainly. Spies, conceivably. But the warrior had no way of discerning whose.

As the royal siblings and their entourage entered a specific warehouse, Udo’s ocean blue eyes scowled at the logo painted on it. Black Rose. What were Edin's youngest two children getting themselves mixed up in?

If Black Rose was involved, he had a feeling he wouldn’t be able to enter the warehouse without alerting Marek’s henchmen or getting out unscathed. As much as he didn’t want to admit it, infiltration was Peter’s forte. Udo sighed. What would that half-wit do if he was in Udo’s place?

The islander took out one of the vodka bottles from the saddlebag and emptied it all over himself. Udo shuddered uncontrollably for a few seconds before returning the bottle and drawing out another full one. He shifted to the other side of his horse to collect a creel and fishing rod. After he put the full bottle into the creel, Udo stroked his horse. “Ewch yn ôl,” he commanded. The horse neighed in response and trotted in the direction of the palace, where it would “go back” to Hendrixes’ carriage.

Udo’s ears perked up at the sound of hooting. A great horned owl with a brightly colored ribbon tied to its left leg was perched upon one of the shipping crates. It flew up towards the roof of the building, turning its face to Udo once it landed. He was no fool to ignore the beckoning of their avian friends.
Charlotte Vikena
&
Fritz "Ryn" Hendrix



A strange chittering sound filled the room in the silence that had followed.

Charlotte and Fritz turned to the source as a black ferret wormed his way out from under the bed. She knelt down to collect the furry being as he launched himself into her arms and swirled around chaotically in them, nibbling at her hand. "Oh, my little baby." She cooed softly and tickled Kier's chest, oblivious to Fritz's intense gaze and raised hand that yearned to touch the tiny creature. Charlotte was sure that if Lorenzo had been home, he would have been here with Kier. She stood up, ferret in hand, and walked over to the bed. Obviously, no one had sat or laid on it, but she patted around the surface, searching for any sign of warmth.

Ryn let his hand down as Lady Vikena picked up the creature and began her investigation of the bed. He continued to appreciate the adorable ferret from where he stood a while longer before finally joining Lady Vikena in her search. Though he thought it might be rude of him to enter a duke's personal quarters, it was not the first time he had entered someone's room without its owner's permission. He scanned the room for any recent traces of Duke Vikena.

She straightened back up with the sudden feeling to just curl up on the floor and sleep right then and there. "If only things could be easy…" Charlotte sighed as she scoped the room, hands on her hips. Delilah had cleaned in here after Lorenzo had left, and indeed he'd have messed at least one thing up by now. But, on the other hand, there was not a thing out of place.

Charlotte moved into the hall and called through it, "Lorenzo!" She glanced around, listening carefully for a moment. Her tired blue eyes found Fritz's gaze. Kier halted his chaotic tumbling as if he had suddenly died, his gaze now locked on Fritz, sniffing. “Well. It seems the night has only begun for me."

"It certainly seems that way… I can't say for certain, but it didn't look like your father returned to his room." Ryn could not refrain from smiling at the ferret who showed interest in him. He walked closer to it and extended his hand for it to sniff. When the ferret decided that the stranger was not a threat, Ryn sneaked in a few head scratches. “Which is odd… Didn't Nathaniel mention that Benjamin told him that Duke Vikena went straight to his room after arriving home?" Could it mean that one, or both, lied to them? That or Duke Vikena managed to run off without any of his servants noticing him.
Kier took Ryn' 's fingers in his little paws and began to happily hug them to his body. Charlotte was silent as she studied the bedroom once more then the hallway. "Lorenzo would have left that bedroom in a frenzy as he ran late…. His room is now clean, meaning the door was open, and Delilah was able to go in and tidy up." Charlotte informed him, then pointed at the carpet in the hallway. It was off-center as if it had been pushed. “Someone left in a hurry. They locked the door and hurried off in that direction, I think.." She pointed forward, using the carpet to decide the direction the person had gone.

"Someone who knew exactly where the key was hidden or potentially has access to another key to the room." Which narrowed down their pool of "suspects" considerably. "This someone, if it's not the Duke himself, went through quite the effort to make it look like no one went in the room since Delilah cleaned up…" Ryn gave the ferret one last scratch before he walked towards the carpet to get a better look at it. There was a skid mark from a shoe, solidifying the direction someone had run in. It was toward the stairs to go descend to the first floor. "Do you think they were looking for something?"

Charlotte moved around the room to get a closer look, "I don't know. I don't come in here often…But I don't think anything seems moved enough. It doesn't seem like anyone came in even after it was cleaned." She examined the room for a little longer before joining him in the hallway and closing the door.

"So you think the Duke came upstairs but didn't enter his room for one reason or another, and then he bolted back downstairs?" Like he forgot something? Another possibility popped up into his head, causing him to rub his temples. Or someone? Ryn sighed. Charlotte had nodded.

"Let's make sure he isn't in the house and then find Benjamin to-." She broke off, pausing before telling him with hands waving defensively, "Oh, I'm sorry! I'm not trying to force you into this, by the way… I am kinda thinking out loud here. Let me know please if you'd like to go home at any time."

Ryn placed his fingers lightly over his heart and, in mock shock, exclaimed, "Detective! You cannot possibly think I can leave now? I'll be tossing and turning in my bed for the rest of the night, wondering what happened." The count smiled to reassure her that she was not forcing him into anything, "Let us proceed with our investigation." The count glanced down at his new furry friend, "Will you help us find your master, little one?"

Charlotte smiled at him while Kier hopped onto Ryn's shoulder upon being addressed and climbed upon his head to sit in his hair. Despite the situation, she couldn't help but giggle. She proceeded down the stairs and looked around thoughtfully.

”Lorenzo!” She suddenly called through the house. Delilah moved into the room with genuine concern written on her face. Charlotte immediately informed her of the situation, " Lorenzo is missing. Please search the house with the other staff best you can. Oh, and please have Benjamin come to the parlor here."

“Of course. I'm so sorry this is happening, Lottie. I knew something seemed strange that he would apparently come home without you, but…"Delilah drew off, her tone sad, but she did not seem all that surprised. Lorenzo had been strange, to say the least, since his wife's death. Nonetheless, she alerted the other staff to search the house, stating, "Yes, I will do so, right away."

Charlotte looked at Fritz, confessing, "I do not think he is here unless maybe he's sleeping somewhere odd …but I was quite loud, wasn't I?"

"Any louder, and I fear you'll call your neighbors." And no one wanted that. However, it did make Ryn wonder if there was any chance that Duke Vikena would visit Count Damien at this time of night. They may have disdained each other, but they were “close” enough to come to a mutual agreement to keep the cause of their "bad blood" a secret from Lady Vikena. Perhaps he could ask Peter later if he saw the Duke. "If he was in the house, I think he'd have to be a heavy sleeper, heavily sedated, unconscious, or he's in a soundproof room. In which case, I'd love to ask who made the room because its soundproof capabilities are impeccable."

She tapped her foot anxiously and wrapped her arms around herself at the mention of neighbors. Neighbor. I reckon he could be involved in this too… But Calbert made himself clear that he wanted Lorenzo home as I do right now... Unless tonight was the straw that broke the camel's back. The calm expression she had been wearing for the sake of Fritz and her own pride faltered a little, and she covered her mouth, turning away.

Ryn narrowed his eyes. His stern expression mismatched the adorable presence of the ferret, which remained carefully balanced on his head. “Wh–...”

“My entrance has been requested.”

Both Charlotte and Fritz glanced over, her hand falling from her face as Benjamin stood in the doorway, cane in hand. He was a bearded gentleman in a high-class suit and top hat with a rather serious countenance. He gave a bow to Charlotte and tipped his hat. “Good evening, M’lady.”

He leaned on his cane as he stepped forward toward the duo, telling his story before they could even ask questions, "When we arrived at the estate, Duke Vikena was somewhat inebriated. However, the man could still tread very well on his two feet and casually informed me he would slumber in his bed-chamber. I watched him make it into the estate before turning on my heels to place the horses in their stable."

So he had no intention of picking up Lady Vikena afterwards?

He came to a stop before Fritz and eyed him rather intensely. ”Hmm… Currently unidentifiable…Very well then. State your reason for this appearance in the Vikena establishment."

Ryn faced him with a smile, "Good evening to you too, Mr…." He had no idea what the carriage man's surname was, so he settled with, "Benjamin. I apologize for disturbing you at this hour, you must be terribly tired, but … well, you see, Lady Vikena could not return home in her family carriage, so I had the honor of escorting her here myself." He tilted his head slightly, and the ferret on top mimicked him in the opposite direction; two pairs of obsidian eyes stared right back at Benjamin, "I was offered tea, and I accepted. Now here I am enjoying what the Vikena establishment has to offer. Will this answer suffice, Mr. Benjamin?"

Benjamin stroked his beard repeatedly and thoughtfully. ”Ahh… This is a sufficient answer indeed "He then smiled at Ryn for a moment, but his eyes moved up to the ferret instead, petting his head, " I see you have made a friend of Kier… Lady Charlotte, I do believe he's a keep-"

”Benjamin. Why would you and Lorenzo leave without me?" Charlotte had no qualms interrupting at the moment. She stepped forward to come next to the pair and looked at him. Her tone was perhaps sharper and more commanding than usual. He was more recently employed, and she could not say she was close with Benjamin. He was usually pleasant enough despite being a rather strange fellow.

Benjamin was surprised to see Charlotte step out of her usual tone, even if it was slightly so. However, he was not hesitant with his reply. "Duke Vikena requested to abruptly leave at once. Being that he is my master, I obliged. Oh, and the maids who helped carry him to the carriage also informed us that you were staying the night at the castle with your friends… So you can imagine I was quite curious to see you here tonight… I sincerely apologize." It did not take long for him to notice Charlotte wasn't thrilled with his answer for some reason. Her brows were furrowed. His expression saddened. "...I think if the Duke is not within this estate, we should perhaps report him as missing as soon as possible so search parties can thus be conducted. Since I had a hand in causing this situation, I can be the one to do so."

Duke Vikena seemed to be a man who turned things into quite the ordeal, no matter how minor it began. His mistakes were likely not motivated by ill intent, or Ryn assumed so. Instead, trouble seemed to follow him about like faes had taken a shine to him, spreading mayhem and giggling at the resulting pandemonium.

The Caesonian court, as far as Ryn could gather, did not think much of Duke Vikena. With the palanquin incident still fresh in everyone's mind, announcing the Duke's disappearance would not help the Vikena's already tenuous situation. Lady Vikena's expression drew Ryn's attention. "Lady Vikena, it is your choice. Should we officially declare the Duke missing, or would you like to keep this in-house?"

Charlotte glanced between them and bit her lip as if withholding her thoughts. She finally stated, “...I want to look a while longer before declaring him missing… I do not think anyone’s checked the yard or garden..” She glanced at Ryn, “You can join me if you like… Thank you, Benjamin.” She did not look in Benjamin’s direction as she made her way out the door and outside again.

Ryn took one step forward, then halted, remembering that he still had a passenger. He carefully picked Kier from his head and placed him carefully down. Stroking him gently, Ryn bid the ferret farewell and quickly rushed outside to Lady Vikena’s side.

Fritz had followed her as she descended the steps down to the path and moved into the yard. The two agreed it would be more efficient to split up for a short while as Lorenzo had an extensive property here. There was a fountain, a chicken coop, and even a tiny stable. Charlotte had moved toward an area heavily covered in flowers.

Ryn was walking along the borders of Vikena’s estate when a familiar sound caught his attention. He checked his surroundings to see if anyone else was around before quietly approaching the sound’s source. As he moved close enough towards it, Peter dropped down from above, landing as soundlessly and gracefully as a cat.

“Is Calbert here?”
“He’s in his fancy house, taking a bath. So I thought I’d come by and say hi.” Peter stood and gave Ryn a toothy grin. “So, hi, Boss. How was your date with Lady Lottie?”
He must have seen Ryn and Lady Vikena walk past Count Damien’s estate. “I’m not sure if walking someone home constitutes a date.”
“Eh,” the man shrugged, “there are people out there who think apples soaked in armpit sweat counts as wooing. So yeah, it’s a date.”
“Well, the date is now a missing person’s case.”
“It couldn’t have been that bad, Boss,” Peter smirked.
Ryn chuckled lightly at that, “I haven’t scared Charlotte off just yet. It’s—...”
“Lorenzo.” Ryn could hear the acid in the redhead’s voice as he crossed his arms and frowned. “I wouldn’t be wasting your time worrying about him, Boss. It’s not like he’s been missing for days.”
“We may be overreacting to a grown man being gone for a few hours, that’s true, but the circumstance in which he left… leaving Charlotte alone in that castle without her knowing, seems odd.”
“Not according to C-Bert here.” Peter pointed his chin to the Damien estate. “When he heard that Lorenzo left, he said that it ‘was expected’.”
“Is that so? Did he say why?”
Peter shook his head, “And before you ask, C-Bert hasn’t met Lorenzo since the ball ended, and Lorenzo hasn’t paid the Damien estate a visit… Unless he came in the house before Calbert got home, they have a private room downstairs where they do their kinky sh*te.”
“You’re never going to drop that, are you?”
The count expected a joke to follow his question but was greeted only with an awkward silence, “They’re perfect for each other, in a way.”
Ryn searched Peter’s eyes, “Is there… something I’m missing here?”

Unable to maintain eye contact for long, Peter turned his gaze away, and he took off his hat to scratch his scalp in frustration. “I’m just annoyed with him. That’s all.” He made no attempt to clarify who he was annoyed with. When he placed his hat back on, Peter’s usual countenance returned as well, “Well, since we’re going to be talking about it anyway, there are a few things you should know.” He pointed a finger out, “Lady Lottie and C-Bert had a little chat. They talked about how she should kill herself like her mother and how everyone thought she was a whore and stuff like that. You know, the kind of banter me and Udo have.” A second finger jutted out. “C-Bert’s putting a lot of effort in keeping Lorenzo hidden away from the public eye. Did you know they have… had? An agreement that Lorenzo wasn’t supposed to attend events?”

“‘They’? As in between Charlotte and Calbert?”
“Based on how long he’s been out of the game… I’d say Lorenzo agreed too.”
“But… why? Why was that promise made in the first place? What would Calbert gain from such an arrangement?” Questions they had no answers to. Though Ryn started to feel that the late Duchess Vikena was at the center of it all. The biggest shard to the scattered answer Lady Vikena sought.
“More reason to dig in deeper, right Boss?” A sinister grin sprouted on the ginger’s face. “This oughta be fun.”

Sounds from a distance snapped Ryn’s head in its direction. “I should let you get back to work. Thank you for keeping me updated.”
“Well, I gotta prove that you don’t pay me just for my good looks.”
Ryn placed a hand over his mouth, “I don’t?”
“HA!” Peter kissed the air in Ryn’s direction. “I’ll head back to the castle in the morning.” He was about to turn away when Ryn remembered something he almost forgot.
“Before you go…” Ryn pulled out the soiled handkerchief from his pocket and handed it to Peter, “Mind sending this off?”
Peter squinted at the handkerchief and then looked at Ryn, puzzled. He wanted to ask what it was exactly but thought better of it. “To Wayra?” Peter placed the cloth into his pocket.
“As soon as you’re able.”
“Anything else?” When Ryn answered by shaking his head, Peter saluted him and turned around. And in a blink of an eye, Peter vanished from Ryn’s view.

Charlotte finally emerged and made her way over to Ryn. Their garden was rather large and complex, almost like a maze. It had taken her time to comb it through, but she felt that she had looked anywhere a grown man could be found, even glimpsing inside the tool shed and behind trees. It had also taken a moment longer since Nathaniel had informed her that no one could find any sign of Lorenzo inside the estate.

She raised her hand in a subtle wave as she came to stand at his side. Since Lorenzo was nowhere to be seen, she supposed Fritz did not have luck either. With a shaky breath, Charlotte said, “I guess he’s not here...”She rubbed her own arm as if to comfort herself, her gaze lowering, “... I’m really sorry about all this… We have, um, a guest bedroom if you are tired or anything.” Her gaze raised, and she looked at him with concern, ”If you’re hungry, I can get you something to eat as well.”

“That’s kind of you to offer, but I’ll be fine.”

Charlotte paused to glance down at her gown as the blue material shimmered in the moonlight, “Think I may go change into something more comfortable…”She knew the next step was to go walk about the kingdom. She definitely had to disturb the Calbert estate, but she wasn’t so sure she wanted to drag poor Fritz into that situation. He seemed to have a very kind soul, and it was certainly nice to make his acquaintance, but she had no business dragging him through the kingdom in the middle of the night.

She also knew it was technically possible Count Fritz could be someone sent to watch her by Calbert. Though she did not like to assume the worst in people, she knew after what happened that she should err on the side of caution…yet she felt in her gut that Count Fritz was someone she could trust. Thus, she had no intention of doubting him until he gave her a reason.

Ryn glanced at Lady Vikena’s dress at the mention of changing clothes. Thinking back on it now, it was probably one of the first things she should have done when she got home. The Northern Kingdom’s traditional formal party attire was notorious for feeling uncomfortable, and it only got worse the longer one wore it. “Will we be broadening our search beyond the Vikena estate, then? Do you know or know someone who knows where he might go?”

Charlotte hesitated, pursing her lips. Then, her gaze slid to the Damien estate. She sighed after a moment, hoping she would not regret this. “I think it’s time I tell you what I was upset about….Meet me in the front of the home.” She then retreated back into the house. Soon, Fritz would see her emerge in a simple purple dress. Her hair was tied back in a low ponytail, a lace ribbon holding her dark locks together. Though she was much more comfortable, she couldn’t shake feeling the way she did.

“Count Calbert approached me while I was up on the castle wall. He was behaving rather abnormal, moving toward me in a threatening manner.” She halted her words and stared at him,”I think he was trying to mess with my head, telling me to kill myself then saying it was a joke, changing moods, changing approaches… He may seem charming at first but be forewarned, he’s a dangerously manipulative man… Anyway, he was angry that Lorenzo went out tonight. Over the last year, he actually informed us that he did not want us to attend any events a few times. Perhaps he had meant we needed some time to grieve after my mother’s passing. However, it’s been a year.”

It all goes back to Duchess Vikena’s death.

Charlotte bit her lip as she felt the guilt set in again, ”I know if I said I hadn’t wanted to go tonight, he wouldn’t have, and we could have avoided all this. So in that way, perhaps he was right…yet… It still doesn’t make sense.” She took a moment to think before saying anything more.

Charlotte finally met his eyes, anxiety swimming in hers despite the firmness she pushed into her tone, “I think Lorenzo knows something he’s not supposed to, and Calbert is afraid he might tell someone. Terrified even.” She folded her arms, debating on saying more, but she eventually decided against it.

”I think Calbert is a good start tonight.”

As far as Peter could tell, Duke Vikena never went near Count Damien since the ball ended, so Ryn doubted that they would find the Duke there or if Count Damien would be gracious enough to point them in the right direction. They could only hope.

“Have you informed your servants where you will be going? We wouldn’t want them to think that another person went missing” Charlotte nodded. She had done so on the way outside.

Side by side, the pair exited the Vikena estate and made their way to the front gates of its neighbor. One could tell a lot by the exterior of a house. The Vikena’s estate was open, easily accessible from any side. Filled with vibrant and warm colors. Security-wise, it had a lot to be desired, but it was homely and welcoming.

In contrast, the Damien’s estate was precisely what one envisioned a nobleman’s mansion to look like. It was prestigious, scrupulously tidy, and above all else, aloof. The gates made of iron and stone separated the estate from the world. Whatever happened there… stayed there or went back to Montauppe.

Ryn glanced over at Lady Vikena to see how she was faring. His hand reached over, then quickly retreated. “It’ll be fine. I’m here.” Ryn was somewhat confident that the count would, at the very least, not be rude to her while he had an audience.

Charlotte looked at Fritz and gave him a small smile, perhaps the following words comforting herself as she whispered jokingly, “Pssh. Me? Scared of a pompous jerk like him? You must be confusing me for someone else.” She gave him a playful smile and flexed a thin, muscleless arm, but it was obviously trembling a little if one studied it. She was self-aware of how a punch from her would simply feel like a tickle, that sarcasm of hers finally making a return as she said, “They call me the big ol’ bruiser around here. I’m terrifying.”

“Good evening.”

She practically jumped out of her skin at the sudden sound of Calbert’s voice, her head whipping around to see him suddenly behind the gate, staring at them through the bars. His long black hair was damp, and he was in more comfortable yet somehow still fancy clothing. His intense blue eyes bore into her for just a second before a smile crossed his face, and he opened the gate.

“What a pleasant surprise!.” His tone and expression were both warm. Genuine. “Lady Charlotte, you’ll please have to introduce me to this gentleman here, but first, please assure me is… everything okay?”

Charlotte could hardly resist glaring at him, but she still held back. Thoughts of all the things she really wanted to say crossed her mind, but instead, she put on a small smile. “Um.. No, it’s not.” She glanced up at him, “Lorenzo is missing. I was wondering if you knew anything. He’s not with you, is he?”

A surprised look took over his expression, and he shook his head adamantly, “Oh dear. You poor thing. After the night you had…” He gave a sad sigh, “I’m so sorry. I haven’t seen him.” Calbert paused to open up the gate, coming to stand before them with a worried countenance, “How can I assist? …Maybe you should let the guards know, and you return home where you’re safe… It is getting late for you to be outside… Oh, if anything happened to you, it’d break my heart.” His voice cracked at the end of his words. It was strange how the man was so good at portraying his words in such a believable manner. If Charlotte hadn’t known the real Calbert, she might have even liked him at this moment. ”I am certain Lorenzo will be found safe and sound…He…. He’d never leave you alone, Lottie. “A hand fell on her shoulder comfortingly. “All will be alright.” His gaze moved to Ryn after letting the moment linger for a few seconds.

“My name is Calbert. Count Calbert of Montauppe.” He smiled as he introduced himself and bowed. “Thank you so much for accompanying our sweet Lottie. It is a comfort to know someone is with her tonight.”

Ryn returned the exact same smile and bowed just as Count Damien did. “I am Fritz Hendrix, Count of Erwynn. It is such a pleasure to meet the renowned Count Damien. I have heard so much about you!” He frowned slightly, “If only it were under better circumstances…” A woeful sigh escaped his lips, “Would… you happen to know where His Grace may have gone to? I’ve heard that you and Duke Vikena were the closest of friends. We were hoping that you may have some ideas…”

“Count Fritz Erwynn ! A marvelous name indeed for certainly a marvelous young man!” Calbert had said with gumption. His expression melted into a sadder one with his, “Hmm…Perhaps the library or…the tavern.” He relented with a sigh as if it were information he was reluctant to share. Calbert looked at Charlotte apologetically, who nodded her understanding,“I am sorry to reveal something perhaps indecent about your father. However, I know this is an emergency.”

Ryn’s eyes widened as if he was unaware of the Duke’s drinking problem, “I… see… Any particular tavern?” He could not deny the modicum of sadness he would feel if they did find the Duke in a drunken stupor in some tavern or dark alleyway, knowing that his daughter was left to fend for herself, but Ryn also wanted to trust the first instinct he had about the man.

“The Tough Tavern, right down the block from here.” He pointed him in the western direction they had walked from earlier.

Ryn’s eyes followed Count Damien’s finger before moving to Lady Vikena’s direction. He nodded to her, turned to the count, and bowed, “Thank you so much for your time, Count Damien. We shall head over there immediately.” When he straightened up, he smiled, “I hope you have a wonderful evening, Count Damien.” He turned to Lady Vikena, “Shall we?”

”We shall.”Charlotte was more than happy to walk away from Count Damien’s house and towards the tavern. She offered her arm out with a smile she managed. Fritz took it without hesitation, and they both walked away.

Once they were far enough away, Count Damien had whispered to his advisor Henry to find out more about “Count Fritz Erwynn.” In the shadows, another figure rubbed their tongue against the gap between their teeth as they grinned. Amber eyes shone with excitement. An owl hooted in the trees nearby and flew away, its feet clenched around a small furry thing.

After the two walked some distance away from the Damien estate, the smile he kept up for the count dropped, “He is very talented. Almost think he missed his calling as a thespian.” At surface level, everything Count Damien did and said was exactly what it was. However, like his house, Ryn could feel that cold iron gate that safely hid things away from the world. In every gesture, there was a different undertone to it. Subtle enough for the casual observer to miss, yet ever-present.

“Oh, he certainly thinks he’s on a stage performing a play.” Charlotte had agreed with an eye roll. They came to a stop before the small tavern. It was shabby-looking and not the most welcoming. She glanced across the street at the other buildings. She noticed giggling women in front of them, trying to wave over passer-byers. It took a long moment to click on what she was looking at. Oh. This is almost the slums… Her gaze moved to the old buildings at the end of Lover’s Lane. She shook off her thoughts and then opened the door to the tavern, holding it open for Fritz to join her.

However, as soon as they entered, all eyes zoomed on them, and the chatter abruptly halted. One could hear a pin drop at that moment. A very tall and muscular woman with a bandana around her forehead was by the window. She shut the window suddenly, whirling on them. Her footsteps were heavy and loud as she made her way over to suddenly slam the door shut behind them. Her fist was just inches from Charlotte’s head. Pieces of her hair had frizzed up from the wind of her movement.

Charlotte blinked. It had been so surprised she had not been able to flinch. Instead, she scooted closer to Fritz ever so subtly with slow movements. Her eyes slowly slid to look at the muscular woman.

”Maxwell saw you pass by in fancy dress.” The woman boomed, her eyes glaring down. After she spoke, she pointed at the man she had waved at earlier, still sitting by the bar. He looked absolutely annoyed. In fact, everyone here did.

True, Lady Vikena must have stood out in that dress, especially around an establishment such as this one, but how did this woman know that Lady Vikena was the lady wearing the big fancy dress? Combined with her rushed action to cut off their exits, it felt as though they were being trapped inside.

”Noble girl sees all us here poor and thinks she can buy all our booze? Eh? You and pipsqueak here?” She poked her in the chest, making her stumble backward against the door. ”You change clothing to come trick us? Take advantage of us somehow, yes?” Charlotte had glanced down as she had been poked both with surprise and slight curiosity.

”Uhh no, no… Sorry. I did not actually plan on errmm… buying anything.” Charlotte had meekly told her, very much intimidated by her huge fist. The woman did not seem impressed with her answer.

On the other hand, Ryn did not look or feel the slightest bit threatened by the aggression displayed by the woman. The fact that she did not actually hit Lady Vikena when she had the chance to and that the others looked more annoyed than anything suggested that they were not looking for trouble. Assuming this was not a trap, then it could mean that they simply wanted to scare the pompous nobles enough to make them think twice about entering their sacred domain in the future, the one place they did not have to worry about the upper class. Regardless of the situation, the duo needed to pacify them, and what did tavern patrons love getting?

Fingers loosened up his shirt to give it a more rugged aesthetic and ruffled his hair a bit to accentuate the new style, “What, don’t you tell me the folk in Sorian have something against getting free drinks? Awful shame that is.”

As the woman narrowed her eyes, ready to say more, Ryn’s voice called her attention. Her brow raised at his hair. ”Huh! You think you can just ruffle your hair and flatter me, BOY? Pfft!“

“Ah, but it does flatter you.” He waved his hand to the man behind the bar and shouted, “Hey, barkeep, give everyone here a round of drinks, my treat.”

The burly woman’s lips parted to protest, then closed. ”Eh. Guess you are okay, pipsqueak.” She shrugged and moved over to enjoy a drink. The others in the room had also all scrambled to the bar.

Ryn carefully guided Lady Vikena towards the bar counter, shielding her from their aggressor, as many of the patrons cheered at the sudden gift of free liquor. Ryn placed some coins, more than enough to cover all the drinks and then some, down on the countertop.

Charlotte leaned in with wide eyes, smiling, ”Wow, Count Fritz…That was like a scene out of a novel.” She whispered with a giggle. “You’re incredible at that…Here let me help.” She began rummaging into her dress pocket for her pouch of coins. She then gently took Fritz’s hand and placed some coins in his palm. Fritz looked as though he was ready to decline the coins, but after a moment’s pause, he thanked her and pocketed them.

He was clearly adept at adjusting to this situation, which was interesting for a noble man. However, she supposed that this was her first time even being in a bar of any sort did put her at a slight disadvantage. There had been no way to know what to expect, but it certainly had not been that. I froze up there like I always do… Goodness, I really need to get out more. Charlotte thought. Her gaze slid to Fritz. He’s not always going to be there to have my back like this. And neither is Lorenzo clearly… I need to change if things are going to be like this now.

She sighed and let go of it all for the moment. They were here to find Lorenzo.

Charlotte craned her neck and took a moment to look about the room. No one remotely resembled Lorenzo crossed her vision, but Maxwell did. He gave her another one of those award-winning smiles. In closer proximity to the bearded fellow, she could tell he was intoxicated out of his mind. He barely was balancing on his stool.

Looks like you have some charisma too, Lottie ol’ girl. Got yourself a friend!

Charlotte gave him a smile back and waved, mouthing a hello to him enthusiastically. Maxwell attempted to blow a kiss only to stumble off his stool and onto his feet. Others around him uproar in laughter. She sucked in air as if empathizing with his pain. “Well. Should we split up and ask around?” She asked without glancing Fritz's way.

“Sounds like the best course of action. I’ll start with these people.” He eyed the customers gathered at the counter.

Charlotte took in a deep breath and rose from her seat.

I can do this. I will be like Count Fritz and be observant of my surroundings. I know what to say. Stay calm… Stay cool.
Charlotte Vikena
&
Fritz "Ryn" Hendrix



Ryn ended up spending the remainder of the ball acting both as Luz’s party buddy and chaperone. When others paid no heed to them, he had a grand time with his friend conversing about silly, unimportant things. In front of the more esteemed guests, however, the count did his best to cover up the future duchess’s missteps that were becoming increasingly more prominent as time went by thanks to the effects of the drug. Though he derived some satisfaction from goading Luz’s mother, Ryn had no intention of marring Lady Zarai’s reputation. He may have not known Luz’s identity until tonight, but he was well aware months in advance that, like many of the other noble houses, Duke and Duchess Lesdeman were utilizing the annual summer gathering to find a husband for their daughter. Ryn had his own thoughts on the matter, but he knew it was not his place to voice them. All he could do was make sure Luz did not unintentionally limit her options by scaring off eligible bachelors.

When the party finally came to an end, Ryn escorted Luz to the guest house outside and helped her to her room all while a furious Duchess Lesdeman watched with unconcealed disapproval. After properly bidding each other a goodnight, the count lifted Luz’s hand and planted a kiss on the back of it as a final bras d'honneur to the duchess. “Te deseo dulces sueños, Lady Lesdeman.” Ryn smiled at Luz and turned to lightly bow at her mother before leaving the guest house.

Ryn could, and maybe should, have retired to his room in the guest house. However, as Peter pointed out, this may as well be the last night the palace's security would be as lax as it was. Ryn was going to take full advantage of this while he still could. The count wandered along the castle walls, comparing it to the map of it in his head, until he came across a figure sitting in the grass. He squinted his eyes to get a better look at the person. “Lady Vikena?” Ryn approached the woman slowly so as not to frighten her from his sudden appearance.

The tears streaming down her face gave him pause. He stared blankly at her, eyes locked, before frowning slightly. The first words out of his mouth, "Is something the matter?” was rhetorical. Needless to say, something was wrong. Why else would Lady Vikena look so distressed? “Are you hurt?” He walked closer to her, checking if there were physical injuries.

A mix of emotions had been overwhelming Charlotte as she had been rooted to her spot. Her countenance had been that of one who had seen a ghost as he had Despite Ryn’s attempt to not startle her, she was still a little surprised to hear a voice as she had been so deep within the confines of her own mind. Her gaze slowly moved to meet him as she digested the questions he was asking. She shook her head, hastily wiping the tears from her eyes with the back of her palms. "I’m so sorry-... I didn’t mean to worry you…Um, Count Fritz, right?” She rose to her feet, stumbling over her own dress in hurry to do so, however, the red-faced girl kept her balance. "I feel awfully embarrassed being found in such a way, but I am physically just dandy..” Charlotte brushed the dirt off herself and used the movement as an excuse to grip the fabric to hide her trembling hands. She met his eyes and managed a smile, "I hope you are all right as well?”

Was he all right? What a curious question to ask. He was currently not the one forcing himself to smile when a storm of emotions was tearing him from within. "I am doing quite well, Lady Vikena, so don't worry about me.” Her trembling hands made his voice drop to a softer tone. "In case no one has ever told you this before… there’s no shame in feeling what you are feeling. Ever. No matter what others may say.”

"I am glad you are well.” Charlotte was grateful to hear kinder words after how her last conversation had gone. Old habits did indeed die hard as the ways of her mother’s teachings still did find a way to haunt her. It had always been taught to her that getting upset in public was rather improper; Emina would say that it simply just gave ammo to those who wants to speak ill of you. However, she herself had never thought that way.

Ryn inched closer to her and put his hand in his pocket, ready to pull out a handkerchief, then stopped himself. There was only one handkerchief on his person, one which Duke Vikena already used earlier in the evening. His gaze dropped to the grass as he rubbed his neck bashfully, "I’d offer you a handkerchief, but I just remembered I’m out of stock at the moment... Who knew it would be in such high demand? Clearly, I’m losing my touch as a merchant. I’ll be sure to have a bundle of them at the ready next time I’m invited to a party.” The smile directed at Duke Vikena’s daughter lasted a short while before the worried expression resurfaced. Ryn quickly surveyed their surroundings, trying to spot any signs of the man who should have been close by. “Are you alone, Lady Vikena?”

His statement about the handkerchief managed to pull at the corners of her lips. "Ah, it is the thought that counts..” His next question made her pause before confessing with a sigh, "Yes… Yes, I am alone.” Admitting such a sentence out loud brought forth a new wave of sadness that she did not expect. She rubbed her own arm, continuing as her gaze moved back to the exit way in the wall. "My father seems to have left without me. It is rather unusual of him so I fear he may have perhaps drank too much.”

Duke Vikena leaving Lady Vikena behind in what he himself admitted to being a court of snakes was a thought Ryn had difficulty swallowing. After all that transpired, would he willingly have left his daughter here, alone? Was it possible that Ryn read the man wrong? He closed his eyes, recalling the conversation he and Dr. Williamson had with the duke. “You two are both absolutely right.” His voice was fueled with renewed determination and love for his daughter radiated from him. “She needs me… Lottie.” When Ryn opened his dark eyes, he leaned in closer to Lady Vikena, careful not to miss a single microexpression. “Does he… have a habit of doing this whenever he drinks too much?”

Charlotte shook her head in reply, telling him, "He usually just goes to bed early.” Her expression saddened as worry overtook it, ”... Maybe I better ask around to see if anyone saw him leave.” She paused to watch as more guards came out of the castle and moved to ascend the stairs to take their positions.

One man stopped curiously nearby the duo, seeing Charlotte catch his gaze, "Everything all right?”

"Um, actually, I was wondering if anyone perhaps saw Duke Vikena leave… Do you know who was on duty while the guests were going in their carriages?”Charlotte told him. He paused thoughtfully and held up a hand to gesture for them to wait before hurrying away towards the other castle guards. The same man returned only after a moment and notified them, "The gatekeeper at the time saw Duke Lorenzo Vikena leave in his carriage.”

Charlotte let out a sigh of relief, "Thank you so much… He must be at home then.”

“Excuse me,” the count who had been silently observing spoke up. Ryn smiled at the guard, "I am sorry to bother you, but did the gatekeeper see anyone else in the carriage with him?”

"Some servants led him to the carriage and helped him get in alone.”The guard answered him. "They returned to the party afterward.”

Ryn ignored the prickling sensation in his chest, “His Majesty’s servants?”

"Yes.” The guard answered blankly then turned on his heels to return to his post.

The discomfort in his chest swirled and expanded into a larger mass. Something felt out of place, yet Ryn could not pin down what exactly was nagging him so. It could have been the way the guard answered his questions; maybe it was how he left without giving a chance for them to ask more. Perhaps he was just disappointed or it was his gut trying to warn him about something he was not consciously aware of. The count called out to the guard to thank him for the information, though even that was ignored by him.

Charlotte had been thoughtful as the two had spoken. She had a feeling it had not been King Edin’s order for the servants to do so nor had they simply just led her father to his carriage on a whim of sympathy. The puzzle pieces all fit together. Maybe not perfectly yet, but she could make out the picture before her. "I-... I think I better make my departure, Count Fritz. I’d like to make sure my father made it home.” Her gaze locked on the path that went down through the entrance to the round road. Her mother had never allowed her to freely walk through Sorian, especially outside of the noble district and at night.

Who knew freedom could taste so bittersweet?

She wondered if it was really dangerous to walk alone at night or if her mother had just told her tales to scare her. It was only now that she had the choice that she could realize just how sheltered her life had been up until this point.

Lady Vikena’s voice pulled Ryn away from his thoughts. “Yes… I agree,” was all he managed to say in response.

Her blue eyes met Fritz’s dark ones once more, giving him a genuine smile this time. There had been no need for him to wonder about her wellbeing or stand with her here all this time and she knew that very well. It had been a little easier to bear the crushing weight she felt with someone that seemed to care at her side. "Thank you for worrying about me. You’re very kind.” Now that she felt a bit more grounded, she was able to take in his appearance and look at him without thoughts racing before her eyes. Count Fritz was a little shorter than her with a head of lovely dark hair to match his eyes. It was, however, difficult to pinpoint what kind of person he might be other than possibly a kind one.

“Think nothing of it, Lady Vikena. Any person would’ve been just as worried. I simply got here earlier than the others.” Ryn’s eyes softened as he felt her gaze on him. He preferred this smile to the suspicious glare she gave him when he first approached the Vikenas. “Oh! Speaking of worried!” he exclaimed out of the blue, “Since you’re still here, am I correct to assume Duke Vikena took your only ride back home? Do you have another way to return home safely?”

"If you count my legs.”Charlotte responded.

The man glanced down at where he assumed her feet were. "Ah.” Though Ryn had not the faintest clue what kind of shoes Lady Vikena was wearing, it was not hard to imagine that neither her dress nor her shoes were made for long-distance walks.

"I will gladly escort you to your residence if you’d like.” There was a pause as he weighed the options. Ordinarily, the proper course of action was to take a carriage from the stables. It was faster and arguably the safest choice. If the glimpse of curiosity he saw on Lady Vikena’s face when she stared down the road was any indication, however, Ryn suspected that she was more inclined to take a walk under the summer night sky. He would end up having less time to look around the castle, but ultimately one of Count Hendrix’s roles in the crew was to form and cultivate connections that were not normally accessible to commoners in order to open as many doors as possible. Connections like this one. “We can take a carriage or we can walk,” the count placed one hand behind his back and extended his other hand towards the younger woman in offering, “whichever you prefer, Lady Vikena.”

"Oh that’s kind of you…”She had replied thoughtfully, pausing before speaking again. "Truthfully, I was going to walk. I’ve never been through the town before and I’m dreadfully curious… But I’d feel guilty taking so much of your time.”

“You’ve never been through town before? What a coincidence, neither have I!” Ryn grinned. “Ever since I saw Sorian from the carriage, I’ve been itching to see what’s in town. So excited, in fact, I was on my way to get a little sneak peek.” He held his hands out in defense, “Truly, a terrible way to spoil the surprise. I admit. A good guest would’ve patiently waited for the hosts to provide the grand tour… Alas,” he sighed longingly, "I simply couldn’t resist the allure of a small adventure under the stars.” The count returned his hands to their previous positions. “You would be doing me a great service by accompanying me, Lady Vikena.”

"A grand adventure under the stars it is then!”Charlotte agreed and joined him at his side to begin their walk. ”... You’ve never been here before?” She asked. Charlotte could not recall seeing Count Fritz at gatherings before, though she might have had simply never run into him.

"In Sorian? Technically I’ve set foot in the dock for business. Crosswinds Tradings has a warehouse down there and we’re renting space to serve as our office, but I’ve personally never ventured any further… Never had the courage to, if you can believe that.” Ryn’s laughed weakly. "I’ve visited other places in Caesonia many times, though, so I’m not a complete stranger to this country. What about you, Lady Vikena? Why have you never walked down these streets?”

Charlotte was thoughtful for a moment then smiled as she answered him excitedly, "Ah, how interesting! A businessman. I bet you’ve seen all sorts of places and have accomplishments with a story to each one... I have only ever been set foot here, Breoven in the Varian Kingdom and my home of Veirmont of course. I can’t wait to someday explore everything I can…”Her voice drew off for a moment as she stared up at the stars as they walked.

“...To answer you, I certainly can believe it…As I did not dare to disobey my mother all these years… She would say always it’s too dangerous for a girl like me to wander about at night.” Sheltered and pampered up like a prized pig, the daughter of a Duke has been raised with almost infuriatingly care as if she had been glass. Ever since she had been a child, others had made decisions and planned her life out as if she was simply a piece on their chessboard. She had put up with their rules as she was able to spend time with her ever-busy parents the more she had done so. Even after her father had no longer been there to dictate her every move, her mother had doubled down on her goal for Charlotte. Lady Emina had wanted to raise her to be a well-mannered wife to some wealthy nobleman. However, she had known all her life that’s not all she wanted to be, even if she had not dared to yet admit it.

Nonetheless, knowing what one is not is easier to determine than what one is. With no one to breathe down her neck and tell her who to be or where she was allowed to go, the world before her had felt as if she were immersed in her dreams. Each step felt forward felt unreal.

What kind of girl am I, if not the one you saw in me?

“Sadly, your mother’s concern was not without reason. It’s true that we live in a world where it’s… difficult for certain people to walk out in the open at specific times, if any time, of the day.”

Straight ahead of them was Sorian, the less gilded part of the city just beyond the segregative walls that the aristocracy wanted nothing to do with yet could not exist without. “Even the richest kingdom has problems with poverty and when people are deprived… we tend to rely on more unsavory methods of survival.” He turned to look at Lady Vikena apologetically, “Which unfortunately includes mugging women wearing expensive clothing in the middle of the night.” Fear briefly crossed Charlotte’s expression, but it was clear she tried to suppress it.

He did not want to ruin her very first attempts to defy the rules that bound her, but he knew that ignorance had a way of putting people in danger. Some are more fatal than others. “The world outside the one you’ve been confined to is extraordinary in every regard, both bad and good. It is just as dangerous as it is beautiful. I don’t want to dissuade you from experiencing it and I even applaud you for mustering up the courage to do what you want to do… but I can’t let you, in good conscience, walk out there without arming you with the knowledge that it can be dangerous. Even with me by your side.” The count stopped right before the border that separated the upper district from the lower. If his caution scared her enough to change her mind, now was the time for her to tell him. He waited for her to answer a question he did not ask: did she still want to walk back home?

Her affirmation made Ryn beam, “Then let us be on our way without further ado!” As they proceeded through the gates, the count talked about how his family, especially members of the fairer sex, tended to carry themselves when they had to walk through the bad parts of town. "If we do get attacked, the best option is to run. It’ll be hard to do that if you have heels on, so it’ll be wise to take them off, but never leave them behind. They make excellent weapons.” He swatted at the invisible assailant with his equally transparent shoe. “Once you’ve mastered the art of shoe-chi, then any shoe will become deadly. That’s why you never mess with my grandmother if she gets her hand on a slipper.”

"Oh the protagonist in a book I read once did that. She took off her heel and stabbed it into her attacker’s eyes. Gruesome, right? …However, I am wearing a flat shoe so I suppose I’ll have to find another weapon or.... “ Charlotte had smirked at him pretending to swat someone with a shoe. She pretended to hold a shoe as well and motioned her hand in a slapping motion, informing him firmly, "I shall slap them.”

Ryn barked a laugh. “The next great shoe-chi master in the making!”

The two had continued chatting as they had passed through the walls of the noble district. The streets were alive with people, especially by the outdoor market outside. Fruits, jewelry, and all sorts of exciting things were being sold under lit-up tents. Most people were indeed dressed down compared to them and the duo of nobles did garner quite a few stares. Charlotte even heard her “Lady Vikena” get tossed around through the crowds nearby them. The street wasn’t so crowded as they came upon the Sorian Library.

She had paused to marvel at the grand building in its beautiful architecture, her eyes lighting up like a child in a candy store. She could recall her late father taking her there once as a child, but it had been so long! It would certainly come to good use tomorrow with the task she had on hand. Charlotte took a moment to express to Ryn her interest in reading and how she’d be spending a lot of time there this summer, if not in her piano room at home.

Charlotte paused before making the turn toward her own home, her curiosity pulled by the bustling tavern. She peeked her head in but regretted so as the gazes that met hers were not friendly at all. Someone was playing a violin but the tune was very upbeat and there were a couple of people joyfully dancing around the wooden room. One man with a large mug in hand did smile at her, perhaps an eerie one, but it was indeed a smile. She gave him an awkward wave and returned the smile, then followed her gut instinct to move out of view.

She turned on her heels and stared down the road that would lead them to her house. They now would have to proceed and pass Count Calbert’s estate… “Lady Vikena?”

Ryn was staring at the estate just down the road when she turned her attention to him. Based on her reluctance to walk down this particular road, it was likely Count Damien’s. “Forgive me if I’m being too intrusive.” He hesitated if only for a brief second, "Is there bad blood between the Vikenas and the Damiens?”

Charlotte glanced at Ryn with surprise at the question, her body tensing for a brief moment. "Bad blood.”She repeated. Tasting the words brought about an unexpected feeling of anger. "...If there wasn’t before, there is now.” She had so much to say yet so little of it came out. Could she trust this man? Why would anyone believe that the beloved Count Calbert could do such a thing?

She sighed, letting go of her tension after some thought, "I have reason to believe Count Damien is not the man he presents himself as…However, it wouldn’t be very proper of me to say much of it until I collect my proof.” Charlotte met his eyes with an apologetic smile, "I do not like to create gossip.”

Ryn nodded. Lady Vikena’s response cleared up another question he had rattling in his head. At some point, Ryn assumed Lady Vikena knew the cause of the animosity between the Vikenas and Count Damien, but the words she carefully curated seemed to imply that she was left in the dark by both her step-father and the count. The feeling in his chest slowly returned. This was no family feud. It was more intimate.

“That sounds like quite the undertaking, Lady Vikena. Are you… sure that Count Damien left proof to collect? If he’s managed to deceive everyone for so long, I’d assume he would’ve destroyed all tangible evidence long ago or has it especially well hidden somewhere. Though I cannot fathom why he’d preserve something so damning unless he intends to use it later.” The raven-haired man rubbed his chin and mumbled “unless the proof wasn’t left for him? Hm.” He waited a bit for his words to sink into the woman. “Ah, I’m sorry. I can get lost in my head sometimes. Terrible habit.”. It did not take much effort to see that his words upset her. As uncomfortable as it was to hear that there was no proof left, it was a possibility she, and to a certain extent he, had to consider. She was upset and what was fine. What Ryn wanted, needed to see, and hear was what Charlotte Vikena would do despite that. Validation that he was right to consider her a potential ally.

Charlotte was silent as he spoke, though her gaze saddened with his words. His last words did, however, get the gears turning in her brain. "...It is alright. No need to apologize.” It had been a long time and she knew tangible evidence of the event would be impossible to find, but she could not turn back now, even if all the odds were against her. "I… I’ve spent the last year alone with a gut feeling that very well could have torn me apart some nights. I knew that what I had been told could not be true, yet I think I tried to believe it anyway… However, now I know that I was fooling myself and I refuse to do so any longer.”

Her gaze set straight into his, the breeze picking up around them, "Even if it takes me years, I will uncover the truth.”

Whether it was the breeze or Lady Vikena’s intense gaze that gave him goosebumps, Ryn wasn’t sure. He stared back at her in silence for much longer than he intended. Ryn’s mouth opened, then closed before nodding. "I believe you will.” He somewhat reluctantly tore his eyes away from hers, “May I give a word of advice, then? Your investigation might yield better results if you have others to lend you a helping hand. You’d have to be careful of whom you choose, obviously. If the count is as manipulative and unpleasant as you and your father are suggesting he is, then there’s no telling who’s under his thumb.” It could be the entire kingdom if Count Damien was really good at what he did. All he had to do was charm the right people and coerce those who posed a threat. Having King Edin’s ear also worked in his favor, bolstering his influence without any additional burden of responsibility.

As they slowly walked passed the Damien estate, Ryn glanced up at the building. “Don’t hesitate to use whatever you have at your disposal… I know they won’t.”

"I appreciate your faith.”Charlotte began as they passed the estate. Its large gates had more foreboding energy than usual. She bit her lip thoughtfully before speaking again after a long pause, "Even after knowing nobility all my life, I’ve never really been sure whom I can trust. I’ve been forewarned more times than I can count to view this all as a pit of vipers. I don’t have as many close friends anymore, however, I do think I have at least one friend I can rely on.” She had not been certain if Fritz had been offering passively, but she felt it would be too nervy of her to ask someone she had just met to help with such an ordeal. Perhaps foolish as well.

Something about the way her lips twitched and moved during the weighty silence told Ryn that Lady Vikena was struggling between the options of asking or not asking Ryn for something. “One friend means that you have at least two people who are willing to assist you in your endeavors, no? I think that’s better than zero.” He placed one hand over his chest and lightly leaned forward. "I will help you wherever I can if you ever need it,” he clarified, in case his previous statement was not clear enough. He smiled weakly, “Though, I’ll understand if you don’t trust me.”

Charlotte had smiled, "I want to trust you. Maybe I’ll take you upon it.”

As they finally came upon the front of her estate, she halted and turned to face him. "I suppose after a conversation like that, maybe this won’t mean so much..” She knew it was possibly even more daunting for someone, especially a man new to nobility, to come all the way from the Varian Kingdom to stay in a “pit of vipers” for the summer. When Lorenzo had first become the Duke of Veirmont, it had been so nerve-wracking to watch him attempt to fit in without anyone to help him. Charlotte gave him a warm smile as she told him, "...But if you ever need anything, I will always be here to return the kindness you’ve bestowed me, Count Fritz. ”

Charlotte suddenly blinked her eyes fast with a small gasp as she realized her possible rudeness, "Oh! Oh goodness. I just realized you’d have to walk home alone. I can arrange for our carriage man to come out and bring you. Y-You’re also welcome to come inside if you like for some tea.”

Ryn chuckled, "It’s quite all right, do not trouble yourself for my sake. Taking walks happens to also be one of my favorite pastimes. Although…” His eyes glanced at the Vikena estate. He couldn’t see from here, but from where they stood he saw no signs that the Duke returned to his abode. “A cup of tea for the road, does sound tempting…” He shook his head, “Ah, I forget myself. It would be improper of me to barge into your house at this hour if your father is not awake… or home. Maybe we should check?”

Charlotte had nodded her agreeance and opened the iron gates. A cobblestone path led up to a brick manor. Her gaze moved toward the side of the house, where the carriage that had taken them to the ball was right where it should be. As soon as they were coming up to the front door, it swung open to the sight of a little woman with shoulder-length blonde hair. Her attire was what one would expect of a maid, however her behavior perhaps not. She was into her thirties but her excited smile lit up her face like a teenage girl.

"Welcome home Lottie! I see you’ve brought a fine gentleman…!” She moved to the side, gesturing for them to come in. Charlotte tilted her head to look over the maid’s shoulder at Nathaniel’s slightly-exasperated face in the background. It was easy to tell despite the well-groomed mustache that covered his lips. She didn’t have to ask to know he had been begging Delilah to get away from the window for the last ten minutes.

"Come you two. It’s a breezy one out there!” She giggled as the duo had stepped into the entrance hall and then she shut the door behind them. "Nathaniel! Won’t you be a doll and get them some tea?”Delilah had called to the man in the background.

"Certainly…” Nathaniel was a tall, well-dressed man. He served Lorenzo and had been loyally serving the house since he and Emina had wed. The servant turned his body to face Count Fritz and gave him a bow. "Welcome, good sir. Please let me know if there is any way I can assist you.” His gaze then fell upon Charlotte with worry, "Did… everything go well, Lady Charlotte?”

Charlotte managed a smile upon seeing Delilah and Nathaniel. It was a comforting sight to see those she had considered family after such a long night. Things had certainly seemed normal until Nathaniel’s question dawned on her. "Um, have you not spoken to my father yet about it?”

"No. Benjamin informed us that Duke Vikena had gone straight to his room after arriving home... He was feeling rather ill, my lady.” Benjamin was the name of their carriage man. As Nathaniel had spoken, she noticed the perplexed look in his eyes. He obviously wanted to ask why she had not accompanied Lorenzo home, yet he did not, and simply turned on his heels to fetch the tea. Charlotte furrowed her brows.

Ryn listened carefully to Lady Vikena and Nathaniel’s exchange. He was going to speak up before he reconsidered discussing what was on his mind in front of the servants. Soon after, Ryn was led to the drawing-room by the maid, to whom he made certain he properly introduced himself. While they waited for the tea, Ryn chatted with Delilah and Lady Vikena about mundane matters, and when Nathaniel brought in the tea, he continued to chat with the group a little longer. Only after the two servants had left the room did he dare to bring up the subject of Duke Vikena. “When we were at the party, he seemed adamant about protecting you from Count Damien. So, you can imagine my shock when I heard that he just…” He narrowly avoided using the word abandoned, “left you at the castle… alone, unsupervised. With Count Damien still around.” His reflection in the teacup stared back at him, "I can’t help but feel like something is amiss.”

The count faced Lady Vikena, eyes asking, Is your father actually home?

Charlotte looked at Fritz, gripping the teacup in her hand. "I was shocked too.”She replied distractedly and stood up. "I apologize, but I need to check if he is all right.” She made her way up the stairs and to Lorenzo’s room. Immediately, she knocked on the door, but alas there was no answer. After a moment, she jiggled the knob. The door was locked. After tapping her foot anxiously for a moment, she moved to a nearby painting and took a barely visible key that was stored in the frame. Charlotte then used it to unlock the door. She barely noticed Fritz at her side as she opened it.

Letting the door swing open, she moved into the center of the green bedroom,"Lorenzo?”Her gaze set onto the round, empty bed. Silence followed and she turned back around to look at Fritz.

Ryn stared at the empty room as he placed a hand over his chest.

Maybe it was a warning after all.
Peter
Time: ~21:00
Location: Danrose Castle Ballroom Entrance Hall ~ Castle Wall

When Peter saw Duke O'Hare and his adopted son Verrick in the crowd exiting the ballroom, he was ready to bolt the other way, but he was just as quick to talk himself out of doing something so obviously suspicious. Just because he recognized them didn’t mean they would recognize him. In fact, there was no reason for them to remember some random street rat.

From the hallway, the redhead stared at the Woodsmen with childlike wonderment. No matter how much time passed or how many times he tried to give up on the idea, there was a part of him that still aspired to become a man worthy of the green cloak. He knew, though, that it wasn’t going to happen. Peter screwed up his chance to join, so he was going to have to suck it up. Not every dream was meant to come true.

Peter’s target came into view as he walked past the O'Hares. Count Calbert’s head rotated side to side, his gaze hunting for something or someone. Peter covered his blazing hair with a dark cap before he began tailing the count.

It didn’t take long for Count Calbert to find his own target standing alone at the top of the castle wall. Peter followed the other man halfway up the wall, then hid himself in a nook under the stairs filled with wooden barrels. He would’ve preferred to be perched on the roof if he had a choice, but he didn’t think he’d make it up there without someone noticing. Peter didn’t realize how right he was until he heard a different set of footsteps come up the stairs.

A blonde wearing a fancy light blue dress and carrying a stuffed bag was making her way up the stairs when the count’s voice broke through the summer night ambiance. “Kill yourself.” Both bodies froze in place. Didn’t realize Caesonian ‘good evenings’ were so dark. While the other woman glued herself to the wall, Peter focused on the conversation happening above them.

“You… You forget yourself, Count Calbert.” An all too familiar kind of strain in Lady Charlotte Lottie’s voice caused the ginger’s hand to pull out his dagger. The voice of someone who feared for their life. A cry for help.

Years ago, he would’ve jumped out and shanked the man. Peter was different now. Different enough to remember what his orders were. He was supposed to follow Count Calbert around for the night and watch what the man did. Nothing more, nothing less. If Count Calbert decided to kill someone, then they’d have something to blackmail him with. If Lady Lottie killed him, then they’d have someone else to use. Simple as that. So don’t try to be a hero, Pete.

Peter sat on his arse to make sure he’d have to put in the extra effort if he was going to stab Count Calbert. He pulled up his knees closer to his chest and used them as armrests as he closed his eyes shut. The muscles in his fingers contracted and relaxed repeatedly, itching for the count to give him a reason to use the dagger which remained in his hand. But he stayed focused on Count Calbert and Lady Lottie’s exchange. Trying to be neutral and detached.

Heels against the stone alerted Peter that one of the two people was coming down the stairs, but it was the loud scrambling of his fellow snooper that snapped his eyes open. He watched the woman practically trip over herself to make her escape. Considering how restrictive ballroom gowns were, Peter was impressed that she managed to run as fast as she did and climb a tree. She wasn’t lucky enough to be unnoticed by the count, though.

As soon as Count Calbert passed the barrels, the ginger sheathed his weapon and stood up. “Wait… W-What do you mean again?” He heard the faint noise of movement and softer footfalls come from above. By the time the young woman started to run down the stairs, Calbert was up in the tree.

Just as Lady Lottie passed him, Peter quickly followed right behind, masking his own footsteps with her louder steps. She was too distracted by her pursuit of the count, her vision narrowed considerably. Worryingly so. Had the plan been for her to have an unfortunate accident, all he had to do was extend his arm and lightly push. Then she would’ve went tumbling down the stairs. It was that easy. Duke Lorenzo should know that. But where was he and why was his stepdaughter alone? Where were the guards? Was he so stingy that he didn't think to hire bodyguards? Couldn't she have a damn attack dog at least? Anything to protect her? Was he even trying to protect Lady Lottie from Count Calbert?

Right as Lady Lottie reached the last flight of the stairs Peter made a sharp turn and silently dropped down from the ledge. He turned to see if the Duke’s daughter noticed, but as he thought, her attention was consumed by what Count Calbert said. He silently dashed towards the tree he saw the other two climb up and hid behind a neighboring tree trunk.

”I wonder what the punishment for stealing from a royal castle would be. Certainly death, yes?

Death, kill, execution, suicide… Count Calbert threw these words around like an alcoholic threw coins at the bar. How casually he used the words only convinced Peter that Count Calbert didn’t truly know what death was —that or he was a bona fide psychopath. The count was a learned man, so he knew the definition of death and he might’ve even seen a couple of dead bodies before, but he didn’t actually understand how terrifying dying was. He never felt death’s chilly breath down his own neck or was overtaken by absolute dread as he watched the lights fade from his loved one's eyes. Death, especially the less peaceful variety, was something that happened far, far away from him. Maybe he believed himself to be above it. A harbinger of death, of sorts. Having control over those who lived and who died. Schnockered by wielding such power for so long. So long to forget. Peter smirked, tongue licking the gap between his teeth. Predators rarely see themselves as prey… but death. Death played no favorites.

The woman in blue, on the other hand, was of the unruly kind. Peter liked unruly. She had a certain quality to her which felt… familiar. Deliciously illegal. He would’ve liked to get better acquainted with her. Although, based on the satchel she was carrying and the mismatched boots under her dress, Peter was pretty sure the blonde’s name was nowhere on the party guest list.

Even better. Fritz could use someone like her. It never hurt to have another rogue in the crew.

&
Fritz "Ryn" Hendrix

Interaction(s): Zarai @Rodiak
♪ Santiana ♪

Sometimes in life, one encounters other people who are impossible to please. Everything one did was wrong in the eyes of these people. One’s success was their greatest fear and one’s failures tasted sweeter than honey. For Ryn, or rather the Hendrix family, those people were Duke and Duchess Lesdeman of Puerto Vira, Erwynn’s closest neighbor. According to his grandparents, this had not always been the case. When the Hendrixes were merely one of many merchants in Varian, they presented the family with business opportunities and connections. The Lesdemans benefited most from these exchanges, of course, but there was no denying that they played a role in the growth of Crosswinds Tradings. Things started to change when the company grew a little too big for the Lesdemans’ tastes. Though they were never openly hostile, they began interfering with the family business in various ways, some more subtle than others. The one and only time the Lesdemans publicly opposed the Hendrixes was when the royal family was considering ascending the merchant family into nobility. The Lesdemans lodged a complaint to the Varian crown, declaring the Hendrix family unfit to rule over any land. Fortunately for the Hendrixes, everyone else disagreed, and the title of Count was bestowed upon Fritz Hendrix. Ever since, relations with the Lesdemans became ever more complicated.

As the leader of a Dukedom, Ryn knew that one or both of the Lesdemans would be participating in the annual gathering so he steeled himself for an awkward meeting. While he was mingling with the nobles, he spotted Duchess Lesdeman but found no signs of her husband. She too must have noticed Ryn, because every attempt Ryn made to properly greet her, she managed to evade him. The count understood why she was disinclined to converse with him and he had no real desire to talk to her himself. He could not, however, leave the ball without properly greeting her lest she used it as an excuse to complain about him. So he waited for the opportune moment to approach her.

The moment came when Ryn found her distracted and unaware of his presence. He armed himself with a practiced smile and a chipper voice as he opened his arms towards the duchess’s direction, “Oh my, is that you Duchess Lesdeman?” he said loud enough that those around the duchess witnessed his arrival. When she turned her attention to him, Ryn gasped, “It is! Fortune smiles upon me, I am happy to see you here, Your Grace.” He bowed theatrically, “It has been far too long! How do you fare?”

This evening, Duchess Francesca Lesdeman had been searching for a nice young gentleman who could dance with her innocent yet misguided daughter. She had heard from other mothers of a knight from Varian, whom Francesca thought could be a fine fit for her daughter. An assertive man, one in command was sure to handle and tame her Zarai. Instead, she found herself facing that Hendrix boy. She'd been avoiding the man ever since spotting him during her entrance to the ball and ever since she'd been trying to avoid this situation altogether.

"Count Hendrix," Francesca's voice was melodic and welcoming, but her cold eyes betrayed the sweet words that poured out of her mouth. "Far too long, indeed." She could see other nobles around them looking in their direction; there was no other option than to go along now. "Excellent! How have you been faring? I hope your family and business are faring well."

Not far from them, Zarai stood by the dance floor, eyes still on the commotion, until she saw Prince Callum step in and defuse the situation. She still had to say hello to the Princes and Princess of Caesonia; Anastasia would be upset if she did not stop by to at least say hello- and her mother would think it rude. Eyes still on the youngest Prince, she followed him with her eyes until she spotted a somewhat familiar figure standing with her mother.

"What. The. Fuck." Zarai's heart sank to her stomach watching Fritz, a commoner man she'd befriended months ago during one of her visits to a tavern in Erwynn. It couldn't be; her eyes must have been deceiving her. She took one step forward, but the image of her mother's angry voice filled her mind and forced her foot back. No, it couldn't be.

But the more she looked at him, the more she was sure that it was, in fact, Fritz.

“It is, it is, and it is all thanks to House Lesdeman. Your family’s contribution was paramount to its success. I believe I would not be exaggerating by saying that I wouldn’t be standing here tonight if it were not for you and your husband. Words are not enough to express how grateful we are.” Ryn looked around the ballroom, pretending to search for the duke, “Is Duke Lesdeman here too? I absolutely must convey my—…” His eyes caught a glimpse of a familiar face and froze, “Deepest…” A face that he didn’t expect to see here, of all places. “Gratitude.” Luz.

The individual Ryn knew by the name of Luz stood in the distance dressed in a lavish attire befitting a Lady, a far cry from the usual clothes he had become accustomed to seeing her in. Based on her physique, specific mannerisms, and occasional slip of the tongue, Ryn suspected that she hailed from a well-to-do family, however, it never occurred to him that she was wealthier, more influential than she led him or the other tavern patrons to believe. A high-born.

Francesca gripped her fan with both hands, glad that the silk gloves covered the discoloration of her knuckles. "Of course, we are most impressed and overjoyed at the rapid success of your family, Count Hendrix. We are so very proud to have been a part and hope we can continue to form such strong bonds." She smiled sweetly at the count as the ornate fan in her hands began to twist slightly. "Duke Lesdeman decided to stay back in Puerto Vira to take care of business." The Duchess arched an eyebrow at his pause.

Behind her, Zarai's eyes narrowed when she saw recognition on his face. Before she knew it, she slowly made her way to them. Fritz, or who she thought was Fritz, looked far from a commoner, but so must she. Zarai had no idea what she would say to him or her mother. Why was he talking to her mother? Did they know each other? Had she sent him to spy on her?! Had he, someone she had grown to consider a friend, just been a plot from her mother to keep a close eye on her during her trips out?!

Her steps became quicker the more she questioned his involvement with her mother and the more she cursed herself for falling for such a ploy.

It took a bit of effort on Ryn’s part to tear his gaze away from Luz to face the duchess. Right before he succeeded in doing so, he noted the change on Luz’s face. At first, there was shock, a sentiment Ryn shared wholeheartedly, yet the scowl that followed soon after was unexpected. Did he do something to her recently to warrant the glare? As far as he could recall, the answer was no. This, unfortunately, did not change the fact that she looked very cross with him and approaching fast. Considering Luz’s temper at the tavern, he doubted this would be pleasant. In front of Duchess Lesdeman no less, the one woman in this room who would use anything and everything against him. What to do…

“Forgive me, Your Grace. I must have spaced out there for a moment. It is just that… This is so overwhelming.” He sighed deeply, placing both of his hands over his chest, as if he was trying to still his racing heart, “I truly cannot believe we made it this far. It all feels like a dream.” The count lifted his hands and pointed them to the general direction of the ball, “Absolutely breathtaking.” He turned to a random group of nobles nearby without lowering his hands, “Do you not agree?”. The group of nobles who had no part in the conversation up to this point, caught off guard, stared at the count in confusion, but politely smiled and nodded in agreement. He smiled back at them and he held his arms tightly behind his back as he turned to the duchess, faintly aware that Luz was only a few strides away from them. “Truely, a dream that House Lesdeman made into reality. It is a pity Duke Lesdeman could not be present tonight. Will he be joining later in the week? Perhaps we can meet after he arrives so I can properly thank the both of you?” He firmly planted his feet to the ground, ready for whatever was to come. He only hoped that if Luz was going to hit him, that she would go easy on him.

As unusual as it seemed, there was a reason for the dramatic display: to show exactly where his hands were located when Luz confronted him. Ryn resigned himself to being punched in front of the duchess. There was really not much he could do to stop Luz if she wanted to hit him. Though it would be an uncomfortable experience, to put it mildly, there was only one thing that he needed to protect at this moment in time and that was Count Fritz Hendrix’s reputation. Ryn and his family knew very well the lengths the Lesdemans took to tarnish the Hendrix name. More than once have they twisted the truth, ever so slightly, to portray the Hendrixes in an unflattering light. Had Ryn’s hands been anywhere but behind him if ‌Luz hit him, there was no doubt in his mind that there would be rumors about Count Hendrix assaulting a Lady —who justly defended herself by striking him back— circulating through the guests by the end of the party. So he made sure that there were eyewitnesses and, more importantly, that the duchess knew others were watching as well.

The Duchess looked at the count with a bewildered expression. While not out of character, his actions were, in fact, a tad strange. Count Hendrix, for Francesca, was no doubt an odd man, one that she would consider a scoundrel and opportunist. Though, she never considered him one to be into the theatrics- from what she had seen so far. His actions, however, seemed to her like he was trying to gain some sort of ground with her following the over-the-top flattery.

"You flatter us, Count." Francesca's hands continued to wring the fan as he continued, even bringing in some lesser nobles into their conversation. "Unfortunately, he will not be joining us this week. However, my husband will be-"

"Mother." Zarai stepped beside her mother, gloved hands folded in front of her. Though her expression had somehow softened, much like her mother, Zarai's eyes remained cold. "I see you found a dance partner for me." She flashed an innocent smile at her mother, the years of lying and deceiving her seemed to pay off when the Duchess took no notice or indication that Zarai knew the count. However, she did notice the change in her mother's face. "Would you ever be so kind as to introduce us?" She grinned at Fritz, much as she did before landing a punch at some drunkard's face.

Ryn’s hands gripped his arms tighter behind his back, but his face returned the smile with ease. A beat later he realized he almost missed something important. Did she say “mother”?

The Duchess, despite the bubbling in her stomach, smiled. She could not scold her daughter, not in front of the Count or the other nobles around them. Years of shielding her oh-so innocent daughter from what the Hendrix were; a bunch of thieves, liars, and no good-for-nothing family. And now, her Zarai was finally going to meet the man she had been warning her about; the awful Hendrix boy.

"Count Fritz Hendrix, this is my daughter Zarai Lesdeman. Zarai, this is Count Fritz Hendrix." Francesca said in a tight voice.

What?

"Wha-" Zarai cleared her throat, completely taken back by the introduction. "I mean, it is a pleasure and an honor to finally meet you, Count Hendrix." She curtsied, smile still in place despite the shock in her eyes. He was the Fritz? The man who her parents always warned her about? The one villain in her parent's stories? The Fritz who loved to sing and dance and drink-- at least one thing was clear now. The Duchess had not sent him to spy on her.

Ryn studied the young woman in front of him with fresh eyes. During the many visits to Puerto Vira and social events that the Lesdemans participated in, the one person the Hendrixes were unable to meet was the ever-elusive heir to Puerto Vira, Lady Zarai Lesdeman. Every single time they her questioned her absence, the duke and duchess had an explanation prepared: she was ill, she had lessons or an important event to attend to, she was traveling, et cetera. Even if all the reasons were true, Ryn knew they had no intention of introducing their precious daughter to the Hendrixes. Not when they put the extra effort of hiding all imagery that depicted her from their sight. Little did they know that their plan had failed long before this party. Or did they? Was it truly a coincidence that Luz walked into that tavern that night? Would the duke and duchess use their only child for espionage? Unlikely did not mean it was completely out of the realm of possibilities.

Ryn relaxed his body to bow, “It is an honor to finally make your acquaintance, Lady Lesdeman. I have heard much about you from your parents. You are as lovely as your mother described you to be… and then some.”

And then some? Zarai rolled her eyes when her mother wasn't looking.

"Of course she is," Francesca said through a tight smile, too focused on her own growing rage to catch her daughter's small slip. She did not want to appear rude to the other nobles around them, and there was nothing else she could do but watch her precious daughter now dance with the very man she had so meticulously tried to keep her away from. While she knew it would happen eventually with their territories and business intertwined, both the Duchess and Duke had hoped for a later meeting. One where Zarai was already married and under control. Nonetheless, Francesca motioned Zarai to step closer to the count, and like a good lady, she followed her mother's orders.

Zarai stepped closer, and without waiting for the Count of Erwynn to offer his arm, she hooked their arms together and pulled him towards the dance floor. Only stopping to wave back at her mother briefly before continuing on. Once they were far enough from her mother, Zarai glanced up at Fritz. "Count Hendrix, huh?" She turned to face him when they reached their spot, arms up and ready for him to take his position.

“Yes, Lady Zarai Lesdeman, future duchess of Puerto Vira. I am, in fact, Count Fritz Hendrix, your friendly neighbor from Erwynn. Quite the promotion from a merchant is it not?” He took his position and began to lead her in the dance. Their movements were mechanical; automatic and perfectly executed, but no enthusiasm or spontaneity from either dancer. It was obvious that neither of their hearts were into it. Ryn was more invested in what Luz had to say for herself than the dance itself.

“I must admit, I had not expected to see you here, Lady Lesdeman. I was under the impression that you abhorred this type of gathering, preferring a more… casual setting. Does your mother know about your favorite pastime?” The count did not drop the formal tone even though he was aware Duchess Lesdeman was too far away to hear their conversation. He did it because he sensed an accusation in Luz’s voice. As if he was the only one who lied about, or at the very least hid, their true identity. Could it be that he was merely projecting onto her? What a hypocrite that would make him.

"Quite a large promotion indeed." Zarai kept her tone calm and relaxed, primarily thanks to her little smoke break on the roof. The effects of the drug were slowly enveloping her mind with its effect. The initial shock had pumped enough adrenaline into her bloodstream to sober her up momentarily, but it was fast dissipating now.

"Count, if my mother knew of my excursions, I would not be standing before you, enjoying this lovely dance together. I would most likely be shut in my room like the Damien girls." She continued, "Or far worse, here in Caesonia serving as a lady in waiting for Queen Alibeth and around the waste of oxygen these people call a king." Zarai tried to keep her eyes on his, even as the timed spin came; she did her best to maintain eye contact with Fritz. Sadly, she couldn't hold his gaze without thinking of the many nights at the tavern together singing and playing their instruments until their fingers couldn't anymore. The shared laughs in the candlelight, unaware of who they were, just of who they wished to be at that moment.

So she wasn’t sent to spy on us then. There was a great sense of relief when Luz essentially told him that their meeting was pure happenstance. It felt good to know that the time spent together was not riddled with malicious deception. Though it also made him wonder why she seemed so upset with him. Ryn opened his mouth to ask the question.

"Luz is short for Luzero. My middle name." She said before he could reply. She would not allow her mother to ruin another friendship, directly or indirectly.

When Luz’s eyes kept swimming, Ryn initially thought it was because she didn’t want to look him in the eye due to anger or guilt, not because she was in the process of letting her kite soar high into the sky. The distinct smell of recreational Alidasht herbs with a hint of cigar followed Luz as she spun around. Ryn sniffed the air multiple times to confirm it. Ryn sighed, “Oh, Luz.” Ryn stopped spinning the woman and stepped closer to her to plant a hand firmly behind her back, worried that she might stumble over if there was nothing to secure her. Even though this made their waltz look awkward, at least he’d be able to catch her if she did fall. “Couldn’t you have waited until after the party to get high? Now your mother will think I drugged you.”

Upon hearing him call her by Luz again, she couldn't help but smile up at him, visibly relieved that her words had worked- to an extent, but at least he dropped the formal tone. She leaned into him, her head a mess from either the spins or the drug or a combination of the both. "If I had known you'd be here, I would have saved it for later, maybe even shared it with you." Zarai grinned, glad of the hand behind her back to help her ground herself enough to not stumble during their dance. "I suppose you don't happen to have a perfume bottle on your person?"

“That’s sweet of you, but I’ve yet to properly say hello to your childhood friends and I’d rather not go down in history as the count who was high during his formal international debut.” Ryn readjusted his posture when Luz leaned into him in attempt to compensate for the change. The further change in position turned the barely passable waltz into a dance that simply wasn’t. Ryn did his best to maintain the pace to avoid running into any of the other dancers. “So, no. I don’t conveniently have a perfume on me that can magically cover that smell. What’s your excuse?” He smirked, “You’ve managed to hide what you’ve been doing from your parents this long, shouldn’t you be the one with the magic perfume?”

A laugh emerged from Zarai's lips at the thought of a high Fritz going around meeting all the royals and nobles alike. With bloodshot eyes and a goofy smile while bowing to the Princes and Princess that she called friends. "It would be quite funny, but you are right. Wouldn't want you meeting Wolfy and smelling like me- don't ever call him that either. He hates it. I can go with you, to meet them. I still haven't greeted them." She pulled away when she felt him change the position, suddenly remembering that they were still on the dance floor and her mother was most likely keeping a venomous eye on them. "I usually do, must have dropped it in the broom closet..."

Memories of the food when he was talking with Duke Vikena and Dr. Williamson reminded him what he could and could not smell. “Then again, with the amount of perfume the majority of guests are drenched in, maybe you won’t need one.”

"Hmm, or maybe some of yours will rub on me." She returned the smirk.

“Or, more likely, what you smoked will rub on me.” He looked down at his dancing partner when he felt Luz’s footing falter slightly and began to rub her back, “Luz, if you’re not feeling well we can stop dancing.”

Zarai shook her head, correcting her posture, even more, when he suggested that they'd stop dancing. "I'm fine, grand even. Really." While the heaviness of the drug had begun to spread over her person, she did her best to keep her movements as graceful and natural as she could. She did not wish to give her mother any more fuel against Fritz or his family.

Ryn eyed her with unconcealed suspicion, but made no further comment. For a while, the future duchess and count danced in silence before Ryn finally asked the question, “Can I ask why you were upset with me when you saw me with your mother?”

She lowered her eyes briefly, opening her mouth before closing it again unsure how to start. Finally, after a few moments of gathering her already weightless thoughts she answered his question. "My parents, more specifically my mother, have always tried to control who I speak to. I thought that if I got out of the social circle she controls I would find a real friendship- and I did." Zarai shrugged a shoulder, "And when I saw you with her I just thought she had done it again... but it turns out that that wasn't the case." She frowned, "I am sorry that I hid my real identity from you, Fritz."

Fritz. Ryn almost barked a laugh at the name. If there was one truth Duchess Lesdeman unintentionally told to any ear that would listen, it was that Hendrix was a House built on half-truths. “Luz” symbolized freedom for Zarai Luzero Lesdeman, a respite from a world she wanted no part of, while “Fritz Hendrix” was a ticket to enter that world she desperately avoided. Was an apology necessary? If it was, then was she the one who needed to apologize? To him?

Ryn’s brows furrowed slightly as he stared into Luz’s face, “Don’t be. I was surprised, but I understand why you did it… and how betrayed you must’ve felt. Just know that I never have or ever will conspire with your parents against you. As… plain old ‘Fritz’, Luz, you are a dear friend and I wish you only the best. I hope that one day Lady Lesdeman doesn’t have to pretend anymore.” He truly did. At the same time, he also knew that Luz being Lady Lesdeman forever changed their relationship. Whether he liked it or not, every interaction would be subtly tainted by the knowledge that she was Zarai Lesdeman —someone close to the Danroses’ children, close enough to call the future Caesonian king “Wolfy”.

He inhaled deeply and in a barely audible voice said, “I am sorry for—...” Hiding? No. That night, he did not conceal that he was Fritz Hendrix, he simply introduced himself as Fritz, because Luz introduced herself as “just Luz”. However, was Ryn truly Fritz? No. Then there was only one apt word to use. “...lying about mine.” Even now, despite her honesty, he kept up the charade.

Betrayal would have only been the start of it. Zarai nodded slowly, a smile returning to her lips with ease now that Fritz knew and she knew too. But something in her chest twisted, a tiny but painful feeling that she blamed the drug for. "Thank you," Now, they could go back to normal. After this, they'd be able to meet up at the tavern again and have drinks like they used to. Sing and dance without the weight of both of their families or their feud between them, right?

Ryn quickly switched topics, “Speaking of overbearing parents, is she all right? I think she’s changing colors.” He turned Luz’s attention to Duchess Lesdeman by leading their gaze in her direction. Displeasure was evident on her features, a miracle that the duchess had not snapped her fan in half yet. All because her precious doll wouldn’t do what she wanted her to do; what she was supposed to do. A sudden urge to see the fan in pieces bubbled up inside the count. “On a scale of dirty looks galore to hiring assassins, how much would you like to rile up your mother tonight?”

Zarai spotted her mother when they had last left her staring at them, unmoving and unreactive. Her face was red with what she could only assume was anger, and even from their spot on the dance floor, she could see the fan bent in a way that at any moment it would sure snap in two.. She would have said dirty looks galore if she'd been sober, knowing that her mother would get over it quickly. But she wasn't sober, and Zara didn't care right now, nor did she want to think of the consequences.

"Enough to see her make a fool of herself." She grinned excitedly up at Fritz.

Ryn mirrored Luz’s expression. It was a terrible idea, and they both knew it, but stupid fun that hurt no one, aside from the duchess’s pride, and painted the new noble as eccentric at most, was a hit Count Hendrix was willing to take. If everything he did was wrong for Duchess Lesdeman, then the least he could do was to do something right for Luz, no matter how dreadful of a friend he was.

A ruckus caused by two young individuals momentarily distracted Ryn. A pair of blonds were twirling around batting the air to catch something that was not there. Butterflies, if the yelling were to be believed. He turned his head back to Luz and cocked an eyebrow. You didn’t. Zarai just laughed and shrugged, giving him an innocent look of I have no idea what you're talking about.

He shook his head with a smile. With a performance like that happening nearby, it was less likely that they would leave as much of a lasting impression as they originally thought when all was said and done —not that that bothered him, he would even argue it worked out in Count Hendrix’s favor. The only audience they needed to captivate was the duchess. And she was already obsessed with both of them.

The man wrapped the arm he had anchored to Luz’s back around her waist, pulling her closer to him, as he leaned in to whisper in her ear. He deliberately leaned to the side of her face that was facing way from the duchess, leaving much to the imagination for her mother. The two nobles swayed side to side, gentle as the light ocean waves on a calm, windless day.

“This is not the ballroom in Sorian filled with nobles. We’re in Ye Olde Bone. Where nobody has a title. Just cheap ale —that, as Karleen so eloquently described, tastes like donkey piss— and the best company anyone can ask for. Everyone is being their rowdy selves. Somehow Peter is hanging upside down from the chandelier. I don’t know how he got up there or how the old thing hasn’t dropped from the ceiling and burnt down the tavern yet, but it still hangs there. Sturdy as the tavern keeper. It doesn’t stop Udo from trying to make Peter fall off though. We just finished one song request.” The sounds of feet tapping and hands clapping cut in from a distance. “And they ask for more. Because they can’t get enough of you.” He focused on the rhythm the other dancers were producing and then began to hum a familiar tune.

The tune started off slow then gradually sped up as he tried to time the tempo just right. He added tapping of his own to the noise playing in the background, creating a music of their very own. The marble floor lacked the impact wooden floorboards made when stomped on and his shoes were not fitted with metal, so the sound barely reached the count and future duchess’s ears, let alone the couples dancing next to them. It was not as great as it could have been, but the makeshift instrument for the impromptu gig did its job well enough.

Once he knew what he had to work with, Ryn released Luz’s waist and stepped back. Zarai had picked up the tail of her emerald coat and draped it over one arm, excitement running through her body.They stood there, unmoving. One final check between the musicians before the show began.

And just like that, they were back in the tavern. The smell of the stale ale and the scent of cigarette smoke hung heavy on the air making her nostrils tingle with familiarity. The audience cheered around them, banging on the table in anticipation for the next song to start. Marline in the back whistled their way before breaking out in a burst of belly laughter. Everything so far away from her mother's ever judging eyes. Zarai looked at Fritz, a wide smile on her lips before giving him the signal. He nodded.

"Santiana gained a day
Away Santiana
Now, pull the yan up the west, they say
Along the plains of Nexeio"

Their voices blended together in harmony as the music filled their minds. They were no longer Count Hendrix and Lady Lesdeman but just Fritz and Luz now. The ballroom of Sorian had been left far behind them as hips and feet began to move along with the rhythm of their song. Laughter escaped Luz's lips as the speed of the song picked up. She could feel her kite reach the stars now as she took Fritz's hand and lifted her arm up high for him to spin. Once, twice, three times, and then it was her turn.

"Well, heave 'er up and away we'll go
Away Santiana
Heave 'er up and away we'll go
Along the plains of Nexeio Hey

She's a fast clipper ship and a bully good crew
Away Santiana
And an old salty Vank for a captain too
Along the plains of Nexeio"

She could feel Fritz's hands-on hers and hers on him as they twirled and spun along with the beat of their song. Other dancers around them began to take notice of them now, some laughing along with them and others whispering amongst themselves. And neither of them seemed to be paying any mind. No matter how clouded and light her mind felt, Luz, kept her eyes on Fritz. Her cheeks burned, but she was unsure if it was from blushing or smiling so much.

"Well, heave 'er up and away we'll go
Away Santiana
Heave 'er up and away we'll go
Along the plains of Nexeio Hey
Santiana fought for gold
Away Santiana
Around Kait Thorn through the ice and snow
Along the plains of Nexeio"

She heard them, Peter clapping and laughing from the chandelier and Marline from the bar laughing in a drunken stupor. All of them banged their tankard against the worn-out wooden tables as their voices echoed in her mind like endless ripples on a lake. It felt like she could almost fly as they spun, fingers digging into the fabric of Fritz's tailcoat as she threw her head back and stared up at the ceiling of the ballroom. The giant golden plated chandeliers twinkled from the reflection of the many candles that lit the place, and Luz wondered if it was magic that made them shine so bright.

"Well, heave 'er up and away we'll go
Away Santiana Ho, hey
Heave 'er up and away we'll go
Along the plains of Nexeio

So leave her, Johnny, off we'll go
The drunken sailor Wellerman whaler
Bound away for Nexeio"

Luz stood there, staring up at Fritz as their song came to an end. His shoulders visibly moved up and down, trying to catch his breath, as his smile beamed down at her. Applause erupted around them; whistles from the drunks and cheers of others drowned out her laughter. She finally let go of Fritz's hands, taking a step back to bow for her partner. In return, Fritz playfully curtsied. And just as she rose, the applause subsided and slowly dissipated into the monotonous melody of the waltz. There were no more cheers of joy, no laughter, no Peter, and no Marline. They were now back in the Sorian ballroom, back under the ever-watchful eyes of high society, back to Lady Lesdeman and Count Hendrix. Yet, it didn't matter. Not to Zarai.

Ryn rushed over to Luz’s side when she stumbled over slightly, locking their arms together to support her. “Bravo, Luz. Bravo.” He carefully guided her away from the dancefloor, back to the duchess to evaluate exactly how much damage they caused. “Let’s go see if she’s made a fool of herself, shall we?”

The ornate fan’s durability far surpassed Ryn’s expectations. No matter how much torsion the duchess applied, it refused to snap. It tempted him to ask where she bought the item, however, he was not sure if the red duchess would answer honestly even if he asked. “Oh my, would you look at that. I’ve never seen her in that shade of red before. It looks absolutely smashing on her, really brings out the blue in her stone cold glare.” Ryn said quietly to Luz. After giving her a wink, Ryn returned to the role of the count.

The heavy haze still covered Zarai's mind from the drug as she held onto Fritz while she tried to regain her composure. She giggled at his words, glancing up at her mother, expecting to see her face full of nothing but rage, but instead, she was met with an icy cold stare despite the color of her face. There was an uneasy stillness to the Duchess and if Zarai were not soaring through the stars right now, a cold shiver would have run down her spine.

“Your Grace, you have taught your daughter well in the art of entertaining guests. I have not had that much fun dancing in ages! So avant garde!” The count lowered his gaze to the floor, as if he was ashamed to say what came next, “I confess, I had the misconception that the ball would be strictly formal. I was terribly nervous when I got here. So worried that I would make a mistake and become the laughing stock of the season.” Ryn eyes focused back on the duchess, eyebrows arched high and a broad smile on his face. “But it seems I cannot hide anything from the sagacious Duchess of Puerto Vira. I tried to put a brave front and you saw right through it. That is why you paired me with your daughter for the dance, yes? Your kindness knows no bounds, Duchess Lesdeman. I feel much more relaxed now. Thank you for allowing me to dance with your daughter.” The count looked at Luz, expression soft and warm. He purposely waited for the stare to last long enough to raise the duchess’s hairs before letting out a long sigh. “She is truly delightful. It is such a shame we’ve not met sooner.” His free hand reached up and enveloped Luz’s hand, adding more to further sell the illusion that Lady Lesdeman besotted Count Hendrix.

Zarai stood beside the Count, an innocent smile in place to help suppress the giggles that were threatening to slip past her lips. The Duchess, however, just stared down at her daughter without sparing a glance at Fritz as he spoke. Some of the nobles that surrounded them looked at the Duchess, whispering amongst themselves about the display they had just witnessed, from them and the other blond couple as well.

"I am glad you enjoyed the dance with my daughter, Count." Francesca said, her voice void of any emotion. She finally looked at Count Hendrix with a cold gaze that contrasted the color of her face. It was evident that the Duchess was trying, and failing, to keep her composture. Crack. The wood of the fan fractured just the slightest at the sight of the Count looking at her daughter in such a disgraceful way. Zarai swore she saw her own mother crack in a similar way.

"Oh mother, it truly was lovely. How have you kept me away from Count Hendrix for so long?" Zarai had held onto Fritz's gaze as long as he had, ignoring the needles in her chest as she did. "Thank you so much for the dance match; I could not thank you enough!" She looked at her mother with a wide grin, reaching over with her free hand to take her mothers.

The Duchess pulled back, her hands twisting the fan further. "I apologize, Count, but it looks like we will be retreating to our chambers," Francesca looked back at Zarai, "Now."

"But mother, I've yet to greet the Princes and Princess. Oh, and I must say hello to the King and Queen! I mustn't be rude; that is what you always tell me, is it not? Besides, I had promised Count Hendrix I would introduce him to them, and a lady must always keep her promises." Zarai gave her mother another smile, knowing she could not say no lest she'd be seen as rude. It was common knowledge that the Lesdeman and Danroses were close friends and -

"I said, we are leaving, Zarai." Francesca's voice was tight and direct. "You've had your fun, my daughter, and now we must leave." Hearing this, a few of the nobility around them murmured amongst themselves, shooting side glances at the Duchess. Francesca lifted her chin up high, not willing to give in. She would not allow her daughter to be near Count Hendrix for another minute. "Suelta lo, ahora Zarai o vas a ver cuando lleguemos a nuestro cuartos." Out of instinct, Zarai's arm tightened around Fritz's. The hand covering hers gently patted it reassuringly.

Ryn gasped loudly, “By the Creators! You haven’t greeted our hosts yet!?” The count quickly covered his mouth, turned around to look at the spectators and then lowered his voice to a normal volume, “Mea culpa. Had I realized the both of you were jeopardizing House Lesdeman's reputation just to make a newcomer like me feel welcomed… I, I am at a loss for words.” The count closed his eyes as he pinched the bridge of his nose, brows furrowed as deep as he could make them, “I am mortified that I caused such disgrace!” After a dramatic pause he released himself from the pose, “No. It is not too late to rectify this, Your Grace. I will personally accompany Lady Lesdeman to greet the hosts and explain that I am entirely to blame for the delay.”

He held his hand up when Duchess Lesdeman opened her mouth, silencing any protest that would have come out otherwise, “I insist. I must repay your generosity. The least I can do is apologize in behalf of House Lesdeman.” Ryn finally looked back at Luz, “Lady Lesdeman, would you kindly lead the way?”

Zarai watched as her mother's hand trembled with rage. Tiny little splinters of wood had settled on the white silk gloves embroidered with golden thread. "Worry not, mother! Count Hendrix will help us save face." She smiled, knowing that her mother was screaming and kicking from the humiliation in her mind. How dare a Hendrix come to the rescue of the Lesdeman? With that, she beamed at her mother before looking up at the Count. "This way, Your Excellency." Zarai hooked her arms with the Count again before leading them away from the Duchess.

Behind them, a few of the nobility and servants stared in disbelief at Duchess Lesdeman. It seemed like they cared very little if the Duchess heard them or not as Francesca stood there glaring at their hooked arms. The whispers around her grew louder and louder until she had enough. CRAAAAACK! A few ladies around Francesca gasped as splinters flew. The fan snapping in two.

Backs facing the duchess, Ryn smirked a little upon hearing ‌wood breaking. Without looking at Luz directly, he offered his free hand for a fist bump. Mission accomplished? Zarai returned the fist bump with giggle. Mission accomplished.
Callum Danrose
&
Ríoghnach "Riona"

Interaction(s): Callum @Helo

Once at the balcony, Riona took off her ruined apron and used the parts that weren’t stained with wine to wipe said wine off of her face. Between wipes, the maid double-checked to see if there was anyone else present. Though there were none, she didn’t want to take any chances, so she led Callum to a corner of the balcony that was a blindspot from most eyes. For another person to see the two, they would have to walk out to the balcony or be spying on them from a specific spot in the ballroom.

She tossed her apron onto one of the benches and faced Callum. Riona stared at him, “Sorry beforehand if I ruin your clothes too. You look dashing in them, by the way. Absolutely miserable, but dashing.” She grabbed both of his arms, pulled him closer, and buried her face into his chest, letting out a long muffled scream. She needed to vent her anger somewhere. Since there was no pillow handy, however, Riona improvised. At least she didn’t punch or kick him like she did with the pillows.

She groaned. “Cal, remind me again why I haven’t blocked all the escape routes and set this place on fire?” Yet.

“Well, for one you’re a far better person than entirety of that viper pit and, two, it would be rather difficult to ensure that all innocent people made it out before the damn palace burnt to the ground. A third reason; Edin might well be an infernal demon from the bowels of hell and fire might not do the trick.” Cal spoke all three reasons as if they were all equally valid, and comfortably wrapped his arms around Riona in a hug.

Wine, inadventably, continued to soak into his clothes as well but it hardly mattered, there was a near endless stockpile of clothing inside the palace and it was all replaceable. He had given a small smile at the ‘dashing’ comment, dashing and useful was really all he was meant to be, like a nice piece of furniture or ornate decorative piece within the palace, currently, it seemed, he was only failing at being useful. Perhaps ruining the clothes would at least help him suceed in failing at both.

“And however will I recover my reputation, smelling of wine for the rest of the night? People might start to think I’m a drunkard.” He joked of his poor reputation with a small sense of pride. One day he’d have to find something better to live for than making his father’s life more difficult, but that day was yet to come. He kept a close eye on the balcony doors, knowing full well trouble would always be manageable for him and potentially devastating towards Riona.

She snorted at Callum’s list of answers. Two out of the first three reasons were up for debate, but she agreed that there were innocent people in there. To involve them would make her as despicable as King Edin. Yet the embers wondered, so what if she did? Fight fire with fire. Better people than she had tried and failed to oppose him without stooping to his level. How was a nobody supposed to go up against a king? She had nothing to her name, only the skills she acquired through the years. What if it was a necessary evil?

“Gods, I hate it when you talk sense… but… you’re right.” She sighed reluctantly before releasing the prince and taking a few steps back, assessing the damage. As to be expected, some of the wine transferred onto him. It was harder to see it on the darker colors, but there was no mistaking the small flecks of purple on the lighter colors. She reflexively rubbed the cloth with her thumb as if the wine was dirt rather than liquid soaked into the fabric. She noted what looked to be paper sticking out of his pocket, but she doubted it was rendered illegible. “You might have to give up on people’s image of you being a drunkard though. It’d be a hard sell if you’re covered in wine stains. Not to mention, you have a tavern named after you. Once they figure out you’re not the owner, people will think the tavern only needs you to keep business afloat.” Her fingers stopped the vain attempt to physically rub the stain away. Instead, she removed her hat and tossed it next to the apron. “If it makes you feel any better, you won’t be the only one labeled a drunkard by the end of this party.” The maid shivered at the image of the not-so-distant future, praying that it wouldn’t be as bad as midnight taverns.

“Thanks for the help out there. I might’ve lost my temper if you didn’t step in when you did.” As she expressed her gratitude, her brows furrowed by another thought. What was Callum doing there? Not that he wasn’t allowed to be specifically at that spot, but he wasn’t supposed to be there alone. “Aren’t you supposed to be mingling with the ladies? I thought you were assigned to one of Count Calbert’s daughters? Where is she? Did she ditch you?” Her eyes widened, “Did you ditch her?” Unlikely considering Callum’s disposition. Even if the dance was rigged for King Edin’s benefit, or Count Calbert’s for that matter, the Callum Riona knew wouldn’t have given his dance partner the cold shoulder just to ruffle King Edin’s feathers. He understood that they were being used as a pawn like he was by his father. He would never hold that against them.

“You’re welcome, but really I should’ve stepped in sooner. This is my home as well, and working here should not mean having to put up with that.” He shook his head, everything about this court was so woefully skewed by Edin’s cruel influence. He was a bit surprised to find her concerned that he was following his father’s instructions to the letter. He doubted Riona wanted to see the palace filled with more Danrose children or a satisfied grin on Edin’s face.

“It was arranged for me to dance with Violet, who did not want to dance. So I spoke with her for a bit, and later with her sister Crystal as well. Technically, I think I’ve fulfilled my mingling requirements for the night. Of course, Auguste and I both received the find a proper obedient wife talk, and Auguste has been assigned to court Beatrice, Varian’s princess. So far it seems he’s had no luck. Wulfric was dancing with Wystan, which I can’t imagine pleased father very much either. And Anastasia was lying on the floor for part of her dance, so it seems I will have plenty of company on Edin’s shit list after tonight.” Cal recounted much of what he’d seen throughout the night, smiling as he went over all his siblings had done to anger Edin tonight.

“Perhaps soon the time will come when his entire line is done with his shit and the stress alone causes the shriveled up raisin he calls a heart to fail. And you, are the last person I’d expect to want me focused on furthering the Danrose line.” He added and he offered the bottle of wine in his hand to Riona. He often found alcohol helped ease the frustration of having little control over one’s own life.

“And how has your night gone? Before recent events of course.” Cal asked, trying to gauge the decency of the rest of the guests inside, many of whom, especially those of Alidasht, he was unfamiliar with.

Riona spent half a second pondering if it was a good idea to drink right now before accepting the bottle from Callum. She already smelled like she was drinking on the job, what difference would it make if she actually did? She pushed the mouth of the bottle against her lips and tilted her head back, chugging the wine. She didn’t savor the taste of the vintage, just downed the liquid as if she hadn't had a drop of water in days. A terrible way to consume the wine, no joy in the act, and bordering on insulting to the winemakers who spent so much time and energy to create this one bottle. At least she drank it, unlike some other people. After taking a couple of large gulps, Riona sighed loudly and offered the bottle back.

“Are you actually interested in the fine details of cleaning after people? Because it’s really not that exciting. Downright boring when everyone isn't making a mess. You’re forced to stand around, waiting … and waiting, until something happens.” Riona pointed her finger at the prince, “Now if your real question is how’re our guests? Then I advise asking the staff that had to serve them. All I can say is that our Alidasht guests, especially the animals, have behaved better than a lot of our Caesonian nobles. Of course, they might just be restraining themselves for the party, but…” The dance with Shahzade Munir replayed in the back of her head, bringing forth a small smile, “So far, they aren’t too bad.” If Callum were to take his chances overseas by marrying one of the foreign guests, Alidasht might not be a bad option. It was far from Caesonian and they weren't afraid to fight off King Edin if it came down to it. Alidasht would have its own set of problems to deal with, but what country didn’t?

“And you, are the last person I’d expect to want me focused on furthering the Danrose line.” Her, wanting him to focus on furthering the Danrose line? Now that was the funniest thing she’d heard all night.

The maid’s chuckle turned into a hollow laugh. She waved her hand, “Sorry, sorry. I just… haha. Oh, Cal… Who said anything about procreating? I said mingle. You do know how babies are made, right? The birds and the bees? That whole spiel? Simply mingling with women won’t make them pregnant. Nor does getting married guarantee a child. Besides…” A prolonged silence followed her last word. Riona’s gaze drifted away to the night sky as she rubbed her arms.

Was Cal entirely interested in the fine details; did he need or want to know exactly how many things had been discarded onto the floor, how many glasses were broken, how much food had been spilled and wasted, all by those who thought themselves so much better than the rest of the world? No, but he was willing to listen if there was anything she needed to vent. But what she said Alidasht, was probably the highest praise he’d heard from Riona about any set of nobles so maybe this new group was not so bad.

“I can assure you I received a thoroughly repulsive talk on that subject from our king many many moons ago,” Cal said shaking his head as he took the bottle back from Riona. While it was likely awkward for all children to hear the sex talk from their parents, Edin’s delivery deserved to be a punishment in one of the deepest layers of hell.

“But that is the endgame for all this mingling. Edin hardly stays awake at night worrying about whether his children have found themselves a lovely group of friends. No, he sits around making lists of which asses he needs us all to kiss for him, and which ladies of the court will give him the most well-bred grandchildren. Talk to the wrong sort and he might just banish them out into the wilderness to die and call it mercy.” Cal added in as Riona paused to look up at the stars, guessing that if she was deep in thought, the words that were about to follow would be less lighthearted. He took a long drink as he waited for her to continue.

Her mouth moved to say something, then hesitated. “Callum,” she finally said, “you’re running out of time.” Her eyes locked on to his. “If you really want to escape this life… be free from Edin with as little political complications as possible… I don’t think you’ve much time left. As long as you stay here, you’ll be forced to marry, Cal. Don’t try to fool yourself by thinking otherwise. It might not be now or any time soon, but it will happen as long as he’s alive.” Maybe even after his death if the Danrose’s creed remained intact. It already outlived King Edin’s predecessors, it was unlikely to die along with him. “He’ll make sure you never join any monastery or any organization that forbids its members from getting married, in this country. He’ll chain you to your room if necessary. He’s a f**king dipsh*t, who doesn’t understand your worth as a person, but he’d never willingly give up a pawn he can take advantage of, no matter how rebellious you are… At the end of the day, he knows you won’t leave.” She took a few steps closer to Callum without averting her gaze, “Because you’re still here… In spite of all the things he’s done, you’re still standing here.” Which begged the question: why? Why was Callum still “here”? At the party; living in the castle; in Sorian, Caesonia; alive. Callum Danrose loathed his very own existence, cursed the blood that coursed within and the man who sired him, yet he was all of the above. What was keeping him here?

It seemed she too wanted to discuss everyone’s favorite subject; his poor choices. Coming from her, it did cut a bit deeper than from anyone else, but he also knew it didn’t come from a place of malice. The intensity of her eyes didn’t help, nor did the fact that everything she said was the sort of truth he knew and chose to ignore anyway. “Well, he’ll want Wulfric married first, he needs a proper heir. I’ve still got some time to figure something out.” He gave an awkward reply, and looked away and out towards the landscape visible from the balcony.

“And sure, I could leave, and then what? Be somewhere all on my own, with very little in the way of useful skills, always looking over my shoulder, never able to live a life that wasn’t a lie in some way. Best case scenario, I drink myself to death in some far away gutter. Doesn’t feel very free to have to lie and hide. At least here I have what I need, and enough free time to study magic.” He offered up an explanation in a quiet voice, but even as he said it he knew it wasn’t the whole truth, just one small factor. He drank again from the bottle, several long gulps that he needed if he was going to answer with the whole truth. He set the wine bottle down on the ground and walked over to the balcony, his hands studying the railing as he tried to put into words exactly what kept him in Sorien.

“I know they’re terrible, not just Edin, but all of us. I don’t even like them, most of the time, but sometimes they’re not so bad. Sometimes we feel like real siblings and that’s better than never at all. My mother, she does try, as much as she can, to make up for him. They are my family, I’m not going to get another one, and no matter where I go I’d still be one of them. Maybe it’s better to suffer with company than alone.” Did the occasional hug from his mother make up for his father’s abuse? Not really, but it was better than nothing. Sure all of his siblings had their faults but were they any worse than his? Another no. He belonged here with them; guilty by his own association, guilty of never having done anything meaningful to help the people of Caesonia, guilty of prospering from other’s pain.

“And if I left and somehow manage to find a good life outside of here, all of this still exists, nothing changes for the people of Caesonia, they still suffer. What right does a prince have to be happy, when so many of his people suffer?” Cal felt the sting of tears against his eyes, the pressure of all of it tight in his chest. He slouched against the banister, head hung low, and tried to subtly wipe the tears from his eyes. He wasn’t sure if it felt better to say it out loud or if it only made the truth sting more. “I don’t even know if there’s anything I can do to make any of this better, or if I just make it worse.”

A pang of guilt grabbed and twisted Riona’s heart in all directions at the sight of the prince's defeated frame. Tentatively, she placed her hand on his back and rubbed gently, attempting to soothe him. She wasn’t sure if the touch comforted him in any way, but it helped her from becoming overwhelmed by the prince’s torment. Every time he showed compassion for the common folk, Riona wondered if Callum was really a Danrose. When that happened, she asked the fates why Callum had to be King Edin’s child? Things would’ve been less complicated if he was just like his father, selfish and cruel. Then she wouldn’t have to feel anything except hate for him.

“And why do you stay here? Surely not because of your great loyalty and love for the royal family. There are better places to find work, better kingdoms to work in, and yet, here you are. Why don’t you want to be happy?” He asked taking a deep breath of the chilled air before lifting his head and turning back around to face her.

The last question startled Riona. The muscles in her body tensed up and she forgot to breathe. His question hit her harder than she wanted it to.

“Why don’t you want to be happy?” the stable boy asked. “Are you trying to punish yourself for something you had no control over? I’ve never met your parents, but I don’t think they’d want to live the rest of your life like this.” His hand, calloused and covered in dirt, reached over to her. “Let's get away from this place. You and me. We’ll find happiness together.” His words tempted the maid. She was struggling with doubts that festered for years and she was beginning to wish for freedom, to let the fires die for good. She took his hand, hoping that there was peace beyond the horizon. There was none to be had, however. When the boy was trampled to death weeks later, Riona believed it was a sign. She was never going to be happy. Edin’s death was the only thing she had to look forward to in life.

The lack of oxygen forced Riona to take in a shaky breath. She tightened the grip on her arm to regain composure. Slowly she whispered, “I’m here… because…” Her voice trailed off once again as she contemplated on what answer she’d give him. She could’ve lied or avoided the question altogether, but the look in his eyes made her reconsider. It was nothing tangible, only a feeling she got which compelled her to give him an honest answer —that or it was the alcohol kicking in. The simple truth was ugly as it was, so she chose to focus on the essence of the truth.

“I love my family,” she answered with a weak smile. It was no secret that Riona was an orphan, though she never elaborated on the details, she told Callum that her family was murdered. So her answer to his first question might’ve sounded out of place to him, but it was the heart of the matter and the most she was willing to reveal to him at that moment in time. Though there were days when she wanted all of it to end, Riona endured for her family. “And I’m… so scared of letting them down. If I left now or died today… then absolutely nothing would have changed since the day I came here. I-I…t-that can’t… ” The maid gasped sharply and turned her head up as if it would be enough to stop the tears from forming. “That’d suck,” she laughed between heavy breaths.

Cal wasn’t sure what he’d expected her response to be but what he got wasn’t anything he would’ve guessed. In Caesonia one was always expected to grin and bear it, no matter the pain, because emotional displays were unseemly. So it was awkward and unpractised to stand with some with no walls of his own, to watch theirs go down as well, and to exist in such an open space he’d never really found himself in before. And he had no words, there was nothing that he could do or say that would make the world feel any less awful and unjust. So he just listened, as she had done countless times for him, and he didn’t look away from her. Cal tried to do nothing that would make it seem like there was anything out of the ordinary for people to be this open.

Riona always seemed so effortlessly strong, so unbreakable and intense. He didn’t know how she kept it all up, going through so much, every day, working for them, smiling at them, at the same people who caused all of her pain. In all the years he’d known her he’d never seen a side this vulnerable, and she was not one to seek attention or sympathy, and all of that made seeing her like this so heartbreaking. Now, he saw all the effort her strength took, and it was even harder to understand how anyone could be that strong.

When she was positive that she wasn’t going to start crying, Riona faced the prince with a somewhat forced smile, “You have a better shot at changing things, Cal. All this talk about not being able to do anything or making things worse for everyone else sounds like the bullsh*t Edin likes to drill into your head.” Her fingers tapped Callum’s forehead in emphasis. “Why are you giving up before you even tried? Because Edin said so? Pssh, please. So what if you screw up and make things ‘worse’? Just try again then. Try until you get what you want. Mess up until you get it right, Cal.” Her smile turned softer, more genuine.

Riona took both of Callum’s hands into hers. She held one in the air while she guided his other hand to her back where she released it. Once she placed her free hand on his upper arm, the maid held the position.

Callum allowed his hands and arms to be moved with no resistance. One hand rested where she had placed it against her back, the other remained wrapped around hers. The music from inside could be softly heard slipping through the balcony doors, just enough to keep the rhythm and match her steps, but other than it was quiet. There was only the soft lighting from the night sky and the air was crisp, smelling faintly of the wine that clung to their clothes. Most of all, it felt entirely peaceful, with just enough distance from everything that remained inside for Cal to forget for a moment that the world inside the ballroom even existed.

“Do you remember when you got healthy enough to start taking dancing lessons? You were so bad at it so we decided to practice together? You stepped on my toes and we tripped each other so many times, I’m kind of surprised we still have feet to walk on. Don’t even get me started on the number of times you dropped me during a dip because I was too fat.” The exact word he used was “heavy,” but she chose “fat” instead to tease him. Callum was still a sickly boy at the time and had barely any strength to speak of. Of course, the girl was too heavy for him to hold. “Look at you now, you haven’t stepped on my toes or tripped even once. If this isn’t proof that people can learn from their mistakes, then I don’t know what is.”

“Riona,” and there were so many other things he wanted to say but couldn’t for countless reasons, “I never called you fat, was what he went with, a slightly scoff at the word. “But I guess I was a whiny brat of a child, I could hardly blame someone if they wanted to throttle me,” he added, and his tone was light, as playful as it ever got, and there was no trace of a grudge in his words. “And I am grateful that you are here. You’re right, I think I have improved some since we last danced if you care to try again, I promise not to drop you.” He spoke with a sincere smile.

“I distinctly remember the last time you said that, I still hit my head on the floor. Theories are all well and good, dear scholar, but I want hard evidence. The proof is in the pudding, as they say.” Riona taunted. Mentally she simultaneously prepared herself for the dip so she wouldn’t be taken by surprise if it were to happen and for herself to hit the floor so that she could at least keep potential injuries to a minimum. It never hurt to be prepared for either scenario.

Cal paused for a moment, doubt slipping in, noting subtly changes in her form made it clear she still expected him to drop her. The pause only cause his footing to fall out of rhythm, the misstep turned his focus on avoiding Riona’s feet and he thought it might just be better for the both of them if he didn’t try and add anything else in. But Riona had always been more forgiving of his flaws than most. So once his footing was was again sound he lifted his arm just above her head and for a spin before releasing their lightly clasped hands and placing the now free hand against her back. Cal dipped Riona, keeping her close to him, and holding her parallel to the floor for a brief moment before pulling her back up without fail. “I guess I only had to mess up until I got it right. I’m glad my previous attempts never left you with any lasting head trauma, otherwise I might not get to hear such wisdom spoken in this palace.”

The prince’s steady hand on her back allowed Riona to feel safe enough to place her free hand over her forehead pretending to swoon when the dip came. As he held her weight, she glanced in Callum’s direction and grinned, before he pulled her back up. “Me too,” she simply said.

As the two continued to dance and banter, the voice in the back of Riona’s head scolded her for what she had done. None of that was supposed to happen. The carefully maintained distance between them threatened to be disrupted and both couldn’t let that happen for their own reasons. She blamed a lot of things for her lapse in judgment such as the drunk nobles who angered her in the first place and the wine that loosened her tongue enough to ask needless questions. Questions which led to Callum and Riona becoming more vulnerable than they intended to be, exposing wounds that bound them to Danrose castle. Callum may have made things complicated for Riona, but she made it even more difficult on herself by giving a damn when she knew that it would only hurt them more in the end. The words from the past repeated to her through the prince’s mouth reminded her of what she was doing here. She needed to refocus on what truly mattered.

“I forgot to ask. Are you planning to stay till the end of the party? You said you reached your mingling quota for the night.”

“I spoke mainly in jest and Edin is in a strange mood tonight, I think the guest from Alidasht have him on edge, seems like it would be a mistake not to try and get to know them better.” Cal knew better than to think he could just pop in and out of these events whenever he wanted, likely he had already been gone from his father’s sight long enough now as it was. “And after this there is another, informal, party to attend out by the docks.” He added glancing at the letter that peaked out from it’s pocket. He didn’t see any reason to hide anything from her; she knew far more damning secrets of his than underground parties. “Why? Is there someone you think I should be mingling with?” He asked.

So that’s what it is. She shook her head, “No, nothing like that. But now I know that I’m going to have to check your room later to make sure you’re back before anyone else who’ll rat you out notices. So please try to be back before sunrise?” If the paper in his pocket was an invention it usually meant Princess Anastasia was or wanted to be involved. The maid’s eyes narrowed slightly, “Doubly so if Anastasia is going with you. I don’t want to drag two drunks to their beds in the dead of night without attracting too much attention, clean Gods knows what off them, and change their clothes before my shift even starts… ever again. Seriously, Cal. Never again. Be back by dawn.”

“Back before the sun, quiet as a mouse, no messes. I’ll make sure Anastasia does the same. Hand to the Gods. And I am entirely capable of changing my own clothes.” Cal promised raising one hand up to the sky and he meant it. Truthfully he’d probably do just about anything Riona asked of him, because of all his flaws his most damaging was how attached he found himself to anyone who was kind to him. Entirely desperate to have people like that around him even while knowing how it left him easy to influence or manipulate. Not that he’d ever held any doubts in his trust in Riona, among all the people he knew she was among the most honest.

Riona’s ears detected the sound of steady footsteps approaching, warning her that someone was making their way to the balcony. She tapped Callum’s arm in warning and stepped closer to whisper in his ear, “Incoming.” Her foot took one step back as she added, “Thanks for the break. It was fun.” Riona gently squeezed his hand that held hers before completely stepping away. Once a respectable distance away from the prince, the maid lowered her head, “Of course, your Highness. It will never happen again.”

The new arrival turned out to be another servant holding a hot towel in one hand and a stack of folded white cloths in the other arm —most likely a clean set of gloves, apron, and bonnet for Riona. They bowed to their prince in greeting and waited patiently for the exchange between Callum and Riona to end.

Cal gave only a sad smile as she tapped his arm and warned him, held onto her hand a little tighter at the same time she had squeezed his before letting go and letting walls and distance return. The doors to the balcony opened up and it was no longer a place that felt any different from the rest of the palace; a place where no one could really be or do as they wanted. He only nodded and snatched the wine bottle back up from where it rested on the floor. “Good, see that it doesn’t.” He tried to sound official but his words only managed to come out hollow. He gave a nod and forced a polite smile to the other servant before heading back inside, bring the bottle to his lips and finishing the contents before placing the empty vessel on a serving table.

&
Ríoghnach "Riona"

Interaction(s): Callum @Helo

A sharp clap and the sound of glass breaking turned the heads of people who were ignorant of its source. It even turned Riona’s head, though not for the same reason as the bystanders. Unlike them, it was the force of the noble’s hand that pushed her face away from the original direction she was facing mere seconds ago. Her cheek stung belatedly, but it didn’t especially hurt. Not that a noblewoman with string beans for arms was capable of inflicting any significant damage on her. Slowly, and as calmly as she could, Riona faced the perpetrator that slapped her and bowed deeply, as was expected of her.

After the dance with the shahzade, Riona returned straight to her duties. Nothing out of the ordinary happened for awhile. Whenever a mess was made for one reason or another, she and her colleagues swooped in to clean it. Rinse and repeat. It was simple, mindless work. On occasion, she was asked to do things outside of her assigned work because the guests had no way of telling which staff was responsible for what, but they had been manageable.

Trouble came knocking when Riona heard a woman shriek. A brief sound of distress, nothing serious based on how the other guests more or less ignored it and no guards rushed in to defuse the situation. There was a group of nobles surrounding a crying woman with an empty wine glass in one hand, a shoe in another, and a large purplish-red stain on her dress. The first casualty of the night and a trend that past experience taught Riona would continue as long as alcohol flowed.

Riona approached the woman to offer her assistance when she saw the woeful expression transform into rage as soon as the noblewoman caught sight of the maid. “You!” She hissed, “This is all your fault!”

Excuse me? How is what my fault?

As if she had read Riona’s mind the noblewoman stomped her way to the maid with an unstable footing, shoving the shoe she was holding into Riona’s face. At the bottom of it was a mess that Riona initially thought was a smashed-up insect. After a closer inspection, she realized it was the remnant of a grape. “Don’t you dare play dumb! Your incompetence ruined my dress!” Riona could smell the alcohol in the other woman’s breath as she continued to yell at her. “This is why you should never hire commoners! No work ethics! Inherently lazy! You do the bare minimum work and expect to get paid handsomely for it! Even though you can’t even do the simplest task!”

Riona stared blankly at the noble. From what she could piece together from the ramblings of the intoxicated woman and the evidence she provided, Riona guessed that someone had dropped a grape and the drunk noblewoman lost her already deteriorating balance when she stepped on the fruit, which resulted in her spilling her drink over herself. All this, was apparently the servant’s fault because no one picked up the grape before she stepped on it. Riona was being scolded purely as a representative of the servants.

The maid bowed her head, “Many apologizes my Lady—...”

“I don’t want your hollow apologies! You ruined a dress that is worth more than your life and you think an apology is enough to absolve you? Shameless wretch, take responsibility for once in your life. I expected better from the Danroses. They are too lenient on your kind.”

Too… lenient?

A spark flickered and died in the darkness.

Too lenient? Is that what they call it? Where the f**k were you when Leo Over-Polished-My-A** blamed us? What about our reaction gave you the f**king impression that they are too lenient on us? A question Riona already knew the answer to. Even if the noblewoman was standing next to the servant whose knees buckled, she would’ve said the same thing. Because she saw nothing. They all saw nothing. Not the servants’ dread, despair, or fury. They were invisible and what was invisible was nonexistent. Their anguish didn’t exist.

“I know that words don’t work with your kind. You just never seem to understand. Reasoning is simply not your forte.” The noblewoman began to sway back and forth. Her foot jetted out to the side when she leaned too far in one direction in order to maintain her balance. “You are… Like, like, a…”

One of the nobles who had been watching the spectacle with amusement suggested, “Human-shaped animals?” The others chimed in with similar terms.

Another spark, brighter than before, failed to ignite once again.

“Beasts in human skin! Like any wild animal, you only understand strength. As such, you can only learn by receiving a good thrashing.”

What? You think our uniforms cover us from head to toe for modesty's sake? With a masher like Edin?! HA! We have more in common with slaves than with any of you arrogant, spoiled pieces of...!

The spark this time produced a small glow. A tiny, insignificant fire. Unworthy to kindle the embers. Quickly blown out with a single rational thought. Riona dug her nails into her arm, gloves preventing her from breaking skin. She’s drunk Ríoghnach. They’re drunk. She just happens to be drunk and upset. Just have her get her servants and they’ll know how to deal with her.

The maid took in a deep breath through her nose to calm herself, “I am sorry that you feel our services are inadequate, my lady. We will endeavor to do better. In the meantime, would you like me to call—...” The woman in front of her suddenly stumbled forward. Riona’s hands shot out to stabilize her when the woman jerked away from her touch, dropping both the glass and the shoe from her hands so that she could slap the maid across the face.

“How dare you!” The noble screamed, “How dare you touch me without my permission! Who do you think you are!? Know your place!” If her previous crying and rambling hadn’t attracted that much attention before, it had done so now. Even with her head bowed low, Riona could see from her peripheral vision a little crowd forming. Amongst them, she saw her colleagues.

They stood there with worried looks, but as soon as they made an attempt to step forward Riona raised her hand slightly, stopping them in their tracks. The situation, though not as nearly spectacular as Duke Vikena’s entrance, garnered enough attention that it was impossible the head housekeeper wouldn’t be made aware of the situation. If she was, that meant the noblewoman would eventually get what she believed the Danrose servants needed. It was bad enough that they were going to have to be punished to some degree because of Lord Smithwood’s complaint, the other servants didn’t need to deal with more of this nonsense. Not if it could be avoided.

The noblewoman turned to the other nobles around her, “You saw that, yes? She touched me!” The others nodded in agreement. “What if I contract something? I heard that they are carriers of diseases! Didn’t they spread that plague in Kolonivka a while back?” Riona didn’t appreciate being equated to fleas on a rat, but more than that, she wondered how the woman contracted anything when both she and Riona were wearing gloves.

“Don’t fret,” a nobleman hiccuped, “I have it on good authority that alcohol can eradicate the cause of any illness.”

Another scowled at the inebriated man, “And where, pray tell, have you learned that from?”

“Some, publication from … the, the,” he poked his head with his fingers to get the next words out, “Varian Royal Institute of Science. Something about… creatures so small…we can’t see them, but they can make us sick. Heat and alcohol can kill them.”

“Hogwash.”

“I agree, but if it’s the kind of hogwash that allows me to have more alcohol, I have no complaints.” The nobleman grabbed a bottle from the table and uncorked it. He tilted the bottle in the noblewoman’s direction. She took a few steps away from him, shielding herself as she demanded him to stop and that she already decided to burn her clothes. Cleaning it was apparently no longer an option. The dress had been irreversibly ruined by the wine and the stupid maid. No longer could she wear this ensemble without remembering the humiliation.

“You’re no fun at all.” The nobleman faced Riona. A snide grin formed on his lips, “Then again, how can we trust what the Varians say? I think we would be doing a service to them by testing this theory of theirs.” He flipped the bottle upside down over Riona’s head, dumping rather than pouring the wine onto her.

By this point, everything the nobles did was steel striking flint near tinder. Every word spoken, every action they did or did not take grated on Riona. It didn’t take long for the fire to flare up. Her nails dug harder into her skin as she clenched her teeth. The maid was only able to avoid contorting her face into an ugly glower by breathing slowly through her flaring nostrils. She tried to remember the meditation techniques Wystan suggested so that she wouldn't completely lose it, to focus on anything except what was happening at that moment, but her mind kept wandering back. How the woman thought it was a logical conclusion to burn clothes that were worth more than a single life because of a wine stain that could be washed out and a maid who “violated” her. How dumping perfectly good vintage wine was the pinnacle of hilarity for these people. How the wine pooling on the floor looked redder than it was supposed to be.

Why did she even bother?

A soft glow emanated from the embers.

Once the last drop of wine escaped its glass prison the nobleman peeked inside, “Huh, that’s the last of that … and she’s still alive. I suppose the Varian Royal Institute of Science aren’t as credible as they claim to be.”

The flames from the kindling burned with stronger ferocity and as it does, the ember’s light glowed brighter, full of anticipation. Unabashedly hungry for the flames. It yearned to consume it all.

“Mayhap another one will do the trick?” The group snickered.

Fueled by the fire, it would burn brighter than any star. Set Sorian ablaze, for all to witness. They… he would burn in the all-engulfing flames. And it would be glorious. All the girl had to do was just let the embers touch the fire.

“You may be right,” the nobleman uncorked another bottle.

Firewood crackled and popped.

The wine bottle rose up.

The ball of fire flew its way to the embers… and was immediately caught mid-air, extinguished with one swift motion by a hand paler than Ríoghnach’s.

Riona snapped back to reality and turned her head to see Callum standing there.

“Bold of you to insult the king by wasting his favorite wine, a vintage carefully chosen to honor our guests from Alidasht.” Callum snatched the wine bottle from the lesser noble’s hand. With ease, he found himself mimicking a look of absolute disdain, one normally found on his father’s face with Cal often on the receiving end.

The commotion had quickly escalated into something impossible to miss; most of the time these things sorted themselves out, or more accurately the staff sorted them out in ways normally undetected by most. The shrill-voiced noblewoman was easily ignored as someone who couldn’t hold her drink, bemoaning her own mistake, but the slap had echoed through the room. It drew his attention and seeing that it was a wine-drenched Riona on the receiving end of the slap, one of his home’s own staff being assaulted, rather than a scuffle between two equally insufferable nobles, had made all apathy towards the commotion vanish.

“Then again, boldness without cause is base stupidity. You are on thin ice, you will leave my presence, and will be thankful I do not bring this insult to our king’s attention. Should I have the misfortune of seeing any of you again, you will be conducting yourselves in a way that does not embarrass Caesonia.” Cal asked, making an effort to look at each of them the very same way his father would look at Kier the ferret. He then spoke his last sentence slowly, the way one does when speaking with a young child, “Do we understand?” Callum did not wait for a response, instead, he waved them away with his free hand while looking at the wine bottle as if it were a precious thing and shaking his head.

It was a sad truth that to chastise them for the waste of wine, over the mistreatment of a person, would be more easily understood, but it was the truth of the world they all lived in. Assaulting a servant would be seen as nothing, but an action that could be seen as an insult to the king, to embarrass the king and country in front of another nation, bordered on treasonous. It was a simple enough spin on the situation, but one he hoped wouldn’t add any further insult to Riona.

Many of the nobles, including some of his family, laid claim to a favored servant, one they treated better than the rest, occasionally even calling it friendship. These nobles treated others as a pet, all so that they could feel better about themselves, and brag about their generosity and kindness. So, although Cal liked Riona better than he did most people, he knew better than to entertain such notions and knew better than insult someone by claiming them as a favored servant. Not a favored servant, nor even really a friend, because to call someone a friend in a way that meant something required a more even distribution of power. What existed was a strange relationship that had begun with a failed assassination attempt against him and continued fueled by the mutual hatred of one man who sat upon a throne.

There were debts owed to Riona for so many things that he could neither repay nor even give voice to; days when just knowing he wasn’t alone in his hate made life bearable when consuming darkness had been fended off by simply being understood by another. Just as Riona understood him, he understood that she held a dangerous temper that simmered beneath a composed surface.

“I think I could use some fresh air, would you like to join me?” Cal quickly dropped the stern-prince voice, ensuring his words did not sound like a command, offering it as a true choice. His face, however, did not change, he maintained the look of anger and annoyance as he spoke knowing full well it would not due to look soft on the servants in front of those who still watched. It was better for them both if it appeared like he was berating an out-of-line servant. “I’ve got a bottle of wine, there’s an empty balcony over there, and you could probably use a break.” He added gesturing with the bottle.

Riona watched silently as she witnessed firsthand what power words held when spoken by a person of higher status. The pack of hyenas who were cackling at her now exposed their bellies in submission. A pitiful sight to behold. One that threatened to bring a smile to her face and served as a painful reminder of how weak she really was here.

She faced her rescuer and curtsied in greeting, “It would be my greatest pleasure to accompany you, my prince.” She signed her colleagues to come out of hiding, “Can you clean this up for me?” After they nodded, she added, voice louder so that anyone who continued to stick around could hear, “Also, could you find our… fine guest’s servant? There was an unfortunate accident and she is very distressed. She may need to change clothes, but I believe she would feel more comfortable with familiar faces assisting her.” She didn’t give a damn about any of the nobles’ mental state, quite frankly, but she kept appearances up —for Callum’s sake, if not for hers— as she bowed to the general direction of the crowd, “My deepest apologies for the commotion. Everything is now under control, please continue to enjoy the party.” Finally she turned to Callum. “After you, Prince Callum.”
Fritz "Ryn" Hendrix

Interaction(s): Nala @13org (Collab)

Ryn took the opportunity to wander around the ballroom and greet people he had yet to properly converse with. When he wasn’t talking to someone, Ryn surveyed his surroundings, carefully observing the movement of people as they went about their business. There were many guests so the process was slow, but not entirely fruitless.

The more people he talked to, Ryn began to question how many Caesonian nobles fully supported King Edin. Not a single soul was blatant enough to vocalize it, but the signs were there in their body language, in their voice, the words they chose to use, and the timing in which they decided to use it whenever the subject of the king came up. Small, subtle things that said more than the person intended to. The alliance of the Caesonian noble circle appeared to be a flimsy one, barely held together by loyalty gained primarily through fear and money, and not much else. Though, if there was something else, Ryn was interested in finding out what it was.

While King Edin’s precarious position made Ryn’s life a lot easier, it came with its own set of problems: his children. In comparison to their father, they were viewed in an infinitely favorable light. First Prince Wulfric garnered the most support from the nobility while the youngest Prince Callum was more popular amongst the disenfranchised commoners. Prince Auguste and Princess Anastasia seemed to be liked by people from all walks of life, but old-fashioned values made many regard Princess Anastasia as an unlikely candidate for the throne. Underestimating the influence she had. Ryn would not make the same mistake; he wasn’t allowed to make such a mistake. They were all a potential threat to him and he should treat them as such. He needed to remind himself not to focus all his attention on the children, however. For many species of snakes thrived in Caesonia.

The smell of strong wine filled Ryn’s nostrils as Duke Vikena stared at “Caesonia's beloved count” with disdain. A dash of apprehension crossed his face when the snake slithered his way to Lady Vikena. His whispers sucked the color out of the young woman’s face. The delight he derived from messing with the Vikenas was evident. Yet others seemed blind to it. Did the count’s family know that he liked to play with his prey?

Based purely on what Ryn could observe, whatever happened between Count Damien and the Vikenas remained between them. While he interacted with his wife and daughters, Count Damien was as many described him to be. A charming, well-mannered man who loved his family immensely and was not ashamed to express it out in public. Was the light playing tricks on Ryn’s eyes when he saw that cruel smile? Even so, the impact his presence had on Duke Vikena was undeniable. Taking into account that Count Damien seemed to have some sway on King Edin, he may be more dangerous than people realized.

The other thing Ryn noticed during his periodic people-watching was the presence of a masked individual. At first, the mask caught his eyes only because there was no one else wearing one. Ryn then witnessed the masked man passing out envelopes to a select few guests, which piqued his curiosity. When he saw the envelope in Prince Callum’s hands, Ryn excused himself from the present company and left the ballroom as nonchalantly as he could.

Past the ballroom doors, down the hall, and away from the hustle and bustle of the constantly moving castle staff, a group of servants from different noble houses, except Alidasht, were standing around, drinking, eating, and chatting amongst themselves. Even though the ballroom was large, to avoid overcrowding, extra servants who were not needed in the room were asked to be on standby somewhere near the ballroom. There, the servants waited patiently for Danrose’s servants to inform them that their respective masters were requiring their service.

Amongst the group of people, Ryn spotted two familiar faces and walked toward them. He removed his ostentatious tailcoat to not alarm the other servants as he made his way to the two figures drinking next to a service cart that was reserved for the guests’ servants.

Karleen was a giant of a woman, taller than the average man in the Northern Kingdoms, with muscles that any warrior would envy. She had hazel eyes, shortly trimmed bronze hair, and countless scars from her days in the fighting arena etched on her limestone skin. When standing next to Karleen, Peter looked much smaller and lankier than he actually was, but he was a man of average height and a body built for acrobatics. He was a ginger with amber eyes, and pale ivory skin covered with freckles. He was smoking a pipe when Ryn approached the duo. As soon as they noticed him, Peter greeted him with a wide smile, smoke escaping from his mouth through the gap between his teeth.

“Ain’t it a bit early to call it a night, Boss?”
“That it is. How are you two doing? Not too bored I hope.”
“Eh, we’ve been entertaining ourselves. I just came back from my ‘walk’ and was about to trade places with Karl so she can take her ‘break’.”
Karleen hummed in response.
“Anything happened that I should be made aware of?”
“Aside from the fact that every other servant here is spying on everyone else? Not really.”
Ryn didn’t expect any less. It would have been more surprising if there weren’t some amount of snooping happening.
Karleen cut in, “Masked man.” She took a sip of her drink.
“Oh yeah, there was this one dude who must’ve gotten an invitation for the wrong party cause he was wearing a mask. This isn’t a masquerade party, right?” Ryn shook his head. “Thought so. Uh… aside from that… Uh… I guess if you know a woman called Helga then I can tell you that she's really upset about something.”
“Oh? What happened?”
“We were hoping you’d tell us. She came out from the ballroom complaining about something the princess did.”
“Huh. I must’ve missed it then.” Ryn lowered his voice, “There is so much going on at once, it’s hard to keep an eye out for everything.”
“I bet it is. You sure you don’t need one of us in there too?”
“As much as I would like that, I need you all to stay focused on what you’re doing…” He sighed, “I said before immediately contradicting myself… I need some help with some other things.” Ryn looked at the two apologetically. He didn’t want to distract his companions with additional tasks, but he could not ignore what he saw.

Karleen pushed herself away from the wall she was leaning against and walked past Ryn to face the service cart, conveniently hiding Ryn from the other servants’ field of vision. Peter remained where he was, but turned his head to face the other end of the hall, keeping an eye out for any passersby. “Whatcha need, Boss?”

Ryn whispered, “I need one of you to tail Calbert Damien and Callum and Anastasia Danrose after they leave the ballroom tonight.”

There was a pause before Peter asked in a quiet voice, “You sure you want to do that, Boss? This might be the only time this place is as unguarded as it’ll ever be.”

And there are only five of us. They were both aware that their resources were limited here. It was a conscious decision on Ryn’s part. It made coordinating easier and a large group would have been too conspicuous. It also simply reduced the number of lives that would be at stake should the worst happen. This, of course, meant that Ryn had to be careful of who he deployed and when.

“If I’m being entirely honest. No, I’m not sure at all.” Ryn rubbed the bridge of his nose, “But that masked man you saw? I saw him handing out envelopes to people and one of them was Callum. I also thought I saw Anastasia handing a similar looking envelope to another man. I’m not sure if they’re related, but if they are, I think if we follow one of them, they’ll lead us to the person who sent out those letters and the people who received them.”
“Super secret people giving out super secret letters for a super secret meeting? With one, maybe two, Danroses involved? Does sound super secret. I’ll get Udo to follow them.”
Ryn nodded, “As for Calbert… There seems to be something going on between him and Lorenzo Vikena.”
“I thought they were friends.”
“Do friends usually do long-distance glaring contests across the room every chance they get?”
“Sounds more like they’re checking each other out.”
“I–... Huh… the thought never crossed my mind.”
“Star-crossed lovers,” Peter waved his hand slowly to gesture an arch, “the forbidden romance between a recently widowed Duke and a Count, the supposedly devoted husband.”
Karleen sighed wistfully as she collected petit fours onto a plate.
“Ah, so we have a scandal on our hands and blackmail to boot. Splendid.”
“Blackmail? Oh, Boss I love it when you talk dirty.”
Ryn shook his head, but the smile that grew on his face remained as he warned Peter like a mother would to her child, “Behave.” Ryn adjusted the coat in his arm so that he could stick his hands into its pocket, “I better go back before I miss out on all the action… and the animals.”

Karleen returned to her original position and popped the petit four into her mouth. “And for a hot second, I thought he was busting his a** working like the rest of us.” Peter grabbed a tiny cake off of her plate and shoved it into his mouth with his fingers, “Have fun.”

“I will. Before I go, though,” Ryn pulled out the papers from the pocket. “Do you have any idea where the dustbins are? I walked all over that damn ballroom and there’s not one dust bin in sight.”

Ryn could barely hear Peter through his chewing, “Aren’t you supposed to throw it on the ground?”

Ryn knocked his head back and let out an exasperated sigh just as Karleen placed the fork on her plate and reached her open hand out. “I'll take that.”



“Common sense would dictate that there should be at least one dustbin in this room, yes? Or has it come to the point that the nobility are so detached from the mundane world they don’t know how to use a dustbin? Do they know what a dustbin is? Do I know what a dustbin looks like? Is that why I failed to find one?” The count turned his head to the black tigress who sat a few feet away from where he stood.

After the incident with Duke Vikena, Ryn had been somewhat hesitant to approach the Alidasht corner of the ballroom. He had thought it would be better to wait until everyone had calmed down, and now that the tension had returned to a level where the countries were at no risk of going to war, for the moment at least, Ryn decided to do what he had wanted to do ever since he first stepped into the ballroom. Get a closer look at the animals.

He approached the Alidasht animal handlers and was successful in buttering them up enough to the point where the friendlier of the bunch began to show off their prized beasts. Though he was only able to touch the docile creatures, he was more than satisfied to be able to observe the animals up close. The one animal the handlers advised against getting too close to was the black tiger, Nala. There was only one person in the entire world she trusted, and that was Shehzadi Mayet. The best thing anyone else could do in terms of positive interaction was to feed her something that was not themselves and avoid getting mauled by her. So, obviously, Ryn asked if he could feed her.

The count slowly inched his way towards Nala with the plate of food provided by the animal handlers, striking up meaningless conversations with the big cat. The handlers started to place bets on whether he would survive the encounter. Evidently, they thought the odds of him leaving unscathed were stacked against him, but Ryn wasn’t deterred by it.

Eventually, he managed to get close enough to the tiger to place his offering of sliced raw meat on the ground and take a couple of slow steps back. He knelt down and waited with anticipation.

Nala, who was laying down and patiently waiting for Mayet to finish dancing, simply looked towards the strange man who was approaching her. While she didn't display any hostility towards him, at least not openly, the piercing gaze she gave to the man, watching every single movement and step he took was more than enough of a warning for him to be careful with his movements.

Nala was relatively used to life at the royal castle in Alidasht, but that was only because she was basically raised there by Mayet. She considered that place her and Mayet's territory. She had seen the servants that worked on the castle long enough to know their scent and to be sure no one of them would harm her or Mayet, especially since they all knew the correct manners to enter Mayet's room and approach her and Nala.

With that said, that wasn't the case here. Not only was Caesonia a completely unknown place for Nala, but the people here were complete strangers to her as well. More than a few times, Nala had to give a low growl to warn some overconfident nobles who tried to approach her while she watched Mayet and the other man whom she was dancing with. Fortunately, this particular noble seemed to be different than the rest. Nala could feel the scent of meat coming from the plate the man got from one of the servants that had come with them from Alidasht and the way Ryn approached her was slow and careful. Despite that, Nala still gave a low growl the moment Ryn got too close to her, just before he offered the raw meat and took a few steps back.

Curious, Nala leaned forward, without taking her eyes from Ryn as she carefully sniffed the meat. After confirming it was safe, having felt no different scent and the faint scent of the servants she knew from Alidasht on the meat, Nala lowered her head, her eyes still locked on Ryn's as she took the entire meat in her mouth, eating it in a single bite.

While it was definitely difficult for anyone but Mayet and those who were very close to her to know what exactly went through Nala's head, the huff she gave to Ryn seemed to be one of approval, before she turned her head towards Mayet once more and continued watching her.

Ryn watched the black tigress with keen interest, as she accepted his humble offering and resumed her vigilance. He grinned before retrieving the empty plate and returning to the group of Alidasht servants. “So… if no one wagered on me not getting hurt, at all, does that mean I get the money by default?” He teasingly asked them.
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