Summary: It’s time for the Winter Festival in Lythikos! MC (Alice) is willing to use herself to lure out their attackers, but if she’s not careful, someone might just take the bait…
Notes: I used some of the original PB dialogue and bedazzled it a bit.
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, Part 48, Part 49
The following morning, Alice was awoken by a knocking on the door. She sat up, eyes bleary, and checked the time. 5AM. She’d only been asleep for about two hours and exhaustion ached in her body. Bastien stood up from the desk where he’d been sitting and walked over to answer the door, still wearing his suit from the night before.
“I’m sorry to stop by so early,” Liam said as soon as Bastien opened the door. “I hope you weren’t sleeping…”
“No, I’m up,” Alice called over. Bastien glanced back at her and she nodded, so he opened the door all the way to let Liam and Drake in. “Do you have any updates about Rashida?”
“I just spoke with Hana,” Liam said. “Thankfully, the doctors believe Rashida will make a full recovery.”
Alice exhaled heavily. “That’s a relief.”
“I’m glad to hear it, but I have to say I’m concerned about what this means for the rest of us,” Bastien said. “I suspect this is the work of the same people who were behind the explosion.” He turned to Alice. “If you hadn’t turned down that drink, it would’ve been you.”
“Trust me, I know,” Alice said. “I keep going over everything in my head.”
“On the plus side, I think this gives us an advantage,” Liam said. “We know our enemies are here in Lythikos.”
“You don’t think they could be pulling the strings from elsewhere while their minions do the dirty work in Lythikos?” Drake asked, but Liam shook his head.
“Poison is a more personal way of committing a murder,” Bastien said. “If they’d wanted to just kill Alice, they would’ve just planted a bomb in our room.”
If they’d wanted to kill Alice. She couldn’t stop thinking about the night before, the endless parade of security and bomb sniffing dogs that searched both their old room and their new room. Alice shook the thoughts away as she returned to the conversation where Bastien was still speaking.
“…and instead of waiting for them to strike again, we have a chance to make the next move,” he said.
“Maybe we can use today’s Winter Festival to lure them out,” Liam suggested. “They’re clearly after me; I can be bait.”
“Me, too,” Alice said. “Whoever this is has a grudge against me as well.”
“What? No, absolutely not,” Bastien said. “Alice, I’m sorry, I don’t want to be that kind of man that tells you want to do, but you have been in the direct line of fire too many times. I don’t want to willingly put you in harm’s way.”
“I agree,” Liam said. “I can’t ask you to do that, Alice.”
“Liam, you’re not asking, I’m volunteering for the sake of Cordonia,” Alice said.
“There has to be a better way to find these people,” Drake said. “But…they do always seem to be one step ahead.”
“Exactly,” Alice said. “This time, we can set a trap for them and stop them from hurting us or anyone else ever again.”
“At what cost?” Bastien demanded, a crack in his composed facade showing on his face. “Your life?”
Liam glanced at Bastien before exchanging a serious look with Drake.
“Bastien…I hate to say it, but the idea does have some tactical merit. If we make this an event our enemies can’t afford to miss, we’ll have the advantage,” Liam said. “We can have undercover guards patrolling the festival as well as added security with eyes on Alice.”
“And on you and Olivia,” Drake added.
“That, too,” Liam said.
Bastien balled his hands into fists, but said nothing.
“Dorian,” Alice said softly. “Cordonia is my home now. I want to do this. I need to do this. And I’d feel better about doing it if I had your support. I know it’s risky, but it’s a risk I think we have to take.”
Bastien exhaled slowly through his nose, clearly furious though he kept his voice deadly calm. “Fine. But I’m not happy about this plan.” He turned to Liam. “If anyone so much as breathes on her, we take them in for questioning. And I stay with her the entire time.”
“You and I are in full agreement,” Liam promised as another knock sounded on the door. Drake reached over to open it to reveal Frankie on the other side.
“Hey,” she said. “I was a little worried I was going to wake you up, but…you seem to be having kind of a party in here,” Frankie said. “Room for one more?”
“Of course, come in,” Bastien said. Drake ushered her inside and closed the door behind her.
“Any word on Rashida?” Frankie asked. “I didn’t want to bug Hana at the hospital since she’s got enough to deal with, but I figured one of you might know.”
“I heard from her,” Liam said. “Rashida should make a full recovery.”
“That’s good to hear,” Frankie said as she sat in the desk chair offered by Bastien. “So…why does everyone look like they’re still really unhappy?”
“Because Alice wants to use herself as bait for assassins during the Winter Festival,” Bastien said, displeasure dripping from each word. Frankie turned to Alice, her eyes wide and mouth agape.
“I’m sorry, you fucking WHAT?” Frankie demanded. “Rashida drank poison that was clearly intended for you, so you decide to make yourself a bigger target? Alice Ayers, I swear to god, there is something absolutely fucking wrong with you.” Frankie turned sharply on the three men. “You three are all just okay with this?”
“No,” Bastien said at the same time Liam said, “Yes.”
“Frankie, come on,” Alice said.
“No, you come on.”
“Liam even said the plan has tactical merit,” Alice said. “Liam is a target and, for whatever reason, I am, too. It makes sense.”
“That doesn’t mean I have to be okay with it or like it,” Frankie snapped. “Jesus Christ, Alice, you’ve been shot at and survived a bombing at the palace. You don’t have to actively make yourself a martyr here.”
“Frankie, I appreciate what you’re saying—Dorian, don’t think I don’t see you nodding—but I’m doing this.”
“Fine, but I hate it.”
“You’re entitled to do so,” Alice said. An uncomfortable silence settled over the room. “So…anyone have any tips to lure out a group of mysterious assassins?”
“Too soon, Alice,” Frankie said.
“It was a serious question!”
“Essentially, you need to act normally,” Bastien said wearily. “And trust no one outside of your immediate circle. No matter what you think of the other nobles, or how friendly today’s guests may seem…anyone could be in on the plot. Take part in the festivities, make sure you’re seen, and hopefully the people we’re after will come to us.”
“In other words, ‘act cool in the face of imminent danger’?” Alice asked.
“Yes,” Bastien said.
“Which means you need to dress the part,” Liam said. Frankie turned in her chair to look at him.
“Seriously, Liam? You’re worried about fashion right now?” Frankie asked.
“Actually…he’s right,” Drake said. “Part of acting normally means looking the way she would if she wasn’t being targeted by assassins.”
“Et tu, Drake?” Frankie asked. He shrugged.
“Think of it like camouflage,” Drake said.
“I hate everything about this, but I get it,” Frankie said as she stood up. “Okay, I’m going back to my room to check on Seth—Alice, text me when you’re going to the boutique, I’ll go with you.”
Alice promised she would and Liam and Drake left on her heels, leaving Alice and Bastien alone in their room.
“Come here,” Alice said as she motioned for Bastien to sit beside her on the bed. He locked the door to their room and sat. She took his hand. “Bas, I know you’re not happy about this, but you have to admit this makes the most sense.”
He traced over the faded ink ring on her finger before he squeezed her hand and looked up at her. Alice was shocked to see the tears in his eyes. “Alice, I couldn’t live with myself if you got hurt and I could’ve done something to stop it.”
“Think of it this way,” she said. “Because of the plan, I’m going to have an absurd amount of security watching me at all times, not the least of which is you. Doesn’t that, in theory, make me safer than I would have been?”
“Not safer than if you left the situation to stay in Valtoria or New York,” Bastien said.
“You don’t know that I wouldn’t be followed,” Alice countered. “Here, I’m at the epicenter of security.”
“And the epicenter of the danger,” Bastien said. “But…I guess you have a point.” He let go of her hand and reached over to gently remove her shoes before standing to return them to the closet. “You don’t need to head to the boutique for a few hours, so you should get some rest; you barely slept last night.”
“Did you sleep at all?” Alice asked as she lay down on the bed, patting the blanket beside her. Bastien lay down next to her and wrapped his arms around her, pulling her close.
“I’m fine,” he assured her as he kissed her forehead and settled in beside her. “Close your eyes. I’ve got you.”
Before long, Alice’s breathing grew slow and even, but Bastien took longer, unwillingly drifting into a restless doze.
Later that morning, Bastien and Mara walked with Alice to the boutique. Alice had texted Frankie, who had promised to meet them there. Mara opened the door first and, after a quick scan of the room, allowed Alice and Bastien to enter where they found Justin and their friends waiting for them, save for Olivia, and all of them were already bundled into fashionable winter gear.
“Hey, Alice!” Justin said brightly. “Now that gang’s all here!”
“Wait, what the fuck?” Alice asked. Maxwell waved at her from behind Justin, silently pleading with her to be nice.
“Well, with Hana at the hospital with Rashida while she recovers, I didn’t want you going to the festival unprepared,” Justin said. “It’s a big deal here in Lythikos. Plus, as one of Olivia’s guests of honor, you’ll be front and center for all the excitement. Rubbing shoulders with the locals, kicking off the festivities…”
“No, I get all that, but…” Alice trailed off, torn between wanting to ask Justin what he was doing there and Maxwell’s silent pleas.
“I volunteered to step in as your press secretary!” Justin announced. “For old time’s sake. I thought it’d be fun!”
“Not only fun, but very generous as well,” Maxwell interjected cheerily. “Look, Alice, I found something I want to show you,” he said as he quickly walked over and grabbed her by the elbow.
“As a future duke, you’re not getting out of wearing a new outfit,” Alice heard Liam say to Bastien and although she couldn’t see the king’s face, she could hear the grin in his voice.
“If it makes you feel any better, we’re not nobles and Liam made us dress up, too,” Seth said.
“Seriously? Justin?” Alice asked in a whisper as soon as she and Maxwell were out of earshot.
“I know! But Bertrand is still worried he might sue us for getting shot at the Homecoming Ball, so it’s important we play nice,” Maxwell said.
“I’d rather eat bees.”
“I know you don’t like him, but it won’t kill you to be nice to him for a few hours,” Maxwell begged. “I’ll make it up to you, I swear.”
Alice sighed. “You don’t need to do that, I owe you and Bertrand so much already. The least I can do is not stab him.”
At that moment, the boutique door opened and Mara tensed, ready to spring into action, but it was only Olivia.
“Hey, what if—“
“Please don’t get Olivia to stab him for you,” Maxwell interrupted.
“Oh!” Justin exclaimed, surprised. Olivia ignored him and headed for Liam, who smiled and kissed her cheek.
“Ready for today?” Liam asked.
“Almost,” Olivia said. “I just need to get dressed.”
It wasn’t until that moment that Alice realized Olivia was still wearing her gown from the night before. Alice frowned. That was unlike her. Olivia scanned the room until she saw Alice and Maxwell standing on the other side. She started to make her way over to them but was stopped by Justin.
“Duchess Olivia, it’s nice to see you again,” Justin said.
“Whatever,” Olivia said as she shouldered around him. She headed for the racks where there was a garment bag waiting for her with her name on it.
“Hey, Liv…are you okay?” Alice asked quietly. Maxwell took his cue and quietly stepped away to talk to Drake.
“I’m fine,” Olivia said automatically.
Olivia hesitated, her hand on the hanger. “No, but I can’t show that now. Remember what I told you—a duchess has to be strong for her people. I can’t show any weakness, not now.”
“Right, of course,” Alice said. “But if you want to talk later…”
“I know,” Olivia said quietly. “Thanks.”
She took the bag from the rack and headed into a dressing room. A few minutes later, she emerged, her cool expression and trademark smirk firmly back in place. She wore a traditional peasant dress not far from the one Bertrand had made Alice wear at Applewood, but this one’s neckline was cut far lower and the bodice was cinched in tight and adorned with intricate red embroidery.
“The tailors finally got the Nevrakis red right this year,” Olivia announced.
“Your dress is so cute!” Alice exclaimed, surprised.
“I believe what you meant is ‘a remarkable specimen of traditional Lythikos peasant garb,’” Olivia corrected her.
“Yeah, like I said,” Alice said. “Cute.”
“Jon Snow, I have nearly a dozen knives concealed on my person. I will use one on you,” Olivia snapped. Alice eyed Olivia’s bare arms and legs before looking back to her face.
“I’m afraid to ask where.”
Olivia looked Alice up and down. “I hope you’re not dressed yet because as one of my honored guests, you’re expected to look like you belong here.”
“Dressing for this particular occasion is sure to get you points with the crowd,” Justin added.
“No one asked you,” Olivia said to him, her eyes still trained on Alice. “You managed to not embarrass me with your outfit last night, but just in case, I picked one out for you,” Olivia said as she retrieved another garment bag and pushed it into Alice’s arms before shoving her into a dressing room.
“Christ, you’re bossy,” Alice called as Olivia snapped the curtain closed behind Alice.
“I’m not bossy, I’m a boss,” Olivia called back. “Now hurry up.”
“Aren’t I supposed to have security to keep me from being bullied like this?” Alice joked.
“Sorry, Alice, there’s no stopping Liv,” Liam called back with a laugh.
Alice unzipped the garment bag to reveal a gorgeous blue and pink peasant dresses with illusion sleeves adorned with the most delicate lace Alice had ever seen in her life. It was probably nicer than Alice’s wedding dress was going to be. Oh, shit! Wedding dress! With everything else going on, she realized she hadn’t picked anything out.
“Jon Snow! Hurry up!”
Alice pulled back the curtain to reveal herself. “So? Verdict?”
“God, I’m good,” Olivia said with a satisfied smile as she studied Alice’s outfit. Alice looked over to Bastien, who was now warmly outfitted in a blue peacoat that matched her dress perfectly, a pink scarf tied around his throat.
“You look incredible, Gray,” he said softly, smiling at her. Off to the side, Frankie loudly pretended to vomit at the tender moment.
“Alright, shall we?” Olivia asked as she looped her arm through Liam’s and they exited the boutique, the rest of the group taking their cue. Bastien walked over to Alice and put an arm around her waist.
“To freeze in traditional peasant garb? Totally,” Alice said.
Bastien smiled at her and handed her a coat to match his own. “Trust me, no one expects you to share Olivia’s affinity for icy weather.”
Alice slipped into the deliciously soft and warm coat. “You always take such good care of me,” she said as she leaned in and kissed him softly.
“This looks incredible,” Alice said as she and Bastien arrived at the festival grounds. “But I have to say, I never knew royalty loved festivals and carnivals quite this much.”
“Any excuse for a party,” Bastien said as he noticed Drake waving them over to join where their friends were huddled together.
“Brrr!” Kiara exclaimed as Alice and Bastien joined the group. “You’d think a duchy with this much snow would invest in outdoor heating.”
“Where’d that guy with the hot cider go?” Penelope asked as she glanced around the crowded festival.
“Alice, may I speak with you for a moment?” Liam asked. She nodded and she and Bastien followed Liam to a nearby display of intricate ice sculptures. “How are you holding up?” he asked once the three of them were out of earshot of the others.
“So far, so good,” Alice said. “But we just got here. Not a whole lot has changed between the boutique and the festival grounds.”
“I know, I just…I know our plans make sense, but I’m a little more concerned now that we’re actually out here among everyone,” Liam said.
“You and me both,” Bastien said as he casually surveyed the crowd around them.
“I just wanted to reiterate that I will do my utmost to protect you while we’re here, and I know Bastien and Mara and the rest of your security team will do the same,” Liam said. Alice smiled at him.
“You’re sweet to worry, thank you,” Alice said. “I feel perfectly safe,” she added, although she couldn’t ignore the nagging thoughts at the back of her mind. What if she wasn’t as safe as everyone hoped? She thought she’d been safe before, but everyone around her seemed to be cursed by being around her. For god’s sake, Rashida was in the hospital after being poisoned by a drink meant for her. She glanced over at Bastien and saw him watching her carefully, so she straightened her shoulders and pushed her worried thoughts away. Still, she couldn’t fight the “what if” that lingered, faint as a whisper.
“All right, it’s time,” Olivia announced as she joined their trio. “The reigning duchess of Lythikos and any esteemed guests are expected to greet a few citizens at the start of the festivities. Of course, in the old days, the fiercest warriors in Lythikos would compete for such an honorable greeting,” Olivia said, a familiar fire returning to her eyes as she reminisced about the violent glory of the past. Then she sighed. “But now…”
“Hi!” a young boy of about ten said as he and a girl joined their group.
“Wow!” the girl exclaimed as she stared at Olivia and Alice’s dresses. “Your dress is just like the one in our history books! I wish I’d worn mind.”
“I hear you two are Lythikos’s fiercest warriors,” Alice said with a smile.
“Our school sent us,” the boy explained. “I won my spot with an interactive exhibit on glacial erosion.”
“I won mine with a tactical analysis of the greatest battles in Nevrakis history,” the girl said proudly.
“A girl after my own heart,” Olivia said. “Now, don’t forget, you two—you need to pay your respects to King Liam of Cordonia,” she reminded them gently.
“The king?” the boy asked, shocked as he realized Liam was standing beside Olivia. “Valerie, you said I didn’t have to wear a suit!” he hissed.
“Just bow, Marco!” Valerie whispered loudly. “Quick!”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you both,” Liam said as he knelt down to be closer to their eye level. “Thank you both so much for being here.”
“And this is Bastien Lykel and Duchess Alice Ayers of Valtoria,” Olivia said, gesturing to Alice and Bastien.
“It’s an honor to meet such brave warriors,” Bastien said with a smile.
“I’ve heard all about you!” Valerie exclaimed as she turned to Alice. “You’re like one of the lady knights in my favorite stories.”
“I’m so flattered, thank you,” Alice said. She still wasn’t entirely used to strangers knowing who she was along with so many details about her life, but she was touched by Valerie’s compliment.
“So, now that we’ve all been introduced, I believe we have a fire race to begin,” Olivia said. The kids rushed off to find seats as Olivia led them through a cleared patch of snow in front of the crowd. Bastien squeezed Alice’s hand before he let go, taking his place at the edge of the clearing.
“Here, take this,” Olivia said as she handed Alice a rudimentary hand drill and pointed her towards a small pile of logs and kindling.
“This is not what I pictured when you said ‘race,’” Alice said. “I feel like I’m about to compete on Survivor.”
“In Lythikos, we don’t waste precious calories on trivial sports like jogging, Jon Snow,” Olivia said disdainfully. “The race to start a fire is often a race between life and death. The first proper flame of the festival symbolizes Lythikos’s will to survive another year.”
“So…no pressure,” Alice said.
“Oh, no, definitely all the pressure,” Olivia said with a wicked grin.
“So…what do I do, exactly?” Alice asked.
“The overly simplified explanation? You’re going to rub sticks together to make fire,” Olivia said as she captured the attention of the crowd.
“Everyone ready?” Liam asked.
“Would it matter if I said no?” Alice asked.
“Nope,” Olivia said. “Begin!”
Alice glanced over at Liam and Olivia to see how they positioned their hand drills and imitated them. After a few minutes of spinning the hand drills, smoke began to rise from Alice and Liam’s logs, but Olivia’s already held a small petal of flame. Alice focused back on her log and began to spin the hand drill faster. Her hands began to hurt, but before long a crackling flame burst from the kindling.
“Holy sh…..” Alice exclaimed, just barely catching her language in time as the crowd burst into applause. She glanced over at Bastien who was trying not to laugh as he clapped for her.
“It looks like we have a victor!” Liam announced with a grin. The crowd whooped and cheered as Alice, Liam, and Olivia all stepped back from their logs. As soon as the enthusiasm began to wane, Olivia turned to address the spectators.
“Now that the fire has been lit, go eat, drink, and be merry…but most of all, be proud,” Olivia said. “This is Lythikos, and no winter can conquer us!”
The noise of the crowd once again ballooned into raucous applause and with the noise cover of the cheers, Alice leaned over to Liam.
“Now what?” she asked.
“Now we make our rounds until someone makes a move,” Liam said. “And we keep our eyes open.”
“Not bad, Jon Snow,” Olivia said as she joined their conversation. “I appreciate that you didn’t embarrass me at my own duchy.”
“Didn’t I though?” Alice asked innocently. “After all, I believe I just kicked your ass…”
“Or I let you win,” Olivia said, although she was grinning. “So, shall we circulate?”
“Yes, please,” Liam said as he held out his arm for his fiancee. Olivia slipped her arm through his and the two of them left as Bastien joined Alice, wrapping an arm around her.
“Gray, I had no idea you could make fire,” Bastien said.
“Neither did I,” she said. “But apparently I’m a woman of many talents.”
Bastien laughed as he held her a little tighter. “That, I knew.”
They meandered through the festival for a while before they came across Maxwell standing at an ice sculpture booth and carefully examining his masterpiece.
“Hey, guys!” Maxwell said with a grin when he looked up and saw them approaching.
“Hey,” Alice said as she reached over and gave his arm a squeeze. “Looks like you guys have been busy.”
“Penelope, that’s pretty impressive,” Bastien said as he turned his attention to Penelope’s sculpture. Alice followed his gaze and was surprised to see a swan instead of a poodle.
“Either they’ve started making poodles with feathers, or you’re getting out of your comfort zone,” Alice teased her good-naturedly.
“Thanks!” Penelope said happily. “I wanted to try something new. You know, be bold.”
“Mission accomplished,” Alice said.
“What about mine?” Maxwell asked.
“Is that…Bertrand?” Alice asked slowly.
“Yup! He’s holding our house flag! You know, to represent House Beaumont,” Maxwell said proudly.
“No, I got that, but…” Alice trailed off.
“Why isn’t he wearing a shirt?” Bastien finished for her.
“Because it’s a statue,” Maxwell said exasperatedly as if Bastien and Alice should both know better. “Statues are always topless. Haven’t you ever been to a museum?”
“You’re right, we stand corrected,” Alice said. She looked past Maxwell and noticed Mara nearby. Mara caught Alice’s eye and shook her head. Nothing yet.
Alice and Bastien lingered by the ice sculptures for a little longer before they made their way over to the ice rink, which was already full of happy festival attendees.
“Feel like taking a spin around the ice?” Bastien asked.
“I think I’ll pass,” Alice said. “I think I embarrassed myself on that rink enough the last time I was here.”
Bastien stood behind her and wrapped his arms around her as they watched the skaters. “You didn’t embarrass yourself,” he assured her, his warm breath tickling skin.
“Oh, please, I could barely stay on my feet without holding onto someone else for dear life,” Alice said.
“I didn’t say you were good at skating, but you certainly didn’t embarrass yourself,” he said, his lips brushing against her chilled ear. “I certainly enjoyed watching you.”
Alice laughed. “You might be a little biased.”
Bastien shrugged and hugged her tighter. “I’m sure I have no idea what you’re talking about.” They fell into a comfortable silence as they watched the skaters and his thoughts began to drift back to their first trip to Lythikos together. “It is a little strange though, how far we’ve come. The last time we were here, I didn’t think I’d ever get lucky enough to be with you. I mean really be with you,” he corrected himself. “We were still sneaking around then and you were still a suitor and…” He hesitated. She turned slightly in his arms to look at him.
“You okay back there?”
Bastien smiled and planted a soft kiss on her cheek. “Hey, I’m having a moment here!” he protested before resting his chin on her shoulder.
“I know what you mean,” Alice finally said. “The last time we were here, I had no idea how anything was going to turn out. Honestly, I didn’t really want to allow myself to think to far in advance because I didn’t know if it was possible.”
“You’re not getting rid of me that easily,” Bastien assured her.
The lapsed into silence once more as they watched the skaters. After a while, Bastien spoke again.
“‘I wonder if the snow loves the trees and fields, that it kisses them so gently? And then it covers them up snug, you know, with a white quilt; and perhaps it says ‘Go to sleep, darlings, till the summer comes again.’ And when they wake up in the summer, Kitty, they dress themselves all in green, and dance about – whenever the wind blows.’”
Alice grinned. “Alice in Wonderland, of course.”
“Well, you are Alice and we’re in a snowy wonderland…unless you want me to start singing ‘Your Body is a Wonderland’…”
Alice laughed. “If you keep saying things like that, you’ll get me so hot I’ll melt all this ice and Liv will kill me. Come on, let’s go explore some more.”
A couple of hours later, Alice and Bastien sipped their cocoa while they were joined by Mara and Liam.
“How’s it been today? Any suspects?” Liam asked.
Bastien shook his head. “None that I’ve seen.”
“The only suspicious thing I’ve seen was a man trying to smuggle turkey legs out in his coat,” Mara said. “We may need to change our tactics.”
Bastien narrowed his eyes, but said nothing.
“I think we need to get Alice on her own, make her seem like a more vulnerable target,” Mara said.
“Absolutely not,” Bastien said.
“Bastien…it’s worth a try,” Liam said. “If Alice is okay with it, of course.”
“I already wasn’t on board with this and now you want to separate her from me? Are you kidding?” Bastien asked before he remembered he was talking to the king and corrected himself with a deep breath. “Sir, I’m sorry, but I really don’t think this is a good idea.”
“What other options do we have?” Alice asked.
“Literally anything else that doesn’t involve putting you into this position,” Bastien said.
“What if I go find Olivia and stay with her?” Alice asked.
Bastien exhaled slowly through his nose. “Gray, I’m not going to tell you what you can or can’t do, but I’m seriously worried about your safety.”
“I’ll stay close the whole time,” Mara promised. Bastien glared at her.
As Alice walked away, she turned to look over her shoulder at Liam and Bastien, the latter of which watched her intently as she melded into the crowd. Mara was nowhere to be seen, but Alice knew she was nearby. She only hoped she hadn’t just done something very, very stupid.
It didn’t take long before Alice found the red haired duchess watching some children play.
“They look like they’re having fun,” Alice said as she joined Olivia. Olivia nodded, but said nothing. “You okay?”
“Yeah, just…thinking,” she said.
“That’s not vague at all.”
“Shut up, Jon Snow,” Olivia said, but Alice could see the smile twitch at the corners of her lips. They were quiet for a while before Olivia spoke again. “I’m just realizing how quickly things are happening. The wedding is coming up so quickly and everyone will be expecting me to produce an heir before the ink dries on our marriage certificate—“
“‘Produce an heir’? God, that sounds creepy,” Alice said.
“You’re not wrong, but that doesn’t make my obligations as queen any less true,” Olivia said. “On the one hand, marrying Liam feels like something I’ve been waiting for my whole life. But on the other…I don’t know. I guess we could have a little more time with just him and me as an ‘us’, you know?”
“I get that,” Alice said. “And maybe you don’t actually have to have a baby right away if you don’t want to. I mean, there’s lots of fun to be had with practice runs.”
Olivia smirked. “Very true. But when you’re a noble, having children isn’t just about having a baby because you and your significant other want to have one. Some of the surrounding nations are feeling a little…antsy at the moment and a prince or princess on the way could help with that.”
“What do you mean by ‘antsy?’”
“They’re very eager to create firm alliances—or so they say. Honestly, none of them are my favorite people—“
“Well, yeah, the only person you actually like is Liam.”
“Hush, Jon Snow. Anyway, because Liam is currently without an heir, I get the sense that some of them are eyeing Cordonia the way Cersei eyed Jaime.”
“Sorry, but the analogy still holds. The sooner Liam has an heir, the more leverage he has.”
“And you’re okay with that?”
“I know it sounds a little fucked up, but you’re still new to this whole monarchy/noble thing. It’s just…part of the deal. I know it, Liam knows it, we all know it. Besides, Liam and I want to have children, so why not now?”
“I understand. I mean, I guess I don’t fully understand, but I’m trying to,” Alice said. She smiled and gently squeezed Olivia’s arm. “So…are you excited about becoming a mom?”
Olivia smiled and for a moment, all of her sharp edges melted away. “Yeah. I really am. I know I might not seem like the most nurturing person, but I’ve always wanted to have kids. The fact that I’m marrying Liam and we’re doing this together…it’s a literal dream come true.” She glanced over at Alice and quickly composed herself, putting her cool facade back in place. Alice remembered the way Olivia had taken care of her the night of the Homecoming Ball, the way she’d supported her and cared for her when neither of them had known if Bastien and Liam were alive or dead
“For what it’s worth, I think you’ll make a great mom, Jon Snow,” Alice said.
“Thanks,” Olivia said, allowing herself another small smile as she watched the kids play. She stole another glance at Alice. “You know…as the Duchess of Valtoria, people are going to expect you and Bastien to produce an heir.”
“Oh my god, look at the time…” Alice said, exaggeratedly picking up her arm to check an imaginary watch. “I think I have to be anywhere but here…”
Olivia rolled her eyes and laughed. “God, you’re so American sometimes. Hey, I think I’m going to go wander—join me?”
“I’ll come find you in a minute,” Alice said as she watched a couple of the kids flop down into the snow to make snow angels. Olivia left and Alice watched the children play, lost in her own thoughts.
After a while, she turned and headed into the thick of the festival to meet Olivia at the booth. However, when she arrived she was surprised to see Olivia and Lucretia in the middle of a quiet but heated argument.
“I know tradition demands that we host the court when they arrive, but did you have to roll out the red carpet for them?” Lucretia demanded.
“What are you talking about?” Olivia hissed. “King Liam and I are engaged. Our wedding is imminent and we are working to unify Cordonia in light of these terrorist attacks. We owe to Cordonia.”
“We don’t owe anything to anyone except each other,” Lucretia snapped. “What matters is strength. Survival. That is how Nevrakises do things.”
“No, that’s how we used to do things,” Olivia said, her tone hinging on a snarl. “And there’s no we—you abandoned me.”
“Are you still harping on about that? Pathetic,” Lucretia said. “There’s value in a lineage and tradition that a child like you could never understand.”
“Liv,” Alice said. Both Nevrakis women turned to look at her, but Alice kept her gaze on Olivia. “You okay?”
“My, Duchess Alice, you always seem to find a way to insert yourself where you don’t belong,” Lucretia said.
“She belongs here,” Olivia snapped. “More so than you do.”
“Just remember what I said, Livvy,” Lucretia said. “We’ll continue this later. And, please, make sure none of our guests go wandering into the family vault, would you?” Lucretia disdainfully eyed Alice from head to toe before turning on her heel and walking away.
“What was that about?” Alice asked.
“My aunt is very Nevrakis-above-all,” Olivia said, shaking her head. “I know Liam and Bastian wanted to locate her for their investigation, but I wish she’d stayed gone.”
“Is there anything I can do?”
“No,” Olivia said. She hesitated. “But thank you.”
“I can sic Frankie on her.”
“…Maybe.” Olivia exhaled deeply, trying to shake off her aunt. “So, anyone try to kill you yet?”
“Not yet,” Alice said. “But the festival isn’t over yet.” She glanced past Olivia and noticed Kiara standing near the cider tent, a steaming mug in her hands. “Hey, there’s Kiara over there,” she said, nodding towards her. Olivia turned to follow her gaze.
“It still seems a little strange to me that she would want to leave again after she just agreed to join us on this tour,” Olivia said.
“Want to do a little digging?”
“Oh my god, look at the time…” Olivia said, mimicking Alice’s earlier words as she exaggeratedly picked up her arm to check an imaginary watch. “I think I have to be anywhere but here…”
“You have to learn to play nice at some point,” Alice said as she took her arm. “Come on.” Olivia allowed herself to be led over to the cider tent. “Hey, Kiara.”
“Oh, hey, Alice,” Kiara said. “Hey, Olivia.”
“I’m glad we caught you,” Alice said. “I wasn’t sure I’d get to see you since you’d said you were planning to leave court.”
“I was. I mean, I am,” Kiara stammered.
“Is…everything okay?” Alice asked.
“It just seems like something’s weighing on you,” Alice said.
“Is it that obvious?” Kiara asked.
“Yes,” Olivia said. Alice elbowed her. “What? I’m a trained fighter, I was taught to pay attention to the people around me.”
“And, as your friends, we could tell something was off,” Alice said.
“Look, it’s nothing personal,” Kiara said, her hand going to her side. “I’m…I just don’t think I can stand to be here. Not after what happened to me in the first attack.” She paused. “Ever since that night…I can’t sleep. I lay in the dark for hours, staring at the ceiling. And when I do sleep…every night I’m in that room again. I see the knife…”
“Kiara…” Alice said softly.
“I know what you mean,” Olivia said quietly. Both Alice and Kiara turned to look at her. “I wasn’t injured like you, but that night is still on a replay in my mind. Fighting to get out of there, not knowing if Liam was okay…it was horrible.”
“So you get it,” Kiara said. “Why I can’t stay, I mean. I consider myself a very logical person. Always in control of my surroundings. Always in control of my emotions. I prided myself in it, actually. I looked down on those like Penelope who let their feelings run rampant. And now…” She swallowed hard, holding back her feelings. “After the first attack, I resolved to face my fears. To return to court. To master myself. To prove I could. But now…after the second attack…it’s getting worse.” She dropped her gaze for a moment, studying her boots in the snow. “I wasn’t sure I could stand to tell you the truth…but it’s better you know. I didn’t want you to think that I’d turned on you. Either of you. Or Liam,” Kiara added. “You still have my support. If I were stronger…” She paused and a single tear ran down her face before Kiara angrily wiped it away. “I have to go. I’m a mess.”
“Wait,” Alice said. Kiara looked at her. “I’m not going to stop you if you want to leave. I hear you and I’m so sorry that you’re suffering from all this. I think you could benefit from some help.”
“Help? What kind of help?” Kiara asked.
“Like a therapist,” Alice said. “Everyone needs help sometimes, especially after something like this. A lot of the members of the Royal Guard see therapists to deal with what they go through on the job; I could ask Bastien for a referral for you.”
“That…thanks. That would be nice,” Kiara said. She turned to Olivia. “How long until the dreams stopped for you?”
“I’ll let you know when they do,” Olivia said gently.
Kiara sighed deeply. “You know, it does kind of help to know I’m not alone in this.”
“You’re definitely not,” Olivia said. “And whatever you choose, we’re here for you. As is Liam. Obviously, we want you to stay, but…you have to do what’s right for you.”
“Thank you. Both of you,” Kiara said. “You’ve given me a lot to think about.” She finished her cider and tossed the cup into a nearby trashcan. “I’m going to head inside. See you both later.”
“Think she’ll stay?” Olivia asked as they watched Kiara walk away.
“No idea,” Alice said. She glanced over at Olivia. “Hey, that was really nice of you, Liv.”
“Shut up, Jon Snow.”
By the time night fell over the festival, there was still no sign of the attackers. Alice met back with Mara off to one side near an empty stage.
“Still nothing,” Mara said. “We should—“ She stopped suddenly, holding up a hand as Justin strolled over to join them.
“Hi there!” he said brightly. “Sorry to interrupt, but Olivia’s looking for you, Alice. It sounds like she wants an assist with the end-of-festival address.” He pointed just a little ways away from them where Olivia stood near the foot of the stairs by the stage.
“Oh, sure,” Alice said. She glanced back at Mara who nodded, so Alice followed Justin over to where Olivia was waiting.
“Reporting for duty,” Alice said as she saluted Olivia, who ignored the gesture as Justin left. “What’s up?”
“I have to give an inspirational speech,” Olivia said.
“So, I’m not exactly good at inspiring speeches.”
“What are you talking about? You and Liam have given several.”
“Liam has given inspirational speeches. I chime in like a hype man,” Olivia pointed out. “Just help me. Please,” she added.
“Well…since you said please,” Alice said. “Hey, where’s Liam, anyway? Shouldn’t he be doing the speech with you?”
“He and Bastien left to go meet with some of the members of the Royal Guard,” Olivia said. “Besides, I’m the Duchess of Lythikos—I have to take the lead on this speech.”
“Okay, let’s do this then,” Alice said as she clapped her hands together. “Inspiring. What about—“
They were interrupted by the sound of someone tapping on the microphone and both women turned to see Lucretia standing on stage at the microphone.
“What the actual fu—“ Olivia started to ask before Lucretia began to speak.
“Greetings, citizens of Lythikos,” Lucretia said. “Thank you for joining us to celebrate the glory of House Nevrakis. I know you’ve spent many years laboring under the care of my young niece, Olivia. Frankly, it’s impressive that she hasn’t brought the entire duchy to the brink of ruin.”
Alice gaped at Lucretia and turned to look at Olivia, whose face was a mask of rage but she seemed frozen in place like one of the ice sculptures as Lucretia continued.
“She may not have the strength to make the harsh decisions that Lythikos’s survival requires, but I’m here to reassure you that there’s nothing to fear so long as I’m around.”
“Olivia, go up there,” Alice whispered, but Olivia stayed where she was, still unmoving. “Olivia.” The redhead finally turned to look at her, fury burning in her eyes. “Get up there.”
“I can’t,” Olivia hissed. “I’ll say the wrong thing. She’ll turn it against me.”
“No, you won’t,” Alice said. “Look, just get up there and when you’re speaking, acknowledge her points so it doesn’t seem like you’re trying to sweep anything aside. You can’t win by ignoring her. If there’s any truth in what your aunt said, admitting that will go a long way.”
Olivia took a deep breath and nodded. “Stay here, okay?”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
Olivia assertively and regally strode up the stage steps and plucked the microphone from Lucretia’s hand.
“Excuse you!” Lucretia said, but Olivia brushed her off.
“Thank you for that introduction, Aunt Lucretia,” Olivia said calmly. She turned to the expectant crowd. “It’s true that I’ve made some changes to how things run in Lythikos. But I’m sure—that is, I hope—you’ll understand them.” She glanced at Alice, who nodded encouragingly. Olivia turned back to the crowd. “While some might call it weakness to welcome our allies from the court, I believe there’s strength to be found in numbers. King Liam and I feel very strongly about the importance of a unified Cordonia.
“Lythikos has often stood alone throughout history. We’ve survived winters, wars, famines…neither asking for aid from our southern neighbors, nor offering it. But these are terrible times to face on one’s own. First the assault at the palace, then the burning of the apple orchards…the deadly bombing…these are dangerous enemies in our midst, and who knows how many more disasters they have planned?”
The crowd began to murmur with nervous whispers and Olivia glanced down at Alice, who shook her head before smiling, encouraging her to focus on the positive.
“What I mean is, although we face many foes, we can still be victorious because united, we are stronger than our enemies,” Olivia said. “No matter where we’re from…Portavira, Ramsford, Lythikos…even America,” she said nodding to Alice, “we’re still one kingdom fighting for the same thing.”
A few scattered claps tittered throughout the crowd.
“We are fighting for our home. For Lythikos. For Cordonia!” Olivia declared. Shouts and cheers rose from the crowd and the chants for Cordonia and Lythikos wove into one another. Olivia exited the stage and as she reached Alice, Lucretia caught up to her and yanked her by the arm.
“You may think you know what’s best for this place, but you’re still as short-sighted as a child,” Lucretia snarled. “Do our ways mean nothing to you? If you’re going to ignore centuries of Nevrakis tradition for your naive whims, your parents never should have bothered give you the keys to the family vault.”
She turned and stomped into the crowd without another word. Olivia hurried after her and Alice was about to follow when Mara caught her.
“Your Grace,” Mara said. “I wanted to give you an update.”
“Oh,” Alice said as she tried to track Olivia through the crowd. “Thanks, but can it wait?”
“I’d rather not,” Mara said.
“Why, is something wrong?”
“No, and yes,” Mara said. “No one has seen anything today to indicate our enemies, but that could be because they’re lying in wait. It’s hard to say at this point.”
“Well, what’s our next move?”
“Nothing else today,” Mara said. “We’ve done all we can and it’s time to get you inside.”
“That’s it?” Alice asked. “I mean, I appreciate it, but that sounds like it could’ve waited.”
“Sometimes waiting in my line of work leads to death,” Mara said. “Shall we?”
“Only if you call me ‘Khaleesi.’”
Mara sighed heavily. “Fine. Let’s get you inside, Khaleesi.”
Alice allowed Mara to escort her through the Nevrakis manor to her room, which Alice was disappointed to find empty. Once Mara had left to take her post outside the door, Alice pulled out her phone.
Back in the room. Are you coming to bed soon?
A minute later, Bastien texted her back. I wish I was, but I’m probably going to be with the security team for a few more hours. How are you?
Exhausted, but good. I miss you though, the room feels so empty without you
I’ll be back as soon as I can, I promise. AND I’ll make it up to you.
The phone stayed silent for a few minutes and Alice had just about given up on a response, assuming he’d been pulled back into his work, when her phone buzzed with a quote from Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts.
“I was hers. She was mine. My body was her chariot, and she drove it into the sun. Her body was my river, and I became the sea.”
Hurry, hurry, hurry
As fast as I can.
Alice awoke to someone shaking her.
“Shh! It’s me,” Olivia whispered. Alice reached over next to her in the bed to find it still made. “He and Liam are still in that stupid meeting, but this couldn’t wait.”
Alice looked around groggily. “Did Mara let you in?”
“No, she’s still standing outside like a well-trained watchdog. There are ways through tis castle that even the guards don’t know.” She pointed over her shoulder to an opening in the wall that Alice knew hadn’t been there when she’d fallen asleep.”
“What the fuck, Liv? Why is there a secret passageway into my room?”
“Can we talk about that later, Jon Snow? I need to talk to you about something.”
“What you need is sleep and to be strongly medicated.”
“After Lucretia left the stage after my speech, I wasn’t able to find her again. But I kept thinking about what she said today—yesterday—whatever. Anyway, she kept bringing up the Nevrakis vault. It’s the most secure place in Lythikos and it’s where all of my family’s secrets are buried.”
“I’m not sure if I like the word ‘buried,’ but go on.”
“I realized tonight that Lucretia’s right. I’ve barely been down to the vault since I was a child because there were too many memories. But I’m suspicious of Lucretia’s interest in the vault, which makes me wonder what secrets might be in there.”
“So you want to go down to the vault?”
“Yes. Right now. Let’s go.”
“This…seems like a bad idea,” Alice said. “How do you know this isn’t a trap?”
“Because as the Duchess of Lythikos, I’m the only one with access to the vault,” Olivia said. “And, like I said, it’s the most secure place here.”
“And this has to happen now? I got almost no sleep last night and then spent all day at the festival.”
“Yes. Let’s go.”
Alice yawned, too tired to argue. “Fine, but I’m texting Bastien to let him know where we’re going.”
“Fine, but be forewarned your phone won’t work down there.”
Alice fumbled for her phone on the nightstand and texted Bastien before she climbed out of bed and pulled on some jeans and a t-shirt.
“This seriously couldn’t have waited until a reasonable hour?” Alice asked as she yawned and followed Olivia to the opening into the secret passageway.
“Once I thought of it, I couldn’t get it out of my head,” Olivia said.
“You still have knives with you, right?”
“Like you have to ask.”
As they left the room, neither of them noticed Alice’s phone buzz with an incoming text.
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