"Auferre, trucidare, rapere, falsis nominibus imperium; atque, ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant."
This must be what it felt like to die, Wardes the Younger thought to himself.
He had fought in numerous battles, both as the captain of Tristain's Griffin Knights and as a servant to King Joseph. But he had never felt himself to be in serious danger. Even when he had lost to Louise, he knew that he would be fine. His griffin came to the rescue and he managed to escape.
But now there was no escape. He had to report back to King Joseph Gaul of his failure to capture either Tiffania or Louise. And if King Joseph was in a bad mood, if he wanted Wardes dead as a result, Wardes knew that there was nothing he could do. Yet there was no way he could not enter the throne room.
He muttered a quick prayer to Brimir, the first time he had done so in years, and then opened the wooden doors. Maybe if I'm lucky, he thought to himself, King Joseph will just grant me a quick death.
The King sat at a long table, surrounded by his councilors. A few guards stood at attention by the walls. He looked up and broke into a wide grin.
"Wardes!" He jovially shouted. "My good friend! I am glad to see you are back, safe and sound. Excuse me, everyone, today's council is finished for today."
"Your Majesty." One of the councilors said. "I was not finished discussing the matter of Charlotte. As I was saying-"
"My council is finished today, my good sir." Joseph smiled. "I would be very annoyed if I had to repeat myself again, you know?"
The councilors got the hint. With a nary a word, they left the table and the throne hall. With a wave of his hand, Joseph dismissed the guards and they followed the councilors out.
"Charlotte?" Wardes asked.
"It appears that my precious niece has left the Tristain Academy." King Joseph shrugged. "They say she was last spotted heading towards Gallia, but I have no idea where she is right now."
"Is this not a problem, sire? If your niece was to enter Gallia, she could rally the people behind her. After all, she has-"
"Not with her mother's life at stake. Charlotte may pretend to be an emotionless doll, but the fact is that she is too kind to be a ruler. To do absolutely nothing for year after year, just because I hold that lunatic hostage? That girl ought to celebrate if her mother dies. But I guess I didn't celebrate when I killed my kin, eh?"
Joseph giggled madly, and then snapped his fingers. A servant came in with a jug of wine and two glasses. He set them down, poured a cup for Wardes, and left the room.
"Now, Wardes. Care for a drink?"
Wardes could not help but stare at the glass with some apprehension. Joseph laughed once again.
"Scared of poison, are you? Don't worry, it is safe. I'll show you."
The Mad King picked up Wardes's cup and gulped a mouthful of the wine. He handed the cup back to Wardes. Wardes's fingers trembled, but he drank. There was nothing peculiar about the taste.
"Your Majesty, I came to report that-"
"No need to report." Joseph said. "You don't have the half-elf with you, so you failed. And Menvil is not with you, which means that he's probably dead. Am I right?"
Wardes just looked down at the ground. Joseph sighed and poured a cup for himself.
"Honestly, Wardes. I don't know why I keep you around sometimes. I send you to steal the Staff of Destruction. You do, but you screw the Staff up somehow, injure yourself, and now it doesn't work. I send you to break Fouquet out of prison and give her a suicide mission. Fouquet defects to General Bonaparte, and you can't do a thing about it. I send you to kill Princess Henrietta. You succeed, but that's only because General Bonaparte delivered her to you. I send you to find the half-elf. You fail and get Menvil killed."
"Begging your pardon sire, but Menvil died because-"
"Because he did something stupid?" Joseph laughed. "Of course he did, he's Menvil. Expecting Menvil to do something intelligent is like expecting Sheffield to quit trying to make me fall in love with her. You knew this in advance. I expected you to handle him, and you failed. Again."
"Sire, you must understand that-"
"SHEFFIELD!" Joseph roared. "I have had enough of this one's excuses. Take him away and throw him into the dungeons! At once!"
"Your-your Majesty, please. You must understand that I can still be of great service to you. Let me go retrieve the elf one more time, and I promise that I will not fail!"
"I am done with second chances!" Joseph yelled. "Your time is up, Wardes! I spared you because I thought you would have some usefulness against the Faker, but I see I was wrong! He will kill you all the same. Sheffield, take him away!"
Wardes collapsed onto a chair, his face pale. The burned side of his face twisted into a grimace as he gasped for breath. He waited with terror for Sheffield to arrive, to come and throw him into the dungeons…
But the doors to the throne room did not open. Nothing happened for several moments. Wardes looked around the room for several long moments of apprehension, but then…
King Joseph sucked in a long breath of air.
"HeeheeheeheeheeheeHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! I got you good Wardes, didn't I? I got you good! Oh, you should have seen your face. You were gasping like a fish out of water BAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAAAAAAAAAAAA!"
The Mad King doubled over with laughter, his fist pounding the table. Wardes's expression slowly morphed from terror towards something measuring relief, though his good eye still flitted nervously.
"Y-you mean…I'm fine?"
"Sheffield's away." Joseph smiled. "I've sent her off on an incredibly important secret mission. Super-duper secret! So no, she's not going to kill you. I'm not going to kill you at all! Don't you feel just won-der-ful, Wardes?"
"Y-yes, sire? I thank you for your mercy and-"
"Well, you SHOULDN'T!" Joseph slammed his fist on the table. "You should be happy to die as recompense for your failures, and overjoyed that I would just toss you into the dungeons! Unfortunately, Wardes, I have to admit that I really want to kill you, but I do need you around to handle the Faker. It's really quite annoying. Though I was glad that you didn't reach for your wand even when you thought I was going to kill you. Quite touching loyalty there."
He picked up his glass and drained it.
"That's how it is." He said. "I suppose I have to give you another job, don't I? Have to make you useful somehow. Well, I'm hungry. Wardes, get down to the kitchens and help the cook make tonight's meal."
"Excuse me, sire?" Wardes asked. "I am a knight, the former captain of Tristain's Griffin Knights."
"And your point is?"
Joseph smiled. Wardes blanched in terror to that smile.
"Very well, sire. I will head to the kitchens."
"That's a good servant!" King Joseph laughed. "Think of it as a new experience. There are so many thing that I would like to try, that's how I get through each and every day! Don't worry, Wardes, I'll have a more useful job for you soon!"
He chortled once more, and then lurched out of the throne room, leaving Wardes alone.
"Perhaps if you value new experiences so much, you should head down to the kitchen yourself." Wardes muttered to himself.
A howling wind roared outside the main Alliance tent. Inside, a sumptuous feast had been placed before the nobles. But even though the delicious smell of meat, bread, and vegetables lingered through the air, few of them bothered to eat. Count Kundera picked at his pork for a bit, and then pushed the plate away. He leaned back in his chair and stroked his gray beard.
"So, vat is situation?" He asked.
"The Gramont army is to our north, between us and Tristania." The Duke of Richemont said. "They are just a few miles away, close enough that we can give battle if we want. But they are on top of a series of hills. There are three particularly large hills where their forces are strongest."
"Are we sure that is even where they are?" Count Noyon asked. "How do we know that this isn't yet another trap?"
"Telling the difference between Marshal Gramont's Valkyries and humans is easy if you know where to look." Richemont responded. "Gramont is not capable of making them fully autonomous, which means that his Valkyries move in a preplanned pattern. And since they are made from metal and not flesh, their walking motions are different from a human. So yes, I have verified it with the Dragon Knights. Gramont's men are up there."
"You would think General Bonaparte would have known something like that." Beatrice grumbled, her mouth full of food. "Alas, I guess that's what my father gets for trusting a commoner."
"Perhaps." Richemont said. "But Beatrice, you said that your father intends to stay in the south with our ships?"
"His ships, Duke Richemont. Apparently General Bonaparte sent him a letter telling him of what's happened and asking him of his intentions. Can you believe that he did that without my permission?"
She swallowed, and then picked up a roll.
"Anyways, my father sent his response to me. He has decided to stay south. By doing so, he can keep the Gramont ships at bay and prevent any reinforcements coming from the south."
"So Gramont will not be getting reinforcements from the south." Count Burgundy said. "He also will not get men from the north or the west, as there are no nobles who would support him in those directions. And though he is in a strong defensive position, we still outnumber his men."
"What about the east?" Count Noyon mused.
"Walloon territory is a few days' march to the east." Richemont observed. "Whether Walloon sends reinforcements or not, one thing is clear: even with this move, Gramont intends to play for time."
"He will not attack Tristania?" Beatrice mumbled over a mouth full of bread.
"He does not have enough men to attack the city and defend against an attack from us." Burgundy stated. "Gramont will wait. Wait for the Vallieres to help him, wait for us to run out of supplies now that we are cut off from Tristania, wait for reinforcements from Walloon. If we give battle, he will likely accept it, especially with the terrain advantage. But he will not seek battle himself."
"Well, if he won't seek battle, let's give it to him!" Count Burgundy declared. "We should attack Gramont immediately. We outnumber him, and with the will of Brimir should prevail, right?"
But the Duke of Richemont shook his head.
"It's too risky. We're up against Marshal Gramont, and he has the defensive advantage. We also don't know how long your father can hold any men coming from the south, and Walloon could attack from the east."
"Walloon couldn't attack a milkmaid's home." The Count of Marmont, a thin, reedy man scoffed. "That fat lump shouldn't worry us at all. Perhaps I might worry if Leopold commanded his men, but our spies report that the Duke has sent Leopold to speak with the Pope. What is Walloon thinking, sending a-"
"Getting hit by three armies should worry you, Marmont." Richemont coolly said. "It's not safe to attack Gramont. I would recommend that we retreat north. We'll be in territory friendlier to our cause, and should have a better chance of victory."
He picked up his fork and speared a piece of sizzling pork. He examined it for a moment, before his eyes turned to an empty chair in the tent.
"Are we sure that was the right decision?" He asked the gathered nobles.
"Of course it was." Beatrice sniffed. "I'm glad I won't have to see that stupid hat for a while. Or the Zero. So, what are we going to do with them now? Kill them both?"
"The Valliere girl may make a valuable hostage in the long run." Count Burgundy said. "Still, there's no need to rush. Let them stew for a bit until we reach a decision."
"I agree." Count Noyon rolled his eyes. "A ruler should show restraint, Lady von Guldenhorf. And Duke Richemont, you know perfectly well that Gramont was serious. He sent his own son Vincent here to deliver the message for a parley with General Bonaparte and Louise. They were to follow Vincent to speak with Marshal Gramont, and no one else was to accompany them."
"He took that blasted captain and the Valliere girl's servant with him." Richemont pointed out.
"Neither of them are nobles, they don't count. I don't know why you're fretting about the fact that none of us are accompanying those two. I'd much rather be in this tent than be out there in that wind."
"Hear, hear." Count Kundera exclaimed. "My old bones much too creaky to be outside. We can figure out General Bonaparte after we defeat Gramont."
"You take him too lightly, Kundera." Richemont said.
"And you take him too seriously, Richemont." Kundera said. "He is useful, yes? Like familiar should be. Then that is all that matters. Ven he is not useful, different problem, different solution."
Amidst the hills between the Gramont and Alliance, a group of five horsemen rode. Vincent de Gramont led the way. Napoleon and Louise followed him, and Stewart and Matilda behind him. Louise nudged her horse a little closer towards Napoleon.
"Are you worried about a trap?"
Napoleon shook his head.
"We are at a disadvantage, Louise. A man like Gramont would never set traps in such a situation. And if Gramont wanted to set an ambush, he wouldn't have insisted that none of the other nobles come. He could have captured them as well."
Louise nodded and said nothing more. That was good, Napoleon thought. He needed a moment to clear his head.
Eventually, the group arrived at the top of a hill. Marshal Gramont was there in his wheelchair. The old man wore no armor, but Robert was fully bedecked behind him. A group of servants and an empty litter were all that was with father and son. He nodded towards Vincent, and then turned towards Napoleon.
"General Bonaparte." He began. "I see you brought a bodyguard after all. I have no quarrel with your decision, but I must ask them to head down this hill."
"Why is that?"
"Because what I propose to discuss is so secret, so important, that I cannot have the slightest risk of a leak." Gramont said. "Not even my sons know why I intend to parley with you. I will send Vincent, Robert, and my servants along with your bodyguards. Do you accept?"
Napoleon turned towards Stewart and Matilda and nodded. Without a word, the two rode down the hill, followed by Gramont's men and sons. The old Marshal was left completely alone with Napoleon and Louise.
"So, what did you care to discuss?" Napoleon asked.
"A question first." Gramont said. "To Louise. Please, child, answer me truthfully."
"Do you know why Her Majesty removed you from the Valliere family?"
"Her Majesty? Mother?"
Gramont nodded. Napoleon's eyes narrowed at this question. Louise shook her head.
"No." She stated. "I've never known why."
Gramont studied Louise's face for several long moments. He brought a finger to his mouth and bit it slightly. Eventually, he nodded and gave a grandfatherly smile.
"Very well." He finally said. "I believe you, child. Now we may talk without a problem. General Bonaparte, I am here to demand your surrender."
"Pardon me?" Napoleon laughed. "Is this some sort of a joke? You may have my army at a disadvantage, Marshal Gramont. But do you seriously think that a little bit of maneuvering is going to cause your enemies to collapse like a house of cards?"
"Well, I do expect the Alliance to collapse like a house of cards." Gramont said. "But you misunderstand, General Bonaparte. I am not here to demand the surrender of your army, or armies depending on how Guldenhorf and those other nobles are playing things. I am demanding your surrender. Yours and Louise's."
Napoleon said nothing for a long moment.
"You are serious." He finally said.
"You know perfectly well what will happen if Louise and I surrender to you." Napoleon continued. "We will be both be executed by the Lady Valliere. Why should we surrender if we will die upon doing so?"
"Her Majesty would never kill her own daughter." Gramont said.
"Is this another joke? Lady Valliere would never kill her own daughter? I have seen her do it. She crossed the path of a church and attempted to lay hands on Louise. How can you say that she would never kill her?"
"That is just how Her Majesty is." Gramont shrugged. "Did she point her wand at Louise? Even if she did, did she actually cast a spell on her? I've known Her Majesty far longer then you have, General Bonaparte. She is a strong woman. Other nobles praise me all the time, but I am nothing compared to her. That said, she is not as firm as she thinks she is. If she was, she would have followed the law and given Cattleya or Eleanor the crown. But she placed it on her own head, to shield her daughters from the burden of ruling during a war. Her Majesty will never admit it in a thousand years, but she still loves Louise after all this time."
"She has an interesting way of showing her love." Napoleon sneered. "Forgive me if I do not share your confidence. Not to mention, you have yet to describe why she would not kill me. I will admit that she has never actually cast a spell on Louise. But she has attacked me."
"That is true." Marshal Gramont admitted. "But that brings me to the heart of this discussion. I want Her Majesty to end Louise's exile"
"W-what?" Louise shrieked. "Y-you mean…"
"I want you back in the Valliere family." Gramont turned to Louise. "You are Her Majesty's last healthy child. If you are lost, what will become of the long-term health of the dynasty? And all of the great Tristanian families have an exiled child, whether it is my Guiche, Walloon's Cartier, or Wardes's son. It is unfitting for the greatest Tristain family to exile a child, especially for some unknown reason."
"And how do you intend to persuade Lady Valliere to reaccept Louise?" Napoleon asked.
"By threatening to march my armies home if she does not." Gramont said. "As the Duke of Walloon is my longtime ally, I have no doubt he would do the same, as well as many lesser houses who respect the Gramont name. Child, I will swear by whatever you desire that I will return you to the Vallieres if you surrender to me. My life, my children's lives, the Gramont name, in the name of Brimir. Name your oath, and I solemnly vow to bring you back no matter the cost."
Louise's eyes widened at the prospect. But for Napoleon, a drop of sweat trickled down his brow, even while a cold wind blew on top of the hill.
"You have spun Louise a wonderful tale, Marshal Gramont." He said. "But why should I surrender? You have not guaranteed my life."
"You are Louise's familiar, are you not?" Gramont said. "I know the two of you call each other partners, and it is a wonderful thing to see the master-familiar bond work so well. But if Louise enters the Valliere family, then I guess you have to follow too. I would be more than willing to take a similar vow ensuring that your life is unharmed, General Bonaparte."
This was bad, Napoleon thought. This was very, very bad, a far worse threat than the irritated Alliance nobles back at the camp. If Louise returned to her family, she would undoubtedly ask her mother the reason for her exile. It would lead to a discussion about what had happened that night in Saxe-Gotha. If people started asking questions…
"We reject the terms, Marshal Gramont." Napoleon said. "There is no need for us to surrender to you."
"We, General Bonaparte? You may choose to reject the terms for yourself. But last I checked, you did not summon Louise. She has the right to choose her own path."
Gramont looked over at her.
"So what about you, child? Your partner has chosen to reject my terms. But you do not need to follow him. If you do choose to stay with General Bonaparte, I cannot guarantee your safety upon my victory. And even if General Bonaparte defeats me, what then? You will still be exiled. I can offer you a return to your family, something that Bonaparte can never offer. And who knows? Perhaps someday, you could be the Queen of Tristain, and rule justly and fairly. Just like your dear Henrietta."
She will reject him, Napoleon thought to himself. She knows better.
But Louise did nothing. She looked over at Napoleon, back to Gramont, and then back to Napoleon. For a long moment, she said absolutely nothing at all. But then she looked back at Gramont.
"It is a tempting offer, Marshal Gramont." She finally said. "But I need time to think on it. It is far too important of a decision for me to decide right here and now."
"I see." Gramont nodded. "But child, if you are to return to the Alliance camp, I am sure General Bonaparte will use every trick he knows to persuade you to follow him. I have appealed to your self-interest, Louise. Permit me to speak to your better nature."
"What do you mean?" Louise said.
"The longer this civil war drags on, the more people will die." Gramont said. "Men will be killed in battle, crops will be pillaged, and livestock will be slaughtered. I have never stolen, and will never steal from the people. But I cannot say the same about my enemies. And no death in the battlefield is as horrible as a farmer whose farm is pillaged and must starve to death with his children.
Furthermore, Tristain is a small country. The longer this war lasts, the weaker we shall become. The weaker Tristain becomes, the more inviting a target we are to Gallia, Germania, or possibly even another Albion invasion. War begets war which begets more war. If this war lasts, I fear that its chaos will spread across this entire continent.
I know of your power, Louise. Her Majesty has told me about it. But even with the power of Void, you are no match for her. If you fight with the Alliance, you will just prolong the war. Eventually, you will fight your mother the queen, and you will lose. I believe that Her Majesty will not kill you even then, but your stubbornness will cost countless lives, whether Tristanian or foreign. But if you join your mother, you can end this senseless war, and ensure that peace is brought to the land."
Napoleon heard the sound of footsteps. The two Gramont sons as well as their servants had returned. The servants lifted the Marshal into his littler, but he stuck his head out before they closed the door.
"I will be back here in two days, Louise. I do not know how General Bonaparte will persuade you to fight for him. But if he talks of glory or honor, ask yourself this. What honor could possibly be greater than bringing peace to Tristain? To Helgekinia?"
And with those words, the litter went on their way.
Napoleon was furious, Louise thought to herself.
It had been some hours since the meeting with Marshal Gramont. Napoleon had not said a single word to her on the way back to the Alliance camp. He had reported to the Alliance that Gramont had demanded terms of surrender which he had rejected, and the other nobles had accepted it without a word. They had dispersed shortly afterwards, and Napoleon had stalked off to organize and talk with the soldiers like he always did. Throughout this entire time, he still had not talked to her.
What honor could possibly be greater than bringing peace to Tristain?
Louise knew that Gramont did not know Napoleon all that well, but those words hit true. How had Napoleon persuaded her all this time? By promising her greatness, glory, and power. In their very first conversation back in the Academy, when he had declared himself to be an Emperor, what had he said?
"You must have the power to be a truly great mage."
He had been correct. She had come so far. But for what end had she become powerful? For greatness in and of itself? Or to save lives, like she had accomplished in her fight with Wardes back in Tristania?
But one possibility occurred to her, even when she was so uncertain of herself. Gramont had promised to return in two days. Napoleon no doubt was determined to find a way to defeat the Marshal. If he could not find a military option, then perhaps he just might…
She needed to make sure of his plans. So once the sun went down, she visited her partner's tent.
Napoleon sat at a desk alone. He was writing a letter, his quill scratching on the desk. He looked up at Louise momentarily, and then his eyes turned back to the letter.
"Louise." He said.
Louise breathed deeply. This meeting may very well be her final one with Napoleon, she thought to herself. If so, she had best get to the point.
"Napoleon. Do you intend to ambush Marshal Gramont in two days?"
Napoleon set aside the quill and put his hands together.
"I am surprised. The Louise who summoned me would have never even considered such a possibility. You have grown."
"Answer the question."
"No." Napoleon immediately replied. "I have no such plans for an ambush."
"Are you telling the truth or just trying to make me happy? You would pass on the chance of certain victory?"
"Certain victory?" Napoleon repeated. "Louise, ambushing Gramont would be certain defeat."
"What are you talking? You could attack Gramont, kill him, and take his sons hostage. That would effectively destroy his army, would it not?"
"Did Gramont say that his sons would be at this meeting?"
"W-well, no." Louise admitted. "But Robert at least is always with him."
"That's what Gramont is counting on me to think." Napoleon responded. "In fact, he will come alone. And while I have no way of knowing for sure, I think Gramont expects, and possibly hopes, that I ambush him. It is a trap within his first trap, when he tricked and marched around me.
Killing Marshal Gramont would accomplish nothing. It would not disorganize his army. Robert would just take command as the Marshal has planned for years. They would be incensed beyond measure at such a horrible betrayal and would be determined to get their revenge. And Louise, Gramont is not the only one who is attempting to turn his enemies to his side."
Louise steamed a bit at that statement.
"Are you talking about Robert?"
"Yes." Napoleon said. "I want Robert on my side, and there is no way that will happen if I treacherously kill his father. Furthermore, the rest of the Alliance nobles will no longer trust me if I murder a man as honorable as Gramont, and even the commoners will be upset – Gramont is well liked by even his enemies. I need support if we are to survive, Louise. To accomplish that, I must defeat Gramont, not kill him. And I need your help for that."
"My help?" Louise said. "You have not talked to me ever since we returned. Do you think I am just going to help you, Napoleon? Gramont is right about one thing. We are partners, which means that we are equals. You do not have the right to order me around, and sometimes I think you forget that."
"Are you actually considering joining Gramont?"
Did Napoleon actually never even consider that?!
"He made a good argument." She snapped. "Gramont claims that I can save lives if I join him. He was clearly not lying, so is he wrong? And if he is not wrong, Napoleon, why should we not join him? Is your pride worth that much?"
Napoleon said nothing at first. Louise's heart pounded in her chest for some reason. Why, she wondered to herself? Why was she so nervous for Napoleon's response? Gramont had said right before she left, that he would talk of honor and glory. Was that true? Was that all he wanted?
"You win, Louise."
"What? What does that mean?"
"I mean you win." Napoleon repeated. "I guess I might as talk about my real goal. You are my partner. As my partner, you deserve to know my real ambitions."
He reached below his desk and pulled out a map, flattening it out on his desk. There was nothing unusual about it, Louise thought. It was just an ordinary map of Helgekinia.
"Tell me, Louise." Napoleon asked. "What was Helgekinia like 2000 years ago?"
"2000 years ago?" Louise repeated. "I, I'm afraid I don't know. History was never my strong suit."
"True, there are very few books written of Helgekinian history back then." Napoleon observed. "But what I want to speak of is of my world. 2000 years ago, the world was in chaos. States fought one another in pointless wars, and the people suffered for it.
But then a great empire was formed, the greatest in the history of the world. Its armies, its legions, marched from the desert in the east to the sea in the west. The empire reigned for a thousand years, bringing peace to not just a single country, but to the entire world. When it fell, the world fell into chaos and darkness for another thousand years. And ever since that empire fell, the dream of reestablishing it has lived on in the hearts of king after king. All of them failed. I succeeded."
"You succeeded in conquering the world?" Louise asked.
"I told you a long time ago, did I not? I ruled the entire world. So I will make my intentions explicitly clear for you, Louise, in case you have not realized. I want to rule the world."
"You want to conquer all of Helgekinia?"
"Yes." Napoleon said. "But I want you to do it."
He sat back in his chair. Napoleon's eyes moved from the map to Louise.
"I will most likely not live to see all of Helgekinia united under one ruler, Louise. It took me thirty years to conquer the world, and I will not deny that Fortune smiled on me every now and then. I do not expect to live for another thirty years. So when I am gone, I want you to take up my place. You have the right bloodline for it. You have the power of the Void. And that is not all."
Napoleon broke off for a second, as if he anticipated Louise saying something to him. But she did not feel like speaking.
"Gramont mentioned that perhaps someday you might be a Queen. But it is one thing to be a Queen, Louise. It is another thing to be a good Queen. Matilda has taught you how to fight. I can teach you how to rule. And with that, you can save just not Tristania, but all of Helgekinia."
"People will die from this dream." Louise pointed out.
"Of course they will. People die all the time. The question is whether we can make their deaths meaningful. And what can do so better than ending all wars in this land?"
Her partner had a point, Louise thought. She had to admit it. But she couldn't help but go back to another conversation they had shared back when they were still in Tristania.
"You once asked me to become a Bonaparte." She said. "You still want me to choose, don't you? Between becoming a Bonaparte and becoming a Valliere?"
"You could say that." Napoleon said. "But think about the differences. If you choose the Vallieres, you will-"
Louise spoke up. Napoleon instantly fell silent and stared at his partner.
"I refuse to become a Bonaparte." Louise said. "But I will also refuse Gramont's offer."
She wasn't sure what to think about Napoleon's plans. To conquer Helgekinia? It was insane, crazy! How could her partner ever plan such a thing? How could she accomplish this?
But the more she thought to herself, the more she accepted it. It was a crazy plan, but Louise was not surprised in the slightest by what Napoleon had said. She must have known all along that was his ambition. Was it really the right thing to do?
She did not know. But what she did know was this. She did not want to just abandon him. She could hope to return to the Vallieres later, even if she did not accept Gramont's offer. But if she chose Gramont, that would be the end between Napoleon and herself. And as annoying and aggravating as he could be, he was still her partner. Partners did not just split up at the first sign of difficulty.
"I will stay here." She said. "Of course, I guess 'stay' isn't the right word. From what the nobles said when we returned, we will likely retreat north."
"We won't." Napoleon said. "With you here, Louise, I have a plan. A plan to not just survive, but win."
Louise could not help but grin. Her partner was facing one of the greatest generals in Tristain history and had already been completely outsmarted by that general. Multiple opposing armies were possibly converging on them, the Alliance nobles were irritated if not outraged that he had been tricked by Gramont, and her mother loomed in the distance.
And he still declared that he had a plan to win. Was it bravery, lunacy, or genius? Possibly all three? And if he was insane, what was she for going along with it?
"So, what is it?" She asked.
"Let's review what Gramont has done." Napoleon said. "He was originally stationed southeast of our men. Using his stupid magic tricks, he marched north and then west around our army, stationing his army on a series of hills between us and Tristania. By doing so, he has placed us in check. Without access to Tristania, he intends to restrict our flow of supplies, and wait for additional reinforcements. There are definitely soldiers coming from the southeast where he came from, and there might be soldiers coming from Walloon territory from the east. He likely intends to hit us from different directions when the time is ready."
Louise nodded, but she did not really understand what Napoleon was getting at.
"So, what are you saying?"
"That Gramont has made a mistake." Napoleon said. "One I intend to exploit, and which will be particularly relevant for him and no one else. And also, Louise…"
He reached for his sword and pulled it out of the scabbard. On his left hand, the Gandalfr runes glowed.
"I'd say it's high time I finally use this."
A rat squealed in pain, writhing to escape the boot which pressed on its back. But the boot showed no mercy. It continued to press harder and harder onto the rat's body. Finally, with a last screech of pain, the rat popped like an overripe cherry. Blood spattered in all directions, including onto the dress of Karin Valliere.
"It's already ruined anyways." She muttered to herself.
Dead rats surrounded her in all directions, their corpses strewn all over the floor and furniture of the Wardes estate. It was not just in this room. After Wardes-Siesta had attacked her, he had fled down the hallways of his mansion. Karin had raced to pursue her, but at every turn, she had been harassed by the abominable creatures. Wardes must have sent hundreds, if not thousands of rats to attack and attempt to wear her down.
He better have a backup plan if that's the case, Karin thought to herself. It cost her practically no willpower to use her main spell, the Heavy Wind over and over. Whenever the rats surrounded her, a gust of razor blades sliced them into bits.
But there was little doubt Wardes had a plan. Karin went from room to room, kicking down doors and searching for the vanished master of the house. She wandered around aimlessly momentarily, and then calmed herself down. There was no point running around. Wardes would not just let Karin rampage, he would strike back. She had to be ready for whatever it was.
Karin kicked down the next door she came across, and stopped. She stood in a long hallway, with sunlight beaming through the windows. Wardes stood at the other end of the hallway. He held a wand in his right hand, but Karin did not recognize the object in his left. It looked like a pistol, but it was made of black metal. Karin had never seen anything like it, and she also noted that Lady was not with him.
"Wardes." She breathed. "Are you going to give-"
Karin then felt something dangerous. Without even fully understanding why, she jumped forward.
Her judgment proved correct. Right where she had stood, two arms erupted from the ground. They were translucent and looked as if they were the arms of some ghost. A malicious grin on his face, Wardes raised his wand arm.
A wall of earth suddenly emerged between Wardes and Karin. It shot forwards towards Karin, and spikes of earth emerged to impale their enemy. Karin ran towards the wall, her wand glowing with energy.
A blast of wind magic destroyed the wall of earth, breaking it into tiny pieces. Most of the windows in the hall shattered from the impact of Karin's spell. Glass scattered onto the floor, and a fragment cut into Karin's cheek. She paid no attention to the wound, turning to handle the ghostly hands that chased after her.
But it was too late. Karin had been forced to leave herself open to stop Wardes's spell. She attempted to dodge the hands, but they seized her. One grasped her right wrist, where she held her wand. The other wrapped around her neck.
"Well, well, what is this? The great Heavy Wind taken down so easily?" Wardes chortled.
The hand around Karin's neck choked the breath out of her, preventing her from uttering any new spells. To any other mage, this would have been a fatal blow. But it was not so with Karin. She twisted her wand around and aimed it at the ghostly hand. Without uttering an incantation, she launched her favorite spell, the Heavy Wind, at the hands.
A blast of wind exploded in the hallway. Bits of wood and stone scattered as the hallway's walls were torn to bits. But the ghostly hands were entirely unaffected. Their grip grew stronger, and even Karin let out a sharp gasp of pain.
"Do you think I would bother using such a spell if your Heavy Wind could stop it?" Wardes chortled. "My, my, I thought you were smarter than that, Karin. Now, I have utterly no desire to kill you. That in fact would derail my plans. But I suppose if I just make you black out, you'll understand not to come back here."
The hand around Karin's neck tightened even further. A stream of drool dripped down her neck, and Karin looked around for a way to break this situation. Her eyes looked down at the ghostly hands, at how they were attached to the ground, and then she came to a realization.
The two ghostly hands had grasped Karin's right hand and neck, but her left hand remained free. Karin used her left hand to grab the wand out of her right hand and pointed it at the ground.
The ground exploded with the force of the Heavy Wind, and the hands instantly vanished into nothing. Karin dropped onto one knee and looked up at Wardes. With a grimace on his face, he whipped out his own wand…
But it was too late. Karin still did not have the air needed to cast a spell aside from the Heavy Wind, but it was all she needed. Another blast roared down on Wardes, and before he could protect himself, his wand-arm flew off the rest of his body.
Wardes-Siesta roared in pain, but Karin did not press her attack. She stopped for a moment, disturbed by what was dribbling out of Wardes's body. It was not blood. It was black and viscous, like honey. Wardes looked at his missing arm and then turned towards Karin, a snarl on his face.
"HOW DARE YOU!"
He pointed the pistol and fired, but Karin was prepared for that. She conjured up a shield of wind and watched as the bullet bounced off. But that was also strange, she thought to herself. Karin was no stranger to fighting gunmen, but that bullet's impact was far lighter than any other pistol or musket she had seen.
Wardes dropped the pistol on the ground and fell to his knees. His remaining left arm clutched his wound. Karin disengaged her shield and walked towards him.
"So, are you ready to talk?" She declared, her wand pointed at Wardes. "What is your goal? Why are you helping Guldenhorf? Why did you possess that girl, and how did you even accomplish it? I want the truth, Wardes!"
"The truth? Wardes gasped. "What is the truth? Do you think that truth exists at all in this world, Karin? Do you think that you, with your wonderful magic and powerful family and your claim to the throne, can ever comprehend what truth is?"
"I am not here for mind games."
"And neither am I. So I will tell you this, Karin. I study magic for magic's sake. And to do that, I want conditions which are the best for studying magic. If that means war, so be it."
Karin's eyes widened.
"You wanted a civil war?"
"I wanted a war." Wardes said. "A war is the only way I have a chance of improving my magic in the way that I want. I thought the Albion war would be sufficient to obtain my magical goals, but it ended faster than I had hoped. So I supported Guldenhorf not because I care about who rules this irrelevant kingdom. I did it because I knew Guldenhorf would back down if none of the other major families supported him, and I did not want that."
"And how is a war going to improve your magic?" Karin demanded.
At this, Wardes's lips hardened. Karin prepared to blast him again with the Heavy Wind, but then her senses again kicked into overdrive. Even without understanding why, she instantly focused on a defensive spell.
As she did so, Wardes rolled forward. With his left arm, he grabbed the pistol which he had dropped and pointed it at Karin.
The pistol? Karin thought to herself. Wardes had already shot that pistol, why was he going to grab it now?
But Wardes did not hesitate. He finished his roll and then aimed the pistol at Karin. Realizing that he was somehow going to shoot, Karin recast her magic shield…
But there was never any need to. Her manticore crashed through the remaining hallway windows with a loud roar. Wardes turned in desperation, but it was too late. The great beast opened its mouth and ripped off his other arm.
Wardes screamed through the pain and jumped away from Karin's familiar. The pistol slid through the air and landed at Karin's feet. She knelt down to pick it up and then looked over at Wardes, more of the black liquid dripping from his body.
"This pistol can shoot more than one bullet?" She asked.
Wardes said nothing. But with both of his arms gone, and with her manticore standing over him, Karin no longer had any reason to fear him. She pointed the gun outside the shattered windows and pulled the trigger.
The gun shot again, but nothing changed about it. Karin decided to pull the trigger again.
The pistol kept firing over and over again every time Karin pulled the trigger. After about ten or so shots, Karin wondered to herself whether this was a magical pistol that could somehow fire indefinitely. But shortly afterwards, the top part of the pistol suddenly slid back. When Karin pulled the trigger again, nothing happened.
"15 shots." She muttered to herself. "Where did you get a pistol that can shoot 15 times?"
Even without his arms, and Karin's manticore staring him down, Wardes said nothing. Karin dropped the pistol onto the ground, and then walked towards Wardes once again. But then, a great rumbling noise could be heard from within the mansion.
Karin's manticore had smashed the windows of the hallway, but the now-ruined hallway was smashed even further as something…massive emerged. It was the head of a white rat with red eyes. Karin could only see the head – but while her manticore was a little longer than she was tall, the head of this beast was as big as the two put together. But despite the difference in size, Karin knew instantly what this thing was.
The rat sniffed at being called by its name. It then opened its mouth and swallowed Wardes whole. Then with a poof of smoke, it suddenly transformed into its normal size and fled down the hallway.
Karin ran forward, but it was too late. Amidst the wreckage of this hallway and the Wardes mansion, there was no way she could track down a single rat. She looked towards the manticore, hoping that it sense of smell might help. But the creature shook its head and howled in dismay.
"Tch." She said.
The visit to Wardes's estate had been a failure, she thought to herself. She had come looking for answers, looking to understand the reasons for Wardes's actions. But while she had received some answers, it was not nearly enough. What did Wardes seek to gain by starting a civil war, she thought to herself? Was she working for a foreign agent, perhaps? He had discussed how he wanted to deal with King Joseph "alone"? How did he intend to do that? Who knows if he was even telling the truth?
Her manticore whined and nuzzled Karin, and she patted its head. As she did so, another thought came to her.
"The basement." She muttered to herself.
She had been to Wardes's estate many times in the past. From those visits, she knew that Wardes conducted most of his experiments in a basement underground. She had never been there herself, but she did know where the basement was located in this mansion. Because Wardes knew she knew, she doubted he would have fled there. But she might discover something of his plans in the meantime.
She stowed the strange pistol on her and signaled her manticore to follow. After walking through broken glass and dead rats, she found the door to the basement. She opened it and headed down.
Karin had her wand ready for any magical defenses, but nothing disturbed her in her long walk down. Eventually, she reached the bottom of the stairs and looked out at what she saw.
The manticore growled, and Karin's lips tightened in response to the sight below her. She muttered a few words, and her wand began to glow with magical energy.
In general, I don't like commentating on my own chapters, as I believe the work should stand and fall on its own merit. But there is something I would like to observe.
I select my quotes at the beginning of each chapter to be relevant to some of the key ideas in the chapter itself. But it is particularly so for this one.