Basal 55th, 1042

Clover was at Forge Lake Slidebuggy Station reading the departure time chart. She had known she'd have to make a pit stop in Cranwood before reaching Fawn Creek, but hadn't been prepared to see that the next public slidebuggy didn't leave for another five hours. She knew it was a rural route, but still... River was expecting her to arrive today.

"At this rate, it might be faster to walk," she joked to the man standing beside her, squinting at the same chart she was. He blinked down at her, as if he'd been so focused on trying to parse it out that he hadn't noticed her at all. Then he grinned when he processed her joke.

"Right? I wish that was a choice for me, but I'm not traveling alone," he nodded towards a small, ornately decorated private slidebuggy on the station yard. Another man was standing in front of the door with his arms crossed. His expression was much more serious than this man's, and his skin so pale Clover expected that he was a Lacus Marian or Eventidian. "We were already supposed to be in Pendington for a charging stop, but I'm hopeless with directions."

"Pendington? From where?"

"...The castle, if you can believe it," He ran a hand through his wavy hair. "I was honestly trying really hard, too."

"Wow, that', a huge detour," Clover was trying not to laugh. How in the world did anyone get so turned around? "The castle, huh? With such a fancy slidebuggy- you're not the prince, are you?" She teased. He was a few years too old to be, judging by his stubble; not to mention he was wearing plain linen.

He snorted. "I would hope not, you didn't even bow! I'm Azaleon," he said.

"Clover, nice to meet you," she turned back to the map, "Okay, so, you're gonna want to cut through Cranwood to get to Pendington- that is, if you're going to Amilla or Ash's temple...if you're heading further east it'd be easier to go through Cranwood and just ignore Pendington entirely. Or are you heading back to the castle? If that's the case, uhh, it'd probably be easier to just-"

Before Clover could finish trying to give him directions, the door to the slidebuggy opened, a boy leaning out to yell halfway across the yard of the station.

"Alexander, what in the world is taking so long?"

"...It's still Azaleon-" he tried. The other man standing in front of the door looked irritated, leaning away from the boy who was yelling. The boy was overdressed for the warm weather, wearing a fully embroidered set of matching shirt and pants, along with gloves and sunglasses. Clover could only stare, failing to understand why anyone would make those choices. Sure, she herself could appreciate some intricate embroidery, but long sleeves and long pants today? Paired with long gloves? ...Maybe she was a bit too judgemental, having designed and sewn her own clothes since she was twelve, but she thought she had a pretty good grasp on what was both stylish and weather-appropriate.

Then again, maybe it was cooler on the inside of that slidebuggy than it was outside. Or at the very least, less humid. The sky had been overcast all day and the forecast threatened a drizzle at any moment, and she was sure that'd only make the humidity more cloying.

"Sorry, I should- I need to go," Azaleon apologized.

"No, it's fine. But at least let me explain to you the proper way to get where you're going," she decided to walk with him to the slidebuggy as she tried to explain the route he should take. As they got closer, she couldn't help herself from asking the boy leaning out: "Hey, it's a bit hot for gloves, isn't it?"

He looked over his sunglasses at her, incredulously, and she finally got a good look at his face.

He had the striking signature green eyes only the royals had. Her brain short-circuited for a moment, her mouth miles ahead.

"Oh! You're actually Prince Aspen! That explains the fancy slidebuggy!" she blurted out, then immediately winced. At least she hadn't commented on his height...he was supposedly only two years her junior, but he looked a bit younger than that from a distance. Now that she noticed it, Azaleon also had some sort of staff strapped to his back, and she realized when he turned back to her that it was a Wonderworking staff filled with cobalt Thauma. She'd never seen cobalt in person- he had to be a castle guard if he was authorized to carry that. They must have been escorting the prince to River's. She had known he would also be there, but hadn't expected to run into him so soon!

"Um, thank you for your sacrifice, Your Highness," she added, as a last-ditch attempt at being polite, bowing slightly for the full effect. Azaleon gave her a subtle thumbs up out of the prince's line of vision.

Aspen sighed loudly, pushing his glasses back over his eyes and turning away. She thought his gloves must be to hide his Cachet on his hand; but there were other clues to his identity. The fancy embroidery on his clothes and the private slidebuggy was probably a giveaway to anyone who paid attention.

She had always wondered if Quasars had some magical air about them, but he seemed perfectly normal, aside from...well, his disposition. She'd heard rumors. Not that it was appropriate to disrespect a Quasar...but there had been a lot of openings at the castle, so many that they'd recruited people from Primrose Meadow. It seemed like they couldn't keep staff employed around him.

'Too high and mighty, even for Sol's favorite,' they all implied with more sugar-coated words. She found that hard to believe; was there such a thing as being too pompous when the Gods themselves backed you up on your specialness by selecting you as their chosen one at age five? As if being the next in line to rule Fern Helion hadn't been enough, he was also the first royal Quasar in history.

There had been absolute pandemonium when he had been announced that week, twelve years ago. Though she and her mother had been too preoccupied with Juniper's disappearance to care. That had been the worst week of her life, and she remembered it as a haze of panic and anxiety.

...Then again, it might not have been Prince Aspen's attitude that was scaring people away from working at the castle. It could've been the situation with Alouette. The continuous kidnapping attempts were enough to worry anyone. Kidnapping a Quasar was unthinkable; it was the same as incurring the wrath of the Sol God, since Aspen was their favored champion... What could anyone hope to gain? Even if the Quasars weren't virtually unkillable- who would risk trying that?

Someone dangerous and unpredictable.

Someone she was looking for.

"Thank you for the directions, Clover," Azaleon said with a gracious smile. "Sorry for the wait, Your Highness, we'll be back on track shortly, once our battery is a bit higher. I'd give it another ten minutes, just to be safe."

Clover reached into her bag, pulling out a single black feather that seemed to swallow all light that touched it entirely. It was barely longer than the length of her hand, and size aside, completely normal looking.

"Wait-! While you're waiting, If I may..." she took a breath, "I wrote a letter to River as soon as I heard you were being taken on as her student, and she agreed that I could also train under her."

"What? I'm supposed to be her only student. I need her sole focus. You understand the gravity of the Ceremony, don't you?" Aspen sneered at her. Clover nodded.

"Yes, and I'm not trying to impede you at all. In fact, I think we have a common enemy. A person dubbed Alouette with large black wings keeps trying to kidnap you. Their first attempt was the Eve of Unity, wasn't it? This is the only clue I have to find my brother Juniper. It was left behind twelve years ago when he was kidnapped, that same day. Your Highness, does this look familiar to you?"

She pushed the feather towards him. He made no move to grab it, but his expression dropped from disgust to something like curiosity.

"Is that the story you told River to get her to accept you? Twelve years is a long time to be missing. How do you know your brother is still alive?"

"...I guess I don't know that. I'm hopeful he is. And if not, I'd still like to get closure for me and my mother. I reached out to River as soon as I heard you'd be training with her. I had to ask you, but I couldn't exactly just...stroll into the castle. Please, you're the only one who's seen Alouette at length. Anything could help, any information..."

He was still looking down at her from his seat in the slidebuggy, his arms crossed. Azaleon stood outside with the other guard, giving her a pitying look. She didn't want pity, she wanted information.

"I didn't expect to talk about that cretin with you when you approached us. I don't know much, and most everything we do know has been published."

Clover nodded, feeling her heart sinking. She had read every bit of news she could about Alouette. There were no strong leads.

"Well, thank you anyway. I didn't expect to get much info, considering they've never been properly caught," she sighed, "If nothing else, River should be able to help track them, as good as she is with violet Thauma."

"...They're fast," Aspen started, and Clover's head snapped up in surprise, "If you can believe it, I've never really gotten a good look at their face. They always keep their face and skin well covered. They've dropped feathers in the castle, too, and our scientists have analyzed them. They can never get decent DNA readings for all that gold Thauma. I was five, the first time they showed up. I mistook them for a large bird at the time. They've gotten bigger and faster since. That's about all I can tell you."

"And you've never asked them why?"

"It wouldn't do any good. I suspect whatever Thauma experiment they conducted on themself fried their brain functions; anyway, we never get enough time to do any talking before the guards are on their trail and they're flying away, cackling like a crow. But what good would kidnapping me do for anyone?" He leaned down. "Aside from dooming the world. You know, that coward from Lacus Mare is already doing as much."

"Um, sure." Clover agreed half-heartedly. The Quasar of Lacus Mare still hadn't been found. She couldn't imagine what they could gain by being hidden. To be a Quasar was to live the lushest life, up until the Ceremony; then you'd get to live the lushest afterlife regardless of if you were the true sacrifice or not. Judging by his scathing look, Aspen felt very strongly about this. Clover assumed they'd have to reveal themself eventually, and they still had eight years to show up and go through the Ceremony, so she wasn't too worried over that; she had her own personal problems to solve.

Saying that would be rude, though.

"I'm sure they'll turn up soon. Thank you. Really, it means a lot. I guess we'll be seeing each other at River's." Clover was ready to head back to the station building. The sky had been growing darker over the course of their conversation, and she wanted to be under the cover of the awning before she got wet.

"Goodness, you're going to the same place as us; why don't you just ride with us?" Azaleon asked, gesturing to the still open door.

"Don't go inviting people to ride with me," Aspen snapped. Azaleon wilted, muttering a very strained polite apology. Clover had half a mind to say something to that, and she would've, if it had been anyone of regular status.

"Apologies, Your Highness, I just thought-"

"Well don't; know your place," Aspen said, then added: "I suppose even morons can make decent points on occasion. I'll allow you to ride with us there. What did you say your name was?"

"Clover. Thank you. And thank you," She said a bit quieter to Azaleon. He nodded at her, seemingly unbothered by Aspen's jabs at his intelligence. He was even kind enough to offer her a hand as she climbed into the slidebuggy, the other guard taking her single suitcase to put away in the storage compartment.

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