Developments, Part III

Jason hadn't gone halfway across the first courtyard when he was accosted by a young man, short and stout, with dark brown hair, an olive complexion, walleyed eyes, and a slightly dirty face.

"You, familiar," the boy said, quietly and urgently. "'Jason', wasn't it?"

He blinked. "Yes, but . . . wait, are you 'Josephus'?" Then in a low voice, barely more than a whisper: "You changed your face again."

The exiled prince nodded. "We decided to make my appearance less appealing. Hopefully, I won't catch the attention of my classmates this fall."

"Unless someone decides to bully you," Jason pointed out. "And you might want to nix the dirty face. Louise got taunted because she couldn't use Levitate at meals, after all."

'Mr. Ryise' grimaced. "Scour isn't coming easily, and I can't cast Levitate either."

"You . . . it's probably not a good idea, given how you're a fairly weak Earth mage, but what about if you're alone? Right now, for example."

'Josephus' held up his wand hand, and pointed at a thin ring adorning the forefinger. "This may look like a simple canalis, but Headmaster Osmond's clearly hidden people this way before, and it's been ennobled further so that I must cast through my new wand."

Jason blinked. "Sorry, I don't follow."

"You are foreign!" The prince grimaced again. "My new wand was formulated specifically for a newly-woken Earth mage of an inexprimé family, who'll need all the help he can get to manage even Dots of his affinity, so it sacrifices the ability to use the other elements and focuses on Earth alone."

"Oh." So he won't casually display skilled mastery of Air, like he'll have learned to do most of his life. Sensible. "So what can I do for you, Joe?"

"I've eaten with my hands all my life, of course, like any commoner." The seemingly barely-teenage youth then pointed at the stained food on his cheeks. "So how do I do it without looking like I've never had to before?!"

"Oh." It was tempting to snicker, but probably not prudent. "Come on, walk with me, I'm heading to the baths to collect Louise for lunch."

Prince Wales nodded quickly and fell in beside him. "You couldn't just call for her?"

"I could." Jason shrugged. "But if she's still feeling unsteady, she might want an escort."

The prince looked around to make sure they were still alone, then nodded. "That was her first time in battle, too? You were both very brave, then. With unblooded recruits it's best to scatter them among the veterans, to help keep them steady."

Well, this is a different side of him. Or maybe more like what we first saw, when he was commanding the Eagle. "The auxilum I woke up lets me cheat that, to be honest. It's pretty much made for combat. Anyway, she's the one who knows how to eat with just her hands, so you'll want to ask her instead."

"I will," Wales agreed, before continuing in a puzzled tone. "How do you eat? Do you spear everything with a knife?"

"Hang on." They'd nearly arrived. "She have need to know?"

"'Need to-'? Ah. Yes, I think."

"Okay." ["Hey, little mistress? I'm here to take you to lunch. Also, Wales is with me in his disguised form. Do you want to know what he looks like, so you know not to give him away later?"]

A moment passed.

["I think I should,"] she replied. ["Especially if Her Highness asks for our assistance again. I'll dry off and be out soon."]

"She's on her way," Jason said. "Anyway, my people have tools for eating, since we don't have wands. Might work to start using those, that way any awkwardness is because they're entirely new to a former commoner."

The prince looked thoughtful. "That could work. Will your master come soon, or-?"

"She's drying off, and I don't think she quite has Flow down, so she's probably getting in some practice with it."

"Good. I . . . need to say something."

What? "Uh, go ahead."

"I must admit," Prince Wales went on, rather reluctantly, "that my behavior wasn't the best the other night, after you accused me of sending that letter."

Several responses came to mind, but most wouldn't help, so: "By local custom, I am just a commoner."

"Yes, but even worse, you look somewhat Germanian, and the differences could be taken as Easterling blood."

Right. Mediterranean-like olive skin, rather than Indian tan, but either way, darker than purely Caucasian. Which seems to be the closest analog for Tristainians and Albionians. Gallians, too, if Tabitha's normal for them. "So I remind you of the man who stole your woman?"

Prince Wales grimaced. "No, thank Brimir. But since my brothers died I've had to treat with Imperial courtiers, and I've grown weary of their arrogance and pride in their 'divine' Aryan blood."

Aryan? Huh. Which group is the translation drawing a parallel to? The race-obsessed Nazis, or caste-obsessed Indians? "You'd think that kind of claim would be laughed at, given who has hereditary magic."

The prince snorted. "Not to hear their officials speak. I've had more than one Imperial sneer at me, because of how my debased Halkagenian ancestors polluted some noble Aryan bloodline to steal their magic."

Jason blinked. "And your ancestors supposedly did this way back-? Ohhhhhhh. A Big Lie gambit. Reinforced by assimilating the Throne of Water into the Imperial bloodlines, even."

"It is a colossal lie, yes."

"Yeah, but also a test of loyalty. Courtiers who deny it can be disposed of for not bowing to the official truth, while those who go along with it have debased their integrity, and will thus be more likely to submit to further pravda in the future." He frowned. "And in a few generations, no one will know the difference. Especially if they can secure all the elemental Thrones."

"That is not going to happen!" His Highness growled.

"Not expecting it this generation, Joe, but who knows what the future's going to bring?" Then Jason's mouth twisted wryly. "But here I've let my curiosity run away with me again, when I should be offering my own apologies."

Prince Wales nodded curtly. "For your foolish delay in warning your master."

"That's one of them, yeah." The thought of continuing wasn't terribly appealing, but the prince had condescended to apologize first, and ignoring that unexpected olive branch would be a suicidal level of stupidity. "As amazing as the Headmaster's Mirror is, I shouldn't have delayed in mentioning the letter. When I did bring it up, I shouldn't have been hostile. And I should have listened to your denials right away, instead of assuming that you were doubling down."

"It ended well enough, and your bravery in facing the consequences of your errors was, as I said, commendable." His Highness' expression grew slightly more approving. "And it speaks less poorly of you that your insolence is not the overweening arrogance of Easterling pride."

Easterling pride? Jason blinked. Wait a sec! "You know, I've heard that – Kirche von Zerbst aside – Germanian nobles aren't particularly talented, magically. So those arrogant courtiers were, what, Lines sneering at a Triangle?"

"Lines?" 'Josephus' repeated with a sneer of his own. "They were hardly more than Dots!"

"Ah." Except right now, he's not being particularly- "So, do you know how Dots ought to conduct themselves? Josephus Ryise of Romalia."

A look of indignation flashed across the prince's face, before it disappeared under a mask of forced calm. "I suppose I do. But do you know how a commoner ought to conduct himself?"

Judging by Captain Wardes' souring mood, the longer we spent around him? "Not really," Jason confessed, "and that's maybe a better point than I'd care to admit. I wasn't a subject of any king or noble, before I was summoned."

Then he shrugged. "But honestly, if my behavior was proper, I doubt I'd have been able to help Louise even half as much as I have."

"If she's satisfied with your service, and therefore chooses to indulge you, that's her prerogative," Prince Wales replied. "But I don't think it will help her, if you offend the nobles that your master is acquainted with."

The memory of Henrietta eventually choosing to listen to a pair of commoners rose up, and Jason winced. By his little mistress's reaction at the time, it had been a near thing.

"I would have recommended learning from Geoffrey, or perhaps my father's Fool," the exiled prince went on, "if they hadn't stayed behind at Newcastle. But you'll need to learn on your own now, and quickly, if you want to serve your master rather than hinder her."

Said master's voice then came from the women's half of the bathhouse. "How is Jason going to hinder me?" she asked as she emerged, dressed but with her hair wrapped in a towel.

Jason sighed. "By forgetting to shut up and relay questions through you, when I'm around nobles who won't make allowance for my foreigner's ways.

"Anway, little mistress, this is Josephus Ryise." He then grinned and winked. "Who is from Gallia, and was most certainly not a childhood friend of yours. The Headmaster approved his entrance to the Academy quite recently."

Louise looked at Prince Wales. "Ah." Then, murmuring: "The Mirror of Truth? Has Headmaster Osmond discovered how its dweomer can be extended?"

'Josephus' nodded. "With a modified canalis to 'help' me, because I can only cast spells of Earth and even those are difficult for me."

She nodded back. Then, scowling up at her familiar: "And have you been offending him further?"

"I hope not," Jason replied. "We've been apologizing to each other for past misunderstandings. Even if they did seem like good ideas at the time."

"And when some nobleman takes lethal offense, will you request that as your epitaph?" the prince inquired. His voice was dry, though, rather than sharp. "I'm persuaded that you meant well, but you would do better to learn proper decorum, even if it chafes. Much as someone in 'my' circumstances would be well advised to study hard, for all that I doubt I shall ever make use of farming spells."

"Your family farms, Josephus?" Louise asked, suddenly frowning thoughtfully. "Where, if I may ask?"

"Terraces on one of the coasts," he replied. "I have the principality written down, but I'll destroy the paper as soon as I've memorized the details."

"Terraces?" she repeated, looking even more thoughtful. "Do the southern coasts still suffer from piracy? Wouldn't Josephus find skirmishing spells be worth studying, then?"

Now Wales frowned thoughtfully. "I've not heard of recent piracy in the south . . . but," and here his eyes gleamed, "surely a young man such as myself would be thrilled by glorious dreams of fighting Reconquista!"

Which might make for a nice ace-in-the-hole, but after that chiding we probably shouldn't say it-

"My parents have said more than once, an elementari that the foe does not expect can prove enough of a surprise to win a battle," Louise noted, her smile baring teeth. Then she pulled the towel from her rose tresses – and it must have been ennobled, because it wasn't terrycloth but it seemed to have dried her hair rather well – and offered it to the prince. "Do you want to wipe your face off before I put this back?"

'Josephus' nodded and wiped his face clean, and then she Levitated the towel back into the ladies' half of the bathhouse.

["Well caught, little mistress. Doubt I'd have reasoned out the excuse to learn skirmisher elementari myself."]

["After my parents' tutelage, I should be able to see that kind of possibility,"] Louise replied tartly. But her smile was hardly displeased.

"I wanted to ask you about that," he then said, after looking around again to confirm that they were still alone. "You've have to eat with your hands until recently, and I need to know how to look like I've eaten with my hands all my life. What's the trick of it?"

She grimaced. "There isn't one. I made a mess of myself at every meal for months after Mother decided that I was too old to be fed by servants or my sister. The only way to keep the mess manageable is practice."

"Forsake it!" Wales swore softly. "What of the tools Jason has introduced? I confess, I dislike the notion of being clumsy while the tip of a knife is bringing food to my mouth. And this body is nothing but clumsy."

"They seem to work well enough," she assured him. "Come with us to Mr. Colbert's suite, he can show you."

"It helps that the prongs of the fork are quite a bit blunter than the tip of a knife," Jason noted as they left the vicinity of the baths and headed towards the professor's lab. "You'd have to jab yourself pretty hard to draw blood. Anyway, don't worry too much about seeming clumsy. You look about fourteen, so you're supposed to be awkward as you finish growing up."

"I remember well enough," the exiled prince muttered. "Although I was gawky, not this." Then: "Your tools aren't sharp enough to hurt something?"

"If you need to cut something, use a knife. Eating utensils are for food that's already been prepared." Although, heh-! "One tyrant did ban forks, because he was afraid to let commoners use tools that could be sharpened and then used as weapons, but that wasn't my nation. Uh, don't bite down on the utensils, that'll hurt like biting down on anything metal. But I think you'll find they're surprisingly easy to learn to use."

"They seem to be," Louise agreed. Then she slowed a moment, so that she was a few inches behind the morphed prince, and her eyes glinted as she gave her familiar a very sly look. ["I might even be willing to use them to eat ice cream."]

Jason blinked, then gave her back a wink and a tiny smirk as they approached Mr. Colbert's suite.

"He must have an interesting story to tell," the professor commented after 'Josephus' left, the disguised prince examining the fork and spoon he now held as he exited.

"You think so?" Louise asked, in a carefully unconcerned voice.

"Certainly. His parents may have been from one of the Romalian principalities, but by his mannerisms young Mr. Ryise was clearly raised in Albion, and in a noble household. Now a refugee from Reconquista's usurpation, and his parents likely did the Headmaster a favor at some point."

Jason raised one eyebrow. "How can you tell that?"

Mr. Colbert held up his wand hand and pointed to the forefinger. "Hardly any students here rely on a canalis, as he was wearing, as they're only useful if a wand is strongly aspected to a particular element, or even a cluster of spells within that element. And if I'm not mistaken, the wand up his sleeve used the saleten formulation." He paused. "Which formulation results in a wand which is quite helpful with Earth, but at the cost of being almost useless for the other elements. Therefore Mr. Ryise may be assumed to be very nearly inexprimé, if he must rely on such aids in his initial studies. Thus, if he is here, it is because Headmaster Osmond waived the entrance examination."

"Just as he did for me." Louise scowled. "I hated wearing a canalis in First Form. Everyone laughed and it didn't help."

"But now you're getting a handle on Fire, and I don't think they've laughed too much since you did that explosion that was as big as Kirche's Fireball, that first week."

"Your familiar is correct," the professor agreed. "And . . . but I believe luncheon has arrived."

So it proved, with Siesta carefully holding a platter laden down with four meals, which she set down on the table in Mr. Colbert's bedroom.

"I've been thinking about the ideas you came up with," he then said to Jason as they all began to eat. (More organ porridge to speed recovery, but at least the portion size wasn't going to leave him bloated this time.) "And while I do recall the incident when you attempted to transmute the pebble, Miss Vallière, I would like to observe it again. To this end, I've arranged for a modest supply of scrap wood that you can spend this afternoon exploding."

Louise frowned. "Shouldn't I be practicing Ignite, instead?"

"I'm sure you will, this evening. As your professor, I have noticed your willingness to practice until you're exhausted, but I believe you'll make more progress overall if you vary your focus. And Jason's idea, that you should master the intricacies of the magic that is uniquely yours, has considerable merit to it."

Her frown deepened. "I'd rather focus on real spells."

Mr. Colbert leaned forward. "Louise," he said gravely (as various eyebrows shot up at him using her first name), "consider the mage titles that you might claim. It's entirely possible that within a decade, ambitious young mages will cast to the point of exhaustion in the hopes of mimicking your explosions. If you master them as your familiar has suggested."

Her eyes widened slightly, and then her chin firmed up in determination. "I do know how to work hard."

"Indeed! I also would like to observe the explosion that you used to stun your familiar without injuring him. Or at least he seems to be fine, but it would be best if we know whether the effect mimics one of the various spells that can cause unconsciousness, or if it is more akin to bashing someone over the head with a stout club."

Louise flushed. "I didn't-!"

Jason swallowed his latest bite and held up a finger. "No blurred vision, dizziness, or other sign of concussion, as far as I can recall. So it ought to be on the safer side of things."

"That sounds hopeful, and Brimir willing we shall confirm it after luncheon." Mr. Colbert smiled, albeit a bit sadly. "After all, Miss Vallière, you would then have a non-lethal means of disabling opponents, and that is something that Fire normally requires a good deal of practice and study to attain." He then looked to her familiar. "And after we confirm it, one way or another, I would like to see how well your auxilum handles various weapons. A quarterstaff to begin with, I think."

"Hmmm. That's gonna be a little more complicated than knowing where a bullet will go when I pull the trigger."

The professor nodded. "Indeed. But a staff may be used to disable a foe without killing them. Broken bones can be healed, after all."

"Oh." And Henrietta was right there. A staff or club might have let us knock 'em out, to be taken prisoner and then collected by Agnes for interrogation. "Thank you."

Siesta had stopped eating, and was looking at them all in alarm. "I know something happened, but are you going off to fight again?"

"No, not yet," Jason replied. "But Albion has fallen to Reconquista, Tristain's the next obvious target, and every favor that we can neither confirm nor deny having done for the Crown has ended up in Pierre the Pirate situations. So we'd better learn what we can before the next one."

"'Pierre the Pirate'?" Mr. Colbert repeated in tones of consternation. "Are you referring to the Pierre de Vos books? I would have thought the last of them would have been expended in a commoner privy years ago."

Uh, they were kinda pulpy. "Not a fan of them, sir?"

"The writing was lurid, the action unbelievable, and the circumstances absurdly contrived!"

The maid pouted, but didn't speak up in defense of the series.

Which leaves us, and- "I'm pretty sure that unblooded civilians wouldn't want to read realistic depictions of battle. I mean, not much fun to stagger around, half-drowning in the blood that you're coughing up, knowing you have to win soon so that the closest Water mage has a chance to save you."

Siesta paled, her eyes widening. "You were what?!"

Louise didn't look much better. "Choking on your own blood?!"

"Little mistress, you were there. If I hadn't gotten prompt attention-"

Jason broke off and shook his head. "But I did, and I'm fine now. But we do want to be better prepared, 'cause there will be a next time. I wouldn't have my auxilia if I wasn't going to need them."

Siesta nodded faintly.

No one said anything else, and after a moment they all went back to eating.

Then the maid took a deep breath. "Can I help you with any of this practice?" she asked.

Mr. Colbert finished chewing his latest bite and swallowed. "The rest of your duties would not interfere?"

"Part of my duties are to see to Jason's needs as an exotic familiar, or at least they haven't told me otherwise yet. And even with the maids who go home for the summer, the rest of us are on reduced hours because there's not as much for us to do. If I'm busy helping him and Miss Vallière I can earn full pay without taking work from someone else." She shrugged, very casually. "And I have enough brothers and sisters at home that every écu I can send helps."

"Mm." The professor looked thoughtful. "A pair of helping hands could allow Miss Vallière to save more of her vis for practice, so I think I will endorse your request. That being said, young woman, while it would be fine to let slip that she's making good progress, the details thereof are not for under-the-stairs gossip."

"I understand!" Siesta promised, nodding 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."

She nodded again, smiled gratefully, and went back to eating.

Outdoors, huh? You know, at least a few authors back home have claimed that in pre-industrial cultures, women would switch out the skirts for trousers when they had to work outside. On the other hand, Laura Ingalls wore skirts even when plowing, planting, weeding, and harvesting, and a lot of modern fantasy writing is either repeating Victorian misconceptions or overreacting to them. So . . . guess we'll find out after lunch.

"My battle power worked well enough with swords and daggers," Jason mused, "so it should work with a quarterstaff. Except I know I won't be in actual combat, and I did have some trouble when I was in range of someone who did know what they were doing with a blade, which means I may need training. So do you know how to fight with one, sir?"

Mr. Colbert smiled thinly. "If I must engage in mêlée, the staff is my weapon of choice. I was also trained in the use of the swordwand, long ago, but my skill will have mildewed over the years."

Hm. We're not the only one who could use CQC training, come to think of it. "Do you remember enough to describe the difference? I mean, should Louise plan on training with a swordwand, or a staff?"

The professor raised an eyebrow, then looked over the tiny rosecrown with a critical eye.

Said rosecrown froze mid-bite at Jason's question, and then swallowed and lowered her wand to await the veteran mage's verdict.

"Miss Vallière, you may recall that I have observed you running in the morning with your familiar. This is a good start, if you wish to practice the skills of a mage-knight, but you'll require a good deal more conditioning if you wish to learn to wield either in combat."

Which made sense. Except, hang on-! "Sir, what about Dame Tabitha? She doesn't look like she exercises much."

"I'm not privy to Dame Tabitha's regimen of exercise and training or lack thereof, for all that she's clearly performed well as an agent of the Gallian Crown," Mr. Colbert noted drily. "In any event, it wouldn't harm your master to begin practicing either weapon, but it will be some time before she can expect to fight well with either."

"I-" Louise hesitated. "If Jason learns the staff quickly, perhaps he could help me train with it. But for now, I want to focus on my spells, especially since I'm supposed to be practicing those different tricks with my explosions."

"Speaking of learning weapons, once I'm proficient with the quarterstaff I should probably learn the swordwand as well."

This announcement caused the professor to give him a quizzical look, which Jason replied to with a wry smile. "The swordwands I've seen look about halfway between what my people call stilettos and rapiers: Thin daggers and swords, respectively. They were useful weapons, quick and deadly, back when gun technology was about where Halkagenia is today, and armor was becoming impractical. And a shorter blade like a swordwand ought to be concealable inside an overcoat, which you told me I need to be getting anyway to wear over the pistol harness, so I'd have a weapon at hand for when people aren't in armor. Although 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, extensively Marked, is the only way a soldier can hope to survive the full attentions of a mage-knight," Mr. Colbert confirmed, nodding. "But it's extraordinarily expensive. Most soldiers make do with the hamata maille developed in Germania a few decades ago. The sheets of linked rings are far more affordable, and easier to fit to the individual soldier at that. But why a hammer, specifically?"

Jason shrugged. "Good enough 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 hammer."

"Ah. Then you should know that against truly elite foes, the dweomer of an ennobled weapon matters at least as much as the base form of the weapon itself."

"Really?" Still, the Headmaster apparently made that sword we were using. Give a hammer the same dweomer, add to it the magic of Butterfly if he's studied the artifact knife well enough to duplicate it, and we're halfway to a Mjolnir knock-off. Borrow Wales' portable zeusaphone for study and maybe we could even get lightning added to it!

"Jason," Louise said suspiciously, "you have this look in your eye. What are you plotting?"

He blinked, then laughed sheepishly. "Sorry, just thinking about weapons."

"Well, think about food instead! The rest of us are finished already."

And so they were. So he ate as quickly as he could, while Siesta cleared the rest of the table. Then when he was done she took the platter and left with an assurance that she would rejoin them in the field shortly.

Jason watched her go, waiting until she was too far to overhear him. "Okay, keeping in mind that I am foreign, did it seem odd that she volunteered so quickly?"

"Her point about wages was well-made, but perhaps." Mr. Colbert smiled slightly. "She is the maid that rumor says you hid away for a few days, correct?"

"That's right," Louise confirmed, albeit warily.

"I've heard any number of rumors, some absurdly outlandish, but they all agree that you two are on excellent terms with her. Given that, I wouldn't be surprised if she hopes to attach herself to your household, once one of you has one."

"Once one of us has one?" Louise repeated, frowning. "Jason's my familiar."

"True, and the legal issues may prove quite complex. But you are aware that he hopes to gain a title from His Imperial Majesty, once our firearm designs have been refined and proven, I trust."

She took a deep breath. "I know, but-"

"And while I'm certain that your parents have provided you with a stipend while you attend the Academy, Miss Vallière, you cannot truly be said to have a household of your own at the moment. They would most likely delay giving you an estate until your education here is finished, so that you would then have time to administer it. Although I suppose that Her Highness could gift you with one at her coronation, even though you would likely still be enrolled here."

"But-" She broke off, frowning harder, and shook her head. "We're finished eating, so we should head out and get started, right?"

Mr. Colbert gave her a piercing look, but only nodded. "Indeed."

But it was obvious that something was bothering her, as they got up to leave.

["Little mistress?"] Jason sent to her.

["I – later,"] she replied. ["I need to think."]

"Ow?" Jason said tentatively, as he pushed himself up. Shouldn't getting knocked out and falling down have hurt more than that? But there was only a bit of pain around his ribs, where he was already sore.

"That," Mr. Colbert stated, "looked like the falling sickness. Perhaps."

"Perhaps?!" Louise repeated in alarm. "People die of the falling sickness!"

"Perhaps," the professor repeated back, "but your familiar did not shake or thrash around before collapsing. And those who suffer from it typically remain insensate for longer, when the fit is strong enough to cause them to collapse. Jason, is there much pain? A headache?"

"Not nearly as much as I expected." Falling sickness? That sounds vaguely familiar, but where have we heard it from? "And no, no headache. Just the impact of falling over, and less of that than I'd expected."

"Ah. You went limp as you collapsed, so the discomfort would have been ameliorated. But no headache? In that case, I'm inclined to ask Miss Vallière to repeat her explosion, while I cast a spell intended to diagnose the falling sickness."

Miss Vallière did not look excited at the prospect.

["Go ahead and do it, little mistress. No blurred vision, no trouble thinking, no problems with moving around, no pins and needles or numbness anywhere, so we're probably in the clear."]

["But people can die of the falling sickness, if their fits and convulsions become bad enough!"] she protested.

["Yeah, except I don't actually have it, and I didn't have a fit, so this shouldn't be much of a risk. Besides, if Mr. Colbert's spell says there's a problem, we can just stop testing it on me after this, and I should be fine after that."]

Louise still didn't look happy at the idea, but cast anyway.

And when Jason came to the second time, she was kneeling over him, looking rather apprehensive (as was Siesta), as Mr. Colbert waved his wand, the professor looking rather thoughtful at whatever he was detecting.

"Is there still no lingering soreness? No headache?" he inquired. "There oughtn't be, unless I'm much mistaken."

"Nope. Nothing again." Although neither the words nor an offered smile seemed to be enough to get Louise to relax. "So what's the prognosis? Another small seizure, or did it get worse?"

Mr. Colbert shook his head. "There was no seizure, large or small. Miss Vallière's spell caused your swoon, yes, but the effect was similar to the falling sickness only in that you were rendered unconscious." He stood up and offered his hand to Jason, to pull him up. "Fire, Water, and Air all have means of putting a target to sleep, but for all that this is a new discovery, unrefined and perhaps even crude in effect, it may have advantages over them all."

"Sounds good. So no harm done, little mistress, and now you have a knockout spell!"

Louise still did not look happy. "That is good," she admitted reluctantly, "but I don't want to practice it any more on you. Even if it isn't the falling sickness, any time you fall over you might hurt yourself!"

The professor nodded. "That's a fair point, Miss Vallière. Fortunately, the Academy maintains a supply of vermin, for aspiring medicos to practice dissection on. Further experimentation – you may wish to learn to extend the duration of the effect beyond a few heartbeats – could be done with those."

She nodded back, her expression finally clearing.

"Now," Mr. Colbert went on, "after that first successful test, let us move on to the wooden scrap."

This got Louise to nod again, and they all turned to the pile of wood that he'd Levitated over after lunch.

"I'm just trying to move them without damaging them, first?" she asked.

"Yep," Jason replied. "More non-lethal options, since Levitate can break if the target struggles."

Her eyes narrowed, she cast, and-

The woodpile burst, individual pieces scattering in an irregular circle, up to a distance of nearly twenty feet.

"And it worked again. Better be careful with that, little lady, or you might have to become used to success."

The look that Louise gave her familiar in response to his teasing that was half-triumphant, half-exasperated.

"Now select one of the larger pieces and see if you can make it explode, as you did the pebble that first day," Mr. Colbert directed.

She nodded yet again, raised her wand-

"Hang on," Jason interrupted, realizing a problem not quite too late. "Maybe we should get an Earth mage out here, to raise a berm for us to shelter behind?"

The professor raised his eyebrows. "You believe there to be that much danger?"

"Dunno, sir. But when we're playing with explosives . . . well, remember the acid and the cotton?"

Mr. Colbert frowned. "We're much farther away, but if you think it best," he followed by casting a spell that tingled slightly, "I know a variant of Shield that can be applied to several people at once."

"Shield can be applied to us commoners?" If that's the case, how come the Reconquista raiding team didn't do that?

"Yes, but it's a difficult technique to learn, and most nobles hold that if a commoner wants protection, he ought to be carrying a shield of his own to shelter behind."

Jason rolled his eyes. "Why am I not surprised? Oh well. Louise, if you're ready, let 'er rip."

There was a loud crack as her explosion hit one of the chunks of wood. Which promptly came apart, at high velocity. They watched in silence as the larger and more visible splinters reached the apices of their own personal arcs and descended to land in a rough circle around the center where the wood chunk had once been.

And while most didn't travel that far, one particularly large piece landed about ten feet to the left of the four of them.

Mr. Colbert looked rather impressed. "I see your point about protection. Miss Vallière, I believe this trial has also been successful, and I shall acquire for you the steel balls you'll need, should you find yourself in battle."

He then cast another spell, and the earth rippled just beyond the scattered wood, slowly rising up to about five feet high, and perhaps a dozen wide. By which time, he was breathing fairly heavily.

Jason gave the older man a concerned look. "Sir, I know you know some Earth, since you can cast Flowering Bounty, but perhaps we should find a specialist? Seems like that spell really took it out of you."

"No, I'm well enough off," Mr. Colbert replied with a shake of his head. "Earth takes the most effort to move, and it is not my affinity, but I'll only need to cast the spell once more, to raise a berm to protect your maid while Miss Vallière is throwing the wood around."

Louise looked from the berm to Siesta – who was indeed wearing a sturdier version of her usual uniform, so the Little House series had gotten it right and the fantasy authors had gotten it wrong – and frowned. "What's this berm for, then, if you'll need to raise another?"

"For you to test your explosions against earthworks," he replied, "as your familiar suggested. If you can defeat even hastily erected embankments, you'll find that a considerable advantage on the field of battle."

"You think I can breach that?" she asked, sounding uncertain.

"That's what we wish to ascertain, Miss Vallière."

["You did an explosion that equaled Kirche's grand Fireball that very first week, little mistress. Do you honestly think a bit of dirt can stand up to that?"]

Louise shot Jason a quick sideways look, but then glared at the berm and cast.

This time, instead of a shower of wooden shards, large chunks of earth were temporarily set free from the jealous grasp of gravity as the center of the berm disintegrated. Most went hurtling in the other direction, but a few of those chunks headed their way, and might have tested Mr. Colbert's earlier Shield . . . except that he proved quite prepared to halt the incoming debris with Levitate.

Jason stared at the sizable breach in the berm, then grinned and started a slow clap. "I don't think anyone would have expected that!"

"Indeed not," the professor agreed, with a smile of his own. "A sheltering berm is troublesome for any other element to breach, and even cannonballs will merely be absorbed, if the berm is thick enough. That your explosion can so easily accomplish the task . . . Miss Vallière, anyone thinking to mock what you can achieve with your magic is an utter fool, and that is disregarding any spell you learn to cast in the orthodox fashion!"

Louise smiled gratefully, but then: "I'm still going to learn orthodox casting!" she declared emphatically.

"Of course, but don't be blind to what you've already proven capable of." So saying, Mr. Colbert cast and slowly repaired the breach in the berm that she'd so easily created.

When he finished, he went on (despite breathing heavily once more). "Do not aim at the breach while your maid is sheltering behind it. I recommend seeing how precisely you can move the wood around with your explosions, and use her to gather the pieces that escape your control."

"And once you've got a handle on that," Jason put in, "and especially if you can get the explosion to push in one direction rather than all directions, you might try something a little fancier, like juggling some of the wood."

"Juggling?" Louise repeated, sounding perplexed.

"Yeah, like this." He trotted over to the nearest fragment of wood, picked it up, tossed it lightly into the air, and then when it came down he hit it to knock it back up. The second time he hit it the angle was wrong, and it bounced away from him, but his little mistress's expression showed comprehension.

"If you can keep one bit of wood in the air reliably, try two, then three, et cetera." Then: "Siesta, are you going to be alright behind the berm? We can try to figure out something else, if you're worried it won't be enough."

The maid gave the berm a wary look, but then smiled and nodded. "As long as Miss Vallière only casts on the wood, I should be fine."

"I'll be careful!" Louise promised.

"Excellent," Mr. Colbert stated. "Now, Jason, let us attend to your training."

The two went a short distance away, far enough to not be distracted by flying lumber, before the professor Levitated over a staff that he'd likely procured at the same time as the scrap lumber.

"Let us see if you can call on your power again," he said, handing the staff to Jason, "but perhaps with a shorter invocation."

"Yes, sir." What to try . . . aha! "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Louise is with me."

He could feel something welling up, but it didn't seem to be quite enough, so: "And for her sake I'll be the deadliest sonovabitch in the valley!"

His runes flared again, and suddenly 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 also tell that he was holding it wrong, that any strike he might attempt would be slower, weaker, and too-easily evaded. So Jason adjusted his grip until that particular sense of inadequacy faded. Then he moved the staff into a position that, adjusting for the differences between a staff and a sword, reminded him of the guard positions that he'd been hastily trying (and largely failing) to get right during the fight two days prior.

With that done, he could feel the different ways he could attack, defend, and counterattack – but he could also feel that his feet weren't set right, much as his grip had been off, so he adjusted his stance until that was better too.

Then he looked up to see Mr. Colbert watching him, eyebrows raised.

"Again, no foe will be so polite, to give you that much time to prepare yourself," the professor pointed out.

"I know," Jason replied, "but I already knew how to hold a gun, even if I was out of practice. I'll have to learn this. But at least my power is giving me some idea of the right thing to do."

"Mm. Your present grip and stance are those of an experienced warrior. If I hadn't seen how long it took you to adopt them. I'll demonstrate some basic staff drills, and then you can try them yourself."

The older man moved fluidly through the staff – well, the modern term might be 'kata', but that was probably a recent enough swipe from Japanese that the translation was avoiding the term, so 'drills' – proving that his distaste for retaining swordsmanship hadn't extended to staff fighting. Practical, really, since it let him give a would-be robber a thrashing without having to kill the hapless fool.

And Jason still felt like an utter oaf trying to mimic Mr. Colbert. Like when he'd just started puberty. Worse, even, because he could tell how the staff drill was supposed to go, and he started it out that way . . . and then when everything went wrong, his power let him know in no uncertain terms how badly he was doing.

The best he could say was that at it didn't take him quite so much time to get back into a decent guard stance at the end.

Then he looked at the professor's expressionless face, and winced. "Again?"

Mr. Colbert only nodded.

Jason was drenched in sweat by lunch – which was a very welcome respite – but he was able to push on until mid-afternoon, when his runes suddenly stopped glowing.

Immediately afterward, his muscles seized up for a moment before collapsing like limp noodles. And then he had to bite back a cry of what was nearly agony, as the cramping began.

Fortunately, Mr. Colbert was right there, and soon cast something that caused the cramps to quickly recede, leaving behind the relatively tolerable soreness of overworked muscles.

"Does your power permit you to ignore the complaints of your body?" the older man asked, looking exasperated.

Jason nodded. "Up to fighting while coughing up blood from being slammed into a tree, yessir. Can't expect to get healed if the battle's lost, I reckon."

"You've not pushed yourself to that extremity today," Mr. Colbert began . . . and then paused as his eyes caught on the no-longer-glowing runes.

He sighed. "Jason, do you feel a sense of emptiness, perhaps just behind your heart or lungs?"

"I-" Not really, but- "I feel . . . tired. Not just my muscles, but . . . empty isn't the right word. Exhausted." Then a deep breath, and a sudden wince at unexpected pain. "And my lungs feel sore, somehow."

The professor frowned thoughtfully. "That isn't how mages typically experience the signs of vis depletion, but this is your first time, and your body would not be used to the strain."

Jason blinked. "This is proof that I have vis?"

"Evidence, at the least. Most mages do not collapse the first time they so exhaust themselves, but you were also pushing your body to its limits."

"Oh." He eyed his runes, which were still dark. "How long do I have to wait before I can do this again?"

"I can't say for certain," Mr. Colbert admitted. "Vis exhaustion isn't a firm limit: It's possible for any mage to reach deep within himself for more, with sufficient determination, but the cost soon expresses itself on the body and mind. To death, even, for the particularly foolhardy."

Um. "How close to that was I getting?" Jason asked, feeling a bit nervous. He had, after all, fought the draugr despite injuries that would have killed him – if not from shock, then from internal bleeding soon after – if he hadn't been in the grip of his newly-discovered auxilum.

"If your mind remains clear, than not close at all. You were pushing yourself physically, as I said, so I suspect you simply came to the end of your readily-available vis. Since you have neither the experience to notice nor to delve into your reserves, your auxilum failed for lack of vis to sustain it." The professor shrugged. "If I'm correct, a good night's sleep will be sufficient to restore you."

"And if you're not?"

"Then it depends on how deeply you tapped into your reserves," came the level reply. "Mages who attempt magic demanding more vis than they can easily supply can find themselves with reduced vis – or even none at all! - until they recover from the consequences of overexertion."

"So I won't know until tomorrow if I overdid it on the magical side. Well, shit," Jason swore, but still feeling too worn out to put any heat into it. "And since I didn't notice anything before the runes shut off, I won't have any warning the next time I'm pushing it."

"Perhaps, but perhaps not," Mr. Colbert responded. "I have been pushing you hard today, so that may have proven-"

The professor cut off as Louise suddenly appeared – having clearly hurried over – and threw herself at her familiar, Siesta not far behind.

"What happened?!" the tiny rosecrown demanded. "You didn't hurt yourself again, did you? I was bouncing wood like you suggested, and I didn't notice until Siesta gasped and you were on the ground and weren't moving-!"

"Ran out of vis," Jason told his little mistress. "And I don't have the experience to tell when I'm about to run dry, so the runes suddenly shut off. And because I've been pushing myself today, my muscles quit as soon as my power wasn't forcing them to keep going."

Louise huffed. "Didn't I tell you that you needed to do more exercise!?" she demanded, before carefully Flowing the sweat off his face.

"Didn't realize I was supposed to be your meatshield at the time," he pointed out. "So yeah, gonna have to step up. And if any of those exercises you did in First Form can be adapted to my powers, I should probably do them too, to try to build up my vis as well."

"Unfortunately," Mr. Colbert stated, "the exercises for increasing your vis rely on having a wand. We can, of course, give you a sword-wand to practice with, but for now – at the very least until you can sense your vis as you use it – I think it would be best to continue as we've begun."

"So, resume practice tomorrow, assuming my vis is recovered by then?"

"That is part of it, yes," the professor replied, offering a hand to help Jason stand up. Which proved possible, despite legs that still felt wobbly. "Your power was clearly sustaining you. Provided you don't overdo it, exhausting your readily-available vis each day is likely to prove the most effective way to increase it. Which we shall verify as well, but you must also improve your conditioning such that you won't be rendered entirely helpless once your vis is exhausted."

"Like I just told Louise, I didn't know I needed to get into shape this quickly," Jason responded. Should we try burpees tonight? Won't be fun, but we are in better shape, and we can probably manage a few. And maybe ask Louise to sit on our shoulders while we do push-ups, that'll add a bit of extra weight. "Uh, if you're willing, there's some equipment that would help with that."

"Indeed there is," Mr. Colbert replied drily. "Miss Vallière, unless you've also exhausted your vis, I'd advise you to return to practice while I help your familiar clean up."

Louise nodded, and headed back out to the pile of scraps, Siesta following dutifully. ["You're certain that you'll be well?"] she asked. ["We were both shocked when you collapsed."]

["Pretty sure, but I won't complain if you Mix up some more of that tonic. Honestly, once I started to get the hang of it, it was fun."]

Mr. Colbert watched as the girls resumed their practice, then nodded. "Come with me," he ordered, setting off away from the range.

Jason followed as quickly as he could. "Sir, was it my imagination," he asked, "or was I improving before I collapsed?"

"You were indeed improving," the professor confirmed, "and much faster than a novice ought. Your progress was as one who'd let his skills mildew badly and was polishing them back up, rather than the complete clumsiness of a raw recruit."

"Yeah, that's cause the auxilum knew exactly what I was supposed to be doing. Kinda felt like maybe I could let go and let it do it all. 'Cept I don't want to give up control like that."

"If you did, you would likely be far more effective," Mr. Colbert noted, "but by the same token, you would likely deplete your vis far more quickly, much how casting Triangles will consume vis faster than casting Dots and cantrips." He offered a considering look over his shoulder. "Or is it that you don't wish to kill unless you must?"

"The second," Jason admitted. "I was shooting – and knifing – without a care in the world. Servicing targets, 'cause Louise was their target. And the princess. Wasn't upset about not taking prisoners until afterward."

"Ah. So control first. But soon you will need to discover what feats you're capable of, when using vis more intensely."

The professor slowed as they approached the nobles' baths.

"Once I've got the basics down," Jason agreed. "So, cleanup now, and then we go over an enhanced exercise routine?"

Mr. Colbert offered an amused look. "The opposite order, as it happens."

He then stepped inside, and turned around as Jason hesitated at the entrance. "What is it?"

"Uh, this may sound silly, but . . . I won't set off any alarms, will I? For daring to enter as a mere commoner?"

The professor chuckled. "Oh, no. Otherwise, it would never be cleaned." He turned back, but his voice was very dry as they entered. "Indeed, as a familiar, it would not be considered unseemly for your master to bring you here to groom you, if carrying out your duties should leave you in need of it."

Jason opened and closed his mouth several times as he followed the older man inside. "The rules didn't exactly have the two of us in mind," he finally managed to say. Then a horrible thought struck. "Wait, are you checking to see if we're," and he hated that it was making him blush like a virgin schoolboy, "carrying on an affair?"

The look that Mr. Colbert sent back as he led the way down a short corridor was quite ironic. "Do you suppose that it isn't the Academy's business? But don't worry. The reactions of the innocent are not those of the debauched."

That declaration caused the blush to deepen, and the only response that could be managed was a surly mutter of, "I'm not that innocent."

"Oh?" the professor replied, reaching a door and then turning around. "Your fancies towards your master are not full of anticipation, coupled with the nervous hope that you won't disappoint her on your wedding night, and the terror and exhilaration of wondering what your children might be like?"

"Children?" Jason repeated, in what was most certainly not a nervous squawk (no matter what lies anyone else might spread!). "Risking a pregnancy right now would be pretty foolish of us," he continued in a more normal voice.

"Indeed," Mr. Colbert agreed, "but most rakes care little for the consequences, considering such the concern of their conquests if they think of them at all. Fortunately, you've demonstrated by your past behavior that you aren't a lecher."

All hint of a smile dropped off his face. "And were your master to get with child by a commoner, I would shudder to contemplate his fate at the hands of her parents."

"Uh . . . that doesn't sound very encouraging."

"Are you not already seeking a Germanian title for that very reason?"

"Well, yeah," Jason agreed. "But now you're making it sound like there wouldn't be any title that would be enough to make up for my not being a mage."

"It wouldn't be, if Miss Vallière were the likely heir to the duchy. But she has two older sisters, neither of whom struggles with their magic as your master does." Mr. Colbert sighed. "I don't want to give you false hope: Her parents are unlikely to approve of you no matter the circumstances. But once you two have your own means of support, and you have the legal status of a nobleman despite lacking the magic of one, you might be able to ignore their disapproval."

"Oh. Yeah, that's about what we figured." But the subject matter was embarrassing, to say the least, and it seemed best to move on. "So, what's behind the door?"

"The gymnasium," the professor replied, opening said door and leading him through. The gym wasn't particularly large, but had a variety of equipment that was mostly close enough to the Terran equivalents that their purposes could be guessed at. "Hang your clothes on the rack on the wall. Hopefully the largest loincloth will fit you, but if not, your maid – Siesta, was that her name? – can arrange to have a larger one sewn."

"Yeah, probably." At least we're not going to be completely naked for this, like the ancient Greeks. But Jason still grimaced as he stripped down and put the largest loincloth on. Which was not quite as big as he'd prefer, and squeezed enough to emphasize the bulge of what was left of his belly.

Mr. Colbert – who proved to have a wiry physique and no belly bulge, which even if he didn't have a six-pack still made for a depressing comparison – then demonstrated a quick series of stretches before moving to the equipment.

Or rather a small portion thereof, and the exercises thus demonstrated had clearly been selected to strengthen Jason's shoulders and arms. Which seemed . . .

"Sir, you mages use wands. What's this stuff doing here in the noble bathhouse?"

"Swordwands may not be quite as heavy as the swords employed by commoners," came the reply, "but without regular conditioning a mage-knight would soon tire in battle and be overcome. And a staff, focus for magic or not, requires yet greater strength to wield in battle."

Mr. Colbert suddenly paused, looking slightly embarrassed, before continuing. "But many of the students who use the gymnasium have aspirations for the dueling circuit, especially these last few years."

"Ah. Sportsmen. So what about exercising the rest of me? Not that upper body strength won't be helpful, but-"

"I shall devise a more strenuous programme for you," the professor agreed, "but little of it will take place here. Conditioning your legs will involve marching, and evasion exercises at the range." He paused again. "I would have you exercise now until you were on the verge of collapse, had you not already done so. In the morning, if you're sufficiently recovered, return here after you finish jogging with your master and repeat the exercises I just showed you. After breakfast I should have the more intense program planned out."

Hell, he's still alive after being a veteran, he probably knows what he's doing. "Alright. Uh, Louise knows a potion that helps you recover from overexerting. Will that interfere with anything?"

Mr. Colbert raised an eyebrow. "It depends on the potion. I'll inquire when we return."

"Okay." Then Jason looked around. "And using this equipment won't be a problem? Since this is the bathhouse for nobles and I'm not one yet?"

"Perhaps when the students return at the end of summer, but for now the gymnasium should see little-"

The door to the gym suddenly opened, and a blond young man – it was the fop who kept embarrassing himself, Guiche, that was his name! – walked in, already wearing a loincloth and thus showing off a flat belly that had begun outlining abdominal muscles. The kid did some quick stretches, then headed towards one of the several machines that Jason hadn't been introduced to, and began a set that looked like it was focused on building those abs some more.

He was also eyeing the two of them curiously.

Mr. Colbert sighed slightly. "The gymnasium shouldn't see much use until autumn. Since we're finished for today, let us wash up and return to the range."

Jason waited until they were in the baths proper, scrubbing off and thus both making noise and likely out of earshot before speaking up. "So what was that machine for, that, uh, Guiche, was using?"

The professor eyed him askance for a moment, clearly thinking it over, before responding. "That particular device is one of several intended to cultivate the agility that duelists favor. But when it and the others are used more than strictly necessary, it's claimed that they sculpt a . . . pleasing appearance in the stomach."

"Couldn't help but notice that part." And Louise can say we look better all she likes, and she's not wrong, but the belly is still there. "His washboard abs seem to be coming along well enough, anyway. And I need to get rid of this," a generous pinch of his belly for emphasis, "sooner or later myself."

"Later, then. Your conditioning will improve in the fulness of time, but you aren't training for the dueling circuit, so you've no need to waste effort on those devices."

"Yeah, but-"


The flat tone and hard look was as annoyed as he'd ever seen the older man get, on par with the taunts leading up to the exhibition duel with Kaita the Gust, or when he'd tried to make a joke about the Summoning Rite and had apparently committed moderate blasphemy. So it was time to shut up and take the reprimand.

But fortunately, Mr. Colbert seemed to see it as a teaching moment, for his following statement was quite mild. "Do you know how much time I am now spending every day on matters related to you?"

"Um-" The inventions, and now that the Headmaster has him training us. "Most of it?"

"Nearly all of my time, yes. Not that I don't have good reason, of course. The items you have brought are fascinating, and the knowledge you can remember is tantalizing. And I cannot blame the Headmaster for being interested in observing how your powers develop. But I expect you to understand that neither you nor I have any time to waste on vanity."

"Yessir." Jason sighed. "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. Even to the hiring of a Water specialist to clear away fat and tighten skin, if your master is willing to make the expenditure." Then Mr. Colbert smiled faintly. "Although Miss Vallière must have some idea of what you look like by now, and she doesn't seem to mind your current state that much."

A quick burst of laughter seemed appropriate. "Maybe not now, but when I showed up she wanted to treat me like a soldier in a punishment platoon, gruel for rations and I don't know what exercise she'd have made me do, but she said that what I was doing was a lot less than what her parents would have required."

The professor's smile widened. "And then you bargained her up to porridge and nuts? And even raw fruits and vegetables?"

Jason shook his head. "No, I designed that menu myself, based off of an old tale of young men following an ascetic diet to protect themselves from the temptations of an emperor's court. 'Course, now that I'm going to be exercising a lot more, I'm going to need meat, and probably a lot of it. Liver and other organ meats, by preference." He grimaced. "And even more veggies, I suppose. Mom did always tell me I needed to eat more rabbit food."

Mr. Colbert's eyebrows rose slightly. Then, after waiting a bit: "You rarely, if ever, speak of your family."

"They're well enough off that I don't have to worry about them." But that didn't begin to cover the mixed emotions that suddenly welled up. "Don't get me wrong, I love them . . . but by now they have to think I'm dead and I can't do anything about that, so I try not to think too much about it."

Then Jason . . . well, less smiled and more grimaced again. "Louise telling me about Brimir ruling the Void and knowing of other worlds is the first hint I've gotten that there might be a way to contact them, except there was some sort of fall a long time ago and y'all've lost the details. But if it turns out that there is a way back to Terra, even just to send a message letting them know I'm alive and well, I will be all over that."

The professor limited himself to a quiet nod of acknowledgment, and they finished washing up in silence.

They'd cleaned up, dried off, dressed, and then almost made it to the exit before Guiche came out of the gymnasium, breathing heavily and sweating after an obviously productive workout. Upon spotting them, his eyes lit up, and he hurried towards the baths.

Jason blinked. "What was that about?"

Mr. Colbert shook his head. "I fear that the other students continue to laugh at your master, despite her dedication to making up for lost time. It would not surprise me if young de Gramont expects to make an evening's entertainment out of you and Miss Vallière. I would prefer to avoid that." He paused, then admitted: "I have less experience with Wind than the other elements, and I'm not certain I could Levitate us both to the range without exhausting myself. Can you run, perchance?"

Wait, Louise Levitated us and Siesta across the castle to the other side, and he's saying he couldn't do that? That's . . . not important right now, we can't waste time and our legs are still feeling a little rubbery. "I can try to march quickly?"

"Let us hope that's sufficient."

It was almost sufficient. They'd just about made it to the range when the rustling of the grass alerted them to the blond Levitating over the Academy walls, having obviously washed up as quickly as he could and then taking every shortcut available to show up before they could disperse.

Louise's happy expression at seeing Jason return went sour as she spotted the interloper, and she waved at Siesta to take a breather before marching over.

"What are you doing here, Gramont?" she demanded of the blond 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 Captain of Zero?" He finished with a snicker at his own wit.

Someone please reassure us that the Kardashians don't have spiritual clones here.

And Jason was prepared to offer some wall-to-wall counseling . . . except that his little mistress was looking more confident than he'd ever seen her.

That's not a mask of pride hiding the certainty of failure anymore, is it? You know you can handle this.

So he just stood tall, with a toothy grin, and waited for the smack-down.

Except that Mr. Colbert chose to take up the gauntlet first. "Miss Vallière is commendably justified in practicing her magic during the summer months," he stated. "She shows a level of dedication that many students sadly lack."

"A 'level of dedication' that only the Zero needs!" Guiche retorted. "Everyone knows she's been out on the range day after day, but she still can't even cast Firebolt! How are you supposed to teach her to be a mage-knight when the Zero still casts zero spells?"

Louise's eyes glared, and she stepped forward, gripping her wand . . . only to stop abruptly when Mr. Colbert raised his staff to bar her way.

"A mage-knight seeks victory by any means available," the professor said, before giving Guiche's rose – his casting focus – a pointed look. "I must say, it's sad to see a son of your father who does not understand why mage-knights carry swordwands into battle."

The blond Earth mage flinched, just a bit, but then he stood straight, with a challenging glint in his eyes. "That's not how de Gramonts wage war. And everyone knows you use a staff, and don't carry a swordwand. How are you supposed to teach someone to fight when you can't fight yourself?"

"Sometimes, skills are best left to mildew," came the dangerously quiet reply. "But were you so dazzled by my exhibition with Kaita the Gust that you need it repeated?"

Guiche rolled his eyes. "Triangle against Line, as if that would prove anything. And that's not the point! The Zero is still learning her cantrips. Casting cantrips, that was the extra strength her 'familiar' brought her. And what's the point of trying to train her pig of a familiar to fight for her? I'm the youngest of my family, and I command seven bronze valkyries, each of whom can match an orc. Every de Gramont is an army all by himself, and no one commoner can hope to match that!"

"Each of your vernacula is worth an orc? That's quite the boast to make, de Gramont." Mr. Colbert shrugged off his robe, revealing knee breeches and a shirt that, if it was of humbler material than silk and lacked ornamentation, still had the long sleeves that mages favored to hold their wands. "Back up, all of you."

Once Jason and Louise joined Siesta at a safe distance, the professor gripped his staff, and conjured the fiery serpent that he took his mage title from.

"Show me the measure of your prowess, de Gramont!" he commanded as he set his vernaculum flying overhead in an irregular loop, snapping and snarling at an invisible foe. "In this scenario, my Flame Snake is confronting a mage of equal strength. I can't spare any magic for my own protection, and my soldiers are already engaged against the foe's, so I have but my staff to defend myself. Take advantage of my distraction, and take me captive!"

Guiche scoffed, but then gestured with his rose. All the petals on it fell to the grass, and where they each landed, there arose a bronze construct, shining golden in the sunlight, all armed with spears. Two of them lumbered towards Mr. Colbert, one raising its spear to threaten him with the gleaming barbed point, the other reversing its grip to strike at the target with the butt of its spear.

But despite whatever concentration was required to keep his elemental moving irregularly, the professor parried the second valkyrie's strike with his staff with apparent ease, and his counterattack nearly disarmed the construct. Then, while that one tried to recover, he performed a series of attacks – that he must have drilled into muscle memory, they were so fast – hitting a leg of the first valkyrie to knock it off balance and then reversing to hit it on the other side so that it stumbled into the second, and caused them both to collapse.

Mr. Colbert then stepped back into a relaxed guard stance, while a consternated Guiche set about the task of untangling his two constructs and getting them back on their feet. All were silent until he was finished.

"While you were preoccupied with straightening out your vernacula, I had sufficient time to advance on you, create an opening through the remainder of your 'army', and subdue you before returning my full attention to my original opponent," the professor pointed out drily. "That is one loss for you, de Gramont. Would you like to concede now?"

The blond snarled and gestured, and four more of his bronze valkyries stepped forward to join the first two.

"Good thinking, to retain one to guard yourself," Mr. Colbert said approvingly. "But to overwhelm a foe with numbers requires one thing above all: Coordination!" With that he attacked the half-dozen constructs, his staff moving so quickly that Jason would have needed to use his power to even begin to follow the blurring weapon. But the results were clear enough as the staff whirled from blow to blow, knocking spears from bronze hands, tripping up bronze legs to crash into each other, 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 gaping for a few moments, simply dismissed them all. Then he looked up at the witnesses to his humiliation – faces calm, guarded, and in one case gleeful – and ran off.

"Are you going to teach Jason to fight that well?" Louise demanded excitedly, once the boy was gone.

"Yes, I believe so," Mr. Colbert confirmed. "And with his familiar power, I doubt it will take nearly as long as I required."

She jumped up and down, shaking her wand in the air and crowing in delight.

Siesta, however, looked worriedly in the direction Guiche had run off in. "Will he be fine, by himself?" she asked doubtfully.

"I'm sure his pride is sorely wounded," the professor replied, "but such must happen to any young man as he matures. If he shows signs of taking his defeat too hard over the next few days, I'll seek him out, but it's more likely that he'll be motivated to improve his skills."

"But ever since the disaster with those two girls he was courting, he's been all alone, with no one to comfort him." The maid looked over to Jason. "Maybe you could follow him, to be sure he'll be well?"

"Why should any of us care-" Louise began, but quieted when Jason held up a hand.

"I don't know what good I could do," he said, "but since I was the one who made sure those two girls found out, I'll go check and 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. "Suppertime approaches. We'll call this the end of today's lessons. And Jason?"

"Yes, sir?"

"As I said, I suspect that young de Gramont will respond by seeking to overcome the challenge he just failed. I don't know how much his vernacula can improve with practice, as the specific magic used is well-guarded by his family. But it would be greatly to your benefit to have them to practice against."

"That – huh. Yeah, facing off against that many opponents would be good training. I'll see what I can do." Not that we're the best diplomat in any world, but we'll give it a shot.

With that, Jason headed off.

At first it seemed like following Guiche wasn't going to work – the kid had wall-hopping via Levitate, after all – but then Jason spotted a bit of disturbed grass, making a trail towards one of the small thickets nearby. Seemed his best shot, so-

And there in the branches were a few cherries ripening, obviously the tail end of the season. And he'd missed it!

Because we're not on a noble diet, idiot. Finish getting into shape, and maybe next year.

And yes, upon entering the tiny grove he did spot the wayward blond, sitting on a hillock, arms tight around his folded-up legs, his face buried in his knees, shaking slightly . . . all in all, the picture of a miserable young man doing his best not to weep out loud.

Lonely young man, at that, given that there's room for a sweetheart next to him. If his blonde ex hadn't rebuked his attempts to make up with her.

A loud sniff then confirmed what the kid's shaking signified.

Shit. Last thing he'd want right now is to be caught, but we did promise Siesta . . .

"Are you crying?"

Guiche froze. "No!" he snarled, not looking up.

Dammit, wrong question. Like asking Louise what 'Zero' meant. Give his dignity a sop! "Dust in the air, then?"

The blond twitched.

"Yes," came the sullen reply, after a few moments.

Not our job to cuddle him. Louise gets cuddles when she's in tears. Siesta too, even, if she ever needs it. But a silly fop of a noble isn't our-

Said fop sniffed again.

Aw, hell.

The hillock did have enough space for two, if only just, Jason sat down next to Guiche, leaving as much space between them as he could, and gingerly reached out to pat the smaller boy on the back. "It's not . . . look, wanna talk about it?"

The blond didn't look up. "Like you care!"

Jason sighed. "This isn't my Brimir-given calling, no, but I'm willing to listen. And by now I've got a bit of experience with helping mages who feel like they aren't quite up to snuff."

Guiche's hands clenched. "I am not a cripple like the Zero!"

"She's not either, when you get down to it, but . . . I get the feeling that one of your father's vernacula would have been the equal of an orc."

"Hmph." The blond looked up for the first time, a sneer on his face. "Father's valkyries are as strong as an ogre!"

"Neat," Jason replied, "So the orc thing . . . that's the standard your older siblings set, then?"

"That's right."

"Then tell me if I'm wrong, kiddo, but from what we just saw, it seems like maybe someone forgot to teach you enough 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 responded. "I didn't have time for more practice, not with the rest of my education."

"Yeah, Louise has hinted at some fairly broad education herself, and that's when she still couldn't cast anything. So what'd they stuff in your head? Tactics and strategy? Fortifications, provisioning, transportation?"

"What?" came the confused reply. "No! Etiquette, dancing, singing. I've memorized over two-hundred ballads, and I-"

"Hang on," Jason interrupted. "Weren't you supposed to be growing up to be an officer?"

"An officer and a gentleman," Guiche confirmed with a nod. "Mother says that a proper gentleman blooms like a rose for the ladies of his court."

"Uh-huh." We just might've found the problem. "Did she do this with the rest of your brothers and sisters?"

"I don't have sisters. And my brothers . . ." The blond trailed off, obviously thinking about it. "They must have run off from lessons too many times. Sometimes they're a trifle," his voice lowered to a near-whisper, "boorish."

Bingo! "Speaking frankly, would that translate to 'very boorish, most of the time'?"

Guiche, looking rather indignant, opened his mouth . . . but couldn't seem to find the words for a rebuttal. Finally he closed it and nodded. Then flushed. "Mother would slap me if she heard me agreeing with something so critical of family."

Jason shrugged. "Sticking up for your family is a good idea, in the main. So, uh, 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." And the picture seems to be is getting clearer and clearer. "And 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?"

Guiche gave him a funny look. "You don't know of the de Gramont family?"

"Nope," Jason replied with shake of his head. "Kiddo, I'm foreign. From beyond Halkagenia, I mean. And I've been working with Louise on her magic, not on local politics. Which means you're my introduction to your family."

"Oh." The blond took a deep breath. "Yes, Father owes his commission directly to the Crown. And Mother's court has over a hundred ladies who attend. They're mostly petty nobility, some of them are hedge-mages or not even that, and only have title through their husbands' commissions, but they're all ladies."

"Mm." Well, they do have the Chevalier thing here, for badass commoners. "Gonna hazard a guess, that your mother arranged most of your education."

"Of course."

"Gonna hazard another guess now. And it's that your brothers were mostly taught to your father's expectations."

Guiche opened his mouth, and once more couldn't seem to find the words.

"That . . . that would make a good deal of sense," he finally replied, in a much smaller voice and an odd look on his face.

And maybe it's time for another guess. "Kiddo, have they hurt you, before?"

"What? No!"

Hope he's not lying about that. "What about mocking you, or teasing you? Maybe for being fancy, or a would-be Gallian?"

The boy flinched, just a bit. "I never . . . how did you-?!"

Then he flushed and shut up.

Jason shrugged, and did his best not to scowl at the confirmation of brotherly bullying. "Just a part of the pattern I'm seeing. So, how much of this education of yours was spent practicing how to pay court to women?"

"Mother made sure I knew how to be charming, of course." Guiche's face scrunched up. "Everyone in her court always said I did it wonderfully. Why doesn't it work here?!"

That last came out almost as a wail.

"Everyone? You were taking lovers in her court and nobody minded?"

The blond turned to stare at Jason with an expression of scandalized shock so fast that it was a wonder he didn't crack his neck. "Of course not! That would be fomenting mutiny! I never, even 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."

"From what I saw it was working . . . right up until you turned your charm on more than one of the students, didn't tell them you were planning on seeing other women, and got caught."

"A gentleman does not crassly boast of his conquests, lest he harm their reputations." Guiche delivered this in a lofty tone.

Jason snorted. "How high-minded of you. But that only works until the women start comparing notes. Or when one seeks you out while you're spending time with another."

That got another flinch. "You saw that."

"No, Louise did. I was sitting across from her. Although from the laughter, it sounded like just about everyone out in the field was watching, by the end of it."

"It's not like I was doing anything wrong," Guiche muttered, hunching inward. "It's normal for officers to have mistresses, and a flower is supposed to bloom for the enjoyment of as many as possible."

And if you were a few years older, you might have been in Bruxelles and about to be sent off to Undine Knight boot camp. "I admit, I'm not very familiar with local customs, but there's a saying among my people that Hell has no fury like a woman scorned."

"I wasn't scorning anyone!"

"Maybe. Depends on what you told 'em, though. Were you trying to make them each feel like the most special woman in the world?"

Guiche blinked, and didn't reply for a moment. "It would be ungracious of me if I didn't compliment them," he finally responded, albeit a bit uncertainly.

"So you were. And that's part of the thrill of falling in love, the feeling that someone thinks you're the most wonderful person in the world. 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 when you didn't promptly pick one of them to side with, it looked like you'd been toying with both of them. Which is betrayal. Hell, fury, scorn."

"B-but," the blond sputtered. "That's not how it is in the real world!"

"You think so? In the real world people murder each other over this sort of thing." Jason shrugged again. "But yes, give them time to get disillusioned about the whole business and many do trade in the enchantment of romance for a more cold-heartedly practical arrangement. That gets you your mistresses."

"How much time?" Guiche wanted to know. "I'm already in Second Form, after all, and I spent all First Form paying court to Montmorency."

And of course he takes the exact opposite of the point we were trying to make. "That's part of the problem right there, I reckon. You want to cut a swath through the young ladies while you're here? Then you need to keep it casual. Don't pretend to offer undying love when you're just trying to make friends and have a good time together."

"But . . . how do I-" The blond 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."

Dammit, kid. "Okay, leaving aside the morality of it all? Here's a secret: Some young ladies are almost as curious about 'collecting more than kisses' as young men are. But again, you have to keep it casual. Make it clear – before you do anything – that nothing you do together means a long-term commitment. Then if they're still interested, you have to let them decide when there's going to be more than kisses. And even then – especially then – you need to be clear that a tryst is still casual, something between friends. 'Cause the natural assumption is that lovers aren't casual, that you're each committing to other."


"And if you miss either of those young ladies, don't try poetry. Well, unless you're good enough that people ask you to compose poems for them to use. Start with a heartfelt apology for inadvertently toying with their hearts. Make it clear that you aren't ready to commit to anything, you just want to get to know each other better. Then see how it goes."

Guiche looked very thoughtful. "I could try that."

"Good for you." Seems like we're about done here. "By the way," Jason said offhandedly as he stood up. "If you want to start catching up with your older brothers, you could come by Mr. Colbert's suite after breakfast. We're going to be training a lot this summer, and you're welcome to join in if you think it'd help."

That got a surprised look out of the blond. "Your master's truly having you trained for battle?"

"Yeah, turns out that some of my auxilia are focused on protection, so I'm training to learn how to use them properly."

Guiche looked away. "Verthandi's auxilia are aligned more for seeking. I'm glad I won't have to risk her in battle."

But in a martial family, a combat familiar would bring more praise. "If she thought you were in danger, I bet she'd fight for you nonetheless. Anyway, like I said, tomorrow morning. If you want to."

"I think I might, yes."

"Do you think he'll talk to both of them?" Siesta asked at supper, her eyes sparkling with amusement.

Jason paused, his spoon halfway to his mouth, and shrugged. "My guess is he try the older one first, since he spent all First Form trying to court her. But if she expects commitment . . ."

He shrugged, then continued eating.

"Why'd you tell him that he could lie with different girls?" Louise demanded crossly. "Even Zerbst wouldn't take up with him, and she'll flirt with anyone."

"Miss Zerbst isn't the only young lady willing to open her bed to others," Mr. Colbert pointed out. "Merely the most indiscreet. And the summer months will cause that debacle to fade somewhat into memory."

"Yeah, maybe. As long as he isn't lying to them so he can lie with them," Jason said after chewing and swallowing. "Anyway, he didn't dismiss the notion of training, so it ought to help him. If you think there's time, anyway."

"We'll manage," the professor responded. "Fortunately, I've no classes to teach, and my experiments can be put off if need be."

But you love experimenting, dammit. "Pity we're not learning to joust. You wouldn't need to supervise much if we were."

"'Joust'?" Mr. Colbert repeated curiously.

"Uh . . . right, here it's the dueling circuit and not jousting tournaments. Uh, learning to use a long spear on horseback. Without magic, and back before guns? Armored cavalry, charging the enemy with lances, were just about unstoppable. So they came up with a very simple machine, balanced so that if you hit the target true in the center it would give way, but if you didn't it would spin around and hit you as you rode past."

That caused the professor to stare off into space for quite a while.

"That sounds as if it would have been helpful," he finally commented, and resumed his meal.

"Hey, little mistress?" Jason asked as they made their way back to her bedroom after dinner. "Do you know much about music?"

"A little," Louise admitted.

Which led to digging out some sheet music that had clearly not been used in a while, a quick lesson on symbols and notation so that his translation power could handle those, and finally a recitation of scales on her part that revealed his little mistress to possess quite a pleasant soprano.

"Of course I was trained," she replied tartly when he commented on it. "Singing is an accomplishment that every noble ought to have, if their voice isn't horrible."

"Fair enough," Jason replied. "And this is really how your musical scales work?"

"Yes," she told him, starting to sound annoyed. "I know I'm no more than indifferent with the harpsichord, but I do know my scales."

He blinked and looked up. "Sorry, that wasn't meant as criticism. It's just that this is pretty much the same as the scale I learned for music back on Terra. Now I'm wondering why."

"Does it matter?"

Jason shrugged. "I suppose not, and it ought to make it easier to translate this stuff. Anyway, I've got the music on my phone, and most of the recordings include the lyrics, but since they're mostly in English, I'm gonna need your help translating them into Tristainian and Albionian."

Louise gave him a doubtful look. "Why?"

"Remember how I asked Siesta to get me a minstrel? The first step to taking Albion back from Reconquista is to get the people rallying against them. And unless I miss my guess, new songs should spread quickly if they're good enough, for the sheer novelty factor."

"Novelty?" she repeated, sounding puzzled.

"Yeah, like how you've been going through Siesta's stash of old books. Or are they that good? 'Cause I honestly have to agree with Mr. Colbert about the quality of the writing."

"They're-" His little mistress flushed. "Those two stories you brought were silly too!"

"Well, yeah. They were written as farces. Point is, the chance to hear a new tale, a new song . . . if they aren't utterly wretched or forgettable, they'll spread for a while just because they are new. So I'm hoping we can hit the situation with Albion good and hard in peoples' hearts with a lot of new songs, make everyone with a romantic view of the White Isle rage against the dying of the light."

She frowned. "But your poems don't have a sense of rhythm or rhyme when you translate them."

Jason sighed. "I know. Most of the time it's easy to ignore that we're not speaking the same language, but my translation auxilum can't handle wordplay jests, or rhyme, or meter, and has trouble with idioms. Just because of how languages are. So as we translate these songs, I'll need your help to make them sound good."

The frown became deeper. "You need my help?"

"Uh, yeah. Is that a problem?"

"No, no! But-" Louise shook her head. "I always need your help! You're the one who thinks of what to do or say."

"Really?" Jason gave her a wry grin. "Even when I'm offending royalty with my impertinence? Or saying something crass and low-minded?"

"You-!" she began, then gave him an exasperated look. "You never do that when things could turn out that badly. You did start to hold your tongue around Captain Wardes, and on the ship, you bluffed that officer-"

"That could have gone horribly wrong, if I hadn't guessed right," he interrupted. "Little mistress, 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."

Her expression turned thoughtful. "So if I were to read them-?"

"Couldn't hurt," his grin returned, "and I have it on good authority that being well-read is also an accomplishment. Anyway, I gave Mr. Colbert the idea for a machine that allows much faster writing. Once there's a working model, I can start transcribing some of the books.

"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 little mistress, I know you can be clever." But it won't help with your self-confidence issues until you believe it.

Louise didn't look entirely certain, but nodded nonetheless. "How are we going to do this?"

"I'll write out the lyrics," and good thing we can tell when we're writing in either language, "and you listen to the music while reading the translations. The ones you think will be effective, we'll set aside, and once we're done you can start polishing the lyrics to make them work in Tristainian instead of English."

"What should I do while you're writing them out?"

He shrugged. "Practice Ignite?"

She nodded again, and they both got to work.

A sudden growl made Jason look up from the song he was currently transcribing, to see his little mistress fuming over a candle that had burst apart entirely.

Looks like she might be tilting a bit. "Need a distraction? I've got a few of these written down, if you want to take a quick break."

Louise glared at the mess in front of her for another heartbeat or two, then slumped and made her downhearted way over to him. "Why does it have to be so difficult!?" she groaned, flopping into his lap and burying her face into his chest.

'Cause your magic doesn't seem to work the same, and it's pretty strong, so you're having to figure it out as you go and learn a light touch at the same time. But you really want to fit in as a proper noble mage, so now's not the time to try to convince you to accept that. "If it's easy and worth doing, it's usually already done," he said instead, stroking her hair and bowing far enough to kiss the top of her head.

She growled again, but then heaved a sigh and turned to face the sheets of lyrics he'd written. "This is a few of them? How many do you have?"

Jason chuckled. "Not sure yet. My phone's got a bunch of songs on it, and some of these I haven't listened to in quite a while, so I'm still rediscovering what I've got recorded.

"Anyway, I'm thinking of going with three different general categories for these songs. Some of them are for influencing public opinion, so that more people will oppose Reconquista and support the reestablishment of the Tudor dynasty. Some I want to give to Wales, to use to help inspire the partisans that he gathers to retake Albion. And the rest will be mostly for entertainment."

Louise turned her head and looked up at him with a frown. "For entertainment?" she repeated.

"Yeah, basically a bribe to Siesta's minstrel. If we give him nothing but war-songs it might alert a Reconquista informant, but if he's got other new songs he can use them to distract from the more serious ones."

"Oh." She looked back to the sheet music. "So which ones are these?"

"Those first two on top are Scots Wha Hae and Afrikanerhart. They're for the minstrel, but I'll probably slip them to Wales as well. Ready to listen to 'em?"

She nodded.

"Okay. The line next to my finger is one that they'll be singing."

This got another nod, so Jason hit play on his phone.

Then hit pause, when Louise gasped as the first words were sung. "What's wrong?" he asked.

"I understood that!" she exclaimed. "The singer's accent is almost as thick as the Caledoni highlanders that Prince Wales used to imitate to make us laugh, but I can still understand it!"

"Huh." So apparently the England analog has a Scotland analog attached to it. "Well, I can understand any language you understand, so I suppose it makes sense that you can understand my language."

"That does make sense," Louise agreed. "Now begin the song again!"

Jason complied, and she was quiet until the end of it.

"That's almost disturbing, how closely it fits the fight against Reconquista," she mused. "But the names aren't familiar."

"Well, yeah, they're from Terran history. We'll want to substitute local names as needed. 'See approach Cromwell's vile power/Chains and slavery', and so on. Other than that, what'd you think?"

She snorted. "Reconquista will hate it."

"Yeah. Wonder how long it'll take for someone to be ballsy enough to play it in occupied Albion? Anyway, Afrikanerhart, and this time you'll need to follow along."

When the second song finished, Louise was quiet except for a loud sniff. Then she turned and wiped her eyes on Jason's shirt.

"It gets to you, doesn't it?" he said quietly. Especially since you don't enough know to feel conflicted about the Boers, apartheid, and the savagery that's followed.

"'If Hel should break free and the Great Void collapse'," she quoted, the lyrics clearly having mutated while being run through his translation auxilum and back again. "Did they beat the 'khakis', in the end?"

"In the end? The 'khakis' were the soldiers of the greatest empire that Terra had ever known up until then, and they wanted the gems and gold that had been discovered there. One small country of farmers and merchants can't defend against that. Except they did, the first time, trouncing the invaders in mere weeks. And the second time, despite behind heavily outnumbered? They were so much trouble that the empire had to destroy the farms, ship prisoners of war to other countries, and imprison the wives and children into camps to slowly starve – by the thousands! – before the defenders finally surrendered."

Jason grimaced. "The 'khakis' claimed that the deaths of their prisoners was due to incompetence, but when you exile the men and give the women and children short rations so that they starve and succumb to the diseases of famine, it's hard to see it as anything but an attempt to destroy an entire nation.

"On the other hand, the Boers got surprisingly generous terms of surrender, and were even granted some local self-government a few years later, so the rulers of the empire were probably unhappy about how their generals fought the second war."

Louise suddenly looked up with a worried expression. "Do you think Reconquista-?"

"I think they're already known for atrocity, from what we heard in Newcastle. So the songs I'm picking out are about bravely suffering under tyranny, valiantly facing the forces of tyranny, or boldly striking back at the tyrants."

She nodded. "Have you written down any more?"

"Yeah, but keep in mind you do need to figure out how to adjust the lyrics to fit your language. Anyway, this next one is Ireland, I Am Coming Home. It's in English, so you shouldn't have any trouble understanding it."

"Good," she replied, snuggling up against him and turning her head to rest against his shoulder with one ear pointed towards the table (and phone).

"He had a nice voice," she said when the song finished.

Jason chuckled. "He ought to, the guy's rather famous as a minstrel. 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 refrain 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."

"Which means motivation to resist Reconquista, hopefully. Anyway, you should probably go back to practicing Ignite, or if you don't want to do that then you could get started adjusting the lyrics to these three while I continue to write more down."

She tightened her grip around him. "Mm-mm. Warm."

"Little mistress, we've both got work to do."

Louise only shook her head, and then the call to her side blossomed in his mind and heart. Which, since they were already as close as they could be without ditching their clothes and playing hide the zweihander, was a clear declaration that she wasn't ready for her break to be over with.

Except we do need to keep working. "Right." Jason got up, little mistress still clinging to him – and he was supporting her with his hand, copping a feel on her bottom was merely a happy accident – 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 exploded to the floor, and you start trying to figure out if you used too much force and hurt me by accident. 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."]

Upon hearing the predicted scenario, Louise slid down until her feet were back on the ground, although she didn't let go of him. But there was enough give in her embrace to allow her to look up and meet his eyes. "That sounds . . . absurdly implausible."

"Yeah," he shrugged, "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 will be at the worst possible time. And don't tell me you want to give up on learning Ignite."

She sighed and let him go, reluctantly. "Very well, I'll go back to practicing. Then you can show me the rest of the songs, and I'll work on correcting the lyrics while you do your nightly exercise."

"Works for me."

He'd already written some of the other songs – No Quarter (the Honor Harrington fansong he'd given the Fool of Albion), Scotland the Brave, Will Ye No' Come Back Again, and De La Rey – but there were definitely more to find. Dragonforce's Fury of the Storm and Through the Fire and Flames seemed like good ones for Wales. As long as no one tries to play instruments as fast as those guys. And Madame Guillotine might be good for when Henrietta is ready to come out in support of the liberation of Albion, since she's learning that water razor spell. The Star-Spangled Banner, March of Cambreadth, Tomorrow Belongs to Me, and Panzerlied (the full version, which had taken some effort to find a copy of back home) joined the list, then Time Stands Still (At the Iron Hill), and others as Jason went through his files. Then, before the pain of so much writing could make his hand start to cramp, he jotted down as many comedic and romantic songs as he could find that seemed likely to translate decently.

Louise rejoined him after deciding she was done with spell practice, getting to work with the lyrics (and of necessity using his phone so that she could hear the tune and know what rhythm the revised lyrics needed to fit).

Which caused her to start in surprise, the first time one of the metal bands started playing. "What is this?!" she called out over the wail of instruments.

He glanced over, "Oh. Time Stands Still," and hit pause. "Epic fight between a doomed prince and an evil lord. Figured we could use it to help cast Reconquista as heretics, and Wales as an even more heroic figure than he already is, what with the whole Valiant thing." Fingolfin-as-elvenking had already been taken out of the written version, of course. We'll have to trust in metal-voice to keep her from hearing it in the recording.

She nodded faintly, and he hit play for her.

"'His soul endures'," she quoted – or as least babelfished – as it came to the end. "You're hoping to prepare people for Wales' miraculous return, aren't you?"

Jason smirked. "Hey, if they want to think he was sent back to them by the hand of Brimir . . ."

Louise looked thoughtful. "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 helped save Prince Wales. So Brimir did have him delivered from death, through you."

If Jason hadn't been sitting down, he'd have needed to. "Uh. T-that's n-not an argument I planned to make."

"But you could," she told him. "Mr. Colbert was right, the Archangel takes an active hand in Halkagenia. It's in both the scripture and the histories. Sometimes alone, and sometime with the Hosts of Heaven, when there's hidden evil that must be thoroughly scourged."

"Yeah, but . . . I said before, I'm not an angel!"

Louise gave him an impish smile. "I did pray for a divine familiar, you know. Perhaps you'll grow into it."

"With auxilia for battle?" He shook his head. What's that line from The Prophecy, worshiping God with one wing stained red with blood? "Keep going with those lyrics. I need to finish these up and get my nightly exercise done."

Perhaps there was a bit of a pout on her lips, but she nodded and turned back to the phone and the sheet music.

But when he finished his usual routine and started the burpees, she turned back to stare, and began giggling. "What is that exercise?"

It didn't take more than a few to make Jason start gasping for breath, so he called it his first set and paused to answer. "'Burpees', probably because if you need to burp or fart you will find yourself doing both. It's good for the whole body, doesn't need any equipment in a gymnasium, and it's clear that I need to step it up, so-"

Louise smirked. "Didn't I tell you that you needed more exercise, when you started?"

He rolled his eyes. "Didn't know then that I was supposed to be your meatshield, otherwise I would have pushed myself more."

"Hmph." But her eyes were sparkling. "I suppose carrying those buckets was all the conditioning you required in the beginning."

"Yeah, I remember." He glanced at the mirror on her vanity. "And I guess I'm starting to show some improvement."

She rolled her eyes back at him. "Your conditioning has improved more than some." ["I don't know that I would have wished to kiss you if you'd stayed looking like a fat merchant's coddled heir."]

He raised one eyebrow, then started his next set. ["You know how to motivate a fellow, little mistress."]

She snorted, then went back to the lyrics.

And looked at him curiously again, when he finished the burpees and started the bicycle kicks. "And what are those?"

He waited until the end of his first set to reply. "Mr. Colbert didn't want me wasting my time with the exercise machines that duelists use to stay lean, but I still want to get rid of my belly as quickly as I can, and these bicycle kicks are supposed to help with that."

Her eyes unfocused for a moment. "Do you mean how some duelists are so trim that their stomach muscles push against the skin?"

"Uh, yeah? He said it's a waste of time, and he's right, but-"

"I–I-" Louise began, her cheeks going slightly pink. "I won't go bearing tales to him, as long as you can do the exercises he gives you as well."

And now we've got what amounts to orders to try to look more like beefcake for our little mistress, as long as it doesn't interfere with training. Hurrah! "Uh, do you have any of that tonic left, that your mother gives to your father? I think I might need it before bed, if I'm going to be good for anything tomorrow."

"I think so. There should be a little bit left from what I made for the faeries." She then looked out the window. "And it's getting late, so we should finish up and prepare for bed."

Which is going to be it's own set of dangers, but we can't really avoid them. Damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead!

Preparing for bed went according to routine . . . until it came time for Louise to don her sleeping garment (which was supposed to be a chemise but she wanted one of his shirts again). She smiled shyly at Jason, then pulled off her clothes faster than she ever had, until she was – just as the night before – standing in front of him in nothing more than her culottes. And she blushed just as deeply as the previous night, but smiled at him again, took a deep breath, and clasped her hands behind her back.

His eyes bulged – she's deliberately showing herself to us, when we said damn the torpedoes we weren't expecting this! – and he hurried to dress her in his shirt before he lost his grip on reason and started something that the Headmaster's familiar couldn't help but sniff out.

["Little mistress, I hate to say it, but we're going to need to stop doing this,"] he sent once the shirt was safely on her.

She'd bent down as she pulled off her culottes, and when Louise straightened up there was a hurt look in her expression. ["We've been doing this for months. Why do you want to stop now?!"]

["Because,"] Jason responded, then continued non-verbally by picking her up and pressing her lips to his. In response, she threw her arms around his neck and kissed him back, opening her lips enough to tease and nibble his.

And was content to breathe through her nose, even if it tickled, so that she didn't have to pull back.

But after a little while, she broke off the kiss to lay her head on his shoulder. "That wasn't a good enough answer," she breathed. ["You didn't need to dress me for bed before you kissed me."]

The implication made him shiver. "Louise," he groaned, ["There are songs among my people about girls wearing nothing more than a smile."]

["I still had my culottes on,"] she pointed out, the pout in her telepathic voice coming across quite clearly.

["Doesn't count, and you know it. I know you're a bit jealous of Kirche, but you aren't a little girl, and your bosom may not be huge but it's still very pretty."]

She seemed to almost melt into his chest and shoulder. ["I just . . . I didn't want to seem shy, when you've been dressing me for bed all along. You truly like it?"]

Well, let's see: High and firm, no ptosis at all, and . . . argh! ["The difference, little mistress, is that when I started dressing you I was determined not to lose my composure, because we weren't, uh, courting. Now we are. 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 she raised her head and kissed him again. But when she pulled back and her face came back into focus, there were a couple of tears slipping down her cheeks.

["What's wrong, little mistress?"]

["You truly think I'm lovely? You're not just stringing me along, like Guiche the Bronze was with Montmorency and the First Form girl?"]

["Eh, Guiche. Poor kid, seems like his mother trained him to secure a bride, and he thought he was learning how to be a rake."]

Louise sniffed contemptuously. "If he just wanted that, why court Montmorency so seriously? He'd been spending time with her for months, by then."

Jason thought about that for a moment. "Got caught up in chasing her, I suppose."

Then he murmured, "I love you," into his little mistress's ear, causing her to sigh happily and melt a little bit more into his embrace. ["See that? Women want to be loved by the men they fancy. And I'll bet that she was trying to lead him on the chase until she was sure he meant it. Except he thought he could get away with stepping out on her."]

Louise snorted. ["How could he be so foolish?"]

["Well . . . I think the ladies in his mother's court indulged him a great deal, and didn't care how many of them he flirted with, since everyone knew he was to only go so far as collecting a kiss from any of them. So maybe he didn't realize love could be taken so seriously. Or, just as likely, he was thinking with the brains he carries between his legs, and those don't worry so much about being true to anyone."]

She snorted again when Jason referred to Guiche's testes as the blond's brains. Then she pulled herself up and gave her familiar a kiss as soft as butterfly wings. ["But when you,"] peck, ["say you love me,"] peck, ["you mean it,"] peck, ["don't you?"] She followed this up with puppy eyes that were all the more devastating for their proximity.

"Guh," he responded, less than coherently, and staggered over to the bed to sit down before she managed to befuddle him enough to make him fall over. And it made it easier to capture her lips for something less maddeningly swift as her teasing butterfly kisses. ["I walked away from Kirche, while my blood was still on fire, to be with you. We have to keep this secret until I've got title and lands, and we've got to be careful around each other from now on, but my choice hasn't changed."]

She pulled back long enough to meet his eyes, and upon satisfying herself with whatever she saw in them, nodded slowly and buried her face in his chest for one final snuggle.

After a few more moments of cuddling in mutual and more-or-less contented silence, Jason picked her up out of his lap and tucked her into bed, then stood up to go to his mattress.

"Wait," Louise suddenly said, sitting up and patting the spot next to her. ["My bed's softer than that 'air mattress' of yours."]

He smiled wryly. ["Given everything, that does not make joining you a good idea. Quite the opposite, even."]

She narrowed her eyes, then drew in a breath and-

-And he tumbled forward, falling to one knee, in response to what seemed like a sudden and powerful tug towards his little mistress. Like being called to her side for a moment, very forcefully.

He gave her a suspicious look. "How long have you known you could do that?"

She just smiled mysteriously. "Come to bed, Jason."

He stood up and crossed his arms. "You realize that you've given me some motivation to try to figure out how to do it right back, don't you?"

Louise giggled . . . then suddenly rolled towards him to the edge of the bed. ["Oh . . . have you already figured it out, and so quickly?"] she sent laughingly. ["Merciful Brimir, if you 'do that again' when you're on your mattress, I might end up joining you on the floor, just like last night!"]

He rolled his eyes. ["I'm serious about it being a bad idea."] "Go to sleep, little mistress, we've got a full day ahead of us."

["Jason,"] she replied very flatly, ["you know I sleep better next to someone. If you lie down on the ground I will join you like I did last night. And my bed is softer, so stop being silly and come to bed."]

No way to counter that came to mind, so he just sighed. "Very well, but no books this time."

That got another giggle out of her, as he gave up and joined her under the covers. And once they were both tucked in, she immediately snuggled up against him, making a happy noise that was either a throaty hum or somehow a purr.

Trying to figure out which did not seem safe.

["And now you've just shown why this is dangerous, even if it's easy to get used to."]

["What do you mean by that?"] she replied, with a hint of a grumble.

["Little mistress, tonight you decided you wanted me to look at you, and to like what I saw. And I did."] Jason breathed in deep, almost drinking the smell of her hair, then cupped her cheek to pull her face up to his own for a final goodnight kiss. ["I really, really liked it. But we're moving down a path that disregards the fences of custom and law – of both your people and mine – that hearkens back to the deepest and earliest fundamentals of man and woman. If there aren't butterflies dancing in your cute little belly about what will come eventually, there will be soon. And then there will be strange thoughts about what you might dare, as long as no one finds out. And it is only a few steps from there to consummation."]

She drew back slightly, suddenly blushing so deeply that he could feel the heat from her cheeks. ["We're not married yet!"]

["No, we're not, but that particular fence of custom and law has a gap in it, so long as we spend time alone together. Easily passed by, if we so dare. Only our respect for the fence requires us to enter in at the gate of marriage. And yes, I choose to respect the fence, to enter in by the gate . . . but do you think the choice was an easy one to make, when you stood there for me to see?"]

Louise took a deep breath. ["Do you truly have to battle yourself, over me?"]

["Yes. Because you are lovely, and I do love you, and there's a reason my people call it 'making love', when romance and desire reach their mutual culmination."]

She let her breath out, then nestled back up against him. ["Perhaps I should start thinking of ways to let Father and Mother know to break it off with Captain Wardes, without having to tell them about you yet."]

Jason snorted. ["Like I said the other day, your engagement to him be damned. 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 a couple that's eloping, and then bring you right back here and bar the door for at least two days."]

She giggled one final time, against his chest like a silvery waterfall, but slowly her breathing grew more regular as she fell asleep.

Breathing regularly to calm down his involuntary response to her presence took a bit longer.

This was so much easier when we were trying to fool ourselves and pretend we were keeping things professional. Heaven only knows we don't want to move one inch. And we can even tell ourself it's for her good, as long as it helps her sleep better.

Of course, by the same logic we should be going at it like rabbits, for the mutual health benefits. Which won't fly at all, to the powers that be.

With, we have to admit, the possible exception of the power that handed us over to her.

So God? Or Brimir? Both of you, if he really does have divinely delegated responsibility for this world. Isn't that sort of how the Catholics see it, any saint that has an interest in an area or situation can be listening?

Whatever Authority of righteousness is there, please be listening. I love my little mistress, and so I've taken lives for the safety of the life now resting in my arms. Judge them with the same mercy that I would wish for myself and those I love. But, oh Lord, I do not want to carry more deaths if they aren't necessary. Therefore grant me, I pray, the serenity to carry those deaths that I must, but also the wisdom to spare those who need not die. Amen.

Louise seemed sound asleep, and leaving his arms in range to end up somewhere they ought not didn't seem prudent, so Jason carefully disengaged and turned over so that she was snuggled up against his back, then waited for sleep to carry him off.


Magic Items: Canalis – a ring that helps mages who are barely more than inexprimé focus their vis through their wands. Could the use of one aid a hedge-mage?