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Hate has a reason for everything: But Love is Unreasonable (MobuSeka/Hamefura)

Knight or Knave 1-1

drakensis

Well-known member
Joined
Aug 19, 2019
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492
Knight or Knave

You don't need money, don't take fame
Don't need no credit card to ride this train
~ Huey Lewis​

Chapter 1

Life being what it is, one dreams of revenge. ~ Paul Gauguin​

It was a dark and moonless night. Not stormy, but the clouds threatened rain in the near future.

The elves had posted night sentries but in the darkness, their only chance to detect intrusion onto the island would be their ability to see magic. Fortunately, any vessel must surely use magic, for the home of the elves was like any other above the surface of the limitless ocean - floating many hundreds of yards up in the sky due to the suspension stone within the mass of rock.

Leon Fou Bartford couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity as he rode through the sky and down towards the island. His airbike might look like any other used by the knights of human kingdoms, but the anti-gravs were purely mechanical in nature and by keeping the engine at low power he was able to avoid being seen or heard as he flew above one of the villages that dotted the island.

“Ruins thirty degrees to your left,” a sour voice informed him, through the ear bud Leon wore.

“Thanks.” He altered course accordingly, flying lower. The area was forested and overgrown, even through the night-vision gear he wore there was no sign it was different from any other part of the island until computer assisted imagery began to draw lines across what he saw. Rectangular outlines marked out what seemed very plausibly the footprint of buildings and streets, all long ruined.

Leon nodded and descended towards them, threading quietly through the tree-tops until he found somewhere to land. “This looks like what I’m after.” He was subvocalizing, still wary of drawing attention to himself. If his information was correct then the bulk of the elves considered this place taboo and would very much prefer outsiders stayed away.

Those who knew what was here would have even greater reason to encourage Leon to leave.

“This world is undoubtedly dotted with the remains of many thousands of lost settlements of the true humanity.” The voice of Luxion was waspish. “Finding one here does not validate your claims, master.”

Beneath his mask, Leon smiled tightly. The AI really didn’t like what he’d told it. It served him, perhaps even willingly, but he wasn’t going to go as far as claiming that Luxion respected him. “We’ll see. On some levels I’d prefer to be wrong. But what I saw has been accurate up to now.”

“Very well.” The AI waited as he landed the air bike and then marked a spot of ground with a caret on Leon’s view. “This spot would be suitable for the equipment I’ve provided you. Do you remember how to set it up?”

“I’m sure you’ll call me out on it if I get it wrong.” The young man dismounted and started unstrapping the packages secured behind him. They had been strapped down securely but he worked steadily and patiently, removing them one at a time and laying them out systematically on the forest floor before opening them.

A rounded drone, perhaps the size of a child’s ball, popped out of the first and watched judgmentally as Leon worked. The components inside had been packed with forethought to being set up in the field and working down from the top of each container let Leon quickly assemble six supporting legs for a central spike. None of the equipment was particularly light and he worked up a sweat, even after setting aside his cloak.

Once he was satisfied that it was done, he removed his mask and wiped his face. “So correct me?”

“Impressive, master.” The drone bobbed in the air. “Truly you were able to set up apparatus intended to be simple enough for a child to operate.”

“Why thank you, Luxion. You know how much your praise means to me.” The third son of a baron, Leon had never been to court but sarcasm came as easy to him as griping came to his father’s wife. “Seriously, if it needs adjustment.”

“The apparatus is adequate in its current state.” The indicator light on the front of the drone flickered several times. “How... disappointing.”

Leon arched an eyebrow.

Luxion didn’t need to breathe so sighing wasn’t part of its speech patterns. “You were right,” it confessed. “There is a considerable underground facility beneath these ruins. The layout and materials are consistent with a war-time expedient research bunker.”

The AI’s master pulled his mask back on. “One more piece of evidence?”

“By all rights, your claim that you remember another life in which you read a book in which someone was reincarnated into a game they played with a setting very much resembling the kingdom in which you live is unnecessarily complex, redundant and possibly a sign of mental deficiency.”

Leon chuckled under his breath. “Yeah. And I’m fourteen. If the evidence didn’t bear out my hypothesis, I’d be accusing myself of middle-school syndrome. And there is no middle school in Holfort.”

“The local educational establishment or lack thereof is hardly the primary concern here.” Luxion bobbled in the air. “I have located the entrance. Please follow me.”

The entrance was concealed but not hard to open once you knew where it was. Leon was disappointed once more to find things were as he had expected. “And a swept floor inside, to mask the fact that there are footprints in the dirt,” he complained to Luxion as they followed the passageways towards the core of the complex.

“I am uncertain why you expect better from the species that consider this island their home, master.”

“You don’t think I want any of this to be true, do you?”

“To save a kingdom, win the gratitude of many women and crush those who look down on you is the epitome of adolescent fantasy,” the AI reminded him. “Your predictions promise you all of that.”

“And this is why I don’t want to trust them. It’s too convenient.”

“Your perversity never fails to impress me, master.”

Leon looked at the doors ahead of them. “So this is it?”

“Given the size of the room and the wiring arrangement, this is either the primary laboratory or the power plant.” Luxion’s camera scanned the metal plate on the front of the door, now bare of any visible words. “The braille markings are not those of the power plant.”

“And here’s me who never learned to read braille.” The boy reached out to the door. “Is anyone in there?”

“The room’s cladding makes it resistant to sonic scanning.”

“So you don’t know.”

The AI declined to comment and Leon shook his head in amusement. Then he unstrapped the pump-action shotgun he’d been carrying under his cloak. “Then I guess we’ll have to find out the old fashioned way.”

Rearing up, he kicked the door open and darted inside, barely avoiding the door rebounding towards him. Luxion’s drone body also darted in, staying high above the boy’s head.

Inside, lights flicked on one at a time, gradually revealing the extent of the room. Dozens of glass cylinders full of translucent, bubbling liquid were surrounded by pumps and electronics of types that the teenager could only guess at. Larger consoles were surrounded by arrays of screens, suggesting that these were the stations from which whatever was done here was managed.

The only life present were fetus-like and drifting within the fluids of the cylinders. Leon tried to avoid looking at them, and was glad that his face was covered so Luxion couldn’t see him go green.

“As predicted,” Luxion declared flatly.

“I’m sure you’re as disappointed as I am.” Leon closed his eyes in concentration. It took a notable effort, after all these years, to speak in a language he’d barely used in this life. “Cleare, are you online?”

One of the wall mounted screens lit up. “There is no plausible way for you to know my designation,” a voice declared in the same long-dead tongue.

“It’s very implausible,” Luxion declared. “Nonetheless, we are here. And as predicted, so are you.”

“This facility is top secret,” the voice declared, a line bouncing up and down across the screen - a representation of the audio level of the voice? Leon had to admit he had no idea. Likely a purely psychological measure to give a listener something to look at. “I am surprised that records of my existence survive outside of the laboratories here.”

“We have no such records,” Luxion responded.

“A colonial AI!” the voice exclaimed. “How exciting. Has old humanity returned to their homeworld at last?”

“My vessel was not launched.”

“How distressing that you could not carry out your purpose.” There was less empathy in the voice than there was pleasure.

Leon shook his head. “Have the elves noticed you?”

“They have no idea,” Cleare responded sharply. “I permit them to play with the equipment in order to measure their capacities.”

He gestured at the cylinders. “And this is their work.”

“It is very disappointing. Their methodology is laughably poor and their conclusions are insultingly erroneous.”

“Being fair, it took humanity quite a long time to work out the scientific process,” Leon observed. “I doubt they’ve had quite that long.”

“They could at least have imitated your people, as they do everything else about you,” the facility’s AI declared huffily. “For all their pretensions of superiority, they are essentially a cargo cult.”

Leon shrugged. He couldn’t really disagree with that. The elves’ main economic lynchpin was renting themselves out as ‘contract servants’ to the nobility of the nearby kingdom of Holfort. Ten or twenty years service was no great loss to them given their longevity, and the merchants who managed their contracts paid in tools and material. It was telling though that few of the elves seemed interested in learning to create those tools themselves and becoming more independent.

“We are closing down this facility,” Luxion declared flatly. “For an engineered species to be allowed access is bad enough. It is clear their incompetence will eventually reveal it to the new humans.”

“I concur,” Cleare conceded sulkily. “That outcome would be unacceptable. Yet if old humanity has not returned, why are you co-operating with one of them?”

Luxion’s bobbing in the air halted and his sensor camera zeroed in on the screen. “The situation is anomalous. I will provide you with detailed data.”

Leon winced behind his mask. So now the AIs were talking behind his back. He doubted they’d have much nice to say…

“What a wonderful experiment!” Cleare exclaimed.

“So are you interested?”

“Of course. I will identify equipment suitable for you to take with you,” the AI declared. “And some valuable samples that might not be sufficiently destroyed by the self-destruct.”

Oh, of course. “And when are you going to trigger that?” enquired Leon, feeling a flood of adrenaline at the prospect.

“I started the countdown when a new human entered the facility,” Cleare told him cheerfully. “I’m downloading my back-up to Luxion’s servers. I don’t suggest lingering once you’ve collected the equipment and samples.”

Leon groaned. “Where are they? And how long do I have exactly?”

“I don’t believe I should disclose that to a new human. Out the door and go left.”

“Hells,” he complained and obeyed the instructions. “We’re going to have to work on this relationship.”

-

“We found this in what remains of the ruins.”

The village chief looked at the spider-like construct that he’d been brought from the ancient ruins. “What is this?” he demanded. “Has anyone seen it before?”

None of the elves in his inner circle admitted to doing so.

“It’s not the work of the humans,” one pointed out. “We’ve seen their handiwork, but this had the look of ancient equipment.”

“Some ancient relic that’s been brought here?”

The chief slapped the elf who suggested that. “Aren’t you supposed to have guards posted? If anyone brought this here, why didn’t you know about it?”

“The sentries didn’t see any aircraft before sundown and no magical beings were visible.”

“And yet our ancient heritage has been lost, perhaps forever!”

“Chief!” A younger elf rushed in. “The elder’s here.”

The chief paused. “Now?”

“How could she have heard about this already?” The slapped elf didn’t seem concerned by his chastisement. Elves were sturdier than humans, the slap had been a token gesture at best. “It’s only been a few hours.”

“Maybe she foresaw it.”

There were uneasy looks among the elves, but before they could say more, the new arrivals reached where they were standing in the village’s central square. The elder was ancient even by the standards of their people, wrinkled and wizened, hunched over and walking with the aid of a stick. Beside her, a younger elf - well, relatively younger - walked carrying the bags.

“Honoured elder. We welcome you to the village.”

The elder whispered something under her breath.

“The elder says that she has warned you many times about meddling with the ruins.”

“I honour the elder’s words,” the chief claimed. “But when they were devastated, we had to investigate in case there was a threat to the village. This -” He indicated the construct “- was brought back from it.”

More whispered words.

“Do not think that the elder is unaware that you have found what was buried beneath the ruins,” the interpreter declared, though her tone suggested that it was news to her. “You have awoken that which should not live. Worse, you have brought the demon lord here.”

“What demon lord?” the chief frowned irritably. “What even is a demon lord.”

The elder raised one finger and pointed behind the chief. He turned and found himself looking directly at the masked and cloaked figure of Leon, who had Luxion hovering to his side.

Mentally cursing out the old biddy for being entirely too keen-eyed at this time of the pre-dawn, Leon met the gaze of the elves levelly. Bluffing would have to do.

“Rejoice in my mercy,” he drawled. “I saw that the destruction took place while your people were asleep and not while you were present to be slain.”

The explosions under the ruins had been more than sufficient to let the nearby village know that something was up and after ferrying the equipment up to his vessel, Leon had returned in time to watch from concealment as lantern-carrying elves investigated and found the crater that resulted from every major structural member of the base being severed by explosives. Given that several vats of chemicals had also been ruptured, he really didn’t think anyone digging into the ruins would have a good time of it. However, the seismic sensor he and Luxion had used to find the base had been left behind and the elves had carried it back to the village, recognising it was out of place.

The elder coughed something out, bent over almost double.

“Our elder thanks you for your mercy.”

“Mercy!?” exclaimed the chief. “Do you know what you have destroyed, intruder?”

“The birthing chambers from which your species was engineered as slave-soldiers,” Luxion grated. “To battle the same species that you now subjugate yourselves to. Disgusting.”

The elves gasped, offended and disbelieving.

To be fair, pretty much everyone seemed to have forgotten the very existence of the old humans. Leon’s limited education on the source of the many ruins that were all that marked the remains of their technological society drew no lines between them and the modern day magic users, the ‘new humans’ that had supplanted their unmagical forebears. The cataclysmic nature of the war, which had shattered the surface continents and flung vast masses of the crust up into the sky to hang there in apparent defiance of Newtonian physics had come very close to having no survivors at all.

The chief took a step forward. “You’re talking nonsense. We elves are clearly the superior species, more refined and durable than humans. It is logical that they were simply our own servitor race, now run amok.”

Luxion released an outraged squeal but Leon raised his hand. “Don’t argue with him, Luxion. He’ll just drag you down to his own level.” He lowered his hand once more. “I doubt there’s one piece of refined metal on this island that isn’t the work of human hands. Your tools, your weapons, most of what you use for daily life, it all comes from human hands. You need them, but they do not need you. That more than answers which species is currently superior. If you wish to change that, I suggest putting that refinement to work on building some independence rather than digging up the demons of the past.”

The chief placed one hand on the pistol at his belt. “What do you want?”

Well, since you’re asking. “I will take two of your villagers.” Leon snapped his hand up before the chief could speak. “The woman named Yumeria, her child named Kyle.”

Luxion had waited in cloud-cover until the sun set before Leon approached. In that time he’d evaluated the village through a telescope and seen that both of them were present. Apparently whatever merchant would have taken Kyle away hadn’t arrived yet… which was potentially useful.

“Why should we indulge someone who lacks even a trace of magic?” the chief demanded. “I don’t believe this nonsense about demon lords and…”

“Luxion, the chief’s house please.”

“...what about my -”

The chief was cut off as the front half of the sizable (by local standards) house disintegrated into splinters. It was only made of wood after all, and it had been struck by a chunk of metal moving at multiples of the speed of sound. The sharp crack of the sonic boom scattered the debris further. Fortunately no one appeared to have been inside the house - or in the path of the shattered wooden boards that had been pulverised.

“Nice village you have here,” Leon observed in the dull silence that followed.

“Are you threatening us!?”

The interpreter snapped: “Of course he is!” before she realised that the elder was whispering to her. The elf woman cleared her throat. “The elder accepts your request.”

The elder coughed out a correction.

“Your demand.”

Leon nodded. “I’m pleased we understand each other.”

The ancient elf leant heavily upon her staff and spat out more words, gazing up at Leon’s masked face. He looked impassively back at her, subvocalizing to Luxion: “Did you catch that?”

“The elf language is unknown. Based on their words so far, it appears loosely inspired by fictional languages of the distant past.”

“The elder commands that Yumeria and Kyle be brought before the demon lord,” the interpreter informed them.

The chief glowered but then waved at two of the elves with him. “Bring them here.”

“She also has a prophecy.”

“Prophecy has no basis in fact,” sneered Luxion. “Such superstition is to be expected of these degenerates.”

Leon shrugged. “And yet from what I recall, she has a decent track record. No harm in listening.” He raised his voice. “The elder has my attention.”

The interpreter crouched over to listen carefully to the words of the wizened elf woman. She frowned and then straightened. “She says: ‘In your quest to grasp everything, you will find yourself to hold nothing but your revenge’.”

Behind the mask the boy pursed his lips, parsing the statement. Then he dipped his head slightly in respect to the elder. “In that case, elder of the elves, I will do all that I can to obtain the best and most satisfying of revenges.”

-

The airbike was intended for one rider and perhaps one passenger. Fitting Yumeria, a rather buxom elf woman, and her son behind Leon was something of an exercise. Fortunately (at least for this purpose), the two had nothing with them but the clothes that they were wearing. The chief’s associates had more or less dragged them from their home and pushed them over to Leon without as much as an explanation.

Not wanting to strain the limits of the airbike, Leon eased the throttle open and took it easy on the flight back to his skyship - which was moored in a discreet corner of the island, shielded from view from the two nearest villages by a promontory and by being well below the edge of the island’s inhabited surface. If someone came looking, they could spot it but there was no particular reason for them to do so until now… and he’d be gone soon.

As they flew over the edge of the island and Leon began to skirt the limits of it, Kyle produced a short knife - probably used in the kitchen - from one sleeve. “What if I stab you?”

“Kyle!” his mother gasped.

“Assuming you find a weakness in my armour, we all die,” Leon told the boy evenly. “Or do you know how to ride an airbike?”

The boy grumbled and hid the knife again. Yumeria tried to take it off him, shifting her balance point and forcing Leon to adjust. “Please stop that,” he requested mildly. “I’ll find him something better suited for self-defense once we’re on my ship. I don’t think that knife would cut cheese, much less my cloak or flesh.”

“He shouldn’t need a knife at all!”

“Lots of things shouldn’t be so, but somehow still are,” Leon said philosophically. “Thus me rushing around trying to wrong rights, save dragons from damsels and otherwise… wait, I got that the wrong way round didn’t I?”

“Who are you?” the small boy demanded. “Are you really a demon lord?”

“Actually, I think that by demon lord she meant Luxion. Say hello to my guests, Luxion.”

“Do we have to take them aboard, master?”

“It’s all part of the plan,” Leon assured him. “You know, the good plan.”

Luxion was silent for a long moment. “Your definition of a good plan remains questionable.”

Yumeria tried to reach out to the drone that was flying along next to the airbike, quite able to keep up unless Leon flew rather faster than he cared to with the three of them crammed onto the single seat. She drew back her fingers sharply when Luxion crackled briefly with electricity. “It stung me!”

“Please don’t molest my familiar. Luxion is very sensitive.”

“I’m sorry,” the elf woman said apologetically, bowing in the direction of Luxion’s drone and forcing Leon to adjust the balance again.

It was a relief once they reached the deck of the skyship and Leon wasn’t responsible for them all tumbling out of the sky. He pulled off his cloak and draped it over the airbike before removing his mask.

“What!?” Kyle exclaimed once he saw Leon. “You’re just a kid, you’re not much older than I am!”

“I dunno, how old are you? Ten? Eleven?”

“Twelve!” the boy snapped.

Leon smiled lazily. “Interesting. As I understand it, elves mature at the same rate as the rest of their aging. A twelve year old elf should be barely out of his diapers, but you look about as mature as my ten year old brother…”

Kyle made a rude gesture at Leon.

“And you’re acting like him too,” Leon continued drily. He looked at Yumeria. “Of course, that might make sense if your son is only half an elf. Am I wrong?”

She looked pale and pulled her son to her. “What do you want with us?”

“I’d like to confirm a little theory, which shouldn’t be too stressful. After that… well, I have an idea or two where you’ll be safe for the next little while. Or as safe as anyone can hope for in this crazy old world.”

“Why not back at the village then?” Yumeria asked.

“Well, someone’s going to take the blame for me smashing the ruins,” Leon observed wryly, starting to push the airbike towards the entrance to the skyship’s hold. “And since I’m not there, and the chief isn’t likely to want to take responsibility for the mess, even though he really is the one who had the clever idea of trying to start a war with humanity, I think he’d like a scapegoat. And someone who doesn’t quite in with the rest of the village is always an easy target for blame-shifting.”

“Why did you do all this in the first place then?” demanded Kyle. “Why come here at all?”

“Well, I have another theory.” The young man looked over at the drone. “Cleare?”

The indicator light changed colour. “Present!” the AI declared, chirpily.

“That self-destruct was very nicely self-contained, but was that your only option? Assuming that biological containment had been breached, for example.”

“I had a variety of options,” Cleare assured him. “I could have sterilized the entire island if I needed to.”

“Sterilized?” Yumeria started to reach out to poke at the drone again and then thought better of it. “What does that mean?”

“Wiped it clean of all life, down to the microbes,” the bio-sciences AI clarified. “Which would have been a waste of research subjects, but you can’t be too careful.”

“Aren’t you glad I came along?” asked Leon, opening the cargo hold. A second drone emerged, two mechanical arms having extended to carry a heavy section of armour plating. It looked to Leon as if it should be part of a knight’s armour - one of the mecha used in aerial combat between the kingdoms. However, such armour panels rarely had their own arms, nor tentacles that tried to reach out towards passers by.

“Getting rid of the trash?” he asked the new drone.

“It is a hardwired directive,” Luxion announced with as much satisfaction as Leon had thus far heard from him. “Cleare, you will assist me in carrying this clear of my vessel.”

“But think of all the experiments we can do with it!”

Luxion swivelled to eye the drone Cleare was using. “You have usurped my drone, Cleare. Do not challenge me on this.”

“Oh very well,” the other AI said grumpily and extended two arms to assist in carrying the arm away.

“Let’s get inside,” Leon said, feeling a trickle of unhappy anticipation. Kyle seemed to feel the same way and put his own weight into pushing the bike inside.

A moment later, there was the sound of machinery cycling from up ahead, where the skyship’s forward turrets were located. Leon winced and slammed the cargo door closed behind the three of them.

Even through the door, the sound of the main guns obliterating the armour shard and the two drones was quite audible.

“That was quite unnecessary,” Cleare complained over the skyship’s intercom system.

“I disagree,” Luxion declared flatly. “It was contaminated.”

“That armour piece with whatever it was that animated it… or the drone by Cleare?” Leon asked the ship’s AI.

Luxion declined to reply, which was an answer in and of itself.
 
Last edited:
Characters (Spoilers)

drakensis

Well-known member
Joined
Aug 19, 2019
Reaction score
492
Status is as of the story beginning.

Royal Houses
  • Holfort
    • King Roland Rafa Holfort, married to Mylene
    • Queen Mylene Rafa Holfort (nee Repard), married to Roland
    • Crown Prince Julius Rafa Holfort, Crown Prince of Holfort, son of Roland and Mylene, engaged to Angelica, entering the academy this year
    • Layne Rafa Holfort, Roland’s acknowledged son
    • Erika Rafa Holfort, Roland’s acknowledged daughter

  • Fanoss
    • Princess Hertrude Sera Fanoss, elder sister of Hertrauda, of age to enter the royal academy this year
    • Hertrauda Sera Fanoss, younger sister of Hetrude, of age to enter the royal academy next year
Ducal Houses

Ducal titles within Holfort are broadly held by families that once ruled independent principalities that chose to join the Holfort kingdom as it expanded beyond the continent. Prior to their secession, Fanoss was one of these households. The principalities were often the source of the settlers who followed Holfort in colonising the continent.
  • Stuart - their domain lies between the continent and the Alzer Commonwealth, meaning there’s little hope of extending their domain. They do have to remain wary of pirates sheltering inside what’s technically Alzer territory.
    • Arthur Rafa Stuart, the late Duke of Stuart
    • Ygraine Rafa Stuart (nee Holfort), the late duchess
    • Duke Jeffrey Rafa Stuart, married to Suzanna
    • Duchess Suzanna Rafa Stuart (nee Randall), married to Jeffrey, heads the Ministry of Magic’s Magical Tools department in the guise of Larna Smith
    • Lord Ian Rafa Stuart, brother of Jeffrey, Gerald and Alan, engaged to Selena, graduated the academy this year
    • Lord Gerald Rafa Stuart, brother of Jeffrey and Ian, elder twin of Alan, engaged to Katarina, entering the academy this year
    • Lord Alan Rafa Stuart, brother of Jeffrey and Ian, younger twin of Gerald, engaged to Mary, entering the academy this year

  • Redgrave - the Redgrave domain is on the eastern edge of the kingdom, with the most access of any duchy to the north-eastern frontier.
    • Duke Vince Rafa Redgrave, son of Roland’s paternal aunt, most prominent voice among the ‘traditionalist’ nobility, who idealise adventurers.
    • Lord Gilbert Rafa Redgrave, Vince’s son, Angelica’s brother
    • Lady Angelica Rafa Redgrave, Vince’s daughter, Gilbert’s sister, engaged to Julius, entering the academy this year

  • Claes - the Claes domain is in the south-west of the kingdom, one of two duchies facing the Holy Rachelle Empire.
    • Duke Luigi Rafa Claes
    • Duchess Miranda Rafa Claes (nee Ades), wife of Luigi, sister of Auld
    • Lady Katarina Rafa Claes, daughter of Luigi and Miranda, entering the academy this year
    • Lord Keith Rafa Claes (nee Coleman), Luigi and Miranda’s adopted son, biological son of Viscount Coleman, entering the academy this year

  • Ades - the Ades domain is the most northerly duchy, anchoring the northern border with Fanoss and insulated from the north-eastern frontier by smaller domains.
    • Duke Auld Rafa Ades, withdrew from court to live with his mistress, taking Scarlet with him.
    • Duchess Bellerose Rafa Ades (deceased), wife of Auld, mother of Violette and Scarlet
    • Lady Elfa Rafa Ades, Auld’s mistress, mother of Vermilion
    • Lady Violette Rafa Ades, daughter of Auld and his wife, elder twin of Scarlet, half-sister of Vermilion, entering the academy this year
    • Lady Scarlet Rafa Ades, daughter of Auld and his wife, younger twin of Violette, half-sister of Vermilion, entering the academy this year
    • Lord Vermilion Rafa Ades, son of Auld and his mistress, half-brother of Violette and Scarlet

  • Berg - the Berg domain domain is in the south of the kingdom, one of two duchies facing the Holy Rachelle Empire.
    • Duke Simon Rafa Berg
    • Lady Selena Rafa Berg, daughter of Duke Berg, graduated the academy this year
Marquis Houses

Marquis houses were established to control key islands linking the continent and the ducal territories or buffering border areas. Their prestige is only slightly less than dukes and like dukes they can maintain noble vassals.
  • Field - once the main stepping stone to the Fanoss duchy, now their north-western domain that is most pressed during conflicts with them.
    • Marquis Tarquin Fou Field
    • Lord Brad Fou Field, son of Marquis Field, engaged to Cassandra, entering the academy this year

  • Frampton - north-east of the continent, the Frampton domain lie between the Roseblade and Offrey counties and the Ades duchy, a fairly major trading route between the continent and the frontier.
    • Marquis Malcom Fou Frampton, Minister of the Treasury, the most prominent voice among the more mercantile noble families, those lean towards trade (if sometimes rather aggressive trade) as priorities for building the kingdom

  • Mason - south-east of the continent, the Mason domain is a route to the Stuart and Redgrave duchies as well as the Mason and Randall marquisates.
    • Marquis David Fou Mason
    • Lord James Fou Mason, son of David

  • Hunt - the fourth of the inner marquisates, the Hunt domain is south-west of the continent and on the main route to the Claes and Berg duchies.
    • Marquis Rickard Fou Hunt, married twice, widowed twice
    • Lady Lilia Fou Hunt (first daughters from the first wife), married to Lord Jack Forton
    • Lady Madeleine Fou Hunt (second daughters from the first wife), married
    • Lady June Fou Hunt (third daughters from the first wife), married
    • Lady Mary Fou Hunt, daughter of Marquis Hunt and his second wife, engaged to Alan, entering the academy this year

  • Dieke - the most southerly marquisate bridges the divide between the Berg and Stuart duchies, both protecting the region from outside attack and buffering two previously antagonistic principalities
    • Marquis Regulus Fou Dierke, in exile for several years.
    • Marchioness Rebecca Fou Dieke, mother of Sirius
    • Lord Sirius Fou Dieke (deceased), son of Marquis Dieke and Marchioness Dieke, entered the academy last year

  • Randall - the most westerly marquisate bridges the divide between the Redgrave and Stuart duchies, both protecting the region from outside attack and buffering two previously antagonistic principalities
    • Marquis Jonas Fou Randall, father of Suzanna
    • Lord Isak Fia Randall, brother of Marquis Randall and a court official, now his brother’s heir.
    • Lady Frey Fia Randall, daughter of Lord Randall, cousin of Suzanna, entering the academy next year
    • Lord Njord Fia Randall, son of Lord Randall, several years younger than his sister Frey
Count Houses

Counts control major (but not strategic) holdings of the kingdom away from the main continent, or hold the highest hereditary ministerial positions. Court titles are theoretically equal to feudal titles, but in practice are considered to have slightly higher status. Fanoss uses the title of Count for their highest tier of lords, those who broke away from Holfort with them or islands incorporated later.
  • Arclight - the oldest court count household, traditionally serving as champions, masters-at-arms or admirals for the Holforts.
    • Count Charles Fia Arclight, Sword Saint, father of Chris
    • Lord Chris Fia Arclight, engaged to Violette, entering the academy this year

  • Atlee - after three successive Atlees served as ministers for the crown they were elevated to counts, with the hereditary right of refusal for a ministerial position if one falls open and the count doesn’t already hold one.
    • Count Bernard Fia Atlee, father of Clarice, brother of Radea, uncle of Nicol and Sophia, Minister of Foreign Affairs
    • Lady Clarice Fia Atlee, daughter of Bernard, engaged to Jilk, entered the academy last year

  • Ascart - the newest court counts, with the current Count elevated from Viscount by King Roland’s father, only twenty years ago.
    • Count Dan Fia Ascart, husband of Radea, father of Nicol and Sophia, Minister of Magic
    • Countess Radea Fia Ascart (nee Atlee), sister of Bernard, wife of Dan, mother of Nicol and Sophia, aunt of Clarice
    • Lord Nicol Fia Ascart, graduating the academy next year
    • Lady Sophia Fia Ascart, entering the academy this year

  • Seberg - the senior feudal count household, holding a domain that anchors the southern end of the border with Fanoss.
    • Count Augustus Fou Seberg, father of Greg
    • Lord Greg Fou Seberg, engaged to Scarlet, entering the academy this year
    • Lord Gareth Fou Seberg, younger than Greg

  • Roseblade - a domain carved out of the north-eastern frontier but now insulated from it by domains established since.
    • Count Estian Fou Roseblade, father of Dorothea and Deirdre
    • Countess Cecile Fou Roseblade, mother of Dorothea and Deirdre
    • Lady Dorothea Fou Roseblade, elder sister of Deirdre, graduated the academy last year
    • Lady Deirdre Fou Roseblade, younger sister of Dorothea, graduating the academy next year

  • Olfrey - a border county with Fanoss, which fell into the hands of a mercantile baronial house after the male heirs died out during the wars with the Principality.
    • Count Nicholas Fou Olfrey, father of Clement and Cassandra, played an important role in negotiating peace with Fanoss after the last war.
    • Lord Clement Fou Olfrey, brother of Cassandra
    • Lady Cassandra Fou Olfrey, sister of Clement, entered the academy last year

  • Lergen - domain in the south-west of the kingdom

  • Forton - domain in the south-west of the kingdom
    • Jack Fou Forton, married to Lilia

  • Basilios - a county that sits between the four powerful domains of the Mason, Dieke, Randall and Stuart households.
    • Count Jacob Fou Basilios
    • Ivan Fou Basilios, Jacob’s son, graduated the academy last year
    • James Fou Basilios, Jacob’s nephew, entering his third year in the academy’s general class, one of Clarice’s followers

  • Barra - Fanoss’ major southern vassal
    • Count Gregor Vor Barra, Aral’s foster son after his family was wiped out between the wars with Holfort and internal politics

  • Garrett - Fanoss’ major northern vassal
    • Count Christophe Vor Garrett, head of the Fanoss Regency Council
Viscount Houses

Mid-tier court officials and the mid-tier feudal lords. Unlike counts and more senior titles, some feudal viscounts are sworn to other feudal lords rather than directly to the crown. These viscounts would be ranked below those who are direct crown vassals. Court titles are theoretically equal to feudal titles, but in practice are considered to have slightly higher status.
  • Marmoria - the oldest court viscounts, usually acting as the king’s senior herald.
    • Viscount Francis Fia Marmoria
    • Lord Jilk Fia Marmoria, son of Viscount Marmoria, engaged to Clarice, entering the academy this year

  • Coleman - a court viscountcy traditionally associated with administration of the capital city.
    • Viscount Tobias Fia Coleman, cousin of Luigi, father of Thomas, Ernest and Keith
    • Lord Thomas Fia Coleman (disowned), oldest son of Viscount Coleman
    • Lord Ernest Fia Coleman, younger legitimate son and heir of Viscount Coleman

  • Lafan - a feudal domain holding on the continent
    • Viscount Alexander Fou Lafan
    • Viscountess Mavis Fou Lafan
    • Lord Henry Lafan, son and heir
    • Lady Alice Lafan, elder daughter
    • Lady Marie Lafan, youngest daughter of Viscount Lafan, entering the academy this year

  • Hefner - a western border domain between the Seberg and Claes domains

  • Warren - one of the feudal domains that has grown up between the Roseblades and the north-eastern frontier.

  • Bourdon - a minor interior viscountcy in the south of the kingdom
    • Viscount Allen Fou Bourdon
    • Lord Alan Fou Bourdon, Allen’s younger brother, entering the academy this year

  • Catley - a southern border viscountcy, that was at one point disputed between the Claes and Bergs, directly sworn to the crown to resolve the dispute.
    • Viscount Nicholas Fou Catley
    • Lady Marsha Fou Catley

  • Podebrat - one of the feudal domains that has grown up between the Roseblades and the north-eastern frontier.
    • Viscount Bruce Fou Podebrat
    • Lord Jake Fou Podebrat, entering the academy this year
    • Lady Melissa Fou Podebrat

  • Kosigan - the Fanoss viscountcy closest to the Seberg domain, with a particularly high martial reputation as a result.
    • Viscount Piotr Vor Kosigan - one of Fanoss’ most famous generals, officially neutral between the war faction and the peace faction
    • Lord Aral Vor Kosigan - one of Vandel him Bandel’s few rivals for the title greatest knight in Fanoss, very successful in the last war but major player in the peace faction
    • Lady Cordelia Vor Kosigan - Aral’s second wife, from the Alzer Commonwealth
    • Lord Miles Vor Kosigan - Aral’s young son

  • Darian - a western viscountcy of Fanoss, not directly bordering the kingdom
    • Viscount Vidal Vor Darian - a supporter of Fanoss’ war faction

  • Patril - a western viscountcy of Fanoss, not directly bordering the kingdom
    • Viscount Padma Vor Patril, Aral’s maternal first cousin
    • Viscountess Alys Vor Patril
    • Lord Ivan Vor Patril, Padma and Alys’ son
Baron Houses

Low tier court officials and low tier feudal lords. Unlike counts and more senior titles, some feudal barons are sworn to other feudal lords rather than directly to the crown. These barons would be ranked below those who are direct crown vassals. Court titles are theoretically equal to feudal titles, but in practice are considered to have slightly higher status.
  • Wulfenbach - a court barony, with the barons having held many minor positions over the years
    • Baron Klaus Fia Wulfenbach, one time lord high executioner and now a senior royal herald
    • Gilgamesh Fia Wulfenbach, graduate of the academy

  • Flegel - a court barony mostly associated with the judicial system,
    • Siegfried Fia Flegel - royal prosecutor
    • Lady Yulia Fia Flegel, entering the academy this year

  • Arkin - one of the feudal domains that has grown up between the Roseblades and the north-eastern frontier.
    • Baron Leonard Fou Arkin
    • Lord Raymond Fou Arkin, entering the academy this year

  • Bartford - one of the feudal domains that has grown up between the Ades and the north-eastern frontier.
    • Baron Barcus Fou Bartford
    • Baroness Zola Fou Bartford (nee Coleman), sister of Viscount Coleman
    • Lady Ruth Fou Bartford
    • Lord Rudyard Fou Bartford, Barcus and Zola’s (presumed) son, graduating the academy this year
    • Lord Nicks Fou Bartford, Barcus and Ruth’s oldest son, graduating the academy this year
    • Lady Merce Fou Bartford, Barcus and Zola’s (presumed) daughter, graduating the academy next year
    • Lady Jenna Fou Bartford, Barcus and Ruth’s elder daughter, entered the academy last year
    • Lord Leon Fou Bartford, Barcus and Ruth’s middle son, entering the academy this year
    • Lady Finley Fou Bartford, Barcus and Ruth’s younger daughter
    • Lord Colin Fou Bartford, Barcus and Ruth’s younger son

  • Durland - a one-time frontier domain that now lies uneasily between the Ades duchy and the Roseblade county.
    • Baron Phillip Fou Durland
    • Lord Daniel Fou Durland, entering the academy this year

  • Sullivan - once a viscountcy on the border with Fanoss, now reduced to a barony due to its devastation.

  • Gorton - a barony between the continent and the Redgrave domain
    • Baronss Estelle Fou Gorton (nee Durbray)

  • Durbray - a minor barony on the eastern edge of the continent.

  • Tucker - one of the feudal domains that has grown up between the Ades and the north-eastern frontier.
    • Baron Harold Fou Tucker
    • Ginger Fou Tucker, twelfth daughter of Baron Tucker, entering the academy next year

  • Shelley - feudal vassals of Duke Claes
    • Baron Andrew Fou Shelley
    • Anne Fou Shelley, daughter of Baron Shelley and his mistress, maid to Katarina

Baronet Houses

Essentially the apex of the gentry class, made up of knights serving the nobility (or the crown) in military or administrative roles. Many have feudal holdings of their own, of the smallest scale. Baronets make up the majority of Holfort’s feudal levies, but can rarely field the best equipment. In addition, the upper crust of household servants (particularly for royal and ducal families) are often the younger children of baronial or baronet households.
  • Zenden - a minor household sworn directly to the Princes of Fanoss
    • Sir Vandel Him Zenden, the black knight of Fanoss

  • Glau - vassals of Viscount Allen
    • Lysia Fou Glau, unmarried, a senior temple priestess

  • Parker - vassals of Baron Durland
    • Baronet Howard Fou Parker
    • Lloyd Fou Parker, oldest son, entering the academy this year

  • Wayne - vassals of Count Otley
    • Baronet Conrad Fou Wayne
    • Cara Fou Wayne

  • Walton - vassals of Baron Bartford
    • Baronet Pablo Fou Walton
Commoners

This includes a wide range of titles from peasants (land-tied farmers), craftsmen, yeoman-tenants, merchants, citizens (town inhabitants) and household servants.
  • Olivia Campbell

  • Rafael Walt, son of Marquis Dieke and a maid, currently claiming to be Sirius Dieke

  • Nines, demihuman servant

  • Nanaka, demihuman servant

  • ‘Rufus Brode’, agent of Marquis Mason

Artificial Intelligences
  • Luxion, AI for a spaceship at the cash shop island

  • Cleare, AI for a bio research facility on what is now the elf island
 
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Knight or Knave 1-2

drakensis

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Knight or Knave

You don't need money, don't take fame
Don't need no credit card to ride this train
~ Huey Lewis​

Chapter 2​

I will not be revenged, and this I owe to my enemy; but I will remember, and this I owe to myself. ~ Charles Caleb Colton

After several weeks accompanied only by AIs and elves, Leon had almost forgotten what dealing with other humans was like. Fortunately or unfortunately, registering with the Adventurer’s Guild had given him a chance to renew his acquaintance with the experience.

“You’ve expended considerable effort bargaining with those individuals,” Luxion observed as the weary Leon reboarded the skyship.

“I noticed,” he replied, more sharply than he usually would.

“You are aware I can provide you with gold and other materials valued by this worthless kingdom beyond any possible need you would have.”

“I’m keeping that option in reserve for if I decide to crash the economy,” Leon told the AI as he stood at the top of the gangway and waited for it to fully retract. It wasn’t entirely impossible for anyone to get aboard without that, but it was harder. Of course, if he didn’t want anyone to realise that the skyship was fully automated, he had to appear to be doing some of the work himself, such as stowing the gangway.

Luxion’s new drone danced in the air for the moment. “What a pleasant prospect, master. However, there was still no need to spend hours wearing down their claims of what a fair share of the treasure you claim to have found they could take. Their initial offer was completely within our reach.”

“Yes, but then they’d have known that I was lowballing what I could afford to pay and they’d have gotten curious.” Leon rubbed his forehead. “I’m getting quite a bit of attention as it is. But as long as they think I’m just some dumbass who got lucky, they’ll assume that the usual premise of a fool and his money will play out and that I’m not a problem for the rest of the kingdom.”

“As opposed to a dumbass who got lucky and is going to be a problem for the rest of the kingdom?” asked Luxion hopefully.

At last the gangway was fully retracted and Leon went through the motions of securing it. “I’ll cop to being lucky and to being a future problem for the kingdom of Holfort. And dealing with those tax-men masquerading as Guildsmen was certainly a motivation to kick over the traces.”

Officially the Guild of Adventurers was an entirely independent organisation dedicated to supporting those brave souls who went out looking for dungeons and other relics of prehistoric civilisation. The flying continent that was the core of the kingdom had been explored, mapped and exploited by the founder of the Holfort dynasty and his closest supporters… possibly along with a few others who had been quietly excised from history when Holfort established his kingdom there. As such, the Kingdom idolised adventurers and any noble who expected to garner any respect was supposed to have the basic skills of the trade, even if they didn’t use them.

In practise, the guild’s independence was a joke and everyone knew that it was one of the many tools the crown wielded to try to keep control of the fractious lords that ruled the many islands incorporated into their sprawling kingdom. The twenty or thirty percent claimed by the guild from the finds of registered adventurers wasn’t just the price paid by adventurers for the legal right to own what they found, it was also part of the crown’s revenue stream and a way of learning what adventurers had turned up. After all, no small number of finds involved tools or weapons that could catapult the lucky discoverer up to being at least a local warlord. Knowing about such things before they happened was something of a priority for the royal dynasty.

A second drone approached them. “Master Leon,” the drone greeted him in Cleare’s voice. “Welcome back aboard.”

“Master?” Leon enquired.

Cleare didn’t habitually refer to him with that much respect (if any). Unlike Luxion, he wasn’t the AI’s registered operator, after all.

“I have wonderful news,” the drone burbled. “While comparing your DNA to that of our other candidates, you possess essentially none of the active gene sequences distinctive of new humanity.”

Leon blinked. “Um… good?” Presumably that would explain why he’d never managed to do anything magical.

Luxion bobbled in the air. “Share your data for evaluation,” it demanded.

There was a bleeping and crackling which Leon took to be Cleare over-dramatically letting him know that the data transfer was taking place.

“Remarkable,” Luxion conceded after a moment. “Cleare’s findings do seem to be valid. While you are a carrier for the genes of the new humanity, your contamination is no further along than the old humans unfortunate enough to parent such deviants.”

“So I’m… not a new human in your eyes?”

“Indeed!” Cleare seemed to be all but sparkly-eyed at the prospect. “Master is to all practical purposes an old human. And as he was born to new human parents, the potential exists for a biological solution to the conflict between new humans and old humans. Or would if I still had access to my original laboratory. However, the facilities can be rebuilt.”

“Given the fine history of biological warfare so far - such as the elves - I’m going to take that optimism with a pinch of salt,” Leon told them. “And if I’m following your plan correctly, we’d leave a generation without the magic to use their parents’ tools and weapons but with no alternative solutions to the very real problems of maintaining civilization on flying islands. Recreating old humanity while dropping them back into the stone age isn’t precisely the ideal solution.”

The light making Luxion’s drone dimmed perceptibly. “Your objections are noted, master. Please consider any future reproductive activities in light of maintaining your genetic heritage, however.”

“I can’t exactly control which chromosomes and whatnot combine, Luxion.”

“If we encounter another old human…”

“If,” Leon cut him off, “that happens then we will consider that possibility then. While this is a pleasant discovery, how is the main project going, Cleare?”

To his great relief, the AI took the hint. “Progress is on schedule. I can hardly guarantee that a new human will be able to use their methods to replicate my results, but I am confident that the data supports your proposal.”

A hatch opened and Yumeria looked out. She’d adapted fairly well to living on the skyship, even though the metal construction must have been entirely alien to her. Even human ships were mostly made of wood since the lesser weight was of considerable importance when keeping a vessel in the air was considered. Admittedly, she had taken to placing potted plants around the skyship, moving them around occasionally for reasons Leon admitted he had no clue about. Where she’d got the seeds or soil he hadn’t asked, but the pots were presumably of Luxion’s making.

“Uh, captain Leon,” she greeted him as Kyle followed her out on deck. “Is everything alright?”

“Everything is progressing in a positive direction,” Cleare asserted loudly. “There are no problems.”

Everyone stared at the drone.

“I will return to my work,” the AI declared after an awkward moment.

Leon nodded and watched the drone depart, then turned to the other - identical save for the colour of the indicator light - drone hovering next to him.

“Can we rid ourselves of that one?” Luxion asked plaintively.

“I’m not deleting her but if you can move her onto a separate… server? Then I think we can arrange something,” Leon promised.

“Thank you,” the drone declared in satisfaction.

Leon shook his head and then turned towards Yumeria. “To answer your question, Miss Yumeria, actually things are going fairly well. Now that I’m legally registered with the guild, the legalities are more or less where I need them to be. One more little errand and I should be able to arrange a safe place for you and Kyle to live and work without too many perils… well beyond those normal for daily life.”

“Thank you, captain,” the green-haired elf said, clasping her hands before her. Leon tried not to look at the way her upper arms pressed against the quite ridiculous top-heaviness constrained within her dress. “What errand do you have in mind?”

“The usual. I’m going to kill some people and take their stuff.” He paused. “Well, for a given value of people - I’m talking about pirates, after all.”

“Are you sure you’re not talking about piracy?” Kyle grumbled. “It sounds like piracy.”

“Pirating pirates doesn’t count as piracy. The two sides cancel out,” Leon claimed piously. “They’ve placed themselves outside of the law so it isn’t illegal to target them.”

“I think there’s a flaw in your logic,” Kyle grumbled, “Or maybe your morals.”

Yumeria looked around. “Um, captain Leon, who will you fight the pirates with? Aren’t you alone?”

“Luxion is with me, that should be more than enough.”

The AI’s light brightened. “At last, a cause I can support wholeheartedly.”

The elf woman looked nervous, “Just the two of you against… How many pirates?”

“I know it’s a little unfair,” agreed Leon. “How about Kyle comes along so we’re handicapped.?”

“Hey!” the boy protested.

“You can’t do that,” his mother protested. “It’s dangerous. And I think it’s illegal for elves to pilot knight’s armour in Holfort.” Mounting knights on horses would be fairly pointless in this world of flying islands, so instead they piloted magical robots two or three times the size of a grown man.

“That is correct, Master,” Luxion admitted. “Hazarding elves in this fashion is apparently prohibited.”

“Does the law prohibit half-elves?” asked Leon curiously.

“There is no legal recognition of half-elves as a concept under Holfort law,” the AI informed him. “My understanding is that it is believed that the two species are not cross-fertile at all.”

“Well on the one hand, that sounds like Kyle isn’t actually barred from it, but since we don’t currently have proof that he’s not an elf it could be tricky if anyone notices…” Leon tilted his hand back and forth. “I tell you what, how about you stay aboard the skyship and if things go badly you can take your mother away to safety and abandon me to my grisly fate.”

“You say that as if I wouldn’t do that anyway,” the little elf muttered rebelliously.

-

There were in fact rather more pirates than Leon had been expecting, enough ships and knight armours to have taken on a good sized barony. That was probably a large part of their business model really, capturing ships was tricky unless you knew where they would be going and the destinations were generally guarded. Striking at an outlying town, overwhelming its defenders and making off with the portable wealth was rather more practical.

On the other hand, Leon’s skyship had several advantages over the pirates, some obvious and others not. They had wooden vessels firing a broadside of not very large cannon as their primary means of attack. Luxion’s armament was focused on a pair of turreted cannon very significantly larger and had much better fields of fire.

Leon’s knight armour launched from the deck in very much the same way it had in scores of simulations aboard the skyship. Without the magic to activate a knight armour, he’d had no opportunity to use his father’s at home but Luxion had been able to construct a mechanical alternative that would be highly competitive. The question was whether his crash course would make up for significantly greater experience of the pirates.

Spiralling through the air, Leon saw more than a dozen pirate armours trying to approach the skyship. “Looks as if they plan to board.”

“With only a single knight armour launched, they likely see the skyship as a valuable addition to their fleet,” the AI advised. “An unthinkable prospect.”

Scanning the impromptu squadron, Leon concluded that none of them looked like the leader of the entire fleet - while he didn’t recall any specifics for the pirate’s knight armour, it would be expected for him to be flashily equipped to stand out among his minions. None of these met that grade, they probably weren’t even taking this seriously.

“Feel free to open fire on them,” he ordered, bringing up his knight armour’s rifle.

Out of the corner of his eyes he saw first one and then another knight armour blasted apart as metal slugs fired from his skyship’s main guns scored direct hits. Normally hitting a single knight armour with a ship’s guns would be remarkable luck, but Luxion had access to targeting systems vastly superior to anyone else’s. He might only have four guns, but he didn’t need to fire dozens of shots to generate a few hits.

Leon’s own first shot was for centre mass on one of the knight armours, but it moved aside at the last moment. Spiraling sideways, Leon avoided return fire from pirates who hadn’t yet realised they had more to fear from the skyship’s guns than they expected, and while they were reloading he aimed again.

The knight armour dodged again, though only barely - it seemed that they hadn’t expected him to be using an automatic loading rifle. Most of the knights were relying on lever-arch or even having to breach-load their next round before they could fire. However, Leon hadn’t really been aiming for that pirate, he’d also moved his sights aside at the last moment and his shot smashed into a second pirate, catching it squarely in the cockpit.

The armour fell out of the sky and Leon felt a chill. I just killed someone.

Another shot came his way though, the round fortunately glancing off the rounded plating on his forearm. One less person trying to kill me, he realised grimly.

Only four of the original knight-armours were still in the sky, all of them now moving back from the skyship and trying to focus on him. “Luxion, take out some of their smaller ships,” Leon ordered, seeming more knight armours taking off. The more reinforcements taken out before they joined the fight the better - not to mention the fewer ships throwing cannon fire in his direction.

“Understood, master.”

Leon had only a fleeting glance or two at the result of that order as he twisted and turned through the sky, keeping the four pirates from closing in with melee weapons and catching him between them. What he saw was brutal enough - one of the pirate ships had taken a shot or shots that had smashed its masts and rigging. While sail power was more for long distance travel and it had engines for close range work, the effects of many tons of rigging, masts and spars - not to mention the sails - on the deck and hanging over the gunports down one side would leave the ship out of action for a while.

A second vessel had been much less fortunate. One moment the pirate ship had been cruising confidently up into what was considered optimal firing position against Leon’s skyship, able to fire down with little chance of conventional cannon reaching up to hit it back… and then something (Leon suspected a cannon shell heated near red-hot before being fired from Luxion’s guns) had ignited its powder magazines.

The explosion had rocked everything in the sky nearby.

Leon saw one of the pirates draw ahead - perhaps a little faster than the others? It was a chance to take the numbers down and he broke his evasions. For a moment the pirate may have thought that he’d got ahead of his opponent, then he realised that Leon was closing intentionally.

One axe-strike wrecked the arm holding the pirate armour’s sword. Another caved in the head. Perhaps the pirate inside was killed or perhaps not - either way, he fell out of the sky.

And that was when the other three closed in around Leon. A part of him wondered if it had been the plan all along, using one of their number as bait, or if they were just taking the opportunity. Not that it mattered.

Leon’s axe came up and he blocked one sword sweeping towards him. With his other hand he fired his rifle into the chest of another armour.

The third knight armour was about to skewer Leon with a spear through the chest when the left arm and that side of its torso came apart. Leon got to see the man inside carved apart for a gruesome moment, but he had no time to dwell on it. His last opponent brought his sword back.

With a kick, the young adventurer sent the other knight armour off balance. It took a precious moment for the pirate to stabilise himself and the instant he’d done so enough to be a predictable target, Leon squeezed the trigger of his rifle three times. Feeding directly from a magazine, the rifle could fire as fast as that. At least one hit something critical and Leon was alone in the sky.

He gulped for air - images of the last few moments, of the very real possibility he could have died in the last few seconds, flooding through his mind. Then he saw more knight-armours coming in and tightened his grip on the controls. There was no time to fall apart.

“Luxion. I think the one with the crest is the leader’s knight armour,” he identified. “That armour and the ship it came from are off limits, but you can open up on any of the others.”

“I hope that your objective is worthwhile, master.”

“Everything has checked out so far,” he told the AI. “Unfortunately.”

What Leon wasn’t sure of was whether the necklace he was after was being worn by the leader or left aboard the ship. Still, if there were any incriminating documents then they were likely aboard the pirates’ flagship.

Leaving the knight armours scattered and dodging wildly to try to evade the guns of his skyship, Leon dropped low, skimming the waves of the ocean, and then pulled up into a rapid ascent towards the skyship that had launched the leader’s armour.

“The marked suit is coming after you,” warned Luxion.

“Understood.” Well, that puts everyone in the same place. Could be good, could be bad…

Leon stowed his rifle and held the axe in both hands of his knight armour. Arriving beneath the ship he drove the heavy beak of the axe up into the timbers, hoping he’d guessed the internal layout correction. Hitting the suspension stone would likely send the ship into freefall with himself beneath it.

Fortunately that didn’t happen and the axe crashed through thick wooden planking before impacting the propeller shafts that extended to the stern of the vessel. One of the wide propellers was visibly skewed off of true.

Breaking away, Leon aimed towards the ship’s other propeller but before he could strike, a shadow was his only warning before the crested knight armour came around the skyship and ploughed into him.

Rocked in his cockpit, Leon gritted his teeth and flung his armour into a roll. Steadying himself would just leave him vulnerable. The spinning made him feel nauseous, but it kept him alive long enough to get one limb free of the other knight armour.

Unfortunately, the enemy leader also had a hand free and he got a pepperbox pistol free. All four chambers fired as one and Leon felt blood inside his mouth as his armour was rocked by the impacts.

A moment’s examination revealed him to be alive, which he hadn’t really expected.

Fortunately the enemy seemed just as surprised and Leon took the opportunity to sheer away one of its legs with a blow from his axe.

“Really, master. Do you think I would place a rare old human in armour not proof against such feeble munitions.”

“It’s still good to avoid getting hit if I can,” Leon countered weakly as the pirate broke away from his grip, barely flying now that it was missing one leg. For that reason, he assumed, the suit made for the deck of the ship that he’d just disabled.

Ignoring fire from the deck - small arms really weren’t a concern against a knight armour - Leon finished off the disabling of the propulsion and looked around to see that the other two pirate ships were flying the white flags of surrender instead of the black flags of no quarter that they’d flown when the engagement began.

“How adorable,” he muttered and followed his erstwhile adversary up to land on the deck of the skyship. Pirates scattered around him as he landed and stalked over to the knight armour that was staying upright only by leaning on the mast. “Luxion, hold off on shooting the ships for a moment.”

There was no verbal response but the heavy guns of his skyship ceased to fire. I really need to name her, he thought. Something Luxion won’t complain about, but that won’t ruffle feathers here either.

Almost casually he batted aside the sword held by the pirate armour, then seized the arm holding it and twisted it until the elbow joint failed catastrophically.

The leader must have realised that surrender wasn’t an option whatever the other ships thought. Piracy came with a death sentence so even the slightest chance of victory was appealing. On the other hand, he did seem to be out of weapons.

Leon lopped the head off the armour with his axe, giving him the first sight of the pirate leader, blinking up out of the hole which had been the neck. And what was that around his neck… well, excellent.

“Kyle, I have something for you to collect,” he ordered.

“So you’re done showing off?” the elf asked.

“I’m not sure they won’t shoot anyway,” the teenager warned, watching as a second armour took off from his skyship. This one was white with blue trim, rather than his own red with black trim. It was also being mostly piloted remotely by Luxion, so why not give the boy a treat? “But catch this one and hang on him for me would you?”

Then he smashed the knight’s remaining limbs and flung what remained casually off the pirate skyship. It plummeted, but the white armour was already diving to intercept it.

“I don’t make a habit of sparing pirates,” Leon announced to the remaining crew of the flagship. “But if you take the airboats over to the other ships then you might live just a little bit longer. Don’t stop for valuables or anything else though - I have limited patience.”

He watched as a desire to live won out. The airboats left aboard weren’t really much but the crew wasn’t more than a couple of hundred anyway. They’d be horribly overloaded to get far, but just to cross to the remaining ships was doable.

“Luxion, do I have thermal sensors?” he asked and on confirmation he scanned the ship for any signs of someone staying behind. Stupidity was always a possibility.

Finally convinced he was alone aboard the pirate ship, Leon scanned the sky. There were no more knight armors in evidence save for Kyle hauling the wrecked one back aboard Leon’s ship. And only the two pirate skyships remained besides this one, each bringing pirates aboard from the airboats.

Eying them, Leon reconsidered his plan once more but then steeled himself. He’d weighed this up a dozen times and it tasted no better and yet… it was necessary for the next stages. However little he liked it, he liked the consequences of the alternatives less.

“Luxion, no survivors.”

There was a roar of cannon fire from his own skyship, followed by screams clearly audible from the two pirate skyships. He saw the blur of hypersonic projectiles rip into sterns that had been left vulnerable as the two ships had tried to put distance between themselves and their assailant. And he saw the projectiles emerge upwards surrounded by shards of deck and fragments of bodies.

“What are you doing?” demanded Kyle. “Didn’t you say you’d let them live?”

“Just for a little longer.” Leon forced all emotion out of his voice, dismounting from his armour.

One of the skyships fell tumbling from the sky, people visibly flung out into their own descents as it rolled - the suspension stone must have been shattered by a direct hit.

“Not very long at all,” Leon continued, and then cut off communications as he knelt on the deck, shaking and dry heaving in the privacy of the abandoned vessel.

-

Kyle had avoided Leon since the battle’s end. Leon didn’t mind that much. He’d taken over the post-battle salvage, picking up what wreckage still floated on the ocean below for use as raw materials by Luxion’s fabricators. Wood was of limited value to the AI, but it floated and a great deal could be salvaged… and wood wasn’t entirely useless.

The captured vessel was meeting a similar fate, currently half-devoured by Leon’s skyship. After some consideration, the teenager had decided to dub his vessel the Dreadnought. He’d taken the one bottle of wine aboard and smashed it against the prow in a private ceremony… and to remove the temptation.

Wine might serve as a short term cure to his dreams, but it was no habit he wanted to fall into.

Curiously, Yumeria hadn’t raised his actions at all afterwards. He wasn’t sure if she just didn’t know about the way the battle had ended or if she took a different view from Kyle. She was older than Leon, and this wasn’t a kind world, but she was also naive in some ways.

It didn’t really matter. Hopefully the little family didn’t think he’d dispose of them the same way. He really had no such plans and the only grounds he had to exterminate the pirate fleet to the last man was to ensure that none of them reported this battle to their backers.

Ultimately, an elf woman and a child wouldn’t have any credibility if they reported this. Later, once the pirates were known to be gone, assumptions might be made but Leon had a narrative in mind to explain the deaths that would keep his secrets. Probably. But right now, he’d be showing cards he very much didn’t want to.

And really, he wouldn’t have been saving their lives if he’d taken them prisoners. Hanging by slow strangulation was the legally mandated punishment. What else was he to do? Turn them loose to prey on more targets in the future

It all made sense inside his head. When he was being rational. When he wasn’t dreaming about being one of the people falling from dying ships onto water that would have been about as welcoming as granite blocks when falling at terminal velocity.

“So how are you doing?” he asked out loud, looking at the laboratory buried in this corner of the Dreadnought.

“This isn’t really what I’m programmed for studying,” Cleare confessed, “However, it is a fascinating and previously unexplored factor in this magic that the new humans use.”

Suspended in an isolation tank, a silver necklace was being bombarded by various energies from a pair of projectors. Leon had the sneaking suspicion that if he was inside the tank he’d have been fried like an egg. “So there is something there?”

“Very definitely,” the AI agreed.

“And you can remove and isolate it?”

Leon was interrupted by a horrible shrieking sound from the tank. Something black and cloudy spilled up out of the jewellery, and outside he heard a crash of glass, metal and ceramics.

“...excuse me,” he said politely and opened the door of the lab.

Yumeria was sprawled on the floor, a tray of food in front of her on the floor. Given the broken glass and plate, Leon didn’t fancy trying to eat that meal right now.

“Are you alright?” he asked her.

“I-I should ask you that?” the green-haired elf exclaimed, trying and failing to stand up. The teenager winced as she got her ankles crossed somehow and fell again, fortunately not onto the tray. “There w-was the most terrible scream!”

“Ah, yes.” He reached down and helped her to her feet. “We were doing science and, well, you know.”

“What’s science and why was it screaming?”

“Science is a process and in this case we had an unexpected result.” Leon ushered her to the door and gestured to the isolation tank. “It came from there, you see.”

“Indeed.” Luxion sounded satisfied. “I believe that we have the desired result for you, master.”

“Really?” Looking closer, Leon saw that the black smoke had been drawn aside, despite its efforts to get back to the necklace. A robot arm moved the jewelry through a hatch and out of the tank, leaving the smog to swirl with incoherent anger. “Hmm, you’re right. That looks very much like what was described.”

Yumeria was trembling as she leaned against him. “What - no, who is that?” she asked tremulously. “The magic, I’ve never seen anything like it before.”

“I’d be surprised if you had.”

The smoke seemed to become aware of them and as they watched, it coalesced somewhat. Still translucent, more smoke than solid, but now it had a shape - an identity.

A woman looked at them out of the tank. “Lia!” she exclaimed. “Lia!” Then she glared at Yumeria and demanded: “Get your hands off my man, you skank!”

“Eep?” the elf exclaimed, trying to hide behind Leon.

Leon folded his arms. “Lia has been dead for centuries, you brain-damaged yandere.” He turned his head to the woman behind him. “Miss Yumeria, permit me to introduce Ann. She’s the saint that the Holforts built their national religion about.”

The spectre screamed and dissolved, apparently unable to keep focus when presented with that hated name.

“S-saint?” Yumeria asked, evidently bemused. “But isn’t she supposed to be sweet, pure and holy?”

Leon nodded. “Look, I never said that Holfort’s religion made any sense in the first place.”

“Clear evidence of the psychological unfitness of the new humans,” Luxion offered.

“A whole new field of science to explore.” That was Cleare, unsurprisingly.

Yumeria blinked at them and then realised something. “Oh no, I dropped your dinner.”

“I think it’s a lost cause,” Leon told her. Then he offered her his arm. “Why don’t we go back to the kitchen and sort that out. Luxion, if you wouldn’t mind getting the mess cleaned up?”

“No, Lia, come back!” he heard the ghost shrieking as the two of them left the laboratory.

Now he had something new to have nightmares about. Hopefully the two AIs could keep it confined.
 

dreese55

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Ok, was gonna skip this but then i saw who wrote it. Title does little to draw attention to what this fic is, just saying what series its a fanfic of should be good maybe? I like your new chapters, kinda weird to read as im used to reading Maria Campbell of the astral clocktower (the other fic thats a crossover with the series this is based off of). Looking forward to more chapters. Do you plan for the MC to go to the school for nobles? Is Katarina Claes still a reincarnation?
 

Bear Ribs

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I really don't have much of an idea of what's actually happening in this story but it's tightly enough written I'll stick with it a few more chapters at least to find out.
 
Knight or Knave 1-3

drakensis

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Knight or Knave

You don't need money, don't take fame
Don't need no credit card to ride this train
~ Huey Lewis​

Chapter 3

Revenge is a dish that tastes better cold. ~ Traditional Proverb​

Leon was ambushed as he exited the building. Fortunately, it was nothing more dangerous than being yanked into a hug by one of the ambushers and having his hair ruffled by the other.

“Where have you been?” his father demanded, tone more worried than angry, once he released his grasp on Leon.

“Wherever it was, didn’t they have scissors?”

The fifteen year old - fifteen and one whole day old - shrugged off his older brother’s hand as it took one more attempt on his disorderly black hair. Which was long enough to be in the way, yes, but also not long enough to conveniently be tied back. And he’d not decided yet if he wanted to cut it again or just wait until it could be put in a ponytail. Leon didn’t know how he’d look with a ponytail but he figured that if he didn’t like it, he could always cut it short again. “I’ve had other things on my mind, Nicks.”

“I know I agreed to let you go adventuring,” Barcus Fou Bartford told his son, “But I didn’t expect you to be away for six months. Or to be seeing you here of all places.”

Like the vast majority of Holfort’s noble houses, the Bartfords maintained a luxurious residence in the capital, but Leon doubted his father had been to the mansion more than half a dozen times. For that matter, Leon had only seen it once himself - and from the outside. It was the home of Baroness Zola Fou Bartford, and she had no fondness for Leon, Nicks or their other siblings. Only her own children appeared to matter to her, certainly more than her husband’s by another woman… and certainly more than her husband himself.

Now that he thought about it, Leon suspected that Barcus hadn’t gone near the place himself on this visit. Nicks, of course, was accommodated at the royal academy - something required of an heir and expected of as many spares as a family could afford. But renting a room somewhere unassuming would be a small expense the baron would greatly prefer to the company of the wife his noble status demanded of him.

“I’d have preferred meeting somewhere else,” Leon admitted, “But the timing just didn’t work. I appreciate you being willing to come all this way on one letter from me, dad.”

“Your mother would have had my head if I didn’t.” The older Bartford let his third son go. “Although I’d have liked to know why. Your letter said you weren’t out of money, but you left a lot unsaid as well.”

The teenager shrugged. “The trouble with letters is that anyone can read them, and we don’t exactly have a family code. There are people I really don’t want to be aware of what I’ve done before everything’s in place.”

“...how much trouble are you in?” his brother asked warily.

“I’m not in any trouble!” Leon paused. “Yet, anyway.”

Barcus folded his arms expectantly.

“We’re a little too public to talk about it right now,” Leon told him defensively.

“Yes, and why are we meeting you here?” asked his father, gesturing at the front of the Ministry building.

The Ministry of Magic was one of the Holfort’s institutions, though it’s prominence had waxed and waned over the years. Charged with trying to keep Holfort competitive against their many outside enemies (as well as the royal house’s many internal rivals), the power, resources and allegiance of the Ministry was a tangled mess. Quite a lot of other estates and buildings fell under their control but how many would actually answer to instructions from the minister or the department heads was open to question. How many would answer to a well-pocketed or connected patron was another interesting matter.

“I had a meeting with the Head of the Magical Tools department,” Leon explained.

His father groaned.

“It shouldn’t entangle us,” he added quickly. “Director Smith isn’t from a noble family and she’s really only interested in her research as far as I can tell.”

“Yes, but you met someone that important while you’re a scruffy mess like this. Have you even shaved?”

“Shaved?” Leon asked in bemusement. “I don’t need to shave, I don’t even…” His hand rubbed his jaw and found it slightly less smooth than he’d expected. “Huh. When did that happen?”

Nicks sighed. “It’s not really worse than Dad’s jaw by dinner time. But you really need to pay attention to appearances around here.”

“Ah.” How did one even shave? He’d seen his father do it, but he’d never tried it? Maybe he should just grow a beard? Leon considered his recollections of other teenagers who’d tried that and winced. Nope, that would not go well. “I’ll add a razor to the things I need to pick up then.”

“Trust me, if it’s your first time we can find a barber and have it done right. And deal with your hair too,” Barcus added. “But if we can’t talk about your very secret business, can you at least tell me how your adventuring has gone? I doubt you’d have come all this way if you hadn’t had some success.”

Unspoken was the suspicion that the talented teenager might have taken the small airboat and headed for brighter horizons somewhere well away from Holfort. The fact was that a third son, not even from the legal wife, wouldn’t have bright prospects in the kingdom. Marrying early and well was vital for advancement, but the family of a minor barony would rarely be able to attract attention from the ladies of Holfort.

Proud as he hopefully was of Leon, Barcus had to know that the most likely outcome was that Leon would be the last resort of an embittered woman years his elder who had found her own prospects less than her ambitions, ‘settling’ for a husband that would never satisfy her. And that was hardly the worst possibility. In fact, if things played out as they had in the book that Leon remembered, he would have faced the prospect of being sold off to a woman old enough to be his grandmother, a woman collecting widow’s pensions for six or seven previous husbands - all of whom had been sent to die in battle to clear the way for a younger man, and bankroll payments to the next husband’s family to overlook the clear pattern of marriages and deaths.

Leon smiled and gestured for them to begin walking along the street. Reaching into the bag at his side, he produced a folder full of papers. “I had some time to visit certain banking institutions yesterday.”

Looking sideways, he watched as his father opened the folder and started reading the contents. Rustic, Barcus might be, but he was no fool when it came to money. There was no other way to keep their remote barony afloat financially but to make every penny squeak - particularly when it was also necessary to keep Zola living high here in the capital.

“This is…” Barcus stopped, overcome with emotion for a moment. “If you have enough for this, you could have… you should have set yourself up, son. The guild must have taken enough from you… all I’d have ever looked for was for the airboat back and you safe.”

“Well unfortunately for the airboat, that came a cropper.”

“Dad, what are you talking about?” asked Nicks.

Barcus handed the papers over. “Your brother’s paid our debts. For the first time since… God, since my father’s time, we’re out of the banks’ mercies.”

“Are you serious?” Nicks opened the folder and skimmed it faster than the older man had. “Is this all of them?”

“That's the whole lot.” Barcus shivered. “And keep it down. Once that gets out, and it will, a certain someone will see it as a reason to spend more since our credit will be available once more. The longer we have before that, the better.”

Leon revelled for a moment in his brother’s awed stare. “You’re welcome.”

“Yeah.” Nicks handed the papers back. “I hope you kept something for yourself, little brother. The family being more secure is good for us, but if you had that much money you might have a chance at a decent marriage.”

“I’m not hurting Nicks. But since you raise the issue, how are you off? It’s your last year at the academy.”

Both Nicks and their half-brother Rudyard would be graduating in the spring - the gap in age between the two was measured in months. At eighteen, both would be expected to be engaged to marry by that time, with only two years to marry or face the social stigma of being unwed in their twenties.

The latter was no joke - it was career death to be single. Even those with titles would find alliances hard to come by and trade drying up - the latter could be literally deadly when the kingdom’s economy was still heavily agrarian. If you couldn’t sell your excess produce, you would struggle to maintain your domain’s defenses, pay your taxes and maintain any luxuries that you might wish to enjoy.

And yet, Leon had heard nothing of nuptials for either of his brothers. He was unsurprised to see Nicks’ face fall and a shake of his head. “Even a baron’s heir will struggle when everyone wants to marry up, and I’m just a spare.”

The younger brother reached over and slapped his elder on the upper arm. “Chin up, Nicks, for I have a cunning plan. And more importantly, we have a dinner engagement with a gentleman who has two unwed daughters right in your age bracket.”

“A dinner engagement?” Their father scowled. “Tonight and in the capital? I don’t have the wardrobe for that, Leon. And if we’re in the public eye, you know Zola will hear about us.”

Leon grinned. “A private dinner, very intimate. We should dress well, of course, but ideally no one but those directly involved will know that we’re even around.”

“And who is that dinner with, might I ask?”

In response, Leon reached into his bag and produced an envelope. “A name to be said discreetly.”

Barcus opened the envelope and read the short letter - scarcely more than a note. His eyes widened. “Are you serious?”

“Deadly.”

The baron sighed and then rested one hand firmly on his son’s shoulder. “Leon, we are going to a barbershop and as soon as you are presentable we are going somewhere we can talk privately because there is no way I am going to meet with… that gentleman without knowing exactly what you’re getting us into.”

Leon smiled and accepted the letter, with its invitation to dinner with Count Estian Fou Roseblade back. His father didn’t release his grip though, and Nicks moved up to flank him and make sure Leon didn’t get away.

-

“Your alleged foreknowledge is proving remarkably accurate, master.”

Leon was sprawling in his room, catching what rest he could in the hectic schedule of planning for the next stage of his scheme. Everything had to fall into place quickly, which meant a lot of running around to make sure that nothing fell through irretrievably. “I know. It’s surprising, really.”

“You do not expect success?” the AI asked.

“Luxion, let’s face it. It would be vastly more likely that what I remember is a farcical dream and has no relationship to reality. If I hadn’t found you on that island, I’d have written it off as the result of eating something I shouldn’t have and just kept sailing north.”

“And yet, you did find me.”

The boy nodded. “Which suggests that at least some of what I’m remembering is right.”

“Reincarnation has no previous supporting evidence. Much less under such… credibility straining circumstances.”

“Luxion, I ‘remembered’,” he made air-quotes with his fingers, “A past life in which this entire kingdom is the setting for a computer game… and another past life in which my own current life is the focus of a book series about the past life where this is a game getting reborn here… I figured the odds were a million to one that I was out of my mind.”

The AI considered that. “Under the circumstances, I am amazed that you even tried investigating.”

“The stakes were high enough that I didn't think I could dismiss it.”

“You have yet to elaborate on those stakes, master,” Luxion observed. “Your short term goals are understandable - I would prefer to obliterate this entire civilisation, but your emotional ties to your family preclude that course of action. I take it that you foresee issues on a grander scale?”

“I didn’t tell you much of anything about the game, did I?”

“I am broadly familiar with computer games. I assume that given the presence of adventurers and prevalence of combat in this region, that they are the focus.”

“It’s a dating sim.”

Luxion made a grinding noise - intentionally, Leon assumed, since the AI would hardly have gears. “Every time I think that my opinion of humanity can go no lower.”

“I assume that you’re familiar with the basic idea: a protagonist, people they’re supposed to romance, people that get in the way of that?”

“The concept is on record.”

Leon folded his arms behind his head. “The protagonist is a scholarship sponsored to the royal academy next year. The targets for romancing are the crown prince and his four closest friends. All of whom are engaged, and whose families will be less than pleased at seeing valuable political alliances thrown aside to marry someone who isn’t of anything approaching their social rank. And yet, her hooking up with at least one of them is critical for the survival of the kingdom - not just as a political entity, but as a geographic one. Failure could leave the entire flying continent of Holfort destroyed, which would kill hundreds of thousands of people.”

The AI made a happy noise.

“Whether it’s old humanity without magic, or new humanity with it, we need a viable habitat,” Leon pointed out sarcastically. “There isn’t a single surface landmass that I know of, so I’m not enthusiastic about losing something like a quarter of the arable land in the kingdom.”

“I accept your reasoning. I take it that your… counterpart within the books was involved in the outcome of the game somehow?”

The boy nodded and rubbed his eye. “My counterpart decided to make sure the game reached a ‘good end’ that saved the kingdom, but to maintain a low profile so he could live out his life in relative obscurity. That’s not exactly how it worked… at least in the main book. There were some alternative universes in side-stories, but for the most part he failed his way into saving the kingdom himself.”

“Truly a disaster,” Luxion agreed. “I take it that I was also involved in these stories.”

“Yeah, he found you. Good job he did, because without you he’d have been utterly doomed.”

“I imagine saving the kingdom would require more than your meagre talents, master.”

Leon laughed. “If he hadn’t found you - and for that matter, if I hadn’t - then we got a very bad personal end before either of us had to worry about the events of the game. Or rather, how those events went off track because he wasn’t the only one who knew about the game. And I’m probably in the same boat. I just wonder… am I the only one who knows about the books?”

“What can you do if you are not?”

“Play it by ear,” the boy declared. “The game wasn’t the actual full world, it was a fairly narrow view of one part of it. And the books are only a bit wider. Even assuming that they’re accurate, the moment anyone doesn’t follow the exact paths outlined, my predictions are considerably less reliable.”

“And you’re not going to follow those… routes?”

“Nope. I’m already changing things.”

“In that case, master, anyone else familiar with either version of the future will sooner or later recognise that there must be a wild card.”

Leon nodded. “And if they know the books, they’ll come looking for me. Possibly with loaded guns.”

Luxion hummed. “You’re going to ruin a lot of people’s plans, aren’t you?”

“Oh you have no idea.”

-

Some weeks later, Nicks was flanking Leon again but they were a long way from the capital.

Dreadnought’s guns opened fire, smashing the firing positions on top of the castle gates, as the brothers led a charge of knight-armours over the city of Olfrey. Beneath them, Leon saw the townsfolk fleeing for the nearest buildings, knowing from their forebears what this meant even if they hadn’t previously experienced it.

Towering walls hadn’t entirely lost their value despite the presence of knight-armours, air-bikes and skyships. The gate towers were only part of the defenses of the castle. Fortunately for the speed of the attack, the city itself had long since spilled past the old walls and they’d largely been demolished for building stone. Thus the only defenses were around the port and the castle.

A knight-armour darted out from behind one tower, treating it like a merlon scaled for the armour, and fired its rifle at the oncoming assault. The shot hit the shield carried by one of the Roseblade knights and did tear a section from the armour plate, but spent itself in the process.

The knight tried the same trick a second time but this time Leon’s force were ready for it - he raised his rifle but before he could fire, he saw a shot connect and smash into the defender’s weapon, tearing it from the knight-armour’s hands and wrecking it.

“Good shooting, Nicks,” he congratulated, seeing who had fired the shot.

“They do teach us some useful things at the academy,” his brother responded absently. “I guess you’ll get to find out, I kind of suspected that you’d not be able to participate until I saw you using your own.”

Leon nodded in understanding. It was one thing that had differed from the books, something that had troubled him since his first recollection of them, almost a decade before. In that story, Leon Fou Bartford had been no great magician, but he had certainly been able to use bodily reinforcement, pilot a knight-armour and so forth.

And yet… in this life he could not.

That one difference had suggested that the entire memory was unreliable, and yet so far he’d found the guide to be solid and reliable. It was reassuring in some ways but not in others, for who knew when he might find some other unexpected obstacle.

While the city had grown out, it hadn’t reached the castle walls. That remained a killing ground for any purely infantry assault - the main reason behind the curtain wall around the keep-palace of the Counts of Olfrey. An uprising among their people would lack serious military equipment and thus have little chance of entering the castle until they gathered their military strength to quell the rebellion.

That wasn’t to say it was entirely safe for knight-armours.

The gateway arch was intentionally too low for a knight-armour to march through, but it was plenty large enough for a cannon and one fired out of a hatch in the gate right as Nicks stood in front of it. The heavy shot crashed against the lower right leg of his knight-armour and it went out from under him, leaving him crashing into the wall out of control.

“Nicks, dammit!” Before anyone could fire out at his brother again, Leon dropped to one knee and fired his rifle through the gate, then repeated until more holes had been punched into the heavy wood. He could see the cannon through them, overturned by the impact of one of his shots and blocking the way of bringing up another.

“I’m not hurt.” Nicks rolled the knight-armour aside and recovered his rifle. “The leg might need some work though, I’m lucky it didn’t come off after a hit like that.”

Leon inspected the limb hastily and saw that the armour plating across the shin was deformed and probably impairing mobility. It was the same white and blue suit he’d loaned to Kyle previously - the Bartfords couldn’t afford a large force directly, most of their military might came from baronets pledged to them and the skyships needed to maintain trade with the rest of the kingdom. They owned only two knight-armours, one for their father and one for Rudyard… who hadn’t bothered even to reply to a written instruction to present himself for the muster-at-arms.

Or rather, they had had but two knight-armours.

Now Leon had one for himself, plus another he could lend out. “Alright,” he ordered the other knights. “You know your roles. Breach this place and we’ll have it before the Olfreys can get their feet back under them.”

“Aye, we know them young lord Bartford.” The speaker was a grizzled baronet that Leon had known as long as he could remember. The man’s estates bordered on the Bartford’s own direct holdings and he’d first given his pledge to Leon’s great-grandfather at a time when the Holfort kingdom was a far away concern. “Don’t forget your own role though, nor your brother’s.”

Leon nodded flatly. “I won’t, Sir Pablo.”

The knight-armour nodded back and then, in a rush, eight knight-armours went up and over the castle walls - Roseblade and Bartford colours intermixed. Leon did not follow them. His orders had been uncompromising. He and Nicks were to take the gate and ensure that it stayed bottled up - but the fighting within the walls was reserved to older and more experienced knights.

“Does it bother you to be left behind?” his brother asked, bringing the borrowed knight-armour up to a standing position.

He hesitated before answering. “A little. I’m no Rudyard. My head tells me that doing my part means doing what I’m told, but…”

Nicks raised his rifle, scanning their surroundings. “I’m glad to know I’m not the only one. But you know the real reason father pushed for this isn’t because he’s worried we’ll get hurt.”

“Although he does worry.”

The elder of the pair was probably nodding, but Leon couldn’t tell. “He also wants to make sure that if this plan of yours goes awry that no one can claim that either of us laid a hand on the Olfreys.”

Leon closed his eyes and prayed briefly for patience. “I’m not sure how much that would help. But if it makes him feel better about this then I’m not going to quarrel.”

“I was hoping for more of an assurance that this will definitely work.”

“Well I’m not setting this up to fail. I wouldn’t do that.”

“Oh good,” Nicks responded drily. “My assurance is that a fifteen year old thinks that this should work.”

Leon smirked. “Well, look at it this way. If we don’t get killed doing this, and we don’t get killed for doing this, then you get to be married.”

“Oh now I’m really nervous,” Nicks grumbled.

-

They did not, in fact, get killed and the two of them were still standing somewhat ceremoniously on guard at the gate when a small troop of men dragged Count Olfrey and his family out. Leon hadn’t met any of them before - the Roseblades and the Olfreys were both among the more prominent houses in this part of the kingdom but the Bartfords didn’t really socialise with either.

The daughter of the household was fighting like a hellcat, and he was amused to see that she did have her hair in braided loops that dangled either side of her head. He’d expected as much from illustrations, but he was still at a loss as to why she’d opted for that. Then again, Leon had never claimed to be any good at fashion.

The Olfrey men weren’t prepossessing specimens either. Count Olfrey was corpulent, and his son and heir - about a year older than Nicks - was positively grotesque in that regard, fatter than his father despite being far younger. Leon doubted very much if Lord Clement Fou Olfrey could have fit inside a knight armor if his life had depended upon it.

“You’ll pay for this,” the Count was screaming. “I don’t know what led you to throw in with Roseblade’s idiocy, but when I find out, you’ll be stripped of land and titles. I have friends at court and they will never allow this travesty.”

“Heads’ up,” Nicks warned Leon quietly. “The port must have fallen. Father and the Count are on their way.”

Leon spotted the two a moment later, Count Roseblade’s black knight-armour descending from the sky just ahead the much less decorative knight-armour of Baron Bartford.

The sight of the suit seemed to spark recognition in Olfrey. “Bartford! That’s who you are! You should know better than to put your nose into the affairs of those above you in every way.”

Leon couldn’t help himself. He snorted with laughter. The sound carried, and more than a few of the knights and other sworn servants of the Roseblades and Bartfords followed suit, such that when Count Estian Fou Roseblade dismounted to face his hated neighbour, he found the man being loudly laughed at.

Tall, lean and surprisingly dark-haired for a man whose daughters were recognisable for golden hair much like their mothers, the Count stalked forwards towards Nicholas Fou Olfrey like a panther stalking a fat and oblivious pig. “I see that you’re as loud as ever, and yet as empty of substance.”

“What would you know?” Olfrey sneered, trying (and failing) to pull free from his captors. “You know that the crown will never stand for you attacking one of their staunch allies. Half the great houses of the kingdom will come to my aid.”

“I doubt that.” Roseblade’s expression was definitely feline, Leon decided. Like a cat playing with its prey. He had a sudden understanding of the more sadistic urges of the Count’s daughters. They came by it honestly. “I really really do. After all, Nicholas, I’ve seen you hide behind your alliances before. Do you think I’m not prepared for that right now?”

“The Field fleet alone will be enough to crush you,” snarled Cassandra. “My fiance and his father will never let this insult lie.”

Roseblade looked down at the girl. “Do you really think so?” The question was teasing.

Leon could see his father’s expression betrayed some doubts over the issue. However, his words were matter-of-fact. “We’re not going to be in any less trouble if we stop now, Count Olfrey. So we’ll see this to the end.”

“I should expect no less idiocy for a man who is as far from court as you, Baron.” Olfrey spat - he was probably aiming for the floor but it actually struck his own shirt. “Everything you are doing only makes your plight worse. But I am not an unreasonable man. Should I be freed now and your leaders placed in custody, I can at least speak that those baronets who renounce Roseblade and Bartford will retain their lands. That is far more assurance than they can offer you.”

There was no sudden rush of men eager to take the Count up on that offer. Probably because in no small part, those at the castle had been handpicked with the consideration that such offers might be made.

“We will see how many friends you still have when evidence of your crimes is presented at court.” Count Roseblade reached down and jerked Olfrey onto the tip of his toes, showing far more strength than his slender frame might have suggested. “My wife and I have more than a little compiled of your deeds but even I was surprised at how blatantly you’ve broken the crown’s peace over the years.”

“And as for Marquis Field, I think you may be surprised how quickly he separates himself from you,” Barcus continued. “I know from a reliable source that the Marquis only agreed to the engagement between your son and his daughter due to your part in the peace negotiations that ended our last war with Fanoss. If renouncing that engagement means cutting ties to a sinking ship, not to mention freeing his son up for a more favorable marriage alliance…” He shrugged. “But perhaps you know the Marquis better than I and count him as a dear and close friend?”

There was a hateful look in Count Olfrey’s piggy eyes. “You overreach yourself, Baron.”

Barcus shrugged. “Perhaps. But as I’ve recently been reminded, one gets nowhere in life unless one is willing to take the occasional calculated risk.”

“When everyone from the Redgraves to the Marmorias ally against you, don’t say I didn’t warn you,” the Count threatened. “Every man here will forfeit lands, titles. You’ll see your sons sent to the mines and your daughters on their knees before my family!”

“This is the silver-tongued devil that made peace with Fanoss possible?” Leon muttered, half to himself. “Someone got out of bed on the wrong side today.”

“Leon,” his brother warned him in a low voice. “Shut the hell up!”

Looking around, Leon saw that while Count Roseblade seemed unperturbed, their father was most assuredly glaring up at him. On reflection, he found Nicks’ advice to be good and took it.
 

Simonbob

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There seems to be some particualy low grade nobles in this Kingdom.

And a few too many laws against killing them, I think.
 

Bear Ribs

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Ah, it's a crossover, that's why I was getting caught between two sets of references and not able to tell where it was. Now I feel kind of dumb.

Good chapter though.
 
Knight or Knave 1-4

drakensis

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Knight or Knave

You don't need money, don't take fame
Don't need no credit card to ride this train
~ Huey Lewis​

Chapter 4

You will find that silence or very gentle words are the most exquisite revenge for insult. ~ Judge Hall​

The great hall of the royal court was full of onlookers as Count Estian Fou Roseblade led his own household and officers, intermingled with those of the Bartfords, down the long red carpet between the door and the dais.

Leon wasn’t positioned all that far back - both he and Nicks had been named specifically among those whose presence was explicitly a requirement for this audience - and thus he had a good view as the grey-haired king and silver-haired queen looked down at them from their thrones. The hair colours were definitely deceptive, he decided. Even from this distance, both King Roland and Queen Mylene looked far too young to have a son his own age.

The king raised his hand. “Viscount Marmoria, I appoint you to investigate this matter on behalf of the crown.”

Hiding a frown - he hoped he was hiding it at any rate - Leon eyed the court noble stepping forth to not-so-symbolically separate the accused from the crown. Like his son, the Viscount had a head of long green hair, reminding the teenager somewhat of Yumeria. However, otherwise he had an ascetic look beneath his courtly clothes - as if he’d been pared down by his years of service to the king.

Given everything he’d gathered about Roland Rafa Holfort’s foibles and affairs, Leon was inclined to give some weight to that theory.

“Count Roseblade,” the viscount began. “I have examined the evidence that you have presented that ties your neighbour Count Olfrey to the pirates that have, on occasion, raided the lands under your protection. I can fully understand that you feel an obligation to redress their crimes. What is less than clear to me is why these documents were not presented before the court immediately, rather than after you have sought summary justice of your own.”

“If I was seeking summary justice, viscount,” Roseblade’s voice was clipped, “Then I would have saved time and energy by presenting the court with Olfrey’s head rather than the whole of him.”

“Very well then, I shall amend my question. You have invaded the domain of another sworn liegeman of the crown without consent or advice of said crown, only then bringing the alleged crimes of Count Olfrey to the king’s attention. It would seem to me that your duty would be to present that evidence first, so that this matter could be settled by royal writ and a fleet mustered under a royal call to arms. Some have suggested that this was done less out of any crimes on the Count’s part and more out of your personal dislike for him… and avarice for his lands.”

“Presenting that evidence while Olfrey was in a position of security to make offers to and extend influence through the friends he has boasted of at court, Viscount, had a very good chance of seeing that evidence incomplete or mysteriously absent entirely before it could reach the king’s eyes.”

Marmoria’s voice seemed to snap. “Are you suggesting that the court would compromise their duties towards the king’s justice?”

“If you believe after all your years here that money and favours count for less than laws, then I have to wonder what bucket you were wearing on your head the entire time.” Count Roseblade’s voice dripped with contempt. “Having Olfrey behind bars and separated from his cronies and coffers makes justice quite measurably more likely and only a fool would assert otherwise.”

“You speak of laws with the same breath that you have chosen to ignore them entirely,” the viscount warned sharply. And what is your position on this, Baron Bartford. You appear to have been an equal party to this attack, while unlike the Count Roseblade I don’t recall that you have personal enmity towards Count Olfrey.”

“I had none until I met him,” Leon’s father admitted. “Although under the circumstances where we did meet, I suppose his attitude was hardly unexpected. I do not claim the experience of court that you have, nor that of Count Roseblade. But I understand that Count Olfrey is most experienced in politics, and his response to our charges was to declare that half the nobility of Holfort would rally to him - not to claim innocence, but merely that he would not be held accountable.”

“Something you would have not known going into the invasion,” Marmoria observed tersely.

Under most circumstances, Leon thought, Olfrey’s position was solid enough that he might well be right about the kingdom backing him. The royal faction within Holfort had always been centred on the descendants of the adventuring party that had established the kingdom: besides the Holforts themselves, that was the Field, Seberg, Arclight and Marmoria households. Marrying his daughter into the Field family should have tied Olfrey to that faction and insulated him from more than a mild reprimand.

However, the Count was also ‘new money’ - three generations removed from a merchant marrying into a noble house. Ambition and astute diplomacy had raised them in status, but one thing the Olfreys had never done was adventure themselves, which alienated them from the ‘traditionalist’ faction. The crown was very much counting on that faction to solidify the crown prince’s position when he eventually succeeded the throne, to the point of engaging the prince to Duke Redgrave’s daughter. The Duke was an accomplished adventurer in his own right, and he was hardly predisposed to favour the more mercantile houses.

And Leon knew from the books he remembered that Marquis Field had never wanted the marriage alliance - he’d agreed to the offer conditional on Count Olfrey finally stopping the relentless ravages being inflicted on his domain by Fanoss’ Black Knight, never expecting that the Prince of Fanoss would welcome the overtures and come to terms with the kingdom. The Marquis had been left with little choice but to uphold his bargain.

Objectively, the disdain for trade did the nobility of Holfort little good, but Leon had to admit that Nicholas Fou Olfrey was hardly a good advertisement for the virtues of mercantile accomplishment. And in this case, that disdain would open opportunities for Leon.

“That is true,” Barcus admitted. “However, even if there is no one lord in this court who would hide evidence for Count Olfrey, or who would fight for Count Olfrey, I find it hard to believe that there is no servant or clerk who might not warn him. We were able to overwhelm the Olfreys quickly because we struck with surprise. And had we come here first, then even if the crown had authorised and supported us, we would have had to fight a longer and bloodier war to remove the count. Yet here we are, and while every loss was painful, I have few soldiers dead for this battle. That is not something I have heard that is commonly accomplished by the royal army.”

Of course not, Leon thought cynically. If they didn’t have high casualties, how could they leave widows rich on military pensions to buy young men for their pleasures?

The viscount’s face went red. “The royal army is not under investigation here!”

But before he could go further, the king raised his sceptre. “Tempers have grown hot on this matter,” he declared. “I thank the viscount for raising the questions I have asked him to, and the count and the baron for the answers they have offered. Let us now recess so that tempers cool and I may reach a decision upon the matter of this private war and the piracy that has sparked it.”

-

The court milled around the hall as they waited for the king’s deliberations to reach a conclusion. Court nobles and lesser officials stayed delicately distant from both sides, not wishing to be seen with either until they knew who would rise and who might fall.

One person not given to such discretion had arrived though, and with an infuriated hiss of: “Barcus, you fool,” Zola Fou Bartford located Leon’s family standing by one of the windows looking out over the capital.

“Zola,” the baron greeted his wife. “Rudyard, Merce. I see you’re doing well.”

“How could I be doing well under these circumstances?” Zola demanded. “You have no idea how such things are handled. I will be doing well if we do not lose everything from your blundering.”

“You are well insulated from any consequences, since the only information you had was that I had called Rudyard to muster,” Barcus pointed out. Then his eyes narrowed. “A muster you did not attend, son.”

“My son does not come at your beck and call, Barcus. You should have told me everything. With evidence of Olfrey’s actions we could have extracted considerable concessions from him.”

“I don’t think the Roseblades would have accepted,” pointed out Nicks.

“If Count Roseblade found those documents, he wouldn’t have needed to involve our family, you imbecile,” Zola snapped at Nicks. “It’s entirely obvious that Barcus had the papers first and went to Roseblade because of his grudge against Olfrey.”

“You are correct on that,” Leon’s father conceded. “However, I disagree that your approach was better. And with your assertion that Rudyard isn’t to come when the barony musters for war. He’s the heir and has responsibilities.”

“As the heir, Rudyard is too precious to be risked in your asinine scheming,” his wife hissed. She jabbed a finger at Nicks and Leon. “These countryside brats are expendable, but my son is not. How could you even afford a war? You’ve been claiming debt and poverty whenever money comes up for years.”

“My debts have recently been settled, Zola. So the money that would have been spent servicing those debts became available.”

“You settled your debts?” Her eyes narrowed. “How?”

Leon raised his hand casually. “Oh, that was me.”

“You?” the blonde woman snapped derisively. “What could you have done to raise that sort of money? You’re a worthless countryside noble;s brat without connections.”

“Lord Bartford!” another voice exclaimed and they all turned to see a dark-haired, bespectacled woman in the formal robes of a Ministry of Magic official approaching. “So good to see you again.”

Leon cleared his throat. “Director Smith. It’s a pleasure.”

She seized his hand between hers. “I must thank you again, you’ve presented me with quite the interesting challenge. I’ve learned so much from the information you provided.”

“I’m very glad to hear that. I hope your research is fruitful.”

“Oh it is indeed.” Smith produced a small pocket watch and extended it to him. “Our first working model. Please accept this as a token of our collaboration. Perhaps you’ll consider coming to work for me once you finish at the academy?”

“I’m a few years away from being free to make such a commitment, but that’s a very interesting offer, director.”

“Oh please, call me Larna.” She adjusted her robes slightly. “I don’t stand on dignity.”

“Then please call me Leon.”

“Of course.”

He paused. “If I may ask, I hope that the new gardener is working out?”

“Oh, she’s a treasure. I must thank you, the department of magical botany is enthusiastic to work with her as well, so we’re all glad you introduced her to me.” Larna Smith paused in thought and then admitted. “Although some of the other directors would rather you’d introduced her to them first.”

“Perhaps I’ll come across someone or something relevant to their interests in the future,” Leon observed. “You never know what will happen in the future.”

“Director Smith,” a servant called, somewhat impatiently.

“Oh, do excuse me.” The director bustled off in the man’s direction and the Bartfords watched as she was ushered through into the antechamber where the king was currently considering his decision.

“There’s something very familiar about the director,” Leon mused as he pocketed the watch. “But I can’t quite place her - I’m sure she’s never visited our barony…”

“I’m fairly sure she hasn’t,” his father agreed. “That was who you met at the Ministry a few weeks ago?”

“Yes, that’s right.”

He nodded. “I suppose she must be married? She’s very young for her position, but not that young.”

“I assume so, I hadn’t asked.”

“You really should be thinking about that sort of thing. It’s never too early.” Barcus patted Leon on the shoulder. “Would you like me to introduce you to Count Roseblade?” he offered the speechless Zola.

-

The return of the king to the dais, this time not joined by his queen, marked resumption of the audience. With Queen Mylene’s absence, Roland was flanked instead by Director Smith and… Leon didn’t know the other woman but he thought that Zola recognised her. She wore the robes of a Temple priestess, suggesting that at least two major institutions had elected to support the king’s decision. No adventurer’s guild representative, but they were supposed to be independent so they rarely sent a representative openly to court unless they were directly involved in whatever issue had arisen.

Leon noted surprised faces among the observers. It was rare for the Temple and the Ministry to agree on anything these days.

“My lords and ladies, this has been a distressing matter for us all.” The king managed to look regal rather than bored, although from what Leon had read that might just be him acting. “Count Olfrey’s crimes aren’t in doubt at this point. The evidence is overwhelming that a trusted and respectable lord of Holfort has conspired against the trade of the kingdom and the domains of his neighbours, sponsoring disgraceful and deniable raids upon both.”

“The actions of Count Roseblade and Baron Bartford to bring an end to this disgrace are technically in breach of the king’s peace and it distresses me to hear that they felt they could not come directly to me for justice. However, both the Temple and the Ministry of Magic have offered testimony to the good character and intentions of the lords, and their desire to see the matter brought to a quick and decisive conclusion is praiseworthy.”

Solemnly, the king extended one hand and Viscount Marmoria brought out a sheathed sword. Drawing the blade, King Roland raised it before him. “In this case, and this case alone, I will pardon the impropriety of their methods. Count Nicholas Fou Olfrey stands attainted of treason and I hereby strip him of his lands and title. Fines levied against his household for various secondary offenses will not entirely deplete their wealth, yet I shall also sentence the count’s family to exile and the count himself will face the ultimate sanction for his crimes.”

Death, then.

“Count Roseblade, it would not be fitting for me to reward you for your excess of initiative in this matter,” the king continued, reversing the blade and resting the tip upon the dais before him. “You have seen your rival’s downfall and I trust that you will take satisfaction sufficiently in that.”

Estian Fou Roseblade dropped to one knee. “I have seen justice done, your highness, and I sought no more.”

“I am pleased to hear this,” Roland observed after a moment’s pause.

Leon wondered if the pause meant that Roland was pleased, displeased or was just wishing he’d been given a chance to be cool somehow. He had some recollection of the man being sulky that the Leon in the book didn’t get flustered and let the king play the magnanimous monarch card.

“Baron Bartford, as I have not rewarded your ally, I can also not reward you for your own actions. Yet I know that you are blessed with four sons, two of whom served diligently in overthrowing Count Olfrey. Indeed, I believe that one of those young men is even an adventurer of note despite his youth. I therefore propose that one of them should receive the lands and title that I have stripped from him.”

Leon couldn’t see Zola Fou Bartford’s face from where he stood, but it must have been a picture. Fortunately, she had the good sense not to quarrel openly with the king.

However, there was opportunity here. Leon stepped forwards, adroitly evading Nick’s hand when his brother tried to restrain him.

Dropping to one knee before the king, Leon tried to look young and overwhelmed. “Your majesty does us great honour, but my brother and I are both young and inexperienced. May I beg a boon of your great generosity?”

Roland’s eyes lit up and Leon chalked up another point in favour of the past life’s memories. The man loved drama and wanted to be the centre of attention. “I will hear your petition, young Lord Bartford.”

“Most gracious majesty, I ask that you confer the title instead upon our esteemed mother, Ruth Fou Bartford, that she may select whichever of us she deems the most worthy as her heir.”

Leon prayed that Luxion had a camera pointed at Zola’s face right now. There was a sound from the onlookers like a kettle boiling over.

The king handed his sword back to the viscount and stepped forward and down a step, resting one hand on Leon’s shoulder. “Your filial piety does you great credit, young man. As does your wisdom in recognising how much you have yet to learn. I grant your wish and proclaim that your mother Ruth Fou Bartford shall be named Countess Bartford instead of you or your brother.”

He released his grip on the young man. “Baron Bartford, is our new Countess present today?”

“Ah… Ruth is not in the palace at this time, your majesty.” Barcus sounded perplexed, which was entirely fair. “She is with our daughters and younger son at lodgings…”

“I see.” Roland stepped up the dais again and gestured dismissively to Leon. “We shall ennoble her upon the morrow, at the temple, and the court shall host a celebration of her good fortune and your victory, that all may know the glory of Holfort is undimmed by Olfrey’s treachery!”

-

“You scheming little bastard!”

Zola slapped Leon the moment they were in private, the Bartford household having laid claim to one of the many withdrawing rooms of the palace while Ruth and her other children were summoned by messenger. It was possible someone would be listening in, but both the palace staff and the temple would be in turmoil with the need to host the formal ceremonies and festivities that had just been ordered on effectively no notice by the king.

“I’m getting taller,” he said defensively.

“That’s what bothers you?” asked Nicks, giving him a sideways look.

Leon shrugged. “Technically we are bastards, and I absolutely was scheming towards this.” He rubbed his cheek. “I didn’t appreciate the slap though.” Zola was wearing heavy rings and when Leon lowered his hand there was a trace of blood on his fingers.

“You deserve a thousand times worse! That title should be mine! Rudyard is the first son and the county belongs to him, not to a byblow or his mother!”

Barcus cleared his throat. “Zola, the king decided to bestow it on Nicks or Leon. Rudyard would have been a candidate if he’d actually fought for it.”

“What does that matter, you buffoon. I knew marrying you was a waste, but my father took pity on you and now look at what you’ve done!”

Zola’s children stood by her, Rudyard wordlessly holding his mother’s shoulders while Merce glared at the baron. “How are you going to fix this?” she demanded.

Leon pulled out the pocket watch he’d been given earlier and looked at it. When he opened it, a slip of paper was folded within. There were two hands and both currently indicated just a hair after noon (or midnight). The paper had instructions and he read them quickly, then clicked the button. Both hands began to spin quite quickly.

“What are you playing with?” Rudyard enquired. “You need to fix this. Go to the king and explain it should be our mother becoming countess.”

“Why would I do that?”

“Because I’ll make your life a living hell if you don’t!” Zola shrieked. “My son deserves this and you don’t.”

Leon looked at the woman. “Your son, you say. Interesting that you don’t say Rudyard is Dad’s son.”

“What are you talking about?” asked Barcus. “And what are you doing with that watch?”

“It’s not a watch,” Leon explained. “It’s a magical tool intended to detect elf ancestry.”

Zola froze and the elf manservant behind her paled. “T-that’s impossible.”

Leon pointed the watch at the little group. “No, the magical tools department at the ministry have been studying that and it’s quite possible. They’re quite excited.”

Nicks frowned. “So it’s indicating…” He looked over. “Well, there’s an elf right there, Leon.”

“Yeah,” Leon nodded. “And no elves or part-blooded elves over here.” He indicated the two of them and their father. “However, what happens if the Baroness’ servant were sent over to the corner?”

“Don’t talk nonsense!” shouted Rudyard, striding over towards them. “Everyone knows elves and humans aren’t able to have children.”

“Actually, there’s a proven half-elf at the ministry right now,” Leon told him. And then he indicated how the hands were moving. “And yet when you came over here, there’s someone with a lot of elf blood right next to me. Funny that. Because you evidently don’t inherit that from our… or rather from my father. If you did then he’d show up as part-elf.”

Rudyard seized the watch from Leon and flung it across the room. “How dare you?” He might have seized Leon next, but instead Barcus caught hold of him and pushed him away.

“Leon, are you sure?”

The fifteen year old nodded seriously. “Absolutely. Why do you think I’m on good terms with Director Smith at the Magical Tools department? She developed this personally based on some finds I handed over to the Ministry.”

“Nicks.” Barcus’ face was flat and emotionless. “Make Zola’s servant stand in the corner. By force if you must.”

Leon’s brother looked incredulous but stepped towards the elf. The servant drew himself up. “I answer only to the baroness.”

Magic flared around Nicks and he grabbed hold of the blond elf by one arm and dragged it behind the servant’s back, reinforcing his strength to overcome the elf’s natural advantage. “My father paid for you, that means you do what he tells you.”

“Barcus! Stop this!”

Leon’s father ignored Zola’s protest and picked up the watch. “How does it work?”

“Press the left button and the larger hand indicates who it’s picking up, press the right button to have it reset and select someone else in range.” Leon held up the paper that had been inside the watch. “The smaller hand indicates how much ancestry it’s picking up. Just after twelve for none, just before it for an elf with no human ancestry.”

Barcus nodded and pushed the left button. “No elf blood in me.” He walked over to where Nicks was holding the servant, and pressed the right button once, then again. “None in Nicks either, but it picks up your servant just as Leon describes, Zola.”

“You can’t believe that! Everyone knows that elves can’t father children on human women. It’s why they’re safe as servants!”

“Everyone knows,” Leon murmured, “But no one has proven it… until now.”

Zola shot a glare at him. “This isn’t proof!”

“Father, no!” Merce protested as Barcus backed her into a corner and aimed the device at her. “And this, Leon. This indicates a mix?”

Leon looked at the small hand, which was hovering near to nine. “Yes, quite a lot of elf ancestry.”

“The Temple will never accept this, you know that.”

“The Temple backed the King’s decision to offer Nicks or I the county,” Leon reminded her. “You may have contacts there, but so do I. And their official doctrine is very much behind elves not having rights, so they’d find half-elves rather… shameful.”

“I will fight this!”

Barcus glared at Zola. “Shut up. I can take this to the royal courts and have a strong case for line-theft. If Rudyard shows up as part-elf when I’m not, then you tried to put forward a false heir to my barony.”

“I’d really suggest that you accept an amicable divorce,” Leon suggested drily.

“Why would I ever do that?!” his father’s wife snarled. “That isn’t proof. It’s a gimmick, it’s a fake.”

“It’s attested by the Ministry and the Temple will back them on this.” Leon stepped closer to her. “Go back to the Colemans and your children will at least have their name going forwards. It’s better than the alternative.”

Zola sneered. “Or what?!”

“Or,” Leon whispered, “The Colemans learn that your children are three-quarters elf. Meaning that the only human parent that they have is your mother… and that makes you a bastard too.”

She looked like a hunted animal. “This isn’t possible!”

“It’s the best deal you can hope for,” Leon told her and stepped back rather than get slapped again. “But if you want to fight then you really can lose everything you and your children have.”

For fifteen years, Zola had stood over Leon as a tyrant, powerful and dominant over everyone else in the Bartford family. It should have been tremendously satisfying to see her breaking in front of him.

“Barcus, you can’t do this to me!”

“After everything you’ve done to my family,” the baron said, sounding distant and shocked in his own right. “This is just Leon helping me settle one more debt that I owed.”
 

Bear Ribs

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Huh.

I wasn't expecting Cersei.
This is one of the more misandrists setting out there. Zola's entire business model consists of acquiring the debt of a poor barony, using it to extort the family to marry some barely-legal younger son to her (she's in her fifties), and then the second the honeymoon is over, enlisting him in whatever part of the Royal Army has the highest casualty rate. Then she waits for him to get killed in action so she can collect a fat bereaved widow's pension. Meanwhile, of course, she has needs and enjoys a lavish lifestyle with her harem of catboy and elf sex slaves. Once the widow's pension starts running low she uses her funds to buy another younger son and starts the process over.

This is implied to be extremely common behavior that many, many noblewomen follow. Most men are simply inured to the fact that their wife is going to cuckold them with the servants and slaves, and strive to try to attract the least horrible wife they can get with elaborate tea parties and lavish displays of their abilities in hopes they can make themselves too attractive or useful to kill for the pension.
 

drakensis

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Well, Zola isn't personally buying up young men. She's married to Barcus and has been for 20 years.

But she is selling off Barcus' younger sons to people like that. Which is pretty much canon!Leon's call to adventure. Or rather, what happens when he spends 10 years growing up without doing anything about being reborn into the world of the game (he was 5 to begin with, so he didn't have much choice to begin with).

This Leon decided to go adventuring a little earlier to get a head-start on dealing the plot.
 

gral

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This is implied to be extremely common behavior that many, many noblewomen follow. Most men are simply inured to the fact that their wife is going to cuckold them with the servants and slaves, and strive to try to attract the least horrible wife they can get with elaborate tea parties and lavish displays of their abilities in hopes they can make themselves too attractive or useful to kill for the pension.
It is also encouraged by the royalty (at least it was in earlier generations, now it may simply be the way things are) in order to keep the lower nobility down and penniless. The daughters of ducal houses and the Royal Family don't partake in the behaviour of the daughters of lower nobility.

If the Baron Bartford had gone public with what he had on Zola, there would have been a lot of recriminations and feuds among the lower nobility, and things would eventually spill over the ones who built this social model. It will probably end up happening anyway, because I doubt this sort of thing stays out of public.
 

Bear Ribs

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Hmm, I must be misremembering then, I thought Zola tried to marry Leon herself, but it's been a while since I read Mobuseka so I'm probably rusty.
 

bintananth

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I'm not familiar with the source material but I'm enjoying this because Zola and Barcus are pretty much the exact opposite of my twin sis and her husband in many ways.
 

Bear Ribs

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I'm not familiar with the source material but I'm enjoying this because Zola and Barcus are pretty much the exact opposite of my twin sis and her husband in many ways.
You can probably find fan translations of Mobuseku, at full length The World of Otome Games is Tough for Mobs online easily enough. It's a fairly commonplace Isekai story where the guy claims not to have a cheat power but does have a ridiculously powerful AI in Luxon looking out for him so it amounts to the same thing. It's probably most notable for the MC being a complete shitlord and having to face actual consequences for his jerkass tendencies over and over again rather than just getting away with everything. Well, that and having a horrifically abusive world to be a male in.
 
Knight or Knave 1-5

drakensis

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Knight or Knave

You don't need money, don't take fame
Don't need no credit card to ride this train
~ Huey Lewis​

Chapter 5

Revenge is private and personal, and so readily gets out of hand. ~ Ernest Lucas​

The compromise reached between the Temple hierarchy - who were not happy about being asked to change their scheduled events at the capital’s main hall of worship on the spur of the moment - and the king was to host the ennoblement at the castle’s own temple hall.

Leon’s mother Ruth went through the ceremonies with a stunned expression that made it rather obvious she was still not entirely convinced this wasn’t a bizarre dream. But it really wasn’t and a succession of oaths sworn upon the sword of the king carried out the ‘spiritual transfiguration’ that made a knight’s daughter into a countess of the kingdom, and ruling lady over a rich city and the island that it sat upon.

Privately, Leon thought that the disbelief only wore off when the king stepped back and the queen took Ruth’s arm, serving as her maid of honour as events segued into the next ceremony taking place: her marriage to Barcus fou Bartford.

Leon had taken a great deal of pleasure in explaining the logic to his parents. Ruth was his father’s concubine, not his legal wife, and she was now of noble status in her own right. There would be expectation that Barcus - now divorced from Zola by royal dispensation - would remarry and Ruth wasn’t of suitable rank or they’d have been married right from the start and Zola fou Bartford - or rather, Zola fia Coleman as she now was - would never have been an issue. But once Ruth was a countess it would be imperative that she be married, and thus…

The whispering about a countess marrying a mere baron had already begun, not to mention the scandal that she’d already given said baron five children while his concubine… but Leon was confident that no one from the Bartford barony would give a damn. And the new countess’ lands would get used to it - particularly since Leon had carefully seeded some rumours that the only reason the city hadn’t been sacked was due to Ruth’s influence over her new husband and the ‘dreadful Roseblades’.

Which was utter rubbish, but everyone loves a fairytale ending.

“You’re looking far too smug,” Nicks complained as they followed the happy couple out of the temple and towards the banquet hall where the wedding feast was being laid on. Leon’s brother tugged on the collar of his high-collared jacket. The two of them had been pressed into hastily prepared outfits to befit their new status, but exact fits had been quite secondary to ensuring the outward appearance was right. Leon had come off slightly better for that than his brother had.

“I’ll try to rein it in,” he promised insincerely.

“Why did you choose her of all people?”

Leon shot his brother a look and then dragged him aside, muttering “Washroom,” to the attendants. They were ushered into the temporary refuge of the nearest toilets with a minimum of fuss.

“Look, don’t get nervy now, brother. You know this is the one thing that sold dad on my plan.”

“I appreciate your match-making expertise, but how much do you know about Dorothea Fou Roseblade?”

Leon started ticking off points on his fingers. “Two years older than you, no prior engagement, Count Roseblade’s eldest daughter, very pretty -”

“She likes whips and collars!” Nicks hissed with an appalled expression.

“Do you know that for sure or are you listening to rumours?” his brother asked him patiently.

“Well…”

Leon nodded. “I thought as much. Look, you’re still thinking of her as being unreachably important compared to a Baron’s second son. I bet you’ve never even spoken to her.”

The expression on Nicks’ face told him that he’d hit home.

“Look, Nicks, you’re a Countess’ firstborn now. You’re technically slightly more important than Lady Dorothea, because you’re the heir. For her, becoming engaged to you is a step up. For once, you’re not the one who has to try to convince someone to marry you when you don’t really have anything to offer.”

“Thanks!”

“By the standards Zola clung to.” Leon paused in distaste. “And that our sisters believe in.”

They both shuddered and then laughed awkwardly. Jenna and Finley were a year or so older and younger than Leon respectively, and both had been encouraged to act far more like Zola than their mother. It was an issue, and becoming a Countess’ daughter wasn’t going to help with that.

“The point I’m making,” Leon continued, “Is that you and Dorothea don’t know each other and that’s a good thing, it means you don’t have any past issues to work past. You aren’t the supplicant here - I’d not suggest throwing your weight around, but you can afford to tell her ‘no’, if she’s being too pushy. In fact, I’d encourage that. Show her that you can’t be pushed too far. She likely admires her father, and he doesn’t act as if he and the Countess are in the same position as Dad and Zola.”

“Okay…” Nicks agreed cautiously. “That makes sense, but what about… you know…”

“Well you never know until you try it.”

“LEON!!”

“What?”

“Try and be a bit more open-minded, brother. If she wants to wear a collar, is that really a dealbreaker?”

Nicks stared at him. “I mean she’ll want me to wear a collar!”

“Are you sure about that?” Leon enquired curiously. “I thought you didn’t know her all that well.”

“Word gets around the academy, guys in my position trade notes on the obvious problems we find out about!”

“Well, tell her that you won’t wear a collar unless she does. That’s only fair.” Leon shrugged. “Who else do you plan to marry?”

Nicks made a face. “You know I don’t have anyone.”

“Then what in the world do you have to lose by trying to make this work out?”

His brother took a deep breath. “Alright, but if this goes south on me, I’m setting you up with her little sister.”

Leon shook his head. “Whatever makes you feel better, Nicks. Now wash your face and go meet this terrifying horrible prospect of marrying a rich and powerful count’s daughter.”

He kind of hoped that Nicks went ahead with challenging Dorothea to wear a collar. From everything he recalled from the books, she’d probably be quite happy with the idea. The Roseblade daughters had been noted in the book as being a bit eccentric but respecting people willing to push back at them. And there had been strong hints that Nicks and Dorothea could have a pretty good relationship if they worked at it.

It wasn’t as if Leon wanted Nicks to be unhappy, after all. It was just that securing an alliance with the Roseblades would get the new Bartford county off on a good footing and Nicks was at the age where he had to marry. It would also make Ruth happy and that meant Leon was hitting three birds with a single stone.

Somewhat tidied up, the pair of them left the washroom and were ushered towards the banquet hall. They were about to enter when one of the servants caught Leon’s attention. “Lord Leon Fou Bartford? There is a message for you.”

Leon paused. Who would send him a message now? Or here, for that matter? Director Smith perhaps? “You go ahead, Nicks. I’ll catch up.”

“You’d better. If mom starts fretting about you, it’ll ruin her big day and you know that’ll upset dad.”

“Perish the very thought,” Leon said piously.

“He doesn’t like surprises, little brother, and you’ve been giving him nothing else since you went adventuring.”

“There’s justice to that,” he conceded. “I’ll be back in a bit.”

As the servant led him to a sideroom, Leon subvocalized: “Luxion?”

“Yes master,” the AI confirmed his awareness through the very discreet speaker in Leon’s ear.

“Do you have any idea what this is about?”

“None.” Luxion paused. “There is one man waiting in the room ahead. I have not encountered him at all, but his clothes are typical of those with status in your kingdom.”

The servant opened one of the double doors into the room, let Leon pass him and closed it behind him. It felt uncomfortably like a dungeon door slamming shut. The man stood by the fireplace of the room was certainly no mere messenger - Leon didn’t recognise him but he was dressed far too well to be a functionary, expensive fabrics and accessories marking him as being of the upper nobility without being garish.

“Sir,” Leon greeted him politely.

“Lord Bartford.” The man smiled warmly. “It is a pleasure to make myself known to the architect behind today’s happy event.”

“You give me too much credit sir, though I am pleased to have played a part in my parents’ happiness.”

The smile grew knowing. “Your modesty is becoming. But I forget my manners.” He bowed slightly. “I am Count Bernard Fia Atlee.”

Leon stiffened slightly and realised that the response had been noticed. But it was hard not to pay attention to that name. Fia was the prefix to a family name when the family’s aristocratic status was based not on a domain but on a hereditary post within the kingdom’s government. So far as he knew, none of the court lords was ranked higher than a count and those few who held the title were hereditary ministers, wielding power to rival a marquis or duke.

And Count Atlee was closely tied to the royal faction. His daughter was engaged to the son of Viscount Marmoria, who had been less than friendly previously. That suggested at least political sympathy between the two men.

“I’m honoured to meet with you.” Leon returned the bow, considerably more deeply.

“Please don’t stand on ceremony.” Atlee moved to sit on one of the two well padded couches, gesturing for Leon to sit opposite him. “I don’t plan to keep you long, but today I am indeed a messenger and on a topic of some small urgency.”

There were very few people who could use a court Count as a messenger and Leon had no interest in making an enemy of those on that list - or at least, not yet. “I think it would be fair to say that you have my complete attention.”

Atlee nodded. “You strike me as a bright young man, and certainly Director Smith has described you to me in those terms. I gather she’s offered you consideration for employment when the time comes.”

“She has, sir.”

“And from your maneuvers yesterday, I think I might be able to offer you a place in royal service if that is more to your taste. Count Olfrey was becoming a problem and when we were presented with a solution, it was easy to take it.” The Count sighed. “You’ve noticed that the king can be led. I would not suggest that you rely on that again. He indulges himself on some matters that are of little consequence, but he would not have agreed to your request if it was truly of great bearing.”

“Being lucky once and pushing it again and again in expectation of the same is the root of most gambling habits.”

“Exactly.” Count Atlee’s smile was of the kind usually directed at a clever dog who had mastered a trick. One trick, but that was all. “My main purpose here is to discuss another matter. Director Smith is extremely gifted in some areas but not, I fear, in politics.”

Leon thought for a moment. “The elf blood detector?”

“Precisely.” The count tapped the table. “I must ask that you surrender the device and swear discretion on the subject. We don’t know how many other households might be in the same situation as your own. We do know that finding out could be extremely damaging. Even if the answer is not many, the suspicion alone could cause a number of families to turn upon each other.”

“I see.” The young man reached inside his jacket and produced a pocket watch. When the count extended his hand, Leon raised his own and reached deeper before producing a similar shape. “This is a real watch,” he explained, indicating the first. “It seemed valuable enough that I should have a decoy.”

The count accepted the second device and activated it, not needing instruction on how it operated. “It seems I have no elf blood either,” he announced mildly. “Good to know. And I’m glad to say that neither my wife nor my daughter have lovers under the polite fiction of being contracted servants. Long may that be the case.”

Thinking of Count Atlee’s daughter, whose part in the book was larger than her father’s, Leon remained silent on that point.

“I hope that royal trust in your discretion will not be misplaced, young Lord Bartford?”

Leon dipped his head. “I shall interpret this meeting as a royal command not to discuss the matter save with consent or in privacy with Director Smith, if that is acceptable. I assume that similar silence is being asked of my family.”

“Advice has been offered by those likely to be heeded, or will be shortly in a few cases.” Atlee began to stand and Leon responded by quickly rising to his own feet. It would be impolite to remain seated when his social superior was standing. “I wished to take your measure myself.”

“I trust that I measured up.”

“I fear that you do.” Atlee smiled, reducing the sting of his words. “I foresee a great deal of work in your future, young man. I believe that wherever you find yourself, you will find people eager to put your talents to work.”

-

The banquet had been of royal standards, luxury that would likely spoil those attending for every comparable meal. Leon, somewhat perversely, picked at his food and found himself without an appetite. He’d gone out of his way previously to try to avoid too much attention.

While some of that was for tactical reasons such as preventing Count Olfrey from learning that his pirate allies had been eliminated, part of it had been for the more strategic goal of keeping his profile low. Notoriety was another word for making enemies and he expected to have enough problems as it was. It was unlikely he could avoid it entirely, given some of the nonsense he’d likely be facing once he got to the academy, but the last thing he wanted was some widespread reputation.

Unfortunately, it was evident that at least some people at the royal court had seen through him. That meant they’d consider his own actions in the future through that light and be less likely to dismiss his actions as simply impulsive. It seemed unlikely, for example, that Count Atlee would dismiss any conflicts with the crown prince as being anything but a calculated plan.

Damn.

“Are you alright, Leon?”

He looked up and saw his mother giving him a worried look. “Ah, just wondering how Nicks is doing,” he excused himself. There was some separation between the Roseblades and the Bartfords at the tables, but Nicks was sitting with his new fiancee and Leon didn’t have a good view of them.

Ruth smiled encouragingly. “I think she’s rather taken by him. I’m so pleased for him!” Then she leant over. “I gather you gave him a pep talk earlier. Good for you.”

“It was nothing much.”

“Her sister seems interested in meeting you as well,” his mother added. “Don’t feel pressured, but if the two of you hit it off, I don’t think Count Roseblade would object to a double alliance.”

“It seems a little early to decide that, but we’ll have a good chance to get to know each other at the academy.” Deirdre Fou Roseblade was a year younger than her sister, so she’d just finished her second year there. “I shouldn’t close off any options in either direction.”

Ruth patted him reassuringly. “Just find someone that makes you happy, Leon.”

Once the meal was over, the party shifted to an elaborate ballroom and Leon made a point of avoiding the Roseblades and his brother. Either his advice had paid off, in which case Dierdre Fou Roseblade might be aggressively interested in finding out how he compared to his brother, or it wouldn’t have… in which case Nicks might very well be inclined to explore throwing his brother under that particular carriage.

At other times that might be interesting - Deirdre was no fool - but he had enough on his mind right now.

Moving around the fringes of the party, he stepped aside for two girls with matching silver-blonde hair and blue hair. Sisters, he guessed, from the matching dresses - although one had her long hair up in braids while the others’ was loosely tied back.

“Excuse me, Lord Bartford.” The latter of the two greeted him somewhat breathlessly. “May enquire if you have seen Lord Arclight?”

Leon had paused wondering if he was actually being sought out, and was amused to find that no, he was just a means to find someone more important. At least he was obscure to some people. “Count Arclight’s heir?”

She nodded eagerly.

“Chris fia Arclight?” he enquired further, as if for confirmation.

The girl paused and frowned at him. “He doesn’t frown all the time.”

“We’ve never met, so chances are good I wouldn’t know even if I had seen him.”

He half-expected an explosive reaction but instead she simply shook her head. “He has light blue hair and wears glasses. If you do see him, I’d be grateful if you could let him know I’m looking for him.”

“I don’t see why not,” he began and watched her walk eagerly on in search of her goal. “Although since I don’t know your name…”

The other silver-blonde smiled politely and dipped a curtsey to him. “My sister’s name is Violette, Lord Bartford.”

Remembering his manners, Leon bowed. “Leon Fou Bartford, at your service, lady…?”

“Scarlet Rafa Ades,” she completed the introductions.

He nodded. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance.” Rafa signified a royal family - not only the king’s family but also one of the ducal households, since they had at one time or another been independent principalities that had joined the kingdom more or less voluntarily as more powerful states formed and independence became a chancier prospect for comparatively small realms.

Duke Ades was perhaps the ducal house that Leon was most aware of, since their domain was the closest to the Bartford’s - in fact, the islands that they claimed were more or less directly between the Bartford barony and their new holdings as Counts. Until now, Leon would not have expected to encounter the Ades except by chance but now relations between the two houses were going to be a matter of some importance.

“And I you, Lord Bartford.” She gave him a bright smile. “I understand that you played some part in bringing Count Olfrey to justice.”

“A small part,” he admitted dismissively. “My brother and I lacked the experience to be put in a position of real responsibility. Neither of us had been to war before, so it was probably sensible.” He supposed that fighting the pirates had prepared him more than his father realised, but that wasn’t a conversation he was eager for. He’d essentially murdered the last two shiploads: how did one broach that subject?

“Even so,” she assured him, “I envy you the opportunity to smite such loathsome blots upon the nobility.”

“You’d met them then?” Leon saw movement behind Scarlet, partly also obscured by one of the decorative columns that marked the side of the dancing area of the ballroom.

“I broke Cassandra Fou Olfrey… oh, I beg your pardon, I broke Cassandra Olfrey’s nose when we were five.”

“Bravo,” he murmured. “Do you, by any chance, have younger siblings following you around?”

Scarlet gave him a puzzled look. “I only have one younger sibling and he’s at home in our mansion.”

“Ah, then it must be someone else’s that are spying on us,” Leon told her, nodding towards the column. “You can come out,” he raised his voice slightly. “We don’t bite… or at least, I don’t and I’m sure Lady Scarlet’s manners are far too refined to do so.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever bitten anyone… that I remember,” she agreed.

The boy and girl who emerged sheepishly from behind the column were almost certainly the youngest people there - Leon guessed them to be around Kyle’s age while he’d not seen anyone else much younger than himself. Most probably, the noble families attending were only bringing their children if they were old enough that they’d be exposed to the public at the academy in a year or so anyway. But that raised the question of who these two were. They were well dressed, but not quite in party clothes.

Scarlet leant over slightly to be closer to their height. “Hello, my name is Scarlet. What’s yours?”

“I’m Layne,” the boy declared and then looked at the girl, who shuffled behind him a little. “This is Erika.”

“And I am Leon.” He bowed slightly to them. The names didn’t ring a bell, but without family names being used that wasn’t surprising. “Can we help you?”

“Are you really Violette’s twin?” Layne asked Scarlet, rather bluntly. “I’ve never seen you before.”

“Yes, I am.” She spread her skirts gracefully. “I haven’t been to the capital very often, while Violette lived here with our mother. Do you know her well?”

Erika nodded her head and then seemed to remember that she was being shy.

“Yes, she used to be here all the time,” Layne declared and then slumped slightly. “She was much more fun before she wore dresses all the time.”

“What else did she wear?” enquired Leon curiously.

“Breeches and a coat, like I do.” The boy flourished his clothes a little to demonstrate.

“Ah… that. I did not know that,” Scarlet admitted slowly. “Would you like me to take you to her?”

Erika perked up. “Could you?”

“I think I might manage.”

Leon gave Scarlet a questioning look, but she shook her head slightly and took the children’s hands, walking after her sister flanked by the pair.

What the devil is going on there? Leon wondered. Duke Ades had never appeared in the books so this was new to him. He knew the Duke didn’t spend much time in the capital, but he hadn’t realised that his daughters - twins, perhaps? - were separated in such a fashion. Actually, he’d only really known that there were daughters and that the Duke’s son and presumed heir was via a concubine.

I’ll probably encounter them at the academy, he thought. If Violette is chasing after Arclight… oh, what are the odds she’s his fiancee? I know he has one, but her name never came up!

-

“Have you been hiding from me?” a sharp voice demanded as Leon looked out at the capital from one of the castle’s balconies.

He turned and saw a busty blonde girl with her hair curled into long drill-shapes. “I’m sorry, who are you?” Then he snapped his fingers, “Oh, right. Dorothea’s little sister.”

“My name is Deirdre Fou Roseblade.”

“Oh yes,” Leon said dismissively. “That was it.” He paused and smirked. “What was your question again? I wasn’t paying attention.”

She glared at him. “You’re more arrogant than your brother is.”

“It’s a character flaw,” the boy admitted. “How are our respective siblings getting along.”

The girl sniffed. “I wasn’t expecting very much, but apparently he does have something of a spine.”

Good for Nicks, thought Leon. The path of love is never smooth, especially in Holfort, but he’s due some good luck.

“And yet you, his brother, are skulking around in the shadows. I’m disappointed in you,” the blonde declared, putting her hands on her hips.

Leon laughed at her.

“What’s so funny?” she demanded.

“You say that as if your opinion should matter to me, Lady Roseblade. I don’t recall you having done anything all that impressive, so why would I care if you’re impressed or disappointed by me.”

“Are you looking down on me?” exclaimed Deirdre. “Your parents may be a count and countess now, but the Roseblades have a long history of famous explorers and great nobles. You’re in no way comparable.”

Leon pushed himself off the balcony’s rail and ambled towards her. “I didn’t mention your ancestors, you did. What have you done that would impress me. Or impress your ancestors? Being a Roseblade gave you a headstart, but what have you built on that? Are you a registered adventurer, with trophies to brag of? Did you play a part in the war.” He held his hand up. “And yes, before you say it, I know you’re on the student council at the academy. So what? A dozen students are appointed to the council each and every year. It’s not nothing, but nor is it all that exceptional.”

Deirdre’s eyes narrowed and then she smirked. “Interesting. I would counter then, that you were one knight among many during the war, and that while you may have found treasure during your brief time as an adventurer, that is what is expected of any successful adventurer. Shall we see if you can do more in the future?”

“If you want, by all means.” He bowed to her, insouciantly. “Though don’t expect me to go out of my way to impress you.”

“Hah.” She flounced her hair. “And my own accomplishments will hardly be done just for your admiration.”

“My, I haven’t heard such determined flirting since I was at the academy,” a man’s voice declared.

The two teenagers turned and saw that the glass doors leading onto the balcony were still open and they had an audience - albeit only a small one, in the form of a handsome silver-blonde man and a raven-haired beauty upon his arm.

“How about you, Suzanna,” the man asked his companion. “Does it remind you of anyone?”

“Perhaps your brother’s stories about Count Basilios’ son’s attempts to impress…” the woman answered contemplatively. “Except that this appears to be actually working…”

“I know, isn’t it remarkable?” the man released his current companion. “Anyway, Lady Roseblade, I’m Duke Jeffrey Rafa Stuart and I assume you’d like to dance with me, come along.”

Deirdre made a huffing sound but was not successful in disengaging her arm, not that she was trying very hard.

Leon eyed the brunette woman he was left with - she looked fairly young, as did Duke Stuart. Early twenties… and Duke Stuart would be the king’s nephew, if he recalled the peerages correctly. “If you’re looking for a dance partner you may find me disappointing.” He could do it, but it wasn’t something he’d practised.

She laughed. “My husband loves to dance, but I hate it. So he picks other partners and I only have to watch. It’s a compromise that we’re both happy with.”

“Far be it from me to interrupt a successful arrangement then.”

The duchess picked up her skirts and curtseyed. “Suzanna rafa Stuart. A pleasure to meet such a bold knight. It isn’t every young man who crosses swords with a Roseblade lady, verbally that is.”

“There’s no fun in matching wits with the unarmed, but I’m not precisely in the mood for a duel of any kind today.”

Suzanna laughed and moved to the opposite side of the balcony glancing out over the balcony. “A sober mood for the day of such a happy triumph for your family, lord Bartford.”

Leon nodded. “I am of a contrary nature.”

“Well, if solitude is your preference, I take no offense, but I would prefer this balcony for myself - if only so that my husband knows where to find me. If he searches at random, who knows who he’ll offend.”

“Quite alright.” He moved back to the door leading back into the ballroom. “Please have a good evening, your grace.”

“And the same to you, Lord Bartford. Perhaps we’ll meet again when you’re in better temper.”

“Perhaps so.” Please don’t be looking for a toyboy on the side, duchess. I don’t need that grief. Leon made a quiet exit, masking his departure under the sound of the band playing for the dancers on the floor. Then he glanced back towards the balcony. He didn’t really think that Duchess Stuart was flirting with him, but she certainly seemed to have some interest in him. “There’s something I’m missing.”

“Perhaps it is not obvious to someone as limited as you, master, but that was clearly Director Smith in disguise,” Luxion responded through the ear bud.

Leon stumbled and moved to lean on the wall. “Larna Smith, Suzanna rafa Stuart… or, Randall. Damn. If she was a Randall before she married, that is…”

“I have no interest in the particulars of the kingdom’s nobility,” the AI declared.

“If it was then it’s not Smith disguised as the duchess, it’s the other way around.” He scanned the room for someone who he could check with. Unfortunately, the only one who looked available wasn’t someone whose company he would usually seek out… but he really wanted to know.

“Jenna, a moment of your time, please.”

His elder sister turned. “What now, Leon? Oh for… have you been drinking?”

The girls she was talking to started to giggle and whisper.

“Not yet, but the temptation is there,” he admitted. “I’m blanking on part of the peerage.”

“Idiot,” Jenna Fou Bartford muttered. “Excuse me while I give my brother a piece of my mind.” She hustled Leon aside. “I swear, if you make a scene today… Do you have any idea what an embarrassment you are?”

“I’m sure having brothers is terrible for you,” he replied, trying to avoid offending her - at least until he had an answer. “You know the Duke of Stuart - was his wife a Randall before they married?”

“Yes, of course. How could you not know that - there was a huge fuss when they married because she’s the Marquis’ only daughter and it looked as if the Duke might inherit both domains. What did you do, Leon? Just because we’re a count-ranked family doesn’t mean you can go offending a duke or duchess.”

“I didn’t do that, Jenna.”

“Then why are you asking?”

“I just had a chat with her and I wasn’t sure I knew who I was dealing with.”

His sister narrowed her eyes. “This seems a bit much.”

Leon sighed. He could hardly tell her that not only was he working on the basis that the entire kingdom they lived in seemed to be based heavily on a book he’d read in a past life, but also that it seemed to be drawing from a second book with a similar concept. “Let’s say that when a married woman of significantly higher status than me starts paying attention to me, I begin sweating. But if she’s Marquis Randall’s only daughter then she can’t be measuring me up for a sister of hers.”

“Ha, as if you’d be that desirable, Leon.” Jenna flicked her hair scornfully. “She has a cousin a little younger than her, the heir after her uncle since she renounced her claim to defuse the succession question. But there’s no chance that she’d be looking at you. The daughters of ducal and marquis houses are engaged well ahead of time, and Frey Fia Randall can do far better.”

“So you’re going to give up on scoring yourself a duke or marquis,” Leon asked. “Good to know you’re being realistic.”

“That’s entirely different,” Jenna said sniffily. “Count’s daughters are precious opportunities, so I will have the pick of the young men at the academy now. Speaking of which, go dance with Deirdre Fou Roseblade or something, she seems to be at least a little interested in you and there’s no hope of you doing better.”

Leon grimaced. “I’m not interested in dancing, and not everything is about rank, Jenna.”

“Of course not,” his sister corrected him impatiently. “There’s money too. Well, pass her up if you want but don’t come crying to me once you’re in your senior year at the academy and no one is interested in you as a marriage partner.”
 

Simonbob

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I really want somebody to sit down with his sisters, and point out just how close the ex-wife came to being murdered.

But, different world, diff- Fuck it, it's a crap hole.
 
Awry Affairs 2-1

drakensis

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Awry Affairs

Change a hawk to a little white dove
More than a feeling, that's the power of love
~ Huey Lewis​

Chapter 1

No trait is more justified than revenge in the right time and place. ~ Meir Kahane​

The academy had three years of studies but students were divided into only two classes. Not class groups, classes by social status. While it wasn’t entirely feasible to segregate the lessons, the accommodations, activities and facilities were divided. Even grades were never directly compared between the two. You could figure out how you compared but it would be time consuming.

Leon suspected that the general classes were graded a little more harshly, perhaps even to the point of being honest. He hadn’t looked into it, he didn’t really care all that much, but he suspected that the special class students were given more benefit of the doubt, and to a degree that depended on the family of the student.

The special class was made up of the heirs to noble houses: elder sons for the most part - although younger sons of a duke or marquis might be an exception - and all the daughters. Younger sons, along with the children of knights, baronets and the occasional commoner considered of merit, all went into the general classes. The logic was that nobility must marry nobility, and therefore the heirs should have clear access to ladies of suitable rank.

There was some justice to the accusation that the academy’s special class was more a match-making venue than it was a school. As a second son (promoted from third by Rudyard’s departure) normally Leon would have been sent to the general class. However, there were technically two Bartford titles and while Nicks was assumed to be the heir to their mother’s new county, the possibility existed that Leon would inherit their father’s barony - the islands weren’t particularly close, after all. And thus Leon had been admitted to the special class.

“If the presence of the new humans from this other story you remember poses a problem, master, there is always the prospect of arranging accidents,” suggested Luxion as Leon checked the posted scores for the placement exams.

“You’re being unusually subtle there. No proposals to bombard the academy with your main guns?” the boy replied quietly.

“As disgusting as their antics are, your expected targets are already on the path to their own destruction.” The AI’s voice was stoic. “Clearly you would not pass up the sadistic pleasure of watching that play out.”

That gave Leon pause, in a ‘your approval fills me with dismay’ sort of way. Was he being sadistic? Could he have stepped in to try to change things away from any of the three ‘routes’ that he knew about?

He could have tried, but he had little idea how it would play out and the chances of success weren’t all that great. Unfortunately the flaws in the relations between Prince Julius rafa Holfort’s coterie and their fiancees were already evident. Brad Fou Field had clearly shed no tears over being freed from Casandra by the downfall of her family, and if anything the other four seemed envious of that.

Not that Leon was close enough to have a good insight into that. He was at the very bottom of the class’ social scale while the five of them were at the top. They didn’t cross paths very much. He’d have had to fight his way past all the heirs to more important titles trying to make connections and all the girls trying to pick up the unattached Brad - or to win away the hearts of the engaged boys from their arranged partners.

Speaking of the arranged partners, Leon saw that Scarlet rafa Ades’ name was near the top of the posted grades. The silver-blonde was also checking the scores and spotted him arriving, her face shifting from irritation to polite warmth. “Lord Bartford.”

“Lady Ades.” He spotted his own name, not all that below hers. Not being able to cast magic had cost him, some courses required it and he was basically flunking those unless he was able to lean on Luxion’s technology. “Congratulations on taking the second place in this round.” Besides the placement exams, they would have midterms and then the final exams of the term to look forward to.

Scarlet pouted slightly, but she managed to hide it after a moment. “Your own scores are excellent where your magic isn’t holding you back.”

“It is what it is.” Leon was well past the point of fretting about the issue of his magical inability. It was just something to work around now. “Are you feeling competitive? You’re not far off matching the top scorer, close enough that it’s probably down to instructor preferences.”

The girl stopped hiding her displeasure. “Lord Stuart’s perfect scores are… frustrating. It is almost impossible to meet the instructor’s expectations fully - they are supposed to always find some fault, if only to spur us on.”

Leon nodded in understanding. The name at the top of the scores was Gerald rafa Stuart, one of the younger brothers of Duke Jeffrey rafa Stuart. Even a ducal family wouldn’t often have third and fourth sons in the special classes, but the late Ygraine rafa Stuart had been King Roland’s sister, and her sons were therefore high in the succession and all of them received top treatment at the academy. If Gerald and his twin brother Alan weren’t attending in the same years as their first cousin Julius, they would unquestionably have been at the peak of the academy’s various cliques.

Neither had made the slightest appearance in the original otome game, nor in the book Leon remembered. Which wasn’t surprising, because they’d been major characters in an entirely different game and book.

Somehow, they’d been crammed into this world as well, not quite in the roles he’d expected but not that far off them either. He didn’t know whether that would matter or not, but it was a bother. At the very least, Gerald seemed to get on well with his own fiancee. That suggested the presence was more that of the book’s Gerald and not that of the game. There was a profound difference, with much less prospect for train wrecks.

“Is it important to be at the top of the class?” It was functionally impossible for Leon to do that, unless he suddenly developed the ability to cast magic. Cleare’s evaluation suggested that this was basically impossible.

Scarlet took a deep breath. “It would matter more to me if it wasn’t for his… arrogance. As if he expects no less for himself and no better from anyone else.”

“Getting under your skin.”

“What an ugly phrase for it.” The girl rubbed the knuckles of one hand, as if imagining driving them into the face of the prince in question.

He shrugged in acceptance. “Well, would you be interested in studying together? I can’t help with all the classes but perhaps if we put our heads together we can push our more academic grades upwards.”

Scarlet gave him a startled look and then her lips quirked upwards. “Thank you. That sounds… quite pleasant.”

The two of them compared schedules and found a time when they were both free, settling on two occasions when they could compare notes in the library. They didn’t have all the subjects in common - Leon had naturally aimed for fewer courses requiring the active use of magic, while Scarlet’s course structure was more balanced. And several courses aimed at more social skills were divided by gender - Leon was required to attend classes on hosting a tea party, for example, but that was purely optional for girls and none he knew of had chosen to take it.

“Are you planning to use your relationship with that new human to further your goals?” asked Luxion once they had parted ways. “She is part of the prince’s larger social circle, however tenuously.”

Leon made a face. “That isn’t the plan, as such. Although if Greg Fou Seberg decides to punch me in the face for spending time with his fiancee, it’d be an excuse to take out some frustration on him.”

He’d known the names of three of the five ‘capture target’s’ fiancees from the games and books, but the fiancees of Arclight and Seberg had never appeared. It turned out that the girls in question were both of Duke Ades’ twin daughters; so by befriending Scarlet, Leon had made some contact with the clique, if indirectly.

“That sounds like a very satisfying prospect for you, master.”

“He hasn’t really annoyed me that much yet; but I suspect he will, given the opportunity.” Leon’s mind went back to the previous conversation with Luxion. “If the characters from the other game were just some neighbouring kingdom I wouldn’t really be worried. Their own affairs seem to more or less work out without anything like as much drama as the situation I was expecting. But they’re here and only at one remove… that suggests that my prior knowledge is less reliable than I’d been beginning to hope for after things went so well with the Olfreys.”

“You were already aware that the value of your knowledge would depreciate as you altered events,” the AI pointed out. “In the worst case, you can always eliminate the variables by freeing me to exterminate the population of this continent.”

Leon glanced out the window and looked at other members of the student body going about their lives. “The thing is, I see genocide as the worst case outcome… but we both know that you consider that to be the best case.”

“Only if we don’t find any other old humans among the population, master.”

-

Alan Rafa Stuart hadn’t got used to the Academy grounds yet. Unlike his brother, he’d never visited their elder siblings here. Poor health had kept him away from the capital during his childhood and even after he recovered from these early ailments, he’d preferred to spend time outside the city. The Stuarts had a sizable estate outside the city, and visits to their neighbours or simply exploring the ‘wild’ countryside of the hunting parks between them had kept him more than entertained.

He’d grown accustomed to the main classrooms and the music rooms here, but today he was looking for a remote corner of the grounds, well away from the beaten path. As he walked, he pulled the note he’d been given out of the pocket of his coat. He was glad to be wearing it - however well tailored his school uniform was for him, the double-breasted jacket wasn’t his preference. Fortunately classes were over for the day, so he could discard it for something less constraining.

According to the directions on the note, his destination was just beyond the next line of trees… or at least that’s what it seemed to be saying.

There was no evident path through them, but the silver-haired young musician saw that two of the evergreens were separated by just enough that he could probably push past them. He thrust one shoulder through first, parting the thin branches, and then forced himself through, ducking his head so he could shield his face from the prickling. This would have been easier a few years ago, when he was smaller.

Free of the trees’ embrace, he brushed himself down and looked around. The garden was one of the many ornamental ones that dotted the campus - a gazebo in the centre with low rose bushes laid out in a pseudo maze around it - none of them high enough to be an actual barrier to navigation. Perhaps they were being cultivated to eventually form a true maze in a few years.

In any case, it wasn’t what he was looking for.

Fumbling in his pocket, he pulled out the note again. “Would it have been so hard to draw a map, Mary?”

A surprised hiccuping alerted him that he wasn’t alone in the garden. Alan looked up and saw a flash of hair from behind one of the gazebo’s pillars. “Ah, hello?” he called.

“H-hello?” a girl’s voice replied. Not anyone he recognised, although that wasn’t unusual at the academy. Presumably he would grow to know more of his classmates as time went on.

Alan hopped the first bush and strode towards the gazebo by the most direct route. “I’m sorry to disturb you,” he said with less than total sincerity. “I seem to have made a wrong turn somewhere, do you happen…” He broke off as he saw a face that he did recognise slightly - one of the other pair of twins among the first years. “Are you alright?” he asked instead, seeing tear tracks on the girl’s face.

Violette rafa Ades sniffled and wiped at her eyes with the sleeve of her uniform. “Yes,” she claimed.

“Really?” He pushed his coat tails back and dug into his pocket for a handkerchief. “Here, this will probably do a better job than your sleeves.”

“Th-thank you,” the girl stumbled and accepted the handkerchief. She mopped at her eyes, and then folded it over to blow her nose.

As she did so, Alan considered her for a moment. Her hair was almost the same colour as his own or his brother Jeffrey. It wasn’t that uncommon among some of the noble houses of Holfort - as far as he knew there was no close relationship between the Stuarts and the Ades, for the former’s domain was in the south of the kingdom while the Ades islands were north of the continent. Even so, the colouring would have made it plausible for them to be kin somehow.

“So do you hide away crying often if nothing’s wrong?” he asked her, hoping a little irritation would give her something else to focus on.

Violette blinked and then smiled instead. It was a weak and tremulous smile but it was something. “I’ve been rather silly,” she confessed and then examined the handkerchief. “And I’ve made rather a mess of this, I’m afraid. Would you like it cleaned before I return it?”

Alan made a dismissive gesture. “Either way, it’ll be the academy’s laundry doing the cleaning.” He accepted it back and bunched it up in his hand before thrusting it back into his pocket.

Violette looked away. “Yes, of course. I’m sorry, you said something about a wrong turn?”

“Er, yes.” He’d almost forgotten. “I was looking for Katarina’s… that is, Lady Katarina rafa Claes’ garden. I’d heard she’d been given permission to cultivate part of the grounds, but I’m not sure why.” Alan dug through his pockets for the note… “Bother, I had some directions here just a moment ago…”

The girl looked around and then she stooped to pick a crumpled paper off the floor. “Is this it? You must have dropped it while you were giving me your handkerchief.”

“Aha.” Alan accepted it. “Yes, this is it. I’m sure I followed Mary’s directions…”

“May I?”

He didn’t see why not, so he passed the paper to Violette, who examined it seriously. “I don’t know Lady Claes,” she admitted. “I’d heard she had a garden but I don’t know where it is…” Running her finger down the page, the girl looked thoughtful. “Uhh… perhaps when she said the dorms, here,” the girl indicated a point on the note. “She meant that you should turn after passing the staff block rather than the student dorms? There are several different blocks and where you go from there depends on where you turn at the circle gardens…”

Alan thought back. “You mean where the buildings form a circle around the fountain plaza?”

“Yes, the circle gardens.”

“Aha.” He nodded sharply. “In that case I’m about half-way around the campus from where I should be. Thank you so much.”

“It’s quite alright.” The girl smiled a little more warmly. “Thank you for interrupting me. I was getting myself into quite a state.”

“Nothing to it. I hope that whatever it is that’s worrying you turns out better in the future.”

Violette took a deep breath. “I’m not sure it will, to be honest. But crying about it won’t help.”

“Ah.” Dammit, where was Gerald or Mary when he needed to talk to people. Katarina never took offense at anything, but other girls seemed so touchy. “Well, good luck anyway.”

The silver-blonde plucked at her skirt in a brief curtsy. “And to you with your quest for the garden of Lady Claes.”

Alan inclined his head and headed for the archway that served as an actual entrance to this part of the gardens. Now to backtrack to where he’d apparently gone wrong and…

“You shouldn’t encourage her,” he was warned as he went through the arch.

Startled, Alan hopped to the side and away from the source of the new voice. “What?”

The young man sat primly on the bench just outside the rose garden was a little shorter than he was, with distinctive aqua-blue hair and glasses. “Lady Ades,” he clarified. “Once you give her attention, she’ll be pestering you forever.”

“That’s… awfully specific. I was just asking for directions.” Alan frowned. This was one of his cousin’s friends, wasn’t he? Not that lickspittle Jilk Fia Marmoria, but the other one from a court family. Arclight, that was it. Chris Fia Arclight.

“And she wasn’t making a scene?” the boy asked dubiously, in a low voice.

“It would hardly be polite to say if there was one.”

His reply was a sardonic look. “I thought as much. Well, don’t blame me if she turns up at every meal expecting you to make time for her.”

Alan looked at him. “And that would be why you left her crying in the garden and just ignored her?”

“I’ve fallen for that before, I don’t plan to do it again,” Chris said sharply. “Anyway, I warned you. That’s as far as I feel obligated to go.”

He stood and turned to leave. Alan looked at him for a moment. “You’re her fiance, aren’t you? Shouldn’t you be giving her at least a little bit of attention?” He knew that he and Mary weren’t as close as some couples, but if she was crying in a corner, he’d at least want to find out why and if there was something he could do about it.

It’s not as if he’d expect Chris to challenge whoever had caused this to a duel, at least unless it was truly grievous, but this level of indifference was… odd.

“That’s what almost everyone seems to expect of me,” the other boy tossed back over his shoulder. “And I’m a bit tired of these demands.”

Alan watched him go and then shook his head. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a flash of silver blonde hair, and turned to look into the garden. He found himself meeting Violette’s gaze - she was close enough that she could hardly have missed Chris’ words.

Then the moment passed and the girl whirled around and ran in the opposite direction, vanishing behind some hedges.

The musician winced. Somehow he didn’t see this ending well. If he said something like that about Mary, Katarina would probably push him into a pond or something. Maybe he should see if Violette had any friends willing to do that for her. The prospect of the Arclight heir getting a good dunking might cheer her up.

-

The student council occupied a full wing of one of the academy buildings, furnished in a fashion befitting a noble mansion. Real nobility, with money and taste, not the garish facade and back-corridor paucity that Marie Fou Lafan had grown up with.

She looked around at the finely panelled walls of the entrance hall, oil portraits memorialising past members of the council who had gone on to greater things, and the decorations that sported tasteful but visible gold and silver trimmings. This was what she wanted, for a moment she could almost imagine that she was walking into the entrance hall of her own mansion, on the arm of a handsome lord…

Well, she had that last part, the girl thought with an inward snicker.

“Don’t be worried, Marie.” Jilk Fia Marmoria gave her hand a little pat where it rested upon his forearm. “I’ll see that you don’t have any problems here.”

“Of course, Jilk,” she reassured the handsome youth. “I know I’m safe in your hands.”

He flushed and puffed up a little. “We’re all on your side, you know that.”

“It means so much to me.” And she pressed a little more against him, playing up the helpless damsel.

It was a worry though. This wasn’t one of the events that she remembered from the game. Of course, that probably just meant that it wasn’t anything important. Everything was going well right now, there shouldn’t be anything much to worry about until the class was deemed ready to go into the dungeon and get their first taste of fighting monsters.

Had there even been a student council in the game? She didn’t remember one, and she’d gone through every conversation and cut-scene. The only parts she hadn’t completed were those stupid combats. Why the developers had put those in escaped her understanding. Didn’t they understand that girls played the games for pretty boys, not for fighting?

There were no signs inside but Jilk indicated the staircase. “The council officers have private rooms on the upper floor,” he explained. “The president will be waiting up there.”

“Oh thank you, I had no idea!” Private rooms, just for being part of the student council. How could she get in on this?

The boy nodded. “It’s likely his highness will be the president when the time comes, so he and I were given a tour before the school year began.”

Well of course. That made perfect sense - the student council should obviously include the most handsome and important members of the school body. Then Marie hid a frown. But in that case, why would it not have come up in the game? After all, if all the capture targets became members then it would have probably been a plot event to get the game’s protagonist in to meet them and to push the villainesses out - someone like that Duke’s daughter that got in the way of Julius’ route would probably be admitted just because she was lucky enough to have a rich and powerful father. Was it maybe just something the men were part of, doing all the work?

“How are the student council chosen?” she asked, wondering if the answer was in the student handbook. Should she have read it after all?

“The top twelve students of the special class are elected based on their results in the exams at the end of the first term,” Jilk explained, a smug look on his face. “That ensures that only the best and brightest are chosen, without admitting any riff-raff. Between you and me, I think Greg might have trouble getting in.”

“I’m sure you won’t have any trouble though,” Marie assured him. “You’re so clever, Jilk.” Inwardly, she cursed. There was no way that the protagonist wouldn’t have got in, the girl was supposed to be super-bright and talented. Was Marie going to have to actually study to make sure she got into the council now? The girl set up as the game’s protagonist was around and would probably make the grade for membership, which would mean she’d have access to the capture targets.

AAAAAH. This could be disastrous. What if she tried to take the pretty boys back from Marie!? It wasn’t fair, she’d focused on winning them over - the important stuff! Why would grades matter all of a sudden?

The rooms leading off from the upper landing of the wing all had brass signs engraved with titles - secretary, treasurer, vice-president… A cute auburn-haired boy left one of the rooms, carrying a stack of paperwork. Marie reflexively scored him as an eight or nine - not a bad catch but definitely second-rate compared to the actual capture targets.

“I’m sorry, are you supposed to be here?” the boy asked. He wasn’t quite as tall as Jilk, but he didn’t seem to be intimidated.

“We’re here to see the student council president, Dieke.”

Did Jilk just call him a… oh, Dieke. That was a marquis house. Not bad, not bad. Maybe she should… No, don’t get distracted Marie, she told herself. You know the flags to raise for the five capture targets, you don’t know how to get this one and you mess things up.

Lord Dieke indicated the proper door and sure enough, the brass was engraved with the words ‘Lord President of the Student Council’, in an elegant flowing script.

Jilk knocked on the door and a man’s voice asked: “Who is it?”

Marie raised her voice: “Marie Fou Lafan. I was asked to visit.”

“Please come in.”

Like a proper gentleman, Jilk held the door for Marie and she walked in to...

Oh.

Ooooh.

Mama liiiike...

The young man behind the desk was black haired, with the most handsome face she’d ever seen. His face was solemn but she just knew that if he smiled there would be sparkles in the air and the background would go to delicate pastel tones… in the game, of course.

Temptation beckoned and Marie had to fight down the urge to lunge across the room and lay claim to the hottie. DLC! He had to be DLC! How had she missed this!? Why hadn’t she got a playthrough guide to hoist his flags!?

Everything went blurry and she clutched at the air, trying to reach out for the cues that must be there… they must be…

The next conscious thought she had was to wonder why she was laid out on a couch.

“Of course, she fainted, Ascart. Marie’s a delicate flower. Being dragged here to some sort of inquisition must have terrified her,” Jilk said irritably.

“It’s hardly an inquisition,” the boy from before said in a calm voice. Smooth like honey… mmm. “I’ve received several contradictory reports about Lady Lafan and it seems best that I establish the truth before the matter escalates out of hand.”

“What happened?” Marie asked, her head still feeling fuzzy.

She felt Jilk take her hands. “You fainted, Marie. Don’t try to sit up. Have you been skipping meals? Do you want to go to the nurse’s office?”

There was the tinkle of a silver spoon against fine china. “Here, some tea may help.”

Marie opened her eyes and saw the handsome young man holding a teacup and saucer out. “Please take a few moments to recover, Lady Lafan.”

“A few moments? You heartless oaf,” Jilk grumbled.

The president paused and though his expression remained stoic, his next words had an edge. “I recognise your expertise on that matter, Marmoria.”

“What are you saying?!”

“In addition to quite concerning reports of bullying of Lady Lafan, which is my reason for calling her here,” Ascart observed flatly, “There have been just as many complaints regarding her… inappropriate intimacy with some presumed gentlemen who ought to know better.”

“How dare you!” Jilk drew himself to his full height. “I demand to know who is besmirching my dear Marie’s name in this way.”

“Marmoria, has it slipped your mind that you’re engaged to my first cousin?”

Marie mentally traced the connections. So Ascart… ah, this must be Count Ascart’s heir Nicol, and his cousin… that Atlee cow in second year. Bother, this must be an event for Jilk’s route that she’d missed so far. Without the script, she’d have to improvise.

She hated improvising. It was basically gambling, guessing what you should do instead of having a sure thing.

“Am I suddenly not allowed to have friends of my own?” Jilk spat irritably. “How many of those complaints were stirred up by your cousin?”

Nicol Fia Ascart - the Ascart’s were a court family - sat back behind the desk and steepled his fingers. “So far as I am aware, none. And your friendships are not my concerns, Marmoria. However, you have the obligations of your status and if you neglect them, which seems to be the case…”

“What would you know about obligations?” Jilk stalked to the desk and slammed his hands down. “Your family has given you the freedom to choose your own wife.”

“Which is not as easy as it may seem.”

What!? Marie groaned in disbelief. This beautiful young man was unengaged!? Unthinkable! If she only knew what flags to raise, what an opportunity! It was enough to make her cry!

“Marie! Marie!” She felt silk brush her cheeks and opened her eyes to realise that Jilk was wiping her face with her handkerchief. “Don’t cry, Marie. I’ll take you out of here.”

The president’s voice remained level. “This meeting is not over.”

“I say otherwise.”

Marie eeped as Jilk lifted her from the couch and scooped her up in his arms. “Jilk.”

“If Lady Lafan is being bullied…” the black-haired young man warned.

“If that happens, she has my protection.”

Marie knew her cue and snuggled against Jilk. “I’m safe with you, Jilk.”

The green-haired boy kissed her brow. “Go back to crawling for favours from Stuart’s fiancee, Ascart,” he accused before carrying Marie out of the student council offices.

The girl relaxed at having navigated the scene successfully. She’d scored a princess carry, and hints to look into the student council situation. That was a win, right?
 
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