At the Tristainian Academy of Magic, the Springtime Summoning Ritual was almost complete. Louise Francoise LeBlanc de la Vallière, like most of the other first-years, was watching from her window.

That was, most of the other first-years were watching from their windows. Not Louise's window. They wouldn't fit into the room, for one thing.

That said, she wasn't alone in the room. Two of Louise's… friends? Acquaintances? Schoolmates? Two people that Louise definitely knew the names of had also come to watch.

"Just think," said Kirche Augusta Frederica von Anhalt Zerbst, "that'll be us next year." She glanced at Louise, and smirked. "Well, some of us at any rate. Can you do any real magic yet, Vallière?"

"Shut up, Zerbst," said Louise absently. Sure, Kirche was an accomplished fire mage, Triangle-level at fifteen. She didn't have to rub it in, though! "I'm trying to listen to what they're saying."

The student down below had just summoned some kind of dog with pure white fur and blood-red eyes and ears. It chased its tail while the girl finished her 'contract' familiar chant, then accepted a kiss on the top of its head. Professor Colbert congratulated the student and waved the next person up.

The third person in the room looked up from the book she was reading. Louise wasn't actually sure why Tabitha (just 'Tabitha' – maybe Kirche knew her full name but no-one else in first year did) was even here if she wasn't actually going to watch the ritual. Knowing Tabitha, she'd just been dragged along by Kirche and hadn't bothered to protest. "Wind?" she said.

Oh, right. Making distant voices heard was usually a Wind spell. "No, no," Louise said. "I've always had good ears." This was a massive lie, but to her relief neither of the other two girls challenged her on it.

A breeze rolled in through the open window. Kirche shivered. "Yeesh. You'd think the Springtime Summoning Ritual would have better weather. I'm freezing to death here!"

"It's spring, not summer. What's the matter, can't handle proper Tristainian weather?" said Louise acidly. "Just warm yourself up if it's an issue."

"I could do that," said Kirche thoughtfully, "but I think I'd rather have one of the boys do it for me. Maybe that Malicorne guy, he looks snuggly."

Louise's eyebrows shot up in alarm. "Not in my room, you won't!" She produced her wand and flourished it, making a surreptitious gesture with her other hand. Immediately, the temperature in the room rose to nearly uncomfortable levels.

"Sheesh, I was just kidding," Kirche said. "Nice spell, though. I don't think I'd have had as much control as a dot mage."

Louise flapped her cloak to get a bit of airflow going. She was already starting to sweat. "Hmph. Well, thank you. I'm sure you'd have been able to as well if you weren't too busy slutting up the whole of Germania."

"Please. I was, like, nine years old at that point. But since you bring it up, Valliere, maybe you'd be able to actually produce a flame if you let your emotions air once in a while rather than bottling it all up like the rest of you Tristainian prudes! Fire is the element of passion, you know."

"Just because I have a little decorum doesn't mean- hey! Stop taking your clothes off in my room!" Louise hurriedly looked out the window, blushing the same colour as her hair.

Kirche ignored her and continued unbuttoning her blouse. "Well, if you didn't want me to undress, you shouldn't have turned your room into a sauna," she said cheerfully. "Did you never hear the tale of the Sun and the North Wind?"

Louise had. It was a favourite of Fire mages, for obvious reasons – especially when Wind mages were around. "Ugh, whatever. Tabitha, can we get a breeze in here before Zerbst ends up naked on my bed?" Louise asked. She frowned, and blushed. "…again?"

The blue-haired girl obliged, without bothering to look up. A gentle breeze rolled in from the window, and stirred Louise's strawberry-blonde hair.

Down below, the Springtime Summoning Ritual was just about finished, with only a few students left to go. None of them had summoned anything like Louise was looking for – the closest had been a vaguely humanoid shape made of water, which had caught her interest, but Professor Colbert had identified it as just another variant of slime. Still, she supposed it had been a bit of a long shot. None of the older students had a spirit familiar, either. Louise would just have to look elsewhere if she wanted to talk to a spirit.

She looked up from the students and teachers milling around in the courtyard, and gazed into the sky. Despite Kirche's renewed whining, it really was a lovely day.

Certainly much nicer than the day she'd received her magic, three years ago…

Louise was twelve, and she couldn't find her father.

"Papa!" she cried as she ran through the halls of her family home, eyes blurred with tears. "Papa!"

All of a sudden she collided with something that felt like a steel statue underneath a cloth. Louise fell to the floor with a yelp, and glared reproachfully at the object that had dared to get in her way. Who would have put something like that in the corridor- oh. Louise squeaked, and hid her face.

Karin Désirée de la Valliere frowned down at her daughter in confusion. "Louise? Whatever is the matter?" Then she added, "Pick yourself up off the floor, girl, for Brimir's sake."

Louise scrambled to her feet and stood roughly at attention.

"I was looking for Father," she explained.

"So I heard," said Karin. "Why?"

Suddenly her mother's feet became very interesting to Louise. She mumbled, "…sdc tndr…"

"Speak up, Louise," commanded Karin.

"I was scared of the thunder," said Louise, still not looking at her.

Karin raised an eyebrow. "And why did you not want to come to me?" There was no reply, but Karin saw the look of shame on her youngest daughter's face. "I see. Come, girl." She held her hand out, and Louise took it hesitantly.

Louise was pulled over to the window. It was still the evening, but it was dark enough outside that it looked like midnight. Though it was closed, she could still hear the howl of wind rushing past outside – and even the rain, pounding against the ground. Then there was a flash that lit up the estate like daylight – not an actual lightning strike, just in the clouds. Louise waited, feeling sick, for the thunder. The longer she waited, the more unbearable it became, until it arrived with an almighty crash. She flinched, but refused to cry in front of her indomitable mother.

"There, you see?" Karin's voice was softer than usual, and when Louise risked a look she was smiling slightly. "The thunder came, and you are fine. You are safe, little Louise. There's nothing for you to worry about here. I know it can be scary, but you don't have to be frightened."

"Were you ever frightened, mama?" Louise asked without thinking.

"Of thunder? No. The wind and sky held no fear for me since I came into my magic." Karin seemed to realise what she'd said, and winced slightly. You wouldn't be able to tell unless you knew her, but Louise recognised this expression all too well.

She hated being pitied.

Her mother sighed. "It will come, dear. You are my trueborn daughter, after all. You're just a late bloomer. We've told youthis."

Louise nodded, miserably. Her parents had told her this. They'd been telling her since she turned ten and still hadn't shown any sign of magic whatsoever. She didn't believe them any more than she did then. Less, actually.

Most noble children showed at least some talent for magic while growing up. It wasn't a lot – not even enough to really count as a dot mage – but there would be little unconscious displays. Things like oddly powerful sneezes, that blew paper around the room, for a Wind mage. A future Water mage might be almost impossible to dry off after a bath as the water clung to her skin – an Earth mage, on the other hand, would probably still be grubby no matter how many times you scrubbed him. Meanwhile, young Fire mages had worried noble mothers sick for centuries, as they appeared to have a fever no matter how healthy they were.

Every mage showed their magic differently – just like every child was different – but all noble children showed something sooner or later.

It was just much, much later for Louise.

She opened her mouth, then closed it. Then she reconsidered, and asked, "Mama?"

"Yes, Louise?"

"Why do nobles have magic?" This was something that'd been bothering her for a while. She'd played with some of the servant's children – not, like, gardeners and groundskeepers, obviously, but the butlers and housekeepers had a couple of children Louise's age. They seemed, well, just like her. She would never tell anyone, but sometimes Louise felt they'd be better at having magic than she would be.

Her mother sighed. "Because it is our birthright, Louise. Surely Father Lavisse has told you this?"

"Yes, but I don't understand why. Why nobles?"

There was another flash of lightning, but Louise was so focused on her mother that she forgot to flinch. Eventually Karin answered. "I am not a theologian, I am a duchess, and before that I was just a soldier." Louise held in a sarcastic snort. Karin the Heavy Wind had been 'just' a solider in the same way that Albion was 'just' a floating island. Her mother went on. "However, here is how I understand it.

"Nobles are ordained, under God, to wield the building blocks and energies of His creation – in exactly the same way as we are ordained under the Queen to manage her land. And in the same way that we ourselves delegate land to our barons and knights to manage. It is an analogy, and more than analogy – a symbol of the great chain of being, that links all things in one hierarchy.

"Zoologists and botanists know these chains, where the meanest life is connected through hierarchies of predation and symbiosis up to mankind, with nobles at the pinnacle. Alchemists too use them – base earth is transmuted through their processes to refined gold, and finally to orichalcum with the addition of magic. As with the mundane, so with magic; the wild energies of the world transformed and transmuted through the infusion of man's will into something more. This is why the Royal families have always been among our strongest spellcasters: they sit, by divine right, at the very top of the great chain of being – under only God, who is the source and power for all things." Karin looked down at her daughter, and seemed to realise she'd lost Louise along the way.

"If it helps, think of it like this, Louise – by birth, you are closer to Brimir than the commoners are. And thus, you are closer to God. And through God, you may work something of His miracles in His creation."

Well, that made a little more sense. Louise checked, "So I really am better than the commoners after all?"

Her mother's eyes flashed, and Louise knew she'd said the wrong thing. "No! That's entirely the wrong way to think of it, Louise, and don't let me hear you say that again."

"But you said-"

"Those who are truly worthy to wield magic are those with strength – not just magical or political strength, but strength of character too. Strength of will. Like all strength, it's only meaningful if applied towards a just end. A tyrant is no true king, no matter how legitimate his rule – likewise, a noble who thinks himself better than the commoners under his care is nothing but a bully. That is why we, the la Vallières, make sure that those we are responsible for are looked after." Karin paused. "That is where your father is now, as a matter of fact."


"He went out earlier in the day to help reinforce the shelters before this storm came in. It's hard work, and dirty, but your father does it because he knows that part of the reason he has magic is so that he can help to protect the people under his care." Karin smiled fondly. "And, between you and me, I think he likes shifting large rocks around. It makes him feel manly."

Louise giggled.

There was another crash of thunder, but Louise hardly noticed. She hoped her papa got back in before the storm really hit, though…

Duke Centurion la Vallière did in fact make it back inside the mansion before the roadways were judged impassable. Louise caught him in the entryway, taking his sodden cloak off. It almost looked like he'd fallen in the river, the rain was so heavy – his blond hair was plastered to his head and rainwater dripped off his nose. Still, his smile was bright when he saw his daughter in the hall.

"Louise!" he said cheerfully. "Bit of weather out there, you know how it is."

"You're wet, papa," said Louise, with the air of someone imparting a great secret.

"That I am." Her father took off a boot and tipped the water out of it onto the slowly growing puddle around him. "I don't suppose your sister is around, is she?"

"Which one?" He probably meant Eléonore, since she was a water mage, but Louise asked anyway in hopes that she wouldn't have to go and find her terrifying eldest sister.

The Duke's face lit up in a great big grin. "Oh, Cattleya's home already? Usually her hunting trips last a lot longer than this."

Louise knew what Cattleya would say to this, so she said it for her. "They're not hunting trips, papa, they're-"

"Yes, I know, it's her research job. Still, she goes and stalks some poor animal, captures it and tells it they're friends, then brings it home and dresses it up in ribbons and bows. At least when you shoot the damn things it's over quickly." He seemed to remember something, and frowned. "I hope she didn't travel in all this-" he gestured outside, "-I told her she didn't have to come all this way if she wasn't feeling up to it. One of these days I'm going to just keep her in this house, I swear. Did she seem fine? Not ill?" he asked Louise.

Louise sighed. "Yes, papa, she's fine, she's just resting in her room. Honestly, you're so overprotective all the time."

"That's a big word for a five-year-old."

"Papa! I am twelve!" squealed Louise, outraged.

Her father squinted at her. "Nope, can't be. You're still my tiny youngest girl, don't go growing up while I'm not looking." He waved a finger at her. "And I don't see you going to find Eléonore, young lady."

"Hmph!" Louise tossed her head and stomped off. She called back over her shoulder, "Well, maybe I'll just find mother on the way and tell her you're dripping all over the house!"

Duke de la Vallière's teasing expression vanished in an instant. "Erk! Ah, Louise, wait-!"

For the first time in – gosh, months, probably – the entire la Vallière family was seated around the dinner table. Usually dinner was a refined, formal affair, with talking kept to a minimum. Tonight, however, Duke de la Vallière was talking with his wife about the preparations he'd been making throughout the territory to allow the people to weather the storm.

"…we managed to shore up and reinforce all the village halls, so I think most people will bed down there for the night. There's some good limestone over by Dinant village, so we made that into walls where we could. Oh, and Ducal's boy has just become a dot Earth mage, so I had him help me dig a trench around the lake. Should help if it floods. Everyone was keen to get back inside before the storm really hit, but it seemed to be coming on slower than expected. Was that your doing, dear?"

Karin smiled. "Maybe a little."

"Ha! I have the best wife."

Louise preferred it this way to how it was normally. With the warm lights and pleasant conversation, you hardly noticed the storm outside. She turned her attention to what her older sister was saying.

Cattleya Yvette La Baume Le Blanc de la Fontaine worked as an independent researcher, not affiliated with any of the academies but occasionally commissioning expeditions from them. While she was an accomplished Earth mage – Triangle rank, at twenty – her first love was animals of all sorts. She'd recently been in the south of Gallia, exploring the mountains near the coast. Cattleya had always been a sickly child, with a weak body. She only rarely set foot outside the la Vallière territory, so she'd been quite excited to go on this one. At the moment she was happily telling her older sister about what she'd seen.

"-and it really is lovely this time of year," she was saying. "There are all these darling little villages dotted around the foothills, and of course the land is largely unspoiled – well, it's hard to really do anything with mountains unless you're at least a line Earth mage, and out there that's not all that common – anyway, it's still possible to see all these creatures in something very like their natural habitat. If you go up into the mountains proper there's even more to see, though of course it gets harder the higher you go, and we couldn't go really deep into the glaciers because I got sick and we had to stop at this gorgeous little coastal town, and Stefan and I used the time to take a trip on a whaleboat to look for scyllae-"

"Wait, wait, wait," Louise's father said. "Don't think you're sneaking that past me. Who's Stefan?"

Cattleya's eyes widened as she realised her mistake. "Um-" She looked to Louise for help.

There wasn't a lot that she could do, but for Cattleya she'd give it a shot. "Yeah, Stefan," she said confidently. "Works at the Oriz Magical Academy. You mentioned him before, Cattleya. Have you not come across him, Eléonore?"

Louise's oldest sister adjusted her glasses and glared suspiciously. "No… I don't usually have much to do with the Cryptozoology Department. What does that-"

"Oh, that's a shame," said Cattleya, clasping her hands over her breast. "He certainly knows about you – couldn't stop talking about this beautiful blonde water mage in the Practical Magic Department. He's water too, only line but he works hard, his father is the baron of some port somewhere. He was ever so surprised when he realised we were sisters, I think he's rather taken with you." Their parents' eyes snapped over to Eléonore, who stuttered and flushed. Cattleya and Louise used the opportunity to slap hands under the table.

"Well," started the Duke de la Vallière. "I think you should make contact with this Stefan boy. He sounds like an adventurous lad, just the sort of young man we need around here. And compatible elements, too, marvellous."

It was a low-down trick, but it certainly worked to get her father's attention off Cattleya. Eléonore was twenty-three, and Louise's parents were of the opinion that it was high time she start thinking about settling down. Her job at the Oriz Magical Academy was all very well, but when it came down to it, she was the eldest daughter of the la Vallière family. Louise felt a little bad about throwing her to the wolves like this – but between Cattleya or her oldest sister, she'd pick Cattleya every time.

"Um- well, I-" Eléonore coughed, and tried again. "I shall certainly meet this Stefan, but only to turn him down. I'm afraid I can't return his attentions at this time. I'm entirely too busy with my work at the moment."

Karin raised an eyebrow. "Didn't you invite that young man back to the house for dinner just the other month? You seemed quite taken with him, as I recall. You certainly talked about nothing else for the entire week before and after his visit."

Eléonore flushed. "Thibault… is just a work colleague. It is a shame, as I had thought to allow him to court me – you would like him, papa, he's extremely accomplished and very clever, his work on diamonds is exemplary-"

"Well, why don't you invite him again? I'd be happy to have a sit down with him and discuss a potential arrangement," said Louise's father, stroking his beard.

"Ah, as to that… he does not return my interest."

"Why ever not?" asked Karin. "You are intelligent, beautiful, driven… is he already betrothed?"

Louise smiled wickedly, and went in for the kill. "It's because he thinks big sister hates him. She never actually told him she liked him or showed her soft side, so all her playing hard to get just made him nervous." She paused, remembering. "Also there was that time you got embarrassed when he accidentally drank out of your cup, and hit him with your whip. That probably didn't help."

It probably said something that no-one at the table considered this shocking information. Duke de la Vallière put his hand to his forehead. "Eléonore, I thought we were past this…"

Louise's sister glared at her. She looked slightly hurt, but mostly angry. "And how would you know, Louise?"

"I asked him what he thought of you while he was here, of course. He seemed nice, just terrified. And confused as to why you suddenly started hating him just when you two had gotten to know each other. He says he knows where you got your nickname, now." Louise smiled, not noticing Cattleya's frantic gestures to stop.

Eléonore's voice was icy. "A nickname. How nice. And what is that, dear sister?"

By now everyone at the table had seen where this was going apart from Louise. Cattleya had her hands over her mouth, while her mother watched with a steeled expression but said nothing. Karin usually stopped this sort of thing before it started but wasn't above giving her daughters more rope to hang themselves with. "I don't think this sort of talk is-" began the Duke.

"Your runic name is the Spring," said Louise, obliviously gleeful, "but apparently everyone at the Academy calls you Eléonore the Venom."

The table went quiet.

Eléonore stood up. "Is that so?" she said in a very restrained tone. "Well, better the Venom than the Zero. How is your magic coming along, Louise? Still nothing? I'm glad you enjoyed talking to my Academy colleagues so much – it's the closest you'll get to it, that's for sure. Or maybe you can get a job there as a maid, like a good little commoner-"

"Enough." Karin didn't raise her voice, but it cracked like a whip through the room anyway. Too late. The damage was done.

With shaking hands, Louise pushed her chair away from the table. Eléonore winced. "Louise, I didn't mean-"

The littlest Vallière sister stalked from the room, her expression carefully controlled even as her eyes started to water. Once she was out of sight of the table, her family could hear her footsteps running down the hall, and the sobs she couldn't quite hold back.

Louise was so angry and upset that she didn't realise where she was heading until she was halfway out the door. She considered going to her room… but that was the first place her family would look for her. Instead, she threw her boots on and marched straight out the front door, heading for the old boat that was her usual hiding place whenever she wanted to sulk.

As soon as she was outside, the wind nearly knocked her over, and she could already feel the rain working its way through her cloak. Thunder rumbled, and she almost turned back – but no. She couldn't face any of them right now, not even Cattleya. When she'd composed herself, maybe. Yes, she'd go and have a good cry, sort herself out, and come back when she felt better. And if her family wondered where she'd gone, then good! They should be worried about her, maybe it would show her sister not to bully her so much.

She knew she really shouldn't be going out in weather like this, but Louise was in enough of a huff that she forged ahead anyway. The grounds looked very different like this. Louise hadn't brought a lantern, and thanks to the rain she couldn't see more than a couple of dozen yards anyway. Trees swayed and bent in the wind, looking like arms reaching for her. A couple of branches blew across her path, then vanished into the dark.

Eventually, she made it to her little boat. It was rocking back and forth with the wind, and looked a little unsteady, but it was solidly beached. She'd been worried it might have blown away, or that the lake had flooded enough that it would float, but it was still there like it always was.

Louise climbed inside, and huddled in the bow. Or was it the stem? Maybe the stern? She didn't know about boats, she had people for that. She huddled in the end furthest out from the lake, and settled down for a good spell of feeling sorry for herself.

How dare Eleonore? How dare she! Okay, Louise had been pretty bratty, but she was twelve years old, for Brimir's sake, she was allowed. Eléonore didn't have to take it so personally. And she definitely didn't need to bring Louise's lack of magic into it. She knew that was always a sore spot!

For as long as she could remember, Louise had been looking forward to having magic. How could she not? Her father was always talking about how nobles had a responsibility to use the gifts God bestowed to help those around them. Her sisters had both quickly become incredible mages in their own right – as much as Eleonore intimidated Louise, she had a genuine talent with Water. Even Cattleya was impressive with Earth magic and alchemy, even if using it too much tired her body.

And then there was her mother – a square mage, the elite of the elite. Karin didn't talk too much about her adventures as part of the Manticore Corps, but Louise had always known her mother was amazing. She couldn't wait to be amazing too.

It just… kept on not happening. Louise woke up every day expecting to feel different, but nothing ever changed. At first it was just frustrating, but nothing to worry about, and nobles did sometimes take longer to display magic. After a while, it became clear that something was wrong, and now, Louise just felt sick every time she was reminded of her failure.

I just want my magic, she thought to herself, squeezing her eyes shut. She clasped her hands in front of her and focused, just like in church. Just like every other noble ever. Please, God, it's all I ever wanted, I swear I'd use it right and be a good noble and take care of everyone, I just – need – my – magic…

There was no reply, of course. Louise didn't even try to stop the tears from falling.

Feeling foolish, feeling defeated, but also feeling kind of cold and wet, Louise stood up, head bowed, and made to climb out of the boat.

That was when the lightning struck.

The noise of it was like nothing Louise had ever experienced – thunder, happening right on top of you. Her world turned white, the lake and grounds cast in blinding silver. She felt the unbelievable power running rampant through her body, and knew that she was about to die. Eyes squeezed shut, Louise waited for the inevitable.

When she opened them, she was surely in heaven.

It was almost too bright to see – like emerging from a dark room into blazing sunshine. The light stabbed into Louise's eyes, but she refused to avert them. Ever so slowly, she was able to make out details of her surroundings.

All around Louise, the storm danced, weather unbound. As far as the eye could see, clouds boiled, shifting and clashing. Lightning crackled all around her, and the wind tossed her around like a child's toy. But where she'd been in darkness before, now everything was lit by golden flame. Louise hadn't known clouds could burn – but burn they did, and with such fervour that she almost had to shield her eyes. The heat given off was incredible, and yet it didn't feel uncomfortable.

And the noise, oh, the noise! Louise could hardly hear herself think. The thunder of the lightning strike that hit her carried on, and on, until it seemed to fill the whole world. The golden flames roared too, with a strangely musical sound.

High above, stars shone. No, not 'shone'. Not content to simply sit high off and twinkle, these burned with the same intensity as everything else, each a source of illumination unto itself.

Down below, though, beneath the clouds, there was only darkness. It felt wrong, in this place of light and fury. An abyss, a void of utter black, so deep it seemed it might swallow all light in the world. For now, the storm held it at bay.

A blast of wind caught Louise again, and she tumbled through the sky. If she had had any breath left she would have screamed – then all of a sudden she came to a halt, held aloft by furious winds.

A vast throne stood before her, extending upwards into the sky. Louise couldn't see the top, even by craning her neck up until it would go no further – but from the top there was a light brighter even than the stars above, illuminating this world like a sun. When Louise tore her eyes away, she had to blink spots away.

She found that she couldn't. The afterimage of that divine light remained, shifting in her vision even as her eyes watered from the strain. As she watched – had no choice but to watch – it reshaped itself.

When it settled, an angel stood before her.

Its feet were lost in the clouds below, and its head was high enough over Louise's that she had to tilt it back. She couldn't tell how far away it was – it was vast in the same way that mountains were vast. From its back, ten wings extended, each long enough to touch the horizon. At its chest shone a brighter light in the shape of a golden key, hung around its neck. It was neither male nor female, but simply an outline made out of afterimages, and even those blinding to look upon. Nevertheless, it was detailed, aesthetically perfect.

WHO ARE YOU? it asked, and Louise nearly screamed again. The angel's voice drowned out even the thunder of this realm, almost deafening in its majesty. It sounded like a choir of hundreds, of thousands – a choir where no two voices sang the same thing, but all came together in a harmonious whole. Each individual voice seemed only to be saying one thing: a name.

So lost in the angel's presence was she that Louise did not answer, but only trembled.

It leaned forward slightly. Louise got the impression it was frowning. WHO ARE YOU? it repeated.

It wanted her name? Was she to be called for her sins? No! She wasn't ready! She hadn't even received her magic – it wasn't fair to judge her, she couldn't have done better! But the angel simply looked at her sternly. Louise opened her mouth to answer. "I'm just-" she began – but she didn't even hear herself speak. Her voice was drowned out by thunder and stolen by the wind, as if she had said nothing at all.

This was not the answer the angel had wanted, apparently. It pointed one glowing finger the size of a hill at Louise. WHO ARE YOU? it said again, and Louise knew it would be the last time.

She took a deep breath, feeling the electrical charge in the air. There was all the time in the world, she knew somehow. Time was not something this realm lacked.

Who was she? Her first thought was, a Zero. A failure, a noble who didn't even deserve the magic that was her birthright. Wasn't that why she had been denied it? She didn't know where she'd failed, or how, but at this time, in this place, in front of the angel it was obvious that she had. Had she been so obsessed with magical power that she had missed all the other ways she could serve her people and her Queen?

But… that didn't seem like all of the answer. Yes, she was a noble without magic – it was and always would be a huge part of who she was. But it wasn't everything. She was a daughter, and a sister – loved, and loving in turn (brattiness aside). She was a la Vallière, and had always comported herself as such. She was a keen rider, and she loved the horses in the stables, who never seemed to mind that she was a magical zero as long as she brought them apples. She was a weaver, although she wasn't quite sure if that counted as her creations never seemed to turn out quite right.

Yes, there was more to her than a simple lack of magic. More to her than just a void where wonder ought to be. She was herself – one of God's children, no more but certainly no less. And if she had to say who she was? Well, there was only one answer that summed her up.

She took another deep breath, feeling electricity tingle through her body. When she exhaled, it was as storm. She looked up at the face of the angel.

"I am Louise Françoise LeBlanc de la Vallière!" she cried, and though the thunder roared it roared in agreement not opposition.

The angel stood straight. Louise got the impression it was smiling. "Louise Françoise LeBlanc de la Vallière," it said, its voice now a mirror of her own. Louise wondered if the next person to come here would hear her name among the choir that made up the angel's voice.

The storm seemed to die down slightly, and the clouds overhead parted to reveal the stars above again. And above them, just barely visible, something else – something Louise wasn't even sure if she was really seeing and not imagining. She craned her neck to see better-

And was caught up in a bolt of lightning once more, and hurled back down to earth.

It was Cattleya who'd realised where Louise had gone, once they were sure she wasn't in the house, but Eléonore had volunteered to go and look for her. It was her fault after all. She shouldn't have lost her temper with Louise… even if she was being an absolute pill.

Water mages didn't have to worry about things like getting wet, so the rain kept its distance from Eléonore as she hurried towards the old boat on the side of the lake. Apparently, this was where Louise usually came to cry. Eléonore hadn't known. She probably should have. Cattleya knew, after all – and while Eléonore was aware that her two younger sisters were much closer to each other than they were to her, she was the oldest and it was her responsibility to look out for them. Great job she'd done of that tonight.

Lightning flashed – and thunder boomed right along with it. That had to be on the estate, it was so close! Eléonore picked up the pace.

When she reached the boat, she thought at first Cattleya had been mistaken – but then she saw a small shape huddled up near one end. She approached, and looked down at her little sister.

Jeez, she was small.

Eléonore called her name, shouting over the wind. "Louise? Louise, can you hear me?"

Louise stirred, and opened her eyes. "…big sister…?" she managed.

Oh, she was awake. Relief flooded through Eléonore, to be replaced quickly by anger. She seized Louise's cheeks in her hands and pulled on them. "You brat! Do you know how worried we've all been? You could have been hurt, or worse! Making us rush about looking for you, there's a limit to how selfish you can be! What if Cattleya hadn't figured out where you were? What if she'd decided to come out here looking for you herself?"

"Waah! I'm sorry, I'm sorry! I didn't mean to make you worry!" Louise wailed.

Hmph. Eléonore let go of Louise's cheeks, and inspected her sister. No obvious injuries, at least. She was pale, but not deathly so. Her fingers were cold, but not icy. "You're not hurt?" Eleonore asked. "Jeez, you're soaking. Let me get that for you…" She twirled her wand, and all the water on Louise's clothes and hair evaporated. Louise startled and half-flinched, then looked back at her older sister with a curious look in her eye. What on Earth was that about? Was Louise really so scared of her older sister?

On impulse, Eléonore pulled Louise into a hug. As she did so, she realised she couldn't remember the last time she'd hugged her sister. When had it become so infrequent?

"Are you sure you're fine, Louise?" asked Eléonore.

"I… I'm fine, big sister, really I am. Just a little cold, that's all. And getting wet."

Oh, right. Eléonore realised she hadn't extended her umbrella spell to cover Louise. She flicked her wand, and the rain started curving around Louise, too. "Well. It's good that you're OK. I'm sorry, too, for upsetting you. I shouldn't have brought up your magic, there's some things even older sisters can't say. Even if you don't have magic, I'll still love you. You know that, right?"


"Come on, then, it's freezing out here." With that, Eléonore turned and started making her way back to the house. Louise followed. She seemed distracted, and kept looking at the rain where it changed course to avoid the pair. She refocused, and looked at her sister with that same intense look. "Hey, Eléonore…"

"What is it?"

"What does your magic look like to you?"

Eléonore tilted her head. "What does it look like? It doesn't look like anything. I mean, you can see what it does, but you can't see the magic itself. Well, not for most spells, at any rate. Why are you asking something like that?"

"No reason." Louise hurried to keep pace with her sister, looking at the rain and, for some reason, Eléonore's wand. "No reason at all…"