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

Falling Facades 9-2

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 2

Revenge is a confession of pain. ~ Latin Proverb​

To celebrate catching up on the schoolwork that had built up at the academy during his fortunately brief imprisonment, Leon had arranged for an excused absence from the academy with Clarice and arranged to collect her at the Atlee mansion for an evening out on the town.

It wasn’t coincidental that this meant Leon would be off campus for the evening following his sister attending a tea party with Nicol Fia Ascart. A few hours for that perfect storm to calm down would be best, he thought.

Or worse, they could hit it off. If that happened Sophia would likely be out for Leon’s blood. She didn’t like Jenna very much, for reasons mysterious only to those who hadn’t met the two of them.

“Did I keep you waiting?” Clarice came down the grand staircase of the mansion, dressed to the nines.

Leon admired the view for a moment, then reminded himself that he’d have all evening to admire her. “I was a little early, your father and I found something to talk about.”

The redhead accepted his offered arm and then looked through the door of the library to see that Count Atlee was politely pretending not to notice them from in there. “You didn’t threaten him, did you daddy?”

“I wouldn’t infringe on your right to do that dear.” Bernard Fia Atlee came to the door of the room. “Leon is consulting with me on proposing an amendment to our current laws on debt and borrowing.” Clarice’s father had been the Minister of the Treasury for a few months now, but he was planning to make a mark there after years of Marquis Frampton’s influence in that arm of the government.

“What are you up to?” she asked Leon playfully. “I know you want extra credit for as many classes as possible, but you just got out of trouble at court.”

Leon gestured to the door. “I’ll tell you as we go. Thanks for your time, Count Atlee.”

The count bowed. “Thank you for yours. Please let me know if you’re going to spend the night here rather than going back to the academy.”

The two young people exchanged looks and Leon nodded slightly to Clarice.

“We’ll be coming back here,” she told her father. “I’ve had the servants ready a room for Leon, but he may be sharing mine.”

The balding man gave them both a steady look. “I’ll trust your judgement then.”

Clarice let go of Leon and curtsied to the count. “I’ll endeavour to live up to your trust.” If her eyes were a little damp while they made their way to the waiting cabriolet, Leon made no mention of it.

“So what’s this law you want to change?” she asked, touching up her make-up as the little carriage carried them into the streets of the city that catered more towards entertainments for the gentry and the nobility. The cabriolet was very well sprung, and Holfort’s roads were very good within the capital itself.

Leon turned slightly, letting his knee press against hers and admiring the way she filled out the dress - even though it wasn’t all that revealing in the cold weather. “There’s a certain amount of support at the moment for changing the laws that allow a parent or guardian to take out loans in the name of their children.”

Green eyes flicked towards him. “Ah, you mean Lafan’s situation?”

“Indeed. She does have five young men with excellent connections willing to argue the case that the current laws are abusive. And being fair, it’s not doing the current economy any good.”

The treasury was entirely concerned with administering the crown’s finances. The idea of estimating the kingdom’s wealth and financial health was seen as rather impractical. At least Leon didn’t have to explain the basic concepts.

“I can see how it helps Lafan.” Her brow furrowed. “And the idea that father could, in theory, leave me heavily in debt without my having the slightest say in it, is horrifying. Not that he would. But how does that affect the kingdom’s economy?”

“A lot of these debts aren’t getting paid back, or at least not well. Which means lenders demand more interest and some households have borrowed far more money than they can realistically repay by spreading the borrowing across individual members.” Luxion didn’t have the capacity to gather detailed information on Holfort’s entire economy, but he was intended to support a fledgling colony so he was highly conversant with the principles and could extrapolate from a much smaller set of data. “From the crown’s point of view, the feudal nobles having heavy debts makes them less able to wage private wars - and borrowing isn’t inherently bad, but there’s a limit to what’s sustainable and if a significant number of the borrowers can’t repay what they owe then that could tear the guts out of the lenders.”

“That’s a grand concept, but be honest Leon: you’re doing this because it gets a girl out of trouble. Are you sure she hasn’t captured your heart?” Clarice sounded cheerful but there was a little edge of fear to her words. Understandably so.

Leon took her hand. “Did I ever tell you why I destroyed my father’s first wife?”

“She’d been cheating on him, hadn’t she?”

“She had, but that wasn’t why. I didn’t really care about that. Let’s face it, I exist because he wasn’t loyal to her either.” He lifted Clarice’s hand to his lips. “Have you ever heard of the Ladies of the Forest?”

The young woman frowned and then shook her head.

“A cabal of noblewomen who trade in the younger sons of noble households. The boys are married to rich widows in exchange for a financial payment. After they’re sexually abused and used up, the boys are sent to the royal army to die… and their widows collect yet another pension, with which to fund more young husbands. I believe, though I can’t prove it, that certain officers in the royal army are encouraged to see that, in victory or defeat, casualties among those youngsters are high.”

Clarice hissed. “I heard nothing of this.”

“Why would you? They’re from feudal domains far from the capital. Those boys don’t enter the academy. They don’t have friends or contacts that might wonder what happened to them.” Leon smiled coldly. “Zola was pitching me around to the other ladies of the forest. And my little brother was next.”

“Shit. Leon, I’m sorry.”

He shook himself slightly. “No, I’m not accusing you. Or blaming you. But you see… I don’t believe that children should be commodities. And isn’t that what the Lafans are doing? Selling their children’s future earnings to support themselves?”

Clarice reversed his grip on her hand and lifted his own to her lips, kissing it gently. “I’m surprised you’re not going after them.”

“I plan to. Pension reform would save the crown quite a substantial amount, it shouldn’t be a hard sell.”

“I meant them, personally.”

Leon made a face. “Even if I did go after the individuals, other people would just use the same loophole. In the long run, the only real solution is to fix the system. Which isn’t to say I won’t hit a target of opportunity. However, they also have support of their own. It means picking my moment. Whereas right now, there’s still a faction inside the Temple that want to believe Lafan is the Saintess’ heiress. That makes her a very useful figurehead to change the rules.”

“And just a figurehead?” Clarice asked. “I want to believe that but after… After Jilk.”

“I’m using her. She should benefit, which is generally how a good business deal works out. But I don’t want her. Not the way Jilk wants her - or the way she wants them, for that matter.” Leon smiled. “You know Julius was talking about the six of them just going off and settling their own island. That really might be for the best. They could well be happy doing that and they wouldn’t be bothering anyone else.”

She smiled a little viciously. “I kind of like the idea of them being exiled to the back of beyond. But it wouldn’t work. They’d starve to death within a month.”

“Now say that as if you don’t consider that a feature of the plan, not a flaw.”

Clarice gave him a little hug. “Maybe later. But how can I help?”

Leon returned the hug. “With which one?”

“Both. They are worthy causes. You do make a good point: however little I like Lafan, I can understand her wanting to find a young man that could take her away from her family. I wish it hadn’t been Jilk, but that’s beside the point. If no other girl is ever left that desperate, perhaps…” Clarice paused and shook her head.

Leon pulled her to him. “I like the idea of that. If you want to help, perhaps you could coach Katarina to convince the temple that she also supports a reform. There are significantly more of their leaders who want to claim her as the saintess’ heir and it would give the temple a common cause.”

“Appealing to their moderates,” she agreed. “I’ll talk to her tomorrow.”

The cabriolet pulled up outside a restaurant and by mutual but unspoken consensus the two teenagers put the topic aside in favour of happier thoughts.

-

There were two stacks of paperwork on the table in front of Leon Fou Bartford when Deirdre Fou Roseblade entered the student council offices. “Did you enjoy your tea party?” he asked, without looking up.

“Ha!” The blonde perched herself on the corner of the table, her uniform skirt riding up a little. “Jealous, are you?”

Leon finished up with the document in front of him and dropped it onto the completed stack. Then he set his pen down and started working his fingers to get the stiffness out of them as he looked at the drill-haired girl. “I hate to disappoint the many many girls fantasising about it, but I’m just not that into Nicol. He’s a nice guy, but there’s no spark.”

The girl pouted. “You know what I mean.”

“Yeah, I do.” He took another paper off the stack and started checking it. “Do you know what the difference is between envy and jealousy?”

“Lecture me.” She hopped off the table and drew back the chair facing him. A moment later she was sat across from Leon, elbows on the table and her hands supporting her chin.

Leon gave her an amused look. “Okay, but no naughty school girl and teacher fantasies.”

“No promises.”

“I suppose I shouldn’t expect any,” the boy sighed. “So. Envy is a desire to have that which others have. Jealousy is a desire to take it away from those others.”

“How is that different?” Deirdre asked. She drummed her fingers against her cheek.

Leon finished up checking the list of purchases he was looking at and initialled it. “Nicks and Dorothea are getting along pretty well.”

“And you see, that’s why you and I would be perfect.”

“Your reaction there is envy,” he told her. “You want a relationship like Dorothea’s. If you were jealous of her, you’d be trying to seduce my brother, not me.”

The blonde nodded. “So you’re not jealous of me having tea with Nicol.”

“Better you than Jenna. She’s not quite as shallow as she used to be, but yeesh. It’s a measure of degrees…”

“I’m almost insulted, you know.” Deirdre took a page from the stack. “I’ve known you longer than Clarice, but you turned to her and not me. What does she have that I lack?”

“I’d answer you, but then you might stop helping me with the dreaded paperwork.”

“Consider the answers a condition for my aid,” she told him. “I’m serious, Leon. I don’t want to come across as desperate, but I’m a little older than Nicol is and I don’t want to settle. I want a real man.”

Leon passed her a pen and looked at her for a moment. She did seem to be serious. “I guess I can’t blame you for having standards. And to be honest, it’s flattering that you say I measure up.”

“But I don’t meet yours?”

“Not yet, no. Maybe someday. You want a, what did you say? A real man? Fair enough. I’ve no business telling you what your standards should be. For that matter, while Julius and his crew treated their fiancees poorly, I’ve got absolutely no right to say that they should have stuck with them. It’s how they handled the matter I object to.” He met her blue eyes seriously. “I joke around, because I don’t think maturity requires me to be boring. But I am looking for a certain amount of maturity.”

“You know I’m older than Clarice, right?”

“Oh, is that why you’re a third year? I was wondering.” He shook his head. “Maturity is growing up, not growing older. It’s measured in life events, not years.”

Deirdre scribbled her initials on the next list. “So I don’t have a sufficiently tragic backstory for you?”

“Ouch.” He clutched his heart. “And that’s not exactly how I’d put it - although it’s not entirely wrong, either. How should I put it? I respect people who’ve been tested. Although I’m also shallow enough to admit that Clarice being pretty helps a lot. I’m not mooning over Lafan, after all.”

“By that logic, you respect her.”

“I do. I think she’s wrong, but she’s got a hell of a drive and I can see the logic behind what she did.”

Deirdre shook her head. “You’re a very strange man.”

“And yet you like me. I’m clearly doing something right. Also Clarice likes me - which is a little more important to me at the moment.”

“She’s not standing behind you,” Deirdre promised. “Although it would be very dramatic if she was.”

“Character is who you are in the dark, and fidelity involves being loyal when it’s hard. And god knows, relationships are work.”

“On that we agree.” The blonde sighed. “This is very frustrating. I’m almost tempted to ask Clarice if she wanted to share.”

“I like to think I’ll have a vote if you do.” Leon tapped his pen on the blotter, checking it still had ink in it. “Of course, you may find that men who rise to adversity qualify as real men. And I do think we’ve got some adversity coming up - you may be in luck.”

“How do you mean?”

“I was tried on charges of conspiring with Princess Hertrude to betray the kingdom to the principality,” he reminded her. “Of which I was innocent, as it happens. But that’s not to say she didn’t feel me out on the possibility, just that I declined.”

“Oh really, she didn’t offer you enough?”

“I suppose you could put it that way. I don’t think my family are particularly loyal to Holfort, most feudal lords probably aren’t. But they’re better than the alternatives and right now, I don’t like Fanoss’ chances.”

Deirdre looked disappointed. “So you chose the safe route.”

“Taking risks because they are risks is stupid. Take risks because the reward is worth it.”

“I see. But you think that they’ll come anyway. Even though Count Ascart negotiated an update to her father’s peace treaty with us?”

Leon shrugged. “I don’t think she has much choice. Fanoss’ lords are dominated by those who hate the treaty. If enough of them pressure her, she’ll have to renounce the treaty or face a revolt. And as an untested young leader, that would be quite a risk. War with Holfort is actually less of a risk for her - particularly if they strike first. I’ve recommended that my parents look at fortifying the county and making sure our levies are ready, because we could be in a great deal of trouble.”

The girl looked troubled. “Our domain isn’t particularly near to Fanoss, but I’d expect that my father would bring his levies to your support. Perhaps I should plan on visiting Dorothea there after I graduate. After all, if defending your mother’s lands doesn’t win me your gratitude…”

“Gratitude is one thing, romance is another. It’s really not a good idea to get them confused,” he counselled.

-

In the familiar role of royal herald, Viscount Marmoria finished reading out a decree from King Roland Rafa Holfort ordering stronger measures to deal with banditry in the outlying regions of the continent. The reports of armed robbery were increasing in numbers, and it was largely ascribed to elf contract servants being dismissed and joining the gangs for lack of another option.

Leon would have preferred a more humane option of just enlisting the elves in the royal army, or shipping them back to their home island and leaving them there in the hope that they’d create a less parasitic culture. What had been decided was that the crown would pay a bounty for elf ears for the next twelve months… although they’d heavily fine anyone attacking elves still in formal employment. Hopefully Kyle and Yumeria would be safe, Leon thought. He might need to take precautions - best to ask them.

However, the next announcement was the one that he and Count Atlee had been working towards. He saw movement at his side and two handsome dark-haired gentlemen came to stand next to Leon and the Count.

“Dan,” Bernard Fia Atlee greeted the man.

“Bernard.” Count Dan Fia Ascart nodded to Leon. “And the famous Lord Bartford again. Most young men your age make few appearances here.”

“Sir. Nicol.” Leon bowed towards them. “Are you here on business?”

“Familiarising Nicol with the court now that he’s close to graduation.” The younger of the two court counts (or at least Leon presumed that the dapper Count Ascart was younger than Atlee, genetics could be cruel) shrugged. “Are you looking for a position yourself?”

“It’s a thought. As with many things, it’s best to keep my options open. I’m barely sixteen.”

Viscount Marmoria formally accepted a scroll from the king, the touch of the royal hands having symbolically rendered the law a royal decree. “It is the pleasure of our most gracious King Roland Rafa Holfort to amend the loans and lending laws established by his distinguished grandfather King Astolfo the Second. Whereupon, it is deemed that the clauses permitting a regent to borrow upon the behalf of the lord for whom they are serving have been taken beyond their original intent by various lenders and borrowers…”

The legalese rolled on, but then reached the key point:

“...whereupon said clause is hereby amended that loans may be taken out in the name of the domain’s lord as a legal entity and not in the name of the specific holder of that domain. And furthermore that said loans must be countersigned by the current lord should they be at least fifteen years of age, and by the Minister of the Treasury if they are not, that due financial diligence be carried out.”

“Furthermore, the borrowing in the name of any individual not holding a lordship and lacking the age of fifteen is hereby deemed illegal in all regards; and said borrowing in the name of an individual not holding a lordship and lacking the age of eighteen is deemed illegal saving that they co-sign with witnesses to confirm they are doing so of their own accord and in full understanding.”

“And whereupon such loans are in effect as of this date, the liability for this abuse of KIng Astolfo’s laws is deemed to be shared equally between the lender and the guardian of the minor who has until now been deemed the borrower. That being the case, one half of the remaining outstanding balance and all future interest shall be the responsibility of the guardian.”

Leon clenched his fist. Yes! He’d been worried that that would be altered, but it had made it through the final review by the royal council - essentially the King and his chosen advisors. This wasn’t a parliamentary situation and the King could decree anything he wanted - as long as he could convince the lords that the law was bearable to them.

The viscount rolled the scroll up and handed it to the servant that would file it away and make sure that copies were made to be sent to all the necessary places.

King Roland rose to his feet. “It has been pointed out to me by my son that there is a captive in the royal dungeons, imprisoned for fraudulent loans claimed in her name by her legal guardians. By the measure of these amendments to our laws, justice may now more accurately be levied.”

Across the hall from him, Leon saw Julius push free to stand at the front of the crowd. His companions joined him, all eagerly watching the door to the throne room.

“Bring Lady Marie Fou Lafan, Viscount Alexander Fou Lafan and Viscountess Mavis Fou Lafan before me,” Roland ordered, and the doors swung open to reveal a sorry little trio - or rather, one pair and a singleton because Marie was pointedly staying as far from her parents as she could.

Alexander? Leon wondered if it was a coincidence that the viscount shared a name with that shady little bear.

Marie’s admirers brightened just at the very sight of her but for a wonder (and perhaps because Count Seberg and a couple of rather muscular royal guards were pointedly supervising them), they didn’t raise a ruckus.

The viscount and viscountess were dressed well, or at least gaudily. Leon wasn’t an expert in what was considered tasteful in current fashions, but if he assumed that the Ascarts were a good example then the Lafans missed the target quite considerably. Marie, he could excuse since she was still in her school uniform - which were probably the only presentable clothes that she had.

Marched to before the dais, each of the three dropped to one knee. Marie plucked at her skirt in a curtsey that wasn’t quite correct protocol but that did an excellent job of making her look cute and innocent.

Roland stroked his beard. “I have been required to spend quite a considerable amount of my limited time discussing the matter of your latest loan with the temple, Viscount Lafan. You have incurred their wrath, and my displeasure.”

“A simple misunderstanding, sire. It has been blown well out of proportion.”

“In any event,” the king continued. “I have declared today an amendment to our laws on borrowing. Stripped of legal verbiage - the good Viscount Marmoria can repeat it if you want - it is retroactively illegal for money to be borrowed in the name of anyone below the age of fifteen, and only legal for those below the age of eighteen if they countersign the loan with witnesses affirming that they are fully aware and willing to do so. Your daughter Marie is fifteen, I believe?”

“That’s right, sire.”

“Hard to believe, looking at her,” Roland mused.

“In point of fact,” Marmoria noted. “Lady Lafan is sixteen. It does not surprise me that Viscount Lafan has failed to remember his daughter’s birthday.”

“Is that so?” Roland asked the girl kneeling before him.

Marie nodded, looking fearful. “I’m sixteen, your highness.”

“You need not fear me, child. I am hardly an ogre. My son asserts that you are quite competent, and I am inclined to take his word for it. So, the question I must ask you is whether you are willing to co-sign the loan your parents took out. The loan that they reported as being guaranteed by the temple.”

“Of course she is,” the Viscountess declared. “Be a good girl, Marie.”

Leon could practically see Marie biting back ‘not a chance in hell’. But she didn’t break character. “Mother, I got locked in the royal dungeons because of that loan. Lady Beatrice at the temple wanted to burn me at the stake. I don’t think I should sign it.”

“Marie, listen to your mother and sign the loan.”

The little blonde girl looked at her parents, then looked at her lovers (who in a remarkable sign of financial prudence were all shaking their heads vigorously). “What if I don’t?”

“In that case,” King Roland explained to her. “This loan and any others in your name will be deemed illegal. The lenders will be required to forgive half of the loan for their own culpability and the rest will remain due to them but from your parents, not from you.” He paused. “Lady Lysia, what would the temple’s position be?”

A priestess stepped forwards. “The temple holds the loan to be an impious one. If Lady Lafan elects to accept responsibility for it then our original demands will stand. However, I believe the king’s judgement to be a wise one and if the fault does indeed rest with Viscount Lafan and his Viscountess then Lady Lafan is blameless and will receive our full apologies and reinstatement as a saint-candidate.”

“W-what would that mean for us?” asked Mavis Fou Lafan.

The priestess looked at her steadily and then smiled toothily. Leon shuddered. “I believe the temple elders are divided on whether the parents of a saint-candidate should be burned at stakes or if we should simply impale you both on stakes. And we would want custody until such time as a decision is reached.”

“Can I go now?” Marie asked hopefully.

Her father tried to grab hold of her, but she skipped back and now Chris and Greg stepped in, escaping their minders. The swordsman - unarmed for the royal court - pulled Marie back to the others while the viscount simply rebounded off the larger Greg.

Before anyone else could do anything, King Roland stepped forwards, his sceptre - having been on a cushion next to his throne - suddenly in his hand.

There was a solid clunk and Viscount Alexander Fou Lafan fell to the floor, bleeding from his scalp.

“This is my royal court,” the king declared flatly. “I appreciate the help, lads, but I can keep order here - and I will have it.”

Leon had to tip his hat to the king for that. It was a smooth move.

“Lady Lysia…”

The king’s next words would never be heard, for the doors burst open. “Your highness!” A man in herald’s garb dashed in. “I crave your pardon but I bring dire news.”

Roland gestured for silence with the sceptre. “Take them away,” he ordered casually, indicating the Lafans. “Alright, what’s so blastedly urgent?”

The herald - Lord Gilgamesh Fia Wulfenbach, who was learning his father’s trade - spoke clearly: “War, your highness! A courier vessel has arrived from the Field domain. Squadrons of warships from Fanoss bypassed the border lords and converged upon the Field stronghold.”

Leon heard a tsk from Count Ascart.

Count Atlee nodded. “We all suspected that the negotiations were to buy time, Dan.”

“I was hoping to buy more. We’re still reeling from so many disputed successions.” The elder Ascart glanced at his son. “You may be graduating directly into a war, Nicol.”

Count Seberg stepped out of the crowd. His domain was another of those not far from the Fanoss border. “How long can Tarquin hold out?”

The young Wulfenbach shook his head. “My lord count, the courier ship was still in view of Castle Field when the banner of Holfort fell.”

“That’s impossible!” The cry came from Brad Fou Field, standing next to Marie and Julius. “My father would never surrender to Fanoss!”

The herald held out his satchel towards the dais, ignoring the disinherited lordling. “The despatches were sent when the first reports had come in that the Field ships were unable to keep Fanoss from landing troops on the island,” he reported soberly. “I have not yet read them, but the verbal message from the courier says that Marquis Field’s ship was among those lost. His whereabouts and wellbeing are unknown.”

“You’re lying!” Brad moved forwards as if to assault the young herald, but fortunately Greg and Jilk caught hold of his arms and dragged him back before the royal guards. Heralds were by law as well as tradition, not to be mistreated. If the boy had done so, King Roland would have been forced to punish him severely. “You’re lying! It’s not true!”

Viscount Marmoria accepted the satchel of despatches from Wulfenbach. “Your highness, we must summon a war council and send words to call up the feudal lords.”

King Roland nodded in agreement. “I will read these dispatches with Count Seberg and Count Arclight, Francis. You know who to call for the council.” Then he turned to look in the direction of Count Ascart. “It seems that the recent negotiations were in ill-faith, Count Ascart.”

The count offered no excuse as he stepped forwards. “Quite.”

“I’ll want you to attend the council,” the king said pointedly. “There will likely be other reports on their way. The border lords being bypassed should leave them free to raid Fanoss’ supplies.”

But Leon saw the herald shake his head. “The Fanoss ships have towed a small island behind their fleet. It seems likely that they have loaded it with supplies.”

Disbelief was the initial reaction. “Is that even possible?” Nicol asked quietly. He’d prudently stayed out of the limelight as his father was called forwards by the king.

Leon nodded. “Expensive, but doable. Did you see the Fanoss ship that took their princess home? They’ve improved their ships over the last few years - and if they’re holding Field in force then they can use it as a base to secure their control over a sizable swathe of the kingdom.”

“Or as a springboard for attacks deeper into the kingdom.” Leon didn’t need a map, there was an ornate but functional one created as a mosaic on the wall of the throne room. The repeatedly ravaged north-west of the kingdom had few powerful lords. Taking out Marquis Field’s home - even if he had somehow survived - left ill-guarded routes open to strike at Marquis Hunt or Marquis Frampton.

At Count Seberg’s islands in the south - he ruled a network of small proximate islets rather than a single sizeable one - or the Bartford county in the north. Or, if the Fanoss ships were willing to risk everything, little but distance and time would stop them driving headlong at Holfort’s heartlands: the continent and the capital.
 
Last edited:

Bear Ribs

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Gotta love the king deciding to bust some heads personally for acting out in his court. We may need to revise the belief that Holfort has a weak king there.

The treasury was entirely concerned with administering the crown’s finances. The idea of estimating the kingdom’s wealth and financial health was seen as rather impractical. At least Leon didn’t have to explain the basic concepts.
I'm not quite sure what you're saying here but I think estimating is wrong and you meant another verb, it makes no sense as written.
 

Simonbob

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I'm not quite sure what you're saying here but I think estimating is wrong and you meant another verb, it makes no sense as written.
No, that works for me.

He's just saying that today's idea about what the treasury doesn't apply there.
 
Falling Facades 9-3

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 3

Revenge is like a ghost. It takes over every man it touches. Its thirst cannot be quenched until the last man standing has fallen. ~ Vladmir Makrov​

The small private dining room of the Redgrave’s mansion in the capital had happy memories for Angelica Rafa Redgrave. When her mother was alive, intimate family gatherings where ceremony could be set aside had been the norm.

But since then, her father had more often eaten with his officers and vassals in the larger dining hall. Her brother Gilbert had been away at the academy, at war or out on the adventurer’s never-ending quest to recover treasures of the old world in dungeons and islands well out of reach of easy contact. And Angelica, when it the capital, had been attached to the queen’s household much of the time - serving her as a maid, learning the skills that she’d been expected to need in a future that… wouldn’t happen now.

But today dinner was served for the three Redgraves in private. Plates set upon the table, wine bottles left in ice… and even the servants withdrew. Angelica’s father cast spells that should ensure they could not be overheard, her brother did the same and even she added a layer to the protections - as redundant as they likely were.

Vince Rafa Redgrave poured wine into his children’s glasses, then his own. They all raised them in silent toast to the portrait of the late duchess before drinking.

Setting his wine down, the duke began to eat mechanically, his attention not on the food but on his children. “We may not have a chance to eat like this again, so I wanted to take the opportunity.”

Angelica swallowed, though her first forkful of food wasn’t even in her mouth yet. She lowered it slightly. “The war with Fanoss?”

He nodded, but it was Gilbert who responded. “The east is quiet for now - unlike much of our southern borders. Either Fanoss’ diplomats had been spreading encouragement or our other neighbours are alert and simply taking advantage. Either way, the feudal lords of the south won’t be able to send much to help defeat the invasion.”

Vince nodded in agreement. “We’re not on such good terms with the crown as we were, but Roland’s not the sort of fool to put that first. He’s offered me the red admiralty and command of as much of the royal forces as can be assembled on short notice.”

“And you accepted, of course.”

“Of course.” He cut deeply into the pork on his plate. “It’s too important to be bungled. The young princess might have ordered this, but she won’t be the military commander. I’d expect Viscount Darian or perhaps Lord Kosigan to serve as her admiral. Experienced men. Leaving this to some blowhard who only knows how to run up a butcher’s bill invites disaster.”

She ate, chewed. Swallowed, but tasted nothing. “I heard a rumour at the academy that some of the royal army’s officers are encouraged to sacrifice their men, to generate more pensions for the widows.”

Gilbert looked like he wanted to spit. “A battle won by wit and skill will have the monarch’s thanks. But win a battle by throwing men at the enemy until they choke and you will have banquets in your honour and donatives for silver platters and the like - to honour your hard-fought victory. There’s nothing official to it, but the sentiment is there.”

Vince nodded. “It’s true.”

“Why does no one do anything about it then!”

Her father arched a brow. “Because most of the feudal lords don’t want the crown to be too strong, and the royal army is one of the pillars of that. The crown don’t like it, but they need to keep recruiting fighting men so that they don’t become too weak and the pensions are popular. And it’s not as if they can outlaw giving gifts. Mind you, if Roland doesn’t want to ruin the treasury fighting Fanoss, he may have little choice but to reform the pensions. At least with Atlee there it could work now.”

“I heard Lord Bartford mention the idea while talking to Clarice Fia Atlee,” she admitted.

“That boy has his fingers in too many pies for a sixteen year old.” Vince gave Gilbert an amused look. “Prince Gerald was being talked about as the next ace to come out of the academy, who expected Bartford? A year ago, could you have even found their barony on a map?”

“I might have needed a magnifying glass,” the younger man conceded. “But adventurers can come from anywhere. Centuries back, someone probably said much the same about Holfort and his merry band.”

“Point.” Vince mopped his beard slightly with his napkin, then sipped from his wine glass. “If I were looking to set you up with someone, Angelica, someone like him would be who I looked at first - not the young Claes. Not that Luigi’s little foundling doesn’t have potential, but Bartford has drive.”

Angelica looked away. “I wouldn’t do that to Clarice.”

“They aren’t married yet,” her father reminded her. “I’d not suggest making an enemy of the Atlees by trying to break the two of them up, but if things do go amiss with their courting… Well, just think about it. Imagine yourself in her shoes: do you think you’d be happy?”

“I don’t know.”

He waved his fork. “No, you misunderstand me. Don’t decide now. Think about it. It may help you to work out what or who you want to marry someday. There will be other young men rising up. War does that - it kills boys but forges men.”

She nodded. Her and Leon? Some of his public displays of affection with Clarice came to mind and she felt heat in her cheeks. The girl picked up her wine and tried to hide her embarrassment behind it. “How long do you think it will be until Fanoss strikes at someone else?”

“I hope not to give them the chance,” the duke told her. He set his cutlery down and folded his hands beneath his chin. “Giving them the initiative would be a costly mistake for us. There are too many possible things for them to do. They could clear out the border lords, strike north or south to offer other lords the chance to side with them or be burned out… So as soon as I have a sufficient fleet together, I’ll be leading them to retake Marquis Field’s island and that flying island that they brought. Without that, the invasion will be far less of a threat.”

Angelica looked at her brother, who nodded in agreement. “I hope you’re right, father. I’ve met Princess more recently than you have and I honestly didn’t get the impression that she hated us enough to lead such an invasion. If I missed that then I don’t know what else we’ve missed.”

“The best thing to deal with a clever scheme is to break it apart by brute force,” Gilbert admitted. “That’s the other reason that King Roland can’t just purge every officer who gets a lot of his men killed. Sometimes that’s the best of a bad set of options.”

“The other advantage of striking first and hard is that I won’t have Frampton and Dieke sticking their oar in,” their father added with a smirk. “They’re dragging their feet about having their levies ready now that they know that they’d be putting them under my command. If I have my way, anyone listening to their bellyaching won’t know my fleet’s on the move until it’s been underway for a while.”

“Can’t they just count the ships in harbour?” asked Angelica, curiously.

“No, the fleet will need to practise sailing in formation together. I’ll take them out for that a few times and then on one occasion, when any spies think I’m still waiting for the rest of the levies, we’ll be off to Field.” He looked at her seriously. “Don’t tell anyone that, Angelica. Not even your closest and most trusted friends.”

“Don’t worry, father.” She made a face. “After my last so-called friends decided that supporting me was too much trouble, I’ve been a lot more careful in who I talk to. Most of them will understand if I say I can’t talk about anything military, and those who don’t won’t have a good reason.”

Gilbert tapped his plate with his fork for emphasis. “It’s better if they don’t ask at all. The easiest secrets to keep are the ones no one knows exist.”

Vince nodded in agreement. “But let’s talk about other things. Readying the fleet will have Gilbert and I busy… tell us about these new friends of yours, Angelica. I did a horrible job of arranging support for you at the academy, at least I should know who I would have been better introducing you to.”

Angelica forced herself to bring her mind up to happier topics. Katarina’s face came to mind and so she started by revealing the great vegetable garden scandal.

-

“Have we had this conversation before?” Leon asked suspiciously, looking at the three boys who’d interrupted his breakfast. “It feels like we’ve had this conversation before, Julius.”

The prince flushed slightly. “I’d like to think that I can learn from my mistakes.”

“So would I.” He dropped his spoon into his bowl and stretched. “What got you involved in this, Lloyd? You’re usually more sensible than this.”

The general class student with Julius and Chris stiffened. “I’m not the only one doing this, Lord Bartford.”

“Obviously.” His eyes flicked to the prince and the swordsman.

“No, I mean from the general class.” Lloyd met Leon’s gaze seriously. “Yulia and I want to marry, but her father’s a court baron. If I want to be worthy of her, I’ve got to earn some distinction before we graduate.”

It was stupidly early, but that was one of the many problems with the stupid system of marriage in Holfort.

“You realise she can’t marry you if you’re dead, right?” Leon asked. “Even if it wasn’t technically necrophilia. And that is the most likely outcome of a bunch of kids that haven’t even finished their education going up against experienced knights. Even if they don’t kill you outright, most of you won’t be worth any sort of ransom.”

“This is our kingdom,” Julius snapped. “How can we call ourselves men of Holfort if we’re not willing to fight for its future?”

The dark-haired young man shrugged. “My answer hasn’t changed since you asked me along on your treasure-hunting jaunt. How did that go for you?”

Chris caught hold of Julius’ arm. “We all came back alive from that, Lord Bartford. Safely.”

“...I suppose I can recognise that at least,” he allowed. “War is considerably more dangerous though.”

Julius pulled free from his friend. “That’s why I’m asking that you lead us.”

Leon paused. Had he heard that right? “You want to form a squadron of students to join Duke Redgrave’s fleet and you’re asking me to take charge.”

“I’m not exactly his favourite person. And… I am forced to admit that you have a point about expecting co-leadership to work.”

“I can agree with the first point.” He paused. “And I’m not your favourite person either. What’s pushing you hard enough that you’re prepared to put yourself under my command? Because make no mistake: if I am in command then I will command. I’ll hear out your opinions if there’s a reasonable opportunity, but if I order you to jump, then any questions will be asked from mid-air.”

“May we sit down?” asked Chris.

Leon looked at the table and then around the dining hall. They were getting a fair bit of attention, he supposed. “Go ahead.”

The other three took seats facing him. Chris took a deep breath. “There are two reasons that we’re trying to organise this.”

Biting back several witticisms, Leon nodded.

“Firstly, Brad’s going to join the war if he has to do it alone. His entire family is missing or dead. If he goes alone… well, I know you don’t think much of us but he’s our friend. We don’t want him getting killed trying to fight Fanoss alone.”

“I wouldn’t find you so frustrating if you didn’t come so close to deserving my respect.” He picked up his glass. “Alright. Brad. I suppose I can’t really expect you to keep him locked up indefinitely for his own safety. What’s your other reason.”

“Marie.”

“...if you tell me that she wants you to go to war then we are done here.”

Chris shook his head. “No. She’s not really happy with it. But the thing is, even with her parents locked up, she’s still a Lafan. Her brother has taken over governing their family’s lands and he can insist she go home once the school year is over. I don’t get the impression that it’s going to go well.”

Leon frowned. That was a problem, and one he hadn’t considered. Damn. “And how does getting into the war help you with that?”

“We can’t afford to marry her.”

“It’s kind of late to realise that,” he shot back and then regretted it. “Alright, that was too much. I’m sorry.”

“Apology accepted,” Julius said, rather insincerely. “She’s still a viscount’s daughter, right now we’re not even knights. But if at least one of us can distinguish himself enough to be granted a landholding as a baronet or baron, they can marry her. Her brother wouldn’t have any grounds to refuse a war hero, not when their parents are disgraced.”

“I’m not inclined to underestimate people’s wilful stupidity,” Leon told them. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned here, it’s that.” He rubbed his forehead. “If I refuse, you’re going to go ahead anyway, aren’t you?”

He got three nods.

“I don’t suppose anyone has the contact details for the Masked Knight of Holfort? If Vandel Him Zendel is involved, I’m going to be honest: I don’t like our chances.”

Chris and Lloyd shook their heads, a moment later Julius did the same. Leon wondered if anyone else noticed that hesitation.

“I’ll talk to Duke Redgrave, but that’s all I’ll promise,” he offered after a moment’s thought. “Even if he agrees to take us, I’ll be praying that we don’t wind up in a situation where great heroism is called for. That usually means that everything has gone horribly wrong.”

I can’t believe I’m going along with this, but at least if I’m there maybe I can keep some of you alive.

-

“I can’t say that I’d expected to have such an offer made.” Vince Rafa Redgrave looked tired - the result of late nights wrangling with quartermasters and the shipyards, when he had to devote daylight eyes to working the lords and knights that made up his forces into something resembling order. “Nor is it really welcome. If there is anything I’m not short of, it’s ill-equipped and ill-disciplined troops.”

Leon nodded. “Unfortunately, I believe their resolution is sincere. And better to have them along and under some degree of control than blundering in and potentially causing a disaster.”

The duke growled deep in his throat. “Holfort’s idiot offspring would do that, wouldn’t he?”

“The temple has agreed to give him access to the same skyship they did before. And some of the other students are on better terms with their families, who have made a few older and smaller ships available. So he’d have the capacity to operate on his own if he decided to.”

“I dislike having my hand forced, Lord Bartford.”

Spreading his hands, Leon let the man think for a moment.

“You’re more closely associated with the Stuarts than with young Holfort and his friends,” Redgrave said at last. “Are they involved?”

“They were invited,” Leon admitted. “But thankfully their brother still has influence over them and he forbade it.”

“If only other youngsters were so easily restrained.”

Somehow, Leon wasn’t sure that it was Prince Julius that the duke had in mind with that comment.

“How many ships are you looking at?”

“Six including my own and the temple’s. Nine knight-armours, although their condition isn’t wonderful.” In particular, Greg and Jilk’s knight-armours hadn’t really been fully restored since their duels months ago. Their families certainly hadn’t been inclined to help and Leon was very conscious of the recollection he had from the books, of the group cobbling parts from damaged knight-armours into a single unit that had been actively hazardous to the knight riding in it. He’d have to ask Luxion to check for such flaws if he was going to take responsibility for the group.

Redgrave gave him a measuring look. “I won’t throw inexperienced troops into battle if I can avoid it. They’d be slaughtered. I know you have a little more experience than most knights your age, but we won’t be facing mere sky-pirates.”

Leon nodded. “I know some of them are dreaming of a glorious victory. I’d be satisfied with getting them home alive. If any of them try to rush off in search of personal glory, I’ll shut them down. I’ve already told them that I insist that they accept that they’re subject to my orders. I’d like to say I’ll comb out the least competent and disciplined, but I may not have time for that… and arguably I don’t have the experience either.”

“Your honesty is appreciated. If I could afford to assign experienced knights to you, I’d consider that but I’m short of both.” The older man combed at his beard with his fingers. “I’m taking the fleet out for another training exercise in four days. Can you have this squadron ready by then?”

Leon had already known that schedule from having a drone spying on the duke’s headquarters. Truly you had to spy on your allies as much as your enemies during a war. “It’ll be tight for one of the ships, but I can have five crewed and ready to leave port by then. If I promised that they’d be ready to fight as a single force by then, I’d be lying.”

Redgrave scowled. “I’ll test that, but have them ready to join the fleet. Not all the levies have arrived so far, but I’ll have your squadron posted to escort our supply ships and the transports for our ground troops. We’ll see how you handle that. It’s a necessary job and it’ll free up better ships and crews for the fighting.”

“I’ll keep them in line.”

“You’d better. I’ll be keeping you under military discipline,” the duke told him. He walked to the door of the office. “Gilbert!”

A few moments later, a handsome man in his twenties entered. “Father?”

“This is the Lord Bartford who has kindly volunteered to bring a few ships to join our fleet. Lord Bartford, my son Gilbert.”

“Sir Gilbert.” Leon guessed that the man would prefer the title he’d earned as a knight rather than the lordship he’d been born to.

From the slight smile, he guessed he was right. Then again, the bone-breaking grip as they shook hands might have been a mark of less fondness. “Lord Bartford. I’ve heard much of you from my sister. Thank you for the help you’ve given her. A few more ships with your family’s forces will be welcome.”

“Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple.” His father outlined the situation.

“Disappointing,” the younger Redgrave concluded. He looked back at Leon. “Are you trying to get them all killed?” From his tone it wasn’t clear if he disapproved of that as a goal.

“I’d rather they were under some degree of control rather than blundering around on their own.” He shrugged. “I can understand their reasons for wanting to prove themselves at war. Hopefully seeing combat from the rear, the way I did at Olfrey, will shake them of the idea of easy glory.”

“Even if this is just a training exercise, it’s not impossible we might run into Fanoss ships,” Gilbert observed with a glance at his father. “You understand what’ll be expected of you?”

Leon ticked off what he figured to be the priorities to be on the fingers of one hand. “Obey orders from the flagship. Keep the ships we’re escorting safe. Keep my idiots under control. If all else fails, get my squadron home as intact as possible.”

“God, I wish Beaudon could be that concise and on point,” muttered the younger blond. “Your father seems to have a knack for raising sensible boys.”

“Don’t say that to him unless he’s sitting down. As far as he’s concerned, we’re all damned fools.”

“All fathers see their sons like that,” Vince observed crisply. “Alright. Since I’m pulling the other escorts into the divisions of the main fighting fleet, I’ll issue you a commodore’s pennant. It’ll put you on par with your father’s flotilla within the rearguard - but you’re very much the low man among the commodores. Don’t expect to give orders to anyone outside your own force.”

“Count Seberg is my vice-admiral, leading the van. Don’t expect to be socialising with him or your father. In fact, given you’ve Seberg’s son with you, stay as far from the other officers as you can. It’ll be bad for discipline to see him brawling with his father. But if anything happens to me, command goes to Seberg and then to Count Roseblade with the rear guard.”

Leon nodded. As admiral of the red, Duke Redgrave’s flag would fly with the main fleet. The vice admiral of the red, as second in command, led the division at the front of the fleet, while the rear admiral of the red led the rearmost division. The flags were traditional, held by the crown except in war, for the bearers had theoretical authority over all forces in a given war. Only the direst of emergencies would see admirals of more than one colour assigned to fight the same enemy.

“If all three of us are out of action, don’t worry about the chain of command,” Redgrave continued. “If that happens then the situation’s so far sideways you’d do better to focus on getting your charges back to port than worrying about anyone else’s orders.”

It seemed a little paranoid for a training exercise, but Leon supposed that you trained the way that you intended to fight.

-

They’d been a few hours out from the continent when Leon was called aboard Duke Redgrave’s flagship and told that the training exercise was a sham. To seize the initiative and hide that fact for as long as possible, only a handful of officers had been told before now that the fleet was embarking directly for the occupied Field island.

Experienced sergeants from the footsoldiers aboard the transports had been assigned to help manage the crews of Leon’s little squadron - which was appreciated. Beyond that, Leon had been kept busy dealing with more material failures and taking what time he had to drum it into the students how to work together. He hoped that this would deter any of them from rushing off in a lone attempt to seize glory.

And now one of the sergeants was calling him over to the temple skyship. There were only a few hours before they came into view of their objective. If the Fanoss fleet wasn’t entirely blind, they could be in battle on very little notice.

“Let me know the minute you see any sign of Fanoss’ forces,” he requested as he mounted his new airbike.

“I’ll be sure to do so,” Luxion assured him. “I would prefer that you return before we find ourselves in battle. The prospect for collateral damage as the new humans kill each other is unfortunately high while you are aboard inferior vessels.”

“I’m not eager to die either.”

The wind whistled past him as he crossed the gulf between Dreadnought and the relative minnows of the rest of his little force.

The decks of the skyship were crowded, with sailors checking and rechecking weapons, rigging and every other fixture. But they made room as he landed the airbike in as little space as he could on the quarterdeck. “Permission to come aboard?”

The captain saluted professionally. He was a temple-knight, disciplined enough to give no sign of resenting being placed under the control of a privileged child. Which was what Leon was, a thought that kept him up at night. “Granted. Thank you for coming over, commodore.”

“This must be quite the problem, if you need my presence.” Please don’t let the prince’s merry morons have had a ‘good idea’.

“We have a stowaway, sir. She’s been hiding in the stores and only coming out at night, one of the crew caught her pilfering food in the small hours. He thought for a moment the ship was haunted.”

“...as tempted as I am to suggest throwing this stowaway over the side, I take it that it’s not just some urchin trying to get out of the capital?”

The temple-knight coughed to cover a laugh. “No sir. But the crew don’t like it. You know,” (meaning that he doubted Leon did) “how superstitious sailors can be. And she’s of rank so your proposed solution would be…”

Leon pinched the brow of his nose. “Just tell me it’s not Lady Lafan. I give you special permission to lie if necessary.”

“I won’t require that permission, sir. It’s not Lady Lafan. She’s… Well, the lady in question is in my cabin.” The captain led Leon down to the main stern cabin, which revealed among other things that he hadn’t surrendered his quarters to Prince Julius and his coterie. That was fine by Leon but wondered how well the boys had taken it. Perhaps they hadn’t even asked for it, which would be a welcome sign of maturity from them.

And, to be fair, not unprecedented. It wasn’t so simple as pigeon-holing them as spoiled brats.

Speaking of brats though…

“Hello Leon!” Sophia greeted him with a broad smile the moment the door opened. “Where are my brother and Lady Katarina? I’ve come to join the adventure!”

Leon took the door handle and slammed the door shut again rather than entering. Then he rested his forehead against it for a moment.

“Commodore?”

“I need a moment.” He counted to ten in three different languages, then opened the door again.

Sophia was still there, although she now looked offended. “What was that for?”

“What the hell are you doing here?”

“I came to join Lady Katarina’s adventure,” the albino girl declared again. “It’s my turn and big brother’s. Can I go and join them now?”

“...how good are you at swimming?”

“I don’t understand,” the girl admitted, honestly.

“To the best of my knowledge, Katarina and Nicol are still in Holfort,” Leon told her stiffly, biting back insults that came to mind. “Probably frantic with worry for you. What in the world led you to believe that you should come here? This isn’t an adventure, it’s a war fleet! I can’t turn a ship around and send it home with you! We’re going into battle!” He took a deep breath and realised his voice had been rising sharply.

Calm, he reminded himself. I have to remain calm. A commander has to look calm for his men.

Sophia shook her head. “But this has to be an adventure. You and Mary had an adventure with her on the school trip, then there was the Keith getting abducted thing! It’s our turn!”

Leon was about to ask what was wrong with her. Then something seemed to crawl up his spin and he asked himself that question more seriously. What was wrong with her? Sophia was a bit sheltered, but she wasn’t this naive.

“Thank you for bringing this to my attention, captain,” he told the temple-knight. “I’ll take her back to the Dreadnought with me. My crew won’t mind one girl - particularly if she’s locked up for her own safety.”

“You can’t lock me up! I need to join Lady Katarina!”

Leon turned his head very slowly back to Sophia.

“Master, as amusing as this is, you asked to be told when Fanoss ships were in view. They’re beginning to crest the horizon. I assume that the merely human lookouts should notice them eventually.”

“I’ll show you to Katarina’s room,” he told the girl and extended his hand, wondering if she was tracking the conversation at all.

She eyed him dubiously. “You just said you’d lock me up.”

“Once you’re in her room, why would you want to leave?”

Sophia accepted Leon’s reasoning and accepted his hand.

“Thank you, sir,” the captain said.

Leon nodded and once on deck looked ahead to the north-west. He saw nothing, but wasn’t inclined to doubt Luxion. “Get your men fed and watered,” he ordered quietly. “I expect we’ll be seeing battle today. Whether or not we’re involved directly is another matter.”

Greg and Brad had arrived at his airbike before he got there. “Where did she come from?” the purple-haired young man asked bluntly. Being perhaps the last of the Field household was obvious wearing upon him.

“If you don’t know that, Lafan will probably find you very boring in bed,” Leon told him, mounting the airbike. “Get on, Sophia.”

“I don’t suppose you brought her brother along?” asked Greg. He was a little more serious than usual, although he was still posing with his favourite spear held at a jaunty angle. “Or Claes? Another mage or knight along wouldn’t hurt.”

Leon shook his head and felt Sophia wrap her arms around him. “Don’t do anything foolish today,” he reminded the duo. “It’s possible to get killed even in a victorious battle.”

“You think it’ll be today, then?”

Looking ahead again, Leon could pick out signal flags on the masts of the warships in the lead. “Yeah. It’ll be today.”

Before the conversation could go further, he kicked the airbike throttle open and rocketed up and off the deck, heading for the reassuring bulk of the Dreadnought. At seven hundred metres it dwarfed all the transports combined, to the point he’d been asked if there was room for the soldiers aboard. Fortunately, his answer: that there was not, had been accepted without question. It was technically not true - the hangar was cavernous - but even that wouldn’t house all that many and Luxion would have thrown a fit.

He flew the airbike one handed, using the other to hold Sophia’s arms just in case she let go. “Luxion, hoist a signal to the squadron - enemy in sight.”

“Who are you talking to?” Sophia asked.

“My familiar,” he told her, and then somewhat cruelly. “Someone who’s helping me, not making my life more difficult.” Banking the airbike, he skimmed the side of the Dreadnought, arching up over the rail of the forward deck and bringing it down to land almost up against the bulkhead that marked the front of the quarters aboard.

“I’m here to help!” the girl protested.

“Really? How?” Leon asked her sardonically. “I’m commanding a squadron of children, who think battle is all glorious deeds rather than death and pain. The enemy just crossed the horizon. And now I have a stowaway who’s demoralised one of my crews just by her presence. Please tell me how you’re going to help.”

The girl seemed to have no real answer.

“Luxion,” he asked the ceiling as he led Sophia aboard. “Do you have any way to check Sophia for dark magic?”

“I would need her to be in the lab,” the AI replied through his ear piece.

Leon threw a door open. “Lady Katarina’s room,” he declared, ushering Sophia past.

She looked at the bunkroom, clearly unoccupied. “Where is she?”

“This is where she stayed when she was aboard to rescue Keith.” Leon put his hands on his hips. “This isn’t a romance novel, Sophia. This isn’t an adventure. This is serious. And your brother and your best friend aren’t here, because they apparently have the sense that god gives even to horses.” He didn’t add ‘unlike you’, but the temptation was there.

Then he closed the door and locked her inside.

-

Compared to the speed Dreadnought was capable of, the war fleets seemed to creep towards each other. Duke Redgrave had turned his fleet to the left, forming a wall of ships that was inching towards the similar formation of their counterparts, both sides trading speed for keeping their main batteries aimed at each other.

“The Fanoss fleet is outnumbered,” Luxion reported, displaying the battlefield on the screen of the navigation bridge. “However, the edge in numbers is offset by their incremental advantages in quality.”

Leon watched the display. His own flotilla was well to the rear, out of range of cannon fire from the enemy fleet. “We’re in range for the Dreadnought’s cannon, aren’t we?”

“Correct.” The AI projected lines across the screen. “If they close to typical point-blank engagement range, we could even shoot through Duke Redgrave’s fleet to do so, inflicting severe losses on both sides.”

“This is just one fleet,” the boy observed. “Even if Fanoss wins, the Holforts can field at least another this large before they’re risking serious instability. The losses would grind down Fanoss until they’d be too weak to defend themselves from their own neighbours. They must have some kind of trump card in reserve.”

“Military strategy broadly favours holding such weapons or tactics in reserve until the decisive moment.”

“Yeah… let’s see how this develops before we do anything more than play escort.”

A blinking light, marking a ship in the vanguard - now the left flank - of the Holfort fleet began to close more rapidly with the enemy.

“It would seem that not everyone in the kingdom’s fleet is as patient as you, master.”

“That fool. Who is it?”

The screen switched to a much magnified view of the vessel in question. “Viscount Bourdon’s ship,” the AI reported.

Leon read the signal flags flying from the masts. “Engage the enemy more closely? He’s not in command of any other ships, is he?”

“Not according to the organisation charts you’ve shown me. Count Seberg’s flagship is flying instructions to maintain formation.”

“Which he’s ignoring.” He shook his head. “Well, I did warn Jenna that he was an idiot.”

Guns began to fire from the Fanoss fleet - rather heavier guns than those typically mounted aboard the Holfort vessels. Normally the larger number of guns per ship would offset most of that advantage, but right now Bourdon was advancing alone and several enemy warships were able to catch him in a crossfire.

“Pull back the view,” Leon ordered quietly.

Luxion complied, bringing Seberg’s division of ships into view. Some were wavering, but there was a puff of gunfire from the flagship. Not weapons fire, a signal gun to emphasise the last instruction.

The ships of the division steadied, none going after Bourdon. It couldn’t have been a popular decision, but at least discipline was holding.

Leon didn’t watch closely as Bourdon’s ship was blasted into wreckage, signals appealing for support raised up the aft mast only moments before the entire mast was reduced to splinters.

But nor did he look away. Not until the once-proud warship’s suspension stone shattered and it plunged thousands of feet to the ocean below.

“The price of idiocy,” he said flatly. “Good men died following that fool.”

“The Fanoss ships are opening the distance,” warned Luxion.

The young man blinked. “They’re what?” He glanced out the window, checking his own squadron. While a few knight-armours had launched, none were rushing off so he wasn’t minded to reprimand them. Then he looked back at the screen. “When did they start that?”

“As nearly immediately after Bourdon’s vessel showed signs of fatal damage.”

Leon chewed his lips. “They’re probably switching their plans. At a guess they hoped that the fleet would break formation and engage in a melee. That could have favoured them. But since we didn’t cooperate, except for one idiot, and not even to save that moron… they’re looking for something else.”

Luxion sounded confident. “A trap.”

“Yeah.” He shook his head. “And Duke Redgrave has no choice but to spring it. Are you seeing any sign at all of other Principality vessels?”

Luxion paused before replying. “Not vessels as such, but we are now in sight of the island that the Fanoss fleet towed across the border. If the enemy continues to withdraw, they will eventually be forced to fight for it.”

“How long do we have for that?”

“Some hours unless one side or the other begins a decisive engagement.”

“So we’ll be worn down. Joy.” He couldn’t even stand down his own squadron, in case of a surprise attack. “What’s the situation with Sophia?”

“After a brief period of hysterics, Lady Ascart fell asleep on the bunk that she assumed to be Lady Katarina’s. Her reasoning was verbalised and in error.”

Leon nodded and headed for the case where he stored the dart guns. “Right. Well, keep me alerted in case something changes… but right now I’m going to be a creep and take her down to the lab while she’s asleep. Whatever’s going on with her, she’s not behaving normally.”
 
Falling Facades 9-4

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 4

A hundred-year-old revenge still has its baby teeth. ~ Italian Proverb​

Sophia blinked herself awake in the medical lab, Leon watching her.

“Leon?” she asked. “What are you doing in my… this isn’t my bedroom. Where’s Lady Katarina?”

“I suppose no one would find it suspicious that she’s the first thing on your mind,” he told her. “You’re in the medical room of the Dauntless. Someone used dark magic on you.”

The white-haired girl gave him a puzzled look. “What? Like Keith?”

She was at least somewhat rational. “Not exactly. More like what happened to Selena. I’ve got a dark magic detector, but it’s rather cumbersome and I can’t tell what exactly’s been done, but you’re not rational right now.”

“But, I know exactly what I’m doing,” she protested. “I need to see my brother and Lady Katarina!”

“Then tell me, why did you stow away on a ship heading directly away from them?”

“They were going on an adventure and I didn’t want to be left behind!”

Leon sighed. “Maybe they are, but if so they’re not around here and it’ll take days to get you home to see if that’s the case. Can I at least look for you to behave until then?”

“Why wouldn’t I?” she asked, sitting up. She seemed quite relieved to learn that she was still dressed. “How would someone use dark magic on me? Why would they do that?”

He was about to tell her that he could only guess, but Luxion cut in. “Master, you asked to be alerted on new developments. The Holfort fleet is about to reach the enemy flying island. The Fanoss fleet appears to plan on fighting above it.”

Biting back a curse, Leon turned and strode out the door, heading for the navigation bridge. “The only thing that comes to mind is that they’ve got the entire thing rigged with some heavy cannon or the like to knock skyships out of the sky.”

“Such engineering would be just barely attainable within observed magic and technology,” the AI conceded. “However, the limitations would likely render it of limited tactical value.”

“Wait!” Sophia called after him, scrambling out of the room. “Why are you just walking off?”

“Could be anything,” Leon grumbled. “Could you just destroy the island, Luxion?”

“Yes.”

“Why are you ignoring me?” the girl panted as she trotted after him. “I’m sorry to have gotten into your adventure, but it was an accident! You never complain about the others joining in.” The wind dragged at her dress and hair as they walked around the edge of the ship. The interior passages were all locked off to hide the ship’s engineering from passengers.

“Luxion, that was a bit too quick,” Leon muttered as he climbed the open stair connecting the decks of the skyship. “What aren’t you telling me?”

“...secondary effects would likely destroy all skyships in the vicinity,” the AI declared almost happily. “Only yourself and your current passenger would survive.”

“And without that?”

“Nuclear warheads are not particularly discriminate,” Luxion admitted. “While destroying the island’s suspension stones remains possible without them, the time taken would be impractical for a tactical scenario.”

Leon shook his head. “Denied.” He looked back at Sophia. “We’re about to go into battle. I’ll let you watch, but don’t touch anything unless I tell you it’s okay.”

“Thank you!”

“You may not thank me when you see it.” Leon entered the bridge and ushered her in, quietly closing and locking the door behind the girl as she looked around, fascinated. “Status report, Luxion?”

“Your squadron has prepared their ships for action. Knight armours have been recalled and all except for Seberg and Field have had at least an hour’s rest,” Luxion reported.

Leon nodded and walked to the front of the room, staring out of the windows at the two fleets up ahead.

“Leon, where are your crew?” Sophia asked curiously.

“Out of sight,” he replied.

She clutched at her hair, defensively and he sighed. Right, she has a complex about that because of idiots. Sophia’s albinism had left her stigmatised as a ‘cursed child’ because the gossip-hungry harpies of the capital’s noble society had seized on it as something to criticise the Ascarts over.

“It’s not your hair. Stowaways are unlucky, and dark magic is doubly so. It’s easier to avoid conflict if they avoid you.”

“Won’t that make it harder to command your ship?”

“Not really,” he said and then squinted at the sight of signal flags being raised. “Luxion, what’s being signalled?”

“Signal from the flagship,” the AI declared from the bridge speakers. “All ships prepare for action. Troop transports prepare to land soldiers.”

“He’s being aggressive,” Leon noted. Landing troops before the enemy fleet was driven back would be risky, but it increased the chances of them standing and fighting for the chance to stop the enemy landing. “Alright, repeat that ‘troop transports’ signal along with ‘maintain formation on the flagship’. And take us up to half-speed.”

“Just half-speed?” asked Sophia.

“Dreadnought is the fastest ship in the fleet,” he told her matter-of-factly. “One last warning, Sophia. If they don’t surrender then this is going to get really ugly. You may not want to be watching.”

“I’m not a child, Leon Fou Bartford,” Sophia declared, hands on her hips. She was about as fearsome as a particularly yappy terrier. “I’ve -”


“Dark magic!” Luxion exclaimed, cutting the girl off. “Dark magic over the island.”

“How can you pick it up at… Dear god!” Leon gripped the rail below the window as one look back outside answered the question without Luxion needing to clarify. There was no need for the dark magic detector down in the labs when the circle of black shadowy lines was miles across.

And more than half of Duke Redgrave’s fleet was within it.

“Give me a magnified view!” Leon snapped and the front window zoomed in on the view of the ships in the ritual circle.

Sophia made a nauseated sound, perhaps disorientated. And then what was happening on the vessels became clear and she threw up for real. He couldn’t really blame her, because right in view a sailor was being eaten alive by some sort of chimeric mix of a tiger and a squid.

A moment later, Sir Gilbert Rafa Redgrave cut the beast down with a flaming sword, but it was clearly too late for the sailor.

“The same is happening on other vessels,” Luxion reported.

“Where are the monsters coming from?” Leon demanded. “Even if they have another flute, Fanoss shouldn’t be able to pull them out of nowhere!”

The AI hesitated. “I am reviewing my recordings.”

“New signal flags,” the boy ordered, “No, wait. Just put me on loudspeakers. I’m not faffing around with flags, it’ll take too long.”

“Speakers are ready.”

Leon picked a microphone up from where it was secured to the captain’s chair. “This is Commodore Bartford. All ships are to turn to -” He checked the wind. “Starboard, and prepare to make more sail. Launch all knight-armours to form on the Dreadnought - the flagship will act as outer guard, the other escort ships are to remain with the transports.”

It would be too much to hope that his immature knights would refrain from taking off just so they could do something. Do anything. At least giving them a plan would channel that. He released the microphone’s push-to-talk button and looked at the screen. “Give me an overview, Luxion. What’s going on?”

“The monsters are transformed crewmen and officers - particularly officers,” the Ai reported flatly. “The effect appears similar to that observed with Thomas Coleman.”

“Son of a…” Leon hurled the microphone to the deck - it didn’t break and the cord began spooling in, pulling it back up to it’s rest.

“L-leon?” Sophia asked weakly.

“There’s a mop in the closet at the back,” he told the girl absently, watching ships from the main force begin to peel away rather than join those already in the circle. It was understandable, probably even correct. But it was also doing nothing for the cohesion of the fleet. And the Fanoss ships were forming two wings to attack around the column of dark magic blazing up from the island. Clearly they wanted no part in what was affecting the core of Redgrave’s division.

“W-what’s going on?”


“You made a mess, you get to clean it up,” he told Sophia. “We’re losing this battle.”

The comparative handful of knight-armours under his command were in the air now, clustering around the Dreadnought.

“I’m going out,” Leon decided. “Sophia, stay here. Luxion, keep me updated. You’re clear to fire on any Fanoss ships that are closer to Dreadnought than the nearest ship of the Holfort main fleet.” That should keep them from causing too much friendly fire… not that Luxon considered Holfort ships friendly to begin with.

“But what should I do?” she called at him as he opened the door. Fortunately he was already wearing his piloting suit.

The boy pointed at the closet door. “Mop. The. Floor.” Then he slammed the door behind him. Hopefully she’d be mad enough at least to be distracted from what was going on.

It didn’t take him long to get to the hangar, where his new knight-armour was waiting for him. In defiance of all anime tropes, Leon hadn’t upgraded it - he’d already asked Luxion to build it to high specs to start with, and modified to his preferences over the last few months. Since it worked pretty well for him, the only change was to remove the lock-out that had kept Luxion from overriding his control back when he was being mind-controlled. The risks of that were clearly not worth the security against the possibility of Luxion turning on him.

It felt very nearly the same to him as he took off. Probably it was just a new-car smell or something like that.

“Bartford!” Greg Fou Seberg called as Leon pulled up next to the biggest cluster of knights - that of Julian’s group, who made up more than half their number. “The vanguard of the main fleet needs our help!”

Leon glanced across the sky at the battle and grimaced. The centre was continuing to disintegrate, which was blocking Count Seberg’s division from easily retreating, since simply taking the easiest route and following the wind would take them right into the ritual or the path of the Duke’s main force.

As such, they couldn’t move as fast as the Fanoss ships swarming over them - unlike Roseblade’s rearguard who were sensibly using their engines and the wind to get them as far as possible from the larger number of Fanoss ships trying to catch them. They’d be cut off soon, but they had a good chance of escaping.

“The vice admiral’s division is doing their job,” he told Greg. “They’re buying the time for the main fleet to get as clear as they can.”

“Signal from the Duke’s flagship,” Luxion warned. “He’s ordering his division to protect the convoy.”

Greg’s red knight-armour waved his spear aggressively. “My father won’t lose, Bartford.”

“The battle is already lost,” he told the other boy flatly. “I hope your dad survives, but right now we need to avoid a rout. You swore you’d take my orders, so do so - or do you want your father’s shame to be complete?”

“We can’t just watch!” protested Brad.

Leon pointed at the main fleet, more and more ships peeling away and heading for them. “You should be able to read those signals as well as I can, Field. We’re the anchor that those ships need to rally around. Now get ready to play messenger. A lot of those ships have lost officers and knights. Spread out, check who’s in charge on each ship and decide that for them if they don’t know. Julius, you’re in charge of this lot - figure out who’s sending ships port, starboard, above and below. If there’s another commodore, let me know.”

Redgrave told me I was junior to all the other Commodores, Leon thought. But right now what matters is that I’m the only one here. At least the wind’s behind our transports. Otherwise Fanoss would be sure to run them down.

-

Leon was arguing with Viscount Warren when Dreadnought fired for the first time. Both he and the viscount - who felt that his age, his noble title and his household’s seniority (in terms of his viscounty having been passed down since the first generation or so of the kingdom) over the Bartfords meant more than Leon’s broad pennant - looked up sharply first at the massive skyship and then down range towards the rest of the fleet.

A Fanoss warship was spiralling out of the sky, indicating that it had taken a hard enough hit to the suspension stone that it was - while not shattered completely - too damaged to hold the ship up completely. It wasn’t the largest of the enemy skyships, but it was big enough.

“If you don’t think my commodore’s pennant is enough authority,” Leon asked the Viscount. “How about the ship that’s flying it?”

The Viscount looked at Dreadnought and then back to Leon. “Are you threatening me?” he asked, conversationally.

“Goodness no. If I was threatening you I’d be dangling you off the side of the ship. Is it mutineers that walk the plank or pirates? I haven’t covered that yet at the academy.”

The man swallowed. “I accept that we need a clear rank structure,” he managed to say with a straight face. “And as we are in the face of the enemy, this is no time for an extended argument. I accept your authority as commodore until a more senior officer arrives or we’re out of sight of that damned island.”

“I’m glad we’ve had this conversation,” Leon told him and took off in his armour. Time wasted arguing, but at least there was something of a wall of ships forming up around the Dreadnought.

There had been close to two hundred skyships in Duke Redgrave’s three divisions, roughly half of them in the centre. Barely two score of them were forming up, but the left-most of the two divisions formed by the Fanoss fleet had split, with most of the ships chasing after Count Estian Fou Roseblade’s division and only a few sweeping in upon the shattered wreck of the central divisions.

That and the truly heroic defiance of Count Seberg was all that was buying them time though. A handful of battered and broken ships that had somehow broken free of the ritual were still struggling to reach the Dreadnought and her fleet, but most of the enemy ships were converging on what remained of the vanguard.

“Turn south-east,” Leon ordered Luxion. “And bring your speed up gradually until the other ships start having trouble keeping up.”

“Does that include the cripples that haven’t joined your command yet?” Luxion enquired.

Leon shook his head. “No.” Some of those half-wrecked ships were just too slow. The men on them were dead unless they could get more speed out of them…

Unfortunately, one of them was the three gun-decked battleship serving as Duke Redgrave’s flagship. Its one mast still flew the admiral’s banner, but Leon knew from Luxion’s drone aboard it that the Duke himself was unconscious among the wounded men who’d been treated by the surgeon and must now struggle to survive the shock of an amputated limb - a leg in his case.

An explosion rocked the sky for a moment - not the first.

Leon looked for the source and found it among what remained of Count Seberg’s vanguard. A skyship, most probably struck in the magazine by fire magic, had been blown in two. One half, no longer connected to the suspension stone, was tumbling away towards the ocean. The other half was still in the sky but at an angle that made it clear that it could no longer fight.

“...that was my father.”

Leon turned and saw Greg’s knight-armour, hanging in the air looking in that direction. Checking again, he didn’t see the vice admiral’s flag anywhere among the score of ships still fighting - and as he watched, the skyships began to scatter. More evidence that their leader was gone, rather than it just being the man’s flagship.

“He held them long enough,” he said simply, but sincerely. As an epitaph, it lacked drama, but he had more respect for the competence shown than for any dramatic flair.

“This had better be worth it,” the redhead demanded in a choked voice.

“No.” Another voice, full of rage and grief cut across their conversation. Brad’s purple knight-armour hadn’t been far away, but now the mage broke forwards. “No! Damn you, no!”

“What the hell!?” snarled Leon. “Get back here!” he shouted. Dammit, he was wasting his breath giving an order that wouldn’t be obeyed.

Greg’s armour turned like a hunting dog, looking for the cause. “Look!” he cried, and pointed at where a wedge of knight-armours had broken away from the forces chasing the fleeing remnants of the Holfort left flank.

For a moment, Leon wasn’t sure what he was seeing, but then it came into focus. Black knight-armours with heraldry that any knight of Holfort was taught: that of Baronet Vandel Him Zenden. And the knight at the tip of that wedge held a black sword in one fist and a raised banner in the other.

It wasn’t a Fanoss banner, not one that was carried in pride. It was a trophy, a boast. It was the banner of House Field and it was a challenge: I killed this lord, Sir Vandel was bragging. I will do the same to you.

“Brad!” That shout marked Julius driving his own knight-armour after his friend - a streak of black against the sky. Light blue followed him, then green. Chris and Jilk. Whatever good judgement they might have had was banished by loyalty to their friend.

Greg flared his knight-armour’s thrusters, but only far enough to block Leon from having a clear line of sight. “Please,” he begged.

Leon gritted his teeth. “Go,” he ordered. Vandel’s knight-armours would get in among the cripples still trying to join the fleet. It was an excuse, but he wasn’t - pushed to it - going to shoot the young fools. “But just you five.”

“You mean it?” Greg hesitated one moment more.

“I’m ordering the five of you to cover Duke Roseblade’s flagship,” Leon ordered flatly. “Take whatever glory in it you can. It’ll probably mean your deaths.”

But he was speaking to empty air, for that last validation had sent the young man chasing his friends into battle.

“Damn it.” Leon looked again. Vandel’s sword was the same infamous weapon he’d hoped would be destroyed by the sabotaged bio-armour arm that had been granted to Hertrude by Marquis Frampton. Sabotaging it had been worth a try, since he was fairly sure only Vandel Him Zenden was bloody-minded enough to survive having it implanted. But clearly that plan had failed.

“Luxion, you’re clear to fire within normal cannon’s optimistic range,” he ordered. Right now, his orders not to fire at the Fanoss warships further than the nearest fleeing vessels were meaningless - the only targets they had were the remnants of Seberg’s division and the little cluster about Roseblade. Dreadnought’s main guns were capable of accurate fire within that range and he’d still have the option for longer ranges if he needed them. “Go for ships not knight-armours.”

Cripple or kill enough warships and the Fanoss offensive would be stalled - and ships took longer to replace than knight-armours.

“If their knight-armours close in numbers, they may overwhelm even the Dreadnought’s guns,” warned the AI.

“That’s what the rest of the fleet’s for,” Leon pointed out. “I’m going in too. Keep the fleet moving away - the longer range, the more you can punish them for trying to pursue.”

-

In the time it took for Leon to cross the distance to the handful of skyships left to Redgrave, two of them were already aflame and knight-armours were battling amid them. He saw cannon firing, reckless of the fact that a shot that missed the agile knight-armour might hit another Holfort ship in the close quarters.

Thundering down into the melee, Leon picked out one of the black knight-armours and confirmed it wasn’t Julius before he rammed into it, moving too fast for the Fanoss knight to register his presence before Leon had driven his sword through the man’s cockpit from behind.

The sword jammed, rather than breaking, but embedded in the weight of the knight armour as it fell, it was lost anyway. If Leon had tried hanging onto it, he’d have been dragged down as well.

He was able to snatch a lance from the slain knight’s back before it fell away, so at least he wasn’t technically down by a weapon in terms of numbers.

Boosting free of the battle again, he took a hit from one of the deck guns on one of the skyships. Presumably the gunners hadn’t identified him correctly. It wasn’t as if his knight-armour was well known outside of the academy. Fortunately it was very light gun and the damage was only cosmetic.

Looping around and up, he spotted a black knight-armour grappling with Greg’s red one, on the deck of the duke’s flagship. Setting the lance, Leon was in mid-dive before he realised that the black knight-armour was Julius and he was dragging his comrade’s damaged suit aboard the ship. Twisting aside, Leon shot over the deck and ran almost face-first into a second black knight, this time one of Vandel’s men.

Fortunately he had his lance out, so rather than striking the enemy knight with his knight-armour’s head, Leon instead drove the lance through the knight-armour’s shoulder, destroying the joint and sending it’s right arm tumbling away.

The collision had slowed him to the point that he wouldn’t be getting away, so Leon spun to come up short of the ship that the knight had been attacking and drew his axe. The lance had snapped under the impact, but the other knight was competent enough to turn Leon’s first two axe-blows aside.

Then someone on the ship got a cannon aimed the right way and blew a leg off the knight-armour. Left off-balance, the man was open enough for Leon to seize the shield and rip it away, then embed his axe in the left shoulder.

Stripped of three limbs, the knight-armour was no real threat anymore. Leon heaved it over the side to fall.

A shadow fell upon him and he looked up to see another knight in the same style… but the black sword identified the man inside it.

“Damn it,” Leon muttered.

Vandel Him Zenden had lost the Field banner somewhere. That wasn’t a consideration now though.

“Red and black,” the knight called. “Is that you, Redgrave? Or perhaps the young lord? I heard that Gilbert Rafa Redgrave fancied himself a knight.”

Did he want to talk? It might be better than fighting, at least for buying time. Taking off, Leon flew up to face the man. He considered drawing his rifle… but that would probably provoke an attack.

“I’m not a Redgrave,” he called back. “But you need no introduction, Sir Vandel.”

“I have enough pride as a knight to be proud of that,” the old man replied coldly. “But don’t expect me to remember your name, whatever it is. I’ve killed so many of Holfort’s knights that you all blend into one for me.”

“It doesn’t matter how many of us you kill though.”

Vandel raised his sword in salute. “There will always be more of you?”

“No. But not one of those deaths has brought you any peace.” He looked around and saw that Greg wasn’t the only one who’d been crippled. Jilk’s limbless knight was buried in the side of a burning Holfort frigate. A familiar head of green hair was among the men abandoning the ship in an airskiff. Leon hoped that they weren’t the only survivors of the crew, but he didn’t see anyone else.

“You say that as if I want peace, boy! What I crave is revenge!”

Leon laughed. “What a futile waste.”

The black knight-armour shifted to a high guard. “If peace is what you want, then prepare for the peace of the grave.”

And then he lunged in. Leon twisted away from the sword, wary that the blade was probably able to penetrate even the plating of his knight-armour even if most weapons wouldn’t. It made him feel nastily vulnerable. He cut back with the axe, not really trying to do anything more than keep the old knight clear until he had his rifle out.

Vandel avoided the axe with contemptuous ease and lunged in. Leon almost, but not quite, avoided it - the tip of the black sword carved a shallow gash in the armour plating of his right leg. Not enough to penetrate but it would certainly weaken the plating.

On the other hand, now Leon had a weapon he could use without getting into the reach of that sword. He kept flying backwards and away, trying not to hit anything with his knight-armour, trying to hit Vandel’s with his rifle rounds.

One. Two. Three shots. None hit. The black knight-armour was devilishly evasive, even while he kept on the pressure, constantly closing in with the sword.

Leon barrel-rolled around the burning frigate and almost met Vandel coming the other way. A twist to the side just barely mitigated a cut that could have opened up his cockpit - instead it sheared away half the side of his knight-armour’s head.

In return though, he finally landed a round on the other knight, a rifle round punching through one of the feet of the knight-armour. The damage wasn’t severe, but to be fair nor was that which Leon had taken.

They settled on opposite sides of the ship, looking at each other again, trying to catch their breath. Watching for another opportunity. Leon didn’t dare break focus to reload. He had two rounds left in the rifle.

“You’re good at running away,” Vandel taunted him. “I suppose that’s a virtue among Holforts knights.”

“Careful, that almost sounded like a compliment. You might rupture something, saying something like that to me.”

“Hah. Maybe I will remember you. Just on the off-chance, what is your name?”

Leon spun his axe lightly in his hand, trying to provoke a reaction. None, the old man had seen through him. “Leon Fou Bartford. Your princess will remember me, I think.”

“Bartford…” The Fanoss knight shook his head. “If so, she did not mention you.”

“Well,” Leon saw something out of the corner of his eye. Was that… well, if so then best to move. If not, he might as well anyway. This standoff wouldn’t last forever. “She’d hardly confide in the knight who betrayed her father.”

That did it. Vandel lunged at him like lightning.

Leon fired his last two shots, smashing through the forward rigging of the frigate as if it wasn’t even there as he tried to keep the distance open.

And as Vandel crossed the deck, Redgrave’s flagship reared up beside the frigate, shedding tonnes of rigging as two knight-armours went at masts and ropes with axes.

And as it rose, the battleship opened up on the frigate with every gun remaining on one broadside. Not all fired, there were gaping ports in the side where cannon had once been, but more than thirty cannon balls smashed into the side of the frigate in a brutal rolling broadside - and each gun was aiming at one precise spot inside the hull.

Not all hit. Even at point-blank range, cannon accuracy was a chancy prospect. But only one needed to hit.

Not Vandel - he might not have seen the battleship until the last minute, but he was canny enough to have opened up his thrusters the instant he did see it coming.

But the battleship’s gunners weren’t aiming for the black knight. And he was nearer to the frigate than Leon was when at least one cannon blew open the munitions still aboard it.

The explosion made Leon’s ears ring. It almost knocked the two knights - Julius and Chris - off the deck of the battleship.

But Vandel Him Zenden was flung away as if by the hand of god.

Leon ejected the magazine of his rifle, reloaded and pumped rounds after the knight-armour. He wasn’t sure any of them hit, but the black knight-armour didn’t try to come back.

Looking around as he replaced the rifle’s magazine again, Leon didn’t see any sign that any of Sir Vandel’s companions were with him. He supposed that the man wouldn’t have survived his obsessive need to avenge his family if he had no patience at all.

The battleship was the last remnant of Redgrave’s division to retreat. Leon saw Sir Gilbert still on deck, so at least Angelica hadn’t lost her brother. The skyship was moving faster than it had before, but it was still a lame duck compared to the rest of the fleet - who were beginning to open the ground between them.

Leon saw the airskiff had unloaded its passengers but a pair of men were still aboard it, securing it to the battleship and as he watched them opened up their engines - pulling the rope taut.

One little airskiff wouldn’t add much… Leon thought. He flew to the stern of the ship and looked for something solid to grip onto that wouldn’t break. The side of the flat stern seemed best, and a moment later, the prince’s knight armour was on the opposite side to him.

The pair of them pressed their knight-armour’s shoulders against the battleship and spooled up their thrusters gradually. Leon felt like he was helping but it wasn’t until he checked his instruments that he confirmed that.

“Master, you cannot push the new human’s ship all the way back to Holfort,” Luxion warned. “Your fuel has limits.”

“Signal the rest of the fleet to continue,” he ordered. “And bring the Dreadnought back to tow this hulk.” None of the Fanoss ships seemed inclined to pursue now - they’d won and none of them seemed as driven by Vandel to try to make this a total victory.

Chris was also now at the back, pushing lightly against the lower keel of the ship.

“I know Greg and Jilk got hammered,” Leon asked the two. “What about Brad?” He couldn’t have been lucky enough not to lose even one of them, could he?

Neither boy said anything at first and then Julius choked out: “Vandal drove the banner pole right through his cockpit.”

Well, apparently he could not be that lucky. Leon took a deep breath, and kept pushing. The closer they were to Dreadnought, the less time it would be with the two ships exposed and away from the rest of the fleet. It was technically still possible for Fanoss to swarm them if they were willing to pay that price.
 

Blasterbot

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poor brad he was a bit dim. but damn does that suck for them considering how few friends they got. on the other hand one less dependent to be taken care of by Lafan.
 

Speaker4thesilent

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An undisclosed bunker in Flyover Country.
Well, at least they know at this point. The use of Dark Magic is gonna really raise the stakes, though. The temple is almost certainly going to insist on burning the entire Princedom to the ground for heresy at this point.

Hope the Admiral survives losing his leg. This is when you’d actually like to have had Lafan stow away. Some healing magic would be just the ticket.
 
Spreading Shadows 10-1

drakensis

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Spreading Shadows

The power of love is a curious thing
Make a one man weep, make another man sing
~ Huey Lewis​

Chapter 1

We ought to fear a man who hates himself, for we are at risk of becoming victims of his anger and revenge. Let us then try to lure him into self-love. ~ Friedrich Nietzsche​

“These claims of dark magic affecting the fleet are nonsense.” Malcolm Fou Frampton shook his head sorrowfully. “I remind the council that my ministry has had a dark mage in captivity for some time now and while he’s certainly dangerous when it comes to the ill-prepared, we’ve had nothing to suggest it can do anything on the scale that Lord Redgrave and Lord Bartford report.”

And hopefully no one would want access to the damned man. Frampton was setting up a cover-story for how the man had died under interrogation, but it’d be another week or two before he could plausibly make the claim without being tied to it if the mage turned up again. His escape was infuriating - the more so as he wasn’t sure if Brode had managed it alone or with help.

“Are you suggesting that they’ve lied to us?” Count Arclight was as sharp as his sword, lean and deadly. His eyes, locked upon the older man, spoke of duels and deathblows.

Good old Malcolm shook his head in sympathy. “No, no. Nothing like that. But they’re both very young, and with respect to Lord Redgrave, I could understand stretching the truth a little to cover for his father’s errors.”

“I wonder if you’d be saying the same if Duke Redgrave was in condition to attend this meeting,” the count asked flatly.

“If he was then we’d not be having to deal with reports from a pair of youngsters who were clearly in over their heads.”

The queen gave Frampton a gimlet stare. “I’ll remind you, Marquis, of the last time that you under-estimated Lord Bartford.”

Behind his veneer, the marquis would have liked nothing more than to slap the smug expression off the foreign woman’s face. Except perhaps to see young Bartford dragged in front of a block to have his head taken off. How the letters had been replaced was still a mystery. How he’d somehow got copies of letters Frampton had burned with his own hands was a greater one.

But this was no time for that and letting that matter rise again would be a terrible error. Not a mistake he could afford when playing for these stakes. “I am beginning to admire the young man in question, your highness. He duelled Sir Vandel Him Zenden to a standstill. Only one other knight alive - if the mysterious Masked Knight of our last war is indeed still alive - can be said to have done as much. But Lord Bartford… Perhaps to become Sir Leon at the next opportunity, he certainly merits the accolade for that alone? …he was commanding the escorts for the supply ships so he wasn’t in a position to see this alleged dark magic first hand.”

“I believe,” he continued, “That what we are dealing with here is more simply explained. Duke Redgrave was disinclined for whatever reason to wait until Marchioness Dieke and I had the time to assemble our levies to reinforce his forces. He attacked too soon, without assembling sufficient forces and without gathering enough information.” And he’d let people draw their own conclusions about why the Duke had decided to do that.

“It’s easy to blame someone that isn’t here.”

Duke Auld Rafa Ades leant forwards. “Count Arclight, blame is not really what we should focus on. Let us deal with the facts. Princess Hertrude’s fleet has defeated ours. Whether or not Duke Redgrave was at fault or not, he is in no position to rally his forces for a second attempt. In fact, barely a quarter of his warships have returned and the enemy’s losses appear to have been significantly lower. They might well have been negligible if it were not for Count Seberg’s heroism.”

Good, Frampton thought. Praise the dead man, it takes credit away from Redgrave. Ades was dull but he could remember advice. And Augustus Fou Seberg had been a friend of King Roland, of Count Arclight and of Viscount Marmoria. The three of them were naturally predisposed to think well of him.

“The question is, what do we do now?” observed the queen. “I’m not prepared to discount the claims of dark magic. Quite a number of other lords returning with the fleet have supported Lord Redgrave and Lord Bartford’s reports.”

“I have no doubt that monsters were involved.” Marchioness Dieke was the only woman present except for the queen. “Fanoss is known to have lost items that allow them some control over monsters. This may be some new device or some new aspect of a lost item that we haven’t seen before, but the idea that they can simply turn people into monsters is… unlikely. Some degree of caution is merited through. Another disaster like this one could leave the kingdom’s core open to direct attack. None of us want that.”

“The fact that the Fanoss fleet hasn’t moved from Field suggests that they’re digging in,” Frampton picked up smoothly. “Has there been any more news from the barons and viscounts along the border?”

“Some,” admitted Arclight. “We know two of them have fallen. An attack on Baron Sullivan’s island failed - we believe that the Principality didn’t expect the Royal army forces sent there after the Claes’ abduction and pulled back when the numbers looked too even. Most likely they’re using small detachments to consolidate their position without weakening their main force.”

“That matches the Marquis’ assessment,” decided Ades. “That being the case, I believe I can risk removing some of my forces from guarding the north and joining them with the Frampton and Dieke levies to provide us with a fleet. But whoever leads it must be more cautious than Redgrave.”

“We can take the time that it’ll take to send out scouting expeditions,” the queen agreed. “As well as repairing damaged ships that made it back under Bartford’s leadership.”

Ades nodded in agreement. “Will the royal family be bringing out your lost item to lead the fleet directly?”

The queen hesitated, but King Roland spoke for the first time. “We will withhold any decision until we understand better what Fanoss is using. If they do have some weapon targeting the crew of a vessel, then I must consider how to best address that rather than risk losing it to a trap.”

Frampton cleared his throat. “I would have to agree, your highness. While I don’t claim detailed knowledge of your family’s legacy, we cannot afford to risk such a potent lost item falling into the wrong hands. But if you won’t be leading the fleet then someone else must be selected. Duke Redgrave is unavailable, and the same is true of both his vice admiral and his rear admiral.” Almost exactly as planned. It was just a shame that Bartford had saved Redgrave - the duke would recover, and the young man was almost certainly the heir to the Bartford county now that his father and brother were missing. A clean sweep of the red admiralty would have been better, but the world was imperfect and if Redgrave was simply dead then his son would have inherited immediately.

Arclight arched an eyebrow. “Are you volunteering?” he asked in a threatening tone.

“I would,” Good Old Malcolm agreed patriotically. “But with the way my name was dragged through the mud over those forged letters, I fear I lack that credibility. I will gladly subordinate myself to whoever is appointed to command.”

“Our commanders lost heavily in the last battle,” Queen Mylene admitted. “Lord Bartford and Duke Redgrave are the only flag officers to return.”

“One too young, the other too injured,” murmured the Marchioness.

Viscount Marmoria glanced at the king and after an unspoken message was exchanged, he turned to Duke Ades. “You suggested that you would require a degree of caution from anyone taking charge, and with the other dukes forced to focus on their own borders no one of equal rank is likely to send ships. You appear to have a plan?”

“I have some ideas,” the duke agreed.

This was true, Frampton had spent hours putting them into his head.

“But before committing to anything, more information will be needed.”

King Roland raised his hand. “Duke Ades, our admiral of the red has failed to defeat this attack upon the kingdom. I offer you the opportunity to serve Holfort as our admiral of the blue.”

Duke Ades inclined his head respectfully. “Your highness honours me with your trust.”

Good old Malcolm put his hand over his heart, “My levies are at your service, your grace.”

“As are mine,” Marchioness Dieke lowered her eyes demurely. “As a mere lady I cannot presume to command the levies, directly. However, I shall accompany them to ensure that my vassals comply with your orders as if they were my own.”

“That being the case,” the duke said, as if he had only just decided upon it, “I must ask that you serve as my vice admiral, Marquis Frampton. I realise that this will take you away from the Ministry, but your experience will be a valuable asset to me.”

“We are in a crisis,” the marquis agreed. “And in this case my military obligations must take priority.”

“And as your rear-admiral?” asked Count Arclight.

Frampton smiled slightly. Putting yourself forwards, are you?

“How many ships can you provide?” Ades asked the count bluntly.

“Ah… three.” Arclight was a court noble, of course. Unlike the feudal lords he had no domain to guard and thus maintained far fewer forces than other counts.

“Ah.” Ades let the moment hang for a moment. “While I would welcome your sword at our side, I fear that as even Lord Bartford - a mere student - was able to bring more forces, I could hardly appoint you as rear-admiral.”

“Speaking of Bartford,” Frampton murmured. “Despite his youth, he did well guarding the supply ships. If he is willing, I would suggest retaining him in the role, perhaps reinforced by any Redgrave levies still willing to fight.”

After all, young Bartford’s ship was huge and an obvious target. While it would be foolish to risk their entire strategy on it, if he did wind up over-run by Fanoss it would eliminate him as a future problem, along with more of the Redgrave’s military strength. And if he did not, he could be ordered to sign off on a new treaty with Fanoss, which would raise suspicions again from those letters. Frampton might have to pass off the credit thanks to that disaster, but as long as he cleared away his opposition, he’d still have come out ahead and there would be other chances.

-

Sophia Fia Ascart hadn’t stopped crying since Katarina Rafa Claes removed the dark magic. It made the taller girl feel guilty - her friend had seemed happy just to see her when Leon brought her back.

They were in Sophia’s bedroom and Katarina had lain down on the bed next to her best friend so she could hug her. It wasn’t wracking sobs, just sniffling and slow tears - the white-haired girl clinging to her like a lifeline.

After a while, Nicol’s sister had fallen asleep. Katarina kept hugging her and considered doing the same. Sophia going missing had been terrifying. As bad as losing Keith - perhaps worse, because at least then there had been a way to follow.

Olivia had brought out Alexander, and the little bear had pointed out Sophia’s direction to them. Leon’s trick with maps had worked enough to be sure that Sophia had left the continent going north-west but there were no ships available to give chase - almost everything in port that could be commandeered or hired had already been taken for Duke Redgrave’s fleet!

Nicol had been quietly frantic and his parents scarcely better. Any claims that they saw their daughter as a shame or burden would have been disproved just by seeing the Ascarts.

The door cracked open before Katarina closed her eyes. Looking over, she saw Angelica’s head poking around the door. “Hi Angie,” she said softly.

The blonde smiled a little wanly. “Leon wants to talk to us.”

Katarina looked at Sophia, in her arms. “I don’t think she should be alone. Have her parents arrived?”

“The countess is here. And Nicol, of course.” Angelica shrugged helplessly. “I’m sure the count wants to be here, but with everything going on…”

Of course. Katarina carefully worked herself free of her friend’s arms. The smaller girl clutched at her like a lifeline, but eventually - with Angelica’s help - a pillow was substituted. Nicol tiptoed in with his mother, both having removed their shoes. Countess Ascart sat down on the bed, while her son gave Katarina a smile that mixed sorrow and gratitude - she almost fainted, but Angelica supported her. When they left the room, Nicol had slumped into an armchair, far from his usual posture. The shadows gave him a brooding and dangerous look, far from his usual reserved kindness.

Once the door had closed behind them, Katarina gave Angelica a hug too. “I hope your father will recover quickly.”

The other girl leaned into her. “He should,” she said in a muffled and uncertain tone. “There’s a light mage at our home - more Lafan’s weight-class than Olivia’s, but better than most have access to. It’s strange to think that if Julius hadn’t gone back then he might not have made it at all.”

“They were… very brave,” Katarina said. Should she have gone too? Her mother would have been furious - Katarina had asked for a knight-armour for her next birthday and got a lecture. It wasn’t as if she could keep borrowing from Leon - she’d wrecked Big Stein and Big Charznable!

“It’s strange to feel grateful to him… and sorry for Greg and Brad.”

Katarina gulped. She’d not really known Brad, and him beating her little brother in a duel hadn’t really inclined her to try to change that. And however brave Greg’s father had apparently been, he still wasn’t able to go home to his family. It was dreadful.

They walked quietly to the lounge, where Leon was waiting with Olivia and Clarice. The older girl had her arm around Leon, who looked grim and serious. Katarina was glad that he had a girlfriend to look after him.

“Is she alright?” the boy asked. “In hindsight, I could have been kinder when I brought her back.”

“At least you managed to bring her back,” Angelica told him. She went and sat down next to Olivia. The scholarship student put one arm around the waist of the duke’s daughter in sympathy. “Gilbert told me that everyone who made it home was because you kept your head.”

“If you can keep your head, when all around are losing theirs...” the dark-haired boy mumbled, sounding as if he was quoting something.

It sounded familiar to Katarina. “That’s a poem, isn’t it?” She wasn’t sure where she might have heard it though. It wasn’t Japanese, but she was terrible at Holfort’s poetry as well. “Something about… every line starting with if.”

“I don’t know it,” Clarice admitted.

“It’s old,” Leon said quietly. “I don’t remember it all. Maybe I should write it down.” He took a deep breath and shook himself. “Right. I don’t suppose Sophia remembers who used dark magic on her?”

“She didn’t say anything,” Katarina told him. “She’s pretty upset. Maybe we can ask her when she wakes up.”

He nodded. “I can’t. I need to get back to the port.”

“You’re leaving again?” Clarice exclaimed.

He spread his hands. “I took responsibility for those kids. And having gone out looking for glory and seeing what it costs, I think most of them would rather quit but don’t dare be called cowards.”

“Why are you calling them kids?” his girlfriend protested. “Most of them are older than you are!”

He shrugged. “Besides, Nicks and dad are out there. I don’t know yet if they got away with the Roseblade division.”

Clarice slumped. “I… I suppose I can’t argue with that. Just be careful. I don’t trust Frampton, and Duke Ades does. That’s a bad combination.”

Leon pulled the girl closer. “I trust you, and you’re right. It’s a calculated risk - hopefully I got the maths right.”

Katarina decided she should avoid calculating risks. It always took her two or three attempts to make numbers add up right.

“I’ve got a request for the three of you,” Leon continued, using the hand not holding onto Clarice to indicate Katarina, Angelica and Olivia. “Partly for your safety, partly because I really think you may be needed.”

The three girls exchanged looks. “What can we do?” asked Olivia.

“Director Smith is looking at ways to counter dark magic,” Leon explained. “Originally to stop things like… well, what happened to Sophia. But with what happened to the fleet, it’s even more urgent. Frampton’s claiming that it’s impossible, but I know what I saw. We need some way to protect people.”

“Of course I’ll help,” Olivia assured him.

Angelica nodded. “I do have two questions though. Firstly, you said for our safety?”

Leon looked tired. “The temple have officially requested that Marie Fou Lafan be sent with the fleet - they also believe dark magic is involved. Her brother agreed, so the best I could do is assign Julius, Jilk, Chris and Greg to protect her. I have to assume that a similar request will be made for other light magic users, and you’re the only ones with actual experience against dark magic.”

“Shouldn’t we go then?” asked Katarina.

“If we don’t know what we’re doing, we could lose every light mage available.”

“I’m fairly sure mother wouldn’t let me go to war,” Katarina added. “And I don’t think I could protect many people.”

“You might be surprised, but I’d rather know for sure. I’ve been talking to Larna for a while about this, if anyone’s going to figure it out then I think it’s her.”

“Alright,” Angelica agreed. “But my other question is: why me? I’m not a light mage.”

The boy smiled slightly. “That’s true, but with the temple trying to trace descendants of the Saintess, I decided to take a slightly wider view. The Redgraves were one of the first principalities to join the kingdom and there was no royal princess to marry into them to seal the deal at the time.”

The girl nodded. “Yes, we did have one royal match a generation or two later. Not close enough that it mattered when it came to me marrying Julius.”

“The heir of the first duke did marry a prominent noblewoman of the kingdom though,” Leon explained. “And the third duke, your ancestor, was therefore descended from her family.”

“What’s special about that family?” asked Clarice.

“They’re descended from the founder of the Temple, the Saintess’ sister Mary.”

“...what?” Angelica exclaimed. “I didn’t know that!”

Katarina winced as Ann started to complain about her little sister and how she had only started the temple to spite her.

“Not a lot of people do.” Leon shrugged. “But at the time it was the most prestigious bloodline save for that of the king. The direct line of the family died out; but if the records are correct, your descent is unbroken. It’s a longshot, after all these generations, but if Olivia can inherit her ancestor’s magic then maybe comparing her heritage to yours will shed some light on light magic.”

Angelica put her arm around Olivia, hugging her back. “My brother has to go home with father… the eastern border is seeing more raids now that word has reached them that we’re under pressure from Fanoss. He’ll leave some ships to support you. I guess this is at least a way for me to do something to help.”

Who would look after her vegetables? Katarina wondered, blotting out Ann’s complaining. Her practice withstanding mother’s lectures was coming in useful. Yumeria, maybe? No, wait. “Yumeria can come with us and show me the gardens at the Ministry!”

Clarice snorted. “Of course that’s a priority.”

“Well, no. But we can still do it! Not everything’s about the war or dark magic.”

Leon turned his head and kissed Clarice on the cheek. “She’s right, we shouldn’t let Fanoss spoil everything.”

Katarina looked away. They were sweet when they did that, but it made her uncomfortable. What if Keith or Gerald wanted to do that. What if Gerald AND Keith wanted to do that? Ugh, was Ann putting ideas in her head? Harem routes were the worst!

Ann huffed. ‘Like your brother or Holfort’s descendants are going to be any use. Go push that hussy out and give Lia a kiss.

Repress, repress, repress. Katarina was getting good at this. She imagined a mish-mash of bands from back in her past life playing music, drowning out Ann with clarinet, tambourine, guitar and maracas.

-

“Are you sure about going to the ministry?” Keith asked as Katarina packed - or rather, as Katarina moved everything to the bed for Anne to sort out to be fitted neatly into the two suitcases that they’d be taking with them, or to be set aside for later.

Katarina patted her brother reassuringly on the arm. She hated to leave him on his own without her to look after him, particularly after he’d been abducted, but there were only so many people that could be smuggled into the Ministry of Magic without the minister finding out. He’d been cracking down on security, but apparently there was a hidden annex to the ministry’s library which Director Smith had commandeered for use in her research.

“I’ll miss you,” she told Keith. “But this is important. Mother won’t let me have a knight-armour so at least this way I’m doing something helpful.”

“You did wreck the last one you were in,” he pointed out.

“That was important. And Leon said he didn’t mind.”

Keith bit his lip. “But maybe he’s holding a secret grudge. He is sending you off to the ministry to be experimented on!”

What that research would involve hadn’t been made clear. Olivia had asked if the books in the annex would be useful, but Leon had laughed and told her that they weren’t that sort of book.

For some reason, Katarina had a momentary image of the three girls being strapped down on beds while Larna Smith cackled (her glasses opaque with reflected light), throwing a great switch while lightning crackled down into coils and wires. But that was silly. That was mad science, and Leon had said it would probably be boring a lot of the time. Mad science would never be boring!

“Director Smith is a nice person!” Katarina assured him. “She won’t do anything bad.”

“When have you ever met her?”

Katarina was about to remind him that she’d been at Ian and Selena’s wedding, but then remembered that it was supposed to be a secret. “I think it was at a party.”

Her brother frowned. “I don’t remember that.” He shook his head. “Anyway, I heard that she’s the worst.”

“There can only be one worst,” Scarlet pointed out from where she was leafing through one of the books on Katarina’s shelf. Her cousin had asked if she could borrow some romance novels… She was researching something but was curiously evasive except that it was about Violette.

Perhaps she was going to try to help her twin sister with Sirius. Violette had been giving the new student council president looks all term. It was sort of like the way Mary looked at Alan lately. Gosh, Katarina hoped Alan wasn’t falling in love with Olivia right now. It might be a safe route for Katarina, but Mary would be broken-hearted.

“Who else are you suggesting?” Keith asked their cousin.

“If I understand the context of Leon talking to his familiar, he is.”

“...his familiar?”

“Wait, you hear Leon speaking to Luxion?” Katarina asked.

Her cousin looked as serious as ever. “He talks to it quite often. It seems to think he’s the worst.”

“Leon’s nice!” she protested. “In his own way.”

Scarlet nodded. “I believe Luxion may be... cranky.”

Katarina thought back to the one time the familiar had spoken to her and agreed that this was true. Although they had been helpful.

Keith groaned. “His familiar that we’ve never seen?”

“Luxion is shy,” Katarina explained. “And possibly invisible...?” She wasn’t sure about that, but it would fit.

“...Leon Fou Bartford, the biggest playboy at the academy, has an invisible familiar?” her little brother - who would have been the playboy if it weren’t for her expert big sistering, Katarina thought - sounded horrified.

“Why do you call him a playboy? He’s dating… er, courting, Clarice isn’t he?”

Keith glowered. “As if that would stop that man from flirting with y… all the other girls he’s keeping eyes on.”

Scarlet pursed her lips. “So you think that his being funny, rich, chivalrous, brave and clever doesn’t have anything to do with girls liking him?”

“I really can’t tell if you’re serious or not,” Keith confessed after a moment.

“Sirius is my sister’s fiance, I am her twin. It’s easy to keep us straight.”

“I think we’ve packed all your essentials now,” Anne told Katarina. “I’ll take the cases down to the carriage, Nana will put everything away so if you want anything else, please put it into your handbag.”

Katarina grabbed her handbag and trotted to the bookcase. She could get two romance novels into it, if she picked slim ones. Really she’d wanted a larger and more practical bag, but her mother had insisted that this was more ladylike.

There was a knock on the door while she was trying to decide.

“Come in,” she called absently.

Nana entered, still looking adorable in his maid’s dress. “You have a guest, my lady,” the young demihuman announced, demurely.

“Eh? Really?” Who would visit her now?

“Lady Claes.” The man who entered the room had silver-blond hair cut short, and wore a thin moustache. If it wasn’t for the latter, he was pretty enough that he could have passed for a particularly broad-shouldered and flat-chested woman. Really, he was unfairly pretty. “Lord Claes… ah, Scarlet! I looked for you in your own room but no one knew where you were. I’m glad that you’re getting on with your cousins.”

Oh! Katarina realised. This must be her uncle, Old Rafa Ades… er, no… that wasn’t his name. What was it again… he’d never shown up in the game, had he? She didn’t remember him…

“Duke Ades.” Keith bowed politely.

“Please, call me Uncle Auld,” the man said warmly as Katarina set down her purse and curtsied. Well, that sorted that out. Auld. Auld. She repeated it to herself to try to drum it into her memory.

“Father,” Scarlet greeted him reservedly, but the duke was having none of that and walked over, hugging the girl around her shoulder.

“Don’t be so formal,” he chided her. “You’re my little girl.”

“Mmmm.” Scarlet murmured, but she hugged him briefly around the waist.

“What brings you here?” Keith asked. “I’d have thought you’d be busy with your fleet.”

The duke reached up and touched a blue ribbon on his lapel. Oh! Katarina realised, it was because he was the admiral of the blue! “I have an able vice admiral and rear-admiral; and my daughter always deserves a visit. However, I’m also at the academy on business - striking two birds with one stone, as it were.”

Katarina looked back at the shelf. Aha, there was that copy of the script of the Countess of Monte Cristo. She could take that as well as two novels! And finally learn what lines she should have read. Even if Sophia said that she’d been just fine, it might cheer her up to have Katarina them do them right now.

The duke cleared his throat and looked at her. “Katarina, I understand that you’ve added light magic to your talents. While the Minister of Magic is sure that the red fleet wasn’t attacked with dark magic, I’d rather not take the chance. I sent a letter earlier but it must have gone astray. Please come and join the fleet.”

Keith’s eyebrow twitched ever so slightly at the mention of a missing letter. “Absolutely not!” he declared, moving to stand between the duke and Katarina.

Uncle Auld seemed taken aback. “I don’t recall asking you, Lord Claes. My sister’s husband may have adopted you, but it’s my niece that I’m inviting.”

“My parents,” and Keith stressed those words, “Have given us both very firm instructions. Neither my sister nor myself is to participate in any more expeditions or adventures. Last term was quite disruptive enough to our education here.”

“There are very few light mages in Holfort,” the man warned. “And it is our patriotic duty to serve as we best can. But perhaps an adopted child would not understand.”

Katarina put a hand on Keith’s shoulder. “It’s alright, Keith.”

“But…”

“I’m pleased that you understan-”

“No.” She glared at him. For this, for her little brother, she would embrace being the villainess. “You presume to speak to Keith like that, Duke Ades? You presumptuous creature. You’re a hundred years too late to walk into my life and make demands in the name of patriotism. That’s…” What was she going to say, what to do… “Why,” she laughed. “They say that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, and that fits you well. Go talk to the Duchess Claes about all the years you ignored your own sister and then maybe you can call yourself my uncle.”

“I have never been spoken to like that!”

“Then I’ll be the first.” In the heat of the moment, she jabbed her finger into his chest. “And how dare you say one word about my brother. He is a thousand times the brother you ever were to my mother, and he means far more to her than you!” Another jab of her finger. “Now! Get out of my room!”

The duke swallowed, but - perhaps seeing something of her mother in Katarina’s face - he said nothing further to her. “Scarlet,” he said instead. “Come with me, please. I have something important to tell you.”

His daughter looked at him steadily. Then she gestured towards the door. “Stand outside,” she told him. “You’re not welcome in Katarina’s room, but I am quite happy in my cousins’ company.” She emphasised exactly how she said cousins, to make it clear she included Keith.

Auld looked as if he’d been slapped. “I’m your father!”

“You seem to remember Violette and I - sometimes Violette or I - only when we are useful to you.” Scarlet trailed him to the door but remained inside the room. “I’m listening now.”

The duke took a deep breath, face shaken. “Scarlet, I have arranged a new fiance for you. Someone who is deserving of you, unlike your last one.”

Katarina thought that that might be a little harsh. Greg hadn’t loved Scarlet and he’d denounced their engagement, but he hadn’t tried to exile or kill her. Not even when she punched him! And hadn’t the duke been the one who engaged the two anyway?

Seeing that his daughter had no obvious reaction, the man continued: “You’re to marry Prince Layne. When the war is over, King Roland will name him as the crown prince and you will be the crown princess… our future queen.” He extended his hand to Scarlet - it wasn’t clear to Katarina if he wanted her to join him or was trying to show off what he was arranging for her.

‘He’s selling her to a Holfort bastard!’ Ann declared ringingly. In Katarina’s mind’s eye, the saintess was flailing at the duke with a carpet-beater.

“Prince Layne is some years my junior,” Scarlet pointed out. “And he also has a rather obvious crush on Violette. As you would be aware if you had paid any attention to them.”

Ades shook his head. “But you will be the better queen, Scarlet. Not a girl taught such twisted things by her insane mother.”

Scarlet clenched her right hand into a fist. “My mother was indeed insane,” she said with tranquil calm.

And then she stepped forwards, her arm blurring into a punch that hurled her father across the landing, through the wooden bannister and crashing into the wall above the descending stairs.

“And you’re the one who abandoned your daughter to her!” she added as her father slid bonelessly down the wall until his feet hit the stairs - unevenly so he pivoted until he crashed face-first down the steps. Katarina saw magical reinforcement forming around him, which probably at least mitigated some of the impact. Shock was probably impairing him at least as much as injury.

Scarlet produced a pair of fingerless leather gloves from somewhere and slipped them onto her hands.

And with regal grace she hopped off the landing and descended on her father like the wrath of an enraged twin-sister.

With indignified squawk of terror, Admiral of the Blue Duke Auld Rafa Ades fled the dorm, pursued by an angry teenage girl and the war cry of “Come back, my punchbag!”

Keith stared down at the trail of destruction and then turned back to Katarina. “On second thoughts, you’re probably safer at the ministry.”

“Can I take your satchel?” Katarina asked. “I think I can get more romance novels in that than I can in my handbag.”
 

Simonbob

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Katarina decided she should avoid calculating risks. It always took her two or three attempts to make numbers add up right.
Hahaha!!!!!


With indignified squawk of terror, Admiral of the Blue Duke Auld Rafa Ades fled the dorm, pursued by an angry teenage girl and the war cry of “Come back, my punchbag!”
....... I can see the Legend of Scarlet growing by the second.


I can also see many, many, political plans going up in a puff of reality.
 
Spreading Shadows 10-2

drakensis

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Spreading Shadows

The power of love is a curious thing
Make a one man weep, make another man sing
~ Huey Lewis​

Chapter 2

While you are meditating revenge, the devil is meditating a recruit. ~ Francois de Malherbe​

While Duke Ades had left the academy with his tail between his legs, and numerous contusions by way of Scarlet’s fists, the possibility that he might obtain some sort of royal order to Katarina had encouraged the duke’s daughter to head off the ministry right away.

Olivia had volunteered to take care of Keith’s paperwork at the student council and catch up later. No one had mentioned her yet as a possible recruit. One part was the duke and his officers assuming that noble-born light mages would be inherently preferable and one part some hasty removal of her name from some records, according to Leon.

The boy hadn’t told her which records she’d been removed from or how. There were some questions that were probably best not asked.

The girl had watched Leon leave, Clarice holding onto him until the last minute and then sending him on the way with a kiss. Deirdre Fou Roseblade had been there too, and the older girl had teased her. “Don’t you want to take a chance and give him a kiss for luck? I did that once, and I don’t regret it.”

Noble girls were strange. Some of them were good people, but… Olivia flushed. She could imagine herself kissing Leon, maybe. But she wanted to have more than that with someone, and she couldn’t see that with the son of Countess Bartford. He was too driven - always seeing another quest, another goal to set himself. It clearly didn’t bother Clarice, but Olivia wanted someone she could settle down with, not someone she’d always be worried about.

Speaking of worrying…

“Prince Julius,” she called, trotting towards where the young man was packing bags onto a carriage next to Jilk and Greg.

He glanced around. “Campbell. What do you want?” There was a dullness to his voice, as if something had been sapped out of him.

She held out the documents she’d brought. “The petition you filed for a memorial for Lord Field.”

He gave her a blank look and then blinked. “Oh. Yes.”

“Is something wrong?”

Greg snorted. “He’s dead. Isn’t that wrong enough?”

“Err…”

Julius took the paper and looked at it. “Dieke approved.” Then he handed it back.

“Um, aren’t you going to…?”

The young man picked up the last of the bags. “Put it in my drawer, Campbell. We’ll avenge Brad first, then we’ll put up a memorial to him.”

“What are you talking about!?” Marie Fou Lafan sounded appalled as she arrived on Chris Fia Arclight’s arm. “Julius, you can’t be serious!”

Jilk strode over to Marie. “It is our resolution, Marie. We’ll take revenge upon the man who killed Brad. Only then can we say goodbye to him in our hearts.” The words should have sounded inspiring, but to Olivia they seemed lifeless… almost rote.

“B-but isn’t that the Black Knight? Hasn’t he killed scores, hundreds of knights?”

The green-haired young man put his hands on the small blonde’s shoulders. “I know it hurts, Marie. Losing Brad is a wound on you, as much as it is to all of us.”

Marie swallowed, tears forming at the corners of her eyes. “Don’t do this, Jilk. Don’t any of you. I lost Brad, I can’t lose you as well.”

“I promise, we’ll always be together.” Chris looked serious. “We should never have left you behind, Marie. But now we’ll face Fanoss the way we always should have. The five of us together… no, the six. Because Brad is with us in spirit.”

Olivia took a half-step back. Did Leon know they were acting like this? Weren’t the four of them only going to be Marie’s guards this time? Two of them didn’t even have knight-armours anymore! (Although she wasn’t sure which ones, off hand).

“Promise me.” Marie grabbed Jilk and Chris’ hands. “Promise me that you’re not going to do anything reckless.”

“I promise,” Chris told her. But his eyes seemed to be on something else, something distant.

“It’s time to go.” Greg jumped up into the driver’s seat of the carriage. It was a battered one, Olivia wondered how they had come by it - not an academy carriage and obviously not from their families. “All aboard.”

“Marie!” Olivia called, on impulse.

The girl jerked around. “Campbell.” She looked as if she had tasted something sour.

“Just… be careful. Dark magic… it’s real. It’s dangerous.”

“I know that. I know what I’m doing.” Marie squared her shoulders and then climbed up in the carriage. The other three boys stepped up one at a time, joining them. The shadows of the interior seemed to engulf them, only Marie clearly visible inside.

Greg flicked the reins and the horses set out, pulling the carriage behind them. From the back, the usually vibrant redhead seemed to blend into the faded carriage as it pulled away.

Olivia shivered and then looked at the paperwork she was holding.

It was a slow walk back to the student council offices, giving her time to think about the boys. It wasn’t as if seeing the war hadn’t affected Leon, but however much he regretted the deaths, it was different. He seemed… sharper. As if the experience had scraped away some of the sarcastic confidence he’d shown the world, revealing resolve beneath it.

Being around Clarice had softened that, but even then… he wasn’t the same as he had been.

Marie’s young men had all been closer to Brad, of course. That might explain it, Olivia admitted. She wasn’t particularly close to the young mage - some jostling for grades, or for access to a given textbook in the library. Not that she could really refuse if he wanted to take a book she was working from, or ask him to hand one over. But she knew he’d basically grown up as a friend of Julius and Jilk.

Losing him must hurt them as much as her own father’s departure.

Touching that wound, no longer raw but still not entirely healed, slowed Olivia’s pace. She remembered her mother’s words or actions that had assumed that her husband was there, the pain every time he was not. The way that the instances had reduced in number… but that the pain had not.

Not until recently, at least.

Somehow, the visit over the summer had eased things. Olivia wasn’t sure how - she wasn’t even sure if it was Keith, Lady Katarina or Angelica who had worked the change. But by the end of the summer, her mother had been taking more of an interest in keeping the house presentable. And over the winter they had worked in the kitchen again, making family meals for the two of them with more ambition and energy than either had been able to bring to any family activity since… since he left them.

Julius, Jilk, Greg, Chris. They didn’t seem the same way about Brad. It hurt them, but it was less of an empty space in their lives and more something that… The girl shook her head. She didn’t have a word for it. Like a fire, perhaps… but one that drained rather than burned.

They’d spoken of resolution, but it had seemed more like resignation. As if they couldn’t step off the path of revenge?

Marie wasn’t like that. She was hurting, Olivia didn’t doubt it, but she was worried for the living first. Them, she could help. Or wanted to, at least. There was a practicality to her, under the ambition and the sharp tongue. Brad was dead, and she’d mourn him but she’d also move on.

But the boys… no, it was as if they were bound by the death. Chained by it.

Chained…

Olivia stumbled at the entrance to the student council rooms, remembering another binding. One of shadows.

This…

“Miss Campbell, are you alright?”

Startled, she looked up and saw the lord president of the student council standing in the hallway. He looked pale, rust-red hair and gray eyes standing out more than usual against his naturally light skin.

“Ah, yes. I was… lost in thought.” She looked at the paper in her hand. “Prince Julius told me to put the paperwork for Lord Field’s memorial in his drawer until he comes back.”

“Ah, by all means.” He ushered her towards the appropriate room. “We are seeing the council depleted all of a sudden. Half the first years gone, one way or…”

“Sir, did you see anything… odd about Prince Julius? Or Lord Marmoria?”

“Odd?” the older boy gave her a curious look. “How do you mean?”

“I don’t know if you’ve ever lost anyone, the way they have…”

“In a manner of speaking, yes,” Sirius said quietly, reverently. He produced a ring of small keys from his jacket and opened the lock on Prince Julius’ drawer with it. The Lord President and his Vice-President had duplicates of every council member’s drawers.

Olivia nodded apologetically. “My father is… missing.”

“Oh!” He blinked, then reached over and patted her arm. Sympathetically. “That’s very hard. I’m sorry.”

“Yes, but the way they’re acting. It’s not the way I did. Nor my mother. It’s more as if…”

“People do grieve in different ways.”

“Yes. Yes, I know!” She was speaking faster. “But the way it feels around them! It’s not right. It’s as if their emotions are being drained to feed something. It looks entirely different, but the way it feels is familiar. It’s like the time we found Keith!”

“The way you found… Lord Claes…” Sirius turned to her, face intent. “You mean, on Baron Sullivan’s island.” He turned back to the door and closed it firmly. “I don’t believe that this is a topic that should be shared with everyone, Miss Campbell. Not if you mean what I think you do.”

Her breath left her body in a sudden gasp. “Lord Dieke, I think that the prince and his friends are being controlled by dark magic.”

“Yes?” He was frozen at the door, still gripping the handle.

“Yes!” She exclaimed. “I know it sounds unbelievable, but… I have to tell Director Smith!”

Sirius Fou Dieke turned around, and the quiet shadows of the room shivered as he locked eyes with her. “I believe you, Miss Campbell. But I don’t think you should talk to Director Smith.”

Olivia took a half-step back. Sirius took one full, measured step closer. And the shadows moved with him.

“I’ll scream,” she gasped. Light magic flickered around her.

“No.” The shadows swept up around her, snuffing out the light. Chilling her bones, leaving her feeling strangled and hardly able to breath. His voice wasn’t angry, if anything, the young man sounded more sad. “You won’t.”

-

Alan pushed open the door leading up to the attic of his dorm. “I really doubt she’s up here. Does anyone go in here except to store trunks?”

“Occasionally,” Mary said coyly. “These attics do have other uses.”

“Such as?”

His still-technically-fiancee winked. “A young man and young woman might want privacy.”

“...right. Well, I’ll keep that in mind.”

“More practically,” Violette added as she followed them up the stairs, “Trunks are large enough to hide someone inside. If Olivia didn’t leave the campus, she’d be imprisoned or…”

The girl didn’t continue with the obvious alternative.

“You know most of these are locked, right?” Alan pointed out, gesturing to the stacked trunks that filled much of the roof space.

“There’s a difference in weight between a full trunk and an empty one.” Mary pulled on one and it moved. “So she’s not in that one - I doubt I could move it if someone was in it.”

Alan nodded. “Try the top ones - they’re mostly stacked three high. Violette, you get the middle one and I’ll try the bottom one. If we can move them easily, they’re empty. If not then we can fiddle around checking if there’s anything in them.”

“If only we knew where her bear is,” Mary muttered.

Alan nodded. “We’re definitely getting some work out of that. Maybe we should see if the Magical Tools department can get us another. Jeffrey’s got some sort of connection there.”

“His name is Alexander,” Violette reminded them, following Mary along the line of trunks and working each middle trunk systematically. “He’s technically another missing person.”

“If she isn’t on campus, she could be anywhere,” Alan said morosely. “But who’d abduct Olivia Campbell. There’s no ransom and she’s the most inoffensive girl I know - no offense.”

“None taken, a certain amount of offensiveness is required at our level of society,” Mary replied.

“I hate to say it, but there are only two reasons I can think of.”

He looked over at Violette, felt his heart jump at her bent over to pull at the trunks and jammed that feeling down. She’s engaged, he reminded himself. “Those being?”

“The kinder is that whatever dark mage had enchanted Sophia to run off to war has captured her. She’s a light mage, after all.”

“How is that kinder!” Mary exclaimed, reaching the end of one row of trunks. “Light mages and dark mages are natural enemies, he could do almost anything to her!”

Violette sighed and straightened as she caught up with Mary and paused to let the other girl start the return journey down the long attic’s other side and its row of stacked trunks. “Because the other option is that she was taken because she’s a rather pretty girl. And that leads to a much more specific number of things that could be done to her.”

Alan paled. “That’s sick.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Not you, but the fact there are people who act like that.” He shuddered. “I know it happens, but it shouldn’t.”

“It can happen to young men as well,” Mary muttered. “You don’t think all those tales of evil marchionesses chaining handsome men up in their dungeons are completely made up, do you.”

“It doesn’t matter if it’s men or women, it’s still wrong.”

“A young woman on her own may be seen as vulnerable,” Violette told them. “I had to take extra precautions between my mother’s death and father returning to the capital.”

“Then Olivia could have been just… randomly picked up between here and the Ministry.” Alan smacked his hand against the beam at the end of the attic, watching the girls move up until he could get in to check the lowest trunks. “Just random chance?”

“While she wears her uniform, it would be assumed that she was a student and therefore a noble,” Violette mused. “Do either of you know if anyone's checked which of her clothes are missing?”

“Clarice and Dierdre checked her room. A bag is missing,” Mary told them. “But they’re not sure how many clothes she has. Katarina or Angelica might, but she doesn’t really have close friends. The President says he saw her handing in papers in her uniform, yesterday evening.”

“And no one expected her to be here overnight.” He almost rubbed his face with one hand but saw how dusty it was and reconsidered. “If Katarina hadn’t sent Anne back to look for her, it could have been days before we found out she wasn’t at the Ministry with them.”

“We really don’t pay enough attention to Olivia,” Violette confessed.

Mary shook her head. “She likes it that way - too much of her first term was people picking on her. If we forced our way into her time, she’d feel pressured. She’s opening up at her own pace.”

“Yes, but right now she’s the strongest light mage we know. Leon was right about telling her to go to the Ministry.”

“I thought you said…”

“I said the worst case was someone targeted for her looks,” Violette told him. “But it’s not the most likely. The timing is suspicious. Sophia goes missing right as Duke Redgrave’s fleet leaves, now Olivia vanishes right as my father’s departs?”

“You don’t think she’s snuck aboard the fleet for some reason?”

The silver-blonde girl reached the end of the row. “If she was confused by dark magic, she might believe it was her duty to do so as a light mage. My father tried to convince Katarina that it was her patriotic duty to join the fleet. I don’t think Olivia would fall for that normally.”

“Would dark magic even affect her?” he asked.

“Good question. I imagine that that’s one of the things Director Smith wants to test.” Mary pulled out a handkerchief and dusted off her hands as Alan finished checking. “No suspicious trunks?”

“Nothing weighing enough to have a body in it - living or dead.”

She nodded. “Well, we’ve checked this room. Where to next?”

“The academic buildings have been checked, and the staff buildings. That leaves student facilities.” Alan brushed his hands as best he could on his handkerchief and then scratched the side of his head where it was itching. Violette was examining her own hands critically, so he offered her the handkerchief - her own was too lacy to be practical for actual dirt.

“Thank you.” She wiped her hands down. “Do you mind if I ask a question?”

“You just did, so you’d better hope not,” Mary joked.

“Very funny. It’s about your engagement.”

The couple-by-technicality glanced at each other and then Alan shrugged. “Okay. I don’t think you’d ask anything too personal.”

Violette exhaled. “Gerald’s clearly crazy about Katarina. Julius and his friends are all stupidly protective of Marie, except against each other… You two just seem comfortable with each other though. My only experience is Chris - and at least Sirius doesn’t actively avoid me. But I think I’d prefer something more like the two of you…”

“Ah…” Alan gave Mary a nervous look.

Mary put an arm around Violette. “The truth is, Alan and I are friends.”

“Well, that’s good? I think?”

“And only friends.”

Violette blinked. “But… you're engaged.”

“We just don’t feel that way about each other,” Alan admitted. “I don’t think marrying Mary would be dreadful or anything.”

“Thanks, the same to you!”

“You’re welcome.” Alan told his fiancee. “If we broke it off, we’d be engaged to other people, possibly people we don’t get along with. It’s… not perfect.”

“I never guessed,” Violette admitted. “It’s sad… I hope you don’t mind me knowing. I won’t tell anyone.”

“I trust you,” he told her.

Mary also nodded. “We look out for each other. It’s not as if we’re going to end up like Jilk and Clarice.”

“But what if one of you falls in love with someone?”

Both of them looked away sharply. Betrayed themselves.

“Oh. Oh…” Violette gasped. “Both of you?”

Mary blushed. “Yes. Well, we’ve agreed that if one of us has the chance to be with the one they love then we’ll break it off. We’re friends - I want Alan to be happy.”

“Same here.”

Violette shook her head and gestured towards the door. “We should get going, but before we’re out somewhere public - I’m not sure if I should be sorrier for you two pretending or for myself that my own engagement is apparently so cursory that a fake engagement is more loving.”

“Well, you’ve only been engaged to Sirius for a couple of months,” Mary pointed out gently. “Alan and I were engaged years ago. You may get closer.”

Alan grit his teeth and looked away.

“Perhaps,” Violette said dubiously. “But would you be really happy together if you wind up keeping this up until you get married? Both of you loving other people? I… I had to pretend to be a boy until I was too old for it to be convincing. Mother insisted.”

“Why was that?” Mary asked. “Since we’re exchanging secrets.”

The pale girl shrugged. “She missed father, and I looked much like he did as a child. She’d have clothes made based on portraits of him when he was six or seven. I don’t think I had a dress of my own until I started to… well.” She made a delicate gesture towards her chest. “It wasn’t really possible for even my mother to fool herself eventually. She couldn’t lie to herself about who I was. As it turns out, I’m rather happy to dress like a lady. It’s not always as practical, but at least now I’m not pretending to be someone else.”

“It suits you,” Alan said and felt his cheeks flush.

Mary kicked his ankle lightly. “Anyway, confidences exchanged, let's get on with the search.”

“Right,” he said. “Let’s go.”

Down the stairs, he ushered the girls out and then closed the door. “Where first?”

“Let’s get some boots on and check the back of the gardens,” Mary suggested. “Lady Katarina isn’t the only one with a shed for her gardening tools. Other students have little buildings or plots for their own hobbies, Olivia might be in one.”

They’d almost reached the dorm entrance when Keith burst in through the door, face set. “Alan, just the man. Write a letter to your brother, would you?”

“What?” Alan asked. “Right now? We’re looking for Olivia. Aren’t you? And which brother?”

“I was,” Keith told him, “But a letter arrived for Katarina.”

“And you opened it?” asked Mary sharply.

“What if someone’s tracking it?” the flaxen-haired boy asked. “If I just forward it to her, she could be traced.”

“Um. Fair point.”

He nodded. “The bloody temple’s only gone and given her bracelet away.”

“What?” Mary half-shouted. “How dare they!?”

Violette shook her head. “The silver one from the dungeon?”

“That’s it,” Keith asked. “They want Katarina to sign off on it, to get out from under the contract that mother and father insisted on.”

“I take it you don’t plan to advise her on doing so.”

The boy snorted. “I’m going to write to my parents right away. The temple can’t get away with this.”

“Wait until after we’re done searching for the day and write once we’ve calmed down,” Mary suggested. “I’ll contact my father - and Violette, you know the queen, don’t you?”

The girl nodded. “Mother took me to the royal court fairly often.”

“Who did the temple give the bracelet to?” asked Alan. He was fairly sure Jeffrey would be inclined to back the Claes. Letting the temple just steal from nobles was hardly going to be popular.

Keith folded his arms. “They dressed Lady Lafan up like the Saintess with all the regalia and put her on display to raise morale for Duke Ades’ fleet.”

“...I should have held him down for Scarlet to punch him,” Violette declared.

-

Christophe Vor Garrett looked at the Holfort fleet and smirked. The expression was about half-truth and half-facade to keep the sailors confident.

The count didn’t claim to be a great military tactician, but he could count and this fleet was smaller than the last one and it had less order to it. The banners of Ades, Frampton and Dieke were all in the central body, along with two of the three admiral’s flags.

And a smaller skyship in the lead was carrying a truce flag.

“Well, it seems the Holfort dogs want to talk,” he declared. “Send a ship to meet them. Offer to bring the flagships alongside each other between the two fleets.”

He wasn’t going to invite Frampton or his allies aboard one of his ships, not after that bomb they’d conned the princess into bringing home with her. And nor would he risk his precious self aboard one of theirs, for that same reason. But skyship-alongside-skyship, using speaking trumpets. That would be good enough to talk.

It was possible they’d have something worth listening to. And if not, well, he’d have some of the leadership next to him.

“They might send a decoy ship,” warned Viscount Darian from next to him.

Garrett shrugged. “Possibly. We’ll see who is on deck when they’re closer.” He saw one of the courier ships serving as scouts for the fleet moving forwards, their own truce flag flying. “What do you make of their numbers, Vidal?”

Darian liked to think himself a credible military man. The equal of Lord Kosigan, at least in his own mind. Garrett was of two minds whether it was a good thing that Kosigan’s more cautious father was proving long-lived and keeping the lord out of a viscountcy, or whether inheriting would take up more of the man’s time and energy. He wasn’t really in doubt which of the two leaders was the sharper military mind and that was why Darian was serving as his tactical deputy while Kosigan was left at home to watch their other borders with slightly fewer ships and knights than he’d requested.

The viscount pursed his lips. “A hundred and seventy ships up front but a slightly better guard detachment for their transports. If we had the numbers we had last time then I’d say we could take them without any need for your witch.”

“But you don’t think that we can now?” They were thirty ships down, the impromptu squadron that was still out chasing the ships that fled north out of Redgrave’s fleet.

“Close enough to be costly either way,” Darian admitted. “Maybe a little in our favour but we’d lose a lot of our own ships - enough that we’d be doing well to hold what’s been taken so far. And Holfort might be able to get another fleet together.”

“He could,” Garrett said confidently. “If this was the last throw of the dice then he’d be here himself. As it is, he’s sending out more troublesome vassals to do his fighting for him. If they win, he shares the credit. If they lose, there’ll be fewer to make trouble for him once he brings his own fleet into play. That’s what he’s thinking, anyway.”

“What if they have a counter for the witch?”

Garrett considered that seriously. “Frampton won’t. He doesn’t believe in anything he doesn’t control - or not that it’s important. He knows that dark magic and light magic exist, but he doesn’t have either so to his mind they’re not really useful.”

“It’s Ades in command though.”

Ades is a puppet, the count thought. “True, and while the man’s nine-tenths facade - he spent more than a decade hiding on his estates from his own wife! - he could have been persuaded by someone else that Redgrave’s defeat should be considered. However, any countermeasure would have to be either tactical or magical - do you agree?”

“Of course. And if it was tactical, they’d not be repeating Redgrave’s approach,” Darian conceded. “But they do have some light mages.”

“That, I’ll grant you. But because they love their famous Saintess, their Temple would want their hands on any such project. And do you see a single Temple sky-ship in their main fleet?”

Darian took out a spyglass and checked. “No,” he admitted. “There’s three with their supply ships though - two more than last time. And they still have that big bastard of a ship with them too.”

Garrett sighed. “I’ve told you, we know about that one. It’s a lost item, and for all its size, it’s most notable for its speed. Good for running away, which is exactly what their vaunted Lord Bartford managed in the last battle. It only has four guns.”

“Four guns that may have been what cost us half our losses last time.”

“Vidal, Vidal!” Garrett put his arm around the viscount’s shoulder. “Where are these nerves coming from? You know they’d have been doing well to hit something the size of an island at the range our ships were at. There might have been one or two hits but the bulk of that damage had to come from Roseblade and Seberg’s ships.”

Viscount Darian shook his head. “Our guns have better range than the kingdom’s, there’s no saying that a lost item might have not cannon with even more range. And it doesn’t matter how many more guns we have than that ship if its cannon can reach us while we can’t hit them back. That speed would let it stay at range too.”

“Calmly, my friend. Don’t worry the crew.”

The two ships serving as heralds had met and flags were rising. Garrett scanned them. It seemed that Ades was accepting the proposed terms.

The count pointed at the lost item in question. “Firstly, that ship won’t escape our ritual this time. And if they do have some counter-magic, it also has to play guard for an entire convoy of much slower freighters and transports. That ties it down, does it not?”

“...a fair point.” Darian folded his arms. “Though I trust you’ll have no complaint if I tell Sir Vandel that he has a free hand to go after it?”

“Hoho. We’d be hard pressed to stop him from doing so,” Garrett admitted. “He’s smarting after having to leave that knight alive last time so we may as well order him to do what he already wants to. Now do me a favour and go back to your flagship would you? I’m about to go meet Marquis Frampton and his pet talking monkey… duke, I mean. In the unlikely event that it’s a trap, you’ll be in complete command of the fleet.”

“I hope it doesn’t come to that, Christophe… but if it does, I’ll see the matter through.”

Garrett watched Darian and shook his head fondly. Ah, Vidal. Do you think I’d be doing this if I thought that there was a chance in hell of them ruining my plans?

Fanoss was dancing to his tune and when the war was done, Holfort would be a broken wreck. While the princess could remain as a figurehead, her loyal lords who had bled so hard for her victory should of course be rewarded with rich lands from the conquests… that of any lord that didn’t bow fast enough to them.

The southern duchies of Holfort might manage to band together, but the heartlands and the north would belong to the empire of Fanoss. He was not a greedy man, Garrett thought. A duchy and hereditary post as chancellor would be sufficient for him. Crowns were heavy things and pointed out who should take the blame, while the man behind the throne could steer things in the proper direction.

Perhaps his sons or grandsons would wed Fanoss princesses and take the throne openly, but that was for them to decide when he was dead. Until then, he would lead his house, his principality and shortly his empire in the direction he saw as best.

The battleship that came forwards to meet Garrett was a proud sight, sails armed with the arms of House Frampton but the banners of three noble houses and two admirals flying. Long gun decks with enough guns at close range to make his own ship suffer.

But at the same time it had the high flat sides of old-fashioned ships, rather than the angled sides of deck casemates that Fanoss used on their newer skyships. And if the batteries of mid-sized guns would hammer away at close range, the larger guns mounted on Garrett’s own ship would be murderous as well. Neither side could afford to break the truce for a gun fight, particularly with both fleets looking on.

And using his own spyglass, Garrett saw the cluster of nobles on the quarterdeck of the oncoming battleship. Marquis Frampton’s scrawny frame and weasel-like face. The handsome but vacant face of Duke Ades. And a woman, not someone he knew, but who would bring a woman into battle if they had a choice?

No, no. He was quite happy with this. After all, his plans would only involve his guns if things went badly wrong. And it was his job to ensure they didn’t.

Garrett checked the flags on the mast mounted for signal purposes on the island behind him. Yes, everything was ready there.

“Bring us alongside the enemy battleship,” he ordered. “Quarterdeck to quarterdeck.”

“That will mean crossing their broadside,” warned the captain, though he was already reaching for his speaking trumpet to give the orders.

“I’m aware of that, captain. They won’t risk a gun fight with us with their leaders aboard. But be ready to steer us clear if you must, and have sharpshooters ready at my signal.”

He was right of course. The two battleships moved past each other, a few yards apart, slowing the entire time so that it took an excruciatingly long time for them to come to rest relative to each other. Both ships had the bulk of their guns pointed away from each other, which was another relief.

Garrett sauntered over to the side, accepting the speaking trumpet from the captain. “It would seem that I am honoured by the presence of a Duke, a Marquis and a lady…” he glanced up at the banners. “Marchioness Dieke, perhaps?”

The woman curtsied towards him. Because of course the formalities must be observed. He didn’t bow in return.

Ades had his own speaking trumpet. “Is Princess Hertrude Sera Fanoss aboard to negotiate?”

What a fool. “Unless your king is aboard and hiding his banner, this is not a parlay between sovereigns, Duke Auld. I am her first minister and leader of her council. If you find that insufficient rank then…” He shrugged his shoulders, exaggerating the move to be visible to them. “We can end this parlay and move to settling this with the guns of our fleets.”

Both Frampton and Dieke restrained the Duke, which said interesting things about the pecking order. Not that it would matter shortly.

“You have to know you can’t win this war,” Frampton called back. “Your fleet won the last battle, but you’re outnumbered this time and even if you succeed somehow, the kingdom’s numbers will push you back. But the cost would be high enough that the Duke is willing to offer you terms.”

“How very generous!” Garrett called. “It costs me nothing to hear you out, I suppose.”

One of Frampton’s men carried a weighted bag over and threw it across and over the boarding nets hung along the side of each ship. It made it conveniently easy to catch such messages. Garrett waited for a sailor to recover it and hand over the message that was within.

It was a scroll of parchment, not just a draft but a fully written up treaty. Ready to be signed - as if all that remained was a formality. Honestly, did Frampton think him so foolish as to think the deal was still on. After the bomb - that might have killed him! That could have killed Count Christophe Vor Garrett! And this puffed up stoat who boasted of being a marquis thought he could do that without facing revenge?

The parchment crumpled in his hand slightly and he straightened it, reading the terms carefully. Would there be some hidden message? Some concession meant to buy him off?

No. There was nothing.

Nothing but what had been promised before. “So you’re proposing an acceptance of the current status,” Garrett called back, as if this was new to him. “We keep the islands we’ve taken but no more. And in exchange we must open our skyways to your merchants so they can trade within the Principality? Do I understand that correctly?”

“And beyond!” Frampton corrected fussily.

“Oh yes. Your merchants can cross us entirely, making it easier for you to trade and communicate with our other neighbours.” Garrett chuckled and lowered the speaking trumpet to take the document in both hands.

Then he tore the parchment in two.

Frampton’s face was a treasure. “W-what are you doing?” he shouted through his trumpet.

“Captain, lower the truce flag,” Garret ordered quietly. “Raise the black flag and get us clear, sharpshooters can open fire.” He walked to the side of the ship, held up the two halves of the proposed treaty and ignited them with his magic. Fire, a terror on ships, but he held the parchment out, sending the ashes scattering out on the wind away from either of the wooden ships. Then he cupped his hands around his mouth. “That for your treaty, you treacherous scum! I know how little your word is worth!”

There was a squeal of rope through blocks and the truce flag came down, a second and more vital signal ascending the mast on a second halyard.

Duke Ades still looked uncomprehending when a rifle shot from Garrett’s ship caught him high in the chest. He spun. Fell to the floor. The man forced himself to hands and knees before a second shot pierced his back, probably severing his spine.

Frampton’s head simply exploded. He’d been scrambling back - Garrett made a note to find out who made that shot. Whether it was skill or luck, it should be rewarded. What little brains the man had splashed over the captain of the Ades battleship, the man still scrambling his own wits to realise what was going on.

The black banner should have been message enough. It was well known in warfare what that flag meant: no quarter.

And there was another meaning, special to today.

Marchioness Dieke had proven cannier than any of the men. She flung herself behind a bulkhead, vanishing from sight and probably safe for now.

The two ships were pulling apart as Garrett’s flagship engaged the manoeuvring engines. More troublesome and expensive than sails, but for fine handling they were good.

“We can come across their stern and rake them!” offered his captain.

Garrett shook his head. “No, get us back to our fleet.” He crossed the deck, turning his back on the enemy and looked towards the island. “Come on, girl. You said you could do this…”

He was rewarded by a dimming of light as the ritual circle he’d seen in tests and once in battle spread out from the island. Oily shadows reached out, spreading faster and faster as fear and anger fuelled them.

His own fleet was surrounded by them, but they were unaffected. They knew what to expect and the witch had been told what her minders would do if she targeted Garrett’s ships. But she and Garrett had learned from last time. Focusing on just one area had allowed Duke Redgrave’s fleet to scatter and many ships to escape.

But this time the dark magic swept across the entire Holfort fleet and Garrett smiled wolfishly as he heard the first screams.

He wasn’t sure the monster - shark-headed, ape-limbed and with razor spines along its back - that burst into view on deck aboard the enemy flagship was Marchioness Dieke, but the ragged clothes that remained to it could have been her gown. And it wasn’t the only such abomination aboard, if the way a cannon was visibly yanked askew was any sign.

On and on the blackness spread, until it seemed to engulf everything beneath the cloud sky.

And this time the transports and their escorts were also caught, he saw. So much for that lost item that Vidal Vor Darian had feared. Perhaps Garrett would make it his own flagship if it wasn’t too badly damaged...
 

Simonbob

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It appears that Leon can't hold back any more.

This is going to be a mess.
 
Spreading Shadows 10-3

drakensis

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Spreading Shadows

The power of love is a curious thing
Make a one man weep, make another man sing
~ Huey Lewis​

Chapter 3

A man can lose sight of everything else when he’s bent on revenge, and it ain’t worth it. ~ Louis L’Amour​

Leon felt his stomach drop at the sight of the darkness reaching out for the fleet.

“But we’re not even over the island!” Lloyd exclaimed.

“Last time they didn’t show us everything they had,” Leon answered, staring over at the oncoming shadows. “It isn’t stopping. Brace for impact!”

He’d decided to use the negotiations to visit the ships of his little squadron rather than remain aboard the Dreadnought. Honestly, he’d been surprised Frampton asked for a parlay at all - surely he must realise that any treaty offered would be looked at with suspicion after the debacle of the letters he’d handed out at Leon’s abortive trial?

“Duke Ades and Marquis Frampton are dead,” Luxion reported. “Marchioness Dieke has been transformed into a monster and is rampaging upon the flagship.”

“Signal all ships to make best speed with the wind,” Leon snapped.

Lloyd took the orders as meant for him and started shouting instructions to the signallers. He wouldn’t have time to get anything hoisted before the shadows reached them. Even Luxion was going to be pushed…

Grabbing the ship’s rail, Leon wondered if he might be one of those transformed. What would Luxion do if he was?

“Can you destroy the source of this?” he demanded.

“The origin appears to be somewhere under the surface of the island. I would be firing effectively at random. I could expend my current stock of ammunition, but it would take a full hour and have no certainty of success without using the nuclear warhead.”

Which would kill everyone not inside the Dreadnought. Besides that, there was only one warhead and no guarantee of finding enough transuranics to make another. “Denied.” Although it'd be better to risk not having it later if not using it meant no later to worry about.

A spark of light caught his attention and he turned towards the source. On the foredeck of one of the three ships sent by the temple - the same one that had brought Julius’ group before - Marie was standing tall (or as tall as the tiny girl could), wearing a white dress, the Saintess’ Necklace and the Saintess’ Bracelet. She raised the Saintess’ Rod in both hands and the light was coming from the tip of the rod.

Like a glowing bubble, the light expanded out to meet the shadows.

They struck with the sound of a bell chiming and the light shattered in the path of the shadows. Despairing cries came from the sailors watching.

But Marie threw another wave of light defiantly up at the dark magic. Leon saw that the four boys around her had dropped out of sight suddenly. The barrier met the shadows and for a moment it looked as if it would succeed…

But no. The barrier broke apart, one section at a time, crumbling until the tendrils of darkness once again threatened to complete the ritual circle and engulf them.

Leon saw flags rising on Luxion’s signal mast. The right orders - or at least those he’d given. “Luxion, you can open fire on Fanoss’ ships,” he ordered in the brief moment of respite. “Go for their faster ships first.”

One more time, the rod blazed with light and Marie hurled her paltry light magic out. The regalia would enhance it, but Leon wished that he’d pushed to have Olivia come along rather than sending her to the Ministry.

The bubble of protection contacted the darkness just before it first reached the cargo ships and their escorts. The ringing sound of the collision was deafening. So close that Leon thought he might be able to reach out and touch the interface between the two - if he wasn’t fighting to stay upright.

The shadows pressed against the light and Leon saw the protection shrink back. He stumbled back and away from it, dragging Lloyd with him and away from the shadows as they pressed over the side of the skyship.

Those of the crew that could see what was happening were doing the same, fortunately there weren’t enough of them to completely overbalance the skyship. Leon scrambled up onto his knight-armour, hoping to be able to get it into the air ahead of the slow advance of the darkness.

The helmsman was spinning the wheel, staying at his post until the last minute, trying to turn the ship further into the shrinking area to be protected.

An outcry from below suggested that someone hadn’t got clear and had suffered the full effect of the horrors. The inhuman roar that followed confirmed it.

Leon saw the darkness reach the hand of his knight-armour as he started closing it. “Hold on!” he called as the hatch shut. “I’ll try pushing the ship!”

No, I’ll pull, he thought as it locked shut. Not going out into that to push. Should have thought of that before I said anything.

The knight-armour came to life around him and he looked at the coming wave of dark magic. Did he have time?

It was still just grasping at the hand. Was the ship moving ahead of it? Firing up the knight-armour, Leon took to the air and looked for somewhere to grab onto the ship. With more perspective, the ship was gradually pulling free of the magic. Around him, he could see the bubble of light magic was still holding. It might even have stopped the shadows for now.

Catching hold of one of the sturdier pieces of the rigging, Leon powered his thrusters up gradually - not wanting to rip his grip free.

With agonising slowness, the skyship pulled out of the nightmarish tendrils until it was fully within the protected region. How much was due to Leon pulling and how much to the helmsman, he wasn’t sure. Honestly, as far as he was concerned, the man could have the credit.

“Master, the new human skyships are clustering around me and blocking my fields of fire,” Luxion warned. “May I destroy some to clear my shots?”

“No, just let them get past.” Leon checked the winds. Blowing from the south. They’d flee northwards then. The merchantmen and troop transports would need all the speed they had to say ahead.

He moved in to congratulate the helmsman, but then the quarter-deck of the skyship erupted in broken planks. The helm was torn free as something vast and ursine, but with great antlers and a cat’s face broke out of the cabin beneath. It was also on fire, no natural flames but instead a silvery blaze that seemed to be agonising for it. The courageous helmsman was sent flying, crashing down onto the main deck, neck at an angle that couldn’t possibly be survivable.

“Fuck! Off!” Leon snarled and drew his rifle from the weapons rack. He emptied all six shots into the head of the monster, blowing off one antler and half of the head before it stopped moving. As he’d seen on Sullivan’s island, once dead the monster shrank once more into the mortal man that had given birth to it, the flames vanishing as if they had never been. Perhaps the fire would have done the job in a few more moments, but how many more would have died before that?

Lloyd stumbled towards the corpse and then Leon’s schoolmate fell to his knees, staring at it.

“Lloyd!” Leon shouted. “Get up, we don’t have time!”

The boy looked up at him. “L-Leon… You just killed my father!”

“...” For a moment Leon was at a loss. “Dark magic killed him, Lloyd. Now get your ship closer to Marie before any more of your crew is taken!”

The other student’s face twisted from grief to anger. “I…”

“Do it!”

Stiffly, bitterly, Lloyd forced himself upright and started shouting at the sailors.

Commanders don’t get to have friends, Leon thought. I’ll have to apologise later, for what little it’s worth.

“Master, Lafan’s protective area is still shrinking,” Luxion warned. “For now the diminishment is negligible, but as her fatigue grows I project that she will be unable to maintain it.”

“Understood.” Leon turned his knight-armour towards the temple’s skyship. “Put me on loudspeakers.”

“Done,” the AI reported.

“This is Commodore Bartford. Some of us have been in this situation before. We’re going to get through this the same way, except now we have light magic guarding us. All ships cluster together around the temple skyships. Hold formation and ride the wind - this circle doesn’t go on forever.”

From here he saw Marie standing alone, sweating and white-faced. Leon would have expected her four admirers to be supporting her, but all four of them were lying on the deck with crewmen just arriving to drag them aside. Whatever had happened had knocked the lot of them out.

“Luxion, any ideas what’s up with the four of them?”

“If you mean Lafan’s admirers, I can only speculate at this time.” The AI didn’t sound as if it was being entirely honest. “However, I have a statistically significant finding with regard to those affected by this dark magic attack.”

“I’m listening.”

The little squadron of warships and transports let the wind carry them away as Fanoss warships broke through the disordered remains of Duke Ades’ fleet and began to tear the ships - already overrun by monsters - apart with heavy cannon fire.

There would be no last proud defence like Count Seberg’s… As Leon looked back, he doubted even one skyship of the main fleet would get away.

“Of the knights and lords who were not transformed by the attack, almost all are notable in not having their wives living in the capital and not having significant amounts of debt, to judge by the financial records I have examined as part of your economic analysis requests. The overwhelming majority of those who are transformed have absentee wives, significant debts or both.”

Leon parsed that for a moment. “So, men who were likely bitter and resentful - fonts of negative emotion, particularly due to unhappy marriages?”

“It is a plausible explanation of the facts available.”

The boy groaned. “Fanoss has weaponized Holfort’s traditions of lousy marriages for the gentry and lower nobility. We’re in big trouble.”

-

Leon’s eyelids felt as if they were made of lead. He’d long since left his knight-armour in the hangar and relocated to the navigation bridge of the Dreadnought. The skyship was the only thing keeping the pursuing Fanoss ships from closing and overwhelming them. They’d outnumbered his force’s twenty-odd warships by more than two-to-one at the start of the chase, and even after Dreadnought’s guns had wrecked a dozen of them, they had kept chasing.

Oh, they hadn’t closed in, but they had a pretty good idea now of what Dreadnought’s range was and they’d tested it constantly, probing with airbikes and knight-armours, paying the price to learn what his limits were.

Luxion had suggested breaking out the nuclear warhead, but the shockwave would still be devastating to the Holfort ships. And leaving the little squadron to their own devices while he went back to use the nuke against Fanoss' island would be leaving them to their deaths, which was exactly what he'd promised not to do. Some of the warships might escape if they scattered, but the transports were too slow - the Fanoss fleet had managed to get around their flank once already.

Leon had the nasty suspicion that if he yielded to his fatigue, that Luxion would just go ahead and fire a nuke the moment he wasn’t awake to forbid the AI from doing so. That might be lack of sleep talking, but he wasn't sure.

“Master.”

Leon glared at the display.

“Master?”

There had to be something - he’d tried lunging out to chase them off with Dreadnought but they simply scattered and tried to get around him to the convoy…

“Master!?”

“...oh. Sorry. What was it, Luxion?”

The AI switched the screen to a map. They were somewhere near the southernmost vassals of the Ades now. If the area hadn’t been stripped to provide the core of the Blue fleet, Leon might have hoped for reinforcements. A blinking light sprang up ahead of him. “A new fleet of skyships is visible on radar.”

“...who?”

“At this distance, I cannot tell. However, they number almost sixty vessels.”

“...dammit.”

“Master, you need to sleep.”

“I know. I know.” He rubbed his eyes. It was hard to think. “How long before you know who they are?”

“Between one hundred thirty and one hundred and fifty minutes, assuming that the speed and direction of both formations remains consistent.”

“Right.” He buried his face in his hands. If they were hostile, that would be enough warships and knight-armours to swarm over Dreadnought. Maybe not to kill them, but enough to rip the transports apart. “Luxion. I’m getting the transports home. This is my damn fault. Letting out the half-elf secret tore Holfort apart as much or more than anything Julius did. The least I can bloody do is get these poor bastards home.”

Julius, Jilk, Chris and Greg had been knocked out by Marie’s light magic, according to the crew of their ship. And when they woke up, they didn’t remember anything clearly since returning from Redgrave’s defeat. Dark magic was the only explanation that made sense - Marie’s magic must have somehow purged it from them.

If this was Sirius Dieke's work then he'd been subtle enough to do it without Luxion's surveillance noticing, which was worrying. And with no convincing evidence, Leon didn't feel he should act against the older boy. Innocent until proven guilty, and the new President's reputation was such that Leon wasn't sure he could have convinced even his closest friends that Sirius was up to more than brewing tea and doing paperwork.

The girl herself had collapsed unconscious after her light barrier finally collapsed. Leon hoped she hadn’t strained something - she’d pushed herself to an unhealthy degree developing this much light magic to begin with as he understood it. According to Luxion, she’d also woken; but by that point Leon had basically locked himself in the navigation bridge.

“I understand, master. However, killing yourself will not save them.”

Leon nodded. “Signal the fleet to follow us, and then head right for the new fleet at our current speed. Signal our fleet, I mean.”

“Directly for them, master?”

“Yes. If they’re friendly, we’ll be safe - that’s enough ships the pursuit will have to break off.”

“And if they’re hostile,” Luxion asked, sounding hopeful.

The boy rubbed his eyes. “Then you get to kill as many of them as you can without going nuclear.” Hopefully that was enough incentive that he didn’t have to worry about Luxion doing anything too unexpected. “I’ll catch a couple of hours of sleep. And I do mean two hours - wake me at the end of that or when you identify the other fleet, whatever comes first.”

“Yes master.”

Leon leant back in his chair and closed his eyes, gathering his strength to go to his cabin. He’d get up and go to his cabin. He yawned widely. Cabin… right…

“Master.”

Leon jerked awake. Yikes, had he just dozed off in his seat? He’d at least meant to go to his cabin. His chin felt damp and he realised to his embarrassment that he’d drooled in his sleep. Wiping his jaw, he looked around. “Luxion, how long was I asleep?”

“Two hours, master. I haven’t definitely identified the other fleet, but there are… mixed indications as to who they are.”

He rubbed his head, then raked his hair out of its ponytail and started retying it. “How so?”

“Radar returns from their hull shapes suggests a mix of Holfort’s traditional arrangements and the slightly improved superstructures used by Fanoss warships.”

He did feel better after sleeping. Less fuzzy, although his head was definitely of the opinion that more than a couple of hours would be in order. But this wasn’t good news. “Must be hostile then. Fanoss transports would probably stick with the older hull design. It’s more spacious and they don’t need gun casements.”

“Their speed isn’t consistent with transports,” Luxion corrected him. “It is possible Fanoss still has older warships in the same pattern as Holfort, but we have encountered none so far.”

“Great,” Leon sighed. “Another mystery. I’m going to wash up. Hopefully we’ll have more idea by the time I’ve done that.”

“May I suggest fresh clothes as well, master. I believe most humans of any breed would find your current odour unpleasant.”

Leon glared up at the monitor. “Fine. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t, Luxion.”

“I can hardly operate the Dreadnought while limited to human processing ability.”

“I said wouldn’t, not couldn’t.”

Luxion wasn’t wrong, he reluctantly admitted after a quick but warm shower. It knocked away a bit more at his fatigue - probably not as much as the shock of cold water would, but that would have faded quickly in its effect. Stepping into the kitchen, he cut open a bread-roll and crammed some cheese and sliced sausage inside. Food might also help. When was the last time I sat down for a proper meal?

“Master,” Luxion declared, leaving Leon almost dropping the sandwich as he re-entered the navigation bridge. “I have identified the new fleet.”

“Who?”

The screen lit up, displaying ships that Leon recognised. He fell to his knees, not caring that this time he really did drop his sandwich.

-

‘The last person you’d expect, he’s like a background character that you always find in his office… and once you unlock the hidden route for him, you have to complete it at least once or every other route will just leave you and all the other main characters dead.’

“Acchan!” Katarina exclaimed, jerking upright.

For a moment, she wasn’t sure where she was. This wasn’t her bed, either at the academy or any of the Claes houses. Then she realised that the bookshelves visible in the dim light were those of the hidden annex of the Ministry of Magic library. She was on a camp-bed in one of the alcoves formed by the shelves, screened off from the rest of the room by an improvised curtain.

“What? My lady?” Anne rolled over on the other camp bed in the alcove.

“Never mind. I just had a strange dream.” Katarina squinted at the clock placed between the two beds. Well before dawn. “Go back to sleep, Anne.”

“Are you sure?” the maid asked, though her eyes were still lidded. She was caring for all of the little group hidden away here, which was more work than just looking after Katarina - no small task, as the girl herself would readily admit. “I can…”

“It’s the middle of the night,” Katarina offered apologetically. “I’m sorry I woke you.” She huddled down under the blankets again.

‘Who is Acchan?’ asked Ann, inside of Katarina’s head.

They were well past the point of the girl hiding that from the saintess’ ghost. ‘My best friend in my past life. She’s the one who lent me the game I was playing.’ Katarina tried to remember the girl’s face, but it was hard. Many of the details seemed to blend together with those of other people - particularly Sophia for some reason. At one time, she’d even had a dream of the best moments of her friendship with Acchan, except with Sophia in her place and Katarina’s current form in the place of her old Japanese self.

The maid-saintess in her head nodded. ‘The game where Holfort’s descendant or your adopted brother would kill or exile you for the high crime of defending your legitimate interests?’ she asked. ‘I can see how that would be concerning.’

Katarina frowned. ‘It’s not exactly like that.’ Then she shook her head. ‘And there was something else about the game. Something I’d forgotten about - I never played any part that involved it, but Acchan was telling me about it… dropping hints without actually spoiling it for me.’

‘Like a puzzle?’

‘Yes, it felt great to figure one out and move ahead with the game. Maybe that’s why Sophia reminds me of her - she does the same with romances sometimes.’

‘So what secret did this Acchan tell you about light magic?’ Ann sounded offended at the notion that Katarina’s past life friend could have known anything about the subject that she didn’t.

‘It wasn’t about light magic, it was dark magic… no, a dark magician.’ Katarina tensed suddenly. ‘Oh gosh! Leon’s right, there’s one at the academy!’

She rolled over and looked at Anne. The young woman had gone back to sleep - or at least she’d closed her eyes and was breathing regularly. Katarina slowly pushed her blankets back, careful not to make any noise to wake her poor maid.

‘Who is the dark magic user?’ asked Ann. ‘The one who attacked your friend Sophia?’

‘It wasn’t an attack, exactly, but I think it was.’ Katarina pulled on yesterday’s dress over her nightdress and found her warmest socks. ‘Was them, I mean.’

‘Was who…? I mean, who is the dark magic user?’

‘I don’t remember, but I think I’ll know them if I see them. You know, knock the memory loose.’ She tapped the side of her skull with her knuckles and then winced and looked over at Anne.

The maid rolled over. “No, Lady Katarina, don’t eat that, it’s been on the floor,” she mumbled without waking.

Exhaling in relief, Katarina moved the curtain aside and slipped out into the moonlit library annex on her tip-toes. The tiled floor was cold even through her socks, but her boots would be too loud.

Two more alcoves were curtained off, one Angelica (and Olivia, if she could be found), the other for Sora Smith. The man puzzled Katarina, he smiled at her familiarly now and then and claimed they’d met before… but then he wouldn’t tell her where! She was sure she’d remember someone as roguish as him, if only because Keith would probably have warned her off from talking to him.

Angelica and Anne were both wary of him once Larna explained that he was a dark mage, but really he couldn’t do much. Even Katarina had as much magic and he’d tried to hide that he was sulking after she undid every bit of dark magic he tried on her - under supervision of course.

If anyone was likely to notice her, it was him. Katarina considered leaving a note but decided that writing it would probably make enough noise to wake someone. Finding her boots in the dark was hard enough and she sat in a stack of books to lace them up, since moving a chair would make noise.

Lots of books had been moved aside to make room for anything Larna could find about light magic or dark magic. Olivia had been very disappointed to learn that the annex wasn’t for magical books. Apparently a past librarian had used it to store books that his wife had disapproved of. Other ministry members had continued the tradition over what must have been at least a century until somehow it was forgotten about.

Honestly, Katarina thought that they just looked like romance novels and had looked forwards to seeing if there was anything that might cheer up Sophia. However, Larna had shown one to Anne and the maid’s face had gone a shade of pink that Katarina had never seen before on the maid that was almost a big sister to her. The result had been some truly terrifying threats about no cookies, no buns and no gardening lessons with Yumeria.

In the face of such potential horrors, Katarina had had to accept that she’d be limited to the books she’d brought with her. Although she had a sneaky feeling that Angelica might not be so restrained - there was something suspiciously book-like under the other girl’s pillow last time she had gone over to that alcove.

Her hair snagged on her collar and Katarina realised that she’d left her hairclasp behind. Not wanting to go back for it now that she was in her boots, she pulled out the neckerchief she wore for gardening and used it to cover her hair.

The hidden door didn’t squeak when she opened it. Sora had oiled the hinges, the latch and the lock to avoid that very circumstance. They didn’t want anyone knowing that there was something behind these shelves.

Out of earshot of the others, Katarina broke into a trot towards the entrance of the ministry.

‘How do you plan to get to the academy?’ asked Ann.

Oh yes… Katarina considered that and when she got to one of the long axis corridors that cut across the building she took a left rather than the right that would take her to the entrance.

Kyle and his mother shared a room above what had once been stables. However, these days the ministry had less use for horse transport and most of the stables had been converted for other storage. Katarina remembered visiting Yumeria and seeing inside the old stables when she arrived.

It was still dark when she went out the servants entrance and into the stable yard. A few horses whuffled at her from across the yard where the remaining animals were kept, but she didn’t have any apples or sugar for her. Perhaps she could get some before she came back.

The door to the storeroom was just on a latch, as she remembered. Lifting it, she swung it open and saw the shadowy shape she’d hoped for. A dust sheet was thrown over it, but dragging it off revealed the familiar bulk of an airbike. Katarina scrambled onto it and consulted her memory. Right, so the starter was here…

There was a rising hum and then the airbike took off, floating in mid-air. Her knees felt cold, sitting astride this had pushed her skirt up past them. Oh well. Cold knees weren’t a problem.

She very slowly opened the throttle and the airbike skimmed obediently out of the door. Right, now for take off. She’d have to go up fairly steeply to get over the yard’s gate.

Holding the brakes, Katarina opened the throttle wide. The engine roared loudly. Okay, now angle…

“Hey!” Kyle’s window swung open and the little half-elf stuck his head out. “Do you know what ti-”

“Bye Kyle!” Katarina released the brake and almost fell off as the airbike rocketed upwards.

Behind her, a shrill: “That’s my airbike!” was left behind.

Having navigated her way across the capital from the air before, Katarina was confident in her skills. All she needed to do was find the right road…

Given that it was dark, it was impressive in her own view, that she only had one false start and two accidents. Hopefully no one really needed that weather-cock that she’d hit, but what were the chances of anyone noticing that a tree was missing a couple of branches.

The sun was creeping up over the horizon as the familiar buildings of the campus came into view. Katarina brought the airbike down over the wall, not far from her vegetable garden, and cut power to just barely enough to keep it in the air. She didn’t want to wake anyone - they’d have a long day at school, no need to make them start early for her sake.

‘Are you sure you shouldn’t have told anyone where you are going?’ Ann asked mildly. ‘Your maid is probably awake by now and worrying.’

Katarina looked at the sun. “It’s just sunrise, it’s not that late.”

‘Sunrise in winter is fairly late,’ the ghost of the Saintess pointed out.

...oh. She hadn’t thought of that, she saw the sun rise so rarely. ‘Well, I’ll be quick. I just need to take a look at the student records, figure out who it is and then I can go back and tell them.’

‘You’re not planning to confront the dark mage alone then?’

‘Of course not,’ Katarina assured Ann. ‘I need a proper adventuring party before taking on a boss. That’s just basic common sense.’

‘Thus my concern that you might not have thought about that.’

Sometimes Ann wasn’t very nice, Katarina admitted to herself. But she was getting better.

The student council offices were quiet, unsurprising at this hour. For a moment, Katarina worried that the door would be locked, but it swung open at her hand.

A single lamp lit the hallway, leaving the wing full of haunting shadows. It was almost as if everyone was lying in wait for a surprise party. Katarina checked the door to the archives and found that this, unlike the outer door, was locked. Well bother.

Maybe there was a key upstairs. The student council leaders probably all had keys, maybe they left them in their offices.

‘Which are probably also locked,’ Ann pointed out.

She’d never know if she didn’t try. Katarina went up the stairs and was surprised to find the door to Nicol’s old office was ajar. The light of a second lamp was visible from within.

When she knocked gently on the door, it swung open the rest of the way. “Oh, President Dieke.”

The boy looked up from the paperwork. “Lady Claes?”

“Uh-huh,” she agreed. “I’m sorry to bother you this early.”

“It’s alright,” he said dismissively. “I’m keeping long hours.” There were bags under his eyes, as if he wasn’t sleeping well. “Would you like some tea?”

“That would be lovely.” He made the best tea. It was one of the reasons she was glad she’d been given permission to visit the council offices whenever she wanted - besides having so many friends on the student council.

Sirius Fou Dieke walked over to the side and activated a magical device on the sideboard. A small kettle was mounted above it and he removed the lid and checked inside before closing it up. “It heats the kettle,” he explained, indicating the device. “They’re expensive, but worth it. I was just checking I’d remembered to fill the kettle.”

“It’s like a hot-plate!” Katarina declared in delight. “How clever!”

“I’m not sure what a hot-plate is,” the boy admitted. “But I’ll take your word for it. Why are you back here, Lady Claes? I thought you’d gone back to your family, like so many other students.”

“What? Oh, are they?”

He nodded. “The loss of Duke Redgrave’s fleet and his family leaving the capital has demoralised many families. There’s been a rush of families calling their children back to domains away from the continent. Forty-seven so far. Although forty-six if that’s not where you were… but in that case, why haven’t you been attending classes and… um,” he indicated her hair.

Katarina reached up and then remembered that she was wearing the neckerchief over her hair. “Oh, I forgot my hairclasp,” she said casually. “And it’s… a special project.”

“Ah. And is that over now?”

“No, I’m… looking for Olivia!”

“Here?” Sirius raised his hand as the kettle began to whistle. “Just a moment.” He wrapped a towel around his hand and lifted the kettle off the magical device, pouring hot water into the waiting teapot. Setting the kettle aside, he put the lid on the kettle and gave it a little shake. “You like milk and sugar, don’t you?”

Katarina nodded.

“Excellent. And why are you looking for Miss Campbell here? We’ve searched the entire campus. I’m worried, but it seems most likely that she left the campus, willingly or otherwise.”

“Ah, but…” Katarina broke off, remembering Acchan’s warning again. What had she said about the dark mage?

‘A background character that you always find in his office.’

Sirius poured the tea into two cups and reached for the milk.

“Lord President, are you the hidden dark mage?”

There was a crash as Sirius knocked the jug of milk over onto the floor. It smashed on the polished wood and he stared down at it for a moment and turned to look at Katarina. “Why would you ask that?”

“W-well,” she said apologetically. “Er, let me help clean that up…”

“No, no.” He reached down and lifted the largest piece of the jug. “Why would you ask if I was the dark mage?” Was it Katarina’s imagination or were the shadows of the room moving? Surely it was just the lamp flame causing that?

“Well you’re always in the office…” Wait that didn’t make any sense. “A-and…”

He sighed and shook his head. “Your light magic, I suppose.”

And then the room darkened, as if the lamp was miles away.

“Are you going to save me as well, Saintess Katarina?” Sirius asked.

Wait, saintess? She wasn’t a saintess.

“Why don’t you get some sleep while I tidy this all up,” Sirius suggested, and it seemed like a… terribly… good… idea…

Katarina felt the wooden floor against her knees for a moment and then her so-very-heavy eyelids closed. Her last thought was to wonder why there were tears on Sirius’ face.

-

“So this is your famous lost item.” Hertrude Sera Fanoss looked around as she boarded Dreadnought. “I saw it from the outside, but I rather assumed it would have a more imposing interior.”

“Dreadnought is a working ship,” Leon told her. He’d managed eight hours of sleep since the fleet had arrived, with the reassurance that now the transports were safe.

“You look like hell,” his father told him bluntly as he followed the princess aboard. Then he gave Hertrude an apologetic look.

She shook her head. “I’ve heard the word before, Count Bartford. And you’re not wrong.”

“It’s been a rough few days,” Leon admitted. “So, I gather that you’ve joined forces which is great news, but I’m missing context.” He knew far more than signals had conveyed, since Luxion had sent spy drones across to both his family’s ships - to ensure they weren’t being coerced - and to Hertrude’s - to ensure that no betrayal was planned. But they didn’t know that and he didn’t want to have to explain why he knew.

“I was pushed into the war by Count Garrett. His regency council still essentially rule Fanoss in my name,” the princess admitted. “Letting him have the war was the only path I could find to loosen that grip - with so many of his supporters here, I hope that my sister and her allies are changing that. Until I get home, I won’t know.”

“Your path has killed tens of thousands of people,” Leon observed quietly.

“I assumed as much going into the war,” she replied equally quietly. “I assumed, in fact, that deaths would be more evenly distributed between our two nations. While I’d hate to think of my countrymen dying, I believe that the fact Garrett is unleashing horrors like this is proof that anything I do to get him out of power is justified.”

Leon looked her in the eye and saw her resolve. “You may be right. And yet you’re here on Dreadnought, looking for a ride back to Holfort?”

“Mind your manners, son.” Barcus Fou Bartford kept the reprimand mild. “She’s still a princess - and not all the ships with her were amenable to joining her. She had to fight her own people to get this far.”

He tilted his head in acknowledgement of his father’s point. “My point stands, your highness.”

“You may as well drop that honorific.” Hertrude smiled slightly. “Although does this vast vessel at least have somewhere to sit down?”

“I think I can just about manage that level of hospitality,” Leon answered, mind racing. He led them to a lounge. “Quarters are being prepared - a little cramped, unfortunately.”

“I’ve trusted you as my escort before, I’m willing to do so again,” the princess (whatever she had just said) assured him. “The reason I must go to Holfort is that the scale of Garrett’s victories force it on me. If the kingdom and principality were locked in a bloody deadlock, I could reasonably offer both sides a satisfactory way to back down. But it’s much worse than that. Hatred of Fanoss must be driving the royal court to be equally extreme in hitting back. Unless I can distinguish between Garrett’s actions and my people’s, the backlash will be just as severe. King Roland will have no choice about calling for a war to the knife.”

“Just as you had little to no choice about this war?” Barcus asked curiously.

“Essentially.”

Leon nodded. “I see. So you’re going to present yourself as an ally. And recast Garrett as a renegade that Holfort and Fanoss can join forces against.”

“Exactly,” Hertrude confirmed. “I’ll have to make concessions besides that, but the sooner I can get to Holfort, the sooner I can establish the narrative.”

Barcus shook his head. “Politics.”

“It is distasteful but also true.” She looked around. “I understand that your ship is among the fastest in the kingdom, Leon. I’m confident that my remaining ships will remain under Count Roseblade’s direction if not his direct command in escorting your force back to the continent. I do suggest that we depart as soon as possible.”

Leon let a smile cross his lips. “We’re underway as we speak. It’ll take us a couple of days to reach Holfort.”

Hertrude’s eyes went wide. “A couple as in two days? From here to the capital?!”

“Dreadnought’s mostly engines and bunkerage,” he lied with the practice of frequent repetition. “Sails would just slow her down, even with the wind behind her. If you want to even see your ships again before they catch up, we’ll need to go back on deck right away.”

“...I think that won’t be necessary.”

“I didn’t think Dreadnought was quite that fast, son.”

“I didn’t think it wise to draw attention to the fact. Hopefully we’ll make it back to the capital before news of the outcome of the battle,” Leon added. “I don’t think there were any other Holfort survivors, so at least there shouldn’t be a panic to deal with at the port.”

“What do you mean about not calling you ‘your highness’, your highness?” his father asked Hertrude.

She sighed. “I was recently given the chance to see the original treaty that separated Fanoss from the kingdom. Our copy was lost, probably deliberately. It’s suited my ancestors mostly to pretend that the cause was Holfort tyranny, but it seems that there was at least some wrongdoing on their part. Perhaps considerable wrongdoing. I’m sure that that’s the Holfort’s view. While I’m not enthused with some of their policies, any outcome of this war will leave us both badly weakened so…”

“So…?” Barcus enquired.

“Are you suggesting reversing the succession?” Leon asked bluntly.

“If they’re willing to moderate some of their policies that seem a little too directly aimed at claiming the nobility,” Hertrude confirmed steadily. “I did start this war, after all. And my parents believed that the constant wars between principality and kingdom should be stopped. Their approach… hasn’t worked. Perhaps this one will.”

“That’s…” the older Bartford shook his head in disbelief. “You’re going to surrender your crown?”

“It depends how flexible King Roland proves to be. I do require some concessions on policy, as I said. I think the current war suggests that weakening the nobility has caused Holfort’s military might to be less impressive than it should have been, even discounting the dark magic used.” Hertrude rested her hands on her knees. “I imagine that they will ask you what I’ve said before they negotiate seriously - and there will be doubts of my sincerity since our recent treaty was betrayed almost immediately. Normally I’d hold some cards back, but when they ask you, please let them know that if they prefer I would be willing to also abdicate in favour of my sister - Hertrauda never had any part in past negotiations so her reputation is clean of that stain.”

“...I guess that would help?” Barcus couldn’t really hide that he was feeling out of his depth.

“Being a princess was only fun until I grew up to realise the responsibilities involved.”
 

Bear Ribs

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He wasn’t sure the monster - shark-headed, ape-limbed and with razor spines along its back - that burst into view on deck aboard the enemy flagship was Marchioness Dieke, but the ragged clothes that remained to it could have been her gown.
That line is quite chilling. Granted losing her is no great loss to Humanity, new or otherwise, but the man's musings display a splendid lack of empathy and high degree of sociopathy.

Fanoss' strategy seems like a huge gamble to me. They literally knew the fleet they were facing were second-stringers, and the King's better stuff was in reserve and blew their trump card on it anyway, even with the knowledge that Leon's ship could escape. Granted they're also working behind the scenes to get rid of the light mages that are its natural counter, but that still leaves them in a precarious situation if they can't maintain their momentum because now Holfort is well forewarned and it's not a trick that's likely to work twice.

Granted if your strategy revolves around spewing dark magic everywhere you're probably not the conservative, sane type who doesn't take excessive risks in the first place.
 
Spreading Shadows 10-4

drakensis

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Spreading Shadows

The power of love is a curious thing
Make a one man weep, make another man sing
~ Huey Lewis​

Chapter 4

Widows comfort themselves when they remarry, widowers take revenge. ~ French Proverb​

Waking up on a stone floor was no fun, Katarina found.

“Lady Katarina, are you alright?”

“I think so,” she mumbled. “How are you, Olivia? ...Olivia!” She sat up sharply and inadvertently headbutted the blonde. “Owie… Oh no!” The other girl had fallen over backwards. “I can’t have killed someone with my head!” Katarina exclaimed, trying to remember how to heal someone with light magic.

“I’m not dead!” Olivia protested. “I think…” She raised her hands to her head and rubbed it. “But please don’t do that again.”

“I promise.” Katarina raised her hands. “Let me try and help with that.”

‘Healing oneself with light magic can be a little challenging,’ Ann noted. ‘But with the two of you, that’s not necessary.’

The two girls applied their light magic to each other’s heads, and Katarina sighed in relief. “Thank you.” She hugged Olivia once the other girl confirmed that she was also feeling better. “I’m so glad I found you.”

The blonde looked a little sad. “I wish I’d broken free so you didn’t need to.”

“But we can leave now?”

Olivia gave her a rueful look and then reached down to her ankle, revealing a manacle locked around it and chained to the wall. A second chain connected to a similar manacle on Katarina’s ankle. “It’s not going to be quite that easy, Lady Katarina.”

“Oh.” Katarina focused on the wall. “Earth bump.”

The wall didn’t so much as twitch!

“Earth bump!”

The same result.

“No!” Katarina exclaimed. “How could earth bump fail me?”

“I think the wall’s been reinforced against magic,” Olivia explained. “I’ve read about it but it’s the first time that I’ve actually encountered it.”

The brunette sighed in frustration. “How did you end up here?”

The other girl moved to lean against her. “I was getting ready to leave when I noticed something odd about Prince Julius and his friends. I wasn’t sure what it was until I got back to the student council and I told Lord Dieke.” She shook her head. “I was such a fool. And I was useless as well. I’m supposed to have the most light magic in years but it didn’t mean anything. He knocked me out easily. The next thing I knew, I was down here.”

Katarina took the other girl’s hand. “There’s nothing wrong with having trusted him. He’s the Lord President of the Student Council. You didn’t have any reason to believe he was a dark mage.” She rubbed the back of her head, embarrassed, dislodging the neckerchief she’d still been wearing. “I kind of… guessed it when I was talking to him. I probably shouldn’t have just blurted it out.”

‘No.’ “No.” Both Ann and Olivia were apparently in agreement on that, although the girl added: “Although it is very like you, Lady Katarina.”

“Is it just me, or did he seem a bit… sad?” She bunched up the neckerchief and pocketed it. The summoning pen for Big Stein was still in there as well, even though the giant robot had been destroyed months ago now. Katarina activated it anyway, just in case it helped somehow. It couldn’t hurt. She didn’t tell Olivia though, there was no point raising her expectations.

“Let me help you with your hair,” Olivia offered.

Katarina obediently moved around to sit with her back to Olivia, so the other girl could work at it. Apparently the other girl kept a comb in her pocket. She was obviously crazy prepared for this sort of situation - Katarina decided she should probably start doing the same.

They were just about done working all the tangles in Katarina’s hair when the door to the room opened slightly. “Are you both decent?” Sirius asked politely.

“Would you stay out if I said no?” Olivia asked in a tight voice.

“Er, yes? But it might be hard for me to change the chamber pot and give you your food,” the boy pointed out.

Food? “You can come in!” Katarina assured him.

The boy moved in with a tray that he left tantalisingly out of reach on the far end of the room, before moving over and collecting a chamberpot from the corner of the room. Stepping outside he returned with a bottle and filled two cups on the tray. “I’d rather not give you a glass bottle,” he explained and moved the tray over into reach.

Katarina crawled over and Sirius backed away while she carried it back to Olivia.

“I’ll be back shortly,” the redhead told her. “Calling for help won’t do anything, there’s no one nearby.”

She honestly hadn’t thought of that, the food was too busy reminding her that she hadn’t had breakfast. It was some sort of stew, in two wooden bowls. Katarina wolfed hers down and was scraping the bowl before Olivia was even halfway done.

“Would you like some of mine?” the shorter girl offered.

“But aren’t you hungry?” asked Katarina and licked her spoon clean.

Olivia smiled and poured about half of what she had left into Katarina’s bowl. “It’s alright, you’re obviously hungry.”

“You’re the best, Olivia!”

The cups held wine. Katarina didn’t particularly like wine. She’d tried some before when she was younger and all she remembered of that occasion was that she’d had the most terrible headache afterwards. Keith said that it was probably for the best that she didn’t remember, but mother had been furious as well.

Still, her mother wasn’t here and it wasn’t a lot of wine. She sipped it a little and then offered the rest to Olivia. It tasted rather watery.

Sirius returned with the chamberpot. He leant against the wall and watched them finish the meal. “This should all be over soon. You ought to be safe here, until then.” His face, half in shadow, didn’t suggest satisfaction or relief.

“Are you alright?” Katarina asked, after swallowing another mouthful of stew. “Do you want to talk about it?”

He gasped out something like a laugh. “Talk about it?”

“Do you? Want to, I mean?”

He exhaled slowly. “I don’t know. I really don’t know.”

“Why are you doing this?” Olivia asked. “Why use dark magic on the boys - or on Sophia? That was you, wasn’t it?”

“Oh, they’re far from the only ones.” Sirius drew a shaky breath. “I suppose it started with my mother.”

“Marchioness Dieke?”

“That woman!” He broke off, seemingly overcome by the venom he’d injected into those two words. Another breath. “That woman is not my mother.”

“Eh… but…?” Was he adopted, like Keith?

“My mother was a maid on the Dieke estate,” Sirius continued. “After the marquis got her pregnant, she was dismissed and she had to bring me up alone. It was… probably harder for her than I realised. But we were happy. I didn’t need a father. And then… and then…” He seemed to choke.

Olivia gripped Katarina’s hand tightly. When she glanced at her, the blonde’s face was pale.

“We were taken somewhere on the estate,” Sirius managed, after a moment. “There was a dark mage there, working for that woman. I saw other children there. Heaped like firewood after the man was done with them.”

She wasn’t sure if it was Olivia or herself who sobbed at hearing that.

“She… the… that woman cursed my mother. Said, how dare she have a healthy child when her own Sirius was sick and dying. My mother begged her. Said she’d do anything as long as I wasn’t harmed. And then she… she said…” Sirius’ voice took a haunting tone: “‘That precious body won’t be hurt at all, it must be perfect for my Sirius to wear’.”

Wet tears were rolling down Katarina’s cheeks, a match for those on Sirius’ face. Or whatever his name was.

“And… and he did it and my mother joined those children… The last time I ever saw her… And I had to pretend!” He cried out, voice rising to a howl. “I had to pretend it didn’t matter! I had to pretend I didn’t care! I had to act like I loved that woman, that I was precious Sirius! That Rafael Walt was as dead as his mother!” Sirius… no… Rafael fell to his hands and knees.

The boy stayed like that, head down, chest heaving.

“R-Rafael?” Katarina wasn’t sure what she was asking. He wasn’t alright, that was plain. Could she help? But help him to do what.

Slowly he pulled himself up, kneeling facing the two girls. “I had his memories, or some of them,” Rafael continued, voice steadier… although he didn’t meet their eyes. “I don’t know what went wrong with what they tried. I never saw the mage again, I’d never have trusted his words anyway. But I had something else. Enough dark magic to cloud memories if I slipped up. More than that as I grew practised.”

“You said it would all be over soon?” asked Olivia nervously. “What do you mean?”

“Fanoss is coming,” he told them. “The island-breakers, they used to be called. In the old histories. There are centuries of hatred between them and Holfort. They only need an opportunity and they’ll break this whole rotten kingdom. Send all the lords and ladies screaming down into the oceans below. Avenge everyone they’ve murdered and robbed over the centuries. So I gave them that.”

Olivia swallowed, “What have you done?”

“That woman thinks I’m her son. She introduced me to all sorts of people.” He looked up, and there was a cruelty on his face that did not belong with Katarina’s memories of the kind student council president. “A little push, here or there. Making rumours of half-elf line-theft seem real.” He laughed sharply. “Who knew that it was actually true at times? Convincing that woman’s good friend Malcolm that his plans could still work after his letters were shown in front of court. Sending your friend out with the prince and his pack of fools, so that her father wasn’t paying attention to foreign affairs.”

So he had been the one who did that. “Did you want to hurt her?” Katarina asked.

“What about the other people?” Olivia burst out. “The people who’ve already died? The people who’ll be killed if Fanoss smashes the entire continent!? People like your mother!?”

Rafael’s eyes went shockingly wide. “I…” And then a shadow fell over him. “I don’t care any more.” Dark magic flared into being around him, a halo of nightmares around his hair, expanding until a rink of black clouds filled the room. “I don’t care about anyone since she died. I don’t care! I don’t care! I want my revenge and then I want it to END!”

“No more lies.”

“No more pretending to be Sirius fucking Dieke.”

“No more of ANYTHING!”

Olivia blazed with light but the shadows cut through it as they tried to swallow her. “No!” the girl protested. “I don’t know how to fight this!”

‘Guard yourself!’ Ann warned, and Katarina envisaged the saintess brushing the dark magic back with a mop.

She reached out and caught Olivia’s hand, the other girl having released her in her panic. “Like this.” Her own light flared up. Weak compared to the blonde’s magic, but she had Ann to guide her.

‘I said ‘yourself’,’ the saintess protested. ‘You’re not strong enough…’

“Oh,” Olivia exclaimed. “OH!” And, eyes wide with understanding, she raised their conjoined hands. “Yes, Lady Katarina!”

Light met darkness! The collision was like a thousand discordant bells!

-

While Marquis Frampton had dismissed reports of dark magic being used against Duke Redgrave, and the student council president had diligently maintained the official line, there was no way to prevent rumours from spreading through the student body.

The students who’d gone out with the fleet were mostly well known - and no one had even tried to hide that Brad had died. Both Marie and Katarina being asked to go with Duke Ades fleet as a light mage was also common knowledge.

So when a veritable storm of darkness erupted from the trees at the back of the academy, the result was panic. Classes were abandoned, teachers who stood in the path were simply knocked aside (in one case trampled to the point he’d need medical aid) as students reacted in whatever manner they felt best.

“Is Fanoss attacking?” Yulia called to Violette as she stood on a flower bed to stay out of the way of a flood of young women, servants and a few male students who would probably be quite embarrassed later that they were among those fleeing for the academy exit - either to take shelter in the capital or to take ship for their homes.

Violette glanced at her sister, who should be at least a little more informed as she was on the Student Council.

Scarlet glanced up at the grey-and-black sky. “I see no skyships up there,” she reported matter-of-factly. “I’ll investigate.”

Guessing at her twin’s likely intentions, Violette caught her arm. “Wait, you shouldn’t go alone. I’ll go with you.”

The younger of the two blinked and then relaxed slightly. “Certainly.” Then she scooped her loose-haired twin up in a princess carry.

“Waaaait!” Violette cried out as Scarlet simply leapt across the panicking students with a single standing leap, rebounding off the wall of a classroom and towards the roof of the dining hall. She was reminded again that Scarlet was - among other things - one of the biggest experts at the academy in physically reinforcing herself. Even the instructor for that class had just given up and granted her immediate completion of the course with perfect results, saying that there was nothing more he could teach her. Not the sort of admission a teacher liked to make.

Scarlet paused, balancing on the edge of the dining hall roof. “Sorry, what was that?”

“Stop at my room first! I want my sword.”

“Ah.” Her sister nodded and then started jumping from building to building again. Violette was glad she had a fairly strong stomach, because otherwise she might be wearing her lunch right now.

It only took a few moments for Scarlet to land on the balcony of Violette’s rooms. “Can you open this from the outside?” she asked.

“I didn’t really plan on needing to…” She broke off as Scarlet drove her fist through one of the glass panels of the balcony window, letting her reach through to unlatch the doors. “Well, what’s a little more broken glass right now,” Violette figured out loud.

She went inside, careful not to stand on the glass, and found her sword where she had left it in the umbrella-stand near the door. Just as she was buckling the sword belt around her waist, someone knocked on the door. “Violette, are you in there? I heard glass breaking.”

Violette unlocked the door and opened it, finding Sophia on the other side. “Scarlet was in a hurry and broke a window,” she replied. “You’d better stay in your room.”

“Wait!” the albino girl exclaimed, pointing at the sword. “You’re going to investigate, aren’t you?”

“Yes.”

“I’m on the student council! I should go with you!”

Violette examined the smaller girl and then asked, not unkindly. “What can you do?”

Crimson eyes narrowed. “I’m a wind mage! And I’m not going to be useless again.”

“You realise that this could be the same dark mage that caught you before?” Scarlet asked, walking in from the balcony.

Sophia nodded. “That’s another reason to go.”

Violette took a deep breath. “We may not have time to discuss this. Scarlet, you’re in charge.”

“I can manage two,” the other silver-blonde declared. “But it may be a little rough.”

“What do you mean ro---aaaaugh!” Sophia’s question was interrupted when Scarlet scooped her up and threw her over one shoulder. Violette had just enough warning to brace herself for winding up in the same position on the other shoulder.

And then they got the even more nauseating experience of being carried backwards as Scarlet ran out of the room, leapt off the balcony and started running for the back of the campus

“This is - not what - I had in - mind!” Sophia exclaimed. “Urk! Oh- ugh - not again!”

One advantage of being carried like this, Violette thought, was that Sophia’s lunch was left behind rather than being plastered all over them.

At last the wild ride ended and her sister put the two of them down at the edge of the trees. They turned around and saw the shadows of the forest twisting and maddened by the magic being unleashed.

“Didn’t we search the trees after Olivia vanished?” asked Sophia

Violette nodded. “Sirius looked there.”

“Leon and I were searching the woods back when Katarina was abducted,” Scarlet remembered. “There’s a ruined building in there, but before we reached it the ransom note arrived so we never went inside.”

“There must be something!” protested Sophia.

“Let’s find out!”

The three girls forced their way in, Sophia and Violette flinching away from the crackling bolts of dark magic. “This doesn’t seem under any sort of control,” Violette exclaimed. “Look out, Scarlet!”

Her sister grabbed hold of a tree branch and swung it against the streamer of magic, sending it scattering back and away from her. “I thought dark magic affected minds. This doesn’t seem anything like that.”

Sophia shivered. “Is that the ruin?”

Violette nodded. “It is… and it’s where the magic is coming from!”

Sure enough the magic was blasting up out from behind the roofless walls of what looked like no more than an old supply building. Something left behind by some old student project, perhaps? They crept closer and peeked through the empty doorway.

Violette saw the darkness was rising from one of the flat paving stones on the far side of the overgrown interior that made up the floor - or rather where it should have been. It had been levered up and she could tell that there were stairs leading down.

“How do we get down there without getting hit by the magic?”

Sophia cupped her jaw. “We can see the stairs, so they lead back towards us, right?”

“I guess?”

The albino girl indicated the floor. “Then why not just go right down? Whatever’s down there, it’s likely just a cellar so it probably fits right beneath the whole floor.” She paused. “Er… wait, we’d need an earth mage. Maybe if we found Keith…”

“I have another idea.” Scarlet raised her right hand and then slowly curled her fingers together. Magic began to lightly glitter around the hand.

Violette grabbed Sophia and threw them both off to the side as her sister brought her clenched fist down on the floor right inside the door.

Dirt and stone exploded upwards in all directions. Sophia yelped and threw up her hand, a gust of wind deflecting most of what would have landed on them.

“That… was not what… I had in mind?” the smaller girl admitted, looking up. “But… it seemed to work.”

Scarlet brushed herself down and gestured to the crater that had formed. “There’s something down there besides dark magic.”

Sure enough, what was visible through the hole at the button wasn’t entirely black shadows. The glitter was a familiar hue.

“Light magic,” Violette concluded. “I think we’ve found Olivia.”

Sophia scrambled and looked over. “No… Well, yes! But we’ve also found Lady Katarina!”

“Sophia!” a familiar voice came from down the hole. “We’re down here!”

Grabbing another of the paving stones, Scarlet levered it up and started to expand the hole until it was large enough for them to get down there. Violette and Sophia helped with the smaller debris filling the space between the paving slabs and the roof of the room below.

As soon as there was enough of a hole they dropped through, finding themselves in a corner of the room, shielded from the raving dark magic by a bubble of light magic. Scarlet grimaced at the chains restraining their classmates, but Violette’s eyes went directly to the source of the dark magic.

She wasn’t sure at first if he was the source or its victim. Sirius’ eyes were hidden by shadows, and others formed something like a cloak around him as he screamed wordlessly at the centre of the storm. “S-sirius?”

“No,” Katarina corrected her. “Well, yes, kind of. But also no. It’s complicated.”

“He’s the dark mage?” Sophia exclaimed. “My god, it really is always the last person that you’d suspect.”

Violette’s twin gave up on breaking the chains free of the wall - apparently that was beyond even her - and she snapped some of the links instead. “So we knock him out and bring him to justice?”

“I’ve no idea what light magic will do to him,” Olivia admitted. “But I don’t think walking into the middle of that would be… Lady Violette!”

Stepping out of the bubble, Violette felt the magic tear into her. Felt it burrow into her, looking for memories and the pain inside of them.

Every time her mother had screamed at her for not being Auld.

Every time she’d been oh so politely reminded that her father had abandoned her.

Every time that man came back and demanded she be a perfect sister to Scarlet and Vermilion, never bothering to explain how.

Every time Chris turned away from her.

Every time she’d hidden and cried in shame.

In anger.

In fear.

On trembling feet she took a second step. Then another, tears pouring down her face.

Again and again, feeling every moment over again.

And finally, after what seemed like eternity, she was standing in front of her fiance, or whoever he was.

“What is it you want?”

For it all to end, part of her begged.

But there was another part. A part she kept hidden away.

A part that watched her sister dance - or Alan composing music - or even Vermilion playing with his toys.

A part that still hungered for all the cruel lies of love and beauty, even if she’d never have them.

“What do you want?” she asked, forcing the words out. “Tell me.”

For a moment there was another face visible over Sirius’. An older man, dark bearded. Foreign, she thought. “I want revenge. My…”

The next words were tangled. As if too many people were trying to speak with one throat. She could make nothing of it.

“Revenge?”

“Yes.” Two voices, in agreement. One a grown man, the other a child.

Violette took hold of him, one hand on either side of his face. Her thumbs seemed to crackle, so close to the black voids over his eyes. “Leon says that the best revenge is to live well. I think… he’s probably right.”

“I… no… mother… what…” His lips spat words. She felt sweat on his face. And for a moment one eye was clear. Grey. Innocent. Terrified.

And like searing light, hands settled upon her shoulders. Reflected in Sirius’ one visible eye, she saw Katarina on one side of her, Olivia on the other. And behind them, Sophia and her sister had followed the two light mages into the heart of the darkness.

“Rafael,” Katarina asked, her voice barely audible over the roaring in Violette’s ears. “Let us help you.”

Rafael? His real name, Violette guessed.

“No, I… I want…”

“Rafael,” Violette asked. “Has revenge ever, even once, made you feel any better?”

Crackling light reached down her arms, scorching them as the magic wove itself into the shadows most directly around Rafael, the cloak around his face, her hands clinging to it.

His head tried to shake. Couldn’t. He mouthed one word.

No.

“This will probably hurt,” she apologised. And closing her light-wreathed hands upon the shadows, she yanked them away from him.

From the way Rafael screamed, she’d probably been right.

God knew, it hurt her.

Violette fell to her knees keening as the shadows gave way and searing pain blazed through her hands and arms.

Her sister’s strong arms caught her, which was the first comfort.

Olivia’s healing magic was the second confort.

Rafael - or Sirius - had also fallen. His head lay in her lap as she knelt over him.

“I’m breaking off our engagement,” she told the unconscious boy, taking a third comfort for herself.

It was about time she did something for her own sake.

-

Leon came down on the academy, braced to fight whatever was causing the dark magic to fountain up out of it, only for it to gutter out as he landed. “Well, that was anticlimactic.”

“Did you scare it off?” Marie Fou Lafan asked hopefully from his lap. There was only a fairly thin cushion between them and even her fairly light weight was enough to make that uncomfortable at this point.

“I hope not, because hunting whoever that was would be a pain,” he grumbled and landed his knight-armour on the edge of the woods, not far from where the dark magic had seemed to be coming from - and also where Katarina’s signalling pen was transmitting from. Most of the students seemed to have sensibly headed away from it, but a number of students - mostly younger members of the student council were approaching - led by Nicol and Clarice, clutching weapons intended for the dungeon.

“Leon!” the blonde called up. “When did you get back?”

He cracked open the hatch. “Get out, Lafan. I’ve had quite enough of your perfume.”

“You just don’t know how to appreciate a lady,” she protested, but she did scramble out.

Clarice looked up eagerly at the hatch but then her face took a dangerous look. “Lafan? What are you doing in my man’s knight-armour?”

The little blonde scrambled down. “He wasn’t going to try fighting dark magic alone, Atlee. I was the only light mage he had to hand.”

“A painful requirement,” Leon confirmed, climbing out with more difficulty than he liked. His legs ached. “Knight-armours are not made for carrying two people. I should probably have considered that when it was being rebuilt.”

Clarice grabbed hold of him and kissed him. “We won then?”

He met her gaze, arms encircling him.

“Dammit,” she sighed and rested her head against his. “I figured you’d survive a loss, you did last time. But Lafan managed too.”

“Giving her fair credit, she saved a lot of lives,” he admitted and glanced around. No Ades twins, no Sirius Dieke… “Where’s the president?”

“Missing,” Nicol told him. “And it couldn’t have been a worse time. Deirdre’s looking for him and I wouldn’t want to be him when she finds him.”

“The vice-president?”

Clarice snorted. “You’re holding her.”

“Promotion?” he asked? The vice-president was another boy, son of a southern count. Hefner? Something like that - he wasn’t really memorable.

“His family called him home.”

Leon winced. “Right. And does anyone have any idea what happened to that?” he gestured to the woods.

Nicol gestured for them to follow him and started walking into the woods.

“No, but someone saw Scarlet heading towards it, carrying her sister and Sophia,” Gerald added.

That… didn’t make much sense. “Before the dark magic?” Leon asked, walking with one arm around Clarice.

“No, after.”

“Hmmm.” At least that ruled out some sudden plot-twist like Scarlet being the secret dark mage. Leon had a pretty good idea who it was, but he’d not picked up on the young man actually doing anything… and there had just been no time to investigate further after bringing Sophia back. “And what was that about Olivia?”

“She didn’t make it to the Ministry,” Clarice told him soberly. “We all thought she’d left, but the next day Director Smith sent a messenger looking for her.”

“...dammit.” That suggested that this was close to the book’s events around Sirius. And if Katarina was at the Ministry, then no one was likely to help snap him out of his semi-possession by the dark mage who had tried to transplant the real Sirius over to him - assuming that that was remotely accurate. And assuming that she was at the MInistry. It was her signal that Luxion had picked up as Dreadnought arrived in radio range of the continent. So she might be in the middle of this.

He started walking faster, Clarice hastening her own steps.

They’d almost reached the overgrown ruins - an old laboratory building, if Leon remembered the original plans of the Academy correctly - before they saw movement. Two heads of silver-blonde hair, one of the owners carrying the missing student-president and the other being supported by both Olivia and…

“Katarina!” Gerald exclaimed, rushing forwards to his fiancee.

“Violette!” his twin called in almost the same tone and he too ran forwards, taking over supporting Katarina’s cousin as the brunette was pulled away by the blond prince.

“Oh my god!” Marie squealed, “When did this - ow!”

Leon removed the hand that he’d chopped down on the crown of her hand. “Read the moment, brat. What happened?” he asked Scarlet.

“We broke into the cellar, rescued the kidnapped girls and smote the villain,” she explained.

“Sophia.” Nicol pulled his own sister into a hug. “You worried me.”

“I’m sorry, big brother.” The albino buried herself against him.

Clarice looked at the unconscious redhead that Scarlet was carrying under one arm. “So was he a villain or are you taking him with you as a trophy?”

“He is the dark mage,” she said blandly, and then added. “Or I think so. Cousin Katarina said it was complicated.”

“Uh, speaking of Katarina…” Marie pulled off the Saintess’ bracelet and offered it to Katarina. “This is yours?”

“My bracelet!” she squealed and put it on immediately.

The little blonde gave her an apologetic look. “I got the impression that the temple didn’t ask you before giving it to me.”

“It’s okay, you gave it back.” Then Katarina gave her a big hug. “And you came back safely. That’s great.”

“Ah…” Leon coughed into his fist. “This… Um, Scarlet, Violette… about your father… I have bad news.”

The twins exchanged looks. “If you’re going to say the bad news is that he made it back safely, I may kick you,” Violette said tiredly.

“No,” he admitted. “I’m sorry, Scarlet. Your punch bag is gone.”

“Ah.” She dropped Sirius unceremoniously. “I…” The girl swallowed.

Violette hobbled towards her, supported by Alan. “It’s okay to cry, Scarlet.”

“Even for him?”

“Even that man.”

“Oh.” Scarlet leant against her sister and a tear did form at the corner of the normally stoic girl’s eye. “I’m going to miss him.”

“That’s okay.” Violette wasn’t crying but she put her arms around her sister. Her sleeves were gone, Leon was surprised to see, as if they’d been burned off, but her arms were unscathed. Alan put his arms around both of them.

Reaching down, Leon picked up Sirius Fou Dieke. “His mother didn’t make it either.”

“She wasn’t his mother,” Katarina corrected him.

“What?” asked Gerald.

“Well, you meant Marchioness Dieke, Leon? She wasn’t his mother.”

Olivia spoke up. “The real Sirius must have died years ago. He told us that he was Sirius’ half-brother - the Marchioness tried to move her son’s soul into his body.”

“Is that even possible?” Clarice exclaimed, a horrified expression on her face.

“I don’t know,” the blonde admitted. “I don’t think it worked. Or not entirely. He said he had some of Sirius’ memories… but the way he was acting, I think the dark mage who carried it out left something of himself there as well.”

“He’s the one who enchanted my sister?” Nicol asked quietly, but with a note in his voice that drew all eyes.

“Leave it to the Ministry,” Leon told him firmly. “Frampton’s gone, I suspect Director Smith will be happy to keep your father informed - he was the previous minister, so she likely knows him well. And we need every source of knowledge he can contribute about dark magic. Garrett’s destroyed two fleets, he has to know that the kingdom is on its last legs. And Fanoss is rebelling against what he’s done to accomplish that. He’s got little choice now but to roll the dice and finish the war in victory so he can go home.”

“Who is Garrett?” asked Katarina.

“Count Garrett,” Gerald told her. “Leader of Princess’ Hertrude’s council. But what do you mean Fanoss is rebelling?”

Leon glanced north and pointed at the distant but visible shape of Dreadnought in the distance, as visible for the thin contrail behind as its huge hull, so far away it was. “Princess Hertrude is on her way to offer an alliance against him. Her sister is trying to clear his supporters out of the principality.” And Luxion’s best guess at lie detection suggested that the princess was at least grudgingly sincere.

“That’s… huge.” Gerald admitted. “But now that two fleets have been destroyed… How bad was it?”

“Worse than last time,” Leon admitted. “My best estimate,” Luxion’s, rather, which was likely very accurate, “Is that between this time and Duke Redgrave’s defeat we’ve lost something close to a ninety thousand sailors and knights.”

“Ninety… thousand…?!”

The number was mind-boggling. And what made it worse was that close to half of Garrett’s own casualties so far were those of his supporters that had been with Hertrude’s forces. Holfort had been mauled and they’d barely managed to hit back at all.

Marie reached out and handed the Saintess’ Sceptre to Olivia. Then she reached up and removed the Necklace, offering that as well. When Olivia was obviously too startled to take it, she secured it around the larger blonde’s neck. “I thought I could be the heroine,” Marie admitted. “But it was all I could do to protect a few ships. I’m not good enough.”

“No one would have made it back without you,” Leon pointed out.

“The - A real heroine would have saved everyone.” The little girl swallowed. “I’ll do what I can to help, but the kingdom needs the Saintess’ real heir.”

Olivia stared at Marie, eyes wide with disbelief. Then she looked at Katarina for direction.

“Looks like there’s a few people who need to go to the Ministry,” Leon told them. “Back to the Ministry, in one case. What were you doing here?”

“I had an idea to find the dark mage!” she said proudly.

“You got chained up in a dungeon,” pointed out Scarlet.

“But I still found him!”

“Katarina!” Gerald cried out. “Why didn’t you tell anyone?!”

“It was the middle of the night!”

“Wake me up! I don’t care what time it is!”

“But I’m not allowed to go into a boy’s bedroom!”

Leon sighed. “Gerald, would you take your fiancee, Olivia and your cousin’s little bit of fluff….”

“Hey!”

“Shut it, brat. Look, take our three light mages here, and Dieke to the Ministry,” Leon continued. “I’m pretty sure that you, at least, won’t get distracted.”

The prince nodded.

“Nicol, Alan, can I trust you with the intrepid rescue party here?”

“Sure,” Alan agreed. Nicol said nothing, but he was still holding onto his little sister, as if afraid she’d slip away if he let go. Given recent events, he might have a point.

“What are you going to do?” asked Marie, pointing at him.

“I am going to escort my lady to her rooms and possibly do some things with her that are none of your damn business.” He gave Clarice a quick look, “If I may?”

“I thought you’d never ask.”
 

Simonbob

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“I had an idea to find the dark mage!” she said proudly.

“You got chained up in a dungeon,” pointed out Scarlet.

“But I still found him!”

“Katarina!” Gerald cried out. “Why didn’t you tell anyone?!”

“It was the middle of the night!”

“Wake me up! I don’t care what time it is!”

“But I’m not allowed to go into a boy’s bedroom!”
I'm still laughing. :D :D

She's still the funniest part of this story.
 
Author Note

drakensis

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We're now at the end of arc 10. There is one more arc, with five chapters, to go. I am going to post these over the next week, to finish the story as currently written. This would take us to the end of Leon's first year at the academy. It will not resolve everything as I always intended to leave some matters hanging for a potential sequel.

I do accept that there are valid concerns with how I have handled the recent arcs (The SB thread has been very active and mostly in a civil and constructive fashion). I am looking at the possibility of replacing these arcs with a complete new third act, as I don't believe minor rewrites would resolve them. I cannot at this time promise that I will do so but I've started making notes on the topic. That will likely take some time to draft and decide if I think it's viable. I have some ideas and it would go in a rather different direction. If I do in fact do this it will probably be written as a Camp Nano project in April and posted after that, in which case the chapters being replaced will be moved to Omakes.

Any thinking about a sequel will be on hold until I decide what to do with this story.

Thank you for your time, your patience and your feedback.
 

dreese55

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I do not know. It seems you have done an execellent job mashing these 2 stories together along with Leon. Every rewrite tends to make a story better, its just if you want to work on this story more or you feel you would rather do something else. Thanks for writing Drake!

Guess im gonna have to check out the space battles to see what they suggested.
 
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