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Convocation

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 THE DUCHESS GAMBIT

- Convocation -
(in which there are surprises, and a duel)

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Every year, the Hill gathers in a convocation for the city council and the nobles. Some come to the City from their country estates just for this event. Foreign representatives were invited to convey the land’s hospitality, and a select few richer Middle City merchants were also lucky enough to be sent invitations.

It was a grand gathering as always, with nobles and merchants alike gracing the ballroom in their most expensive and lavish outfits, while the foreigners impressed with their own land’s unique and intricate fashions. The hall was filled with sounds of conversation - old friends catching up and new ones being introduced to each other. Men and women loudly discussed business achievements and quietly whispered about the latest gossip.

This time around however, the gossiping seemed a bit louder than the gloating.

Speculations were abound as everyone had started to grow impatient. for two of the most anticipated guests who were yet to arrive.

“Do you think punctuality is somehow not practiced in Alvarez?” Duke Orland huffed, a scowl on his wrinkled face as he looked over the crowd in the hall.

“Now, now, Jiemma,” Duke Fullbuster said, chiding as he sat beside his friend and fellow noble. The other duke was known for his superiority and arrogance due to his age and status, but Silver knew that the man valued his opinions somewhat. He was one of the few, really. “It wouldn’t do to have a sour mood. This is a night of celebration.”

“You are far too lenient with these young fools, Silver.” Jiemma said with another huff. “Prince or not, this man is a Foreign Ambassador here. It is just rude to arrive late, and for his first formal appearance too! All the other ambassadors are on time, aren’t they?”

Silver shook his head, trying to calm the older man down. Nobody wanted a grumpier-than-usual Jiemma Orland, not tonight. “Ambassador or not, he is a Prince on a new land. Maybe he made a fuss about his appearance or something.” he shrugged. “Look! Laxus doesn’t seem to mind.”

“Of course he doesn’t! Dreyar is one of them- the worst of them. No regards to rules. Traditions. His status!” Duke Orland scowled once more as his eyes narrowed towards the empty seat beside Silver’s, for the third duchal house representative.

He scoffed. Of course Laxus Dreyar would already be among the crowd and not in his seat presiding the gathering. He was too young, too rebellious, for any sense of responsibility. Mad, they all call him, and Jiemma would agree, even though carefree Silver would brush it off and prefer kinder terms such as ‘capricious’.

In the crowd, he spotted Laxus himself, conversing with another noble son. Was it the Fernandez heir? Ah, not important. Jiemma waved it off and only watched the young duke as he said his regards to his friend before walking off again.

Laxus turned and caught his fellow dukes watching him. Silver raised his wine glass and Laxus did the same in acknowledgement. Before he could think to care about why the two men had set their sights on him, he felt a light touch on his arm.

“My Lord.” called his aide’s familiar voice. Laxus faced Freed, only to be offered a pair of gloves he recognized as his. “You forgot this in your coat pocket.”

“Hm.” Laxus accepted it easily, slipping the items on. “Thanks. How’s your people back there?”, he asked, with an expression that clearly said he wished that he was with said people. The ladies-in-waiting, footmen and attendants were having a less stuffy time downstairs, he was sure. He always enjoyed their company more than he did with other nobles.

“Oh, they’re enjoying the gossip, as always.” Freed answered as he subtly took a look around the gathering. “I don’t see the duchess.”

Laxus rolled his eyes. “Well, she let herself be whisked away by the pirate queen, far too easily.”

Freed blinked up at him in question before looking towards the direction the duke jabbed a thumb towards.

Ah. There she was, his Duchess Dreyar: Lady Mirajane looking stunning in a deep red ball gown, standing rather closely with none other than Lady Alberona and laughing genially at something the other woman was saying. Freed didn’t expect to find Cana Alberona in this convocation, but then after all these years, the one thing he had learned to expect from the woman was that she was unpredictable.

For example, not only did Lady Cana attend the convocation, she chose not to wear a formal gown. Instead she donned a fancy gold-lined coat over a loose blouse, corset, trousers and boots. Never fond of fancy updos, her long hair was haphazardly let down in brown curls. Her earrings were large golden hoops, and the rest of her jewelry shone in bright colors. No sword nor dagger, but there was an empty sheath on her waist.

Laxus had always called her ‘pirate queen’, but the nickname felt most suitable at this moment.

“I didn’t know she was back.” Freed remarked.

Laxus gave a shrug. “Neither did everyone else in this hall. She loves her surprises.”

Freed chuckled, then withdrew his gaze from the women. “As much as I love seeing my Lady enjoying herself, I was actually pertaining about the Duchess.”

“Ah.” Laxus nodded, acknowledging the confusion. “She isn’t here, yet.” Then lowering his voice, he said, “It’s not like her to be this late. Do you know what she’s up to?”

Freed shook his head. “And if we don’t, then I doubt anyone does.”

Laxus was about to respond, but held back when he saw his wife pulling her friend towards them, expression pleased but curious. “Freed! You are here, is something the matter?”

Freed turned to bow at the ladies. “No worries, milady. My Lord simply forgot his gloves in his coat and I thought I would bring it to him.”

Mira smiled at him. “That’s kind of you.” Then she turned to smirk at her husband. “Whatever will you do without Freed, my dear?”

“I’ll be absolutely pathetic and useless.” Laxus declared solemnly, ignoring his aide’s exasperated expression. He nodded at Cana. “Lady Clive, we didn’t know you’ve come back.”

Cana waved it off pleasantly. “We docked just last week.” Stepping closer, she said in a mischievous whisper, “I’ve been tellin’ everyone I didn’t have enough time to get a new gown because of that and they’ve been buyin’ it.”

Freed smiled in amusement while Laxus chuckled. “As expected of you.”

Mira clung tighter to the other woman’s arm. “Don’t mind what they say. You look absolutely fetching in this suit.”

Cana returned the compliment by pressing a kiss to the back of the duchess’s hand. “Thank you, my turtledove. Allow me to say that you’re the most beautiful lady here tonight.”

Mira giggled and leaned against the taller woman’s shoulder before she looked at both Laxus and Freed as she said, “Cana was telling me all about her most recent voyage.”

Laxus spared Freed a glance. The man was already subtly eyeing the people around them who had started to whisper, no doubt taking note of the Mad Duke letting his wife openly associate with a notorious woman, in gestures and looks that were more than friendly.

They weren’t wrong.

Lady Mirajane was not quite known as the Mad Duchess to match her husband, but everyone on the Hill knew that Laxus spoiled her rotten and nowadays she got to do pretty much whatever she wanted.

Well. Laxus prided himself in being many things, one of which is a good husband. Despite his reputation, he valued his wife’s happiness highly, and right now Mira looked very happy.

Too happy. But there’s never enough happiness he could offer Duchess Dreyar, so that’s good.

“Is that so?” he asked his wife, consciously looking his most fond and indulgent. Let them talk, he thought. That was always fun, riling these nobles up like that, even after all these years. He then looked at Cana. “We trust that it was a peaceful one.”

“Peaceful is boring.” Cana grinned. “It was pleasant though. I’ve been telling Mira that I have acquired some truly wonderful things this time around. Some of those are for you.”

This time, Laxus didn’t hesitate to feel pleased. Cana may seem flighty, but she was a great businesswoman and never failed to drive smart bargains. She always brought exotic art and trade from her travels. “I look forward to seeing them. Drop by Dreyar House anytime at your convenience.”

“I also have some goods that Lucy might like.” Cana said, then proceeded to look around. “She’s not here yet?”

“I’m quite sure everyone has noted that fact.” Laxus scoffed. “I can tell that Jiemma and Silver are getting impatient. Even Gray has asked me. Why do they ask me?”

“She is your mentee, sort of.” Freed provided.

Laxus frowned. “Maybe so, but that doesn’t mean I’m her keeper. And she knows better than to keep people waiting when she knows they are all waiting specially for her.”

Mira blinked. “They are?”

“They always are, milady.” Freed explained patiently. While it’s been two years since Mira arrived in Crocus from the Strauss family’s country estates to marry Laxus, she was never really interested in the City’s politics. With that in mind, Laxus usually left the explaining to Freed. “The Duchess has always been the belle of every ball in Crocus. She always brings with her something to talk about.”

That was true, as well. Duchess Lucy Heartfilia was the sole head of the second richest duchal house in Crocus. Since gaining her title, she has been invited to every event and had maintained a good relationship with her fellow nobles, with a shining, pristine record on her plate. While she was a known trendsetter and many sought her support and counsel, she always insisted that Heartfilia will never be involved in the City politics. She had claimed that she never found any of the meetings and campaigns fun, and instead preferred to enjoy her own business ventures, tea parties, plays and musicales, like any proper lady of quality would.

Oh, if only they knew just how much of a sway she already had in the City’s Council. Lucy’s work was subtle, and only few in the Hill really knew that she was more than her clean reputation and fickle-but-kind public persona.

“Then again, this is Lucy.” Freed continued, considering. “She likes to show off, she must have some kind of grand scheme.”

“I bet she does.” Cana interjected absently. “I met her a couple days ago, told me she had something special planned for tonight. I thought it’s simply some new jewelry or gown. Maybe it’s something else.”

Mira pouted. “She knew you were here in the City before I did?”

“Oh, you don't have to be jealous, Mira. It was only by chance. Our paths crossed unexpectedly.” Cana reassured her, cupping her chin. “And I had planned to surprise you, tonight.”

That was enough to charm the duchess. "I see..."

“Again.” Laxus sighed, looking at Freed. “We really don’t know what she’s up to?”

“All I know is she’s bringing the entertainment.” Freed said. “She very kindly offered her favorite swordsman for tonight. She said that the Alvarez ambassador deserved nothing less than the best Crocus has to offer.”

“Loke is tonight’s swordsman?” Cana asked excitedly. “Who is he fighting?”

“That’s just it.” Freed answered, eyes narrowed in suspicion. “She said not to worry about it.”

Mira blinked. “She’s bringing two men, then? Does Lucy have another swordsman?”

“As far as I know, she has Taurus as her second swordsman.” Freed said. “And Laxus lets her borrow me sometimes. She has hired others before, though.”

“Well, the ambassador hasn’t arrived either.” Cana said, then she laughed lightly. “The two people everyone’s lookin’ forward to seeing, and they’re makin’ them wait.”

“One of them better arrive soon, but Lucy first, preferably.” Laxus said. “Jiemma will start cursing any minute now, and the Council will throw a fit if they’d have to explain to the ambassador why only three of the four houses are represented.”

Freed looked towards the grand table in the raised platform in the front of the hall. There were four seats for the heads of the duchal houses, two of which were already occupied by Duke Fullbuster and Duke Orland. Duke Dreyar would have to come join them soon. Duchess Heartfilia, of course, remains empty. Four more seats were there for the City Council of Lords - all members of whom were present. Lord Jura, Lord Warrod, Lord Draculos and Lord Wolfheim were either conferring with each other, or relaying instructions to their own aides. There were two other foreign representatives seated in places of honor with them, and a third remaining seat for the Alvarez Ambassador.

Most of the men in the table were visibly growing impatient.

Just before Freed could echo his Duke’s worries, their crowd was approached quietly by one of the Council Lords’ aides. Mest Gryder, a lower-ranking nobleman who worked under Lord Jura’s employ, bowed in respect.

The man spoke in perfect, polished formality. “My Lord, we’ve been informed that the Ambassador has arrived, and Duke Dreyar is requested at the table to give him a proper welcome.”

Well. Lucy is in for a scolding from all three Dukes and four Lords, then. She better have a good excuse for this.

Laxus dismissed Mest and offered his hand towards Mirajane but addressed his words to Cana, “If I may have my wife back for a moment, Lady Alberona?”

“Oh, she’s yours. No need to be so formal.” Cana said with a smirk as she stepped back to let Mira go. Mira gave her another smile before taking her husband’s arm. Cana winked one last time before slipping away, navigating gracefully through the crowd.

She stopped when she found Gray Fullbuster and his wife Lady Juvia, deciding to watch the happenings unfold in their company.

Freed stepped backwards as well. “I shall take my leave then-”

“No, stay.” Laxus said. “You’re my aide, and our house swordsman. We can say I brought you to be Lucy’s backup.”

Mira reached for him with her free hand and Freed conceded easily. Together, the three of them headed towards the grand table, the two men guiding the lady up the shallow steps to the platform. Laxus took his seat beside Silver, Mira sat primly on the chair next to his, and Freed stood a step behind their chairs dutifully.

Silver regarded his fellow duke with a rueful smile. “Laxus, you wouldn’t know why our favorite Duchess hasn’t made her appearance yet, would you?”

“I’ll say this again,” Laxus sighed, for what seemed like the umpteenth time that night. Gods, he hated these stuffy gatherings. “I am not her keeper.”

At the loud, distinct sound of the expensive double doors unlocking and opening, the whole room fell into a hushed silence. The crowd automatically parted to make a pathway in the middle of the room heading towards the grand table of the Duchal Houses and Council of Lords, who all pulled their chairs back and stood up in courtesy of their honored guest.

The end of a staff was clicked twice against the floor before a booming voice announced, “My Lords and Ladies - please welcome the Ambassador from the Alvarez Empire, his entourage-”

Everyone held their breath as the young man stepped forward, but it was quickly followed by a collective gasp.

The ambassador was accompanied by a very familiar woman.

“-and Lady Lucy, Duchess Heartfilia!”

Any pretenses of formal silence were dropped as most of the people in the room immediately started exchanging intrigued whispers.

The Ambassador was dressed in his country’s finest silk of various colors. Over loose pants and boots, he wore a long black tunic with rich red-and-gold embroidery and one long swooping sleeve which fell to his side while his other arm was left exposed to show off expensive golden jewelry wrapped around his upper arm and wrists, matching the necklaces around his neck, all with intricate carvings and studded with gems. His rose-colored hair was pushed back haphazardly and his expression was boyish and confident as he stared straight ahead towards the grand table.

His hand was raised to lead the Duchess as they walked. Lady Lucy looked immaculate in a deep blue and gold gown, accenting the beautiful Heartfilia rubies glinting in her neck, ears and wrists, with her hair in an impeccable updo. She carried herself, as always, with perfect grace and composure, rose red lips curled into a smile.

Trailing after them, everyone recognized the handsome man who went by the name Loke, Heartfilia House’s first swordsman and known to many as the best in Crocus. After him came the ambassador’s entourage: two women and three men, who all matched their master in their colorful and elaborate foreign attire.

They were young. No one had quite expected them to be so young.

Under his breath, Freed mumbled, “Oh, Lucy. What exactly do you have in mind?”

It was loud enough for only his masters to hear, because Mira’s expression went from shocked to worried, while Laxus chuckled softly before he answered, “The most foolish gamble she had taken in her career so far… or the most clever.”

With that, he followed the other dukes and lords as they walked around the table to formally welcome their guests, who have stopped just a few steps before the short staircase leading to the center platform.

And then, the unsubtle whispering of everyone else in the room stopped when Duchess Heartfilia took a step forward and bowed. She smiled up at the council and announced, “My Dear Lords and Ladies of Crocus, may I present to you our guest of honor and his entourage. I shall let him introduce himself properly.”

Lord Jura, the current head of the Council, nodded his head as he spoke. To his credit, he remained composed, as if the Duchess hadn't caught them all off guard and all this was according to plan. “Thank you, Duchess.”

This time, Lucy’s curtsy was towards the Ambassador, who bowed back politely. She nodded at her swordsman and Loke stepped forward to escort her to her place beside the three dukes. She stood beside Laxus and Mira while Loke walked to stand at the back beside Freed.

“You’re late.” Freed whispered to his fellow swordsman.

Loke grinned charmingly. “Yes. Is it effective?”

Freed looked exasperated, but said, “Very.”

Both looked towards their guests again and they watched as the ambassador pressed a fisted hand to the middle of his chest and bowed. It was a traditional gesture of courtesy among his people.

“Greetings, My Lords and Ladies.” he said, language fluent but heavy with an accent. He sounded relaxed, his confidence never faltering. “I am Natsu Dragonil of Vistarion, Second Prince of the Great Alvarez Empire of Arakitashia and brother of our Great Emperor Zeref Dragonil. I have come here to your capital city of Crocus to be the Empire’s Royal Ambassador to your kingdom of Fiore in this land of Ishgar. Our Great Emperor hopes to formally open negotiations for a good relationship between our land and yours.”

Lord Jura nodded again as he extended his arms in welcome. “We are honored to welcome you here today, Prince Dragonil-”

“No.” Natsu said quickly. He smiled, quelling the Lords’ worries that he may have been offended. “Please, you would do me a great honor to call me Natsu, My Lord.”

Lord Jura’s brows furrowed just a tiny bit, but he smoothly carried on. “Lord Natsu-”

Natsu shook his head, tucking his hands behind him casually. “No Lord, simply Natsu.”

The whispers were starting up again, but Lord Jura maintained his composure. “Very well. We are honored to welcome you here today, Natsu.” The prince grinned brightly, so Jura thought it fit to continue. “I am Lord Jura, the head of Crocus’ Council of Lords.”

“Thank you for the warm welcome, Lord Jura.” Natsu replied, then stepped aside and gestured towards his companions behind him. “I have brought with me my good friends.”

Two of them stepped forward: a beautiful woman with brilliant red hair wearing a deep purple robe, and a tall muscled man in a black and silver tunic with long unruly raven hair falling to his back. The woman’s gaze was authoritative, sharp and piercing, while the man was an intimidating sight with silver piercings in his ears and face. Both of them had two swords strapped to their waist.

“Erza and Gajeel are two of the best warriors in our army.” Natsu said as Erza and Gajeel both saluted their hosts. “They came with me as my personal guard.”

The two stepped back as the other three stood in their place.

The two young men looked like opposites of each other: one had golden hair, wearing an assortment of light-colored robes in an elaborate fashion and radiating youthful confidence while the other had dark hair, formal but simpler clothing and a more subdued demeanor. Between them stood a young woman only slightly younger than them, her green robes complementing long midnight blue hair tied back in an intricate braid. Her smile was soft and shy.

Natsu continued his introductions and the three bowed in sequence. “Sting and Rogue are here to help me manage our business and relations in your land. Wendy is a royal healer and one of the very best in her art. They are all very knowledgeable with our culture and trade.”

Talks and murmurs prevailed among the crowd. Swordswomen were unheard of in Fiore. Lady Cana Alberona was a singularity in herself and they only attributed it to her rebellious and contrary nature. Yet the woman called Erza was the prince’s personal guard! Not only that, but they all looked very young, all of them only around the prince’s age or even younger. The healer couldn’t be any older than eighteen but the prince had claimed her to be one of the best.

It was a common and logical sense that with age came experience. Did the so-called Great Emperor of Alvarez Empire really take their relations with Ishgar so lightly that he would send an ambassador who seemed so ill-fit for the role? Accompanied by an awfully young entourage?

But no. Lord Jura would think about this later. For now, he would do his job and welcome their young guests with gusto.

“Well, we all look forward to working with you and your companions, Natsu.” the man replied, then gestured toward his own companions. “These are my fellow council members, Lord Wolfheim, Lord Warrod, and Lord Draculos.”

The three Lords all bowed as their names were called.

Lord Jura continued with another flourish. “Fiore has four honored noble Duchal Houses. Allow me to introduce Duke Orland, Duke Fullbuster, Duke Dreyar, and, I believe you have been acquainted with our Duchess Heartfilia.”

Jiemma’s bow wasn’t quite a bow and more like a grudging nod. Silver’s was gallant and accommodating. Laxus’s was curt and formal. Lastly, Lucy simply smiled and gave an indulgent, if playful, nod.

“Tonight, we also have Lord Agria and Lord Akatsuki. Like you, they are also foreign ambassadors.”

Both ambassadors were middle-aged men who had already spent years in the city cultivating their land’s trade with Fiore and Crocus. Their respective children were well-acquainted with the various social circles of their age. Both men were pleasant and careful enough with their reputation and performed their respective country’s courtesies upon introduction.

“Gathered here today are our city’s elite noble families and businessmen. Again, we welcome you to Fiore and we hope that your stay will truly be fruitful, for Fiore and Alvarez both.”

Natsu stepped back in his place again with his companions standing dutifully behind him. All this time, he kept his perfect grin in place, and it did not fall as he replied, “I truly hope the same, My Lord.”

.


 

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The banquet started as soon Natsu took his seat in the grand table. Erza and Gajeel stood behind his chair following protocol while Sting, Rogue and Wendy went to join the table of the other foreign ambassadors’ families.

He was seated between Lord Jura and Lord Jiemma, who both cordially told him to help himself to his meal, which were the best of Fiore’s signature dishes. He only grinned before digging in, claiming that he was excited to try the food. He looked visibly delighted, and made sure his hosts knew. Jura was an excellent companion as usual, while Jiemma at least made an effort to be civil. Silver lightened up the mood with his easy compliments and suggestions.

He seemed to really like one of the dishes and promptly surprised his hosts when he exclaimed, “Mm, delicious! Erza, you’ll like this!” He lifted the fork up towards Erza behind him, who only raised an eyebrow for a second before leaning forward and taking a bite.

She nodded as she chewed. “It does taste great.” Like the prince, she was also fluent in the local tongue despite the heavy accent.

Then Gajeel crossed his arms and huffed, leaning against his chair. “D’you really need us here? I’m hungry, man.” Surprisingly, his accent was less notable than the other two.

Natsu shrugged. “I don’t even know why you stay there. You should go eat.”

Gajeel rolled his eyes before stalking away. “Call me if you piss someone off enough for them to try to kill you.”

This seemed to baffle the other lords, even Silver, so Erza raised her hands appeasingly. “He is joking. He likes to joke.”

Laxus observed the scene and made sure the rest of their company was focused on doting over their royal guests before he turned towards Lucy. She was already daintily cutting the steak in her plate.

“So, Duchess Heartfilia,” he addressed, only loud enough to be heard by the woman in question. “Should I trust that you know what you’re doing?”

Lucy looked up only to be greeted by the expectant faces of Laxus, Mira and Freed.

She smiled. “Duke Dreyar, please, trust that you had taught me well.”

She didn’t miss the way Laxus and Freed exchanged a quick look while Mira leaned over to whisper to her. “You surprised a lot of people, Lucy.”

“I know.” Lucy giggled. “I like surprises.”

“You sure do.” Laxus said, glancing again at the other side of the table.

Now even the woman Erza had left her master to his devices. Nevertheless, Natsu seemed to be doing well, complimenting the food with much enthusiasm. He acted more like a pampered prince than an ambassador. Maybe Laxus shouldn’t have been so surprised that Lucy thought to take advantage and managed to capture his attention so quickly, if he was as shallow as he was letting on. But there was also something in Lucy’s look of amusement. It was hard to recognize if you didn’t know what to look for, but Laxus knew her well enough to know when the Duchess was putting up an act and when she was genuinely adoring.

This look of hers… it was different. Laxus didn’t know exactly what it was, but it wasn’t one that she would have if she was simply watching a spoiled royal make a fool of himself.

With that, he decided.

“Pay a visit to Dreyar House soon, will you? Lady Alberona was telling us earlier that she has some new merchandise that might interest us.”

Lucy got his message perfectly: ‘You are going to tell me exactly what the hell is going on.’

She nodded obligingly. “Of course, Laxus. It’s always a pleasure to do business with Lady Alberona.”

Mira then remarked that they were all acting so seriously in a night of celebration, so Laxus let the two ladies talk as he continued to observe their new guests.

The Prince was still going on about the food. Now he was telling ever-accommodating Lord Jura and Lord Silver about spices that would go well with the steak he was eating. The two men were good at their jobs, of course, and was unfailing as they humored the young man.

Meanwhile, the Prince’s companions were also being entertained cordially by the other foreigners in their table. Sting and Rogue were already engaged in friendly conversation with Lord Agria’s daughter Yukino, a young lady of their age. Lord Akatsuki’s son Ren was quiet as usual, but his wife Lady Sherry, who was a local noble’s daughter herself, looked very pleased as she talked to Wendy.

Laxus tried to hazard a guess as to what the others must be thinking. Jiemma was surely put off by this - disappointed and perhaps even offended that the ambassador prince they welcomed was not what he expected, accompanied by a staff too young. Silver, good-natured as he was, wouldn’t be offended but rather bemused. He was still a noble lord though - a Duke - and would still hold the same suspicions on the Alvarez Empire’s motives. Lord Jura probably felt the same, but would be too occupied on playing the gracious host for the moment. The other members of the Council looked doubtful, but they knew how to keep up the appearance of neutrality and hospitality in the presence of guests.

They've been working on this meeting for months. The old men may be annoyingly traditional but they wouldn't dare screw this up, as much for their people as for them.

Laxus knew that most of the Ambassador’s staff from the Alvarez Empire arrived at least several months ago. Technically, the Alvarez traders have been coming and going to Fiore for years, unique wares in tow. However for them, Fiore was mostly a dock to resupply. They exchange their merchandise with supplies and then continue their voyage to other lands. Talks for formalizing their trading arrangements have been brought up regularly, but the Empire had been in the throes of a war with another nation. Trade with an unfamiliar land was not their priority.

Until now, when several months ago a royal messenger arrived bearing a sealed letter indicating the Great Emperor's desire to initiate the talks to arrange a formal agreement between Alvarez and Fiore. It had been a long time coming, and so the Council of Lords and the Merchants' Guild gave their consent. After a few months, the first of the Alvarez Empire's representatives finally arrived. A plot of land was purchased in a portion of the Middle City, the foreigners quickly making a compound for themselves, a mansion refurbished and turned into Ambassador House.

Laxus' intel, provided by his trusty network of informants around the City, indicated that two of the Prince's personal aides arrived two months ago - those would be Sting and Rogue. Sting was seen talking to and arranging meetings with nobles and merchants, while Rogue was in charge of the construction and organization within the compound. Laxus didn't mind how young the two were. It wasn't so strange that a foreign country sent young and good-looking diplomats to charm their way to getting appointments with the richest businessmen in the City.

The Prince himself reportedly arrived only a week prior with the rest of his staff. Laxus wanted to get more information on that, but the Alvarez people were very private and only admitted one of their own into their compound. There was the option of buying someone, of course, but that option relied too much on loyalty. And a foreigner's loyalty was a risky thing.

For the past months, nobles and merchants alike have been clamoring for a peek on the possible business merits when trade opens between the land and Alvarez. Fashionable fabric and silks. Precious stones and exotic colored feathers. Chocolate. Only so few could afford most of these because of the previously limited supply. Now these luxuries can be expanded to a larger market if their Merchants' Guild are able to secure a consistent trading arrangement with the Prince and his people.

And of course, Laxus thought, Lucy had to be her smart and cunning self as to somehow get ahold of and personally charm the Ambassador - the Prince of the Great Goddamn Empire Across The Sea - securing herself special treatment in the negotiations to come.

Add to that, in true Duchess Heartfilia fashion, she made sure to parade around her achievement in the presence of every single person who mattered.

It was a power move unlike any other. He was proud of her.

But dammit, they'd be in so much shit when the guests leave.

“Gods, remind me to get drunk before attending the next Council meeting.” he grumbled, only loud enough for his closest companions to hear.

“No can do, My Lord.” Freed chimed in. "You will bear with it, I know you can."

"Stop coddling me, you know it works scarily well." Laxus huffed, trying to ignore how his aide's barely-there knowing smile always made him softer around the edges.

Mira laid a gentle hand on his arm before asking, “Will it really be so terrible, dear?”

Laxus looked at her. “Yes, absolutely. I’m sure those old farts will have nothing but complaints about this. They'll complain that the ambassador is too young. That he will be too distracted. That Duchess Heartfilia should maybe not indulge him so he'll focus more on trade and business. And they'll coddle the Duchess because they think she doesn't know what she's doing. It will be unbearable. All the stupidity. You're damn lucky you never have to be there.”

“Come now, Laxus. The night’s only just begun.” Lucy chided, although from the way she looked at him apologetically, he knew that she felt a bit guilty.

And indeed, she should be guilty. He still didn't know how she did it. How was he supposed to back her up if he didn't know the details? Did he teach her too well?

Laxus returned her look with a scowl. “Between this cultural divide the old men would never refuse to get over, and your stunt, Heartfilia - it’s already a disaster. You’re in trouble too, don’t you forget.”

Over the years, Lucy has grown accustomed to Laxus’ scolding. Much as he always claimed that he wasn’t her keeper, he was probably the closest Lucy had to one. Over the years, she had also learned to differentiate between the Mad Duke’s moods by the way he addressed her.

‘Lucy’ normally and in the presence of others, ‘Duchess’ if he was fond or teasing, and the rare ‘Duchess Heartfilia’ if he was particularly impressed.

Laxus only referring to her by her family name, however, meant that he was annoyed - either because she should have known better, or she knew too well and jumped on a risk without a safety net.

Oh, but she knew that Laxus being annoyed was only his way of manifesting that he was worried.

The Mad Duke isn't known for a gentle heart, but the Duchess knew more than most.

"I promise I will make it up to you." she replied, earnest. "To be honest, I surprised even myself, doing this. But well, Natsu thought it would be fun, too."

Laxus' eyes narrowed. "You're telling me he's in on this?"

Her eyes twinkled as she smiled.

Mira stifled her gasp behind her hand, quickly leaning over to observe the Prince from across the table.

"Lucy," Freed started, brows furrowed in thought before he eyed the Duchess critically. "That foreign boy you've been running around with in Magnolia..."

Of course Freed would be the first one to put the pieces together. He was the sharpest of them.

For the first time in that conversation, Loke spoke, addressing his mistress but eyeing Freed, "How does he know everything, milady?"

Lucy only giggled in amusement, dabbing her lips cleanly with her napkin.

"Dreyar has eyes everywhere." Freed said, eyes sharp on his fellow swordsman. "You've been running around with them, I've been told."

Lucy only exchanged an amused look with her swordsman before reaching out. "Come, Loke, let's you and I save the Ambassador from those boring old men and show him around, shall we?"

"Of course, milady." Loke said, taking his mistress' hand and leading her towards where the Ambassador Prince was pleasantly entertaining the other Lords with their questions.

"Wait, but the Prince only arrived last week." Laxus pointed out, frowning.

Lucy gave him one last mischievous look. "Allegedly."

"Oh, my." Mira laughed as she watched Lucy skillfully distract the other Lords and Dukes while also managing to snatch their guest of honor for the night. Mira looked at her husband's and their aide's baffled expressions and laughed more heartily. "Darling, I believe she had you beat this time!"

"That brat." Laxus hissed grumpily. "Frolicking in my neighborhood with the City's best swordsman and a foreign prince, and getting away with it!"

"We taught her too well." Freed said with a resigned smile, echoing his earlier sentiment.

Laxus shook his head in disbelief. "I'm so fucking proud."

Freed had to stifle a laugh at that.

Mira watched them fondly before she noticed that Lucy was waving her over from where she and Loke were introducing Natsu to the first person to abandon protocol and approach foreign royalty without prompting.

Of course it would be Cana.

Mira pushed her chair back and stood up. "Well then, who am I to turn down an audience with a Prince? You should join us soon, darling."

Laxus took her hand and pressed a kiss to her knuckles. "Give me a minute."

Mira gave his cheek a short caress before walking off.

"The women in your life are very willful, My Lord." Freed remarked as they watched Cana and Mira link arms again while Lucy introduced them to the Ambassador.

Between Natsu and Cana, the conversation looked very animated. When Natsu waved Erza over and introduced her to the two women, Laxus knew he wasn't getting his wife back anytime soon. Then their little party started walking around, meeting up with Lord Gray and his wife. Mira greeted Lady Juvia excitedly, their conversation as always somehow about the latter's pregnancy.

Laxus shrugged at Freed. "They never keep still nor stay in one place, do they?"

"Do you mind so much?" Freed asked.

"No." Laxus said, sparing his aide a furtive glance. "I have you. You're awfully good at staying in one place."

Freed smiled softly. "It depends on the place."

Finally, Laxus steeled himself and stood up. "Come, let's find someone to hide behind before Silver and Jura notice I'm still here and ask me about that spectacle our favorite Duchess made."

.


 

.

"Oh, I see the Duchess has taken the Ambassador for introductions."

Rogue looked up from the strange delicacy he was poking with his fork and towards where Lady Yukino had set her sights on. The Duchess and her swordsman together with a couple of other noble ladies, were introducing Natsu to various noble lords and merchants.

Sting sniggered. “He won’t remember all those names and faces, you know? He’ll go and complain to us later... and ask for notes. Ah, it’s tiring.”

Yukino looked at him in surprise and confusion. “S-Surely you jest, Master Sting!”

Rogue sighed quietly. Of course one could count on Sting to be inappropriately casual and drop pleasantries, baffling their poor companion.

“I mean… who would remember all those names and faces in one go?” Sting shrugged.

“O-Oh…! Of course, Master Sting.”

Rogue quite liked Lady Yukino, in a kindred spirit sort of way. She was a foreigner like them, her father Lord Agria an Ambassador himself. However, they were still very different. She had lived in the City since she was a child. She said she barely remembered her home country, having grown up in this foreign land. She had told him with a bashful smile that she was far more familiar with the City, and he had observed that she spoke the language like a local.

According to his intel, there was another Agria daughter, but she hadn’t been seen in a while. Accounts on why vary. Rogue didn’t think that bit of information was vital, so he let that pass.

“Do you want me to introduce you?” Sting asked her this time, grinning.

“I-... You-... Please, don’t let me be a bother-”

“Nah, it won’t be!” Sting assured her, then - “I have to warn you, though. He’s not that charming, really.”

The young lady gasped and quickly looked around in alarm, checking if anyone else heard. “You can’t mean that, Master Sting, he’s your Prince!”

“Mmm… so?”

“H-He might hear you!”

“...Um. So?”

Rogue raised an eyebrow at Sting, and Sting just grinned toothily. Ah, his partner is having too much fun at Poor Lady Yukino’s expense.

“Sting, save some of Natsu’s second-hand dignity, for the lady’s sake as much as his.” Rogue finally chastised.

Yukino looked at him, confused but grateful. “You don’t seem to be bothered, Master Rogue. Perhaps I just missed something? Is it a… cultural thing? To be so casual?”

Rogue shook his head. “No, my lady. Sting really just has poor manners, and the Prince is very lenient with all of us. He’s…” he tried to find a word, and only came up with, “humble.”

He conveniently didn’t mention that he and Sting came from royal Alvarez lineages themselves… that they were the Prince’s childhood friends first and aides second… nor that Natsu treated his entourage more like family rather than a royal staff.

Then, as he looked around and saw the Ambassador shaking hands with yet another noble, he decided he’d make the most of Lady Yukino’s innocently accommodating demeanor. He could use that-

Wait, no. He wouldn’t use her - Rogue didn’t use people - but his job as part of the Ambassador’s staff isn’t just organization and accounting . He had… other jobs.

Erza’s and Gajeel’s roles were straightforward - they were there to guard and protect. So was Wendy’s: to nurse and heal. Meanwhile, Rogue’s and Sting’s duties were much more elaborate than meets the eye.

He went to work.

“I noticed something that made me wonder, Lady Yukino, and it would help me greatly if you can bring clarity into this, as I think highly of your knowledge of the locals.” he started smoothly, sitting straighter. Sting squinted at him, noticing the subtle change.

Lady Yukino smiled pleasantly. “I’ll do my best to help you then, Master Rogue.”

“I noticed that people were very… surprised? Confused? When my Prince entered with your Duchess. From what I know, the Duchess is unmarried and can have any escort of her choosing. So was it very strange?”

The young lady obviously did not expect his question, and he could see that she had to pause to think.

“Of course I know that gossip is bad manners. Please do not force yourself if you are uncomfortable-”

“Oh, not at all, it’s- it’s not that!” Yukino rushed to smile in reassurance. “Only- I simply- I was one of the people who were surprised by that, is all.”

“Why so?” Rogue made a face of innocent curiosity, and out of the corner of his eye, he caught Sting smirk before popping a grape in his mouth.

“Well, the Duchess is very well-known in the City.” Yukino started, her words careful. “She is young, but her title is her own. She is well-loved, too… Everyone only has good things to say about her...”

All of those Rogue already knew, but he kept silent and nodded, encouraging Yukino to continue.

“Well, except that she has chosen to remain unmarried still, at her age, even when so many noble lords and sons have courted her. People are simply concerned, you see. After all, she has no heir and even now manages her estates by her lonesome. It couldn’t be easy. And now… well… we all know she can be quite… flighty... in her choices. Years ago she used to accompany Duke Dreyar, but lately she always attended these gatherings by herself. That’s why we were surprised that she arrived with someone tonight, and it was the Ambassador - your Prince! As far as we knew, the Prince hasn’t had an audience with anyone since he arrived, and tonight was his supposed introduction. So we really were quite shocked to see him together with our Duchess, of all people.”

Rogue nodded again, this time adding a hum of understanding in his reaction.

“I am actually… curious about that…” Yukino then said, biting her lip. “Would you happen to know how… or why, they chose to go together tonight?”

Rogue looked back at her thoughtfully.

“B-But please! If it’s private-”

That was when Sting interrupted to say, “We told Natsu about her.”

Yukino whirled around to look at her other companion. “Beg pardon, Master Sting?”

“Rogue and I came here before he did.” Sting said absently, scrutinizing another fruit. He was much like Natsu in that respect - they both really love food. Any food. “We handle his business so we had to meet nobles and arrange meetings and things like that before he arrived. So we know about your Duchess and how famous and lovely she is. We were getting Natsu ready for this party, when he asked about your custom for having a partner for things like this. We told him about the famous Duchess. He got curious and went to send a letter and she said she would love to go with him and introduce him to everyone. She's a very nice lady like you said.”

“Oh…” Yukino looked happy upon getting an answer to her question. “Your Prince is… very straightforward, isn’t he?”

“I guess so.” Sting grinned, smile bright and open for their new friend.

Sting was the better actor between the two of them. The better liar, too. It works wonders, mostly because unlike Rogue, Sting was suited for attention. That didn’t mean their duties were very different. The two of them were simply two opposing sides of the same coin.

So when Sting said, “Right, Rogue?” and winked, Rogue was ready for his reply.

“He is that, yes.”

What Sting told Yukino was the official story, anyway. The story they’d tell strangers when inevitably asked. They all agreed on that. The very same letter existed, too - they made Natsu actually write it and Rogue was there to see the Duchess’ thrilled smile when she read it.

“I see you’re being very careful about this cover story.” she had said. “Natsu is fortunate to have you checking on all these little details, Rogue.”

Her smile was beautiful, and there was a hint of sincerity there, but Rogue wasn’t an ordinary secretary nor man of business. She wouldn’t fool him so easily. He had extensively studied the customs and traditions of this land and he knew a woman of her status and public reputation didn’t attain her current popularity by beauty and kindness alone - no, she must have pulled strings without letting anyone know she was doing so, and that was a formidable skill. He knew not to fully trust the Duchess, no matter how much Natsu, Erza and Wendy seemed to like her. Even when Gajeel said that she appeared mostly harmless, and when Sting said to trust Natsu’s judgment.

It was straight out of a fairy tale - a Duchess in disguise and a stowaway Prince meeting in the streets of the most dangerous neighborhood in the City? Meeting again as the Duchess and a simple foreigner, meeting yet again in their old disguises, and again… and again, building a relationship of mutual curiosity and attraction every time, eventually guessing each other’s real identities, conspiring-

It was too convenient. Rogue had said so, but Natsu just shrugged. Natsu had always been trusting. It was why the Great Emperor Zeref and Commander Igneel specifically insisted that Sting and Rogue accompany the Prince. Natsu knew this too. He was gentle, and he could afford to be because Sting and Rogue were there to be cruel for him.

Natsu was talking to Duke Dreyar now, the Duchess still in his arm, her swordsman trailing just one step behind. The Duchess looked very well-acquainted with Duke Dreyar (and don’t get Rogue started here, he’d heard very many things about the Mad Duke from his network) . She wore a dazzling smile on her face as she introduced Natsu to the other man.

But Natsu’s eyes were on her pretty red lips, his own smile too fond.

Rogue looked to the heavens- oh. This wasn’t home, with the celebrations done under open sky and stars. This wasn’t home, he repeated to himself as his gaze met the intricately painted-and-sculpted ceiling instead.

He didn’t trust the Duchess, but he wished that she would prove him wrong.

Not for the sake of the empire, but for the Prince he had sworn his loyalty to.

.


.

Gray hid his skepticism well, watching the young healer called Wendy as she pressed her fingers to Lady Juvia’s wrist. His wife looked up at him and smiled softly, excitedly. That, at least, he could meet with sincerity. He gave her other hand a gentle squeeze to show support.

He didn’t mean to judge, he simply haven’t heard of this method before. Then again, their guests are from a foreign land, after all. Lady Wendy claimed that they used a lot of healing methods in Alvarez without the aid of tools.

‘Magic?’ he thought idly. They all grew up hearing tales of sorcerers from that faraway continent.

Wendy finally let go of Lady Juvia’s wrist after a full two minutes of examining her pulse, then gestured towards the woman’s pregnant stomach. “May I, my lady?” she asked softly, and Juvia nodded eagerly. Wendy then moved to place both hands on the baby bump, smiling as she moved her hands seemingly in search of something...

Around them, Lady Sherry and her cousin Lady Chelia were also watching in rapt attention. They were the ones who were showing Lady Wendy and Lady Erza around, introducing the two women to their other friends. Lady Erza was the one who suggested that Lady Wendy check on Juvia when they met up, because Lady Sherry commented that Juvia was surprisingly spry for a woman well into her pregnancy.

And that was how they got here, in a little huddle as the young healer did what Lady Erza assured them was a pretty normal method of assessing a pregnant woman’s health in their land. Anyway, Gray has gotten used to other noble ladies fussing over his wife since they announced that they were expecting.

He had to admit even he had his moments of hovering over Juvia. Silver, however… oh, his father was worse. He had adored Juvia since she married into the family, but now Duke Fullbuster has moved to plain coddling and pampering. It was embarrassing, but it made Juvia happy, so who was he to complain, really?

“You are very healthy indeed, my lady.” Wendy finally said. “You are in the sixth month, I assume?”

Juvia blinked in pleasant surprise and nodded.

“That’s incredible, how did you know?” Lady Chelia asked, exchanging an impressed look with her elder cousin.

“An estimate based on many signs.” Wendy smiled. “The child appears to be healthy as well, just the right size for six months. If it stays consistent, you shouldn’t have any complications for the birth.”

“Juvia is glad to hear that.” the woman said happily, looking to her husband. “Lady Wendy didn’t even have to use equipment to examine the baby!”

“Oh, it’s only the most basic examination. You should still consult your actual doctor, of course.” the young healer said. “Have you determined the gender yet?”

This time Sherry asked, “We can’t know that until after, right?”

“Oh.” this time Wendy was the one surprised, looking at Erza first before continuing. “I see.”

“We have our methods in Alvarez.” Erza explained. “We assumed you have some here too. It is very useful to know beforehand. But I suppose the surprise makes it exciting as well.”

“That’s true. Anyways, I didn’t see any cause for concern for you or your child, Lady Juvia.” Wendy continued. “You are healthy, and physical exercise is good for you at this time, although in another month I’d recommend you start slowing down and getting more rest to prepare yourself.”

“Yes, we do plan to retire to the country estate by next month.” Juvia said, settling beside her husband again, clinging to his arm. Gray laid a hand over hers. “Lord Silver said the bustle of the City isn’t good for resting.”

Erza noted that the woman had a peculiar accent to her words. Her features also looked slightly foreign compared to the other noble ladies.

“Fresh air and a relaxing environment is ideal indeed.” Wendy agreed, nodding approvingly at Lord Gray. “Do still remember to take simple exercises. The labor could be taxing and it is better for a woman to be physically prepared.”

For such a meek young woman, she carried herself with quiet confidence in her assessment. Perhaps the Prince wasn’t boasting when he said she was one of the best healers in their land after all.

“I really couldn’t congratulate you two enough.” Lady Chelia said with a small smile, then addressed Wendy and Erza. “Did you know these two had an arranged marriage?”

Lady Sherry broke into an amused smile as she added, “Oh, everyone worried for dear Juvia because we always thought Gray was so aloof! I guess love changes a man, after all.”

“Sherry, please. You’re being as embarrassing as Lyon right now.” Gray said with a wary sigh. “And I thought I’d be safe tonight because he’s not here.”

“Arranged marriage, you say?” Erza asked, curious. “You didn’t know each other beforehand?”

“We didn’t. Juvia is not from here, like you. Juvia is from a different region of Fiore.” Juvia said, looking down shyly. “Juvia was very scared when we first came here and Father, um… left Juvia under Duke Fullbuster’s care. But Lord Gray had been and is still very gentle and kind to Juvia. Juvia is very fortunate.”

Gray frowned. “I see no reason not to be kind to a lady.”

This time Sherry laughed. “There’s the Gray Fullbuster we knew!”

The ladies continued their conversations again, and Gray was content to watch them. He had been to events like this enough to be used to their gossip and chatter.

His eyes roamed the room to find Duchess Heartfilia’s little crowd where she was most probably still showing off their guest of honor - the Ambassador, a Prince of a great and powerful military empire - like a trophy, to the other guests.

She had a plan here, he knew that much.

Gray had spent years in his father’s shadow quietly watching Duchess Heartfilia - the girl he knew simply as Lucy (no Miss, no Lady), his friend since childhood - rise to her current power with carefully-crafted appearances and calculated blunders. They were still friends, he was sure. She never treated him any differently, even after. She was still sweet and thoughtful, and was one of the first nobles to welcome Juvia warmly when she arrived in the City. The Duchess’ support was what pushed the other skeptics to accept his strange, foreign wife. He owed her for that, and had told her so once upon a time, but she assured him it was no big deal.

“You’re a friend, and your happiness is mine, Gray.” she had said in reply, and after a thoughtful pause and a light in her eye that he knew she got whenever she comes to an important decision, she added: “Always.”

He believed her, but despite her open affection, he still knew that he wasn’t the friend she would tell her secrets to.

He didn’t hold that against her, not at all. He knew she didn’t have it easy. He just hoped that, whatever gambit she was making here and now, it wouldn’t cause more trouble than it’s worth.

Lucy might not know or believe it, but her happiness is his, too. Always.

.


.

“What is that monstrosity?”

Erza looked up and met Gajeel’s disgusted expression with a scowl. She figured she probably didn’t look very convincing since she was busy chewing the ‘monstrosity’ he was referring to, but she gave him her best glare.

She swallowed, then said, “It’s called a cake. It’s a sweet dessert made of milk, flour, eggs, sugar… a whole lot of sugar, I reckon. It’s sweet.”

Gajeel shivered. In their language, he mumbled, “Disgusting.”

“...and strawberries. The fruit.” she said, replying in kind. She carefully poked at the slice in the little plate. “It’s very delicious.”

“Where did you even get it?” the man asked, still unimpressed.

She shrugged. “The banquet table, with other cakes and sweets. They look very pretty, too.” Then she smiled. “A very nice Lord Fernandez told me to try this one. He explained how they’re made. It was fascinating.”

He raised an eyebrow. “What, now you’re flirting like them too?”

Erza blinked slowly. “Um… no.” she said, then considering that there were only four other people in the room who would be able to understand them, and that those four were all out of earshot, she continued. “He is handsome, though.”

Gajeel looked at her, disturbed. “Seriously?”

“Very charming and polite.” she said, smiling down at her cake, then she looked back up at him. “What do you mean I’m flirting like them too?”

“Natsu is obsessed with his Duchess. Sting and Rogue are seducing that other Ambassador’s daughter. Wendy is being dragged around by some girl.”

Erza shook her head. “Lady Lucy is a master politician and businesswoman. She’s a valuable ally. Natsu trusts her. He’s a good judge of character-”

Gajeel suppressed a cruel laugh. “Good judge. She let him into her bed. You know that, right?”

She frowned. “I do know that. And he let her into his bed first- No. No. It’s not my place nor yours to comment on our Prince’s-... activities.”

He scoffed.

“Moving on.” Erza decided to continue. “Whatever Sting and Rogue are doing, I am sure they’re only establishing connections, as they should. Those two are too taken with each other to resort to seducing others. Now I’m not sure about Wendy, but it’s nice to see her with other girls her age, even if they’re foreigners.”

He scoffed, but couldn’t really argue. “And you?”

Another shrug. “I like the food and Lord Fernandez is very easy on the eyes.”

“You’re all letting down too much of your guard.”

“It’s a party, a welcome for us. We should enjoy it, at least.” she said, chiding. Then after a moment’s consideration, she added, “Didn’t you miss being in your homeland?”

Gajeel’s eyes turned sharp as he averted his eyes. “I have no homeland. This whole damn continent can sink for all I care.”

“That is quite a cruel thing to say.” Erza remarked as she raised a slice of strawberry to her lips. “You should never do diplomacy, Gajeel. You might incite another war.”

His answer was defensive. “Well I’m sorry for being a simple brute, Princess .”

Her eyes narrowed dangerously. “Don’t call me that.”

He smirked. They were even now.

Or so he thought.

“I was able to meet your Lady Juvia.”

Erza noted his posture stiffen and his breathing hitch. She continued speaking, tone casual.

“It turns out her father left her in Duke Fullbuster’s care, and arranged for her to be married to the son and heir, Lord Gray.”

He frowned.

“She didn’t mention what happened to her family, but she appears to be quite content and well taken care of by her husband. He seems to be truly fond of her. Wendy checked on her and her child, too. Six months now. They are both very healthy.”

She watched his frown soften slightly, then tighten again. “I don’t know why you think I’d give a damn about local gossip. I’m a soldier of Alvarez, and the Prince’s guard. ‘Til Natsu takes a wife, the only woman I serve under is Empress Mavis.”

Without another word or even a glance, he walked away.

.


.

The center of the ballroom was cleared for that night’s show. A duel was always effective entertainment, especially if the swordsmen were popular enough.

And Loke was popular, alright. His skill in the sword made a striking combination with his dashing good looks, smooth unfailing charm and excellent showmanship. Add to that his patronage under the City’s most-loved noble, and he was undoubtedly the most anticipated part of the night.

Once again, the speculative whispers of the guests filled the room. He was used to ignoring them, it was a typical enough noise in gatherings like these.

“Now, Loke...” said the Duchess, resting a hand on his arm. “How are you feeling?”

The swordsman faced his mistress and gave her his best smile. “I am quite good, My Lady. Somehow excited, now that I think about it. It is my first time dueling against an opponent of this kind, after all.”

Lucy let a little worried look slip. “I know it’s a risk-”

“It is, and one worth taking, love.” he whispered. “I am as curious as you are. I only hope I don’t disappoint you.”

“Never.” she smiled. “I know you will make me proud, my lion. Shall we?”

“We shall.” he said, following his mistress as she stepped forward towards the center of the empty floor.

There was a hush as Duchess Heartfilia stopped and appraised the other guests.

“My dear Lords and Ladies,” she spoke, voice raised but calm. “I have the honor to present to you tonight’s entertainment, a most exciting duel between the best swordsman Crocus has to offer, against one of our guests from Alvarez.”

There was a noise of excited agreement among the crowd.

“Oh, look at that. One of the foreigners is fighting.” Lady Cana said, nudging Lord Gray who was standing beside her. “I knew it. You owe me.”

Gray rolled his eyes while Juvia only giggled. She always enjoyed Lady Cana’s cheerful company.

Meanwhile, Gray looked towards Duke Dreyar as he asked, “Did you know?”

Laxus looked back at him with a scowl. “I am. Not. Her keeper.”

“You’re her co-conspirator.” Gray pointed out.

The Mad Duke only scoffed. “She hasn’t needed one for years now. You should know.”

Gray shook his head and returned to watching the scene unfold, idly listening as Lady Cana and Freed relayed what little information they knew of the Alvarez Empire’s swordfighting style to a curious Lady Mira.

Then his wife tugged at his sleeve. “Would it be impolite to our guests if Juvia wants Master Loke to win?”

He looked at Lady Juvia, who wore a worried expression while watching the aforementioned swordsman press a kiss to his mistress’s hand before stepping forward in challenge.

“Are you a fan of him?” he asked.

“Juvia thinks he is a good man.” she answered softly. “He was very kind when Lord Gray hired him to fight for Juvia’s honor that one time. And Duchess Lucy smiles so beautifully when he talks to her.”

He chuckled. “She does.”

Then to everyone’s surprise, Lady Erza stepped forward as well. It made sense, come to think of it, that the Ambassador’s personal guard would be the one to fight on his behalf-

But no. The woman only unsheathed one of her swords before holding it out and offering the weapon to her master, who stepped forward after Lady Wendy helped roll up his robe’s sleeve and Master Sting relieved his neck and arms of his golden jewelry.

The Ambassador and Prince accepted the weapon with a grin. “I am not very good at this, you know. Any advice?”

“You wanted this.” Erza shrugged and said, “Don’t die.” With that, she walked back towards the huddled crowd of the Alvarez entourage, right beside where Lady Cana beckoned for her, most likely to ask about the peculiar sword that Natsu now held.

The scandalized mutterings of other guests increased in volume then.

How preposterous that their guest of honor was going to fight in a duel! That he was made the night’s entertainment! Didn’t he have someone to do this-

No, maybe he simply didn’t understand the significance of this. What was he, twenty-four, and a pampered prince of a martial empire? Of course he would take this opportunity to show off-

Also, do Alvarez guards and warriors really address their masters so casually and leave them to their devices? They’ve been observing the guests all night, and the two secretaries only flirted with Lady Agria, the healer was chatting with other young ladies, the guard kept eating and the other simply chose corners to brood in. Had they no proper decorum like this in Alvarez? Weren’t they concerned about their Prince?

They were forced to fall into a hush, however, when Loke finally drew his sword and spoke, being the showman that he was. “It’s a tremendous honor to fight this duel with you, Your Highness.”

Natsu fell into a well-practiced and confident fighting stance. His sword was unlike the land’s - curved and single-edged, held with both hands. “I told you, drop the formalities. We are friends, Loke.”

“Very well, Natsu.” the swordsman said, also taking a guard position, one hand on his rapier and the other folded behind him. “First blood, as is the agreement between you and My Lady.”

The Duchess was standing in between them. She looked at each of them and they nodded at her. They were ready. Stepping back, she said - “Begin.”

The start of the duel was slow. The two men circled in each other’s orbit, eyes locked, waiting for the other to strike first.

The Duchess stood between Lady Cana and Lady Erza, observing the audience’s tense silence as they held their breath.

Loke moved first, stepping forward quickly, attacking his opponent’s blade with a thrust. Natsu defended, turning the thrust into a graze as he swiped the other’s sword aside - then both men quickly stepped back, positioned their swords defensively and began circling again.

No one had seen a duel quite like this yet. Two different cultures, different stances, styles, and swords.

“He’s thinking of how to take on that curved sword.” Cana mumbled. “It’s quick and it’s for slashing. So unlike his usual opponents. He can’t let his guard down until he knows how to get past it.”

“Your land’s sword has the advantage of being lighter, though.” Erza commented. “A rightly aimed and timed thrust will do it before Natsu can parry if he continues using his defensive position.”

Natsu moved this time, attempting a slash that Loke met easily and returned. They did it for a while, one attacking and the other blocking, stepping back only to lunge again.

They were both studying each other’s movements. A common practice, but made difficult due to their lack of familiarity with the opponent’s weapon.

But slowly and surely, the swings of their blades became quicker and more efficient, until they managed to exchange a series consecutive attacks and dodging them in turn, before coming to an impasse and having to step back to catch their breathing and renew their stance.

This time when Natsu lunged forward, his swings had a purpose, his steps quick and he attacked in a sequence that took all of Loke’s attention to parry before he was forced to deflect and disengage.

The audience erupted in a noise of excitement, Natsu grinned and Loke blinked, before looking down at his sleeve to see that it had been caught in a slash and was now torn. He grinned back. “Almost, my friend.”

Natsu shrugged. "Ah, I’ll do it right next time-” He was cut off when Loke unexpectedly went for offense.

Several swings and thrusts that got the Ambassador purely on the defensive. When Natsu finally managed to fend him off, he was sporting a matching rip in the side of his robe.

No blood. Yet.

Loke’s smile was amused. “My apologies, that silk must be expensive.”

Natsu chuckled. “I have other ones.”

With another fast-paced round that caught a bit of Loke’s collar, and then another that tore at the end of Natsu’s sleeve, the audience were rightly cheering.

Well, most of them were. Freed was sighing, and Cana was tapping her foot impatiently.

Of course they could read what was really going on.

Laxus leaned sideways to ask his aide, “Is it me or they’re fooling around?”

“Not you. They’re missing on purpose.” Freed answered.

“What kind of bullshit.” Cana grumbled, catching Lucy’s attention. “Lucy, did you hire him to play around and flirt?”

“I hired him to have a good time, and… well, he flirts with everyone , that is simply Loke being Loke.” Lucy shrugged. 

“Gods.” Cana rolled her eyes. Then, because Lady Cana Alberona can always be counted on to break proper decorum, she shouted at the two men, “Hey, stop holding back, you’re boring!”

Lucy had to hide her laugh behind her fan, and to her other side she saw Erza stifling her snort with her hand. “What do you think, Lady Erza?”

“Natsu is holding back indeed, Duchess. But not by much.” the woman replied.

“He really sucks with swords.” Gajeel added.

“No, he’s competent , at least.” Erza corrected. “He’s an excellent mage, but not much of a weapon user.”

“He insisted to do this.” Lucy said.

Erza nodded at that. “He insists on many foolish things. That’s why we’re here.”

There was an uproar from the rest of the crowd. Loke was able to graze Natsu’s robe, exposing a significant part of the Ambassador’s chest.

Cana turned to Lucy once more. “Did you just want them to strip?”

Lucy leaned against the other woman. “Cana, you know that if I wanted something, I hate complicating things. I know how to simply ask.”

Cana couldn’t help but grin. “Oh, I know that, alright. You ask very convincingly.”

“It’s a talent.” the other woman chimed mischievously.

Meanwhile, Natsu had sent his opponent a lopsided smile. “They’re getting bored.” 

“Maybe we can raise the challenge?” Loke asked.

“What are you thinking?”

The swordsman said nothing as he used his free hand to draw the short dagger from his waist. He changed his stance, accommodating two weapons this time.

“Oh.” Natsu blinked. “Yes, that will do.” He looked expectantly towards his entourage.

Erza sighed, then after a second of consideration, she nodded towards Wendy. To everyone’s surprise, the young woman drew a shorter version of the foreign sword from her sleeve. She unsheathed it and then slid it across the floor towards Natsu, who stopped the weapon with his foot before picking it up.

This time when they moved towards each other, it was quicker, riskier, four blades sliding against each other, with arms swinging in trained precision as they moved around and across the floor.

Natsu’s movements were punctuated by spins and twirls to parry his opponent’s quick thrusts and to find openings for his swings. Loke was made of quick footwork - forward, backward, left and right - to dodge the other man’s swift attacks and to slip in some of his own.

The cheers were hushed and tensed this time, fascinated by these movements they have never seen before. It was a tight duel but it also looked unexpectedly graceful. Almost like a dance.

“There we go.” Cana said, finally smirking. “Loke is still holding back, though.”

Erza spoke up this time, “He is a good entertainer.”

Lucy nodded at this. Loke came in tonight to provide a good show. And the Ambassador, opponent or not, was one of the guests.

So, he entertained.

The dance went on for a few more tensed moments, until the two men caught all their blades in a deadlock.

“For someone who claims to not know much about the sword, you are doing pretty well.” Loke said under his breath.

“I am not going to lie, this is as far as I go.” Natsu said, breathless. “You should spar with Erza one time, you won’t need to hold back.”

Loke raised an eyebrow. “So… is it fine to cut you now?”

Natsu shrugged. “Uh. Yes. I am getting tired, anyway.”

A nod. “Very well. I am but your humble servant.”

With that, they broke off each other, and before Natsu could return to a defensive stance, Loke had already stepped forward, and with a series of graceful flicks of his rapier, planted a well-placed graze on his opponent’s side.

Gasps. First blood. Thundering applause. The two swordsmen exchanged breathless smiles before bowing at each other, shaking hands, and retreating.

It was a good fight.

.

Loke stood in front of his Duchess and bowed. “Are you satisfied, My Lady?”

“You could never let me down, Loke.” Lucy replied.

He accepted her hand when she held it out and leaned down to kiss it, but he was caught off guard when she instead used it to pull him closer. The Duchess raised her other hand to trace his jaw, before leaning up to press a kiss to his cheek.

“Well done.” she whispered, and got a tender smile in return.

.

Erza took the weapons from Natsu as Wendy immediately saw to the cut on his side.

“Had your fun?” Erza asked.

Natsu only grinned at her before wincing when Wendy poked his cut. “Ow, Wendy!”

Wendy had dealt with his whining for long enough to know when and not to apologize. “I will wrap it up, but you’ll have to let it heal naturally. Magic isn’t an option we have here. Master Loke knows how to cut well. It’s shallow and clean with no cloth involved to cause infection.”

“Yes, Wendy, sing more praises for the guy who kicked his ass.” Sting teased in their language.

“Hey, we accomplished our goal tonight.” Natsu replied as Wendy finished dressing the small cut with a clean cloth one of the servants provided.

Erza furrowed her brows. “And that is?”

As the Prince turned around, he saw that a lot of guests were eagerly heading towards him, obviously to greet him or exchange pleasantries, even as he was not accompanied by Duchess Heartfilia.

“Ambassador, what an exciting duel!”

“We didn’t know you could fight so well!”

“You went up against the best swordsman of Crocus, very impressive!”

Natsu tilted his head to whisper to his companions. “They love me now.” he said with a victorious smile.

.


 

.

The rest of the night went by in a blur. The Ambassador re-acquainted himself with merchants and nobles, now with only Sting and Rogue at his side. Before, accompanied by the Duchess, they avoided such topics as business, politics and economics, perhaps taking Lady Lucy’s sensibilities into consideration. He found it funny, as Lucy was a better businesswoman and politician that many of these men.

Now, however, they were more open, discussing the minutiae of the possible trade and business opportunities for Fiore and Alvarez with him.

Natsu didn’t bother to memorize all the difficult names and faces so much this time around. Sting was right beside him. He would remember them well enough. He only looked carefree and uninterested, but really his talent was catching all the little details and committing them to memory. Paired with Rogue’s sharp mind doing deduction, he had no doubt they were already coming up with suitable plans. All he had to do was smile and be pleasant. He was not the trader nor the businessman in this trip - he was, as his title said, a mere ambassador.

The Duchess, free of her duties to escort and show him around, had retreated to her respectable crowd of noble ladies and wives. Wendy and Erza enjoyed her company, and listened to the gossip and stories in fascination. That was fine, let them enjoy the night.

Gajeel stayed in the corner he claimed, as always content to watch and stand guard.

There was a toast led by Duke Silver Fullbuster, closing remarks from Lord Jura, and even a few moments for Natsu to thank his hosts for the warm welcome and joyous night.

Just like that, the convocation was over.

.


.

“Fuck, that was unnecessarily long and boring.” Gajeel said, slouching down on the plush seat inside the carriage heading towards the Alvarez compound in the City.

“It wouldn’t be so boring if you’d made friends, Gajeel.” Erza chided softly, but she wasn’t looking at him. She was looking out the carriage window, looking absently at the night sky, chin on her hand.

“Why were you brooding so hard, anyway?” Sting asked, from his comfortable tangle with Rogue on their corner of the cramped carriage seat. Rogue remained quiet, absently playing with Sting’s blond hair.

“None of your business- and would you two wait ‘till you’re in your room?”

“Grumpy. We’re being completely innocent over here.” the younger man pouted, then turned his head slightly to muffle his yawn against his partner’s shoulder. “You’re not judging Natsu and Wendy.”

“You guys should really shut up ‘cause someone’s sleeping.” Natsu said, a frown on his face.

He was leaned back comfortably in his seat, with Wendy tucked to his side, already asleep. He looked down to check that their bickering companions didn’t wake her up and smiled, stroking her long hair gently. She wasn’t used to attending gatherings like these, especially in a foreign land. Wendy was his team’s little sister, and he was proud of her for doing well tonight.

“Natsu,” Rogue finally spoke up, his voice soft and distant, deep in thought. “I’ll have the list of our best candidate business partners ready by tomorrow.”

Of course Rogue was eager to get to work as soon as possible. “Oh. That’s great, Rogue.”

“And about your Duchess.” the younger man continued. “I think you’re right.”

“Eh, you like Lady Lucy now, love?” Sting teased, only to be poked on the nose. He tried to bite after the offending finger, and got a painful pinch on his cheek for his efforts.

“Not really.” Rogue continued. “I just agree with you, she’s the most powerful ally we can get here.”

“Not even that Duke Dreyar? Isn’t he the richest?” Sting asked curiously, prying the hand pinching his cheek and snuggling into it instead.

“Yes, he is.” Rogue said. “But Duchess Heartfilia is the smartest, with a better public reputation. So.” he shrugged at Natsu. “Good job, I guess.”

Natsu smiled, the affectionate reply slipping out easily. “Thanks, kid.”

“You still slept with her though.” Gajeel said.

“Yeah.” Sting nodded. “Bad business practice.”

“Unprofessional.” Rogue added.

“Wha- I told you guys I didn’t mean to do that!” Natsu said, helplessly.

Erza raised an eyebrow. “You didn’t mean to sleep with her?”

“Of course I meant to sleep with her, but like hell I knew she’s the actual duchess-”

“Awww,” Sting cooed. “Our great Prince is in love-”

Natsu groaned. “I hate you guys. You’re supposed to respect me! If Wendy was awake she’d take my side-”

“Nope.” came Wendy’s voice. Here eyes were still closed, but smile was too knowing. “You did rush in too quickly.”

“Not you too!” the Prince cried, sounding genuinely upset this time.

“Don’t worry, we think it’s sweet.” Wendy said, finally looking up at him. “And we support you.”

Natsu shook his head and looked out to stare at the night sky, just to avoid looking into any of his friends’ eyes. He hoped the hand he placed over his face at least covered his blushing cheeks.

.


.

As they waited for their carriages to come pick them up, Duchess Heartfilia and Duke Dreyar stood silently beside each other in the steps of the congregation hall.

When Laxus recognized his carriage drawing near, he finally spoke. “You ready for the council meeting next week?”

Lucy spared a tired smile. “I have to be. Will you scold me too?”

The Duke scoffed. “And show them all I’m sensible? Hell no. I’ll support your bad decisions.”

She laughed. “You honor me with your approval.”

Laxus glanced towards where Freed and Loke were talking, no doubt about the swordfighting style that the Alvarez Prince had showcased that night. Entertainment duels for gatherings like these always tend to be boring nowadays. This one was an exciting one, at least.

“So Duchess,” he said. “Would you tell me your plans over tea time a few days from now, or should I expect more secrets from you from now on?”

Lucy looked down at the fan she held in her hands, then breathed deeply before saying, “What if I tell you I fell in love with a Prince?”

It was quiet between them again, and they only heard the bustling of other guests saying their goodbyes and getting on their carriages.

Laxus ran a hand through his hair and sighed heavily. “A year ago you told me you fell in love with a swordsman.”

“Does one rule out the other?”

“No, but I normally hear such words from girls in their first seasons.” he said, frowning. “When they were fifteen, sixteen. You’re twenty-three, what the hell kind of terrible timing? Why couldn’t you have been lovesick earlier and then focused on business later? You had my hopes up. When you didn’t become lovesick in your teens, I thought I’d gotten lucky that I wouldn’t have to deal with you going through that annoying phase but now- Gods. What the hell. I’m talking like I'm your keeper. I’m not. I’ve been telling everyone that.”

“I’m glad if you are.” she said comfortingly. She couldn’t imagine how unbearable her life would have been if Laxus hadn’t taken her under his wing. Heartfilia House would have crumbled. She wouldn’t have met some of her closest friends, or Loke, or Natsu. “And did you forget that I once ran off with Cana and caused you problems too?”

“That’s different. Annoying, but expected, and different. You didn’t come to me with your eyes sparkling like that and waxing poetic about swords and lions and magic princes.”

She looked down. “Do you disapprove?”

The man shook his head. “I’m annoyed. But Gods know I’m not one to disapprove. Anyway, what was that dramatic duel tonight for?”

She blinked. “Entertainment. What else will it be for?”

Laxus only shook his head. They watched as Dreyar’s carriage came to a halt at the bottom of the steps, and Freed had already moved to lead Mira in. Duchess Dreyar waved at them before getting inside. It wasn’t such a surprise when Lucy saw Lady Cana follow.

“You’re taking Lady Alberona home, I see.” she remarked, amusement evident in her tone.

“Wrong. My wife is taking Lady Alberona home. There is a difference.” he walked away, but a couple of steps ahead, he looked back at her. “Whatever your scheme was tonight. Did it work?”

“Oh, Laxus.” she said with a subdued laugh. “The most important lesson that you taught me was to never head home without a victory.”

He scoffed. “And?”

Loke then came up to stand beside her, and the Duchess looped an arm around her swordsman’s as she nodded. “Yes. I believe it worked, My Lord.”

Laxus only tilted his head and made a small noise of approval before walking off and disappearing inside his ride home.

Dreyar’s carriage was followed closely by Heartfilia’s.

Loke spoke softly, “Ready, milady?”

Lucy turned her head and took one last sweeping look at the congregation hall slowly being vacated by other guests. Finally she nodded, and gave the man’s arm a soft squeeze.

“Yes. Let’s go home, my love.”