Disclaimer: I don't know.
Everything and Nothing
Last Stand at Newcastle
Let's keep fighting.
The ship Excelsus was a blockade runner, employed privately by nobles extremely vested in the survival of the Royalists in Albion. Officially, Tristain and the other nations of Mainland Halkeginia had no involvement in what was a civil war, but in reality they looked away from the private interests who sought to send as much relief as they could.
Numerous ships were once employed in this role. As more and more of Albion fell to Reconquista, however, that number dwindled from backers abandoning the Royalists and the aggressive Albionian Air Force, which were quick to shoot down or seize any ship that came close to the warring island. In this late stage of the war, only Excelsus remained of the Blockade Runners.
Not because of any enduring loyalty to the Royalist cause, but because the ship was the fastest in all of Halkeginia, and her crew made a considerable amount of cash for their troubles.
At the first chance he got since the flight began hours ago, Ryan had been brushing up on the conflict from their unique perspective. The Captain, as it turned out, was readily forthcoming with what he knew of the now two year long conflict and his role in it.
"… I'll be honest with you, lad, the war in Albion was lost from the start for the royals," the Captain, a man named Cabot, said to Ryan, as they two overlooked the ship's main deck from its poop deck. The sun was close to the clouds on the horizon at the end of the long day, casting everything in an orange-ish light.
Ryan nodded. "Really?"
"The Royal Family of Albion paid Cromwell little mind when he and his rabble were gaining followers; Ol' King James brushed them off entirely. He and his entire court were deaf to every warning they got until they found out half of Albion's standing army joined the cause and were marching on Londinium."
"Man, how badly was the King running his country?" Ryan asked as he watched the clouds drift by the swiftly sailing ship.
"No worse than Joseph in Gallia, or Henrietta in Tristain. It made the whole thing all the more of a surprise. From the sound of it, Cromwell can turn anyone to his cause with just a few words. A devil of a statesman, they call him."
"Except for the King, apparently."
"Cromwell believes that it is the duty of all living in Halkeginia to reclaim the Holy Land from the elves. The current rulers are complacent and content to just rule over the people, and so they need to go."
Ryan pulled a grimace. In his studying of Halkeginia's history, he learned well enough about the Human/Elf Conflict. The idea of uniting Halkeginia for a big ol' Holy War was about as appetizing to him as the idea of Count Mott spending a night of passion with Siesta.
"What's your opinion of it?" he asked Cabot.
Cabot reached up and stroked his graying beard. "Lad, my home is here on the clouds. You couldn't get me to care about the affairs of kings and countries if Henrietta herself dropped to her knees to service me right here at this very instant."
"I like this guy," Wulf decided.
Ryan chuckled. "Heh, if only I could just fly away from it all."
"It's not so out of your reach, lad. I like the cut of your jib, and there's no shortage of need for strong youth on this ship."
"An attractive offer, but I'm afraid I've got obligations I can't get away from. I'll help however I can for this trip, though."
Cabot laughed. "That'd do lad, but we're not too far out from Albion now. You should go below and let your friends know."
Ryan looked ahead, at the wall of white clouds that had come up on the horizon. The country of Albion, an entire island lifted from the ocean itself and into the sky, its white cliffs appearing made of the clouds it sat within. It was a breathtaking sight, but saddening at the same time. A place so beautiful was in the grips of an ugly war.
"Aye, thanks Captain, I'll go do that," he said as he headed for the ladder that would take him below decks.
The crew of the Excelsus were a mixed bag. Men and women, commoners and ex-nobles alike made up her composition. Cabot ran a tight ship, requiring his crew be good at their tasks over being just bodies to throw onto it, and in return he got a fast vessel and a disciplined crew. The benefits stretched to their passengers, who were granted privacy and left to their own devices in their cabins with no questions asked.
Though Guiche did mildly lament not being able to strike up much conversation with some of the crew.
He insisted he wasn't flirting, by the way.
"Verdandi, our first real test as men lies before us," he said to his familiar, who was quietly munching on a plate of cheap gems.
"We mustn't let our friends down. We must be prepared to fight, kill, and maybe even die for our comrades in arms. Are you prepared to make such sacrifices?" he asked his familiar.
Verdandi looked up, a determined gleam appearing in the giant mole's eyes.
Guiche all but wept tears of pride. "You… you are truly an inspiration…!"
He pounced upon his familiar, hugging him. "Ah, why was I blessed with all the finest things in life? Good friends, gentle loves, and the truest companion a man could ask for!"
Verdandi affectionately draped a claw over Guiche in return, but did not stop eating.
Ryan tapped on the door. "Hey, Guiche, we're in sight of Albion if you want to go above deck to check it out."
Guiche immediately stood up and headed over to the door to open it. "We're arriving so soon? This ship is truly a wonder!"
He did chance a look out the porthole of his modest quarters, however. "We're still very low to the water, however. Shouldn't we be climbing to make an approach?"
Ryan shook his head. "This is a blockade runner, so we're staying low until we get to where we need to be."
Guiche nodded. "Ah, so there is a trick to this. I was wondering how we would get to Newcastle if the port was in the rebels' hands…"
Ryan already knew it. According to Cabot, the ship would be traveling underneath Albion to get to a hidden port directly beneath the palace at Newcastle. It was literally Wales' lifeline to Halkeginia, and entire crews of blockade runners had died to ensure that the rebels could not cut it off by this point.
Guiche beckoned to Verdandi to follow and headed for the ladder to the main deck. "Thank you, Ingram."
"I'm going to get the girls and we'll join you up there," Ryan said before he headed on to the door adjacent to Guiche's.
Beyond this door, Tabitha was resting her head on Kirche's lap, while Kirche was doing her own studying. They'd been quietly like this for the past few hours, only speaking when Kirche needed to ask her friend a question regarding their school work.
Every so often, however, Kirche would stop what she was doing and begin to gently scratch Tabitha just behind her ear–much like one would a cat. Whenever she'd do this, Tabitha would melt and nuzzle her lap. It was a terribly adorable sight for Kirche.
As distracting as it was, Tabitha certainly liked it, but were it anyone other than Kirche or Ryan doing it she would be killing them.
Ryan knocked on the door, just as Kirche had begun another scratching session. "Hey, Kirche, Tabby, we're almost there."
Tabitha would've stared through the door at Ryan, but Kirche didn't stop scratching.
"Thank you, my love," Kirche called sweetly, "We'll be up in a moment."
Ryan flushed a little bit at Kirche's endearment. "Okay."
He left the door, a little surprised at Kirche's efforts and how well they'd ended up paying off. To think he didn't like her before.
Going around the corner of the narrow hallway, he went to the last door on his itinerary, the cabin he shared with Louise. Not long after she arrived, she headed to the cabin reserved for the two of them, wanting to not be bothered until they arrived at Albion.
He knocked on the door. "Louise, I'm coming in."
He opened the door and stopped when he found Louise sitting on the small cot that the room provided, looking out the window at the clouds passing by the flying ship. She seemed preoccupied, her thoughts working heavily on something… towards something…
"We're in sight of Albion, want to come see it before it gets dark?"
Louise wasn't particularly interested, as she turned and looked at him. "Ryan."
"I never want to see that man again," she said of Wardes.
She looked back out the window. "I don't want to be engaged to anyone who would do such things."
Ryan nodded. "Good."
She didn't look back at Ryan, as she continued. "You're right about what he had done. I was so preoccupied with my attraction to him that I never even realized that he was being so nice. When he proposed to me, it didn't even seem strange… I was worried more about how many of his children I wanted to have."
He stopped her rambling. "Louise."
"There's nothing wrong with being in love, only the people who would abuse that love. Be mad at him, not at yourself."
She looked at her rune, finding that agreeable, before turning back to face him. "Is that what you believe?"
Ryan nodded with confidence. "Absolutely."
Louise nodded slowly, and then Ryan could sense something. She had used some Aether just now, coursing it through her and getting a noticeable reaction out of it… she was using it to steady herself.
"I'm curious, why would your lover in your world not mind your relationship with Siesta?"
"Oh," Ryan chuckled, a bit relieved it was something like that, "Well… her people have a different idea of fidelity."
Louise raised an eyebrow. "Is that so?"
"Yes, she would want to be with Siesta too."
Upon hearing that, Louise's face went blank. "W-wha…?"
He chuckled again. "In fact, when they meet, she most likely will."
"Are you serious?!" Louise yelped, aghast at the idea of such deviance.
Ryan folded his arms across his chest. "Very much so, Barbariccia enjoys the companionship of women as much as she does men. Well… considerably more than the average Cave Troll normally does."
Louise stared at him for a moment. She knew in her world what trolls were. They were largely mindless, savage killing machines that basically ate anything smaller than them that they could get ahold of. They were easy to tame though with the right motivation…
Which painted a terrifying picture in Louise's head for how Ryan would motivate such a beast.
"Your… girlfriend… is a… Cave Troll?"
Ryan, seeing her confusion (and growing horror at the implications), produced that black device she'd seen him copying notes from. After swiping his finger across it several times, he turned the device's face to Louise so she could see it.
On the screen, to Louise's surprise, was a woman standing back against a tree, wearing a modest gray turtleneck sweater and a long black skirt that reached to her ankles. She was almost a perfect likeness of Kirche, complete with voluminous hair, an impressive bust, and bangs that concealed one eye. This woman, however, had jet black hair, and the eye Louise could see was forest green in color. She also had large elf-like ears that stuck out through her hair, and a tufted tail, like a lion's.
"This is her."
Louise stared blankly at the image, and then looked up at Ryan. "She looks like Zerbst."
"Yeah, that kind of threw me for a loop too when I first saw her."
It made all that earlier bitchiness sting all the more, too.
Louise suddenly found herself preferring that this Barbariccia looked more like the trolls she was familiar with. It'd be an improvement over looking like a Zerbst!
"Her people are matriarchal, the head of a family usually includes female friends or close relatives in addition to make a really big extended family. The other women in the group usually have husbands of their own and stuff, making it almost like a lion pride… but Barbariccia is a little different by their standards."
Ryan chuckled. "She wants all the women she brings into her group for herself."
Louise put it together. "Ah… she pursues women as well as men?"
Louise cocked her head slightly. "That isn't strange in your world?"
Ryan found her puzzlement, like everything else, cute. "It really depends on where you live, where I'm from. Where she's from, it's not strange at all."
Louise nodded again. "No wonder you're so casual about sex."
"Revolutionary thinking, isn't it?" he asked.
"For this world, at least."
Ryan smiled to Louise. "So, why so curious about Barb?"
Louise's cheeks flushed slightly, before she walked past Ryan, out the door. "My engagement to the high and mighty Viscount is over."
As she disappeared out the door, Ryan watched her go with something of a surprised expression. It took him a moment, before recollection dawned upon him.
On the deck of Excelsus, Ryan was the last one up top, joining the rest of the party as they watched the sun begin to disappear behind the looming island of Albion. In the shadow of the island and its dense clouds, the ship entered twilight and began to slow its approach.
"It's a shame that this has to be my first trip to Albion," Kirche said.
"I know, right?" Ryan asked.
Guiche shook his head. "It's even worse if you have been here before this war broke out. I used to enjoy visiting with my family during vacations from school. To know that beloved Albion is now in its death throes is heartbreaking."
Tabitha said nothing to that, her eyes were more focused on the clouds ahead. She noticed something in them, a glittering orange light shining from the mists that she pointed to.
"A light," she said just loud enough for the others nearby her to hear.
Cabot, who didn't hear her, followed to where she was pointing. "Ah, there she is. That's the Eagle, the last ship of the loyalists and under the command of His Highness himself. She'll be guiding us to Newcastle's secret harbor."
It wasn't long before the ship, a similar orange lantern now lit and hanging from her bow, entered the thick mist and came alongside a much larger vessel. The Eagle was a forty-gun, two-masted frigate, a ship meant for overtaking small fast ships like Excelsus–though Cabot had outrun ships of this type before.
"Ahoy, Eagle! We of Excelsus thank you for coming out to meet us, time and again!" Cabot shouted as some of his crew exchanged waves and pleasantries to the other ship.
Coming to the railing of his vessel, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed young man a few years older than Ryan wearing a blue officer's uniform held up his hand and waved back to the ship. Almost immediately, Louise, Guiche, and Tabitha recognized the face of Albion's Crown Prince, Wales Tudor.
"Ah, what a handsome man," Kirche observed, "Is that the Prince?"
Louise shot her a look. "Like it would matter for you to know, Zerbst."
"Be nicer to Kirche," Ryan admonished. Louise huffed.
"Ahoy, Excelsus, the Royal Family of Albion extends its own gratitude for taking this arduous journey!" the young Prince replied.
Cabot laughed. "Not wearing that ridiculous pirate getup, I see?!"
Wales returned the laugh. "No need, we're only coming out to greet some friends, after all."
He noticed the guests upon the deck. "And who would your guests be, Cabot?"
"A delegation from Tristain," Cabot replied, "They seek audience with you."
Louise stepped forward. "Yes, I am Louise Françoise Le Blanc de La Vallière, here on behalf of Her Highness Princess Henrietta de Tristain."
Wales expression shifted, falling from cheerful to somber quickly. "I see."
Just as fast, he smiled again. "I already have an idea of what you've come here for, Ambassador from Tristain. As soon as we are in Newcastle, we will cut directly to the chase, shall we?"
He looked to Cabot. "Try not to wreck on your way up!"
Cabot laughed. "I'd ask the same of you, your Highness! We have to follow behind you!"
As the two captains began issuing orders, and their ships advanced further into the mists, Ryan rested a hand upon the hilt of his sword.
"Looks like he's been dreading this moment for a long time," he said to Wulf.
The sails being drawn, and magic coursing across their hulls, both ships traveled in the near pitch darkness beneath the country, surrounded on all sides by impenetrable clouds. Only the lanterns hung from the Eagle provided guidance to the otherwise blind crew of Excelsus.
Guiche closed his cloak around him, shivering. "It's so cold down here."
He looked over to Kirche, who didn't mind the cold, then to Tabitha, who ignored it entirely, and finally to Ryan and Louise, who were emanating the background magical radiation of the Universe. Of course they wouldn't be bothered by it at all…
His gaze went upward, as the others did, the ships were approaching a massive hole, almost 300 meters across. The Eagle had already ascended up into it. Excelsus, with a crew long adapted to the maneuver, followed close behind, before moving to the side.
Ryan looked across the well lit shaft, finding it growing much warmer now that they were out of the dense clouds below. He looked over to Louise, whose expression was different now. Something about her had definitely changed, to him there was a feeling that she'd grown, there was a determination that wasn't there before.
The hole gave way to a large limestone cave, lit with torches and bearing a fully equipped (if small) harbor facility for airships. Upon seeing the Eagle the soldiers and workers manning the harbor broke into cheers and quickly rushed to secure the two vessels for offloading supplies.
"Well, you lot are free to disembark," Cabot said, "Eagle will lead us out come the morning."
Ryan looked to Kirche, who flashed Cabot a smile and a word of gratitude. He himself, shared the sentiment.
"Thanks, Captain," he said before following Louise down the roped-off gangplank off the ship and onto the limestone pier that stretched out to receive them.
The party soon reached Prince Wales, who was meeting with a tall old man wearing robes and a cloak, the young prince was describing to the old man the cargo Excelsus.
"There isn't as much sulfur as we hoped for." the old man asked Wales.
Wales agreed. "No it is not, but I'm certain we can acquire more by raiding ships heading to Scarborough, we'll get what we need for our final stand."
Ryan caught that, and hummed to himself.
Wales then turned to the approaching entourage, and smiled. "Ah, Paris, we have special guests. A delegation from Tristain, led by Miss Louise Françoise Le Blanc de La Vallière"
Louise stepped to the front of the group and bowed. "It is an honor."
Paris turned his attention to the indicated students, and his eyes twinkled a bit as he smiled warmly to them. "Ah, greetings ambassador. Thank you for coming all this way to Albion, despite the risk. I am Paris Chamberlain, advisor to what is left of the Royal family."
He looked among the group. "Quite a youthful delegation, I see."
"Young, but capable," Guiche declared, "Guiche de Gramont, at your service."
"Kirche Augusta Frederica von Anhalt-Zerbst," Kirche introduced herself, before gesturing to Tabitha, "Tabitha The Snowstorm."
Louise then held a hand out towards Ryan. "And this is my Familiar, Ryan Ingram."
Ryan bowed. "It's a honor."
"A human familiar!" Paris said, "I've never seen such a thing, remarkable!"
"They are a rare thing, I've been told," Louise replied with a slight edge to her voice.
"Well, it is my sincerest pleasure to have you here. We may not have much, due to the circumstances, but we will make your stay comfortable," Paris said, "Ah, I know! We shall have a feast."
He looked to Wales. "If you find that permissible, your Highness."
"A feast on such short notice?" Wales asked before he let out a chuckle, "That's fine! Let's pull out all the stops for our friends from the mainland!"
He turned to the men working on the harbor. "Spread the word! On these, our last days, we shall have a grand celebration!"
Wales' declaration was met with a great deal of cheering from the Albion soldiers on the dock… and a well-hidden grimace from Ryan. As the men cheered, the Prince walked up to Louise and bowed slightly to her.
"Before we continue on with the purpose of your mission… there is something that I need to see…"
Ryan looked at Louise, as she nodded and reached inside of her shirt to produce a chain that looped through a ring.
Wales held out his own hand, revealing a ring on his finger. Upon coming close together, both rings illuminated and shone in a gentle white light.
Upon seeing it, that brief solemness appeared upon Wales' face once more. "… So it is the case. Please, come with me alone?"
Louise glanced to Ryan, then back to Wales. "May I bring my familiar?"
Wales nodded. "Of course. Come along."
Leaving Kirche, Tabitha, and Guiche with Paris, Prince Wales brought Louise and Ryan straight to his chambers. Situated next to the kitchen, it had a simple wooden bed, two chairs, a table, and a desk. They were rather modest for a royal, Louise's accommodations back a the school were nicer than this, but they certainly seemed as comfortable.
Wales sat down and opened his desk drawer, removing from it a simple locked box that he unlocked with a key from his necklace. He then rested his hand atop it, before turning to Louise.
"Before we continue, could you hand me her letter?" he asked.
Louise nodded and handed him Henrietta's letter. "Of course."
Wales took the latter and, upon seeing the signature of the Princess, pressed his lips against it. He then opened and read it, his expression warm at first, before growing more serious, and then somber once again. The sadness didn't immediately evaporate behind a smile like it had before.
"Henrietta is really getting married," he said.
Louise nodded. "Yes."
Wales returned his attention to the lock box, and opened it. Inside was a small portrait of the Princess, accompanied with an old and worn letter that he produced and handed to Louise. He held the other letter in his free hand, angled in such a way that its writing escaped both Louise and Ryan's sight.
"Here you are, take good care of it on your way back to Tristain. You'll depart with the Excelsus first thing," he said.
Louise took the old letter, then gave him an imploring look. His sadness upon reading the letter, and his increasingly faltering attempts to conceal it were bothering her. "Your Highness if it is not out of my place to ask, what did the Princess's letter say?"
She looked at the one she received from him.
"It's a love letter," Ryan suddenly said.
Louise snapped around to look at him, having almost forgotten he was in the room, he'd been so quiet to this point!
He was gesturing to the letter handed to Louise. "This one as well, right?"
"A love…?" Louise began to repeat, before her eyes grew large with realization. "Oh!"
Wales was a bit taken aback by Ryan's sudden outburst, but showed no exception to it. Instead he wore a relieved smile, as though he were happy to share a tightly guarded secret. "Yes, Henrietta and I do love one another deeply. In the letter that you hold, Louise, she proclaimed her eternal love for me in the name of the Founder."
"I love being right," Wulf declared.
"Shut up," Ryan replied to Wulf before he addressed the two. "There's something to that, isn't there?"
Louise answered. "Love sworn in the name of the Founder in a letter of the Princess is as good as a legal declaration of marriage. If this gets to Germania… then the Princess would be accused of bigamy."
"Precisely," Wales said.
Ryan frowned slightly, and then asked Wulf, "Are letters like this that powerful?"
"Oh yeah, there's a reason why royalty delegates and dictates. Personal items like that can have dire consequences, such as we see here."
Louise was stunned, but just as quickly flew into a fervor. "Then what are you doing here?!"
Her shout gave the prince a touch of surprise. "Ah!"
"You need to flee to Tristain at once! Come with us when we leave in the morning!" Louise pleaded.
Wales shook his head. "It cannot be done. I must stay here with my men, to the last."
Ryan let out a near inaudible hum.
"The Princess–Henrietta wouldn't want you to do that! She would want you there in Tristain, too!" Louise argued, before she pointed to the letter, "I'm sure she told you as much!"
Wales let out a small chuckle, and then sighed wistfully. "Nothing like that has been written."
The very idea offended Louise. "With all due respect, your Highness, but you're lying! I've known Henrietta since we were small children! I know how strong her feelings can be… she would never abandon the people she loves!"
Louise stopped at that moment, as a realization dawned upon her. "She would… she would do everything in her power she could…"
Wales was shaken, but his composure held for a few moments longer. "I swear it upon my honor, Miss Vallière, there is no mention of Henrietta asking for me to run away."
He tightened his grip on the letter, as the sadness flowed in fast, difficult to check now. "Henrietta must put her country before herself. A good ruler, a strong ruler, puts aside their own needs for the more important needs of others. Her marriage to the Emperor of Germania is ultimately what's best for her people, and if I were there… it would make that all the harder for her and her people."
Louise saw the expression on Wales face, and his struggle to rein in his own tumultuous emotions. "But if you stay here, you will die."
He nodded, and gradually shored his emotions back up. "Yes, I will. The very best that I can do here, is die so the nobility of Halkeginia will be inspired to take up arms against the threat that Reconquista represents… the war that they want to bring to the world."
Louise stared pointedly at Wales, then down at the letter he held in his hand. Then she reached up and wiped away the tears that threatened her eyes.
"I understand," she said solemnly.
Wales rested a hand on her shoulder, and showed her bright smile. "If it's any consolation, your words moved me. In this world of intrigue and politics, you're a girl too honest to be an ambassador."
Ryan had returned to silence, his hands slipping into the pockets of his hooded sweater, as Louise thanked Wales quietly.
"Well, with this business sorted out, I believe there's a feast that is to be held, isn't there?" Wales asked, before lifted his nose to the air. "I can already smell it."
Louise nodded. "Yes, your Highness."
She turned and gestured for Ryan to follow her. Without a word, he obeyed her command and they walked towards the door.
"He's lying," Ryan suddenly heard in his head.
He looked down in muted surprise at Louise, who looked up at him for only a moment, before looking ahead down the hallway towards where their feast would be held.
Ever the sociable person, Kirche loved a good feast for the company as much as the food. The feast that drew the defenders of Newcastle to the great hall of the castle, however, was probably going to be one she would prefer to forget. While the music and laughter flowed like the wine, and everyone was in extraordinary spirits, there was no mistaking why everyone was so carefree. In a few days, they would all be fighting to the death against a much larger army with no hope of relief or reinforcements from anyone.
Beside her, Tabitha was wishing to be anywhere but a large party where food and drink was passed around without care or concern. As such, she withdrew behind a book, but kept a close eye on Kirche whenever anyone came near looking to offer her a drink.
Kirche, at least, was tactful enough to not take any drinks offered to her. "No thank you," she said to a handsome young soldier who carried two goblets of wine and offered one to her. "I'm not much of a drinker, I'm afraid. And neither is my friend."
Intercepted from offering Tabitha a drink, the young soldier shrugged his shoulders. "Very well, but do try to enjoy yourselves! Not everyone gets to celebrate at their own funeral, after all!"
As the soldier strolled off, Kirche hummed. "One could say they certainly do."
On the other side of the table, Guiche was no better than Kirche in finding this party a total downer. "I cannot believe that so few men are fighting on the side of the King and his son. How could this have happened?"
He looked over to Paris, who was accompanying them. "Lord Paris, how could Reconquista bring all of Albion together against its beloved King?"
Paris' smile vanished, and a dark look appeared on his face. "Ah, Reconquista… its Lord and Leader, Oliver Cromwell, is truly a man of diabolical magic. By his hand, he performed miracles unlike any the world has seen–magic so powerful, that it can bring even the dead to life."
He shook his head bitterly. "Against the promise of bringing back lost family and friends, what could our beloved King muster?"
Guiche, Kirche, and even Tabitha stared at Paris in disbelief.
"Resurrection?" Guiche asked. "True life from the dead?!"
"That's impossible," Kirche said, "When you are dead that's it! No magic in the world can bring you back!"
Paris shook his head. "Many in Cromwell's army are men who died in early battles. His promise of revival after the first battle alone turned over half of Albion's standing army. The miracles he performed, curing the sick and raising the dead, turned the public as well. Only the nobles and vassals who stand here refuse to be bought by Cromwell's tricks… they are truly more than our King and Prince could ever ask for."
Kirche looked aside at Tabitha, then back to Paris. "How is that even possible?"
"Cromwell's magic is hard to describe, you would have to see it for yourself," the old man answered.
The idea of the dead being brought back to life made Kirche's skin crawl. She had heard plenty of stories, both fact and fiction, about attempts to resurrect the dead through magic. Almost every account told of dire consequences for such magic.
"The Prince is here!" a noble called out, and the room rose in cheers as Wales returned, followed by Louise and Ryan.
"Now, now, I'm only a little late to the party!" Wales replied, flashing a smile that brought laughter from the men in the room, and swoons from the women present.
Louise and Ryan sat down with Guiche and Paris, as Wales went to the throne where the elderly King James I of Albion sat quietly, overseeing the party. Guiche, Kirche, and Tabitha all immediately noticed how troubled both of them appeared.
With his son at his side, the old king, his hair and beard a stark white, managed to rise from his seat. No sooner did he leave it, did his body sag under its age and weariness, prompting Wales to move close and support him.
Wales leaned close, and whispered something to his father. Whatever was said, it brought a sad nod to the King, and he gripped his son's shoulder a bit tighter in consolation.
The King then stood a little more upright, an unspoken signal that he was to speak. Instantly, the old man had the silent attention of the audience.
"I wish to begin by offering my sincerest thanks to you, my brave and loyal vassals. In this, our darkest hour, you have shown the true heart and spirit of the White Country. You stood beside one another and didn't falter even as the odds grew intolerably grim. As our country was stolen away from us, you pledged loyalty to your King even when it meant certain death, and for this I am grateful."
Immediately, the loyal men began to call out.
"Long live the King of Albion!"
"We serve you and only you, not some charlatan!"
"Glory to the Tudors!"
Ryan looked over to Louise. "You said he was lying?"
"He is. Henrietta's letter begged for him to come to Tristain, and that she would keep him safe,"
"That would make her marrying Germania's emperor all flavors of awkward."
Wulf took that time to speak up. "Oh lovely, that would mean that she's still as much of a lovestruck teenaged idiot as he is."
Louise recoiled. "Who was that?!"
"Oh dear, we haven't formally met, have we? Wulf Mauser, I'm the spirit that resides in his sword."
"Yeah, now that you can communicate via our connection, you're gonna get him in on the calls, too,"
Ryan warned her.
"Introductions aside, this is quite the dilemma, don't you suppose? Wales wants to die, Henrietta wants him to live, but in the political scheme of things it would be best for Tristain to have the alliance of a large country like Germania over keeping the last of the Tudors alive to satisfy the romance between two cousins."
Louise didn't like Wulf's tone. "We can't just let them die!"
"Country before the King,"
Wulf retorted, "The moment you go the other way, you get all sorts of unpleasantness."
"What do you know about being a King?"
Ryan rolled his eyes. "Can we not?"
The cheering died down, giving King James the opportunity to continue speaking. "In three days," he began, "The Army of Reconquista will gather here at Newcastle with all of its might. 50,000 men poised and ready to take this castle and its 300 defenders. The battle that awaits us will be an unmitigable slaughter, it is certain that we will be killed to the very last man. Our neighbors on the continent, Tristain, Gallia, and Germania, are for now non-aligned towards our troubles… thus we can expect no relief from them."
He looked around. "They have, however, opened their doors to any of you who wish to seek refuge. Before our last day comes, Eagle and Excelsus will take those of you who wish to flee with the women and children to safe haven. There is no dishonour in fleeing, I would rather see you all alive and safe."
"What was that, your majesty?" a noble spoke up. "I'm afraid that I couldn't quite make that out!"
"I believe he said there's no shame in running away," another noble replied.
The first laughed. "That doesn't sound like the King I know. I'm fairly sure he said otherwise."
A noble called out. "What would be the point of running away now? To watch Albion fall to tyranny of a zealot?!"
"Never, I say!" called another. "I would rather die here, then flee to watch her come apart!"
"Fight to the last, as all men should in these dark times!"
"Hear, hear!" others agreed.
As more of James' vassals spoke up, shouted for death over the dishonor of retreating or surrender, Ryan grew extremely uncomfortable. When the crowd grew into cheers, the party from Tristain watched Ryan's expression darken.
"Ryan, are you okay?" Kirche asked.
"Not really, no," he replied. "There's no point in dying here."
Paris, hearing that, shook his head. "As dreadful as it sounds… in this situation, at this point in time, an honorable death is preferable to surrender."
Guiche argued against that. "But if you die here, won't Cromwell just revive you and have you serve him anyway?"
Hearing that, Ryan's eyes flew wide and he whipped his gaze to Guiche. "He can…!"
He then looked to Paris, who would know more. "He can do that?!"
Kirche, Tabitha, and Louise all regarded Ryan's transformation with momentary disbelief. All of a sudden, the usually well-collected young man was visibly shaken. The mere mention of resurrection magic had definitely triggered a strong reaction.
Paris was taken off guard by his outburst as well. "Oh! You did not hear it from His Highness the Prince? Cromwell's miracle, the ability to raise the dead back to life, is why so many have flocked to him."
"There's no such magic!" Louise exclaimed.
"Apparently there is," Kirche said, though she was still surprised by Ryan's agitation.
"It has to be a trick of some kind!" Ryan said vehemently to Wulf. "Raising the dead is completely impossible!"
"In our worlds, yes,"
Wulf noted. "But regardless of that… Guiche's point is far more urgent. Any of the people dying here in the next battle, including the Prince and the King, could be raised again by Cromwell and used against the rest of Halkeginia."
Ryan tensed, dark thoughts crossing his mind at the very idea that someone would be that evil. The people here, ready to throw away their lives for some honorable death would be getting anything but that once Reconquista was through with them.
Ryan turned to Louise with a dire, meaningful look. "There is no way we can let this happen."
Louise agreed. "Something must be done."
As the men of King James cheered and chanted "Long Live the King" and "Long Live Albion" to a fervent pitch, Ryan stood up, and then stepped up onto the table, rising above everyone else in the room.
The cheering quickly died down, as Ryan stared at King James and Wales.
"Your Majesty, Your Highness," he began, "With all due respect, I cannot abide by it."
Wales gave him a questioning look. "Abide by what?"
"Martyring yourselves against the enemy will achieve nothing," Ryan declared. "Not against an enemy like Cromwell–if what is said about him and his magic is true."
The vassals of the Tudors all began looking at Ryan as well, as he continued speaking.
"The reason you're all here is because you're not taken in by his magic tricks, are you not? Then why are you all content to die here, so he can raise you back to life and use you as he deems fit?! All of you!" He then pointed at Wales. "Including you, your Highness. I can think of many ways he could make use of your body when you're gone, and they all involve dealing with Tristain and its Princess!"
Wales visibly recoiled, but subdued it in the same instant, before he began to glower at Ryan.
The atmosphere of the room changed from that moment, as the excitement and energy that was present just moments drained to reveal the turmoil and desperation that faced the defenders of Newcastle. The fear of death at the hands of the rebellion, and what came after, was now heavy in the air.
"Dying here is probably the worst thing any of you can do. You have three days, why are you going to spend them here preparing to die for nothing when you can leave?" Ryan asked. "The mainland is willing to take you all in, and from there you can gather the strength you need to retake Albion from Reconquista."
A vassal then called out. "If we just run away without doing anything, then nothing will stop Cromwell from coming straight to invade anyway!"
"Yes! We may die here, but we'll tear out a chunk of his army falling here, more than Cromwell can ever hope to revive!" another called.
Ryan looked to those two men, before looking back to Wales, who had regained his composure.
"That is correct. Even with the risks involved, dying here and taking as many of them with us is better than the alternative of giving up Newcastle and leaving them a fresh and healthy army," Wales said. "As I told you before, we must show the rest of the continent that arms must be taken up to fight this enemy."
Ryan met Wales' scrutiny with his own determined gaze. "If you need their army crippled, then I can do it."
From the back of his mind, Wulf hummed when he sensed the idea that formed in his head. "… You know, if you do this there's no going back, we will be well and truly invested in this world's affairs."
Ryan brought a hand to his chest, and there was a sudden rumble from the sound of the entire castle shaking. Awareness of the trembling didn't even register, because everyone in the great hall, mage and commoner alike, could feel a tremendous presence radiating from the young man standing on the table.
"I will do it," he finished.
Louise let out a gasp, her eyes growing wide, when she realized at that moment not only how much Aether Ryan was generating, but its nature. It wasn't what he normally generated, it was heavy, like an iron fist closing around all of her senses… and so dark that the lights seemed to dim.
"My word," Paris said, before looking to Louise. "Your familiar…"
Wales, initially shocked and disturbed, stepped forward as Ryan walked forth and stepped off the table to the floor. The darkness that emanated from him began to fade, as he placed one hand on across his chest and knelt before the Prince.
Bowing his head to Wales for a moment, he looked up and spoke. "I pledge that as Newcastle is evacuated, I will push back and humiliate the army of Cromwell, and give Halkeginia all the inspiration it needs to stand against Reconquista."
Wales stared down at Ryan, and looked around the room at his silent vassals and their families. They were all watching the young man who just pledged himself to Albion in a mixture of disbelief, confusion, and in some hope–something that had all but vanished not too long ago. He then looked back down again at Ryan.
"You… you are absolutely certain that you can do what you claim? That you can buy us time to flee?"
"I sure can," Ryan promised.
"'I sure can'," Louise repeated, "'You sure can'?!"
The two were being led upstairs by Paris along with the rest of the delegation from Tristain. Guiche was up ahead with Paris, occasionally glancing back towards the two as Louise dressed Ryan down. Tabitha and Kirche were bringing up the rear, the latter of the two amused at Louise's raving.
Well, Tabitha was amused too, but she never showed it.
"You just volunteered to fight an entire army! By yourself!"
"I know, I was there," Ryan replied.
"I'm not doubting your power, but you did have issue with Fouquet, did you not?" Guiche asked.
Ryan nodded. "I did, but I won't make that mistake again. It's just me buying time for everyone to leave."
"It's still fighting an entire army!" Louise hissed.
"I won't be fighting every single soldier, will I?" Ryan asked as they reached the top of the steps to where their rooms awaited them in the well-fortified castle. "I'm just going to go out and harass them. A big army moving like that won't expect hit and run attacks from me."
"Can you really do such a thing, however?" Paris asked.
Guiche spoke up. "I can safely testify upon Ingram's behalf. His speed is nothing short of miraculous, as is his master's."
Kirche agreed. "He's rather good, he's defeated numerous mages quite handily."
Louise looked back at Kirche, glowering mildly at her tone.
Tabitha then spoke. "He can do it."
Louise looked from Kirche to Ryan, giving him the same subdued glare.
Paris nodded. "Well, this sounds utterly fantastic. However, His Highness appears to believe that you can pull this miracle as well. If he believes in you, then I will."
Turning around, the old man gestured to a number of rooms. "These rooms are yours for until the battle, take whichever you like."
"Thank you," Guiche said graciously before turning to the others and bidding them a good night.
Kirche, noting Louise's dark look towards Ryan, guided Tabitha by the small of her back to another room. "Thank you for the hospitality! Good night Lord Paris, goodnight Ryan, goodnight Vallière~! "
"Sleep well, Zerbst," Louise said back as she followed Ryan to the room he picked after bidding goodnight to Paris as well.
Kirche was about to close the door, when she realized something off just then.
Soon as the door closed behind Louise, she marched right up to Ryan. Her expression went from mild glaring to exasperation and rage.
"Are you insane, or just being stupid because you think you can?!" she shouted at him.
Ryan recoiled a bit. "Louise, I'm doing this because these people are going to die pointlessly-"
"I know that! I also know that you don't want to kill anyone!" Louise yelled at him.
Ryan's face fell, before he took a deep breath and sighed. "If I do my job right, then I won't have to kill anyone."
Louise shook her head. "It's fifty-thousand men, you idiot! It's not just normal foot soldiers, either! Albion's army has mages and musketeers and they use trolls!"
"And I'll be moving too fast for any of that to matter," Ryan replied.
Louise was not so easily swayed. "But you'll still be pouring Aether out! What if you end up like you did against Fouquet?!"
"That buildup was after days of using the Aether, and you remember all the things I did with it, right? It's not like I'll overload after one…" Ryan trailed off when he realized that she wasn't glaring at him anymore. Her expression was one of worry.
He smiled. "Are you worried I might get hurt?"
Louise didn't mince. "I'm worried you might die, idiot!"
He wore a strange look, like he was remembering something that was sad and funny, before he pulled her into a tight hug. The sudden embrace surprised Louise, and she looked up at him while he squeezed her tight against him and rubbed her back.
"Well have some faith in me," he reassured her. "I'll be fine; we'll get everyone out of here and to Tristain safe and sound."
He moved his hand from her back and rubbed the top of her head, as she just rested against him, quietly staring up at his face. She then buried her face in his chest, and Ryan could feel their connection strengthen as Aether radiated from the tiny witch. In response, he poured it back across their connection, a comforting warmth cycling through both of them as they stood in the lavishly furnished stateroom. He kept stroking her hair, before Louise began hugging him tightly back.
"I want to, but you're a reckless idiot," she said into his chest. "You're honest, at least."
"Well, I can't hide anything from you," he said quietly back.
Louise nodded, before she looked up at him again. This time her look was a little more pointed. "You really can't. I know you did something with Kirche last night."
Ryan didn't bother to lie. "Actually, I slept with Tabitha first… Kirche joined in after. Tabitha didn't want to leave her out."
Louise huffed. "It figures… Tabitha has been practically drooling over you whenever you do anything."
Ryan paused. "You noticed that?"
"Why wouldn't I? Tabitha doesn't do anything or pay attention to anyone… at least until you started doing things." Louise had nothing against Tabitha, even if she was Zerbst's best friend.
She turned her head, resting her ear against his chest. She sighed. "I'm not angry at you."
"Are you angry at Kirche? Tell the truth."
"I'm annoyed," Louise revealed. "But I'm not mad… I know why you'd do it."
After all Ryan saw in Kirche his lover back home… and probably liked her for the nice things Kirche had done for him… and for her… damn it, she was supposed to hate Zerbst.
Ryan began to stroke Louise's hair, and the young lady heaved a sigh from the gentle contact. Hearing it, he spoke softly. "You don't have to hate her, if you don't want to. Given everything we've been through, it's kind of petty right now, don't you think?"
Louise grumbled. "It is."
Ryan chuckled. "You really don't need to fight and bicker towards each other anymore, do you? She's changed as a person, and so have you."
At that encouragement, Louise lowered her head and nodded slowly. Then, to Ryan's surprise, she began to generate a considerable amount of Aether, as much as she had the night before, when she was alone with the Viscount.
"Louise…" He said in surprise.
"I have changed," she said softly. "I'm not a Zero anymore."
Ryan would argue that she never was, but he understood that she needed to say this, to tell herself more than tell anyone else.
"I… I can use powerful magic. I can protect someone with it, even defeat other mages. I've become so powerful that even the Princess can trust me with making sure the person she loves is safe." She closed her eyes. "It's everything that I've wanted to be, more than anything else. Someone who can carry a burden, and not be one."
She looked up at him again. "All I had to do was become a perverted commoner's familiar to do it."
There was no malice in her words, in fact with the Aether flowing there was no shortage of warmth in the disparaging remark. Ryan rubbed her head again, and she pressed against his hand. She was too cute, he thought, just made of sugar and happiness when she was like this.
"Perverted… and annoying… and infuriating…" She closed her eyes and nuzzled his palm when it slid from atop her head to her cheek. "… But everything I wanted the Viscount to be."
Ryan couldn't help himself. "So… fun?"
A huff left Louise's flared nostrils, before she began to giggle a bit. "No, a pain in the ass."
"Hey, we haven't gotten that far yet," Ryan said.
She shook her head, in a vain attempt to fight her blush. "Oh Founder, you are the worst pervert."
Despite her words, she pressed herself against him again, to feel as much of his body against hers in their embrace. The energy that shrouded them was so dense that their room felt so much warmer and cozier than it actually was, while the world beyond the four walls felt incredibly far away.
"Ryan," she then said, as she nuzzled his chest again.
Louise took a deep breath, then peeked up at him. "Will you stay with me tonight?"
With his hand still caressing her face, Ryan smiled and obliged her.
Dawn came to Newcastle, the palace of the last holdout of the Royalists was surprisingly still. The ramparts were unmanned, the banners drawn down. The positions outside the castle prepared by the defenders for the approaching army were abandoned as well. It had taken all night, but the defenders of Newcastle agreed to abandon their final bastion for the safety of the mainland. The three hundred men would leave with their families, living hopefully to set foot back upon their dear Albion as its rightful rulers.
The Excelsus and Eagle would carry the defenders directly back to Tristain. With everything nonessential left behind, the ships and their precious cargos would be more than swift enough to escape Cromwell's ships.
Atop the rampart overlooking the land to the west, Wales stood with Ryan, the young Prince's expression contemplative as he watched the morning rays of the sun start to creep across his former kingdom.
Ryan was at his side. He had changed his attire to something more fitting of the locals, gray trousers, a white tunic, and a red cloak. On the back he wore a shield, and on his arms a set of gauntlets–all donated to him by a few of the withdrawing royalists. This was for his protection out there against the approaching Reconquista.
"It will be a long time before I return to my beloved Albion," he lamented to Ryan.
"As long as you have a chance to return to it, then there's hope," Ryan replied, "Don't lose sight of that."
Wales let out a soft chuckle. "I cannot argue with that, though in my heart I dread what comes next. Reconquista will come for the mainland, and they will most assuredly start with Tristain. I fear that my being there will tempt Henrietta to forsake what is right for her country… she'll choose our love over what's necessary for her people."
"She won't," Louise said as she approached the two young men. Guiche, Tabitha, and Kirche were with her, as was Paris. "Her Highness knows what she must do, but she cannot and will not abandon those she loves."
She stood close by Ryan's side. "That's why she sent my familiar and I. It was everything in her power she could do."
Ryan nodded in agreement. "Even if she can't be with you, knowing you're alive and well is what will give her strength for what comes next."
"Your Highness, His Majesty the King has been brought aboard the Eagle. All the preparations have been completed, and we are ready to depart," Paris said.
Wales turned to his advisor. "Thank you, Paris." To the rest of the group he nodded. "And to all of you, as well, you have my humblest of thanks. If there is anything I can do…"
"Live," Tabitha then said.
Kirche agreed. "We don't ask for much more than that… though Knighthood would be nice."
Louise rolled her eyes, before she looked up to Ryan, who had turned towards the wall. "You're heading out?"
"Sooner I get started the better." Ryan looked towards Tabitha. "Can I expect to meet back with you here?"
Tabitha nodded to Ryan.
Ryan smiled and looked back out in the direction Cromwell's army would approach from. "Thanks Tabby."
"With that bit of satisfaction, I take my leave," Ryan said as he lifted his leg up onto the parapet to leap off.
"Ryan," Louise then said, "Before you leave."
Ryan stopped and sighed, and when he turned to her, she had climbed up onto the parapet to come face to face with him. She then cupped his face and kissed him on the lips, much to the surprise of no one in the group–though Kirche seemed a tad annoyed.
Louise pulled away and gave him her sternest look. It failed, she looked too cute. "I order you not to die."
Ryan chuckled. "I promise."
He stepped up onto the parapet as Louise hopped back down, and looked down upon the Albion countryside, as the sun fully spread across it.
"Out there lies Reconquista's army… and Cromwell…" He thought as the Aether began to radiate from his body.
"You've made your decision boyo," Wulf then said, "Now let's see you commit to it."
"I have to… this is our war now. Mine, yours, Tristain's… and if we don't do anything… our world's, too. So let's put this aside before we have to fight it again."
Louise, watching Ryan, gave pause at what she just heard. Before she could say a thing he had dropped off the rampart. His cloak trailing behind him as he plummeted towards the ground. Falling towards the center of the castle's wall, he waited until his feet touched it, before he looked up and ahead… his hazel eyes a dull gold.
"Let's give them a taste of how we do it in the First Ward."
Then in the blink of an eye Ryan was gone, and the sound of thunder rumbled across the palace as the portion of the wall he kicked off buckled inward, and the air shuddered with shockwaves that buffeted against the nobles atop the castle wall.
As the wind died down, Wales looked down at the crater in the face of Newcastle, then out in the direction that Ryan had shot off to, in shock.
"My word," Paris said quietly what his Prince could not.
Thunder rumbled far across the Albion countryside, despite the weather being clear save for a few clouds. Many miles away from Newcastle, the vanguard of the Army of Reconquista, a force totalling fifty thousand men bearing the banners of their Lord and Emperor Oliver Cromwell, marched.
They had mustered before dawn, and had since been marching in a broad front towards their objective. Overhead, low-flying airships acted as spotters and artillery that was already being primed for the battle to come. At their flanks, cavalry mounted upon both horses and magical beasts kept just ahead of the main force, and at their center heavily chained trolls hauled siege engines and cannons alike under the command of powerful mages.
This was an army powerful enough to conquer the world as it was, but it was made stronger by the fanatical loyalty to Cromwell, who took away the soldiers' fear of death with the promise of life after death on this battlefield. 50,000 men, unafraid to die and armed with the finest weapons in the world, stood ready to take undisputed control of their country. And as a violent thunder crack echoed across the broad plain between them and Newcastle, it found itself faced with a solitary figure who stood in the middle of the main road.
Standing there, with his hands folded over the pommel of his sheathed blade, and his hood pulled over his head. Ryan stared back at the army, the power of the Aether coursing through his body in anticipation.
It was time for the last stand to start.
A/N: And now the real fight begins.