A/N: Hey, doods. Here's what I wrote before I got hitched in October, and a lot more besides. :D It was very important to me that I finish out this day/night of the story, which is why I lumped the whole thing into one chapter. (Am seriously considering the merits of just writing shorter ones more often from now on.)

Anyway. Before we get started: if you haven't seen the costume associated with Yuri's True Knight title, please feel free to check it out on Google Images. I hate to commit authorly suckitude like that, but I was wasting an awful lot of time trying to come up with an accurate description, and eventually decided to err on the side of "Hell with it." Besides, there's some awesome fanart of him in that uniform. :3

Those of you who don't do profile-checking will also note that I made up Estelle's mom's appearance, but not Casey's (well, nothing but the braid). You can see her in Japanese fanart and at least one drama CD cover. Now, back to business...


Judith thought she'd be the first one down, but when she entered the banquet hall's heavily guarded waiting room, Schwann was already seated in a back corner. "Good afternoon, Captain," she greeted him, extending a hand as he rose to his feet.

"Good afternoon to you." Schwann took her hand and bent courteously over it. "Tell me, how early did you get up this morning, to look this beautiful already?"

The Krityan laughed, waving the compliment away with her lace fan. "And how late did you stay up, thinking of lines like that?"

"All night, I assure you." The Captain's tone was gallant enough, but his expression was strained; she could feel his hand trembling as he released her. "Would you care to join me for a few minutes?" he added.

"Gladly. Thank you." Judith settled into a nearby chaise lounge, leaned back, and crossed her legs, enjoying her effect on the footmen stationed throughout the room. She was perfectly situated to see and be seen, right across from the entrance.

Schwann gave her another appreciative glance as he resumed his seat. "Yuri was here a moment ago," he informed her. "I believe he'll be back soon, once he's sure his guests from the lower quarter will be allowed into the banquet."

"That's probably a good idea, as long as he doesn't hurt anyone in the process." Judith eased a finger under her necklace. The slinky, low-cut, dark plum evening gown had been her own choice, so she had let the maids pick out her collar of moonstones on silver vines. It looked fantastic with the matching hairpins, but she hadn't realized it would get so itchy so fast.

"I doubt he'll cause any trouble. In fact..." He paused as three servants converged on them, wielding trays of sparkly beverage in tiny glasses. She accepted one as Schwann shook his head and waved them away. "I have it on good authority," the Captain continued in an undertone, "that he spent over an hour this morning in discussion with the Commandant and His Majesty, after which he needed directions to the laundry." His eyebrows twitched. "Forgive my saying so, but I don't think your appearance will be the only one under discussion this evening."

"Really." The Krityan tasted the sparkly stuff, and made a face: it was all bubble, no flavor. "So he's already taking your advice?"

Schwann nodded slowly. "I see the news has gotten around. Good." He shifted his weight on the hard seat. "It's not just a matter of wearing the uniform—he's on his best behavior tonight. It'll help if he does well in the finals tomorrow, but it's much more important to prove that he can handle himself at state functions."

Judith nodded back. "We'll find out soon enough."

A few quiet minutes passed; he seemed content to sit in silence, storing up some measure of peace before the festivities began. Judith wasn't about to interrupt, no matter how many questions she had for him.

As if to underscore the point, he suddenly grimaced, brushing at his chest. "Is everything all right?" she asked.

"No, but thank you," he replied.

She studied him as she fanned herself. Schwann looked much the same as always – lean, handsome, impassive – but the fine lines around his mouth and eyes had deepened, and he was more restless than she'd ever seen him. Noting his frequent glances at the door, Judith wondered if all the strain he was feeling could be chalked up to anxiety over Yuri's behavior, or if her theory was correct—probably both.

A cluster of mages entered, arguing amongst themselves in fierce whispers. Schwann and Judith watched them, aware that the conversation was pointed in their direction. "Good job on the letter, by the way," she murmured, and fanned harder. With only a dozen people in it, the room was already growing warm. "I haven't seen it, but Rita told me all about it last night. She was really impressed."

Schwann chuckled. "Thank you. Whether it'll work remains to be seen." As she was about to reply, he sat up, hands on knees. "Speaking of which, Judith, there's something I'd like to ask you. If I may."

The Krityan frowned in puzzlement. "Why not? Now's a good time, while there's no one around."

"Even so..." The Captain shifted his weight yet again. "When you spoke to Rita last night, did she mention anything else she might have read in the letter, besides my advice to Yuri?"

Judith raised an eyebrow: he'd gone straight to the point she wanted to ask about. That was convenient, not to mention promising. "Sort of. She said Yuri made her skip a part where you'd written something about her and crossed it out," Judith explained. "Apparently, he told her it was there, but not what it said." His relief was so palpable that she added, "I don't mean to pry, but...what exactly did you write?" Rita had guessed it was something insulting, but Judith didn't think so. She was pretty sure Rita didn't, either.

Schwann stared into space for a moment. "I was wondering about that," he remarked, as if he hadn't heard the question. "It seemed strange that she never brought it up."

"Brought what up?" The mages were still arguing, the servants out of earshot; there wouldn't be a better time to ask, so Judith persisted, "What did you write?"

He didn't move, except to tap his chair arm with one finger. "I knew I should have started another draft. If I hadn't been so tired..." Sigh. "All I did was ask Yuri to make sure Rita didn't blame herself if anything happened to me. I scratched through it when I realized that you all would have done so anyway, and he might have taken the request as an insult."

As little as she wanted to upset him, Judith couldn't leave it there. "Sorry," she said, as kindly as possible, "but I don't believe you."

"Of course you don't," he answered, with his first hint of rancor. "You're jumping to conclusions, like you did when you told Rita that I was eyeballing her on the Fiertia."

She smiled. "Well, you were."

"All the more reason not to tell her so." Schwann drummed on the chair arm, caught himself, and sat back. "Luckily, she gave me a chance to apologize before she killed me."

"Hm. That was nice of her."

Her tone didn't escape him. "Think whatever you like, Judith, but I don't intend to give Rita the wrong idea, now or ever. I would appreciate it if you didn't, either."

"I won't," she lied. "Sorry for bothering you."

Schwann accepted the apology with a nod, and that was that—for now.

More people were trickling into the room. Several came over to greet the Captain and admire Judith, but few of them were comfortable enough in Schwann's presence to stay for very long. That was fine with Judith, who had gotten enough close-range attention at the dance to last for the rest of her life, and most of someone else's.

"I know Estellise needs plenty of time to dress," Schwann said during a lull, "but I can't imagine Rita letting them keep her for this long."

The Krityan closed her fan with a snap of the wrist. Then she ruined the effect by opening it again to cool herself off below the neck, where some inconvenient sweat was gathering. "She actually likes dressing up, believe it or not. Being packed in and bossed around, that upsets her." Judith scratched under the necklace again. "Right before I left, a girl came up behind her and tried to take her hair down without asking first. Rita scared her so badly that she wouldn't come back in the room."

The Captain snorted. "That sounds like Rita." He rested his head on one fist. "I don't expect her to learn perfect manners overnight, but I do wish she'd stop terrorizing everyone she meets."

Judith debated whether to come to Rita's defense by pointing out the concessions she had made after that: the crash course in etiquette the older servants were giving her; their eventual success in redoing her hair; her reluctant agreement to let them "completely mutilate" her ears, as long as Estelle healed them afterward; eye makeup in general...

No, she'd better not push the subject too hard. Besides, the less prepared Schwann was, the more fun his reaction would be when Rita came in.

"Hey! Judith!"

They turned to see Karol weaving through the crowd, emerging right between two startled noblemen. There were greetings and compliments all around; whoever had picked out the boy's suit of gold-stitched brown linen did an excellent job, Judith thought—and forgot it as soon as Yuri stepped out from behind him. "Judy. Captain Schwann," he said with a slight bow.

"Wow," Judith said frankly. She wasn't surprised that so many people were turning to stare. Not only did the uniform represent a near-mythical rank, it was displayed to full effect on Yuri's tall, athletic frame; more importantly, he was standing at ease in it, with none of his grouchy self-consciousness from the dance. One hand rested on his sword hilt, and it took Judith a second to realize he wasn't carrying it by the straps, but hung on a loop at his right hip. For some reason, that detail impressed her more than anything else.

Fully aware of their audience, Yuri turned to the rest of the room and – to their further astonishment – bent his head again, one arm folded behind him in mocking formality. If it wasn't for his huge smirk as he turned back to his friends, they might not have recognized him.

Schwann nodded approval. "You're supposed to move your left foot back when you do that," he advised the younger man. "I doubt anyone noticed, but they will next time."

Yuri shrugged. "That's what I get for not practicing. I didn't want to waste too much of Ioder's time, so he just ran me through the basics."

"Cool!" was Karol's only contribution.

"Did your friends all get in okay?" Judith asked.

"Yep. It was the funniest thing—Flynn got there right when I did, and the guards suddenly didn't think the invitations were fake anymore. Everyone's seated now." The True Knight gave Judith a closer once-over, and whistled under his breath. "Nice. You really outdid yourself."

She inclined her head. "You're not so bad, either. I like the ponytail."

Yuri hated the ponytail, and his expression was so eloquent that Judith had to laugh.

Karol was scanning the room, back turned to them. "Karol?" Judith reached over and tapped his arm with her fan. "Is Nan going to be here?" It occurred to her that he didn't have any visible battle scars; Estelle hadn't had time to heal him since last night, so Nan must have gone easier than they'd thought.

"Nah, she's doing security," he mumbled. "Listen, I'm gonna go talk to Harry. I'll see you guys later." Just like that, the boy was off, disappearing back into the crowd.

"Sir Schwann," said a deep voice behind Yuri. Startled, he stepped aside to face a pair of high-ranked mages, both already sweating in their elaborate robes. "We'd like to speak with you before dinner begins. Alone, if you please," one rumbled.

It didn't sound at all like a request. Before Yuri or Judith could say anything, Schwann raised a hand. "I've been expecting this. If you two would please excuse us..."

"Of course." Judith accepted a hand up from Yuri, and because she could, she held on to his arm as they moved a few feet away. They were still getting quite a few stares, she noticed, but no one wanted to be the first to approach; the nobles were well aware that Yuri detested them, while the guild leaders weren't sure what to make of one of their own in an Imperial uniform.

"So," Yuri said.

"Mm-hm." The Krityan removed her hand, untangled the fan's cord from around her wrist, and flicked it open, tilting her head back toward the corner.

Yuri stayed quiet, glancing between the mages, Schwann, and Judith. "I can hear most of it," she murmured, and he smiled acknowledgement.

A servant came by with another tray of bubbly stuff, which Yuri had the sense to decline. When the footman had gone, Judith said behind the fan, "Those are the ones who were pushing the hardest to study him after the joust. ...Ooh."

"What?" he asked, craning his neck around.

"Shh!" The Krityan made him turn away, and pointed at a tapestry over the double doors leading to the banquet hall. "Don't be so obvious. Pretend we're talking about something else, like how ugly that thing is."

Yuri stared up at it with one hand on his hip, feigning interest as hard as he could. "Hm. Yeah, that's pretty bad. I don't even want to know how much it costs." Pause. "Okay, what are they saying now?"

"They're asking what Rita's been doing to him. He said he doesn't know, and they don't need to, either... I know what we can talk about!" The fan came back up to rest against her cheek, almost touching her lips. "You can tell me if I'm wrong for thinking he's got a crush on Rita."

"Nope," Yuri said promptly. "He's got a crush on Rita."

Judith nodded, well satisfied. "I thought so. What did the letter say about her, anyway?"

"The part he crossed out? Most of it was about a chunk of Gald he left her in his will. If it turned out she couldn't fix him, he wanted me to apologize for him, and explain where it came from." Yuri had never been big on gossip, but this was the perfect opportunity to pay Rita back for all the crap – and help – she'd given him. "The whole time Raven was in Dahngrest, Schwann's salary kept piling up in the treasury and accruing interest. He's never touched it, so even after Ioder took some out for charity, there's about—"

She held up the fan as a mage's voice rose behind them. "He's lying through his teeth, and they can't prove it. It's driving them crazy," the Krityan said cheerfully. "So, he knew she didn't want money, and he was going to give it to her anyway?"

"Yeah." No wonder Raven had been so crabby when the subject came up last night. "He said it was repayment for the pills she threw out, and he thanked her again. Whatever that meant."

Judith shrugged. "Beats me. Rita didn't say anything about it."

Damn. It wasn't that important, but he was still curious. "Anyway," said Yuri, after a moment, "he scratched through the rest of it a lot harder, but I'm pretty sure it was about her. He said something about a red rose, and—"

Judith waved him silent again. Over her head, Yuri saw that Schwann's expression had hardened, and the mages were growing more and more animated with frustration.

Her lips curved. "Sorry about that. They were talking about how unstable Rita's always been," said Judith. "Now they're trying to convince him that if he doesn't let them intervene, she's going to get impatient and take him apart in his sleep."

Yuri snorted. "Brilliant. How's that going over?"

"It isn't."

He let her listen for another minute, resolving to get the letter back so she could read it herself, free of interruptions. Maybe she could pick out more of the scratched-out stuff than he had; she'd also know whether Rita could be told any of it without endangering Schwann. "You think she likes him, too?" he asked, more skeptical on that point.

"She's attracted to him," Judith said absently, employing the fan at top speed, "and it doesn't hurt that he's got a blastia for her to play with. But it's not just that. You've seen how comfortable she is around him—remember where she was sleeping when we came in last night?"

"Yeah." Yuri frowned at the wall, as if he'd find an explanation written in the black-veined marble, then shook his head. "Man. This whole thing's bizarre."

"Not at all," the Krityan disagreed. Meeting his incredulous gaze, she shrugged again. "I've been thinking about it a lot, and it does make sense, if you...uh oh."

He didn't need to ask: the words were indistinct, but Schwann was speaking so harshly that people nearby were turning to see what the matter was. One of the mages tried to interrupt, and the First Captain snapped right back at him, ending with a dismissive flick of his hand.

A long, motionless moment; then the mages turned and stalked away, leaving Schwann to compose himself again.

"What'd he say?" Yuri whispered.

Judith was a little worried, but mostly amused. "He said he appreciated their concern, but he's not letting any more vultures pick at his carcass. Then he told them the only service they could do him would be to get the hell out of his sight."

"Really? He said 'hell' and everything?" Yuri was also torn between concern and delight. "Score one for the old man."

The Krityan indicated the corner, careful not to look directly at Schwann. "Should we go talk to him?"

"Let's give him a minute to cool off," Yuri suggested, and she nodded, following him a few steps away. "In the meantime," he continued, careful to keep his voice down, "you can explain why those two together wouldn't be the weirdest thing that's ever happened."

"Well..." Judith ran her finger over the fan's half-folded pleats. "I'm not sure they will, actually, at least not for a while," she said. "He's still an idiot around girls, and she's still not comfortable enough with people in general. Even if they do like each other, that doesn't mean they're looking to get into a relationship."

"Sounds about right," said Yuri. Considering how Rita had grown up – so starved for affection that she'd had to make her own family out of magic rocks – and how Schwann had spent ten of the last eleven years, Yuri couldn't really blame them. "So what makes you think that'll change anytime soon?"

"Why not? They've already changed a lot since we first met," the Krityan pointed out. "He's never had friends who know him so well, and she's never had friends, period." She leaned back against a pillar, hairpins clicking on the polished marble. "I know he's not in a hurry to open up to anyone—"

"Literally," Yuri put in.

That made her smile. "Right. We've all seen it a hundred times: he hits on every single girl he meets, but then he won't follow through with anyone who's actually interested, no matter how cute she is." She adjusted her collar, rubbing the little dents it had made in her skin. "I can't imagine how frustrating that must be."

Yuri shifted away from her and looked down at his sword. The uniform wasn't designed to be worn with a belt, so they'd hung the scabbard from the rivet at his right hip; its weight was already getting uncomfortable. "I think I see where you're going with this," he said aloud. "It's the first time he's had a thing for someone who already knows who he is, and what he's got under there." He stuck his thumb at his own chest, drawing some odd looks from their neighbors. "It's not like he needs to hide it from her, just the opposite."

"Right again." The Krityan tapped her cheek with the fan. "He's twice her age, of course, but..."

"But he's not dead yet. And now that they're spending all this time together, he doesn't have a chance to get her off his mind. She's always in his personal space, they're both worried he might die any minute..." Yuri trailed off, so absorbed that he didn't notice Judith perk up and wave to someone standing in the doorway. "Yeah, you're right. I guess I could see something happening. Maybe."

Judith made a noncommittal sound. That was fine with him; the conversation was starting to feel a little weird, not to mention hypocritical. "Anyway..." The True Knight grimaced, closed his eyes, and reached up to scratch his head, unaware of how loud he was speaking into a sudden hush: "He shouldn't feel too bad about it. Knowing them, if anything does happen, it won't be his idea."

"What won't be whose idea?" Rita asked at Yuri's elbow.

"Wha—" He whirled around, nearly whacking her on the forehead. "When did you get here?"

"Right now." The girl was standing – posing, really – in a little pocket of empty space. Behind her, an aisle to the door was closing up as the people who'd been forced aside moved back into place. "Well?" she demanded, hands on hips.

Yuri was too bemused to be sure whether she wanted an answer to her question, or was fishing for compliments—probably the latter, as her entrance had drawn almost everyone's attention but his. He could see why: she wasn't the most stunningly beautiful girl in the room, but she wasn't the worst, either, not by a long shot. She knew it, too, and stood there like she owned the place.

"See, we told you all the hassle would be worth it," Judith said proudly.

Rita didn't think it would be polite to agree that she looked absolutely fucking fantastic, so she just said, "Yeah, I guess," and turned to Yuri, missing Judith's glance at the corner. "Nice hair," the mage remarked. "Did you want it like that, or was it too hard to braid it again?"

He was studying her in half-serious puzzlement. "Hm. Interesting. You don't look like Rita, but you sure sound like her. Let's see..." Yuri leaned down to touch one of her earrings, only to have his hand swatted away. "Ah ha! Mystery solved. Hi, Rita."

"Hi, Yuri." Smiling, the girl shook out her fan and brought it up in one fluid motion, screening their audience from the rude gesture she was making with the other hand. "Good to see you like this." She was feeling magnanimous; whatever he'd been talking about earlier could wait till she was at liberty to wring the truth out of him.

"You, too." He could have said a lot more – like how well the lightish red on her lips went with her dress, or the fact that she smelled great, not at all like their genius mage, who routinely went weeks between showers – but he didn't feel up to it. Discussing the possibility of her doing something with someone at some future date was one thing; seeing her expertly made up and dressed like this was another, much weirder thing.

"Is Estelle almost ready?" Judith asked, breaking into his thoughts.

"Almost," said Rita. "There were a lot of little things she still needed done, so she made me come down first." Though his poker face was up, she knew Yuri well enough to know that she was being checked out, and glanced down to make sure everything was in order.

At least she was wearing a higher neckline over the cream-colored gown. He was so tall that he would've been able to look straight down that one.

"Wow, Rita!" Karol had wriggled back out of the crowd to greet her. "You look awesome!" He gave her a double thumbs-up, the little dork. "Have you talked to Schwann yet?" the boy added. "I know he was pretty upset earlier, but he'll probably want to—"

"What? Upset about what, exactly?" Rita wheeled on Yuri. "Did you let something happen while I was gone?" she demanded, further irritated by the heavy movements of her earrings. Having them put in had hurt enough, and now they kept swinging all over the place whenever she turned her head.

"We didn't let anything happen," said Judith, mild as ever. "He asked us to leave him alone so he could talk to some of the mages, and then he sent them away. That's all."

Angry as she was, Rita had spent so much time on mental preparation that she didn't hit anyone, or even raise her voice. "We'll see about that," she muttered instead. "Where is he, anyway?"

Three arms pointed to the nearest corner. A burly guild member was in the way, but when he stepped aside, she could see the Captain sitting with his head on one hand, eyes closed. He hadn't even noticed her yet. "I'll be right back," Rita said to her friends, and moved off without waiting for an answer.

It was only a few yards, but it felt a lot longer, especially with so many people watching. Part of her was aware that she really shouldn't reinforce any stupid rumors by going straight over to Schwann; she really did have to check on him, though, and if she didn't do it right now, she was going to lose her nerve. Besides, who were they to dictate what she could and couldn't do?

So. Deep breath. Shoulders back, chin up, a few steps, and—

Schwann was dozing, trying not to think of anything at all, when a puff of soft-scented air hit the side of his face. "Are you all right, Sir Schwann?" a girl asked.

He sat up straight. "I'm afraid not, miss," he said, blinking as politely as possible at the red blur standing over him. However sick he felt, he hadn't been raised to slouch around when a lady was talking. "Forgive me. I didn't mean to ignore you."

The blur moved back a little. "Geez. You really are out of it." Her shoe went taptaptap. "How many fingers am I holding up?"

Her voice was so familiar that he couldn't place it. The Captain squeezed his eyes shut and opened them again.

A small hand was hovering a few inches from his nose, thumb folded. A red sleeve trailed over the wrist, weighted by gold trim; beyond that, he couldn't make out any details. "Four," he said dutifully.

"Very good." The hand disappeared. "Are you feeling feverish? Any nausea?"

"No. Thank you." Schwann rubbed his forehead. "It's not that kind of illness. I just need a little rest."

To his surprise, she laughed. "Okay, next question. Do you even know who I am?"

He almost did. Schwann squinted at her till most of the blur sharpened into a red satin dress, cut sharply down the middle to show a pale underskirt. Lamplight picked out a fine-linked chain on the curve of her waist, with one end trailing down her hip. That patch of red and white in her hand was a painted fan; looking up, he had to pause at the neck and jaw, whose delicate lines were accentuated by long pearl-and-ruby earrings. Not only that, she had absolutely flawless skin, and lips like a—

Her smirk widened as their eyes met. His expression had gone blank. "...Rita?"

The girl bobbed her head, fan fluttering. "Schwann." It was harder than ever not to gloat. He hadn't even recognized her! Granted, he was really out of it, but still! "What do you think?" She patted one of the braids along her temples. The stain they'd brushed into her hair had already dried, leaving rich reddish highlights. "Check this out—" Rita turned around and pointed to a fire lily – a real one this time – tucked into the gold loop securing the end of her braids. "It wasn't my idea, but I guess it turned out okay."

Schwann nodded, expression relaxing into pleasant neutrality as he shoved most of his feelings aside. Now that she was actually here, he could stop worrying and start making some quick calculations: after his behavior at the dance, and the joust, he shouldn't fake indifference—their onlookers would see right through it, not to mention how much he'd hurt her feelings. Better be kind, but distant, and ignore his impulse to grab her and pull her into his lap for a closer sniff of whatever scent she was wearing. That would definitely give the wrong impression.

She waited a moment, then turned back and regarded him warily, not sure how to interpret his silence. "It's not too much, is it?" she pressed him.

"No, not at all." The Captain laced his fingers together to keep from reaching out and taking her hand. Etiquette would have allowed it, briefly, but he didn't trust himself with any contact right now. "I'm afraid I don't know what to say," Schwann admitted, giving her a slight but genuine smile. "I can't think of anything that would do you justice."

Rita laughed again. She couldn't help it. "Don't give me that. You didn't have any trouble coming up with stuff while we were dancing."

"That was much easier," he agreed.

When he failed to elaborate, Rita found she didn't have the courage to pursue that line of inquiry any further. "All right, fine," she said, "but you owe me." She gave his mailed foot a light tap, not nearly hard enough to be a kick. "Think of something while we're at dinner."

Schwann made a conciliatory gesture. "As you wish."

Rita couldn't remember the last time she'd been this pleased with herself. She was dimly aware that it was stupid of her, considering she'd already invented and discovered and perfected so many things of such infinitely greater use than flirting with broken-down old m—

Well. Not flirting, not as such. She'd never do that. Just...testing her appearance on someone she already knew. And talking. Talking didn't count. It wasn't like she—

Oh, who the hell was she was kidding? The whole time she was getting dressed, this was all she'd been thinking about. She'd only tolerated the eyeshadow and goopy black crap on her lashes because she was afraid Schwann would think she looked weird without them; the stupidly heavy earrings had also been chosen with him in mind.

And now that she'd seen his reaction, not only was she not sorry she'd put up with all that pain and inconvenience, she was actually trying to think of more things to do next time! What in hell was wrong with her?

No, no, she shouldn't blame herself; she hadn't been right in the head. He'd given her so many compliments and warnings that it had become more important to live up to expectations than to keep strange women from poking her eyeballs with sticks, or jabbing holes in her flesh. Rita would never have come up with that on her own.

...But, if she hadn't been dumb enough to listen to him in the first place...

I wasn't being dumb! she snapped inwardly, too tired to put up with her own waffling. There's nothing dumb about taking advice from someone who knows what he's talking about, and if my hormones are acting up, too, who cares? That's what they're supposed to do! I'm just wearing stuff I thought he might like, not having sex with him. So there!

Her brain had nothing to say to that, but she was so keyed up that it really didn't have to.

As they inspected each other, Schwann gradually realized neither of them had spoken for several seconds. It didn't feel awkward at all, until he noticed how many people were still watching; he nodded again, as if in response to something she'd said, and tried to think of the nicest way possible to send her back to their friends, who were also keeping an eye on them.

At a similar loss, Rita tugged at her earrings and smoothed the front of her dress. Its high, squared-off neckline did a nice job of framing her collarbone and necklace, Schwann thought, and the necklace was...very familiar, now that he was looking right at it.

Some of Rita's elation faded as the Captain's stare became more fixed, brows drawing together. "What?"

"That's an interesting piece," he said evenly, tapping the hollow of his throat. "A little old-fashioned, though."

Her cheeks reddened beneath their faint dusting of powder: that was exactly what the maids had said, along with some objections to putting silver with a red-and-gold dress. "You're the one who said it was okay to borrow jewelry from friends, remember?" She toyed with his mother's three-pointed charm. "Don't tell me you wanted to wear it."

Schwann wasn't amused. "Of course not. But I thought you'd left it in Capua Torim."

"No, I grabbed it on my way out." Rita put one hand on her hip, flipping her long sleeve out of the way. "I'm not keeping it forever or anything. I just liked how it went with the rest of this stuff." She scowled at him, then found it much easier to look down and toy with her fan. "I didn't think you'd mind, okay? I can take it off if it really bugs you that much."

"Don't," he answered, reaching up to forestall her, and she took a quick step back. If his feelings had been anywhere within reach, they would have been hurt a little. "I'm not angry with you, just surprised to see it," the Captain explained. "The next time you want to borrow it, you need to ask more directly."

Who did he think he was? Her dad? "No worries. There won't be a next time." In the interest of maintaining her self-control, she ducked her head at him, mumbled, "'Scuse me," and turned on her heel, walking away as fast as her shoes would allow.

Schwann wasn't sure what had just happened, except that he'd gotten his wish: he could sit back with an expression of mild resignation, as if he was shrugging off some silly teenaged thing she'd said, and let people draw their own conclusions. Rita hadn't blown up at him, so it couldn't have been that bad, they'd think; no one would suspect how well she was holding her temper.

At least she'd passed her first test. But he couldn't take much pleasure in it; in fact, they probably both would have felt better if she'd just gone ahead and slugged him.

"Rita?" Judith came over to meet her. "What's wrong?" Her voice dropped. "Did he say something to you?" It was an honest question: she hadn't been able to hear most of their conversation.

"No. I'm fine." The mage's words were almost too quiet to hear, though, matching her demeanor.

Her friends exchanged bewildered glances. With great effort, Judith swallowed her questions and said, "Well, we've been talking to Harry." The Krityan indicated two guild members who'd joined them. "Karol brought him over as soon as you left. He wanted our permission to make an announcement at the banquet." She smiled. "You'll like it, I promise."

Rita shrugged. Knowing it was the best she could do, the Krityan nodded pleasantly and turned back to the group, ready to distract them with small talk.

Movement at the entrance caught their attention. A herald thumped his staff twice on the floor, then started rattling off a string of titles, several dozen words long, which boiled down to the fact that Estelle and Ioder had arrived. Before Judith could stop her, Rita picked up her skirts and began shoving her way through the crowd.

Yuri edged in front of Judith, considering his own route to the door. "This is it," he murmured, and winked at her. "Catch you later."

"Later," she said, letting some of her wistfulness show. Yuri just smiled, gave her a light pat on the shoulder, and slipped into the crush of people.

Rita emerged in time to see the guards uncrossing their halberds, and Ioder and Estelle walking in to a round of applause. Ioder might be decked out in ruffles and gold braid and a fancy circlet, but Estelle looked royal, the mage thought in proprietary delight. Her gown was a masterwork of cloth-of-gold, leaving her shoulders bare in a very graceful, grown-up fashion; a gold filigree headpiece supported two ropes of seed pearls over each ear, with more pearls securing a cameo at her throat, a crystal thingy wound into her hair, diamonds on her wrists—in short, the perfect image of an Imperial princess. Someone from the photographers' guild had better be there to get some pictures, or else Rita was going to break some legs.

There was a moment of respectful silence...or would have been, if Yuri hadn't suddenly stepped out, bowed, and said, "Evening, Your Majesties," loud and clear.

The room drew its collective breath. Though he was doing his best impression of easygoing courtesy, Rita saw him swallow hard as he glanced up at Estelle.

Ioder nodded, unfazed. "Good evening, Yuri Lowell."

Yuri straightened, catching Estelle's free hand on his way up. "Happy birthday, Estelle," he murmured, and before she could respond, he raised her hand and pressed his lips to the back of her fingers. Their eyes locked; Rita didn't think to count, but they must have stayed like that for at least five seconds before Estelle remembered to thank him and reclaim her hand.

The noise got even louder as he stepped back, giving the future Emperor and stunned princess a respectful nod. Rita couldn't hear what Ioder said to him, or Yuri's response, but that didn't matter: the damage was done, just as intended.

Adding to the general confusion, the heirs' arrival was the signal to begin seating, so the footmen at the double doors were already herding people into some semblance of an ordered line. Less important guests were at the front, going in first to fill the two end tables, while Estelle and Ioder would be the very last, sitting smack dab in the middle of the dais.

As people around her started pairing up, Rita was further irritated to realize no one had told her exactly where she was supposed to go, or with whom. The maids had explained that formal dinners started with gentlemen escorting the ladies to their seats, in the apparent belief that ladies were too stupid to find their own chairs; she was sure she'd be placed near the end of the line, along with her friends, but that didn't tell her who'd walk out with her.

Would they let her pick a guy she already knew, or assign someone? Maybe she could get Schwann to—

No way. Not him. Who else, then?

Estelle was smiling and chatting with people as if nothing had happened, though her face was still flushed. "Rita! Hello," the princess said over the din, cutting off the complaints of several nobles Rita had elbowed or foot-stomped aside. "You look wonderful!"

"You, too!" Rita shoved closer. "Happy birthday," she added, catching sight of Yuri just a few feet away. He wasn't intruding in any way, but his presence was impossible to ignore.

"Thank you," said Estelle, and that was as far as they got before she had to turn and greet another cluster of well-wishers.

Ioder hadn't gone far, either; several members of his personal guard had slipped into the room, and he was staying where they could watch the people coming up to speak with him. Rita suddenly had an idea: "Is Ioder taking you in to dinner?" she asked, much louder than necessary, and caught Yuri's eye.

"Yes, he is." Estelle nodded to the prince, who had looked over on hearing his name. "Why do you ask?"

Right on cue, Yuri reappeared in front of Ioder. "Actually, Highness," he said, "would you mind if I took her instead?"

"You can't be serious!" A Council member had finally spoken up, backed by several of his outraged peers. "Your Majesty, this is ridiculous. You couldn't possibly allow this—"

"Miss Mordio." Schwann's voice startled them all, especially Rita, who almost backed right into Estelle. He was supposed to be sitting around by himself, not sneaking up on people! "Please excuse the interruption, Prince Ioder, Lady Estellise—I wanted to apologize for upsetting you," the Captain told Rita, more quietly. "I never intended to diminish your enjoyment of the evening, especially when you did nothing wrong." He held a hand out, palm up. "Will you forgive me?"

Rita didn't even think about it: something loosened in her chest, and her mouth went right ahead with, "Yeah. Of course" as her hand came up to rest on his gloved fingers.

To her surprise, they closed around hers. "Thank you." The Captain turned to Ioder, giving Rita a chance to catch her breath. "If the Lady Estellise already has an escort, Your Majesty," Schwann said briskly, "I don't believe Miss Mordio is spoken for."

"Oh?" The prince regarded Rita thoughtfully. "It would be my pleasure." Before the girl could say anything, Ioder had stepped up and accepted her hand from Schwann. Within seconds, Judith was ensconced beside the First Captain – disappointing several men who'd been hovering nearby – and Yuri was leaning down to whisper to Estelle, just like that.

Rita could only blink stupidly at Ioder, struggling to catch up under a sudden, creeping haze of exhaustion. For a moment, realizing she'd literally been handed off, she didn't know whether to be more annoyed, embarrassed, or disappointed.

But she had to admit Schwann had done the smartest thing, rumor-wise, in not taking her himself; besides, it was too late now for the nobles to insist on anyone switching partners. The double doors had just been unbarred and pushed open, the line almost completely formed.

Everyone fell quiet, like it or not. Rita felt dizzy as sounds and smells and light from the banquet hall poured into the room; the line straightened as those in front began making their way into the hall, hurried along by the footmen.

Ioder steered Rita into the spot before Estelle, so that the princess and Yuri would go last. "This ought to be good," Rita muttered to the prince, who merely smiled.

A minute later, Leblanc appeared in the doorway, scrupulously sober. The tables had filled up with enough people that only the really important ones were left; now Leblanc announced each pair before they walked out, giving the rest of the banquet hall time to gawk as they took their seats.

The crowd's interest rose sharply as Kaufman emerged, escorted by the head mage. Karol followed with a young noblewoman on his arm; Schwann and Judith got an even louder reaction. Then it was Harry and an older lady, taking the few chairs remaining near the middle of the table.

Now that it was their turn, Rita was almost glad to be so out of it: she was hardly nervous at all when her name was called with Ioder's. As they walked out onto the dais, she looked out over the packed tables with only mild interest, reserving most of her concentration for the momentous task of staying awake. Luckily, as she'd find out later, the audience was so impressed at the sight of the famous Rita Mordio walking alongside Prince Ioder that they mistook her sleepiness for an air of gravitas.

It was darker in here than she'd anticipated, but at least it was fairly cool. Shock did get through when Ioder pulled out the heavy, uncushioned seat to his immediate left, facing the rest of the great hall; she reflexively bobbed at him in thanks, marveling at being placed so high at the table. Of course, she was practically a member of Brave Vesperia, and she'd saved the First Captain's life, but come on!

That was her first mistake of the evening, before they were even seated. The prince didn't react, but the other nobles and even a few guild leaders at the table muttered or snickered to each other as she sat down. Shit! Rita thought, coming wide awake in panic. She should've done a full-blown curtsy, not that piffley little improvisation she'd come up with at the dance! Why had she even practiced the damn thing if she wasn't going to use it in front of zillions of people?

Leblanc did a double take as the last pair stepped up to the doorway. To his credit, he didn't say anything, but shook it off, drawing a deep breath for the last announcement: "Presenting Master Yuri Lowell, and Her Imperial Majesty, Princess Estellise Sidos Heurassein!"

The audience was strangely quiet. The princess and True Knight came out into view, and Rita felt as if the entire hall was holding its breath. Someone booed, somewhere toward the middle of the place, with a few more voices joining in—

At the very back corner of the hall, a small, shabby group started an answering round of applause. It grew steadily louder, with whistles, cheering, and thumping on tables, spreading from the lower quarter's inhabitants to the commoner guild members around them, out through the rest of the crowd, till the whole place was roaring with approval. Whether they meant Estelle, or Yuri, or both, Rita wasn't sure; at the moment, it really didn't matter.

As soon as Yuri and Estelle were seated – right next to each other, no less – the speeches began. Rita would have dozed right off if Harry hadn't been so mercifully brief. "In honor of the Prince's coronation this winter," the youth said, rising from his seat opposite Ioder, "and to celebrate Brave Vesperia's induction as a master guild—"

There was a lot of murmuring at that. Most people had expected it after the collapse of Ruins' Gate, but news was news.

"We of the Union will return your hospitality for a week of celebration in Dahngrest, three days after the New Year." And he sat back down, leaving everyone with the prospect of another huge-scale party before this one was even over. Rita wondered if she'd be more excited about it later, when she was awake.

She did jerk to attention when Schwann pulled himself to his feet, directly across from her, and turned to face the hall. "On behalf of their Imperial Majesties and Commandant Flynn Scifo, I bid you all welcome, and thank you for being here." Nod. "Before we begin, may I take this opportunity to salute Brave Vesperia, who ascended the roof of the world and destroyed the Adephagos at its source." Nod. "I give thanks for the hope of our Empire's heirs, and the promise of Dahngrest's leaders." Nod. "And most of all, I am grateful to have lived to see this day." To Rita's superlative embarrassment, he turned and nodded directly at her. "Thank you."

She probably nodded back. Or maybe not; she could never be sure afterwards. Schwann was already sitting back down, so she obviously wasn't required to say anything in reply.

One of the most senior Council members got up and spent several minutes saying, in essence, that another party sounded like a great idea, and everyone should continue to get along.

It was long and dull enough that Estelle took the chance to catch Schwann's eye and pretend to pass him something, so discreetly that no one noticed the flicker of golden light. That included the young mage, who'd stopped paying attention early on, and didn't even notice when the man finished.

When he did, the noise level rose again, and Rita looked up as a couple of smaller doors at each end of the hall were being propped open. A stream of servants was coming at them from both directions, carrying plates, covered dishes, and pitchers; to everyone's relief, that was the end of speechifying, and the beginning of dinner.

The maids had given Rita some idea of what to do, for which she was now profoundly grateful. As wine was poured and the first appetizers of tiny-thing-on-stick set out, the mage waited for Estelle and Ioder to be served first, then took a stick of what turned out to be pear slices. Not bad, she thought, and put the stick back into a little dish made for that sole purpose.

Keeping a dish around for used sticks was ridiculous, but then, so was the rest of the table. Every single place setting had three empty glasses of varying shapes and sizes, five different forks and knives, two spoons, a couple of plates, a rolled-up napkin, a butter dish, and a few other random implements. When the soup came out, Rita saw the prince and princess unroll their napkins and pick up the bigger of their spoons, so she did, too, hoping to copy her way through the rest of the meal.

Ioder glanced up and saw her watching. "It's all a bit much, I know," he said, taking a small mouthful of whatever the soup was. "When my grandfather was young," the prince continued, "they used to start in the morning and go through twenty full courses, lasting all the way till midnight. We won't keep you here quite that long, I promise."

"I'd appreciate that," she answered. Not much was going on in the way of conversation around them, so everyone was listening. Great. "Thanks for the perfume," Rita said, grasping at the first polite thing that came to mind. "You've got pretty good taste."

Ioder smiled. "Thank you. If you'd like a bigger bottle of any particular scent, please don't hesitate to ask."

"Thanks, but I can get it myself." Rita kept her voice as light as she could, aware that she'd make a better impression sounding fake than rude. It wasn't the greatest feeling in the world. "I really like the one I've got on right now—it's vanilla, right?"

"Yes, it is." Ioder frowned slightly. "With respect, Miss Mordio, that one happens to be fairly expensive. Are you sure I can't get it for you?"

"I'm sure. Thank you."

The prince nodded, and resumed eating.

Judith whispered something to Kaufman, whose reply made the Krityan's eyes widen.

Next to Rita, the head mage had overheard the women's exchange. "Four thousand Gald an ounce," he repeated, and gave Rita a thin-lipped smile. "Two months' stipend for a bit of toilet water? Our Miss Mordio is growing up."

"What do you care, you—" No! Crap! She had to be nice, or at least not overtly rude. Think, think, think— "You don't have to worry about me," Rita said, much brighter. "I made six thousand last month off my hand-size bombs, and I've got a bunch more of the bigger ones ready to go now. They sell pretty well, considering mine always go off when they're supposed to." Pause. "Unlike yours." Smile.

Their neighbors murmured to each other as the head mage's eyes narrowed. Anti-monster devices like the Vesperia One had become invaluable since the loss of barrier blastia, and while mages were all tasked with creating a certain number of them per month, they were allowed to make more as a private sideline. Lately, there had been some embarrassment over rushed or shoddy devices from Zaphias' mages, which tended to fizzle out too quickly, or not work at all; Fortune's Market was now offering higher rates to mages with better track records, and had threatened to stop buying from the others.

"Very true," said Kaufman, raising her wineglass to Rita. "That reminds me, you need to come by headquarters. It looks like some of our suppliers are trying to cut corners on those firestarters you designed, and we'd like an expert opinion before we send them back."

Rita nodded, and feigned great interest in her soup, letting the conversation run on without her. A Council member tried to start an argument with Kaufman over exorbitant pricing in general, and she sidetracked him with a detailed explanation of the difficulties in maintaining vanilla orchids. The vines only grew in one remote section of Dahngrest's plateau, and yields had been poor due to greater-than-usual aer fluctuations; the pods had to be picked at just the right growth, every single day; the workers required protection from monsters attracted by the smell—

That launched another debate on harvests in general, and the distribution of manpower needed to get it all in safely, seguing into the nobles' favorite complaint: the guilds charged too much for timber, which was needed for firewood in lieu of heat blastia, and were never willing to exchange enough of it for Imperial crops.

The guilds' reply was the same as always: that cutting down trees was dangerous and time-consuming at best, as the forests around Dahngrest and Aurnion housed far more monsters than lived on the plains around Zaphias and Halure; even with Ba'ul's help, transporting heavy loads south was slow and expensive. They were also reluctant to destroy too many trees before they'd agreed on a sustainable long-term plan.

For her part, Rita was more preoccupied with the logistic downsides of her appearance. She couldn't lean back without squashing the flower in her hair, and she couldn't scratch her cheeks or eyelids without getting makeup on her fingers; there was lipstick on the rim of her water glass, her dress layers were too hot, and her chair was about as comfortable as a randomly spaced bed of needles. Did she really have to sit through five more hours of this?

Schwann glanced at the quieter half of the table beyond Estelle and Yuri, then looked back at Rita. He thought of the buoyant, grinning confidence with which she'd greeted him half an hour ago, and gestured to a servant for more wine. Lots more.

"Miss Mordio," an older gentleman said, leaning forward to speak from several places away, and interrupting the Council leader mid-harangue. "Pardon my curiosity, but it is remarkable for a young lady of your age to be so prolific. Were either of your parents mages?"

"I don't know," said Rita, too tired to make anything up. She shifted her weight on the hard seat as the soup bowls were cleared and platters of fish brought out. "I never knew my dad, and my mom died when I was little."

"I am sorry to hear that," the lord said kindly. He was in his late thirties or early forties, with a few flecks of gray in his dark hair. Not bad-looking, she thought; if he'd been at the dance, she hadn't seen him. "I understand you've been at work since you were very young," he continued. "That must have been difficult. But you seem to have made the best of it." His head tilted. "In fact, I've heard you're still capable of using magic without a blastia. Is that even possible?"

Rita examined the fish, then laid the outermost of her knives and forks across the plate. A servant swooped by and removed the dish. "Yeah, I can do a few things. Call it a trade secret," she said, trying to ignore how the head mage was eyeballing her. "We can use the spirits' power for bigger spells. But we can't rely on them to do everything blastia used to," the girl added, in case anyone started whining about that again, "or the spirits might cut us off entirely."

The lord raised his eyebrows. "Is that so?" He took a sip of wine, politely incredulous. "There can't be much danger of that. I haven't seen any magic performed for quite some time now, and frankly, I don't expect to."

"Oh, really?" On impulse – surely one demonstration couldn't hurt – Rita turned to face forward. "Sir Schwann!"

The First Captain raised his head, as if he hadn't been listening to every word. "Yes?"

"Put out that candle and hand it over." She pointed to the one nearest him. "Please."

Frowning, Schwann picked up the candlestick, pinched the flame out, and waved the smoke away. "Here you are," he murmured, and gave her a warning look as he handed it over.

Rita didn't notice. She took the candle, making sure they were all watching, then raised the wick to her lips.

"Eep!" went Estelle as her friend blew out a tiny lick of flame, relighting the candle.

"That was awesome!" Karol elbowed Harry in the ribs. "See, I told you she can still blow stuff up!"

"Thanks," Rita said, handing the candle back to Schwann, who was just as startled as everyone else. She took a long, shaky drink of water, reminding herself to start the spark farther away next time; the theory had been sound, but this was the first time she'd actually tried it. She was lucky not to have singed her stupid lips off.

The dark-haired noble was shaking his head in admiration. "Forgive me for doubting you, Miss Mordio." His eyes drifted to the head mage, who nodded faintly.

Schwann helped himself to more wine.

"No wonder she's raking it in," a guild leader remarked, further down on her right. "If I could breathe fire, I probably wouldn't have much competition, either!" His friends laughed, and when Rita glared at him, the man leaned around to ask directly, "Who's your guardian, anyway? He's gotta be rich by now."

"I don't have one," the girl snapped. "I've been legally independent since I was twelve." The next course was apparently a heap of caramelized vegetable matter, which didn't do much for her mood.

"That speaks very well for your maturity." The lord inclined his head again. "You're sixteen or seventeen, yes?"

Rita nodded, putting her next set of utensils on her fresh plate. It was also whisked away. "I'll be seventeen in a couple months."

"Ah," he said, almost to himself, and then resumed eating, as if the conversation had ended to his satisfaction.

"What?" Rita couldn't help asking. He was being pretty obvious, but he was nice enough, and things seemed to be running along similar lines to her talks with Schwann. If this guy wanted to flatter her in front of everyone, she wasn't going to stop him.

The man took a large bite, chewed, and swallowed. "It's truly unfortunate that you've been left to your own devices for so long." He looked up and gave her a gentle smile. "But one never knows. Some good may come of it after all."

That sounded...interesting. "Yeah?" she prompted.

"Mmm." The lord's smile widened. "For example, I've never met a fatherless girl who didn't prefer older men."

The words were bad enough, once she worked out the double negative. But he wouldn't stop staring, and his tone – still very mild, quiet, almost caressing – felt like a tongue in her ear.

Worse, though, was the realization that there was nothing she could say or do, not with Estelle two seats away. Rita's mouth had fallen open, but she had to close it and keep it shut, before something horrible came out.

Schwann had warned her about this, she remembered, stomach roiling—but why did that make her feel like it was her fault?

Worst of all, several people in earshot were openly amused. Rita gripped her skirts and looked down at the tablecloth where her plate had been, face burning.

She didn't see Ioder's frown, or the restraining hand Estelle put on Yuri's arm.

Schwann's expression hadn't changed, so his sudden chuckle startled everyone. "How very commendable, Lord Faulk," the Captain said, in a voice light and cold as snowfall. "So few men in this day and age are brave enough to admit that their best chance of sexual contact is with a child too young to know better."

Silence, except for a mutter of "Ha!" from Karol. Even the main hall seemed to have fallen quiet, though they were too far away to overhear.

Lord Faulk's smile remained in place. His gaze wandered from Schwann to the top of Rita's head and back. Then he nodded slowly. "Of course," he said apologetically. "How very rude of me. I am sorry, Sir Schwann, for encroaching on your territory."

"Ah. Not only a coward and degenerate, but a liar. An example to us all." Schwann still hadn't raised his voice; he was almost expressionless, blue-green eyes fixed on the other man. "Is there anything else you'd like to confess?"

The lord's eye twitched. "Far be it for me to argue with our esteemed First Captain," he said loudly, turning to the rest of the table. "There's no use refuting the wisdom of a man who's had so very much to drink."

Several people spoke at once. Yuri's baritone cut through the noise: "Now that's classy. I thought nobles were supposed to have manners, not pick at each other like a bunch of teenagers."

"A fine thing to hear from a murderer," snarled Faulk, dropping his pretense of calm with startling swiftness.

Several people gasped. Estelle flushed nearly as dark as Rita, whose thoughts were going in too many directions to count; she didn't care who said what to whom anymore, just as long as they left her alone.

Yuri blinked, then smiled, very slowly. "Okay. I'll play along," he said. "Do go on, please. Something about a murderer?"

"You know very well what he's talking about!" Another Councilman pounded the table with his fist. No one paid any attention to the meat course as the servants served the roast and greens, laying the platters down with very deliberate care, the better to hear everything. "The murder of Lord Ragou and the disappearance of Captain Cumore have been attributed directly to you, by highly reliable sources! Are we supposed to accept a True Knight with such a stain on his name?"

"A Free Paladin. Grandfather told me that's what they used to be called, to distinguish them from the regular Knights," Harry said, so apropos that the conversation came to a momentary halt.

"Really?" Yuri appeared to think it over, and thumped the table in approval. "I like that! Mind if I go by 'Paladin' instead, Estelle? Ioder?"

"I've heard that variant before. It's all right by me," the prince said.

"It's not all right by any of us!" snapped Lord Faulk. "Your Majesty, take care what you do with your position, when you have yet to even be—"

"As serious as these accusations are," Ioder went on, still speaking to Yuri, "they have no weight with me, not after all you've done. Unless and until formal charges are brought against you, I think we can consider the matter dropped." The prince cut a dainty bite of roast, stared at it, and set it down. "But...on second thought, it might be better to clear the air and settle this for good, before anything of further importance happens. What do you all think?"

"Very wise of you, Your Highness," a Council member said, to murmurs of agreement.

"I think trying him on either count would be interesting." That was Harry again. "The Council might want to hear about the motivation behind these crimes."

"I don't think they'd care about that," Yuri said coolly, "only that it happened."

Harry shrugged. "Oh, I don't know. Photographs of the monsters and human corpses in Ragou's basement, certified as accurate by the new magistrate himself? Sworn testimony from hundreds of law-abiding Imperial citizens who suffered under his rule? People care a lot about that kind of thing, and I hope that includes the Council."

The nobles were looking at each other, waiting for someone to say something.

"That's right," Judith chimed in, catching on instantly. "We could also calculate how many people died when Cumore forced them out into the desert to find the 'monster' for him. There've been plenty of rumors, but if we were to present all the facts, everyone would really understand what happened, and what kind of Imperial leaders they lost. Wouldn't that be healthy?"

Yuri didn't know whether to be thank them or punch them in the face. Had Harry and Ioder worked out what to say about the murders in advance, or were they really playing off each other that well?

Either way, that had knocked the wind out of their sails. He'd have to decide how to handle it head-on when the time came; for now, it was time to eat.

Rita had calmed down enough to start on her slice of roast. The head mage turned his head to watch her. "I suppose there is something to be said for teamwork," he mused.

She gave him a look that told him where to stick his teamwork.

"I'd like a truce, for the moment," the head mage protested, and nearly whispered, "As it happens, I have information that might help Sir Schwann." He held up a hand as she started to say something rude. "Just hear me out. I ask for nothing in return, except perhaps that you be more reasonable the next time we offer to assist you with such a huge project."

"Bullshit. Why would you give me something for nothing?" Rita demanded.

"Because we're much less interested in studying a corpse than a live specimen. If he passed away before we could get a better look at him, you would quite possibly cremate him to keep us from studying the remains. We want to avoid that outcome."

She bristled, but had to admit he was probably right. "I don't care what you've got. You're not getting your hands on him," the girl warned.

"Regardless, if you can keep him alive, we'd like to assist you to that end." The man paused to belch. "Pardon. It so happens that my nephew was an ambitious young man right at the end of the war—"

"And why do I care?" Rita snapped.

"Because he worked directly under Alexei, whose research you almost have in its entirety."

She set her utensils down. "Okay, I'm listening."

The man nodded. "Before the boy was killed in a supposed laboratory accident, he visited his father one last time. My brother said he was so paranoid that he spent all night lying under the kitchen table, writing complete nonsense about puzzle plates and see-through green tubes."

Rita couldn't hide her excitement. There was nothing about the blastia shell or the color of its innards in anything else from Alexei's research; the likelihood of his story being a lie was decreasing rapidly.

"When the workshop burned down, all his notes were destroyed. Alexei had agents go through his friends and family's houses for copies of his research, but no one thought to look under the table before it was given to me. I've got the entire thing transcribed, as far as that mess could be reproduced," he concluded triumphantly.

The girl's hands were shaking again, in a different sort of agitation. "Where is it now? Do you have it on you?"

The head mage regarded her with amusement and suspicion in turn, and raised his voice to a normal level. "Do you play chess, Miss Mordio? We should have a game sometime soon. Tomorrow evening?"

She only knew the basic rules, but that was sufficient to go up and get the notes. "Yeah, sure."

"Good." And he went right back to eating.

No one but her friends bothered her through the rest of the course, or most of the next one, a set of light pastries and cheese slices. The conversations had splintered into friendlier debates on the outcome of tomorrow's tournament, or whether Sodia would win and try for Flynn's still-vacant Captaincy; there hadn't been a female Captain as far back as anyone could remember. Yuri started it by admitting that he personally despised her, but didn't think gender should be the sole disqualification in an otherwise fine leader. Most people's opinions ran along similar lines, as she was not particularly likable, but had repeatedly proven her capability.

At Judith's suggestion, a maid brought Rita a bottle of sangria, the first alcoholic drink she'd ever had that did not taste like liquid suffering. Ioder dismissed her jokes about underage drinking, and pardoned her on the spot, whereupon she tried two more glasses of it—for science, of course. So many people were always trying to get drunk, despite its wretched effects, and now she could finally get an idea why anyone would put themselves through that.

Like any good hypothesis, though, it required further experimentation. So far, the blackberry tasted the most scientific; better start there.

By the time dessert was brought out, Rita felt a whole lot better. She'd been aware of Schwann's eye on her from time to time throughout the meal, but they hadn't spoken; that was partly because he had had to moderate several arguments between Yuri and his fellow diners, including a couple of tipsy, belligerent guild members who didn't like his new uniform. But would it have killed him to say something to her? Maybe he was just being careful again, rumor-wise.

And he was right to do it. Under the cheerful haze of booze and exhaustion, the girl had no problem thinking of Schwann in conjunction with that ever-present feeling down south—it really was like an itch, she thought; all you could think about was applying friction until it went away. Ever since it first started happening, she'd just worked out ways to handle it in private – including the thing Estelle had once found in her drawer – and left it at that.

This wasn't the same thing. Fantasy was all fun and good, because she could put it away as soon as she was done; no one had ever made her think about it this seriously, as someone she'd actually allow to hold her, or touch her, or...damn, there it went again.

"Try some of these, Rita," Estelle said, snapping her out of it as the dessert trays arrived. There were heavy cake slices, lumps of pudding, and rows of honey-drizzled almond slices; Estelle picked up one of the latter with her tiny dessert fork, transferring a half dozen to her plate, and another five to Rita's.

Rita managed to eat one – very nice – before the plate started moving around on her, splitting in two and wobbling before her weary eyes. She closed them, almost dozing off, then recollected herself as the fire lily in her hair was mashed flat against the chair's back.

Not time for sleep yet, she thought, and tried to focus on her dessert. Why did honey have to be so sticky?

Schwann was hugely relieved when some of the drunker guests began excusing themselves and leaving the dais, reeling toward the nearest exit. Technically, they were supposed to leave in pairs, like they'd come in, but he didn't care. He'd had enough excitement for today, and it only took a few people leaving to make everyone else start thinking about it.

Speaking of which...

Rita was much more relaxed than before, thanks in large part to her tiny frame and total inexperience with alcohol. She had a small, goofy smile, and kept making vain attempts to shift the honey-stuck almonds off the edge of her plate—why, he had no idea.

No matter. It was cute, and he was tired enough to watch her without his mind wandering off to the wrong places.

This was as good a time as any to finish his last slice of cheese and make his own solitary exit. The Captain picked up his fork, speared the last bit of food on his plate, and glanced up mid-bite: Rita had lifted the plate and was prying an almond up with her tongue, licking the last bit of honey off and pulling it into her mouth.

"Are you all right?" Judith asked him, startled by his muffled oath.

"Fine," he lied, feeling his lip where he'd stabbed it with the damn fork.

"Rita!" Estelle hissed. The mage glanced up mid-lick to see her friend making frantic slashing motions.

The mage reluctantly obeyed, setting the plate down with one last slice intact. "I'm going to bed now," she announced, proud that she hadn't slurred any of it. "Someone, come help me down the thing." She tried to push her chair back, but it was too heavy to move from a sitting position.

There was only a moment of hesitation. Several gentlemen got to their feet, ready to help—till Schwann finished his drink, pulled himself to his feet, and set off to walk all the way around the table to her seat.

She sat there, feeling a little giddy, but irritated that everyone was watching his progress. When he reached her, Rita helped push the chair out by bracing against the table. "We're both a friggin' mess," she announced, pulling herself up on his proffered arm. "I think I can walk better than you. And what about Ioder?"

"He'll stay till everyone else has left," the Captain answered, pausing to say good night to all their friends and acquaintances and that colossal prick who'd made her want to blow everyone up. At least Schwann's example had dissuaded any further attempts to provoke her; even Yuri had been treated better than expected, though that was probably more because Ragou had dead people in his basement.

They rounded the corner of the table near the steps down to the main hall. "So. How bad did I do?" she mumbled.

Schwann found it easier and safer not to look at her, but no one could hear them, so he could honestly say, "You did fine. Very well, actually."

"Nuh-uh," Rita said, looking gravely back at the people watching them traverse the wide aisle down to the doors leading outside, or to different parts of the castle. He was steering her toward the upper-castle door, where most of the guards were stationed.

"Yes, you did." Schwann looked down at her, shoving his non-Captain feelings into their corner yet again as she looked up at him. "Seriously. I'm proud of you." He slowed them to a halt as they approached the door. "Here we are."

Her fingers dug into his arm. Otherwise, she was motionless, staring straight ahead.

Something in her expression kept him from peeling her hand off. "Rita? What..." Schwann thought for a moment. "Come on. Don't tell me you've never heard that before," he said, tapping the backs of her fingers.

To his sorrow and amazement, she had to swallow before she could reply. "Dunno. Don't think so." Not from anyone who mattered, anyway.

"Well, it's true. We're all proud of you. So there." Schwann couldn't let this go on any longer, not in front of this many people. "Come on," he repeated, softer, and she let him take her hand away for a last bow and not-quite hand-kiss.

Rita stepped back. The tiredness and sangria retreated for a moment, long enough for her to remember something: she moved her foot back, bent her knees, and nearly swept the floor in a slow, deep, perfect curtsy. "Night," the mage said, and the guards barely opened the door in time for her to step through.

A/N: Yeahhh, we're not doing a this-size ever again. X( And a resounding and heartfelt FFFF YOU to 2011. What a fuck-awful year. Here's to writing something a fourth this length three or four times more often in 2012.

Lastly, I'mma wish a happy birthday to Resmiranda's little boy, who is now a whole entire year old. (LESS THAN THREE, which this site won't recognize)