Umi sprinted through the garden, skimming the castle's bailey wall so close the ends of her hair snagged in the brambles that clung to it. She yanked herself away, kept going, breathing in erratic gasps as she ran as fast as she could.
Ahead, metal rang on something just as strong as a fierce battle played out, Clef defending himself against the enormous winged monster which had dropped from the sky almost on top of him.
She’d only seen it appear because she was wandering through the gardens looking for Clef when it happened - she'd just spotted him in the distance when a flare of light from the shields overhead grabbed her attention. There was no one else in sight, not even a Guard patrolling the encircling wall for her to shout at. She was Clef’s only possible help, and she was too far away.
Her sword spilled into her hand as she went; she was only wearing her gauntlet because she and Hikaru had been sparring earlier. The castle was meant to be safe - Cephiro was meant to be safe!
The beast bore weapons; serrated metallic plates along both forearms that curved out into a wicked blade from each elbow. It swiped at Clef's neck and he leapt back, deflecting it with the shaft of his staff. Sparks flew in all directions, blurring Umi’s vision for a moment as she tried desperately to reach them, wishing the gardens were smaller. The creature stood twice as tall as Clef, and had entered this battle with surprise on its side.
But Clef had the desire to survive - and the will to manage it.
By the time Umi reached the spot it was over, but not the way she had feared. After blocking again and getting a hand free to gesture, a single thunderbolt was all Clef needed to turn the beast to a pile of smoking ash at his feet. He bent over, coughing violently as the dust swirled through the air.
Umi skidded to a halt next to him and warily prodded the ashes with the tip of her sword. There was no response, so she turned to face Clef.
He managed to look up at her, and that was enough to set loose the questions gathering on her tongue. "Clef, are you alright? What was that?" She glanced at the pile again, feeling even more shaken than he looked. "Is it- are you sure it's really dead? Some of them do reform," she blurted and then shook her head. "Of course you know that. Are you sure you're okay? What was it, someone having a nightmare during their mid-afternoon nap?"
Clef waved her questions away as he ducked to touch one hand to the heap of dust. He was probably humouring her, but she certainly felt better when he stood again, apparently satisfied it was thoroughly gone. “It was a temporary summoned-creature," he said, voice rough from the coughing that had almost stopped. “Don’t worry, Umi, it’s gone.”
“It was deliberately summoned?” Umi demanded. She studied him, trying to make sure he wasn't hurt - which would be easier if his usual robes were a little more like clothing and a little less like a pair of curtains hiding the rest of him. She couldn’t see any obvious tears in the cloth, at least.
It had been a couple of years since he had taken an older form, but it still startled her sometimes. When she looked straight at him now, they were pretty much eye-to-eye. It made it more obvious when he wasn’t looking at her - or answering her questions. He just took her elbow and pulled her back towards the castle, glancing up at the sky as he went.
She dismissed her blade back into the gem on her gauntlet when it got a little too close to his arm while he was towing her along without looking. “Clef-“
His hand tightened slightly on her arm, and she shut up as he shot a brief smile at her. He couldn’t quite get rid of his frown at the same time, making it not the reassuring expression he probably intended.
“There won’t be any more of those sent here after this one failed so quickly. You shouldn’t have had to see it anyway - what were you doing out in the gardens alone? I thought you and Fuu were planning on studying that job stuff you were talking about all weekend?”
“The castle grounds are meant to be safe!” Umi snapped, ignoring his attempt to derail her. Clef glanced down at her hands, fisted so tightly they were shaking. She forced them to open. “I was just taking a walk, we can't all do job market research and application planning for hours without a break - I didn't see you at all at breakfast so I thought I'd find you and say hi, you weren't in your study and LaFarga reckoned you might be out here. But that thing… were you its target? Why? It went straight for you! Will the Guards have seen that?”
“Umi-“ He started, but she couldn’t seem to stop talking to let him finish, words spilling faster and faster.
“We should go find them - LaFarga was down in the dining hall, talking to Presea. He might be there still-“
At that, Clef pulled an expression strange enough she stopped herself saying anything else, staring at him.
“I don’t want…” he muttered, and trailed off with a wince, looking away and letting go of her arm, moving a few steps away.
"What, Clef?" Umi followed him. "Don't want to answer my questions? Because you haven’t been answering any of them, and-"
"No! I mean, yes, but-" He looked up at the sky above them again, and ushered her the last few paces inside the castle. She glanced back and thought she caught sight of the castle's shields as he lay a hand briefly on the stone of the threshold. The ones in the walls, but also distantly those which enclosed the grounds, all of which were usually invisible.
Clef's determination to get her inside while claiming that everything was safe was starting to be very irritating. If everything was fine he wouldn’t be pulling her back into the safety of the castle, which she knew had far stronger shields than those surrounding the grounds. (Plus, well, it had walls. Always good in terms of defence.)
As soon as the doors swung shut, she caught his arm and pulled him to a halt. "Talk to me," she insisted.
"I do want to answer your questions; that wasn't what I was thinking about. I'm sorry." He said, quietly.
Umi huffed. "Well, you might as well start by telling me what you don’t want to do."
Clef ran one hand through his hair, making the mess of it even worse. "I… don't want to report this attack to Lantis and LaFarga."
"If you don't have time to do it, I can…" Umi began to offer, then drew in a sharp breath as his words sank in properly. "This attack? Do you mean there've been others?" Clef drew back, and tried to walk on; Umi grabbed both his arms before he could get far. "Clef, who's attacking you? Why?"
He wouldn't look at her, gazing blankly at the wall of the corridor. "It doesn't happen that often, but because I have a role in Cephiro's governing, the occasional opportunist tries an assassination attempt. It's really nothing to be worried about-"
"Someone tries to kill you, and it's no big deal?" Umi was stared at him, incredulous. He flushed, pale skin showing it clearly. "What about LaFarga, or Presea? Do they get attacked? How about the Soru, or any of the others on the Council?"
"…Occasionally, yes?" he hedged, tone deeply unconvincing. "But I'm the one who currently leaves Cephiro to attend international conferences, so…"
She hissed. The next one of those 'conferences' wasn't far off, and he hated them, and would never tell her why. If people were trying to kill him-
Clef glanced at her, and hurried on. "Actually, that's a good thing, because I can defend myself more easily against things like this than most of the Guild heads."
"That still doesn't explain why you don't want to report this?"
Shaking his head, Clef chopped a hand through the air. "The Guard make such a fuss! I'm fine! I really am capable of defending myself, you know. LaFarga and Lantis can't do any more, they shouldn't have to do any more, and I don't want anyone else getting dragged into this!"
For a few stretched moments, you could have heard a pin drop in the corridor. Clef winced again. That… had not been the right choice of words.
"You don't want to tell them because they fuss?" Umi stared at him, and he couldn't meet her eyes, his cheeks burning miserably hot.
"Well, they do!" It sounded so foolish, but his skin crawled at just the thought of it, being trailed about and traced everywhere he went, having to somehow plan ahead for when he might want or need to leave the castle even to enter the grounds, despite the fact his escapes from work were normally snatched as the moment arose. Having to deal with being around people all the time. It had been a nightmare, last time. And if anyone else got caught up in this because of him-
"I'm going to tell them, Clef." Umi turned on her heel and started down the corridor. "People's safety in the castle grounds is their responsibility!"
Stepping forwards, he reached out again and clutched at her arm. "Umi, please…" he pleaded, and stopped, ashamed of the break in his voice.
"No!" She twisted away and stalked deeper into the castle.
Clef trailed a few steps behind her. "I really am fine! Umi, they can't do anything."
"They should know," she snapped back, speeding up. "And the shields should have held that thing out - I saw you checking them, you know better than I do that that creature shouldn't have been inside."
Growling low in his throat, Clef jogged a few paces to draw even with her. "It's my life, surely I should be allowed responsibility for protecting it!"
"You should accept help from the people who want to help protect you because, believe it or not, we care about you!"
"I-" Clef stuttered to a halt.
Umi stopped walking. She turned to face him, anger fading under the worried lines crossing her forehead. He had been trying so hard to protect her from any hint of this, and right now her expression was making his stomach churn.
"Clef, how often does this kind of thing happen?"
Faced with that plaintive question, Clef slumped, a sense of defeat washing through him. He didn't want to lie, and he really didn't want to lie to Umi - but the truth was only going to worry her.
After this, she was worried already.
"Before - after the changes to Cephiro, but before now - the attacks really were infrequent. It could go months without a hint of aggression aimed at anyone, even with the chaos while we dragged the Council together."
"But it's changed?" She still wouldn't look away.
"And just how frequent are they now?" Umi pushed, seemingly determined to get some more definitive information from him, and he hesitated again.
The pause was filled by a deep voice. "Almost weekly in the last month."
Umi and Clef both whirled to meet the intruder. There was a glow in the corner of his vision as her sword spilled into her hand again, and Clef was still holding his staff; he raised it and grabbed for Umi when she started moving in front of him - then they recognised the figure blocking a side passageway.
"LaFarga." Clef nodded, suppressing yet another frustrated sigh. The glare on LaFarga's face said plainly he already knew of what had happened.
(Well, he probably wasn't going to convince Umi to keep it quiet anyway. No matter how long he tried.)
"Guru, Magic Knight." LaFarga bowed slightly to each of them in greeting, then straightened to pin Clef with his stare. "There has been another assassination attempt against you." It wasn't a question. "You did not intend to report it." That wasn’t a question either.
"How did you know?" He asked, flatly, as LaFarga stepped out into the main hallway to join them.
"We have begun actively monitoring the outer shields as well as those about the castle building, and a spell was registered passing through, coinciding closely with a bolt of lightning observed by the guards on duty on the wall - who were crossing over on the other side of the building when this thing happened. Someone timed this so no one would see the incursion."
"Ah." Clef closed his eyes and rubbed a hand across his face. "...Well, at least that explains why the makeup of the shield has changed," he muttered, wishing that if he just ignored both of them hard enough Umi and LaFarga would go away and leave him alone, knowing that neither of them would.
Umi looked between Clef and LaFarga, obscurely glad she wasn't the only one mad with Clef.
After a moment LaFarga's shoulders dropped. "Lantis is waiting in the control room," he said, and the order to Clef to come along was unspoken but utterly clear. He turned and strode into the castle.
Clef watched him go without moving for a moment, then turned and caught Umi's eye before he gave in and trudged after LaFarga. Umi followed them. She wanted answers, and if Clef wasn't going to tell her anything without a fight, maybe LaFarga would.
LaFarga was walking briskly, striding out so much that Clef - who was taller than when they met but decidedly not tall - was having to nearly jog to keep up, and Umi the same. They were going too fast to waste breath talking, and so the sounds filling the corridor were that of boot heels clacking on the stone tiles.
For the first time, Umi really noticed the occasional uniformed guards patrolling, or sat in curtained niches off the hallways: they all bowed to LaFarga and Clef. Walking behind them, Umi saw quite a few of the grins they wore as they straightened up, safely after the two men had gone by. It made her want to giggle too, Clef being unceremoniously led about like a misbehaving child being sent to the headteacher's office.
Normally everyone gave way to Clef. She'd heard him grumbling about arguments in the Council sessions, but the average Cephiran bowed, and sometimes even backed away. It was something she never really understood. Though if she thought about his casual use of magic and the way he didn’t tend to seek out people’s company, maybe he could seem… imposing, if that was all they saw of him.
When she'd first met Clef, there hadn't been time for him to be anyone but himself. Pissed-off and grieving, at that. Add in roughly seven years of argumentative friendship, and she probably knew him better than most people. But that didn't mean she understood why he was being so stubborn right now, or why she'd never heard about these assassination attempts!
They headed across into one of the side towers and headed up several floors before they passed through a door with a nameplate she couldn't read, into the main headquarters for the Guard - Lantis and LaFarga's domain. She stopped just through the door to stare around. All the time she'd been in Cephiro, and she'd never been in here before. If she'd thought about it, she would have expected some filing cabinets, a large table, maybe some maps up on the walls or something, and mostly a lot of training rotas.
The reality was startlingly high-tech.
The room was large, at least twice the size of the bedroom she shared with Hikaru and Fuu here in the castle. A round, central station had numerous flat screens of glass, or maybe crystal, and weird rows of gem-like buttons set into it. Some of the screens were showing information and diagrams - a line of them showed images of significant rooms in the castle, not like video so much as diagrams like maps, but with a shifting glittering in the walls - monitoring the wards? All the writing was obviously in Cephiran, which she still couldn’t read. (It was hard to learn to write a language you couldn't hear - especially when their characters were all phonetic.)
There were high stools set round the central station, decorated in the typically ornate Cephiran style, they seemed out of place against the plain units. The wall to the right had pin boards and desks set along its entire length, scattered with books and papers. The wall to the left was filled with mismatched cupboards and filing cabinets, piled high on each other. The final wall, facing Umi, was composed of a single large screen, currently blank.
She'd seen nothing like this in the rest of the castle. Sure, there was the occasional screen set into a wall or a table, and she'd seen Clef cast a viewing spell onto one of them before. (Though she'd seen him use a wall or the ceiling more often. Any flat surface would apparently suffice.) But this… it was like a sixties space control room had collided with a fantasy novel.
It was enough to make her feel very much a stranger here.
Lantis was sat at one of the side desks. As they came in, he looked up, enough exasperation in his expression it was readable for once. Umi grit her teeth as Lantis folded his arms, staring Clef down, and Clef crossed his right back and planted himself the other side of the central console. Even LaFarga seemed more irritated than worried.
Did no one else care that Clef had almost died?
He… really did almost die. The memory of that blade flashing so close to Clef's throat hit Umi again, and her breath caught.
Lantis was greeting them by this point, but she didn’t hear what he said as her imagination started playing out what might have happened if Clef had been a fraction slower. She was shaking - she couldn't seem to stop, and her hands were frozen. She rubbed them together, tried to focus on people’s voices, not the growing buzzing in her ears.
"Another assassin?" Lantis asked. The question was probably aimed at Clef, but it was LaFarga who answered.
"Yes. A creature of some kind, from the accounts I've received. It attacked within the castle perimeter, in the southern garden."
"I see. That would fit the readings - it seems a summoning made it through the bailey shielding, as the spell itself wasn't intended to cause harm, though the product of it was."
Lantis' voice was definitely tighter than normal now, but Umi barely registered it. Her vision was beginning to fizzle away at the edges, in grey sparks, and there was the feeling of something tightening around her head, her chest. She closed her eyes, trying to hold on until the feeling went away.
"But you, Guru, were not going to report it? Again?" Lantis asked, and Clef felt his shoulders rising. He only got his title from Lantis these days when they were in a formal situation or he was angry with Clef, and this was definitely not a formal situation.
"I dealt with it, there's nothing left to do!" Clef started protesting, when something - some noise, or flicker in his sense of the room, but something - made him glance back just in time to see Umi sway where she stood. "Umi!"
He was at her side even before he knew he was moving, catching her as gently as he could with an arm around her back. He checked her temperature, laying his palm against her forehead then her cheek, his own hands shaking a little. She was cold against his skin, and his own hands were cold enough. "I think this is shock. Umi- Umi? Do you feel sick at all?"
Umi blearily opened her eyes, letting him take her weight. (He found himself thinking, wryly, it was a good thing he'd grown since their first meeting.) She nodded slightly, lips pressed tightly together, then closed her eyes as she wobbled again and rested her head against his shoulder.
"Here, you should sit down…" Clef glanced round the room, instantly dismissing all the stools the room contained - and realising that, in fact, all the room contained was stools, not a chair in sight, which gave him pause for a moment.
She muttered something the translation spell either couldn't or wouldn't translate, before saying "You nearly died."
"But I didn't," he insisted, feeling wretched for making her feel like this. "I'm fine, Umi, I promise."
Freeing one hand he held it out and concentrated briefly, summoning a low chaise in a burst of light and helping Umi down onto it. He sat down with her, encouraging her to lean forwards and rubbing circles on her back. She kept her eyes closed, still leaning partly into his side, and slowly her breathing began to even out again.
Clef looked up at Lantis and LaFarga, who had both kept out of the way, watching quietly. "Do you have anything to drink in here?" he asked, keeping his voice low.
They both shook their heads, expressions unreadable - and whatever the glance LaFarga shot at Lantis meant, it was obviously nothing to do with anything so helpful as fetching something. Clef huffed, but raised his free hand yet again and summoned one of the glasses from the kitchen along with cold water to fill it.
"Umi, can you sit up for a moment?" He asked, quietly, and she straightened warily. He wrapped his arm more securely about her shoulders to steady her, and she had to hold the glass with both hands, but managed to sip slowly at the water.
As she sipped, the shaking eased. It took a few minutes, but though she was still resting against him, she was holding her weight up of her own accord. When she handed the empty glass back to him with a murmured thanks, Clef turned to put it on the central console, and realised with a start just how closely they were being watched.
He detangled himself in a rush, and stood. The sooner this was over with, the sooner he could get Umi back with her friends, where they could look after her.
The pressure about Umi’s head had eased off slowly as she sipped the water, Clef’s fingers stroking over her hair absently as he kept her upright - until she handed the glass back and he shot away from her with a guiltily muttered apology, so fast she swayed again and had to lean back into the seat he'd created for her.
"It wasn't your fault I felt ill," she said, but it came out a whisper - her throat didn't want to work yet - and there was no sign that he'd heard her.
"Are you feeling better, Umi?" LaFarga asked over Clef's shoulder, and she nodded; he eyed her a moment longer before turning his attention on Clef. "I know how you feel about any more security measures, but surely you can see we have to do something?"
Clef remained silent. If LaFarga's wince was anything to go by, he was now being glared at.
Lantis took a turn instead. "This has moved beyond anything we can reasonably ignore, or control with the current measures in place. How many attempts have been made on your life in the last month?"
Mumbling something, Clef's head dropped a little, his shoulders hunching up so high it looked painful.
"There have not been any credible threats against the High Priest or the Head Judge, which I'd expect if someone was taking issue with something the Council was doing," LaFarga added. "This appears to be targeting you alone. And you are due to attend the Conference of Nations in a fortnight, where we know you have previously been targeted-"
"Soru Zafira was attacked," Clef cut in. "Three weeks ago-"
"An individual taking her for my brother's ghost and attempting to knock her out with the closest statue is not the same as a deliberate, planned assassination attempt," Lantis said, steadily. "The only person who has been systematically attacked is yourself. If nothing else, there has been a lot of damage to Castle grounds and property. Who can say when that will become damage to Castle inhabitants, as well? You have to see the danger to bystanders caught in the wrong place."
"And the danger to a few not content to stand by," said LaFarga, glancing pointedly back at Umi. "There as more than a few people in this Castle who would leap into anything to help you. Are you willing to risk them as well as yourself? With a few extra measures in place we can stop the majority of the attempts and maybe catch a few of the assailants, try to find out who's behind this. If it does prove related to the Conference, then perhaps we can stop it before you leave."
Clef's hands were gripping his elbows tightly enough his knuckles had gone bone-white, but after one long moment he glanced back at Umi, then sighed and stepped back, dropping down onto the edge of her seat. "...Measures such as...?" He said, so quietly Umi almost missed it.
She didn’t miss the startled look LaFarga sent Lantis at Clef giving way, but they certainly seized the opportunity - they began describing a complex new way of shielding the castle they wanted to implement, replacing the current system. Most of it went straight over Umi's head, as they discussed the 'terms and conditions', to quote Hikaru; the technical side of Cephiran magic none of them had found time to come to grips with.
As the litany went on Clef hunched further and further forward. She raised her hand once, to reach for Clef's shoulder - then realised what she was doing and drew it back.
Lantis was speaking about things like cornerstones to hold the magic, the kinds of stone they would need and the different variants of spells that would have to be cast, a schedule for recasting them to make a huge series of interlocking shields about the Castle and the grounds, and filtering for the type of spell as well as the intent imbued in it.
"We had been wondering if that could be an issue, after last week, but that has to be how the summoning today got through without having to break the shield," Lantis stated. "If the intent of the spell is just to summon something, then it's not inherently harmful - what the creature has been instructed to do on manifesting has nothing to do with the spell to get it there. We need something to stop that, now we know it's an issue; it may cut the amount of nightmares managing to manifest. More and more these days seem to be created by the anxieties of those who have moved out into the villages, but are still dealing with having had to shelter here while the world fell apart."
There was detail about how it would stop spells tracing individuals through them, how the greater mixing of different magics would make it more resilient as well as stronger than the current shields. Eventually, however, Clef looked up and he paused. "Who do you expect is going to put these shields up and maintain them? There aren't enough qualified Iru working for the mage's Guild who are still resident in the castle, unless you plan to trust students with this-"
"The Guards," said LaFarga, and Clef sat a little straighter. "We have a fair number who are Iru-ranked mages or working on it, now - not just including those who intend to join your Academy when it opens. Lantis won’t be the only Kairu in Cephiro much longer."
"I'm looking forward to that," Lantis admitted, quietly.
LaFarga went on. "More of us than your mages are either based here or come through at least once a month. With such a large group of them, the spells can be weaker individually, so general inexperience with shields won't be a problem - even those who know some defensive magic won't have worked with this kind of shielding before, but Lantis managed to explain it clearly enough to both Ferio and me, and we don’t even have magic. You and your people wouldn't have to do anything more than you already do, quite possibly less. Unless you wanted to be more involved..."
"Let me see the plans." Clef pushed himself onto his feet. Lantis handed him a huge scroll of paper, a massive blueprint of the castle with lines all over it in pencil, with odd symbols and notes in the corners where they crossed, and little three-dimensional sketches dotted about.
It looked like a manic spiders web to Umi, but it must have made sense to Clef as he took it over to the desks to spread it out. It didn't want to lie flat - he found a book and a mug to weigh down two of the corners, held one, and Umi followed him across the room and held the last corner down.
The room was silent for a few minutes. Even Umi knew that plans for such large magic as this had to have Clef's approval before they could be ratified by the Council and put into place, even ones for defence, so the tension was understandable.
"I have one question." Clef said, finally. "How, exactly, am I - or any of my Guild, for that matter - supposed to do any work?"
"Excuse me?" LaFarga said, startled, and both swordsmen stared at Clef as he turned to face them.
"This would block nearly every common spell that might need to reach beyond the castle. Summoning spells. Mapping spells. Tracking spells."
The door to the room slammed open - Umi let go of the plans to jump between Clef and the door, and heard the clink of armour as both Guards reacted - and then Ascot fell through it, following a brightly glowing blue orb which promptly vanished. Clef, when she turned back, had barely glanced around before glaring back at LaFarga and Lantis again.
"Tracking spells such as that one, and a wide and mixed variety of others, none of which will be able to get through these shields unless I break them, which makes this whole thing useless! We would have to move out, and if you are so insistent that these attacks are aimed at me alone, I don't think my being forced out of the castle would do much good, but neither is wrecking the place just to keep one person safe!"
No one in the room met Clef's eyes, mainly because they were busy staring at his hand: he'd flung it out angrily as his voice got louder, and there were small bolts of lightning flying around it as it shook slightly. He stared at it for a moment before seeming to realise what the problem was and shook that hand hard. The sparks flew off him in all directions before they fizzled out in midair, and both Lantis and LaFarga shifted back out of the way.
"Clef, maybe you should calm down..." Umi said, stepping closer.
He ignored her. "No one will be able to transport onto the grounds - so no one who needs to go straight to their rooms or translocate between rooms will be able to live here anymore, for one thing. The geographers won't be able to cast their maps and keep track of Cephiro's development and stability, and it would likely interfere with the Priesthood's monitoring too. You're trying to turn this building into a fortress - but as soon as you manage it you might as well blow the whole cursed thing up, because it'll be no use to Cephiro when it's an inaccessible lump of rock!"
"Clef!" Umi snapped out, grabbing his arms hard as sparks danced over his sleeves, and he froze.
The room went absolutely still about them as he stared at her, eyes wide. She held her ground and didn't flinch from the new darts of lightning wrapping around his arm, even when they crossed her hand. They didn't hurt, there was just a faint, almost ticklish sensation.
The sparks faded away after a few long moments, and Clef seemed to shrink on himself, closing his eyes. "I'm sorry."
Umi pulled on his wrist gently, and led him back over to the chaise. One hand on his shoulder pushed him down onto it, and now Umi was the one perched on the edge of the seat. Clef folded forward, leaning his arms on his knees, staring at the floor. Umi let go of his arm, but rested her hand on his shoulder instead.
"We had not yet worked out a method for lowering the shields in certain areas when needed,” Lantis said, quietly. “This is only a preliminary study; .”
“Maybe we should continue this discussion another time," LaFarga managed. Lantis nodded slightly, both of them watching Clef as if he was a ticking bomb of some sort, and they weren't sure what would set him off.
"Yes - still," Lantis paused, meeting Umi's gaze. "We must have this talk. Soon."
"Perhaps this evening, after everyone's eaten, then." Umi suggested. “We’re here until tomorrow morning, this weekend, so I can come along too.”
Clef raised his head to look at her. "Umi..."
“I still have a lot of questions, Clef. If you won't answer them, maybe they will - and I might be able to help. You keep reminding me it's useful to gather a few different perspectives on an issue before deciding which to listen to."
"Fine," Clef sighed, dropping his head back into his hands. "We'll talk then."
LaFarga bowed and cleared the room, Lantis went back to his desk - pointedly facing the other way from the rest of them. Ascot, still by the door, shifted to let LaFarga through, but kept watching Clef, looking worried as the rest of them. Umi caught his eyes, and he bit his lip.
“Was there another attempt to murder Clef?” he asked, quietly.
“You know about all this?” Umi demanded, and both Ascot and Clef flinched slightly. She winced, and pulled an apologetic face. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to yell, but - no one told me.”
“I didn’t want any of you to worry,” Clef murmured, and Umi was pretty certain he meant more than just the knights, given the way he glanced at Ascot.
"I've... seen the lightning occasionally," Ascot explained. "And I sensed a couple of summonings. Clef kept saying it wasn't important."
Huffing, Umi gripped Clef’s shoulder tighter. "Well, it's important enough Lantis and LaFarga want to upgrade the shielding system on the castle, for a start."
"I see." Ascot glanced over at the table, where the plans were half visible still.
Clef looked up. "Why did you come here, Ascot? You were following a locater spell - who for?"
"Ah. I was looking for Umi. Hikaru and Fuu sent me - they were going for lunch, and no one knew where you’d gone, or if you’d eaten.”
“Not yet.” She looked down at Clef, uncertain. She should probably get back to her friends, but…
“Go,” he told her, standing up and dismissing the chaise into a scatter of fading sparks. “I have work I need to get to, anyway.”
“You’re sure you’re-”
“I am fine, Umi.” He looked at her, just briefly, and she could tell the smile he pulled was forced. “I’m a little tired, I lost my temper. That’s all. I’ll see you after dinner.” He swept out of the room with a brief nod to Ascot, ignoring Lantis as completely as Lantis was ignoring them.
Umi frowned after him. “Has he eaten lunch?” she muttered, and Ascot shook his head.
“Probably not. But I’ll take something up in a while.”
“Thanks, Ascot. Guess I’d best find Hikaru and Fuu, then. You coming?” Ascot nodded, and they headed out together - and Umi tried not to worry too much.
Dinner was over. Long over.
Clef had dragged it out for as long as possible, arriving late and eating slowly - which wasn't hard, as he felt just vaguely ill. But it was over, and now Umi was gently herding him back to the room upstairs where Lantis and LaFarga were waiting.
It wasn’t the control room - only wise, given the danger he might pose to their equipment if he lost his temper again. (He couldn't believe he'd let his control slip like that, no matter how angry he was. He was just - so tired, and on edge, and none of that was a good excuse.) This was just a little sitting room, with comfortable chairs about a low table that they’d set the proposed shielding plan on, and a pot of tea waiting like a peace offering.
Ascot had managed to help Umi suggest that the other girls went out for an evening walk with him and Ferio, as Umi had already had a walk that day and wanted to ‘catch up with Clef’ - Ascot would probably make sure they stayed out a good long time, too.
He’d been officially Clef’s apprentice for a while now, and had started picking up bits of his work here and there, and casually bringing food up when Clef forgot to eat - the thought of him conspiring with Umi was more worrying than Lantis, LaFarga, and the whole Guard combined.
Clef was pretty certain Umi would be telling the other girls what was going on as soon as she had her answers, as well. But for now it was just her.
This was both a good thing and a bad thing. Good because now there was only Umi to hear this - bad because now Umi was there to hear this. Yet if he was being honest with himself, Clef was glad of it. At least she would yell back at him if he lost his temper.
Though it would be more helpful if she could get rid of his nagging headache. (He needed more sleep. He just - he needed more sleep. The last few months had been… wearing.)
"Well then," Umi said, pushing him down into a seat - one he noticed was well away from the other two - and sitting down next to him. "Shall we begin?"
Clef wasn't quite sure when Umi had become part of the 'we' instead of an observer, and from the looks on their faces, neither did the other two. But they all nodded to her anyway.
"Well," Umi repeated, not having expected control to pass to her just like that. "Right How about one of you," she indicated LaFarga and Lantis with a wave of her hand, "explain what you want to do, then any objections can be raised," Clef slid a little lower in his seat, "and we can go on from there."
LaFarga leaned over the shielding plans again. "Well… the new measures we took a few months ago to monitor visitors to the castle through the shields we do have seem to have successfully blocked the poisoning attempts, and most of the human assassins. Now we need to stop these magic attacks- the monster summons, the long-range spells. Firstly, we still think better shields are in order."
He shot a glance at Clef at that point, but Clef remained silent. Umi eyed him sideways as LaFarga kept talking.
"We're still working on the 'how' aspect, but we'll find a way around it; we're going to set up a small group of our trained mages to come up with something and test it. To that end, we'd like to start training the guards who don't currently have the ability to work general shield-casting within the next few days, which will help with their normal duties anyway. Then we would like to get at least a first version of these shields up as soon as possible." He paused, then looked at Lantis, passing the explanation over.
"If you cast the framework then you would be able to open a hole through it when you need to, while we’re working on a better way of letting you work. So long as you don’t keep to a schedule with your casting, and don’t open them for too long - it will at least be better than what’s currently in place. And… there is another thing." Lantis said, slowly enough Umi braced herself. "Shields will only work when you are here, in the castle, and even then aren't foolproof. The rest of the time... you need someone to help protect you. A bodyguard, to watch your back."
There was silence. LaFarga shifted in his seat; Lantis didn’t fidget, he just sat normally, and Clef was absolutely still.
"A… bodyguard." He said finally, his voice taut. Umi reached out and took hold of his shoulder and he turned to face her.
"And how…" Clef bit his lip and reached out for Umi's hand; she grabbed his fingers tightly and held on, startled he was reaching for her but more worried about how… how fragile he looked, right then.
"We know it isn't a brilliant solution, Clef. Especially not with the Conference coming up - but we need you to be safe while you're there, more than ever." Lantis spoke as softly as Umi had ever heard him. "If an attack succeeded while you were away, not only would we lose our only individual authorised to negotiate on behalf of Cephiro, but it would send out the message that Cephiro itself is weak and vulnerable, if our most powerful mage can be harmed or killed."
"And having a bodyguard there won't send that same message anyway?" Clef bit back, though there wasn't as much of an edge to his voice, and his shoulders had slumped forwards.
"A bodyguard can be explained, reasoned away as a… a prop, a statement of your worth… someone who looks like a decoration, or a formality." LaFarga reasoned.
"How exactly do you think I'll get permission from the organisers to take someone with me? The conference starts in two weeks, and the reservations have been made for months. Mine's for a single room. Who d'you think you would get on such short notice, anyway? Neither of you would be able to come."
"We won't know until we've asked," LaFarga said, shrugging his shoulders. "As for who… I'm sure we can find someone suited to the position?"
Umi stilled, looking between the three men, an idea hitting her. "Um…"
"Umi?" Clef asked. "What's wrong?"
"Huh?" Umi blinked back, focusing on his face, then shook her head slightly to clear it. "Nothing's wrong, it's just… it starts in a fortnight - is that a fortnight exactly?”
“A fortnight yesterday,” he clarified, and she nodded and continued.
“So you'll be away for two weeks, and you need the same person to stay with you the whole time, right? Someone who is okay in a fight, and can hang around with you the rest of the time?"
Clef nodded, looking confused. "Barring emergencies no one is allowed to enter or leave the venue, probably a massive hotel, for the duration of the talks. With so many ambassadors there, it's locked down for the whole period."
"Then I have an idea." Umi took a deep breath and glanced round the table. "I could go."
end chapter one