Jamil led the group through more of the opulent hallways of the palace, passing gilded door handles and crystal chandeliers, velvet chairs and masterful paintings. Yet, they had not crossed paths with a single person who might have enjoyed all this beautiful scenery.
This overabundance of needless luxury had always grated on Ingrid’s sensibilities. It might have been one of the reasons that had pushed her to completely retire from political life after handing the reins of the country to her son, in fact. She had even gone so far as leaving the capital to get away from it all.
Well, as queen dowager, Ingrid still had quite a lot of pull, even away from the capital, but she usually didn’t need to use it. Jamil was doing a good enough job of it that she didn’t worry.
Ingrid watched quietly from the back as Jamil, Aaron, and Marian talked happily together. She was pleased that the years they’d spent apart had done nothing to strain their friendship. She knew that the trust her son had for Aaron wasn’t something he’d ever managed to attain towards anyone else.
Lynn and Ryner were walking close behind their parents, clearly feeling a bit of impatience and trepidation at the idea of finally meeting their pen pals. The two of them had never seen either Delia or Louis in the flesh, but they’d taken to conversing with each other over the internet. From what Ingrid knew, the friendships of their parents seemed to echo down in their generation, as well.
Nova, on the other hand, looked as nonplussed and passionless as always – obviously – and hung back a little from the group, walking level with Ingrid herself. She was the only who probably had yet to have any contact with Ingrid’s family. She was glancing around, examining the rooms and hallways of the palace with a critical eye.
“What do you think, Nova?” Ingrid asked. “Do you like this place?”
The little girl stared at her for a moment, as if considering her response, then quickly typed something on her bracer. The speed of her fingers over the virtual keyboard was rather impressive for someone who’d only got the thing a little while ago.
‘Rich and big, but empty.’
In just a few moments, the usual robotic voice replied to Ingrid’s question. It was a voice that couldn’t have fitted less for a cute little girl, but for some reason, Nova had refused to change it for a more realistic one, despite the wide array of choices her father had made available to her.
Rich and empty, huh?
Ingrid couldn’t prevent a small smile from lifting the corners of her lips. It looked like the girl shared her opinion.
“I know precisely what you mean…”
They walked side by side in silence for a few minutes, until Delia and Celes – Delia’s mother, Jamil’s wife – joined them. Delia was ecstatic at finally getting to meet Lynn and Ryner and almost had to be restrained by Celes to prevent her from jumping onto them in glee. She was more subdued toward Nova, apparently a bit intimidated by her constantly blank face and the strange, mechanical voice that had answered her hello.
When they continued on their way, heading for the library where Louis should be spending his time, the happy voices of children almost drowned out those of the adults. Nobody minded, though. It gave a bit of life to the almost deserted corridors of the palace.
They quickly reached their destination, and Jamil swept the door open, approaching the librarian sitting at the reception. The old man quickly knelt when he saw who had come.
“Ernesti, would you happen to have seen my son, somewhere around here?”
“Indeed, Your Majesty. Allow me just a moment; I’ll go and fetch him for you. He should be in the history section.”
With a bow, Old Ernesti stood back up and headed deeper into the quiet confines of the library.
Of the entire palace, Ingrid perhaps liked this place the most. She could empathize with how her grandson enjoyed losing hours basking in the scent of old books and the studious silence libraries seemed to always possess as a matter of course. With the advent of technology, paper books were slowly becoming a thing of the past, but you wouldn’t have known it, standing in this room, surrounded by tens of thousands of different tomes and volumes.
With a grin, Ingrid glanced at Nova again. “And what do you think of this place, Nova?”
“Haha. Once again, I know precisely what you mean. Do you want to take a look at a few books? We’re not in a rush; you can take a few minutes to visit, if you want to.”
Without hesitation, Nova nodded and picked an aisle at random, her sandals clacking against the tiled floor with each step. She didn’t even bother warning her parents that she was leaving their sights.
“I’m going to show some books to Nova,” Ingrid said to the others as they turned toward the sound of Nova’s leaving footsteps. “We’ll be right back.”
Jamil waved his hand at her. “Sure thing. We’ll be in the living room up on the second floor, if we get tired of waiting for you. You remember where it is, right?”
“I spent more time in this place than you’ve been alive, you little punk. And I’m not a complete dotard, just yet.”
“Haha! Sheesh. Don’t be offended, Mother. I was just concerned.”
Clicking her tongue, Ingrid turned her back on her wayward son and chased after Nova, leaving the others to their conversation.
The child had already disappeared among the rows of shelves, but Ingrid quickly found her. She simply had to follow the voices she could hear.
“Who are you?” the first voice said. “Are you even allowed in here? This is the royal library; not just anyone is permitted entry, you know.”
‘Nova,’ the second voice replied. ‘You?’
The first to speak was a young boy, perhaps 8 or 9, judging by the pitch. It was a voice Ingrid easily recognized, too.
Looks like he wasn’t in the history section, after all. And I just wanted to introduce the two of them to each other. Perfect.
Ingrid quietly rounded the corner of a shelf and looked over discreetly, staying out of sight. Just a bit further down the aisle, Louis was interrogating Nova on her presence within the library. Nova, on the other hand, seemed more focused on the piles of books surrounding Louis than on the boy himself. She already had one in her hands, glancing over the cover. She opened it and leafed through the first few pages.
“Nova? Hmm…” Louis’s eyes flicked over Nova, examining her appearance in detail. Eventually, he asked, “Are you Ryner’s little sister? Well, I am Louis Astia, the prince of this kingdom. And I am allowed in here, in case you were wondering.”
Louis frowned. “I heard you couldn’t talk, but what’s with this weird voice? And don’t touch this book; it’s mine. I was going to read it. You likely won’t even understand it, anyway. For your information, there are no children’s books in this library. A few of them have pictures, I guess, but they’ll be more diagrams than anything else. You can ask Ernesti if you still want to find them.”
Louis turned away and resumed his reading, apparently convinced that his persuasion would be enough to drive Nova away. In this, he found himself disappointed. The little girl only kicked off her shoes, leaving her barefoot, and picked another book from the pile next to Louis to replace the one the boy had taken away from her. She read the title, but was clearly unsatisfied with it and chose another one. It took three tries before she finally found one she liked enough to settle down on the ground and start reading.
Ingrid stayed hidden a while longer, but when it seemed both children would start losing themselves in their own reading, she walked out into the open and loudly cleared her throat. At precisely the same moment, as if he had timed his entry, Old Ernesti burst into the aisle from the other side.
“There you are, my prince. And… Ah, Lady.” Ernesti bowed to Ingrid. “Hehe. Looks like you managed to find Prince Louis even before I did. It looks like these bones are too old to go traipsing all around this library anymore.”
“Don’t worry about it, Ernesti,” Ingrid replied. “My son isn’t in any hurry. Making him wait a minute or two will not hurt him.”
“As you say, my Lady.”
“Grandma,” Louis called, raising his gaze from his book and standing up politely. “Were you looking for me?”
“Indeed. The entire Storm family has come to visit. You should come give your greetings and spend some time with their children.”
“Ah! So that’s why…”
Louis’s eyes flicked down to Nova, who was still seated, turning the pages of the book she’d chosen, as if he’d suddenly understood the reason for her presence.
Ingrid kept off the smile that threatened to spill over her face. “Couldn’t you have guessed the situation, when Ryner’s little sister mysteriously appeared in front of you in the royal palace?”
Louis blinked at that. “Oh, yes. I suppose so. It just didn’t occur to me to wonder. I mean, I just…”
You just didn’t want anything to come disturb you while you read your books. Who cares who the girl is as long as she doesn’t make any noise, right?
Louis was remarkably intelligent and knowledgeable, but he spent more time buried in the pages of his books than caring about anything going on in the real world around him. In that, he was almost like Aaron himself. Hopefully though, he was not as badly afflicted as that man – and even more hopefully, neither would he share his childishness and general irresponsibility.
“So, Ryner and Lynn are here, too?” Louis asked more to himself than anyone else. “That’s fantastic. It’s been a while since we’ve last spoken.”
Ingrid nodded. “Hmm. They want to see you too. Delia’s already with them. They’re waiting for you, actually.”
“Great. Let’s go, then.” He gaze wandered back down to Nova next to him. “What about you? You should come, too.”
Nova looked up at the unexpected question and tried to balance the book on her knees in order to reach her bracer with her other hand. Since it seemed she wouldn’t manage it without dropping the book on her toes, Ingrid spoke first, anticipating the question she thought the child would ask.
“You can borrow that book if you want, Nova.”
“She can?” Louis asked before Nova could answer, looking overly surprised. “I thought that was forbidden? Or was that just me? No, I have a very clear memory of it. I protest against this blatant injustice!”
“I’m the queen dowager, the dark puppeteer behind the throne, the kingdom’s shadowy ruler,” Ingrid said in a bland monotone. “I feed on injustice and unfairness. So your protests are ignored.”
“Ahem! Is it because she’s Ryner’s little sister? A king must not show favoritism toward friends and family. It will weaken his grasp on his throne and the trust of his subjects!”
“But a king must also foster talents to assure his kingdom’s future, right? And Nova is one of the smartest children I’ve ever met, so making an exception for her is justified.”
“Um? Smartest?” As Ingrid had expected, praising another child’s intelligence in front of Louis definitely got a rise out of him, and he rounded on Nova, staring at her unblinkingly. “You don’t look very smart, though.”
Nova had been looking back and forth between Ingrid and Louis as they argued with each other. When Louis suddenly focused his attention on her, she looked at him for a few moments, the large book she’d been reading hugged against her chest, before ignoring him and turning to Ingrid.
Ingrid could only nod her head at the impassive words. She was a bit disappointed by Nova’s lack of reaction to Louis’s rudeness. She had tried to goad Louis and her into showing off to each other a little bit, but it looked like she would not be so easily incited.
On the other hand, Louis clearly wasn’t used to being ignored like this.
“Wait a second, please,” he called before Nova could leave. “If Grandma says you’re so intelligent, surely, it must be so, right? Then, how about we ask each other trivia questions, and the first to find himself unable to answer loses and has to admit he’s stupid? I’ll go first. What’s 934,346,001 times 70,222?”
Ingrid snorted at the absurd challenge, and even Old Ernesti shook his head at the prince’s antics, a wry smile on his lips, but Louis didn’t pay them any mind, his eyes fixed on Nova, a vaguely triumphant look on his face. Nova returned his gaze silently for a few seconds, as if she really was calculating the answer.
Louis was just starting to squirm under the intensity of her stare, when Nova finally spoke.
Ingrid and Ernesti both blinked in surprise, and Louis gaped openly.
Apparently, the boy had been so sure of his victory that he hadn’t bothered to calculate the result himself. Before he could, however, Nova continued.
‘My turn. Speak that number in 7 different languages.’
After Louis’s difficult question, Nova’s was certainly fair game, but she didn’t even give him the chance to reply. Instead, she skipped off down the aisle past Ingrid, in the direction where the rest of the group was waiting.
Louis looked too dumbfounded to even consider stopping her. Only after she was gone from sight did he recover. “Huh? Hey, wait!” His call came too late, however, and found no answer. Louis frowned thoughtfully for a moment before looking up at Ingrid. “Grandma, do you have a calculator?”
This time, Ingrid couldn’t restrain her laughter. “Hahahaha! Sorry, I don’t. I guess you can only admit your loss.” Ingrid wasn’t sure if Nova’s answer was correct – she couldn’t even remember the whole number – but seeing Louis speechless was good enough for her. “Come on, now. The others must be waiting for us. Ernesti, can I leave it to you to put all these books back in place?”
Ernesti bowed low. “Of course, my Lady. That is why I am here.”
“Thank you. Come on, Louis.”
When Ingrid and Louis rejoined the group, Nova was being scolded by her parents, her head held low.
“Nova, you can’t take books from the royal library. It’s forbidden. Also, don’t disappear without warning. Ingrid had to go chase after you. And what if you got lost? Hey! You abandoned your shoes somewhere again, didn’t you? Do you remember in which direction you threw them, at least, or are they a lost cause this time as well?”