Chapter Five: No Surrender
A/N: So here's the next chapter! There's a tournament involved - but is it just for fun, or it designed for a specific purpose? Sinister motivates are in play, that's for sure ;) Please review, it really does mean a lot to me.
Ivory's slim frame was aching from exhaustion by the time she finally entered the guest bedroom the Queen of Hearts had prepared for her. It had been a long day – more meetings with the Senate to discuss their investigation into the Centennial Ball bombing. That had been a waste of time, because there wasn't much anything had to contribute to the investigation aside from theories. There were no new hard facts, and Ivory operated on hard facts. Then she'd come straight to the Heart palace to see how Connor was recovering. The Queen was thrilled to see her dad getting out of bed, even if he could only manage a few steps.
"Senator Lepus." The silky voice came out of the darkness, causing Ivory to fumble for the light switch. Once she flicked it on, she saw a young woman leaning against the wall across the room, her lips curved into a sly smile. There was something familiar about her – someone as old as Ivory recognised names and faces, but this young woman was practically a stranger to her. Perhaps she'd seen her on the streets. She was in her early twenties, with reddish-brown hair and a freckled face. Combined with her small and lean form, she reminded Ivory of a fox.
"Can I help you?" she asked curtly. Ivory had no patience for people sneaking into her room, particularly when she suspected their motives to be sinister. Her hand fumbled for her gun – not to harm the girl, but to stand her own ground. The young woman moved fast, her leg lashing forward like a striking viper to knock the gun out of Ivory's hand before it was secure in her fingers.
Whoever this young woman was, she was trained. Ivory could defend herself in most situations, and she had quick reflexes. She was startled at the knowledge that she was likely facing a member of the Guild, an assassin. Grabbing hold of the full-length mirror propped up beside the door, Ivory gave it a hard shove to the ground. The assassin had to step back to avoid it, but the sound of glass smashing against stone gave Ivory satisfaction. She hadn't used the mirror as a weapon, but as an alarm.
The assassin's eyes narrowed, flicking between the smashed glass and Ivory, but as she stepped forward, the door was flung open. M stood there with his hands balled into ready fists. Ivory expected the girl to try and attack him, but her reaction was…strange. A delighted smile curved the assassin's lips and she laughed aloud. Instead of lunging at either of them, she dived for the window. Easing herself onto the frame, she blew a scornful kiss before launching out of the room.
Crossing over to the window, Ivory peered down to see that the assassin was nowhere in sight. Had she used grappling hooks? Some sort of parachute? It was a drop of several storeys. Heaving a sigh, she turned to glance at M. There was a thoughtful look on the man's face, brow furrowed in deep concentration. Realising that the man had paused when he had looked at the assassin, Ivory was instantly alert.
"Do you know her?"
"I don't know." M was still staring out into the night, before he shook his head slowly. "She seemed…familiar. But I'm not sure why."
Ivory raked a hand through her hair. "When your memories surface…"
"Will they, though?" M's tone was sharp as he regarded her, frustration contorting his face. "It's been twenty years, Ivory, and I remember nothing. Only snippets here and there. They might never fully come back. Unless…"
Ivory could tell where M's train of thought was leading, and her body tensed. She trusted only few people, and Renaldo Pieterson certainly was not one of those people. He was a wealthy and powerful man who'd come up with some technological breakthroughs, but ultimately he was self-serving. No one ever knew what went on in Club, and that was cause for concern rather than dismissal.
"I've heard the reports of the King's work." M stepped forward, eyes beseeching her to understand. "He's had some cases where people have remembered things they thought they'd forgotten. If there's even a chance that Renaldo's memory machine can help me, it's a risk I'm willing to take."
"A lot of those people were victims of trauma," Ivory reminded him quietly, "A lot of the memories that surfaced weren't ones that they wanted to remember. Sometimes these things happen for a reason. You don't know that your memory loss isn't you suppressing something horrific."
"No, I don't know." M swept past her, kneeling down to begin picking up shards of the broken mirror. They cut into his fingers, but he continued until he'd gathered all of them. "But I'm still going to find out."
Connor adjusting to having only one leg was both inspiring and heartbreaking. Ruby had many duties around Heart and she knew that she couldn't afford to pause in order to watch her dad's recovery. Whenever she had some free time, she would spend it in the infirmary, encouraging him to use his crutches and become as mobile as he could. Not that he needed her encouragement – Connor was frustrated by his disability, determined to show that he could push past it and seemingly forgetting that wounds take time to heal.
"Did you hear the latest news?" Connor asked, settling himself down on the edge of his bed. He took a few gulps of air, clearly out of breath after his latest attempt at getting mobile. The question made Ruby frown, wondering what he was referring to. Was there an update on the Centennial Ball bombing? A lead on the assassin who'd made the attempt on Ivory's life? Whatever this news was, she'd been too occupied to hear about it.
Connor raked his hair back. "Chess Shire's twenty-first birthday is coming up."
Ruby rolled her eyes. That was hardly newsworthy. People had birthdays. Hers had occurred just after the turn of the century, but she supposed Chess would make much more of a fuss. Parties, banquets…she shuddered to think of how expensive it would be. Yet such an occasion would also be a potential target for another attack, and she wasn't sure that the King of Diamonds would risk that.
"What about it?"
"Prix is talking about hosting a tournament."
The word sent a spike of excitement through Ruby. She wasn't an overly competitive person, but she certainly did pride herself in her skills. Skills that Connor had insisted upon concealing, even upon her ascension as Queen. Perhaps now was the time to bring those skills to light, to show the City that the Queen of Hearts was no fragile little girl. A grin spread across her lips, and Connor's heavy sigh meant he'd noticed it.
"What kind of tournament?" she asked.
"It's just a big show." Connor shook his head fervently. "Each of the ruling houses will choose a champion. They'll complete challenges and apparently, the winning house gains a year's worth of funding from the Senate. I don't know how Prix managed to get them to agree to that."
"Do you think it's to boost morale after what happened at the ball?" Ruby inquired. They were still no closer to finding out who'd planted the bomb, even though the Senate investigation was ongoing. She wouldn't be surprised if the Senate had agreed to Prix's request to keep spirits high and avoid persistent questions about whether they were any closer to the truth.
"It's a farce." Connor's tone was contemptuous. "We'd be best doing a lottery to pick one of Aces, show that we don't take it seriously."
"No." Ruby tossed her hair back, lifting her chin. "I'll be Heart's champion."
"Ruby." Connor reached across, gripping her hand in his. When she met his eyes, there was an urgency there. "No. That's exactly what the King of Diamonds is counting on. He wants the royals to put themselves forward so that he can see exactly what they can do. You'll be playing into his hands."
"You'd have someone else fight in my place?" Ruby drew her hand back abruptly. "Dad, whether this competition is an act or not, we could use that funding. I'm not sending someone else in when I'm perfectly capable of…"
"Of what?" Connor demanded, irritation creeping into his tone. "Showing off? That's all you'll be doing. We don't want the other houses knowing what you're capable of, Ruby. If they see that you can fight, and fight well, they'll use it against you."
"So what?" Ruby demanded, stung by Connor's disagreement. "They'll know then that they shouldn't underestimate me. You want me to send an Ace instead? Who would you have me choose to fight me? You?"
The words were cruel and she knew that the moment they left her mouth. Connor flinched, his jaw clenching as he stared down at where his leg had once been. Ruby knew that if he could, her dad would fight for her. Yet all she had done was remind him what he'd lost, reminded him that he was no longer the strongest fighter in her militia. He might never again be the strongest fighter. She had crushed his confidence and that realisation made her lapse into a panicked silence as she tried to right the wrong she'd created.
"Dad, I didn't mean…"
"They are better than you." Connor looked at Ruby and what she saw in his eyes was worse than hurt or anger. It was disappointment, in her. "The Aces. At least, most of them are. If this was about winning and getting the funding, you'd acknowledge that. But this is, as always, about your pride. Your pride is going to be the end of you one day."
Ruby didn't have a response for that, because to deny it would be a lie. Pride was her flaw and part of her knew that. She just didn't want to acknowledge it. Connor was absolutely right. She wanted the chance to fight so that she could prove she was skilled, so she could shock the other royal houses. She wanted to make the competition about her. Yet despite knowing all of this, Ruby still couldn't stomach the thought of sending an Ace instead.
"Maybe it is," Ruby murmured, before raising her voice. "It's still my decision to make, and I've made it. I'm going to compete for Heart."
Alix could think of nothing more ridiculous than a competition when tension was still so high in the City. Over the days since the announcement by the King of Diamonds, each house came forward with their champion – and each was predictable. Adrian Darke of Spades, Diego Pieterson of Clubs and Chess Shire of Diamonds. Ivory had scoffed at each of them, all princes attempting to prove their worth.
The worst wasn't any of the boys, but the fact that Ruby had put herself forth as champion despite all of Connor's protests. Although she didn't know her sister well, Alix found herself hoping she might be able to convince Ruby to change her mind. Her heart was hammering in her chest and she didn't think she'd ever been more nervous than in this moment – and all she was doing was voicing her opinion to her big sister. Alix tapped lightly on the Queen's bedroom door.
Alix cautiously entered Ruby's bedroom. She wasn't sure what she was expecting. Heart banners and swords decorating the walls? No, the Queen's bedroom was like any other young woman's – tidy but with clothes strewn on the end of the bed, a pile of books sitting on the bedside table. Ruby was sitting cross-legged on her bed, in her pyjamas with a glass of red wine in her hand. She looked up, raising her eyebrows as she recognised her visitor.
"I…I thought we could speak." Alix wondered how different this might be if they'd grown up together. They were only two years apart in age. She imagined a fantasy, a world in which she'd sneak into Ruby's room and they'd share a bottle of wine together. Even though she was the Queen, she'd let her guard down around a select few, including Alix. They'd share secrets and gossip long into the night. Alix's heart panged at the thought that, had she not been spirited away out of fear she might be killed, it might have been a reality.
"What about?" Ruby asked. She placed her glass of wine on her bedside table and beckoned, patting the spot beside her on the bed. After a moment's hesitation, Alix walked over and sat beside her.
The words drew a long sigh from Ruby. "Dad put you up to this."
"No, he didn't," Alix insisted. She knew things were tense between Ruby and Connor. She didn't want to be responsible for making them worse, especially when Connor had had no input in her visiting Ruby now. "I came myself. If I'm a Princess of Heart, I need to learn to speak my own mind, not just listen to other people."
"I suppose so," Ruby murmured, although she looked a little taken aback. Alix held her breath for a moment, wondering if she might be able to convince the Queen where Connor had failed. She was disappointed when Ruby shook her head. "I've made my decision. It's already been announced. To withdraw now and put someone else forward in my place would look weak and indecisive."
Alix couldn't help a huff of frustration. In some ways, she could understand Ruby. The young woman had become Queen as soon as she'd come of age, pitted against three male, older monarchs watching her every move, waiting for her to fail. Every choice Ruby made reflected on her abilities as a leader. She felt that she needed to appear strong, because any weaknesses would be exploited, and the other monarchs would swoop in like vultures over a carcass. Yet Connor was right in saying that Ruby's pride would be her downfall unless she changed her ways. Some of the things she saw as weakness were what reasonable people would consider minor mistakes.
"Disagree all you want." Ruby arched an eyebrow at her younger sister. "It doesn't change anything. Neither you nor our dad can stop me. It's time for the others to see that I'm not some pampered little girl."
"I really doubt they think that." Alix pushed herself to her feet, casting a look over her shoulder. "But if this comes crashing down around you, remember who the people were who told you this wasn't smart."
Ruby offered her a bitter smile and raised her wine glass as if in a toast, before she tilted her head back and took a long gulp. Giving the Queen one last disappointed glance, Alix headed for the door. If Ruby didn't want to listen, there was no one who could make her. Although Alix wanted this to go well for her, she had the nasty feeling that this was going to have consequences the Queen might not like.
The day of the tournament dawned over the City, flooding the Heart palace with a sense of anticipation. Servants were rushing around on last-minute errands, while transport was being arranged for the Queen and her entourage to travel to the City Square, where the tournament would be taking place. It was really less of a square and more of an arena, the stands looming high and casting shadows over surrounding buildings.
Ruby descended the stairs, trying to ignore the fact that her heart was racing and she felt like she was on the verge of a panic attack. She firmly reminded herself that this had been her choice. This was what she wanted. In her shiny new armour with her hair braided back, she knew that she looked powerful and fierce. It was just a shame that she didn't feel that way. Keeping her head held high, she crossed over to Connor, who was leaning heavily on his crutch.
"You look ready for anything," he stated. Although it was clear he still didn't agree with this, he wasn't going to openly argue about the issue on the day of the tournament.
Ruby offered him a tight smile. "I don't feel it."
Connor was one of the few who knew Ruby's tendency to give into her anxiety when she felt stressed or pressured. He was possibly the only person who could coach her to push through, and right now she felt as though she needed his encouragement. Yet with him so against what she was doing, was it possible to get that. Connor limped forward, crutch clicking against the tiles as he approached. He pulled Ruby into an embrace, kissing the top of her head. Her smile became a genuine one, buoyed by his affection.
"You'll be brilliant," he assured her.
Ruby continued down the next set of steps, slipping into the back seat of the car that was waiting for her. The others would follow soon but for now, she was alone. There was a yawning emptiness surrounding her as the car started its journey toward the City Square. Ruby drummed her fingers against the door handle, trying to fight back the nervousness threatening to consume her. It felt like it took a painfully long time to reach the square, although in reality it was just short of fifteen minutes. Once her door was opened and she stepped out to the flashes of the cameras, the anxious girl was gone and the fearless Queen of Hearts took her place.
Following the signs, she sauntered into the large waiting room to see that all of the others were already there. Ruby was unnerved by the feelings of their eyes on her, watching her, judging her. Yet she ignored them, taking a seat and crossing one leg over the other. She couldn't sit still though, jiggling her leg impatiently as she waited for them to be called out into the square. There was a thump on the seat beside her as someone flopped in it, causing her to roll her eyes. She wasn't particularly in a mood for conversation.
"Nice armour." It was Adrian Darke. Who else would it be? Diego was deliberately avoiding making eye contact with anyone and Chess looked completely bored with everything. "Although I have to admit, I'm surprised that you're going to be competing today. You are aware that the challenges are based on strength, endurance, speed and fighting skill, aren't you?"
Ruby clenched her jaw, but refused to rise to the bait. She was well aware that Adrian was deliberately trying to cause a reaction, demeaning and belittling her in the hope that he would upset her. She just glanced at him with coolly raised eyebrows and a disdainful look on her face. She would not be brought low by this young man.
"Of course I'm aware. That's why I volunteered."
"Aren't you a little worried?" Adrian tilted his head to the side, a wide smile on his face as his eyes remained completely lifeless. It was always those eyes that perturbed her. Sometimes it seemed as if Adrian didn't feel anything at all. "I mean, we're all boys aside from you. No doubt we're all stronger than you."
"That might be so," Ruby shrugged her shoulders, seeing no point in denying the truth. "But I'm smarter than you are. So I think that probably makes us evenly matched."
Adrian threw back his head and laughed. "Always a delight, Ruby."
The sound of an announcement taking place over a microphone made both of them lapse into silence. Ruby felt sick hearing the cheers of the crowd. Connor was right, this was just a spectacle, a display by the Senate so that the people would forget they hadn't solved the bombing yet. But even royalty had to play their part and so despite the fact that she hated feeling like a puppet, Ruby would let the Senate pull the strings. Just this once.
Getting to her feet, she trailed out onto the pitch, her feet feeling like lead and her stomach coiling itself into knots. Although this wasn't a competition that would mean something drastic if she lost, she was also fully aware that she'd put herself forth for the entire City to watch. Perhaps her dad and Alix had been right after all. She pushed the thought away firmly, because if she won this, none of that would matter.
Senator Klein Tate stood up in the highest stand with a microphone in his hand. Ruby was relieved that he was the one overseeing this. Klein was one of the kinder Senators, more like Ivory than many of the other ambitious and contemptuous older Senators. He was a similar age to Connor. His younger sister Miriam had actually been a member of the unfortunate Zenith Nightwatch. She'd been the one who'd executed Ridley Paris, but she'd met an abrupt end herself.
"As you all know, the winner of the tournament is entitled to a year's worth of funding from the Senate." Klein's voice carried out over the square. Ruby clenched her hands into fists by her sides, standing tall and trying to appear calm and collected. "The competition is composed of five challenges. Competitors can bow out of any challenge they like, but it means they automatically fail that challenge. In the end, the person who wins the most challenges is the overall winner."
Ruby nodded slowly. Surely it couldn't be too hard. She knew that the challenges would be gruelling, but so was a majority of the training that her dad and the Aces had put her through. She was used to working hard for results, and she wasn't sure that the young men she was up against were. She bit back a small smile, knowing it wouldn't do her any good to get arrogant about this. All she could do was fight hard and hopefully, she wouldn't end up regretting her decision.
By early afternoon, Ruby was covered in a sheen of sweat. The competitors had completed four of the five challenges and they had been just as physically demanding as she'd anticipated. Chess had, surprisingly, won the running race in the speed challenge. Adrian had won the strength challenge by lifting the heaviest weights. Diego had won the archery contest in the accuracy challenge. Ruby herself had been the first to solve the riddle in the intelligence challenge. The challenges had seemed a bit trivial to her, but when she'd returned from lunch she'd been welcomed by the final challenge, the one that would decide the winner – the tower.
While they'd all been eating lunch, workers had been busy setting up a tower with three levels, at the top of which was a medallion. The first competitor to retrieve the medallion and take it down through the tunnels beneath the square to Senator Tate, who'd be waiting to announce the winner once he received the medallion. It was definitely a far more difficult challenge than any they'd faced so far, and was designed to clearly pick the winner.
Standing in her clearly marked box, Ruby swung her arms back and forth, preparing herself for the final ordeal. They'd already established that Chess was the fastest, but the competitors were allowed to fight each other for the medallion. Was that what concerned her? It was hard to pick out which part of this didn't sit well with her.
The horn sounded out through the arena and Ruby took flight immediately, sprinting as fast as she could. She was not much of a runner, but that didn't matter. Once she reached the tower she flattened herself against it, hands and feet scrambling for holds. Ahead of her, Diego was already hauling himself up with apparent ease. Trying not to focus on the others, Ruby kept her attention on her own efforts. One hand and foot at a time, more concerned with not slipping than what the others were doing.
Once she hauled herself up onto the first level, she looked up at the sound of a brawl occurring above her. At least two of the others were ahead of her. She fought the temptation to look around for the third, instead gripping the handles and hauling herself up once again. She was already panting, lungs burning, but succumbing to her tiredness wasn't an option. A yell made her pause momentarily, just in time to see Chess go hurtling over the edge of the tower. He bounced against the tower, trying and failing to get a grip, before hitting the ground with a thud. Ruby doubted he would have broken any bones judging by the height of the fall, but now wasn't the time to be concerned with Chess. One hand, one foot, pulling with all the strength she could muster.
When she reached the third tier, it became apparent that someone was actually on their way down. Diego, with one hand closed into a fist, indicating his possession of the medallion. Becoming reckless in her desperation, Ruby swung across to another of the tower's four walls, almost losing her grip in the process. Her stomach lurched like she'd missed a step walking down the stairs, but she managed to maintain her hold. Swinging back and then forth, she aimed a kick at Diego's ribs.
The young man grunted, glaring up at his adversary. His pause was what gave her the advantage. Sliding down, Ruby pressed a booted foot against the hand clutching the medallion. She stamped against the wooden wall of the tower, twisting her foot. Diego yelped and jerked back on instinct to stop her from breaking his wrist, but his hand opened in the process, the medallion hurtling to the ground.
As Diego nursed his wrist, Ruby relinquished her grip on the wall, sliding down to the ground and hunting for the bright gleam of the medallion in the sand. She found it after only a few moments searching – which was a good thing, as both Adrian and Diego were now frantically descending the tower as well, determined to stop her. Plucking it up and putting it in her pocket, Ruby spun on her heel and ran for the tunnels. She didn't need to be the fastest, she just needed to be fast enough.
The cool air and the shadows of the tunnel felt like a soothing balm as they enveloped her. She was so close now. She could almost taste victory, but she didn't let her excitement slow her steps. Someone caught a fistful of Ruby's hair, tugging hard. She cried out in pain, wincing as she was swung around and slammed against the wall. She didn't know who she had expected, but her stomach tightened with unease as she found herself facing Adrian. In the dim light of the tunnels, the gleam in his eyes looked manic.
"I'm so glad they said we could fight each other for the medallion." Adrian smiled patiently. "This doesn't have to be messy, Ruby. No one's watching down here. You can just hand it over and avoid any unnecessary violence."
"Is that so?" Ruby drove her foot into Adrian's shin, making him stumble backwards. She was viciously pleased at the way he grimaced. "We're all desperate for this funding, especially after the bombing. I could use the money to get my dad a bionic leg."
"That's very sweet." Adrian tripped her up as she turned to run. Ruby hit the ground with a grunt, hitting at her attacker with frantic hands as he flipped her over onto her back, using his superior strength to pin her down. "Are you really willing to die for it?"
"What are you talking about?" Ruby frowned as she examined Adrian's cruel smile. This wasn't meant to be a fight to the death, but she shouldn't have been surprised that he was willing to play dirty just to win.
Without warning, his fingers closed around her throat and tightened. Ruby coughed, at first shocked by what he was doing and then, slowly, the panic started to seep in. She kicked and thrashed, Adrian's sadistic smile making her fight harder than ever. She'd thought he was full of empty threats, trying to scare her into handing over the medallion. Now, she was beginning to realise that this competition was showing Adrian's true colours – and it terrified her to realise he might actually kill her.
"No one would ever know," Adrian said calmly, pinning Ruby's wrist with his free hand as she attempted to push him away. "I'd say you fell and snapped your neck. Who's going to call me a liar? But if you give me the medallion, if you let Spade have the funding, it doesn't need to be this way."
Ruby was incensed and she continued to thrash, despite quickly losing her strength. Her vision was starting to swim. All she could see was Adrian's cruel eyes staring down at her, pitiless. She choked once, twice. If she didn't give up the medallion, he really would kill her down here. Whatever Spade needed that funding for, he was clearly willing to risk murdering a monarch to get it.
"Hold up two fingers if you agree, and I'll let you go."
If she died, Adrian would just take the medallion from her corpse anyway. It was a no-win situation. Hating herself, Ruby raised her shaking hand, holding up two fingers. The pressure was gone from her throat in an instant. Adrian smiled benevolently, holding out his hand. Ruby withdrew the medallion from her pocket and placed it on his palm, staring at it glinting in the light. Then Adrian's fingers closed around it and he got to his feet.
"Thank you, Ruby."
Ruby remained on the ground where he'd left her, listening to the sound of his boots clacking down the tunnels. He didn't run. He took his time, knowing that no one was going to stop him or oppose him. She rolled onto her side, cheek pressed against the cold, damp concrete of the tunnel floor. She closed her eyes, tears of defeat running down her cheeks. Whatever she had thought she was contending with, this tournament proved that there were far darker forces at play than the Senate's attempts at control.