We repeat again: strength of character does not consist solely in having powerful feelings, but in maintaining one's balance in spite of them.

Carl von Clausewitz.

Louise could not believe her eyes.

She had known, all right. Matilda had told her about Wardes during their training. She had told her student about how Wardes had betrayed Tristain, helped her escape with the Staff of Destruction only to be badly injured by its power, losing his right arm in the process. But it was another thing to see how much he had changed since the last time she had seen him almost ten years ago. While Wardes still kept his long gray hair, he had shaved his beard. The right side of his face was a scarred, wrinkled mess, giving the strange appearance of a man below 30 on one side and above 60 on the other. A cloak was wrapped around him, but only one sleeve protruded.

Her expression of surprise was evidently clearly noticeable. Wardes smiled and slightly chuckled upon seeing her face.

"Is something wrong, Louise?" Wardes asked. "Are you surprised to see your fiancé fall from such a state?"

"Fiancé?" Martin repeated. "Really? Louise, were you really going to be betrothed to such an ugly creature? I had expected a refined lady like yourself to possess better standards of beauty."

Louise only looked down at the ground, her face covered by her long hair. Her hand slipped into her robes, but she was clearly deep in thought. Just as Martin opened his mouth to ask again, Matilda interrupted.

"It is true." She said. "Louise and Wardes were betrothed by their respective families ten years ago. An arranged marriage. Of course, when it was revealed that Wardes was a traitor, the engagement was cancelled."

"You are incorrect, my dear thief." Wardes interrupted. "The engagement was never cancelled."

"What?" Matilda gasped.

"I was branded a traitor and stripped of all of the titles I held as a Viscount." Wardes continued. "But I am of age to be married, while Louise is not. Consequently, the only two people who can actually cancel the engagement are myself and her mother. And I have already checked. The Lady Valliere never actually got around to ending the engagement."

"But that makes no sense!" Matilda cried. "Now that she has been kicked out of the Valliere family, the Lady Valliere cannot end the engagement anymore, correct? Meaning that the only one who can-"

"-is me." Wardes finished. "Of course, it means nothing practically. I cannot hold an actual wedding ceremony with Louise unless I have either her consent or her mother's. As neither will obviously grant it, the engagement is basically cancelled.

However, even if we will never actually marry, Louise, I am still your fiancé. It would be courteous to show me some respect, then."

Louise slowly nodded, her head still looking at the ground.

"If I show you the proper respect, fiancé, will you answer a question of mine?" She softly asked.

Wardes raised an eyebrow. He had not expected Louise to be this quiet. He had expected her to madly blush on seeing him again, maybe deny that he was her fiancé, something silly like that. She was…too calm. Too morose on seeing him again. It wasn't like her.

"That depends. What is it?"

"Fiancé, you know that the Prince of Wales survived the Albion War, right?"

"What?" Wardes asked. "What is the meaning of such…a…"

His voice slowly trailed off as the realization hit him. Louise took a step forward.

"When the war with Albion ended, Napoleon spent a lot of time talking with Wales. About what happened that night, in the cathedral. The night that Her Majesty died. Wales told Bonaparte. And Bonaparte told me. And according to the Prince of Wales…you were there that night, Wardes."

Another step forward.

"Were you?"

Martin, Matilda, and Guiche slowly looked at Louise and then at Wardes. The disfigured man's mouth wavered for a moment, but then he laughed in response.

"Why don't you ask the real question, Louise? You want to know if I'm the one who killed Henrietta, do you not?"

Without raising her head, Louise nodded.

"Well then." Wardes said. "If you want to know, I did not kill Henrietta. It was an ordinary soldier. I do not even know his name. He snuck up behind her while she was distracted trying to protect the Prince and struck the fatal blow. So while I was there, fighting, I was not the one who killed your precious Princess.

I will admit that I am the one who killed her bodyguard, Agnes, so perhaps without me, Henrietta could have survived. I doubt it, however. The trap was well laid, and it was interesting to see her face when she realized her face and-"

"Shut up."

Everyone on the street looked at Louise in surprise. Wardes blinked his eyes.

"Pardon me, I must have misheard you?"

Louise raised a single finger on her right hand. Wardes initially thought that she was making a certain gesture, but then his eyes widened as he noticed a ring which shone on her middle finger. A silver ring which shone a brilliant blue.

"You…" Wardes stammered. "The Water Ruby. Where did you get that?"

"It was a gift. From Her Majesty. A long time ago, before the Albion War began."

She took a step forward, her head still looking down at the ground.

"It represented the love which Her Majesty had for me, and the loyalty I had for her. My best friend, my princess, my queen. The one whom you killed."

"I did not kill her, Louise."

"I am going to kill you." Louise continued without listening. "I want to kill you painfully. I want to make you beg for mercy, apologize for what you did, and grovel like a miserable, pathetic dog before I destroy you. I want to remove your other arm, your feet, and watch you scream before I end your ruined, pathetic life which you destroyed by betraying Tristain. I want to use the Void in way which no one has ever used it before, in ways which would utterly violate the dignity of Brimir, so that I can make you suffer for a thousand, ten thousand years before you finally die.

But you are my fiancé, Wardes. And more importantly, I know Her Majesty would not have wanted me to do such terrible things. So I won't do such things, and will settle for just killing you. Quickly and painlessly. Well…

Maybe not necessarily the latter."

Everyone just stared at Louise as she finally raised her head. There were no tears on her face. No blushing, no trembling, nothing to even indicate that she was the slightest bit furious. Her expression was completely blank, as if she was watching an ordinary laborer in front of her and not her fiancé.

But if Wardes had thought that perhaps Louise was not completely enraged, a glance at her wand would have told the truth. It visibly glowed blue with magical power. Furthermore, the air around Louise was…indifferent. Pure.

Pure unadulterated, complete, hatred and violence. A drop of sweat trickled down Wardes's face as he felt his fiance's presence.

"Heh…" He muttered, "It's not dissimilar to her mother's anger…"

Wardes nodded to himself and looked over at Matilda.

"If you want to save Tiffania," He yelled at her, "You can pass! You and the others! I think…I'll be bit busy over here."

Matilda nodded and looked over at Guiche and Martin. But the latter shook his head.

"I'm going to stay here. Guiche, you go with Matilda."

"What?" Matilda asked. "I've seen you in action, Martin. You're stronger than Guiche. Louise can handle Wardes, so why-"

"It's because I'm the stronger that I need to stay." Martin responded. "Because frankly, Matilda, someone needs to make sure that Louise doesn't destroy the city."

He looked over at Guiche, but Guiche did not look back at him. Martin shook his head and hit the younger boy once, on the head.

"Oi, Guiche."

"Y-yes?" Guiche said.

Martin looked down on him. If anyone else had been around, he would have preferred to take him from the headquarters to the orphanage given how…morose the young man had been ever since he had arrived. He had done nothing but mope around ever since he had arrived from the Gramont estate, but he was the only one who Martin could have taken along.

"I don't have time for any long-winded speeches, Guiche. So I'll keep it short. You're not the only one who's lost your family. You're not the only one who got kicked out of the Five Families. Louise has, and so have I. But that doesn't mean we can slack off."

He lightly tapped Guiche on the head, which finally caused him to look up at Martin.

"So buckle down, and get to work. I'll buy you a beer when this is over, okay?"

It's not like those words alone would perk Guiche up, but the young man nodded. Matilda had already charged into the orphanage during the talk, but Guiche ran past Wardes and followed her inside. Wardes nodded and drew his wand. It was longer than Louise's, and the tip was sharp as a knife.

"A wandsword." He stated. "The weapon of those who were knights, of those who know how to fight. Well then, shall we begin, Louise?"

"Osu Suunu Uryu Ru RADO!"

BOOM
Wardes dodged. Where his head had been a second earlier, a small Explosion detonated.

"That, I assume, is a yes."

"Tiffania!"

If there was anything Matilda could be thankful about, it was the fact that at least the fire was magical and controlled by Menvil. Menvil no doubt had the power to completely burn down the orphanage, but if he was going after Tiffania, he couldn't risk doing that without killing her. While the heat of the flames was very real, Matilda saw that they largely stayed where they were as they blazed next to wooden furniture or doors without touching them.

She could hear the sounds of orphans crying as their home burned, but Matilda honestly didn't care. There was one person in this orphanage she valued. Tiffania would be found and brought out. The others could wait. Louise would naturally object, but she wasn't in the orphanage now.

"Tiffania! Tiffania!"

Nothing. Matilda looked frantically around and noticed a set of stairs. As she clambered up, she heard a familiar cry.

"Tiffania, hold on! I'm coming!"

Matilda reached the second floor, looked around, and finally spotted her. Tiffania was crouched in a corner, cowering in fear. A wall of white flame completely surrounded her and prevented her escape.

"Damnit."

Matilda cursed to herself. The White Flame, Menvil's speciality. Theoretically, given enough time, she could deactivate Menvil's spell with her own magic. But "enough time" meant several hours at the least, if not one or two complete days. And Menvil was somewhere in this orphanage. This meant that Matilda would need to-

SMASH.

And then Matilda's world exploded. She wasn't sure…what quite happened. Something fell on top of her. Something large…and heavy…and wooden. She could make out Tiffania screaming her name, but Matilda felt dazed from the impact. Also, there was something on top of the wood. Something on top of the wood…or someone?

"Oh, my. Have I squashed a little rat?"

There was dust everywhere which served to obscure the figure standing on top of it, but it was a man. Which meant…

"Menvil?"

"Oh, so Wardes told you about me. And you must be Fouquet."

Matilda managed to look up. A man with his face covered by burn scars leered down at her, holding a long metal rod.

"I guess he got distracted then? Well, no matter. The trap worked pretty well, if I say so myself. It wasn't that hard to sense you running downstairs, and so I just used fire to collapse the above floor on top of you. Caught like a rat in a trap, huh?"

Menvil laughed and then looked down at Matilda. The woman below struggled to get the floorboard off of her, but the weight and Menvil standing on top was too heavy.

"Still, part of our mission is to kill you, so I guess I'll deal with that now." He said. "Don't worry. I won't burn you completely. I need to take your head back to Gallia for proof. Perhaps Joseph will impale it on a pike outside the city walls."

He pointed the rod at Matilda and flames began to swirl around one end. The elven girl began to scream, but Menvil paid no attention.

"Fireba-"

"Spike!"

A spear of earth erupted from under the floor and pierced Menvil's shoulder. The flame mage grunted in pain and jumped back, but then he abruptly looked at his wand. The flames had vanished, and Menvil's eyes widened in shock.

"A spell failure!"

BOOM.

Distracted by Matilda's attack, Menvil had placed the wrong amount of magical energy into his fireball. The result was an indiscriminate explosion of fire energy that encompassed the room. Even though the floorboard on top of her granted some protection, Matilda winced as the flames brushed past her body.

However, while Menvil had not been harmed by the explosion, he had been blown off the floorboard. Matilda took the moment to push the floorboard off and stand upright. She positioned herself between Menvil and Tiffania, preventing the former from taking the latter hostage.

"That was quite a nasty little trick, thief." Menvil said as he extricated himself from the rubble. "But I am the White Flame. You are not going to be able to hurt me with my own spells."

"Well, then I will just hurt you with mine."

"Which spells?" Menvil leered. "The terrain, thief, is to my advantage. Maybe if you faced me outside, you could use your trademark golems to defeat me. But what do you think will happen to the orphanage if you summon one here? What do you think will happen to your precious Tiffania?"

Fouquet gritted her teeth in response.

"Sure, you can use the standard earth spells against me. But I think you know that won't work-"

Menvil abruptly cut off as he felt something in the air. A threat, coming from directly behind him.

And as he wheeled around, before he could cast a spell, one of Guiche de Gramont's Valkyries prepared to slash him with a bronze sword.

Wardes analyzed the situation.

Louise stood in front of him, her wand glowing with the power of Void. She had just attacked him without even signaling the beginning of the duel. Furthermore, Wardes wasn't certain about how much force he could use against Louise. He guessed that Joseph would prefer that he not kill her, but he wasn't completely certain. Besides, there was a good chance that he couldn't afford to hold back in this battle.

He looked over at the man next to Louise. A mercenary, but clearly a mage and almost certainly a wind one – Wardes could tell that the man was using magic to keep something on his back invisible, and only wind magic could perform such a feat. He didn't know what level the mercenary was, and that would be a problem. But just as he began to think of a strategy to handle both of them, the mercenary began to walk away from Wardes and Louise.

"What do you think you are doing, mercenary?" Wardes yelled.

"This is a fight between you and her." The mercenary responded. "Not mine. I'll stay here to keep Louise in check and make sure nothing too terrible happens, but not much more."

He sat down on a pile of rubble next to one of Menvil's flames, pulled out a cigar from under his clothes, and lit it. Wardes looked away from him, towards Louise…

And saw her pointing her wand at herself and chanting something too low for him to hear. She finished and Wardes prepared for an attack, but Louise glowed for a second and nothing more occurred. Still, Wardes knew something had happened. If he didn't want to find out what Louise had just done, he needed to strike quickly.

That in fact was Wardes's main advantage. Void was powerful. Extremely powerful. If he gave Louise a chance, especially as furious as she was, she would overwhelm him. But while Void was stronger than his wind magic, he knew Louise the mage was far inferior to Wardes.

"Ubiquitous Dell Wind."

And she was definitely inferior to four of him. Three copies of Wardes emerged, each with their own wands and their own power.

"Be proud, Louise." Wardes declared. "I only use this spell on those whom I view as worthy. Now, I will show you what I can do!"

BOOM

Louise said absolutely nothing. As she launched another Explosion, two of the Wardes pointed their wands at the other two's wands.

"Air Needle!"

A sword of air surrounded the two wands and those two Wardes, both clones, charged at Louise. The original Wardes and the other clone stayed back and cast a torrent of wind at Louise.

Louise did not chant an incantation, nor did she even cast a spell. But the power of her rage meant that with a wave of her wand, a series of Explosions laced through the air. However, the charging Wardes were too fast to be hit by her attacks, and then she was blasted by the hurricane cast by the other Wardes. Against a normal person, Wardes observed, the wind would have blown him into a nearby wall, causing an almost fatal impact.

But Louise defended herself. No, that was not the right word. "To defend herself" implied that she attempted to protect herself from the hurricane, and Louise did no such thing. She took the power of the spell head on, without taking a step back or showing pain. Cuts appeared on Louise's body, and Wardes could see them grow worse the longer she stood in the hurricane. But throughout it all, Louise stood, ferociously attacking Wardes with her magic.

Good grief, he thought to himself as he charged, she has gone completely insane with anger. I can't afford to hold back, then.

The charging Wardes jumped as they dodged yet another Explosion, and the ones at the back ended the torrent of wind to avoid hitting their comrades. The clone charged to join the other two, while the original Wardes stayed back. There was no need to put himself in danger, and he could also monitor the mercenary to prevent him from trying anything against the clones.

The two clones held back as they waited for their comrade, dodging additional Explosions as they prepared their wandswords. Despite the danger of the nearby enemy, Louise did not retreat, but instead continued to attack with Void magic.

"Ready?"

The clones nodded amongst each other and then closed the gap with Louise. They leaped over one last Explosion and prepared their swords. Since Joseph almost certainly would prefer for Louise to be left alive, they would not kill her, but content themselves with merely crippling attacks.

BOOM

Louise fired another spell, but it was too late. The Wardes were too close for her to properly to hit them.

"It's over, Louise." One observed. "You put up quite the barrage. But this is the end for you."

One aimed for her right arm, the other for her left leg, the last for her stomach. They slashed with their wandswords…

But hit nothing but air.

"What?!"

The clones simultaneously gave a shout of surprise. They could see Louise standing in front of them. Nevertheless, as the clones tried again, their wandswords only hit air.

"Osu Suunu Uryu Ru Rado"

Then all of the Wardes heard it. A chant in the language of Void echoed throughout the entire street. But while the Wardes could not tell where the voice was coming from, they saw that the voice was not coming from the "Louise" in front of them.

"Where in Brimir's name is she?!"

"Beoozusu Yuru Suvyueru Kano Oshera"

"UP THERE!"

The clones wheeled around towards the original Wardes, who frantically gestured towards the rooftops. Louise stood atop one of those rooftops, her wand raised and eyes closed. As they realized the situation, the clones ran towards their original, determined to protect him.

"Jera Isa Unjyuu Hagaru Beookun Iru…"

BOOM.

It wasn't a full-fledged Explosion like the one which had destroyed the Albion fleet. Louise, standing on the rooftops, still had the presence of mind to know that she could not destroy the buildings by the street. Not with Matilda and Guiche inside the still-burning orphanage and herself on top of one the buildings.

But as long she didn't hit Martin in the process, she could destroy the street itself. As she watched the ball of light swallow the street and carve a crater into the ground, she felt the cold satisfaction of revenge burn in her heart.

"So, is that the best you can do, boy?"

Menvil smiled as the fourth of Guiche's Valkyries disintegrated. Four more surrounded the young blonde, but his hands holding his rose wand visibly shook at the result.

"What…what is going on?" Guiche panted. "You didn't even cast a spell! Just how did you protect yourself?"

"Can you really not figure it out, boy?" Menvil sneered. "I am the White Flame. One of the greatest fire mages in the land. I can easily protect myself with flames from any and all physical attacks."

"Spear!"

Matilda launched a spike of earth at Menvil, but the fire mage did not even turn around. He raised his left hand, pointed it back at the attack, and destroyed it with a blast of fire. He then launched a second fireball at Guiche, who jumped out of the way. However, two more of his golems were destroyed and melted.

"I will have to take Fouquet's head back, so it's best if I deal with you first." He said to Guiche. "Now, do you have anything that can actually harm me, or are you completely dependent on those miserable golems?"

"S-shut up!" Guiche yelled. "You're just a common mercenary! I am fighting for the honor of the Gramont family?"

Menvil had readied another fireball, but then with a confused expression on his face, he stared at his foe.

"The Gramont family?" He asked.

"Y-yes." Guiche panted. "I am Guiche de Gramont, the fourth son of the Gramont family! I cannot lose to someone like you who does this!"

"Hoooooooooooo."

Menvil nodded to himself.

"That is very interesting. You do have the same hair color as the others. But then what are you doing here, Gramont? Should you not be at their estate, preparing to fight for the Vallieres?"

"I…"

Guiche seemed to hesitate.

"Oh, are you fighting for the Alliance?" Menvil laughed. "You are, aren't you? You would not be in Tristania otherwise. But then, you're a traitor to your family, huh?"

"No."

"There's nothing wrong with it, boy! Accept it! Accept that you're no longer a Gramont! Fight for your own wishes, your own desires! That's the best way to live life, to do as you please and to let no one stand in your way! And that's how I will live, until I find him!

In fact, boy, I've decided I like you. So, why don't you join me? We can combine forces to destroy that thief over there. Then we can return to Gallia, collect our payment, and I would show you how to live a life free of the rules which restrict our potential as mages! Is that not wonderful?"

"Does your way cause you to set this building on fire?" Guiche snorted.

"I do what I please, boy."

"I see. Then we have nothing to discuss"

Guiche waved his rose wand and four petals dripped off the flower onto the floor. They turned into additional Valkyries as they hit the floor, as the golems surrounded their master.

"Interesting." Menvil said. "You use the petals from your roses to create bronze golems. A fairly miserable spell. Still…"

He took a moment to glance at Matilda behind him. He saw that she had moved closer to Tiffania's flame prison, but she was doing something…on the ground. Maybe trying to liberate her sister? That would be a nuisance.

"It looks like your thief friend is planning something." He observed as he turned to Guiche. "So, consider yourself lucky, brat. I'll take care to burn you quickly and painlessly. But now before I show you something."

He didn't directly cast a spell at Guiche. Instead, Menvil charged at him, wielding his rod like a club. Guiche sent the eight Valkyries forward and began to summon more from his rose petals.

"That the best you can do, boy?"

However, the metal creatures were completely helpless. Wielding his rod like a heavy club, Menvil smashed some of the Valkyries aside like scrap. The rest attempted to attack him, only to burn and melt as Menvil shielded himself with a cloak of flames. He drew closer to Guiche, who raised his rose for another spell.

It was too late. Menvil cast a cloak of flames over his left hand, and with his arm slashed Guiche's rose wand in two. The young boy helplessly watched as the bud flew in the air before landing behind him. Caught by surprise, he fell onto the ground, powerless to stop Menvil from standing over him.

"No close combat capabilities." Menvil laughed. "You have no wandsword, nothing you can do to protect yourself when the enemy is too close for you to chant a spell. All you have are those pathetic golems. For any mage, that is a foolish mistake, boy."

Flames surrounded the tip of Menvil's rod as he charged a final spell.

"Goodbye, Gramont. Maybe your old father will join you soon."

THUD THUD THUD THUD.

"What?"

But before he could cast the spell, Menvil heard a noise coming from behind. A…loud noise of something charging at him. Something that was very big and heavy.

As Menvil wheeled around, he saw just what the noise was. An earth golem, large enough to fit into the burning building but still a foot higher and far bulkier than Menvil lumbered towards him. Fouquet gave a smile of triumph as she watched her creation prepare to attack Menvil.

"A creature of soil, stone, and clay." She declared. "Try to burn that instead of bronze, White Flame."

Menvil instantly used the blast of fire he had charged to attack the golem, but it completely failed. The golem continued its march, while Menvil took a step backwards behind Guiche…

And began to laugh again. An uproarious laughter, filled with maniacal joy, filled the air. His rod again charged with flames.

"You want me to burn your cheap pet? I accept, Fouquet!"

Without any further hesitation, Menvil charged at the golem himself. Another blast of flame, far greater than the earlier attack, engulfed the creature.

But it seemed to do nothing as the golem continued its march. It reached Menvil, and one of its hands grabbed Menvil's wrist holding the wand while the other made to swing at the fire mage's face.

"Guh!"

Menvil grabbed the golem's punch with his other hand. Fortunately for him, he had managed to position the staff so that it still continued to breathe fire onto the golem. The two of them wrestled with each other. The golem attempted to physically overpower Menvil while Menvil poured more flames onto the golem.

"Not bad, Fouquet, not bad!" Menvil yelled. "But not good enough! Even an earth golem cannot defeat me!"

As Menvil and Matilda watched, the golem began to weaken in the face of the relentless flame. Small chips of rock smoldered and fell onto the ground. Menvil began to push the golem back, laughing all the way

"I've changed my mind, Fouquet! I know I was supposed to bring your head back, but I won't bother! I'll just burn you into ashes! Burn you and watch you scream for mercy and watch you beg! Oh, don't worry. I'll leave Tiffania alive. Wardes would probably try to kill me if I didn't, and that would be an annoying fight right after this. But no good for you! Hahahahahahahahaha-"

Menvil abruptly stopped laughing.

The flame magic from his metal rod abruptly went out. The flame mage slowly looked down, at his stomach….

From where a bronze sword protruded.

"You said I had no close combat capabilities?"

The fire mage slowly turned his face towards the voice behind him. Guiche de Gramont stood right behind him, both hands clenching the handle of the sword which had just entered Menvil's stomach.

And on Guiche's chest, a rose bud rested.

"I am the youngest son of General Gramont. The scion of a military family, Menvil. It would be a dishonor if I did not know how to fight without my magic."

Guiche pulled the sword out of Menvil's stomach. The fire mage slowly tottered onto the ground, dropping the staff. Behind Matilda and throughout the orphanage, the flames covering the orphanage and imprisoning Tiffania began to go out.

"Your magic is running out of control," Matilda mused behind her golem. "Well then, Menvil. Do you have any final words?"

"No..." the fire mage hoarsely spat. "No. You can't do this. I can't die here. It's too soon, I can't, I can't…"

"Are you beginning for your life?" Matilda coolly asked. "Not even thirty seconds ago you were describing how you would slowly burn me alive. And now you beg?"

"I'm not begging." Menvil cried as blood leaked from his wound and mouth. "I can't die here, not yet, not yet. I didn't accomplish it yet, I never got the chance to meet the person who burned me, how can this be, how can this…"

Menvil tried to desperately crawl away, but Matilda's golem kept stride with him.

"No….nonononononononNONONONONONON ONO! HOW CAN THIS BE, THE FLAME SERPENT, I CAN'T DIE UNTIL I MEET THE FLAME SERPENT AT LAST, I CAN'T I CAN'T DIE NONONONONONONO-"

"Oh, shut up."

As Menvil hysterically continued to scream for the "Flame Serpent", whoever he was, Matilda's golem raised a large stone foot over his head. When it came down, Guiche turned away, but Matilda watched the result. Blood spattered onto her face and blond hair.

"Haah…haaah…."

Louise's Explosion had not touched the building, but that did not meant it had not left an impact. A massive crater had been carved into the road due to her explosion.

And at the bottom of that crater, Wardes lay. His clothes were torn and his wandsword had been destroyed in the attack. But he was alive. He had used his clones to throw him towards the edge of the explosion to help deflect the impact. Obviously, his clones had perished, but he had managed to escape with his life. But he could do little beyond breathe and watch.

As he watched, the flames engulfing the orphanage went out. Wardes muttered a curse under his breath.

"Menvil lost, as well? That bastard. He got too overconfident like always…"

There was movement at the edge of the crater, and Wardes looked up. Louise stood at the top. She looked down at Wardes for a moment. Then she slowly began to make her way down towards her. The crater was caked with dirt and mud from the explosion which messed up her shoes, but Louise continued to make her way down. Her gaze was still blank, though Wardes felt her continuing anger.

She finally stopped besides him. While Wardes normally could have physically overpowered her at this range, he completely lacked the strength to do so. He could only helplessly watch as Louise pointed her wand at his head, its tip glowing with magical power.

"Good bye, Wardes."

"Wait."

Wardes managed to hoarsely croak out a single word. Louise tilted her head, her expression not changing in the slightest.

"What is it?"

"What…was that? What was that Louise on the street? Was that…an Illusion?"

Louise shrugged in response.

"I know four Void spells." She calmly said. "Explosion, Dispel, Teleport, and Illusion. The last one permits me to fool your senses, create things which really aren't there. I made a Louise, one who was even more filled with rage than I am right now. And then I teleported to a place where I could prepare an Explosion to defeat you."

"I…see…"

Wardes coughed up some blood before he continued.

"You have grown strong, Louise. I always knew you had that potential. That was always why I wanted to marry you. The chance to have a child, with the power between your Void power and the Valliere and Wardes bloodlines. It would have been something…incredible."

"So you didn't care about me, then? Just my power? Were you planning to kill me like you did to Her Majesty?"

"I didn't kill Henrietta, Loui-"

"Oh, SHUT UP!" Louise cried. "You were there! Don't wriggle out of your crimes because you didn't actually strike the blow yourself! You would have done so if that soldier hadn't done it first!"Wardes shut up.

Power glowed from Louise's wand as she prepared the Explosion. One that would be aimed at her fiancé's head.

"I can give you something in return, if you let me go." Wardes gasped. "Information. Information which you and your partner would find very valuable."

"Does it make up for Her Majesty's death?" Louise snarled.

"In a way, yes." Wardes breathed. "You are in danger."

Louise's stoic expression broke into a sarcastic grin at those words.

"Really?" She chuckled. "I had not realized that at all. With a civil war occurring where both sides will likely kill me if they win? No, Wardes, I am not in danger at all. Thank you for warning me, fiancé."

She once again pointed her wand down at Wardes and prepared the Explosion a third time. But then she felt a gust of wind from above her.

Above?

THUD.

Fortunately for Louise, training with Matilda had honed her combat instincts. Without looking up or even taking the time to think, she rolled to the side, away from danger. A second later, a griffin landed where Louise had just been. It grasped Wardes in one of its talons.

"You have really grown strong." Wardes laughed. "The old you would have gotten captured in my pet's other talon. Oh well."

"Why you!" Louise yelled as she prepared a spell.

"Don't bother. By the time you get off an Explosion, my loyal steed will fly me out of your range." Wardes said. "However, you did defeat me, and that is a stain on my honor. So in return, I will give you a piece of advice."

Louise fumed at her failure. Yet while she did not put her wand away, she did not cast a spell. Wardes nodded appreciatively.

"Beware of my father."

"What?"

"Beware of my father." Wardes repeated. "You may think I'm a traitor, Louise. You may blame me for Henrietta's murder, or for the war, or whatever. You may condemn me or curse me. I don't particularly care.

But I'm nowhere at his level. Perhaps in another world, where I hadn't been so badly injured, I would have gone and killed him before he could set his plans into motion. But that is mere speculation. Still, he has his own plans, separate from the war, and he cannot be trusted. You would do well to remember that."

The griffin took off the minute Wardes finished, and Louise stood there, watching the beast fly off. Muttering under her breath, she stowed her wand away and sat in the middle of the pit. As she rested, she heard the tramping of soldiers and other men, rushing to likely aid the burned orphanage.

"I am not to be disturbed, Jerome."

"Yes, Your Majesty."

The Valliere butler closed the door behind Karin and left her alone in a large but empty room. Sunlight beamed down from a window high above her and onto the plain wooden floor. Karin took eight precise steps forward, and then knelt down at the exact center of the chamber, her legs folded underneath her thighs. She closed her eyes and began to breathe deeply.

It was a daily ritual for her. Once a day, she liked to find a quiet and secluded place where she would be alone with nothing but her thoughts and feelings. It helped insure that she followed the path of the Rule of Steel, and that she would not lose herself to passion and uncontrolled emotion. While she did not need it at this moment, she had long noted that her willpower reserves with which she cast her powerful wind spells grew and regenerated faster during this activity.

Jerome had called her "Your Majesty", but she was not Queen of Tristain yet. She did not believe it appropriate to dub herself Queen of a divided country and had declared that she would take the crown when the war was over, and not a moment before. Preparing for the war, after all, meant that she would be extremely busy. She had to acknowledge the support of the nobles who had allied with her, cajole the neutral nobles to join her side, organize her own armies, and somehow still govern the extensive Valliere territories in Eastern Tristain. More nobles supported her than Guldenhorf, but the Alliance had advantages of their own. They had gained control of Tristania, which in and of itself had not surprised Karin due to the proximity of the city to Guldenhorf territory. The news of General Bonaparte's coup d'etat, however, had quietly displeased her. She had understood upon hearing the news that he was the head of the Alliance that Bonaparte was likely meant to be a puppet to attract commoner support, but he had proven to be surprisingly assertive.

There was also the matter of geography. Guldenhorf, Wardes, and most of the nobles who supported them generally controlled the center of Tristain, while the Vallieres controlled the east, Walloon the south, and Gramont the west. That posed advantages and disadvantages – if her side could unite, they could overwhelm Guldenhorf, but if they couldn't, the Alliance would likely destroy them piecemeal.

If.

No, now was not the time, Karin thought as she shook her head. Now was not the time to think about politics. It was time to quietly and calmly contemplate her inner thoughts, during these little moments of peace she owned.

Tap. Tap.

Unfortunately, her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of something hitting the floor behind her. Karin did not open her eyes, nor did she turn around. She knew, from the sound alone, who it was behind her.

"You have not returned to this estate in a long time, Wardes."

The door to the room had never been opened. Nevertheless, the head of the Fifth family of Tristain, Wardes the Elder, hobbled forward towards Karin, his left hand clutching a gnarled oaken cane.

"Eh heh heh heh heh. It has indeed been a long time, Lady Valliere. Or perhaps I should call you Your Majesty like your butler did?"

Karin stood up and turned to face Wardes. The old man looked about the same as ever. He wore a cheap, plain black robe and his beady little eyes gleamed at her. But Karin noticed the important thing immediately.

"Your rat isn't with you?"

Wardes once again gave a dry laugh, but he said nothing more. Karin closed her eyes…

And then, without even uttering a single word, she cast a wind spell to shoot her forward. Karin rocketed forward, her wandsword in her hands.

SLASH.

Wardes never even had a chance to react. His head went flying into a corner, its malevolent grin still written on his face. His body dropped to its knees and collapsed onto the floor.

But no blood came out of the corpse. As Karin stowed her wand back into her dress, it simply laid there inert for several seconds, before it finally dissolved into a pile of ashes. As the ashes in their turn vanished, the sound of laughter echoed from seemingly the very walls of the room.

"Eh heh heh heh heh." The voice of Wardes laughed. "Now what was the point of that, Lady Valliere? We both know that you cannot kill me like that."

Karin said nothing nor did she draw out her wand again. But her eyes stared daggers into the nearby walls.

"Ahhhh, your famous killing air. How impressive. But come now, Lady Valliere. Come now. I am here to talk. There is no need to exhibit such rudeness."

"The only thing I want to hear from you, Wardes, is your surrender." Karin coldly stated. "And if you had come to surrender, you would have brought your real body with you. Not one of your fakes."

"Fakes?" The voice echoed. "You called what you destroyed a fake? No, that body was real, Karin. Do you realize what effort I put to create it? What pain you have put me through by destroying it? Every inch of me, of my soul, it burns with pain and fire that you cannot EVER comprehend through your actions, you know. Picture every inch of your skin being flayed and burned by a sword forged in the very heat of the sun, and you would know a hundredth of the pain that I am in…right…now."

"Perhaps that is why I killed you, then."

"Eh heh heh heh heh. That is good spirit, Lady Valliere!" Wardes laughed. "If you were anyone else, I would punish you right here and right now for your insolence. The irony of a battle between the two of us would be quite interesting given recent events."

"What are you talking about?"

"Well, your daughter just defeated my son." Wardes responded. "It was quite the battle, but she won. He did manage to get away, though, which is a pity. I could have described what happened in detail to you, but now I only have a limited amount of time before my power will run out in this room.

So let us get down to business. I would like to extend an invitation to you, Lady Valliere. To my estate. There is something I would like to show you and other things which I would like to talk to you about, but even if I had enough magical power to stay in this room for a while, I would rather not discuss such matters here. Therefore, I would like you to come visit me. Alone. Even though you do not need it anyways, I swear to not harm you at all."

"And how do I know," Karin asked, "That you're not simply asking this to keep me distracted and prevent me from mobilizing my forces?"

"Well, I am." Wardes said. "I do have something I'd like to discuss of grave importance, but yes, I'd like to keep you out of the way. Still, I should note that you would be keeping me out of the way as well, you know."

"You cannot suggest that our forces are equal, Wardes. You know very well that I'm a far stronger mage than you, and the Valliere estate is far greater than yours. The prestige of your family has heavily declined over the years, after all."

"Well, in a one on one duel?" Wardes observed. "I have no hope of even touching you in a duel, much less defeating you. I freely admit that. Of course, the problem is that war is not a series of one on one duels. And I think you know, Lady Valliere, that my style of magic can have… particularly disastrous consequences in wartime."

Karin's eyes flashed at those words.

"You wouldn't dare. Her Majesty explicitly forbade that during the Albion War, Wardes!"

"I don't intend to use that for now." Wardes laughed. "Guldenhorf would likely severely object to it. But besides, I believe that keeping me occupied should be good enough for you. You would be leaving Guldenhorf to face Walloon and Gramont by himself, after all. Do you think Guldenhorf will be willing to face the legendary Marshal by himself?"

Several seconds ticked by without a response. But at last, Karin sharply nodded her head.

"I'll go to your estate and listen to what you have to say. But in return, Wardes, you will not mobilize your armies in the slightest. Not while I'm travelling, and not even when I leave. Only when I return to the Valliere home will you muster your forces. I, on the other hand, will leave my daughters behind to begin preparing in my stead while I am away."

"Those are quite some onerous terms, Valliere. But I can tell from your eyes that that is the only way that you will accept my conditions. Very well, then. But I can say that I will not be sitting idly, waiting for your arrival."

Even as irritated as she was right now, Karin shook her head.

"You're still working on that, Wardes? Give it up. I can discern dreams which are merely fantastic from those which are completely mad."

There was no answer to Karin's words. She looked up at the lone window and sighed.

"His power must have run out, then." She muttered.

Unfortunately, her plan to meditate had been disturbed for now, and Karin knew that her mind was a little too irritated with the sudden appearance to jump back into her task. She would come back later tonight then, she decided as she left the room.

"Mother?"

Even Karin jumped in surprise at the sight.. Eleanor stood before her, wearing a long gown to hide her horrifically scarred arms. One of her arms was draped around Cattleya as the younger sister had clearly helped Eleanor around to meet her mother.

"Eleanor…" Karin gasped. "What are you doing? I know you awoke from your injuries a few days ago, but you still need to recover. There's no reason for you to be wandering about like this."

"I was tired of the room," Eleanor softly laughed. "And wanted to wander about. Cattleya helped me around so I'll be fine if anything goes wrong. Right, sister?"

Cattleya nodded and smiled back at Eleanor, but said nothing. One of Karin's brows furrowed as she looked over Eleanor.

"Are you sure you're all right? Eleanor, we are at war, and you were badly attacked. I have an important task which I was planning to let Cattleya handle, but if you're all right…"

"You're demanding too much from Cattleya, mother. She's been busy taking care of me…and she needs to be taken care of as well, you know."

"I'm fine, Eleanor." Cattleya responded. "I'm fine. You don't need to worry about me."

"You were coughing blood again." Eleanor said. "I know you tried to hide it from me, but I saw it. You're overexerting yourself these days."

Cattleya said nothing more, but averted her eyes from both Eleanor and Karin.

"Enough." Karin said. "If both of you are unwell, then I'll have to entrust it to both of you. Listen to me…"

As Karin explained the situation and gave her instructions on mustering the Valliere forces, she paid close attention to both of them. It was incredibly obvious that Eleanor was still very weak. With one arm draped over Cattleya, she clearly could not stand on her own. But her mind was energetic. She asked questions, inquired about the reasons for her mother's departure, and enthusiastically declared that she would do what was necessary to prepare for the war, even though she had been unconscious when the negotiations had collapsed.

Cattleya, on the hand, was problematic even if Karin ignored the problems with her second daughter's health. She listened as well as Eleanor did, perhaps even better. But she asked no questions nor did she offer any suggestions. She simply repeated herself once again. For while Cattleya talked to Eleanor when she had woken up, she would only say three words to her mother ever since Karin had returned with Tristania. Always with a smile and a tone of sincerity, but Karin couldn't help but worry as she heard those words again and again.

"Yes, Your Majesty."