From his room in the Ministry of Magic, Raphael lies on his bed and stares at the roof, pondering his situation.
He’s aware he’s been amazingly lucky. Between his dark magic, his actions at the school, and what he’d been planning to do, things could have gone a lot worse for him. It was only the good word of Katarina Claes, the third and fourth Prince, and Maria Campbell that he’s been hidden with a new identity, rather than locked away, while his ‘mother’ is arrested for her crimes.
He smiles as he remembers Katarina hugging him the last time he saw her, promising that everything would be all right, and how happy she was that he was finally free from his darkness. It’s the first time since his mother died that anyone had ever shown him such honest affection.
For months, he’d watched Nicol and his friends dance around the girl, utterly confused at their actions. No matter how much he observed, he couldn’t understand their antics. Katarina was decidedly average in intelligence, far below average in etiquette and manners, and not particularly beautiful. The three girls in the student council all surpassed her in nearly every category, and yet, every single one of them turned to Miss Claes as if she was the reason the sun rose.
He’d hated her for it. Hated her for being so happy. For making other people so happy. He’d wanted to snuff it out.
Or rather, his dark magic wanted to snuff it out. The voices in his head had whispered honeyed words demanding her downfall. But then, they’d probably known, hadn’t they. That Katarina could be his downfall instead.
And he’s gone and thrown himself off that cliff quite happily.
Katarina is painstakingly honest in her actions in a way that even commoners can’t quite manage. She walks through life as if the very society that keeps her in status doesn’t matter – acts as if she’d grown up in a world where it doesn’t. It’s refreshing and frank, and leaves everyone who interacts with her that her words and actions are law. She will never allow manners or society to get in the way of her promises.
How could anyone not want to to have her attention solely focused on you?
Raphael dearly wishes he could have a chance to catch her eye. He’s kicking himself for how long it took him to break free of his darkness, because now he’s out of the school, and will only be able to see Katarina a few scarce times before she graduates. And if Prince Gerald has his way, she’ll be sequestered into the palace where it’ll be next to impossible to meet her.
If it was a competition, Raphael is starting the race when everyone else is already at the halfway mark. To have any chance, his actions need to be big and bold.
He does have one advantage though. When he’d been looking for a weakness into Katarina’s life, he’d learned quite a bit about her life and her interests. In fact, he’d learned a lot about all the student council – including things that weren’t common knowledge.
His lips quirk as he thinks over a few jobs he’s been given at the Ministry, and glances to the side where a large glass tank stands. He’d obtained the contents through a fellow employee, to study the innate magical properties.
However, something tells him Katarina will get far more use out of them.
Three days later, Katarina wakes to find a delivery at her door. While Anne directs the heavier box towards an empty corner, Katarina sets the smaller one on the table, and picks up the card.
During my time in the Ministry of Magic, I came across this quite beautiful creature. Given your interest in them, I thought you might find some joy in providing her care.
Also attached is a list of what looks to be some kind of food list and instructions, so Katarina is a little hesitant to open the box. Anne ends up taking off the lid, with some apprehension, only to see her Mistress light up at the contents.
“Oh Raphael!” she squeals. “She’s perfect!”
It’s a normal afternoon at the magic academy, and both Gerald and Keith are in the Student Council room catching up on work. With Sirius gone, there’s a much heavier workload, and today they’re even more understaffed. Alan and Mary have an obligation at the palace, and Nicol is escorting Sophia to an engagement interview (which they have no doubt will go as well as every other engagement interview has so far), while Maria was invited to tea with some classmates. Ever since Katarina’s near exile, she’s finally been getting better treatment from other nobility, and everyone has tried to encourage her to socialise outside their circle.
On the plus side, everyone’s responsibilities means that when Katarina comes to visit, they don’t have to share her attention five additional ways.
As such, both look up and grin when they hear the familiar knock, and Katarina slips in.
“Afternoon!” she chimes. “I hope I’m not intruding.”
Gerald is already up and halfway across the room before Keith has even left his seat.
“Never, my dear Katarina,” he soothes. “You’re just the sight for sore eyes.”
Keith scowls, quickly getting to his feet and rounding his desk, planning to intercept before Gerald gets too ambitious. The Prince always tries his luck – especially when the others aren’t around.
His hackles raise when Gerald lifts Katarina’s hand, and leans down to kiss it. Keith growls.
“Hey, don’t get to-”
“WHAT IS THAT!”
The words die in his throat, and Keith is thrown when he gets the very novel experience of watching Gerald literally jump as far away from Katarina as he physically can. His face is pale, and his smile is twitching.
Slowly, Keith turns to Katarina in question. His sister somehow manages to look both guilty, embarrassed, and yet somehow elated all at the same time.
“Oops, sorry Prince Gerald,” Katarina offers, her hand reaching towards her neck. Keith frowns as he realises she’s wearing a necklace he’s never seen before. It’s long and looks rather heavy, twisting quite loosely round her neck and shoulders at least twice. “I kind of forget I was wearing her.”
Then her hand brushes against an edge, and Keith’s eyes bug out when it lifts up and darts out a tongue to lick his sister’s finger.
No way. Where would she even?
“Is that a snake?” he asks somewhat in disbelief, walking up for a closer look.
It is. That heavy necklace is in fact a thin, scaly reptile is currently loosely wrapped around his sister’s neck. It’s beautiful, in that would-appreciate-it-far-more-behind-a-pane-of-glass-rather-than-around-someone’s-neck way, mostly white with spots of yellow and blue, and long enough to wrap around Katarina’s neck twice.
“Oh yes, Raphael sent her to me,” Katarina tells them.
“Raphael, hmm?” Gerald hisses under his breath. Katarina seems oblivious to his ire.
“Yup. He saw-”
She stops and blushes, which freezes both of them for a frightening moment over the ramifications, before-
“Well, he saw I had an interest in snakes, and he asked if I could take care of this one,” she continues. “I wasn’t sure, but look-”
Her hand brushes under it’s head again, and the thing immediately perks up, brushing against her cheek, and she giggles. “Ayame is just so sweet! And she doesn’t need too much care, the maids have already set up her tank, and she matches my dress so the teachers will hardly notice he’s there.
“Ayame?” Gerald asks, still sounding quite panicked.
“Yup. I named her after a character in a ma-uh, in a book,” Katarina explains. “He was a guy, but I don't think he'd mind having a female snake named after him. What do you think, Keith?”
Wordlessly, Keith reaches out a hand, and brushes against the scales. ‘Ayame’ seems to tolerate it, though he swears the thing is glaring at him.
“Just...what kind of breed is this? Tell me it’s not a constrictor.”
Even Katarina wouldn’t be stupid enough to carry a creature that kills via strangulation round her neck, right?”
“Huh, you know. I’m not quite sure,” she says, and both Gerald and Keith feel themselves die a little inside. “Raphael said she was some kind of magic breed, but he didn’t go into details.”
“Can you maybe find out?” Keith begs, and Katarina nods.
“I guess that would make sense,” she admits. “I’ll write to Raphael and-”
“No need,” Gerald says, finally recovering, though still keeping more distance between him and Katarina than Keith is used to. “I’ll have a detailed report on exactly what...Ayame is, by next week.”
He struggles to put a smile back on his face. “Until then, why don’t we keep Ayame in her tank.”
Unfortunately for him, Katarina immediately starts pouting.
“I can’t do that!” she insists. “Ayame needs stimulation! And Raphael told me it would be fine to carry her. He wouldn’t send me anything dangerous.”
She claps her hands and smiles.
“Why don’t I go make tea while you work? I’m not Raphael, but I think I can do it!”
She makes to move, and Gerald slowly reaches.
Ayame’s head immediately rears up and hisses at him, sending the Prince whimpering back. Keith holds back the laugh. Besides, Ayame then turns its scaly little head upwards, and – Keith swears this is true – pecks against Katarina’s cheek as if giving her a dainty kiss.
“Are you kidding me?” Gerald says through gritted teeth, before walking back to his desk. Keith lets him go, and runs a hand over his face.
On one hand, Keith highly approves of this brand new ‘anti-Gerald barrier.’
On the other? A goddamn snake is getting further with Katarina than he is!
That evening, Keith escorts Katarina back to her dorm, and decides to ask the question that’s been on his mind.
“Sis, I have to ask...why did Raphael send you a snake of all things?”
Katarina smiles, slightly skipping at his side.
“Well, I think he’s seen me with my toy snakes,” she admits. “He did watch me for a long while, looking for weaknesses. I guess he saw that and decided I should have a real one.”
“But toy snakes are a big step down from an actual reptile,” Keith defends. “Are you sure this is the pet you want?”
‘Please, please say no,’ he whines in his head. ‘Say no and I’ll go buy you a puppy, or a rabbit. Or maybe a goldfish.’
“I admit, I didn’t ever plan on having a real snake,” Katarina admits, but before Keith have get his hopes up, she adds-
“But honestly it’s such a great idea! I’m so happy Raphael thought of it!”
Keith’s head sags down.
“Besides, toy snakes are one thing, but the real deal is a much better idea if you have to have a snake on hand.”
“Why?” Keith asks, genuinely unsure if he wants an answer. “Why on earth do you need a snake on hand?”
That sobers Katarina up, and she stares at Keith.
“Because my future may very well depend on a snake,” she says, with utter seriousness. “Though I don’t know if I’ll have the heart to throw Ayame, her presence might give me a chance.”
“What?” Keith asks, utterly befuddled. In what world would a snake be vital for a noblewoman’s future?
“Don’t worry Keith!” Katarina assures him, patting his shoulder. “If you want, you can help me take care of Ayame. Maybe I can even get Raphael to send you one.”
With that, she skips ahead, one hand rubbing Ayame's scales, and Keith – with great reluctance – decides to file this in the will-never-understand-my-sister part of his head.
Two days later, Raphael receives a letter. It’s written on paper embossed with the royal crest, and consists of three lines.
This means War.
His Highness, Prince Gerald’
He thinks he’ll have this framed.