Winter Reign

 

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There are two options in this world. You can either thrive, or survive.

This choice isn't granted by class, or gender, or structures decided by someone else.

Each individual has a choice, whether among the supposed "privileged class", or homeless street kids.

And then, there are some who can't see the difference anymore…

 

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1/Banishment

The inescapable shadow stepped forwards, a powerful silhouette answering the statement that was just announced.

'-hereby decree Prince Wyndstenn E. Vinelle of Aestra Kingdom as Prince Regent from this moment on…!'

The Winter Prince, despite his father's ailing health, showed no signs of worry. As always, stern and cold, bored…

'Summer, go stand beside your brother,' their mother tapped the girl's shoulder, motioning her to go on the balcony.

Princess Samantharia, with shoulders hunched, stepped forwards. The two siblings both had raven black hair and vibrant blue eyes, but that was it for their similarities. His hair was a mass of curls that needed copious amounts of hair creams to tame it, whereas she had long straight hair like their mother. His eyes were framed by a pair of thin, gold-rimmed spectacles, sharp edged, which made his eyes seem even sterner and older than his twenty-one years. And she was just a wide-eyed sixteen year old.

'Samantharia,' he hissed without turning his head from the gathered crowd, spread out below them on the palace garden grounds, 'you're slouching again. Do not humiliate me.'

He was the perfect royal heir…

And she knew she was the furthest thing from that.

She straightened her spine, lifting her chin and hoping the tears wouldn't show in her eyes. Regent Prince… now he had more authority, more power, more responsibility…

The unreachable lord over all Aestra…

 

They stepped back into the corridor, people bustling this way and that. Wyndstenn had already turned to his aid, a young man taller than himself, with lengthy, pale hair tied back in a ponytail, two loose locks on either side of his head. 'Henri,' he addressed the retainer, 'I also need the financial records for the Northern Districts before Prime Minister Kessiel comes to discuss the matter.'

'I shall have them on your desk before the dinner.'

'No, within the next hour, Henri. I cannot waste time…'

Summer glanced back at her brother. Really, she should say something, and she knew it. She'd stood silently at his side, the other child of their father, the second born, the daughter - but not a word had made it past her lips. I should say something, at least, but… congratulations sounds wrong considering the circumstances. Ah? Then maybe?

'Brother, I wish you all the best in this new roll!' she called out.

And stared.

Wyndstenn kept walking away, still talking to Henri, 'and schedule a meeting with-'

Henri frowned back at Summer, reaching out a hand to tap Wyndstenn's shoulder.

'What?'

'Your sister, my lord…?'

Wyndstenn sighed, looking back at his younger sister. 'Do you not have studies to attend to?'

'I-I just wanted to say,' she started to mumble, nervously lowering her head to stare at the floor.

'How many times have I told you, look up when you speak! You are a princess, not a peasant!'

Behind him, Henri winced, a hand raised as if to interject a word, but without stature to say a thing, he just watched, troubled and silent.

Wyndstenn turned to leave, but the tears were already in Summer's eyes.

'Princess-' Henri stepped towards her.

'It does not matter!' she yelped out, running back down the corridor.

'Come along, Henri,' Wyndstenn murmured, 'we have a lot of work to do…'

'My lord… are you sure…? She merely wished you all the best….'

'She should worry less about me and more about herself. The tutors claim she misses sessions and does not apply herself to her studies. At this rate, she will be a useless child, merely a political decoration to be used…'

'Yes, but-'

'Or is it, Henri, that you disagree with me and my decisions? Are you better than me?'

Henri sighed, staring at the Prince. Between the pair of them, visually, the palace maids often snickered that Henri was better - he was athletic, tall, with high cheek bones and a tall nose, who always ate healthily and was polite to everyone. Comparatively, the Prince was only average of height, a little more pudgy, with a round, baby face and those unnervingly stern eyes. He was hard to read, came off as rude and arrogant, and probably - according to Henri - ate too much cake.

Better?

But the fact remained. The prince was a prince. And Henri was just the retainer.

He stayed silent as facts spoke aloud for him.

'As I thought…' muttered Wyndstenn, marching on to his office while Henri could only grimace.

And so the Winter Prince's rule had begun…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The city beyond her window was said to be a sprawling metropolis. But during the day, the princess could only see the roofs and bricks and smog. In the evening however, the carriage lights would twinkle along the lanes and roads, the street lamps sparkling in the dark; the mundane would become beautiful, ethereal, the city a blanket of shimmering stars. Summer gazed out at the scene, smiling weakly to herself. This was the most beautiful view to behold, and her favourite time of the day…

'Come, get dressed for the reception dinner. The Prince of Farrino has asked to speak to with you, so dress nicely and, please-'

'Farrino?' she turned, 'I do not wish to go, mama…'

'Well…' her mother sat beside her on the window seat. 'Your brother is also not really pleased with Farrino or their royals, but they have asked politely to greet you, so it is the least we-'

'Will father get better?'

The question cut the air and shut the conversation down instantly. Her mother glanced at her, eyes burning with tears. 'Hm…?' Queen Ruisa closed her eyes against the swelling pain.

And Summer turned back to her precious window. 'I hate this…'

'Summer, please,' her mother wrapped her arms around her, 'my dear, my darling dear daughter… please, do not make things harder. Just get dressed, greet the Prince of Farrino, and smile, I beg you…! Do not show any weakness, and do not cause a scene, child, my heart could not bear it…'

 

 

 

 

 

Prince Grattin of Farrino was a twenty year old man with pockmarked, acne-scarred cheeks, undefined eyebrows and a pompous way of holding himself as if he was a gift to all humanity. But as he spoke, Summer stayed silent, and not from respect. She was shocked speechless.

'Such a beautiful bride when you don't speak!' he announced, 'such a gorgeous flower, I shall tend you for eternity! Ah, to spoil such a beautiful flowering bride-!'

A shadow fell over Summer, and Grattin froze in his strange statements.

'Ah…? Prince Wyndstenn, I was just-'

'Grattin… I do not ever recall giving myself to be your brother-in-law. Ever.' Wyndstenn's face went as dark as his voice, and Summer stepped back, pausing to glance aside and see Henri rushing up to her.

'Come on, Princess Samantharia's personality likely giver her few willing suitors, but I will accept-'

'If Farrino wishes to continue in peace with the Kingdom of Aestra, you would find it more useful to be grovelling at my feet than pining after a child. Pursue her and I will annul the Allairs Treaty.'

Grattin took a sharp breath in, trying to stand taller than Wyndstenn, though their heights were almost the same.

Summer and Henri stared at the two rival princes, then glanced at each other. Henri stuck his tongue out quickly as he rolled his eyes, and Summer giggled at his action.

'Anything you two wish to add?' Wyndstenn snapped at the pair.

He didn't ignore me! the Princess wished to yelp out, while Henri grimaced at the fact that Wyndstenn had heard them laughing at the pair. But Wyndstenn wasn't changing his stern glare, the anger clear in his eyes. Not that it affected Henri. The retainer was used to it - so used to it he almost didn't recognize it. But the girl at his side soon buckled.

'I-I need some fresh air,' Summer whimpered, rushing away into the crowd, her rich, ocean blue dress's hem twirling in her wake. Henri's eyes rested after her, watching the blue eventually be swallowed up by other dresses and suits.

'My lord…? Are you sure that treating her like this is really in her best interest-?'

'Chee la woh?'

Henri glanced back at Wyndstenn. Grattin had since also disappeared into the crowd, away from the angered regent, but Wyndstenn must have stopped a passing member of the palace staff as he had a plate of cake in one hand, a fork in the other, and his cheeks were full.

'When did you even…?'

Wyndstenn finished eating one mouthful. 'I asked Reggio to bring the rest of the cake to my office. I might let you have some-'

'Wait. Office?'

'Mm, Grattin reminded me, I need to check something,' he grabbed Henri's coat and walked off, not caring that the rough motion had ripped one of Henri's buttons off.

'H-Hey-!'

 

 

The crowd of people were nobles from their own land, and the neighbouring nations, as well as important or prominent people of the land. But it didn't matter, to Summer, it was a crowd that made no sense to her, she was just the lost child wondering in between them. When she was much younger, they would all ooh and aah over her dress, call her cute, and praise her for the most basic display of humble politeness on her part, but now…? Either leeches like Farrino's Prince would leer at her, old men would keep an ugly eye upon her, or they would simply ignore her.

Ignoring wasn't too bad though. She stayed close to the wall on the far side of the large ball room.

Brother probably told Henri off… I should apologize to him properly, I keep getting him into trouble like that… the guilt was overwhelming. And her brother… how scary would he be when angry? She never usually stuck around to find out… but now? She went up the stairs to the mezzanine and looked back at the ballroom. Where was her brother anyway? There was no sign of him, nor of Henri.

'Princess?' one of the palace staff paused at her side.

'Ah, Mister Reggio, have you seen my brother?'

'He went to his office, Princess,' the elderly man bowed.

'Ah… thank  you very much,' she smiled politely. The basics, the basics… office, huh?

 

The palace had several wings, guests quarters, libraries, and offices, but as most people were attending the reception dinner, the corridors were mostly dark and empty. It was a little unnerving seeing the palace that way, but Summer walked along, pausing only when she spotted the light glowing from an open doorway. That was Wyndstenn's office…

'Oh… I see, so the Treaty of Allairs has that restriction for the Northern Provinces-'

'Yes, but I do not like that. I have my own plans for the region.'

'So you want to compose a new treaty with Farrino, so that the region is free of them?'

'Hm… Grattin and his kind… likely they will demand something grand in return. I wonder if the current treaty already has an amendment I could use-'

Brother is so busy with work… Perfect Prince… this is ridiculous, I'm nothing like him… she sighed, peering around the doorway. And paused in surprise. Somehow, she expected to see her brother seated behind his grand desk of rich redwood, Henri nearby with a folder, maybe looking for something on the shelf. She wasn't wrong about Henri, other than he was kneeling, searching one of the lower shelves.

But her regal brother was sitting on the floor, his dinner vest from earlier in the evening chucked on his desk, his shirt-blouse had all the buttons undone, and his hair wasn't slicked back anymore, instead looking more like a bird's nest of black curls.

'Henri, read this through and find the law books referenced in it-' he handed Henri a page from the pile of papers he was holding onto.

'Ah, I thought you wanted to check-'

'This one first. Allairs didn't change an older treaty, if we find that one, there might be something in it I can use…'

Henri nodded, turning back to the shelf, and flinching as the prince sneezed.

And sat there, sniffling as he read the next page.

Henri watched him a moment longer before sighing. 'Why are you half-undressed anyway? You will get cold-'

'Oh. My clothes feel a little tight recently.'

'Then have new ones made to fit?'

They both look so cool and serious, even like this… Summer tugged at a lock of her own hair. Nobody takes me seriously… how can they?

The conversation continued with a huff, 'what, waste my citizen's money for new clothes? Do not be ridiculous,' snapped Wyndstenn.

'Fine, fine…' -another sniffle interrupted Henri's response- 'but I will get you a blanket.'

'Thank you, Henri…'

I didn't even think of it that way… Summer's eyes dropped to her dress. It had been specially made, just for this occasion. She never even thought twice about it, about clothing, about the cost… she never had to… I am a terrible person, she grimaced, and a worse princess…

In silence, she trudged away from the door.

 

It was a shame, too. Three seconds more, and Henri dropped a folded blanket straight on top of Wyndstenn's head. 'Have you considered eating less cake?'

'Oi, Henri!'

'Well, is that not the reason for your clothes not fitting?'

'Sugar is good for my brain, cake is good for thinking-'

'You could save your citizens even more money if you cut back on the sweets-'

'Henri, you put that plate down or I will-!'

'You will what, fit your clothes?'

 

Queen Ruisa heard the argument, but her concern had been the person she saw fleeing from the office. 'Boys, I just saw Summer run from here in tears, what did you two do and why are you not at the….?' She trailed off, staring at the sight. Henri was still picking up the papers from the floor and checking he had them all in order. His hair was disheveled and there was a bruise on one cheek and a light scratch on the other. 'It is for his own health. Also it is payback, he snapped my button…'

'Heee-nnnn-riiiii!!' Wyndstenn whined, trying to step forwards.

And Ruisa choked on a laugh. The flustered prince was bundled up, a blanket tied around him and pinning his arms to his side.

'Please do not drag out my name like that, my lord…' Henri mumbled, scratching his cheek as he looked for a missing page, only to find it still in Wyndstenn's hand. He plucked it out and put it back in the collection, nodding to himself.

'Sometimes, I worry about you two having to pretend to be adults… but I am relieved to see you have time to play around…' Ruisa smiled at the pair.

'I am not playing around…' grumped Wyndstenn.

'Wait, your majesty said the princess was crying?'

She nodded, and Henri ran past her, out the door. A muttered reason, about checking on Summer. That boy is so easy to read… she paused, looking back at Wyndstenn, still trying to wriggle out of the blanket. There was a bow tied on the back, surprisingly well. Ruisa smiled. If only the young never had to grow up…

 

 

 

'Ah, Princess! I found you! Shall we have a private dance, hm-?' Grattin took her hand, holding on tightly despite her trying to turn to leave.

'Please, let me go, I-'

'You had a wonderful idea to come out somewhere more private, I will gladly take your invitation-'

'I did not invite-!'

Grattin moved his face close to hers, and Summer panicked. She didn't hear or see Henri come around the corner, already about to intervene. It was too late anyway.

She slapped Grattin across the face as hard as she could.

And the coldest chill swept over her from behind.

Her brother's voice was cold. 'You had better rethink your life, Samantharia, or you will only good as a chess piece to be married off for a slight political advantage to some sleaze. Apologize to Prince Grattin immediately.'

'No way-!' she yelped out, her face red.

'Listen here-'

Enough. She couldn't take it. Not anymore.

'Shut up! You are the one who never listens, I hate you!' she screamed back at him.

The slap echoed in the hallway, stunning the audience of the sibling's argument.

Henri already had a handkerchief in hand, reaching out to Summer - but Wyndstenn grabbed his hand to stop him.

'Henri, stop coddling her. I have had enough of this farce. Samantharia, you come with me, right this second. We need to talk.'

'W-wait, I will go with you, my lord-' Henri moved to follow, but Wyndstenn shot him a cold glare.

'No, you will not. You are part of the problem, so stay at the reception dinner until I return.'

'But… at least… for security…?'

At that, Wyndstenn sighed, adjusting the strange metal device over his right ear. 'Fine, fine. I have this. If it is a security concern, I can call for help, right? Warn me if need be, but do not dare follow…'

Henri sighed, absently tapping a matching device over his own right ear. New technology, apparently, using old discoveries in new ways. Metal that reacted to sound… it is not supposed to replace me, though, Henri thought to himself, watching the siblings leave.

The Winter Prince and Princess Summer… they are like the moon and the sun…

'Both of them are crazy,' Grattin muttered, rubbing his cheek.

Henri frowned, glancing back at the other prince. 'As I recall, you were standing very close to her, close enough that she could slap you…'

'So?' Grattin echoed.

'Did not Prince Wyndstenn warn, that if you continued after her, he would annul the Allairs treaty?'

Grattin stared at him, silent. And kept staring. The two were of the same age, though Henri could not really say he had a grain of respect for the foreign prince. After all, unlike Wyndstenn, he had seen this disgusting creature attempt to kiss the princess. Grattin had held her hand against her will.

If Wyndstenn found out…

It could start a war.

Henri kept staring.

And Grattin silently turned and walked away, humming to himself nervously.

As much as it was a good thing that Wyndstenn hadn't seen that, Henri couldn't help but feel his own revulsion at Grattin grow even more…

 

 

 

We have been walking for a while in the dark… are these servant passages? Summer walked along, a step behind her brother as the face of his pocket-watch lit the way. It was still too dark to see clearly, the glowing watch only giving enough sight to one who already knew the way.

'Wh-where are we going?'' Summer asked.

'This is a disused servant's passage so nobody will even stumble upon this conversation. Samantharia,' Wyndstenn sighed, 'you are my sister, but I cannot continue to ignore your behaviour. You show contempt for your status - and mine. This is the life you have been born into, and it is about time you learnt to respect that. Understand?'

Summer felt her chest cease up. What? What!? A lecture! She shook her head. Even so, despite everything…!?

'Sam-'

'How!?' she yelled out, unloading the pent up rage that had only peeked out earlier in the corridor. 'Everyone is always bossing me around; read this, look at that, curtsy nicely, speak politely, do not eat too fast, do not think too slow-! I am not good enough, I know that, It is all pointless!!'

'Pointless…?' Wyndstenn glanced back at his sister in confusion.

'Yes! Pointless! Because I am not a perfect child of a King like you!!'

He stared at her. His voice lost its ice but the bluntness came down like an old axe. 'Then who the hell are you?'

'H-huh?' she whimpered wiping her face with her hands. Tears. Of course…

'My sister is a princess,' Wyndstenn explained, looking aside. 'She may one day need to take the throne from me, or join the throne of another nation. I may need her help. But I do not need you. Not like this.'

Summer frowned. Was this how Wyndstenn really felt?

'You are right in saying you are useless… if it has already come to this, then I shall make you useful - by force, if need be!'

The light had moved, and Summer felt the back of her dress rip. What!? What is going on!? Why would he-!?

Something touched her shoulder.

'Here, out this on instead.'

She took the cloth while still holding her now torn dress up over her underclothes. What?

'Brother…? I still do not understand,' she mumbled, but obediently pulled the new dress over herself. It was a rougher material, thicker and warmer.

And light spilled into the passage.

'Huh?' she turned, just as Wyndstenn pushed her.

A door slammed.

She was outside, the door behind her, the dark passage closed off. Huh?

And before her… the most putrid smell of a rotten sewer.

'Ehhh!?' she turned around, pounding her fists against the door. 'Brother! Brother! Let me in!'

 

Wyndstenn listened to the pounding on the door as he leaned against it, grinning. 'I am not letting you back in. This passage leads out here, to Ainte City central sewers and water run-off canals. You could walk back to the palace from here by the city streets, but,' he laughed, 'I will have told the guards by then about an outrageous lunatic impersonating my precious little sister, and they will ignore you or have you sent to an asylum…' he paused, 'and Henri is under my command. So… there is nobody left to help you.'

He stepped away from the door, his eyes dropping to the floor a moment, 'so… goodbye, Summer.'

 

 

 

Henri sighed with relief when he saw Wyndstenn return - but Summer wasn't with him. Why? He quickly went over to the prince, looking around. 'Where is your sister, my lord?'

'I spoke to her and she has already retired for the evening. Speaking of which, I shall as well. Good night-'

Henri stepped in front of Wyndstenn, quickly apologizing for the otherwise rude action. Ah, we are still in public. 'Sh-shall you need help with any more work this evening-?'

'Huh? I said sleep, not work… you need your hearing checked…'

Henri blinked, stunned. What? What?

'You seem troubled, Master Ebhenri…'

'Ah…' Henri glanced back at the servant holding a tray with two champagne flutes on it. 'Reggio, I need a favour… could you please have someone go check on the princess for me?'

'I am on shift right now though-'

'If anyone complains, send them to talk to me.'

'Oh… very well,' Reggio smiled weakly as Henri took the tray off him.

I feel uneasy… Henri thought, staring at the tray. Wyndstenn never says what he is planning…

He sighed. 'I need a drink,' he told the tray, picking up one glass and finishing it off. 'Ah, damn it all.'

He drank the other one, too.

 

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2/Rat's View

The city spread out before the youth, a maze of twisting lanes with cobbled footpaths and shuttered windows, street limps lit and glowing faintly, the dark sky above feeling heavy and oppressive. Yet up here, on the rooftop, somehow the boy felt… free…

A light breeze toyed with his loose hair.

If I fell from up here…

'Piet?'

He blushed, breathing in sharply as someone tapped his shoulder.

And the young woman sat down next to him, leaning against his shoulder. 'This is such a great view… you like these sort of places, huh?'

'Yeh…' he murmured back, wincing at his own voice. The girl was leaning against him, her warmth reaching his skin through his cardigan. So warm, so soft… he had lifted his hand absently as she'd sat down, but now he didn't know where to put it, and it stayed hovering between them.

The girl, Laralli, with mousy brown hair tied in a loose side plait, gazed up at him in the moonlight, before pulling his face closer to her own. 'I won't break if you touch me…' she whispered, kissing his cheek. Her hand was just above his knee, as if to pull him closer.

You are torturing me… he thought to himself, grimacing. Stuff it all…! Sixteen years old and all he got was a kiss on the cheek? He tried to kiss her lips- just as she turned her head away from him, her attention elsewhere.

'What was that sound?'

'Huh…?'

'I heard something,' she got up, hopping back off the low wall atop the building and heading towards the rusted ladder. 'Over this way-'

She didn't even notice… Piet twitched. Damn his chance!

 

 

 

'Come on, palace maid, if you don't have coin, you could just sell yourself-!' the man with stubble and long nose hair shoved Summer's shoulder, pushing her up against the wall while his croonie leered over his shoulder, snickering away.

'B-but I said, I'm not-!'

There was a strange sound, like a whoosh of water. The two thugs turned, just as water cascaded down over them.

Summer didn't even get the chance to wonder what had happened. Somebody had grabbed her shoulders and told her to run, pulling her along before shoving her into the gap between two old buildings. In the darkness, pressed up against a stranger, their arm blocking her view of the street, she couldn't even tell what was going on.

But the thugs were yelling at each other, then at some unknown. Then they were yelling at each other again, about what had just happened and where the "palace maid" had gone.

Their voices began to face, and Summer's eyes had started to adjust to the dark. A young woman… possibly the same age as her, was still holding her in a close embrace to keep her hidden, her dark shawl blending them in to their hiding spot.

'Thanks…' Summer whispered.

'No worries,' replied her rescuer.

'Laralli, come on, we gotta head back-' a head popped around the corner, looking straight into the gap.

'Mm…' Laralli nodded, looking back at her, 'you should go home, miss.'

'I…' Summer blinked. 'I do not have a home… to… go back to…'

'Why?'

'I… got in a fight with… my brother, and… I cannot go home now… he… he hit me, and, and my dress, he tore it, and-'

'Oh, drunken monks,' Piet turned to leave.

'Piet!' Laralli didn't need to hear more, smacking Piet's arm, 'we have to help-'

'No. We can't let her come back with us, you know that!'

'We have to. She'll be attacked again, she can't go home, so we should-'

'No, Lalli, Trelle's gonna go bat-'

'I can handle Trelle.'

'I know that! It's me he beats up, though…!'

Summer stared at the pair. They were talking. They were discussing her. She knew it, yet they seemed so far away. The stress of the night was taking over her, more and more. Attacked. Threatened… scared, alone…?

'Please, Piet, I'll protect you, then-'

'No. I'm going back now, good night!'

Laralli sighed, glancing back at Summer. 'I am so sorry…'

Did it matter?

Summer didn't even hear her as her eyes rolled back and she fainted.

 

 

 

 

 

I can hear voices…

'Why'd you bring her here!?'

'We had to-'

Somewhere… distant… yet close…?

'She's not even when of us!'

A slap.

A cry.

'Trelle, don't hit him, I begged him to bring her back with us!'

They are arguing… over me…? She groaned, opening her eyes slowly. 'Where am I…?'

'Oh,' the girl called Laralli was immediately sitting by her beside, passing her an old, battered tincup filled with a steaming hot liquid. 'Here, drink this. It's warm… um, you fainted, but you're safe now…'

'What…?'

The cup was pushed into her hands along with the warning, 'drink slowly.'

Summer sipped at the hot drink - water and some unidentifiable taste, was it a tea? - while she looked up at Laralli properly. The teenager's gaze was soft and warm, her very presence almost motherly.

Well… wherever I am… what should I say? I am dressed as a palace maid, apparently… if I wait… Henri will surely come for me…

'Venyu? Can the girl have some food, too?'

'Ah, she finally woke up?'

'Yes.'

'Okay, on it!' another teenage girl, this one with short black hair and darker skin, waved her fingers in a cheerful salute, bustling about by a rickety table for a moment before bringing over a plate and a bowl. 'Okay, we've got a banquet today! Oats and bread!'

Laralli smiled as Venyu placed the food on a small crate beside Summer's bed. 'This is Venyu. She and her boyfriend, Tadge, are in charge of food.'

Venyu grinned and nodded, then paused, 'ah, but if you need anything, don't ask him; he can't really help much-'

'Ven.'

'What?' Venyu blinked, glancing back at the young man behind her. His sleepy blue eyes and dark marine hair was in choppy curls that made him look as though he'd just woken up. And he just stared at Venyu a moment, not saying a word.

'Okay…' Venyu sighed, 'Tadge and I are going for a walk for now though. We'll be back later…'

Tadge nodded at Summer.

And she immediately nodded back, not that she knew why. What a strange…

'As for the others…' Laralli motioned to the area they were in.

Finally Summer could take a decent look, but it seemed confusing. The area was small and tight, like an alleyway, with a tarp serving as a roof and smaller makeshift walls made from broken crates and rusted construction materials. A fire-pit was in the middle of the open area, a hole in the tarp tied up above it to let smoke out. And behind the fire-pit sat a twelve year old girl with round glasses, sharp eyes, and her black hair in two thin, snaky plaits on either side of her face.

'I'm Seizi…' the girl muttered, staring at Summer.

Summer said nothing. The girl rolled her eyes and turned her attention back to the fire pit's dim glow.

'I'm Brien, Venyu's big bro!' another voice, deep and cheerful, called out. He was as dark as Venyu, but his hair seemed curlier.

'Nice to meet you…' Summer mumbled, her words soft and stifled.

'Same, same!' Brien laughed, going back to talking to Seizi about something.

'Mm…' Laralli sighed, 'we all live here, in a hidden alleyway, so those… those thugs, they won't be able to find you here. You're safe, and we can help you…'

Summer blinked at the kindness. It was hard to know what to say in return. And her head was still swimming. Also, the air was starting to get a bit thick and gritty in her nose.

'Ah, Seizi, too much smoke, just put the fire out-!' Brien's voice hissed.

A click of the tongue, and Laralli paused, staring elsewhere, 'ah, and don't mind Piet, he sits up there just watching a lot, kinda like an owl…'

Summer looked up, following her view. Piet stared back at her from two metres above, a metal-and-crate construction giving him a loft bed. Half his cheek was red and Summer felt strangely guilty for that welt.

'S-so how many of you… in… in this tiny area…?' Summer nervously looked around. Tiny? It was the size of her bedroom. Bed? She was in a bed. She couldn't help but frown, 'I mean, where do you even sleep, I must be taking up-?'

At that, Laralli laughed, 'yeh, well, it's a bit squashed. Tadge and Ven bunk together over there-' she pointed to a "door" made from thick curtains. 'Seizi sleeps under Piet's weird shelf-bed… you're in Brien's at the moment, actually… and Trelle and I sleep further back in the alley, around the little corner,' she pointed to another curtain door, with the edges hammered into the buildings on either side with huge nails.

Unseen by both girls, Piet's face turned dark at the very mention….

'Seems you've gotten cozy with our guest… any idea who she is,' a man - it was hard to say this one was as young as the others - grabbed Laralli's shoulder. His hair was short, a scar cutting across his cheek, and his eyes were stern.

'Ah, Trelle…' Laralli smiled, as if those stern eyes didn’t exist in her sight.

I cannot just say I am the princess, Summer grimaced, but glancing back up at this person, this… leader…? I feel as though I cannot lie to him, either…

'I am Summer… thank you, very much, for helping me… I will repay any way I can, I swear-'

'For now, just rest,' Laralli smiled, but Trelle had already tugged her hand to make her stand up. 'Tomorrow, you can help out. Piet needs help cleaning, okay?'

'Okay…'

At least until Henri comes, anyway…

 

He will come for me… won't he?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

'No, that's final! I'm not telling you where she is!'

Henri flinched, his face screwed up in annoyance as he stood by the window behind Wyndstenn's chair. The other was reading something intently, trying to ignore him and his prying questions.

Silence.

Henri sighed. There is only so much I can do, then… I hope Summer is safe, and not scared…

But it was weird. He went through the information he knew; none of the servants had seen Summer since the reception dinner three nights ago. None. At all. That was it, there was no more information than that. He shot a deadly glare back at the prince's chair.

Damn it, Wynn! What did you do? Bury her? EAT HER!?

Suddenly, Wyndstenn shut the book he was reading with a loud clap and smacked it down on his desk as he stood. 'You are on my nerves...!'

Henri didn't even breath in for a moment, silently watching the angry prince storm out the door. What…?

 

 

 

 

Wyndstenn stood before the huge, double doors, the elite guards on either side standing tall in their uniforms, taller than him.

He took a deep breath. And sighed.

They pulled the doors open, and he entered the room with dread.

 

His father lay on a bed, pale and withered.

'Your Highness, my King, you wished to see me….?' Prince Wyndstenn announced himself, his voice empty.

'Come here, my boy…' a creaky voice called him over.

Hesitating, Wyndstenn forced himself to stand at his father's bedside, a hand absently going up to the device over his ear. This would be a private conversation? He wasn't sure if he needed it.

'I…' the old king began, 'I regret I could not be present myself to see my precious son announced as Regent… I hate this, really… this… waiting…'

Waiting for an end. Wyndstenn said nothing.

'I have so many regrets, Wynnie… I never learnt to talk to you, and even now-'

'That is fine. I have learnt to understand you, and our Kingdom. That is enough to-'

'No. It is not.'

Wyndstenn flinched as the king sat up, wincing in pain and coughing a moment. 'Father-'

'You… are an intelligent youth. But you do not know everything! As for understanding I have heard that young Ebhenri was been asking for the whereabouts of your sister. I do not know what you are doing, but you have to consider the other people involved-!'

This is about that? Wyndstenn gritted his teeth. Damn you, Henri…

'I am considering the other people involved,' he bit out instead, 'that is exactly why I am doing this! Summer will be fine, I merely had to separate her from some bad influences for a little while. Everything is taken care of, see? I show more consideration than you ever did to anyone including mother-!'

'Ah? You are still so mad at me about that? It is a normal benefit of power-'

'I guess you and I have a different understanding of both the words "consideration" and "normal", good day, your Highness!' he didn't wait for the king to call out, to answer back, to stop him.

He slammed the doors and marched down the corridor, away, away from the terrible room, the dreadful man behind those huge doors….

And his own strength seeped away.

He was further now, almost at the next wing, but… he slumped against the wall, letting go of a long sigh.

And he winced as someone walked past him at the end of the corridor.

'Your Highness?' they had turned at the sound of his exasperated sigh.

And Wyndstenn rolled his eyes, 'oh, it is just you…'

'Well… yes…' Duke Sevrastien adjusted his glasses, the thick burgundy frames in sharp contrast against his pale, mousy grey hair. 'What are you-?'

'Can you not see, I am holding up this wall…?'

Sevrastien stared. 'I see… you were in to see the king.'

'… yes.'

'Oh… Prince Wyndstenn…' the duke sighed, and patted a hand against his traveling overcoat. 'You know, I just returned to the palace after seeing my wife back to our estate, I really could do with a drink this evening… Care to join me?' he paused, 'no talking required. You can even find another wall to hold up, if you so wish…'

 

 

They both changed first. The duke excused himself, commenting about the state of two-day traveling clothes being undignified, only to show up in a bathrobe instead. It was late, and it wasn't as though there were many people wondering around at this time of the night, especially towards the royal family's private rooms. Wyndstenn had turned up on the open balcony in his night clothes, a dark cardigan pulled over the top and his hair in its spectacularly unruly state.

Each nursed a glass, the bottle sitting, waiting, before them.

The silence was long, and finally Duke Sevrastien sighed.

'Hm… let me guess. Something happened that you cannot even tell young Ebhenri about… or did you also insult him, to add to your guilt?'

'I thought you said I did not have to talk…' Wyndstenn muttered, tracing the top of his glass with a finger, his elbow on the table as he rested his chin on his other hand.

'And you do not have to. I am just talking to myself here. Never said I would not talk, nor that you absolutely must listen…' the other pointed out, finishing off his current glass and staring up at the night sky a moment. 'Hmm… although… you know, because I have said this before… but do not go in to see the King on your own. Always take someone in with you…'

Wyndstenn was looking aside, silent.

The awkwardness annoyed the Duke, who took off his glasses and rubbed the back of his head. 'Hm…! For father and son, you two really have trouble talking to each other…. So annoying. I bet he even said something nice about you in between it all, huh…?'

Wyndstenn didn't react, his face still turned away.

'Wynnie, look here-!' Sevrastien thumped a fist on the table, waving his other hand to get Wyndstenn's attention.

'Huh?' Wyndstenn blinked, staring back at him.

'Even if you cannot be understood, or if you do not seem to understand others… you are not alone, not completely. Please, remember that?'

Wyndstenn groaned, rolling his eyes and folding his arms over his chest. 'I knew you would be talking too much..!'

'And yet,' smirked the duke as he got up and paused to rest a hand on Wyndstenn's shoulder, 'you came here with me anyway, even though you knew that… I wonder why…' he tapped Wyndstenn's shoulder, 'goodnight-'

Wyndstenn fell deep in thought, his face flushed red. Indeed. Why had he listened? His mind became a rabbit hole and he tumbled away.

Behind him, the duke paused at the door. 'Ah. Henri, you were looking for him? Bad mood at the moment, and we were drinking… so… have fun…' he made to leave and stopped again. 'Also…' his voice became fainter, 'Wynnie wants to apologize for something, but probably cannot. Good night.'

Henri bowed his head as Duke Sevrastien left, and then stared at Wyndstenn's back. The other hadn't reacted yet, so Henri tapped his shoulder.

'Hey, what was Duke Sevresatien talking about?'

Wyndstenn flinched, sitting up and slapping Henri's hand away with a yelp.

 

'How did you not even notice me…?'

'Shut up. I was lost in my thoughts-'

'And you were drinking.'

'… maybe. It is not like I bruised you…'

Henri sighed, leaning against the wall near where Wyndstenn was still seated. 'Seriously…'

'Henri, if you are jealous, you can just have a drink, too-'

That made the other flinch. 'I am not the one here who gets jealous, my lord-!'

'You get jealous whenever I'm speaking to my friend, Duke Sevrastien.'

'Friend…!? This is not jealousy… it is concern… he is up to something and need to use you…'

Wyndstenn had been watching Henri the whole time, and smirked as he stood up. 'Well. Obviously.'

'Huh?'

'That is why I am the smart one, and you are just the muscle!'

Henri grimaced, but he couldn't really argue that, either. But… but… Henri's thoughts trailed off as he watched the prince. Something was off. Wyndstenn was twitchy, fidgety, looking around with his shoulder awkwardly hunched. The apology that Duke Sevrastien hinted at?

'What.'

Wyndstenn's shoulders were still raised, and he peered up at Henri from beneath this thick curls. 'I… do not know how to… well, that is… if you wish to hit me, this time, I will let you…'

'Huh…!?' Henri stared. The heck was with that expression anyway! Feigning sweet innocence - what on earth was the prince up to? Was he attempting to look cute or guilty?

'I will not defend myself, nor lash out in return, so-!' Wyndstenn let his back fall back to his the wall behind him, waving a hand at Henri to just hit him already.

'Just how drunk are you?'

'I only had one glass, heh,' at that, Wyndstenn grinned, his eyes still shut, still waiting.

Of course… it is not like you could hold your alcohol normally anyway…

'But… Henri? You are going to hate me so much for what I have done to Summer… I am so sorry…' he stared off into the distance, face flushed, eyes saddened.

'Where is she?'

Wyndstenn sighed, scratching his cheek nervously. 'I… I kicked her out on to the city streets… it only occurred to me now, that… she could be attacked, or injured… I do not know if she is safe. No one is watching over her… and I told her not to come back… so far, she has not…'

Henri stared, his face dark and fearful. His ears felt like they were ringing, and burning, the words echoing over and over. He fingers curled up into a fist. He wanted to hit Summer's brother, to smash his fist into the other's face - and his fist hit the wall next to Wyndstenn's ear. Whatever. He grabbed a fistful of the Prince's hair instead, twisting it slightly until the other winced and muttered a weak 'ow…'

'Where the hell is she, exactly…?'

'I guess somewhere in the Second Ring of the city,' Wyndstenn looked away, 'to the east… maybe…'

If I stay here any longer, I will hit him. And I will hit him so hard nobody will recognize him again…

'Sometimes,' Henri stepped back, glaring at the spoiled prince, 'I really do hate you.'

'Mm. I know…' Wyndstenn nodded, biting his lip as he watched Henri run back inside, undoubtedly to leave immediately. And he was left alone on the balcony, only the moon and stars witness to his sudden change, to the sly smile and smug scoff. 'And I am so sorry….'

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A few more days had passed, and Summer continued to stay with the teenagers who had rescued her. The food was bad, mostly whatever they could salvage from trash cans outside of food establishments or steal from stables. Stale bread, or warmed, watery horse feed. The texture was rough on her tongue, the taste thick and dirty on her palette.

She had assumed that when they asked her to help "clean" that it might be a little bit of light dusting or sweeping that she'd seen the maids do around the palace.

And she was very wrong.

It turned out that their "toilet" was a bucket in a make-shift tin shed half a street away. And everyday, it was Piet's duty to take those buckets down to the main sewer in the city and clean them out. That duty became Summer's, in return for sharing a bed with Seizi, and their giving her some food.

At first, she hated it. How dare they make her work so hard!? But then she saw how much effort the others put in; Tadge and Venyu in searching for food, Brien in building things around the camp and general heavy lifting, Seizi and Laralli in cooking the meals, and Trelle keeping an eye on everyone, to make sure everything was done at the right times and taken care of.

The least I could do, then…

And she couldn't help but notice it, after a week of living with them, that despite their squabbles the group really were how she imagined a "family" to be .

I envy them… I really do… it's like they're all brothers and sisters, looking out for one another…

Envy…?

 

 

 

 

She wasn't the only one in the group suffering a dose of envy.

Piet had woken up early and sat in his loft bed, watching as Laralli stepped out from behind her curtained area, a blanket wrapped around her bare shoulders. Not wanting to be spotted, Piet laid down again, and peeked over the edge of his bed. Laralli poured herself some water from their water jug and she sipped it while leaning back against the wall nearest her curtain.

Then Trelle stepped out, taking the water from her and finishing it, before talking to her a moment.

She motioned to everyone else, still asleep, seemingly unaware of the eyes above that watched intently.

With such permission, Trelle kissed her, pulling her smaller body close against his, the blanket dropping down as he carried her back to their own area.

Piet could hear them.

And he sat up, looking at the tarp above his head. They'd fastened it to the walls carefully to make sure water didn't drip in when it rained, but it was close to him, a small ledge jutting out that led to the exit from their hideout. The others had to use a hole in the wall, but he just had to squeeze himself between the tarp and the ledge, and carefully drop to the ground on the other side.

I need a walk. A long walk. Because I do not want to hear that…

 

 

 

It ended up a longer walk than he thought, to the far western side of the city, closer to the Fourth Ring. Ah… but around here would be-

'Piet-Piet-Piet!' something slammed into him, grabbing him in a playful fighting-hug before tugging on his hair. 'Seriously, it's been ages! What in the world happened?'

Piet glanced back at the other teenager, a boy his age with white, choppy hair, a longer lock hanging loose over his left ear, a mole under his left eye, and in his right earlobe was a small, thick loop of metal - a home-made piercing job that had never gotten infected. He was slightly taller, slightly wider than Piet, and smiled much brighter.

But Piet couldn't smile back. 'New person… couldn't even sneak out for a bit…'

'Ah, crap…' the other sighed, nodding, 'that meant you to see them like that, too…'

Piet winced. See. Hear. Whatever.

'Hmm…?' the other boy clapped his hands together, then grabbed Piet's shoulders, shaking him slightly, 'hey, hey, you know what's the best thing about being a working man in this rotten city?'

Piet shrugged. 'Money for food…?'

The smile fell. 'Uh… well, yeh… but… something else, too…'

'Something else?'

 

 

 

 

 

'Al-co-hol!' Ennyx cheered, holding the two bottles above his head in triumph.

Piet was sitting on the bed by the window, a sketch book on his lap and a pencil in his hand. He often came here, to Ennyx's little room, just to draw in peace. Relative peace. Ennyx was naturally cheerful and loud, desperate to entertain.

'Alcohol…?' Piet echoed. It wasn't like there was an age restriction on drinking - if one could afford it, that was all that mattered. And Piet had had alcohol before… here, actually. Ennyx was the one to give him alcohol in the first place, an occasional "treat".

He also knew it was useful for getting blackout drunk. Actually… he reached out a hand for a glass.

'I need it.'

'Yeh, I know you do, buddy… see, it's kinda important after a stressful day to just relax,' he poured even more into Piet's glass, filling it up. 'And you've had a hell of a stressful week!'

'Thanks…' Piet sipped the burning liquid. It would lose that soothing burn in a moment, and he was already dreading the moment it would become like water.

'Hm… you know what else this stuff's good for?'

Piet studied the liquid. Getting blackouts. Feeling sick. Drinking more to not feel sick. He frowned, other than that? '…no?'

'I heard it lowers erm, inhib… inhibish… uh…' Ennyx struggled over the word, and started laughing instead, 'ah, you know? Makes a girl a little more welcome for our lusty you-know-whats!!'

Piet nodded. Then froze. And jumped, his face bright red. 'Ah, what!?'

Ennyx pointed at him, 'you seriously should try it on that girl that's torturing you! I mean, you're justified, just give her loads of this stuff - if you want privacy I'll let you bring her here-'

'B-b-but I…! N-no… I m-m-mean…!'

Ennyx frowned at the stuttering, shaking human sitting on his bed, blushing an embarrassingly innocent shade of pink. 'Huh? You okay there…?'

'Y-y-yes, j-just that I… I… I…'

'And we're broked… hey, this girl, she's… she's the first one you really noticed, huh…? Could it be you've never even…?'

Piet stared back at him, sipping on the burning drink so that he didn't have to answer. His face did that on its own, anyway.

And a sly grin pulled the corner of Ennyx's lips up, a chuckle escaping his throat, 'oh, damn… this is cute…!'

Cute…? Piet brought his knees up under his chin and wrapped his arms in front of his face, lowering his hand until he couldn't really see out and Ennyx couldn't see his face anymore.

'Very, very damn cute… maybe you can get her by using your own innocence as a selling point. And the alcohol will help you, too. Not just her… pick an evening, I'll stay out-'

'But…' Piet sighed, frowning. 'That's not what I want… I don't just want her for a moment. I want her to be mine, forever…'

'Hm?' Ennyx smiled at the poor youth beside him. And patted his head. 'Lower your standards.'

 

 

 

He stayed, and he kept drawing. He kept drinking. Anything not to think about her, to think about Trelle, and what they were doing. The sun had since risen, and he found it strange how much sleepier he felt now as the day went on.

Beside him, Ennyx had cuddled up with a pillow and fallen asleep.

Oh well… Piet kept drawing, the pencil gliding over the paper, the shapes blossoming across the page.

He'd met Ennyx about a year before, when the other also was just a street kid with no home and no money. But Ennyx had hope - something nobody back home did. Trelle made sure that their group survived, but that was it.

Ennyx on the other hand kept talking about finding work; he was doing odd jobs here and there and started to get more regularly work. Then he decided to pick out a place to live, and Piet was the first guest. The only guest. Ennyx admitted he didn't really have friends, having grown up on the streets alone. But now, it was an option he was holding out to Piet.

Live with me, get a job with me.

No, I have to stay with my own group, Piet had insisted, rejecting the idea completely while inside it ate him up. He'd finally have the life he wanted, one of his own, not dictated by Trelle's arguments. But…

There was no way it was possible…

 

 

 

 

He came into their hidden alleyway late that evening, and Trelle glanced at him in surprise, while Laralli paused from her own duties, tidying up after dinner.

'You're back late! Where've you been all day?' Trelle asked suspiciously.

'A walk…?' Piet offered an answer, aware that his attempt to bee-line for his bed had turned into a slightly crooked path.

'A walk? To where, Farrino!?'

'S-sure,' Piet replied meekly, climbing up into his bed. And peeking back down at Trelle. 'Um. I forgot. Hello. How are you…?'

Trelle stared. What the hell? But he nodded back. 'right. I'm fine, thanks. How are you?' the conversation felt bizarre, fake and broken.

And Laralli stared from one to the other, wide-eyed. What in the world is going on here…?

'There is something seriously wrong with that kid,' Trelle grumbled, tugging on Laralli's arms. It was already late, the others were fast asleep, and Laralli had just finished preparing things for the next morning. Now that they were all back in for the night, there was no reason to stay up.

The couple returned to their bed, quietly.

And Piet lay in a spreadeagled mess, trying to pull the blanket over himself before finally curling up. Tears burnt his eyes, and he wiped them with his hand.

The tear drop began to glow and spin, a sphere hovering over the pad of his finger tip.

His eyes matched the faint blue glow, and the spinning became faster, the tear drop beginning to grow appendages. And he clenched his hand into a fist, the sudden motion making the spinning water separate into floating droplets suspended in the air. And his irises kept glowing.

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3/Seek and Finding

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5/Infections

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6/Family Dreams

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7/Pained Clarification

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~

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