OK, this is an additional Author's Note. My computer has, once again, decided it needs to be pampered and is in need of being fixed. Or a new monitor, one of the two. I'll be taking it to the computer shop tomorrow, but I have no clue when it'll be fixed. I have written a few weeks in advance for my main stories, but my ficlet collection will be put on hold, as I am using a crappy Windows 10 laptop to write this note and I loathe both laptops and Windows 10, not necessarily in that order.
Please read, review and check out my other stories! Also, please check my profile for my writing schedule, BEFORE you ask in a review or PM. Seriously people, I do not abandon stories on a whim!
Beta'd by BigCC
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Disclaimer: I do not own Familiar of Zero.
'Louise' -Thinking/ Human-Human Telepathy
:Master: -Master/Familiar Telepathy
Chapter 24: Desperate Battle in Albion
Later That Day
Saito and Louise's Cabin, Aboard the Airship Blue Mermaid
Saito closed his eyes and focused on the crossbow bolt that rested in his palms. The brief skirmish with the dragon riders had used up over half of the enchanted bolts he'd managed to craft and prepare in advance. The young onmyōji wasn't exactly keen on entering a nation in the grips of a civil war, particularly when he needed to be careful to avoid using his own spellcraft, without some extra magical punch, so he was trying to use what little time they had left before arriving to restock at least a portion of those he'd lost.
Refocusing on the task at hand, Saito began chanting a soft mantra under his breath, using it to focus his magical energies as he slowly infused them into the bolt, filling up the small reservoir for the spell he had engraved into the side of it. This particular bolt was engraved with a simple lightning spell. Upon impacting with something it would release a powerful electrical shock into the point of impact, not only damaging the target, but likely causing severe, paralysing convulsions if the target was alive. Against a human target, such a thing could very easily be lethal, so it was one that he planned to keep held in reserve until he was certain that he was fighting for his life, or Louise's life for that matter.
Princess Henrietta had taken him to once side before he, Louise and Guiche had departed from Tristainia and practically ordered him that if he had to choose between completing the mission and saving Louise, he was to do the latter without hesitation.
'Louise is really fortunate to have Henrietta as a friend.' He mused absently as he placed the finished bolt to the side, a soft smile on his lips. The future ruler of Tristain was a rare kind of ruler, one who tried to truly live up to the responsibility that her rank and position thrust upon her, rather than what most nobles and royals tended to do, which was to do as little work as they could possibly get away with and spend the rest of the time partying and indulging in their vices.
That wasn't the only difference, of course. Henrietta was a loyal friend, as could be seen by her unflagging support of Louise, even during the pinkette's time as the 'Zero' of the Academy, when it may have been politic and advantageous to draw back somewhat from someone who had seemingly no talent at magic. The strength of character, faith and loyalty that Henrietta showed in that refusal to abandon her friend had earned her Saito's deepest respect, and he was honoured to be able to call such a person his friend.
'And that is part of the problem.' The young Onmyōji mused with a heavy sigh as he slotted the newly enchanted bolt into the quiver and glanced at Louise, who was working on her kanji. The look of intense concentration on her face as she practised her brush strokes was actually quite fetching.
Hastily looking away with a tint of a blush on his face, Saito quickly picked up another of his already carved bolts before pausing to briefly examine those he'd already enchanted, trying to decide which spell to choose next. A bolt that engulfed the target in glacier-cold ice, perhaps? Or maybe a bolt that turned the wood of the projectile itself into a binding rope to restrain the target?
As he chose the latter and started to chant again, an idle part of Saito's mind couldn't help but examine his growing problem. He was, for lack of a better descriptor, going native. He was becoming very accustomed to the way things were run in Halkaginia and he was rapidly making friends among both the nobility and commoners.
He would have to be completely stupid to not be able to read the flirty glances and suggestive looks that Siesta threw at him every other minute. She likely saw him as something similar to a saviour or hero for his hand in helping to get her away from Mott the Elder and his promise of retribution against Mott the Younger. Oh, Louise was to thank for taking her under her aegis of protection as her maid, but what was likely the catalyst was the spell that he had cast on the maid to protect her. She had never had a spell cast at her before that which wasn't cast in anger, and she had possibly felt his protective urges in the magic; someone who has a spell cast on them that wasn't offensive could generally read the intent behind the spell if they were receptive.
To say that the young man wasn't tempted to…explore the possibilities with Siesta would be a barefaced lie; he was a red-blooded boy in the midst of puberty and he was being tempted by someone who had a knockout body, devoted and sweet personality and was a very nice person besides. Of course he was bloody tempted! But he had become used to restraining his more base urges thanks to the chastity spell he had formerly had cast on him and so he was able to restrain himself thus far.
The other people he was close to were mostly girls as well; Kirche von Zerbst, Tabitha, Montmorency and Princess Henrietta, to name the most memorable. He wouldn't say he was close to many boys; Guiche was more a forced close acquaintance due to the blond-haired Noble's own stupidity and lack of control over his own base instincts, really. Professor Colbert was the closest thing he had to a male friend, and the man was at least a decade or two his senior.
Jean Colbert was very different from what little Saito had seen of other male nobility; he was highly intelligent, genial, kindly, knowledgeable, fair, honest, a little bit absent-minded and was a natural teacher. He didn't look down on commoners and he didn't turn his nose up at any of Saito's magical ideas. Rather, the more Saito told the man, the more fascinated he became. The Japanese boy could see a possible future as the leader of a magical revolution in the older man; the proposed changes he wanted to make to the way Halkaginian mages used their magic would greatly benefit them and make it a fair bit harder for someone like Johan to walk all over them.
The fact that Saito could think about all of that regarding Halkaginia and its people showed how…invested he was becoming in Tristain and those he knew there. He was becoming attached, which was a very, very bad thing. He had to return to Japan, he had to uphold his oaths to the Imperial Ministry of Onmyōji. It was what he had trained to do his entire life, since the Testers had determined he possessed talent with magic at the young age of three, and brought him to the Ministry.
And yet…and yet the world of Halkaginia, and the Kingdom of Tristain in particular, needed him more than Japan did. A single Junior Adept was, if not a drop in the ocean, then a teacup out of a swimming pool, utterly negligible in the greater scheme of things. There, in Japan, he'd be reading his books, studying various spells, tidying a shrine maybe and very, very occasionally getting some battle practice with a more senior Adept. Here, in the primitive but intriguing world of Halkaginia, he was very much in the thick of things thanks to his high-ranking Master, a trusted ally and agent of the next ruler of a kingdom and battling against strong foes on a frequent basis. Not to mention surrounded by pretty ladies a lot of the time.
Within him, duty was warring against personal desire and honour and, for the first time in his left, his sense of duty was ending up at what amounted to a draw. This was not something that the young onmyōji was accustomed to; his sense of duty had stood him well throughout his life and had guided him through the realisation that he had been abandoned by his parents and had continued to do so up until just recently.
His mind was drawn out of its contemplation when he felt his hands become empty. Blinking, he saw that he had finished with all the pre-carved bolts and his quiver was once more filled with a miniature armoury of spell-inscribed ammunition.
'Huh…looks like I was able get through all of those quite quickly…I am surprised that my magical reserves aren't as depleted as I would have imagined them to be.' The onmyōji thought in surprise. He knew his magical reserves had been growing steadily since his arrival, but charging all of those bolts without a break still should have still been an exhausting affair.
"Saito?" Louise looked at him worriedly. "Are you OK? You've been going through those bolts very quickly."
"Ah, yes. I'm…only down less than a quarter of my magical reserves." Saito replied, still somewhat surprised by the fact. "Evidently my build-up of magical power has been more pronounced than I had imagined. I really should do a check of my Seimei Index Rating soon."
Shouting on deck made the two exchange looks. "Though, evidently now is not that time." The Japanese boy sighed as he stood, reattaching the quiver to his side.
Just then Guiche barrelled in without knocking, earning him a scandalised look from Louise. Unexpectedly, he ignored her and fixed his eyes on Saito, a look of excitement on the Gramont Scion's face.
"Professor, we're almost to Albion!" he said, positively vibrating in place with energy and excitement.
"Are we indeed?" Saito raised his eyebrows in mild amusement at Guiche's hype about this whole thing. "Well, then perhaps we had better go up on the deck. I for one have never seen a floating continent before."
"I haven't either." Louise admitted, setting down her brush and shaking out her hand with a wince. It was sore, but not as bad as it had been when she had started her lessons in calligraphy.
The three headed up and onto the deck. What Saito saw then was a sight that would stay with him for the rest of his life as one of the most amazing things he had ever seen.
Saying 'the Floating Continent of Albion' did not do justice to what he saw. An enormous mass of rock and earth simply hung suspended in the sky, with its own bank of mist, fog and clouds swirling around it. It positively boggled Saito's mind that an entire miniature continent could float in the sky like this. He'd seen a map that portrayed the size of Albion, and it was, by his most conservative estimate, around about eight-tenths the size of the country of England. The amount of magical power it would take to start the process of lifting such a mass made Saito want to cringe.
'How…just how the hell did the Halkaginians manage to accomplish something like this…!' he thought dazedly as he walked over to the railing and leaned on it so he could peer out further. 'The largest flying object held that way by magic in my world was a single 'city' the size of a modest town a few hundred years ago, and that failed spectacularly when the magical power generator they cobbled together failed and it plummeted to the ground like a stone. No one has dared to try and mimic them since. If my world couldn't do it, with our more efficient and precise magic, how the hell did the Halkaginians do it?! The type of energy required to accomplish something like this using their power-based magic is nearly inconceivable.'
The only explanation other than the Halkaginians using magic was that there was some sort of natural magical phenomenon keeping the continent of Albion afloat, but for the life of him, Saito had absolutely no clue what it could be. Then again, this was a parallel or alternate world, so it wasn't unfeasible to assume that there were metals, minerals and other substances that were unknown in his home world…
Shaking his head to clear it of his daze, Saito immediately resolved to make discreet enquiries about what in the name of all things magical was keeping Albion afloat in the air. He wasn't a researcher by either inclination or nature, but he could put his nose to the grindstone when and as required, and this situation most certainly required him to put his researchers cap on…at a later, and more expedient, date.
"W-Wow…" Louise whispered from where she stood next to him. "Mother told me that Albion looked beautiful, but I never imagined it could be so…"
"Indeed." Guiche agreed from Saito's other side, his voice awed. "I can barely comprehend such a thing, even when I'm seeing it with my own eyes…"
"So neither of you has been to Albion before?" Saito asked.
"No one from Tristain, merchants and messengers aside, has set foot on Albion for at least five years." Louise shook her head. "The Albion Civil War has been going on for the last year or so, with the four years before that being deemed too full of tension for any foreign nobles to dare go near the place. Before that, Prince Wales himself visited Tristain annually, and I was never far from the Princess before the Academy."
"So you've met Prince Wales?" the onmyōji blinked. "That's good. What's he like?"
"He's…well, a nice person?" the pinkette shrugged. "I never interacted with him much, just formal meetings and the occasional dance party. He's blond haired, with blue eyes and handsome, according to the Princess. He's still the Crown Prince of Albion even although his father, King James Tudor de Albion, died in the early stages of the Reconquista's uprising."
"That last part seems…a bit odd." Saito blinked. "Wouldn't succession demand that he be crowned as soon as possible following the King's death for continuity?"
"Normally, you'd have the right of it." Guiche nodded. "But Prince Wales declared he'd take the crown when Cromwell's head is separated from his body, not a second before that."
"Bold. That must have given his loyalists some backbone." Saito said, mentally upping his assessment of the de-facto ruler of Albion by a couple of points. It took some serious guts to stand up to someone after your head like that.
"It did, actually." Louise raised an eyebrow at her Familiar's quick assessment of the situation. "Cromwell was lucky to survive the first few months after that, because the loyalist troops were determined to make the man pay for the death of King James. They've reached a stalemate now, with a lot of the actual country under the control of the Reconquista, but with the cities with the largest population, such as the place we are headed to, Londinium, are under the control of the Albion Crown Loyalists."
"Amount of land versus population…if the Prince doesn't win soon, his people will starve." Saito muttered as the Blue Mermaid drew closer to Londinium.
It was a simple fact that the land held by the Reconquista was, in all likelihood, used to grow crops and feed cattle and sheep. Without the harvest from the land to fill their storehouses, the populations of the cities would starve.
"Germania, Romalia, Tristain and even Gallia are sending food supplies to aid Prince Wales." Louise reassured him. "No one wants anti-royalists conquering a kingdom."
"That still leaves two very vital weaknesses, Louise." Saito spoke softly. "First is Prince Wales himself. If he is assassinated, the loyalist forces will collapse. The second are the water supply of the cities. With the Ring of Andvari that Cromwell took from the Water Spirit of Lake Lagdorian, he could enchant water to be poisonous, or turn its drinkers insane, or any such thing. If he can access the sources for any wells that the cities use…"
"Founder…!" Louise gulped, looking ill. "That's just…no true noble would do that! The number of people that would kill is unconscionable!"
"From everything I've heard of Cromwell, he is no true noble, just an ambitious and smart thug with magic and a hereditary title." Saito replied grimly. "Guiche, did you bring your Familiar with you?"
The blond quirked an eyebrow at the onmyōji. "Of course. Verðandi is in the hold for the moment. He doesn't like being away from the earth, poor thing."
Saito took a moment to take in the fact that Guiche had called his male Familiar by a female name before moving on. "Right, whatever. Look, I want you to investigate the wells of Londinium. I know you have a spell that can detect magic in a substance, so use it."
"The entire land of Albion is magical enough to render that spell useless here." The Earth Mage shook his head. "Besides, I specialise in Earth Magic; anything to do with water is almost impossible for me."
"Great. Just great. Typical sloppy Halkaginian sorcery." The onmyōji muttered irritably. "Power has nothing to do with detecting magic in the water; you simply need to parse what belongs there from what doesn't. I shall go back to my cabin and construct a device that will tell you if any magic that doesn't belong is present and I will instruct you in its use. I want you to go around every well in Londinium as fast as you can. There is no telling what Cromwell plans to do now; the situation is balancing on a knife's edge and one mistake by one side could tip the future of Albion in any direction."
The blond boy nodded. "As you say, Professor. I shall follow your orders."
"Good." Saito nodded and frowned. "I have a bad feeling about this…"
"A spell?" Louise asked curiously.
"No, just a hunch." The onmyōji replied with a shake of his head. "I can't put my finger on it, but…there is an ill wind is blowing on Albion."
Heathrow Skyport, Outside of Londinium, Albion
Thanks to Louise's status as a noble of a close ally of the loyalist forces of Albion, she was able to arrange a carriage for herself and Saito, while Guiche headed off via another carriage to investigate the water cisterns and wells of the great city of Londinium.
The city was very large and well built, with massive curtain walls surrounding the outer and inner cities, with massive fortresses acting as gatehouses at the four major compass points. In the centre was a large castle that seemed to declare 'I am here, and here I stay. Come get me if you can!' to anyone looking at it.
"There are a lot of soldiers here…and almost no civilians." Saito mused, eyeing the men in armour marching around almost every deserted street that the carriage passed along. "Is the city under martial law?"
"Looks like it." Louise replied with a frown. "This is unusual…unless there's an attack expected."
"Great." Saito deadpanned. "Derf, you up for smacking a few heads if it comes down to it?"
The Living Sword of the Gandálfr unsheathed himself. "I'm with ya partner."
"That's reassuring." Saito said with a smile. "Been to Albion before?"
"Coupla times." Derflinger replied. "Over the years, I've been all over the human lands of Halkaginia. Last time was a coupla hundred years ago now. Old King Isaac was on the throne then, boy was he an idiot. The man was colour-blind, so he made the royal colours black and white so everyone had to see things the way he saw them. His son, King John the Fourth, changed them back once he ascended."
"That…actually happened?!" Louise blinked in shock. "I thought my mother was joking!"
"Nah, she was tellin' the truth." The Living Sword chortled. "It's a rather embarrassing story for the Royalty, so they covered it up as best they could though. I haven't laughed as hard in centuries when I heard what Inane Isaac did."
"Please don't bring it up in front of the Prince." Saito said dryly. "We need to get in, get our hands on the letter that Princess Henrietta needs, and get out of Albion as fast as we can. The last thing we need is to be trapped in a city under siege."
"Gotcha, partner." Derflinger said before sheathing himself back in his scabbard.
The castle, which was called Buckingham Castle according to Louise, loomed before them and, much to Saito's mix of bemusement and exasperation, they did indeed have to go through the same song and dance that they'd had to go through in front of Castle Tristain.
"Is that kind of thing common?" he asked once the carriage was moving through the gates after the ritual was over and done with.
"In every kingdom barring the Papacy of Romalia, yes." Louise replied, suppressing her amusement at Saito's irritation. "In Romalia, you cannot meet His Holiness the Pope without scheduling your appointment several weeks in advance or if it a genuine emergency."
"That's…very inflexible." Saito said neutrally.
"He's the Pope." The pinkette shrugged. "Even Kings and Queens have to wait to see him."
Making a note of that particular factoid, Saito eyed the number of men that were on guard around the castle with ill-ease. This was a lot of concentrated manpower. Why would the Prince surround himself in soldiers like this…unless he was concerned of an attack, perhaps?
'Looks like Louise hit the nail on the head.' He thought grimly.
Once the carriage came to a halt, Saito disembarked first, playing the part of a bodyguard to a noble lady as he had discussed with Louise earlier. Keeping a wary eye on the four-man squad of soldiers that were waiting for them, he kept himself alert and ready to act as Louise followed him out, her 'imperturbable noble' façade drawn across her face.
"Lady de Vallière, my squad has been assigned to escort you to His Highness." One man said gruffly. "Your bodyguard must wait here."
"In which case the Prince must come here." Saito said smoothly. "I have received orders from Her Highness, Princess Henrietta Stewart de Tristain, that my charge, Lady Louise Françoise 'Le Blanc' de La Vallière, is not to leave my sight while on the isle of Albion due to the civil war."
The squad leader's face grimaced at that. "We are at an impasse then, sir bodyguard. There was an assassination attempt on His Highness not a few hours ago. The Lord Marshal, Lord Rupert of the Rhine, has ordered that no armed person save for those of proven allied nobility is to go near Prince Wales."
Taking a moment to consider that, Saito nodded. "That would explain the tension of the soldiers then." He said. "Does this alter the situation somewhat?"
Raising his left arm, he exposed the Familiar Runes on the back of his hand to the man.
"Th-those are-!" he spluttered.
"Familiar Runes, yes." Saito nodded. "As well as her Crown-appointed bodyguard, I am also the Familiar of Louise de Vallière herself. I could no more betray her than I could unmake myself."
A blatant lie, as he was no simple magical (or non-magical) beast bound by the Familiar compact, but he doubted this man would know that.
"Ah…yes…that…that is…an excellent point." The squad leader managed, looking more than a bit poleaxed before managing to regain his decorum. "Very well then. My squad and I shall escort you both to Prince Wales forthwith."
"Very good." Saito nodded and followed Louise, two paces behind her right shoulder as proper protocol dictated a bodyguard should. The soldiers fell in around them as they were led into the castle proper.
Buckingham Castle was a great deal more…austere than Castle Tristain, but perhaps it was merely that there was a war on that Saito thought that way. The walls had tapestries on them to help keep the heat in, but they were mostly repetitive ones depicting the coat of arms of the Royal Family of Albion, three dragons (or as it was a Western civilisation he was dealing with, snakes, perhaps) curled up and facing to the right.
After a few minutes of walking passed by, they finally came to a large door with the Coat of Arms of the Albion Royal Family burned into its surface.
"We'll be on guard out here, Lady de Vallière." The squad leader said before knocking on the door.
"Come!" a rough voice said.
Opening the door, the soldier stepped aside and Saito entered the room, his eyes flicking over the contents and inhabitants of the room quickly. The room was well-appointed, with chairs, a table, a sofa and a desk in the room, with tapestries on the walls and a window looking out over the city of Londinium.
The people in the room were a study in physical contrasts; one was a tall grown man, wearing steel armour with a red Cloak of Nobility draped over his shoulders. He had long brown hair, a thin face and sharp, intelligent eyes. The other was dressed in a royal blue outfit with golden trimming, lacking any physical Cloak, but he wore authority draped over him like one. His blond hair was trimmed short and his blue eyes were just as intelligent as his companion's own.
Stepping aside to allow Louise to enter, but not before purposefully looking at the other two men in an openly inquisitive manner, which made the younger man merely hitch an eyebrow, while the older man's face turned red from either outrage or anger.
Once the door closed behind them, the older man let loose a glare at Saito. "Who the devil are you?" he demanded bluntly.
"Saito Hiraga, Professor of Magical Morals at the Tristain Academy for Magic and Familiar to Louise de Vallière." The onmyōji replied evenly. "Who the hell are you?"
"I am Rupert de Rhine, the Duke of Cumberland, formerly of Germania. Lord Marshall of the Armies of Albion and Lord Admiral of the Navies of Albion…what's left of them." Rupert replied, somewhat bitterly. "A human Familiar? I thought that Musketeer girl was having us on, but I can see your Familiar Runes from here. Founder, strange times these are."
"Quite, Rupert." The blond boy nodded. "As you are the only person here who does not know me, I shall introduce myself; I am Crown Prince Wales Tudor de Albion, ruler of the Floating Continent of Albion. I am sorry for Rupert; he tends to speak without thinking."
"Brevity is a rare quality in a nobleman." Saito shrugged. "As the Lord Marshall may not know her, I have the honour to introduce my Master, Lady Louise Françoise 'Le Blanc' de La Vallière, Liegewoman and Agent of Her Highness, Crown Princess Henrietta Stewart de Tristain."
"It has been a while, Miss de Vallière." Wales greeted Louise with a smile. "Do you have proof of your identity as an agent of my cousin?"
Wordlessly, Louise reached into her pocket and drew out the Ring of Water. Wales smiled and extended one hand, which held the Ring of Wind, and the two reacted, forming a miniature rainbow in mid-air. Once the small bridge of light vanished, the pinkette returned the ring to her pocket.
"It has, Your Highness." Louise curtseyed slightly once she had done so. "I am glad to see that you are unharmed. Is it true that someone tried to assassinate you a few hours ago?"
"Sadly, yes." Wales scowled. "A dozen men, insane with berserk fury, stormed the gatehouse and managed to make to within ten yards of me before they were put down. They felt no pain, they heeded no words…it was as if they truly were insane."
"Oh, no…Saito, do you think Cromwell has used it?" Louise asked, face pale.
"By the sounds of it, yes." Saito frowned.
"What has that snake done now?!" Rupert demanded.
"He stole a powerful magical ring from the Water Spirit of Lake Lagdorian." Saito explained. "It has many abilities, one of which is to infuse water with magic. It is likely that those men who attacked you were under the influence of the ring."
"He…I can believe that he did it, but I don't want to." Wales shook his head in disbelief. "He violated the sanctuary of the Great Water Spirit? He stole from her? How foolish of him."
"More importantly, can the ring be used on any water?" Rupert asked urgently.
"Any water." Saito confirmed. "I have sent a student acting as an additional escort, Guiche de Gramont, to inspect the cisterns and wells of Londinium for traces of magical contamination. If he has used it on those men from a few hours ago, Cromwell must be close or even in the city itself. And sadly, there may be no way to stop him."
"Why is that?" Wales asked sharply.
"Another ability of the Ring of Andvari is compulsion." the onmyōji explained. "He can order people around with it as if they were puppets on a string, and even possibly erase memories."
"Damn! That means he's probably gotten to all of the cisterns in the city!" the Lord Marshall hissed, his mind going to the absolute worst case scenario. He looked at Wales seriously. "Your Highness, I must urge you to order the castle sealed immediately. There is no telling when or if the citizenry will become the same as those men."
"Is there any way to negate or reverse the spell of the ring?" Wales asked Saito.
"I have only the description that the Water Spirit gave me to base my assessment off of, Prince Wales." Saito frowned. "And to judge by her own words, no human can resist the spell cast by her ring. She didn't mention if the spell could be removed, resisted or broken, so presumably, it hasn't happened before in in her experience. If for no other reason than my lack of knowledge of the exact nature of the mental domination and berserker spells, I would be forced to err on the side of caution and say no."
Wales closed his eyes for a moment, frowning in thought. When they opened again they had steeled with resolve and his lips were drawn into a firm line. "I order the gates sealed shut and the portcullis lowered. I do so with great reluctance and should nothing happen by this time tomorrow, they shall be reopened. See to it, Marshall."
Rupert clicked his heels together and started towards the door. "At once, Your Highness!"
Once the man had left, Wales looked at Saito with a tired and worried expression in his eyes. "I dearly hope that you are wrong about Cromwell's intentions, Mr Saito."
"Highness, I hope I'm wrong, but unfortunately I sincerely doubt that I am." Saito replied bluntly. "I have heard very little about Cromwell that I have either liked or respected and I think erring on the side of caution when you are the most vital lynchpin of the entire Loyalist Army is both necessary and sensible."
"Lynchpin…I suppose you have a point." Wales sighed. "I confess that, even although my father has been deceased for the last year, it has not been easy to adjust to the reality that I am the last of my line. Only Henrietta carries any Tudor blood in her aside from myself, to the best of my knowledge."
"Wait, so you are very literally the last of your family? No heirs?" Louise blurted out in astonishment.
"Aside from my father and Henrietta, I had one other living relative: the Archduke Montaru de Albion, my father's younger brother, as well as the younger brother of the recently deceased King Henry of Tristain. He passed away a few years ago." Wales sighed. "There were rumours of a mistress and a child, but no one ever came forward with a child bearing magic, so alas, I am the last of the line of Tudor."
"Did His Grace pass away of natural causes, or were there ambiguities to his passing?" Saito asked carefully, not liking where this could be leading.
"There were…a few irregularities, yes." Wales scowled. "At the time, Father and I thought it was the ordinary bloody politicking of the nobility at work, but since Father's death, I have been forced to conclude that it was almost decidedly the early actions of the Reconquista, or possibly even Cromwell acting alone."
"Could…could he possibly have been behind the assassination attempt of the Princess?" Louise wondered with a scowl.
"What?" Wales asked sharply. "What assassination attempt?"
Once he had been informed about the attempted murder that his cousin had been threatened with, the Prince looked ready to commit murder himself. Saito did manage to calm him down somewhat.
"I don't think Cromwell had anything to do with that assassination attempt." He said with a sigh. "The technology used in the attempt is advanced, far too advanced to be home-grown Halkaginian technology. I suspect that it was another person from my world…someone other than Johan von Leopold and myself. Quite who they are, or why they would try to kill Princess Henrietta is beyond me, but I shall endeavour to find out, I promise you that."
"Please do, Professor Saito." Wales said, his voice tight with anger. "And be sure to impress upon them, whoever they may be, that regicides are ill-looked upon in this land."
"Oh, I shall." Saito nodded with the appropriate gravitas. "Indeed, I shall ensure that the person behind the act is disabled enough that Princess Henrietta can express her displeasure to them herself before they are executed."
Wales barked out a laugh. "Good man. Now, I believe we have gone off on quite the tangent. I think this is what you have come for."
Reaching into his coat, the Prince of Albion withdrew a letter and handed it over to Louise.
"H-How did you…?" the pinkette asked in disbelief.
"I am aware that Tristain has need of the alliance with Germania and thus, Henrietta needs to marry the Germanian Emperor to seal the deal." Wales smiled bitterly. "This…this could very well have destabilised that marriage, so I was prepared for Henrietta to send someone to retrieve it."
"Thank you, Your Highness." Louise curtseyed.
"Think nothing of it." Wales said with a smile, but Saito could still see the pain in his eyes at having to do this. "Anyway, I must insist that you dine with me tonight; the gates are likely sealed by this point and it would dishonour me if I did not offer you both the appropriate amount of hospitality."
Almost as if on cue, Saito's stomach started to rumble, filing a protest with his brain and with anyone that could hear it, that it was considering filing charges for non-support.
Wales started to laugh at the slight blush on Saito's face. "Ha-ha! I guess the food on the journey here wasn't that appetising? Have no fears, the hospitality of Albion will more than make up for the repast on the ship."
Balcony, Buckingham Castle
"Ahhh….that was good." Saito sighed as he leaned on the edge of the balcony.
While he had gotten used to the entirely Western food that the people of Halkaginia ate, he had never dined with royalty before and boy, did they eat well. The food was rich, certainly, and Saito made a note to start exercising to work some of it off, but having food like that wasn't so bad once every so often.
"I trust you approved of the food?" Prince Wales asked as he stepped up to stand beside of him.
"Yes, kindly give my compliments to the chef." Saito said sincerely.
"I shall do that." Wales replied with a smile. He went quiet for a moment before asking seriously, "How is Henrietta doing, really?"
"Stressed." Saito said after a moment. "Joseph of Gallia is eyeing Tristain, one of her father's Agents betrayed her to seal up Louise's magic and join the Reconquista and a mage from my world attacked her and beat up her top general. Things are looking grim for Tristain, Highness."
"Poor Henrietta." The Prince sighed. "Damn Joseph, and damn Wardes too while I'm at it."
"Your Highness…that letter you gave Louise…it was a love letter from Princess Henrietta to you, wasn't it?" Saito asked softly.
Twitching slightly, Wales tensely eyed him for a moment before relaxing. "How did you guess?"
"A lot of little things clued me in." Saito replied. "The fact that she emphasised to me that it was vital for the marriage to the Germanian Emperor that we retrieve this letter, that she didn't simply ask you to destroy it, that she sent Louise, her childhood friend and sworn Liegewoman, to retrieve it rather than a regular Agent…it all pointed to some form of relationship between you, one that would possibly affect her eligibility to the Germanian Emperor. Also, when you gave Louise the letter and talked about how it could have destabilised the marriage, you had a look of pain in your eyes, as if you were tempted to allow that to happen, but didn't do it. That spoke to me of something more serious than an ordinary relationship between cousins."
"You are quite the investigator, Professor Saito." The blond Royal laughed. "Yes, we…Henrietta and I…have had feelings for one another for quite some time. With our respective duties and obligations, we haven't done more than talk and hold hands on the few visits I have made to Tristain. That letter is one of the only pieces of physical evidence that our feelings exist. One day, I had hoped to show my feelings for her without shame or hesitation, but…"
"Heavy is the head that wears the crown." Saito quoted. "Great is the burden of the mighty."
Quirking an eyebrow, Wales nodded. "Exactly. Henrietta and I are going to be rulers, and we have both been raised to treat the position of ruler as what it is: as a hefty responsibility that weighs down on you, one that must be attended to with all seriousness and as our top priority. As much as this marriage pains the both of us, Henrietta must do what she can for the good of her people, and I can understand that."
"Have any guessed your relationship, myself excluded?" Saito asked.
"Rupert knows on my side, and Agnès on Henrietta's side, but other than that…possibly Dowager-Queen Marianne." The Prince mused. "I think she knew something like this would happen someday, which is why she didn't interfere. Haaah…older women are truly a frightening thing."
"Agreed." Saito chortled.
"Professor!" A voice from below made the two young men look down to see Guiche looking up at them from the curtain wall.
"How the devil did he get in?" Wales blinked in surprise. "I ordered the gates shut!"
"Something we should ask him." Saito replied and drew a talisman from his pocket. "Talisman of Wind, come to my aid! Maware, Tatsumaki!"
The tunnel of wind that erupted from his medium reached out and engulfed Guiche, sending the boy spinning into the air with an extremely girlish shriek. The small tornado swept him up to where Wales and Saito stood and deposited him on the stone floor beside them.
"Oof!" Guiche lay sprawled on the floor for a moment before looking up at Saito. "Was there really any need for that?"
"You got into the castle while it's under lock-down. I think asking you how that happened is paramount." Saito said dryly.
"The main gate is sealed shut, yes, but the side-gates are still open." Guiche replied as he pushed himself to his feet. "Unlocked as well."
"I see I shall have to chastise Rupert for forgetting those gates." Prince Wales said irritably. "Greetings, Scion Gramont."
"P-Prince Wales!? M-My apologies for not greeting you sooner…!" Guiche hastily bowed.
"Given the manner in which you were brought here, it is completely forgiveable and understandable, Scion Gramont." Wales reassured him with a chuckle. "I dare say that I would have been more than slightly out of sorts after being carried along by a whirlwind like that."
"Guiche, what did you discover at the wells?" Saito butted in impatiently.
"Oh! Right!" Guiche brought out the device Saito had cobbled together for him, a length of wood with a magical gauge on it and a length of thin cord with a metal weight on the end of it. By taking a reading of the background ambient magic and then dipping the metal weight in the water, the device should discern if there was any magic that surpassed the background levels that should be in it.
"I did as you instructed and visited the five water cisterns and ten of the wells in Londinium." The blond noble said grimly. "If your device is in any way accurate, three of the cisterns and at least four of the wells that I tested have almost double the amount of magic in them that they should have. That's three-quarters of the city that is possibly affected by the tainted water."
Saito closed his eyes in pain. "Sometimes, I hate it when I'm right."
"I can't say I'm all that pleased with this either, Professor Saito, but forewarned is forearmed." Wales said grimly. "You have my thanks for this information, Scion Gramont. Come with me so you can point out on a map exactly which cisterns and wells have been tainted…and I can have a word with the Lord Marshall about why the side gates haven't been sealed off as well as the main gate."
Wales marched off, with Guiche following after him. Saito took the time to walk over to where Louise sat, her eyes wide as she saw Guiche leaving the room with the Prince.
"Where did he come from?" she asked in astonishment.
"The side-gates are apparently open." Saito said dryly. "Prince Wales is going to have a word with the Lord Marshall about that. I believe that my premonition regarding that snake Cromwell's plans are going to be proven true far sooner than we could have hoped."
"What should we do?" Louise asked him, worrying at her lip.
"We can't do anything because we aren't officially here, Louise." The onmyōji said gently. "We are only two people and there is very little that we can do that the Loyalist Army cannot. You might be a Void mage, but your power is mostly sealed until we can get that bedamned book from the Cathedral in Tristain."
"I…" Louise looked conflicted.
"Listen. Your job is to get that letter safely back to Princess Henrietta, and my job is to protect you while you do that." Saito said a bit more firmly, before softening his voice again. "Listen, if there was something that we could do, I'd say we do it, but we've warned Prince Wales about the Ring of Andvari, we've told him of Wardes and Fouquet the Sculptor, we've even managed to determine that the city is going to be under attack by what is likely to be a rabidly insane civilian population. Unless we have to fight our way out of Albion and take the Prince with us, I really can't see what we can do without compromising our mission from the Princess."
"Yes…yes, you're right, of course." Louise's spine straightened as she was reminded that her best friend and Liege was counting on her to succeed in the mission she was on. "Thank you."
"Someone's got to keep the mission in mind, oh Master of mine." Saito teased her, before becoming serious again. "We're probably going to have to spend the night here thanks to the lock-down. I don't want to say anything bad about the Prince's men, but…keep your swordwand within arm's reach, and do not take off your Bracelet. OK?"
"Got it." She nodded obediently. They were sound precautions given the situation they now found themselves in, ignoring them would be simply stupid.
"Good…good." Saito looked around and leaned in close to Louise's face. "I'm going to be summoning Kaede to guard us both while we sleep, that should keep us safe for the night at least."
Blushing at his close proximity, the pinkette nodded. Kaede the Silver Oni could hide from all forms of mundane and magical detection, making her the perfect, hidden bodyguard to catch the unwary assassin. They would be able to get a good night's sleep, safe from possible infiltrators…
Several Hours Later
Saito and Louise's Quarters, Buckingham Castle
Saito was awoken with a start at the sound of loud banging on the door to the suite Prince Wales had been kind enough to give to him and Louise for the night. Louise slept in the large single bed, while he made do with the sofa, which was more than large enough to be a single bed in its own right, although Kaede had protested at her Master being 'forced to rough it' on the couch.
Louise leapt out of bed in her nightclothes and panties, her blade already in her hand, while Kaede shimmered back into normal vision with her tetsubō held ready.
Thankful that he had gone to bed without removing any of his clothes, Saito headed to the door and opened it slightly, seeing a soldier standing there, hand raised to continue his barrage of knocks.
"Yes?" Saito asked icily, moving his body and head to interpose himself between the soldier and Louise's barely clad form.
"Professor Saito, His Highness urgently asks for the presence of yourself and Lady de Vallière in the War Room at once!" the soldier said immediately.
"Dammit, what now?" Saito hissed under his breath. He quickly fortified himself and gave the soldier a firm nod. "OK, kindly inform Prince Wales that Miss de Vallière and myself shall be with him presently." The onmyōji said.
"I am to escort you, sir." The soldier said.
"Very well. Kindly wait out here until Miss de Vallière can get presentable then." Saito said flatly before closing the door.
"Eep!" Louise squeaked, realising how exposed she was, and hurried to get changed while Saito faced the wall and tried to throttle his overactive imagination at the sound of clothes hitting the floor.
"Aruji, your orders?" Kaede asked as she stepped next to him.
"Go invisible and scout out around the castle for any sign of intruders, reporting back to me via our link every ten minutes." He answered. "If you spot a man wearing a silver ring with a purple stone mounted on it, kill him and take the ring from him. It has brainwashing powers, so strike from the shadows."
"By your command." Kaede bowed and faded away instantly.
"Do you think that Cromwell has somehow gotten into the castle?" Louise asked, now fully dressed.
"Given how Prince Wales tore Lord Marshal Rupert a new hole for his subordinates neglecting to close the side gates, I doubt it." Saito replied, turning to face his Master and instinctively adjusted her shirt and mantle to look better. "No, I think that Cromwell has unleashed whatever spell he cast on the city's water supply."
"Oh…no…!" Louise paled.
Giving the distressed pinkette's shoulder a quick, reaffirming squeeze, Saito nodded toward the door. "Let us head out so we can discover the actual face of the emergency." The Japanese boy said grimly.
It was a tense walk through the castle with sounds of screaming and a constant background sound like a moan. Several soldiers that they passed looked very much freaked out.
The large double doors of the War Room opened at their approach and Saito was gratified to see a very tired Guiche, carrying his mole familiar, was here; it would save him the bother of having to drag the boy out of bed himself.
"Professor Saito, Miss de Vallière, I am sorry to disturb your rest, but…have a look at this." Prince Wales still looked just as energetic as he had a few hours earlier, despite the fact that he had to have had even less sleep than Saito and Louise had gotten. Now wearing armour as well, he pointed at a large window as he spoke.
Peering out of it, Saito and Louise recoiled at what they saw. Surrounding the walls of the castle were what had to be literally hundreds of civilians commoners, all driven mad by the spell cast into the water they had drunken in the last day. They could also hear what they were screaming now: "Kill Wales! Kill Wales!"
"By the gods…!" Saito swore, while Louise looked on with wide eyes.
"That horde out there accounts for over half of Londinium's population." Wardes said grimly. "Thanks to the information Scion Gramont gave us, Rupert and I were able to evacuate everyone who was not in the areas with the tainted wells and cisterns. Still, that is a lot of people who have been dragged into this situation."
"Have the walls been breached?" Saito asked briskly.
"Thankfully no, but we have had to permanently seal the wall gates to prevent them from being breached." The Prince shook his head. "The main gates are solid and enchanted oak, and the portcullis is down. That horde cannot get in, but we are trapped here."
"If I were Cromwell, this is the point where I would attack." Saito remarked with a frown. "The majority of your troops are stuck in here, with the Night Watch on the city's curtain walls cut-off from support and reinforcement, and even possibly overrun from these…berserking citizens."
"Rupert agrees." Wales said grimly. "That's why he's manning the walls personally."
"Highness, this position is untenable." Saito said with a shake of his head. "All it will take is a single crack in the castle's defences and the horde will pour in to rip us apart. As much as I know you will hate to hear this, you must make haste and flee. The future of the Albionian Royal Family rests on your shoulders."
"You would have me flee my own capital?" Wales asked, aghast.
"Capitals are simply cities and can thus be moved. You are the real target here, Prince Wales." Saito argued. "If you fall, the entire Loyalist movement will have to either surrender, or go into hiding as a resistance movement, or flee to Tristain to swear themselves to Princess Henrietta. A saying from my world is 'he who fights and runs away, lives to fight another day.' I suggest we follow its advice."
"A noble cannot show their back to the enemy, Saito." Louise shook her head. "Even more so for a Royal."
"This stupid noble pride thing…" Saito ground his teeth together. "Prince Wales, your decision, please."
"I cannot leave my citizens in these sorts of dire straits, Professor Saito." Wales shook his head sadly. "I can admit to the wisdom in your words, but what sort of King will I be if I just flee at this juncture? If a king doesn't lead the way, how can his subordinates follow him? I must remain here…but the two of you do not. This isn't your country or your fight, and you have your own vital mission to carry out."
Saito nodded slowly. "You do realise that if Cromwell attacks, you and your citizens are almost certainly going to die?" he said quietly.
"Buckingham Castle has been the Seat of the Tudor Family since the capital was moved to Londinium two-thousand years ago; it has many secrets prepared for just such an occasion." Wales smiled grimly. "Even although some cannot be activated due to the citizens outside, I know a fair few that will make it a living nightmare to bypass or overcome."
Right as he finished, an enormous roar sounded and the castle shook to its foundations, making everybody stagger.
"What the devil?!" Wales shouted.
'Aruji!' Kaede's mental communication resounded in his head. 'One of the walls has been breached towards the rear of the castle! That louse who attacked you from behind and the golem witch are leading a force inside!'
'Dammit! Come to my side at once, Kaede!' he ordered.
"The rear of the castle's curtain wall has been breached. Wardes and Fouquet the Sculptor are leading the attack with a golem the same as back at the Academy." Saito reported, drawing the attention of Wales and Louise. "They're leading soldiers in, and it's only a matter of time before those berserk citizens find their way in."
"The castle is all but lost then." Wales scowled before pointing at an aide standing nervously nearby. "Take a message to Lord Rupert. Order him to start detailing a rearguard and to evacuate every soldier that he can get his hands on as quickly as he can. Add to him that he is not allowed to be one of the rearguard."
"Yes, Your Highness!" the man saluted and sped out of the room quickly.
"It looks as if you will get your wish, Professor." Wales sighed. "I believe we will have to evacuate to Newcastle eventually, but for now, the secret path to the Royal Skyport is our destination."
Saying so, Wales picked up a swordwand from the side of the table and strapped it to his side.
"Lead the way, Your Highness." Saito said as he shifted Derflinger's sheath into a more comfortable position on his back.
"Right…oh yes." Wales paused and took a key from his pocket. Touching it to the table in the centre of the War Room for a moment, it vanished from his hand. "We're good to go now."
"What was that?" Saito asked as he, Guiche and Louise followed the Prince out of the War Room.
"It locked down the doors to the Crown Jewels and the Royal Treasury, as well as activated the castle's passive and active defences at their maximum potential." The blond-haired Royal replied. "Additionally, should anyone try to force either of the two sets of doors open in this state, a secret artefact shall teleport them from here to Tristain for safekeeping. It's one of the shared secrets of the Tudor and Stewart Royal Families, used only if the threat of losing our capital cities becomes all too much of a possibility."
"Sensible." Saito nodded in approval. He twitched as he noticed the slight mental caress that told him that Kaede was shadowing him.
"Don't tell the Church, as it uses a device built by the Founder to operate." Wales cautioned them.
"Our lips are sealed, Prince Wales." Louise promised, with Guiche nodding along.
The four, plus mole, moved quickly, until they met Lord Rupert standing in front of a door to what looked like a storage room.
"Your Highness, I have detailed thirty men to fight as the rearguard, with another thirty asking to join them." The Lord Marshall said without preamble. "I have decided to allow them to join in. The remaining hundred and seventy men are evacuating as we speak."
"So, two-hundred and thirty? A castle this size should have a thousand or so." Saito said in confusion. "At least."
"The garrison size of Buckingham Castle is smaller because this is the Royal Castle and replaces some of that capacity for troops with functions of state and governance." Lord Rupert replied tersely. "Additionally, we were light on troops to begin with, thanks to the recent battles. We also sent a substantial amount to protect the evacuees from the capital, and the rest are trapped in the town proper. This is all we have left."
"Ah." The onmyōji nodded. "So, where to from here?"
"We follow the troops into the tunnel and seal it shut behind us." Wales said grimly. "We shall have to detach a squad to pilot a ship to return Lady de Vallière and Professor Saito to Tristain."
"I shall make the arrangements, Your Highness." Rupert bowed. Straightening, he scowled at nothing. "Bah. What a way to fight a war. Poisoning the non-combatants and turning them into berserk madmen? Exactly how dishonourable is Cromwell planning on becoming? The people and nobility will not follow him if he acts in such an outrageous manner."
"He likely plans on using the Ring of Andvari to control the nobility to do his bidding." Louise said in disgust as the last of the soldiers entered the storeroom. "He is no true noble."
"Agreed, Miss Vallière." A familiar female voice said from behind them. They whirled around to face one Matilda de Sachsen-Gotha, better known as Fouquet of the Crumbling Dirt. The verdette had her hair down and dressed in a similar manner to when she had attacked the Academy. "Cromwell is a louse, but he is a smart louse."
"Who is she?" Wales asked, one hand on his swordwand.
"Fouquet of the Crumbling Dirt, a thief and Fallen Noble of Albion, the Sachsen-Gotha Family, I believe." Saito said with a scowl.
"You are from one of my uncle's subordinate families?" Wales gazed at her with little favour. "How dare you raise a wand against the Crown?!"
"The Archduke was a good man." Matilda said sadly. "My father spoke well of him…but both are gone, and the Reconquista is going to win this war. I am merely doing what is necessary to ensure the survival of my family."
With a flick of her wand, the floor before her shivered and three golems made of compacted earth and stone erupted from it and started lumbering towards the group.
"Talisman of Earth, come to my aid!" Saito chanted as he drew a talisman from his pocket. "Erode these golems with a storm of stone! Kokufū!"
Hurling the talisman at the oncoming golems, he shouted, "Inside, quickly!"
Taking him at his word, the party threw themselves into the storeroom and slammed the door shut, just as a veritable blizzard of stones erupted in the corridor.
"That…is a scary spell." Louise gulped.
"I learned from last time not to hold back against that woman." Saito grimaced and reached for his pockets. "I'll seal this door shut…like so: Kekkaijutsu: Tobira Fūin! (Barrier Spell: Door Sealing!)"
Eight talismans flew from his hands and attached themselves to the door before glowing green.
"That should hold her off for a while." Saito pulled out his Rampant Griffin and checked it over before nodding. "Let's go. Where Fouquet is, Wardes will follow."
Nodding in agreement, Rupert led the way past several barrels of wine that were two-to-three times his own height before halting just before one that had its front swung open, revealing a hidden passage.
"This way, move quickly." He urged them. Once the lot of them had entered, he swung the door shut and locked it.
Descending down roughly-hewn stairs, they came to a dark tunnel lit by torches. Rupert took one and started leading them along it. Saito could still feel Kaede nearby, which was a relief.
"How old is this tunnel?" Louise asked Prince Wales, eyeing the roughly dug tunnel warily.
"About fifteen-hundred years, give or take a decade." The prince replied. "The old tunnel was collapsed, so this replacement was built, and reinforced by several very learned Earth Mages. It is also reinforced by people trusted by the Crown every other decade or so."
"They could have cleared it up a bit." Guiche muttered, almost tripping over a jutting rock on the floor.
"Yes, well…it is something my family have meant to have done, but we never actually expected to actually need to use it." Wales admitted sheepishly. "Cromwell and the Reconquista came out of nowhere."
After a few minutes of running, the group emerged into a massive tree. What Saito had found very puzzling about the way Halkaginia organised Skyports was that they tended to be built into massive trees. This one was the one exclusively designated for the Royal Guard and the Royal Yacht, according to Wales as he led them towards a nearby stairwell.
"Are we going to take the Yacht?" Louise asked, slightly breathless.
"No, the Royal Albionian is too slow." Wales shook his head. "That said, I do not want Cromwell parading around in it. Marshal, have all airships we do not use destroyed."
"On it, your Highness." The Marshal said grimly. Before he could take another step though, a bolt of lightning lanced out of the darkness at him. Wales was quick on the draw, however and used his swordwand to interpose a barrier between his Marshall and the attack.
"Let me guess…Wardes." Saito said with a scowl.
"Quite correct." Wardes stepped out of the gloom, all but unchanged from the last time that Saito has seen him, barring the scar across his face that Karin of the Heavy Wind had given him.
"Nice scar. It suits you." The onmyōji snarked.
One of the traitor's eyes twitched at that.
"Yes, well…suffice is to say, I would dearly love to see anyone, including you, boy, face Karin de Vallière in one-on-one combat and come out unscathed." He replied tightly. "As she is not here, however, you will find that you are outmatched."
"I really don't think so." Saito replied tightly and raised his crossbow. "Louise, Your Highness, Marshall, Guiche…go on. I'll catch up to you in a minute."
"But…" Louise's eyes darted between her Familiar/Master and her former fiancé worriedly before allowing Guiche to herd her away. "Don't get killed, or I won't forgive you!"
"Kindly follow the lady's advice, Professor Saito." Wales ordered before following, Marshall Rupert taking up the rear.
"So, this is the vaunted crossbow pistol I have heard so much about…" Wardes eyed the Rampant Griffin warily. "We shall see if you can fight with it as well as you grandstand."
"Answer me this before we start, Wardes." Saito said tightly, his eyes not straying from the disgraced noble. "Why did you turn your coat? From everything Princess Henrietta and her mother said, you were a loyal Agent to King Henry for years. What could the Reconquista have possibly offered you that could make you go against that?"
"Ah, youth." The Lightning Mage smirked condescendingly. "When you're young, the thoughts of loyalty to a kingdom, to a king, run strong and lively like a river. As one gains in age and wisdom, however, you find that the river thins to a stream, and then to a small creek as you realise that power is what is really worth your loyalty. For the moment, the greater power here is the Reconquista, so I give unto them my loyalty in exchange for Écu. If they fall, I shall simply find someone worthy of my blade and magic."
"So you've become a sell-sword. A common mercenary." Saito shook his head slightly in disgust. "And Louise? She had a crush on you, trusted you. Does betraying her mean so little to you?"
"I was fond enough of the girl, but she was always, in the end, a tool for my ambitions and the Reconquista's ambitions." Wardes stated coolly and indifferently. "She is a Third Daughter, meaning that to marry and bear children is her only purpose in life. She is destined to be used by those around her. That is unchangeable, boy. I at least was kind to her and gave her some nice memories before I cast my spell upon her. Not every person is as kind as I."
Fury beat through Saito's veins like venom at each heartless and callous word the man spoke, making the onmyōji literally see red. Yet his aim didn't waver a millimetre thanks to his training. He could almost hear Tsubaki-sensei now…
'Anger frays an onmyōji's concentration, rendering their spells sloppy, their aim poor, their focus disrupted and their purpose unclear.' He had said one day, when Saito's anger at himself was at maximum due to his lack of skill at Fire Magic. 'Yet anger can also be a useful tool. Channel your anger; change it into a weapon that you wield lest you become a weapon for it to wield. Focus your anger, should you feel it; to bottle it up and ignore it is to both waste it and to lower your focus. Emotions such as anger and fear are a part of life, Saito-kun; they are not to be denied, nor are they to be embraced. Instead, you must simply accept them as a part of yourself, and move on. Acceptance of it can and will neutralise the negative effects of anger…so long as you give it a proper outlet.'
That advice was coming into play right now, as Saito directed all of his anger at Wardes. How useful that the man wasn't running.
'Kaede, this is my fight. Don't interfere.' He ordered his Familiar.
'But Aruji…!' the female Oni protested.
'I shall be fine.' He assured her, and then decided to soften his stance for her sake. 'Interfere if he gets to within striking range with that swordwand, but otherwise, stay your hand.'
'Hai, Aruji…' Kaede answered, her mental 'voice' sounding worried.
"I think we will have to agree to disagree on what counts as kindness in this instance." Saito said tightly. "And now…I am going to hurt you. And, may all the gods forgive me, but I am going to enjoy this far more than I should."
Wardes eyed his opponent warily, seeing the anger in his eyes. An opponent that ran on rage was usually the best kind to fight, as it distracted them, made them sloppy and made them easy to predict in a fight. The worst kind of opponent was the type who had the self-discipline and self-control to control their anger and focus it against their enemies. One such person was Karin of the Heavy Wind, as Wardes knew from personal, painful, experience.
'Lovely. Another opponent who can turn my words against them into power.' The traitor thought sourly.
"Let us see who shall be hurt here, boy, you or I." he said and lashed out with a lightning spell, which arced at Saito. The boy remained calm and pulled the trigger of his Rampant Griffin, sending a bolt straight at the lightning, wrapped in a tunnel of wind as it emerged.
Wind, being a natural insulator, was the nemesis of any Lightning Mage, as this instance showed. The wind-wrapped bolt slammed into, and through, the lightning strike, dispersing it harmlessly, and flew in a beeline towards a shocked Wardes, who raised his blade to parry the projectile to one side. As it struck his weapon though, the wood of the bolt erupted into a dozen tendrils of wood that wrapped around his weapon and sword arm like the limbs of an octopus.
"What trickery is this?!" Wardes snarled as he tried in vain to rip the wooden vines from his person.
"Wood magic, something that apparently only the elves are capable of performing on this world." Saito replied with a smirk. Then he adjusted his aim and pulled the trigger again, this time launching a bolt at Wardes' feet, causing ice to spring up around him, encasing the mage up to his thighs.
"As cold as you were when you dared to insult and attack my Master, Wardes." Saito said impassively. "Louise is a Void Mage, meaning that she, even if she eternally remains as a Dot Mage, is a hundred times the mage that you are. You underestimated Louise's power, although to give you credit, you may have actually gotten away with it had she not summoned me. Sucks to be you."
"Windstorm!" Wardes roared, the spell shredding the vines around his swordwand before lashing out at Saito.
Throwing himself out of the way of the tornado, Saito rapid-fired three bolts at Wardes, all of which were fire-types. The first exploded and consumed the wind, while the other two exploded around Wardes, missing him slightly, which unfortunately cracked the ice enough that the traitor was able to break free of it.
Before hostilities could recommence between them, deafeningly loud explosions erupted from several of the docked ships, sending them crashing to the ground with mighty cracks and earth-shaking sounds of collisions. Saito was no expert in the parts of a ship, but he did recognise that the keel of a ship was its most important part, and that every single ship that had exploded had at least one explosion that shattered the keel right about in the centre. Those ships were going nowhere fast. It would probably be quicker to build new ships from scratch rather than repair these ones.
"SAITO!" Louise's voice shrieked from above him, and the onmyōji didn't hesitate to take advantage of Wardes being stunned.
"Kaede!" he shouted as he holstered his crossbow. In a flash, his Familiar was next to him, one arm wrapped around his waist before the Ginki leapt into the air with all of the power she could force into her legs, shooting straight up and above the airship that Louise, Prince Wales and Marshall Rupert were aboard.
With a gesture of a wind talisman, Saito pushed them along just far enough that the pair of them were able to land safely on the deck.
"Are you unharmed, Aruji?" Kaede asked anxiously, only to blush and squeak cutely as her Master gently patted her just behind her horn.
"I'm fine, Kaede." Saito said with a smile. "I'm sorry I ordered you to stay out of it, but…well, I wanted to teach him a lesson."
"That was reckless!" Louise scolded him as she ran up to him. "Wardes is one of the most skilled Mages in all of Tristain!"
"He wasn't taking me seriously, nor was I fighting him seriously." Saito reassured his irate master. "When next we fight though…well, I'll gladly teach him a lesson or two."
"That was a most impressive duel that you fought, Professor Saito." Wales said as the Prince came up to him. "Why did you not draw your blade though?"
"I honestly couldn't summon the concentration to do that." Saito answered, somewhat embarrassed by his loss of control. "He said some…unpleasant things that made me very angry, and it took all of my focus to not do something foolish."
"Well, if that is what you are like in a fight when you have lost control, you must be a regular machine when you are in control." Lord Rupert chortled.
"I try." The onmyōji said modestly. "What is our destination?"
Wales looked pained. "Lord Rupert has convinced me that you are in the right of it, Professor Saito. So long as Cromwell holds the Ring of Andvari, our cities and towns will fall much as Londinium fell. Had Rupert not thought to have the Royal Guard man some ships beforehand, we may not have escaped. We will withdraw to Tristain and seek shelter there. Captain Bracegirdle!"
A stout man wearing a Captain's uniform walked over and saluted sharply. "Yes, Your Highness?"
"Of our ships, which is the fastest?" the Prince asked.
"That would be the Hotspur, under Captain Hornblower." Bracegirdle said without hesitation. "I served with Hornblower and he's a good, solid man sir."
"Signal Captain Hornblower that he is to make all haste to rendezvous with Admiral Pellew aboard Torrent at Newcastle." Prince Wales ordered. "He is to gather up 75% of all loyal soldiers in the various cities that we hold and break through the Reconquista blockade, when upon he shall re-join us in Tristainia. The remaining 25% of the soldiery is to form a resistance against Cromwell's rule. Understood, Captain Bracegirdle?"
"Aye, aye, Your Highness." Captain Bracegirdle saluted again and headed off to do his monarch's bidding.
"Now then, may I know who this young lady is, Professor Saito?" Wales asked curiously.
"I am my Aruji's humble Familiar." Kaede said shortly.
"Her name is Urajirosatoukaede, a Silver Oni, and one of my two familiars." Saito added helpfully. "Now, could we go somewhere to sit down? I'm slightly tired from fighting Wardes the traitor."
"Ah, of course." Wales looked abashed. "This way. Rupert, kindly direct Captain Bracegirdle to set the course of Grasshopper and the rest of the fleet for Tristainia at best speed."
"Yes, Your Highness." The Marshall replied as they walked off.
Back with Wardes…
"You underestimated him." Matilda observed with a smirk.
"As did you, my dear." Wardes pointed out coolly. He was busy glaring after the retreating gaggle of ships. At its best, the Royal Guard's Airships were a squadron in strength but with the number they had destroyed as they left, there was little more than two Wings of them at most.
"Well how was I to expect him to use my own element against me?" the Fallen Noble asked with a huff. "The brat used fire, metal and wood against me last time."
"I suspect that he was thinking of delaying and distracting you rather than fighting you." The disgraced Noble observed as he turned to face her. "Let us set that aside for the moment; we must catch up to that fleet at once."
"We seem to lack any sort of way of doing so." Matilda pointed out as she gestured at the shattered wrecks of the Royal Guard's ships.
"Now that Londinium has all but fallen, we can move on and requisition the 2nd Air Liberation Fleet that is in charge of blockading the southernmost area of Albion." The former Crown Agent of Tristain smirked darkly. "Then we shall see exactly how lucky and able young Saito is."
Next Chapter: Tragedy in the Skies