The glazed look in Edge’s eyes must have given him away. Either that or he had actually spoken the thought aloud.
One way or another, the Chamberlain stopped dead in his lecture, giving the young king the Look. Though it wasn’t as if the Look really had that much effect over the ninja anymore – nothing like back when he had been a kid.
I’ve got a meeting waiting on me and here I am being subjected to the Lecture of the Century… as if I didn’t know what “be on your best behavior” meant. He has absolutely no faith in me.
Edge beamed his most winning smile.
“Your Majesty… have you not heard a single word I’ve said in all this time?”
“Chill out, Gramps! I heard you. How could I not?”
Don’t work yourself into a cardiac distress or something…
“Chill… out?” The old man’s eyebrows bristled as he spoke, “It hasn’t been since the wedding of King Cecil and Queen Rosa that the Nations of the Blue Planet have come together in such a gathering. I have a terrible, terrible feeling about this. King Cecil has placed great stress on the fact that—“
“Baaah,” Edge double checked his reflection in the mirror before tying the red bandanna around his forehead. “Cecil’s a good guy but he worries too much. He’s probably just fretting over something stupid like trade routes and decided to use it as an excuse to get together all his old drinking buddies.”
“Cecil Harvey does not drink… he is far too dignified for such behavior. Unlike some kings I know.”
“Hey, there’s nothing wrong with downing a few friendly beverages every now and then.”
“But the fact remains that I don’t believe King Cecil would call a gathering of Nations for something so trivial.”
“Sheesh. You’re getting to be just as up tight as he is, Gramps.”
“Your Majesty didn’t even read the summoning letter, did you?”
“Of course not. That’s your job.”
“Your Majesty! That’s simply prepos—“
“Yeah… yeah… I know,” Edge gave a half-smirk, patting the Chamberlain fondly on one cheek. “But you’ll have to excuse me. I do have a meeting to attend. As much as I love timely entrances, the action can’t start until I’m there.”
And I’m late… As usual. Here they’re always thinking this is my fault when the truth is I can’t even get out the door without Gramps here reciting the entire Book of Eblanian Law at me.
“Since when has Your Majesty ever been in a rush to attend a formal meeting?” The old man’s tone had turned somewhat teasing.
“Hey, you said so yourself. It’s probably pretty important when Cecil’s the one ringing the dinner bell.”
“Or there’s a particular someone that Your Majesty is eager to meet?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“A someone who would undoubtedly be here. A someone who just happens to have green hair?” There was a knowing twinkle in the Chamberlain’s eyes.
“That’s none of your business, Gramps! So just drop it,” the ninja scowled deeply.
“You act as if your attraction to her is not common knowledge. You might as well have hung a fifty foot banner from the front of the castle that says ‘Edge Luvs Rydia’.”
“Say… that’s not a bad idea. Do you think it would work?”
“I would not advise Your Majesty to hold his royal breath,” the old man grunted softly.
“Why? I suppose you’re going to tell me that she’s not good enough,” Edge’s eyes narrowed in challenge.
Just like all the rest of them. I know I’m the king. I know I can’t just bring any girl to the throne to be my queen. But damn… does he have to be so critical of every move I make? Why can’t he see that I certainly don’t plan marrying the first babe that catches my eye? I deserve soooo much better than that.
“It’s not that at all.”
Surprise registered on the ninja’s face. “What did you say?”
“She has a good head on her shoulders… unlike most of the girls you bring home.”
”What can I say? I’m saving the best for last.” A relieved grin rose to Edge’s lips.
I can’t believe he’s actually agreeing with me on this…
“On the contrary. I think she’s too good for you.”
The young king’s mouth dropped open.
The Chamberlain reached over to place a fatherly hand on Edge’s shoulder, his tone becoming sympathetic. “But don’t worry. That doesn’t mean you don’t have a chance with her. Even smart girls make mistakes sometimes.”
“Oh, geez… thanks Gramps! Why don’t you just spit on my pride then roll it off the summit of Mt. Hobbs?”
“Keeping you humble is part of my job,” an impish grin crossed the old man’s face. “Along with reading all the important letters that you seem to disregard.”
Edge slumped as an indelicate sound rose from his lips.
“Posture, Your Majesty.”
The ninja subconsciously straightened, years of good-posture-chiding having been burned into his mind. His frown grew all the more dark.
What if he’s right? What if she really is too good for me? What if I don’t have a snowball’s chance in the Underworld with her? I mean… she can’t REALLY resist my charms at full-volume… can she?
The old man seemed to be able to read Edge’s expression with little difficulty. He cleared his throat with a husky sound before he spoke again.
“Well… just consider it a challenge. As for now, you had better get a move on. They’re all waiting on you. Timely entrances only work when they’re within fifteen minutes of the allotted hour.”
“Sure… pep-talk me now.”
“You’ll do just fine. Now get in there and show them what Eblan’s finest has.”
A smirk rippled over Edge’s face. “Yeah. You’re right.”
Besides… if worse comes to worst… I could always win her over with my raw skillz and prow-ess. I haven’t met a girl yet who could resist a good looking man with a sword… much less a good looking man who can use two swords at once. I mean… that’s gotta be worth extra points, right?
The Chamberlain gave a slight smirk of his own as he bent forward in a respectful bow. Head inclined, he opened the door to the guest room to make way for the Eblanian King’s procession. Edge straightened the front of his overtunic with his hands before parading jauntily out the door and into the darkened Baronian hallways.
Ready or not… here I come!
Baron Castle had always felt strikingly different than Eblana. Very little thought had been put into enticement value as the total structure was obviously designed for pure warfare. Pillars were bulky. Halls were dark and sometimes damp. Windows were small and often scarce in some areas. The whole place reeked of creation born of desperation and survival.
No wonder Cecil’s so uptight. Growing up in a place like this would screw with anyone’s head.
Eblan, on the other hand, was full of high-arching, warmly colored graceful architecture. Light streamed down through tall windows, playing off the gauzy silk streamers that danced upon the breeze. The palace had not been designed to withstand battle. But that was mostly because the ninja ranks would have never allowed for a real fight to get so close to home. Through the history of his nation, there had been very few battles that the skills of Ninjutsu could not overcome.
At least, when the battles were of hand to hand variation.
Damn that bastard airship fleet and their bombs! If Rubicant had come down to face me like a man instead of using machines to do his work, I would have wiped the floor, walls and ceiling with his lousy ass.
Bitterness. It was one thing that remained strong even after the last chips of the war had been cast. Eblan may have been rebuilt. The people may have been able to piece their shattered lives back together again. But it didn’t change the fact that Edge had lost everything in the matter of moments to the darkness of deceit.
There was never a day that he could escape the reminders. The shadows of two empty thrones towered over him in testimony of this very fact. His father’s crown seemed heavier to wear as time went on. Today, Edge had chosen to simply forego wearing it at all.
Not like I need a crown to prove my position. Let them get all floozy on me if they want. In the end we’re all kings. We all fought our parts in the war… and I’ll be damned if anyone starts pushing rank around as if he was better than anyone else.
Part of him wondered what had been in the summoning letter that Cecil sent. Part of him didn’t want to know. The Chamberlain had been correct when he pointed out that in the five years since Cecil and Rosa’s wedding, there had never been a full Meeting of Nations. And it had been precisely that long since Edge had last seen Rydia.
I wonder if she’s changed? I wonder what she’s been up to? She told me that she’d keep in touch… but she never did. I guess I shouldn’t have expected it. But still… Five years is a long time.
Edge couldn’t help his mind from wandering off with the thought. The young king was well known for flirting with anything remotely female, but that was all simply for the thrill of the chase. As nice as the company was, ninja honor wouldn’t allow him to move beyond an innocent kiss or a pinch on the behind. Especially when there was one girl in particular that hovered in his mind.
That’s just how things are until I know for sure I have absolutely no chance with Rydia. And I won’t believe that until she tells me to my fa—
All thoughts scattered as he walked straight into something large and unmoving.
A gruff rumbling came from the darkness above. It took Edge a moment of massaging his bruised nose to realize the sound was in fact someone speaking to him.
“Eh… oh? I didn’t see you there!”
The ninja blinked up as the words registered. Quickly, he realized what he had just butted heads with was actually a man. A very big man. Staring up in surprise, it was one of the few times in his life that Edge found himself lost for words.
The young king squinted as the stranger passed from the shadows of the hall into the nearest torchlight. It danced in eerie reflections from the stranger’s white hair. Instantly, the ninja’s attention was drawn to the strange display. Though a number of people in Eblan had hair that varied from very fair to almost pale in color, there had only been one person Edge knew that bore pure white hair at a young age…
Who the hell is he?
“Are you okay?” the man’s green eyes shown with a hint of concern, “I didn’t tromp on you, did I?”
“I’m…” Grabbing a hold of his senses in both hands, Edge shook himself out. “I’m perfectly fine. It takes a lot more than that to knock me around.”
“Ben!” A second voice chimed in from down the hall. Much to Edge’s relief, he could see that it belonged to a young Baronian page who was scurrying towards them. “Wait up! I’ve got your—“
Edge watched as the page froze, staring at his royal badge in utter astonishment. A little smirk flickered to the ninja’s lips.
Just wait till this fellow finds out exactly who he just bumped into. He’ll be all about apologizing.
“Chase?” The white-haired man blinked down curiously. “Is something wrong?”
“He’s… he’s…” the reply came in a stuttered garble. Then the boy licked his lips and gave a low bow before Edge. “Your Majesty!”
“Heh,” The ninja’s smirk grew wider. “I like this. They teach kids how to behave around here.”
The stranger frowned, his expression growing more puzzled as he studied Edge carefully. Something about the intensity of the green-eyed gaze sent ripples of discomfort over the back of the ninja’s arms. As if there was something he should be warned of. The tickle of familiarity rose up in the back of his mind.
“One hundred percent Eblan Royalty,” Edge shoved the choking feeling out of his thoughts and fingered his royal badge.
When the stranger remained silent and unmoved, the ninja pressed on.
“You have been honored by the presence of King Edward Geraldine.”
There was a long moment of silence. Not even close to the usual reaction for his extra-cool personal introduction.
Finally, the stranger’s mouth turned up at one corner in a lopsided smile. “How… quaint.”
“Quaint?” Edge echoed, not sure if he should be amused or offended. “That’s certainly a first.”
“I’m sure it is,” a good-willed chuckle rose in the throat of the white-haired man.
Edge’s initial unease evaporated at the sound. There was something undeniably appealing about the stranger’s mannerisms. When the white-haired man turned on his heel in a swirl of green cloak, Edge felt determined to follow.
The only sounds were their footsteps accompanied by the hurried patter of the boy trotting behind them. The ninja frowned and called again.
“Yo! Hang on a sec!”
As if realizing for the first time that the king was calling to him, the stranger tilted his head back. He did not even break his stride.
“Have we met somewhere before?”
That was the only possible answer. Between the overwhelming familiarity and the man’s lack of surprise upon introduction, Edge could only deduce that somewhere in the past they had met.
“Met somewhere before?” the stranger echoed. His face was painted in a purposeful expression, as if he was silently having the time of his life in the midst of Edge’s mental lapse.
“Yeah. You seem real familiar. Where have I seen you before?”
“I don’t remember.”
“Well, have you ever been to Eblan?”
“I don’t remember.”
He’s a bit redundant, isn’t he?
“What about Mysidia? I might have seen you there,” Edge insisted.
The stranger chuckled at that. “Highly doubtful.”
“Hey, quit messing with my head. I just wanted to find out if maybe we’d kicked back a few beers or something in the past, you know?”
“Do you not remember?” the big man finally paused, peering down with quiet eyes.
“No,” Edge retorted.
“Then how in Odin’s Name do you expect me to?”
The young king blinked, uncertain once again how to take the comment.
The little page boy peered between the two of them, face pink from the strain of holding his breath.
The stranger gave a quick lop-sided grin, “Come on, we’re keeping Cecil waiting.”
“Cecil?” The ninja squinted. Edge had almost asked how the man knew that he was heading to the meeting. But then he remembered it was pretty obvious what business the King of Eblan would have in Baron at the moment. Instead, he opted for the second question. “You’re going to the meeting, too?”
“Unfortunately,” a scowl rippled over the big man’s face. It might have been a trick of imagination, but it seemed that for a passing moment, the hall shifted into building darkness.
“Ahhh… don’t sweat it. Cecil’s probably got his boxers in a knot about a trade agreement or something. He takes this king business far too seriously if you ask me,” Edge gave a hoarse laugh. “Either that or he just wants to check and see if we’re all still breathing.”
“If only that were the truth.”
The ninja continued to attempt to alleviate the tension. “We’ll go in, hear what he says and be out of there in time for lunch.”
“Maybe,” the word was somber.
“Man, you don’t lighten up, do you?”
“Lighten… up?” Green eyes turned to him, puzzled.
Edge blew a stray lock of hair out of his face. “Never mind.”
The page cleared his throat, signaling the end to the conversation. Being so caught up in discussion, the ninja hadn’t noticed that they had arrived before the large double doors. Though Edge had been to the great Council Chambers of Baron a number of times throughout his life, this was the first time he had come there since he had been crowned king. Perhaps it was the reason he felt a shiver trickle over his skin.
Pushing the quiver out of his voice, the young king looked at the page and nodded towards the doors. “Well, what are you waiting for kid? Get in there and announce us.”
“I don’t know if that’s a good idea,” the stranger’s voice was a deep, troubled rumble.
“Of course it is! You must not do this sorta thing often? Well, let me teach you a few things!” the ninja parted his hands, fingers wide apart. “Since we’re already late, we might as well make a good entrance. Believe me. I do it all the time!”
The little boy darted an uncertain look at his companion, then back to the ninja. The white-haired man did not speak again.
Edge turned back to the boy, “You heard me. Get in there and announce us. And make it spiff, ‘kay?”
Golden eyes shifted one last time before the page turned and darted into the next room. The murmur drifting from between the parted wooden doors died to a hum. The boy cleared his throat quietly, voice shaking as he tried to sound as official as possible.
“Announcing his Majesty, King Edward Geraldine of Eblan…”
“Oh nuts!” Cid’s familiar ruddy voice chortled. It was followed by a swell of chuckles within the room.
The page continued, speaking slowly as if they might be his very last words, “And… High Master Wizard, Lord Golbez Benjamin Ya.”
The room fell into a dead silence.
Edge choked audibly as his hands groped instinctively at his side for his ninja blades. Having left all weapons back in his room, they were not there.
Lucky bastard… they woulda been buried up to the hilt in his chest by now.
The doors to the Council Chambers stood wide open. On the other side, many pairs of stricken eyes stared at the image of the Dark Lord that stood upon the threshold of the doorway.
Edge’s own eyes narrowed in the silence. Only one thought passed through his mind.
Cecil, what the hell you doing this time…?