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Unfamiliar [ZnT/Prototype], Thread II

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by Cpl_Facehugger, Aug 4, 2011.

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  1. Cpl_Facehugger

    Cpl_Facehugger Evolution Complete Administrator

    Joined:
    Nov 24, 2004
    Messages:
    45,180
    There are some who thought this day would never come. I have but this to say to those gentlemen: Huffi-muffi-guffi!

    Ahem. This is the second thread for my Familiar of Zero/Prototype crossover, Unfamiliar. This post is the index, within which you'll find links to all chapters and relevant materials.

    Standard Disclaimer: I don't own the Familiar of Zero or Prototype universes, and I'm certainly not making money off of this. No challenge to or infringement upon existing copyrights is intended, so please don't send ninja-lawyers after me. I don't have any money to take.

    Act 1: Monsters and Men/Arrival
    Chapter 1/1st thread
    Chapter 2/1st thread
    Chapter 3/1st thread
    Chapter 4/1st thread
    Chapter 5/1st thread
    Chapter 6/1st thread

    Interlude/Act 1.5: Political Imperative
    Chapter 7/1st thread
    Chapter 8/1st thread
    Chapter 9/1st thread

    Act 2: Downward Spiral
    Chapter 10/2nd thread
    Chapter 11/2nd thread
    Chapter 12/2nd thread
    [TBD]

    Act 3: Things Fall Apart
    [TBD]

    Act 4: Hope of an Age
    [TBD]

    Act 5: The End of All Things
    [TBD]

    Appendices:

    On Tristain Noble Society
    Germanian/Tristainian military musings
    Hypothetical Magic vs Redlight-Halkeginia scenario
    On Elveses

    External Links:

    Unfamiliar on TV Tropes
     
  2. Cpl_Facehugger

    Cpl_Facehugger Evolution Complete Administrator

    Joined:
    Nov 24, 2004
    Messages:
    45,180
    As always, not beta'd.

    Chapter 10: Void, Element of Zero

    “No benevolent god would create a universe where the void exists,” - Originally attributed to Founder Brimir, declared heretical apocrypha by the papacy in the two hundredth year of the Brimiric age.

    Karin didn't sleep the night Louise received her chevalier title. Karin had skipped sleep before, when circumstances forced her to. But here it was vexing because it was Karin's own mind that raced and kept her from a good night's rest. Karin liked her rest. Particularly waking up in her husband's arms, but even a simple comfortable bed was a luxury she always appreciated.

    She had two issues. Princess Henrietta, and Louise. The former was dangerous. She'd proved that beyond a shadow's doubt. Henrietta knew secrets. Worse, she knew how to wield those secrets to good effect. The question was what else did she know? Did she know that Mott was dead, by Louise's hand? Did she know of Louise's potential? More importantly, did she know that Louise was a potential threat to the throne?

    Naught but two days ago, Karin would have considered the very notion absurd. But the fact that Louise was a void mage changed the entire strategic situation. If Karin wished it, she could make a good case for putting Louise on the throne. She wouldn't even have to do it directly. An implied idea, a harmless demonstration of Louise's power... The nobility would be lining up to have a void mage on the throne of Tristain.

    And Louise, of course, would listen to her mother, as she always had. Karin could guide Louise's policies, perhaps find some middle road between the Princess' mad reforms and the laissez-faire that men like Mott demanded. The notion of holding such power, even indirectly, appealed to her. It appealed to her greatly. With it she could crush any who'd dare threaten her family.

    And yet, Karin knew that Louise would not be an effective queen. There was too much grooming required, too much self loathing to cut through for Louise to be a queen worthy of the title. Karin would have her puppet, but Karin wouldn't be alive forever.

    Karin let out a mental sigh. Everyone would make demands of her daughter. Harsh, unreachable ones. They'd be taken in by the mystique of the void and expect another Brimir. A mighty leader, larger than life, to lead Tristain into a glorious new future. They'd expect someone perfect, flawless. The people would expect a paragon of nobility. They'd expect a symbol. Not a timid, untrained girl. And when they realized their mistake, they would despise her. They would hate her with the fury of one betrayed by their own dreams. Louise didn't deserve that.

    And all because Louise was no Brimir. Louise was no great leader of men, no great conqueror or stateswoman. The clay was there, perhaps. Louise was her daughter and her husband's daughter. But she'd take time to mold, and time was something Karin suspected the Princess wouldn't give them. Putting Louise on the throne now would destroy her. Karin would be left with little more then a puppet, a mouthpiece for her will. She wouldn't be left with a daughter. Not by the end of it.

    Still, such power. Such great potential for power. With Louise on the throne, Karin could achieve all her goals. Everything would go back to the way it was, save that the Vallière family would be supreme in the realm. All for the price of her youngest daughter. A bargain that she knew many would gladly make.

    Karin closed her eyes.

    No. Her daughter was not for sale. Not like that. Not when she knew it would scour Louise raw.

    “You look like you're thinking hard on something, Mother,” Cattleya took a seat on Karin's feather bed. She must have just awoken, going by how her hair was still unbrushed and unbraided.

    Karin was struck by how similar they looked, despite the age difference. It was almost like looking in a mirror at first glance. Karin kept herself in shape, and she wasn't averse to using water magic to slow the effects of aging. Beauty was simply another weapon in her arsenal, another side of her edge. Her legend said she was beautiful and fair, but terrible as the dawn. Like one of the ancient Valkyries of myth, a perfect expression of timeless feminine strength. Since her legend was so useful, or rather, could be useful if she ever had to reveal herself, it wouldn't do to let herself slide.

    She gave a hidden smile, the kind she'd never show on her face. The Duke certainly didn't disapprove of his wife taking pains to look young and beautiful either.

    Karin's practiced eye could pick out differences between her and her daughter though. Cattleya's muscles, while not fully atrophied, weren't the bundled steel that coiled under Karin's skin. Her daughter's face was softer and slightly rounder. A legacy of her sickness, for she'd not been able to undertake vigorous exercise. She was still beautiful, but it was a different sort of beauty. Safer and more domestic. The contrast of a verdant springtime meadow versus a wind-swept peak.

    In Cattleya's case, a meadow filled with wolves, lying in wait. Her daughter wasn't weak, not in mind or magic. Karin felt proud at that. With a bit of training, Cattleya would be able to defend herself adequately.

    “I am,” Karin finally replied. “I'm thinking on many things.”

    “Louise?” Cattleya looked at her.

    “Amongst others,” Karin replied.

    “Do you want to talk about it?” Cattleya asked.

    “You are not your father. Don't patronize me by trying to pretend you are,” Karin looked away, cursing her momentary flinch.

    “Normal people talk about their feelings with their loved ones,” Cattleya moved to embrace her.

    “We are not normal people,” Karin waved her away. “Go. Have breakfast and visit Louise. I'm sure you want to.”

    “I do. But...” Cattleya trailed off. “Fine. I really wish you'd open up to me, but I'm not going to press it. I wouldn't get very far, I'm sure.”

    Karin frowned as Cattleya left. The Princess was threatening her family. A dangerous gambit on her part. Surely she must have known how hard Karin would fight to protect them.

    She'd made the threat anyway, and it was most certainly a genuine one. The Princess was apparently an accomplished liar, but her sincerity as she argued against Karin was overwhelming. At the very least, she believed she could carry out her threat. The Princess' smile was too predatory to be anything else, and her eyes said she'd not been bluffing.

    Karin had to admire the Princess' rhetoric. It was well-tailored to the audience. A blunt threat to start, then moving on to various pathos related persuasions. Henrietta knew enough to prey on her distaste at working with Mott. Then the carrot, the promise of royal favor in exchange for support. A lure with a hook in it, or an army with its flank left intentionally unguarded, Karin was sure. Finally, the application of simple logic, to break down Karin's reasons for resistance.

    A good strategy. Take away the reason to fight and most people won't. It'd certainly been more persuasive than Karin had expected, that was for certain.

    And while her position was stronger because of Louise's power, it was also weakened for Mott's death. The connections with the low and middle nobility he brought to the table would evaporate quickly. Even if she used her blackmail material to hold them in line for the short term, over the long term, her threats would diminish in potency as Mott faded from memory.

    It was becoming increasingly clear that the only way she had to save her party was to use Louise to make a play for the throne. But that, she wouldn't do.

    Karin tapped her chin in thought. Henrietta certainly seemed competent. She'd inherited most of the late king's intellect and acumen, it seemed. She'd lain out her concerns, and Karin found she couldn't simply dismiss them, for they had the damning ring of truth. What if Henrietta was right, and the reforms were necessary to prevent a general revolt? Karin was well versed with striking a foe while they mustered, rather than allowing their army to grow beyond the ability to contain. That was the knife-edge she'd danced along in every war with Gallia and Germania, both huge nations with huge armies that had invaded Tristain in the past. Was the concept similar here?

    Karin was loyal to the country before she was loyal to any individual monarch. The idea of treating the Tristainian people as an enemy struck her as fundamentally wrong. But perhaps that was the beauty of the Princess' plans. Perhaps they'd simply never become an enemy, if measures were taken early enough...

    Perhaps. Perhaps. Always perhaps. But she needed more information on the Princess before she threw her family's lot in with her. The real Princess, not the wallflower facade the court saw. Karin needed to know if the young royal's loyalty was absolute once given, or if submitting now would only allow the Princess to more easily crush the Vallière family later.

    She also needed to see if Henrietta's passion for protecting the nation was genuine, or simply a cover for her lust for power. The former, Karin could work with and respect. But if it was the latter, Karin frowned.

    Nothing but bad choices.

    Karin heard a deep, throaty yawn, over from Eleanor's bed. And that was another mystery. Between arriving and now, she'd seen her daughter but once, when Eleanor was trying to take Louise to task for Cattleya. Karin couldn't help but wonder where she'd been the rest of the time. Mingling with people in the revelry? Trying to drown her sorrow at the Viscount Burgundy breaking off their marriage perhaps?

    Perhaps. But Karin hated mysteries. She abhorred them. Mysteries were variables she couldn't account for. They were an ambush in waiting, unexpected and always unpleasant.

    “Eleanor,” Karin said. “I find myself curious as to your whereabouts yesterday. I asked you to see to the horses, but where did you go after that?”

    “Erm,” Eleanor stuttered, still half-asleep. Her eldest daughter gave an enormous yawn and blinked the sleep out of her eyes. “I noticed Mr. Fluffles in the stables and deduced that Cattleya had come. Since I realized that the journey would have made her sick at the very least, I made my way to the infirmary, hoping to make sure that Cattleya was alright. I inquired after her and discovered wondrous news.”

    “Cattleya is healed. Yes, she demonstrated that to me quite emphatically,” Karin replied.

    “Naturally, I wondered how this was. So I sought out the healer on duty, who pointed me to another healer, this one suffering from willpower depletion. He told the me the whole story. Now, you know how I am, Mother,” Karin knew very well how she was. Few things could get Eleanor excited and cheerful, but the chance to learn new spellwork was one of them. She'd inherited those academic leanings from her father, it seemed.

    “You asked him about the spells he cast,” Karin supposed.

    “Yes, that's it exactly. I found his company so engrossing that we eventually got off the subject of Cattleya altogether, but I was loath to end the conversation, for I was learning so many interesting new things. And it was quite nice to converse with a fellow academic.”

    “Eleanor,” Karin said. “I understand that marrying Burgundy was not necessarily your first pick, but-”

    “Mother, that man is a simpleton. I won't lie and say it didn't hurt to be rejected even by such a man, but in many ways it was a relief as well. He wasn't cerebral enough to please me,” Eleanor replied. “And I'm sure I have no idea why you're bringing this up now. I certainly don't have any romantic aspirations towards a simple school healer. Even though he certainly knew what he was talking about.”

    Her daughter's blushing, flushed countenance implied otherwise, but Karin let it slide. The political reality that made the marriage to Burgundy of value had changed drastically. Karin no longer needed more connections in the high nobility. Now that the game's stakes had just been raised, a few more pawns would be of no use.

    Given that, Karin saw no issue with allowing her daughter some dalliances. She even wouldn't be averse to Eleanor marrying of her own accord, so long as her husband-to-be proved himself worthy in Karin's eyes.

    Which was unlikely, Karin had to admit. It wasn't her fault so few men could meet her exacting standards. Her daughters deserved the best.

    “Eleanor, we must now discuss your actions at the revel.”

    She watched her daughter bite her lip.

    “It was improper for someone of your station to make a spectacle of yourself in such a manner,” Karin said.

    “Mother, Cattleya could have died! Jonathan said they almost lost her several times during the procedure!” Eleanor said.

    “Jonathan?” Karin's eyebrow rose. “You're on a first name basis with this healer?”

    Eleanor blushed an even deeper shade of red, and she started murmuring, “I'm sure you'd much rather hear my explanation for my actions! As I was saying, I knew Cattleya had received a letter from Louise prior to us receiving our official invitation. It seemed self evident to me that Louise selfishly asked Cattleya to come and see her triumph, even though she knew she was sick.”

    “Why would you leap to that conclusion?” Karin asked.

    “Because that's how Louise is!” Eleanor replied. “Surely you remember how she was as a little girl, always demanding attention for herself...”

    Of course Karin did. And Karin also knew why young Louise wanted so much attention from her family. It was a form of self-validation, meant to make her feel important and less like a magical blunt.

    “Cattleya came of her own accord,” Karin said. “She told me such directly and I have no cause to doubt her honesty.”

    “In retrospect, that should have occurred to me, but I felt so certain that I was right that I didn't even consider other possibilities,” Eleanor looked down. “It was a mistake on my part.”

    Karin nodded. “It was. Why did you feel the need to compound that mistake by attacking Louise in public?”

    “There is no excuse,” Eleanor replied. “I'd imbibed a few glasses of wine too much.”

    “I see,” Karin's mouth curled upwards in a predatory smile. “I notice you've gotten rather soft of late, Eleanor. I think your research position has been detrimental to your steel. You've been neglecting your edge.”

    The color started to drain from her daughter's face. “Mother, do you really think that's necessary?”

    “I do,” Karin replied. “You'll be sparring with the Cattleya, your father, and I every morning from breakfast until just before lunch for the rest of your vacation. When you go back to work, I'll expect you to maintain yourself in your free time. I'll be checking up on you, daughter.”

    Eleanor gulped, but nodded. “That's a rather harsh punishment.”

    “You embarrassed the entire Vallière family by showing weakness before the Princess,” Karin replied. “You should feel thankful you're getting off so lightly.”

    Particularly since the Princess would no doubt strike at that weakness, or find some way to turn it against the Vallière family if Karin crossed her. Eleanor didn't know it, but what she'd done was very dangerous. She was getting off lightly, no matter what she thought.

    “Regardless, we'll be heading home after lunch. Make sure you're packed. Spend time with whom you will,” Karin said. “But avoid the liquor, since it clearly addles your mind.”

    <***>

    “I'll admit, Highness. I half expected you to come back with a kill order for Vallière,” Agnes said over their private breakfast. Agnes herself wasn't much of a cook, but fortunately, Henrietta more than made up for that deficiency.

    As a rule, she tried to cook for herself and her second whenever possible. That way, she always knew the food was safe and altogether lacking in poison. After the way her father died, she knew she had something of a complex about such things.

    “I'd even taken the liberty of putting an assassin on call,” Agnes continued. “I presume she won't be required now?”

    Henrietta shrugged. Agnes had always been possessed of good initiative. That's what made her such an excellent right hand, so long as her loyalty was carefully cultivated.

    “She's a threat to you. Just existing, she's a threat to you,” Agnes continued. “And I've seen how you deal with those kinds of threats.”

    “I considered it,” Henrietta bit her lip, struggling how to articulate just why she'd refused. “She gave me a wonderful opportunity and several more reasons to call for her execution that evening. But I found that I couldn't. Not just because she's useful. She trusted me, even though I'd done nothing to actually earn that trust. She trusted me enough to tell me secrets that she knew could see her burned if they got out. There was just so much devotion in her eyes.”

    “You've killed friends before,” Agnes said. Henrietta knew she wasn't judging her, she was simply stating a fact. “Even ones that trusted you.”

    Henrietta nodded. “Different circumstances. I kill only when necessary. Besides, If I had Louise Francoise killed, I'd be alienating her family.”

    Agnes smiled. “You're not fooling me. If you wanted the girl dead, you'd not let that stop you.”

    “No, I suppose not,” Henrietta replied. “Her devotion was so freely given that it shamed me. I found I couldn't betray her. Or rather I could, but I would feel most disgusted with myself afterwords. So when she gave me the means I needed to minimize the threat she poses, I decided to spare her. Does that satisfy your curiosity, Agnes?”

    “I suppose,” The scarred blonde replied. “And if she dies on the mission, well, it's not like you killed her yourself.”

    “I don't want it to come to that,” Henrietta replied. “But I think her familiar will prevent it, if nothing else. He won't let anyone harm her. I'm sure of that much.”

    “But let us turn our attention to more pressing matters,” Henrietta said. “The serum. How much were you able to acquire?”

    “Just shy of a hundred vials. Our benefactor assured me it's enough for our purposes,” Agnes replied. “We should be able to culture additional samples from the initial vials we stole.”

    “That's good news,” Henrietta smiled. “With luck, we'll have the first company ready before the year's out. I fear we might need them sooner rather than later.”

    “You're worried about the Albion rebellion spreading?”

    “It will take time for the rebels to consolidate their hold on Albion, much less think of exporting their revolution abroad. In the short term, I'm more concerned with Romalia,” Henrietta replied.

    “The papacy?” Agnes asked. “My men were very careful. There are no incriminating links back to Tristain.

    “I trust in your competence, Agnes, but this is beyond that,” Henrietta sighed. “I've come across hints of something terrible, and it has its heart in the papal palace.”

    “Can you be more specific?” Agnes asked.

    “Plague outbreaks. I have the royal records going back six thousand years. Once I filtered out the ones like your village – the fake ones used for political purposes – I noticed a trend. Up until three hundred years ago, they were frequent, oft consuming whole cities before we burnt them out. Then, right around the time the Pope of the time declares the plague beaten, outbreaks drop almost to nothing?”

    “That's a good thing, isn't it?” Agnes asked.

    “It would be, if the outbreaks stopped, for that would mean we'd finally beaten the plague. But they haven't. Outbreaks still happen, but they're always low key. A village here, a village there. Not enough to alarm the populace, but enough to remind those of us in power that the plague is still out there. And when the pope disbanded all non-Romalian chapters of the Knights Carnifex, Romalia seized a monopoly on soldiers capable of fighting the plague without risk of succumbing to the infection themselves. Add that to their stranglehold on plague lore and it doesn't paint a good picture.”

    “That's not necessarily evidence of a conspiracy, milady,” Agnes replied. “Though I'll admit it's suggestive.”

    “I agree. However, the papacy's special tasks force always responds quickly,” Henrietta said. “Too quickly, as though they were prepositioned to respond to a given outbreak. But how could that happen unless they knew where and when it would occur? It's still not proof, but it's enough to make me want our new guardians ready as soon as possible to improve our position. If the papacy is deliberately using the plague as a political hammer, I want to have Tristain out from under its weight. And if not... Well, an army of superhuman warriors isn't exactly a bad thing to have in your corner, is it?”

    Agnes nodded. “Very well. I will tell the apothecaries to hurry their efforts then-”

    “No,” Henrietta cut her off. “I don't want them to skimp on safety. Neither with the men, nor with samples themselves. We need the resulting soldiers loyal to us. Showing them that we don't care about their lives sends the wrong message. They're making a sacrifice for their country, and we should respect them for it. Treating them as disposable will only breed discontent. Given their power, we can't afford to have them go rogue.”

    “But you said sooner rather than later?” Agnes asked.

    “I'm gambling that we'll have enough time,” Henrietta replied. “Besides, it wouldn't do to have an uncontrolled outbreak in our land simply because an apothecary didn't observe proper procedures due to royal pressure. This is a job that must be done well. Fast would be nice, but above all it must be done with care. With luck, the papacy will target Gallia before they turn their eyes towards Tristain. Hopefully, by the time they realize what we've done, we'll already have the first company on the line. By then, it'll be too late for them to stop us. Even if not, they won't be able to censure us openly, lest they admit we stole their own vials from them.”

    “One thing I like about you is how your plans are always so audacious, milady,” Agnes said.

    “Thank you,” Henrietta replied. “Now, there is the matter of the Duchess. I've never seen someone able to keep their cool like that. I think I convinced her, or at least made her pause and think a moment. But I can't expect her daughter to keep secrets from her. I have to operate on the assumption that everything Louise Francoise told me, she's told Karin.”

    “You're sure you don't want to have the daughter killed? It'd be a lot simpler all around,” Agnes asked. “The assassin I hired is very good. She's got access to the target and there's no way it'll get back to you.”

    Henrietta smiled, recognizing that Agnes was simply being a good lieutenant. “I'm sure. I will simply deal with Karin as I must. I don't think Louise Francoise needs to be brought into the political arena just yet. I would keep her from that life if I could. Although we may not end up having a choice. No matter, we will deal with that should it come up.”

    “If you say so, Highness,” Agnes shrugged. “So what's on the agenda for today?”

    “I must pay a visit to one of the Professors here. It turns out that Foquet is still alive and in need of gainful employment. It could be very useful having a thief of her skill on my payroll,” Henrietta replied. “After that, I'd like to see the flying machine that everyone was talking about.”

    Agnes nodded.

    There was but one issue. Agnes herself. Henrietta knew her second kept a list of people she wanted to kill for their role in her home village being burnt to the ground. Henrietta had already helped Agnes remove most of the names on that list from play. There were but two left, and one of those was the Flame Snake.

    Agnes, she was sure, didn't know of Professor Colbert's identity. However, Agnes would surely recognize the one who gave her such terrible scars on sight. While Henrietta could simply arrange matters such that the two never met, that was risky. Now that Agnes was back, she'd follow Henrietta on principle, just like the devoted bodyguard she was. If by some miracle they didn't see each other once during the trip, things would still go poorly. Were she to find out later that Henrietta had met with the Flame Snake in order to get an inroads to Foquet, she'd consider it a betrayal. And that was something Henrietta couldn't accept. On moral grounds, because Agnes was her closest friend and confidant. And also on practical grounds, as Agnes knew a great many secrets that could be turned against her.

    Allowing Agnes to kill Colbert, if indeed she was capable of killing a veteran like the Snake, was equally unappealing. It would cause political issues at a time when Henrietta needed none, and by all accounts, the Flame Snake regretted his work with the STF. Her reports said he was a decent man, quite unlike the others on Agnes' list.

    There was only one option. Barefaced honesty and a hope that everything would work out. “There is one final thing, however. The teacher we're going to meet is the Flame Snake.”

    Agnes cocked her head to the side, clearly processing the new information. Then she grinned and cracked her knuckles. “That would explain why I've never been able to find him. Good. This trip is going to end up being rather productive, isn't it?”

    Henrietta frowned. “Agnes, I need him alive for the moment. I understand you have great reason to hate him, but please don't let your desire for revenge get the better of you. Killing him now, publicly, would cause more problems than it will solve. Can I count on your professionalism in this matter?”

    “Now that I know where he is, he won't escape,” Agnes' smile looked more like a leer. “He certainly won't.”

    “I promised you justice and I always follow through on my promises,” Henrietta said. “You know that. I'm just asking you to hold off on killing him for the time being.”

    “I don't like it. But I trust you, Princess. I'll restrain myself,” Agnes sighed.

    “Good,” Henrietta replied. “I'm glad I can count on you.”

    <***>

    Colbert and Matilda were, as fast became their custom, eating breakfast in her room. Not quite in bed, since syrup was nearly impossible to get out of sheets, but rather on the small coffee table she'd set up a short distance away.

    Matilda didn't mind. The cramped setting – even staff didn't get the same allowances as wealthy students – only reinforced the intimate mood.

    But Matilda wasn't a morning person. She only started waking after her second cup of coffee. Or her first, if Colbert pre-roasted it with a quick flame spell to bring out the caffeine and flavor.

    She appreciated all those little things he did for her, even though it made her feel a little guilty. He was too considerate with her. Her, an infamous thief. A dispossessed noble. Someone who most people would hate on reflex, and quite rightly at that.

    She'd had a few lovers before. She'd had a lot more marks, men she'd seduced as part of her profession. But Colbert was the first one who actually cared about her. He was the first one who didn't pursue her for sex alone. He actually wanted a relationship. Or if he didn't, he was putting on a great job of faking the desire for one.

    If he was faking it, this would've been easier. She'd know how to deal with that. She knew it'd be best for her to leave. To get the hell away from that killer familiar while she still had her head attached to her neck.

    But if she did that, she'd hurt Jean. He'd bear it stoically, she was sure. But she'd grown close enough to him that she knew it'd hurt him.

    There was a very, very small list of people Matilda wouldn't hurt if necessary. Tiffa, the orphans that Tiffa cared for... And now Jean had found his way onto that list as well.

    He smiled at her and she had to keep the frustration from her voice as she said “How are you so chirpy so early?”

    “Mmm, flame mage secret,” He smiled. “I can neither confirm nor deny that it has something to do with the new coffee.”

    Matilda's eyes shot open fully, compared to the sort of half-lidded grogginess that they'd borne before. All her dour thoughts instantly forgotten with the promise of caffeine. “New coffee? Where? Where? Jean, give it to me!”

    He laughed and poured her a cup from the carafe he'd kept heated with a tiny flare spell. “This, my dear, is genuine Khalidish coffee. Not the swill we've been drinking. I have it imported across the treacherous saharan trade routes. It costs me a mint but-”

    “Sweet Brimir!” Matilda gasped as the amber liquid passed her lips. It took her a minute to calm down. “I knew there was a reason I kept you around, Jean.”

    “Aww,” Colbert laughed. “And here I thought it was for my rugged good looks?”

    Matilda smiled, touched his arm, and was about to reply when she heard a strong knock on the door. “I'll get it.”

    Matilda hopped up and opened the door, only to freeze as soon as she did. Her eyes flicked from the regal brunette to the scarred blonde beside her.

    She knew of both of them by sight. Princess Henrietta di Tristain, the heir to the throne. The blonde was her bodyguard, a surly woman known only as Agnes. Matilda had once stolen from the Princess, and she hoped to Brimir and anyone who'd listen that this was just a social call and not a “you're coming with us, thief!” call.

    The royal's presence here could simply be innocent somehow, though Matilda could think of no plausible explanations. It was far more likely some kind of trap. Matilda shot a wary glance to Jean as she opened the door fully and said, “Greetings Princess. I must say I'm surprised you chose to visit us.”

    “Are you now?” The princess smiled. It was wide and toothy. Indeed, it would have been very beautiful, if it weren't for the royal's eyes.

    There was something about the look there that made Matilda want to flee as fast as her legs would carry her.

    “Aren't you going to invite me in, Foquet d'Saxe-Gotha?”

    Matilda grimaced. “I don't see your palace knights, Princess.”

    “There are things we have to discuss, you two and I,” Henrietta shrugged. “I'd prefer not get such fellows involved. They have enough work to do hunting down more violent criminals. I'd tried to find the Flame Snake in his quarters, so imagine my surprise when I discovered he was courting the infamous thief, Foquet of the crumbling Earth? It's like one of those romantic plays, isn't it?”

    “Yes,” Matilda grit her teeth.

    “I dare say I hope it ends up a comedy, rather than a tragedy,” Henrietta and Agnes stepped into the already cramped room. Matilda felt like a caged mongoose. “Which one will depend on the productivity of our meeting here.”

    She spared a glance towards Jean, only to see him gaping at Agnes, mouth wide. His jaw was working, but no words were coming out. She could see him shuddering, slightly, just as he had when he'd first awoken, back in the cave when she'd first kidnapped him.

    Foquet looked back towards Agnes. She was purportedly a good shot with a pistol and probably knew how to fight hand to hand, but Foquet had no doubt she could use her earth magic to seize the advantage. Jean was almost her equal when it came to combat, so why was he shaking so?

    “I recognize you. I recognize my handiwork. You're that girl who I-” He started, only for Agnes to interrupt.

    “-I'm that girl who you burned alive, yes,” Agnes growled.

    Matilda looked between Agnes and Colbert, worried. That would explain it. Matilda knew that the Flame Snake was responsible for a lot of deaths. Legends were built on how much damage their subject did, after all. Karin the Heavy Wind was so renown only because she proved her prowess by brutally crushing all challengers. The Flame Snake was much the same. Even as Foquet, Matilda only got famous by outsmarting the best investigators and stealing the most priceless loot. She avoided killing when she could, but...

    But times were different. Colbert turned his back on that life to teach. Matilda knew he regretted what he did during the Flame Snake's active days. He'd never told her, not directly but she could see it in their pillow talk. There was always a current of melancholy whenever he talked of those days. This was exactly the sort of confrontation he'd become a teacher to escape.

    “I deserve your hatred. I deserve every ounce of it,” Colbert sighed. “What I did was unforgivable. My only excuse is ignorance and putting too much trust in my superiors. But that's no excuse at all. Just following orders doesn't cut it. If you want to kill me, I won't stop you.”

    Wait, what?

    “Oh no you don't, Jean! I've only just found you. I'm sure as hell not going to lose you to some crazy girl out for revenge!” Matilda raised her wand in his defense. “Have at you!”

    Jean put a hand on his lover's shoulder. He gave her a glance.

    It scared her that she knew what he wanted even before he opened his mouth.

    She didn't like it, but she lowered his wand anyway. Surely he had some clever way to escape this situation.

    He'd better, because otherwise she'd find her way to the underworld and kill him again for even thinking of doing this to her.

    “Matilda, it's okay. I deserve whatever punishment she decides to give me,” He turned back to Agnes. “Not a day goes by when I don't think about what I did. If I could take it back, I would. But the world doesn't work like that. Killing me won't make you feel any better, and it won't bring back your parents.”

    “Don't you mention my parents. You sully their memory,” Agnes spat. She didn't go for her sword, nor her bandoleer of pistols though. That was a good sign.

    “They loved you very much. I could tell. You and your sister and your brother,” Jean replied.

    “You twisted motherfucker!” Agnes screeched, teeth gnashing and enraged spittle flying. The scarred woman's face turned a deep red like rhubarb. “You murdered them! Your fault! Your spell! Yours! Don't you fucking dare sit here and tell me shit I already know!”

    “Yes,” Jean looked her straight in the eye, unperturbed. “My spell. And I'm sorry for that.”

    “You'll be sorry,” Agnes replied, clearly struggling to master herself. “I promised the Princess I'd postpone my retribution, but the minute she gives the word, you're dead!”

    Colbert shook his head. “I know how it feels to dedicate yourself solely to revenge. It leaves you feeling hollow inside, doesn't it? You want to feel vindicated after every kill, but it just leaves you feeling weary. You thought killing the people responsible would feel good. You thought you'd feel righteous, didn't you?”

    “Shut the hell up, scum!” Agnes flinched, as though he'd slapped her. Matilda noticed her hand was twitching over her flintlock pistol. “I don't need to listen to this garbage!”

    “You wouldn't be reacting this way if you weren't listening,” Colbert countered. “An eye for an eye always sounds good when you think of it. It fails when its put into practice. You can kill me now, but I can guarantee that it won't make you happy. Vengeance won't give you peace, and it won't give your village peace.”

    Agnes raised a clenched, mailed fist. “My family needs to be answered for! They didn't deserve to die! They didn't do anything wrong!”

    “You think a day goes by when I don't replay that mission over in my head and wish there was something I could've done differently? You think I don't remember that look of horror in your eyes?” Colbert spat. “I remember killing your father. He begged me to spare you. Girl, you have no idea how much I wanted to do exactly that. But they said there was a plague outbreak. As far as I knew, you were all infected. I thought that if I let you go, one of you would spread it. It's nasty business, but if the infection was legitimate, letting you go would've killed everyone.”

    “It wasn't. The outbreak was a sham,” Agnes countered.

    “I learned that later,” Colbert nodded. “At the time, I believed my superiors. If I'd known, I'd have told my superiors to go fuck themselves. But I didn't know. And for that, I'm sorry.”

    “Why didn't you just kill me? Why did you have to make me suffer?” Agnes closed her eyes. For a bare instant, Matilda saw a sad little girl as opposed to a hardened and scarred swordswoman.

    “I thought I had,” Colbert frowned. “I think you're the first one to actually survive one of my spells when I'm not holding back.”

    “Yeah, well, hate is a hell of an anesthetic,” Agnes replied. “And I've got enough of it to last a lifetime.”

    Colbert shook his head.

    “Perhaps, but that's the thing about hate. It can't last long. Human beings simply aren't built to hate like that. It burns and consumes everything until there's nothing but a husk of a person left,” Colbert sighed. “And before it does that, it controls you. It turns everything, every thought and deed towards itself. I know very well how hate works, Chevalier. And I know that a life ruled by it is not a life worth living. So I ask again: Do you think killing me will make you feel better?”

    “Damn you,” Agnes shot back. “Damn you to hell.”

    Colbert raised his hands. “Do you know how many innocent people I've killed with these? Even one is too many, but I've killed many more than that. I'm already damned, Chevalier. The devil is just waiting to collect.”

    Matilda's stomach dropped out of her. She'd thought this whole thing was a ruse on his part, perhaps him putting his rhetorical skills to work to calm down the irate musketwoman. But maybe, just maybe he was serious about letting her kill him.

    Matilda clenched her wand more tightly, prepared to cast rock armor on Jean the moment Agnes looked like she'd take him up on his offer. No way in hell was she losing him. No goddamn way, and she'd punch the founder in the face before she let anyone take away her Jean.

    A flutter of movement caught her eye from the Princess' direction. Strange, the royal had remained completely silent and impassive throughout the entire exchange.

    Matilda watched her put away a wand she'd not even see the royal draw.

    “Tell me, Snake,” Henrietta asked. “Why did you become a teacher?”

    Jean closed his eyes. “Because the best way to atone is to try and keep kids from making the same mistakes I did.”

    “What,” Agnes spat. “You think your crocodile tears will earn you redemption? You think your sob story about wanting to help children will sway me?”

    “Redemption?” Matilda had never seen that expression on Jean before. She'd seen him laugh and smile, she'd seen him deadly serious, but this was different. It was a smile, yes, but it was different. Malicious, cruel. This was scary. His smile was scary. Matilda realized then that she was seeing the true face of the Flame Snake, perhaps for the first time. “Princess, I dare say the Chevalier's talents are wasted in her role. Her true calling is surely that of a jester.”

    “How dare you, churl!” Agnes roared, her fist lashing out even faster than Matilda's eyes could track, only for Colbert to intercept it with his own hand. Matilda watched him grimace as the blow slammed into his palm.

    “No, Chevalier, redemption isn't on the table,” Colbert's voice grew colder as he pushed Agnes' fist away. “No amount of good I put into the world will ever outweigh the amount I took out of it.”

    “Then why?” Agnes staggered back, as though he'd struck her.

    His voice softened. Matilda watched her Jean come back. “Just because it's hopeless doesn't mean I shouldn't do it.”

    Agnes remained silent.

    Henrietta nodded once to herself, seemingly satisfied.

    “As fascinating as this performance was, we need to get down to business. My time isn't unlimited,” The Princess said. “Agnes, please master yourself. If you cannot, I'll ask you to guard the door.”

    “I have shamed myself, my liege,” Agnes said, “Please forgive me.”

    “Enough of that, these circumstances are quite extraordinary,” Henrietta replied. “Now. Foquet. You are the greatest thief in all of Halkeginia.”

    Matilda frowned, but nodded, still wary of Agnes.

    “In fact, I remember your theft of Verdandi's Battle for Albion from my private chambers. You managed to penetrate my palace, evade my security, evade Agnes in fact, and make off with my most treasured work of art. It was very shocking to wake up to a bare wall and naught but your signature etched into the stone. I believe Agnes is still curious how you did it.”

    “I was lucky you're a heavy sleeper,” Matilda muttered.

    “Quite,” Henrietta smiled. “I also know that you sold it on the black market. But rather than use the money to buy yourself a noble title as you surely could've, you instead donated it to several orphanages across Halkeginia. That impresses me. It shows you're motivated by something other than base greed. That's something I look for.”

    “You're well informed,” Matilda muttered.

    “It impresses me enough that, in conjunction with your obvious skill, I'd like to offer you a job.”

    “What job?” Matilda asked.

    “More of a retainer, actually,” Henrietta's smile grew wider. “I've any number of odd jobs that could use your skills. For instance, how would you feel about kidnapping the prince of Albion?”

    Matilda blinked once. She blinked again. Then she laughed. “I thought all that talk of the mad queen was just a joke. It seems to have more than a grain of truth, though it applies to the daughter rather than the mother.”

    Matilda watched anger flash across Henrietta's eyes before the princess dragged it back. “If it's insane but it works, it isn't insane.”

    “And what would I get in return for so audacious a task?” Matilda asked.

    “Mmm, money for starters,” Henrietta started ticking off points on her fingers. “A royal pardon should any of your crimes ever come to light. Not throwing you in prison for stealing from pretty much every noble in Tristain including my august self. Oh, and royal favor. As Agnes will tell you, that is quite the perk.”

    “That's not enough,” Matilda knew she was being insanely brazen, but her one condition was non-negotiable. “I want you to guarantee that your bodyguard won't try to kill my Jean.”

    Henrietta's eyes widened fractionally before narrowing again. “That is one of the few things I can't offer you.”

    “Tough. That's my condition for serving you,” Matilda replied.

    It felt good to stick it to a royal. Not the right royal of course, not the Wales patriarch, but she felt as though she'd struck a blow for commoners everywhere.

    Matilda knew it was insane to provoke the princess so, but what was it she said? If it's insane but it works, it isn't insane? Matilda knew it might work, and that was enough to try.

    “That will be fine,” Everyone in the room turned to look at Agnes.

    Henrietta stood, placing a hand on her bodyguard's shoulder. “Are you sure?”

    “I wanted to punish the Flame Snake,” Agnes shook her head. “But seeing him here... Any punishment I dole out is just going to be weak next to what he's already doing to himself. The cruel thing will be to let him live. This is acceptable to me.”

    Matilda resolved to do everything she could to brighten Jean's life, but she wisely refrained from mentioning that.

    “Well then. I accept your additional condition, oh Duchess of Saxe-Gothe,” Henrietta smiled.

    Matilda grimaced, unsure if she was being insulted or not.

    “So what's the plan?” She asked.

    “You'll be accompanying Louise Francoise and her familiar, and assisting a team consisting of them, Viscount Wardes, and several of my operatives in bringing back Prince Wales. Unharmed if at all possible, unmaimed if not. You may leave the father to die if you'd like. Or kill him yourself, though only in a way that does not implicate us.”

    Matilda frowned. King Wales was one of the few individuals she'd actually enjoy killing. That was one hell of a carrot. But-

    Oh bloody hell. Not only did she have to deal with the scary short void mage and her crazy familiar, but she had to deal with Wardes too? Matilda frowned. But the prize, finally getting revenge for her family?

    Except she'd have to deal with Wardes to do it.

    Matilda wanted nothing more than to expose that mind raping bastard to his boss, but his damn mental compulsions kicked in as soon as she opened her mouth. Her forehead exploded in pain, like a hot rod of steel being driven into her head.

    Jean, sweetheart that he was, rushed over to her. “Are you okay, 'Tilda?”

    “Fine, just those compulsions again,” She grimaced.

    Henrietta rose one manicured eyebrow.

    “I'm fine. I'll kidnap your prince,” Matilda ground out through her headache.

    “Indeed, I'm pleased to hear that,” Henrietta said. “Working with Viscount Wardes won't cause any problems, will it?”

    Matilda gritted her teeth against the new rush of pain. She wanted so badly to say “Wardes is a traitor,” but every time she opened her mouth, the pain was so great she had to clamp it shut, lest she bite off her own tongue.

    “After all, he was in charge of apprehending you,” Henrietta gave her a shrewd look. “Though it seems your covert skills outmatched his.”

    <***>

    “I'm surprised, Agnes. Pleased, but surprised. I'm not pleased you so blatantly disregarded my orders initially, but it did end up working out,” Henrietta said as they walked the halls. This early in the morning, they were still quite deserted, and Henrietta had already cast one of the more useful spells in her repertoire, the square-level water spell “distorted speech.” Few beyond her used it, on account of it being a square spell in a rather rare element, but it was very convenient for her purposes. It caused any eavesdroppers to hear a completely mundane conversation, as opposed to what she was really saying.

    “Don't give me that, your highness,” Agnes replied. “You knew exactly what was going to happen the minute you brought me in. You knew that once I got talking, I wouldn't kill him.”

    “Did I?” Henrietta smiled. “Perhaps. Perhaps. Please send a courier to your musketeers immediately, telling them to keep a close watch on the good Viscount during this operation.”

    “Eh?” Agnes stopped walking. “Why?”

    “Foquet complained of mental compulsion. And every time I mentioned his name, I could see the pain blossom across her face. As though she wanted to say something, but the compulsions were forcing her silence. It's not evidence, but it is suggestive. Mental compulsions of that sort are usually used to protect yourself from being revealed if you're doing something naughty, no?”

    “And you'd like to make sure it's just coincidence,” Agnes nodded. “Should we inform the Vallière girl? He is her fiance.”

    “And tell her her fiance may be a traitor? On what evidence, a tenuous and perhaps paranoid connection between a thief's headache and his name? No, I don't want to do that to her. If we discover he's a traitor, we'll simply remove him from play,” Henrietta waved her hand. “Perhaps frame an accident. Wardes is well known for his love of flying near lightning storms. Louise Francoise will mourn as any widow would, but she won't have to deal with her promised being a traitor. I would spare her that embarrassment, if I could.”

    “Well, hopefully he isn't then?” Agnes said.

    “Yes, hopefully,” Henrietta replied. “Hopefully.”

    <***>

    By all rights, Louise should have awoken in high spirits. Instead, she found her humor dampened by that dream. She still remembered it vividly, even into the breakfast she shared with Cattleya in her room.

    “Louise?” Cattleya asked. “Are you okay?”

    Louise put on her best fake smile. “Yeah, I'm great! You're healed, what could possibly be better!”

    “Zero, what have I told it about lying?” Louise whirled in place, but she saw nothing out of the ordinary.

    “Is something wrong?” Cattleya asked.

    “No,” Louise replied. “I just thought I heard someone.”

    “It forgot me so soon?” The voice said. “I always knew Zero was worthless. Just a dirty little beast.”

    Louise's throat went dry.

    “Louise?” Cattleya asked.

    “N-nothing. I just had a disquieting dream, that's all,” Louise downed a glass of juice and tried focusing on her breakfast oats.

    “Would you like to talk about it?” Cattleya rose, moving over to her sister.

    “No,” Louise replied. “No, that's not necessary.”

    “Louise, you don't sound fine. And you don't look fine, either. You look exhausted,” Cattleya said. “I worry for you. Please, talk to me. I'm your sister, I want to help you.”

    “Ah, but why does she want to help it? That's the thousand ecú question, huh Zero? I've got a theory. See, Big Sis doesn't have much of a life. Zero knows it, and I know it. She doesn't really have friends, and she certainly doesn't have a lover or anything like that. So I think she's trying to use Zero to make herself feel better. Even she doesn't care about Zero. Nobody does,” The voice giggled. “Except me.”

    Louise said nothing.

    Cattleya stepped up gracefully, moving over to Louise and wrapping her arms around the young girl. Louise leaned into the warmth, shutting her eyes. A tiny smile etched its way across her face.

    “You don't have to talk if you don't want to. Just know that I love you, right?” Cattleya said. “But I want to talk to you about something else. It's very important.”

    “What?” Louise asked, twisting her head up to look at Cattleya.

    “Mercer. We need a cover story,” Cattleya said.

    Louise grimaced. Big Sis was right, of course. Louise herself knew the need for such discretion.

    Especially after Mercer, angrier than she'd seen him since Tarbes, had started berating her the minute the Princess left.

    But the Princess was her monarch. Mother said to always obey the monarch in all things, and to never withhold crucial information from them. Well, Mercer's nature was awfully crucial information.

    “Zero lucked out this time with the princess,” The dream-voice chuckled. “My familiar was right though. Zero is... What was the phrase he used? A dumb little girl who's mouthing off will get herself killed? Granted he thinks Zero is a person when it's clearly not, but the rest of it's pretty accurate.”

    Louise struggled to ignore the hateful voice. “Do you have any ideas, Cattleya?”

    Her sister nodded. “Your best bet is to claim he's a leader doppelganger. It's slightly suspicious as their existence is merely theorized, but it's far less dangerous than the truth. So long as nobody casts a plague detection spell on him, it should hold up. And since that's a square level spell, it should be workable.”

    “Leader doppelganger?” Louise asked.

    “Hey, who's the big sister zoologist? Trust me.”

    “I don't doubt you,” at least when it comes to animal lore, “but I'm legitimately curious.”

    Cattleya looked very surprised for a moment.

    “Oh. Well. You know that doppelgangers are a hive species, right? Indeed, some researchers in the field speculate that they may be descended from the plaguebeasts in some fashion. Though they speculate that about the orcs too, so perhaps they're simply insane,” Cattleya shrugged. “Anyway, doppelgangers aren't intelligent on their own, and only become so when gathered in large enough numbers. However, there are a few cases of doppelganger nests reacting intelligently to threats despite having nowhere near enough members. Hence, the idea of some kind of leader doppelganger. Since they've never been seen and their existence is only inferred, you can claim almost whatever you want without raising undue suspicion.”

    “Actually, I didn't know any of that,” Louise said. “All I knew was the basics. That they're powerful magic creatures that can mimic human form.”

    “I'm not surprised,” Cattleya smiled. “Most people know about that much. But since magic animals are my chosen specialty, I know a bit more. It's not a flawless cover story, but it's a lot better than “He's a plaguebearer, but he's nice, really.” You'll just have to improvise the rest.”

    “Thanks, Big Sis,” Louise smiled in reply.

    “She's doing it for herself, Zero. Don't be naïve. She's been exposed to Mercer. If word got out about what he is, she'd be put to the torch along with everyone else,” The dream-voice whispered.

    “You have an advantage in that nobody really wants to burn down the school. Chances are, they won't look too closely once you give them a good alternative,” Cattleya continued. “Nobody will really want to consider the idea that there was a plaguebearer loose. If someone tries to claim that, remember to deny it consistently. Preferably while belittling their intelligence for believing such an insane notion.”

    Louise was struck by how vicious that last line was, at least for Cattleya.

    They ate the rest of their breakfast in silence, though the voice didn't stop whispering in her ear.

    Cattleya gave her a quick hug, then left to go find Louise's familiar.

    <***>

    “We need to have a talk, Mercer,” Cattleya finally cornered Mercer alone as he went to work on his creepy metal dragonfly. Even though her senses were much clearer than when she'd last seen the thing, it still looked unsettlingly like a huge black bug.

    She wished he'd get rid of it.

    Mercer looked up, his expression blank and emotionless. He didn't say anything. He didn't greet her, nor did he make any indication of surprise at her intrusion into his world. He simply looked at her with a gaze she, for all her empathy and intuitive understanding of people, couldn't quite identify.

    “Louise told me everything,” It fell to Cattleya to fill the void in the conversation. “Did you turn me into a runner, yes or no?”

    Cattleya felt safe asking that here. Colbert's workshop was well away from foot traffic, and soundproofed in case the professor's experiments blew up in his face, at least going by Louise's letters.

    “Louise told you? I suppose I should've expected that, given how she apparently doesn't know the meaning of discretion,” Mercer scowled. “To answer your question, no. I was extremely careful about that. I don't want more of me running around. That's the last thing I want.”

    “And why's that?” Cattleya asked.

    “Because at the end of the day, I'm a person before I'm a thing. Do you think I should run the risk of any people I infect deciding differently?” Mercer replied. “Hence, I was very careful about my treatment. I used a common retrovirus, then I tailored it to do what I want and only what I want, being very careful with every step of the process.”

    “I'd think you'd want more of your kind around to interact with. You must certainly feel very lonely,” Cattleya thought back to what she'd told Louise before.

    “Lonely?” Mercer frowned. “I don't want more like me running around because my existence isn't very nice. For instance, right now, I'm having to restrain myself from killing you. Not because I have anything against you, but because there's a big part of me that looks at you and sees fresh food. There's another part of me who wants to infect you and make you like me, but that's just the same as killing you. We'd end up with something that looks like you and has all your memories but isn't you. Ask Louise about the original Alex Mercer if you don't believe me.”

    “I see,” Cattleya frowned herself, making a note to do exactly that. “So every day, you're constantly struggling against what your instincts are saying?”

    “Because I see human beings as people,” Mercer leaned back against the dragonfly's metallic hull, arms crossed in front of him. “If I stop seeing things that way, the instincts win, and I become just like any other infected. Just out for myself and damn anything else.”

    “What is your relationship with my sister, then? It's obvious you care about her. I'm not sure what to feel about that,” Cattleya replied. “She's terrified of the changes you're instigating in her, and so am I. She thinks she's becoming a monster. And I think you're not doing enough to disabuse her of that notion.”

    “That's what she thinks?” Mercer stood again. She could see his hands squeeze at nothing. “But she hasn't killed anyone. I've done all the killing. I'm the monster here, not her.”

    “The familiar's actions are the master's actions. The master's will is the familiar's command,” Cattleya said, remembering one of the many things Mother had taught her.

    “That's stupid,” Mercer frowned. “I'm responsible for every death she's witnessed. She isn't. She's a bystander.”

    “You were just following orders,” Cattleya replied. “By our family's standards, she is the guilty party. Or at least she thinks that. You are “merely” her familiar, after all.”

    “Just following orders? That excuse went out of style at Nuremberg,” Mercer muttered.

    “What does a Germanian township famous for its crab apples have to do with such things?” Cattleya asked, now thoroughly confused.

    “Nothing, nevermind,” Mercer replied. “My point is that Louise isn't a monster. I'm the monster. She isn't. She's too...”

    He trailed off, unable to come up with an explanation. “She just isn't. She can't be. She shouldn't be thinking like me.”

    “You don't have much experience dealing with people, do you?”

    “Yes. No. I had a sister once,” Mercer sighed. “Her name was Dana. She was a journalist. And a very good person. When I found out that I wasn't really human, you know what she said? She told me that she didn't care, because I was her brother. I don't really deserve that kind of understanding, but it felt good to have it.”

    “Do you miss her?” Cattleya asked, even as she puzzled out Mercer's reply. Was he saying he viewed Louise as a sister? Or was he trying to say he understood Cattleya's protectiveness? Or was he simply saying that despite once having a sister, he really didn't understand why Louise was feeling so miserable?

    Mercer frowned, but nodded. “The infected captured her and used her as bait to get to me. I eventually got her back, but by then it was too late.”

    “She was infected? I'm so sorry,” Cattleya reached out a comforting hand.

    He stepped away nimbly, back behind one of the dargonfly's stubby side wings.

    “I never quite figured out what Greene, you'd call her the plaguebearer in charge, did to Dana. All I know is that when I got her back, she was in a coma,” Mercer turned, putting more distance between them. “So I left her in the care of a friend and went out to stop the infection. About a week later, she died. It's funny. Even when I consumed Greene, I still couldn't figure out what she'd done to Dana. Greene's mind was this ball of crazy that I still can't totally figure out.”

    “Consumed?” Cattleya asked.

    “Consumed. Fresh food, remember? When I kill someone, I consume them unless I consciously stop myself. Everything they were becomes a part of me. Every memory, every thought. Since I try to focus on bad people when I can, many of my memories are bad. But, see, even psychotic soldiers and amoral scientists have families and people they care about. So I get it from both ends. Seeing them kill or experiment on innocent people, but also seeing that they're a husband, father, or son.”

    “That-” Cattleya struggled to put her horror into words. “That sounds like a terrible existence. You have the last moments of everyone you've killed? And you have to live with knowing them as well as you know yourself? How is it that you've not gone insane from such torment?”

    “Because I'm not human,” Mercer smiled. It was a chilling smile, reminding Cattleya that no matter how human he looked, he wasn't.

    “That might be true,” Cattleya conceded. “But I don't think that means you're not a person. Elves are people, even though they're not human. Spirits are people. At least, they're intelligent beings, even if they view the world differently. Before they went extinct, rhyme dragons were said to be as intelligent as any man, so they count as people too. You don't have to be a human to count as a person.”

    She wondered how the conversation had turned from Louise to questions of Mercer's personhood. She blamed her own zones of interest.

    For instance, Cattleya had always wished she could meet a living rhyme dragon. The idea of interacting with such a unique and different form of intelligent life was fascinating to her. Familiar-bonded normal dragons and manticores were intelligent, to be sure. Intelligent enough to understand human speech, at least. But they couldn't talk back. Rhyme dragons could, hence the name.

    Indeed, Cattleya had always had a fascination with non-human intelligences in general. There was just something so interesting about a point of view alien to one's own on a fundamental level. That must have been it. Mercer, despite wearing a human face, didn't understand the species he emulated.

    The subject of her thoughts snorted.

    “That's my philosophy,” Cattleya added. “Just because something sees the world differently doesn't mean it's a monster.”

    “Oh?” Mercer asked. “Many people would consider me a monster for my nature.”

    “Perhaps, but you're denying that nature,” Cattleya smiled. “If anything, I find that rather admirable.”

    “And many others would consider me a monster for killing others,” Mercer said. “Especially for killing innocents.”

    “Yes,” Cattleya frowned. “And I'd agree with them. Killing is horrible and regrettable no matter why it happens. But you chose to kill. If you're a monster, you're a monster because you decided to be. Not because your nature forced you to be. You bear the responsibility for your actions, and I think that's an important distinction to make.”

    Mercer frowned and made a “hmmph” noise in the back of his throat. “And if I said that I regretted every kill, even if I needed the information or energy I gained from it?”

    “I'd say that you should kill only as a last resort. Taking a person from the world is always a tragedy, no matter why it was done. Sometimes it's unavoidable, and has to be done to save more people, but that doesn't make it good. Simply less bad,” Cattleya said. “The question you have to ask yourself is whether those deaths had meaning? Did they die to save more people?”

    “Some of them did,” Mercer's voice seemed very low, almost melancholic. “I see them all, every time I close my eyes.”

    Cattleya put her hand on his shoulder. This time, he couldn't get away, cornered as he was between the dragonfly's thorax and its lower wing. She watched his face twitch as her hand came to rest on his shoulder, but he didn't try to flee. “Perhaps you should try and make up for the ones who didn't.”

    “How?” Cattleya could tell how angry he was. “How am I supposed to do that?”

    Cattleya gave his shoulder a squeeze anyway. “You can't bring back the dead. But maybe you can honor them by helping the living.”

    <***>

    Eleanor de la Vallière bit her lip. Mother said they were leaving after lunch. But she hadn't retrieved her wand from Louise's familiar yet.

    If she left without her wand, she knew that Mother's sparring would be even more vicious and brutal than it would be normally. After all, a Vallière never let themselves lose their weapon. A Vallière never let herself be totally defenseless.

    A true Vallière wouldn't balk at confronting a familiar, no matter what it was. Mother certainly wouldn't.

    Eleanor trembled. She raised a clenched fist, holding it before Louise's door as she mustered the courage she'd need to knock.

    She knew she owed Louise an apology. The very thought of her, the older sister, apologizing to the runt of the litter galled her.

    If she was going to do that, she'd have wanted at least a few drinks in her first. Preferably more than just a few. But Mother was clear. No alcohol. If she came back smelling of liquor, Mother would be livid. And that was never good.

    Eleanor sighed. As the first and eldest, Mother's expectations fell hardest on her. She was the one who had to make a name for herself. She was the one who had to set a good example for Louise and Cattleya.

    Sometimes she resented how much Mother let them get away with things, even though intellectually she knew their respective conditions merited a little more leeway. Cattleya was, until now, so dreadfully sick. And Louise was a magic blunt.

    Were their positions reversed, Louise and Eleanor, she knew Mother would show no mercy. She had to represent the Vallière family to the world, but Louise had to measure up to Mother's standards. And Louise... Didn't.

    But why couldn't Louise just see that Eleanor and Mother knew what was best for her? She was the youngest sister. She was so weak and vulnerable, she had to be sheltered. Yet now she was so brazen as to get a Chevalier title, the kind of meritorious accolade that Eleanor dreamed of getting?

    Eleanor grit her teeth.

    “Big Sis Eleanor?” Louise opened the door even though she'd not yet knocked. Her voice was cautious. Louise's own wand was out. “Why were you standing out there?”

    Eleanor looked down at her little sister. Curious, she'd expected her to be cheerful and happy, and to perhaps rub in that she, the shrimp of the family, was a chevalier when Eleanor wasn't.

    Instead, Louise looked terrible. Her eyes had deep rings, and she seemed very twitchy.

    “I-” Eleanor started, unsure of how to proceed. She'd never apologized for anything before. Least of all to Louise. “I came by to-to apologize. For last night.”

    There, she said it.

    “I see,” Louise blinked, but made no further moves.

    “So. I-I'm sorry.”

    “I bet it hurt you to say that, didn't it?” Louise asked.

    “Will you give me back my wand?”

    Louise shook her head. “Sorry, don't have it.”

    “What?!” Eleanor roared, reaching forward to grab Louise with both hands. “Shrimp, if you tossed my favorite wand away like trash, I'll-”

    “Let go,” Louise spat. “You don't want you to dirty yourself touching the zero after all.”

    Eleanor did so, but then Louise grimaced, looking quite disturbed at something.

    Eleanor was rather disturbed as well. Louise's expression then was decidedly strange, and Louise would never admit her deficiency if she could help it. Calling herself “the Zero” was strange.

    “Mercer has your wand,” Louise said, her voice sounding distracted. “I think he went to Colbert's workshop. Tell him to give it back. No. Tell him I asked him to give it back. Remember, it's a request from me.”

    “T-thank you,” Eleanor said, still frustrated at having to thank Louise for something when it should've been the other way around.

    Eleanor made her way to Professor Colbert's classroom. She'd not met the man himself, but deductive reasoning and a little rumormongering told her of his lab's probable location. After all, the “dragonfly” that Louise and her familiar had arrived in was, obviously, large enough to carry two people comfortably. That cut down heavily on the places where it could be in the academy.

    Eleanor paused, reviewing her mental map of the school. She'd attended herself, back when she was Louise's age. Her eidetic memory served her well, allowing her to suck up knowledge like a sponge. Colbert was after her time, but as the head instructor of fire magics, he would be based in the fire tower's second lecture hall. Not the first, for some reason she still didn't comprehend, but tradition said the second lecture hall.

    He'd want to be able to access his workshop easily from the lecture hall, which meant it was probably the old storage annex directly off said hall.

    She supposed she could simply ask someone, perhaps even Colbert himself if she could find him, but Mother never, ever asked for help. It was beneath her. It was therefore obviously beneath Eleanor too. She might accept help from others, but she'd never ask for it. Vallières don't ask for help.

    In this case, they didn't need to. Eleanor found the workshop. The sign that said “Prof. Colbert's Workshop” rather gave it away, even though the “Caution: Dangerous Science Inside!!!” postscript, complete with three exclamation points gave Eleanor a foreboding feeling.

    She pressed on anyway, only to find herself struck dumb at the sight inside.

    Cattleya was grabbing that impudent, good for nothing familiar's shoulder and holding it as though.

    As though-

    Eleanor's mind struggled to read her sister's body language. Her younger sister was standing scandalously close to the familiar, trapping him between her and his flying machine. A faint pink blush accompanied a small smile on her sister's cheeks.

    “Cattleya!” Eleanor said, voice full of shock. “A familiar? Really?”

    Cattleya gasped and jumped, turning to look at Eleanor with wide eyes. Her face flushed pink.

    “Big sis? H-how long have you been standing there?” Cattleya squeaked.

    “Long enough!” Eleanor roared. “What in the Founder's name are you doing?”

    Cattleya took a deep breath, clearly trying to get herself under control. “I was talking with Louise's familiar. He's a very interesting person.”

    “Talking?” Eleanor asked, voice dubious.

    “Yes, talking,” Cattleya replied. “What, you think that I'm-Ah. You do think that. Eleanor, I'm rather insulted that you think so little of me.”

    “When I find you like this, you'll have to forgive me for having doubts!” Eleanor replied. “You pressing up against a familiar of all things! Even if it is a person...”

    ““It” has a name, Eleanor,” Cattleya replied. “As you said, he's a person.”

    “Why are you here?” The subject of their argument spoke up. Unlike Cattleya, he didn't seem flustered at all. If anything, he seemed more confused. Confused and rather angry if his glare was anything to go by.

    “Oh,” Eleanor waved her hand. “I came for my wand, familiar.”

    “I said you'd get it back when I was sure you wouldn't use it on Louise. You haven't convinced me yet.”

    “Convince you? Just who do you think you are? I'm the daughter of a duke. I'm a triangle class wind mage. I'm-”

    “-Not someone I feel any desire to obey,” The familiar interrupted. “You want your wand back, promise to never attack Louise again.”

    “I wasn't attacking her in the first place, I was-”

    “Raising a lethal weapon in her direction,” He interrupted. “After striking her with an open palm.”

    “Goddamnit, it's a wand! It's just a wand! I wouldn't hurt Louise, I just want her to know her place,” Eleanor took a deep breath. “Listen... Alex, was it? Louise asked me to ask you to give my wand back. It's a request from her.”

    “Mrm,” He replied. “Promise never to attack Louise again.”

    “Fine, I'll never attack Louise. She's my sister, I wouldn't hurt her-” Mercer cut her off, though not with words. Her wand slipped out of his sleeve easily, and he handed it to her in one fluid motion.

    “Then our business is concluded,” He said. “Go away.”

    <***>

    Louise packed, not entirely sure what exactly to pack. A few sets of clothes – the most unassuming she had, though that wasn't saying much since they were all quite finely made and richly embroidered – and some dried jerky, much as she had during the “adventure.”

    There wasn't much else she really needed. She'd bring the spare wand she bought at the market last week, particularly now that she was actually catching up with her magic. But beyond that, she was at a loss. Would she need something to read on the journey? Perhaps she should bring a textbook to keep up on her studies?

    The thought of books drove her mind back to the strange blank book she'd found in Tarbes. In truth, she'd not had a chance to examine it further, getting as swept up as she was with Cattleya, then with Mother's arrival.

    Mother commanded attention like that.

    On a whim, she dug the book out from underneath the pile of disorganized school supplies. But there was something different about it. For starters, it was warm to the touch. If she didn't know any better, she'd have almost thought it was shaking. But that was insane, since books didn't shake.

    Given how she was already hearing voices, she realized that it was entirely possible she actually was going insane. She'd heard of some other nobles who succumbed to madness. It wasn't something nobles talked about much, but it did happen on occasion. Some even said the queen was mad, but that was treasonous, so Louise ignored such seditious talk.

    Louise opened the book, not expecting to find anything. She hoped simply to put her fears to rest.

    She was quite shocked, then, when thick black words stared back at her. No, stared wasn't quite the right word, for that implied passivity. They swam in her vision, dancing about the periphery of her sight. They stopped moving when she focused on particular words, of course.

    Perhaps she was going insane. Perhaps this was some sort of paranoid delusion, though if it was, it was certainly a strange one.

    She peered more closely at the text. It was in an old runic dialect, something she'd learned as a child for reciting prayers and reading Brimir's holy book as all noble children did, then promptly nearly forgot as it wasn't particularly relevant to her life. Like most nobles did.

    Intrigued, Louise tried to piece together what it said anyway. But she couldn't get much, just a name and the first line or so.

    “I am Brimir,” Louise read, her breath coming out in gasps. “And into this tome, I pour my hopes and dreams. Into this tome, I pour all that I am for the good of my descendants...”

    <***>

    Siesta's heart broke. It'd already broken, seeing Erina like this, but it broke even more. It was Erina's birthday today. Siesta baked her favorite kind of cake for the occasion. Double chocolate, with extra frosting. Just like Erina liked it.

    Siesta had so many good memories of birthdays with Erina, of sharing her cakes and giving presents, or flirting with boys, or dancing the night away.

    She remembered the last one they'd shared together. It was a wonderful spring day, the sun was warm and welcoming overhead. The land around Tarbes always had a sort of pastoral beauty to it. In addition to its amber waves of grain and its many vineyards, there were plenty of wild fields where flowers grew. Flowers of every imaginable color and fragrance. The mountain overhead lent the whole town a spectacular vista. A blue-white peak, capped with snow and rising majestically into the sky. Were it not for the nobles, everyone would've wanted to live in Tarbes.

    Siesta herself wasn't much for flowers, but Erina was. Her little sister always loved to walk around with a flower in her hair. Siesta always went to one of the fields in the early morning and picked a random one for Erina's birthday. Not for a present, just a way to say that she cared. Erina always wore them.

    On their last birthday together, Erina's eighteenth, Erina wore a white one. “For purity!” Her sister had giggled. That was another difference between them. Siesta was no virgin. She was no whore either, but she'd known the touch of a few boys. But Erina was always sparse with her affections, at least where men were concerned. The rumor around town was that she was good at kissing – because that was all she did.

    Siesta knew her sister held out hope of being swept off her feet by some dashing and gallant man. Someone strong and powerful, but tender when it counted. Someone who could overpower her, but who never would, being too good for that. Someone who, of course, cared. In her deepest dreams, at least the ones she'd confided to Siesta, Erina hoped for some knight to come and save them. Perhaps some chevalier sent by the queen, to punish Mott and rule Tarbes fairly and with compassion.

    Unlike Siesta, Erina never hated nobles. Unlike Siesta, Erina had faith that someone would come and save them.

    Siesta could never bring herself to tell Erina that the man she waited for didn't, couldn't exist. There were times when they argued, times when Siesta wanted to tell her sister that she was dreaming of a fairy tale. Times when Siesta wanted to show her sister that nobody was going to save them, because that wasn't how the world worked. But she never did. Tearing away her sister's innocence like that would've felt wrong.

    She regretted that now.

    Erina's maidenhead was her most treasured possession. Siesta knew Erina had wanted to save it, keep it for the husband she knew would one day come and love her. In common life, chastity wasn't as prized as it was for nobles. There was nothing wrong with fooling around, so long as a child was never conceived – and if one was, marriage always followed, as the contraceptive potions nobles used were too expensive for the common folk. It made Erina's decision to wait for her dream all the more precious, since it was a decision she made herself.

    A decision nobles stole from her.

    Where was the benignly mischievous girl she remembered? Now Erina just sat and stared at the ground. Didn't even look at her eyes. Siesta wished she'd at least look at the cake. It wasn't big, Siesta couldn't afford a huge cake even on Mistress Vallière's salary, but it was delicious and moist. If Erina would just have a bite of cake, perhaps she'd start to come out of her shell, perhaps the fond memories and the familiar setting would start to work on her sister's psyche.

    “Cake?” Siesta said. “I baked it just for you. Just like you like it. Delicious. Moist. Extra frosting, just like we always made. D-don't you want some, sis?”

    Erina flicked her blank, mindless eyes to the cake for a moment, before bringing them back down to the ground.

    Siesta started cutting the cake anyway, placing a piece in front of Erina, and one in front of herself.

    “Father still hasn't found Jacques yet,” Siesta said. “It's like he disappeared. I'm worried. I'm sure you're worried too, even if you won't say so.”

    Erina whimpered.

    Siesta closed her eyes, feeling a few drops of tear moisten her slice of cake.

    She knew then that things wouldn't ever be as they were.

    A low buzzing sound from outside distracted Siesta from her thoughts. She looked out the open window, thinking perhaps Zeus had flown that strange... Hell-cop-tor back, for the sound was vaguely similar, though quieter and harder to hear. But she saw nothing, just the early morning sun reflecting off clouds, so she dismissed the notion.

    When she looked back at Erina, her heart welled up in her throat. There was a chunk of cake missing from her sister's piece, and a slight dab of frosting on Erina's lips.

    Siesta smiled, moving to kneel before her sister. She cupped Erina's face in her hands for a moment, then used her fork to give her sister another bite.

    Erina's giggle told her that maybe, just maybe, things could get better.

    <***>

    Louise made her way to the school's library, seeking out a book on ancient runic languages. She knew she could ask Eleanor, as archeology in all its forms was one of Big Sis Eleanor's passions, but she knew she'd never live it down if she asked Eleanor for help.

    So she didn't.

    She didn't need to anyway. She found the book she was looking for quickly enough. An old runic reference book she remembered from her youth, common enough that practically every library in Halkeginia had a copy.

    She checked it out and made her way back to her room. She knew she'd have several days travel ahead of her even once they boarded the ship to Albion. There'd be ample time to start the translation. Indeed, the very second page described Brimir's notes on his “void explosion” spell. If Louise needed even more proof of her element, it stared at her in the face. She focused on it, going through the motions as best she could and soon, she could manage a tiny concussive spell.

    Focusing on external things kept her from dwelling on whether she was going mad or not.

    External things like Lord Wardes. She'd not seen him since she was a young girl. He must've been at the party last night, but she hadn't seen him, and she wasn't sure she wanted to.

    Not because he was somehow unsuited – he was one of the highest nobility, and made so solely by his own skill as well. Even the princess would be hard pressed to do better. More, he was chosen for her by Mother, and Mother was never wrong.

    Nor was her reluctance because he himself was brutish or somehow unappealing. In her distant memories, she remembered him being naught but a perfect gentlemen to her. And he was handsome.

    She had trouble explaining it. Wardes was an ideal match, though wildly out of the Zero's league. He himself wasn't the problem, she could tell that much. But the idea of him, that was what made her stomach flip-flop between excitement and anxiety. Things were changing so fast. Her life was changing so fast. She herself was finally coming into her magic. No void mage had walked the Earth since Brimir himself. Already the Princess was looking to her, little Louise the Zero, for a mission of importance simply because she was a void mage.

    Louise bit her thumb. What if she screwed up? What if she failed the princess?

    She stepped forward, thumb getting red. What if she didn't? Would Wardes really want someone like her? Would anyone want her? A void mage, someone who's very nature was to overshadow all others? Would he resent her for being born with the kind of power he'd spent his whole life trying to grasp, no matter how poorly she could use it?

    Grasp. Something about that word spoke to her. She wanted so much to grasp something. Something she could use to get her bearings. Everything was changing too fast. And now she'd have to confront the idea of marriage as well. Her betrothal contract to Wardes would mature on her eighteenth birthday, and that was coming up far too soon for her liking. Surely she could put him off until after the mission. No man would be so bold to push matters in the middle of a secret mission from the princess. But from there, she'd have to confirm or deny it. Putting it off beyond that would be terribly embarrassing for the family, and probably for Wardes himself as well.

    But it was like a door she'd thought long locked opened before her. She wasn't just a mage, she was a void mage. She was somebody. She didn't want to be known solely as “the viscount's wife”, any more than Wardes wanted to be known as “the void mage's husband,” of that she was sure. She had a chance to make her mark on the world now... But she couldn't do that from the viscount's estate.

    And yet, a part of her yearned for that life too. To have a husband to smile at her and hold her, the way Father held Mother when they thought nobody was looking.

    “See, the difference between Zero and Mother is that it's a murderess while she's a heroine,” the dream-voice whispered in Louise's ear. “If Louise were to just cast out the zero, to take off that mask-”

    “Shut up,” Louise's voice broke. “Shut up. ShutupshutupshutupSHUTUP!”

    “Louise, who are you talking to?” Mother stood before her, one eyebrow arched upwards. Louise didn't bother to ask how she got in. She knew that no locking spell could defeat a square class mage of any element.

    Louise froze like a doe before the hunting hounds.

    “W-what are you doing here, Mother?” Louise croaked.

    “I came to say goodbye. Cattleya, Eleanor, and I will be returning home shortly,” Mother replied. “That was, however, before I found you talking to the walls.”

    “I w-wasn't talking to walls,” Louise replied. “I just thought I heard someone...”

    It was a lame excuse, they both knew it.

    “I... See,” Yet Mother didn't press her. That was strange. “Are you packing?”

    Mother looked almost uncomfortable as she said that, eyes darting around the room to take in Louise's semi-organized travel pack and bundles of clothing.

    “Ah, yes. I...”

    Louise trailed off. It was a secret mission for the Princess. Emphasis on secret. But outright lying to Mother about it? Mother was trustworthy, she was sure. And Mother was one of the Princess' vassals, so she was obviously as loyal to the Princess as she was. Indeed, hadn't Louise learned everything she knew of loyalty from her mother?

    “You look as though you're packing for a long journey. I doubt you're coming home with us. Where are you going, daughter?”

    “I-” Louise forced down a gulp. Mother was using that look. Whenever she said “daughter” instead of “Louise”, it meant trouble. “I was given a mission. I'm sorry, I can't talk about it-”

    “A mission?” Mother rolled the word around her tongue, as though unfamiliar with it. “A mission. A secret mission. From an authority that supersedes my own as both your mother and duchess of the house of Vallière.”

    A tiny twitch of Mother's eyebrows was the only indication of her towering rage. Louise knew her mother well. If there was any indication of her emotions, any at all, it meant she was feeling so strongly that not even Mother's steel will could contain them.

    That tiny twitch indicated rage. All-consuming rage.

    “There's a very short list of people who can supersede me,” Mother spat. “This mission? I presume it's dangerous?”

    Louise closed her eyes and nodded. The Princess had warned her about exactly that.

    “Stay here,” Mother said. “I will return shortly. Then we shall discuss this “mission” of yours.”

    <***>

    Karin stalked the halls like the manticores she'd taken as her knightly emblem. No one, from the students to the staff to the teachers to the other guests to Headmaster Osmond himself dared to get in her way.

    Like rats scurrying before a storm, they scattered before her. The sheer projection of her will was enough for everyone to back off. No sycophantic nobles tried to ingratiate themselves with the Duchess Vallière. No students stopped to gawk at the flowing dresses and elaborate hairstyling her position demanded of her.

    Everyone, it seemed, knew to back off.

    She reached the royal apartment. If the Princess herself wasn't in, she'd coerce whatever servants she had on hand into divulging the royal's location.

    Karin raised her fist, bringing it down onto the thick wooden door with a resounding thump.

    She slammed her fist into the door again.

    This time, the door opened. The princess was there, a knowing smile written across her face.

    Despite everything, despite every ideal she believed in, Karin wanted nothing more than to smash the royal's face in. How dare she threaten Karin's daughter! How dare she!

    “Ah, Duchess. I've been expecting you,” Henrietta's voice was pleasant and cheerful, even faced with Karin's narrowed eyes and killing intent. “Please, come in. Agnes and I were about to have tea.”

    Karin did so, taking a seat at from the small rounded table that the Princess and her bodyguard were sharing.

    “Would you like some tea, Duchess? It's made from lemon extract. Very delicious,” the Princess offered.

    “No,” Karin said, voice blunt.

    “Pity. More for me then,” Henrietta poured herself a cup. “Now, what can I do for you?”

    Karin's eyes narrowed by the barest margin. Surely the royal wasn't going to play the ignorant? “You said you expected me.”

    “And indeed I did. I even expected you to show up rather incensed. But please, let us dispense with the you-know-I-know-you-know games. Ask me your questions, and I shall answer as I can,” Henrietta sipped her tea. Karin found the gesture irritating.

    “You seek to send my daughter on a mission,” Karin said. “A dangerous mission.”

    “Yes,” Henrietta nodded.

    “What is this mission?” Karin asked.

    “Louise Francoise hasn't told you?” The Princess blinked. “I-I must confess I find that surprising. Hmm. I assumed you'd already be aware of it. I assumed you'd already be aware of everything.”

    Karin had to restrain her urge to grind her teeth.

    “Agnes, the map,” Henrietta asked. Her scarred bodyguard was apparently a capable aide, as she'd already begun to lay out a large vellum map of-

    “Albion?” Karin asked, looking down at it. Karin was well acquainted with Halkeginia's geography.

    Henrietta nodded. “As you surely know, Albion is facing a rebellion, one which looks to be very close to succeeding. As you also surely know, we lack the military force to intervene on the royalists' behalf.”

    “Your marriage to Germania,” Karin nodded. It hadn't been officially announced yet, but there were too many rumors to that end to dismiss them as fiction. More, the Henrietta Karin had seen so far was surely political enough to contrive such an arrangement.

    “Indeed,” Henrietta said. “Should the rebels in Albion decide to export their revolution abroad, we'll need Germania's armies to protect Tristain.”

    Karin wasn't comforted by the notion of Germanian armies “protecting” Tristain. Once they were in, evicting them would prove difficult. The best way to defeat Germania's huge musket blocks was to cut their supply lines. A difficult task when they were already in Tristain in the first place.

    “And what is to stop these Germanians from seizing our country out from under us?” Karin demanded.

    Henrietta smiled. “Tristain has long been an economic power. It's what's made us so tempting a prize, despite our small size. With my trade reforms, we've only grown richer. You see, Duchess, the Germanian Emperor is not an economist. He dreams, as most leaders do, of conquering the world and placing it under his banner. But like most, he dreams of armies marching across the land.”

    “And you don't?” Karin asked.

    “I prefer more indirect methods. Germania is dependent on us for several crucial resources, including the cotton for their mills and the saltpeter for their gunpowder,” Henrietta replied. “As I'm sure you know, their armies are built around guns of various sorts.”

    Karin shook her head. “Which gives them motive to take those resources from us.”

    “Yes,” The Princess nodded. “However, what do you know of Germanian culture? Of their government and social mores?”

    Karin cast her memory back to what she knew of that barbarous land. “I know enough. They're large and imperialistic. They believe that they have a manifest destiny to revitalize Halkeginia and lead it into a golden age under “benevolent Germanian rule.””

    “Yes, that's quite correct,” Henrietta smiled. “That's a soldier's appraisal. Exactly what I'd expect from a woman of your quality. However, Germania is not a nation of soldiers. It's a nation of traders. It's really quite fascinating. Did you know their various city-states, what later become Germania's grand duchies, unified not from one leader mustering an army, but from their economies becoming intertwined?”

    “I did not,” Karin replied. “What relevance does that have? Are you implying traders aren't willing to stoop to underhanded methods if it will gain them new resources?”

    “No, of course not,” Henrietta replied. “I'm merely seeing what sort of background you have. The Germanian empire is nominally ruled by their Emperor. However, the real power in Germania are the merchant dukes. There's thirty one of them, one for each grand duchy in Germania. They do not command the armies, but they control the armies' coinpurses. Soldiers cannot fight without food or arms.”

    Karin watched Henrietta's bodyguard nod studiously. Karin herself knew the Princess was right in that. No army could march or fight if cut off from supplies. Not for long. Only a plaguebearer's army of infected could.

    “Nobility in Germania is a good to be bartered, I know,” Karin said, finally. The very notion left a foul taste in her mouth. Karin worked for her political power. The idea that someone could simply buy it irritated her, like burrs in her boots.

    “It's not my ideal situation either,” Henrietta shrugged. “However, Germania has several peculiar social taboos. Chief amongst them is the “proper” way to act when you're a guest in someone's home. I imagine it rose from a desire to have a comfortable trading atmosphere.”

    “You're basing the safety of our country on a Germanian custom?” Karin asked, mind aghast. “One that any practical soul would discard if necessary?”

    “No, of course not,” Henrietta smiled. “I've already brought enough of the merchant dukes over to my way of thinking. With most of them, it was surprisingly easy. Trade concessions I'd planned on anyway, a few favorable loans here, a few forgiven debts between friends there... The custom is merely one of the reasons I know the Germanians will keep to their end of the bargain. They view this not as a military alliance, but as the initial bid to a trade pact. And so, they will react in a certain way, assuming I react in a certain way.”

    There was a certain logic to the Princess' words. Predicting your foe's moves was the first step towards defeating them. But were the Princess' predictions accurate?

    “The Emperor, meanwhile, is less interested in Tristain itself and more in me – or rather, the legitimacy that I, being of the Brimiric line, can bestow upon him in the eyes of the rest of Halkeginia. Hence the marriage. As marshal of Germania's armies, having him in my pocket will be useful should my hold over the merchant dukes ever slip. As a rule, Duchess, I plan for everything I can.”

    “I can see that,” Karin replied. “My concerns stem from how you've involved my daughter in your plans.”

    “Ah, that. Yes,” Henrietta replied. “At last we come to the real issue. Before we got distracted, we were talking about Albion, weren't we? Quite simply, I expect that once the reconquista rebels win and have consolidated their position, they will attack our nation.”

    “We're the most strategic target,” Karin nodded. The thought had occurred to her. For the next two years, Albion would be at its closest to Tristain before its path carried it over Gallia. Supply lines would be at their shortest. Invading Tristain and either conquering or pillaging it would be at its easiest.

    “Indeed. I have several contingencies in place for when that happens,” Henrietta said. “When we've defeated their incursion, it will fall to us to counterattack. However, once that war is won, we'll need a puppet ruler to legitimize our occupation of Albion.”

    Karin blinked. “Occupation of Albion?”

    Was the Princess that ambitious? Occupying a whole other nation? Nations hadn't changed hands like that since Brimir himself conquered the barbarian kingdoms and rebuilt the nations of Halkeginia in their place.

    “Of course. Surely you don't think I'd let Albion hurt my people in their invasion only to get off with some reparations?” Henrietta asked. “So anyway, I've gathered a team together to infiltrate Albion and bring me the heir to the house of Wales. He'll be an excellent puppet ruler.”

    “And Louise is on that team,” Karin placed the notion of kidnapping a royal aside for the moment to focus on what was truly important.

    Henrietta nodded. “I trust you've spoken to her of her power?”

    Karin's teeth ground together. So the Princess knew. It made sense. Surely a creature as crafty as Henrietta wouldn't have given this mission unless she did. “Yes.”

    “Then you know she could be a great asset to any mission. Her and her familiar,” Henrietta replied.

    “The Gandalfr, the left hand of God. The shield of God,” Karin shook her head. Certainly if the Gandalfr lived up to his hype, he'd be an asset. “I don't approve of using my daughter in this fashion.”

    “No, I didn't expect you would,” The Princess frowned. “And yet she volunteered. Quite eagerly, I must add.”

    “She's a threat to you. This is a scheme to have her killed without you doing so directly,” Karin's hand reached out to slam the map of Albion. “She's an untrained schoolgirl. She has no experience with covert missions. And you think she'll be able to pass through the rebel lines around Newcastle? She'll die long before she can see the prince.”

    “Do you really think I'd discard a useful piece so readily? No, I don't expect Louise Francoise to die on this mission. Not with her fiance and familiar accompanying her. They are both quite formidable individuals. I should think they're up to the task of defending her. Moreover, Wales will be more likely to come peacefully if my request is delivered by someone he knows I'm connected to. As well as someone he himself is connected to, albeit once removed.”

    Despite herself, Karin relaxed a tiny bit. “The Viscount is going?”

    “Yes. Along with a team of my best infiltrators,” Henrietta replied. “Trust me, I'd prefer if your daughter survived this mission.”

    “Why should I believe that, Princess?” Karin asked. “It'd be convenient for you were Louise to die on this mission.”

    “She volunteered even before I'd finished telling her of it. I'll admit, her loyalty touched me. It was rather nice to see at least one of your house is loyal to their liege lady,” Henrietta replied.

    “I'm loyal to Tristain before I'm loyal to any one monarch, Princess,” Karin stiffened at the slight. “But I notice you didn't answer my question.”

    “Why? Oh, that's easy. Power, Duchess,” Henrietta grinned. “When I'm successful, there will be a great deal of it to go around, and I'm not one to mind sharing it so long as my people are prosperous. You can trust my honesty in this by the fact that you would be a useful ally to my cause, and lying to allies is never a good idea. I prefer allies bound to me with the truth, rather than falsehood. It makes for a more stable relationship. In this particular instance, I know that were Louise Francoise to die, you would do everything you could to destroy me. You'd fail, of course, but it would be a very large distraction.”

    Karin wasn't at all sure about the idea that she'd fail. If any of her daughters were to die, Karin knew that nothing would stop her vengeance, even if she had to trade away her life to achieve it.

    Henrietta took a sip of tea. “Besides, if I wanted her dead, I'd have simply had her executed for murdering one of my vassals, no?”

    “You know about Mott, then,” Karin said.

    “I do indeed. It seems you've brought her up very well, Karin. She's a very loyal woman,” Henrietta replied. “That loyalty is the prime reason why I haven't killed her, and it's why I don't have much desire to despite the utility of it. You see, I have a great respect for loyalty. Moreover, your daughter seems to have the compassion for my people that you yourself lack. She, at least, had the proper horrified reaction to meeting a man like Mott, as opposed to accepting him as a... What did you call it, a “necessary evil?””

    Karin narrowed her eyes, but didn't flinch. “So you won't punish her?”

    “That's what she thought I'd do too!” Henrietta's giggle made her seem almost girlish in Karin's eyes. It was hard to reconcile this laughing young woman with the calculating and cold blooded schemer she'd seen before. “But she did me a service by eliminating Mott. Did you a disservice as well, I suppose, but you'll forgive me if I don't mourn the death of your group of reactionary dinosaurs. How could I punish her for something that benefits me so much, even if she didn't know about that when she was doing it?”

    Henrietta giggled again before she regained control of herself. “The only reason I'd move against your family now is if I have to make an example of you. And I'm still rather hoping that won't be necessary. It'd be terrible to lose one of my best generals. And it'd be equally terrible to lose the best knight commander Tristain's ever had.”

    “You seem a competent ruler, I'll give you that, Majesty,” Karin said. “At the very least, you have ambition.”

    Henrietta smiled. “Ambition? Perhaps. Duchess, I think ultimately we both want the same thing: Our country's prosperity. We simply differ on the methods we use to pursue it.”

    “Your daughter leaves for La Rochelle by horse this evening,” Henrietta said after a pause. “If you'd like to speak to her of this, you'd best do so before then. Try to dissuade her if you like, but I'm a good judge of character, and I find Louise Francoise's loyalty to be sterling.”

    <***>

    Karin left the Princess' suite unsure of what to feel. She'd was still shocked by Henrietta's sheer ambition – and those were only the schemes she knew about! Henrietta was clearly competent enough to earn Karin's respect, much as her father had. That was a pleasant notion.

    And yet, perhaps her schemes were too ambitious. The conquest of Albion? The conquest of Germania from within? Brimir only knew where Henrietta would go from there. If she succeeded, she would be the most successful ruling monarch in Tristain's history... And the instincts that Karin lived by told her that Henrietta had what it would take to see that success through.

    Karin wished that Louise hadn't already put one foot firmly in the Princess' camp. Having what should've been her choice made for her rankled. She never thought she'd see the day where all her lessons about obeying the royal house would come back to vex her.

    She resolved then to send a letter to her husband at the earliest convenience. It wouldn't be fair to make a decision like this unilaterally, even if Louise had practically made it for the family already.

    No, she'd speak to Louise first, give her daughter as much advice and training as she could before the mission. That was more important. Every minute spent practicing could possibly save Louise's life. She knew that she couldn't dissuade her daughter. Not with her upbringing or Louise's stubbornness.

    She'd have to find time to impress upon both the Viscount and the Gandalfr what exactly would happen to them if they returned without her daughter too. They both seemed devoted to Louise's safety, but it never hurt to have a little extra incentive.

    Karin returned to her daughter's room. She hadn't noticed before, but Louise looked positively haggard. It was hard to suppress the urge to hug her tight, but Karin did so. Louise would have to learn to deal with exhaustion; getting her daughter dependent on comfort that wouldn't be there forever was a liability Karin couldn't tolerate.

    But still, soldiers fight best when rested... “Louise, I will hire a carriage for you, allowing you to sleep on the way to La Rochelle. It should be more comfortable than horseback. If you intend to go through with the Princess' mad plan-”

    “-I do,” Louise cut her off. Meek Louise cut her off.

    The shock of that was almost enough to give even Karin pause. The very notion was stunning, like having a battalion of mage-knights wiped out by a farmer's militia.

    “Well then, I am going to do what I can to teach you how to fight. We have time for naught but the basics,” Karin said.

    “Fight? Me?” Louise asked. “You've never taught me how to fight. I asked for years and you always refused. You always said it would be best for me to stay out of the way.”

    Karin almost winced. “Yes, I did. But that was when you had no hope of defending yourself.”

    Which was rather the whole point of her daughter's betrothal to the Viscount. Wardes certainly didn't have the connections otherwise, save perhaps Karin's respect on the field of battle. He'd fought his way into the high nobility on merit, but he'd never quite made the leap to crushing them underneath his legend as she had. “Karin the Heavy Wind” still hushed both tavern trawlers and dukes across Halkeginia, years after her retirement. “Wardes of the Lightning” simply drew blank stares, save perhaps a cheeky “You mean Karin's squire?”

    What Wardes lacked in legend, however, he more than made up for in individual prowess. He'd protect Louise well, and that was all that had really mattered to Karin.

    But now Louise wouldn't need a protector. Besides having the Gandalfr for that anyway, she was a void mage. Once she came into her own, Karin supposed Louise would end up being the one protecting Wardes from people who'd use him as a means to attack her.

    The thought brought one of Karin's ever rare half-smiles to her face. It was always better to protect yourself than to have others do it for you. Even with people she trusted implicitly – which was basically her husband and no other – there was always one tiny shard of doubt. Better to be powerful enough herself that she would never need help.

    By Brimir, Louise would be the same way when Karin got through with her, even though it might take years of honing her edge. “Unfortunately, time is against us. It takes years to train a body and mind for war. We have hours.”

    “So you can skip ahead to the secret move that lets a novice instantly defeat an opponent, right Mother? That seems more useful to my situation,” Louise asked. “Like in those stories.”

    Karin's eyes widened slightly. “What? Who told you such a thing? A “move” like that doesn't exist. It can't exist, because every battlefield is different. No. What I'm going to teach you is initiative. Come with me, we'll need open space to practice. The forest should be adequate.”

    Louise nodded.

    Along the way, Karin stopped by the Vallière suite to inform Eleanor and Cattleya of her plans. Eleanor was out, but Cattleya was sitting by and reading a book on magical creatures.

    “Cattleya!” Karin said. “Tell Eleanor that there's been a change of plans. You two are to return home after lunch, but I need to stay here with Louise for a time. I will ride Fluffles home. Where is Eleanor, anyway?”

    “Erm... She went to the infirmary. I don't think she was sick, but you know how she doesn't tell me anything,” Cattleya replied.

    Karin frowned, but said nothing and continued to lead Louise out to a secluded patch of forest, far from prying eyes. Who Eleanor chose to spent time with was unimportant compared to protecting Louise's life.

    “This will be sufficient,” Karin said as she inspected the wood. “Now the first thing you must know is that in battle, stillness is death. You cannot afford to spend time shocked, or horrified, or hesitant. You should be in motion for every moment of a fight. Even if you're not moving physically, you should be moving mentally.”

    “Moving mentally?” Louise asked.

    Karin tapped her head. “Planning. Paying attention to your enemy and watching for a mistake. Paying attention to the terrain around you so that you can lead your enemy to terrain that favors you over him. Never freeze, because if you do, you're dead.”

    “I understand,” Louise nodded.

    “Show me,” Karin raised her wand.

    Louise's eyes went wide.

    Karin gave a mental sigh. “Were this a real battle, you'd be dead.”

    Louise looked down at the tiny cut Karin's wind blade spell made on her arm. Karin ignored the twisting in her gut, knowing that the lesson would sink in faster if there was a physical component.

    “But it was so fast...” Louise said. “You just raised your wand and just as I was planning, you said I was dead...”

    Karin was pleased that her daughter didn't start crying, as she knew some pampered nobles would. Of course, Louise was her daughter, so perhaps it made sense.

    “The proper response to someone raising their wand at you is to dodge,” Karin rose one elegant finger, using the lecture technique she'd perfected for much of her later career. “You can't know what spell they're going to cast, but it usually isn't going to be good for your health. So what you have to do is get out of the line of fire. Some spells like fireball can be dodged after they're fired. Some will hit you instantly. In both cases, moving to throw off the opponent's aim will help keep you alive.”

    “How do I do that?” Louise asked.

    “You should move unpredictably. Human beings are excellent at reading patterns. If you move predictably, the enemy will simply correct their aim and try again. Try to dodge randomly. In time, it will become second nature to you. This will also work for arrows and muskets, by the way,” Karin replied.

    “Okay. Dodge randomly. Got it,” Karin felt proud at the look of intense concentration on Louise's face. It reminded her of herself, back when she was that age.

    <***>

    Louise knew this was her chance. If she could just impress Mother, everything would go well. A zero couldn't impress a woman like Karin. If she could, she therefore wouldn't be a zero.

    Mother started to raise her wand, but this time Louise was ready. She leaped backwards and to the side, then, as Mother corrected her aim, Louise ducked low and rolled left.

    But Mother was already aiming where Louise had planned to land.

    Another wind blade bit into Louise's skin, this time on her other arm. A thin line of blood trickled down.

    “And you're dead again,” Mother said.

    A sob threatened to tear its way from Louise's throat. “How?”

    “You practically screamed your moves at me. I could see you preparing to leap backwards. Your legs tensed and your upper torso moved forward slightly for balance. I allowed you to make that move when I could have killed you then because you were maneuvering yourself into a corner,” Mother replied. “Once you backed up, the only way you could go was left lest you run into trees. I simply aimed my wand at where you would land. That is what I meant by paying attention to terrain.”

    “Silly Zero. Thinking it'd impress Mother,” The dream-voice giggled.

    “Now, I want you to try,” Mother said.

    “What?” Louise asked.

    “Hit me with a spell if you can,” Mother replied.

    Louise raised her wand, a tiny flare spell on her lips. But Mother dodged. One moment she was there, the next she was six feet away. By the time Louise was able to correct her aim, Mother had dodged once again.

    “One thing to keep in mind,” Mother said, even as she dodged once more. “Is that mage battles take place in three dimensions.”

    She ducked behind a tree this time, but when Louise followed, Mother was gone.

    “An enemy mage can use levitate to come down from above,” Mother said, voice coming from above her. Louise snapped her wand up, but Mother had already dodged again, back behind another tree.

    This time, Louise kept her wand raised as she checked for Mother. It was like some perverse version of Hide and Seek.

    Louise spun, looking around, but she found no trace of her mother.

    Louise heard something behind her. She spun, only to have her wand plucked from her fingers.

    “Enemies can also potentially erupt from below if they're hiding in the ground. That's a trick earth mages like, but which any mage can use with a little creativity. Now, why couldn't you hit me?”

    Louise stiffened.

    “B-because you were too fast. You moved randomly, and I couldn't tell where you were going to go before you were there. You watched the terrain to make sure you didn't hedge yourself in, except when you did it just to lure me into a trap,” Louise replied. “Twice.”

    Mother raised an eyebrow and handed back Louise's wand. “That's a good appraisal, yes. To survive in battle, you have to be able to multitask. A lot of mages root themselves in one spot while they cast their spells. That's a bad habit to get into, since a more mobile opponent can dictate the battle to them.”

    “What about protective spells?” Louise asked.

    “What about them?” Mother replied. “They take willpower to cast, and while you're casting wind armor or whatever spell you care to name, you're not attacking. Defensive spells have their place, but you shouldn't rely upon them. You shouldn't rely on any particular spell. It will only make you weaker and easier to defeat.”

    Mother cleared her throat. “Now, try again. This time, try to cast while moving.”

    “Zero... If it wants to impress Mother, it should let me handle this,” The dream-voice offered.

    “How?” Louise asked.

    “Don't think about moving, just do it,” Mother replied.

    “Like I said, Zero simply let me have some control. Not much, just a little. Enough to impress her. I'll give it back when I'm done.” The dream-voice replied. “I promise I won't hurt Mother.”

    Louise was loath to give the proof of her insanity any control at all, but the prize was worth even that. Mother's respect was worth any sacrifice. Any at all.

    She bit her lip. It all came down to whether she could trust that voice in her head.

    “Nothing I say will convince you either way,” Louise got the impression the dream-voice was shrugging in her head. “It all depends on how badly you want to impress Mother.”

    “Okay,” Louise said. “I'm ready.”

    “Aren't you going to raise your wand?” Mother asked.

    Louise's lips quirked upwards in a smirk, but it wasn't her doing it. “You'll see.”

    Mother said nothing, but dodged all the same, raising her own wand in one fluid motion.

    Louise reacted, legs tensing and back crouching forward slightly. Mother raised her own wand to compensate, but then Louise surged forward and ducked low.

    Her body felt tingly with pins and needles, as though it were asleep, though it didn't seem to matter. Her voice went low as it began to chant in a long-dead tongue, one she couldn't recall ever hearing.

    Mother, seeing Louise's arm raise, dodged again and fired off another wind blade spell, this time aimed at Louise's cheek.

    Louise twisted to avoid it. Her voice chanted on, heedless of her will or her short, gasping breaths.

    Mother looked almost confused, even as she darted out of Louise's line of fire and fired off more wind blades in hopes of interrupting whatever spell Louise was trying to cast.

    The grin on Louise's face turned feral as her mind pushed itself to dodge the various blades. Not all of them – some instinct told her some were meant merely to hedge her in – but all of them limited her range of movement. If she dodged one, she'd only be carried into the path of another. Yet Mother was giving her openings. Louise could see them, and she could see that Mother was being sloppy.

    Louise's magic pulsed. The air crackled with black lightning, noticeable only for being darker than the surrounding wood. A hideous, otherworldly scent vaguely reminiscent of overcooked meat wafted through the air wherever the lightning passed.

    “Don't you dare go easy on me!” Louise roared. Her magic coalesced, shattered, and coalesced once more.

    Mother sneered. “Fine.”

    The blades came faster now, and there were no more openings.

    Louise's veins bulged. Her body moved faster, darting and weaving more quickly than ever before.

    Mother increased the rain of wind blades to compensate. Louise's eyes spied a tiny drop of sweat inch its way down Mother's forehead.

    The dream-voice laughed with Louise's voice. “This is what I'm talking about!”

    Louise's wand glowed with colorless eldritch energy. Tendrils of power leaked from its tip into the air, changing and reflecting the world with a distorted lens.

    <***>

    Karin had seen a great many faces in battle. She'd seen faces contorted in rage. She'd seen faces tainted by hate. She'd seen faces twisted in agony as they were torn apart by spell or blade. But she'd never been unsettled by a face before. And certainly not by her daughter's face.

    Louise's grin was wide, her eyes huge and bloodshot. Her veins stuck out, her muscles bulged. But it was the light in her eyes that disturbed Karin the most.

    “Let's play!” Her daughter roared.

    Something erupted from her wand. It wasn't dispel, or at least, it wasn't the dispel Louise cast earlier. Malevolence wafted off the spell in waves.

    Karin dodged, reasoning that whatever that spell was, getting hit by it was a bad idea.

    But her dodge wasn't enough – though Karin used her wind magic to propel herself as far from the spell's impact site as possible, the explosion it made when it hit was still enough to throw her against a tree and splinter it with the force of her impact.

    Karin saw stars. Her eyes widened, even as she struggled to regain control of her body.

    Darkness enveloped her, darkness and a thick cloying stench like burnt meat.

    When she awoke, she was no longer in the forest. The taste of human waste mixed with human fear wet her lips. She glanced around. She knew this place. She'd ground it to dust long ago. Every brick, every shingle.

    The door opened, the hateful sound of iron rasping on stone.

    Karin stiffened despite herself.

    She was better than this. She was strong. She was the strongest. She refused to be any less.

    Karin trembled. Her hand grasped for a wand that wasn't there.

    She could hear a distant, feminine voice, high pitched and sobbing, “What the hell did you do?!”

    “I played with her,” Another voice, slightly lower replied. “Void explosion, if it wants to know. She's not dead. Not even really hurt. Just... incapacitated. It should hurry and wake her up.”

    Karin's eyes shot open as someone touched her face. Her daughter was standing over her. Tears dripped from her eyes and onto Karin's cheek.

    “Mama? Are you okay?”

    Karin sat up from the moss-covered earth and cast a quick medical diagnostic spell, the kind that they taught all second year students.

    “I'm fine. What was that?” Karin felt very confused. She'd blacked out, and that in itself was a rarity. But what the hell had caused her to revisit that place?

    Louise's face twisted into a sadistic grin. “Void explosion. You were too fast to hit with a normal spell and I'm not good enough to anticipate your moves yet, so I decided to cheat and launch a spell so big that even you couldn't dodge it.”

    Karin let none of her unsettled feelings show. “I see. You sought to hit me with splash damage. A valid tactic. But why was I knocked unconscious? That impact shouldn't have been enough to-”

    “Void spells are not something to be on the wrong side of,” Louise shrugged. That leer didn't belong on her daughter's face.

    Karin had to suppress the urge to shudder. A rarity for the hardened knight commander. “And where did you learn this spell? You told me you only knew dispel.”

    “I-I found a book, written in ancient runes, that explained it...” Louise stuttered, back to her usual self. “This is the first time I cast it for real though...”

    “Show me,” Karin said.

    Louise did, bringing Karin back to her room.

    “Is this some kind of joke?” Karin thumbed through the thick leather-bound tome that Louise handed to her. Every page was blank. Every one.

    “No!” Louise cried. “It was glowing and shaking slightly and it had spells and a journal and I'm not crazy!

    “Calm yourself, daughter. I didn't say you were,” Karin replied. “Do you feel up to the Princess' mission?”

    She watched her daughter's eyes close, then open once more. “Yes.”

    Karin considered pulling rank on her daughter, but she knew that the Princess could countermand any order she gave. More, she knew Louise would hate her if she stole this opportunity from her.

    She would, were the positions reversed.

    “Well,” Karin said. “We should continue training. I won't send my daughter into harm's way unprepared. But... Hold off on the void magic. In a real fight, it takes too long to use effectively.”

    For a brief moment, Karin was ashamed of her own weakness. Her argument was valid, of course, but it wasn't quite true to her motivation.

    <***>

    “So, this is your flying machine?” Henrietta ran her hand over the “helicopter's” metal skin. Something tugged at a distant memory, but trying to grasp it was like trying to grasp fog. Henrietta focused on her more tangible reality.

    The machine was clearly a technological marvel, yet more proof that magic was not the beginning and the end of power.

    “Yes,” Louise Francoise's familiar replied.

    “Where did it come from?” Henrietta asked.

    “It's a war machine from my homeland. They're used to support ground forces and destroy heavily armored targets,” Mercer replied. “I could tell you its capabilities, but you'd think I was exaggerating them.”

    “A war machine?” Henrietta glanced back at it. It did have that brutal look to it, yes. “What is your land like, that it can produce such things?”

    “Earth is a land without magic. The people there had to turn to other methods to do what they needed to do. Do you see the rotor blade on top here?” Mercer pointed to it. “It cuts into the air, generating lift. But to design something like this, you have to understand what causes lift and why.”

    “Magic seems much easier,” Henrietta nodded. “You don't need to concern yourself with the hows as much as what you want to happen.”

    “Relying too much on that cripples you. Magic is limited in its own way,” Mercer replied.

    “I know that very well,” Henrietta said. “There's a reason why Germania's armies are so powerful, despite how little magic they possess. Muskets and the like can be produced by the hundreds with a suitable facility. Each mage takes years to train. But what of your war machine? Is it some one-off device? The work of skilled artisans and craftsmen? It's certainly more complex than a simple musket!”

    “No. My helicopter was made in a factory. Probably by mindless machines overseen by human workers. It's merely one of hundreds or perhaps even thousands identical to it,” Mercer replied.

    “You've made war into an industry,” Henrietta gasped, both impressed and horrified as she recognized the implications. “If even things like this are produced by the hundreds... It's less about the person and more about the weapon, isn't it?”

    “Close enough. Individuals can't win wars where I'm from. The wars are too big for that,” Mercer leaned in, giving her a cold grin. “Unless that individual is me.”

    “Hmm,” Henrietta said, refusing to be intimidated. “I'm glad to hear you can protect Louise Francoise adequately. Assuming you can back up your boasts, that is.”

    “I can,” Mercer replied, gesturing towards the strange flying machine. “But I obviously won't be using this for your mission. Too noticeable.”

    Henrietta nodded. That made sense. “I came to tell you that Foquet will be accompanying you on your mission. I've hired her. A thief's skills sound rather useful for what amounts to the theft of Albion's greatest treasure. I understand you have an arrangement with her, but I ask you to suspend that for the time being. If she does mutiny, remove her by all means... But I don't think she'd be at her best knowing you're watching.”

    “I'll consider it,” he replied.

    Henrietta shook her head and smiled. So few individuals had the will to give her such an answer. “Remember that Louise Francoise's life may depend on Foquet at some point. You want her at her best.”
     
  3. Cpl_Facehugger

    Cpl_Facehugger Evolution Complete Administrator

    Joined:
    Nov 24, 2004
    Messages:
    45,180
    Ditto on the lack of beta-ing.

    Chapter 11: La Rochelle, City of Marble.

    “It's an unfortunate fact of war that mercenaries are used to pad out an army. It's doubly unfortunate that when the funds stop flowing, the padding disperses.” - Duchess Karin Desiree Vallière.

    Louise fastened her travel-pack to her shoulder and set out. The Princess had given her a mission, and by God and the Founder and everything else she swore by, she'd do it.

    “Got everything?” Mercer asked.

    Louise nodded, then turned to look at her mother. She had to quash her feelings of guilt every time she looked at her. Mother had said she was fine after the incident, but Louise knew that she'd gone to the infirmary for a healing spell while Louise was still resting and replenishing her strength.

    She was a terrible daughter, using a void spell on her own mother. Zero was a terrible person.

    Eleanor and Cattleya had left earlier, but Mother was true to her word and stayed behind to give Louise as many pointers as she could.

    “I'm off. Thank you for helping me.”

    Mother nodded and handed her a coinpurse. “I've hired an unmarked carriage for you. It will take you to La Rochelle. You will have to find your own way home. Here are five hundred gold pieces as spending money, should you need it. Also, should you reach and receive an audience with the prince, tell him that I still remember his wager, and that we expect the house of Wales to render what is owed.”

    Louise had no idea what that was all about – she'd never heard of her family knowing the prince, much less wagering with him, but she filed it away for future reference.

    “I will,” Louise gave her mother a sad smile, before turning and stepping towards the waiting carriage. “Thank you, Mother.”

    Only for her mother to grab her arm. “And Louise? Don't get hurt.”

    Louise frowned and got into the carriage, followed soon by Mercer.

    “The thief's coming too,” He said, once the door was closed. “The Princess hired her.”

    “What?!” Louise blinked. It took her a heartbeat to remember Mother's training, as rudimentary as it was. Never let yourself be shocked. She forced the gears in her mind into motion. “Hmm. She could be useful. She had acquaintances in Albion, right? Something about a sister.”

    “Someone like a sister,” The woman's voice replied.

    Louise whirled. There, sitting next to her was Foquet, and she had a very nasty smirk on her face.

    “But you – how – what,” Louise said. “Where the hell did you come from?!”

    “The window. Obviously. They really shouldn't make these windows so wide if they don't want people coming in through them from above,” Foquet said, her voice airy and unconcerned.

    Louise glanced at Mercer. He had a deep scowl on his face but said nothing.

    “Oh don't give me that look. We're working together now, so you aren't allowed to hurt me!” Foquet frowned at him. “It's like diplomatic immunity.”

    Mercer leaned back. “That depends entirely on what you do. If you're honest, you'll be fine. If you betray us, you're dead.”

    <***>

    Several minutes earlier, Matilda had been saying her own goodbyes.

    “Stay out of trouble, Jean,” Matilda smiled, giving her Jean a hug and a quick peck on the lips.

    It almost scared her how easy it was, slipping into the possessive with him. He was her Jean, not anyone else's. Her flame snake, her beau. Hers.

    Like so many things with their relationship, it was a novel experience for her. A lover who gave himself so fully and left himself so vulnerable to her almost made her uncomfortable. It was strange, too. Jean had lovers before, she knew that much. And the Flame Snake was a living legend. By all rights he should've known better than to fall in love with any woman, much less a woman like her, one who made her trade based on lies. But instead he reveled in their relationship. More, he reveled in her company.

    “I'm more worried about you,” He said, looking her right in the eyes. “A country in the grip of civil war isn't the safest place to be.”

    That was novel too. A lover who legitimately cared about her well being? Amazing. Scary too.

    And it was a rather startling declaration of trust. She could see by his face that he wasn't concerned about her leaving, even though she'd surely have a great many opportunities in coming days.

    Were she in his position, she'd be worried about her leaving. Why wasn't he worried about that? In the time she'd known him, she knew he couldn't conceal such worries well. At least, not well enough. But he didn't seem nervous at that prospect at all.

    “Don't worry about me!” Matilda smiled. “I know Albion. Now if this was Gallia or Germania? Then I'd be worried. But Albion? Hah. I'll be in and get that prince out in a snap.”

    “I know, I know,” Colbert looked sheepish. “I trust your abilities... But be careful all the same, okay? I don't want to lose you.”

    “Don't want to lose the only one who puts up with the smell of burning oil all day, you mean,” Matilda teased.

    That got a chuckle out of him. “Yeah, I suppose. Still, I wish I was going with you. It doesn't feel right letting you ride off to danger without me there to watch your back. I know it's irrational, but-”

    “Don't worry about it. I'll be back before you know it. Then we'll spend all day locked in my bedroom,” Matilda gave him a devious smile. “When I get back, I'm going to want satisfaction.”

    “I'm on to you, Miss Longueville! You just want me to cook for you!” He laughed. “Go, before I do something stupid like hop onto the back of Vallière's carriage.”

    “Now there's an idea,” Matilda thought. What better way to make an entrance than through a window?

    <***>

    Viscount Wardes massaged his temples, feeling the beginnings of a migraine coming on. On top of that damn sword, he also had to give a report to King Joseph of Gallia. Sheffield's master, and his employer.

    Dealing with Joseph was unpleasant at the best of times. The king was mad. In Tristain they called the queen mad, but the fools didn't know the meaning of the term. They'd not met Joseph.

    And on top of that, Joseph was rarely without Sheffield, his sycophant. A beautiful but thoroughly unpleasant woman who Wardes would feel completely comfortable killing and leaving to rot in a ditch somewhere. But she was crafty, and she'd always somehow evade his assassination attempts.

    “Wardes, you've interrupted my scheduled hedonism. You know how much I hate it when people interrupt my scheduled hedonism!” Joseph said before Wardes had even entered his gold-gilded throneroom. “In fact, I hate it almost as much as interruptions to my unscheduled hedonism!”

    Wardes sighed. “I'm sorry, Milord, but I felt it important to-”

    “Did you bring marmalade?” Joseph's eyes went wide with glee. He sat up straight in his plush-padded throne, his hands clasped in front of him eagerly.

    Marmalade? Wardes shook his head. What was that madman on about now?

    “No, Milord. I'm sorry...” Wardes replied.

    “Good, I hate marmalade,” Joseph said. “Yucky stuff. But so delicious. Wardes, leave me. Sheffield, bring me marmalade. This demands experimentation!”

    “Milord,” Wardes gave a long suffering sigh. Why did he have to be surrounded by maniacs?

    Sheffield stepped forward, hoisting up Wardes, a man with several heads on her in height, with one hand. The bitch wasn't even straining, despite holding him a good foot off the ground by his collar.

    Wardes wondered what magical artifact allowed her such inhuman strength.

    “The master was clear. You're dismissed. You're interrupting his happy time.”

    “Ah, Sheffield, please put the good Viscount down. We do have things to discuss, so I'll forgive the intrusion,” Joseph said. “Things like why you aren't at Tristain academy? I thought you were looking into the matter of that bubblegum hair girl? The void mage? Mmm, bubblegum. Sheffield, place an order for the next caravan to our blind little friends. I want their bubblegum.”

    “Of course, Master,” The woman said.

    “My fiance, yes,” Wardes rubbed his neck, certain that Sheffield's grip bruised it. “She left the academy, but I know where she's going and will meet her there. I'm using my forked lightning spell to be in two places at once.”

    “Gets confusing!” Joseph nodded. “Why, I'd go to scratch an itch in my nose only to realize I scratched the wrong nose! Good thing I don't have a spell like that!”

    “Yes, it does,” Wardes had long ago learned to tolerate the king's eccentricities, in spite of his frustration with them. “I came to tell you that they have set out to La Rochelle this evening, part of a mission to recover the prince of Albion. I will be accompanying them.”

    “And? You're telling me because? Wardes, I don't care about the prince of Albion. Those reconquista people have already done what I wanted. I don't care if they win or not, so long as there's confusion in the streets. Ah! Confusion and Chaos. The two Cs! Always a nice thing to look for in your enemies,” Joseph clapped his hands and giggled like a schoolboy.

    “Reconquista is important to retaking the holy land,” Wardes frowned.

    “No, not really. They're pawns, not more. Little meat puppets who dance for our amusement,” Joseph replied. “Come to think of it, the whole Albion game as it's played now is rather secondary to the purpose. Important later, not so much now. Perhaps it's time to up the stakes.”

    “Milord, you promised-” Wardes started.

    Joseph seemed to grow in stature then, or perhaps he simply stood up from his lazy slouch. “I know exactly what I promised. We'll wrest your oh-so-important holy land from the knife ears, don't you worry. It just won't be done with reconquista. Really, I don't want a bunch of dirty arrogant rebels marring our new army. Besides, they'd just get themselves killed throwing themselves at the elves. This isn't a war ordinary humans can win.”

    Joseph took on a pensive look. It was one of his rare moments of lucidity. “That being said, you should probably still kill Prince Wales, now that I think about it. Don't want anyone rallying the country before our missionaries have done their work. That could be a bit inconvenient. Nope, much better to have the two Cs out in full force to keep Conehat guessing. We can't make things too easy for him, now can we?”

    “New army, milord?” Wardes asked. He already knew that the one with the cone hat was the pope. The animosity between the pope and King Joseph was also well known to him. Wardes wanted to sigh, but if he did, he was sure that Sheffield would try to strangle him again. Really, he has no idea why Joseph and the Papacy were working together at all. They hated each other.

    Wardes, despite being a member of Joseph's inner circle, knew so little about Gallia's operations. It was only Joseph's shared desire to step foot in the holy land that kept him serving the eccentric royal.

    “Yes, yes. New army. Very fun. Very fun indeed. All flawed of course, but they'll serve their purpose well enough. Just like dear Sheffield here. Speaking of which, Sheffield, go watch Cromwell for awhile when Wardes leaves us. Make sure our puppet hasn't broken some of his strings. If he has, tie them back together,” Joseph replied. “But while you're there, do make sure to send our missionaries to various Albion cities and spread our gospel. It'll be fun for the whole family! Like those priests who go door to door with pamphlets, but fifty five thousand times better!”

    “Now, Master?” The buxom woman replied. “It's rather soon...”

    “Yes indeedy! I don't see why not! Might as well advance our agenda now! Doers do and doers don't procrastinate!” Joseph nodded several times. “The holy land won't conquer itself! Can't get anything done until we've given the knife ears the boot! Can't do that until we've got an army to be giving the boot! And we won't have one of those until we've converted Albion to our cause! Well, we've got the Gallian army, but they aren't quite ready yet either. Like I said, not a war for ordinary humans. There's the Romalian army too I guess, but a bunch of silly priests with maces aren't going to do too well against elvish machineguns, I'm sorry to say! Besides, I don't trust Conehat as far as I can throw him. And that's pretty far, for reference!”

    “Machine guns, Milord?” Wardes asked.

    “Oh yes. I forgot, you've never actually been to the holy land, have you? Nice place. When all's over, I think I'll retire there. Maybe build a nice resort for people,” Joseph replied.

    “What is a machine gun, Lord?” Wardes tried a different track.

    Joseph leaped up, clapping his hands as he did. He led Wardes over to a side cabinet, pulling out a finely-made long barrel musket and handing it to the Viscount. Wardes didn't fight with the things himself, but he was a military man and he recognized its craftsmanship.

    Wardes looked down at it, examining its contours. “You have a musket,” Joseph said.

    “Now look at me,” Wardes did so.

    “Now back at your musket. It's a machine gun!” Wardes humored Joseph's madness due solely to his royal blood.

    Except when he looked down at the musket, it'd changed. Gone was the richly engraved wood; instead, its stock was some strange black material that felt decidedly off in his fingers. The gun seemed heavier, too, and he could see a box containing a chain of strange brass cylinders tipped with lead cones attached to the bottom, just ahead of the grip.

    Wardes' eyes boggled. Was this the power of the void? To change one thing into another? Or was it some kind of illusion? It certainly felt real, but...

    “Anything is possible when you're not a knife eared girlyman! Sparkle!” Joseph grabbed the not-musket from his hands. “Ooop, now it's in the hands of a girlyman with ancient spirit magic.”

    Joseph raised the weapon to his shoulder, pointing it at Wardes with a smile on his face. “Bam, now every elf has one! But if you're a real man and not a girlyman, you could use it to kill five hundred and fifty girlymen per minute! Sadly, that's cyclic, not effective.”

    “But what is a machine gun, Milord?” Wardes asked for the third time. “You've shown me this black contraption, but how does it work?

    “Why, it's a gun that works like a machine. Obviously. That is to say it has a smooth mechanical action. Keep it nice and oiled and it'll render your knights nearly obsolete with a single stroke,” Joseph grinned. “The knife ears might be silly, but they aren't stupid. They know when to steal from their betters. But I know what I'm doing. Machine guns and tanks and autocannon won't save them. No, no, no.”

    “Their betters?” Wardes asked.

    “Oh, I don't want to spoil you with too much knowledge at once, dear Viscount. That's all you need to know for the time being. Now, as for the matter of your fiance-”

    Wardes stiffened, taking the dismissal for what it was. He wanted to ask more, and Joseph was being unusually forthcoming, but he knew not to press the mad king.

    “Don't go all tense, I'm just going to say do what you want! It'd be nice to meet another live void mage who isn't conehat, but if you have to kill her, you have to kill her!”

    “I don't plan to,” Wardes replied. “I will simply make her pliable.”

    And make her his in the bargain. Her and her void-infused blood. Perhaps in time he could even use her as a figurehead to challenge Joseph, once they've achieved their mutual goals. Having a madman in control of one of the most powerful nations in the world wasn't a situation Wardes relished.

    Once she was broken, that is. Broken and pliant. He neither needed nor wanted a companion. A puppet would be so much more convenient. A brood mare to give him children with void for their element, and a void mage to act as a mouthpiece for his will in the mean time.

    “Good on you then,” Joseph replied. “Now, if that's all, I would like-Wait wait, I knew I was forgetting something!”

    “Milord?” Wardes asked.

    “Her familiar! That's what it was!” Joseph snapped his fingers. “Keep an eye on that one. He's not something to be trifled with. That goes for you too, Sheffield. I know you like to play around, but he's dangerous. Zeus is certainly a worthy opponent. I dare say he'll put you through your paces, even with everything I've given you two. Ah, Sheffield, the brandy if you would.”

    “Zeus, Master?” Sheffield handed a golden snifter to the king.

    Wardes found himself sharing his curiosity with Sheffield; It irritated him sharing anything at all with the servile woman. Why did Joseph call the familiar that? Its name was Alex Mercer.

    “Ahh, delicious liquor,” Joseph smiled. “What was I saying? Ah, right. They called him Zeus. It always sounded better than “Alex Mercer” to me. Zeus. Ze-us. Zeeeeus. Just rolls off the tongue, doesn't it? And it certainly fits. Still, if either of you go into it expecting an easy fight you'll probably end up nommed. That would be terrible. I still have use for both of you.”

    “Who are “they” Milord?” Wardes asked.

    “Them!” Joseph exclaimed. “The new world order with their painted black galleons and mind control implants in your nose! The ones who secretly rule the world!”

    Wardes gave a mental sigh. Like all good things, it seemed Joseph's bout of lucidity had to come to an end.

    “Wardes, do you know what Zeus' runes are?” Sheffield asked, turning towards him.

    Wardes paused for a moment in thought. “No.”

    Even if he did know, he wouldn't tell that bitch.

    “I'm hoping for the heart of God. That way I wouldn't have to try and track down the last unaccounted for void mage and force them to summon a familiar,” Joseph's voice was nonchalant and dreamy once more.

    “Milord?” Wardes asked, hoping for Joseph to reveal more of his plans.

    “Could you bludgeon yourself in the head until you forget what I just said?” Joseph sighed. “No? Drat.”

    “I could do it, Master...” Sheffield grinned.

    “No, that's quite alright. I suppose it doesn't really hurt if Wardes knows a few tidbits early. Only a few though. I'm not one of those villains who gloats about his evil plans. Not consciously at least,” Joseph replied.

    “I don't think you're a villain, Master. Your goal is just, even if it will need many sacrifices to achieve,” Sheffield said. Wardes had to keep the frown off his face. The woman was fawning all over their mutual lord like some kind of sycophantic lackey. How did someone like this evade his assassination attempts?

    “Mmm, sometimes I wonder. Is it really acceptable to kill nine to save the tenth?” Joseph's voice seemed lucid once more, but Wardes could make no sense of it. Kill nine to save the tenth? Nonsense, even the coming storm wouldn't kill that many, particularly if they reconquered the holy land beforehand.

    “By your will, liege, I will leave you,” Wardes bowed. He'd wasted enough time on Joesph's madness.

    “Mmm?” Joseph looked up at him. “Oh, yes. Go, go and have fun in Albion. You too, Sheffield,”

    “What about the marmalade, Master?” Sheffield asked.

    But Wardes didn't hear Joseph's reply; he released his hold on his forked lightning spell, his copied body dissolving into lightning.

    It was a useful spell, no doubt about it, even if each individual copy he made weakened both his true self and the fake through dilution of his very soul until he reconsolidated.

    “Come, Beak,” He patted his gryphon’s head. Once, long ago, he might have been disturbed at how he held more affection in his heart for the beast than for his own fiance. But the fire mountains deadened that guilt. There was no room for sentimentality if he wanted to survive what was to come. “We fly for La Rochelle.”

    <***>

    The trip to La Rochelle was uneventful. Mercer was almost disappointed. He expected more banditry on the way past Tarbes, seeing as how Mott wasn't around to terrorize both the innocent and the criminal alike.

    Curiously, Louise hadn't wanted to stop and see Siesta. Her excuses, of not wanting to put her handmaiden in danger and of their time sensitive mission were certainly valid, but he couldn't help but wonder if there was some other motivation there that he couldn't grasp.

    He'd been thinking like that ever since Cattleya told him just how badly he'd misread the situation. Louise was supposed to be scared of him. That would be normal. That would be right. He was used to people being scared of him. They should be scared of him, just as they should be scared of anything that could kill them with almost no effort.

    But Louise wasn't scared of him. She was scared of herself. Somehow she'd managed to twist his actions into hers. But that was wrong. He was the one with the tentacles. He was the one who dealt every blow. If anyone had any blood on their hands, it was him. She should've been shaken at his monstrous nature, not shaken at her own. Because she didn't have a monstrous nature.

    And worse, he didn't know how to convince her of that.

    He frowned. Perhaps her fiance would have better luck.

    “We're here,” Foquet said.

    And that was another wrinkle. It was the Princess' mission, and Foquet's skills could be useful, but he was still uncomfortable with the situation. She'd have every opportunity to slip away and escape, only to come back for revenge later. And next time she'd know to target Louise first, rather than the more obvious and durable threat.

    Speaking of which, Louise was curled up on the carriage seat; she'd been sleeping almost since they left. Whatever her mother had said or done to her hadn't done her any favors, as she looked even more haggard than she had when she'd awoken this morning.

    That in itself was worrying. By all rights, Louise should've woken happy. She'd just won a prestigious award, and her sister was healthy again. Mercer knew that Louise was insecure about herself. Getting a title for merit should've helped with that.

    He'd initially thought it was simply a matter of being overwhelmed by the excitement, so he kept his distance and ran routine maintenance on his new ride. But now he was beginning to think that was a mistake. Something was wrong with her, and he didn't know what it was.

    Not that he could've done much to help her even if he had spent every moment with her. And that frustrated him more than it should.

    But no matter. Perhaps the change of scenery would help.

    “Louise, wake up,” Mercer gently prodded the girl. “We're here.”

    Louise literally jumped. Her eyes were wide and wild, and her wand was out, though pointing in no particular direction. “I won't let-”

    “Won't let what?” Mercer asked.

    “Nothing. Just a bad dream,” Louise looked out the window. “So this is La Rochelle? I kind of expected it to be grander. I've always heard stories of the white marble pillars of this place, but this doesn't look much better than Tarbes did.”

    Mercer frowned, her words stirring memories in him. Mott had fought here as part of his feudal duties to Tristain. “Yes. This town was captured by Tristain during the last Gallian war, but the Gallians burned it to the ground to deny its use. What you see here are the parts they've managed to rebuild.”

    “Oh,” Louise said. “The last war was... That was only a couple of years ago, wasn't it? I guess it's impressive that the queen managed to get it even partly rebuilt so quickly-”

    “Queen my arse, I'd bet fifty ecú that it was the Princess' doing,” Foquet added. “I'm telling you, she's the brains in this nation.”

    “I have to agree,” Mercer said. “She doesn't act like prey. And she's the one who sent us on this mission in the first place.”

    “Right, about that. Where are we supposed to meet the rest of the team?” Foquet asked.

    “The Goddess' Temple hotel,” Louise said. “Strange name.”

    Mercer remembered that Mott had frequented that lavish establishment. It was one of the few marble buildings whose owners had the funds to rebuild exactly as it was before the war. It was also one of the most opulent places in all of Tristain. Its clients were exclusively wealthy mid and high nobles, as nobody else could afford it. Mott had squeezed Tarbes like a grape in order to stay there frequently.

    Its marble floors were finely waxed and polished every day, and its utensils were all solid aluminum.

    Mercer had to bite back a chuckle as he remembered that last part. Mott considered that the height of opulent luxury, moreso even than gold ones.

    “The Princess sprang for reservations there? What, is she made of money?” Foquet boggled.

    Louise shrugged. “Tristain has always been wealthy.”

    But Mercer shook his head. “That's not why she's doing this. If anyone's watching, they'd never suspect an entire covert team to spend the night here. It's too blatant and obvious, not to mention expensive. Any enemy spies will ignore us as a distraction.”

    “How do you know?” Louise asked.

    “That's what the Princess said after she told me Foquet was coming. I guess we'll find out whether she's right,” Mercer shrugged. “And if we run across any spies, I'll just k-”

    The words “kill them” were on the tip of his tongue. But Cattleya's words about how Louise felt responsible for his actions bubbled up from the back of his mind. “-Knock them out so we can interrogate them.”

    Louise gave him an odd look, but at least it wasn't one of obvious horror.

    Foquet glanced out the window and said “we'll be at the hotel soon.”

    <***>

    “How much longer will it take?” Derflinger asked. “I'm bored. Want to kill something. Your sword needs bloodshed badly.”

    “We probably arrived early, you brutish thing. The Princess' men have to come from the capital, and Louise's party came by carriage from the academy. Assuming no delays, they shouldn't be long,” Wardes sighed. “And stop complaining about murder. You'll have your fill of it when we arrive in Albion.”

    “Oh? So you're going to ignore your boss' command then?” Derflinger sounded curious.

    “Of course not,” Wardes replied. “But Joseph merely said that I'm to kill Prince Wales. I'll do that, certainly. He never said I can't open the Newcastle city gates and let Cromwell's army in. Nor did he say I can't remove Louise's troublesome familiar.”

    “And by remove you mean kill, right, Partner?” Derflinger asked. “Because I'm behind that. I'm so behind that I've warped around to being in front of that. And by in front of that I mean I'll stab the hell out of it. Stabbity stab stab-”

    “Derf, shut up. That's their carriage,” Wardes said, pointing towards the rapidly-approaching transport.

    He could see Louise's familiar nod at him through the window. Wardes returned the nod. It wouldn't do to arouse suspicion, after all. No, the familiar was dangerous. Better to make his move only when everything was prepared. And preferably when the familiar was unaware.

    Wardes smiled as the first passenger stepped from the carriage. He supposed that Louise's beauty didn't strictly matter to his plans, but like any man, he always preferred the company of beautiful women instead of hags.

    And Louise was very beautiful. Particularly with how she'd finally started filling out and developing more feminine features. Compared to the pictures he'd showed Derf, and compared to his own memories of her childhood, she'd grown. And he judged that good, despite what that damned sword seemed to think.

    “Smiling at your fiance, Partner?” Derflinger whispered. “I thought you'd be scowling! Why, she looks mature now! I just know how you despise boobies!”

    “For the last time, sword, I do not like children!” Wardes growled. “I'm pleased that Louise is starting to look like the woman she is! Pleased!”

    “I still think you're protesting too much. But you know what you should do? Stab someone with me. It'll definitely relieve some of your stress,” Derflinger replied. “I guarantee it!”

    Wardes ignored the sword as he watched Louise's familiar step out of the carriage next. Derf would get his chance at Mercer when the time was right.

    Wardes turned to greet Louise when, out of the corner of his eye, he noticed something. The carriage wasn't leaving. Someone else was getting off.

    He turned to look at the newcomer. He didn't let his eyes show his surprise, but his voice probably came off a little too gruff. “Who's your friend?”

    He couldn't help it. He didn't like unpleasant surprises. And Foquet being here was about as unpleasant as they came.

    He trusted his geas to keep her from revealing their past connection, but there were any number of ways she could interfere with his plans without triggering it.

    “This is Matilda,” Louise gestured to the woman. “She's one of the Princess' specialists on Albion.”

    Wardes nodded, taking the lie in stride. “Why wasn't I informed about the change of plans?”

    “Oh, it was a last minute change,” Foquet shrugged. “I didn't even know myself until this afternoon.”

    “I see. Well then, specialist, I'd like to talk with you in private. As team leader, I need to make sure you're suitable for this mission.”

    “I'll bet you do,” Foquet muttered, just low enough for Wardes to hear it. “The Princess picked me by hand. Are you going to go against her wishes?”

    “The Princess knows enough not to micromanage her men,” Wardes replied. “The final decision rests with me.”

    He was strongly tempted to simply leave Foquet in Tristain. Or to find some way to discretely kill her. Except that her skills could prove very useful towards actually getting them into Newcastle. It wasn't like he could simply announce his position in Reconquista to the world, after all.

    He'd have to wait until he had his private “chat” with her. Then he'd make his decision.

    For now, he had more important matters to turn to. Until he and Louise had said their mutual vows – vows which he fully intended to ignore once she was suitably cowed – she could still call off the marriage. He'd have to work to prevent that.

    She was a young girl without much life experience. Seducing her would be a trifling matter. And should she prove resistant, he had other albeit less elegant methods held in reserve.

    He licked his lips at the thought. He could almost taste that power at his fingertips. And wrapped in such a pleasing package too.

    He decided to start tonight.

    <***>

    Louise blushed, feeling her fiance's gaze linger on her as they ate dinner. The rest of the Princess' team, four scruffy and dour-faced men with pistols and cutlasses, arrived not long after Louise and her party did, bringing news that they'd secured their transport – a small freighter carrying saltpeter for sale in Albion's markets with room for some passengers – would depart early the next morning. Louise knew the accommodations would be meager at best, so she resolved to enjoy the luxury in La Rochelle while she could.

    She and Wardes seemed to be the only ones. Though the Princess' men had come down for dinner, they'd all ordered simple dishes instead of the decadent truffles and airshark wellington that Louise and Wardes ordered. Mercer didn't order anything at all, and while Foquet ordered a reasonably involved meal that included dumplings and mutton done in the Albionese style, she didn't do more than pick at it. Louise almost got the impression that the waiter was offended.

    Wardes leaned in and said “we'll give him a generous tip for dealing with those filthy commoners” in a harsh tone.

    Louise frowned and bit her lip, unsure of how to reply. Before the summoning ceremony, she might have shared a private laugh at their companions' expense. But she'd seen now that commoners could be deadly, given the right tools. If even Brimir felt commoners could contribute to his great war, clearly there was more to them than her preconceptions suggested. More, she'd seen now that commoners aren't all that different from nobles. They had hopes and dreams, just like nobles did. Siesta might have been a servant, but she was a decent person, steadfast and loyal.

    It didn't feel right to revel in a noble's superiority any more. Not after seeing where that line of thought led.

    “My Louise?” Wardes asked, clearly noting her lack of reply. His words churned her heart and flipped it about, such that she didn't know what to feel. How could it feel both good and scary, him being affectionate like that? She liked the idea of a husband to care for her, in the same way that Father cared for Mother. But she found the looming reality terrifying. And she hardly knew Wardes. They'd spent some time together when she was a girl, but that was long ago, and she didn't really feel a deep connection to him now.

    She knew that's how most marriages in the nobility were, but she also knew that Mother and Father's marriage hadn't been like that. She didn't know all the details, but she did know that they'd spent a lot of time together before Mother even considered accepting his proposal. Should she do that with Wardes then? What would Mother think? Proud that her daughter was following in her footsteps, or angered at the break in convention?

    “I don't trust him, Zero,” The damnable dream-voice felt compelled to add its two coppers. “He's getting something out of this marriage. He doesn't love it. Doesn't love us.”

    Louise didn't say anything in reply, knowing that she'd draw odd looks from everyone if she did, but she rather liked the idea that a man was looking at her like that, whatever his motives. And not just any man, either. The captain of the gryphon knight corps at that. A man who could practically have his pick of eligible ladies in Tristain.

    But as much as she wanted someone, as lonely as she was, she wanted to be someone too.

    “Did you attend the ceremony at the academy?” Louise asked, trying to steer the subject to one less likely to make her uncomfortable. Nevermind that she was curious as to whether he was there or not. If he was, she'd not seen him, and she wondered why. He had duties, surely, but if he legitimately cared for her, surely he could have made time to see his fiance get an award...

    He paused for a moment to sip his fine Tarbesian wine, before he composed himself and replied. “Yes, but I only watched from afar. It was your day, I didn't want to intrude.”

    Louise blushed. “Oh.”

    “Likely story,” The dream-voice said. “Don't believe him for a minute. If he was there, he could've come to see us privately. That he didn't is proof of his ill intent!”

    “Are you alright, My Louise?” Wardes looked concerned.

    “Oh? Yes, I'm fine. I'm just feeling a little overwhelmed, that's all,” Louise replied. That, at least, was the truth.

    “Ah. You're nervous about the sleeping arrangements?” Wardes asked. “I'm somewhat offended you think so little of me.”

    “You shouldn't be,” Foquet spoke up from her position at the other end of the table before Louise could reply. “After all, you have no intent of acting below your station, right?”

    Wardes put down his goblet of wine and frowned at the thief. “And what do you mean by that, specialist?

    Foquet laughed. “Oh, nothing much. Just that a gentleman of your stature would surely never dream of pressuring a vulnerable young woman into something she was reluctant to do. Surely. To say nothing of how unprofessional such a thing would be given the circumstances.”

    Louise blushed and looked down, embarrassed. THAT certainly wasn't on the table! Not before marriage!

    She gulped as she realized that marriage might not be too far away.

    Wardes laughed in reply, but it was a cold laugh that somehow did nothing to reassure Louise. “Of course not. Still, Louise is my fiance. Surely she wouldn't begrudge me the opportunity to sleep in the same bed?”

    “If she feels uncomfortable, she may sleep with me,” Foquet glanced at her.

    “No,” Mercer glared at Foquet. “She can have my bed all to herself if she needs it.”

    “She is my fiance. It's best for everyone if she grows comfortable with me early on,” Wardes countered. “She'll be happier that way.”

    Louise wondered if she'd get a say in this. She cleared her throat. “I will sleep in my fiance's bed.”

    Wardes smiled at her, but it was a patronizing smile, like that of an owner who'd watched their dog do a trick. “Of course.”

    Foquet looked, not horrified exactly, but she didn't look particularly pleased. Behind her glasses, Louise could see a dash of worry in her eyes before her expression clouded over.

    Mercer just nodded and shrugged. “It's your decision.”

    “I'm sure you'll be a perfect gentleman to me,” Louise continued to the Viscount. “I know this because if you aren't, we both know what my mother will do when she hears otherwise.”

    Wardes' eyes went wide for a moment, and Louise could see a gulp of saliva inch its way down his throat. “But of course.”

    She caught the Princess' men share a glance between themselves, but she couldn't fathom its meaning.

    <***>

    The evening passed well for Wardes. After the truly high class meal, he retired to the suite he'd share with Louise. His fiance was downstairs in the hotel's lobby, chatting with the Princess' men. Wardes wasn't concerned at that. If his cover was broken, they'd have already moved against him.

    When Louise grew bored of them and sought her fiance's comfort, he'd start his seduction. The sword was “sleeping” in its sheath now that it realized he wouldn't be murdering anyone with it today, so it wouldn't interrupt. He'd surely be able to convince the plaguebeast that she desired privacy.

    Wardes set the scented candles he'd purchased for use on Louise. The key was to overwhelm her senses with an all out attack, never giving her time to react or question. But he couldn't push too hard immediately. Tonight he'd be the gentleman she thought him to be. There'd be time for indulging himself later, once the mission was underway and she was feeling more isolated.

    He heard a knock on his door. He'd not counted on Louise's attention span being quite that short.

    Wardes grinned, teeth white and shiny. “I'm surprised you came so early. The city wasn't fun for you love?”

    But it wasn't Louise at his door. It was the thief.

    Foquet stepped into the room that Wardes and Louise would be sharing. He noticed she didn't stray far from the door. A sensible precaution.

    “Huh. Not who I was expecting. I thought you'd blow this meeting off, thief,” Wardes said.

    “I have to keep up appearances,” Foquet replied. “But if I see any threatening moves, I'll scream. Then the game'll be up. You've fooled the others, but it'll be awfully hard to explain it to them, won't it? I can't imagine those four hardened soldiers will take too kindly to their “specialist” accusing you of being a traitor. And the girl? Yeah, I'm sure you'd love to have her doubting your intentions.”

    Wardes let his grin go even wider. “Go ahead, scream. I don't particularly care if you try.”

    “Try?” Foquet said, as though to herself. He watched her open her mouth and gather breath for a piercing feminine shriek.

    He almost flinched, thinking perhaps she'd somehow broken his geas, only to relax once she clutched her head in pain.

    Wardes smiled. “Yes, my geas spells are quite effective, aren't they? Even indirectly revealing me triggers it. I am truly pleased with my work.”

    “I can see that,” Foquet grimaced. “If you try anything, you'll be dead before you can get your wand out. I'm not defenseless.”

    Wardes straightened his arm, revealing his backup concealable wand pointed at her heart. “I very much doubt that.”

    “What's that, a wrist holster hidden by your sleeves?” Foquet said, voice nonchalant. “Cute. But my point still stands.”

    “You're bluffing,” Wardes replied, giving her another glance. She seemed very relaxed, despite knowing he had a wand trained on her. Him, a skilled duelist. If it was a bluff, it was a masterful one.

    He decided then that she'd have to go. Anyone who could hide their emotions that well was a threat to his agenda. But not now, not under such suspicious circumstances. He'd need something that nobody could trace back to him.

    Perhaps... Yes. Mercenaries would work. There were doubtlessly a good many deserters from Albion's mostly-defeated royal army loafing about in La Rochelle.

    “Try it and find out,” Foquet spat back, not quite derailing his line of thought.

    “Oh don't be like that,” Wardes laughed and lowered his arm. “You were a useful pawn, but your usefulness is at an end. So long as you don't impede me, I see no reason to bother you.”

    “Then what's this meeting for?” Foquet asked.

    “So you understand this fact,” Wardes waved his hand. “So there's no confusion. Impede me and die. Try to reveal me and die. I no longer need your service, but I won't tolerate your interference.”

    “Interference in what? What are your goals?” Foquet asked. “Besides being a traitor to your monarch, that is.”

    “Don't play the ignorant, thief. You know full well what I was trying to do,” Wardes replied. “You went out of your way to try and convince my fiance to avoid me.”

    “She seemed uncomfortable, so I gave her an out,” Foquet smiled. “That it bothered you was a bonus. If your master plan revolves around taking advantage of a young girl, I think you need a new master plan.”

    Oh yes, he'd definitely have to have her killed. Anyone that irritating deserved to die. “Your commentary is both unwanted and unneeded. Just stay out of my way.”

    Foquet shrugged. “Are we done here?”

    Wardes narrowed his eyes. “Yes.”

    Yes, he'd hire every mercenary in the city if he had to.

    <***>

    Louise looked at the Princess' men, giving them each an appraising look. They all had unassuming and obviously fake names. They were all fit of body, being well muscled and possessed of predatory grace. Not as predatory as Mercer, of course, but it was hard to match a literal predator. Their clothes were standard travelers' fare, cotton trousers and shirts with thick woolen cloaks, though each had two holsters with two double-barreled flintlock pistols. The men had four shots before reloading then. A deadly surprise for anyone who saw the handles and assumed them standard flintlocks.

    Mother had taught her much of such weapons, mostly revolving around their weaknesses and how to avoid being hit by them until help could come. Double barreled muskets of any sort were harder to aim at long range, but Louise supposed that any pistol was. These men seemed well trained in their use too, and probably had plenty of experience compensating for the off-bore aiming.

    They also each hung a sword from a scabbard at their hips, curved sabers like what cavalry sometimes used.

    All in all, they looked like any other band of mercenaries. It'd be easy for any onlookers to assume that she and the Viscount – clearly nobles – had hired a little extra muscle for protection in these dangerous times.

    Not that she felt she needed it. Mercer would protect her, she was sure.

    The soldiers didn't seem very inclined towards conversation, so Louise went over to the hotel bar, where Foquet was nursing some strange Albionese drink. She noticed that Foquet was holding herself separate from everyone else. More, she noticed that Foquet looked rather miserable.

    “I wanted to thank you, for dinner,” Louise said. “For what you did at dinner, I mean.”

    “Meh,” Foquet replied. “You seemed uncomfortable. Given how Wardes was acting, anyone would.”

    “Thanks,” Louise said. “But why did you stick up for me?”

    “Why?” Foquet looked surprised, as though she'd not been expecting the question and had no answer prepared. “Mmm, because as the only two women on this thing, we have to look out for one another. Particularly when men like the Viscount are concerned.”

    “What's wrong with my fiance?” Louise's eyes narrowed.

    Foquet waved her hand. “You could say we have history.”

    Ah. Louise nodded. It was only natural that Foquet would distrust one of the men who'd been tasked with capturing her, even if they now found themselves on the same side.

    “You should be careful around him, Kid,” Foquet said, taking a large gulp of her drink. “It's easy to lose yourself in men like him, all dangerous and sexy, but they break hearts as easily as your buddy behind you there breaks heads.”

    “Okay?” Louise said.

    “What I'm sayin',” Foquet looked like the drink was starting to hit her. “Is that at the end of the day, you want someone who understands you. That's what I've found with Jean, and that's why I'm not gonna run away even though I really should.”

    “Who?” Louise asked.

    “Jean. Y'know, Colbert. Bald, nice muscles, really long sna-”

    “Ah!” Louise cut her off. “I really don't need to hear about my teacher's... Anyway, should you really be drinking so much when we have to leave early tomorrow?”

    Foquet downed her entire drink in one gulp and asked for another. When that came, she drank that one too, though it took a few gulps. “Lemme tell you about a little secret. Been in my family for generations. See, normal energy potions won't cure a hangover. That's a myth. They'll just give you a splitting headache. But if you mix a few drops of sleeping potion into them it'll kill the hangover and just make you a little thirsty. So don't worry about me, missy. I'll be good to go tomorrow.”

    “That makes no sense,” Louise replied. “Shouldn't the sleeping potion cancel out the energy potion?”

    “It works, I tell you!” Foquet giggled drunkenly. “Try it, you'll see.”

    “Anyway,” Foquet yawned. “I'm heading to bed. I've had enough wool gathering. See you in the morning.”

    With those parting words, Foquet hobbled her way up the stairs towards her room.

    “Wait-” Louise said, but Foquet was already gone.

    Louise knew the real reason she didn't want Foquet to go. It wasn't because she enjoyed the thief's company, even though the older woman seemed to be trying to look out for her for some strange reason. It was because she wanted to put off being alone with Wardes for as long as she could. He promised to be a gentleman with her, but he was also being a bit pushy, and she didn't like that at all.

    She considered asking Mercer to chaperone – and that was a surprisingly funny mental image – but she knew Wardes would take offense to that. And despite being a little pushy, he was still her fiance. She didn't want to offend him outright.

    <***>

    Wardes' smile was wide and almost giddy. For much of the evening, he'd had his copies gathering mercenaries together by trawling taverns and hostles. Thus far he had a solid company of them. It probably wouldn't be enough to actually kill a square mage like the thief, but it would at the very least distract her while their ride to Albion left. It'd be better if she was killed, but even if he could simply keep her and the Princess' men away from Louise, his plans could continue apace.

    He had a golden opportunity with this mission. Albion was far from Karin, and far from anyone who might support his fiance. With no one else to turn to, she would naturally seek comfort and validation with him.

    Once he killed that troublesome familiar, of course. And kept her away from the irritating thief, preferably by killing said thief. Then there were the other things he could do in Albion. Joseph was a fool to snub reconquista. Their fanaticism would be worth the effort it'd take to fan it, once properly directed against the elves. He simply needed to keep their momentum going. Throwing open the gates of Newcastle from within would do nicely. Particularly once he'd assassinated the two Wales royals.

    Yes, this mission was a blessing for him.

    He looked up as his ears caught a hesitant knock on his door. Excellent.

    Mindful of what happened the last time he made assumptions, he opened the door cautiously, and found himself very pleased to see his fiance, blushing very prettily and certainly not followed by the familiar. Good. That was a very good sign. The plaguebeast would just get in the way.

    He looked down at her and smiled. “Please, come in.”

    She bit her lip and though he could tell she wasn't comfortable, she stepped inside anyway.

    Standing so close in the low candlelight, she looked mesmerizing. Despite his experience with the fairer sex, he felt his breath hitch as he gazed at her. It struck him more than ever before that Louise was no longer a girl. She was a woman. Though she was still petite, she had curves in all the right places. With her hair flowing down to small of her back to complete the package, he couldn't help but feel the urge to ravage her, to claim her and make her his.

    He'd planned to do that before of course, but then it was always as a means to an end. Now, actually being in the presence of such a woman, of one in full bloom, it was less a matter of planning and more one of need.

    Had she turned out stunted, ugly, or childish, he'd have done what his plans demanded and avoided spending any more time than necessary on the requisite acts. But this, the way she was...

    His grin went wide. He was going to enjoy this.

    Though he'd have to make sure that damn sword never met Karin. Because he just knew it would start teasing him about having a teacher complex, and how Louise was clearly just a stand in for his mentor, despite that being just as foolish as the idea that he somehow liked undeveloped girls.

    “Relax, My Louise. There's nothing to worry about,” He meant it to be reassuring, but despite his long experience with lies and manipulations, it came out hungry.

    He'd planned on taking the seduction slowly, laying the groundwork over a period of days, but he found all his plans shattered before his fiance's beauty.

    Far from calm her, he could see his gesture only made her even more tense. She looked up at him with frightened doe eyes, ones that made her seem even more appealingly vulnerable.

    His breath got deeper, and he knew his face was getting flushed. “Mine,” He said, voice guttural. He couldn't help it. It'd been so long since he'd lain with a woman. Any woman, much less one such as this.

    Louise took a step back, towards the door.

    Wardes reached out to grab her. He wasn't thinking straight. If he was, he'd have known how counterproductive grabbing at her was.

    He wasn't, so he was very surprised when she shrieked and slapped his face with surprising force, making a run for the door. “Y-y-you brute!” She said. But far from being frightened, she seemed enraged. If anything, the fearful girl from before had somehow been replaced by an angry hellion. “How dare you try something like that! How dare you! You-you don't care about us! You promised to be a gentleman! You promised!”

    He winced at the truth of it, haze dissipating even as he noticed she used the term “us.” That was a good sign. It meant she was at least still acknowledging they had a relationship. Already his mind was starting to scheme. Tomorrow, once she'd cooled off, he'd have to apologize. And he'd have to regain control of himself. And he'd have to go to plan B, because after that, she surely wouldn't submit without a fight.

    “Goodnight!” She spat, slamming the door and leaving him alone.

    Wardes wanted to bash his head against the wall for being such a fool. He'd known coming on too strong wouldn't help matters. He knew it.

    But she was so ripe, so succulent. So unlike the child she'd been before.

    “Real smooth there, partner,” Derflinger chirped.

    “How did you see that?!” Wardes demanded. “I put you away in your scabbard you damnable blade!”

    “Oh I didn't see it,” Derflinger giggled. “But I've got ears! Well, not really ears, but I've got things that are like ears! I heard it all, partner! First rule when dealing with angry women: buy them a present. I have it on good authority that they like oil. You know, the kind that prevents rust buildup. Why, I remember this time I was dating a nice flamberge. That one had a temper, let me tell you! But a little sword oil made her forget all about it!”

    “Derflinger,” Wardes spat. “I am rapidly approaching the point where I'd give up the advantage you'll provide against the plaguebeast just to be free of your voice.”

    <***>

    “I told it,” The dream-voice said. “I said that he shouldn't be trusted. The only one it can trust is me.”

    “Shut up!” Louise said, even as she brought her hand down on Mercer's door. For a brief moment, she considered going to the next room over and taking Foquet up on her offer, but Foquet had been an enemy not long ago.

    She hoped Mother would be pleased at her prudence.

    “Louise?” Mercer asked, stepping back and allowing her to enter his room. It was very dark, lit only by the two moons shining in through the glass door to the balcony outside. Mercer had no need of light, she supposed. “What's wrong?”

    “Is your offer still open?” Louise asked.

    She could see him shrug in the darkness. Then, pointing to the undisturbed bed, he said “it's all yours.”

    Louise was very grateful for the fact that he didn't ask her any more prying questions. She needed time to get her emotions under control, time to figure out what to feel.

    “I need some fresh air,” She said. The idea appealed to her as soon as she'd thought of it. A bit of fresh air, getting away from the stuffy atmosphere in the hotel... Surely that would help her find her equilibrium again. “I'll be on the balcony.”

    Mercer grunted in reply.

    Louise slid open the glass door that led to the balcony; she marveled at the sheer expense of such a thing. Even with fire mages handling production, making enough glass to have a whole door of the stuff was costly. Of course, the hotel's usual clientele appreciated such extravagances.

    Louise stepped into the cool evening air. The moons were high above, both full and shining down upon her. They cast a sort of ethereal light over the entire city, making it look like something out of a dream. Louise gasped. She couldn't help herself, seeing the city and its mix of old and new struck a chord in her. She found there something beautiful in the mixture of surviving Gallian architecture with new-built Tristainian. Not because of any intrinsic appreciation of the craft, for she was certainly not an architect, but for some deeper reason she couldn't quite identify.

    Whenever she tried, it vanished between her fingers as if smoke.

    “Yeah, it is pretty beautiful, huh?” Louise jumped, but she didn't shriek as she looked over at the voice's source. To her left on another balcony sat Foquet. Though “sat” was not entirely accurate, as Foquet was actually perched precariously on the thick marble railing meant to keep guests from falling to their deaths. Her knees were up by her chest, and the older woman was looking out at the city with a wistful look on her face.

    She gave Louise a glance. “Guess you took the murder machine up on his offer, huh?”

    “H-how do you know?” Louise asked.

    “Because the Viscount's room is the next one down,” Foquet replied.

    “You sound more lucid than I expected,” Louise said. “Given how much you drank.”

    “Like I said, energy potion and sleeping draught. Works wonders,” Foquet laughed, only for her voice to turn bitter. “Works wonders.”

    Foquet turned her head to face her. “You know, you don't look so good.”

    “I'm fine,” Louise replied.

    “Are you? Because ever since you got that award for killing me, you've looked pretty out of it. I'd say it's karmic retribution, but I know that's just a lie we tell ourselves to make the world seem brighter,” Foquet shrugged and looked back out over the city. “I just don't want you going flaky on an important mission. Hell, if you weren't a void mage I'd be sending you home. This sort of thing is a bit out of your depth.”

    “Probably, but that's not going to stop us, now is it?” Louise said, paling as she realized her words.

    “Ha! I like your style,” Foquet laughed.

    But that made her start thinking about what'd changed in her life. She never used to have nightmares like this. She certainly never let them affect her so.

    Then she paused. Who said it was a simple nightmare? She'd seen horrible things in Mott's menangerie. That'd be enough to make anyone unsettled.

    But then there was the book. Was that causing this? But how could something that resonated so strongly with her possibly be harmful? She felt a tingle every time she touched it, just like when she cast void magic. It was penned by the Founder himself! It taught her a void spell, even if now it looked blank again! It couldn't possibly be responsible. Besides, it was just a book! Books had knowledge, but knowledge wasn't inherently good or bad.

    “Why are you here, Foquet?” Louise asked, as much to distract herself from the notion that she was simply going mad as out of any real desire to hear the answer.

    “What, can't a girl look at a romantic cityscape and wish she wasn't alone?” Foquet said. “I think I'll ask Jean to take me here some day. Just laughing and frolicking like a pair of lovers should.”

    “No, I mean... Why are you here, helping us? Mercer said the Princess hired you. But why would you take this job? Why haven't you just run away?” Louise asked. That had bothered her. She knew Mercer expected that, and she rather agreed with him. The smart thing would be for Foquet to jump ship at first opportunity. Now, for instance.

    But rather than leap off the balcony onto the rooftops below, Foquet shook her head. “We've been over this. I haven't run away because I'm fond of Jean. If I want to stay with him, and I do, I have to work for the Princess. He won't leave his job and so I won't leave him.”

    “Why? You've only known him for, what, a week? Two?” Louise asked. “Is that really long enough to fall in love with someone?”

    Foquet laughed. “Girl, there's no timetable on these things. You can spend a day around someone and fall madly in love, or you can spend your life around them and feel nothing for them. Everyone's different. I've found what I want in Jean and the time I've had with him has shown me that.”

    Louise frowned, but Foquet ignored it and continued. “It's funny. When I was a little girl, I was always told to marry for the family. But I know now that I'd have never been happy doing that. I value my freedom too much. I think my parents knew that too. They were always going to give me the choice.”

    “Were you a noble, Foquet?” Louise asked. How often had she received the very same lecture? A noble's duty was to marry for the good of the family. That's what Mother said.

    Foquet looked away, staring into the distance.

    “Yeah,” She replied. “A long time ago.”

    Louise nodded. There was something about this night. Maybe it was the way the stars shone brightly overhead, or maybe it was the beauty of the city below them, but Louise felt like perhaps Foquet wasn't so much of an enemy. “Maybe... Maybe you'll understand then. My mother arranged my marriage to the Viscount. I don't really know him, but he was one of Mother's students. When I was young, he was always so nice to me. He always comforted me when I failed at magic. He's handsome and powerful and wealthy and I know most girls would kill to be in my position, but I'm not sure about it all.”

    “Marriage is a big step,” Foquet nodded.

    “Exactly!” Louise replied. “And tonight he was trying to pressure me, but I don't want to take things so fast.”

    “Hmm,” Foquet shrugged. “So don't. You're the void mage. He can't tell you what to do.”

    “It's not just that,” Louise said. “This thing with the Viscount is just a symptom. I wouldn't mind taking things fast if I knew where I was going!”

    “Oh?” Foquet asked. “What do you mean?”

    Louise took a deep breath, trying to put it all into words. “All my life, I've been told that I'm a magic blunt. My parents told me that I would never amount to anything as a mage, so they taught me how to run a manor as someone's wife. They only let me go to the academy at all because I begged and pleaded and convinced them that I deserved a chance.”

    Louise felt Foquet's gaze turn sharply towards her.

    Louise took a breath. “But I am a mage. Not just any mage, a void mage.”

    “And all those doors you thought locked and barred just got tossed wide open?” Foquet asked.

    “Yes, exactly!” Louise replied. “Now that those doors are open, I want to see what's on the other side before I settle down. I still want someone to love me, but I want to earn that love first. Does that make any sense?”

    Foquet laughed. “Yeah. I can understand that feeling. You want someone to be worthy of you. But more than that, you want to be worthy of them.”

    Louise's heart jumped a bit. Yes, worthy of them. She didn't want to be Wardes' charity case. She didn't want to be anyone's charity case! She was daughter of Karin the Heavy Wind and the Duke Vallière! Successor to the power of the void!

    Her spirits dampened a bit as her mind added, “She was a monster” to that list.

    “Let me tell you a little something about powerful people,” Foquet smiled at her. “We never want to play second fiddle to anyone. You and me, we want to carve our own name in the history books. How right am I?”

    Louise nodded. She wanted to be a good mage. A powerful mage, one who people respected, and one who Mother would consider a worthy daughter.

    “So what you've got to do is decide how to do that,” Foquet continued. “I became Halkeginia's best – mmm, let's call me an appropriations specialist. Nobles all over the world lock their vaults extra tight at the mere thought of me. I clawed my way to the same level as people like the Flame Snake or Karin the Heavy Wind.”

    Louise bit her lip at mention of her mother. “But how?”

    Foquet shrugged. “Figure out what you want and go for it. Sorry if that doesn't sound like good advice, but it's the best I can give. Just like with love, every person's different. But don't let anyone else decide something like that for you. If you decide you want a quiet life of anonymity, sure. But don't let yourself get forced into it. If you decide you want to marry Wardes, do it. Don't let what anyone else thinks stop you.”

    “You know,” Louise said. “For all your talk of us being similar, I think you're rather like Mercer too.”

    “The walking murder knife? How's that?” Foquet asked.

    “Both of you tell me to make my own decisions, and both of you make my life very difficult,” Louise stuck out her tongue.

    “Brat,” Foquet said, but Louise could tell there was no malice in it.

    “Thanks though,” Louise said. “For understanding. I... Needed that.”

    Foquet smiled again, though her smile was distant. “Maybe we both did.”

    Louise tried to stifle a yawn.

    “Yeah, best get to bed. We leave just after dawn, don't we?” Foquet replied. “G'night, kid.”

    “Now I just have to get my things from the Viscount's room,” Louise muttered, turning to head back into Mercer's room. “How am I supposed to-”

    “Don't worry about it. Ask about your stuff in the morning, once you've had a chance to rest,” Foquet suggested. “Hey, if you don't want people to hear you, don't grumble so loudly!”

    “But my stuff,” Louise replied. “My sleeping gowns and my change of clothes for tomorrow, and...”

    “It'll wait until tomorrow, I'm sure,” Foquet replied.

    <***>

    Surely it could have, but Foquet had no intention of letting it. She knew Jean was fond of the little void mage. She knew that in many ways, the girl was his favorite student. She remembered that the girl argued to spare her, back when she was captured. But more even than that, the girl seemed so lost. She reminded Foquet of the orphans back in Westwood, or perhaps of herself when her lands were first seized, so unsure of what to do and where to go.

    So she decided that getting the girl's things out of Wardes' room couldn't possibly be bad. After all, she got to harass that bastard and do something nice for her Jean's favorite student. Two dragons with one spell. No, three dragons. She'd get to practice her skills too. This holiday with Jean was very nice, but she had her professional pride to consider as well!

    Foquet moved with her customary grace, hopping from one balcony to the next, and then on to the next one after that.

    It gave her a quiet thrill to tweak Wardes' nose. The mere fact that he'd required her to take a geas if she wanted to get paid stung. Why, if he'd simply been more trusting of her integrity as a thief, she'd probably not be going so far out of her way to provoke him.

    “Hmm,” Foquet waved her wand over the locked door to his room. “Standard locking spell. Probably from the hotel... Oh, what's this?”

    “It” was a very amateurish alarm spell. She bypassed that easily, using her magic to trick its trigger, then she continued searching. “Ah. There we are.”

    Another alarm spell, this time with a very nasty lightning spell attached to it. Harder to bypass too. She found it nice to be challenged, even if only a little. This one she disabled in a similar fashion.

    She did another sweep of the door, just to make sure. Then, extracting a tiny dropper of oil, she lubricated the door's hinges. It wouldn't do to have Wardes hear her approach, after all.

    Wardes was lying on his bed, the blinds on his luxurious four-post bed drawn closed. He didn't snore, but he didn't stir either. She had to guess based on the rhythm of his breathing whether he was asleep or not.

    She moved towards her target, the bag of luggage she'd seen unloaded from the carriage. Since she herself traveled light, and since she doubted the murder machine had much luggage, it was obviously the void girl's. Unfortunately, it was at the opposite end of the room, by the door. Risky, but what was life without a little risk?

    Foquet's footsteps were muffled not by any magic – she wasn't a wind mage – but by simple application of skill mated with soft-soled shoes. She crept along the edge of the room, sure to stay in the shadows cast by the moons outside. She was able to make it to her destination and retrieve the package, but now came the hard part. Getting away with the loot.

    As before, she crept along the wall, getting half way before Wardes' voice froze her in her tracks.

    “Damnit, Sword, not one more word,” he said, groggily.

    She glanced over at the bed and smiled. Wardes hadn't stirred.

    She thought it rather amusing that he dreamed of his own sword talking to him. She'd heard of men naming their weapons, but this was far funnier.

    “I didn't say anything, Partner. I'm flattered that you're dreaming about me though! I hope you're dreaming about me hilt deep in somebody's gut!” The sword's reply nearly made Foquet stumble.

    She had to ruthlessly suppress her desire to steal that sword, knowing that while she could pass off the luggage as Louise simply having it brought to her new room by the porters, the theft of his sword would be much more difficult to cover up. But still. Talking sword. She'd never stolen one of those before.

    No. Fifteenth rule of effective thievery: don't get too greedy. Why, that's what'd happened with Jean. Oh sure it worked out better in the end, but she couldn't deny that those had been some harrowing hours.

    Instead she'd escape now, while Wardes was distracted murmuring and telling his “damn sword” to shut up. He'd sat up, but she could tell he was facing away from her, towards the sword on the other side of his bed.

    She dashed out of the room as quietly as she could, pausing only to reset the alarm and locking spells on the balcony door. From there the kid's new room was just a short hop across balconies away.

    She peered through the glass, and could just make out the girl sleeping peacefully on the bed, but the familiar was nowhere to be seen.

    A quick bypass of the locking spell later, Foquet stepped into the room.

    “What are you doing here?” The familiar's voice was rough and low, and sounding none too pleased at her intrusion. Though she still couldn't see it in the darkness, she could tell it was close and to the left. Too close; she could practically feel its breath on her cheek.

    “I stole her things from Wardes. I figured she'd want them back,” Foquet glanced at the girl.

    Mercer stepped in front of her. In the dim light, she could just make out that he was holding his hand out. “Thank you.”

    Foquet handed over the luggage, but then she gave the girl an appraising stare. “Poor kid. I didn't have the heart to tell her what you have to give up to get to the top.”

    <***>

    As was fast becoming her custom, Louise's sleep was troubled.

    At least, that's the only explanation she could come up with for why she was dreaming of a horrible and bloody battle. The sound of steel biting into flesh, the sound of spellfire from mage-knights, the din of muskets came from all around her. A scent of burning meat wafted into her nostrils, making her gag. The very air tasted corrupt in some fundamental fashion. The air was thick with pain and rage.

    When she got a good look at who was fighting, she could see why. All around her, hideous and twisted plague-beasts threw themselves at a battle line of tall knights clad in bright steel plate. But they were too tall, almost like they were warped or distorted in some way. Larger than life. Not just in presence, but in actual physical size.

    Behind those knights, she could see battlemages spraying spells as fast as their hoarse voices allowed.

    And behind them, she could see fleeing lines of women and children, and carts full of wounded running away.

    The words “fighting withdrawal” came to mind, and though the term wasn't one she'd think of, it seemed to fit perfectly, like the final piece to one of the jigsaw puzzles she'd played with as a child.

    Louise caught sight of a tall man, though not so abnormally tall as the knights, staring at the battle, posture straight but shaking his head. He wore thick plate-mail armor from neck to toe, and over that he wore some kind of strange vest, one with many pockets of varying size. It vaguely reminded her of the uniform Mercer wore when he imitated his enemies. Rounding out the ensemble was a thick blue mantle, similar to the chevalier mantle she now possessed, though his bore more embroidery. Its hood was pulled up, however, and so she could not see the man's face.

    Louise glanced back towards the battle, even though she didn't want to. There was so much blood, so much death. She could almost feel the sticky red fluid seeping into her feet.

    But there was still something enthralling about it all too. The blood felt warm, almost comforting on her skin.

    She watched the man move. It was strange, less like motion and more like he'd simply appeared at a spot hundreds of feet away. She saw him raise a thin wand, and though he said no words, she knew he was casting a void spell. It took but moments before she seized a front row seat to an enormous void explosion ripping through the plague-beasts' lines.

    Though hundreds of them died at once, they charged him, each possessed of a sort of eerie unity of purpose; it was as though the whole infected army's heads, untold thousands of monsters, turned as one to regard the greater threat.

    He swished his wand, slicing it across the advancing rank. It almost reminded her of one of Mother's wind blades, but while that was a wind shaped into a cutting force, this was more like running an infinitely thin paper through someone. Her mind struggled to make sense of a one dimensional spell slicing apart dozens of infected in three dimensions.

    But even so, she was in awe. Not so much for the destructive power – she was sure Mother could equal it, but for the sheer ease with which he wielded the void.

    “I-is that Brimir?” Louise asked, wonder in her voice.

    “Zero shouldn't be here! Zero shouldn't see this!” Louise turned towards the voice's source, coming face to face with herself, the battle vanishing from perception. Nothing replaced it; Louise felt like she'd just been put in a sheet of paper. Which made no sense as an analogy, she knew, but it was the closest she could come to describing what she was seeing.

    But something was wrong, just as it was with the dream on the mountain. This time, the Louise staring back at her wore a stained and soiled academy uniform, one splattered with splotchy blood. But as before, the Louise staring back at her had sharp, jagged teeth and wide, insane eyes.

    “You again. Why are you constantly tormenting me?” Louise asked.

    “Zero isn't strong enough to see this! I kept Zero from seeing the others. Zero shouldn't see this. For its own good, Zero should wake up,” Not-Louise replied. “...Please?”

    “What if I don't want to wake up?” Louise asked, feeling vindictive enough to press the fake her that'd tormented her over the past few days. “I don't know what this is, but I find this interesting. If not a bit disturbing.”

    “Zero finds bloodshed on a scale it can't imagine interesting? Ha. Perhaps Zero and I aren't as different as I thought,” Not-Louise flashed her too-pointy teeth.

    “T-that's not what I meant!” Louise replied. “Where is this place, anyway?”

    “This place?” Not-Louise shrugged. “I can't say.”

    “What do you mean you can't say? That makes no sense! First you start saying I shouldn't be here, but you don't even know where here is?” Louise said, voice creaking. “Am I just going mad? Is that it?”

    “Not mad at all,” Not-Louise waved her hand. “Zero's broken. Broken isn't mad.”

    “What do you mean I'm broken?” Louise narrowed her eyes.

    “It's always been broken,” Not-Louise shrugged. “Actually, no. Not always. It's been broken for as long as it's known to speak, as long as it could understand the world around it. That's where the problem came from. Zero doesn't understand its power. Nobody does. Void, void void. Brimir came the closest, but even he didn't truly understand.”

    Louise wondered what exactly the false her was talking about, but she doubted it'd be able to explain anything.

    So she focused in on how that figment was always insulting her. “Why do you call me an it? I'm a person, I'm not some thing to be talked down to!”

    “Zero doesn't understand,” Not-Louise sighed. “It's a piece.”

    “I'm just a broken piece of trash, is that it?” Louise's imagination filled in the blanks.

    “It's a shard. A sliver of what it could be,” Not-Louise replied. “Just as I am.”

    “That makes no sense. I think I'd damn well know if I was missing something!” Louise shot back.

    “It never liked what the other children said about it, or what they did to it. But it endured. It had... Hope?” Not-Louise replied, though it wasn't much of a reply. “Yes. A child's hope.”

    “What does that have to do anything?” Louise demanded

    “But then it summoned a monster. And like the monster it summoned, it became a monster itself. It chose to go down the monster's path,” Not-Louise continued, ignoring her. “And thus me.”

    “I don't understand, you stupid dream thing!”

    “Poor, poor Zero. How to explain...” Not-Louise trailed off. “I'm here because Louise Francoise le Blanc de la Vallière is not strong enough. She has a mask, one she wears in public. A mask she lets define her. The mask she's worn so long, she's forgotten she's even wearing it.”

    “What do you mean I'm not strong enough? I'm very strong! I'm a void mage, and-”

    “That kind of strength means nothing. Magic means nothing,” Not-Louise touched Louise's chest. “This strength matters. This is the only strength that matters. That's the strength that she doesn't have. ”

    Louise frowned. “You point to my heart, but I refuse to believe that cliché.”

    “She always led a sheltered life. Mother loved her,” Not-Louise ignored her. “In her own way. But she didn't exactly prepare her. She went into shock the first time she saw true death. She went to Tarbes and tasted that death herself, and she found it to her liking.”

    Louise said nothing.

    “Yes,” Not-Louise continued. “And Louise realized, maybe not consciously, that she wasn't ready. But maybe a part of her was. Maybe a part of her could be.”

    “Ready for what?”

    “If it has to ask, it's not,” Not-Louise replied. “So really, it's best off if it gives me control. Best if she takes off the zero mask and puts on the killer's mask. Everything will be better that way. You'll be happier that way.”

    Louise woke to a bed chilly with sweat.

    <***>

    Wardes had a hard time containing his excitement. He'd considered having his mercenaries attack the hotel in the evening, but he knew most men couldn't fight well in the darkness, and he also knew that as a thief, Foquet was probably quite adept in the dark. The risk of her surviving was too high.

    So instead, he'd ordered them to strike as they passed through the narrow city streets on their way to the docks. The tight quarters would keep her from using any particularly devastating spells for fear of hitting herself.

    The trouble was Louise's familiar. He had little doubt that it could kill any number of mercenaries.

    But Wardes had a plan for that as well. As a familiar, his first inclination was to protect Louise. It probably wouldn't balk if Wardes ordered it to take Louise and run. No, Wardes was sure it wouldn't.

    Louise herself knew no void spells beyond dispel, which was obviously completely useless against magicless mercenaries. The only wild cards were the Princess' four musketeers. But what could only four men do against two hundred? Nothing. His plan was good. At least, good enough.

    “Come, Derf. It's time to plant our little false flag.”

    “Mrm. Wake me when you actually want something killed,” The sword replied. “Mercenaries. Bah. Hiring swordsmen when you have me. Bah I say!”

    “It can't be helped,” Wardes said. “After her stunt last night, I want Foquet out of my beard now. I don't want to wait for a good opportunity only to risk her ruining everything.”

    “Stunt? What are you talking about, partner?” Derflinger asked.

    “Louise's luggage was missing when I woke up. It seems fairly obvious that the thief decided to practice her trade. I'd have planned to kill her for it, if I wasn't already planning to kill her as soon as convenient,” Wardes replied. “I can't exactly move up my timetable on killing her when I plan to do it now.”

    “Oh, so that's what I heard last night? Huh. I thought it was a dream. Or mice. Mice are always a good explanation,” Derflinger said. “If you just let me out of my scabbard, I surely would've seen her making off with your fiance's things. Why do you care though? They aren't your things...”

    “They're Louise's things, which makes them my things, because Louise herself is mine. Understand, sword?” Wardes frowned. “If Louise's things were still here, she would have had to come get them when she woke up. I would have then apologized, offered some fake vows that it'd never happen again, and started breaking down her defenses. But obviously that plan's not going to work now.”

    “Really, Partner? Uh-huh. You sure you wouldn't just let your little sword do your thinking again?”

    “Go to hell, you damnable piece of steel,” Wardes shot back. “That was a one time thing, brought on by my shock at the fact that little Louise is now a very beautiful woman.”

    “I'm already in hell, partner! Hell for a sword is not being used for a couple hundred years! Hint hint!” Derflinger replied. “I'm really rather offended that you're giving all this attention to sheathing yourself and none to sheathing me. That's awfully selfish of you, Partner.”

    “One time thing!” Wardes retorted. “And you'll have your fill of bloodshed in Albion! Just. Be. Patient!”

    “If you promise...” Derflinger sounded dubious.

    <***>

    The Princess' men went around and roused everyone, just before dawn. Louise grimaced and let out a low, loud yawn.

    “Murgle,” She said, still half asleep, even as she put no her travel clothes from her luggage.

    Her eyes widened. “I thought I left these in Wardes' room.”

    “You did,” Mercer replied, from his position guarding the door. “Foquet stole them back and dropped them off last night.”

    “Really?” Louise asked. At Mercer's nod, she added: “Unexpectedly kind of her.”

    “Hmmhmm,” Mercer replied. “We'll be late if we don't go soon.”

    “Gah!” Louise rushed to put everything on.

    When they went down to the lobby, everyone was waiting. Wardes gave her a stiffed, pained nod that she didn't return. Foquet smiled softly at her, and the Princess' men just nodded and started to lead the way.

    The city looked different in dawn's first light. People were just starting to stir, and everything felt sluggish.

    Or maybe it was just Louise that felt sluggish. She wasn't a morning person.

    They passed out of La Rochelle's noble quarter, moving onwards towards the docks. Despite being a vital port for trade with Albion, Gallia, and Germania, the peasant quarters were still poverty stricken and ramshackle. Louise supposed the reconstruction from the war was still ongoing.

    While the noble quarter was possessed of clean and wide open streets, the commoner sections were narrow and filthy, with apartments piled high atop one another. It gave her the impression of a maze.

    It was a good place for an ambush as well, though she didn't know where that thought came from.

    She frowned and shook her head, glancing towards the others. Perhaps it came from how nearly everyone in the group but her, Mercer, and Wardes tensed up.

    “If someone wanted to attack us, this would be a good place to do it,” Louise said, glancing at the buildings. It was surely a trick of the early morning light, but they loomed large, reminding her just how small she was.

    “Yes, that's right,” Wardes said, tightening his hand on his spellsword. “Good job noticing, Louise.”

    Mercer nodded, but he didn't tense. “I saw that too. I'm not too concerned.”

    Louise nodded. He wouldn't be, would he? Terrain like this played to his strengths; it would keep an enemy from concentrating enough force to defeat him.

    But that thought brought another frown to her face. That wasn't something she'd normally consider, and she doubted that Mother's lessons were taking root. She'd only just started them, after all, and Zero wasn't smart like some of her classmates.

    A loud crack distorted her thoughts. She felt something small and fast fly by her cheek. She heard a feminine gasp and the sound of a body hitting the ground. The next thing she knew, Mercer was half-pushing and half-throwing her behind a thick brick wall.

    Louise glanced back towards the rest of the party and bit her lip. Foquet was down, clearly hit by a musket. She seemed wounded, but at least she seemed alive, if her writhing and cursing was anything to go by.

    Wardes ran into cover next to her, grimacing. “Are you alright, Louise?”

    She nodded, even as more bullets hurtled through the air towards her group. The air grew thick with the scent of burnt powder, and the smoke from the fusillade was doing wonders to make the battlefield hard to make out.

    The Princess' soldiers moved behind another wall on the other side of the street, poking their heads out and looking for a target.

    Louise looked for Mercer. She caught sight of a black blur as he sped up to her, dropping Foquet unceremoniously behind the same wall she and Wardes were using as cover. The thief stood, wheezing slightly as she did.

    “Are you okay?!” Louise asked.

    Foquet bit her lip and nodded. “Stone armor, don't leave home without it. Still feels like someone punched me in the gut though.”

    “Clever,” Wardes spat. “Louise, you need to get away from here. This battle is no place for you. Mercer, take her to the docks and protect her with your life-”

    “Zero,” The dream-voice interjected. “This battle will be excellent practice. We can't run away. Mother will be proud if we acquit ourselves well.”

    “No, I'm not going to run,” Louise said.

    Mercer looked at her. “He's got a point. You're not a killer.”

    “Good for you, Zero! Maybe there's hope for you yet!” The dream-voice giggled. “I'll let you handle this one. Get some experience with rabble like this before facing a real foe.”

    Louise stared at Mercer, her last dream coming back to her. She didn't want to be a killer. She didn't want to put on that mask, but she'd already done it before. And these people were trying to kill her. Surely her conscience wouldn't fault her for defending herself.

    “No,” Louise spoke up, looking straight at Mercer. “I don't abandon my companions.”

    “Louise, please. As your fiance, I want you to be safe-” Wardes tried.

    Louise ignored him. “Mercer, poke your head out and tell me what you see.”

    He did so. A few moments later, he ducked back into cover. “There's a well prepared killing field out there. Overlapping fields of fire, gunners in the windows, roadblocks to keep us from getting away... Pretty solid.”

    Mercer blinked, then looked around. “And they're trying to flank us. Pretty soon they'll have us in a crossfire. Best deal with those first.”

    Louise nodded. “I trust you can handle them?”

    Mercer smiled. “Do you have to ask?”

    “No, not really,” Louise waved her hand. “Try to keep collateral damage to a minimum. My conscience is angry enough at me as it is.”

    Mercer nodded.

    He crouched low, clearly marshaling his energy, before leaping up and through the window into the nearest apartment. From the terrified screams and the splashes of blood that came from said apartment, he was clearly doing his job.

    His job? Louise frowned at the thought. When did she start thinking it was his job to kill for her? When did she get comfortable with that notion?

    “This is a terrible idea, Louise!” Wardes yelled over the gunfire. “You should get somewhere safe and let us handle this!”

    “You're not marrying a doormat,” Louise replied, her wand already out. “Specialist, can you keep the ones up above distracted?”

    Foquet gave her a curious look.

    “I'm making a choice.”

    Foquet smiled. “I think I can. What do you have in mind?”

    <***>

    Wardes grimaced. All his plans for Foquet's death ruined because of his damn fiance's obstinacy. Why couldn't she just retreat to the docks with the damn familiar? She should've been scared, she should've leaped at the idea of escape.

    With those two gone, he could've simply killed the thief and the Princess' soldiers, then made up whatever tale he wished.

    But Louise wasn't acting as she should. What kind of young girl isn't terrified of battle? It made no sense.

    The only good thing about this whole situation was that Wardes' mercenaries had already cleared out the civilians before setting up their ambush. He was ruthless in achieving his goals, but he didn't kill without purpose. He wasn't a monster.

    Wardes let out a sigh. He'd have to kill Foquet directly. That most definitely had a purpose.

    Wardes poked his wand out of cover, firing off a few chain lightning spells to suppress his mercenaries. None of them knew it was he who hired them, of course. He was still forked, in case he had to provide an ironclad alibi. None of his companions noticed it yet, but there was a masked wind mage overseeing the enemy's efforts. None of them could realize it was him. He kept that particular spell close to his chest, only telling people he could trust – or at least, people who already knew enough to see him burn, like King Joseph. Even Karin didn't know.

    Louise, meanwhile, leaned out from behind their shelter, even as the thief launched a volley of stone boulders to cover her. Despite the inconvenience Louise's presence brought, Wardes was looking forward to seeing the power of the void in action once more.

    Louise's plan wasn't all that bad, really. Have the thief launch boulders at enemy strongpoints while she stood back, building up her power in cover before bursting out and flinging void “explosion” spells at any targets she could see.

    At Louise's nod, the thief enacted the first phase. Huge chunks of conjured stone and dirt slammed into walls, smashing through them or, on occasion, crashing into some of his mercenaries and pulping the poor men. The thief's attack did a good job of focusing every attack on her. Unfortunately, luck wasn't with him – not one of the shots hit that bitch.

    Wardes had to conceal his frown. He still had one trump card, besides his forked self. He'd raided the city's garrison in secret and made off with a small artillery cannon last night. It wasn't much, just a seven pounder, but it was more than sufficient to kill the thief. Unfortunately, he had to get Louise away. Even at close range, single cannons were inaccurate and prone to accidents. Losing Louise was completely unacceptable. She was a lynchpin of his plans.

    That lynchpin began casting. Seeing the void up close was something else. He could feel something, some charge in the air. He could almost taste all that power, like a tantalizing chocolate cake, just out of reach. It had to be his.

    It would be his, no matter what he'd have to do to her to get it.

    The raw power in her spells did not disappoint. Spheres of magic leaped from her wand, erupting over his mercenaries. He didn't know quite what to make of those spheres. They weren't a color his eyes could readily see, and yet he saw them all the same.

    Those mercenaries who didn't explode into a thick pink mist collapsed to the ground, moaning weakly and clawing at their own eyes. In a span of minutes, he lost nearly half his force. Unfortunate, but it meant less men he'd have to pay at the operation's end.

    It was an altogether amazing display, even though it could upset his plans. What troubled him was where she learned this new spell. He'd seen her fight with the thief, and she'd only used dispel there. So somehow in the past week or so, she'd learned a new void spell, and while that was convenient now, it was also threatening in the long term.

    Still, at least he learned of it now rather than at some point when it could harm his plans.

    Come to think of it, he wasn't entirely sure how she'd learned her first void spell either. He'd have to ask. But only in a way that wouldn't drive her further away from him.

    <***>

    Mercer fed. Mercer consumed, but he did not understand.

    This mercenary knew nothing. The only thing of value he learned was that the target wasn't Wardes, nor was it Louise. But, rather, it was Foquet. And that made no sense. Why would some strange, anonymous mage go to the trouble of hiring mercenaries simply to kill her? She was a thief, it wasn't entirely odd that she'd have enemies, but ones who wanted her dead badly enough to hire a small army? A small army including artillery?

    Wait. Artillery? Mercer frowned, focusing in on that particularly memory. An artillery cannon, mounted atop one of the buildings. That would be a problem. His stolen memories told him, in great detail, what grape and chain-shot could do to unprotected human targets. Almost as bad as the canister rounds Blackwatch used for suppressing the shambling masses of infected. He'd have to deal with that.

    But first he'd have to eliminate the rest of this flanking force, lest they catch Louise in a crossfire as they tried to hit Foquet.

    His arms twisted into living weapons, shoots of biomass harder than steel and sharper than ceramic erupting from his fingers. His flesh hardened, layers of ceramic and hardened biomass growing over his facsimile of human skin. The squad of mercenaries gaped at him. It was a credit to their discipline that they didn't wait for shock, but instead aimed and fired.

    Muskets, he knew, were inaccurate, but at this close range nearly every bullet hit. The balls were individually much larger and more massive than the smaller, high-velocity bullets he was used to; they did more damage to fleshy targets, and they tended to tumble, causing even more tissue damage, even though it greatly reduced their accuracy beyond a hundred yards.

    Unfortunately for his foes, his hardened chitin was not in any way “fleshy.” He'd evolved it in response to Blackwatch's weaponized cancer, reasoning that if the parasite had to be injected, the simplest way to prevent them from trying that trick again was to simply make it so every needle would break off before injection.

    Then he realized it made a very effective defense against everything else Blackwatch threw at him, from hellfire anti-tank missiles to squad machine guns to 120mm tank cannons, with but a few minor tweaks.

    These mercenaries had no chance. Mercer lashed out with his whipfist, slamming into the first three with bone-crushing force and sending them sprawling to the ground in heaps. He dashed forward, running far faster than human norms, eviscerating two more with his claw as he passed.

    And then there were seven.

    Seven scared men who broke and ran. For an instant, Mercer felt the desire to let them go. Why, hadn't he shared a beer with these men scant hours ago, oogling the tavern wenches and – No. He hadn't. And he couldn't afford any witnesses. Besides, they attacked Louise, even if they were trying to kill someone else. And if anyone was going to kill Foquet, it'd be him, and only after she proved herself a traitor.

    He couldn't let them go. Odd deaths were one thing. Witnesses speaking of monsters were something else. Though Louise's sister had provided a somewhat suitable explanation for his abilities that didn't reduce to “I'm what you call a plaguebearer”, he'd prefer not put it to the test unless he had no choice.

    So he killed them. Tentacles erupted from his form, stretching out to the fleeing men, impaling them, and pulling them back to him for consumption.

    Again, they told him nothing he didn't already know. But there was something else, some vague feeling of unease.

    He almost thought it unfortunate that they had to die, though he wasn't sure where that thought had come from.

    He shook his head, leaping out the window and then running up the side of the apartment building to the roof. He bent his knees, gathering energy and adapting his muscles for another long jump, this time over to a neighboring apartment building on the other side. The other half of the pincer movement was there, and he had to deal with them before he dealt with the enemy leader and his artillery cannon.

    Well, he'd better get to work. There was no telling when they'd decide they were losing badly enough to start shelling Louise and Foquet.

    <***>

    Wardes cursed his luck. Things were going from bad to worse. Foquet was still alive, Louise was still in the line of fire, and he didn't know where either the plaguebeast or the Princess' men were. The former going missing was far more of a concern than the latter, of course. He'd have to write off both of his flanking forces, and pull up his reserves to prevent the rest of his companions from breaking through and making it to the docks out of reach.

    Two instances of Wardes looked up and over at the exact same moment. One, down behind cover near Louise, saw the plaguebeast go sailing through the sky like a wind-element acrobat towards the other half of his flanking force. The other saw much the same, save from a higher and further vantage point.

    “Right,” The Wardes commanding his men said. “Artillerymen, load and fire!”

    The Wardes near Louise grabbed her and threw her into a nearby building, covering her with his body.

    “What are you-” She started to say, before the world exploded around them.

    “I saw them loading a cannon,” Wardes lied smoothly. “You were closer.”

    “What about Matilda?” Louise half-choked in the smoke and dust of battle.

    “Probably dead,” Wardes had to hide his excitement. “Stay here, I don't want you hurt.”

    Louise wilted in place, not even bothering to get up. She didn't say anything, but she did have a blank look on her face.

    Reasoning that she was in shock, Wardes got up, resolving to make sure that thrice-damned thief was really dead.

    Then the smoke cleared, and he could feel his heart fall. She was clever, he had to give her that; she'd used her earth magic to burrow underground, well away from the shrapnel. Soon, she erupted from the ground, behind cover and out of his cannon's field of fire.

    He sighed. It seemed like he'd definitely have to kill her himself. Even forked as he was, he was still a strong enough duelist to defeat a thief.

    He directed his forked self to advance, and was about to cast levitate when he noticed something that forced him to put his plans on hold for the moment. The plaguebeast was leaping through the air again, this time towards him and his artillery emplacement.

    He charged his spellsword with lightning magic and prepared to meet it in battle. Even if he lost, it'd be a good chance to see first hand how the thing fought.

    <***>

    Mercer was having flashbacks to his fight with Specialist Cross, back in Manhattan. The enemy mage clearly wielded wind as his element; the memories he'd gotten from that bandit leader so long ago told him that lightning was an upper-tier wind spell, triangle at least.

    Electricity wasn't a threat to his body in the same way bloodtox or a huge explosion was, but it hurt, more than it had any right to. A fact he'd first discovered when Cross used an overcharged stun prod against him, parrying his attacks much like this enemy was, and never letting him land a solid hit.

    Because just one solid hit was all he needed, and his enemy seemed to know that.

    Mercer launched his whipfist directly at the mage, more probing his defenses than trying to break through them immediately. It'd been days since he had an opportunity to fight someone who was any challenge at all, so he wanted to savor this.

    The enemy sidestepped, bringing his sparking sword-wand down upon Mercer's outstretched tentacle.

    Mercer grunted, feeling electricity arc through his biomass. The blade wasn't anywhere near sharp enough to cut him, but it still hurt.

    He didn't feel that sensation very often.

    The enemy mage used his momentary distraction to fire a lightning bolt, giving Mercer barely enough time to build a shield of biomass with his other hand and drive it into the roof, grounding him and shunting the electricity away from his core biomass.

    “You're starting to piss me off,” Mercer growled. “Time to get serious.”

    “Likewise,” The enemy's voice was distorted and muffled, leaving Mercer with no clue as to his identity. “Let's see how well you do when you can't see!”

    The mage lowered his wand to the ground and barked a single syllable. Before Mercer could even process it, great clouds of thick black smoke erupted from the roof in front of him, obscuring everything around him.

    He smirked. Smoke wasn't a problem. He blinked, shifting the nature of his eyes. The world took on a muted red and blue hue, his enemy's bodyheat more than visible against the environment.

    But there was something else too. The few remaining mercenaries had stayed behind to watch their leader fight him, their natural assumption in a mage's superiority warring with what they'd already seen Mercer do.

    Mercer had ignored them in favor of the greater threat.

    But there were more men than there were before. And some of the mercenaries were lying on the ground, rapidly bleeding out as four clumps of faint, cooler body heat moved amongst the group, killing as they passed.

    Mercer smiled, realizing he'd underestimated the Princess' soldiers.

    He turned his attention back to the mage. “I see you.”

    “It seems we're at an impassee then. I'd hoped to gain an advantage, but it seems we will simply maintain the status quo.”

    Mercer didn't mind. Just one slip was all he'd need and the enemy would die. “Why do you want Foquet dead?”

    He could see the mage jolt. “Who told you that?”

    “Your men,” Mercer's smile turned predatory, though the change was lost in the smoke.

    “I see. You must be a skilled interrogator, to learn that in the midst of a battle. Well, to answer your question, she irritates me, monster. Just as you do. Have at thee!” The enemy replied, raising his wand. Mercer caught a blob of pale orange moving behind the mage, so quietly even his enhanced hearing couldn't pick it up.

    Mercer laughed. “You should look behind you first.”

    “You think I'm going to fall for such a cheap trick like that?!” The mage replied. “I'm not stu-HRK”

    He collapsed to the ground, blood spaying from his now-severed neck.

    Mercer nodded towards the soldier behind his fallen foe. “Good work. Maybe it's not so bad having allies.”

    The soldier nodded back. “We've dealt with the witnesses. The Princess told us about your... Condition.”

    Mercer nodded his thanks.

    “I tried to warn him,” Mercer chuckled, stepping forward to consume the man in his dying moments. He had to know what he knew. He had to know whether this was part of some greater plot against Louise.

    Mercer jolted back, however, as the enemy's body dissolved into an arc of lightning that shot away into the sky.

    “Do you know what happened?” Mercer asked the soldiers who shared the roof with him, even as he plumbed his own stolen memories. Mott knew nothing of such an ability. The bandit mage didn't either. Nor did the mercenaries he'd consumed. The soldiers replied in the negative.

    Was the mage even dead? He'd collapsed to the ground like a puppet with its strings cut, and no human could survive such a wound... But humans didn't disappear into lightning either.

    <***>

    “Zero, snap out of it. We've got baddies to kill,” The dream-voice said. “Come on, it doesn't want to prove me right about being a zero, right?”

    “She's dead. I was just talking with her yesterday and now she's dead,” Louise shivered. “Brimir, what am I even doing here? Wardes was right, I shouldn't have stayed-”

    “People die,” The dream-voice cut her off. “If she's dead, she's dead, and there's nothing you can do about it. But then again, she might have survived. She's a pretty smart square mage. If not, she-Wait, do you hear that, Zero?”

    “Hear what?” Louise asked.

    “The guns stopped. I think it's safe to say that Mercer's dealt with the last of that rabble. A pity. I was looking forward to playing some more,” The voice sighed. “Oh well, it was fun. Remember, Zero. Mother respects power, not breaking under pressure.”

    “Does that mean you're going to leave me alone?” Louise hoped.

    “Ha! Of course not!” The dream-voice giggled. “But you've impressed me. I'll give you a chance to prove yourself without my help. Still, be careful. Never know if there's stragglers left over.”

    “Help? You call this help?” Louise shook her head.

    “Louise?” Wardes stuck his head back into the house she was in. “Are you alright?”

    “Fine,” Louise snarled, pushing past him and onto the dusty streets.

    It looked like a warzone. Hell, it was a warzone. Bullet holes pockmarked the walls all around, and there were mercenary bodies lying where they'd fallen. Her eyes roamed over the ground, looking for one particular body, even as she prayed she wouldn't find it.

    “Matilda?” Louise called out.

    “Hey,” A familiar voice replied, stepping out from behind a half-ruined wall. Foquet looked tired and dusty, but certainly alive.

    Louise breathed a sigh of relief.

    “I'm glad you're still with us,” Louise smiled. “We don't have much time, we should get to the docks... But what about all this?”

    “About that,” Mercer hopped down from the upper floors of an apartment building. “These Mercs weren't here for us, they were here for Foquet.”

    “Really?” Foquet's brow shot up. “I've made a lot of enemies, but I didn't think anyone knew I was here. They shouldn't, at any rate.”

    “It doesn't matter,” A new voice added. Louise turned, coming to face with one of the Princess' men. She still had trouble telling them apart, but she supposed he was the leader. “Herwald, investigate the city garrison; that cannon bears their markings. Rolf, go to the safe house and have them send a message to Commander Agnes, informing her of these events.”

    “Safe house?” Louise asked.

    The soldier said nothing, studiously ignoring her as their diminished party made their way to the docks.

    Remarkably, they reached their ride, a sloop of trade called the Marie Gallente, and set off without further incident.

    <***>

    Louise didn't start to relax until they were underway, far from any pursuit.

    The sloop, the Marie Gallente, was an altogether dirty and cramped experience for Louise. She'd ridden on large galleons on occasion, when her family went for vacations in far off Albion or across the seas, but this was far worse. She was packed in tightly with Foquet, Mercer, and the others, rooming together amidst the ship's cargo in makeshift hammocks.

    It certainly wasn't the sort of travel a noble lady was accustomed to. But she refused to complain. Doing so would do both herself and the Princess a disservice.

    So in an attempt to distract herself from her surroundings, she decided to examine her books to make sure they hadn't been damaged in the fighting.

    But when she got to the blank journal, however, she paused. It was humming softly, and once more felt warm to the touch. She opened it and smiled as she saw the words across its pages.

    But that made her wonder why now? Why now, instead of when Mother had dropped by?

    A thought stuck her. If the book was penned by Brimir and intended for future void mages, perhaps it reacted to void magic? Like a magic key? She paused. Yes, that would fit the facts. Perhaps it reacted to the use of void magic nearby.

    She longed to test her theory, but she realized that a cramped ship was exactly the last place she wanted to start casting void magic within. Mercer's words about dispelling magic, back when they fought Foquet's golem, came back to her.

    She certainly wanted to avoid that. She wasn't entirely sure if she could dispel the magic in the ship's wind stone propulsion system, but she didn't want to find out when the ship was falling from the sky either.

    Louise frowned. It'd take nearly a week to arrive at Albion. A week cooped up on this dingy ship. She wasn't looking forward to it. She couldn't avoid Wardes in the tight confines, and his forwardness bothered her. It was like he felt she belonged to him, and that's not how relationships were supposed to work.

    It's not how her parents' relationship worked. Louise couldn't imagine her mother “belonging” to anyone. So she didn't want to belong to someone. She wanted to be loved, yes. She wanted someone who was willing to protect her because he loved her, even as she wanted to be strong enough to protect herself. She wanted someone she could respect, like how Mother respected Father. Was it really too much to ask for, having a man who loved her?

    But she didn't want to belong to someone. She wasn't a thing, despite what that stupid voice said. It was wrong. It had to be. She couldn't be some meaningless zero. She was a great and powerful void mage. A living le-

    “Louise?” She heard Wardes say, derailing her thoughts. “Can I speak to you for a moment?”

    Louise frowned, looking over towards his hammock. “What?”

    “I – Erm,” Wardes faltered. “I wanted to apologize. For last night. I acted in a way contrary to my station. It was wrong of me. My only excuse is that I was overcome with how beautiful you've grown. I promise you, it won't happen again.”

    Everything in his face seemed genuine, his contrition seemed true to his feelings. She almost snorted at how shy and vulnerable he looked, admitting that.

    A part of her thought he was looking “too” genuine, but she ignored that part. Wardes was apologizing. You don't apologize to someone you don't respect.

    And it felt good to be considered beautiful. She felt empowered, knowing she was so beautiful that she could make a man lose himself.

    “Apology accepted, Viscount. I trust it won't happen again,” Louise replied.

    “It won't,” Wardes nodded firmly. “Anyway, your spells in the battle were very impressive. As was the way you cast them repeatedly. I think even Karin would've had trouble causing so much damage in so short a time.”

    Louise's eyes went wide. “I-I did better than Mother?”

    Again, a part of her was struck with suspicion. There was something almost false with his praise.

    “I think you did. She would've been very impressed,” Wardes gave her a smile.

    Louise smiled back, a warm feeling blossoming in her chest, ignoring her own naysaying.

    “What kind of spells were those? I didn't recognize them,” Wardes asked.

    Louise bit her lip. “Void spells.”

    Wardes' eyes widened slightly. “I see. That certainly explains why they were so powerful. So you're a void mage?”

    Louise nodded. “I thought I told you?”

    “If you did, I don't remember it,” Wardes replied. “Still, I always knew you had the potential for greatness, Louise.”

    “Y-you did?” Louise stuttered.

    Wardes nodded. “Of course. That's why I agreed to the marriage contract.”

    “I see,” Louise replied, head spinning.

    “I wonder where you learned those spells though. Surely void magic isn't taught in Tristain Academy,” Wardes asked. “...Is it?”

    “No, of course not,” Louise blushed. “My familiar helped me out with it.”

    She was about to mention the book when Wardes snorted and asked “What does he know of such things? Who is he?”

    “He's...” Louise bit her lip, deeper this time. “He's a leader doppelganger.”

    “A what?” Wardes looked quite confused.

    “I didn't know what they were either until my sister explained,” Louise replied, the lie coming more easily now that she was committed. “I guess in some cases, a doppelganger hive will spawn an intelligent member to direct them, in times when they can't gather a critical mass of normal doppelgangers to form a proper colony.”

    “Really?” Wardes said. “I've never heard of such a thing. Huh.”

    Louise was about to reply when she heard a loud alarm go through the ship. “Pirates! Pirates!” Crewmen cried. “All hands on deck!”
     
  4. Cpl_Facehugger

    Cpl_Facehugger Evolution Complete Administrator

    Joined:
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    Blah blah. Not beta'd. Blah blah blah.

    Chapter 12: Albion, Land of the White Waterfalls.

    “What happened to you in Albion, Louise?” - Kirche von Zerbst.

    “I died.” - Louise Francoise le Blanc de la Vallière.

    Louise leaped up, slamming her head into a low-hanging wooden beam as she did.

    “Come on, everyone!” Louise rubbed her forehead, ignoring the pain. “Let's get to the top deck and see what we can do to help!”

    She had to frown when they finally reached the top deck. Off in the distance but growing fast was a large ship of the wall, one of the war galleons that Albion's royal navy once maintained, before it split apart in their civil war. She almost had a hope of it being a royalist patrol, but the black skull-and-crossbones flag disabused her of that notion.

    She looked down, trying to remember how many cannons this little sloop carried. It certainly wasn't many. Enough to deter a normal group of pirates, but deserters from Albion's navy? Deserters with a full size warship? She didn't like their odds.

    “Wardes, can you use your wind magic to speed us up and outrun them?” Louise asked.

    Her fiance looked at her, shocked at the suggestion, before glancing back at the pirates and blinking. “No. Their engines are more powerful, and they have a wind mage of their own granting them more speed. We won't be able to outrun them. Can you blow them from the sky?”

    “I-” Louise paused. “Maybe. Maybe. But it's very risky. An explosion big enough to wipe out something like that... I've never done one so big before, and it'll take some time. We might get hit in the backwash too.”

    “Or we could just let them board us,” Mercer suggested. “Then I infiltrate the crew and work my way up the chain of command.”

    “You can do that?” Louise asked.

    “Yeah,” Mercer nodded. “I know I haven't been subtle for as long as I've known you, but I can do subtle when I have to. When the unsubtle approach might have them pulling away and shooting us down, I'm willing to try something else.”

    “Matilda, do you have anything to add?”

    Foquet shrugged. “Not really. That's a Dover class Ship of the Wall. It has a full broadside of twelve pounder cannons, and it'll be faster than we are due to carrying more wind stones for propulsion. In short, whatever we decide on, we better decide on it fast because they'll be here in a matter of minutes, and they can both outrun and outfight us with ease.”

    “If I might suggest something,” The leader of the Princess' soldiers chimed in. “We shouldn't capitulate too quickly. That will only draw suspicion on us, more than our mere presence would already. The crew will undoubtedly hand us over to the pirates to focus their attention on obviously moneyed nobles. If we go with the familiar's plan, we'll have to make it convincing. Surely the Viscount, being captain of the gryphon knights, can put on a show. My men and I will act as loyal hirelings to further the deception.”

    Wardes growled. “Fine. Fine. We'll go with Mercer's plan. But all of you remember that this is my operation. I'm in command.”

    Louise laughed. “My dear Viscount, didn't my mother teach you how Vallières do things?”

    She watched his cheeks flush and his tongue lash out to wet his lips. “Yes.”

    “Then you know we aren't distressed damsels to be rescued.”

    “I'm starting to realize that,” Wardes frowned. “That doesn't mean I don't want to protect you, however. As a man should protect his fiance.”

    “Enough of your foreplay! Murderknife, get into position. Hirelings, take up defensive positions around shortie. Wardes, you get ready to put on a show!” Foquet snapped.

    “Murderknife?” Mercer asked. Louise was about to reply, explaining that was Foquet's nickname for him, only for what happened next to leave her staring wide eyed and slack jawed.

    Mercer was melting, his body spreading out across a wide portion of deck. Already his biomass was taking on a hard, wooden consistency.

    In seconds, he'd gone from standing beside her to being beneath her very feet.

    “Neat trick,” Foquet shrugged.

    “I never knew you could do that,” Louise added. “Though given what you told me about your abilities, it makes sense now that I think about it.”

    “And you say he's a “leader” doppelganger? Are you sure you don't want to revise that, Louise?” Wardes asked.

    Louise shook her head. “Not particularly. Certainly not when the pirates are practically within earshot.”

    Wardes' reply was drowned out by the coarse voice of a man yelling, his voice made even coarser and louder with wind magic. “Avast! We are pirates! You will heave to and prepare to be boarded!”

    “I understand! Please don't hurt us!” The Marie Gallente's captain replied yelling himself hoarse as his voice lacked the aid of a wind mage.

    Within minutes, the pirate vessel pulled up alongside their comparatively tiny sloop. Soon after that, the pirates dropped a large and sturdy wooden boarding ramp across, between the two ships, but not before some of the more daring pirates leaped straight from their ship's rigging onto the deck.

    “Wait for an opportunity, Alex,” Louise whispered.

    The biomass under her feet shifted slightly, as though to reply.

    “Now then, who's the captain of this fine ship?” A pirate, clearly their leader going by his elaborate clothes and what he clutched in his hand – Louise recognized it as a spellsword, one capped with an enormous, dusky sapphire colored like the sea on a stormy night. He was a tall man, one who towered over even Wardes, and over one eye he had a black eyepatch, along with a thick graying beard and equally thick hair.

    Louise frowned. He was so close to the archetypal pirate, but he didn't have the parrot on his shoulder. Though a monkey would've been just as good. Maybe a baby fire salamander? No, she decided. Too much risk on a wooden vessel. But he surely could've had a peg leg. Every self-respecting pirate had to have one of those. Or another extendible extremity.

    “Ahem, I am the Captain,” Louise's gaze turned towards the sloop's captain. He was an entirely forgettable man, bereft of interesting features besides a slight tendency towards looking like a humble weasel. “And-and this is my ship, the Marie Gallente, out of Tristain with saltpeter for Albion's markets...”

    “Saltpeter you say? Well that's very convenient for you!” The pirate lord replied, giving a hearty bellow. “We're in the market for exactly that! We'll give you an excellent price as well!”

    “Price, Lord?”

    “Aye!” The pirate laughed, waving his spellblade around for emphasis. “After all, what could be more valuable to you than your lives?”

    “Thank you for your mercy, Lord,” The captain replied, groveling heartily.

    “Ah, but who are these fellows I spy with my tiny eye?” The pirate glanced over to Louise, who glared back at him. “Let us see... Crew? No. Certainly not. Not scruffy enough. Ship's whore? Mmm, no. Too bright eyed and – ah angry at the insinuation.”

    “I'm no whore!” Louise roared. The pirate simply laughed. “I suppose not.”

    “I've got it!” He said after a moment's thought. “Passengers, nobles headed to Albion! Ah... But you must have needed to get there fast if you're willing to travel on this dingy sloop! Tell me, what valuables do you have to ensure your passage across these treacherous skies?”

    “Tell me who you serve first,” Louise countered. “This vessel is late of Albion's fleet. Serve you the crown, or have you thrown your lot in with those dastardly rebels?”

    “Ha!” The pirate replied. “You've got some mouth on you, girl! I like that. I like mouthy women. Well developed jaw muscles, you see. Very good for... Ah, but I'm a gentleman, and thus shan't speak of it.”

    “A gentleman pirate?” Louise asked. “No, somehow I doubt that. The very occupation of piracy is at odds with gentlemanly conduct. But will you answer my question?”

    “Well, I rather prefer to think I fight for myself. That's what piracy's all about, isn't it?” The pirate chuckled. “I was once a commander in Albion's fleet. I saw the way the winds blew, so my crew and I went into business for ourselves. From the state of things, I say we made the right decision!”

    “Detestable swine!” Louise roared. “Have you no honor? Abandoning your crown in their hour of need?”

    She scarcely realized she'd slipped into a more formal tone towards the end, all of her mother's lessons telling her to despise this coward before her, no matter how detrimental it might be. Besides, Mercer would protect her.

    The pirate laughed, as if sharing a private joke with himself. “Tell me, mouthy noble of Tristain. Why have you come to my fair homeland?”

    “H-how did you know I'm from Tristain?” Louise asked, taken aback.

    “How could I not? I assure you, miss, I'm not blind, nor am I dumb. Your boots bear the mark of the Grauthiers, Tristain's foremost cobbling family. Your hair too is rather distinctive. You're clearly of Tristain's high nobility, from your haughtiness,” He continued. “Yet I know of only one family with such lustrous strawberry blonde hair. You are therefore of the Vallière clan... Cattleya, I believe your name was? I'm surprised you're traveling. Your sickness is well known in noble circles.”

    Louise stepped back, his words like a physical blow. He mistook her for Cattleya? That was like mistaking a mangy mutt for one of the crown's finest hunting hounds. Zero couldn't be beautiful like her big sister.

    It was also faintly disturbing how much this random pirate, this ex commander of Albion, knew about her family.

    “Actually-” Wardes spoke up.

    “Ah, the other reason I know you're from Tristain speaks,” The pirate replied, jovial, turning back to Louise. “I dare say the good Viscount is quite distinct on his own. So why do you travel with your sister's fiance? Were I a gossip, I'd say that rather scandalous!”

    “He's my fiance, you foolish pirate!” Louise replied. “I'm not my sister!”

    “Ah. Ah! You're Louise then? I'm shocked! Shocked I say!” He replied. “So tell me, what is Louise Francoise le Blanc de la Vallière doing on a trip to Albion? Don't you know there's a war on? Why, I'm sure Princess Henrietta would be quite distraught to learn her friend is at the mercy of such a brute as I To say nothing of your father the Duke!”

    “We are ambassadors to Albion and demand to be treated as such!” Louise shot back. “If you really were a commander of Albion, surely you knew how to treat noble guests!”

    “Ambassadors? Now we're getting somewhere!” The pirate's grin grew sharklike. “A pity Tristain's ambassador has such a glaring lack of survival instinct.”

    He turned to his men, who'd until now done little more than laugh at his jokes and secure the ship in the background. “I think she'd make an excellent dishwasher. What do you think, boys?”

    “I think she's got a real purty mouth, Cap'n! And a purty face!” One replied. Another added. “I can think of a better use than dishwashing.”

    The Pirate captain chuckled. “As can I.”

    Louise could feel Mercer shake under her feet, his rage quite clearly evident. “Not yet,” she whispered.

    “So, Wardes,” Louise heard Foquet whisper. “You're just going to sit around while they talk about whoring out your fiance? Worst potential husband ever.”

    “Silence, Thief,” Wardes shot back.

    “Hey, it's rude to whisper when someone's in earshot!” The pirate lord frowned. “What are they teaching you Tristain nobles these days? Hmm. I'll tell you what. See, the rebels have a bounty on Tristainian “advisors”. I guess they got tired of how your queen kept sending troops to support their enemies without actually declaring war. It's quite a big bounty too. But I'm magnanimous. I'll let you go if you'll renounce all loyalty to your crown and simply go home, from one deserter to another.”

    Louise thought that a rather odd request. Thoughts of lying crossed her mind, thoughts of returning to the Princess with her tail between her legs.

    She quashed them. She could no more cast aside her loyalty than she could cast aside the need for breathing.

    “No,” Louise replied, even as she raised with her wand. Every nerve in her body demanded that she shake, but she didn't give in. She couldn't show weakness in front of an enemy. That's what Mother said. And Mother was always right. “I will not.”

    “You think you're going to beat me? Really, Louise? You think your loyalty to your monarch is worth your life? You've got character, I'll give you that. Pity that character won't stop you from getting gutted,” The pirate lord raised his spellblade.

    Wardes stepped forward. “I am a master duelist. If you think you can beat me, think again.”

    “Meh,” The pirate shrugged, clearly unimpressed. “Your reputation far exceeds you. Were I not confident in victory, I would have simply gassed you all with sleeping fume before having this little tit for tat. Have you anything better? Something more than servants in cloaks and Karin's squire?”

    Wardes spat, wand trembling with rage, but he didn't raise it.

    Louise could feel Mercer shift and tense. “Not yet,” She whispered again. “You're my trump card.”

    Not to be outdone by Wardes, Foquet stepped forward as well, flicking her hood back and raising her wand. “If you think I'm going to let you abuse this girl, you're-”

    His face changed as he looked at Foquet. Gone was his haughty and hale air, gone was the sense of control. His face grew pale, his single eye going wide. He croaked something out, but Louise couldn't catch it.

    He coughed, and his entire demeanor shifted. He shook his head, as if to clear it. “I see. I invite your party to lunch. There are things we should discuss in a more private setting.”

    “You go from getting ready to kill us to asking us to lunch?” Louise asked. “What game are you playing?”

    He smiled. This time, Louise could tell it was genuine, compared to all the others he'd given that day. “Not a game. Shall we call it a play? A play in which we all must play our parts.”

    Louise still wasn't reassured, but she reasoned that he'd be easier to defeat in a cramped environment like that. Particularly if Mercer could use that floor trick to sneak in.

    “Then I accept. May I have a moment to confer with my party?” Louise asked.

    “Plotting my downfall, huh? Sure, go right ahead. But do hurry, it wouldn't do to keep a pirate lord waiting!” He laughed. “My men will show you to my cabin. They'll wait for you at the boarding ramp. Don't be long!”

    Louise nodded as the pirate moved back to his own ship. “Be ready, everyone. I don't know what game he's playing, but he'll be more vulnerable in his own territory, where he thinks himself safest. Mercer, follow us as discretely as you can. Don't kill anyone yet, I want to hear what he has to say first. Did anyone else notice that reaction to Foquet?”

    “I did,” The woman in question replied. “But I don't know why. I surely don't know him. I don't recall having ever met him, nor ever having stolen from him. And he couldn't have recognized me if I had, since my old cloak was enchanted to obscure my face and my voice. Pity I haven't gotten the chance to enchant this one yet.”

    “Right,” Louise nodded. “Another mystery to unravel. Well, come. We shouldn't keep our host waiting.”

    <***>

    If Mercer could frown in this form, he would have. Mimicking the deck paneling seemed like such a great idea when he'd planned to simply jump and stealthily consume one of the pirate boarders.

    Except now Louise didn't want him to kill anyone. He wanted him to follow her. And for all his intellect and stolen memories, he couldn't entirely figure out how to do that without drawing attention. Deckplanks didn't generally move underneath one's feet, after all.

    He paused for a moment. Move underneath one's feet.

    Move underfoot. He just wasn't thinking creatively enough.

    When he was sure nobody was looking, he shifted his biomass, bringing it back and squeezing it tightly together. He'd never consumed any animals, save a single crow after barely-surviving the nuke that would've leveled Manhattan, but he knew enough about veterinary anatomy to fake a convincing mouse.

    Granted it was an extremely dense mouse, so dense that a real mouse of this size could never move unaided, but he doubted anyone would look too closely.

    <***>

    Louise stepped into the pirate captain's dining room, followed by the rest of her party save Mercer, who she couldn't see but hoped was following closely.

    The room itself was spacious, but oddly, not too lavishly decorated. From what she'd seen of him so far, she expected the bombastic noble to be like Mott, and to have a lot more gold and other signs of opulence around his home. Instead, it was almost common. Pewter plates and goblets, wooden utensils. Even the food itself wasn't as elaborate as she'd expected. Simple bread, salads, and oats, with wine to wash it all down.

    “Ah, yes. Tarbesian wine. My lover got me hooked on the stuff,” The pirate captain smiled, noticing Louise's gaze. “It's the one luxury I allow myself. But please, have as much as you like.”

    “Why the sudden hospitality, pirate?” Louise demanded. She wasn't in any mood for games.

    “There was a reason I pressed you on your loyalty,” He stood. “I had to know you could be trusted.”

    Louise blinked. What was he trying to get at?

    “So tell me, how is dear Henrietta?” He asked. “I'm sure she's the one who sent you on this little jaunt.”

    “How do you know the Princess?” Louise asked.

    “You could say she and I are intimately acquainted,” He grinned.

    “I don't believe she'd associate with riffraff like you,” Louise sneered.

    “You know she always loved the theater. She always had a flair for the dramatic as well,” He sighed. “She was the one who taught me that looks never give you the whole story.”

    “Do these lies and insinuations have a point?” Louise snapped.

    He didn't say anything in reply, he simply stood and ran his hand through his hair, pulling it from his head with ease and revealing a well-trimmed field of sandy, golden blonde hair.

    “A wig?” Louise said.

    Then he tore off his beard, also obviously fake.

    This guy wasn't much older than she was, for the Founder's sake.

    Behind her, Foquet gasped. Louise turned, only to see the thief's eyes were narrowed. “Prince Wales.”

    Foquet spat the word like a curse.

    “Hello, Matilda,” He replied.

    “Wait,” Louise interrupted, the gears in her mind turning. To say nothing of her sense of propriety being quite aghast at her. She should've recognized it before. “You're the prince? I – I must apologize for my behavior then.”

    “You've nothing to apologize for,” He laughed. “You thought I was... Ah, what was it, rifraff? That's good. It means my disguise worked.”

    “So why the deception?” Louise asked.

    “Because if the rebels knew I was anywhere else but Newcastle, they'd marshal their fleet and hunt me. This way, I can do some good, instead of sitting in our fortress like a wastrel,” He leaned back, sipping his wine with a frown on his face.

    “But piracy?” Louise grimaced.

    “Privateering!” The prince put the wine goblet down. “I have a letter of marquis and everything. Sadly, some of the wealthier merchants think this rebellion is one of commoners against nobles, so they often ship supplies to the rebels under the guise of trade missions.”

    “Is it? A rebellion of commoners?” Louise asked. “Do you treat your commoners so poorly that they'd rather revolt?”

    “No,” The prince shook his head. “It's the nobles, those damn reconquista bastards who're the brains behind this war. They want to topple all of Halkeginia, then lead its combined armies against the elves to the east. But that's suicide. The commoners are just getting swept up in change, in hope that perhaps their lot will improve beyond what they have now. If they'd just wait until I was crowned... But if wishes were dragons, beggars would fly.”

    “Reconquista wants to retake the holy land,” Louise nodded, understanding the motive. After all, it was the birthplace of Brimir himself, it was where he lived, it was where he developed the system of magic that everyone save the elves used to this very day. Not only was it so significant because of her faith, but who knew what kind of magical treasures it held, to better enrich his followers?

    “But it's useless if they all get killed when the elves unleash their magic. Taking back the holy land is a dream, just like reaching for the stars. I don't want my people to throw their lives away on such futility.”

    The only problem was, as Wales pointed out, the elves who squatted on humanity's rightful lands.

    “So tell me, Ambassador. What news from Henrietta?” Wales asked.

    “She wants you to return with us to Tristain,” Louise replied. “That is the message we were tasked to deliver.”

    Wales shook his head. “No. I cannot.”

    “Can't or won't?” Louise asked. “You have a ship. Henrietta will waive your docking fees, I'm sure.”

    “Won't,” Wales replied, frowning. “If I flee to Tristain, they will be Reconquista's next target. I won't put her in that position.”

    “We will be Reconquista's next target regardless, Lord. Tristain is the most strategic target,” The leader of Henrietta's squad of men replied. “We are not Germania, nor Gallia. We can neither trade land for time, nor can we mobilize hundreds of thousands of men. Henrietta knows this, yet she bade us return with you.”

    “Let us say that when I'm concerned, Henrietta's vision tends to focus overmuch,” Wales replied ruefully. “She loses sight of the big picture.”

    Louise noted that wasn't much of a rebuttal.

    He sighed. “Besides, I still have my honor. I can't hide, even in a gilded cage. If I must die when the rebels breach our bastion, I will do it.”

    “Even if it leaves someone who loves you with a broken heart?” Matilda muttered. “Truly, you are a detestable royal. A bastard prince from a bastard house.”

    “Matilda!” Louise snapped, aghast at the thief's sheer impropriety.

    “No, I know why she feels that way,” Wales defended. “But I shall speak no more of fleeing like a coward. We have a hidden port with access to Newcastle, one which only we know about. We were on our way there to replenish our supply of wind stones and to take the final wave of refugees to Tristain. You shall join us for our final feast, and then you shall return to Henrietta with a letter. And an apology.”

    “Final feast?” Wardes asked, sounding intrigued.

    “Aye. The house of Wales Tudor will sally forth into battle one final time. Though we shall surely fall to their numbers, we will be remembered for it, even if it be as demons who slaughtered ten score our number,” Wales' smile turned rueful. “In the meantime, I insist you stay as my guests. Our quarters should be quite a bit more comfortable than your sloop's cargo hold. It shall take us perhaps a day to reach Newcastle.”

    <***>

    Though Kirche would never admit it, even to herself, she found herself missing that prudish, stubborn Vallière.

    She also found herself wondering where exactly she'd gone. She'd seen carriages leaving in the night, but that was normal; the various noble guests were all going home. If the girl had snuck away by horseback, Kirche surely could've roped Tabitha and Slyphid into following her. But with so many posh and expensive carriages leaving and heading every which way, finding the right one was an exercise in frustration.

    She'd already trailed five separate carriages with Tabitha, looking for the elusive strawberry blonde before her tiny friend finally put her foot down and told her that Slyphid was getting tired.

    Not one to admit defeat, Kirche sought out others who might have seen Vallière leave. The only hit she found there was Colbert acting sheepish, but he always acted a bit sheepish. Plus he was sleeping with Foquet, so that was plenty of reason for him to act nervous around her, since she was but a handful of people who knew just who madame Longueville actually was.

    Speaking of which, she was gone too, but Colbert didn't seem particularly distraught at this, so he was probably in on it.

    Kirche was nearly tearing her hair out in frustration, and even her usual standby for stress relief – manipulating boys with her feminine charms – wasn't having the same appeal it once did.

    It just wasn't as fun without Vallière there to toy with either.

    <***>

    Cattleya panted. Not from sickness, as she had for so much of her life, but rather from sheer exhaustion. Sweat dripped down her brow in great torrents, and her lungs were struggling to pull in enough air to keep her standing, to keep her limbs moving. Her exercise garb, a bodysuit enchanted with ice magic for comfort, was losing its admirable struggle to keep her cool and comfortable.

    She didn't have any muscles that didn't hurt – and she knew this because places she didn't even know she had were hurting.

    And this was only the first mile!

    Beside her, Eleanor was also struggling to keep pace with Mother's “light jog.” Her sister looked just as exhausted and beaten as she did, and she was sure that neither of them really wanted to contemplate the idea that they were only just starting, that they were only a fifth of the way done.

    “Three minute rest!” Mother announced.

    Cattleya almost didn't want to rest, as she doubted her ability to get moving again once she gave her muscles a break, and she knew Mother wouldn't tolerate that.

    But the ache of her muscles won out. Cattleya shot an arm out towards a nearby tree, using it to steady herself as she struggled to regain her breath.

    She almost thought the situation funny. Humans were supposed to have the most endurance of any animal, being able to run many stronger animals to death in pursuit. Only plaguebeasts and the occasional magical monster could keep going longer than a fit human, and the latter only by burning its own innate willpower on spells to do so.

    Cattleya frowned. T'was the problem right there. Neither her nor Eleanor were completely fit. Mother, meanwhile, was completely fit. Why, she wasn't even breathing hard, and what little sweat there was on her face looked only recently formed, as if she'd just now warmed up.

    Wait. “Mother, you wouldn't do something underhanded like cheat with wind magic, would you? You seem awfully fast. And you should be panting at least a little too...”

    “Nonsense,” Mother replied. “Both of you are merely out of shape. Something we'll fix. Really, I scarcely see why you consider this punishment. A mere five mile run is what your father and I consider light exercise.”

    “Our parents are crazy, Cat,” Eleanor whispered. “Absolutely crazy.”

    “What if we get hurt, Mother? I read that if you exercise too much before your body's adjusted, you could injure yourself,” Eleanor asked, more loudly than her previous whisper.

    Mother's smile turned cold, and Cattleya swore she could see a glint of steel in her eyes. “Healers can do wonderful things with water magic these days. Time's up. Let's continue!”

    Cattleya had to stifle a groan, but somehow she found the will to browbeat her aching muscles into submission.

    “Crazy,” Eleanor whispered again.

    Cattleya had to agree. And she kept on agreeing, even as they reached their Vallière family manor.

    “Well!” Mother said. “That's proof enough that your sickness is cured, Cattleya. And Eleanor, aren't you glad you've worked off some extra pounds? We shall break for lunch, and then reconvene when your father returns from his errands abroad for dueling practice.”

    It seemed Mother thought ahead, for there was already a large lunch complete with chilled juice waiting for them in the rear courtyard. Cattleya exhaled gratefully and sat down, slowly massaging her aching muscles in between ravenously devouring her food.

    “Why do we even need to know how to duel?” Eleanor asked after chewing and swallowing a bite of her own sandwich. “Not everyone has to know how to fight! I don't want to be a soldier. I'm a scientist! An academic!”

    Cattleya's eyes went wide. Eleanor must have been even more exhausted than she looked if she was being so snippish with Mother.

    Cattleya bit her lip, waiting for Mother's reply. She expected it to be heated. Mother was very firm on the need for every Vallière to maintain their steel, after all.

    But it was odd. Mother paled slightly, and she closed her eyes for a brief moment, as if thinking deeply on something. Her body grew tense and rigid, even moreso than usual. When she opened her eyes, though, they were almost caring, which was never an adjective she thought to ascribe to her mother.

    “Eleanor,” Mother said, eyes now narrowed and voice deadly soft. “Do you know what happens to little girls who can't protect themselves?”

    Cattleya thought she heard an ever so slight tremor in her mother's voice, but she dismissed the very notion as absurd. But still, there was something about Mother's posture, in the sudden cold snap in her voice that unnerved Cattleya.

    “Err...” Eleanor started to reply, her sister's eyes wide like a deer that'd just been ambushed by a dragon. Or perhaps more aptly, a manticore. Eleanor's half-eaten sandwich fell to the table below. “No...?”

    And then, like a storm passing by, the tension broke. Mother's posture shifted, and she spoke again.

    “You will practice until I am satisfied with your skills,” Her tone brooked no room for argument.

    Eleanor gulped. “Y-yes, Mother.”

    <***>

    Louise smiled as she stepped into her party's quarters. She still had to share the room with the others, as even a naval galleon still had only so much space to go around, but at least now she wouldn't be rubbing elbows with them whenever she tried to sleep.

    Yes, things were definitely looking up.

    She even got a laugh as she discovered that Mercer – big scary monster Mercer – had followed her around disguised as a tiny white mouse. The sheer dissonance there coaxed a light giggle from her lips.

    Her bright mood lasted for several hours, until the diary turned blank once more. And before she could translate more than a few lines at that. As it turned out, Brimir, if it was truly the founder who wrote in this diary, could be dreadfully long winded when he wanted to be.

    Louise would simply have to test her theory. Though the more she thought about it, the more it made sense.

    Still, on the whole, things were going well. Since the attack, the damn voice seemed mollified by her use of violence. It wasn't talking much, and that suited Louise just fine.

    “Lady Vallière!” One of the “pirates” yelled, rushing into the cabin. It amused her how unpirate-y they all acted around her now. “The prince requests your party on the bridge! We have a problem!”

    “Well then,” Louise frowned, curious. “By all means, lead on.”

    The “pirate” did. Soon, Louise's entire party was roused and walking briskly towards the bridge.

    “You called for me, Lord?” Louise asked, stepping onto the ship's bridge. She was using the traditional form of address for royalty, for she was quite certain Wales really was Wales. Not only was there Foquet's corroborating testimony, but he knew things about Henrietta that few did. She'd always been a fan of the theater, even when they played together as children.

    Wales nodded at her and thrust a brass tube into her hand. “We have a problem. Here, take this spyglass. There, do you see it directly ahead?”

    Louise gazed down spyglass's barrel. In the distance, she could just barely make out a large airship, looking more like a crimson blob at this range than anything she could readily identify; process of elimination led her to believe it was an enemy vessel. The Prince wouldn't have wasted time calling her up if it was a friendly.

    “An enemy ship,” Louise pronounced. “I'm sorry, but I can't tell you any more than that.”

    “That's fine, I don't need you to,” Wales replied. “That ship is the Tudor Fist. It was to be our flagship before the rebellion. When we lost Londinium, it was still under construction. The rebels must have finished it.”

    Louise nodded.

    “With a name like that, I'm surprised they didn't burn it. I would have,” Foquet chimed in.

    “Matilda, show some respect!” Louise shot back.

    “It's fine,” Wales waved it off. “The problem is that the Fist was the first mounting our new rifled cannon design. It has nearly triple the range of the smoothbore cannons we have aboard this ship. With the wind at their back like it is, we'll be hard pressed to outrun them before they're within range. I asked you up here for ideas. Viscount, I'd like you to stay here with me and use your wind magic to speed us up.”

    “Ideas?” Louise rubbed her chin.

    Wardes looked at her. “Can you destroy that ship?”

    “No,” Louise thought on it. “No. Not if their cannons outrange us so much. My mother told me that wands are close range weapons; at those ranges, the simple act of breathing will throw off my aim... And we won't get another shot.”

    “Nobles,” Foquet laughed. “Never seeing the solution even when it's right in front of them.”

    “If you have anything to add, Matilda, please, don't hold back,” Louise glared at the older woman. “Because I for one don't want to get blasted by those fancy cannons.”

    “It's simple,” Foquet raised her finger, as if giving a lecture. “Send the murderknife. Have him board that foolishly named ship, massacre everyone. Then we pull up, board it, and bam. Two ships for the price of one. That's what we in the appropriations business call a twofor.”

    “Murderknife?” Wales asked.

    “She means me,” At some point, Mercer must've shed his cute and fuzzy form for his typical hooded look, for he stood behind Louise in all his inhuman glory.

    Wales raised a questioning eyebrow. “And where did you come from?”

    “He's my familiar. He's very good at imitating things,” Louise replied. “In this case he was imitating a field mouse.”

    “Lab rat actually,” Mercer said, looking at his fingers idly. “Not doing that again. Too dense. Causes cramps, like clenching too long.”

    “I see,” Wales replied, looking like he very much didn't. “Is Matilda right? Could you do what she says?”

    “Kill everyone on that piece of flying driftwood?” Mercer smiled. “Absolutely. Getting me there before you get shot down is the problem.”

    “Mmm,” Louise considered the plan. It certainly sounded better than what they'd come up with so far. “Wardes, Prince Wales... Can you two use your wind magic to launch him far enough that he can glide in on them?”

    “Glide?” Wardes looked dubious. “What, is your “leader doppelganger” a bird now too?”

    Wales glanced at Mercer again, comprehension in his eyes.

    “No, but he can glide,” Louise thought back. “He once carried me halfway to Tristain city from the academy's forest like that.”

    “Halfway to-” Wales paused. “Hmm. That's several kilometers. If we launch him up in a parabolic arc, he might just be able to make it. Assuming he lives up to his boasts... At the least he'll be a distraction for them. Familiar, do you have any way of changing direction in midair?”

    “That's not a problem,” Mercer assured him.

    “Well then,” Wales replied. “Wardes, cloudpulse on three? Mister Murderknife, I'll need you to jump on three. Get as much height as you can first. ”

    Louise thought back to her studies. Cloudpulse was a line level wind spell, most often used by wind mages to change the direction of something in the air. It worked by generating a powerful pop of air pressure, pushing the object along the desired heading.

    Yes, that was just what they needed.

    “Fine,” Wardes spat. “Let me say for the record that I'm against this foolhardy plan.”

    “One. Two...” Wales said. Mercer leaped up, higher than even the ship's mast. Louise had to smile at the shocked look on the Prince's face. “Three!”

    And with that and a pair of cloudpulse spells, Mercer was off.

    <***>

    “Should've brought the chopper,” Mercer muttered, barely able to hear his own voice over the wind rushing all around him as he glided towards the enemy. “No, it's too obvious I said. I won't run into anything I can't kill myself I said. I should've known Murphy would screw with me.”

    He'd already optimized his form for gliding for a distance. He'd extended thin, tough membranes of biomass between his arms and legs, like a parachutist's gee suit. Then he extruded microscopic cilia and filaments from every surface, angling and streamlining them for flight.

    He couldn't really fly, lacking a viable means of propulsion and being too dense to ride on the wind like a bird, but he could do the next best thing.

    Within his body, a new organ grew; a powerful clump of muscles, designed to take in air, compress it, and then eject it out behind and underneath him. He already used something similar for his “airdash” move, but this was the first time he'd try it for more than a few seconds.

    Without the boost he'd already gotten from Wardes and Wales, it wouldn't have been anywhere near enough.

    But the enemy wasn't idle as they watched him approach. With eyes mutated on the fly into telescopic lenses, he watched them load their cannons and swing them around, tracking him.

    He had to admit, those gunners were good. Aiming for such a small and fast moving target wasn't an easy thing.

    He saw the explosion of blackpowder a milisecond before he felt thick metal shrapnel – grapeshot, designed for shooting down swarming dragon or manticore riders – tear through his biomass. Normally, it would have hurt. And hurt it did. But here it was dangerous. His airdash organ took a hit, and in the moments it'd taken to regenerate it, he'd lost altitude.

    “He's using wind magic to charge us!” He heard a voice bark. “Gunners, retarget and fire again! And don't miss this time!”

    “I hit him! I'm sure I hit him!” Another, more panicked voice screamed. “But he's not stopping!”

    Another cannon barked, another clump of shrapnel shot pain through his body. The one damaging too many of the aerodynamic cilia and membranes he was using to keep from falling.

    He could see himself falling faster, the momentary disruptions enough to arrest his course. What was once a safe course that would've taken him onto the enemy deck had turned into something else. Already he was level with the enemy ship's broadside, and he could see that he wasn't going to make it.

    In desperation, Mercer launched his whipfist at the target, holding his metaphorical breath as he watched extend to its full length, as if in slow motion.

    He grinned as he felt the reassuring crack of wood underneath the whipfist's blades. That grin soon faltered as he remembered one of the more fundamental laws of physics.

    Objects in motion tend to stay in motion.

    His momentum carried him under the ship, bouncing like a bungee jumper from the slack in his biomass. He took the opportunity to launch another whipfist at the ship, this one connecting and slowing his movement.

    “Good show, chaps!” He heard from above. “You got him!”

    “What the hell was up with that anyway? What kind of nutter tries to board a ship alone, without even a gryphon with him?” Another voice, the same panicked one from before, yelled.

    Mercer grinned, releasing his hold on the ship's bottom and reeling himself up its hull, to where his whipfist had lodged itself in its sidewall. Then he formed his fingers into biomass claws and started climbing.

    But not before turning and giving a “thumbs up” towards Louise with one claw.

    <***>

    Louise gnawed at her lip despite herself. It'd seemed like a good idea at the time, before they'd launched Mercer like some human... inhuman cannonball at the enemy.

    What if he fell? What if he couldn't reach the ship in time? Could he survive the plummet to earth? They were awfully high; she could practically reach up and touch the clouds. Surely not even he could survive a fall like that.

    She gasped as the Fist opened fire, clearly targeting Mercer. She could see the cannon barrels twisting around through the spyglass.

    Zero didn't want her familiar to die.

    She let out a low, anguished moan as she watched him sink low. Where once he was slightly above the Fist, now he sank in line with it.

    She winced as another blast caught him, sinking him lower. She held her breath, hoping, praying that he could reach it.

    She let that breath out when she saw his tentacle connect with the side of the ship. She had to grin as he waved at her and extended his thumb, before climbing up the side.

    There was something disturbingly impersonal about watching the slaughter through a telescope. That's what it was, a slaughter. In the intervening minutes, the two ships had grown closer, close enough for her to see the details of the enemy crew through the telescope.

    Yet she felt nothing at their deaths. No horror, no revulsion. She felt vaguely disturbed, but it wasn't at the death, it was at her own lack of reaction to it.

    Even as she saw Mercer tearing through the enemy crew like a betentacled tornado, she didn't react.

    Even feeling good, like she had when she felt Mott's blood on her face, would've been better than this apathy.

    In an effort to distract herself from her thoughts, she blurted the first thing that came to mind.

    “Do we have enough crew for three ships?”

    Wales looked at her, an unsettled look gracing his face. “We do. Barely.”

    <***>

    On the eve of their return to Newcastle, Prince Henry Wales Tudor should have been elated. He'd found someone to give the message to his beloved Ann. More, those selfsame couriers had done the impossible, and recaptured the Tudor Fist from Reconquista. In practical terms, the Fist wouldn't be useful for much more than ferrying refugees to Tristain, but in symbolic terms, it showed the rebel scum that the house of Wales wasn't going to go quietly.

    He wondered why, then, he was feeling so disturbed as he sat alone in his cabin, nursing a goblet of wine.

    Deep within, he knew the reason. Leader doppelganger his arse. Doppelgangers were primarily native to Albion, though there were sightings all over Halkeginia. He'd seen them, knew how they lived. They were communal ambush predators. They assumed the form of whoever they killed, mimicking them like a parrot, and when the victim let their guard down, their fellows struck.

    They didn't operate alone, and if one were intelligent, it would certainly balk at the plan Matilda had proposed, going against its every instinct as it did. Ambush predators do not happily launch themselves directly at a mass of enemies.

    His eyes narrowed as he remembered what else he saw. Using his wind magic to focus the air like lenses, he'd seen the familiar's glide – and he'd seen it take two shots of grapeshot and not only survive, but then proceed to slaughter the entire crew of what would've been the flagship of Albion's fleet. No doppelganger, “leader” or not, could do that. Precious few creatures could, and the only one of that size that came to his mind was horrifying. He kept telling himself that plaguebearers were always female, but a sliver of doubt remained.

    He'd never seen one, of course, but surely the familiar's abilities were in line with what accounts he'd heard of them. Save the ability to shift its body into tentacles or weapons – that he'd never heard of, but the plague was known for changing and evolving to meet new challenges. Who's to say it hadn't changed and produced something like that familiar?

    He'd have to cast the plague detection spell discretely. Except it was by no means a discrete spell, what with how it made the target glow red if they were infected.

    And if that “Alex Mercer” glowed red, he'd open the gates for Reconquista himself simply to ensure they burned the plaguebeast before it could infect his whole country. Better under the rebels' boots than shambling with the plague.

    If – if he glowed red.

    The other options they'd discussed before deciding on their plan hadn't escaped his notice either. Louise Vallière had said she could sink an entire war galleon, that the only reason she couldn't here was because the range was too long. Not “my spells aren't powerful enough” - bloody hell, his spells weren't powerful enough, and he was one of the most powerful royals born to Albion's line! More, neither “doppelgangers” of any sort nor plaguebeasts represented standard elements, as familiars do. The familiar corresponds with a given element. His own thunderhawk was what had confirmed for him his element.

    There was only one conclusion then. Louise Vallière didn't have a standard element. She had a nonstandard one.

    A shiver passed through him.

    “Oh my sweet Ann,” He said to himself. “What sort of monsters have you bound to your service?”

    <***>

    Oliver Cromwell was but a simple priest, one with a simple dream. He dreamed of seeing the holy land wrested – reconquered – from the elves who defiled it with their filth. Everything he did was with this goal in mind.

    He started small, sermonizing noble and commoner alike in his parish. Even he was surprised and a little shocked at the overwhelming response. Soon, nobles, powerful ones like viscounts and dukes, were listening to what he had to say! Even foreign nobles like Viscount Wardes paid attention to his words. And soon, they grew to share his dream. But Cromwell wasn't a fool. He knew the elves were too powerful to defeat. You'd need all of Halkeginia united under one banner, Albionese and Tristainian and Germanian alike to defeat them.

    That was the idea behind the Reconquista movement. But he wished it hadn't come to war. He wished he could make the Albion royals share his dream. It didn't feel good to betray one's country, even if he was sure it'd work better for everyone in the long run.

    At first, Reconquista was losing their revolution, and losing badly. The men began to lose faith. How could they defeat the elves, legions of creatures like demons from the blackest pits of hell, if they couldn't even defeat the armies of Albion?

    But then something happened. Then, Cromwell met “Sheffield.” He doubted it was her real name, but he found himself not caring overmuch. For like an angel out of the desert, she came before him and explained that his dream wasn't hopeless. The elves weren't as strong as they liked to portray. They had enemies too, strong ones. Sheffield's people. Men with weapons he could scarcely imagine. If Reconquista struck, they would seize the advantage, catching the elves between a hammer and an anvil.

    She offered her services to the movement. He'd been dubious at first, before she proved herself quickly.

    Sheffield was the one who supplied Reconquista, organizing supply runs and bringing arms and funds to him from Gallia, though what connection she had to that land, he couldn't fathom. Sheffield was the one who brought Cromwell hope in the movement's darkest hour. More, when he needed something done, something dangerous and insane and quite frankly impossible for an army, much less a single person, Sheffield always smiled and disappeared. Days later, he found whatever impossible task he asked for complete.

    The last time had been the capture of the Albion southern fleet at port in Londinium. He'd suggested it as a joke, knowing the Tudor Fist was under construction there. He never expected her to take it seriously. Yet the very next day, he found Londinium's gates thrown wide open, its defenders in disarray. Of the crews of the fifty warships in the southern fleet, he found naught but bloodstains – stains that still marred their decks to this day.

    He tried not to think about that part. He tried not to consider the notion that his savior might be a devil in angel's garb.

    Now, Sheffield had returned on the eve of Reconquista's triumph against Albion, asking for an update in his status. But she hadn't come alone.

    To be sure, Cromwell was disturbed by the women in Sheffield's company. Priestesses, she said. Missionaries, she said. But they didn't talk. They always moved, shifting from foot to foot even when standing still. Even when their eyes looked around, he never got the impression they were truly lucid.

    He wondered who they were. He wondered why he felt his skin crawl and his hair stand on end whenever their dead gaze flickered over him.

    He ignored his misgivings. Sheffield had been a stalwart and useful ally. If she wanted to bring what looked like drug-addled druidic priestesses in her entourage, he could live with that. He was not a particularly bigoted man.

    Except when it came to elves, and only then because they'd stolen what was rightfully man's.

    “Our siege proceeds apace. Within two days, probably sooner, we'll have completed our siege engines. Newcastle will fall soon after. And then we'll finally control all of Albion,” Cromwell tapped the map in his command tent for emphasis. “After a short period of consolidation, we'll move to invade Tristain, probably landing our forces at the village of Tarbes as a beachhead. They'll expect us to strike for La Rochelle due to its large port facilities. They'll never expect us to strike a nearby township as our first target. By the time they can redeploy, we'll have already established our supply lines.”

    “Why, Oliver,” Sheffield smiled. “I never knew you were a general.”

    Cromwell smiled too, even though Sheffield was probably half his age. “We all have hidden talents.”

    “That's more true than you know,” Sheffield's laugh airy, light and musical.

    <***>

    The three vessels arrived at Newcastle's hidden port without fanfare, carefully edging their way into a tiny limestone cave that was hidden by one of Albion's many waterfalls, and covered with white moss. Louise boggled at the lack of clearance. Had she suffered a bout of temporary insanity and stuck her hand over the side, it would've been crushed between the side of the hull and the limestone all around. That's how little wiggle room they had.

    She supposed this hidden port only remained as such because nobody in their right mind would try to fit a warship into so small a space.

    It was a testimony to the skill of the Albionese sailors that they were able to guide even the massive Fist into the tiny cave.

    “Something is confusing me,” Mercer growled as the waterfall splashed over him. “I've gotten over my shock at seeing an entire continent flying through the air. But where the hell does the water come from?”

    “Err...” Louise trailed off. Actually, that was a very good question. Nobody quite knew where Albion's water came from. The continent flew too high to receive much rain from the clouds after all. Most suspected its water came from some magic system, perhaps designed by Brimir himself, for the canons spoke of him shaping Albion to his will. It was said that Brimir held Albion aloft to provide his people a sanctuary safe from the plague while his warriors fought.

    Perhaps his journal would know more, and surely little zero's void magic wasn't powerful enough to crash an entire flying continent, one that had been flying for millennia. She'd test her theory this evening, once she got settled in.

    “I don't know,” Louise replied after several moments thought. “You can ask Wales, but I don't think anyone actually knows.”

    Mercer grunted but said nothing.

    “Ah, I always love this route,” Wales said, still soaked himself from the waterfall as he came up behind them. “It's so refreshing.”

    “So what's the plan, Lord?” Louise asked.

    “We'll tie down our booty and then meet my majordomo, Paris Chamberlain, on the dock. I imagine he'll be quite surprised,” Wales pointed to a blue-garbed noble with a brass monocle waving at them from the dock. “Ah, there he is now.”

    “How now, goodman Paris! How does the day treat you?” Wales laughed, yelling over the waterfall.

    “I daresay everything's looking brighter now that you've returned, Milord. But how-Unless my eyes deceive, you come to us with the Tudor Fist! That is a most kingly gift! Your father shall be pleased,” Paris replied. “And... Who are these fellows you have with you? I don't recall any women on the Eagle when you set out last month...?”

    “I didn't do it for him. Besides, I scarcely think anything but cruelty can please him,” Wales muttered before replying more loudly. “Ah, but Paris! These are ambassadors from Tristain. Louise Francoise le Blanc de la Vallière, Viscount Wardes of the Gryphon Knights, Matilda d'Saxe-Gothe, and their entourage.”

    Paris' eyes went wide. “d'Saxe-Gothe you say? I see. Hmmph. I didn't expect noble guests. I must apologize for the state of our provisions. As we're under siege, we lack some of the finer luxuries. Still, I am at your disposal. But first, Milord please tell me, how did you come to repossess our stolen flagship?”

    “Alas, I cannot take the credit for that. It's lady Vallière's familiar who's responsible,” Wales gestured towards Mercer.

    “Poppycock!” Paris' monocle flew off as he jerked his head back, the brass ring falling over the dockside and into the abyss below. He looked mournfully over the side. “I lose too many monocles like that.”

    Then he shook his head. “But Milord, there's no way a single familiar could possibly capture an entire vessel! At the risk of repeating myself, that's poppycock!”

    “That's what I'd say, had I not seen it with my own eyes!” Wales laughed. Louise got the impression this was a familiar scene with them. “Yet see it I did!”

    “But how...”

    “I shall speak to you more of this later, old friend,” Wales replied. “For now, I shall need you to take inventory of our loot. This sloop, the Marie Gallente, was carrying saltpeter. Lots of it.”

    “Indeed?” Paris raised an excited brow. “That will be very helpful. We'll be able to make black powder for the cannons atop the fortress again. That'll give those terrorists something to fear! But, Milord, it won't be enough. We've but three hundred men. At last count, Reconquista's army was fifty thousand. Commander Harkon believes they will attack at dawn, when their siege towers are complete.”

    Wales stepped onto the dock, clasping Paris' shoulder. “It's less about winning and more about being remembered. If they attack at dawn, then that's when we shall meet them.”

    Paris nodded. “Of course. I shall have the men show your guests to their quarters. Now that you've returned, the feast will begin in an hour. Your father regrets that he could not be here to greet you personally, but he sends his regards.”

    Wales gave a quick glance towards Matilda, but Louise didn't understand what it was meant to convey.

    “I'll excuse myself from the feast, if you don't mind,” Matilda said to Louise.

    “I do mind! You're a member of my party, you shouldn't let yourself get intimidated by anyone!” Louise countered, remembering the look Wales gave Matilda earlier. “Even a prince.”

    “If the lady d'Saxe-Gothe doesn't want to attend, she need not attend,” Wales said. “I won't hold it against her.”

    “But that's not-” Louise started.

    Matilda bent down so she was at eye level with Louise. “It's fine kid. I really don't want to go to the feast. Why, if I see King Wales, I'm liable to murder him on the spot.”

    Wales flinched but said nothing.

    “Matilda?” Louise asked. “I-I've never heard you so bloodthirsty before. And you seem to know Wales. What's wrong?”

    “The Wales family and I have... History. Unpleasant history. Trust me when I say I'd really rather not spend time with either of them if I can help it.”

    Louise shot a glance at Wales. “Is this true?”

    Wales looked down. “Aye.”

    “Hmmph. Well, okay. If you don't want to dine with us, I can't force you to,” Louise replied.

    “Now that that's dealt with, there is another matter,” Wales coughed. “Before the feast, I'd like to speak with you and your familiar alone, Lady Vallière. It concerns Henrietta's mission.”

    <***>

    Louise and Mercer followed Wales to his private room. Just like his cabin on the Eagle, this too was plain and the very opposite of luxury. Beyond a bed, small table, desk, a strongbox on the desk, and a vivid painting of a war scene above the bed, the room was empty.

    “First, there's something I have to check,” Wales said. “Both of you please stand still. I must cast a plague detection spell.”

    “What?!” Louise squeaked. “Why would you want to do something like that? Do we look like we're infected with the plague?”

    Beside her, Mercer tensed.

    “No,” Wales conceded. “It's entirely possible I'm being paranoid, but please indulge this paranoid prince.”

    Rather than give her time to protest, Wales raised his spellblade, casting the spell first at Louise. A blue beam of light shot from it, hitting her before dissipating with no ill effects. “You're clean. Good. You next.”

    “There's no need for this,” Louise tried, desperately. “If I'm clean, surely he can't be infected, because otherwise I'd have caught it too.”

    “You have a point,” Wales replied. “Yet you're clearly hiding something. I find myself unconvinced.”

    Another blue light shot out, this time hitting Mercer. A hazy red glow, with pulses of black like thick veins wafted off of her familiar.

    Wales' eyes widened, his mouth already open and chanting the first syllable of a square class lightning spell.

    “I'm not a plaguebearer.” Mercer grit his teeth. He held up his hand, which had already lengthened into razor-sharp claws. “Everyone keeps thinking I'm a runner, but I'm not. Runners can't do this.”

    “Then what are you?” Wales asked, wand still raised, but at least he'd stopped his spell.

    Mercer's grin split wide, just slightly too wide to be human.. “I'm what gives runners nightmares.”

    Wales took a slight step back. “What?”

    “Just as runners prey on humans, I prey on runners. I'm their monster in the night, the creature they fear meeting in a dark alley,” Mercer sounded almost excited. “Plaguebearers are to me as you are to them. Prey.”

    Wales stared at Mercer for a long moment, an inscrutable look on his face. Finally, after a few minutes of tension, he lowered his wand.

    “The only reason I believe you is because I already cast the spell on myself and came up clean. Combine that with her not having the plague, and it's clear to me you're not spreading it. Yet you're of the plague. You wouldn't have reacted to the spell otherwise even if the reaction was a bit odd,” Wales frowned, gesturing towards Louise. “You're fantastically dangerous.”

    Both Louise and Mercer nodded.

    He sat down, clutching his face with both hands. “Founder help me, but you serve Henrietta. Or you serve Vallière who serves Henrietta. And Henrietta surely would've seen the signs. She's too smart to have not.”

    “Yes. I told her before she gave me this mission,” Louise added.

    “Yet she still has you serve her. It's a dangerous game she's playing,” Wales grimaced. “The most dangerous. But... I have to trust her judgment. She was always the smart one in our relationship. If she was willing to send you on this mission, she trusts you. If she thought you would spread the plague, she would've had you burned on the spot.”

    He stood and shook his head ruefully. “Founder I hope she knows what she's doing.”

    “She does,” Louise said. “That's why you must come with us.”

    “I cannot,” Wales stepped over to his desk. “My honor demands I stay.”

    “Honor? What honor is there in defeat? What honor is there leaving someone you love with a broken heart?” Louise demanded.

    Wales' hand, which had trailed over the strongbox lightly instead darted down to his desk, extracting a bottle of Albionese ale from a hidden drawer.

    “The Vallière family is old and of the very highest quality,” Wales said between gulps. “But even you don't understand what it means to be a royal. We have something to live up to, each of us. Scores of ancestors upon whose shoulders we stand. My Father has done things that I find distasteful, that I find unbecoming of that legacy. Our heritage is tainted by his excesses. You've heard the rumors, I'm sure.”

    “We dealt with one of his imitators first hand,” Mercer said. “And by dealt with, I mean eviscerated.”

    Wales closed his eyes sadly. Though whether he was sad at Mott's death or the fact that his father had imitators, Louise couldn't say.

    “Yes, well, you understand what a mark of shame such behavior is on the entire house, don't you?” Wales asked. “But in Albion, royalty is but a step away from divinity. There's no way to challenge the king, no matter what he does. It's not like Tristain, where your royal court can censure the king if he abuses his power.”

    Louise nodded. She'd had some vague inkling of that.

    “If you don't mind me asking, Lord, why didn't you turn out like your father?” Louise asked.

    “I don't want to say, lest you think me soft,” He muttered. “Suffice to say that my father and I differ in how we view women. He views the fairer sex as resources to be plundered or toys to amuse.”

    “I can't imagine the princess letting anyone treat her like that,” Mercer spoke up. “She doesn't seem the type.”

    “Yes, exactly,” Wales smiled, as if recalling a fond memory. “Henrietta wouldn't tolerate such behavior, and she was quite vocal in conveying her displeasure to the king. That was the last time I was officially allowed visit Tristain. My father was quite offended with her conduct. She was in the unique position to stand up to him, yet he couldn't strike back due to the repercussions it would cause. It drove him mad.”

    “So the princess showed you the error of your ways? That's so romantic,” Louise clasped her hands in front of her chest.

    “Oh Brimir no,” Wales laughed, looking happier. “They were never my ways. Ann simply solidified a belief that was already there. I mean, really, a woman can toss a fireball or a wind blade just as well as a man. Magic is the great equalizer in that respect. Only an idiot writes someone off for something trivial.”

    “Ann?” Louise asked.

    “Ah,” Wales looked flushed, though whether it was from the liquor or embarrassment, Louise couldn't tell. “Henrietta. I call her Ann because – well, it's a long and very personal story that I shan't recount. But we're getting distracted. You need to know that I won't return with you to Tristain”

    “Right. Why won't you come with us back to Tristain though? You're clearly fond of “Ann.”” Louise replied.

    “Honor,” Wales sighed. “Sometimes, the only way to atone for a sin is to die for it.”

    Mercer's face twitched.

    “It's not even your sin,” Mercer's voice was low and gravely. “What kind of idiot walks off to die to atone for something someone else did?”

    “Alex!” Louise chastised, even though she privately agreed.

    Wales said nothing.

    “I've killed a lot of innocent people. I'm a monster, and I admit that. But nobody can atone for someone else's mistakes. It's meaningless if someone else does it. That's just letting them shirk their responsibility,” Mercer continued. “And that pisses me off.

    “You don't understand,” Wales shot back. “It is my sin. But more than that, it's my house's sin. That's how it works – every mistake made by one is shared by all. That is the Wales creed.”

    “Why?” Mercer asked.

    Louise understood where her familiar's confusion stemmed from. Mercer, in all the days she'd known him, was a solitary being by nature. Beyond his dead sister, he had no family, and one could make a case that even that family wasn't truly his.

    Though he did have Louise. He was her familiar, but more than that, he was someone who was always there to protect her if she needed it.

    No. That was what he was to her. What was she to him though? He was so adamant that he wasn't a slave, yet she was sure there was little he wouldn't do for her if she asked nicely.

    “Because-” Wales started.

    A thought struck Louise then, thoughts of Mercer putting her into a more analytic state of mind. “Because you couldn't stop it. That's why, isn't it? You blame yourself for your father's actions. That's why you're so stubborn about this.”

    Wales glared at her. “The reasons are immaterial. Honor must be restored, and the only coin I have to do so is blood.”

    She realized then that there would be no stopping him, no matter what she did. He wasn't looking for someone to talk him out of it. He was set on his course.

    “I can see you won't be persuaded otherwise,” Louise closed her eyes and sighed. “Come, Alex. We should leave the prince to his drink.”

    “Wait!” Wales grabbed Louise as she turned to leave. “Hold, I called you here because I need your help.”

    “I'm listening,” Louise half-turned to face him.

    Wales removed a brass key from his pocket, slipping it into the strongbox and twisting. From within the strongbox, he removed a letter, sealed with thick wax bearing his crest.

    “Give this letter to Henrietta,” He said, moving to hand it to her. “Give it to her and her alone. And tell her – tell her that I'm sorry.”

    “You can give it to her yourself,” Louise stormed out of the room, refusing the offered letter.

    As she left the room, she heard Wales mutter. “At least Ann's servants are loyal.”

    “I don't understand!” Louise paced once she and Mercer were back in the room the Albionese had assigned her. “How is it that Wales can choose to go out and die when we could take him to Tristain? The Princess loves him, what kind of sod tosses away her love on an impossible cause!?”

    Mercer shrugged. “I don't understand either. Doesn't he know that the victors write the history books?”

    “We need to think of something. Some new angle attack,” Louise shook her head. “Victors. Victory. That's it! Wales won't leave with us so long as there's an impossible cause to defend, an impossible battle to lose... But how about an impossible victory? If we remove that cause, if we destroy Reconquista's army he'll have to come back with us! He won't have anything to redeem himself with except the Princess' love! It's so obvious!”

    “Fifty thousand men's a tall order, Louise,” Mercer tapped his chin in thought. It was a distinctly human gesture for someone who'd moments ago claimed to be an inhuman monster. “But... I don't have to kill that many. Armies who've had their leaders killed and their supplies burnt tend to disperse. Yes. I think I can do that. I don't know if he'll come with us after I'm done, but I'm willing to try it.”

    “Good. Do whatever you have to,” Louise replied. “But stop that army.”

    “I will,” Mercer replied. “But let me be clear about one thing – this is all me. You're not a monster for telling me to do this.”

    Louise turned away from him. “I... Perhaps I'm coming to understand my mother just a little bit better, understand what she dealt with. Part of me is scared that I'm so calm about ordering you to kill now. Part of me's happy that I'm going to complete the mission the princess set out for me. It's all so confusing. I don't know what to feel anymore.”

    <***>

    Foquet didn't mind being away from the feast. In fact, it made things easier on her. She expected Wales to refuse to return with them. She'd planned her part in this entire operation around that, in fact.

    It's why she brought thrice the usual amount of sleeping draught with her. But that was only half of the equation. Drugging him would only work if she had a way to easily place him aboard one of the refugee ships unnoticed.

    She was still working on that part.

    And, of course, there was also her reckoning with the king. Assassinations were not something she practiced as a rule, but she'd make an exception just this once.

    But not torture. Part of her wanted to, the notion of an eye for an eye was appealing, but she didn't want to sink to his level. She wanted to be better than that. She had to be. She was a thief and an outlaw, but she wasn't the kind of monster who'd torture and rape. Long ago, she'd promised herself she would never be like that.

    It'd be spitting on her family's memory if she did. And Tiffa... Tiffa would never understand.

    Besides, torture was quite thoroughly unprofessional.

    She realized she'd have to prioritize. Intellectually, she knew Albrecht Wales was most likely going to die very soon, regardless of her actions. Reconquista would have him executed if they captured him alive, and mutilated if they found him dead. So killing him herself was really gravy. All she had to do was get the prince away alive. But how to do that. How.

    Foquet thought back to everything she knew about the Wales family, which wasn't all that much. She knew they ruined her life, and that was the main thing that stuck out in her mind.

    Wait. The Prince's majordomo. She recognized him. Paris. Yes, he'd served the royal family for a long time; she remembered his monocle fetish from her youth. His loyalty was unquestionable. But to who? If he was more loyal to the prince, he might be persuaded to assist her. If he proved more loyal to the prince's ideals, or to the king, he might be an obstacle.

    It was her best lead. Knowing his role, she suspected he'd be organizing the feast. It was still early yet, and none of the guests would be allowed into the great hall until it was ready due to Albionese custom, but she wasn't about to let something like that stop a notorious thief like Foquet of the crumbling earth!

    As Matilda passed guards and other staff on her way to the great hall, her ears picked up idle chatter of every sort. Some of them wondered why the prince was riding out to die, or why the king wasn't. Others answered those questions. The king was ill, some said. Couldn't happen to a nicer fiend, Foquet thought. Others said he'd retired to his chambers with a pair of pregnant courtesans, intending to spend his last nights in debauchery while the valiant prince went to die. But the rumor mill thought that outlandish, because where would the king get a pair of courtesans in the middle of a siege, much less ones with child?

    Foquet rather hoped that particular rumor was false too. Albrecht's deviant tastes were well known to her, and she had no desire to encounter them in the flesh. Another rumor said he'd taken a Reconquista prisoner and was interrogating him personally – a notion which sent shivers up her spine, for she could well imagine what personal attention from the king entailed.

    Overall, the staff were concerned about the coming battle. Some of the guards boasted, but the waitstaff kept their heads down, hoping to avoid the coming slaughter. She couldn't blame them. One of the few good things about being a commoner was that you could, perhaps, avoid a noble's attention.

    But as she passed a particularly cute maid sweeping up dirt, she had to concede that it was far more likely they'd be plundered alongside their keep. Armies, particularly Albionese ones, were not known for their restraint. She had first hand experience with that, and she doubted Reconquista much different. She was too cynical for that.

    Matilda had to pause, thinking where she'd go. She'd played in Newcastle a few times as a girl, but those memories were hazy. If she remembered right, the great hall was connected directly to the primary kitchens and larder below by a servant's alcove and dumbwaiter system. She'd had hours of fun playing on that whenever her family took her here to visit, as vassals of Wales were obligated to do.

    Infiltrating the kitchens proved more difficult than she thought. They were busy, but it wasn't quite chaotic enough for her to slip by unnoticed. Clearly, the head cook ran a tight kitchen.

    She felt a little guilty for it, but she came up with a plan. Seizing a nearby silver platter, she tossed it towards the other end of the room, near where one of the servants was loading up similar platters of cheese and breads for appetizers. It'd look like it fell. The servant would take the blame, and also draw all attention to her for a few brief moments, allowing Foquet to dash into the room and up the dumbwaiter before anyone knew what was going on.

    The great hall was enormous, but she found her target easily, off towards the rear, directing servants setting down silverware.

    “Hello, Mister Chamberlain,” Foquet made her way over to him. She got almost within arms reach before he noticed her.

    When he did, his reaction was every bit as amusing as she'd hoped. He screeched in alarm, his monocle flying off from his sudden jerky movement.

    “What are you doing here?!” He hissed. “Lady d'Saxe-Gothe, you should damn well know better! I expected those Tristainians to try and ignore our customs, but you too? Nobody is supposed to see the feast before it's arranged. You know that!”

    “Don't worry so much, I'm not staying,” Matilda replied. “I just wanted to have a talk with you, away from distractions.”

    “Distractions like me trying to organize the prince's last great feast? Those kind of distractions?!” He bent down to retrieve his monocle. “I'll be damned if I don't give my liege the best send off I can!”

    “Hmm,” Foquet nodded. “Why do you call me Lady d'Saxe-Gothe? I'm sure you remember why that title no longer applies to me.”

    “Because unlike some, I respect old families,” Paris replied. “And because the prince told me that's your name. Since the prince is heir-apparent and since the king's decision regarding your family's ostracization is older, the prince's statement stands.”

    “I'm sure he was simply mocking me,” Foquet had to hide a grimace.

    Paris shook his head, looking frustrated. “Perhaps, but I don't think so. He's too polite to mock others, not like his father. Now if that's all, I must get back to wor-”

    “No, that's not all,” Matilda said, leaning in. “Say I had a plan that would see your prince alive at the end of the day?”

    Paris narrowed his eyes and waved over one of the servants. “Neville, take over.”

    Then he led them over to the fireplace, near where the food had already been placed and they were unlikely to be disturbed or overheard.

    “Speak,” He said without preamble.

    “As you may have guessed, the Prince's squeeze sent us here to bring him back to Tristain.”

    “He'll never accept,” Paris shook his head. “Even if Henrietta came herself, he wouldn't. I've tried to get him to abandon this mad quest. Even if it's a matter of honor, he has more than himself to think about. He has no heirs, so if he dies, the Tudor line itself dies with him. If even that consideration won't sway him, I'm at a loss. Your mission is doomed to failure.”

    “Right, I got that,” Matilda nodded. “My plan doesn't give him a say in it. I'll just need your help to get his unconscious body to one of the escape ships without being stopped accused of princenapping until we are safely away. Interested?”

    “Very,” Paris replied. “Assuming I can trust someone with such an obvious reason to want him dead.”

    “Mmm,” Foquet shrugged. “That's a good point. But if I wanted him dead, I had ample opportunity on the way here. You'll be the one carrying him on the escape ship. Hell, you can come with him all the way to Tristain if you doubt me.”

    “I might well do that. Death holds no appeal for me. Not when there's still a Wales house to serve,” He replied idly. “Tell me your plan.”

    Foquet whispered her plan. It brought a rare smile to his face.

    She left the great hall in high spirits.

    But Paris would take time to prepare.

    Before she left, though, she'd asked him, idly, whether the king would be attending the feast.

    Paris had shook his head and said the king had declined when he heard there were ambassadors from Princess Henrietta in attendance. Matilda had to hide a smile at the news.

    It just made Matilda's gravy easier to get. Nobody would miss the king until she was long gone. If they missed him at all.

    She returned to her issued room, laying out the supplies she needed. The tiny wrist-mounted crossbow she kept sat on the table in front of her, along with several magazines of poison tipped darts and one magazine full of darts tipped with a potent soporific.

    Jean was such a dear. And such a genius. She'd oft complained at how easy it was to fumble reloading the crossbow in a heated situation, so when she took her issues to him in preparation for this mission, he came up with this novel idea. A wooden box with perhaps six darts, each one self-loading, so long as she pulled the string herself. Truly, he had a keen mechanical mind.

    She also prepared a bright steel dagger, one that'd been in her family for generations. It was one of the few heirlooms she had from her family, one of the things she'd escaped the king's looting and pillaging with. She'd kept it with her all this time. It seemed fitting she'd finally use it to achieve her vengeance. This too she'd coated in the fast-acting poison, the kind that killed with but a nick. She stored it in a holster in her sleeve, just like her wand, but on the other arm.

    Jean would frown at her for pursuing this, but she didn't care. She had to do this, for herself if not for her family, as they were too dead to care. Jean would forgive her.

    She wouldn't lower herself to the king's level, but she had to make him pay. Letting Reconquista kill him would leave her feeling unfulfilled. She had to see that light fade from his eyes herself, and only then would she find peace. She told herself this, had told herself this for so long that it had to be true.

    Satisfied, Matilda placed the tools of her trade into her clothing, discretely hidden from view. She loaded her crossbow with the tranquilizer darts, realizing that she'd likely need to deal with any guards the bastard had. Assassination was a constant danger for every royal, much less one as rightfully reviled as the Wales patriarch.

    Then she set out. The halls were deserted for the most part. The feast was just beginning, and everyone who could get away from their duties – which boiled down to everyone who wasn't manning the battlements in case of Reconquista attack – was already there.

    Even the majority of the king's knights were there, with but two standing guard outside his personal chambers and sharing nervous glances with one another. From the loud but muffled screaming coming from the room and the fact that the knights weren't rushing into help, Foquet deduced that the king was indulging his sadist tastes.

    Good, he'd be distracted then.

    Foquet aimed the crossbow at the first knight's unarmored neck. Jean had rigged up a crude but effective sighting system for it based on the staff of destruction's sight, along with the new loading mechanism.

    With a brief gulp of air so her breathing wouldn't throw off her aim, she let the dart fly. Already she was recocking it for her second shot, even as the guard brought his hand up to his neck, staring dumbly at the dart he pulled out before collapsing to the ground.

    The next guard was turning, no doubt wondering at the commotion, but he didn't get far and certainly didn't raise the alarm before Foquet's second dart sent him to the realm of dreams as well.

    Next she retrieved her darts and stashed them away, removing her can of oil as she did. A slight spray of grease on the door's hinges later, and she was opening the door, as quietly as she could.

    The king's room was dark, lit only by torches high on the walls, but in the flickering light, she could make out the decrepit old man standing shirtless with his back to her. His hands were bloody, his laughs unhinged. The scent of fresh-spilt blood was overpowering in this room. It made her stomach churn.

    He was standing in front of a bed. No, a table, one draped with a white sheet that was stained crimson. And atop that sheet lay a man. She'd have almost thought he was dead, given how so much of his skin had been flensed away, but she could see shuddering breaths.

    At the king's elbow was another, smaller table, one laden with various blades and surgical instruments, some stained with blood and some still clean.

    “What? What was that?” The king stopped laughing and leaned in towards his... Foquet couldn't even think of a word to describe his poor victim. “Do I really seem like the kind to care about military trifles? I'm doing this because all you reconquista dogs deserve to be punished for turning against me.”

    The king's words snapped Foquet out of her horrified fuge. She raised the crossbow and took aim, silently.

    The king stood straight. With his back still towards her, he laughed again. “It seems we have a guest! I thought I smelled a bleeder. Come, girl. If you're going to visit, at least announce yourself!”

    “You know my name full well, monster,” Foquet fired off a dart, only for the king to neatly sidestep her shot and turn towards her.

    “No, I don't think I do,” He stared at her in appraisal. “Nor would I want to. I only acquaint myself with men of quality.”

    Foquet fired another dart. This too he dodged. How the hell could an old man be so fast?

    “Not assassins, and certainly not lesser life masquerading as people worth my consideration,” The king picked up a short and stubby metal wand from his tray of tools. “I dare say I should punish you for this interruption.”

    A wind blade shot from his wand, and only her quick thinking in conjuring a barrier of earth saved her head from getting sheared off her shoulders.

    Foquet retaliated, conjuring a stalactite and launching it towards him, only for a gust of air to deflect it away, slashing through the king's bed in the corner of the room.

    “Such insolence,” He growled. “That silk was worth more than your life.”

    Then he paused and cocked his head, leering at her. “I was simply going to kill you. But now I have a better idea.”

    His next attack came suddenly, a burst of wind tearing through the impromptu rock wall she'd conjured to take cover behind.

    Foquet was shocked at the casual display of power, but she didn't let that stun her. She dove to the side, only narrowly avoiding another wind blade.

    Foquet fired a boulder at the king, but with a simple flick of his wand and a quirk of his lips, he flung it right back at her, harder than she could've imagined. This time, she cast her namesake spell, “crumbling earth”, a triangle earth spell that was renowned for causing even the hardest stone to crumble to dust.

    Unfortunately, she was still pelted with dust and debris, much like standing out in a sandstorm. Had she not worn glasses, she'd have been blinded by the dust.

    This wasn't good. That bastard was dictating the battle to her, keeping her on the defensive and countering her attacks with frightening ease.

    As the battle wore on, with her throwing out every attack she could think to name, she realized that she wasn't holding her own. Every attack she made was deflected or dodged. While she had thus far given a good accounting of herself, it was starting to wear on her. She was starting to breathe heavy and fatigue was starting to make her aim waver.

    She was a thief. She avoided getting into stand up duels like this as a rule. Nor did it help matters that despite his age, the king was still fiendishly powerful.

    <***>

    Louise felt underdressed as she stepped into the keep's great hall. The dresses she'd brought were of the highest quality and the finest tailoring; she was a Vallière after all. But they were practical dresses, suited for travel and not attendance at a royal court, even one under siege. They lacked the frills or the rich embroidery that someone of her station should've worn for the occasion.

    She hoped the prince would forgive her slight for a moment, before she realized she'd slighted him far more gravely – and more personally – when she snubbed his request. But that couldn't be helped. Henrietta had charged her with bringing Prince Wales back to Tristain, and she refused to even consider the idea of failing her monarch. If said monarch's lover got a bit miffed, it was simply the price of mission.

    “Lady Vallière,” Despite the irritation Louise knew he had to be harboring, Wales greeted her cordially, standing and nodding his head before pulling out a chair near his seat at the head of the large rectangular table that reminded her painfully of the table at the academy. “Where's your familiar?”

    She took the offered seat, giving Wardes, who was seated opposite her, a nod and a polite smile. Before her, a servant placed a plate of delicious-looking food and a stone goblet of dark red wine. It seemed the cooks were going all out to prepare for the prince's final feast. Not that it would be his last meal if Louise had anything to say about it.

    “Oh, I asked him to run a few errands,” She replied idly. “Sent him somewhere his talents would be of more use.”

    “What do you mean, errands?” Wales looked at her, confused for a moment before her meaning dawned upon him. “What errands could you possibly have for him? The only – You sent him outside.”

    “Perhaps,” Louise shrugged.

    “But that's suicide,” Wales frowned. “There's an entire army out there. Were you that eager to send your familiar to die? Capturing a ship is different than facing an army.”

    Louise smiled, sipping her wine. “He outright told me he couldn't crush the entire army – not directly. Eventually enough mages would gather, pin him down, and burn him. But armies have needs. What does an army do when its leaders are killed, its supplies ravaged?”

    “You should call him back. I don't want your familiar dying on my behalf,” Wales shook his head. “Please call him back.”

    “I must agree with the prince,” Wardes replied, scowling. “Your mother would not approve of sending your familiar off on a fool's errand. A good mage takes care of their familiar so that their familiar may take care of them.”

    Louise wilted a bit, but then she stood straighter and in a clear voice replied. “My familiar is unique amongst any other. My mother believes in flexibility in war. She would support me in this.”

    “Karin believes in upholding tradition-” Wardes started.

    “Karin?” Wales' eyes went fractionally wider as he looked at Louise. “Surely you're not referring to the Karin.”

    “He is,” Louise's voice grew frosty. “She also prefers that her whereabouts not be spread around, Viscount. As I'm sure you know, my mother likes her anonymity.”

    “But that would mean that the Duchess Vallière is...”

    “Yes,” Wardes and Louise both replied at once.

    “Ha! I see Uncle Duke finally got what he was after!” Wales cocked his head, as if recalling a distant memory.

    “Uncle Duke?” Louise asked, noting the familiar way the prince spoke. “How do you know my father?”

    “Before the king forbade me from visiting Tristain, I was a frequent visitor to your royal court. I spent many a summer there on holiday. That's where I met Henrietta, but before then, I struck up a friendship with your father, Duke,” Wales leaned back, seemingly lost in pleasant memories. “At the time, he was a squire ten years my senior, learning the trade of war before inheriting his family's holdings. In some ways he was like an older brother to me. In others, he was an uncle I could always turn to for advice. It got quite silly when he actually became a duke, I have to admit. Whoever heard of a duke who's name is Duke? And I always found it a bit obscene how many noble ladies followed him around, hoping to catch his favor.”

    “So my father had women throwing themselves at him?” Louise asked. Neither of her parents really talked about what they were like before they met, so Louise was more than a little interested. Hearing her father was quite the playboy was fascinating for her.

    “Aye, that he did. Legions of them. I was a little jealous. It seemed like every eligible lady in Tristain swooned after him. And more than a few ineligible ones, if you catch my meaning. But he never actually took them up on their offers. Any of them. So I rather assumed he preferred the company of men, and all his talk of disinterest was simply a distraction.”

    “But you said he “got what he wanted in the end,”” Louise asked. “What do you mean by that?”

    “I'm getting to that part!” Wales laughed, face flushed a hale pink from the wine. “I assumed he preferred men until a certain manticore rider caught his eye. I gather they knew each other from somewhere, but he was tight lipped about that. One of the few subjects he was stern and serious about. Anyway, it amused me greatly to see him having to chase after a woman for once. It amused me even more when she kept shooting him down. Once she even went so far as to hit him with a shock spell!”

    “My mother shot my father with a triangle grade lightning spell during their courtship? And you thought this funny?” Louise blinked in shock.

    “I checked to make sure he wasn't injured before I started laughing,” Wales replied. “But it was hilarious. He didn't stop even after that. Even got me involved in a few cute schemes to win her heart. I kept telling him the whole idea was doomed to failure. Even if he somehow convinced her, I couldn't see a woman like that ever satisfying him. A woman who strikes you at the slightest touch surely isn't a very warm lover.”

    “I-” Louise was struck by a desire to speak up in her mother's defense. “Well, my father is very satisfied with my mother. I've heard no complaints.”

    “Color me surprised,” Wales replied. “Anyway, it got so funny watching him flail about that I made a bet with him. Just a trifling thing, a bottle of the finest vintage from our respective estates. I bet him that he would never win her.”

    “Yes, about that,” Louise blushed as she realized what her mother had been talking about as they parted back at the Academy. “My mother says she's not forgotten your bet, and that she expects the house of Wales to make good on what it owes.”

    Louise paused for a moment, weighing the benefits of lying before deciding the mission was more important. “She expects the house of Wales to do so personally.”

    Wales laughed even louder, drawing looks from the various nobles further down the table as his laughs bubbled up over the din of conversation, music, and dance. “That crafty shrew! Truly, if there's any who deserves Duke, it's her. Alas, I can't accede to her demands. I shall simply have to render the bottle owed to her daughter before you go!”

    Louise frowned, but she knew it'd been a longshot anyway. She could just hope that Mercer finished his task to her satisfaction.

    Wales came down from his laughter a few minutes later. “After she became the manticore knight captain, and he inherited his duchy, I thought the matter finished. I had to return to Albion after that and lost touch with all save Henrietta. But when I heard he married, I thought I finally bested him! Blast and damnation, I was looking forward to some of Vallière's finest liquor!”

    “You don't plan to be alive to enjoy it,” Louise frowned. “It doesn't matter if you won or lost.”

    “I suppose not. But it's the thought that counts!” Wales laughed. Louise wondered how he could be so carefree, even though he planned his own death.

    “You're sure you don't want to return with us? Henrietta will be very pleased if you do,” Louise offered.

    “I know she would. But... Look around here,” Wales gestured towards the warriors who feasted all around them. “I have a great many reasons to stay. Even if there was no stain on my honor, I could not bring myself to abandon these stalwart knights. If they go to their death for me, I cannot not hide myself in fear. I must be able to look myself in the mirror without flinching away.”

    “That's very honorable of you, Lord. But please see reason. The Princess loves you. Think of how she'll feel if you fall,” Louise tried.

    “Reason?” Wales laughed loudly again. “There's no reason in love. When I fall, my lover will mourn for me for a time. But eventually her grief will burn out and she'll find happiness with someone new.”

    “Spare her that grief,” Louise clutched her hands in front of her, as if begging. Or praying. “If you love her, you'll return to her.”

    Wales leaned in, face serious. “If you love someone, you have to be willing to let them go. Love, true love, means you look to their happiness above your own.”

    “You throwing your life away won't make her happy,” Louise countered.

    “Perhaps,” Wales conceded, though Louise could tell his answer hadn't changed. “Viscount, you've been quiet this evening. Have you anything to add?”

    “Louise doesn't understand the fraternity of soldiers. She lives at the fringe of that world, and Karin's done what she could to shelter her,” Wardes shrugged. “You won't convince her, and by the same token, she won't convince you. Like a Halkeginian trying to convince an elf, you two lack the perspective necessary to understand each other's arguments. You appeal to martial honor and royal lineage. Louise appeals to romance and a maiden's heartbreak. You might as well be speaking different languages to one another.”

    Wales glanced at the Viscount. “That's an interesting perspective. But I notice you make no claims as to who's right.”

    “You both are,” Wardes replied. “Your arguments are right for you, and Louise's are right for her. Just as asking you to give up your men's lives while you flee this sinking ship like a rat would be unthinkable, asking her to give up on love too would be wrong.”

    “Yes, but what is your own opinion?” Louise asked.

    “My own opinion is that you should choose what you want to do after careful consideration. I can see both sides. Your honor as a warrior is of paramount importance. I understand this very well,” Louise frowned at Wardes' answer, but then blushed at the warm feeling that grew in her as he continued. “But then I try to imagine leaving Louise alone, crying at being abandoned, and I start to think that perhaps there are things in this world worth more than honor.”

    “Your words ring more true than you know. Perhaps there are things I must reconsider,” Wales leaned back, a thoughtful frown crossing his face before sitting up and gesturing towards his majordomo. “Paris! When the feast is over, I beg of you, send a runner to Lady d'Saxe-Gothe, asking her to meet with me at her earliest convenience.”

    “Why are you asking for Matilda, Lord?” Louise asked.

    “I wish to tie up a loose end. One that's haunted me for many a year,” Wales sighed. “Though it may be a case of too little too late, honor demands I try.”

    “Try what? Just what is your history with her?” Louise asked.

    “Both my father and I have done great wrongs upon her,” Wales glanced down, guiltily. “More than that, 'tis not my place to say.”

    Louise frowned. She hoped Matilda wasn't feeling left out.

    <***>

    Foquet tensed as the king raised his wand again, ready to get out of the way of whatever spell he fired.

    What she wasn't ready for was the loud explosion just outside her ear, like air bursting on the side of her head. That in itself wouldn't have been a problem, had his spell not also disrupted her center of balance, causing what would've been a nimble dodge into a desperately unbalanced pirouette that sent her crashing face-first into the ground.

    Stars flashed before her eyes as she struggled to shake the impact off.

    But the King wasn't idle, he loomed over her. With a single kick, he sent her wand spinning to the other side of the room.

    He peered down at her. “I remember you. You're that bleeder my son lusted after before his infatuation with that bitch of a princess. My men said you were dead. Alas, the ones responsible for misinforming their king are beyond my retribution now. Still, I can take out my frustration on you.”

    He kicked her, hard, in the side, before using a wind blade spell to cut the straps that secured her crossbow to her person and sweeping it next to her wand with magic, disarming her.

    “And now you're helpless. That was a spell I developed myself specifically for subduing unruly beasts like you,” She could almost feel his grin as he leered at her. “I am the most powerful wind mage in the world. The royals of Albion have always been thus. Only a particularly foolish bleeder would even dare consider itself my equal.”

    She didn't waste her breath on condemnations or promises of vengeance. She let him believe she was defenseless, like most mages in her position would be. But though she knew she wasn't, even though she both had the dagger and her own skill at brawling, she still felt nervous when she heard the heavy rasp of a belt being unbuckled. “I want you to fight. It's no fun when you bleeders just lie there and take it.”

    But despite what horrors he intended to visit upon her, she wasn't ready to panic yet. She was too experienced for that. She still had her dagger hidden in her sleeve, and you couldn't rape someone without getting within arms reach of them.

    Except she couldn't afford to let him get suspicious. But Foquet was a good actress. She screamed and flailed against him, glaring and letting just a sliver of real fear creep across her face. She even let tears flow, imagining not herself, but imagining Tiffa lying dead in her arms, bloodied and violated.

    The king grinned, crouching over her. His tongue darted out and licked the tears from her face like a lizard. For the briefest moment, he closed his eyes in bliss, thinking himself in control. There. That was her opening, she doubted she'd get another.

    Foquet stabbed the blade into his throat, sinking it deep into his wrinkled flesh. He clutched his throat with both hands, his wand falling to the ground and rolling away.

    His eyes widened in shock, he gave a strangled gasp as the poison took effect. He convulsed, and she could see the eyes roll back and his jaw gnash. Distracted as he was, she found it easy to push him off of her and stand herself. Finally, after a brief moment, he stilled. Foquet turned, certain he was dead.

    The arm that gripped her ankle with vice-like strength and pulled her to the ground proved otherwise. Her knife clattered to the ground out of reach.

    He glared at her with bloodshot eyes, ones full of hate. “Poison? Hrk, you think you're the first assassin to try that? I am King Albrecht Wales! I won't let a bleeder like you beat me!”

    “I'm not giving you a choice,” Foquet snarled, kicking him in the face. She cursed her preference for soft-soled shoes. A nice steel toed boot would've done so much more damage. Instead, she had to make up with quantity, slamming her heel into his face over and over again. “One way or another, you die tonight.”

    He reeled back, stunned for a moment. Foquet didn't give him a chance to recover. She grappled with him, fists pounding his face.

    For an old man, he was disturbingly resilient. His face felt harder than stone, far from the soft and yielding flesh she expected.

    His strikes, too, were far stronger than they should've been. He was able to catch her in the side, knocking the wind out of her lungs and sending her sprawling.

    “How is it you're so strong?!” Matilda stood, backing up to put more distance between him while she struggled to catch her breath. Her eyes darted to her wand, then to his. Hers was closer. “How is it you're even still alive?”

    “Though I was too old when I received their blessing, I still have more than enough power to defeat a nothing like you,” The king sneered. Already, his throat wound was starting to mend. “I underestimated you once, and that was my mistake. Not even royalty is perfect.”

    Foquet dove for her wand.

    Albrecht didn't go for his. Instead he lunged for her, pulling her down just as her fingers slipped over the reassuring wood and ivory of her wand. She clamped down on it, hard, like a life-line.

    With inhuman strength, he flipped her over, pinning her arms to the ground with his. His breath rolled over her, its scent promising debasement and corruption to all it touched. “And so we find ourselves in this position again. Now where was I?”

    Foquet flexed her wrist, bringing her wand into line with his face. “You were dying.”

    Foquet marshaled her magic, firing a jagged pillar of stone into his face with enough force to lift him from her and pin him to the nearby wall.

    This time, she took no chances. With a conjured obsidian blade, she sliced his head cleanly off, leaving his body to collapse to the ground and bleed everywhere.

    “Well that didn't go as well as I'd hoped,” Foquet grimaced, turning to Albrecht's prisoner. The poor wretch was clearly beyond hope; he looked more like a healer's anatomy dummy than a person, his organs exposed to the open air for all to see. She suspected that if she removed him from Wales' enchanted surgical table, he'd die in short order.

    Foquet shook her head. “You might be an enemy, but nobody deserves this.”

    She looked down, trying not to gag. She had to force her hand to stop trembling as she retrieved her knife and ran it over the prisoner's throat.

    Which left another problem. Plausible deniability. As far as anyone knew, she was still in her room. But when the guards outside awoke, they'd check on their king and discover all this. Or Paris, when he came to speak with his liege about something or other. And if anyone saw her before she got back to her room and cleaned the bloodstains from her clothes, the game would be up just as surely.

    She had to focus on the future, not on the present. She could think about all this once she was back in Tristain, once Jean was there with his arms around her and his voice soothing her. She had to focus on the future so she didn't break down in the present.

    First she had to remove the evidence. Easier said than done, even for an earth mage.

    Unless... Yes. That would work. Each individual room in the keep was enchanted with flame-retardant spells. This on top of its stone construction would keep a fire contained. And the room was lit with torches, presumably for that wholesome dungeon ambiance. Magelights would've been so much safer, and so much less convenient for her plans.

    Foquet used her earth magic to crumble the physical evidence of her fight; the stone stalactites and other weapons she'd launched at Albrecht. Then she placed the bodies on the bed, making it look as there'd been a struggle, one that somehow accidentally resulted in a torch falling on all those flammable silk sheets. The king's deviant tastes were well known.

    It wasn't a perfect frame job. Hell, it wasn't even a good frame job, even considering what she had to work with. But it was good enough for her purposes. It only had to last a day, until Reconquista swept in and sacked the place. They'd destroy the evidence.

    <***>

    After one more run through to make sure she'd recovered or destroyed all the evidence she could, Foquet quietly crept out of the king's suite. His guards were still unconscious and would be for several hours, and as far as she could tell, the feast was still ongoing.

    Several times, she passed scurrying servants, but her skills at stealth served her well, and she was able to duck or hide without being seen.

    Foquet returned to her room to freshen up, cleanse the blood from herself, and execute the second phase of her plan. But not long after she'd cast the cleaning spells, packed away the soiled clothes, and sunk down into her room's enchanted bath, she heard a knock at the door. It was a servant; apparently the prince desired an audience with her. “At her earliest convenience.”

    The opportunity was too convenient to pass up; within five minutes, she was up and toweling her hair. Within ten, she was making her way to the prince's chambers, the holster for her dagger replaced with a bladder filled with sleeping draught. Though she still kept the dagger and the crossbow concealed on her person, even if she hoped she wouldn't have to use it.

    She nodded at the guards who watched his room. “The prince expects me.”

    They let her in without comment.

    “Matilda. It's... been a long time. I desired the chance to talk with you, away from prying ears,” Wales rose from his seat to greet her; he'd been sitting at a table, staring into the room's fireplace and drinking wine, the same Tarbesian wine he'd had aboard the Eagle, the pirate ship that wasn't really a pirate ship at all. “Please have a seat; I had Paris bring me an extra chair for you.”

    “Has it?” Foquet grit her teeth as she took the offered chair. As much as she convinced herself it was for the mission, she didn't want to spend any more time in the Prince's presence than she had to.

    “You think I don't remember you? How could I not,” Wales' voice was melancholy.

    “I wasn't aware you thought overmuch about the people whose lives you destroyed,” She shot back, tone like alchemical acid.

    “You have good cause to hate me,” Wales' voice choked up, his discomfort clear. “I felt responsible for your family. So yes, I thought about you.”

    “You are responsible for my family,” Matilda leaned forward. “You were the one who doomed them.”

    “Yes, but not in the way you think,” Wales shook his head, staring into the fire again. “I didn't order your lands seized. That was entirely my father's doing... But I'm the one who brought you to his attention in the first place, and for that sin, I'm sorry.”

    “What do you mean?” Matilda asked, now curious. She'd always supposed the two Wales men had colluded against her family. She'd oft imagined them sitting in their gold-gilt throneroom, cackling as they plotted how her family would suffer before they died.

    “I remember the first day you showed up at the royal court. You had a wreath of flowers in your hair, pink and white. They matched the color of your skin,” Wales sighed, as if lost in thought. “Your movements were so graceful and carefree. You didn't walk so much as dance your way through court. It was entrancing – you were entrancing. And I could tell you weren't some mindless girl, your wit and courtly manner were impressive. I said to my father that I should like to court you, so smitten was I with your countenance. But that was my mistake, I think.”

    “Oh?” Matilda's curiosity rose a notch.

    “It gave my father a reason to notice your family as something other than vassals in the background. He took your refusal as a personal insult... And King Wales does not accept insults from his lessers,” Wales replied. “He takes them only from equals, and only under duress at that. But I was young and foolish, and I did not understand him the way I do now.”

    “I see,” Matilda said, letting none of her emotions show on her face. Centuries of loyal service from her family tossed away over an imagined slight? Damnable bastard. Had she already not killed the king, she'd have felt the urge to strangle him. Instead, she simply felt tired. Wasn't that what Jean had said about revenge? “I have someone now, so don't think your story about being a good boy will get you into my trousers.”

    “As do I, and I care for my beloved too much to stray. I was merely reminiscing,” Wales gave a nervous laugh. “I've often wondered what I would say to you, if I ever met you again. Sorry doesn't really feel sufficient.”

    He gave a grim chuckle. “I would grant you any boon you asked in apology for my father's sins, but I find my power rather curtailed of late. Still, if it's within my power to grant, I will give you whatever you wish.”

    “Return with my party to Tristain,” Matilda tried, figuring she could at least make a pretense of securing his cooperation willingly.

    “Anything but that. I cannot abandon my knights, nor my father.” Wales shook his head. “My father's an old man, he's got perhaps one winter left. He wants to die with a spellsword in his hand. No matter what he's done, no matter how many people he's hurt, he's still my father. I have to grant him that. But the stain he's placed on my house's honor by his actions – actions like murdering your family – are too great to be washed away with his blood alone.”

    Foquet didn't feel the need to mention how King Albrecht Wales wasn't in much of a position to do anything now.

    “We were sent here for you,” Matilda said. “Is your honor really worth your life?”

    “We've been over this,” Prince Wales turned fully towards the roaring fireplace, his wine goblet resting on the table. “Back on the Eagle. No. I will not risk bringing ruin on Henrietta. My love life has caused enough deaths.”

    Matilda gave a hidden smile. In one smooth and long-practiced move, she poured several drops of sleeping draught into his wine from the hidden bladder in her sleeve.

    “I'm sorry to hear you say that, because I'm in Henrietta's employ. This comes directly from her,” Matilda leaned back in her seat. “And I very highly doubt your return to Tristain will bring ruin on her. The Princess does not strike me as one given over to flights of the heart. If she wants you returned to Tristain, I'm quite certain there is a purpose in it.”

    “I won't go. Even if it'll lead to my death, I can't go. I'm a prince. I can't just run and let better men than I fight and die in my place,” He sipped the wine. “Still, I've said my piece. I don't expect your forgiveness... But I wanted you to know that I do regret what happened, and would change it if I could.”

    “That's more honorable a motive than I expected when you asked for this meeting,” Matilda grinned. “Oh well, I suppose it doesn't matter too much.”

    “What do you mean?”

    “I drugged your wine with a sleeping draught just now,” Matilda shrugged. “By the time you wake up, we'll be on the last refugee ship to Tristain. I've already convinced your knights and your chamberlain to assist me. You should be proud. They're more loyal to you than they are to their chivalry. Good men.”

    “Wha-” Wales' eyes rolled up into the back of his head.

    Matilda opened the door and nodded at Paris and the two guards outside. From the glances they gave Paris, it was clear they were in on the conspiracy. “He should be out all evening. Please see to it that he's on the refugee ship. Long live the prince.”

    “Long live the prince!” The guards replied, slamming their fists on their armored breastplates.

    Paris simply nodded. “Thank you, lady d'Saxe-Gothe.”

    “Mission accomplished,” Matilda smiled to herself as she left the Prince's room. “Now time to get the kid and get off this rock.”

    She paused. Maybe she should borrow some royal treasures while she was here? After all, reconquista would probably burn them anyway, wouldn't they? She wondered if they had the crown jewels.

    <***>

    Louise heard a thick, powerful knock at her door late that evening. The feast was long since over, and she supposed Matilda was meeting with the prince to discuss whatever it was he wanted. She hoped Matilda would have better luck than she did, but she doubted it. The prince was too set in his ways. Her only hope was Mercer doing the impossible.

    Expecting, hoping that very same Mercer was the one knocking, she opened the door.

    Instead of her familiar, however, she came face to face with Wardes.

    Even now, she felt conflicted at the sight of him. Was that how love was supposed to be?

    “Good evening, Louise,” He smiled at her. “It's your birthday tonight, isn't it?”

    Louise blushed, touched that he'd even remember. Even she hadn't remembered. She knew it was coming, but with everything, she'd gotten swept up and just forgot about it.

    “Y-Yes,” Louise squeaked. “It is. Please come in.”

    “We have to discuss things. It's your birthday.” Wardes shuffled his feet, looking indecisive and almost nervous. “That makes you eighteen, doesn't it? Our wedding was to be when you turned eighteen.”

    “Erm...” Louise's head spun. Yes, she'd always kept that thought in the back of her mind, and she'd considered it at times over the past days, but now the notion seemed so huge. “Here? In the middle of a secret mission for the princess?”

    Wardes sighed. “When you were a young girl, I'll admit that I comforted and cared for you more out of respect for Karin and the agreement I made with your family. I wasn't too old myself, and the idea of marriage seemed like a distant thing. I scarcely knew you, though I did know even then that I didn't like seeing you sad.”

    Louise couldn't find the words to reply. The emotions his words brought forth were churning.

    “But this mission has shown me that you're far from the woman I expected,” Wardes shook his head.

    “I'm sorry I didn't live up to your expectations,” Louise sat on her bed, bringing her knees up to her chest and frowning. “If-if you want to cancel the arrangement because I'm too much of a zero, I won't contest it.”

    “Why would I do that? I'm happy you didn't meet my expectations. I was expecting someone to stay at home and knit and play the harp and do other wifely things,” Wardes grabbed her shoulder, looking into her eyes. “But I don't want any of that. I want a woman with a strong will of her own, one who's not just going to blindly do what I say. I want a woman who can keep up with me. On this mission, you've shown me that you're that woman. That you're also more beautiful than a breaking dawn is a bonus.”

    Louise's stomach did a somersault.

    “Then... Viscount, I – I'd like some more time. Things have changed a lot recently for me and I'd like to give my life a chance to settle down before I do something as huge and important as marriage,” Louise felt proud of her reply. She knew it was somewhat cowardly playing the indecisive woman card, but since he'd just been honest with her, she felt obligated to be honest with him in return.

    “Don't you want to marry me, my dear Louise?” Wardes wilted. “H-have I done something wrong? Offended you in some way? I know there was the night in La Rochelle, but I've already apologized for that. If there's-”

    “No, it's not that,” Louise shook her head. “I-I just want more time to find myself, that's all. Please give me that.”

    Wardes smiled, though it was a pained smile. “Very well. I'll give you this time you ask for. I promised you I wouldn't be so forward, didn't I? Though it's hard to restrain myself with a woman as heavenly as you.”

    Louise breathed a sigh of relief. It wasn't that she didn't want to marry Wardes. The idea of having someone to be there for her was an appealing one. But it was all happening so fast. He said nice things and protected her as best as he was able without just doting on her like a child, but she knew marrying him would change everything.

    “How about a toast then? Surely you won't deny me that at least,” Louise found it hard to argue with that, so she nodded her assent. Wardes went to the room's liquor cabinet, poured two glasses of fine Albion ale, and then handed one to Louise. “To finding ourselves?”

    “To finding ourselves,” Louise clinked her glass to his and drank down the alcohol.

    Something was wrong. She could tell it the moment the liquor touched her tongue. There was a slightly odd, almost fruity taste. She'd once had Albion ale when she broke into Eleanor's liquor cabinet in a fit of girlish rebellion. It had tasted of almonds and hops.

    She tasted that here, but there was an undercurrent of fruitiness that she couldn't place.

    Next, she noticed her skin flush. And the room was starting to seem awfully stuffy. Strange, liquor didn't usually hit her like this.

    “Louise?” Wardes was grinning. Why was he grinning? “Are you alright?”

    “I don't – I don't know?” Louise shivered, her head spinning slightly. Something in her felt hungry, but it wasn't like normal hunger. “I feel strange.”

    “Of course you do. That's just your body telling you that you belong to me,” Wardes' eyes took on a sinister glint in the firelight. “Nothing to worry about.”

    “Belong to?” Louise asked, dumbly. Why was that notion so appealing to her? Something was wrong. Very wrong. She knew, knew she'd been more conflicted about the idea of marrying him. Just now even. Did he put something in the liquor?

    “Did you drug me?” Louise's eyes went wide.

    Wardes' grin glistened in the dim lighting.

    “I'd hoped to avoid this. Love draught is such an inelegant solution,” Wardes sighed. “But it seems you've forced my hand.”

    Louise felt her mouth water. She shook her head, struggling to clear it. It was a losing battle. “No, this is wrong. What you've done here is wrong. When this wears off, I won't ever forgive you.”

    “Wrong? Wrong is subjective. It's not wrong for me to want to show my affection,” Wardes grabbed her long strawberry blonde hair, wrenching her head up to look directly at him. His smile turned so very cruel. “Or to claim what is mine.”
     
  5. volrath77

    volrath77 Serial Editor

    Joined:
    Nov 18, 2003
    Messages:
    8,368
    :eek:

    EDIT: :eek::eek::eek:

    EDIT2: 1st post! W00t!

    EDIT3: That is one helluva update! And Goddamnit! for that cliffhanger!
     
  6. Cpl_Facehugger

    Cpl_Facehugger Evolution Complete Administrator

    Joined:
    Nov 24, 2004
    Messages:
    45,180
    Okay guys. Thanks for waiting. I might go through and make some edits when my eyes aren't crosseyed from staring at black text on a white background for five hours straight looking for unfinished thoughts or misspelled words that are real words and thus not caught by spellcheck. Tired now though. Must sleeeeeeep.

    A few comments from the author before I do though-

    In canon, Wardes possessed a spell called "uneven distribution," which allowed him to be in several places at once without penalty. I don't really like this, but it's a useful story enabling device.

    In Unfamiliar, this spell has been swapped for a more thematically fitting "forked lightning", which fits his whole persona much better. This time around it weakens him splitting up, since otherwise you'd end up with some kind of Wardes infinite power loop and that's just all kinds of crazy.

    Also in canon, Wardes is implied (but not outright stated) to have used some sort of mind altering spell or potion on Louise, as she was disturbingly and uncharacteristically vapid until thoughts of Saito slapped her out of it at the wedding.

    In this story... Well, his love of mind control potions and spells is well established. Mind, he's never used those spells or potions on a void mage before.

    In canon, we have no idea how Germania was founded, AFAIK, though we know it's not one of the Brimiric nations. So I pretty much invented everything here based on the idea that money talks louder than anything else in Germania, hence why you can buy titles of nobility outright.

    For Mercer's shapeshifting abilities: Basically, I figure they're heavily toned down in the game, for much the same reason soldiers don't think it's odd that you can run up buildings (unless you have a weapon power out, then they automatically know you're Zeus. :p)

    A good rule of thumb is thus: anything a T-1000 can do, Mercer can do, at least for purposes of this story.

    The Tudor Fist flying battle barge actually had another name in canon, which I don't recall offhand. It didn't fit the new Wales king's personality that I developed, so I changed it to something more forceful, that emphasizes his mad belief in the supremacy of royalty over peons. (Including normal nobles.)

    The rebels renamed it the Lexington after their first victory, and this was preserved in this story (but won't come up until ch 13 when we see more of Cromwell.)

    Speaking of which, in canon, one thing I really dislike with the whole Albion arc is how blatant the namedrops are. I mean, Lexington? Oliver Cromwell? The Tudors? But since I already changed King Wales' name (actually confusing it with the Germanian Emperor in canon, but I ended up liking the sound of "Albrecht Wales" so much that I figured it's a Saxon Germanian influence), I decided to keep most of it.

    Also, those rifled canons in canon were originally given to Cromwell by Sheffield, using tech from Rub'al-Khalid. In this story... Well. They have a different origin, one that foreshadows something in chapter 12 and which will become clear in subsequent chapters. Oh, and they also triple range instead of increasing it by 33% for reasons that will also become clear.

    On the "dream-voice" - It's meant to be the same "Louise" you saw at the end of the dream in chapter 9. I just couldn't think of a better way to describe her/it. As to why she may seem inconsistent... That's by design.

    There's a bunch of scenes that didn't make the cut, many of which got pushed back into the next chapter. As chapter 12 was already pretty long, I figured it best to cut it off there.

    Edit: Oh yeah. Louise's age. In canon she's sixteen (though Halkeginian years are weird, such that she's 17 in Earth terms). I made her 17 going on 18 for this story, just so there's no confusion or loli shenanigans afoot. She's petite, but she doesn't look like she's ten (like the official artwork would suggest.)

    Edit2: Gak, I forgot something else important. In canon, Kirche was able to ride in to save the day due to following Louise, Saito, and Guiche as they made their way to La Rochelle on horseback. This time there was no horse to follow and a whole lot of other expensive carriages acting as unwitting decoys. That whole microscene was simply there to establish this, much like the one way back when Louise walked by the sword shop where she could've bought Derf before Sheffield scooped him up.
     
  7. Khaos

    Khaos

    Joined:
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    :eek::eek::eek:, seems I have something interesting to do the next hour (maybe less) or so.

    The title "Downward Spiral" is quite ominous at the very least.
     
  8. Cpl_Facehugger

    Cpl_Facehugger Evolution Complete Administrator

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    45,180
    Fun fact: I accidentally deleted the file that had the actual act titles, so I had to come up with new ones because I forgot what they were.

    Edit: Son of a bitch. How the hell could I misspell "Prototype" in the title?! :(

    I'll ask Holle to fix it at some point. But man, if I missed that, how many other garbled words did I miss?! :mad:
     
  9. Space_Mook

    Space_Mook

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    2,217
  10. 100thlurker

    100thlurker Solidarity

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    From my cursory glance? Not many.
     
  11. AngrySasquatch

    AngrySasquatch Can you really let it end here?

    Joined:
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    Yesssss

    Woohoo!

    As always, nothing but the hottest shit from you, Corporal.
     
  12. Forgetful

    Forgetful Nuka Chemist

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    I haven't read anything but...hold on a second...

    [​IMG]
     
  13. Robotninja

    Robotninja

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    Epic WIn. I can't wait to see Warders suffer from a Void magic spell.
     
  14. Alectai

    Alectai Mercenary Captain

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    Mar 29, 2009
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    15,654
    Oh god, three chapters?

    Oh god, you stopped Right at the Best Part, I want to see the army melt away in a puff of logistics! Also, Wardes getting to meet Alex up close and personal.
     
  15. ckk185

    ckk185 Solidarity

    Joined:
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    Grrk, cliff hanger.

    But, overall, it is awesome.
     
  16. LGear

    LGear The usual flamenco at 3 times the passion~

    Joined:
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    7,262
    I see this fic get updated after what seemed to be an eternity...

    ... read three whole chapters of the most awesome updates I've every read....

    ... and then be left short at a cliffhanger...

    WHY DO YOU PLAY WITH MY BLEEDING HEART SO?!?!?!
     
  17. Khaos

    Khaos

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    + 1, ****ing cliffhangers :rage::rage::rage:
     
  18. AzureGrimoire

    AzureGrimoire Could it possibly be rewritten, that fate of hers?

    Joined:
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    Sweet Mother of Kyuubey on a pogo stick...
     
  19. TheLastOne

    TheLastOne

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    I sort of think Alex isn't what Wardes need's to be worried about. There is something inherently BAD about void magic here, and Wardes just tampered with her mind. We know something bad happens to Louise here, something that solidifies her conviction she's a monster from the snipit of future conversation we see between her and Kirche. I don't think Wardes is going to get to rape Louise. I do think he's about to die in a sufficiently horrible way that, well, she can't quite forgive herself.
     
  20. Deadguy2001

    Deadguy2001 Bane of the Sla'haii

    Joined:
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    13,949
    I want my BLACKWATCH. How dare you drop (apparent) hints of their continued existence and not elaborate! :mad:

    Or am I misinterpreting Joeseph's spiel about men and black galleons?
     
  21. Emperor Tippy

    Emperor Tippy

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    Excellent updates.
     
  22. TheLastOne

    TheLastOne

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    By the way, who noticed that the elder Wales seemed to be a half converted supersoldier, and that he bleed all over someone else as he died.

    There's no way that could be significant.
     
  23. duckman

    duckman MAN & DUCK

    Joined:
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    Darn I wish I weren't so tired right now, I can never quite enjoy your writing to it's fullest at this hour. Maybe a few hours after I wake up tomorrow, well more like this afternoon.

    Edit:GAAH! I'm getting flashbacks, memories that make no sense chronologically with what they're associated with! WHY DO I SUDDENLY REMEMBER SEEING SOMETHING IDENTICAL TO THIS FROM 1998?!

    Oh, wait, I'm just sleep deprived... Ok, freakout done.
     
  24. Forgetful

    Forgetful Nuka Chemist

    Joined:
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    Alright funny idea.

    *Ten minutes after Wardes drugs Lousie*

    "OH MY GOD! GET ME OUT OF HERE!"

    Hint: It ain't Lousie in that high octave.
     
  25. Nameless_Flame

    Nameless_Flame

    Joined:
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    1,624
    Good lord man! That was one hell of an update!

    ...

    And damn you to the Pit for leaving off on such a cliffhanger! I wonder if Wardes is about to meet the other sides of Louise... especially the almost rabid killer one...
     
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