Summary: The Unity Tour returns to the palace for the Costume Gala, with duels and disasters and the arrival of a mysterious figure.
Notes: I used some of the original PB dialogue and bedazzled it a bit. Also, fair warning, this is a very long chapter.
CW: homophobia, references to sexual assault and violence, not believing survivors, terrorist attack, character death
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, Part 38, Part 39, Part 40, Part 41, Part 42, Part 43, Part 44, Part 45, Part 46, Part 47
“Remind me again what we’re doing back at the palace in the middle of a tour?” Alice asked as they entered the palace. She wished Bastien was with her, but he’d had to leave for a security meeting the moment the motorcade had come to a stop in the driveway with the ball due to start in only a couple of hours. Despite his impending retirement from the Royal Guard, he’d wanted to ensure the night’s event went off without a hitch. Alices knew that a part of him still felt guilty for not managing to prevent the attack at the Homecoming Ball, and his two gunshot wounds had done nothing to convince him his penance had been made.
“It’s the annual Costume Gala,” Maxwell said.
“Which just means that it’s another ball,” Drake said. “Not to be confused with the Masquerade Ball, the Halloween Ball, or the Harvest Moon Ball. There are too many balls.”
“Say ‘balls’ again,” Alice said.
“I can’t wait to see the costumes,” Hana said.
“I, for one, am quite excited for tonight,” a familiar voice said. Alice turned around to see Justin and was unable to stop the annoyed sigh that came out of her body. “It’s on everyone’s list of top five favorite events.”
“What are you doing here?” She felt Maxwell poke her in the arm. “Ow, what?”
“Surprise! It’s your favorite press secretary,” Justin said with a grin.
What the actual fuck.
“Bye,” Drake said, exiting immediately.
“Justin, how are you?” Maxwell asked, putting a warning hand on Alice’s elbow. “We’re surprised to see you after hearing you were injured in the attack.”
“Yeah, I took a nasty shot at the Homecoming Ball, but I’m not ready to kick the bucket yet,” Justin said. “If you can breathe, you can stand, and if you can stand, you can fight. Anyway, I’m glad to see all of you.”
“So…why are we seeing you?” Alice asked slowly.
“Isn’t it obvious?” Justin asked. “Bertrand has invited me to attend the gala tonight. Between you and me, I think it’s because I was injured at the Homecoming Ball, but I’m happy to be here no matter the reason.”
God dammit, Bertrand, Alice thought.
“Well, it’s nice to see you again, but we have to get ready for tonight,” Hana said.
“Of course. I’ll see you later,” Justin said, smiling at them. Alice looked at his face and noticed the smile didn’t quite reach his eyes. However, before she could consider that any further, Maxwell practically yanked her arm and pulled her away.
“Ow, what?” Alice hissed at him.
“Would it kill you to be nice to him?” Maxwell asked.
“Yes,” Alice said. “There’s something off about him and he rubs me the wrong way and I don’t have to play nice anymore because he’s no longer my press secretary.”
“He was shot at an event he was working for you!” Maxwell pointed out. “We’re lucky he’s not suing us.”
“Oh, come on, it’s not like the terrorist attack was our fault!” Alice protested.
“Of course not, but he was injured on the job. He could probably put together a case if he wanted to. We should all be glad he seems pleased just to get an invitation to the Costume Gala.”
“Wait, did you know Bertrand invited him?” Alice asked.
Maxwell sighed. “I knew he was going to offer, but I didn’t know Justin had accepted.”
“And you’re just telling me this now because…”
“You’ve been so busy lately! Seriously, you spent the day singlehandedly saving an international festival yesterday. Justin didn’t seem like a priority.”
Alice wanted to stomp her foot like a petulant child. “But I don’t like him.”
“Then don’t talk to him tonight,” Maxwell said. “It’ll be fine; you won’t even know he’s there. If it helps, Hana and I can run intervention.”
“Rashida will be here tonight, too, she can help,” Hana offered.
“Wait, Rashida’s coming? Hana, you are definitely not working tonight,” Alice said.
“What? Of course I am!” Hana said, surprised.
“No, you’re going to hang out with your girlfriend and not worry about my bullshit for a night,” Alice said.
“Well…okay. If you’re sure,” Hana said.
“Um…can we still hang out as friends though? Because you still need a costume for tonight and I have to pick mine up from the boutique,” Hana said.
“Hana, of course,” Alice said. She stopped walking and took a breath. “Both of you, I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be such a bitch right now. I’m just all over the place and I don’t think I’m getting enough sleep, but I don’t need to be taking it out on either of you. That’s not fair to you guys and I’m sorry.”
“Apology not necessary, but accepted anyway,” Maxwell said as he slung his arm over her shoulders and gave her a hug. “But I need to go get ready and I have to make sure Drake doesn’t wear denim tonight, so I’m going to leave you two to it. I’ll see you later.”
Maxwell waved goodbye and took off, leaving Alice and Hana alone.
“Hana, I really am sorry, I don’t mean to be like this,” Alice said.
“You just gave me a night off, there’s no reason to be sorry,” Hana said. “And you should try to think of this as a night off for you as well. You don’t have to convince anyone to go to the wedding tonight, so you can just hang out and relax. This is supposed to be fun, remember?”
“Right,” Alice said as she took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. A crowded ballroom wasn’t her idea of a relaxing night off when she’d rather curl up in bed with Bastien and read, but she didn’t really have a choice. “So, should we shop?”
“I thought you’d never ask,” Hana said, looping her arm through Alice’s and leading her to the boutique.
When they reached the boutique, Alice was surprised to find Liam standing in the middle of the room. As they entered, he turned with a flourish of his cape to reveal an ornate red and goal military uniform, heavy with braiding and embroidery.
“Greetings, Duchess Alice, Lady Hana,” he said formally, grinning at them.
“Hey there, fancy pants,” Alice said.
“Wow, your outfit is amazing!” Hana said.
“This costume calls back to how King Fabian, one of Cordonia’s past kings, dressed as a young prince,” Liam said. “He’s one of my favorites.”
“You look like you stepped directly out of a royal portrait,” Alice said, impressed. “What are the chances we can persuade you to wear it every day?”
“Don’t suggest that to Olivia,” Liam said. “You know how she feels about sharing the color red for more than a night.”
“I’m pretty sure you’d get a pass,” Alice said. “Where is she anyway?”
“She’s meeting us in a few minutes,” Liam said, smiling at the thought of her.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I have arrived!” Maxwell announced as he dramatically threw back the curtain of the dressing room.
“Maxwell, you were coming to the boutique? Why didn’t you just walk with us?” Alice asked.
“Because it would’ve ruined the surprise of my reveal,” he said, as he struck a superhero pose, his fists on his hips. “So, what do you think?”
Alice took a moment to examine his suit, the blue jacket sewn with an intricate tentacle design and topped off with an orange squid bowtie. “That bowtie might be my favorite thing you’ve ever worn.”
“Oh man, me, too!” he exclaimed. “It’s our house sigil. I tried to get Bertrand to match with me, but you can imagine how that went.”
“He has no sense of whimsy,” Alice said, shaking her head. “You guys could have been i-tentical twins.”
“Don’t encourage him, Ayers!” Drake called from within another dressing room.
“Get out here, Walker, I want to see what they made you wear,” Alice said.
Drake pushed aside the curtain and stepped out in a similar outfit to Liam’s but without the cape, his jacket blue with gold embroidery that reminded Alice of stars. “I don’t think I got the neck thing right.”
“Wait…are you dressing up as a noble for your costume?” Hana asked, delighted.
“Liam, I told you it was too much,” Drake said. “I look ridiculous.”
“No, you look amazing,” Alice said.
“She’s right,” Liam said. “Don’t you dare change.”
“You’re really pulling it off,” Hana insisted.
“I don’t know, it’s so much fancier than anything else I’ve worn,” Drake said, tugging at the collar as he stared skeptically into the mirror.
“You wear nothing but denim. Everything is fancier than that,” Alice said. “Hana, you said you need to pick up your costume, right?”
“Oh, yes! Let me show you all what I’m wearing,” Hana said. She grabbed a dress from the reserved section of the wall and hurried into the dressing room. Soon after, she emerged in a gorgeous, delicate floral gown. “Ta da! I’m the goddess of spring!”
“Holy shit, Hana,” Alice said as she stared at her, completely gobsmacked.
“Thanks,” Hana said brightly as she turned to look in the mirror.
“Was that actually something to thank Ayers for?” Drake asked.
“Yes, it was a compliment,” Maxwell translated.
“Hana, you look so incredible,” Alice said. “Has Rashida seen it yet? Because her jaw is going to absolutely hit the floor when she does.”
“Not yet, I’m keeping it a surprise,” Hana said. “I spent hours agonizing over the color pattern and how many flowers to add. I’m glad I got it right.”
“‘Getting it wrong’ isn’t in your dictionary,” Maxwell said.
“Wait, you made this?” Liam asked.
“Designed, not made,” Hana said quickly. “The construction was all done by the seamstresses here; they’re so talented.”
“Stop being modest, you designed a showstopper,” Alice said.
“Alice, what are you going to wear?” Liam asked.
“Oh, right,” Alice said. “Completely forgot why I need to come in here.”
“Actually…I may have done a thing,” Maxwell said.
“Am I going to be your i-tentical twin instead of Bertrand?” Alice asked. “We’ll look ink-redible!”
“I wish, but no,” Maxwell said with a grin. “If you want it…I found something in the spirit of your avian sigil.”
“My what now?”
“The Valtorian house sigil is a phoenix,” Liam explained. “You could change it if you really wanted, to, but I happen to think it suits you.”
“It does!” Hana exclaimed. “Considering everything you’ve been through, it’s like you’ve been reborn from the ashes.”
“I’m not mad at that,” Alice said. “Okay, Maxwell, what did you do?”
“Go put it on!” he said, gently pushing her towards the dressing room with the garment bag.
Alice closed the curtain behind her and hung the bag up on a hook before unzipping it. Inside was a gorgeous red gown, the skirt of which was adorned with elegant feathers..
“Holy shit, Maxwell!” she called out.
“You’re welcome! Now hurry up and put it on so we can see it,” he called back.
Alice carefully changed into the dress and stepped back to look at herself in the mirror. She pulled out her phone.
Want to see a preview? she texted Bastien. His reply was almost instant.
Alice snapped a photo of herself in the mirror and sent it to him. Moments later, he wrote back.
…Not the sort of “preview” I thought you meant, but you look absolutely incredible. Is that what you’re wearing to the gala?
Only if you promise to take it off of me later
“Alice! Hurry up!” Maxwell called.
She put her phone down and pulled back the curtain on the dressing room. “What do you think?”
“Holy shit, indeed,” Maxwell said, looking supremely pleased with himself.
“I feel like I’m about to take flight,” Alice said as she looked down at the feathers on the skirt.
“How do you do that?” Drake asked. “I just spent almost half an hour putting on all this stuff, but you make it look so easy.”
“Don’t worry, you’ll get there,” Alice said. “Even if I have to take you under my wing.”
“I don’t think Drake finds that pun emu-sing,” Hana said.
“Hawkward,” Liam added.
“You’re all terrible,” Drake said.
“Should we go show ourselves off?” Hana asked.
“Wait, where’s Bastien?” Drake asked.
“He’s working tonight,” Alice said. “He said he should be able to hang out for a little bit later though.”
“In that case,” Maxwell said as he held out his arm to her. “May I escort you?”
“Absolutely,” Alice said.
As they made their way through the palace, they turned down a hallway to find Mara and Olivia, the latter of which was wearing an intricate black and red dress that reminded Alice vaguely of a spider’s web.
“Your Grace,” Mara said, nodding to Alice.
“Finally,” Olivia said. Liam grinned and kissed her.
“Sorry, we were getting our costumes sorted,” Liam said. “You look magnificent.”
“Of course I do,” Olivia said, smiling at him. “But thank you.”
“Are your earrings tiny swords?” Hana asked.
“Decorative and functional,” Olivia said before glancing at Alice. “I have to admit, your dress is impressive. Very fitting for Valtoria.”
“You guys all heard that, right?” Alice asked. “She just said something nice on purpose.”
“Shut up, Jon Snow.”
“So, shall we head downstairs?” Hana asked.
“Actually, there’s a slight change of plans,” Olivia said.
“We’re here to begin your self-defense training,” Mara said.
“Right now?” Alice asked, glancing down at her dress.
“Yes. We’re scheduled for our first session in ten minutes,” Mara said.
“I apologize, this is actually my fault,” Liam said. “I asked Mara to arrange this as soon as we returned to the palace.”
“And you didn’t want to mention it while Drake was spending thirty minutes trying to figure out the neck of his costume?” Alice asked.
“Think about it, Jon Snow,” Olivia said. “Whoever is targeting the crown is more likely to attack when we’re all at a formal function. If I can learn to fight in heels, so can you.”
“Yeah, but you’re a special kind of scary,” Alice said.
“It’s an overdue precaution,” Mara said. “Now, if you’re ready, let’s all head this way…”
Mara led everyone into a brightly lit room filled with athletic training equipment and practice weapons.
“I’m ready to kick-punch my way to justice!” Maxwell announced, dropping into a horse stance and punching the air.
“And personal safety!” Hana added.
“Normally, I’d tell you not to get ahead of yourselves, but time isn’t exactly on our side here,” Mara said. “In my ideal world, this would be a 28-week course, covering the basics of Tae Kwon Do, judo, Krav Maga, and Tai Chi at a minimum.”
“Where’d you learn Krav Maga?” Maxwell asked, impressed.
“That’s on a need to know basis, and you don’t need to know,” Mara said. “Alright, everyone pair off. King Liam and Lord Maxwell, Lady Hana and Drake, Duchess Olivia and Duchess Alice.”
“I wasn’t really planning on having my ass kicked in formalwear today, but sure,” Alice said as she turned to face Olivia.
“Get ready, because I’m not going to go easy on you,” Olivia said. “I’m not trying to be hard on you; it just won’t do you any good if I do. None of these assholes are going to go easy on us if they attack again, and I can’t have you dying on me.”
“That was almost sweet, Liv,” Alice said. “Thanks.”
“I’m going to hit you extra hard for that.”
“Alright, we’ll start with a simple drill,” Mara said. “One partner will attack, the other will defend.”
“I’ll be attacking, of course,” Olivia said.
“Duh,” Alice said.
“You’ll all start in a fighting stance, like this,” Mara continued as she demonstrated by standing with one leg forward, knees slightly bent. She raised her arms defensively. “This grounds you, lowering your center of gravity and keeping you balanced.” Everyone imitated the stance. “When the attacker strikes with a simple punch, the defender will try to knock the blow away. King Liam, help me demonstrate?”
Liam advanced on Mara, striking out at her with a fist. She thrust one arm up, deflecting the incoming attack. While he was off-balance from the defensive strike, Mara bent, sweeping her leg between his so he fell backward onto the mat.
“See what I did there?” Mara asked. “That’s the last piece of the drill. After the block, the attacker will be left open and vulnerable. That’s the perfect time to strike back. Duchess Alice, Duchess Olivia, you’ll go first.”
Olivia rounded on Alice, dropping into her starting position. Alice stepped forward with her left leg, bending her knees slightly.
“Good,” Mara said.
Alice bounced lightly on the balls of her feet, hating the fact she was wearing heels. Suddenly, Olivia struck out at her. Alice thrust her arm up, deflecting the incoming blow. With Olivia momentarily off-balance with her momentum re-directed by the block, Alice quickly swept her leg out from underneath her and sent her falling back to the mat.
“Very good, Duchess Alice,” Mara said.
“‘I don’t plan on knitting by the fire while men fight for me,’” Alice quipped as she held out a hand to help up Olivia.
“Calm down, Lyanna Mormont, you did one move without embarrassing yourself,” Olivia said as she accepted Alice’s hand and stood up. “But you did a good job. You’re still far from a worthy foe, but you did well.”
“King Liam and Lord Maxwell, you’re up next,” Mara called.
“Wait, don’t I get to hit Liv?” Alice asked.
Olivia snorted as they traded places with Liam and Maxwell. “Please, I learned that move when I was child. I’m here to help you.”
“Liam, is it reason if I hit you?” Maxwell asked nervously.
“Technically yes, but I wouldn’t worry about it if I were you,” Liam said.
“Oh, good,” Maxwell said. “Wait, hey!”
“Are we about to watch Maxwell die?” Alice whispered to Olivia.
“Maybe,” Olivia whispered back.
Liam and Maxwell both took up their stance and after a moment, Liam jabbed at Maxwell’s face. Maxwell’s eyes went wide and he half-stepped backward and raised his arm, then dropped it. Liam’s fist stopped just shy of his face.
“Lord Maxwell, you’ve got to be more decisive! Block or dodge, don’t do half of each,” Mara said. “Excellent control, Your Highness.”
They reset and tried again. This time, Maxwell successfully blocked Liam’s punch and swept his legs, sending him to the mat.
“I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” Maxwell cried, immediately putting out a hand to help him up.
“Don’t apologize, that was great,” Liam said, smiling at him.
“Well done,” Mara said. “Alright, Lady Hana, Drake, it’s your turn. Drake, you’re on the attack.”
“Drake is definitely about to get his ass kicked,” Olivia whispered to Alice, who nodded. They watched as Hana and Drake got into position and circled each other for a few moments. Drake’s arm twitched as though he was about to thrust out his fist, but he hesitated.
“Come on, I can’t hit Hana,” Drake complained.
In his moment of hesitation, Hana struck out at Drake, punching him right in the solar plexus. Drake wheezed, the air knocked out of him, and Hana swept his legs out from under him, sending him down to the mat.
“Oh my god, I’m so sorry! Are you okay?” Hana asked worriedly. “I didn’t hurt you, did I?”
“I’m fine,” Drake said as he rubbed his chest and tried to catch his breath.
“Lady Hana, that was great…until you apologized,” Mara said. “And, Drake, don’t underestimate a smaller opponent. No sympathy for the enemy, either of you!”
“Yeah. Lesson definitely learned,” Drake said as Hana helped him to his feet.
“Unfortunately, that’s all the time we have for today,” Mara said.
“Really?” Alice asked. “I was hoping we’d learn a few more moves.”
“Yeah, I wanted to learn a flying kick or something,” Maxwell said.
“This was a good start, but you have a ways to go before you’re ready for that,” Mara said. “Remember—find your center of gravity, keep your eye on your opponent, and take advantage of weak points and distractions.”
“Once you master some basics, you can move onto some weaponry—now that’s the fun stuff,” Olivia said.
“I think I’m still a ways away from concealed knives,” Alice said.
“Who said anything about keeping them concealed?”
“We should probably head out, the gala will be starting soon,” Liam said as he walked over to Olivia, who brushed off the back of his jacket.
Together, they all left the training room and headed downstairs outside the ballroom where several other nobles were waiting to enter the gala.
“Wow, everyone looks so beautiful,” Hana said as she surveyed the crowd.
“Meh,” Olivia said. “Only a few others here break a seven on the costume scale,” Olivia said.
Alice turned to see Penelope and Kiara approaching, each of them wearing gowns reminiscent of their house sigils.
“Your costume is magnifique,” Kiara said as she looked Alice up and down.
“Thanks, but I have to give all the credit to Maxwell,” Alice said. Maxwell beamed proudly.
“I wish narwhals had feathers,” Penleope said as she looked between Kiara and Alice.
“Sea creatures are way cooler,” Maxwell said. “Sorry, Alice.”
“Hey, I already know I can’t compete with that bowtie,” Alice said as she looped her arm through his.
“Oh. My. God.”
Everyone turned to see Rashida staring in shock at Hana.
“Do you like it?” Hana asked, smiling excitedly.
“You look…” Rashida stared at her, mouth open. “I have no words. I love it.” She stepped forward and kissed Hana on the cheek. “I’m sorry I’m just getting here at the last minute, I had a work call that ran late.”
“You’re here now, that’s what matters,” Hana said as she took Rashida’s hand in hers.
“How come you didn’t dress up?” Penelope asked as she looked at Rashida’s plain but elegant black gown.
“Didn’t have time,” Rashida said. “When Hana reminded me about this yesterday, I realized I’d completely forgotten so I had to just go with what I had.”
“It’s okay, not everyone dresses up,” Liam said.
“And yet that option was not extended to all of us…” Drake muttered.
“Hey, it looks like everyone is lining up,” Hana said, quickly changing the subject. Everyone shuffled over to the doors and Alice and Maxwell lined up behind Liam and Olivia at the closed ballroom doors, with Rashida and Hana behind them. Muffled music played on the other side of the doors as they waited.
“Hey, I just realized something,” Maxwell said a little sadly. “With you and Bastien being engaged, this might be the last time I escort you to something.”
“Oh…I guess you’re right,” Alice said. “I hadn’t thought of that. But, if it’s any consolation, you and Bertrand are never going to get rid of me.”
“Good,” Maxwell said as the doors opened and he squeezed her arm.
The herald announced Liam and Olivia, who entered the ballroom to applause. After a few moments, the herald looked to Alice and Maxwell and nodded.
“Duchess Alice Ayers of Valtoria and Lord Maxwell Beaumont of Ramsford!”
The crowd applauded again as they entered and Alice quickly located Bastien standing at the edge of the room, clapping for them. She met his eyes and he winked at her.
“Duchess Rashida Masih of Domvallier and Lady Hana Lee!” the herald called. Alice turned to watch their entrance and although Hana seemed a little nervous, Alice couldn’t help but notice how radiantly happy she looked as she held Rashida’s hand in front of the whole court.
The rest of the nobles were announced and it seemed as if the entrances were coming to an end, when the herald called out one last time.
“King Father Constantine!”
Alice felt like vomiting and she tightened her grip on Maxwell’s arm.
“You okay?” Maxwell asked. Alice nodded.
“Yeah. I mean, I figured he was going to be here, but still…I just hate seeing him.”
“I know,” Maxwell said as he put a comforting hand on hers. “But I promise not to leave your side until Bastien is able to take a break. You’re my sister; I won’t let anything happen to you.”
“Thanks, Maxwell,” Alice said, trying to ignore the way her heart was hammering in her chest as they watched Constantine enter, waving to the applauding crowd. He strode toward the middle of the room where he was met by Liam and Olivia. Constantine leaned over to say something to Liam, but his son ignored him as he turned to address the crowd.
“Thank you, everyone, for joining us here tonight,” Liam said as the crowd quieted down. “I know it’s no small task to return to the palaces. The last time we were here, attackers threatened our lives, wounded our friends, and tried to break us as a nation. But we’ve shown resilience in the face of our enemies. We’ve shown them a strong and united Cordonia. Thank you for standing by us and proving once and for all that Cordonia is a force to be reckoned with.”
The room burst into applause and Alice watched as Liam leaned over to say something to Constantine, his smiling lips a stark contrast the hardness of his gaze when he looked at his father. A shadow passed over Constantine’s face and he looked angry, but Liam ignored him and turned to Olivia, who looked out at the crowd.
“Let the party begin!” she announced to loud cheers from the ballroom. As the applause faded, Liam turned and said one last thing to his father before he escorted Olivia towards Alice and Maxwell.
“Is everything okay?” Alice asked.
“Yes, it’s fine,” Liam said. “My father wanted to say a few words, but I told him no. He didn’t like that, but it’s too bad. I reminded him of the conditions of his attendance, so I think he should behave himself. I have multiple guards assigned just to him tonight, and he’s wearing a recording device so we can monitor everything he says and ensure he doesn’t violate those rules.”
“The recording device was my idea,” Olivia said.
“Which is why I love you,” Alice said as they were joined by Hana and Rashida. “Hey! How are you feeling after your big entrance?”
“Good. Relieved. Excited,” Hana said, smiling. “I don’t know, it was really scary to be so open about who I am, but it’s also really freeing in a way.”
“Hey, I’m just glad I got to walk in here with the most beautiful woman in the room,” Rashida said as she lightly kissed the back of Hana’s hand.
“You two are nauseatingly sweet,” Olivia said. “I need a drink.”
“Yes, because nothing calms nausea like alcohol,” Alice said, laughing as Olivia flipped her the bird. Alice looked around the room for Bastien and noticed Ezekiel talking to Penelope and her parents. “I hope that’s going well,” she said, nodding towards them.
“Me, too,” Maxwell said. “I can’t think of—“ he started to say when he was suddenly interrupted by a hand on his shoulder.
“Maxwell, it’s so good to see you,” Adelaide purred, an annoyed Godfrey standing at her elbow. “Alice, don’t tell me you’ve already moved on from Bastien to Maxwell. You have to leave some for the rest of us.”
“Godfrey, it’s nice to see you again,” Alice said, hoping to diffuse the tension for a moment. Maxwell looked like he wanted to run away, but, as promised, he stayed by Alice’s side.
“Likewise, I suppose,” Godfrey said. “I’m going to get a drink.” He left and Adelaide sighed.
“Don’t mind him,” Adelaide said. “Although, I should probably go with him. It’s nice to see you both,” she said, gently running a finger down Maxwell’s cheek before leaving to follow her husband.
“Oh my god, that was awkward,” Maxwell said, breathing a sigh of relief as she left.
“I’m so sorry,” Alice said.
“She’s…a lot,” Rashida said.
“That’s putting it lightly,” Olivia said.
“However, it’s kind of nice to see all of our hard work start to come together,” Liam said. “Hakim and Joelle weren’t able to attend tonight, but they’ll be at the wedding and everyone else we’ve visited so far on the unity tour is in attendance.”
“The court feels almost full again,” Hana agreed.
“We’ve come a long way since the Homecoming Ball,” Liam said as he put an arm around Olivia’s waist. “Thank you, Alice. None of this would’ve been possible without you.”
“Thank you, but it’s not like I single-handedly did all of this,” Alice said.
“Please,” Olivia said with a derisive snort. “I wouldn’t have been able to convince everyone to come back. People fear me, but they don’t necessarily like me.”
“We’re lucky to have you,” Liam said to Alice. “Now, go enjoy the ball. We have to make the rounds, but we’ll catch up with you later.”
As they left, Alice felt a hand on the small of her back. She turned to see Bastien standing there and she smiled.
“Mind if I borrow you for a minute?” he asked. “Excuse me, everyone.”
Alice took his hand and he led her out on the dance floor, where several other couples had paired off and begun to dance.
“May I have this dance?” Bastien asked, smiling at her.
“Of course,” Alie said. “But are you sure you’re up for it? Your leg…”
“I’m fine,” Bastien assured her. “I get a twinge now and then, but there’s nothing I want to do more right now than dance with you.”
Alice smiled as he began to lead her through a waltz. “So, how long of a break do you have?”
“Probably just enough for this one dance at the moment,” Bastien said as he held her a little closer. “But you look so beautiful in your dress that I couldn’t resist.”
“Dangerous and lethal,” Alice said. “Mara gave us a self defense lesson just before the ball.”
“I know, she told me,” he said. “I’m glad Liam suggested it though, it’s long overdue. In fact, if it’s not too late, we should probably go over a few more moves after the gala.”
“Can you teach me that kick you did to Neville?” Alice asked.
“Of course,” he said. He brought his lips close to her ear. “I might also have a few…wrestling moves I can show you.” He spun her under his arm in a graceful twirl before bringing her close again.
“If that’s the case, I think I’m going to like being pinned,” she said with a grin.
“Oh, you have no idea,” he said.
The song drew to a close and Bastien carefully dipped Alice before bringing her back up, kissing her gently.
“I need to go check on a few things, but I’ll find you later,” he promised. “Have fun, but try to take it easy.”
“Yes, sir,” Alice said with a cheeky grin. Bastien pulled her close again, his lips brushing her ear.
“If you keep calling me that, you’re going to make it impossible for me to walk away from you right now,” he murmured, sending a shiver down her spine.
“Promise…sir?” she asked. He groaned softly and kissed her temple.
“You are trouble,” he said. “I’ll see you later.”
“I love you, too, Gray,” he said, smiling at her. He kissed her hand and left, fading into the crowd. Alice made her way off the dance floor and she felt her phone buzz in her clutch. She opened it to see a text quoting Gone with the Wind:
“You should be kissed and often, and by someone who knows how.”
Alice smiled and texted him back with a line from The Chaos of Stars.
“And I’d choose you; in a hundred lifetimes, in a hundred worlds, in any version of reality, I’d find you and I’d choose you.”
I can’t decide if I want to steal you away to an unoccupied room, get Liam to marry us right now, or both.
Alice smiled and put her phone away as she reached Hana and Olivia.
“Alice! Help us settle a debate,” Hana said.
“As though more opinions ever helped anyone make a decision,” Olivia said, rolling her eyes.
“What’s the debate?” Alice asked.
“We’re trying to decide who has the best costume of everyone at the gala,” Hana said. “I appreciate the whimsy of Maxwell’s squid suit and the elegance of Drake’s embroidered surcoat.”
“Meanwhile, I prefer the practicality of Liam’s half cape…and you can’t deny the ravishing drama of my own attire,” Olivia said.
“Humble, as always,” Alice teased.
“Humility is for people with something to be ashamed of,” Olivia said dismissively.
“What do you think, Alice?” Hana asked. “If you had to pick one of our friends’ outfits to wear, which would you pick?”
“Yours, obviously,” Alice said. “Sorry, Liv, but you can’t compete with Hana’s designs.”
“Ugh, fine,” Olivia said. “I still think you’re wrong, but next year I’ll have Hana design my dress so there won’t be a contest.”
“You know, I got a call from Joelle,” Hana said. “She wants to commission me to design a dress for her to wear to the wedding.”
“Really?” Olivia asked.
“That’s amazing! She told me she was going to reach out to you,” Alice said. “Are you going to do it?”
“I think so,” Hana said. “It’s pretty close to the wedding so I probably won’t be able to sew it myself, but if I design it, I could hire the palace seamstresses to construct it.”
“I think that’s a great idea,” Alice said. “As long as you’re sure you have time for it—I don’t want you spread yourself too thin.”
“You’re one to talk,” Olivia said. “Besides, Hana’s used to being an overachiever.”
“I’m just very organized,” Hana said modestly.
“Alice, I’m still so disappointed in you for not picking my dress,” Olivia said. “Don’t get me wrong, Hana—your dress is beautiful, but it’s so…soft. You can’t ride into battle wearing something like that.”
“Why am I in a battle in this scenario?” Hana asked, amused.
“Liv, I think you may be confused about how modern warfare works,” Alice said.
“Between the two of us, I’m fairly certain I’m the one who knows the most about modern warfare,” Olivia replied. “I’ve always wanted to live up to my family’s legacy…to prove the strength of the Nevrakis bloodline.” Her face fell slightly. “Unfortunately, that bloodline has all too often been tainted by malevolence. Now, I…” She paused. “I want to prove that a Nevrakis can be someone to look up to. A role model, like Liam.”
“You already are, Liv,” Alice said. “Do you have any idea who many people you’ve already inspired by coming forward with what Tariq did to you? You’re incredibly strong and people need that right now.”
“Well…thank you,” Olivia said, looking uncomfortable at the praise. “If you’ll excuse me, I need to…be somewhere else.”
Alice and Hana watched as Olivia strode off towards the other side of the ballroom.
“Do you think she’ll ever get used to people saying nice things to her?” Hana asked. Alice shrugged.
“I hope so.”
As the band began a new song, Rashida joined them.
“Hey, guys,” Rashida said. “I’m sorry to interrupt, but…Hana, may I have this dance?”
“Of course,” Hana said, a smile lighting up her face. At the same time, Drake joined them.
“Hey, Ayers…Liam gave me explicit instructions not to just sit in a corner, so I wanted to see if you wanted to dance while Bastien’s working,” Drake said.
The four of them made their way onto the dance floor and began to dance.
“Are you having a good time?” Drake asked.
“I am,” Alice said. “I wish Bastien didn’t have to work, but it’s kind of nice to be able to relax a little. No wheeling and dealing and persuading people to support the crown or having to talk about terrorists.”
“This is a little fancier than my idea of a good time, but I agree,” Drake said.
“Did you just admit to having fun at a fancy party full of nobles?” Alice teased.
“I’ll never repeat it, but yes,” Drake said.
As they moved across the dance floor, Neville and a noblewoman danced across their path and Drake pulled Alice to a halt just in time to avoid a collision.
“Pardon me,” Neville said disdainfully.
“Hey, watch where you’re dancing,” Drake snapped.
Neville took a step back to look Drake’s costume up and down. “I’m so sorry, but in that ridiculous ensemble, you blended right in with the decor.”
“In that sad get-up, you shouldn’t be talking,” Alice said. “Where’d that thing even come from? Your tailor’s reject pile?”
“This is an Armani suit!” Neville protested angrily. “Which is more than I can say for that overly-embroidered dressing gown.”
“Apologize to her right now,” Drake said, his voice low and angry. Neville sneered at him before looking back at Alice
“You can dress up this riffraff up in all the suits you want, but people like him will never be able to appreciate the finer things in life,” Neville said.
“Dude, what is your fucking problem?” Alice asked.
“It seems your mouth is as foul as your dance partner,” Neville said. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’d like to enjoy this English waltz instead of having it sullied by the likes of you.”
Neville started to lead his partner away, but Drake held up his hand.
“Actually…they’re playing a Viennese waltz,” Drake said. Neville froze, his mouth agape as he realized his error. “And you’re jumping in on the wrong beat.”
Nearby guests began to chuckle and Neville hastily backed away from his dance partner before glaring at Drake.
“No matter how hard you try to mimic your betters, you’ll never be one of us,” Neville hissed. “You simply don’t have the temperament for it.”
“That’s rich, coming from the guy with an ego the size of this palace,” Drake retorted.
Alice glanced over and saw Bastien making his way over to them, a small crowd forming around their conversation.
“But I guess when you don’t have a heart, noble ‘breeding’ and etiquette are all you’ve got to cling to,” Drake continued.
The crowd around them laughed as Bastien reached them.
“Is there a problem here?” Bastien asked, moving to stand slightly in front of Alice to shield her. Neville eyed Bastien warily and took a step away from him before turning back to Drake.
“I’ve tolerated your insubordination long enough!” Neville said angrily. He reached under his coat and pulled out a white glove. “I, Lord Neville Vancoeur, demand that you meet me in a duel.” He tossed the glove at Drake’s feet.
“Oh, come on,” Alice said, rolling her eyes. Bastien pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed heavily. “He’s not serious, is he?”
“Actually, he is,” Bastien said. “There hasn’t been an honor duel in Cordonia in a hundred years, but it’s technically still a real thing.”
“Neville, what are you doing?” Rashida asked.
“Shut up, you stupid dyke,” Neville snarled, whirling on her.
“Hey!” Alice snapped as she pushed past Bastien to lunge at Neville, but Drake put out an arm to stop her as Bastien caught her around the waist.
“I accept,” Drake said, glaring at Neville. The crowd became alight with agitated whispers and an imposing woman with fading auburn hair stepped forward to the front of the crowd near them.
“A duel?” the woman asked. “My, my…and here I thought this party would be dull.”
“What the…someone is absolutely getting fired,” Bastien seethed under his breath.
“Why, who is that?” Alice asked.
“Are we doing this, or what?” Drake asked, still staring heatedly at Neville.
“Meet me on the field,” Neville snarled. “I hope your swordplay is better than your dancing,” he added before he turned and stormed out of the ballroom.
“Wait, what?” Alice asked. “You’re kidding, right?”
“I have to go, I’ll be back,” Bastien said before he turned and headed back into the crowd.
“No, he’s not kidding,” Drake said.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Alice said as she lowered her voice. “Drake, you’re not honestly going to have a sword fight with that little shit, are you?”
“You heard what he said to Rashida,” Drake said. “If this is the only way to shut him up, I’m going to do it. I’ve had it with him.”
“He’s not worth it.”
“I know, but the rest of you are,” Drake said. “Now, are you going to support me or what?”
Alice sighed, realizing the argument was futile. “Of course I am.”
The nobles filed out of the ballroom and gathered outside the palace, the cool night air chilling Alice’s skin.
“Mon dieu, how barbaric,” Kiara said as she walked over to stand beside Alice.
“You’re the toughest person I know, Drake,” Liam said, leveling his gaze with that of his best friend. “You can do this.”
“Guess I should thank you for all those mock duels we had as kids,” Drake said drily.
“You’re welcome,” Olivia said.
“Just…please be careful,” Hana said.
“Look, Drake, I’m not happy about the duel, but…thank you,” Rashida added. Drake looked at her and his face softened a little.
“I know you and Hana don’t need someone to defend you, but I can’t stand him talking to you like that,” Drake said.
Rashida nodded. “I appreciate that.” She glanced over at Maxwell who had his phone out. “Seriously?”
“What?” Maxwell asked. “This is the first duel in over a hundred years. This is gonna go viral.”
“Just what I need,” Drake said, rolling his eyes. “Thanks, Maxwell. You always know what to say.”
“Anytime, buddy!” Maxwell said brightly. Alice put her hand on his arm and shook her head. “Oh.”
Drake looked over at Alice as a servant brought out two swords. “Anything you want to add?”
She sighed. “I still can’t believe I’m about to watch you participate in an actual duel with swords, but I’m with you. Kick his ass.”
“It’s time, Mr. Walker,” Neville announced.
Drake walked forward and he and Neville each picked up a sword and got into their stances, facing off.
“How the fuck is this my life right now?” Alice muttered.
“Shh, I’m filming,” Maxwell whispered as Liam begrudgingly held up a hand for quiet.
“Let the duel begin!” Liam announced.
Neville immediately lunged at Drake, who managed to block the first blow, but stumbled back a step. Neville swung again, this time at Drake’s head, but Drake ducked out of the way just in time.
“Oh my god, I can’t watch,” Hana said, covering her eyes.
“Would you like to know what I despise most about you and your kind, Walker?” Neville asked.
“Is he seriously monologuing like a goddamn Bond villain?” Alice whispered to Rashida.
“Apparently,” she replied. “He’s an idiot.”
“Got a feeling I’m about to hear it either way,” Drake said.
“Astute,” Neville said, an evil grin spreading across his face. “What I despise most is that you have respect for your betters.”
“I have plenty of respect for my betters; I just don’t consider you one of them,” Drake replied. He swung hard at Neville, who parried his attack, but the force pushed Neville back towards the crowd.
“Ha!” Neville said. “Brute strength…that’s about what I expected from you.”
Neville moved quickly, the outdoor lights glinting off his sword as it darted through the air before cutting a gash in Drake’s side. Drake grunted in pain as blood bloomed across his coat.
“We have to stop this, Drake’s hurt!” Hana exclaimed, peeking through her fingers.
“Nonsense,” Olivia said. “You’d be surprised at the amount of blood a man can lose and still emerge victorious in battle.”
“That’s not helping, Liv,” Alice said, her eyes locked on the fight.
“It isn’t?” Olivia asked, sounding genuinely surprised. “I always took comfort in that thought. In fact, my father always used to say that if you can breathe, you can stand, and if you can stand, you can fight.”
Alice glanced at her, confused. “Justin said that same thing this afternoon.”
“What?” Olivia asked, annoyed. “That’s an old Nevrakis motto. That pisses me off that someone like him is trying to co-opt my family’s traditions.” She huffed, glaring at the fight, and Alice was fairly certain she heard her mutter something about stabbing.
Neville swung at Drake again and Drake scrambled to dodge the blow, tumbling to the ground.
“Come on, Drake!” Rashida called.
“Get up, Walker!” Olivia yelled. “As long as your head’s still attached, there’s no excuse for lying around!”
“Not exactly what I’m doing here,” Drake called back. He climbed to his feet and Neville lunged forward again. They traded parries, Drake grimacing with pain at the force of each blow. Then he darted forward, but Neville dodged, grabbing Drake’s free arm and wrenching it to the side before sharply kicking the side of his knee. Drake grunted with pain, but managed to keep from falling when he knee buckled.
“Hey!” Alice protested. “Can he do that?”
“Technically yes, but it’s a bitch move,” Olivia said, eyes trained on the two men.
Neville kicked his knee again and this time Drake went down on one knee, his sword slipping out of his hand. Drake gritted his teeth in pain as Neville raised his blade over Drake’s head. Alice grabbed Oliva’s hand and squeezed it so tightly it was almost painful, heartbeat thundering in her ears.
“Let this be a lesson to you,” Neville said triumphantly. “You may try to rise above your station, but commoners like you will always end up where they belong…in the dirt.” He paused. “Well? Do you have anything to say for yourself?”
“Drake, get up!” Alice yelled.
Drake picked up his head and locked eyes with her for a moment before he looked up at Neville, glaring defiantly at him.
“Yeah, I have something to say,” Drake said. “Fuck you.”
Drake knocked the flat of Neville’s blade away with his arm and quickly pushed himself up on his uninjured leg, swinging his other hand in a wild haymaker that connected with Neville’s jaw. Neville’s sword flew from his hand and Drake caught it mid-air, turning it on Neville and pressing the point to his throat. A thin red line dripped down Neville’s skin as Neville stared at him in astonishment.
“Now, do you have any last words?” Drake demanded, his voice low and even.
“I…I yield!” Neville said quickly, hands up.
Even from the other side of Olivia, Alice could hear Liam’s audible sigh of relief before he turned to the crowd.
“I declare Drake Walker the victor!” Liam announced, a grin spreading across his face as he stepped forward to clap Drake on the back as the crowd burst into applause. Alice let go of Olivia’s hand and stepped forward, pulling Drake into a fierce hug that nearly knocked him over.
“I’m so glad you’re okay, you fucking moron,” Alice said as she squeezed him tightly.
“Hey, at least now you know that as the best man, I could be Bastien’s second in a duel,” Drake joked as he hugged her back.
“You’re not funny.”
“Drake! You won!” Alice let go of Drake to see Savannah pushing through the crowd. She hurried over and wrapped her brother in a hug. “I am so proud of you!”
“This…this is an outrage!” Neville shouted. “He cheated! A gentleman never uses his fists in a fight.”
“You kicked his knee, so shut up,” Hana snapped. Alice and the others stopped, staring at her as she glared at Neville. “Why don’t you leave with what’s left of your dignity?
“Yeah,” Rashida agreed, eyes narrowed. “You talk a lot about decorum for someone who can’t even lose gracefully.”
“You—“ Neville growled, taking a step towards Rashida. But before he could finish his sentence, Hana’s fist connected with his jaw, making his head snap backwards. Then she swept his legs out from underneath him, sending him crashing to the ground.
“Oh my god, you have never been cooler!” Olivia exclaimed, delighted.
“I won’t forget this,” Neville swore as he slowly climbed to his feet, rubbing his jaw. He turned and left, shoving his way through the crowd as Liam turned to address the remaining nobles.
“The night is still young and after a victory like that, we have a great deal to celebrate,” Liam said, his hand on Drake’s shoulder. “If you’ll all follow me back into the ballroom…the gala awaits!”
Everyone started to move back towards the palace and several courtiers stopped Drake to shake his hand and congratulate him.
“We should get you some ice for your hand,” Rashida said as she took Hana’s hand in hers, gently examining it.
“I think that’s a good idea,” Hana said, wincing. “No one ever tells you how much it hurts to punch someone in the face.”
“It’s like watching a baby bird learn how to fly,” Olivia said happily as she looked at Hana. “That was impressive.”
“Well, you know, I learned a couple moves earlier today,” Hana said. “And practice makes perfect.”
“Not a bad fight, but in the good old days, duels ended with a beheading,” the mysterious woman from the ballroom said as she joined them.
Olivia turned and momentarily froze when she saw the woman, eyes narrowing. “Is that what you have to say? After all this time?”
“Of course that’s not all,” the woman said. “Come, little Livvy. We have much to discuss. Over wine…or something stronger, preferably. Where can we get a drink in this place?”
“Don’t ask me. I’m not your servant,” Olivia snapped.
“Then find me someone who is,” the woman said, her tone icy.
Olivia scowled at her, but she turned and stalked away towards the palace entrance. She exchanged a few words with a servant, who hurriedly bowed and ran inside. Alice hurried after Olivia.
“Liv, who’s that?” Alice asked. “I saw her inside earlier…”
Olivia glanced over to where the woman waited for her, but before she could answer Alice’s question, the woman called out to Olivia.
“Livvy, what are you lingering over there for? We have so much to discuss,” she called as she headed towards the palace.
Olivia sighed. “That’s my aunt.”
“The one we’ve been looking for?” Alice asked. Olivia nodded.
“Livvy!” Olivia’s aunt called, annoyed.
“I…have to go,” Olivia said as she turned and started walking back towards her aunt.
“Wait!” Alice protested as she hurried after her. “I’ll come with you.”
“What? Why?” Olivia asked.
“Because we’re friends, Jon Snow.”
Olivia considered this for a moment. “Fine.”
Together, Alice and Olivia walked towards the palace. Once inside, they found Olivia’s aunt waiting impatiently.
“Where is that servant?” Olivia’s aunt demanded. “How long can it possibly take to fetch a decent bottle of wine…” She turned and noticed Alice. “Oh! You’ve brought company.”
“Alice, I’d like you to meet my aunt, Lady Lucretia Nevrakis,” Olivia said. “Aunt Lucretia, this is Duchess Alice Ayers.”
“Ah, yes, I’ve heard all about you,” Lucretia said as she studied Alice.
“Likewise,” Alice said as a servant hurried into the entrance hall with a bottle of wine and two goblets in hand.
“Oh, Duchess Alice! I’m sorry, I thought there were only two—“ the servant started to apologize, but Alice stopped him.
“No, it’s okay, I’m fine,” Alice said kindly.
“Took you long enough to find those two,” Lucretia said derisively. “Are you waiting for permission or are you going to do your job and pour?”
“Hey, back off,” Alice said, eyes narrowing. “He literally just walked in the door.”
“I don’t need you telling me how to talk to the help,” Lucretia said as the servant hastily filled goblets for Lucretia and Olivia. He set down the bottle and looked gratefully to Alice with a nod before bowing and quickly retreating out of the room.
“Apparently you do,” Alice said, but Lucretia ignored her.
“I sent Constantine a few bottles of Lythikos Moscato back when he was crowned,” Lucretia said as she took a sip from her cup. “The man’s never had decent taste in wine…but that means there’s plenty left for us.” She glanced over at Alice. “Although I don’t trust people who don’t drink.”
“Funny, I have the opposite view,” Alice said.
“So, how about a proper toast, Livvy?” Lucretia asked as she turned back to her niece. “I propose a toast to you, my darling girl, as the next queen.” She paused, glancing at Alice. “And to the court’s unorthodox new duchess.”
Alice had to physically stop herself from telling Lucretia where she could stick her toast, biting the inside of her cheek. Lucretia took a sip of her wine, but Alice noticed Olivia did not.
“I’ve heard a lot about you, you know,” Lucretia said to Alice as she swallowed her drink. “Stories of your common birth, your meteoric rise, that business with some indiscreet nobleman—“
“Alice was attacked,” Olivia snapped. “Same as I was.”
“Yes, I know how dramatic you young ladies like to be,” Lucretia said, rolling your eyes. “You lead these men on and then want to cry and make up stories because you’re embarrassed by your own lewd behavior and—“
“Hey!” Alice snapped, taking a step forward. “How dare you? You have no idea what I’ve been through. What Liv has been through. You are nothing but a—“
“Alice,” Olivia said quietly, putting a hand on her arm. “It’s not worth it.”
“Anyway, as I was saying before I was interrupted, Alice, you’ve made quite the splash in this kingdom,” Lucretia said, smiling smugly. “It’s fascinating to finally meet you.”
“Why are you here?” Olivia asked.
“Do I need a reason to check on my favorite niece?” Lucretia asked.
“I suppose you don’t, seeing as you only visit when it suits you,” Olivia said.
“There’s no way you came this far for a social call,” Alice said. “Why are you really here?”
Lucretia sighed. “If you must know, I came here to see the new king,” she said. “Things have changed, and I wanted to see for myself how King Liam is handling things at court. And, of course, I wanted to congratulate my darling niece on her engagement.”
“You could’ve answered any of the dozens of messages I’ve left you,” Olivia said icily.
“You know, Liam is so far doing better than I expected,” Lucretia said, ignoring Olivia. “Liam’s older brother was always the bold one…I wasn’t sure Liam would take to the responsibilities of the crown.”
“Liam is more than capable,” Olivia snapped. “And who are you to judge? You hardly saw him when we were growing up.”
“I only need a few minutes to get a sense of someone’s character,” Lucretia said, her eyes flicking to Alice for a moment. “Besides, after your parents passed, Liam was practically the only thing you wrote about in your letters. If he wasn’t so important to Cordonia’s future, your obsession would’ve been irritating.”
Olivia hastily took a sip of wine, trying to quell her rage.
“It’s a shame your parents couldn’t be here to see you now,” Lucretia continued. “They had their faults, but they were family. My brother was…well, everything you could hope for in a sibling. Independent. Clever. Fierce. My sister-in-law was his one weakness. She was brash where he was calculating, but at least she had the strength to back up her words. They were a formidable couple…until, of course…”
“Oh, spare me the crocodile tears,” Olivia snapped. “If you’d cared, you could’ve at least made it to the funeral.”
“Do you really still blame me for that?” Lucretia asked angrily.
“I never said…you know what? Forget it,” Olivia said.
“No, please, berate me all you want,” Lucretia challenged. “Just remember, you weren’t the only one hurt when your parents got themselves—“ She broke off suddenly, pushing the anger back until it receded behind a calm facade before she glanced over at Alice.
“You can say what you like in front of Alice,” Olivia said. “She knows the truth.”
“Is that so?” Lucretia asked. “Then you can imagine how painful that day was for both of us.” She glared at Olivia, who met her gaze just as fiercely. “Olivia was the lucky one. You had servants to care for you. I knew you’d be looked after.”
“I was five,” Olivia retorted. “I didn’t need servants, I—“
“The Nevrakis heir shouldn’t have needed me to hold her hand and wipe away her little tears,” Lucretia said coldly. “Besides, Constantine was on a witch hunt for anyone with the slightest connection to the conspiracy. Questioning your parents’ staff day and night, taking you as a hostage to ensure he had his leverage…”
“I wasn’t a hostage!” Olivia protested angrily. “He took me in at Liam’s request.”
Lucretia shrugged. “Tell yourself whatever you’d like, but you never knew Constantine at the height of his power. There’s a reason why the man had so many enemies…and a reason why all of the plots against him failed. I stayed away because we were both safer that way.”
“You’ve never cared about anyone’s safety but your own,” Olivia said.
“You might’ve lost a brother, but Olivia lost her parents,” Alice said, trying to keep her anger in check. “She needed you.”
“She needed to learn to rely on herself,” Lucretia said back hotly. “A lesson she still seems to be struggling with.”
Alice glanced over at Olivia and noticed her knuckles were white from clenching the stem of her goblet.
“There’s strength in allies and friends,” Alice said. “Relying on that isn’t weakness, it’s common sense. People are stronger united, not divided.”
“Be that as it may, what’s done is done,” Lucretia said dismissively. “Nothing you say to me now can change that.”
“Yeah, because you’re still a cu—“ Alice started to say before Olivia quickly cut her off.
“You’re right about that, at least,” she said, glaring at her aunt.
“I didn’t come here to fight over the past, Olivia,” Lucretia said. “It’s high time we talked about your future.”
“I already know what my future will be, and it doesn’t involve you,” Olivia said.
“Oh, but it does,” Lucretia said. “We have to talk about your wedding and the inevitable continuation of the Nevrakis line like your parents would have wanted.”
“My wedding to Liam and our future children do not concern you,” Olivia said sharply. “We’ve barely spoken for years, and you think you can march in here and tell me what traitors would’ve wanted for me?”
“Olivia doesn’t need your help,” Alice said. “You’ve made it pretty clear that she can survive without you, and she’s doing just fine on her own.”
“That remains to be seen, but I’m done wasting my breath tonight,” Lucretia said before downing the last of the wine from her goblet and handing it to a passing servant. “As amusing as this has been, I have other people to visit. I’ll see you back in Lythikos, Olivia.”
“Wonderful,” Olivia said sarcastically. “I can’t wait.”
“And, Alice…I expect we’ll meet again,” Lucretia added.
“Yeah, the tour goes to Lythikos in a couple of days,” Alice said. “Pretty sure I’ll see you there.”
Lucretia gave Alice a scathing look before turning and heading into the ballroom. Olivia took a large gulp of wine and her shoulders slumped, the tension finally releasing.
“Are you okay?” Alice asked.
“I’m…I don’t know,” Olivia said. “Even though she hasn’t responded any of the times I’ve tried to reach out since the attack at the Homecoming Ball, I suppose I’m not entirely surprised to see her here when I’m due to marry Liam in a couple of weeks.” She paused. “Thank you for being here with me.”
“Happy to help, Jon Snow.”
“God, I wish I had a dragon right now,” she grumbled before finishing off her wine. “Let’s get back in there,” she said, nodding towards the ballroom.
“I’m right behind you.”
Back in the ballroom, Olivia left to talk to Liam and Alice paused, pulling out her phone.
Just talked to Olivia’s aunt
Bastien texted back immediately. What did she say?
She’s mostly just being a bitch to Olivia, but she said she wanted to come to court to see how Liam was handling being king. Plus, she made some ominous comments about Olivia’s wedding and continuing the Nevrakis line. She’s heading to Lythikos
Thanks, Gray. I need to deal with this, but I’ll meet you back at our place later. Get Maxwell to walk you back when you’re ready, just in case.
Am I in danger?
I don’t think so, but even with Mara guarding you, I’d rather you have another person with you just to be safe.
Okay. I love you
Not as much as I love you.
Alice put her phone away and walked over to where Drake was sitting in a chair, surrounded by their friends. Both he and Hana were icing their hands.
“That was so cool!” Maxwell exclaimed.
“You know, apart from Neville trying to stab me, waving a sword around was actually kind of fun,” Drake admitted before glancing over at Hana. “Hey, thanks for the assist at the end there.”
Hana smiled and shrugged. “I think it’s safe to say we passed our self defense course. Besides, you did the tough part.”
“I bet Dad would’ve been proud of you,” Savannah said, smiling proudly at her brother.
Alice noticed Bertrand across the room, staring wistfully at Savannah. Alice started to wave him over, but instead he turned and stepped out into the hallway, so Alice hurried after him.
“Bertrand, wait!” she called once she reached the hallway, but he didn’t slow down. “God dammit, do not make me run in heels!”
Bertrand stopped and turned. “Can you please not shout obscenities?”
“I haven’t seen you all night, I’ll shout whatever I damn well please,” Alice said as she caught up to him. “Where have you been? I didn’t even see you outside when Drake and Neville were dueling.”
“A duel?” Bertrand asked incredulously. “I arrive a few minutes late and Drake nearly gets himself killed?”
“A few minutes? You’re like an hour late,” Alice said. “Plus, not to rub salt in the wound, but if you missed the duel, that means you also missed watching Hana punch Neville in the face.”
“Hana did what?” Bertrand shook his head. “No matter, I was just leaving. I had some papers to drop off with Maxwell, but now I can return to our family estate.”
“You’re going back to Ramsford?” Alice asked. “Why are you being so weird right now?”
“I’m not being weird, I just don’t see the point in staying,” Bertrand said. “And I’m hardly appropriately dressed.”
“Rashida’s not in costume either, and Bastien’s just wearing a suit. It’s fine,” she said as she dusted off the lapels of Bertrand’s jacket. “Don’t you want to see Savannah and Bartie?”
“I saw Bartie earlier with the babysitter,” Bertrand said. “As for Savannah…” He sighed. “I don’t know, everything just seems like one mess after another. I suggested we go to counseling and it’s just been one fight after another since then. She’s not trying to keep Bartie from me anymore, so at least there’s that.”
“So she’s doing the bare minimum at being a decent person,” Alice said.
“In spite of everything, I still really want to be with her,” Bertrand said. “I know you probably think it’s stupid, but—“
“I don’t think it’s stupid,” Alice said. Bertrand smiled weakly at her.
“When we’re not fighting, she’s so sweet and funny and…I don’t know, I just like being with her. But then other times she’s selfish and immature and…” He trailed off, anger boiling inside him. “Part of me just can’t get over the fact that she ran off to Paris and hid my goddamn child from me!”
“Apparently I’m not the only one shouting obscenities in the hallway,” Alice said.
“It’s your fault. You’re a terrible influence.”
Alice shrugged. “Bertrand, have you told her this?”
He sighed and ran his hand through his hair. “Yes. She finally apologized for keeping Bartie a secret, but part of me is still so angry with her. I don’t know how to get past it, so we fight. My anger seems to be the source of most of our problems now, and I…well, I’m starting to think it might be best if I leave her in peace.”
“Okay, you know I’m not…well, you know how I feel about her, but I love you and I don’t respect boundaries, so let’s talk about it,” Alice said as she led him to a nearby bench so they could sit down. “What was your last fight about specifically?”
Bertrand sighed and sat beside her. “The conversation started out nicely enough, we were reminiscing about the past. She was talking about how she had always had a crush on me, and I told her how I’d always admired her…and then we started talking about the last night we spoke before she disappeared.”
“She started getting upset with me about how brusque I’d been with her, then I started getting angry about how she left court with my unborn child without telling me…we seem to have different memories of the same event. I thought she was expecting to be with a duke who could give her a life of luxury—which is what she deserves—but instead, I was looking at a duchy on the brink of financial ruin. I couldn’t tell her that because I knew she would say she didn’t care, but I knew she deserved more.”
“Isn’t that up for her to decide?” Alice asked. “Look, Bertrand…after I came here and found Bastien again, there was one night when he asked me if I was sure if being with him was what I wanted when I had the opportunity to be with Liam and potentially be queen.”
“Really?” Bertrand asked, surprised.
“Yes,” Alice said. “And I told him that I didn’t care about anything other than being with him. Honestly, I would live in my tiny New York apartment and keep waiting tables for the most entitled, horrible customers if it meant I got to be with Bastien. When you’re with the right person, nothing else matters.”
“And…” Bertrand hesitated. “I don’t mean to get too personal—“
“We’re way past that.”
“—but did Bastien believe you when you told him that?”
“Okay, I know you don’t mean that to be offensive because you’re projecting your own issues onto me right now, so we’re going to skip over the part where I get annoyed with you, but yes, he believed me,” Alice said. “But, he believes me because I show him every day how much I love him.”
“I think that’s what bothers me,” Bertrand said. “Savannah says she’s sorry and wants to be with me, but I feel like she doesn’t make much of an effort to show me. I feel like I’m having to keep apologizing to her and make it up to her, and maybe that’s right. Maybe I should be—”
“But I was so harsh with her, and my family’s finances still aren’t—“
“Oh my god, fuck the money!” Alice exclaimed. “You might be a little hard to get to know at first, but you are incredibly kind and loyal and protective and we are all so fucking lucky to have you in our lives and if Savannah’s head is too far up her own ass to see how great you are, then she doesn’t deserve you.”
“I appreciate you saying that, but you don’t know all the details about what happened that night before she left,” Bertrand said.
“Then tell me.”
“Well, I was so worried about talking to her and before she had a chance to tell me she was pregnant, I told her that I knew what she was going to say.”
“You…told her that you already knew she was pregnant?” Alice asked.
“I thought she was going to say she wanted to be with me, and I wanted to stop her before she said that because I thought she deserved more,” Bertrand said. “But she thought I knew she was pregnant.”
“How would you possibly have known she was pregnant?”
“I don’t know, because apparently she hadn’t told anyone, but somehow thought I psychically knew.”
“Oh my god,” Alice muttered, pinching the bridge of her nose.
“So, because I thought I was saving her from being with someone who wasn’t good enough for her, I told her that our night together had been a mistake even though it was the single greatest night of my life—“
“Ack, too much.”
“—and it broke my heart to push her away,” Bertrand said. “But I wanted to make sure she would get over me and move on, so I said…” He hesitated.
“I…told her that I must marry a noblewoman and carry on the honor of our house name,” he admitted.
“Oh my god, you asshole!”
“I’m sorry,” Alice said. “Look, I love you, but Jesus Christ, that was mean! But, that being said, it still doesn’t excuse her running off to one of the most expensive cities in the world and keeping your child a secret while getting Maxwell to steal money from—“
“Sorry. Earlier, you said you brought up the idea of counseling—what did she say when you said that?”
“She said she’d rather we try to work things out on our own first,” Bertrand said.
“But that’s clearly not working,” Alice said. “Look, there’s no shame in getting an objective third party to mediate and help you say what you need to say.”
“Talking to you feels helpful,” Bertrand said.
“I’m glad, but I’m sure as shit not objective because I will always be on your side,” Alice pointed out. “If you want to be with her and she wants to be with you, then you need to be able to talk through these things. Even if you end up deciding you don’t want to be together, you need to be able to communicate for Bartie’s sake.”
“I know you’re right,” Bertrand said with a sigh as he looked down at his hands.
“And…I think you need to take some time to decide if you can forgive her for what she did,” Alice said. “If you really want to move forward with her, you need to be able to let go of that anger. But if you feel you can’t move past it—which you would be totally justified in feeling—then maybe she isn’t the person for you.”
“I want to let it go,” Bertrand said sadly. “I really do.”
“I know,” Alice said as she reached over and squeezed his hand. “Hey, I’m here for you no matter what.”
“I know. Thank you,” he said, smiling at her. “You know, I think Maxwell bringing you to Cordonia to join House Beaumont might be one of the best things to ever happen to me.”
Alice looked away, trying to blink back tears.
“I’m sorry, did I say the wrong thing? I didn’t mean to upset you,” Bertrand said quickly, but Alice shook her head.
“I’m not sad, I swear these are happy tears,” Alice sniffled, carefully trying to wipe her tears away without smudging her makeup. “I don’t even know why I’m crying, but I can’t stop.”
Bertrand smiled and put an arm around her to hug her. “Let’s change the subject then. I feel like kind of a cad, I haven’t asked you how you’re doing tonight.”
“I’m fine,” Alice said, waving off his question. “Hey, you said you’re heading back to Ramsford—are you still coming to Valtoria?”
“Of course, I wouldn’t miss it,” Bertrand said. “Why?”
“Well…I have a favor to ask of you.”
When Alice and Bertrand re-entered the ballroom, he took a deep, steadying breath when he saw Savannah.
“Wish me luck,” he said.
Alice watched as Bertrand made his way over to Savannah. She looked pleasantly surprised to see him, which Alice took as a good sign. She watched as they talked for a while and then suddenly, Savannah stepped forward and hugged him close. Bertrand looked caught off guard at first, but then he put his arms around her, closing his eyes as he buried his face in her hair.
“I hope they can work things out,” Maxwell said from behind Alice.
“Aah!” Alice yelped, spinning around and smacking him lightly on the arm. “Don’t sneak up on me like that!”
“Sorry,” Maxwell said, smiling sheepishly. He looked back over to Bertrand and Savannah, who were walking arm and arm towards one of the exits. “I know things have been tough for them, but I do really want them to be happy.”
“You know, our mom used to say Bertrand had an ‘overdeveloped sense of personal responsibility,’” Maxwell said.
“That’s very accurate.”
“He knew he was going to be the heir to the house since we were kids, but our dad’s health took a turn and he had to hand over the reins sooner than anyone expected,” he continued. “Anyway, even in Bertrand’s happier days, he took that responsibility seriously. And I mean seriously. He’d never admit it, but whenever he did the smallest thing wrong in public, he agonized for days about how it’d affect our house.”
“Suddenly all the criticism I got from him during the social season makes a lot more sense.”
“He’s really proud of you though,” Maxwell said. “You know that, right?”
“I do,” Alice said. “And I hope you know how much he loves having you as a brother.”
Maxwell snorted. “I kind of doubt that.”
“No, really,” Alice said. “I think part of him is jealous that you get to be the fun party guy you are, but he has all these responsibilities and feels he has to be extra serious all the time. But I’m sure he appreciates you taking on more to help him with your house stuff, and at the end of the day, Bertrand loves his family more than anything else in the world.”
“Even more than sweater vests?”
“It’s a close call, but yes. Even more than sweater vests.”
Maxwell smiled briefly, but it fell as quickly as it arrived. “He’s still pretty mad at me for hiding the truth about Savannah and Bartie.”
“Well, it was a pretty fucked up thing to do, even with good intentions,” Alice said. “But he doesn’t want to be angry forever. He just…Bertrand is a guy who doesn’t like to deal with his feelings, and he has to sort through a lot of feelings right now. But, at the end of the day, he still loves you.”
“Thanks, Alice,” Maxwell said as Bastien walked over to them.
“Hey, Dorian,” Alice said, a smile breaking across her face.
“Hey, guys,” Bastien said. His face was still composed, but Alice could see the exhaustion around the edges of his expression. “Maxwell, do you mind if I borrow Alice for a minute?”
“Say no more,” Maxwell said, smiling at both of them before he headed for the dance floor.
“Is everything okay?” Alice asked as Bastien slid an arm around her waist.
“It’s been a long night,” Bastien said. “I’m just glad to see you.”
“Are you still working or can you get out of here?”
Before he could reply, they were suddenly joined by Leo, who slapped Bastien on the shoulder, making him wince.
“Oh no, did I get the wrong one? I’m sorry!” Leo apologized. “I thought you were shot in the other shoulder!”
“It’s okay,” Bastien said, grimacing slightly. “I’m glad to see you here, I wasn’t entirely sure you’d make it.”
“You and me both,” Leo said. “Hey, Alice,” he said, leaning in to kiss her cheek. “Apparently I missed a duel?”
“You did, but Maxwell got the whole thing on video, so you’re in luck,” Alice said.
“Well, how about that?” Liam said as he strolled over to join them. “My brother finally managed to show up.”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m here now though,” Leo said, grinning as he gave his brother a hug. “You know me, sneaking into parties is my style. It’s easier to avoid the spotlight that way.”
“That’s a lot of words for ‘I’m late,’” Alice said.
Leo laughed. “You’re not wrong,” he said. “Hey, Liam, I heard Father was here, but I can’t find him.”
“He’s around here somewhere,” Liam said noncommittally.
“Hmm. I have to find him before he retires for the evening so I can get credit for showing up,” Leo said. “Hey, I just realized, as the new king, you’re going to be the one making the closing remarks tonight. How are you feeling about that?”
“Good,” Liam said with a shrug. “I’ve been having to make a lot of public statements, so it’s not really a big deal.”
“Oh, it’s not, is it?” Leo asked, a mischievous grin slowly spreading across his face. “With confidence like that, I feel like I need to knock you down a peg the only way an older brother can…with embarrassing childhood stories.”
“Yes! That!” Alice said excitedly as Liam groaned.
“Whose side are you on?” Liam asked her with faux indignation.
“The side where I get to hear embarrassing stories,” Alice said.
“Well,” Leo said. “When Liam was little, I once convinced him that Bastien was a vampire.”
Alice laughed as Bastien rolled his eyes and held her a little tighter.
“Leo!” Liam hissed, a deep blush coloring his cheeks.
“Liam wore garlic around his neck for a year and slept with a stake under his pillow,” Leo added. “I even convinced him that Bastien could turn into a bat.”
“Ah, yes,” Liam said, smiling despite his embarrassment. “Bat-sien.”
“I think I just got an idea for Halloween…” Alice said as she grinned at Bastien. “Although, Leo, that’s a little weak. I would’ve gone further and convinced him Bastien wasn’t real. Like Bastien’s an evil ghost that only he could see, and only a sacrificial offering of candy would keep the ghost at bay…”
“Creepy and creative,” Leo said, looking pleased. “I like the way you think.”
“I’m not sure I like the premise of me not being real,” Bastien said as he kissed Alice’s temple.
“You have to be an older sibling,” Leo said to Alice.
“Nope, only child, unless you count the Beaumonts,” Alice said. “I’m just a really big asshole who used to get into prank wars with some of my co-workers.”
“I knew I liked you,” Leo said. “Hey, have you been to your duchy yet? I haven’t been there in ages, but from what I remember, Valtoria is really cool.”
“Not yet,” Alice said, spotting her opening. “But almost. In a couple days, we’re going to Lythikos for a few and then moving on to Valtoria. I’d love it if you could join us there.”
“I’d be honored,” Leo said. “I’ll even provide the entertainment and come up with a few more embarrassing stories to tell while I’m there.”
“Hey, look at the time, it’s getting really late,” Liam said quickly. “I think I need to—“
Suddenly, a huge explosion rocked the ballroom. Bastien immediately yanked Liam’s arm to get him onto the ground and he threw himself on top of Alice as Leo dropped beside them.
“What was that?” Leo asked.
“Another attack,” Liam said, his face setting into a hard, angry mask.
“Are you okay?” Bastien asked.
“Yeah, I’m fine.”
“Alice?” Bastien asked.
“I’m okay,” she assured him.
Liam quickly climbed to his feet. “Everybody out!” he ordered.
Another explosion shattered the wall on the opposite end of the ballroom and the ceiling began to collapse.
“Alice, get out of here now,” Bastien ordered.
“You are not staying behind again!” Alice argued.
“Get out, all three of you!” Liam commanded. “I have to find Olivia.”
Another explosion rocked the room as people ran frantically towards the exits.
“Oh my god, Father!” Leo exclaimed. Bastien, Alice, and Liam all turned to follow his gaze…just as the ceiling collapsed on top of Constantine. Leo ran across the room, Liam right on his heels. Before Alice realized what she was doing, she climbed to her feet and followed them.
“Alice! We don’t know how many more bombs might be here, you have to get out now!” Bastien called as he hurried after her. But even though she knew he was right, she couldn’t stop. She kept putting one foot in front of the other until she reached the rubble pile. Leo and Liam pulled aside pieces of debris until they finally stopped. Alice followed their gaze and saw Constantine, his head caved in from the weight of the ceiling, bits of brain matter and skull fragments on the rubble. She felt the bile rise in her throat, but she swallowed it down.
“Oh my god…” Leo said, his voice quiet.
“It’s time to go,” Bastien said. “Now.”
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