Strawberries sat silently at the foot of her bed, her hands delicately holding the note in front of her. She had already read it more than once, yet she wasn’t able to bring herself to believe it until Ales set his plan into motion.
A knock outside her door shocked Straw, quickly folding the note and hiding it under the white ruffles of her gown.
“Straw,” Shards’ voice called out as she carefully entered, “Are you okay? You’ve barely left your room since Ales left.”
“I-I’m still shocked about, I guess,” Straw replied, hoping Shards would not see the note. All of the worst case scenarios were running through Strawberries’ mind as she kept a mask of uncertainty on.
“I know,” Shards agreed, sitting down next to Straw’s right, much to Straw’s relief. “I’m still getting over being held hostage like that. I thought I could beat him, I thought I was ready.”
“You had to try,” Strawberries replied, placing a hand on Shards’ shoulder, “If you didn’t, then Lydia would have been held hostage.”
“I know, and Ales told me his plan last night as well, before he made me talk... about Riku.” Strawberries didn’t know what to say, so instead she gave Shards a side on hug, to which the Duchess replied.
“Hey,” Shards asked, and the moment Shards reached across Strawberries’ body, she knew Shards had seen the note. She tried to block Shards with her body, but Shards moved around and snatched the note.
“Give it back,” Straw nearly yelled, betraying how desperate she felt.
“Why?” Shards asked while opening the note, but her facial features changed from one of curiosity to agitated confusion.
This isn’t easy for me to say, but, well, I’m sorry for what I said about your food. If anything, your food’s the best I’ve ever eaten, and one of the few things I’ve missed since leaving the palace.
There’s something else I wanted to tell you. Very soon, Incasta is going to undergo a great change, a tumultuous change, one in which I must act as the cause. There will be losses, and I will never be seen the same again. I warn you because soon even Astraea will not be safe, meaning you will not be safe. You are one of the few family members I wish to survive this.
Should the palace come under siege, there’s a hidden door in the private garden that leads into a secret passageway. If you follow it, it will open up in a field near the edge of the city.
I ‘m not sure if you’ll hate me for all of this, but it must be done, for the sake of helping Incasta grow. Please don’t hate me for his.
By the time she had finished reading, Shards’ hands were shaking from anger. She scrunched the paper into a ball and threw it against the closet door in the far corner.
“Please tell me you don’t believe him,” the Duchess angrily asked Strawberries, who looked down at the floor, her fingers knotting together in guilt.
“Well,” Straw stuttered, “I... I just...”
“Oh no,” Shards said to herself as her eyes widened in realisation, “Straw, don’t tell me you... you like Ales?”
“Straw, there is no chance he’ll come out of this mess unscathed. The best sentence he can hope for if he fails is exile, and at worst he’ll be hanged. You want to defend him after everything he’s done?” A tense silence filled the room as Strawberries felt the weight of Shards’ gaze rest upon her.
“I know he’s done terrible things,” the Princess said, her voice trembling, “But I cannot help how I feel about him, just as you cannot help feeling for that guard Arthur.”
Shards was taken back a bit by this, but regained her composure as her face took on a softer look.
“Straw, I’m sorry,” Shards apologized, sitting next to Straw on the bed again. “I just don’t want you getting hurt, that’s all. No matter what happens, Ales will have to pay for his crimes, one way or another. Nobody wants to see you in pain because of something that’s out of your hands.”
“So,” Straw sniffed, “You’re saying I should give up?”
“No, I’m saying you shouldn’t do anything you will regret later. We don’t want to lose you like we almost lost Riku, okay?” Straw nodded as Shards embraced her in a hug. “Guess I’ve got a new secret to keep, huh?”
This drew a tearful smile from Strawberries as she returned the hug.
A soft click stirred Riku from his slumber, his heavy eyelids blinking a few times to see clearly. Next to his bed sat Nikz, playing with a small doll before noticing Riku.
“Nikz,” Riku murmured, his voice dry from his sleep.
“Riku,” Nikz replied, a small smile forming on her face as she moved closer. “Are you okay?” Riku was about to answer, but then the past events resurfaced as the haze of sleep faded.
“ALES!” He shouted, sitting forward only to have pain flare throughout his body like a wildfire.
“Riku,” Nikz shouted in concern, “Sit back down. You’ll re-open your wound.” As the pain continued to burn inside, Nikz eased Riku back down, watching his face as it contorted from his injury.
“N-Nikz?” Riku barely asked as he squinted back at the Princess, her concern starting to fade.
“Thank goodness you’re alright,” she said, resting back in her seat beside the bed. “You really had us worried.”
“How long have I been here?” Riku asked “What happened?”
“Ales has left,” Nikz informed him, speaking calmly, but with purpose. “He said in return for sparing your life he would be free to leave. Romeo didn’t like it, but Katherine let him go. As for how long you’ve been resting, you’ve been asleep for two whole days.”
“Two days?” Riku asked incredulously, trying to prop himself up on his elbows before Nikz gently pushed him down again.
“Don’t worry,” Nikz went on, “Romeo is looking after things. What’s more, you need to rest in order to heal. Apparantly you’re meant to stay in bed for a week.”
“A week?” Riku asked again, his voice rising.
“Calm down,” Nikz told him off, “Otherwise you won’t heal. Also, after this week, the doctor said you will not be able to return to duty for at least a month.”
“This has to be a nightmare,” Riku muttered as he closed his eyes. “And you’re taking care of me?”
“Not all the time,” the Princess replied, a smile returning to her face. “We’re all taking it in turns, except for Romeo, he was too busy. But for now, you’re under my care.”
“May the Gods help me,” Riku muttered.
“I heard that,” Nikz replied, picking up the doll she had before. It was an old voodoo doll, not that either one of the two believed in it greatly, but it was dressed in an Incastan military uniform and topped with bright pink hair.
“Besides,” she went on, “I found your Riki doll.”
“I don’t recall it having pink hair.”
“Well, I decorated it a bit more. Besides, I think you’d look good with pink hair.” Riku groaned, wishing he could fall asleep once more to escape the humiliation.