Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by EarthScorpion, Jan 30, 2012.
Apparently you've never read or watched 2001.
Always found the space odysseys overrated myself, and yes I know I'm likely on the wrong forum with this opinion.
Okay, I know Spacebattles has problems with staying on topic but how many posts are we going to devote to which shade of black is more epic?
Because I do have opinions, I just think this probably the wrong place to air them. Someone start an epic colors thread if you want to continue this.
A Green Sun Illuminates the Void
Chapter 14: Games of Power
It was Voidsday, once again. It had been a week since Louise Françoise le Blanc de la Vallière had been tasked with her mission by her old friend. And in this week, Princess Henrietta de Tristain had heard only bad news and no news at all. The morning air smelt of dew and grass as she walked in the palace gardens, Agnès to the left of her, and her river dragon familiar to the right. The carapace of the hound-sized dragonet had been oiled until the matt blackish-blue shone, and it twined around her legs, scuttling, only to periodically sprint off in an almost-feline manner only to return munching on various small animals.
Flicking her hair, Henrietta carefully lowered herself onto a still-damp bench and sat, staring across unseeingly at the budding rosebushes. Before her eyes, the river dragon scuttled on its many legs, chasing down a movement in the undergrowth. It emerged from the bushes with an arrogant strut in its gait, and a bushy tail sticking out of its mouth.
“You’re a bad girl, aren’t you, Daphne?” the princess told her infant dragon with mock seriousness. “You know I feel guilty when you eat too many squirrels, and the gardeners always look so distressed when you rampage over their arrangements. Or you sharpen your teeth in the rock garden.”
The river dragon whuffled, strands of mist escaping from its mouth to coil around its body, and it scuttled over to its mistress, to twine around her warm legs with its cold, clammy carapace. Henrietta tried not to squeal.
“I do say, your highness, that it might be wise to wear hose under your skirt when doing such things with your dragon,” Agnès said softly. The scarred woman was dressed in the garb she wore when at court, and her hand was never too far away from the magelock at her hip.
The princess did not respond, her hand going down to stroke the beast’s head, until it began to emit a faint hissing noise. “It’d just be too much hassle,” she said bluntly. “Cardinal Mazarin wants me to be there for the meeting with the Gallian ambassador later today, and it will be pain enough getting changed then, without…” Henrietta sighed, as the realisation struck her. “Oh, I am a silly girl. I could have done this today, precisely because I’m going to have to get changed completely.” She bent down, and picked up her contented familiar, carrying it in both arms. “That’s going to be fun,” she said, with a sarcastic twist in her voice. “I do wonder what my dear royal cousin in Gallia will have declared this time.”
“I couldn’t say, your highness,” her bodyguard said.
“No, and I will not speculate about what that feeble-minded fool wants,” Henrietta muttered rebelliously, bouncing her dragonet up and down. “I need to feed Daphne properly, even if she has been feeding herself on squirrels, so we should make our way over to the Veiled Pavilion.” She shivered. “It’s still a little chilly, and I’d rather be inside when we do that.”
“Right away, your highness,” Agnès said, helping the princess rise from her seat. “And your highness, your dress is wet from where you have been sitting.”
“Bother my dress,” the younger woman said, irritation in her voice, leading her way along the paths of the gardens to the marble-walled pavilion. Eternal smokeless fires burned on its roof, and its dew-slick almost-translucent marble walls had an almost mausoleum-like quality. Henrietta knew for a fact that her great-grandfather had built it for certain purposes which were not meant for public discussion – and which had left there aggravatingly many families with distant kinship to the throne – but thankfully her grandfather had it refitted such that it was a menagerie.
It was a shame it was still so early in the year. In the season of Fire, when evenings were at their longest, this was a very pleasant place to be when the magically-altered walls were lit by the setting sun and the temperature was always kept pleasant. And in the meantime, the other spells which her great-grandfather had built into the very fabric of the building made it a useful place to have private conversations.
“Come on, girl!” Henrietta said cheerfully, putting her river dragon down beside the water feature which had been set aside for her. “Let’s see what the servants have put in the little river for you this time!” She squinted down at the fast-flowing stream. “It looks like salmon,” she said, pushing the hindquarters of the dragonet gently but firmly. “You like that a lot, don’t you?”
Enthusiastically, the familiar dove into the stream, its form already lost among the stones and reeds, and Henrietta leaned back with a sigh. “And now, Agnès,” she said, one hand subtly moving to her wand, “how are the latest recruits going?”
The blonde woman pursed her lips, one hand idly going to trace a scar which touched the corner of her mouth at a tangent. “Adequately, your highness,” she said, with a sniff. “I could ask for better… sadly, too many young women believe this is more akin to status as one of your ladies in waiting. But…” she sighed, “… we do not need to go over that again.”
“I’m not giving up the Inner Circle,” Henrietta said mulishly, distracted from what she was doing by the old argument. “I want there to be educated young women who can ride with me, who can shoot or cast, and who can hold a… a Founder-cursed intelligent conversation!”
Agnès’ shoulders slumped, as her hope of avoiding confrontation vanished. “Please, your highness,” she said. “Please. If you would have a circle of companions, please separate them from the Musketeers.”
“I can’t,” Princess Henrietta said through gritted teeth. “Not until I’m crowned. We will not discuss this until then.” She tightened her fingers around her wand, and muttered the incantation which would raise the wards. “You know this,” she added, wearily. “But while we are on the topic…”
“Indeed,” Agnès said, blinking as she mentally changed gears. “Your highness, I have word that the survivors of whatever happened in La Rochelle will be arriving this evening. I have had them moved slowly, and only under cover of night. Their injuries made it hard to do otherwise, even with the healers. Three squads are currently investigating the events, so…” the scarred woman pursed her lips “… I hope we will have a more complete sequence for whatever happened there.” She paused. “Due to the need to keep things quiet, I have not been able to use wind-born messages, so we will have to wait. A coded message, though, states that your friend has not been found among the dead...”
Henrietta sucked in a breath.
“… which, incidentally,” Agnès said, continuing on mercilessly, “is confirmed as five of the eleven Griffin Knights on the mission. And that is not counting the losses taken already from the wyrm. And although Viscount Wardes is not among their number, this leaves the Griffin Knights with alarming casualties.”
“Yes,” Henrietta said sadly, biting her lip. “I know… oh, I’ve been so stupid. We can ill-afford those losses. They shouldn’t have died having to clean up the mess of a silly little girl. And…” her expression darkened, “Germania will respect us less if our mage-knights are not the force they should be. So… Agnès… someone killed my men inside my country. Inside my own borders. And,” she balled up her fists, “may have killed my closest friend. Someone dared to do that. They dared.”
Out of the running water, her familiar raised its head, the river dragon releasing the thin hissing shriek of its kind. The familiar runes on its flank burned a dull crimson and the water around it boiled in thick white clouds.
Agnès shot a nervous glance at the dragonet, hand going to the pistol at her hip. “Your highness,” she whispered. “Calm yourself down.”
Henrietta stalked over to her familiar, skirts swishing. Uncaring of the dank cold mist or the wet, she scooped her dragon up in both arms, and hugged it close to her chest. The wet animal soaked her stomacher and her jacket, but she took deep breaths, and the red glow of the familiar runes died. “There there,” she muttered softly. “You don’t need to be angry just because I am, Daphne.” She let out a sigh. “And we will need to find the guilty party before we can extract vengeance.” Henrietta sighed again. “And it’s still technically my mother’s kingdom. At some point I really should let her know what has been happening.”
The blonde woman coughed.
“Oh, of course I won’t,” the princess said, shoulders slumping as she petted her familiar. “I may be a silly girl, but my mother has not done anything since my father died. Her neglect… well, I should thank the Lord every day for Cardinal Mazarin. Agnès, I think I shall start doing that. Certainly, I will thank him in my evening prayers.” With her free hand, she tugged on her drenched skirts. “And now I will have to go change fully, for the Gallian ambassador. Madame de Helemore is going to be sharp with me again for making such a mess of myself. I smell of dragon, don’t I?”
Agnès’ fingers tapped the pistol at her hip. “I couldn’t possibly say, your highness,” she said.
“So yes, then,” Henrietta groaned.
The main feature of the Leonid Chamber was the throne from which the monarch traditionally gave audience to visiting dignitaries. Elaborate and ornate, three gold-and-brass lions with eyes of ruby entwined to make the arms and back of the seat, and gave the room its name. Pale woods and marble made up the rest of the audience room and drew the eye towards the gleaming furniture.
The throne was empty.
Instead, before the raised seat was a low wooden table, with three comfortable and rather more prosaic seats positioned around it. The crimson-robed man who sat on one side looked paper-thin, wispy and aged, but despite his advanced age it was whispered in the streets of Bruxelles that this man, Cardinal Mazarin, was the true power behind the Tristainian throne. That Princess Henrietta sat slightly to the left of him, her seat slightly back from the table, would have only produced more whispers. She was dressed in gold-trimmed maroon which called to mind the formal robes of a queen regnant without quite daring to be garments which were the preserve of her mother. The colours set off her hair nicely, and drew attention to the almost-crown tiara she wore. Her dragonet was sitting on her lap.
And against the bloodied colours on one side of the table, the soft blues and whites of the silks worn by the Gallian ambassador seemed effete and delicate. Henrietta envied him the lighter clothes when she was stuck in this heavy brocade, though she did not so much care for the colours. And he was so very fussy, in the way that only a Gallian nobleman could be; his tightly curled pale blue hair was longer than hers and probably took longer to prepare each morning than her own toilet.
Of course, perhaps he deserved some vanity.
“To our respected royal cousin, Queen Marianne of Tristain, Empress of Aruba, Curacao and Sint Maatren, First Lady of Bonaire, Sint Eustatius and Saba, we bid you welcome in the name of King Joseph II of Gallia and Iberia, Guardian of the Setting Sun, Lord of the Western Sea, Heir of Saint Oranais,” said the man, reading off the scroll on the table before him. “It is with much melancholy, grief and sadness that we must note that our cousin has not acceded to our perfectly reasonable request that the throne of Tristain act with all decent speed to restore the natural order of all things. Long have we desired for the righteousness of past times to be restored, but in a display which has left Gallia reconsidering its relationship with its cousin, Tristain has been most sadly neglectful.”
Princess Henrietta was personally of the opinion that the Galian ambassador was a decent sort by the standards of the diplomats she had to meet, and that he really did not deserve some of the instructions that came through from Versailles.
“To this end, therefore, to prevent the sin and vice which flocks through the borders of this innocent land from foul places within Tristain, the throne of Gallia finds it necessary to increase the tariff on all fresh fruits which pass the border between our two nations by an amount no less than three times the current tariff.”
There was madness in the Gallian royal family, and it was an all-but-open secret that King Joseph was feeble-minded, a royal prisoner within an ornate palace kept there by powerful nobles. The man used what little authority his alleged subjects permitted him in pathetic, wasteful ways, but in truth it was the very pettiness of such dictates which meant he was still permitted to do such things.
“However in joyousness we must thank you, cousin, for your kind and fair gift of two exquisite manikins,” the ambassador continued, a slight twitch in his eyebrow the only sign of the mental stress that he was suffering from this. “In acceptance of that fair deed, we do hereby and immediately lift the ban on timber from the western forests of our domain being exported to Tristain.”
It was a sign of how bound the king of Gallia was that he could not even ban his eastern nobles – the ones who actually sold lumber to Tristain – from selling to the smaller nation, and so he had been forced to only forbid those who did not actually engage in the trade. Henrietta had felt shocked by such a sign of noble abuse of their liege when she had this situation explained to her by Cardinal Mazarin, years ago.
She had then had those illusions stripped from her, by the cardinal’s explanation that such a weak monarch was very good for Tristain. The thirteen-year old had suffered ill sleep for days after her mentor had explained that the recent death of the Duc d’Orleans – brother of King Joseph, who had been expected by most to be the next king – was the best thing they could have hoped for. A weak-minded Gallian king would not turn forces hardened from the conquest of Iberia against its lesser sister-nation. With the death of the general-prince who had led the shockingly rapid invasion, the armies which could retake a country larger than Tristain in fewer than two years were no longer a loaded musket in dangerous hands.
Princess Henrietta missed those early days of childhood innocence, before her father had died and her mother had retreated into mourning and all but left governance in the hands of others. Sometimes she wondered if the Emperor of Germania had councillors whispering similar things. That Tristain was crippled by a queen who did not rule and who had dropped all her duties of governance to focus on self-pity, and that a marriage to the daughter would conquer the nation for him without a fight. She was almost certain that such suggestions were behind the loveless marriage which waited for her at the end of summer.
Refocusing on the scene before her, she caught the end of Cardinal Mazarin’s formulaic response, and listened silently as the two men mentally changed gear, moving to matters which actually… well, mattered.
“… and… mmm… do convey the good wishes of the Tristainian throne to the Duchess d’Aquitaine and her new son,” the wispy old man said. “Has she decided on a name yet, Antoine?”
“Oh, probably, probably,” the Gallian ambassador said. “But I do not know it, so…” he gave a slight shrug, “I am not to be of much use there, eh?”
“That is a shame,” Henrietta said. “Please convey my personal best wishes as well as the wishes of the throne.”
“I will be able to do that, your highness,” the blue-haired man said with a slight nod. “I am sure my cousin will ask to be remembered to you.”
The princess flapped a hand at him. “Well, when she feels fit to inform us of the name,” she said, arching her eyebrows at him, “then I will be sure to obtain a fitting gift for such a child.”
The ambassador leant in conspiratorially. “I did hear mention – somewhere – that she might like the name ‘Giles’,” he said in a stage whisper. “Purely as rumour, of course.”
“Well, it is just rumour,” Henrietta said casually. “It is possible – I have heard somewhere – that Giles is a good, bookish scholarly name. Founder knows that Eloise deserves a child who will not be as rash as his father.”
“I could of course not comment upon such rumour,” the man said, “but I do know the poor sweet girl misses him dearly.” He shook his head. “Ah, but to move off such depressing matters. Naturally, you and whatever guests you feel would brighten the day are invited to a charming little garden party I plan to hold in the embassy in the last week of Falling Water. I intend to see spring out with good cheer.”
“Mmm, I will be sure to inform the Queen of it,” Cardinal Mazarin said. “Even if she cannot make it due to previous arrangements,” – which was merely the diplomatic courtesy, for the Queen seldom left the palace nowadays – “I am sure that the flower of Tristainian high society will attend.”
“Even its most lovely blossom?” the ambassador asked, flicking his long eyelashes at the princess.
“As I recall, your Falling Water party last year was rather enjoyable,” Henrietta said in a non-answer nevertheless posed with a certain coquettish edge. “I have certainly heard that it was rather better than any of the ones given by…”
Whatever she had been about to say was interrupted by the commotion outside the door and raised voices. “Oh my,” Cardinal Mazarin said, calmly. Slowly, he rose to his feet. “I will just go and see what the commotion is.”
But before he could make his way over to the main door, a woman in the uniform of the royal messengers entered, slate in hand. “Cardinal Mazarin!” she called out. “And your highness,” she added, looking around. “A message on the winds from Albion!”
Henrietta paled. A message… from Albion. That was unlikely to be good news, especially since it was being reported to Cardinal Mazarin first and… she locked her hands in her lap and tried not to show any concern or worry.
“Messenger,” the elderly cardinal said, a hint of steel in his voice. “Consider your words. If you would speak, then…”
“Albion has fallen! The message… it’s from the rebels, but it’s using royal codes. It… it says that on Firesday, the 4th of Ruling Water, New Castle was claimed, and now the last traces of resistance in that place has been eliminated!”
There was silence in the hall. Princess Henrietta clenched her hands into fists under the table. So… so Albion had… could have fallen yesterday, and she had not even noticed. There had been no crack of thunder as one of the Brimiric lines fell, and there had been no… the heavens had not wept for the Prince Wales. Poor Cearl. Poor, poor, beloved Cearl. And if Louise Françoise had the misfortune to have had the fortune to even make her way to Albion and had been there when it fell…
… well, she had to trust that her friend had been able to say that she was Tristainian and so been taken prisoner. And destroyed the papers, though she felt just terrible for thinking that. That way… well, they would be able to ransom her back.
The silence was broken by the scraping of the Gallian ambassador’s chair. “I am sorry to be having to go,” he said, hastily, “but I think it is time that I am to return to my embassy and wait for instructions for my government. This is to be a matter of most seriousness, and I do not want to be saying things without orders.
“Mmm, yes,” Cardinal Mazarin said with a sigh. “No doubt there will be many hurried conferences between us in a few days.”
“No doubt,” the ambassador said, with a bow.
The princess was not entirely sure how she made her way through the rest of the day. Her fear for the Prince Wales consumed what little attention she would have been able to spare. She knew that Cardinal Mazarin had scolded her for her inattention, but she could not described what he had said to her if the Founder himself had asked it of her.
It had probably been something about the selfishness of personal desire and how as a royal, a descendant of the Founder, she should sublimate her will to serving the state which she would come to embody. It was usually that sort of thing.
And it wasn’t as if he wasn’t right. She’d seen all too well what her mother’s selfishness had cost the country. Had cost her personally, as the daughter of someone who had apparently loved her husband more than she loved her daughter. But… Founder’s Void, there had to be something less extreme than what the old clergyman would want her to be like.
But one way or another, she’d made her way through the day. And as Agnès led her through the corridors of the palace, the princess tried to supress her nerves. She could feel the butterflies in her stomach, churning and boiling and roiling.
This was an older and less maintained area of the palace, a wing which she had set aside for the Royal Musketeers and which had, in past years, been the training grounds for a former first minster’s private army. She had felt it fitting – and more importantly cheaper – to requisition this place to be the centre of operations for her own forces. Which were technically a private army, at least until her mother formally abdicated in her favour. Fortunately, for some reason the Crown had shown no signs of objecting to the Royal Musketeers, and the high and middle nobility had so far shrugged off the fact that the crown princess might have a personal force of commoner and inexprimé women trained in blackpowder weapons and riding. Jolly useful to go do minor bandit-chasing work and a few squads of them could go pounding through the woods and find an orcish hide-out for the proper fighters to exterminate. And one could even send your inexprime daughters to them if one could not arrange a marriage for them and tell the neighbours that they were in the service of the Crown.
That they thought that was all the Royal Musketeers were was a blessing.
Walking around the edge of the training courts, the two of them made their way to the squat, heavy stone building that had once been the jails, but which now served as the headquarters. Agnès had chosen that over some of the rather lighter and airier structures, and Henrietta had acceded to the request… no, that demand. The cracks of musketry sounded from the firing ranges and shouting drill instructors took younger girls through first practice with the short spears used to train with the bayonet.
The princess waved the saluting women back to their practice, and continued onwards. “How are this batch?” she asked Agnès, hands clasped behind her back.
The scarred woman paused on her stroll, clicking her tongue. “Well enough,” she said, after a moment’s thought.
Henrietta’s eyes flicked over the suddenly beaming expressions of the women… no, the girls who had clearly been eavesdropping. “My, such praise,” she said softly, barely moving her lips.
The older woman’s face did not move at all at the whispered comment. “Your highness, come on,” she said. “Leave the trainees to their practice.”
There was a flurry of motion as the subtle chiding hit home, and the two observers made their way to the headquarters, Agnès guiding her liege through the door and carefully closing it behind her. Then it was down into the former cells deep below the earth, down into the padded places layered with wards to prevent eavesdropping, which dated back to time when this place had been built. Henrietta prayed – though perhaps that was not the right thing to do, considering what she was involved in – that further questions had not been raised by those wards. After all, evidence of concealment was as suspicious as conspiracy itself, in certain eyes.
Another door was opened, and the cold air and the scent of mildew and rot hit her like a hammer. Henrietta gagged, and stepped back, fanning herself.
“Commander!” came an oddly mellifluous voice from within. “Sorry, sorry, I didn’t… um. Oh. Your highness!”
Henrietta poked her head around the door, into the underground training court. Once it had held dozens of iron cages for ‘enemies of the state’, but the rusted chains hanging from the vaulted ceiling were the only sign of that now. The trainees down here were Agnès’ special group, a few rare gems plucked from various places around the realm. They were dressed in undyed flax, and each held a training spear in hand. And one of them – the blushing thirteen-year old with coal-black hair and a slightly-sickly greyish hint to her skin – was looking rather sheepish.
“I’m merely passing through,” the princess said mildly, still feeling slightly faint. “I don’t intend to interrogate you.”
“… and I just want to say how sorry I am and how I didn’t mean to miss like that and even if I wasn’t meant to be mixing that up with spear training I thought it might be a way to…” the girl shut up, when an older girl with the same strange sea-green eyes as Agnès elbowed her in the ribs, “… ow.”
A woman with blind milk-white eyes, wearing the emblem of a sergeant glared at the young girl, and saluted Henrietta. “Your highness.” Turning to face Agnès, she added, “And I will be talking to Mademoiselle du Bosque about that. And,” she added, in a clipped and very precise High Tristainian accent, “several other things.”
“Very good,” the chevalier said, her face showing no emotion. “Montálise, have you done as I asked?”
The seemingly-blind woman nodded. “Yes, ma’am,” she said. “I will have the report written up by tomorrow, but I can give it in person if you wish.”
The unfortunate Mademoiselle du Bosque perked up, at the prospect of punishment delayed, but slumped again when Agnès said, “No, keep training them. I am taking the princess to her right now. Keep up the practice.” She shot a glance at the black-haired musketeer trainee. “I will be back later today,” she said, producing a squeak. “Princess Henrietta?”
“Lead on,” the girl said graciously, hitching up her long skirts slightly and looking at the easy garb of the trainees with a small degree of enviousness.
It was not far to the treatment rooms hidden down here, for training injuries that it would best to not come to the eyes of the healers who saw to most of the commonplace injuries of the Musketeers. Now they saw other use, though, for the one survivor of the four musketeers which had been sent with Louise de la Vallière.
Princess Henrietta gasped, covering her mouth with her handkerchief at the sight of Anne-Sophie. Swaddled in bandages, pus seeping out from yellow-stained linen, the pink-blonde girl was barely recognisable. She had been once chosen to grace the princess’ side as an intelligent young woman capable of both looking pretty, fighting to protect her liege and carrying out an intelligent conversation. Princess Henrietta did not specialise in healing magics, but as a triangle-class water mage she knew enough to say that the former two were going to be forever beyond the Musketeer.
“Your highness,” the musketeer rasped, voice prematurely harshened by smoke. “Sorry for… for… I couldn’t carry out your orders fully. I failed you.”
“You didn’t!” Henrietta cried out, eyes already brimming as she rushed to the side of the young woman who had been one of the closest things to a friend that the crown princess had been permitted to have from day to day. “Anne-Sophie, I’m so sorry! If I’d had known… I expected there to be risk, but in Albion! Not before you had even departed our shores!” Drawing her wand, she whispered a basic healing spell, to cleanse infections and give the wounded woman more strength. “What happened?”
Hesitantly and accompanied by much coughing, the musketeer began to explain. Aided by Agnès who summarised what they already knew and several spells from Henrietta, Anne-Sophie laboriously explained her tale.
“Golem-men?” Henrietta exclaimed at the end of the explanation of what had happened in the bedroom of the hotel. She had been holding in that exclamation for a while. “As in, golems in the shape of men?”
“No. No. It… it was like a man wearing armour. I… I found that out when Lady de la Vallière killed one. My… my pistol shot just flattened itself into it. Like… like if I’d fired it into an anvil.” She paused, hacking up soot and blood and Henrietta hurried in with another spell. “She… that polearm of hers carved it up like it was a joint. Not really… really a surprise. It could just cut through stone like that. But… but yes. To a man they chased after her, and I managed to kill the one who was left, which... a pistol shot to the head was what it took, held against the temple. It... it didn’t pierce the armour, but he stopped moving. And in the one that the lady opened up...” she choked, and Agnès had to give her water, before she could continue. “There was a man inside, even though it looked like a really fancy golem from the outside. Like one of the special ones in the thr-throne room.
“And… too,” Anne-Sophie coughed, hacking deeply, “your highness, commander. I… I did not tell others of… of this, but from the corpse of one of the attackers, I recovered a trinket. It… it came from one of the ones that Lady de la Vallière killed with…” she shuddered, “… with that horrifying weapon she had.” She paused, looking down at her bandaged hands. “I… I tried to get more, but I couldn’t… m-move the corpse, so I slipped it into one of my powder-pots.”
Clumsily, she gestured from her bed towards where her equipment had been dumped, directing Agnès to the small clay-fired pots which the musketeers kept power refills in. The scarred woman pressed the ring on her left hand to the pot, and twitched when the band began to glow a dull red.
“Magic?” Princess Henrietta asked, tilting her head.
“Aye, my princess,” the blonde woman said, pursing her lips. She raised eyebrows in questioning. “What is this?” she asked, bluntly.
Anne-Sophie swallowed. “On the body, under the armour, from where Lady de la Vallière opened it up, there was something which… well, I thought it was jewellery. So I went to take it, so we might have something to identify them. But it was under the skin, and…” she coughed, “well, I pried it out. That… that was just before the fire from the burning one started spreading and I… I h-had to get out. I would have had more time, but the smoke was choking, and... and in the end, I had to break the window and get out that way.”
The commander of the Royal Musketeers unstoppered the pot at that, horrified curiosity in her odd sea-green eyes, and shook out the contents. In some ways it resembled an amulet, albeit one which was rather bulky and covered in dried gore, but where there would have been the chain, instead there was a radiating, branched network of thin wires. Even under the dried blood, they gleamed oddly in the light, like…
“… the Staff of Destruction,” Henrietta breathed. “It reflected light in the same way.” She tapped it with her wand, muttering a cantrip, and an odd rainbow like wash of light played against it. “Yes, it is magical, and strongly so,” the princess said, leaning in closer with her eyes alight. “And you said this… this was in someone’s body?”
The injured musketeer nodded. “Yes, your highness.”
“Whatever could it be?” the teenage girl asked herself, rhetorically. “Some kind of replacement… replacement heart or something, which allows a man to fight past natural death, like in the tales of the Golem-Man of Tolou where a man replaced his heart with an earthstone?” She began to bite her nails, as she pondered over the puzzle. “But, no… no, there are no earthstones in this… or windstones or firestones or waterstones, either. They’d have made a different reaction to the spell. Or… or maybe it’s some kind of magical device which lets non-mages use a single spell! Oh, imagine what you could do with that, Agnès! Or…”
The woman with the cross-hatched scars on her face coughed politely. “Your highness,” she said. “Perhaps you should think about the more pressing problem.”
Henrietta blinked. “Yes, yes,” she said, slowly. “But remind me; once this is all over, Agnès… we need to have a proper catalogue of all of the Crown’s treasures. The Staff of Destruction was sitting in the dark for Founder knows how long; we need to look for such things if… oh.” She bit her lip. “I wonder if these strange people are who Foquet works for? Is it really a coincidence that such things crop up right after that wretched thief gets away with so many things? But… yes, yes, sorry.” She shook her head.
“This is a bad habit of yours, your highness,” Agnès said softly, a slightly chiding note in her voice. “Has not the cardinal reminded you time and time again that you tend to value your own satiated curiosity more than you do affairs of state?”
“In exactly those words,” the younger woman said, a tart note in her voice, “so please don’t quote him at me, Agnès. We just can’t talk about… the thing… in front of…” she jerked her head towards Anne-Sophie. “But if you please, Agnès, have the Duchess de la Vallière summoned to court. No,” Henrietta corrected herself, “have her presence politely requested.”
“Do you wish to mention your friend to her mother?” the scarred woman said bluntly.
Henrietta paused for a moment. “Yes,” she said, after a moment’s thought. “In fact… belay that order. I will go and write the letter personally this evening.” She flapped a hand at the head of the Royal Musketeers. “See to the matter here, and see what you can discover from the Griffin Knights, too. I am,” she sighed melodramatically, pausing at the door, “a delicate lady and I rather think they will be more blunt with you, rather than apologising for failing me. I am headed immediately to the royal archives, to go and ask ingénue and girlish questions of the men there. I have just read an interesting book, you see, and I wish to find out things about rare kinds of golem.” She paused, the strangely gleaming device in her hand. “Someone is behind this,” she said, in a voice laced with steel. “I don’t care if it’s those clever artificers of Gallia, a Albionese Republican plot, or whatever. Someone is going to pay.”
The days crept by for the princess. Her attempts at subtle research in the royal archives came to nothing concrete, and her inspections of the royal treasury found no more of that strange shiny metal. And in the meantime, oh! There were meetings. There were plenty of meetings. There were meetings and conferences and audiences and representations and quiet words in the garden and carefully worded policy statements to be sent to ambassadors. There were serious men and serious women having serious conversations about the serious ramifications of the events. Even her mother roused herself from her mourning chambers to pay attention to affairs of state.
Further messages from Albion merely agitated the beehive of formal society more. King Jacomus was claimed as dead, though even the rebels said they did not have his corpse. The Prince Wales and the Princess Hibernia had been captured. Then it was announced that they had been captured, and would be tried. Then the announcement further developed into the perplexing statement that they would be tried under Royal law for crimes against the Crown.
“You can’t try the crown prince… no, the King for crimes against the Crown of Albion!” Henrietta exploded at the meeting with Cardinal Mazarin where that had been announced. “That just doesn’t make sense!”
“Mmm. I am afraid it does, your highness,” the elderly man said, quill scratching away at the paper stacks he had in front of him. “Where was… mmm, yes… there it was. Yes, it is clear under Church law that the Crown and the one who wears it cannot be the same person, because the sacred heirs of Brimir are righteous and correct in all manners, and it is clear that fallible men cannot achieve perfection, hence a king regnant… or a queen regnant… merely is a… mmm… a subset of the greater entity that is the Crown. Of course that must be so, mmm. Else, inheritance would not work. The Crown would die with the crowned, and that should not be.”
“They’ll stack the court against him!” the princess snapped, squaring her jaw. “He can’t have done anything wrong even by that stupid legal set-up by protecting it against people who want to get rid of the monarchy! That’s just…” she thumped the table, panting, glaring at Cardinal Mazarin as if he as nearest representative of the Church was responsible.
The old man sighed. “Oh, of course,” he said, staring mournfully at the inkwell that Henrietta had knocked over. “What they are doing is an exercise in pedantry, and… your highness, they cannot legally execute him. That won’t stop them, but as the monarch – albeit uncrowned – he may pardon himself at will. It is a legal fiction they are acting out to excuse their regicide.”
“Well, I’m sure that will make poor, poor Cearl feel so much better when they kill him,” the auburn-haired girl said, slumping back down, her fury spent. She preferred the anger. It was much more useful than feeling upset.
The cardinal peered at her over the papers. “No, there is no plausible way to rescue him,” he said, softly.
Henrietta blinked. “What?”
“Pardon, your highness, not ‘what’. And I can see you trying to work out a way to save him. Your highness, they will have him in the Tower of Londinium. I would not bet the sum forces of the Griffin, Manticore and Dragon knights against that place. There are things in that place that should never see the light of day, and any attack on it… your highness, it is known that the Republicans have at least two square-class mages with them.” The old man shuffled his papers. “That is why your summons to the Duchess de la Vallière were ill-advised. I did not wish to say anything, but you persist in this…”
Henrietta blushed bright red at those words, matching the cardinal’s crimson robes. “Please, no. Th-this… this is something else. It is to do with L… her daughter.”
Snowy white eyebrows rose. “Oh, my apologies, your highness. I had thought it was to do with whatever you had been doing with Viscount Wardes and… you have not received news of his death? Your highness, it would be most dire news for our country and you should not be informing the mother of his fiancé first.” The cardinal paused. “Even if she is the Duchess Karina. Which… mmm… would make it a reasonable, albeit…”
“No, no, no!” The princess was now feeling like a naughty little girl caught doing something improper. That is to say, she once again felt like a small girl caught running around with a sword she got down off the wall, rather than a young woman whose foolishness was putting her country in a rather problematic position. “Cardinal, please, accept my word that I have absolutely no intent whatsoever of trying to persuade the duchess of trying to come out of retirement or to go Albion to rescue the Prince Wales.”
“Ah.” Cardinal Mazarin carefully pulled himself to his feet, and shuffled over to the window. “That is at least some reassurance, but… your highness, who would you be intending for her to go to Albion to rescue?”
Drat. She had hoped that he might not have noticed that little phrasing.
“It would be best if you think quickly, your highness,” the man continued gently, “because if my aging eyes do not deceive me, I do believe that is a manticore coming in from the east. I… mmm… do believe it has been a week since you invited her to the palace, so at least you were not too demanding in your invitation.”
It had been a week, and inspection with a spyglass did reveal the identity of the rider. And Henrietta barely had enough time to have her petticoats rearranged and smartened before she was having to hurry to receive the slightly limping figure in travelling skirts who stalked her way towards the palace. Sitting in the Matthiasian room, she took a deep breath, and prepared for the difficult conversation which she knew awaited her.
If there was one thing Henrietta could say immediately, it was that Karina de la Vallière, Duchess de la Vallière, Karin of the Heavy Wind knew how to make an entrance. Striding in through the doors, her dust-caked riding skirts flowing around her, the woman’s spurs and metal-heeled boots clicked against the granite. The princess amused herself with idle speculation if the wind blowing around her was just the result of opening the door, a spell for such a purpose, or just the random fluctuations of magic which tended to occur around powerful mages. Certainly, if it was the latter, wind mages certainly got the best deal out of it. Damp clinging chills were so much less convenient.
“Your highness,” Karin said, bowing – not curtseying despite her skirt – five paces before the royal heir. “You summoned me.”
Henrietta put on a winsome smile, and immediately mentally winced because it was the wrong line of approach to take. “I requested your presence, your grace,” she replied. “’Summoned’ is such a harsh word. Please, come with me to the Alabaster Room; you must be fatigued after your trip.”
The pink-haired woman’s eyes were flinty. “It is nothing, your highness,” she said, even as she complied. “I would rather deal with this matter quickly so I can return to my husband and my daughter.”
Settling down, Henrietta shooed out the guards and courtiers, and settled herself down. Daphne, her dragonet, twined around her legs. She had tried to go near the Duchess Karina, and the glare from the older woman had been quite enough to prompt her to stay close to her mistress.
There was silence in the room, save for the slight noise of the two women as they shifted in their seats. The duchess sat bolt upright, if anything leaning slightly forwards. She did not touch the refreshments which had been left for them. There was something about her of the coiled spring, even more so that the two of them were alone.
“Your highness,” the pink-haired woman began again, “you summoned me under the guise of talking about my daughter. I would like an explanation.”
“Ah, yes,” Henrietta said, resting her elbows on the arms of the chair and propping her chin up on her hands. “In this, we have two things to cover.” She paused, for a moment, keeping her eyes on the older woman’s face. “You are aware that she did not summon anything in the Springtime Summoning Ritual, yes?”
“I am.” The words were chilly, precise, and as metaphorically cold and proud as the blue moon Dorika. “That is the concern of the school, and in a letter from her she informed me that no action was being taken and she was being permitted to attempt again next year.”
The princess tilted her head slightly. The duchess might be good at not showing expressions, but she had all but shouted her feelings from the rooftops by her lack of emotions. That very rigidity, that lack of response told her precisely that this was a proud woman who hated that topic being raised. “I would have spoken in her favour,” she said, picking her words carefully. “I know some would throw around the slander of ‘inexprimé’ about her, but that simply shows they are ignorant. An inexprimé girl would not have been able to cause those explosive mishaps that she proved so… skilled at.
Chin still propped on her hands, Henrietta paused for a moment.
“But that did not prove necessary. She earned her own presence at the Academy in the eyes of the headmaster, and having found out what occurred I agree fully with his choice. We will cover that later, but it is because of those events that I must admit to you that I chose to send her to Albion in the company of Viscount Wardes to conduct vital business for our nation. And I must further admit to you that you would not be being told of this, save that there was an ambush at La Rochelle and she and the Viscount are missing, believed to be on a vessel to Albion. Though they should have been in contact by now. I have asked the court astrologers to try to discern information about them, but at the moment, the stars are unclear.”
Another silence, far more prolonged and dead than the previous one.
“Why, pray, precisely was my youngest daughter involved in such things?” the duchess asked, in a chillingly polite tone of voice. “My youngest daughter who is known to have problems with controlling her magic and who has not shown herself to possess any remarkable skills.”
Henrietta folded her hands on her lap. “I am afraid that I must disagree,” she said, inclining her head slightly. “And this is one of the things we must discuss.”
Karin’s eyes flickered to the right, to the left, and then settled on Agnès and on her strange eyes. “I see,” she said, in a voice which was even colder. “Yes, your highness.”
“Certain students of the Academy of Magic can extend more light – if you will – upon this problem,” the princess said. “I will invite them to the palace to explain, because I feel that you will take it best from their lips and I do not wish to prejudge your thoughts. Not least because it is,” and there Henrietta rolled her eyes, “rather unbelievable. In the meantime, your grace, I extend the hospitality of the palace to you.”
Montmorency de la Montmorency felt the eyes of the crown princess and the Duchess de la Vallière on her, and tried her very best not to faint. She was merely thankful that she had emptied her bladder before they had been called in to report, because that was something she did not need to worry about. Even Kirche looked slightly intimidated by the woman who looked like a harder-faced version of Louise, although the Germanian had been… well, shamelessly gregarious with the princess before the duchess had entered.
The worst bit had been that the princess had been quite sociable with that terribly improper behaviour. One simply wasn’t meant to act like that with royalty. The redhead was… was clearly taking advantage of the fact that as a foreigner – and worse, a Germanian – she wasn’t supposed to know better.
And Tabitha was being as impassive and monosyllabic as usual, answering in a quiet Gallian-accented voice. Monmon had half-thought that the way the blue-haired girl had vanished on the same day as Louise meant the thing was related, but she had returned last Dorikasday from her visit to her sick mother. There was still no sign of Louise, despite the fact it was now Taksonisday, and the fact that they had to now explain the events of that fateful day when Fouquet had attacked to the Duchess de la Vallière was not a good sign. Not good for her, because it meant she had to talk in person with that fearsome individual, and certainly not good for Louise.
And that was… yes, that was a bad thing. Yes, Louise was an arrogant, spiteful, stubborn, argumentative example of high nobility breeding. But then again, at least in the opinion of Montmorency, all of those things had their place, in moderation. And there were much worse people to be around at school. At least Louise wasn’t quite as skin-itchingly annoying as… oh, Marie de Bruxelles, to name but one – chubby and self-righteous – example.
She really hoped the other girl was all right.
The Duchess Karina clicked her tongue, and leaned forwards again. “So,” she said, each word rammed into place like a musketball. “My daughter picked you up, and carried you up to the roof after a golem walked through the building. Whereupon she punched her way through the roof to avoid the backlash from the defence system. It was at this point you notice that her forehead was glowing with a brand which resembled an x-shaped cross and that she was on ‘green flecked with yellow-brown’ fire. Which was not burning things, unlike normal fire.”
The pink-haired woman’s lips were pursed. “Yes,” Montmorency managed. “Um... she did slightly fr-fracture her hand breaking through the roof, though. If that counts.”
The gaze the duchess shot her was not angry; it was in equal parts cold and analytical. It also distinctly felt like she doubted the girl’s sanity. “She then mentioned something about an affinity for ‘acid’ as her element. And went out to fight the golem armed with a curtain pole.”
Montmorency took a deep breath, and folded her hands before her. “Your highness,” she said, trying to avoid her voice shaking. Mentally, she cursed, as her mind emptied on how she was meant to address a duchess. “Your grace,” she eventually recalled. “I… I can only say what… what happened.”
“She’s telling the truth,” Kirche added. “Well, at least, it all makes sense for what probably happened up to the point where I got there.”
“Sense.” That one word was the clanging of a prison door. The Duchess Karina stared down the bridge of her nose at the three girls, focussing most on the notably-scared Montmonrency. “It makes sense that my youngest daughter threw a curtain hook at the thief and managed to knock her down from a distance of a good thirty metres? It makes sense that she – completely untrained in the martial arts – started destroying golems with a treasure? And it makes sense that a colossal golem flattened her, and she… she reformed in its hand, only to destroy it in some kind of explosion of green and brass-coloured flames? And then she destroyed the other arm?”
The pink haired woman clicked her tongue, glaring at the girls.
“No. I refuse to believe it. It is nonsense.”
All that Monmon could think of at that point was that… Founder, Louise looked like her mother. Oh, certainly, her sort-of-friend was younger, smaller, rounder-faced – and notably lacking in the bosom region. But they had the same tiny nose, the same rather angular cheekbones, the same pink hair; a clear sign of a strong noble lineage.
And there was something in the eyes. Something in the eyes looked like Louise had started to look recently, since… well, since the strangeness of the fight and the incident with the golem. Something which suggested that those moments when the daughter went certain and arrogant may have been a deliberate attempt to emulate her mother.
Montmorency privately made a mental note to not annoy this woman in any way. Not that she would be as foolish as to annoy the Duchess de la Vallière anyway, as one did not go around antagonising the high nobility, especially when one was a member of a noble family declined from its once-glory. One did also not annoy Karin of the Heavy Wind. But Founder’s Void, it was one thing to hear the stories and another thing to deal with her in person.
“That was what I had to tell you, from the actual sources,” Princess Henrietta mercifully interrupted, causing the duchess to turn her terrifying attention away from the blonde girl. “Because, quite honestly, I would not expect you to believe it from my lips.” The princess considered the three of them. “If you do not mind, I would like the three of you to stay a little longer,” she said. “At the very least, I would like you to dine with me this evening; it is the very least I can do, for dragging you away from the Academy like this.” Her eyes lingered over Tabitha. “Yes, please, accept my offer,” she said.
The blonde girl had to resist the urge to curl her finger in her ringlets. “I would be honoured, your highness,” she said, immediately going to curtsey. Invited to dinner by the crown princess? She would certainly be able to tell that to her parents, even if she could not say exactly what the context had been. Kirche was quick behind her, and Tabitha nodded once.
“Good, good,” Princess Henrietta said sunnily. “I will leave you in the capable hands of Madame de Helemore. She is the Master of the Royal Wardrobe…”
“Not the mistress?” Kirche interjected. Montmorency strongly suspected that the red-haired Germanian would not have been able to stop herself for considerable sums of money, for all that the Duchess Karina was not glaring at her.
Annoyingly, Princess Henrietta giggled. “I have tried to get her to change the name,” she admitted, “but it is tradition, and she refuses. But yes, for all that, she will help you select some garments more…” she raised an eyebrow, “… appropriate than those school uniforms for a formal dinner.”
It was a dismissal, and Monmon clearly recognised it for it was. Curtseying and taking her leave – oh! Getting to wear proper skirts again, rather than the disgracefully short ones which were part of the uniform, was wonderful – she heard behind her, “So, your grace, we must talk in private further, I think,” from the princess.
The door closed behind them with a click, and the mute stillness surrounded the two women.
“So.” The duchess settled herself down in the new confines. Despite the apparent peacefulness of that gesture, there was still something on edge about her, akin to one of the great cats of the south or perhaps the very manticores she had once commanded. “Your highness, let us assume for a moment that I accept the ridiculousness of those tales about my daughter. I still do not see why you would choose her for such a thing.”
Henrietta took a deep breath. “Please, accept that I needed someone that I trusted completely and intimately,” she said. “I hardly sent her unprotected; she was merely my representative among a column of ten of the Griffin Knights and Viscount Wardes himself.”
The duchess cocked her head. “Well.” Her tone was clipped. “I cannot fault you on that precaution in a technical sense, but I can, once again, raise questions as to why my daughter in particular was chosen for such a thing. Even if… and I strongly doubt it… she has some unique power or even – if I were to credit such a thing – she is a mage of some unheard of element, she is sixteen.”
“Was that not much the age when you joined the Manticore Knights?” Henrietta interjected, a barb she had prepared in advance suspecting that such an objection would be raised. “And at which you thwarted a conspiracy against my grandfather?”
The older woman glowered. It seemed that was an unwelcome comment. “I was also a prodigy, your highness, and did it entirely at my own choosing,” she said to the crown princess. “With the utmost respect, the two situations are not the same.”
“And I needed someone I could trust,” Henrietta said, resuming the offensive. “I would have asked this of her – and yes, I asked her as one friend asking another, not as my subject – had she not been involved in the unpleasantness at the Academy.” She raised her eyebrows. “She was my main playmate in childhood, after all; would you rather I put my trust in one of the pretty butterflies at court?”
“Why did you not trust the Viscount de Vajours?” Karin said, ignoring the rhetorical question. “Why do you not trust him?”
Ah. And that was it. That was the difficult question. Why had she not trusted Viscount Wardes? Well, it was quite simple. To tell a man like him and of his age, loyal to the crown rather than herself, that she had been involved with the Prince Wales of Albion in that manner? Unthinkable. Louise Françoise trusted her, was loyal to her, was her friend.
Fundamentally, she had needed a friend for it, not a subject. “I trusted her in it, and it was sensitive,” Henrietta said, slowly.
“If it is sensitive, then no matter what happens, my daughter will not betray her country,” the pink-haired woman said, hard-eyed. There was utter certainty in her voice.
“I trust her, yes,” Henrietta said, relaxing slightly.
“Oh no,” Karin said, knuckles tight on the table in front of her. “We should still plan for that contingency. It is a mere passing family concern; a chit of a girl who talked would not be my daughter. Now, what is the matter that would have her bought into such things?”
The princess realised too late that she was blushing and she had taken too long to answer. “Your highness?” the Duchess Karina asked, her tone flat. “Have you acted in a way unbefitting of your position and all those who entrust their loyalty in you? Because if you have, may the Founder protect you if my daughter suffers needlessly because of your actions.”
She had to get out. That much, Princess Henrietta knew. She had managed to end the conversation with Karin of the Heavy Wind without admitting to anything, but the older woman knew, surely she knew! Founder damn it all, of course a mother like her would be able to read such things off a young girl’s face! She had been week and foolish and now one of the higher aristocracy knew of her foolish weakness, because she had miscalculated and invited her in!
So she had to get out. It was like running away, only not. The royal palace might have been the size of a small town, built in the central isle of Bruxelles, but one tired of manicured gardens and carefully arranged rocks and constant perfection. She sometimes just had to see her capital, and it did the commoner masses good to see that the royalty actually paid attention to their lives.
Not that she went into the very poorest regions of Bruxelles and the townships and village-slums that sprawled out beyond its walls, of course. That wasn’t at all safe, and those places were disgusting. She had plans for them, oh yes, but until she could make them a place she would at least stable her horses she wasn’t about to visit them.
So instead her coach, escorted by musketeers on horseback, made its way through the isle and across the arched bridges into the main parts of the capital. She could feel the wealth of a neighbourhood by the motion of the vehicle under her; cobbles indicated that the place had never been wealthy, smoothed stone was a sign that they could afford earth-mage construction and maintenance, and if the smoothed stone was wearing and developing potholes it was a clear sign that the inhabitants of the place were no longer as wealthy as they had been. And when she waved out of the window at the inhabitants of the kingdom that would be hers, she made sure to note other details and the general response she produced.
Her reasons for these trips out were not entirely pure, though. It was an act of independence and selfdom to be able to go out like this; it was something she chose to do. She asserted what freedoms she had by doing this. And with the windows of the coach drawn up and the curtains pulled, it was an excellent place to discuss things. Or, as the case was right now, be reassured by Agnès who sat next to her while Daphne coiled around her legs.
“I should not have invited her to the palace,” the princess said yet again. “She’s going to find things out that she shouldn’t. Even more. If she pushes any further on the matter of the Prince Wales… oh, I won’t be able to stop myself blushing like I did already, and she’ll be able to work things out completely. Rather than just knowing that something is wrong. I mean, Louise managed to work it out. Of course her mother will.” She wrung her hands together. “This is a mistake and things are going to go wrong.”
The blonde scarred woman had one hand on her pistol as usual, eyes often flicking away from her liege’s face to either window. “You sent the message on the same day that you yourself received the full information that something had happened,” she said. “It cannot be changed now, so accept that you did it for reasons that you can justify it to her, and then move on.”
“It’s not that easy!” Henrietta protested, the sudden outburst dying away into a sigh. “I feel terrible all the time. I don’t know what has happened to Louise Françoise, and… and they’re going to kill Cearl and I can’t do anything about it. I feel sick and I can’t eat properly without gagging.”
She was fixed in a level stare. “Eat properly,” Agnès said. “You will be weak if you don’t eat. And your thoughts will be slowed. You’re no use to the kingdom if you faint half-way through meetings.”
“I know that!” Henrietta all-but wailed. “But I’m sick if I have more than mouthfuls!”
“Don’t have more than mouthfuls, then.” The utter flatness of that answer shocked the princess into giggles. “I mean that,” Agnès continued. “If you can’t keep down food due to nerves, then have small, frequent meals.”
“Pragmatic advice as usual from my Chevalier,” Henrietta sighed, deliberately forcing herself to smile, and twitching the curtains aside to wave out of the window. Sitting back, she slumped down. “And I feel guilty about feeling both hungry and sick when my dear Cearl is probably wasting away in jail, and only the Lord knows where Louise Françoise is,” she said, mournfully. “Why, I would say…”
Whatever she had been about to say was lost in the deafeningly loud noise and splintering of wood. White-hot streaks of pain etched themselves along Henrietta’s back and left side. Her jaw ached; her ears rung as if she had been under the cathedral bells at midday mass. She could only stare blankly in front of her, with eyes that could not accept that the front of the coach was... gone. Through the hole, she could see scarlet blood coating alabaster hide, seeping from unmoving meat. The other unicorn thrashed around in agony on the floor, one leg clearly broken, its screams terrifyingly reminiscent of a small child’s. She half-threw herself forward, curling up even as the pain screamed in her nerves. Agnès was on top of her, a heavy, reassuring presence in a darkened, blurred world.
Though it could have only been seconds, there was no way she could have told an outsider how long she had been in that darkened, blurred state. Further thuds and booms sounded in the muffled distance and there was the meaningless clamour of human voices, slowed down ten times or more. And her nostrils were filled with copper and iron, giving the lack of light an undeniable red taint.
It was pain which bought herself back into her own mind; the pain of her own familiar nipping her legs. It was enough to bring her to the realisation that the hard presence on top of her was Agnès’ armour, and instinctively the princess cast her sight through the eyes of the little beast. Shrieking in a thin, piercing noise, the dragonet uncurled. The runes on its flank were the bloody red of Taksony at its fullest, and they lit the mist it released in crimson hues.
Through its eyes, Henrietta could see the world in the strange light which it showed to her. There was no colour, not as she knew it, but through the river dragon she could see and feel the flows of water and of heat. The mist which the dragonet had released was almost transparent to it – though she knew from hard-gained experience that to human eyes it was unnaturally thick and cloying and as white as snow – and through it she could see the patters of moving water and heat it saw humans as. There was fast-cooling impure water on the street ahead, some of it heaped up into mounds, but the princess was more interested in the flow of the walking pillars of heated water Daphne saw people as.
Distantly, she heard Agnès roar, “Musketeers! To me!” but the voice was strangely double-heard. The muffled voice through her own ears was much weaker than the warped version her dragonet heard.
It was chaos. There were people scattering everywhere, and here the lack of visual acuity of a river dragon in the mist was something she could not handle, because there was no way that Henrietta could tell friend from foe from paralysed-with-fear commoner in the dragon’s eyes. With a wrench, she pulled her mind free, just in time for Agnès to roll off her. The two of them were now surrounded in clammy, chill mist thick enough that visibility was perhaps only one metre, but that did not stop the crack and roar of bullets and it would not stop any spells thrown into the mist.
Henrietta made a noise of incoherent pain, and felt her jawline, fingers coming up red. “The… what’s happening?” she asked, wiping off bloodslick fingers before drawing her wand.
Eyes gleaming, fresh cuts joining the scars on her face, Agnès flicked a glance in her direction. The coach was slumped down, the front wheels broken. As far as she could see in the dragon-fog, it looked as if a horde of giant wood-eating moths had been eating at it, so perforated was the vehicle. “Ambush,” she snapped out through clenched teeth. “Get lower! That, that was a cannon, so we need to move, once we can be…” half-rising, she levelled a pistol through a hole in the coach, aimed with inhuman speed at a figure which moved towards them in the mist. There was only a fraction of a second before she fired, a sudden gust of unseen wind sending the mist dancing madly.
A figure in a musketeer’s uniform dropped down, head almost smashed asunder by the shot. Henrietta gasped, horrified. “You…”
“She wasn’t one of mine,” the captain hissed through clenched teeth, dropping back down. She rammed her pistol back into its holster, and seized Henrietta’s hand, drawing her sword with the other. “Run!” she ordered, yanking her princess to her feet like she was a child and kicking open the perforated door of the carriage. “Or they’ll get the cannon reloaded. And ‘svoid, get a water shield up!”
The profanity barely registered, but Henrietta pulled herself from her stupor. Stupid, stupid, stupid, how could she forget that? Was her mind filled with the same fog her dragon was making? Pulled behind Agnès like a toy, she forced out the shielding words drilled into her. Behind her, there was a splintering crash as a fist-sized rock – the kind a dot-class earth mage might use – punched through the top of the carriage, joining other similar such holes.
But the distraction did not break Princess Henrietta’s focus, and a wall of water, frothing with seafoam, burst up from the ground carrying cobblestones with it. The ruins of the carriage were shredded by it, and the bubbling expanse, almost as thick as the princess was tall, trailed behind them.
Henrietta gritted her teeth. Chanting further, pushing herself she guided the water around them until it touched over the top, and they were surrounded. An egg of air ended barely above her blonde companion’s head, and then around them was only seething foam laden with cobblestones, splintered wood, and the rubbish off the street.
The mist was clearing outside, drawn into the wall of water, and though the dirty liquid several figures, some of them wearing uniforms which looked like the ones worn by the royal musketeers, were levelling longarms at them. Agnès kept one grip on Henrietta’s shoulder, and pushed the younger woman behind her, as the two of them kept retreating. “Founder grant that they fire,” she whispered. “When they do, counter.”
The cracks of the weapons were reduced to a muffled thud by the layers around the two women. Musketballs hit the water, and slowed or fractured, the broken pieces of metal joining the debris that twirled around them.
A recurring bark of the same word, over and over again. Horse-faced spears burst out of the foaming water with each spell-word, to impale or mutilate the armed figures. Panting, the princess fell silent when no more stood. “Cannon?” she managed, with no attention to spare for sentence structure. “Mage?”
Agnès peered through the filthy debris-cluttered water that surrounded them. “Both were coming from up high...” she said, quickly. “Second storey, I think.”
“Yes,” was all Henrietta said, before she began to chant. The water around them darkened, thickened strangely as she forced out syllables, and the scent of brine filled the air.
“Your highness...” the scarred woman began. It was so easy, sometimes, to forget that the crown heir was a triangle mage at the age of seventeen, personally tutored by some of the most skilled mages in the country. And even when one recalled it, it was always in the context of tricks and displays, like the casual fripperies she had shown off at the parties last summer, where she showed off refinement and control that lesser mages could not rival.
The princess spoke one last word. The wall of water erupted outwards, and if previous barbs had been single water-horses, this was a veritable cavalry charge of debris-laden foam. The horses’ hooves tore up the ravaged ground as they thundered along, before smashing up into the building. The stone may have held, but the mortar could not withstand the fury of the oceans, and the stones were carried along in the path of the cavalcade.
Fury spent, the sea-horses fell apart, and all that was left was a ruined street littered with bodies and rubbish, a collapsing house and two drenched women standing on the street. Agnès recovered her wits first, and bodily seized her lady, throwing the princess over her shoulder. She kicked down the nearest door, wood splintering around her boot, and forced her way into the nearest room which did not face onto the street. The occupant was evicted at bladepoint, past the shrieking dragonet which scuttled in through the gap, and the door locked. And there she waited, for the relief she prayed would arrive before whatever reinforcements the foe would bring.
The clatter of hooves and the familiar voices which arrived within minutes was indeed a welcome relief.
The sun was setting outside. The sky, even through the smokes and fumes of the western half of Bruxelles, was a brilliant, beautiful red. It seemed a fitting marker to the blood which had been shed. Cardinal Mazarin stared out the window, and sighed, before turning back to the room. He, the princess and the scarred captain of the royal musketeers were in the crown heir’s private quarters, and the surroundings were rather more lushly effeminate than he was used to or comfortable with.
Agnès cleared her throat. “I have examined the reports from the officer of the guard,” she said, the corner of her mouth just where a scar ran across it twitching. “And examined the evidence. Your highness, the cannon used was a falconet, loaded with grapeshot.” She paused for a moment. “That’s a small design, fairly easy to move, your highness, but you would still need a carriage to move it into place, and a mage to levitate it into a house. And it was one reported missing from the army here in the capital itself three weeks ago. So far, news does not appear to have spread, but soon it will.”
“One of my mother’s own cannons,” Henrietta said, wrapped in blankets. She had come down with shakes and chills after the escape, and her mind felt as foggy as the deepest mists of Ruling Water mornings.
“Who was behind it? That… that is the question,” Cardinal Mazarin asked, knuckles white around his staff. “Who benefits… mmm… that is the question.” Straightening up, the old man began to pace up and down, his voice rising as he went. “Commoner rebels… mmm… no, not very likely. To get hold of a cannon like that requires preparation and mages to help move it into place, so even if such a group would seem to be behind it, it is probably sign of some kind of external backing. Traitors among the nobility. Quite possible. There is… mmm… uncertainty in the line of succession, and there are many families who would like to see the throne kept weak, who have benefitted from Her Majesty’s indisposition after the death of the Prince Consort.
“There is, of course, another issue, and that is the Germanian connection,” the cardinal continued, wheezing faintly. “Both factions here and in Germania itself would oppose this marriage. If others among the Elector-Khans have found out about it, they know that the Germanian Emperor may be able to anchor his power in the princess… and their children will be Brimiric monarchs. It would be a crisis of the Faith for one to be overthrown for a non-Brimiric replacement. Which means there may also be a Romalian connection; elements of the Holy Mother Church might be corrupt and trying to avoid a foreseen schism. There is always Gallia, though I doubt King Joseph is behind it; he is weak and detached from the world… but his daughter? Ah, I would not trust her, from what the ambassador says of her – she is a fey woman, fickle and yet sharp and callous to others. Or Gallian border lords, looking to eat up snatches of Tristain if we are weakened. Or…”
“Y-you’re going on and on,” Henrietta managed, through chattering teeth and a fog which filled her world, “but it was the Albionese traitors.” Tears ran down her cheeks, and she spat the last word. “They’re… they’re killing my dear sweet Cearl, and… and they tried to kill me too.”
The cardinal sighed, and paused in his pacing. He rested one hand on the clammy brow of the princess. “Your highness,” he said, in a warning tone of voice, “do not say such things. In your grief and… mmm… shock, you may accidentally say things that could be misunderstood by malicious ears.” He shook his head. “And my dear, you are so cold and so clammy. If you can avoid saying further things of that ilk, we can send for healers and…”
“There’s no need to fuss so,” Agnès said to the cardinal, speaking over Henrietta’s head. “Her nerves are shocked. She’s like a raw recruit after her first battle. She’ll be fine given time. And her injuries are a pittance.”
“The beauty of our princess is an asset in itself,” the old man objected. “She… mmm… cannot be allowed to scar!”
“We should not raise our voices around her; shouting disturbs those afflicted as she is,” the captain of the musketeers said, gesturing the cardinal away from where the princess was seated, to another corner of the room. “And how long have you known about her… involvement with the Prince Wales,” the blonde woman said, her voice suddenly as soft as velvet.
“I know about no such thing,” Cardinal Mazarin said, blandly. “If I knew about it, I would have had to condemn it, and I could not do so and maintain her trust in me while I taught her.” He tapped his fingers against his staff. “I may have had some words with the prince and… mmm… impressed on him how the Church would look… ill… upon any improper deeds and how at a time of civil war it would be best not to lose sight of what was really important.”
A short bark of laughter worked its way out of Agnès’ lungs, the scars at the edge of her lips cracking and bleeding as an uncharacteristic smile crossed her face. “You old robin,” she whispered, once she had herself back under control, “that explains a lot.”
“It must be said, I would have preferred that the Royalists win, albeit weakened,” the cardinal explained. “We must chain ourselves to the Iron Dragon and hope we can ride out his hunger from atop his head, because we can no longer rely on the Albionese. Oh, for could-have-beens. If the Royalists had won, we could have been the vital marriage they needed to fortify their position and repay their many, many debts. Instead, we are the noble house marrying its daughter to traders and bankers ‘lest the creditors come knocking.” The man paused. “Save that it would not be creditors that the Iron Dragon would send, but armies. No, better that he devour the Otmani states and even turn his greedy eyes on ill-ruled Gallia than he look at us.
“And that is why I fear that we should not look too hard at the Albionese for our suspicions. There are those in Germania who do not want imperial authority to be centralised, to be tied to a single dynasty, and that is what the emperor wishes. If we were conquered by Germania when weakened by war, then he would have to share the lands between the other Elector-Khans. The marriage would avoid that, and that is what I fear others may have realised.” He shook his head. “We do not want a war with Albion. Not yet, and not ever, if God smiles upon us.” He sniffed. “War is expensive and wasteful. And thus to be avoided if at all possible.”
“Stop… stop whispering in the corner over there!” Henrietta called out, punctuated by things that were half-sobs and half-hiccups. “I… Agnès, have you seen to the… the… the loyal musketeers that died out there? What… what do we say? What do we do?”
“I will deal with things, your highness,” the blonde woman said as she hurried back over to the girl, bringing with her the scent of blackpowder. “This is all my concern.”
“You… you know what is funny?” Henrietta gasped, through tears. “Those three girls? They’re… they’re probably still waiting f-f-for me to dine with them. I… I hope they don’t go too hungry. C-C-Cardinal, pl-please make my apologies to them. Especially m-m-my royal cousin.”
“Hysteria,” Agnès said flatly. “To be expected. I’ll put her to bed, and we will see how she is in the morning.”
The cardinal made a contemplative noise, one hand going to feel his gladiform necklace. “Yes. That… mmm… would probably be for the best,” he said.
“And that’s when the whole darn thing just exploded on me!” declared the Marquess de Heusden, to chuckles. He clapped his hands, and a servant appeared, bottle in hand. “Just another half,” he said, holding up his glass.
The palace was visible through the fine glass windows which made up one wall of this intimate dining room. The rest of the building was the seamless stone walls of the high nobility, hung with elaborate tapestries. The pride of place was a silk work all the way from far-distant Cathay, imported via circuitous routes. The five nobles dining here spared little attention for this, though, because this was an entirely tolerable display of wealth – tasteful, and not too gauche. The musicians were a soft refrain in the background, playing a courtly piece with a distinctly Romalian air, which undercut the buzz of conversation.
The Duchess de la Vallière sighed, and glanced out at the palace. Part of here wished that she was not here, having to engage in conversation and the necessary power plays of the high nobility. She wanted to be home with her husband and middle daughter. And the part of her that did not long to be with her family knew she had other things that she had to see done in the capital. But the marquess was an old friend – albeit in the sense that others would have used the word ‘acquaintance’ to describe – and it would have been impolitic to refuse.
“Did you hear?” the Duchess de Bruxelles intruded, leaning back in her seat to stroke her familiar-falcon that perched beside her. “A little bird told me that there was an assassination attempt against the crown princess today!”
There was a rumble of surprise from others at the table.
“Did it succeed?” the Count de Mott asked, toying with a nut in one hand, and a nutcracker in the other.
“No, it seems it was not successful,” the lilac-haired duchess said. “I think it does raise real questions about how effective that plaything-company the princess is raising can really be, though, if that sort of thing can get through.”
Karin’s face remained entirely blank. She found the duchess’ voice to be exceptionally annoying, and the fact that her husband was not invited to these dinners to be all too telling. Everyone knew that Eloise de Bruxelles had found someone with an exquisite bloodline and wonderful looks, but whose mind was filled with hunting and wh... women. “People have said that the princess pushes the definition of ‘personal bodyguard’ rather too far with it,” she said.
The Count de Mott snorted. “Better she waste money on her little plaything of inexprimé musketeers rather than anything else. Now, me, I rather fancy that she might be planning something down the line with them, but for now, nothing.”
“She is certainly the type for it,” the marquess said. “It’s that damnable cardinal. Mazarin is an ill-bred cur of the type the Church seems to promote above their station, and I fear he is leading us and the princess alike into disaster.”
“I know what you mean,” Eloise de Bruxelles commented. “He has too much influence; he’s barely first minister and more like King-in-all-but-name. It’s disgraceful.”
The man shook his head. “In my very humble opinion, that’s why I think the Gallians are mad. Look at the way that they only seem to end up with one sibling of any given generation left. A tree has to be allowed to branch, or it blossoms poorly. Instead, they cut off most of the branches of the family and breed the others together.”
“What’s that got to do with anything?” the Count de Mott snapped.
The marquess bristled. “Well, isn’t it obvious? If only the Queen had more children, we wouldn’t be so hostage to the whims of a single heir and her puppetmaster. He damn well knows her Majesty is useless, and there is only one heir. No one wants any uncertainty, so there can be none of the usual give and take of declaring heirs. Of course,” the man tilted his head, and took a sip from his glass, “I do admit, there is the problem that sometimes you end up with a King Joseph – that man is more cuckoo than a springtime nest – when you really would have preferred his brother if you were a Gallian, but,” he gave a chuckle, “as I said, Gallians are mad.”
“Some people might say that even damnable uncertainty would be better than a clergyman leading us into the hands of Romalia – or Germania, because he is a low-born swine and embezzler,” the Count de Mott observed.
The Duchess de Bruxelles called for more wine. “It is true, the last few years have been rather profitable,” she said, while it was being poured. “The invisible hand of God has surely blessed our income. Why, we really should thank Him for the freedom from meddlesome royals who waste money on building large ships named after themselves! While none of us want a throne as weak as Gallia’s, because that’s bad, of course...”
“Of course,” echoed the Count de Mott.
“... well, I think Albion is an example of what happens when the royalty gets too big for its boots, and forgets from whose purses they draw their funds. A healthy middle, that’s the way! Like the last few years. In fact,” the woman said, rising with a flick of her long hair, “to the present! Long may it continue to be as it is!”
“To the present!”
There was drinking, and enjoyment, and carousing. And when the night was done, the Duchess de la Vallière made her excuses, and left the smoke-filled dining room, accompanied by the Marquise de Heusdan. She was a pale, wan, almost ghost-like woman who lived in her husband’s shadow, and much like pink-haired duchess beside her, she had been saying little, and drinking less.
“He is a drunkard and a braggart,” the marquise said softly, as the two women made their way through dark halls. The single candle held by the shorter woman, white-haired despite her mere three decades, was the sole source of light. “Not excusable, but understandable as a vice.”
“I do understand,” the duchess said.
“The market prices of grain, flour, sulphur, Germanian iron ore and cloth are up. The price of gold and fine-cut jewels are down. Purchases are being made for war.”
“Is that so?”
“It would seem to be, wouldn’t it?” The marquise turned. “But any fool can see that the Albionese will move soon; even before New Castle fell they had most of their fleet ready in Port’s Mouth. No, what worries me is the Germanian connection. I have read the stars, and the stars of the monarchy touch to embrace the stars of Germania, before pulling away. But I cannot see why they would touch, and that worries me. Further action may need to be taken to prevent such a thing.”
“I see,” said Karin. “But... Elizibet, I do have a favour to ask. It may be doable before I leave. We should head to your observatory. I want to see if you can find someone; everyone else has failed.”
The pale woman shook her head. “Not with this weather,” she said with a sigh. “I do so hate how it gets here in Bruxelles. Ghastly place. Traps all the clouds from any winds from the south before the mountains.”
“Oh.” The pink-haired woman shook her head. “We should meet again, before I head home. Without those bores and drunks.”
Clad in only her nightdress, bent in supplication upon her bed, Henrietta de Tristain prayed. She prayed with the prayers not taught to lesser men, the prayers which called upon her blood ties to the Founder Brimir and the ones she had overheard as a child while sneaking around the cathedral here in Bruxelles. For Prince Cearl she poured out her heart and her grief, until her bedsheet was stained with tears. Prayers of wrath and hate for those who would see him dead – and her too – mingled with babbles for protection for loved ones and salvation, until she fell silent, voice too weary to speak any more.
There was no response. Nothing, but the night time noise of the city slinking in through her window; nothing but a draft coming up from under her floorboards. The Church said that God was above such things, that – unlike the lesser spirits which pagans and Protestants consorted with – His will was made eminent on the world and in the stars. Henrietta knew it to be true, believed it to be true.
But it was so hard, sometimes, especially when one already skirted certain teachings of the Church in the name of the good of one’s country. Why couldn’t God send a messenger-spirit, to convey His messages rather than writing them in the stars? At times of tragedy and grief, she could all too well see how Protestants fell into their heretical ways.
And where was Louise de la Vallière? Where was her friend? Why could no astrologer find her?
“Founder, Lord, God,” she whispered, hands clasped together. “Saints above, please, I beg of you. Protect Louise Françoise, and bring her to safety. Fire light her path, air carry her safely, earth ward her and water heal her wounds. Lord, I beg this of you. Void protect my beloved friend.”
Rising, Henrietta made her way to the window, and gazed up at the moons. Where ever she was, she hoped that Louise could see them too. Maybe the moonlight would carry her prayers and give her friend strength.
Ah, I'm rather ill, but new aGSItV is like chicken soup.
...did the title always have those accents?
What, in my sig? No, I started putting them in so I could actually google my fic names without just returning posts from places where I have them in my sig. 'i' just becomes 'í' because it's the least visually distinctive substitution.
This is not at all relevant to the actual update, for people looking on in confusion. Or Confucianism.
A nice new chapter... Well, there's not many nice things happening, but you know what I mean. Not much Louise, but other points of view are also nice.
Also, yes Monmon. Lousie is a small Karin.
I find it interesting that powerful mages have what sounds like a watered-down version of an anima banner. Is that normally a thing with enlightened mortals in Exalted when they do stuff that uses Essence? I've not really spent much time looking at rules on how to play a mortal in 2e.
And my, won't Karin get a shock when her daughter appears to no longer exist as far as the stars are concerned.
By the by, would you say Tabitha is more D'Artagnan or Louis XIV in her future path? Although the bit where half the appropriate French personalities from the period are cut-and-pasted into the Dutch analog certainly confuses things.
...when thinking about the possible Albionese connection to the assassination attempt, I just realized that if the Albionese invasion takes the same route as in canon they'll be dropping into a city peopled by descendants of a Lookshyan regiment, including Dragonborn. That should no doubt be hilarious.
I also just realized that Louise's Urge to establish an independent power base coincides quite nicely with her presence in a country whose rulers have just been overthrown and will no doubt have wishes that a Cecylene-favoring Infernal can fulfill, for a price of course.
Can't wait to see what you do with Tiffa. I suppose she ended up summoning the Saito-analog? (Panther, maybe? Demethus would be more used to that happening, but he's probably too intelligent to make an accurate replacement Saito.)
I forget whether you've already mentioned who the Void pseudo-Exaltation jumped to after Louise traded up template-wise; if it hasn't already transferred, will it do so naturally? If so, to who? If not, who gets stuck with the job of putting it somewhere it can get Fate back on track, since there presumably aren't any Sidereals here to do it?
Last, but most certainly not least, how much longer until the destruction of Gem?
Mortal doesn't have Periphery, so they can't have Anima Banner. Unless it is Wyld mutation or something.
Curious what Louise is up to, to be honest. And that mechanical thingy... it is implant to enable them to use the armor, I think? Do people at AGSITV knows about Hearthstone? Hmm..
Also, this reminds me. When Louise throw curtain pole to Foquet earlier, and it hits (I presume..) does that means, mechanically, she spend her EXP to gain skill at Throwing, or she just use Excellency?
Agnès, not Agnés.
He's addressed this, actually, but his answer came to: it's unclear, because the whole void mage thing was not designed to handle this situation.
Dots in Abilities tend to represent skill beyond just general use. i.e I can make a hardboiled egg, I don't necessarily have Craft (Water).
The item Henrietta now has is pretty obviously a Aegis-Inset Amulet (Wonders of the Lost Age p72). It's a implant that lets mortals (Of the non-essence user category) attune to artifact armor at the cost of aging twice as fast. Essence users just pay less for attuning armor with one. Most commonly associated with Gunzosha armor.
Oh... oh my... this is good. Also poor Henrietta.
I hardly expected a chapter that focused on Henrietta, but it was quite well done--and yet I haven't the foggiest where the story is headed to. I look forward to the next chapter!
Oh ho! I was wondering when there'd be more of this.
I expected the next chapter of this story to have some answers, but all it left me with were more questions... Oh well, I guess that's to be expected of EarthScorpion... Was not expecting a Henrietta chapter, but it did fill in some backstory and led to this newest development in the attack on her.
Noticed a number of grammatical or spelling errors, though. The one in the first line stands out.
It was a good chapter and I enjoyed seeing things building to an inevitable shit storm. That said this chapter kinda dragged for me. Nothing to do with the writing or the story, it's just I don't care all that much for the characters so reading about what they're doing was a bit of a drag, all my favorites, bar one, are currently in Albion.
I also admit I was half expecting another messenger to show up in a suitably dramatic fashion and declare that Albion had been retaken.
Just imagine the confusion if that messenger showed up first.
[quote="Cruentus, post: 8796432, member: 29238"I also admit I was half expecting another messenger to show up in a suitably dramatic fashion and declare that Albion had been retaken.[/quote]
I think we'd first hear stories about the white prison-tower of London(ium) exploding in green flames and brass shrapnel. But from previous discussions I gather it will take some time for Louise to gather enough power to escape (possibly via meditation).
This is a good glimpse at the movement and action behind the scenes, and it is always fun to see a new view of Karin. Can't wait for the next chapter, and I'd imagine some new action.
Well, there are a few ways in the Infernal charmset Louise could break herself out... which she doesn't have. Unfortunately, sitting in prison doesn't earn you XP very quickly.
Unless the story is going to focus on other characters for the few years it would take her to buy One Hand Fury and punch her way out through the walls, doors, soldiers, other walls, and ground, I'd guess she gets out with cleverness or a convenient plot twist rather than I Have the Perfect Charm For This Prana.
... That last little scene. Regarding prayers.
Oh, you magnif...
Hmm. Actually, this update felt kind of pointless. What actually happened in it? Not much. It was a nice long character piece for Henrietta but I'm not certain she needs a character piece like this. I didn't really learn anything about Henrietta that I didn't already know, she didn't evolve in any significant way and the plot did not noticeably advance.
But we learned things about the world, especially in the last scene - namely that Astrology Works Here. Not the astrology we deride in real-life, but Exalted-style Astrology: the Fate of Creation - its past, present and future - literally is written in the stars, and it is entirely possible to track somebody within Fate by reading the stars with good accuracy. That they could do that for Louise before, but can't now means that 1) the Stars of Halkeginia function the same, even if they are not identical to the Stars of Creation and 2) Halkeginia is within Fate, even with its extreme differences from Creation (I'm not sure if ES brought any of this up/answered any of this in his worldbuilding posts, but it hasn't been proven within the story, to my knowledge.) And Lyrinvais just got one hell of a prayer to protect a servant of her stalking victim crush.
....praying. Goodness. That means.. if there are enough people.... oh, boy.....
No, we knew that already. The fact that astrology works has come up several times in the story before now.
Separate names with a comma.