"Was that all he said?" Hix asked the next afternoon at lunch.
I hadn't slept well after that meeting with Juppo (as you would probably guess). And then, predictably, three hours after my body dropped into my cot, Maximillian woke us up for surprise drills.
Dead to the world, I could hardly keep up with them, nor with the reprimanding I got from my immediate superior afterward.
"I guess he figured that would be enough." I sighed, picking at my food. After that whole thing, I suppose I'd had neither sleep nor an appetite.
"I'm actually sort of shocked." Tengaar said honestly. "He seemed like a lousy parent. Guardian. Whatever."
"It doesn't matter." I answered listlessly. "He doesn't want me around her, so…"
"Maybe it was just a test?" came the perky voice of Lotte- a newcomer to our little group. She'd used to sit with the Runemistresses, but maybe Viki had asked her to sit with us on her behalf… or maybe Onil had gotten to her. "He's just testing your determination or whatever."
"How can I tell if it's that, or if he actually thinks I'm a creep?"
"It could be both." Templeton said plainly, then blinked as I looked over at him. "It could…"
"You're not." Melodye said encouragingly, but my face was already firmly rested within my palms.
"Onil's got it so the entire Liberation Army knows I have a crush on a girl I barely know, her uncle hates me… oh, and the reprimand… Amazing when that's the best part of my day. This whole thing is like some kind of a bad joke."
"I still don't think it's you." Lotte persisted. "I bet he does this to everyone who's interested in Meg."
"Somehow that doesn't make me feel better." The thought that there was an 'everyone'…
After another moment of morose eating, I noticed the others suddenly looking- not at me, but at some point over my head. Tilting back, I looked straight up… and almost cringed my way into merging with the floor.
Standing over me with a wide grin was the massive, brutish swordsman known as Viktor.
"S- Sir!" I immediately stood up and saluted- a customary gesture of respect from a knight to a high ranking member of the Liberation Army; Roguish and unkempt as he appeared, he was actually one of Commander Tir's right-hand men.
"Eh, hey, nuffathat. You're makin' me blush." He chuckled. Turning, the bearlike warrior wrapped an exceptionally thick arm around my shoulders and guided me- much to my dismay- away from the safe bubble of my friends.
"H-hey! What are you- where are we-!"
"Shhhhh." He answered quietly. "You and me? We've gotta talk."
After a brief walk, I found myself back outside the castle near the docks, which were far less intimidating in the daytime (unless one feared seagulls).
"So tell me; Is it true? You've got a thing for the 'Gadget Girl'?"
It was my turn to blush, looking away and biting my lower lip.
"I… I don't know." I answered honestly. Kind of honestly. She was cute but admitting it aloud at that point seemed like a bad idea.
"Well, you'd better make up your mind." Viktor replied as he led me along. "B'cuz if you do? I wanna give you a hand."
"What?" I asked, more than a little confused. "Why?"
"Because I owe that stupid clown for makin' us ride his stupid roulette wheel for hours, just to pass through one stinkin' hallway."
"Oh." I answered numbly, having no idea whatsoever what he meant by that.
"You have any idea what her interests-"
"YES," I muttered back, "and it doesn't help."
"Well, we've got a library and a laboratory." He murmured. "Seems like one'a those ought've struck her fancy."
"You think she'd have missed them?" I asked.
"Maybe, maybe not… She spends most of her time chasing her uncle around, so who knows how much of this place she's actually seen?" He shrugged.
"How do I talk to her, though? Even if I find her, she won't stop for anything other than him."
"You leave that to me." He grinned suddenly. "I know one way to keep her location nice and predictable… of course I'll have to pull some strings with the Commander, though."
"You'd do that?" I blinked. Viktor must really have hated Juppo… but then, I could kind of relate.
"Hell yeah." He laughed, but then the smile melted off his face as he leaned down to whisper in my ear, "Do not make me regret this. I'm'a do it for you, but you do not half-ass it, and you are a gentleman. Got it?"
I blinked at him, nodding slowly.
"Great!" He reached down and nudged me firmly on the shoulder, immediately losing that menacing edge.
Rubbing my now-aching shoulder, I began to wonder if his was the kind of help I would want, but… as long as he insisted.
The next day seemed to be something of a mass-leisure moment, as the castle was more crowded than it normally was, and there was a surprising lack of any military activity; no drills or exercises or anything.
At the time, I was in what we liked to call the Merchant's Row, where all of the-… well, you can probably guess what you might find there; The shops, Marie's inn, and also the dice booth belonging to Gaspar. More than a few people had lost their shirts playing that game, to a point where Gaspar could probably have funded the war effort on his own.
You'd probably also find a ton of guys hanging out outside of Jeane's Rune shop. The crowd might as well have been affixed to the ground as much as the store stone booth itself.
Anyway, I was pacing up and down the Row (per Viktor's instructions), when something caught my eye that took me completely off guard (and no, it wasn't Jeane. Yes, I do find her attractive… she just weirds me out somehow).
Turning down into the aisle- the way cleared by the general public- was none other than Viktor… along with Tir McDohl himself, and an entourage of six, all told; It was Tir, Viktor, Tai Ho and Yam Koo, Tir's aide whose name was Pahn, and… Meg.
For a few seconds I just stared dumbfounded. Then, after the shock wore off, I could hear Viktor talking in a deliberately boisterous tone.
"C'mon! Gaspar's gettin' lonely over there! Let's throw some dice already!"
"Is that what you were so big on bugging Young Mas- er- Commander McDohl for?" Pahn asked, apparently slightly more reverent toward Tir given his history as his bodyguard or something. "Just some gambling and bonding?"
"If that's the case, why did we bring the girl along?" Tai Ho added, glancing at Meg. The Trickster for her part seemed entirely disinterested in anything that the men were doing or talking about. "Women're bad luck."
"I forget." Viktor lied, still talking unnecessarily loudly. "Don't worry. We can dump her on someone until we've wrapped up our business…" At this, the bear-looking man straightened, looking all around the area.
As cues went, few things could have been more blatant.
I pushed through the crowd of Merchant's Row, finally bursting through the congestion resulting from Tir and company's presence.
"Aha!" Viktor proclaimed as I wedged out and nearly fell on the floor. "This strapping young man can be our chaperone for this nice young lady- get over here, Squire-boy." He added in a mutter as he stepped around us, guiding me toward her with one large hand.
I flinched a little at Viktor's shouting, but outright cringed as I noticed the eyes of all of them- including the Commander himself (AND more importantly Meg) directed straight at me.
"Keep an eye on this little cutie while we do us some bonding, a'right?" Viktor said, slapping Tir heartily on the back (which I could tell pained the latter somewhat). With that, I found myself left alone- relatively speaking- with a very confused and very bored Trickster girl
The crowd was beginning to reconvene around us, where before it had spread out to allow Tir and company more room. I already noticed some of them looking at the two of us. I swallowed, and looked at her for a moment.
Now that it wasn't almost completely dark, and I could see her a little more clearly, it really didn't change anything. She was still cute… only now I could make out the color of her eyes; a deep ruddy-brown color.
"H- Hi." I began, droning off my name and my station amongst the Maximillian Knights, followed by a stiff bow, and offering my hand to her.
"I'm Meg. Nice to meet you." Without hesitation, she took it in her own slender, gloved hand and gave it a single light shake.
She was still absentmindedly looking through the crowd, and I knew what was going through her mind… then the thought of Juppo's stern, disapproving face popped into my head.
However, instead of scaring me away, it actually made me kind of angry… more eager than ever.
"We've actually met before." I said firmly, releasing her hand. "We ran into each other the other night in one of the castle hallways, when you were chasing after-"
"He's my uncle, okay!"
I stumbled over my explanation as she suddenly snapped at me.
"I… beg your pardon?"
Her face had gone from an ineffectual expression to a red-faced look I recognized instantly as one of anger and embarrassment.
"I dunno what everyone's problem is today!" She pouted- cutely, I might add- her arms stifling her frilly skirt as they pointed straight down, ending in balled fists. "Teasing me about where my 'boyfriend' is, and what my 'boyfriend' is doing! JUPPO IS MY UNCLE, GOT IT?"
I just stood there. My mind was trying to work out exactly what I was hearing.
"I don't have a boyfriend, and I don't need a boyfriend! So stop saying he's my-"
"I was going to say 'uncle'…" I managed.
Her face had gone from red to blue from shouting so much, and she'd managed to garner a great deal of attention in the process. As I watched, her features softened until all traces of the outburst had left her.
"…Oh." She said at last.
It didn't take long for me to realize what had happened; Onil had blabbed about my crush, others had teased Meg about it, and Meg had mistakenly assumed they were referring to her pursuit of Juppo, perhaps thinking they weren't aware of the familial connection.
I wasn't sure if it was a blessing or a curse that my name had never been brought up in said teasing.
"Meg… look, I'm sorry."
"For what?" She asked, looking at me curiously. "What're you apologizing to me for? I yelled at you."
"It's my fault, though." I said after a slight hesitation. Maybe it was that last part of her rant moments ago, but as I tried to talk to her, my tongue felt as if it were made of lead.
"I can't… be sure what you heard, but… but-"
At that moment, another loud voice boomed from the vicinity of the elevator.
"Will Commander McDohl and Viktor please report to the Meeting Hall? Repeat: Commander Mc-… VIKTOR. Viktor, quit playing around and get up here. This is important."
I recognized the voice of 'Flik the Blue Lightning' from a speech he'd given the Knights some time early in our tenure with the Liberation Army. Like Viktor, he was one of Tir's most trusted elite soldiers. Unlike Viktor, though, Flik was much more serious about it… I suppose losing a loved one will do that to you…
"Ah, sorry! We'll talk later, okay?"
And just like that, without so much as a nod or a smile- she wasn't even looking at me- she bounded off into the crowd, moving to meet up with where Tir, Viktor and the others were pulling themselves away from Gaspar's dice booth.
Viktor shouted something back at Flik… then turned to give me an enthusiastic 'thumbs-up'…
I returned the gesture, but it was far less so.
I don't have a boyfriend, and I don't need a boyfriend!
That's all I could hear in my head, over and over again.
This was not going well.
"I'm terrible at this."
That night at dinner, I took my building frustrations out on the bit of bread I was given, tearing it up and drowning it in soup piece by piece.
"If Viktor helped you before, he might do it again." Hix offered. "Neither of you could have known they'd get pulled away like that."
"But she never came back." I sighed. "I waited there for hours for her to come back, but she never did."
"She probably just forgot." Tengaar stated plainly, picking away at what was left of her own meal. "She is kind of a flake… no offense."
I frowned at her, but she was admittedly right to some degree.
"You just need to make a bigger impression." Melodye offered. "Sure, she yelled at you, but that could have been at anybody."
"Well, what would you suggest?" I asked, looking at the phonologist.
"Try something traditional." She said with a smile, standing up and offering me a hand.
"Where are we going?" Confused, I took her hand and stood up.
"To visit the other people you would never see here."
What was left of the sunlight was waning fast, but I still felt the urge to shield my eyes as we emerged from the cavernous tower, made our way across one of the stone bridges to an adjoining spire, and finally reached its rooftop veranda… where the self-indulgent men and women collectively known as 'The Narcissists' took their tea and ate their biscuits and did whatever they did with their jewel-encrusted lives.
Luckily, whatever Mathiu had called Tir and the others for had not required the presence of this lot… well, I say 'luckily', but… nevermind.
As I came out of the stairwell leading from the Ex-Imperials' room, I was immediately overwhelmed by a sickening barrage of perfumes, floral aromas, colognes incense and who knew what else.
I put a hand over my mouth, whimpering a bit. This wasn't the first time in my life I'd heard of or interacted with these sorts of people, and after that first time, I'd hoped never to do it again.
Nevertheless, here we were. For the most part, it was an extravagant garden with large floral topiaries on all sides, with a sort of hanging garden directly above the entry stairwell.
Beyond that was an elegantly crafted table of pure white with matching chairs, accented with bits of solid gold.
Seated in each of the three chairs were Former Imperial General Milich Oppenheimer, a noblewoman known only as Esmeralda, and a professed nobleman who made a very big point of introducing himself as Vincent de Boule.
They were literally lounging around and sipping tea while listening to General Oppenheimer's 'meistersinger' Kasios play her harp for them (Gymnopedie #1, for reference).
In all reality, if it weren't for the overwhelming smells all over the place, it actually would have been a nice place to relax.
"So?" I whispered to Melodye as she admired Kasios' handiwork.
"Oh!" She shook her head, clearly engrossed in what she had been hearing, before looking at the flowers.
"So… do I just take them?" I asked after a moment, shuffling a step toward them in hopes of not drawing too much attention.
"No!" Melodye hissed back. "Obviously you should ask permission, first!"
"But I don't want to!" I whispered back. Nobody in their right mind would want to ask anything of this stuck up crew.
"Then you don't get any flowers." Melodye said matter-of-factly.
"W-what about Blackman?" I asked. "Doesn't he plant these things? Can't I ask him?"
"If you want to wait a few weeks…" She said, starting to sound impatient with me.
I looked back and forth between her and the Narcissists, brushing a hand through my hair… but then I noticed Kasios had stopped playing. Then I noticed four additional sets of eyes gazing in my direction.
"Why, I do believe our meistersinger's sweet melodies have attracted the rabble, haven't they?" Esmeralda said smoothly, in a voice I couldn't distinguish between being flattered or insulted.
Either way, I fought hard to choke back the bile as I gave a long, slow, deep bow to the four of them.
"By all means, approach!" General Oppenheimer bade Melodye and I… and I'm sure he thought he was doing us a favor by immersing me further in the thick, potent air.
Two things occurred to me as I drew closer to the tea table, Melodye sweeping past me at a more brisk pace; first, that Melodye was actually used to this sort of atmosphere, and secondly that I would probably never be able to wash that smell out of my clothes. (Thankfully time would prove otherwise on the latter, but I was genuinely terrified at the time.)
"What brings you here, good peasant?" Vincent asked in a melodramatic tone of voice he had obviously spent some time rehearsing. I sort of wanted to tell him I was a squire and not a peasant, but that would mean prolonging an already stale conversation.
I stood there in silence… not really knowing what to say. At last, I turned to Melodye with a pleading expression.
She cleared her throat and spoke with a voice that seemed equally well-rehearsed.
"This young man humbly requests permission to take a few of the lovely flowers from your extravagant garden."
I looked back at her with slight shock, but she only answered with a sly, well-masked grin.
"What ever for?" General Oppenheimer asked, lounding back in his comfortable chair… clearly patronizing the both of us, which was what Melodye had evidentially expected. As a matter of fact, all four of them looked more amused than anything else.
I looked to Melodye again… but this time, she only nodded at me, full of expectancy. I cursed inwardly, my face paling as I looked to the four.
"I…" I began, clearing my throat and wondering how to speak to them without sounding pathetic or sounding outright goofy. "It's a gift. For a girl."
With those words, I steeled myself for what I felt would be the inevitable backlash.
"My goodness." Esmeralda said, bringing a hand to her lips in an expression of faux intrigue.
"And who would the fair young recipient of said gift be?" Vincent inquired, leaning forward a bit in his chair.
That sort of irked me. They hadn't even asked my name, settling on 'peasant'…
"I… you probably wouldn't know her."
"Are you so certain?" Vincent asked, slowly rising from his chair and beginning to pace back and forth. "The people of Toran Castle- from the smallest mouse to Lord McDohl himself are no less than my dearest associates! I should think there is not a soul in this castle I could not call brother or sister. Thus I, Vincent de Boule, would thank you on behalf of myself and my close friends here not to make presumptions to the contrary!"
I just stared at him, trying to ignore the sudden throbbing pain in my head.
"Meg." I said after a slight pause.
"Pardon?" Vincent answered after another.
I sighed and clapped a hand over my face.
Fortunately, Melodye intervened.
"Meg is the niece of renowned Master Trickster Juppo, and it is she who has won this young man's affections."
I was impressed with her composure… and apparently, so were they.
"Now that you say this…" Vincent began again, "I do recall there was a matter regarding a Trickster's niece that-"
"Yes." I interrupted before I could stop myself. "Onil's been spreading all sorts of rumors about it."
"Ugh." Esmeralda made a sound of distaste, thankfully distracting Vincent from his outrage at being cut off. "Dreadful woman; Abysmal fashion sense, and so terribly gauche."
And that might have been the one time at which the Narcissists and I ever agreed on anything.
"So you are this unrequited lover of rumor…" Vincent said with a smile creeping into his tone. "Terribly quaint, this."
"Sure." I nodded in surrender. "About the flowers, though… I honestly don't know if it'll help. Pretty much all accounts state she's not interested in a boyfriend. She said it herself: 'I don't have a boyfriend, and I don't need a boyfriend'."
"Ah, but did she say she did not want one?" Milich asked, looking quite pleased with his clever catch.
"No…" I admitted… which did actually make me feel a little better about the whole matter. "But her uncle seems dead-set on my staying away from her."
"A forbidden unrequited love!" Vincent near exploded, his voice a rousing cheer. "Magnifique!"
Esmeralda only rolled her eyes, looking to Kasios who immediately went back to strumming her harp.
Milich stood up grandly, and my heart rose with it… honestly, I should have tried the 'pathetic' card the moment I got there.
"What sort of colors does she prefer?" He asked, looking about the garden while slowly drawing his rapier.
"I don't know, really." I answered, moving to follow him. "I know she wears white, tan and a lot of green… and her eyes are a sort of dark reddish-brown…"
As he walked, Milich carefully sliced away blossoms and stems like the branches of a bonsai tree; white roses, another unfamiliar flower type with closely bunched petals and a lazy, sandy color to them, and still another with petals the color of red wine.
At the conclusion of Milich's arranging, Vincent stood close at hand to offer a gold-colored handkerchief to tie the bouquet together. The general looked it over, and with an approving smile, offered it to my shaking hands.
"It… it looks incredible!" I said. Somehow, even the scent of the bouquet seemed to penetrate the assault of other aromas to soothe with its gentle fragrance.
"Now hurry along and deliver them before the poor dears spoil." Milich said as he sheathed his weapon.
Wide-eyed, I turned in place and shuffled back toward the stairs, giving repeated, clumsy expressions of thanks as I walked.
Finally, after reentering the castle proper, I took a long, deep breath and slumped against a wall.
"Well?" Melodye asked, stepping beside me. "Are you feeling a little better now?"
"As far as my confidence? Yes." I nodded woozily, "But if you don't mind holding these for a second… I need to throw up now."