Guarded Hearts, Part 42

Summary: When Bastien is discharged from the the hospital, he and Alice return to the palace in time for the Five Kingdoms Festival.

Notes: I used some of the original PB dialogue and bedazzled it a bit. Also, there’s a little bit of NSFW-ish flirting.

CW: references to terrorist attack, brief references to character death

New to the series? Catch up here: Part 1, Part 2Part 3Part 4, Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8,Part 9Part 10Part 11Part 12Part 13, Part 14Part 15Part 16Part 17Part 18Part 19Part 20Part 21Part 22Part 23Part 24Part 25Part 26Part 27Part 28Part 29Part 30Part 31Part 32Part 33Part 34Part 35Part 36, Part 37, Part 38, Part 39, Part 40, Part 41

Several days later, Alice climbed out of the car when it rolled to a stop outside the palace and turned to help Bastien.

“Gray, I appreciate it, but I can get out of the car on my own,” he protested, trying to wave off her assistance. She ignored him.

“I swear to god, you are the worst patient,” Alice said as she helped him out of the car, steadying him until he could get his balance with his cane. “You were shot—twice, I might add—so you’re going to take some goddamn help.”

“I’ve been laid up in the hospital for too long already,” Bastien said.

“How about I make you a deal?” Alice said as she shut the car door behind him and they started to make the slow trek into the palace. “If you let me help you at least a little bit…I promise to take very, very good care of you.”

Bastien cocked an eyebrow at her. “What sort of care?”

“Oh, I think you know exactly what I’m referring to.” She was about to say more when they were joined by Liam on the front steps of the palace.

“Welcome back,” Liam said with a smile as he walked down to join them. “How are you feeling?”

“I’m mostly upright, thanks in large part to this one,” Bastien said as he nodded towards Alice.

“I’m glad to hear it,” Liam said. “Do you want some time to rest before we begin the briefing?”

“No, let’s do it now,” Bastien said. He caught Alice looking at him. “I’ll be sitting down for the whole thing, I promise.”

“As long as you’re sure,” Liam said. “I really don’t mind postponing until later today.”

“I’m sure,” Bastien said confidently as he ignored the dull ache in his leg. “I’ve been in contact with the security team while I’ve been in the hospital and I may have some new leads on the perpetrators, so I’d rather not wait.”

“Of course,” Liam said.

The three of them made their way into the palace and Alice was surprised to see the halls abuzz with activity.

“Is there something going on today that I’m missing?” Alice asked.

“The Five Kingdoms Festival is today,” Liam said. “It’s one of the most popular holidays in Cordonia.”

“And the award for least prepared duchess goes to…” Alice said, wincing slightly.

“It’s fine, you’ve been very preoccupied for the last few days,” Liam assured her with a smile. “The festival commemorates the day that five ancient kingdoms came together under one crown, uniting to become Cordonia as we know it.”

“Under Queen Kenna?” Alice asked.

“Precisely!” Liam said, pleased. “See, you’re already more prepared than you think.”

“I can’t help it, I’m kind of obsessed with her,” Alice admitted. “There’s been a lot of downtime in the hospital and I’ve been reading a lot about her.”

“She was pretty incredible,” Liam said. “Although, don’t believe everything you hear…that era is the stuff of Cordonian legends, but some items are more fantastical than others.”

“Yes, I figured the part about shapeshifting dragons was probably a little farfetched,” Alice said.

“Oh, come on, if you ignore that part, you take all the fun out of it,” Bastien said.

“I don’t disagree,” Liam said. “Anyway, this holiday celebrates more than just our history. It’s a symbol of unity, which we desperately need right now. We even open the palace to the public so that the people and the court can celebrate as one.”

“Is that a good idea?” Alice asked.

“I’ll admit, when I realized this year’s festival fell only a few days after the attack, I considered canceling it,” Liam said. “And I took your concerns very seriously,” he added to Bastien. “But I don’t want to give our enemies any signs of weakness right now. Besides, we could use something to bring us all together.”

“I don’t disagree, but could we be inviting another attack by a refusal to exercise caution so soon?”

Liam smiled. “You sound like Bastien. But we’ve put in additional security measures and I think it’s more important to connect with the Cordonian people instead of staying in an ivory tower.”

“I see your point,” Alice conceded. “But…stay close to Liv during the festival. That woman has more weaponry on her than anyone.”

“Believe me, I know,” Liam said as they reached the door to the small conference room. Inside, Olivia was waiting at the table and she looked up as they entered.

“Welcome back,” Olivia said. “Glad you’re not dead.”

“Thank you,” Bastien said as he let Alice help him to his chair before sitting in her own beside him. “Me, too.”

“Alright, shall we get started?” Liam asked as she closed the door behind him and took a seat between Bastien and Olivia.

“If I may,” Bastien said, looking pained. “First, please let me apologize. I failed all of you. I failed Cordonia. The attackers never should have gotten into the palace.”

“Bastien, stop,” Liam said gently. “You can’t beat yourself up over this.”

“I agree,” Olivia said. Alice took Bastien’s hand under the table. “Sometimes things just happen and we can’t dwell on what we could’ve done; we have to focus on what comes next.”

Bastien nodded. “Along those lines, I’ve made more aggressive arrangements for everyone’s security from now on.”

“I did notice a ridiculous number of guards outside my door this morning,” Olivia said. “I couldn’t tell if you were trying to keep attackers out or keep me in.”

“I personally liked the number of guards you had,” Liam said, smiling at Olivia.

“Of course you did.”

“The people behind this attack were obviously well-trained,” Bastien continued. “They left almost no traces behind. Fortunately, I’ve been keeping tabs on Corodnia’s enemies for years now.”

“Just how many enemies are we talking about?” Alice asked.

“We’ve put some to rest over the years, including those responsible for other attempts on my family’s lives,” Liam said. “However, there are three surviving groups with the motivation and resources to carry out the attack at the ball.”

“There’s an anti-monarchist group known as the Liberation Core which was grown bolder in recent years,” Bastien said.

“True, but they’ve never tried something like this before,” Olivia said.

“But they’ve been more and more outspoken in their criticisms of the crown,” Liam said.

“There’s also a new faction calling themselves the Sons of Earth,” Bastien said. “They aren’t anti-monarchists exactly, but they objected to a lot of Constantine’s decisions as king.”

“Isn’t it possible they’d be less angry with Liam in charge?” Alice asked. “After all, he’s already done a lot to establish himself as a different sort of ruler from his father.”

“Thank you,” Liam said. “But they might not necessarily see it that way. They’ve pushed for more trade, international concessions…that sort of thing. My personality and ruling style is different from that of my father’s, but their interest seems to lie heavily in our economics and I haven’t done anything to radically change any of my father’s policies yet.”

Alice nodded. “Alright, who’s the third possibility?”

“The third suspect might be a stretch, but in the interest of investigating all possible leads…” Bastien hesitated. “I don’t mean this as a slight against you, Olivia, but I believe we should also look into your family.”

“My family?” Olivia asked, narrowing her eyes. “Why?”

“It has nothing to do with you, but it does have to do with your parents and the attempted coup,” Bastien said. “To make sure all of our bases are covered, we need to look into your aunt.”

“Ugh,” Olivia said, leaning back in her chair. “Lucretia.”

“Yes,” Bastien said, nodding.

“Was she…involved in what happened?” Alice asked.

“Not that we know of, but I’d rather look into her and be able to officially rule her out,” Bastien said. “Olivia, do you know where she is?”

Olivia shook her head. “No. I haven’t even heard from her in years. She’s taken about as much of an interest in Cordonia’s politics as she did in my upbringing…which is to say, almost none. Still though, if she needs to be investigated, I’ll do whatever I can to help.”

“Thank you,” Bastien said. “Unfortunately, gathering intelligence on all of our suspects will take time.”

“And in the meantime, the people are still reeling from the attack on the palace…as we all are,” Liam said. “I’m hoping to answer their questions at this afternoon’s press conference. Plus, I’m hoping that by announcing our upcoming wedding, that should boost morale,” he added as he looked to Olivia.

“Not to put a damper on the mood, but what about Regina?” Alice asked. “As the only casualty at the ball, I’m assuming there has to be some kind of funeral for her.”

“Yes and no,” Liam said, grimacing at the mention of his stepmother. “I’m going to talk about her at the press conference today and I’m dedicating some of the time at the festival to her. The press has been dedicating a lot of time to her charitable works as well. However, I’m going to announce that in light of the terrorist attack on the ball, my family is grieving quietly and privately, but we are honored by the love Cordonia has shown to the late queen mother.”

“What are we actually doing?” Olivia asked.

“She’s already been cremated and her ashes were placed down in the crypts below the palace,” Liam said. “I really don’t have the time or interest to dedicate to her right now.”

“I love it when you’re vengeful,” Olivia said with a grin.

“Uh, guys? We’re still here,” Alice said.

“Shut up, Jon Snow,” Olivia said, tossing a pen at Alice. “We do have a wedding-related issue though. Since the attack, many nobles are reluctant to show support for the crown. Only a few were willing to attend today’s festival. Since we’re planning on holding the wedding soon, they may not want to attend due to fear of another attack or that they might become targets.”

“How soon is soon?” Alice asked.

“In about a month,” Olivia said.

“That is soon,” Alice agreed. “So we need to convince the nobles to show up.” Liam nodded. “If they won’t come to us…maybe we could go to them.”

“Like by showing we’re all brave enough to leave the palace, it might make them feel safer?” Liam asked.

“Something like that,” Alice said. “I mean, a personal visit from the king and his bride has to be worth something, right?”

“You’re proposing a unity tour?” Bastien asked.

“I mean, I’m not anxious to drag you all over Cordonia while you’re still recovering, but people really like personal attention,” Alice said. “I’d be willing to be that a lot of them want to feel like their concerns and feelings are being heard, and personalized attention from the people at the top might go a long way.”

“That’s a really solid idea,” Liam said, nodding. “I’m game if you are,” he said, turning to Olivia.

“Of course,” Olivia said.

“It’s settled then,” Liam said. “I’ll add that to the list of announcements for the press conference and alert the staff to start making arrangements. Why don’t you two go get settled and we’ll see you out at the festival?”

“Sounds good,” Alice said as she stood up, offering a hand to Bastien to help him. They left the conference room and had barely taken two steps down the hallway a woman in a a suit suddenly jumped out in front of them.

“Aah!” Alice yelped as she jumped in front of Bastien, who sighed.

“Jesus, Mara,” he said. “I asked you to protect her, not scare her.”

“I’m sorry, can someone back up and tell me what’s going on?” Alice asked.

“My apologies, but it’s important to be vigilant at all times,” Mara said. “It’s important to be prepared for anything.”

“And you are…”

“I’m Mara, your new bodyguard,” she said, giving Alice a short bow.

“Considering I’m slightly out of commission, I thought it was important to add a personal guard to your security team,” Bastien said. “I’m sorry, I was really preoccupied with the briefing and forgot to tell you.”

“Well, it’s nice to meet you, Mara,” Alice said.

“Thank you, Your Grace, it’s an honor to meet you,” Mara said.

“Please, just call me Alice,” she said. “I’m just going to take Bastien back to our quarters to get settled and then I’ll be out at the festival.”

“Noted, Your Grace—er, Alice,” Mara said, nodding as she stepped back to allow Alice and Bastien to pass her in the hallway.

“What do you mean get me settled before you go out?” Bastien asked. “I can go with you…”

“Dorian, you really need to rest,” Alice said. “We made a deal, remember? I can represent us out there while you rest. Besides, I’m guessing your leg is starting to throb a little at this point.”

“You’re not wrong,” Bastien conceded. “Okay, fine.”

He accepted Alice’s help to their apartment and and as soon as the door closed behind them, he pulled her into a long, slow kiss with his good arm. She kissed him back, running her fingers through his hair.

“What was that for?” she asked breathlessly when they finally broke apart.

“It’s a thank you,” Bastien said, smiling softly at her as he brushed a lock of hair back from her face. “I’m lucky to have you taking such good care of me, even if I sound like a grumpy old man who doesn’t want to slow down.”

“I’m happy to do it,” Alice said as she led him over to the couch. “But…”

Bastien raised an eyebrow at her. “There’s a but?”

“Well…I don’t think you’ve been getting quite the level of care I promised you.”

“What are you talking about? You’ve been amazing. Hell, I don’t think you even left the hospital once.”

“Now that you’re home, I want to welcome you back properly,” Alice said as she gently pushed his good shoulder so he’d sit down on the sofa. Bastien smiled at her and bit his lip as he tugged her hand so she was sitting beside him.

“Come here,” he murmured, lips brushing against hers.

“Ah, ah,” she said, pulling back slightly as she trailed her hand down his chest to his belt buckle. “This is about me doing something for you.”

“Believe me, being with you is definitely something for me,” he said, brushing her hair away from her neck.

“Are we seriously having a disagreement about getting each other off?” Alice asked. Bastien laughed.

“How about we agree to disagree so we both win?” he said as he kissed her again. This time, she didn’t argue with him and when he used his good arm to pull her onto his lap, she let him.

“Is your leg okay?” Alice asked as she straddled him.

“Wasn’t even aware I still had legs,” Bastien said. “I’m a little distracted by my gorgeous fiancee.”

She kissed him again, pressing her hips against his as his strong hands pushed up the hem of her dress. But before they could go further, there was a curt knock on their door. Bastien groaned in annoyance and dropped his forehead against her shoulder.

“We have too many friends,” he said. “Remind me when we’re moving to Valtoria?”

Alice laughed. “Soon. And I promise we can rope off an entire wing so we can ensure we’ll never be interrupted.”

“Hmm…I think that also means we won’t have to worry about being quiet,” Bastien said as he tilted her face down to kiss her again.

Once again, there was a knock at the door.

“Ugh, fine,” Alice said, reluctantly standing up and straightening her dress. She headed for the door and opened it to find Bertrand on the other side.

“Alice! Thank god. I heard you were back and I’ve been looking all over for you. Hello, Bastien,” Bertrand said. “I’m glad you’re back.”

“Hi, Bertrand, and thank you.”

“Is everything okay?” Alice asked.

“This festival will be your first public appearance since the attack,” Bertrand said.

“Yes, and?”

“Well, since you don’t have a press secretary anymore, I wanted to help you pick out something to wear to the festival,” Bertrand said.

“What’s wrong with what I’m wearing?” Alice asked defensively. “Hana picked it out.”

“Yes, several days ago when she brought it to the safe house,” Bertrand said.

“I showered at the hospital!”

“And then put the same clothes back on. Really, Alice, you’re a duchess now—this is unacceptable,” Bertrand said.

“You are such a pain in my ass,” Alice muttered.

Excuse me?

“One second, then we’ll go,” Alice said as she walked back to the couch and retrieved Bastien’s laptop for him. “Do you need anything else before I go?”

Bastien gestured for her hand as he retrieved a pen from the coffee table. He redrew her ink ring on her finger before pulling her down to kiss him. “Nope, I’m all set.”

“Make sure you take it easy,” Alice said as she gave him one last kiss. “I’ll have my phone if you need anything.”

In the boutique, Alice watched, amused, as Bertrand hurried around the shop, plucking clothes off the rack and muttering to himself.

“Okay, we need something commanding but calming…elegant but practical…simple but dignified…” he said.

“That’s a lot for one outfit to say,” Alice said. “At least five adjectives too many.”

“You have no imagination,” Bertrand said, not looking up from his task. “Aha!” he exclaimed as he triumphantly held up a royal blue blazer matched with a silk blouse and sleek black pants. “Go put this on.”

“Fine,” Alice said, accepting the hangers from him. She headed into the dressing room and returned a couple minutes later. “Jesus, I look fancy.”

Bertrand smiled and walked over, pinning a small Cordonian crest to her lapel. “Just fancy enough.”

After they left the boutique, Alice and Bertrand made their way out to the bustling palace lawn where nobles and citizens mingled among festival games, archery lanes, prize booths, and food stands.

“Everything looks clear here,” Mara said, suddenly appearing at Alice’s elbow and making her jump.

“Ack! Christ, Mara, stop sneaking up on me!” Alice exclaimed.

“Sorry,” Mara said. “But I like to keep a close eye on my charges. Especially after everything you’ve been through…”

“Thank you, Mara,” Alice said. “Really.”

“Just doing my job, Your Grace. Now go enjoy the festival,” Mara said, with a smile and a nod before fading back into the crowd.

Alice pulled out her phone and texted Bastien. We need to get Mara a bell.

That would completely defeat the purpose of her stealth training.

Well she keeps scaring the shit out of me.

Sorry, Gray. I promise to make it up to you…or you can punish me for it later.

Alice blushed and tucked her phone back into her pocket, only to realize Bertrand was talking. “Sorry, what?”

“I said we should head over there,” Bertrand said, gesturing across the lawn to where a crowd had gathered under a banner depicting a warrior queen Alice presumed to be Kenna.

“Alice! Hey!” Maxwell called, waving them over to where he stood near the fountain with Drake, Liam, and Olivia.

“Wow, this festival really is a big deal,” Alice said. “But…is it just me, or does the crowd seem kind of nervous?”

“That’s why it’s important for us to be seen today,” Liam said. “People will look to us for reassurance that it’s safe to be out in the wake of the attack.”

“So you’re saying we’ve got a royal mandate to have fun?” Maxwell asked hopefully as Hana and Rashida joined them.

“There are so many activities to choose from,” Hana said. “If we map out a timetable, we might be able to do them all.”

“Han, is there any way to do that without spreadsheets? I’m trying to keep my head out of the office today,” Rashida said as she squeezed Hana’s hand.

Alice looked over at Olivia and studied her, narrowing her eyes slightly. “Why do you look different?”

“Liam and I just had an engagement shoot with Ana de Luca and one of the stylists got a little carried away with my hair and makeup. I tried to get it under control, but there wasn’t a lot of time.”

“I didn’t say it was bad different, I was just surprised to see you looked different,” Alice said.

“You changed your clothes,” Olivia pointed out. “Thank god, by the way.”

“Right?” Bertrand asked.

“Okay, I hate you two teaming up, so we’re all just going to move on,” Alice said. “Hana, what do you want to do first?”

“Definitely archery,” Hana said with a grin.

“Oh, it’s on,” Rashida said. “You’re going down.”

“I don’t know, Rashida…I have to put my money on Hana here,” Alice said. “I’m sure you’re very good, but Hana is…well, Hana.”

“Oh, I don’t disagree, but I’m very competitive,” Rashida said, winking at Hana. “Care to make a wager on it?”

“Sure, what do you want to give me when I win?” Hana asked sweetly.

“Funny,” Rashida said, bumping Hana’s elbow with hers. “How about a kiss?”

“I can do that,” Hana said. “What about in the unlikely event that you win?”

Rashida pretended to consider this for a moment. “A kiss.”

“This is adorable and it needs to stop before I vomit,” Olivia said.

“You and I should make the rounds anyway,” Liam said. “We’ll see the rest of you in a bit—have fun!”

“I have a bad feeling about this,” Drake said as the group made their way over to the archery lanes.

“It’s just archery—what could go wrong?” Hana asked.

“Literally everything. We’re going to play with weapons,” Drake said.

“Sounds good to me,” Maxwell said.

“Me, too,” Bertrand said.

“I love that you two are such weirdos about weapons,” Alice said, linking her arms through the Beaumonts’. “Let’s do it!”

Three rounds later, Drake still hadn’t hit the center of his monster-shaped target once. Maxwell was only doing slightly better, but Bertrand had made a decent showing, hitting the center once with a close cluster in the innermost rings. The standouts were, of course, Hana and Rashida, who each had neat cluster of arrows at the center of their targets.

“Drake, it’s okay to admit the targets are freaking you out,” Alice teased.

“They’re part of Cordonian history!” Hana exclaimed as she let another arrow fly to the bullseye. “This event symbolizes an age-old Cordonian victory over the forces of evil.”

“Is it really symbolism if you lecture me about it?” Drake asked.

“Yes,” Hana and Alice said simultaneously.

“Alright, it’s Rashida’s last shot!” Maxwell exclaimed. “No pressure, but this one is for the win,” he said, rubbing Rashida’s shoulders like a boxing coach.

“I’ve got this,” Rashida said, stretching her neck out from side to side before lining up her shot. She took a deep breath and let the arrow fly with her exhale…and it landed just outside the center of the target.

“Aaaah, so close!” Maxwell cried.

“Ah, shoot,” Rashida said before turning to Hana and bowing slightly. “Although, there’s no one I’d rather lose to than you.”

Hana smiled. “I’ll take my prize now.”

Rashida gave her a sweet kiss, cupping her girlfriend’s face in her hands until Drake coughed awkwardly.

“Alright, Alice, let’s see what you’ve got,” Hana said when she finally pulled away from Rashida, handing Alice a bow.

Alice turned to her own beast-like target and grabbed an arrow.

“No pressure, but please don’t embarrass either of our houses,” Bertrand said.

“Thanks, Bertrand, super helpful,” Alice said as she took aim for the bullseye. Suddenly, a loud pop cracked behind her. Her heart rate skyrocketed, but she took a breath, keeping herself still. Not a gunshot. Stay calm. She stared down the length of the arrow and released. Alice watched hopefully and a grin spread across her face when the arrow hit right at the edge of the innermost circle.

“That was great!” Hana exclaimed, clapping her hands happily.

“What was that noise?” Alice asked.

“Party popper,” Maxwell said.

“I’m surprised they didn’t ban those from today’s events,” Bertrand said with a frown.

“It’s fine,” Alice said. “Bastien’s inside where he can’t hurl himself in front of any more bullets, so I’m all good.”

“Has he finally stopped complaining about having to take it easy?” Drake asked.

“Nope,” Alice said with a grin. With Bastien on her mind, she pulled out her phone and texted him. How’s it going in there?

Excessively boring without you. I’m finding it hard to focus since we were so rudely interrupted before you had to go…how are things out there?

I just kicked ass at archery

That’s my girl.

“Alright, enough shooting sticks at monsters. I’m picking our next stop,” Drake said as he waved for everyone to follow him, pulling Alice’s attention away from her phone. As Alice followed Drake towards the concessions stand, a hooded figure suddenly came barreling towards Alice from the left. Bertrand immediately grabbed her and yanked her out of the way as Mara ran up on her right.

“Alice! Look out!” Mara called as she ran closer. She dove forward to push the figure out of Alice’s path…but as everyone converged near Alice, she realized it was just a man in a Five Kingdoms-themed costume.

“Mara, stop! It’s just a costume!” Alice called just in time. Mara skidded to a halt just before tackling the man. Alice could hear relieved sighs from onlookers as the man, still oblivious, ran past her towards a pie-tasting booth.

“Sorry, Your Grace,” Mara said. “I couldn’t get a good look at him through the crowd.”

“Well, no harm done,” Alice said, breathing her own sigh of relief. “Hey, thanks for the quick reflexes, big brother.”

“Oh. Erm…it was nothing,” Bertrand said, looking slightly embarrassed.

“It was to me,” Alice said, looping her arm through Bertrand’s as Mara faded back into the crowd and they headed forward to join their friends at the concessions. “Drink tasting? Really? Aren’t they just serving apple juice and Cordonian cider?”

“I keep forgetting this is your first Five Kingdoms Festival,” Bertrand said as they joined the group. “One of the original Five Kingdoms made a decent brew called Skullcracker Ale. Their descendants are keeping up the tradition. Actually, it was supposedly a favorite of Val Greaves.”

“Well, then, clearly I have to try it,” Alice said as they reached their friends.

“Try what?” Drake asked as he sipped his water.

“Skullcracker Ale.”

Maxwell ordered a beer for her as Rashida grimaced. “It’s a headache waiting to happen,” she warned Alice. “The name is appropriate.”

“Noted,” Alice said as Maxwell handed her a stein of dark ale. Alice pulled out her phone again and texted Bastien. About to try Skullcracker Ale…

Oh, Jesus. Please take it slow; we don’t need another near-death experience this week.

Alice took a sip. “Wow, that is…wow.”

“I think I’d take your pink beer over ever having Skullcracker again,” Bertrand said as he took a glass of cider.

“It’s not bad, but I definitely shouldn’t finish this unless I get some food in me,” Alice said as she set down her beer. Don’t worry, I’m pacing myself

Whereas I’m just up here all alone…thinking about you…

Hey, that’s not fair! I’m supposed to be out here doing duchess duty, not fantasizing about what you might be doing up there without me…

Might be? Definitely am…

“Alice, how’s Bastien doing?” Rashida asked.

“What?” Alice asked, heat rising in her cheeks. “Oh, he’s doing a lot better. His shoulder is mostly okay, but his leg is still giving him some trouble. He’s got a cane for now, but the doctor said he should make a full recovery.”

“That’s great to hear,” Rashida said.

Alice felt her phone buzz again, but waited until she was certain no one was looking over her shoulder at her phone. She was glad she did because there was a quote from A Court of Mist and Fury:

“I want you splayed out on the table like my own personal feast.”

Alice bit the inside of her cheek in a lame attempt to stay composed and although she found it hard to think straight, she managed to grasp for a quote from Pablo Neruda:

“I crave your mouth, your voice, your hair. Silent and starving, I prowl through the streets.”

“Who wants to bob for apples?” Maxwell asked, his voice breaking through Alice’s thoughts and nearly causing her to drop her phone.

“I will,” Alice volunteered, hoping the cold water in the barrels would cool off the fire in her veins. “Let me guess,” she said as Maxwell led her over to the station. “The apple-bobbing represents a time when the Five Kingdoms survived a famine by living off of apples.”

Maxwell laughed. “I mean, they are nutritious, but this is more of a modern thing. Symbol of our national pride and all that. No Cordonian can leave without doing this. It’s basically a law.”

“I’m sure that water is just teeming with everyone’s spit and cooties.”

“They change it out frequently, I promise,” Maxwell said.

“Wait for me!” Hana called, hurrying behind them.

“Did you and Rashida wage another bet?” Alice asked.

“Not this time, she and Bertrand are talking about some venture capital thing…but I’d be willing to take you on,” Hana said.

“Can I nominate Rashida to be my stand-in if the prizes are the same?”

Hana laughed. “Sure.”

“I’m in, too,” Drake said as he joined them.

“Yes! This is going to be so fun,” Maxwell beamed. As everyone approached the barrels, Maxwell hurried ahead, circling the each basin as he squinted at them from one angle and then another.

“Bud, they’re apples. I’m not sure how much strategy is really involved,” Alice said.

“Excuse me, Duchess Alice Ayers, but bobbing for apples is going to be a prime photo op!” Maxwell exclaimed. “I’m trying to find the best angle we can get for you.”

“See, this is why I like being a commoner,” Drake said. “No one cares what I look like.”

“Oh my god, you’re Liam’s professional best friend. You’re hardly just a commoner,” Alice said, rolling her eyes.

“She’s right,” Hana agreed.

“I…shut up,” Drake muttered.

“Okay, so here’s the deal, Alice,” Maxwell said. “It’s super important that you try to grab a Cordonian Ruby instead of one of those green ones.”

“I literally didn’t know Cordonia had any apples here other than the Ruby,” Alice said.

“It’s part of what makes bobbing for apples trickier,” Drake said. “You know they have to put some sort of spin on it.”

“Of course,” Alice said. “Alright, Maxwell, what’s my perfect angle?”

“Right here,” he said, positioning her by one of the barrels. “Remember, Cordonian Ruby all the way.”

“Got it,” Alice said. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed a few photographers hanging around near the basins.

“Slowest has to drink a whole stein of Skullcracker?” Hana asked innocently.

“You’re on,” Alice said as they each positioned themselves near a basin. “One…two…”

“Three!” Hana exclaimed.

All four of them dove into the barrels and Alice bit down as quickly as she could on the first apple she could with a satisfying crunch, praying it was a Cordonian Ruby. She stood up, pulling the apple with her, and a cheer went up around her as several camera flashes went off. Alice removed the apple from her mouth and was relieved to see it was a Ruby.

“Yes! First!” she cheered.

“Second!” Drake called.

“Third!” Hana said, sounding disappointed.

“Oh, shoot, Bertrand is going to kill me if I drink a full stein of Skullcracker on my own…” Maxwell said, disappointed.

“Tell him he has to help you to preserve House Beaumont’s honor,” Alice said.

“Also, I’ll help you,” Hana offered to Maxwell as she handed Alice a towel. Third place is unacceptable.”

“Nice work,” Liam said as he joined them.

“Oh, you know, just doing my part for Cordonia,” Alice said as she patted her face dry.

“You couldn’t have waited to do this after the press conference?” Olivia asked as she stepped forward to fix the smudges in Alice’s makeup with the edges of her fingers.

“They’re not interviewing me.”

“Yes, but you’re going to be photographed near me,” Olivia said.

“You have no idea how badly I want to splash you right now,” Alice said.

“Do it and die. Let’s go, we’re about to start”

Alice followed Liam and Olivia to a small podium near the palace entrance where the press was waiting and waited at the edge of the crowd while they climbed up to address the media.

“Good afternoon, everyone,” Liam said when the crowd quieted a little. “Thank you for joining us here today,” he said as he took Olivia’s hand. “The Five Kingdoms Festival has long been a symbol of Cordonian resilience and unity and I’m honored to have you all here. In light of recent events, I believe it’s more important than ever to remember the ties that bring us together. Therefore, I have some news I would like to share with all of you. First, I want to take a moment to honor my late stepmother. She was cruelly taken from us in the attack at the Homecoming Ball, which as you all know, was a devastating blow.” Liam paused, appearing to steel himself to continue. Christ, he’s good, Alice thought as Liam continued. “In light of the brutal attack, our family is grieving quietly and privately, but we are honored by the love Cordonia has shown to the late queen mother. We are also looking into setting up a foundation in her honor as a memorial to all of her philanthropic efforts as queen.”

The members of the press murmured their approval.

“Olivia and I are so grateful for the support of the Cordonian people during this time, and as a show of our gratitude, we plan to visit each of Cordonia’s noble houses to personally invite them to our upcoming wedding,” Liam continued, nodding to Ana de Luca.

“If anyone wants to see more of the royal couple before they embark on their tour, Trend will be running an exclusive feature with their engagement photos,” Ana said. “We will also be sharing information about the wedding as planning moves forward.”

“That’s correct,” Olivia said. “Cordonia has given so much to us and Liam and I would like to share our happiness with the Cordonian people.”

The press applauded and several cameras flashed.

“I know our viewers are certainly going to have a lot of questions about the upcoming wedding,” one of the reporters said.

“Yes, but I think there’s a more pressing question at the forefront of everyone’s minds,” Ana de Luca said. “Just how safe is Cordonia in the wake of last week’s attack on the palace?”

“We’re shaken, but safe,” Liam said solemnly. “I understand how worried everyone is, believe me, but these things take time. Trust me, Olivia and the Royal Guard and I are taking every possible precaution against another attack.”

“Thank you,” a reporter said, nodding as he jotted down some notes.

“Do you have any idea who was behind the attack in the first place?” Ana asked.

“The Royal Guard is still searching for the attackers, but I promise we’ll get to the bottom of this,” Olivia said. “I’m a Nevrakis—our views on enemies are well known. Liam and I won’t rest until the people responsible are in custody.”

Liam smiled at her and squeezed her hand.

“Now, about this tour you mentioned,” another reporter said. “I’m curious what—huh?” He paused mid-sentence as his phone began to buzz. Alice looked around and heard more phones ring out among the crowd, including hers. One by one, everyone pulled out their phones and watched as a video began to play. Beneath the crackling of the recording, a man in tactical gear stood in a starkly-lit hallway and Alice immediately recognized the mask he wore as matching that of the attackers at the Homecoming Ball.

“People of Cordonia, your new king is weak and unfit to rule,” the man in the video said. “This scion of tyranny cannot protect those in his privileged circle. He cannot be trusted with an entire kingdom. For too long, we’ve lived under the yoke of this corrupt family. They do not deserve to hold power over us. It is we, the citizens, who deserve the right to control our own lives. We demand that King Liam of Cordonia abdicate the throne…or else the palace halls will flow with the blood of tyrants.”

The video abruptly cut off. Alice looked up and saw the crowd had devolved into chaos. Reporters spoke on their phones, some people were shouting, and others still huddled together as they talked in frightened whispers.

“Everyone, please, remain calm—“ Liam said, but his voice was quickly lost in the shuffle as panic spread through the crowd like a shockwave.

“That’s enough!” Olivia called sternly. As her voice carried across the crowd, everyone fell silent one by one.

“Thank you, Olivia,” Liam said gratefully before turning back to the crowd. “This video is deeply troubling. I guarantee that we will gather all the evidence we can and find the people behind it.”

“And what about their demands, King Liam?” one of the reporters asked.

“Given everything that’s happened over the past few days…are you thinking of stepping down?” Ana de Luca asked.

“Absolutely not,” Olivia said fiercely. “No true king would give into those demands. They want to call King Liam weak? Weakness would be listening to enemies who are afraid to show their faces. The people behind that video threatened dozens of lives, including mine and those of the people I love,” Olivia said, glancing at Liam and Alice. “King Liam would never leave his people in the hands of such a dangerous group. And you shouldn’t ask him to.”

“She’s right,” Liam said. “I have no intention of giving in to their demands.”

“I apologize, Your Majesty and Your Grace,” Ana said quickly. “Consider the question withdrawn.”

“Good,” Olivia said.

“Thank you for those stirring words, King Liam and Duchess Olivia,” Ana said. “Despite everything that’s happened today, I think I can reassure our viewers that the crown will deal with this threat. Cordonia is clearly in capable hands.”

Even in the wake of the video, the crowd applauded as Liam and Olivia waved farewell and stepped off the podium to rejoin Alice and the others.

Did you see the video? Alice texted Bastien.

Yes. Are you okay?

Yeah, I’m fine. You?

I’ll be better when you’re back, but yes. I’m reviewing the video now and discussing it with the security team—hopefully we can get some useful information from it.

“Alice, can I talk to you for a second?” Hana asked.

“Sure, what’s up?” Alice asked as she tucked her phone back into her pocket and let Hana lead her off to the side.

“Look, I’ve been thinking…with Justin being out of commission and…well, an awful human being, I was thinking you could use a new press secretary. Liam and Olivia are covered, of course, but as the newest duchess, you’re going to need some press management yourself.”

“You’re probably right,” Alice said. “Plus, I think Bertrand would agree with you. He didn’t exactly trust me to dress myself today.”

“I have an idea to float by you…” Hana said as she took a deep breath. “What about me?”

“What? Hana, you just got your freedom from your parents, I couldn’t ask that of you,” Alice said. “You didn’t actually help Maxwell with that Skullcracker Ale.”

Hana laughed. “No, and you’re not asking, I’m offering,” Hana said. “I don’t exactly know what I want to do yet, so I thought that while I figure that out, I could lend a hand. Plus, if you’re serious about letting me stay with you at Valtoria, I want to earn my keep.”

“You’re my friend, you don’t have to do anything to earn your keep. You can live with me indefinitely, Bastien and I would love to have you there,” Alice said.

“But what if public relations is something I might want to do?” Hana asked. “I could try it out and help you at the same time. Plus, I want to see what I can accomplish on my own. Rashida is so impressive with everything she’s done and I want her to be proud of me.”

“Have you seen the way Rashida looks at you? Not only is she proud of you, but her sun rises and sets with you,” Alice said. “But if you really want to try PR, I’d be thrilled to hire you and I’m going to grossly overpay you. But only if you’re sure—you can seriously quit at any time and I won’t be offended. According to Bertrand, I can be a handful.”

“I think I can handle you,” Hana said with a grin. “Yay! Oh, this is going to be so much fun. I’m going to go talk to Liam’s press secretary to get all the details for the upcoming tour.”

Hana hurried off and Alice watched her go, shaking her head and smiling as Bertrand joined her.

“What was that about?”

“Hana’s going to be my new press secretary for now.”

“Oh, thank god,” Bertrand said, deeply relieved. “You need one.”

“Thank you for that vote of confidence.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it like that. But a press secretary will be a huge asset to you as a new duchess—especially a newly engaged duchess—and there’s no one better qualified than Hana at…well, anything. Speaking of your engagement…when are you announcing it?”

Alice sighed. “I don’t know yet. Liam and Olivia just announced their engagement and with the attack…I don’t know, is there some kind of etiquette timeline I have to follow?”

Bertrand shook his head. “Not that I know of. But because you’re a duchess, people are going to want to celebrate with you in some capacity. Even if you do decide to elope, you should probably throw some kind of party with all the nobles for a celebration.”

Alice nodded. “That makes sense.” She pulled out her phone to check the time. “Hey, since things are winding down out here, I’m going to head back in to check on Bastien.”

“Let me know if you need anything.”

“Thanks, Bertrand.”

When Alice returned to the apartment, she smiled to see Bastien still sitting on the couch with his laptop.

“Have you moved at all since I left?” Alice teased as she sat down next to him. Bastien used his good arm to pull her legs across his lap.

“Yes, nurse, I have, I promise,” he said. “For the record, I planned on taking a nap while you were gone, but that video kind of threw a wrench in my plans.”

“Are we any closer to figuring out which group it is?” Alice asked.

“Not yet, but hopefully my team will have some answers soon,” he said. “How was Mara today?”

“Enthusiastic. She nearly tackled some innocent guy in a costume. But I like her; I’d rather her be too vigilant than not vigilant enough.”

“Good,” Bastien said. “Although, I wish I could go back to being your bodyguard.”

“You’re my fiancé and a soon-to-be duke,” Alice pointed out. “You’re going to have to outsource at some point.”

“I know, I know,” Bastien said. “Hey, speaking of…I know the tour kind of complicates things, but we could still slip out and elope if you want. Or we could call Liam and have him come here right now to marry us.”

“Right now, I don’t want to see anyone but you,” Alice said as she ran her fingers through his hair. “But we’ll figure it out.”

“First things first, I need to go get you a real ring,” Bastien said, tapping her finger.

“Dorian, I don’t need some fancy ring. Really. I have you, that’s all that matters.”

“You’re making it very hard for me to spoil you,” Bastien said as he threaded his fingers between hers and kissed the back of her hand.

“Are you kidding? I’m completely spoiled,” Alice said. “In fact, I think I’m on the verge of becoming a handful. Maybe even a complete nightmare. Ooh! Maybe I’ll be a bridezilla!”

Bastien laughed. “I don’t think that’s possible, but even if you do, I’ll love you anyway.”

“Is that a challenge?”

“Oh my god, quit being a problem and just kiss me already,” Bastien said as he leaned over and gently pressed his lips against hers. Alice smiled and kissed him back; she was tired of talking.

The next morning, Alice was putting the last few items in their suitcases under Bastien’s anal retentive supervision when there was a polite knock at the door.

“That must be my new press secretary!” Alice said happily as she crossed the room to open the door.

“Hana knows she can just live at Valtoria, right?” Bastien asked.

“That’s what I told her, but she really wants to do this,” Alice said as she reached the door and opened it. “Hey, Hana!”

“Good morning! May I come in?” Hana asked.

“I already like your arrival better than Maxwell’s,” Bastien called as he zipped up the suitcases with his uninjured arm.

“What?” Hana asked, confused.

“Maxwell’s enthusiasm is a lot first thing in the morning,” Alice said. “Anyway, hi!”

“Hi! Okay, I came to talk to you about the first stop on the unity tour,” Hana said, her face growing more serious. “We’re going to…Fydelia.”

“What?” Alice asked. “But…why?”

“It’s sort of a two birds, one stone situation,” Hana said. “Since we’re visiting all the noble houses, we can’t skip going to Fydelia so we may as well get it out of the way first. Plus, by going there, it’ll show that there’s no hard feelings between Liam and Madeleine.”

“But there are hard feelings,” Alice said. “Due in large part to Madeleine being a super bitch.”

“Yes, but the public doesn’t know that,” Hana said. “Actually, Madeleine isn’t even going to be there.”

“What? How does that make sense?” Alice asked.

“It’s part of the ultimatum Liam gave her,” Hana said. “Apparently, he told her that as long as she avoided royal functions and stayed away from you, he wouldn’t charge her as an accomplice in your case against Tariq and he’d allow her to maintain some semblance of dignity by telling everyone she had a position as a diplomat. Right now, it’s about not exposing cracks in the relations between nobles.”

“Right, unity, blah, blah, blah,” Alice said.


“Does Adelaide know the truth?”

“Not as far as I know. I think she only knows the cover story, so you should be good there. The only people that know the truth are the three of us, Liam, Olivia, Drake, and the Beaumonts.”

“Alright,” Alice said. “So basically we’re going to Fydelia and I have to babysit a drunk Adelaide and convince her to attend Liam and Olivia’s wedding.”

“You can take the girl out of the bar, but you can’t take the bartender out of the girl,” Hana said. “I know you’re not looking forward to it, but you’ll have us with you. And since it’s the first stop, we can get it out of the way quickly.”

“Plus, Adelaide seems to like you, so at least you have that going for you,” Bastien said.


Part 43

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