After spending a pleasant evening with Lynn – though it was somewhat shortened by her need to return to her school group before the accompanying teachers started getting too angry at her absence – Nova returned to Ryner’s apartment to spend the night again.
The next day, she was back on her motorcycle, this time heading for the royal palace. She’d messaged Delia first, to know if there would be an opening in whatever schedule she and her brother had planned today, in order for them to meet Nova privately.
As it happened, there was indeed such an opening.
Delia and Nova easily arranged the specifics of their meeting. As for Louis, he was actually supposed to be busy at the time they’d chosen, but he’d forcefully pushed everything else off to make room for Nova.
I can’t help but wonder if it’s okay for the prince of this kingdom to cast off his responsibilities just to meet me…
Since her arrival had been properly planned in advance, Nova wasn’t stopped for long at the gate. A few of the tourists that were strolling in front of the tall hedge surrounding the front of the palace’s garden glanced at her, interested by her ability to enter the palace, but since she still had her motorcycle helmet on – she only opened the visor to show some of her face to the guards – none of them paid too much attention to her.
Inside the palace itself, Nova did have to take off her helmet. Otherwise, she’d be constantly pestered by wary guards. Security was already stringent enough without looking like someone suspicious who wanted to hide her face. Worse case scenario, she’d actually be arrested and confined somewhere by the secret service. As it was, without Ingrid Astia there to ease the way and allow them through a discreet side door, it took quite a while for Nova to pass each checkpoint. But eventually, something like half an hour later, she was finally walking freely in the quiet hallways of the palace. This part of the building – the private, no-admittance part, where only the royal family and some of the most important nobles of the country were usually allowed to enter – hadn’t changed much since the first time she’d visited it, as a 3-year-old child. It was still as luxurious as before, and also as deserted as before.
The sound of Nova’s footsteps was muted by the thick carpeting, and the walls cut off noise quite efficiently. The silence was pleasant to Nova’s ears after the bustle of the security checkpoints.
This silence was soon broken, however, when two other sets of footsteps approached from an intersecting hallway – the one Nova herself needed to take, actually – just a few paces ahead of her current position. For a moment, she wondered if Delia and Louis had gotten word that Nova had arrived and come to meet her halfway, but she quickly dismissed the idea. The footfalls were too heavy. Those definitely belonged to two adult males, walking side by side.
Nova didn’t hide, of course. She had official permission to be here and didn’t intend to test out the results of her stealth training. She just continued walking openly toward the royal family’s private chambers.
The two men walked out of the hallway as Nova also reached it. One looked to be on the far side of middle age, with harsh features and dark-green, deep-set eyes. His nose was straight and sharp enough that he could probably stab people to death with it, while his lips were pinched and thin, giving an even more severe impression of him to anyone who looked upon his face. Also, he had a goatee; he was definitely a bad guy. The second man looked like a younger version of the first, somewhere in his early twenties, except that his features were a tad softer and more rounded, even accounting for the age difference; his nose wasn’t quite as angular. His hair was also a darker shade of blond.
The older man’s piercing gaze stopped on her for an instant as Nova appeared. He looked a little taken aback at suddenly coming across someone in this place, probably because his senses weren’t as sharp as hers and Nova trod on that carpet as lightly as a cat so he hadn’t noticed her presence, but he quickly schooled his expression back into impassivity and looked away, continuing on his way without paying any more attention to her. There was absolutely no sign in this man’s gaze or on his face that he held any sort of appreciation or desire for Nova’s beauty. It was such a refreshing lack of reaction that Nova felt bad for assuming his was an evil goatee. She resolved to look upon goatees with more kindness in the future.
The younger man – presumably his son, considering the resemblance – wasn’t the same. When he passed by Nova, he looked curiously at her, probably wondering what a lone girl was doing, so deep inside the royal palace. His eyes widened a little upon seeing her face. Then, his gaze automatically swept downward, as if in a deeply ingrained reflex, and landed on her chest. Nova could almost hear the boy swallow his saliva, as his glance became a stare.
Sheesh. Two days in a row? Maybe Esfir is right and I should wear looser clothing. But it kind of feels like a defeat to restrain my own tastes and preferences just based on how other people react to them. It’d be like their opinion is somehow more important than my own. Can’t have that…
Nova wasn’t going to make an issue of the young man’s interest and simply ignored him like his father had ignored her. She continued on her way, down the hallway the two had just left, pondering on the possibility of the son having somehow extracted the evilness from his father’s goatee and made it his own through fell magic rituals.
Her progress was abruptly interrupted, however, when her arm was caught from behind in a vise-like grip, and she was forcefully spun around to face the young man. Nova was yanked hard enough to break her balance. She almost tripped and fell on her ass right then and there, but the same hand that was tightly wrapped around her arm kept her upright. This was good. If that little piece of scum had actually made her fall to the floor, she would have broken his kneecaps on the spot.
Woah. What the fuck is wrong with this guy?
The young man loomed over her, standing well into her personal space. He didn’t let go of her arm. He seemed to hesitate for a moment as if he had caught Nova on reflex and wasn’t actually quite sure what he should do with her now that he actually had. Eventually, he glowered down at her, like she’d killed his dog and he carried a grudge over it.
“You. Who are you and what are you doing in this place? Show me some identification.” He beckoned to her as if his demand was the most natural thing in the world. “Come on, hurry up.”
Nova just stared up at him silently. She was too dumbfounded to even be angry at this idiot for his rudeness. Was this the way noblemen in this country asked for a girl’s number? By forcing them to hand over their ID cards like they were part of a particularly fascist police force?
The father didn’t seem to have expected his son’s behavior, either. He stopped walking and turned around, frowning at the scene. Still, he made no move to interfere and didn’t say anything to rein in his wayward progeny.
“Hey, I’m talking to you,” the young man said, taking a step closer and almost sticking his body against Nova’s. The lust and greed on his face were plain to see. “When someone from a duke’s house tells you to do something, you obey. You can either tell me your name right now, or I can search you for a piece of ID.” A roguish smile appeared on his lips, and he raised up a hand to cup Nova’s chin and tilt her head up toward his. “Actually, that might be the better option.”
Nova’s body abruptly shook in a shudder of revulsion, and that seemed to wake her up from her sheer bewilderment.
It had to be said that Yuri had trained her well, during the past two years.
By the time Nova realized it, she had already broken three of that young man’s fingers, along with his wrist, and slammed his face into the floor – the carpet was thick enough that this probably didn’t hurt much. One of her hands was twisting his arm while her foot stepped on his shoulder joint to keep him paralyzed. In the meantime, her other hand was reflexively reaching toward the small of her back, for the knife that would usually have been strapped there, when she wore her uniform.
Woah, woah, woah. Stop. Calm down, calm down. Killing a duke – or a duke’s son – in the royal palace would be difficult for even my parents to cover up. And I seriously need to chill out. First, the idiot in the elevator, and now this?
Nova once again couldn’t help but be a little disturbed by the violence of her own reaction, but as she massaged her arm, trying to rub away the ache left from the tight grip of the idiot squirming under her boot, she realized that violence was, in fact, a perfectly adequate measure against a worthless piece of dogshit like this one.
That motherfucker even touched my face without permission…
The more she thought about it, the more her anger grew, and quickly, Nova found herself increasing the force she was using to twist the guy’s arm. His moans, though the mouthful of carpet they had to go through somewhat muffled them, gradually became louder.
“Miss Storm, do you know what consequence assaulting the heir of a ducal house entails? Do you need me to spell it out for you? Here’s a hint. It starts with ‘life’; it ends with ‘imprisonment’.”
Nova raised her eyes and glared at the dogshit’s father. The man wasn’t even looking at his son. Neither did he look particularly angry. Even the threat he’d just given Nova had been made in a completely conversational tone – though cold and unfeeling – with a cultured and distinguished accent, each word perfectly enunciated.
What he’d said was the truth, as well. Crimes committed against members of the high nobility held much harsher punishments than ones committed against lowly commoners. A few broken bones could easily lead to rather long prison sentences.
Right at this moment, however, Nova was too angry to care about such puny little things as the consequences of her actions. Now was not the time for consideration; it was time to insult people as virulently as she could and smash faces into the dust. Maybe break a few bones and bust a few balls. The fact that the other party was a duke only motivated her to break and crush him even harder than she otherwise would have.
Never taking her eyes off the old man’s, Nova typed on her bracer, her fingers finding the appropriate keys with the ease of long practice.
‘Do you know what consequence assaulting a daughter of the Storm family entails? Do you need me to spell it out for you? Here’s a hint. It starts with ‘ballistic’; it ends with ‘missile’.’
It was quite rare for Nova to speak this many words at once – she’d taken the habit of shortening every sentence as much as she could, to keep up with the pace of a normal conversation – but threatening and cursing at people was something that deserved the full brunt of grammar’s might.
The duke didn’t seem surprised by the robotic voice that echoed in the hallway. His eyes only narrowed dangerously, and his brows shifted from a frown to a scowl. It was a practiced and powerful scowl, and when coupled with the weight of his social position and resources, it might have been more than enough to cow into submission someone with a bit more brains than Nova. She, on the other hand, only felt a burst of vindictive satisfaction at having elicited such a response.
“Nova Storm, for the past few years, our families have peacefully ignored each other. Do you really want to break the status quo over such a trifling matter as this? Do you not believe you’re overreacting?”
Huh? What is that supposed to mean? Does this guy have some history with Mom and Dad? Is that why he knows my name? Oh, wait. Is he that ‘Duke Bumfuck’ I heard Mom talk about a few times? She sure didn’t seem to like him. At all. Maybe his goatee wasn’t lying, after all.
Nova resolved to send a message to Marian afterward, just in case there was some background context about this she was missing, but right now, there were more important matters to attend to. Like teaching these two fuckwits not to mess with their betters.
The father basically threatened to throw her in jail after the son basically threatened to rape her, and she was the one breaking this so-called status quo? What nonsense was this?
‘Want me to show you genuine overreaction?’
Still not looking away from the old duke, Nova shifted her foot from his son’s shoulder to his neck and started leaning her weight onto it. The idiot stopped moaning and started choking.
The duke only gave a cursory glance at his son and sighed. “Truly your mother’s child, aren’t you?” He shook his head as if he was an old sage deploring the state of the world. “Very well, I offer you my apologies on behalf of my son. Is that satisfactory?”
Nova was a bit surprised the old man yielded so quickly. He had felt like the same kind of person as herself – someone incapable of accepting the slightest disrespect, someone who’d take disproportionate revenge for the slightest grievance. Apparently, she had misjudged him.
She was a bit disappointed, too. She’d been hoping she would be able to torture his son for a while longer, maybe break a few more things or make him soil himself. But the confrontation had concluded so fast that she hadn’t even properly had time to vent her displeasure. Now, if she continued to twist the boy’s arm into interesting shapes even after his father’s apology, she’d be the one in the wrong.
Nova didn’t really mind being in the wrong, really, but she also wasn’t completely brain-dead. She could break this guy’s arm, or even break his and his father’s neck right here. But if she really pushed this matter that far, she would land herself into a world of trouble. She had already given a few bone fractures to the piece of shit who’d dared to touch her; that would have to be enough.
She took a deep breath and strove to cool her head.
I am on vacation. I’m supposed to take it easy. I came here to see my friends and play cheerful games together like frolicking little puppies. The sun is shining, the birds are singing. La la la. The world is at peace and so am I.
That worthless attempt at self-hypnosis didn’t work at all, but Nova still released the arm she’d been holding and stepped away from her victim.
She started down the hallway again without a backward glance, hoping that the young man would scramble to his feet and try to stab her in the back or something. Then she’d have a good reason to break all the bones in his body one by one.
# # #
Drake watched as the insolent girl walked away.
He forcefully calmed the anger that was raging within him, consciously restraining himself until his fluctuating emotions had all been pressed back down to a flat line.
In his youth, he would never have admitted defeat and apologized like this, especially to someone so much younger than himself, but he’d learned with time that pride wasn’t something sacred; it could be traded, if the benefits he got in return were high enough.
It looked like Nova Storm had yet to learn that lesson, however.
Which was good.
It would make her easy to manipulate. She was a weakness of the Storm family’s that Drake would be able to use against them if he ever needed to.
The girl’s mother, Marian Storm, had also been just as temperamental and short-sighted, in the past. Now, though age hadn’t improved her self-control quite as much as it had Drake’s own, she still wasn’t as impulsive as before. But it seemed her daughter had inherited that particular failing in her place.
Drake’s eyes left Nova Storm’s retreating back and flicked down to his son, still lying down on the floor, sniffling and cradling his broken hand.
As always when he looked at the boy, Drake felt a strange mix of revulsion at the kind of person his son was, and affection that even he couldn’t prevent himself from directing at his own flesh and blood, despite his best intentions.
Letting out an inward sigh, he remembered the ruthless glint in the Storm girl’s eyes when she’d pressed down on Richard’s neck, and how she hadn’t backed down in the least – or even flinched – even when Drake had threatened her.
Even if she’s not doing it for the right reasons, even if she’s rash and ill-tempered and volatile, at least she has guts. But this one…
Drake took a step forward and nudged Richard with the tip of his shoe. “Get up.” There was no sympathy in his tone. His voice was as cold and hard as steel.
“Father…” the sniveling coward said, almost sobbing. “She… My hand…”
At this pathetic voice, a surge of disgust and disappointment rose up inside Drake, and he almost called Nova Storm back to ask her to finish what she’d started and put down this fool once and for all.
“Get up, I said.”
With a bit more whimpering, Richard slowly made his way to his feet under his father’s frozen gaze.
However, as soon as he was up, Drake’s hand whipped out, and he tightly grabbed onto Richard’s broken fingers, squeezing them between his own. Stone-faced, he took a step toward his son and growled, “Let that be a lesson to you, fool.”
“B–But, Father, she…” Richard stuttered. Large drops of sweat were streaming down his face as waves of pain lanced up through his abused hand.
“Silence.” Drake’s voice wasn’t loud, but there was an intensity to it that made his son’s mouth clamp down reflexively. “You should very well know that only VIPs are allowed in the inner palace. Since we are also such, we don’t necessarily need to show particular deference to any of them but the royal family themselves, but there are still limits. And you actually went and openly harassed a girl – an underage girl – in this place, like she was only a serving girl in a low-class hive bar and you a drunken patron?” The more he spoke, the more Drake’s grip on Richard’s hand strengthened, though his voice never rose. “Do you have any dignity as a member of a ducal house?” he asked. “More importantly, do you have any brain in that worthless head of yours?”
“I… I just…”
“You just saw a pretty face and decided to take it for yourself. Like you usually do,” Drake whispered fiercely. “Or do you think I’m not aware of precisely how many times you’ve used my authority to get out of trouble? Do you think I don’t know precisely how many girls you’ve ruined in the capital alone? Do you want me to give you the number right now?”
At this reminder that his father was perfectly aware of all his misdeeds, Richard’s face paled for a different reason than before, and the pain on his face made way to fear.
“Father,” he said, his voice getting stronger in his panic, “I swear, none of these women ever – ugh! Ah!”
Richard was interrupted when Drake fiercely yanked onto his injured hand, twisting his broken wrist. “I know that, you idiot. No need to shout it out aloud in the royal palace. Do you think I would have allowed you to run amok if your mistakes had brought trouble upon our house?” Drake’s eyes narrowed. “I couldn’t care less what you do to some random commoner girls, but if you can’t pick your targets more carefully, this girl and her family won’t even have to rip your head off themselves, because I will offer it to them on a silver platter.” Drake leaned forward and stuck his face into Richard’s. “Do you understand me?”
“Y–Yes, Father. Don’t worry, I’ll make this right.”
Drake leaned back and released his son’s hand, before turning around and walking calmly down the hallway, as if nothing had happened to interrupt him. “See that you do,” he said.