Leon handed his precious Oxford Certificates to his mother and watched her tear up at the sight of them. He had graduated two days ago. He officially had a Master’s in Business, and he was proud of it considering the amount of work he put in to get it. His coming vacation would be a relief from the insane rollercoaster of exam halls and lectures. He was looking forward to a few months of fun before he moved on to the next stage of his life.
It was mid-July. His parents had come to celebrate graduation with him, and stayed on two days to enjoy the city. Kleopas and Anastasia Maximillian looked happy and relaxed, even as his mother teared up at the sight of his achievements.
“I can’t believe you did it,” Anastasia said, kissing the folder and hugging it close. “There were times I thought you would walk away from it all.”
“Mom, it wasn’t that bad.” Leon grinned at her. “I only threatened to leave twice, and never did.”
Anastasia chuckled and closed the short distance between them. She came up on her toes to kiss his chin. He bent his knees and pulled her into a hug.
“I’m proud of you,” Anastasia said. “I’ll take these certificates home for you. I can’t wait for you to come home.”
Leon squeezed her tight, grateful for her steady support.
“Do you really have to spend six months away?” Kleopas asked.
Leon let go of his mother and met his father’s worried gaze.
“I’ll be fine, Dad,” Leon said, having been through this argument before. “We’ve made solid plans. You’ve seen them. You cleared them with Commander Stevens. You know we’ll be fine.”
“Leon, your Dad is just worried for you,” Anastasia said, though she too sounded unsure. “I mean—”
“I know what you mean,” Leon said, kicking a rock on the pavement. “But, you promised me six months after graduation. We made an agreement. I’ve completed my end. Now it’s your turn.”
Kleopas let out a heavy sigh, and reached out to squeeze Leon’s right shoulder with a strong hand.
“You’re right. We should always keep our promises,” Kleopas said, his gaze still troubled. “Promise you’ll be careful. If anything happens—”
“You’ll be the first I’ll call,” Leon promised. “Besides, I’m bringing Logan along. I’m sure he’ll let you know everything I do with my friends.”
Logan Mason was an Aeras Royal Navy lieutenant assigned to Leon for the duration of his six-month trip. Leon had met him three weeks ago.
“He’s not a spy,” Anastasia defended the man who would take care of Leon on their behalf. “His job is to make sure you’re safe, and no trouble finds you.”
Leon kissed her cheek knowing she would start a comprehensive tirade of defense on Logan’s behalf. If Leon dared refute her, he might end up having three Logans following him.
“Let’s take a picture,” Leon suggested, pointing to the camera stand he had set up before he handed her his certificates.
Leon hurried to it now, checked the settings, making sure they were as he wanted, and then he set the timer. He ran back to join his parents, standing between his mom and dad.
“Okay, three, two, one,” Leon counted down and smiled.
His mom leaned into him, and his dad wrapped an arm around his shoulders. The camera timer rang and took their picture. Three shots as Leon had set it. When it was over, Anastasia gave him another tight hug.
“Congratulations on your graduation, baby boy. I can’t wait to see what you do next.”
Leon held her for a moment, then let her go, turning to his dad. Kleopas pulled him into a hug too. His strong arms wrapped around Leon in that tight reassuring way that gave Leon the feeling that he could face down monsters after.
“You’ve made us very proud, Leon,” Kleopas said, patting his back.
“Thank you, Dad. You’ll be late for your flight,” Leon said, when he noticed the black car waiting at the curb. The driver had come out and was watching them, looking nervous.
“We’ll be fine,” Anastasia said, taking his hand and leading the way to the car anyway. “Don’t forget your phone tomorrow morning. Okay?”
“Yes,” Leon said, pulling it out of his pocket to show it to her. “Your numbers are on speed dial.”
“Good and you know how to access your money,” Anastasia said, peering at him, her brow raised.
Leon nodded, having gone through this line of questioning already.
“If anything unusual happens let us know, Leon. Don’t keep quiet and try to struggle through it.”
“I promise,” Leon assured her.
Anastasia stopped and turned to give him a good look. She gave a soft sigh and reached up to touch his clean-shaven jaw.
“So grown up now,” she said, almost murmuring to herself. “I can’t believe you’re graduated from Oxford.”
Leon turned to his dad for help, afraid she might start crying.
“Come on, Ana,” Kleopas pulled her to his side. “Leon will be back in Aeras in no time. Six months will fly so fast, you’ll wonder where the time went.”
“I truly look forward to it,” Anastasia said, smiling at Leon. “I’ll miss you, Leon.”
Kleopas led his wife to the car, and allowed the driver to open the back passenger door for her. Leon waited as his mother settled in, and stepped up to the window when she lowered it.
“Have a safe flight home,” Leon said, as his father walked around to the other side and slid in next to his mother. “Call me when you arrive. It will be good to know you got home okay.”
Anastasia patted his hands on the door.
“See you soon, baby boy,” she said, smiling at him.
“See you, Mom.” Leon leaned in so that he could see Kleopas.“See you, Dad.”
The driver started the car and Leon stepped back with a short wave. He watched them drive off with a sense of nostalgia. Having them around made him wish for home. Once he couldn’t see their car anymore, Leon turned around and hurried to his camera. Disassembling it from the tripod, he folded the tripod’s legs and looped the camera’s belt around his neck. He would check the pictures when he got home. After that, he would enjoy his last day as a student in London at the going-away party his roommates were throwing.
Lieutenant Logan Mason stood at attention in his full uniform at the private airstrip where Prince Kleopas and Princess Anastasia Maximillian were due in minutes. Their flight back to the Kingdom of Aeras was already cleared and waiting. Their trip to London was labeled private.
Logan knew that the couple had wanted to spend time with their only son as he had recently graduated.
“Look alive, Mason,” Frank Stevens, his boss, said when a black car rolled into the hangar. “They will want to talk to you. Keep it to straight and concise answers. Understood?”
Logan took in a deep breath and let it out slow as the car came to a stop right where they stood. Stevens opened the back passenger door as the driver jumped out to get the second one.
Logan had only seen this particular royal couple in magazines, or on the television, sometimes on international news when he was on missions.
This was the first time he would be up close and personal. He couldn’t wait to tell his mother. She loved listening to his adventures and this one would definitely tickle her to no end. She loved this royal couple so much.
Joining the Aeras Royal Navy was the best decision he ever made. His service to the Kingdom of Aeras had presented him with extraordinary moments, like this one.
“Sir,” Stevens said, in greeting to Prince Kleopas.“Your flight home is ready to go.”
“Thank you, Lt. Commander Stevens,” Prince Kleopas said. “Convey my thanks to your superiors. I know we’ve caused you a bit of extra work. It couldn’t have been easy for you.”
“We are proud to serve, Sir,” Stevens said. “Lieutenant Mason is here to greet you before he starts his mission as Prince Leon’s royal guard for the six-month trip across Europe.”
Logan took his cue from Stevens. Taking a step forward, Logan saluted facing Prince Kleopas and his wife, Princess Anastasia.
“Lieutenant Logan Mason, reporting for duty, Sir.”
Prince Kleopas’s study of him was fast, and left him nervous as hell.
“You look quite capable,” Prince Kleopas said. “How old are you?”
“Twenty-four last month, Sir,” Logan said.
“Close in age is good,” Prince Kleopas nodded. “He won’t complain about feeling stifled. Your task won’t be easy. Still, I hope you’ll get along well with my son.”
“Yes, Sir,” Logan promised happy that he had gotten to know Prince Leon before their trip tomorrow morning. “I’ll make sure no harm comes to Prince Leon, Sir.”
“I hope you have his itinerary so that you’re not left behind,” Princess Anastasia said. “Leon forgets to share information when he’s with his friends.”
“I have his official itinerary, Ma’am,” Logan promised. “Preparations have been made to ensure an easy time for him at each step. I’m ready to take on the task and will not disappoint you.”
“I can’t help but believe you when you say it like that,” Princess Anastasia said with a chuckle. She held on to Prince Kleopas’s right arm and squeezed. “Leon will be fine.”
“I know,” Prince Kleopas said, though he held Logan’s gaze.
Logan read dark promises in Prince Kleopas’s gray gaze, knowing nothing good would come to him if he failed his mission. These parents deeply loved Prince Leon.
“I promise to fulfill my duties to the best of my ability,” Logan said then.
“I’ll take that promise and hold you to it,” Prince Kleopas said. “His trip starts in the early morning. You should get started, Lieutenant Mason.”
Logan nodded and stepped back, heart pounding in his chest in anticipation. If he made it through this assignment, it would open up so many opportunities for him. He could almost see himself working in the palace, close to the Queen. His career would reach its height. It would be everything and more. Logan waited with Stevens until the couple boarded their jet. He let out a soft breath when the jet was airborne and in the distance.
“Are you ready?” Stevens asked him with a grin, as they headed out to their cars.
“Yes,” Logan said. “It’s lucky I met David Corentin last year. Otherwise, it would have been hard to be on this trip without meeting Prince Leon and his friends first.”
“I’m glad,” Stevens said. “Prince Leon does not misbehave, but something tells me this trip is not what it seems. The itinerary looks perfect, but he is holding out on information. You’ll discover the truth soon. I hope you come to an understanding with His Highness.”
Logan frowned at this piece of advice, but he held on to it. He had come to trust Stevens’s insight. They stopped by Logan’s rented car, and Logan unlocked it eager to get home for a quick shower. He’d had a long day today.
Stevens held out a black phone to Logan.
“Use this in case you need quick assistance. You will reach me, or Commander Steele,” Stevens said. “If Commander Steele has sensitive information for Prince Leon, he’ll call this phone. It happens at times if his grandmother wishes to talk to His Highness. Don’t lose it.”
Logan nodded, taking the phone and the accompanying envelope.
“Your travel documents and extra cash to get you by. The phone also has information on how to access resources, as needed.”
“Thank you, Sir,” Logan said.
“Get through this assignment, Logan. You’ll have a shot at more when you get back,” Stevens promised. “You do a good job with Prince Leon’s detail, and we can move it up to the next level.”
Logan smiled, excited.
“I look forward to it, Sir.”
Stevens patted Logan’s shoulder and walked away after a short goodbye.
Logan watched Stevens for a minute before he slid into the driver’s side of his rented Sedan and placed the phone and envelope in his duffel bag on the passenger seat. He could not wait to get the six months over and done with.
Logan showed up at Leon’s house in Carfax at five in the morning the next morning. Thanking the taxi driver, he took his heavy duffel bag from the back and stopped when he saw two huge green Landrovers parked at the curb in front of Leon’s house.
A blond haired man came running out of the house, carrying two bags. Leon followed him at a slower place. Logan recognized the prince even with the huge black hoody covering his head. Leon had his camera resting on his chest, and a huge travel mug in his right hand.
“Open your eyes, Leon. At this rate, we’re going to need to infuse coffee into your veins to get you up, man.”
“You’re quite the nag in the morning, David.” Leon grumbled going to the front passenger side of the first Landrover.“Whose idea was it to start out this early?”
“Yours,” David said, pleasure in his voice as he placed his bags in the back of the first Landrover. “Don’t sit at the front, Leon. I’m driving first. You get to sit in the backseat.”
Leon opened the back passenger door. He sat on the floor of the Landrover, keeping the door open. He wrapped his arms around himself, hugging the camera. Logan hid a smile and moved around to the back where David was arranging the luggage.
“Morning, David,” Logan greeted, making David pause to look at him.
“You made it,” David said, flashing him a happy grin. “I thought you would stay over last night. What happened?”
Logan had needed to pack his civilian clothes and do personal shopping for the trip. The next six months were going to be in the company of six over-privileged young adults. He had also needed the hours alone to prepare his mindset.
“I had last minute packing to take care of,” Logan said, helping David arrange the bags in the trunk.
“I understand that,” David said, stepping back to assess the luggage filling the trunk. “I’m the list maker of this group. We’re all packed and I’m still worried we’ve left out somethings.”
“Which is why they have supermarkets in every town these days to help with that kind of thing,” Leon said from the front. “Stop worrying, David.”
“Says the man whose travel documents are sitting on the kitchen counter,” David said, urging Logan to step back so that he could close the trunk.
“I’ll get them,” Logan said, patting David’s shoulder. It looked as though it was going to be him and David looking out for everyone in the group. “Is everyone else ready?”
“Almost,” David said. “Go in, seeing you will get them out.”
Logan smiled and ran up to the front door. He entered the house Leon had rented with his five friends for the last two years. Yellow light filled the kitchen, bright and cheery, the scent of fresh coffee heavy in the air. The blender came on and Logan paused when he saw the tall dark haired man standing in the corner holding a blender bottle.
Anselm Leandro, Logan thought, the son of a Spanish Don.
Anselm was set to take over his father’s businesses after this trip. He and Leon had been friends since Harvard, six years.
“Logan Mason,” Anselm greeted him with an easy grin. “You went missing last night. You missed a great going-away party. I would have saved you beers but Petr got them all.”
“Then I missed a good time,” Logan agreed.
Logan saw a brown envelope with the Aeras Royal Seal near the microwave. He took it up and checked the documents inside. He found Leon’s passport, and other identification documents.
I’ll take over care of these, Logan thought.
“Check the microwave,” Anselm told him. “There are egg sandwiches in there. Petr was cooking.”
Logan opened the microwave and found a plate of egg sandwiches.
“I don’t know who told Petr everything will stay warm in a microwave,” Anselm said, turning off the blender.
Anselm poured the green shake he had made into his blender bottle and took a quick sip. Closing the lid, he dumped the blender jug in the sink and headed out.
Logan searched the cabinets around him looking for brown bags. When he could not find any, he grabbed a plastic container with a cover for the egg sandwiches. He spent the next few minutes packing the sandwiches into the container.
The infamous chef, Petr Mikhailov, came downstairs hauling a suitcase and a duffel bag. Logan grinned when Petr stopped to high-five him.
“There is fresh passion fruit juice in the fridge too,” Petr said. “It’s good to see you, Logan.”
“Thanks for the egg sandwiches,” Logan said, as Petr left to join Anselm, David and Leon outside.
Logan finished with the sandwiches and went to the fridge. He found the jug of juice, and poured a glass for now. He found three bottles, one with Leon’s name on the cover. He was busy pouring juice into the bottles when the last two in the party came downstairs with their luggage.
Paul O’Hara, an Irish man who owned a horse ranch and farm in Ireland, and Riku Touma, the son of a Japanese diplomat based in Bangkok, Thailand.
“Logan.” Riku dumped his luggage and raced to Logan. Logan chuckled when Riku hugged him. “Why did you ditch our party last night?”
“I didn’t do it on purpose,” Logan said, after Riku let go of him. He capped Leon’s juice bottle and then the other two bottles. “I had to pack up too, you know.”
“I guess,” Riku said and opened the fridge.
Riku pulled out a bottle of protein shake and a sealed plastic container filled with chicken stir-fry. Stashing them into a lunch box, he picked up his suitcase and narrowed his gaze at Paul.
“Aren’t you going to get something to eat?” Riku asked Paul.
“We can stop over at a coffee place.”
“There is fresh coffee right here. I’ll make you a cup,” Riku said, placing his lunch box on the kitchen counter. He got a large travel mug and went to the coffee maker. “You’d better grab the bag of cornflakes in the cabinet above you.”
Paul grumbled as he did as told. He looked to be in the same category as Leon when it came to mornings. Taking the cereal, Paul nodded at Logan and headed out without saying more.
Logan downed the juice in the glass and took it to the sink.
“Don’t bother with clean up,” Riku said, closing Paul’s travel mug. “Our people are coming to clean and pack up today. We’re all moving out at the same time. They’ll get it done.”
Logan nodded and took an eco-bag from a hook by the sink. He put the three bottles of juice in it, and the container with the sandwiches. He picked up the envelope with Leon’s documents and started around the kitchen counter to the open space near the door.
“I’m gonna miss this place,” Riku said, coming up behind him. “We had some good times here.”
“I know what you mean. Me too,” Leon said, making Logan turn to the door.
Leon stood there looking more awake than he had earlier.
Riku took his lunchbox from the counter.
“Well, time flows forward,” Riku said. “Let’s get on the road guys.”
Leon moved to the side to let Riku pass.
Logan watched Leon walk in and head to the sitting area to his right. Leon stopped by a small table by the windows to take his camera bag and a tripod.
Logan decided that Leon was not as careless as he seemed. He had probably left the camera bag on purpose, an excuse to return to the house when everyone was out.
“Did my parents leave okay?” Leon asked, walking back to where Logan stood.
They faced each other.
Leon was striking to look at.
Logan could not help noticing it; he doubted anyone who met Leon would ignore him. His heart gave a short stutter making Logan frown slightly.
“Yes, your parents left okay,” Logan said, with a small nod.
He met a steady gray gaze that reminded him of Prince Kleopas.
“Did they tell you to report at every stop?” Leon asked, studying him.
There was defiance in Leon’s eyes, and a clear challenge.
“They only asked me to watch out for you,” Logan said.
Leon studied him another second, then walked around him to the kitchen counter. He took two apples from the basket of fruit there and put them in his camera bag. He took two more, and smiled at Logan.
“Logan, let’s agree. I won’t cause trouble if you don’t report in to my parents on any changes during this trip,” Leon said. “I want us to be friends. Can we do that?”
“Yes. I’d like that very much,” Logan said, thinking this was a very good start.
Leon held out his hand to Logan and they shook on it.
“Don’t forget to go with the flow, Logan Mason.”
Leon then headed to the door.
Logan followed Leon out the door, careful to close it, and then headed down to the first Landrover. David was already in the driver’s seat. Leon climbed into the backseat, so Logan took the front passenger seat. The others piled in the second Landrover, with Petr behind the wheel.
Logan settled in, making sure Leon had his seatbelt on before he wore his. David started the car, and honked once when Petr pulled out first. David followed Petr, and Logan’s brow rose when Leon held out two apples, one for him and David.
David grinned at Leon and took his apple with a nod.
Logan took his, deciding it was a peace offering.
Logan heard the distinctive click of a camera in the backseat and looked in the rearview mirror to see Leon taking photos of the house behind them.
“That’s over,” Leon said, his voice heavy with nostalgia.
“I’ll miss us here,” David said, his tone mirroring Leon’s wistfulness.
Logan ate his apple in silence. He had seen too many ends in his own life to belittle theirs. Ends were not easy. They ripped at the heart, sometimes hard, other times in the best of ways. He liked beginnings more: they had so much potential.
Logan wondered if Leon was taking this trip as a beginning or an ending.
They drove in silence for a while until Logan realized they were not heading to the airport.
“Where—?” Logan started to ask.
“Go with the flow,” Leon reminded him from the backseat.
As David joined the highway in the wrong direction, Logan realized that the carefully planned itinerary Leon submitted to his parents was false.
It was a perfect lie to get what Leon most wanted: six months away from the Kingdom of Aeras to play with his friends.
Stevens’s words of advice about reaching an agreement with Leon filled his head.
Logan understood then that Leon must have told Frank Stevens of the change in search of support because Leon did not trust Logan.
The thought of that distrust stung.