Basal 55th, 1042

He was both the crown prince of Fern Helion and the Quasar, and yet his father, Kind Alder, had to basically demand River take him on as a student. She had retired twenty years ago and seemed serious about becoming a total hermit.

Yet River had accepted Clover, too, with some sob story about a brother who had been missing for over ten years. Her sense of priority was clearly lacking, maybe because of her age. If he didn’t receive the absolute best training, he wouldn't live to inherit the kingdom. …That is, if his counterpart in Lacus Mare ever decided to show themself for the Ceremony in the first place.

Clover was an interesting one. There weren’t many people who spoke to him the way she had. He wondered if she was the daughter of someone important; maybe a local mayor or something. Most people threw themselves at his feet, groveling and sniveling while thanking him profusely. Her ‘thanks for your sacrifice’ had sounded like an afterthought.

Once everyone was in the slidebuggy, one of his guards started it up. To his disappointment, the quieter of the two– Cooper? Collin? Whatever his name was– was in the front, while the annoyingly chatty one sat with him and Clover in the back.

Clover was struggling to sit still, fidgeting with her hands and patting down her skirt. Neither her or his guard were speaking, but they kept shooting each other little glances, like they were speaking their own little language. She caught him staring and offered a sheepish smile. So they were waiting on him to start the conversation? He could do that, but he seriously doubted they could actually entertain him in any capacity.

“Are we going to sit in awkward, suffocating silence the entire ride? Tell me about your plans, Clover.”


“You want to find Alouette with that feather, somehow,” he said slowly, so she'd understand, “Let’s say River is capable of parsing any information about them through all that Thauma residue; then what? How do you plan to capture them? They’ve been a known criminal for over ten years. The castle has the best security in the country, and no one there had been able to capture them. So. Your plans to do that?”

“They make two or three attempts per year, right? So it's pretty likely they will show up while you’re at River’s. I explained as much to her when I first wrote to her. That’s kind of the reason I wanted to come, aside from wanting to ask if you had information on them…”

How she said that with a completely straight face was beyond him.

“...Are you out of your mind? You signed on to intern with the most talented Wonderworker in the country not to properly train with her, but to…follow me around…to catch a wanted criminal? By yourself? What Thauma are you already licensed in, anyway?”

“Only amber, since my mom insisted. She’s a healer herself, she has a clinic over in Primrose Meadow.” Clover beamed, patting the little amber-filled circular vials strapped to her belt as Aspen and his guard blanched. How could healing magic be used to capture someone? “But like you said, River’s a notorious badass. If anyone can catch them, it’s her. And you’ve got two assumedly well-trailed guards here, who are authorized to use cobalt Thauma. Aaaand, you’re our Quasar, Your Highness, so I expect you’re already pretty skilled in both Thauma and combat. And there’s the whole ‘unable to be killed’ bit.”

“That doesn’t mean I can’t be abducted! Or– you realizing being unable to be killed just means I heal quickly?! It still hurts!” Aspen snapped, “You’re just counting on other people to do your work!”

“But you want to catch them too!” she pointed out, “Right? I’m not saying I wouldn’t help– it’d benefit everyone if they were caught!” Was she actually arguing with him? She was impossible.

“If I may say so, It would be excellent if we were actually able to catch Alouette. As if trying to kidnap you wasn’t bad enough, they’ve also broken Thauma regulations by experimenting on themselves to such a severe degree…” His guard mused.

“No one asked you, August,” Aspen waved a hand in his direction. Clover exhaled loudly through her nostrils, and he raised a brow in her direction. “Do you have something to add, Clover?”

“His name is Azaleon. That’s the second time you’ve called him the wrong name.”

“It’s alright. We only got assigned from our previous posts to guard His Highness roughly two weeks ago, and we haven’t spoken at length. Forgetting is understandable.” Azaleon behaved as if Aspen was a fire he was trying to pat out with his words, and it irked Aspen.

“Clover, if you knew anything about how their jobs worked, you would know they’re not supposed to speak to me or each other unless necessary, it would distract them from doing their jobs,” Aspen pointed out with a wave of his hand, “Besides, they won’t last longer than half a month. Very few can handle the reality of being in my presence, with Sol’s eye focused on them.”

“No, it’s not ‘alright’, they’re putting their lives on the line to keep you safe and un-kidnaped. The least you could do is commit to remembering their names and your manners. You know what I think actually has your staff running for the hills? I think–”

“It doesn’t matter, seriously, it’s no problem–” Azaleon tried to interrupt. Aspen talked over him easily, still addressing Clover only.

“‘Lives on the line’? They aren’t at risk of dying. No one would be stupid enough to try to seriously hurt me. Guards are useless for anything besides being glorified chauffeurs and porters.”

“So you agree it doesn’t really matter if they get distracted from their jobs by talking, then.” Clover pointed out. “If there’s no ‘real’ danger to you?”

Aspen felt his face flushing with heat. She was challenging his authority, his wisdom; who was she to do that? He jerked his head towards the window. Rain was coming down in sheets outside. He looked back at her, then pointed back to the window.

“I could have let you walk out in that. I invited you here. And–and I’m both your prince and your Quasar. You’re displeasing the Sol God.”

“Okay,” she said, her face dropping into a more serious expression, “Sure. I can still walk, if you want me to get out. If you really think that’s what the Sol God would want, who am I to argue with you? Stop the slidebuggy.”

“In this rain? All the way to River’s?” She wasn’t supposed to agree with him! Well– in any other circumstance, she should have, but not now! She was supposed to be apologizing, begging him to accept forgiveness on Sol’s behalf.

“Sure, why not? I have two working legs, and I’m sure River has towels. I might be a little late getting there, but I’m sure she’ll understand your very sound reasoning. I’m not trying to argue with our Quasar,” she said it with no small touch of sarcasm, daring him to continue.

Aspen glared at her. She was audacious. Blasphemous to speak against him, in front of other people, especially.

Quick-witted, too.

Before he could even think up a response to that, Azaleon butted back into the conversation, stuttering out something unexpected.

“It- it’s funny you compared us to porters! When I was a teenager, I actually was a porter at the hotel where my mom works! It’s down in Cheytell.”

Both Aspen and Clover stared at him. He was doing his best to break the tension, and Aspen begrudgingly leaned back, letting his shoulders drop along with the argument. Truthfully, he didn’t really want her walking in the rain, if only to keep River from contacting his father about it when Clover arrived at her cabin. She had trained the king in Thauma as well, and from what his father had told him, she was a fearsome, temperamental witch on her best days. He had threatened to have Aspen’s small garden uprooted entirely if he didn’t behave himself, and that was the only thing he cared for in the entire castle.

Clover eyed him, then when she realized he was done fighting her–for now, but as soon as they were finished at River’s he would be continuing this argument, he thought to himself– she turned to Azaleon with a polite smile after a moment.

“Cheytell is pretty far south, isn’t it?” Clover asked, “Isn’t that in the Twilight Strip? How did you end up all the way at the capital?”

Aspen turned to the window, watching the rain pass. They were far enough away from the station now that they were surrounded by trees on either side of the slidebuggy as it slid along its path. It was nice out here. Quiet. It was hard to hold onto any real anger when the scenery was this lush, the rhythmic rain reminiscent of music. He was half-listening to the conversation but not offering any input. He absentmindedly ran his fingers across the top of his left hand where his Cachet was embossed into his skin, an old habit he’d never curbed.

“Well, ah, that’s actually a sort of boring story…I applied to be a general castle guard, but I never expected to actually get hired because of my age. I was only twenty when I initially applied a few years ago. Let alone be promoted to His Highness’ personal guard! I just wanted to explore the world outside of my hometown, I guess.”

Aspen agreed that it was a boring story. No surprise there.

“No, I totally get that! This is my first time really outside of Primrose Meadow. My mom freaked out when I told her I was leaving,” Clover said.

“Surely she also understood your goal, though?” Azaleon asked.

“Well, yeah, but it took a lot of convincing, and she thought I was lying about River accepting me at first–”

“If you’re from Cheytell, why do you not have an accent?” Aspen interrupted.

“Bit of a delayed response, Your Highness…” Clover said, “So I take it you’ve been there, too?” She sounded genuinely curious, and no traces of anger or annoyance from their earlier argument lingered in her tone. That was fine. He could be civil, too. Doing his best to not let his surprise show, he shrugged.

“No, but even just going as far south as Covalle it’s nearly impossible to understand what people are saying. Like hearing someone gargle marbles.”

Clover laughed, covering her face. Aspen straightened his posture, feeling quite pleased to have turned the mood around. Azaleon looked less enthusiastic, mouth drawn into a line. This was the first time he’d managed to elicit a reaction besides that annoyingly cheerful and apologetic one Azaleon offered to every other situation thus far. Well, good! Aspen had worried the man had stumbled out of the womb a muscle-bound doormat, and that wasn’t a good look for any guard of his, if Clover truly expected him to be able to hold a conversation with either of them. If she was going to be loitering around them for the duration of the training at River’s, he wanted it to be as painless as possible. These two wouldn’t make that easy, if his initial impressions were to be trusted.

“Your Highness, we’ll be arriving at Cranwood in twenty minutes for a recharge,” The other guard– Kuiper, that was his name, wasn’t it? –noted from the driver’s seat in a strong, distinctly Eventidian accent, “If you can understand that through the marbles,” he added dryly. It was the first time Aspen had heard him speak since Kuiper had been assigned to him along with Azaleon.

Aspen clamped his mouth shut. Clover laughed even harder, and Azaleon cracked a small smile.

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