A/N: If this chapter seems a little longer, why, yes, I am trying for longer chapters and shorter periods between updates.
Again, a reminder for everyone that the backstage discussion takes place over at forums period spacebattles period com/threads/znt-an-american-geek-in-halkeginia period 224847/ (remember to replace the 'period's with actual periods). That link, in actual copy-paste form, is also in my profile.
Developments, Part III:
"I am sorry, but it is more of the same. Your magic must not merely cause fire, eventually. It must be Fire." Louise trembled slightly, and Mr. Colbert paused for a moment, apparently waiting to see if she would say anything. "Come. Let us see if your explosions can breach the kind of earthworks that mages erect on the battlefield."
Louise clenched her fists at the pity in his voice. ["I was THAT CLOSE! So close to something more than cantrips and, and, and pretending my explosions will ever amount to anything."]
["Yeah."] Jason shook his head – then stopped abruptly. ["Closer than we were with Levitate, that afternoon."] He frowned. ["Too close."]
"Wait, Mr. Colbert." The teacher stopped at the door and looked at Jason inquiringly. "Give me a bit. I need to think through the physics, here." Because my phone works on this world, which means the laws of physics are identical to Terra's, except maybe for magic. And whatever magic says that 'Fire' is, fire itself is . . . gas heated to incandescence. Or something like that.
"You only need a spark to set wood on fire, if you do it right. The energy for the fire comes from the wood itself, sunlight soaked in leaves and carried through sap to grow root, branch, and bark. Fire releases that energy, leaving behind ash." He reached for the candle, and straightened the wick out in the mess at the top, then pulled Louise in front of him, rubbing her back and shoulders after he had her facing the candle again. "Luminous beings are we," he whispered into her ear. "Not dead clay, witless air, or cold water, but blazing with life. We burn." Louise shivered, he could feel her tremble under his hands. "Remember when you got Levitate to work. By your will, the mana goes into the wick. Slowly and gently, but hold it there. Do not let it free for anything."
Louise raised her wand, and began casting. Mr. Colbert left the door and approached the table, pulling his wand out once more as nothing happened for a long moment. Then a series of tiny explosions began to tear away at the wax column of candle – but it had not lost enough wax to collapse before the wick flared up and began burning steadily.
"That did seem to be fire," Mr. Colbert began, "but there were many tiny explosions before-hand. I do not know if this can be counted as progress."
Jason responded before Louise could get upset again. "Mr. Colbert, the first time she got Levitate to work, the explosion broke away most of the rock she was working with. But the pebble that was left was definitely levitating."
"Indeed? Well, then. In some two decades of teaching, I have never had a student whose magic was so awry that failure in one spell could be parlayed into success at another. Until now. Well done, Miss Vallière."
Louise grinned so broadly it almost cracked her face.
"So – think she can manage Fireball?"
"I almost shudder to think what Miss Vallière could do with Fireball."
"You – oh. Heh. Yeah, mixed with an explosion the effect would be damned near thermobaric, wouldn't it?"
That wiped the grin from Louise's face as she suddenly stared at Jason.
Mr. Colbert lifted an eyebrow. "You mean to say 'Thermobara', surely."
"I – what?"
"That is how the Duchess arrived at Heavy Wind, after all. By her retirement the crest of Aerobara was very famous in military circles."
"You think I can really pull it off?" Louise's voice was downright giddy. It was almost scary.
"I have no doubt that Jason has had every confidence in you from the beginning. For myself, I am persuaded that it is not impossible."
She started laughing, nigh-hysterically, and Jason quickly guided her to the closest chair.
"Okay, what did I just say?! I'm missing something important, here."
"Jason. It does not do to claim too lofty a title as an inexperienced mage. It is fine to claim a specialty, or even show off a family trait. But to declare oneself, oh, a 'Hurricane', especially as a cadet or student, is to invite scorn from anyone with enough experience to have earned a reputation. However, an ambitious youngster might hunt through obscure dialects of ancient Romalian to find something that can be interpreted more . . . innocuously. Until a sufficiently grand reputation develops."
"Aero . . . hurricane . . ." Jason's jaw worked for a moment. "Did I just name Louise the Firestorm?"
She jumped of the chair and leapt at him, arms around his sides in a bearhug so tight it was almost hard to breathe. Mr. Colbert was not even trying to keep from snickering as he watched the two of them.
"Unfortunately," the teacher finally responded, once they were both able to pay attention again, "the title of Heavy Flame would bring considerable attention to any daughter of your mother. For the time being, it seems very unwise to risk that degree of scrutiny. Your present title must stand until you can decisively prove to have outgrown it."
"But I'm not the Zero anymore."
"No, you are not, and so I will inform the Headmaster. Your parents will be very proud of you."
Louise flinched, ever so slightly, and buried her face in Jason chest. "They'll be relieved I'm not completely useless," she muttered loud enough for them to hear.
Mr. Colbert looked stricken, and started to open his mouth, but Jason held up a hand and shook his head. The teacher nodded in concession, and the sweep of his hand granted relieved custody of this latest angst to Jason.
["You don't mean that, or were you lying when you said you'd let yourself cry in front of your father? In his arms, I'd wager."]
[". . . That's not fair."]
["Am I mistaken?"]
[". . . No."]
["Then your mother. So, is she cruel, like your sister? Or merely stern and demanding? Could you earn praise, even if only grudging praise, in fields not related to magic?"]
Louise didn't respond for almost a minute. ["Did you meet her, somehow?"]
["No, but if she's such a legend that it's hazardous for her daughter to mimic her mage title, I'll bet she's led troops to victory through battles terrible enough to daunt even a blooded veteran. A commander who can do that is often very sparing in praise to those she leads – and they know that if she has little mercy to spare them, she will have absolutely none for her foes."]
["That's – some of the stories I've overheard from the older retainers are . . . they'd follow her if she decided to besiege Hel's own castle."]
["The thing about that is, it's rarely a good way to be a parent. Children, young children especially, need to be secure in the knowledge that they are loved. But I wouldn't be surprised if your mother is badly out of practice when it comes to hugs and cuddling. Hint. Hint."]
She pulled her head back from his chest and stared him in the eye, incredulous. "You want me to, to-"
"I want you to forgive, yes. Because any parent can make mistakes, and never realize it. Because, Louise, I will name for you now the deepest fear of both your father and your mother." Jason took a deep breath, and his voice dropped half an octave. "That if a miracle does not happen, that one day their baby girl will be left, helpless, to the mercy of those who neither love her, nor cherish her, nor respect her, nor value her above a pawn."
Mr. Colbert's eyes were wide(and suspiciously moist), one hand over his mouth, and Louise buried her face in Jason's chest again, trembling and shuddering as he held her.
It took her several minutes to stop.
She finally pulled away, leaving a suspiciously damp spot on Jason's shirt. "I apologize for my loss of composure, Mr. Colbert."
"No apology is necessary. But perhaps a soak in the bathhouse, and then rejoin us for luncheon?"
Louise nodded. ["Carry me?"]
["Always and forever, if need be."]
Mr. Colbert did not speak for a moment when Jason rejoined him, after dropping Louise off at the bathhouse. "I had hoped," he finally said, "that she had settled down from the flightiness of adolescence, when you two returned from that month of leave."
"Well, Kirche hasn't been studying with us during the summer," Jason pointed out. "I've found Louise doesn't put on the braggadocio when she doesn't have a Zerbst to compete with."
"Then I am tempted to separate them, come fall."
"Yeah, but . . . ugh. I couldn't blame you if you did. And, well, Louise can finally start learning real Fire Dots, but Kirche has at least two Triangles down."
"Three, as it happens, and Miss Zerbst has obtained permission to study two more independently during the summer break."
"Okay, five Triangles. If Louise has to struggle for each spell, well, if there are classes for First Forms focusing on Fire, maybe it would be best to have Louise attend those?"
Mr. Colbert rubbed his chin. "There are advanced classes for First Form students who have already displayed an affinity. They are usually taught by Third Form students who are contemplating a career in academia. The possibility was offered to Miss Vallière shortly after you arrived, but she turned it down most emphatically. She did not tell you?"
"Louise was pretty ambivalent towards me, at first. Hmmm. I'll bet she guessed that I would have tried to persuade her to take remedial Fire, even if it meant more scorn from Kirche. For now . . . let's see how hard it is for Louise to master Ignite and Fireball. If she can be ready to learn Lines by the start of fall, she'll probably be able to maintain her composure better."
"And this apparent issue with her family?"
"She's always felt like she's failing her family by not measuring up, and who knows how long she's been worried that she might be cast out of the proper nobility? Once she has Ignite down properly, there's no chance left that she'd ever be declared inexprimé, right?"
"Correct. Although I should warn you that while the Duchess undoubtedly loves her daughter, she is likely to hold Miss Vallière to the same high standards that the eldest Miss Vallière is known for."
"That's Eléanore, right? From what I've heard, all the sternness of their mother without any of the compassion or worry hidden behind it."
"That . . . wouldn't surprise me. The eldest Miss Vallière does have a reputation for a sharp tongue and a quick temper."
"Well, once Louise patches up her relationship with her mother, we'll see about getting her sister to respect her. In the meantime – the revolvers?"
Cleaning the revolvers was probably a lot easier with Halkagenian magic to help things along than it had been back on Terra in the 19th century. They seemed to be holding up decently under the strain of firing, although Jason had only expended a couple dozen rounds through them. If he and Mr. Colbert (alright, mostly Mr. Colbert) had managed a design that could stand up to hundreds of discharges, that would be great. If not, there were spells of preservation, which would also likely help with cleaning, but each revolver would then be massively more expensive. (At least, until they were redesigned. But this was still proof-of-concept stage.)
With the cleaning and examination out of the way, there was time before lunch to head to the firing range Mr. Colbert had set up – the same field Louise had been practicing in, only refined a bit. Jason had felt it was safe enough to admit that he hadn't missed any of his shots in the fight(although he was starting to worry that Mr. Colbert might soon have enough data to piece together the entire story), and that level of accuracy was ludicrous without a great deal of practice. It was time to see if he could get Gandálfr's blessing to work again.
"It's possible," the teacher had pointed out, "that the archangel chose to retain agency over the circumstances wherein your battle-blessing activates. But if Gandálfr bestowed the runes and the blessing upon you as a familiar power, then the ability to use it likely pertains to your relationship with Miss Vallière as her familiar."
"So this could be a waste of time?"
"Determining the parameters of an unprecedented power possessed by an unprecedented type of familiar? No, this is no waste of time, whatever the outcome."
Whether it was a waste of time or not, it was frustrating to see his hit patterns wander all over the targets, instead of the precise and confident shooting he'd managed that night against the Albionian renegades. A dozen discharges later from each of the revolvers, and Jason was cleaning the barrels with a decidedly sour expression.
"This isn't proof of anything," Mr. Colbert pointed out, soothingly. "As a human, you lack the stronger instincts of animals. You've had to train your ability to commune with Miss Vallière, correct? Perhaps this will similarly require practice."
"Yeah, except that I already got it to work, and now I can't."
"Then, as familiars exercise their powers in the service of their masters, perhaps you require Miss Vallière to command you to this?"
"Uh, I'm not sure . . . hell with it. Let's give it a try."
After reloading and taking a firing stance, he called out to Louise. ["My lady? How are you feeling?"]
["A lot better,"] she admitted. ["Does Mr. Colbert want me to practice Ignite until lunch?"]
["He hasn't said anything, no. We're trying to figure out if Gandálfr gave me a familiar power, or merely lent me one, if you take my meaning."]
There was a moment of silence while Louise apparently thought it over. ["That does sound like something we need to know."]
["Yeah. I mean, the runes on my hand were glowing, you'd think it means it was something I was given, but . . . I can't seem to get it to activate again. So here's a thought: What happens if you order me to battle?"]
["Do you have someone to fight?"]
["Er, not at the moment. Try anyway?"]
Once again, there was silence over the link for a moment – it almost felt to Jason like he could see her dubious expression.
["Alright. Go forth and defeat those targets in my name!"]
A moment passed.
["Did that do anything?"]
["It would be better to know how this works before we get involved in another fight."]
["I know. I know. I'll see what else we can think of."]
"No good. And, well, she can call me to her side through our link, and it tells me which direction she's in. So, I dunno. I'm kinda worried that she has to be in danger before I can use this. That would make it really hard to practice."
"Hmmmm. How confident of danger were you when you rushed to her side?"
"Pretty damn confident. Through the mental link, y'see."
"Ah. A pity. I had a thought that perhaps it was a matter of convincing yourself she was in danger, but-"
"Hold on, that sounds . . . well, at least I can try it."
"Yeah, it-" Louise could be in danger at any moment. Even now – whoever sent that draugr is still out there. Reconquista has this country infiltrated, Louise is Henrietta's childhood friend, she could be targetted at any time. If I can't do this I can't keep her safe. She needs me. She needs me!
Once again the world seemed to slow down, and every leaf, every blade of grass, and every scratch on the targets seemed distinct and countable. His eyes flickered over every shadow in view, dismissing them as non-threats, and finally Jason's attention settled on Mr. Colbert.
It did not take the teacher long to notice his regard. "Jason?" Mr. Colbert asked with a hint of concern.
He's tensing up. Getting ready to fight. Have to attack now if I want the element of sur-
Dropping the revolver so quickly that it was almost a convulsion, Jason took in a deep breath, trying to calm his suddenly-racing heart. "That was not what I was going for."
"I focused on the possibility of a threat to Louise, and – well, you were the only other person here. And if you were an enemy, you'd be a damned dangerous one."
Mr. Colbert was silent for a long moment. "I can't deny the truth of that," he eventually replied. "Perhaps this is intended solely for battle?"
"Well-" Jason broke off. "That just seems wrong. I mean, the archangel didn't take over during the battle. It was still me, I just didn't have to worry about fear or pain. And an archangel who gets involved in mortal affairs ought to have enough access to wisdom regarding mortals to know that for us, the more we sweat in practice, the less we bleed in battle."
"Then how do you propose to practice this without starting a fight?"
"I . . . I told myself there was danger, maybe I can make up a litany . . . left hand of – no, the Ivonova Boast is for facing down an enemy . . ."
"'I am a servant of the Heavy Fire, wielder of the brand of Gandálfr. The dark –', no, same problem. And Boondock Saints is right out."
"Sorry, uh, context. I'm trying to adapt legends of holy warriors, their words as they faced evil. Which – I need something more neutral. Affirming, but not neccesarily fighting."
"Hmmm. The Headmaster has a large collection of texts that claim to be pre-Romalian Empire. Some of the tales of Gandálfr, well, I wouldn't care to justify them to a Church inquiry, but many are suited to thrill the heart and set blood racing. Perhaps a transcription of one of them might work?"
"If I can't figure it out here, maybe. But let me try this." Jason picked the revolver back up, closed his eyes, and began to recite:
"'A paladin is sworn to valor.
His heart knows only virtue.
His blade defends the helpless.
His might upholds the weak.
His word speaks only truth.
His wrath undoes the wicked.'"
He eyes opened and he stared straight ahead.
"'I walk in the dark where no one will enter.
I stand on the bridge, and no one may pass.
I live for Louise, I will die for Louise.
In Gandálfr's name!'"
The runes flared briefly, and glowed steadily.
"You seem to be in better control," Mr. Colbert commented after a moment.
"I am," Jason replied. "Like the calm before the storm." He tilted his head, considering. "You were prepared to subdue me if necessary, yes?"
"Only if necessary."
"Good." He looked to the targets. "If I move about three paces closer, I can hit the bullseye every time. If I'm not somehow distracted. Otherwise . . . these revolvers are simply not accurate enough."
Mr. Colbert shrugged. "I've never claimed to be a master gunsmith. I have witnessed expert pistoleers perform trick shots at three times your specified range, but I'm sure their pistols were the best that money could buy.
"How close a grouping can you manage from here?"
"Let's find out."
There was that nagging feeling that he could make two-gun mojo work again, but Jason ignored it this time. This was practice, not desperate improvisation fueled by eucatastrophe, so there would be time later to try out Hollywood bullshit. (There was, of course, no reason to even think about holding the revolver sideways.) He took aim, quickly but confidently, and discharged all six rounds in about 10 seconds. Only one of the shots was a bullseye, but the rest were all within three or four inches of the center.
Mr. Colbert nodded. "I can see the difference your power makes. The increased confidence alone will make you more effective in battle." He paused, then continued with a small smile. "Although I doubt Miss Vallière will permit you to die for her."
Jason's answering smile was equally subdued. "And I intend to keep us both alive for a very long time. But while I stand here I am free of the fears of mortality – my blood does not chill and my flesh does not quail when I say that they will harm her only over my cold, dead body. And not even then, if I can find a way."
"Lovers have ever been prone to such oaths, but . . . well. By Brimir's grace, perhaps yours can stand firm. But you may wish to develop a faster litany to activate your power – any mage could have killed you a dozen times over during your recitation."
"I know. It's even one of the rules: 'If my transformation sequence takes longer than it takes for an enemy to launch an attack, I will figure out how to shorten it'." Even if I have to resort to 'Rune Power Makeup'. "Something to practice on my own. In the meantime, I want to try out one of my people's legends."
Jason held the revolver at a level closer to his waist. One of the nice things about his power – and he'd bet that any gun-lover back on Earth would call utter bullshit if they heard it – was that he didn't seem to need to sight along the barrel properly to have a good idea of where his bullets were going to end up. And it meant this trick might work right away. He pulled the trigger without cocking the hammer first . . . then fanned the hammer, discharging all six rounds in what couldn't have been more than a couple of seconds.
And then he had to sidestep quickly to avoid the especially large and dense cloud of smoke he'd just produced.
Mr. Colbert shook his head a bit as he examined the target. "Where you simulating a headshot after you took down the shields?" he asked, pointing to two of the new holes, one noticably above the bullseye, the other just below the top of the target.
"No." Jason tried to remember his scouting lessons. "No, I think that was muzzle climb."
"The revolver is basically trying to spin, with the trigger at the center of the rotation. Fire fast enough and you don't have enough time to bring the barrel back on target."
"Ah." Mr. Colbert shook his head again. "I think I may need to secure ear protection. The ringing from those fast discharges is not particularly pleasant."
"The – oh. Merde. Yes, we need ear protection. Play around with repeating firearms for long enough and you will go deaf."
Mr. Colbert lifted an eyebrow, offering Jason a very dry expression. "You did not consider this worth mentioning?"
"I hadn't thought about it. It's been years since I got to do any shooting. Most universities back home think that students get into too much trouble between the boozing and the wenching, no need to add deadly weapons to that."
Mr. Colbert opened his mouth for a moment, then closed it, and blinked a few times. "I must admit, I do have the occasional desire to diswand all the students between classes.
"In any event, you have demonstrated that you can gun down most any mage. Very few can erect a shield that will survive the impact of six bullets."
Jason had set the revolver down while Mr. Colbert was talking, and his runes faded just as the teacher finished. His stomach suddenly roiled.
"I – at one point I used the last bullets in the revolvers, and they only just knocked down a mage's shield. Then . . . then I bullrushed him, grabbed his swordwand, and drove it through his throat while he was still on the ground."
Mr. Colbert regarded Jason for a moment, then took the revolver and began disassembling it himself. "Is that the death that troubles you the most?" he asked quietly.
"The others all died on their feet, facing me – or at least able to turn and face me, and weapons in hand. This one – he was down, and I butchered him while he was helpless, because that's the only way I could make sure he wouldn't get back up."
"You feel you had already beaten him."
"I – yeah. I know it's stupid-"
"Did you have a spare ally to keep him subdued?"
"No. No, not at that point."
"Then you had no means of keeping a prisoner. That is one of the terrible differences between a courtyard duel and a true battle – all too often, one cannot afford to be lenient in battle."
"Yeah, I know, but-"
"Jason," Mr. Colbert said, gently. "Every warrior will accumulate deaths that he or she regrets. This is why I had hoped yours was a blessing of life, rather than life-taking. But sometimes, it's the enemy who chooses the battle, rather than yourself. All you can do is pray for the peace of the souls of the ones whose lives you had to take."
"I did, but – I think maybe I need to pray again."
"It can't hurt. Now, about that trick of yours."
"Please don't repeat it, at least not until I have spells of preservation put on one of the models. This revolver is too damaged to be safely fired again."
"Oh." Wince. "Sorry."
"I'm not saying it was a useless experiment to perform. Just that I do not have time to produce an endless supply of revolvers. In any event, it is nearly time for luncheon. I am sure Miss Vallière would appreciate an escort across the grounds."
Jason grinned. "On it."
"I have been thinking about many of the things you have told me," Mr. Colbert announced as they all (including Siesta) began to eat. More organ porridge for Jason, but he'd been able to keep the portion to a reasonable size this time. "And I have arranged for a modest supply of scrap lumber that can be blown up without issue."
"Shouldn't I be practicing Ignite, instead?"
"Yes, but that will be part of your practice as we previously discussed. Here, our concern is for you to master the spell that seems to be your unique purview."
"I'd rather focus on real magic."
"Miss Vallière, consider that in ten years' time, ambitious young mages may work themselves into exhaustion trying to replicate your explosions. If you can master them adequately."
Her eyes widened slightly, and then her chin firmed up in determination. "I know how to work hard."
"Good. I also would like to observe how your explosions can stun without injury. Or at least Jason seems to be fine – but it would be best if we know whether the effect is closer to Sleep or to bashing someone over the head with a hammer."
Louise flushed. Jason swallowed his bite and held up a forefinger. "No blurriness or dizziness or other sign of concussion, that I recall. So it ought to be on the safer side of things."
"Hopefully we will confirm that. If so, Miss Vallière will have a non-lethal means of disabling opponents, and that is always a good option to have available. For you, Jason, I would like to see how well your special talents apply to something like a quarterstaff."
"Hmmm. Little more complicated than pulling a trigger."
"Indeed, but there are many ways to disable your foe with a staff."
"Oh. Thank you."
Siesta looked at them all, one after another. "Has something happened? Did someone declare war on Tristain?"
"No, not yet," Jason replied. "But Albion has fallen to Reconquista. We're the next obvious target."
"And you'll be fighting?"
"It's not impossible. Louise is a target, both for herself and for who she's friends with. So we're practicing while there's time."
There was quiet for a moment as they all ate.
"Will you need help with any of this practice?" Siesta asked.
Mr. Colbert finished chewing and swallowed. "The rest of your duties would not interfere?"
"Even with the staff members who go home for the summer, there's not as much for the rest of us to do. If I'm busy helping I can get full pay instead of summer pay." She shrugged, overly-casual. "I have enough brothers and sisters at home that every écu I can send helps."
"Mmmm. In that case, yes, I can use another pair of hands. That being said, Siesta, while it would be fine to let slip that Miss Vallière is making good progress, the details thereof are not for under-the-stairs gossip."
"Of course!" Siesta nodded vigorously. "I'll let them know I'm helping you when I take the dishes back to the kitchen. Should I come back here, or go out to that field you've been using?"
"The field would be best. Dress for working outdoors."
Huh. At least a few authors back home like to claim that in medieval-level cultures, women will switch out the skirts for trousers if they have to work outside. Be interesting to see if that's the case here.
"My familiar power seems to work with swords and daggers, so a quarterstaff is probably going to work as well. Although – do you know how to fight with one?"
Mr. Colbert smiled thinly. "If I must engage in melee, the staff is my weapon-of-choice. I was also trained in the use of the sword-wand, but my skill will have withered over the years."
"Can you describe the difference? I mean, should we be looking at sword-wands for Louise, or a staff?"
Mr. Colbert raised an eyebrow, then glanced over at Louise, who had suddenly stopped chewing, eyes wide. "The sword-wand and the staff are both intended for fighting while one's magic is otherwise occupied. My Serpent-of-Fire is an obvious example, as are golems, waterspouts, and vortexes, for their respective elements. It wouldn't harm you, Miss Vallière, to begin to develop your skill with the weapons of the mage-knight, but nonetheless it will be some time before you can expect to master the spells that truly require them." He shrugged and picked up another bite, ready to pop it into his mouth. "It should not take you too much time to familiarize yourself with the basics of either, should you so choose."
"I-" Louise hesitated. "If Jason is able to use the staff well, perhaps he could help me learn that. But for now I want to focus on improving my magic."
"And if my power does help me with learning how to use weapons, I should probably learn the sword-wand as well." Jason smiled wryly at Mr. Colbert's quizzical expression. "Sword-wands look a fair bit like something my people call a rapier. It was a useful weapon, back when gun technology was about where Halkagenia is today. Among other things, it's concealable within an overcoat, which you told me I need to be getting anyway to wear over the pistol harness.
"I probably also want to learn how to use a hammer, since you guys do have heavily armored infantry, if I recall correctly."
"Such armor, properly warded, is the only way a soldier can hope to survive the full attention of a mage-knight," Mr. Colbert nodded. "But it's horribly expensive. Many soldiers prefer the hamata maille developed in Germania about 40 years ago. The sheets of linked rings are far cheaper, and easier to fit to the individual soldier, at that. But why a hammer, specifically?"
"Good armor can no-sell just about any sword. But once my strength is where it should be for a warrior my size, there's not much I won't be able to break through with a good enough hammer."
"At the upper end, the enchantments on a weapon matter as much as the weapon itself."
"Ah." Still, the Headmaster apparently made that sword I was using. Put that kind of enchantment on a hammer – and if he can duplicate the enchantments on Butterfly, I'm halfway to reconstructing Mjolnir.
By then they'd just about finished, so after Siesta and Jason cleared the table, Siesta left with an assurance that she would rejoin them in the field shortly.
Jason waited until she was gone to speak. "Keeping in mind that I am foreign, should I read anything into her sudden willingness to volunteer?"
"Her point about wages was well-made, but . . . perhaps." Mr. Colbert smiled. "I have heard that the two of you treat her almost as a cousin, so do not be surprised if she hopes to attach herself to your household, once one of you has one."
"One of us has one?" Louise sounded surprised.
"While your parents' donation to the Academy provides for a modest personal allowance, Miss Vallière, you cannot truly be said to have a household of your own at the moment. Your parents are unlikely to provide you with a personal estate while you are a student here, but it is possible that Her Highness will gift you one at her wedding or coronation.
"Jason, on the other hand, may well receive lands and a title from His Imperial Majesty, once he has made his presentation at the Imperial Court."
"But- oh." Louise frowned for a moment. "We should head out to that field, right?"
["Louise? Is something wrong?"] Jason sent as they got up to leave.
["I – later. I need to think."]
"Ow," Jason said, sitting up and rubbing his back.
"Is there lingering pain? A headache?" Mr. Colbert inquired, waving his wand over Jason's head, as Louise looked on, apprehensive. "There oughtn't be, according to this."
"No, just impact from the fall."
"Mmmm. Well. The effect is cruder than the Sleep spell, but that has the disadvantage that it may be resisted by the wary and determined. This is akin to a brainstorm, albeit gentler in effect. Thus you simply stiffened and fell over, rather than thrash around."
"That sounds good." Jason stood all the way up. "No harm done, Louise, and now you have a knockout spell."
"Fine. But I don't want to practice it any more on you. People who have brainstorms can hurt themselves!"
"True, but the Academy has a supply of vermin for 3rd Form healers to learn dissection. They should suffice for further practice. Now, on to the wooden scrap."
The first test with the scrap was to see if Louise could push things around by putting an explosion in the middle of several objects. This turned out to work very well, in that the pieces of wood were shoved quite a distance, but without any particular damage to them. The next test was to see what would happen if Louise exploded one of the larger chunks of scrap. They were all but ready when Jason decided to interrupt.
"You know, I kinda wish we had an Earth expert here. To raise a wall to hide behind."
"Do you think it's necessary?" Mr. Colbert responded.
"Maybe not. Probably not, even. But if we do need it, we'll have been very glad for one."
"Hmmm." Mr. Colbert quickly cast his shield spell on the four of them. "This is what I use when I am working with something volatile in the lab."
"Ah." And why didn't I think of that? He even mentioned it to me, a couple of days ago. "Well, then. Louise, let 'er rip."
There was a loud crack as Louise's explosion hit the chunk of wood, which promptly disappeared. They all watched as the larger and more visible splinters reached the tops of their own personal arcs and descended to land in a rough circle around the center where the wood chunk had once been. One particularly large piece landed about 10 feet to the left of the four of them.
"I see your point about protection. Miss Vallière, I believe this trial has also been successful, and I shall see about procuring the necessary material for implementing it in combat. In the meantime, with Siesta's help, see how precisely you can push things around. In a half-circle rather than the full explosion, or one item out of an entire group, that sort of thing."
This was what Siesta was going to be for – moving wooden scrap back into position for Louise to practice on. Siesta, as it happened, was simply wearing a sturdier dress than the uniform she wore inside, although the basic pattern was still what Jason was pretty sure was called a "French Maid" outfit back home on Terra, if those had been designed for actual maids and not sexual fetishism. He supposed that it was likely similar to whatever style of uniform that actual maids back home had used, prior to electricity.
With Louise set up for practice, Mr. Colbert led Jason a short distance away and handed him a staff. "See if you can call upon your power again."
"Right." And let's see if I can't shorten it a little. "I live for Louise, I will die for Louise. In Gandalfr's name!"
His runes flared again, and he felt the staff in his hands, a sense of how strong it was, how far he could push it before it broke. He could tell he didn't have good leverage for any strike that he might attempt, so Jason adjusted his grip until it felt 'right', then moved the staff into a position that wasn't too very different from the guard positions he'd done in haste during the fight two days prior. With those distractions out of the way, he could tell that his feet weren't set right, so he adjusted his stance until that was better too. Then he looked up to see Mr. Colbert watching him, one eyebrow raised.
"No serious foe will give you that much time to position yourself," the teacher pointed out.
"I know. I'll need to practice it. At least this thing is giving me some idea of the right thing to do."
"Mmmm. Let me demonstrate a few drills, then you can try them yourself."
Mr. Colbert moved fluidly through the staff katas, and Jason felt like an utter oaf trying to mimic him. Worse, even, because his power was letting him know in no uncertain terms how badly he was doing. The best he could say was that it didn't take him quite so much time to get back into a guard stance at the end. He looked at the teacher's expressionless face and winced. "Again?"
Mr. Colbert nodded.
Jason's runes fizzled out around mid-afternoon, and his legs gave out about half-a-second later. Mr. Colbert was there in moments, wand out and casting.
"Jason, do you feel empty, or perhaps drained?"
"I feel – tired. And sore, my muscles are-" He quickly stretched out to stop his legs from cramping. "But maybe – not in my heart or lungs, but behind them in my mind's eye, there's this – yeah. Drained. That's a good word for it."
"That is your mana. It is not truly empty, it is possible for any mage to reach for more, but the cost begins to express itself on the body and mind. To death, even, for the particularly foolhardy."
"I've never felt that before. There was never anything to feel, not even after Louse summoned me."
"Until you used enough, you likely wouldn't notice. And if you were injured enough to need more than one session of healing from experts, you were likely distracted the first time. A good night's rest ought to be sufficient to replenish you."
"Ought to be?"
"It is for most mages. But we do not have records on mana exhaustion for familiars."
"Oh." Jason wiped the sweat from his eyes, and looked up to notice Louise and Siesta had approached, looking concerned. "I'm fine, girls. Just ran out of mana and I'm not in quite the shape I thought I was. I guess I need to figure out how to extend my mana pool."
"That could prove difficult. The known exercises are for mages, who can cast spells. For now, until something can be worked out, I think it best to make the most of what you have."
Mr. Colbert held out a hand and helped Jason up. "Your power was clearly sustaining you, and that will be interesting to test in itself, but with better conditioning you will not need such help in the future."
"Oh. Huh. Okay, more exercise. Um, I've been doing what I know how to do, but – any suggestions?"
"Yes. Come with me." Mr. Colbert looked at Louise and Siesta. "Miss Vallière, unless you are equally exhausted, I'd advise you to return to practice."
Louise nodded. ["You're sure you're okay?"] she sent as Jason and Mr. Colbert headed out.
["Yeah. It was even starting to be fun, once my body started to catch up with my sense of how things ought to be."]
"So, was I really getting better, before my runes gave out?"
"Much faster than a raw recruit, yes. Your progress was uneven, though – it seemed betimes you knew precisely what you were doing, and at others you were fumbling around just as the aforementioned recruit."
"Part of me does know exactly what I'd doing, when the runes are glowing. Not up here, though," Jason tapped his head. "More like reflexes that haven't been used in a long time. But this thing is for fighting. I want to make sure I know what I'm doing, not just acting on instinct."
"I cannot fault that. But for now, let us focus on your conditioning."
"Yeah. Where are we going, anyway?"
Jason paused for a moment before actually entering the bathhouse. Mr. Colbert turned and gave him a questioning look.
"This won't set off any alarms or anything, if a commoner enters, right?"
"No, otherwise it would never be cleaned." Mr. Colbert turned back to go inside, but his voice was very dry as he continued. "And as a familiar, it is not considered unseemly for your master to bring you to the bathhouse to groom you, if your duties have made you especially filthy."
Jason opened and closed his mouth several times as he followed the teacher inside. "Bet the rules didn't exactly have me and Louise in mind," he finally managed to say as they came to a door at the end of a small hallway.
A small but undeniable smirk complemented the twinkle in Mr. Colbert's eyes as he gestured Jason through the door. "The gymnasium," was all he said, waving around at the room, filled with variations on exercise equipment. "Hang your clothes on the rack on the wall. Hopefully the largest loincloth will fit you – if not, I'm sure Siesta can arrange to have a larger one sewn."
"Yeah, I'm sure." At least they weren't going to be completely naked for this, like the ancient Greeks, but Jason grimaced as he tied the loincloth on. His belly was smaller, yes, but still big enough to spill a bit over the strip of cloth around his waist. It was even more annoying since the older man was thin as a rail.
Mr. Colbert showed Jason how to use the various equipment, which mostly wasn't too different from what you'd find in a Terran gym, and had him run through a series of routines a couple of times to get a feel for how they worked.
"I would have you do a full workout right now, but I can tell you are not recovered from this afternoon. So I will expect you to perform a light workout each morning, and I will design a schedule of heavier exercises for later in the day."
"This won't be a problem? I mean, really, I'm here using the bathhouse for nobles and I'm definitely not one."
"There may be some complaints after the students return for the fall, but during the summer the gymnasium sees-" the door opened and a blond young man – Guiche, that was his name! - walked in, already in a loincloth. He stopped and eyed the two of them, but after a moment went to a machine Mr. Colbert hadn't introduced Jason to and began to do an exercise routine. Mr. Colbert sighed and continued. "The gymnasium will see little use until autumn. For now, let us clean off and return to the range."
The two retrieved their clothing and headed to the actual baths. Jason waited until they were scrubbing off and therefore far enough away to be out of earshot before asking. "So what was, uh, Guiche, using that machine for?"
Mr. Colbert eyed him narrowly for a moment before responding. "That particular device is designed to sculpt a... pleasing appearance in the stomach."
"Okay, the kid does have a bit of what we'd call a six-pack back home on Terra. Y'know," Jason grabbed a generous pinch of his own belly, "I really need to get rid of this stuff."
"That will come in time, without needing to waste effort on artificial measures."
"Jason." The flat tone was as annoyed as he'd ever seen the teacher, except maybe when Mr. Colbert had gotten into his short duel with the wind teacher. "Do you know how much time I am spending every day on things related to you?"
"Um – a lot."
"Nearly all of it, right now. I have good reason, of course. The items you have brought are fascinating, the knowledge you can remember is tantalizing, and the Headmaster is very interested in any data on how your powers develop. But I expect you to understand that neither you nor I have any great amount of time to waste on vanity."
"Yes, sir. It's just, well, it'd be nice if I looked better."
"That will come, and when your strength nears its mundane limits, there will be more time to spend on hounding away any last pinches of unwanted flesh." Mr. Colbert smiled faintly. "Your young lady does not seem to mind your girth too much."
"Yeah she does. She doesn't make a fuss, but back when we met she was ready to make a huge deal out of my weight until I proved that I wanted to get rid of the flab."
"Ah. That strange diet of porridge, nuts, and raw fruits and vegetables?"
"Hey, it works. I did have to send a request to increase the portions of rabbit food a couple of times, but, eh. Mom always did tell me I needed to eat more veggies." Jason decided that he was about as clean as he could manage, and began drying off. The local towels weren't really as good as the ones back home, but they did okay.
"You rarely, if ever talk about your family," Mr. Colbert observed quietly, after apparently waiting to see if Jason would say anything else.
He didn't respond for a long moment. "I love them, and they're well-enough off that they aren't hurting for anything, but . . . by now they almost have to think I'm dead. I try not to think about that, nothing I can do, but if Brimir left some clue on how to traverse the worlds, I will be all over that. Even if I can only send a message, that'd mean a lot." Jason turned away to hide the sudden blinking he had to do.
They had dried off, dressed, and almost made it to the exit before Guiche came out of the gymnasium. Spotting them, his eyes lit up, and he raced down a side corridor.
"What was that about?"
Mr. Colbert shook his head. "I fear that de Gramont wishes to make an evening's entertainment out of us. Can you run, perchance?"
"I can walk fast."
They were almost fast enough to make it to the range before Guiche caught up with them. Louise stopped practicing as she saw the three of them approach, and waved Siesta to take a breather.
"What are you doing here, Gramont?" she demanded of the blond boy in a none-too-friendly tone.
"I saw that you were having your commoner trained up and – are you trying to practice for war? What will you call yourself, the Warlord of Zero?" He finished with a giggle at his own wit.
Please tell me that Draco Malfoy didn't somehow jump worlds. Jason found himself growling, just a bit, until Mr. Colbert thumped him lightly on the shoulder, and shook his head no.
"Miss Vallière is perfectly justified in practicing her magic during the summer months. A level of dedication that many students sadly lack."
"That only the Zero needs! And how are you supposed to teach her to fight when she can cast zero spells?"
Louise stepped forward, gripping her wand – only to stop abruptly due to the staff Mr. Colbert raised to bar her way. "A son of your father, who does not understand why mage-knights carry sword-wands into battle? Sad."
Guiche flinched a tiny bit, but then stood straight. "You don't carry a sword-wand. You can't teach her how to fight because you don't practice how to fight yourself."
"Sometimes, skills are best unlearned. But were you so dazzled by my demonstration with Professor Kaita that you need it repeated?"
Guiche rolled his eyes. "Triangle against line, that's fair. And that's not the point! The Zero can't cast anything better than a cantrip – handling cantrips, that was the extra strength her 'familiar' brought her. And how can her commoner even fight for her? I'm the youngest of my family, and I command seven bronze Valkyries, each of whom is worth an orc. That's my fighting strength, and no commoner can hope to match it."
"'Each worth an orc'? That is quite the boast to make." Mr. Colbert shrugged off his outermost coat. "Back up, all of you."
Once they had complied, he gripped his staff, and conjured his Flame Snake.
"Show me the measure of your fighting strength, de Gramont," he said as he set the fiery serpent flying in a figure-eight loop. "In this scenario, I am a mage involved in a duel with another mage of equal strength and cunning, and cannot divert my snake for even a moment. I have no magic to spare, only my staff. Take advantage of my distraction, and take me captive."
Guiche glared, but gestured with his rose, all the petals falling to the grass. Where they landed, there arose each a gleaming bronze construct, armed with spears. Two of them lumbered towards Mr. Colbert, one raising its spear to threaten him with the shining, barbed point, the other reversing its grip to strike at the target with the butt of its spear.
Mr. Colbert parried the strike with his staff, then struck his own blow, knocking the spear halfway out of the grip of the construct. While that one tried to recover, Mr. Colbert did something that Jason couldn't describe any better than 'a hooking swing?', knocking the one Valkyrie into the other, and causing both of them to collapse.
The teacher stepped back, and held a relaxed guard pose while the now open-mouthed Guiche tried to get his two constructs standing again. There was silence until he had succeeded in this.
"While you were gaping at the predicament of your command, I had time to advance on you, create an opening, and subdue you before returning my full attention to duel I was having," Mr. Colbert pointed out. "That is one loss for you, de Gramont. Would you like to take this fight seriously, now?"
Guiche snarled, and gestured six of his bronze figures forward.
"Retaining one to guard yourself, good thinking," Mr. Colbert said approvingly. "But to overwhelm a foe with numbers requires one thing above all: Coordination!" With that he began moving so fast he was almost a blur, and Jason couldn't even begin to follow the older man's staff as it flickered around, knocking spears from bronze hands, forcing bronze figures to crash into each other, entangling, and even popping a few bronze limbs out of their connecting sockets.
When he finished, dropping back into that same relaxed guard, the tangle of bronze limbs was so convoluted that Guiche, after staring for a few moments, simply dismissed them all. Then Guiche looked up at the witnesses to his humiliation – faces calm, guarded, and in one case gleeful – and ran off.
"You can teach Jason to do all that, right?" Louise demanded excitedly.
"Yes, I believe so. Much faster than it took me to learn, even."
She jumped up and down, shaking her fists in the air and crowing in delight.
Siesta looked worriedly in the direction Guiche had run off in. "Will he be alright?" she asked, doubtfully.
"I'm sure his pride is wounded sore, but such must happen to any young man as he matures. If he shows signs of taking his defeat too hard, I will seek him out in a day or two."
"But, he's all alone right now, not even a lover to sympathize. Jason, can't you go make sure he'll be fine?"
"Why would Jason care-" Louise shut her mouth as Jason held up a hand.
"I don't know what good I could do. But I'll go check, make sure he's not going to do anything stupid. Alright?"
Siesta nodded and smiled gratefully. Louise scowled, but also nodded.
Mr. Colbert rubbed his chin. "Supper approaches. We'll call this the end of today's lessons. Jason?"
"The Gramont family guards the secrets of the spells they use for their constructs. But if those constructs can benefit from practice, well, it would save time in the long run if you had someone to spar with."
"Ah. I see. Well, I'll see what I can do." With that, he headed off.
It wasn't particularly hard to follow Guiche's trail. The kid hadn't made for one of the paths, so all Jason had to do was follow the disturbed grass into the middle of one of the tiny orchard/groves the Academy maintained. This one had – this one had some last few cherries ripening in the branches! Cherry season had come and gone and no one had said anything!
Because we're not on a noble diet, idiot. Get into shape, and maybe next year.
After giving himself a quick smack to the back of the head, Jason continued into the grove and found Guiche sitting on a hillock in the middle. The kid was sitting, legs pulled up so he could put his chin on his knees, fists clenched, shaking, and wrapped around his legs, and a peculiar expression that Jason had occasionally seen on the faces of his little brothers – and on Louise that one time he'd had her beat her frustrations out on him.
"Um . . . are you crying?"
"No!" Guiche blinked furiously and half-turned to hide his face.
Right. "Dust in the air?"
". . . Yes," came back the sullen reply.
Only Louise gets cuddles when she's in tears. I'm sticking by that. One silly fop of a noble isn't my-
Said fop sniffed loudly.
Jason sat down next to Guiche, leaving plenty of space between them, and gingerly reached out to pat the smaller boy on the back. "It's not . . . hey, wanna talk about it?"
"Like you care!"
"Meh. This isn't my Brimir-given task like it would be with Louise, but you can't deny I'll have picked up some experience helping mages who aren't feeling up to snuff."
"I am not a cripple like the Zero!" Guiche's hands clenched even harder for a moment.
"No, but – I get the feeling that in the hands of your father, a bronze Valkyrie would have been the equal of an orc."
"Hmph. Father's constructs are stronger than any orc!"
"So that's the standard your older siblings set, then? Tell me if I'm wrong, kiddo, but it sounds a lot like someone forgot to teach you the basics of the family secrets before sending you to the Academy."
Guiche's face turned almost purple when Jason called him 'kiddo', but the rest of the statement gave him a much more introspective look. "They taught me what I needed," he finally said. "I didn't have time for more practice, not with the rest of my education."
"Oh? What else did they stuff in your head? Tactics and strategy? Fortifications, logistics, transportation?"
"Wha- no! Etiquette, proper manners. I've memorized over two-hundred ballads, I-"
"Hang on. Aren't you supposed to be growing up to be an officer?"
"An officer and a gentleman. Mother says that a proper gentleman blooms like a rose for the ladies of his court."
Jason thought about that for a moment. "Uh-huh. Did she do this with the rest of your brothers and sisters?"
"I don't have sisters. And my brothers," Guiche thought about it for a moment. "They must have run off from lessons too many times. Sometimes they're a little... boorish."
"Speaking frankly, would that translate to 'a lot boorish, most of the time'?"
Guiche opened his mouth for a long moment, but said nothing. Finally he closed it and nodded. Then he flushed. "Mother would slap me if she saw me agree with something so uncharitable said about family."
"Sticking up for your family is a good idea, in the main. By the way, how much older is the youngest of your older brothers? What's the age gap?"
"Antoine is almost ten years older than me. Why?"
"Just collatin' data, as they say. How big a court does your Mother have? For you to bloom for, I mean."
"All of the wives of Father's officers, of course. Why?"
Wait, does that imply that all the officers are men? Eh, check later. "So, is that a big group? I mean, does your Father report to the Crown, or to another officer?"
"You don't know of the de Gramont family?"
"Kiddo, I'm foreign. From beyond Halkagenia, I mean. And I've been working with Louise on her magic, not on local politics. So, you're my introduction to your family."
"Oh." Guiche rocked back. "Yes, Father owes commission directly to the Crown. And Mother's court has over a hundred ladies who attend. They're mostly petty nobility, some of them only have title through their husbands' commissions, but they're all ladies."
"Mmm. Gonna hazard a guess, here, that your Mother arranged most of your education."
"Gonna hazard another guess now. And that's that your brothers were mostly taught to your Father's expectations."
Guiche opened his mouth, then closed it again. "That- that would make a lot of sense," he said in a much smaller voice.
"Oh? Do they tease you for being a bit, er, fancy?"
"How did you-? Does your master have the same problem?"
"No, it's just part of a pattern that isn't all that unusual. So how much of this education of yours was spent practicing how to pay court to women?"
"Well, of course Mother made sure I knew how to be properly charming." Guiche's face scrunched up again. "Everyone told me how wonderfully I did it back home. Why doesn't it work here?" That last came out almost as a wail.
"Really? You were able to, ahem, take your rest in the bosoms of your mother's ladies?"
Guiche turned his face to stare at Jason in scandalized shock so fast that it was a wonder he didn't crack his neck. "Of course not! That would be fomenting mutiny! I didn't even, nor with their daughters – I wasn't to take more than a kiss. Mother and Father both made that very clear." He paused for a moment. "But I was able to get dozens of kisses. Now, none of it seems to work."
"Oh, it was working well enough – right up until you tried your mojo on more than one of the students here, and didn't tell them you were planning on seeing other women."
"A gentleman does not crassly boast of his exploits among women." Guiche delivered this in a lofty tone.
"Yeah, and that works right up until the women start comparing notes. Or when they seek you out while you're spending time with another paramour."
"Oh. You saw that." This time he was glum.
"No, Louise did. I was sitting across from her. But from the laughter, it sounded like every new Second Form student saw it."
"It's not like I was doing anything wrong," Guiche muttered. "Lot's of officers have mistresses, and a flower is supposed to bloom for the enjoyment of as many as possible."
"Well, I may not be completely studied up on local customs, but there's a saying among my people that Hell has no fury like a woman scorned."
"I wasn't scorning anyone!"
"Oh, depends on what you told 'em. Were you trying to make them both feel like the most special woman in the world?"
That got Guiche to be quiet for a moment. "It would be ungracious of me if I didn't compliment them," he finally responded.
"Yeah, but it's part of the magic of young love. The feeling that this person thinks you're the most wonderful thing in the world, and all that. Except then they both found out that you'd made another young lady feel the same way. Which means you were lying to at least one of them, and if you didn't promptly pick one of them to side with, that was some fairly compelling evidence that you were lying to both of them. Which is betrayal, and thus the fury."
"But – that's not how it works in the real world!"
"No, you're right. In the real world people murder each other over this sort of thing." Jason shrugged. "Of course, give 'em ten years or more to finish growing up, and a lot of people trade in the enchantment of romance for a more . . . practical arrangement. That gets you your mistresses."
"You mean I should have waited ten years to approach anyone else? That doesn't seem right."
Figures he'd still zoom in on the harem option. "No. Okay, no. You want to cut a swath through the young ladies while you're here? Then you need to keep it casual. Don't offer deathless love when you're just trying to make friends and have a good time together."
"But – how do I-" Guiche shook himself slightly, then continued. "How do I collect more than kisses, then? I'm not in Mother's court, I shouldn't have to limit myself anymore."
Jason winced. "Leaving aside the morality of it all? Okay, here's a secret. A lot of young ladies are just as curious about 'collecting more than kisses' as young men are. The trick, here, is still to keep it casual. Make it clear – before you do anything – that nothing you both agree to do implies a long-term commitment. In fact, you probably want to let them decide when the clothes are going to slip off. And even then, you have to make it clear that this stays casual, something between friends, because the implied romantic bond arises out of instinct. If you don't say anything to the contrary, that bond is the assumed default."
"So, anyway, if you want to try to rebuild something with either of those girls, I'd start with a heartfelt apology for inadvertently toying with them. And make it clear that you aren't ready to commit to anything, you just want to get to know each other."
"I can do that."
"Good for you." Jason stood up. "By the way, if you want to start catching up on how to be your father's son as well as a gentleman, stick with Louise after breakfast. We're going to be training most every day this summer."
Guiche looked up at him in surprise. "She's actually having you trained for battle?"
"Seems to be the first of my unique familiar talents, finally showing up. If I've got it, might as well learn to use it properly."
Guiche looked down again. "One thing I've grateful for about Verthandi is that she won't have to risk her life, fighting for me."
"I'll bet you she would, though, if she figured you were in danger. Anyway, tomorrow morning. Your choice if you want to take advantage of it, of course, but I bet it'd make it easier to impress your family when you go back home."
Guiche nodded after a long moment. "I think I might take you up on that."
Supper was had at Mr. Colbert's suite, and the talk focused on how Louise had improved with what she could push around. It seemed that the majority of the effect of the explosion was controlled by her imagination, but some spells seemed to make certain kinds of effects easier, such as the silence spell causing a mild epileptic surge when Louise used it to make an explosion.
After confirming that Guiche would probably want to join in, Jason mentioned a training tool that knights had used to learn jousting(after it had devolved into an elite sport), where hitting the target anywhere other than dead-center caused it to swing around and hit the trainee back. This caused Mr. Colbert to stare off into space for at least two minutes, before he resumed eating with no comment other than an appreciation of the time it must have saved instructors.
On the way back to their room, Jason asked Louise if she knew anything about music. This resulted in her looking through the contents of a chest that hadn't been opened in a while, before handing Jason some sheet music.
Then he had to get her to help him write out a key for all the symbols that weren't already part of his Tristainian alphabet. After that, he persuaded her to sing the scales she was capable of(soprano equivalent, no particular surprise given her size, and pretty enough that he was nigh-certain music lessons had been part of her upbringing). Then, finally, he triple-checked his work.
"This is really how your musical scales work?" Jason finally asked as he shook his head in mild disbelief, looking over the sheet music Louise had given him, which he could now read very clearly thanks to the translation effect.
"Yes," she replied in a tone of annoyance. "I know I'm no more than indifferent at the harpsichord, but I know how scales work."
He blinked and looked up. "Sorry, that wasn't meant as an attack. It's just that this is compatible with the same scale I learned for music back home on Terra. Now I'm wondering if that's more evidence of crossover, or if this is just a natural thing to develop independently."
"Does it matter?"
Jason shrugged. "Maybe not. Well, it'll make it easier to translate this stuff. Okay. My music archive is eclectic, what I liked and wanted to keep, and so for a lot of these I've got the lyrics stored on my phone as well. Especially the ones in languages I don't know."
"You have songs you can't understand?"
"Like I said, eclectic." He shrugged, then started writing on a blank sheet of bark-paper. "I liked how they sounded. Or they were related to something else I liked. Anyway, I'm hoping to hit Albion straight in the loyalties, so it's time to break out every song I can, see what we can make sound properly poetic in Tristainian and Albionian."
Her expression was both skeptical and amused. "'Properly poetic'."
"Rhythm and rhyme. Get to the emotions and make everyone who has a romantic view of the White Isle rage against the dying of the light."
"Jason, you don't have a sense of rhythm and rhyme."
"Yeah I do. It's, uh, it's just that it's in English, rather than anything you speak. Remember, I haven't actually learned your language."
"Oh." She flushed a bit. "Sometimes it's easy to forget that."
"Look closely at how my mouth moves when I'm speaking. What you hear won't really match up with what you can see." And one of these days I'd really like to know how that works. Some sort of specialized empathy/telepathy? Or do the sound-waves alter as they leave my mouth? "It's also why I hardly ever get puns. My language has them, but they don't translate back and forth.
"So what that means is, even though I can do the basic work of translation, I'll need your help for any of this to actually sound good."
"You need my help?"
"Uh – yeah. Is that a problem?"
"No, no! But -" she frowned. "You always seem like you know what to do, or what to say."
"Really?" He crooked a half-grin. "Even when I'm saying something ignorant or low-minded?"
"I-" she froze. "You never do that when it's something important! Like on the ship, you bluffed that officer-"
"Still could've gone horribly wrong." He stopped writing for a moment, thinking. "Louise, if I have a secret, it's that sometimes, you just have to take the best guess you can, and then work with the results, whatever happens. And . . . some of the adventure tales I love were written by very, very smart people. A lot of the time, if it seems like I'm being clever, I'm using what I read from them."
". . . So when do I get to read these tales?"
"Mr. Colbert is working on a typewriter. When I get a working model, I'll start translating them. In the meantime, the only clever thing I did here was think, 'Hey, I've got a bunch of songs nobody around here knows. Let's take advantage of that.' You have to be the clever one for this to work. And Louise, I know you can be clever."
She nodded, slowly. "How are we going to do this?"
"I'll write out the lyrics-" And fortunately, his translation power could tell when he wanted to write in English, and when he wanted to write in Tristainian. "And you listen to the music. Tell me if you think it hits hard enough. Once we have a few songs, I'll start writing out the music for them, and you can figure out how to make the poetry work. Between songs, you can work on casting Ignite without any explosion side-effects."
"Alright." She came over, looking over his shoulder. "Is that one of the songs?"
He finished a line and set his pen down. "Two of 'em. Scots Wha Hae and Afrikanerhart. Wanna listen to 'em?"
Louise nodded and slipped into his lap.
"Okay. The line next to my finger is one that they'll be singing right then, got it?" This got another nod, so Jason hit play on his phone.
Louise was quiet as the first song played through. "That's almost scary how close it fits to Albion. But I don't know those names," she pointed out when Scots Wha Hae finished.
"They're from my history, not local. We can probably use the names of the dead princes, or even King James." Pause. ["If he was bound by an orc-goddess, who gets his soul? Hel or Brimir?"]
Louise shivered. ["We can only pray that Brimir received him and guided him to his proper rest."]
"Other than that, what'd you think?"
She thought for a long moment. "Reconquista will hate it."
"Good, that's the idea. And here's 'Afrikanerhart'."
When the second song finished, Louise was quiet except for a loud sniff. Then she tried to wipe her eyes without letting Jason notice.
"It gets to you, doesn't it?" Especially since you don't enough know to feel conflicted about the Boers.
"'If Hel should break free and the Great Void collapse' . . . did they beat the 'khakis', in the end?"
"They were enough trouble that the invaders eventually withdrew, yes. One small country of farmers and merchants isn't supposed to be able to beat the most powerful empire in the world, but, hell, they weren't facing the full might of the British. And, well," he grinned cockily. "It had been done before."
"By your people?"
"Twice, by my nation. And before we were a power in the world ourselves, at that." Jason thought about it for a moment. "That said, during that particular war the Brits had better than a 4-to-1 manpower advantage over the Boers. And the Boers still won, in the end. It was an impressive victory, by any measure."
She twisted around to look up at him. "Someday I want to learn your history."
"So I can see how much of what you say is just brag."
"Heh. Not a lot, little lady. Anyway, need you to get up and see if you can't figure out a more poetic arrangement."
"Don't you have any more of them?"
"Yeah, I need to write them down. Or, hell, I'll sing along with this one."
Louise nestled up against him as he pulled up Garth Brooks's Ireland, with her head to the side and one ear directly against his chest. She stayed like that after he finished singing. "That was nice," she said.
"Eh, I doubt I had as much training as you did, but I like to sing along sometimes. But what about the song? I'm thinking, turn it into a warning about what happens when Reconquista sends you off to fight elves."
"'Fate has judged us for death.'" Louise shivered against him. "And then the reprise turns out to be a prayer that his soul will find its way back home after the elves have killed him."
"Effective, you think?"
"It could be. No one wants to just give up on ever reclaiming the Holy Land, but no one wants to throw away their lives against the elves, either."
Good enough, I hope. At least we haven't heard about the elves doing anything more than reprisal against the humans here. "Then it might work. Now you need to either practice Ignite or see what you can do about adapting the translations I've already written out."
She tightened her grip around him. "Mmm-mm. Warm."
"Louise, we have work to do."
Louise, in reply to this plea for responsible behavior, just shook her head again and reactivated the summons.
"Right." Jason got up, mistress still clinging to him, and walked over to where she was supposed to be practicing Ignite. ["Okay, let me describe how this can go. I try to pry you off, you resist, and in the ensuing grapple my hands end up in some very rude places. Shortly after that, I've been thrown to the floor, and you're trying to figure out if I'm hurt or not. At the moment that we are in the most compromising position possible, the door will open to admit someone who will have to take official notice of what we seem to be doing."]
By the end of this, Louise's feet were back on the ground, and although she had not let go of him, there was enough give in her grip to allow her to look up and meet his eyes. "That sounds . . . absurdly implausible."
"Yeah, but do you really want to tempt fate?"
"It's highly unlikely that anyone will come visit us this late!"
"But if they do, it'll be at the worst possible time. And isn't learning Ignite kind of important?"
She let go, reluctantly. "I could almost hear that song right, when I was holding you. I want to try that again, when I'm done practicing."
For the next song, Jason wrote out the lyrics for No Quarter(the filk-y song he'd given the Fool of Albion), then Will Ye No' Come Back Again, and then De La Rey. Looking through his list, he saw one that made him chuckle, so he wrote it out in English and set it aside. Then he wrote down the March of Cambreadth and Time Stands Still.
Louise, perhaps attracted by the rather abrupt shift in genre that the last one had been, came back to watch Jason as he wrote the lyrics down. "What is this one about?" she all but demanded of Jason.
"Fingolfin, having become the new king of a ruined people, sets out to challenge the evil god Morgoth. They fight, Morgoth is wounded, and even though Fingolfin is slain, his spirit lives on and gives hope to his people."
"Is that for King James, then?"
"The 'valiant warlord' in the refrain doesn't tip you off? No, it's for Wales."
"But-" ["But that's not what happened!"]
["Not quite the point. The point is to make Wales even more of a legend, so that when he returns, it will be a huge morale boost for his side. Especially if we get the rumor going that he came back from death by the hand of Brimir."]
"Does that mean you'll be announcing yourself by his side?"
". . . What?"
["Well, you're the one chosen by the Left Hand of Retribution, and you saved Prince Wales, right? So Brimir did have him delivered from death, through you."]
If Jason hadn't been sitting down, he'd have needed to. "N-not an argument I planned to make."
"But you could, you know. Mr. Colbert was right, the Archangel takes an active hand in Halkagenia. It's in both the scripture and the histories."
"Uh-" this was still not something he was comfortable with. "Can we maybe focus on something else?"
"Alright!" Louise gave him an impish smile and pulled on his arm. "It's getting late, so let's get ready for bed!"
Lovely. I get to exchange one minefield for another.
This time, when it came time to put on a chemise(or, rather, one of Jason's shirts), Louise smiled at Jason, pulled off the final layer of her dress, and, despite a heavy blush, clasped her hands behind her back. He gulped, and his eyes nearly bulged out of his head before he hurried to dress her in her nightgown substitute.
["We need to stop doing this,"] he sent once the shirt was safely on her.
She finished removing her panties, turned around and looked up, trying to pout but smirking just a bit too much to pull it off. ["Why? You're mine, it's entirely appropriate for you to dress me."]
He growled, picked her up, and mashed her lips against his. In response, she threw her arms around his neck and kissed him back just as hard.
After a few minutes, she broke off the kiss to lay her head on his shoulder. "That wasn't a good enough answer," she breathed, the resulting tickling sensation causing him to shiver.
"Louise," he growled again. ["There are songs among my people about girls wearing nothing more than a smile."]
["I still had my panties on,"] she pointed out in far too reasonable a tone.
["Doesn't count. You may be jealous of Kirche, but you do have a bosom of your own."]
["You really liked it?"]
["Stop it. Louise, before last night when I was dressing you for bed, you weren't thinking about me like that. And last night you were embarrassed about it, but tonight . . . Louise, when a girl wants to be looked at, when she wants a man to see her and have his breath taken away by the vision of loveliness in front of him, then-"]
His concentration was broken as Louise kissed him again. When he had enough of his composure back, he opened his eyes and was a little surprised to see a couple of tears tracking down her cheek. ["What's wrong?"]
["You really think I'm lovely? You're not just stringing me along, like Guiche the Bronze was with those girls, that first day you were here?"]
["Eh, Guiche. His mother trained him to secure a bride, rather than have the kind of fun he seems to want. Poor kid."]
Louise sniffed, contemptuously. "If he wanted 'fun', why court Montmorency so seriously? He'd been spending time with her for months, by then."
Jason thought about that for a moment, then murmured, "I love you," into her ear, causing Louise to melt a little more into his embrace and sigh happily. ["Worked just as well for him, I reckon. I'll bet that when he tried out his stuff at home, he was treated indulgently, or as a precocious pet. So maybe he didn't realize love could be taken so seriously. Or, just as likely if not more, he was thinking with the brains he carries between his legs, and those don't worry so much about being true to anyone."]
Louise snorted when Jason referred to Guiche's testes as brains. Then she pulled herself up to lightly kiss Jason again. "But when you," peck, "say that," peck, "you mean it," peck, "right?" She followed this up with puppy eyes that were all the more devastating for their proximity.
"Guh," he responding, sitting down heavily on her bed and starting a kiss of his own, just for time to think how to respond. Finally he pulled back a bit. "I walked away from Kirche, while my blood was still on fire, to be with you. We still have to keep this secret, and I'm trying my best to be careful, but my choice hasn't changed."
This seemed to meet with her approval. After cuddling a bit more in mutual silence, he laid Louise out in bed and tucked her in under the covers, then stood up to go to his mattress.
"Wait," Louise said, sitting up and patting the spot next to her. "My bed's softer than that 'air mattress' of yours."
Jason smiled wryly. "Given everything, that does not make joining you a good idea. Rather the opposite, even."
Louise narrowed her eyes, then drew in a breath and – Jason tumbled forward, falling to one knee, in response to what had seemed like a sudden, powerful tug towards her.
"You aren't holding your wand. How did you do that?"
She just smiled mysteriously. "Come to bed, Jason."
He stood up, then held up his arm, palm up and pointed at Louise. Then he felt for their connection, visualized taking hold of it, and visualized pushing as hard as he could. Louise fell over with a surprised squawk.
"Interesting. Didn't know we could do that." He leaned over and tucked Louise in again. "But I'm serious about it being a bad idea. Go to sleep, Louise, we've got a full day ahead of us."
"Jason." This was in a very flat tone. "If you lie down on the ground I'll just join you like I did last night. Seriously, this bed is softer. Stop being silly and come to bed."
He didn't see a way to counter that, so Jason just sighed. "Fine, but no books this time." That got her to giggle and nod, and he gave up and joined her under the covers. She immediately snuggled up against him, humming happily.
["And now you've just shown again why we need to not make a habit of this."]
["What do you mean by that?"]
["Tonight you wanted me to look at you, and to like what I saw. And I did."] He breathed in deep, almost drinking the smell of her hair, then cupped her cheek to pull her face up for yet another kiss. ["I really, really liked it. But we're moving down a path that disregards the fences of custom and law, that hearkens back to the deepest fundamentals of man and woman. If there are not butterflies in your stomach, there will be soon. And then there will be strange thoughts about what you can do, as long as no one finds out. And it is only a few steps from there to consummation."]
She drew back, blushing crimson. ["We're not married yet!"]
["No, we're not, but that particular fence, blocking our path, is about two feet tall. Easily stepped over, if we so choose. Only our respect for the fence requires us to enter in at the gate of marriage. I choose to respect the fence, but I must fight that battle inside me, again and again."]
["You really have to fight yourself over it?"]
["Yes. Because you are lovely, and I do love you, and there is a reason my people call it 'making love', when romance and desire intermingle."]
She nestled back up against him. ["I should start thinking how to let Father and Mother know to break it off with Jean-Jacques."]
["Good. Because if I had a title right now, I'd carry you off to the Headmaster's tower, get him to sign whatever documents are needed for an eloped couple, and then bring you right back here and bar the door for at least two days."]
She giggled against his chest like a silvery waterfall, but slowly her breathing grew more regular as she fell asleep.
This was so much easier when we were trying to fool ourselves and keep things professional. Heaven only knows I don't want to move one inch.
Heaven. God. Or Brimir. Whoever is listening. I have taken lives for the sake of the life I hold in my arms. I cannot fault my choices, but – I do not want more deaths to carry if I guess wrong, in the future. Grant me, I pray, the serenity to carry those deaths that I must, but also the wisdom to avoid killing those who need not die.
Then, once he was sure Louise was sound asleep, he turned over so that she was snuggled up against his back, and waited for sleep to carry him off.
A/N: So let's take a look at a few things:
Primus: Karin's "Runic Title", in the original Japanese, apparently translates better as "Hurricane" or "Typhoon". I decided to try to bridge the gap, and yes, this does mean Louise now has a personal quest to get to the point where she can get away with calling herself the Firestorm.
Secundus: Void is energy. That's how Louise is really managing to produce fire. There are plenty of Fire spells that she just won't be able to mimic until/unless she can understand the underlying physics of the effect.
Tertius: Unless there is actual hatred in the relationship, it is almost never a bad idea to give your mom a hug. (And if you are one of the exceptions, I'm sorry. That really sucks.)
Quartus: There is a persistent myth that heavy armor was confining and restricted mobility. Not true. Hot and heavy? Oh yes, but someone in good shape can do cartwheels in 'plate armor'. The armor designs that didn't let you move around were actually sports equipment for jousting.
Quintus: Siesta has not given up on Jason. Note that in canon, she was willing to settle for second place. Here, she's positioning herself to secure second place, and take first if the opportunity presents itself.
Sextus: Jason doesn't know how to let go and let his power sock-puppet him. Even if he knew that was possible, he wouldn't. It would be like walking around with something that might or might not be a ticking time-bomb. (Yes, I'm cringing at how the supposedly-curious Saito doesn't even try to test what the actual parameters of his powers are.)
Septimus: If you insist on 'Willpower' fueling magic, you probably didn't like Jason discovering his mana-pool by depleting it. Too bad. Noboru only had it make a difference when it could fuel harem rom-com hijinks, which meant that it was effectively a mana pool 99% of the time, and willpower when it helped put Saito into contrived situations. If it was willpower-fueled all the time, that would eliminate casual use of magic, just to name one change.
Octavus: As far as I know, a gymnasium is not part of the canon bathhouse. But it makes a reasonable amount of sense to have one, given that in medieval times, Ancient Rome was viewed with a great deal of nostalgia. (I'm giving them loincloths for working out, because if you are nude and sitting on something that other nude people have sat on, you are wallowing in other peoples' shit. Ew.)
Nonus: You can kill someone with a staff, easily enough. But it's a lot easier to leave them alive, albeit battered, than it would be with a blade.
Decimus: Let me point out, for those who haven't caught it, that Jason's views on sex are a lot closer to Puritan than to Victorian. For those of shallow education, this means that he considers sex a good thing, but too easily and too often abused. Which implies that someone arranged for him to be better educated on the subject than what most kids get in school and/or Sunday school.
Undecimus: I wasn't the one who made Halkagenian officers mostly/entirely male, that was Noboru. I will try to make it make sense, in-fic.
Duodecimus: You may consider yourselves lucky to be spared from songfic this chapter. Jason already has the soundtrack picked out for when Louise has Ignite down properly.
Decimus et Tertius: Just about any time someone repeats translated lyrics back at Jason, said lyrics will be warped by the Babelfish Effect.
Decimus et Quartus: Jason has been very careful to avoid copping a feel, so Louise hasn't been pushed beyond cuddling. As most any guy can tell you, women are all-too-often content to stay at that level and not escalate to second base. Right now, that makes it easier for him to stay a gentleman. Sort of.