"A beautiful night, no?" Geoffrey asked as he approached.
"Your Highness," Leguna greeted with a bow.
He didn't like the first prince much, but the man's status necessitated he think twice before offending him.
"Shall we have a talk?" the prince asked as he handed Leguna a glass of wine before sauntering off to the nearest window.
"What do you think of this place?" he asked, staring out through the window at the garden outside.
"I suspect it's one of the grandest places in the world, it is the imperial palace, after all.," Leguna answered carefully.
He did not like the idea of kissing up to the prince, so despite his flattering words, his tone was unfashionably casual.
"I suppose so. That said, it is also where the empire's most powerful congregate," the prince sipped his wine, turning his gaze back to the hall. His finger pointed at an elegantly dressed man, "That man there is Kanjiras, the finance minister's second son."
Leguna listened silently.
Geoffrey's fingers lingered on someone else.
"Edito Rolin. Premier Alfreid's only son."
"There's--" A few more people's remote introductions flowed from his lips easily, most of them younger than thirty, each with an impressive background.
"What do they have in common?" the prince asked?
"They're all young and have extraordinary backgrounds," Leguna answered obediently.
"Exactly right," the prince nodded, "But you missed two things."
"I beg your enlightenment, Your Highness."
"They're all men, and they're all single."
Realization was finally dawning on Leguna, but he continued to play along.
"Have you heard of any of them having an interest in Annie?" the prince asked, slowly and deliberately.
"You know why?"
The answer came stiffer than he'd expected.
"No, you do," the prince smiled, "They all know Annie is destined to be my woman. Nobody dares cross the imperial family. Even with their backgrounds, they know not to go against me. You understand?"
Leguna's voice was tart, but he managed not to lose himself.
"Good. Then there's no need to walk circles around the point. I heard you're pretty close to Annie."
"Yes, I am."
His rage suddenly vanished, fading into a prideful tranquility when he got to tell someone about his relationship with Annie.
"I can tell. To be honest, I didn't think she would smile at someone, anyone, much less take the initiative to talk to them."
"I might well be the closest person to Annie in the entire world," Leguna's arrogance slowly replaced the pride in his voice, "That said, what does Your Highness want from me?"
"You're smart, but you seem to be missing my point. Don't call her Annie. I find it distasteful," The good humour vanished from Geoffrey's voice and his eyes became venomous.
"You will tell me everything that's happened between the two of you. Especially regarding how you've been interacting with her to get that close to her. It is always good to learn from other's mistakes, isn't it?"
"You and everyone you know, including that herbalist brat, will stay well out of Annie's way. I don't want any of you even in the same province as her. She and you are from different worlds, especially where you character is concerned, and I don't want your bad influence soiling her. That's all I have to say on the matter for now, though I may add more if I feel the need demands it."
"Indeed. I will not let your work be in vain, however. I am a fair-minded man. Take this--" Geoffrey handed him an intricate jade seal, "You can claim 50 thousand gold coin notes. That should be enough for you and your companions, yes?"
Leguna gazed at the seal in his hand.
"Yes," Geoffrey said a hint of surprise creeping into his voice, though none of it showed on his face.
"Okay," Leguna said simply and turned to leave.
"Hold it!" Geoffrey groaned angrily, "What do you mean 'okay'?"
"Nothing, really. You talked, I listened, you finished, now I leave."
"So you agree?"
"Of course--" Leguna's initially smiling face morphed into a dark haze of fury as his last word burst out immediately after the second. "--not!"
"You!" Geoffrey's face darkened to match Leguna's as he realized the little shit had been toying with him.
"Don't give me that bullshit," Leguna's eyes flashed sinisterly, "You're royalty, you've got money and an impressive background, but let me tell you. I couldn't give a rat's arse less about any of that. And I'm more than certain that repels Annie at least as much as you think it might attract her! Please, go flaunt your status as much as you want, you'll be doing me a favour. I don't give a f*ck. If you've got nothing else to say, I'm going."
Leguna took several steps, then stopped.
"And don't let me hear you ever calling her 'Annie' again. It disgusts me," he spat over his shoulder.
"Do you want to die that badly?" Geoffrey asked, his hand reaching out.
He couldn't wait to blast the little rat with a disintegration spell.
He just started to collect his mana in his palm when he suddenly heard a familiar voice behind him.
"Oh, brother. I didn't think you'd get along so well with my friend!"
"Your Highness Alissanda," Leguna greeted with a far more respectful bow than he'd given Geoffrey.
He didn't usually grant any such honours to anyone, even Alissanda, but he was not an idiot. If he wanted any future in the capital, he better treat Alissanda with the honours he deserved. Even if the prince himself didn't care about it, if anyone else saw him illtreat the prince, they would have no qualms about making life difficult for Leguna. And, as the first prince had noted, most of the people here had the backgrounds to do it, too.
"It's good to see you, my friend." Alissanda toasted.
"Friend?" Geoffrey grit his teeth, "You're calling that a friend?"
"Of course. We've fought side by side on a number of occasions. He's not just my friend, but a rare comrade as well."
Geoffrey stared daggers at his little brother for a few seconds before he regained his composure.
"I suppose," his calm voice spoke, "it's to be expected you'd make friends with someone like him," despite his best efforts, the last word came out like someone spitting out a rotten fruit."
Geoffrey tossed his glass out through the open window and left, his shoulder shaking despite his calm appearance.
"You really shouldn't have pissed him off like that."
"It was only a matter of time. Might as well get it out of the way now. You, on the other hand... Are you trying to associate yourself with me that badly?"
"Think of it whatever you wish," Alissanda said, uninterested, "I have to admit, you've caught my eye."
"Do you have to make it sound so… wrong?"
"You can call it what you like. I suppose you just barely pass as a friend," Alissanda said in feigned aloofness, "That said, you've really stopped thinking, haven't you? Geoffrey holds his grudges until their ashes have rotten. And he has both the personal power and the connections to do a lot of harm if he chooses."
"That's what you're for, isn't it?" Leguna smiled, "Why did you risk offending him though?"
"Heh, I can do nothing that doesn't offend him," Alissanda smiled bitterly, "My every breath is an affront to him."
Leguna patted the prince's shoulders, downed the rest of his wine, and left.
Alfreid had seen everything and he sipped his wine leisurely as he considered what to do about it.
"Good evening, Lord Premier," Kurdak said as he approached.
"Nice to meet you, Mister Kurdak."
They hadn't been formally introduced, but Alfreid made a point of knowing everyone worth knowing, and he had a good memory.
"I heard Your Lordship's memory is astounding. But it does you no justice!"
"Hardly, Mister Kurdak. You would have to search quite a few corners indeed to find someone who doesn't know of your exploits. What brings you into my presence, if I may ask?"
"Oh nothing of any importance," Kurdak answered as he bowed his middle-aged head. "What better time than this to make formal introductions? Remember my past, remember me."
"I look forward to hearing many more stories of your successes and achievements," Kurdak's expression appeared ever-so-slightly complicated, but Alfreid paid it no heed.
What business did the empire's premier have wasting a brain cell or two being interested in a mere mercenary?
I have returned, Kurdak whispered in his head venomously, Should I get my revenge now, or let him simmer for a while longer, Young Master?... Cyranos?...
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