“What? Absolutely not.”
“Unfortunately, it’s not up for discussion.” Nimbus leveled a look at him, one that asked precisely how he’d gotten this far with the empty space between his ears. “You are the Shield, Lord Leonis; you know what that duty entails as much as I do.”
“Unofficial Shield,” Cor corrected, because it really wasn’t official and set in stone until Clarus could get off his ass and anoint him into the service.
“Regardless of the legalities. The Shield has power of attorney, and Prince Harry has already signed all relevant documents.” Nimbus gestured at the sheaf of paper that Cor had thought innocent. “Lord Leonis. Cor. There is no one else.”
Not since Gilgamesh had allowed his duty to elapse in favor of his original liege, the man he’d allowed murdered in the light of the Crystal. Cor had recognized the look in his eye, that of a man – a spirit – who’d readied to face the end of their existence and had found peace in the eternal rest implied.
Damn him. Damn himself, too, for agreeing to this.
“Fine. Then let’s get into the technicalities.”
It took more than a year to plan for a royal wedding, and that was only half because of the regular wedding details involved: venue, catering, ceremony, reception. The other half was because of the security involved. Anyone who was anyone in the court of Lucis had to be there, or else take offense at the mortal slight done to them.
It was a headache and an intricate dance and it was necessary. Cor was just glad he wasn’t the one who had to sift through countless alliance amongst the nobility and the peerage and the military to find dinner seating that worked for everybody.
There was a knock on the door, halfway through the security briefing. Nimbus flicked her eyes; Griffon opened the door, one hand on the sword slung at his waist. But no, it was just Titus and the man he was escorting from the capitol.
“Sir,” Titus said, saluting as soon as he was over the threshold.
“Don’t call me sir, I work for a living,” Nimbus replied.
Titus blinked. “Yes Captain.”
“Captain Astraea Nimbus,” the other man said, which answered the question of whether he’d worked with her before. “A pleasure to see you again.”
“Lord Scientia.” She dipped her chin the slightest amount, proper for a Royal Guard greeting nobility who were not their sworn royal.
“And is that Cor Leonis I see?” Cor didn’t straighten under Ardor Scientia’s heavy gaze, with six year’s distance from the last time he’d seen this man, but it was close. “I see the reports of your death have been greatly exaggerated.”
“Death?” Monica asked, eyes narrowed.
“You already knew that,” Cor replied, because he was more familiar with Lord Scientia’s preferred method of gentle rebuke, and smiled. “I’d apologize for not keeping in contact, but, well.”
The man’s expression was, unmistakably, You’re really pulling the ‘protect the Royals’ card for not sending even a letter?
Thankfully, Marnie chose that exact moment to demonstrate what she did best and pressed right up against Lord Scientia’s side. “Hello, how’re you guys?”
Lord Scientia, to his credit, did not jump out of his skin, but he made a fair attempt to. “Who is this?” he asked after a moment; with the true mark of a noble brought up in court, he looked like he’d known she was there all along.
“I’m Marnie,” the sneakiest of the Lucian Vanguard and Retinue said with a bright smile.
Ardor Scientia’s expression did not change, but the disbelief came across anyway. “No last name?”
“Granica,” Cor said blandly, before Marnie could stab the man instead of simply imply that she could. “Did you finish?”
“Of course I did. Who do you take me for, an amateur?” The Royal Guard were too disciplined in the presence of a member of King Regis’s Retinue – well, former, technically, but since he was being transferred to Harry’s the line was still a little blurry – but Kabira did obligingly roll her eyes. Marnie just smiled and dropped off a handful of glass marbles on the map table; they rolled to their designated corners, glowing a soft white.
Behind the glasses, Ardor Scientia’s eyes sharpened.
Titus, as Reggie’s man in the Crownsguard, had clearance; and, as their designated guide to court life, so did Lord Scientia. Cor nodded when Marnie tilted her head at him.
“How much of the confidentiality briefing did you read?” Nimbus asked their newcomers.
Lord Scientia pulled his eyes away from the glowing marbles to meet her eyes. “All of what was provided.” Next to him, Titus nodded in agreement.
“Then you know that the newest addition to the Lucis Caelum family has some rather… interesting powers.”
Lord Scientia dipped his chin. Monica stepped forward, hands clasped behind her back in parade rest, to take over the impromptu explanation: “Although Prince Harry can’t link us to his magic or Armiger without access to the Crystal, he can enchant items and give those to us. Leonis and Lieutenant Aubelle have bottomless magazines to their guns; we all have bags that are deeper on the inside than implied on the outside. Some of the Vanguard, such as Marnie, have more… specialized equipment.”
Titus, at least, sounded thoughtful instead of aggressive. Marnie smiled and pulled another marble out of a pocket, this one glowing red.
“Fire.” She pulled a sleight of hand trick with a flick of her fingers, pulling out two more which glowed yellow and white. “Lightning, Ice. Less bulky than flasks, with comparable power.”
Titus looked impressed, but it was Lord Scientia who looked intrigued. No doubt he was running over the implications of such magic in court.
“Among other things,” Monica added. “His Highness’s magic is a lot more versatile than seen in previous generations.”
“That will both help and hinder in court,” Lord Scientia admitted. “If he has the classic Caelum magics, then they will not be able to contest his position; if he has more than that, they will fear him more than respect him.”
“We’ll cross that bridge when we get there,” Nimbus said at last. “Sergeant Drautos, do you have information for us?”
Titus straightened. “Yes, Captain. His Majesty the King is giving His Highness the option of either picking an existing Royal Guard squadron currently stationed in Insomnia to act as your relief, or pulling from the Crownsguard in order to do so.”
Marnie looked up from where she was marking chokepoints and potential ambush sites on the map. “Wait, what? Why not pull from the Vanguard?”
“Duties,” Monica reminded her before Cor could. “Plus protocol. Royal Guard will need to stand there stiffly without expression when His Highness goes anywhere, open the doors, loom over his shoulder in court, et cetera et cetera. Comparatively, the Vanguard will be free to roam the Citadel and get to know its nooks and crannies.”
Marnie looked appeased. Titus, on the other hand, looked a little discomfited that they were about to open Citadel security to what Crownsguard higher-ups no doubt considered outsiders, but that wasn’t his or Cor’s problems. Clarus could deal with that headache.
And it was going to be a headache; Cor didn’t doubt that.
They managed to finish hashing out the first half of the journey easily enough – they’d take a caravan of armored vehicles from Cleigne to Insomnia, no need for subterfuge or anything like that. There would be a Crownsguard escort once they were within city limits, because this was to be a political affair, according to Lord Scientia, who’d proceeded to explain just why for fifteen whole minutes when Marnie made the mistake of making a face.
Cor raised his eyebrows over the ensuing rabbit hole of a conversation; Titus caught his eye and gave him a smirk tinged with relief.
He was quiet when he asked, “He gave you an earful on the way here, huh?”
Titus looked startled at being asked a question but recovered well enough. “Like you wouldn’t believe. Please tell me there’s someone to distract him here.”
“Our package from Altissia arrived,” Cor told the Crownsguard, and smiled and refused to elaborate any more until after dinner.
“Ardor, my friend!”
Lord Scientia’s eyes widened. “It’s good to see you too, old friend. But pray tell, last I heard you were in Altissia! When did you get here?”
Weskham Armaugh was not a man prone to face-wide smiles, but he seemed certainly tempted to one right now. “The tourism boats to and from Altissia are running again, and I’ve heard such lovely things about the weather in Cleigne in recent years.”
Scientia’s eyes darted from Weskham to where Harry was in the kitchen, laughing and washing dishes with Kabira and some of the Vanguard. “I see.”
“And you, young Cor?” Weskham turned to him with a flash of his glasses and a wry smile. “How have you been?”
“Tolerably well.” Cor leaned further back into his seat and picked up his oiling cloth. The rest of the crew had scattered into the rest of the house, their new additions already catalogued and put out of mind; Cor wished he had their nonchalance. At least the Royal Guard were suffering under Lord Scientia and Weskham’s scrutiny with him.
“How many of the rumors floating around about you are true?” Weskham wasn’t so crass as to put his chin on the palm of his hand like Reggie would have done, but he projected the emotion of it anyway. “We heard about your exploits all the way in Altissia.”
Cor paused where he was mid-sword maintenance. “Exploits?”
Lord Scientia leaned back, fingers steepled. “There were sightings of you from Caem to Cauthess. The timings, however, didn’t match up – but you’re very… distinctive, Cor. A sighting of you is easily corrobated.”
“…should I be offended by that?”
“You and that katana,” Scientia nodded to the weapon in Cor’s hands, “are known quantities. How did you manage it?”
Weskham looked interested in it, too, which startled him. Cor started maintenance again, refusing to look up at either of them for fear that they might recognize the tilt of his lips.
But Weskham Armaugh had known him almost the entire time he’d served on Reggie’s Retinue. “Lad, you’re smiling. Come on, out with it! How did you manage to fool the Empire – and if Ardor’s frown is any indication, Lucis as well – into thinking you were in three places at once?”
Marnie and some of the others had taken Harry’s ridiculously magicked potions that made someone look like him so that they could pull off this shell game. Cor couldn’t have been unaware of it even if he’d wanted to be – all of his hair from his monthly trim to Crownsguard standard had gone into those things. “I have no idea what you mean.”
“Cor Leonis.” Ah, there was Weskham’s trademark ‘don’t mess with me young man’ tone. It had worked exceedingly well on him in previous years, Cor remembered, because it had the same cadence as Reggie’s disappointed tone – probably because Weskam had been the one to teach it to the bastard. Almost a decade later, Cor hummed and continued his work. “Cor!”
“I don’t think,” Lord Scientia said in an aside with uncharacteristic mirth, “that we’re going to get any details out of him.”
“No,” Weskham said, and aw shit that was his thoughtful tone. “I’d imagine not. Who do you think we need to ask?”
“His Highness, perhaps? Or the Captain of his guard.”
“Would she know?”
“If she doesn’t then she’ll know who will.”
Cor decided to have pity on these two old men. “Nimbus and her squad don’t know, either.” One last pass of the cutting edge with the whetstone, and Cor put it aside to test the blade with his thumb. He nicked himself with ease, a line of blood beading up with hardly any pressure applied. “You’ll have to live with not knowing.”
“I’m on tether hooks,” Lord Scientia said mildly, sounding anything but.
Weskham looked like he was about to add something, but Cor was distracted by whatever was going on in the kitchen during cleanup: “No, you’re not talking your way out of this!” He turned his head, but there was a wall between them in the dining room post-dinner and the kitchen with its sink and running water. Still, Harry’s teasing tone was unmistakable. “You’re both going to college if I have anything to say about it!”
“Go to college and learn what?” snorted Ed. Cor could practically imagine his scowl just by the tone of voice. “English? Math? Just to get a fancy piece of paper that says hey, congrats, you finished four years of homework?”
“I don’t know!” There was a splash of water; presumably Harry, who must have thrown up his hands to Ed’s hissing like a wet cat and the laughter of the others who’d had the fortune of being outside of range. “Just… don’t you guys want to learn?”
Silence. It would have been awkward if Cor was in the room with them, but hey, he got to be awkward while two of Reggie’s oldest and most stalwart supporters raised eyebrows at each other and shut up to listen. Cor figured they didn’t get out that much if this was interesting to them.
“Yeah, I – we, do,” he could hear Ed saying, under the cover of running water and the chatter of other people. “But that’s four years where we wouldn’t be here, me and Al.”
Ed and Al were a package deal. Of course he’d be concerned about that.
Someone snorted. “You know,” Kabira said slowly, “that online university exists, right? You can choose to take a few courses every semester at home, and yeah it might take you longer than four years, but you can still get a degree. Or go for a two-year associate’s. Less fields that way.”
That was the most Cor had ever heard Nimbus Squadron’s quiet mage powerhouse say in one go. He wondered if it would be worth getting his hearing checked before they started the road trip to Insomnia – probably, it could mean the difference between him hearing an ambush or not. Or just take a Potion, it would fix up any damage he might have taken in the morning spar.
“I’ll talk about it with Al,” Ed said at last, and this time he was much quieter, his words almost lost in the water. “But we’ll only look into it after this wedding business. Can’t let our favorite magician bastard die in the middle of that, right? ‘Cause it’s bad for the married couple and shit.”
“I’m glad to know that’s the only reason you’re worried about me possibly dying.”
“Boss, you can make fire that you can’t put out with water. I’m not worried about you dyin’.”
Weskham choked. Cor remembered he wasn’t the only one eavesdropping on the kitchen conversation – or, well, it really wasn’t eavesdropping if they were having the conversation that loud.
“Immortal fire?” Lord Scientia murmured under his breath. His eyes were shrewd behind his glasses. No doubt the committees that he oversaw as well as his own magical research as part of the Crownsguard would be interested in such a thing.
“Less immortal fire,” Cor corrected him before he could go haring off into the rabbit hole, “more… yeah, fire that can’t be put out by water. It’s not a gas fire, before you ask. Definitely more magical than whatever Reggie produces.”
Weskham hummed and said, gently, “I wonder if his lineage has the purer blood.”
Cor thought about Death, green eyes, magic that crackled in the air and affected bags and guns and swords and entire rooms. “No comment.”
No matter how much Cor wanted to stay here, in the outskirts of Lucis and not in the den of snakes that was Insomnia’s Court, they had to leave eventually.
Cor spent the entire ride parked next to Harry in the backseat, knuckles whitening on his sword scabbard. The last-ditch pistol was digging into his shoulder where he was hunched over, staring out the windshield and car windows, but he ignored it.
At least Otto was doing him the favor of not calling him out on it. Harry was just ignoring them all, taking the opportunity to catnap. Damn, but if the similarities between him and Reggie weren’t striking sometimes.
The method of approach into Insomnia had been debated repeatedly, hashed out and scrapped and replanned for weeks, but the radio was quiet. No one had tried to halt or sabotage them yet. Which made sense, since Duscae and Leide loved their Prince in Exile who was doing outreach and community service and whose Vanguard was training citizens in self-defense and supporting the local Hunters.
Nobles sitting pretty in their city didn’t understand how Outer Lucis kept law and order without an institution like the Crown City Police. Cor rather thought that if they actually came out and lived in the lands that their blueblood ancestors had originally held fief fealty over, they would understand that law and order could be held by community rule rather than a policing militia.
And it was those nobles who came up with higher watch ratings in the Crownsguard’s threat assessment, anyway. Something about how bad the politics had been since Niflheim’s Emperor had died and the war had stumbled into an uneasy pause. We signed an armistice, Lord Scientia had said quietly when they’d folded him into the prep meetings yesterday. But armistices are easily broken. And the death of a royal on either side – or even just the threat of it – is an easy excuse to break it.
It was quiet all the way to Insomnia. No mess, no fuss, not even a vague threatening shadow on the horizon. Cor didn’t like it, and more importantly, he didn’t trust it.
The city roads had been cleared for today, part security protocol, part some grand affair that one of the nobles of court had thrown to publicly demonstrate their loyalty to the Crown of Lucis. He eyed the vehicles that settled in as escort to their smaller four-car caravan – military and deceptively lightly armored, but Crown Police was out in droves and holding the first line between curious citizens and a glimpse of their newest royal.
But they managed to reach the Citadel well enough, and almost on schedule at that – they were only fifteen or so minutes late, which was practically a miracle for any escort through a crowded urban area with a person of interest.
Regis Lucis Caelum and his entourage were up at the top of the stairs, waiting for them. The Crownsguard were out in full force, lining the way up and the citadel circle in dress blacks.
Next to Cor, Harry stirred – he’d woken himself up as they’d passed into the city, his eyes flashing that unnatural magic-green – and shrugged his shoulders. “Well, no time like the present I suppose.”
Cor left the car first as part of Shield protocol, Monica of the Royal Guard out with him. Together they performed a quick sweep, even though there were Crownsguard snipers on the roof and news crews were taking pictures, cameras flashing in the sun. When they’d given the all-clear signal to the car, Harry stepped out.
The news crews went nuts, but they weren’t important right now. Cor fell into step behind Harry, and the rest of the Royal Guard fell in after, the handful of Lucian Vanguard they’d also brought spilling out of the cars to flank them. Marnie tried to catch his eye; Cor ignored her, because she knew what she was supposed to be doing, damn it, even if she was only making hand signs on the side that was concealed from the camera crews.
The public wouldn’t have a mic on that first meeting at the top of the stairs, but they’d be taking plenty of pictures of the event. Reggie, when they made their way up to him, was smiling that picture-perfect smile for the public. “It’s good to see you again, cousin,” he said, clasping Harry’s hand.
Harry made a face like he didn’t really know what to say, but he recovered well enough. “It’s good to see you.”
Cor, for his part, stayed at Harry’s shoulder and stared into the middle distance. Clarus was there behind Reggie’s, in the position fit for a Shield, and he wasn’t missing the parallels.
Gilgamesh should be here. The spirit was older, more experienced, more well renowned and with a better pedigree than some mutt who’d gotten lucky. But he wasn’t, so the duty fell to Cor, and the weight was heavy on his shoulders.
The collective entourage managed to shuffle the Royals inside soon enough, and then Reggie was dropping the Kingly act to spread his arms wide for Weskham. “My friend!”
Yeah, that was fair. Cor side-stepped so that Weskham to move forward and found himself next to Clarus instead, who’d apparently moved over when he hadn’t been paying attention. Well then.
“It’s good to see you,” Clarus said, dipping his head. Cor blinked at him, confused and mildly suspicious, but this wasn’t true privacy yet. The Citadel staff might be discreet but the halls were still swarming with Crownsguard, and Cor hadn’t forgotten the last conversation he’d had with his unit sergeant.
But he had a title now, and a duty, and a warm oath lingering at the back of his awareness like a particularly stubborn trail of light.
Cor tipped his head and made awkward, painful smalltalk with Clarus until Reggie and Weskham broke apart, at which point Reggie, smiling again, said the worst thing he possibly could have to Harry: “Are you ready for the party?”
“If you think I’m looking forward to it you must be mad,” Harry hissed, half serious, half joking. Cor currently wasn’t feeling any better, but this still wasn’t a private space. The entourage that Reggie was now walking around with – Cor only recognized half of those faces, a mixture of Reggie’s and King Mors’s, the Six rest his soul – all, to the last, looked as if Harry had called all of their collective ancestors pricks.
But Reggie was smirking, and even Lord Scientia hid a laugh into a cough and said, “Don’t worry. At least we’re using the small ballroom for this one.”
“Wait.” Harry cut his hand through the air, agitated. “Didn’t you tell me the ballroom you’d be using could fit two hundred people? And you call that small?”
There were more important things to do before the wedding, or even the gala that was supposed to welcome a Prince of Lucis home for the first time.
“Aulea will join us afterwards,” Clarus said when Cor asked him quietly. Which made sense; there had to be a lot of arrangements to be made still. Half of those would fall to Aulea, as the bride-to-be; the other half to her as one of the pillars of Lucis’s intelligence department. “For now, though: the Crystal.”
And wasn’t it a trip and a half being back in the Crystal room again. Only the Royals and their Retinue were allowed in as a general rule of thumb; no one wanted to insult Bahamut by taking up His space. So it was that they stepped into the room, the large double doors falling shut behind them.
But only Harry and Reggie ascended the stairs. The rest of the Retinue, Reggie’s and Harry’s alike, lingered at the bottom and watched the two of them. The Crystal was as Cor remembered it: a big hulking rock that gleamed softly in the light.
It glowed as the two of them approached and as Harry put a hand on the Crystal. “Lord Bahamut,” Reggie – King Regis, in this moment – said, and his voice echoed in the room. “Blademaster of the Six. We bring before you Harry James Potter of the Lucis Caelum, blood of our blood.”
The Crystal grew brighter – and then there was a shadow by Harry’s side, opposite of Reggie.
OH, SHUSH, Death said, ignoring Clarus cursing and drawing his sword, Titus freezing in place. YOU KNOW YOUR LIMITS HERE, DRAKE. NOW GO AHEAD AND GIVE IT TO HIM.
There was a moment of silence – ringing, really, or maybe it was just in Cor’s ears – before something passed from the Crystal to Harry. A light, like the ones that Harry used to drive away the daemons from the havens and the House.
YOU’RE TIED TO THE MAGIC HERE NOW, HARRY, Death said. AND YET YOU SHALL REMAIN THE MASTER OF DEATH. FOR I WILL ONLY SUFFER ONE TO CARRY THAT TITLE.
“Because I united the Deathly Hallows?” Harry asked, like that meant anything. Was that a courtesy title-slash-description? Nobility were weird.
BECAUSE YOU ARE DEAR HARRY, Death replied, and now it was Weskham’s turn to choke. Clarus just looked long-suffering; Regis looked every inch the regal king, except for his eyes. Those were bugging out.
Yeah, Cor thought to himself. Be reminded of how the Lucis Caelum I chose has Death’s own favor. Be afraid.
Or, well, maybe not afraid. Be… in awe? Be respectful?
But that, apparently, was that. If Death’s words were true and it had been arguing with the Blademaster over something, the Draconian didn’t show up. Death disappeared to wherever it went when it wasn’t corporeal and giving people heart attacks, and Harry dragged Reggie down the steps by the elbow.
“Well then!” Harry’s voice was cheery. At least someone was getting a laugh out of this, even if Clarus was going to leave a bruise on Cor’s shoulder from how hard he was gripping it. “Now that that’s settled… anything else we need to do before I go and crash?”
Aulea met them in the hallway, back straight, hair neatly pinned, every centimeter of her as elegant as Cor remembered her being. There was a small flutter of attendants around her, no doubt trying to convince her back into keeping whatever schedule they’d made pre-wedding, but she stood as firm as the bow of a ship, waiting for them to leave the Crystal chamber.
“The lady of the hour,” Harry said when Regis introduced them all to her. “Though, can I ask – why did you choose to hold your wedding now?”
Lord Scientia looked like he was about to throttle somebody. Weskham was smirking, the bastard.
Aulea sniffed, but she couldn’t fool Cor, he knew that glint in her eye. “There is nothing like a wedding to snub your nose at your enemies.”
Harry blinked – and then snort-laughed, to the nose-pinching exasperation of Lord Scientia.
“Oh,” Harry said, and Cor blanched because he knew that tone of voice. “Aulea, you and I are going to be great friends.”