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The Kidnapping

Chapter Text

 Radishes

-

The Kidnapping

 

Chapter Three: Polyhex

 

The copper grass of Crystal Garden moved gently in the wind, shining golden like a fiery, endless sea in the evening sun. Further away, the mountains that surrounded the valley rose proud and grey, only their tips encased in eternal white snow.

Between the tall blades of grass, farmers talked about the upcoming dark season, while steelsheeps moved along on the dirt paths towards home. Inside the village, families and cohorts were already warming the fuel for dinner, the breeze carrying the sweet fragrance of Polyhexian energon like a beckoning call back to the fields.

A small dot appeared next to a mountain peak, diving into the valley with a speed that broke the sound barrier twice. The evening light reflected upon the green and purple finish of the newcomer, signalling far and wide that this warframe was in the employ of the Grand Duke of Polyhex. Uncaring of the dozens of unsettled optics upon him, the flyer broke his fall with a single barrel roll and gently landed within the courtyard of Crystal Castle.

The castle was old and sturdy, built with massive grey walls which were flanked by watch towers, and possessing long narrow hallways easily defended in case of an invasion. Though, in these times of peace, the watch towers were deserted and the walls bore the traces of age and weather.

The two lone guards at the gates of the castle had watched the intruder's descent with surprise and were now hurrying towards him.

"Hold!" the older one commanded. "Welcome to Crystal Garden Castle. What is it that you seek here?"

The foreigner looked sleek and modern next to the scuffed guards, who hadn't received any upgrade in metacycles nor seen a skirmish in even longer. But instead of letting his condescension show as the guards expected, the flyer only squared his shoulders.

"Brothers in arms, I carry an emergency missive from Grand Duke Straxus for the Counts of Crystal Garden. It is urgent."

The two guards exchanged a brief look to confirm that they both had heard the same. More than the words, it was the timbre of the envoy's voice that made them tense.

"Urgent?" the younger one asked.

The flyer nodded. "War is coming."

These simple words echoed deep within the two warframes. Older and scuffed they might have been, but they were warframes and soldiers first and foremost. Peace hadn't taken away their edge.

"Understood," answered one guard, surging military protocols making his words crisp. "Please wait here, we'll search immediately for the Counts."

Already his partner was calling other warframes on the commlines, spreading the word.

When next morning the Counts spoke to the population of Crystal Garden, confirming rumours of an unprovoked attack by Praxus, of war and a call to arms, the warframes took it with barely any surprise. They had already their polished weapons attached to their hips and the travel gear ready by their pedes; had already kissed their younglings goodbye and visited the graves of their ancestors.

They were ready.

And when the civilians looked into their optics, they too could already see the coming war.

~

"Ricci! Ya gonna have to go?" whined Jazz again as he looked up with bright visor and a pout.

Ricochet nodded, his smile firmly in place. "Of course, little Jazzy. I'm your big bro, and second heir, how else am I supposed to become a hero?"

The black and white sparkling frowned. "Saving da shining prince?"

The mechs that surrounded them in the crowded courtyard smiled fondly at the question, after all who didn't love the tale of Prince Shining and his brave Knights?

Nodding with all the seriousness he could muster, he answered: "The prince and the entire duchy! And then I'll return with my very own oath-sworn, who will become my future bondmate!"

Maybe the answer was a bit overly fantastic, as Ricochet admitted quietly to himself, but little Jazzy wasn't even ten vorns old yet and a third heir as well. Everyone knew that third heirs were a bit softer and coddled, and his brother was no exception. No one had told the little one yet that dragons weren't real and that some princes could be the monsters.

And frankly, right now Ricochet was the last mech seeking to change that. He would sooner start explaining interfacing in excruciating detail, followed by 101 ways to please your partner properly, than to steal the little one's belief in a good and just world.

His little brother looked awed for a moment, and then grinned. "No stuffy sworn like Note!"

"Never," he laughed. Their older brother Resonance's bondmate wasn't a bad mech, but strict and, yes, stuffy. Ricochet was the complete opposite and a bit proud of his reputation as a daredevil. He knelt down, one knee on the dusty ground, and spread his arms. "Come on. Give me a good-luck-hug, Jazzy!"

Jazz flew into his harms with a giggle. Tiny arms managed to sneak around Ricochet's neck and just as small legs scrambled for a place to stand on. Ricochet hastily caught the sparkling, and smiled.

"Promise?" muttered Jazz into his neck.

He blinked. "Promise what?"

For an astrosecond the youngling was very still. "You come back," he then quietly said.

Ricochet's spark did a very painful flip.

When it truly came down to it, it wasn't his choice to go or to stay. Their liege lord had called upon the army of Polyhex, and the House of Crystal Garden had to obey or be accused of treason. As the second heir, it was his place to lead the troops of Crystal Garden, had been trained in the arts of war since he could walk just for this moment.

Despite this, their creators offered to buy him free with a ridiculously high amount of money. Ricochet loved them for it, but while he might be a second heir and not trained in tax and finances, he wasn't an idiot and such a large sum would hurt the entire Crystal Garden badly. It was already a rather poor county without any mines or big industries and his spark wasn't worth a season of hunger, not when this was his very duty.

And so he had smiled and assured his family that this was what he wanted. That he wasn't nervous or scared by the prospect to kill another mech, but instead eager and self-confident. It had worked surprisingly well, probably because he truly did want to prove himself on the battlefield and to wow others with his skills. But… war. He had heard the stories, and they hadn't been the fairy tale kind.

Still, he had believed that Jazz, young innocent Jazz, had been oblivious to all of this. Maybe he had underestimated the little tyke.

With a heavy spark, he petted Jazz's helmet.

"Of course, I'll come back," he promised. "You won't even have the time to miss me properly."

~

It was strange to leave Crystal Castle, leading an entire convoy towards the mountains. It felt as empowering as scary, and Ricochet was glad that he had familiar warframes walking at both of his sides. His teachers were here, the younger ones that had trained with him, their families that had invited him in the past…

His spark clenched. These were his mechs, - his soldiers - and he was potentially leading them to their death or to glory. Maybe both, when he could trust the stories. Failure wasn't an option.

Crystal Garden was a valley deep within the Arc Mountain Range. Only one road was open during every season, and even avalanches were cleared away from it as quickly as possible. The Seven Guardian road, called so for the seven canyons it led through, was maybe one of the greatest natural defences on the planet. Each canyon could be blocked and defended, possibly for vorns.

The remoteness had made Crystal Garden poor, but also very safe and secure. Ricochet knew that once his family had owned more land, had even vassals and other Houses sworn to them, but war and treason had made his ancestors retreat and even flee, until Crystal Garden became their haven and home.

Each canyon had a wall and gate that was a sight to behold, towering high and mighty, with murals depicting ancient battles and half-crumbled statues that were rumoured to be even older. The first four valleys, they marched through without seeing another mech, their heavy steps echoing through the canyons, until instead of a single troop it was an entire army on the march.

And he was the leader and officer, their second heir!

Ricochet's steps became a bit lighter thanks to pride, and when they passed through the last three canyons, with walls that were kept in good repair and manned by warframes of his creators, he smiled in greeting and found a few nice, uplifting words.

Soon, even these familiar sights were behind them, and finally they met a big and well enough built street that the warframes could transform. Sitting on an armoured truck, Ricochet watched as the landscape flew by.

Soon they joined larger convoys, and ever more warframes seemed to appear. Once small enough to march through canyons, they were now hundreds of mechs racing along with a dust cloud, large enough to darken the horizon, behind them.

Another second heir greeted Ricochet with a short nod. "First time?" he asked.

Ricochet could only nod silently, not wanting to show any of his nervousness.

The other second heir, older and bearing silvery scars, laughed. "Don't worry, Praxus isn't a really dangerous opponent. They are too weak from their civil war and arrogant on top of that. Now, if it had been Kaon, it would be a different story, of course!"

"Kaon?" asked Ricochet, surprised. "Why should Warlord Megatron attack us?"

The mech sobered up. "Because they live for battle, kid. Praxus probably wants something, but Kaon… Kaon might just decide that fighting is their goal."

Ricochet tried to imagine an enemy like that and shuddered. "I like peace more than fighting," he admitted.

"We all do," answered the other heir solemnly.

After that, nothing much was said anymore and they moved on and on, passing rural villages, prosperous fields and staring farmers with barely any break in between. Ricochet had been trained for such long treks during the many wildness hunts in the mountains, but this endless shaking and the dust everywhere was an exhausting experience. The worst thing though were the rations, consisting of a special thickly brewed high-grade, which tasted horrible and burned slowly in the tank. But it gave them much needed energy and so he drank without complaint.

Polyhex appeared rather suddenly before them. One moment they were still deep within the needle forests, and the next they were on a straight, broad road that shone like a white ribbon between fields and hills, leading to a city where towers and domes rose like a dream in front of them. With red and yellow and blue roofs, pastel coloured walls, and seemingly every tower proudly bearing its own, distinctive flag, Polyhex was a tsunami of colours. Even the city gates were striped in green and purple, the colours of the Grand Duke.

Loud cheers welcomed them into the city and the citizens stood on both sides of an avenue, built out of crystal mosaics depicting geometrical forms and the legendary twelve first Primes.

Ricochet swivelled left, right, left again. Where to look at first? At the mechs, with their artfully decorated paintjobs and helmets? At the shops, with their big windows and lavish displays? Or forward towards the square and the palace that was awaiting them?

The square was vast and unbelievably crowded by the soldiers and second heirs gathering there, yet ever more were coming. Ricochet's armour touched the one of the mechs next to him, scraping the paintjob off and making any movement besides deep venting thanks to the collective heat of the frames nearly impossible. Before them rose the palace, its very size a statement of power, with a huge closed portal and far above a grand balcony on which the banner of Polyhex was gently caressed by a breeze.

Ricochet, forced to move with the crowd, felt suddenly small and lost.

And then, finally, mechs walked onto the balcony. Two huge warframes flanked a broadly built mech with a green and purple cape. Cheers echoed across the square and vibrated within Ricochet's breast plates. This must be him – the Grand Duke of Polyhex, Lord Straxus!

"Welcome to Polyhex!" the Lord said, and opened his arms wide. He might have been smiling, but it was too far away for Ricochet to tell for sure. "I hope your journey was safe and swift. It gladdens me to see you all here. I wish the occasion was a more positive one, but it is as it is. Three orns ago, the Praxian army, led by the ruthless second heir Prowl of the House of Praxus, has violated all treaties and crossed our borders! A division stationed there has been completely annihilated without warning or mercy."

He paused, gripping the balcony edge. "My mechs, this means war. Lord Prowl is blinded by arrogance and ambition – to rule one city state isn't enough for him! But he is underestimating us, underestimating you. And we will show him the error of his ways once and for all, so that he will never put a pede onto our land again. Are you with me?!"

The roar of the crowd was deafening and Ricochet screamed with them. Of course they would show the mad second prince of Praxus what they were made of!

From somewhere rose the chant: "Po-ly-hex! Po-ly-hex!"

Lord Straxus gave them a few klicks, then he spoke again. "North of the city, accommodations have been prepared for you. Rest and recover from the journey. Tomorrow at dawn is the blessing of Primus, afterwards you have to march south. But never forget this: As long as we stand together to protect our families, our homes and Polyhex, as long as we are united nothing can defeat us!!"

This time Ricochet joined the chants: "Po-ly-hex! Po-ly-hex! Po-ly-hex!"

On the balcony, Lord Straxus waved, then turned around and left. But the crowd didn't stop screaming for breems. Ricochet fell quiet a bit earlier and looked at the warframes around him. There were those he had brought from Crystal Garden, and they didn't really look all that different from the others here, fitting in without any effort as they raised their fists and chanted like the rest.

Shortly after, they were led to their accommodations, which turned out to be a large, dusty tent city. As an officer and second heir, he was in a smaller tent with just three mechs of the same rank – all of them second heirs of different ages. After just a breem of talking they decided to go drinking in the city; after all, as the oldest of them put it, it might be their last chance.

It turned out that a lot of the warframes had the same idea as the city's bars and clubs and inns were overflowing with guests. Barely a joor in, and Ricochet had lost his three companions. One was trying his luck with a flirty merchant, one had wanted to get high grade and never returned, and the third one had been just behind him – until he wasn't and Ricochet was wandering the full streets alone.

The highgrade sat warm in his fuel tanks, however with every step his spark was feeling colder as he wished that someone, anyone really, would walk beside him. After all, it might be his last evening, and he was all alone…

Already he was missing home, the valley and his brothers. How pathetic was he?

He contemplated returning to the tents early, when he heard it: "IIiiiiyaaaaaah!"

He froze and looked around. He was in a small, dirty side alley, somewhere in the east part of the city, an old area with many tiny streets, courtyards and pubs that belonged to the poorer parts of the population. His own safety had never been in question as he was armed and trained, but this scream… Ricochet whirled around and dove into the alley to his right. It must have come from somewhere nearby!

"Leave me alone!"

His spark clenched, the voice was so slagging young.

Ricochet started running, suddenly saw an open gate into a dark courtyard and yes, there they stood: A small youngling with his back against the wall and two large warframes in front of him.

"Hey!" he yelled, immediately drawing their attention. "You heard what he said!"

"And who might you be?" said one of the soldiers. "Another noble?"

Another? He blinked and then looked at the youngling more closely. A civilian frame, but with expensive – noble – upgrades. The shadows didn't let him see more, but that wasn't needed. Ricochet was already determined to protect that unfortunate kid.

"Another noble, yes," he bit out. "A second heir to be exact. State your name and rank, soldiers!"

The two robbers, or whatever else they were, hesitated, clearly realising that they had now a problem. And then they attacked. Not even having the time to curse, Ricochet took a hasty step back and drew his sword, just in time to block the one heading for his helmet. Sparks flew where the steel clashed.

"I won't let you escape. Your superior will hear of this!" he vowed and stared into the eyes of the warframe. Then he was forced back again as the second one attacked.

"Doesn't matter when you're dead," came the calm answer.

If he had had the time to think, he would have been shocked how quickly things had escalated, but instead all he could do was to listen to his training. Dodge – slash – parry – dodge again. Then, something made the first warframe stumble, and Ricochet didn't even think as he pierced the armour with his vibroblade.

"Farsight!" came the wail from his right, as he pulled the sword out.

Already greying, the frame fell to the ground. No, he hadn't, right? So easy, so very easy…

With a scream of pure hate and grief, the second enemy stormed towards him. The slashes were fast and uncoordinated, forcing Ricochet back as he didn't dare to block them. If it came to pure physical strength, most warframes beat him easily. A step back, another one, and suddenly his back hit the wall.

'Oh, slag,' he thought panicky, as he realised his error.

"Got you," grinned his would-be-murderer.

He dove to the ground, escaping the blade, but not the following kick. A crack, pain, and he flew across the courtyard, just to be stopped by another wall. All he could think about was not to let the sword fall. If he lost his weapon, it was over.

He concentrated on venting, so he could ignore the pain enough that he was able to stumble away from the wall. He had to hit, he had to kill, or it was over. Fuelled by fear and desperation, he attacked - only to dodge a moment too late and the warframe scored a hit on his left arm. Not on his sword arm, thank Primus.

He gritted his denta. He had to win. He wanted to do so much, he wasn't finished yet!

'Primus,' he prayed. 'Help me.'

Again his enemy tried to force him against a wall, but this time Ricochet wasn't fool enough to fall for the same trick twice. He jumped over a few crates and kicked them into the warframe's face. It gave him enough of a break to reach the middle of the courtyard. Enraged by the crates, his opponent attacked near blindly and this time Ricochet had the room to let his superior agility shine.

He parried to enraged attacks, indicated another step backwards, guiling the warframe into another wild, open attack, and then dived forward, ducking below the enemy's defences. It was a risky move, near suicidal, but his only chance at winning. Yet, if this failed, he would be completely open and vulnerable. For a moment he thought it was all over.

It succeeded.

The soldier realised the trick too late for what it was and didn't manage to protect his throat fast enough. One clean slash and the head flew away, while the frame crumbled loudly on the floor.

Disbelieving, Ricochet stared at the spreading blood, sinking to the knees himself. He did it. He was alive. The world was rushing back in, bringing along the noise and shouts of the startled neighbours, the pain of his frame, the sniffles of the youngling.

The youngling!

He looked up and forced himself to ignore everything else. "Hey, where are you, little one? Are you alright? We might want to get a medic…" And a few Enforcers. Or higher officers?

Primus, just what had he done?

"Here," answered a small voice.

Ricochet looked to his left, where the youngling was standing. It seemed he had simply overlooked him in the shadows. He gave the little one a rather pained smile. "Good to see you. I'm Ricochet, second heir of House Crystal Garden."

The youngling bowed slightly. "It's – It's a pleasure to meet you." Another sniffle. "I- I'm Mirror, from House Morgana."

"Nice to meet you, too." Just Mirror, Ricochet noted. Was the youngling deliberately not mentioning his rank or didn't he have an official rank? The latter was very unusual, after all most noble families didn't have more than three creations to avoid exactly that… Whatever it was, it wasn't his business.

"Well, let's get you home, yes?" he said. "Can you lead the way? I'll accompany you."

A solemn nod. "I can, yes."

When they left the courtyard, an Enforcer was already running towards them. Ricochet gave his name and rank according to protocol, and described what happened. Though, when he mentioned the House of the youngling, the Enforcer suddenly stood a bit straighter, while giving the youngling a long glance. Yet, he let them both go, merely extracting the promise to be available if questioning should be needed. It certainly paid to be noble sometimes.

House Mirror turned out to have an entire giant mansion right next to the palace. Ricochet stared at it, and thought that he should have heard of this House a bit sooner. Seriously, they had the money for golden window frames of all things!

"Mirror! Where have you been?" A voice suddenly yelled.

The youngling's head flew around. "Mirage!"

Astroseconds later, the youngling threw himself into the arms of a slender, elegant mech with white shimmering glyphs who caught him easily. "You rascal! Everyone is searching for you and an Enforcer even called…!" said the exasperated mech, but warm fondness coloured every word.

"Sorry," muttered Mirror and clung to the older mech. "I won't do it again."

The other noble chuckled. "Tell that to Reflection. Last I saw him, he was spitting nails he was so angry…" Then he looked towards Ricochet with a frown. "And you are…?"

Ricochet blinked, then attempted a slight bow for politeness sake. The wound in his side made him wince and he barely kept a grimace from his face. "Ricochet, second heir from House Crystal Garden. It's nice to meet you, but please excuse me. I need to find out where the hospital is located…"

The other's optics white narrowed. "You're hurt."

"He saved me!" Mirror suddenly said. "From two large warframes! Mirage, he needs to see Kaput!"

"Indeed, he does." Mirage made a step forward. "I am Mirage of House Morgana. It would be an honour to treat your wounds for saving Mirror."

Well, there was no way to say no to that. "Thank you," Ricochet answered.

The interior of the mansion was just as impressive as the outside. The floor was shining, expensive stone in the hallways, the staircases broad and open, flanked by beautifully crafted statues, and just everywhere were servants. Ricochet felt uncomfortable, but kept close to Mirage who kept up a steady stream of light conversation about Mirror and how everyone had searched for him.

Reflection, as it turned out, was the Lord of the House and sire to Mirage. Also, according to Mirror, completely unreasonable about curfew.

"Grandcreator never lets me go anywhere and carrier supports him! That's why I snuck away. I didn't think…" Mirror looked away and snuggled deeper into Mirage's arms.

"He has his reasons, little one," said the older noble and looked towards Ricochet with an apologising smile. "We are a bit concerned with so many foreign mechs in the city."

Mirage eventually found a room, knocked, and asked Ricochet to wait for a moment. When he returned, it was without Mirror.

"It's best to first calm some worried creators," Mirage explained with a chuckle. "My brother nearly ripped Mirror from my arms."

"My family is the same," admitted Ricochet. "Little ones are precious."

"They are, yes. Please follow me." Mirage guided him through several hallways to the medbay, which seemed in the centre of the mansion. "I haven't heard a lot from your House in recent years. Is it prospering?"

"Ah…" Ricochet floundered. How to answer that? What was the right, polite answer? "Uhm, we are doing well… my brother has just bonded and my little brother is around the same age as Mirror."

Mirage gave him an interested glance. "Is your brother also a rascal who loves challenging the rules?"

"Jazz? Oh yes." Ricochet found his balance again. "Very much so. Why, just let me tell you about this one time…"

It was pleasant to talk with Mirage. The other mech always knew what to say or ask to set him at ease and never seemed bored by his answers. Indeed, sometimes Mirage even laughed at his jokes, and then told his own. Who would have thought that this prim and proper noble had such a wicked humour?

The medic, Kaput, was highly professional, and didn't even ask what exactly had happened. With a critical optic, he assessed the wounds and then started treating them while muttering about stupid young adventurous mechs. During the procedure, Mirage never left Ricochet's side.

"Would you like to stay the night here?" Mirage asked finally, when Kaput declared himself to be finished.

Ricochet startled. "Ah… Thank you, but I think I'm expected to be back at the camp."

For a moment Mirage stared as if Ricochet had turned into a petrorabbit, then said, "Oh. And later?"

Later? Had he missed some polite rule? "Ah, I'm afraid we are moving out tomorrow."

Mirage's face fell slightly. "I see."

Ricochet frowned, not liking to see this funny, intelligent mech like this. "I can maybe visit later? I mean, if I return…?" If. He winced at that word. "It's just unfortunate timing."

The other noble nodded, and then gave him a contemplating look. "Well. You are now injured and who knows how badly, really. Such a fight, to bravely save an heir of House Morgana, proving your honour…" Mirage winked. "Maybe you should stay in the medbay, until you are healthy again."

Ricochet opened his mouth to say 'no', then closed it again. What exactly was this offer? He hesitated. On one hand, he didn't have to go to the battlefield quite yet, if he accepted. On the other… He frowned. "The Grand Duke's orders are clear," he said. "I am not sure he would simply let some unknown officer stay, even if he is injured."

Mirage petted his arm. "I will take care of this, I promise. Just… stay until you are completely well again and capable of defending yourself on the battlefield."

Put like that, it would be a folly to say 'no'. He captured Mirage's hand, to politely – and a bit old-fashioned, but he had always liked grand gestures! – kiss it. "Then it will be my honour to accept your hospitality, Heir Mirage of the House Morgana."

When he looked up again, he saw Mirage blushing and felt all warm and happy.

~

Mirage was even better than his word. Not only did the Grand Duke accept that Ricochet stayed in Polyhex, but he had signed an official document that acknowledged the brave deed done and named him an exemplary second heir of the Duchy.

Over the following orns, Ricochet had his own room in the mansion, was regularly visited by Kaput and even more often by Mirage. Ricochet talked about the beauty of his home county, Mirage told him about the fantastic balls held in the palace at peace time and they both enjoyed long walks in the mansion's garden.

"I kind of envy my brother that he has already found a compatible sparkmate," admitted Mirage during one of these walks. "Searching isn't easy. There are many applicants and few compatibles."

Ricochet hummed. "I haven't really searched yet for a sparkmate. Oh, there were one or two, but the tests weren't good enough and I hadn't loved them yet. But … sometimes, I wish for someone at my side."

"Only sometimes? You big, bad second heir." Mirage laughed.

"Says the first heir of House Morgana," Ricochet said and rolled his optics.

Mirage had stopped walking. "I never said…"

"That you are the first heir?" Ricochet frowned. "What else could you be? Lord Reflection is your sire, you obviously aren't a second heir and Mirror's carrier Shard isn't the first heir, or Mirror could call himself first heir in line…"

"Ah. I guess you are right."

Ricochet stepped closer to Mirage, the soft grass bending under his pede, while a strange, soft excitement surged through his cables. "I don't understand why this bothers you, but I will not tell anyone if you do not want me to."

"Thank you, but this is unnecessary. I just thought that when you knew you would…" He looked away from Ricochet towards the artificial waterfall a bit away.

"Treat you differently?" he said gently.

There was a long heavy silence, and then a small, nearly fragile, "Yes."

"… I guess that's happened before."

Mirage nodded shortly and looked back at him, blue optics swimming with memories. "Too often to count. House Morgana has a certain reputation and not all of it is good."

Ricochet had already thought that much. The many obvious and hidden guards, the reaction of the Enforcer, the weapons the members of the House carried… all of this had created a disconcerting picture. But despite this, he had felt always warmly welcomed.

"Most of what I've seen from House Morgana so far is you, Mirage," he said. "And that's something that I've liked very much so far."

Mirage's optics widened.

What…? Oh. He hadn't just said… he had. Primus, take him and his stupidity! He wanted to hide his burning face behind both his hands.

Then Mirage broke into a wonderful, brilliant smile, so unlike all the others previously seen. "You are sweet, Ricochet." He paused. "And I like you also very much."

On the way back, Mirage sneaked his hand into Ricochet's, and neither said anything about it. But Ricochet's spark was spinning so very, very fast, that he felt like floating.

~

"You are healed now," said Mirage an orn later, leaning against the doorframe of his guest room. "Do you want to train with me?"

He blinked. "With you? I thought you are a first heir…" Not that many cousins walking through the halls weren’t armed, but Mirage had seemed to be an exception so far.

"I am." Mirage's smile turned sly. "But that doesn't mean that a first heir can't rescue themselves, should the need arise. So, my big, bad second heir, up for a spar?"

He gathered his weapons and answered, "With you? Always."

The training room was vast and full with several training bodyguards, who glanced at Ricochet with clear curiosity. Mirage walked past them towards an empty mat and then turned towards him:

"En garde!" he said, and pulled out a rapier out of subspace.

"An elegant weapon, for an elegant mech," Ricochet commented, while taking out his own longsword. "But can you fight with it?"

"Try me."

He did, and yes, Mirage could fight with it. Very well, even. After a few bouts, where they were rather even, he started showing Mirage how to fight with a longsword. Mirage returned the favour and explained that his family traditionally fought with a special variant of the rapier called carrót.

That evening, Ricochet got a letter that told him he was being permanently transferred from the frontlines to the Palace Regiment, more specifically the Green Guard.

"Do you have anything to do with this?" he asked Mirage, the moment the other mech had entered his rooms, holding the letter high.

"If I said yes, would you be angry?" Mirage said quietly, but in his optics was a hard look.

"No!" he hurried to say. "It just surprised me that you are willing to do that for me."

Mirage relaxed and chuckled with relief. "You silly mech, of course I am."

~

The palace wasn't far, and in the morning he walked there by himself after a wonderful breakfast with Mirage who had wished him good luck. The other noble was really an extraordinary mech, gentle, caring, funny. Anyone would be more than fortunate to date him, and Ricochet couldn't stop himself from hoping that maybe, just maybe, Mirage's interest into him was more than just kindness.

Even though House Morgana was so much above his own House, they were both nobles and it wouldn't be too scandalous. Right? So maybe… He couldn’t stop himself dreaming.

"Second heir Ricochet of the House Crystal Garden?"

He looked up, startled. Before him stood a massive, black warframe with thick plates decorated with the green-purple badge of the Green Guard. But the most remarkable thing was the face, which was covered by mask and visor, so that nothing was visible.

Ricochet stood automatically straighter, and forced himself not to salute. "Yes, that's me."

"I am Colonel Riptide." The voice was deep and rolling. A southern accent, Ricochet guess, that only served to enhance the commanding presence of the mech. "Welcome to the Green Guard. Were you made aware of our duties?"

"No? I'm sorry if I should have been…"

Colonel Riptide made a short handwave. "It's better if you haven't. Our existence isn't something we want everyone to know of, but considering your connections to House Morgana it wouldn't have surprised me had they already briefed you. Follow me, we don’t have the whole orn."

Ricochet did, while his thoughts raced. His connections to House Morgana? He wanted to deny that there were any, but then… there was Mirage. And Mirage was a pretty big name in the right circles, he was sure… he really should stop to think about Mirage.

He rubbed his nose. ‘Concentrate, Rico,’ he thought. Especially, because the Colonel was acting as if he had joined some secret special taskforce.

The palace hallways were made out of the best of the best, exquisite art, precious metals, expensive jewellery where ever the optic wandered. And yet… Ricochet couldn’t but think that the opulence in the Morgana mansion had had more warmth and taste.

All the while he was expecting the Colonel to say something, anything, but the warframe was marching silently along with huge steps. Ricochet had to hurry after him, nearly running. Suddenly the Colonel stopped in front of a decorated door, just like the dozens they had already passed.

Colonel Riptide leaned forward, placed a giant hand on his shoulder that seemingly weighted more than the average boulder and captured his optics. "Listen, I don’t know you. I don’t trust you. But you came with recommendations, and that is the only reason why you’re here. Everything from here on is a state secret - every word, every mech, every shadow. We will know if you talk to the wrong people. So do not disappoint me or those who vouched for you, and we’ll all get along swimmingly. Got it?"

Ricochet nodded hastily. “Y-yes. I understand.”

"Good. Come."

Behind the door was a hallway. Nothing here reminded anyone about the decoration of the palace anymore. It only had a grey floor, white walls and six guards that all stood to attention when the Colonel entered.

"At ease," said the Colonel. "This is Ricochet. He will be the new handler."

The soldiers gave him short glances, but that was the only reaction he received.

Handler? Handler of what…? Just what had Mirage signed him up for?

The hallway was short, and at its end was another, clearly reinforced door, made out of military grade steel if Ricochet knew anything. It opened slowly, but without a sound. Silently they walked into, well, if Ricochet had to describe it, the hall of a nicely decorated apartment. A bit bland maybe because it lacked any personal touches, but it could have easily switched places with any suite in a luxury hotel. There was the soft carpet, the elegant lamps, and an open door which gave the view into a living room.

On second glance, he noticed there weren't any windows. Not a single one. Ricochet felt suddenly colder. "Is this… a prison?"

The Colonel next to him gave him a surprised glance, but thankfully didn't deny the obvious. "Yes. What you are about to see doesn’t exist, and can no one ever know."

He walked to a closed door, opened it and stepped aside. Inside was a nice bedroom, dominated by a huge medical bed. And at its centre was a small, so very small, youngling, covered by a blanket and recharging peacefully.

"That is Prince Smokescreen, first heir of Praxus. You'll be his handler."

Ricochet could only gape.