He had woken early that morning, checking in on Connor as he normally did, only to find his bedcovers rumpled but the hedgehog not present in the room. A bolt of worry shot through Thomas, until he walked a doorway down and found Connor asleep with Sunnie, their new trainee. Thomas leaned against the doorway, watching the sleeping pair, the worry dissipating with more controlled breaths. He hadn’t the heart to wake them just yet.
Thomas strolled down to the kitchen, busying himself with making breakfast for his teammates. First up always got the duty of making breakfast. Normally that always seemed to be Connor, but Thomas would often take care of it if in the rare chance Connor overslept. Seeing him with Sunnie though reminded the raccoon of Connor’s first night with them. He’d had trouble too on the first few weeks; it seemed logical that Sunnie too would suffer the same anxieties, being miles away from his home in the Riverlands.
Which, Thomas realised, was one of the anchors weighing down his thoughts as he cracked the eggs into the frypan.
Politics were one aspect of the Star Team Thomas consistently avoided if he could. He could never understand why Charleston took such a degree of interest in them, nor could he understand Jones’s agreement or disagreement of them. Worse still, Thomas often found himself smack bang in the middle of the heated arguments that erupted between the team’s various political debacles. At heart, the raccoon was a peacemaker. It wasn’t to say he lacked the spine to be protective nor take decisive action, it was simply because, in his mindset, confliction never solved anything remotely worthwhile.
Now the cat was Thomas’s best friend, a mate that had stuck by him through thick and thin, even had gone as far to impress Captain Star and had been recruited at the same time as he’d been. Thomas had been by Charleston’s side ever since, always keeping the stuffy, impertinent, arrogant feline in some degree of line, laughing and joking and often ending up the butt of his more-snide remarks, if just to keep his pal happy and in a jovial mood. Of course, Thomas couldn’t be in two places at the same time, and that one incident, that one little scuffle between Charleston and Mackenzie, still was as fresh a memory as the day it had happened.
He’d been late home, which had been his first mistake.
He’d arrived just in time to pull a hissing, spitting feline off of the bleeding canine, copping a forceful swipe to his own cheek in the process of doing so. He’d called Walter after securing the furious, tearful Charleston in his own room, and sat with Mackenzie as the old hawk stitched up his deep gashes. Thomas had tried to garner an answer out of both of them, but had been met with a brick wall (not too unfamiliar these days, he mused). He’d learned only from overhearing Jones and Orion discussing the incident that Mackenzie had found out about Charleston’s familial situation, and tragically, had made mention of his traitorous younger sister, Moira. Thomas had willingly put himself in the middle of the warring cat and dog, playing both sides as equally as he dared to.
But that was hardly the cause of all this unease, Thomas thought.
The Riverlands and the City were in a constant state of political upheaval. On the one hand, the Heirarchy and the Royals were extending their power outwards, but on the other, the Riverlands were losing ground, both physical and political, to the Heirarchy’s spreading boundaries. To be an all city team taking on a riverlander was always a cause for concern. Reverse the situation, and the ripple would become a wave. There were such levels of complete distrust between the factions that it had begun tainting those citysiders who had been riverland-born. Everywhere Thomas looked, there was always a fight or two erupting in the streets, hard glares, gangs of thugs cultivating and extending their reach outwards. He had read somewhere in the Daily National Press that the port authority had several men injured whilst trying to stop an upheaval in the dockyard unions between cityfolk and riverlanders.
The Cityfolk called themselves all for equality. So did the Riverlanders. Thomas had observed much in his time in the Star Team to know neither one was uncorruptable.
His thoughts turned to the Heirarchy upheaval of power, an announcement made only days before The Duchess had made hers. The Princess Alice had announced the removal of three key Riverlander seats, a bold move considering the flaring tempers on both sides, in an effort to prepare for her coronation – an event, said she, of great importance to the future of Bigg City. What had puzzled Thomas was the appearance of Lady Marlena Vienna, the supposed next queen of the heirarchy, standing behind the princess during the announcement. Though her face betrayed no outward signs of remorse, given the fact she herself had created those three Riverland seats in the first place, the fact she was even allowing Alice to remove them, now, at a time of uprising in the streets, seemed extremely strange. The Star Team had served as escorts and consorts to Marlena on a semi-continuous basis, and the first thing Thomas had done, on his last delivery to her office, was ask about her choice to let Alice continue with such a bold, and in his thoughts, stupid move.
“I daresay that Alice is a dedicated leader,” Marlena had replied. “I do think, with a bit more tempering before the crown reaches her plume, she’ll act for the people instead of for herself.”
“But you disagree with it?”
Marlena had smiled sadly at him, “Do you know, you’re the first person to ask me that since the press conference? In light of the fact she is a known hatemongering fool and plays for keeps within the political circle, I cannot see the intelligence in her dishonourable move. However, I can see where it is her backers coming from, and whilst I myself would never consider it, it appears that she has and has acted swiftly in the interests of herself rather than of her people.”
“Lady Vienna, when she is queen, what will happen to our services to you?”
In truth, Thomas had tried to disguise his obvious distaste for the swan woman, but the elderly doe could see straight through him.
“They will remain, Douglas,” she replied firmly, addressing him by his middle name. “I see no real problem in calling upon you and your friends to assist me. But as for your question, Alice will try everything and anything to drag your name through the mud. That is her personality, and I’m afraid we’ll just have to live with that.”
She had handed him a sealed envelope.
“That’s for your Captain. Payment for services rendered.”
Thomas had noticed in the reflection of her office window of one of the consorts to the Princess Alice watching over their meeting from further down the hallway. To say the swan woman wasn’t overly paranoid would be a lie. Marlena obviously knew she was being watched at countless intervals. She posed the biggest threat to Alice’s coronation, and even Thomas knew this, despite his feelings on politics.
“Thank you, My Lady.”
“Say hello to Connor for me,” the doe had smiled, waving him goodbye.
He hadn’t envied her job. Not one bit.
As he fried the tomatoes and the bacon, Thomas’s thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of Jones, who looked as though he’d been hit by a truck. The raccoon said nothing, except to hand him a steaming hot mug of black coffee as he leaned on the table, feathered fingers rubbing his sore temple. He’d been drinking again, as telltale as the four missing sherry glasses in the cupboard. Jones wasn’t a heavy drinker, but he fancied the hard stuff more than the simple champagnes. The old bird nodded a thank you to him before taking a long draught from the mug.
“I’ve got to quit drinking, Thomas.”
Thomas rolled his eyes, smirking. How many times had he heard Jones say those very same words?
“Augh, yesterday was complete chaos.”
“So I heard,” Thomas spoke softly, so as not to agitate what was obviously a pounding headache for the old bird. “How’s Mac?”
“Surviving,” came the reply. “But he won’t be escorting Lorianna tonight. Not a chance.”
Two words sprang to Thomas’s mind as Jones spoke – Damage Control.
“I have no idea what I’m going to do. Star’s still out like a damned light, Orion’s not here, I’m in charge and I...ow...I don’t think it’s wise I raise my own voice...ouch...”
“Take it easy, old man,” Thomas put a heaped plate of fresh breakfast in front of him. “Why don’t you wait until we’re all awake?”
“I would, but we need some serious damage control for this whole mess. Oh gods, what a fine time for Orion to be away...” Jones simpered, shovelling food into his system. “Mmm, fried just the way I like them. Thank you, Thomas.”
“You’re welcome, Jones.”
“Now then...oh yes, I’ve called in sick to the University today. No point going in and grading finals when there’s this much chaos here to deal with. Has he even stirred at all?” a feathery finger gestured to the ceiling.
“Nope. Not a peep.”
“Oh good. Last thing we need is two hungover idiots yelling at each other.”
“Thomas, I think I’m going to have Charleston take over Escort duty, you possibly as back-up, maybe her dance partner for half the night, I’m not sure yet.”
“I don’t mind the idea,” the raccoon replied. “It’s just I’m not exactly a graceful dancer.”
Jones smirked, “You don’t need to tell me. I’ve got two left feet meself.”
“Come to think of it, does Mac even dance?”
“...You know...I don’t know the answer to that...”
“You reckon Charleston should take the first dibs?” Thomas continued. “I mean, if we can keep him away from the buffet?”
Jones rolled his eyes. He had oh-so-obviously forgotten about Charleston’s obsession with the delicate and luxuriously rich palette of foods they served at the Magistrate’s Ball. He’d never be able to get Charleston to focus on Lorianna once his eyes took in the sight of that long table adorned with delicacies. Priority would be The Duchess, and upon meeting Thomas’s concerned glance, he sighed.
“Me then?” he replied, somewhat defeatedly.
“Well, I doubt with a headache you’d be after another glass of port.”
“Oh very droll, Thomas.”
“I try,” the raccoon grinned. “So what about Connor and the new kid? Who’ll be guarding them? Me?”
Jones sighed. “To be honest, I’d much rather leave them here at home. But with Mac incapacitated, that’s not an option.”
“Because Margreaves is expecting five escorts, right?”
“Right. And unfortunate that it is, that little lad makes five of us. I’m going to have to chew the fat for a little while and bear that.”
“Why is it so bad to have a Riverlander here?” Thomas spoke the words before he could stop himself.
Jones, to his credit, wouldn’t meet Thomas’s eyes.
“On the whole, I guess I care more about appearances and the morality of the whole upheaval affair more than I do accepting the boy right now. He’s arrived at a bad time, and I’m hoping...nay, praying...that things go swiftly, decisively and smoothly.”
“Makes sense,” Thomas replied, but he was still unsure of accepting that as an answer.
They were interrupted by Charleston, who nodded a greeting to Thomas only, before the raccoon heaped his plate with fried tomatoes, bacon, toast and eggs. Jones acknowledged the cat sitting at the table with a nod.
“About last night...” Charleston began, but Jones held up a hand.
“Said what’s needed, that’s all.”
“Charleston, I know this is going to hurt me more than you, but I’m assigning you to keep watch on Connor and Sunnie tonight.”
Charleston didn’t even bat an eyelid, crunching a bit of his toast piled high with eggs and tomatoes.
“I’ll be escorting Lorianna, Thomas will take the second half of the evening from me when the clock ticks over to ten thirty,” Jones continued. “When eleven thirty rolls around, I want you to take the boys home and return to take Lorianna from Thomas. Are we clear?”
Jones however could tell that Charleston didn’t accept the decision. The cat’s tail was fluffed up, annoyed at having become the designated guardian to Connor and Sunnie. It meant no drinking, no enjoying the company, not even having a glass of that wonderful magnolia wine Lorianna spoke so much about. He was very angry at this, but refused to speak a word. Jones, still hurting from his hangover, was very glad to not suffer the feline’s ranting. He would make it up to Charleston later, he thought, when all was said and done – and hopefully after Sunnie had been sent home.
“Where are Connor and Sunnie?” Charleston spoke for the old bird.
“Still abed,” replied Thomas. “I think Sunnie’s a bit homesick and all. Connor spent the night with him.”
“Orion would hardly approve,” the cat sniffed.
“Orion’s not here,” Jones firmly reminded the cat. “You may be his second, but you answer to me, understood?”
“Of course I do. Unlike some wolves...”
Jones and Thomas both sighed. Cats and dogs living together certainly did provide mass hysteria at some point in the whole game. Thomas quickly changed the subject.
“So what did Margreaves want yesterday, Keyves?”
The cat’s ears flattened, “That old bear will find himself on the recieving end of someone’s fist one day.”
This piqued Jones’s interest. “What? What did he say?”
“I don’t know how he found out, but he had quite a number of choice words about us recruiting a Riverlander.”
“Oh wonderful,” Jones muttered into his coffee.
“It doesn’t stop there,” the cat continued. “He seems to think our Captain is wonderfully socially inept. He said he’d be sending him some Chardonnay and Rum as an early funeral present.”
“I hate that bloody Kodiak.”
“I share the sentiments, old man.”
“What else did he enlighten you with?”
“Talk about how he’d be doubling the guards’ presence with a Riverlander skulking about. He seems to think we’re automatically going to rebel against the Heirarchy for taking one of the country bumpkins on as a trainee.”
“Remind me to get good and sloshed before Charleston turns up at eleven thirty.”
“So I can drunkenly ramble about that blasted bear’s nightly affairs with the bitchling from the stripper’s alley.”
Charleston grinned into his eggs as Jones took another long draught from his mug. “Another black one, Thomas. I’m going to need it for tonight.”
“Comin’ right up.”
“Are you really going to say all of that, Jones?” the cat asked.
“I could say something about his relations with The Duchess’s pet dogs...”
Charleston made the mistake of drinking as Jones said it. Between his laughter and racking coughs and Thomas’s jovial admonishment of the old man, the bird was grinning an evil grin.
“What?” Jones smirked.
“You never struck me as the type to think such things, old man!”
“Can’t teach an old bird new tricks, my eye.”
“Oh that...that will be the richest moment of the evening, Jones.”
“I figure if I get tanked five minutes before I’m due, that blasted Kodiak will be surrounded by nobles and power figures that I’ll have an open field before me...”
“You evil old goat.”
“Mreeheheheheheee!” Jones snickered.
Thomas piled five more plates high with food, covering one and placing it in the fridge. Jones and Charleston acknowledged that one in particular was for their still sleeping captain.
“You shouldn’t molly-coddle Connor, Thomas,” Charleston remarked offhandedly.
“I think one of us should,” Thomas replied. “Lilliena doesn’t do enough of it, and she should be. Connor’s been through enough, I think.”
Charleston and Jones exchanged a look, the table falling into silence. Thomas headed past them, carrying two laden plates, heading for the guest room. As soon as he was gone, their conversation was a little more hushed, out of the raccoon’s earshot.
“He’s taken a sudden interest in Connor’s wellbeing, eh?”
“Quite,” the cat agreed, nodding. “I didn’t think of it as any reason to be concerned, but...”
“It’s probably nothing,” Charleston continued. “And he IS clumsy sometimes when he gets...over excited about things...”
“But...I’ve been noticing a couple of things. He’s limping a lot more lately. He’s been getting bruises in a few odd places that he doesn’t have explanation for.”
“You think Connor is using him for practice?”
“...maybe. I wouldn’t put it past him, but, maybe...”
Jones went quiet for a second. “Those are very serious allegations, Charleston.”
“I know they are. But he’s been spending an awful lot of time with the wolf.”
“But that’s only because of your...fracas...some time ago. I hardly doubt Mackenzie’s using Thomas as a punching bag. If he was, Captain Star would have boxed his wolven ears...”
“If Star could even stand to do just that,” the cat muttered.
Even Jones had to admit Charleston had a point there. Star’s frequent visits to Izzy Gomez’s watering hole were yielding many unfortunate results. Some nights, they had to drag him inside by his feet because he was too sloshed to recognise that he was home. It was getting on their nerves, but there was little they could do to stop him, except try and alleviate the pain of the next morning, and have social drinks with him in a vain attempt to curb his binge drinking fits. Nothing really had taken root, and they knew it.
“I have a feeling it’s not Mac you’re thinking is the cause of all of this,” Jones spoke gently.
“...you’re right,” the cat’s voice was very soft, his eyes upon the ceiling.
“No. Just no, Charleston.”
“But what if he is?” the cat pressed. “What if Star’s been using him as a barrier between Orion and him?”
“If Star was using Thomas as a punching bag, he’d have told us!” Jones emphasised his words firmly. “Thomas is NOT the type to hide such important things away from us!”
Charleston nodded, the subject dropped as Thomas re-entered the room, whistling a cheerful tune as he picked up the last laden plate of breakfast. It was for Mackenzie, the twosome realised, as Thomas reached for a bottle on the windowsill and poured a generous amount of the stuff onto Mac’s four bits of toast. Neither cat nor owl said a word as Thomas headed past them, heading up the stairs whistling that same cheery tune. Once out of earshot, the two Stars glanced at each other again.
“How long do you think it’ll be before...you know...” the cat asked quietly.
“...I’d rather not talk about that. I think about that day coming enough as is.”
Their breakfast continued in utter silence.
Mackenzie was awake when Thomas cheerfully knocked on his bedroom door, shifting uncomfortably as the raccoon entered, carrying a plate of his special breakfast. He grinned as his pal set the plate down on his bedside table and busied himself propping up the wolf’s pillows. He could be so caring when others weren’t unfairly judging him, Mackenzie thought.
“Feeling better, Mac?” Thomas asked, helping his friend sit up.
“A bit,” the wolf nodded. “Ah cannae believe this happened though. Ah should have been payin’ attention.”
“Happens to the best of us.”
“Heh. Loaded with that special sauce ah told you about, eh?”
“I know how you like your toast drowning in it.”
“Ah ha, thanks Thomas.”
Thomas flinched as his elbow cricked painfully, pulling violently against the strained, bruised muscle underneath, almost dropping the plate in Mac’s lap if the wolf hadn’t steadied it. Thomas’s sleeve pulled back and Mac caught sight of a swelling, purplish mass underneath it. Setting the plate down, and gripping his friend’s arm, the wolf pulled back the rest of the clothing, revealing a festering bruise that ran from his right wrist and halfway up the length of his arm. Amethyst eyes met worried Sky ones and the wolf’s expression darkened.
“Who did this?” he growled, voice soft.
“Please, Mac...” Thomas began, eyes alight with worry. “Don’t.”
The wolf glared at him, trying to read the panicking raccoon’s innermost thoughts.
“Did th’ bloody cat do this to you?”
“No,” Thomas replied, his voice soft.
“...I’m going to kill him when ah get out of here,” he released Thomas’s arm.
“It was not Charleston,” Thomas replied, his voice soft but steady. “Charleston would never hurt me like this.”
Mackenzie’s ears played back.
“Like this?” he repeated, his voice low.
Mackenzie stared levelly at the raccoon. “Ye implied that this has happened before.”
“No,” but even Thomas knew Mac had caught him out. “I didn’t imply anything!”
“Ye did,” the wolf replied quietly. “Ye implied that this ain’t yer first. And ah’m guessin’ it ain’t gonna be th’ last, either.”
“Mackenzie,” Thomas voice was firm, eyes hard. “Charleston did not do this to me.”
“Then who did?” Mackenzie struggled to understand his friend. “Who did this to ye, Thomas?! Help me understand who did this!”
Thomas’s ears played back and he looked away, pulling his sleeve down across the bruised flesh, tidying up his appearance.
“I can’t,” the raccoon replied. “And even if I could, I wouldn’t have you help me.”
Mackenzie felt as if Thomas had gut-punched him. “...why not?”
“...because fighting fire with fire is what put us in this whole mess to begin with,” he replied, walking towards the door.
Thomas could feel the tears building under his closed eyes.
Don’t show him tears, Thomas. Don’t! He’ll know you told!
“Thomas, wait...” Mackenzie’s voice was worried and soft. “What do ye mean?”
“Just...rest, Mac,” Thomas’s voice sounded defeated. “We need you.”
And the raccoon was gone. Mackenzie lay back against his pillows, staring at the plate of food in his lap. Thomas had cooked it whilst suffering from that bruise, and had said nothing about it, nothing about how he’d gotten it, nothing about the pain.
Ye’ve made a point t’ get t’ know me, Mac thought silently as he ate. Made a point t’ make me feel accepted and loved here. But ye are hidin’ summat. Someone’s makin’ yer life a misery, and ye won’t say a word. Why, Thomas?
Mackenzie chewed and swallowed, his mind heavy.
Why wouldn’t ye tell me who’s doin’ this to ye?
“Mac?” It was Jones. “You alright? About last night...Can we talk?”
“Aye. Pull up an orange box,” the wolf grinned.
Jones smiled, grateful for the humorous remark. “Thanks for that. I needed it.”
“Damage Control,” Jones replied wearily. “Seems we have a few more headaches to deal with.”
“How d’ye mean?”
“Margreaves,” Jones continued. “He found out about the Riverlander lad.”
“I have no idea, Mac,” the old owl looked even more haggard and tired. “He’s gone ahead with his ah, usual, style and flair and grace.”
“You and Charleston share the sentiments clearly.”
“Ah s’pose that’s something to be thankful for.”
“Coming from you, it seems you and the cat are getting along.”
“Don’t get yer hopes up too much, old man.”
“So, what’s the plan for tonight then, eh?” Mac continued.
“I’ll be first in, Thomas second, Charleston third. Charleston will also be the guardian for Connor and Sunnie during my and Thomas’s absence.”
“’E can’t ‘ave been too happy about that, laddie?”
“He’s not. Believe me, he’s not. But he’s said nothing about it.”
“But ye can tell he’d like ta roast ye in honey and onion?”
“Well, that’s an improvement.”
“Eh? How so?”
“Normally he’d eat ye, feathers and all.”
“Oh ha ha ha.”
“Mac,” Jones’s voice became soft. “Orion has never been away when we’re down a member.”
The owl wrung his feathered hands nervously.
“Worse still, with all the upheaval with Alice and the Heirarchy concerning Riverlanders, Sunnie joined us at entirely the wrong time. I don’t know what I’m doing, and with you incapacitated, I’ve half a mind to call Orion and ask him to come home...”
“No. Don’t ye do that. Orion’s got a reputation to uphold, like th’ rest of us. Calling him will only be mispercieved as a weak link in the leadership chain.”
“Damn the misconceptions!” Jones snapped. “We need help!”
“No. What ye need is ta pull y’self together, old man!” Mac replied.
“How can I?! Star’s still drunk!”
“Then sober ‘im UP,” Mac snapped back. “Ye’ve done it afore!”
Jones sighed deeply, his expression still alight with worry, feathery fingers clasped in front of him Mac’s attitude softened slightly at this.
“Ah know, ah know,” he answered quietly. “It wasnae an option th’ last time it happened either.”
“Margreaves is expecting us to perform admirably. If Star was even awake he’d expect the same damned thing!”
There were a few moments of uneasy silence between the old owl and the wolf.
“Have ye spoken tae Connor?”
“No. No, I haven’t. Truth is, I...wasn’t entirely welcoming to the new lad last night.”
“He took it badly, huh?”
“Verily,” Jones replied. “I should be old enough to know better, but...ach, Mac, where I’m standing, I’m inclined to vouch for the Heirarchy.”
“Ye know what this job is, Jones. Ye know that there are summat times when it jus’ cannae be helped.”
“I guess what we’re going tae have tae do is grin an’ bear it, old man,” Mac replied. “Ah know it sounds as if I’m not in any position tae care about the lefts or rights, but ah think the matter at hand is important enough, yeah?”
“You’re right. You’re nearly always right.”
“Hey, ah’ve jus’ thought...”
“Don’t hurt yourself,” joked the owl.
“Margreaves is expectin’ us all in full dress uniform, yeah?”
“Have ye considered that Sunnie does nae have one?”
“Ah’m thinkin’ maybe one o’ Connor’s old things should fit ‘im.”
“...Connor’s never worn it again, Mac,” Jones spoke quietly. “Not since...”
“Ah know, but...”
“...that dratted thing is cursed.”
Mac quietly shook his head, “Ye cannot call that thing hangin’ in that boy’s closet an omen o’ bad luck, Jones...”
Jones regarded the wolf with a somewhat critical eye. Mac returned the glare.
“Ah for one do nae think Connor was th’ wee one tae blame fer that incident. That woman’s been a thorn in the Heirarchy’s side long before he and Orion came along...”
“Yes, but the boy forgot his place!” Jones snapped. “It’s the reason he’ll never be leader!”
“Ah do nae think that decision was wise tae begin with.”
“Mac,” Jones spoke firmly. “The past is past. The present is the matter at hand. Focus, please.”
“Fine,” the wolf’s gruffness returned. “Ah say yer takin’ the wee river boy with ye, and Connor’ll see to it he’s properly dressed and ready. In th’ meantime, ye godawful worryin’ sack o’feathers...”
“Ah figure it’ll be...”
The wolf and the owl were interrupted from their conversation by the sounds of someone being sick across the hall. Mac’s ears pinned backwards and Jones winced quietly. The sound went on for a few minutes before the sound of a tap was splashing water and the whishing sound of someone brushing their teeth could be heard. Both the older Stars knew their Captain had finally snapped out of his drunken stupor.
“Wow. It’s almost nine,” Mac breathed.
“Yes?” Jones replied. “So?”
“Ain’t it a new record where he’s concerned?”
“Ah’m tryin’ tae lighten th’ mood. So, who’s gonna tell him about last night’s events, then?”
Jones sighed as he got up, straightening his vest and shirt, “I suppose I’d better be the one to do it then, eh?”
“Try tae take th’ sting outta th’ tail, won’t ye?”
“Hah! Don’t you believe that it’s an easy thing to master!”
“S’why we have you, old man,” the wolf grinned.
Jones bid the wolf farewell and closed his bedroom door. No, there was no way in this crew that Mac was taking out his frustrations on Thomas. He was, despite the serious nature of his accident, quite jovial and still somewhat frustrated to be confined to bed at such a crucial time. There was no malice to his attitude, no madness behind the laughter. Charleston was wrong with his accusations. He knew that for a fact.
But now that he had surmised Mackenzie, what about Captain Star?
Jones had quietly harbored a sense of overwhelming guilt at being the one who had mistakenly introduced Captain Star to the hard liquor the man now indulged himself in more than he did prospectful girlfriends. He had once copped a powerful blow to his ribcage when Star had been so tipsy he had mistaken the old bird for a bigger ex-boyfriend of the girl he’d been seeing. Later, Jones had discovered the Captain had cracked three of his ribs, and Walter had ordered several weeks of bedrest.
He had told Orion it was a muscular injury he’d suffered whilst reaching for a piece of chalk.
It had been a mishap. An incident that had never repeated itself. But, Jones thought, what if things were different? What if all those harder drinks had brought on a deeper, more powerful version of the Captain’s anger? And if so, was there proof to support it?
Thomas had been sustaining a number of injuries lately that he couldn’t explain. The raccoon was notoriously clumsy when he was over-exuberant with his work, and the owl was never all that concerned when he turned up with a few more bandages and bruises than when he’d set out the work that morning. It was normal occurance, completely normal in Jones’s mind. He hesitated for a moment at his Captain’s office door, which doubled as his bedroom, the largest room in the building. What if he was wrong? What if Thomas was being set upon by Captain Star? But why would Thomas keep it a secret? He would tell them, he would always tell them!
His knuckles rapped on the door and he heard Star call out a greeting, opening up and entering into the room.
“Good morning, Captain Star, sir.”
“Ah...ouch...Good morning, Jones,” came the somewhat pained reply. “What time is it, do you know?”
“Just gone nine, sir.”
Jones watched his captain trying to brush his dress jacket down, quietly wondering if this was both the time and the place to fill in the missing blanks in Star’s head. Star however would ask it before he had a chance to say it first.
“I can’t honestly recall what I was doing last night. And where’s Mackenzie? He should be out at the National by now...”
“Ah,” Jones’s voice faltered a little. “You may want to take a seat, Captain...”
“It’s...a long story...”
It was early evening before they touched down onto solid ground again.
Marlena held herself in check as she walked somewhat unsteadily back towards the estate. Her father could be so unruly when he was so psyched up, and with that hot-air balloon, well, Marlena wasn’t keen on great heights to say the very least about it. Even being in a wheelchair didn’t stop her old man for being overly exuberant. Frederich and Orion were waiting for her, standing by the ornate double doors leading into the lower floor of the house. As she approached, she gave them a tight-lipped smile as they opened the doors for her and followed her into the calming dimness of the long hallway. Her hand reached for her head, rubbing at the throbbing headache that threatened to consume her completely. Immediately she felt Frederich and Orion’s hands steadying her as she swayed, leading her towards the safety of her bedroom upstairs.
The two men were gentle as they sat her down on her bed, encouraging her to take deep breaths, steadying her rising feeling of nausea. She smiled softly, beads of sweat forming on her brow.
“I daren’t tell him I’m scared to death of heights,” she chuckled. “He’d try to convince me to look down.”
“He’s...exuberant...isn’t he, Ma’am?”
“Yes, Frederich. Yes, he is. Hopefully tonight will be less insanity. I don’t think I could take it if Mother knew about that thing.”
Marlena accepted the glass of water Frederich handed to her, along with two headache tablets. She swallowed them gratefully, relishing the gentle coolness of the liquid. Orion inclined his head out the ajar doorway, listening to the old man’s gleeful shouting that the balloon was perfect for him and other joyous cries. Marlena allowed herself a roll of her eyes and a shake of her head before she looked up at the hedgehog.
“Do see to it he doesn’t try to go back up in that thing, won’t you? Frederich will take over duties corresponding to me, just for tonight.”
“Of course, M’lady,” Orion bowed slightly and left the room, closing the door behind him.
Marlena waited until she could no longer hear Orion’s footfalls, before setting her now-empty glass on her bedside table. Frederich poured her another.
“I hated to do that to him.”
“From what I understand, Ma’am, it’s necessary.”
“You seem pensive?”
“Frederich, has Orion ever mentioned Connor to you?” she asked.
“His younger brother?” Frederich paused, thinking back. “Not since the incident with Her Majesty, no.”
“It’s worrying,” the old doe continued. “Before, I couldn’t get him to stop talking about the boy. Now...it’s like the boy doesn’t exist.”
“There was a lot of...tension...after that incident, m’lady. Connor seemed to think it was his fault.”
“And therein lies my point, Frederich. It wasn’t. It never was. Alice played Orion and his crew neatly into her outstretched feathers, and because of it, the boy had been treated unfairly...almost dismissively.”
“I’ve noticed that in recent times, the boy isn’t allowed out with them. And if he is, it’s a short tether,” Frederich nodded. “It’s not to say I haven’t tried speaking with the Professor on the matter, but it seems they’re pretty firmly closed on the subject of the boy being allowed their same privileges.”
“He’s not being allowed the simple courtesy to be himself,” Marlena sighed. “I worry about Connor. That poor boy’s going to be a wreck when he’s older.”
“Mm. I can’t help but think that’s already happening, ma’am.”
“Well, it may be somewhat premature in saying so, but I’ve noticed more leadership qualities stemming from the boy...” Frederich handed her back her glass. “And I think Orion has been subtly attempting to smother that.”
“You think he feels threatened by Connor?”
“Possibly. He doesn’t discuss the matter with me, so I can only observe. And my observations make me think Orion’s trying too hard to be a parent and not the sibling he’s supposed to be.”
“You’ve always been able to read people for their vulnerabilities, Frederich. It’s why I kept you onboard. I find your tactful honesty refreshing and meaningful.”
“Thank you, My Lady.”
“But,” she continued, sipping from the glass, “I can’t help but feel...unsettled. Something about this entire situation doesn’t sit right. I know Alice is behind it, perhaps not all of it, but some of it at least. Everything’s been so heated in the Heirarchy, I haven’t had a chance to check in with the Eldar Council on how they’re faring with all this recent upheaval.”
“I can’t say Her Majesty wasn’t...thorough...in her debacle. It’s obvious she has a lasting grudge.”
“Mm, yes. Alice is...well...in all manner of the term...”
“I was thinking more along the lines of a half-drowned conniving weasel with half a tail missing, but that sums her up quite nicely.”
“Joking aside, I’ve been noticing far more than just a few of her...contacts...at my office these days. She’s getting more and more paranoid of Star’s lads turning up to see me. I think we should move ahead with the plan, as premature as it sounds.”
“Wouldn’t all that just make her more paranoid that you’re skulking in the shadows behind her?”
“Can’t be helped I’m afraid. The more paranoid she is, the more she’ll be likely to put a foot wrong.”
“This is a dangerous game you’ve mastered, My Lady.”
“I could say the same thing for Eldar Willowtree,” she sipped again. “It would have been much better if Quillstream had received the majority vote, but I believe he too has his reasons for playing the same game.”
“And you used to tell me you despised politics,” Frederich chuckled.
“I do despise them, Fred. I still despise them. But when politics take precedence over lives and livelihood, one cannot stand idly by and let such things have free reign over the sensibility of the Heirarchy Court.”
“You’ll make a beautiful Queen of our city, My Lady.”
“Oh get that thought out of your head, Frederich,” she admonished playfully. “I hate high heels.”
“It does depend on the majority vote, of course.”
“The majority rules clearly in your favour.”
“Yes, but the Heirarchy does not. They see me as too old, too impetuous and far too dangerous to be allowed in such a seat of predominant rulership.”
“Those who have remained faithful to you would speak otherwise.”
“Not for fear of losing their stature aboard the council. Alice has wormed her way into quite a few of their hearts and minds. It’s a wonder she hasn’t blackened their souls too.”
“You would be somewhat surprised, My Lady.”
Marlena observed her devoted guardsman with a wry smile.
“I do believe you have information for me, yes?”
“I do. She was seen skulking around the recruitment office a few months ago. In particular, one of the men recalls seeing her into the respectful company of a certain Kodiak bear.”
Marlena’s eyebrows lit up. “Do tell.”
“Something about an expensive health plan, care, women, riches, something of the usual style and flair in which she conducts her ah...business.”
“Our most recent addition to the Royal Forces, Maximillian, was named his second-in-command. Obviously not a mere stroke of fate, I suspect.”
“Oh so obviously not,” Marlena clicked her tongue gently.
“I haven’t spent enough time with Maximillian to garner his true loyalties just yet, though I suspect the she-devil did that for us...”
“Frederich, she is a Royal, and whilst in my presence I tolerate that kind of language. But do watch yourself under the public eye.”
“Crystal, My Lady. As I was saying, I haven’t gotten that far as yet, but he seems the strong type to know the difference between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.”
“That remains to be seen, Fred.”
“What of Hector?”
“Well, since his ah...indiscretions with a few of the Royal Courtiers, I’ve had a few tabs kept on him since then.”
“It is as you feared, My Lady. Lord Andrew did assign him to Lady Lorianna.”
Marlena dipped her head, eyes alight with anger. “I should have had him buried alive.”
“I would have dug you the grave, Ma’am.”
“Lord Andrew was...is...a controlling, womanising, thieving, unscrupulous devil. I should have known he’d do whatever he could to control Lorianna even after their divorce!”
“The Duchess appears to be unaware of her ex-husband’s intentions.”
“...I can’t say anything there. She is still somewhat naïve and it’s hard to learn her otherwise, but this could possibly work somewhat in our favour if Hector is still as...outspoken...as he is on the subject of Riverlanders.”
“Oh believe me, My Lady, he is. He hasn’t stopped in fact. He’s turning more to the bottle, as you predicted early on in his service. He has also found his mark by antagonising the Professor, Mackenzie, Charleston and Thomas.”
“They’ve not resorted to...vocal reactions, but there’s definitely a lot of hatred brewing just below the surface.”
“I have little doubt he’s fuelling the fire behind Star’s, ah, drinking indiscretions. But perhaps he is only adding to the problem? I can’t fix the blame squarely on Hector’s shoulders because he wasn’t the one who fed Star the harder liquors in the first place.”
“But even if the Professor hadn’t, it’s very possible Star would have turned to them on his own.”
“Yes. Yes, sadly that too is a great possibility. I fear however that Jones merely accelerated the inevitable.”
“...would he truly resort to doing that?” Frederich’s eyes were alight with worry. “I never pictured him as being along that line of insanity...”
“His father never was either,” Marlena’s eyes filled with sadness. “And yet, certain dominoes pushed him to the edge of the abyss and over the edge. I think whatever we do next will perhaps either lessen or strengthen his desire to go that far.”
“So we have no choice?”
“None whatsoever. If we choose to stand by, they’ll lose everything that makes them whole and just and good. And if we become involved, there are other parties involved determined to watch them burn.”
Silence permeated the bedroom for the briefest of moments.
“Do you know why I became so heavily involved with the Heirarchy?”
“...to make a difference where there was none, Ma’am?”
“Partly that. I got involved with the Heirarchy as a Lady for another reason.”
“...if you don’t mind my asking, what reason was that, My Lady?”
Marlena rose from the bed, heading towards her large bedroom window. She pressed her hand against the cold glass, watching Orion and her father downstairs as the hedgehog wheeled the happy elder stag through the lavish gardens.
“I made a promise to someone that I intended to honour. I made it as a friend does to another friend, for better and for worse, til death and beyond. I just didn’t know how to honor their wishes...until they passed away prematurely, leaving two sons to the mercy of a region that had none...”
She breathed deeply, closing her eyes, leaning her forehead against the window.
“And I promised another that I would watch over her son as the man she loved tore away at her every defense for the sake of pride, arrogance and wealth. She died heartbroken and alone. And because of the Upper Highlands’ laws, I couldn’t become involved. Because of the Riverlands’ trade agreement with them, it was completely out of my hands. If he knew I was his wife’s best friend, he would do everything in his power to destroy his son, her beloved child.”
“Do you know what became of the boy?”
“No,” she replied, her voice soft. “I don’t know what became of him. And it eats away at me. I know he was the heir to something Alice wanted more than anything else in the world. And when I first started taking an interest in that particular something, I found myself treading dangerous waters. I found myself needing allies, guardsmen, having to work my way upwards to the highest honor of the Eldar Council in order to get closer to the information I needed...”
She turned to face Frederich.
“I found myself tied to a game of cat and mouse in which I began as the mouse itself.”
“But you ended up one of the cats, My Lady?”
“Maybe. But still no closer to finding the answers I seek. And now, Alice has moved onto different matters, seeds of corruption planted everywhere and anywhere. I know she’s still firmly fixated on locating that boy, no matter what the cost.”
“Surely Quillstream would have known the woman you speak of?”
“He did. She was part of the Council up until her marriage. But when I made mention of her bearing a child, he had no idea...I think she deliberately kept her son away from the Council.”
“For fear of personal retribution?”
“Possibly. I cannot say for sure.”
“So this whole situation, with the Heirarchy...the Riverlanders...the upheaval...it’s all connected?”
“It’s been connected since its first days after the civilian massacre.”
“I’m honored you trust me enough to discuss such matters of delicacy.”
“I’ve always trusted you, Fred.”
“So why not tell Orion and Connor of the promise you made to their parents?”
Frederich realised the answer to his question the moment he asked it, but Marlena spoke first.
“Alice would ruin those two. She already has in ways she couldn’t imagine the magnitude of. To tell them that they have a step-parent whose power extends to half of the Heirarchy would only give her the leverage she seeks in bringing the nine hells down on the Star team. I keep my interests, my presence and my promise separate. If Alice were to discover my reasons, she would clearly have nothing, and no one, to stop her from destroying the last bastion of honor and kindness this city has left.”
“...this could all backfire on us, My Lady,” Frederich began, his voice soft. “She may already be aware of all this. She may already be playing you as a mouse again.”
“I doubt it.”
“I do, Fred. If she knew, she wouldn’t be sending her agents to spy on me. She’d come down and do it herself. Alice is, predictable, in a sense. Perhaps I give her too much credit?”
“I’m stunned anyone gives her any credit.”
Marlena chuckled heartily. “I’ll let you keep that one.”
“Thank you, Ma’am.”
“...But the boy is still missing. I don’t know if he’s still alive or long since dead.”
“Do you have a picture of him, Ma’am?”
“Of his mother, yes...” Marlena went over to her dresser, pulling out a carefully concealed photgraph in a beautifully ornate frame. Inside was the smiling image of a woman shoulder-height to Marlena, with long reddish headfur and the colourful markings of a Tree Panda. “Faralina was my most ardent supporter. A girlfriend when I needed one the most. I never liked Lawrence.”
“Mm. He was a tall, vile man. Always neat, always tidy, but lacked all kindness.”
“Such a pity...” Frederich agreed. “She was a very beautiful woman, very loving and kind, I suspect?”
“Verily. I’ve never seen a more motherly woman. The children of the town adored her. I guess it was no real surprise to me when I discovered she had a child, but she was under the thumb of a brutal and powerful man. The last I saw of her was the day she asked me to protect her son. She may have passed away shortly after that. Quillstream didn’t give me any answers...just more questions.”
“And if the boy is still alive?”
“He is a target. And Alice has declared open season.”
“I think I understand you better now, My Lady,” Frederich replied. “I hope too that the boy is alive...and that we’ll get to him first.”
“Thank you, Frederich. I mean that.”
Her guardsman smiled warmly, “I know, Ma’am.”
“Orion is down with Father in the gardens. Dismissed.”
“My Lady Vienna.” Frederich dipped his head respectfully before turning and heading out of her bedroom, closing the door softly behind him.
Marlena returned her attentions to the frame in her hands, touching the photograph’s glass, tracing the length of Faralina’s headfur. She set the photograph down alongside the one at her instatement into Bigg City’s Heirarchy, with the smiling Star Team beside her. She sat on the edge of her bed, staring at Faralina’s smiling face, full of brightness, happiness and love beside her own form, dressed in the robes of the Riverland Eldar Council. Her thoughts turned to her friend’s last wishes, a plea to look after the son she had borne not out of love with the man she adored, but as an heir to something Alice was gunning for.
“You bitch, Alice. First you feed them some sob story at being the daughter of rich nobles, then you expect people to feel sorry for you as you ruin their lives? How dare you try and ruin Orion and Connor’s as well as Captain Star’s! How dare you...”
Marlena took a deep breath, bringing her hand to her eye as a small trail of wetness slid down her cheek.
“When I find Faralina’s son...when I find him...I’m going to make sure you never...never...lay a hand on him...or the Stars. My promise to the Gods.”
Her composure regained, and her heart set on her promises, the only sound was the gentle rustle of silk as Lady Marlena Vienna left her bedroom, heading for the gardens to prepare for her father’s birthday party and to greet their guests.
But she could not shake the feeling of unease that gnawed at her.
The dress was beautiful, simply stunning and exquisitely stylish; a beautiful, sensuous blue with long, flowing sleeves. The Duchess ran her fingers through the plush velvet, breathing in its new scent, twirling in front of her mirrors, feeling free for the very first time in her adult life since her marriage, and subsequent bitter divorce, to Lord Andrew.
The Magistrates Ball was something she had attended since she was still a child heiress to her family’s estate. It was there she indulged in all her childhood dreams and fantasies and wishes. She still turned into a giggling, happy child before fancy-do’s, happy and carefree, heart set on having fun and dancing with whomever asked her to. She twirled a final time, adjusting her tiara slightly as the seamstress smiled and adjusted a few of the ruffles at her ankles.
“I’m so glad you love it, My Lady,” she grinned.
“It’s PERFECT!” Lorianna gushed excitedly. “And the blue is sooo wonderful! Thank you for designing it for me!”
“My pleasure, now do keep still! I don’t want to jab you with the pins!”
Lorianna posed, sighing happily at her reflection. She never considered herself to be beautiful, maybe cute perhaps, but this dress made her feel wonderful. Maybe she’d even find herself a handsome fellow tonight?
“Will you be wearing those slip-ons tonight, My Lady?” the seamstress continued as she sewed. “I hear they’re the latest fashion.”
“Oh, Moira, you have such wonderful taste!” Lorianna giggled. “They’re fantastic! Where did you learn such wonderful talents?”
Moira’s ears pinned back a little. Her Ladyship had dredged up a truly unhappy memory. “From my, ah, former suitor, My Lady. He was very good at what he did.”
“You’ve learned well,” the Tigress purred, oblivious to Moira’s unsettled reaction. “I’m so glad Marlena found you!”
Moira nodded uneasily, and returned her attentions back to adjusting the hemline of the dress. Her uneasiness was further compounded by the stern reflection in the mirrors where she was kneeling. It was Hector Margreaves, The Duchess’s consort.
Now, Moira was a cougar, and to that end, shared an alpha position with the old Kodiak, but the man unnerved her greatly. It seemed Lorianna too was clearly unsettled by Margreaves’ sudden appearance in her room, if the startled gasp that elicited from her lips was any indication. The cougar kept her head down, concentrating on the stitches, fearing retribution if she focused on the bear for too long. Lorianna clasped her hands, falling quiet as her consort approached, hrming and murmuring things that made her ears pin back.
“Most unreasonable,” he tutted, a claw tracing down the skirt of the dress. “You are a lady of stature, Lorianna. Blue is hardly a colour for a woman whose standing includes the Royal Courtiers.”
“I will wear what I want,” Lorianna’s voice was stiff as she tried not to let Margreaves touch her any further. “I am no longer under the House of Lord Andrew, Hector.”
“Until the divorce is final, you will wear his house colours of purple and gold.”
Moira felt the dress in her hands almost stiffen at Margreaves’ words. Clearly Lorianna was in no mood to be ordered about on her night of nights. The Tigress inclined her head up at the old bear’s, eyes hard as glittering diamonds.
“You are not my Lord,” her voice was quiet, deadly. “And until you are, I will remind you of your place as my consort. I have the final say in my attire for tonight. I have the final say in your employment.”
Margreaves ran his tongue across his large fangs.
“You would terminate my service at a time where your scurrilous affairs with Lord Winter are coming to light? Dear, dear me. I’d have hardly expected such a challenging tone from a child.”
Moira saw Lorianna’s claws unsheath. Silently she hoped Margreaves wouldn’t push the issue any further than it had already gone.
“What do you want?” Lorianna’s voice was hard as a flint.
“I came to speak with you about matters concerning those...rabblerousers,” the old bear continued. “I thought it would be pertinent to tell you that the Star Team have recently recruited one of them as part of your consort team this evening.”
“Riverlanders are not rabblerousers, Hector,” Lorianna replied, firmly staring ahead at the mirrors and not at him. “And if there is a Riverlander with the Stars, then I don’t see how it’s a problem?”
“The boy is from a highly contested area amongst that...unsavoury town.”
“He comes from a known area where troublemakers and petty thieves abound,” the bear huffed. “I don’t think it’s wise you wear such ornate clothes and jewellery around him.”
“...Unless you can present me with solid proof that the newcomer is a thief, I suggest you don’t come to my room expecting me to believe your scurrilous accustions,” Lorianna retorted.
“Truly? I’d have thought Lord Carrelsby’s nephew would have done that for me.”
Moira’s ears began twitching in fury. Margreaves would do this to her on every occasion where she reverted to being her happy self. The old bear could see her tail twitching violently, and cast a hard stare on the cougar woman. Lorianna caught his gaze and stepped between them.
“My Lady, the Star Team are unreliable, and their drunken boozehound of a Captain is hardly suitable to your needs.”
“Since when have my needs been your concern, Hector?” the Tigress growled.
“Since your parents’s passing, I have been there for you at every turn!”
“Been there feeding me your unresolved hatred for everyone who doesn’t slot into your opinion of good, moral and just!”
“Be careful, My Lady,” Hector snarled quietly. “I can ruin everything you’ve worked for.”
“Yes,” Lorianna snarled back. “When you’re done letting that swan woman screw you for all you’re worth, you’ll be worth my time listening to.”
Hector’s eyes alighted with fury.
“Dismissed,” Lorianna replied coldly.
Hector cast a dark scowl at the two women before stalking out of the bedroom, closing the door with an audible bang. Lorianna breathed a sigh of relief, tears starting in her eyes.
“I don’t know why I let him do that to me...”
“He’s just a brute, My Lady,” Moira muttered, getting to her feet and dabbing at Lorianna’s eyes with her handkerchief. “A big, mean, officious, bastardly brute.”
“Oh, thank you, Moira. I don’t know where I would be if I didn’t have you or Marlena.”
“Hmph. I bet his mother refused him a tit as a baby...”
“Moira!” Lorianna feigned horror, breaking into giggles immediately after.
“What? You know it’s true!”
Lorianna laughed, blowing her nose gently. “Oh Moira, I wish I had your wit.”
“I wish I had your money,” the cougar girl retorted. “The first thing I’d do is fire that brute and hire someone more worthy of the position of consort...like Orion Hercules Hedgehog...”
“Moira! You and I both know he’s engaged!”
“Maaaybe,” the cougar purred. “But you DO admit he’s something soft, manly and huggable you’d love to sink your claws into, rrowr!”
Lorianna thwapped her with a paw.
“I don’t know how it is I listen to you, you frightful thing!”
“Oh come on, Lorianna, good-looking, nice men are hard to find,” Moria tucked her needles and pins back into her sewing kit. “So he’s taken...he’s still tasty eye candy until the ring goes on his finger, yes?”
“Wish he was going to be there tonight,” Lorianna sighed. “Fortunately there’s always that cougar boy, Charleston. Mmm, now he’s a nobleman’s son that one...”
Moira almost dropped her sewing kit at the mention of that name. Knowing that Lorianna would be present, also meant that as a member of her courtier staff, she too would also have to be there, if just to provide moral support to her friend of the last six years. And that meant keeping well out of the sight of Charleston at all costs. Moira wished she didn’t have to duck and weave all the time at those social do’s with Lorianna. But...there were things she didn’t feel ready, nor comfortable, to discuss, even with her girlfriend.
“Oh uh...who’s he again?”
“Cougar male, wears a monocle, always immaculately dressed?” Lorianna replied. “Part of Captain Star’s team. I wish I was able to date within the middle class system, Moira. I think he’d make a fine husband...”
Moira coughed, trying not to picture her elder brother courting her friend. “Well, I don’t think he’s much to look at. Kinda cute, but not my style.”
“Picky, picky, picky,” Lorianna tutted playfully. “So I suppose Connor’s more your thing, huh?”
“LORIANNA!” Moira screeched. “I am not into men that young!”
“You said y’self he was gonna grow up into a real lil’ heartbreaker with his charms,” she purred.
“Oh my gods, I can’t believe this!”
“Maybe if he was ten years older, MAYBE!”
“See! SEE! I knew you had a teensy tiny crush on him!”
“Where’s a pillow! I’mma bean you in that big fat tiara of yours!”
Margreaves stalked down the hallways, past the crushed velvet drapes and expensive paintings, past the maids and the butlers and the guards under his command, trying to block out the high-pitched giggling eminating from Lorianna’s bedroom. He was hardly in an amiable mood after his confrontation with the Duchess. Some days he wondered if the Princess Alice’s plans for her would ever reach fruition. He headed out into the courtyard, mind preoccupied on everything else but what Alice had asked him to do. Fortunately, there was someone waiting for him around the corner. Someone he wasn’t expecting in the least but was grateful for the company.
Margreaves started, only slightly, but it was enough to drag a crooked smile across those feline features.
“Oh...Corlette,” the Kodiak remarked gruffly, leaning against the same section of bricked wall. “What are you doing here?”
“Oh nothing,” the cat replied nonchalantly, offering the old bear a cigarette from his pack. “Just middlin’, I guess.”
“This close to Lorianna? Not bleedin’ likely,” eyes of hard amber settled on the cunning green. “You’d only be skulking around if there was work for you.”
“Here I am offering you a cig, and you go off accusing me of something I wasn’t intending in the first place? Charmed, I’m sure.”
Margreaves grunted, accepting the offer and the light the cat graciously provided. “Sorry.”
“You’ve got a lot on your mind. Can’t blame you for your reaction.”
“How much did you hear?” the Kodiak muttered, blowing a long puff of the scented smoke out of his system.
“Enough,” the feline replied. “When the windows are open, anyone can hear the ongoing saga.”
Margreaves winced slightly.
“It ain’t m’ place t’ say anything against it. She’s a passionate woman, bit naïve in places, but hey, she’ll be a Royal one of these days. Probably best she gets this sort of thing outta her system now than later.”
“When did you, a Zero Boy, become so philosophical?”
“When my Captain started banging the daughters of the wealthy noblemen in this town.”
Margreaves chuckled heartily, “How is your old salt, eh?”
“Coastal for a spell, so I understand. Booze and broads.”
“At least Zero is a responsible drinker. Unlike Star.”
Xavier lit up and took a puff. “I wouldn’t know. I don’t see enough of Cap’n Zero to call any judgements. At least Star is around his lads.”
“Do you count being asleep or flying into a drunken rage as being around, Corlette?”
“Hard-edged, aren’t you?”
“Still am. Even after I kicked your ass the first time around, heh.”
Margreaves smirked. He’d always liked Xavier for some odd reason. Despite having the reputation of the lowest slime in these parts, the cat was always around when he needed someone to talk to. And that barroom brawl of theirs, where the feline had laid him out flat, was still a happy memory for the old Kodiak. He’d needed that punch to snap him back into reality – and he’d been grateful ever since.
“You rarely pick a fight with the Naval Yard lads anymore. What happened?”
“Eh, bunch of pussies.”
“Ah haha. I could say the same about you...but that would probably earn me another couple of missing fangs.”
“You never did get it stitched, did ya?” Xavier grinned.
“No. There was little point in it. A good reminder, Corlette.”
“Oh yeah...’fore I forget...”
“Yes?” the old bear rumbled.
“I hear yer havin’ a bit of trouble getting rid of those Riverlander mongrels?”
Xavier knew he’d hit paydirt at the way Margreaves’ ears had pinned back.
“You could say that. What did you have in mind?”
“Oh...a little of this and a little of that,” the cat’s gleaming fangs gave away the cruelty in his eyes.
“Oh I couldn’t, Councillor!” the cat replied in a mock display of horror. “I simply couldn’t! Why, an upstanding citizen like myself, tell you how to be rid of a Riverlander...!”
Margreaves shot him a cold glare. “You? Upstanding?...well, I suppose you could call yourself that...when you’re banging one of the broads from that unsavoury club affair of yours...”
Xavier’s ears flattened at the bear’s snorting laughter. Sometimes he liked the old scoundrel, and other times, sarcasm and all its effects were clearly lost on him.
“Har har, very funny.”
“Thank you,” the old commander smirked. “I’ve always liked my sense of humor.”
“Now about the ah...issue at hand?”
“Oh that. Well, it’s a bit on the drastic side, and it would mean possibly securing an...injury or two...along the way.”
Magreaves frowned, but said nothing.
“It would involve having your darling Lorianna as a bit of a pawn.”
“Out of the question,” Margreaves snapped, turning away. “I would never endanger Lorianna, regardless of how much I despise her naïvety.”
“What if this injury was necessary to ensure Riverlanders would never take Cityfolk jobs ever again?”
There was that faint flicker of curiousity in Margreaves’ eyes, that smidgent of hatred rising up in his chest that was drowning out whatever sense of honor, pride and dignity he had left in his very being. Xavier knew he’d dangled the bait in front of the old bear’s nose just right.
“You’d be elevated to a position of command with her out of commission. Able to lead her guardsmen without penance, without her input, without her voice in your ear...” Xavier continued, weaving the threads of his plan into the old bear’s every thought. “...and able, without Heirarchy interference, to condemn every Riverlander in a Cityfolk’s job for however many years you please to.”
Xavier smirked, going in for the kill.
“I can see to it that the Riverlander currently on the Star Team becomes this city’s most wanted enemy of the state,” he purred. “And you, the hero of Bigg City who brought him to justice for his *ahem* crimes against the state. The grievous injury of a Royal-to-be...a direct attack on the Heirarchy itself.”
“...and how do you expect to...achieve...these results, Corlette?”
“With just one word from you, Councillor, I can make him disappear...and for your Lady’s sake, ensure the Star Team remains under Her Majesty’s control for the remainder of their stay in Bigg City.”
If the old Kodiak had any sense, he would have obeyed his first impulse and clocked the leader of the Zero Boys right in the muzzlefur. But, like all of those under the Princess Alice’s deft manipulation, he was suckered into the feline’s smooth-talking, and promises he knew the cat was likely to fulfill with very little effort. Xavier was correct in a way – there was no way in the nine levels of hell that he’d be able to get away with a plan like this. But the cat? The cat was a free agent, and with Zero away, the cat was with free reign to do whatever it was he pleased...within reason. What harm was there in letting this cunning bastard of Captain Zero’s yank the rug out from underneath that boozehound and his damnable crew?
“Are we on the level then?” Xavier asked, smirking into the remnants of his cigarette.
“No further tricks?”
Margreaves only hestitated for a moment. “Deal.”
“You’ve made a fine choice, Councillor,” the cat grinned. “A fine choice indeed.”
“...You’ll need a pass to get into the place, Corlette,” the bear grunted.
“Oh no, Councillor. I won’t need a pass at all,” Xavier chuckled as he stalked away. “All you’ll need to do is ensure you have Lorianna wear those heels you bought her. The...gift...from her former Lord Andrew.”
“The heels?” Margreaves was hit by confusion. “What have they got to do with anything?!”
“If you want all that I spoke of, you’ll enforce it, Councillor.”
“...very well, Corlette.”
“See you tonight, My Lord.”
Margreaves stared at the disappearing form of the feline. For a brief moment, he felt concerned. Was he taking all of this too far...?
Upon hearing the shrieks and giggles from Lorianna’s bedroom windows, he paused, looking back at the deserted alleyway that Xavier had disappeared into, and then back towards the sound of the squealing and laughter.
“No. I’m not taking this too far,” he muttered, stubbing out his cigarette. “Xavier has always been a cat of his word...however unsavoury his intentions. And if it’ll teach My Lady a firm lesson in knowing her damned place in the Heirarchy, then so be it.”
Magreaves had no idea just how far the feline would take his cruel intentions.
Sunnie stared at himself in the mirror in his guest bedroom, rubbing the back of his neck uncomfortably for the millionth time. This old uniform of Connor’s fit perfectly, even though he didn’t want to admit it. He couldn’t shake the feeling of unease, the sick swell of nausea that threatened to choke him. He reached into the collar, pulling out the makeshift pendant he wore, the simple carved, polished riverstone with its silver star centre. He rubbed it, wishing his nerves would calm enough for him to look presentable to the other Stars and their Captain. This felt so right, and yet...felt entirely wrong at the same time.
Connor was waiting outside of the room, already resplendently dressed in his own full-dress uniform, eager to see his friend in their colours. Captain Star was downstairs, dressed too in his finest, along with Jones, Thomas and Charleston, running through the plan for the evening. Connor had been somewhat surprised (though he hadn’t shown it) to see Star actually sober enough to walk. Like the others, he treated the drunken bouts of rage and callousness as random occurances, but it worried him. It continued to worry him, eating away at his resolve constantly.
The Hedgehog shook his head, clearing his mind of those thoughts. Tonight was the Magistrates Ball, and despite being babysat by Charleston, he and Sunnie were going to have fun tonight. They were going to enjoy the good food and the company, regardless of anyone else. And maybe, just maybe, Sunnie would impress Star enough to warrant a permanent contract? Connor brightened at the thought, running his hand through his quills to steady his excitement. He thoughts turned back to his friend in the guestroom. He knocked gently.
“Sunnie? You alright in there?”
Sunnie tucked away the pendant, adjusting the tight collar again as Connor entered, beaming as he saw how perfectly his old uniform fit his friend.
“See?” he grinned, putting his hands on his friend’s shoulders, “I told you it’d be a perfect fit!”
Connor looked down, a little concerned that Sunnie wasn’t smiling.
“...Ah jus’...ah jus’ don’t feel right,” the tree panda replied softly. “...s’like ah don’t belong in these colours, y’know?”
“You do,” Connor nuzzled his friend gently. “Don’t think that you don’t. The guys...well, they take a while t’ warm t’ people. Mac likes you, and I know Thomas does too, just give ‘em a chance, Sunnie.”
“Ah feel th’ Professor and th’ feline think otherwise.”
Connor frowned. More and more he had begun to think that Sunnie’s tears the evening beforehand had something to do with the old owl and the cougar. He squeezed Sunnie’s shoulders gently.
“Leave those two idiots to me,” he spoke quietly. “You’re my friend, and I won’t have them making comments about how you ain’t fit t’ be here. If anythin’, Charleston shouldn’t be here anyway.”
“You can say that?!”
“Yeah,” the hedgehog muttered. “Deep down I care for those two, however foolish and uptight they may be. And well...I’ve had enough of their snide remarks and stuff, y’know? Sunnie, you’re the best friend I’ve never had before...and I intend t’ keep it that way.”
Sunnie felt himself smile despite feeling as though he would tear off the uniform the first chance he got because he felt so uncomfortable and frightened in it. Connor could make anyone smile. He knew that for a fact.
There was a soft cough from behind them. The two youngsters turned and found themselves staring at an equally uncomfortable-looking Thomas.
“How’s it going?” Connor asked the raccoon.
“Wouldn’t know for sure. You’d fall asleep in there, kiddo,” Thomas chuckled. “Mac’s asking for you two.”
“He is? How come?”
“He wouldn’t say. He wants to chat to you both ‘fore we leave.”
Connor glanced at Sunnie who shyly nodded. “Alright. Thanks, Thomas.”
As Thomas headed back to the kitchen, the two youngsters alighted the stairs towards Mackenzie’s room. The timber wolf’s leg was propped up on pillows and he seemed jovial if a little bored. He beckoned them closer, asking Connor to close the door behind them.
“What’s up, Mac?” the hedgehog boy asked.
“Ah knoo this isn’t th’ type o’ thing yer used to, Connor,” the wolf rumbled. “But it needs ta be done. If’n the old feathered fool gives ya grief, ignore ‘im. He’s a nervous pincushion t’night.”
“Well I can understand,” Connor replied. “With you outta commission...”
“Even if I wasn’t he’d still be th’ damned same. Yer a good boy, Connor. A lot better’n some of the folks downstairs in th’ kitchen. You look after y’self and yer pal ‘ere.”
“I will, Mac.”
Sunnie hung back, still somewhat uncomfortable. Mackenzie beckoned him forward, reaching for something in the top drawer of his bedside table. When the wolf pulled out an insignia on a short silver chain, Sunnie let out a gasp. It was a crest of some sort, Connor realised as he eyed the wolf handing it over to his friend.
“This is summat I’ve been savin’ fer just this occasion, laddie,” Mackenzie smiled. “I’d kinda hoped ye’d be at least from my neck o’ th’ woods, but this ah think is relevant.”
“...I...I can’t take this!” Sunnie stammered, shaking his head. “This is only awarded t’ folks who earn it! And I...I haven’t...I...!”
Mackenzie dropped the insignia into Sunnie’s trembling paws and closed them. He regarded Sunnie with a firm gaze.
“Ye’ve earned it. More’n a few times over. I don’t care what it is anyone says. Ye’ve a good head on yer shoulders, boy...and ‘tis better off for it that it’s seen around yer neck than it is mine.”
“What is it, Mac?” Connor asked.
“Th’ Insignia of the Riverlands,” Sunnie spoke for the older wolf. “S’only ever worn by Eldars or members of the Nobility...”
“I earned that thing a long, long time ago. Ah’ve never worn it, never seen any circumstance fit fer it. There’s gonna be a lot of people t’night who’re gonna frown on ye like nobody’s business. Keep yer head held high and wear this with pride, laddie.”
Mackenzie meant it in good faith, but all Sunnie could feel was the swell of illness that threatened to tear him apart. What if...what if he screwed up tonight? Would Mackenzie still feel this same way if he did so?
“Now, off with ye. Margreaves will be turnin’ up soon for th’ debriefing.”
“Th---thank you, Mackenzie,” Sunnie stammered as he left with Connor.
“Connor!” Captain Star’s voice rang out from downstairs. “Where are you?”
“Coming, Captain Star!” Connor called back, waiting for Sunnie as he donned Mackenzie’s pendant.
The two boys entered the kitchen to find Star sitting amidst several shot glasses. Connor squared his shoulders at the sight, noting that Jones, Charleston and Thomas appeared to be somewhat oblivious to his alcohol consumption. Either they were being oblivious to it or were choosing to ignore the sight of their currently sober Captain slamming back more of the hard stuff. Star looked up at Connor, choosing to ignore Sunnie’s presence for just that particular moment.
“I won’t be attending tonight, Connor.”
“Yes, Sir,” Connor replied, wilfully and dutifully holding back the words he dearly wanted to say.
“You’ll be taking orders from Jones tonight. Be pleasant and respectful to Margreaves, alright?”
“And you, lad...” Star turned his attentions to the somewhat-nervous tree panda by Connor’s side. “Listen to the orders you’re given. Are we clear?”
“C-Crystal, Cap’n Star, Sir.”
“Good. I’m off to bed,” Star replied, firmly grasping the bottle of whiskey and leaving the half-empty glassful. “Enjoy your night, boys and I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Goodnight, Captain Star,” Jones replied.
“Fair morrow, Jones, old son.”
Jones ushered his colleagues and the young Riverlander out of the HQ, muttering vehemently under his breath as he did so. Fortunately, Star was already drunk enough to have not heard a damned word.
“Whose idea was it to leave the bottle within his reach again?” Connor piped up, annoyed.
Jones rubbed his feathered fingers to his temple, “Don’t start, Connor. Not tonight, please.”
“If not tonight, what night should it be?” the Hedgehog snapped. “When the team’s on th’ verge of collapse?”
Jones shot the Hedgehog boy an icy glare that chilled Connor to the bone. The Hedgehog withdrew his last words. Jones sighed softly, putting an arm around Connor’s shoulders.
“We’ll wean him off slowly. I promise,” the old bird soothed. “You have my word, Connor.”
Connor nodded, squeezing the old bird’s hand in reply.
“When Orion gets back. First thing we’ll take care of.”
“Can th’ second thing be th’ uniforms?” Sunnie piped up quietly, yet again pulling uncomfortably at his collar.
Jones stopped short, chuckling softly, tugging at his own vest in response to the youngster’s ask. “You’re right, lad. The uniforms are uncomfortable to say the very least about them. Star’s idea. Probably while he was toasted at some point too.”
He put a feathered hand on Sunnie’s shoulder, squeezing it slightly. Despite all his misconceptions about Riverlanders, the lad was likeable, and shared his discomfort for the inappropriate tightness of their full-dress uniform.
“You’ll do fine.”
“Thank you, Sir.”
Despite Jones’s smile and reassurance, Sunnie still couldn’t shake the feeling of uneasiness. And it was further compounded upon their arrival at The Duchess’s Estate, where they were met by the powerful, well-groomed, imposing figure of Hector Margreaves, Lorianna’s consort. Margreaves was a big bruiser of a Kodiak Bear, and Sunnie damned near wet himself at the sight of him. He stalked before them, eyeing each of them critically.
“As you well know, Jones, this is highly...unorthodox,” the bear rumbled, addressing the Professor who stood, shoulders squared and alert, before him. “Nevertheless, at least you are present. And on time.”
Jones ignored the wisecrack as best he could. “Are you implying that the Star Team are always late, Councillor?”
“Not in the slightest, old man,” Margreaves replied. “I’m merely referring to the tardiness of certain other...factors.”
The old bird cast a furtive glance down the line of his colleagues, noting that despite his squared shoulders and head held high, Sunnie knew the old bear was referring to him directly.
“Her Ladyship gave us no orders otherwise, Sir,” Jones’s voice was hard, despite him trying not to sound it. “We were free to bring in a replacement as Captain Star saw fit.”
“I would have preferred Mackenzie.”
Even Jones winced at the bluntness of the bear’s tone. Sunnie kept his eyes straight ahead, trying to remain impassive, trying to be ignorant of the bear’s obvious distaste at the sight of him. He could feel his head pounding with a vicious headache – his nerves, compounded with his unease, and now Margreaves’s blunt attitude against his presence were all making him feel sick. Connor could do nothing to help him as Margreaves stalked up to him, regarding him as one of the most useless people he had ever seen.
“So Riverlander, what gives you the right to bear this team’s colours?” he sneered.
Jones’s eyes alighted in fury. The bastard wasn’t playing fair! “That’s hardly an appropriate question---!”
“Be silent,” the bear snapped. “Keep that tongue of yours safely in your beak, Professor. I was talking to the Riverlander.”
Sunnie couldn’t help but wince, his ears pinning back slightly. Charleston’s tail thrashed in anger, but like Jones, he could do absolutely nothing. Connor held his tongue, hoping Sunnie would be strong enough to fend off the bullying beast. Thomas remained impassive, his mind elsewhere, trying to focus on standing upright and not limping on his right ankle like he’d been doing for the past hour. Magreaves sneered at Sunnie, eyeing him critically from every corner of his small frame. The boy trembled slightly. The bear was frightening him and he seemed to be taking immense pleasure in doing it.
“Well? I asked you a question.”
Sunnie hoped his voice was steady as he answered, “Th’ same right as you to have in questioning me, Sir.”
Margreaves smiled, but it was not a pleasant one. Sunnie could detect a wave of emotions in its simplicity, and none of them meant anything good.
“So, there’s a mouth on this one, eh?” he sneered unkindly. “My oh my, Professor! Where on earth does your Captain find such trash?”
Sunnie felt the last ebbs of his confidence seep away into the ground he was standing on. He was vulnerable and completely stripped of his courage. And, because of their positions, Connor and his mates could do nothing to help him. Trapped, Sunnie wished something, anything, would come to his aide, help him against this bear who thought of him as nothing but scum.
“If I had my way, every last one of your kind would be serving a life sentence,” Margreaves smirked. “You’re useless and worthless, boy. Remember that.”
There was a low growl that eminated from behind Magreaves. At first the old bear thought it had come from the jowls of the cougar, Charleston, and opened his mouth to retort back at the angry feline. He was interrupted by a feminine voice – a very familiar one.
“And what, pray, is all this interrogation about, Hector?”
Margreaves turned around slowly, coming nose to nose with a very angry Lady Lorianna, clad in that blue dress he had forbidden her to wear earlier on in the afternoon. Her tail flickered from side to side, fluffed up, furious at what she had been witness to – his senseless, shameless attack on the young Riverlander – her eyes hard as glittering diamonds. Beside her stood Maximillian, her new guardian. He seemed impassive at the events he had just borne witness to, but there was a clear look of apprehension in his eyes. Lorianna stared at her consort, fists clenched, eyes more focused on the trembling form of the tree panda behind the old Kodiak. Her lips drew back into a snarl as Margreaves attempted to explain himself.
“My dear Lady, I don’t know what you witnessed---”
“Enough,” Lorianna growled, her large white fangs clearly visible. “I have heard enough, you hatemongerer. How dare you treat the Star Team this way!”
“I said ENOUGH!”
Margreaves took a faltering step backwards at the ferocity of her roar, almost colliding with the Riverlander. Her eyes ablaze, she ordered him to get into the front limosine. He was riding alone tonight. Maximillian, Jones, Charleston, Thomas and Connor would be riding in the second limosine. She and Sunnie would travel in the last. With those same blazing eyes she watched as Margreaves hastily headed towards his ride, slipping inside with the chauffer; then she turned and, with the same friendly smile the Star Team knew so well, she ushered her friends into their respective rides and led Sunnie towards her own transportation. Connor felt a rush of anxiousness permeate through him as the Lady Lorianna and Sunnie disappeared into the third limosine. He could only hope that his friend was alright after Margreaves had been such a bastard to him.
Lorianna settled into her seat, watching Sunnie with gentle eyes. The boy was shivering and not from the cold. She should never have let Margreaves go on ahead without her, but he had insisted so strongly on her wearing these uncomfortable heels with this beautiful velvet dress, effectively delaying her until she had borne witness to his ferocious attack on the young child. He had probably thought it would take her at least an hour to get these atrocious shoes on properly, forgetting that Moira was on-hand to help her with the criss-crossing straps. She was sickened by what she had heard her own consort sneer at the poor boy. The sweet little fellow kept his head down, his ears played back, still trembling. As the limo drove away from the curb, she abandoned her Royal-like posture and enveloped the youngster into her gentle embrace.
To hell with the rules of the Royals.
Sunnie felt the shock reverberate through his system as he realised this beautiful Tigress, this heir to the Noble title, had abandoned her duty and was hugging him close to her, whispering words of comfort to him. He willed himself not to cry, not to let the tears show, but failed. Margreaves’ words had hit home, hit viciously hard and right where it hurt. And he did indeed feel useless. He did indeed feel worthless. He felt his resolve crumble under the weight and he sobbed openly into her shoulder.
“I’m so sorry,” Lorianna continued, nuzzling Sunnie. “I should never have let him meet you and the Star Team. He insisted I wear these stupid heels, knowing it’d be ages before I got them on properly. He tried to delay me from seeing him break you in such a way.”
She rubbed the boy’s back, brushing his headfur from his eyes and tilting his chin up to look at her.
“Look at me, come on,” she soothed gently. “There now. My, you’re a real little charmer, aren’t you?”
Sunnie didn’t feel like smiling, but her words elicited an embarrassed blush to his cheeks.
“I know it’s hard, but you must ignore Hector. He’s been a thorn in my side for years, and yet I still keep him by my side because I must. He’s part of the Royal Insignia Guardsmen of the Heirarchy. One day, I’ll wear the Princess’s crown, and then I’ll have a say in being rid of his hatemongering tailend...but until then, one has to learn to tolerate his cruelty.”
“...he does it to you too?” Sunnie asked tearfully.
“All the time,” Lorianna touched her lips with her fingers, willing her own tears back. “And it hurts. It always does. He draws his power from watching others suffer.”
She straightened Sunnie’s collar, noting the chain around his neck. She gently retrieved the insignia he was wearing and smiled a bright smile, cusping Sunnie’s cheek warmly.
“This insignia is only ever given to those the Royals hold in high regard,” she explained. “It is a badge of unity, of honor and courage, and for all decrees, friendship and belonging. Mackenzie must truly trust you to have given you his insignia to wear.”
“I don’t belong here...” Sunnie began, his eyes frightened. “I feel so uncomfortable in their uniform, their colours...”
“But they trust you, do they not?”
“...I don’t know...Connor does...maybe Mackenzie does too...but no one else does...”
“They will learn to trust you,” Lorianna planted a kiss on Sunnie’s forehead, a long, reassuring, gentle kiss. “We do not know each other, yet I feel I’ve known you for all of my life. You are a kind, brave soul, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”
“Th—thank you, My Lady.”
“Please,” she smiled. “Call me Lorianna.”
“There now, that wasn’t so difficult now, was it?” the Tigress was smiling brightly again, illuminating her entire face.
“Ah ah!” she admonished sternly, but she was smiling nonetheless. “Lorianna, remember?”
“Sorry...it’s hard, Lorianna. I was...I was raised t’ respect m’ elders.”
“And they raised you well,” the Tigress was grinning. “You’re sweet, gentle, handsome...you and that Connor are going to break a lot of hearts together.”
Sunshine blushed profusely at Lorianna’s soft laughter. The Chauffer of their limo coughed slightly to garner her attentions.
“We’re here, My Lady.”
“Lovely, lovely. Thank you Martin.”
“...you don’t seem too happy, Lorianna,” Sunnie observed.
“I’d rather be here without all this pomp and show, all the media with their flashing lights and such. Sometimes I wish I’d never married Lord Andrew,” she confessed. “It was pre-arranged, and I was honor-bound by the decision.”
“You didn’t have a choice?”
“No,” the Tigress replied, gathering up her dress skirt as Martin opened her door. “And sometimes, that’s what I truly hate the most about all of this, sweetheart...that I’ll never have a choice again.”
Sunnie followed her out of the limosine, aided by Martin. Lorianna smoothed out her skirt, noting the loud shouts of the media tethered back by the red plush borderlines. Sunnie watched her posture and demeanour change slightly as the bulbs flashed in their general direction, and also noted that she was shielding him somewhat from their harsh glares and questions. She was every bit a Royal of the Heirarchy, despite not wearing their glittering crown. Knowing that he was very out of place amongst the throng of the newspapers and reporters, Sunnie mounted the curb as the others in the Star Team exited their limosine. Ignoring the throng of reporters, he offered his hand to Lady Lorianna, who, after a second’s brief hesitation, took his hand with a gentle smile and mounted the curb alongside him. Jones offered his arm and together as a group, Lorianna and the Star Team entered the Magistrates Ball.
Margreaves hung back, placating the media as the Tigress and her consorts for the evening disappeared inside. As he answered their questions calmly, he noticed Maximillian, Lorianna’s latest guardian, barring a familiar feline from entering the building. He gave the signal to another guard who took over from his post as the bear stalked quietly towards the two felines.
“I have my rights, kitty boy,” Xavier was firing back. “And your Commander Margreaves gave me that right.”
“Unless I hear it straight from him, you’re not allowed in!” Maximillian snapped.
“Is trouble afoot, Lieutenant?” Margreave rumbled from behind him.
“Oh! Ah! Commander! Sir!” Maximillian snapped to attention upon the sight of his CO. “This gentlemen ‘ere wants in but doesn’t have documentation pertaining to an invite…”
“He was invited, Lieutenant,” Margreaves replied gruffly. “By me. My word of mouth is as good as it is in writing...or have things changed since you’ve been in my service?”
“Y-y-yes...I mean no! I mean...” Maximillian stuttered in fright.
“You’re to remain here, with the others,” Margreaves continued, his voice grim. “You’ll placate the media for tonight.”
“B-B-But---My Lady’s given me other orders, Sir...!”
“Annulled,” the old Kodiak replied, his voice harsh. “My orders supercede hers by means of Heirarchy position and rulership of the crown. Whatever you believe in as her latest in a long line of short-term guardians, Maximillian, I do not care for. You have your orders.”
“But, Sir...” the Prussian feline began, but was cut off by a dismissive wave of the big bear’s paw.
Maximillian averted his eyes to the floor and nodded briefly. Xavier smirked in triumph as the younger feline saluted his CO and headed towards the throng of the media.
“I like the way you put that,” he smirked at the old bear.
“Get in there and assure me you’ll keep your word, Corlette,” the bear hissed threateningly.
Xavier nodded, smiling, as he disappeared into the lobby, joining the throng of noblemen and women guests to Lorianna’s first Magistrates Ball since her divorce to Lord Andrew. Margreaves stood outside for a while, his eyes glancing through the glass doors of the building every few moments, watching Corlette’s slinky tail move in and out of the swarm of nobility. Then, as he saw Maximillian beginning to placate the media, he followed Corlette into the ornately decorated halls, ‘eyes on the prize’ as it were.
Xavier picked a vantage point, closest to the steady stream of waiters carrying their trays adorned with finger food and wine and whiskey glasses filled to the brim. There were other nobility mingling about here, ample cover as the long hallway tapered out into the ballroom, the Royal seats of the Heirarchy at the far end of the dancefloor and the beautiful winding stairways to the higher levels. The cat frowned as he saw that there were three seats instead of just the one. Marlena was out of town, he knew this for a fact – and the other seat could only be reserved for one other broad. He slunk in and out of the crowd, keeping well out of the eyesight of the approaching Star Team and The Duchess. He mounted the stairwell closest to him, hurrying up the red plush steps to the higher levels, knowing full well of whom it was he was seeking. The lack of guards up top told him that the last seat to the right of Her Ladyship The Duchess was being reserved for a certain feathered woman. She was affixing her teardrop earrings to the side of her crown when Xavier entered, closing her door behind him.
“May I ask what it is you are doing here?” the cat’s voice was gruff, unpleasant.
“I’m here to enjoy the celebrations,” she replied crisply. “No doubt you’re here to ensure nothing goes wrong during your little ah...plan, yes?”
Xavier stiffened. How the hell had she found out about that?
“I have my ways,” Alice continued, smiling that cunning smile of hers. “Your Captain is one of my consorts, and as such, so are you. Little escapes me, Corlette, you should know this.”
“Why the lack of guards then?” he asked.
“Oh they’re all here,” she swept her seat back, tailfeathers elegantly sweeping out behind the curvature of the dress she was wearing as she stood up. “They’re just...not seen. That’s all.”
“What are you up to, Princess?” Xavier’s voice dropped in pitch. He was wary as the swan woman adjusted the mirror, inclining it backwards a little, showing off her malevolent beauty.
“Oh now, don’t be like that!” she sighed. “I’ve waited a very long time for this moment, and you fortunately have the brains, and the brawn, to ensure it comes to a complete fruition.”
“All she’ll suffer is a sprained ankle. If you’re lucky, maybe a bad break,” he muttered. “It’ll keep her out of your hair for at least a few weeks...”
“Oh no, Corlette, you think so damned small, you do!”
There was a flash of silver and glass in her hand. Xavier’s ear twitched and then his eyes widened at the sight of it – a syringe, filled with some kind of greenish fluid.
“I intend to keep dear Lorianna out of the picture for...much...longer.”
“What the hell is that?!”
“This? It’s a more potent form of a knockout drug. Johnny was most accepting of the payment I leant him to...procure it.”
“Cuba? Cuba’s here?!”
“Oh no, no, no. No, Corlette,” that cunning smile was back. “Cuba’s doing some, how should I say it, hard time for his betrayal of your Captain. He, ah ha, wasn’t pleased to suffer my betrayal when I set him up for this little end to all my problems.”
She turned to face him, eyes sparkling with malice as she handed him the syringe.
“It’s one rather powerful dose. Do be careful with it.”
“You intend for me to use it on The Duchess?”
“No. I intend for you to discreetly slip it to Margreaves. He’ll do it. He is trained for that sort of swift delivery.”
“...so you’re making it look as if she collapsed out of shock?” Xavier carefully closed his paw around the silver and glass syringe. “Only, the shock will be so great, it’ll knock her out for more than just a few hours...maybe even closer to a week...or a month?”
“NOW we understand each other,” Alice smirked.
“And then what?”
“And then...well...let’s just say there’s a few...loose ends in the Riverlands that need ah...tying up.”
There was a cold fury in the swan woman’s eyes that made Xavier shrink back slightly. Oh he could be evil, no mistake, but the Princess Alice was a whole different ballgame. She was so manipulative, twisted and malevolent, it was a wonder he hadn’t put a foot wrong around her yet.
“You really hate them, don’t you?”
“Oh hate’s a bit heavy of a word, Corlette,” she smiled that twisted smile of hers. “Think of it more as an ongoing sort of penance.”
Her lips were on his before he could say another word. He let her do it for only a few seconds before he pulled away from her, quietly disgusted that the Royal had even dared do such a thing. Alice’s eyes flickered with scorn as she saw the cat bring a hand to his lips.
“Still hooked on that damned Angora, aren’t you?” she sneered.
“Kindly do not refer to her as such, Princess.”
“When will you learn?” Alice threw up her feathered hands. “She’s just not interested in you! After all her...habits...are questionable at best.”
“She’s a flirt, like any woman in her job is.”
“Really, now, Corlette. She’s been a flirt long before you and that Hedgehog started fighting over her.”
This piqued Xavier’s interest greatly. “Oh?”
“That woman’s mother was the most shameless flirt in the Council. I’m not surprised her daughter ended up the same way,” Alice continued, somewhat oblivious to the fact Xavier had never heard of this. “Her husband on the other hand...ha! Hook, line, sinker, boat and anchor! He was devoted to her very being from day one.”
“And you know all this how?”
“You forget before I was Royal Heirarchy, I was under Riverland Eldar Marlena.”
“From what I understand,” Xavier quipped. “Not for very long.”
Alice shot him a venom-filled glare. “However loyal the people are to Lady Vienna, they are not loyal enough to stop me from appointing Lorianna in her place.”
“The council may see otherwise.”
The swan tutted, clicking her tongue against her beak. Her supposed ‘suitor’ had a lot to learn about her methods. And her ways.
“Your Captain,” she began, briskly. “A worthy man, if a bit of a boozehound and a womaniser, has been my chief consort for longer than any of my most loyal staff can remember. He placed you under my service for a reason, Corlette. That should have twigged exactly what service he intended for you to fulfill.”
Xavier’s eyes widened as he realised what this contemptuous female was referring to.
“No way,” the cat stated firmly. “No way, no how!”
“You were bound to me the day he placed you as my only consort at my commencement ball,” Alice’s eyes were glittering. “You are no longer bound to just your Captain’s will, Corlette. You are bound to mine as well.”
“Back me into a corner, and I’ll show you exactly how an alleycat fights, Princess.”
Xavier’s tail was low to the ground, flickering in fury, his claws unsheathed. This did not phase the swan at any rate, for she simply turned her back to him, facing the mirror and smoothing out the wrinkles in her dress.
“...And would you risk, perchance, me...well, my guardsmen...letting Hygar know exactly who’s been going around with his fiance? Who had her first? And second? And third, for that matter?”
Xavier’s ears flattened against his head and he ceased his snarling. Zsa Zsa, Hygar’s fiance, and his occasional dalliance. If Hygar ever found out about her cheating with him, and with Zac, the leopard would tear the Zero Boys apart. Xavier’s paw immediately went to his neck, wincing at the memory of their last fight involving Oscar’s wellbeing. If Hygar was told the truth about Zsa Zsa...oh he’d be in a coffin. There was no questioning exactly how brutal the injuries would be if he was told. There was no malice or malevolence on Alice’s face when he met her eyes. She was impassive as she spoke, but the alleycat knew far better than that.
He’d walked himself straight into her trap like a brainless kitten.
“So,” she concluded, the ghost of a smile on her beak. “You can either deliver that syringe to Hector himself...or you can be the cause of your Captain’s wellbeing sinking six feet under. It’s up to you, Corlette.”
Xavier looked away. As far as he could tell, her threat was genuine. She wasn’t a woman who played fair, and this was as sneaky, as devious and as underhanded and scheming as he’d play the game if he had her power. For a brief moment, he could picture himself by her side as her chieftain consort...but the images behind that made him wince sorely. Despite all his airs and graces and thirst for power and leadership, the swan woman was someone he was beginning to fear. He began to quickly understand why Orion carried such a grim hatred for the Princess.
“...did you back Orion into the same corner?” Xavier pressed.
“Answer the question, Princess.”
“Orion was...different,” she began, smiling at the memory. “Played right into my hand like a kitten to milk, haha.”
At the look of intense hatred on Xavier’s face, Alice sighed and continued, “He really should have kept a leash on that brother of his. He well and truly should’ve. That boy is clearly a better leader than he has ever been...and really now, I only instigated the events. Orion and his Star Team did the rest.”
“What do you mean?”
“Use your furry head,” she snapped. “Connor stepped out of line at my first Magistrates Ball. He threatened me, threatened to expose me for the...traitorous bitch I was.”
“Well you are one.”
“Coming from an equally sordid player in this game, that’s a compliment.”
“Don’t flatter yourself, Princess,” Xavier growled. “You and I are nothing alike.”
“Of course, Orion disciplined him,” Alice went on. “But not before I disciplined him.”
“You’re aware only the Captain’s chosen become heirs to the leadership of a team, yes?”
“It’s how Zero chose you, of course you’d know. Now, outside interference can never sway a Captain’s decision, no amount of money can, no amount of political pressure can. Correct?”
“So what would happen if a Royal Heiress-to-be promised to ensure that if he did not comply to my terms and conditions of the evening, I would freely be able to overturn all of those decisions at the drop of a hat?”
“Oh don’t look so shocked, kitty! You’ve been under my service for long enough to know that if anything goes wrong or is even an inch out of place at any of my celebrations, the repercussions are...interesting.”
The penny dropped for Xavier.
“You were their first real foray into Bigg City,” he began slowly. “Their first big break. You knew mistakes were inevitable.”
“I did, yes. I was more inclined to pitch a fit publically back then.”
“So when Connor stood up to you, he unwittingly pinned himself and all of his mates right into your firing line...”
“I told Orion that I should have his brother court-martialled and charged with threatening a Royal Heiress,” Alice continued, reaching for her perfume. “He offered himself as penance for his brother’s actions. I told him it wasn’t good enough.”
“...what did you do to him?”
“I asked him exactly how long he intended to be leader of the Star Team.”
“How long he intended...?!”
“I said that only one thing would placate me after that fiasco and subsequent humiliation his brother put me through,” Alice continued, not hearing the tone of Xavier’s voice. “His promise, along with his Captain’s and his second’s, in this case Charleston’s...in writing...with my consorts as witnesses...that Connor would never see the position of leadership for as long as that leadership circle remained in the Star Team.”
“...you bitch...” Xavier whispered.
“From what I understand these days, Orion has been as good as his word. His relationship with Lilliena effectively succeeded in isolating Connor from the only familial figure he had left. I couldn’t have planned that better than it happened.”
Xavier clenched his fists. Now he understood why Orion had turned so cold towards Connor. Alice had backed him into the corner, and Star and Charleston presiding as witnesses also, effectively the Hedgehog had signed his brother’s livelihood away to never being in command...all for the sake of placating this white feathered bitch.
“...and had the boot been on the other foot?” he asked, his voice unusually hard.
“Yours?” Alice seemed surprised he’d asked such a question.
“Your leadership is far more necessary for me. To dredge you down to that level without reason, after your clear pledge of loyalty to my side would be unthinkable. And the Heirarchy would talk. I cannot have them resort to unfulfilling loyalties on the other side of the debate now, can I?” Alice continued. “Your Captain has been my most loyal and avid supporter, and you and yours my most gentle and commanding consorts. I backed your Captain’s services because I believe he is the better player.”
“And me?” Xavier took a while to say the words. “What do you intend for me after you’re through playing me like a second fiddle?”
“I don’t intend anything.”
“I find that hard to believe.”
“You are...ambitious, cunning, masterful at your trade,” Alice replied. “My husband needs to be the same.”
“Clearly you’re still hung up about Lilliena, and I agree, the kiss I gave you was in bad taste. But if my intentions were unclear before, I believe they’re clear enough now?”
Xavier stiffened. The thought of being with the Princess chilled him to the bone. On the one hand, he had the power, the money, the position, the Heirarchy, at his fingertips – imagine the damage he could do to Orion with all of that! But something was gnawing at his ears. Something he knew he’d sworn ties to, ties that would not be so easily severed by Alice’s scheming. He hated to admit it, even to himself, but he was having some very firm second thoughts about this consort business. Truly, Captain Zero had made it in good faith, probably a little naïve to think Alice was simply offering him a longterm contract of service, but now that Alice was in a position to overtake even the Lady Marlena Vienna on the course of power, the thought of being by her side scared him half to death!
“Would you allow me time to think about this?” he asked, head down.
“Take all the time you need,” she replied briskly.
“There are some things that I...well...”
“Need to do. I know. Do make sure you’re not seen coming down the stairs, hmm?”
Xavier was almost at her bedroom door when he stopped. There was something else to this whole fiasco she wasn’t telling him. She was putting on her gold bangles when she realised he was still in the room, watching her intently.
“Yes, Corlette?” she asked.
“You removed three seats of power the other day,” he began. “Riverland ones.”
“Oh, those. What did you want to know?”
“What is there of interest to you that far from the Heirarchy borderline?” the cat pressed on. “The City hates them enough as is...”
“Dear, sweet, single-minded consort of mine,” Alice’s laugh sounded very similar to a witch’s cackle to Xavier. “If the Riverlands hold even a smidgent of power amongst the Heirarchy, there will always be the continuous question of who is better, who is stronger, who is worth more time and funding...”
She turned to face him, eyes as hard as glittering emeralds.
“And there’s one loose end from my past that needs tying up. He betrayed me a long time ago. He told me he would never do anything of the sort.”
“He had a wife, and a child...and that child could bring everything I’ve worked for in the Eldar Council crashing down.”
Xavier went very quiet. He had only thought Alice controlled the Heirarchy. Now he knew that was only the base of her power.
“You control them too?”
“To some degree, yes,” Alice replied. “As long as Eldar Willowtree is in command, I have very little to fear.”
“...is this all just a game to you, Princess?”
“You control both sectors yet you sit back and watch them fight!”
“This is not a game of mere chance, Corlette. Hard work secures only the best backers. The best seats. The best men for the job. One rumour gets out of hand, travels down the line, and takes hold of anyone gullible enough to believe it. Willowtree was one such individual. Emboldened by his position, I asked him to do me an out of Council favour, to which he readily complied. He’s been readily complying ever since.”
“...where exactly are you going with this, Princess?”
“Like Connor before him, the boy is an heir to leadership, to power and command. The values he was raised with make him damned near impossible to sway.”
“...and thusly, he’s a threat.”
“Princess, if I may speak honestly?”
“You, Corlette, have never been honest for as long as you’ve been alive,” she chuckled.
“Very well...may I say this as your future husband then?”
That made Alice stand up straight. Was Corlette actually accepting her offer?”
“Of course,” she was smiling genuinely now.
“In the game of chance, Princess...sometimes you lose. Goodnight, Your Majesty.”
And the cat was gone.
Alice clenched her fists. So near and yet...so far away from the cat she adored. No, this was not a time for going after him and demanding he accept her offer. This was a time for playing it cool, exceptionally cool. Lorianna came first, and so did that damnable Star Team. Once they were out of the way, she could wheedle the cat back to her side subtly and under the radar. She could win over any man with ease, but Corlette fascinated her – a true alleycat, and there were so few of those left in the City. And the added bonus was Corlette was close to her age, not older, nor younger; a purrrfect suitor with the brains, the brawn and the exceptional smooth talker to boot. He would make a truly exceptional Trade Prince...if only she could get him to stop thinking about that blasted Angora female!
She had never liked Lilliena. Never. And the fact Marlena was such an avid supporter of the girl burned Alice’s insides. Marlena was truly the only one Alice gave a half damn about playing against. She too was subtle, an ageing doe with the wisdom and kindness of two decades more than she. Fortunately, Lorianna had played her hand of cards early, having the first Ball she’d had as a single Lady fall directly on Marlena’s father’s 60th birthday. Alice had breathed a collective sigh of relief in private to learn she would not have to engineer a reason behind Marlena’s absence tonight. It was just as well the doe wasn’t present – if she had caught sight of Corlette, everything would have come down around her ears.
Marlena had, on several occasions, privately confronted Alice on her playing of the Star Team. It had been just her luck that the aftermath of her decision had reached the old doe, and later the tigress’s ears. Both women had taken an active interest in raising Connor beyond what she’d forced Orion to do. They both knew it had been her, and whilst they couldn’t prove it, there were more than just passing glances and hard stares. She had had to work her feathered tailend off to get spies into Marlena’s office and Lorianna’s estate. It certainly hadn’t been easy with both women watching her so intently.
She went over to the bedside table and pulled out an unsealed envelope containing the transcript she had received a week ago, from her other contact, Eldar Willowtree of the Riverlands Eldar Council. He had been somewhat evasive in his words, and the further she read into it, the more she was suspicious. All their efforts to locate the boy had failed. With his unique markings, that boy would stand out in a crowd beyond any shadow of a doubt. Willowtree was lying, but about what, she wasn’t entirely certain. All she knew was that the boy’s last location was close to the borderlines of Bigg City, and after that, he had simply vanished.
Faralina had been Lawrence Senior’s first, and last, mistake.
She had been one of the two female Councillors at the time (now downgraded to one, the easily swayed Eldar Rosemallow) who took an active interest in maintaining proper decorum and relations with Bigg City. Every incident that happened, whether on concrete and steel or grasslands and mud was registered and recorded, and debated openly in a gathered grouping to find a solution that all could agree on. So backwards, Alice mused. Lawrence Senior was a winery mogul in need of a wife, and had set his sights, albeit rather poorly, on Faralina. She rejected his every advance and the poor horny raccoon had then turned to her, the young heiress, for aide. Granted, some of her methods were underhanded and wrong, things she had never done before, but at the time, it had served enough of an opening for Lawrence to finally court Faralina on her own terms.
Lawrence was her cover for her more lucrative and secretive finances – a few rolling stock here, some cattle there, a few crates of expensive wine and spirits for her backers – there was nothing Lawrence wouldn’t do for her. And it had made Faralina wary of her intentions every time she saw him with her. The old raccoon had been quite adept at pulling the wool over her eyes to his drunken folly, and the end result of one of those drunken follies – Faralina’s son. By the time Alice had caught on, the boy had vanished – a systematic failure of both herself, Lawrence’s business affairs and the Riverland Council. The Council had sworn themselves to secrecy, and it had taken a great many years for Alice to pry back into their affairs. Lawrence Senior had disappeared and Faralina was dead, killed at the hands of her drunken, raging bull of a husband. Alice admitted only to herself that her first foray into playing the political world against each other had gone badly.
So when news had reached her ears of Captain Star taking on a Riverlander amidst her removal of the Council’s three seats of immense power, immediately she had boxed Willowtree’s ears for information.
The Eldar, backed into a corner from which he could not escape (or so even she had thought), admitted what he knew, but not all of it was the truth. Alice had an inkling feeling that whatever Willowtree was hiding, it was because of the inner scandal Faralina’s death had caused the other Councillors. Quillstream, the children’s teacher, had taken her place, albeit reluctantly, and Snowfell, Riverbell and Oakland had subsequently become a secondary innermost council that handled outside relations. Willowtree was losing control over his own Councillors.
She replaced the letter, closed the drawer and stood up to her full, foreboding height. She would go downstairs and feign happiness for Lorianna for however long she needed to. This whole mess Willowtree had created for her would fix itself.
She was certain of that.
The party downstairs was in full swing as she descended the stairs, flanked by four of her guard. Lorianna could see Margreaves stiffen as the swan woman glided towards them, and despite her knowing Alice’s feelings on attending her celebration, she too feigned happiness to see her fellow Royal, if just for the cameras. Lorianna hated to admit it, but she was becoming all too good at hiding her true intentions. She sent Margreaves to fetch two glasses of elderflower wine for her and Her Majesty, if just to get him away from the woman she knew he would rather be the consort of.
The Tigress could see the immense hatred in Jones’s eyes as he greeted Alice. She couldn’t blame him, but knowing the media was upon them like a flock of vultures, she gently nudged him with her elbow.
“Do be careful, Professor,” she whispered. “The camera doesn’t lie.”
“Forgive me, My Lady. It will not happen again.”
Lorianna took her seat again beside Alice and they spoke gaily on events pertaining to everything from their dresses to the stuffy formality they were overseeing. Alice became bored with the perky woman’s overeagerness and scanned her eyes across the room, not focusing on anything in particular. She could see the feline, Charleston, standing by near Maximillian, talking about what she couldn’t quite discern. But their chatting was amiable and friendly. Alice made a mental note to speak with Margreaves about his lack of decorum at this event.
She straightened her posture when her eyes fell on Thomas, the raccoon. Thomas returned her gaze with a friendly, confident smile, but even from that distance away, Alice could tell he wasn’t putting full weight on one of his feet. She returned his smile with her friendliest one – the one that said ‘if you tell I’ll ruin you’. Thomas averted his eyes from her after that. She was grateful his other supporter, Mackenzie O’Neill, had been taken care of by Corlette and the kits. She chuckled to herself, thinking about the alleycat’s reaction if she had told him she knew what had happened there too. He would have probably balked so adorably as he’d done earlier. She could see Corlette’s tail weaving its way towards Margreaves in the thick of the crowd of nobility.
Excellent. The plan was in motion.
She was disturbed from her thoughts by Lorianna’s gentle touch on her arm. “Our Elderflower wine has arrived, Your Majesty.”
Alice turned, and was immediately struck dumb like a bolt of lightning. Carefully handing a glass of wine to the animated Tigress was a youngster in the Star Team’s dress uniform - In Connor’s old Star Team Dress Uniform. Instantly Alice’s thoughts were back to the day she had met Faralina, her beautiful reds and tans of her pelt...and then to Lawrence, his dark reds and blacks of his raccoon stripes. The boy standing before her and Lorianna was the spitting image of both of them.
“Thank you so much, Sunnie,” Lorianna was saying as she planted a small kiss on his forehead. “That was so nice of you to bring Alice and I our glasses.”
Sunnie...what was it Faralina had once said to her? – ‘If I bear a child, they will carry all the goodness and grace of the sun?’
The boy shyly presented Alice with her glass; there was some confidence there, but even the swan could tell he was extremely nervous. Alice allowed herself to relax, taking the glass from the boy gently. Oh, this could not have gone any better than this!
“What a sweet little one you are!” Alice crooned, her feathery fingers brushing at the boy’s muzzlefur. “And delightfully handsome to boot! What is your name, little one?”
“Sunnie, Your Majesty,” the child answered, his voice trembling slightly. “Sunnie River’ynn.”
Anyone who had been watching the exchange between the boy and the Princess would have said it was a completely normal occurance. Anyone who knew Alice far better than the show she was putting on would have obeyed their first impulse and gotten involved...but with Charleston’s firm grip on his shoulder, Connor couldn’t move to intercept his best friend. Alice had gotten too close to him, despite his whispered warnings that the Princess was big trouble and bad news. Lorianna had sent Margreaves to collect the glasses of wine. So why the hell was Sunnie doing it instead?
“Charleston...!” Connor hissed.
“Not. Now. Connor.” Charleston’s voice was hard as steel bars. “Stay put.”
Connor tried again but was silenced by the cat’s look of fury and the twitching of his tail. He quietly hoped Sunnie wouldn’t stay with the Princess for long. He was going to box his friend’s ears for ignoring his earlier warnings…
Margreaves had hung back at the darkened end of the bar, just within eyesight of Alice’s seat, but otherwise shielded from Lorianna’s point of view. He had seen her demure look, and knew his ex-employer was up to something. She wanted him within her eyesight but not the Lady’s.
What are you up to, Your Majesty?
Margreaves was momentarily startled by a prod to his lower back. He heard the quiet chuckle, and knew instantly who it was.
“Corlette, what...?” he began, but was quickly silenced by the cat handing him something wrapped in a handkerchief.
“The Princess’s orders,” he replied. “It’s for Your Lady.”
Margreaves said nothing and the wrapped bundle exchanged paws.
“What is it exactly?”
“The Princess said you’d know how to administer it safely.”
“Ah,” the old bear replied, quickly recalling the earlier debacle a week before at the prison with a certain alligator. “It’s that, is it?”
“Oh yes. One rather powerful dosage.”
“I’m still holding you to your word, Corlette.”
“And you’ll have it. Take a look who’s courting your ex-exployer.”
Margreaves froze as his eyes alighted on Alice and Sunnie. Something in the back of his mind snapped like a twig, and not for the reasons he thought. Was no one safe from that woman’s taint?
Corlette misconstrued it as support for the Princess and followed it up with a chuckle of his own.
“The power’ll be yours in exactly an hour from now. Don’t damn it all to hell just yet!”
Margreaves looked away, ambition and conscience burning a hole into his very being. When he turned back, Xavier was already gone, back into the crowd of nobility, expertly looking as though he belonged in that sea of silk suits and velvet dresses. Part of him wanted that power, that leadership more than anything he’d ever worked his arse off for, and the other part of him, that minute sliver of conscience he had left, knew that if he did this, the repercussions would damn not only the boy, but everyone connected to him...including the old bear himself.
Did he truly want to take that risk and destroy everything he’d built?
His paw closed around the wrapped syringe in his pocket. Alice had gone to such extreme measures to secure this single dose – played a gangster for a total fool – using her own wits, her own cunning...and her own sex. He had never approved of her doing that, never approved of a Royal stooping to so low a level that she wasn’t even above a common criminal. And yet, for all of this smear, she was still on top. She was the heiress to the throne of the Heirarchy...with nothing and no one to stop her.
And she had placed all her trust in him.
She would be his Queen sooner rather than later. She would have a husband by her side, no doubt the bloody alleycat if she could sink her wiles into him. And he would be honorbound to both of them. It occurred to the old bear that this entire plot of hers was a test – a test of his loyalty. Could he go through with it and damn the repercussions, or would he break and refuse her offer of immunity?
He eyed Lorianna as she stood, albeit somewhat unsteadily in those heels, noting Alice’s bemused expression as Sunnie took her hand for support. Hate coursed through him as he thought about Lorianna’s scurrilous accusations that he was sleeping was Alice. He had not, and would not, forgive her for that venom. And the boy...four feet of Riverland trash...by her side. He squeezed the syringe gently, before nodding an acknolwedgement to Alice he was sure she saw from him.
Alice would have her loyalty repaid twice over.
“Mm, I don’t want to sit in these chairs all night, Alice. Come on! Come dance!” Lorianna was giggling.
“Uhhh,” the swan woman put up her feathered fingers in mock protest. “Not me, Lorianna. Two left feet and all that sort of thing!”
“You’re going to be Queen!” Lorianna admonished. “You might as well learn, surely!”
Alice rolled her eyes to the Tigress’s soft laughter. “Oh alright!”
Lorianna was briefly startled by Margreaves’ sudden appearance, almost to the point of stumbling. She was lucky Sunnie still had a firm grip on her hand. Momentarily shaken, but steadied by the tree panda’s hands, she cleared her throat.
“Hector...?” she asked.
“If it would please Your Ladyship, would I be of humble service to lend a partner to Her Majesty, the Princess?”
Lorianna was unsure, but didn’t show it. She nodded, smiling brightly to hide her discomfort at the old bear’s eagerness to dance with her enemy. The old bear took the feathery hand of his former employer and led her carefully down the steps to the ballroom floor. Sunnie carefully assisted Lorianna down the stairs to where Jones was waiting for them both. He bowed before the Tigress who curtesyed carefully.
“Thank you, Sunnie,” Lorianna ran her paw through his brushed headfur.
“Your welcome, My Lady,” the tree panda replied shyly.
Jones nodded to Sunnie, before leading Lorianna out onto the dancefloor with the other couples. Sunnie smiled softly to himself. Lorianna sure was nice. He was heading back towards Charleston when a hand snaked out from behind a pillar and yanked him back into the darkness. It was Connor.
Connor slapped his paw over Sunnie’s mouth. “Quiet, darn it!”
Connor rubbed his forehead with his paw. “What did I tell you about Alice?!” he hissed angrily.
“No buts! Sunnie, she’s slime!” Connor glanced around to see if anyone was listening, but the crowd was ignorant of the two youngsters. “That was as fake as it gets!”
“I was tryin’ t’ help Lorianna!” Sunnie retorted. “She almost slipped thanks t’ th’ bear!”
“There’s the heck of a difference between helping the ones you trust and the others who’re using your trust!”
“What’s that s’posed t’ mean?!”
“I’m sayin’ stay the hell away from Alice, Sunnie!” Connor growled, the first time the tree panda had ever seen him angry. “You’re not her damned plaything!”
“Ah can take care o’ myself!” Sunnie snapped, anger boiling in him. “I don’ need you always hangin’ o’er me laik m’ darned guardian!”
Sunnie instantly regretted the words when he saw Connor’s ears play back immediately.
“Forget it,” the Hedgehog replied, turning away. “Clearly you know better than I do.”
“I don’t...” Sunnie felt his confidence dissipating. “Connor, ah...ah didn’t mean...”
“I thought you were different. Proves how much I know.”
Connor didn’t mean for the words to come out that harsh, but they had. Sunnie joined him, and silently, both the youngsters returned together to where Charleston, Thomas and Maximillian were standing, watching Jones have the first dance with Lady Lorianna. Sunnie sat away from Connor, Thomas in the middle of them. Thomas glanced at Connor, but he was clearly too angry to speak to his friend. Sunnie flinched slightly when Thomas made a move to touch his shoulder.
Damage control, Thomas thought. Now I wish Mackenzie was here...
Xavier watched this exchange from his vantage point, his tail twitching thoughtfully. This was, as Alice would put it, working out far better than either of them had hoped. He’d ensure Connor would regret this moment for the rest of the night. Hell, failing that, that little kid wouldn’t trust Connor if his life depended on it. And, judging from the looks Alice and Margreaves were shooting him, it was showtime. He stalked towards the dancefloor, with one intention in mind – complete chaos.
“He’s heading this way, Your Majesty,” Margreaves whispered in her ear.
“Good,” Alice replied. “Now we’re getting somewhere...”
“Oh Lorianna!” Alice giggled serenely as soon as the Tigress was within earshot. “Why don’t you have that handsome little one dance with you next? I’m sure your consort for this evening wouldn’t mind?”
Lorianna looked back at where Sunnie was sitting, isolated somewhat from Connor. Instantly her thoughts were a barrel of confusion – less than twenty minutes ago, Sunnie was full of confidence and life, and now twenty minutes later, he was quietly and sadly shying away from Connor. Alice’s fake charm worked, and forgetting everything that she knew about the swan woman, she thanked Jones for the dance and called for Sunnie to join her. Connor didn’t even look up as Lorianna addressed his friend, wilfully ignoring him as the tree panda looked back at him for a moment. It was only after he left that Thomas nudged Connor sharply in the ribs.
“What the hell has gotten into you?” Thomas quietly demanded. “One second you’re fretting over him and the next, you’re pissed at him!”
“Stay the hell out of my affairs, Thomas!” Connor growled softly.
“I’m not going to,” Thomas retorted. “Damnit Connor, that boy and you have been joined at the hip ever since he got here!”
“He’s not the person I thought he was.”
“Who the hell is?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You think your life’s supposed to be sunshine and roses, kiddo?” Thomas’s voice was unusually hard. “You try being stuck between a wall and your captain’s drunken fist. You try being stuck between loving someone and having someone else tear your heart out and stomp on it just because he can.”
Connor looked at Thomas, shocked. The raccoon’s eyes were dark.
“Try being caught between a cat and a wolf who think of you as the common ground of enemy territory,” Thomas laughed hollowly. “Don’t give me that crap that your life sucks, Connor. You don’t know the half of mine!”
“You better apologise to Sunnie first chance you get, or the gods help me, I’ll make you do it.”
On the other side of the raccoon and the hedgehog, Charleston and Maximillian’s conversation had turned hushed, quiet. The prussian feline was making the cougar feel uneasy about the whole situation.
“What do you mean Margreaves annulled your orders from Lorianna?”
“I mean he just...did,” Max replied softly.
“What the hell is going on here?”
“I don’t know. Usually he’s not quite as grim or gruff, but lately, pal, I don’t know...”
“He’s spending a lot of time trying to cosy up with the Princess, though.”
“You noticed too, huh?”
“Not hard to,” Charleston muttered. “Bitch has us so neatly in a corner, Max.”
“I heard about that. She was talking about it to one of her other...backers.”
“Who was it this time?”
“I couldn’t say. Only heard a voice, didn’t see him any.”
“Hmm...” Charleston paused thoughtfully, before bekoning Jones over to where they were standing. “Jones, over here.”
“Aye, what is it, Charleston?”
“Max says that he overheard Alice talking about...well...you know.”
“Oh?” the surprised the old owl enough to cast a grim look back at the twirling swan and bear. “How so?”
“I didn’t see his face,” Max protested, holding up his paws. “The guy was only interested in hearing why she wanted me to stay away from the Lady’s side tonight...”
Their conversation was interrupted by an ear-splitting scream of terrible pain. All eyes everywhere in the huge ballroom turned to the dancefloor where the nobility had crowded around Lady Lorianna, the Princess Alice, and Margreaves. Margreaves had swept Sunnie away from Lorianna with a vicious swipe of his paw, his fangs bared and snarling, arms cradling the badly injured Tigress. Her leg was awash with blood. Alice feigned the best utter shock she could, adding tears to her award-winning performance as her guardsmen ushered her away and back from the rapidly spreading pool of blood. Lorianna whimpered, tears coursing down her muzzle, her eyes trying to swiftly focus on her surroundings. The media was going completely nuts, the flashing cameras and popping bulbs were making her head spin.
“CLEAR THE AREA!” the guardsmen were yelling, Maximillian too as he bolted to Lorianna’s side.
On the other side of the dancefloor, Sunnie was slowly getting up, arm around his bruised stomach where Margreaves had hit him. He felt the voices come to him in a rush and as he opened his eyes and focused, he could see the trembling form of the Tigress in the bear’s arms. The pool of blood he saw immediately after. Her ankles...those heels...he remembered the conversation in the limosine prior to their arrival.
Whatever confidence he had left him as swiftly as he had earned it.
In the middle of the chaos, Sunnie bolted, pushing past stunned noblemen and women in his haste to get away from what it was he had done. Lorianna could only barely hear, and see, through the haze and the voices in her head the boy’s terrified form running for his life through the shocked crowd. She tried to speak, but no sound came from her throat, hoarse from crying. She turned her eyes upwards to Margreaves, who cradled her close to him.
“Keep still, My Lady!” he was ordering, his voice thick with panic. “Lie still!”
“M-mar...gre...aves...” she whispered.
“Keep silent,” she heard him say.
She felt a sharp jab in her lower back, through her dress. She started momentarily, before her world spun before her. Every last bit of control left her and she faded into unconsciousness.
“HER LADYSHIP’S COLLAPSED!”
“SHE’S UNCONSCIOUS! MEDICS!”
“SECURE HER CONSORTS!” Margreaves roared. “THEY’RE THE REASON SHE FELL!”
Connor, Thomas, Charleston and Jones found themselves surrounded by Lorianna’s guardsmen. In the thick of the crush, no one thought to mention the fleeing tree panda in the Star Team’s colours. Connor clutched Thomas’s jacket in fear. Where was Sunnie? Where the hell was his best friend?!
“Thomas, I can’t see Sunnie!” Connor panicked.
“Neither can I!” the raccoon replied, arm around the young hedgehog’s shoulders. “Keep still, Connor! Don’t move!”
Charleston pushed away the guardsmen’s bayonets. “GOD DAMNIT MARGREAVES! CALL YOUR DOGS OFF!”
Jones ran his fingers through whatever remained of his headfeathers, “We’re so screwed...we are so screwed...I’m dreaming...I’m asleep...wake me up, please...”
“JONES! SNAP OUT OF IT!” Thomas cried.
“Screwed...I should have stayed employed with the university...I should have married young...and had my dingleberry sliced off before it got to this point...”
Between Margreaves barking orders and swiftly carrying the unconscious Tigress towards the medics, Charleston hissing up a right royal fit with Maximillian and the other guards, Alice hamming up her tearful performance with the media, Jones losing all his marbles, Thomas trying to calm Connor down, Connor in panicked tears, and the gathered nobility all talking at once, Xavier plucked a filled wine glass from a nearby waiter who was standing in shock along with his colleagues. He took a sip, watching the utter chaos with gleaming eyes.
“Dissent,” he purred to himself. “It’s such a wonderful thing.”
There was just one more loose end the alleycat had to tie up...
Captain Patrick J. Star sleepily eyed the wall clock. It had just gone midnight. He smacked his dry lips, wincing as the taste of bile and alcohol filled his nostrils. What the hell was that ringing noise in his eardrums? That seriously couldn’t be a headache. It was too soon for the bells of hell to come a’calling. The sound picked up sharply as his head began to clear and he realised through his half-drunken haze that it was the phone doing the ringing. His hand fumbled stupidly for the reciever and only succeeded when he lost his balance from the edge of the bed and tumbled over, eliciting a few moments of frenzied swearing. The voice on the other end didn’t quite register to the drunken young man.
“...Star Team Headquarters,” Star repeated, rubbing his head. “Captain Star speaking.”
“I’m curious, Captain,” the voice spoke on the other end. “Where was your sanity when you took on board a Riverlander?”
Even in his half-drunk state, the Captain clearly heard every word for the taunt they were.
“Who the hell is this?” he demanded, wincing at the volume of his own voice.
“A...concerned onlooker. Your crew are in the hell of a lot of trouble here, Sir.”
“Here? What the hell---?!”
“I’m going to say this as I stand here…you are a fool. A pitiful, drunken, idiotic fool. You take on board a Riverlander thinking it’ll all be sunshine and roses, and look where that got you.”
“You aren’t making a lick of sense...”
“Turn on the news, Captain. And then tell yourself I’m not making sense.”
The line went dead. Star stared at the reciever blankly for a few moments before snatching the remote from his bedside table and flipping the viewscreen on. The images flashed through his retinas at triple the speed it took for his headache to dissipate. Cold fury etched upon his features as he got up off the floor, and almost autonomously went directly to the liquor cabinet. He didn’t bother with the keys. He balled his fist through the glass, ignoring the shrill stinging pain he received from doing so. Thoughts he had taken the time, and care, to bury over the course of the last few days surfaced with red hot anger. He didn’t even bother with a glass, simply popped the cork and downed the hatch.
That little bastard. That snivelling little troublemaking bastard.
Star opened the door to his bedroom and tromped down the stairs, loud enough to wake the sleeping dead. Mackenzie was stirred from his sleep by the fiasco outside his bedroom door, groaned and yelled for Captain Star to knock it off, before pulling his pillow over his head. The bottle in his hand was half gone by the time Star reached the landing. He stalked over to the guest bedroom, slipping into the darkness of the room. It was then that his eyes registered the gleaming pendant sitting on the chest of drawers at the bedside. He picked it up disdainfully, taking another swig from the bottle as the gleam registered into his brain as belonging to that of a star. The craftmanship of it was minutely detailed and loving, but Star felt far from accommodating to notice those tiny things. Star dropped the pendant back to its place and swiftly drew the curtains on the window, blocking out whatever shaft of moonlight permeated the room. He took the chair from the desk, sat down and waited, slugging from the bottle at random intervals. He knew Sunnie would return for the pendant, and when he did...
...the Heavens help the little bastard.
Xavier stood under the shelter of the phonebox, eyeing the red and white flashing lights of the medics outside and the still-popping bulbs of the media’s cameras. A deep, foreboding rumble of thunder echoed overhead and the cat winced slightly. As much as he liked the darkness, thunderstorms were another thing entirely. He watched Lorianna being stretchered out and into the back of the ambulance, watched the Star Team being led away in cuffs by Margreaves’ guardsmen. And Alice, ohhh, that malicious swan woman was a sight of consternation! Panicked, tearful, she was putting on the Ritz for the media tonight! Xavier chuckled darkly. He honestly couldn’t believe that he was even paying a lick of attention to her masterful performance.
A flash of colour out of the corner of his eye registered enough attention to make Xavier turn his head. Hiding in an alleyway just across from the phonebox was the frightened, tearful tree panda, Sunnie.
Margreaves reappeared out of the ambulance, casting a worried, grim look at his unconscious Lady fair as the officers took over from him. Playing his role effectively was Margreaves’ strong point. He barked orders at Maximillian to take the arrested Star Team into custody, whilst he and the rest of the guards hunted down the Riverlander. Xavier saw Sunnie shrink back into the darkness, covering his face with his hands, sobbing. Margreaves’ orders were hard to ignore, despite the rumbling thunder and crackling lightning overhead. Xavier heard the soft ringing sound on the roof of the phonebox before the heavens above opened up and the roar of the torrential rain blanketed everyone and everything in its icy touch. This storm was apt, he realised – an omen of things to come.
When the alleycat next inclined his head towards the alley, he saw that the boy had disappeared. Xavier breathed a sigh and stepped out of the phonebox, turning up his collar to avoid getting hit by the rain.
“So you saw him too, hmm?”
The cat started. Standing behind him, flanked by two of her number in plain clothes, was the Princess Alice.
“You did well, Corlette, very well indeed,” Alice almost purred in vicious delight. “The media is now placated with the image of a traitorous Riverlander boy who will be hunted to justice by Margreaves, Commander of the Royal Guard. And you...you played it expertly. I didn’t even see you coming.”
Xavier straightened his necktie, clearly apprehensive that the swan didn’t even resemble the frightened Royal he’d seen only moments before.
“Clearly you and yours will be rewarded handsomely for fixing this entire mess for me.”
“Fixing?” Xavier’s apprehensiveness was etched all over his face.
“The boy,” Alice waved her hand dismissively. “You’ve given me the means to an end.”
She pressed a plain envelope into the cat’s hand, flashing him a sincere smile that lit up her face.
“I’m sure this will be more than enough. But if not...you know where to find me. Good evening, Mister Corlette.”
Xavier watched the Royal enter into a car close by and disappear into the rainy night, leaving him standing somewhat open-mouthed on the rainy sidewalk. Means to an end? The cat thought back on their earlier conversation, before the realisation dawned on him. He’d seen Alice’s expression when she’d laid eyes on the boy presenting Lorianna with her wine glass. He only then realised he’d been opening the envelope whilst he was thinking about all of this. Looking down, his eyes alighted on a large pack of bills. Thousand dollar bills. And, from his rapid calculations, there were a hundred of them.
The cat smiled a goofy smile before bolting in the opposite direction, his second thoughts and concerns about the tree panda boy forgotten.
Adrenalin surged through every fibre of his being.
He had to avoid the main roads. Even the alleyways would render him trapped if they caught sight of him. Hearing the old bear bark those orders and the hurried footsteps of the pursuing guards at length behind him forced him over dustbins and back fences, over rats and mice and boarded up shops and bolted doorways. He looked for something, anything, that would tell him he was headed in the right direction back to the Star Team HQ. He had to be rid of this skin, had to be rid of the bitter poison he could taste, smell and breathe even over the steady roar of the falling rain.
His hands had gone immediately for his neck before he had heard the guards approaching the alleyway. He had found Mackenzie’s pendant and in his tearful fright had torn the chain from his neck. That badge symbolised unity and friendship...and what the hell had he just done? He’d severed that very idealism down to its very roots. He’d gotten the Star Team arrested for something he’d done. And because he had been so scared, he’d run for his life without looking back.
COWARD! Sunnie’s mind screamed at him. YOU UTTER COWARD!
Voices permeated the darkness surrounding him. Sunnie dived under a heap of rubbish as the flashlights lit up the alleyway, scanning for any signs of life. He huddled into the smallest ball he could, begging himself not to tremble, or shiver, or otherwise draw attention to the trashbags piled up around him. He could hear it, the fury and the rage at having their soon-to-be-crowned Royal injured so viciously by him. He blocked his ears, feeling the tears come of their own accord, watching the bright beams of light pierce through the rhythmic fall of the rain.
Please don’t let them find me...please don’t let them find me...!
The beams halted on the pile of rubbish. Sunnie felt his heart stop as one set of footfalls approached his hiding place, and he could hear them sniffing the air.
“What is it, Davin?” his partner asked him.
“Shine yer light over here, Keif. Swear to God I can smell something...”
“OI DAVIN! WE’VE SEARCHED DOWN HERE ALREADY!” came a yell at the opposite end of the alley. “STOP MIDDLING AROUND! WE’VE GOTTA FIND THAT LITTLE BASTARD!”
The footfalls disappeared back down the alleyway. Sunnie covered his mouth with both hands and muffled his resulting cries. They’d almost found him – had practically been on top of him – before being interrupted by another guardsman. Whatever luck that had been, it would not last. A huge bolt of lightning lit up the rainy night sky, illuminating everything around him. Looking up, he could clearly see the Star Team HQ’s bright silver star illuminated in the reflection of a nearby window. If he could reach the HQ, he’d be able to change back into his old colours and get out before anyone was any the wiser. Shivering with cold, Sunnie darted in and out of the surrounding alleyways, watching all the time for the guardsmen, before slipping up and over the back fence and into the garden. There were no lights on, and Sunnie mistook this as a good sign. Had he looked up at the guest bedroom window, he would have seen the curtains drawn. He would have never have tried to jimmy the back door lock and slipped inside that way.
Had he looked up as the lightning had flashed and not let out a muffled squeal of fright, he would have seen Captain Star waiting for him inside the guest bedroom, curtains in his drunken hands.
Sunnie crept inside, quietly closing the back door. Water dripped off his sodden fur and uniform, pooling underneath him. He stayed still in the darkness, eyes and ears alert and open, listening for any sign of life. There was nothing immediate that Sunnie could hear, just his own panicked heartbeat and breathing and the dripping water off of himself onto the floor. He crept into the darkness, leaving small pools of water behind him as he tiptoed.
What should have struck him as odd was that the door to the guestroom was ajar, but Sunnie was not focused on anything but ridding himself of the uniform and changing back into his ordinary, normal clothes. He should have had his ears open and alert, should have been clearly focused on listening for any change of sound in the HQ, but instead he hurried to shed Connor’s old uniform. Tears formed in his eyes and he thought of his friend. They’d argued shortly before the accident, and not apologised. Sunnie was sure, so sure indeed, that Connor truly hated him for what had happened, not just with the Princess Alice, but all of this as well. The tree panda spotted the pendant sitting on the chest of drawers and looked away.
How honestly stupid could he be, thinking he could be part of the Star Team?
It was the last thought that registered in his mind before a hand snaked out of the darkness and gripped his own. Sunnie screamed as the drunken form of Captain Star yanked him close. He could smell the stench of whiskey on the Captain’s breath before the colour drained from his face. He knew from the fury of the pull that Captain Star knew what had happened.
Sunnie couldn’t get the words out, couldn’t get the apology out of his frightened throat. There was simply no time as he felt Captain Star’s nails dig into his soaked fur. He cried in pain as he felt them close around his arm, drawing blood that mingled with the dripping wetness. He heard the bottle smash on the floor somewhere between the Captain’s tirade and his crying voice, his coughing and crying, the begging and pleading for the older man to let him go. He didn’t feel the Captain drag him through the fragments of glass. It just didn’t register at that point, between the whiskey and the words, and the fury and the end. He didn’t remember being flung out of the HQ via the back door with that amount of force.
Through the pain, the only thing that registered was the crack of the lightning and the resulting rumble of thunder as he came to. He eased himself up, wincing at the sharp pinpricks of pain that shot through his tail, his arm and his ribcage. Red stains were clearly blending to pink on his sweater and jeans. Star was standing on the back porch, another half empty bottle at his lips, looking for all the world like a horrific monster that Sunnie had suffered in nightmares as a youngster. As Sunnie got to his feet unsteadily, that half-empty bottle smashed at his feet, sending bits of glass into his right ankle. He cried out, but all that came from his throat was a hoarse whimper.
“GET OFF OF MY PROPERTY,” Star drunkenly roared over the storm. “YOU FILTHY RIVERLANDER!”
Sunnie winced as something hit him in the shoulder. It was his Star pendant.
“AND TAKE THIS DAMNED JOKE WITH YOU!”
Sunnie snatched up the pendant and bolted, not looking back, Star yelling obscenities far behind him, tears in freefall down his face. Between the rain, the lightning, the thunder, the accident and the Heirarchy clearly baying for his blood, the only thing Sunnie could think of were the words he hadn’t had the courage to say to Connor earlier on in the night.
Oh Goddess I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m sorry!!
The tree panda disappeared into the haze of the rain, and was gone...