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Stand by me

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“In a faraway land, long ago, lived a King and his fair Queen. Many years had they longed for a child and finally, their wish was granted. Their son was born. Then a great holiday was proclaimed throughout the kingdom, so that all of high or low estate might pay homage to the infant prince. And our story begins on that most joyful day.”

If this would be inane fairy-tale, with humorous ups and downs, evil sorceresses and an absolutely illogical, but never the less happy ending, it would definitely start like that. Truth be told, it is not.

Our scene is set in the not so faraway kingdom of Lucis, where Regis, the 113rd monarch of the Lucis Caelum line inherited the throne after the tragic passing of King Mors. Protecting the country with help of the Crystal granted by the Astrals is what the Lucis Caelums are born to do.

They took up residence in the seat of power, the Citadel, many a year ago; a landmark in the middle of the marvellous Crown City: Insomnia. The grand capital was a bustling metropolis without a peer; its skyscrapers high, its streets busy, the unique architecture outstanding in the whole kingdom.

King Regis ruled side by side with his childhood friend and beloved wife, Aulea. Their marriage was joyful, although they have not been blessed with an heir in the four years of their marriage. But one Summer day, the king’s and queen’s wish came true: Aulea gave birth to a son and heir apparent to the throne of Lucis.

Their delight was short-lived, however as the queen passed away some days after childbirth. Insomnia mourned the loss of their beloved monarch, but their sadness was nothing compared to the pain Regis was feeling.

Weeks passed in silent solitude; but life waits for no man and thus, Regis returned to reigning, his late father’s words echoing in his mind. “A king pushes onward always”. A heavy phrase to weigh down any man, but the truth of it spurred Regis on. He had a sworn duty. He made an oath to protect the kingdom and her people, and he was to live by that promise until the moment of his final breath.

And so, late Autumn came and everything went back to the way it was. The council meetings and other kingly duties resumed. The date for the young prince’s first official appearance was set, so that all of Insomnia and the Kingdom of Lucis could pay homage to their future monarch.

It was not the most joyful of days, on the contrary. Nevertheless, our story began on that fateful afternoon.

The Citadel was in an uproar; all available personnel rushing about and making preparations. The spacious Royal Garden was decorated in the most lavish way possible, chairs being set up for the attending council members and other nobility. Well, garden might not be the right word for the collection of Lucian flora enclosed by floor-to-ceiling windows on the ground level. By design, it resembled a glorified greenhouse more, but not even this could dull the overall impact of the majestic trees and breath-taking flowers.

Luscious bouquets of flowers and garlands adorned the walls and windows. A few cameramen were puttering about on the side-lines, arranging the set-up so that all of Insomnia could observe the ceremony on the screens out in the streets.

Clarus Amicitia looked over the busy scene. If it were up to him, he would have shielded his friend from all this courtly nonsense and unnecessary pageantry. Sadly, as the king’s Shield, he had no say in this. It was up to the king, and Regis would rather suffer, then shirk from his obligations. So here he was, standing beside the azaleas by the garden path, overlooking the preparations and organising the Crownsguard.

He checked the security measures at least a hundred times since morning; if the only thing he could do to help his friend during all this was to absolutely make sure, that the ceremony went down without a hitch, then that’s what he would do.

Clarus was in the middle of checking the garden layout for any missed weak points, when Gladiolus walked up to him, greeting him with a salute, like any other member of the Crownsguard would. Although his son was not yet a full-fledged member of the force until he turned eighteen, he was soon to become Shield to the Crown Prince.

‘Everything all right, Gladiolus?’

‘Yes, Dad, of course…’ Gladio affirmed, but Clarus could see that he was nervous. No attentive father would misread that body language; it was oddly nostalgic, seeing his boy like this. Took him right back when Gladiolus was small and tried to be tough. He hummed back in agreement.

‘So… how are the preparations going?’

‘All checkpoints are secured and we have two back-up plans, should anything go wrong. The only thing left for me to do is to stand beside Regis for the upcoming…’ Clarus checked his watch, ‘…ten hours or so. Metaphorically and literally speaking. I hope you memorised your oath, son?’

‘Dad! This is probably the biggest day of my life! Of course I did!’ Gladio huffed.

‘Good boy!’ Clarus lifted his hand, to ruffle his son’s hair –old habits die hard, apparently– but shifted midway and clapped Gladio on the shoulder. He wasn’t really keen on another tirade would he happen to mess up his son’s perfectly gelled-up bangs. Once was enough...

‘I hope you didn’t forget our dinner plans after the ceremony?’

‘No, Sir!’ Gladio answered, mock standing to attention. ‘You know I wouldn’t miss it for the world!’

‘Very well. I have to be on my way; behave yourself, son!’

Gladio only smiled back at him, saluting again before marching off. Clarus watched his son go, the memory of his wife flittering through his thoughts. How he wished she could have lived to see this day. But as suddenly as this feeling got hold of him, it faded just as fast. Aurinia would not stand for this kind of sentimentality.

‘What’s done, is done,’ she would say… and maybe clock him in the head for good measure. A hint of a smile danced around his lips, before he schooled his features. The leader of the Crownsguard had to emit a certain aura, and that was not one of a reminiscing husband.

The lift-ride up to the king’s private quarters took ages, as usual. Clarus was either bored to tears while waiting to reach the right floor or was battling with unwelcome thoughts. He really should start keeping some reports in his coat, or any other paperwork to keep himself occupied. Maybe a book? His musings got interrupted by a ping.

Clarus righted his ceremonial clothes while striding through the antechamber with quick steps (not that there was even a fold out of order, mind you), and knocked on Regis’ door. He didn’t have to wait long for his friend’s voice to invite him in.

The king paced the middle of the room, the prince seemingly asleep in his arms.

‘I can’t do this, Clarus!’ Regis exclaimed, looking his friend dead in the eyes.

‘Your Majesty…?’ Clarus trailed off, waiting for a clarification.

‘Oh, don’t even start with this royal crap, please. I need my friend today.’

Clarus smiled. Well, then.

‘As your friend, I have told you a thousand times: you are not obligated to go through with this! Your subjects would have perfectly understood, if they had to wait another year to see their Crown Prince.’ Clarus scratched his short shorn hair. ‘And honestly, nobody gives a toss about old traditions these days, you could have just as well printed a stupid photo in the papers!’

‘I know!’ Regis absentmindedly rocked his baby boy. ‘I know, but I wanted to do it as planned. I don’t think this will be any easier if I wait…’ he absentmindedly noted, staring at his son.

‘I can’t but think that she should be here… Aulea should be…’

Clarus didn’t know which one made his chest hurt with a horrid pang; his best friend’s voice faltering at the end of that sentence or the memory of her. She had known Regis’ wife for quite a few years and he treasured her dearly. The loss was not as ghastly, as what his liege must be feeling, but it was there none the less. He lost a good friend, too.

‘She would be so proud of you. You know it.’

Regis made that weird motion one makes, when they try to simultaneously nod and shake their head. Clarus could see even from this distance, that his eyes were brimming with tears he won’t allow himself to shed.

The king turned around and placed the sleeping prince in the crib standing in a secluded part of the chamber. He stood there for a while, watching the sleeping face of his son. None of the men said anything, but then Regis cleared his throat and turned back around.

‘Are the preparations going in order?’

‘Yes, yes; I’ve checked everything myself. All should be well. I’ve shortened your appearance with Noctis to the absolute bare minimum. You’ll be back in your chambers before you know it.’

Regis clapped him on the shoulder. He tried to put in that one gesture and the soft smile glinting in his tired eyes how thankful he felt.

‘We will get over this. I shall stay by your side,’ Clarus reassured him, reciprocating the gesture. ‘And, you know, I still have that bottle of whiskey from Accordo…’

When was the last time they could have a few drinks’ time just to themselves…? It seemed like ages ago and Clarus really hoped that his idiotic eyebrow wiggle accompanying the invitation would bring a slight smile to Regis’ face and, preferably a positive answer to his lips. But his king was hesitating.

‘Or, you know, if you are not too tired, you could come with me and the kids. Dinner,’ he clarified. ‘Just us; we could even order in, if you want to stay close to Noctis.’

‘I wouldn’t want to intrude on your family time,’ Regis declined, but Clarus could see how thankful he looked hearing the invitation.

‘Not to sound too untoward, Regis, but… you are family to me,’ he frowned.

Regis looked like he was going to cry.

‘I know,’ he whispered, then cleared his throat. ‘I’ll let you have your fun this time, but I’m cashing in on that drink before the week’s out!’

‘You have yourself a deal, my friend!’ Clarus grinned.

 

Gladio was idly observing the decorating servants around the garden, when he heard a voice he really hoped would be spared from.

‘Gladiolus!’ Ignis Scientia, glorified babysitter-to-be to the prince, was closing in on him with measured strides. ‘If I may have a moment, please!’

Gladio groaned inwardly. It wasn’t like he had a specific problem with the adviser; they have known each other for a few years, but barely ever met outside of work. Not that they met that much at work. Of course there was the random occasion they sparred together during Crownsguard training, or a few meetings where both of them had to be present, but their personal interactions have been very limited up to this point.

Which, probably won’t change in the near future, as they really had nothing to do with each other. At least not until the prince was a few years older.  Gladio was hoping for university age-old. Nothing personal, but Scientia looked very much all business and no fun, and that did not really float with the future Shield.

‘Sure, what can I do you for?’ he asked, pasting a smile on his face, while watching as Ignis’ face twitched.

‘I was asked by Lord Amicitia to deliver the print-outs about today’s procedures. I’ve marked off our places during the prince’s presentation,’ he delicately pointed at one of the papers detailing the structure of the garden. ‘You won’t have anything to do until your official inauguration of course.’

‘And you?’          

‘I’m merely the prince’s Chamberlain, there is no traditional ceremony,’ Ignis answered matter-of-factly, while instinctively righting his glasses. ‘The king, of course, can make an official statement about the identity of the adviser, if he wishes so, but I have already signed the necessary paperwork the day the prince was born. My appearance today is purely a formality.’

Gladio hummed.

‘So, you’re just gonna… what, stand around?’

‘I am going to observe the celebrations; just like everyone else,’ Ignis answered coolly, but Gladio noted a slight irritation. Well, this chat quickly died a gruesomely cold death, he thought.

‘Cool…’ he mumbled, nodding in a very awkward fashion and pursing his lips at the adviser. They stood there for a few uncomfortable seconds, before Ignis pushed the papers in Gladio’s hand.

‘Study these carefully, please, we don’t want any blunders today,’ he said, as if Gladio was some idiot, who would mess things up, and turned on his heels. ‘I shall see you at the ceremony, Gladiolus!’

Gladio just stared after the chamberlain in sheer disbelief. What a prick, he thought.

Ignis went back to oversee the proceedings. Everything had to be absolutely perfect; the decorations, the seating… Oh, he had to inspect the delicacies ordered for the occasion. The royal caterers were known for doing their job without a fault, still, Ignis could not shake the urge to check over every miniscule thing on his list. After all, this was the first bigger event assigned to him as Chamberlain and he refused to fail.

So naturally he spent his day flitting about the Citadel gardens, until Lord Amicitia asked him to deliver the print-outs, that is. He simply could not deny this request.

Thank the Six he left Gladiolus for last. He had nothing against the future Shield, the scant number of their interactions never gave Ignis any reason to see fault in the man, nor did Gladiolus’ behaviour towards Ignis. He was always civil, and did not favour dallying about, which Ignis appreciated. But something still irked him whenever they had to communicate. He could not put his finger on it, but it was not the time to dwell on matters like these.

Or on how patronising Ignis must have sounded when he insinuated that Gladiolus would mess up anything. Ignis was very well aware, that Amicitia was not an idiot; but then whatever made him say that? Maybe the nerves. This ceremony had to be something the court would talk about for years to come. It was only natural he was agitated.

(Ignis did not know at the time how right he was. People did talk about the prince’s celebration party for many-many years. Only, it was not because of the delicate canapés, or the majestic flower centrepieces.)

With a sigh, he took up his clipboard and strode off in the direction of the buffet tables.

Regis could hear the murmuring of the crowd behind the garden doors. There were still some minutes until the ceremony, but he just couldn’t sit still anymore. Not that standing idly in the doorway proved any better. He wanted this to be over with, and be back in the safety of his own quarters with his son.

Maybe he should have postponed this whole affair, maybe he should have listened to Clarus, maybe–

A hand firmly clapped his shoulder.

‘You can do this! Give this thing an hour, and after that, I promise you, you’ll be back in your rooms. The Council can entertain the visiting noblemen and other dignitaries for the rest of the evening.’

‘Thank you,’ Regis simply answered, his smile looking a bit stronger.

‘You know; I still think that Nox Aeterna is a ridiculous name…’ Clarus risked a cheeky grin.

‘Nothing ridiculous about tradition–’

‘Tradition yes, I know. Noctis sounds so much nicer…’

‘It does, doesn’t it…’

Noctis was the name Aulea wanted for their child. Or Aurora, if they had a baby girl. Regis was secretly happy it was a boy. He never really cared for that name. Another thing he never could do was say no to his wife.

 They heard the herald’s voice filtering thinly through the closed doors, welcoming everyone to “this joyous occasion” and announcing the King’s arrival.

‘Forever by your side, Your Majesty! Shall we?’

Regis nodded. Clarus pushed the doors open.

 Regis stepped up on the podium, stopping in the centre, Clarus shadowing his every step. There was an over-decorated crib, complete with a baldachin and something akin his original throne was set up for him, would he wish to sit down. He could feel his Shield just behind himself, radiating a calming heat, that gave Regis enough energy to power through this whole affair. So he kept on standing.

Noctis was sleeping soundly, the small head safely pillowed on his father’s shoulder, face neatly tucked away from the world. The king looked over the assembled guests, all of them looking expectantly at their monarch. Regis took a deep breath. He could do this.

‘Citizens of Insomnia! People of the Kingdom of Lucis! It is with varied feelings, that I address you on this day. There is a great happiness in my heart, for today we gathered here to celebrate my son.’

Regis felt his voice break and could feel Clarus move involuntary closer, if just a tad.

‘But I cannot help it, and feel a resounding sadness in my soul as my dearest queen, my darling Aulea did not live to see this day to stand with us all. Would she be here– she would want this to be an occasion remembered fondly by all.

‘There might come mournful times in all our lives, but my queen always insisted that life itself was intended to be enjoyed and lived to its fullest. So with these parting thoughts do I implore you to relish in today’s festivities and keep your future king in your heart, as you did your late queen. Lucians, may I present you the crown prince: Nox Aeterna Lucis Caelum!’

The room was engulfed in a storm of clapping, as soon as the king softly changed his grip, revealing the sleeping baby to the gathering nobility and busy cameramen. The prince’s face scrunched up, as if highly offended by anybody daring to disturb his sleep, but his features calmed and he kept on slumbering. The herald thankfully appeared before the stage seconds later, offering up the choice to the assembled nobility to have a look at the crown prince and also relay their congratulations to King Regis.

Clarus touched him lightly on the forearm, glancing quickly in the direction of the cot. Regis sat himself down, as soon as his son was safely tucked away in the silken bedding. It really seemed like the boy could sleep through an earthquake. Regis sighed; well, at least one of them was spared of suffering this through awake.

 

Clarus took up position on his King’s right side and he could see Cor Leonis from the corner of his eyes, stepping up beside the sleeping prince. A perfunctory glance over the garden showed him that his Crownguards were all in position, ready to jump at the merest sight of trouble.

But nothing happened; the nobility, as befitting their status, waited in an orderly manner to greet the monarch and perhaps catch a glimpse of the young prince. Insomnia’s leading families all queued up to either pass on a few well-meant words, or, Clarus was sure, to try and weasel their way into the king’s inner circle with a short, but smarmy speech. Well, good luck with that, he thought.

Some of the nobles started mingling, talking in hushed whispers and helping themselves to the overpriced refreshments laid out on long tables around the garden. He could see the Scientia boy standing to the side, back ramrod straight and his face emotionless in its usual manner. His son, on the other hand, seemed to be struggling with waiting around. Not that a casual observer would notice that, no. He was too well trained to fidget, but Clarus had more than ample time to figure out his own son’s tells. Still, he was doing admirably and Clarus could not have been any prouder.

Looking over the rest of the garden he noticed his daughter, Iris, talking excitedly to their poor retainer. Not that Jared ever had a problem of keeping up with her. Some upcoming nobles’ sickeningly sweet call of “Your Majesty!” made him zone back in on the proceedings.

Regis looked, as he always did on these events, smiling politely, nodding when appropriate. His face never gave away anything he didn’t want to, but the minute twitch of his fingers has clearly shown Clarus, that he was nearing the end of his tether. He discreetly signalled the herald.

‘Respected Ladies and Lords of the court!’ The herald stepped in front of the podium, his voice booming through the lush royal gardens. ‘On His Majesty’s behalf, I implore you to return to your seats, if you may. Although the pleasure of finally seeing our beloved Crown Prince has already been granted to us most graciously, there is still the matter of swearing in his Shield.’

Clarus tried really hard, not to roll his eyes. All these years, and he still did not care much for these pompous speeches. He usually distinguished himself, when communicating with the Council, or members of the court, but all who really knew him were aware that elaborate and fanciful speeches were not in his nature. He was straightforward, but never rude– with his friends, with his guards and his king.

‘Without further ado, let me present you the Shield to His Majesty, Regis Lucis Caelum, the good Lord Clarus Amicitia!’ declared the herald, vanishing into the background, as the Shield stepped forward.

Oh, Astrals, Clarus thought, let’s get this over with quickly.

‘Ladies and Gentleman! A pleasure to have you all here on this memorable day! You must all know, I’m not a man for idling or speeches, so please forgive my curtness. Being the King’s Shield is a lifelong duty, but even more so, it has always been a great honour for me and my family. A Shield must not only stand by the side of his King in times of great need and peril. A Shield has to be there to support him through the mundane as well. You might think the royal Shields to be bodyguards or advisers, but what we must always strive to be, is brothers-in-arms, loyal till death. With these words offered to the next Shield in line, please welcome my son: Gladiolus Amicitia!’

Quite a few things happened right in that moment.

The huge double doors, leading out of the garden, banged open with an unnatural sound, so loud, even the windowpanes shook. Gladio, on pure reflex most likely, stepped half in front of Ignis. Clarus was back by Regis’ side in the blink of an eye and Cor was instinctively gripping the katana by his side. Ignis could see all the other Crownguards tense up, ready to jump at any sign of danger. All eyes were glued to the main door and nobody even seemed to breathe.

A lone, weirdly dressed figure sauntered down the aisle, the face shadowed under the brim of a hat. The man finally looked up, one hand clinging to his black fedora, eyes seemingly trained on the king. His long dark grey coat swishing around was the only audible noise in the room as he treaded up to the podium with heavy steps.

Ignis thought, by looks alone, this man must be some kind of jester; the ornate coat, the striped trousers, his red scarf, all that frill and decoration! Most of all that ridiculous looking, black, wing-like accessory he seemed to be wearing on his left arm; surely no sane man would dress like this, let alone appear before the King of Lucis in such a rude manner.

But, Ignis was no fool to make assumptions on looks alone and his instincts told him that the mysterious stranger was definitely a risk and not to be taken lightly. Gladio, still standing in front of Ignis, seemed to share his concern, judging by the tense line of his back.

 ‘Hello there! Hello!’ the stranger bellowed. ‘Good day to you! Well, quite a glittering assemblage, King Regis. Royalty, nobility,’ the man looked at one of the cameras, ‘even the gentry is let in on this marvellous occasion.’

‘Is Niflheim so void of envoys, that it needs to send their Chancellor to our modest kingdom?’

‘It is an honour to be recognised by the great King Regis, yet, permit me to stand on ceremony and introduce myself none the less! Ardyn Izunia, Chancellor of Niflheim. At your humble service!’ the man lifted his fedora and bowed with a flourish. Regis didn’t seem to be moved at all by the man’s unnecessary theatrics, as he was staring at the newcomer with the same stern look.

‘What brings Your Excellency to the Crown City?’ the king asked.

‘Why, this is a most auspicious day, of course! I could not miss out on imparting His Radiance’s heartfelt congratulations on to Your Majesty and the young Crown Prince, as a gesture of Imperial good-will,’ the Chancellor finished. He reached the podium and put one heavy-soled boot up on its steps.

All the Crownsguards present started to move in unison, but a simple lift of Regis’ hand halted them. Ardyn looked over the king and his entourage with a smirk.

‘We wish the prince grows in grace and beauty, beloved by all who know him!’ he bowed again making to leave. Then stopped, lifting one finger, as if just remembering something.

‘How foolish of me to forget, there is a gift, of course, that I shall bestow on the child. Courtesy of the Niflheim Empire.’

The Chancellor produced an ornate flask; whatever it contained swirled around in all manners of purple and sparkling behind the intricate glasswork.

‘It really is nought but a simple contribution to the grand history of the blood royal of Lucis. May the beloved prince have the most extraordinary life, but before the sun sets on his sixteenth birthday, may he die by touching the same Crystal he should protect.’

Regis gripped the arms of his makeshift throne, moving to get up. Both his loyal bodyguards moved as one on the Chancellor, swords drawn. But instead of defending himself in any way, Ardyn only held the flask high with a grin, and with a careless twist of his fingers he let his “gift” fall.

The glass shattered into a myriad of crystals, leaving free reign to its mysterious contents. A cloud of smoke erupted, sizzling with menacingly bright sparkles, growing phenomenally in size and threatening to engulf the whole garden. The panicking guests scrambled to the doors, trying to get to safety.

Regis moved as fast as he could to get to his son, only to witness the daemonic miasma settle over the crib, enveloping Noctis.

‘No!’ he cried, snatching up the prince, but glimpsing at the passing pink glint in Noctis’ irises, he knew, that he was late. His son started to wail.

Cor and Clarus met only the swirling mist when they stepped up to where the Niflheim Chancellor had been mere seconds ago. Cor took a few quick steps through the isle, but decided the pursuit of that bastard would be futile. His king should be his priority. Clarus was already standing by the side of His Majesty, steering him in the direction of the nearest exit when Cor turned back around.

‘Cor! See to it that everyone gets to safety!’ Clarus commanded. The Marshal only nodded, and was off again.

 

Regis stepped out onto the corridor, Clarus’ right arm still tightly wrapped around his liege’s shoulder. In the quiet of the hallway he could clearly hear now the prince crying. Regis did not utter a word, clinging to his son desperately and depending on his friend to lead him to safety.

Clarus was too stunned to say anything, but he didn’t think his words would bring any comfort either way. So he just kept on going.

He was certain that Jared got his daughter out of the garden without problems, and his son… well, Gladio was sure to fend for himself. His only concern now lay with his friend.

Standing finally in the lift, he could see Regis trembling; quick little tremors in his hands again, one entwined in the fabric of his son’s clothes, the other flitting over the side of his face, as if he could find whatever the Chancellor did to him. Clarus listened to the quick breaths leaving his lips, and Noctis’ crying voice. He never felt this helpless in his life.

Regis just kept rocking his son; Clarus willed the numbers on the pad to go faster, as they rode in silence.

Even as they finally reached the King’s living quarters and the doors closed behind them, the heavy atmosphere stayed. What is there to say in circumstances, such as this? Minutes passed. Clarus suspected that any more thinking would earn him a sore neck, scratched bloody, as he caught himself again repeating the same nervous gesture.

There was a knock.

Clarus hurried over to the doors, as Regis seemed to be stuck in a loop trying to comfort Noctis and ignoring the world. Cor Leonis was standing on the other side.

‘Everyone present at the ceremony has been evacuated and seen to, Sir! All available Crownsguard personnel is on duty, effective now. I’ve let a small team scour the grounds and check the security footage, but I have not got my hopes up.’

‘And you might just be right not to,’ Clarus morosely affirmed. ‘If that asshole could just… sneak into the Citadel, we have a very low probability of catching him on his way out. Anybody hurt?’

‘No. Some minor injuries occurred in the panic, but they have been tended to. How is the king?’

‘Take a wild guess, Cor… I–,’ Clarus looked around helplessly, ’I don’t know what to do! I cannot offer anything that would make this any better, given it is true. I’m utterly useless and not even taking into account that it’s the prince, this is my friend’s child we are talking about!’

‘I know.’ Cor’s resigned tone told him, he felt the same. ‘Anything I can do?’

‘Find my son, if you would, and Ignis Scientia as well. Be on standby. I’ll try to speak with Regis; maybe he will be amenable to talk things through, because if the Empire is really out for the prince’s life… we need a plan.’

Cor nodded, saluted, and rushed away. Clarus closed the doors behind him, and with a deep sigh, went back to his king.