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

dreese55

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I mean i just read it as her walking out into the open. Leon had opened his cockpit to look at the body, and when he looked at her she mind blasted him or whatever she did. They are most likely 20 to 30 feet away at least.
 

Bear Ribs

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“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.”
That's your answer to everything Luxion.

Until we got the description of the dead guy, I thought it was a transformed Keith and Leon had just turned Katarina's adored brother into a hamburger patty.
 
Racing to the Rescue 7-4

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 4

If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us shall we not revenge? ~ William Shakespeare​

“Wake up, Lady Katarina!”

With a jerk, Katarina Rafa Claes did so. She was only briefly confused not to be in her bed, but the surroundings provided a clear and obvious prompt as to where she was and what had happened.

Light was streaming down through holes in the roof above them, although it was hard to see at first how they would get out of the tangle of timbers, paving and plasterboard. This was the dungeon of Baron Sullivan, and it was Olivia who had woken her.

“What happened?” she asked. “Everything went black, I remember knocking that man away and then…” Something nightmarish and belonging in an 18-rated horror game raised itself in her memory, but Katarina’s psyche hit the recollection with the metaphorical equivalent of a hoe until it went away. “Are you alright? Are the others alright?”

“I was in the corner when the roof fell in,” Olivia explained. “And you were under the archway of the door.”

Katarina turned and looked for the others. Alan and Keith were sprawled on the ground, a beam pressing them to the ground. They were still breathing though.

So was Angelica, although there was blood on her face. Only Violetta was awake, but her eyes were wide and unseeing - panting harshly and sobbing between each gasp for breath.

“Oh no.” Katarina forced herself to her knees. Her feet seemed a little too much, but she could at least crawl. “Start with Angie,” she ordered. Head wounds were bad, right? Scrambling over to her cousin, she searched her memory for guidance on how to handle shock.

The only thing that came to mind was another shock. Well, she didn’t really want to slap Violette - the poor girl was having a terrible day already. Pulling Violette into her arms, Katarina hugged her and patted her on the back. It didn’t seem to help, so Katarina tried tickling the girl. She was afraid she might just not be ticklish, but then her cousin’s sobs began to overtake her panting and when Katarina stopped scritching at her sides, Violette relaxed against her, weeping into her bosom.

Okay, this wasn’t what she had in mind but it might be helping.

“What’s… going… on?” gasped Alan.

“The roof fell on us,” Olivia reported.

“Oh good, I thought I saw Coleman devoured by dark magic.”

Nope, nope, Katarina wasn’t listening. “The. Roof!” she called insistently.

“That makes more sense. Are you alright, Katarina?”

“I’m fine, Olivia healed me. How about you?”

The prince paused. “Well I’m pretty stuck and I think my leg is going to sleep, but as far as I can tell this beam isn’t actually crushing me. So there’s that. The others?”

“Keith’s next to you,” Olivia informed him rather clinically. The crisis seemed not to distress her as much now that there was something for her to do. “Violette’s had something of a breakdown. And Angelica’s…”

“‘m awake,” the Duke of Redgrave’s daughter mumbled. “It feels like the roof landed on me. What happened?”

“That’s pretty much it,” the other blonde told her. “You took a knock to the head, fortunately you don’t seem to be badly concussed.”

“Concussion is pretty bad,” Angelica noted. “I don’t feel too bad though, is that your light magic at work?”

“Yes, Lady Angelica.”

“Under the circumstances, you can call me Angie. I think my father would agree that normal etiquette can go hang when someone saves your life.”

“You weren’t dying.”

“With a concussion, I could very well have if no one saw me.” The blonde levered herself up and looked around. “Can you get loose, Prince Alan?”

“Not really. I think I’m just pinned though. Same with Keith - the way the wall of the cell fell apart means this beam couldn’t quite drop low enough.” The more than usually silver-haired prince (dust was doing a number on them) shook his head. “I think we may have been unreasonably lucky.”

Violette wiped her face on Katarina’s dress and looked up. “Oh god, that was horrible,” she complained.

“Try not to think about it,” Alan called over. “I don’t blame you for going into shock, but we really need to get out of here. I don’t think we can count on what’s up there not collapsing given half a chance.”

That meant moving the beam, Katarina realised. It would be really helpful if Keith was awake and able to use his magic, but that wasn’t an option. Her poor little brother looked even more pale than before - she hoped it was just the white plaster dust. “Leon might be coming to help.”

“Not if he’s got any sense. He could bring the entire place down on us if he tried to get in here with a knight-armour.”

Katarina conceded that this was probably correct. She gave her cousin one more little squeeze and then released her, crawling over towards Alan. Her legs still felt a little rubbery but she might be able to stand after a bit longer. “Do you think if we just lifted this a little that you could get out?” It was a fairly big beam.

“Well, you’re not going to be lifting it all the way,” Alan decided. “It’s too big. And we can hardly cut it in a useful amount of time.”

She moved to Keith and checked to see if she could move him, but the beam was pressing down on his legs as well. Katarina had a nasty suspicion that unlike Alan, her brother might have a broken leg. “Right. I’ll try.”

“Just be careful that you don’t….”

“Earth bump!” She demanded. The wall underneath the beam strained. She’d not found it this difficult to move anything since she first upgraded from working with soil to attempting to shape stone. Sweat poured down her face. “Bump! Bump! I said buuuuump!”

With a final effort, the wall managed to push a fist-sized chunk of itself up under the beam, lifting it just a fraction.

“...let no one say that your magic is useless, Katarina,” Angelica told her respectfully. “I don’t think any of us could have done that.”

“Haha,” she tried to brush the compliment off. “That was nothing. Keith could have done it easily.”

“Not right now.”

That was unfortunately true, she admitted, helping Prince Alan free himself. His leg didn’t seem to be working, but when she ran her hand down it, there was nothing broken.

“It’s just numb,” he claimed, red-faced, and swatted her hand away. “Check on Keith.”

“I think his leg’s broken,” she admitted. “Should I move it now or is it better for Olivia to check it first?”

“Definitely first,” the light mage agreed. She moved over to replace Katarina, who hovered (not literally), waiting for a result. “You’re right, it is broken. I can help it start healing but we’ll need a splint.”

“I know how to do that,” Angelica offered.

Violette moved over into what had once been Keith’s cell. “I think we can get out here. I t-think what h-happened here…” She faltered and then took a deep breath. “Whatever caused the collapse, there’s less debris here. I see places we can probably get up and out, even while carrying Keith.”

“Right.” Katarina’s legs felt better now and she was sure she would feel better doing something. “I’ll try climbing up. I can tell Leon what’s going on and see if he can help at all. Or if he’s doing alright at all - he might need help himself.”

She found her pick and started climbing. She was the climbing champion of the Claes household!

Scrambling up some stones that had once made up the ceiling of the cell, she got high enough to catch hold of the top of the wall and work her way up through a gap in fallen timbers from the manors upper levels onto what was left of the ground floor. That still didn’t give Katarina a clear view around, because there were still heaps of bricks, timbers and roof slates all intermixed around her.

It was only with the help of her pick that she managed to scramble up one of those heaps. Yeah, getting Keith up this might be difficult.

Looking around, she saw the gate that she came in through. Right, so Leon should be the other way. Katarina stood up on the top of the stack of debris and scanned what now served as her horizon.

The red and black shape of Leon’s knight-armour was pretty distinct. He should really give it a name, she thought. The cockpit was open and the dark-haired boy was standing in front of it, facing a girl with long dark hair and a long black dress.

“Leon!” she called and waved.

He didn’t respond, instead taking the hand of the girl.

“Leon!” Still not getting a response, Katarina looked down. “There’s something wrong with Leon! Some girl’s out there and he’s not paying attention when I call him.”

“That does sound odd,” Alan agreed. “Violette?”

“Olivia!” the silver-blonde girl called. “We need you up here.”

“Why me?” the scholarship student asked, coming over from where Angelica was still tying a splint to Keith’s leg.

“Because if this is dark magic, you’ve got the best chance of recognising it.”

Olivia wasn’t very good at climbing, which surprised Katarina. Wasn’t that how she’d met Gerald? Climbing a tree so she could try to figure out where she was after getting lost at the academy? Then again, trees were kind of easy mode - she’d been beating Alan at climbing trees when she was only eight. Violette and Alan boosted the other girl up and Katarina climbed down so she could reach down and pull Olivia up to her. The girl hugged her for a moment once they were up on the same level.

Was Olivia scared of heights? That seemed odd to Katarina but there were more urgent things to worry about. “Look, Olivia, Leon’s over there.”

In the time taken for the other girl to join her, Leon had managed to get his companion and up to the cockpit of his knight-armour. Katarina wasn’t sure why, the only way two people would fit into a cockpit was if one was sitting on the other’s lap.

And that was exactly what was happening!

Olivia gasped. Katarina and reached over, taking her hand. “I can’t believe it either,” she exclaimed.

“What is that?” the busty blonde gasped. “Who is that?”

“The girl? I don’t recognise her.”

“Lady Katarina, she’s seething with the same thing I saw down in that cell. If that’s dark magic then she might be the one behind this.”

“Oh gosh! Then she might be controlling Leon!” That was terrible! What could she do!? Katarina started checking her pockets. Her pick probably wouldn’t help, Keith’s handkerchief was the same (she should probably give it back once he woke up). Her hands found the long pen-shape of the summoning device.

Well, it probably would do anything about dark magic, but at least if she had the Big Stein then she might be able to protect them if Leon started using the… Katarina decided that since he obviously wasn’t up to naming his knight-armour, she would. Henceforth, she dubbed his knight-armour as the Big Charznable. If Leon turned the Big Charznable upon them, the Big Stein would protect them.

Oh! And if she was careful not collapsing the hole more, then she might be able to lift Keith out of it with the Big Stein!

Pulling the device out, she twisted the cap and then pressed it. Now she just needed to wait out the stock scene of it launching and there would be a…

The Big Charznable took off and started flying away.

“...well that happened,” Katarina realised. “We should probably get Keith out - I don’t know what else we can do right now.”

“What’s going on up there?” called Alan. “Olivia said something about dark magic?”

“Leon’s abducted the dark mage and flew away!”

“Katarina, did you hit your head on something?” the prince asked reasonably.

Olivia found a handhold and leant over the hole. “I think the dark mage took control of Leon? He let her into his knight-armour -”

“The Big Charznable!”

“The what?”

“It’s called the Big Charznable!” Katarina insisted.

“Leon let the dark mage into the Big Charznable,” Olivia corrected herself. “And he’s flown away. I don’t think he’d do that willingly.”

“You’re right, he’s too nice to do that,” she agreed.

“I don’t think most people would call him nice,” Alan noted. “But I agree it’s not what I’d expect from him. We’ve got to get out of here, it won’t take long for any guards left to get back here.”

There was a rush of air and the familiar shape of the white-and-blue Big Stein floated down to stand behind the ruins of the manor’s west wing. “I’m going to reach down with the Big Stein!” Katarina shouted and scrambled over the wreckage to get to it. She’d have to fly without a pilot suit again, but this was an emergency.

The hatch opened as she approached, unbuckling her armour. Wearing a dress was one thing, but the tough leather was another. She wasn’t sure she’d even be able to strap in when she was wearing it.

Katarina grabbed hold of the Big Stein’s knee and pulled herself up to the hatch. She’d just got one foot up onto the edge when - to her utter astonishment - a flat voice declared: “Katarina Rafa Claes. My master needs your help.”

“Wah!” She tried to take a step back, lost her footing and had to hang on with both hands as she slipped down, dangling from the hatch. “Who said that?”

“I did.”

“Who are you?” After kicking her legs a little, she realised that her toes were only a few inches off the ground and let go. Landing on both feet, Katarina stared up at the Big Stein. “Are you… are you talking to me, Big Stein?”

She got the distinct impression that the source of the voice was sighing. “Your ancestors defeated my creators. How shameful. No, Katarina Rafa Claes. I am Luxion. My master needs your help. Get in the knight-armour.”

“I was doing that!” she protested, scrambling up the knight-armour again. “And who is… oh, Luxion is Leon’s familiar!”

“I am impressed that you remembered,” the voice noted as she got inside and started strapping her in. “My master is being controlled by dark magic. This is unacceptable.”

Katarina nodded. “Can you do anything?”

“I can destroy his knight-armour.”

“Big Charznable!”

“...yes. This has a ninety-nine percent chance of destroying the dark mage.”

The girl finished strapping in and closed the hatch. “That’s good!”

“There is also a ninety-nine percent chance that doing so will kill my master.”

“...oh.”

“Records suggest that even if he does survive, my master would remain under the influence of the dark mage,” the familiar continued.

Katarina inched the Big Stein forwards towards the manor, careful to test whether the ground would test its weight before each step. “But what do we do then? I don’t want to kill Leon.”

“We must rescue my master from the dark mage. Evidence suggests that light magic is effective in removing the influence of dark magic upon a victim.”

“Oh, so we need to get Olivia to him!”

The familiar was silent.

“Olivia is a light mage, so she can save him!” That was what heroines did!

“My assessment suggests that Miss Campbell lacks experience in working with dark magic. Her inability to positively identify it makes her expertise a contingency I am reluctant to rely upon.”

“But she’s the only light mage we have!” Katarina reached the hole without anything collapsing and dropped the Big Stein to one knee. Olivia backed away and the knight armour reached out, carefully starting to remove the debris that had piled up on the edge of the hole. The large hands and great strength made it fairly easy, she had to be careful not to get excited and knock anything on top of her friends.

Luxion sounded extremely reluctant. “That is not entirely correct. During your journey here, my master mentioned that the Dreadnought has a vengeful spirit aboard it, one that lacked any influence over the vessel.”

“Yes? But he was joking.” She had the bulk of the debris away, just needing to pick up the smaller items and toss them aside. Unfortunately, one of those smaller pieces of debris that she’d not seen until now was a woman’s body.

Olivia crouched over the woman, light glowing around her, for almost a minute before - tears rolling down her face - she backed away, shaking her head.

Katarina picked the body up carefully, trying not to be sick, and laid the woman aside. She thought that she looked familiar. Not that she’d met her, but maybe that she resembled someone that Katarina had met. After a moment, she realised that the dead woman’s flaxen hair was the same colour as Keith’s. Then she noticed Luxion hadn’t said anything. “Leon was joking, right?”

“In the sense that he was exaggerating the facts for the purposes of humour… yes. However, there was a spirit aboard the Dreadnought. An imprint of the memories of an accomplished light mage.”

“But why would a light mage become a vengeful spirit?” Katarina asked. With the way clear, she moved closer to the hole and extended one hand down it.

“There is no noticeable correlation between being a light mage and possessing an admirable morality,” the AI replied dismissively. “Compare Campbell to Lafan, for example.”

Ropes had been looped around the Big Stein’s hand. “Lift away!” she heard Alan shout from outside. Katarina raised her knight-armour’s arm slowly and Keith came into view, supported on an improvised stretcher. He still looked very pale, even in the clear morning light. She lifted him all the way out and set him down next to the woman’s body. The dead woman really did look like her brother, and both were very pale.

With a shudder, Katarina got Big Stein’s fingers free of the ropes and then looked away. If Olivia couldn’t help Keith, she wouldn’t be able to do anything.

“So we have this spirit talk Olivia through helping Leon?”

“My master expressed major concerns about exposing Olivia to the spirit,” Luxion warned. “Given that this would allow her the potential to usurp the magical power of whoever worked with her, this appears to be a reasonable consideration.”

“Oh, so you want me to do it because I have the least magic out of all of us?”

“I would prefer to make no use of magic whatsoever. However, of the options available, you are preferable.”

A panel in the cockpit opened, revealing a canister of glass that was capped at one end with a metal lid. Inside it, a cloud of what appeared to be black smoke was churning as if it was water at the boil.

“What’s this?” she asked curiously.

Luxion seemed amused. “Permit to introduce you to the Saintess so revered in Holfort, or at least, to the closest thing remaining to her. If you remove the lid she will be released and she claims that, for my master’s sake, she will assist us.”

Katarina eyed the canister, “Is this safe?” she asked.

“No.”

“Oh.” And then she removed the lid from the canister.

-

Olivia watched, helplessly, as the two knight-armours fought in the sky.

The Dreadnought dominated the sky above the manor - the ship was so huge that it felt strange to think how little room there was for people inside it. But she supposed that much of it was probably dedicated to the suspension stone and engines that must be required to keep such a vast vessel in the air and then move it.

But the ship was nothing but a backdrop now. Leon’s red and black knight-armour had tried shooting the hangar door open, then hacking at the ship with its axe after that didn’t work. The hull had resisted the shots though.

“No wonder it dreads naught,” Alan commented, shading his eyes against the still low sun. “A ship that tough and fast - if it had more than four cannon, I think Uncle Roland would be really unhappy about a count’s family controlling a ship like that.”

“If it had more cannon, his highness might have trouble taking it away from the Bartfords,” Violette pointed out.

Katarina’s white and blue knight-armour had Leon’s full attention now. With no more ammunition for his rifle, he was fighting with sword and axe. Olivia didn’t think she was any judge of skill with weapons, but sparks flew every time the two knights clashed in the sky.

They flew at each other, exchanged a blow or two before they had blasted past each other, which left them turning around to close again.

“Who’s winning?” she asked.

Violette shook her head. “I can’t tell. They’ve both hit each other, but it doesn’t seem to be slowing them down.”

“I get the impression,” Alan noted, “That Leon understated how durable those two knight-armours were when he loaned one to Katarina. I’d have felt better about her fighting Lord Arclight.”

There was a crash in the sky and Katarina’s sword went flying from her knight-armour’s hand, but other shards of metal rained down - fortunately not directly upon the little group watching. Leon’s sword had shattered in the latest clash.

They should probably have taken to the airbikes and tried to get aboard the skyship but Olivia feared that the dark mage might have Leon ignore Katarina to target them if they made themselves obvious in the sky. And besides that…

It was just impossible not to stare up at the two knight-armours duelling. There was something… almost mythic about it. Two giants duelling, one in the dominion of darkness and the other championing light.

Olivia felt ashamed that she couldn’t help Katarina, that all she could do was wait down here and watch. She could see the darkness around the knight-armour that the other girl called Big Charznable… but also that Katarina’s own Big Stein was glowing with light magic that repelled the shadows whenever they tried to reach out to seize the white-and-blue knight-armour.

Was Lady Katarina secretly a light mage? It wasn’t clear to Olivia whether that was even possible. Normally a mage would have only one elemental affinity, but perhaps that was why Katarina’s earth magic was so comparatively weak. Or perhaps the duke’s daughter was just that special. Olivia could believe that.

The two duellists struck at each other ferociously, Leon’s axe trying to hack at the chest of the Big Stein. Katarina was blocking the cuts with her hoe, trying to disable the other knight-armour’s limbs rather than going for a kill.

“I hate to say it, but Leon’s fighting dumb. The dark magic must be impairing him,” Alan observed. “If he sacrificed a limb, he could have opened Katarina up there. And if he was doing this willingly, I have to believe he’d do it. It’s not like losing the arm of his knight-armour would be like losing his own limb.”

“Let’s just be glad of that.” Violette had looped her own arm through the prince’s - neither of them seemed to have noticed that.

Olivia tried to ignore it. Alan had his own fiancee, didn’t he? And Violette was a duke’s daughter. She probably wouldn’t be able to choose who she married, any more than she’d had any say in her last fiance.

Angelica took Olivia’s hand and squeezed. Looking sideways, the scholarship student wasn’t sure if the other girl was offering comfort or seeking it, but she squeezed the hand back anyway. It was so strange to think that she was surrounded by some of the most well born people in the kingdom but none of them seemed to think of her as less important than them. Katarina was sweet, of course, but Angelica was also kind and often asked after Olivia’s mother’s wellbeing as well as her own. Alan never seemed to think much about his own rank, while Violette had kindly helped to coach Olivia on the etiquette being used around her - even sharing tales of her own youthful mistakes.

In a flurry of blows, the pace of the battle above them changed. Rather than fly past, Leon’s Big Charznable seized hold of Katarina’s Big Stein and the two spun around each other, smashing blows against each other. With the sound of a thousand pots and pans falling to the floor, the right arm of the white knight-armour came apart, costing Katarina her last weapon.

But Leon’s axe was wrenched away with what remained of the limb.

Unarmed, Katarina blasted her one-armed knight-armour forwards into Leon’s - the two smashed directly into the side of the Dreadnought and rebounded, not even marking the ship’s mighty hull.

“Oh no!” Olivia cried. She covered her mouth with her free hand.

Alan said something that would have made her blush, Violette then added a curse that was even more vile. Angelica’s hand gripped Olivia’s so tightly it was painful.

The pair fell together. They seemed to be going both incredibly fast and yet so slowly that she could see every moment of struggle.

Katarina’s left arm and Leon’s right were locked together wrestling against each other - both limbs were tearing apart with the strain that the knight were putting on them.

With his left arm, Leon smashed the fist into Big Stein’s helm-like face. Once. Twice.

It came almost as a surprise when the two of them slammed down into the ground, pulverising the rear gate of the manor.

Olivia didn’t remember starting to run towards them, just that she was suddenly choking on the cloud of dust that had been kicked up by the impact. Angelica was barely a step behind her, the two still holding hands.

“Go!” she heard Violette call. “I’ll look after Keith.”

Stumbling forwards, Olivia almost tripped over the front half of Leon’s airbike. The rear-half was nowhere in evidence. She staggered around it, half dragging Angelica away from tripping over the airbike’s remains and finally the cloud had settled enough that she could see the remains of the two knight-armours.

The white legs and the red legs were tangled, almost obscenely, torn away from their respective cockpits and resting on what was left of this part of the wall. The cockpit of the Stein had had the hatch jarred half-way open and it was on its side.

Olivia rushed to the hatch, finding it stuck in it’s new position. She yanked on it, but found it unyielding. “Lady Katarina! Lady Katarina!”

Her reply was a forceful blow against the hatch from the inside. Pulling again, Olivia felt it yield slightly and then a second blow forced it open.

Katarina Claes came into view boots first. Then came her skirts - once white but now stained with oil. Then she slithered the rest of the way and Olivia paled as she saw blood trickling from the corner of the brunette’s mouth. Oh no! Internal injuries.

“I fink I bid my dong.” The duke’s daughter said in a thick voice.

“Your dong?”

A nod. “My dong.”

Olivia raised her hand, playing light magic across Katarina. Hopefully she could at least stabilise whatever injuries she’d suffered.

“Is she alright?” Angelica asked anxiously.

“I’m fine,” Katarina declared. “Id’s just my dong.” She hawked in an unladylike fashion and spat out some blood. “Oh. Danks, Olivia. Dat’s beddah.”

The other blonde gave Olivia a questioning look. “I…” Relief went through her. “She bit her tongue. Not too badly.” She’d been so worried.

“Dat’s rigd. My dong. Hab you found Weon?”

“Leon?” Angelica shook her head. “No. Not yet.”

“Led’s go den.” Katarina straightened and started looking around for the black torso section of the other knight-armour.

They found it lying open on the far side of the wall, upside down with the hatch wide open. Angelica pulled Olivia and Katarina back. “Let me go first,” she insisted and conjured a fireball.

“Dond hurd him,” Katarina protested. “Weon’s being condwolled by dark magic.”

“I know, but he could still be dangerous,” Angelica warned. She approached the cavity cautiously from the side, poking her head over the edge quickly and then drawing it back after a peek. The girl hesitated and then looked again. “He’s here, but I don’t see the dark mage.”

Olivia shivered and looked around, as if the dark-clad woman was lurking somewhere to ambush them. Which she might very well be.

Katarina joined Angelica and reached inside. “There’s dark magic all around him,” she warned. “We need to get it off him before he wakes up or he might do something he’ll regret.”

“Given how dangerous he seems to be in a fight, we’d probably regret it too,” Angelica pointed out.

“I’ll do my best,” Olivia promised.

“Id’s alright,” the brunette told her. “Jusd wadch out for any oder dark magic, we dond wand du be caugd off guard.”

Working together, the two duke’s daughters managed to unstrap Leon and drag him out of the cockpit to lay him on the floor. Olivia shuddered. Shadows seemed to flow around and through the boy, almost as if they were following his veins and spreading their influence throughout his body.

“I don’t know what to do!” she admitted, “I’ve never seen anything like this before.”

Katarina reached down and closed her hands around one of the tendrils. “Id’s okay, Olivia.” She pulled the tendril away and to Olivia’s amazement, a faint glow of light magic dispersed the blackness as it was yanked free of Leon.

“How are you doing that?” Angelica exclaimed. She tried to do the same but the blackness didn’t come away. Or rather, it did but new tendrils tried to cling to the blonde’s hands.

Olivia grasped her friend’s hands and channelled light magic through them, purging the dark magic.

“Ahh!” Angelica cried out. She gritted her teeth and waited until Olivia released her before crossing her arms and squeezing each hand beneath her armpits. “That stung like anything!”

“You need lighd magic to do it,” Katarine explained. “Gosh, dis makes id hard to speak cwearwy.” Presumably she meant her tongue.

Continuing to pull the tendrils away, she systematically worked her way across Leon. Olivia tried to help, but the boy twitched and cried out when she did so.

“Carefuw,” Katarina warned, gently pushing her away, “Id’s vewy delicade.”

Awed, Oliva watched her work. “How are you doing this? How do you even know how to treat dark magic, Lady Katarina?”

“De saindess is helping me,” the brunette explained. She swallowed and then tried again. “The Saintess, I mean.”

-

This wasn’t his bed, Leon realised as he woke. But it was one of the beds on the Dreadnought. He could always tell when he was sleeping aboard the ship because Luxion made mattresses that were just that little bit better sprung than the hand-made mattresses found in Holfort. It was a funny thing to recognise, because he’d never claimed to be a connoisseur of bedding - but there it was.

Cracking his eyes open a bit, he was unsurprised to find that the room was lit brightly. Closing his eyes again, he turned his head to shade them, trying to gradually adjust to the lights.

What had happened? They’d attacked Baron Sullivan’s manor, he’d fought against knight-armours and some kind of monster. Then… no, the monster had turned out to be a human… and that was a worrying development.

Eyes not adjusted, he looked around and realised that he was in the Dreadnought’s medical room and that he wasn’t the only one. Keith lay in another bed, not far from him. The boy was apparently asleep, but he was breathing steadily. There were no obvious displays of his vitals - that would have been rather obviously out of place to Holfort eyes.

“Luxion?” he asked.

There was no sight of the drone, but the familiar voice came from his ear. “Master. Please authenticate that you are in your right mind and in control of yourself.”

“What? I…” What had happened? He saw dark eyes and shivered involuntarily. “Authentication?” He’d agreed to a contingency for this after dark magic became a problem. Oh hell. He’d run into the dark mage. “I loved that game,” he said in japanese. “It was so easy, and all the characters were so charming.”

“Vital reports suggest insincerity,” the AI concluded. “Welcome back, Master.”

“I felt dirty just saying that.” Which was rather the point. If I could say that about the game without feeling a strong distaste from the words, then clearly I wasn’t in my right mind - even assuming that I would know to use japanese, while being influenced by a dark mage. “What happened to the others?”

“All of your companions have survived with minimal injuries,” Luxion told him. “We are currently ten hours east of Baron Sullivan’s island and making for the continent. The dark mage attempted to have you bring her aboard Dreadnought but she managed to escape capture after the female Claes disabled your knight-armour.”

“I lost a fight to Katarina?” Leon pulled a pillow out from behind him and covered his face with it. “How incredibly embarrassing.” Why had he even disembarked? In hindsight, there had been absolutely no need.

“Perhaps you and the blue-haired new human will now have something to bond over.”

“Thanks,” he replied still trying to process why he'd put himself in such a vulnerable position. Had seeing a monster leave a human body rather than fully dissipating really been that disturbing? “She got away though, that’s worrying. What other bad news do you have?”

“Both knight-armours and all three airbikes were total losses,” the AI told him. “I have pulverised the remains with my main battery in order to ensure nothing useful is recovered.”

“How much of the manor did you destroy?”

“Everything left of it. I cannot confirm that the dark mage was within, but the chance existed.” Luxion didn’t sound remorseful and on reflection, Leon saw no reason that the AI should be. “It seems probable that the Dreadnought will be identified as responsible. However, retaliation for the male Claes being captured by them is likely to be seen as sufficient reason for the attack.”

“Probably.” He shook his head. “In hindsight, disabling the remote override for my knight-armour was probably a mistake.”

“It is understandable that you would not want Cleare to have the option to seize control over it.”

That was only half the reason Leon had done it, but it wouldn’t be diplomatic to say so. “Next time I do something as stupid as to get out of my knight-armour while in a combat zone, please yell at me.”

Over on the other bed, Keith rolled over - perhaps disturbed by Leon's voice. The dark-haired boy glanced over at the other patient. “Has he woken yet?”

“No, but he is about to. I will notify his sister.”

Huh, so Luxion was talking to Katarina now? That was a development.

A moment later, the door burst open, “KEITH!” Katarina exclaimed loudly.

“Sister?” The boy sat up sharply, jolted awake. “Don’t just burst into my room like that!”

“But this isn’t your room!” The girl hurled herself and grabbed Keith in a hug. “I was so worried, are you alright? Does it hurt anywhere? Please don’t get kidnapped again, I was frantic!”

“I…” Keith slowly closed his arms around Katarina. “How did you find me, Kataraina? Where are we? Thomas didn’t kidnap you as well did he?”

“We’re on Leon’s ship!” she explained. Leon waved, catching Keith’s attention. “We came to rescue you!”

“Just the two of you?”

“No.” Katarina pulled free. “Me, Leon, Angelica, Alan, Violette and Olivia.”

“Just the six of you?” Keith looked alarmed. “Sister, Thomas has guards - and he’s working with a dark mage. I don’t know what’s gotten into him but he’s dangerous.”

“You’re kind of a bit late with the warning, but it is appreciated,” Leon offered drily. “I’m just sorry we didn’t catch up sooner. You seem to have had a rough time of it.”

The other boy shuddered.

“It’s alright,” his sister assured him, hugging him again. “It’s over now. We took care of everything. Well, except the dark mage - she got away. But almost everything.”

“Oh, thank goodness.” Keith relaxed slightly, and then realised he was in bed with his sister sprawled half-over him. “S-sis, should you really be doing this?”

“I don’t care! I missed you. There was a letter saying you’d given up on the Claes and I thought that you’d left me behind.” Katarina was teary eyed. “I’m not letting go of you.”

“What? I’d never do that.” The boy closed his arms around her. “I promise, I’ll never leave you Katarina. I love you. I promise, I’ll always be there for you.”

“Do you promise?”

“Of course.” The flaxen haired boy rested his forehead against hers. “I’ve loved you since before you hacked my door down with an axe.”

“T-that was an emergency.”

“I know. I mean it, you know. I love you. You’re the only woman for me.”

Leon pinched the bridge of his nose. Keith had been right there when Gerald made his feelings known to Katarina, surely he had some idea what would happen.

She didn’t quite faint, this time, although her tenuous balance did go away and she sprawled on top of her brother, forcing him to lie back in the bed. “Oops!” she gasped, face flushed.

“I don’t mind,” Keith told her, a gentle smile on his face. “I’ve wanted to tell you that for a while.”

“T-tell me?” the girl stammered. “I mean, my imaginations running away with me. I … what do you mean I didn’t imagine it, Ann?”

Keith glanced around, saw Leon and flushed - apparently his very presence had been erased from the young man’s memory by proximity to his sister - and then told Katarina gently, “I don’t think Anne’s here.”

“Not that Anne.” She shook her head. “But you said that you love me?”

“Yes, I do.”

Leon felt his face pale. Ann. Not Anne. Ann. Oh no. The Saintess’ name was Ann. “Luxion,” he subvocalized. “What did you do?”

“I did what I needed to do, master.” The AI paused. “It appears that the spectre’s devotion to Lia Bartford exceeds her hatred for the kingdom of Holfort. At a risk of sounding like Cleare, I am intrigued to see how this affects the female Claes’ reactions towards Lafan’s paramours.”

“Can you get her out of Katarina?” Leon asked.

“How?”

“Fuck,” he whispered.

Both siblings looked around at him, red-faced. “N-no,” Keith protested.

“We’re just hugging, like siblings!” Katarina protested. Then she boxed her own ear. “Ann, no! Stop saying things like that.”

Oh this was going to be fun, Leon thought with all the sincerity he’d used for the earlier pass phrase.
 

Blasterbot

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that ghost is gonna have trouble getting influence with Bakarina. Such density outside of a singularity is unheard of.
 
Racing to the Rescue 7-5

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 5

To admit wanting revenge is to admit you have been crushed and need to be rebuilt. Few are comfortable admitting that, even to themselves. ~ Laura Blumenfeld​

Apparently having to rescue a family member from being abducted was accepted a legitimate excuse to skip out on school for a couple of weeks; and, like the absolute gentleman he was, Nicol Fia Ascart had filled out and backdated the documentation for them despite the fact that he’d been short four of his student council minions for the duration. As soon as they signed the forms, the intrepid rescue party (and Keith) were in the clear.

That didn’t mean that they’d get to avoid doing their homework though, and proving Keith had been abducted and abused was more difficult when Olivia had been lavish with her light magic to help him recover. By the time that they got back to Holfort, the bruises were gone and he was walking confidently on the leg that had been broken.

“So, are the two of you bonding over being rescued like damsels in distress by brave Sir Katarina?” Clarice asked Leon and Keith as they shared a desk in the Student Council library. “I wish I’d thought of that excuse for a romantic get-away.”

Keith kicked his chair backwards and stormed out, face black and fists clenched.

Leon dropped his face into his hands as the second year stared after Keith in surprise. “I… was joking?” she said slowly. “What happened?”

“Clarice, I love you but your timing was terrible,” the boy told her. He gestured for her to sit down next to him and leant over. “Look… one of the people who lured Keith away to be abducted was his estranged mother… birth-mother, not Duchess Claes. We’re not sure if she was willing or not, and she was killed while we were rescuing him.”

The redhead covered her mouth. “Dammit. That poor guy.”

Leon nodded. “We’re not spreading it around. He knows that you didn’t know, but it’s still bothering him. I think not least because we don’t know if she was culpable for him being dragged off or just another victim.”

“So it’s true that dark magic was used on him?”

He exhaled slowly. “It’s supposed to be an official secret, since the crown don’t want rumours of that adding to the current instability, but yeah. I’m guessing the gossip is all over the academy.”

Clarice nodded in agreement. “There’s a run on temple talismans to invoke the Saintess to protect the bearer against dark magic.”

“I should have guessed. Is Marie selling them?”

“Why, however did you guess?” the redhead asked. Lafan’s money-making schemes were becoming infamous at the academy… although, to be fair they did generally seem to work. “Do you think they’ll work?”

“I doubt it, but Olivia and Katarina are now officially the kingdom’s biggest experts on dark magic that aren’t under lock and key, so you’d be better asking them.”

“Yeah… speaking of Katarina.” Leon’s girlfriend gave him a nudge. “What’s with the rumours that she wants the hero’s traditional reward off of you? Gerald doesn’t think it’s funny.”

Leon put his face back in his hands.

“Seriously, I’m not really mad about you running off on a rescue mission,” she added. “Maybe a little about Roseblade kissing you, but I knew what I was getting into when I decided to let a knight in shiny armour court me. But I really wouldn’t have figured that she’d be walking into doors around you and other signs of being lovestruck.”

“She’s not,” he groaned. “It’s to do with how she gained… or perhaps nurtured… her light magic.”

“Another secret?”

“Yes.” Leon sat back in his chair. “Okay, let me pack my work up - and Keith’s. I guess it’s fair to tell you but this isn’t the place for the conversation.”

Leaving Keith’s half-done homework stacked at the front of the library, Leon asked Sirius Dieke to let the other boy know where it was once he got back. Then he and Clarice headed off to the gardens.

The weather had a definite chill to it, and clouds threatened rain later in the day. Students were scattered around, enjoying their days off before the end of term exams. Some were using it for studying but being largely unsupervised, some were looking for their work ethic in various corners. Finally, the couple wound up out at the back of the campus, where an isolated vegetable garden was half-way harvested.

“Who is gardening for vegetables on the campus?” Clarice asked, looking at the rows of beans, carrots and a wheelbarrow that held some potatoes. “I didn’t think we grew our own.”

“We don’t.”

Leon would have explained more, but an overalled girl emerged from the shed at one end of the plot and waved at them. “Leon, Clarice!”

“...this does not explain anything,” the redhead warned him. “Hello, Katarina.”

“Shouldn’t you be doing your homework still?” Leon asked the effervescent brunette as they reached easy conversation distance.

“I worked all night and got it done!” she exclaimed brightly. “Gerald’s checking through it all before I hand it in.”

“That’s industrious,” he admitted. He and Keith were still working on theirs, after all.

Katarina nodded and then yawned. “I think I’m going to have to redo all the history though, Ann doesn’t seem to like the founders of the kingdom very much and Gerald didn’t think my first version would go down well.”

Clarice gave her a confused look. “Anne? Your maid? You don’t have her helping you with your homework, do you?”

“No, no!” Katarina waved the garden fork she was holding - fortunately not in their direction. “I wasn’t supposed to mention her, never mind.”

“And thus we get to the point I was going to explain anyway,” Leon told the redhead. “Before we start worrying about cheating… although I don’t think the academy actually has a rule against ghosts…”

“Ah! Where?” Katarina jumped, waving the fork around defensively.

“Against disembodied spirits helping students with their homework,” Leon corrected himself.

“Leon, have you been working too hard?” Clarice asked him seriously. “Or did Roseblade drug you with something?”

“You don’t have any issue with the idea that dark magic was used to abduct Keith, but a disembodied spirit is where you draw the line?” he asked her, grinning.

“I hate that I don’t have a good answer for that,” his lover grumbled. She perched herself on the wheelbarrow and crossed her legs. “Alright, try explaining it again. I’m listening.”

Katarina went back to her carrots, mumbling to herself about ghosts. She seemed to be arguing with someone who wasn’t visibly present. Leon had to admit that if anyone at the academy could get away with that, it was her - but even so, it’d be better if she got out of the habit.

“The bracelet she found in the dungeon - did you hear about that?”

Clarice nodded.

“Okay, well, when it was being cleaned up I discovered that it was being haunted by a spirit seeking to possess anyone who wore it,” Leon explained. “Obviously I wasn’t going to just give it back to Katarina like that, so I had it removed and trapped for interrogation.”

“I have so many questions about how you did any of that, but go on.”

“The spirit claims to be the legacy of the Saintess,” he explained. “She apparently bound her last wishes somehow into her regalia, to carry her wish for revenge down the centuries. Over the years, the various bits of her regalia got lost, and the bracelet ended up in the dungeon. I don’t know if she’s really the Saintess at all, but she is remarkably knowledgeable in dark magic, light magic and the history of how Holfort was founded… albeit with some details that rather differ from official accounts.”

“Thus her history homework problems.”

“Thus, indeed, Katarina’s history homework,” Leon confirmed. “She claims that she and some guy called Lia, who I apparently look just like, did all the hard work - then Holfort stabbed Lia in the back and stole all the credit.”

Clarice’s brow furrowed. “But why would Holfort found the temple revering the Saintess if he betrayed her?”

“He’d apparently been trying to get into her panties,” Leon said with a shrug.

The girl looked betrayed. “Why does this sound so very plausible? It’s a betrayal of everything I was taught about the kingdom’s founding?”

“You’ve met Prince Julius?” offered Leon. “He’s apparently the spitting image of his illustrious ancestor.”

The girl cringed. “Alright, but setting aside the accuracy of this evil spirit’s claims - how did she wind up inside Katarina’s head?”

Leon sighed. “At the time, the dark mage had seized control of me and was trying to use me to take over my ship. Katarina and the others had rescued Keith, but he was still unconscious - they had no way of knowing if he’d also been affected by the dark magic being used. It seems pretty possible he had been, from what they’d described. And at least one person had already been turned into a monster by dark magic. Things were not going well.”

“So they decided to make it worse?”

“A bargain was struck,” he allowed. “The spirit claimed - correctly, it would appear - that it could free me from the dark magic. But it needed someone to allow them the use of their body to do so.”

“I can see not choosing Olivia, given she’d be the one way to check that dark magic was actually being removed,” Clarice accepted. “And Prince Alan being a man would probably be an issue. But what about Violetta or Angelica?”

“I wasn’t consulted, but the logic is fairly simple.” Leon held up two fingers. “Firstly, Katarina’s magic was weakest so giving the spirit access to it was the least risk. Which rather underestimates her other capabilities, but magic was the concern there.” He lowered one finger. “And she’s also the stubbornest person I know. She stands up to Duchess Claes on things like having a vegetable patch like this one. I don’t think that the spirit ever had much chance of taking over.”

“Thank you!” Katarina called.

“You’re welcome!” Leon called back. “I was meaning to ask - didn’t you harvest your vegetables so Olivia could make snacks for the festival?”

“That was summer vegetables! These are winter vegetables!”

“Ah. The more you know…” he muttered, sitting down next to Clarice on the wheelbarrow - it seemed weighted down sufficiently to support them both. “So, Katarina appears to have reached some sort of symbiosis with the spirit.”

“Who is called Ann?”

He shrugged. “She says it’s her name. What else should we call her? Saying saintess would cause no end of trouble, and she says she never claimed the title anyway. The entire temple thing was started by her little sister and King Holfort.”

“And Katarina is occasionally getting lovesick over you because ‘Ann’ is still hung up on her old boyfriend?”

“It would seem so. I don’t really want to get involved in her lovelife. No offence!” he called to Katarina.

“None taken!” She yanked some carrots out of the ground. “Ann’s no help either, she just keeps laughing.”

Clarice snorted. “So, when Roseblade kissed you for luck, did she say it was good luck she was wishing you?”

“...I don’t think so.”

“If she was kissing you for bad luck, it would explain a lot about this mess,” the girl told him. Then she leaned over and pulled lightly on his jacket, turning him to face him. “In the future, let’s stick to me being the one that you kiss.”

“I have no problem with that.”

Their lips met.

“Hey!” Katarina protested. “Stop that!” When they ignored her, the girl huffed. “Why is everyone being lewd on my vegetable patch. … Ann, you’re not helping!”

-

While each term at the academy ended with a party, they were always different.

The party at the end of the first term divided students by year, so that they could form connections with those they’d be sharing classes with. The party at the end of the third term was divided between the special class and the general class, with families attending - it would be a social issue for so many gentry and the occasional common-born families to be around the nobility.

But the second term ended with a single party that was open to all students, because it marked the handing over of leadership within the student body. Nicol Fia Ascart welcomed everyone to the party with the student council members forming a reception line for everyone that attended - presumably just in case not everyone knew who they were. By the end of the party, Nicol would no longer be the president of the Student Council - it was assumed that third year students would need most of their attention during the last year for their final exams, so such onerous duties were handed off in advance.

Katarina, being a sweetheart, brought food to some of her friends when she noticed that they were staring ravenously in the direction of the buffet. Even with Ann inside of her, she seemed not to have realised that they were only doing so because she’d been there.

“Poor Nicol,” Clarice observed once the greeting line was finally released. (Mary Fou Hunt had fallen upon Katarina like a starving but extremely genteel animal and was currently feeding her classmate from her own plate as if she expected the girl to collapse of neglect).

Leon looked over and saw Clarice’s cousin was almost surrounded by thirsty second- and third-year girls. The casualties of the entirely too good looking young man’s charm were being discreetly moved off to seats by servants so that they could recuperate in fresh air. “He is rather besieged. I assume his lack of a fiancee has his parent’s blessing?”

Given the pressure to marry, Nicol was one of the oldest boys at the school who wasn’t engaged - certainly he had the best prospects of any third year that hadn’t been locked into an arrangement. Being one of the youngest members of his year - he was still seventeen - gave him a little more manoeuvring room than most but even so, it was unusual.

Clarice nodded. “If it wasn’t for that matter we can’t discuss, I’d be pushing Katarina towards him. Gerald Rafa Stuart can find some other woman to stalk - did you hear how he got engaged to her?”

“I don’t believe so.” Leon knew what happened in the show and the game, but he’d never actually heard it from anyone in this lifetime. “They were fairly young, weren’t they?”

“She tripped over her own feet and knocked herself out when they were on a play-date,” the redhead told him. “Gerald, being a rather bratty eight year old, made a proposal that amounted to ‘you’re so disfigured that no one else will take you, so I’ll marry you out of pity’. He’d prettied it up enough that she accepted, possibly she was still concussed at the time. I’d have thrown a vase at him.”

“I would certainly imagine he didn’t use those exact words or he would have been shipped back to his parents - were they still alive? - in a basket,” Leon observed. That was a little exaggerated. “Disfigured?”

“It was during the gap between his mother’s death and his father’s,” she told him. “And if you were able to check her face closely without her brother and Prince Gerald getting paranoid, you might be able to find a very faint scar on her forehead. Make-up hides it entirely.”

“Nicol marrying her would certainly make Sophia happy,” he observed.

“It would make Nicol happy,” Clarice said confidently. “He’s very lonely - Katarina’s only the second person outside his family to treat him as something more than an ornament. But he lights up around her.”

“How can you tell?”

“...you would have to know him fairly well,” she admitted. “However, I’m not sure I’d be doing him a favour at the moment.”

Leon nodded. “She seems to be getting back on balance.”

“Could you get it out of her?” Clarice asked him, voice very quiet and almost hidden by the babble of girls around the next most eligible boy on the Student Council. Sirius Fou Dieke reportedly had a very full dance card, but many other girls wanted access to him during the window of opportunity before the dancing began.

“...I don’t know, and experimenting would be dangerous.”

They took glasses from a tray - a light wine that was barely more alcoholic than small beer - and looked for someone to wait until the dancing began, ending up in front of the doors out onto a small balcony.

“Lady Ades,” Leon heard a familiar voice from the balcony. “Princess Hertrude.” He paused and gave Clarice a questioning look.

The redhead winked and backed up slightly towards the curtain, staying out of view of anyone through the doors.

“Lord Arclight,” two girls replied - Leon was able to tell that the Ades in question was Violette rather than Scarlet. What did Chris Fia Arclight want with his former fiancee or the Fanoss princess?

The swordsman wasn’t slow to reveal his goals. “I am aware that we are not on the best of terms, Lady Ades. And I will not pretend that much - perhaps most - of the blame for that rests with me. However, I can at least recognise you for your accomplishments. By all accounts, you played a valorous part in the rescue of Lord Claes, and I salute you for it.”

“Thank you, Lord Arclight.” Violette’s voice was cool, but not frosty. “My upbringing was perhaps unconventional, but I am pleased to have found a use for what I learned.”

“Indeed, I do hope that you find happiness.” A moment later, the blue haired boy returned to the ballroom through the door. He didn’t seem to notice Leon and Clarice, instead making a beeline towards the little cluster that - as ever - surrounded Marie Fou Lafan.

The music fell silent, the signal that the party’s main announcement was due. Violette and Hertrude came in through the balcony door. The princess spotted Clarice and Leon, giving them a little nod that, to Leon, suggested she knew they’d heard the earlier conversation. Violette barely seemed to notice them, she had the look that he had come to recognise as meaning that she had something on her mind. Was Chris’ conversation having more impact than Leon had thought?

Nicol stepped up onto the ballroom’s grand stair. “Ladies and gentlemen of the academy,” he greeted them.

(A girl fainted, but measures were in place and it didn’t disrupt anything. Everyone was used to it by now).

“It has been my privilege to serve as president of the student council,” the boy announced. “But today it is someone else’s turn to take on that responsibility. As is traditional, my last duty is to share the decision of the academy’s staff and the crown that our leader for the next year will be Lord Sirius Fou Dieke.”

There was a round of applause, but no surprise. Sirius was popular and hard-working, besides which he was good-looking and due to Gerald and Alan just barely missing the cut-off to enter the academy the previous year, he was from the highest ranking household represented in the second year’s special class.

“Thank you,” the young man said humbly as he went up the steps to meet Nicol. They shook hands in a brisk, manly fashion and politely ignored one girl’s loud demand of “Kiss!” (She was promptly dragged out of the room by some of her classmates under the direction of Dierdre Fou Roseblade, presumably to be heckled to death. No matter how much some girls liked to fantasise about boy-love, the simple fact was that boys turning to each other meant that they were less available to marry - and both the incoming and departing presidents were currently available.)

Nicol retreated down the steps and Sirius turned to face them. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he greeted them with a warm smile. “I look forward to leading you through the next year. However, my first responsibility is to lead you in tonight’s dancing.”

A number of ladies took deep breaths.

“Lady Violetta Rafa Ades,” Sirius declared clearly. “As your fiance, may I invite you to dance?”

“...what?” Clarice and Leon looked at each other, having exclaimed in unison. Both of them turned to Violette - as many other people around the room did.

The silver-blonde girl inhaled. Exhaled. Then she looked up at Sirius and nodded. She strode forwards onto the dance floor, with people moving out of her way. Only Alan failed to do so, apparently frozen in surprise. Only when Violette swept her hand to gesture for him to move aside did the prince make way for him.

Sirius met her halfway and as their hands met, the musicians began to play.

“They look good,” Clarice observed.

“Handsome guy, beautiful girl - not you, of course.” Leon shook his head. “But where did this come from?”

“Probably their parents.” She shook her head. “I’m not saying it couldn’t work, but this reeks of politics. Have the two of them even spoken to each other?”

“I don’t know - but she’s not on the student council and they have no classes together.”

Once the first song was over, other dancers began taking to the floor. Sirius and Violette parted ways and girls clustered around the new student council president. Violette made her way back towards her previous place at the edge of the room.

“Congratulations,” Hertrude gave Leon and Clarice a pointed look before turning to her previous companion. “I take it that this is a recent development?”

“Yes. My father wrote to me recently.”

“Ah.” The princess nodded in understanding. “I will also likely have little freedom of choice when it comes to my marriage - I may technically be sovereign but political demands are the price of our many privileges. I hope that you do not find Lord Dieke too repulsive.”

“I cannot say that I am aware of any particular defects that he has, though I am also unaware of his virtues - by way of barely knowing him at all.”

“That seems a remarkably quickly arranged engagement,” Clarice observed. “Usually the couple should at least meet long enough to have some idea of who they are marrying before it’s put on paper.”

Violette’s eyes did not meet anyone’s. “I would not wish to sound ungrateful for the time my father the duke has put into forging this marriage alliance.” She looked back over her shoulder for a moment, at the auburn-haired young man she’d been told to join her life with. “Although I would have been grateful for more than a few hours to grow used to the idea before it became public knowledge.”

“A few hours?” Leon asked, wondering if he could encourage Scarlet to cast fist a few times at her father.

“The letter arrived at breakfast,” Violette told them. “Excuse me, I need some fresh air.”

The three of them watched her depart through the doors.

“I believe your family managed to conquer Count Olfrey’s domain and make yourselves counts at his expense,” Hertrude said conversationally to Leon. “Given his proximity to my own lands, it was of some concern.”

“We did, yes.”

“And your new and old domains bracket the Ades’,” she continued. “Does your father have any ambitions to become a duke?”

“He’s not really happy about becoming a count.”

“Pity.”

Clarice nodded. “I’ve met his son and Auld Rafa Ades has three really nice children. I can’t imagine where that quality came from.”

-

Hertrude’s rooms were almost back to the state they’d been in when she arrived, months ago. That had been long enough that she’d become comfortable in them, adding personal touches such as ornaments or just leaving her paperwork out - nothing sensitive, but things that were more convenient to keep to hand.

Now all that was packed away, because with the term ending she would return to Fanoss. She felt, as she returned, that she should be happy.

She was leaving behind the kingdom that had been her family’s enemies for generations. She was going back to see her sister, the servants of her household, the lords who had pledged to serve her.

And yet, she was melancholy as she walked through the door. Perhaps it was Violette’s sudden betrothal - she wouldn’t go so far as to call the girl a friend, but under other circumstances she might have done. If Leon had accepted her challenge as anything but a joke…

Well, the prospect of the Bartfords ruling a swathe of the northern kingdom would actually be rather bad for her, she admitted privately. Such a combined domain could field a powerful fleet and would have every reason to defend their western extremity from Fanoss. Fortunately, that very possibility could make them a secession risk and thus King Roland would never allow it.

Thoughts of Violette’s engagement were swept from her mind as the princess entered her main room and found a familiar masked and cloaked figure standing at her desk.

“My god,” she murmured. “You do have a habit of walking into Fanoss maiden’s personal quarters as if you owned them.”

The figure wheeled, and she thought to her pleasure that she had caught him off guard - a petty revenge but perhaps all she could manage. The guards around her right now were fewer than in Castle Fanoss, and their failure would be more public and humiliating here than back there.

And somehow, just as he had caused no injury to her or to Hertrauda before, she thought that he would be similarly careful now. He was a thief, not an assassin.

The intruder sketched a bow towards her. “And yet again, you come upon me unaware, your highness. I salute your stealth. Would you care to run away with me for a life of crime and adventure. I think you might have potential.”

“Thank you, but no.”

“Alas, rejected once more.” He sidestepped, towards the window and revealing the desk - upon which Hertrude saw an unfamiliar casket left upon it.

“Did you steal that from someone else?” she accused lightly, indicating it. “Or are you making a delivery?”

“The latter.”

“I could still scream,” she warned as he took another step towards the window. “I think Holfort would be incredibly embarrassed that someone pierced the security around the academy.”

“My fair princess, such a scandal as a man entering your chambers might also stain your own reputation. I beg that for your own sake that you refrain - even if it might make you feel better.”

Still, he took no further steps and watched silently as she walked to the desk and flipped up the lid of the casket. It was unlocked, and what she saw inside was a mix of her hopes and her fears.

Fragments of metal, ancient alloys that could no longer be reproduced, lay on a crimson layer of silk. Enchantments shattered when the instruments that bore them were ruined beyond any repair. What forces could have done that, Hertrude did not know, but as she lifted one part of what remained she felt the faintest hint of the majesty she had once touched upon in experimenting with her family’s legacy.

The Flutes of Fanoss had been destroyed.

“Does it satisfy you?” she asked savagely, “To have blasted so conclusively our one trump card? The one thing that kept King Roland and his companions from breaking our truce and conquering Fanoss? My knights would die almost to the last to keep such savagery from my people… but with the numbers Holfort can deploy, die they assuredly shall.”

The man watched her and then shrugged. “Look beneath the silk,” he suggested.

Hertrude gave him a puzzled look and then replaced the fragment in the casket. With some reverence - even ruined, the fragments were a treasure of her house’s history - she took the silk at both sides and lifted it, finding it folded such that it let her easily keep the metal shards contained. When she had set them down on the desk, she found that still within the casket’s interior lay a folded parchment.

The princess removed it and unfolded it, recognising by its stiffness that this was no recent document. Years old, like those she had studied in the archives of her home or in the back corners of the academy’s library. (Which came embarrassingly close to exceeding the finest collections of her homeland).

“And this would be?” she asked.

“A treasure of House Holfort, if a minor one.” The man must be smiling. His tone betrayed it. “They won’t notice it’s gone, I left them a very good forgery in its place. And since there should be a copy of this in your archives and yet I found none, I felt I really ought to make good the lack.”

The girl read it. “Lies.”

“Are they?”

“My ancestors,” she snapped, “Rebelled against the tyranny of the Holforts.”

“I have no doubt.” He bowed again. Mocking her. “And I will readily admit that the rulers of this kingdom are no more immune to tyranny than they have been to folly, corruption and many another flaw that may be ascribed to rulers. But that treaty, offered and accepted, does indeed spell out the tyranny to which a certain forefather of yours objected.”

“Holfort’s knights ravaged my homeland!”

“I know.”

“They slaughtered my people.”

“They did indeed.”

“They betrayed us, cheated us, stole from us.”

“Yes, yes, and yes.” He seemed to grow before her, a mischievous goblin becoming an ogre of fear. “And can you place your hand upon your heart and swear to me that Fanoss did none of these things? You may pile all the wrongs of the world in one place, but they will never be a right, Princess.”

“This can’t be!” She flung the parchment away, as if it was venomous.

But if that was so, she was already poisoned. Because the words, once read, could not be unread.

“Faced with Duke Adrian Rafa Fanoss’ refusal to cease warring upon his neighbours,” the masked man decreed mercilessly, “King Jasper Rafa Holfort did offer him complete independence from the crown authority, so long as he paid recompense for the lives lost, fortunes stolen and entire islands shattered in his greed to enrich himself at his neighbours expense.”

He took a step forward, Hertrude took one back.

“And with the wealth Adrian, hereafter Sera Fanoss, yielded to free himself from the tyrannical demand that he should not prey upon his neighbours, the Holfort’s established fortresses upon the islands between themselves and your home isle - and the greatest of those fortresses they placed in the care of Lord Field, thereafter a marquis of Holfort and the greatest march lord of the region.”

Crouching, he lifted the parchment and placed it on the desk next to the ruined flutes. “Both of these are parts of your heritage, your highness. How do you think that the threat of using the greatest summoning of monsters that the flute can manage to destroy entire islands would stand if it had not been done, at least once?”

Strength fled her legs. Hertrude dropped to the floor. Tears began to pour down her cheeks. “You already took my revenge from me, can you not leave me even this?”

He walked away from her, towards the window. “Your parents turned away from that path, Princess Hertrude. It was brave, and it killed them, but they had all the facts and they made a difficult decision. I respect that. Now you have all the facts, and can make your own choice. I will not tell you to do as your parents did, nor as your advisors wish you to. All I can tell you is that the choice is yours and that once made, you will have to live with it.”

“You have done me no kindness,” she called bitterly as he reached the window and flung one leg over the sill.

“I’m the sort of asshole that sneaks into a girl’s room and steals her parent’s legacy,” he pointed out. “But… I do think that if I were a father, I’d want my children to live for my sake, not die for it. Take that for comfort, if it helps.”

And then he was gone.

Hertrude buried the heels of her hands against her eyes and doubled over, sobs chasing the tears as they poured out of her.

“Damn you, Carmine Sandiego,” she cursed, elbows resting on the carpet. “Damn you all. Why do this to me? Why do you have to be such a miserable thieving, cheating scoundrel? Why did my parents have to die? Why can’t Hertrauda and I have one single comfort!? Why!? Why? Why!”

And when her tears were spent, when she had no more sobs to give, Princess Hertrude Sera Fanoss was left only with clarity as her companion. She rolled over, lying sprawled on the floor with her arms outstretched.

“Damn you too, Leon Fou Bartford,” she said quietly, thinking of the views on revenge she’d heard from the boy most often assigned as her escort here at the academy. “How dare you be right!?”
 

LordsFire

Internet Wizard
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Huh.

I don't know if it's just because of my lack of familiarity with the material, but I did not expect that. I do wonder where it will be going, though.
 

Simonbob

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"Damn You! And Damn your mask, too!"

I most likely shouldn't laugh at a young girls pain, but there is such a joke in that!
 
Winter Wedding 8-1

drakensis

Well-known member
Joined
Aug 19, 2019
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492
Winter Wedding

And with a little help from above
You feel the power of love
~ Huey Lewis​

Chapter 1

There is no passion of the human heart that promises so much and pays so little as revenge. ~ Henry Wheeler Shaw​

The departure from Holfort had been full of pomp and ceremony. Professions of friendship between the nations had been made by both Hertrude and by King Roland. She suspected that the king believed them as little as she did, but he’d at least made an effort to pretend otherwise.

She’d still washed her hands thoroughly as soon as she was in private aboard the ship Count Garrett had brought to collect her. Holfort’s kiss on the back of her hand had been an itch that required soap and water to get off.

And after that, with the continent still in plain view out the aft windows of her cabin, the Count had requested her time.

Not really a surprise, and while she could technically decline, it wasn’t really a request. She’d been away for months and Garrett was probably twitchy about that. After all, she’d had some freedom away from him and his careful shepherding. It was likely that he was wondering just what she might have been doing - or worse, thinking - with that time.

“Of course, please show the Count in,” Hertrude told the maid.

Immaculately dressed and coiffed, his precious moustache actually waxed, Count Garrett bowed sweepingly to her once he was admitted. “Your highness, it warms my heart to see you returning to us.”

“You have no idea how welcome a sight you are,” she reassured him and took a seat at the table. “Please sit down. I didn’t realise until I was here how hard it would be to have so few people around me that I could trust.”

“Your bravery does you credit.” The man sat opposite her and tea was served. “Allow me to reassure you that we have faced no new disasters in your absence. And as of our own departure, your sister has suffered no misfortunes in her extended tour of the outlying counts and viscounts.” Garrett twirled one of his moustaches.

“I’m pleased to hear that.”

“I must enquire, your highness. Is there news of your family’s treasures?”

“More than I had feared, but far less than I had hoped.” Hertrude indicated the casket, laid out with her other belongings. She’d hidden the copy of the treaty away but the flutes she would have to admit to. No doubt much of her possessions had already been checked by Garret’s agents. “They were indeed within Holfort, but not in the hands of the crown.”

“May I…?” the count asked, lowering his hand from his moustache.

The princess shrugged. “If you must. Holfort’s Ministry of Magic was close to acquiring them, and just ensuring that they didn’t learn that they had been taken from us was not easy.” If you counted not giving it away to Marquis Frampton as difficult. Then again, Leon seemed to have close ties to the Department of Magical Tools, so it was possible that the current Minister of Magic knew far less about what was going on than he believed.

Garret pushed back his chair, went to the casket and opened it. The sharp breath was perhaps the first unfeigned reaction she had seen from him today, Hertrude thought coldly. “Destroyed? Both of them?”

“I was able to piece them together in form, but not in function. Unless one was able to create such items I am reluctantly confident that this is all of both.” She steepled her fingers. “We have lost our key weapon against Holfort, which leaves us the bluff… the small consolation that Holfort has not gained them for their own use, and a few other small trifles I was able to obtain.”

The count returned to the table. “The arm that Marquis Frampton presented to you. I confess that I did not expect him to have such influence, but unfortunately it does not redress our loss, your highness.”

“I am painfully aware of that.” Having sipped from her tea, she placed the tea cup on its saucer just barely too late to hide a tremble marking high emotion. “Armed thus, a knight might win battles for us, but the flutes could have won us the war.” She paused, letting him see her gather herself. “Holfort is weaker than it has been since our secession from it… I could have my revenge now, but my best weapons were stolen and destroyed!”

“It is a painful reality,” Garrett conceded. “It would seem then that we are faced by three possible choices.”

We. Not you.

How many times had he slid that past her?

“We could ignore the opportunity,” she forced herself to say reluctantly. “Hope to grow stronger while Holfort slides further into degeneracy.”

“Unfortunately, having weathered a storm, one is likely to take precautions against another.” Garrett toyed with his moustache again. “If the Holforts survive, they will forge a new alliance of lords to stabilise their position. They have done so before.”

“I must agree. Their next generation are not all as dissolute as their parents.” Hertrude shook her head. “Our second option is to take Frampton’s offer. If he is dealing in good faith, we could expand considerably - take the lands of the Field, Seberg, Olfrey… Bartford now, and the petty lordships around them. But to assume a traitor can be trusted…”

Garrett smiled. “I see you are wiser than that.”

“He has a dark mage in the ministry,” she warned him.

The count’s eyes widened slightly. “Has he now?” While Fanoss was divided from Holfort, they did revere adventurers as a tradition. And the saintess’ exploits were still repeated - if with a caution that she surely had been less fond of Holfort than the kingdom claimed.

“He does. A captive in the Ministry of Magic, but one who is co-operative to some extent. One reason I avoided visiting the place. From what I gather, long term control requires that the mage have frequent access or I would trust no one I took with me to Holfort. But as a tool - and one that can be taught to others...”

“Not as easy as it may sound.” Garrett sounded thoughtful. “I agree that in the long term, this brands the good marquis as no one we can trust, but it does at least suggest one means by which he might live up to his promises in the shorter term: replacing Count Ascart at foreign affairs and sending his rivals into battle against us.”

Hertrude nodded. “The good news is that my sources both informed me that the dark mage himself is a thief and a conman, not some legendary mage. A bare trace of magical talent that he can use judiciously to good effect but not a power in and of himself.”

“I stand relieved. Still, we must assume that once he has brought down his rivals then Frampton will seek a more favourable bargain to himself.”

“Agreed. Which leaves us the third option, the one I would have favoured without question six months ago.”

“Play along with Frampton until we can strike for the jugular of Holfort,” the count agreed.

“If we had the flutes,” she said a little bitterly. “But without them, I suspect we would over-reach ourselves. The Holforts themselves would fall, but some other more vigorous dynasty would rally Holfort’s numbers against us.”

“Perhaps not.” Garrett smiled, baring his teeth. “Your highness, I would like to introduce you to a young lady that we met on our way to retrieve you.”

“Oh?”

A message was sent and a few moments later, Hertrude was looking at a neatly but cleanly dressed young woman - perhaps her own age and with coarse black hair cut at a similar length to her own. “Greetings your highness,” the girl said with a clumsy curtsey.

“Greetings, Miss…”

“Sarah,” Garrett introduced her. “Is also a victim of Holfort’s crimes and corruption, your highness. A child taken from her family, who found refuge from the tyrants in a border barony. Alas, she was recently driven from it by fire and the sword.”

“How terrible.” Hertrude hid a frown. One of the many conflicts raised over the legitimacy of various lords? But why was Garrett strutting like he had accomplished some coup?

“I don’t mind much,” Sarah told her, with an innocent smile on her lips. Her fringe parted and Hertrude met her eyes, a cold chill going down her spine. “Struggling is what makes us strong, your highness.”

“Miss Sarah possesses a prodigious talent for magic,” the count declared. “And the nature of her mistreatment has led it into a… shall we say, unconventional direction? One that makes her a powerful ally for us against Holfort.”

The afternoon shadows seemed to shift behind Sarah, though the princess doubted that the girl was actively doing anything. It was simply that they danced for her attention. “You are a dark mage?” she said with certainty.

“Yes, your highness.” Sarah’s eyes were without guile or even the slightest guilt. “You want to destroy the kingdom, and I will be ever so happy to help you!”

-

“Bartford.”

Leon didn’t have to leave in time to get out to the family barony or county this winter - his parents had decided to spend the holiday in the capital for once. Ruth had never done that before but with Zola out of the way they’d decided to enjoy a few weeks of warmer weather and oversee refurbishing the Bartford house in the capital to a less lavish style than the woman had demanded. It wasn’t as if either of Leon’s parents planned to live there full time but for a count it made sense to have a permanent residence so selling it would be a mistake.

As a result, Leon was free to stay at the academy and study for the next term. While he didn’t have to stay in the top twelve to keep his place on the student council, slipping too far could lead to problems and he couldn’t exactly count on practical magic to keep his grades up.

Besides, what was he going to do all alone in the family mansion until they arrived? Throw wild parties? As if.

“You managed to identify me,” he greeted Prince Julius. “And on your first attempt. Do I really look so much more identifiable now that your nose isn’t on the way.”

“I never looked down on you,” the dark-blue haired young man protested.

“I really doubt you even knew my name until the end of last term.” Leon put his book aside. “Take a seat, your highness. What do you want?”

Julius pulled back the chair across the table, reversed it and sat down. “I always wanted to try sitting like this,” he confided. “But Angelica said it wasn’t proper.”

“And because she said it, the people with actual authority over you didn’t have to tell you that. Seems like she caught a lot of blame for other people.” Leon leant back slightly, “But for what it’s worth, I don’t care how you sit on a chair.”

“Thank you. And don’t feel like you have to call me ‘your highness’, it just gets in the way.”

“Let’s not get crazy here, Julius.”

That got him a grin. “Look, you’re an adventurer. And a good one.”

Leon gave him a piercing look. “You’re buttering me up. What is it?”

“Why are you so suspicious?”

“I have a well honed sense for when someone wants something and doesn’t think I’ll give it willingly. That’s why Lafan has so little of my cash in her pockets.”

Julius sighed. “Look, Marie has a lead on an island that she thinks there could be considerable treasure hidden away on. We won’t know for sure without going there, but as far as any of us can tell, no one has ever been there and reported it, so there’s a chance.”

“Good for her. What’s that got to do with me?”

“I’d have thought you’d be interested in treasures, Bartford. You lost your knight-armours rescuing Lord Claes, so this is your chance to make the money to get a new one. Given you experience, I’m inviting you along as co-leader with me.”

“Co-leader?”

Julius nodded eagerly.

Biting back his exact opinion of that idea, Leon asked instead: “And do you have a ship set up?”

“Well, not yet. I mean, if you’re along then you already have one.”

“Aha. Okay, that’s a good plan but it has two critical flaws,” the count’s son warned in a reasonable tone.

“Like what?” the prince asked.

“I’d be missing Prince Ian’s wedding, which is also my mother’s first meeting with the young lady I’m courting -”

“Congratulations, by the way.”

“It’s early days yet, there’s ample time for her to realise she can do much better,” Leon told him. “But my final point is that you have zero clue what you’re doing and what you’re describing is you leaching off my ship and my experience while still having the authority to get us into trouble. So have fun but I’m not going near this little project of Lafan’s.”

Julius did an amazing impersonation of a kicked puppy. “But…”

“A ship has but one captain, Julius. Someone has to be responsible, and given that you gave up on being king as soon as it looked like it might involve doing something you didn’t want to, I have doubts about your suitability for the role. Even so, if you were saying that you would be the leader and if it wasn’t inconvenient for me in other respects, I might have given you a shot. But there is no way I am signing onto an expedition where it’s not plain and clear where the buck stops - especially when one of the two candidates is at the beck and call of their friends, further dividing them. Having friends is a lovely thing, but if your responsibilities don’t come first then you really don’t belong in a leadership position.”

“How are you going to get a new knight-armour then!” the boy asked as if that was a decisive argument.

Leon shrugged. “That’s really not your problem. Look, go ahead and mount your expedition. I really can’t stop you. Be resourceful and find a ship. Be effective and prove me wrong. I’ll be very happy for you, really I will. But that doesn’t mean I’ll put my life on the line for a proposition I think is likely to end badly.”

“I hadn’t thought you’d hold our previous disagreements against us.”

“Well, I’m trying to be nice.”

“What’s nice about insulting me to my face!” Julius demanded, trying to stand and finding it a little harder to get the chair out of his way than he’d expected.

“Well I didn’t bring up the fact that Jilk’s a dishonourable piece of pondscum that threatened my family so he could get in good with your mutual love interest,” Leon pointed out reasonably. “And for that matter, your lack of anything resembling a backbone, to the point you’ve reneged on your sworn word about avoiding Lafan doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence. But I was trying to be nice. I’m not sure why, maybe it’s the impending wedding. I have a delicate romantic heart, you see.”

Julius stalked out of the room, white faced and shaking with rage.

“That went well,” Leon announced to the empty student council library. “I think that went well, don’t you, Luxion?”

“Very well, master. And may I say that I am deeply appreciative of you electing not to allow a pack of new humans to take up residence on the Dreadnought for another extended journey. Last time you got mind-controlled by dark magic, I shudder to think how much worse it would be with the leadership being shared with Holfort.”

“Fortunately, I’m not a suicidal idiot.” Leon checked the clock and then started packing up his books. “Anyway, it’s almost time to give Olivia a lift over to the port. No problems with the new airbike?”

“None at all, master. I suppose your brief flirtation with not helping new humans wasn’t going to last long anyway,” the AI said in a resigned tone.

“I’m only taking her to the port for a merchant ship,” pointed out Leon. “It’s not as if I’m ferrying her all the way to her home island.”

Luxion muttered something about ‘small mercies’, at a volume low enough that Leon could pretend not to have heard it. In the interests of keeping the peace, he decided to maintain that pretence. It would be good practise if he did marry Clarice - as unlikely as it seemed that they’d not drive each other to frustration or possibly murder over the next five or six years. He sure as hell wasn’t marrying her before she was twenty, or before he was twenty if he could get away with it.

-

The arm that Princess Hertrude had brought back from Fanoss was proving more of a problem than Garrett had expected.

His initial reaction had been delight that Marquis Frampton was apparently so eager to destroy his own immediate enemies that he was stupid enough to let the princess swindle him. Although the fact that she could swindle him suggested that she might be showing some signs of intelligence.

Raising children was hard, or so Garrett had always been told by his mother and then by his wife. He’d assumed that they were complaining to try to guilt trip him but perhaps he had misjudged them. After all, he was basically raising Hertrude and it was certainly getting harder. She’d been easier to manage right after her parents’ death - shocked at the loss, angry at Holfort. Unfortunately, he’d taken those as fixed qualities and it was now apparent that they weren’t entirely characteristic of her.

A shame really. It would be much easier for him and infinitely easier for her if she’d just been a biddable puppet.

Oh well. She wasn’t free of his control by any means. There was plenty of time to find her some good looking but not too bright young man - one of his cousins perhaps. And the same for her sister. One baby, one little accident and then there’s a new regency council - Princess Hertrauda could sit on it as a token presence and back-up, at least until she also had an heir.

All of that would wait though. Plans for the future, things to ruminate over. Right now there was the arm. Who would have thought that chopping an arm off a knight and grafting a magical weapon onto them was so hard?

“So what is it you have to show me?” Vandel Him Zenden grumbled. The old knight had rushed back to Castle Fanoss at Garrett’s request and the journey did seem to have him out of sorts.

Really, it would be best if he died a heroic death in the coming campaign. He was useful right now, but the future didn’t have a place for him. The greatest knight in Fanoss needed to be younger, better looking, more controllable. Not this old veteran who was white-haired where he wasn’t bald and had opinions about absolutely everything.

“Our venture into diplomacy with Holfort has yielded a few unexpected benefits besides learning of their current state of weakness,” the count explained, gesturing to the glass case that currently contained the arm. The rest of the room was scrubbed up - if Sir Vandel agreed then they’d have it on him before the day was done.

The old knight examined it casually. “The arm of a small knight-armour? Not much use without the rest of it.”

“Not a bad guess, Sir Vandel but no - that’s not quite what it is.” Garrett tapped the glass, watching as dozens of eyes formed on the metal limb. They glanced around, then went away as if eyelids had covered them. “This is a lost item, part of something greater, but by no means useless in its current state - although it does require someone capable of wielding it.”

“You really think Holfort would give up something useful?” The old man still looked dismissive, but the tone of his voice was at odds with his words. He was interested.

“The kingdom is riven by dissent. The man who gave it up is a venal fool.”

“That much I can believe.”

Garrett smiled. “It is possible they have simply lost records of what this really is, whereas our own archives have mention of it. This isn’t the arm of a knight-armour, it is the arm of a construct that our ancestors once built knight-armours to fight, back in the days before the kingdom or the principality. And if a knight can control it then all that power will be at their disposal.”

“And you didn’t try it on a knight you trust more than me?” Vandel folded his arms, giving Garrett a sceptical look.

Damn, he also hated that the man was as sharp as his sword. “We did. But as I said: if a knight can control it. If.”

The old knight scowled at him. “How many of them did it kill?”

“Three.” Granted, expendable men for the most part. But you can’t just keep disappearing knights forever. People get suspicious. Three was about the limit without anyone noticing. If Vandel failed then there would be little to lose by admitting he’d tried and failed - it wasn’t as if there was any better candidate. Chalk it up as a tragedy, mourn him publicly and enjoy the silver lining of being rid of the old goat. And if he succeeded?

Vandel wouldn’t just be fighting to subdue the arm once. He’d have to keep winning… and the arm only had to win once. How long could one old man last? Hopefully long enough for just one last war. He might even get a heroic death. That would be neat and tidy, wouldn’t it?

“Three,” Vandel repeated and shook his head. “And why do you think that this is necessary?”

Garrett sighed. “Respectfully, Sir Vandel, while you remain the most able knight in Fanoss, the Masked Knight is almost certainly younger than you. He may not have been in his prime when you last faced him. And there will be other young knights rising from their ranks. The princess herself admits that some of Holfort’s younger generation have potential. We must take every advantage we can, anything else would be neglectful.”

Stormy eyes glared at him. “And you don’t want this power for yourself?”

“I know my limits.” The count sighed. “It’s a tool, sir knight. Like your sword, it should be in the right hands.”

Slowly, Sir Vandel Him Zenden reached back and drew his famous black sword. It was unbelievable to Garrett that he held it at all, much less singlehanded - the blade was sized for a knight-armour! The knight still had monstrous strength despite his age. “The difference is that this sword is in my hand. But that thing has its own hand.”

Behind the glass, the arm’s eyes opened again, the eyeballs - or appearance of them - flicking around as they scanned the room for something. Garrett wondered what they were looking for. Something to kill?

Then Vandel frowned. “What…”

“Eh?” Garrett started at the knight, then at the case he was looking at. One of the eyes had locked onto Vandel… or, no. Not the knight. His sword.

“Out!” With his free hand, Vandel yanked Garrett off his feet and hurled him at the door.

The glass shattered as the arm flexed, springing free of its frame. Garrett scrambled up, seizing the door handle and pulling it open. Whatever was happening, he wanted nothing to do with it!

A hand like iron seized him and dragged him through the door, then slammed it shut behind them. Something - the arm? - hammered on the door for a moment, a vicious tattoo like a drum.

Fortunately the thick door, held in place by the towering knight, remained closed.

And then the entire building seemed to heave and roar for a moment. Garrett fell to the floor and closed his eyes. The door disintegrated, Vandel was flung across the room and hit the ground rolling.

When the count’s ears were no longer ringing, he looked up and saw the armoured knight slowly and painfully pulling himself to his feet.

“What… what happened?” Garrett asked.

“Your great opportunity was a trap.” The ‘you fool’ was implicit in the tone, but it stung as much as the bruises from the manhandling that the moustachioed man had just gone through. Vandel adjusted his armour and harrumphed. “Three of our knights died, and you didn’t suspect a thing.”

“The princess was fooled!” he asserted. She’d thought she was so clever to get it from Marquis Frampton, but the girl had been outplayed from the start.

Vandel shook his head. “So when it is a prize, you claim credit and when it blows up in our faces the fault is someone else’s?”

Well obviously. “She was the one who brought this to us.” He looked through the door and winced at the damage done to the equipment within.

“She and her sister at least owned their mistakes with the flutes.” The old knight shook his head. “She has my loyalty for that.”

“You know she is at best ambivalent about taking war to Holfort!”

With narrowed eyes, Vandel looked down on Garrett. “I am aware, Count Garrett. And for that campaign, you have my support. Not my loyalty, just my support. We will take war to Holfort and I will do everything that I can to make a success of it. But if you get us in over our heads then don’t expect to save me from the consequences of your mistakes.”

Well, don’t expect me to save you either, Garrett thought. Because you’re the one most likely to overreach yourself, Sir Vandel. “It seems we understand each other then.”

And I understand your intent to betray us, Marquis Malcolm Fou Frampton. But we’ll play dumb, as if we think it was just an accident. You still have something to do for our benefit. The one who laughs last, laughs best - and I will be one who lasts longest!

-

“Leeeeeon!” Jenna called, hopping down from one stair to another of their mansion. She’d put on a new dress. “Stop fooling around, you dunce.”

“Who is fooling around?” he asked, adjusting his bow tie. Leon had grown a couple more inches since he last needed a suit, but fortunately Luxion was an amazing tailor - at least in terms of technical work. Style might be harder for the AI to grasp. The tuxedo fit, but it was likely also subtly off the intended proportions.

He wasn’t going to spend a day getting an entirely new fitting done though. This was comfortable and chances were pretty good he’d not need it again. Maybe in the summer - or when he was sure that he’d hit his full growth.

“You have to take me to the wedding,” his sister insisted. She was dressed up for it, which made her a fool since they’d already told her that she wasn’t going.

“I don’t think that I do.”

“It’s the social event of the season! Don’t you understand? I can’t miss it!”

“Well, you’re gonna have to. Even if I didn’t already have the plus one for my invitation set up -”

“She’s just a baron’s daughter! Stand her up!”

Leon pinched the brow of his nose. Clarice didn’t need an invite, since her father was bringing her. As such, he’d been asked as a favour to take Baron Tucker’s twelfth child. Ginger was enrolling in the academy next year so this would be her first social event. The Tucker barony neighboured the Bartfords’ so they weren’t someone that could be just brushed off.

And the request hadn’t even come from the Baron. Leon suspected that the man had little time for his youngest daughter since Ginger Tucker’s dress and accommodation were being provided by Marquis Randall’s brother’s household here in the capital. It was Suzanna Rafa Stuart, the marquis’ daughter, who had asked Leon to bring the young Tucker to the wedding.

“The fact that you even think that that’s politically wise tells me how careless you’re being. Weren’t you supposed to be smarter about social affairs than I am?” Leon shook his head. “And besides that, mother told you that if you didn’t stay in the top half of your class’ grades then you’d have to skip social events this winter to study.”

“I ought to be in the top half! I’m a count’s daughter now!”

“Jenna, have you been slacking because you thought mother’s status would make up the difference?”

“I need to keep up with my peers!”

Her brother groaned. “If you mean that pack of count and viscount family children, you’re being a complete idiot.”

Jenna stamped her foot. “Someone has to help me make connections! Lord Dieke is engaged now, but did you ever introduce me to him so I had a shot first? You wouldn’t even brush off the girls around Viscount Bourdon. He’s inherited his title already, and there’s a lot of money in that family.”

“Allen Bourdon? He’s an idiot and he’s letting his mother and sisters run a pretty healthy holding deep into debt,” Leon told her. “If he makes it past twenty, the entire viscounty will be wrecked. Stop using Zola as your benchmark for what a successful lady is like. You do remember what’s happened to her, don’t you?”

“I won’t make those mistakes, but I need to meet proper gentlemen!”

Leon sighed. “You’re making quite a lot of mistakes. Look, Bourdon’s heir is still his brother Alan and he’s got a lot more of their father’s brains. I told you before: approach him and there’s a decent chance you could snare a gem before the rest of your pack of merry idiots notice the guy.”

Jenna huffed. “He’s not going to inherit once the Viscount marries and has children.”

“You’re assuming he’ll live that long.” The third year had inherited far too young, after his father died in a clash with the Holy Kingdom of Rachelle. The late viscount hadn’t strictly needed to involve himself, but he’d been supporting House Redgrave out of loyalty to the Duke’s factional politics. The new viscount had fallen in with a very different crowd, but he was also eager to show himself to be a great warrior like his father. That was going to get the idiot killed, in Leon’s not so humble opinion.

Turning to the door, he shook his head again. “Look, you need to get back to your studies. Good grades mean that mother will give you more freedom. If you don’t waste that, then I like your chances of finding a marriage that’ll make you happy. But if you want my support, or mother’s support, you need to stop filling your head with the blithering nonsense your so-called friends are peddling. They’re only trying to sponge off you because of mother and I, how many of them would have given you the time of day last year?”

“Stop running away, Leon!” Jenna called as he went out the door. She stamped her foot again and he heard the heel of her shoes snap. “Fuck!” she added as she stumbled. “I’ll give you a piece of my mind when you get home!”

“Are you sure you can spare it?” he called back and hopped into the carriage that was waiting to take him to Lord Randall’s house.
 
Winter Wedding 8-2

drakensis

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Winter Wedding

And with a little help from above
You feel the power of love
~ Huey Lewis​

Chapter 2

What is revenge but courage to call in our honor’s debts, and wisdom to convert others’ self-love into our own protection? ~ Edward Young​

The group waiting in Julius’ rooms at the palace looked up hopefully as Jilk entered the room. Unfortunately, those hopes were dashed as the green-haired young man shook his head.

“I’m sorry, my father refuses to let me use one of our family’s ships. I did everything but beg on my knees but he told me that I’d made my bed and should lie on it.”

“Who cares about making beds!” Greg snarled. “We’re talking ships and knight-armours!”

“Just one ship would be enough.” Brad was sitting on the couch, one arm around Marie’s shoulder and toying her with her hair idly. “What is going on with our families?”

“You can say that,” the redhead shot back, “But the knee on my knight-armour hasn’t been the same since I fought Julius’ cousin. I’ve asked around but fixing it needs a skilled armorsmith and most of them are already working for a household.”

“Surely there are some independent craftsmen?” Julius suggested.

“I got told I’d have to wait! What’s up with that?”

Marie tried to hide her disappointment. Hadn’t any of them figured this out yet? She was almost tempted to just get up and remind them that this was what being disinherited meant, but no one liked the bearer of bad news - and they might even blame her!

Chris rose and stretched - he was still good eye-candy. There was that.

“Let’s review our options,” he suggested. “Firstly, we could pass on going after the treasure right now. We only have the holidays, and if we don’t get a ship then we’ll not have time to get there and back.”

“Does it really matter if we’re a bit late for term starting?” asked Julius. “After all, Bartford and his crew just ran off for two weeks in the middle of last term.”

“Ascart covered for them,” Jilk told the prince, sitting down in the armchair next to Julius’ seat. “There’s an allowance for family emergencies, but unless one of us is in peril, we’re not going to have much luck with that.”

“This is an emergency, we don’t know when someone else could find that treasure. Isn’t this what adventuring is all about?” Brad let go of Marie’s hair and leant forwards.

She didn’t think anyone was likely to find the cash shop island if they hadn’t already, but she could hardly tell them that the information she’d discovered was only inside of her head. And given the parlous state of their collective finances, it really was an emergency. Thank god that Greg hadn’t realised that the craftsmen he’d approached had probably been hinting that offering a premium for the repairs would get him to the head of the queue - he’d have paid without thinking and there would go more of the dwindling funds available.

Marie hadn’t believed that anyone could be worse for taking money from her than her parent’s creditors, but the five of them were apparently intent on proving her wrong. There was a statuette of her that Julius had commissioned, paying with money she’d been earmarking to buy something - anything - she could wear other than her school uniform.

“This can’t be so hard,” the prince muttered. “Lots of people are adventurers, how do they get ships?”

“And knight-armour repairs?” added Greg. “I thought I was ready for that, with all the times I’ve been to dungeons before.” He rested his chin on his hands morosely. “I never realised how much was going on behind the scenes to go out there.”

Of course you didn’t, Marie thought. You never had to actually do any of the hard work. Just smack whatever was in front of you.

Chris cleared his throat. “If we don’t give up, then we’re going to have to look at other ways to get a skyship. We’ve tried our families, perhaps we could buy our own?”

“That’s a good idea!” the prince declared. “If we put all our money together.”

“We can’t.” Marie had already looked at that. “Skyships are expensive, guys.”

“Once we have the treasure, we can afford it!” Brad suggested. “Why not take a loan?”

A shiver went down her spine. “No, not a loan. Anything but that!”

He put his arm around her. “Marie, it’s alright. We’ll just borrow a little and then pay it all off once we hit it big.”

It was like it was her husband from her past life. Who never hit it big, and borrowed more and more, with the interest getting higher and higher as the banks and loan sharks realised that they’d never have enough together to clear the debts… but that they could be milked of repayments forever. “Borrowing is evil, Brad! Anyone lending money is out to get you!”

“Okay…” Chris said slowly. “I think we should respect Marie’s wishes here. So if we can’t get our families to lend… to let us use a skyship and we can’t buy one, who else might be willing to lend us a ship?”

“I tried Bartford.”

Which had gone about as well as Marie had expected. The mob was entirely too fond of the halfwit he sharpened whenever he could, but he wasn’t stupid. And if he had come along, he’d have wanted a huge share for using his ship.

“Yeah, well it’s not like he’d have helped us,” Greg pointed out. “We’re not exactly his favourite people in the world - he hangs around with Angelica, Clarice, Violette and Scarlet. None of them would be impressed with him spending the holidays adventuring with us.”

The mention of their former fiancees wasn’t a topic Marie was eager to broach. Hopefully none of them were stupid enough to suggest approaching any of those families for a skyship.

“Maybe we can find an adventuring party who already have a ship of their own,” Jilk offered. “We could share Marie’s information with them and split the proceeds. It’d mean we get a smaller share but some is better than nothing, which is what we have right now.”

“We’re already going to have to pay a lot of what we find to the Adventurer’s Guild,” Chris pointed out. “Splitting the treasure too far might mean we have too little to make it worthwhile - but it’s worth asking around at the Guild. There might be ships that charter to adventurers just for a share of the take. That’d be less going around than bringing in a ship and another party of adventurers.”

“That’s a thought,” agreed Julius. “Asking around could get us somewhere.”

Marie nodded. And there was another possibility, one she’d been loath to try without having the bracelet. But right now she was running out of options. She was pretty sure that no reputable ship owner would join up with this pack of silk-pants on some treasure hunt - and any non-reputable captain would throw them over the side once they had the treasure. Given a ship, the captain could then set out to some other kingdom and no one would know that they were missing until it was far too late.

“Please don’t take any chances,” she pleaded. “Ask around but don’t commit to anything until we can talk it over.”

“Of course, Marie.” Greg walked over and ruffled her hair, like she was his little sister or something. “We’re in this together. All for one, one for all!”

“Nicely said,” Julius agreed. “Shall we go to the guild then?”

The boys started standing.

“I have another idea,” Marie told them. “But it’s a little embarrassing if it doesn’t work out…”

-

“My lady,” Anne Fou Shelley informed Katarina Rafa Claes. “You have a guest.”

“Is it Gerald?” she asked, rising from where she’d been sitting. The problem with wedding finery was that it was so delicate that she couldn’t run around or climb or even garden in it, without leaving evidence that would earn her a lengthy lecture from mother.

According to Anne, the dress was perfectly durable for ladylike pursuits… which was apparently limited to tea parties and talking to Sophia about romance novels. It wasn’t as if Katarina didn’t enjoy either of those, but sometimes she just wanted to sprawl out on the lawn.

Well, maybe not today. Until it warmed up. But it was the principle of the thing, and she’d be wearing dresses like this for several days.

The marriage of a duke’s brother to a duke’s daughter was not a simple affair, she had learned. Both the Stuarts and Bergs would host massive parties before and after the event. Banquets, balls and hunting parties would take the better part of a week. As a matter of honour the two ducal families would host all the guests so Katarina would be staying at the Berg Mansion (there had been a huge fuss over where she would stay, but mother had finally decided that Selena’s argument that it would be improper for Katarina to essentially live at the Stuart mansion before her marriage to Gerald was correct) even though it was only about a hour’s walk from the Claes mansion.

Even if she wasn’t staying with the Stuarts, it was still Gerald’s responsibility as her fiance to come and escort her. They’d be riding in the coach together with Keith and Anne as chaperones.

She flushed slightly at a naughty thought involving Keith and Gerald. Ann was such a pervert for putting that thought into her head! Katarina knew she couldn’t be entirely blameless, she’d had that dream about Gerald kissing her before Ann joined her, but Keith as well?

Think of the vegetables! Was she going to find babies under a cabbage one day? Not that that was where babies came from, she still remembered health class from her past life, but if she might have to rush off to exile then having a baby would be a bit of a problem.

“No, my lady. It is Lady Lysia from the temple.”

The temple? Katarina tried to remember proper etiquette as the older blonde lady entered the room. Curtseying, she then kissed the priestess’ offered ring in deference to the presumed authority of speaking for the saint.

‘She most definitely does not!’ Ann complained as Angelica, who was also waiting to go to the wedding, also kissed the ring.

“Lady Claes,” Lysia greeted her. “I am here on the business of the temple. A sensitive matter, I am afraid.”

“Er…” Katarina looked appealing at Angelica, who was moving towards the door. “I’m not very good at sensitive matters.”

Out of the corner of her eyes, she saw Anne touch her forehead as if the maid had a headache.

“I would simply ask that you not discuss this matter outside your family,” the priestess clarified. “At least until the temple has reached the point of making a formal announcement about the matter I’d like to discuss with you.”

“Oh. Well, Anne’s practically family and Angie’s one of my best friends!”

Anne bowed to Lady Lysia. “Perhaps in the Duchess’ momentary absence, you would allow Lady Redgrave to provide young Lady Claes with mature advice?”

The blonde priestess hesitated and then nodded. “I believe that you accompanied Lady Claes to rescue her brother during the recent affair?” she asked Angelica.

“Yes, your grace.”

“Then you are probably somewhat aware of some of what I want to discuss,” Lysia decided.

They sat down around the tea table, Angie and Anne flanking her while Ann complained quietly about the temple using her name without permission.

“To begin at the beginning, I believe that you recovered a bracelet from the dungeon under the school, in the spring.”

“Oh yes.” She wasn’t wearing it right now. “Anne, do you have it handy?”

“I can fetch it, my lady.”

“I would appreciate that. It has been described to me and we believe that it may be part of a set.” Lysia relaxed slightly in her seat as Anne left the room. “I also understand that you began to show signs of using light magic while you were rescuing your brother from Baron Sullivan. Is that true?”

Katarina paused and then nodded cautiously. “I mean, it looked a bit like light magic?”

Angelica patted her hand. “I’ve seen Olivia Campbell and Marie Fou Lafan use light magic,” she told Lysia. “What Katarina did was the same light.”

“How amazing,” Lysia’s eyes sparkled. “Light magic is a rare and precious gift. Your family must be very proud.”

Actually her mother had said something about not letting anyone know in case she got in trouble.

“May I ask who it is that you were healing?” the priestess asked.

“Eh? Ah, I wasn’t healing someone,” Katarina explained as Anne returned holding a jewellery case. “There were these shadows, you see?”

“Ah, you used it for illumination?” Then Lysia gasped as the maid placed the case on the table and opened it, revealing the silver bracelet. “Oh my. Oh my!”

‘Oh mine,’ Ann thought in Katarina’s head, giving the girl an image of the saintess dressed like Anne and swatting Lysia’s trembling fingers.

The priestess gathered her composure. “Your pardon, Lady Claes. The bracelet seems just as it was described to me. May I examine it?”

“Sure!” Oh, that wasn’t ladylike. “Er, I mean… of course you can, Lady Lysia.”

Not apparently taking any note of the informality, the older lady picked the bracelet up and turned it over. She retrieved some paper from a pocket in her dress and unfolded it, checking what seemed to be notes and a diagram.

Katarina wondered if she should call for refreshments. She could really go for some cakes right now.

‘Pronounce yourself my heir,’ Ann advised her. ‘These idiots will believe it, and with your family behind you, we can pick the right moment to overthrow the Holforts and you can marry Lia.’

Poor Ann, she seemed to still be confusing Leon with her old boyfriend Lia. Maybe she could get some of those lovely creamy cup-cake, the ones with little wings… fairy cakes, that was what they were called!

‘Katarina, stop thinking about cake, you can overthrow the Holforts and become queen.’

Nope-nope-nope. Her mother would be incandescently angry if Katarina became queen somehow.

“I…” Lysia’s voice almost broke as she finished her examination of the bracelet. “I am amazed. This exactly matches the description of the Saintess’ Bracelet. It might be a very good copy, but if so then the craftsman almost certainly must have seen the original at some point.”

Angelica leant forwards. “Of course, the kingdom’s oldest laws, as confirmed by the temple, assert that it is inalienably the property of Lady Claes. She may sell it if she chooses, but not even the crown can take it from her if she wants to keep it.”

“Of course, of course.” Lady Lysia waved the hand not folding her notes up. “Of course,” she repeated, eyes not leaving the bracelet. “Although if we might come to some arrangement to test it… just to see if it really is the Saintess’ Bracelet?”

Katarina had enough self-preservation to glance at Angelica.

“Any such arrangement would need to be discussed by both the Duke, as Lady Claes’ guardian, and the temple’s leadership,” the other young woman pointed out. “Katarina is not of age, after all, and securing an item of such possible importance would require a significant commitment of security.”

Why did that make Lady Lysia look so upset?

Ann snickered. ‘Because the temple lost the bracelet once already. Your parents will probably let them take it only when the consequences for not returning it have been set so high that the temple won’t dare claim ‘it was stolen’ and hide it away for themselves.’

“I suppose you are right,” the priestess agreed reluctantly. “Perhaps I can arrange another meeting - though I suppose that that must wait until after Prince Ian’s wedding.”

Angelica nodded. “And if I may correct your earlier assumption: Lady Katarina didn’t use her light magic for mere illumination. The shadows that she drove away were dark magic that had enchanted the minds of her brother and of one of our comrades. Without her skill and courage, we might never have recovered them from that captivity.”

Lysia’s eyes went wide. “That… that is amazing.” She sounded flabbergasted. “Dark magic itself was so forgotten that we had thought that it might have been driven from human knowledge. Learning that we were wrong has caused great alarm within the temple, but to learn that light magic is rising to battle it...” She rose and then curtsied to Katarina. “You bring us all hope, Lady Claes.”

“Oh, I couldn’t have done it without the Saintess’ help,” Katarina exclaimed.

“Indeed, we are all guided by her wisdom.”

‘And they’ll try to steal the credit,’ the Saintess whispered angrily to Katarina. The girl really wished she could give Ann a hug - it sounded as if she needed one.

-

Leon had barely arrived at the Randall’s mansion when he was ushered across to the coach waiting for the Randalls and their guest.

Lord Isak Fia Randall held a minor office at the treasury, something to do with military pensions, thus his technical status as a court noble, but the bulk of his influence lay with the fact he was his brother’s chosen successor. Rather than his wife, he was escorting their daughter Frey and handed her up into the coach before climbing in.

Leon offered Ginger Fou Tucker a wry smile and his arm. She flushed awkwardly and let him help her into the coach. They didn’t know each other well, and Leon had always found her blunt to the point of curtness. A royal wedding - for dukes were royal in their status for traditional reasons - was rather outside of her comfort zone.

“Lady Randall won’t be joining us?” Leon asked once he had made sure that his charge was seated.

Lord Randall shook his head. “Frey’s brother Njord is unwell, so my wife will be staying with him. I don’t believe it’s contagious, but it’s still convenient for Frey and our guest to stay with the Stuarts for a few days.”

“I’ve had most everything already,” Ginger observed. “Nature of having so many siblings.”

Frey gave the other girl’s hand a little squeeze. “You’ll like it at the Stuart mansion, Suzanna’s been building up their library.”

“Don’t spend the entire wedding festivities in there,” her father warned with gruff fondness. He glanced at Leon. “Just like her cousin was at the same age. Suzanna was mad for the notion she’d join the Ministry of Magic when she was younger. Couldn’t happen of course, not at our station.”

Leon remembered Larna Smith and hid a smile. “One never knows what will happen in the future.”

“Well she certainly wasn’t expecting to marry a duke,” the man said fondly. “I think she’s invited you two young ladies so she has someone to talk about magic with,” he added to the young ladies. “So I won’t fuss at you for doing that, just don’t ignore everyone else. It’s a good chance for you to make connections here in the capital, Lady Tucker.”

“I’ll be here for years at the academy anyway.” The brown-haired girl seemed to find that sufficient answer and turned to Leon. “How did you make it onto the student council when you can’t use magic, Lord Bartford?”

“I had to be very good at everything else,” he told her. “You won’t have that problem, I suspect?”

“Ginger’s amazing, she knows ever so much about wind magic!” Frey exclaimed enthusiastically.

“I’m not that strong,” the girl claimed, her cheeks flushed at the praise. Not something she likely got with her brood of older siblings, Leon thought, recalling occasional local gatherings of his youth. Hah, he was barely sixteen and he was calling it his youth.

“Nor is Lady Claes,” he told the girl. “But she’s pretty good about making use of what she can do.

Ginger nodded and looked out of the window. “We’re almost at the Stuart mansion. Why do they and the Bergs have to host everyone for the wedding? It seems silly when half the guests are already living within walking distance.”

“I don’t actually know,” Leon admitted, “It’s a tradition, so there was probably a good reason for it once, even if it’s a bit silly now.”

“It’s actually a custom from the feudal lords,” Lord Randall informed them. “It used to be that few of the lords had permanent residences in the capital so weddings took place in their domains and guests had to stay with them - there weren’t many alternatives. He chuckled. “It’s a bit much now that most weddings among the nobility are held here in the capital, but it’s sparked some funny stories.”

“Such as?” his daughter asked eagerly.

The older man leant back in his seat. “Well, the custom does mean a lot of houses have rooms or guest houses that are only used a few times a year, at best. A few years ago, some viscounts with neighbouring mansions decided to take advantage of their proximity and they built a joint guest house that could be accessed from any of their homes, changing the furnishings and approaches to disguise that it was the same guest house whoever was hosting there. Most of them had different circles of friends and allies, so it was pretty rare for anyone to be hosted there by more than one of them.”

“That’s pretty clever,” Leon admitted. “I’m surprised more of the lower nobility don’t do that. My parents sold off the Olfrey mansion, but we may struggle to host a large gathering for my brother’s wedding.”

“Unfortunately it turned into something of a cautionary tale,” Randall explained. “It came out when Marquis Frampton discovered that they were all putting funds in to pay taxes on a single guest house rather than five distinct ones. We were investigating them for tax fraud for over a year until someone checked the building on a map and realised that there really was just one guest house.”

“How is that a cautionary tale?” Frey enquired.

“Like I said, none of the five really had friends in common - they were neighbours but each was part of a different faction at court. The fact that they’d been collaborating like that raised suspicions that they might also have been cooperating in other ways. There were several rather fierce arguments and three of them found themselves alienated from their previous supporters.” Lord Randall shrugged. “The perils of politics I’m afraid.”

He’d timed the end of the tale well, and the coach pulled up outside the Stuart mansion right as he delivered that warning message.

Leon opened the door and hopped down so that he could offer his arm to Ginger, followed by Isak Fia Randall doing the same for his daughter.

“Isak, Frey!” Suzanna Rafa Stuart swept out to meet them, kissing her cousin and her uncle each on the cheek. “Lord Bartford -” She gave him a flirtatious look that Leon was sure was feigned, while he kissed the back of her hand. “- and you must be Lady Tucker.”

“Ginger Fou Tucker, my lady,” the girl muttered nervously.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you. I hope to see a lot more of you in the future,” Suzanna assured her. “Frey, why don’t you show Ginger the library? I have the newest research on botanicals that you were asking about.”

“Thank you!” Frey exclaimed loudly and half-dragged her friend away.

Leon arched an eyebrow to ask ‘can I escape too?’ and got a slight shake of the head.

“Thank you for finally taking my advice and offering patronage to young ladies,” Isak told his niece. “Frey’d probably be very happy at the ministry but we both know that that isn’t going to happen. At least if you’re hosting salons she’ll have some way to meet like-minded young people.”

“That’s one of my reasons,” the duchess agreed, letting the two men each take one of her arms and escort her back inside. “But it’s for my own pleasure as well.”

Leon suspected that at some point Suzanna would have a frank talk to her cousin about how to establish a false identity and then the Smith presence at the ministry would increase by one. The conversation might have already happened in fact, Frey was a bit too young to take employment right now and unless something changed she’d also need the right husband.

“And is Lord Bartford here another of your proteges?” the court lord asked wryly.

“Some believe that he’s my little bit on the side,” Suzanna joked, with a wicked laugh, “but he’s actually the intermediary between myself and Director Smith at the ministry. Your old superior gets quite hissy about his subordinates having private correspondence with the other nobility.”

Leon almost swallowed his tongue at the sheer gall of that claim.

Once her uncle broke off to speak to some of his peers in age among the other guests, Suzanna drew Leon off to one of the guest suites. “I trust this will be acceptable for your parents,” she asked him hopefully. “I don’t want to overwhelm them, but I have to maintain some standards for a countess and her husband.”

Leon looked around. It was a nice suite but probably rather less decorated than most of the guest rooms - he suspected some had been removed. “I think that they’ll manage, my lady. I appreciate the consideration.”

“I don’t host that often,” she told him and then shook her head. “And don’t worry about the formalities when we’re alone. I’m sure you’ve seen right through my masquerade.”

“Not when we first met,” he admitted. “But yes, director.”

“Suzanna, or Larna, depending what face I’m wearing.” She reached up and tousled her long dark hair slightly. “I liked your report on Alexander, don’t worry about getting him back from Miss Campbell - she’s sure to join us once she graduates so it’s not as if he’ll be out of the Ministry forever.”

“One less chore.” The little bear had hidden away any time he tried to retrieve it from the other student.

“I’d appreciate a similar report on your experience being controlled by dark magic.”

“I don’t remember very much,” Leon admitted reluctantly.

She shook her head. “We know so little that any detail could be valuable. I’ve asked the same of Lord Claes.”

“Is Frampton still blocking access to your captive?” he asked. “Surely an actual dark mage would know more?”

“Unfortunately, Mr Brode was granted his dark magic through a ritual and has virtually no magical education of his own. I think he’s doing his best to answer but Frampton seems convinced that if we learn too much then someone in the Ministry will start sacrificing their co-workers to empower themselves. As if we have sufficient skilled workers to do that.”

“Interns?” Leon asked, on an impish impulse.

Suzanna frowned, apparently taking him seriously. “I have enough trouble keeping them around as it is. One little non-invasive experiment and everyone takes it as standard practice. We only had to chain Nathan to his desk for a couple of weeks.”

“And I bet they always ask ‘why do you need manacles in your laboratory’ when they see the cost estimates,” he said sympathetically.

“I know!”

He’d been joking but now he was considering whether it might be wise to suggest to Olivia that she consider a career outside the Ministry of Magic. Possibly on the far side of the globe. “Do you have any suggestions for countering dark magic?” Leon enquired, hoping it would be a safer topic of conversation.

“I’d suggest preemptively killing them,” the duchess said honestly. “But that could lead to a lot of dead bodies that can’t answer questions. I’ve not found anything that could lead to a protective device yet, if that’s what you mean.”

“The best countermagic being a quick knife.” He shook his head. “I’d hope with three light mages at the academy that there would be enough data to work something out.”

“Not yet. I’m hoping that Lady Claes’ bracelet will have some answers.”

Leon contemplated telling her the truth about Katarina’s ‘guest’. “I’d be interested in your independent evaluation of her,” he said instead. “If it’s possible for light magic to be induced within someone, it would be an interesting parallel to dark magic.”

“Leon,” Suzanna told him as if to a not-to-bright puppy. “You know the temple would call that heresy. Experimenting in creating light magic is absolutely prohibited.”

“And?”

“I have some ideas,” she admitted. “But even I have to be discreet about some things.” Then she reached over and caught his bowtie, yanking on it slightly loose. “Perfect.”

“What’s perfect?” he asked, reaching for it. “That took ages.”

“Perception is everything,” Suzanna declared and opened the door back into the corridor. “Ah, Lord Ascart, Lord Atlee.”

Bitch, Leon concluded - her tousled hair and his crooked bowtie would tell a story if anyone wanted gossip - and followed her out. Nicol was impassive as ever but Clarice gave them both a suspicious look. “Having fun, Duchess Stuart?”

“Always, my dear. I do like your young man.” Suzanna took Nicol Ascart by the arm and drew him down the corridor and away from the two of them.

Leon and Clarice both looked after her. “Alright,” the girl said after a moment. “So when did she start messing with people’s heads? I thought she was a semi-recluse.”

“Forget all your assumptions,” he told her. “Mind you, I have no idea what she’s up to.” Maybe she knows that I’m keeping secrets from her and is trying to punish me.

“Well, if she wants me to believe you’re cheating on her with me, she’d have to look more realistically mussed,” Clarice told him matter of factly. “Is this your room?”

“My parents - they’ve not arrived yet.”

Clarice looked in. “Tasteful - a bit sparse, but I get the impression your mother would fret if there were too many valuable ornaments in a mere guest room.”

“I can see you’ve got a feel for her.”

“She worries about you, I imagine she worries about a lot of things.” The girl took his arm. “Now, I know you might prefer to have Princess Hertrude on your arm, but just think: it’s not treason if I get mussed up in some corner.”

Leon laughed. “Are you feeling insecure, Clarice?”

“You’re not going to tell me you don’t like the princess, you were always very conscious of her when you were in the same room as her.” The count’s daughter patted his arm. “You never acted on it, so I’m not mad. I’m just counting coup on the foreign princess. It’s not every day I can claim ascendancy over royalty.”

“She’s more a puppet than a princess,” he grumbled as they walked down the stairs.

“And that brings out the chivalrous side of you.”

Leon glanced at her and saw the amused look on her face. They were alone in the entrance hall without even a servant present. “Keep this a secret, but I met her once before she came to the academy. She doesn’t know, I was in disguise.”

“Oh? Now I have to know.”

Leaning over, he murmured. “I may have stolen a lost item from Castle Fanoss during my adventuring days.”

“...god damn, Leon. No wonder you were nervous.” She paused on the stair, holding him back from going past the step below her. This left their faces more or less level. Slowly they leant closer to each other, Leon sliding an arm around her waist while Clarice rested her hand on his shoulder.

Right as he could feel her breath against his lips, the door from the library opened and Frey Fia Randall looked out. “I’m sure I heard some...one… ooops!” she gasped as her eyes finally settled upon them. “Sorry, sorry. Carry on!” She ducked back into the library and slammed the door.

With the moment broken, Leon wasn’t sure if he laughed first or if it was Clarice. They leant on each other, trying not to fall down the stairs as the fourteen year old’s reaction sank in.

“M-maybe we should take a raincheck until we find somewhere less public,” he offered, once he could breathe again. “Not that I mind people knowing that we’re together, but there are innocent young minds that we’d be corrupting.”

“Oh yes, Katarina is attending, isn’t she?” Clarice remembered. “Is she staying here?”

“No, at the Bergs.”

“Oh pooh. Well, I suppose there’s no vegetable patch here for her.”


-

Marie practically danced down the hall to Julius’ rooms. It had taken much longer than she thought, but the temple authorities had allowed her access to the Saint’s Regalia. The bracelet was definitely not the real thing, which they’d explained away as ‘a test’ to see if she could identify the substitution, but both the Rod and the Necklace had reacted to her.

Between that and her light magic, she’d thought she’d got a lock on the situation, only for a faction among the priestesses to argue that there were two other light magic users at the academy so she might not be unique in her connection to the relics. She could have screamed - the last thing she wanted was for them to test that cardboard cutout, Olivia Campbell: as the game protagonist, her connection to the relics would be far stronger than Marie’s.

But fortunately, Marie had a secret weapon.

And thus it was ‘saintess candidate’ Marie Fou Lafan that was returning to the palace. Not the unilateral approval that she’d been hoping for, but good enough for now.

“Guys!” she exclaimed, throwing open the door. “I got us a ship!”

Then she saw who was waiting in the room and was tempted to close the door, sneak away and hope that everyone could just pretend she’d never been there.

The game’s battle mini-games were considered the biggest obstacle to completing it, a job she’d delegated to her older brother in her past life. But even the romance plot was really difficult, and by far the biggest challenge wasn’t Angelica Rafa Redgrave or any of the villainesses engaged to the other capture targets. All five of those had obvious vulnerabilities that could be exploited - Cassandra Fou Olfrey’s criminal ties, for one example.

But no matter what you did to get rid of Jilk and Julius’ fiancees, it was assured that they had a powerful backer that players couldn’t just get rid of. No, the only solution to Queen Mylene was to win her over - a herculean task that had contributed heavily to Marie’s conviction that she wasn’t going to finish the game alone.

So far she’d managed to avoid Julius’ mother but that streak was clearly now over, because Queen Mylene Rafa Holfort was sitting in an armchair facing the five boys.

“Ah, the mysterious Lady Lafan.” The silver-blonde woman beckoned. “I had wondered where you were. Take a seat.”

“M-mother, surely you don’t...”

“Julius. Shut up.”

The prince flinched as if no one had ever spoken to him like that. Possibly no one had.

Marie cringed and slunk to sit on the couch, where Jilk and Chris moved apart to make room for her.

“So,” the queen declared levelly. “You have a skyship. From the temple, I assume. So this entire foolish endeavour is now possible. Congratulations.”

For some reason, Marie got the impression that Mylene didn’t approve of the treasure hunting she and the boys were planning.

“You can’t stop us from going!”

“I’m very tempted to put that question to the test, Jilk. However, given the reverence that Holfort has for adventurers, that would probably cost me more political capital than I wish to expend. Particularly since your collective foolishness has not only brought us to the brink of a war of succession but now introduced the possibility of a religious civil war as well. Bravo, Lady Lafan.” The queen applauded briefly and insincerely. “If it weren’t for detailed reports confirming that you’ve never once even left the continent, I’d suspect you of being an agent of the kingdom’s enemies, here to cripple us. You could hardly have done a better job if you’d been trying for it.”

“That’s unfair!” cried Julius. “Mother, you don’t understand!”

Mylene shook her head. “I will agree with your second statement. I do not understand why you have chosen to throw everything anyone has ever given you away, when there was essentially no need to. I imagine that you also understand very little of the sacrifices that all of your parents… no, I will be fair, all of your parents except for Lady Lafan’s… have made for you. And perhaps there is fault on our side in not teaching you that.”

Then she slapped her hands down on the arms of her chair. “But there is nothing unfair in my assessment of the consequences of your incredibly selfish decisions, Julius. Your father and I spent years putting together an alliance of lords that would help you rule Holfort: in the name of Lady Lafan, you destroyed that alliance.”

“For the first time in a century, Holfort could have seen an unchallenged succession to the crown, because we ensured that every potential rival you had was convinced instead to support you. In Lafan’s name, you actively alienated them.”

“Generations of the royal family have worked to diminish the wealth and independence of the feudal lords, in favour of centralising authority. Now those same institutions - the ministry of magic and the temple - are falling under the influence of feudal lords as we try to patch up the damage you have done to royal authority.”

Julius had been gathering his feet. Now he jumped up onto them. “I never asked to be king!”

“And I never asked to be queen!” his mother snapped. “What do our wants have to do with it? Do you think the yeomen and peasants asked for their lot in life? I was born to privilege in Repard, and sent into what amounts to life-long exile here to secure an alliance my people needed: the price of those privileges. You were born to even greater privilege and I did everything within my power to see that you would have a chance to have a happier life within the constraints of what is possible for us. Instead here we are.”

“If you didn’t want Marie to go to the temple for a skyship, why did you let us have one so she wouldn’t have to go to someone else?” asked Jilk.

“What part of your being disinherited did you not understand?” the queen said. “You find the burdens of expectation in being heirs to your families so harsh, but you cannot expect to dispense with them and still receive the same lavish treatment you had before. The royal skyships are already in use. We might be able to pry one loose for a crown prince, although it wouldn’t be without cost for us. A crown prince has some prestige and their actions would be of some benefit to the kingdom. But so you can gallivant around on some foolishness that will never profit or advantage Holfort? Why would any of us expend resources on you? Do you think any of your peers could easily find a ship at the best of times - much less when at least a tenth of the feudal lords are on a war footing?”

Julius sat down abruptly. “So that’s all I am to you. A future king, not a son. You’re just like Angelica, neither of you ever saw me as a person!”

“Julius, I wanted you to marry someone who grew up with you so that you might have a chance at happiness that your father and I never had, marrying a stranger.”

“Marrying Marie will make me happy!”

“I’m not stopping you.”

She wasn’t!?

“I can’t help you,” Mylene clarified. “Not won’t, can’t. Whatever it is you see in Lady Lafan… you clearly have far too much of your father in you… whatever you see in her, she is utterly unacceptable as a queen.”

Hey! If Marie hadn’t been trying to hide between Chris and Jilk, she might have registered some indignation about that.

“But since you don’t want to be king, that apparently isn’t an issue.” The queen looked at Julius wearily. “If you had come to me, talked seriously about this… well, I would not have been happy. But at least we could have tried to find a way to free you from your position without grossly offending almost every key player we had been courting the support of.”

“What do you mean too much of father in me?” protested Julius.

“Julius, your father is functionally incapable of… husbandly duties… with anyone past their mid-twenties. Believe me, I’ve tried.” The queen’s evident humiliation at that admission was exceeded only by the horror her son had at learning that fact. “And now you’ve fallen headlong for a girl who looks like she stopped ageing when she was ten.” Mylene shook her head. “The apple clearly didn’t fall far from the tree.”
 

Simonbob

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‘And they’ll try to steal the credit,’ the Saintess whispered angrily to Katarina. The girl really wished she could give Ann a hug - it sounded as if she needed one.
I do like that Katarina is such a cinnamon bun that even a angry lusty ghost possesing her, she still wants to give her a hug.

Marie tried to hide her disappointment. Hadn’t any of them figured this out yet? She was almost tempted to just get up and remind them that this was what being disinherited meant, but no one liked the bearer of bad news - and they might even blame her!
That girl...... Man, she's nuts. Ok, it resembles a game, but she can't quite see that it's more now, can she? Although, it does seem the light is slowly starting to dawn.....
 
Winter Wedding 8-3

drakensis

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Winter Wedding

And with a little help from above
You feel the power of love
~ Huey Lewis​

Chapter 3

Revenge is a debt, in the paying of which the greatest knave is honest and sincere, and, so far as he is able, punctual. ~ Charles Caleb Colton​

With the first party taking place at the Stuart mansion, Katarina had barely dropped off her bags and Anne at the (still under repair) Berg mansion before she had to go back into the carriage to be taken over to the party.

However, the carriage had been replaced by a pair of smaller cabriolets that had room only for two passengers behind the drivers.

“I’ll ride with Katarina,” Gerald declared, gesturing to the first cabriolet. “I’m sure you can figure out the rest, Keith.”

“Now wait a moment!” Keith jumped between Katarina and the little carriage. “I’m not letting you take my sister off on your own! I’ll go with her and you can ride with Angelica.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. As her fiance, of course I should ride with Katarina. It’s your duty as her host to accompany Angelica.”

The two girls exchanged looks. Katarina rubbed the back of her head, trying not to disturb her hair clasp, while Ann laughed at the two boys.

Then Angelica shook her head and slipped her arm through Katarina’s. Without a word, she pulled her lightly in the direction of the second cabriolet.

Gerald and Keith seemed intent upon their argument, to the point that they only noticed the two girls had gone anywhere when they were both settling into the seat.

“Gentlemen,” Angelica called to them. “And I use the term lightly. While I wouldn’t expect either of you to be quite so fond of me as you are to Katarina, no lady likes to be treated like the ugly sister. We can go now.” The last four words were directed to the driver of the cabriolet, who was able to quickly work the little one-horse carriage past the other and off onto the street.

Katarina had craned her head around and watched as her brother and her fiance both scrambled to get aboard the other. “I’m sorry about that, Angie,” she said awkwardly.

“You have nothing to apologise for,” the other girl assured her. “It’s their rudeness and for them to apologise. Really, at this stage I think you need to have a long talk with your mother about the pair of them. Has Gerald ever had that talk Leon told him he should have with you?”

“Sorry, what talk?”

Angelica sighed. “That’s what I thought.”

“When did this happen?” And why would Leon be telling Gerald to talk to her - and it wasn’t like Gerald didn’t come to talk to her a lot. Maybe it had happened and she’d missed it.

“Well,” her companion began. “You remember the party we had to celebrate your return after you’d been abducted?”

“N…” Katarina paused. Had there been a party like that. She’d missed the one after the play. “I… wasn’t that a dream?” Yes, it had been a dream, because Gerald had told her that he loved her and then he’d kissed her. So it wasn’t the sort of thing that would really happen.

Angelica gave her a surprised look. “The party you fainted at? Right after Gerald kissed you.”

Katarina’s eyes went wide. “WHAT?”

‘Oh?’ she heard Ann say in an interested voice. ‘Pity that he’s part-Holfort, other than that, he’s a well put together lad…’

“You do remember that?”

“I thought it was a dream!” Katarina rested her elbows on her knees and started to breathe heavily. What was she going to do? How was she supposed to deal with this? She needed expert advice! Where was Sophia? Why wasn’t this in the game guide? How was she supposed to get through a Gerald route without being able to check online or with Acchan? There were so many pitfalls!

For a moment she had the ridiculous notion of Olivia attacking her with Alexander, forcing Gerald to defend her and thus leading to Gerald fleeing abroad while Olivia died and Katarina was left behind to grow old without so much as a cat to care for her.

She shook her head and dismissed the idea. Alexander would never attack her when Olivia was around, the lousy sneaky bear.

“...what is even inside your head?” Angelica wondered. Then she shook her head. “Well, it wasn’t a dream. After you passed out, Keith was quite angry with Gerald and Leon had to calm them both down.”

“Nnnnnnggggg,” Katarina commented.

“He was a little more eloquent than that. Among his suggestions was that Gerald talk to you about your relationship. Which he apparently hasn’t done. Perhaps it’s a trait of princes. Julius never talked to me about his feelings.”

Oh no, now she’d pulled Angelica back to thinking about her old fiancee! Katarina rubbed her face. “But… I thought Gerald was just using me to keep other women away. I mean, he’s so clever and handsome that women would be all over him if he didn’t have a fiancee.”

“So you think he’s clever and handsome, do you?”

“Well obviously he is.” She waved her hands. “But that doesn’t mean I ever thought we’d get married.”

“He seems to think that you will,” Angelica told her. “Maybe you should start thinking about it. Or if he’s not going to bring up your relationship, you can talk to him.”

“I can’t do that!” Katarina exclaimed, flushing.

“Uh, ladies?” The driver looked back, his ears burning. “We’re at the Stuart mansion.”

“Oh!” Katarina hadn’t realised that they had gone through the gates. “Thank you Simon!”

“You’re welcome, Lady Katarina. I hope everything works out with your young man.”

Angelica joined Katarina in climbing down from the cabriolet and they were greeted by Duchess Suzanna. “Ladies, welcome to our house. Ian and Selena are inside, please come in before it gets any colder.” The older woman was wearing a luxurious grey fur scarf around her neck in concession to the weather.

As they stepped inside, Suzanna glanced at Katarina’s wrist. “You’re not wearing your famous bracelet from the dungeon under the academy?”

“Oh, you heard about that?”

“Everyone seems quite interested in it all of a sudden,” Angelica noted. “Lady Lysia from the temple was over just this morning wanting to take it for examination there.”

“You didn’t hand it over did you?”

“No,” Katarina told her. “Angelica said we should talk to my parents first, and get something in writing… a receipt?”

“A pledge that they will return it or pay stiff penalties,” the Redgrave girl explained. “If it’s really the Saintess’ bracelet then people may be very motivated to possess it.”

“Wonderful,” Suzanna said in the sort of tone Katarina’s mother used when she meant anything but. “I was hoping I could examine it. It might be the key to working out how you gained light magic.”

“The saintess gave it to me.”

“...pardon?”

Angelica put one hand over her eyes. “Lady Katarina.”

“What? She asked!”

Suzanna glanced at the entrance hall and then gestured to the left. “Join me in the library for the moment, ladies. I believe I have to ask a little more about this and we’d better not do so with Ian and Selena’s other guests.”

“But what about the buffet?”

“I’ll have them bring you a plate,” the duchess snapped and Katarina instinctively buckled under the sudden authority.

“Suzanna, don’t scare them,” Duke Jeffrey chided his wife, sweeping in and wrapping one arm around them. “This is my beloved biggest little brother’s special celebration. Terrorizing the guests is not allowed.”

The tall woman exhaled slowly, “My apologies, ladies. I would greatly appreciate some time to discuss this matter which is of particular interest to me. I suspect that one of my… sources of information has been deliberately obtuse about the matter but I should not take my irritation out on you.”

“Um, I don’t mind.” Then Katarina’s stomach rumbled.

“Ha, ha!” Jeffrey threw his head back and laughed. “Run along then. I see Gerald arriving, I can take over the welcoming duties now, dear.”

“Thank you, Jeffrey.” Suzanna picked up a bell and rang it, summoning a butler out of one of the side-doors. “Could we have a platter of food in the library please. And let no one in there, not even my cousin and her companion, until Lady Claes, Lady Redgrave and I are done.”

“Of course, my lady.” The butler (Katarina suspected he might be a Sebastian, he looked like one) bowed formally and then stepped back, his feet silent even on the tiled floor.

In the library, Suzanna seated them and then paced back and forth until the platter of food was on the table in front of Katarina. When the door closed again behind the butler, who had brought the tray personally, she moved to face them.

“Perhaps I should begin by offering a confidence of my own,” the Duchess declared. She reached into a concealed pocket of her gown and produced a pair of spectacles. Putting them on and pulling her hair back, she informed them: “In addition to being Jeffrey’s wife, I am also Director Larna Smith at the Magical Ministry.”

Who? “Mmf?” Katarina asked around a mouthful of salmon.

“What? Really?” Angelica looked stunned. “Wait… oh my god, you’re serious? Does the Minister know?”

“Count Ascart did and I assume he hasn’t forgotten, but Marquis Frampton doesn’t.” Suzanne smiled slyly, “I trust you won’t spoil my fun by telling him?”

Katarina didn’t see what the big deal was, so she nodded but it took a moment before Angelica hesitantly added her own agreement.

“Thank you. Now, if you could perhaps explain about the Saintess?”

She’d had a little practice now, so Katarina got through recounting the events at Baron Sullivan’s manor with only a little prompting from Ann. She did slip and mention Luxion, but Suzanna - or was it Larna? - just nodded without any surprise at Leon’s familiar.

Ann was another matter though. “History is written by the victors,” she observed, once Katarina got across how different the spirit’s account of Holfort’s founding was from what she’d been taught. “Of course, she is likely also biassed and I have no idea how accurate her memories are after centuries as a spirit. Most likely the resemblance between the prince’s friends and Leon to the Saintess’ company isn’t as close as she thinks.”

Ann started to protest and Katarina felt a headache coming on.

“The core of her story is likely enough though.” The duchess shrugged. “Not that anyone can do anything about it now. Everyone involved is dead and Leon is hardly likely to be impressed by the notion of taking revenge from his ancestor on the distant descendants of the adventurers who wronged Lia.”

‘He’ll understand once they’re dead!’ Anne protested, but even she seemed to have doubts.

“So you don’t think there’s any harm to her?” asked Katarina.

“In and of herself, just don’t do anything ill-advised on her counsel. She has her own agenda, but I’d imagine that you’re used to everyone around you wanting something?”

“...who do you mean?”

Suzanna arched an eyebrow, then glanced at Angelica who nodded with a tired expression on her face. The duchess laughed merrily. “Oh, you are just a treat, Katarina.” She straightened up. “I’ll find an excuse to invite you to the Ministry though. There are some tests we can run to get an idea of how this Ann - best to call her that and not the Saintess - is affecting you. And if it is possible to grant someone light magic, that could be very valuable information. The dark mage is still out there.”

“I’m not good at tests,” Katarina said glumly.

At that point, the library door burst open. “Angelica, what are you doing with my fiancee!” Gerald exclaimed, striding in.

The blonde gave him an arch look and raised her tea cup. “We’re having a little tea party with your sister-in-law.”

Behind Gerald, Keith caught Katarina’s eye and gestured discreetly at the corners of his mouth. Katarina reached up and quickly brushed the crumbs off her face.

“Suzanna?” Gerald enquired. “Why didn’t your butler want to let us in? What were you talking about that’s so private?”

“There are certain topics ladies don’t choose to share with gentlemen,” the duchess told him with a little smile.

“Like what?” he challenged.

“Gardening!” Katarina blurted.

Everyone looked at her. Besides Keith, Nicol and Sophia were also behind Gerald, peering through the doors.

“Indeed. You don’t think Jeffrey does all the planning for the mansion’s gardens do you?” Suzanna picked up smoothly. “Do come in and sit down,” she invited the little crowd. “You men are all about your politics and your wars, but matters of… shall we say fertility? Those are a woman’s affair.”

The new arrivals’ faces reddened. Katarina didn’t know why, gardening was a lot like farming - getting seeds to take root was a very delicate matter. She needed a lot of help.

Keith, who was pouring out some tea, overfilled his cup when she said that and once her brother noticed that tea was spilling into the saucer, he just slumped into a chair, head in his hands so embarrassed he was at his mistake.

“Lady Katarina,” Sophia said quickly, “I’ve been meaning to ask you this. Next time you go on an adventure, please take big brother and I with you.”

“I’ll try to remember that, but I hope no one else gets abducted,” she said seriously, before looking back at Suzanna. “Have you considered asking for Mary's advice? She’s an expert on fertilising.”

Gerald had been nibbling some shortbread, trying to hide that he was feeling irritable. Perhaps he also wanted to be invited on adventures? He bit his finger by mistake, which was unusually careless of him.

“Why don’t you try healing your fiance’s finger,” Suzanna suggested. “It’s the more normal use of light magic. And I’ve been thinking of inviting the ministry’s new gardener over. It’s amazing what a difference there’s been there since they took them in hand.”

“Oh, I’ve not been to the Ministry before! Do they have good gardens?” Katarina took Gerald’s finger in her hand and tried to ignore how everyone was staring at her. Now, how did one heal with light magic?

“Yes, they’ve been especially fertile since the head of Magical Devices got a new gardener to help. Director Lanchester is said to be having conniptions about it.”

Ann was laughing hysterically in her head and was no help at all! And what was a conniption, some sort of flower?

-

The tempest around the cash-shop island was just as Marie had expected. Fortunately, the temple’s skyship was able to navigate it without having to go down onto the water and riding a tornado up to the island itself. Marie’s stomach was sensitive enough with all the tension aboard.

“Treasure, treasure, treasure,” she chanted excitedly as they set foot on it.

“There’s the ruins,” Chris told her, pointing out where overgrown buildings dotted the landscape. “Just the way you described, Marie.”

Julius nodded. “Right. Move as a group and keep your weapons ready. If there’s a lost dungeon here, it could have been spawning monsters for years.”

That made sense. Marie clutched her shotgun and kept her head on a swivel as they crossed to the first building. This reminded her of the game, and how much trouble she’d had with the combat sections.

Fortunately nothing jumped out at them and the boys swept the building for threats like well-oiled professionals. Hmm, well oiled. Marie shook her head quickly, she didn’t dare get distracted right now - not even by happy thoughts like that.

The building reminded her of her past life - little details about the brickwork stood out - and there were little holes here and there that could have been drilled for screws… Marie traced the pattern some made along a wall. It was almost as if there had been a light switch here, and then occasional braces holding the wire to the wall until it reached the point where it went up to the ceiling…

The small girl looked upwards and saw that the concrete had bracings for metal roof supports… but there was no sign of a collapsed roof, just the sky above.

“This is definitely an ancient building,” Brad noted. “It’s got all the characteristics I’ve read about.”

“Nerd…” Greg joked and then waved dismissively as the other boy looked annoyed. “Nah, I think you’re right. But don’t they usually have more stuff on the walls? Those little press button things by doors and the like.”

“You’re right.” The purple-haired boy tapped his finger at the wall where Marie had suspected the light switch should be. “I hate to say it, Marie, but someone may have been here before us.”

No! Her treasure! “There should be a dungeon below us,” she blurted eagerly. “They can’t have cleared it out too!”

The boys exchanged looks. “Well, probably not,” Jilk allowed cautiously. “Most people don’t - dungeons are more valuable if you keep harvesting materials from them. But if someone’s doing that then where are they?”

Marie hadn’t ever actually used the cash shop, but she knew where it was - the entrance was dug into a larger building at the edge of the island. It wasn’t exactly a dungeon, but it would still be full of treasure so that was close enough. All the best weapons, vehicles and other gear in the game should be under there, and it wasn’t as if anything could actually make her pay cash for them now?

If anyone had actually gotten in and obtained all that, she would have surely heard of it. Dozens of lost items like that would dramatically change the balance of power in the world.

“Load lightning rounds,” Julius reminded the others. “Marie’s information suggested mechanical defences.”

“Assuming they weren’t picked off - we wasted money if those are already gone.”

“Stop being so negative, Jilk,” Brad complained. “If we didn’t have these and there’s still any of them then you’d all have to hide behind me.”

The green-haired boy looked offended, but Greg laughed. “More like you’d be whining about doing all the work and expecting us to hold them off long enough for you to zap them.”

Marie started chewing on her fingernails at the reminder of the expenses of this expedition. The temple had provided the skyship and the crew, but everything else was eating into their limited funds.

“Are you seeing any metal here?” asked Chris, as they entered the tunnels under the building. The tunnels didn’t look like the usual hewn stone of a dungeon - more like a basement from a building back in the twenty-first century.

Julius looked around. “No… I don’t. And there’s no plant life. Even down here, there should be fungus or lichen or something.”

“Did someone clear this place out down to the bedrock?” Jilk asked, incredulously.

“No, no, that can’t be!” Marie broke into a run, quickly getting out ahead of the boys. Doorways leered empty and vacant to either side of her. There was dust and dirt, but little in the way of heavy debris as she would have expected if this place was really a derelict ruin… or at least one that hadn’t been picked over.

“Marie, wait!” she heard Greg calling as the boys chased her, but she kept running, following the path she’d seen in other playthroughs (including the game files her brother had sent her) until at last the vast cavernous dock that should have held the cash shop’s contents came into view.

It was echoing vast, a great cavern that opened onto the side of the island… but what should have been metal floor, gantries and docks were all gone.

The girl dropped to her knees in despair as she saw nothing but rock, carved by human tools but there was literally nothing here but that.

Greg’s whistle of appreciation was the icing on top of this disaster. “Man, this would make one heck of a concealed dock. Build a castle up top and this could be quite a fortress.”

“You’re right,” Julius agreed. “We should lay claim to the entire island - who needs our families? We can carve out our own barony here!”

“That’s brilliant!” Jilk agreed. “The treasure wasn’t in these tunnels, the tunnels are the treasure!”

You utter morons! Marie wailed inside her head. She was half-tempted to just run to the edge of the cave and fling herself out to the long fall to the ocean. How did they plan to turn a barren island into a barony? They had no tools, no money or seeds. And developing an island took generations to do. For that matter, if they claimed to be barons they’d have to pay a baron’s taxes and meet the military obligations of doing so.

Who did this to her? Who had taken away her lifeline?

That damned Bartford had found a giant skyship, why couldn’t she have… luck… like… his…?

Oh that bastard!

Oh that utter… that scheming, laughing, swindling… had he declined Julius’ invitation because he’d known they were coming here and had picked it clean?

No, that made no sense. How would he even have found it? But he did have that huge skyship, one that would have just about fit into the largest dock here…

“Chris…” she asked. “Bartford’s barony… it’s in the north of the kingdom, right?”

“Sure… why do you ask?”

“His family turned an island out here on the borders into a viable barony,” Marie told him. “He’d have an idea how long it took, and what the costs were. But I don’t think we can afford to claim it - even as a baronetcy the costs would crush us. I’m sorry, I’ve led us off on a wild goose chase and squandered most of our money.”

“Money isn’t all that important, Marie,” Jilk claimed casually.

Marie gritted her teeth and revised her previous dark impulse to jump off. If she did do that, she was kicking the prince over the edge first! Had no one ever told him that money made the world go round?

-

The wedding ceremony had been elaborate, taking place on the steps of the Berg mansion’s chapel since there was absolutely no way that all of the guests could have gone inside. Fortunately, the chapel was behind the east wing of the mansion - well away from the damaged front facade of the east wing. The bedrooms of that wing were habitable and refurbished but the facade itself was far from presentable and had been covered with tent canvas with holes left for the windows.

Violette Rafa Ades glanced at the young man at her side. Someday, that could be the two of us, she thought. The idea was not repulsive, but nor was there the eagerness she had felt when she imagined marrying Chris Fia Arclight.

Sirius Dieke seemed to notice her attention and glanced sideways at her, giving her a gentle smile.

She returned the smile and wondered if their marriage would take place after her graduation, or if she’d be expected to drop out of the academy to marry once Sirius had completed his final year. She wasn’t on the student council so it wouldn’t be a major embarrassment to her father.

The final vows were exchanged and Selena Rafa Stuart’s first action as a married woman was to hold her veil back as Prince Ian leaned in to kiss her quite chastely on the lips. If Violette had been placed further away then she might not have seen the passion in their eyes.

She looked at Sirius again and tried to imagine his eyes looking at her with that same desire. The idea seemed laughable.

From inside the chapel the organ began to play the wedding march - Alan playing it spiritedly in honour of his brother’s marriage. Despite herself, Violette felt a smile draw at the corners of her lips. One thing that Alan was not lacking in was passion, and music was how he best expressed it.

The crowd drew back from the pathway leading to the coach that would carry the newlyweds to the Stuart Mansion. Twelve knights, six chosen by each family, moved into place to flank that path and they raised their swords to form a series of arches.

Well, eleven knights and Katarina Rafa Claes, the young woman taking the last place on the Berg side.

“Lady Claes is an unusual choice for the honour guard,” Sirius murmured. “Normally only those knighted are selected.”

“Lady Berg… no, Lady Stuart insisted. Quite firmly,” Violette told him. Might Scarlet one day ask that of her? Well, it was unlikely. After all, Violette would probably be a Dieke not an Ades by the time her twin married. Assuming that their father ever forced another suitor on Scarlet.

Katarina seemed to be taking the process seriously, holding her sword up in line with the others as the happy couple walked down the aisle. Both of them smiled at her - no doubt crediting her for the help in resolving their relationship issues… and perhaps also for not holding Selena to blame for the earlier abduction.

At the last moment, when the two had just gone past her, Katarina swung the sword down and for a horrible moment Violette suspected there would be a horrific accident. However, she merely tapped the flat of the blade lightly against Selena’s rear.

The blissful bride didn’t seem to notice as Ian helped her up into the carriage, but Katarina’s brother snatched the sword off her. “What are you doing?” he hissed.

“It’s for luck,” she ‘whispered’ back. “In having children.”

“Those two need all the help they can get. At their rate, I think all they might get up to tonight is some very enthusiastic hand-holding,” someone who sounded very like Leon Fou Bartford noted. Certainly it was Leon who got smacked over his head by the dark-haired man standing behind him - his father, most likely.

The joke got people laughing though, and as the carriage swept away, the newlyweds were able to look back and see a smiling happy crowd of guests bidding them farewell.

Of course, the moment the carriage was out of the way it was time for the scramble to get everyone across to the Stuart mansion for the reception. Despite the best efforts of both families, it wouldn’t be possible to get everyone across at one time - if nothing else, the capital’s traffic wouldn’t allow it. As such, Duke Berg was hosting a pre-reception for the senior couples while the younger couples and more junior attendees made the journey, saving face.

Sirius took Violette’s arm and escorted her to the front of the mansion, where cabriolets and coaches were already filling up. They were preceded by Count Bartford and his eldest son, the two of them escorting Leon along in transparent effort to keep him from any more sly remarks. Violette saw that Clarice Fia Atlee was walking a little ahead of that trio, accompanying an older woman and Dorothea Fou Roseblade, with whom she was slightly acquainted. That likely made the woman Leon’s mother and Dorothea’s future mother-in-law, Countess Bartford.

At the front, the two trios re-assembled into couples, with the two Lords Bartford helping their respective ladies up into one carriage before joining them. Violette saw the Count and Countess sigh in relief as the carriage left, before the couple moved aside to let others board and presumably find their way to Duke Berg’s party.

“Lord Dieke, Lady Ades.” Countess Bartford dipped her head politely to the two of them as they arrived and waited for another coach to move into place. “My congratulations on your engagement.”

Violette lowered her eyes. “Thank you.”

“It’s my honour to make your acquaintance,” Sirius picked up smoothly. “Your son is a real asset on the student council and I look forward to working with him for the next year.”

“I’m pleased to hear that,” the short woman said, in a tone that suggested that she was also a little surprised. “Ah, you’re the new Lord President as well, it had slipped my mind.”

The redhead boy shrugged slightly as if to say the lapse of memory was not a concern. “It matters little outside of the academy,” he admitted. “He’s a diligent worker, I wouldn’t be surprised if my successor invites him to be secretary or treasurer during their term of office.” Unspoken was that Leon’s non-existent magic and comparatively low birth compared to a year represented by multiple ducal houses made the chance of him becoming the president or vice-president almost non-existent. The other two positions were possible though, since traditionally the president chose the occupants rather than the teachers and governors.

The carriage stopped and Sirius opened the door for Violette while the older couple entered the Berg mansion through the front door. A patter of feet heralded Scarlet’s arrival. Violette’s twin had lifted her skirts and simply dashed through the mansion, she suspected.

“Lady Ades,” Sirius noted with aplomb and offered her his hand as well.

Scarlet accepted and took a seat facing Violette, saying nothing as to her reason for leaving whoever her escort was behind.

“If I might take the last seat in the council,” a smooth voice requested and Violette looked out to see Gerald Rafa Stuart had arrived - alone, surprisingly.

“You’re very welcome,” Sirius agreed mildly, boarding the carriage and sitting next to Violette. Scarlet didn’t seem upset, which was a relief - Violette wouldn’t have put it past her twin to have quarrelled with the prince and then tried to hop into a carriage so that she could depart with the last word.

Gerald closed the door behind them and settled into his seat, the driver getting the carriage moving almost immediately.

“You aren’t travelling with Lady Claes?” Violette asked, curiously.

The blonde prince sighed. “Duchess Claes was… displeased that Katarina sought to bless my new sister-in-law with fertility in such a way. And while I would prefer to wait for her, I am rather expected at home to help host the wedding reception.”

There were nods of understanding from the other three.

“My congratulations,” Gerald added, turning to Violette’s sister. “Your scores on last term’s finals were very impressive. I really didn’t expect to come second this time.”

“Oh, you weren’t holding back to be a gentleman?” Scarlet asked, suspiciously.

“That was a luxury for the first term as I was feeling out my competition. But from here, I mean to succeed our travelling companion as Lord President so I won’t be holding back.”

“Good luck,” murmured Sirius.

The elder of the two silver-blonde twins in the carriage gave Gerald a curious look. “If you don’t mind my asking, why are you so intent upon the role, Prince Gerald?”

He crossed his legs and leant back as the carriage went around a corner. “I’ve been given a great deal due to my birth, Violette. Some of that are my duties, which I think I’ve discharged well. But the position of lord president is one that I’ll need to earn by my own efforts… well, to an extent.”

“I was thinking when we spoke to Countess Bartford, that it is a shame Leon is unlikely to be a candidate.”

“Probably for the best,” Scarlet observed with a slight smile. “The lord president can hardly charge off on a moment’s notice to rescue a damsel in distress.”

“...I hadn’t considered that,” the prince conceded. “Given Katarina’s luck, perhaps I should pass on the role.” He didn’t seem entirely serious. “Although since Violette and Alana have had their turn, shall we claim the next rescue mission that comes before the student council, Lady Scarlet?”

Violette’s sister nodded in agreement. Oh dear, father would not approve if Scarlet went wandering off to some far corner of the kingdom. If it wasn’t for the fact she’d be the one called onto the carpet for it, Violette wouldn’t have minded his consternation… but as it was…

The carriage slowed and Gerald frowned. “We’re almost at the mansion, is something wrong?” He looked out of the window and Violette did the same on the other side. They were on the street outside the Stuart Mansion but traffic seemed to be building up.

The carriage stopped and the driver tapped on the roof. “I’m sorry ladies and gentlemen, the gates are currently blocked.”

“Has there been an accident?” Gerald asked, pushing open the door so he could lean out further.

“I don’t think so, sir, but there are a lot of guards there.”

Gerald hopped down and then looked at the road. “It’s not muddy,” he informed the three of them that were still in the carriage. “And it’s not far from the mansion. May I be so bold as to suggest that we walk the rest of the way? At least this carriage can turn around and we’ll probably arrive sooner.”

Violette examined her shoes, which were at least not those she’d set aside for dancing later, and looked up to see that her sister was already hopping down and taking Gerald’s arm. Oh well, she was going to have to change her shoes anyway. “We may as well,” she told Sirius, who was clearly waiting for her decision.

He dismounted and helped her down, and then the two couples - Violette hoped her sister wasn’t falling for the prince, that would just complicate the situation around their cousin even more - walked sedately down the road and towards the cause of the obstruction.

They arrived in time to see Leon Fou Bartford dismounting from his own carriage. A quite remarkable number of weapons were immediately pointed at him - enough that if they weren’t wearing the uniforms of royal guards, Violette would have been afraid that open warfare would have returned to the streets of the capital. That hadn’t been a concern since her grandfather’s day.

“Alright,” the dark haired young lord observed, looking… well not entirely calm, but certainly less ruffled than having that many polearms constraining you should leave a person. “I’m here. What is it that you want me for?”

“That’s a good question,” Gerald called out. “What is the occasion that one of my brother’s guests is being pulled aside by enough guards to storm a castle?”

“Your highness.” The reply came from a thin man in court finery. It took Violette a moment to recognise Marquis Malcolm Fou Frampton. He’d lost more of his hair since the last time she saw him, and lost weight. Always slim, advancing age was rendering him more skeletal than ever before. And he showed little of his usual amiableness. “I regret the occasion, but I am enjoined to take Lord Bartford into custody.”

“What the hell for?” Clarice stuck her head out of the carriage above Leon.

“I’m not sure,” the dark-haired boy admitted, “But if we let the Marquis answer then it’s just remotely possible he’s about to tell me.”

“This had better be good.”

“There is nothing good about treason, Prince Gerald.” Frampton looked saddened by his own words. “Lord Bartford, based on tips from certain agents of the crown, officials searched your rooms at the academy earlier today. We uncovered correspondence with Princess Hertrude Sera Fanoss.”

“...that’s interesting,” Leon noted. “I’d go so far as to say surprising.”

“I’m sure.” The marquis folded his arms. “I had heard your name before in admiring tones, Lord Bartford. But I must inform you that based on the contents of the letters we retrieved, it is very likely that you will find your head on a block. Until such time as investigations conclude and a trial can be convened, you will be enjoying the hospitality of the crown.”

“This is ridiculous,” Clarice declared.

Gerald gestured for her to let him deal with this. “We are nonetheless on the doorstep of my family’s mansion and Lord Bartford is our guest. There are certain courtesies that you should be well aware of, Marquis.”

“Indeed, and I came here quite prepared to negotiate with your brother the duke.” Frampton gave a smile that was affable but quite out of place. “Conveniently though, Lord Bartford is on this side of the property line and his arrest does not require me to have Duke Stuart’s consent. Not that I would expect him to protect a traitor.”

“Accusation is not guilt,” Gerald told the marquis flatly. “Until such time as treason is proven, Lord Bartford cannot be legally treated as a traitor - and I find it very hard to believe that the charges will be substantiated.”

“It is your privilege to hold that naive belief about a man you have known for less than a year, your highness. It is my duty to see him held securely until the trial takes place.”

“And why is the Minister of Magic assigned this and not some other official of a more fitting rank?” enquired Nicol Fia Ascart. He and his sister had approached from behind Violette.

Frampton inclined his head. “Lord Ascart, it is necessary that the official be of rank to discuss this matter with Duke Stuart were that to be required, which was the expectation. Your father being a guest for today’s happy event, he was unavailable and I was next most suited.”

“Speaking of which.” Leon undid his bow tie and loosened his collar. “May as well be comfortable,” he noted. “We are rather blocking the entrance to the Stuart’s. “Perhaps we should defer this conversation to another time and place. I would very much rather that the happy couple’s reception not be delayed.”

“Is that really your first thought?” asked Clarice.

“Could be worse.”

“Than treason?”

“Could be high treason,” Leon pointed out reasonably. “They kill people for that.”

“Treason is in fact punished by execution,” Frampton corrected him.

“Yes, but not in such torturous ways.” The young man gestured gently towards the weapons being pointed at him by the guards. “This is not the time to argue over the rights and wrongs of the matter, we’re getting in everyone’s way. Clarice, my apologies that I’ll have to pass on the rest of the party. Gerald, do pass my apologies to Ian and Selena for the same. And Nicks…”

“Mother’s going to be furious.”

“Yes, she left me in your care for five minutes. I suggest fleeing for the county and hoping she calms down.” Leon agreed sympathetically.

“It’s her county, Leon.”

“Your future father-in-law’s county. Sorry, Dorothea, he’s not usually this slow.” The younger Bartford raised his voice slightly. “And I’m quite sure that I won’t be disappearing quietly, never to be seen again. It would be trite to claim I have powerful friends, but I’m at least confident that my enemies will want me to attend the trial in the hopes of watching me squirm.”

Sophia grabbed Violette’s arm. “Is Lady Katarina going to jump to his rescue?” she whispered. “Because brother and I are right here if there’s going to be another adventure!”

“...I believe she’s still back with her parents,” Violetta observed. “So probably not.” She watched Leon walk off, still surrounded by the guards. “And I think my sister and Prince Gerald called dibs if this is going to be another of her misadventures.”
 

LordsFire

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I'm actually looking forward to several scenes of 'Leon the sassy prisoner.' I doubt the Count will be amused.
 
Winter Wedding 8-4

drakensis

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Winter Wedding

And with a little help from above
You feel the power of love
~ Huey Lewis​

Chapter 4

Revenge, like some poisonous plant, replete with baneful juices, rankles in the breast, and meditates mischief to its neighbor. ~ Wellins Calcott​

The dungeons beneath the palace were clean, well-swept and heavily guarded. By virtue of his noble status, Leon got one of the better rooms, with furnishings that most nobility would probably consider a crime against their dignity, decent insulation against the winter’s cold and even some privacy. The door had a window made entirely of bars, but at least neither that nor the wall was entirely bars, so he had the appearance of privacy.

“Were you expecting this, master?” asked Luxion. The AI had snuck a drone into the prison room earlier, which provided at least some security if someone decided to kill Leon for some reason. The drones weren’t heavily armed, but they had pretty nasty taser functionality if needed.

Leon sat cross legged on the bed, which was at least better padded than the thin layer of stuffing on the seat of the available chairs. “No,” he admitted, subvocalizing. “It happened in the book - a little later, but not by much. The thing is, that Leon had already badly blown his cover as being just an ordinary baron’s son who’d got lucky. He’d demolished an entire Fanoss fleet and captured Princess Hertrude, defeating the famed Black Knight of the Principality. Locking him up was basically an attempt to strong-arm him into giving up the lost items he’d used to do that - meaning you.”

“And you don’t consider your own actions to be so blatant?” Luxion enquired.

“Dreadnought’s pretty appealing,” Leon admitted, “But it’s not done anything quite so obviously out of local leagues and with my knight-armour and Katarina’s destroyed, I’m not that big a fish.”

“The forged letters present a convincing picture of you plotting to bring northern Holfort’s lords over to the side of Fanoss in the event of a war,” the AI reported. “Convincing, that is, to anyone unacquainted with you.”

“Which Frampton isn’t…” Leon broke off as he heard the guard approaching, and they weren’t alone. “What’s this?”

“Two of your harem, master.”

“What?” Leon gave the drone a sceptical look. He didn’t have a harem. He didn’t have the time! There was a reason that most actual cultures with harems had a major imbalance between the agency of the genders. It was rather difficult to maintain even a friendly relationship with too many people, and romantic relationships were an order of magnitude more complicated. Leon suspected that most actual harems were more a matter of dominance and showing off than anything serious. Well, and baby factories for dynasties that wanted a lot of backstabbing among their scions.

He had to admit though, if only to himself, that if it was the two women admitted by the guards then he might be willing to at least try the idea out.

Clarice grabbed him in a hug as soon as he’d stood up to greet her. “Are they being too beastly?”

“Not really. It’s a bit boring, but you turning up has sorted that right out.” He hugged her back and kissed the side of her head before looking at the other guest. “Excuse us, your highness. On this occasion, you’re outranked.”

“I’m pleased to see that you have priorities.” Queen Mylene pulled one of the chairs back for herself. “Do carry on.”

Leon promptly sat down on the bed, pulling Clarice into his lap. “You hear that? That’s a royal command,” he teased her and got a kiss in on the other side of her head before she pushed him back a bit.

“Not in front of the queen,” she hissed - although she also made no move to get off his lap.

The queen looked wistful as Leon settled his arms around Clarice. “It may seem strange, but I envy the two of you. Even under these circumstances.”

“I don’t find that strange at all,” he assured her. “I’m sure Clarice will hug you as well if you ask nicely. Ow.” The ‘ow’ was because he’d just been pinched.

“Er, yes.” Mylene managed to say, though she didn’t quite keep a straight face. “I’m assuming that the letters found in your room at the academy are forged - not that you’d tell me if they weren’t.”

“I don’t know what’s in them,” he lied, “But why would I have written correspondence? She only left the academy a few weeks ago and we had ample opportunity to conspire in person if I was minded to.”

“That’s a rather good point. But why would someone frame you?”

Leon sighed. “I know. I’m such an inoffensive person.”

“No, you’re not.”

“But you love me anyway?”

Clarice tightened her grip on him slightly. “Not yet, but I’m considering the possibility.”

“Oh good, my feelings aren’t unrequited,” Leon declared gleefully.

“Why is it that I find the two of you endearing, while my son’s flirting with Lady Lafan makes me want to throw up?”

“...how long do you have?” Leon asked, more or less seriously. “Because that could take a while. I might need paper to draw visual aids.”

“Perhaps another time,” the queen decided. “I take it that you have no enemies?”

“The Olfreys, if they still had influence,” he said promptly. “Baron Sullivan - or his heirs if he has any?”

“No,” Mylene told him. “If he doesn’t wake up - and even with the dark magic removed he hasn’t yet - then the lands will revert to the crown. Marquis Mason and his son might be up to something, but they’re both being closely watched so that seems reasonably unlikely.”

“I’m not really important enough for this to be aimed at me,” Leon pointed out. “And honestly, faking letters is much more effort than would be needed to get me out of the way for a while. I’m only a count’s second son. My suspicion is that someone’s testing the waters.”

“What for?”

“If we knew that, we’d be forewarned. Unfortunately, I don’t know. Perhaps simply to see what resources could be mobilised to protect me. I’m on decent terms with the Stuarts and a lot of their allies. Taking me right in front of Gerald Rafa Stuart was provocative to say the least. It’s just a theory, but someone could be testing their political might. If they have the influence to get me out of trouble, that would provide a benchmark for what they might be able to do for other purposes.”

Mylene frowned. “It’s plausible. The marquis seems to be positioning himself to get behind the charges. Marquis Frampton, that is. We can’t really dispense with him right now - the traditionalists aren’t fond of the crown right now and our usual core supporters are in disarray. It’s also possible he’s testing how far we’ll let him go.”

“You can’t mean you’d let Leon take the fall!” Clarice exclaimed.

“If it was just him?” the queen arched an eyebrow. “I left my own son holding the bag for his own actions already. Lord Bartford is very likeable, but I’ve made sacrifices before. In this case though, I’d be offending far too many people he’s befriended, you and your father among them.”

The young woman didn’t seem to know how to take that.

“How is Julius, by the way?”

“Please don’t ask,” Mylene murmured, pressing one hand to her head as if feeling a headache coming on. She probably was.

Leon nodded in understanding. “Alright. So back to your question, I’d suggest moving forwards with the trial as soon as possible.”

“What? Why?” exclaimed Clarice.

“Because right now he has one very weak piece of evidence,” he explained. “But if he thinks he’s pushing a door that’s already swinging in his direction, he’ll have too much momentum to back off and less chance to try to come up with something more persuasive. Let’s see what he does.”

“That’s something of a high risk strategy,” warned the queen. “If we agree to the trial then I can’t really then do anything to block it.”

“No, but you can stack the nobles I’m being tried in front of,” Leon suggested. “Not too much, but if you could persuade Marquis Field to take a seat then that would work out nicely.”

“Do you know him?”

Leon shook his head. “And thus he’s notionally disinterested - on the one hand, I’m accused of supporting his family’s enemies in Fanoss, but he’s also a neighbour of my mother’s county and has us to thank for Brad not being engaged to the Olfreys any more.”

“I think I'd rather he still was, at least then he wouldn’t be joining my son in his current idiocy.”

Clarice snorted. “I went to school with Cassandra Fou Olfrey, your highness. Marie Fou Lafan is a two-faced troglodyte, but she’s infinitely preferable to Brad’s former fiancee.”

If Marie had just stuck to seducing only Brad Fou Field, Leon would have probably supported her fully, he thought. Well, as long as he also kept Julius and the others from falling at Olivia Campbell’s feet. That would also have had its problems. But Marie was just barely of socially acceptable rank to marry into a marquis’ family and the Field would have squashed the Lafans if they tried to keep exploiting the girl. It wouldn’t be perfect, but it would have been workable.

If. He shook his head. There was no use in dwelling on ifs.

At that moment, more guards started moving outside. “What now?”

“Excuse me, your highness, we’ll need to secure this room while we move another prisoner in across the hall,” a guard offered through the door apologetically. “Would you rather we lock you in or will you wait outside?”

“This already?” Mylene asked. “No, I’ll stay.”

The guard gave Leon a warning look. “Don’t try anything.”

“The lady I’m courting is literally sitting on me, sergeant. That would make it rather difficult to ravish the queen on the table.”

“LEON!” Clarice shouted, right in his ear.

“I… but… no, that’s…” Mylene was crimson from ear to ear. “He… he is joking, sergeant.”

“I can’t believe you said that,” Clarice continued to harangue him. “The sergeant’s just doing his job, don’t threaten to carry out high treason in front of him.”

Leon winced and rubbed his ear. “Yes dear.”

The sergeant’s eyes had practically crossed. “I really think you’d better leave, your highness.”

“Perhaps you’re right.” The queen rose to her feet, looking a little unsteady. “Lady Atlee.”

“Indeed.” Clarice left Leon behind. “I take it you’ll be throwing the book at Lord Bartford?”

“Given his behaviour, I see no reason to further defer his trial,” Mylene said in what was clearly intended to be icy disdain. It missed the mark, but only because Leon could see her fumbling with her fingers like a nervous young man about to approach a pretty girl and not quite sure what he should do with his extremities while doing so.

The door opened and then slammed behind them. The guard gave Leon a vicious smirk through the window, confirming his suspicions that he was less innocent a gaoler than he purported to be.

Leon leant against the door and watched the ladies leave. Hopefully he hadn’t gone too far with the whole ‘ravish the queen’ comment. At least the queen had taken it up as justification to go ahead with putting him on trial sooner rather than later and he could probably claim he’d said it so she’d have an excuse to pretend to be mad at him. But he probably could have been a bit more subtle.

Maybe Nicks and their father had a point that he ought to rein himself in on being a smartass. He’d gotten away with a fair bit, up until that dark mage - Sara? Sarah? It was something like that - had mindjacked him. That should probably be a warning.

Actually, Leon admitted to himself, the being arrested was likely something he should be taking more seriously. He’d managed to play it cool since Luxion had let him know about the search of his rooms and the ‘discovery’ of letters that totally hadn’t been carried in there by the court baron overseeing the search and planted under a floorboard that’d been yanked up hard enough it would be impossible to prove that it hadn’t been loose enough to be used as a hidden storage area for personal papers before the search took place.

Still, he was under arrest and on charges that wouldn’t just hurt him. He could escape, but his entire family were essentially hostages against him doing anything egregious.

“Tsk.” He clicked his tongue and watched as the outer door opened and the new prisoner was marched in. He barely saw her at first, surrounded as she was by much larger guards, but a flash of curly blond hair identified her. “What are you doing here?”

Marie Fou Lafan tried to stop and reply but the two guards behind her, wearing the colours of temple knights rather than the royal guards, pushed her on and into the room across the way from Leon. “What am I doing here? What are you doing here?” the girl yelped and then the door slammed shut behind her.

“Enjoy your new neighbour,” the guard from earlier told Leon. “I gather lots of you young lords have.”

Marie’s hands came into view and she pulled herself, red-faced, up to the barred window in her door. “Bartford? Why are you here? Can you get me out of here?”

“Shh, no talking about escape plans when the guards are here?” Leon drawled, giving the guard a wink. Never let them see you sweat.

“See if you’re laughing this much when you’re on trial,” the man shot back and trailed the other guards as they left the wing.

Leon watched Marie’s face drop out of view and then she hauled herself up again. “You know, you could push the chair over to the door and stand on it,” he suggested.

“...I knew that!” She vanished from sight and he heard a chair being dragged over the floor.

The boy shook his head. It wasn’t as if she didn’t have her good points, but the ‘particularly dumb puppy’ girls didn’t really interest him other than as a quick joke.

“So what are you in for?” he asked once she re-appeared, no longer having to cling to the bars to see him.

“It’s my family’s fault!”

Leon considered what he knew of the Lafans. Broke, constantly borrowing money to maintain the high-rolling lifestyle of capital nobles, nasty habit of taking the loans out in Marie’s name - which was technically legal since she was their child and therefore a minor in their care. It was a loophole in the laws intended to be used by regents caring for a minor heir to a domain, but it could be applied to your own children if you were morally bankrupt as well as financially bankrupt. “Okay, I can believe that. But how? This is the royal dungeon!”

The girl sniffled. “I convinced the temple that I might be the saintess’ successor so that they’d lend me a skyship to go after the treasure island I learned of.”

“I… I’m not going to say that I think that was a good idea, but it’s resourceful, I’ll give you that.”

She gave him a suspicious look. “You’re not usually this nice.”

Leon sighed heavily. “Prison changes a man.”

“How long have you been here?”

“Since yesterday. So go on.”

Marie rested her forehead against the bars. “My idiot parents borrowed more money in my name, claiming that as I was the saintess-candidate, the temple was guaranteeing the loan.”

“...I take it that you didn’t come back rich beyond your wildest dreams.”

“I didn’t find anything!” She started pounding her fists against the door in frustration. “Now I’m not a saintess-candidate, I’m even further in debt and half the temple leaders want to burn me at the stake!”

“I take it that your friends objected to that?”

The small girl was red-faced, trying not to cry. “They did everything they could, but it wasn’t much. Julius managed to make an appeal to his father but all he’d do was arrest me for financial fraud so I wasn’t in temple custody.”

“Well, that probably saved your life.”

Marie wiped her nose on her sleeve. “So what are you doing here?”

“It’s political. Frampton’s trying to get me done for treason.”

“Oh. I was thinking you’d knocked someone up.”

“...I really need to work on my reputation,” Leon sighed. He should probably meditate on his flaws and try to behave more respectably when he was on trial. There was a fair bit riding on it. “Look, at least there’s a bright side to all this.”

“...like what?” the girl demanded.

“Three warm meals and a bed?” the boy offered after a moment’s thought. “I mean, that’s better than you got at home isn’t it?”

“You’re insufferable,” she hissed. “Especially when you’re right!”

In the spirit of his new resolution to be less of a smartass, Leon decided to give her the last word.

-

“If it’s not one thing at this place, it’s another.” Alan Rafa Stuart put the spade he’d been using away and left the shed so that Mary Fou Hunt could put her own tools away. He stretched, feeling the ache of the evening’s work in his muscles. But it was a good ache, the sort that you had after exercise not overstraining.

The engaged couple had been helping Katarina Rafa Claes with her vegetable garden. Mary often did this, and seemed to have picked up something of a rivalry with the other girl’s new helper - her magic leaned heavily towards plants, but the elf woman’s magic was something else. For Alan it was simply a way to vent his frustrations in physical effort.

“I know,” Mary agreed. “First Leon is arrested, then it’s Lady Lafan. And now Nicol, of all people, has decided to start looking for a bride?”

“Mayhem.” Alan held the door for her and then dropped the latch once the girl was done. “Next we’ll have cats and dogs living together.”

Leon’s arrest had been a shock for the student council, but Lafan’s situation had drained Julius’ clique of energy as well. Almost the entire first year special class was affected by one or the other of the two students.

“Sophia can’t believe it,” continued Mary. “She’s asked Olivia twice to check her brother hasn’t been affected by dark magic.”

“He’s not getting younger,” the prince noted. “He’d almost have to marry in the next couple of years if he wants to succeed his father. I’m not sure why he waited this long - perhaps being student council president took up so much time he didn’t feel he could until now?”

They waved to Katarina and Yumeria, who were still working. The elf woman was working at the Ministry of Magic as a gardener, but apparently someone had pulled strings to send her here to tutor Katarina as gardening. As a bribe, presumably - the Ministry and the Temple were both squabbling over their friend’s attention. Personally Alan figured that the Ministry was on the right track.

“It’s probably also to do with Leon’s situation,” Mary advised him as they walked back towards the campus.

He glanced at her. She was usually more aware of political issues than him. “How so?”

“Even though he’s probably innocent, the possibility that Fanoss is conspiring with someone inside of the kingdom undermines the new agreements that were made under Count Ascart’s foreign affairs ministry recently. Now that his father’s under fire, Nicol may feel obligated to shore up his family’s position by offering a marriage alliance.”

Alan snorted. “More of Frampton’s fear mongering. Come on, we met the princess - do you think she’d really start a war?”

“Absolutely!”

He blinked. “Really?”

“Not because she wants it - she doesn’t like Holfort but as individuals she got on with us and I think her being here was a good sign,” Mary clarified. “But she’s very new to the throne and most of her lords probably expect her to lead them in a renewal of the traditions of fighting against the kingdom. If she doesn’t she risks being overthrown… Mind you, they might not press the issue and I don’t think she’ll initiate it - but given the choice then any fondness for us won’t be a consideration.”

Alan grunted. “And then we’re at war. That sounds miserable. One more reason I’m not after the throne - sorry if that disappoints you.”

Mary shook her head. “I’m not enthusiastic about being a marchioness. Being queen would be worse… maybe if I got to be king - off with certain heads!” She swung one arm like a decapitating axe.

“As amusing as that might be…”

“Oh, don’t worry Alan. Your neck would be safe,” the girl told him reassuringly. “You could be my court musician - I’d want Katarina as my queen. No offence, but you wouldn’t fit so well into a ball gown.”

“That’s… a pretty good reason,” Alan admitted. He considered and then took a deep breath. Waiting for the right time to talk to Katarina wasn’t working out for Gerald, so maybe he shouldn’t keep putting off a difficult conversation with Mary. “Can we… talk?”

“Aren’t we already?”

“About something serious.”

“You say that as if I wasn’t serious,” Mary said with a broad smile and swept her arm down again. “But sure. How can I help?”

Alan swallowed. “I like you. I respect you. But… our engagement was arranged. I kind of thought that love would come with time.”

She nodded. “That’s to be hoped for, certainly. I think we’re off to a better start than some couples.”

The young musician stopped walking. “I’m doing this poorly. The thing is… Looking at Ian and Selena when they got married, I could see us in their shoes but I don’t think we’d be smiling at each other the same way.”

Mary nodded, but her hand had come up to cover her mouth. “I see…?”

“And while it’s not something I’m proud of, given what my cousin and his friends did back before the summer,” he forced himself to say, looking away. “There’s someone… a girl I could see myself marrying. And maybe being as happy with her as Ian is with Selena.” There, he’d said it. If Mary slapped him here, he could hardly blame her.

There was no immediate response and when he looked over, his fiancee was nibbling on one thumbnail.

“Mary? I’m sorry, I know it’s not fair.”

She looked up. “What? No, it’s… Look, Alan I’m not going to blame you for what you’re feeling. I mean, you’ve not acted on this, have you?”

“What? No!” He shook his head. “I wouldn’t do that to you. Either of you. I mean, she’s with someone else, but even if she wasn’t - you’d still be the first person that I’d tell.”

Mary looked startled and then smiled. “That means a lot, Alan. So… what do you want to do about this? I appreciate you telling me up front, but where do you see us going with this?”

“If you don’t want to marry someone that has someone else in their heart, I can’t blame you,” he promised. “But I don’t have any right to make decisions like that for you. I don’t want to lose you as a friend. I do care about you… a lot. Just, not the way I feel for her.”

The girl looked away. “You shame me.”

“I’m sorry.”

“No, not like that!” She shook his head. “You telling me this… when I’ve not had the courage to confess the same.”

...what? “Uh, are you saying…”

Mary looked away. “There is someone I have admired for a long time. I would still marry you. I would respect and honour you, I would try to be happy with you and make you happy… but I would be thinking of them.”

That stung a bit, but given what he’d just said to Mary, it was kind of hard for Alan to feel justified in being angry with Mary. He stuffed that first reaction down. “Are you saying that we can just… go on? Ignore these feelings?”

“If I understand your situation, you can’t be with her and I can’t be with the person I love,” his fiancee told him. “All that breaking off our engagement would do is put us both under pressure to marry other people, and almost certainly not the per… people in our heart.”

Hearing her stammer, Alan reached out and put one arm around her shoulders. “I guess you’re right.”

Mary nodded. “I often am.” She gave him a crooked smile. “In particular, now that I’m the heiress, my father would be justified in saying that I have to marry as early as possible. So, let’s make a pact.”

Sure she was okay, Alan released her shoulders. “A pact, huh?”

The girl nodded and pulled him to start walking again. “Exactly. I want you to be happy, after all. And we’re a team, right?”

“The best team.”

She released his hand and raised hers as a fist. In a gesture going back to their childhood, introduced to them by Katarina (as so much else had been), the two rapped their knuckles against each other’s. “So what are you suggesting,” Alan asked her. “We cover for each other until or unless the situation changes?”

“Exactly.” Mary nodded sharply. “If the lady of your heart becomes free, then I’ll agree to end our engagement so you’ll be free to pursue her. But if I have an opening to be with who I want to…”

“Then at that point, we also call our engagement off so you’re free.”

“Exactly. And until then…”

Alan nodded. “Business as usual, at least as far as anyone else knows.”

They walked together, hand in hand, back through the gardens of the school. Everything had changed… and yet, somehow it was as if nothing had save for the weight that had left Alan’s shoulders. He’d been able to tell Mary and she didn’t hate him for it.

Entering the student council building - duties there were the one reason that they had had to leave Katarina out in the gardens - they saw Sirius Fou Dieke descending the stairs with a tea tray.

“Are you still making tea for people, even now that you’re the president?” Mary asked him. “Isn’t it beneath your dignity.”

He tilted his head slightly and smiled. “I don’t think so. Just as long as you keep doing the great work that you are. Although, today I’m doing this for a guest.”

Balancing the tray on one hand, the lord president pushed open the door to the student council lounge. Through the open doorway, Alan saw a head of silver-blonde hair waiting inside. He froze in the hallway.

Sirius Fou Dieke half-turned to close the door behind him and his eyes locked with Alan’s. After a moment, a shadow crossed the older boy’s grey eyes and he shut the door firmly. Cutting off the prince’s view of Violette Rafa Ades.

“Oh my,” Mary sounded surprised. “So… assuming that this isn’t like one of Sophia’s boy-love novels…”

“No!” Alan exclaimed, stung.

“Tsk.” The young woman snaked one arm through his and then patted his arm with her free hand. “It’ll work out, Alan.” Then she slashed her arm down again once more, in that gesture of execution. “Anything can happen in the next few years, really.”

-

In the quiet of the night, light and sound within his cell would have been obvious. But the royal palace was a busy place during the day and the guards had better things to do than check on the dungeon residents between their rounds.

Thus when Leon wanted to have a discreet conversation, he did so in the early afternoon, after the dishes for his lunch had been taken away. The only person still in likely earshot was Marie Fou Lafan, and chances were good that she’d think her nap was the result of being warm, fed and bored rather than Luxion sniping her with a sedative from the drone he’d snuck out and into the girl’s cell.

Having two drones just in the dungeons of the palace was a bit of a nuisance, but the extra flexibility made it worthwhile.

The space across the table from Leon lit up with the sight of Larna Smith, sitting at her desk - the surface of the ministry desk and the dungeon table blending.

“Remarkable,” she exclaimed, apparently seeing him in a similar fashion. “Are you sure I can’t dissect one of these things?”

“If you’re going to tell me you’ve solved all our issues with light magic and dark magic then I’ll consider it,” Leon replied. “How are you, Larna?”

The woman puffed out her cheeks and then exhaled. “Unfortunately, not very much ahead of when we last spoke. You’re holding out on me, aren’t you?”

“To an extent. I do have my reasons, but where are you stuck?” he asked.

“The temple is still refusing to give me any access to the Saintess’ regalia,” Larna complained. “I think the Claes’ will get the bracelet back eventually - the contract that the Duke’s lawyers drew up is terrifying - but it’ll take time. And in the meanwhile, a strong faction is pushing the narrative that the Saintess does have an heiress in our generation… they just don’t think it’s Lady Lafan.”

“Let me guess, it’s Katarina Rafa Claes that they have in mind.”

The director nodded confirmation that Leon was right. “The main things holding them back are that there’s no verified lineage back to the saintess, whereas Lady Lafan was actually able to dig a credible bloodline out to support her claim, and that the Claes don’t want a thing to do with the notion.”

Leon nodded. “Katarina’s not book smart, but nor is she dumb enough to want that sort of burden foisted on her. I take it that they’re digging outwards from Lafan’s kinship to try to find a link to the Claes, the Ades or some other ancestor of Katarina?”

“Most likely, it would let them rally more support behind them. As if that’s the important thing. Why? Do you think there is one?”

“I doubt it,” he admitted. “But I have a strong suspicion that if they traced every line of descent they would find a powerful light mage that is descended from the Saintess. Because according to Ann, Miss Olivia Campbell is the spitting image of her back in her own youth.”

Larna adjusted her glasses. “The scholarship student. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’ve overlooked her in trying to find connections to the nobility. Are you sure of that?”

“Even if I’m not, are you spoiled for choices when it comes to light mages? She’s stronger than Katarina or Lafan, so once she has some practice and knowledge, she’ll probably be the most effective. I suggest that you get her on the ministry payroll before the temple gets involved - in your own department of course.”

Larna nodded. “And if one of her friends is working for me then maybe Katarina will join us as well. And bring my gardener back while she’s at it.”

“Are you missing her?” Leon asked. “I didn’t think the ministry gardens were so near and dear to you.”

“It’s a way to score points in the office politics, you never know when you might need a favour,” Larna explained with a shrug. “And Kyle gets cranky when his mother isn’t there to tuck him at night.”

“I do not!” the half-elf shouted from outside Leon’s field of vision.

“Maybe you could do the tucking in?” the boy suggested. “It might awaken maternal urges in you.”

“What would I do with them?” Larna asked in apparent bemusement. “Have you met my husband? It’s a good job he has brothers or the Stuart line would end with him. But seriously, what are my chances of getting Yumeria back out of Lady Claes’ orbit?”

“About on par with your chances of breaking out of that select group,” he observed. “Or did you think that your fascination with getting her under your thumb was just about the light magic?”

It was a rare moment to catch Larna Smith or Suzanna Rafa Stuart at a loss. Leon treasured the look on her face as she realised he had a point.

“Welcome to the special hell,” he told her, before she could accuse him of being in the same trap.

Larna sniffed, her professional shell forming up around her once more. “So can you help with the relics? Steal them for me perhaps?”

“What makes you think I haven’t?” he asked her. “Two of them, anyway. Cleare, you can share our files on examining the bracelet and necklace with Director Smith. We’re not getting any further with them and I think we’re running out of time to counter dark magic. That mage who got away will get up to something sooner or later and they could be closer than we think?”

“Do you think they’re behind your trial being rushed forwards?” the woman asked, watching something off at the side. “Ooh, that’s useful,” she commented - presumably looking at Cleare projecting data on the relics.

“The fast trial is my idea.”

Larna looked surprised. “Why? A quick trial may work against you, Frampton has more allies inside the court than he has outside it. More of the nobles called to try you will be his picks than if you wait.”

“Frampton is like a dry rot,” he explained. “Given time, he’ll wear away at the resistance to him within the kingdom. He’s already given away one of the Holfort’s hoarded lost items…”

“Wait, he did what?”

“A sort of arm, a relic of some prehistoric menace,” Leon expanded. “Dangerous in the wrong hands. I replaced it with something that won’t harm anyone in Holfort. It’s probably blown up by now.”

“And the original?” Larna asked. “I think I know the one you mean.”

“I destroyed it.”

“You vandal! That was a priceless relic!”

“Only if you want to turn someone into a monster, and I find greed does that pretty well,” Leon told her. “It was parasitic and deadly to most people it fused with. I can live without having something like that in the world.”

The director sniffed. “Keep your hands off my personal collection.”

Leon smirked. “But yeah, dry rot. The longer you give it, the more damage it does - but it’s weak when you put pressure on it.”

“Who cares about that, I want your promise about not destroying any of my relics!” Larna demanded.

“Why are you worried about me and not that fiendish thief, Carmine Sandiego?” he asked innocently. “I hear he has a price on his head in Fanoss. Actually, speaking of thieves… how is Mr Brode doing?” A grin crept over Leon’s face as the pieces of his plan fell neatly into place inside his head.
 
Falling Facades 9-1

drakensis

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Falling Facades

First time you feel it, it might make you sad
Next time you feel it, it might make you mad
~ Huey Lewis​

Chapter 1

Revenge, which, like envy, is an instinct of justice, does but take into its own hands the execution of that natural law which precedes the social. ~ Paul Chatfield​

“I missed you so much.” Hertrude had already welcomed her younger sister back to Castle Fanoss formally, but in their own apartments with the servants sent away she clung to Hertrauda as if afraid that she would be swept away from her. Or rather, dreading that inevitability.

The shorter of the sisters rested her head on Hertrude’s shoulder. “So have I. It was exciting to visit so many different places, but the one thing I missed was that I couldn’t share the experience with you.”

“Perhaps we’ll get the chance,” the princess said hopefully. “But that may not be for a while with the war that’s coming.”

“Does it have to be war?” Hertrauda pulled away, just far enough that their matching crimson eyes could meet. “For everyone I met that would welcome war with Holfort, I met at least as many who dreaded the prospect of their homes being destroyed again in such a war.”

Hertrude drew her sister aside to a couch and they sat together, resting their shoulders against each other in silent comfort at the familiarity of the contact.

“For myself I sympathise with the latter,” she admitted, the words feeling like a betrayal. “The people I met in Holfort, they’re not so very different from the people here. In the good ways… and in the bad ways. On both sides, there are people who want war. And unfortunately, on both sides they have momentum behind them.”

“Can’t you stop them? You’re supposed to be our ruler. Our leader.”

“And sometimes the only way to hold onto the lead is to get out in front, in whatever direction my people are already going.” Hertrude reached out and pressed her sister’s hands between hers. “To govern Fanoss, I need power. If I had the flutes, I could at least apply the direct threat of those against dissidents. But without them I have no real leverage against Count Garrett and his supporters. They want war, and if I don’t give them that, then they’ll have no use for me.” She licked her lips. “The same way they had no use for our parents.”

Hertrauda froze and the elder princess waited patiently for her sister to process that idea.

“There was,” the bob-haired girl said at last, “Someone I met on my tour. While Sir Vandel wasn’t watching over me. I won’t name names. But he suggested that Roland Rafa Holfort gained nothing by our parents’ deaths.”

“That’s my own opinion.” Hertrude lowered her head. “It’s still possible that someone from his kingdom was behind it… but as I said. There is good and bad on both sides of the border. And their deaths left Count Garret and the rest of the regency council with the rule of Fanoss for years, free to erode our dynasty’s influence in favour of their own.”

“I was hoping,” and Hertrauda was clearly trying not to cry, “That you would tell me that I was wrong.”

“I wish that I could.”

“We can’t let this just happen, Hertrude.”

“How do you suggest that we stop it? We’re surrounded by guards selected by the regents, servants selected by the regents… and if they put a gun to your head, I’ll give whatever orders they tell me to.” She ran her thumb over the back of Hertrauda’s hand. “The only freedom of action I’ll have is if I appear to be endorsing their policies of my own free will.”

“Sir Vandel could take us away!”

Hertrude shook her head slowly. “There’s very little that he wouldn’t do for us, Hertrauda. But there’s one cause that he won’t back us on. The same cause that turned him against mother and father. Peace with Holfort. That’s something he won’t forgive. I think sometimes that avenging his family is all that keeps him going - if we’re an obstacle to that then I don’t think he’ll help us.”

“Father trusted him!” Hertrauda pleaded.

“I know. That was probably his last mistake. In our position, we don’t get to make many. At least, not without paying a heavy price.”

Hertrauda rose to her feet and walked away. “I can’t believe that you’d be alright with this! You know it’s wrong!”

Her sister watched her for a moment and then she also stood. Going to the wall, she removed a largely ornamental dagger from where it was mounted on the wall and lifted it to her throat. “Imagine that it was Count Garrett holding it here,” she said simply. “And the price of it being removed was ordering our knights to storm the castle of Marquis Field.”

Her little sister’s eyes went wide. “I…”

“Decide!”

“Hertrude!” the girl shrieked.

“Thank you.” She lowered the dagger. “And I would also choose you. Come hell or high water. But that leaves us terribly vulnerable, unless, as I say, we appear to be complying with the wishes of my regents. Appear, I say.” Hertrude began working the weapon back into the clips that it had been mounted on. “I can’t let it happen, I have to make it happen. But I don’t have to just let it happen. Just. Appear. Those are the words to keep in mind.”

“You’ll be causing a lot of people’s deaths,” Hertrauda joined her and helped her wrestle the dagger back into place. “Can you live with that? I know you’re more gentle than you want anyone to know. Is staying in charge of Fanoss so important?”

“That’s something I’ve had to think about.” The long-haired princess rested one hand on the wall once the weapon was securely mounted again, and the other on her sister’s shoulder. “King Roland is not a particularly strong monarch, although I suppose I’m in no place to criticise him for that. And yet, ironically - none of his likely successors seem keen on replacing him.”

“Well, they are his sons and nephews,” her sister pointed out.

She nodded. “That’s part of it. But another is that, for all his evident faults, Prince Julius and his cousins all seem to see the throne as coming with a crushing burden of responsibility. Christophe Vor Garrett and his supporters only seem to see the power they wish to wield.”

Hertrauda put an arm around her. “It sounds almost as if you’re beginning to like Holfort.”

“If you mean their king or his son, no. Well,” she conceded with forced fairness, “His elder son. I hardly met Prince Layne. But I can respect that they don’t seem intent on aggrandizing themselves at everyone’s expense.” Unlike Garrett, she left unspoken. “Someone has to rule Fanoss, and if I don’t then who will - and will they be any better than me?”

Her sister paused and then shook her head. “So you’ll go to war… and then what?”

Hertrude smiled slyly. “I will give Count Garrett this: Holfort is in more disarray than they wish to admit. If we strike hard and fast - which means not letting small warbands break away to loot and ravage, inflaming the old hatreds - then we might be able to force a quick settlement. In the best case, the Holforts might even collapse - and in that event, our old blood ties might be enough to swing the balance of the feudal lords to back me in taking the throne. That’s unlikely though. But the key point is, the regents and the bulk of the war party will be with me.”

“You’re going to lead them personally?” Hertrauda asked warily.

“If there’s a victory I have to be able to claim the credit,” she pointed out. “But you will be staying here, and I can justify you selecting some guards. Preferably from lords who do not favour the war and will be glad to see their levies held back.”

“What are you planning, sister?”

“I’m planning for failure, or at least for a chance that Garrett failing won’t drag us down with him.”

-

The trial was held in the throne room - although desks and seats had been carried in, leaving the red carpet leading to King Roland’s throne as an aisle between the lords who would serve as jurors. There was no fixed number, but more than twenty had been assembled and Marquis Frampton sat amongst them - as did Marquis Field, Leon was pleased to see.

Leon - as the accused - stood to one side before the dais. Facing him was Baron Flegel, the crown prosecutor. A hereditary role, but he still favoured Frampton. They were cousins and the younger man was understood to have ambitions to be promoted to some other role. For some reason, the families holding titles such as his were unpopular - which led to turnover in the notionally hereditary positions at court.

King Roland seated himself, sceptre in hand. Viscount Marmoria was at his side and at a slight gesture, the green-haired noble declared: “The trial for treason of Lord Leon Fou Bartford now begins.”

Flegel jumped in with both feet, at least metaphorically. “My liege, the young man before you stands accused by virtue of letters recovered from his chambers at the royal academy where he has been a student. These letters, from Princess Hertrude Sera Fanoss, speak of his willing conspiracy to seize power over his family’s levies by imprisoning or murdering his own family, then leading them to conquer the lands of your loyal servant Duke Ades and sway the northern islands of our fair kingdom to side with Fanoss in war. I must therefore petition that he be found guilty and receive the traditional sentence of traitors.” The thin man turned a sneer upon Leon. “As his own kin would also seem to have been targets for his vile ambitions, no attainder need be placed upon them at least.”

Roland raised the sceptre slightly. “I hear your petition, Baron Flegel. Lord Bartford, it is less than a year since I last saw you before me. What defence do you offer?”

“I believe that I have reasonable grounds to dispute the claims that Baron Flegel is - as is his duty - presenting to you,” Leon replied calmly. “May I ask first, how many people here have actually seen these letters I am alleged to have received?”

Baron Flegel frowned. “Myself, Marquis Frampton when he was sent to arrest you and the officers who recovered them.”

“I see. So the majority of the lords gathered to pass judgement upon me have not been shown this evidence? I myself have not been allowed to read them, in fact. Your highness,” Leon turned to the throne. “Can I really be condemned for evidence that the prosecution has not even been willing to present?”

“Do you imagine we would allow you the chance to destroy the evidence!” Flegel snapped.

The king frowned. “Moderate your tone, Baron. This is my court.”

“Of course, I apologise.”

Roland turned his head to the viscount at his side. “What do you say, Francis? Can we really expect this lad to mount a credible defence when he’s not even allowed to see what he’s being accused of?”

Viscount Marmoria gave Leon a vaguely scornful look. “More handicap than is required, I would say, my liege. Besides which, were he to attempt their destruction here we could only call that an admission of guilt.”

“That’s a very good point.” The king waved his hand. “Have someone hold them where the lad can read them, Flegel. He doesn’t need to put his hands on them to read ‘em - and he can hardly destroy them with fire magic - or any magic, for that matter.”

There was a ripple of laughter at the reminder of Leon’s inability to cast magic.

One of the prosecution aides carried over a leather folder and produced three letters, the seals already broken. Dismissively, the man held each up in turn, simply holding them at the top and letting the weight of the wax seal unfold the paper for Leon to read them. It made the angle rather awkward for parts, but the king’s demand had technically been met.

“Thank you,” Leon said politely after the aide had closed up the third. “I believe I can construct a reasonable defence now, if the court will be so kind as to hear me out.”

“That’s what we’re here for,” snapped Marquis Tarquin Fou Field. Brad’s father looked much like Leon’s classmate, save that he wore his hair shorter.

Leon nodded. “Let us start with the letters being found in my dorm room. A dorm room which has, I am sorry to tell Baron Flegel, already been broken into once this year. The academy has full documentation of the complaint I lodged at the end of my first term, where a number of servants broke into the room and vandalised it. While it’s clearly not the case that the letters were placed there then, since that predated Princess Hertrude’s visit to Holfort, the room is hardly somewhere that only I have access to. Anyone at the academy could have forced the lock and put them away. I don’t make a habit of pulling up the floorboards of my own room so it’s rather hard to say how long they could have been there - but claiming only I could have put the letters there is rather a weak claim.”

“It doesn’t prove that you didn’t,” interjected Flegel.

“My point is that where the letters were found proves nothing either way, is that fair?”

“Is that your defence?” asked Viscount Marmoria.

“I’m just just getting started, sir. My next point is why would I have such letters at all. I escorted Princess Hertrude many times over the recent term at the academy, I was probably the member of the Student Council assigned the task more often than anyone else. So I’ve had many opportunities to have private conversations with her.”

“Time to conspire,” Marquis Frampton accused.

“If I was inclined to do so, Marquis, I absolutely had the chance. But that being the case, why would I need to exchange letters with the princess in the first place? Such correspondence would be unnecessary and would only provide incriminating documentation. Were I indeed betraying the crown, what possible reason would I have to firstly have such letters and secondly to keep them somewhere so obviously insecure.”

Flegel chuckled. “Traitors may be assumed to have other defects, Bartford. Don’t be too impressed with yourself.”

Leon tilted his head. “That could cut both ways. My third point - out of four, just to reassure your highness that my defence won’t take all day. My third point is you’re citing letters addressed to me. Not anything in my own hand. We can hardly expect that Princess Hertrude of Fanoss is going to come here and testify she wrote letters to me, particularly when those letters could be a cause of war, but even if we accept that she wrote them, that doesn’t prove I’d agreed to anything. I could sit down with ink and paper and write a letter in just a few minutes making all sorts of claims that I have a secret deal with Viscount Marmoria here, but that wouldn’t make such a deal any less fictitious. I’m not a legal expert, but I believe that this would render the letters little more than hearsay, at best.”

There was a ripple of agreement across the room.

“That is a rather good point,” the viscount observed. “Do you have a rebuttal, Baron Flegel?”

Face colouring, the prosecutor stepped up. “Lord Bartford may cast shadow on the individual aspects of the case, but the fact is that he has the most access to where the letters were found, and claiming letters in his hand don’t exist when they would by their nature be outside of the kingdom is similarly weak. As for retaining them, is it not logical that he would need them to ensure that Fanoss honoured their promises if his betrayal of us went ahead? His own word against the knights and sailors of Fanoss would be as nothing, but their Princess’ written hand is another matter.”

The gathered lords seemed divided, but at least half were still giving Leon accusatory looks. Probably because Frampton had asked them to, but there we go.

“You said that you had a fourth point?” asked Marmoria firmly.

Leon nodded. “If I may impose upon Marquis Field in a very small way. I understand as the principal lord whose domain borders Fanoss this is a matter of grave concern to you.”

“So you’re at least smart enough to read a map,” the marquis grunted. “What do you ask?”

“If you would be so good as to read the letters? I understand that you’ve not seen them yourself so far. I’d greatly appreciate it if you could answer two small questions about them for me.”

Field’s eyes narrowed. “...I don’t see where you’re going, but we should all read them before making a decision.” He snapped his fingers in a peremptory fashion towards the aide who still held the letters.

The man scurried over and handed over all three letters with a deferential bow.

They all watched as the Marquis read each letter. His face went a colour closer to his purple hair than was probably healthy.

“Marquis, my questions are these,” Leon enquired before the man could explode. “Does my name appear anywhere in those letters? And do they actually match the description that Baron Flegel has provided to this court.”

Field slammed his fist down on the desk. “No to both!” he snarled and thrust the letters out at the lords sat next to him.

Frampton and Flegel looked astonished, particularly when the purple-haired Marquis turned a ferocious glare upon his fellow marquis. “The letters I just read discuss a peace treaty between Holfort and Fanoss that cedes my entire lands to the principality,” he added, pushing himself to his feet. “And they’re addressed to you, Frampton! Addressed to you, and accepting your assurances that my family won’t be in a position to argue over it!”

“W-what?” Frampton pushed his own chair back and away from his enraged peer. “That’s impossible!”

At a nod from the king, Viscount Marmoria descended the dais with a single stride that covered all three steps, then crossed to the peers and snatched up one of the letters. The others were being handed from one peer to another, startled expressions already confirming what Leon had seen when the letters were shown to him. Thank goodness the aide hadn’t bothered to read them himself before handing them over.

Scanning the letter quickly, the viscount carried it back to the king, who read it himself and then gave Leon a searching look.

Leon shrugged helplessly. “I’m sorry, your highness. I’m at a loss. How can I defend myself against a case that seems to be built upon sand? There’s no credible evidence for me to argue against. It might be said that there isn’t any evidence at all.”

“Put Frampton up there!” Marquis Field had been disarmed, as expected for such an occasion, but he was pushing lords aside as he tried to get his hands upon the retreating Frampton, who was backing away.

The retreating marquis managed to seize one of the letters as he fled and glanced at it. His eyes bulged in his head, presumably recognising a letter he had indeed received. Granted, he’d then burned it, but he could hardly claim that as a defence. The only option he had was obvious and he seized it. “Forgery!” he yelled out. “This is a forgery!”

“Thank you, marquis.” King Roland slapped the sceptre against his open hand. “Thank you for making Lord Bartford’s point for him.” Then he used the butt of the sceptre to hammer against the arm of his throne. “Tarquin, sit down. No one is surrendering your lands to Fanoss.”

“You’re damned right they aren’t, your highness!” But Brad’s father ceased to advance upon the minister of magic.

“Baron Flegel,” Viscount Marmoria said testily. “Do you actually have the letters you’ve described? Where you came by this letter -” He brandished the one he’d taken up, “- is a second question.”

The prosecution team began frantically searching all their papers, but Leon relaxed. They didn’t, and after showing themselves to be such idiots, he would be extremely surprised if the lords were willing to condemn anyone on the unsupported claims that such letters had existed. After all, how many of them would be willing to risk being accused of anything on the basis of ‘I found a treasonous letter in your rooms but I can’t prove it’?

-

“I have a bone to pick with you,” King Roland muttered as he walked Leon down from the throne room to the palace’s main entrance. By tradition, the king doing this was an affirmation of the innocence of the accused - and probably a chance for the vindicated person to be compensated by holding the king’s ear for a few moments. Leon supposed that it might be a minor deterrent to bringing a frivolous case to the point that the crown directly oversaw the trial: the prospect that the accused might be able to badmouth you to the king if exonerated.

“...I’m sorry to hear that,” he admitted. “Honestly, my life’s been so busy this year that I’m hard pressed to say what it is I’ve done to offend you. There are so many possibilities. If it’s about my words about her highness...”

Roland Rafa Holfort snorted dismissively. “I’m long past the point that any discretions with her matter,” he told Leon in a low voice. “Discretions, you understand. Indiscretions are what I can’t ignore. I trust I don’t need to warn you off my concubines.”

“Sir!” Leon did his best to sound appalled. “I’ve never even met them!”

“Mmmm. Anyway, no. It’s this trial.” Roland paused on a landing of the stairs and looked out the windows. “Demolishing the prosecution like that and denying me the chance to be cool and magnanimous in saving you?”

“Oh, that. Yes.” The younger man shook his head. “I am terribly sorry, I thought I’d balanced things nicely with those first three arguments - leaving the whole thing in the balance so you could sweep in and be the wise and sagacious king setting all aright. But I never expected them to lose their evidence entirely.”

That got a reluctant nod. “Nor did anyone else, I suppose. Frampton’s not usually that careless.”

“I rather panicked,” Leon confessed. He didn’t like or respect the king’s reasoning, but it was what he had to work with. “At that point, all that suggested itself was to leave them so crushed that you could sweep in and save what was left of their dignity.”

The king grunted irritably and then continued down the stairs to the main doors. Guards threw the great panels wide and Leon emerged blinking into the bright winter sunlight.

“Do better next time,” King Roland muttered and gave him a little ‘encouraging pat’ on the back that sent Leon stumbling down the last steps beyond the doors.

Blinking back tears at the bright light, Leon turned and bowed deeply to the king. “My thanks for your generosity and justice, your highness.”

Roland made a suitably regal gesture of dismissal and departed back into the castle, a ermine cape sweeping behind him.

“LEON!” A near half-dozen voices greeted him now that he was fair game and before he really knew who was there, he found himself hugged, kissed and swatted by presumably all those speaking.

“I almost died when I heard you’d been arrested,” Ruth Fou Bartford exclaimed, kissing him for a second time, though on the other cheek.

Leon returned his mother’s embrace. He’d preferred the kisses from Clarice Fia Atlee and Larna Smith (even if it now had his lover glaring irritably at the Director of the Magical Tools Laboratory) but family was good too.

“I won’t kiss you,” Dorothea Fou Roseblade declared. “My fiance here has a jealous streak.” The look on her face suggested that she enjoyed that part of Nicks’ character. “But congratulations on winning your trial.”

Before the young man could answer, his father’s large hand landed on his head, tousling his hair roughly. “You worried us, boy. You worried us a great deal. How did you get tangled up in such a mess?”

“I think I was a target of opportunity.” Leon looked around. “Giving credit where it was due, Jenna did warn me that being appointed to escort Princess Hertrude might get me into trouble.”

“Yes! I did!” his sister declared proudly. “And you should repay me by setting me up with Lord Ascart.”

Leon blinked. “Sorry, what? I thought he was taken.”

Jenna shook her head. “He’s been taking tea with ladies every day since the term began. Some of them haven’t even enrolled yet.”

“Oh.” What was that about? Wasn’t Nicol hung up on Katarina like… oh, wait. He had done that in those books hadn’t he? It hadn’t gone anywhere, but he had tried marrying out of duty. “Well, I’ll have a word with him. I can probably get you a meeting with Lord Ascart, but scaring him off is up to you.”

“You’re useless, little brother. But I’ll take… wait, what do you mean scaring him off?”

“Jenna, I’ve met you. It’s Nicol’s decision whether or not he actually wants to marry you after he’s met you. You might want to think about how to convince him you’re the sort of girl he’s looking for.”

“It’s boys’ job to convince girls of that.”

Clarice snorted. “In that case, Lady Bartford, why do you need your brother to set up taking tea with my cousin?”

Leon’s elder sister fumed, but she at least had the self-preservation not to argue with Clarice.

A man with blue hair - from some angles he looked a bit like an older and taller Chris Fia Arclight - stepped forwards and offered Leon his hand. “I won’t kiss you either.”

“That’s appreciated.” He shook the man’s hand. “Mr Smith, I believe?”

“Call me Sora.” The man stepped back and snaked one arm around Larna Smith, who gave him an irritated jab of her elbow. He slithered around the move and her back, with one flowing gesture. “My congratulations on getting out of your predicament.”

“I couldn’t have done it without you.” Sora Smith - or Rufus Brode, to use his previous alias - had been the one to swap Luxion’s faked documents in place for those Frampton had prepared to frame Leon.

The roguish dark mage shrugged. “I was beginning to think I might not have gotten out on my own without your help, so I guess we’re even. I must say, out of professional interest...”

Leon shifted very slightly to indicate those around him.

“Those papers,” Sora said. “How?”

Ah. The papers Luxion had provided to Sora to use weren’t normal documents - they’d been created to look like the original letters Frampton had prepared until almost the last minute. Only in the throne room had they switched to duplicates of other letters. Thus, even if Flegel had checked right before the trial, he would have seen nothing out of place. “Can you keep a secret?”

“Ah.” The older man smirked. “That makes two of us, then.”

“Perhaps one day we can trade.”

“I look forward to it.”

“Come on, you.” Larna gave Sora a tug on the arm. “We’ve seen that Lord Bartford is fine. We both have work back at the ministry.”

“Yes dear,” the man said cheekily and followed her out.

Ruth looked after the two as they departed. “They’re an odd couple, how long have they been married?”

“Ah… I thought that they were cousins. I’ve never actually asked.” He’d better find out the cover story before he was questioned further.

“Now.” Clarice secured Leon’s arm. “I think you have something to say to me, but let’s talk as we go. I’ve spent quite enough time in the royal court.”

He pulled lightly on her arm, holding her closer. “There are two things I’d like to say, actually.”

“Oh?”

“Back in the cell, I was out of line and I’m sorry.” Leon leaned slightly further over and the side of her head brushed his. "And thank you, for telling me off when I needed it."
 
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