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Fire in Snow

Chapter Text

The news came by bird at dawn: an uprising at the edge of the kingdom, led by a governor who'd allied with the barbarian tribes he'd pledged to quell.

"This is the sixth such uprising during your reign," pointed out Manfred von Karma. He was an intelligent and powerful man, impeccably ordered and eternally dissatisfied with the behavior of everyone around him. That extended to the palace guards, his own daughter, and even the royal family. The only person to escape Manfred's judgment was himself. "Clearly, leniency has bred disorder. The governor needs to be put down like the dog he is."

The king didn't immediately respond. Serious and just, King Gregory meted out no punishment unless it was deserved. His father had expanded their kingdom through war, then died just before he fatally overextended their reach. Gregory's deliberate kingship was the only thing that had held the realm together as its growing pains eased. "I've never before called for the death of the rebellious governors," King Gregory eventually said. The royal court was silent, from the lowest guard to the prince standing near the throne. "Without uniquely notable levels of destruction or disorder, I do not see how I can treat this uprising any differently. High Mage, I trust that you, as always, will capture this man and return him to custody. He will then be questioned and that intelligence will be used to stop further unrest."

Hesitation was von Karma's only answer.

Murmurs wound through the court. Even Phoenix Wright, a young guard who mostly knew von Karma by reputation, found himself leaning in closer with surprise. High Mage von Karma never hesitated, ever. He'd sent his daughter away when a spot opened for her to further her magical studies and hadn't even embraced her when she left. A slap on a horse's rump had set the carriage into motion, then he'd strode back into the palace to continue his work. This was Phoenix's first year in the guards and he'd found himself more afraid of the High Mage than any foreign army.

"From my tower, I will call down winter upon his palace," von Karma eventually said. "The skies will turn on them and the province's entire capital will be frozen for their crimes."

The prince took a step forward, frowning. "The king doesn't want you to destroy the entire town, von Karma," protested Prince Miles. He looked like a paler version of the king and matched his serious nature and fierce idealism. "And we don't want you to destroy anyone at all, not even the governor. Just capture him like you've taken in the others."

The look von Karma gave the prince burned with such hatred that Phoenix found himself reaching for his sword. "What're you doing, Nick?" hissed his friend Larry, who'd also traveled to the royal city of Angelos in search of a life beyond donkey herding or barley farming. Normally Phoenix looked far more believable in their guard's ensemble, but it was Larry who kept his head that day. "You can't pull your sword on that guy!"

Of course I can't, Phoenix thought and forced his hand away from the sword's grip. What was he thinking? Just because von Karma sometimes scared the daylights out of him was no reason to start an uprising of his own right there in the royal court.

"I was speaking with the king," von Karma said after a long pause. His ashen gaze bored into the prince's, who met it fearlessly. Despite that courage, Phoenix felt uncomfortably sure that the prince was in grave danger from his own father's advisor. His hand twitched again toward his sword. He was a royal guard, and so it was his primary function in life to protect the king and prince. Even though he didn't know the extent of the man's magic, it was clear to him that von Karma was dangerous right now. Larry didn't think the same, no, but Larry was an idiot.

"My son speaks for me as well," King Gregory said placidly, and gestured for him to continue.

Phoenix swallowed as he watched. For some curious reason, he'd prefer it if the king himself delivered this news that von Karma clearly hated.

"Five times, I've seen you lead our armies to a rebellious province and return with the leader in chains," said Prince Miles. "I see no reason why you cannot do so again."

Silver-worked boots clicked on the marble floors as von Karma stepped forward. "I am telling you what must be done, princeling. Every person in that town supported that traitor with their livelihoods. They deserve to share his fate. You want my advice, Your Grace? Kill them. Kill them all."

King Gregory spoke up before his son replied. His voice was so mild that Phoenix suspected he must be very angry indeed. "If that is your advice, Manfred, then no, I don't believe I want it. I am ordering you to travel with my soldiers down to Deele and retrieve the governor just as you retrieved the others. Any civilian deaths are unacceptable, and will be on your head. Am I understood?"

Manfred von Karma said nothing.

Prince Miles stepped forward, nearly toe-to-toe with von Karma, and Phoenix had to force his hand off the sword handle again. "Your king asked you a question, Manfred."

Hatred blazed through von Karma's eyes again, and a ripple of magic made them glow like the full moon in winter. He threw his shoulders back and tossed his fox-lined cloak dramatically behind him. "I cannot."

"You can't refuse your king!" Prince Miles protested, though King Gregory stayed silent as his brow furrowed.

"I did not say that I would not," von Karma snapped, his eyes turning the stormy blue-grey of the northern sea. "I said that I could not. It's the height of summer and Deele is on the southern border of your kingdom."

"I don't understand," King Gregory said slowly.

Arms rigid at his sides, von Karma raised his chin and said, "You know perfectly well that I am a northern mage, Your Grace. My powers are limited in the heat."

Still frowning, King Gregory replied, "That's all well and good, Manfred, but my soldiers will handle the capture. You need only direct them."

When von Karma didn't reply, a small smile crossed Prince Miles' lips. "High Mage, forgive me, but you're almost giving us the impression that you'll... melt."

"Miles," Gregory chuckled, "don't tease him." He hesitated, a curious smile blooming to match his son's, and asked, "Could it be true, Manfred? The look on your face when he said that...."

Silence answered, long and painful. Larry was the first person to laugh and it spread quickly. Quiet at first, it soon sounded like shrieking crows had filled the court. Face white with rage, von Karma's hand snapped forward and seized the prince's jacket. All laughter ceased, replaced by a sharp intake of breath that echoed in the royal chamber.

Very slowly, Phoenix lowered his sword from where he'd put it to the High Mage's throat. He didn't even remember lunging forward. The prince gave him a look of mingled thanks and surprise as he smoothed the wrinkles where von Karma had grabbed him. Phoenix had never seen him that close before; guards only came this close to their charges if something had gone very wrong. If Manfred's eyes were rotating fiercely through the colors of the far north, the prince's looked like a gentle rainstorm over Phoenix's old home.

The king gave Phoenix a similar look of thanks, then dismissed him with a nod. Phoenix returned to a gawking Larry's side as Prince Miles retook his place next to the throne. "You have denied my orders and laid a hand on my son," Gregory said coldly. "Your service is not required for addressing this rebellion, Manfred. Mage Fey?"

A woman, much younger than Manfred and voluptuous even under her heavy robes, stepped forward in surprise. "Yes, Your Grace?"

"You'll be overseeing the capture. I trust you have no problems with summer?"

The words had been asked in all seriousness; King Gregory wasn't known for his levity. Still, they sent the crowd into a fresh round of laughter that circled the room and grew each time it lapped. The High Mage stared at the royal duo with open hatred as his hands glowed blue and white and silver. "Enough!" Manfred shouted. "You dare laugh? You dare laugh at me?" Snow exploded from the ceiling like a roaring blizzard, and ice spread under his feet until it hit the far walls. Prince Miles blocked his father with his cloak, moving on instinct, but Gregory pushed him aside and stood steady on the slick floor.

"Your service," Gregory repeated gravely, "is not required ever again, Manfred."

Manfred von Karma stared at him for a long beat, then swept out with another word and the crowd parted to let him pass. The only person he looked at was Phoenix. That glance only lasted a second, yet Phoenix felt more frozen than when the blizzard had erupted.

"What did you do, Nick?" Larry hissed as the guards retook their places along the walls and servants hurried to open any window that might let in some sunshine. "You were going to lop the scary guy's head off!"

"He threatened the prince," Phoenix said, feeling like he was stating the obvious. "That's the entire reason we're here, Larry: to stop something like that from happening." When he glanced at the royal dais, the sight of the prince looking back at Phoenix startled him. Prince Miles inclined his head in thanks and Phoenix, face warm, rubbed the back of his neck and nodded back.

"I dunno," Larry said and sighed. "He looked pretty mad at you."

"He doesn't look mad," Phoenix said, tilting his head. The prince was checking on an elderly servant woman who'd slipped on the ice. He had the fine, angular features of the kingdom's royalty, but there was something about both him and his father that made them seem simply decent under those faces that belonged in oil paintings. "He looks... nice."

"Not him," Larry hissed. "Him."

Following Larry's gaze to the door, Phoenix shrugged. "The High Mage left, Larry. It'll be fine. I just hope Mage Fey gets that army down there soon, or von Karma might try to beat them and freeze the entire place anyway, just to prove a point." The captain had already sent several soldiers to raid von Karma's tower in the castle and seize any magical objects he might take for immediate revenge, but Phoenix didn't think that would stop him from making a point somehow.

"You really think he'd do that?" Larry wondered.

Remembering the look on von Karma's face when he'd grabbed the prince, Phoenix frowned. "Yeah. I think he would. Come on; I see the captain pointing us to the hall. Let's get dinner and warm up."

Fey led her army out before evening fell and they were over the horizon when the sun vanished behind it. For three days, the memories of Manfred von Karma's rage faded in the palace and the focus returned to Deele's rebellion.

That third night was colder than the heart of winter.

"He's back!" Phoenix yelled, pulling on the heaviest cloak he could find as he grabbed his sword and burst into the screaming blizzard. He didn't know where his captain was, didn't know where Larry was, but he knew his duty: protect the prince. Protect the king. On unsteady legs, he scrambled across the icy courtyard and began pounding up spiral stairs toward the royal chambers. Frost spread even as he ran, and he barely caught himself as the stone turned into blocks of ice as thick as a winter river. Each step he took was soon done on pure willpower; the temperature was dropping by the second. His breath had puffed when he left the barracks, but by now he could feel the air freezing his throat and lungs.

King Gregory was in his chamber, still and silent on his bed. A brilliant icy spear erupted from his heart, its bottom inches coated in frozen blood.

Phoenix bit down on his glove to stifle his scream, then ran in search of the prince.

Prince Miles' chambers were empty. The window eighty feet above the ground was open, though no door was, and snowflakes streamed from it like a decaying bridge. As Phoenix's heartbeat pounded in his ears, he followed the path of those flakes as they wound away from the tower. Some floated toward the ground and some caught an updraft toward the stars, but every last one moved in the same direction on the compass.

As Phoenix stared north, the Guidestar twinkled in the cloudless sky. It was as the same unearthly blue as Manfred's eyes.