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

The Kidnapping of Katarina 6-1

drakensis

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The Kidnapping of Katarina

Make a bad one good, make a wrong one right
Power of love will keep you home at night
~ Huey Lewis​

Chapter 1

The human heart in its perversity finds it hard to escape hatred and revenge. ~ Moses Luzzatto​

There was someone knocking on the door.

Leon noticed that before he recalled that this wasn’t his bed. And given the weight of Clarice Fia Atlee lying half-on top of him, that wasn’t a good sign for his wits being at their full sharpness.

Then again, Luxion would probably say that said sharpness wasn’t anything to brag about.

Olivia’s healing magic, and a night of sleep had done wonders for his condition. He honestly felt as if the strains of the previous day had never happened. His left arm was around Clarice, but his right hand was free to rub his eyes, clearing away a little sleepy dust and helping his rusty thinking processes get into motion.

Someone was knocking on the door. It would probably be best for Clarice’s reputation that he wasn’t found here, but at the same time just bolting and leaving her here would be rude, at best.

Maybe someone else would deal with it? Angelica had a maid, did Clarice? She had the contract-servants… except she’d ordered them not to bother her today. Great.

With a sigh, Leon rested his other hand on Clarice’s head and stroked her hair. She mumbled something but didn’t wake.

Well, it was probably safe enough to subvocalize to Luxion then. “Luxion.”

“Master?”

“Did you ever get the drone out of Jilk’s room?”

“Yes master. Thank you for asking.” The AI’s voice dripped sarcasm.

“I don’t suppose you’re anywhere near Lady Atlee’s room?”

“Outside the window, master. It is the easiest place to respond from if you were to be attacked.”

Leon blinked. “Why would anyone attack me?”

“Campus rumours are currently circulating to the effect that you have eloped with Katarina Rafa Claes,” the AI reported matter-of-factly. “I calculate a thirty-two to forty-seven percent probability of violence should you be encountered by her admirers.”

What? Leon had to bite that back, he wasn’t sure he’d have kept it quiet enough not to wake Clarice. He counted to ten in every language he knew - which didn’t take that long, but it at least let his pulse settle down. “I didn’t even elope with the woman I technically slept with last night. Why do they think I’ve done so with Lady Claes?”

“You are the only two students not to return to your rooms last night, master.”

“...”

“The concierge of your current companion’s dorm reported her return without mentioning you,” Luxion continued.

Leon rubbed his face again. “Being discreet to cover for Clarice’s reputation?” he wondered. “Or just doesn’t want to admit that she doesn’t know if I left or not?”

The irony was that the two of them hadn’t done anything scandalous. A part of Leon regretted that, for such an opportunity might never come again. Rather a large part of him, being honest.

But at some point last night, after Clarice was done sobbing her heart out, clinginging onto him as if she was afraid that he - like Jilk - would abandon her… at some point in the dark of the night before he fell asleep, Leon had concluded that it was probably for the best.

If sex was going to help Clarice, she would have cured herself long since. Having someone simply be there, so that she could open up to them, was likely going to do more good.

It didn’t leave Leon less frustrated, and the fact that he knew the feeling was immensely selfish made him feel worse, not better.

“I do not claim to understand the thinking of new humans,” the AI told him primly. “Or often of old humans. Cleare has suggested that your eventual offspring may share your desirable genetic traits. Steps towards having offspring would be preferable, however unpleasant it is to find myself agreeing with that AI.”

“Do you know where Katarina is?” Leon asked, not wanting to get into that topic of conversation.

“Based on the transmitter you gave her, she is currently in the noble district. Triangulation strongly supports that she is somewhere within the Berg mansion or the associated grounds, most likely on the second floor.”

“The Berg mansion?” What the hell? That wasn’t supposed to happen until the entire mess with Rafael. “Well, that’s not the worst news then. I think I know what’s going on and she should be safe.” Although… that was based on the same foreknowledge that had led him to believe that she wouldn’t be kidnapped this year - and evidently that had been a mistake.

Is this my fault for setting her up to act? he thought, and then shook his head. This isn’t something done on the spur of the moment - it must have been underway for a while, and I missed it being set up.

The movement must have disturbed Clarice, as his previous murmuring had not. The arm she’d draped across him shifted and he felt her turn her head further. Looking down, Leon saw her eyes blink open, evidently puzzled to find herself sleeping on someone who was wearing a shirt.

“Good morning, angel,” he greeted her chirply.

The redhead’s eyes went wide. “Bartford? Did we… Oh! Oh… oh…” Then she rolled off him, grabbed one of the pillows and pulled it over her face. There was muffled wailing from beneath it.

Leon looked at her, waiting patiently until someone started knocking on the door again. “Clarice, you might want to tone that down before someone thinks you’re being murdered in here.”

She very reluctantly stopped hiding behind the pillow, crimson faced. “I can’t believe this. I bring a boy back to my bed and then spend half the night crying on him.”

“It’s a considerable gesture of trust. I’m touched.” He paused. “Frustrated, I will admit, but touched.”

“Touched?” Clarice asked and then turned towards the door, still being knocked on. “SHUT UP!” she roared at the top of her voice.

The knocking stopped.

“It’s still a form of intimacy,” he pointed out.

“I suppose it is.” She looked down at him. “I don’t want to sound unwelcoming, but can you at least wait outside so I can get changed?”

“I’m not unwilling, but you’re still lying on my left arm,” Leon told her blandly.

Clarice arched herself up on her shoulders and feet so that he could remove his arm. He hadn’t realised she was quite that flexible.

Recovering his jacket and shoes, he stepped out into her living room and closed the door to her bedroom. The window was inviting, but he was careful not to get too close in case someone with sharp eyes spotted him through the glass. If Clarice decided that it was alright to let anyone know where he was, that was fine and he doubted that it would damage his reputation (although almost nobody would believe that the night had been a chaste experience for them).

After a few moments, Clarice joined him. She was wearing the school uniform properly now - the skirt rather longer than had been her custom, the jacket worn - although he could just barely see that she still wore the same choker around her throat.

“Well,” she greeted him. “Shall we face the music together? I don’t know who that is, but if it’s the servants then I’ll just sell their contracts. I left them instructions not to bother me.”

“This may not be about either of us,” Leon observed. He pointed out the window. “Something’s going on. It looks as if there’s a search going on.”

Clarice went to the window. “...you’re right. Wonderful,” she added in a tone that made it clear she considered it anything but.

Nonetheless, she headed for the door. Leon joined her and tried the key. It didn’t turn, or rather, it did but not usefully since the door wasn’t locked. Whoever was knocking hadn’t tried the handle presumably.

With a shrug, Leon pulled the door open and caught a glimpse of the older boy he’d ridden with during yesterday’s race. He still didn’t know his name.

And then someone punched him in the nose. Leon sat down abruptly, as much out of surprise as due to the unexpected pain.

-

The young man who had punched Leon was apologetic with very little prompting from Clarice. He got quite a bit of prompting from her anyway, because that was not the start to the day that she’d wanted.

James - that was his name, James Fou Basilios, a nephew of Count Basilios and a third year student in the general class - helped Leon set his nose straight. Clarice kept a small medical kit available, so some tape was available that would probably keep it from leaving the younger boy with a crooked nose.

“I’m sorry,” James said again as they left the dorm. “I was worried that Lady Clarice wasn’t responding and I couldn’t think of any good reason for you to be in her room.” He’d explained that Katarina Rafa Claes was missing, which spared Leon from having to explain how he’d learned of that little crisis.

“That’s a remarkable lack of imagination, you’re displaying!” another voice cut in, and Deirdre Fou Roseblade trotted after them, her hair bouncing. “So that’s where you’d disappeared to, Bartford.” She caught hold of Clarice’s arm. “Details, Atlee, I want all of them.”

“Even if there were details, why would I disclose them to you?” the redhead demanded, pulling her arm free.

The blonde didn’t seem inclined to give up. “You’re the one that ditched acting last night so you could sneak off. You’re not going to tell me you knew Claes was up to the role when you cancelled at the last minute? And don’t I deserve to know what I’m in for, once he stops playing coy?”

James gave Leon a suspicious look. As tempting as it was to protest innocence, that would be admitting weakness in front of Dierdre, which was never a good idea.

“I haven’t found there to be anything coy about Leon.” Clarice sounded amused. “And I wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise if you ever do have the… privilege.”

“Oooh. Now I’m looking forward to it.”

Leon rolled his eyes.

“Bartford!” Keith rushed out of one of the other dorms, eyes wild. The path was literally rippling under the earth mage’s feet. “Where’s my sister!? Where have you swept her off to!?” Sophia followed behind the flaxen haired boy, looking around eagerly. The light in her eyes seemed to dim a little when she realised that Katarina wasn’t with them.

“When,” Leon asked, “Did I get this reputation as some kind of lothario? First I’m accused of seducing both the ladies I was escorting yesterday, despite the fact I’d been delegated the duty by the rest of the Student Council.” (Although it was stretching a point there, Angelica was part of the student council, not the whole of it). “And now apparently you think I can seduce both Lady Atlee and Lady Claes in one night.”

“Aha!” Deirdre declared loudly, “That’s what I need: another woman to share you with!”

You’re not helping, Leon’s glare told her.

I’m not trying to, the blonde’s toss of her hair answered.

Clarice sighed and patted Leon’s hand. “I knew that the two of us getting out of bed was a mistake.”

“It was your idea.”

Keith and Sophia were both red-faced. “But where is Lady Katarina!” Clarice’s cousin wailed.

“I haven’t seen her since the first act of the play yesterday,” the redhead told the girl patiently. “I was… weary, and Leon did me the favour of escorting me to my room. I would assume that Lady Claes at least finished her part in the play.”

“She was amazing!” Sophia gushed. “But if she’s not with you, where is she?”

“That’s a more reasonable question,” Leon agreed. “Unfortunately, I couldn’t tell you. Who saw her last? James said she was missing, but he didn’t know the details.”

Keith wiped at his face. “She finished the play, there was the curtain call and then she went backstage to get changed out of her costume.”

“The play was a great success, then?”

“Yes,” he said dismissively.

“You both filled your roles well,” Leon told him.

“That’s a bit generous,” Deirdre objected. “He was a cardboard cutout of a character! Gerald had some attitude.”

“That’s what the play calls for,” he explained to her. “Edmond Dantes is supposed to be a puppet who does nothing he’s not pushed into by the villainesses. Keith was supposed to portray an empty shell of a man, because that’s what the play expects of the male cast. If anything, Gerald was over-acting.”

Clarice tilted her head. “Is that why you didn’t take a role?”

“One of the reasons. Anyway, Keith’s sister went backstage. What happened then?”

“We were waiting for her to join us for the after-play party,” Sophia explained. “But she didn’t come. After a while Anne went to look for her...”

“Anne?”

“Katarina’s maid,” Leon explained to Clarice.

“How do you know that?” Keith demanded suspiciously.

Leon gave him a put-upon look. “I talk to people? It’s not hard to learn people’s names.”

“And this Anne didn’t find Lady Claes?” asked Clarice.

Sophia shook her head, white hair flying. “Her costume was there, but her own clothes weren’t.”

“No sign of a struggle? She’s a pretty vigorous young woman, if someone tried to drag her away I think she’d have made quite a bit of noise and fuss,” Leon speculated.

“None,” Keith confirmed, his ace worried. “But she’s very careless. Someone could have told her a lie and led her into almost anything.”

Leon nodded slowly. “I see. And I assume the logical places - her rooms, her garden and so forth have been checked?”

Keith nodded sharply. “We checked there, and Prince Gerald’s rooms too. Then we raised the alarm and started a wider search.”

Because of course you thought her fiance might have had her taken to his rooms so he could move ahead with their relationship, Leon thought. And probably said as much right in front of him.

“The academy did a roll call,” Sophia continued. “That’s when we found out that you were missing as well. We could account for everyone else one way or another.” The girl gave Clarice a beady eye.

More students - another search party, Leon assumed - approached them and he saw two familiar faces.

“Leon!” Olivia exclaimed. “Thank goodness you’re alright. Have you found Lady Katarina?”

Clarice groaned. “Leon was with me all night, Miss Campbell. Neither of us had seen Katarina since the play’s first act yesterday.”

The common-born student went wide-eyed. “A-all night? Um...” Her ears went crimson and she covered her mouth with both hands. Scarlet Rafa Ades, standing next to Olivia, gave Leon a curious look.

“Now that’s some endurance!” Deirdre exclaimed.

“Nothing happened,” snapped Clarice irritably. “Stop making it out to be more than it was. I… wasn’t in a good state yesterday. Leon was looking after me, he didn’t take advantage.” She crossed her arms irritably. “I needed someone to hold onto me and let me…”

“Eeeee…” Sophia squealed. “That’s so romantic!”

Scarlet nodded solemnly. “Leon is very supportive. If I had needed such aid after Lord Seberg ended our engagement, I am sure he would have been just as gallant.”

“Naturally.”

“Another one!?” Keith exclaimed. He threw up his hands. “And you wonder why we think you’re a lothario! Is there any woman you haven’t seduced!”

“Lots of them. Pertinently, your sister.”

Sophia punched the air lightly. “Brother still has a chance!”

Deirdre sighed. “Really, I’m almost disappointed. But on the other hand, that you can resist her charms just makes you even more challenging.” She shook her head. “Anyway, the carriages of guests who hadn’t left yet were checked before they could depart and messengers were sent after those who had. The staff and the student council have been searching ever since.”

“So where in the world is my sister?” Keith wondered. “Without us to look after her, she could be in any sort of danger!”

-

Katarina Rafa Claes’ first thought was that she was dreaming. Sleeping in a warm, comfortable bed was nothing unusual for her, but waking up without Anne’s intervention? Feh, as if. So she rolled over, pulled the covers and enjoyed the dream. After all, a nice drowsy morning of not being pulled out of bed to be washed, dressed and made-up for the day was something to appreciate.

After dozing long enough that the shadows of the bedroom had moved noticeably, she began to wonder if maybe she wasn’t just dreaming. She never remembered having to worry about bodily functions in a dream, but part of her was definitely suggesting that she needed to get out of bed and take care of a certain something-something.

Oh gosh, was Anne unwell!? The girl sat up, bolt-upright. Was Anne not waking her because she was sick?

Pushing the covers aside, Katarina scrambled out of the bed and rushed for the door, not caring that she wasn’t dressed.

The door failed to be there and she found herself facing a dresser with a tall mirror that she didn’t remember. “Uh…”

Looking around, this didn’t look like her bedroom. In fact, looking down she realised she was wearing a long nightgown rather than her usual and much more practical pyjamas. What was going on?

Brushing her hair back, Katarina winced as her fingers caught on a tangle. Anne was going to have to comb that out carefully or it would tug something awful when Katarina’s long silky hair was brushed. Wait, yes - she’d been looking for Anne.

At least there was a door, it just wasn’t where she’d expected it. The girl strode across to it eagerly, but before she could grasp the handle, it turned on its own. Was it a ghost!? Was Katarina in a haunted bedroom!?

Actually, she realised as it opened, it was a maid. A little taller and more slender than Anne, but dressed in the same maid’s apron and uniform. Hmm. Wasn’t there another maid…?

“Good morning, miss.” The maid took her hand and herded her back towards the mirror. “Let’s get your hair done and then you can bathe before lunch.”

“Uh…”

The maid took a comb and started working on Katarina’s hair. No! How insidious! If Katarina pulled away now she’d get her hair tugged on something fierce. “But I have my own maid. Anne takes care of that for me.”

“Yes, she isn’t here right now.” The maid ran her fingers through Katarina’s hair, combing locks that weren’t tangled away from those that were. “My name is Lana and I’ll be taking care of you for now.”

“Oh no! Is Anne alright!?”

“She’s just fine. I’m sure you’ll see her again soon.” Lana started working on the tangles. “Did you sleep well?”

“Yes, very well.”

“I’m glad.”

Katarina’s stomach began to rumble. Acting was a surprisingly amount of work and she was looking forward to the food at the party after the… Oh! She hadn’t gone to the party after the play was over, Katarina remembered. And if it was the next day… “What’s for breakfast?”

“It’ll be more of lunch, Lady Claes.” Lana patted her reassuringly on the top of her head. “Just a little longer, we’ll take good care of you.”

“It’s just that I don’t think I had supper…” Katarina didn’t see a clock but when she caught a glimpse of the window, the sky was certainly high enough for it to be late in the morning.

What had happened yesterday that she’d missed the party. There was… She frowned in concentration. Right, Lady Clarice hadn’t felt well so Katarina had to step up as her understudy. She’d tried cramming on the script, because she’d tried to study it before - really she had - but there was also so much else going on for the festival that things had gotten ahead of her.

Sophia had coached her on the lines, and Katarina had written prompts on her hand (except they’d smeared and she’d had to wash them off).

And then, out on stage, her mind had just gone completely blank. She was facing Gerald, she knew there were things she was supposed to say but for the life of her she couldn’t remember the lines that Sophia had just gone through with her.

Fortunately, she did remember more or less the story. She’d read the book with Sophia, after all. And even if the exact words didn’t come to mind, there had been a scene back in the game where the villainess Katarina had been stirring up trouble and Olivia had heard her persuading someone to throw something on the heroine’s dress at a party. So Katarina had parroted the lines and hoped that no one would mind. The show must go on, right?

And everyone seemed to like it!

Even Sophia told her that she didn’t mind Katarina not using the script and that Clarice had come backstage to say how pleased she was with Katarina’s acting. Which was really nice of her, and just went to show that however scared Sophia had been, the nice kind girl that they remembered from before was still there.

And so they’d finished out the play, Katarina faking the lines when she couldn’t remember them occasionally. Well, more than occasionally. It was… well it wasn’t quite all of them because there were two scenes that she was barely in and Mary had whispered the short lines to her right when someone was about to give her cue.

But mostly she’d improvised.

And it had worked out alright. There had been lots of applause when the final curtain went down and everyone went out in costume. Gerald had taken her hand and said they could go right to the party, but Keith and Mary insisted that it was better to change out of the costume first, because it was getting late and the costume really wasn’t very warm…

Lana set aside the brush and Katarina let her lead her out of the room and across the hall into the bathroom, where there was a nice warm tub waiting for her.

Katarina used the other facilities and then sank into the warm and relaxing bath. She let Lana soak her hair and played with the cute floating wooden duck - she really liked it, maybe she could get one of her own! - and thought back to what had happened after the play.

She’d gotten the costume off, and then her clothes were mostly on except for doing her corset up. So she’d looked for someone to help with that and there was a nice maid - see, she was right! There had been another maid! Anyway, the cute little maid had done her corset and then led her off to mee the others.

They’d walked out on the academy grounds, away out through the quiet, which was such a relief from the heat inside the hall. But after a while they didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. Katarina thought that maybe the maid was lost, because they were nearer to her garden than they were to the centre of the academy where she thought the party was to be… but she might have made a mistake.

She’d just been about to ask, as nicely as she could, and then the maid had stopped. Katarina also came to a halt and…

Someone had put a cloth across her mouth! And the next thing Katarina remembered was waking up here.

There was a shock of water hitting her as Lana rinsed Katarina’s hair. “Let’s get you dressed,” the maid said, indicating where Katarina’s clothes from yesterday hung up, looking freshly laundered.

“Oh my gosh! I’ve been kidnapped!”

Lana patted her on the head again. “It’s time to get dressed for lunch, Lady Katarina.”

Katarina’s stomach reminded her that she was hungry so she let Lana help her get into her clothes and followed her downstairs to a dining room.

A young man in a butler’s tail-coated suit, immaculate and handsome, moved a seat back for her and then pushed it in for her. A moment later, another woman arrived and the butler did the same for her. Katarina studied the woman. Was she also a hostage? She was someone Katarina knew, but not very well…

Cee, Sea… Selena! Yes, it was Selena Rafa Berg! Gerald and Alan’s brother Ian’s fiancee! They were both three years older than Katarina and had graduated from the academy at the end of the last year. Mother had shown her the invitations received so that they could all attend the wedding between this term and next term, which sounded ever so romantic.

“Se-” she began, but the other woman raised her empty glass.

The butler opened a bottle of wine and filled the glass, before doing the same for Katarina. Selena sniffed at the contents of the glass, which always seemed silly to Katarina because you drank wine you didn’t inhale it. But she did the same anyway, because Selena had good manners - Katarina’s mother had always pointed her out as a good example to follow when they crossed paths at parties.

Selena sipped her wine and Lana returned - wait, when had she left? - with a little trolley holding plates of food. Katarina tried not to salivate into her glass at the smell of the food.

Both ladies set their glasses down and that meant it was okay to eat now. Katarina grasped the silverware and dug in. Gosh, she needed this!

“I hope that we’re not inconveniencing you too badly, Lady Claes.” Selena was barely eating at all. As Katarina chewed on a big mouthful of potatoes, carrots and pork, she saw that the older girl only sliced a little meat and put it on her fork, but toyed with it before finally putting it down.

“In-” She paused, chewed a bit more. “Inconvenienced?” Oh, this was delicious… Wait, yes. “Oh, the kidnapping.” She cut the half-potato in half again - that looked small enough that she could get it into her mouth. Now soak up some gravy and maybe get some peas onto her fork as well… “Wait, you’re not kidnapped as well?”

Selena covered her mouth with one hand. “Oh, oh no. This is my mansion, Lady Claes.”

“Wait, so you’re the kidnapper?”

Her… well, almost a friend, almost a sister-in-law (although once Gerald found someone he really loved that wouldn’t be the case… What was the word - acquaintance? That sounded right. Her acquaintance nodded with a certain embarrassment visible on her face as Katarina shovelled more food into her mouth. “That is the case, yes.”

Katarina chewed on her food. Wow. She hadn’t expected that. What was the motive? How had they kidnapped her? Wait, no - she’d been there for that. What was the last question… oh, right: motive! Why had they drugged her, brought her to Selena’s mansion, given her a cosy bed to sleep in, bathed her, dressed her and were now serving her a lovely dinner?

Wait, people were kidnapped for ransom!

And Keith said she’d never learn anything useful from romance novels. Showed what he knew. He ought to listen more to his big sister!

A little council of Katarina’s inside her head nodded emphatically and then started squabbling over how much ransom she ought to be worth as Katarina cut some more pork, brow furrowed in concentration.

On the one hand, she was a duke’s daughter and engaged to the brother of another duke. But Selena’s father was Duke Berg so she shouldn’t be hard off for money… unless she needed a huge sum to cover gambling debts or something.

The image of Selena sitting at a green baize table, nervously pushing chips across it as a mish-mash of playing cards lay before her crossed Katarina’s mind.

Wait, no, she shouldn’t get distracted. She’d been wondering about ransoms…

Oh dear, she could just imagine her mother’s face if some extravagant demand was made. ‘It’s too much for that girl, with her poor manners’ she could almost imagine her mother saying in disappointment. ‘We’ll just have to manage with Keith, he’s at least well behaved’.

Poor Keith, to lose his sister because of a kidnapper who asked for too much in ransom!

“Um…” Katarina wiped her mouth with a napkin Lana presented her after the main course was done. The butler had taken Selena’s plate away even though barely half of the contents had been eaten! (Katarina considered asking if she could have the rest, but she was a guest and she remembered her mother lecturing her about that at length when she asked for that once while visiting Mary. “Uh, Selena. How much ransom are you asking for?”

How much would be acceptable? Perhaps if it was only as much as a year of her allowance? Let’s see, multiply by fifty-two…

“Ransom?” Selena looked baffled.

Katarina nodded. “That’s what kidnappings are for, right?”

“Oh my. No, it’s nothing like that. I -”

The butler cleared his throat. “Excuse me, my lady. I believe it is time for you to rest.”

Selena’s face fell into an expression of dull acceptance. “Yes, of course.” She let the man pull her chair back.

“Wait.” Katarina tried to stand, forcing her own chair back. “Selena, I need to ask…”

“Dessert, my lady?” Lana asked, moving another trolley up to the table.

Katarina stared at it. There was flan, there was trifle, there was pie. A jug of cream, a bowl of whipped cream. Lana removed the covers from two serving dishes, revealing cakes. “Th-thank you?”

When she looked back across the table, Selena was gone. The butler was just closing the door behind himself. “Uhm, doesn’t Lady Berg want any dessert?”

“Lady Berg ordered this especially for you,” Lana assured her.

All for her? Katarina couldn’t believe it. Maybe she was dreaming after all! But it would be rude to refuse…

-

“I… regret… nothing…” Katarina declared, sprawling upon her bed. The bed in her room. The bed in the room she was using in the Berg mansion. The girl cradled her distended stomach. Urgh, this was what happened when Keith wasn’t around to tell her she was eating too much. But it had all tasted so good…

“Please take a little nap,” Lana suggested. “If you don’t feel better soon I’ll get you some indigestion medicine.”

Katarina gave the maid a little wave. Hopefully it wouldn’t come to that, medicine always tasted foul.

Once Lana was out of the room, Katarina craned her neck up and looked around for spyholes. There were no suspicious knots in the door, and while there were framed pictures on two walls, they were both landscapes rather than portraits that might have eye-holes cunningly disguised as the eyes of the person in the portrait.

Satisfied that she was probably safe, Katarina rolled carefully off the bed and staggered to the window. Looking out through it, she saw that the roofs outside did look like some of the mansions she’d seen around the capital before. So this probably was the Berg Mansion. She could even see the royal castle off in the distance.

If I could just open this window and climb down, I bet I could get across the gardens, she thought. And then there’s just the wall and the gate in the way…

Her stomach made a squeaking sound and she sat down again nervously. She’d just been theorising! Planning! She wasn’t going to try it now, she frantically assured the offended digestive system. All in good time.

After a moment and a warning twinge, her stomach relaxed slightly. No longer immediately fearing a food escape, Katarina laid back down and thought.

Getting down from the window was probably alright. It would mean a bit of climbing, but if she could climb up a tree then climbing down a wall wouldn’t be too bad. And she had lots of bedding, she could even make a rope. The difficulty would be getting past the wall or the gate. And probably past any guards.

Were their guards? Likely. Villains always had henchmen in the novels, and while Selena wasn’t very villain-like, she probably at least knew that much. Assume there were guards.

It would be much easier if she had one of her friends with her. Sophia would probably know a perfect plan from a novel that could be applied here.

Hmm. Maybe if she tried thinking like them…

Katarina folded her hands behind her and looked up at the ceiling. What would Keith do in this situation?

In her mind’s eye, a little Keith waved his hand magically. A golem rose from the earth and helped her brother down from the window. Then they trotted across to the garden, brushing aside guards that were trying to block the golem with their hoes, before the golem lifted Keith up over the wall.

So simple!

Of course, Katarina couldn’t create golems. All she could do was make an earth bump. That would help her climb down the wall, so that was good. And it would make handholds for climbing over the wall...

But not so much in dealing with guards. Darn.

“A perfectly good plan foiled by the fact it just wouldn’t work,” Katarina muttered to herself.

Alright, so setting aside the Keith method. What would… What would Gerald do in a situation like this?

Katarina considered her fiance, trapped in this room. She considered the entire room on fire…

No, that probably wouldn’t happen. Selena was Ian’s fiancee and Gerald wouldn’t want to upset his brother like that. So no fire. What else would the blackhearted prince do to solve this?

Hmm. Well Gerald was brilliant, so he’d probably work out exactly what Selena was after and then find some small and overlooked flaw that would cause it all to unravel. He’d sit down facing her across the table, smile warmly and then lay out his icy logic, trapping Selena in a predicament so torturous that she’d have no choice but to yield when he presented her with an escape.

Gosh, Gerald was clever.

Katarina clenched her fists. She could do this. All she had to do was figure out why Selena had abducted her! It wasn’t for ransom, so what else was it for?

She yawned.

Several minutes later, Katarina was happily dreaming of her brother and their friends all congratulating her for escaping the kidnappers and throwing her a ‘you missed the after-play party’ party. It was a lovely party, so it was rather a pity that it was all happening inside her head.
 

Bear Ribs

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I'm half expecting this to turn into a Ransom of Red Chief scenario. I'm not sure exactly how since Katarina's much too nice but I expect she'll somehow find a way via her happy numbskull antics.
 
The Kidnapping of Katarina 6-2

drakensis

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The Kidnapping of Katarina

Make a bad one good, make a wrong one right
Power of love will keep you home at night
~ Huey Lewis​

Chapter 2

Revenge does not long remain un-revenged. ~ German Proverb​

The academy grounds did include several areas that had been set aside for future expansion. In the meanwhile they’d become heavily overgrown and in one section there was a small forest. It was dense enough that one could hide a body there, so when Leon was volunteered to search it in case Katarina was stuck there somehow (no one quite dared to say ‘dead’ around her admirers), he’d made a point of choosing a partner that he was reasonably sure wouldn’t kill him and hide the body.

Granted, if Scarlet decided he was punching bag material there was a very good chance that Leon would wind up dead. He didn’t have the ability to magically reinforce himself, after all. But on the other hand, hiding the body wouldn’t be her style at all.

“Do you expect to find my cousin here?” she asked, picking her way through the undergrowth so neatly that not so much as a leaf clung to her.

Leon was having a bit more trouble and angled sideways to avoid getting caught on a bush of something thorny. “Fairly unlikely, but it doesn’t hurt to be thorough. And Keith isn’t the only one who seemed to have gotten it into their head that I’d run away with her.”

“Wouldn’t you?”

Leon paused and looked at Scarlet’s deadpan expression. It was often hard to tell when the girl was genuinely being naive, simply misunderstanding… or setting you up for a punch-line. “In the extremely unlikely event she wound up in trouble she couldn’t deal with just by talking to her loving family and friends, I’m sure I could find her a nice quiet island to grow vegetables on,” he answered at last.

Scarlet nodded in satisfaction. “Then their fears aren’t unreasonable.”

“They aren’t worried as much about my running away with her as much as it is the prospect of my doing the things with her that they’d do if they were eloping with her.”

“What sort of things would those be?”

“Do you really want me to explain what Prince Gerald is eager to do with his fiancee in private?” he asked. “Because I’m pretty sure that Keith or Mary could give you much more lurid descriptions.”

Scarlet’s face could have been carved from ice for a moment. “Excluding her fiance.”

Leon sighed. “In the case of the two people I mentioned, perhaps more or less the same.”

“Mary is also a girl.”

“That still leaves a lot to work with,” he told Scarlet. “Short of ‘having children’ together, there’s not much a woman can’t do with another woman that a man can.”

“Really?”

“I don’t speak from personal experience, since I’m obviously not a woman myself, but there’s a considerable body of literature if you know where to look. Ask Sophia if you don’t and if you’re curious.”

That would be a funny conversation. He’d probably want to be well away from Sophia and her brother when that was going on.

Scarlet nodded, which ever so coincidentally took her head beneath the bough of a tree as she walked onwards. “Would Sophia have similar plans for Katarina?”

“I think she’d want to take her brother with them so he could do that part for her, while she’d be on a happy adventure with Lady Katarina - or just reading about them.”

“That might make my cousin very happy,” the silver-blonde girl decided. “Lord Ascart is much admired.”

Leon nodded. “But he’s probably too loyal to his good friend Gerald to go along with that. Honestly, I think their lives would be much less complicated if they just had an orgy to find out who’s actually as enthusiastic about what they have in mind as they think they are. But if I suggested that then a long list of people would probably kill me and hide my body.”

Scarlet patted him reassuringly on the arm. “I wouldn’t.”

“I appreciate that, Scarlet. You’re a good person.”

“Master,” Luxion interjected. “I appreciate that I’m interrupting your pre-reproductive efforts with this woman, but someone is breaking into Gerald Rafa Stuart’s dorm room. I believe they are delivering a ransom note.”

Leon paused, eyes somewhat crossing at the two dissonant messages. He really wished Cleare hadn’t put that thought into whatever passed for Luxion’s head. “Who?” he subvocalized.

“Who are you asking?” Scarlet asked him.

“Lafan’s slave.” Luxion felt the word applied more accurately than the ‘contract-servant’ term used in polite society.

“I’m the only one here,” the girl added. “But you asked who?”

Leon stared at Scarlet. Had he spoken out loud by mistake. “Luxion?” he asked, making very sure that he was only subvocalizing.

Scarlet looked around. “Who is Luxion, and where are they?”

...she was probably enhancing her senses with magic somehow and could hear even his subvocalizing, Leon realised. Dammit! “Luxion is my… well, familiar would be the closest word.”

“I haven’t seen them?” she observed. “I didn’t know you even had a familiar.”

“Luxion is very shy,” he explained. “I can talk to them at a distance - it just let me know someone just broke into Prince Gerald’s dorm.”

Scarlet nodded and started retracing her steps. “Do you think it’s connected? And why do you call Luxion ‘it’?”

“Because Luxion has no preferred gender identity, so I respect it’s preferences,” Leon explained. Getting into an AI’s nature would be a conversation for later or possibly never. “And even if it’s not connected, we should at least check.”

What would Nanaka be doing breaking into Gerald’s room? Leon didn’t know much about the demihuman - he’d assumed that this abduction was more or less the same one he’d anticipated that Katarina would experience in the books and so far the data relayed from her transmitter was bearing that out: Selena being the abductor was right, and someone manipulating her to do this would fit what he’d learned so far.

Scarlet caught hold of Leon. “We won’t get there in time at this rate.”

“What do you…?” he started to ask and then she swept him off his feet into a princess carry and started running quite unreasonably fast, bounding over obstacles - fences, hedges, people…

“Eeep.” Leon muttered and made sure he had one arm wrapped around Scarlet’s slim shoulders. If she slipped and dropped him then he’d need Olivia to put him back together again.

Scarlet seemed to be making very little effort, which just underlined how talented she was at magic. I have no idea where she came from - she wasn’t in either series, Leon thought - but I’m glad she’s on my side.

“None of Lafan’s admirers have rooms in the same building as Prince Gerald.” Scarlet hopped up and over a six-foot rose trellis, apparently unbothered by her skirts flaring up around her as she dropped down onto the other side. “So long as we catch the servant leaving, we have cause to detain him.”

“But not to enter Gerald’s room,” Leon noted. “Luxion, did he leave something?” He didn’t bother to hide the question from Scarlet.

“Yes master, a letter on the prince’s desk. He’s now leaving the suite.”

“Luxion says something was left behind.” He saw Alan emerging from the event hall, accompanied by his fiancee and Scarlet’s twin sister. “Drop me here, Alan can let us in. I’ll fill him in.”

Scarlet took Leon at his word and literally dropped him on the path, then bounded over towards the dorm building.

“Leon, what’s going on?” Mary demanded, managing to demurely but still quickly cross the distance as Leon climbed to his feet. “Were you and Scarlet not checking the woods? Did you find Lady Katarina?”

“Someone just broke into Prince Gerald’s rooms to leave a letter,” he explained. “Scarlet’s going to try to catch them, but I can’t just go in and see what the letter is.”

Mary’s eyes narrowed sharply. “A ransom note!” she exclaimed. “I knew Lady Katarina had been kidnapped.”

You thought I’d stolen her away to a private love-nest, Leon thought.

“But weren’t you worried she’d eloped with Leon?” asked Violette.

Mary smiled in a way that made Leon wary. “We should go to Gerald’s room right away. Alan!”

“I’m coming,” the prince agreed. “Do you think Scarlet’s alright?”

“You don’t know her very well,” Leon said drily.

Sure enough, they arrived to find that Scarlet was having no difficulty keeping the demi-human from escaping. Admittedly, she’d done this by ramming him head-first through a wooden fence, but he wasn’t going anywhere. He also seemed mildly concussed as he hung there, arms pinned at his side, dog-eared head dangling on one side and his legs (bared by his shorts) limp on the other side.

“He tried to get away,” Scarlet explained calmly. “I didn’t let him.”

“Is he alive?” Alan asked warily.

“He seems to be breathing.” The girl sounded more or less indifferent. “Demihumans are quite sturdy. We can ask his mistress or Miss Campbell to heal him if he isn’t able to answer questions soon.”

“Do you think he’ll be co-operative?”

Mary was continuing to smile, so Leon drew Violette’s attention to this. “I don’t think it’ll be a problem, between us we can be quite convincing.”

“Please make sure he doesn’t go anywhere,” Alan asked and then led them inside. “I’m going into my brother’s room,” he told the concierge. “Your spare key, please?”

“Did the boy who was just here ask for that?” added Violette as the man checked the board behind him for the right key.

“No, Lady Ades. I don’t know who he was visiting.”

“My brother’s room,” Alan said flatly.

Leon was wondering if Jenna would get the key to his room as easily as this. He hadn’t been that happy with his room’s security before but now he was doubly glad he didn’t keep anything irreplaceable there.

“Not without this key, he wasn’t,” the concierge insisted.

“We’ll see.” The prince’s tone was ominous. When they all trooped up to the right floor, Gerald’s door was locked. “You’re sure about this?” Alan asked. “If that kid was just delivering a note to someone else, Lafan will be able to lodge a complaint against Scarlet.”

Leon nodded. “I have a reliable source.”

Unlocking the door, Alan stepped inside. “Did this source say where?”

“On the desk, I believe.”

Alan disappeared from view and there was a muffled curse word. A moment later, he emerged, an envelope in his hand. “It was right there. Do you think we should open it?”

Mary snatched the letter, snapped the blank seal and unfolded the letter before anyone could stop her. She scanned the contents and then passed it to Alan. “If we ever want to see Lady Katarina again,” she declared, “Prince Gerald must renounce any and all claim upon the throne. If he doesn’t… well, they don’t say.”

“No need to.”

Alan clenched his fist around the letter. “I’m going to kill them,” he declared. “Julius has gone too far.”

“Hold your horses,” Leon warned. “Let’s question the little fellow first. Just because he’s contracted to work for Lafan doesn’t mean that he was actually acting on her behalf this time.”

-

“No! Nanaka!” Marie wailed as she saw her servant tied to a chair in the meeting room of the Student Council wing. Nicol had been more than happy to agree that they could use the council’s resources to help track down where Katarina was.

Still napping, according to Luxion’s report. So she was probably safe - although two drones had been re-allocated and would be inside the Berg mansion within the hour just in case some more direct intervention was needed.

Leon folded his arms and moved to block Marie when she rushed to try to untie the little demihuman. “Don’t do that, Lafan. Your servant was caught escaping after he left a ransom note behind in Prince Stuart’s room. At the minimum, he’s broken into another student’s suite.”

And as it was a prince’s suite, there might actually be consequences for that. There was still a very mysterious lack of reputable witnesses to who had torn Leon’s room apart at the end of the previous term.

“You beat him, you brute!” Marie exclaimed, tears forming at the corner of her eyes.

“No, that was me,” Scarlet explained laconically.

“You can’t beat another student’s servant!” Julius protested.

Gerald glared at him. “Evidently we can - and when that servant is implicated in the abduction of a duke’s daughter, perhaps we should.” He pointed at the letter on the table. “At the same time that Lafan’s servant was in my dorm, someone entered my room and put that on my desk. It requires me to renounce any claim on your father’s throne in exchange for the return of Katarina. That seems as if it might align with your interests.”

His cousin bristled. “As long as I’m with Marie, I don’t care about the throne.”

“That seems like an objectively good reason to separate you then,” Alan drawled, a dangerous light in his eyes. “But setting aside your qualifications to rule - who else would have a motive to attack Gerald’s claim? Speaking for his brothers, none of us particularly want the job - it’s a thankless task at best.”

Jilk crossed his arms. “Having defeated Julius in a duel and had him removed from succession, it might be argued that this is an attempt to frame him for an attack on you, to further disgrace and prevent his reinstatement.”

“If anyone is inclined towards dirty tricks, it’s you,” Gerald snarled at Jilk.

Leon cleared his throat. “Let’s start by waking the servant up and asking him some questions. Lady Lafan, as long as you don’t free him I see no reason you can’t attend to his wounds.”

The little blonde huffed and went to Nanaka, placing her hands upon his head. “Don’t worry, Nanaka. We’ll clear this up and get you out of here.” Light flickered around her hands and after a long moment, the demihuman’s dark eyes blinked, orientating himself.

“Mistress?” he asked. “Why am I tied up? Is this a game?”

“That’ll be enough,” Leon told Marie.

When the girl tried to stand defiantly by Nanaka, Katarina’s maid Anne took the young lady by the shoulders and pulled her away.

“Take your hands off her!” Greg demanded, hands bunched into fists.

Keith moved to block him. He’d formed a golem of earth and it was following him around, now it looked over the muscular student. “If you had any hand in my sister being kidnapped, I’ll repay you a thousand times,” he threatened flatly.

“Who cares about that dopey broad?” the redhead demanded.

“Greg!” Chris, for a wonder, reached out for his friend’s shoulder. “We would be as worried if it was Marie missing.”

“That doesn’t mean she should be kept prisoner,” the other boy demanded.

Leon shook his head. “She’s not. But I don’t want her untying her servant.” At his signal, Anne released her hold on Marie, giving her a little push over towards Greg, who hugged her and half carried her back to their little cluster - who proceeded to stand protectively around her.

“Nanaka can’t have done anything to Lady Claes, he’s just a little boy!”

“Let’s find out.” Leon leant over the bound demihuman. “Now then, you were in a student dorm. Would you care to make this easy on yourself and tell me who gave you the ransom note to deliver?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about!”

Leon sighed. Quite sincerely. He wasn’t an interrogator, or a torturer. And he knew pretty much where Katarina was and who was behind this, so this was unnecessary except to dig out some convincing reason to explain how he knew this. “So, were you bribed somehow after entering Lafan’s service or did your actual employer set these idiots up to buy your contract?”

“What?” The demihuman went wide-eyed. “Mistress, what is he talking about?”

“Lafan isn’t going to help you. She can’t. Your employer isn’t going to help you - unless you think tying up a loose end that could incriminate them is helpful.” Leon rested one hand on Nanaka’s head and then ran one finger deliberately back and down the boy’s spine, going as far as his collar. Emphasising his helplessness. “And the people who are frantic with worry over Lady Claes’ wellbeing… they’re not going to help you either.”

“I don’t know where the idiot is!”

There was a solid thunk as a fist smacked into Nanaka’s face, followed by two cries of pain.

Leon blinked and looked at Anne as the maid shook her hand in evident pain. She’d had her thumb inside her fist when she punched the boy, who was now on his back, the chair having toppled backwards onto the floor. There were traces of blood beneath his eye, the result of the blow.

“Anne…” Scarlet took the maid and pulled her back. “Always keep your thumb on top of your fingers when you punch someone.” She gripped the wounded hand, immobilising the thumb. “Mmm. That will need healing. Lafan, take care of it.”

“Why should I…” Marie broke off at the sight of Scarlet’s gimlet eye and cringed. “Alright, alright!”

Leon lifted the chair upright as the viscount’s daughter started healing Anne’s hand. “I’d say I was sorry, but you kind of have that coming.” He tapped his thumb against the welling scratch on Nanaka’s face. “The thing you need to remember is, I’m the nice one here. I just want some information, so Lady Claes is home and safe, and the one behind all this can be dealt with. None of this is personal for me.”

Then he gestured towards Gerald. “Of course, the prince here loves his fiancee very very much. And her brother is upset as well. And then there are her other friends and family.”

“I can punch him again,” Scarlet offered, turning back to Leon.

“Let’s leave that in reserve. You might kill him.”

“I can hold back!”

“Can, yes. Would… that’s open to question,” Gerald pointed out. Then he wreathed his hand on fire. “On the other hand, my father left extensive notes on how much of the human body can be burned without causing immediate death. Until now I’ve always considered that to be a shameful part of my family’s past. But now I’m beginning to think he might have had a point.”

Leon chuckled a bit nervously. “I’m going to be honest, kid. I don’t think they have much patience left. Do you really think whoever paid you for this sees you as anything but an expendable asset that’s already been expended?”

“I never laid a finger on the… on Lady Claes!” Nanaka screamed.

“I do think that I believe you.” And then Leon leaned in and whispered. “But that’s not the whole truth, is it? Last chance before I let the others get at you.”

“It’s true! It’s true!” Nanaka writhed in the ropes. “I led her out of the event hall. I’m sorry! I’m sorry! Don’t hurt me!”

Marie squeaked in alarm. “N-Nanaka?”

“I borrowed a maid’s uniform and drew her out for them,” the demihuman confessed. “They promised she won’t be hurt!”

Gerald brushed Leon and grabbed the little contract servant by the shirt. “Who promised!? And where is Katarina!?”

“She-she… They said they’d take her to Duke Berg’s mansion!” Nanaka blurted.

“Duke Berg?” Mary exclaimed. “What does he want with Katarina?”

“The duke isn’t even in the capital,” Clarice added. “He went back home weeks ago - it’s only Lady Berg living there.”

“Oho.” Brad snickered. “What was that about your brothers not wanting the throne, Prince Gerald? And now your fiancee’s been taken away by Prince Ian. I guess he couldn’t use the Stuart mansion, but his fiancee wouldn’t question him bringing another woman to her home.”

“Do you know how little difficulty I’d have getting a disowned son expelled and sent off to fight on the frontiers?” asked Gerald conversationally, leaving Brad white-faced.

“Selena wouldn’t hurt a fly,” Mary murmured. “But if Nanaka’s right and the plan wasn’t to actually hurt Katarina...”

Alan nodded. “She’d know Gerald wouldn’t hesitate to renounce the throne for Katarina. And even if he didn’t, she could ask the Claes to renounce the engagement, which would remove any support from them if Gerald made a bid for the throne.”

“And most of the major houses with unmarried daughters would be wary of forming another alliance if Gerald wrote off one fiancee already,” his fiancee continued. “If we accept the premise that he and Ian are contending for the throne, this would make sense.”

“Except that we’re not!”

Leon shook his head. “You may not want it, but King Roland is at least keeping the option open.” Luxion’s spying had told him that much. “And there are noble families who would be very interested in advancing their prospects by making the right alliance - assuming that they knew which alliance was right. There are factions assembling themselves around you and your brothers whether you want them to or not.”

“This is all your fault, Julius,” the blond prince accused.

His disgraced cousin looked offended. “So you get to be with the woman you love but I cannot? Why should I accept the throne at that price when you won’t?”

Alan winced. “I hate to say it, Gerald… but just this once - he’s right.”

“None of this matters!” Mary exclaimed, half-turning to watch as the door began to open. “We know where Lady Katarina is so we have to go and rescue her!”

Nicol Fia Ascart entered, one firm hand on the shoulder of a familiar half-elf. Familiar to Leon, at least. “There is some disagreement on that,” the student council president declared in a neutral voice.

“Who are you?” Mary demanded, scowling at Kyle.

“I’m a messenger from the Ministry,” the boy explained hastily. He scanned the room and locked eyes with Leon. “I should have known this involved you, Bartford.”

Leon bowed slightly in acknowledgement of the hit. “He is who he says he is,” he confirmed. “I believe he’s Director Smith’s aide.” It was a more polite term than gofer.

“What the hell is an aide?” Greg asked suspiciously. “He’s awfully young to be the Director’s… you know.”

Kyle and Nanaka appeared to be of a similar age, although Leon supposed that the demi-human was probably older than he looked. “Dog-robber,” he clarified.

“I do not!” protested the elf.

“Has she asked you to rob a dog for her?”

“No…”

“Could you see her doing so?”

Kyle made a disgusted face.

“Why didn’t you just say gofer?” asked Greg.

Brad Fou Field patted the muscular boy’s shoulder. “Bartford was trying to sound classy. We should support his aspirations.”

“As amusing as the byplay is,” Gerald noted rather irritably. “Why are you saying we shouldn't rescue Katarina, Nicol?”

With admirable fortitude, the older boy didn’t quail under the looks he was getting, instead gesturing for Kyle to explain.

“The ministry has an agent in the Berg mansion protecting Lady Claes,” the little elf explained hastily. “But there’s a dark mage present so anyone sent there might be placing themselves in great danger.”

“But that means that Lady Katarina is already in great danger!”

Leon cleared his throat. “As I understand it, dark magic draws upon the target’s darker urges - anger, resentment, that sort of thing. Isn’t that right, Scarlet?”

“It’s not a well understood field,” the silver-blonde young woman noted cautiously, “But that is what the records available suggest.”

“Ah!” Mary gasped. “I see.” Then she frowned. “I still want her rescued as soon as possible.”

“What do you see?” Alan asked.

“Lady Katarina doesn’t have any darker impulses,” the other girl explained matter-of-factly.

“Because of course, Gerald’s fiancee is some perfect paragon?” Julius observed sharply.

“It’s how you talk about your former-paramour,” Gerald replied. “Or she would be former if you kept your word.”

“That’s one for your side,” his twin noted. “Actually, two.”

The third of the Stuart brothers buffed his fingernails briefly on the front of his jacket. “And why can’t this agent rescue Katarina?” he asked Kyle.

“Uh, it’s believed Lady Berg is being controlled by the dark mage,” the boy said apologetically. “But the mage is themselves working for a third party. Our agent wants to find the mastermind to ensure that the plot is entirely resolved.”

All eyes went to Nanaka.

“Were you holding out on us?” Leon asked the boy pleasantly. He extended one hand as if to restrain Scarlet (who, to be fair, was pulling on her favourite gloves). “I can only restrain her so long, you know.”

“Please, Lord Bartford.” Anne surprised them all by speaking up. “I believe you’ve had your chance to make this kidnapper talk. I suggest that anyone of a nervous disposition leave the room.”

“I’ll be right outside!” Kyle answered and bolted.

Marie cleared her throat. “Uh… what he said.” She hustled to the door, followed by her admirers. No one else seemed inclined to follow, but some eyebrows were raised as Anne produced what looked like the bastard offspring of forceps and a pair of pliers from a discreet corner.

“Do I want to know what that is?” Leon enquired.

“Please hold his head steady,” the maid requested. As Leon complied, grabbing hold of Nanaka’s head by both sides, the woman moved to stand in front of the demihuman, holding the device in view. “The tool is designed to be inserted into the body through a natural orifice to make slight… surgical alterations. Errors in its use are said to be excruciating. Normally I wouldn’t dream of using it with my thumb in this condition.” Her right thumb was still visibly swollen despite Marie’s attention. “But in this case, that hardly matters.”

“W-wha, no you can’t do that!” Nanaka tried thrashing. “Help! HEELLP!”

Deidre Fou Roseblade popped her head around the door. “What’s going on… Leon, are you torturing that boy?”

Leon looked down at how he was pinning the servant in place. “...no.”

“YES! HELP!”

The blonde practically bounced into the room. “Oh, I love torturing people.” Leon wasn’t sure if she was just playing up to her reputation, trying to help or just genuinely being sadistic. Possibly more than one of those things.

Whatever it was, Nanaka wet himself as he realised he’d made a terrible mistake. “I meant help ME!”

Deirdre gave him a bemused look. “You were plotting against my co-star in yesterday’s play. Why would I help you?”

Anne ignored this byplay (and the smell) and dropped to one knee in front of Nanaka, squinting up at his face and then angling the tool she held, raising it carefully until the tip was about to enter his left nostril.

“IT WAS THE MARQUIS!” the demihuman shrieked. “THE MARQUIS! Don’t hurt me!”

“There are six marquis in the kingdom,” Mary pointed out coolly. “Five if we discount Lord Dieke’s missing father, which I suppose we shouldn’t. Be more specific.”

“Mason! It’s Mason, he set me up as his inside man months ago!” Nanaka babbled, eyes fixed on the tool that Anne had yet to retract. “He wants to get Prince Gerald out of the way, and then incriminate Prince Ian for the abduction - clearing the way for Duke Jeffrey.”

“My brother would never agree to that,” snapped Gerald.

“He doesn’t know! He’s to be the Marquis’ puppet!”

Alan looked intrigued. “That’s almost smart. I mean, if you take Jeffrey at face value. But what was he going to do about me?”

“...who are you?” Nanaka asked, apparently honestly puzzled.

“My twin brother,” Gerald explained, patting Alan consolingly on the shoulder.

“Uh… I don’t think you were ever mentioned.” The boy’s eyes were still wide. “I swear, I never heard a thing about you.”

Alan scowled. “I could totally be a contender for the throne if I wanted to.”

“It’s very lucky that you’re not,” Mary said consolingly. “Now someone put this spy somewhere secure while we rescue Lady Katarina. I have some things to say to this agent of the ministry.”

Scarlet grabbed Nanaka, still tied to the chair. “Where shall I put him, Lord Ascart?”

“We have a dungeon in the basement.” The older boy offered her a key.

“Why does the student council have its own dungeon?” Leon asked.

“For their own prisoners,” Deirdre explained slowly, as if to someone not quite bright. “Really, I thought you were sharper than this. Do I get to torture him now?”

“Not just yet, depends if he was hiding anything else.”

Nanaka shook his head. “I’ll confess!” he promised. “I’ll tell you everything I ever did for Mason, just don’t let that crazy maid at me.”

“That depends how you behave,” Scarlet warned, carrying him out.

Deidre gave Anne a glance and then looked at the relieved captive. “Wait, you mean she’s more intimidating than I am?” The blonde followed Scarlet, trying to get Nanaka’s attention. “You take that back!”

Leon pinched the bridge of his nose and watched what seemed like half the student council stream out of the room, in search of carriages to take them to the Berg Mansion. Anne seemed just as spent, still knelt in front of him.

“Am I... interrupting anything?” Hertrude asked, entering the room. “Everyone seems to be in a… oh my.”

Realising what having a maid knelt in front of him looked like, Leon groaned. “No, your highness. Anne is Lady Claes’ personal maid. She was just cleaning up some trash that was involved in the kidnapping.”

“Ah. Good.” The princess nodded. “I was concerned about my security.”

“What is that, anyway?” Leon asked, eyeing the tool that Anne had now started carefully removing her swollen thumb from.

“It’s used to remove nasal hairs,” the maid replied tranquilly. “Would you like a try?”

“I’ll pass, thank you.”

-

“Lady Claes.”

Katarina rolled over. “Another few minutes, Anne.” That never worked, but she was constantly hopeful.

A tentative hand grasped her shoulder. “Lady Claes.”

Mmm. It was so warm and comfy here. She shifted over further and felt something hard pressing against her outer thigh, as if something had been left on the bed with her. Had she taken snacks to bed with her again? “Wha-?”

Opening her eyes, she was surprised to see that it was late in the day, the sun beginning to lower. Oh, and this wasn’t her bedroom…

The events of earlier in the day filtered back to her and Katarina realised she’d fallen asleep fully clothed. Rolling over had pressed the contents of her pocket against her thigh. “Oops.”

“Shhhhh!”

Katarina turned the other way and saw Selena Rafa Berg looking at her nervously. “Shhh?” she asked.

The other woman pressed a finger against her lips. “I’m not supposed to be here.”

Oh, like hide and seek. Or sneaking cookies from the kitchens with Keith, back at home. “But isn’t this your home?” she asked in a low voice.

“Yes, but I sort of…” Selena looked guilty. “I agreed that you didn’t need to know something but I still think that you should and…” she paused and thought about that. “Oh, I’m doing a terrible job of this,” she whispered.

Katarina gave her a quick hug. “Is there something I can do to help?”

“Uh, you realise I kidnapped you? That you’re a prisoner?”

The girl nodded, deciding not to mention that really this was much more relaxing than the academy. No one would expect her to know anything from today’s classes. Although… she probably should worry about that ransom business, but that could wait. “That’s no reason for me not to be nice to you.”

Selena smiled wanly. “You’re just as kind as everyone says you are. I’m sure that this will be over soon, and then you can be together with Gerald and I’ll never bother you again.”

“Um…” Katarina tried to tidy her hair to buy time, but had a feeling she was making a mess of it. “I don’t understand. Why did you kidnap me?”

Selena took a deep breath and sat down next to Katarina, clutching her hands together before her and looking down at them. “I’m afraid my engagement to Ian isn’t like yours to Gerald. I love him, of course - how could I not. But I’ve always known I wasn’t good enough for him.”

That sounded a lot like Katarina’s engagement to her own mind. After all, Gerald was just using the arrangement to keep other girls away until he found someone he did love.

“Until lately, I thought that it might be alright,” Selena continued. “But after Prince Julius was disinherited, Ian became a candidate to be the king. And I could never be queen.”

“I think you could be a good queen.” Selena was pretty, and ladylike, and all the things Katarina was not.

The older girl shook her head lightly. “I’m nervous all the time, I can barely talk to people. Besides, I’m not very clever and my magic isn’t very strong. I’m just holding Ian back. And really, everyone knows that it’s going to be Gerald or Ian who’ll be the next king. Alan is more interested in his music, Layne is too young and Jeffrey is too… Jeffrey.”

Katarina nodded. That wasn’t quite what her mother thought about the other princes, but it was pretty close. And that was why mother wanted to break off the engagement with Gerald right away. But she’d never heard anything bad about Selena.

“Anyway.” Selena clenched her hands into fists. “I thought that I should at least do something useful for Ian. So I’ve sent Gerald a ransom note asking him to renounce the throne in return for your… return,” she finished awkwardly.

“...what if he doesn’t?” asked Katarina.

Her companion gave her a puzzled look. “But of course he will.”

“I don’t think he’s very interested in the throne, but he’d probably take it as a challenge,” she pointed out. “And it’s not as if he’s in love with me.”

“Lady Katarina, everyone knows Gerald loves you dearly,” Selena told her carefully. “You’re a perfect couple. I only hope that Ian one day finds someone that he cares for just as much.”

Katarina rubbed her head. It was hard to explain how Gerald was a blackhearted prince when no one knew about the game. She’d tried writing everything out, covering it for Sophia as a romance novel, but it turned out that writing a whole book was actually hard.

“But aren’t you engaged to Ian?”

Selena shook her head. “Ian has nothing but contempt for me, Katarina. Once Prince Gerald has renounced the throne, I’ll turn myself in and take full responsibility. He’ll be free to break off the engagement, no one could possibly blame him, and the path for him to be king will be open.”

Katarina gasped. “I’d never heard that Ian was cruel to you, Selena!”

“Cruel?” The girl shook her head. “No, he’s never cruel.”

“But you said that he held you in contempt.”

Selena studied her hands. “Whenever we’re together he avoids my eyes. Or touching me except when he has to. It’s kind of you, but you must have heard the other girls at school who were there with me. He’s a great man and needs someone special with him, not a failure like me.”

Katarina reached over and took Selena’s hands. “But has he ever said that, or was that what you heard from other girls? No one’s said anything to me like that about you.” Gerald didn’t love her and still spent time with her, so Ian not touching Selena probably didn’t mean what the other girl thought. Maybe he was just shy? That would make sense - Gerald didn’t get shy around her, because he wasn’t in love with her. But Ian not meeting Selena’s gaze was probably because he was afraid of his own feelings.

“But it’s true!” Selena exclaimed, and then clasped her hands over her mouth.

“Lady Berg,” a voice asked from behind the door. It was the butler.

Katarina burst to her feet and grabbed the chair at the dresser. Putting it under the door handle, she was just in time to block it from being opened.

“What are you doing?” Selena asked.

“Well, you don’t want him to come in, right?”

Selena looked indecisive. “Rufus is helping me, I couldn’t have done this without him.”

“Ah, like Leon helped me during the duel,” Katarina realised. Wait, when she was thinking earlier she hadn’t considered that: what would Leon do?

Well, he’d…

Katarina rushed to the bed and started emptying her pockets.

“Lady Claes, Lady Berg,” Rufus declared from outside the door. “I’ll have this door open in a moment, don’t be alarmed.”

Scooping the last items out onto the bed, Katarina grabbed the cabinet next to the door and heaved. With a crash it fell over and she dragged it into the space between the chair and her bed. With the cabinet on the floor, it filled the space so that the chair couldn’t be pushed back and thus the door wouldn’t open.

“What are you doing?” Selena exclaimed. “Lady Katarina?”

Among the contents of her pockets, now spilled out on the bedsheets, Katarina found something the size of a pen. “We’re going back to the academy!” She twisted the device until it clicked and then pushed down the top. Waving it majestically, Katarina declared: “Big Stein, I choose you!”

“What are you doing?”

“Wait for it…” Then the girl frowned. Actually, she didn’t know where Leon kept the Big Stein when he wasn’t using it. It wouldn’t get here right away. She sat down on the bed next to Selena, pulled some candy out of the debris that had accumulated in her pockets and offered one to the girl. “So how do you feel about Prince Ian?”
 

Simonbob

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1) Summon Power Armor!

2) Enjoy sweets with new friend, Power Armor might take a while to get there!


I see everybody's plans are working well. :p :p
 
The Kidnapping of Katarina 6-3

drakensis

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The Kidnapping of Katarina

Make a bad one good, make a wrong one right
Power of love will keep you home at night

~ Huey Lewis

Chapter 3

The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury. ~ Marcus Aurelius​

Alan leant out of the window as the first carriage came into view of the Berg mansion. They could have ridden horses and arrived faster, but that would have meant leaving the girls behind. Mary had insisted on going, arguing with Gerald, but the final argument had been delivered by Olivia Campbell, brought by Angelica when the duke’s daughter heard that Katarina had been located.

“She may be h-hurt,” the scholarship student had declared. “And light magic is supposed to be able to help against dark magic! Let me help!”

For a moment he’d half expected Gerald to simply throw the girl up onto the saddle and ride off anyway, but after a moment, his brother had instead simply nodded and seized the reins - pushing aside the coachman in the full confidence that he could do a better job.

Given that their carriage was a good half a street ahead of the second - holding Nicol, Sophia, Keith and Angelica - Alan thought that his brother might have a point. It was immensely irritating at times. Actually, a lot of the time. Reaching into his pocket, the musician checked that he had the toy snake Katarina had given him once.

He’d never actually thrown it at Gerald, of course. He certainly wouldn’t now. But just touching it was a reminder of the first time he’d ever seen that veneer of perfection broken.

The image of eight-year old Gerald leaping back and screaming in terror at the thought that he might have had a snake leap out at him still served as a reminder that no one, not even his twin brother, was perfect. And that it was therefore okay for Alan not to be perfect.

He’d still try to be Gerald, of course. But he’d learned to take satisfaction from the few victories he came across and simply be proud of his brother when he came second. Because at least he was the very best second that he could be.

Right now though, Alan was very glad to have Gerald at his side because there was something very wrong with the Berg mansion.

“I can’t go any faster!” Gerald snapped, before he could ask. “Do something about the gate!”

Ah, making himself useful! Water coalesced before Alan and he flung it forwards, slashing open the more or less ornamental locks securing the gates to the Berg’s estate. A second and third projectile hit the metal framework hard enough to force both panels back, opening a gap that the carriage could just barely get between. Alan had to heave himself back into the window or his face would have been scraped off.

“What’s going on!” demanded Mary. “Is Lady Katarina alright?”

“I don’t know,” he admitted.

The horses, almost spent from the run, slowed and the coach began to roll to a halt. Anticipating Mary, Alan grabbed the handle of the door. As soon as it was slow enough, he held it open and hopped down onto the step, and the instant they stopped his boots were on the ground so he could help first Mary and then Olivia out.

“Oh my god!” Mary shrieked, and she pulled up her skirts to dash towards the mansion the moment her boots were on the ground. Gerald was already running ahead of her.

Half of the mansion was gone.

Well, that was an exaggeration. Half of the front was gone - as if something massive had crashed against it and ground away the wall. Rooms were gaping open to the elements, some of them with part of the roof falling in. Debris from the architecture and wrecked furniture was scattered around, both inside the rooms and across the grounds outside.

“What happened here?” Olivia gasped in dismay.

Alan shrugged, seeing the second coach navigating the gates with a little less confidence than his brother had. Looking at the rest of the mansion, it seemed alright. In fact, the front door was open and inside he saw servants. “Let’s find someone to ask,” he decided and took Olivia’s arm, drawing her towards the door.

The little elf boy hopped down after them and followed them. “Bartford,” he muttered to himself. “This has to be Bartford’s fault.”

“Leon isn’t even here,” Olivia protested.

“What has that got to do with it? Everything is Bartford’s fault!”

“Make yourself useful.” Alan forced himself not to run up the steps. “And whining about Lord Bartford isn’t helping.” Plus, the kid really ought to watch his tongue when it came to using people’s titles. Even if Alan didn’t care much, a lot of lords would make trouble for the ministry if their errand boy was too sloppy about protocol.

One of the servants - a footman, Alan thought - came to intercept them once they entered. “I’m sorry sir, the household is not welcoming visitors today.”

“Who are you?” he snorted. He’d never seen this one before… hadn’t there been something about Selena changing up her staff here? “Where’s Lady Berg?”

“Sir, I must ask you to - urk.”

The footman’s words choked off as Alan seized him by the front of his shirt and yanked him up onto his tip-toes. “Lady Berg is to marry my brother this winter. Under the circumstances I am just a little concerned for her safety!” Forcing himself to let go, he leaned in. “Now where is she?”

“We don’t know,” an older maid declared when the footman seemed unable to speak clearly. She was crouched over another servant, who was on the floor with a bump on her head the size of a goose-egg. “She was in her room as far as I know when this happened, but she’s not there now.”

Alan orientated himself and realised that Selena’s rooms weren’t among those that had been suddenly refurbished.

“Let me see if I can help,” Olivia offered, stepping forwards to take the maid’s place. She reached out and light began to form around her hands, sweeping over the fallen woman.

“Light magic!” a young woman gasped.

“Is anyone else missing?” Alan asked. “Or injured?” He’d been trained in crisis management, and if Katarina had been hurt, this was the fastest way to find out.

The older maid straightened herself and reflexively adjusted her apron. “Mr Brode is unconscious as well. He’s still half-buried, but he’s breathing alright.”

“Brode?”

“The butler, your highness. Rufus Brode.”

The man who should be in charge. Naturally. But there should be someone around here from the ministry, shouldn’t there? They would know what’s going on. “Kyle, wasn’t there someone you’re looking for?”

“Uh.” The elf looked embarrassed and then pointed at the unconscious woman. “That’s her.”

“...I still don’t think it’s Leon’s fault, but I’m beginning to see the appeal of having someone to blame,” Alan admitted.

“You see!?”

Nicol and Sophia entered, looking around the room. The older boy got right to the point: “What happened?”

“I was about to ask,” Alan admitted and then turned to the maid who was now - by default - in charge of the servants. “Is there anyone here besides servants and Lady Selena? A guest, perhaps?”

“Ye- no, er…?” the woman shook her head in bemusement. “I don’t…”

“There was someone for dinner,” a cook declared. “Because we were told to prepare two portions.”

“Then why don’t I know anything about it?” one of the footmen exclaimed. “There were no carriages or horses.”

“How about guest rooms?” Sophia asked sharply. “Were any rooms prepared for a visitor?”

A bit of discussion among the servants confirmed that yes there had been one guest room made ready and that the unconscious maid had been the one assigned to tend to it.

“Let me guess,” Alan declared sardonically. “It was right in the area where an entire wall is now missing, and both this lady and the mysterious Mr Brode were there as well.”

A number of eyes refused to meet his.

“Yeah, I thought so. And here’s the question you’ve all been waiting for: what happened to the mansion?”

It was the young maid from before who answered: “A big white knight-armour crashed into it!”

“You saw?” Nicol asked her.

This, unfortunately, was a mistake. The maid looked Nicol full in the face and fainted on the spot.

“Dammit, Nicol. You should wear a mask or something.”

If his friend had been capable of looking offended, he probably would have.

“Did anyone else see it?”

“I didn’t see it land,” the boot-boy called out boldly. “But I got out in time to see it take off again. There was a woman in it.”

“Women don’t use knight-armour,” the footman from before asserted.

“I didn’t say she was flyin’ it,” the boy pointed out. “Just in it. There was two women, one who jumped into the chest place -”

“The cockpit.”

“I don’t think two cocks could fight in it, my lord.”

“Call him ‘your highness’,” the older maid hissed.

“The place where the pilot sits is called the cockpit,” Alan clarified. “So this woman… white and blue dress, long brown hair?”

“Yes sir!”

“So she jumped inside of it. And there was another woman?”

“Yes, I didn’t get as good a look, because it had its hand around her.”

Alan winced at that. “How tight?”

“Just holdin’, sir. Not that tight.”

He and Nicol both exhaled slightly. “And do you think that the other woman could have been Lady Selena?”

The boot-boy kicked at the ground, looking abashed. “I ain’t hardly never seen Lady Berg, sir. I couldn’t rightly say.”

“Alan!” Gerald bounded into the hallway, followed a few steps behind by Mary. “I can’t find Katarina anywhere. What are you doing here?”

“I think I know what happened,” Alan told his twin. “But do you know where there might be a portrait of Selena?”

“Parlour,” his brother answered tersely, pointing at a door. “But what happened and where is Katarina!?”

“Bartford crashed into the mansion in his knight armour, grabbed Lady Berg in one hand and then had Lady Claes jump into the cockpit with him,” Kyle declared. “His spare knight armour is white, mostly.”

It was. Alan remembered it vividly.

“Oh no!” Sophia wailed at the top of her voice. “Now he really has eloped with her! Brother, you waited too long!”

-

Leon was back at his usual table in the dining hall, Violette and Scarlet sat opposite. After the last few days, he wondered if he was going to be accused of seducing them as well.

Admittedly, he could do far worse. Actually, it would be hard to do much better - a duke’s daughters, beautiful, rather nice girls. Short of pitching his cap for Princess Erika (who was absolutely too young), they were as eligible as any girl at the academy.

No wonder most of the boys aiming for high-status women hate me, he thought as he cut into the meat on his plate. The food was as good today as it was most days, but a lot of the student body seemed distracted. Having one of the most prominent students abducted and half a dozen of the student council vanish off on a rescue mission would do that.

“Master, I thought you’d want to know that someone has signalled for the Stein knight-armour,” Luxion informed.

Leon picked up his glass. The AI was taking shameless advantage of the fact that Leon had to circumspect in talking to him while Scarlet was around. He sipped and then almost jumped out of his skin when Clarice set her tray down next to him.

“Weren’t you expecting me?” she said with a smile.

“I was a little distracted,” he admitted and shuffled aside a little to give her room. “Make yourself comfortable. You know Scarlet, of course. And I imagine you’ve crossed paths with Violette.”

“I have.” Clarice edged her chair just a little closer to Leon’s, making it clear she didn’t want or need that extra space. “And may I say you look considerably better, Violette, than you did when you were twelve and still being dressed by your mother.”

The girl dropped her fork. “I…”

Scarlet’s knife visibly bent in her hand.

“Oh crud,” Clarice sighed. “I’m sorry, that came out wrong. Look, you were dashing as all get out. Jilk went around trying to imitate your swagger and pretend that he wasn’t doing it. I actually thought it was cute…” The redhead shook her head at the folly of younger-her. “So you looked good then. All I mean is you look better now. Happier.”

“Ah.” Violette swallowed, then took a napkin and wiped her eyes. “I tend to… make assumptions, when mother is mentioned.”

“It was tactless of me,” the older girl admitted. “And it probably came across as me taking a jab because you’re already friendly with Leon.”

Violette picked up her fork from the floor. “So are you…” Her sister plucked the fork from her hand and walked off with that and her bent knife, heading for the cutlery stacked waiting for use. “Are you and Leon together?”

“That’s the popular perception,” Clarice admitted. “So the question I have is, how do you feel about that, Leon?”

“If you just mean reputation-wise, it’s rather flattering,” he told her. “But I don’t think that that’s what you mean.” He filled his mouth with food and hoped Luxion could understand his subvocalization while eating. “Will you send it, and was it Katarina?”

“I have, master, and it was. She is flying back towards the academy and has a passenger or captive with her.”

That should be interesting, he thought.

Clarice sighed. “I wouldn’t have asked you to stay with me, if I just meant that.” She was looking at him directly, and so she probably didn’t see Violette giving Leon a little thumbs up.

Well, speaking of not being able to do much better, Leon thought to himself. “I don’t know how it’ll work out,” he admitted. “But it occurs to me that not only is that pretty normal for a relationship… I’d actually like to find out.”

“From you, that actually sounds enthusiastic,” the second year told him, looking both pleased and amused. “Don’t worry, I won’t go too fast for you, I know you’re a fragile man who can’t take too much.”

“Your consideration is most deeply appreciated,” he replied, then lifted his glass. “Although if you’ll permit me a moment’s preparation, there is something that I think I ought to take care of right at the outset.”

“Oh really?”

He sipped from his glass and then wiped his lips meticulously. Finally, Leon took Clarice’s hand and lifted it, kissing her gently on the knuckles.

Around the room, there was a rush of gasps and gossip.

Clarice’s eyes twinkled. “Oh this could be fun.”

“I certainly hope so.”

Scarlet returned to her seat, handing Violette a clean fork. “So are the two of you together?”

“I should certainly hope so,” Clarice declared. “Jealous?”

“I don’t know.”

Leon almost choked on the forkful of food he’d just put in his mouth.

“He’s rather nice to be around, and then there’s the young men who thought he was with me and weren’t willing to argue with someone that thrashed Jilk.” Scarlet’s tone wasn’t exactly melancholic, but certainly a little wistful. “Does this mean we can’t study together/”

“Something can be negotiated,” Clarice declared, preparing to start eating her own meal. “I’m not claiming exclusive ownership of him, just of certain select portions of his life.”

Scarlet nodded in acceptance, looking happier.

“Are you interested in finding someone?” Violette asked. “Greg probably wasn’t a good, uh, comparison.”

“It has to be someone that’ll stand up to father,” the younger of the two Ades twins pointed out. “That makes it difficult. But I’m not sure what else I want in someone.”

“Well, there’s time to think about it,” Leon offered. He then looked over at Clarice. “Speaking of exclusivity.”

“I sent the servants home,” she confirmed, picking up on the hint. “It was… educational, having them. But I slept better last night with you than I did anytime that they were there. I think that’s a sign of something.”

“The rest to be figured out.”

“Exactly.” She twirled her fork. “Oh, and here comes trouble.”

Looking up, Leon saw that Prince Julius was crossing the dining hall towards them. Well, at least it wasn’t one of the more hair-triggered members of that group. Like… almost anyone except Chris really. And only Julius and Brad had no particular feud with the four of them.

“Good evening,” the prince greeted them. “I… uh, gather from the absence of Gerald and the others that Lady Claes is being rescued?”

“Lady Claes has made a daring escape and we can expect her to return under her own power,” Leon told him. “Although exactly when may depend on her grasp of geography.”

“She’s escaped?” Violette asked. “Is she alright?”

“How do you know that?” Clarice asked suspiciously.

“My familiar is very shy, but I persuaded them to go to the Berg mansion,” Leon informed them cheerfully. “Perhaps inspired by their fondness for Lady Claes, they did so and proudly reported that she has managed to get herself away without needing her fiance’s help.”

“I am not fond of the Claes woman,” Luxion protested. “Although her generally low level of magic and resourcefulness in escaping without it does make her preferable for reproductive purposes to your current partner. If the social dynamics shift to allow you to win her over, I recommend doing so.”

I’ll keep that in mind should I ever want Clarice to rip my balls off, right before Gerald flambes me and Mary goes evil marchioness on my family, Leon thought.

“...good for her, I suppose,” Julius decided. “I suppose anyone who can beat Chris isn’t going to be too badly distressed by some kidnappers.”

“Anything else you want to know?”

The prince frowned at Leon, but asked: “What’s going to be done with Marie’s servant?”

Clarice chuckled. “Well, your lovely little miss Lafan has a choice: she can either be seen as too dumb to realise her servant was spying on her for Marquis Mason, or she can choose to be judged complicit in his crimes. I don’t envy David Fou Mason his fate once the Claes and Stuarts are through with him, but he’s a Marquis. Even after this he’ll have some bargaining power - if only so they don’t have to go to war and conquer his domain.”

Leon spread a map of the kingdom in front of him mentally. Marquis Mason’s domain was strategically placed to control several key routes through the south of Holfort’s territory, but by the same token all of those routes were ways that hostile fleets could close in on him. If the marquis fled to his home he’d likely find no less than three ducal fleets closing in on him. To all practical purposes, his only hope of salvaging anything would be to convince the crown to let him surrender on negotiated terms.

He’d bet big… and lost disastrously.

“Viscount Lafan doesn’t have that degree of security,” Clarice continued cheerfully. “Any of the three involved Dukes could squash them like a bug. So I’d suggest that your lady - and yourselves, since you all bought Nanaka for her - play dumb.” She smiled very broadly. “That ought to be easy enough.”

Julius’ face was like a thundercloud. “Are you threatening Marie, Lady Atlee?”

Leon sighed. “That was a warning, your highness. Advice on how you and your circle of friends can avoid getting into a great deal of trouble. If I was threatening you, I’d be suggesting that Scarlet and Violette reconcile with their aunt by deeming you all conspirators and marching you off to the tender mercies of Duchess Miranda Rafa Claes.” He paused. “Such mercy as she may elect to show… which isn’t going to be very much.”

“I’m not afraid of you, Bartford.”

“I’m not the one you should be afraid of, your highness.” Leon gestured lightly towards Scarlet, who had put her cutlery down and was putting on her gloves, looking hopeful.

“...I take your point, Lord Bartford.” Julius was sweating heavily. Perhaps it was too warm for him, or perhaps he was coming down with a fever. “Please remain seated, Lady Ades. I will not give you an excuse.”

“He can be taught,” Scarlet pouted as she watched the prince retreat, tail firmly between his legs.

-

It only took two tries for Katarina to find the Academy.

It wasn’t her fault! The capital was surrounded by large mansions for various noble families, each surrounded by gardens and guest houses and other things. And they looked a lot like the academy with its classrooms and function buildings and dorms being surrounded by gardens.

Finally, she’d spotted the Claes mansion and just followed the road from there to the academy. From the air, because after the first time she landed on the street she didn’t want to damage it. That one bit was an accident! She’d pay for it! Somehow!

(She wasn’t sure how many treats she’d not be able to afford by paying out of her allowance for repairs, but it was better than being lectured by her mother if the Duchess found out about it.)

But now she was over the academy and could see students pointing up at her. The hangar doors at the arena were closed, so she took off again and looked for somewhere else she could land. Katarina spotted her vegetable garden, and finally settled on some unused land near it - that would mean that nothing valuable got damaged.

“Whew!” the girl gasped once the Knight-Armour - Big Stein! - was on the ground. She must have been flying for an hour, that really took it out of her. And she’d built up a sweat - there was a reason for the piloting suit, it was a shame she didn’t have one with her.

Opening the cockpit, Katarina saw Selena still clutching the Big Stein’s hand. Fortunately the other lady had fairly short hair so it wasn’t too mussed up. “We’re here!” she declared proudly. “Are you alright, Selena?”

“We, uh… can you get me down please?” her companion asked weakly.

“Sure!” Katarina climbed down onto the Knight-Armour’s knee, and then helped the light-haired girl to descend from the hand. Selena obviously wasn’t used to climbing, and she was wearing shoes rather than practical boots. No sooner than she was standing on the knee but she slipped.

Katarina tried to save her, but only got pulled off balance herself. The two of them tumbled the rest of the way to the grass. But that was pretty soft.

“Please don’t let me have killed someone with my butt,” Katarina wailed, before realising that she hadn’t landed on Selena. Yes! Good job, her!

“Killed someone with your what?” Selena asked, sitting up.

“Nothing, nothing!” The brunette helped her up. “Now, let’s go see the others and…”

“Katarina!” someone called.

Looking around, she saw Leon walking briskly up to them. Clarice was on his arm, looking much better than she had last time Katarina had seen her, while Scarlet and Violette Rafa Ades were arm-in-arm behind them. “Hi! I’m back!” she called.

The boy shook his head as he approached. “Katarina, I’m sorry,” he offered. “I have terrible news.”

“What?!”

“You’ve missed dinner.”

“NOOOOOOO!” Katarina exclaimed, dropping to her knees. “Not dinner! Not two days in a row!”

Selena patted her awkwardly. “Um, it’ll be alright?”

“I’m sure we can work something out,” Leon offered sympathetically. “But really, you need to time your dramatic escapes better.”

“I escaped just fine, it’s really hard to find this place from the air!”

“Of course, of course.” Leon helped her up. “So I see you brought Lady Berg back. Welcome to the Academy.”

“Thank you.” Selena had perfect manners, of course, and curtseyed. “Lady Atlee, Lady Ades… Ladies Ades, rather.”

Violette and Clarice both also curtseyed, but Scarlet put her hands on her hips. “Is she a prisoner?” she asked, nodding at Selena.

“What? No! I just brought her here to get everything sorted out,” Katarina explained. “There’s been some sort of misunderstanding.”

Violette looked perturbed. “So she didn’t have someone lure her away from the academy, then have you taken to her mansion? Or sent a ransom note to Prince Gerald saying he should renounce the throne to get you back?”

“No, I did all those things,” Selena confessed, looking shame-faced.

“Because that makes you seem about one ‘whahahahaha’,” (Violette did a really good villainess laugh, covering her mouth with a fan and everything! Katarina was impressed) “From being the evil marchioness in a play.”

“Why were you even doing that?” Leon asked in a reasonable voice. “I mean, it’s not as if you dislike Katarina or Gerald, right? So this wasn’t personal.”

Selena explained again, more or less as she had in the guest room that Katarina had been staying in. The other four students listened carefully, while Katarina wondered how she was going to get something to eat before breakfast tomorrow. Maybe she could sneak into the academy kitchens before letting Anne know she was back?

“That’s just stupid!” Clarice said flatly.

Katarina nodded. Anne would know she was back by now, she was probably already preparing fresh clothes and a lecture for her. ...wait, no. Clarice was talking about Selena.

Selena looked pale. “I’m sorry,” she said softly.

“What’s the point of sacrificing yourself for some idiot who doesn’t love you?” the redhead continued. “I can understand not wanting to marry him, but don’t try some grand gesture that won’t get you anything. Keep that for someone whose opinion of you might change.”

There was a slight twitch in the older girl’s jaw and suddenly Katarina saw Selena as more Lady Berg and less as a girl out of her depth. “I disagree, Lady Atlee. I don’t need Ian to love me, in order to love him.”

At that moment, a brilliant white figure swept into view and Katarina found her breath snatched away.

Ian Rafa Stuart was wearing white, as usual, and his short blond hair was in slight disorder. He was riding a white horse, and his face was pale as he galloped towards them.

The little group scattered out of the way as the prince reined his horse in, the steed rearing magnificently in the evening sun. Only Selena didn’t move of her own accord, Leon had to backtrack a half-step to drag her after Clarice.

Ian leapt down from the panting horse’s back. “Lord Bartford,” he declared flatly. “You appear to have your hands on my fiancee. Correct this. Now.”

Katarina realised that she was - for the first time in her admittedly limited acquaintance with Gerald’s older brother - seeing him absolutely livid. It was terrifying.

“Just making sure you didn’t trample her,” Leon told the prince, releasing Selena.

Ian strode forwards, swept Selena in his arms and then placed her protectively behind him. “You took your knight-armour, crashed into her mansion and then carried her off across half the capital. I require a much better explanation from you than that.”

“Er…” Katarina raised her hand slightly. Those grim blue eyes flickered to her and she winced. “Um. That was… kind of… me?”

Her words cracked the prince’s icy demeanour. “I… what do you mean that you attacked Selena, Lady Claes?”

“No, Ian, it’s not like that,” Selena protested. “This is all my fault.”

Katarina pulled the summoning device from her pocket. “Leon gave me this last term, so I could summon Big Stein into the arena for my duel. I called it to me and used it to bring Selena here.” She shuffled her boots slightly. “I think I might have done more damage than, I meant, Selena.”

“Why were you even there? I understood you to have been kidnapped somehow…”

Selena swallowed a sob. “I’m sorry, Ian. I wanted to help you and I’ve just made everything worse.”

Ian coughed and rather obviously avoided looking back at the woman behind him. “No, you’ve nothing to apologise for, Selena.”

“I kidnapped Lady Claes!”

“...what?” He finally couldn’t resist the temptation and turned away from Katarina (much to her relief). “Selena, you needn’t cry.”

Leon pinched the brow of his nose. “To spare Lady Berg recounting this for what would be, what? The third time today, I think. She’s been tricked into some cockanamie scheme to smooth your path to the throne and end your engagement, because she believes that you don’t love her and that this is the only thing she could do to help you.”

“Selena, no!” Ian’s voice was strangled.

Selena sniffled and looked away.

“No, Selena no!” Ian dropped to one knee before her. “Please, look at me.”

“B-but you never look at me. I’m so ashamed. I know I’m not good enough for you.”

“Just kiss her, you idiot,” Clarice muttered, but Katarina doubted that either of the two heard the redhead.

“Selena,” the prince’s voice was broken. “I… I love you so much. I just… I have too much of my uncle in me. Every time I look at you, it’s so hard to resist acting the way he does. To bring shame on you with my affections. So I… even now, I can’t help but want to hold you in my arms and…” He swallowed. “It is I who has never been worthy of you, but I thank god every day that somehow you are mine anyway.”

The young woman looked up shyly, disbelieving. “You… you mean… you don’t hate me.”

“NEVER!” Ian cried out.

Tremulously, Selena reached out to him. Ian’s own hand extended.

“So lewd!” Katarina cried, and grabbed her cousins, turning them around before they saw too much. “Look away!”

“Katarina,” Violette told her, turning her head. “They’re only holding hands.”

“In public! So embarrassing!” Her cheeks were crimson. “Now look away.” At least Scarlet was being responsible and fixing her gaze away.

Leon’s voice was strained, and Clarice was leaning on him, face red and apparently holding her own embarrassment, by the way her hands were clasped over her mouth. “I think a little lechery… in moderation… might be allowed between an engaged couple…”

Then he fell over and Clarice went down, landing on top of him. Honestly, if Katarina didn’t know better she would have thought they were laughing.

“Ian!”

“Selena!”

Oh gosh, how embarrassing! They could at least get a room! Her poor vegetables, they were too innocent for this!
 
The Kidnapping of Katarina 6-4

drakensis

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The Kidnapping of Katarina

Make a bad one good, make a wrong one right
Power of love will keep you home at night
~ Huey Lewis​

Chapter 4

It is through madness that we hate an enemy, and think of revenging ourselves; and it is through indolence that we are appeased, and do not revenge ourselves. ~ Jean de la Bruyere​

Marquis Malcolm Fou Frampton disliked balls. Dancing was at best a way to exercise, in his view - and if he and his wife had wanted to exercise with each other, there were other places than the middle of a huge hall surrounded by his alleged peers.

Not that he let that on. No, good old Malcolm liked any excuse for a party. Banquets, salons, a day’s hunting… anything where you could get a visitor away into a side-room and have a quiet chat. See what they’re thinking, persuade them if possible, thank them for their wise counsel if not and avoid burning any bridges that you might want to cross later.

It would be social death to say how pointless a gathering where you had to be on display and not use the back rooms seemed, so good old Malcolm had to brave the floor and even occasionally host them. Like today’s, for example.

“Congratulations, old man,” a viscount burbled at him, as Frampton went past him. Perhaps thinking the slight emphasis on ‘old’ would pass unnoticed. “Your promotion, I mean. Lateral, but aren’t they all at your level?”

“Not all of them,” good old Malcolm told the idiot warmly and patted him on the shoulder in an avuncular way before moving on.

Not all of them. There was always down. Always, always, always. Like an abyss beneath him - one of the very few feudal lords who’d managed to take and hold a ministerial position under King Roland Rafa Holfort. It hadn’t always been that way, but for generations now the Holforts had preferred their court lords for such offices, pushing feudal lords out on the old traditionalist excuse of ‘shouldn’t you go off an adventure’. Redgrave would have loved to see that.

And moving from the Treasury to the Ministry of Magic. Oh, if that young fool Allen thought that that was lateral then his brain was even more feeble than his father’s had been. Scraping funds together for one demand or another, always carrying the blame when the funds were not available… At times, Frampton would have rather been demoted to Lord High Executioner. But no, good old amiable Malcolm would do no good there, so he’d clung on. He’d watched, he’d waited… and now Redgrave’s own imbecilic offspring had finally made an opening.

Without the duke’s voice in the king’s ear, it had only been a season before Bernard Fia Atlee had been stumbling. Once the man’s daughter - what was it with daughters? How fortunate that Frampton had none! - had fouled up, there was a need for a reshuffle.

Oh, no face was lost. Poor Bernard, good old Malcom would assure anyone. Just give him a quiet spot at the treasury where he can take the time to get his family back in order. And if that required that Dan Fia Ascart needed to move across to hold Atlee’s former office in Foreign Affairs, well some steady hand was needed in the Ministry of Magic...

And if that meant good old Malcolm had to host a ball, well that was the price of doing business. And Marquis Frampton, lord of a household that had served the royal house back when certain dukes’ ancestors were digging into dungeons on barren rocks and claiming princedom over everything they could cling to, would make the best of it.

Though dancing made talking to the men hard, it did at least provide a chance to open conversation with a lady if she was worth the time. While that wasn’t common enough to make balls worthwhile, he could at least take some opportunity.

“Rebecca,” the skinny marquis greeted his current target. “It’s been too long since I saw you here in the capital.”

“Malcolm!” Marchioness Rebecca Fou Dieke greeted him with a chaste hug and a kiss of the air next to each cheek. “Yes, you know I was never comfortable here but duty demands…”

Duty, meaning that her precious son had been a year and a half at the academy. No doubt she was here to evaluate candidates to marry the Dieke heir to. If the boy was very lucky, his opinion might be heard but was unlikely to be heeded. And no doubt Rebecca would never understand or forgive when the boy strayed the wedding bed as his father had. “Perhaps you would do me the honour of a dance,” good old Malcolm invited the marchioness.

She accepted, of course. She was single - in practice, if not in law - and would be expected to dance. He was of suitable rank and well known to be very married. A harmless way to manage social expectations.

A very useful way to be able to talk, preferably while dancing around people too dim and too interested in each other to listen to a middle-aged couple’s conversation.

“Congratulations on your promotion,” she began as they took to the floor. “Long overdue as it is.”

“I was perhaps in something of a rut at the Treasury,” he admitted. “But with the recent shake-ups…”

“Mason,” Dieke said flatly. Disdainfully. “How could he be so foolish?”

“To do what he did, or to get caught?” To an extent, Frampton respected the gall of the ploy. If it had worked, Mason would have been well placed to play kingmaker and king’s counsellor for the next generation. Of course, it had not worked and Mason faced official disgrace, substantial punishment and being remembered as a marquis brought down by a pack of children.

She made a face. “Failing is its own punishment, but to agree to summary judgement by the crown rather than a court of his peers? Madness.”

“No, not madness.” They twirled upon the dance floor, Frampton watching out for anyone with more than a half-wit between any given couple. “Worrying, but not mad. The only reason is that there is something to this matter so damning that David was willing to take a fall rather than see it brought before a court, and so scandalous that the king is willing to cover it up for a clean resolution.”

That, he could see, worried her. “He had a duke’s daughter abducted by a duke’s daughter, to frame the family of another duke,” the woman pointed out. “Short of incriminating a marquis, it would be hard to make things worse… oh wait.”

Good old Malcolm laughed a little at the joke and sweet little Becky giggled, and then they were out of easy earshot of the Ascarts and could get down to business.

“As the new Minister for Magic, I have their reports,” he informed her. “And even poor deluded David Fou Mason didn’t want to be handed over to the Temple for heresy.”

That got through to her.

“Heresy?” she whispered after a moment. “How does that cross the desks at the Ministry of Magic? Surely that is solely the remit of the Temple.”

“It is when it involves dark magic. The whole ‘magic’ part, you understand.” Frampton gave her a very dry smile. “It’d be a terrible embarrassment to have it made public, so I can see why his highness would rather not advertise the matter.”

“And I would imagine that being burned at the stake would make it rather hard for Marquis Mason to pass his titles and lands to his son,” Rebecca mused. “Have you any idea what he will be facing instead?”

“A year in custody, with his lands administered by a crown-appointed governor who will be responsible for arranging reparations to the other families involved. After which time, David will be free to abdicate his titles to his son and vanish into exile with whatever funds he manages to hide away.”

It sounded generous. Too generous, really.

The marchioness’ eyes narrowed dangerously. “Custody of whom? And what sort of reparations?”

“I believe Duke Claes has offered to take the erring Marquis in hand.”

“...he’s a dead man,” Dieke concluded matter-of-factly. “His exile will be at the bottom of the sea, wrapped in a hundred yards of metal chains.”

“Dead is dead,” Frampton pointed out. “And that would be kinder than how the Stuarts would likely deal with him.” Their father had been a nightmare to deal with and in this regard, most likely the four Stuarts of this generation would follow in his footsteps.

Marchioness Dieke nodded quietly. “And the reparations?”

“At the least, Duke Berg will find the repairs to his mansion covered. But if anything else is uncovered - and one assumes that they have been instructed what to find - there will be justification to peel away some of Mason’s vassals and perhaps even his direct estates. It’s possible his son will find himself reduced to a count, while the remaining lands go to the younger Stuarts on their marriages.”

She frowned. “Ian and Gerald, but it seems the youngest would have little need.”

Frampton arched an eyebrow as they continued to dance. So she knew something he did not. Well, he wasn’t dancing with someone he considered useless. “A fourth son marrying a fourth daughter would usually have few prospects.”

“Accusations have been raised among Mary Fou Hunt’s three half-sisters,” Rebecca informed him a little smugly. “With no male heir, the first born daughter Lilia and her husband - Lord Forton - were heirs presumptive but if she was found to be the daughter of her mother and an elf…”

Frampton frowned. “Hunt’s first wife was a political choice,” he conceded in a neutral tone. The same was true of his marriage, which had worked well, and of Rebecca’s to Marquis Dieke… which had not.

To put it mildly.

“My information suggests that were a certain device that detects elf blood to be brought into their company, all three of the elder Hunt daughters would find themselves embarrassed. I have not, you understand, put this to the test myself. But if Lady Mary is the next heir, then Prince Alan is logically to be the next Marquis Hunt. Stuart-Hunt, perhaps.”

“That would at least reduce confusion if multiple distinct domains fall into the hands of the Stuart household,” agreed Frampton. “We appear to be in a year of many scandals. One hopes that neither of us need to concern ourselves with such?”

Rebecca did not smile. “The closest I have come to dark magic was ten years ago, a foreign mage was caught having abducted commoner’s children for some dark rite or rites. He was put to death, of course.”

“Naturally. One hopes for a kinder fortune for the children - people are so stirred up when their children are endangered.”

The marchioness looked away, to hide distress perhaps. “We advised their parents not to open their coffins, to remember the children as they had been and not… as they were. One of the coffins was weighted with sand, lest they wonder why it was too light. I have always wondered if - had I been quicker or more decisive, would I have been able to make that girl safe as well.”

Frampton’s mind raced, but he reached up slightly to stroke Rebecca’s upper arm in reassurance. “You were swift enough that the heavens granted your son Sirius his health. If that is not affirmation that you did well, I cannot imagine what would.”

A loose end was unfortunate, but if nothing had turned up in ten years then the girl was likely long gone. One did what one must to ensure a stable succession. And as long as you cleaned up the mess, no one wise would dig into the matter. After all, the kingdom’s security rested on clear inheritance of the various domains through each generation - nothing could be more deadly if it went awry. That was Prince Julius’ greatest failure - if he hadn’t also ruined Redgrave’s influence, Frampton would have cursed the boy’s impulsive decision. As it was, he wished the little idiot well, so long as he stayed out of politics. And if he had children with the Lafan girl… well, loose ends that no one else tidied up could be useful in a decade or two.

Rebecca nodded in agreement. “The saintess’ god appears to value action over prayers.”

“Since we are speaking of young Sirius…”

“I don’t recall you having a daughter, Malcolm. Certainly not of the right age.”

“I do not,” he confirmed. “But others are more fortunate in that regard. Have you made any decisions yet as to his future wife?”

“It is too early to say. He must marry well, enough to offset his father’s behaviour.”

Frampton nodded in agreement. “With one marquisate potentially being torn up, it’s important that those of us with the proper backgrounds show our respectability and loyalty. With the marriage alliances between the royal faction and the traditionalists so shaken, old certainties no longer appear to be quite so stable.”

“And do you see how they might pan out?” Rebecca asked suspiciously.

“There are two dukes with unengaged daughters only a little younger than the young Lord Sirius.”

Her eyes grew distant and then flickered as she looked across the room to one of the noblemen currently beset by requests to dance.

Auld Rafa Ades had been a beautiful young man, his wife much envied until the hollow nature of their marriage became apparent. She was gone, and now the duke had grown into a handsome mature man… at least in his looks.

“I assume that you do not propose I should link my Sirius to the Redgrave girl,” she concluded. “Given the girl seems likely to wed the Claes’ boy.”

“Or perhaps Gerald Rafa Stuart. I understand that Duchess Miranda has conveyed to the young lord that their support would not waver if he felt another marriage was more politically fruitful in his road to the throne.”

Rebecca made her face. “Preferring to be the power behind the throne rather than place her blood upon it. She was always cautious. Do you think he will accept that?”

“I doubt that it will matter. Of the four Stuarts, there’s the flirt, the musician and one who burns brightly - but those who do that rarely burn long. If I must put faith in one of them, to be a suitable king then it will be the second son.”

“The king’s choice, of course.”

“Naturally.” Good old Malcolm smiled warmly. “And it is fortunate that there is a choice for him to make that would be so well received.”

“I had heard he was not a pliable one.”

“A pliable king would sway between strong voices. I prefer one who, once convinced, remains steadfast. He is apparently devoted to his fiancee, despite the recent scandal. Indeed, closer than ever with her.”

He saw Rebecca’s eyes soften just a fraction. She admired fidelity within a marriage, for the grass was always greener. “There is much to what you say. One hopes the king will make a wise choice. As to Duke Ades… I find it hard to admire a man who legitimises an illegitimate son as his heir.”

Frampton shrugged. “One does what he must. He has no son within marriage, despite Bellerose’s ludicrous efforts to pass her daughter off as one. And while she was alive he was clear about the legalities.”

“True.” She frowned in consideration. “They are of good lineage, I will concede that. And I presume you would rather he not fall back into line with Redgrave’s traditionalists.”

“That is a consideration - about as welcome a thought as your husband returning to take to politics.”

Rebecca’s laugh was not chilling, it was warm and amused… but her eyes were like black ice. “Do not concern yourself with Regulus. Once Sirius completes the academy and is old enough to inherit, I expect little difficulty in having his father deemed legally dead.”

Frampton put that together with discussions of chains and the deep blue sea. Good old Malcolm would have shivered, but the Marquis and the Minister behind that mask admired the resolution that Rebecca Fou Dieke showed. And having an ally with a spine could be very useful in such troubled times. “I have perhaps monopolised you too long - shall I reintroduce you to our old friend Auld Rafa Ades?”

-

It had taken days for things to settle down after the festival and then Katarina’s absence. Anne hadn’t left her alone and unguarded for the better part of a week, and she was rarely without one or more of her friends. Not that she was complaining - she liked having her friends around, but even so, it felt strange.

At least the mid-term exams results were out and she hadn’t flunked anything so she was free to forget everything she’d learned so far… wait, no. End of term exams could still cover that material. Which was horribly unfair.

Leon had arranged for the Big Stein to be kept within the hangars of the academy, so it would be convenient for her if she needed it again. Or if she just wanted to play with it. Practice! Practice with it. Not play.

“THUNDER SWORD!” she shouted and swept the sword down.

Keith parried. He’d been doing that a lot. “If you shout your attacks, everyone will be able to predict you,” he warned. “Anyway, we should finish now. It’s almost time for dinner.”

Katarina yielded the point and returned the knight-armour’s sword to its weapon case. “You’re getting better, Keith!” she encouraged him.

“Thanks. Fighting Brad… I should have been better than that.”

“Well, just keep getting better and then one day… Although,” she added, “It’s probably best if you don’t end up fighting him again.”

“I won’t, as long as you stay out of duels with Lord Arclight.”

“Is he still a lord? Now that he’s been disinherited, I mean.”

“Yes, Katarina,” her brother sighed. As if that hadn’t been a totally legitimate question.

Getting out of the knight-armour, and then changing out of her piloting suit didn’t take that long. She’d even washed up so Katarina was feeling nice and fresh when she waited for Keith outside the arena.

“Katarina!” he called as he rushed out to join her. “Why didn’t you wait for me in the changing rooms?”

“Because you won’t come into the women's changing rooms and I’m not supposed to go into the boys changing rooms?” she pointed out.

He gave her a frustrated look. “I notice you say that you’re not supposed to go into our changing rooms, but not that you won’t. And you could wait at the door.”

“I am at the door.”

“The door to the changing room!” Keith took her hands in his. “Please don’t go off on your own, big sister. Last time you did, you got kidnapped.”

“Aw, Keith.” She gave him a big smothering hug. “Don’t worry, it was just the once.”

“It shouldn’t even be once!” he protested in a muffled voice. “We were all really worried.”

Well, he kind of had a point. “I’m sorry, I’ll try to remember.”

Keith freed himself. “I suppose that that’s all I can get.” He took her arm and they walked towards the main campus.

It was getting later in the year, not yet cold but definitely cooler. Katarina waved to a few girls she knew as they passed, and some of them blushed rather than waving back. They must be swooning over Keith, she realised. “You’re not turning into some sort of playboy, are you?”

“What? No!” he exclaimed. “...what even is that?”

“The sort of boy who lures young women in and does… this and that with them.”

He went crimson. “Katarina! Of course I wouldn’t do that.”

Well that was alright then. He was much less likely to fall for Olivia and then crush Katarina with his golems then. Of course, that was only if Katarina attacked Olivia, so it was pretty unlikely, but there were lots of potential variables going on. What if he fell for someone else, Katarina had to defend herself and his beloved got hurt. That could happen! Love made people do strange things - look at Selena.

Well, only if she and Ian weren’t having public displays of affection. Her own ears felt warm and she suspected they’d gone red.

“Where do you even learn about things like that?” her brother went on. “Violette said that you wouldn’t even look at Prince Ian and Lady Selena once they reconciled.”

“Just because I know about it doesn’t mean people should look at them. They were holding hands, Keith. Right out in the vegetable patch.”

“You do know that they’re not going to find a baby under a cabbage patch, right?”

“Of course not!” Katarina exclaimed. “But holding hands leads to other things and eventually it gets to baby making. You can’t be too careful. Romance novels just sneak it up on them all the time. Everything’s going well, there’s a happy couple and then dot-dot-dot.”

“Dot-dot-dot?”

Katarina mimed what she meant.

“An ellipsis,” he said in comprehension. “Well at least Sophia’s not sharing anything more…” he coughed and broke off. “Anyway, Bartford is more likely to be a playboy than I am.”

“I hope not, I think Clarice would be really unhappy with him if he did that.”

Keith shook his head. “Anyway, I want to collect something in the Council wing. Come in with me.”

Katarina was about to protest that she could manage on her own for a few minutes, but given poor Keith was so worried she decided to let him have his way. “Alright.”

The council wing was quieter than usual, the only person in the hallway was Lord Dieke, taking some papers upstairs. Katarina gave him a wave and a smile, which he returned gently before carrying on.

“It’s just in here,” Keith declared and opened the double doors to the meeting room. Everything inside was dark for a moment and then, just as Katarina started to realise that it was full of people, Gerald lit all the lamps with a casual wave of his hand.

“SURPRISE!” All her friends were there, plus a lot of the other student council and there was cake and other sweets on the table - as well as savoury food. A banner was hung above the table declaring ‘Good job rescuing yourself’.

“Three cheers for Katarina,” Nicol directed and the students present all shouted hurrah three time as she looked around in surprise.

“Keith, Keith! It’s a surprise party!”

“Yes, Katarina.” He smiled. “I helped set it up.”

“I’m so surprised. I’ve never had a surprise party before!”

“Not for want of trying,” Gerald muttered as Mary and Sophia moved in to offer Katarina plates.

The next hour or so was a whirl of conversation with everyone, between making sure that food was being eaten. She spoke to Violette, who told her she had plans to take up the sword again, so Katarina offered to spar with her. Then Clarice told her a little about what to expect for the next year or so at the academy, which sounded like fun except the lessons.

Gerald wanted to talk about the school trip and which of the destinations Katarina wanted to go to, which was odd because they were picked randomly to ensure that every student got to go to a different destination every year. So she was going to get to visit all of them over the three years.

“Are you and Scarlet going to be competing over exam results again?” she asked as her cousin approached, offering her some little cocktail sticks with sausage, fruit and cheese on them.

“No.” Gerald shook his head. “Although congratulations on coming first,” he added to Scarlet, accepting one of the treats. (Katarina stacked four on her plate). “But there are more important things in life than exams.”

Katarina’s cousin looked thoughtful. “Yes,” she decided in her usual measured fashion. “Although I don’t know many yet. Perhaps I’ll find something like what you mean sometime.”

The blond prince nodded. “Not upset over Leon being with Clarice?”

That got a shake of Scarlet’s head. “No, he was mostly keeping boys from bothering me. Being his friend does the same now that he has such a reputation.”

“What sort of reputation?” asked Katarina curiously.

“Ah… that he’ll go to any lengths for his friends,” Gerald told her. “A lot of people still think that he was piloting your knight-armour when it knocked down half the Berg mansion. Given that Duke Berg hasn’t destroyed him, that suggests he got away with it.”

“Oh.” She frowned. “Should I explain it?”

“I don’t think so.”

Scarlet nodded. “Having a formidable reputation is an asset.”

Katarina’s next visit was to Leon, who was talking to Princess Hertrude. “Are you having fun?”

“I am,” the princess said politely. “I would thank you for inviting me, but I gather that this isn’t how it works for a surprise party.”

“I’m glad you came, after all we’re friends, aren’t we?”

The dark-haired princess looked surprised. “Ah, yes… I don’t think I have had much chance to make friends before coming here. I hope Hertrauda is making friends back in Fanoss.”

“Your little sister?” asked Katarina.

“Yes, she’s touring the principality while I’m here. Neither of us has spent much time outside our home castle since our parents died.”

“I’m so sorry,” Katarina told her, pulling her a hug. “That must have been really hard for you. I don’t know what Keith and I would do without our parents.”

“Um…” Hertrude was stiff in her arms, as if she wasn’t used to being hugged.

“Alas, since immortality is a pipe dream, we’re probably all going to face it someday, but that’s not really an ideal subject for a party,” Leon suggested gently. “But my best advice is to have friends and other connections to support you during hard times, whether it’s bereavement or something else.”

Katarina was having a much happier conversation with Sophia about the adventures of the Alluring Count when Marie approached, accompanied by Julius and Jilk. Her friend looked nervous, and Nicol moved in protectively.

The little blonde girl curtsied to Katarina. “Lady Claes, I’m very sorry that Nanaka was involved in the plot against you.”

“Nanaka?” Katarina thought for a moment. “Oh, your servant?” She hadn’t noticed, but now that it was mentioned, when was the last time she’d seen the little demihuman. “How was he involved? Is he alright?”

Marie looked nervous. “Uh, no one mentioned it?” she asked.

Nicol cleared his throat. “I believe Nanaka was the one who lured you away from the changing rooms.”

“...but isn’t Nanaka a boy? I’m sure it was a maid who took me out into the grounds.” Katarina tried to compare her mental image of the boy with the maid she’d seen. “Wait, that was him?” The maid looked so cute! That was adorable!

Marie nodded in agreement. “I’m terribly sorry, I had no idea at all that he’d do such a terrible thing.”

“Well, it wasn’t that terrible.”

Sophia pouted. “Katarina, he led you into a trap so that Marquis Mason’s agent could steal you away from us!”

“Well, yes. But it wasn’t all that bad. And he helped me finish getting dressed, which was…” Oh, wait. That meant a boy had helped her do up her dress. “Could we not mention that to Keith?”

“L-lady Katarina!” Sophia exclaimed. “How terrible!”

Nicol reached over and restrained his sister. “Remember, Sophia. He is being thoroughly punished for his offences.”

“Are you going to be alright without a servant?” Katarina asked Marie, eager to change the subject. Sophia looked like she might be about to cry. “I’d be lost without Anne.”

Why did Marie and her friends look nervous at the mention of Anne? “Um, I think I’ll manage,” the little girl said bravely. “I never had a servant before anyway.” Her eye caught Katarina’s wrist. “Oh, that’s a lovely bracelet, could I look at it?”

“Sure!” Katarina held her wrist out so that Marie could see it clearly. “Isn’t it pretty?”

“Where did you buy it?” asked Julius. “Perhaps we can buy one for you, Marie.”

The girl seemed to shiver. “No, no,” she said hastily. “I’m just looking at it.”

“I don’t know where it came from anyway,” Katarina explained. “I found it in the dungeon.”

“There’s jewellery in the dungeon?” asked Julius. “I’d never heard about that.”

“It was in the forbidden part of the dungeon,” Nicol told him. “Anyone going into those levels will be severely punished.”

Marie looked curiously intent. “Thank you for showing me the bracelet,” she said in a distracted tone. “I’m glad you’ve emerged unscathed from your ordeal, Lady Claes.”

“What was that about?” Sophia muttered. “It’s suspicious, as if she saw the bracelet before.”

“You don’t think she lost it down there?” asked Katarina, worriedly. If so, she should give it back.

“No, or if she did then she went somewhere she never should go,” Nicol said firmly. “The bracelet is yours, Katarina.”

A hand rested on one of Katarina’s shoulders, the other reaching past her to take her empty plate away from her. When had her plate emptied?

Gerald set the plate on the mantelpiece as she turned around to face him. “Katarina, there’s something I need to tell you.”

Oh? Oh! Her eyes went wide. He must have found someone! Oh gosh, who was it? How had she missed the signs? “Um… sure? What is it?”

The prince rested his hands on her shoulders. “There’s something I realised when you went missing. I always thought that I had all the time in the world - or at least until we finished the academy to make this clear to you. But when you were kidnapped… When we couldn’t find you, all I could think was that I might never get the chance.”

What was he talking about?

One of his hands slipped down and around her back, the other up to behind her head.

“Katarina Rafa Claes,” Gerald told her, eyes only a few inches from her own. “I love you. I want to marry you. There is no one else in the world I think about, that I will ever feel this way about. Our engagement is not and has never been for form.”

And then he leant forwards and Katarina’s mind went dot-dot-dot.

-

The party dissolved into confusion after Katarina fainted in Gerald’s arms. For a moment it looked as if Keith and Gerald would come to blows until Nicol and Alan got between them. Meanwhile Mary carried Katarina over to one of the chairs with some help from the other girls.

Leon looked around for other peacemakers and reluctantly stepped up to Gerald. “Your highness.”

“Call me Gerald!” the boy snapped.

“Gerald. I’m not saying you’re wrong, but do you really blame Keith for being worried about his sister’s wellbeing?”

“Ah…” The fire mage pulled back slightly. “No,” he admitted. “But he still shouldn’t accuse me of taking advantage of her. She’s my fiancee.”

Leon settled his shoulders. “Yes, but do you mean that as in ‘your friend’... or ‘your pet’?” he asked quietly.

The prince flinched, and then his eyes chilled. “Bartford…”

“Please, call me Leon,” he said with a smile. “I’m not saying you were wrong to tell her your feelings. And while kissing her was a mistake, I don’t think you could reasonably have known that beforehand. But please remember: kissing her is not a right that you have because you’re engaged to Lady Claes, any more than she could demand them of you.”

“I’d happily let her kiss me!”

There was a snarl of “Over my dead body!” from behind Leon.

He tried to ignore Keith’s protests for a moment. “But do you think she would if you didn’t want it?”

“...ah.” Gerald relaxed slowly. “No, I don’t believe that she would.”

The two young men exchanged nods to confirm that they had reached a mutual understanding. “Maybe have a talk with her. It’s pretty clear now - though not so much earlier - she’s not feeling as ready for this as you are. Figure out where the boundaries are, and how to tell once she is ready for more.”

“Keep your lips off my sister!” Keith shouted.

Leon took a deep breath. “Excuse me, Gerald.”

“Not at all, thank you for your advice.”

The dark haired boy turned sharply and met Keith’s gaze, the other boy still being restrained by Alan. At least he’d not tried to use his magic, so he wasn’t completely out of control. “Lord Claes, are you mad because your sister fainted… or because you’re not the one who kissed her?”

The room fell dead silent. Keith’s jaw sagged, cutting him off almost mid-word.

“My goodness, is that how it is in that family?” Hertrude asked very quietly. Presumably the young princess wasn’t aware that Keith had been adopted by the Claes, due to their lack of a male heir. He was one of the duke’s distant cousins - taking him had provided an heir while also keeping the peace within the household of Viscount Coleman, whose bastard he was. The court viscount hadn’t really been prepared to raise a mage with Keith’s potential, much less when his wife and legitimate sons treated the younger boy as an insult to them.

“You might want to think about that one, because if it’s the latter then you’re just as likely as his highness to have been the one to push Lady Claes outside of her comfort zone.” Leon reached forwards and pushed Alan aside. “And if it’s the former, perhaps looking after her should take priority. Don’t you think?”

“I…” Keith straightened his lapels, looking away. “Ahem. You make an excellent point, Lord Bartford.”

“I would suggest that once you’ve determined your heart’s feelings, perhaps you should also have a chat with Katarina. Probably not at the same time as Prince Gerald. If we’ve learned anything this year it’s probably that relationships between more than two people can cause complications.”

It was possible that Katarina might later decide to be happy with both Gerald and Keith, but that was a landmine that Leon was very happy to run screaming away from. Duchess Claes would probably have him murdered just for voicing the possibility, and the politics would be almost as bad as Julius’ gaffe.

“If we could have a couple of volunteers to help Lord Claes take our guest of honour back to her rooms?” Leon asked brightly.

“I can carry her!” exclaimed Keith.

“Doors,” the other boy said simply. “And someone to carry a bag of leftovers. You know she’d hate it to see food wasted if we’re wrapping up the party now.”

“That might be best,” Nicol confirmed. “Thank you, Lord Bartford. Sophia, if you would set some food aside for Katarina, I’ll escort you, Keith. For security, if you prefer.”

The flaxen-haired young earth-mage yielded to the point, lifting his sister into a princess carry. Nicol opened the door for them and they left, Sophia scurrying after them with two napkins loaded with treats.

“I believe I will also withdraw for the evening,” Hertrude declared. “Perhaps I may follow Lady Claes’ example and take a little of the food along, rather than bother the servants for any supper tonight.”

“I’ll join you, if you don’t mind,” Angelica offered - implicitly taking over as the princess’ escort for the evening. “What would you like to take?”

Leon gave the blonde a grateful look as she joined Hertrude in distracting everyone with a debate over what to take. After having to calm down both Gerald and Keith, he was a little on edge to also have to deal with Hertrude’s sometimes waspish humour. Several other students - particularly those not on the council - were eager to empty a few plates ‘for the road’. He wondered how many of them realised that the plates they were most eagerly working on were those whose contents had been provided by Olivia Campbell.

“My goodness, Lord Bartford.” Mary Fou Hunt waved her fan idly as she approached him. “I didn’t realise that you were so wise in the ways of love.”

“That’s your loss,” Clarice Fia Atlee observed somewhat sharply, taking Leon’s arm. The two girls exchanged social snarls - baring their teeth at each other in a dominance display wasn’t exactly the definition of a smile to Leon’s mind, dictionary be damned.

Mary was the first to break the contest. “One cannot say that you don’t place your lessons into practice yourself,” she murmured. “And to beard such dragons, I see that you are already receiving the traditional rewards.”

“Mistakes can happen in any relationship. How you deal with them is a mark of how much of a future it has though,” Leon answered, evading the implied question of exactly how intimate he and Clarice were. “Can I help you, Lady Hunt?”

“As tempting as it is to expose myself and my own fiance to your razor sharp analysis, it’s actually another matter I’d like to discuss,” the young lady said. “Perhaps we might step into one of the other rooms?”

“I’m sure that could be arranged,” Clarice agreed. “Shall we steal you away to the drawing room, Lady Mary?” The ‘we’ was slightly emphasised.

Leon didn’t think Mary had any intentions that threatened Clarice, and since she nodded in agreement it seemed likely that he was right. After taking leave of her fiance, Alan, who was retiring with his brother to their dorm, she accompanied the two of them to the quieter room.

“The topic I wish to discuss is somewhat sensitive,” Mary began. “Lord Bartford, I believe you are well aware of the recent rise in the number of marriages broken up over infidelity - specifically with the idea that elves are not as infertile with human ladies as was previously thought to be the case?”

“I’ve some familiarity with the concept,” he told her drily.

“I thought you might - since I rather gather your own father’s marriage was the first to raise that particular issue.”

“The former Baroness Bartford admitted infidelity under rather more public circumstances than she had intended,” Leon answered carefully. “And elected not to contest the divorce when the outcome was very clear. I cannot say that an elf was involved.”

“But nor do you say it is not.” Mary noted shrewdly. “And the rumoured devices that can determine if one has an elf in one’s immediate ancestry are said to look very much like the device that the good Director Larna Smith of the Ministry of Magic’s Magical Tools Department presented to you that very evening.”

Damn, that was impressive information gathering. “I’m very sorry,” Leon told her, bowing slightly. “But I am bound by high and potent powers not to discuss that matter.”

“...some form of magic binding?” she asked curiously, causing Clarice to look alarmed.

“One does not lightly dismiss a warning from the father of the young lady that you’re courting,” he clarified.

Mary tsked in annoyance.

“My father?” Clarice muttered. “That… He never said anything.”

“I would imagine he takes the request for discretion as seriously as I do, given the one who asked him to convey the desire for silence to me.”

“A royal command?” the younger girl asked in a frustrated tone of voice.

“You might think that,” Leon answered. “But I couldn’t possibly comment.”

“Botheration.”

“Why exactly are you curious?” Clarice asked. “Is someone suggesting that your mother was…”

“Dallying?” The busty young woman shook her head. “Not my mother, no. She didn’t have a contract servant. But the first Marchioness did have an elf in her service throughout her married years. My sister Madelaine’s husband has his eye on father’s title and if Lilia were found to be half elf…”

“...that sounds rather risky,” the elder of the two noblewomen mused. “What if his own wife is also tarred by that brush.”

“Neither he nor June and her husband have a chance at it while Lilia’s the heiress,” Mary pointed out. “In that respect they’ve little to lose but father’s goodwill in pursuing the claim. And father is rarely willing to make the loss of his favour count for much these days.”

She looked sad and Leon recalled that Marquis Hunt had been widowed twice, a wound that pained him to the point he’d scorned all pressures to provide his family with a third wife who might mother the four daughters from his first two wives.

“If I had one of those deuced detectors, I could settle the matter and they’d stop pestering me to take sides.”

“If you had,” Leon pointed out, “They might all turn out to be part elf. If that happened, you’d become heiress.”

“I don’t want to be a Marchioness,” Mary huffed. “They’re all evil.”

I think that means you’re qualified to join their ranks, Leon thought. From the twinkle in Clarice’s eyes, she was thinking much the same.
 

MrBirthday

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The anime adaptation of My Next Life as a Villianess: All Routes Lead to Doom! (i.e., the Katarina stuff) can be watched for free via Crunchyroll. Two seasons, subbed or dubbed, as you prefer. An anime adaptation of Trapped in a Dating Sim: The World of Otome Games is Tough for Mobs (the Leon stuff) will start airing in April. (And presumably, be available for viewing via Crunchyroll.)
 
The Kidnapping of Katarina 6-5

drakensis

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The Kidnapping of Katarina

Make a bad one good, make a wrong one right
Power of love will keep you home at night
~ Huey Lewis​

Chapter 5

Revenge is the law of the outlaws. ~ Laura Blumenfeld​

For the second time this month, Katarina woke up with no immediate recollection of when she’d gone to bed. But at least this time she woke up in her familiar dorm room and Anne was making determined noises that suggested it was morning and Katarina would be doing her a favour by waking up.

“I’m up,” she declared, deciding that she should appreciate her maid more and not try to go back to sleep. No matter how tempting her soft fluffy pillows and nice warm blankets were.

Perhaps if she just lay here, and stayed awake…

Her eyelids decided to try to sneak down and close on her, so Katarina took them by surprise and jumped out of bed!

“Lady Katarina!” Anne exclaimed as Katarina fell to the floor, legs still tangled in the blankets. “What are you doing?”

“The bed is a cunning wrestler,” she explained, trying to get free. In the end it took Anne’s help and Katarina amused herself through her morning bath by imagining her bed taking on masked wrestlers in a grand tournament. They used tables in matches, so surely a bed wasn’t out of the question?

“How are you feeling today?” Anne asked her once Katarina was dressed.

“I’m fine…” But she paused. “Although… it seems all like it’s been some kind of strange dream?”

The maid tilted her head quizzically to one side. “How so?”

“Well, all sorts of far-fetched things have happened. First I’m suddenly having to replace Clarice in the play.”

“You were her understudy, Lady Katarina.”

“Yes, but then I’m mysteriously abducted…”

“Please don’t remind me.”

“It did all happen, didn’t it?”

“I remember it very distinctly,” her maid assured her. “It was a terrible thing to happen.”

“And then I fought my way out in a knight-armour.”

“Fought?”

Katarina paused. “No, there wasn’t a fight.” Although to hear some tell it, she had apparently battled her way through the Berg family’s guards to rescue Selena from the vile butler who had been using her to kidnap Katarina. The fact that the butler was behind it… or at least, behind everyone except Marquis Mason… shouldn’t surprise anyone - wasn’t it always the butler who did it? But anyway, having people telling stories that didn’t quite match her own recollection was probably why Katarina felt so muddleheaded about events. “I was getting confused.”

“I’m very glad you returned safely, my lady.” Anne made a very rare exception to her usual decorum and hugged Katarina tightly. “Very, very glad.”

Katarina patted the older girl reassuringly. “I’m ever so glad to be back with you, Anne.” She thought back to the people she’d met. “What happened to them anyway? The people who did the kidnapping? Rufus the butler, Lana the maid and Nanaka the…” She wasn’t quite sure what to call the demihuman boy. Her mother had some harsh words about contract servants, but Nanaka was just a little boy, a few years younger than Katarina.

The maid released her and tried to return to putting the various cosmetics and make-up tools away. “Well, I believe Lana was an agent investigating the Berg mansion on behalf of the Ministry of Magic. Why they were doing so, I do not know, but I would imagine she returned to the ministry and has some other assignment.”

“Gosh! She was some kind of secret agent!? I never guessed!”

“I would imagine that makes her good at her job.” Anne pursed her lips. “Although I would rather she hadn’t pretended to be a maid. It casts my profession in a poor light.”

“She wasn’t as good a maid as you are,” Katarina said loyally.

“Thank you, Lady Katarina.” The maid patted her shoulder. “As for the other two, they both gave testimony that helped bring Marquis Mason to justice, so they’re being allowed to work off their debt to society. I’m not sure what the butler has been set to work at, but I’ve agreed to help reform the other one.”

“You have!? How are you going to do it?”

Anne smiled mysteriously. “Lady Katarina, you don’t want to be late for breakfast, do you?”

“Oh no!” Katarina straightened up sharply.

“Nana, Lady Claes is off now.” Anne called, opening the door. “You can begin cleaning the bedroom now.”

The young noblewoman stopped at the door to let the new maid in. ...wait… wait… hadn’t she seen this maid before? “You! Oh my gosh, you’re the maid from that night! You really were dressed up as a maid!”

The little demihuman flushed in embarrassment. “I’m very sorry,” he mumbled.

Katarina looked him up and down. “It’s alright, it turned out well in the end. But why are you wearing it now?”

Anne gave her a little push towards the door. “I believe that the punishment should fit the crime.”

“I know, breakfast!” Katarina exclaimed. “But you look so cute, Nana! The maid uniform really suits you!”

“I’m a boy, you know!”

“Na-na!” Anne snapped.

The demihuman snapped to attention, eyes wide.

“A proper maid must address their employer with respect.”

“...yes, Miss Anne.” Then the little maid turned towards Katarina and bowed deeply. “Thank you for the compliment, my lady. I would prefer to dress as a manservant though.”

Anne swatted ‘Nana’ over the head with one hand. “Choosing how to dress is a privilege, and one that you haven’t earned yet. Now, you have a room to clean, and Lady Katarina has breakfast.”

“Thank you for your hard work, Nana!” Katarina exclaimed and darted out of the room.

“Wow,” she mused. “I would totally have believed that I’d just made up a backstory for a cute maid if Anne didn’t tell me that he was really a spy.” The girl shook her head, and then picked up her skirts to dash towards the dining hall before anyone turned up to tell her that she shouldn’t.

I guess maybe the only part that was a dream was Gerald saying he loved me, she thought. Because it’s not like he’d ever say that to the villainess.

-

“It is confirmed, Master.” Luxion sounded smug. “Only one of the four students you mentioned is on this trip.”

Leon took a deep breath and leaned on the rail of the large skyship that would be ferrying students to the southern island. “Well I was pretty sure that it would happen. Given how events have diverged already from what I expected, something allegedly random going differently isn’t that much of a surprise.”

The drone bobbed along next to him as he turned, thrusting his hands into his pockets, and started walking along the deck. “Will this affect your plans for this trip, master?”

“No,” he decided. “I was aware of this possibility already. I don’t see how the exact events of this trip could take place with the steps I’ve taken anyway, but that doesn’t mean we can rule out the possibility of another kind of attack on the trip. If anything, losing the flutes might make them more desperate and a ship full of potential hostages might be enough for them to flip the allegiances of a number of noble houses in a war. Even if they just stand aside, that would help level the numbers.”

“Do you believe that they would dispense with their princess, who is still within the Kingdom?” asked Luxion.

“I wish I could rule it out,” the boy said, feeling tired. “But if the leaders of her council were willing to push the princesses into using the flutes to unleash the titanic spirits they did in the book and the game, fully aware that it would kill them…” He shook his head. “For that matter, she might be planning to escape the kingdom in the prelude to an attack, gambling that Marquis Field and the other border lords will have their guard down while they believe she’s here.”

The drone remained silent as they went past another group of students. “I assume you have considered the risks.”

Leon closed his eyes for a moment. “Yes,” he agreed, opening them again. “I know you can’t monitor the drones while we’re far away, but if Fanoss does launch an attack, I wouldn’t have enough firepower with just my knight-armour to face them. They do have a slight advantage in their equipment over most of the kingdoms, and it’s likely that Vandel Him Zenden would be present.”

“If you fear that new human so much, an assassination may be in order.”

“I don’t know where he is. Hertrude said he was guarding her sister, remember? They’re touring Fanoss and I don’t know their itinerary. Or if there is an attack, we’d have to find their forces.”

“Most inconvenient.”

“It’s almost like he doesn’t want to be killed,” Leon agreed wryly. “If we do cross paths with him, I’ll do everything I can to get rid of him. He’s incredibly dangerous.”

The AI sounded frustrated. “It is regrettable that we could not secure his sword for analysis. Your description suggests that it may remain a viable threat even to the reinforced armour of your knight-armour.”

The boy nodded. “His skills and his signature blade aside, he’s a tremendous morale boost to Fanoss: no one’s managed to do more than slow him down in battle, and even that’s rare. We can hardly count on some mysterious masked knight to turn up just because he’s needed. Throw in his fanatical hatred of the Kingdom… and he’s one hell of a rallying point for Fanoss. I don’t see the slightest chance of ending this conflict except over his dead body.”

“I have no problem with the death of a new human.”

I would have been surprised if you did, Leon thought. You’re just as fanatical as he is. The only difference is, you’re basically immortal so you’re willing to be patient. Vandel is getting old. If he’s to destroy the kingdom and avenge his family, he’s running out of time.

If it wasn’t for him - and those who take their lead from him - Fanoss might be just another nation. Hertrude conquering Holfort would be bad, but it wouldn’t necessarily be a disaster. A change of dynasty and borders… nothing I couldn’t live with as long as my family and a few friends made it out. The trouble is, Vandel means to see the kingdom destroyed in a literal sense. He’d shatter the entire continent at the heart of the kingdom, kill hundreds of thousands… and be dissatisfied because the other islands still existed.

“Leon!” he heard someone call. “Look, Mary! I thought I saw Leon!”

The boy turned and saw a familiar face. “Well, if it isn’t my fellow giant robot pilot.”

Katarina beamed happily and pulled the pen-like transmitter out. “I brought this with me, just in case.”

Mary clamped her hands over the device. “Please don’t do that, Lady Katarina! Your knight-armour -”

“The Big Stein!”

“The big Stein, yes. It’s only in the hold. If it just takes off then it could tear a hole in the ship.”

“Try to keep that to emergencies,” Leon asked Luxion quietly.

“I know, Mary. I won’t use it unless I absolutely have to.”

“You were going to use it to get to the cake shop in the capital, just so you didn’t need to wait for a carriage to be available.”

“But that was for cake. And I was going to land at our mansion, then walk the rest of the way. I wouldn’t have torn up the street!” Katarina protested.

“In your piloting gear?” asked Leon, curiously.

The brunette nodded. “Of course. Piloting a knight-armour in a skirt is harder than it seems!”

“I’ll be sure to remember that,” Leon told her. “But there’s nowhere on the ship that you’ll need it so keep the summoning device safely away unless we get attacked by pirates or something.”

Mary looked grateful as Katarina complied. “I don’t think pirates are very likely. Did you even bring your knight-armour along, Leon?”

“Just in case,” he confirmed. “You never know.”

Katarina gestured to a table, one of several on deck that were in easy reach of a cafe catering to the passengers. The skyship wasn’t as big as the Dreadnought by length, but it was still huge, reminding Leon of a luxury liner from the age of steam. Fortunately it wasn’t called the Titanic or he’d have snuck off and travelled on his own ship entirely. “Why don’t we have tea together?”

“Leon might be waiting for someone,” pointed out Mary.

“Not really,” he admitted. “Clarice took this trip last year, Scarlet and Violette wound up drawing both the other trips… Honestly, most of the people I know on the ship this time are some of the lads from our class, and they managed some sort of dodge to get themselves and their young ladies aboard so they’re... otherwise involved.”

“It’s so romantic,” Katarina agreed, taking a seat. “Don’t you wish Alan was here with you Mary?”

“Just luck of the draw,” the other girl said, pointedly taking the middle seat so that she’d be between Leon and Katarina.

Luck might have controlled that, but Leon had made a point of seeing that the first year boys who he’d set up with girls were with him for the trip. In a crisis, they’d listen to him and that might be critical. The ladies, mostly recluses, had been less enthusiastic but it wasn’t as if Leon had asked them about which trip they wanted to go on and it kept the boys happy.

Sacrifices have to be made, he thought with self-conscious sanctimoniousness. The girls will just have to bear with being doted on by their young men - and I wind up here with few of my actual friends.

Actually, he really should have asked. “Luxion,” Leon subvocalized. “Which of the four students I asked about wound up on this trip?”

“Deirdre Fou Roseblade.”

Of course. Actually, why had he even bothered to ask? Now that he thought about it, as a third year she must have been to both the other destinations for school trips so her presence hadn’t been random in the book either.

“I hear they have rice on the island,” Katarina exclaimed happily once they’d ordered their preferred desserts. The ship was just pulling away from the port and so there was a nice view of skyships coming and going as they waited for the waiter to return. “And noodles. And octopus!”

“You can’t eat octopus,” Mary said tiredly.

“I’m pretty sure it’s just a matter of preparing it correctly.” Leon wasn’t sure if the island in question would in fact be serving octopus as food, but given it had a culture not dissimilar from traditional japan, it sounded possible.

“Ugh.” Mary shivered. “I’m not doing that.”

“Octopus is delicious!” Katarina declared.

“I refuse to believe that your mother has ever served octopus for a meal, so how would you know, Lady Katarina?”

Leon leant back in his chair. “You’re not usually this sour, Mary.” Or at least, not to Katarina. “Are you alright?”

The girl slumped face first on the table, in a very unladylike fashion.

“...that bad?”

Katarina lowered her voice. “Her sisters got disinherited.”

“...no!”

The long-haired brunette nodded in confirmation, patting Mary sympathetically on the shoulder. “It’s horrible.”

“Is it because of…” Leon trailed off, not sure how much Katarina knew about the ‘great elf mischief’ that was causing so much havoc across the kingdom.

I may have been wiser to be a little more careful with that one, he thought. I knew it wouldn’t be a secret forever, but it’s gotten out so quickly that I don’t think the crown has a prayer of managing the problems it’s causing. There are people fighting and dying over it.

Mary nodded morosely. “It turns out all three of them aren’t father’s real daughters. Father’s been petitioned for divorces, but he refused because technically none of the three of them caused their mother’s infidelity.”

“Well of course not,” Katarina agreed quickly.

“They did cause it to come out though. Let me guess, one of them got hold of a detector?”

“Lilia, of all people. The one who had the most to lose.”

“Mary, I know you were raised alongside them, but your oldest stepsister is an imbecile.”

The girl nodded, her head smacking against her crossed forearms. “The only good news, Leon, is it means I’m not related to them at all. But I’m still going to have to deal with them, because once they’re divorced, they’ll still be our responsibility. Father disinherited them, but he’s not going to disown them entirely.”

“But I thought that he was refusing to let them be divorced?” Katarina said in confusion.

Leon rubbed his chin. “The marquis can’t really stall them forever. The three families Mary’s supposed sisters married into all thought their sons were going to be getting a close connection and place in the succession of the Hunt household. Now that that isn’t the case, those benefits are gone. The only reason not to ask for a divorce is if the couple really love each other.”

“Don’t any of them?” inquired the duke’s daughter innocently.

“Katarina, you’ve met my sisters. Two of them had elf lovers of their own before that scandal broke, and June only didn’t because she likes demihuman ears.”

“At some point, being married in form alone would be worse than a divorce,” Leon pointed out. “If the marquis is smart, he’ll back down once he has enough concessions offered him by his in-laws that he can minimise the impact on the rest of his family.”

“Father can’t really press too hard, the three families all made pretty generous concessions to get marriages with my sisters to begin with,” Mary admitted. “He’s not going to be able to get them twice!”

“Some people would try,” the boy observed, “But it’s likely not wise. There’s going to be enough bad blood. Do you think any of them are likely to do anything stupid about this?” He paused. “Stupider.”

“Probably. The only good news is, they’re so impatient they’ll probably do it while it’s father’s problem not mine and Alan’s.”

-

“In hindsight, Mary, you were tempting fate,” Leon declared as he watched the half-dozen warships moving to encircle the liner. There was nothing he could do right now - Luxion was working the two knight-armours out of the cargo hold and he’d already changed into his pilot suit. Until Dreadnought closed up into its cannon range, or his knight-armour was at the entrance to the hold, he might as well watch.

“It’s not my fault my sister Lilia married a cretin!” the girl told him.

Leon arched one eyebrow. “Really?”

“I was twelve when she married, how could I have anything to do with it?”

“Ah.” He turned away again. “I guess I was over-estimating you.”

She huffed. “Alright, yes, I set them up. If she married someone competent, then her husband might have realised I was playing them off against each other so they’d stop bothering me.”

“And now your brother-in-law is an impatient idiot who’s offending fifty or so noble families so he can abduct you.”

Mary nodded sadly. “I know. But it’s not as if I encouraged him to do it.”

“That I do believe.”

“I’m ready!” Katarina exclaimed, bursting out of her cabin… and very nearly out of her piloting suit.

Leon’s current companion made a slight whining noise and blood began to trickle out of one nostril. He himself sighed, committed the sight to memory (he was only human!) and told Katarina: “Team jacket,” while touching his own.

“Do we have time?” Katarina looked over at Mary, who gestured to indicate she was fine, pulling out a handkerchief to soak up her nosebleed.

“The knight-armours are both ready to launch out of the cargo hold,” Luxion reported, having had to shuffle the contents of the hold to get them near to it. The crew had not been at all happy to load the two giant suits and lord only knew what they’d think when they launched.

“It’ll be a moment before we’re ready to launch,” Leon lied to Katarina. If she didn’t put something on, Mary might die of blood loss.

“Gurk,” the similarly stacked young lady declared once Katarina was out of sight. “Now I can die happy.”

“No rush,” Leon told her drily. “After all, if you die now you can’t talk Katarina into a pyjama party when you all wear piloting suits.”

Mary’s mind seemed to go to a happy place and then she shook herself. “You’re imagining it,” she accused.

He nodded. “Invite Clarice if you want to thank me for giving you the idea.”

“I’ll keep it in mind,” she conceded grudgingly. “Do you think you’ll be alright? I think those ships have two knight-armours each, so you’ll be outnumbered badly.”

“Reinforcements are on the way,” he told her. “My skyship has been following ours and I signalled them when we first sighted these scumbags.” Admittedly, he’d thought at first that it might be Fanoss, but these were older skyships. He’d seen Fanoss’ own skyships over the summer, and they had shifted to boxier superstructure around their cannon rather than the traditional gun-decks still used by most of Holfort’s feudal levies. These ships were even older, with larger forecastles and sterncastles that had fallen out of fashion years ago.

“How long until they catch up?” Mary enquired with a less than detached curiosity.

Her sister Lilia’s husband Jack Fou Forton had declared that all he wanted was to bring his sister-in-law aboard and then he’d let the school trip get on. What he’d be doing after that was a mystery - well, to everyone except him and Luxion (who had sent a stealth drone across to follow the lord around as soon as they identified the flagship) and Leon (to whom Luxion had blabbed).

However unnerved Mary was at being targeted like this, Leon thought she might be even more worried if she knew that Lord Forton was proposing to widow himself and marry Mary. What her sister Lilia thought about this would be something to find out in the near future.

But now Katarina exited her cabin once more, this time wearing her coat over her piloting suit, so it was time for them to go.

“Open them up, Luxion,” he ordered.

The crew of the liner started to cry out in protest as the cargo hold was opened from the inside. Leon and Katarina watched as the two knight-armours, cockpits already open, pushed the hatch open.

The crew weren’t the only ones who objected. “What are you doing!?” one boy exclaimed, rushing to stand between Leon and his knight-armour. “They only want Hunt. Let them take her and we can go on with the trip.”

Mutterings of agreement arose from a few other corners and most of the students on deck started to look around, gauging the way the wind was turning.

Deirdre Fou Roseblade stepped in to join the boy. “You really intend to fight all those ships for Lady Hunt?”

Leon nodded. “Yes.”

“You really are an idiot,” the blonde told him. “But I don’t dislike that side of you.” Her hand lashed out and the boy beside her screamed as lightning played around him briefly. He fell to the ground, twitching and foaming at the mouth. “Grind those bastards beneath your heel, Lord Bartford. And you as well, Lady Claes.”

“Um, thank you?” Katarina looked at the fallen boy. “Is he going to be alright?”

“Probably,” Deirdre drawled, obviously unconcerned. “He may have a persistent incontinence problem but who’ll be able to tell the difference?”

“Katarina, the Stein is ready,” Leon reminded her.

“Oh, right.” The brunette hopped into the cockpit of the white mecha and it closed up around her.

Deirdre caught Leon’s wrist as he was about to board his own crimson and black knight-armour. “A kiss for luck!” Then she jammed her lips against his, making it clear that it wasn’t a request.

Leon returned the kiss, making a mental note to apologise to Clarice later, and then broke away. “You’re trouble, Roseblade. Alas, I don’t dislike that.”

“Hah!” the drill-haired girl laughed proudly, putting her hands on her hips. “You’re not Atlee’s yet.”

“And like that, you lose ground,” he said drily and hopped into the waiting cockpit.

The ships surrounding them had noticed the two knight-armours and their own knights were taking to the sky as Leon joined Katarina in the sky. “Just defend Mary and the liner,” he told her. “I’ll take care of the rest of them.”

“I can do that,” the girl told him confidently. “Er, Leon?”

“Yes?”

“What’s incontinence?”

He blinked. “Wetting himself.”

“Oh gosh.” She paused. “Deirdre probably shouldn’t use magic like that.”

“Well, he was willing to hand Mary over to Forton. Between you and me, I think Mary might have had bigger problems than needing a diaper if that happened.”

“I suppose you’re right.” She unlimbered her sword. “Go get them, Leon. I’ll protect the ship.”

Four knight-armours swept in on them, with the other two of the first to launch from the enemy squadron moving around to approach the other side of the liner. “Be smart, kids,” one of the knights called. “We’re just here for one of the passengers - collecting her for her family.”

“You’re not taking Mary!” Katarina shouted, but she was also moving to prevent the separate pair of knight-armours from sneaking up on them.

Leon raised his rifle. “Last chance, fellows,” he warned once Katarina was out of easy hearing. “Lady Hunt is engaged to Alan Rafa Stuart. Do you really think the Stuarts’ll forgive Forton for raping her - or anyone that helps him.”

“Who said anything about rape?” one of the knights exclaimed - although the other three were suspiciously quiet as they drew their weapons.

The rifle in Leon’s hands roared repeatedly and shots blasted into one of the silent knight-armours, at this range punching deep into the chest and into the cockpit. The knight fell out of the sky and Leon went evasive as the others overcame their surprise and tried to close in on him. None of them had guns out, they’d been aiming to disable him not kill.

“You bastard!”

He fired off the rest of his magazine, blasting apart the shield and arm of a second knight, the one that had spoken now. “Technically true,” he admitted, and feigned reaching back to re-stow the rifle.

Taking advantage, the third of the knights who seemed fully in the loop dived in with his sword out. Leon reversed his grip on the rifle and whirled it, smashing the head of the knight-armour with the butt.

He discarded the weapon, letting it fall away with the knight-armour, whose occupant seemed stunned.

Leon got his axe out in time to bat away the sword of the one knight who’d seemed surprised by his accusation. The man knew how to use a sword against an axe, relying on the lighter mass of his weapon to feint and try to draw Leon into creating a gap in his own defences that he couldn’t cover with the heavier axe.

Twisting, the dark-haired boy let his axe swing just a little too far and then dropped his knight-armour so that the thrust aimed for the arm-pit instead struck his pauldron and was forced up. Sweeping his own axe up, he severed a leg at the knee and then the weapon stuck half-way through the other leg’s thigh.

Releasing it, Leon grabbed the other knight-armour’s wrist, wrenching away its sword and he kicked the falling knight away, turning to parry the sword of the last of his four assailants.

“Who the hell are you? You’re no student!” the knight exclaimed.

Leon said nothing, adjusting his grip on the unfamiliar sword.

The crash of something hitting the liner caught both of their attention, but Leon didn’t waste time looking. He lunged forwards in his knight-armour and drove the blade deep into his adversary’s chest. The blade snapped off, caught in layers of armour - one of the many reasons not to do such a thing, but it wasn’t Leon’s sword so who cared.

Spinning in the air, he took in the situation. Katarina was flying on the other side of the liner - and now only engaged with one armour. The six ships were all manoeuvring - they didn’t seem to have much plan for resistance. As Leon climbed, he saw that they were readying their remaining knight-armours to launch, he didn’t have long.

The last weapon in Leon’s weapon case was his sword. He’d been profligate in using up what he carried so far. That was fine in a duel, but this was a battle.

Finally he saw the other knight-armour - its legs were kicking helplessly, head and shoulders embedded in the side of the liner. Someone had probably lost their cabins - hopefully they hadn’t been in it.

Dropping down, Leon cut the legs off the trapped knight-armour. “Surrender your weapons, and you get to live,” he offered.

He didn’t expect the voice that replied. “L-Leon?”

“...Rudyard?” What was the one-time first son of the Bartford household doing here? Other than getting his ass kicked by Katarina, that was. “The offer stands,” Leon told him. Figuring this out would take more time than he had.

The knight stopped flailing and a click marked the case of weapons sliding away from it. Leon caught it. A rifle and an axe - just what he was missing. Putting his sword away, he took one weapon in each hand. “We’ll talk again,” he warned.

“I know,” the older boy admitted miserably. “Just don’t kill me!”

Katarina finished off her opponent, who seemed just as unprepared to fight someone wielding a hoe as Chris had been. “She’s getting dangerous with that,” Leon muttered.

“It would be less challenging to a prepared foe,” Luxion observed flatly. “Dreadnought is entering weapons range.”

“Excellent.” Leon gave Katarina a wave and then opened his throttle, surging towards the flagship of the enemy squadron. “Get a firing lock on their knight armours, would you? And fire once they’re off the ships.”

“If you continue to close with the enemy flagship, you may be in the line of fire,” the AI warned.

“Just the other five then.”

The knight-armour on the deck was ready to take off, just barely before Leon reached the flagship. It was a new model, sleek and fast moving, with something of a hound motif. Mostly red, it had white trim and the head possessed both a muzzle and pointed ears to go with the rest of the look.

“There’s only room for one red knight on the battlefield!” the man inside shouted. Leon recognised the voice from the spy drone’s feed - Jack Fou Forton himself. And was that…? Yes, the man had actually equipped his knight-armour with massive claws on the hands rather than fingers.

Without slowing, Leon opened fire with his rifle, shattering armour plating across the red and white knight-armour, battering it to a wreck that fell back onto the deck of the warship, sending crew scurrying for cover as it smashed through half of the forecastle.

In a roar of explosions, shells from the Dreadnought crashed into the battlefield, plucking two knight-armours from the sky as they tried to rally to their leader. The other three weren’t in view, but Leon presumed they’d either met the same fate or had found discretion to be the better part of valour.

“Well, conveniently, there’s now only one red knight in the sky,” he called down once he’d turned around and come back to hover over the flagship.

“You craven!” Forton howled. “What honourable knight brings a gun to a duel!?”

Leon sighed. “You’re kin to the Sebergs, aren’t you?” He’d heard similarly stupid sentiments from Greg. “Firstly, this isn’t a duel. Secondly, given what you’re here for, I refuse to believe you have even a nodding acquaintance with honour.”

“Shut up! I am the next marquis! It was promised to me!” The redhead dragged himself out of the wreck of his knight-armour. Though swarthier, Forton’s red hair was almost the same shade as Greg Fou Seberg’s. “Why should I lose that, just because some stupid woman spread her legs for a damned elf!?”

“You probably shouldn’t have let your wife play around with an elf-blood detector,” Leon pointed out. “Or at least tested it on her before she activated it anywhere in public.”

“Jack, you useless idiot!” A woman in a noble’s gown emerged from the stern castle. “What are you doing? Why haven’t you finished him!”

Forton turned and glared at her. “Shut up, Lilia! This maniac has killed all our knights!”

“Then turn the ship’s cannon on the liner!” the woman told him, hand on her hips. “We just need Mary dead and father will have no choice but to declare me heiress again.”

“And we’ll make enemies of half the kingdom!”

“Only if there are witnesses! He’s one lone knight, if there’s no ship to take him anywhere, he’ll never reach an island before his knight-armour is exhausted.”

“Even if that were true, which it isn’t,” Leon reminded her. “I have a very obvious solution to that.”

“You wouldn’t dare harm me!” the woman shrieked at him. “I’m still Marquis Hunt’s daughter in the eyes of the law!”

Leon’s lips drew back from his teeth. “Only if there are witnesses. Isn’t that what you just said?” He lowered his rifle to aim down through the decks at where the ship’s suspension stone should be. “How many people aboard want to die for these two? Vote quickly, because if I don’t get some answers, I’ll assume the outcome is ‘all of you’ and grant your request.”

The officers hesitated, but the sailors knew a lifeline when one was thrown to them. Lilia Fou Forton yelped in disbelief as callused hands grabbed her and one of the sailors found some line to tie her up. Her husband scrambled off his knight armour, looking for some way to avoid the same fate as his wife and the handful of officers who hadn’t seen which way the crew was going and take the lead in that direction. Idiotically, the lord tried scrambling up the rigging, letting Leon reach down and grasp him in one hand.

“That’s pretty smart,” Leon told the crew. “Who’s in charge now?”

One of the officers, at least to judge by his fancy coat, spoke up quickly. “You are, sir!”

“Hahaha,” Leon laughed. “I like that. Good thinking. But when I’m not right over you, you’re the one in charge.” Probably this wasn’t the captain, but he’d spoken up first. “Signal the other ships to surrender. If they don’t then I’ll take that as them volunteering to be sunk, so if any of you have friends on those ships, I do suggest that you be very convincing. They can show their submission by lowering the Forton banners.”

The officer saluted. “Aye sir!”

“Luxion,” Leon muttered. “If any of the other ships fire on me, on this ship or the liner, sink them. And if any haven’t changed their flags in the next fifteen minutes, you can sink one of the recalcitrant ships every minute until there isn’t a ship flying the Forton banner in the sky.”

“I’ll count the seconds, master.”

“Let go of me!” Jack Fou Forton demanded, dangling from Leon’s grip. “Traitors! I’ll strip your families of their lands and titles for this.”

“I’m pretty sure that that would be Count Forton’s decision, and given you just tried to lead him into a war with the Stuarts,” Leon pointed out, “I’m fairly sure your father will disown, disinherit, disclaim you… and every other dis he can think of. It‘s barely a month since the last idiot decided to try abducting the fiancee of one of the Stuart brothers. Don’t you idiots pay any attention to what happens around you?”

He stowed his rifle. “Hand over this cretin’s wife, would you? I want them under lock and key somewhere I control.”

“You can’t do this!” Lilia protested as a squad of sailors hoisted her up like a seabag and carried her up to the edge of the ship. She was evidently wrong because a moment later, she was gripped in his knight-armour’s free hand.

Signal flags were already being hoisted, signalling the rest of Lord Forton’s squadron to surrender, before Leon had turned to return to the liner. By the time he reached it, two of them were already lowering their banners - strongly suggesting that Luxion wouldn’t get to play further with them.

Katarina was standing guard in the sky above the liner when Leon arrived. “Did that one surrender to you?” she asked, pointing at Rudyard’s crippled knight-armour still embedded in the side of the liner. “He seemed pretty miserable.”

“He did. I’ll need your help getting that suit free, but it can wait. I don’t think he’ll go anywhere.”

The white knight-armour nodded and then peered down at the people Leon was carrying. “Who are they?”

“One of Mary’s disowned sisters and her husband,” Leon explained. “I think she should be the one to deal with them. After all, they were trying to spoil her school trip.”

“They should at least have waited until the journey back,” Katarina agreed. For the life of him, Leon wasn’t sure if she was serious or if she’d discovered irony. “I’ll protect the ship until you’re back.”

“Thank you. I’ve asked them to surrender - there’s no need for anyone else to get hurt.” Well, with a couple of exceptions but there was no need to bother Katarina with trifles - except the sort with fruit, custard and cream.

Leon landed his knight armour on the deck in front of the liner’s navigational bridge.

“Look what you’ve done to my ship!” the captain shouted, leaning over a rail.

Cracking open his cockpit, Leon gave the man an amused look. “On the one hand, you can put up a sign immortalising the moment this ship won a battle, earning some scars in the process. On the other hand, you could have explained to Marquis Hunt why his heiress was dragged off your ship while you did nothing.”

“I am the heiress!” Lilia shouted defiantly. “Father will see reason as soon as Mary is out of the way.”

“Firstly, I could throw you off the side right now and no one would do a damn thing,” Leon pointed out. “Secondly, I’m not sure why some elf contract servant who probably went home years ago would have any say in the matter.”

“You wouldn’t dare!” The woman looked incensed. “My husband would report it as a murder.”

“Lord Forton was planning to lob you over the side of his own ship and marry Mary as soon as he was a widower,” Leon pointed out. “I don’t really think he’d mind that much if I did the first part of that for him.”

Mary’s supposed-sister gave her husband a betrayed look. “You unmitigated piece of trash! After everything I’ve done for you!?”

“Like what? Screwing me out of the title that I was supposed to get for marrying you?” Forton shouted back. “Your plan would never have worked. Marrying the chit would have!”

Leon gave the captain a tired look. “You really want to go down with these idiots?”

The man shook his head. “I’ll leave this to you, Lord Bartford. But please get that knight-armour out of the side of the ship before sundown. I’ll need to send men in to move the possessions of the passengers whose cabins were crushed.”

“Leon!”

He looked down and saw Mary on the deck, having clearly run from further back on the ship. “Lady Mary. A pleasure. Do you have any preferences on how we deal with these two? If I understand nautical law correctly, by attacking us outside of anyone’s claimed airspace, we can write this up as a clearcut case of piracy.”

“How dare you call me a common pirate!” Forton protested. “I challenge you, Bartford. Face me like a man!”

“He did, and you lost,” his wife sneered.

“Put him down first,” Mary directed, pointing at Jack Fou Forton.

“Okay.” Leon dropped Forton without any particular consideration.

Mary walked closer and offered the renegade lord her hand. That seemed terribly ill-advised to Leon, but he had no chance to intervene before Forton tried to use the hand to seize Mary as a hostage. The moment his hand was next to hers, Mary whipped her other hand around and stabbed him in the wrist.

“AAAAH!” the man shrieked, falling backwards and clutching at the bloody wound. “You bitch!”

The girl wiped the blade clean with a handkerchief and put it back in it’s wrist sheath. “It’s coated with a paralytic,” she informed him. “You should be getting a tingling feeling?”

Forton tried to get to his feet and fight back, but his legs didn’t seem to be cooperating with him. Determinedly, he tried to crawl, but Mary lifted her skirts in a ladylike fashion before kicking him in the face. Rather than her usual heeled court shoes, today she had followed Katarina’s example and was wearing some sensible boots.

“I heard everything you just said about your plan,” she told him in a conversational tone. “I think i can guess the details of how you planned to force me to marry you… because not even you could be stupid enough to think I’d do so willingly.”

Sprawled on his back, Forton coughed. “You wouldn’t dare kill me.”

“Oh no.” Mary smiled. “You’re right! I suppose even a stopped clock manages that now and again. But the thing is, my dear Jack. That’s not a good thing for you. Because by the time we get back to Holfort, you’ll be wishing that I could get away with killing you.”

Then she stamped her boot down hard on the juncture of his legs. Leon winced. Forton screamed. His wife laughed.

“Don’t be so smug, Lilia.” Mary pulled a needle out of her pinned up hair and reached up to jab her sister in the leg with it. “You’re next.”

“You might want to take them inside,” Leon suggested. “Katarina might see them and feel pity for them.”

Mary paused and then nodded. “Quite right. I was getting carried away. Thank you for the reminder, Lord Bartford. Captain, if I may trouble you for a nice lockable room where the two of them can be chained up? And some men to drag them there. I wouldn’t want to deprive this happy married couple of each other’s company.”
 

LordsFire

Internet Wizard
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It really is a testament to your writing proficiency that I can keep up with what's happening in spite of no starting familiarity with Mobuseka, and only other-fanfiction familiarity with Hamefura.

I do find myself thinking Dreadnaught should have five turrets though.
 
Racing to the Rescue 7-1

drakensis

Well-known member
Joined
Aug 19, 2019
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Racing to the Rescue

But you know what to do (to do)
When it gets hold of you
~ Huey Lewis​

Chapter 1

There is no truer saying than “Revenge is a dish best eaten cold.” It is so much sweeter for the waiting, and my only regret is that I cannot broadcast my triumph to the world. ~ Minette Walters​

Leon opened the crate he’d had the crew carry off the liner as they reached the destination. In the books, Leon had gone wild to get some good luck charms and perhaps he’d try his own luck at that, but they weren’t something he was counting on.

“Lovely day, isn’t it?” he greeted his step-brother. They might not be bloodkin, but their parents had been married once so there was at least a little legal tie.

Rudyard glared up at him.

“Oh, sorry.” Leon removed the gag. “So, let’s try that again. Lovely day, isn’t it?”

“I can’t tell.” The blond young man stretched against his bonds. “It’s nothing but darkness in here!”

“Yes yes.” Leon reached down and began to untie him. “Look on the bright side, at least you’re not being killed as a pirate. That’s an option, you know. The captain wouldn’t have let me keep you aboard if you were free to run around. And if you were really unlucky, you could have fallen into Lady Hunt’s hands.”

Rudyard shuddered. His crate had been in a room just across from the cell where Lord and Lady Forton had been guests. While Mary wasn’t an expert torturer, she’d spent a great deal of the voyage venting her displeasure upon the pair. They’d probably recover… well except for Jack Forton’s ability to father children, but given who and how he’d planned to use that ability on, Leon was disinclined to sympathise.

Helping the taller boy out of the crate, Leon leant against the wall of the alley he’d chosen for this conversation. “So how did you get involved in this mess?”

“I needed the money.”

Leon sighed. “I suppose honest work was hard to come by?”

Rudyard looked abashed. “Forton offered cash up front and mother said it was a good deal.”

“Of course she did.” Leon folded his arms. “Just out of interest, how much of that money is in your pockets and how much went to her and Merce?”

“Why are you even asking? But I’m the man of the family now, I need to look after them?”

The dark-haired young man shook his head. “Are they doing anything to bring in income, or is that another stupid question?”

“Mother has written to all her friends,” Rudyard offered.

“I don’t imagine that took long.”

“She’s got contacts all over the kingdom,” Zola’s only son protested. “There are lots of people who could help.”

“If she had something to offer them, sure.” Leon tried not to smirk. “But she’s not a Bartford or a Coleman anymore. I suspect that an awful lot of those people are all ‘Zola who?’. So, not friends by any definition I hold up to.”

“And I suppose you have a bunch of friends?” Rudyard asked. “I went to the academy too. I know what it’s like when your best prospect is inheriting a barony.”

“Oddly, I do. I admit that I’m as surprised as you are, but there it is. I even have a lady who I’m courting. One who’s actually willing to admit that I’m courting her.”

Rudyard gave him a sceptical look. “You do?”

Leon nodded. “Bizarre, isn’t it?”

“What did I do wrong then?!” Rudyard exclaimed. “I did everything my mother told me I should and no one gave me the time of day! And someone like you is courting a noble lady successfully.”

“A count’s daughter,” Leon confirmed.

“...now I know you’re lying to me,” the blond said flatly. “I might have bought it, but a count’s daughter? You?”

Leon nodded. “Me.”

“Roseblade’s other daughter?”

“Nope!”

“Oh my god, you’re not lying. HOW!”

Leon moved over and rested his hand on Rudyard’s shoulder. “Listening to your mother was probably your first mistake. She’s never been a boy at the academy, and her own time at the career only got her married to a baron she considered beneath her. Zola was a failure, so all she could teach you was how to fail.”

Rudyard seemed about to cry. “You’re telling me I’ve wasted my life. I’m twenty years old in less than a year and no woman will ever look at me.”

“Rudyard,” Leon shook his head. “Your life is not over. Marrying by twenty is a Holfort custom. There are other realms. But you need to make a fresh start and leave behind everything that’ll hold you back.”

“You mean, leave Holfort?”

A nod.

“Mother would never do that.”

“Did you miss the part where I said ‘leave behind everything that’ll hold you back’?” Leon asked. “She’s hundreds of miles away. I’m more than happy to have my report claim that you’re one of the knights that didn’t survive the battle. Just go.”

Rudyard stared at him, eyes wide. Then he shook his head. “I can’t. Look at me. I’ve got nothing. I’ve not even got pockets in this.” He held his arms out, indicating the pilot suit he was wearing.

His stepbrother smiled. “Don’t worry.” He offered Rudyard a bag. “One change of clothes. Enough money to keep you going for a few weeks. And a ticket to the far side of Rachelle. Somewhere no one has ever even heard of the Bartfords or the Colemans. Hell, they might never have even heard of elves.”

The blond stared at the bag. “What if I can’t? What if I fail?”

“You’ve been failing up till now.” Leon was unflinching. “Let’s face it, once your mother realises that her so-called friends aren’t interested, she’s only got two things left to sell. Merce… and you. Which do you think she’ll peddle off first to keep her lifestyle going? She’s not your safety net, she’s an anchor dragging you down… and this?” He waved the bag. “This is your chance to cut her loose.”

-

Princess Hertrude Sera Fanoss had seen a vault like this before - most recently when her own was investigated following the break-in at Castle Fanoss. This was considerably larger though, reflecting the greater age and wealth of the Holfort Kingdom. And although she was an outsider here, she hadn’t broken in. No, she was getting a guided tour.

Trophies and treasures were arranged in alcoves or on plinths. She catalogued the security as she was led through it, biting her tongue rather than comment when some of the ragged and wartorn banners displayed from the ceiling were recognisably those of Fanoss’ knights. Although she surely missed as many protections as she saw, it was all information to note down and provide to her own family’s archives back on Fanoss.

One day, perhaps even one day soon, she might be in a position to take what she wanted from here. It would be useful to have some idea of the likely problems.

“My apologies for the disruptions to the negotiations,” Marquis Malcolm Fou Frampton offered as he led her through the chamber. “The change of ministers has put us in the position of, shall we say, needing to review our viewpoints. A fresh pair of eyes.”

The marquis wasn’t even the Minister of Foreign Affairs, so Hertrude was unclear why he was the one providing her with this tour. Nothing of substance in negotiations could be done without Count Ascart’s involvement now that he was Minister of Foreign Affairs. And yet it was the Minister of Magic who had invited her to this informal meeting beneath the Holfort’s royal palace.

“I can see how that might open new opportunities in the administration of the kingdom, and perhaps in relations with the principality,” she said in a neutral voice.

Then she saw the next exhibit, a severed limb that seemed to mix flesh and metal obscenely, and was glad that she’d finished her sentence before doing so. Otherwise she would likely have stumbled over her words in disbelief. A lost item, just laid out for her to see. Was this a trap?

Oh, it wasn’t as if she could just pick it up and use it, but this could only be the remains of one of the technological golems spoken of as the forebears of knight-armours, or rather, of that knight-armours had first been devised to hunt down and defeat. A legacy of the ancient past, like Sir Vandel’s sword - a potent weapon in the hands of those who knew how to use it.

“Officially,” the marquis noted quietly, “it is the position of the kingdom that the status quo is something we are happy to maintain. The truce that your most honourable father had agreed to allows both our nations to focus upon other borders.”

Hertrude nodded.

“Unofficially, and you must understand that Count Ascart cannot possibly be heard to say this, it is understood that there is some dissatisfaction with the terms within the principality.” Frampton looked at her to see if she took his point.

Her mind going to certain faces, the princess nodded again. “There are always those who feel that their position could have been improved upon in any situation. Whether or not their beliefs are well founded is another matter.”

“It is very wise of you to draw that line.” The marquis led her past chests of jewellery, each closed but with a platter upon the lid to display one of the more notable of the contents. Wealth, but nothing that Hertrude cared for. “And naturally there are those in the kingdom who would prefer that we set aside the treaty and pursue war once more. Those who do not see that our core interests are not really in conflict with yours.”

She made an interested noise, while thinking ‘what a fool’. Not in conflict? Did he not realise that the very existence of Holfort was considered a threat to the principality? It was why her ancestors had broken away, why wars had been fought incessantly over the generations since. And the destruction of the kingdom wasn’t in conflict with Frampton’s so-called ‘core interests’?

Either he was very ill-informed or he was actively betraying the Holforts. Or this was a trap, but hearing him out cost nothing. It was not as if she was under any obligation to tell King Roland if one of his ministers wanted to cut a deal. It could only be considered a violation of the terms of her presence if she accepted it.

Frampton seemed to take this as an invitation to continue. He gestured at an old map on the wall, one that showed the principality’s islands - or most of them - as part of the kingdom. “Borders change over time. That’s perfectly normal. There are voices within the kingdom that would be willing to accept a more… generous, shall we say? A more generous interpretation of where the principality’s natural borders lie.”

Hertrude smiled. “And I am sure that these voices would seek some form of generosity from myself in return for such a… correction?”

“I see that you understand. The trade routes across Fanoss’ territory could be a considerable opportunity for the more mercantile of our houses. If the tariffs for such shipping were to be reduced to a less punitive level then the increase in ships across the principality could easily make good in volume any loss in individual tariffs paid.”

At the cost of Holfort ships crossing our airspace in numbers, Hertrude thought. Technically the current treaty allowed merchantmen to cross the principality, something that could allow the smuggling of a sizable force over the border should King Roland wish to launch a new war with a preemptive strike. The tariffs and customs inspections weren’t an attempt to profit from the trade westwards and eastwards across her patrimony, they were precisely calculated to deter that trade as much as possible.

“It’s an interesting possibility,” she allowed. “But mercantile interests rarely have a strong voice within the kingdom, as I understand it.”

“Adventurers carved out the kingdom.” Frampton’s pride was a little forced, she thought. “That is the traditional view, but as Holfort has matured, it is trade and communication that has allowed it to grow - both in size and in prosperity. That is a fact that men like Duke Redgrave -”

“To pick an example at random?”

The marquis smiled tightly. “He and I have something of a history, I confess, of disagreeing on that point. I am aware that you are on good terms with his daughter, but the personal and the political are best kept separate.”

“It is unfortunate,” Herturde conceded, “But naturally I have had to keep in mind during my time at the academy that if relations between myself and King Roland soured that I might one day see those young men facing the knights in my service.”

“I would like to resolve matters without leaving them to the next generation,” the thin man proposed. “But as you correctly point out, there is sufficient distrust that we could not simply reach a new and fairer equilibrium through simple renegotiation. Too many voices would be raised against it.”

Hertrude ran her fingers along the glass case surrounding a necklace that she was sure she’d seen Queen Mylene wear once. “And yet you would not raise this possibility if you had no solution.”

Frampton hesitated and then nodded. “That is so.”

“A possibility that cannot go through normal channels suggests that abnormal channels could be followed.”

“Correct, your highness.”

She lowered her head, glancing at him through her fringe. “A fresh approach then. You have secured my ear, Marquis Frampton. I will hear you out, but do not imagine I will jump into any agreement without consulting older and more experienced counsellors.”

He bowed. “I would expect no less sagacity from you, your royal highness. What I propose then is that we replace the current peace treaty with a new peace treaty. And for the current peace treaty to need replacing, the peace must clearly be broken so that we have grounds to establish a new treaty.”

...what? “To negotiate a new peace treaty, you wish that we should go to war? A bold strategy, Marquis.”

“One cannot overturn the inertia of the status quo without some measure of boldness, your highness.”

Yes. A thief had dared her own treasury and then her sister’s bedchamber… that man had not lacked for boldness. Although of another nature to that which Frampton claimed to possess. She did not imagine that he would seek the frontlines of a new war. “For the war to lead to the border changes that you have hinted at, such a war would have to go poorly for Holfort.”

“To a degree, yes.”

Surely no one could be this foolish. The proposal had to be treason… or a trap.

“Let us be honest, your highness. Fanoss lacks the numbers to conquer the kingdom. But were you to inflict a sufficient defeat - upon a force that was led by those hostile to your legitimate claims - then there would be reason to seek a compromise rather than divert resources and soldiers from our other concerns. And by the same token, your enemies within Holfort would bear the stigma of defeat and be in no position to argue with the outcome.”

Hertrude nodded thoughtfully. “This war you envisage could not be a matter of raid and counter-raid. Chevanches, of the kind that have ravaged islands on both sides of our border, are not conducive to any negotiated end.”

“Indeed not!” exclaimed Frampton. “No, such losses would cost us both dearly. I propose nothing of the kind. Let the battle or battles be fought by those who have chosen to serve at arms. And then let those of us accustomed to the cut and thrust of diplomacy to discuss the ultimate resolution.”

“What sort of place do you see Count Ascart taking in those negotiations?” she enquired.

“I believe,” the old man said modestly, “That if negotiations between our nations led not to improved relations but to war, then our current Minister of Foreign Affairs might be asked to return to his previous duties at the Ministry of Magic.”

And with Count Atlee recently ousted from foreign affairs and unlikely to return given current disfavour, Hertrude realised, Marquis Frampton is likely to be asked to handle negotiations. Not definitely, but a strong contender. “On the face of it, and I concede that I am inexperienced in such matters, this… scenario… does not seem implausible.”

“I am pleased that you think so.” The marquis bowed.

Hertrude tilted her head around and began to walk around the hall again, drawing the marquis with her. “When I consult my council, who have not had an opportunity to see the inside affairs of the kingdom first hand, may wonder if you are sufficiently well placed that we can take you to be speaking with authority.”

“Ah, alas, my reputation has not spread so far. Do years of faithful service to my own king count for nothing?” That was not entirely good humour that Hertrude detected.

“It is natural to distrust those one does not know.” The princess let her eyes flick around. “And the suspicion might be that King Roland, who has not generally favoured granting senior offices to feudal lords save his personal circle of friends and allies, might see you as… expendable should matters not go as predicted.”

Frampton grunted. “I see,” he admitted. “Is there something I can do that might prove my credibility? Some favour I may arrange?”

Hertrude pursed her lips. “These are the treasures of the Holfort household,” she pointed out. “Bringing me here, unsupervised, speaks well to me of your status.” As it was doubtless intended to. “But you can hardly bring my counsellors down here.”

“Indeed not, even were they all here. But I believe I see where you are going, your highness. If I am in a position to persuade King Roland to grant you some gift from his family’s treasures, then my influence is not in doubt.”

“Exactly.” She gestured towards the arm she had observed. “That thing, for example. It has no inherent value, it’s merely a part of some larger item. But as a trophy it has value to your king and as a token to me…”

Marquis Frampton bowed deeply. “I see, your highness. Well, Let us see if I can prove myself to you.”

One more thing I know, Hertrude thought. Our flutes are not here. I would recognise their mere presence, so closely they are bound to my family. And if you knew that we lacked them, Marquis, you would have far more in the way of doubts that I could live up to this pact.

But if you are not behind the thief, who is? And what are they after?

-

Marie Fou Lafan was waiting impatiently for the liner to dock. She’d come back from her own field trip, why was this one taking so long?

“Looks like they had some trouble,” Greg Fou Seberg noted as he stood next to her at the port. “Something must have hit the side of the ship - it’s been patched.”

The girl hadn’t spotted that level of detail and it took her a while to spot where the damage was. “Oh, I see it. What could have happened?”

Greg exchanged a look with Brad. “Monster attack, do you think?”

The purple-haired boy shaded his eyes with one hand. “I don’t think so. Might be some kind of collision. On the way out, they probably patched it in part before setting out back.”

“Let’s go and ask some of the students who went,” she suggested, heading around the docks and looking for familiar faces. A very particular familiar face, one that had the audacity not to be a blank outline as he surely had been in the game.

The boys kept pace with each other, jostling aside other passersby to ensure Marie wasn’t knocked over by the press of crowds. The capital’s port was always busy, and since she was unfairly short, when she’d first come through here she’d been in constant fear that someone would just walk right over her without noticing.

They weren’t the only ones making their way to the docks to wait for the disembarking students. Marie spotted Keith Rafa Claes approaching, although he stayed clear of them.

It was so frustrating! She’d picked up all five capture targets, but it was clear that the academy was actually full of hotties. She couldn’t help but think that maybe if she’d known the right flags to raise then there wouldn’t have been all these problems.

Lord Keith was an obvious example: if she’d got the shy, pretty mage onto her side, then he wouldn’t have been fighting against Brad. Sure, Brad had won, but just the fact that they were fighting had meant that the Duke of Claes was against her now.

Marie had to wonder if her brother had hidden something from her when he sent her the save games. Was getting people like Keith out of the way part of the battle side of the game that she’d not been able to complete? But on reflection, it didn’t make sense - she’d seen footage from other people playing the game and no one ever mentioned there being a cast of characters that might stand up for Angelica if you didn’t neutralise them.

Once they got to the disembarkation part of the quay, there was no avoiding Keith entirely. He must be here for his sister - and that was probably for the best. Katarina Rafa Claes was so scatter-brained she could get lost in a room with only one door. Marie would have suspected her of being the heroine of her own Otome game, given how many conquests she’d clearly managed, but there was no way that any Otome game would give their main character such a villainous expression when she was angry. Protagonists had to be cute and adorable, with light and fluffy hair. It was a rule!

“Waiting for your sister?” Greg asked bluntly.

Keith looked up. “Yes. ...and Mary, I suppose.”

“Hopefully they’re alright,” said Brad slyly. “What with the damage to the ship.”

“Damage?” the flaxen-haired boy exclaimed, stepping back and looking at the ship more carefully. “What damage?”

Greg nudged Brad reprovingly. “It’s on the other side,” he told Keith. “Looks like something collided with the ship - knocked a hole in it that they had to patch down at the southern island. Not bad enough they had to turn back or couldn’t get back - your sister’s probably fine.”

“I knew I shouldn’t have let her go alone.”

Marie would have rather gone with all her group, but the random draw had split them across two trips. Julius, Jilk and Chris weren’t back yet. If they hadn’t been disinherited, it would be easy to ensure they stayed together… but that wasn’t the case, and Keith’s sister with her big stupid height, big stupid breasts and big stupid head had been part of the problem.

But she didn’t dare fume about that. No, instead she plastered a positive mask over her face. “I’m sure Lady Claes is fine, the ship would have signalled for help if there was a big problem.”

“Keith!” Someone called from up on the ship’s deck.

Marie looked up and saw the big stupid head plainly visible, waving her hand enthusiastically.

“Katarina!” Keith called back, in relief. “Are you alright? Did you have a good time?”

“It was amazing!” the girl yelled back, before someone pulled her away.

Several minutes later, the first students began to leave the ship - some of them trailed by servants but mostly not. The former reminded Marie of Nanaka and how he’d been stolen away by Claes, the latter would have been a relief if they weren’t all the girls of the lowest status - the ones who mostly lurked in their rooms, emerging only for classes or to go to Bartford’s boring tea parties and…

Heeeeey. There were an awful lot of those girls on this trip. And of the various grass-chewing low-grade barely-noble boys that had latched onto them. Marie’s brow furrowed. Had Bartford stacked the deck to take most of his friends with him? Atlee hadn’t gone along so that seemed unlikely. And that was another ridiculous notion. A younger son getting a countess daughter, why was the redhead settling for him?

There were too many anomalies around that ought-to-be-just-a-mob. He wasn’t pretty enough to be a real character but things kept circling back to him. What if he was some kind of hidden boss, he’d brush back his hair (no, he already tied it back), remove his glasses (except he didn’t have any) and suddenly he’d be the slick villain with a torturous backstory.

Marie shook her head. She’d rather avoid him entirely, but if she was going to salvage this mess then she needed the Saintess’ relics and one of them was already not where she’d expected it to be. If Bartford had one of them - or worse, if he’d eliminated the pirates who should have it before they’d found the necklace so she’d have no idea where it was...

She might very well strangle him.

Well, have one of her boys strangle him. Marie wasn’t tall enough to do so herself. The five of them had to be good for something! The thought of having beautiful men like them catering to her every whim had got her through the hard times in two different lives.

“Keith!” “Katarina!”

Marie ignored the idiot siblings repeating their earlier conversation as she saw Bartford descending the gangway, trailed by that blonde third-year… What was her name… Roseblade? Something-with-a-D Fou Roseblade. Double-D? She shook her head. No, although it might be appropriate.

“What happened to the ship?” Keith asked his sister. “Someone said it had been patched on the other side?”

“It was an accident,” Katarina protested, waving her hands. “No one was hurt, almost no one was even mad.”

The boy groaned. “Sis, what did you do?”

“It’s not my fault Mary’s brother-in-law tried to abduct her!”

“...what?”

Marie’s ears pricked up. Abduction! There hadn’t been anything like that on the school trip she remembered from the game… but the summer island event was later in the game so probably she’d be going for the second year. Whatever happened this year wouldn’t affect her much, right?

Bartford arrived at the bottom of the ramp, bag in hand. “Hi, Keith. Good school trip?”

“It was fine, thank you.” The Claes boy pushed his coat tails back irritably. “Are you alright Mary?” he asked his sister’s companion.

“Much better. Lady Katarina was so gallant protecting me!” The other girl grabbed Katarina’s arm possessively.

“And how did that involve making a hole in the side of the ship?”

Katarina Rafa Claes seemed to find the paving of the quay very interesting, but Greg perked up. “I’m kind of curious too!” he declared.

“I kind of knocked a knight-armour through the side,” the girl admitted. “There were two of them!”

“You had to fight two knight-armours?” her brother gasped. “Bartford, didn’t you have your knight-armour with you? Why was my sister fighting two knights at once?”

“Because he was fighting four at once,” Roseblade declared proudly, as if she was the one who had done it.

Greg looked impressed. “Four on one? Not bad!”

“They were probably just pirates or scum like that,” Brad suggested dismissively.

“Oh, that’s right!” Marie exclaimed, seizing the opportunity to bring up the topic she wanted to discuss. “You fought pirates before, didn’t you Lord Bartford?”

He blinked. “Uh… yes?”

Wait, wasn’t he going to boast about it?

“Isn’t that how you got your family out of debt?” she asked. “I remember hearing about it and wishing my family could win some pirate treasure to pay off ours.”

“Hey, if you want pirates we could go hunting for them over the next term break?” suggested Greg. “What do you say, Brad?”

“It’s only natural that you’d think of some violent and uncultured plan for the winter,” the other boy griped. “But if pirate treasure is what Lady Marie wants then of course we should get it for her.”

The words made Marie’s heart tremble. Pretty boys winning lots of money for her! It was right out of the game.

Except, she reminded herself, that the sky-pirates she wanted the treasure from had already been destroyed, by someone else.

It was not fair!

“That sounds great, guys,” she explained. “Lady Claes showed me her bracelet that she found in a dungeon. Did you find any jewellery when you beat the pirates, Lord Bartford.”

The boy smiled. As if he knew something. But no, he was just being smug and showing off. “Why yes. I found a necklace that was in just the same style!”

“You did?” asked Katarina. “That’s amazing! Could I see it sometime?”

Oh great, someone had asked it so that she didn’t have to. Marie grabbed Brad and Greg’s arms to reassure them that she wasn’t losing interest in them.

But Bartford shook his head. “It was a religious treasure, something related to the saintess. I donated it to the temple.”

...well at least it wasn’t missing, lost someplace that she’d never figure out.

“Wait…” Brad sounded suspicious. “A necklace that was a religious relic? Lady Claes, do you happen to have that bracelet you found handy?”

“Sure!” The brunette extended her wrist. “I wear it all the time. Well, most of the time. Almost of the time?”

Brad examined it. “A necklace in a similar style to this… it couldn’t be the Saintess’ Necklace could it?”

“But if that was found, it would be a huge event,” pointed out Keith. “The temple would want to show off that the Saint’s Regalia had returned to them.”

“They’re really secretive about the regalia,” Mary told him. “There are reproductions, that’s probably where Katarina’s bracelet came from originally. But the Temple only allows the most senior priestesses to see the real ones.” Then she smirked. “And if Leon found the real necklace somewhere, that would explain it. They must have been hiding the fact that they’d lost it. I wonder if they have the others.”

They’d better have the sceptre, Marie thought. If they’ve managed to lose that then I might fail this entire thing. Now how am I going to prove that I’m the Saintess’ heir? Claes has the bracelet and treasures it, and getting my hands on either of the other two if they’re locked away in the temple…

I’ll think of something. She clenched her fists. There has to be a way. I won’t lose now!?

“Let’s get back to the academy,” Keith proposed. “Katarina, do you have your luggage?”

“It’s being brought down,” she told him, pointing to another gangway where bags and cases were being unloaded.

Her brother nodded. “Let’s get them then.”

“Oh thank you, Keith,” Mary exclaimed. “I do appreciate you getting my bags for me!”

“I will also take advantage of your kind offer,” Roseblade chipped in with a smirk.

The young man glared. “I… fine.”

Bartford laughed. “It’s a cruel world, Keith. I’ve got to sort out the knight-armours - I’ll go with you and then we can send those back to the academy with the ladies’ baggage.”

“Thanks,” he said grudgingly.

Greg nodded. “Let’s go get tea after that, Bartford. You can tell us about your battles!”

“I’m sure Lady Marie isn’t really interested in his battles,” Brad objected. “We can go back to the academy now that your curiosity is sated. There’s a sky ferry leaving shortly that we can catch.”

A maid appeared (almost but not quite out of nowhere) at Katarina’s side. Marie realised with a start that it was Nanaka, dressed in a maid’s uniform. He looked so cute! It was adorable… and horrifying. What had happened to him? Katarina’s other maid hadn’t made him into a girl, had she? Snipped off his…? The little blonde shivered at the very idea.

“Lady Claes, Anne suggests that you go directly back to the academy. She believes that your mother would prefer that you not wander around the port.”

“That’s a good point,” Keith agreed. “Mary, Lady Roseblade, could I entrust my sister to you? Make sure she doesn’t get sidetracked into any sudden shopping trips or wander down a dark alley and have an adventure.”

“But I just came back from an adventure,” the girl protested.

“Exactly!”

“If we’re going pirate hunting in the winter, for treasure for Marie,” Greg pointed out to Brad, “We should learn what we can. Bartford’s actually succeeded at that. We don’t have to like him, to learn from him.”

“I suppose so. If Lady Marie would be interested?”

She hated to do this, particularly if they were going to have to spend their limited funds, but if it led to pirate treasures then it was more of an investment. Marie nodded hesitantly and let Greg have his way.

-

Katarina knew something was missing when she got to the dining hall the first day back from the school trip and Keith wasn’t there. She’d expected him to visit her last night after he handled the baggage, but not only had he not done that, he also hadn’t been waiting to take her to breakfast.

Was this the rebellious phase she’d heard about? Did he no longer dote on his older sister? Had he found someone that made his heart go doki-doki and forget all about her? (That last part was like a rain cloud above her head).

But not even at the dining hall at all? No, something was wrong.

Stopping for nothing… well, except a couple of slices of french toast that she grabbed off the counter… Katarina trotted towards Keith’s dormitory building. She munched on the toast and conscientiously wiped her lips with her handkerchief before going in. See, Keith!? She could indeed make herself presentable!

“Lord Claes?” The concierge frowned when she enquired. “I don’t think I’ve seen him today.”

It was worse than she thought! Maybe Keith was sick! “I’ll go up and see him.”

“We’re not supposed to give the keys out to student’s rooms,” the man protested.

Katarina turned a pleading look upon him. “But I’m his sister! What if he’s fallen over and can’t get up?”

“...well I suppose that’s true.” The concierge dug around and handed her a key. “But please bring it back as soon as you can.”

“Okay!” Quest item get! She waved at the man, heading up the stairs, taking them two at a time. Having the key would make this much easier. Mother had lectured her for hours that time she knocked Keith’s door down with an axe. She’d had a really good reason too!

Unlocking Keith’s door, she pushed it open. “KEITH!”

No reply. Katarina walked into the room, and didn’t see her brother. Nothing seemed obviously out of place. She poked around, checking under the bed, in the wardrobe, anywhere he could be hiding. “Keith! This isn’t funny!”

Her brother was still not in evidence.

“What the heck? Did Claes sneak a girl in?” A familiar head of purple hair looked around the open door. “Oh, it’s you. What are you doing here?”

“I’m looking for Keith!” Katarina exclaimed to Brad Fou Field. “Have you seen him?”

“Not since yesterday,” the young man shrugged. “What’s the panic? You went days without seeing him on the school trip.”

“But he never misses breakfast with me when we’re in the same place. It’s the most important meal of the day!”

Brad shook his head. “Maybe he followed Bartford’s example and found another girl. Or something else he doesn’t want you to know about. But if you haven’t found him here, you should leave. Girls aren’t supposed to be in our rooms.”

“Oh no!” Katarina ran out of the room and headed for the stairs. Then she stopped herself, went back and locked up Keith’s room before she rushed back downstairs. For the first time in its existence, the boys dorm saw a girl descend the stairs by sitting on the bannister and sliding down it. Fortunately for Katarina’s ears, the oral legend of that moment would never reach her mother.

Tossing the key back to the concierge, Katarina ran outside. She had to find Olivia! If she’d got onto the Keith route during the school trip then anything could have happened! And Katarina had been a wicked older sister yesterday, she’d let Deirdre and Mary distract her and leave Keith doing all the luggage work!

She felt terribly repentant. Even if it wouldn’t drive Keith into Olivia’s arms and open up a bad end for her, it still wasn’t the way she should treat him.

“Lady Katarina,” Nicol greeted her as she rushed past. “Is something wrong?”

“Keith! Olivia! Route! Missing!” she exclaimed. “I have to find him and apologise or something terrible will happen?”

He blinked and Katarina felt like swooning at those dark, mysterious eyes with their luxurious eyebrows. NO! She had to be strong. “I don’t quite follow.”

“Keith is missing!”

The student council president drew himself up. “I see. Please come with me to the student council offices and we will begin a search.”

Gosh, Nicol was incredible! He understood her immediately.

Sweeping into the student council wing, Nicol led her up into his office. “Sirius, please join us,” he invited the ever-present redhead. “I believe Lady Katarina would benefit from some tea.”

Sitting her down in front of his desk, Nicol took his own seat behind it and steepled his fingers. “When did you last see Keith?”

“Yesterday, at the port.”

“And when did you realise he was missing?”

“This morning! He wasn’t there for breakfast.”

Nicol paused. “You didn’t miss him at the dorm?”

Katarina shook her head frantically, her hair almost hitting Sirius in the face. “Oh, sorry.”

“It’s quite alright, Lady Claes.” He served her a cup of tea. “Please take a sip.”

It was delicious tea, she realised, slumping back slightly in the chair.

“This is most concerning,” Nicol concluded. “Where have you searched so far?”

“I went to his dorm room!”

The older boy nodded solemnly. “We have had one abduction already this term.”

“Almost two!”

“Two?” he asked.

“Mary was almost kidnapped off the liner!”

“The report is in your inbox,” Sirius murmured.

“Ah.” Nicol picked up his pen. “Sirius, I would like you to assemble all available members of the student council so we can organise a search party.” He scribbled several lines on a sheet of paper. “Authorisation to draft students as needed.” Rising to his full and impressive height, he looked down on Katarina. “I will consult with the staff. Perhaps someone has seen him since yesterday. Lady Katarina, please remain here at the student council in case your brother comes here. I am counting on you.”

Katarina nodded obediently, and drank some more of the tea. It really was very calming.

The window, open to let the morning air in, was suddenly framing her cousin Scarlet. How she’d got up there, Katarina didn’t know - she was more concerned that she’d just spilled hot tea on herself! That wasn’t calming at all!

“Ahhh!”

The silver-blonde girl bounded casually down into the room. “Katarina, you have an urgent letter. Anne said you should read it right away.”

“Ahhh!”

Nicol and Scarlet exchanged looks and then Katarina was surrounded by a whirlwind that swept all the tea away from her, depositing it neatly back in the cup. Her dress wasn’t even stained.

Sirius smoothly took the cup and saucer away. “I’ll get you a fresh cup,” he offered kindly.

Katarina couldn’t reply, for right before her was the letter that Scarlet offered. The seal was already open, suggesting that Anne had read it already, as usual. (It meant that Katarina didn’t leave anything important on the bottom of her drawer without reading it. Which had only happened twice!)

Cautiously, the girl unfolded it.

“Aahhhh!”

“Again?” asked Sirius, looking back into the room.

“No, it’s an aahhhh, not an ahhh,” Scarlet told him.

“Oh.”

“Katarina?” Nicol asked politely. “What’s wrong? Is it a ransom note?”

“Worse!” she cried. “Keith has… he says he’s run away!”
 
Racing to the Rescue 7-2

drakensis

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Racing to the Rescue

But you know what to do (to do)
When it gets hold of you
~ Huey Lewis​

Chapter 2

Revenge is fever in our own blood, to be cured only by letting the blood of another. ~ Charles Caleb Colton​

“It’s utter rubbish, of course.” Leon concluded as he sat in his room, communicating with Larna Smith by way of video conference. “Keith is devoted to his sister, and very fond of his adoptive parents. If he wanted to avoid becoming the next duke he has many options other than running away.”

“I’m not well acquainted with him,” the director agreed thoughtfully. “But I do find the idea of someone in Katarina Rafa Claes’ social circle trying to get away from her rather suspect.

“Just a little.” The boy slouched. “Unfortunately, I do believe that he wrote the letter. I’m not an expert, but the handwriting looks exactly like examples of Keith’s work I checked in the student council paperwork. So we’re left with the possibility that I’m misjudging the situation, that I’m wrong about it being his handwriting… or that he didn’t write it of his own volition.”

Larna frowned. “Are you thinking that he might be drugged? Or…”

“I doubt drugs could work so quickly,” Leon made a grim face. “Whether dark magic could compel him, I really don’t know. I can’t rule it out.”

“Nor can I.” Larna adjusted her glasses. “Did any of your clever toys - familiars, you call them - have their eye on him?”

“...I should have guessed you’d work it out.”

“It’s not hard: you clearly have two of these devices.” The director indicated Cleare’s drone. “So you could easily have more. And it explains how you detected Mason’s spy so easily.”

“A certain amount of luck was involved there.” Leon’s eyes narrowed. “Do you have Cleare spying on the other directors?”

“And on our new minister of magic,” Larna agreed shamelessly. “Can I have some more? Or just one that I can examine and duplicate?”

“And deprive you of the chance to figure them out from first principles? Larna, I’m shocked?”

“I’m not hearing a no.”

Leon laughed at her wheedling tone. “No cutting up my familiars. I need them right now.”

The director sighed. “I can understand that. Politics are getting fraught and Marquis Frampton is stirring up problems. I’ll try and get access to our captive dark mage and see if he believes he could coerce someone into writing a letter, but right now he’s being kept secure as much by bureaucracy as bars and the minister is paying close attention to who speaks to Mr Brode.”

“Is he now?” That knocked the laughter right out of Leon. Marquis Frampton was on a list of people who he would really rather not have exclusive control of a dark mage. Or vice versa, admittedly. “And who is paying attention to his own access?”

“Most of the directors,” Larna admitted. “I hate politics. It’s almost impossible to get replicable results. But right now, I don’t think that even the directors and vice-directors in his pocket really trust him. Although figuring out who they are is confusing even with Cleare’s help.”

“Don’t worry about it then. I do have a lead, but I’d rather not rely on just that. I don’t suppose that you have anything to help track a person down, do you?”

“...have you been spying on my experiments?” she asked him suspiciously.

“I could, but as a professional courtesy I prefer not to.”

The dark-haired woman nodded. “I’ve heard of that principle.” She did not claim to ascribe to it though. “As it happens, Duke Stuart is concerned enough about the attempt on two of his brother’s fiancees that he requested something along those lines and I have a prototype ready for testing.”

“Three fiancees now.”

“Does no one in the kingdom understand basic pattern recognition?” Larna asked the ceiling.

“I presume the question is rhetorical?”

“Quite. Alright.” She shuffled her desk. “I’ll have Kyle bring it over to you, with paperwork declaring you’re officially a Ministry of Magic tester for the purpose. What’s your lead?”

“Keith has a half-brother… well, two. But pertinently, his eldest sibling Thomas Fia Coleman was in the port the same day.”

Larna looked blank. “And? It’s the capital’s main port.”

“He had a ship under contract - and Thomas was disinherited recently by Viscount Coleman, he doesn’t have a pot to… well, he couldn’t afford a ship.”

“Not another half-elf?”

Leon snorted. “No, just a perfectly ordinary case of being a fat slob who came about as close to failing the academy as it’s possible to… and also he turned twenty without being married. Any other year, it would be the scandal of the season, but it’s barely notable this year.”

“Oh yes, one of those. And I take it that a younger and more successful sibling would not be his favorite person.”

“Precisely.” He steepled his fingers. “This could be considered a direct attack on House Claes. Katarina’s escapade was fortunately brief and she came to no harm.”

“You’re not wrong,” Larna agreed. “I assume you’ll be waiting until Prince Gerald returns in two days? He’ll be quite concerned about being left behind by Lady Katarina again.”

Leon smiled thinly at the implicit acceptance that nothing save force would keep Katarina from chasing Keith down. “I’d prefer to - if nothing else, Clarice will be justly annoyed to get back and only find a letter from me, but time could be critical. I’m planning to be gone by sunrise tomorrow.”

Larna nodded. “Good luck. You’ll need it - that’s two fire mages you’re leaving fuming.” She turned towards the door of her room. “KYLE!”

-

“Please!” Olivia clung to Katarina’s arm. “Don’t just leave like this, Lady Katarina!”

The noble lady pulled her arm lightly, trying to dislodge Olivia but evidently not willing to put in enough force to risk harming the other girl in the process. Which was one more reason to admire Lady Claes, her kindness. “I have to, Olivia! He’s my little brother and he’s out there alone!”

“At least wait until Prince Gerald is back to go with us!”

“It would be nice if Gerald was with us,” Katarina admitted. But then her eyes tightened with resolve. “But he’ll understand. If it was Alan who’d gone missing, Gerald would be the first to set out looking for him.” She pulled again, but then broke off. “Um. Us?”

Olivia nodded. “I’m going with you! What if Lord Keith is hurt? My light magic could be exactly what you need in an emergency.”

“You know…” The brunette mumbled something to herself, at least no longer struggling to leave. Something about a ‘white mage’ and a ‘party’. “I don’t know exactly how long this will take, Olivia. Can you miss classes? It could affect your scholarship.”

The other girl put her hand over her heart. “My studies will never be more important than my friends, Lady Katarina!”

She was suddenly enveloped in a warm hug. “You’re such a sweetie, Olivia!”

Lady Katarina was hugging her! Everything went warm and fuzzy for a moment. On wait, that was loss of air. Fortunately, Katarina stopped squeezing her sides after a moment.

“Alright,” the brunette declared. “We’ll go together… but we should go now.”

“So…” A boy’s voice asked from just outside the academy gates. “Just out of curiosity, Katarina… where are you going?”

“After Keith!” Lady Katarina declared.

Leon nodded. “And more specifically?”

Olivia’s dear friend’s jaw flapped for a moment. “Ah… hahaha…”

“Typical Katarina.” Prince Alan moved into view. “You weren’t planning on leaving us behind, were you?” He was out of uniform, and looking quite unfairly dashing with his long coat and his silver hair flapping in the breeze.

“Eeeeeeh,” Katarina shrugged. “I thought you might stop me.”

“Perish the thought,” Leon assured her. “But when jumping on a horse and riding off to the rescue, it’s best not to ride off in every direction at once. We need some idea of where to go to.”

“Oh.” Katarina looked woebegone, so much so that Olivia returned the earlier hug and gave Leon a frown. She knew he was only trying to help, but he could have been nicer about it.

He cleared his throat. “Fortunately, the Magical Tools Laboratory at the Ministry of Magic has been working on a tool expressly for tracking down missing people, and I persuaded them to let me field test it.”

“You silver-tongued devil,” Alan said admiringly.

“And from you, that’s quite a compliment,” Leon assured him. “So what we’ll need is something of Keith’s, something he treasures.”

“Ah…” Katarina looked frustrated. “I’m not sure what… I guess we should go back to his room then.”

“Sounds like a plan.”

On the way across the campus, they were intercepted by Angelica Rafa Redgrave and Mary Fou Hunt. “Lady Katarina!” the latter exclaimed. “Are you going on a rescue mission without me!?”

“I’m sorry!” Katarina apologised. “But I was a bad sister and I need to make it right.”

“I’m sure you really weren’t,” Olivia assured her.

Angelica nodded. “I’ve only known you and Keith for a few months but it’s clear he’s devoted to you. The idea he’d run off and leave you behind is ridiculous. There has to be something else going on.”

“You think so?”

The three girls clustered together around Katarina. “We know so!” they chorused, to reassure their friend.

“How are you going to find him?” Mary asked once Katarina had been cheered up.

“Leon has a magical device.”

“Of course he does.” She shook her head. “Is there no end to your duplicity, Bartford? The old ‘your brother is abducted and I know how to find him ploy’?”

“Mary,” the dark-haired boy told her seriously. “I would never steal your ideas. If anyone has dibs on kidnapping Keith to lure Katarina off to a private retreat, it is you.”

There was an awkward silence.

“But that would be wrong!” Olivia protested loyally.

“And because only Mary is allowed to do it, and she never would, Keith should be safe from kidnapping,” the boy explained.

Alan shook his head. “That’s really shaky logic.”

“It helps if you don’t give people time to question it,” the adventurer explained as they entered the dorm. “Come on. We need something to pick up Keith’s… well, magical scent I suppose.”

“I forgot to ask for the key,” Katarina realised once they were on the stairs.

“It’s not a problem,” Leon assured her. “And there’s no need to disturb the concierge further.”

When they reached Keith’s rooms, the boy proved himself correct, pulling a couple of pins from his sleeve. With just a little fiddling, the lock snapped open. “The security here isn’t very good,” he criticised. “Someone should do something about that.”

“Why do you know how to pick locks?” asked Angelica suspiciously.

“I’m an adventurer. Sometimes treasure is in locked chests.”


“Ah, I suppose that makes sense.” The braided girl nodded approvingly.

Inside, Katarina dug around on Keith’s desk and pulled out a small casket. “He brought this from home. I think he keeps personal things in here.” She hesitated before opening the lid.

“I’m sure I speak for everyone here, that we wouldn’t dream of mentioning the contents to anyone…” Leon offered.

Olivia nodded with everyone else and Katarina flipped the lid open.

“...unless it was funny,” Leon finished.

“W-what?” Olivia exclaimed. He couldn’t possibly mean he’d be cruel to Keith about personal and private matters they’d only intruded on because of the emergency.

“Really funny. You know, funny enough that Keith would find it funny and not intrusive,” he clarified. “Not to embarrass him. Seriously, stop making those betrayed eyes at me. It’s not fair.”

Olivia looked around and saw that she wasn’t the only one who was glaring at Leon. Only Katarina remained focused on the contents of the box.

“Oh,” the girl said softly. “These are… these are all gifts that I’ve given to Keith. I’d almost forgotten about some of them.”

“It seems,” Angelica told her reassuringly. “That what Keith treasures most is his sister.”

A tear formed at the corner of Katarina’s eye. “Thank you, Angie. Do you think that anything here will work, Leon.”

The boy leaned in and examined the items. “Yes,” he decided, reaching in and carefully removing a handkerchief. “This should be good enough. I’ll try it now though - it’d be a pain if there was no reaction.”

“So what is this device?” asked Alan.

Leon sighed. “Do you really need to know?”

“Is it a secret?”

“Well… no.”

“And if anything went wrong, we should all know how to use it.”

“...that’s much less shaky logic than mine,” Leon admitted.

“I know.” The prince looked smug.

Somewhat reluctantly, Leon reached into the satchel he was carrying and produced an adorable stuffed bear.

“...” Alan stuffed his fist into his mouth.

“Yeah, yeah, get it out of your system.”

“I really don’t see what your problem is,” Angelica said, though she didn’t appear to be meeting Leon’s gaze.

“How cute,” Katarina decided. “How will this find Keith though?”

“According to the instructions,” Leon told them, “I just need to let it smell the sample.” He offered the bear the handkerchief.

To Olivia’s amazement, the bear began moving and gripped the embroidered cloth in its soft paws, lifting it to its nose. Drawing its head back as if it was inhaling, the bear twitched its button nose.

“Well?” Leon asked, after a moment.

The little bear shuffled around and then extended its hand to point at one of the walls. More or less westwards, if Olivia had her directions straight.

“Very good, Alexander,” the boy said with a straight face.

“A-a-alexander?” Alan gasped, almost doubling over.

Both Leon and the bear gave him unimpressed looks.

“He’s adorable!” Olivia asserted. “Could I… could I carry him?”

Leon wordlessly extended the bear towards her and Olivia plucked the stuffed toy from his hands. It clutched affectionately at her uniform, then caught hold of the epaulette, climbing onto her shoulder.

“So we head in that direction?” asked Katarina, pointing at the same wall.

“I can’t go with you,” Mary told her. “I’d love to, but my idiot… she’s not my sister anymore, hurrah… but Lalia and her husband have made such a mess that I’ve got to be available to my father.”

“I’m going,” Olivia repeated.

Alan nodded. “Me too. Gerald may not be here, so someone should represent the Stuarts.”

“So will I,” Angelica declared. “The Claes are my friends. It’s time I acted like it.”

Leon nodded. “And since I’m the only one of us with a ship, that makes five of us - six with Alexander. Mary, could I prevail on you to deliver a letter to Clarice for me? I really do owe her an apology for not being here when she gets back… as well as a couple of other things, and while a letter isn’t great, it’s better than nothing at all.”

“Of course I’ll deliver your letter,” Mary told him with a smile. “And as you’re helping Lady Katarina, I’ll help her to plot revenge on Deirdre.”

“Oh god, not more revenge?” he sighed. “Does no one ever get tired of that?”

-

Holfort did have decent maps, with clocks and astronomical instruments sufficient to establish latitude and longitude. Unfortunately, the maps faced one fairly notable issue in precisely placing the location of a given island: the fact that they moved.

Not quickly, but they did move - even the continent. And thus, the relative positions changed, and not always in easily predictable ways.

It wasn’t a major issue for navigation - islands large enough to be habitable were visible from quite a distance so once you got into the right general area they weren’t really hard to find. But it did mean that even with Luxion’s help, getting an exact bearing using a map involved quite a bit of guesswork.

After turning the map fractionally back and forth until the AI was satisfied, Leon had Alexander point again and then marked the direction very carefully. “Okay, we can go now.”

“Was that really that fiddly?” asked Alan.

Leon pointed at the wall. “If I’m a degree out and Keith is just on the other side of the dorm building then I’d be out by about an inch, right?”

“Sure.”

“I’m fairly sure he left the capital by ship. If he’s at the far end of the continent, I could be out by fifty miles. Precision matters.” Leon folded the map and put it into his satchel. “Do you want to keep hold of Alexander, Olivia?”

“May I?” the blonde asked.

“Sure, he seems to like you.” Why Larna had made the tool somewhat sapient, he wasn’t sure. He wasn’t going to argue, since it was better to have a way of tracking Keith than not to.

The little group headed out and Leon led them towards the airbike track. “We’ll ride out to the port on airbikes, it’s the fastest way,” he told them. “You’ve got an airbike, Alan?”

The prince nodded. “But I can’t really take more than one passenger if we have luggage.”

“Same here.” Leon glanced at the girls. “Can any of you ride one?”

Olivia shook her head, while Angelica looked ambivalent. Katarina looked excited. “I’ve ridden Keith’s a few times.”

That wasn’t all that reassuring - Katarina’s first attempts at really using knight-armour after the same level of experience had been problematic. Leon didn’t want to spend a couple of days getting her up to shape before leaving to chase after Keith. He gave Angelica a questioning look.

She shook her head. “I’m in about the same position as Katarina.”

“Wait,” someone called, running up behind them.

For a moment, Leon didn’t recognise who it was - long silver-blonde hair, but wearing practical pants and shirt under armour. She had a sword at her side and a pistol strapped to her belt on the other hip. “Ah, Violette?” He wasn’t used to seeing Katarina’s cousin outside of her uniform or a ladylike gown.

“I heard about Keith,” she told him and looked at Katarina. “I want to go with you. He’s my cousin as well.”

“Can she?” Katarina asked Leon. “Is there room on your ship?”

“I think we can fit someone else in.” Dreadnought wasn’t really going to be challenged in that regard. “Can you ride an airbike, Violette?”

She looked embarrassed. “My mother encouraged me to learn. I gather my father was quite the racer back when they were both at the academy.”

“Nice,” Alan looked her up and down with evident admiration. “I thought Katarina was a tomboy, but I guess you got a share of that heritage somewhere. Is it an Ades thing?”

The girl flushed, which was quite evident on her pale complexion. “I don’t know my father’s family well.”

Katarina reached over and gave her a big one-armed hug. “Well this is your chance to spend some time with us. Mother would love it if you and Scarlet visited us one holiday.”

“You might not want to wear trousers though,” Alan teased. “Even Katarina can’t get away with that.”

“Enough about clothing choices,” Leon told him. “Anyway, Katarina, go see if you can get Keith’s airbike out of storage, three will be enough for us to get out to the port.”

“Can’t you just unlock it?” she asked.

“Yes, but I’d rather not be chased for theft,” he explained.

The minute she was out of sight, he turned to the others. “Alan, Violette and I will be flying the airbikes since we have the most experience. I can manage most essentials on my ship, but if anyone has anything that they need to take then get hold of it right now. I don’t want to have to turn back because someone forgot something.”

Angelica opened her bag and started to do a quick inventory. Everyone else seemed confident that they had what they needed. He’d figured as much, having asked them this while he was working on the map earlier.

“Okay, figure out who is riding with who,” he continued. “I’m going to get my airbike.”

Fully repaired after the race for the festival, his airbike still visibly outmassed Alan’s sleeker model. Both were large enough to carry saddlebags and a second rider - they’d not make the sort of speeds used within a race, but they would still be faster than using carriages and ferries to get to the port.

Katarina can’t have needed too long to talk the security into letting her take out Keith’s airbike. Hopefully she wouldn’t abuse the privilege. It was more like Alan’s than it was to Leon’s, but it was definitely more reinforced than the former. Leon wondered if that was because of Keith being an earth-mage or if he’d just been aware Katarina was going to use it and chose the model accordingly.

Violette seemed to have understood Leon’s reasoning so she went over to her cousin. “Thanks, Katarina. I’ll be flying you over, watch what I’m doing and I’ll give you some pointers.”

“Thank you!” Katarina said brightly. She waited until Violette was mounted and then hopped on behind her, holding onto both of their bags.

Mounting his own airbike, Leon checked that Alan and Olivia were ready to go. Seeing that they’d mounted up, he looked back right as Angelica settled herself, putting her hands either side of Leon’s waist. “Let’s ride,” he ordered and opened the throttle, following the paths only until they were off the campus. After that the three airbikes rose rapidly and arrowed across the sky, heading directly for the port island.

Even with the burdens, the riders made good time. The sky had grown dark, but the port was illuminated at all hours and ships had their own lights precisely so that no one ran into them. Leon had prepared his own chemical light and handed others off to his companions so there would be little excuse for anyone knowing that they were in the sky.

Not that Leon was likely to run into anything, as his helmet had night vision built into it. He still kept his head on a swivel - looking not just for any ship running into them but also for any sign the other two riders had gotten lost.

Fortunately, none of that happened and Leon led them down into the streets once more. However tempting it was to lead the group directly to Dreadnought’s berth, that would just be begging for an accident in the darkness. Besides, he had to stop at the harbour master’s to get permission to leave and a slot in the queue - there was too much traffic for airships to just come and go as they wanted.

As a result, getting from the edge of the port to his ship took as long as crossing the gulf that separated the island from the continent. Finally they reached the gangway and Leon saw another, smaller airbike was waiting for them there.

“What took you so long?” Kyle complained sleepily from where he was sitting on the vehicle.

“Traffic,” Leon replied, dismounting and stretching his legs. “How are you?”

“Sleepy. My mother is going to be worried about where I am.”

“Emotional blackmail. You’re learning so much around the Ministry of Magic.”

“Who’s the munchkin?” asked Alan. The other boy dismounted and then tousled the little elf’s hair, uncovering his ears. “Oh, you have an elf sidekick?”

“Stop that!” Kyle batted at the hand.

“He’s a ministry official’s aide. So, what brought you out here?” asked Leon. “As opposed to being tucked into bed with some warm milk by your mother?”

Kyle yawned. “Director Smith had me ask some people if they’d seen your missing lord.”

“Did you?” Katarina crouched slightly so she could look Kyle in the eyes. “Have you found him?”

To her evident disappointment, the young elf shook his head. “No, but I did find a lead. Apparently after he’d sorted out some luggage, a woman accosted him on the street.”

Angelica blushed. “What woman?”

Kyle shrugged. “Older than him. The witness I found thought they might be family, similar hair and eyes.”

“When you say older than Keith, how much older?” Leon asked thoughtfully. Keith’s biological mother was probably in the same general area - she’d been Viscount Coleman’s mistress and he lived in the capital.

“Hard to say, women wear make-up to hide that sort of thing. Why?”

“Just a theory,” Leon concluded.

“Where did he go?” asked Katarina intently.

“She led him off into an alleyway,” Kyle admitted. “From there, I don’t know. I did a sketch that my witness thought was pretty close. I don’t know if that helps.”

“Thanks.” Leon accepted the picture. It didn’t really suggest anything to him. “Good thinking, Kyle.”

“Can I go home now?”

Looking at the bike, the dark-haired young man shook his head. “Isn’t it a bit late for you to be riding that far?”

“I wouldn’t be here so late if you’d got here sooner,” Kyle grumbled. “I can look after myself.”

“Luxion,” Leon asked subvocally as Kyle mounted the airbike and started it up. “Can you spare this drone to make sure he gets home safely?”

“That won’t be necessary, master. Cleare’s drone is already escorting him.”

“Larna looking after her staff, or some sort of experiment?”

“Both,” the AI declared. “I prefer not to inquire as to the twisted priorities of that deviant AI.”

Leon nodded. That was probably wise. “Ride safely then, squire.”

“I’m not your squire!” Kyle told him, and zoomed off into the sparse night streets of the port.

“Alright ladies and gentlemen.” Leon gestured to the Dreadnought’s massive hull and then across at a pair of heavily laden ships that were leaving their own docks, recognisably the vessels ahead of him in the departure queue. “All aboard, we’re leaving as soon as those merchantmen out there get clear of the route out.”

-

“Maybe it’s just me,” Alan observed the next morning, with the Dreadnought cruising away from the Holfort continent at a deceptively fast pace. With no islands in easy view right now, Leon figured it was unlikely that those with him would realise just how fast they were going. “But wasn’t your friend Alexander pointing westwards last night?”

“That’s right,” Leon agreed as they ate breakfast. It was fairly late - they’d gone to bed in the small hours, so perhaps it would be better to call it brunch. Though if that meant no lunch then Katarina might have protested.

The silver-haired boy pointed at the window. “Then why are we heading south-west? - The sun should be behind us by more than that.”

“We don’t know how far west they’ve taken Keith,” Leon explained. “Or if they’re going to keep going the same way.”

“But why go this way?”

Leon cleared his plate. “Just a moment.” Leaving the table, he returned with the same map he’d used the day before - as well as a pencil and a ruler.

Everyone crowded around to watch as Leon set the ruler down, aligning it with the mark he’d made yesterday. “So, yesterday Keith was somewhere along this line,” he explained, drawing on the map, linking the mark with the location of the academy. “Now at the moment we’re…” He moved the pencil until Luxion confirmed he’d found it. “...just about here. So if Alexander would give us another line…?”

Everyone looked at Olivia, who picked up the stuffed bear from where it had been sitting on her lap. Placing it on the map, she asked: “Please point out Keith, Alexander.”

The magical device stood up, orientating itself, and then extended its paw.

Moving around, Leon made sure the map was correctly aligned and then made another mark to indicate that direction. “Alright, thanks.”

The device scurried back to Olivia, batting away Katarina’s hand as the other girl tried to pet him. The notional leader of the quest gave him an offended look.

Ignoring the byplay, Leon drew another line on the map. “Darn.”

“What?” asked Violette. “Ah, the lines don’t meet?”

“What does that mean?” enquired Angelica.

“If the lines converged then Keith might be somewhere they met,” the other girl explained. “Is that right, Leon?”

“It’s not perfect given our last vector was hours ago, but basically. And he’s probably moving.” Leon measured the distance between their current position and then the places where the two lines reached the edge of the map. “They are converging, but not much. Either he’s been taken southwards to an extent or they’re further west than this map shows.”

“So you need a larger map?” concluded the other boy.

“And then another reference check,” Leon agreed. “But in the meantime, we can go west and try to make up some ground.”

The Dreadnought heeled over very slightly and began to turn west.

Everyone looked at him. Dammit, Luxion. There’s such a thing as being too efficient.

“Ah!” Katarina exclaimed and pointed at Leon. “Do you have a crew of ghosts!?”

“...that’s where you went with that?” asked Alan.

“How did you manage to tell your crew to change course without us noticing?” asked Violette. She reached over and patted Katarina on the shoulder. “I’m sure Leon’s ship isn’t haunted.”

“That’s… not exactly true,” Leon told them. The cat was out of the bag, but he could still obfuscate the matter. “However, I can assure you that only one of the two ancient and vengeful spirits haunting her has any actual control over the Dreadnought. And I’ve asked that one not to hurt anyone I invite aboard, so you’re entirely safe.”

“What about the other one?” Katarina demanded urgently.

“She’s less co-operative, but she should be contained.” Leon smiled reassuringly. “If you happen to see a cloud of blackness, scream for help and run.”

“Run where?” Olivia was clutching Alexander as if he was a token of protection.

“Away. Don’t worry about where you’re fleeing to, that’s an amateur mistake when you’re under threat. Escape means getting clear, however you must. Destination can be figured out once you’re not in imminent danger.”

“Leon, stop teasing people,” Alan said with a groan. “It’s not funny.”

“That’s entirely a matter of opinion.”

“Your familiar is relaying information, aren’t they?” suggested Violette. “Scarlet said that she hears you whispering to him sometimes.”

He raised his hands in surrender. “Alright, you’ve got me. Luxion’s pretty much always monitoring what I say and when I said we should go west, the instruction was passed on.”

“Luxion?” Olivia loosened her grip on the bear a little. “Is that your familiar?”

“Something like that.”

“Can we see him?” she asked curiously.

Leon shrugged. “Can you? I don’t see them myself, right now. Luxion can be quite… private, shall we say? I’m not going to force them to talk to people they don’t want to.”

Katarina nodded in acceptance. “Can you say hello to Luxion for us?”

“Luxion, Katarina says hello,” Leon repeated clearly for her benefit.

“I don’t want to talk to the new human,” the AI declared. “And since I’d rather let the goal of her mission die, I don’t think she’d like it if I did.”

Leon shrugged. “Sorry, they’re being shy. I’ll let you know if they change their mind, Katarina.”

“Are there no end to your secrets?” asked Angelica. “This ship, your knight-armours, the airbike, now a mysterious familiar…”

“As long as I have a secret in reserve, I have less to fear from any enemies I make,” he told her seriously. “I don’t think there’s anyone who’s a serious enemy at the moment, but life being what is there could be someone hiding their intentions. Or perhaps I’ll make an enemy.”

Even Katarina nodded in understanding. Although Leon supposed that she had more reason than most to think she might have people who could unexpectedly turn around and pose a threat to her.
 
Racing to the Rescue 7-3

drakensis

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Racing to the Rescue

But you know what to do (to do)
When it gets hold of you
~ Huey Lewis​

Chapter 3

Revenge... is like a rolling stone, which, when a man hath forced up a hill, will return upon him with a greater violence, and break those bones whose sinews gave it motion. ~ Jeremy Taylor​

Later that day, Leon took a bearing from Alexander, then ran the Dreadnought north for an hour before taking another. Marking them on a map of the entire kingdom, the lines converged in the middle of nowhere - likely suggesting that Keith was on a ship still in transit.

Taking up the ruler, Violette put the edge on the capital and also the best guess location. Then she ran her finger up the ruler, looking for destinations. “Count Seberg is the only major nobleman in this area,” she observed. Her finger tapped the island that served as the stronghold for the family her twin sister was to have married into. “But from what I know, Greg is much like his father. I have trouble seeing him ordering a kidnapping. Besides him, there are barons but almost no viscounts.”

“I don’t know the area,” Leon admitted. “But I believe the area was hit very hard during the last war with Fanoss.”

“You’re right,” Alan agreed. “Several viscount houses had their territories reclassified as only baronial status because they couldn’t afford to maintain the military forces expected of a viscount - other islands were entirely depopulated and haven’t been re-settled. They’re notionally still part of the kingdom but someone might have set up camp there.”

Leon looked at the map and then shook his head. “We’ll keep going west, there’s no point speculating. If they stop moving, we’ll know. And if we catch up then it won’t really matter.”

“They’re a good long way ahead,” warned Alan. “They must have a fast ship and they have a day’s lead…”

“A stern chase is a long chase,” he agreed. “But the Dreadnought is also fast. We’re making up ground. If they stop inside the kingdom, we’ll be on them before they expect a pursuit. For that matter, they’ve little reason to think that they could be tracked like this. If they go further, we’ll catch them eventually. But I think they’ll stop soon. Keith probably wasn’t taken at random, and who outside of Holfort would have any interest in him?”

“Are you sure it was an abduction?” Katarina asked nervously. “What if it was the woman that the little boy saw him with? What if Keith went with her willingly?”

Angelica stepped up and hugged Katarina suddenly. “Then you’ll know,” she told the other girl. “You’ll not have to spend the rest of your life wondering. You’ll know for sure, and not have to regret it if later you find out he was in danger.”

Katarina gasped. “You’re right.” With a determined look at Leon, she added. “Thank you. Let’s go find my brother!”

For days they chased the ship westwards towards the edge of the kingdom. Isolated from the outside world, sometimes avoiding each other as they got snappy in the relatively contained quarters. Olivia had brought her schoolwork, surprised at first that she was the only one to have done so. Bored, they spent the time tutoring each other. If nothing else, it distracted Katarina from worrying.

The angle between the two lines marked on the map each day grew less and less acute. And the convergence points settled in towards one island right on the edge of the kingdom.

“Baron Sullivan.” Leon scratched his head. “I don’t know a thing about him.”

The others all exchanged looks. The kingdom had only a handful of dukes and about the same number of marquises. Counts were more common, but unless someone was very dedicated, it was unlikely that anyone knew all the barons and viscounts. Normally it was enough to know those within easy distance of your home, but none of them came from this part of the kingdom.

“I believe that the Sullivans were once viscounts, but the main household was wiped out in the war,” Angelica said cautiously. “The current baron was probably a distant cousin, but I can’t guess what he would have to do with Keith.”

“Maybe nothing.” Leon sighed. “A baron. It could be worse. He’s unlikely to have more than a handful of knights with him.”

“You think we’ll have to fight?” asked Alan. “I should have brought my knight-armour.”

“It’d be nice if we don’t, but having the option would be good to have in our back pocket.”

“Can we send word to anyone for help?” asked Violette reasonably.

Leon leant back in his chair. They were too far from the capital for Luxion to communicate with Cleare. “I don’t have any contacts here. Count Seberg would know Angelica and Violette, but I’m not sure he’d be willing to help them.”

“Not with the bad blood over the engagement's ending,” Angelica agreed reluctantly. “At least, not unless we had evidence Keith was a captive. I don’t think that Alexander will be enough to convince him.”

“Agreed.” Alan folded his arms. “And most of the barons would be wary of alienating a neighbour just on the say-so of some kids they don’t even know. Because we’ll be kids in their eyes.”

“In that case, our best shot would be to head north to my parents,” Leon offered. “Or south to Katarina’s. But it’d be at least a week round trip whichever we go for.”

“I don’t want to wait that long,” Katarina decided. “Can we go right there and see what we’re dealing with?”

Leon agreed. If this was what he thought it was, then Keith was in the hands of a brother that would physically torture him, and a dark mage planning to experiment upon him. While he and Keith didn’t get on, he didn’t want the boy to face either of those fates. It was probably too late to stop it all, but waiting wouldn’t help.

“Alright,” he agreed. “But we’ll do this the smart way. I’ll time our approach to arrive under the cover of night and hide the Dreadnought beneath the island. Luxion can give me an idea what we’re dealing with.

The girls beamed and all four of them offered their thanks to Luxion.

“Should I build a shrine for them to pray to you?” Leon asked quietly.

“I am not a god,” the AI responded tartly. “Unless they are prepared to stop using their unnatural abilities, I would rather they did not even know my name.”

“You should have been more cautious about responding to me then,” Leon told him. “I’ve got a feeling we’ll be facing a dark mage in Sullivan’s manor. Do you have any suggestions?”

“A dead dark mage cannot cast any magic,” Luxion offered. “Unfortunately, this doesn’t negate any enchantments they have already cast. I suggest proactive use of lethal force.”

-

Leon had told everyone to go to bed early that night, so that they were well rested the next morning. “If we’re going to have to break in then doing so at the crack of dawn is best,” he’d warned.

Katarina had thought she’d be unable to sleep that night, worrying about Keith, but it was a shock when her face was sprayed with water. “Wha!?” she cried, sitting up sharply.

Looking around, she saw the other girls sharing the room with her stirring. Technically there was plenty of room for them to have separate rooms, but all three had agreed it would be best to share one room that had bunks for four so that she wasn’t alone.

Where did the water come from? A flicker of movement caught her attention and she saw Alexander sneaking under Olivia’s bed. Had that little stuffed toy thrown water on her somehow!?”

There was a knock on the door. “Wake up girls,” Leon called. “We’ve got problems. Get dressed - and dress like you’re going to war.” His voice was clipped and had less of his usual sly humour. “I said wake up!”

“I’m awake,” she called, climbing out of bed. Violette was doing the same, while Olivia was still rubbing her eyes. Katarina caught Alexander looking at her. She pointed two fingers at her eyes and then stabbed them at the little bear. She was going to watch him from now on.

“Whussup?” Angelica mumbled, pulling the blankets around her.

Violet reached over and pinched the blonde.

“Eeeek!” the girl exclaimed, jerking upright.

“Leon said to get dressed,” Katarina told her. “There’s trouble.”

All four of them had armour made for use in the dungeon, so they pulled it on over their sturdiest clothes. Katarina strapped on a pick, while the other three all carried swords. Olivia seemed leery of hers, as if she wasn’t sure what to do with it, and even Angelica seemed to think of it as an afterthought. Only Violette looked entirely natural as she checked her sword was neither too loose nor too snug within the scabbard.

Outside the cabin, Alan was also wearing armour, though he’d pulled his coat on over it. “Leon’s waiting in the hangar,” he told them quietly. It was still dark outside and Katarina shivered in the night air.

The hangar was a cavernous space, with Leon’s two knight-armours held in braces that suspended the cockpits level with a gantry across the full length of the space. There was room for two more knight-armours, as well as the airbikes they’d brought with them. Dressed in a black piloting suit, Leon was like a shadow with a human face. He caught their eyes as they entered, looking at each of them measuringly. When Katarina looked at him, there was a cold edge to him - determination and a little ruthlessness.

It made her shiver a little, reminding her of Gerald in the game. She’d never actually seen the prince like that since she was reborn, but Leon seemed just as blackhearted now. He’d have been a fantastic capture target in the game, she thought. Maybe he was the hidden one that Acchan had been hinting at… she didn’t recall many details. A devil-may-care adventurer, hiding a dark serious side?

Leon shook his head slightly, as if dispelling his own introspection. “Keith is in the baron’s manor,” he told them. “I borrowed Alexander and got a more precise location - in the basements under the west wing of the main building. I don’t know how to get in there exactly, but I think we’re best winging it.”

“Are you sure?” asked Alan cautiously.

The other boy raked his fingers through his long dark hair, pulling it slightly out of its pony-tail. He tried tightening it, gave up and removed the tie to secure it again. “Luxion listened in on some gossip from the nearby village. No one has seen the Baron in weeks, and his guards were gradually replaced by elves. And there’s apparently been another noble living it up there, a fat man in his early twenties. He left recently, but returned yesterday.”

“What does that mean?” Angelica sounded irritable.

“Keith was adopted by the Claes family,” Leon ticked off on one finger, “But he was born in the Coleman family, or rather he’s Viscount Coleman’s son by a mistress. The legitimate sons bullied him until his earth magic lashed out at them, after which Duke Claes took him in.”

Katarina nodded when Angelica looked at her confirmation. She remembered how wary Keith had been of using his magic when he first came to stay with them. Her parents had explained what had happened with the Colemans after she’d persuaded Keith to create a golem and terrified him by getting hurt by it. It had almost ruptured their early experience as siblings, until she persuaded him that she was seeking his forgiveness for her own carelessness, not blaming him for the accident.

“Thomas Fia Coleman is the oldest legitimate son, but he was disowned and disgraced earlier this year. He was in the capital when we returned from our school trip, Katarina. And he left on a ship he chartered, that same night.” Leon looked serious. “The same ship is here. And Coleman matches the description: fat, graceless and just past twenty years old.”

“So he’s just with his brother,” Katarina said in relief. “I’m so glad.”

“Katarina, Coleman’s been heard in his cups.” Leon’s voice was still clipped, terse. Angry, she realised. “He’s no friend of Keith. He hates him: your brother is wealthy, he’s loved and he’s the heir to your house. Meanwhile Thomas Coleman is disowned, alone and, except for whoever is sponsoring him here, he’s broke.”

“You’re saying he’s taking out his frustrations on Keith?” asked Violette nervously.

“But, they’re brothers!” Katarina protested. “Surely he wouldn’t do anything to him. They’re not children anymore.”

Her cousin looked down. “Katarina, not all families are as kind as yours. My mother…” She shook her head, changing her mind about what to say. “I… I hated Scarlet when she first came back to the capital. She had a father who loved her and a stepmother who didn’t force her to try to be a substitute for father. I know Thomas Coleman could be cruel to Keith, because I almost became that sort of person too.”

Alan stepped quickly over to Violette and cautiously put one hand around her shoulders. She looked up at him in surprise, searched for something in his face and - apparently surprised at what she saw in it - she leant against him.

“We shouldn’t leave Keith there a moment longer than we must,” she finished.

“Violette,” Katarina whispered. She felt tears forming at the corner of her eyes. She’d thought that Scarlet and Violette were perfect sisters, it had never occurred to her that they’d had to struggle to become like that. With the back of one hand, she dashed the tears away. “You’re right. We should go.”

“We’ll hit them at dawn,” Leon agreed. “There’s a knight-armour on watch, and others in a hangar, plus maybe thirty soldiers, but most are asleep and the guards on watch all night will be tired. “I’ll take my knight armour, the rest of you use the airbikes. Dreadnought would be too obvious, but it’ll come up behind us once surprise isn’t a factor.”

“Alright.” Alan was still hugging Violette with one arm. “So what’s the plan once we’re there?”

“I’ll handle the knight-armour and the guards as much as I can. I’m the distraction. While they’re focused on me, you hit the manor through the servants’ entrance.” Leon had sketched a rough map in chalk on a piece of slate. “You’ll need to find the way down to the cellars - take out the floor if you have to. But once you have Keith, get him out and back aboard the Dreadnought any way that you can. Don’t stop and fight anyone you don’t have to, don’t go out the way you came in if another way looks better. We’re not here for anything more complicated than getting Keith back.”

“What if you get into trouble?” asked Angelica. “Couldn’t Katarina or Alan use the other knight-armour?”

“That would mean only four of you going into the manor,” he pointed out. “That’s considerably more dangerous. Worst case, the Dreadnought can cover me with its guns. There won’t be much left of the manor if we do that, but this is going to be fast and dirty. Hopefully, by the time they know you’re even there, it’ll be too late for them to do anything much.”

-

Angelica hadn’t really feared for her life before. Letting Katarina take the controls of the airbike she was riding on had frightened her more than anything since she lost Prince Julius to Marie Fou Lafan. The girl hadn’t collided with anything, but it had felt like she was trying to.

They’d been flying low, to avoid notice, as they approached the rear of the manor, which meant going through hills and trees. Angelica thought that it was a miracle that the two of them were alive.

“Leon’s going in!” Katarina exclaimed as they descended the last slope towards their target. She pointed with one hand at where the crimson and black knight-armour had landed directly upon the slightly smaller knight armour outside the front of the manor.

“Watch where we’re going!” shrieked Angelica.

The other girl put her hand back on the controls. “Oops, sorry!”

Forcing herself not to shout again - she could have alerted a guard - Angelica held on grimly. I’m flying if we leave on an airbike, she resolved. Never this again.

There was a low wall all around the manor, perhaps ten feet tall. A guard was outside the back gate but he was looking through the viewing slot in the gate to try to find out what was going on at the front of the manor. Terrible discipline, Angelica noted.

Alan slewed his airbike around and slid to a halt, throwing out one hand towards the guard. A ball of water slammed into the back of the guard’s neck and he smashed into the gate, then slid bonelessly down it to the floor.

“Tally ho!” Katarina shouted and hammered their airbike - Leon’s, which was at least the sturdiest of the three - up and over the wall. It barely scraped over, the steep ascent was difficult for it with two riders, and the nose baulked upwards as they came down on the other side, the engine almost stalling. With a yelp, Angelica felt herself slip backwards and away from Katarina.

There was no fighting it so she let go and dropped to the ground. Fortunately they’d lost almost all forward momentum so she wasn’t moving fast and could absorb the impact of the landing.

Scrambling to her feet, Angelica saw that there was another guard behind the gate, just now looking to take in what was going on. Instinctively, she threw a bolt of fire at him.

The flames were stronger than she’d intended, the man barely had a chance to scream before the flames devoured his face.

“Angie!” Katarina cried but before she could see what had happened, the brunette’s gaze was raised admiringly as Violette smoothly leapt her own airbike over the wall and landed smoothly, Olivia still clinging on behind her.

Running after Katarina, who had landed the airbike, Angelica pulled her towards the main house. There was no need for the other girl to see what Angelica had done to the guard. She wished she hadn’t seen it herself. “Come on, we need to get inside the manor.”

“Right.” Katarina dismounted and a moment later Prince Alan joined them, simply vaulting over the wall and leaving his airbike outside the gate.

The five of them were in a vegetable garden, presumably one of those that fed the manor. Apparently in her native element, Katarina led them to the back of the manor, a two-story building that probably looked moderately tasteful from the front but the rear was functional - kitchens, the main well, a chicken coop… Walls cut this part of the grounds off from the stables on their left and what Angelica guessed were storage buildings on the right.

The first door they found wasn’t locked and Katarina burst in without waiting for anyone.

“Hey!” A half-dressed elf, exclaimed. He was wearing one boot and had clearly been pulling the other on when Katarina entered, the foot and boot still in mid-air.

Angelica braced herself to use fire on him, but Katarina yelled “Earth bump,” and the stone floor bulged up under the one foot that the elf still had on the floor. He toppled backwards, an offended look on his face.

“Terribly sorry,” Katarina apologised and then smacked him on the head with the side of her pick.

“You’re terribly sorry?” Alan asked incredulously.

“He didn’t even have his boots on!” Katarina protested. “I think he was in the privy a moment ago.” She indicated the little cubicle off to the side of the room. “I’m being terribly unfair.”

“I’m pretty sure that that means you’re doing it right,” Violette offered.

More practically, Olivia knelt down by the elf and touched his head. Light magic flared around him. “I think he’ll be alright,” she announced. “He’s just knocked out.”

Alan shook his head and led the way through the door into the next room, which was probably the kitchen. It had a sink, worktops and lots of cooking implements. If it wasn’t a kitchen, what were they here for? Also two servants, who looked terrified.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” the boy said sarcastically. “I’m looking for the dungeons, would you mind telling me where they are?”

“T-through the door, second left is the door to the stairs down,” one of the servants stammered. “It’s locked!”

“...that was easy,” the prince noted in surprise.

“You see!?” Katarina exclaimed. “You just need to be nice to people!” The fact she was holding a pick with clear ability to use it may have undermined her point a little. She waved it towards a side door. “Is that a pantry? Oh great, just wait in there, would you?”

The servants seemed entirely happy to retreat there and then Violette turned the key in the pantry door, locking the pair inside. “That went well,” she admitted and drew her sword. “But Katarina, if we don’t catch someone off guard, we’ll have to hurt them more seriously. Keith’s life might be on the line.”

“I know that,” the tall brunette told them unhappily. “But the quicker we find him, the fewer of them that we have to fight. Let’s do this.” Then she kicked the door into the hall open. It swung open, reached the limit of the hinges and then rebounded towards her. “Earth bump!” the girl shrieked and a piece of floor jumped up and locked the door in place just before it hit Katarina in her face.

“Ahahah,” the girl giggled nervously, one hand going back to scratch the back of her head.

“Maybe just a little more carefully,” Alan suggested.

Once Katarina managed to get rid of the lump of floor that was now holding the door half-open, they followed the directions that the servants had found and sure enough, the door was locked.

“Hmm. I can’t pick locks,” Katarina admitted. Then she raised the pick and swung it fiercely down in a sharp arc. The metal beak bit deep into the wood, but when she tried to pull it back, the weapon was lodged. The door actually bent, though it didn’t break, as the girl wrestled with it. “This was… easier with an axe…” she mumbled.

Alan chuckled and gestured. “Please allow me, Lady Katarina. Sometimes fine control works better than brute force.” Water darts pummelled the wooden door panel around the pick, breaking up the wood so that Katarina could get her weapon free. Then, as she stepped back, he directed more darts at the frame, splintering the wood around the lock and both hinges.

After a moment the door began to fall free and all of them backed up as it toppled forwards into the corridor, revealing the dark stairwell behind.

The prince bowed gallantly. “After you, ladies.”

Angelica formed a small globe of fire above her hand to illuminate their way and took the lead as they began filing down the stairs. They were wooden, and creaked alarmingly under her feet. Hopefully no one was down there or it would be obvious that they were coming down.

Fortunately, no one appeared to be lying in wait and they reached the bottom safely. It was a stone floored chamber with a single corridor leading off it.

“Keith!” Katarina called, apparently ignoring any attempt at stealth. “Are you there?”

Violette held her cousin back. “Don’t rush ahead, Katarina. We need to stick together.”

Taking the lead again, Angelica found that the passageway was lined with doors along one side, four of them - all locked and with a single barred window in each. There was an unpleasant smell, reminding her of chamber pots. Perhaps someone had been left here without other facilities?

She looked through the first window and the light of her fire was enough to make it clear that it was unoccupied. No one had been there for years, probably. But the chains and manacles on the far wall made the purpose clear. “This is a prison,” she confirmed.

Moving down the corridor she checked the second. At first she wasn’t sure what she saw in the light through the window - it made no sense to her. Black shadows remained, as if the fire’s light was unable to overwhelm them. But something lay among the shadows and chains secured whatever it was.

“There’s something here,” she admitted. “It could be Keith.”

“There are keys.” Violette lifted a ring of them from a hook just inside the entrance to the passageway. Trying one at a time in the lock, she opened the door on her third attempt. “My god, what is this?”

With a wider field of view than the small window, it was clear that the entire floor was covered by intricate lines of shadow that shivered and flowed as the firelight struggled to pierce it. Olivia gasped as she looked through. “It’s Keith!” she exclaimed. “But he’s wrapped in… I don’t know what it is. It’s like magic made of oil and shadows! Is this dark magic?”

“I can’t think of anything else it would be,” Angelica declared.

Katarina pushed past them. “Keith!” she exclaimed, rushing heedless into the shadows. She tried to lift her brother, bringing him up on the floor and into better light - as if the magic was reaching up from the floor. The boy was bare-chested, leaving it plain that he was bruised and battered. “Oh no! Help me.”

Alan went in, water reaching to break the chains. But footsteps from behind them turned Angelica towards the stairs. Wood creaked as a bulky figure descended to join them. “Who are you?” an angry voice demanded. “What do you think you’re doing?”

Violette drew her sword and pushed Olivia gently towards the cell. Angelica realised she couldn’t move significantly or the others would be left in darkness.

The man reached the bottom of the stairs. He’d been dressed well, but he obviously hadn’t changed out of them and they weren’t really tailored for a man whose gut bulged out over his belt, and whose jowls hid his neck. Angelica had met, and been obliged to be polite, to nobles who had let themselves go before - but they had all at least used careful tailoring, corsets and cosmetics to hide their deficiencies. This man clearly saw little need - or perhaps lacked the means. He squinted at them with piggy eyes. “I asked a question!” he insisted.

“Thomas Fia Coleman,” Angelica greeted him, disdainfully. “No, it’s Thomas Coleman now.” As a commoner, he was no longer entitled to the middle name.

His face went purple. “Don’t look down on me!” He waddled forwards, only to find the tip of Violette’s sword in front of him. Coleman barely stumbled to a halt before he opened his own throat on the blade. “Won’t let you look down on me! Stupid servants, backstabbing brother, filthy father… useless bastard.” He giggled. “Fixed the bastard. Not so pretty now. Won’t look at me like that any more.”

“If you didn’t want people to look down on you,” Angelica said tightly, “You shouldn’t have made your home in the gutter.”

“It’s not my fault! It’s their fault!” He shouted, fingers flexing as if looking for something to pick up. “But she isn’t like that. No, she’s helping me. We fixed him and… Wait, what are you doing?”

Glancing sideways, Angelica saw Katarina and Alan carrying Keith out of the cell. Shadows seemed to be reaching out after them, trying to seize hold of him.

“You can’t take him!” Coleman called in a panic. “No, he’s mine. He won’t get away from me!”

He swept his arm around savagely, beating Violette’s arm aside without regard for the cut opened up on the limb, and rushing past her.

Angelica raised her hands and flared the fire fiercely in front of Coleman’s eyes and then snapped the flames out.

The passageway was suddenly pitch black, and blinded by the sudden change, the fat man blundered forwards. She felt him brush past him as she pressed herself against the wall across from the cell door. She was just as blind as he was, but she had been expecting it.

She hadn’t expected the shadows to all but cry out in delight as the light of the fire vanished.

“What are you doing!” “Get off me!” “Don’t touch my brother!” three voices cried out.

And then the shadows seemed to explode. It shouldn’t have been possible to tell in the blackness, but they were almost anti-light, standing out against what was merely the absence of light. Olivia cried out in fear and then the bright, pure light of her magic formed around her, driving the shadows away from her.

In that moment, watching the dark magic dissolving as it tried to ensnare the other blonde, Angelica could understand why the Saintess, the most famed light mage in Holfort’s history - was so revered.

Alan was still holding Keith.

Katarina was standing, one fist extended from a fierce punch, the silver bracelet around her wrist reflecting the light of Olivia’s magic.

And Thomas Coleman was sprawled in the middle of the circle formed by the lines of shadow.

The shadows whispered hungrily, and surged towards the fallen noble, beginning to feed.

Angelica could see as they consumed him and yet, at the same time they fed upon him, he was not shrinking. No, he was changing. Becoming something else. Something larger. Something inhuman.

Suddenly the elf she’d burned was no longer the worst nightmare she’d face tonight. A scream of horror tore from Angelica’s throat, and she wasn’t the only one to give voice to their terror.

-

Knocking down the main barracks before the guards could fully wake up, much less get out, had probably done a great deal to distract them from going into the manor and interfering in the others’ part of the mission.

It might also have killed several of them, Leon chose not to investigate that too closely. It had occurred to him that quite a lot of the elves had probably hired out as cheap muscle because they had little in the way of other prospects, which was at the root, the result of his own actions.

There is only so much guilt I’m prepared to bear, he told himself.

Besides, taking out the barracks had meant not taking out the hangar and there were two other knight-armours fighting him now. At some point, he should really try to get into more fights that he wasn’t outnumbered - they were leading 3-1 at the moment. Or, as his mother would doubtless advise, perhaps get into less fights in general. That was four fights in just about a year if you didn’t count the invasion of Olfrey - and to be fair he’d only been on the sidelines of that.

Fortunately, while the elves piloting these knight-armours (illegal, but since they were already criminal muscle, he supposed that it didn’t really matter) did seem to actually understand the concept of teamwork, they also had much less practice than most knights had.

One of them took to the air but he was wobbling so much that Leon was able to knock him off balance and out of the fight for long enough to cripple the shield arm and opposing leg of the other knight-armour.

Taking to the sky again, the young knight flipped his knight-armour above the flying opponent, smashing open the enemy’s helm while inverted. Righting himself, he saw the terrified occupant looking back at him through the ruptured plating, desperately trying to turn around to face him.

Unfortunately for the elf, Leon was both behind him and far faster. He curved in and hacked at the back of both shoulders, disabling the arms.

A shot fired from below rang off his armour and he saw the knight-armour he’d crippled first was kneeling and had fired its rifle unbraced. That wasn’t a bad shot, but the rifle was a single-shot breech loader and before the elf could reload Leon had left the now headless and disarmed opponent to take care of him.

The knight-armour ploughed up a trench in the formal gardens after Leon kicked it over. While it was prone, he wedged the edge of his axe into the plate covering its cockpit and started wrenching at it.

“Brother!”

Leon didn’t wait to check behind him, he jetted sideways and avoided the shoulder charge by the other elf.

The two elf-piloted knight-armours crashed against each other, the flying one somersaulting to crash down on its back. The collision had finished off the cockpit armour of the fallen suit, and looking down Leon saw the occupant was already dazed.

Well, he wasn’t here to cause a bloodbath. Reaching down, Leon delicately jabbed one finger into the controls and wrecked them. Turning to the other armour he pointed down at the dismayed but clearly conscious occupant through the broken head protection. “Get out and look after your brother.”

“Y-you won’t kill me?”

“Don’t give me an excuse.”

Something struck Leon’s armour but did nothing more than draw his attention. Looking up, he saw another elf leaning out of the window with a pump action shotgun. “Buckshot?” he muttered. “Luxion, is that in any way a threat to me?”

“You may injure yourself laughing, master.”

“Right. How are the others doing?”

“They are in the cellar, having some sort of confrontation with an unarmed new human. Unfortunately, this seems unlikely to lead them to use lethal force even though he could use magic.”

“I’m sure they’re only holding back to spite you, Luxi-holy mother of god!”

The west wing of the manor erupted as a giant furred beast seemed to rise up out of somewhere beneath it. Timbers, plaster and bricks went flying in every direction. Leon put his knight-armour between the two elves on the ground and a hail of slates that crashed down.

Fortunately, none of it was enough to seriously threaten Leon’s knight-armour, but the parts of the wing that were collapsing inwards didn’t seem to be enough to hamper the beast either.

It was about as tall as a knight-armour, with great feathered wings and a bull-like face. However, a thick mane cascaded around its shoulders and the four paws were more cat-like. As Leon turned back to face it, he saw that it had a long serpentine tail - no, not just serpentine, it was actually a snake with its own jaws, fangs and eyes at the tip.

A chill went through him. The west wing was where Keith had been - where he’d sent the others. “Luxion! The others!”

“I am attempting to establish that,” the AI snapped. “Guard yourself.”

With a single bound and a flap of its wings, the monster leapt at Leon’s knight armour. It tried to land, cat-like upon him with all four clawed paws, but he held the axe in both sides, sweeping at the legs and gouging one. Despite that, the mass couldn’t prevent the beast from knocking him back.

The shotgun wielding elf opened fire on the monster, which might have been the smart thing to do if the shotgun had done more than anger the chimeric beast.

Instead, one paw lashed out, the claws sufficiently swift and keen to snare the elf and drag him screaming out of the window. The screams cut out as the creature raised him to its maw and bit off his upper half.

Leon had his feet under him again and drew his rifle. He hadn’t had to use it yet, and this was firing heavy, armour-piercing rounds scaled to a knight armour. Firing as fast as the weapon could cycle, he emptied six shots into the chimaera’s block torso.

With a scream, the monster reeled. Blood fell from its front and back, some of the shots having gone straight through. But it didn’t fall, instead returning its attention to him - or rather, most of its attention. The snake-headed tail struck for the two elves on the ground near the knight-armours they’d been piloting.

Leon wheeled and hacked down with his axe. The blow severed the tail in two, but as he recovered his balance, he saw the snake’s jaws had closed, burying fangs the size of a machete into one of the unfortunate elves.

With a roar, the maimed beast was upon him. Leon shouted back defiantly and jetted himself up into the sky, settling again at the main gate to the manor. If the others were still alive, drawing this thing away would be necessary.

“Luxion?!”

“There are survivors in the cellar. I am working on clearing enough debris to identify them,” the AI offered.

“Thanks!”

Unshipping his sword, Leon faced the monster with a weapon in each hand. A shield wasn’t really his style, and it would be more of an obstruction to him than a benefit against the chimaera.

It came in clawing. The boy jammed the sword deep into its already bloodied fur, where it glanced off a rib and deflected downwards, into its guts. Judging by the howl it made, the creature wasn’t immune to the pain but it forced itself closer, claws scrabbling against his knight-armour for a hold and driving itself deeper onto the sword.

Hacking mercilessly, Leon finally chopped through the beast’s left shoulder and the arm tore away. He reversed his grip on the axe and tried to jab the head into the monster’s neck.

The first attempt failed when it struck one of the bull-like horns, the second struck the neck, but the think mane seemed to absorb the impact. Pressed too far, Leon overbalanced and his knight-armour fell over on the floor, kicking and gouging at the beast. The axe went by the wayside.

After a moment, he managed to get one leg clear and forced them over, sitting atop the beast as it roared up at him. Leon locked both hands of his knight armour on the horns and wrenched them around.

There was a crunch and the neck of the monster snapped. But still it roared until, with a further tearing yank, he ripped the head clean off of it.

Slumping into his seat, Leon closed his eyes for a moment. That had been intense. He took a deep breath and then opened them. He could rest when everyone was… safe… He blinked. Hadn’t there been a monster here a moment ago? There was nothing in the hands of his knight-armour, and it was sitting lower to the ground than it had a moment ago.

Had the monster dissolved like something from a dungeon? Was Baron Sullivan sitting on a private dungeon or something? Was that where Keith had been?

Looking down, Leon found that there were still remains… but they made no sense. It was a fat man, who had once been well dressed. His torso had been ripped open below the ribs though, and his head and left arm torn away. What was he doing here? How had he been injured, the boy was sure no one had been by the gates when he withdrew here - and they were locked.

Opening his knight-armour, Leon dismounted. It was distasteful, but he picked up the head. The face was mangled, but definitely unfamiliar. He dropped it and wiped his hands on the pilot suit.

The body was mauled - cut almost in two at the mid-section, and now that he was looking closer, there were entrance and exit wounds showing that he’d been shot at least three times in the chest. Perhaps more.

“It’s as if…” Leon’s eyes went wide. Shot in the chest, cut open beneath the ribs. An arm gone, head ripped off. The wounds were a match for those he’d inflicted upon the monster. “No, that’s not possible.”

“It’s rather unexpected,” a girl’s voice declared.

He jerked around and saw her. Slim, with straight dark hair. “Hertrude?” he asked, bemused for a moment, but then the obvious differences in the face became apparent. No, this wasn’t the princess of Fanoss. Just a chance and fairly minor resemblance.

“Who are… you…?” he enquired and met her eyes.

What he saw was madness.

Too late, Leon tried to escape it, but they drew him inexorably towards her.

“You’ll be a lot of help,” he heard distantly in a cheerful voice. The last realisation he had was that she sounded entirely too unmoved by the horrible sight before her.
 
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