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Stella and Salamander

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THE DUCHESS GAMBIT

- Stella and Salamander -
(in which there is an arrival and a meeting)

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Eyes followed the foreigner as he made his way through the cobbled stone streets of downtown Magnolia. His colorful clothing, while visibly cut, composed and worn in his native land's ways, didn't look so out of place among the patchwork fashion of the people milling about the crowded marketplace. Instead, it was his skin that caught attention as he passed by - olive and sun-kissed, standing out against everyone else's pale complexion.

There were subtle glances and curious stares, whispers of speculation about his presence:

'One of those traders. From Alvarez, across the sea.'

'What's a trader doing down here? Don't they keep to the Middle City?'

'Looks young, must be one of the sons. You know how they like to look for thrills in the taverns by the bridge.'

'He has a sword, though.'

'Must be that. Do you think he's looking for a challenge?'

Natsu didn't mind. He was used to attention, albeit of a different kind, but a form of attention still. He simply continued walking in an easy pace, observing the place and the people.

He knew about Ishgar from lessons back in his homeland. The Kingdom of Fiore. A giant continent across the sea. He had been taught about the capital city of Crocus, of the Hill and the Middle City, of the major neighboring towns.

But Magnolia - small, unassuming, a little island town in the river in the middle of Crocus - he learned of it from the sailors and experienced traders who kept him company during the months spent at sea in voyage to this foreign continent.

So far Magnolia was as they had told him: narrow stone streets arranged like a labyrinth, tall differently-colored mismatched buildings pressed closely together that could all pass for either houses or inns or taverns, a crowded marketplace, people in colorful patchwork clothing going about their business. At that time of day, in the early afternoon, the streets were rowdy.

Magnolia, according to the local sailors, was the 'lowest' part of Crocus, where "people only come to gamble, to steal, to kill, to fuck, or to make a living out of any of those."

The sailors were right, so far. In the hour or so that Natsu had walked around, he had already spotted at least three pickpockets (two children, one adult) in the crowds. They were all impressively stealthy. He did nothing about them. That would draw attention to himself. He had seen a man tossed out into the streets from a tavern, a small newly-empty bag that must have carried his money following him right after. Must have lost a game and insisted on playing more to get his money back. He had seen swordsmen sitting outside or lounging in balconies, polishing their swords. He had seen both men and women hanging around alleys, whistling to passersby, beckoning customers closer.

Only one of these things really interested him.

According to the sailors, Magnolia was a hive of sex and death and depravity, but oddly enough it was a community of people who adhered to a certain rule: Respect the sword.

Natsu knew about the custom in this country, that swordfighting was both entertainment and law, that duels were party attractions but at the same time they were used to settle feuds of honor.

'In Crocus, you protect yourself either with a sword you wield or a sword you hire...' was what the sailors told him. '..and the best swords for hire can be found in Magnolia.'

That was… fascinating. He had been bored on the journey to this land. He wanted to see something new and exciting on his first day.

He was interested on seeing the best swords that reside in this little island, to find out why exactly the men who by custom fight to symbolize someone's honor gather in what could be considered the most plebeian and least honorable part of the capital.

That was why he headed straight here after the ships that took him to this country docked in the port. He walked through Crocus' Middle City, asked around, and then found his way towards the bridge to Magnolia, and finally he was here in the busy marketplace, observing the people who whispered about him.

In the guise of curiously looking over the different wares in the stalls, he also stole glances towards the swordsmen who roamed through the streets with purpose. They stood straight, their gaits were precise and their swords were heavy and foreboding on their waists or on their backs. Some greeted people, some kept to themselves.

As he kept his quiet observation, he noticed a stall selling familiar items: brown blocks of chocolate, a primary trade item of his country.

He smiled politely at the middle-aged woman selling them and spoke in the local language. "Greetings, lady. I see cacao from my land."

Natsu kept his accent heavy and his grammar basic. He was more fluent than this, but he thought pretending not to know the language too well might give him some advantages.

The woman smiled back, assessing him quickly, her gaze flickering to his foreign face and the sheathed sword on his hip. "Yes. Chocolate, we call it here. We trade with your people on the docks before they go to the main city."

He picked up a block and squinted at it. He sniffed, and then put it back. "It is cheap class?"

"Of course it is. No one here in Magnolia can afford the real expensive ones. Those go to the Middle City, then to the Hill, where the nobles can get at 'em. Never tasted that kind before, but I've heard they're heavenly."

"Cacao is drink of our Gods." he said before he bowed slightly. A gesture of courtesy. "I am glad your people also enjoy it."

The merchant nodded at him. "I guess I don't have to ask if you're buyin'. What's a lad like you doin' here, anyway? Your folks mostly keep to the Middle City. You have a compound there, don't you?"

"Yes. We stay with family." he replied. "I am new. Arrived today with the trading ship. My friends the sailors told stories about this place."

"They didn't tell you it's dangerous for someone like you to be here?" she asked dubiously.

"They did. They gave me warning." he shrugged, and flashed her a grin. "That is why I came."

She only shook her head and scoffed, obviously used to young men and their death wishes.

It was then that he caught a certain movement from the corner of his vision. A streak of darkness in contrast to the bright colors around them. He turned to observe a hooded figure walk by - the cloak was pure black, lined with gold that caught the afternoon sunlight. No one seemed to notice - or if they did, they dismissed it as a usual sight. While he was looking, there was a sudden breeze through the square, blowing back both hood and cloak.

It revealed a woman, pale-skinned with rosy cheeks, her long golden hair pulled back in a loose braid that trailed down her back. The fluttering of her cloak revealed a simple blue dress, a loose corset, a pristine white apron tied around her waist and a brown satchel pressed to her side. She frowned as some of the blonde hair framing the sides of her face got in the way of her brown eyes, then brushed the strands behind her ear.

The cloak billowed when the woman continued walking, not bothering to pull her hood back up.

"Ah. Been awhile since she came down here. Gorgeous thing, ain't she?" he heard the merchant lady say behind him. She clicked her tongue when he did not respond. "Untouchable, though, before you get any ideas. She belongs to the Prince."

Natsu raised an eyebrow as he stepped back a little to ask the woman, "I thought there is no Prince in this country?"

"Oh no, of course not. You talk about bringin' royalty back, you're gonna get locked up." she chuckled.

Natsu knew that, too. The Kings and Queens of Fiore fell a long time ago. Nowadays there were still nobles who preside and govern individually and as a council, but the royal family was no more. Any talk of reviving the reign of royalty was taboo.

"I was talkin' about the Duke." the woman continued. "Duke Dreyar. You see that fancy cloak the little lady's wearin'? Black. Gold trimmings. Colors of the Dreyar House. That means you don't touch the girl unless she lets you."

Natsu watched as the cloaked woman stopped to kneel by a young boy sleeping down the front steps of an inn. The child jolted awake and was surprised to see her, but paid close attention to whatever it was she started telling him.

"So there is a Duke, not a Prince."

"Heh. Around here, he might as well be."

"But the nobles live on the Hill."

"Not this one." she scoffed. "Dreyar House is just a few blocks from 'ere. He's got a house on the Hill, alright. Real big one. But he's got one here too. Stays there, sometimes."

He nodded, tucking away the information for later use. "The girl is his worker?" he asked, watching curiously as the girl took a folded piece of paper from her satchel and gave it to the boy along with a few coins. The boy happily accepted, stood up and then took off.

A message. She sent the little street rat on an errand to deliver a message.

"The girl is his." the merchant told him this time as he watched the young woman stand up, dust her skirt and continue her walk. "So don't you try and follow her. Or do. If you're really lookin' for trouble."

"This Duke is very… what is the word? Careful? With his... lovers?" Natsu said, turning curiously to the merchant again.

"Oh, he's a possessive man, alright. Mad, they say. No one really knows. But that girl's not his woman, she's-" the merchant seemed to realize something that made her frown deeply. She didn't finish her statement, only squared her expression as she continued. "It's not worth it, boy. To earn his ire because you're curious. Lots of other ways to seek danger here in Magnolia, but you wouldn't wanna mess with Dreyar."

Natsu considered this for a while, then shrugged. "Thank you for the advice, lady. And your time."

He started walking again, towards the direction the cloaked figure took.

"I mean it, young man! It's your death!" the merchant called after him.

He only tilted his head to wave at her pleasantly before starting to jog his way out of the marketplace and into the maze-like streets where the mysterious lady disappeared to.

.


.

Natsu had gone out of his way to find himself here. He was in trouble already anyway, the minute he decided to get on that ship and sail across the sea to Ishgar, to Fiore. Then, it took some more talking and a little bribing so he could slip out on his own.

He was going to make the most of out this little afternoon trip.

It didn't take long for him to catch sight of the cloaked lady again, what with her bright hair eye-catching in the afternoon sun, and her dark cloak easy to spot among the shabby but still colorful establishments in Magnolia.

He was about to walk up to her to strike a conversation when he noticed that she was not alone.

The man was tall and lanky, looming over her slight figure with a malicious grin on his face. She was looking up at him with an unimpressed frown, backed up against a wall just outside a tavern.

Natsu's brows furrowed as he took it in - she was obviously being harassed. By one of the other denizens of Magnolia, it looked like. Didn't the merchant woman say that it was known that the cloaked lady was under the Duke's protection?

Yet despite being cornered, she was talking back to the man, cold fire in her eyes as she crossed her arms across her chest, obviously taunting him. She didn't look afraid, and her expression remained calm even when the man cupped her chin roughly.

"Let go of me." she said, her tone icy.

"Aw, come on, pretty darlin'. I'll pay nicely."

"Again, I've already said this. I am not selling anything." she maintained her composure well.

Natsu looked around and frowned at his assessment of the surroundings. Of all the places, they had to be in one of the few empty streets in the town.

He inwardly sighed as he rested his hand on the sheath of his sword.

He didn't want to make his entrance like some sort of dashing hero come to save the damsel. He had planned to catch up to her and engage in a conversation, to ask her name and some other things he was curious about. He didn't want her to talk to him just because he had helped her.

But alas, he simply could not just stand watch as a woman is assaulted on an alley outside some seedy tavern.

He was about to step forward when his eyes caught a glint of something beneath the woman's black cloak. As the man pressed her harder against the wall, Natsu saw her slowly pulling out a small dagger from the folds of her sleeve.

So Natsu stepped to the side instead, ready to strike again but temporarily backing down - perhaps she wouldn't need him, after all, judging from the firm and steady grip she already had in her weapon. The pervert didn't seem to notice, probably convinced that he was holding hostage a helpless maiden.

Natsu must have been focused too much on waiting for what she'll do next, because he didn't notice it when someone came out from the tavern and roughly shoved the harasser away, making him topple backwards.

"W-What was that for, Bixlow, you drunk bastard?!" the man growled, quickly standing back up to grab the woman, but she had already stepped back smoothly to stand behind the newcomer.

This one - Bixlow, he was called - was very tall and well-built, with unruly navy blue hair shaved on either side of his head. He had markings on his face. That, combined with muscled arms exposed by his sleeveless attire, made him look several times more menacing than the other man even without a weapon on his hip.

When he spoke, he had a smug smile on his face. "Huh. First off, not drunk. M'pretty dang sober today, Bora. It's only afternoon, after all." He took a step forward when the man called Bora scowled. "Second, may I ask you to leave the lady alone? She is off-limits."

Bora huffed back, unimpressed. "What? Why? She yours?"

"Nah, I should be so lucky. I do believe she said 'no' when you asked, though." a shrug, and then he glanced at the woman behind him. "Probably. Did you say 'no' when he asked, milady?"

Her voice was melodious and soft, but still ice cold as she said, "I told him to fuck off. More than once."

Natsu raised an eyebrow. He did not expect such language from such a delicate face.

Bixlow whistled before looking pointedly at the other man again. "Well. You heard her. That's enough reason, innit? And really, man? Attacking a respectable lady in front of my respectable tavern?"

"Respectable." Bora spat. "Like you're any better. Your tavern's full of thieves like you."

"Mm. Fair point. There are indeed a lot of thieves inside. But I'd still bet the miss prefers their company to yours. Ain't that right, miss?"

She nodded. "They are very nice folks."

Bora glared, and moved again to grab hold of the lady. "Look, thief. I saw her first-"

He wasn't able to finish his sentence, because then a strong hand was around his neck, squeezing precisely and pushing him back as if he weighed nothing. Bora choked and tried to resist, but Bixlow raised his arm slightly and Bora found himself dangling a few inches from the ground.

"Of course you did, my friend." Bixlow said, smiling easily despite his voice dripping with venom. "But like I said, and like the Miss already said a couple times. No. The lady's not coming with you. You're new here, so I'll go easy on 'ya and explain. I don't care if you're a fancy swordsman for… hm, who is it nowadays? Lord Vastia? No, Realight? Orland? Whatever. I don't really care."

"L-L-Let-... Let-.. g-go-"

"Let me finish." Bixlow chided. "Here in Magnolia, we have some rules. While you're here, you follow them. No questions asked. Do you understand?"

"Y-Yes-... I-... Please-"

With that, he let go. Bora collapsed to the ground, gasping for breath.

The lady watched the scene without flinching.

"Anything you want to say to him, Miss?" Bixlow asked.

She simply pat down her sleeve, hiding her dagger again. "Leave."

Bora glared at both of them, but scrambled to his feet and ran without another word.

Natsu stayed hidden after Bora had gone, because Bixlow was still standing outside the tavern with the woman.

"Thank you for that." she said, sparing him a small smile.

"Of course, Mila-... miss." he smiled back, friendly now. He sighed. "Really, though, someone like you shouldn't be wanderin' around here alone."

"Why not?" she pouted. "The people know me. I will be alright. It was just a bit unfortunate that I came across one of the stupid ones who didn't know to keep his hands off of someone in Dreyar's staff."

"Ah. Well. I do agree if anyone else was around, they woulda probably done the man worse. That fella's not so well-liked by our folks." He scratched his chin, thinking. "So… am I allowed to ask where you're headed this wonderful afternoon?"

"Ask away." she said, absentmindedly fixing her cloak. "It does not mean I'll answer, though."

"Aw, that means you won't let me accompany you, eh?"

"Not that I doubt your skills. I know I can count on you." she said sweetly. "But this is something I intend to do by myself. The offer is appreciated, though."

"Mm." he finally nodded, stepping back and then extending his arm in a flourish. "Well then, I shouldn't keep the lady from her business."

"Very well. I will see you around, Bixlow." she made a little curtsy before going on her way again.

"Ah, miss? One last thing." he called after her. She stopped to listen. "You know I'll have to tell my master when he asks, right? Nothing personal, just doing my job?"

"I know, and I don't mind." she said with a dismissive wave. "Stay loyal. He values that."

"Aye, thank you, ma'am." Bixlow watched her leave.

.


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Natsu waited a few minutes after the woman had gone and Bixlow went back inside his tavern. It took some more minutes before he saw her again.

This time, she was standing by a little bakery, daintily eating some local pastry. He did not waste time and stood in what he hoped was a polite distance beside her.

"Hi." he greeted, smiling a friendly smile.

She looked at him as she chewed on her snack, brown eyes studying him from head to toe to head again. If she had an opinion on his attire - an open vest, loose pants, an embroidered sash, a scarf and sandals - she kept it hidden in a neutral expression.

"Hello." she greeted back. "I'm afraid I haven't seen you around here before. I would remember if I did. Not many foreign traders settle here."

"I am new." he said, and after contemplation, he added, "I come here to Ishgar-... to Fiore. for my family."

She nodded, seemingly appraising him. "So you're a trader's son."

"I am also a trader."

"A young trader, then." she finished off the pastry, now beginning to lick cinnamon and sugar from her fingers. Even that looked elegant. "What can I do for you then, good sir? I'm afraid I am only a lowly kitchen maid."

"Are you?" he asked, blinking.

There was a split-second furrow in her brows. "I am so. Do you doubt it?"

He did doubt it.

Because the truth was this - he did not follow her around because he thought she was simply pretty (even though she was indeed breathtaking, more so now up close and he was struggling to keep his thoughts together as realization suddenly struck him full force) - no, that wasn't his reason.

He followed her because something was not quite right…

The first time he saw her, he could swear she was gliding. Her gait was too graceful, even with her brisk pace. It was different than the other ladies who he watched passing by.

Her cloak was black velvet with gold-colored trimmings - too fancy for a typical Magnolia denizen but understandable if said person was a member of a noble household's staff. It looked more like the one good cloak that a lady's maid would wear to accompany her mistress in formal occasions. But a walk in the Magnolia market was hardly formal, so why would she wear a good cloak on a simple errand?

Under that, her dress was too neat, too clean and free of creases. Her apron was pristine. One could argue that they were simply freshly-laundered, but it was already afternoon. If she was indeed a kitchen maid, she would have been working, and her clothes would have been slightly rumpled and her apron maybe stained from the day's tasks.

She also talked in a smaller voice than most of the people in Magnolia used. Her words were slightly more formal, and she had a bit of an accent compared to the others. It was possible she only came from a different part of the country... Would that also explain why she held her head high and her chin up when she talked?

The final nail though, was now that he could see her hands closer. He noted her delicate wrists, smooth fingers and perfectly-shaped nails.

Natsu knew what a servant's calloused hands look like.

She was not a kitchen maid.

But then again, neither was Natsu a mere trader's son.

So he simply shrugged and answered her question. "I do not doubt it. I was just surprised. The lady looks like a princess."

"As if you would know what a princess would look like, silly." Her laughter sounded like bells. "Oh! Maybe you do, after all! There is royalty in Alvarez, right?"

He grinned, nodding. "There is."

Her brown eyes twinkled as she tilted her head to observe him properly. "What's your name?"

He paused for a while, just looking at her, before he decided to answer. "Please call me 'Salamander'."

"Salamander." she raised an eyebrow. "Like… the lizard?"

"Not many of your people can say my name correctly." he lied. "So my local friends gave me a nickname."

She considered this before nodding. "Well. That makes sense, I guess. It is nice to meet you, Mister Salamander."

"May I ask your name too?"

She held out her hand. "My name is Stella."

He took her hand and started to bow but stopped midway and asked, "Like... Star?"

Stella let a mysterious little smile cross her features. "Oh. So not only do you know our native tongue, you also know the old language?"

Natsu only smiled and decided to himself that 'Stella' was more cunning than he initially expected, and she might be on to him but was enjoying the game.

"Just few words. Mostly pretty ones." he quipped, earning him a pleased hum. He finally leaned down to lightly kiss her hand. "That is not a custom in my land. Did I do it right?"

"It's satisfactory." she said. She took another pastry from the little brown paper bag and offered him some as well. "So… what brings you to Magnolia, Salamander?"

"The sights." he answered with a shrug, accepting her offer and sniffing at the treat first before taking a bite. It was sweet.

"Few come to Magnolia for the sights, if I may say so. The parks are in the Middle City and the gardens are in the Hill." she said patiently. "Or maybe you weren't referring to scenery?"

"My local friends told stories about swordsmen." he answered.

She smiled softly at that. "Ah, well, then you are in the right place, after all. Plenty of swordsmen around here. Looking for a fight or someone to fight on your behalf, perhaps?"

"I am more… interested... in the art? I use the sword myself, so I wanted to see how different it is here."

"Hm." she hummed, accepting the answer. A foreigner interested on the local version of a part of their culture. Not too strange.

But then he looked at her with a knowing look and asked, "The dagger in your sleeve. Do you use it well?"

Stella's eyes narrowed as she looked back at him, her smile only a hint suspicious. "Have you been following me, Mister Salamander?"

"Yes." he answered with neither shame nor regret. "I saw you in the market and decided to follow."

"Why?" she asked, expression not changing.

"I was curious."

"Curious? Why so?"

"Your cloak looked expensive."

"Hm. I knew I should have taken a shabbier cloak." she sighed, but still looked up to him, expectant. "And…?"

"And one merchant lady in the market said to follow you if I want to get in trouble. I thought it would be fun."

"To get in trouble?"

He nodded.

She laughed, more subdued now as she took a step back and raised her arms as if presenting herself. "And is this everything you were hoping for?"

"I thought I would help you with that man, but you seemed to do well without me."

"Well, he was an idiot." she rolled her eyes, chuckling, her hands dropping to her sides. "And yes, if you really have to ask. I do know how to use my dagger. While it is very rarely needed, I like to think I use it well."

He considered that both an acceptance and a warning. "I see." he nodded politely. "But you are not a fighter, Lady Stella?"

"I told you, I am a kitchen maid. Maybe that makes me good with knives..." she winked. "But no, here we traditionally leave the fighting to the men."

"Some of the best soldiers in Alvarez are women."

"So I've heard." her voice took an interested tone then.

"The best soldier in the army is a woman, actually." he provided. "She does not even need magic to be powerful."

"Where in Alvarez were you from, again?"

"Vistarion."

"The capital of the empire."

"Yes. The lady seems to know a lot about my land."

She only grinned mischievously. "I like fairy tales. And that is how people here view your land, do you know that? Magic and emperors and princes?"

"Mm. Is that good or bad?" he asked, curiosity evident.

"A little bit of both." she mused, finally turning on her heels, ready to make her way around town again. She took one step before looking back towards him. "Are you going to keep following me for the rest of the afternoon?"

He shrugged innocently. "Will you let me?"

"I might." she said, demurely looking away. "In one condition."

"What is it?"

"Tell me more about your home."

.


.

Natsu didn't know just what Stella was up to, but she did not seem to mind his company as she led the way further downtown. She seemed to drop a bit of her pretense, however. Now she walked more elegantly, and did not bother hiding her refined accent.

Natsu also wondered if it was only her, or if all young ladies in Crocus were this… comfortable?

They were crossing a stone bridge and he was talking about home as she asked of him, when she raised her hand expectantly towards him. He only blinked once and took it before he realized what she was about to do. She moved smoothly, stepping up to stand on the bridge's parapet, using him as her anchor. He only chuckled and held her hand as she started walking along the stone blocks.

"...so everyone in your country can do magic?" she asked, prompting him to continue from where he left off.

"People can learn." he said. "Our magic is in our land and you only need to connect to it to use those powers. Some people are born with stronger connection than others, and they become very powerful magicians. It might be more difficult for people with less Alvarez blood. Foreigners, or their children."

"Interesting." she hummed, her steps careful and slow. "Can you do magic?"

"Yes." he answered. Watching her eyes seemingly sparkle, he quickly shook his head. "But I am in a different land. I cannot do magic here, only at home."

She frowned. "What kind of magic do you do, then?"

"All sorts." he said, then stopped himself. "I mean, many helpful ones for traveling and trading. Like spells for the wind and weather. Fire for camping. A little healing for small wounds and poisons."

"Oh… I wish I could see them in person."

"Come to Vistarion, then. We even have shows. The lady will enjoy them."

"I might, with a little bit more convincing."

"You have magic here, too." he said. "But it is forbidden?"

She laughed softly. "Oh, it should be. Magic sounds wonderful in your country, but here it brought nothing but disaster."

"I cannot imagine not living with magic. Why is it your people think it is so terrible?"

She took a deep breath before speaking. "Well, Mister Salamander. Once upon a time, kings and queens ruled our land. They had royal wizards and apprentices able to use magic freely. They did use it well, until one of the kings went mad and began to abuse the powers his wizards held. Stories say one of the royal wizards corrupted him. Others say he corrupted a royal wizard and it just spread. Some say, it was the magic that corrupted both of them."

Natsu frowned at this. "Magic is not evil, unless you make it so."

She looked at him shortly before continuing. "Well, maybe they made it so. For several long years, the land went into several wars and uprisings. The people suffered under their tyranny. It was only until the nobility united to bring down both the royals and the wizards, that it all stopped. All magic was then forbidden, wizards and witches and all their books were burnt."

They stopped, having reached the other end of the bridge. She placed her hands on his shoulders, and he held her by the waist as he helped her back down.

"That was hundreds of years ago." she concluded, patting down her skirt.

"So there were no more royals and magic?"

She looped an arm around his as she pulled him down the streets. "The blood of kings and queens remain, some noble families were descended from the last of them. But no, no more magic."

"Your land's history is interesting."

"Alvarez Empire conquered lands and won several great wars, too." she shrugged. "Is it true your emperors fight in the front as well?"

"Our emperors are trained in battle. They are emperors because they win wars."

"Riveting." then she smiled. "Our nobles remain Lords because they hire swords."

He chuckled. "Your Lords sound dull."

"Oh, they are." she huffed. "Most of them."

"How about yours?"

"Mine?" she blinked, then finally caught his meaning. "Oh! Yes. Mine. Duke Dreyar is not dull."

"Why is he different?"

She didn't answer, and instead stopped walking. Natsu saw her face harden a little as they stood outside another shabby establishment. There were jewelries, antiques and knick-knacks displayed behind the glass, almost too difficult to decipher because the store looked very dark inside.

"We have arrived in my destination." she told him.

Natsu squinted at the little building. He looked around and found it surrounded mostly by what appeared to be other kinds of stores offering different wares. There were several people going about, a number of beggars sitting in the sidewalks, and others simply standing by.

"Where did Lady Stella bring me?" he asked in an easy-going voice.

"Do you have pawnshops in your country?" she asked back.

"Pawnshop?" that word was new.

She simply gave his arm a light pat. "A place where you sell goods in exchange for money. You can buy them back later, but with interest. Or sometimes, you trade."

Oh. There was a different system in his country, but it was close. He glanced at her, then at the suspicious-looking establishment again. "This is your errand?"

"Mm-hm. Let's go inside. Although I might ask that you stand back when I do my transaction. It is quite private."

He let her pull him inside the 'pawnshop'. It was as dark and dreary as it was on the outside. The lighting was terrible, there was dust everywhere, including in the displays of antiques and items. Behind the counter sat an old man busy examining several gemstones. He looked up when he heard the door creak open.

He had long white hair, moustache and beard. His right eye was under an eyepatch. He remained calm at the sight of the unlikely duo standing before him.

"A pleasant afternoon." he said cordially, although Natsu saw that his gaze was hard and appraising. "I was expecting you, Miss… what was it? Tessa, if I remember correctly?"

"Stella." she provided. "It's Stella, today."

Natsu held back a snort. She wasn't even trying anymore. He wondered if it was because she trusted him, or because she thought he couldn't do anything about it anyway. He assumed it was the latter. He was not about to force her to tell him her real name, anyway.

"Stella. How fitting. I like that better." the shop owner nodded, stroking his beard absently. "Welcome to my humble shop."

She gave a quick curtsy. "Thank you, Master Hades. It is a pleasure to be here."

"And you are accompanied by…?"

Natsu opened his mouth to speak, but Stella beat him to it. "My new friend." she answered. "He is my escort for the day."

Master Hades - was that really his name? - nodded in acknowledgement. "Welcome to you too, young man."

Natsu only bowed slightly, choosing to stay quiet.

"Now, what can I do for you, Lady Stella?"

She smiled. "I think you know what I came here for, good sir."

The elderly man appeared to think about it deeply. "My memory fails me… Hm… Was it… a trade, perhaps?"

Lady Stella's smile stayed, this time looking pleased. "Perhaps. Will that suffice?"

"It depends on what you've brought, of course."

She stepped forward, and when Natsu moved to follow, she raised one delicate hand, effectively staying him. He stood back as she stopped by the counter, took out a small wrapped package from her bag and offered it to Master Hades.

He picked it up and only lifted the wrapping enough to take a peek of the item underneath. His smile turned just slightly devious then. Natsu had to still his expression to hide the fact that the grinning man scared him a little bit.

"Why, Lady Stella. Are you sure about this?" Master Hades asked, although his grip on the item tightened.

She shrugged. "Take it. It's old and clashes with the decor."

"It is very valuable."

"Would you accept anything that isn't?"

He chuckled. "You always did drive a fair bargain."

"I am a fair person." was all she said. "Now, will you finally give me what I came here for?"

"Of course, of course." an indulgent nod. He retrieved a key from the ring of keys dangling from his waist and unlocked one of the drawers behind him. He took out a small bag and handed it to Stella. "I kept them spotless. They deserve nothing less."

She said nothing as she accepted the bag, undoing the ties a little to check the contents. After a quick examination, she tied it back and slipped the item in her satchel. "I appreciate your service."

Master Hades gave her a small lenient bow. "I appreciate the business."

"Well then, we shall take our leave." she said, finally stepping back.

"Will I be seeing you and your new friend again soon?" he asked, watching as she gestured to her companion that they were leaving.

She looked back at him and smiled sweetly. "Let us hope not."

Master Hades chuckled darkly.

Despite himself, Natsu felt a chill in his spine and instinctively went to open the door and began to lead Stella out by the small of her back.

"Thank you for your discretion, Master Hades." Stella said one last time before they both stepped outside and closed the door behind them.

They stood there for a moment, both looking down at the pavement before turning to each other.

"I know." Stella said with a wary chuckle. "Unsettling, isn't he?"

"Indeed." he admitted, following her as she started walking again. "The lady has finished her business?"

"Fortunately." she nodded, and he noted how now she kept one hand on her satchel, gripping the top firmly, obviously protecting her package. "Although I'm afraid I wouldn't be able to tell you about it."

"It's fine." Natsu said with a slight shrug.

"Will you walk me home, as well?"

"The house of your duke?"

She looked amused. "My duke. Yes."

"Is something I said funny?"

This time she actually laughed. "No. It just sounded strange." She held out her hand again and he took it, letting her pull him along. "Come along now, I know a quicker path."

"We took the long path before?"

Her gold-trimmed black cloak billowed around her as she turned to flash him a bright smile. "I was enjoying your company."

Natsu blinked once, then simply smiled back as he jogged to catch up with her quick strides.

.


.

Dreyar House was easily the biggest house in Magnolia. It was not a classic, lavish house so much as it was several ordinary Magnolia houses reconstructed and refurbished to make them into a mansion.

Still, it looked grand and out of place in the little town. Natsu wondered how the other houses on the Hill looked like. Then he brushed the thoughts off. He was about to see that for himself soon.

Stella did not stop in front of the grand gates, but in a side entrance meant for servants. The guard stood to attention when she arrived, and quickly started to unlatch the gate to let her in.

"Well then…" she started, looking up at Natsu. "I had a wonderful time with you, Mister Salamander. I hope you won't hold it against me that you did not get into trouble today."

He chuckled, looking down humbly. "It was still interesting. I had a wonderful time as well." Then he looked back at her, lips quirked into a small smile. "Will you tell me your name?"

"No." she said. "Will you tell me yours?"

He snorted, before shaking his head. "No."

"Fair." the blonde smiled, her hair shining gold against the late afternoon sun. She looked beautiful. "Thank you for walking me home."

"You are most welcome." he replied, paused, and then added, "Lady Stella."

She stepped forward to leave a soft kiss on his cheek, then smiled one last time before turning and disappearing through the mansion's gates.

.


.

The woman who called herself 'Stella' walked with purpose through the halls of Dreyar House. She always liked the house, always thought it nice that, like the streets of Magnolia, the halls and corridors were like a labyrinth.

She shed her cloak and apron and tucked them under her arm until she was met by a maid.

"Welcome home, Mistress." the maid greeted, taking the cloak and apron.

"Thank you, Virgo." she said, also handing her satchel to the servant. "There's a bag inside. You know what to do. Take care of it for me?"

Virgo nodded, carefully taking the items. "Of course, milady."

"Anything eventful happen while I was gone?"

"Nothing much, but Master Freed arrived a few hours ago."

"Oh! I shall go see him for a bit. Please run a bath and prepare for tonight."

"Yes, Mistress."

She smiled at the maid and continued walking, now only in her simple blue dress and stays as she expertly navigated the house she knew by heart by now. She arrived at a lavish salon, knowing her destination was just beyond the wide receiving room, only to stop short when she spotted a familiar figure.

"Laxus?" she asked, blinking at the blonde-haired man sitting on the armrest of an expensive divan, attire simple yet resplendent, eyes scanning several sheets of paper in his hands.

He looked up at her and replied flatly. "Lucy."

"What are you doing here?"

He raised a brow at her appearance - more bemused than surprised. "This is my house, in case you've forgotten. And keep your voice down."

She blinked again, then finally noticed the other figure, fast asleep on the divan. "Oh. My apologies. Is Freed alright?"

"He is not sick, but he looks tired." Laxus said, looking down at the sleeping man. He leaned down to brush stray strands of green hair from Freed's face. Usually the long locks were in a neat ponytail, but it looked like the bow had gone undone in his sleep. Laxus looked at Lucy again. "What are you doing here?"

"I took care of some business." came her simple answer.

"Here in Magnolia?" he inquired.

"Precisely. Here in Magnolia."

"That would explain your… costume."

She waved him off as she plopped down a nearby couch. "You know I enjoy dressing up."

Laxus scoffed, returning his attention to his reading. "What did you call yourself today, then?"

"Stella." she answered, fingers playing with the end of her long braid. "Pretty, don't you think?"

"I think you should stick to one alias for your little excursions here." he said. "And what was this business you took care of?"

She smiled. "It's a secret."

He looked at her. Stared.

She held his stare steadily, smile not wavering.

Finally Laxus gave up and let out a huff, putting his papers down on the nearby table along with other cluttered documents. It looked like Freed fell asleep working on them.

"Once upon a time, you always listened to me." Laxus mumbled, only loud enough for Lucy to hear.

Lucy giggled. "Once upon a time, you said I should stop doing so. Oh wait, that was three years ago. My twentieth birthday. You told me to get off your lap."

"You are too old to still be in my lap."

"Don't you miss me, though?" she asked, faking a pout.

Laxus gave her a look.

She caved in and at least looked apologetic despite her amusement. "Don't you worry, Duke Dreyar. I still hold you in the highest esteem. Just trust me to handle this one for myself, please?"

He shook his head and was about to say something, but then the man sleeping on the divan suddenly sat up, awake and alert. He looked around and was positively surprised upon seeing his company.

"I-... Lucy." Freed blinked, then consciously began fixing his hair. "Umm… Welcome back, milady. I hope your errand went well."

"It is nice to see you too, Freed." Lucy said with a sweet smile.

Then Freed turned towards Laxus, who idly observed from his perch on the divan's armrest. "Laxus, what are you doing here?"

Lucy laughed, while Laxus narrowed his eyes at the other man. "Why is it that my presence in my own house is being called into question? Lucy doesn't even live here and you don't bat an eye?"

"The servants already told me she was staying for the day." Freed answered. "You have-... What time is it?"

"Five."

"You were supposed to be in a meeting with Lord Gildarts at three."

Laxus raised an eyebrow. "I don't see you for four consecutive days yet you still know my schedule."

"It is my job as your personal aide and secretary to know your schedule."

Laxus rolled his eyes, sent a pointed glare towards Lucy who was stifling her giggles, then looked at Freed again. "I was told that you came home. I had my afternoon appointments cancelled so I could pay a visit. Anyway, Gildarts hates those meetings, I am certain he doesn't mind that I called them off."

Freed frowned, looking down as he tried to pat his clothes back into order. "You have no business going all the way from the Hill to here just to come see me, My Lord."

Laxus snorted. "I always have business seeing you. Specially when you disappear for days."

When Freed moved towards the clutter of document on the table, Laxus clicked his tongue and reached out to gently pull the still sleepy man towards him. Freed made a small noise of complaint, but easily succumbed and lay his head on the Duke's lap.

"Days? Where were you off to, Freed?" Lucy asked, concerned.

Freed could not help but yawn as he sighed. "It has been very busy in University."

"Why did you come home?" Laxus asked.

"It was about time to go over Dreyar's trade reports. I thought I would take a break from the papers in University to work on those."

"You took a break… so you can work?" Lucy reiterated, looking amused. "Darling, that is not how it works."

"She makes so much sense sometimes." Laxus said, earning an eye-roll from Lucy. "Forget about the trade reports. You are home. Rest."

"Mm-hm." Freed closed his eyes as he felt Laxus's fingers softly stroking his hair. He did not open them as he said, "By the way. Lucy, you should not wander the streets alone and unprotected, no matter how much the people know you. There will always be idiots with a death wish. While I have no doubt people will come to your aid if you asked, you do not want to be caught in the middle of a fight."

Lucy only looked a bit surprised that the secretary knew of the little incident from that afternoon. "I see Bixlow knows his trade as well as always."

"Dreyar only hires the best." Laxus said, smug but frowning. "You were attacked?"

"Confronted, more like. It was nothing big. Bixlow was there. As for the rest of the afternoon, I had… an escort of sorts. He kept me safe."

"And who is this escort of yours?"

"Another secret."

"That new swordsman? The one who's too pretty for his own good?"

Freed huffed lazily at the remark.

Lucy laughed. "Do not be jealous, Freed. Laxus still thinks you're the prettiest."

Laxus reinforced the statement by leaning down to stroke Freed's cheek gently.

"I am not jealous." Freed claimed, but smiled lightly and took Laxus's hand to twine their fingers together. "I just always thought Loke to be a ridiculous man."

"Oh, he is. Very ridiculous. Quite dramatic, too. I think that's why I like him so much." Lucy mused. "But it was not him, today. I met a most charming man with nothing better to do for the afternoon and he kept me company."

Laxus furrowed his brows. "And who is this poor man you seduced? My staff will be very entertained to receive love letters addressed to our nonexistent scullery maid-"

"Kitchen maid. I was a kitchen maid."

"All the same, I do not recall hiring you."

"You don't hire people, Laxus. Freed does that."

Freed only sighed. Nobles and their petty fights. Still, that was something he should address, as part of his duty. "Lucy, do we have to expect letters and presents from your new toy?"

"He is not a new toy. No need to worry over that." Lucy assured. "I am certain he will find other ways to entertain himself. He did not look like one to go over the moon for a maid. He is one of those adventurous sorts."

Laxus was unimpressed. "You bring trouble, Duchess Heartfilia."

Her answer was a gracious smile as she stood up. "Thank you! I learned from the best."

The Duke only shook his head in exasperation. "I did not teach you anything."

"Oh, Laxus." she walked over to him and poked his nose with a finger. "You taught me everything."

When Freed chuckled, Laxus stared down at him, looking betrayed. That only served to amuse Freed further.

She turned around to take her leave. "Well, you two go on and enjoy your free time. I still need to dress up-... Will you come to Fullbuster's party tonight, Laxus?"

"Do I have to?" Laxus grumbled.

"Yes." both his companions said.

"Laxus, Juvia pens all her invitations herself." Lucy sternly pointed out, resting her hands on the Duke's shoulders. "You would not want to upset a pregnant woman by not coming to her party."

"And Dreyar never misses the best events." Freed added.

"Dreyar will be in the party." Laxus reasoned lamely. "Just... not Laxus Dreyar."

"Laxus." Freed said, managing to sound firm despite his relaxed position. "You are not making your wife attend that party alone. Not even for me."

"She would be too distracted fawning over Juvia to notice my absence. She also approved of me coming here today. And I am not staying for you. Rather, it is… for… the trade reports. Yes. I shall go through them." Laxus gestured towards the ignored documents in the table helplessly. "You will rest, and I will examine these documents myself."

"No. They will be examined tomorrow." Freed finally sat up. "You are going to accompany your wife. She picked a most splendid dress for the occasion. The purple one, if I remember correctly. I shall make sure you match her as appropriate."

"Dress me up like a doll, would you." Laxus drawled.

Freed smiled at Lucy. "You shall see him there, Duchess."

"Perfect." Lucy beamed, then leaned forward to give Laxus a quick peck on the cheek before turning around to leave. "I will be going ahead, then. Good luck with those University affairs of yours, Freed."

"Thank you, milady." Freed replied earnestly.

She walked back towards the guest room she had claimed for herself and her usual visits, leaving the sounds of Laxus's complaints and Freed's chiding behind her.

When she entered the room, Virgo was laying out an exquisite gown on the bed. Her outfit for that night's party. The maid told her that the bath has been prepared, and Lucy proceeded to take a quick dip in the tub.

After that, she let Virgo help her dress up and do her hair. They finished the preparations without incident, until finally Lucy looked over the set of jewelry laid out before her on the dresser.

It was a beautiful set consisting of a necklace, a pair of earrings and a ring, all laden with rich red rubies set into intricately-carved gold.

Lucy nodded at her maid and let Virgo pick the necklace up to wrap it around her slender neck. As the maid did this, she spoke, "It is amazing that My Lady was able to retrieve this set unharmed from Magnolia. Not that I expected anything less of the Duchess, of course."

"The Heartfilia rubies are the most important set of jewels in our collection." Lucy said, her hand touching the ruby centerpiece in her necklace lightly. "It has been passed down for generations. My mother wore it, and all the Duchesses before her. I simply would not have it fall on anyone else's hands."

"I received confirmation that the thief has left Crocus."

"Good." Lucy said, inclining her head slightly so her lady's maid could attach her earring. "I would have let her stay, you know. Not in Heartfilia House, of course. In the City. She would have been able to find another job, if she had stolen just about anything else." Her face hardened. "But she touched my rubies. That is something I will never tolerate. So let her run into the countryside without a single cent from me."

Virgo nodded, moving to pick up the other earring. "She was very foolish to do it, My Lady."

"Indeed." Lucy agreed, picking the ring up and putting it on her finger.

"All of Fiore knows you do not anger Duchess Heartfilia." Virgo added. She stood back to let her mistress take in her appearance in the mirror.

"Hmm… I am nicer than that, I prefer to think. Is that really my reputation?" Lucy asked, meeting her lady's maid's eyes through the reflection. "Do I scare you, Virgo?"

The maid smiled a small smile and shook her head. "I have no reason to, and I do not plan to make you give me one, Duchess."

"Oh."

"But I do think you are kinder than everyone else assumes."

Lucy smiled back. "I think it's fine they think I am more cruel than I really am."

Virgo blinked. "May I ask why that is?"

There was only the tiniest bit of hesitation before Lucy indulged the maid with an answer. "Just a trick I picked up from Duke Dreyar. That's all."

Virgo looked confused, but she nodded, probably deciding to think it through by herself.

"Well, then." Lucy said, finally standing up. "Back up the Hill, we go."

.


.

Natsu made his way out of Magnolia and into the compound of the Alvarez traders, located in the Middle City where both the upper and lower middle class of Crocus settled. He passed by the market district, spotting some familiar silks, furs and feathers in some of the fabric stores. Those were from his land, he noted. So this was where their goods went…

He stopped when he arrived in the streets of the University, observing the crowds for a moment. Scholars in long black robes, with their long hair indicating their vocation to academics, all carrying books and papers and various other tools. He wondered what their lifestyle was like, days only dedicated to books and discussions.

Then he remembered the time, so he took off again.

On his way, he saw several lavish carriages travel past the streets, towards the direction of the Hill, where the noble houses were. He would explore that part of Crocus on another time, he decided.

He received a warm welcome when he arrived in the Alvarez compound, people starting to drop their activities until he insisted that they pay him no mind. They were busy going through the new batch of goods that arrived on the trading ship he was on, after all.

He went straight for the biggest house on the compound, greeting servants and telling them not to fuss on him when they asked what they could do for him. Instead, he easily navigated the halls and stopped in front of one of the bigger rooms.

The door was ajar, so he only knocked twice before pushing it open and stepping inside.

"Hello?" he called, now fully comfortable in his mother tongue.

The young man sitting by the window seat turned sharply towards him, almost dropping the fresh apple he was eating as he exclaimed, "Natsu! You're back!"

"Hey, Sting." Natsu grinned, noting the bowl of fruits on his friend's lap. "Gimme one of those."

"Where were you? Rogue was having a fit." Sting reached for an apple and threw it towards Natsu, who caught the fruit on his way to plop down on the empty bed.

"I went explorin'." Natsu said, lounging on soft pillows and rumpled sheets. He threw the apple up and caught it in his hand again before taking a bite.

"Of course you did. But where?" Sting sat up straight now, all curiosity.

"The island on the river. Magnolia. Thought I'd see if our sailor friends weren't kidding when they said there's always swordfights in the streets."

"So?"

"Lots of swordsmen. Lots of thieves, too. And whores and gamblers and drunks."

"You didn't get to see a fight?"

"Didn't catch one, nope." Natsu shrugged. "I got distracted. There was this lady, all nice and mysterious and let me accompany her around the town. I walked her home."

"You met someone? That fast?" Sting gaped. "What in the Land's name- I didn't even know you like women. Or men. Or people. I mean, you like people, obviously, but not that way."

"Slow down, man." Natsu raised an eyebrow. "I didn't say I like her. I was interested in her."

"Why?"

Natsu contemplated telling his friend about how 'Lady Stella' was obviously not a kitchen maid and was up to some suspicious business, but then decided against it. "Eh… you know."

"I don't know. That's why I'm asking." Sting rolled his eyes.

Natsu looked at him for a moment, then shrugged.

Sting frowned, about to complain, but the door burst open again and another young man stepped inside.

Unlike Sting who was peacefully lounging, Rogue was panting and glaring. "NATSU! WHERE WERE YOU?! You told us you were going to get snacks and then you disappear?! For hours?!"

Natsu looked at Sting, who threw his hands up as if to say 'Don't involve me in this.'

He shook his head in disappointment before answering the newcomer. "Magnolia. Exploring. Met a very beautiful lady with delicious food. Went places with her. Then came back here."

Rogue looked about ready to spontaneously combust. "Magnolia. Hive of criminals?"

"Yes, but there are some very nice folks in there, too-"

"Erza will kill you." Rogue cut him off with the expression of a man resigned to his own death. "You aren't even supposed to be here. Erza will kill you. For running away and leaving without permission or even a message-"

"I left a message!" Natsu pouted. "I said 'I'm going with Sting and Rogue, come follow soon!'"

"That is a very reasonable message." Sting said flatly. "If we were... you know... going drinking or something. Not very effective if we're going to cross the sea."

Rogue groaned. "She will kill us for letting you do this. She would rather we threw you overboard, you would have survived anyway. And then she will kill you again, for endangering your life because as soon as we get here, you go to the most dangerous place in the city!"

Natsu didn't say anything, only taking another bite on his apple.

Rogue looked to Sting, who looked back innocently. When the staring got uncomfortable, Sting raised the bowl of fruit and offered, "Apple?"

"I don't want a fucking apple, Sting. I want to survive Erza's wrath when she arrives in two months' time!" Rogue growled.

"Did you actually curse?" Natsu teased. "Crocus has changed you, and it's only the first day."

"The apple is right here, gorgeous. It's very tasty." Sting tried again. "Give up on Erza's wrath, let's just make the most of our short lives in the time we still have until our inevitable deaths. At least we will die together. Romantic, eh?"

Rogue rolled his eyes and sighed in defeat, crossing his arms across his chest. He watched as Natsu stretched and yawned, leaning back against the soft comfortable pillows and making himself at home on the bed where just a mere hour ago, Sting and Rogue were-

Oh.

"Natsu." Rogue started shakily. "You shouldn't-... that bed… you… ummm-"

"What? I know it's your bed, let me just stay for a few minutes, I'm tired. And these are good pillows… so soft..."

Rogue looked to Sting for help, and it took a few exaggerated gestures for Sting to realize what he was trying to convey.

Sting snorted, trying to hold back his laughter as he called out to their lounging companion. "Natsu, you would not want to take your nap in that bed. Trust me."

"Why?" Natsu groaned, not moving.

"We just slept in there. Together."

"What…?" Natsu turned towards him, brows furrowed, trying to understand why they were not letting him take one little nap... So what if the bed had been slept in? They all grew up together, sharing bunks whenever someone slept over-

It was then that Natsu realized that Sting's hair was very disheveled, he was wearing nothing but his loose linen trousers and that dark spot on his shoulder is most definitely a-

Well.

"WHY DIDN'T YOU TELL ME SOONER?!"

Natsu quickly shot up from the bed, glaring at Sting who was laughing and then at Rogue who was hiding his flushed face behind his hand.

He groaned, turning to frown at the rumpled sheets on the bed. "Mind pointing me to the direction of my own room? So I can nap on my own bed? My own bed where you two did not fool around in?"

"Ah, about that." Rogue cleared his throat. "Everyone was busy with the shipments, and you really weren't expected to arrive until at least another two months, and you disappeared so suddenly so we forgot to prepare-"

"So what you mean to tell me is I don't have a room." Natsu deadpanned.

"Yet. They are preparing it now and should be finished by dinner. For the meantime, I am sure we can find some… spare room to nap in."

"Eh, don't bother." Natsu waved dismissively, throwing the leftover apple core towards Sting, who easily lifted the bowl to catch it. He took a swig from the jug of water in the nearby table before he continued. "I'll go nap in the gardens."

Sting huffed, a smug grin growing on his face. "That is what you get for being a stow-away, Your Highness."

Natsu raised an eyebrow. "I hate it when you call me that. It usually means you're making fun of me."

"Making fun of you?" Sting faked innocence. "Why would I make fun of you, Prince Natsu, brother to Emperor Zeref of the Great Alvarez Empire? Who am I to tease a most brave warrior and powerful mage?"

Natsu turned towards Rogue. "You actually like this guy?"

Rogue shrugged. "He has his moments. A few of them." - a pause - "Actually, too few."

"Well, that's just cruel." Sting pouted. "Whose side are you on, Rogue?"

"My allegiance is to the Prince, first and foremost."

Natsu narrowed his eyes at him. "I honestly have no idea if you are mocking me too or not."

Rogue only smiled.

Natsu yawned again, before rubbing his eyes. "Well, I'll leave the two of you to your very nice and comfortable bed. Please bolt your doors if you're planning on any more activities. I wouldn't wish it on anyone to walk in on one of them."

"As you wish, Your Highness." Sting said with a mock salute as the Prince walked out of the room.

"Natsu." Rogue called out before Natsu could close the door behind him. "We have two months before your supposed arrival here. What do you plan to do now? Shall we hold your meetings with the traders and nobles earlier, or-?"

"Follow the original plans." Natsu said, nonchalant. "Whatever you two came here ahead of the others for, do it. As far as Crocus is concerned? The Prince is still in voyage at sea."

Both Sting and Rogue nodded, expressions now serious. "What about you?" Rogue asked. "What will you do here?"

Natsu grinned. "I'll be around. Don't let me get in your way."

As the two bowed, he turned around, stepped outside and closed the door behind him.

He reached the small garden of the compound and was pleased to find a hammock hanging between two trees. He wasted no time to relax in it, looking up at the early evening sky.

Here in Crocus, in the Alvarez compound, there were two places so far that took Natsu back home to Vistarion. First was the kitchen, with all the familiar smells of foods and spices, with his people bustling doing familiar chores. Second was the garden, with the scents of plants and flowers from home. Despite the different feel of the breeze, he was still comforted by the faint sounds of various conversations in dialects and accents he recognized.

The first stars were starting to twinkle in the sky. Natsu recognized familiar constellations. They took his thoughts back to that afternoon.

Lady Stella, who walked the streets of Magnolia like she was its queen, yet at the same time was just as easily fascinated with magic and fairy tales as the little children Natsu sometimes entertained in the palace in Vistarion.

The memory of her questions made him smile.

Lady Stella, whose name was definitely not Stella.

He wondered if she picked that name for the day because she loved the stars like she loved stories.

In Alvarez, they have stories about each constellation in the night sky. Stories that guide farmers in their fields, magicians in their spells, travelers in their journeys and sailors in their voyages.

If he ever met Lady Stella again, perhaps he could tell her some of them.