The leopard walked briskly out of the Zero Mansion after handing Zac his orders for the day. He had only just escaped the cry of abrupt realisation that the panther was, once again, lumped with the Tabby Kitten, Gyrus. There was something about the kit that irked him, and though Gyrus did his very best to stay well clear of him and Zac on their off days, sometimes it just couldn’t be helped. Zac deciding against seeing Walter about his crook knee simply meant that Gyrus would be copping the brunt of his hurt. To be honest, the leopard didn’t much care to be in Zac’s company again after discussing Zsa Zsa, despite thinking of Zac as a friend.
Hygar had severed all ties to the ideal that he would marry into an upper class family. As far as he was concerned, being burned thrice by the same woman was enough for him. He had, however, remained exceptionally good friends with Ziatara – Zsa Zsa’s best friend and confidante – and Oscar’s second cousin. Through Zia’s input Oscar had come to the Zero Boys, and Hygar still remained quite fond of the younger kit, even though he rarely showed any sort of gratitude that the boy was around him.
Oscar was a bit of an anomaly in more ways than one, Hygar realised, watching the calico kitten perform for an eager group of upper class children and their richer parents. Ziatara had often said that her second cousin had been treated as a social outcast in his own family; a calico male is rarer still when the decision is made to keep them alive. Hygar had learned that in calico purebred lineages, only the females are groomed as heirs to the vast family fortunes – and that males are considered trash, rarities not even fit to marry let alone be groomed as worthy leaders...and are often quietly ‘disposed of’ to avoid attracting attention. Oscar had wound up with nothing to lose and everything to gain when he was inducted into the team. Ziatara was very fond of Oscar, despite his somewhat mindless bouts of stupidity and thoughtlessness, she had a lot of patience and grace for him. She had said, when Zsa Zsa had been discovered as Xavier’s latest belt notch, that Oscar would stand by him no matter what his decision. Hygar had kept his somewhat odd friendship with Oscar intact mainly due to Ziatara’s encouragement.
He spotted Oscar at his usual place, the corner just before the City Park, stunning a group of eager children with his tricks. A flash of dark brown and gold caught the leopard’s eye. Oscar was still a street cat above all else. The rich fellow who offered only a few mere copper coins was now minus his wallet. Oscar offered a bow to the thunderous applause and cheers of the children, catching sight of the leopard watching him across the way as the crowd dissipated into the busy throng.
“Oh hey, Hygar!” the Calico grinned. “S’pose we have to get on with it, huh?”
“Another trophy to add to your collection, eh?” Hygar grinned. “You know, you gotta stop that sometime.”
“One little wallet is nothing compared to what he spends on booze and women alone of a night,” the kitten retorted. “’Sides, made enough ta share.”
The Calico pressed a handful of notes into the leopard’s vest pocket. Hygar thwapped Oscar’s paw away.
“Sorry. Forgot ya don’t like bein’ touched.”
Hygar snorted but said nothing. Oscar tipped the coins from his hat to his paw, weighing them thoughtfully.
“Not bad,” he commented. “For a twenty minute show, s’not bad.”
“For a freak, you sure know how to keep the kids’ attentions.”
“Hey, I’m a good freak!” Oscar retorted. “I might not have been able ta keep th’ silver spoon part of th’ deal, but at least I kept my coat!”
“Heh, I was jokin’,” Hygar tousled Oscar’s headfur. “Yer not a freak, kid. I didn’t mean nothin’ by it.”
“Least you don’t,” Oscar replied quietly, running his fingers along the brim of his cap before putting it back on his head.
Hygar knew what Oscar meant. He was Xavier’s punching bag more than anything, something Hygar did his best to not have happen whilst he was around. Xavier picked on everyone in the gang, but he had had a disturbing fixation on Oscar since his arrival. If it wasn’t outright name calling and jeering, it was physical injuries. Oscar tended to not speak about his encounters with the abrasive alleycat.
“Has he started on you lately?”
At Oscar’s silence, Hygar’s tail twitched angrily. Oscar didn’t like being the cause of friction between him and Xavier – he admired and respected them both very much – but if Xavier was starting again on Oscar, the leopard needed to know of it.
“Oscar...” Hygar’s voice had a deadly edge to it.
“Look, Hygar, I appreciate y’ lookin’ out fer me and all,” the calico kit replied. “But I really don’t wanna see you two at each other’s throats again.”
“Xavier can’t do much to me.”
“’Cept kill ya if he got half th’ chance.”
Hygar’s ears pinned back, “Oscar, we’ve had our fights before, but he wouldn’t go that far.”
“How do you know?”
It was true – Hygar didn’t know.
He and Xavier had gotten into a fair share of spats before, and some had come dangerously close to that edge. Once, when Oscar was much younger, Xavier had come very close to making good on his threat of a death sentence to any who made him look like a fool. Hygar had fought him, and come off much worse for wear, but Xavier had crawled away from the fight whereas Hygar had limped. Hygar had made a promise that neither Zac, Gyrus nor Oscar would ever see him lose control in such a way ever again. Captain Zero had put the fight down to testosterone mainly and had never asked the reasons behind its occurance. Hygar had always been grateful that the Captain had never delved into it.
“You’re right. I don’t know, Oscar,” Hygar replied.
Oscar’s silence spoke volumes as they walked. The kit rarely displayed signs of affection to anyone, but he noticed Oscar’s hesitation in reaching out for his arm, as if he would think any less of the kit if he did so. The leopard did it for him, draping an arm around the kit’s shoulders and pulling him towards him, soothing the calico’s fears.
“Nothing’s going to happen to me. Promise.”
“I worry about you and Xav, y’know?” Oscar replied. “He’s gotten...a little on the odd side lately.”
“The Captain’s concerned too,” Hygar admitted.
“Is that why he’s bailin’ out for a couple weeks?”
“...now how did you find out about that, I wonder?” Hygar replied with a bemused smile.
“It’s not my fault when he talks up there it echoes down th’ air vents.”
“And you just happened to be in the cellar then, eh?”
Hygar stopped chuckling when he realised that Oscar would have only been in the wine cellar for one reason.
“...Xavier tried, didn’t he?” he growled.
“Tried yes, unfortunately, he forgot to leave the keys outta my reach,” Oscar replied, somewhat shamefully.
“Oscar, if he tries that once more...”
“Hygar, please. Xav was just being a jerk. He didn’t mean anythin’ by it.”
“Yeah. I’ll bet he didn’t.”
Oscar said nothing further as they continued on their way to the docks.
The rough breath of smoke from the alleycat’s lips told him that he would have to ration his cigarettes before long. If the Captain found out he’d taken them up again, there would be hell to pay.
He took another long drag, his mind thinking back to some of the answers the Captain had given him on the state of the affairs between the heirarchy and the riverlands. Zero had been very reluctant to delve into what he knew of the social class ladder and all that upper crust-ness of the matter. Revenge on Orion was first and foremost, but getting to the Hedgehog was the hard thing. Orion was well-guarded and reserved, and he would smell trouble coming from him a mile off. That damnable hedgehog took the one thing he wanted the most in his life, and as far as the alleycat was concerned, Orion Hercules Hedgehog was nothing but scum.
He had chosen to ignore Hygar’s bruises, knowing full well the leopard wouldn’t talk to him about what had gone on that morning with him and Zac, but he recognised the calling card as having come from the doberman, Big Tony. It was difficult to hide the little details from him, but then again, Hygar rarely hid anything from him.
The alleycat sighed. As much as he disliked the leopard’s protectiveness over the others in the gang, there were times he felt the other cat’s actions were necessary. Xavier didn’t like teenagers, even though he himself had been one once upon a time, and there was just something about Oscar, their male calico kit, that rubbed the alleycat up the wrong way the majority share of the time. Hygar consistently defended Oscar from his wrath. For Xavier, Oscar was a niggling thorn, hardly worth his time or the Captain’s, but Hygar was his friend and guardian. They had fought several times on keeping the kit as part of the gang before. He winced slightly, recalling how close the leopard had come to severing his vocal chords. His paw instinctively went to his throat, feeling the rough stubble of scar tissue still there under his fur.
He had crawled away from that fight, having come under only half of what Hygar was truly capable of.
He had built himself back up from that event, mercifully without Captain Zero’s prying. He had put it down to their egos and nothing further. Walter had been very concerned over his wellbeing for a time, but the alleycat had waved away the old hawk’s concerns. As far as Xavier Corlette went, the alleycat was now much stronger than he had been on the eve of that fight. He recalled with a twinge of shame at how Hygar had put himself over Oscar’s trembling, bloodied form, unsheathing claws of solid ebony and baring the sabre fangs his family lineage prided themselves upon. He had gone into that fight with Hygar not knowing how much physical strength and power the leopard hid under his often-immaculate coat of yellow, black and white. And had learned...and paid the price...thrice over.
Xavier hated feeling remorse or guilt over his actions against his own team, which was why he’d come out of the shadows of the Zero Boys’ usual hangout, quietly observing the hustle and bustle of the busy city center – he was hoping to find some clarity for his thoughts of revenge on Orion Hedgehog. He had a vague idea of what he wanted to achieve – to humiliate and destroy the commoner’s reputation so badly Lilliena would run to him – but he knew the strength behind the female angora cat. There was no way she would turn on Orion for any reason at all. He was loyal to her and her to him, and no amount of trying to shake the foundations of that bond would make them break. And so, his mind turned on other pathways to humiliating Orion, Captain Star and the other Stars in the process.
Orion was deathly protective of his younger brother, Tennie Connor Hedgehog. Another veritable thorn in his paw, the alleycat mused. Many times Xavier had crossed swords with Connor, and the most recent time he had left with a cracked shoulder and the hedgehog had limped away with a bruised stomach. Connor was learning how to fight back, much to Xavier’s dismay. He recognised the ferocity behind the younger boy’s forceful punch, and knew that the Stars’ quiet loner, Mackenzie, had taught the boy how to parry, dodge, block and return a forceful blow. Xavier couldn’t help but feel slightly ruffled whenever Mackenzie was nearby. The wolf’s presence alone was enough to unnerve him. There was no one else in the Star Team that posed a larger threat to his ideals than Orion and Mackenzie. Xavier was hardly in the mood or condition to go around picking fights when either older Star was around.
Xavier knew he needed an opening. He had the simple threads of a good plan rolling around in his head, but he needed something...or someone...who would be vulnerable enough to act as his scapegoat without even realising he’d been set up to take the fall. Connor was strictly out of the question. Orion wouldn’t hesitate to go beyond what Hygar had done to him if he even considered setting the younger hedgehog up for that sort of scenario. Besides...Connor was way too well-liked, and for something of that sort of magnitude, Xavier would take the fall almost instantly.
He stubbed out his spent cigarette and was just reaching for a second one when he heard voices coming from around the corner – one voice he recognised, the other was new to him, vaguely country-ish he realised. He ducked back into the shadows of the alleyway, observing from the darkness. Connor appeared moments later, laughing and talking with a much younger boy by his side. Xavier raised an eyebrow at the younger boy’s fur colours, not recognising any of the shades. This kid was new, he realised, perhaps he had missed something at the briefing with Captain Zero – did Connor actually have any friends his own age outside of the crew he worked with? It struck the cat how little he knew of the soon-to-be leader of the Star Team. He stuck to the darkness, weaving his way through the passageways, straining to listen to the conversation Connor was having with this new kid. In the depths of his mind, several of the lost threads of his ideas for revenge drifted together.
“You’ll like Lilliena, Sunnie,” Connor was saying. “She’s gonna be my sister-in-law soon.”
“Yer lucky ya know that, Connor, eh?” The boy’s accent, which Xavier recognised to be lower riverlands, was very strong. “Yer surrounded by all these great pals and family. S’like y’ never need ta travel far to know yer home.”
“Never thought of it like that before.”
“Well, now y’ are.”
“True that,” the hedgehog chuckled. “Puffa really likes you, so does Sal’ and Big Tony. I think you’re gonna fit right in with the Star Team, Sunnie.”
“Y’ think so?”
“I know so!”
Xavier’s lips contorted into a snarl. So that was the deal. This kid was trying out for the Star Team, the little beggar! He was so angry he hadn’t noticed the deep grooves his sharp claws had cut into the wall nearest to him. The Star Team rarely took on board newbies, and he silently knew why they had decided to trial run this new kid – his fight with Connor.
“G’Afternoon, Lord Carrelsby,” Connor called to an old bloodhound.
“Grand sort of afternoon isn’t it, Connor?” the dog replied. “So, how’s your old man?”
“Which one?” Connor replied cheekily.
“Ah hahaha, you know, the spring chicken?”
“Jones is fine. He’s with Mackenzie and Charleston at the National.”
“Is he now? Well then, I’ll stop by and see how the old feathered fool is doing. Ah, and who’s your new companion then, son?”
“Sunnie, this is Lord Carrelsby, he’s the owner of the City Bank.”
Sunnie bowed respectfully. The old bloodhound nodded and smiled.
“Verily much like you Connor,” he chuckled. “Tis a pleasure to meet you, lad...”
“Not so much a pleasure to see you in the company of a...riverlander,” another voice joined them, an upper-class Shitzu woman. “Connor, you should know better than to associate yourself with such people!”
“Rebecca,” the Lord admonished. “Be still your tongue!”
The secretary to Lord Carrelsby stared down at Sunnie, the boy shrank back behind Connor instinctively and the hedgehog put himself in between them.
“I don’t understand what he’s done wrong, M’Lady?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” she tittered cruelly. “He doesn’t belong here! How long is it going to be before you realise that, Connor?”
Lord Carrelsby growled at her, “Either you be politer than you’re being at current or go back to the car, Rebecca.”
“Hmph. Better to be in the company of our own than to be in the company of backwards folks…”
“Get back to the car!” Lord Carrelsby ordered. “I will not have you start such trivial matters with the youngsters!”
Rebecca upturned her nose and stalked off proudly to the Lord’s limousine. The Lord gripped his cane, shaking his head. His attentions turned to the almost tearful Sunnie, Connor’s arm tight around his shoulders, trying to soothe him. He hated to admit it, but Rebecca was correct – riverlanders were not considered equals in Bigg City, and Sunnie stood a good chance of losing out because of this fact. Xavier watched this incident with curiousity, recalling some of the questions he had asked of Captain Zero in regards to the policy with “outside help”. The Captain hadn’t been very forthcoming, he realised, and after witnessing this little event, his plan to humiliate Orion now turned to the very real possibility he could implicate more than just the older hedgehog. The tree panda seemed to be of a slightly nervous and emotional disposition, but with Connor by his side, he seemed to strengthen a little more.
...and that was the key to his plan, he realised. Without Connor, this boy, Sunnie, was sure to fail. And he still wanted dearly to get Connor back for the blow to his shoulder. And maybe, just maybe, he could...
“Get out of here, Riverlander!”
“Yeah, go back to ya own kind!”
Connor shielded Sunnie as best he could. Rebecca’s little altercation with them had attracted the attention of less-welcoming upper-class folks. Lord Carrelsby took it upon himself to escort the two boys to where Lilliena had purchased her new home, tired of the name-calling and jeering at Sunnie.
“Ignore them, lad,” he tried to soothe him. “They don’t know anything.”
Connor, he realised, was confused, and the realisation that the young hedgehog had not seen this sort of reaction simply because Sunnie was a riverlander hit home.
“Yes, some people think this way, lad,” he sighed. “It’s very sad. We’re both very hard-working sides of the coin and yet...this is how they treat the opposite end.”
He shook his head.
“I’ll be having a private word with Rebecca, perhaps even terminating her employment for a spell. What she said was uncalled for, Sunnie, and I do apologise.”
The tree panda nodded only slightly; the words had already done their worst, and his confidence had taken a direct hit, despite Connor’s arm around his shoulders. Xavier watched as the trio turned down one of the lavish streets, heading towards Lilliena’s new home, disappearing into the blossom-laden area. There were no shadows down that way and the alleycat couldn’t follow them down that way without being seen. He did not want to risk a confrontation with Lord Carrelsby – the old bloodhound could easily ruin the Zero Boys if he so much as came within a few feet of him. He glanced over at the still-snickering group of upperclassmen, and after a moment’s hesitation, he approached them.
“Hey, what was all that about?” he asked boldly.
“Riverlanders,” snorted a female Golden Retriever. “Think they know everything, they do.”
“Yes. Bunch of rednecked hillbillies, the lot of them,” smirked a proud Skunkette.
“They come here looking for work they believe we stole from them,” added a third, a Silver Fox. “We worked damned hard to be where we are!”
Xavier resisted an urge to tell the fox that he hadn’t worked a day in his entire life, having definitely been born with a silver spoon in his maw. Instead, he nodded thoughtfully, this new information sinking in.
“One thing’s for certain, he shouldn’t be anywhere near the company of Tennie Connor Hedgehog,” a fourth voice, belonging to the consort of the retriever woman, spoke up. “The Star Team have a better reputation than that!”
“Stupid boy, who does he think he is, coming here and thinking he’ll just steal a job from one of our own like that?”
The more Xavier heard about how much Bigg City seemed to despise the Riverlands, the more fuel was being added to his plan for Orion Hedgehog. But now, the target of his plan was changing – Orion’s humiliation was secondary – now his focus turned on the tree panda, Sunnie. If this boy was as emotional as he seemed to be, getting him to screw up in front of Connor and a bunch of folks similarly-minded to these ones now looked to be a very real possibility. He smirked to himself, now understanding why Captain Zero had chosen to change the subject of the social class ladder as quickly as he had.
Forget Orion, he’ll be one of the many Stars smarting from taking on board a Riverlander, he thought cruelly, Now I have a real chance of making sure Connor suffers for what he did to me…by taking out his new little “pal”...
He thanked them for their time and stalked off back to the shadows. Xavier had a lot to think about now, a lot of threads that needed piecing together.
If this kid Sunnie is working with the Star Team and tryin’ out for ‘em, I need something big to ensure the attention, and the blame, is pinned solely on him!
Xavier’s tail twitched as his ideas took shape in his mind.
But what?! I need something so big that it’s not going to garner forgiveness anytime soon!
The alleycat kicked at an empty can at his feet across the way, trying to think of something aptly large enough to get Sunnie thrown out of the Star Team before he’d even come close to joining them. The can skittered and landed at a dustbin just across from the Magistrates Music Hall. As Xavier sighed and went over to grab the can, he did a double-take at the lavish extremities being set up across the road. Very expensive and lavish extremities, he noted. His mind went backwards, to what Hygar had reported at the morning briefing with the Captain.
Lady Lorianna, The Duchess’s arrival back in Bigg City...and her attendance at the Magistrates Ball!
Suddenly, the many pieces and threads of his plan fused together. If Sunnie was to be assisting the Star Team, he needed to be there when they were escorting Lady Lorianna rather than standing on the sidelines like what was normal behaviour for a newbie. A rough check in his head of which Star he could get rid of temporarily came to two possibilities – the clumsy idiot Thomas, or the loner Mackenzie. Since he had personally shaken Thomas’s confidence already, Mac was the only other choice. Mackenzie did not suffer fools gladly, and the cat knew it. Getting to him...and getting rid of him...were two completely separate ideals.
Oh double damn. I have the scapegoat, the situation and the means, but now I have to contend with knocking out the heavy!
Xavier knew he couldn’t do this himself. He needed help. And he needed to catch Mac alone and without the company of the other Stars if this was going to work. Hygar was a definite no – the leopard’s morality wouldn’t go along with this plan in a million years. Zac, perhaps? No, Zac was like Hygar – stubborn as a mule. That cut him down two of his stronger buddies, but left two of his craftier ones – Oscar and Gyrus. Oscar especially was a master of the unseen action, a pickpocket by trade and Gyrus was an antagoniser, he knew exactly how to rile people. The siamese kit was with Zac today and the calico kit with Hygar. Zac wouldn’t hesitate to let Gyrus go, but Hygar did worry him slightly. No doubt Oscar had said something about the cellar incident earlier that morning. He wanted to avoid a confrontation with the leopard for just that reason.
His ears flickered, straining to listen to the conversation of the two workers across the way.
“Can you believe Lady Lorianna will be present tomorrow evening?” said one.
“Naw, I can’t,” said another. “Beautiful sweet lady she is too.”
“Didna’ deserve Lord Andrew’s cheating though, eh?”
“I plum agree with that! Margreaves says to put th’ orchids and roses across the way, plum decorate the sign an’ all.”
“Dunno how we’re going to have this all done and watered before tomorrow evening.”
“Aye, helluva lot of work this.”
Xavier turned, intending to leave and get Gyrus and Oscar to pull off the first section of his plan, before his ears heard the voice of Hector Margreaves, Lady Lorianna’s faithful consort. He ducked behind the dustbin, crouching to avoid being seen by the old Kodiak bear.
“Coming along very nicely out here, lads,” his deep voice rumbled in approval. “Her Ladyship will appreciate the efforts you’ve made.”
“Thank ye, Sir.”
“Aye Sir, thank ya kindly.”
“There’s been a slight change of plans though.”
“Oh no, nothing drastic as such, just we’ve decided to have the Royal Guard present. News has filtered though that perhaps Andrew will be in attendance, is all.”
“Ah. Her Ladyship’s ex-husband.”
“A wise move,” nodded the other. “In that case, we can easily move back the granite carvings to give the Guards room, m’lord.”
“Good. Her Ladyship isn’t ah...aware...of what we’ve heard. No doubt she’ll be surprised to see them.”
“Pre-emptive measures are often for the best, m’lord.”
“That they are, Franklin, that they are. No but really, well done. I do like the orchids muchly. They are Her Ladyship’s favourite flower after all.”
Xavier snorted quietly to himself. Hector Margreaves was many things but knowledgeable on Lorianna’s preferences for food, drink and flowers was not part of the equation. He claimed to know, but the truth was he flew very blind on those matters. Lady Lorianna, like Lady Marlena Vienna, preferred the flower Edelweiss, or ‘The Silver Star’ as it was better known. Both also considered the Star Team as their escorts of choice for that very same reason. Xavier often thought it immensely stupid that a simple, yet different name of a petite silver-ish flower could give members of the Royal Family the ideal the Star Team were better escorts than the Zero Boys were.
“She’s already arrived as you know, and will be inspecting the Hall tomorrow morning,” Margreaves went on grandly. “I’ve no doubt the ball will go splendidly if this is any indication.”
“Why, thanks, guv’nor! We’re right chuffed!” Edward grinned.
“I for one am very glad that Mackenzie is the one leading her inside. Pity Orion couldn’t be here, but Lady Marlena had his services long before The Duchess did...”
“Oh? How so, Sir?”
“Her Chalet in the mountains apparently; her father’s birthday, a lavish affair you understand? I would prefer Orion to Mackenzie really, but I suppose things like that can’t be helped...”
Xavier slunk away before the conversation ended. With Orion out of town and Mackenzie chosen to escort Lady Lorianna, toppling this domino would be more than just easy – it would be an immense pleasure. Mackenzie was a tough cookie when he was with the other Stars, but if they could catch him alone, it would further screw plans up for the Stars and maybe, just maybe, bring the whole lot crashing down.
Cruelty entered the alleycat’s eyes and his grin reflected pure malice as he disappeared, heading out to find Gyrus and Oscar. He could forego his job with Lilliena for a few more hours yet. This was...much more important...
Lilliena L’Rahnqe had seen the very best in people around her, but she had also seen the very worst as well.
Her parents had raised her to be accepting of others, and in doing so, she had inherited a lot of her mother, Lil’s social graces and elegance. She was a trusting, beautiful soul and she dearly adored her loved ones, especially Orion and his younger brother Tennie Connor. So when she opened the door to her apartment, having expected to see a bright and eager Connor on her doorstep along with the new boy he was supposed to be showing around the City, she was stunned to see Lord Carrelsby with a tearful tree panda and a worried Connor standing there before her.
Lord Carrelsby had explained the situation to Lilliena and she, in all her infinite care and wisdom, had ushered the two youngsters inside, telling Connor to take his friend into the lounge room, turning and thanking the old bloodhound for escorting them to her door. The Lord further explained, in hushed tones that the populace had rallied to Rebecca’s words and her ears pinned back at hearing that. If there was one thing Lilliena did not appreciate, it was people she had learned to respect blatantly disrespecting others – especially mere children. Carrelsby bid her good day and she closed the door, annoyance etched on her face. Some people just deserved a good hard slap in the face sometimes.
She could hear Connor trying to soothe his friend’s tears as she headed back down the hallway, edging past some of her still-sealed moving boxes. They could wait a while longer – her immediate concerns were on the young hedgehog and his tree panda companion. She entered the lounge room and her expression softened. She adored Connor ever so much and was more than thankful he bore the same kindness and caring nature that Orion did.
“Aw, it’s okay, Sunnie,” Tennie was saying, an arm over the crying boy’s shoulders. “You know I’m not goin’ anywhere, right?”
“...I guess...” the younger boy replied, sniffling.
“I’m glad to see you’re both alright,” Lilliena spoke, crossing the room from the hallway entrance.
She knelt in front of the sobbing youngster, cusping the boy’s cheek.
“Oh honey, I’m sorry,” she spoke kindly, brushing his fringe away with her other hand. “This area’s not known for its kindness, I suppose I only moved here because it was close to where I work of an evening.”
Sunnie’s sad eyes met her gentle ones. She leaned her forehead against his.
“What do they call you, hon?”
“I’m Sunnie, ma’am,” his voice was very small and quiet.
Lilliena smiled, which for Sunnie was as welcoming as Connor’s. His tears stopped falling and his gasps became more steadied breaths. She ran the back of her hand down his face.
“There now, you two sit tight, I’ll fix you something to drink whilst you help me unpack this whole fiasco.”
Her soft tail flicked against Sunnie’s knees as she turned and got up; it was a sign of friendship the boy realised. Now he was starting to understand why Connor had been so eager to introduce him to her. She was the epitome of loveliness this woman. He couldn’t help but envy the hedgehog slightly. He was surrounded by loving peers who believed in him and his every ability, and he was friends with the most wonderful of people.
“There’s nothing too breakable is there, Lilliena?”
“Oh no, Connor,” she called from the kitchen. “I made sure I moved all of that stuff in first. Mainly it’s just trinkets and paintings and such. Oh and bedding. I’ve been sleeping on the couch these last few nights due to not having anything worth sleeping on in the bedroom, ha.”
“You want Orion home, don’t ya?” Connor replied, grinning cheekily.
“You little dark horse,” Lilliena growled playfully. “I swear when your brother gets home…!”
“Aw c’mon, Lilliena! I was only foolin’!”
“I know you were,” she chuckled, bringing out two steaming mugs of hot chocolate and handing them to the two eager youngsters.
“So,” she sat herself down on the carpet. “Where you from, Sunnie?”
“Lower Riverlands, ma’am,” Sunnie replied. “Near th’ Mysten River.”
“Really? That’s one of the most beautiful places there. My mother loves it dearly.”
“So do I. S’beautiful in th’ Spring.”
“Oh yes. My mother talks a lot about the orchards in blossom and the farmlands stretching for miles in any direction. She makes it sound like heaven when she and father spend the summer there.”
“Really? Whereabouts do they stay?”
“Around Mysten River when my father’s on business, sometimes in a small cabin just east of the Chillpeaks.”
“That wouldn’t be th’ Glacier Lodge would it be?”
“Why yes, but how did you know?”
“Heh, my great grandfather built the extensions on that place,” Sunnie replied. “Dad often talks about it. Says it’s one of the Riverlands’ best income earners with th’ holiday trade an’ such.”
“My father loves it,” Lilliena smiled. “He goes there a lot with his business partners, wins a lot of deals for doing so as he tells me and Mom. You have family there?”
Sunnie nodded, “Yeah, my mom and dad, and my three brothers and sister.”
“Large family, how lucky.”
“Well, kinda. My elder brother’s a little…”
“Eccentric,” Connor finished for him, smirking into his hot chocolate.
“Yeah, about that.”
“Eccentric? How so?”
“You’ve probably encountered him I bet. Name’s William J. Shoepack.”
Lilliena looked thoughtful, “Young fellow, real long ears, pretty good-looking for a teenager, fixation on dynamite?”
“Yep,” Sunnie sipped at his hot chocolate in a matter-of-fact way. “You’ve either seen him around or you’ve met my crazy galoot of a brother.”
“Observed him from quite a distance away with a herd of dairy cows…”
“Maisy, Daisy, Saralina, Faramina, Olivia, Aramia, Geena and Teena…”
“And one very angry bull.”
“He was trying to shift, from what I could see, a water heater of some kind?”
“Old Missus Dayley’s water heater no doubt,” Sunnie snickered.
“Didn’t get too far so I saw?”
“I was pulling burrs out of ‘is coat fer weeks after that. Mom wouldn’t let me take him on the milk run fer a bit.”
“I can see why!” Lilliena laughed. “Oh, that was just plain crazy. He does it a lot I take it?”
“Oh yeah. Normal occurance is about five or six times a day. Uncommon occurance is when ‘e doesn’t take th’ dynamite ta go fishin’.”
“Ee, that’s grand. At least you get a good lot of excitement happening your way. You must really love your brother to put up with him in the way you do, Sunnie.”
“More like he blackmails him.”
“Oh he does,” Sunnie sighed. “I can’t put a foot wrong without being roped into some foolhardy scheme.”
“Well, with a large family like yours I suppose that’s all part of growing up, isn’t it? Having fun and learning how to deal with the little quirks and quarries of the family, eh?”
“I agree with you, ma’am.”
“I’m glad someone agrees with me. Being an only child and a daughter at that kinda puts a lot of pressure on you to do well in life.”
“You don’t look like y’all have done badly ta me, ma’am.”
“Aww, you’re so sweet,” she leaned over and kissed Sunnie’s nose, causing him to blush slightly. “I’m a dancer, honey. Cabaret, like my mother. I dance at a club nearby to here. It’s how I met Connor and his brother Orion.”
“Ch’yeah,” Connor grinned, sipping at the last of his hot chocolate. “He was the first guy to not address your chest.”
“Yes, thank you, Connor,” Lilliena admonished, but she was smiling. “But really, Orion was the first to treat me with any sort of real respect, and I really fell hard for him. Wasn’t hard to fall for you either, Connor,” she ruffled his headfur playfully, “You’re gonna break a lot of hearts when you get old enough to start dating!”
“Hahaha. Can’t say the handsome gene don’t run in the Hedgehog family, ‘cause it sure does with both brothers!”
Connor blushed and Sunnie laughed. Lilliena liked Sunnie’s laugh – it was gentle and soft, like the rippling of the river they had talked about. She took the empty mugs from them and headed to the kitchen, whilst they headed to several of the larger boxes, tearing them carefully open and extracting the newspaper-wrapped contents inside.
“Oh hey, I remember this!” came Connor’s voice as he unwrapped a framed picture. “This was the year you arrived here when your schoolin’ was done, Lilliena!”
“One of the last photos I had taken,” she sighed. “I was a valedictorian then…”
Sunnie cocked his head at the photo of a shy young woman decked out in full university clothing and carrying some heavy books, “I don’t see any difference, barring th’ glasses o’ course. Yer still pretty, ma’am.”
Lilliena felt herself blushing as she washed out the mugs.
What a little charmer, she thought. Just like Connor.
“I did not teach him that, Lilliena!” Connor added quickly.
“You two are charmers on your own,” she giggled back. “Thanks for the assist, I really do appreciate it, boys.”
“It’s cool,” Connor grinned. “Besides, Orion would have my tail if I turned you down.”
“He really doesn’t like you having to do other things, does he?”
“Mm, sometimes. I guess because he’s with Lady Marlena for the next few days, he wants me to look after you.”
“I’m surprised he didn’t bother calling. He usually does.”
“Probably busy. You know Lord Vienna, yeah?”
“The eccentric old fool,” Lilliena nodded, drying her hands. “Yes, I know. Poor Marlena though – she really envies the parents I have.”
“Can’t say her Ladyship isn’t equally a nutter…”
“Connor, language,” Lilliena admonished.
“Well it’s true, I mean, you shielded my eyes that one time…”
“For a reason,” Lilliena sighed. “You didn’t need to gouge your eyes out like we did.”
She went over and sat between them, pulling at a box which contained a heap of old photo albums. She smiled, leafing through them, gesturing to a photo of Tennie Connor as a youngster.
“See this, Sunnie? This is how young Connor was when he became part of the Star Team.”
“Aww, Lilliena!” Connor tried to swipe the album out of her hands. “Don’t show ‘im that!”
Lilliena lifted the album out of his reach, giggling.
“Oh no you don’t! These are my albums and you’ll deal with it!”
“Don’t show ‘im those things! I hate it when ya do!!”
“Aww, what’s the matter, Connor?” she teased. “Embarrassed about bein’ as young as you were?”
Connor folded his arms and tried to act annoyed, but his half-smile and embarrassed blush said otherwise.
“He was a couple years younger than you here,” Lilliena was saying. “This was just after Captain Star named Orion leader.”
An admiring smile lifted Lilliena’s features and Sunnie nodded, “Connor’s told me you two are engaged. When’s the wedding if ah may ask?”
“Well, with my commitments to dancing at the club and touring a lot and his duties as leader and training Connor here to take over from him, we haven’t exactly had any time to discuss wedding plans really. But I hope to soon.”
“Does Orion know?” Connor put in cheekily as Lilliena thwapped him lightly.
“Yes, he knows, you cheeky little thing. Marlena keeps asking if she has to continue begging Lorianna for grandchildren. I swear some days that woman will be the death of me.”
“Don’t you want children, Lilliena?”
“Well...” the angora female began. “I suppose I’ve got all the training of being a mom from keeping an eye on you, Connor...”
“But that being said...I wouldn’t mind it, I suppose. I guess being career-minded right now doesn’t really help.”
She put an arm around Sunnie’s shoulders, hugging him close to her.
“You stick with Connor now, won’t you?” she smiled. “I haven’t seen him this happy for a long time now, and I’m grateful to you, Sunnie.”
“Y’ welcome, ma’am.”
“And cut it out with the ma’am stuff,” she tapped his nose gently. “Just Lilliena will do me just fine. You carry on being respectful and all, but don’t go thinking you simply have to because I’m a lady, alright?”
“See how much easier that is?” she chuckled.
“Oh Connor, quit with the pouty. This album isn’t just you, you know?”
“You always make me look bad, Lilliena,” Connor simpered.
“What? Because you’re cute, cuddly and a heartbreaker in the making?”
Sunnie and Lilliena laughed as Connor attempted to not blush even more. Sunnie’s thoughts drifted as the feline talked about each group of photos. He felt so sure that his trial run would go well, and in the company of these wonderful people, he felt he could do absolutely anything he set his mind to.
Had he possessed the ability to see into the future, he wouldn’t be quite this happy...
The train journey from Bigg City had been uneventful to say the very least about it, something Marlena was dearly glad of.
She had been fed to the teeth with organising her father’s 60th birthday celebrations and it felt ever so good to be clear of her small, cramped office in the Heirarchy. She had approached Captain Star personally some months earlier about contracting Orion, his team’s leader, to be her official escort for the proceedings; and as it had turned out, Orion had been there outside her small but lavish apartment building with Frederich and Lionel, her chauffer and advisor, bright and early that morning. She was always glad to have the hedgehog’s company on such long journeys and their chats stemmed from everything from business to family matters. Marlena was a close friend of the L’Rahnqe family, and thus, Lilliena, Orion’s fiance. She respected and cherished Orion and his younger brother Tennie Connor like she would her own children.
The media had gathered at the train station of course, trying to delay their departure as they normally did. Orion had taken charge, gently steering her through the back way to the opposite end of the platform and quickly into her waiting carriage. Frederich saw to the media as he usually did, before joining them just as the train began pulling away from the station. With the pressures and troubles of the City behind them, Marlena settled down to attend to the pile of papers that outlined the last minute preparations and changes to her father’s 60th. Frederich busied himself with attending to her other matters of business further down in the carriage, whereas she asked Orion to stay by her, to act as her voice of reason. Orion seated himself opposite her, conducting himself primarily as her escort, and was hardly relaxed. Marlena tutted gently at his conduct.
“Orion, you are amongst friends. There is no need to be so uptight and civil with me. You know better than that.”
“It is custom, My Lady...”
“Oh psh, I don’t care what Margreaves has you do, you’re not escorting Lorianna, you’re escorting me. Relax now, won’t you?”
“Alright, My Lady. For you.”
“That’s better,” she smiled. “And do take off that jacket. You’re sweltering in it!”
Orion had often likened the old white-tailed doe to an admonishing mother figure at times, and this was no exception. She waited for him to be rid of the tight-fitting dress jacket before pouring him a cup of milk tea, handing it to him as he sat back down.
“Much better,” she smiled. “Now, there are a couple of small issues with the party that have come through, mostly in regards to the security of the Chalet.”
“Mm, seems they’ve retired the hounds really, which means no added patrol between the hours of two and four in the morning...as well as father’s mobility and all those stairs being a question. As much as I hate to ask this of you, Orion, would you be willing to ensure my old man’s safety as he circumnavigates the chalet?”
“Of course,” Orion sipped at his tea. “You know I am under your command, My Lady.”
“You might be under my command, but you are still a friend first and foremost, Orion Hedgehog.”
“How did the surgery go with your mother?”
“It wasn’t quite the result I was expecting,” she continued. “There’s a lot of life left in her, but the heirarchy’s surgeons don’t seem to think so. She’s dying to get out of that bed, I can tell you. She worked out how to click off the wheel brakes on her bed earlier.”
“Yes. You can imagine trying to restrain my stir-crazy mother, can’t you? She managed to get the bed all the way down the hall when I arrived.”
“Must have startled the doctor, hmm?”
“Oh yes. My parents are a law unto themselves, Orion.”
“Admiring you, My Lady, they did a wonderful job.”
Marlena blushed slightly, “You charmer, you! Now if only you were twenty years older.”
“Ah, one or two matters concerning the banquet, but honestly, it’s more palette tastes than anything. I honestly can’t be bothered thinking about catering to those. As perfect as I want the evening to go, my father will end up being the star and the banquet will go unnoticed, I bet. Frederich is taking care of the late RSVP’s further down, but as far as I’m concerned, I’m done with worrying about all this pomp.”
She leaned back in her chair, revelling in its softness, sipping from her teacup.
“You were quite...preoccupied in the car, Orion. Is something wrong?”
“Well...not so much wrong, My Lady,” Orion began thoughtfully. “Perhaps more...compounded worries, I guess.”
“Captain Star’s drinking habits I suppose.”
“Mm,” Marlena nodded thoughtfully. “Has he gotten worse?”
“That’s just it, I’m not really sure I can gauge how bad or how better he’s gotten,” Orion took a sip of his tea. “It’s...worrying.”
“His father too was a heavy drinker, especially with what the Heirarchy did to him. I’m not too surprised like father, like son, to be exceptionally honest with you, Orion.”
“I agree, perhaps Admiral Star could have gone about it a little better than he had, but even I wouldn’t have thought him capable of what he did to his son.”
Marlena was silent for a moment.
“In a way, perhaps it was better the event happened in the way it did. At least you and your teammates are trying to help Patrick as best you can, even if it means having to deal with his rampant bouts of alcohol-related anger and remorse.”
“So far he’s kept his promise to never lay a hand on any of us, including Connor. But...it’s gotten to a point where I’ve had to warn him to stay clear of my brother.”
“It’s gone that far?”
“He’s...ranting...a far bit more than he used to. Most recently, we’re in the middle of trialling a newbie, which has put his nose out of joint a tad.”
“The boy’s from the Riverlands, My Lady.”
Marlena stiffened slightly. She was not blind to the feelings of the Heirarchy and the Riverlands, which was described as a heated warring debate at best, and it had crossed into several of her last dealings. The Vienna Family Lineage employed both Cityfolk and Riverlanders under their care, and this working relationship had not seen any hiccups or hurdles for as long as she had lived. But outside her comfortable circle, there were others in positions of power, like the Princess Alice, who pitted cityfolk and riverlanders against one another any chance they could get.
Upon hearing that Captain Star was reacting in fury to a riverlander trying out for his Star Team, Marlena kept her private concerns away from Orion. She was hardly surprised to hear of it – Patrick had never really understood his father’s love affair with the riverlands, and he would have been raised by his mother to believe that they were simply nothing but thieves, liars and beggars. Christopher had done all he could have as Patrick’s father, she noted. His mother was a manshark at best, and despite being cordial with the woman when it called for it, secretly Marlena despised her; and it was very hard for her to do so with anyone. She sipped at her tea as Orion continued.
“I don’t have anything against Riverlanders,” Orion was saying. “It’s just, well, at a time like this I suppose I’d prefer a city member to be trialling. It’s gotten somewhat heated in recent months, what with the Heirarchy seeking to remove more Riverland jobs and such.”
“Orion,” Marlena began thoughtfully, looking up at him. “Think about the impact it’s having on your crew, not just your feelings but theirs as well. I’m very sure you’re not the only member of the Star Team possibly smarting from having a Riverlander in your midst, but have you considered that maybe this would be a learning experience for you?”
“I realise Captain Star has always preferred to have cityfolk as his crew and bless him that he feels that way. But the riverlands is a rich society steeped in history and very hardworking people. I personally don’t see any difference between us. Certainly, some would see money and stature and others would see ethic and family, but we’re all the same in my eyes.”
“It’s the reason I like you, My Lady. You never fail to see the good in everyone.”
“Sometimes I also see the very worst in people too. It’s not hard to tell the difference between those who have worked hard and those who were born with a silver spoon in their muzzles and would prefer to keep it that way. Orion, the riverlands is definitely different to the city you’re used to, but having a riverlander on board will open up that part of the world for you. Believe me, I know. There are some very worthy contracts available to the city that the heirarchy are desperate to deny outright, simply because they are of the belief that anything the riverlanders can offer, they can do better. The viciousness of this cycle has to grind to a halt somewhere.”
“But?” she pressed.
“The Captain had eyes on a younger city boy, but a younger riverlands boy showed up instead. His late night ranting almost certainly kept Connor awake for the good part of it,” Orion continued. “I’m worried that Connor might be growing up with the Captain’s ideals more than anything.”
“Please give your brother a bit more credit than that,” she set her teacup down. “He is a loving, caring boy and you have definitely raised him right in your parents’ absence. I doubt he’s of the age to be telling the ‘difference’ between hard working and lazy between a child his own age and himself. He’s learned many a lesson from you, Orion. I trust very much Connor will not follow anyone’s lead but his own. You’ve learned him all you can, you know?”
“That’s what concerns me, My Lady.”
“I heard about his...fracas...with Xavier. Jolly good show.”
“Oh please, Orion,” Marlena sighed. “You know it’s very hard for me to despise anyone, but between your Captain’s sole remaining parent and Xavier Corlette, I have to say the feeling it quite mutual on either end. I think it’s wonderful Connor took action against that alleycat. It’s about time someone did.”
“You’re...proud of his actions, My Lady??”
“Not just. I’m relieved to say the very least. Xavier is a hating bully, Orion, and I have little doubt the reason he antagonises Connor so much is because of what occurred at the L’Rahnqe celebrations. Admonishing someone for finishing the fight leaves the starter free to do it again.”
Orion stared at his almost-empty cup of tea, taking in Marlena’s words. She was right, he realised. He was always reprimanding Connor for ending the arguments physically, but he had not turned his attentions to Xavier, the real cause for concern.
“I should have reprimanded Xavier...”
“What’s done is done, Orion. There isn’t any going back, but you can ensure that whatever happens between now and the future is dealt with swiftly and without reserve. Connor knows you did not mean what you said to him, of that I’m sure.”
“I did hurt him quite badly on a number of occasions, My Lady.”
“Perhaps...but has he changed?”
“Well, no, but...”
“Orion, Connor is a gentle, loving soul. There is an elder’s wisdom about him that cannot be taught by conventional means, and you’ve done your best to bring that part of him forward as much as possible. He has learned by your example, and by not being there, you’re giving him the means to take the iniative by himself. Riverlander trialrunner or not, let Connor learn at his own pace. It’s all you can do, my boy. You cannot physically be in two places at once.”
“I suppose not, but there’s always Jones, and Charleston, and Mackenzie…”
“True, but they are all under the impression they can teach Connor something new in your absence.”
“Well, yes they can...and no they can’t.”
“This is true. The lessons you and your elders are imparting onto the boy will make his coming-of-age next year a lot easier than it would be without such important lessons. He has learned much, but there are some roads that cannot be taken by two people. You need to understand, Orion, that Connor is growing up steadily and surely. When he takes the leadership from you next year, you will have to remember that you are no longer in a position to give the orders yourself – you will have to learn how to take them from a boy twenty years your junior.”
“Heh, I guess that’s what worries me the most. I guess it does sting really, having no real position of leadership and having to take orders from my own younger brother.”
“It is never an easy road being confronted with a much younger person in a state of higher command than your own. Do not forget that I am not the bearer of a full royal title yet, and until I am, I am at verily much the mercy of Lorianna and Alice. It does smart a little, I do know how you feel, and sometimes there are occasions when your voice will protest harshly at the orders given. The one thing to remember is that you are still Connor’s elder, and you must be still as open as you are now to ensure he can come to you at whatever point he needs to.”
“I know, My Lady, I know. It’s just...”
“It’s very hard to picture yourself as no longer bearing that silver badge, I know,” she chuckled. “Not everyone has the ability to become a leader, Orion. Connor has displayed ample knowledge of being everything you are now, and indefinitely, more. You need to give him his own space to learn and grow on his own. If you don’t, he may grow up sheltered, much like Alice is at current.”
“I intend to never let him go down that path, My Lady,” Orion replied firmly. “I could never forgive myself if Connor ever grew up into that...”
“Quite. Alice is a devious force behind the heirarchy. She is based on smear tactics and much like Captain Zero’s bully boys, she bears the physical force behind her to back her up. But no, I don’t see how Connor would turn in that way. He has too many people that love and cherish him to go down such a route.”
She replaced her cup on the tray, selecting a delicately iced chocolate from the saucer nearby.
“Which brings me to my next point of business, I suppose. Alice herself.”
“Do tell,” Orion finished his tea and set his cup down on the tray next to Marlena’s.
“As you know, I hold a fair few seats of power in the heirarchy, mainly to ensure that no one else of my trusted council decides to play croups with Alice’s ah ‘orderly’ methods.”
“I do know, My Lady.”
“It’s come to my attention she may be using her power and prowess to back certain...unsavoury characters in the City.”
“There’s no definite link just yet, so please, do not take this the wrong way, but there have been rumours spreading here and there, some with truth, others more fiction than fact, that Alice has been seen in the company of Johnny.”
“Cuba?!” Orion gasped.
“The same,” Marlena replied quietly. “He hasn’t been seen for quite some time since his last fiasco with the Feline Cargo Route, but there have been some missing funds from the heirarchy records which seem to point to a secretive deal to fund the live export trade routes.”
“How did you find this out, My Lady?”
“I didn’t. A dear friend of your Captain’s father found it, quite by accident let me assure you. It...implicated...quite a few of the current standing councillors, mind.”
“Exactly my words when the documentation was handed to me before I left my home. I’m very concerned about this, Orion.”
“As well you should be, My Lady!”
“...but not for the reasons you think I should be. No, this to me reeks of a cover-up, Orion. Alice is up to something far more dangerous than simply having ties to a criminal.”
“Dangerous? How so?”
Marlena leaned back in her chair and sighed, “Alice is one of the few higher up powers in the heirarchy I truly do fear the potential of. As you might not be aware of already, there was a recent decision to overturn the ban on several of the Riverland Council seats on the Naval Tribunal, which was very successful I might add. There has been a ripple of distrust echoing in the higher seats however, and I have no doubts Alice is the one feeding it – urging it on. She has never been one to accept the riverlanders and I truly doubt she would start now.”
“So, in essence, she is pitting the councillor’s feelings and positions against each other?”
“I have found that those who were once unquestionable in loyalty to the unification between Bigg City and the Lower Riverlands are not so loyal now. It has become quite a cause for concern.”
“I can understand.”
“I have not yet fully uncovered the depth of her scheming as yet,” Marlena went on, “What worries me most about this is compounded by the fact your Star Team is trialling a Riverlander. I don’t have any doubts that Alice isn’t aware of that fact, and may be feeding the distrust so as to have a worthwhile scapegoat in case anything goes wrong during his trial.”
“...So my crew is now the focii of that woman??”
“Most likely. I am however not sending you home, Orion. That would implicate to Alice that I am suspicious of her actions and she may well resort to more drastic measures.”
Marlena held up her hand to silence him.
“You are under my command for the next seventy two hours, Orion Hedgehog,” she spoke firmly. “Alice can do very little in that time, without having to constantly look over her shoulder to ensure I am not watching her every move. My father’s 60th is your primary concern, your fleet is second.”
“My Lady...” Orion tried to protest.
“Now that I am more aware of what is playing out behind the closed doors of the heirarchy I am sure that the measures I am taking will ensure Alice is still under the assumption I do not know what she’s up to. I am sorry for decieving you thus far, but this cannot be helped...”
A knock at the carriage’s sliding door interrupted them.
“My Lady?” Frederich called, sliding it open a mere crack. “We’ll be arriving at Faelysern Station in exactly four minutes.”
“Thank you, Frederich, we’ll be ready.”
Orion had sat quietly as Frederich and Lady Marlena talked. She had decieved him and he quietly cursed at his inability, after all this time, to have not seen it coming a mile away. She had not betrayed any outward signs of concern though, which had hidden her true intentions from him. His ears pinned back slightly at allowing himself to have been fooled so easily; it was a definite blow to the hedgehog’s pride.
Darn...some days she reminds me of Lilliena...
Marlena watched him, smoothing down her skirt as the train began to slow down, approaching the station. She didn’t like fooling Orion, nor anyone else she appointed as her escorts, but Alice was a wildcard that required careful planning. The swan had been a thorn, a prickly extending vine that did its best to place certain key seat holders in a strangled grip, bleeding them of whatever morality and justice they had – moulding them into her loyal backers, unquestioning, faithful decievers willing to do whatever, whenever and for as little incentive as possible.
As the train’s brakes and loud roar of steam drowned out all else, Marlena couldn’t help but feel as though she had missed something in all her plans, but she couldn’t for the life of her work out what it was.
“Hoye, Marlena, my sweet!” a raucous voice rang out from the platform, shattering her thoughts. “Where’s my darling daughter then, eh?!”
Marlena sighed as Orion reached for her hand respectfully. As he escorted her from the carriage to the platform and smack-bang into the tight grip of her wheelchair-bound father, the old doe couldn’t help but wonder if she had set herself up for a wonderful social life of hell.
Calm down, Marlena…it’s only for a couple of days…
“My darling! You simply must see my new hot air balloon!” Willem was gushing. “It was so beautiful, and cheap, and you must come up with me for a ride, dearheart!”
Marlena gritted her teeth, both at the force of her father’s rib-cracking hug and the worried expressions on Frederich and Orion’s faces. She was as scared as they were at the news.
…I think we’ll only last a couple of hours at this rate…!