For he comes, the human child,
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than he can understand.
Ignis eased his foot off the gas pedal just as the sleek, white Bentley sedan swerved into their lane, threatening to clip off the driver’s side headlight of the Star of Lucis. He bit back the curse he wanted to mutter under his breath, but he couldn’t quite contain the thought that the driver could possibly utilize his five hundred chocopower engine to at least match the flow of traffic up the main road leading to the north side of the Citadel. Ignis was able to resist the temptation to lay on the horn. The Prince’s car was well-known in this area, though not to everyone—apparently. And though one additional car blaring its horn in the tangled mass of metal fighting its way through the post lunch hour traffic would hardly attract attention, it wouldn’t be seemly for the Prince’s royal vehicle to be harassing Crown citizens.
Oblivious to Ignis’s inner irritation, Noct leaned his head back against the warm garula leather seat, ignoring the flashes of crowded restaurants and shops that lined the street. They’d both traveled from Noct’s apartment to the rear entrance of the Citadel often enough to know that it would only be a minute or so before the throngs of pedestrians scurrying between the gaps in traffic would give way to the guard station that would take them to the staff parking lot.
“Can’t remember the last time I was in this car,” Noct mumbled to himself.
Ignis adopted a light, pleasant tone. “It would have been about a month ago, I think.”
“Not much reason to use this one since you’re always carting me around in yours.”
He let out a sigh of mock exasperation, rolling his eyes toward his ungrateful passenger. “Forgive me for working too hard.”
The corner of Noct’s lips twitched up into a smirk in response, and Ignis returned an amused smile, even if the statement was far truer than Noct could possibly know.
“So why this car today?”
“Captain Drautos mentioned wanting to use it to ferry guests to the signing ceremony. After we arrive at the Citadel, I shall entrust it to him.”
Which seemed an odd request to Ignis. It wasn’t as though there were a dearth of appropriate luxury vehicles in Lucis’s capital city, so the need for Noct’s car specifically must have come down to its additional features. The Star of Lucis was one of a handful of bulletproof vehicles in the city, suitable for protecting the Prince from any assassination attempts. Though Noct had protested the need for such a measure, Ignis had thought it wise of the King to take the precaution. It may have been twelve years since Niflheim’s last two attempts on Prince Noctis’s life, but that was no reason to let their guard down.
But even with the kingdom of Lucis finally due to sign a peace treaty with Niflheim after hundreds of years of conflict, Ignis silently wondered why Captain Drautos would need the two-seater vehicle to protect a driver and a single dignitary. The car was too small and low to the ground for a man as aged as the Emperor, and who else would need the protection? How many guests would they need to ferry one at a time to the event?
Ignis shook his head ever so slightly to clear his thoughts as he turned into the drive that led to the lot and slowed just long enough for the guard to recognize them. To question the orders of superior officers was to question the King himself, and though his incessantly calculating mind never ceased wondering about the decisions made from the throne, he was wise enough to hold his tongue. King Regis Lucis Caelum and his line had founded and protected the kingdom of Lucis for two thousand years—against disease, invasion, natural disasters, and war. The word of a Caelum was law, their wisdom absolute.
Well, with one exception, in Ignis’s private opinion.
Of course, every monarch required additional minds for successfully maneuvering the intricacies of leading a country through the complex state of affairs Lucis had found itself in within the last few decades. King Regis had an entire council of members learning all they could of diplomacy, international relations, economics, finances, production, trade, battle tactics, and myriad subjects besides in order to ensure he made the wisest decisions for his people in Insomnia and the outlands of Lucis—those settlements that lay beyond the magical wall that protected the capital city from Niflheim’s war machines. Prince Noctis may have been too young to have chosen his future council, but his right-hand advisor had already been hand-picked by King Regis himself when the Prince had still been an infant.
Ignis was proud to serve his king and be responsible for the guiding and shaping of his next monarch—a position he took with the weight of fate itself even before Noct had been named the prophesied Chosen King of Light. But the secret thoughts stirring restlessly at the back of his head wondered if King Regis had also been this . . . sullen and unsure of himself at this age. As unconcerned as the King seemed to be with Noct’s progress, Ignis supposed that it would only be a matter of time before Noct aged gracefully into adulthood and began properly taking over his many responsibilities as future leader of Lucis.
“Are you gonna let Prompto drive the Regalia?” Noct asked as they passed a shuttered garage door set between two massive concrete pillars, where the vehicle in question was stored until Ignis was due to pick it up later this afternoon for their journey tomorrow.
“He seemed quite keen to take the wheel. And what of yourself?”
As Ignis pulled into the space reserved for them at the front of the lot and put the car in park, he glanced over to see Noct smirking in the direction of the garage. “Think I’ll pass. Probably best if you don’t let him drive, either.”
“There’s no guarantee I’ll be much better,” Ignis reminded him before getting out. He waited until Noct shut the passenger door behind him before clicking the lock. “We’re all beginners when it comes to driving outside the capital.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
As he held open the door to allow Noct to pass out of the humid May sunshine into the air-conditioned hall, Ignis allowed a glimmer of anticipation to seep into his tone. “I can’t imagine what it’ll be like out there.”
“Yeah, me neither,” Noct replied in a low, quiet voice, and it was only Ignis’s years of experience handling his mercurial moods that alerted him to the underlying current of excitement in his muttering.
This would be a well-deserved respite for all four of them, surely—a break from the burdens of their positions and a chance to explore the world. With the exception of Noct’s trip to Tenebrae to visit the Oracle for healing after the assassination attempt had failed when he was eight years old, none of them had even so much as taken a single step beyond the Wall. And while Insomnia was doubtless the center of architecture, art, and culture in the world, Ignis was eager to see for himself the bright white sands and turquoise seas of Galdin Quay, to taste the shellfish pulled fresh from the Cygillan Sea. Long had he entertained the fantasy of strolling alongside the glimmering canals of Altissia, watching some of the most famed chefs in the world work as they made a sumptuous meal for him, and spending a leisurely afternoon coaxing the city’s secret attractions to reveal themselves as he explored the paths less traveled. If only they had more time before the Prince was due to be at the wedding. They might have explored more of Lucis’s outlands, perhaps even the Ravettrician and Terraverden continents.
There was so much he could learn of the world, and he was nearly on fire with the prospect of getting this chance to know, but his more rational side kept him calm. The reality of the experience would likely be that he would spend the next three weeks wrestling three unruly children across the continent, keeping them from falling off the ferry, then attempting to avert a war every time the Prince opened his mouth once they arrived in Altissia. With both the host country and the bride’s country loosely controlled by the Niflheim Empire, Ignis imagined tensions would be high until the treaty was signed and Noct’s marriage to Lunafreya, Princess of Tenebrae and current Oracle, was finalized.
Ignis had only just recently learned in a letter from his mother that his father was from Tenebrae. Perhaps, before Noct returned from his honeymoon, Ignis could make the trip across the ocean to Terraverde and see his father’s homeland with his own eyes before returning to his duties in Insomnia. He should certainly stop briefly in the outer Sorwester District on his way back into the city to pay his parents a visit, at the very least. He’d been three years old the last time he’d seen the sparsely forested outskirts where his parents resided just inside the Wall—saying a final goodbye to his father as his Uncle Caeli escorted him to his new life in the Crown City. It had only been since his mother had begun sending him letters in the last three years that Ignis had entertained the notion of visiting them, but his relentless workload had kept him from sating his curiosity surrounding the blood relatives he barely knew or remembered. This would be the first, and likely only, opportunity for quite some time to attempt a deeper connection with his family.
“Ignis,” a sharp, authoritative voice called out from their left just as they entered the Citadel’s entrance hall. Ignis stretched his neck to see over the throngs of harried clerks and Crownsguard rushing to and fro like a seething black river and spotted Titus Drautos—captain of the King’s military unit, the Kingsglaive—striding toward them.
“Where’s the car?” Captain Drautos asked in lieu of a greeting.
“In the parking lot.”
Captain Drautos gestured for them to make their way to the bank of elevators at the rear of the polished onyx and gold-trimmed hall, but it wasn’t until the dark, gilded doors slid shut on the small space with just the three of them inside that he spoke again.
“Make sure you’re available at all times,” he said in a low, strained tone, a frown tugging at his lips that deepened the stress lines forming around his mouth. “I can’t say for sure when King Regis will be able to see you given his schedule.”
Ignis attempted to stifle his surprise, as he’d been under the impression that they were to have met with the King immediately, but his eyes widened a fraction in reaction to the news nevertheless.
“I had no idea.”
He wondered how this would affect the tight schedule he had put together for the remaining time they had before they left. The four of them were supposed to leave early tomorrow morning in order to make it to Galdin Quay by that evening. Exactly when was His Majesty going to find the time to speak to his son before sending him off to be married as the terms of the treaty demanded?
“Seriously?” Noct scowled from beside him, leaning further back into the corner and crossing his arms. “Whatever happened to meeting us now?”
Captain Drautos’s cold grey-green eyes flicked briefly over to the Prince, but the silver medals adorning his captain’s uniform clinked as he turned to direct his answer to Ignis instead. “An intruder somehow managed to infiltrate all the way to the throne without being spotted. We suspect magic.”
“An assassination attempt before the signing?” Ignis asked, his voice softening in concern, but his tension eased somewhat when the captain shook his head immediately.
“The Crownsguard are reporting that they demanded nothing more than to speak to King Regis. Against their advice, the King chose to grant the audience in his private chambers. I’m going up there now to do some damage control.”
“He . . . met privately with the intruder?” Ignis asked incredulously. Until the treaty was signed, Lucis and Niflheim were still technically at war. This person could have been sent to murder the one man whose life force and magic held the Wall strong above their heads, for all they knew. What could have possessed the King to dismiss his royal bodyguards’ advice and entertain this guest during such a tumultuous time?
A ringing tone sounded above their heads as the doors slid open to reveal the Hall of History—a reminder of the weight of the undefined future that lay before the Caelum line just before the doors that led to the audience chamber where the King ruled from his gold and onyx throne.
“Seems like a lotta trouble to go through just to talk to him, but I guess that’s what it takes these days,” Noct mumbled bitterly as they stepped out of the elevator together. But his voice softened as he added, “Hope he’s okay.”
“It’s my job to make sure the King gets to the signing ceremony in one piece, so you leave that to me,” Captain Drautos replied. He began to veer off toward the hallway that led to the King’s study, but Ignis stopped him.
Drautos halted and turned to face them. “Yes?”
A thousand questions were buzzing through Ignis’s thoughts, but he could only think of one that would appropriately convey his fears out here in the open. “Is the date of the signing still undecided?”
The captain’s expression tightened a fraction. “Unfortunately, yes.”
Ignis furrowed his brow, looking down at the captain’s polished Glaive boots as he let out a long sigh. “Unfortunate, indeed.”
“I understand your anxieties,” he said, already turning back in the opposite direction, “but King Regis has said he’d like to proceed with caution.”
“Of course,” Ignis replied under his breath to his retreating back, but a frisson of disquiet he couldn’t quite resolve prickled at the hairs on the back of his neck. Honestly, though, he was being ridiculous. The King would never have agreed to this treaty had such measures not been what was the very best for his kingdom, surely. Their king would guide them through these troublesome times much as he had since before Ignis had been born; of that, he was certain.
“So when do you think Dad will meet with us?” Noct asked, looking up at him. They met each other’s eyes for a moment before Noct let his attention wander over the bustling hall. “Guess we could go upstairs and get packed while we wait, but it could take forever with everything going on here.”
Ignis ushered him toward the door to the audience chamber. “Let us see what we can find out, shall we?”
Lord Caeli Scientia was waiting for them precisely where he and Ignis had previously agreed to meet this afternoon—just to the left of the throne room door. He took a step forward when he spotted them approaching, his green eyes pulling down at the corners in an expression Ignis interpreted as severe stress and anxiety. Given today’s events so far, Ignis hardly needed to ask after the cause.
Though technically a member of the King’s organization of elite individuals assigned to the protection and needs of the Royal Family, Uncle Caeli’s role in the Crownsguard leaned more towards the administerial and security-related aspects of managing the King’s schedule. As such, his custom-designed Crownsguard uniform suited the formality of his position and his efficient, no-nonsense sense of style—a simple button-down with a crisp collar and a single-breasted three-piece suit in the royal black that had been associated with House Caelum since the founding of the kingdom.
“Prince Noctis,” he greeted with a deep, formal bow. “You look well.”
Noct grimaced slightly at the greeting but said in a more casual tone, “Hey, Mr. Scientia. Is my dad around?”
“Unfortunately, his . . . meeting has yet to adjourn,” he replied with a slight wince, though Ignis couldn’t tell if it was due to the Prince’s neglect in using his title as he should or the circumstances at large. “You have my sincerest apologies, Your Highness.”
“No worries,” Noct said with a shrug.
Uncle Caeli raised his eyes to meet Ignis’s, likely knowing full-well what havoc this would wreak on Ignis’s tight schedule. “I’m sorry for the delay, Ignis. No one seems to know anything. The King dismissed all personnel from the entire suite surrounding his study and ordered that he is to be disturbed by no one until further notice.”
“It’s not your fault, Uncle.”
“Yeah, we’ve got other things to do anyway,” Noct said, but his voice grew quieter as he added, “How’s he doing?”
Uncle Caeli frowned. “Exhaustion aside, he seems to be doing just fine.”
“Can he still walk?”
“But of course.”
Noct echoed his frown, doubtless worried for his father’s health after the recent skirmishes with the Empire followed by this sudden desire for peace that required so much preparation. Maintaining the Wall that protected Lucis’s capital city from daemons and ships of war alike required the life force of the eldest living Caelum—the only one capable of wielding the full force of his family line in the Royal Ring of Lucis. Even if the city itself weren’t directly attacked, the King’s life was also drained each time members of the Kingsglaive expended energy on magic to defend Insomnia beyond the Wall. From the reports Ignis had heard in Council meetings, several skirmishes with the Empire before the abrupt withdrawal of enemy forces and an offer of peace had taken quite a toll on His Majesty’s already waning strength. For three years now, he’d been unable to summon his Royal Armiger and had been forced to use a cane to walk. Recent events could very well leave him incapacitated and unable to resist an invasion during one of Insomnia’s most vulnerable points in history, if they weren’t all very careful with this treaty.
“Great,” Noct mumbled half-heartedly, turning back toward the elevator that would lead them to the top of the northwest tower, where the royal apartments were situated. Ignis nodded his thanks to his uncle before taking a step to follow behind his charge, but Uncle Caeli’s hand shot out to touch him on the arm, stalling his exit.
“Ignis, I will contact you once His Majesty has a moment.”
“Much appreciated,” he said with a nod. “For now, we’ll be on our way to the prince’s quarters.”
“I suppose I should consider our ‘weekly lunches’ cancelled for the time being,” Uncle Caeli replied, a slight smile bringing an indulgent twinkle to his eyes, “at the very least until you return.”
Ignis blew a gentle huff of a laugh through his nose. They had “scheduled” a weekly lunch to update one another on their lives for as long as he could remember, but their conflicting schedules had only allowed a handful of such meetings to actually take place over the course two decades.
Ignis let out in a rush before his wayward charge could call an elevator without him, “We’ll schedule something for certain when I return—you have my word.”
“I’m holding you to that,” he heard Uncle Caeli call out softly as he strode to catch up with Noct.
He managed to step into the elevator just before the doors shut behind him without appearing too rushed, but Noct flashed him a rueful smirk at failing to leave him behind and make him wait for another lift.
“You’re gonna have to pick up the pace if you wanna keep up with me out there,” Noct teased.
Ignis lifted his chin and reached beneath the edge of his blazer sleeve to adjust his left cuff. “I believe I’m equal to the task. I’m here, am I not?”
When the door slid open again, the two of them moved simultaneously to step off the lift, but a pair of Crownsguard seeking to enter before checking to ensure that it was empty impeded their way.
“Oh, good afternoon, Your Highness,” the first guard said, stepping off to the side to allow them to pass and dipping his head in a bow as his partner mimicked the gesture.
“Afternoon,” Noct mumbled, looking away. He waited until they had walked several feet down the long hallway lined with dark, closed doors before he added in a lower voice, “I can’t stand that.”
“Being greeted?” he asked amusedly, but half his attention had zeroed in on the sound of thudding boots on carpet headed quickly in their direction from up ahead.
Noct shook his head, seemingly oblivious to the sound. “Not that. All the formality, bowing their heads all the time . . ..”
He was unable to complete his thought. Just as they turned the corner, two Kingsglaive—judging by the thigh-length, high-collared, silver-detailed military coat of the man and the form-fitting body suit and jacket of the woman—nearly collided with them as they headed in the opposite direction. The man’s shoulder clipped his own as he passed, jerking his body roughly in their direction.
“Pardon me,” Ignis said politely.
His tensed hands had relaxed at the sight of the uniforms, but he still eyed the dark-haired woman in particular, wondering why a mage would be posted for guard duty, of all things. Then again, with the King ordering the Glaive to the palace for the signing and the Crownsguard to assist the Crown City Police with crowd control, he supposed that no one was where they should be at a time like this.
“You okay?” the Glaive asked over his shoulder, not stopping to truly check, but the woman turned around, walking backward to meet their gaze.
“Sorry ‘bout that,” the mage added, her dark eyes still glittering with what appeared to be fading mirth.
“Eyes forward,” the Glaive barked softly, and she wiggled her brows at the two of them before spinning around to continue on her way.
For his part, Ignis could only flash Noct a wry smile. “It seems not everyone is capable of a proper greeting.” As he turned back for a final glance toward the retreating pair, he added by way of explanation, “Those are Kingsglaive uniforms . . ..”
Noct followed his gaze with interest before they disappeared around another corner. “Oh, yeah?”
He realized that if Noct was incapable of recognizing Glaive uniforms on sight, he likely hadn’t caught his implication, either. “They aren’t from the Crown City. Perhaps they don’t know who you are.”
Noct nodded to the door they had reached as he pulled out a small gold key and unlocked it. “No way they’d see me if they’re always hanging around the Citadel.”
Of course, had Noct truly spent much time here, he might have realized that the Glaive were never assigned to guard the Citadel, as that task had always been appointed to the Crownsguard. No, before the proposal of the peace treaty, the Glaive had always been on the front lines of the war with Niflheim, and their appearance here inside the Citadel just before the signing seemed a troubling show of bad faith, in Ignis’s opinion. But he chose to forgo a chastising remark on the Prince’s ignorance of basic government structure in favor of picking at the source of that ever-present sense of disquiet following him around today like a shadow.
“I imagine the Empire’s terms leave them with mixed feelings.”
Noct paused in front of the unlocked door for a moment, his brow furrowing. “Everything out there’ll belong to Niflheim, huh.”
“Precisely,” Ignis said with a nod and a touch of relief that their future king had ruminated on the broader implications of this treaty beyond his marriage to Lady Lunafreya. While nearly all of Lucis’s economic presence resided in the protected capital city of Insomnia, the kingdom spanned the entire continent. Hardly anyone knew of what business went on in the outlands beyond what little culture the immigrant Kingsglaive brought with them, as any immigration into the city for any purposes beyond military need had been banned over three decades ago. Ignis had heard brief mentions that outlanders were dissatisfied with Niflheim’s demand that Lucis cede all territories beyond Insomnia’s Wall to them, but as far as he could tell, no one had given the matter much attention or had even verified the sentiment beyond hearsay.
“Well, they live in Insomnia now, right?”
“Even so,” Ignis replied, stifling his disappointment, “their homes will cease to be a part of Lucis. The news must be shocking to say the least.”
“Yeah . . ., good point.” He opened the door and stepped inside the parlor, the boots of his hardly-worn Prince’s fatigues echoing off the parquet wooden floor and the walls of the mostly-empty space. He gestured to the high, arched doors along the far end of the wall that led to his childhood bedroom. “Anyway, just pack whatever you think I’ll need.”
Ignis released a weary sigh as he strode to the bedroom and pushed on the handle to open the door. “If you insist. But I expect you to sort through it later.”
Technically speaking, it wasn’t his responsibility to act as the Prince’s valet. His duties encompassed a variety of functions, all of which he’d been trained to perform perfectly from the age of three. Ignis was to see to the Prince’s grooming for his future role—his education, his nutrition, his finances, his household, and how he conducted himself as a member of the Royal Family. He was responsible for giving the Prince advice when he felt he needed it, and he was to serve as a tactician and strategist should the situation have need of one.
But Ignis had also given his word to King Regis at the age of six when he first began his assignment—that he would always, no matter what, care for his son. That promise had brought him no end of grief and confusion in the following years, and not only because his rigorous and extensive education and impeccable skills in several vital fields had been truncated as a result of keeping it. It seemed that keeping his word also required him to cook and clean up after the somewhat indolent adolescent.
And, it would seem, assist him in packing his suitcase.
“You know,” Noct said after a while, pausing in haphazardly dumping whatever lay within arm’s reach into his bulging bag as Ignis made an attempt to straighten things and take stock of what they still needed. “I think I spent more time sneaking out of this room than I actually spent in it.”
Ignis chuckled. “Indeed. And it wasn’t uncommon for me to go with you. Every excursion was more nerve-wracking than the last.”
“Y’know,” Noct smirked, giving him a good-natured shove, “I remember someone there, but he was always in a bad mood, trying to get me to read.” But the playful expression faded from his features as his voice grew softer, as though he were mostly speaking to himself. “It was cause I hated being stuck in here. I couldn’t get a moment alone.”
“Everyone was worried about you.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“Before you sustained that injury, you were a much livelier child,” he said carefully, hoping the Prince might open up some about the experience, but not daring to expect a true answer.
“I didn’t really talk much after it happened, huh?”
He certainly hadn’t. It was as though the vivacious child Ignis had helped the palace staff to raise over the last three and a half years had died, and instead, he had been charged with looking after a withdrawn and sullen—almost combative—youth. Every once in a while, Ignis thought he spotted glimpses of the boy that had once been so eager to please, eager to be loved. Those moments came few and far between, but they were enough to keep his faith despite never once being thanked for his monumental efforts.
“Even I was perplexed at your radical change.”
Noct’s sapphire eyes shot to his, widening in surprise. “Really?”
Ignis looked down at the lumpy bag lying defeated on the four-poster bed in front of them and began removing some of the spare shirts to roll so they would take up less space—though the action hardly mattered. They would likely be depending on the armiger to store their clothing once they were out on the road—if Noct could manage the rather tricky task of adjusting it to include such items.
“Indeed,” he replied in a gentle tone. “Which is why I had no choice but to accompany you whenever you left this room.” Despite the consequences to himself. But he cast the stray thought aside. “I always hoped these spontaneous ‘excursions’ would one day come to a peaceful end,” he continued in a more jovial tone, “yet my hopes were dashed.”
Noct had meandered over to the window bench, where Ignis used to read his astronomy book to him on nights he couldn’t sleep as they dreamed of one day seeing real stars. He looked out the window onto the sprawling expanse of the city below, lost in thought, but he let out a short laugh at Ignis’s words.
“Ha! I remember. You took the fall for everything.”
“I was reprimanded for ‘absconding’ with you away from the Citadel.”
Noct’s voice grew softer as Ignis wandered toward the far wall, his eyes roaming over the shelves for anything they might have missed in packing. “My bad. You were doing me a favor and got blamed for it anyway.”
“I was simply doing my job. I have no regrets on the matter—not even now. Hm? What’s this?”
A flash of icy blue had caught his eye amidst the chaos of Noct’s possessions, and he reached up to pluck the object carefully from the shelf without disturbing the rest of the mess. When he brought it in for closer inspection, he recognized the small wooden figurine as an ornament that King Regis had given the Prince as a child—a totem of one of the Messengers of the gods said to protect House Caelum since its founding.
“Carbuncle. I haven’t seen this in ages.”
Noct looked over from his seat by the window. “Let’s take it with us.”
“It’s an important keepsake, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” Noct shrugged. “I figure it’ll at least keep us safe on the road.”
Ignis walked to the bed and tucked the figurine carefully between two of the t-shirts he’d just rolled. He knew well the value of talismans held up before a man as a vanguard against the darkness from his own secret experience. A pang of regret shot through him that his was too large to carry with him on their journey, but he dismissed the thought. It wasn’t as though he’d be leaving it behind for good, and he was bringing along evidence of his mother’s favor, at least—his own reminder of home.
“I wouldn’t take this little lucky charm so lightly. It brought you back from the brink of death, didn’t it?”
Noct may not have breathed a word to anyone about the specific events that had led to his nanny’s death and his extensive injury, but Ignis was one of two people on this planet Noct had told of his vision as he’d lain in a coma after the attempt on his life as a child. Even though they were alone at the moment, Ignis still noted that Noct’s eyes widened somewhat in alarm before he relaxed into nonchalance once more. “Maybe in my dreams, at least.”
His reluctance to speak of the Messenger leading him back to the land of the living was made clear as he turned toward the heavy wooden closet door, glanced inside, and changed the subject.
“What else do I need . . .,” he muttered to himself.
Ignis suppressed the snort of derision threatening to escape him. “A sword?” he suggested carefully.
“Good call.” He disappeared into the back of the small closet for several seconds, and Ignis winced at the sound of thudding, clanging, and shifting emanating from the open door until Noct finally emerged, the engine blade he’d received as a gift from his father gripped in his hand. It appeared to be in terrible condition. Rust had accumulated where the blade met the scabbard, and he was willing to wager that the edge was as dull as a butter knife. He made a mental note to add blade sharpening to his list as soon as he had the chance. His own could use a once-over at the same time.
“I remember training with this.”
“There was hardly a moment of peace around here after you received it.”
“Yeah,” he said as he laid it on the bed next to his bag. A gentle laugh tumbled from his lips before he said, “But no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t get the blade-warp down.”
“If you hadn’t sustained that injury from the attack, I imagine it might’ve been much easier for you. You did quite well for yourself regardless,” he said diplomatically.
Noct’s tone grew brittle. “I didn’t really have much of a choice.”
But Ignis wouldn’t stand for wallowing in self-pity as was often the Prince’s wont. Their fates had all been pre-determined, but that was no reason to languish in misery. Millions of lives depended on them to do whatever was required whenever the time came for the Chosen King to act, and they had to be prepared as best they could so that they could rise to whatever that occasion demanded.
“Certainly,” he agreed.
Noct’s scathing response was forestalled when a single, soft vibration sounded from Ignis’s left breast pocket. He made an apologetic gesture to Noct before reaching into his blazer and answering.
“Hello? This is Ignis.”
“It’s Caeli,” his uncle replied. “I’m calling from one of the desks downstairs, as an inductee managed to crush my phone yesterday with a stray practice staff. No matter. I was instructed to tell you that His Majesty will be unable to meet with the Prince today.”
“The aides have informed me that the baggage with all your dress uniforms are ready and waiting in the antechamber off the ballroom. I suggest you check to ensure everything is correct, and then meet me in the Hall of History again—alone. King Regis had a special request of you to personally carry out before you left for the day.”
“Understood,” he said firmly, though his mind was racing with curiosity. “I’ll be right there.”
As he ended the call and replaced his phone, Ignis said to Noct, “I’ve just been informed that His Majesty is too busy to meet with us today.”
Noct’s eyes dropped to the floor at his feet as though contemplating the complexity of his artfully mismatched boots. “Huh.”
The Prince clearly felt more than he was vocalizing at his father’s rebuff, but there wasn’t the time for gentle reassurance today. “I’m going to check on the baggage for the ceremony. Please sort through your belongings in the meantime.”
Ignis turned and swiftly strode out of the room, leaving Noct standing motionless in front of his overfull bag.
Once Ignis had ensured that the Royal Raiment and their formal Kingsglaive uniforms for the wedding were complete and properly packed, he proceeded directly to the Hall of History to meet his uncle. His dark blonde hair was easy to spot over the lines of people passing one another on the polished stone paths between the Zen gardens lining the room. He was standing in the alcove leading to the audience chamber, fixing Ignis with a steady, serious expression. To Ignis’s surprise, he leaned in to grasp the door’s handle as Ignis drew closer.
“His Majesty is with the Marshal and a 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,” he said, opening the throne room door.
Ignis bowed his head slightly, concealing his shock and curiosity at the turn of events 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 darkened room, along the wall and near one of Crownsguard on duty. They met each other’s eyes briefly, and Ignis nodded in greeting. He believed the man’s name was Iulius, but he couldn’t be certain, as Ignis’s presence with the Crownsguard had always had to come second to his primary function as Noct’s senior advisor. His induction into the group of elite agents had been voluntary on his behalf—what he considered a necessary measure for properly doing his job.
He looked up to the throne, squinting into the thick shafts of afternoon light streaming in from the towering windows on either side of the throne to illuminate the far end of the long room. At the apex of the split, curving staircase sat King Regis, staring down at a man and a girl standing on the landing of the stairs below him. 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, recently named the future King’s Shield and admittedly more skilled in combat than Ignis himself, had never managed to best him in mock battle.
“Cor,” King Regis said in an oddly light, amused tone, “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 “Laura” 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, judging by the outline of her face. Had this girl been the cause of such a stir among the command structure of both the Glaive and Guard this afternoon? Certainly, there had to be more to the story, as he doubted the King would be assigning her to missions had she been a mere intruder. The infiltration must have been a premeditated operation orchestrated by His Majesty beforehand to test both the Crownsguard and the girl, with the girl emerging the victor, clearly.
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 asked.
“Here. I would like to watch personally.”
While Ignis was mostly successful in maintaining a neutral expression, a single eyebrow twitched up involuntarily before he smoothed his features once more. 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. Circumstances of late were hardly routine, but for what assignment could the King possibly be considering this girl that such a drastic measure was necessary? He had to admit that he was curious as to why the King should decline an audience with his son the day before he left and then wish Ignis to witness this.
After retrieving his notebook and 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 more clearly. She was obviously high nobility with that coloring; her thick black lashes rimmed almond-shaped eyes that glowed bright blue against her fair skin. To Ignis, 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 had to admit that he would be if he were in her position.
He ran his eyes up her form—shrewdly assessing her as an opponent. She was slightly tall for a woman, but 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 shed her cloak and placed it neatly on the newel post of the stairs that led from the throne. It seemed that along with the additional bulk of the long swathe of blue velvet, she had also relinquished what little imposing regality she had in her bearing. Though her midnight blue gown was obviously of the finest make of embroidered silk, her body appeared even smaller and more vulnerable without the rest of her ensemble.
The Marshal had summoned his katana while he waited for her to quickly pull her hair into a thick plait, and again, Ignis worked to conceal his shock at the weapon he’d pulled. Skilled though Ignis was in bladework, he’d only just begun sparring with partners using live blades. To use a battle-ready weapon in a friendly spar was often unnecessary and highly dangerous—a technique to be showcased by only the finest blademasters, or at the very least, implemented with extreme caution by an expert.
Her braiding complete, the girl turned to face the Marshal, her stance signaling that she was ready for an attack, but Ignis could see no weapons in her hands or on her person. He allowed himself a small, secret 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 trotted lightly forward to launch his attack, but he waited until the very 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 basket hilts 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. Unlike when Ignis would use his own ability to access the Crystal’s magic through his bond with Noct and summon his daggers, 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 falchions with a clang of metal on metal that echoed through the vast throne room.
The girl appeared 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, 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 in the slightest 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 with her eyes full of fire, Ignis thought for a fleeting moment that he had never seen a more stunning display of graceful savagery. He’d witnessed 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 elegant poise, was a demonstration Ignis could certainly appreciate. He himself had often sought additional methods to improve his 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 graze the flat against the Marshal’s throat—a touch and a point for her. The Marshal 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 observing her defensive measures that she could move faster than she was and could end this on her whim. Was she toying with him?
The Marshal appeared to be tiring, his blocks 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.
Though Ignis felt the buzz of a text alert in his left breast pocket, he ignored it in favor of keeping every iota of his attention on the conclusion of this display, his breath catching ever so slightly as the Marshal crashed to the floor on his back. They skidded several inches across the smooth floor until the pair came to rest 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 Marshal’s legs and on the floor around them like a puddle of water.
The vast hall, so prone to echoing at even the slightest of movements, had gone utterly still and silent for several moments—each of the twelve members of the Crownsguard shift and the King himself stunned—and Ignis wondered who would be the first to break the spell that seemed to hold the room captive.
“Sorry,” the girl murmured almost subserviently.
The Marshal let out a sudden bark of laughter that caused at least three of the Guard to flinch at the unexpected sound. “Don’t be.” He continued to chuckle as she moved off him. “It’s good to be defeated every now and then. Reminds me never to grow complacent.”
The air shrieked again in a flash of silver light as she placed her blades back into thin air, and Ignis’s attention remained on the spot where they had disappeared for several seconds. Her action didn’t appear to be standard of the Crystal magic every Glaive and Guard used to store their weapons in a personal armiger. But all magic on the planet, so far as Ignis knew, was bequeathed to the people from the Crystal via the King. If hers didn’t originate from that source, then where did it come from?
The girl offered a hand to help the Marshal up, and as he straightened to his full height, he gazed imperiously around the throne room at the Crownsguard, who stood open-mouthed at their posts 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. He placed his pen and notebook in his blazer pocket and walked straight-backed to the stairs. The girl was still breathing heavily against her corset when he stopped by her side, but he didn’t spare her a second glance as he crossed his right arm over his chest and bowed deeply.
As he slowly raised his eyes and straightened from his bow, Ignis immediately noted that King Regis’s demeanor had completely transformed from the exhausted, distracted man Ignis had occasionally observed and the staff had constantly described since the proposal for the treaty had unexpectedly been brought forth by none other than Imperial Chancellor Izunia himself. Though he still appeared overworked to Ignis’s eyes, King Regis smiled easily down at him. He sincerely hoped that meant the King had made progress with the treaty negotiations this afternoon.
“Ahh, Ignis, my boy. Thank you for coming. Please have my son and the retinue meet me here tomorrow morning before you leave. 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.”
Another buzz vibrated in his pocket, but he again ignored it. “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 as a last-minute addition, I ask that you 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 his liege. His Majesty had been testing her for their 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. The King’s word was the word of the gods in the Crown City.
Ignis turned to the girl, bowing slightly. “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 added, “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 and demeanor, she was most certainly from a noble family of formal education and classical upbringing.
He didn’t specifically recall seeing her among the rows of books, but he supposed it was possible that his subconscious mind had recalled what his conscious recollection had not. “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 replied smoothly.
And he hadn’t slept a full night through in weeks. He desperately hoped 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—even more now than there had been several minutes ago. He still needed to pick up the Regalia from the royal garage, exchange enough crowns into gil that they might spend the night in Galdin before setting sail, and assist Noct with packing up his apartment—and those were just the tasks he needed to complete within the next few hours. He still needed to put the finishing touches on his own packing, and if he was fortunate, flatter his neighbor into looking after the plant he kept on his windowsill. It was bad luck his apartment wasn’t Noct’s. Their cleaning party this evening would have gone much more efficiently had they been required to pack up Ignis’s spartan domicile instead.
He would have to move quickly if he was to accomplish everything necessary before they left, and he had a feeling that the two texts he received were merely going to add to his list of things to do.
When he pulled out his phone just outside the throne room, Ignis saw that he’d received a text message from Captain Drautos, informing him that a Glaive by the name of Nyx Ulric would have a car waiting out front to take the Prince home to his apartment. The second text was from Gladio, informing him that he’d been required to meet with his family for a special parting supper and that he may be late to Noct’s apartment-cleaning party that evening. The confirmation from Gladio’s father, the King’s Shield and Prime Minister, that the Crownsguard had indeed been taken off duty in the Citadel in favor of the Kingsglaive and placed on external patrol for the signing troubled Ignis, but at this point, so much had been troublesome of this entire affair that he found himself wishing this journey were already over if only it meant the treaty were signed and peace could truly be declared.
Ignis let out a sigh and called Noct as he made his way to the elevator that would take him to his office several floors below. The very first thing he had to do was make a list of everything that needed to be taken care of with a fifth member in their party now accompanying them.
“Hello?” Noct answered.
“Just me. Have you finished packing?”
“Then please be on your way home. I’m running a little late.”
There was a pause at the end of the line before Noct said, “No problem. Did something happen?”
“Nothing serious,” Ignis answered, figuring he could tell the Prince the news of their newest retinue member this evening. “There’s simply more to do than I anticipated. It’s just a matter of time until I can wrap things up here.”
“All right,” Noct said morosely, and Ignis felt a pang of sympathy that he was likely still disappointed in his father’s behavior today, but still—there wasn’t the time to address the matter thoroughly.
“Captain Drautos said there should be a car waiting for you outside.”
Guessing Noct’s reaction before the words had even left his lips, he said, “Gladio will be late as well. It might be a good idea to start cleaning before we arrive.”
“Right . . ..”
“I’ll be there as soon as I can to assist.”
Ignis pressed the call button to the lift and fought the urge to lean against the wall and close his eyes. He was running later than he’d planned. Astrals, he despised running late. As it was, he’d left several errands off his to-do list just to make it to Noct’s apartment as early as he had. But it seemed that no matter how many tasks he accomplished, dropped, or rescheduled, another three would insert themselves onto his lists. It was his responsibility to ensure that everything involving the Prince’s end of this bargain between two warring countries went smoothly—for the future of Lucis. Should anything go wrong . . . well, he couldn’t afford to think of such things. He would just have to accomplish the impossible.
Recognizing the bubbling, enthusiastic voice, Ignis turned in the direction of the call. A flash of swooped blonde hair streaked toward him and halted awkwardly just inside Ignis’s personal space. He took a single step back so that he could greet his acquaintance properly.
“Did you just get here?”
The lift door opened, and the two of them stepped inside. “Indeed. Were you able to see your parents?”
“Nah,” Prompto said with a casual shrug that didn’t fool Ignis for a second, “they weren’t home.”
“That’s unfortunate,” he said gently.
Prompto gave another half-shrug as he shifted from foot to foot, inspecting the display that announced the number of each floor as they ascended. “No biggie. I’m used to it.”
Ignis knew from watching Noct that the son of constantly busy parents never truly grew accustomed to being disappointed. Though Ignis hadn’t initially approved of Prompto’s influence in Noct’s life—he encouraged the boy to neglect his duties far more than Noct was already inclined to do—Ignis had a feeling that perhaps their shared experience with absent parents was what had initially brought them together five years ago.
“By the way, Gladio packed a ton of stuff for the road,” Prompto said.
“The camping equipment?”
“Well, he had a bunch of stuff out, and when I asked what he needed it for, he said ‘cooking.’”
Ignis looked away and let out a breath through his nose. He wasn’t certain how it had happened. He’d only picked up the skill because he’d wanted to make Noct smile again after his injury, but it had somehow morphed into a lifelong responsibility of keeping him fed and well-nourished. The truth was that Ignis held no great love for cooking, contrary to his reputation. It was simply another means by which even duty-oriented men like Gladio could tease him, thereby lessening the value of his other considerable talents by comparison. Ignis wasn’t known about the Crown City as a blade expert or a skilled strategist with an eidetic memory. He was the cold, robotic shadow of the Prince who wore glasses and cooked.
It hardly mattered. Ignis had spent his entire life ignoring gossip and rumors of all sorts flitting around the Citadel in favor of concentrating on his own performance, but it was more than wearisome when even close acquaintances behaved as though the rumors were true.
“I suppose he intends for me to use them,” he breathed out heavily.
“Do you cook a lot, Ignis?”
He frowned, not knowing how to respond. A normal amount, perhaps? Didn’t everyone cook for themselves at least once or twice a day? “I wouldn’t say ‘a lot.’”
“Y’know, Noct let me have a bite of his dinner once. Oh, and one of those pastry things you’re always making.”
He didn’t wish to rise to the bait Prompto had laid out for him, but he couldn’t help himself. Despite his reputation for being a chef, Ignis had only cooked for himself and Noct, and Noct had never been particularly forthcoming with praise—only complaints regarding his gratuitous use of vegetables.
The elevator rang its arrival as though to punctuate Prompto’s exclamation. “It was amazing!”
“Is that so?” he said, raising an eyebrow, but he was secretly pleased someone else thought so, even if the occasional experience eating out with the two of them had proven that Prompto never complained about food of any sort.
Prompto nearly tripped over the lip of the elevator door in his haste to exit, but he managed to right himself with minimal flailing and looked up at Ignis with a bright smile. “Yeah! I was hopin’ that’s what it’d be like at camp, but you usually cook in a real kitchen, right? I can’t imagine what it’s gonna be like on the road.”
As he led them down the hall toward Noct’s apartment, Ignis was about to reply that he didn’t anticipate having any troubles should the need even arise, but Prompto didn’t pause long enough for him to respond. “So I asked Noct, and he said there was nothin’ to worry about. Now I can’t wait to have more of your meals, Iggy!”
He chuckled softly, pleased despite being drafted for the task to see Prompto’s appreciation shining in his cerulean eyes. “Well, I certainly don’t want to disappoint. I might as well ask your preferences.”
Prompto twisted his mouth in thought. “Well, I like sweets, but real food’s good, too. Spicy food and . . . well, I’ll eat anything, really. Even weird stuff.”
“Understood. I was hoping to experiment with local ingredients if we get the opportunity to camp, so I’m glad you can keep an open mind.”
As Ignis pressed the button on the intercom to alert Noct to their arrival, Prompto took three hopping steps toward the apartment door, grinning madly. “No problem at all!”
“Be right there,” came Noct’s bleary mumble from the speaker. If Ignis guessed correctly, Noct hadn’t spent the last several hours cleaning but had likely just been awoken from another of his languorous cat naps.
It appeared that a very long night lay ahead of them.