Summary: Bastien goes to LA to retrieve Tariq while Alice tries to distract herself back in New York…and someone decides to take matters into their own hands.
Notes: I used some of the original PB dialogue and bedazzled it a bit.
CW: Violence and references to sexual assault and violence
New to the series? Catch up here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8,Part 9, Part 10, Part 11, Part 12, Part 13, Part 14, Part 15, Part 16, Part 17, Part 18, Part 19, Part 20, Part 21, Part 22, Part 23, Part 24, Part 25, Part 26, Part 27, Part 28, Part 29, Part 30, Part 31, Part 32, Part 33, Part 34, Part 35, Part 36, Part 37
The following day, Bastien stood across the street from the high end clothing store in LA, watching the entrance. The local authorities had been more than happy to assist Bastien when he landed with the necessary paperwork, sent by Liam as promised. A couple of unmarked police cars were stationed out on the street and Bastien’s fellow members of the king’s guard, Caleb and Ian, were waiting in the back of the store. The shop owner had been happy to comply with the operation and now all that was left to do was wait.
“Vengeance is in my heart, death is in my hand, Blood and revenge are hammering in my head.”
The Shakespearean quote pulsed through his mind like a heartbeat and as he stared at the shop entrance, all Bastien could see were the bruises Tariq had left on Alice’s skin. He thought of the carpet burns on her heels from when Tariq had dragged her by the hair. The anger smoldered within him, waiting for kindling.
And then, kindling arrived.
Bastien watched from his vantage point as a sleek black town car pulled up in front of the shop. The door opened and Tariq emerged into the Californian sunshine.
Alice lay on her bed and flipped mindlessly through the channels on the TV, her mind fixated on her silent phone. She knew it might not be a while until she heard from Bastien, but she couldn’t ignore the creeping anxiety that was slowly building, like the hill of a rollercoaster. She didn’t relish the idea of facing Tariq again, but she knew it was necessary for whatever came next. Alice picked up her phone again, debating about whether or not she should text Frankie, when a knock on her door broke her out of her own thoughts. She climbed off the bed and headed for the door, surprised by who she found on the other side.
“Liam! What are you doing here?” Alice asked.
“I figured you might want some company or a distraction,” Liam said. “Can I come in?”
“Sure,” Alice said, stepping aside to let him into the room. She closed it behind him after nodding to the guards Bastien had left in charge of her security in his absence. “Sorry, it’s kind of a mess in here,” Alice said as she grabbed a few things she’d left strewn around the room and tossed them into the closet. “Bastien’s the neat one, I’m the messy one.”
“No worries,” Liam assured her with a smile as he sat down in the newly cleared chair. Alice quickly shut the closet door and sat down cross-legged on the bed to face him.
“Have you heard anything yet?” Alice asked. Liam shook his head.
“Just that they’re in LA and everyone’s in place waiting for him,” Liam said. “You?”
“Same,” Alice said. She couldn’t stop thinking about the last text he’d sent her, a quote from Neil Gaiman’s Stardust:
“Every lover is, in his heart, a madman, and, in his head, a minstrel.”
It was a little different from most of the other quotes he used with her. In other circumstances, she might not have thought twice about it. However, knowing where he was and what he was doing, Alice knew this was something different entirely. Bastien had said he intended to bring Tariq back alive, but the quote had given her pause. What disturbed her the most is that part of her hoped he wouldn’t bring him back alive; Alice didn’t know what that said about her. “Whatever our souls are made out of, his and mine are the same.”
“If I’m completely honest…I might have an ulterior motive for coming here,” Liam said, and Alice forced herself to pull her attention back to the present. “There’s something else I want to talk to you about.”
“Once Tariq is back in Cordonia, I’m going to end my engagement with Madeleine,” Liam said.
“Is that safe?” Alice asked. “Not that I don’t want you to break up with her, because I do—she’s a fucking nightmare,” she added quickly. “But I know you’ve been holding onto the pretense for the sake of the crown’s stability.”
“I have, but the tour is coming to an end. When we arrive back in Cordonia, I’m going to make a formal announcement at the homecoming ball.”
“Wow,” Alice said, nodding. “That’s pretty big.”
“I know,” Liam said, looking relieved. “Plus…”
“Once Madeleine is out of the picture, I can finally be with the person I want to be with,” Liam said. Alice smiled.
“I take it things are still going well with you and Liv?” she asked.
“They are,” Liam agreed, grinning as he glance down at the floor, blushing slightly. “Honestly, she completely caught me by surprise. And I can’t believe it took me so long to really see her. She is…everything.”
“I’m so happy for you,” Alice said, smiling at him. “I think you guys are a really good fit.”
“Thanks, I think so, too,” Liam said. “I feel like I should thank you.”
“For falling in love with someone else so I could see that I’d already met the right woman.”
Alice laughed, covering her face with her hands. “Oh, come on, I’ve been a pain in the ass American, there’s no way I can take credit for you and Olivia. All I’ve done is create drama since I arrived.”
“That’s not true!” Liam protested. Alice raised an eyebrow at him. “Okay, maybe it’s a little true,” he conceded with a grin. “But you’ve also been wonderful to have around.” He paused, considering her for a moment. “What are your plans once this tour is over? Do you want to go back to New York?”
“Funny you should ask,” Alice said. “Bastien actually asked me to move in with him. Well, technically he and Bertrand both asked me to move in, but I said yes to Bastien. Wait, do I need to ask your permission or something since Bastien lives at the palace? Shit, I completely forgot, and—“
Liam laughed. “You don’t have to ask, and I’m glad you’re going to stay in Cordonia.”
A warm silence settled over their conversation for a moment before Liam glanced over at the TV. “So, what are you watching?”
“The absolute finest programming America has to offer,” Alice said.
“Judge Judy?” Liam asked.
“Ever watched it?”
“I can’t say I have.”
“Buckle up, buttercup, because it’s a marathon.”
As soon as Tariq went inside the store, Bastien crossed the street and followed, nodding to a nearby plainclothes police officer who followed, taking up a post outside the doors to prevent anyone else from entering. Bastien pulled open the heavy glass door, a burst of cold air hitting him as he entered. The shop was empty save for Tariq and the owner, the latter of which sat behind the register. Tariq didn’t turn around when Bastien entered.
“I’m here to pickup an order,” Tariq said to the shop owner.
“Hey, me, too,” Bastien said.
Tariq started to turn around but before he could, Bastien slammed Tariq down onto the polished wood counter.
“Ow!” Tariq yelped. “How dare you?” he demanded, struggling to see who had attacked him. “Do you know who I am?”
Bastien pulled a zip tie out of his pocket and quickly secured Tariq’s wrists before he hauled him up to stand, letting Tariq see who was behind him as Caleb and Ian emerged from the back room.
“Oh, yes,” Bastien said, his voice low and dangerous. “I know exactly who you are.”
Tariq’s face paled when he saw who was behind him. “Wait, I—“
The rest of his sentence disappeared into a yelp of pain as Bastien kicked him as hard as he could in the calf. Tariq’s legs buckled, but Bastien kept him on his feet.
“King Liam would like to have a word with you,” he said. Bastien looked over at Caleb and Ian and nodded. The other two guards approached, taking Tariq from Bastien and holding him between the two of them. Bastien reached into the pocket of his suit jacket and withdrew an envelope, which he handed to the stunned shop owner.
“From the king of Cordonia, to cover the lost sale,” Bastien said, nodding at Tariq. “Thank you for your cooperation.”
The man accepted the envelope with shaking hands, nodding mutely. Bastien turned back to the other guards.
“No, wait,” Tariq tried to protest, dragging the slick soles of his elegant shoes across the marble floor as the guards hauled him towards the door where a police escort was waiting to take them back to the royal jet.
“Is he resisting arrest?” Bastien asked Caleb, his tone light and curious.
“I believe so, sir,” Caleb said.
“I thought so,” Bastien said. Caleb and Ian paused for a moment but before Tariq could react, Bastien stepped up behind him and grabbed his middle finger before yanking it to the side, feeling it break with a satisfying crack under his grip. Tariq roared with pain, but the guards ignored him as they resumed walking towards the door. Bastien strolled casually behind them, smiling slightly as he eyed the grotesque angle of Tariq’s finger.
“Thanks again,” he called over his shoulder to the still stunned and silent shop owner.
“I have rights!” Tariq protested as Caleb and Ian shoved him into the back of a waiting car.
“You’re going to need a priest for last rites.”
“This show might be the best thing I’ve ever seen,” Liam said, grinning as he relaxed in the chair. “I’m going to have to figure out a way to get this in Cordonia.”
“I told you,” Alice said, pleased.
“She reminds me a little bit of Liv,” Liam said.
“I can see that,” Alice said. “They have the same no-bullshit kind of approach. Although Olivia has significantly better weaponry.”
Liam laughed. “The woman does love her knives,” he said affectionately.
Liam’s phone chimed and, a moment later, so did Alice’s.
Got him. We just got back to the plane and we’re about to leave for Cordonia. I love you.
Alice quickly texted him back. I love you, too. Thank you for doing this.
He responded with a quote she recognized from The Kite Runner: “For you, a thousand times over.”
“Bastien?” Liam asked. Alice nodded. “How are you feeling?”
“I feel…good,” Alice said hesitantly, surprised to find it was true.
“Yes, that sounds very convincing.”
“No, I do,” Alice said. “Knowing that Bastien found him and that he’s been arrested…I wasn’t sure how I’d feel, but it feels like there’s a huge weight off my shoulders that he isn’t just out there somewhere. Knowing his location is…okay, is it stupid that I almost feel like celebrating? That seems like such a fucked up thing to celebrate.”
Liam smiled at her. “I think you’ve more than earned it.” He stood up, tucking his phone in his pocket. “I have to take care of a few things, but you should go out, do something fun.”
“I will,” Alice said as she stood up to walk him to the door. “Hey…thanks for this. Really.”
Liam smiled and pulled her into a hug. “I only wish I could do more. But you should go talk to Bertrand and Maxwell and maybe have a conversation with your press secretary about how to approach the release of this information once we return to Cordonia. Like I said before, I think this is going to be pretty big, and you want to make sure you have everything ready.”
Alice grimaced. “Dealing with Justin isn’t my idea of a celebration.”
“I know,” Liam said. “But you’re so close to the end. I don’t want the press to have a chance to attack you again and even if you don’t like him, Justin has helped restore your reputation quite a bit.”
“Fine, fine,” Alice agreed. “Can I at least scowl at him a little bit?”
Liam laughed. “Scowl away.”
“Can I have some ice or something?” Tariq whined. Bastien glanced up from his phone to look at him on the floor. When they’d arrived at the plane, Caleb and Ian had tossed him onto the floor and, with his hands restrained behind him, Tariq had landed face first on the floor of the plane, breaking his nose on impact. The zip tie around his wrists had been replaced with handcuffs and his ankles had been restrained as well. “Or at least a chair?”
“I guess we do have a few hours ahead of us,” Bastien said, glancing out the window at the seemingly endless blue sky outside the plane. He stood up, scrolling through his phone as he walked over to where Tariq had pushed himself up into a sitting position. “Ian, would you do me a favor and show me his right leg?”
Ian put down his book and knelt beside Tariq, pushing him back onto the ground and rolling him onto his stomach before yanking up Tariq’s pant leg. Bastien knelt down, examining the bruise that had blossomed there as a result of his kick in the store, before he glanced back to the reference photo on his phone.
“Hmm…I don’t think it quite matches,” Bastien said. He stood up, straightening up to his full height.
“What doesn’t match?” Tariq asked.
Bastien responded by stomping down on Tariq’s calf, making him scream with pain. He checked the photo again before bringing his boot down on Tariq’s leg again and again.
“What the fuck was that for?” Tariq gasped when Bastien stopped, moaning in pain.
“Shut up,” Bastien said, aiming a kick at Tariq’s kidney, his boot connecting with a sickening thud as Tariq cried out. “You know what this is for.”
“This can’t seriously be about that slutty waitress,” Tariq groaned.
Bastien pulled back his foot again, this time aiming for Tariq’s head, but he felt Caleb catch his arm.
“Not the head,” Caleb warned. Bastien inhaled deeply, considering Tariq’s prone, broken figure on the ground in front of him.
“That’s fine,” Bastien said, pulling out his phone for reference again. “I have other areas to keep me busy.” He flipped through the photos, pausing on one that showed Alice’s heels, scraped raw with carpet burns. “Ian, give me your lighter.”
Ian reached into his pocket and pulled out a silver Zippo and handed it over. Bastien examined the case, noting the engraved initials.
“Present from your wife?” he asked. Ian nodded.
“For my last birthday. The big 3-0.”
Bastien chuckled. “God, I forget how young you are.” He flipped open the lighter. “Take off his shoes.”
“Alright, everyone, it’s almost showtime,” Justin said as he paced in front of Alice and the Beaumonts in Bertrand’s room. “I had to make a deal with the devil to get half an hour of time on a sound stage, but if we move quickly, we can get this announcement out to the press today.”
“Wait, what?” Alice asked at the same time Bertrand chimed in.
“Wait. You can’t simply release it to the press,” Bertrand said. “The court must hear the truth, or course,” he said, glancing at Alice, “but consider how it will look for the royal family if this goes public in the middle of the engagement tour. It’d be one thing if we were still in Cordonia, but being abroad…this could be very problematic for King Liam.”
“Look, Duke Ramsford, you hired me to do damage control,” Justin said. “If we want to restore Alice’s reputation, we need to make a bigger splash than those photos did at the coronation ball. This is our chance to send a message so powerful that no one can question Alice’s innocence.”
“All the more reason for discretion,” Bertrand argued. “This is a delicate situation.”
“Um, guys?” Maxwell said, glancing over at Alice. “Shouldn’t Alice have a say in this?”
“Yes, of course,” Bertrand said quickly, softening a little as he looked at her. “What do you want to do?”
“I think we need to not make any rash decisions,” Alice said slowly. “For Liam’s sake, I’d rather wait to release a statement once everyone is back in Cordonia. We have the full photo set from that night as well as the photos of my injuries that Hana took, so all we’ll need is an official statement to read to the press. And…I’d like to write that myself.”
Alice didn’t miss the strained annoyance at the edges of Justin’s expression. “Alice, with all due respect, I really think you should let me handle this.”
“No,” Alice said. She felt Bertrand’s light touch on her elbow, but she ignored him. “I’ve spent all this time dealing with other people speaking for me and about me. With Tariq in custody and facing charges and a trial, I want—no, I need to take back control of this.”
“I think that’s a good call,” Maxwell said.
“As your resident PR expert, I have to disagree,” Justin said. “The sooner we get the word out, the better. Don’t give anyone else a chance to spin this. I really—“
“Enough,” Bertrand said firmly. “I hired you to assist Alice, and she has made her preference clear.
Justin smiled, but Alice didn’t like the way his expression didn’t reach his eyes. “Of course, I understand. You’re the boss, boss.” He turned to Alice. “We fly back to Cordonia tomorrow, so just be sure you have your statement ready by then. And please let me look it over before you say anything in front of a camera.”
He left, carefully closing the door to Bertrand’s room behind him.
“Thank god,” Alice muttered.
“Please try to play nice for just a little longer,” Bertrand said. “Once we’re done with Tariq, you’ll be free of Justin and you’ll never have to deal with him again.”
“Play nice? I seem to remember someone just put him in his place not two minutes ago,” Alice said pointedly. Bertrand cleared his throat awkwardly.
“Well, you should be in control of your own story
“Please stop,” Tariq begged, sobbing helplessly into the carpet as the stench of burning flesh hung in the air.
“What, no smart remarks?” Bastien asked calmly as he clicked the lighter shut and handed it back to Ian. “And anyway, I didn’t think you knew the meaning of the word ‘stop.’” He sniffed. “Put his shoes back on. Maybe that will help the smell.”
“Alice, come on, where are we going?” Maxwell begged as the limo made its way through New York.
“I’d like to know, too,” Olivia said. “The cloak and daggers bit is only fun if there are actually cloaks involved.”
“What about the daggers?” Drake asked.
“I always have daggers.”
“How many do you have?” Hana asked curiously.
“On me currently or in total?” Olivia asked.
“Um…both?” Hana asked hesitantly.
“I have three on me,” Olivia said. “As for the total amount…” she trailed off, counting silently in her head. “Hang on, this might take a while.”
“We’re here!” Alice announced as the limo slowed to a stop.
“Where are…OH MY GOD, WE’RE AT CONEY ISLAND!” Maxwell practically shouted in Alice’s ear as he leaned across her to look out the window.
“Jesus, Maxwell, volume,” Drake muttered.
“Oh my goodness! I’ve always wanted to go here!” Hana exclaimed.
“You brought us to a carnival?” Olivia asked skeptically. “What do we win at the games, tetanus?”
“If you’re lucky,” Alice said as she opened the door. “Come on, let’s go.”
“It’s about time!” Frankie called from where she and Seth stood near the entrance. “You nobles are so fucking slow.”
“Hey, I’m not a noble!” Drake protested.
“Me either,” Alice said.
“Well, I am,” Olivia said as she emerged from the limo.
As Frankie introduced everyone to Seth, Alice pulled Hana aside for a moment.
“Hey, can I talk to you really quick?” Alice asked.
“Of course,” Hana said.
“If you don’t want to talk about this now, I totally understand, but I just wanted to check on you…we haven’t really talked since Shanghai and I didn’t see you at the UN party last night,” Alice said.
“Sorry,” Hana said, her face falling a little. “I…I guess I’ve had a lot on my mind since the tea ceremony and I just didn’t feel up to going last night. I didn’t mean to make you worry.”
“Oh my god, do not apologize,” Alice said quickly. “You’re my friend, I’m always going to worry about you.” She paused. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“Are you coming or what, Ayers?” Drake called over.
“In a minute, you guys go ahead,” Alice called back before returning her attention to Hana.
“I…I just don’t know what to do,” Hana said. “Most of the time I’m so glad that I stood up to my dad and told him the truth. But then other times, I can’t help thinking that I’ve let him and my mother down. I’ve spent so long trying to make them happy, and now that those expectations are gone…I don’t know, I guess I feel kind of lost. I mean, what do I even do now?”
“If it’s any consolation, most people don’t know where they’re going or what they’re doing,” Alice said.
“Really? Even you?”
“Hey, I’m just figuring things out as I go.”
Hana smiled weakly. “I guess it’s nice to know I’m in good company.”
“Whatever else happens, you always have me,” Alice said. “It might be like the blind leading the blind, but I’m here for you in whatever way I can be. Plus, you have Rashida.”
Hana’s smile grew. “That’s true. She’s been amazing. I wish she could’ve come to New York, but she had to head back to Cordonia for work.”
“Well, Bastien is currently on a plane and Liam is working tonight—maybe you and Olivia and I can be each other’s dates for tonight. We’ll be a very dysfunctional thruple.”
“What’s a thruple?”
Alice laughed and put an arm around Hana. “Come on, let’s go.”
Tariq had finally stopped crying, much to Bastien’s relief. All that whining had been annoying him. Bastien leaned back in his seat and checked his watch. Only a few more hours until they landed in Cordonia. He noticed flecks of red on the cuff of his shirt sleeve and sighed. Blood was so difficult to get out of white clothes.
Alice and the others wandered along the boardwalk, making their way between ice cream carts, the occasional juggler, and crowds of people amidst the bright lights and smells of French fries and cotton candy.
“Food, rides, games…is there anything you can’t do at this place?”
“No,” Alice, Frankie, and Seth all chorused in unison.
“It’s like you planned that,” Drake said as Hana and Maxwell laughed and Olivia raised a bored eyebrow at them. Alice shrugged.
“Maybe we did. You don’t know my life, Walker,” she teased. Drake grinned.
“I have to admit, this place is pretty great,” Drake said. “There’s wholesome, greasy food on every corner and nobody gives a damn about courtly etiquette. This place is like a breath of fresh air.”
“‘Fresh’ isn’t the adjective I’d choose,” Olivia said.
“Oh, come on, Olivia,” Alice said nudging her with her elbow. “You have to admit this is kind of fun.”
“I will do no such thing, Jon Snow,” Olivia said. Alice glanced at her and, despite Olivia’s best efforts, Alice could see a smile tugging at the corners of her lips.
“When we were kids, Liam used to talk about sneaking out to visit a carnival or circus, but he never had the opportunity,” Drake said.
“I remember that,” Olivia said, smiling at the memory. “But I think he didn’t want to watch a show as much as he just wanted to play with the animals.”
“Very accurate,” Maxwell agreed.
“So you guys all grew up together?” Seth asked.
“Yes,” Olivia said. “Well, Liam, Drake, Maxwell, and I all did.”
“I grew up in Shanghai,” Hana explained. “But I can relate to Liam wanting to go visit a circus; my parents didn’t exactly make time for trips like this, either.”
“Well, luckily, you’re here now!” Alice said, sweeping her arm at the various attractions. “But I wish Liam could’ve come, too.”
“Did he just have to work?” Drake asked.
“I imagine he’s got to be pretty busy running a country,” Seth said diplomatically.
“He had to…take care of something,” Alice said vaguely. She wasn’t positive, but she was fairly certain that Liam was ending his engagement to Madeleine. Without any further public events on the engagement tour, save for the homecoming ball once they returned to Cordonia, there wasn’t much reason for them to stay together. At least, Alice hoped he was breaking up with Madeleine, for both Liam and Olivia’s sakes.
The group continued to wander along until Alice felt Maxwell tug at her arm. She turned and saw him pointing to a fortune-telling booth where an elderly woman in a shawl beckoned to them.
“Guys! We have to do this!” Maxwell insisted.
“Don’t tell me you believe in all this stuff. No one can predict the future,” Drake said.
“I have to agree with cranky pants,” Frankie said.
“I don’t know, sounds like you two are afraid of what the future might have in store…” Hana teased with a grin. Alice looked over at Frankie in time to see her wince slightly at Hana’s words, but she recovered quickly. She looked back over towards the booth where the old woman pointed to Alice and gestured for her to come closer.
“She wants to read your palm,” Maxwell stage whispered into her ear as he dragged her closer to the booth. “Tell her what you want to know!”
“Sure, why not?” Alice said. The woman gestured for Alice to sit in the chair across the table from her and she did so. “Um…how about my life line?”
The woman bowed her head over Alice’s hand, lightly tracing the lines of Alice’s palm with the tips of her fingers. Alice felt a slight prickle at the top of her scalp and when the woman finally released her hand, she said nothing. Instead, she scribbled a note in swirling cursive and handed it to Alice.
“What does it say?” Olivia asked.
“You will live a healthy life, full of vitality and vigor,” Alice read. “But long though it will be, your life holds many trials and tribulations.”
“I think you’ve probably hit your quota for trials and tribulations,” Seth said. “Maybe you can just return the new ones for store credit?”
Alice laughed as she stood up. “Let’s hope the universe has a good store policy.”
“Me next!” Hana exclaimed as she took Alice’s place and held out her hand. The old woman examined Hana’s hand before writing down her fortune and handing it to her. Hana thanked her before standing up to join the group, who had started to drift away as Maxwell examined the nearby games.
“What’d you get?” Frankie asked.
“She said that although times are hard, my fate will lead me to a bright future,” Hana said.
“She’s just telling you what you want to hear,” Drake said. “Keeping her customers happy.”
“If you’re going to be such a pissy skeptic about it, I think you should go next,” Alice said.
“I agree,” Olivia said, amused.
“Seriously? You, too?” Drake asked Olivia, who shrugged.
“Why not? Besides, I’m pretty sure she’s not going to steal what’s left of your soul,” Olivia said.
“You’re one to talk,” Drake said. “Okay, fine, I’ll go.”
A few minutes later, Drake rejoined the group, scowling, with a fortune in his hand.
“Alright, hand it over,” Frankie said, holding out her hand.
“I thought you were on my side about this stuff,” Drake said.
“I am,” Frankie said before she reached out and snatched the fortune from his hands. “But I’m also really fucking nosy.” She scanned the paper. “Your troubles hang over you like a cloud. You must let them go if you wish to see the sun.”
“See, that’s what I’m talking about,” Drake said. “It’s generic advice. She could’ve said that to anyone.”
“And yet it fits you to a T…” Alice said, thoughtfully tapping her chin with her finger.
“I can practically see the storm cloud!” Maxwell exclaimed.
“But I can’t find a silver lining…” Frankie said, squinting her eyes.
“Jesus Christ, I forgot how exhausting the three of you can be when you’re all together,” Drake muttered. “Alright, who’s next?”
“I’ll go,” Olivia said. However, when she returned, her brow was furrowed.
“What does it say?” Alice asked.
“Forgotten sins create butterfly wings,” Olivia said. “What the hell does that mean?”
“Maybe it’s like the butterfly effect,” Seth offered.
“What’s that?” Maxwell asked.
“It’s the idea that something tiny can have a big impact elsewhere,” Seth explained. “It’s called that based on the concept of the flap of a butterfly’s wings could cause a tidal wave on the other side of the world.”
“Huh,” Drake said. “Maybe I don’t have the most ominous fortune.”
“It’s just a carnival trick,” Olivia said as she quickly crumpled the paper and tossed it into a nearby trashcan. However, Alice notice the stiffness in her expression.
“So, who’s up?” Alice asked. “Maxwell? Frankie? Seth?”
“Nope,” Frankie said.
“I’m hungry,” Maxwell said.
“I’m good,” Seth said. “Although I wouldn’t say no to food.”
“Food it is,” Alice said. “Let’s go!”
The group wandered through the booths as the sun sank heavily towards the horizon, watching sword swallowers and street artists while they ate sizzling fried food from the vendors.
“Okay, everyone, we’ve been here for ages and no one has played a game,” Alice said. “It’d be a travesty if we didn’t.”
“Yes! I’m totally down!” Maxwell exclaimed.
“Me, too!” Seth added.
“Your enthusiasm is freaking me out,” Frankie said. Seth laughed and kissed her cheek.
“What are we playing, Alice?” Hana asked.
“How about…a high striker competition?” Alice asked, pointing to a nearby high striker with a gleaming red bell at the top.
“Seriously?” Drake asked as he gestured to Seth. “Isn’t he a professional athlete?”
“Scared of losing?” Olivia taunted. Drake’s jaw set with determination.
“Fine, challenge accepted,” Drake said.
“I’m in!” Hana said with a wide smile.
“Alice, why don’t you go first so I know how hard I have to try?” Frankie suggested. Alice flipped her the bird and stepped up, grasping the mallet in both hands. She paused for a moment to get her bearings before she heaved the hammer as hard as she could, slamming it down. The puck flew up more than halfway to the top and Alice turned around triumphantly.
“Woohoo!” Maxwell cheered, high giving her.
“Move aside, Jon Snow,” Olivia said, holding her hand out for the mallet. She stepped up, squared her shoulders and brought the mallet down hard, sending the puck up a foot higher than Alice had.
“Impressive,” Alice said, golf clapping. “I wasn’t sure your knife skills would translate.”
Drake, Maxwell, and Frankie took their turns next, with Drake nearly reaching the top.
“Alright, let’s get you kicking our asses over with,” Drake said, handing the mallet to Seth.
“Hana, do you want to go first?” Seth offered.
“No, I’m fine, I’ll go after you,” she said sweetly.
Seth squared off against the tower and slammed the mallet down, but the puck only barely grazed the bell.
“Oh no, so close!” he exclaimed.
“It’s okay, you still technically hit the bell,” Alice said. “We’ll count it.”
“Hana, you’re up,” Seth said as he handed her the mallet. Hana took it and tucked a few strands of her hair behind her ear before circling the tower, studying the spot where the lever struck the puck. Finally, she hefted the mallet over her head and brought it down in an elegant arc. The puck shot up to the top of the tower and hit the bell with a loud, resounding clang.
“That was amazing!” Alice and Frankie shouted in near perfect unison.
“Damn, Hana!” Drake exclaimed. “How did you pull that off?”
“Easy. It’s all about physics,” she said with a grin.
“Of course you figured out how to outsmart a feat of strength,” Olivia said, smiling.
“I happily concede first place to you,” Seth said with a bow. “Hey, do you by chance know anything about boxing?”
Frankie rolled her eyes good-naturedly. “Hey, does anyone else want to hit the Ferris wheel?”
“Me!” Maxwell said, clapping his hands excitedly.
They started to make their way down to the Ferris wheel at the opposite end of the row when Alice felt her phone buzz. As she reached for it, she noticed everyone else, excluding Frankie and Seth, reaching for their phones as well.
“What is it?” Frankie asked.
“I don’t know,” Alice said as she glanced down at the screen. She froze, her thumb hovering over the notification that only had a headline visible.
ROYAL ASSAULT ON AMERICAN INNOCENT
“I thought you said you told Justin to wait to release a statement until we got back to Cordonia,” Hana said.
“She did,” Maxwell said firmly, his eyes scanning the article.
“What is happening?” Frankie demanded, snatching Drake’s phone out of his hand. She ignored his protests and Seth leaned over to read over her shoulder. Alice finally clicked on the notification and a news article opened. She was greeted with side by side photos of herself. The first was one of the photos of her and Tariq from that night at Applewood Manor and beside it was one of the photos Hana took of her injuries the morning after the assault, highlighting the deep bruises on her forearms. Alice’s hand that held the phone began to shake and she gripped it with the other, trying to steady it so she could scroll through the article. There was a video embedded in the post and, with trembling fingers, Alice clicked on it. Justin filled her screen, facing the cameras with a serious expression on his face.
“Hello, everyone. My name is Justin Richards and I’m speaking to you on behalf of my client, Lady Alice Ayers.”
“What the fuck?” Frankie asked. No one looked up from their phones.
“I’m here to make a statement regarding the photos that were released a few months ago of my client. Although many of you saw those photos, what you saw was not the whole truth. My client was not meeting for a secret tryst with a lover—she was assaulted by Lord Tariq. Taken out of context, the pictures could be misunderstood, but alongside their mates and the photos taken of Lady Alice’s injuries the following morning, there is no mistake.”
A screen behind Justin lit up and pictures began to cycle behind him.
“Alice, turn it off,” Frankie said gently.
“Since the false, albeit more salacious, version of this story was first released, Lady Alice has been subjected to endless mudslinging and abuse from the court. However, she is truly the victim in all this and her fortitude has been nothing short of inspiring. Instead of allowing herself to be run out of the country, Lady Alice has chosen to stay and fight, not only for herself, but for the other victims that, assuredly, have not had the means to voice their truths. The crown is currently in the process of extraditing Lord Tariq to Cordonia where he will stand trial for his crimes.” Justin nodded to the cameras. “Thank you for your time.”
The video ended and the group stood in silence while Coney Island laughed and sparkled around them.
“Alice, I need you to tell me the truth right now,” Olivia said quietly, her voice almost inaudible. “Did you know about this?”
“Absolutely not,” Alice said, shaking her head vehemently. “I told Justin I wanted to make my own statement to the press when we returned to Cordonia tomorrow, both for my own sake and for Liam’s.”
“It’s true,” Maxwell said. “I was there, and Justin agreed.”
“Well apparently he went off-book then,” Olivia hissed, anger flaring in her eyes. “Do you have any idea what this could do to Liam? Or Cordonia?”
“Can we back up a fucking second and talk about what it’s doing to Alice right fucking now?” Frankie snapped.
Olivia narrowed her eyes and opened her mouth to say something in return, but her phone buzzed in her hand with an incoming call. She glowered at Frankie, but answered the call, taking a few steps away from the group to talk.
“Ayers, are you okay?” Drake asked quietly. Alice shook her head as she tapped her screen to call Bertrand. The phone only rang once before Bertrand answered.
“Alice? Are you okay?”
“Bertrand, what the fuck?” Alice demanded.
“I don’t know,” he said, stifled anger curling at the edges of his words like flames against paper. “I specifically told him—“
“WE ALL FUCKING TOLD HIM!” Alice shouted into her phone, drawing the attention of her friends, including Olivia and several strangers, the latter of whom quickly sped up and hurried away.
“Alice, I know that you’re upset, alright? I hear you,” Bertrand said, struggling to keep his voice calm. “Before you called, I was trying to get ahold of Justin but he wasn’t answering and—“ Bertrand paused. “Correction, a message just came through. He wants to meet with us.”
“Have him go to our room, we’ll be there soon.” Alice hung up the phone and turned back to her friends as she took a deep, steadying breath. “Okay, I need to go meet with Justin. Maxwell, we’ll take a cab and leave the limo here for everyone.”
“What? No, we’re coming with you,” Drake insisted.
“We could be moral support,” Hana said as she touched Alice’s arm reassuringly.
“Or one of us could beat the shit out of Justin,” Frankie added.
“Frankie, I really don’t like to fight outside of—“ Seth tried to say, but Frankie cut him off.
“I meant me.”
“Everyone? Thank you, but I need to deal with this in a smaller setting right now,” Alice said. “I’m sorry, I appreciate your support, but I can barely think straight and I need to get my head in order so I can decide exactly how I’m going to rip Justin a new asshole.”
Frankie pulled her into a hug and Alice clung to her gratefully for a moment. “If you need ideas or a proxy to verbally beat the shit out of Justin, I’m only a phone call away.”
“Thank you,” Alice said. “Keep the ringer turned up, just in case.”
When Frankie finally let go of her, Alice said goodbye to Seth, Drake, and Hana before glancing over at Olivia, who was still on the phone.
“I’ll talk to her,” Hana said, squeezing Alice’s hand reassuringly. Alice smiled weakly at her.
“Alice, our Lyft is arriving,” Maxwell said as he glanced down at his phone.
Alice followed Maxwell out to the street as a car pulled up. Maxwell opened the door for her and climbed in after her. The driver was friendly enough and Maxwell did what he could to hold up their end of the conversation while Alice sat in silence. She wished she could talk to Bastien, but the royal jet didn’t have wifi and they were likely still in the air. In the meantime, she sent a text to let him know what was going on, asking him to call her when they landed. Message sent, she tucked the phone back in her pocket and leaned her head back against the headrest as the car wound its way through the New York City streets. Alice thought back to the text Bastien had sent her from LA.
“Every lover is, in his heart, a madman, and, in his head, a minstrel.”
The message made a little more sense to her as they drove, her face illuminated by the passing lights of the city.
“You expect me to apologize?” Justin asked in disbelief.
“Yes, I expect you to fucking apologize!” Alice shouted at him. “We had a deal! A plan! In fact, I believe we specifically asked you to wait until we got back to Cordonia to do this!”
“Look, I won’t pretend to be sad that your story made the evening news. That’s good for your rep, Alice. You should be thanking me.”
“My story?” Alice demanded, stepping closer to him. Maxwell quickly moved forward, trying to put himself between Alice and Justin. “I didn’t get to say shit about my story. You did, you fucking weasel!”
“Alice.” Bertrand’s voice was firm.
“No, I’m fucking done with this,” Alice said, pointing a finger at Justin’s face. “I have played nice with you for too fucking long and this was finally my chance to reclaim my story and tell my own story on my terms and you fucking took that away from me!”
“Alice, you asked me to do a job. I did it,” Justin said, leveling his gaze at her. “I’m sorry if things didn’t play out exactly the way you wanted them to, but do you have any idea what I’ve done for you? The press is already championing you as the head of Cordonia’s #MeToo movement. The commoners love you. I didn’t just salvage your reputation, I skyrocketed it.”
“I think we all need to take a minute,” Bertrand interrupted. “Tempers are hot right now and I think we all need to cool off.”
Alice glared at Bertrand, but she took a deep breath, clamping her jaw shut to keep from saying more.
“Look, Alice, I’m sorry,” Justin said, his voice softening. “I know I didn’t stick to the plan, but this was too important to wait. I thought you of all people would understand.”
“What the fuck does that mean?”
“Whether you like it or not, you represent the common people of Cordonia. They trust you and now that people know the truth about what happened to you, they admire your bravery in coming forward.”
“Quick reminder, I didn’t come forward—you did.”
Justin ignored her. “If you’re going to stay at court in Cordonia, the people want to feel like they have someone there who represents and understands them. You are now that person.”
“Justin, I think you should go,” Bertrand said. Justin sighed, resigned.
“I’m sorry if I upset you, but I still believe I did the right thing. However, I promise I won’t do anything like this again without your approval,” Justin said. He met Alice’s eyes. “Truly.”
Alice stared him down until Justin finally gave up and left, carefully closing the hotel door behind him. Alice whirled on Bertrand.
“How the fuck is he not fired yet?” she demanded.
“Because I don’t want to make a rash decision just because tempers are high,” Bertrand said.
“Why aren’t you pissed off?” Alice asked.
“You think I’m not pissed off?” Bertrand asked, the volume of his voice rising. “Of course I’m pissed off! I’m furious! This was absolutely unacceptable and I am so angry that Justin took this away from you that I could hit something. But the bell has been rung, and screaming at Justin and firing him won’t undo that press release. It’s out there, and now we have to figure out how to manage it. Trying to get another press secretary in the middle of this would not only be next to impossible, but it wouldn’t look good for your credibility either. Right now, I think we should all get some rest. We’re flying back to Cordonia tomorrow and it’s a long flight; we can talk damage control then.”
“Fine,” Alice said.
“Alice, I’m on your side,” Bertrand said, his voice softening.
“I know. And I’m not mad at you, I’m mad at the situation,” Alice said. “We’ll figure it out.”
“Yes, we will,” Bertrand said.
“Hey, if you want, I can walk you back to your room,” Maxwell offered.
“Sure, thanks,” Alice said. “Night, Bertrand.”
Maxwell and Alice left Bertrand’s room and headed down the hall towards Alice’s room. When they reached it, Alice unlocked the door and was suddenly struck by how lonely and empty it felt without Bastien.
“You okay?” Maxwell asked.
“Yeah,” Alice said with a heavy sigh. “I just…forgot he was gone for a minute.”
“Are you going to be alright by yourself?” Maxwell asked. “If you want, you can stay with me. We can have another Office marathon. Oh! We can invite Hana and Drake! It’ll be like a sleepover! We can invite Frankie and Seth, too! Oh, man, that’ll be so fun.”
Alice laughed in spite of everything as she considered his offer. She wasn’t really up for company, but the thought of being alone was worse.
“Okay, fine. Just let me get changed and I’ll meet you at your room,” she agreed.
“Yes! You are not going to regret this! I’ll go get everything set up and see you in a few minutes.”
“I can’t believe I’ve never heard of this show!” Hana exclaimed. “It’s so funny!”
“How have you never watched The Office before?” Maxwell asked.
“She was in so many lessons, I’m surprised she even knows what a TV is,” Drake said. “Hey!” he protested when Alice threw a handful of popcorn at him. “You’re getting food all over the bed!”
“This was a really good idea, Maxwell,” Frankie said as she took a sip of her hot chocolate.
“Yeah, especially since I had no idea hotel hot chocolate could be this good,” Seth agreed.
“Well…I might have fixed the recipe a little when it got here,” Hana admitted. “I wanted it to be perfect.”
Frankie and Seth gaped at her for a moment before Seth turned to Frankie. “She’s one of those robots from Westworld, right? No one is that good at everything.”
“Hana is,” Frankie said with a smile before she shot a friendly wink at Hana, who beamed.
“Guys, you’re talking over the show,” Maxwell protested. “I missed what Creed said!”
“Don’t you have this show memorized?” Drake asked.
“I still like watching it,” Maxwell said defensively.
Alice smiled as she sipped her hot chocolate. In spite of the nagging anxiety that still tugged at the back of her mind, she felt almost happy as she sat there with her friends.
Later, when everyone finally drifted off to sleep, Alice tiptoed around the room, collecting empty mugs and dishes and brushing the crumbs from the bedspread. She turned off the TV and gently draped blankets over her friends where they slept. Finally, she climbed back into her spot on the bed and, nestled between Maxwell and Frankie, she fell asleep.
When the royal jet finally descended into Cordonia, Bastien’s phone chimed with notifications. He retrieved his phone from his pocket and was about to open his texts when he saw the news headline on his home screen. Bastien tapped the link and opened the video, jaw tightening as he watched Justin on the screen.
That smarmy little shit, he thought. Bastien closed the news story and read Alice’s message. His heart cracked a little at the thought of not being there with her during this, but he reminded himself it was for a good reason. Bastien quickly did the math in his head and figured Alice was likely sleeping, but he sent her a text anyway to let her know he’d landed and to reassure her that they’d figure out what to do. When he was done, he tucked the phone back in his pocket and looked over at Tariq, still splayed out on the floor of the plane. Tariq had fallen asleep and was snoring softly, dried blood on his face. When the plane touched down on the runway, it impact jolted Tariq awake. He startled for a moment, disoriented and tugging at his restraints, before he seemed to remember where he was and why. Bastien smirked.
“Where are we?” Tariq asked, his voice gravelly with sleep.
“Cordonia,” Bastien said. “Where else?”
“Where are you taking me?” Tariq asked. “I want to talk to my father. And my lawyer.”
“You will eventually,” Bastien said noncommittally.
When it was time to disembark, Ian and Caleb hauled Tariq to his feet and half-dragged him off the plane and into a waiting car, bookending him on either side. Bastien got into the front seat and asked the driver to take them to the palace.
“The palace? Does that mean you’re going to let met out of my restraints?” Tariq asked hopefully.
“I suppose you could look at it like that,” Bastien said.
“Oh, thank goodness,” Tariq said. “Am I just going to wait in my room until Liam returns?”
“Oh, you’re not staying upstairs,” Bastien said.
“Where…where am I staying then?”
“You know, one of the things I love most about the palace is its long history,” Bastien said. “It goes back quite a long way. For example, did you know that when Queen Kenna was fighting against the Iron Empire, she often kept prisoners of war in the dungeons below the palace? They’re pretty far down there and have withstood the test of time surprisingly well.”
“I didn’t…um…know there were still dungeons,” Tariq said.
“Oh, of course there are!” Bastien said like an overenthusiastic tour guide. “They fell into disuse for a few centuries, but Liam’s great-great-grandfather…or was it his great-great-great-grandfather? Oh well, I don’t think it matters. Anyway, one of Liam’s predecessors had some opposition that needed…correcting. You know what they say, keep your friends close and your enemies closer. So he updated some of the holding cells. Mostly in regards to upgrading the locks, but hey, not all renovations need to be complete gut jobs to be effective.
“What I find I like best about the dungeons is that no matter how loud you scream, no one can hear you down there,” Bastien said. He turned slightly in his seat to look back at Tariq. “The king can’t wait to…talk…with you.”
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