It was several weeks later that Nova and her family, accompanied by Ingrid Astia, who’d taken a leave from her work at the daycare, headed to the capital, like her father had implied they might.
Their ostensible goal was to meet with Ingrid’s son, Jamil Astia, who happened to be an old friend of Aaron’s.
Nova was quite eager to see the capital. It felt like she was finally getting to know a larger world than just Saltwell, the city where her family had taken residence. She had of course read a few books about Altera and Edea, and listened to conversations that had given her snippets of knowledge, but this was far from enough. It would have been fine if she’d had access to the internet – she could have taught herself anything she wanted – but most of the features of her bracer had been promptly sealed once Marian had realized the thing’s full capabilities.
The Storm family, along with Ingrid, were all currently riding inside a minibus Aaron had conjured up from somewhere, which left more place for everybody to stretch their legs than a smaller vehicle. The thing, however, didn’t run like a minibus. It ran like a freaking race car juiced up on concentrated nitro. They zipped across the highway, the landscape on both sides fading into blurry colored lines, yet felt nary a bump as they weaved through the obstacle course the other drivers formed on the road, as if the minibus was equipped with inertial dampeners of some kind.
Maybe it generates its own controlled gravity field or something. And it runs on nuclear fusion. Or an antimatter reactor.
Nova was already used to her father’s habit of giving the lie to this world’s technology level, so the minibus’s performance didn’t bother her too much. By this point, even if it had suddenly taken to the air and flown, it would barely have deserved a raised eyebrow from her.
Fortunately, the minibus’s characteristics meant that the trip to the capital was a mercifully short one. Nova had never been a big fan of waiting in a car seat waiting to reach her destination – which might seem a tad paradoxical, considering she’d spent most of her past life with her sedentary ass stuck to a desk seat, in front of a computer.
They entered the capital without incident, and the minibus drove itself at more reasonable speeds toward the center of the city. Through the window, Nova could see the buildings slowly become more and more upscale and luxurious. The cars parked along the road turned into gleaming, sleek machines that were probably worth thirty years of a normal family’s earnings. Nova glanced at Ingrid, wondering just why someone from the kind of family living in such a place would be working in the daycare of a smallish city.
Yet, still they drove on, until ‘upscale and luxurious’ was no longer enough to describe their surroundings. It seemed to Nova that they were distinctly heading toward the high, towery palace standing proudly in the middle of the city.
Are you serious? Are we going to see the king? Are my parents friends with royalty?
It seemed like a stretch to directly jump to that conclusion just from their supposed destination, but Nova had read enough books to notice the foreshadowing. She knew that her parents, despite being commoners, were unnaturally wealthy and successful. Indeed, while the particulars of Marian’s job were still something of mystery, Aaron alone would have been outstanding enough simply with his ability to gather all those friends of his, each one a true expert of their own field, to work with him in that research center. Taking into account the sheer number of incredible inventions she’d seen come out of that facility, it stood to reason that Aaron would be a rather notable man, and that the company he kept would be just as notable.
Nova’s suspicions didn’t take long to prove themselves correct. When their vehicle stopped in front of a large, ornamented, grated gate, a long spiked fence stretching out from both sides to encompass the garden held within, she only had to glance at the two guards standing at attention in front, assault rifles at the shoulder, to know that she was right. Both of them even bowed when Ingrid walked up to them, Nova’s family behind her.
“Man, it’s been a while since I last came here. Four or five years, now, I think?” Aaron said as they walked on a path through green and healthy and lovingly tended gardens. He breathed in deeply, as if trying to smell a nostalgic scent in the air.
The group had entered through a side gate, coming in to the palace from its right, hidden behind the trees and shrubs of the garden. As her parents reminisced about old times with Ingrid, Nova trailed behind next to Ryner, her hand in his as he drew her forward. Her eyes wandered in every direction, trying to take in all the sights. She wanted to ask if her siblings had ever come here before – they didn’t seem overly surprised by what was happening – but holding hands wasn’t the most ideal position to reach her bracer and give voice to the question.
Eventually, they reached a discreet wooden door set into the white stone of the palace, and Ingrid led them down a confusing series of hallways, deeper into the building, every person they passed bowing to Ingrid with looks of manifest surprise on their faces. Apparently, her visit had been unscheduled.
Soon, they reached a cozy study and the Storms made themselves at home, like the palace was their own backyard. Nova followed her elder brother to a comfortable sofa and settled down to wait, too.
“I’ll go fetch Jamil. You guys wait here, for now.”
“We know the drill,” Aaron replied pleasantly, waving his hand at her.
The door closed quietly behind Ingrid, and a short silence fell onto the room. It was soon broken by the mechanical voice of Nova’s bracer – she had kept the default voice instead of choosing another, more human-like one. ‘Jamil is king?’
Nova’s parents turned to look at her, and smiled.
“That’s right,” Aaron explained. “We’ve known each other since we were children. We went to school together, actually, although he was incognito, and I didn’t learn until later who he was exactly. Once I became a little more aware of his familial circumstances, I ended up developing something of an intergenerational friendship with Ingrid, as well, although I suppose it is a bit strange to be friends with your friend’s mother. She was still the queen of Altera, at the time, and when she passed the crown to Jamil, she retired to Saltwell. And there you have it; the whole story.”
Marian shook her head, a small smile on her face. “I don’t know how a little commoner boy like you managed to get so embroiled with this country’s royalty without being assassinated along the way.”
She seemed about to continue recounting her nostalgic memories, when Lynn let out an audible gasp, covering her mouth with her hands. “Somebody wants to assassinate Daddy? We have to call the police!”
Marian’s eyes went wide, as if she hadn’t realized the consequences of talking about such things in front of impressionable children. “No! No, no, sweetheart. That was just a joke. Of course, no one wants to do any bad things to Daddy.” Abruptly, she puffed up her chest, looking smug. “And if anyone does, Mommy’s here to stop them! So don’t worry.”
Hmm. It’s true, now that I think of it. Such a prolific inventor, linked to the royal family. There is no way he doesn’t have any enemies. Is that my mother’s job? Some sort of bodyguard detail for Aaron?
It took only a few minutes, Marian and Aaron talking animatedly with their children – to Nova, it looked suspiciously like they were trying to draw attention away from the previous thread of conversation – before the door swung open again. A man, with flinty grey eyes and the blond hair customary to most people in Altera, entered the room with large, confident steps. As soon as they saw him, the family’s conversation stopped short, and Marian and Aaron, along with Lynn and Ryner, who seemed familiar with the procedure, got off their seats and knelt on the carpeted floor.
Nova, though, made no move to stand up from the chair she occupied.
It wasn’t because she was frozen in shock and awe at seeing her very first real-life king ever. It wasn’t because she was pretending to be an innocent and uncomprehending child.
It was simply because there were few things Nova hated more than being forced to lower her head in front of someone else. Even in her old life, she would never have shown such a sign of submission to anyone. Of course, there was little call in the modern democratic societies of Earth for such a thing as kneeling, but there were other ways for one to demonstrate subordination.
To flatter someone. To fawn over someone. To be obsequious, servile, sycophantic, ingratiating, slavish. To grovel. To prostrate oneself, abase oneself, ingratiate oneself.
There truly were few things she despised more than these.
On someone else, someone with more achievements and abilities or with a more impressive social standing, it might have been called self-respect. Such people might have said that they were proud.
But Nova was perfectly conscious that this wasn’t the case for her.
It was pride there too, yes, but Nova wasn’t proud.
She was just prideful.
It was arrogance. An overly inflated ego.
Because this pride of hers wasn’t really supported by anything at all. In this life, she was a commoner, and even in her past life, she had never been anyone notable. She had gained some measure of peer recognition in her field of study, but she’d still been a rather average person, all in all. Certainly not someone on the level of a king.
Still, none of that mattered.
It was like in that particular movie, with the spartan army fighting the persian army. The spartans really had nothing going for them. They were most definitely inferior to the persians in every way that mattered. They were so terribly outnumbered that they would surely lose the confrontation, if it came down to it. Yet, upon being presented with very advantageous terms, the spartan king absolutely refused to surrender and kneel to the persian king. And so, as expected, the spartans all died. Like idiots. Nova didn’t think the spartan king’s behavior was anything to be admired. Neither did it make her blood bubble up with heroism and fighting spirit. Instead, she sincerely thought the spartan king was an idiot who could easily have avoided a painful death for his men and himself.
And at the same time, she also thought, ‘Yeah, I would definitely have made that same idiotic mistake, too. Even though I know it’s idiotic.’
Although, perhaps, this example wasn’t perfect. To the spartan king, the problem was that surrendering ran counter to his culture’s martial values. To Nova, on the other hand, the act of surrendering was, itself, perfectly fine.
It was the kneeling that would have rubbed her the wrong way.
Nova definitely would have surrendered to the persian army, if that surrender had only involved signing a contract or verbally admitting defeat, but not something that would have rubbed it in her face like kneeling.
In a way, that made Nova even more of an idiot than the spartan king…
It was self-destructive and foolish and short-sighted.
But it just irked her – no, it offended her – that she would be forced to show respect to someone she hadn’t acknowledged in the slightest.
Nova was perfectly conscious that this pride of hers was a flaw – one of many she knew she had – yet, she didn’t intend to curb it down, even if it got her into trouble.
She was adamant.
Respect was something earned, not freely given. It wasn’t something rules or laws or customs could wring out from her.
Not even toward a king, whose sole reason for his glory was being born in the correct family. On the contrary, in Nova’s eyes, a king would need to go well beyond the level of a normal person, if he ever wanted to make up for the unfair privileges he’d been granted by sole virtue of his birth.
So what if he was a so-called ‘noble’? It didn’t matter.
So what if he had the right surname? It didn’t matter.
So what if he was her father’s friend? It didn’t matter.
So what, even, if he was a good king, a good man?
That didn’t matter, either.
Stubborn, bull-headed, idiotic, unreasonable pride.
But it was an important pride, and Nova wouldn’t discard it.
As it happened, however, today wouldn’t be the day where this pride would land her in a fire. The king, Jamil Astia, didn’t even seem to notice the little girl sitting straight on her chair, staring at him unblinkingly with what looked like defiance in her brilliant green eyes.
The king’s gaze instead went to Aaron and Marian, and he clicked his tongue. “Get up, ya bastards. How many times do I have to tell you?”
“One more time, at least, Your Majesty,” Aaron replied with a warm smile, before getting up and stepping in front of the king, his arms open for a hug.
Considering the king had just about the same kind of strongman muscles as Aaron himself, the gesture of affection certainly looked like the manliest of manly hugs ever performed on this manly planet. Even the spectators teetered on the edge of a testosterone overdose.
Ending the hug after a moment and giving another, gentler one to Marian, the king let out a sigh. “It’s really been a long time, my friends. Four, five years? Is that about right? Well, I guess I saw you all in video calls, but it’s just not the same.” As he spoke, he walked amidst Nova’s siblings, ruffling their hair and smiling down at them as he passed.
“Haha, hi there, kids. Everything fine in school? No one is picking on you? You can tell me, you know? I’ll make a law and put the bullies in prison for you. I’ll send my secret agents to catch them all.”
Lynn and Ryner both greeted the king like he was their favorite person in the whole wide world, grinning up at him. It at least reassured Nova as to the man’s character. Ryner was a bit more of a diplomat, but Lynn definitely wouldn’t have faked such a thing as affection. If she hadn’t liked Jamil Astia, she would have made it very clear.
Then, Jamil reached Nova and squatted in front of her, propping himself on the armrest of her chair. “And I haven’t seen you before, have I?” He gently stroked her cheek with the back of a finger, a warm smile on his lips. “But Aaron has told me a lot about you. Nova, correct?”
Nova nodded and quickly typed a word on the screen of her bracer.
For a second, the king seemed surprised by the mechanical voice that abruptly rang out in the room but soon burst out laughing, as if he was finding the situation amusing. “Hahaha! Yes, hello to you, too. What did you do? Did the voice come from this thing here?”
Jamil’s eyes turned to the bracer, and out of the corner of her eyes, Nova could see that her father was just about to jump all over himself to present his glorious invention. Fortunately, it was Ingrid who answered and prevented another boastful rant from that overeager maniac.
“That’s right. You know Nova can’t speak, right? So Aaron made her a little something to help her with that.” She threw a withering glance in the man’s direction. “And a few other things, as well…”
“Don’t worry, Ingrid,” Marian reassured her. “Everything dangerous has already been sealed away. There won’t be any accident.”
Jamil seemed to find the exchange hilarious. “Hahaha! What did this big lummox do, this time? I sure hope you didn’t tap into my nuclear launch systems. Even I’d be cross with you if you went that far.”
For a bare instant, Aaron’s face twitched strangely at this question before he regained his calm. “Ha… Haha… Of course, not. I’m not that crazy. And the system you speak of is a closed network. It’s impossible to access from the outside. As it should be. No, no. Nova’s little toy is entirely harmless, I assure you.”
Apparently, Aaron was too much of a recidivist for his credibility to convince anyone here. There was a short yet pregnant silence before the king spoke again.
“You sure? Now that I’ve formulated the thought, I actually wouldn’t put it past you to do such a thing… I think I’ll have my guys check if anyone tampered with anything recently.”
“Of course, I’m sure! Don’t accuse me of such a crime in front of my children, you jackass!”
“Language!” Marian said, slapping the back of her husband’s head.
No, I’m pretty sure that, even without the king saying it, at least Ryner is perfectly conscious of what kind of person his father is. If Lynn too is aware of it, she probably finds it awesome instead of embarrassing, though.
“Well, in any case, you’ve finally come to visit,” Jamil Astia said, standing up from his position in front of Nova and heading back for the door, “Come on. Let’s pick up the rest of the family and have a nice meal together. Catch up for all those years.”