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"Saito" - Talking

'Louise' - Thinking/ Human-Human Telepathy

"Explosion!" - Spell

:Master: - Master/Familiar Telepathy

Chapter 32: Chevalier Saito de Hiraga des Ornières

Three Days Later

Throne Room, Castle Tristain, City of Tristainia

The air inside the Grand Throne Room of Castle Tristain was far from what one might imagine after the kingdom had successfully repelled an invading army. By any metric, the attempted invasion was a complete and total victory for the Allied Forces of Tristain and Loyalist Albion. The invading air fleet of the 'Holy Republic of Albion' had been utterly decimated, with not a single combat-worthy vessel managing to escape the battlefield. The invader's Dragon Wings, whose skill and proficiency had been a symbol of Pride for the Albionian Navy for generations and had previously outnumbered the Allied Forces by nearly 3 to 2, had been reduced to but a single Flight. And the assembled army of traitors, sell-swords, and turncoats had all either fallen in battle or been captured, save perhaps a few that had managed to flee the battlefield into the countryside during the chaos.

All of this was attained while suffering minimal casualties among the Allied Forces.

And to tap it all off, the self-proclaimed 'Holy Emperor' and regicidal leader of the 'Holy Republic,' Oliver Cromwell, had been captured. He was currently under heavy guard at all times, unable to even take his own life before he could be interrogated, tried, and executed for his numerous crimes.

Most would expect an air of celebration to fill every corner of the kingdom after such a grand victory, but instead there was only a sharp tension in the throne room this day. Why? In a single word: politics.

The announcement that had been made the previous day, that Lady Louise 'le Blanc' de la Vallière had been appointed Crown Princess of all of Tristain until such a time that a proper heir to Her Majesty the Queen could be born, had thrown the near-entirety of what was commonly referred to as the 'Traditionalist Faction' of Tristan's nobility into a very unhappy uproar. Tensions were further agitated by the fact that the new Crown Princess was proclaimed to be a Void Mage and thus her Runic Name would be changed from 'le Blanc' (The Zero) to 'le Vide' (The Void), which not only further incensed the Traditionalist Faction, but also earned the collective ire of the Devout Brimirite Faction.

A Noble's Runic Name was assigned as a teenager to represent their talents, aspirations and feats, and was never to be changed throughout their entire lives, so said tradition that went back to the founding days of the Kingdom, penned by the hand of Brimir's own son. The sheer gall of the newly crowned Queen to openly ignore such a tradition utterly enraged the Traditionalists. Worse, allowing such an action to occur would only bring poor portents for their prospects during her reign. The Devout Brimirite Faction, while affronted by the challenge to a tradition going back nearly to the days of the Founder, was far more upset that the new Queen was daring to proclaim that another mage, particularly the well-known Embarrassment of the de Vallière Family, held the same Elemental Alignment as Founder Brimir himself.

The Royalist Faction, lead primarily by the de Vallière Family and made up of several of the oldest Noble Families in the Kingdom, as well as a good number of newly ennobled families only a few generations old, merely glared icily at their counterparts from across the hall in open and visible contempt. It was well-known that none of the self-entitled Traditionalists had supplied so much as a single soldier for the Battle of Tarbes, while the Devout Brimirites had also refused to partake and instead had insisted that 'the Founder's will shall decide the outcome' before locking themselves in their own fiefs to pray.

There was also a bit of dissatisfaction in the Royalist Faction, mostly due to a lack of acclaim earned by the various Houses that had assembled their forces for the battle. Nearly all of the glory in the Battle of Tarbes had been taken by Louise de Vallière herself, as well as the actions of her Familiar. Her human familiar, it must be said. While a mere beast's actions could be safely ignored and excused as simply obeying its Master's will; the man called 'Hiraga Saito' had already proven that, despite his Familiar Runes, he still possessed a will, agency, and agenda of his own.

To be blunt, none of the gathered nobles were completely happy, but the Traditionalists and Devout Brimirites were particularly unhappy and were now attempting to kick up a fuss about it, which quickly united the Royalists against them. None of the Royalists were feeling all that eager to forget that their opposition was trying to divert attention away from their own willingness to take advantage of an attack on Tristainian soil to further their own ends.

And with Duchess Karin 'le Vent Forte' de Vallière at the head of the Royalist Faction and glaring death from across the hall, none of the opposition seemed to have the courage to openly speak up against her daughter within her earshot. None of them were THAT stupid, after all.

The tension in the air suddenly shifted as the double-doors at the opposite end of the throne room slammed open and a Royal Herald boldly stepped inwards and to the side. "Announcing the arrival of Her Royal Majesty, Queen Henrietta Stuart de Tristain, and Her Majesty, Dowager Queen Marianne Stuart de Tristain!"

All of the gathered nobles, regardless of their faction or opinion, quickly bowed and curtseyed as their reigning monarch and the previous Queen stepped into the throne room. To do otherwise was both a sign of immense disrespect to the crown and a direct challenge to its authority. None of the unhappy nobles were prepared to push so far to act on their dissatisfaction. Not yet, anyway…

Ascending the dais to the throne, Henrietta spun around and seated herself with an elegance befitting her bloodline and upbringing, easily settling her skirts with a motion that was long practised. Her mother did the same a moment later and the two women looked out upon the Royal Court of Tristain, arrayed on either side of the red carpet that lead to the throne's dais.

'The Crown Loyalists still have a slight advantage in numbers compared to the Traditionalists, but they are on opposite ends of the rank scale.' the burgundy-haired teenager ruler reminded herself, her eyes quickly taking in the political field as it was represented before her and dissecting it. 'The core of the Loyalist Faction is both immensely high-ranking and powerful, Duke de Vallière being a prime example of such, but the rest are mostly Chevaliers, Baronets, and Barons, with a small smattering of Counts mixed in. The Traditionalists instead are primarily made up of Counts, Marquises, and Viscounts, but they lack representation among the highest tiers of the Nobility. The Devout Brimirites are a far smaller faction, and the only members of any real power is a Duke and I believe two Counts, the rest are merely Knight-Priests and Barons.'

Trying to balance the various Noble Factions was a tiresome task, but a necessary one for any reigning monarch. While one had to keep power mostly centralized in the Crown's hands, they must also be careful to spread some about to ensure the Nobility do not grow too nervous about losing their Noble Privileges. Similarly, the Nobility needed to be kept in line to ensure that they did not abuse the common folk to the point of revolt, without bending over backwards for those selfsame commoners. Henrietta was already exasperated that she had to police her own Royalist Faction because there was a number of overeager, ambitious fools eager to gain rank and glory, and hot-headed, over-zealous idiots too quick to start a fight in their numbers.

"All may raise their heads." she intoned calmly, finally giving the gathered nobles permission to stop bowing. "The topics of the day, I'm sure, are well known to all gathered here today. First, is the formal changing of Louise de Vallière's Runic Name from 'le Blanc' to 'le Vide'. Representative of those opposing this action, you may step forth and present your argument."

A man dressed in the formal uniform of the Tristain/Gallia Border Guard stepped forward from among the Devout Brimirite Faction. "I, Count Yves 'la Fumée' (The Smoke) de Bastille have been appointed as speaker, your Majesty!"

The man was on the slightly older side, approaching forty, and had a pinched face and a rather sallow complexion, not to mention a thick gut that looked particularly strange since the rest of him was tall and reasonably muscular. He was the very image of a fit man who was going to seed and refusing to admit it, while the visible strain of the buttons trying to contain his stomach acted a visible testament to that fact.

"Speak then, Count de Bastille." Henrietta directed.

"The Runic Name is an ancient and sacred tradition, passed down from generation to generation from the time when mankind still resided in the Holy Land." the Count immediately began to speak, his voice heavy and blunt. "Your accomplishments and actions in your first official year of magical training are what determines one's Runic Name. In the current times, this translates to a noble's first year attending the Academy, and there has never been a single instance of someone choosing to change it in the past five-thousand years. Miss de Vallière accomplished nothing during her first year attending the Academy, aside from causing several explosions, and thus she earned her the Runic Name of 'Le Blanc.' Such is our tradition! To change it now would go against a tradition first established by the Founder's own children!"

His piece said, he stepped backward and considered his argument over with.

"Very well." Henrietta stated neutrally, doing her best to mask her true emotions, while internally she currently wanted nothing more than to lay into this pompous fool for daring to malign her friend/sister-in-all-but-blood in front of her. Instead, she turned to the opposing side of the room. "Representative of those supporting this action, you may step forth and present your own argument."

"I, Duchess Karin 'le Vent Fort' de Vallière, have been chosen to speak on this matter, Your Majesty." her honorary Aunt stated simply as she stepped forwards, her eyes sharp as her gaze locked onto the man who had sneered at her youngest child.

"Speak then, Duchess de Vallière." the Queen offered with a nod. Inwardly, she was greatly looking forward to this.

"The argument of the opposition was expected and not without merit, tradition is important after all." the Duchess stated calmly, but there was a distinctly unfriendly glimmer in her eyes. "However, it is important that the entirety of a tradition is honoured rather than merely the most convenient and obvious portions of it. As such, I have consulted with Bishop Madolene on the exact tradition that Count de Bastille spoke of, and I have found that his argument is mistaken."

"What!?" the fat man barked out, affronted.

"The Bishop, as the highest representative of Mother Church in Tristain, has access to the original documents that pertain to the Runic Name tradition." Karin elaborated. "At my request, the good Bishop examined those documents in close detail. While it is true that no one else has sough to change their Runic Name in the last five millennia, that is not because there is no way to do so. The documents clearly state that one can petition to have their Runic Name changed so long as there are sufficiently mitigating circumstances."

"Mitigating…?! Such as!?" Count de Bastille demanded.

"In the case of my daughter, the fact that her magic was bound prior to her attending the Academy by the traitor Viscount Wardes!" the Duchess responded, her anger becoming nearly palpable as it rolled off her in waves. "This was discovered some time ago by her Familiar using one of the unique properties of his people's magical system. Together he and Headmaster Osmond were able to identify the spell he cast as Wizel's Wondrous Cage, rendering her unable to cast spells properly, before Osmond was capable of breaking it. Osmond himself has stated that he is willing to swear an oath on his noble title before the crown that this is the truth of the matter. Having one's magic unknowingly and unwillingly bound is one of the few situations where it is right and proper to request one's Runic Name be changed by the seated monarch."

"In the name of the Founder, I confirm that Her Grace's words are the truth of the matter." the Bishop in question intoned solemnly, stepping forward. "The belief that one's Runic Name cannot be changed regardless of circumstances is a false one brought about by a lack of knowledge regarding the true scope of the Runic Name Tradition and the sheer weight of inertia due to how…stringent the requirements for requesting such a change are. With Her Majesty's permission, I will personally prepare a copy of the writings of King Tristain the First regarding this subject and have it delivered to Headmaster Osmond at the Academy, to ensure that he and all future generations are aware of the true nature and breadth of this most hallowed tradition."

"Be…Be that the case, there is still the blatant reference to the Founder in this new Runic Name!" the pinch-faced man spat out, obviously off-balance at being bluntly and blatantly told he was wrong. "To announce that a mere girl is a Void Mage like Founder Brimir is blasphemous!"

"Unless you know of another elemental combination that is capable of creating the type of devastating effect that can fell an entire fleet of airships in a single spell and a massive flare of light, then there is no doubt that my daughter, Louise de Vallière, is in fact a Void Mage." Karin responded icily. "I will freely admit that a spell of such magnitude is beyond anything that I, a Square-Rank Mage, am capable of. Were I to call upon my Heavy Wind of the Tornado spell, then perhaps I could fell a single ship on my own, but to bring down an entire fleet of the latest generation of Albionian warships, including the heavily warded Ark Royal, at the same time? What explanation do you have for that kind of power, other than the legendary destructive power of a Void Mage?"

"Before you think to think to imply that the Duchess de Vallière is exaggerating this feat, Count de Bastille, then I will remind you that we have the eyewitness accounts of every other Noble in attendance at the battle, and their accounts all collaborate her own. It was in fact Louise de Vallière that devastated the 'Holy Republic of Albion' fleet with a single spell." Henrietta cut in sharply. "The spell that was cast matches no known spells for Wind, Fire, Water, or Earth and masters of each were present at the battlefield and attest that it was not of their Element. That leaves only Void Magic. Accept the fact that she is a Void Mage, the proof that has been presented is irrefutable, and that, in time, Louise de Vallière and will become the world's first Pentagram-Ranked Void Mage once she is given time to learn from the Founder's Prayer Book."

The ranking system that was used by the Mages of Halkaginia was relatively simple. A Mage capable of utilizing a single element was referred to as a Dot-Rank Mage. A Mage capable of either utilizing two elements, or drawing out double the power of a single Element, was referred to as a Line-Rank Mage. Three elements, or tripling a single element, was a Triangle-Mage, which was the most common rank in all of the kingdoms. Wielding all four of the basic elements, or quadrupling a single element, was known as a Square-Rank Mage, and was considered to be the pinnacle of a Mage's capabilities.

Louise, solely with access to Void Magic, had no other choice but to quintuple down on it, and could thus be the first person since the Founder to be a Pentagram-Ranked Mage, at least once she had learned enough about Void Magic.

"I…but…it is blasphemy!" the Count blustered, seemingly unable to come up with any other argument.

"The Founder's Prayer Book has reacted to someone for the first time since Founder Brimir." Bishop Madolene stated serenely. "There is nothing in the Book of Brimir that states that only the Founder could, or would, ever wield Void Magic. If those assembled will think on, they will recall that the House of de Vallière is a Cadet Branch of the House of Stuart, and thus a lineal descendent of the Founder Himself. Looking through that lens, the fact that Louise de Vallière, a child born to the line of one of Founder Brimir's Children, is a Void Mage actually makes a certain degree of logical sense."

The Count, utterly unable to argue to the Bishop's explanation, other than it not meshing with his own beliefs and bias, had been forced to remain silent. As expected, the Queen found in favour of the change of Runic Name before consenting to the Bishop's request to see a copy of her ancestor's writings regarding Runic Names being made and presented to Headmaster Osmond for safe storage in the Academy.

The next item on the agenda was Louise de Vallière's appointment as Crown Princess. Ordinarily, this appointment would be solely the decision of the sitting monarch, provided that the one being named was of direct bloodline to them, but Louise was of the Cadet Branch of the Stuart Royal Family, and therefore her appointment could be contested in the courts.

The argument presented by the representative that stepped forward for the Traditionalist Faction basically boiled down to them complaining that such an act was blatant favouritism to the House of de Vallière by the Royal Family. It was Duke de Vallière who stepped forward to argue for the Royalists this time and he sharply pointed out that House de Vallière had never received any act of favouritism from the Crown. When the Traditionalist tried to bring up the lack of a formal announcement of investigation into the de Vallière Arquebus production line in the wake of the assassination attempt made on then-Crown Princess Henrietta as proof, Henrietta herself had stepped in and pointed out that the lack of announcement was due to the delicate nature of the investigation itself rather than an act of favouritism, something that the Traditionalist could do nothing more than grumble against.

"Louise 'le Vide' de Vallière is the sole person of proper bloodline capable of inheriting the Crown in the event that something unfortunate were to happen to Us." Henrietta stated simply, using the Royal We to remind the recalcitrant nobles that she was now their liege ruler. "We are aware that there are some among Our Nobility, that have concerns about her selection. Rest assured, We fully intend to marry and birth a child once the Reconquista, who slew Our Cousin and fellow monarch Prince Wales de Tudor de Albion and is currently attempting to masquerade itself as the 'Holy Republic of Albion', are put to the sword. Until then, you shall endure Our choice of Heir. Should you still wish to voice your complaints, then We shall simply state that those who would cower in their own lands, rather than fight for the common good of their Kingdom, do not deserve to wear a Crown."

The direct reference to how both the Traditionalist and Devout Brimirite Factions hadn't lifted a finger to offer aid to the Royal Tristainian Army in the face of an attempted invasion at the Battle of Tarbes made most of those gathered nobles flinch visibly. A part of one's Noble Duty was to answer the call of their monarch when they declared a call to war, but instead they had merely holed up in their own lands and waited for what they thought would be an inevitable conclusion to come to pass. Instead, the most blatantly unimaginable circumstances had combined to create a scenario that they hadn't imagined possible; the combined forces of Tristain and Loyalist Albion had not only won, but had come out nearly completely unscathed, the only significant losses being a handful of Dragon Rider Wings.

Now they were all left with egg on their faces and the Monarchy had a very legitimate excuse to be against them and blatantly favour their opposition until they could regain some measure of respectability.

With her opposition effectively neutered for now, Henrietta nodded towards the Royal Herald. The man bowed respectfully before beating the butt of his silver staff of office thrice onto the ground. "Announcing Lady Louise Françoise 'le Vide' de la Vallière, and her Familiar, Hiraga Saito!"

The double doors swung open once more, revealing two figures. Louise stepped through the doors first, looking unflinchingly at her monarch, childhood friend and personal liege lady. She wore her uniform as a lieutenant in the Royal Tristainian Guard, which was specifically designated to protect both the Capital and the sitting monarch. While not on the same level of status as the Royal Musketeer Guard, the position was still highly sought after and coveted for status, pay, and prestige.

Following dutifully behind her was Saito, wearing a white uniform with blue trim, almost the inverse of his usual blue and white jacket. He looked the very image of a young noble, and had his sword, Derflinger, slung over his shoulder in a far-improved and more intricate sheathe than he usually wore.

The pair advanced to three steps before the dais before promptly kneeling before the Queen.

"Louise de Vallière, your actions against the forces of the Reconquista and their self-proclaimed 'Holy Republic' were nothing short of extraordinary, if not outright miraculous." the Queen stated, a proud smile on her face. "Thanks to your single spell, the casualties that befell Our army and Our allies of Loyalist Albion were reduced to all but nil, and Our Realm has won a great victory against the forces of the Reconquista. Please remove your Cloak of Nobility."

Having already been walked through what was expected of her as part of this ceremony, Louise didn't hesitate to unclasp the purple cloak that she wore and hand it to Saito, who then proceeded to fold Louise's previous mark of rank carefully and efficiently before calmly and deliberately rising to his feet with his head still bowed and walking towards her mother. Karin de Vallière accepted the folded cloak without ceremony and Saito then marched back to his previous position and resumed his kneeling stance.

The second that Saito returned to his kneeling position, Agnès de Milan walked out from a concealed side door bearing another folded cloak. Henrietta rose as she arrived and took the new cloak up, snapping it free with a single practised flourish to present it to all of the gathered Nobility. It was a deeper shade of purple than a standard Cape of Nobility, with gold trimming lining the edges. At the collar area it was artistically decorated with an inlaid line of golden fleur-de-lys.

"This Mantle was designed by Our noble ancestor, King Tristain the First himself, for the event that someone not of his direct bloodline would need to be appointed to the position of Heir." the Queen announced, her eyes flicking over to the stunned Traditionalists. "He placed this Cloak under a potent preservation enchantment, cast by his own hand, and placed it within the Royal Archives for if a day ever came when it was needed. Our ancestor was a wise and cautious man who saw fit to prepare for such a day that his line would come under threat and We would need to call upon the Cadet Branch of Our Family to stand as Heir until one of Our own body can be birthed."

Turning back to Louise, Queen Henrietta stepped forward and personally draped the Mantle over the pinkette's shoulders before clasping it closed at her throat with the pentagon-engraved pin.

"By Our Name as Queen of Tristain, I hereby anoint you, Lady Louise Françoise 'le Vide' de la Vallière, as Crown Princess of Tristain and all of its Domains." the burgundy-haired young ruler proclaimed with all formality. "In doing so, I bestow upon you all the rights, responsibilities, duties, and privileges that come with this position. This appointment shall last until an Heir of Blood can be birthed from Our body, or until I fall dead due to outside influences before that can happen, in which you shall assume the throne and preserve the Rule of Tristain. Do you accept this sacred charge?"

"I do solemnly accept, Your Majesty." Louise answered seriously, her head still bowed.

"Then rise and take the Heir's Throne." Henrietta ordered, gesturing at the throne was one step lower on the dais compared to her own throne and the Queen Dowager's throne. It had formerly been Henrietta's own throne, but now it would belong to Louise.

Carefully, Louise rose to her feet and made her way to the throne, sitting down carefully and preparing for the next part of this audience.

Henrietta herself did not return to her seat, instead she focused her attention on the still-kneeling form of Saito. "Hiraga Saito, you have stepped forward on multiple occasions to offer aid to Our Realm since you were first brought here from your own world by Our current Crown Princess via the Summon Servant Spell. In each occasion you have acted with skill, honour, and integrity far beyond what could be expected of a common man. It was through your magic that the foul crime that was done against Our Crown Princess was discovered and rectified, and the one who was responsible was brought to justice. You saved Our own life from an attempted assassination. Retrieved and, with aid of Professor Colbert of Our Academy, revived the Dragon Raiment before flying it into battle against an attempted invasion, defeating no less than two full Wings of Dragon Riders on your own. It was your actions that allowed your Master's Magical Abilities to be fully unlocked and allowed her to cast the spell that destroyed the invading fleet while your own Familiar captured the leader of the Reconquista, the regicide Oliver Cromwell. Your actions in service to Our Realm are not ones that We can overlook, nor should they ever be."

Drawing her sceptre from her side, Henrietta gently tapped it first against his left shoulder and then his right before she spoke again, "By the Authority bestowed upon me as Queen of Tristain, I hereby appoint you as Sir Saito de Hiraga, Chevalier of the Realm of Tristain and bestow upon you the lordship of the Fief of Ornières, making your full title Chevalier Saito de Hiraga des Ornières. Furthermore, I hereby confer two Noble Duties upon you House."

The last portion actually got the nobility mumbling amongst themselves. Saito's list of accomplishments made it so that even the majority of the Traditionalists couldn't complain too much about him having earned his Writ of Ennoblement. Even half of those deeds would have met the traditional requirements of earning such a rank, with the fact that he was also already a mage, rather than simply another upstart commoner, making the decision a bit easier for them to swallow. However, Houses were rarely given a Noble Duty upon their ennoblement, with the most recent case being Agnès de Milan, who was charged with overseeing the then newly formed Royal Musketeers in defence of the Royal Family.

"First, the House of de Hiraga is bestowed with the title of Protecteur du Vide (Protector of the Void). Should any new Void Mages be born of Tristainian blood, then a member of the House of de Hiraga shall be appointed as their Knight Protector until such a time that they summon their own Familiar. Should they then be summoned to act as that mage's Familiar, then they shall retain that rank and proceed to carry it for the rest of their days." Henrietta stated. "As the first of your House and Familiar of the First Tristainian Void Mage, that naturally means that you shall act as Knight Protector of Our Crown Princess, Louise de Vallière."

As Saito was already Louise's Familiar, there wasn't much of a grumble from the gathered nobles as there could have been at that appointment. A Knight Protector was only ever assigned to Very Important People, even amongst the Nobility. Long before the creation of the Royal Musketeer Guard, there had been the Tristainian Royal Knight Protectors. Never numbering more than ten in number, they had been the most elite of the elite in Tristain, and had been charged with the personal protection of the Royal Family itself and those they deemed in need of their skills. Today, only four members remained, all nearing sixty, and they were uniformly retired several years ago by order of the crown to personally oversee the training of the next generation of their band.

A ruling King or Queen could unilaterally appoint a Noble House upon Ennoblement with the status of Knight Protector, as Henrietta just had, but this was only the second time that any Tristainian monarch had done so inside of living memory; the first having been done by Henrietta's father, King Henry, just a short year before his death.

"I do solemnly accept this charge." Saito offered formally; head still bowed.

"Secondly, a Duty of Education." Henrietta stated. "The magical system that you know has been acknowledged by both Professor Jean Colbert and Headmaster Osmond as far more advanced than any magic that we of Halkaginia practice. You have already started passing on your knowledge to Our Heir Apparent, and We would like you to continue this practice and teach others your arts."

This request actually caused Saito to briefly hesitate. "I accept, Your Majesty, on the condition that I retain full latitude and authority over who I choose as my students."

There was a sudden swell of outrage from the Traditionalist camp at the newly ennobled Upstart daring to try and dictate terms to their monarch, but Henrietta sharply glared at the offending Nobility, causing silence to once again sweep across the room.

"That is a perfectly acceptable condition. You are essentially being tasked with taking Apprentices, and, as all present should remember, it is only traditional that a Master have full rights to accept or deny Apprentices on their own whim." Henrietta answered Saito's request with a firm nod, a small smile on her lips. A motion brought another Musketeer bearing a cloak out of the shadows, this one was navy blue in colour with a high collar and lacking the pentagram pin at the throat. Henrietta once more took it and unfolded it with a flourish before stepping forward to place it on Saito's shoulders. "Then rise, Knight Protector Hiraga, and take your place by the throne of your charge."

Rising to his feet once more, Saito marched forward and flanked the Heir's Throne to the left, the position traditionally assigned to a Knight Protector.

Once Henrietta returned to the Monarch's Throne, she then let her gaze sweep out across her Court. "Members of the Nobility, it is now Our solemn duty to declare that a state of War exists between Tristain and the self-proclaimed 'Holy Republic of Albion' effective as of now. The Royal Army has already begun to be fully mobilized, our friends of Loyalist Albion are ready to fight alongside us, and now We call upon your soldiers as well. This is not an option, aside from those assigned to watch the Gallian Border, all nobles are ordered to muster for war."

"Will all due respect, Your Majesty, even the reigning monarch cannot mobilize Tristain to war by their declaration alone." an old man wearing a skull cap and expensive purple and black robes, stated seriously as he stepped forward from just outside the Traditionalist block. "Such an act requires the agreement of the Royal Council."

"Under normal circumstances, you would speak the truth, Minister Richemont. However, these are not normal circumstances. This 'Holy Republic' has already declared war upon us and attempted to invade our lands, destroying the village of Tarbes in the process." Henrietta countered simply. "With such a blatant declaration of ill intent by another nation, even one that was defeated in such a lopsided manner in their initial act of aggression, then the Crown has full right and authority to act in retaliation without the need for approval or acceptance by the Royal Council."

Saito watched the old man with impassive eyes. Minister Alain Richemont, the current Minister of Finance of Tristain, was a man he had heard of as Louise, Henrietta, and her mother had started to help him prepare for his ascent to nobility. A Marquis in his own right, he had held his position for over twenty years, having been appointed in the final days of the reign of King Justinian the Fourth, King Henry's father and Henrietta's grandfather. The man was apparently a stout Noble Traditionalist and Brimirite; he was also, according to the Dowager Queen, exceedingly good at his job despite a number of unpleasant rumours that seemed to constantly follow after him like smoke.

"I…see. As you say, Your Majesty." Richemont looked frustrated, though whether that was based on the denial of his own authority as a member of the Royal Council or something else, Saito couldn't be sure. "And pray tell, how is the Royal Treasury intending to pay for this war? We have only just managed to regain our financial stability thanks to the sale of the diamonds created during that most unusual attack on the Academy."

"We cannot believe that so many diamonds have already been sold that the market is now gorged on them." the Queen responded with a raised eyebrow. "Germania and Gallia at least, should still be buying as many as they can, and Romalia certainly would not ignore this opportunity as well."

"Indeed, although I am sad to say that I predict that it will not be long before the market for diamonds, at least in the short term, begins to crash." the Minister confirmed with a nod. "The wood and metal plating that was gathered as well has also already been utilized in our latest ship builds. Even with the profits still coming in, we cannot hope to sustain a war for more than two months at most."

"And the taxes?" Henrietta asked, eyes raking across the nobility, a few flinching from her regard. "I assume that all taxes for this year have already been paid in full? By all levels of the nobility?"

"Aside from the newly formed House of de Hiraga, which shall receive the traditional Crown Tax Exemption for the first five years due to the House having just been founded." Richemont confirmed with a nod.

"Then it is a good thing that you were not aware of one of the fail-safe mechanisms instituted by Our House's ancient ally and kin, the House of Tudor." Henrietta smiled coldly. "Prince Wales activated a device that was presented to his ancestor by the Founder Himself before leaving Buckingham Castle. When the Reconquista attempted to gain access to the Albion Royal Treasury and Crown Jewels, the contents of both were teleported to a designated safe area…that being a hidden section of Tristain Castle whose location is known only to the Royal Families of Tristain and Albion. We have the full Royal Treasury of Albion at our disposal, which will allow Us to prosecute this war until the Reconquista has been defeated."

"May I ask, Your Majesty, why I, as Minister of Finance, was not informed of this great windfall? The finances of the kingdom are my purview, after all." the Minister asked, a glint of avarice entering his eyes.

"This money is not for Tristain as a whole. Its sole purpose is for the defeat of the treasonous Reconquista and the liberation and restoration of Albion to its former self." the Queen rebuked him sharply. "Once Our normal military budget has been depleted, the Royal Family shall transfer funds to replenish it and continue the war."

Her current actions were, to be frank, a very bull-headed and roughshod way of asserting her control of the Royal Court. As a young Queen, normally the Ministers would be trusted to assert control until the new monarch gained enough political savvy to force the Ministers to return to their previous positions. By using the current crisis to establish a semi-autocratic authority by the Crown during a time of war, and ensuring that the exact location of the Albionian treasury remained hidden, Henrietta was essentially forcing the Ministers to accept her authority here and now, rather than after a few years of politicking.

Doubtless, there would be a number of powerful people irked by this blatant act, but Henrietta honestly couldn't care less at the moment. She had lost her first love, nearly lost her childhood friend, and had watched as men died under her orders. She was in absolutely no mood to deal with petty egos, inane agendas, and trivial politics after all of that.

"As you will it, Your Majesty." Minister Richemont bowed his head in faux humility and acceptance before stepping back. He knew better than to try and uselessly push on at this juncture; to do so would be seen as wilful defiance for no visible reason, and would arouse unneeded suspicion. He was the highest ranked member of the Reconquista in Tristain, so having any unnecessary suspicion brought onto him would be a very bad idea at this time. For now, all he could do was lay low and have his agents send word to the main branch of the Reconquista in Albion regarding the Queen's intentions.

'More's the pity that I could do nothing to stall things for now, but there are simply no worthwhile options available to me at the moment.' he mused to himself with an internal sigh of annoyance as his fellow Ministers began to report on their own readiness for war. 'That damnable fool Cromwell is far too well guarded for me to free him as I did Wardes. Not only has he been confined in the actual Gaol rather than the Noble Imprisonment Cells, but his guard is entirely made up of both Musketeers and Loyalist Albionian soldiers, no less than a dozen of each at any time of the day and night, including more than a handful of mages of not-inconsiderable ability. Worse than that, there are those dratted poison detection devices! Who the hell came up with those, as if I didn't already have a guess!?'

He glanced to the newly ennobled Chevalier Saito de Hiraga with a look of heavily concealed anger and resentment. The magic the outworlder practised was strange, different and complex in ways that he couldn't even hope to understand, and the boy (he was no older that the chit Queen herself! How could he have such skill at such an age!?) was already regarded as a puissant enchanter. The newly provided devices presented to the Musketeer Guard, which glowed whenever anything within a meter of them was touched by poison and even pinpointed exactly where it resided, were very obviously one of his creations. As a man of political ambition himself, where poison was always a risk, he might have actually appreciated the infernal things had they not already ruined his first attempt to silence the Reconquista's figurehead before he could cause any more damage.

Bribery was not an option. Those wretched little Musketeers, commoners one and all, were all fanatically loyal and devoted to Queen Henrietta, while the Loyalist Albionians were hungry for Cromwell's blood down to a man for the murder of their Prince. Coercion was also unfortunately off the table, the Loyalists were beyond his reach in order to get something done before Cromwell could be made to talk, and the Musketeers and their families all were protected by law and even lived in a small, private village near Tristain itself, guarded by a rotation of off-duty Musketeers. Even an attempted smash and grab operation wouldn't work, not without the Queen mobilizing every member of the Royal Tristainian Guard to hunt down the culprits.

No, the decision on how to handle matters here was out of his hands. He would let others make the decision on how to properly respond while he reorganized the remaining members of the Tristainian Reconquista into some semblance of order. That was his primary directive for now, so it was where he would focus his attention. If he ever found an opportunity to eliminate any of the four on the dais, however…

Above the assembled court, a black bird with a purple rune on its forehead gazed down impassively as the proceedings continued.

Same Time

King's Private Suite, Royal Palace, City of Versailles, Kingdom of Gallia

"That stripling girl is being far more decisive than we had planned for, my Master." Sheffield noted as she silently dissolved the link to her demi-familiar. "She has already established a firm control over her court, cut off any excuse or reason to delay the war, and has appointed her Void Mage as her successor while ennobling the Onmyōji Familiar."

"Heh, so the little girl is actually learning." the other occupant of the room offered with an amused huff. Joseph Martel de Gallia, the reigning monarch of the Kingdom of Gallia, was a tall, heavily muscled man dressed in a blue and white uniform, the Gallian Royal Crest emblazoned on his chest, and a fur-trimmed blue royal mantle resting draped across his shoulders. His hair and neatly trimmed beard were both the familiar shade of light blue of his young niece, and, as was almost always the case, he had a smirk on his lips. His very presence seemed to radiate a sense of smug knowing and superiority. "The Reconquista is all-but doomed then. Unless…Sheffield, is there any chance that you could retrieve the Ring of Andvari from the Gandálfr?"

"I'm afraid not. He keeps it on his person at all times, and the two Familiars that he possesses are both powerful high-class demonic humanoids." Sheffield responded with an irritated shake of her head. "One is an Avanta-class Succubus, while the other is a Princess-class Silver Oni. Neither of my own familiars would stand even the slightest chance of winning against them in a straight fight, even bolstered by my abilities. More annoyingly, the boy now carries Derflinger and can use it to channel the power of Gandálfr in addition to his own Onmyōdō spells. Were I to attack from complete surprise and with an overwhelming force borrowed from the Gallian Regular Forces to aid in distracting his Familiars, I might be capable of stealing it, though even then I cannot be certain that the boy would fall in the attempt, and it would prematurely tip our hand, Master."

"How vexing." Joseph hummed with a slight sigh. "A shame that little Charlotte didn't simply kill the Water Spirit of Lake Lagdorian, as I implied she should. Things would be far simpler for us then."

"Hmph. Did you truly believe that your little toy was truly capable of such a thing, Master?" Sheffield asked with a snort and a smirk. "You might have been able to deaden and dull her emotions with all you have done, but she is still a soft-hearted child. She will not slay something that is not a monster."

"No, no I suppose not." the King acknowledged with a shake of his head. "In all likelihood, the Gandálfr intends to return the Ring to the Water Spirit at some point in the near future. I'm assuming that stealing it from that spirit a second time would be all but impossible as well?"

"Were I to try, I would be risking my life in the attempt." the former agent of the Juxtaposed Black Star answered with a displeased shudder. "I am magically powerful, my Familiars greatly compliment my own talents, and the power granted to me as your Mjödvitnir (Mind of God) Familiar grants me many useful abilities, but the Water Spirit of Lake Lagdorian was likely already ancient when your Founder Brimir walked this land, and it will be most paranoid about its precious ring once it receives it back. Better you ask me to assail a fortress alone, unarmed and without my magic, and expect me to emerge triumphant, my Master."

"Hmm…" Joseph actually frowned unhappily. This was not going according to plan. He wasn't quite ready yet to begin his conquest of Halkaginia. The Reconquista were supposed to act as a distraction, drawing the attention of the other kingdoms so that he could secretly build up his store of artefacts and inventions before beginning his blitzkrieg offensive against the other nations. As things were now, there was a good chance that he might win, but there was still a not insignificant chance that he might not. King Joseph never made a move that he wasn't sure of, and right now things were still far too uncertain for his tastes.

Honestly, Cromwell had been almost pathetically easy to incite into action, overly zealous little fanatic that he was. Prodding at his Noble pride a bit here, having him hear a bit of religious claptrap there, and it hadn't even taken a full year of work before the fool began to make preparations to try and overthrow the Albionian Royal Family. Better yet, the man was such a narrow-minded little egoist that it had been almost laughingly easy to turn him into an obedient little toy without him even realizing it. His capture should have resulted in Sheffield entering his prison and silencing the fool within a day or two of his capture. Unfortunately, there was an additional warden watching the fool that even the Musketeers and Albionian solders were apparently unaware of; Hiraga Saito's Ginki Familiar was also standing watch over Cromwell to ensure that he faced judgement for his crimes against her master.

Sheffield was simply too valuable to him to risk losing this early on, so he had rescinded his order and recalled her as soon as the Silver Oni somehow managed to detect and kill the Mjödvitnir Demi-Familiar that she had been using to scout out the Gaol. Oh well, it wasn't all that important, more of an afterthought for the sake of completeness and to wipe some of the smugness from that stripling girl's victory. Cromwell was a deluded little narcissist who honestly believed that he had been 'chosen' by Brimir and was utterly convinced that he alone had created the idea of the Reconquista. The fool's bloated ego, already immense and fetid before Joseph had fanned the flames of his zealotry, refused to accept that he had been led around by his nose. Cromwell's own pride would keep him silent, even as his neck was put on the execution block.

That still left him with the troubling question of just where to go from here. His initial plans had involved installing Sheffield as the new leader of Reconquista, reclaiming the Ring of Andvari, and using its abilities to keep the traitorous little back-biters of the Albionian Nobility in line. With them all instructed to fight to the death and constantly using the Ring to poison any wells the invaders used with mind-controlling water, he could have stretched the war on Albion out for several years to give him all the time he needed.

Now, with the Ring of Andvari likely out of his reach for good, he would be lucky if the war could be dragged out for more than six months. That wasn't anywhere near enough time for him to accomplish his own goals.

"Sheffield, you mentioned other Outworlders before?" he asked after a moment's thought. "Exactly how many of them are there in Halkaginia, yourself included?"

"Four to the best of my knowledge, Master." the black-haired woman replied primly. "Myself, the little Onmyōji boy who has apparently given his loyalty to Tristain, Graf John von Leopold who is currently lurking in western Tristain, and one other who is hiding in the southernmost section of Tristain. It was the latter who was responsible for the attempted assassination of the then-Princess Henrietta using an arquebus, or more likely, some form of primitive rifled musket."

"Hoh. You've mentioned the Graf before, he's too proud and volatile to accept any aid or patronage, and he's a bit too cunning for me to want to try and prod and direct him, plus it would likely bring the rabid dog biting back at our own hands if he ever discovered it. That leaves the last one." Joseph mused aloud. "What more can you tell me about them?"

"They have made themselves the ruler of a small confederation of bandits, assassins, sell-swords, and mercenaries. Scum of every shape, size, and variety." Sheffield answered. "They seem to have made themselves into some form of Bandit Lord; and are utterly ruthless with their subordinates, executing them for any perceived failure, but, conversely, they seem all to eager to reward shows of loyalty, skill or success. The mage is also a paranoid one, they never stay in one place for any longer than a few days before moving on, and my Mjödvitnir Demi-Familiars have already found several corpses at their previous sites, all killed in exactly the same way. A way that I recognize from my own world. I warn you now, my Master, this mage is a dangerous one. While they lacked von Leopold's political connections in my world, they were even more infamous for their ability as a killer. Why, they even have a nickname that the world at large knows them by."

"Oh?" her master sounded honestly intrigued.

"They are called…the Living Lightning." Sheffield pronounced.

"Quite the bold name, indeed. Can you arrange it so that this 'Living Lightning' will work for my interests?" Joseph asked.

"I'm afraid not if I tried to speak to them face-to-face. My former organization was…not good at making allies. They were an elitist and nationalistic bunch that never had any issue double-crossing anyone that was even temporarily allied with them when it would be most advantageous for them." Sheffield shook her head. "But by using my Mjödvitnir Familiars as letter couriers, however, I do believe that we can convince them to work for our interests. Do you have a strategy already in mind, Master?"

"My dear Sheffield, when do I not have some kind of strategy in mind?" the Gallian King offered with a laugh. "Allow me to elucidate you on just how we shall gain the upper hand once more…"


Next Chapter: Three Gifts for Saito