#AN: That's right, only half a year later, I'm back! orz

And just in time, too: as I type this, as of yesterday, Loopholes is at an even 1000 followers and 800 favs! That's at least two more digits than I ever expected when I started this bit of nonsense. Thanks, as always, for spending your time with me and especially to those of you who leave thoughtful comments and encouragement; it really helps.

Anyway, Poliamida made me add like 1400 words to this chapter, so in retaliation go read Zero Summing and badger him for the Louise/Kirche smooching we all deserve! :P

Chapter 29: Progressive Disclosure

The first indication she had that something was amiss was the panicked gasp from her companion followed by a vicelike grasp on her arm reeling her into a...

...well, ordinarily one might call the position a "hug", but Kirche was shaking full body, breathing heavily, and squeezing far too tightly.


This was more akin to panic.

She looked around and didn't see anything out of the ordinary for the deep forest. Well, aside from the placid ponds that seemed to mark the edges of the flooding. But they had been avoiding those.

Still, she's not taken to irrational fears. Moreover, she was already starting to calm down after whatever had set her off so Tabitha was content to let the excitement settle a little more.

"S-sorry..." Kirche whispered, "I nearly... you almost stepped in, and I just..." she trailed off with a shudder that was very obvious whilst being held.

"What happened?"

"Your uncle must hate you more than usual this time, you were about to step in a fairy circle!" she hissed harshly.


Kirche turned her around to study her face intently.

"By the gods, you really don't know, do you?"

She considered the statement and context.

"...The Fair Folk exist?" It wasn't completely preposterous, but she'd never read anything that covered them academically and the "sources" she did have... never in her travels had she encountered anything like what was described in those... fables.

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, she chided herself.

Kirche sighed.

"Just so. Gods damned censorship..." she grumbled. "So you know, any stories you have heard should probably be taken as cautionary," she confirmed gravely.

That sounded... bad. Worse and worse the more fairy tales she remembered, too.

I'm lucky Kirche was here.

"Thank you."

"Always, dear. Louise would never let me hear the end of it if I allowed you to be taken to the Other Side after I made sure to come along!" She tried so hard to make light of the whole thing, but Tabitha remembered her raw fear.

So she hugged Kirche, nestling her face into the crook of her neck. "Thank you, Kirche."

After a few minutes of holding each other in sincere silence, Kirche made a declaration. "This doesn't feel like wildlands, so whichever family owns it must have a Contract. Whose territory are we in?"


"Ah, that checks out, then. Old family known for water alchemy..." she trailed off. "I know you'll insist on continuing this errand, folly though it be, so we will need to call upon one of theirs to guide us."

"Can't you?"

She felt Kirche stiffen and looked up to find a sickly grimace.

"No... no, that wouldn't go well at all. Trust me, dear. No, no, we must turn back." She sounded nervous. She felt nervous. "A-anyway, I barely spotted the damned thing; I'm not very sensitive about water spirits in general." She tried to play it off with a giggle, but she was shaken enough to be an open book and Kirche's instincts were...

She looked back over to the inviting path they had been following. What had Kirche noticed? What were the signs of a fae presence?

What am I missing?

"Where is it?" she finally asked.

Kirche pulled back to fix her with a bemused glower.

"You've never been taught anything of the Old Ways, have you?"


"Hmmm, somewhat. But a human familiar to... oh, I'm onto something?" She was talking to herself. Talking nonsense. "Strange, I thought it might be because of your connection to Louise but that's not... never mind, never mind, it's not important right now..."

It sounded plenty important, but Kirche was on a tear and wouldn't let her get a word in edgewise.

"... oh, I wonder if maybe..." Kirche finally let her go to rummage in a leather pouch on her belt. "Yes, I think this will work! Be a dear and stand right here, will you?" She limply allowed herself to be positioned and tried to observe.

She wasn't used to being so far out of her depth, not anymore.

So she watched closely as Kirche pushed carved wooden stakes into the ground or scattered smooth stones with purpose.

This... seems familiar.

Memories came to the fore, of numerous similar places she'd seen in woods near settlements, particularly remote ones.


"Hmm? Ah, so you've seen those after all. It's... not the same, but it's not quite different either. I'm improvising a little."

So blasé! Kirche was passing it off like it was a normal thing!

"Because it is," Kirche mumbled on her periphery. Tabitha snapped her attention to the side. Kirche wasn't even looking at her.

Am I becoming paranoid?

Kirche was suddenly right up in her face. "Are you okay? We won't have much time, but it should be plenty for what we need. Here, hold this." Kirche pushed a simple wand of polished pale wood into her hand. She blinked in confusion.


"Yeah, because of the sun," Kirche added matter-of-factly. She drew a knife to unceremoniously poke a hole in her own finger. "Hold still."

Tabitha didn't even have time to properly understand the demand before Kirche had drawn something on her forehead.

In blood.

I give up. It was too elaborate for a prank, but so outlandish that she had trouble reconciling this... this... whatever it was... with her boisterous silly friend. She clearly believes this will-

"And now for the finishing touch!"

Tabitha's attention was drawn to a small, grooved metal plate that had been placed on the ground where Kirche was intently burning some sort of dried herb.

"Pipeweed?" she asked quizzically.

"Some, but that's just for flavour. Now watch the smoke..."

She watched. It rose up in a dense column and diss- It curved back downward!? The cloud grew heavier and the heady scent of whatever else was in it... she felt like she was falling and flying and solidly rooted.


"It can be at the start." She didn't have the presence to jump when Kirche was suddenly at her side. Had been at her side. Was always there?

"Thinking's... hard..." she drawled.

"I'm sure it is, but I need you to focus. Do you remember what you asked?"

What was it? She tilted her head.

"Come on, sweetie, you don't let go of knowledge that easily. What do you want to know?" Kirche encouraged her.

"Kirche gives good hugs. Except that bad one. Kirche was afraid? Kirche is never afraid, why was... oh..."

"You remember now?"

She nodded.

Kirche smiled.

That was nice.

"Tell me."

"Fairly cutie." She frowned. Not quite. "Fairy circle," she stated more forcefully.

"...good enough. Now..." Kirche stood close behind her and pointed to direct her attention. She leaned back and Kirch's other arm wrapped around her waist to hold her steady. "...okay then. Now, keep that in mind and look. Tell me what you see."

She studied it closely again, but it was just like she remembered.

"S'just a path."

"Where are we?"

"Lagdorian Forest."

She felt a headache coming on.

"Remember your question. What do you see?"

She was getting annoyed. The fog cast over her thoughts by the herbs was clearing, but the pain was starting to look like an after-effect.

"Just a path!" she growled. "It's an ordinary path through... the..."

That's not right.

"That's nonsense... what- aaagh!" Her eyes slammed closed as pain lanced through her head. When she opened them again, the pain was gone.

So was the path.

"...Illusion? No. More."

Where she previously, foolishly, known there was a path, she could... not really "see", no more than sensing her own willpower corresponded to the five physical senses... but there was a sort of shimmering space demarcated by a neat row of tiny mushrooms. Cautiously, she stepped closer, out of Kirche's impromptu ritual circle and knelt close to study it. It wasn't as obvious without the hazy lens of magic smoke, but it wasn't disappearing back into illusion either.

Kirche knelt near her, placing a hand on her shoulder.

"Sorry, dear, the first time is always the hardest." She sounded remorseful. "But goodness, this is a big one... what in the world?"

From the corners of her eyes, she could not-quite-see the boundary stretching to the left and to the right like a town wall, though it disappeared from her perception when she tried to focus on it, like a skittish animal.

"...I can't believe I nearly missed this, something powerfully wrong is afoot."

Tabitha took the scene in, looked back at their circle, and then to Kirche.

"Teach me," she demanded.

"About the fae?"

"Fae. Old ways. That… ritual? Everything."

"You're sure? You're aware those are topics the Church doesn't take lightly..."


Kirche's eyes took on a pensive distance, as if staring through her.

"I... will... " she looked uncertain. Nervous. Suddenly, she slapped her cheeks with her palms and grinned. "Well, I suppose we do have quite the walk ahead of us!" Her usual energy was back as if it'd never left. "There are... things you won't be able to learn, but I'll do what I can!"

She pulled Tabitha over to the circle of sticks and stones and began to explain.

On the fourth day, Louise's... independent study... was interrupted.

"Miss Louise, Miss Louise," an insistent voice pierced the veil of her rest, "please wake up! You've received a summons from the capitol!" That was Sies-

Wait, what was that last bit?

Her eyes snapped open and she struggled to sit up. "I'm awake, I'm awake! What's this about a summons?"

The short note filled her with a mix of excitement and dread.

"Ann..." she whispered.

That was almost five hours ago and now here she was.

Louise eyed the door warily, as though it might bite if she made any sudden movements. Though in truth, the occupant on the other side was the real challenge.


It was Princess Henrietta's private chambers, after all.

The sheer inexorable fact of this encounter weighed on Louise the whole morning and she was, she thought, doing an admirable job holding herself together given the circumstances. Specifically, that they hadn't met after the debacle in Albion and she still wasn't sure how to apologise for what happened to Wales and, and...

Founder's beard, what if she suspects me to be in collusion with Wardes!?

She looked to the left and to the right suspiciously. The hallway was empty and there was no place for a contingent of guards to be waiting in ambush.

A bit of fond exasperation coming through her bond with Tabitha jarred her out of her downward spiral into madness. She returned some gratitude flavoured with "still annoyed at you" and stepped forward once. Twice.

She raised her hand and rapped twice sharply on the heavy wood before following the instructions she was given and entering.

It was rather dark?

As her eyes adjusted, she realised that was because the heavy curtains were drawn, leaving only...

Candles? Not mage lights? Smells nice. But... where is Ann?

Nerves mounting once again, she inched forward.


She jumped back as a small burst of wind threw the curtains of the four poster bed wide, windmilling her arms to avoid falling on her butt.

"Louise Françoise," Henrietta giggled. "I've been waiting for you~!"

"Oh, there you aaargh-" the exasperated greeting turned to a strangled cry and frantic pointing at around the time she finally realised what the princess was wearing. Or rather not wearing. Distantly, she acknowledged that it looked like something from Kirche's wardrobe and that Henrietta filled it well.

Leaning back on a pile of pillows, she traced her wand over supple curves and beckoned coquettishly. "Louise..." she breathed, making an indecent sound, "please, Louise!"

For her part, Louise was trying valiantly to cover her eyes and look away while still giving the princess attention due her station. It wasn't going great.

"Louise, my Mistress-"


"-please, I need you to punish me~!" Henrietta moaned, making no efforts to disguise what she thought of this "need".

Louise's gaze snapped back in incredulity as she processed what was being asked.

"Well!" she exclaimed, projecting the wobbly sort of cheer that fooled precisely no one, "Would you look at time time, glad to be here gotta goooo!"

She fled, ignoring the plaintive cry from the princess to visit... injury... upon her person, she had to get... anywhere. Away. Just away.

What. Why? Why is she...

Before she could get too terribly lost, a figure stepped out from behind a decorative suit of armour and offered her a hand. Owl-eyed, she barely hesitated, taking that hand in her own. They gently led her into a cramped passage, a dark tunnel that mirrored her racing thoughts.

It doesn't make sense! Why? Why would Ann do that? And the things she said...

She shuddered. They left the stuffy servant's access corridor into the cool air of a breezy interior hallway. These two facts were not causally linked.

What about the emperor? Is the hope for alliance dead at my hands? And what of... what of Wales? Should she not be mourning love lost?

Across the hallway, they stole into a dark sitting room, one lonely mage lamp casting just enough light to avoid the sofas, tables, and services.

Then why? Why would she say such things to me!? Why, in the name of our lord Brimir...

Unerringly, she was drawn to the fireplace. She closed her eyes and braced for perdition but did not resist.

Why choose me? Why... why doesn't she hate me?!

They popped through the false back of the fireplace into another tunnel.

Scolding/Exasperation/Fondness/Remonstration hit her psyche like a sternly-worded pillow to the face.

She was spiraling into despair. Again. With someone else to lean on when things got tough, it was all too clear.

Foremost: A noble takes responsibility for her actions! This is a law!

Even apart, they were together in spirit and that thought, more than anything... She gathered all the positivity she could on short notice, wrapped it in gratitude, and tied it off with a twine of "still kind of annoyed at you though". It was bringing a brick of happiness to an emotional pillow fight, but the bemused mirth that confirmed receipt of the "package" gave her new confidence.

She could question and guess and panic all she liked (or didn't like, really- it was in no way enjoyable), but the only one with the answers would be Henrietta herself.

Deciding to (attempt) to put the whole thing out of mind until for now, she was shortly surprised when the tunnel deposited them into the hallway surrounding what she recognised as the North Courtyard, nearly half the palace away from where she'd just been.

The princess's chambers.

No, you idiot, don't think about it!

Easier thought than banished- Louise was, after all, still greatly unsettled by the... the... that.

Just... maybe I should avoid her bedroom until the Mánitakkí ends...

She fought the blush that threatened to overtake the shade of her hair, distracting herself with what was, in hindsight, an important question:

"Siesta? What are you doing here?" (She wouldn't have followed just anyone into dark tight spaces, after all.)

Siesta tilted her head in confusion and gently shook the hand still clasped around hers. Louise sighed.

"No, I mean why are you here?

"Miss Louise, I have been with you since the seventh bell this morning."

Wait, has she?

Her memory was hazy, but maybe-

No, but why?

"Siesta," she demanded levelly.

"Yes, Miss Louise?" She wore a half smile and amusement danced in her eyes.

This... this cheeky maid!

"You are employed by the academy, yes?"

"That is correct, milady."

"And this," Louise gestured all around them, "Is the royal palace of the Tristanian royal family."

The knowing smirk widened fractionally. "Impressively deduced, milady."

"Then, why are you, an employee of the academy, here with me?" she ground out. "N-not that I don't appreciate you taking me here, it's a wonderful place to compose oneself, let there be no doubt, but..."

"Because I'm your maid, Miss Louise."

"So...! But...! I...!" She punctuated each false start with a jab at the air with her finger, then wilted a bit and sighed. "Okay. Just so I'm quite crystal clear on this, the Chamberlain of the Academy actually, truly, literally assigned you as... my personal handmaid?"

"Just so, milady."

That. Damnable. Smirk!

"And not only was I not informed, you took it upon yourself to extend this appointment far beyond the physical and logical bounds of what 'academy duty' would entail... why exactly?"

"I didn't believe such a trifling detail was worth bothering you over. Was I in error?"

Louise made a fair approximation of a teakettle.


Siesta's expression fell and she teared up.

Salamander tears. These are salamander tears!

"Do... Do I need to be... punished?"

There was that word again. It threw her mind right back to the reason she wasn't currently taking tea with Henrietta. Her full-faced blush was instant.

"N-n-no! No! Nothing like that, it's not a problem! No p-punishment!" By the time she finished gesticulating through her protest, Siesta was back to her neutral (sly) smile, no hint of her previous distress present.

I knew it. I'm too easy.

"...Aaaanyway, we are still in the palace, how do you know your way around so well?" she groused, "I practically lived here for years and never figured this maze out."

"I am a maid," Siesta stated as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.

Louise was starting to wonder if she exuded some kind of insanity aura that turned everyone and every thing into a teasing cheater who cheats at her expense.

"You're lucky you're cute," she muttered.

Siesta faltering momentarily? Well, she'd call that a win.

Louise had nearly done it. She had nearly managed to open her mouth to get her debacle of a day back on track after dithering uselessly in the hall.

And then she noticed there were palace guards and other sundry staff running around frantically. One of them, a runner boy or page, perhaps, skidded to a stop awkwardly before her. There was an awkward beat, a moment of assessment. She raised an eyebrow.

"I b-beg your p-pardon, fair lady, but have you s-seen any sum... shush... subspicious! Sumthpici-ow!"

Ah, he bit his tongue... she half smiled.

It wasn't often that she had the opportunity to be looked up to in any sense.

"Calm down!" she demanded. "No, no, stand up straight, don't shrink back! You have an important mission, right?" He was a bit stiff, but we was listening.

"Ye-yes, ma'am!"

"'Yeyes'? Is that a word? I think not. Stuttering only serves to damage the work you do. Foremost, a noble acts with purpose!"

"I apologise, ma'am! I am a mere servant!" He was speaking a little slower now, but the words were much more understandable.

"Oh? But would you like to be a knight some day?"

"I would!"

"Then you start now. Stay calm, be clear, and act! With! Purpose!" She pointed dramatically at his sternum to punctuate her point. "Show everyone that you are not to be looked down upon merely because you are young or small!"

"Yes, ma'am!"

"Now get out there and make me proud!"

"Yes ma'am!"

It was only after the boy departed (with a better posture and renewed energy), that she realised she'd never heard the whole message.

"Aww jeeze, I'm an idiot..."

"That was very kind of you Miss Louise."

She hummed a neutral maybe-agreement.

Didn't feel like it.

"Whatever. If there's a suspicious person - and, Founder take me, it's shockingly not us somehow - I'm sure they will be caught soon enough. It's none of our concern."

She smiled up at Siesta just in time to see her maid's expression turn a bit funny at something over her shoulder.

"Don't tell me," Louise sighed. "Let me guess. There's a suspicious person behind me and things are about to get very silly."

Siesta met her eyes with a wan smile.

"That... some might call it pessimistic?" Siesta's pained expression told a more truthful story.

"The way my life's been, can you blame me? Okay," she turned around, "let's have a look at this sus... wat."

"An apt summary, milady."

The high mid-Spring sun blunted by the canopy of the damp forest struck at them instead with cloying humidity. Even Kirche, who usually liked heat of all sorts, was forced to admit it was entirely the wrong kind of sticky and sweaty.

"Make no mistake, I love my Flame, but Sylphid's flight would make this whole task much less onerous."

Now a day out of fae territory, they were picking their way along the edge of the forest toward the nearest road.

"She's still recovering. Royal handlers."

"Still!? The poor thing, it's been days!"

"Natural magic resistance."

"Ah. Interesting. Truthfully, I'd never considered that facet of it, even back home it never came up... I wonder why?"

She thought again about Flame and resolved to learn more about how to take care of him in the event he was injured.

I miss my little ember...

"By the by, will it be okay to leave her alone that long?"

Flame may have been perfectly happy to curl up in any fire pit with people around who would feed him - she still wasn't sure how he'd endeared himself to the academy kitchen staff so quickly - but a dragon? Especially while Sköll is ascendant...

"She won't cause trouble."

It was... a naked girl.

Or a naked woman?

She was lithe, but sufficiently shapely and endowed that she sat in that grey area where one couldn't be entirely sure at a glance.

Regardless, she was beautiful - of that there would be no disagreement - with voluminous blue hair cascading down her back framing a face that might be called "elfin" were that not a grave insult in Halkeginia. She was dainty, spritely, somehow ethereal in the way she swayed on her feet with her eyes closed, not as though she were unsteady or about to fall, but as though she danced to a song unheard.

But most importantly.


"Yes, Miss Louise."

"There, at the end of the hall."

"At the East corridor junction to the queen's apartments, yes," confirmed Siesta.

"She's naked."

"She is, Miss Louise."

"But why is she naked?"

"Because she's not wearing clothes, Miss Louise."

"That's not what I-! ...uh oh."

The girl had perked up from her...

Sniffing! She looked like she was sniffing the air! But why?

...sniffing, and turned her head in a strangely smooth motion to look right at them, eyes finally open.

The naked girl's face came alive with joy and she started toward them. And accelerated, picking up speed until she was running at them, arms stretched wide.

Because the circumstances were inherently confusing, Louise could perhaps be forgiven for failing to remember what happens when a... large (grumble)... moving object hits a small stationary one.

"Bigger siiiiiis!"


Siesta deftly stepped out of the way, leaving Louise to take the full brunt of the mysterious naked girl's tackle hug.

In other words, she was shortly on her back, covered in, well, naked girl.

Naked girl is starting to sound like not a real word.

"Owww, Siesta... why..."

"Bigger sis! Irukuku found you!" exclaimed the naked g- Irukuku?

Irukuku (provisional name) giggled and started nuzzling her chest?

Dazed, Louise blurted out, "Who are you?"

"Irukuku is Irukuku!"

You asked for that one, Louise.

"Irukuku is... your name?"

"Uh huh!" Irukuku (confirmed name) confirmed cheerfully, pulling back a bit to gesticulate. "You helped my wing when the sky fire came down! And zvwooped the bad men with your big magic!"

And then she went right back to hugging Louise with a cute happy noise.

"Wing? Sky Fire? What are you... wait. Wait, wait, wait, no no no, no way... Sylphid!?"



"...Okay then! Uh, good, glad we cleared that up. Look, Irukuku, I think you have the wrong person and if you don't mind-"

"Nuh uh!" the naked dragon (provisional) interjected. "Nose doesn't lie!" she stated seriously, getting right up in Louise's face.

That was when she noticed the eyes. Bright red with a corona of iridescent gold around a vertical slit pupil. The eyes of a...

A mirthless manic giggle bubbled out of her, before she could clamp down on it. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and let it slowly flow out. She opened her eyes. The girl dragon (likely) was still straddling her in the hallway next to the North Courtyard garden.

"Sure. Fine. Whatever. Tabitha just happened to summon a legendary Rhyme Dragon, you, and you've been keeping it a secret by pretending to be a dumb animal this whole time."

"Oh no! How did you figure it out!?" Irukuku recoiled in shock, tears forming in the corner of her eyes.


"...Let's just call it a stab in the dark."