AN: A NEW CHALLENGER HAS APPEARED.

((()))

Life was peaceful on the Valliere estates, Louise found. Her mother and father wielded their authority with consistent and vigorous strictness, but because they were consistent with their exertion of power over their vassals, they only wielded it rarely. As a child, Louise had always simply seen this as 'how things were,' especially given that during her visits to the Royal Palace, servants stepped lively around the prestigious Valliere family.

At the Academy, things had been different, and day-to-day life had been utterly dominated by the petty squabbles of young nobles. Once she was removed from the situation, Louise found that she did not miss it in the least, especially given what she had seen in her developing relationship with her mother.

Well, metaphorically 'seen' anyways, the family's physician hadn't returned from a trip to one of the Northern towns within the Valliere estates until that morning, and Louise was hoping he'd allow her to have the blindfold off.

"Finished, milady," Siesta said from behind the youngest Valliere, stepping away from where she'd been lacing up Louise's 'simple' house dress, "Hopefully, you will be able to see whether it is to your satisfaction in a few hours."

"Hopefully," Louise said with a faint smile, "Has my familiar finished hiding himself in the corner yet?"

"He's still over there," Siesta said, a smile in her voice, "Shall I collect him for you?"

"Please do," Louise said, "I'd like to ask the healer if it is possible to replace his eye."

"Of course milady," Siesta said, and after a few moments spent bustling around slightly more noisily than really necessary (something Louise knew was for her benefit), the maid from Tarbes gently placed the cycloptic cat in the pinkette's arms.

"Off we go then," Louise said, shifting her familiar around into a carry that left one arm free for Siesta to lead her with, "Do you know where the infirmary is?"

"One of the household staff told me it was beside the training hall, milady," Siesta said as she led Louise out the door of her room, "Which I passed through on the way to your sister's menagerie yesterday."

"Correct," Louise said with a nod, resisting the urge to twitch when her familiar wrapped his tail around her forearm and briefly brushed the tip against her cheek.

Few other words passed between them on the way to the infirmary, tentative hope both weighing them down and buoying them up. Louise had gone weeks without being able to see, and while she felt that the loss of her sight had helped her gain perspective on much in life, she was more than ready to have it back. In spite of that, she felt little in the way of nervousness, something that only vaguely surprised her anymore.

Louise had lived in fear and anxiety for far too long; she didn't intend to do so any longer.

((()))

"In time, I expect a full recovery," Healer Brassa said, his outlander accent lending a lilt to his words, "It will require regular and careful treatment, as the eyes are very delicate organs, but we should see a full recovery within four weeks."

"Thank you," Louise said quietly, staring out at the (blurry) world around her with a small smile, "Again, you've helped save me from the consequences of my own foolishness."

"That's what your father pays me for," Brassa said, an easy smile crinkling the age lines on his tanned face, "And you are still the easiest member of your family for me to work with."

Louise shared an old smile with the Germanian physician; he originated from one of the tribes to the far Southeast, barely within Germania's borders, and had been hired more than a decade ago by her parents for his specialization with regenerative magic. Very little in the way of healing worked on Cattleya's illness, and the long-term systemic treatments that Brassa spcialized in accounted for most of them.

"Come, Siesta," Louise said, smiling at the blurry form of her handmaiden, "Let us go see healer Brassa's most dificult patient."

((()))

Louise's middle sister was, unsurprisingly, found in her menagerie; both sisters were thrilled to see each other, even if 'see' was a fairly loose term in Louise's case.

"It has been too long," Cattleya sighed happily as she swept her younger sister into a gentle embrace, "Especially considering how rarely you've written of late."

"I'm sorry," Louise said, small tears making her vision blur even further than it already had, "Until I was injured, I was very dispirited, and found little motivation to write you about how depressing my life had become."

"Some word is better than no word, sister dearest," Cattleya said chidingly, before pulling back to look her sister up and down, examining her for any sign of injury, "It looks like you've healed well enough from your little accident. Four weeks until your sight has fully recovered?"

"That is what healer Brassa said," Louise said with a nod, canting her head to the side as she studied her elder sister's blurry face, "You know, with my eyes like this, your nose looks rather like an apricot."

Cattleya blinked.

Siesta blinked.

Cattleya's handmaid blinked.

"That was a startlingly non-sequitor observation," Cattleya said after a moment's pause, "Whatever possessed you to say such at hing?"

"Your nose does look like an apricot," Louise said, a slightly mischevious smirk beginning to form on her face, "Whyever else would I say such a thing?"

"That is a reason to think such a thing," Cattleya said, her lips twitching as amusement warred with some small exasperation, "But hardly a reason to say it."

"For what reason would I not say it?" Louise inquired with elaborate earnestness, "In this moment, I surely cannot think of a reason."

Behind the younger Valliere, Siesta snorted slightly as she desperately fought to contain her giggles; Cattleya's handmaid had no such compunctions.

"It's good to see you smile again," Cattleya said, a soft smile washing across her own face as she gazed down at her younger sister, surprised to realize how relaxed the youngest Valliere was, "Now, can you introduce me to this familiar of yours?"

"Siesta?" Louise called, looking over her shoulder towards her maid.

"Yes milady," Siesta replied, gently picking the named familiar up from where he'd been seated on one of the hay-bales in Cattleya's menageries, and carrying him over to the Valliere sisters.

"I'd like to say he's a gorgeous creature," Cattleya said, wincing slightly as she looked the mutilated feline over, "But I think it would be more accurate to say he was a beautiful creature. Here," Cattleya slowly seated herself on a cushioned chair that appeared rather out of place within the menagerie, the patted a simple wooden workbench beside the chair, "Set him down and let me have a look at him. Is there any particular kind of handling he tends to object to?"

"First of all," Louise said as Siesta set the cat on the indicated table, a hint of nervous caution entering her voice, "He isn't a normal cat. He's used his claws to etch out words at least twice, and has displayed intelligence far beyond a normal cat on a few other occasions as well?"

"What sort of occasions?" Cattleya asked, a slight intensity beginning to enter her gaze and voice.

"I didn't realize it until after the fact," Louise said, seating herself on a stool in front of her sister, "But any time I had a particularly unpleasant day in class, he would deliberately distract me from my troubles, usually by butting me with his head until I paid him attention. As to certain kinds of handling, he will not let you hold him against your chest, and he is picky about how he rests in a person's lap, if he will allow it at all. Of preference, he will drape himself across my shoulders when I am carrying him, otherwise I can carry him much like I would a baby."

"Is he picky about others beside yourself handling him?" Cattleya asked as she cautiously extended a hand out towards the cat, which was now staring at her.

"You know," Louise said, glancing back at her handmaiden, "I can't even think of anyone other than Siesta that has tried to handle him while he was awake, and he's had no objection to her."

"Nor," Cattleya said with a nod as she laid a single finger on the tip of the cat's nose, "Does he seem to object to me. Do you think he will mind if I look beneath the eyepatch?"

"I don't know," Louise said simply, glancing back at Siesta, who shrugged as well.

"Well, only one way to find out then," Cattleya said, gently taking hold of the knitted eyepatch, and pulling it up to reveal the cat's slack eyelid and empty eye-socket.

None of the others said anything for several minutes as Cattleya inspected the eye-socket, the rest of the cat's head, and the healed gashes and scars along his body, before coming back to study the head again.

"Oh dear," Cattleya said quietly, "Maria, could you go fetch the veterinarian? I think there's a fairly serious problem here."

"A problem?" Louise asked, a hint of worry entering her tone.

"Nothing life-threatening," Cattleya said quickly as she leaned down to examine the cat's eye more closely, "And I'm not surprised the healer at the school missed it, between the missing eye and a lack of familiarity with more veterinary matters, but I think he did your familiar something of a disservice in how he healed him."

"How so?" Louise asked.

"I think he healed your-" Cattleya sighed and looked up, "Really Louise, would it wound you somehow to tell me his name? Anyway, I think his skull was healed slightly wrong, putting pressure on his brain, which likely has resulted in a fever or delirium-like effect."

"Ah," Louise said awkwardly, wondering if what she had thought of as merely odd behavior patterns were a sign of something much more significant, "I never did give him a name. I usually just call him 'familiar.'"

"Of course," Cattleya said with a sigh, rolling her eyes, "You never were terribly creative, were you?"

Louise blushed, and said nothing more until the veterinarian arrived.

((()))

Clarity returns, and my mind is more fully my own.

It is not a full clarity.

It is not a pleasant clarity.

But it is a clarity.

For the time being, it will have to do.

((()))

"You know," Siesta said softly as she stared at the cat sitting on one of the tables in Louise's chambers, "That's almost scary."

'I'm sorry,' the cat scraped out on the small box of sand that lay in front of it, 'It is not my intention to unnerve you.'

"You've changed," Louise said, her voice rising a little as she stared at her familiar, "I wish I'd thought to have you see a veterinarian while we were still at the Academy."

'It would have been preferable,' The cat replied, 'But your care of me in my debilitated state has been more than satisfactory regardless. As you no doubt gathered, you called me directly from a battlefield, and I am grateful both for that, and for being granted the time to recover.'

Silence passed for a few seconds as the girls read what the cycloptic cat had scrawled out in the box of sand.

"You're quite articulate for a cat," Louise eventually said, "Are you a part of some magical bread not native to Halkeginia? The result of some researcher's experiment with enhancement magic?"

'I'm a shapeshifter, actually,' he wrote, 'I've been cursed, trapped in this form, for some time now.'

Surprise worked its way across Louise's face as the oddities her cat had displayed abruptly began to fit together, and a smile worked its way across her face after the surprise.

"A changeling?" She said, a smile in her voice, "I don't suppose you have any other magical abilities?"

The cat raised a paw, extended its claws, and then with a twitch of his tail, they were wreathed in flame.

"Oh my," Siesta said somewhat faintly, "I did not expect that."

((()))

Living amongst the Vallieres was strange. Like most avid readers of science and fantasy fiction, I had some idea of what feudal society ran like, but that didn't really prepare me for experiencing first-hand the magical Duchy of Valliere.

First of all, much as had been suggested by the original source material I had experienced, as well as most fanfics that covered it, the Vallieres were legitimately good stewards of the land in their care, and the peasantry under their authority. It was a deeply engrained element of their familial culture to regard their position as nobles as a duty first, a responsibility before anything else.

Not to say that they did not enjoy the wealth and comforts of their station. If however, one of their subjects were to be punished, for example, Eleanor ordered a cake from the kitchens, and what she received was shoddy workmanship, the responsible cook would be punished not because Eleanor was throwing a tantrum over having her whims denied, but because he failed to adequately fulfill his assigned duties. And the punishment would be in accordance with the offence committed; he would likely be docked half a days wages, rather than beaten or lashed as some petty nobles would.

Some punishments might be considered excessive by people in modern day; the minimum punishment for any theft was ten lashes, but I understood the reasoning behind it. The punishment was not for what was taken, the punishment was for daring to steal in the first place, a breach of trust regardless of what was taken.

The Valliere family treated their peasantry with at least a close approximation of justice, and the non-oppressed peasantry was unsurprisingly far more productive than they would have been under brutal or uncaring taskmasters. The fact that the Valliere family had a storied history related to repelling Germanian adventurism over the border (which their estates spanned almost the entirety of), and a lot of those stories have earned the Vallieres respect from the peasantry, for protecting them.

They also have earned them a fair bit of humor over the rather scandalous affair that started their feud with the Zerbst's, but the household serving staff, at least, are smart enough not to talk about such things around the Vallieres themselves. They didn't have any trouble mentioning around 'Lady Louise's cat' though, particularly given that we'd kept the fact that I'm intelligent from getting around.

The Duke and Duchess understand the value of an unexpected bodyguard for their daughter, unsurprisingly, especially given Colbert's little revelation about me being the Gandalfr, in spite of my lack of hands. I find myself respecting Duchess Karin, but much as when I only knew her as a fictional character, I still do not like her. She's very authoritarian in her attitude, 'you will do as you are told because you were told,' but unlike almost every human that holds such an attitude, she actually holds herself to a higher standard than those under her authority, and her protection.

The Duke... He is a very impressive man. He'd have to be, for Karin to not only marry him, but give him three children; women like that don't tolerate weak men without utterly ruling over them, and she does not rule over him. I can most clearly see the cultural imprint of the Vallieres in him, and it only took three days of observing him around the Valliere estate to recognize two potent elements of his personality, in spite of his strong emotional control.

First, he dearly loves his wife.

Second, it breaks his heart that she never gave him a son.

To most people from the western world in the twentieth century, there's no real comprehension of just how different the culture was for nobility, their heritage, their progeny, the reputation and future of their house aren't quite everything, but they're damn close to it. And the Duke's line is in danger of going extinct. Oh, there are ways around losing the title and the name, most involving convincing a young nobleman of lower rank to take the name when he marries one of the Valliere daughters, and then pass on the name and bloodline through that union.

But even for a family as powerful as the Vallieres, there is no guarantee that such measures will be successful, particularly in passing along the honor, integrity, and sense of duty that the current duke and duchess personify.

Two days after I realize the Duke's heartbreak, I realize how much he loves his daughters.

Eleanor just broke off an engagement because she found the man to be disagreeable.

Marriage is not even suggested to Cattleya, as her illness would likely kill her during labor if she were ever to become pregnant.

And Louise, in spite of her systematic failure with magic, has been allowed to attend the Tristain Academy, rather than being quietly and quickly married off to exactly the sort of nobleman that the Vallieres need, Wardes. It's not just that she's been allowed to continue in her studies, rather than be married, it's that she had been sent to the Tristain Academy at all. She could have been taught at home by private tutors; she's a third daughter, even for a family so influential and wealthy as the Vallieres, it wouldn't be at all unusual for a third daughter to be tutored at home.

Instead, they allowed her to attend, and essentially announce her 'shameful' disability with magic to not just the entirety of Tristain, but the entirety of the continent. All because of love, because of desire to see his daughter succeed, flourish, find happiness, instead of just treating her like a valuable piece in a political game.

I find that my own deeply-entrenched anger and frustration with authoritarians is being eroded in some places. It's hard to resent these people, because for all that the system they believe in isn't a particularly good one, they at least have the integrity to make it work properly. I just wish they could see how rarely that is the case.

Watching the way Siesta has slowly changed in this place tells a story in and of itself, and I think Louise has started to notice. Siesta has dealt with the pettiness far more common to regular nobility, and in time, may have eventually confided in Louise about exactly what that had meant to her, if not for an interruption to the sedate days at the Valliere Estates.

Princess Henrietta came by for a visit, and she didn't come alone.

((()))

Siesta was fighting to hide a grin, even if Louise's vision wasn't clear enough to make it out from across the room quite yet. Louise herself was fretting directly in front of the large mirror her room hosted, trying to ensure that her appearance was 'perfect,' while the cat sat on the bed, occasionally flicking his tail in amusement.

"Milady," Siesta eventually said, most of the amusement stripped from her voice, "While I understand how important it is to look one's best for the Princess, I think you reached the finest you can outside of a full court dress half an hour ago."

Louise sighed, and the nervous energy that had suffused her body drained away, leaving the pinkette looking somewhat drained.

"I suppose you're right, Siesta," Louise said, a hint of melancholy entering her voice, "It's just that seeing the Princess again reminds me of before."

"Before your eyes were injured?" Siesta asked tentatively.

"Before my inability to properly use magic was discovered," Louise said, the hint of melancholy growing into full-on sadness, "Princess Henrietta and I used to be friends, before her father ended my role as royal playmate once my incompetence was discovered."

Siesta's eyes widened, her mouth fell open, and shock resonated through her entire being. Louise glanced back at the maid, just able to make out that her mouth had fallen open with her mostly-recovered eyes, and smiled wryly.

"No," Louise said with a small grin, "I haven't mentioned I was the royal playmate before. Yes, it was for a reason. No, I was not willing to rely upon my connection to her highness to establish myself. The Princess doesn't need someone dragging her down by association, she has enough trouble coming her way as it is."

Siesta didn't know what to say; she already knew that the Vallieres were one of just three families in Tristain that held a Ducal title, but she hadn't realized that their influence extended that far.

Louise breathed deeply, then exhaled, and the calm that she had exhibited since Foquet's attack on the Academy returned.

"Come," She said, turning and starting towards the door, "Let us go meet the Princess then."

((()))

Henrietta was pretty. Beautiful even, though I wouldn't use 'gorgeous.' I'm not sure if that's a fair critique, or the perspective of someone who has been overexposed to photo-shopped and digitally edited actresses as well as over-idealized artwork of the 21st century.

Her dress was modest though, a difference I strongly appreciated in comparison to most modern 'public face' women. I found it to be a little bit gaudy, but then, most noble's wear from earth's equivalent period of history was just as much about flaunting wealth as actually being aesthetically pleasing (if not more so), so that doesn't really surprise me.

Seeing Louise react to her is painful in a way; I've always been good at reading people, but the stat-grind backing my perception up has pushed me to read people much faster. For me, seeing Henrietta is like seeing a cute girl, and an interesting curiosity as to how she relates to power and authority in this day and age. To Louise, seeing Henrietta is in many ways seeing the avatar of her lost childhood, mixed with the subject of effectively-fanatical loyalty.

She's good at hiding the clashing emotions, and the calm she's had since Foquet's attack is still playing a part, here gained security in self helping ground her, but I'm better at reading than she is at hiding. Hopefully, Henrietta will spend some private time with Louise, much as she did in ZnT canon. I hope she isn't after the same thing as she was then though, I'm at too small a fraction of my strength to deal with this setting's top-tier combatants yet.

Then the leader of the Princess' guard steps into view. Wardes.

A slow anger burned in my gut (even if cats have small guts), as I looked upon what for this world and generation, was the very face of betrayal. In my life before leaving my original reality, I had more intimate and semi-intimate relationships end in betrayal than I had relationships left. Betrayal cuts deep, and just the associations Wardes face drew, even if I did not know yet that he was to be a traitor, aggravated my own aching scars.

I would be keeping a very close eye on the Viscount.

((()))

AN: This is two days late, and half the length I intended. Yeah, that's a problem. An online game I'm running is eating not just my time, but my brain-space, and trying to go back and forth between the two has just massively degraded my ability to be productive with either/both. I'll be fixing that, hopefully, starting tomorrow.

By my own figuring/author's creed, I figure I still owe Krahae at least another chapter this long, since it's at best half the length of what she put out.