Warning: story includes dark themes, as well as explicit descriptions of sex and violence.

"He's not going to be pleased." Andre cast a look over the aftermath of their chaos - a splatter of Vvarian soldiers, prone and crumpled, and four dead minstrels sprinkled among them. He exhaled deeply, looking past his own group to the horizon. "This was a mistake."

"You're being melodramatic." Gustave, their commander, was far more at ease, as he worked a cloth over his sword - each wipe staining it redder. "Complications happen. Now get those costumes on."

The other half a dozen Obsivians crouched by the fallen minstrels, deftly depriving them of their outer garments, which, as fortune would have it, were only slightly battered.

"Yes, complications that wouldn't have happened if we had only followed orders," Andre said under his breath, though he too complied, straightening out a thing of colorful cloth and tassels. His sole consolation lay in that - although they had now deviated from what should have been a simple plan - the consequences were mercifully few; the ambush had taken place in relative seclusion, and they were a fair distance from the palace still. No one had noticed or would notice, and all they had to do now was ride the carriage they'd commandeered and waltz into the capital under their minstrel guises, as planned. But they were waiting for their King first, and it was that which filled the little clearing with unease.

"What does a deviation matter if we get to the same result?" returned Gustave, with an air of assurance. "A body count will hardly bother him."

"Perhaps, but he is..." Andre searched for the right word. "He is particular, sometimes. And we've made far more of a mess of things than we needed to."

Gustave scoffed. "I won't hear any more of it, Andre. The method won't matter to him."

The distant thundering of hooves sounded in the hillside, and they all quieted, eyes turned in unison to the figures on the horizon drawing closer and closer. Andre felt his fingers clench and unclench, ill at ease, and few of the others were not disposed to some fidgeting.

Finally, a great warhorse cantered into view, more beast than animal, and sitting high atop it was King Alexander himself. He struck a towering silhouette against the scant illumination of the moon and starlight, his features currently shrouded by the same long shadow he cast over them all. A small contingent of other riders - the Chevaliers, the King's elite guard - fanned out behind him and surrounded the small clearing.

Gustave bowed hastily, as did the others. "Your Majesty - please allow me to explain. Nothing but the circumstances could have led me to deviate from the plan." He remained a little stooped while giving his explanation, despite it being quite needless; Alexander was tall, and on the horse he was a giant. "We attempted to target an unguarded troupe, as you commanded, but - "

"But you grew tired of waiting, is that it?" Alexander said lazily, as he dismounted, his boots striking the ground with a heavy rattle of armor.

"No," said Gustave quickly. "That is - I did think, perhaps, it was better to risk targeting a guarded carriage than wait any longer, lest we run out of time - "

"Even though the ball isn't for hours yet?" continued Alexander. He turned over one of the corpses with his foot, looking over it with a critical eye. "And judging by the state of these bodies, they must have been dragged here from quite a distance away. So your attack was sooner still."

"Yes," admitted Gustave, though he hurried to add, "but it was by no means a brash move, Your Majesty. The road was deserted and there were no witnesses. It seemed - " His bravado had faltered a little once in the King's actual presence, and it dwindled more now that Alexander stepped closer. "We could easily take on a couple of Vvarian soldiers. It seemed the same to me, either way."

The King didn't respond immediately, and the silence that drew out in the aftermath could be justifiably described as unsettling. Then he smiled, indulgently. "Of course," he said. "An entirely rational decision."

Gustave looked up, the beginnings of relief flashing across his features. "Your Majesty - really?"

"I would never oppose efficiency," Alexander responded lightly. "And, as you say, it does seem the same. Doesn't it?"

"Yes," agreed Gustave. "Just the same."

"Of course," continued Alexander, "the absence of these soldiers will be noticed, once they fail to report to their commanding officers. And once you arrive, doubtless they will ask what happened to your guard. But I suppose you've thought of this too."

"That's - ah..." Gustave stumbled a little, treading back to uncertainty. "Perhaps we could say that bandits ambushed us."

"Fearless bandits, too, to attack royal soldiers so close to their capital." Alexander's smile was just wide enough to show teeth.

Gustave stilled, feeling he had made a misstep. "It's - believable - "

"And I suppose also that there was not the remotest chance of anyone witnessing your little transgression. I say that since you decided to fight them where they were and dragged their bodies later, instead of luring them off the road before your attack - again, as I had ordered. I'm sure you have a reasonable explanation for this as well." There was absolutely nothing that had changed about the tone of Alexander's voice, which remained placid, but his smile had turned distinctly uncanny for its stillness.

"It - the surroundings seemed secure, Your Majesty, I didn't think - "

Without warning, Alexander's hand - steel gauntlet and all - suddenly wrapped itself around Gustave's throat, constricting further words from emerging. The man attempted to claw the fingers away, but to no avail; Andre and the others recoiled, but none, of course, intervened.

Alexander's voice was quiet, but clearly audible. "I don't like unnecessary risks," he said, watching as Gustave flailed ineffectually in his grip. "It was by luck that you weren't discovered, and luck only."

Gustave wheezed out a plea, which went entirely ignored by his King - only when he began choking in earnest did Alexander, with a dismissive twist of his hand, let him fall to the ground. As Gustave coughed up a storm, Alexander placed the heel of his boot over his wrist, pinning him like an insect. "I give my orders for a reason. Far be it for you to question them, much less think of deviations as 'the same.'"

With a terrible, grinding crunch, Alexander rammed his foot down, breaking several fingers in the process, and causing Gustave to break from his coughing to a yelp of agony. He clutched his injured hand to his chest, as soon as he was allowed, hunching over like a kicked dog.

Alexander merely watched him a few moments longer, a vicious kind of satisfaction betrayed in the glint of his eyes. Then he stepped back, mounting his horse, continuing as if nothing out of the ordinary had just happened, and in fact seeming to pick up some strange sense of pleasantness again. "But I like your story about the bandits, Gustave. It'll be a little suspicious, but it's passable; they won't have time to investigate. You may continue with the plan."

Something like horror still lingered on the commander's face, like an aftershock. "But my - hand - "

"You can hardly expect to get away from a bandit attack unscathed, Gustave." Alexander had the bad manners to sound casual, as he steadied the reins. "And nothing distracts from suspicion as much as pity."

Without so much as another word, the King and his guard rode off, the rumbles of hooves fading into the distance.

Andre took a moment to recover, though he was well aware that the punishment could have been worse. "Well, you were right," he said dryly, as he helped his commander to his feet. "It wasn't the body count that bothered him."

A/N: Hope you enjoyed the setup so far! This is a collaboration between two friends, one writing for each character. We actually have a lot of raw material written already, it just takes a bit of time to edit it into a way that makes narrative sense. After we post the first few chapters up, we'll see if it gets much traction on this site to determine if we should continue posting here! To that end, any reviews/follows/etc. are deeply appreciated.