“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 Caeli 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 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’s eyes shifted over to 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.”
While Ignis was mostly successful in maintaining his neutral expression, a single eyebrow seemed to twitch up involuntarily in shock. 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. Summoning his notebook and pulling his fountain pen from his jacket pocket, he turned to the first page and readied himself to take notes should they be necessary.
As Cor and the girl moved to the main floor so they would have more room, Ignis was able to see her 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. Ignis’s lips quirked up in a small smile. This girl was sneaky. She must have the ability to summon and was waiting for the last moment to bring her weapon into existence so the Marshal couldn’t gain information about her fighting style from her choice of blade.
The Marshal launched his attack, trotting lightly forward, but waiting until the last moment to make an offensive move in order to gain back some advantage after showing his hand so early. It wasn’t until he had nearly reached her that she pulled out her weapons—two gleaming silver-white falchions, with curved blades and delicately sculpted guards of leaves and vines. 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 weren’t expecting the sound. His hesitation so subtle that even Ignis’s keen eyes barely caught it, the Marshal pushed forward and met her blades with a clang of metal on metal that echoed through the vast throne room.
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 stopping at the Marshal’s back. She could have ended the contest right there, but she chose to back up and allow him to turn around, her posture assuming a defensive position once again as she held her falchions out at the ready.
After several more minutes of avoiding the Marshal’s blows, her strategy shifted suddenly to offensive, though Ignis could spot no visual clue as to the reason for the change. 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. He’d seen varying levels of skill in bladework since he was a child, had studied the art extensively since he was a teenager, and had apprenticed under some of the finest blademasters of the Crownsguard, including the Marshal himself. This measured and precise art practiced in such a manner, with such a graceful flair, was a practice Ignis could appreciate. He himself had often sought after methods to improve his own form, so he made a note to inquire after her trainer when he returned from Altissia.
The moment their three blades clashed, the girl 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 strike 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 to alert the Marshal of a potential weakness? If so, it was quite an insolent move to execute in the middle of a trial meant for her.
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? The Marshal appeared to be tiring, his movements growing slower as she continued to make strike after strike, stepping forward as he began to give ground. 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, and Ignis wondered who would be the first to break the spell that seemed to hold the room captive.
“Sorry,” she murmured almost subserviently, and the Marshal let out a bark of laughter.
“Don’t be,” he continued to chuckle as she moved off him. “It’s good to be defeated every now and then. Reminds me to keep improving.”
The air shrieked again in a flash of silver light 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 before catching Ignis’s eyes. “Ignis.”
“Marshal,” he replied, bowing slightly before realizing he had not yet greeted His Majesty. Placing his pen and notebook in his jacket pocket and walking straight-backed to the stairs, he stopped 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 yet another sleepless night.
“And a last-minute addition, I would like you to take Laura here with you tomorrow,” he said, gesturing to the girl. “As you have no doubt noticed, she has . . . skills, which will serve you well on your journey.”
Ignis suppressed the desire to let his mouth drop open as he stared up at the King. His Majesty 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. “Ignis Scientia, at your service. 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, “Forgive me; do you know where I might recognize you from? You appear familiar, but I’m afraid I can’t quite place from where.”
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 elocution, 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, as he wasn’t certain how many more cans of Ebony his body would allow before committing mutiny.
“So you’re acquainted. Very good,” King Regis said almost jovially, 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 bowing low, he said instead, “Tomorrow morning, Your Majesty.” He nodded farewell to the Marshal and the girl before turning on his heel and striding out.
There was still so much to accomplish by tomorrow morning—picking up the Regalia from the royal garage, exchanging enough crowns into gil that they might spend the night in Galdin before setting sail, and assisting Noct with packing up his apartment were just the tasks he needed to complete within the next few hours. He would have to move quickly if he was to accomplish everything before they left.