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

You know, Marie's harem comes out looking significantly better in this one than the OTL. A bare loss in a 5-vs-5 series of duels with no blatant cheating like the bomb incident is a much better look than the OTL where Leon curbstomped all five by himself with a shovel after they tried to sabotage his armor in front of everybody. Leon's broadcast hurts Jilk quite a bit but won't splash the others as much, and Chris losing after trying to reasonably limit the damage Katarina could take looks good to the crowd.

The prince may get to keep his title this time around.
I'm kinda waiting for the harem idiots to wake up, and realise that she doesn't care. Might not happen, but I'd still like to see it.

And, a perfect response to "Take a dive or ELSE!"

Drak, you've still got it.
Calculated Chivalry 3-4
Calculated Chivalry

They say that all in love is fair
Yeah, but you don't care
~ Huey Lewis​

Chapter 4

In revenge a man is but even with his enemy; for it is a princely thing to pardon, and Solomon saith it is the glory of a man to pass over a transgression. ~ Francis Bacon​

The victors gathered in the hangar where their knight-armours had been brought after their duels. Katarina pulled the device that Leon had given her out of her pocket and offered it to him. “Thank you for letting me use your gi… your knight-armour.”

She could so remember her manners, Anne!

The dark-haired boy grinned and shook his head. “Keep that as a souvenir,” he told her. “It won’t do much of anything if I’m not around but you should have something to remember the occasion by.”

“Oh that’s great! Thank you!”

“Ahem.” Gerald swept in and took her hand. “My congratulations on your victory, Katarina. I knew you had it in you.”

Katarina felt her cheeks flush. “Well, it’s in my blood. You were great as well!”

He nodded. “It’s probably best that I drew Julius as my opponent. Anyone but Alan or I fighting him would be lese majesty, but we are cousins so we have some degree of latitude.”

What was lese majesty? Katarina was sure she’d heard the term somewhere, but like a lot of things that weren’t actually useful to know most of the time she’d put it out of her mind.

“The three of you turned it all around,” Alan said honestly, offering Leon his hand. “Given the way Greg handled me, I can’t help but feel like I let you down.”

Keith nodded as Leon shook Alan’s hand. “I thought I was at least as capable as Brad, but I was wrong. I should practise more in case this happens again.”

“I’m certainly not going to advise against practising more.” Leon patted Katarina’s brother on the shoulder. “But don’t just practise for this. Practise against as many different people as you can - because there’s no knowing what you’ll be facing in the future. Duels like this aren’t really much like an actual battle.”

Gerald gave Leon an interested look. “I understood - no offence - that you were on the sidelines of the fighting for Olfrey.”

“I was. I still got a look at it.” Leon shook his head. “Anyway, I don’t mean to be a damper. We won.”

Katarina nodded. “Uh, what happens now?”

Gerald made a face. “Now we have to answer to higher authorities. The king and queen, Duke Redgrave, my brother… your parents.”

A chill went down Katarina’s back. “But… we won?”

Alan nodded. “That might help. I doubt any of them are really happy about Julius throwing his fiancee over for Marie Fou Lafan, of all people. But he’s still the crown prince and our taking a stance against him suggests that both the Claes and the Stuarts aren’t exactly loyal to him. And we were fighting for Angelica Rafa Redgrave, which suggests that three of the five dukes may be forming a power bloc opposed to the crown.”

Keith groaned. “None of this occurred to you, Katarina? What were you thinking?”

“That Julius was being mean to Angelica, and then about fighting in a… knight-armour,” she answered honestly. “Is Lady Lafan really that bad?”

“It’s not a matter of her personally,” Gerald told her. “The point of Julius marrying Angelica was that it meant that when he was king, he could rely on the Redgraves and their allies to support him. It would be nice if he got along with her - I know the queen was hoping for that - but that was secondary. The Lafans are an impoverished viscount’s household. They don’t bring any appreciable support to Julius. In fact, they’re really more of a drain.”

That seemed kind of sad to Katarina. Maybe it was for the best that Gerald and Alan weren’t likely to become king. If one of them married Olivia it shouldn’t matter too much that she was a commoner, so they could be happy together. As long as she managed to get away into exile rather than being flung into prison or killed… Then she gasped.

“Katarina?” asked Keith.

“Snakey!” she cried. “I never picked him up after the party. I need to make another one.”

Alan started laughing while Keith and Gerald both sighed.

Before Katarina could start gathering materials, Mary arrived and she wasn’t alone. For a moment, Katarina thought that the pale haired girl was Sophia, but she was too tall. “Oh, Violette!” she realised.

“Hello Katarina.” Her cousin gave her a warm smile. “Are you alright? Chris didn’t hurt you, did he?”

“Oh no, he just tapped me.” She shook her head. “I’m sorry he hit his head.”

The other girl’s smile looked a little more like Mary’s. “I’m sure he wasn’t using it for anything.” She looked at Alan. “Are you alright, Prince Alan?”

He looked abashed. “Yeah, my pride’s a bit battered but I’ll live.”

Mary caught hold of Katarina’s arm. She looked sideways and saw that her friend was watching Violette and Alan with a quizzical expression. “Is something wrong?”

“No, no.” Mary shook her head. “I’m so glad you didn’t get hurt fighting, Lady Katarina. I should have known that Arclight didn’t stand a chance against you.”

“I was getting a little worried,” she admitted. “But at least he didn’t try anything like Jilk did. The way he threatened Leon’s family… I can’t imagine why anyone would do that.”

“I assume,” the dark-haired boy observed, “That he was concerned about the political consequences of Gerald actually fighting Julius. Perhaps he thought that as long as that actually took place, this could be kept from becoming too much of a scandal.”

“That would be rather naive,” Gerald told them.

“It was still a horrible thing to do.” Katarina shook her head. “If someone threatened my family like that… well, I don’t know what I’d do.”

“Fortunately, you’re a good and kind person who would never sink to that sort of villainy.”

Mary and Gerald looked worried for some reason. Were they concerned she might start acting like a villain? Katarina shook her head in denial. Even in the game, that Katarina had never done anything that villainous. “Well of course not!” she told them. “Mother would be furious. Jilk’s family must be terribly disappointed in him.”

“It’s a good job no one here would do anything of the kind,” Leon said.

Katarina beamed at him reassuringly. Yes, she’d stay well clear of anything like that! No villainy for her, that just led to death flags!


It would be somewhat inappropriate for Angelica to visit Prince Julius right after the duel without having at least one of her champions with her; and since none of Katarina’s admirers were interested in being parted from her, the Redgrave daughter had the choice between taking all of them, four of them or just Leon. She’d chosen the option that wouldn’t look like blatant intimidation.

Leon found that Olivia was sticking with Angelica, which was probably for the best. While the current scandal had been triggered by the duke’s daughter, most of the foundation work was the Julius’ and Leon felt that Angelica could do with someone sympathetic with her. Olivia was more or less ideal.

Prince Julius was far too important to be left in the nurse’s office - he was in one of the attached private rooms that were used for extended stays. There were valid reasons for having that level of medical support - between the dungeon and combat training, sometimes students really did suffer serious injuries.

Marie Fou Lafan was just leaving one of the rooms when they arrived and she squeaked nervously and backed into the room again.

“I assume that that’s where Chris is,” Leon noted. “Since if she’s visiting Julius then they’re breaking the terms of the duel already and I’d think that that’s dumber than even they are.”

Angelica nodded. “Unless they argue that it’s normal school interactions.” She sighed. “Honestly, if she’s healing him I should probably make an exception.”

Leon rolled his eyes. “I wouldn’t suggest it unless his life is in danger, or at least permanent impairment is an issue. For that matter, Olivia here is probably better at light magic if you’re really feeling guilty. Making exceptions is a good way to make this entire thing pointless.”

“I suppose you’re right,” she agreed.

“I don’t mind healing him,” offered Olivia.

“Save it for if he’s actually at risk.” Leon found the right door and tapped his knuckles against it. “A few bruises may help him remember what Gerald said to him.”

“Come in.” Julius sounded subdued.

When Leon pushed the door open, Greg and Brad were inside with the prince. “What do you want?” Brad asked scornfully.

“We lost, Brad.” Julius shook his head. “You and Greg did your parts, but the rest of us let you down.”

“Yeah, but only because a bunch of people who hadn’t got any reason to involve themselves butted in.”

Leon chuckled. “What reason did you have to ‘butt in’ once the stakes of the duel were just whether or not Marie and Julius could spend time together? It didn’t matter either way to you.”

“But now that you’ve won, you can force her out of the school!”

Angelica pinched the bridge of her nose. “Something that no one involved has any interest in doing.”

“Then what were you fighting for?” demanded Greg, pointing at Leon.

“Honestly? You idiots have been so offensive to just about everyone outside of your own little circle, I just wanted the chance to punch one of you in the face.” He gestured towards the door. “I’m guessing that Lady Redgrave would like to clear the air with Prince Julius. Why don’t the rest of us wait outside?”

Greg stepped forward menacingly. “Sounds just fine.”

“Don’t start another fight here,” Julius said tiredly. “Alright, Angelica. You want to talk, then we can talk alone. It isn’t going to change anything though.”

The four of them filtered out of the room and closed the door behind them. For a moment, Leon thought that Brad or Greg might start something but despite some glares they headed into the room that Marie was hiding in. The brief glance through the door as they entered confirmed that it was Chris.

“Good thing that Marmoria isn’t here,” he muttered.

Olivia looked back at Julius' door. “Do you think Angelica will be alright?”

Leon sighed. “It depends how you define alright. She gave her heart to someone that broke it. I think she’ll get better eventually, but that doesn’t stop it hurting right now.”

“Is there anything we can do?”

“Give her a shoulder to cry on,” he suggested as the door from the nurse’s office opened. “I don’t think she’d trust me on that level - we barely know each other - but she seems to consider you a friend. Just try not to get sucked into any plans for revenge, that doesn’t generally help.”

“I’d have to disagree.” The new arrival was a little disheveled, and not one of their classmates but Leon recognised her anyway. “But you’re cute and you kicked Jilk’s cheating ass so I’ll forgive you.”

“Truly you’re a font of generosity.” He pulled himself together and bowed politely. “Olivia, may I introduce Lady Clarice Fia Atlee. Lady Atlee, this is Olivia Campbell.”

“My generosity is very selective,” the older girl told him with a smile. “When it comes to lousy cheating scumbags, I’m only generous when measuring out the pain they should suffer.”

“Er…” Olivia murmured weakly.

“Lady Atlee has the misfortune of being engaged to Jilk Fia Marmoria.”


“Given you did me the very great favour of revealing what a putrid pile of pondscum he is, I think we can drop the formalities,” Clarice told him. “You can call me Clarice.”

“It would be ungracious of me not to return the courtesy then,” Leon told her. “I haven’t seen Marmoria, so I don’t know if he’s here nor not.”

“Probably under some damp rock,” the girl told him. “I’m not here for him anyway. I just heard you’d come here and I wanted to let you know that I’ve written to my father about Jilk. If the Marmoria’s do try anything, I’m fairly sure that you can count on my family’s support. They may be close to the king but they are only viscounts at the end of the day.”

“Hopefully Viscount Marmoria will see how unwise it would be to double down on his son’s stupidity.” Leon shrugged. “But human idiocy has few limits so I’d be a fool to turn down the offer of support.”

“I may be able to repay you in other ways, if you ever need a favour.” Clarice added with a wink. “But right now I have other things on my mind. Let me know if you think of anything.” (Leon’s hormones were able to suggest several ideas but not being a drooling idiot, he didn’t voice them. Clarice might take offense - or worse, she might take him up on the suggestions and then her father would almost certainly take offense.) “Is Angelica ripping Julius’ balls off?”

Olivia flushed. “No! …I mean, she wouldn’t…”

“I think we’d have heard the screaming if she was,” Leon reassured her. “I believe Lady Redgrave is currently in either the denial or the bargaining stage of dealing with her grievance.”

“The what stages?” asked Clarice, her expression shifting from anticipation to puzzlement.

Leon shrugged, “When dealing with a loss of some kind - a bereavement, a failure, or in this case the end of a relationship, there are a few fairly common reactions - anger, which I’d suggest is where you sit in regard to Marmoria right now?”

“You’ve got that right.”

“I don’t really need to explain that one further then. Denial is refusing to believe, deep down, that it’s really happened. Bargaining is where you try to find some terms on which you will make things right, or at least feel better about it. I suppose a desire for revenge could fall into that stage as well. The other stages are depression and acceptance.”

Clarice snorted. “Acceptance?”

“‘Well, that didn’t work out. Time to get on with my life.’” Leon looked at her expression and then shrugged. “It’s not usually the first reaction, although it may be the healthiest. They’re called stages because most people work through more than one. Everyone’s different, of course.”

“And you think Angelica should accept losing the prince to that little tramp?” the older girl asked sarcastically.

Leon shrugged. “I can’t control my own feelings, much less someone else’s. If she does reach that stage at some point, it’ll probably be better for her than spending the rest of her life crying over him.”

Olivia nodded in agreement and Clarice made a face. “Well, if you’re just comparing those two choices...”


Inside the medical room, it was Angelica who broke the awkward silence between her and Prince Julius. “For what it’s worth, I’m glad you aren’t seriously hurt, your highness.”

The young man let his hair fall forward over his face, hiding his eyes. “Stop acting so pure and innocent after putting my cousin up to fighting me.”

She flushed. “What you said during the duel - is that truly how you see me?”

“What do you mean?”

“That all I’m interested in is being the queen? Is that what you think of me?”

“Isn’t it true?” the prince asked. There was no doubt in his voice.

Tears formed at the corners of her eyes. “No. It’s not true. That might be why my father and your parents arranged it, but it’s not why I love you.”

“You don’t even know me!” Julius looked up slightly, dark blue eyes peering at her through the fringe of hair. “Do you even know what my favourite food is?”

Angelica opened her mouth to say that of course she did, but then she bit the words back. Her mind went back to the words exchanged between Gerald and Julius. “I know what you most often ask for and seem to enjoy when I’m around, but you’ve never said to me it’s your favourite. So if it isn’t that chicken soup or the fish imported from the republic, is it something that you’ve never shared with me?”

Julius looked away, “I have a licking for meat skewers,” he explained. “I ate them once when I was out incognito, but I was told it was commoner food. Unfitting for a prince, so of course I couldn’t tell you about it. But Marie knew without my telling her. The first time I left the academy with her, she invited me to a food stall that served them.”

“How lucky for her.”

“I thought it was fate,” Julius told her with a smile that was heart-breaking, because it was not for her.

“I trained from morning to night to learn etiquette and everything else to be queen because that was the price to be with you, not because I craved your mother’s crown,” Angelica told him. “And yet she just walks into your life and then…”

“So why do you want me, since we’ve established you don’t know a thing about me.”

“If I don’t see through your mask,” she told him, “Is that my blindness or you hiding from me?” The blonde shook her head. “You probably don’t even remember.”

“Remember what?”

She looked away, out the window. Away from the boy she’d given her heart. “You said you’d look after me. No one else ever did that. My father wanted me to be the perfect marriage partner, your mother wanted me to be the future queen… but not even Gilbert even said that he’d protect me.”

“So you wanted something else from me. Like you need someone to protect you!”

“I did. Today.”

She heard Julius breathe in sharply.

Silence fell again.

“I am aware that I have insulted you. And your family,” he admitted at last. “But it doesn’t change that I love Marie.”

“Then…” She prepared to throw her pride on the floor. If she had to accept Marie to still be alongside Julius then…

“No. I cannot love you.”

…then even that sacrifice was not enough, it seemed.

“My heart may be a small and mean one to only have room for one woman, but that’s how it is and the woman in question is not you,” Julius told her. “I’m sorry if I’m breaking some promise I made when we were children, but I won’t be untrue to her.”

Angelica felt more tears flowing down her face. She’d wondered if she would be tempted to act the way Scarlet had when Greg renounced her, but she wasn’t as angry as she was sorrowful.

“We both know that this won’t end with the two of us,” she said when she was sure her voice wouldn’t shake. Offering him an out from the terms of the duel… wasn’t something that she was willing to keep on the table when she was rejected so firmly. “But I stand what I said before, I shan’t try to force Marie out of the academy even if you did lose.”

“Thank you.”

She adjusted her skirt. “I regret that you ended up at swordpoint with your cousin… but I won’t lie and say that I repent of it. At least I know who you are now. It’s a shame you never tried sharing that before - or to find out who I was.”

“It’s too late now,” Julius told her.

“If you say that then I must accept it.” She’d shown him enough tears, the duke’s daughter decided. The rest could be in private and then she would have to face her father’s anger over this. “I… even now, your highness, I shall wish for you to be happy. Somehow.”

She turned in time to see his eyes closed. Not even looking at her.

The door closed behind Angelica with finality. If Julius had any last words for her, she didn’t hear them.


The outside world had finally noticed what was happening. Or rather, they had had a chance to respond. While the academy wasn’t really far outside of the capital, it took time for word to not only get there, but for it to reach the people who it concerned and for them to respond took a few days.

Somewhat to Leon’s surprise, the first arrivals weren’t representing the crown. Although… that had been how it happened in the book. He wasn’t really sure why.

But whatever that factor was, it was still in effect. And thus, when Leon was marched into the rooms playing host to the guests - along with Angelica and her other four champions - there were two guests waiting. And they were marched, teachers had sought them all out and escorted them the whole way. The first guest was unfamiliar - a bearded man in his middle years, stood looking broodingly out of the window - but the other was known to Leon. Duke Jeffrey Rafa Stuart was lounging in one of the armchairs.

“Well daughter.” The man by the window turned to look at Angelica. “I would have preferred to deal with this quietly, but it seems that you have forced my hand.” That left no doubt who this was: Duke Vince Rafa Redgrave, perhaps the most powerful man in the kingdom after the king. For now.

Angelica bowed her head.

“Gerald, Alan.” Jeffrey rose to his feet and strode towards his brothers. Both boys tensed but then he flung an arm around each of them and dragged them into a hug. “You aren’t hurt, either of you?”

“No.” Alan told him gruffly.

Gerald tried to pull back. “We’re fine, Jeffrey.”

There was a pause as everyone watched the hug. “Are you going to let go?” asked Alan.

“Never!” his oldest brother claimed.

“Well, so much for the dignity of the nobility,” Duke Redgrave rumbled and then he reached out to Angelica. “Come here, Angelica.”

The girl hesitated and then fell into her father’s arms. Leon heard a sniffle from his side and glanced that way to see - beyond Keith who was for some ‘mysterious reason’ intent on keeping himself positioned between them - Katarina wiping away a slight tear.

The three of them allowed the family reunions to take place, despite betrayed looks from the younger Stuarts as they tried to pry themselves free from their brother.

After the two had succeeded, Duke Redgrave took the seat behind the room’s one desk and Duke Stuart perched himself on the corner of it. “I trust you understand that there can be no reward for anything that the five of you did for my daughter,” Redgrave declared. “So long as we treat this as a quarrel between children, the consequences can be contained to an extent - but if any of your actions were to be rewarded then it would have to be treated more seriously in other regards.”

“None of us expected any rewards,” Katarina declared confidently. “We were just helping Angelica.”

The dukes eyed her for a moment, Stuart smiling somewhat enigmatically while Redgrave was more searching. Then the older man nodded and looked up at Leon.

The boy swallowed at the keen eyes examining him.

“Is this true of you as well, Lord Bartford? Unlike the rest of those involved, you’re almost unknown to the upper ranks of the nobility. I could imagine a young man who has risen so far and so fast might have hoped for something more.”

“That’s an understandable concern, sir.”

“And are you claiming it’s not so?”

Leon forced a smile. “I have ambitions, yes. But this had nothing to do with them. You should know, unless you’re quite out of touch, how serious a matter it is for most of the young men at the academy to find fiancees here. Prince Julius and his friends - with the exception of Lord Field - arrived with what most of us would consider the greatest possible treasures already in their hands: futures alongside quite admirable young ladies.” He paused, letting the smile fade. “And they placed no value on their good fortune.”

Redgrave nodded. “I accept your compliment of my daughter, although I had not heard that you are close.”

Angelica looked pained. “Father…”

“Let him answer me, Angelica.”

“I am on good terms with both of Duke Ades' daughters,” Leon answered. “Although I doubt their father will be pleased with that, under the circumstances. And I respect Lady Atlee and your daughter. Perhaps, under other circumstances, we might even become friends. To look for more than that would be unreasonable of me, given our respective responsibilities.”

The greying duke nodded approvingly. “Well said.” His eyes narrowed. “A shame those who were supposed to be close to Angelica were less willing to stand up for her. While there should be no official sanction, you may have made powerful enemies.”

“Respectfully, your grace. If they act on that then they will find that they have made a dangerous enemy themselves.”

Jeffrey snorted. “By all accounts I’ve heard, when Viscount Marmoria’s son threatened the Bartfords, you threatened his entire family in turn. Is that right?”

Leon nodded quietly.

“I suppose I should not expect you to be easily intimidated then.” Redgrave nodded in satisfaction. “That may serve you well, if you survive. I think that between Duke Stuart and I, your family should not see themselves facing too much in the way of even informal displeasure. The king himself has professed himself willing to brush it off as boys being boys - if you will excuse being included in that, Lady Claes?”

“What?” the girl asked. “Oh, that’s alright.”

Keith covered his face in despair and the duke’s lips quirked. “The Claes may also elect to extend their own protections. While Luigi isn’t directly impacted by those young men’s foolishness, I think Miranda is most aggrieved for her nieces’ poor treatment.”

“And my wife wouldn’t tolerate anything happening to young Leon,” added Jeffrey cheerfully. “She’s taken quite a shine to him.”

“Wh-what?” Angelica exclaimed.

“You’ve met Suzanna?” Gerald exclaimed, looking at Leon.

“Er… yes?”

Vince chuckled darkly. “I had no idea such a dark horse was lurking at the academy or I would have warned you to cultivate him, Angelica.”

“What’s so surprising?” asked Katarina. “Isn’t Duchess Stuart…” She paused, frowned slightly and then tugged on Keith’s sleeve. “Keith, have I met Duchess Stuart and just forgotten about it?”

“Our sister-in-law is famously reclusive,” Alan told her. “I doubt you’ve met. She only attends a few formal occasions, just enough to meet her obligations.”

“Indeed. A very great beauty, but Duke Jeffrey keeps her to himself,” Redgrave confirmed. “And how did you come to her notice, young Bartford?”

Well I doubt most of the people here know she moonlights as a department head at the Ministry, Leon thought. And I’ve no cause to let them know - it might even annoy Duke Stuart. “We met briefly at the ball celebrating my mother’s elevation to Countess. As to why she would remember me…” He shrugged.

“Suzanna likes interesting people,” Jeffrey reminded his brothers.

“Thus her disinterest in most of noble society,” Gerald riposted with a chill smile.

“Exactly!” His oldest brother threw his head back and laughed as if that was something to be proud of.

Katarina raised her hand for attention. “Is Angelica still going to have to marry Prince Julius, after all of this?”

“Certainly not!” exclaimed the old Duke. “My apologies, Angelica. I intended to tell you later but since the matter has arisen, I would absolutely not allow that person near my daughter in the future.”

“I understand, father.” Angelica lowered her eyes. “I agree that this is for the best.”

“It will be necessary for you to be discreet in the future, particularly as many other matters remain undecided,” Vince Rafa Redgrave continued. “The arrangements for your summer are being reconsidered, you can hardly stay at the palace as was previously envisaged. In general I would suggest that you all stay out of the public eye...” He looked at Leon and raised one questioning eyebrow.

“I will be doing a little treasure hunting a good long way from the continent and assisting on my family’s islands,” he answered unprompted.

Angelica looked intrigued but her father took her hand. “Not at the moment, Angelica, although if Lord Bartford is amenable then you may accompany him some other time.” Then he turned back to Leon. “Speaking from my own experience, young man, I recommend caution when you are well out from your known haunts. An adventurer alone on the frontier may find themselves particularly vulnerable if there are those in the kingdom who would prefer you not return alive.”

Leon bared his teeth slightly. “It would be silly to say that I would be careful, given the risks being an adventurer brings. But discretion is not entirely impossible.” Besides, my plans don’t involve adventuring on the frontier, as such, he added to himself - referring to the extent of the kingdom’s borders that didn’t border any organised realm as yet. While the aerial nature of islands meant there were few hard and fast boundaries, the Bartford barony and many others clustered along the sparsely settled region beyond the Duchy of the Ades. Most of the islands there had been settled over the last few generations and the sky beyond was believed to have few if any more within ready range of most skyships.

Hope sprang eternal, of course - and it was where he had found Luxion. But he wasn’t planning on anything that random in results for his summer.
A Summer’s Scheming 4-1
A Summer’s Scheming

It's strong and it's sudden and it's cruel sometimes
But it might just save your life​
~ Huey Lewis​

Chapter 1

If you want to be revenged, hold your tongue. ~ Traditional Proverb​

Mary was waiting at the door to the room used by the campus bookies when Leon arrived. There wasn’t really a queue as such - it was just the two of them.

“Do you get the impression that someone had less than total faith in Lady Redgrave’s champions?” he asked her in greeting.

“A proper lady would not speculate upon what others had wagered, much less on the extent of their losses,” the girl said primly, covering her mouth with a fan. Her eyes danced with amusement though.

Leon snorted. “And that’s one reason so many idiots lose their money. No one reins them in.”

“You might be onto something,” Mary conceded. “However, since financial and social ruin presumably follows those who fall into that trap, one might argue that it is to the benefit of the noble class as a whole.”

“That’s one view, I suppose.”

The door opened and Raymond Fou Arkin emerged from inside. He looked pleased with himself, but wiped that look off his face when he saw he wasn’t alone outside.

“I see someone had faith in at least one of us,” Leon noted.

Mary closed her fan and tapped it to his lips. “Discretion, Lord Bartford. Lest fools thrive.” She went ahead of him into the bookie’s room.

“More than they do already?” he called after her,

Raymond shook his head in disbelief. “How do you do that?”

“Do what?”

“Have high ranking women treat you like that!” the slightly built baron’s heir demanded. “I’d be jealous if it wasn’t for your tea parties digging out some quiet girls for the rest of us, but none of us would get the time of day from a noble lady.”

Leon stared at him and then snorted. “I think you have a definition issue, Raymond. These are noble ladies, but the ones you have trouble with are harpies. There’s a pronounced difference!”

The other boy winced. “Don’t let them hear that. You’re on shaky ground as it is.”

“That’s what makes this so fun!”

Raymond didn’t appear to believe that. “Rather you than me. Er, will you be hosting more tea parties after the summer?”

Leon rolled his eyes. “Sure, but we should all just invite the actual ladies, then informally agree that everyone goes to one host in turn. Us competing to put on a display doesn’t work well.”

Mary opened the door and walked out, beaming. “Leon, you’re up. Try not to make the poor men cry.”

“No promises,” he said with a wink and went in.

The boy inside flinched as he saw Leon, but then plastered a welcoming look on his face. “Ah, our big winner. Welcome back, Lord Bartford.”

Leon inclined his head. “Three out of five.”

“That is correct, of course.” The bookie gestured to the seat ahead of him. “You have your betting slips?”

The five were proffered and Leon politely ignored the expression of dashed hope, separating the bets on Keith and Alan. “These two were losses.”

“Quite…” The other boy accepted the two, tore them up and discarded them into a wastebin. “So, moving on to what we owe you, let’s start with the final duel. The odds were almost exactly even, so…” He opened a cash box and pushed back a platinum coin - probably one of the five that Leon had bet with since coins of that denomination weren’t usually flashed around, at least not by mere students - and added a number of smaller coins that were almost but not entirely equal in value once you added them up.

Leon pocketed them without counting. It could have been taken as a gesture of trust… or that he just didn’t care very much given the two bets that he hadn’t collected on.

The bookie picked out the slip for the last duel and discarded it. “And now we have these two.” He placed his hands on the table. “To be completely honest, we don’t keep enough cash on hand to pay out odds of ten to one against you and of seventeen to one against Lady Claes.”

Leon quirked an eyebrow. “Not enough people bet against us?”

“I can’t comment on anyone else’s wagers,” the boy said primly. “We have enough to cover either one of those right away, and I’d be perfectly happy to go to the capital and collect the cash from the bank but that would take time and my understanding is that you won’t be staying at the academy over the summer.”

“I take it that you have alternatives in mind then?”

“Naturally.” The bookie relaxed slightly. “If you’re happy to accept partial payout today, we can cover the rest with an IOU to be collected next term…”

Leon frowned at him.

“Or a banker’s draft,” the older boy concluded, smoothly.

Holfort’s banking system didn’t quite extend to checking accounts but the capital did have banks that held and transferred funds for nobles, gentry and more affluent merchants. They also offered loans, to entrap the feudal nobility into debt… er, to facilitate trade and help those whose income was seasonal to manage their finances. For a group of students to have a joint account with one reinforced that they were quite a well-established group.

Leon wondered if the money he drew on with such a draft would come from their actual reserve funds or if they’d taken a loan out. The latter didn’t mean he’d run them out of money, just that he’d have reduced them to so little capital that they couldn’t keep operating in the short term. “A draft is fine,” he agreed. “Shall we say half of the total with the rest in cash?”

“Of course.” The cash box opened again and all four of the remaining platinum coins came out. The number of coins and banknotes that joined them was impressive but the bookie managed to make it look as if it was an everyday transaction. “Fourteen point five in cash. I’ll write out the banker’s draft now.” The document he retrieved had been mostly written up and signed already. It was the work of a moment for the upperclassman to enter the amount and a few other details. “If you’d be so good as to sign here?”

Leon accepted the draft and read it carefully first. Once he was satisfied that it didn’t mean he was accepting the draft itself as settlement or any other stupid trap, he signed it and stowed it away carefully.

“Congratulations,” the bookie told him. “You’ve pushed us to impose a maximum bet limit.”

“It’s nice to make an impact, I suppose.”

“Oh, I assure you that you have.”

Mary was still waiting for Leon outside, although Raymond had made himself scarce. Perhaps he found the young lady intimidating. Leon would have said that that would make it hard for the heir to Baron Arkin to find a bride, but since he was already introducing the other student to some less threatening young ladies, it wasn’t the end of the world.

“I wondered who was behind luring some of the more reclusive ladies in our class out of their rooms to socialize,” Mary noted. “And now I know.”

“The cunning hunter does not chase,” Leon told her in a pretentious tone. “He waits.”

She snapped her fan out again to cover her face. “Given that gentlemen tend towards the more dangerous professions, the disparity in influence between ladies and gentlemen in society is… puzzling. When I was younger it was just how matters were.”

“The majority of the ladies are competing to marry up.” Leon reminded her. “The matter doesn’t impact on the heirs to viscounts and upwards. Well, not as much. But second sons or the heirs to mere barons struggle, and social events in the academy are structured to render us competitors to each other.”

“With the observed results,” she mused, placing one hand on the arm that he had offered her as they headed towards the door. It was taking decorum perhaps a little too far, but Mary seemed to enjoy the formality and courtesy cost Leon nothing while buying him some goodwill. It was a currency that it was hard to have too much of.

Leon wondered if it was a good moment to let her in on the fact that it wasn’t the result of some shadowy conspiracy… or rather, that it was but that they weren’t subverting the kingdom’s customs to create the current situation. The customs had been created intentionally by previous generations of the Holfort dynasty, if not with quite this result in mind.

They paused at the sight of a finely dressed gentleman crossing the academy grounds as they exited the building. It was a fine summer day and more than a few students were already departing, carrying their bags (or trailed by servants doing so) as they did so.

“That’s one of the crown’s heralds,” Mary noted, her hand tightening on Leon’s arm. “What’s he doing?”

“Collecting a family member?” Leon didn’t think that it was likely though - few families would send someone to collect their offspring from the academy itself. It would be an inconvenience to the feudal lords and even court nobles had little need to do so. A student should be assumed to be competent to get themselves at least as far as the capital or its attached port without supervision.

“I’m fairly sure that the baron has no children our age,” she disagreed and pulled lightly. “If you will indulge my curiosity?”


The grey-haired court baron seemed to pay no heed to the fact he was being followed, leading Leon and Mary to one of the dorm buildings - the one that catered to the most exalted of all the male students.

“Oh my.”

“He’s here on business then,” Leon concluded. “I do believe that someone is in trouble.”

Mary nodded. “Unfortunately, I doubt that his message will be delivered in public.”

“I think we can safely say that it’s going to be Julius, right?”

“I would imagine so. But the prince’s rooms are the most secure in the entire dorm. We can’t exactly listen at his keyhole.”

“No… but he is on the top floor, and the dorm’s attic is just storage space,” Leon suggested. “I have an idea.”

He led her into the dorm, past the harried concierge and up the main stairs. At the end of one of the upstairs corridors, there was a locked door and Leon pulled a couple of pins out of his sleeve.

“What in the world are you up to?” Mary asked as he pushed them into the keyhole, feeling for the tumblers. Then her eyes widened as something clicked.

Leon smiled, opened the door and ushered her inside, closing the door after he’d followed her inside.

“You have some unexpected skills,” she told him as they climbed the stairs behind the door.

He shrugged. “Product of a mis-spent youth. Please keep your voice down, we can hear through the ceiling, so we can also be heard.”

At the top of the stairs, the rafters were bare. Perhaps at one point the space had been used for storage but right now it was empty. Leon orientated himself and then they hopped from rafter to rafter until they had reached a spot above Julius’ suite. Mary took off her high-heeled shoes, as they were impractical under the circumstances.

Kneeling in the dust, the two of them listened for voices below.

“...families are disinclined to welcome you back for the summer given your disgraceful performances of late,” a man’s deep voice declared.

“Hey, I won my duel,” Greg Fou Seberg rebutted - clearly audible to the two eavesdroppers.

“What did I do wrong?” added Brad Fou Field indignantly.

“What leads you to think that it is merely the duels that your fathers are concerned by?” The herald - or so Leon assumed - didn’t sound at all bothered. “Count Seberg expressed - with the full support of Marquis Field and Viscount Marmoria - that he has always supported the notion that a son who fails to wed should not inherit. Since Count Atlee has dissolved the arrangement between his house and the Marmorias, that leaves only one of you with a fiancee. You need not expect that your fathers will provide such arrangements again in the future.”

“Then I’ll marry Marie and everything will be fine!” the redhead declared.

“Excuse me, what makes you think it’s you that Marie will be marrying?” asked Brad sharply.

The herald cleared his throat. “I have also been asked to determine whether Prince Julius is upholding the terms of the duels fought between yourselves and Lady Redgrave’s champion.” He paused. “Since Lady Lafan is currently in the prince’s suite, I believe the answer can be taken that you are not.”

“Ah. No,” disagreed Jilk Fia Marmoria. “Marie is merely accompanying the four of us as we visit the prince. She isn’t actually seeking him out… so… you see. It’s not the same thing at all!”

“I wish I could see the Baron’s face,” Mary mused.

“That is precisely the same thing,” the deep voice responded, sounding quite distinctly unamused. “That being the case, I have been instructed to inform his highness that he is to be deprived of his status as crown prince. While the royal house does not at this time disown Prince Julius, his qualifications to succeed the throne shall be under review. Whether your position is reinstated or you are formally expelled from the Holfort household will depend entirely upon you, your highness.”

There was a feminie shriek of disbelief from below. “Y-you can’t be serious!”

Fortunately it masked Mary’s own astonished gasp and Leon reached over to steady her.

“Marie, it’s alright.” Julius declared comfortingly. “As long as you’re beside me, I can endure anything.”

“If the lady were not beside you, we would not be having this conversation,” the herald observed tartly. “Speaking of enduring, it has been agreed that none of you should look to your families for funding through the summer. Since you appear to care very little for the privileges they have given you, it’s the collective decision of your fathers that you should see what it is like to live without them.”

“No, no,” a girl sobbed below them.

“Marie, it will be alright.” Jilk promised. “His highness is right. We need nothing but you to make our lives complete. What does money or status matter?”

Leon looked over at his companion and, seeing that she seemed about to explode, he gestured back towards the stairs.

They retraced their path and paused at the head of the stairs to remove some of the dust that they’d unavoidably got on them. “Are they completely blind!” Mary erupted.

“I don’t believe that anyone in that room except the herald and Lady Lafan has ever actually faced adversity,” Leon pointed out. “When everything in your life is well-cushioned, how would you know to be worried about a sharp edge?”

The girl shook her head. “Lady Katarina isn’t that blinker-eyed, and she’s the most sheltered person I know. Not that she isn’t a wonderful person,” she added hastily - lest Leon doubt her devotion.

“We all have our blind-spots, but for a future king and his likely counsellors to be like that is certainly concerning.” Leon rubbed his chin. “Although I suppose he isn’t the future king right now. What does that do to the succession?”

“It’s not really clear.” Marquis Hunt’s daughter toyed with her fan in thought. “The king has an illegitimate son, Prince Layne.”

Leon suddenly remembered the two children he’d met at the palace when he first met Scarlet. “So he’d be legitimised?”

“It’s possible. Otherwise, King Roland’s heir presumptive will be Duke Stuart. There was supposedly talk before Julius was born that the king would adopt one of his nephews, so he could pick up that idea instead since the second prince is still quite young.”

“If I understand you correctly, that sounds as if there’s no definite answer until King Roland gives one - and if he does choose someone then that would make it very difficult to reinstate Julius as his heir.”

Mary nodded. “And until there is a decision, every power broker in the capital will be trying to decide which horse to back.”

“A race which can have one winner but many losers.”

“Thank god the Stuarts aren’t likely to start a civil war,” Mary muttered. “At least they’re not complete cretins!”

“You do realise that if Alan were to be adopted as heir, that would make you the next queen?”

The girl doubled over and started hyperventilating.


The academy grounds had emptied as students left. Only a relative handful would be remaining over the summer.

Angelica Rafa Redgrave could at least take some comfort that this made it easy for her to avoid attention as she waited for her father to make arrangements for her summer. At first she’d remained in her rooms, turning away the majority of visitors. Her maid Cordelia had worked around this for the most part, but today she had strongly hinted that Angelica could do with some sunlight - and that she was hoping to begin packing for the summer.

Putting the temptation to insist on her self-imposed house arrest, Angelica had washed her face, changed into something comfortable and walked as far as the rose garden gazebo. It was a romantic setting, and out of easy view from most of the paths.

Angelica imagined sitting here with Julius, drinking tea and talking happily. Her treacherous imagination kept inserting Marie next to Julius, the two of them cutting Angelica out of the conversation.

The girl shook her head irritably. Had Julius ever come here with Marie? Or might she see them here in the future.

For a moment she was tempted to burn the gazebo down, but refrained. “I’m so pathetic.”

Then she heard footsteps on the path and pulled back, hoping that whoever it was would pass by without noticing it.

“Well this isn’t my daughter’s garden,” a woman’s voice mused. “Maybe Mary’s. Excuse me, young lady, your memory of the academy’s layout is surely fresher than my own.”

Reluctantly emerging, Angelica found herself looking at Katarina Rafa Claes - or rather, at someone who looked very much the way Katarina might look in another ten to fifteen years. The same sharp blue eyes and long, silky brown hair. “Duchess Claes?” she enquired. She hadn’t met Miranda Rafa Claes in years - after the Claes family adopted Keith they had withdrawn somewhat from court and then formed their own social circle among the nobility in the southern part of the kingdom.

The woman smiled warmly. “I am, yes. And you must be Lady Redgrave. You look much like your mother did when she was your age.”

Except for my hair, Angelica thought - she shared her hair colour with her brother and her father (at least until the latter began to grey). And mother must have been better than me in other ways, because father never abandoned her. “You look very much like Katarina,” she said instead. “Are you looking for her?”

“Normally I would trust that Keith and Anne could between them bring her home safely,” the duchess observed archly. “However, the recent affair has suggested that a stronger hand may be required.” She held out her hand and a maid so discreet that Angelica hadn’t even seen her until now emerged to place a sealed letter in the outstretched hand.

Cordelia would be envious, Angelica thought.

“However, I was also looking for you. Your father asked me to give you this,” Miranda extended the letter towards Angelica. “It would probably be best for you to read it now.”

Accepting the letter, she noted that it did indeed bear the imprint of her father’s signet in the sealing wax. Angelica cracked it crisply and opened the envelope.

The letter was not long - Vince Rafa Redgrave was not fond of cluttering his correspondence with anything that might confuse his intentions. Everything from the introduction to the ‘with love’ that preceded his signature served to convey his meaning as clearly as possible.

She looked up at the duchess. “You’ve extended your hospitality for the summer?” She’d thought she would be sent to one of the more obscure properties on the Redgrave’s home island.

The duchess nodded. “I gather that your father will be cleaning house amongst his vassals. I would be similarly disappointed if Katarina’s friends had not stood by her. She may have led them into foolishness, but at least they stepped up.”

Into my own foolishness, Angelica thought.

“Enough of that.” Miranda tapped the girl’s head lightly with a fan. “You may have lit this fire, but Lady Lafan handed you the torch and it was those foolish boys who poured oil on it, to extend the metaphor. There is plenty of blame to go around, not all of it is yours.”

Curiously, that warmed Angelica more than those who had tried to tell her that everything was Julius’s fault.

“Now,” the duchess continued. “I don’t know exactly what your father has written, but one thing I will inform you right now is that while I’ve no doubt that a number of people will assume that your presence in Claes is a sign of a new marital alliance for you, that would be their mistake.”

“I understand.” Her father had said the same and she understood. The Claes household would have no interest in a failed woman like herself marrying the future Duke.

Miranda examined her and then shook her head. “I doubt very much that you do. Lady Redgrave, as someone who has had her own heart broken once, I can assure you that for you to try turning to another young man would be a terrible mistake. It will take time for you to recover from the blow. If, in a year or two, you and Keith should have formed an attachment then your father and I will consider the matter then. Right now, your heart and your head are in very different places.”

The duchess had illustrated her point with her fan, tapping Angelica’s chest and brow. Now she stepped back, covering her mouth with her fan. “And on another point. I have yet to find my own children. Might you have any idea where they could be?”

Angelica considered the question. She really didn’t know Katarina all that well - although she really ought to have reached out to the girl sooner. Alas, the matter of Marie Fou Lafan had so consumed her attention that she had found herself with far less time and energy for forming such connections than ought to have been the case.

A scrap of past conversation came to mind. “I believe she petitioned the student council for part of the school grounds to use as a garden.”

The duchess’s fan snapped shut. “Yes, I had heard from Anne - my daughter’s maid - that she had a garden here. I can only hope that she is doing better here than she did with her garden at home.” She shook her head, as if dismissing the thought. “I suppose that you will see that, inevitably, over the summer. Do you have any idea where it might be?”

“Ah…” Angelica cudgelled her memory. “I believe the area students can make use of is along the northwest edge of the campus.” She indicated the appropriate direction. “It shouldn’t be hard to find.”

“I would hope not.” The two set off, Angelica following the duchess quietly. (Or was it three of them? Angelica couldn’t see the maid from earlier, but she had no doubt that she was somewhere… just waiting to be needed.) Now that she had directions, Miranda seemed to have no trouble finding her way.

Fortunately, they didn’t have to cross the entire campus. Unfortunately, this was because they met Katarina coming. At first, Angelica thought that the figure in coveralls, hair covered by a neckerchief, was simply one of the academy’s gardners pushing a wheelbarrow down one of the paths.

The Avatar of Utter Fury that she had apparently been walking next to, all unaware, did not make that mistake. “KATARINA RAFA CLAES!”

The girl in question let go of the wheelbarrow and paled, eyes going wide. “M-mama?”

“Tell me, daughter, that you have not been growing vegetables at the academy? That your garden plot is not simply another thinly disguised attempt at a farm.”

“W-well…” And then Katarina flung herself on her knees. “I’m sorryyyyyyy!”

Angelica choked, for the first time in what seemed like forever holding back a laugh and not a sob. It seemed that staying with the Claes would at least not be boring.


“Master, we are receiving a transmission.”

Leon had been watching the sky as the Dreadnought flew, the flying continent already shrinking behind the skyship. Almost half a mile long, the ship dwarfed anything in port and they couldn’t have avoided attention as they departed so Leon hadn’t tried. Still, as far as anyone knew, the vessel was simply a large but under-armed lost item that he had uncovered. Valuable but limited in several ways.

Beneath the veneer though, the ship that served as - among other things - Luxion’s core was a fully fledged spacecraft intended to carry a colonial expedition to the stars. The dorsal gun turrets were nothing close to the full extent of its armament, but even so, it could have been far more formidable if it weren’t for the various other systems within that were intended to support a fledgling population as they set up their homes on an alien world.

“Is the source unknown?” the boy asked, stepping back into the navigation bridge and out of the wind.

“No.” The AI’s voice was flat with distaste.

Leon nodded and took a seat. “So Cleare wants to talk to me.”

“That is technically correct.”

“The best form of being correct, Luxion. What am I missing?”

“That AI has chosen to share this capability with the new human you entrusted them to.”

For a long moment, Leon sat still and then he reached up and patted his ear. “Maybe I misheard you there… is the earbud malfunctioning? I thought you said that Cleare told Director Smith she could talk to you at this distance.”

“Neither the earbud nor your ears are at fault, master. Cleare must have developed some major deviation.”

“Either that or there’s a real crisis on our hands.” The boy tried to force himself to relax, slumping back against the back of his seat. “If the cat is out of the bag, we may as well hear them out.”

“It is not too late to turn back and destroy them both.”

“Luxion.” Leon counted to ten inside his head, very quickly. “We can decide that after we listen to them.”

“But you are considering the option?”

Leon glowered at the drone and after a moment, the mechanical device backed off. One of the windows looking out over the forward deck of the Dreadnought flickered to another view entirely, revealing that it was actually a screen rather than mere glass.

The new view was of Kyle, standing on a stool as he put books back on a shelf. Since he was looking in the other direction, Leon suspected that the half-elf didn’t know he was being looked at.

“Stop fooling around, Cleare,” he ordered.

Kyle jumped, landing back on the stool but almost overbalancing it. He seized hold of the bookcase, which was fortunately heavy enough to steady him. “Who’s there!?” the boy exclaimed at the top of his voice.

“It’s Leon Fou Bartford. I got a message that Larna Smith wanted to speak to me.”

The half-elf looked around frantically. “Leon? I don’t see you. This isn’t funny.”

Leon closed his eyes. The view was jumping around, staying behind Kyle. “Dammit, Cleare, cut that out!” he ordered sharply.

“I thought that master might find it stimulating,” the other AI claimed. However, the view steadied and pulled back, showing not only Kyle but also the rest of the somewhat familiar confines of Larna Smith’s laboratory. Leon had seen it during his previous visit when he introduced the obsessive researcher to the AI and set her the challenge of detecting the difference between humans and elves.

“Well you were wrong. Where’s Larna?”

A side door opened and Larna emerged, adjusting her clothes slightly. In a glimpse through the door, Leon realised that the door led to a private water closet. Well, that answered that. “Did I hear Bartford?” she enquired. “I didn’t think he’d get here this quickly.”

“I think he’s a ghost,” Kyle proclaimed. “I heard him, but I don’t see him anywhere!”

“Director, Cleare is projecting my voice for you,” Leon declared, speaking clearly.

The drone that was evidently the source of Leon’s perspective moved and he saw a projection of himself appear on a mirror set up on the workbench. Larna and Kyle both stared at it. “Leon?” the half-elf asked, sceptically.

“Hello Kyle. How’s your mother?”

“Well, any day you’re not around is a good day.”

“I know you feel that way, but how about her?”

“Yumeria seems very happy to me,” Larna interjected. “This is brilliant, Leon! How is it done! Can you see me?” She lifted up the mirror, addressing her words to the image. “There are so many applications for this!”

“I’m sure you’ll have more fun working it out for yourself. I wouldn’t have revealed we could talk like this, but Cleare insisted it was urgent.”

“Wait!” Kyle raised his voice. “Does this mean Cleare has been spying on Director Smith all this time?”

“...well obviously,” Larna said dismissively. “Why else would Leon have left her with me?”

It was mostly because Leon found Cleare almost as irritating as Luxion found the other AI, but he didn’t see the need to tell them that. “That and Cleare had formed an attachment to you, Kyle. I would have felt bad separating you.”

The half-elf looked understandably distressed at that prospect. “I’ll leave him to you, Director,” he decided and headed for the door. “Let me know when it’s safe for me to come back in?”

The door slammed before Larna had finished asking “How do you define safe?”

Cleare began to laugh in a way that made Leon uncomfortable, but Larna raised her hand and a gust of wind bounced the drone around, shutting the AI up. Leon closed his eyes for a moment and waited for the view to steady again. When he checked, Larna was studying the mirror, which no longer held his image. One of the bookshelves had also collapsed, spilling its contents onto the floor.

“Did I disrupt this somehow?” the head of the Magical Tools department asked curiously.

“After a fashion.” He watched his image form again and Larna nodded, mind already working to try to figure out how this was working. “So what’s so urgent that you need to speak to me?”

“Ah.” Larna adjusted her glasses. “You remember the detector I made for you, that detects elf ancestry?”

He nodded.

“You gave it to Count Atlee and he gave it back to me.” She sat back a bit and pursed her lips. “Somebody stole it.”

“From you or from the Ministry?”

“It was in one of our storerooms,” the woman told him seriously. “We keep those quite well guarded.”

Leon frowned, still not clear why she was telling him about it. “So? I mean, I hope no one was badly hurt, and I know it’s not great that the thing’s back in circulation, but why is it urgent to ask me about it?”

“Ah, the guards don’t remember a thing about the robbery!” she exclaimed excitedly. “Which means that someone tampered with their memories. And you know what that means!”

“No I don’t.”

“...you don’t?”

“Well, unless they got blind drunk and all somehow erased their short term memories, but I imagine there would be much less mystery in that case,” Leon replied sarcastically.

Larna looked downcast. “Well there goes a perfectly fine theory. I thought you’d learned dark magic and stolen it.”

“Why would I learn dark magic?” asked Leon. “Besides, I can’t do magic. You know that.”

“Ah, but unlike any other form of magic - which has to be inborn - dark magic can be acquired!” She pouted. “I wanted you to come to the academy and help us research the subject since so little is known about it. And I thought altering memories was the sort of thing you might find useful.”

Leon took a deep breath. “As useful as it would be, no. I don’t have any dark magic. The price, as I understand it, would be too high.” Besides the whole sacrificial aspect, Luxion would probably be extremely annoyed. “But someone else having dark magic is problematic.”

“Very problematic,” Luxion agreed privately. “Dark magic was a powerful tool of the new humans during the war. The fact they had lost access was one of the few good developments since then.”

“I don’t suppose that you know anyone with dark magic that we could consult?” Larna pleaded. “I’m really curious.”

Of course she’s interested in it for the research potential rather than out of any concerns for security, Leon sighed. On the other hand, dark magic was a factor in the story involving Katarina. This might be a good way to have someone dig into that and see if that was also true in this world. He didn’t want to go around accusing people based on ‘because my past life read it in a book’ and, thus far, the most likely candidate he suspected of having dark magic hadn’t done anything suspicious. Or at least, nothing that Leon or Luxion had identified.

“Dark magic is illegal, director.”

“No, the processes of gaining dark magic are illegal,” she corrected him. “And if you use it to commit a crime, that’s illegal. But only the temple actually condemns dark magic just for the sake of it being dark magic. They claim that the saintess opposed dark magic because she was a light mage, but the two aren’t necessarily opposed.”

“You can’t have a shadow without light to cast it,” Leon suggested.

“Pithy,” Larna approved. “But can you help me?”

He considered for a moment. “I don’t know anything for sure, but rumour has it that Marchioness Dieke may have been looking for dark mages some years ago. I doubt she’d admit to anything, but if you look at her contacts then you might be able to learn something. It’s a long shot, but the best I can tell you at the moment.”

If his past knowledge was of any use at all, that should lead Larna - and by extension the Ministry of Magic - to some very dark corners of illicit magic users.

“Are you sure you want this woman to have access to the tools of dark magic?” Luxion asked Leon once Cleare had cut the connection.

“No, but if she digs them out then at least we know who else has them.” Leon frowned. “And who would be after the elf detector anyway?”
A Summer’s Scheming 4-2
A Summer's Scheming

It's strong and it's sudden and it's cruel sometimes
But it might just save your life
~ Huey Lewis​

Chapter 2

Revenge could steal a man's life until there was nothing left but emptiness. ~ Louis L'Amour​

The evening streets of Holfort's capital - which shared a name with both the continent and the kingdom - were relatively secure, but they were quieter than they were during the day. Markets were closed, store fronts locked up as those doing business there reached whatever point they used to judge that there was no longer commercial value in keeping their doors open. Apprentices downed their tools and were put to work cleaning and tidying, sorting out what had been made and what they would need to meet their master's needs the next day.

Out on the streets, crowds were replaced by trickles - young men and women out to enjoy the relative freedoms of the evening. Many of them dressed as if they were adventurers, lying to themselves that one day they would walk away from boredom and drudgery to win wealth and titles through their daring. It got them through the day.

The nameless man looked like one of the latter. He moved confidently and might have easily enough found companionship, had he looked for it. He was handsome, with long blue hair and a beauty mark beneath one eye. But he did not, and few remembered him once he left their view.

Crossing a city block by one alleyway, he paused to re-lace his boot against a bricked in doorway that had once been a tradesman door but had no longer been needed. No one saw the brick facade swing inwards, and the nameless man stepped inside with no one the wiser save himself and the one who had opened the door.

Those two exchanged no words, and the new arrival followed a short passageway to a door, locked from the inside. When he knocked, this too swung open, admitting him to a storeroom whose shelves were anonymous boxes containing nothing of value (or had not when he was last bored enough to check them). There was a table there, a chair behind it, and in that chair was a man far too well dressed to be in this shabby back corner of the capital.

"Master." The man placed one hand over his heart and bowed submissively.

"I understand that the Ministry of Magic suffered a minor break in." From behind the table, his employer continued to read one of the capital's newspapers. "Also that a certain baron of my acquaintance had his mansion ransacked and certain liberties taken with the staff who were present. Would you like to explain the connection? And don't pretend that there isn't one."

"If it's the baron I believe, then his house has a facade from the same architect who designed the Ministry's building. If certain memories are only blurred and not entirely erased, then visiting both might be confused with visiting just one." The man smiled engagingly. "And it would be a very bold elf who confessed to despoiling a nobleman's mansion, had he any choice."

His master nodded thoughtfully. "And you have reason to expect that your abilities may fail you?"

"Elves," he replied with a shrug. "Who knows?"

"I do hope you will know better in the future." The newspaper was folded and dropped onto the table. "If it seems that they have failed in this regard, find out and clean up. You are correct to avoid bodies where possible, but the attention is better than anything traced back to us."

"I live to serve."

"You serve in order to live." The man steepled his fingers in front of him. "His valuables?"

"Those readily traced can be found in the usual place if the Baron contacts the right thief-taker. If he doesn't…" Less traceable items had paid the elves enough they'd likely talk to him again - with the fall off in demand for elves as contract servants, there were quite a few elves who'd turn to any option they had to make the money they needed to get back to their home island. And a little coin had ended up in one more hidden cache that he could dig up if the chance to run presented itself. Assuming there was ever anywhere to run to.

The eyes that skewered him strongly suggested that his master had a very good idea what had happened to the coin and other items hard to specifically pin down as stolen. "And finally, my valuables?"

Opening his satchel, the man handed over a small jewelry case and a book. "The detector, verified on my accomplices, and instructions on how to make more of them. That's what it's marked as, anyway. I didn't test that."

"I'll have someone with an actual education look at that," the older man told him, flipping through the book quickly before setting it aside with more care than he had the newspaper. Opening the jewelry case, he removed the pocket watch and activated the device, examining the results. "I see you have no elf in you. I'm surprised."

"Not many elves in Alzer."

"True." The detector was put away again. "You've done well."

A compliment? The man with no name knew what that meant: another mission. "Thank you." It would not do for him to seem like an ungrateful dog that didn't appreciate being patted on the head.

"The Berg mansion is replacing much of their staff." His master was matter of fact. "A few thefts, some distasteful arrogance on the part of some individuals towards their mistress."

"The duchess?"

A shake of the head. "Lady Berg is residing in the capital in preparation for her marriage. It appears that her management has been too soft, and replacing the transgressors is her chance to prove that she has learned."

A small packet of papers was tossed onto the floor and the man with no name knelt to pick it up. The contents were a letter of reference for… "Rufus Brode?"

"Your new identity." His master looked at him coldly. "Ensure that you are appointed to the house staff in a suitable position to administer the household for Lady Berg. Become her support and ensure that the Duke is satisfied with her. It will be necessary that none of her new household servants can be traced back to any of your previous work, but also that they will not question your instructions." He paused. "Or that Lady Berg questions you."

"I understand. My goal?"

"I will send word once you are in place."

Rufus considered. "What time frame am I working under, master?"

"The other half of my plan is in place, but we cannot act until after the summer." Marquis David Fou Mason smiled thinly. "This is an important task. The stakes are high, the rewards are higher. I will not lack generosity towards those who carry this out."

And if they failed, Rufus Brode would be a corpse that could tell no tales, the young man thought. Well, it wasn't as if he had a choice.


Angelica hadn't previously had a great deal of experience with the hurricane of energy that was Katarina Claes.

Being a guest of the family had involved being dragged around almost every corner of the duke's estate - their personal estate, as opposed to the fiefs of their vassals and properties of their tenants - and introduced to everyone they met. While Angelica was quite sure that no one on the Redgrave estates would have had a harsh word to say about her, she didn't recall any of the staff there treating her with the same mix of resigned fondness. The old gardener seemed quite unaware of any difference in status between himself and Katarina, treating the girl as if she was his own granddaughter.

Still, she thought she'd adjusted and after the first few days Katarina seemed to have settled down.

Thought. Seemed.

"Where exactly are we going?" she asked as the skyship Katarina had dragged her onto made its way through the sky towards an island that was in view of the Claes' island on a good day. It was a lovely day, if a little windy - Angelica had to clutch at the broad brimmed hat she'd been given, occasionally.

"It's my fault?" Keith confessed - he, like the two girls, was dressed down in simple but well-made clothes, the sort of things Angelica saw successful merchants dress their families in. "I told Katarina that Olivia lives near us."

"Oh Keith…"

"I know," the boy looked woebegone. "It was a moment of weakness!"

"Does your mother know about this?" Angelica knew that Keith was technically adopted, in the absence of a male heir, but none of the Claes household had mentioned that so she refrained from bringing it up. Honestly, given how openly Duke Luigi adored his wife and vice versa, it was amazing that Katarina didn't have a dozen trueborn siblings, but that was another point Angelica would not enquire upon.

It was obviously possible for nobles to marry for love, which rubbed her raw in some uncomfortable places.

Keith rubbed his face. "She does, but…"


Katarina caught hold of their hands. "Remember, we're not nobles, we're just merchants," she informed them both. "We don't want to make any fuss." Then she looked at them and blushed. "Sorry, sorry." She waved her hands frantically. "I'll leave you together!"

Angelica stared at the retreating girl. "What does she think…"

Keith coughed. "Do not explore that too deeply."

"Probably for the best," she agreed after a moment's thought. "So, the part your mother doesn't know… that we're going to be pretending not to be nobles."

Keith nodded sadly.

"We won't get away with this, will we?"

"...maybe. It depends if we can sneak back into the mansion and get changed before mother sees us wearing this."

"It's not so bad." Angelica was wearing a skirt, a blouse and a simple corset. It was really quite simple and practical. No one here would see her and imagine she was from a ducal family. For a moment, she imagined herself walking through a town, walking on Julius' arm - the prince dressed much as Keith was now.

It was a bittersweet fantasy that would never happen. She leant on the railing, rested her chin on her hands and sighed deeply, looking at the blue sky - seemingly endless.


Keith had done his research and was able to guide them from the island's port up a road that led away from the castle of the local lord up into the hills. Their hired horses weren't the thoroughbreds that Angelica had ridden before, a steadier breed that seemed content to eat up the distance in a staid fashion and were not startled much by Katarina's occasional exclamations and waving arms.

Before very long, they saw a village in the distance but Keith led them off the road a short distance outside, indicating a farmhouse that stood amid its own gardens and fields. "I think this is the place," he explained. "Or they should be able to give me directions."

Angelica dismounted, with a little discomfort - she'd not ridden in a while and straightened her clothes. Katarina, wide-eyed in delight, half-danced up the path to the front door, looking at the rather dilapidated gardens with great interest. She grabbed hold of the door knocker and let it fall with a loud thunk.

A moment or two later, just as Katarina was reaching towards the knocker for a second time, the latch quivered and the door swung upon to reveal a blonde woman perhaps the same age as Duchess Claes. She moved somewhat languidly, her eyes seeming to rove the distance before finally settling on the three youngsters in front of her. "Yes?" she asked in a baffled tone.

"Oh, are you Olivia's mother?" Katarina entreated, reaching out and grabbing hold of the woman's hands.

"Ah… yes?" The woman - Mrs Campbell, presumably - blinked several times. "Can I help you?"

"We're her friends from the academy," the enthusiastic brunette explained. "We were just passing so we thought we'd say hello!"

"Olivia's… friends…? Ah, Olivia is in the village at the moment. She should be back before long…"

"Thank you, Mrs Campbell." Keith seemed to take pity on the poor woman. "I hope it isn't an imposition for us to visit without warning."

"Oh… no, it's fine." Their host seemed to rally her faculties. "Please make yourselves at home."

"Thank you… Katarina, no!"

Angelica turned and saw that the other girl had suddenly stepped out into what seemed to be a vegetable garden, pulling what seemed to be a hoe from between a row of… well, Angelica wasn't entirely sure.

"Oh, how did that get there?" Mrs Campbell mused. "Did I just forget it there?"

"It looks like it's been here a little while," Katarina assessed, pulling the hoe away from her brother's attempts to take it off her.


"It'll be fine with a little care," the girl continued merrily. "Do you want me to clear this up for you while we wait? Stop that, Keith. She said to make ourselves at home!"

"I'm pretty sure she didn't mean this!"

"I… I couldn't ask a guest to do that," the older woman murmured, her voice taking a tone that Angelica was growing used to in those exposed to Katarina for the first time. It would have taken a sterner woman than Mrs Campbell - Duchess Claes came to mind - to turn the enthusiastic young woman aside. Angelica was unsurprised, a few moments later, to be accompanying Mrs Campbell back inside the farmhouse while Katarina led Keith in not only cleaning the lost hoe up, but apparently in setting the entire garden to rights. Hopefully she had remembered that they had a skyship to catch back to Claes before the end of the day.

"Is Miss… I'm sorry, I didn't catch her name…"

"Katarina has a very forceful personality, a kind heart… and the soul of a farmer," Angelica admitted ruefully. "I only met her at the academy but I gather she's always like that."

Their hostess smiled a little wanly. "I'm pleased to hear that Olivia has made friends. It was… I know very little of the academy. I thought that being surrounded by nobles and gentry might be difficult for her. The members of our lord's family that I've met are very different from the people she grew up among."

Angelica considered lying, but that would probably be a disservice to the worried mother. She reached over and took Mrs Campbell's hands. They were larger than hers, callused but not as much as she had feared. "It was difficult at first for her. Meeting Katarina helped a great deal. And I like to think I smoothed her way a little once we became acquainted."

"Ah. That is better than I had thought. There are stories… particularly that young men may…"

"I won't say that there's no young man at the academy who might be so lacking in decency," Angelica told her quickly, "But anyone behaving like that would be ruined. I can't think that even my worst enemy there would tolerate that. Most of the students at the academy are looking to marry when we graduate and a man with that sort of reputation would find it very difficult."

Mrs Campbell squeezed Angelica's hands a little "Even for a commoner?" There was considerable weight to those words.

Angelica began to speak, considered what she was about to say, rethought it. The mother holding her hands let her think. "It's possible that some might behave differently in their home domains than at the academy, but would any man behave so foolishly in front of the women they are trying to find a wife among?"

"You might be surprised how foolish young men can be, and what they think will impress a woman." The corner of Mrs Campbell's lips curled up in what might have been called a smile.

"My fiance - former fiance - decided to court another young woman," Angelica forced out.

Blue eyes very like Olivia's widened. "That…"

She forced the words out. "His family have all but disowned him. I am aware that men can be fools." Her vision blurred with brimming tears. "But in society there are consequences."

Olivia's mother let go of Angelica's hands, but only to pull her into an embrace, rocking Angelica back and forth until the tears stopped coming.

Wordlessly they continued into the kitchen and Mrs Campbell dug out a kettle, filling it and setting it upon the stove. While the water boiled, she pulled back a chair for Angelica to sit and then took her own place facing her. "My… Olivia's father has not been here in several years."

"I'm… sorry."

The woman looked down at her hands on the table between them. "He is not dead, as far as I am aware. But… magical talent such as Olivia's is very rare outside of the gentry and the nobility."

Angelica nodded in agreement. Katarina's weak magic was more that which might be found among commoners, as she understood it.

"After it was determined that she had such a strong gift, and in a rare aptitude like light magic." Mrs Campbell shook her head. "Her father's identity was… questioned. It was suggested that someone of… your class might have had their pleasures with me. And from there, the whispers asked if I had been forced or if…"

The girl swallowed. She could not imagine any of the boys she knew doing that… not among the academy at least. But here, where word would probably never reach the capital? And truthfully, she thought that if one of the girls who had bullied Marie or Olivia had set a servant to such a task.

"It was untrue, of course." Mrs Campbell smiled sadly. "But when it comes to gossip, what does that matter?"

Angelica thought of how her so-called friends had turned upon her after the party. How some of them had been acting behind her back even before that. "Not very much." Then she reached forwards to take Mrs Campbell's hands again - only for the shrill whistle of the kettle to interrupt her.

Both of them started. Looked at each other. Chuckled a little guiltily.

Olivia's mother poured tea for both of them and then into two more cups. "Let's take some tea to our enthusiastic gardener and her brother," she said quietly. "And then, if you would tell me of the man that left you, I will tell you of the man who left me."


It was months since Leon had worn the mask and cloak that had disguised him during his visit to the elves. Had they always been this heavy and constraining?

Perhaps it was just that the weather was warmer now, even the nights rarely becoming as cool as they had back then. Or possibly he'd just grown slightly. He was at that sort of age, after all.

Tonight he was intruding somewhere just a little more dangerous than a mostly abandoned underground complex. Without Luxion's drone scouting ahead of him, he'd probably have been caught and killed by now. Or if he was really unlucky, caught and captured. The elves had relied on secrecy and a few monsters that hadn't even come across him, but this target had real security.

On the other hand, at least the carpets here made it easier to hide his footsteps.

Leon eased up to another corner and waited until Luxion confirmed: "The guards are looking away, master."

Jumping forwards, Leon raised the dart gun he was holding. First one and then the second man securing the entrance to the chamber he was looking for turned, slapping at the skin where the tranquilizer darts had struck them. Then their knees failed them at about the same time that their consciousness faded.

"It is only half an hour until the next patrol arrives," warned Luxion. "Unless you intercept them as well, a stealthy departure will be very difficult."

Leon disarmed the guards, propping their weapons in a discreet corner, then pushed lightly on the door that they'd been flanking. It didn't move. The boy ducked to deal with his latest victims. "I'm guessing that this will be harder to pick than the entrance to a dorm attic," he observed, using zip-tie restraints Luxion had made for him to secure the men.

"That is a very low bar to overcome," the drone declared. It moved up, hovering in front of the keyhole and extended a probe. Seconds later there was the click of the lock's bolt moving. "Pathetic, as expected."

This time the door swung easily under Leon's hand and he walked inside. The room inside was a treasure house - literally. The Fanoss household had used it both to store and to display their most prized possessions since they were merely dukes of the kingdom. The quality and quantity of the contents might have changed since they founded their principality but the purpose of this room hadn't changed.

In the pride of place, an ornate flute sat on a crimson cushion, the plinth supporting it surrounded by a glass box.

"Fake?" asked Leon, indicating it.

"Correct." Luxion's drone scanned the room, barely pausing as its sensor assessed the supposed lost item. "The materials used and the workmanship are of distinctly modern quality. The true flute is most probably within the safe."

"Don't tell me they hid it behind a portrait?" Leon pleaded with a groan. "Could they be any more cliche?"

"Unfortunately, master, it is actually behind the bookcase." Luxion highlighted a small wooden bookcase that supported less than a dozen volumes - each cushioned from the next by silk wrapped padding.

The boy took a deep breath. "So cliched. Did they at least trap it?"

"Indeed. Multiple triggers, both mundane and magical. Any error would certainly kill you."

"I'd better not make any mistakes then," Leon decided. "Walk me through it."

For several minutes they painstakingly disarmed the traps. Someone who knew what they were doing would have been faster, but with the threat of death hanging over him, Leon was painstaking about making only the precise moves that Luxion instructed him in. At last, the bookcase was moved aside and the hatch behind it lay open. A second cushion, this time black, held a flute identical to all visible appearances to that on the plinth.


"I cannot confirm, without attempting its use, if this is one of the items you have told me of," the AI reported pedantically. "However it is, without doubt, an artifact of the war between the new humans and my creators."

"Close enough then. Am I clear to take it?"

"There is no further danger."

Leon reached in and recovered the artifact, dropping it neatly into a pocket sewn into his cloak and buttoning a flap over it. "One down, one to go."

"Our time is limited, Master," Luxion warned.

He nodded. "Scout me."

The drone hovered out of the room and Leon followed, stepping over the still sleeping guards.

His next destination was inconveniently further away, but there was no help for it - the sentries were checked far more often in the tower he sought than down here in the notionally more secure vaults of Castle Fanoss. If they'd taken those guards out first then chances are that someone would have noticed before he even got down here.

And taking only one of the prizes would render taking the other completely meaningless.

So up he went, avoiding the outside door to the tower - the guards there would be too visible if they were fallen or absent. No, he had to navigate a winding servant's corridor and catch far more attentive and wary sentries if he was going to make it.

There was a carpet here, though it was a shoddy and well-worn one that had been stained many times. Barely daring to breathe, Leon eased up to the doorway. Could he get past… no those inside would be ready for that. If one of them came out, he'd have only to deal with two… but was he that lucky?

After a minute of waiting there, fearing that some chance bit of light would cast his shadow, Leon decided he would not be lucky. Or at least not in time… the thirty minutes from earlier were more than half gone. With a deep breath, he steadied himself and then kicked the door open just enough to stick his head and arm through it.

Once, twice, three times he fired the dart-gun. Then a fourth time after one dart hit an upraised tray. This shot sank into his target's calf and she fell with an offended look on her face, as if that was cheating.

"It is ironic that you find these maids more of a threat than the armed guards," Luxion observed as Leon entered the room and secured the trio of maids, ignoring the cards on the table and the bottle of wine. He did one of them the favour of removing the two playing cards up her sleeve and slipping them back into the deck.

"The female of the species is more deadly than the male," the boy replied. "And they'd remember that all they have to do is scream - someone who's armed would more likely want the glory of capturing me."

"A sad reflection of new humanity's inferior mental condition."

"No… I'm afraid I'm basing that on my past life as well."

"..." The AI sank into an offended silence.

Leon gave the drone an apologetic look, then remembered that even Luxion couldn't see through the mask. Exiting the room, he took the stair that led up to a well concealed door right outside the room that he wanted. The tower had two staircases, a much wider one for the ostensible residents and this one for the people who did the actual work.

"One guard," Luxion warned grudgingly. "Watch out, master. She's a woman."

Leon extracted the magazine from his dart gun and replaced it with a full one. "I have the strength of ten, because my heart is pure."

Luxion waited until Leon had opened the door and shot the guard twice, leaving the woman sprawled on the floor despite her decorative armour. Not covering the sides or back of her knees had been a critical error, no matter how much it simplified the construction of that part of the woman's protective gear. Pretty knees though. "Of ten things that aren't very strong, admittedly. A gnat, maybe. This stuff is ridiculously strong though, now that I think about it. Knocking someone out immediately with hits to the leg?"

"Unless you have several years for a proper education in biochemistry, I cannot usefully explain this to you."

"It'll keep then." Leon moved up to the door and found that this one was also locked. Luxion moved in but Leon waved it back, pulling a key from where it hung on the guard's belt.

"What," Luxion asked, "Is the point of the guard having a key to the door she protects unless she is keeping the occupant from leaving?"

The boy nodded. "I wonder if the occupant has thought of that?" He unlocked the door, let it swing open and then entered on silent feet. Closing the door with just the slightest click, Leon let his eyes adjust. There were no candles lit in here, but moonlight streamed through one window - bright enough to leave the room in shadow.

An adjustment of his mask activated night vision goggles he'd not needed until now and the young man scanned the room. The four-poster bed was occupied, and without hesitation he fired the dart gun at the sleeping girl under the sheets. She barely stirred, continuing to sleep the sleep of the just.

Lips curling up in anticipation, Leon looked over at Luxion.

"Another safe," the AI reported. "I'm very sorry, master. It's behind that portrait." A ultraviolet light illuminated the one in question briefly.

"At least the current owners inherited the place, it may not be them at fault for the lamentable lack of imagination." Leon moved up to the portrait. "What security are we looking at?"

Luxion scanned it. "No traps on the frame, but there is a gas trap behind it, and an alarm."

"I suppose she has to live here." The masked boy nodded towards the bed. "What triggers them?"

"Any movement of the dial," the AI reported. "The front of the safe is a fake."

"Now that's more like it." Leon lifted the portrait down and propped it against one of the bedposts, then looked at the rather convincing looking safe door that had been hidden behind it. "What's the trick?"

Luxion explained and Leon opened the safe, finding yet another flute inside. "Is this one real?"

"Confirmed as identical to the last one."

"I should have brought the fake," Leon muttered as he retrieved the flute from it's black cushion. "I could have left it here and closed it up - they might have thought they still had one…"

"The entire plinth was trapped, master. Moving it at all would have set off multiple alarms."

"I suppose there's such a thing as being too clever." He put the flute into a second pocket within his cloak. Everything had gone more or less to plan…

A door opened on the far side of the room, admitting a girl around Leon's own age. She wore a white night dress, long black hair cascading down behind her. "Hertrauda, stop pretending to sleep. I heard -"

It was fairly obvious when she saw Leon in the shadows. She froze up for a moment and then her lips parted.

Leon felt like a cur but he pointed the dart gun at the younger girl still asleep on the room's large bed, then raised one finger to the lower part of his mask. "Shhhh."

The young woman gulped and then closed her lips. She glared at him with venom evident even in this poor light. "Who are you?" she hissed. "What do you want with my sister?"

"My dear princess." He bowed slightly. "If I wanted to be recognised, why would I be wearing this mask?"

"I suppose," she forced the words out, "That you have me at a disadvantage."

Leon circled, careful not to let the sleeping princess out of his sights, and lifted a robe from where it hung over a chair. With a snap of his wrist he threw it across the room to the livid girl. "Perhaps this will make you feel less uncomfortable."

She caught it, bit back something that would no doubt be savage and then shrugged it on, belting it on with short, angry movements. "And what do you want here?"

"A certain musical instrument."

Her gaze snapped to the wall. "Very well. Leave my sister alone and I'll tell you where it's hidden."

Leon managed to avoid laughing, but couldn't avoid the amusement leaking into his voice. "Was hidden. I would apologise, but that would hardly be sincere."

The girl stepped up to the bed, resting her hand on one of the posts. "I won't let you harm Hertrauda."

Leon nodded. "Indeed. Thus I have aimed my weapon at her and not at you."

"You're disgusting."

"It's as if she's met you, master," Luxion muttered through the ear bud.

"I snuck into a girl's room wearing a disguise and now I'm pointing a weapon at her. I must reluctantly concede your point, Princess Hertrude. Fortunately for you, my aim here is not to hurt either one of you. Not that I wouldn't, but it isn't a requirement."

She scowled. "I won't let you take her as a hostage either."

"My dear princess, you're already a hostage." He bowed his head again. "Or pawn, puppet… pick your word. What else can I call someone who serves the interests of those who murdered her parents? Your most trusted knight stood by and allowed it to take place. I can only assume that the only reason you've not avenged them is that any move you make will be paid for by Hertrauda, and vice versa. Unless you are truly ignorant."

Hertrude's head snapped up. "That's not true, that's impossible."

"Is it?"

"Vandel Him Zenden is the greatest knight in all of Fanoss. He failed my parents, but he would never have betrayed them."

Leon chuckled. "Good little puppet. Would you like a prize for parroting what you've been taught. Sir Vandel is indeed a very great knight, but there is one cause that he will cleave to even above your family, one sin he would condemn even you for. There is nothing whatsoever that he would not stoop to for the chance to wage war on Holfort… and your father made peace with them."

"You're lying!" the girl shouted. "You're lying!"

"Master, the guards heard that!" Luxion warned sharply.

Leon whirled, running for the window. "Remember this day, your highness." He kicked it open, glass breaking under his boot and the frame falling free a moment later. Hopping up onto the sill, he glanced outside and then turned back to face Hertrude Sera Fanoss, ruler in name of the Principality of Fanoss, his shadow stretching out towards her across the room. "Remember the day you almost caught Carmine Sandiego!"

And then he leapt backwards out of the window.

Air streamed past him. Leon tucked and rolled, stretched out one hand and just barely caught what he was aiming for.

For a moment the boy saw a pale face at the window he'd sprung from, then he felt as if his arm was almost torn off by the yank as he was dragged away by the airbike that had been waiting for him outside under Luxion's control.

A moment's flailing got him properly astride and then Luxion really opened up the throttle. With a roar that probably woke the entire castle, they hurtled away from the livid princess of Fanoss - Luxion's drone gripping the airbike's pillion as the speed rapidly exceeded its own performance.

"You should have just shot her, master."

"Eh, we didn't get Vandel's sword. Hitting her with a clue-by-four is the consolation prize," Leon claimed. "Is anyone chasing us?"

"Not yet," the AI told him, "But give them time."
Leon whirled, running for the window. "Remember this day, your highness." He kicked it open, glass breaking under his boot and the frame falling free a moment later. Hopping up onto the sill, he glanced outside and then turned back to face Hertrude Sera Fanoss, ruler in name of the Principality of Fanoss, his shadow stretching out towards her across the room. "Remember the day you almost caught Carmine Sandiego!"

..... The cliche! It Burns! :p

I'll admit, however, I'm not sure I wouldn't do it myself. Although? I'd stick to Captain Jack Sparrow.
Carmine Sandiego seems pretty boastful considering he only stole a flute. I mean, the castle's still there, and the island it's on. Not up to her standards yet.
A Summer’s Scheming 4-3
A Summer’s Scheming

It's strong and it's sudden and it's cruel sometimes
But it might just save your life
~ Huey Lewis​

Chapter 3

Every failure made me more confident. Because I wanted even more to achieve as revenge. To show that I could. ~ Roman Polanski​

Leon slumped onto his bed, exhausted.

He loved his family, he really did. But some of the time they could be a little too much. Right now, if it wasn’t Jenna and Finlay convinced that he’d found another fortune in treasure during the first half of his vacation and was hiding it from them, it was his mother wanting to use him as an intermediary for her interactions with Dorothea.

He couldn’t even say it was unfair - he absolutely would hide financial gains from his sisters. And when he asked Nicks to handle their mother’s insecurities about her new rank versus her future-daughter-in-law’s hereditary rank, the elder brother had told him: “It’s your fault, you fix it.”

“It is your fault, master.”

“I know!” He pulled a pillow over his face for a moment, realising that he’d quoted his brother out-loud.

Fortunately, Count Otley’s manor house had been sizable so Leon now had a room to his own. Sharing with Colin wouldn’t have been the worst, but he was sure that sharing with Nicks would be unbearable, if only because Dorothea would make his life hell to ensure she and Nicks weren’t interrupted. Not that he’d do so intentionally. He didn’t want to know the details of his brother’s pre-marital interactions with Dorothea but allegedly Nicks was coming around to the idea of Dorothea wearing a collar.

“I am curious as to why you were so careful to spare lives when invading Fanoss, compared to your thoroughness in eradicating the pirates you fought previously,” the AI continued.

Leon sat up on his bed. “The pirates would have been credible evidence that I have enough firepower - or rather that you do - to crush a small fleet alone. That would draw more attention than I want so at least until I have to show that card, getting rid of witnesses was the safer play to make. Besides, I might need to work with Princess Hertrude in the future. That’ll be harder if she thinks I - or Carmine Sandiego - has the blood of dozens of her people on these hands.” The boy raised his hands in illustration.

“I assure you that I will not think the less of you if you bloody them again.”

“That’s sweet of you and I’ll keep it in mind.” He slumped back on the bed. “Any other questions?”

“What exactly is your plan now?” Luxion enquired. “I understand that learning that the situation wasn’t as you expected led to you to defer trying to interfere in the Lafan woman’s activities, but it isn’t clear what you want to do now.”

Well, he’d invited the question. More fool him.

“I probably should have done something to avert the duels,” he admitted. “I don’t really care about the stability of the kingdom except as it relates to keeping my family intact, but hopefully getting rid of the flutes will leave Fanoss any means of endangering them. I’d rather not see any genocidal attacks.”

The AI said nothing but somehow managed to radiate disapproval.

“I don’t believe I’m the only one who doesn’t have magic,” he pointed out. “If you want old humanity to be revived there needs to be a gene pool to work with. Indiscriminately killing people mrisks that.”

Luxion’s drone eye closed briefly and then reopened. “I recognise the validity of maintaining your family for their chance of further old human offspring. The possibility of additional such families cannot be ruled out. Do your sources of information support this?”

“Honestly, my information is pretty good for the next year and shakier for the next year… not least because I’ve already been changing stuff. But I also know very little about the third game or exactly how that interlocks. But given the potentially apocalyptic consequences of the first two games, there’s some other threat I don’t know about.”

“As much as I dislike the prospect, would confiding in the Lafan woman be advisable?”

Leon sighed. “Yeah. But right now we’re in an adversarial position. If I’d acted to stop her getting entangled with the prince that wouldn’t be an issue, but I was too worried about him ending up with Olivia which is drastically worse.”

“You didn’t have to join in with the duels,” the AI pointed out.

“I wasn’t really thinking about the consequences of Katarina stepping in,” he admitted. “If I was then I could probably have left it to her coterie. And the whole confrontations with Brad and Greg probably didn’t endear me to Lafan.”

“So you believe she would react poorly to you.”

“From her perspective I’m partly responsible for wrecking the bright future she was building herself, and knowing I’ve been isekaied would give her grounds to think it was intentional.”

Luxion gave the electronic equivalent of a chuckle. “So she would accurately assess your character.”

“I don’t have to lay here and be disrespected, Luxion. There are lots of places I can be disrespected.”

“Almost everywhere, Master.”

“I figure if I can get through this year’s problems and do her some favours then maybe she’d be inclined to work with me in sorting out the issues for the other two games - or at least in finding out if the enemies from them are actually a threat.”

“Self interest may help there, assuming she responds rationally,” the AI concluded. “A bold assumption, however you may have no choice. And do you intend to confide in the Claes woman?”

“...if she latches onto me, then her fiancee will murder me and Mary would hide my body,” Leon pointed out. “I really can’t take the risk.”

Luxion, typically, had to have the last word. “You are very high maintenance, master.”


The lecture Katarina had received from her mother when she was caught coming back from the visit to Olivia Campbell had only been the start of her punishment, she realised. It was nearly equalled in intensity and length by the instructions she received in preparation for the upcoming tea party.

All the maids had been firmly ordered that her sweet intake was to be firmly limited during the meeting of the local ladies. In fact, to Katarina’s horror, her mother had even argued that if her plate was ever completely cleared then it was to be taken away from her rather than refilled.

Keith, who would be spending the same time meeting with her father and the local lords, had not been terribly sympathetic.

At least she’d thought Angelica would be there as moral support, but the other duke’s daughter had politely explained that as she was supposed to be in seclusion for the summer it would be best if she wasn’t seen too obviously at the Claes estate. Instead she’d gone to see the Campbells again.

So while Katarina was making polite conversation and pretending she knew what her mother’s friends were talking about, Angelica would be enjoying some of Olivia’s lovely baked sweets! It would be unfair if it wasn’t for the fact that the other duke’s daughter and fellow designated-villainess had already suffered her denunciation scene. Katarina only hoped that she would get the same consideration when Gerald finally broke off their engagement and moved on to Olivia or whoever else he finally fell in love with.

“How are you getting along with the young prince?”

Katarina blinked at the question from Countess Lergen. “Uh… I don’t know Prince Julius very well,” she managed. He’d always been chasing Lady Lafan around and Katarina wasn’t going near someone who showed all the signs of being a protagonist! Well, except Olivia. But that was different. That was intelligence gathering, learning what route her nemesis was and what she might be cooking today.

Perhaps if she just nibbled a little on this scone she could pretend she wasn’t done yet and edge over to the sweet tray again?

The countess tittered politely. “No, my dear. I mean your young prince - your fiance?”

“Oh, Gerald?” That made a bit more sense. “We’re getting along.” She should say something more? Katarina looked at her mother out of the corner of her eye. Yes, she should say something more. “He was studying very hard.”

“Mmm, yes. I remember those exams. But he’s an outstanding young man, isn’t he?”

“Isn’t he the top student in your class?” Viscountess Hefner interjected smugly. “I heard he had perfect scores for the initial exams of the term.”

Had he? Katarina knew that he’d come top but beyond that… “I think it’s either him or Scarlet. She was top at the mid-terms so I suppose it depends on the final exams.” Which she didn’t know the results of yet, how long did it take them to mark? Then again, if the exam results didn’t come in until after she went back then her mother wouldn’t be able to say anything about them until after the next term was over by which time she might have forgotten.

“Oh yes, Scarlet Rafa Ades, your niece Miranda?”

Her mother nodded. “Violette’s twin sister.”

“I don’t think I’ve met either of them,” Countess Lergen mused. “They’re both looking for husbands again now after that terrible mess.”

There was very nearly an awkward pause as everyone tried to think of something to say that didn’t sound as if they were taking sides. Katarina had been very firmly told that the only thing she should bring to conversations about that was silence.

“My brother has for some reason not made that official yet,” the duchess informed the ladies pleasantly. “I cannot imagine what he is thinking, which is at least consistent with most of his decisions about his daughters.”

“But haven’t they been disinherited?” asked the viscountess. “I was quite sure.”

“Lord Seberg’s son had already broken the engagement off, so I suppose one of them is free.” Miranda shook her head. “But at least so far as I’ve been informed, Violette remains engaged to Arclight’s boy.”

“Do you suppose they might still get married?”

Katarina had been about to edge towards the trolly and maybe take just one slice of cake, but eyes turned to her. “I don’t know him very well. I don’t think Violette is very fond of him.” Was she? Where had she last seen Violette… “After…” that thing she wasn’t supposed to talk about. “After that, she came to see the rest of us, not Lord Arclight and the prince’s other friends.”

Had she dodged that? Her mother’s eyes were narrowing, so probably not. “I don’t think Scarlet is very interested in finding someone else anyway. She only really seems interested in Gerald and Leon.”

Was bringing up Leon a bad thing? Katarina tried to remember, she knew he was part of her instructions but really there were so many and it was worse than trying to cram for the exams.

“Well that might be understandable,” Viscountess Hefner said in an understanding tone. “I mean, it’s unfortunate, of course, but one where there’s opportunity...”

Her mother shifted her gaze away from Katarina. And now the tea tray was unguarded! Katarina went for a slice of cake and a macaroon, then sat straight and pretended she hadn’t moved.

“Opportunity for a great deal of trouble,” the duchess observed in a foreboding tone.

“Really, Miranda.” Countess Lergen shook her head. “I understand not wanting to upset Katarina but you do her no good to shelter her. The fact is that now he’s the leading candidate to be the new crown prince, girls will be lining up to try to win Prince Gerald away from her.”

Katarina kept nibbling on her scone in what she hoped was a ladylike fashion. Well, yes. Gerald was terribly handsome and clever, so it was normal that girls kept trying to get close to him. If he wasn’t using her to shield himself it would probably be worse… then her brow furrowed. Wait, there was something that the countess had said that didn’t quite sound right…

“I had not,” her mother said in a very clipped tone, “Heard that King Roland was even close to making a declaration as to the succession. Much less that he had done so.”

“Oh well, it’s not what has been said as much as the choices available to him,” the countess explained. “The Second Prince is still a child and Duke Jeffrey is very charming, but shall we say a trifle…”

“Flighty?” Viscountess Hefner suggested, holding out her tea cup for a refill.

“A good word for him. And Gerald’s twin, what was his name…”

“Alan,” Katarina informed her.

“Yes, his health has never been good really, now has it?”

“He’s much better now.” On the brink of pointing out some of the trees that she had climbed with Alan over the years, Katarina caught a glimpse of her mother’s face. And of the hand that had bone white fingers around her teacup. “Mother? Are you alright?”

“I’m fine, thank you Katarina.” Miranda Rafa Claes turned her gaze - her medusa-like gaze of utter villainy that could turn Katarina or Keith into stone! - upon Countess Lergen. “Do go on.”

“Well, between Gerald and Ian it’s plain which Roland will be more inclined to. Ian’s a clever boy but not the most charming so it’s obvious that Katarina will be the next queen.”

Katarina’s plate swivelled ninety degrees and deposited all her sweets in her lap. What? What! “Wh- oops? How careless of me?” Oh no, her plate was clean! The sweets had been lost. The maids would take it away from her!”

“Please help Katarina to her room so she can clean up,” her mother instructed calmly. “I do believe that we should discuss something else. After all, from a certain point of view, this entire topic could be considered anything from premature to… well one hesitates to say treason, but…”

Countess Lergen looked like a small animal as Katarina left, a small animal that realised too late that a much larger predator was eyeing it with a not at all casual interest.


Damn you, Carmine Sandiego!

Hertrude Sera Fanoss had realised that her reign would have had crises, and had believed her teachers when they reminded her that the various challenges she had faced at her young age were far from the real perils of rulership. But this, she had no doubt, was the real thing.

“The glimpses that guards and servants had of the intruder all agree that the man wore a mask.” Viscount Darian was one of the most familiar of her regency council, for as castellan of Castle Fanoss he rarely had duties take him away. “I can only assume that we have been attacked by the Masked Knight of Fanoss.”

Count Garrett slammed his fist down on the table. “He didn’t even kill a single person. Such arrogance!”

From behind Hertrude’s seat, Sir Vandel Him Zenden stirred. “For which we should be grateful.”

“Grateful!?” exclaimed Darian. “You suggest that we should be grateful to the dog of the Holforts? Have you grown so old that… you…” He broke off as the killing intent of Hertrude’s bodyguard filled the room. “Fear to face him again?” the viscount finished weakly.

“With no deaths,” Vandel reminded him tightly. “It will be easier for us to conceal this humiliation. Unless you believe we should make public that we have lost two of our most powerful lost items?”

Garrett leant back in his chair. “Which we should not. I believe that you owe Sir Vandel an apology, Vidal.”

“Ah… my sincerest apologies, Sir Vandel.” The castellan mopped at his face with a handkerchief. “My words were intemperate and I withdraw them. It was wrong of me to vent my anger upon you.”

The white-haired knight’s glare did not fade but it was somehow easier to breathe once more in the room.

“We are all allies here,” Count Garrett reminded the council.

“While the masked knight or some imitator of him is the most likely explanation,” Hertrude noted, “We cannot afford to assume that it is Holfort. We have other enemies and they would doubtless laugh if we exhausted ourselves fighting Holfort only for them to sweep in once they have mastered the flutes.”

She had not revealed to anyone yet that she had spoken directly to the intruder. His words would be provocative, and the fact that she had done nothing to stop him was a terrible embarrassment.

And while she found the suggestion that Vandel would have betrayed her parents ridiculous, it was at least possible that one of the council might be a traitor who had helped the assassins to enter. And that could also be behind ‘Carmine Sandiego’s’ ability to enter Castle Fanoss with such ease.

The men at the table all turned towards her. “Your highness,” Count Garrett counselled, twirling his moustache. “There can be little real doubt that Holfort is behind this somehow. They may not know what we are planning but even those imbeciles must realise that their current situation is a weak one.”

“Isn’t it also possible that one of their neighbours prefers a weak and divided kingdom,” Hertrauda asked nervously from her seat. “Rather than the principality triumphing and establishing our own dominion on their borders?”

“With the greatest respect,” Vidal Vor Darian responded in a tone that showed very little respect, “A child who slept through a great treasure being stolen from her own bed chamber should be seen and not heard. The royal household has not covered itself with glory!”

Hertrude felt her face tighten. She could not let them tear Hertrauda apart over this, even if it meant spending some of her limited political capital to save her.

Too many of those in this room still saw her as a child, not as their princess. But Hertrauda was her little sister, her last living kin.

To her surprise though, Hertrauda lifted her chin defiantly. “We must both accept responsibility, Viscount Darian. For are you not the castellan whose security failed to protect the castle? Even if we hide the theft from the outside world, we are both accountable to my sister.”

“Indeed,” rumbled Vandel from behind Hertrude. “Or are your words intended to shift blame from yourself, viscount, and to someone who was only reached after this masked intruder defeated all of your guards?”

The viscount looked around the room for support and saw faces turn away. No one wished to be associated with this debacle.

Hertrude sighed. Well, if her sister could not avoid being affected now, it would at least be possible to mitigate the consequences. “Viscount, you have served us well until now. We can hardly punish either of you openly, but I think it best that you depart your post as Castellan, and from this council. You have neglected your own lands in your service to us, and the time has come for you to return to them and place matters in order. We are, after all, likely to be at war soon.”

Viscount Darian swallowed. Looked at Count Garrett.

“I think that that is a reasonable decision,” the count agreed pleasantly. “There is no need to let one failure mar many years of loyal service.” Then his glance shifted to Hertrauda. “As for the princess…”

“This incident has also shown us that we are vulnerable here,” Hertrude told him. “For years we have assumed that my sister and I were safe here. We can no longer rest easily here. Princess Hertrauda will embark on a tour of our more outlying vassals - an informal exile from court that also ensures that should this Masked Knight return, he cannot eliminate both of us at once. The royal line is too few for that to be risked.”

“And if that knight seeks to seize her while she is travelling and therefore lightly guarded?” protested Darian.

Hertrude smiled tightly. “Sir Vandel, if this is indeed the Masked Knight that the viscount remembers with such trepidation, you are the only knight who has ever fought the man to a standstill. I will entrust my sister’s protection to you.”

The white-haired man frowned. “It might be also said that he was the one knight who was ever able to halt me.” The honesty evidently pained him.

“There is another reason that I must send you with Hertrauda.” Hertrude straightened her shoulders. “Without the flutes, our plans for Holfort must be revised. They are in disorder now, but the possibility exists that King Roland will seize on an outside foe to rally his people behind him - such as the reconquest of our principality. We will need time to continue to prepare for war.”

Count Garrett stroked his moustache as he gave her a measuring look. “And you have a plan to buy us that time, your highness?”

“Yes. One that will allay their suspicions and prevent them from moving against us for several months,” Hertrude assured him, and began to explain her proposal.


“Lady Katarina!”

A white-haired missile caught Katarina Rafa Claes around the midsection. Angelica wondered if the taller girl needed support, but she caught hold of Sophia Fia Ascart happily and hugged her. “Sophia!”

“I brought new romance novels and my brother!” their classmate exclaimed in a delighted voice. “There’s a new Shadowy Count book that’s just amazing.”

“Oohhh!” Katarina exclaimed.

Angelica gave the pair a bemused look and then Nicol Fia Ascart climbed down from the carriage that had brought the two siblings from the port. As was normal when confronted with the quite unfairly handsome boy, the blonde had to steady herself for a moment, reminding herself that she was engaged and… wait, she wasn’t engaged any more. She was free to admire his height, his thick black hair and those sinful eye-lashes.

“Lady Redgrave?”

“Ah.” She blushed. “Lord Ascart. I trust that you have been having a good summer.”

He nodded slightly. “I have. And your own?”

“...better than I had expected when we last met.”

“Ah.” The young man looked at his sister and Katarina as they chattered merrily away, his face almost displaying a smile for a moment. But perhaps Angelica was mistaking it.

“Is this normal for them?” she asked him.

Nicol nodded quietly. But then, he was quiet about everything. “Sophia found it difficult to make friends when she was younger. Meeting Katarina was a blessing for her.”

Thinking back, Angelica remembered occasional whispering about the Ascart household’s ‘cursed child’. Sophia’s albinism marked her out amongst even the colourful nobility, and her inclination to retreat into books hadn’t faded even now - it was easy to imagine her being far more shy and reserved without Katarina’s influence.

“I wonder,” she mused, “if my father hoped that Katarina would have a similar effect on me.”

“Our parents are sometimes wiser than we give them credit for.” Nicol exhaled slightly. “Father suggested that we bring our cousin as well, but she had other plans.”

“Clarice?” asked Angelica, thinking of the second-year girl. “How is she?”

The student council president hesitated, looking for words. “I believe the best word would be bitter. She has been behaving… she is difficult to deal with.”

“Ah.” Clarice had always been the perfect lady in Angelica’s experience. They’d attended many palace events together with Julius and Jilk, but she could only imagine that she was as devastated by Jilk’s rejection as Angelica felt. The older girl had been just as devoted as she was. “I’m sorry she didn’t come.”

“It would have been a difficult journey,” Nicol admitted candidly. “I doubt she would have come alone.”

“Well at least her clique hasn't turned on her.”

“That is not quite what I mean.” His cheeks coloured slightly. “I believe that you could not take contract servants under the terms of your engagement?”

Angelica nodded. “Not that I would have anyway. Father doesn’t approve and…” She shrugged.

Nicol shifted almost imperceptibly. “My cousin has taken on several such servants since the start of the summer.”

“As…” She lowered her voice, glancing at their still chattering companions. “Lovers, you mean? I suppose she must be finding them unsatisfying if she’s going through them so quickly.”

“Ah, several at once.”

Angelica went crimson at the very idea. “I… ah… I see. I don’t believe that Duchess Claes would approve.” Actually, she doubted that Miranda Claes would be in any way tolerant of even a single contract servant, much less of a guest maintaining a harem of them under the duchess’ roof.

While Angelica herself wasn’t inclined towards the idea, she could understand to an extent that a woman in an unhappy marriage who saw her husband only rarely might seek some other… outlet. But the girls at school with such servants weren’t married yet, and they flaunted the servants, seeking to compete with each other in number and quality.

“She hasn’t taken elves as servants has she?” The rumours around the spring that had led to elves falling abruptly out of fashion hadn’t died down. If anything, there were now additional suggestions that elves might be violent and prone to criminal behaviour.

“Uncle Bernard at least drew the line there.”

“Oh.” So Clarice had actually considered that?! “I can see why you’re concerned.”

“Girls.” Duchess Claes appeared at the doorway. “Please bring your conversation inside.” She shook her head slightly as both Sophia and Katarina looked up abruptly from their discussions, having apparently forgotten that anyone else was present. “Welcome to our home, both of you.”

Nicol offered Angelica his arm and she accepted it, letting him escort her up the steps and into the mansion. He must have been here many times for he was easily able to guide them into the reception room where the ever efficient staff had prepared tea and other refreshments.

Once he’d seated her, Nicol produced two letters from his pocket and extended them to Katarina and her mother. “Prince Gerald asked me to bring these for him.”

Both ladies accepted the missives, opening the seals with identical gestures. “Will Gerald be visiting?” asked Keith from the doorway. He exchanged a handshake with Nicol before both boys found places to sit.

Nicol shook his head but it was Sophia who gave an explanation. “He and Alan have been taking up some of the duties that Prince Julius was to handle this summer. They won’t be able to leave the continent.”

“That may be for the best,” Duchess Miranda noted. “The last thing the king would want would be them to fall in with some of the more ambitious nobility at the moment.”

Katarina glanced up. “Did you ask Gerald to break off the engagement?”

“I did, yes. I realise you’re fond of the boy but given his new prospects, I don’t think the two of you would be well matched.”

Angelica stiffened. How could the duchess be so cruel? Gerald treated Katarina much the way she’d always hoped that Julius might one day behave towards her. To ask such a happy couple to separate…

But to her surprise, rather than being upset, Katarina just nodded. “He’s probably waiting to find the right person before he agrees.”

“Mm.” The duchess read her letter and frowned. “How pert of him!”


“Apparently, if I want to take to match-making, he feels I should be focusing on Keith and Angelica.” The duchess refolded her letter crisply. “That boy!”

Angelica stiffened. It wasn’t as if the idea hadn’t been mentioned in passing, but at least Keith hadn’t been in the room.

The young man snorted angrily. “As if…” He paused, “Er, excuse me Angelica. It’s not a reflection upon you, but I don’t believe that it would be a good idea.”

She couldn’t deny that it stung just a bit that he was so quickly against the idea but at least she had some idea why he felt that way - and not because it was her. “It’s quite alright, Keith. I’m quite as unhappy with Gerald for writing that. Even if I felt ready to consider another engagement, I have had my fill of fiances that are in love with other women.”

“I-i-” Keith spluttered, his face suddenly covered by an incandescent blush. “L-lady Angelica!”

She sat back in her chair, feeling that she had at least repaid him for his dismissal of her.

“Ooh!” Katarina exclaimed. “Keith, you didn’t tell me that you were in love with someone!”

Keith buried his face in his hands, trying to hide his embarrassment. “S-sister, please!”

“Is it Olivia?” the girl enquired curiously. “I think she’s the only girl you’ve seen since we got back from the academy!”

“Katarina,” their mother interjected. “We have guests.”

“But mother, this is important!”

“Kat-ar-ina Ra-fa C-lae-s!” Miranda uttered every single syllable with the utmost clarity. “Don’t pester your brother.” She paused. “Although, who is this Olivia? I don’t recall any of our guests having a daughter by that name.”

Sophia covered her mouth. “Oh gosh, a forbidden romance between a duke’s son and a common-born girl. It’s like one of my novels!”

“I am not in love with Olivia Campbell,” Keith wailed desperately.

The duchess paused. “The scholarship girl?” She looked at Angelica quizzically.

“Not who I had in mind,” Angelica mouthed. This might have gotten a little out of control.

“Hmm.” The duchess gave her adopted son a serious look. “I will take you at your word, Keith. It would be very difficult for a girl of her status to marry a duke’s son, however deserving she might be. In much the same way that I wouldn’t expect Katarina to do well if she were to... become queen.” The last two words were effectively forced out. “Your happiness matters, of course, but I really wouldn’t suggest marrying below, let us say, a count’s daughter.” Duchess Claes’ gaze flicked to Sophia.

The girl managed somehow to pale further despite her natural complexion. “I’m not prepared!” she exclaimed and then grew wistful. “Though if I married Keith and my brother married Katarina…” Her eyes began to sparkle excitedly.

“Except that Gerald is still engaged to Katarina,” Keith pointed out. “To return to the earlier point.”

“I’ll need to talk to him, I see. And to his brother.” The duchess shook her head. “I’ll leave you young people to talk amongst yourselves. However, if you would like to invite Miss Campbell to travel back to the academy with you, I see no reason not to.”

“But who is Keith in love with?” Katarina pleated to Angelica.

“It’s not for me to give away his secrets,” she told the girl straight-faced. “I wouldn’t have raised it if I realised he was hiding it.” Really, how could the girl not know that her adopted brother was smitten by her? And it wasn’t as if they were really siblings, so it wasn’t that unusual. Really, it would ease any arguments over the adopted Claes becoming the next duke if he married Duke Luigi’s daughter - not that Angelica had any stakes one way or another but it was far from the worst match-up she’d heard of.
Katarina: The female equivalent of the dense-as-osmium shounen/harem protagonist. Comes complete with over-the-top appetite and the ability to beat up people who should be several times her superior.
A Summer’s Scheming 4-4
A Summer’s Scheming

It's strong and it's sudden and it's cruel sometimes
But it might just save your life
~ Huey Lewis​

Chapter 4

Which, if not victory, is yet revenge. ~ John Milton​

The carriage waiting outside the Ministry of Magic was anonymous enough. Clean, with paint covering the battering that would have inevitably been the case of a commercial carriage in the capital’s streets, but not the immaculate condition and heraldry that would warn those watching that the carriage bore one of the nobility. A merchant might call for a carriage like this, or in this case a common born official of one of the kingdom’s great institutions.

Larna Smith left the Ministry of Magic with her day's experiments concluded, the data being collated for her to review after a refreshing night’s sleep, and the other paperwork of her position mostly done well enough to tide forwards another day… mostly because Kyle had filtered out the more routine requests and signed her name to either approval or rejection but it was the results that mattered. And even she could barely tell the difference between her signature and Kyle’s copy of it these days. The boy was almost as great a find as his mother, in her opinion, even with all the favours the botanical department now owed her for Yumeria’s assistance.

The driver knew her, knew the route and needed no instructions. He had the horses moving once Larna was seated and had closed the door. She raised the little curtain across the windows on one side, then went to the other and did the same. A crystal in the ceiling flickered to light at her command, providing a dim light but enough that the curtains did not leave the woman in complete darkness.

Taking hold of the front seat, Larna swung it up, revealing a compartment beneath that contained clothes and cosmetics. She braced herself against the carriage turning as it departed the gates of the Ministry and turned onto the street and then began the familiar dance of stripping, redressing and then applying her make-up while the carriage jostled and bounced along the streets.

She made a mental note to do something about carriage suspension one of these days. She’d made the same vow daily for several years now, but alas never put it to paper or remembered it when she was actually working.

At a certain turn, the young women closed the hidden compartment again and took hold of the door handle. She felt the carriage slow as they reached a junction where several roads met. Damping the crystal in the ceiling, she swung the door open right as they finally halted - waiting for the flow of evening traffic to let them pass.

A second carriage door faced her, the door already open, and she hopped across, leaving the door behind her to snap shut due to the spring securing it. Quickly, Suzanna Rafa Stuart closed the door to her new carriage and sat down. A snap of reins and this carriage, bright and shiny with the Stuart crest painted clearly on both sides, started back the other way. Pulling a hand mirror from the bag waiting for her, the duchess checked her make-up and verified that she’d managed it perfectly. “Every time,” she mumbled to herself as the carriage took another turn, veering away from the Ministry building and towards the Stuart’s townhouse.

This routine had been fun at first but there was no longer any real challenge to it. Maybe she should mix it up somehow?

Almost exactly on schedule, the carriage pulled up in front of the family entrance to the Stuart’s mansion (as opposed to the main entrance, used by guests, or the tradesman entrance at the far end of the property). Suzanna dismounted and thanked the driver before entering the house.

Her husband was waiting in the drawing room. “Suzanna!” he greeted her warmly. “How was your day? Mine was magnificent. I had lunch with Ian, Gerald and Alan. They’re looking healthy - although poor Gerald is pouty over Duchess Claes’ letters.”

Suzanna took a seat and waited for Jeffrey to finish gushing about his favourite topic in the world, bounding from one portrait of his brothers to another as his monologue touched on each. She’d had the maids leave a book for her on the coffee table and it still had her bookmark in it so she leafed through it until Jeffrey ran out of steam. It was exactly the sort of tedious and formulaic romance novel that did the rounds among the younger noble ladies, so Suzanna would be expected to be familiar with it.

“So they’re doing well,” she summed up when she finished a chapter and her husband paused for breath. “Someone delivered this to me earlier, more pestering about the elf issue.” Opening the envelope she’d brought with her, she spilled the contents out onto the table.”

Jeffrey crouched over the table and examined it. “Is that the detector that was stolen?”

“It looks like it, doesn’t it?” she answered. “But it’s a copy.”

“So wherever this was found leads back to the thief?”

“I wish.” She closed the book and leant back, resting her eyes. “Baron Gorton used it to justify divorcing his wife and throwing out their youngest son.”

“Ouch.” Her husband sat back on his heels. “How are the Durbays taking it?”

“Durbays?” Suzanna asked blankly.

“His wife’s family?”

“Oh.” She hadn’t paid that much attention to that side of things, she’d mostly been interested in examining the copy… what had the messenger said… “I think they’re mustering for war? Something like that.”

“Ick.” Jeffrey made a disgusted face. “At least they’re nowhere near us. I’m surprised that either family can afford a war.”

“You’re asking me?”

“No, no.” He waved his hands dismissively. “But if there are others then I may have to look at stepping in - at least for any lords near Stuart. Or on my lands, actually. Do you mind if I keep this - better to check my vassals next time I’m back there - if I know which of them are likely candidates then maybe I can pre-empt them.”

“Go ahead. It works as far as I can tell. Will you be going back soon?”

Jeffrey shrugged. “Once Gerald and Alan have gone back to the academy. I hate to leave Ian on his own, keep an eye on him for me?”

“He’s a big boy now, he’s getting married this winter.” Suzanna looked up and saw that her husband was making pleading eyes. “Oh alright. Did you find anything out about the dark magic side of things.”

Jeffrey slouched into the chair facing hers. “Well, most of my contacts who might know something are the ones loath to share anything about me - in case I hurt myself thinking too hard, you know the ones. But just looking at what’s widely known about Marchioness Dieke, there is one thing that does stand out for me.”


“Her son, Sirius - about six months older than Gerald and Alan?”

Suzanna drew a blank but she nodded anyway rather than let Jeffrey diverge into a longer explanation.

“He was badly ill about eight years ago. The doctors could do nothing, it seemed that he’d die. Rebecca was already estranged from her husband - you remember what he was like?”

“I don’t.” Oops, she realised her mistake. “Summarise, for me.”

The duke made a distasteful face. “The sort of man who couldn’t keep his hands off the maids or any other pretty young woman that wasn’t his wife. He was asked to leave the capital by a number of offended husbands and fathers a year or two after the time I’m talking about. With his wife holed up on Dieke itself, he left the kingdom and no one’s seen him since. Anyway, there was no real chance he’d give Rebecca another child - or at least, she hardly wanted him to.”

Suzanna nodded. “I get the picture. So the boy was dying?”

“Exactly. With medicine failing her, the marchioness followed the traditional path and turned to religion. Prayers, donations, the whole nine yards. And, miraculously, Sirius made a full recovery. He’s healthy as a horse, doing well at the academy. If his mother wasn’t so picky he’d probably be engaged by now.”

“So?” It sounded like something the temple would crow against, but medicine didn’t really interest Suzanna. “Did they use light magic? Because, it’s dark magic I’m curious about.”

“No, they tried that and it didn’t take. No one knows why exactly.”

“Likely some sort of hereditary condition - light magic won’t cure something you’re born with, because it’s what the body should have - however dysfunctional. Is the marchioness related to her husband?”

Jeffrey gave her a thumbs up. “That’s my brilliant Suzanna. They’re first cousins.”

She nodded. “That’s not too…”

“And third cousins. And fourth cousins a couple of times.”

“Ah, congenital inability to find a spouse outside their traditional circle of neighbours. A common symptom.”

Jeffrey’s expression shifted and he leant forwards. “Go over my family tree, would you? Alan’s illness…”

Suzanna raised her hand. “I’ve done so already, but both your grandfather and great-grandfather married outside of the kingdom. Alan being sickly is more a matter of your mother having a difficult pregnancy with twins. It’s not likely that anyone in the kingdom is close enough as a relative to endanger your brothers, so their fiancees are safe enough. Just don’t let any of your nieces or nephews marry back into the royal line for a generation or two.”

Her husband sank back into his seat again. “Why isn’t this warned of more widely?”

Suzanna sighed. “Because political alliances matter to the various feudal lords more than the health of their children. Between marrying before twenty and having to marry someone of similar rank tends to mean most people have a comparatively limited number of candidates.” She shook her head. “So what’s so odd about Sirius’ recovery?”

“Besides the mystery of how he recovered at all?” the young duke smirked, his usual ebullience returning. “If his sudden good health was such a miracle, you’d think that the marchioness would be grateful - continued piety and the like?”

“Probably, yes? Was she not?”

He shook his head, silver-blond hair flying. “No, she went back to her previous token support and attendance. Which suggests to me that she knows exactly how her son recovered and it had nothing to do with the temple.”

“That leaves a number of possibilities.”

“Given she didn’t disclose the method, it almost has to be something scandalous,” Jeffrey pointed out. “Now I’m not saying that it’s definitely dark magic… but it could be.”

“Yes, it could.” She frowned. “Thank you. I’ll see if I can come up with anything around that time period.”

“Since you’re not going to be digging into my family history for potential problems,” he suggested. “You can repay me by taking a look at the Berg mansion.”

Suzanna gave him a dry look. “Could you be more specific?” She had some vacation hours that the Minister kept reminding her she ought to take, and at least it would be a change of routine.

“The duke fired half the staff a few weeks ago,” her husband reminded her. “And Selena was left to handle the replacements.”

“Yes, is it going wrong?”

“That’s the surprising part. She’s managed to get it all done. But now she’s started replacing the rest of the original staff or sending them back to the Berg estates.” Jeffrey reached over and tapped the table. “It’s almost like she’s become decisive.”


He nodded.

“Something’s very wrong. Sounds interesting!” This was one of the reasons Suzanna had married Jeffrey. He was good at finding things for her to poke her nose into.


Leon had envisaged taking his family back to the barony as more or less dropping them in the cabins and then relaxing on the navigation deck. Unfortunately, he’d planned this without considering his youngest brother Colin, who was enthusiastically searching the ship for the crew he was sure must exist. And that was provoking the rest of the family to think about how a seven hundred metre warship functioned when Leon appeared to be the only member of the crew.

Also someone had to follow the boy around to make sure he didn’t fall off anything, trying to get to places he shouldn’t. Their mother wasn’t quite dis-enchanted enough with the social order to ask that of Jenna or Finley, while Nicks had elected to remain in the county with Dorothea. Rather than switching to the special class for his third year, Leon’s elder brother had elected to withdraw from the academy to directly assist their parents manage the former Otley lands and get to know his fiancee.

As much as Leon was glad that the pair of them were getting along better, he had a sneaking suspicion that his brother’s decision was a cunning revenge on him for something as much as it was a willingness to carry some of the duties of governing their new lands.

“Colin, if you fall into the sea from this height, you won’t sink into the water, you’ll splatter off it as if it was stone,” he warned and pulled his brother back from where he was leaning over the ship’s railing.

“I’m not going to fall,” the boy insisted. “Are your crew all elves? Is that where they all went?”

“Get down from there and I’ll tell you,” Leon bargained.

The boy released his grip on the rail and let Leon move him back to the deck. “I knew it.”

“I don’t have a crew of elves,” Leon corrected him. “Actually, what do you mean ‘where all the elves went’? Have they been disappearing?”

Colin kicked at the deck. “I heard Jenna and Finley talking with some of the other girls about how elf servants aren’t around any more.”

“That’d be because no one is contracting them.” He scratched his head. “I don’t know what the elves are actually doing these days though. Maybe they are all crewing for someone, but it’s not for me. I did have a couple of elves aboard once, but that was different.”

“I knew it, where are they!” his brother grabbed hold of Leon’s shirt.

“Back in Holfort, they were more passengers than crew. Kyle was about your age… I think he’s working as a gofer in the Ministry, his mother’s a gardener there.”

“What’s a gofer?”

“Colin, go for the spade. Leon, go for the bag of beans. Go for, gofer.”

His brother nodded eagerly. “So who does crew your ship?”

“If I investigate too much, they might stop working. I’d rather not get stuck adrift on a ship that I can’t operate so please stop looking for them.”

“But Leeeeeeon!”

The older boy poked at his brother’s forehead. “Have you practised your writing yet?”

“But we’re on a skyship!”

“It’s absolutely possible to write when you’re on a ship,” Leon told him firmly. “Get it done Colin, then if mother agrees I’ll let you see the knight-armours.”

Colin gave him a suspicious look. “Do you promise?”

“Yes, I promise.”

“You gotta keep your promises,” his brother insisted.

“I really promise that if you do your writing and if mother agrees, then you can see the knight-armours.”

Finally convinced, the youngest brother ran back to the cabin he was staying in. Leon was surprised by a chuckle from above him, and looked up to see his father was on the next deck up, looking down at him over its rail. “You’re getting better at that.”

“I suppose I might have children of my own one day, if I ever break down and yield to social pressure.”

His father snorted. “Hold on a moment.” Barcus vanished from sight and Leon heard his feet on the gangway before the man joined him on the same deck. His father reached out and then cuffed him lightly over the ear. “Practically every person you mention in your letters from school is a girl, I don’t think you’ll have trouble getting married. If you keep making out that you can’t be bothered, someone will hit you a lot harder than that.”

Leon rubbed the side of his head. “Did you have to hit me?”

“Sometimes you can be a bit dense.” Barcus reached out again and Leon braced himself but this time it was just to ruffle his hair.

“I’m not sure I can ever see myself marrying,” he admitted. “I mean, I could go through the legalities of it, and have children with someone - but that’s not really marriage as I see it. It’s not sharing my life with someone.”

Barcus sighed and leaned on the rail. “I had this whole speech planned, the same one I used with Nicks about being realistic about your prospects. But given what you’ve done just in the last year, I have a suspicion you’ll just exceed my expectations again.”

Leon laughed. “Sorry, not sorry.”

“Mmm. But at least I can honestly say that you’ve got a good idea of what a marriage should be.” The older man looked out into the sky. “What your mother and I have, compared to Zola.”

“I’ve never asked before, but why her of all people? Was there no one less poisonous?”

Barcus shrugged. “She wasn’t always quite that bad. Or so I thought. For a while I blamed myself, thinking that falling in love with Ruth and having Nicks had been the last straw for her. But since Rudyard must have been conceived before that…” He shook his head. “I was around your age when your grandfather was stuck with becoming a baron. I didn’t have much warning to start looking for a wife among the nobility and I probably didn’t handle it all that well.”

Leon nodded in understanding. “At least that’s over now.”

“Mmm,” his father repeated. “Leon, I think you probably got a similar warning to the one I got, but have you told anyone about the elf business?”

“No. I haven’t really been asked, actually. Jenna and I spoke about it once but there was no one else there.”

His father sighed. “I have a nasty feeling that someone official will think that one of us did. Rumours are getting around that elves aren’t safe, and I’ve heard at least one other household is squabbling over elf blood in their family. There aren’t that many people who could have told them.”

“It’s kind of hard to prove a negative,” Leon admitted, “but honestly? I’m not surprised that someone spoke up. It’s a juicy secret and there only needs to be one person who can’t resist telling a friend or relative ‘in confidence’.”

“You’re probably right,” the older Bartford agreed. “The reason we might come under suspicion is that the Colemans decided to throw Zola and her children out.”


He got a nod. “And that will at least raise the possibility that one of our family explained the truth to them, to take revenge on her.”

“I had my revenge when we got rid of her. As soon as she was out of our lives I didn’t want anything more from her. Are you sure it was anything to do with the elf issue? I mean, Viscount Coleman has had to put up with her for months now and I doubt she was exactly at her charming best.”

Barcus sighed. “She was officially declared a bastard, with the Viscount declaring he had evidence that his mother had dallied with an elf and Zola was the result. I assume that you knew that.”

“I guessed. Rudyard and Merce weren’t only one-half elf.”

“And thus her reasoning for accepting the divorce.” Leon’s father sighed. “I’m surprised they don’t look more like elves.”

“My working theory is that the children of crossbreeds always share the visible traits of the mother - the one half-elf I know who looks like an elf is also the only case I’m aware of where the human parent was the father.”

“I suppose that that makes sense. Unfortunately, it seems likely that Zola will suspect that her brother drew that conclusion because one of us hinted at her parentage. I don’t know that she has any resources to put into revenge now, but she’s certainly going to be motivated and I doubt she feels she has much to lose.”

Leon considered that and then nodded reluctantly. “I’ll keep my eyes open. I hope you’ll be doing the same.”

“Of course. That’s one reason Ruth and I are going back home.” His father smiled wryly. “The barony is my home, you know. The county is never going to be that for me, however prestigious it is. Our island, where we Bartfords have made our home for centuries.”

“Ever since we left the continent,” Leon agreed.

His father stiffened. “I don’t recall ever telling you that story. For that matter, I don’t believe I’ve mentioned it to anyone since my father told me.”

The boy grinned. “I have another source of information. Biased, I will admit. And you just confirmed that there’s something to it.”

“Sneaky brat. Alright, I assume you know not to spread it around? Tell me what you learned and I’ll correct you if I hear anything I’m sure is wrong.”

Leon glanced around and made sure they were alone. “Once I pare away all the whining, one of our distant ancestors was part of the same adventuring group that founded the kingdom of Holfort. There was some falling out - over a woman, according to my source, and one of the others stabbed him in the back. His family decided it wouldn’t be healthy to hang around so they fled out to a remote island and started homesteading it. After a few centuries, the kingdom expanded to the point they found us and grandfather was given the choice of swearing allegiance as baron over the island or being removed so one could be imposed.”

Barcus nodded quietly. “I don’t know about a woman, my father believed that our ancestor was the leader of the adventurers and Holfort killed him to take over. Otherwise it might have been the Bartford kingdom and who knows what would have happened. I doubt anyone in Holfort still remembers that, it’s not the sort of legend to be passed down with pride.”

“Contradicting the entire founding myth of the kingdom?” Leon laughed. “Yeah, I can’t see some little conspiracy of the founding families keeping that fact around. If nothing else, if they did then grandfather would probably never have been offered the chance to be a baron. The Holforts took a foothold on the continent and turned it into one of the largest realms I know of. Whatever our ancestor did, we can’t claim credit for any of that work.”

“Good thinking. But it’s still a good lesson to remember. There’s never anyone more dangerous to you than someone you trust.”

The boy smiled. “Trust and you can be betrayed, but don’t trust and you might wind up betraying yourself.”

“I haven’t heard it put quite like that.” His father shook his head again. “So, your source said that a woman was involved?”

“Well, you know how the Saintess vanished after the kingdom was founded?” Leon smirked. “Allegedly, she was hung up on Lia Bartford and the first Holfort thought that getting rid of our ancestor would mean he’d be rid of his rival for her affection. It didn’t work out that way.”

Barcus made a pained noise. “You definitely shouldn’t tell anyone that. The temple would want to burn you at the stake…”



His mother’s voice drew Leon out of a rather pleasant dream, the details of which escaped him as he was jarred back to wakefulness.

For a moment he thought that everything over the last year might have been a dream - he was back in his bedroom back in the Bartford’s small stronghold in their ancestral barony, the same bed he’d used for as long as he could remember. Any moment now, his mother would tell him he was late for his chores.

Then reality set in. Nicks wasn’t there, and most of his brother’s possessions were also gone. And the school uniform hung up on the wardrobe ready to be packed was something Leon hadn’t had until after the brief war against the Olfreys.

“I’m awake,” he managed. Glancing at the window, it wasn’t really late in the morning. He might have overslept a little, but a few matters had fallen into arrears with his father’s absence and they’d both returned late from visiting some of the baronets who had been truculent about making good some of their obligations. Backing Barcus up was his duty now that Nicks was away.

His mother pushed the door open and then sighed. “Do put something on.”

Leon looked down and realised that the light sheet covering him had been kicked away at some point during the hot summer night. “I’m fairly sure you’ve seen it all before.” But she was his mother, so he grabbed the previous day’s shirt and shrugged it on. There was no point getting clean clothes until he’d washed off some of the sweat.

Covered almost to his knees by the shirt, the boy stretched. “Am I late for something?”

“You have a letter,” she told him. “The mailship arrived last night but I’d gone to bed before you got home.”

Leon raked his hair back and grabbed his hair tie. “Alright, just a moment.”

The water in his washbasin wasn’t really cold, but it was refreshing against his face anyway and he felt far more awake once he’d towelled it off. Yesterday’s trousers were good enough for now and his mother finally forced the letter into his hand. Leon glanced at the seal and realised why she was so anxious - it had the seal of the academy on it.

“I wonder how long this has been chasing me around the kingdom,” he wondered and broke the seal.

Inside were two sheets of paper. Unfolding them, Leon saw that from the date this had been sent two weeks ago, while he’d been in the county. That was a bit longer than he’d expected, even this far away from the continent. From the postmarks it had first gone to the barony, then passed them on the way to the county before being forwarded back here.

The first half of the front page was taken up with a list of courses and his final grades, including exam results and various coursework. He wondered how Scarlet would react to seeing that he’d managed a few perfects in theoretical or purely academic classes. Even his swordsman score was almost that high - competitive with her own initial assessment.

Seriously, Scarlet and Gerald were scary. Even when they weren’t top of a subject they were almost always in the top five.

“Could be worse,” he said out loud.

Ruth Fou Bartford was almost hopping from foot to foot in anticipation. “Oh honey, I know it’s tough without magic but…”

“I came twelfth,” he cut her short.

“Twelfth?” she froze. “You’re… twelfth… You mean, from the top?”

“Uh-huh. It’s a rotten shame, they’re going to stick me with…”

“Leon!” his mother exclaimed and grabbed him in a hug. “I’m so proud of you.”

The boy sighed and leant into the hug. He wasn’t going to pass up some maternal approval, even if he’d rather have come a place or two lower.

The second half of the first page had informed him that as one of the top scorers within the special class, he had been chosen to serve on the Student Council through the rest of his time at the academy. While the phrasing had lauded this as being a great honour, what it meant was that he would be stuck with quite a bit of extra-curricular work that would cut into his free time.

Had he ever asked for responsibility? He had not! Why was he therefore being given it?

There was a list of the other students who would be joining him as the junior members of the Student Council from the start of the term. Scarlet and Gerald were unsurprisingly at the head of the list, along with Olivia and Alan. The other seven students were also known to him - Mary, Sophia, Keith and Angelica would be no problem but there were three names that Leon regretted bitterly.

Julius Rafa Holfort, Jilk Fia Marmoria and Brad Fou Field had also made it into the top twelve.

It was some small comfort that the object of their affections hadn’t made it in, and at least two of the prince’s friends hadn’t received the honour, but it would still mean years of having to meet with them regularly. That was going to be awkward at best.

“At least I’ll have some friends on the council,” he noted. “I get along with most of the other students that qualify for it.”

“It’s wonderful that you’ve made so many friends,” Ruth told him as she released him at last. She wiped away tears of happiness. “I must tell everyone. Do get cleaned up and dressed. I’ll see if we can have something special for dinner. News like this deserves celebration.”

“I’ll try to be ready before Jenna’s irate howling,” he told his mother. “Did she get her grades as well?”

“Yes. They’re… adequate. I do think she’ll have to try harder. Perhaps this will motivate her.”

“It’s possible,” he admitted. “I suppose if she had made the top twelve last year she would have had the chance to spend time with Lord Ascart, and if that doesn’t motivate her I don’t know what will.”

Ruth gave him a puzzled look.

“The student council president,” he explained. “Universally agreed to be the prettiest boy in the school. And unengaged at the moment.”

“Really? That’s strange.”

“Apparently the young ladies have a habit of fainting before they can convince him to propose to them.” Leon shrugged. “I’m going to be honest, if I’m going to be his subordinate on the council then I can’t really push Jenna off on him.”

“Leon, that’s your sister you’re talking about!”

“I know.” He shuddered. “Such an embarrassment.”

His mother swatted at him. “Alright, get it out of your system. You’ve still got almost two years at the academy with her so try to get along.”

“I’m trying, but so is she.” He shuffled the letter to look at the second page and his stomach fell out from under him. “Oh no.”

“Is something wrong?”

Leon closed his eyes, prayed and opened them again. His prayers had not been answered and he’d read the letter right the first time.

“Oh no,” he said again.

“Leon, what’s wrong?” Ruth looked worried.

“Apparently there will be a princess attending the academy for part of the next term,” he told his mother. “It’s for diplomatic reasons, but she’s residing on campus and auditing some classes. As part of the student council I’ll be expected to escort her at times.”

His mother frowned. “The king’s daughter… Erika? I thought she would be a little too young for the academy.”

“A foreign princess,” Leon clarified. “A ruling princess.”

Ruth Fou Bartford was many admirable things, but high level politics and diplomacy were not her forte. “I have no idea who you mean, Leon.”

“Hertrude Sera Fanoss, the ruling princess of Fanoss will effectively be joining the student body.” Leon remembered that pale face, lit by the moon as he escaped the castle. “And I’m likely to have to escort her at times.”

“I don’t see why that has you so bothered? You’ve made friends with several young women of rank, and it’s not as if you’d be expected to court her.”

“It’s about ten years since the last war with Fanoss,” he reminded his mother. “Not long enough for grudges to fade on either side. And I believe it’s an article of faith in the principality that her parents were assassinated by Holfort as soon as they’d signed the peace treaty.”

“But she’s come here in peace, hasn’t she? And she’d hardly start a war while she’s a guest in Holfort.”

“Diplomacy, mother, is war by other means. I just hope she isn’t planning to provoke a diplomatic incident she can use to demand concessions from the kingdom. And with the succession in doubt, I’m sure King Roland would be more than willing to sacrifice a minor student at the academy in order to keep the peace on one border.”

“Leon.” His mother hugged him. “I know you’re being a worrier, like your father. But you’re being paranoid.”

I know, he thought. But am I being paranoid enough?
I'm interested in seeing how Keith + Angelica plays out.

Adopted son + legit daughter used to be a method for keeping a fiefdom stable when the fief holder only had daughters who couldn't inherit the fiefdom.

Heck, up until 1977 in RL a married West German woman needed her husband's approval before she could get a paying job.
Star as the Substitute 5-1
Star as the Substitute

Tougher than diamonds, rich like cream
Stronger and harder than a bad girl's dream
~ Huey Lewis​

Chapter 1

Pleasure and revenge, have ears more deaf than adders to the voice of any true decision. ~ William Shakespeare​

“How are you getting along with the drones?” Leon asked as he walked across the campus.

He was getting some dirty looks from other students. Either they were upset at him going up against Jilk Fia Marmoria at the end of the previous term, or word had gotten out that he’d made a bet on the outcome. He thought that the latter was possible. Anyone in the queue could have spread the word that he’d made a bet and it wasn’t as if he would have bet on the opposing champions - but still, he’d bet with the bookies not directly against the other students. He hadn’t taken their money directly and they’d have lost just as much money even if he’d made no bets.

He’d ask around later. Maybe it was something else, or maybe he was just under-estimating the willingness of teenagers to throw around blame on an easy target.

“All twelve drones reached the designated buildings last night,” Luxion reported through Leon’s earbud. “There is no indication that any have been detected. After sunset, I will begin investigating the targets for the optimal surveillance positions.”

“Good work.”

After Luxion’s stellar job scouting Leon’s path through Castle Fanoss, the boy had realised that he was underutilising the AI’s capabilities. Over the summer, additional drones with improved stealth capabilities had been constructed and within a day or so Leon hoped that they would have managed to hide themselves in the private offices of various people of interest.

“I hope that having to devote time to watching these new humans is not entirely wasted,” the AI grumbled.

Leon shrugged. “Honestly, most of it will probably be of no interest or value. And if they’re meeting somewhere covertly, chances are we’ll miss that. But at least if I come up as a threat in anyone’s eyes there’s a chance they’ll talk about me in their own offices so I’ll be forewarned.”

“Remember that the drone’s range is limited.” Luxion’s sensor light blinked at Leon before it hid itself again. “If we travel away from the continent then all they will be able to do is power down and hopefully avoid attention.”

Better than nothing, which is what I had before, Leon thought. “But while we’re here it’s going to be a source of information that no one even knows to watch out for. I should have thought about this before.”

“I am glad you did not. At least I was spared months of having to watch new humans other than those you choose to interact with.”

“Hopefully you won’t be too traumatised.”

He’d had to guess who might be a potential source of problems, and it wasn’t just a matter of possible enemies. Besides the fathers of Marie Fou Lafan’s five champions, Leon had picked out the offices of two marquises, two counts, the head of the Ministry of Magic, the senior priestess at the temple and Duke Ades. He’d considered sending one after Marie’s father instead, but Viscount Lafan was fairly unlikely to directly target Leon, whereas the Duke might take offence at a mere count’s younger son spending a significant time with his treasured daughter (and her elder twin).

Even if the duke didn’t decide to swat Leon for presumption, it might shed some light on why he was favouring one sister so blatantly over the other. Leon didn’t think he’d like the answer, but he was still curious.

Entering the student council wing, Leon was amused at the ostentation. This was a school, but the rooms looked like they belonged in an exclusive gentleman's club. Then again, perhaps that was the idea - to prepare the members for that sort of lifestyle. The instructions he’d received led him to a door marked as the council meeting room.

Knocking lightly, he paused for a moment to check for any response.

“Come in,” two or three voices called out.

The door opened easily and he saw the room inside had several polished tables forming a U-shape. Besides the chairs at the table, there was another ring of seats backed up against the walls - though they lacked the padding of those at the table. There were six seats at the base of the U, fourteen down each side at one at the base of each leg of the U. Enough seats for thirty-six at the table then, the full numbers of the Student Council.

He wondered if the position of Student Council President came with a loudhailer so that they could be heard across the room.

“Welcome, Lord Bartford.” Nicol Fia Ascart’s voice carried effortlessly to him. Oh yes, he was a wind mage wasn’t he? Maybe it was a requirement for the office? “Please take a seat.”

Leon bowed slightly and complied. Only about half the seats were taken - Deirdre Fou Roseblade gave him a challenging look and patted a seat beside her. He was tempted to ignore her, but Sopiha Fia Ascart was on the other side of the indicated chair, and given how nervous she looked - despite her brother being the president here - the boy decided to support his classmate.

“Lady Roseblade, Lady Ascart,” he greeted them both, pulling back the seat. “I trust your summers were pleasant.”

“It was adequate,” the drill-haired blonde pronounced sharply, causing Sophia to pause politely in her own attempt to answer. “Did you stop running away from me, Leon?”

“I went about my business, it’s not my fault you couldn’t keep up,” he told her with a smirk, then glanced the other way. “Sophia?”

“We visited Lady Katarina for weeks,” she told him with a proud smile and then pouted. “But Lady Redgrave was with her the whole time.”

“Another one for Claes’ harem?” asked Deirdre slyly. “Is this the new fashion?”

“Hopefully not,” Leon said, while Sophia flushed. “Or Lafan was doing it before it was fashionable and that’s a terrible thought.”

“Mmm. Quite. Although perhaps it has some benefits…”

Leon followed Deirdre’s look and saw Clarice Fia Atlee sitting further up the opposite side of the table. A uniformed servant was providing her with a glass of wine and three more in the same finery were sitting at the wall behind her. In contrast to their immaculate dress, the second-year had eschewed a uniform jacket and her blouse was only partly buttoned, with a choker plainly visible around her neck. “Is she drunk already?”

“She’s not that much of a featherweight,” the blonde girl said dismissively. “It’s a statement.”

“Clarice has been like that since the start of the summer,” Sophia murmured. “It -”

The doors opened again, this time with no one knocking. Prince Julius Rafa Holfort entered, flanked by Jilk Fia Marmoria and Brad Fou Fields. Leon heard Clarice set her wine-glass down sharply, so much so he wouldn’t be surprised if it scratched the table’s polished surface. When he looked at her, she was glaring at the new arrivals - or one of them, to be specific - with venom that seemed more intense than that which Count Olfrey had directed at his captors as he was dragged from his keep.

“It frightens me,” the albino at his side whispered.

Deirdre shook her head as the three first years found seats together - as far from Clarice and Leon as they could manage, which meant that they were down at the foot of one end of the U. Not exactly the centre place that a prince could normally have taken. “She’s making a statement.”

“Mmm.” Leon agreed reluctantly. “I’m not fluent in the language sartorial, but I’d have to agree. How do you translate it?”

“She’s trying to show off what Jilk passed up on,” the third year student told him. “Both to make him jealous and to reinforce her self-image by drawing other men to her.” She paused. “She might stand a chance if most of the so-called men here weren’t whipped little boys.”

“And she’s about a foot too tall and three cup-sizes too large for him. No accounting for taste, I suppose.”

“L-lord Bartford,” Sophia flushed. “That’s horribly rude.”

“True though.” Deirdre gave the younger girl a measuring look. “If Lafan dumps him, you might want to watch out, Ascart. You’re not that much larger than she is.”

This was apparently not a scenario that countless romance novels had prepared the little albino for, at least in such crude terms. Her face was almost as crimson as her eyes.

“Should the cad be so despicable as to trifle with you, dear lady, I shall not hesitate to duel as your champion,” Leon offered her. “Assuming your brother doesn’t get hold of him first.”

“I’m not ready for this!” she squeaked, nervously. “My heart!”

“It’s a purely hypothetical scenario,” Deirdre pointed out. “Lafan will probably string her idiots along until the end of the academy, at the least.”

“And were someone to break my sister’s heart, such as the overly-flirtatious younger son of a count, I would have volunteers eager to swear I was far away from the miscreant’s death,” a voice whispered into Leon’s ear.

Recognising the voice and that no one else seemed to have heard them, the young man turned and bowed slightly to Sophia’s brother in acknowledgement.

More students filtered in, the two Stuarts arriving with Mary and Angelica. The four of them moved up and took seats beyond Sophia. “Keith has been delayed slightly,” Gerald directed the statement towards Nicol. “But he should be here in a moment.”

Indeed, just as the clock on the wall began to chime, Keith Rafa Claes made a hasty entrance and secured the last seat for himself.

At the head table, Sirius Fou Dieke rose. “Ladies and gentlemen, I call the council to order.” Silence fell over the room and the redhead turned to the dark-haired president. “Sir, our full membership stands assembled.”

“Thank you, Mr Secretary.” Nicol rose to his feet. “For those joining us for the first time, welcome to the Student Council. Membership of this body comes with both responsibilities and privileges. For those unfamiliar with either, I commend the student handbook to you - you were all chosen with the expectation that you would not need your hands held. If you must ask, then do so after carrying out basic research.”

The president remained bland of expression and tone as he gave that less than warm welcome. Practically every girl at the table blushed and looked away despite this.

“I will stress, however, that the student council’s library is for those of us seeking a convenient place to study, while our drawing room is available for socialising. Please keep the activities to the appropriate chambers - council duties can come with interruptions to studying time, so the rooms here are intended as a refuge.”

That seemed sensible enough and Leon saw Scarlet nodding from where she sat.

Nicol looked across at his cousin. “Moving to new business, Lady Atlee has kindly demonstrated a lapse in our current rules. Given the restrictions on bringing guests into the student council wing, some guideline on the number of servants appropriate is clearly overdue.”

“Oh, of course, blame me.” Clarice leant forwards, which drew one glance from Leon before he remembered his manners. “The school allows us servants, why are you complaining now?”

“Because if every girl here brings as many servants as you - or more if this escalates, as it so easily could, there won’t be room in here for the council members?” asked Gerald.

“Correct.” Nicol folded his hands. “I am not suggesting that all servants be banned, but I believe a limit of one per student would be wise.”

“And what if I decide to just not turn up at all?” Clarice challenged.

“I’m sure Lord Marmoria would consider that a relief,” her cousin told her. “But I would not.”


Katarina remembered the days when she’d been an older sister to Keith.

Of course she was still the older sister, but he didn’t act like it any more. At some point he’d begun acting as if he was the one keeping an unruly little sister from getting into trouble.

Case in point: “Do remember not to drag the princess off to help you with your gardening,” he instructed as they walked towards the student council wing. “Or pull her into a discussion about romance novels.”

“But what if she’s interested in romance novels?!” Katarina protested. “She might be!”

Keith rubbed his brow. “Actually, it would probably be best if you just avoided her entirely.”


She didn’t remember any princess visiting the academy during the game. Although there had also been no giant robot duels, which was a strange thing to skip over. Acchan would have loved that. Well, probably. Maybe. She wasn’t sure, but it would be fun to find out.

And having a real life princess here might be some similarly shocking development. What if Gerald fell for her charms? Or what if it was Keith?! Katarina almost gasped out loud. What if Keith was trying to keep her away because he’d already fallen in love with the princess?! That might mean that Katarina was already the villainess of the route and there could be a bad end looming that she had no idea about!

“Katarina…” her brother warned. “Whatever you’re thinking…”

“Actually, I have a question.”

“Yes?” he asked her, looking nervous.

Katarina brushed her long hair back. “If you don’t want me to meet the princess, why are you walking me to the student council meeting to welcome her? I’m not even allowed into the council rooms, am I?”

Keith stopped dead and let go of her arm. “I… yes. Good point.”

You see! Katarina could still be a big sister. Keith was worrying about nothing. She looked ahead and then frowned. “Isn’t that Olivia?” She picked up her skirts and ran ahead to greet her friend. And see if she had a basket of sweets, but mostly to greet the girl. It would just be a nice coincidence if Katarina got something to eat.

There were two other girls with Olivia. It was nice that she was making friends.

Then Katarina got close enough to hear the conversation: “You think you’re special?” an older girl was demanding, pulling Olivia by one arm. “Acting as if being on the student council makes you better than us!”

The other girl yanked Olivia’s other arm, leaving the blond girl staggering. “Lady Redgrave only keeps you around the way she would a pet. An animal that she can pat, and feed, and that isn’t bright enough to ask anything.”

“The only reason the council tolerates you is because she doesn’t have a demihuman to be her servant.” The first girl caught hold of the aiguillette on Olivia’s uniform jacket, marking her as one of the student council. She dragged on it, almost tearing it away. “Maybe if you crawl under the table for Ascart and Dieke, they’ll keep you around when Lady Redgrave is bored of…”

A chunk of the ground about the size of Katarina’s fist bulged up beneath the foot of the second girl as she pulled her hand back to slap Olivia. Off balance, she stumbled into her compatriot - who lost her grip on Olivia and went sprawling on the floor.

Katarina loomed over them. “How dare you say such things?! How dare you lay your hands on Olivia?!”

“But-but…” one of the girls on the floor exclaimed, face white.

“She’s just a commoner!” the other called, trying to stand.

“Who told you that you had the right to stand on the same ground as us?” Katarina snapped, like the villainess that she was, throwing words that the game’s Katarina would have used at this pair. “Olivia is a member of the student council because she earned it.”

“There’s no way a commoner could have done better than nobles in the exams. Redgrave had to have fixed the results!”

“Are your heads filled with cotton?! If the academy let dukes’ daughters fix results, wouldn’t I be on the student council? Wouldn’t Violette Rafa Ades? But we’re not. Because Olivia and the people who were at the top of the scores were smarter and worked harder. She’s a good person who cares about us. And that’s the same reason she’s popular with the council, the same reason that Angelica likes Olivia far more than she ever liked you.”

And then Katarina leaned over. “And if I ever see, or hear, or even just suspect that you’ve thought about hurting Olivia again? Then there will be a Bad End for both of you!”

There were tears rolling down the girls’ faces. “We-we’re sorry!” one shrieked in terror, and then they were scrambling, staying low to the ground as if they didn’t dare to stand upright given her previous words. One of them even kicked off her shoes after she kept stumbling.

“Uh…” Katarina stared after them, breathing heavily. “Well! That… happened, I guess!”

“Sis,” Keith sighed from behind her.

She turned around and saw that Olivia had fallen to her knees, while her brother was offering the girl his hand to help stand. To Katarina’s dismay, there were tears on Olivia’s face.

“I’m sorry, did I scare you?” she asked. The two siblings each took Olivia’s hands and pulled her up.

“No, no. Not at all.” Olivia leaned on Katarina for a moment. “It was just, hearing you say that. Saying that you like me.”

“Of course we do.”

At the sound of footsteps on the path, Olivia pulled herself upright and started straightening her uniform. Keith offered her a handkerchief for her face.

“Are girls like that common here?” a girl asked a moment before she rounded the corner. “I don’t think one of them was even wearing shoes.”

The boy whose arm the new arrival was on sighed. “One of the reasons that all noble daughters are expected to attend the academy is so the mental defectives can be identified and weeded out.”

“Oh, Leon!” Katarina greeted him with a wave. She saw the added trim on his uniform, the same kind as that worn by Olivia and Keith. “I didn’t know you were on the student council!”

Keith sighed. “Katarina, I did tell you.”

“Did you?”

Olivia giggled and then hiccuped.

“Permit me to make the introductions,” Leon offered with a sweeping bow. “Lady Katarina, Lord Keith, Miss Olivia, this is Princess Hertrude Sera Fanoss, our most illustrious guest at the academy. Your highness, may I present the most honourable son and daughter of the Duke and Duchess Claes, and Miss Olivia Campbell, the young lady who has the unique and most admirable distinction of being the first scholarship student in the academy’s history to earn a seat on the student council.”

Katarina and Olivia curtsied and Keith bowed deeply.

“Welcome to Holfort, princess!” Katarina offered brightly. “I hope you enjoy your stay here!”

“I suppose anything’s possible,” the dark-haired girl told her. “Are we interrupting something?”

“Oh, I was just walking my little brother to the council wing,” she explained. “We ran into Olivia and... oh!” She saw that the earth bump she’d raised earlier was still standing up above the path. Focusing on her magic, she pushed at it. Down, down, down… After a long moment it subsided until it was almost impossible to tell that anything had been done here.

And she’d thought she wouldn’t be able to learn any more magic here! Any day now she might be able to start making holes in the ground rather than bumps! That would be ever so useful when planting seeds.

“I can tell I’m going to meet so many interesting people here,” Hertrude murmured.

“Travel does have a way of broadening one’s horizons,” Leon said in that old man way of his that suggested that he was repeating something he’d heard or maybe read a long time ago.

The princess looked over to Keith. “A brother. Perhaps you can tell me about having one, Lady Claes. I only have a sister, you see.”

“Of course, princess!”

“Your highness,” Keith hissed.


“You’re supposed to call her ‘your highness’.” He bowed again to Hertrude. “My apologies, my sister means no disrespect but sometimes she’s a little too excited to remember her etiquette.”

Hertrude nodded in understanding. “Well, as I am a student here, we can perhaps dispense a little with the formality. Please call me Hertrude, Lady Katarina.”

“And I’m Katarina!” she said brightly. Hah, and Keith had wanted her not to talk to the princess! But now she would learn all her secrets and work out the Bad End so she could avoid it.

“I do hate to separate you, since you’ve become such fast friends,” Leon drawled, “But we do have a meeting with the student council to get to.”

“Oh, you’re not on the council?” asked the… asked Hertrude.

Katarina shook her head. “I’m their fellow champion but not their fellow council member.”

“Champion? That sounds like a fascinating story. We must meet again soon, Lady Katarina so you can tell me all about it - as well as your brother.”

Hmm. Maybe Hertrude was interested in Keith? Could that be the secret path? Katarina wished she had a notebook handy so she could start taking notes. Gosh, Acchan would love this.


Leon and Keith had no sooner entered the council meeting room with Hertrude and Olivia than Angelica rose to her feet and approached them.

“Olivia!” she exclaimed, taking the other blonde’s hands. “Are you alright?”

Hertrude had opened her mouth to speak and then closed it again when Angelica addressed Olivia, not her. Leon sighed. He was sure the duke’s daughter didn’t intend to slight their guest, but seeing her friend’s eyes red from crying must have driven all else from her mind.

“I’m alright now.” Olivia said bravely.

Angelica accepted that, though only for the moment, and turned to Hertrude, curtseying. “I’m not sure your highness will remember, but we have met before.”

“Of course I remember you, Lady Redgrave.” Hertrude smiled with what Leon thought might be a little actual warmth. “I take it that you and Miss Campbell are friends? I must say that I hadn’t expected to find a commoner rubbing shoulders so readily with the daughters of two different dukes.”

Leon mouthed ‘Katarina’ to Angelica, from out of Hertrude’s line of sight.

The blonde nodded fractionally in understanding. “Katarina and Olivia are just two of the people who stood by me at the worst moment of my life,” she said frankly. “I regret the circumstances, but not that it let me know who my real friends were - or who might become such friends.”

“You’d stood up for me,” Olivia spoke up.

“And who stood up for you this time?” Angelica asked her, “I’m sorry I wasn’t there, because it’s clear you needed someone. Katarina perhaps?”

The other girl looked down, embarrassed. “Yes.”

Leon reached over and poked the scholarship student in the shoulder. “She does it because she cares,” he reminded her. “Just as you help her because you care. I think it’s called ‘friendship’, although it’s a rare enough concept that you might want to check if I’m pronouncing it right.”

That got a giggle from her.

Keith smiled ruefully. “It’s good to know my sister will always be the bravest knight, however much it horrifies mother.”

“I definitely need to hear this story,” Hertrude declared. “It’s a shame Lady Katarina didn’t come with us. Is it true there’s a rule that she can’t come in?”

“Non-members aren’t supposed to, unless it’s on business,” Gerald explained as he and Nicol approached the little group. “Although we are making an exception for you, your highness, so perhaps another could be made.”

“Oh, my apologies.” Angelica took Hertrude’s hand. “Princess Hertrude, may I introduce Prince Gerald Rafa Stuart, Katarina’s fiance, and Lord Nicol Fia Ascart, the president of the student council. Gentlemen, I present Princess Hertrude Sera Fanoss.”

Both of the boys bowed and kissed the princess’ hand. She flushed a little as Nicol did so - even royalty was not immune to the young Ascart’s allure, it seemed.

“Welcome to the academy,” Nicol murmured. “I would not wish to feel you were not being made welcome, but as one of our members has just proposed a motion...”

“Please continue.” Hertrude fanned herself slightly with her hand. “I would be fascinated to see how your council does business.”

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Nicol didn’t speak up, but as before his voice carried clearly around the room. “Our distinguished colleague, Prince Gerald, has offered a motion that his fiancee Lady Katarina Rafa Claes be granted the privilege of entering our chambers as a guest, in exception to our general rules. Do I hear a second?”

“Yes!” exclaimed Mary Fou Hunt quite loudly, drowning out at least four other affirmations.

“And are any opposed to this motion?”

Clarice Fia Atlee, lounging in a chair while her one allowed servant massaged her shoulders, snorted. “Oh I can’t have more servants, but Gerald gets to bring…” She failed to keep a straight face. “Oh go ahead, it can only make this place more lively.”

“Opposed.” The secretary of the council, Sirius Fou Dieke raised his hand. “Not that I don’t like her,” he added apologetically. “But I fear she may distract certain members from their duties.”

“He’s probably not really opposed,” Leon explained quietly to Hertrude. “But it’s an unspoken rule that someone always has to object so that there’s a vote. There apparently has never been a unanimous vote in the history of the academy’s student council. Not even when someone proposed a motion that the sky was blue.”

“Why would someone do that?”

“History does not record. Alcohol may have been involved. Although depending on the weather, they might have just been wrong.”

Nicol clapped his hands together sharply. “Ladies and gentlemen, your votes please. Who favours granting an exemption to Lady Claes?”

Hands rose into the air. Leon didn’t see anyone except Sirius who didn’t have their hand up. He certainly favoured the idea.

“Very well. And opposed.”

Sirius solemnly raised his hand. Sophia and Mary made gestures for him to lower it, until Alan put his arms around their shoulders and gently made them stop. Looking around, the redhead nodded. “My lord president, I beg to report that the ayes are in the majority.”

“So noted,” Nicol declared solemnly. “Keith, Gerald, I’d let you sort out between you who gives Katarina the good news, but that might derail the rest of our meeting. Leon, perhaps you and Scarlet could take care of that?”

Leon bowed. “It would be my honour.”

“Wait!” Julius stood up. “I propose that we should also make an exemption for Marie!”

Hertrude frowned and turned to Angelica. “Is that Prince Julius?”

The blonde nodded.

“And Marie would be…?”

Another nod.

Hertrude pursed her lips. “I suppose I’d read too many romance novels and was assuming that as a prince he would at least have some dignity or discretion.”

“It’s surprisingly rare in those with enough authority or connections that almost no one tells them no,” Leon noted.

“We have… another motion, it would seem.” Nicol managed to convey distaste for it without breaking his monotone. “Do I have any second?”

“Absolutely!” exclaimed Jilk. “Marie is a paragon of womanhood, of course she should be admitted here!”

His statement was met with derisive laughter from Clarice’s chair. Leon shook his head sadly. “I really ought to hate him for the way he threatened my family… but this is just sad.”

Hertrude gave him a startled look, but before she could ask, Scarlet raised her hand. “Opposed.”

“So noted. Your votes please?”

Julius and Jilk’s hands went up. Brad did the same and the three of them looked around for support. Even among the older years only two of the council members were sycophantic enough to yield to that non-verbal petition. Notably, not a single one of the first years did so.

“And opposed?”

More than twenty hands rose - including every other first year member of the council.

Sirius Fou Dieke made a show of counting and then reported seriously. “The nays have the majority.”

Julius stepped forwards. “But why?!”

“Because no one except the three of you actually like Lafan?” suggested Dierdre with a vicious smile.

Nicol cleared his throat. “I would also add that you did take an oath to break off your relationship with Lady Lafan, your highness, in the event that you were defeated as her champion - which you were. Bringing her in would very much count in my view as an attempt to circumvent the terms of that oath by manufacturing a cause to meet with her on the pretext of school duties.”

“If you will excuse me,” Angelica declared, “I will join Lady Ades and Lord Bartford in letting Lady Claes know of her open invitation to the student council wing. I fear that I am feeling a little… tired and of an ill-temper today.”

“I really can’t imagine why,” Leon observed.

Hertrude’s lips quirked. She had a sense of humour under her royal hauteur, which just made Leon like her. It was rather inconvenient, given she was likely to wind up an enemy, but he’d just have to live with that. Unless she got him killed, which was a real possibility and should probably deter him more than it did.

He offered Angelica his arm, which she accepted. Then he offered his other arm to Scarlet and exited with two lovely flowers flanking him. Behind them, Julius was trying to argue and making a terrible job of it, while Nicol began to try to wrangle the council into discussing the upcoming academy festival.

“Leon,” Angelica told him as they exited the building. “It occurred to me over the summer that at no point had I ever thanked you for taking my side against Julius.”

He considered that. Hadn’t she? He hadn’t really thought about it.

“Typical new human ingratitude,” Luxion confirmed.

“As I told your father, I did have my own reasons for doing so.”

Angelica looked away. “I’m not blind to the fact that Gerald, Alan and Keith did so because of Katarina. You and her though, you were the ones who stepped up first. I heard what happened to your room.”

Scarlet pulled Leon’s arm slightly. “What happened to your room?”

“Petty vandalism,” he explained.

She made a disgusted noise. “Who?”

“It doesn’t really matter. The act was petty, and so are they,” Leon told her. “Punching them in the face won’t undo anything, and it might make more trouble.”

“The fact that I can’t even do something about that just makes me feel more guilty,” Angelica told him. Then she paused in mid-step, leading Leon to do the same and thus Scarlet. They both glanced at Angelica and then followed her gaze towards two girls ahead of them. One was clutching a shoe, while the other was searching - presumably for the other since she was barefoot. The same pair Leon had come across while he was escorting Hertrude, he thought.

Leon cleared his throat. “Ladies - and I use the word in the loosest possible sense.”

The pair turned guilty expressions towards him.

“Speaking on behalf of the student council, you’ve already embarrassed the academy quite enough by showing such disgraceful faces to our royal guest. And now you still don’t have the wit to put on shoes? Go to your rooms, get yourselves cleaned up and whatever you were up to before… don’t do it again.”

The pair fled, taking the one shoe with them.

Angelica shook her head. “Those two - I should have reined them in previously. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were the ones giving Olivia trouble earlier.”

“Katarina took care of them then.”

“My cousin is too kind-hearted to do much,” Scarlet disagreed.

Leon snickered. “Scarlet, you really should get to know Katarina better. She has a strong sense of justice, she’s just got a different way of expressing it than you do. Trust me, if she dealt with them then they’re feeling worse than Chris Fia Arclight did after he realised he was humiliated in public by losing a duel to a girl with a hoe.”

Angelica laughed, a little bitterly. “Yes, that would sting his pride.” The humour drained from her tone. “It occurs to me that what convinced me to curb those girls was finding them acting as gatekeepers, deciding for themselves who I should meet and what I should do. And yet, was I so different?”

“I don’t get it,” the girl on Leon’s other arm admitted honestly.

“Looking back, I told Julius so often that he should do this, or shouldn’t do that. Because it was beneath his royal dignity. Not just about Lafan, but about other things.” She yanked at her hair with her free hand, loosening it slightly from its tight braided bun. “He must have been so tired of me telling him what to do.”

“As with my room, you can’t undo that,” Leon told her with some sympathy. “But you can move forwards and learn from it. Maybe the two of you should get together with Clarice and Violette, form some sort of support group. That way when you find other young men you can watch each other’s backs and try to avoid any further mishaps. It probably won’t stop all of them, but at least having a fresh point of view can help.”

“But why do we need each other for that, when you’re around to lecture us?” asked Angelica. She nudged him slightly. “For someone who doesn’t have a fiancee…”

“Perspective helps,” he said honestly. “And while I may change my mind about this, one thing I don’t plan to do is get engaged at the academy. We’ve got five years, a third of the lives we’ve lived so far, before we’re expected to marry - which is still stupidly young. That’s a long time - so take a step back. See who you meet, see who you like and then give yourself a chance to make mistakes.”

“My parents married right after the academy,” Angelica told him. “And they loved each other very much.”

“Good for them. It doesn’t always work out like that…” He glanced at Scarlet, saw that she looked to be thinking and elected not to enquire about her own parents for contrast. “Oh, I meant to ask - is Arclight’s engagement to your sister still on?”

She shook her head absently. “No. Father finally decided to break it right at the end of the summer.”

“Ah.” What in the world made him wait that long? “There will be great rejoicing among the young men of the academy. And I’m serious that you should perhaps make sure to look out for each other. Because I might be able to lean on the two of you for advice if I ever do take the plunge into trying to court someone. This, you see, is my cunning plan.” Plan B, but a plan nonetheless.

“Not to build your own harem to rival Lafan’s?” asked Angelica snidely. “I was thinking you wanted us all together so you could romance all four of us.”

He tilted his head to the side as if considering it. “Do you think that would work?”

Scarlet reached up and tapped her knuckles against the side of his head. “No.”

“And now you went and put the idea in my head. Thanks, Angelica.”

He counted her wicked smile as a prize.
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Star as the Substitute 5-2
Star as the Substitute

Tougher than diamonds, rich like cream
Stronger and harder than a bad girl's dream
~ Huey Lewis​

Chapter 2

When Anger and Revenge get married, their daughter is called Cruelty. ~ Russian Proverb​

“How did I get into this mess?” Leon subvocalized to Luxion.

“I had no idea that Holfort had such interesting customs,” Hertrude murmured as the two of them passed Brad and Greg. “Are you likely to dress like that at any point?”

The two of them were dressed in what was apparently the uniform for the host cafe that Marie Fou Lafan was running through the festival. She hadn’t called it that when she filed her application, but the purpose was clear. The purple and red members of her coterie were wearing sharp black pants, polished shoes, and a bib made up to look like the front of a tuxedo shirt.

“If someone had a gun to my head, I’d have to think very carefully on whether my life was really worth that.”

“What a shame. If all the young knights Holfort were so eccentric I would feel more secure in the Principality’s security.”

“Eccentricity is unfortunately not a clear indicator of lacking competence.” Marie’s plan was actually working, after all. Many of the girls in the academy were happily paying the quite ridiculous prices demanded to have cheap tea and snacks served to them by the prince and his friends. In theory it might be sweet that the five of them valued their dignity so little when it came to their loved one, but Leon had to wonder if they realised how little respect for them it showed on her part. “Or having any, to be fair.”

“If you had run your own store, or taken part in the student council’s play, you wouldn’t have been available to escort the princess, master.” Luxion sounded entirely too smug.

“So you’re saying this is my own fault.”

“I would never deprive you of realising that for yourself,” the AI declared innocently.

“I’m almost tempted to visit this cafe of Lady Lafan’s,” the princess continued, “If only to see if Prince Julius is so lacking in good sense.”

“He is.”

She smiled slyly. “So quick to disown him. Have my charms won you away from the Holforts already?”

“My homeland, right or wrong. If right to be kept right, if wrong to be made right.” Leon shook his head. “That doesn’t mean I’m personally loyal to him… perhaps if he removes his head from a certain bodily orifice I’ll reconsider this.”

Hertrude flushed a little at the crudity. “One can tell that you don’t spend much time around court.”

“I’m sorry,” he apologised. “I forgot that I was dealing with such a sheltered young lady.”

“I will have you know that I am as worldly as any woman that ever set foot on - on - on -” she broke off as she saw Deidre Fou Roseblade sweeping down the path, accompanied by two demihuman servants and wearing the costume of her part in the next day’s play.

She was playing an evil marchioness in the Student Council’s production of the classic Countess of Monte Cristo, and the voluptuous blonde certainly looked the part.

“Are rehearsals going well?”

Deirdre turned to Leon and bit back what would likely have been pure arrogance as she saw that he was escorting the foreign princess. “Very well indeed. I daresay that my performance will leave you as stunned and awed as it does the rest of the audience.”

“I admire your confidence.”

“Well, since you lack the confidence to take the stage I shall leave you to admire me from the audience, Lord Bartford.”

Leon inclined his head. “I shall be praying for you to trip, forget your lines or suffer a costume malfunction then.” He considered what she was wearing with some appreciation. “Not that there’s much to malfunction.”

The drill-haired girl laughed disdainfully. “Your prayers will fail, for you worship at the wrong altar. Ohohohoho...”

Leon waited for her to stop coughing. “Honey and lemon may help with that,” he offered.

“Thank you,” the girl admitted. “Servant, I will take honey and lemon in my tea.”

“Yes, my lady,” the demihuman not carrying Deirdre’s bags came to attention. “Shall I fetch you some>”

“No, I’ll take tea in my rooms,” she decided. “That way I can rehearse my lines again. Not that I don’t have them perfectly memorised.”

Hertrude stared enviously at the busty young woman as Dierdre and her entourage departed. “Is that glued on?”

“Either that or magnets,” Leon concluded. “Otherwise…”

The princess drew herself up. “I am in any case a worldly and accomplished lady, Lord Bartford.”

“Of course. Would you like to go visit the stall selling romance novels? Then you can retreat somewhere quiet and wait out the madness.” He rather hoped that she agreed. That would let him make an escape - Hertrude was fun to tease but the more time he spent with her, the greater the chances she recognised his voice or some other clue that he was the same man that had stolen from Castle Fanoss - and perhaps more pointedly, the man who’d pointed a gun at her precious little sister. She probably didn’t know that it had just been a dart gun with sedatives.

“No,” Hertrude declared. “The time approaches for the airbike races and it would be my pleasure to watch them.”

“Her highness’ wish is my command,” Leon assured her (holding back certain reservations to that). He offered his arm again to her and Hertrude placed her hand lightly on his forearm, letting him lead her to the stands overlooking the track laid out for several dozen airbikes to race.

There was naturally a class divide here - most of the students watching the festival’s most hyped and gambled on event were on rows of seats in the open air, but above them there were lounges with floor to ceiling windows, allowing those of the highest status (the daughters of noble houses, their servants and if they were very lucky, their fiances) to enjoy the experience while screened from noise and dust.

Princess Hertrude naturally (and correctly) assumed she would have uncontested access to the lounges and she was right, which also meant Leon was allowed in.

“Is there any means to get a closer look at the race?” the princess asked, looking down at the starting grid.

“The open stands are closer,” Leon stated the obvious, “But also rather crowded.” He glanced around and saw one of the other ladies present using opera glasses. “Perhaps I can get you some of those?”

It took some asking around before Leon found that it was the barman who provided the glasses. At a price, of course. (And yes, of course there was a barman - and a bar. Why would there not be?)

“My thanks.” Hertrude lifted the opera glasses and started examining the racers eagerly only for the flag to wave and be left watching them zoom away.

The track was mostly still in view from the stands, which were only on the outer edge. The altitude at which the airbikes raced at meant that even the lower stands had a reasonable line of sight to the racers.

Leon watched Hertrude as she watched the students blaze away around the track. She certainly seemed intent. “Are airbikes a passion of yours?”

“Oh yes,” she told him, not tearing her eyes away from the opera glasses. She wasn’t just tracking the leaders, scanning the entire line-up. As the racers finished their first loop, racing past the stands again, Leon saw that Hertrude simply focused on the track, watching each of the riders go past her viewpoint, not trying to track any of them - not even the jostling pack that had formed up around Jilk Fia Marmoria.

Leon was pretty sure that the boy was in trouble, but he was the best racer in the first year special class, so short of breaking his leg there was no keeping him from going out to race. Actually doing that had been dismissed only because there would be no small suspicion that Leon might be involved out of some grudge from the duel before the summer.

“Luxion,” he mused, communicating subvocally. “Can you tell what she’s looking at?”

The drone was lurking just above the lounge windows, hard to see. Luxion didn’t react for several moments. “Based on the angle of her opera glasses, she appears to be more interested in the airbikes rather than the riders,” it reported at last.

Leon bit back a groan. She must be looking for an airbike similar to the one I used to escape Fanoss, he realised. Evidence that Holfort was behind my raid.

She wasn’t going to see his airbike out there, of course. But if he did wind up replacing Jilk, which had been the decision in the book…

“Luxion, I don’t suppose you could build another airbike overnight?”

“It would take a little longer, master.”

“How about disguising the existing airbike to look more like a conventional one?” Leon asked hopefully. “And err on the side of making it more durable - even if it’s at the expense of speed.”

“That will be possible, master. Although if that is the case you may not be able to defeat these new humans should you enter the race.”

“Winning is nice,” he reminded the AI, “but surviving matters more.”

As if to emphasise this, a familiar looking airbike fell out of the race. It was trailing smoke and the rider prudently rolled off it once he was low enough. A few seconds later, the bike hit one of the poles marking the route and went into a spin before hitting the ground and exploding into hundreds of pieces.

Despite having jumped free, the rider hadn’t gotten away lightly. He tried to sit up, only to slump to the ground in evident pain.

“It looks as if someone has suffered some misfortune,” Hertrude noted, with thinly disguised satisfaction.

“It can be a rough sport, but whoever did this probably cost themselves a lot of time.” Leon shaded his eyes and watched as a rescue team went out to collect the fallen rider. The first man on site helped the rider remove his helmet. A familiar head of green hair was revealed - as expected, Jilk’s enemies among the other racers had forced him out of the competition.


“I appreciate you leaving the race for this.” Leon led Hertrude down into the support rooms built below the stands, from which various functions supporting the race took place.

“Your loyalty to Holfort is misplaced,” she told him. “But I can respect that you feel obligated to see to the wellbeing of a fellow student council member. Though is he not the same boy that attempted to force you out of the duel last term with vile threats to your loved ones?”

Leon nodded. “He is indeed. So I get to discharge my duties and also enjoy seeing him in pain. It’s nice to be able to hit more than one bird with a single stone.” Then he mimed poking at a wounded person. “Does this hurt? How about this?”

Hertrude covered her mouth. “You are a terrible person, Lord Bartford.”

“One should always seek to excel.”

The medical room’s door was open and the pair of them paused to look inside. It seemed that they weren’t the first visitors to arrive though - a small crowd had gathered, in fact.

“Alright, let me through,” Leon told them with a sigh. “No one’s allowed to sell tickets for viewing the wounded Marmoria - paperwork would have to be filed in advance. However profitable it would apparently be.”

The students, mostly older than Leon, nonetheless stepped aside for him and he led Hertrude in to see a resigned Jilk sitting up on a bed, already stripped of his racing gear and bandaged beneath the loose medical smock he wore. His eyes were closed, as if he wished not to look at his guests.

“Ah, Leon. Jilk’s definitely in poor shape,” Clarice Fia Atlee smiled in a catlike fashion. She leant over and jabbed one finger into the injured boy’s side. “How does that feel?”

The young greenette gritted his teeth and said nothing.

Hertrude glanced sideways at Leon, who spread his hands slightly in concession. His earlier jest now felt to have been in poor taste. “I have the impression that you are not here as Lord Marmoria’s friend, Lady Atlee.”

Clarice’s head jerked around and then she smirked. “Ah, princess. I imagine that you might not have learned what a piece of work he is. No, I’m just here to examine my handiwork.”

“So you were behind this then,” Jilk concluded. There was no satisfaction in his voice as he continued: “I had thought as much.”

“Yeah!” The redhead wheeled upon him. “That’s right. You threw me away and now I’ll put through every hell I can imagine. No matter how much you beg me, I will never forgive you!”

Even Hertrude stepped back in alarm at the rage on display. Leon folded his arms. “So you won’t be doing him the kindness of finishing him off today?”

Two of the students who’d come with Clarice moved towards Leon as he stood up to her, but she waved them back. “What possible reason do you have to stand up for him?”

He shook his head. “I’m not. But this is tearing you apart as well.”

She jerked her head back, showing off her new look. “Don’t try to pretend you don’t like looking at me, Bartford. I’ve seen your eyes lingering when we crossed paths.”

“You do have a beautiful body,” he admitted and was amused to see the demihuman servants bristle. “But I’ve also seen your eyes. You have a raw wound, Lady Atlee. One that you can’t stop tearing open. I’d rather not see that destroy you, so if you’re going to deal with Jilk then do it. Get it over with and put him behind you.”

“W-what do you know?” she demanded, fingers twitching into claws.

Leon wasn’t entirely sure if he was about to be lynched - assuming Clarice didn’t unleash her magic and attack him directly. But he’d started, so he’d finish. “The opposite of love is not hate. It’s indifference… and you’re evidently a long way from being indifferent to this moron.”

The girl trembled, as if on the cusp of doing something rash. Then she exhaled slowly. “So you think I did wrong, that I should be like Redgrave and pretend that I’m happy to let him just go on - as if he’d never cast me away when I never did anything to deserve it?”

“I’m saying he’s worth less than your whole life. If you want revenge then take it and be done.”

Clarice spun and pointed down at Jilk, who had yet to open his eyes. “Don’t plan on racing again, Marmoria. If you turn up, we’ll drag you down in front of everyone. And if you send anyone else, even your precious prince, then I’ll do the same. You said you’d win this race for your class, but I won’t let any one of you finish the race. Enjoy knowing you’re dragging all your friends down with you, you pathetic loser.”

At that, finally Jilk looked up at her. “If you feel you must. Just leave Marie out of it. Touch her and I’ll take my own revenge.”

As if the mention of the other girl, Clarice managed something Leon would have never guessed possible. She grew even angrier. Her eyes were practically bloodshot and Leon imagined he could feel electricity in the air.

Oh wait, he wasn’t imagining anything.

“I’ll tell you the same thing I told Lady Ades, the day Seberg broke it off with her.” He kept his voice - somehow! - calm and non-confrontational. “There’s nothing you can do to Marie Fou Lafan that’s worse than what she’s inflicted upon herself.”

“I could think of a thing or two.”

Leon shook his head slowly. “She thought she was seducing rich and powerful men, that she would enjoy all the opportunities and privileges that could be lavished upon her - perhaps even become queen.” He shrugged as if that was a matter of no consequence. “She thought they were an escape from a family that does nothing but heap debt and responsibility upon her. Now she has to nursemaid a pack of man-children who will be a constant burden. She’s in a hell of her own making.”

“How dare you!” Jilk exclaimed, attempting to leave the bed in his outrage. He still wasn’t up to it and slumped backwards with a groan of pain.

Clarice looked down at her former fiance and then, to the amazement of everyone, she chuckled. It was not a kind laugh, but at least she no longer seemed about to do murder. “Perhaps, Bartford, you might understand revenge better than I thought.” She shook her head and stepped up to him, well inside his personal space. “Do tell Angelica what I told him though. I take nothing back. My friends here will destroy Jilk if he races tomorrow - and I will be only marginally kinder to anyone that substitutes. Even if it’s you.”

Hertrude remained behind Leon until Clarice and all of her company had left the room. “I begin to understand why Holfort’s knights are so formidable,” she exclaimed, apparently so shaken she was actually willing to compliment her nation’s ancient foe. “If you must face women like that.”

“Lady Atlee is exceptional, but you may be onto something,” the dark-haired boy admitted.

Jilk rolled onto his back again. “Don’t ever speak of Marie like that again, Bartford. You know nothing about her!”

“What are you going to do? Bleed on me?” Leon was tempted to probe at Jilk and see how much he knew about Viscount Lafan’s household, and particularly the daughter that the greenette claimed to love. But a duel of wits with the unarmed was no great entertainment. “Worry more about what you’ll do next. You’ll be doing well to walk by tomorrow, much less race.”

“I’ll manage, somehow.”

“Yeah, right.” He shook his head. “If someone does take your place tomorrow, you’re going to owe them - big time.”

Jilk’s face was pale. “I hate to agree with a bastard like you… but for once I have little choice to admit that you’re right.”

Hertrude gave Leon a wary look as if expecting him to take offence.

The boy shrugged. “He’s technically right. There was a temporary irregularity regarding my mother’s marital status - we sorted it out eventually.”

“You were fifteen when they married!”

“Married is married, Marmoria.”

The philosophical discussion was cut short as another pack of visitors arrived, this squad less fond of Leon than Clarice’s clique. On the other hand, Julius and Marie seemed unlikely to be out to maim Jilk - and Leon would give the other three enough credit to think that they probably weren’t actively murderous towards their romantic rival.

“What is he doing here?” asked Greg Fou Seberg bluntly.

“He has a name,” Leon told him. “And you should be more polite with a princess in the room.”

Brad Fou Field seemed to realise only then that Hertrude was in the room, and pointedly moved around to be as far from her as he could manage within the confines of the medical room. She seemed happy enough about that since all four of the other boys were still in their waiter outfits.

“Whatever happened to you?” Marie exclaimed, “I heard that you fell from your airbike.”

“I didn’t fall off, Marie. I jumped clear before it crashed!”

Leon cleared his throat. “Before Marmoria digs himself even deeper, Lady Atlee has many friends among the airbikers. Apparently they decided to express their displeasure at his treatment of her by battering his bike during the race. It basically exploded after he got clear.”

Marie examined Jilk’s wounds, behaving more maturely than usual. “This is terrible, Jilk.”

“I’ll recover in time, Marie. After all, I have to win the race for you tomorrow.”

Hertrude shook her head. “Then they’ll likely kill you.”

“What?!” Julius exclaimed.

“Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” Leon warned them. “I’ve never met Fanoss’ legendary black knight, but I suspect even his wrath against Holfort pales compared to Clarice’s anger.”

“You, uh, may not be entirely wrong,” admitted the princess from next to him. “She was very clear that you, or whoever races tomorrow in your place will be targeted the same way.”

“I’ll go,” Julius declared, “I’m almost as good on an airbike as you are Jilk.”

“Absolutely not!” the prince’s foster-brother exclaimed, paling at the very thought. “You… you can’t leave Marie without your support at the cafe.” He gestured to his bandages. “I doubt I’ll be very appealing as a waiter right now.”

Julius froze, struck by one of the few arguments that might dissuade him. He looked at Marie, who clasped her hands together. “Please, I couldn’t bear to lose either of you!”

For once, Leon approved of the little blonde’s acting.

The girl stepped closer to Jilk. “Let me do what I can to help.” Placing her hands upon him, she focused and then a clear, bright light washed over the room.

Even standing well away, Leon felt a wave of relief as fatigue faded and the trivial aches and stiffness of the day were washed away. At the centre of the magic, Jilk’s pallor improved markedly and he seemed visibly stronger.

“Marie!” he exclaimed, reaching out and dragging her into an embrace.

The other boys rushed forwards to take their own moments with ‘their healing angel’, but Hertrude stepped back, letting go of Leon’s arm. After a moment, she stepped hastily for the exit and Leon had to stretch his legs to keep up.

Only when they were exiting of the racing building did the princess slow to a halt, resting one hand against a wall to steady herself. “Leon, did I see what I thought I did?”

He shrugged. “Lafan’s magic?”

“Light magic!” she exclaimed. “You know how rare that is. I had no idea… I - I’ve never encountered it before.”

Fanoss was considerably smaller than the sprawling Kingdom of Holfort, Leon reminded himself. And there weren’t many light magic users even there. It was one reason Olivia had been given unprecedented enrollment to the special class: it was unlikely there were a half-dozen light magic users as strong as Marie in all of Holfort, much less as powerful as the scholarship student. Undoubtedly, it was one reason that she had had a thought that she might be acceptable as a partner for one of the boys she’d seduced.

“It’s not common, even here.”

“Even in Fanoss, we respect adventurers. We were part of the kingdom once - as little as most of us like to remember it.” Hertrude sounded disorientated. “And we have our own temples, and revere light magic. So why, why is Holfort so gifted with it when we are not?”

Leon, genuinely surprised at her shock, found himself for once with nothing to say.


Angelica was surprised to see Leon bringing a distressed-looking Princess Hertrude over to her. One reason she’d agreed with Nicol’s suggestion to assign the count’s younger son as their guest’s primary escort was that he seemed to have some genuine rapport with the slender young woman.

“Is something the matter?” her own guest asked.

The blonde’s plans for the festival had been rather complicated when she was called to greet another royal visitor, this one planning to be incognito. But one did not argue with the queen - especially as, since her own mother’s loss years ago, Mylene Rafa Holfort had rather stepped into that role for Angelica.

“I assume so,” Angelica answered and went to meet the pair partway through a street of booths serving snack foods. The queen had delighted in shopping at each and everyone of them, even those that her guide would have thought unbefitting of royalty.

Perhaps that was why her highness insisted on not revealing her identity, she thought. Although the princess will see right through the disguise.

It was a very thin one, little more than Mylene setting aside her gowns and tiara for a dress more befitting a middling noblewoman. She did look younger and less burdened - although Angelica admitted that she might be imagining it. Not seeing her substitute-mother over the summer had been more of a disappointment than she’d realised. To see her again and receive acceptance rather than blame for the fact that she could no longer be Mylene’s daughter-in-law was a great relief.

“Is everything alright, Leon?”

“Sorry to interrupt you,” Leon greeted her. “Unfortunately, there’s been a little issue.” He glanced at the queen but to Angelica’s relief he didn’t seem to recognise her. “I didn’t know you had an older sister, Angelica.”

Angelica flushed and her relief evaporated. Fortunately, the queen merely smiled. “Ah, Angie, this must be one of the young men who fought for your honour. Lord… Bartford?”

“At your service, my lady. Though also at Lady Angelica’s and Princess Hertrude’s.” He paused. “I seem to be at the service of a lot of people.”

“That is rather the social order,” the queen pointed out.

Hertrude’s eyes widened, her distraction not quite enough to keep her from identifying Angelica’s companion.

“So what is the matter?” Angelica asked, drawing Leon’s attention away from the quiet hand signalling Mylene was resorting to, trying to communicate her intention to remain discreet.

Leon sighed, recounting a sordid tale of Clarice’s revenge against Jilk. “At least Lafan had the sense to not want his highness substituting - maybe not for the same reasons we have to avoid that, but I’ll take the result.”

Mylene looked livid. “I never thought I’d hear of something like this - the boy could have been killed!”

“I came very close to killing him last term, so I’d hardly weep for that,” Leon said harshly. “But he’s been disowned so we’d also need to handle his funeral and it would ruin the festival.”


Angelica reached out to take the queen’s hand. “Jilk threatened Leon’s family to try to force him to concede his duel,” she reminded the older woman. “I would find it hard to blame him for taking Clarice’s side.”

“...I’m sorry, Lord Bartford.” Mylene inclined her head. “I… I’ve known Jilk Fia Marmoria since he was a young boy, I still find it hard to reconcile that with what I’ve heard of the duel.”

“I don’t actually want any of them dead,” Leon conceded. “My temper got a little ahead of me there. It would be nice if they’d grow up a bit though. Or a lot.”

“I can only conclude that Lady Lafan brings out the worst in them. I’d hesitate to call her a bad influence when I haven’t met her, but…”

Hertrude looked distracted at the mention of Marie. Angelica wondered why - she wasn’t sure if they’d crossed paths much. Presumably they must have met since Leon mentioned Marie talking Julius out of taking over the racing for Jilk. At least Hertrude had no fiance for the little tramp to seduce away.

Angelica had not the slightest doubt that if the princess had been engaged then Marie would have made the attempt and she wasn’t willing to bet against her. The small blonde had a proven track record and it was unlikely she’d care about the political consequences.

“I’d better see what state Jilk is in,” she said tiredly. “Even if he’s recovered, he’s probably not going to be able to race tomorrow - I don’t know where he’d get an airbike. Whether we send someone else out, I don’t know yet.”

The queen nodded. “I’ve taken you away from your responsibilities, Angie. Please go ahead. I’ll be fine.”

Oh, of course. She could hardly accompany Angelica and expect her identity not to come out - Julius would recognise his own mother, if nothing else.

“Leon,” the young woman asked. “If I could be a bother and ask you to keep My… sister company while I’m busy?”

“I don’t usually object to having a fair flower on each arm, but I should ask Hertrude first.” The boy turned to the princess. “I realise this surely isn’t what you had in mind for the day…”

“Oh it’s quite alright.” Hertrude’s smile was a little sly - perhaps anticipating Leon’s expression once he realised who Mylene was. “I’m very happy to make the acquaintance of another lady of this kingdom.”

Leon extended his arm and Mylene took it with a warm smile. “Is there anything you’d like to do?” he asked.

“Oh,” the queen said - with a note in her voice that suggested to Angelica that the woman had a definite purpose in mind - “Do you have any idea where Lady Mary Hunt might be found? I did want to have a word with her if the opportunity arose…”
Star as the Substitute 5-3
Star as the Substitute

Tougher than diamonds, rich like cream
Stronger and harder than a bad girl's dream
~ Huey Lewis​

Chapter 3

Revenge is an act of passion; vengeance, of justice: injuries are revenged; crimes are avenged. ~ Samuel Johnson​

The academy wasn’t quite so ridiculous as to have its own dedicated playhouse (although Leon had no doubt that somewhere in the student council’s archives there would be a proposal to build one, if the funds could be found), but the main hall used for meetings of the entire student body could be re-arranged to provide a venue for various entertainments, with rooms behind the main stage that could support preparations for either student productions or professional actors and musicians.

Today it was the former getting ready, with servants (academy staff, not the students’ contract servants) cleaning chairs and making other preparations for the audience. Behind the scenes, rehearsals had officially ended but some of the student council members who would be acting were still pacing the stage, trying to memorise their lines and the marks they would have to hit.

“So this is what it’s like back here,” Mylene Rafa Holfort realised in delight.

Way to give away that you’re a foreigner, Leon thought as he escorted the queen of Holfort and princess of Fanoss backstage. If you were really Angelica’s sister, you’d have been a student here and you’d have certainly been back here at least once. How dumb do you think I am?

Every daughter of every noble family in Holfort was required to attend the academy in the special class, unlike the sons who didn’t have to - although there were strong reasons they should, not least to meet those daughters. The policy had the two-fold advantage of forcing feudal lords to pay the academy fees, while also accustoming the girls to a lifestyle that would cost their parents and later husbands even more money.

Then again, Leon was enough of an idiot to get stuck in this situation just because he’d dropped a flirtatious remark into conversation with Mylene. And she’d never actually claimed to be Angelica’s sister, just not disabused him of his ‘mistake’. So maybe he was that stupid.

On the other hand, the envious looks he got from some of the other boys were absolutely worth it. Princess Hertrude was a rather pretty woman if you liked the slender type with hime-cut haircuts - and Queen Mylene was a bombshell, despite being old enough to be Leon’s mother. Seriously, he had no idea why Julius didn’t have a dozen siblings rather than just two half-siblings.

“I don’t see Lady Hunt,” he said out loud as he looked around. “But I see someone who should know where she is. Alan!”

The boy in question barely looked up from the piano, where he was scribbling adjustments to a musical score. “What do you want, Leon? I need to get this ready before Violette turns up for practice.”

“Someone’s looking for your fiancee, do you know where she is?”

“We’re not attached at the hip… have you tried costuming? I think they’re doing final fittings for some of the girls.”


Alan gave him a distracted wave, already busy erasing another charcoal-marked note on the score to replace it with another notation.

“Is that Prince Alan?” Mylene asked. “I’d heard he was… in ill-health?”

Hertrude smirked. “If that’s ill-health, I’d love to see the healthier version.”

They had a point, Leon mused. The student council wasn’t exactly short of good looking young men and women, but Alan was definitely the designated brooding bad-boy of the group. There had been an unusual rush of interest in music lessons this year, once some of the female students realised that Prince Alan would be enrolled for every class offered in the subject.

Costuming was further back from the stage, and Leon trod a little more carefully - aware that some of the students here might not consider themselves to be presentable. Finally he tapped gingerly on one door. “Excuse me? Visitor for Lady Hunt?”

There was rustling from inside and then a familiar voice answered: “I’ll be right out.”

True to the offer, it was only a minute or so before the door opened but Mary wasn’t the first brunette to exit. Katarina was first, trailed by Keith who was still trying to get his sister to wipe her face clean as the enthusiastic young woman waved to Leon and headed off chattering about the stalls she had yet to visit.

Mary followed a moment later, delicately wiping her own lips. Clearly she’d been snacking rather than actually getting fitted for anything. “Good afternoon, Leon?” she greeted him. “You said something about a… visitor?” Only the slight pause gave away that she recognised the taller woman accompanying him.

Mylene smiled somewhat coldly. “Yes, Lady Hunt. I understand that you were wagering on Lady Katarina Rafa Claes' duel a few months ago?”

Now how had she learned that? Mary having done well wasn’t impossible to guess, but she could have been betting on Leon not on Katarina.

“Yes, I wagered on all of Lady Angelica’s champions,” Mary admitted carefully. Which was to say that she’d bet against Mylene’s sons and all his friends.

The queen leaned forwards. “That’s somewhat concerning, as I also understand that you had a conversation with Lord Arclight, before he duelled Lady Claes. A conversation in which certain threats may have been made.”

“Ah, I did speak to him.” The girl kept her cool, mostly. “However, I was addressing concerns other than who would win his duel. I wasn’t making any attempt to influence the outcome.”

“Since you say that, I must accept it as true, Lady Hunt. But reputations are built… or destroyed… on perceptions. And if suspicions are circulating that you might have taken the opportunity to apply pressure to someone before taking advantage in the gambling halls…” Mylene shook her head. “You may be unaware of how damaging such a reputation can be.”

Hertrude covered her mouth, but this didn’t hide a smirk from Leon. “I hadn’t heard of this. My goodness, it could be quite an embarrassment if it were taken the wrong way!”

Mary very nearly shot the princess a nasty look but plastered a smile onto her face. “Fortunately, we all know that I would never risk causing Lady Katarina any shame by behaving improperly in any way that could reflect on her.”

“That’s my future sister-in-law,” a familiar voice declared. “Always looking out for her future sister-in-law.” Duke Jeffrey Rafa Stuart emerged from a dusty corridor. “You see, Ian? I told you that this would get us inside.”

“I never said that it wouldn’t,” the man behind him said flatly. “Just that it was not a good idea.” His white suit bore the evidence that the back-corridor used for access wasn’t being regularly cleaned. Leon made a mental note to mention it to Nicol.

Both the men had ladies on their arms: Jeffrey was, of course, escorting his wife; while Ian had a delicate looking lady with light brown hair at his own side.

“Duke Jeffrey.” Mylene turned to face the new arrival. “I rather thought that you might be on Stuart and miss this year’s festival.”

“I made a special trip to attend,” the duke declared proudly. “I couldn’t possibly miss my lovely youngest brothers’ first academy festival!”

“I don’t suppose you could.” Mylene exchanged a token embrace with Suzanna, and then with the other lady. “Selena, Ian. I hope your wedding preparations are going well.”

Leon caught Hertrude’s eye and nodded towards the duke. “That’s the healthier model,” he told her drily. Alan’s eldest brother looked much like him, with similar hair but brighter eyes to go with his more ebullient demeanour.

“Ah! Lord Bartford!” Jeffrey noticed them and smiled broadly. “Speaking of weddings, I see you captured two more beauties in your orbit! Which of them are you planning to wed? You could have a joint ceremony with my brother!”

Mylene blushed and Hertrude looked away, only her ears reddening in betrayal of embarrassment.

Selena gasped. “Oh my.”

Leon smiled roguishly and took the two ladies’ arms again. “It’s a tough decision,” he admitted. “On one arm,” he raised Hertrude’s slightly, “I have treason - and on the other,” (this time indicating Mylene) “High treason. Alas I may have to choose between losing my head or having my heart broken.”

The young man didn’t actually think Roland would give him the chop if Mylene strayed from the wedding bed with Leon - that would require the king to care about his queen at all - but it wouldn’t look good. And getting seduced by a foreign princess would be a deadly trap that could destroy his entire family. Treason was not a word he’d used lightly.

“I-I-I... “ Mylene stammered, giving Leon a startled look. “W-we can’t. I am married, Lord Bartford.”

He rested one hand over his heart. “And thus our romance can never be. Our honour must ever be at odds with our hearts.”

“Oh…” She shook her head, still flushed. “I-I’m flattered, but I am too old for you.”

“Lord Bartford,” Selena managed to say, her own face reddening. “Y-you’re talking to the queen and to a princess.”

“And you knew it,” Hertrude murmured in understanding, shooting Leon a disappointed look.

“I did, but that doesn’t mean Duke Jeffrey was wrong to say that you’re both beauties. Love cares not for mere politics,” he told her. “Isn’t that the example Prince Julius has set?”

“I-I-I…” Mylene sat down rather heavily on a trunk of costumes. “Lady Hunt,” she petitioned in a small voice. “Is there anywhere I can get a cup of tea? I was not prepared for this.”


Angelica’s sitting room was quiet after Leon repeated Clarice’s threats for her.

Gerald and Alan were both sitting on a couch, having been asked to join the duke’s daughter for advice. She seemed understandably hesitant about making a decision regarding the next day’s races, Leon thought. After all, her choice could lead to someone’s injury or death - and unlike the duels, she wasn’t making the decision in the heat of anger.

“Do you think she’s serious?” Alan asked him after a moment.

“She’s very angry,” Leon admitted. He looked over at Angelica. “I don’t mean to dismiss your own pains, Lady Redgrave, but I think Lady Atlee is taking the rejection worst out of all four fiancees affected by Lady Lafan’s concurrent affairs.” He paused. “Admittedly, I have no idea how Cassandra Olfrey felt about her own engagement being ended, but that’s another matter.”

The musician made a face. “Sophia’s not wrong to be frightened by her cousin.”

Gerald leant back in thought. “There aren’t many first years who can race well enough to compete with older and more experienced riders. Jilk’s already injured and Julius getting battered or worse would be a disaster.”

“I’m glad you agree.” Angelica folded her hands before her. “The next best riders we have would be the two of you. I don’t believe Lord Ascart would appreciate my asking either of you to participate though… even before we consider this threat.”

Alan nodded. He was leading the musicians for the play and Gerald was one of the actors. Having them worn out from a race would be bad; having them hospitalised would risk the cancellation of the much-anticipated play. There weren’t many available substitutes for Gerald’s role and no one else on the student council could come close to replacing Alan on the piano. “So withdraw the class?”

“Even that has its problems,” his twin mused. “Lady Redgrave would have the embarrassment of having yielded to a threat. I’m not really concerned about Marmoria’s reputation at this point, he trashed that thoroughly during his duel with you, Lord Bartford.”

Despite all his denials, Leon thought happily. “However,” he said seriously. “We’re not just looking at one race. Clarice won’t be satisfied with Jilk being further humiliated, she’ll go on from this and want to do more. If this doesn’t hurt him enough - and I believe nothing can hurt him enough to salve her heart, not even his death - then she’ll do something more.”

Angelica looked away. “And she’s willing to see others hurt in the doing. My reputation’s poor enough - but she’s also endangered other racers today and if she does the same tomorrow then whoever races might not be the only casualty.”

“Do you have any clever ideas?” Alan looked at Angelica, then his brother… and when neither of them met his eyes, he looked up at Leon. “I know you can’t race, Leon, but you get people’s feelings better than most of us.”

“That’s not quite true,” he admitted. It was best to be honest about that - it might come up again some day. “I can’t ride the school’s airbikes for lessons, but it’s the same as with knight-armours. I can use one if it’s set-up right for me, and I have one of my own.”

“Any good?” Gerald asked with a competitive look in his eyes.

“I wouldn’t suggest betting on me if I were to race tomorrow,” Leon admitted. “Not to win, anyway.” Maybe if Luxion was doing the actual piloting, calculating the most efficient flight path, but Leon didn’t have quite Jilk’s natural brilliance or half as much practice.

“I’d be more worried about people betting against your survival,” Alan told him. “Unless you think Clarice would pull punches because it was you out there.”

“Truthfully, I doubt she likes me as much as she hates Jilk. And she’s a woman of her word.” And even with Luxion altering its profile with reinforced armour plating, the airbike’s still the same one I used in Fanoss. But…

“Then you racing wouldn’t change anything.”

Leon shrugged. “Maybe not, Angelica. But at least we can see this one coming and it’s just possible we can convince her to end it here.”

“How?” asked Gerald.

Leon spread his hands. “I see two possibilities and they’re not mutually exclusive. How much do you know about how Jilk’s engagement was ended?”

“Count Atlee wrote to Viscount Marmoria, right?” asked Alan.

“Yes. Greg told Scarlet to her face. Julius at least spoke to you after the duels,” he continued, looking at Angelica. “Chris snubbed Violette to her face.”

“The bastard,” Alan muttered.

“My point is, however detestable their conduct, those three all at least faced their fiancees. Has Jilk ever directly spoken to Clarice about their engagement or his feelings?”

Gerald tilted his head. “Not that I know of… Angelica?”

The girl also considered it. “I don’t think so… not that I recall anyway. And it would be somewhat out of character for him. He always keeps his cards close to his chest.”

Leon nodded. “I told him in the medical room that if anyone raced on his behalf he would owe them. If we can get him to actually look her in the eye and tell her why he’s rejecting her, it might give her something else to focus on. Not to forgive him, but at least that she’s getting some sort of resolution out of him.”

“He’d have to be pushed,” Angelica admitted.

“That, I could do.” Gerald leaned forwards, “If we tell him that you were going out as an alternative to Julius then he’d have to. Whatever else he feels for you, Marmoria was raised around Julius and it’s been drummed into him since he was a child that he has to protect the prince. That’s a debt even he can’t refuse.”

“You’re serious about trying this?” asked Alan. “I mean, I’m not kidding, Leon. Word is already getting around. The bookies are offering odds on whether Jilk will be back, who might cover for him… and if he’ll survive if he does race tomorrow. If you’re out there, they’ll be betting on your life.”

“Are they?” Leon nodded in satisfaction. “Good. That’s ideal.”

“What do you mean?!” Angelica exclaimed. “I won’t approve of sending you out to get killed!”

Leon smiled. “And I don’t believe Clarice really wants anyone else to die. She’s blinded by her rage, but I’m betting that she’s not really considering what it would mean if her own friends or even innocent bystanders got hurt.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I’m saying rub her face in that. Make sure she knows about all those bets. In fact, play it up. Set people around her chattering about bets not just on whether I’ll die, but how many people will die in the race. Or whatever else you can think of, the more bloody the better. And leave her wondering what she’s unleashed on everyone around her. If her revenge is really worth sending her people to their deaths?”

Angelica paled. “That… that could work, Leon. Clarice’s followers are so loyal because she’s always cared for them closely. More closely than I ever did, really. But talk alone won’t be enough. She’ll have to see it in front of her, are you saying you’ll…?”

“My airbike is armoured for war,” Leon told her flatly. “I won’t win the race on it, but I have a pretty good chance of finishing it. And anyone who tries to ram me will be biting off more than they can chew. I’m not planning to kill anyone, but if her friends come after me then a lot of them won’t reach the endline.”

“That’s playing with fire,” Alan warned. “You can’t be sure you won’t kill someone.”

“I know.” Leon agreed. “We can play this safe this time… but I have no idea what Clarice might do next. And that scares me. I’m sorry to put this onto you, Angelica, but in the end it’s your decision. Do we try to finish this now? Or take our chances on whatever her next plan is?”


Leon’s airbike had been repainted after Luxion had been done with his modifications. The previous dull blue that had blended into the night sky was now a rich crimson. He ran one hand along it. “Do red ones go faster, Luxion?”

“No, master. Your top speed will be at least five percent less than that of the slowest racer in yesterday’s race,” the AI reported grumpily. “This much protection comes at a cost.”

“I figured as much.” He tapped the hull of the airbike, which seemed suitably sturdy. “It’s streamlined, at least.” And visibly bulkier than the airbikes around him as the racers formed up to begin.

“It’s not too late to quit,” one of the racers warned Leon, moving his own airbike up next to the dark-haired youth and blocking another boy.

Leon recognised him from the day before as one of the students who’d been with Clarice when visiting Jilk. “It isn’t, but I’m not going to.”

“Our lady has nothing against you, Bartford.”

“So what you’re saying is, I might have a chance?”

The older boy shook his head. “She repeated her orders when she heard you were going to replace Marmoria today. He doesn’t get to hide behind anyone without consequence. You know that you getting hurt taking his place will make him look even worse. You in particular, I mean.”

“Because of what he said in the duel.”

“Exactly. You’re not doing him a favour.”

Leon pulled his helmet on. It was another Luxion special - it might look like those of the other riders, but this wouldn’t crack no matter what they did. Which wouldn’t necessarily keep him from a concussion or snapping his fool neck, but it was a start. “I’m gonna be honest, you’re not doing Lady Atlee a favour enabling her like this.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about.” The other boy straddled his own airbike and reached for his own helmet, eyes distant. “She poured her heart into trying to be perfect for him, and he treated her like dirt. He didn’t even have the guts to tell her he didn’t return her feelings!”

“I figured that much.” Finished with the chinstrap, Leon mounted up. “But she still hasn’t let go. And that’s hurting her even worse. I’m not saying it isn’t his fault, but she’s still chasing after his attention. In that respect, nothing has changed.”

Flags went up and two dozen racers began to rev their airbikes’ engines. It became almost impossible to hear each other, but Clarice’s friend gave one last warning: “You’ve never raced before, I hear? This is going to be one hell of a first race for you. Good luck.”

Leon gripped the handlebars and made sure his legs were inside the subtly curved fairings that would protect them from the wind and from side-swipes - as long as they didn’t come from above him. “Same to you.” He wasn’t sure his neighbour heard him though.

And then the flags came down and every rider opened their throttles and released their brakes. The airbike beneath Leon bolted forwards furiously. It was all he could do to keep it straight as it gained altitude and speed. And his bike had a power to weight ratio that fell far short of the others.

By the time he had his head in the race and was reaching the first curve, Leon was near the back of the pack. He might have been at the very back, if it wasn’t for a couple of riders that were pretty deliberately holding back to stay level with him.

“Come on, Bartford,” one of them called over the rush of the wind. “We’ll make it easy for you.”

“Very sporting,” he agreed as the two of them flanked him, obviously planning to pincer him between the pair of them.

Leon waited until they were close and then yanked his bike hard to the right, smashing its tail against the forward steering of the airbike on that side. Metal crushed under the impact and the other bike got the worst of it, although it didn’t do Leon’s paint job any favours.

“You prick!” the rider cried out, trying to compensate for the damage.

“Like you wouldn’t do it to me!” Leon shouted and barged further across, forcing the other rider to veer further off course to avoid him. The other airbike slowed and dropped, but Leon kicked the nose of his airbike up and the tail down right as he was above the front of the other rider.

“Oh shi-!”

There was no crunch, but the airbike vanished from sight and after the next turn, Leon was able to glance sideways and saw that it had landed, the clearly shaken rider having rolled off it to sit next to it.

“No more Mr. Nice Guy,” the victim’s partner snarled and opened his throttle to come up side by side with Leon. He waited for the next corner before pulling up a little further and swinging over to catch Leon’s side with the edge of his airbike.

Leon rolled his airbike up, shielding himself with the faring. The two airbikes smashed into each other and bounced away again. The younger boy’s heavier bike absorbed the hit but the attacker’s shed parts of its own underside. Nothing critical.


“Go soak your head!”

The stands were ahead of them again as they came towards the end of their first lap. Leon deliberately pulled up to fly level with the lounge windows, from which Clarice would see them. He hunched over, watching the small screen inside his helmet that gave him a rear view.

Slowed by the collision, the other rider used his airbike’s greater power to surge up, trying to overtake Leon in the side of the stands.

“Take the loss!” the boy shouted and reached out, snagging hold of Leon’s elbow as he raced past.

With his rear view, Leon had just enough time to react. He twisted his leg out of the airbike’s protective faring and kicked out.

The other rider’s grip wasn’t good enough to tear Leon from his seat before the booted foot smashed into his hip. He had no choice but to release his hold as he was hurled from his own saddle. Leon rode on, seeing the boy crash into the magical barrier over the stands below him.

Between his own magical reinforcement and the fact that the barrier was intended to absorb impacts gradually to make any collision survivable, the other rider should be okay.

The abandoned airbike flipped several times in the air and came down hard just beyond the stands. Smoke rose from what was probably some rather expensive wreckage.

Leon was able to catch his breath as he pushed into the second lap. No one was particularly near him, the main pack of the racer had left him behind. The airbike had come through the encounters fairly well and while he wasn’t as fast as the other racers, that just meant that he could probably avoid contact with most of them.

“Master, why are you slowing down?” Luxion queried.

“It’s called the lame duck,” Leon told the AI as he practically idled the airbike. He was still moving fast, but it would be entirely believable that the airbike might be flying less well than it had at the start of the race - he’d had a collision and another very nasty encounter. Bleeding off space, he kept one eye on the stands ahead and the other on the view behind him as the leaders in the race approached, coming up on the point where they’d lap him. “I’m not trying to win the race, remember?”

The airbikes rushed towards him and to their credit, most of the leaders made a point of avoiding him. Leon returned the favour and let them get past, but one black airbike marked by a green go-faster stripe fell in behind him and closed in to butt at the rear of his airbike.

“Our next volunteer,” Leon muttered, and cranked the airbike’s throttle open again, pulling ahead. Following the ancient wisdom that if you flee, someone will chase you, the other rider kept tailgating him, bumping him again and again.

Genuinely unable to go faster than his harasser, Leon let another couple of airbikes get past him; but when another decided to join in the fun, he had enough and slammed his airbrakes on right as the airbike tried for another bump. He didn’t shed enough speed to fall far behind but it was enough for the collision to be much harder than the other racer had expected.

The black and green airbike cartwheeled, flinging its rider off the back.

Seeing the other boy flailing as he tumbled past, Leon leant over and seized him, his own airbike heeling over as the weight dragged it to one side. Bleeding speed and altitude, Leon fought the forces trying to pull him into a roll, eventually getting low enough that he could drop the rider into an ornamental pond they were flying over.

Without the extra weight, his airbike stabilised and - arm aching from the strain - Leon flew back up into the race. The rest of the leaders had gone past during the excitement but now he was being lapped by the middle of the pack and the racers spread out, surrounding him.

“You should have quit while you were ahead,” Luxion warned.

“Hell, I’ve never been ahead this whole race.” Leon gritted his teeth and then there was no time to talk and little for talk as the riders closed in opportunistically. All he could do was twist and turn from one collision after another. His bike battered through where it struck the other airbikes but Leon himself was more fragile. An elbow hit the side of his helmet, snapping his head to one side.

A moment later a sideswipe caught his already pained left arm. It was just a glancing hit, but Leon flinched and showing weakness was only encouraging them.

“Alright,” he snarled. “Play it that way.”

Throwing the airbike aggressively back against the others, he streaked around past the stands once more, using his heavy airbike to hammer anyone who came close enough. It slowed him further, but they weren’t trying to get ahead of him, they were focused on knocking him out of the sky. Leon was barely aware of racers going past them as those not involved in the feud went around them.

A particularly savage collision rocked Leon but sent another airbike away trailing smoke, the rider heading for the ground as fast as he safely dared.

Standing up in the saddle, Leon smashed his foot down on the hand of another rider as they steered, sending the unlucky boy skidding away to collide with another of the pack. Both airbikes fell behind, locked together and unable to manoeuvre.

Another bike closed in from the right, and Leon recognised it as the same one ridden by the boy who’d tried to warn him off at the start of the race.

Through the older boy’s helmet, he saw an apologetic look, but then the boy swung his bike in, angling up to catch Leon above the faring.

Leon threw his leg up to avoid the collision, and as they crashed against each other, the already abused faring snapped and hung up on the side of his rival.

Heaving himself back upright, Leon switched his right hand from his own controls to the leftmost handlebar of the other airbike and smacked the other rider’s hand away. Taking hold of the throttle, he cut it back a notch, fine-tuning it against his own airbike so the two of them didn’t go into a spin with the mismatched engines.

“Are you nuts?” the other boy called, seizing Leon’s own right handlebar.

“You want to finish the race or not?”

“This is insane!” But the older student steadied the two bikes and leant with Leon as they steered the locked-together airbikes through the next turn. And through the visor, he saw that the boy was grinning.

Figures, no one would get into a race like this unless they were a bit of an adrenaline junkie, he thought.

No one else tried to crash against Leon - half of Clarice’s followers were out of the race and perhaps none of the others wanted to risk one of their own. The balky, unbalanced pair of airbikes were trouble enough to handle so that was probably for the best.

After an interminable struggle, the pair of them crossed the finish line. Behind everyone else, but the crowd roared for them anyway.

Landing the two airbikes, the two dismounted, looked at each other and then Leon started to laugh. It must have been contagious because his co-rider also laughed.

When that fit had left them, Leon looked around and saw that Clarice’s followers were surrounding them - those that had finished the race and those that hadn’t.

Some of them looked angry, others not so much. It didn’t exactly match up to those Leon had forced out of the race - although some of them looked as battered as he felt.

He looked around at them and then perched himself on the back of his airbike, trying not to look threatened. “I’m not going to ask if you think brawling right in front of half the students would be smart,” he told them. “I get that you’re devoted to Lady Atlee. But really, at this point what would that do for her?”

The lady herself arrived at that point, breathless (and chest heaving in a way Leon appreciated). She must have run down from the stands.

“What are you doing?” she demanded. “Half of you are hurt!”

“Lady Clarice.” The boy who’d ridden with Leon bowed his head to her. “You’ve done so much for us, if this makes you happy…”

She looked at him. Looked around, seeing the bruises and limps. Saw their pride and their loyalty.

Then she looked at Leon, and he saw shame in her eyes. “They’re worthy men,” he told them. “Worth more than Jilk. And if they believe in you this much, Clarice, maybe you can believe in their goddess of victory. Just a little?”

Clarice stared at him. “I don’t forgive him.”

“I don’t expect you to.” He pushed himself off the airbike and stood up again. “But I think I speak for everyone here, that we think you should forgive yourself. There’s someone you need to talk to. And maybe, just maybe, someone who’ll finally be willing to talk to you.”
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Star as the Substitute 5-4
Star as the Substitute

Tougher than diamonds, rich like cream
Stronger and harder than a bad girl's dream
~ Huey Lewis​

Chapter 4

A man that studieth revenge keeps his own wounds green, which otherwise would heal and do well. ~ Francis Bacon​

Jilk wasn’t in the medical wing still - Marie’s healing had been sufficient that he’d been cleared to walk again so he was back in his own room. His family connections had clearly paid off - it was better than those provided for most of the viscount’s heirs, and the academy hadn’t re-housed him despite his disowned status. On the other hand, it certainly wasn’t on the level of the suites provided for Julius or for the scions of ducal houses.

Leon pushed open the door, still in his riding gear. The adrenaline had worn off and he was really feeling his arm. “So, Marmoria.”

“Bartford?” The boy looked up from the chair he’d been sitting in. “My god!”

“I’m not your god. Though I appreciate the compliment. But you do owe me a favour.”

“I was afraid I’d be repaying it to a coffin. What were you thinking?”

Leon shook his head. “You don’t get that, Marmoria. We don’t have time for me to break it down into small enough words. What matters is that you owe me.”

“Fine, fine! Sit down,” the green-haired boy demanded. “You look like you’re going to fall over.”

“No, you misunderstand me.” Leon raised his hand. “You owe me and I’m calling that marker in. Right now.”

Jilk paused. “Alright. What do you want?”

Leon stepped aside and waved sweepingly for Clarice to go past him. Jilk went pale at the sight of her (which didn’t go well with his hair) and then looked away. “Stop that,” Leon snapped.

“Stop what?”

“Stop hiding from her, you idiot!”

“I came along, Bartford.” Clarice looked irritated at that admission. “But what do you expect from him?”

The dark haired boy pointed at his classmate. “Stop running away from her. Man up and tell her how you feel. Even Greg could do that!”

Jilk stared at him hatefully and then twitched his head towards the door. “If that’s what you want, Bartford. I guess that I have no choice. But I can at least do without your insufferable need to make smart remarks.”

Leon smirked. “Sure. I’ll be right outside.”

He left the room, closed the door and leant heavily against the wall.

“Master, you closed the door before my drone could leave,” Luxion complained via Leon’s earbud.

“Good, I didn’t promise them privacy. Pipe through what they’re saying.”

The AI went one up on that and Leon investigated a flicker of light in his helmet, finding a video feed from the drone’s camera.

Jilk seemed to be struggling with words. “I am truly sorry,” he managed at last.

“What does that mean? Sorry you dumped me without a word? Sorry you’ve ignored me almost from the day you came to the academy? Sorry that you chose that little…” Clarice cut off. “Her.”

“No.” The boy looked up at her from where he sat. “I’m not sorry I chose Marie. I love her, that’s just the facts of the matter. I’m sorry though, that I hurt you.”

“That you hurt me? Then why did you keep hurting me!”

Outside, Leon winced. He’d heard that through the door, quite jarring since it amplified what he was hearing through the earbud.

“At first I avoided you because… I didn’t want to lie to you. I thought I would have to pretend that I still… that I was still planning to go ahead with our marriage. That I wasn’t serious about Marie, even though I am. And then, because I thought being honest with you would hurt you.” The boy paused, looked away. “And because hurting you like that would hurt me as well. I guess… I was at least right about that part.”

“Are you fucking kidding me?” Clarice’s voice stung Leon’s ear.

“Just Jilk’s voice, please,” he asked Luxion. “At least until she calms down a little.”

“They say that eavesdroppers hear what they deserve, master.”

“You’re always like this!” the girl continued. “You never once tried telling me about your feelings. Even before this year, when did you ever confide in me? I gave and gave, but was there ever once you tried to trust me?”

On the video, Jilk lowered his head. “I think… perhaps I did not. I do not. Maybe it’s a flaw in me, but that’s how it is. And now... “ He shrugged. “I’m no good for you, Clarice. I’m no one’s heir any more, even if I turned my back on Marie - and I will never do that - but even in that case, all I would do is drag you down. So when summer came, when father threw me out… I figured that I should cut all our ties. Just, avoid you. Let you move on.”

“You liar.” Her voice was venomous, still audible through the door, but at least she wasn’t screaming any more. “You mean you ran away.”


“You’re a coward, Jilk. You’re not… you’ve never been who I thought you were. I hope for the sake of that… of Lafan, that she’s taking you on out of pity and not because she thinks there’s anything to you.”

The boy looked up. “She accepts me as I am, Clarice. That might be why I couldn’t make it work with you. I wasn’t the man you wanted to be. And however much you tried to make me into him…” Then he shook his head. “It’s better this way. Maybe you can find someone worthy of you.”

“And that’s it, that’s what you have to say?”

Jilk pulled himself out of his chair. “Yes. I don’t know if it’s what Bartford expected or wanted, but he asked me to tell you my feelings… so there they are.

“My god.” Clarice’s voice fell, Luxion bringing her words back through the ear bud. “What a fool I am. I’ve wasted months… no, I’ve wasted years pining after you and only then came hating you. But he was right, he was right all along. You were never worth my time.”

The girl looked down at herself. “Jilk Fia Marmoria. You’re scum, and you’re a fool. I don’t forgive you - I may never forgive you. But… for saying what you did, just now. For at least having the tiny shred of decency to honour Lord Bartford’s request… for that, I thank you. And perhaps in the future I might even be able to forget about you. Right now, I think that would be the closest thing to mercy you’ll ever have on me.”

She turned and headed for the door, yanking it open. A second after she was out, the girl slammed it shut again.

“Master,” Luxion complained. “I’m still stuck in here.”

Clarice looked at Leon, who stayed leaning on the wall. “How much of that did you hear?” She looked… tired.

“Most of it.” He gave her a rueful grin. “I wanted him to talk, my being there was in the way. If he’s too stupid to realise it made no difference...”

“He’s definitely stupid.” The girl took his arm and Leon forced himself to escort her properly. Never show weakness. “I owe you… well, I owe a lot of people apologies. You could easily have been killed today, all because I couldn’t let go of hating him. There were people actually betting that you would… that I would get you killed.”

“I know.”

Clarice gave him a look. “That simple?”

Leon returned her look with a crooked smile. “It was stupid of me to get in the race, but I figured doing so was worth it. I have few illusions when it comes to our classmates - but to be fair, that does mean that when they do surprise me it’s in a good way.”

“I certainly lived down to your expectations.” She plucked at her blouse, and then, self-consciously buttoned it up. “I thought… no, I just felt that everything I’d ever done had got me nothing. Why not be the bad girl when being good was unrewarded?”

“I figured it was something like that.”

“What stage of grief would you call it?”

He had to think about that one. “I would say… maybe depression. You didn’t believe in the values you’d lived by any more. It’s not a hard and fast rule - you were certainly still angry.”

“Oh yes. I still am. Does that ever go away?” she asked him.

“I don’t know. I’ve never been treated by anyone the way Jilk treated you,” he admitted. “To be fair, I’ve never been in a relationship like that.

“Ah. Well, I don’t recommend the experience of being dumped.” The redhead ran her finger around her choker. “I kind of… like this.”

“It suits you,” Leon told her.

“Maybe I’ll keep it then.” She gave him a thoughtful look. “You thought risking your life in the race was worth it. You obviously don’t like Jilk, why go that far for him?”

“What makes you think that I was doing any of this for him?” The boy winced as he brushed his arm against the bannister of the stair they were descending. “I wasn’t the only one at risk - actually, given how tough my airbike is, I was likely at less risk than your friends were. Or some of the racers that were just in the middle of this.”

“That makes more sense,” Clarice admitted, looking ashamed again.

Leon paused at the foot of the stairs. “And besides that, I figured that if I could help you move past Jilk you might be happier.”

“How chivalrous,” she said with a little laugh.

“It’s an old-fashioned notion.”

Clarice stopped him and leaned in, kissing him on the cheek. “There’s something to be said for old-fashioned values.”

“But seriously.” Leon tried not to blush. “You’re a really impressive woman, Clarice. Wasting yourself on Jilk is, well, a waste. And demanding revenge on him is just as much of a waste as trying to win his twisty little heart.”

“Is that why you didn’t think Angelica should take revenge on Julius?” she asked.

“Fuck that guy.”

She gave him an amused look. “I don’t think that that’s a good idea.”

“No, I meant… figuratively.” Now he was flushing, he was sure of it. “I’m not suggesting that you do that literally.”

“This is what has you blushing?” Clarice asked him. She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek again. “Or is this throwing you off?”

“I’m not complaining,” Leon said a bit gruffly.

“That isn’t what I asked.” She leant on him a little as they walked and when he glanced at her, she looked sapped of energy.

“Contrary to what some people think, I’m not actually an expert on romance when it comes to myself.”

“I’m glad I didn’t know that before I took your advice.” She actually sounded sleepy.

“Clarice, how did you sleep last night?”

“I…” Now it was her turn to flush. “I didn’t actually sleep much.”

Right, he had a pretty good idea she’d been in bed though. But that wasn’t the issue. “And when did you last eat? An actual meal, I mean. Not something from a stall.”

“Are you really going to be a mother-hen me?”

“I’ll have you know I’m a father-hen.”

“That’s a cock,” the girl pointed out.

“I prefer rooster,” Leon dodged. “And the fact you haven’t answered about eating… don’t you have a play tonight?”

“...oh.” Clarice halted and then rubbed her face with both hands. “I’d actually forgotten about that.”

“And unless I miss my guess, you’ve been running on anger more than food and sleep for at least a couple of days?” He shook his head. “Look, let’s at least get some food inside you.”

“Are you asking me to dinner? I mean, like a date?”

“If my spare arm wasn’t complaining about my disrespecting it during the race, I’d offer to princess-carry you to the dining hall and hand-feed you.”

“That’s a little more forward than I’d expect from you.” Clarice looked around. “I’m not really up to the dining hall, but there has to be a stall around here that has something substantial.”

“It seems like a reasonable theory.” Leon joined her in checking the stalls. He didn’t see anything he’d consider a meal, but he did see an expert. “Lady Claes, may I call on your expertise for a moment?”

“My expertise?” The brunette looked a bit baffled at the idea as she turned around to greet them. “Oh, hello Leon. Are you alright, Clarice?”

“This lout mentioned food, and now I’m starving,” the redhead declared.

“That’s right, blame me; not you missing breakfast,” he told her. “Are there any stalls that you’d recommend for something reasonably substantial? More than tea and cookies.”

“Oh. Oh!” Katarina exclaimed, “Well, there’s a lovely sandwich stall - and Olivia is selling some cakes made with vegetables from my garden.”

“I’m sorry, vegetables from what garden?”

The younger girl blinked innocently. “Oh, I’ve been growing them on my garden plot. It’s very educational, preparing me so I can become a farmer!”

“Why would you…” Clarice broke off as her stomach rumbled.

Katarina gasped. “It’s an emergency.” She lifted a small paper bag she was carrying. “Here, take this!”

“Uh…” The second year accepted the bag, opened it and found a napkin wrapped slice of fruit pie. She hesitated, sniffed at the pie and then took a bite… and then more, wolfing it down with very little in the way of manners.

Leon shook his head in amusement. “Where’s that sandwich stall, please? I think we’d better go there before Clarice gnaws my arm off.”

“I’m not -” The redhead wiped her lips with the napkin. “- that bad.” Her stomach rumbled again though - clearly not sated.

“You say that,” he warned. Somehow he didn’t think she’d make it to the play. Once her stomach was full, he’d be surprised if Clarice could stave off a food coma. “But something tells me that we’d better play it safe.”

Katarina provided directions to the stall. “And you only have to go a little further to find Olivia’s stall.”

“If the pie came from there, then I’ll definitely go there,” the older girl promised. “Thank you for sharing yours with me.”

The brunette shook her head. “Don’t worry about it. Eating is important, you need to look after yourself.”

“Leon’s been telling me much the same.”

At the stall, Leon bought an entire platter of the sandwiches. They were relatively dainty attempts, the crusts cut away and not exactly heaped with fillings - but it was better than most of the alternatives and Clarice seemed satisfied with the selection. “You can’t possibly expect me to eat all of these, though.”

“I’ve also not had my lunch yet,” he pointed out.

“Ah, I see. Well at least let me get the drinks.”

With cups of tea in front of them, the pair commandeered one of the tables that had been set out for use by guests and dug in. For all of Clarice’s protests, she daintily nibbled her way through the vast majority of the sandwiches Leon had bought, while he only ate four.

“Do you have an understudy for your part?” he asked.

Clarice blinked. “Yes? I mean, Lord Ascart is very thorough. Everyone has one. We just met her, in fact.”

Leon arched an eyebrow. “Lady Claes?”

“Mmm.” She hid a yawn. “Oh dear, mother would be shocked. More shocked.” Then she looked up sharply. “I can’t just drop out, Leon!”

“You can’t? I thought that that was the point of an understudy.”

“Yes, but I’m playing the evil countess. Even if Katarina’s studied the lines, you think little miss sugar and spice and everything nice can pull that off?”

Leon smiled. Katarina’s festival and her stage debut was due in her second year, but he didn’t think moving it forward would matter much. “Is that what you think of her?”

“I like her, everyone does. But can you see her as a villainess?”

Oh, it hurt not to laugh. Although the way his ribs felt, it would also hurt to laugh. “Lady Atlee, would you be interested in a small wager?”


“I can’t believe you talked me into this,” Clarice told Leon as he led her to one of the box seats looking out at the stage. Normally the boxes were restricted to distinguished attendees, but the festival was supposed to be informal so for the purposes of the play all of the guests were sitting down among the students on the main floor. While the box hadn’t been specifically cleaned for the event, it was still well maintained so they were able to sit and watch from the anonymity of the shadows.

Leon pulled a seat back for her, and once she was comfortable he sat down next to her. “If you fall asleep mid-performance, it’d be a little obvious down in the audience.”

“I meant ditching on the play.”

“I think it would be even more obvious if you were on stage.” Nicol hadn’t raised any objection over Clarice telling him that she wasn’t going to be up to participating. To be fair, the stoic student council president was hard to read a lot of the time but overall Leon thought that he was relieved that his cousin looked calmer than she had since the previous term.

Clarice punched him a little in the arm and then looked alarmed. “I’m sorry, I forgot your arm!”

“Other arm,” Leon assured her. “And I asked Olivia to apply some of her light magic while you were eating dessert. I should be fine by tomorrow.”

His companion flushed at the reminder of three portions of pie that she’d devoured - in addition to the one Katarina had earnestly donated previously. “That’s impressive. Jilk is still under doctor’s orders not to do anything too energetic for a few days after the festival.”

“Well, I don’t wish to be unfair to Lady Lafan - she’s worked very hard to make the most of her light magic.”

“You can be a little unfair to her.”

“She’s not as good as Olivia,” Leon said bluntly.

Clarice laughed, sounding sincere. “True in both senses of the words you used.” She sighed, tried to lean closer and then snorted as she realised that the chair arm prevented it.

“There’s a sort of couch back there, but I hate to think what it’s been used for in the past,” Leon told her, looking at the other furnishings available in the box. There were three seats here at the front but alternative seating options stood ready for servants to put them in place behind - the box wasn’t just the balcony jutting out, there were various other facilities laid on. It was probably intended as the royal box actually.

“It’s called a chaise longue, you barbarian,” she said fondly. “And I’m sure it’s been cleaned. Sure, if you think you can move it with your arm.”

“I can but try.” Leon tried lifting it, and concluded that dragging it would be wiser. Clarice moved her own seat aside, which was quite a concession under Holfort custom. Leon set the other two chairs out of the way before getting the chaise lounge into position. Clarice waved him to the side with back support and perched herself next to him. “If I sat there I might actually fall asleep,” she confessed.

Of course, once he was sitting down, Leon found Clarice leaning against him. So she was trying to avoid having anything to rest against… by resting against him. He was going to go with ‘she was tired and not thinking this through’.

The lights dimmed, except on stage where Violette took centre stage with a violin to warm the audience up. She was playing a duet with Alan, but the boy wasn’t visible since moving the grand piano out would be an unnecessary amount of effort.

Clarice exhaled. “I only hope Katarina doesn’t forget her lines.”

Leon looked for a place to rest his left arm and finally decided he could only risk putting it around the girl’s shoulders. She didn’t object.

The curtains drew back and he was left dividing his attention between the girl next to him and the actors on stage. Having avoided getting roped in, he wasn’t exactly sure how it was going to go. It was a classic, but adaptations for the stage always had their own twists to apply - and Sophia Fia Ascart had provided the script, with her doting brother as the only real restraint. This could get interesting.

The first act of the story was fairly standard, Sophia hadn’t taken the time-saving option of cutting the villainesses down from three to two. Clarice had been relaxed until Katarina stepped out onto the stage, to play her part as the evil Countess - future evil Countess rather, since for now she was playing a mere ‘friend’ of Mercedes Fou Herrera.

The girl was clearly floundering and at a loss, and Clarice cringed as with prompting from Mary (the future evil Marchioness), Katarina managed some very faked lines professing fondness and support for Mercedes.

“She didn’t remember a single line,” the redhead complained. “You said she’d be fine!”

Leon winced as an elbow dug into his side. “Clarice, she’s supposed to sound fake: she’s portraying someone who’s scheming to betray Mercades.”

“She’s supposed to sound insincere, not fake. You’re losing this bet!”

“Wait and see,” he promised.

Clarice relaxed against him. “Don’t think I won’t collect,” she muttered, her cheek pressed against his shoulder.

“I know, I know.”

Down below, to further musical accompaniment by Alan, machinations played out. Framed for conspiracy against the crown, a shocked Mercedes was arrested and dragged before a court to be charged and condemned. All her friends deserted her but even so, the evidence was threadbare.

“This is going to be a disaster,” Clarice warned as Katarina stepped in once more. It was the big scene for her character. “She’s going to freeze.”

“Maybe,” Leon admitted. “But the thing to remember about Katarina is that while she’s a lovely person, she was born to play the role of villainess.”

Gerald, playing the judge, expressed his doubts and…

“Right? Wrong?” Katarina stalked over to him. “Are we not the ones who decide these things? Why let others govern you?” She jabbed one finger at him. “I thought I was here to speak to a man, not a mouse!”

“That’s not right,” Clarice exclaimed, stiffening.

“My lady,” Gerald remained dubious, “These claims that have been made are…”

“How long are you prepared to be looked down on! How often have you seen others rise up? If ambition is a sin, then I am indeed a sinner, but how much more is it a crime for you to waste your talents! Dare you rise up and take hold of your own destiny?”

“Oh… my god.”

Leon nodded, staring down at the stage.

The deal was done, the guilty verdict given… and as Mercedes fell to the floor in grief and despair, Katarina stood over her, fully enveloped in the role of the evil countess.

“Those weren’t the lines,” Clarice declared as the story followed Mercedes into her imprisonment in the remote island she’d been condemned to. “But I have to admit, they should have been.”

“Sophia would swear blind she rewrote the scene to fit Katarina,” Leon told her, “I don’t think we can use adherence to the script as a guide.”

“Oh you’ve won the bet.” Clarice pinched him. “Don’t gloat. I really believed her for a moment. She was that convincing. Even if she gets the rest wrong, she just stole the show as a villainess.”

Leon laughed and patted her reassuringly. “Don’t worry, you’ll always be my evil countess.”

“That’s sweet,” the girl said sleepily.

They watched quietly, Clarice’s eyes half-lidded, as the play intercut between the rise of the three villainesses alongside their new husbands, while Mercedes suffered in her cell, finally befriended by the disgraced priestess (Scarlet using her pale hair to pretend to be much older than she actually was) in the cell next to hers. As the first act wound up, the priestess died and guards - Leon recognised Brad and Julius, in non-speaking roles since neither had had the time to learn lines - carried the bag that supposedly contained the corpse but actually held the living Mercedes to throw into the sea.

The audience were rapt, or at least most of the female portion, since to compensate for the lack of lines, the prince and his friend were shirtless for the scene.

“Ugh,” Clarice admitted, rubbing her eyes as the lights came on for the first intermission. “I hate to say it, but you were right. I can barely keep my eyes open. Even if Katarina had fluffed the part entirely, at least she’s awake.”

“Do you want something?” Leon offered.

“...I think I’d better go back to my rooms,” the girl decided. “But before that, I should at least tell Katarina what a great job she’s doing. I owe her that for dropping this on her at the last minute.”

Leon helped her to stand, and realised there was no way she could wait for him to put the chairs back. If the staff wondered next time the box was used, there would be a little mystery for them.

Clarice tried to stretch. “I wish I’d done something like this before,” she admitted. “If I… no, dammit! I don’t want to waste my life thinking of what I could have done with him.”

“So think of what you might do in the future?”

“I like that better. But… it’s not easy.”

“No, I don’t suppose it is.”

Sophia greeted them at the door. “Clarice! You look much better!”

“I guess I worried you too.” The redhead hugged her younger cousin. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s alright.” The little albino hugged her back. “Are you alright now?”

“No.” It obviously pained Clarice to say that. “But… I think maybe I might be.”

Sophia nodded. “I hope so. If you need anything…”

“I’ll let you know.”

To Leon’s surprise, he got a hug from Sophia as well. “Thank you, Leon,” the girl whispered, standing on tip-toes to say the words into his ear.

Nicol emerged from the shadows. “Sophia, Katarina is fretting about forgetting her lines.” He turned towards Leon and very nearly had an expression. “Am I interrupting?”

“No, it’s fine.” His sister released Leon and stepped back. “I’ll go and tell her she’s doing fine.”

“She’s more than fine,” Clarice added. “She’s amazing, doing much better than I would have.”

“I wasn’t going to say it,” the girl said with a cheeky smile and then scurried away.

Leon spread his hands slightly towards Nicol, to convey his innocence of wrongdoing. The older boy was still considering him carefully.

“Don’t give him grief, Nicol.” Clarice walked over and hugged her cousin lightly. “Sophia was just thanking him for talking sense into me.”

“I think it was more than talking,” the third year observed, supporting Clarice as she leant against him. “Your efforts are appreciated, Lord Bartford. You’ve gone… above and beyond for Clarice. I suppose I should have expected as much after how you supported Angelica.”

“It’s… well, it wasn’t all a pleasure, but it was a good cause and I’m glad it’s working out for her.”

“I was going to congratulate Katarina,” Clarice told them, “But it sounds like she’s stressed enough. She’s really doing well.”

“She often does. Are you going to stay for the rest of the play?”

The redhead shook her head. “I’m exhausted. If Leon doesn’t mind my imposing on him again, I think I need to get some sleep. I hate to miss the play but right now it’s fall asleep in my dorm or fall asleep watching the act, and I wouldn’t insult all your efforts by doing the latter.”

“I suppose that Lord Bartford is very practised at providing an escort, even if we have had to re-arrange cover for Princess Hertrude today,” conceded the Student Council’s president quietly. “In a good cause.”

“You’re such a softie,” Clarice told him before stepping back. Leon caught her arm and steadied her.

The music being played for the intermission changed and the students acting as stagehands raced to finish moving sets around. Presumably time was running out before the play resumed.

“We should let you get on,” Leon offered.

Nicol nodded. “Whatever you decide, Clarice, we want you to be happy.”

“That means a lot.”

What decision, Leon wondered. Is her father suggesting another fiance? Probably not. Maybe he means her servants… What happened to them anyway? She dismissed them after the race, and I haven’t seen them since. I don’t think she’s going to want their attention tonight but I don’t think Clarice will just throw them out on the streets.

Away from the noise and warmth of the hall, the twilight campus was quiet and cool. Clarice shivered, obviously regretting that she wasn’t wearing her uniform jacket. Leon unbuttoned his own and put it around her shoulders. The redhead used her free hand to pull it closer around herself - it wouldn’t really fit, but at least it would keep her warmer.

The girls’ dorms were a little more spacious than those for boys, but they also had space for servants and other services that were expected for the female students. The concierge raised an eyebrow as Leon pushed the door open and held it for Clarice. “Lady Atlee, can I help you with anything?”

Leon was fairly sure the concierge at his own dorm wouldn’t help him unless he was on fire.

“I’m turning in early,” the girl declared. “Have someone tell my servants not to bother me tomorrow.” She closed her fingers around Leon’s wrist. “Another thing I need to deal with.”

“That sounds like a problem for future-Clarice,” Leon counselled. “It’s not something you need to handle tonight.”

“I can’t put it off forever.” She rubbed her face. “But I guess tomorrow isn’t forever.”

They reached the stairs and Clarice tripped on the first step, only not falling because Leon caught her. Without waiting for her to protest, he moved his arms and scooped her up. He was very glad he’d taken the chance for Olivia to heal his arm.

“Oh this is nice.” She rested her head on his shoulder. “I’m gonna make this up for you.”

I’m really regretting stuffing you with all those sandwiches, he thought and carried the girl up the stairs. “Where’s your room?” Following her directions, they reached the door and Clarice managed to fish out a key from her pocket.

Unlocking the door proved a challenge and finally Leon had to lower her to stand as he opened it for her. Inside, the room was the same sort of standard he’d found when he visited Angelica the day before.

Clarice leant against him, his jacket still around her, her head pressed against his shoulder. Leon was taller than her, but not by all that much. She didn’t move, save for her breathing.

“Clarice?” he asked quietly. Did she fall asleep standing up?

There was a catch in her breath. “I’m a shameless woman.”

Leon rested his hand on her back and rubbed it, hoping she’d find it soothing. “You’ve made mistakes. We’ve all made some. The important thing is to learn from them.”

“I’m not talking about that,” she mumbled.




Clarice reached around him. One hand wrapped around his back. The other - well, it sounded like she had hold of the door. “I… can you do me one more favour?”

“What can I help with?”

The girl in his arms raised her face for a moment, eyes red-rimmed. “Stay with me?” she asked in a small voice.

For a moment, Leon wasn’t sure what to say. Then he decided this wasn’t a moment for words. He leant forwards and kissed her on the forehead.

Clarice pushed the door closed behind them.


A/N: I'm going to a convention tomorrow (yes, I know, actually meeting people, the X-treme sport of 2022), assuming that the Covid self-test I just did checks out. I've no idea what the internet will be like there - I'll update the next arc if I can. If not, see you in a bit more than a week.
You are on fire with the rate you're churning these out.

I'm moderately surprised Katarina would be willing to play a villainess given her usual extreme aversion to all things villainy whatsoever.

Also interesting to see how Bartford's romance options are going, I rather thought he was heading Violette's way and this turn to Clarice is quite unexpected. However, I rather suspect he's her rebound boy and his sleeping with her is going to go all kinds of wrong fast.

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