Basal 55th, 1042

Thirty minutes after the charging stop at Cranwood, the three of them had fallen into a comfortable silence. Aspen was clearly spent from the long journey from the castle, his eyes drooping, and Clover was sitting and watching the scenery pass out the window. Kuiper had been quiet, but then, he usually was when they were around people he didn’t know; Azaleon knew over the course of their trip that he’d warm up to these two and speak more often. Until then Azaleon wouldn’t push him.

“Hey, sorry, but I gotta use some of my Thauma,” Clover said quietly after a stretch of silence. Azaleon looked her over. She seemed alright, but panic bubbled up anyway.

“Are you okay? Do we need to make a stop?”

“Um, no, I’m fine. arm just cramps up sometimes,” she waved her left hand, “It just flares up worse when it rains; it’s not usually bad. Amber Thauma soothes it a little, at least.”

“...What’s wrong with it?” Aspen asked apprehensively, blinking a few times and sitting up to stretch and shake off the drowsiness. “It’s not contagious, is it?”

“Oh my gosh, no! It’s actually so dumb. I slept on it funny as a kid and must have twisted a nerve. Isn’t that so ridiculous? I slept in a weird position once, and now I have permanent nerve damage,” Clover pulled one of her vials of amber Thauma off of her holster, twisting the cap off. Azaleon thought to offer her help before remembering that he probably shouldn’t be using Thauma that he wasn’t licensed in in front of Aspen. That was a surefire way to get fired.

Besides, she seemed to know what she was doing, dipping a finger in and dragging it across her arm in a practiced figure eight motion. It glittered and orange mist rose off of her skin, the liquid evaporating quickly. She let out a sigh of relief and recapped her bottle.

“There’s nothing healers can do? I’m sure you could get less diluted Thauma if you put in a request,” Azaleon suggested.

“Sure, we did do that around the time it happened; I mentioned my mom’s a healer, right? The only one in our town. It…just didn’t help much, I guess,” she shrugged, “I’ve gotten good at managing it. Most of the time it’s just kind of numb or only the hand hurts instead of my whole arm, but at least I can still move it and use it most days, right? I’m thankful for that,” she said, opening and closing her hand with only a small wince.

“That’s a good attitude to have,” Azaleon murmured. She shrugged again, and he got the feeling she didn’t want to talk more about the subject. Before he could try to change the subject, Aspen spoke up.

“You probably use amber Thauma daily then, don’t you?” Aspen asked.

Clover hesitantly nodded. “Most every day, yeah. Maybe three days out of the week, on good weeks.”

“I do too,” Aspen said, and Azaleon realized Kuiper was the only one in the slidebuggy that didn’t use Thauma daily. Of course, since Kuiper had gotten dragged into being a guard, he had to practice with cobalt, at least for appearances sake.

“My teachers at the castle say people who use Thauma daily like we do are more adept when they pick up different hues of it, so River’ll be pleased to know that,” Aspen continued, “Because I seriously doubt you’ll just be allowed to loiter around without training, knowing her reputation.”

“...Yeah, you’re probably right.” Clover frowned, as if she hadn’t considered that before. Admittedly, her ‘act first, think later’ was one Azaleon could relate to. “You’ve used all of them, haven’t you, Your Highness? Which is easiest?”

Aspen looked thoughtful for a moment.

“I guess it’s subjective. I have to use gold every day since I was blessed by Ash Rossingol, so it’s automatic. I hardly even think about it when using it. Strange to think I’ll be able to stop that soon enough, since..erm,” Aspen cleared his throat. “Well, puberty is more or less behind me, but they wanted to keep me on gold until I turn eighteen, just to be safe. Anyway,” he very quickly moved on, and Azaleon badly wanted to laugh at Aspen being so blasé about puberty with Clover, who he had only just met, but didn’t.

“Mom’s a healer; no need to be embarrassed, I know plenty about that kind of thing.” Her attempt at reassuring him just made Aspen more tense.

Azaleon also had to use gold Thauma daily, but not as a hormone replacement; Aspen saying it was basically muscle memory was true for him, too. Not that he was going to interrupt Aspen with that information, since he was very clearly trying to move on from the topic.

Anyway, violet is fairly easy, after that, but you have to use it in extreme moderation, even diluted as the general kind is…” Azaleon was sure by her expression that Clover had heard as much already. Violet Thauma was a gift from the God of Art and Sciences, Fillip Arabella, and was used for making artistic masterpieces and had been historically important for making scientific breakthroughs that had launched people into a new age of technology; but it was known to be very addicting if you used too much. And fatal.

“Emerald isn’t exactly challenging, but it takes a lot of practice. It’s rewarding when you master it. Seeing your plants thriving and being able to grow them is…nice.” Aspen sounded softer for a moment, looking out the window. Azaleon knew he had a small garden, but it was closed in a private area of the greenhouse at the castle, and he had always demanded he and Kuiper stay at the entrance door. There was only the one entrance, so it was safe enough, but he had wondered about it. Every bit of sparse free time he had between his many, many classes and diplomatic trips with King Alder were spent there, alone.

Azaleon hadn’t worked up the nerve to ask about it, and he certainly didn’t want to intrude on something Aspen actually seemed to enjoy. Because it was the only time Aspen seemed to relax, if only a little bit. And gods knew he needed that.

This conversation with Clover was the most he’d heard Aspen speak at length when not repeating scripted speeches alongside the king, and the most relaxed he’d seen him. He was knowledgeable about Thauma and Clover was offering him her full, non-judgemental attention, something Azaleon was grateful to her for. It would have been easy for her to dismiss him entirely because of their earlier spat; he’d only gotten his current job because many former staff members had done just that.

Aspen quickly continued, snapping his attention back to Clover. “Both scarlet and cobalt are unwieldy; I seriously doubt River will even let you try to use either. If she does, I suggest you go for cobalt.”

“Wait, seriously? You think Seiche’s gift is easier to use than Refuge’s? But…I always expected scarlet to be...I don’t know; gentle? It’s used for protection. Cobalt is– and no disrespect to Seiche Carving, but– used for fighting. He’s the God of War.”

Azaleon understood Clover’s confusion. That had been his expectation, too.

“Let me put it this way: cobalt feels like a surge of adrenaline; it’s at least fine in the moment, even if it leaves you exhausted, like swimming against a river but knowing you can make it to the shoreline. Scarlet feels like you’re holding the weight of the world up and all of your muscles are being ravaged by the harshest winds of a tornado while doing that. It feels awful from the get-go. Just…take my word for it.”

Logically, Azaleon knew Aspen had been trained with all of the Thauma hues already, and this trip was to level up further with them. It didn’t make him any less resentful towards King Alder, even if he understood why he would make his son learn to handle scarlet Thauma at such a young age. Most people could only apply to get a cobalt license if they worked as a guard, and had to be at least twenty. The scarlet license was only an option when a person was twenty five; he suspected Alder would have made him practice it even if Aspen wasn’t the Quasar, but it sure made a convenient excuse, didn’t it?

“There’s a reason we’re equipt with cobalt rather than scarlet to protect His Highness,” Azaleon confirmed, “Though I’ve heard– and correct me if this is false, Your Highness–but I’ve heard Thauma comes easier to you than it might to myself or Clover, since you’re our Quasar?”

Aspen’s expression soured. His scowl looked more like a pout, and he dropped the lecturing tone for an exasperated one. “How would I know that? It could be because I have some of the best tutors in the country. It could be because I study intensely. I’d have no way of knowing if it’s because of those or because I’m a Quasar. What a stupid question.”

Sure it was; but he seemed to have fun being snotty, and if being a punching bag for his frustrations lifted Aspen out of the pit of despair, Azaleon was glad to be a target. Clover clearly didn’t feel the same, having decided Aspen was a bully and Azaleon some kind of fragile maiden in need of her protection, all 5’4 feet of it she could offer. It was sweet, in a very funny way.

“C’mon, it was a perfectly valid question,” Clover’s eyes darted to Aspen’s hand, and Aspen sighed perhaps louder than necessary.

“You could have asked if you wanted to see it. Get it over with. Here,” Aspen said, as he pulled his glove off and presented his left hand. On the back of it was his Cachet, a star emblem surrounded by half-moon symbols. It was unnaturally gold, shimmering almost like a liquid.

“Wow,” Clover murmured, taking his hand gently in hers and tilting it this and that way. “Does it hurt?”

“No, not particularly. It didn’t hurt getting it, either, before you ask. I was just in my afternoon classes– math, I believe– when it appeared and my tutor started losing her mind. I didn’t have another class for a full two months, as much as I was being paraded around…”

“Oh, lucky, math is awful.” She said. Then, she shook her head, her mind catching up with her mouth. “Erm, I meant- it’s…”

“An honor, I know,” Aspen sighed, pulling his hand away and moving to slip his glove back on. “Thank you for not kissing it at least.”

“People do that?!” Clover’s face scrunched up in disgust. “That’s gross. No offense.”

“Gods, none taken. I agree, I don’t particularly want their drool all over me. You would be surprised how hysterical people have gotten. The things they think they’re entitled to do are insane; they see me as the closest link in this world to the Gods, short of visiting a temple. Which may very well be true, but still.”

Azaleon had witnessed no less than four people wailing, sobbing, and throwing themselves to the ground in Aspen’s presence, and he’d only been guarding him for a brief time. The first time, he had awkwardly put himself between Aspen and the hysterical people, two men who were assumedly a couple of tourists to the castle, murmuring that they needed to keep a distance from the prince for security's sake, but that their thanks were appreciated.

Aspen had just stared down at them, his chin jutted upwards and looking every bit the part of the aloof royal that he was. He hadn’t thanked them, just strolling past, and Azaleon had had to jog to catch up to him.

It made sense now, if Azaleon considered how desensitized he must be to those types of over the top displays.

A loud THUMP! from above them interrupted their conversation and broke him out of his thoughts.

Everyone went silent, tension palpable in the air.

Azaleon’s hand snapped to grab his weapon strapped to his back, scanning the visible area through the windows.

A tree branch rolled off the roof, falling past the window.

“I-I didn’t think it was raining that hard. It must have already been loose. Gods, that almost gave me a heart attack!” Clover laughed, clutching a hand over her chest.

“Getting scared by a tree branch? You must be very weak-hearted,” Aspen said, as if he hadn’t jumped off of his seat. Azaleon would never point that out, though. Best to let him keep as much of his dignity as he could. Azaleon exhaled, cracking a smile.

“That’d make two of us, I was worried that we were under attack or something.”

Kuiper rolled the slidebuggy to a stop. “Gotta check for damage,” he said quietly, “Tell the kids to stay put.”

“Oh come on, as if a branch could’ve done any real damage.” Aspen huffed, leaning back. “We’re nearly at River’s aren’t we?”

“About ten minutes out, if I’m counting right,” Clover said, “Hang on, I have a watch in my bag. It takes around an hour to get from Cranwood to Fawn Creek, doesn’t it?”

“How should I know that?” Aspen asked.

“Don’t you travel a lot?”

While the two of them went back and forth, he glanced at Kuiper. To the other two he might have looked stoic, but Azaleon had known the man long enough to recognize the tension in his shoulders, the way his hazel eyes were slightly narrowed. Azaleon raised his brows, and Kuiper gave the slightest nod to him.

He’d seen something they hadn’t from the driver’s seat.

“I’ll join you; Your Highness, Clover, stay put for a second. We’ll be riiiight back!” He tried his best to sound reassuring, cutting off whatever protest Aspen was about to say with a slammed, locked door. “Well?” He asked Kuiper once they were both standing outside.

Kuiper just nodded upwards.

“We should’ve just robbed the brat and ran when we still had the chance, now we’re going to die,” Kuiper muttered. Azaleon snorted. Then, he actually looked up and froze, his retort dying on his tongue.

There, perched on the top of the slidebuggy, was Alouette.

They were sitting cross legged and casual, a hand on their chin, staring down at them with unnatural yellow eyes that were several shades sicklier than gold Thauma.

They were epicene, which Azaleon figured made sense since they seemed to have an affinity for gold Thauma. Not just in the usual sense of just changing one's appearance or gender characteristics; they’d modified themself with to the point of it being a crime with those massive black wings on their back.

“Hi!” they said with a small wave, acting far too innocuous.

Azaleon and Kuiper reached for their weapons.

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