Romero and Julie Act I: Truths and Lies
Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;
Whose misadventur'd piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parents' strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark'd love,
And the continuance of their parents' rage,
Which but their children's end naught could remove,
Is now the two hours' traffic of our stage;
The which, if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to me-
“I can’t believe the utter bullshit I’ve just read.”
“Lady Claudine!” Mahiru gasped, unable to believe the words she’d just heard coming from the noble lady sat across her.
“Oh, come now, Mahiru. You can’t tell me you actually like this piece of work?” Claudine sighed, shutting the book and placing it on the table. She stared at the cover a few minutes more before pushing it away from her in disgust.
“Hmm? I don’t get it. It is a piece? And it is a work?” Mahiru’s escort cocked her head to the side in confusion, giving Claudine a look that requested clarification.
“Dame Karen.” Claudine sighed, resting her elbows on the table and propping her head up in her hands. She ignored Mahiru’s wide eyes at her ill-mannered display and went on with her exchange with the female knight. “I’m saying it’s a terrible piece of work. Terribly inaccurate.”
“Ohhhhh. I get it.” Karen nodded, eyes wide, expression enlightened before it settled into a smile. “I think so too.”
“Right?!” Claudine thought her voice was a bit too enthusiastic there. Clearing her throat, she calmly reiterated. “Right? I actually had high expectations for this as many of the noble ladies I’ve come across recently have been flaunting their copies of the script. They even dubbed it as the ‘New Romance Bible of High Society’.” Claudine rolled her eyes. She would have made a gagging motion, but she was certain Mahiru would cry blood at that.
“Besides, I can’t believe they’d try to make a reference to my family name for such a piece, and even claim to have modeled the heroine after me when clearly, she is nothing like me.” Claudine continued to criticize. “Therefore, I have fair reason to dislike such a novel.”
“It’s not all that bad, is it?” Mahiru tried. “I managed to read up to half of it, and I believe it was alright.”
Claudine stared at her blankly. “I decided to give Junna the benefit of the doubt here, as she has been my long-time tutor and friend. I believe in her recommendations.” Claudine pinched the bridge of her nose in frustration. “So, I’ve read the book cover to cover.”
“It was the worst decision I’ve ever made.” Claudine lamented. “Nana should have stopped her from picking up such a horrific title. I can’t believe she actually liked it enough to recommend it to me.”
“Maybe she thought it would be a nice read since it was about you?” Karen offered her opinion.
“Who would want to read about themselves in such a sad excuse of a tale?” Claudine played with her tea, swirling it in the cup. “Maybe if it was written more tastefully... Anyway, I can’t stand the book so maybe I’ll just give it away or use it for fire.”
“Madame Junna will feel sad to hear that, you know?” Mahiru sighed, taking a bite of her cake. “She might even cry.”
“No, she won’t.” Claudine chuckled with a wave of her hand, but then Junna’s face flashed a brief moment in her mind, and it made her pause in thought. “...right?” She wasn’t so sure all of a sudden.
“Lady Claudine... she sulked for three days when she’d heard you laughed during one of the most tragic plays of our generation.” Mahiru deadpanned.
Claudine’s brows furrowed, unable to recall the events that Mahiru was referencing.
“Remember? We went to Brighton theatre the other day?”
“Karen! You were with us too, you know!”
Mahiru looked to Claudine excitedly. It seemed as though she’d finally remembered.
“That comedy skit Junna recommended?”
“Again, it was tragedy!”
“The one where the main character got shot after being stupid enough to not take a shield after he was advised to? The ‘A sword is mightier than a pen, but the sword is my...’ my...” Claudine thought hard, struggling to find the right words in her memory. “Something or other.” She gave up.
Claudine grinned at the nickname, pleased that she was able to rile Mahiru up another day.
“Okay, okay. Enough teasing, I know.” She laughed, patting her friend on the head and gaining a blooming blush in return. “You were just too lovely, I couldn’t help myself.” She flashed a charming smile that made Mahiru burn even hotter, and made Karen pout.
“This is why you’re so... and nobles keep... hrmmrrgghh...” She grumbled. “And yet you complain about being crowded and you....”
“What was that, Dame Karen?” Claudine chuckled, eyeing her friend with an amused look.
“Oh, nothing really, Duchess Claudine.” Karen fired back.
“Hey now, don’t go spreading lies, my dear knight.” Claudine frowned.
“I speak no lies, milady. Everyone knows that you are the one who has been handling estate affairs as of late.” Karen spoke seriously all of a sudden, irking Claudine secretly.
She didn’t want to think of those things right now.
Before Claudine’s mood sunk further, Karen- with a quick flip of a switch- had returned to pouting. “And I’m not your dear knight.”
Oh, Karen could be so perceptive, sometimes. Claudine gladly accepted the bail.
“I know.” Claudine smiled, half-grateful, half-teasing. “You are Mahiru’s, right?” Claudine wiggled her brows suggestively. Karen flushed hot red, and Claudine thoroughly drank in her new target’s vexation in enjoyment.
Claudine admired the twin tomatoes in front of her. Life had been a drag lately, but time with her friends always seemed to offset all of those.
“Oh right. And Hikari’s too.”
Claudine broke into hysterics at the display of flailing arms and incoherent half-yells of denial at the mention of her knight’s name. She swore she could physically see the steam coming off of the pair in front of her. Was it from anger, embarrassment, or both? Probably both, Claudine supposed.
“Kuro-chan, you are seriously so mean.” Karen whined, fanning her face uselessly as the heat showed no signs of subsiding.
Claudine wiped a tear from her eyes. She’d laughed so much her sides were beginning to hurt.
“I’m terrible, aren’t I?” She smiled.
“That you are, Milady.” A stoic voice suddenly inserted itself into their conversation.
Claudine found herself jolting in her seat at its proximity from behind her. Whipping her head around, she sighed in relief at the sight of her escort.
“Hikari! At least alert us sooner if you’ve arrived!” Claudine complained. Her heart beat strongly against the palm she’d rested against her chest in an attempt to calm herself.
“I have arrived, Milady.”
“No, like I said. Say that sooner!” Claudine huffed, settling back into her seat, leaning her head on her palm once more. Claudine spared a glance at Karen and Mahiru who were looking rather bashful, eyes averted from the newest arrival.
She covered her mouth with her hand to hide the growing smile on her face as her knight stared at the pair across them. Claudine patiently awaited the usual awkward interaction between her friends that she knew would play out soon. She counted the seconds off in her head, knowing exactly when the first move would be made.
3... 2... 1-
Like clockwork, Hikari faced Mahiru and Karen head-on, straightened her posture, and bent into a deep bow of greeting. “Lady Tsuyuzaki.”
“Dame Kagura. It’s a pleasure to see you once more” Mahiru responded calmly.
However, Claudine caught the way Mahiru’s brow twitched. Her displeasure was skillfully hidden behind that gentle smile she’s known for forever, but Claudine would like to believe she’s adept enough at deciphering the true meaning behind Mahiru’s masks called grace.
She internally shook her head, hoping Mahiru could soon find the freedom to be free from the expectations laid on the lady known as ‘High Society’s Saintess’, and be able to express emotions outside of simple joy, kindness, or sympathy.
Turning to the other knight, Claudine waited for what Karen’s reaction for today would be. She had a variety for different days. Sometimes it was openly voicing her disappointment, and other times it was a response just as curt and detached as Hikari’s.
“Karen!” The owner of the name interrupted. “Just Karen. Karen is fine... H-Hikari...”
Oh? Today was a little more bold, Claudine noted. Usually Karen would only politely request the other knight to refer to her by her given name, even if it bore her title. This was a fresh attempt. Now, how would her dear knight react?
“Dame Karen.” Hikari stated blankly, completely unfazed by the hiccup in her usual greeting routine.
Claudine lightly slapped Hikari’s arm-earning her a confused yelp- before throwing Karen and Mahiru a consoling smile; one that told them there was always a next time to attempt to woo her clueless knight.
She watched Karen’s shoulders drop in a sigh, and Mahiru cover her relenting smile with her fan. She should talk to Hikari about this sometime again. For now, however...
“So? What goes on back at the manor?” Claudine took a sip of her tea that had now gone cold after she’d ignored it a while. With a minute flick of her finger, it grew warm in her hands and she smiled, hoping her friends hadn’t noticed.
She heard her knight groan from behind her. Quite a rare happening, to be frank. Hikari was usually very careful with her actions and reactions, so Claudine braced herself for some unpleasant news.
“Master Cyrille has finally arrived.” She reported dutifully.
Claudine somehow heard the frosty bite in her tone. It was understandable. Cyrille was her elder brother of four years, and the heir apparent to their household.
-Or that was how it was supposed to be.
He and Hikari never really got along after- ehem- certain incidents had taken place a few years ago. Those incidents also happened to be part of the reason why his successorship was being reconsidered at present.
“How did Pa- Father react?” Claudine caught herself before her small childish habit would be revealed.
Hikari scratched her cheek, another nervous habit of hers that Claudine had learned about after years of being together. “They had the usual debate. Right as he arrived.”
That was expected. Claudine knew something like that would happen. So why was Hikari so bothered.
“The young master came onto the premises yelling right away from the gate about being the rightful heir or something along those lines.”
This too was within Claudine’s foresight.
“I can’t believe he’s making a fuss on foreign land. We’re not here to start a war, we’re here as representatives of a peace treaty.” Claudine shook her head in disappointment.
Her family, the Capulets, had hailed from the Western empire and had been residing for a few months on Eastern lands. After hundreds of years of warring with the east, they had experienced the first fifty years of a truce. Finally, the two empires had decided to build friendly relations to completely cease all the needless battles between them. After fifty years of an ambiguous standstill, the emperors had finally decided to send forth representatives to celebrate the golden year of peace between them and cement the alliance of the nations.
As the grand ducal household located at the border of the empires, their family had naturally been selected. This was also the West’s acclaimed ‘reward for service in battle’ to their family who had always fought to protect the precious border.
Yes, all that struggle in history, and her brother might just be the one to render it all useless in one fell swoop.
Not that it would have been the first time.
“Anything else, Hikari?” Claudine could feel her headache coming on.
“They argued in the study.”
Hikari still radiated nervous energy, and Claudine just had to wonder why. “What are you not telling me yet, Hikari?”
“... Master Cyrille kept pressing that he was the rightful hair to the Dukedom... then Your Grace was angered and said that... that...”
“You’re not going to like it.” The knight warned.
“Obviously not.” Claudine replied flatly. “From how you are at this moment, I’ve already figured that out.”
“The Grand Duke said he’d rather make you the heir... instead of Young Master Cyrille... so he wishes to speak with you back at the estate.”
Claudine’s eyes widened. She knew there was a possibility that this outcome would arise. She just didn’t think it was that possible. She had already voiced her stance on this in the past to her father. She was not willing to take over their family as head. She had other plans in life. Plans of freedom and of adventure; she had other desires that were probably not suited for a woman carrying royal blood.
Yet she longed for that particular life. Thus, she could not be the Duke’s successor. She’d suggested that her father give the title to their youngest sibling instead who was seven years her junior.
He might not be ready now, but he could still be groomed to be the perfect candidate in the future. She was sure Gabriel could do it, irresponsible as she may sound at that moment, pushing it all onto the child.
Mahiru’s tender voice reminded Claudine that her friends were still there, quite worried that she’d suddenly froze on the spot.
“My apologies, Mahiru.” She got up, bowing deeply. “I know you’ve gone out of your way to prepare all of this for me, but-”
“Hey.” Claudine felt a warm hand on her cheek, guiding her to stand back up. Mahiru’s gaze was kind as it always was, full of tender empathy. “Go. A few tea and biscuits aren’t going to go to waste just because you’re not around.”
Claudine managed a small smile, taking Mahiru’s hand into her own two.
“You have Karen anyway.”
“Hmm? What about me?”
The two young ladies laughed at their inside joke for a few moments before embracing one another goodbye.
Karen had offered one to Claudine as well, and she gladly accepted.
After being sent off with the best of regards and well-wishing, Claudine tried to not think on her dread the entire carriage ride home.
She just knew it was going to be a messy affair.
The Grand Duke heaved a sigh, gesturing for his daughter to take a seat across from him. “I take it you’ve already heard from Hikari?” At the nod of Claudine’s head, he sighed once more. “I’m really sorry about that. I am aware that you do not wish to get involved in such dealings. However, I didn’t have much else to say. I could not think of any other argument at that moment.”
Claudine could see the exhaustion built up in her father. She felt bad for being so insistent on her own wants that she’d possibly pushed him up against a wall. However, she could not deny that this was the only path she was willing to take.
Taking her father’s hands and planting a kiss on them, she reassured him. “I understand, papa.”
“I am also at fault, anyway. I know you’re being pressured by the Royal family into a succession ceremony soon, and yet... I’m adding onto your troubles.”
“I just- I don’t understand why they are so adamant on it... yet at the same time I know why.” Duke Capulet’s expression turned stern. “I suspect this is the first prince’s doing.”
The duke nodded, clearly unhappy at the mention of the name. “I don’t understand why your brother went against my guidance to not associate with him. The second prince would make a far better friend, as well as future ruler.” His frown deepened. “And yet, that imbecile, Cyrille...”
Duke Capulet brought Claudine’s hands to his forehead, bowing before his daughter.
“After all that fool, Paris, had done to you...”
Claudine shuddered at the memory of her days at the academy and the forceful ‘courtship methods’ of the first prince. Had her father been a different man, she feared she would have been long-engaged to such a twisted brat who hid behind a cunning smile and the power of the crown.
He was sure never to push too far, or too dangerously, but Claudine knew he was bordering terrible, terrible deeds. She was just glad she was far away from him now.
Her father lifted his head up, eyes saddened, but commanding in a sense as they stared into Claudine’s own. Claudine immediately knew that his next words would be incredibly important, that they would be of the utmost value to her and her life, as well as their entire household’s. She just knew that their weight would be something she would have to endeavor to bear for everyone’s sake.
She knew because he rarely ever asked her of anything that she did not desire. She knew that something must have happened to allow the Grand Duke to tremble in this way, before his nineteen-year-old daughter, with a gaze that was begging her to comply.
“You have to get married.”
Claudine swung her sword, ridding the area of the final beast and collecting its glowing core off the puddled ground. Handing the gem-like item to Hikari for safe-keeping, she slumped against a tree, sinking to the ground that dirtied her pants with mud that had formed from the night’s rain.
“Are you hurt, milady?” Hikari inquired, already rushing forward to do a thorough body-check for any injuries on Claudine.
“Nothing of the sort. Also, I told you not to address me that way while we’re out adventuring. What if someone found us out?” Claudine ran a hand through her damp bangs, grimacing at the repulsive feel and smell of blood and grime in her hair.
Times like these, Claudine wished she hadn’t focused too much on learning combat spells back then. She should have taken the foundational classes with Nana more seriously, and looked into metamorphosis magic sooner. She wouldn’t have to worry about issues such as being discovered then.
Better to start late then never, she supposed. She could only manage to change her hair and eye color, as well as clothes for a small amount of time for now, but she was working on changing her entire appearance for extended periods soon. Then she and Hikari could go off on any journey or mission without being recognized.
The soft calling made her smile. It was rare for her knight to address her so casually, and even rarer was the tenderness she allowed to escape in her voice. Claudine placed a hand on Hikari’s head, petting it lightly.
“Do you not want to get married, Claudine?”
The question wasn’t what she had expected. She hadn’t even told Hikari about her current situation yet. She must have listened in on the conversation secretly.
“If my dad had caught you...” Claudine laughed at the realization, shaking her head.
Hikari remained silent.
Claudine scratched her cheek, looking away from the knight’s expectant gaze. “It’s not as though I don’t want to.” She admitted. “I just...”
“I haven’t found a person I’d like to share that kind of joy with yet.” Claudine spoke with a loneliness to her tone that they both weren’t quite familiar with. “I haven’t gotten to know anyone who makes me want to experience that kind of relationship.”
Hikari didn’t seem to understand fully, but she nodded nonetheless. “Okay.” She decided not to push further, noticing her master’s discomfort. Instead, she held out a hand to aid her up on her feet.
“Thank you, Hikari.” For the assistance and for listening, Claudine said in her heart. “Shall we head back to the guild now? Wouldn’t want Cyrille to barge into my room first thing tomorrow morning and find it empty.” Claudine half-joked.
If Claudine knew her brother, which she did, she knew he’d have searched for her at the dinner table tonight already, but her father had likely made an excuse to keep him out of her hair ‘til morning. She already knew that he would want to speak to her on matters regarding the prince, or succession, or whatever it was he did that was likely no good.
If he ever got into Claudine’s room without supervision, she was afraid he’d stumble upon things he wasn’t supposed to, and would likely use it against her.
Her conversation with her father resurfaced in her mind. His words on finding a suitable partner, a suitor, and the reasons behind it were invasive, consuming her every thought.
Cyrille was trying to set her up with Prince Paris for some reason. He was willing to pull all stops to do so. It seemed that he had went ahead and made a proposal to the royal family under the authority of ‘Heir-apparent’ to the Capulet Dukedom. He’d sworn that once he was made Duke, she’d be married off into the imperial household as a way to strengthen the standing and influence of the emperor.
Whatever he had been promised to make him act so selfishly and vilely, Claudine didn’t even want to know.
As of now, he held no real power over her father. Neither did the first prince, in reality. Deep down, however, both Claudine and the Grand Duke knew there was more to this arrangement than two boys and their greedy egos being fed. He feared for the future.
With all they had already gotten away with in the past, Duke Capulet was suspecting that someone else held the strings to the puppets dancing to a tune. They had yet to know what gears were turning in a suspected grand scheme, but it must not come to pass. This was what their family feared the most, and why Claudine must not get involved with Paris.
In order to have a valid reason to reject such a candidate, she needed a better one. That was the part she had to play.
There was just one small problem-
A voice echoed through the shadow and mist of the forest, horse hooves stomping rapidly against the wet ground. Quickly, Claudine brandished her sword, pointing it in the direction from whence it came. “Hikari! Get behind me!” She commanded, left hand twitching in anticipation.
“Now see here, Milady. I’m the protector suppo-”
“Don’t move! Stay where you are and drop your weapons.” The voice commanded, a silhouette beginning to form in the distance.
“Like hell we’ll listen.” Claudine grumbled, sword still at the ready with a glow that traveled from its hilt to its blade.
“I’m warning you!” The voice echoed once more. “State your name and your business here. And don’t even think of trying to fight or escape.”
Claudine fixed her glare on the figure coming into the light of the clearing they were at, magic barely finishing its work of turning her hair black as Hikari’s shifted into a shorter cut. It was the best she could do at such short notice. Hopefully the night would be kind enough to be their mask and they wouldn’t be recognized afterwards should they escape successfully.
“Again, I order you to state your names and your business here, strangers. Are you not aware that these grounds belong to the imperial family?” The powerful stomping halted right in front of the women, a sharp huff from the steed sending them reeling back in disgust.
Finally, underneath the gaze of the moon, a figure cast in stardust light appeared before them, hooded cloak hiding the identity of the horseman.
“Who are you.”
Claudine continued to glower at the newcomer, unrelenting as she kept her lips tightly shut. Who was this person? Why had they suddenly been approached? This place was supposedly a mission ground for adventurers and hunters hoping to earn their keep by clearing out the ghouls and demons that infested this uninhabited land.
“Who. Are. You-”
“I could ask you the same thing.” Claudine spoke levelly through grit teeth, ready to slash at any given time should the newcomer move in a threatening pattern. “We’re only here on quest. Adventurers if you will.”
The cloaked man dismounted and walked up to Claudine, staring a few inches down at her. “Is that so?”
Claudine hated that he was even trying to intimidate her. Placing a firm hand on his chest, she pushed him away somewhat gently, not really wanting to potentially aggravate the already-tense situation. “Yes. That is so.” She confirmed, scowling. “For us at least. But what about you?”
Claudine eyed the man, watching for any suspicious movements. He returned the gaze, looking her up and down, searching her expression for signs of dishonesty. He seemed to have found nothing as his aura of hostility calmed drastically, and he sighed.
“I’m an imperial guard, patrolling.” As he said that, a sword was raised, still sheathed. Claudine was shown the imperial seal on the scabbard and she relaxed somewhat as the guard backed off with a small bow. “As I’ve mentioned before, these grounds are under the jurisdiction of the imperial household.”
“Apologies, sir. However, we were unaware of this fact as this place has been a known hotspot for adventurers for many years- or so we’ve heard.” Claudine explained, now sheathing her own sword.
“I understand.” The guard nodded. “I also apologize. While your statement held truth in the past, as of recent, this forest has been deemed more unsafe than it used to be. It’s not just magical beasts or ghouls that lurk these shadows now. Reports of spies, terrorists, and bandits trying to enter the capital via a newly discovered route through the woods have been reported, so we are at high alert.”
Claudine hummed, taking in their current situation. “I see.” Claudine nodded, agreeing to his words. She had expected these kinds of threats to arise as the peace treaty ceremony approached and more nobles from both empires flocked to the main city. It was an opportune moment to spark disaster, and even a civil war.
Good on the west to take quick measures.
“As such, I must ask for your identities to ensure the safety of all.”
Not so good for Claudine.
“As you are adventurers- and I, of course, believe in your words, I would just like to see your identifications and know your names. It’s a quick process then I can let you go. That is... if you have nothing to be suspected of.”
Truthfully, she shouldn’t be as nervous as she suddenly was at the moment. However, there were a few issues with that request. For one, no one but Hikari, the Grand Duke, and the Head Guild Master of the Eastern Empire knew of her being an adventurer. She had been registered under special circumstances that had been agreed upon, and her issued permit in order to accept quests in the west was also an unorthodox arrangement, and very much a secret one.
When she’d first arrived at the guild hall, she was given an identification badge that also served as her permit like the rest of the adventurers. However, this did not contain her name at all. Instead, it only contained her registration code and where she had come from.
As a law-abiding citizen for the most part, she hadn’t ever needed to do much besides flashing the shiny trinket from a distance at other guards in passing.
This time, however, was different. She was certain that it would be scrutinized and most definitely questioned.
“You sure are taking an awful lot of time to simply identify yourself.” The stranger’s tone of voice was still calm, but his aura had shifted noticeably. “Is anything the matter?”
“No, not at all.” Claudine responded, proud that she’d managed to keep her voice steady. Reaching into her polo, she pulled out the chain that held her badge, presenting it to the imperial guard, praying that he wouldn’t check it as thoroughly as she’d feared.
“Um, excuse me. Why isn’t your name imprinted on it?”
“Allow me to come clean.” Claudine spoke, instantly regretting her choice of words. It made her sound like she actually was someone to be wary of. She should conjure some believable alibi at least.
“Milady-” Hikari stepped forward, but was blocked with that same imperial-branded sword from earlier.
“It’s alright.” Claudine reassured before her knight could retaliate. One wrong move and they could actually be in jeopardy. Not only them, but the entire event of a peace treaty could lay to waste if they were not careful and would get found out.
“Go on.” Was the command.
“I’m actually...” Claudine licked her suddenly dry lips, thinking of how to say it. “I’m a daughter of a noble, and I’m operating under... rather private conditions.”
Okay, she hadn’t meant to be that truthful. If at all.
“How can I believe such a tall claim?” The cloaked man stepped closer to Claudine, now incredibly suspicious. “To which family do you belong?
Claudine had no time to secure a valid name, speaking the first that came to mind. “Sa-Saijou.” Another truth that would surely deepen her dug grave.
“Saijou? As in the Marquess Saijou?” She could almost shrink under that examining gaze. “I’ve never heard of or seen you before though.”
“I- I’m not his child, no. I’m a niece and I’ve been staying with relatives in the west. It was an arrangement made when I was very young, and I have only since been allowed to return here.”
‘Damn me and my inability to lie.’
“I’m sorry, as much as I’d like to believe you, I’ll have to take you with me for some questioning.”
No, no, no. This was not good. Claudine couldn’t risk more people prying into her identity. Also, she could feel the strain of her magic that was about to undo itself. She couldn’t keep up appearances- quite literally- for much longer.
“If you would come quietly.”
They had to bail.
“I’m sorry, but we-”
Suddenly, an arrow flew right by her head, barely grazing her cheek as sounds of multiple hooves and wolf-like growls filled the forest.
“Stand back, you two.” The guard moved in front of them, sword drawn and aimed towards the origin of the arrow and sounds. Quickly, those same sounds began to shift and spread, as if circling them.
Claudine and Hikari quickly drew out their own swords, as the former launched a quick area check spell discreetly.
‘Twenty? No, thirty. Thirty men on horseback... at least ten hunting wolves.’
As Claudine weighed their situation, a harsh gust of wind came hurtling towards them, the hood on the imperial guards cloak coming off, revealing long brunette locks tied up in a ponytail.
The sight of such smooth strands on which the moon’s beams bounced off so gently almost made Claudine forget the gravity of their situation, eyes bewitched- captured- by stunning violet gems that she couldn’t believe she’d failed to take notice of before.
“It seems they have a mage in their midst.” The knight, now fully facing Claudine, addressed them. “I’m sorry to ask this of you after having suspected you; and while I still doubt your credibility, I would like to shamelessly enlist your assistance as of the moment.”
There was something in his gaze, in his entire beautiful expression, that compelled Claudine to know more, to say yes, to help him.
“Truly, you are quite shameless.” She grinned, head held high. “I would have done so without you asking.”
The smile she was rewarded with sent her heart into a frenzy. It wasn’t a handsome grin, no. Claudine took note that under the moonlit night, this man oozed a dignified beauty that was quickly distracting her from her mission at hand.
“You have my gratitude.”
Claudine nodded, willing herself to not stare for longer than necessary as she and Hikari took stance.
With their backs to each other, they stood in wait, counting down the seconds to their adversaries’ arrival. Claudine sighed ruefully as she felt her transformation spell fade, this instance confirmed as she glanced over at a now long-haired Hikari. She could just feel questioning eyes burning their gaze into her golden hair.
She was not looking forward to having to explain this too.
“What.” She spat, meeting the stare of her temporary ally, hoping no questions would come right now.
“Oh nothing. Just wanted to tell you something.”
“And that is?”
As she said that, gruff looking men arrived in the clearing, their disgusting smirks clearly indicated that they were looking down on the small group they’d surrounded.
Claudine was beginning to feel irritated. She hated being underestimated.
She barely caught the grin thrown her way as the guard launched himself at the group. She did, however, receive every single insulting word of challenge.
“Don’t hold me back now, Little Miss.”
Oh it was on,
Claudine did not frequent pubs. They weren’t her type of hangout spots. And while she wasn’t one for leisure cafe dates or tea parties with the other noble ladies, she did love the peace of libraries and the refreshing mountain creeks.
Needless to say, this place intimidated her more than any imperial guard could hope to.
“Not a good drinker?”
It wasn’t that. It really wasn’t.
If anything, both Claudine and Hikari were strong drinkers. Just not... public drinkers, she supposed.
“No.” Claudine sighed, taking a seat across the pretty man- damn, he was beautiful. Claudine would have almost mistaken him for a woman. He was tall, but not much taller than Claudine, and his voice wasn’t all too deep, so maybe she wasn’t wrong. Maybe.
“Then what has you so down, milady?” His tone of voice was playful, and Claudine knew she was being teased. He probably still didn’t believe in her whole ‘secret-noble-adventurer’ story.
“I’m just tired.”
“Hoh? Already? From that little excursion?”
Claudine growled, pounding the table with her fist. “Well, if someone would have just stayed out of my way while we were fighting earlier then-”
“Now, now. Don’t go blaming someone else for these kind of things, Young Miss. How are you ever going to survive as an adventurer if you blame others for your mistakes? Being able to take responsibility for one’s self is one of the most important traits in the field.”
Claudine clicked her tongue. She knew she was purposely being toyed with. “Shut up.”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that, Miss.”
“And why the hell not?” Claudine’s glare went ignored as the man waved over a server to place an order.
Turning to her with that same smug smile that was equal parts gorgeous and incredibly annoying, the guard spoke. “Because I want to get to know you better.”
Claudine scoffed, rolling her eyes.
“Starting with your names.” He clasped his hands together, resting his chin atop them. “I at least believe you are of some noble descent. If the silence of your companion, and her respect towards any of your earlier actions and decisions hold any significant hint to that.”
“Glad you’re at least that sharp.” Claudine huffed, putting up a mask to hide her inner thoughts that were struggling to come up with some alias for both her and Hikari.
Curse that damn book and the sudden memory of it!
Claudine inwardly cried as she gave away that piece of false information, even screwing up the actual name she was supposed to use.
“Julie... Saijou.” The brunette looked at her skeptically, but nodded. Somehow accepting it for now. “And your companion is?”
“Hikari?!” Claudine whipped her head about in shock. So much for discretion! Just what was this girl thinking?!
“I’m sorry, Milady. But I think it is in our best interests to be as honest as possible.” Hikari bowed apologetically to Claudine before turning to her fellow knight, face blank and giving nothing away. “I am uncertain if you’ve heard of such details, but the Saijou’s have long since had ties with the Capulet family of the Western empire.”
Claudine covered her face with her hands, now groaning into her palms. She could only hope this wouldn’t ruin her already fragile freedom and put their positions at risk.
“They are the relatives milady has mentioned before. Her aunt married into the family, you see.”
Ah, so that was how Hikari was going to play it.
Well, maybe it wasn’t a bad excuse. Claudine believed the knight was considering any future encounters with the imperial guard since they would be attending palace events soon.
She spared the guard a glance, and was surprised to see that he actually looked to be convinced of those words. Not that they were much of a lie in the first place.
“I see! I understand. My apologies then.”
Claudine held back her sigh of relief, not wanting to give even the slightest thing away anymore.
“Yes, that’s it.” She said, trying to add onto their story. “And about the identification badge... well... you wouldn’t really expect any noble children, much less ladies, join an adventurer guild and all that.”
“I suppose so.” The guard chuckled.
Soon, their drinks had arrived, and Claudine found herself staring into the golden liquid the man across from her was downing to keep her eyes of his too pretty face, a question nagging on her mind.
“Hmm?” Placing his glass down, he gave her a curious, yet smug smile. “What about me?”
Somehow, Claudine wanted to wipe it off his stupid face.
“We gave you our names and background. It’s only common courtesy to introduce yourself properly in return, is it not?”
His growing grin was really pissing her off.
“Right, of course. Excuse me for my rudeness since earlier.”
“No kidding.” Claudine complained, waiting rather impatiently for his information. Not that she’d ever remember it, much less use the knowledge for any future plans. No. Not at all.
Not even for that.
“Hmm, well you could call me Romero.”
Really, now. Romero?
Again, that damn book was really trying to force its way into Claudine’s thoughts. She internally cringed at the association.
“Romero. Of course that’s your name.” She rolled her eyes, not believing it for even one second. “You certainly look like a ‘Romero’.” She stated sarcastically. ‘Romero’ here looked as eastern as eastern gets.
“You wound me, Lady Julie. Can’t a man adapt a name of different culture simply because it suits him this much?”
“I didn’t say anything against it.” Claudine waved, taking a sip from her drink. It was cold, a little bitter. She liked it.
“Your expression says all there needs to be said.”
Claudine smirked, leaning across the table. “Oh? I’m glad it does then. Sir Romero.”
The man’s eyes glinted in amusement as he leaned forward as well. Claudine huffed. So this is how they were going to play it.
“So, Lady Julie. I said I’d like to get to know you.”
Claudine nodded. “Know all you want, then.”
“You say that so easily, but are you sure?” Really, this man unnerved her like no one else. His gaze was piercing, yet dull. It was clear, but betrayed no thoughts nor intentions of his.
Claudine nodded again, but a little less confident now.
“Then, if I may be so bold as to ask,” Romero began. “What business do you have here in the capital? Besides the whole peace treaty, I suppose. If I recall correctly, it is not a requirement for all nobles to attend, and I know the property of both the Saijou’s and Capulet’s are a ways away from here.”
Claudine swallowed a lump in her throat, wondering what she should say. “Isn’t it the greatest honor for any noble to be able to claim that they stood as personal witness to the changing of times?”
What a generic answer.
Bless Junna’s etiquette lessons that were coming to fruition.
“Ehh, how boring~”
“Be that as it may, it’s the truth.” Claudine raised her glass back up to her lips, taking in more of that golden liquid.
“Is that so? Just that? Nothing else?” Romero pressed.
“That’s all I’m willing to divulge, Sir Romero.” Claudine said sternly, eyes ordering him to back down. Even for an imperial knight, wasn’t this a little too impudent?
“Fair, fair.” Romero responded, hands up in the air in surrender. “I must have overstepped my boundaries. My apologies.”
Claudine downed her drink, ignoring him for a moment.
“I’m simply curious. And to think, for the sole purpose of this event, you went out of your way to get an adventuring permit for quests from the main guild when you might only be staying a short while.” Romero continued to seek her gaze, peskily grinning in wait. “As an imperial guard, I’m just concerned, milady. It’s part of the job.”
Claudine gave him a blank look. Romero seemed unfazed.
“I just need a few more details for my report, that’s all. Something to make your story believable enough to not be sought out by other guards who aren’t as kind and considerate as me.” He winked to accentuate his statement, and Claudine threw him a disgusted look.
“If you were the least bit as considerate as you claim to be, you’d have been quiet for the last hour.”
“Harsh words, Milady. I only want to kno-”
“Milady is here to get married.” Hikari slammed her mug on the table, pinning her gaze on the troublesome man. “Now that you know, stop bothering my master.”
“Hikari!” Claudine didn’t know whether she should be touched at the intervention, or frustrated at the reveal.
“What a loyal guardian.” Romero complimented with a grin. “You’re the kind of escort the imperial palace would love to have.”
It was almost as if he were holding out bait for Hikari to take. Claudine didn’t like it.
“Excuse me, but Hikari is-”
“I belong solely to my Master. I serve no one else but her. My loyalty has been sworn. Your words are kind, but they are not right. Not for me. I’m sorry.”
Romero and Hikari’s gazes remained locked in a contest, waiting for one or the other to crack first. Claudine watched on with concern. She hoped they wouldn’t get into any serious quarrel.
To her fortune, Romero finally broke. Broke into a fit of laughter, tears of amusement spilling that he quickly wiped away.
Claudine allowed herself to sigh in relief as she finally relaxed in her seat for the first time that night.
Romero finally calmed enough to begin talking again, much to Claudine’s chagrin. “Married. I see. Married, huh?”
Claudine narrowed her eyes at the amused man, scowl deep. “And what of it? Do you think I’m too unfit for such a maiden’s dream?” If he said yes, Claudine might just be tempted to chop a ball off or too. Tempting beauty of this man be damned. He should try to see if he could snag any lady after tonight.
“No, no. Nothing of that sword, Milady.” He smiled, settling down and emptying the remaining contents of his cup. “Just... Who is the lucky fellow to have caught such a strong-hearted beauty such as yourself?”
Claudine actually blushed at his words this time. Though she did curse her heart for being swayed so easily like that, and by this insufferable man, no less.
“There is... no man... or anyone at all.” She managed to say through grit teeth, slightly embarrassed at that truth that she had about zero suitors coming for her.
She was surprised to see that Romero looked genuinely surprised. It wasn’t some faux, mocking expression. He seemed sincerely shocked at the reveal that Claudine was as single as the lonesome sun in the daytime.
“For someone as charming as you?” He blinked those big, violet eyes, honest and innocent-looking for once.
“Flattery will get you nowhere, good sir.” Claudine chuckled, actually finding Romero more endearing than annoying at that moment. A shocker for herself.
“I just can’t believe that no one would approach you or ask you. You.” He gestured towards her. “You’re appearance is definitely a win, but more-so is your personality.” He openly praised Claudine. “You are a lovely being. I’m not saying this shallowly. I truly mean every word, Milady.”
Claudine felt her heart warm a little at that.
True, she’s heard those words before from close friends and family. Said in a particular way that she just knew was honest. However, they knew her. They knew Claudine and how she really was. As for the other noble men and women she’d met, they had always seemed to presume things about her based on rumor and first impressions, never attempting to truly know Claudine enough to say compliments that Claudine could think to consider as truthful.
Empty laud, frivolous words, backstabbing comments.
A beautiful face, they said. A cunning mind. A brash personality, an unladylike disposition.
Claudine never claimed they were false, but they weren’t exactly accurate.
Just like that dumb book.
Why did Claudine feel so moved all of a sudden. It wasn’t as though Romero had said much more than others, now that she thought about it. She’d probably have already heard those utterances before. So why?
Was it his tone? The way he looked straight into her eyes with an unguarded sincerity?
Before Claudine could find the answers to her internal queries, the door to the pub burst open, a group of men tossing over tables, and harassing the nearest bar patrons, in search of something or someone.
Romero got up from the table, as did Hikari and Claudine, hands already on their swords, ready to swing.
Claudine’s eyes met with one of the men in front, and something seemed to click in the air.
A finger was raised and pointed right at her.
And they charged.
The knight moved swiftly, positioning herself in front of Claudine to ward off those who targeted her master, buying Claudine time as she tried to infuse as much magic as she could into her sword and limbs. She didn’t have enough mana for an entire body enhancement as she’d used a fair amount up during the earlier hunts, disguise, and fights. She knew she had barely enough to spare. Just enough to hopefully end this.
She prayed it was enough.
Romero seemed busy as well, sword clashing against spear and blades, shields and armor.
He should be fine. Claudine couldn’t spare him much worry if she had to worry about herself first.
Other patrons had also joined in the fray, but it was clear that there was a difference in the power the intruders held.
With her amplifications complete, Claudine readied herself, and in one motion, swooped past a flurry of enemies, knocking them to the ground before a new wave could approach her.
Were these also among those that Romero had mentioned? Terrorists who had actually managed to enter the city? This wasn’t good. They needed to subdue them before more damage could be done.
Where were the other imperial guards anyway? Why was Romero even patrolling alone with such a dangerous agenda at hand?
She didn’t have time to entertain any of those questions, she decided. Claudine knew she had to focus on what was happening right now. Those could be saved for later.
“Julie.” Romero called.
Claudine almost forgot that that was her name at the moment, barely managing to send him a confirming nod. “I’m a little busy, but what is it?” She responded, knocking someone over on the head.
“I just thought of something.”
Was it a plan on how to defeat all these men for efficiently? An easier way to protect all the innocent people from these terrorists? If so, Claudine was all ears. “Speak.”
“What about me? What about us?”
Claudine managed to throw him an incredulous look as Hikari kicked an attacker away just in time before he could touch Claudine.
“What about you- or us?” She asked, restraining another man with a single binding spell before taking away his consciousness.
“What if you...” Romero dodged a slash, countering with his own. Another masked man made a grab for him, but he easily turned the situation around, ending up on top of him, standing atop a few other bodies.
“What if you married me?”
Claudine managed to smash a man’s skull against the wall just as she stared dumbfounded at the imperial knight who looked amazingly serious, and undeterred by all that was occurring around him.
“...Are we really having this conversation here? Right now?” Claudine questioned, movements fluid as she added to the pile of bodies behind her that were slowly being tied up and secured by a few free bar patrons.
“Yes? Why?” Romero replied nonchalantly, repelling a blow with his sword.
Claudine could not believe the audacity of this man. “Couldn’t it, oh I don’t know, wait until things have settled down?!”
“Couldn’t what wait?” Romero said clueless, stepping back from the force of one particular strike, approaching Claudine’s space.
“This talk!” She answered back, vexed.
“I’ll have you know I’m a hundred percent serious on this proposal. Despite its untimeliness.”
“And I can’t be serious thinking about it because there are so many things I have to consider. One of those being why I must reject your ‘serious proposal’.” Claudine growled as someone managed to hit her leg hard enough to cause her to go off balance.
Romero had caught her just in time, righting her and going back to his own fight. Claudine felt a little annoyed that he had so easily switched gears and was able to handle both his enemy and ally.
“Why ever not? It’s not like anyone else has made an offer?” Romero sounded disappointed.
Claudine really couldn’t explain it right now. Not in this situation, and certainly not as other people listened in.
“Just because!” Claudine yelled, sending one man up into the ceiling in uncontrolled temper.
“I need a concrete reason, milady. Else I’m unwilling to step down from this.” Romero laughed, continuing on with his battle as he and Claudine fought back-to-back.
“And I’m telling you we can talk about it later.”
“Just trying to tell you that I’m a very good candidate, Lady Julie.”
“No thank you, Sir Romero.” Claudine rolled her eyes, tossing another enemy away to the side.
“And that is because?”
Claudine noticed a quick shift out of the corner of her eye. The refraction of light off a blade gave her all the information she needed to calculate a countermeasure. With her feet firmly planted, she twisted her torso, channeling enough energy to deliver a speedy lethal blow into the attacker’s ribcage-
...and apparently also Romero’s who had decided to jump in front of her in a chivalrous attempt at saving her.
A wrong decision, clearly.
Both he and their foe dropped to the ground, on the obvious brink of consciousness.
Claudine’s mind flew into panicked disarray as she quickly knelt over her comrade, trying to think of how to help him.
“Romero! I’m sorry!!! But you’re an idiot!” She began to spout words out so quickly. “You should know that I’m a trained fighter. And why did you do that! You clearly saw what I was doing! This is why you shouldn’t interfere with my battles! Also what was with that sudden proposal in the middle of it all huh?! Are you trying to get us killed?!”
“Milady-” Hikari was at her side, trying to calm her as the fighting had finally subsided. Claudine’s vision however, was unexpectedly tunneled, worry apparent on her face as she desperately tried to aid the fallen knight.
“There’s a time and place for everything, Romero!” Claudine continued to scold, hands already taking on a healing glow. “You ought to be more mindful. And you claim you’re an imperial knight?!”
“I fear for the empire if all the knights are like you. What, did you think you were saving me by placing yourself in front of me?”
“Stupid Romero. Now you’ve gotten hurt. You weren’t focusing at all, were you? And all for a silly proposal?!”
“Milady, I think he’s losing consciousness-”
“And you wouldn’t even let me explain why I clearly have to reject your proposal! I have very specific conditions, mind you. So don’t go mocking me once you hear them.
“You see, I can’t accept your proposal because...” Claudine finally took a deep breath, a pause for once.
Hikari tried to tell her that Romero had long since been knocked out, but Claudine couldn’t seem to hear her. At this point, she’d realized it would be better to give up and allow Claudine to settle down on her own.
Hikari only hoped her Master wouldn’t break down at the realization and the embarrassing memories to come.
“-I like women.”
Hikari sighed, finally seeing the truth sink in for Claudine as her eyes widened and her hands trembled in an emotion that was no longer just concern.
“... he heard nothing, did he?”
She was in for a long day tomorrow.