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Born to Dance in the Dark

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“His Majesty is with the Marshal and a new recruit at the moment, but he instructed me to let you in as soon as you arrived. He said that you should watch and stay out of the way,” his uncle said, opening the throne room door.

Ignis bowed his head slightly as he breezed through the open door. “Thank you, Uncle,” he said in a low voice. Modulating his steps so that they wouldn’t echo in the vast throne room, he came to a stop about halfway inside the room, along the wall and near one of Crownsguard on duty. They met each other’s eyes briefly, and Ignis nodded in greeting.

He looked up to the throne to see King Regis staring down at a man and a girl standing on the landing of the stairs. The man, at least, Ignis knew well—Cor Leonis, Marshal of the Crownsguard. Ignis frequently sparred with him and found him to be a formidable foe, impossible to touch. Even Gladio, who was vastly more skilled in combat than Ignis himself, had never managed to best the man in mock battle.

“Cor,” King Regis said, “I’ve been running Laura here through a series of tests to assess her readiness for her latest assignment. She’s already proven herself by sneaking past my security. Why don’t you see if her weapons skills are sufficient?”

Ignis looked over at the girl in surprise. He couldn’t see much from his position, but he guessed her to be somewhere between the ages of sixteen to twenty-four. The hood on her dark blue velvet cloak was pulled down to reveal her long hair, so black that it was nearly blue. The silhouette of her full gown made her appear more at home here in the throne room than in a combat situation, and he wondered how she had managed to sneak past the palace’s considerable security wearing such a garment.

“Yes, your Majesty. Would you prefer I run her in a practice room, or here in the throne room?” Cor replied.

“Here in the throne room, if you please. I would like to watch personally.”

Ignis’s eyes widened. He himself had never been asked to display his weapons prowess in front of the King in such a manner, and no one he had heard of had been tested in the throne room in front of an entire shift of Crownsguard. For what assignment could the King possibly be considering this girl that such a measure was necessary? He had to admit that he was curious as to why the King should wish him to witness this. Perhaps he should take notes.

As they moved to the main floor so they would have more room, Ignis was able to see the girl’s face. She was clearly high nobility with her black hair and that coloring; her thick black lashes rimmed almond-shaped eyes that glowed bright blue against luminescent alabaster skin. She appeared as though she could be Noct’s sister.

But she was also pale and wide-eyed. She even looked as though she were shaking a little. Was she ill? Perhaps she was nervous regarding her upcoming trial. Ignis knew he would be if he were in her position. Still, she was small and lithe; no doubt she would be quick with a blade if she had the skill. Even if there was no hope of beating her opponent, it was possible she would make a good showing, perhaps even wearing that gown that was so inappropriate for combat.

The girl took off her cloak, placing it neatly on the newel post of the stairs that led from the throne. Without it, her body looked even smaller and more vulnerable.

The Marshal had summoned his katana while he waited for her to quickly pull her hair into a thick plait. She turned to face him, her stance signaling that she was ready for an attack, but Ignis could see no weapons in her hands or on her person. His lips quirked up in a small smile. This girl was sneaky. She must have the ability to summon, and she was waiting for the last moment to bring her weapon into existence so the Marshal could not gain information about her fighting style from her choice of blade.

Ignis watched as the Marshal launched his attack. It wasn’t until he had nearly reached her that she pulled out her weapons. A gleaming silver-white falchion, with a curved blade and delicately sculpted guard of leaves and vines, appeared in each hand. But Ignis didn’t believe it was the weapons themselves that shocked the Marshal into faltering in his advance, it was the way the world seemed to shift to accommodate her wish as she pulled them out of thin air beside her. The very air seemed to shiver and shriek in protest as the blades appeared, and even she winced a little, as though she were not expecting the sound. The Marshal hesitated only a moment before he pushed forward and met her blades.

The girl seemed to choose a defensive tactic at first, spinning to the side with the Marshal’s every thrust and advance. She held her blades out at the ready, but not once did she strike out with them except to defend against his katana. To Ignis, it appeared as though she were dancing with the man, her every move kicking up the heavy fabric of her gown and sending it swirling in a wave of blue and gold embroidery. Her dress seemed not to hinder her at all as she twisted away from his blade, whirling almost faster than Ignis’s eye could track, and stopped at his back. She could have ended the contest right there, but she chose to back up and allow the Marshal to turn around, her posture assuming a defensive position once again as she held her blades out toward him.

After several more minutes of avoiding the Marshal’s blows, her strategy shifted to offensive. As she reached above her head with both blades to meet the full strength of the Marshal’s attack, her eyes full of fire, Ignis thought for a fleeting moment that he had never seen a more stunning sight. The moment the three blades clashed, she lowered one of her swords to touch the flat of her blade against the Marshal’s throat—a touch and a point for her. He staggered back slightly before advancing again, his katana a blur of motion. She ducked beneath the onslaught and swept a leg out, but Ignis could tell that she was too far away to make contact and trip him. Had she done that deliberately? She rotated to the side as she brandished her weapons again.

At this point, her onslaught became swift and vicious, but still, she didn’t seem eager to end the contest. Despite watching her touch the Marshal five more times, Ignis knew from watching her defensive measures that she could move faster than she was and could end this on her whim. Was she toying with the man?

He noticed that the Marshal appeared to be tiring, his movements growing slower. Sensing his weakness, the girl leapt at him, batting his sword to the side with her left blade. He landed on his back with her perched over him, his right arm trapped beneath her left falchion, his left trapped beneath her knee, and her right falchion at his throat. The fabric of her ornate gown pooled over the man’s legs and on the floor around them like a puddle of water.

The room was still for several moments, stunned to silence. Ignis wondered who would be the first to break the spell of what had just happened.

“Sorry,” he heard her murmur almost subserviently, and the Marshal laughed.

“Don’t be,” he chuckled as she moved off him. “It’s good to receive an ass-whooping every now and then. Reminds me to keep improving.”

The air shrieked again as she placed her blades back into thin air, making it clear to Ignis that she didn’t use the magic of the Crystal. She offered a hand to help the Marshal up, and the man looked around the throne room at the Crownsguard, who stood open-mouthed in their alcoves at regular intervals toward the visitor’s door. “Don’t think this means you all will be so lucky,” he grunted. The Marshal’s eyes caught his own. “Ignis,” he nodded.

“Marshal,” he replied, bowing slightly. Then he realized he had not yet greeted His Majesty. He put his pen and notepad in his jacket pocket and walked straight-backed to the stairs, stopping next to the girl, who was still breathing heavily against her corset. He crossed his right arm over his chest and bowed deeply. “Your Majesty.”

“Ahh, Ignis, my boy. Thank you for coming. Please have my son and the rest of the group meet me here tomorrow morning. I should like to see you all off, and I have a few things to say to my son before he sets out to meet his bride.”

“Of course, Your Majesty. I shall have him ready as early as is possible for His Highness.” It was likely that Ignis would have to drag the Prince out of bed and toss him bodily into the car, as early as they were expected to leave tomorrow. He sighed inwardly. It was going to be another sleepless night.

“And a last minute addition, I would like you to take Laura here with you tomorrow,” he gestured to the girl. “As you have no doubt noticed, she has . . . skills, which may serve you well on your journey.”

Ignis suppressed the desire to let his mouth drop open. The King had been testing her for their own journey? Did he really believe they would need that much combat expertise to attend the Prince’s wedding, even located as it was in Niflheim-occupied territory? Gladio was already coming with them, and Ignis himself was more than proficient with his daggers. The treaty was to be signed in a matter of days, so who was the King expecting them to meet? Still, it wasn’t his place to question His Majesty’s orders.

He turned to the girl, bowing deeply. “It is an honor and a pleasure to meet your acquaintance.” Now that he could see her face more clearly, he thought there was something familiar about her eyes. Frustrated that he couldn’t place where he knew her from, he said, “I do believe I know you from somewhere, but I’m afraid I can’t quite place from where. Forgive me; do you know where I might recognize you from?”

Her voice was soft as she replied in an accent similar to his own, “I believe I’ve seen you in the library in the past couple of days.” Judging by her accent, she was most certainly from a noble family, of formal education and a demeanor of classical upbringing.

“Ah, that’s a possibility. I’ve been in the stacks for long stretches recently, researching the areas we’re to be traveling through for our journey,” he said. And he hadn’t slept a full night through in weeks. He hoped desperately that the temporary relinquishment of his clerical duties in the Citadel would allow him more time to sleep on the road. He wasn’t sure how many more cans of Ebony his body would allow.

“So you are acquainted. Very good,” King Regis said, and they both looked up to the throne. “I shall see you all back here tomorrow morning then.”

Ignis disagreed with his king’s definition of “acquainted,” but he said instead, “Tomorrow morning it is. Your Majesty.” He bowed low. He nodded farewell to the Marshal and the girl before turning on his heel and striding out. He would have to move quickly if he was to accomplish everything before they left.