Other Voices: Leading Up To

Louise snarled at the mess of wax in front of her. The wick that had been in it was entirely consumed by now, so she set another in front of her . . . but she was so tired of seeing the tiny little pops in the column of wax as she coaxed the vis to stay in one place and finally Ignite.

Compared to this, drilling the explosions out of her cantrips had been easy!

Why did elementari have to be so much more difficult?! Ignite was the easiest of them all, its figura the simplest possible expression that Fire could be! But focusing on that essential representation of Fire when she tried to cast made the explosions worse and delayed the ultimate success of each attempt.

And that worried her, deep down. Ignoring the precise details of wand and incantation were one thing, but when focusing on the essence of a spell made that spell more difficult? What did that say about her magic? Nothing good.

Why couldn't elementari be like cantrips? Why couldn't Ignite be like Warmth, ultimately requiring nothing more than her determination to heat up her target?

She gritted her teeth as she glared at the new candle. Why couldn't it just burn!

There was no explosion. No slow buildup of vis that fought her direction. No delay at all, as the wick lit and the flame began to dance merrily in front of her.

Louise blinked as her jaw dropped. Then after a long moment, she turned her head to see: Had her familiar noticed?

No, Jason was still practicing with his gloves, learning to slide knuckles and sap in and out smoothly. He could already do so using his auxilum, but he wanted to be able to use them at any time.

Given that Mr. Colbert had shown what a student of pammachon could do to dominate a foe, with nothing more than the strength of a mage who was slowly growing older . . . the next time they encountered Agnes, Louise was tempted to try her familiar against Henrietta's agent. Without using his power.

But he hadn't noticed her surprise, just now. Which meant he wouldn't have to know if it proved a mere fluke.

Brimir, how she hoped it wasn't a fluke!

She blew out the candle, then began to focus her vis on it . . .

A tiny explosion popped about midway up the wax column, and her concentration collapsed into frustration and dread. Hel take it, she'd just done it without having to take the time to concentrate her vis and-

The proverbial écu dropped, and Louise couldn't help but sneak another glance at her familiar, just to make sure he wasn't witnessing her embarrassment.

Because he'd nearly been right, when he'd spoken of Fire in a way that had sent a shiver up her spine. By her will, let there be fire. But no need to push more and more vis and try to hold it in place. No, let there be fire now.

Let the candle burn!

She blew the candle out again, then turned a third time. "Jason, look at this!"

Her familiar looked over to where she was practicing, and his face brightened as he saw her triumphant expression.

"Got something to show me, little mistress?" he asked as he got up and came over.

Louise nodded, still smiling, and set the candle alight once more.

He let out his breath in one long exhalation, tickling where it brushed against her hair. "Can you do that again?"

She laughed and complied, and once again there were no explosions, however tiny, to mar the casting.

"Well," Jason said. "Well done, Louise de la Vallière. Proven Dot of Fire."

She laughed again, giddy in delight, then turned around and lunged for him, squeezing tight in an embrace he was clearly happy to return. Then he picked her up – and maybe she was quite capable of Levitating the both of them at need, but being cradled in his arms made her want to sigh and just melt away! – and sat down at the table.

With no discomfort on his part, either. Because she wasn't thoughtless about what she was sitting on, nor as swollen and overgrown as a cow! (Which wasn't fair to Siesta, and her familiar was right, she did like the maid. But the shameless flirting that the commoner engaged in with her familiar was just revolting!)

And maybe sitting in man's lap and wearing nothing more than his shirt as a chemise might be seen as lewdly forward, but Jason's shirts were very nearly as long as a proper chemise anyway! And he wore his braies beneath his nightclothes, so it wasn't as if the thin and (impossibly) finely-woven fabric adorning was the only barrier between her and what a decorous Vallière maiden would never sneak a curious peek at while her familiar was bathing.

Even if she was certain he'd been too absorbed in his thoughts to notice.

And of course even a Vallière maiden who might have lapsed into impropriety for a brief moment or two, now and then and only when she wouldn't be caught, was too shy to ask how an odd dangling bundle of skin could become the rather larger . . . plow . . . that he sometimes had in the morning. A 'plow' substantial enough to notice even through three layers of the admittedly thin cloth, since they'd begun sleeping in each other's arms. (That, she could believe, could plant seed as her mother had described.)

Siesta's books didn't help, either, as the men in them seemed to always have the plows, and never the bundles.

Worse, their critical need for ongoing prudence meant that she couldn't not plan mischief that might, through what she'd never admit would be more than sheerest happenstance, give her the answer to that question.

But while Louise was most definitely not contemplating whether she could provoke a stirring in his lap, such a short distance beneath the sudden flutters in her belly, Jason had tapped out the instructions to his 'phone'.

"I've been saving this for you," he murmured in her ear, and she blushed at the flicker of assumption that arose in her imagination.

"For when you succeeded," he went on, as if he had no idea what she was thinking of! "As I knew you would. I hope you like it."

She let out a sigh. Let him play his song. She would wait patiently to claim the embrace and the kisses that were her proper reward. Or as much a proper reward as they dared, Hel take it!

"There are moments
You remember all your life
There are moments you wait for
And dream of all your life
This is
One of those
Moments . . ."

Louise rolled her eyes. Yes, it was a sweet thought, as the singer half-spoke and half-sang of remembering all the details of that precious moment, furniture and clothes and faces. And her voice was not only beautiful, it was clear and easy to understand as the music gradually became more complex, more intricate. Not like some of the other songs, supposedly sung in Jason's language but so difficult to understand that she'd needed to read the lyrics he'd written out to follow along! But what did that have to do with-

". . . As long as I liiiiiiiiiiiiiive!

"I can travel the past and take what I need
To see me through the years.
What my father learned
And his father before him
Will be there
For my eyes and ears!"

Oh.

Her breath caught, and her eyes started to prickle.

"I can walk through the forests
Of the trees of knowledge
And listen to the
Lessons of the leaves.
I can enter rooms
Where there are rooms within rooms
Wrapped in the shawl that learning weaves!

"I remember, Papa
Everything you taught me!
What you gave me, Papa:
Look at what it's
Brought me!"

Oh, Brimir.

"There are certain things that once you have
No MAN can take away
No WAVE can wash away
Nor WIND can blow away
And now they're about to be mine!
Nor TIDE can turn away
Nor FIRE can burn away
Nor TIME can wear away!"

Louise could feel herself starting to tremble, and she buried her face into her familiar's chest as the lyrics gave way to triumphant instruments, refusing to break down and start bawling like a little girl in her father's lap.

"I can open doors and take from the shelves . . ."

There was more? No, she couldn't take more-

". . . All the books I've longed to hold
I can ask all the questions,
The whys and the wheres,
As the mysteries of life unfold
Like a link in a chain
From the past to the future
That joins me with the children yet to be,
I can now be a part
Of the ongoing stream,
That has always been
A part of me!"

Truly, she couldn't, and Jason's nightshirt became a bit damp as the chorus played again and the song finally came to an end.

At least, when she looked up, his eyes were suspiciously moist as well.

"You've been saving that," Louise growled. He had to have guessed how she might react, as apropos as it was to finally coming in to her heritage.

He gave her a cheeky smile, and if she wasn't planning on enjoying those lips in just a few moments she would have been sorely tempted to remind her familiar that she still had teeth!

Instead she laid her head on his shoulder and wiped her eyes dry on his nightshirt. ["Do you have the rest of her story?"]

Jason twitched. ["Uh, no,"] he admitted. ["I like that song, and a couple of others, but then it becomes the kind of farce that you'd get in one of Siesta's book."]

["It does?"]

["Yeah, she's in love with a man, but she's pretending to be a man herself, so when he can't marry the woman he loves, he asks her to marry the second woman, and then-"]

["I see!"] Louise interrupted, feeling a little stunned. ["You did say you liked farce."]

He chuckled. ["The funny thing is, it's not meant as a farce. The person who wrote it was trying to make a serious point about how unfair it was that women couldn't be scholars."]

She froze. Women couldn't be scholars, in the strange land he was from? Yes, commoner women were often at a disadvantage, and there were frankly awful rumors about Easterling practices (and they might even be true, if Henrietta was correct about her betrothed's disposition!), but she would never have expected her familiar to . . . something had to be wrong! ["Why can't women be scholars?"]

["That's why it's a farce, little mistress. Anyone can be a scholar. All it takes is the time, the inclination, access to study material – and if you have money to pay for it, someone to instruct you. Or if you can get someone else to pay for it all, like she did by pretending to be a man and studying to be a rabbi."]

["A what?"]

["A kind of religious teacher."] He snorted. ["One of my world's most famous lovers in antiquity, Queen Cleopatra, was renowned and desired for her great intelligence and learning. We like smart women, especially when they share our interests. But until we invented machines to do most of the hardest labor, most people couldn't afford advanced learning."]

Then Jason gathered her once more in his arms and stood up. "Come on. Let's go up to the roof."

This time, and not without regret, she wiggled free. "We're barefoot. If we're going outside, I should Levitate us." Which was dangerous, a noblewoman Levitating out of her room without hosiery or culottes, but hardly anyone was staying in the tower besides them and her culottes were already sweaty from being worn all day, Hel take it!

He shrugged and nodded, and soon they were up at the top of the towers, the stars of the night sky spread out before them.

"Why are we here?" Louise asked. And in just the thin shirt serving as her chemise, too! If this weren't summer, someone might see them! And surely this wasn't far enough from their bedroom to chance leaving evidence of passion behind that would alarm-

"Because as long as I'm hiding behind you," he told her with a crooked smile, "there's nothing up here to burn. So let's see if you can manage Firebolt tonight, too."

Firebolt? Concerns about being relatively undressed vanished as her eyes went wide. Could she even cast Ignite without a candle in front of her?

But Jason was right, she needed to try. So she pointed her wand and commanded the air in front of her to burn.

And for a brief moment, a gout of fire leapt up before her.

"Not . . . quite what I had in mind," her familiar commented.

She shot him an annoyed look. "I needed to make sure I could do it without the candle."

"Oh. Carry on."

Yes, but . . . she hadn't succeeded by focusing on the figura of Ignite. The shaping of that simplest expression of Fire that other students spoke of hadn't been her path to success. So how could she hope to succeed with Firebolt?

That figura was almost as simple as Ignite itself, changed only by adding what might be thought of as a shell – albeit one of fire – that contained the rest of it so that it didn't truly burn until it struck the target.

Could she manage it, without being able to use the figure itself?

Another brief gout of flame proved that if she could, she didn't know how to. Not yet.

Louise stared moodily into the shadows of night. Hel take it all, why couldn't her magic ever cast properly!?

"Maybe try pushing it out first, and not worry if it's in that little packet of fire that Firebolt creates?"

She turned her glare for a moment on Jason, but then sighed. Of course she would have to improve her magic in such tiny increments! Going from Ignite directly to Firebolt was only what any other student could expect to accomplish. Not her, not the Zero.

But the next gout of fire did move forward, perhaps a cubit.

Brimir, at least it was some progress.

"How far do you think you could send it out, if you kept creating fire instead of just one burst?" her familiar then asked.

Could she even create more than a burst-?

Buuuuuuuuuuuuurn.

Apparently so. And the tongue of flame had licked out to two or three paces, before the effort made her falter.

"Well," Jason mused, "that's something."

"It's not even close to Firebolt," she snapped.

"No, it's not," he agreed. "Reminds me more of Searing Rebuke, to be honest."

Searing Rebuke. It wasn't in the list of spells taught at the Academy, and none of her family specialized in Fire, so where had she-?

Louise froze. "You mean . . . Mr. Colbert, the-"

He nodded. "Yeah, the Triangle he was inventing with Kirche. I mean, you are going to need to practice it, but so did they, and-"

"Jason," she calmly told her utterly infuriating familiar, ["stop yammering on and kiss me!"]

The only thing wrong, in the embrace that followed, was that she had to keep one hand on her wand. Would it be too obvious if she ordered loops sown into his sleeves for when she was wearing his shirts?

Probably.

Hel take it.

But then her familiar suddenly removed his supporting hand from her bottom, and she scowled as she slipped down.

(But was that his plow again, that she'd brushed against in the heartbeat before her bare feet landed on stone? Just from kissing her for a few moments? Had he been telling the plain truth when he claimed he had to resist the temptation to lie with her every day, and more than once at that? She knew she ought to be wary of sweet-sounding words in the mouths of lechers, but his overgrown cow of a maid wasn't nearby to provide an explanation for any sudden lust, so perhaps-)

"Thought I heard something fly past," Jason muttered, looking around. Then he chanted one of his many (many!) litanies to call on his auxilum, and looked around again, but-

"Might have been a messenger bird, I guess. But we should go back inside now."

Yes. Yes they should. Where she could put her wand under her pillow, and have both hands free to rub through her familiar's hair once they were in bed. That was a hint that he could take, after all, and it was amazingly relaxing to fall asleep with her face buried in his shoulder and his hands rubbing soft circles all over her scalp.

And perhaps, Louise thought to herself as she Levitated them both back inside, perhaps Henrietta would call on them again before long. Another mission would bring her that much closer to being rewarded with her own estate, and even a small one might grant her some measure of independence from her parents' authority.

Maybe marriage was still a scary thought. Jason was so tall, and she was so short, so would his plow even fit her? Mother had warned of pain, especially if she gave into the blandishments of a seducer who cared only for her youthful beauty. Which she seemed to finally have some of, since she'd been able to cadge tips at the Charming Faerie Inn.

But she couldn't imagine Zerbst being so ardent for something that hurt the wanton cow. And Jason said he loved her, and he tried to know everything, so surely he would know of what Mother had been warning about, and know what to do about it.

If they eloped, at least she would quickly learn how bad it could be. Perhaps that might be better than waiting nervously and hoping she'd misunderstood . . .

Perhaps.


Henrietta's eyes were wide as she landed her pegasus as quietly as she could, on one of the towers furthest from the one where Louise Françoise was locked in a passionate embrace with-

Well, with her familiar, most likely, even if his face hadn't been clear in the gloom. There probably weren't any other men at the Academy so large. They almost always wound up conscripted into someone's military force, after all.

She carefully dismounted, then looked over at the two distant figures now Levitating down to Louise's window. The bursts of fire had drawn her eye like a beacon in the night, and she'd resolved to at least exchange greetings with her oldest and dearest friend, and gossip for a little while of the progress finally being made.

Except then Henrietta had nearly lost control of Raindrop Veil when her rather short friend had jumped up to enthusiastically kiss her much taller familiar, and he'd responded with a hand that was, yes, supporting his master-

But if Captain Wardes had been there in her place, cutting Jason's hand off for daring to take such an intimate liberty with his fiancée's bottom was perhaps the most merciful reaction that could be hoped for.

And by the same logic, the familiar's face would soon follow for the enthusiastic liberties being taken with Louise Françoise's lips.

Liberties taken with her full and avid cooperation.

Void Above, her friend had clearly been paying close attention when Scarron's daughter had sprung that farewell ambush. And she hadn't seemed unsure or nervous, either. Was this not the first time?

Had that rose-haired little imp, who'd been lecturing her on the need to avoid Wales – but who'd then avoided her own fiancé! - had she been carrying on with Jason this entire time?! Was that why she'd demurred from spending time with her fiancé, and then hurried back to the Academy?

Merciful Brimir, she'd had no hosiery on underneath that shapeless chemise she'd been wearing! If no hosiery, then had she dispensed with culottes as well? What of the rest of her underclothes? When she'd pressed herself to her familiar, when he'd supported her so rudely and intimately, was that chemise to only clothing between her and his touch? What other liberties had she been granting him?

And Louise Françoise had been daring enough to pull the entire affair off under the nose of her oldest friend!

Henrietta began to smirk. The future loss of her lover wasn't something she looked forward to, not at all, but the lack of anyone she could safely talk to about Wales was also frustrating. Even once she had Agnes back, well, the tall Protestant could probably be trusted to keep her princess's secrets. But that didn't mean she would make a good confidant for the travails of love.

Louise, however, was already her confidant. And they'd teased each other about their girlish infatuations for their respective loves since the betrothal with Jean-Jacques Wardes had first been arranged, all those years ago. Replace him with Jason and they could carry on much as before. At least, while they were in private. And once Louise Françoise was reassured that she didn't condemn her friend for being swept up in her own forbidden affair. (Not that it wasn't a shock to discover. She'd only meant it as a teasing jest, earlier!)

Except now . . . did Louise Françoise feel like she was about to melt away, when in her lover's arms? Did his smile make the moon seem bright as the sun? Did she find herself daydreaming about him?

Maybe not that last. She wasn't forcibly separated from her lover, after all, and thus left to pine for him. She didn't have to sustain her heart on the mere memory of lean muscles and eyes that glimmered like deep sapphires under starlight as they gazed at her in wonder and delight . . .

Henrietta was dying for a good gossip about it all – Sometimes the Palace maids giggled about size, but was that proving a matter for Louise to enjoy or endure? Did she need help teaching her familiar what to do? – and if those two hadn't clearly had plans for the remainder of the evening she might have intruded. With Discreet Room she wouldn't even have to worry about someone hearing delighted shrieks and coming to investigate.

And she probably ought to check with Louise for her sake, to be sure that her oldest and dearest wasn't lacking for anything that she might need to remain discreet, and perhaps offering the advantage of certain spells that the Throne of Water rarely discussed in public . . .

Still, she could wait until she was ready to leave, and if she did then she would have that much more experience with her beloved Wales to brag about.

But she only had so long before she needed to fly back to Bruxelles. And this tower was as good as any place to leave her pegasus, since it was obvious that Headmaster Osmond would be alerted if she approached the aeries. The small bucket of water she'd brought would let the mare refresh herself, and the dweomer of the bridle would keep her calm, so Henrietta could Levitate herself down from the tower and approach on foot, without any spells active to give her away.


"It is an honor to have you as a guest once more, your Highness."

She froze as the Headmaster's voice came from the darkness. How had he-?

"And I am pleased for this chance to demonstrate to the Crown that my efforts to improve the security of the Academy Vault have not been in vain," he continued as he approached and bowed.

It was unbecoming of a princess to blaspheme like a common sailor. So Henrietta uttered nothing, but if Hel had been listening she would have had more than sufficient invitation to crack the ground open and draw Fouquet, screaming, into the orc goddess's frigid and desolate underworld.

"We are equally pleased to confirm the efficacy of your increased vigilance," she replied. And she would be even more pleased once she persuaded Louise Françoise to scout out the extent of that vigilance!

Had she already, if she was confident enough to carry on with her familiar?

"Yes, the chance to repair our mutual trust is most fortunate," Osmond agreed, raising his head. "And so I shall accompany you for the remainder of your visit here, so that there will be a witness, if needed, to testify that your conduct was above reproach."

Henrietta wanted to howl in frustration.

"That ought not be necessary," she responded placidly. "With the security of the Academy confirmed, my errand here is largely complete."

And she would have to slip Louise a note to pass to Wales, to explain why she failed to meet him as he'd requested. His mail would undoubtedly be closely watched, after tonight.

"Are you certain?" Headmaster Osmond asked. "After all, the threat of Reconquista will require a great deal of planning to meet, and by all accounts you have been the driving force towards preparing Tristain, in such ways as you can."

"Am I-?" Henrietta blinked, and for a moment her surprise leaked through. "Is there planning that can be done, tonight?"

"Unless a certain meeting by moonlight was spent discussing strategy and not in other, more pleasurable pursuits, I imagine so. The Vallières, for example, may be persuaded to permit the training of some whose names never be recorded on the rolls of the revived Undine Knights, should they carry the correct letters of introduction and recommendation."

She blinked again. Yes, Wales was as likely as any to know where the scattered refugees from the White Isle might have hidden, heirs either too young or whose loss threatened the extinction of entire families. His ships were surely responsible for delivering no few of them to whatever safety they could find, here on the continent, and he might still have the connections to find many of the rest!

"I hadn't considered that possibility, Headmaster. Thank you for bringing it to my attention."

"Instruction is the purpose of my Academy, your Highness." He bowed again. "Lead on, if it please you."

"Lead on . . ." Was she yet to meet her beloved? Even if-?

"Indeed," Osmond nodded. "As I said, I shall be able to testify that your conduct remained above reproach."

So yes, she would see Wales tonight. But not touch him, or feel his urgent breath as he kissed her, or be able to run her hands over firm skin and taut muscle, delighting in the tension under her fingertips as he drew her clothes off and-

Sending her back to Bruxelles straightway might have been less cruel, in the end.


The face of Prince Wales lit up as Henrietta entered the room, but turned to confusion upon seeing her doleful expression. Then all the color drained out of his countenance as he stared past her in horror.

She turned to see what he was gazing at, and blanched, her heart skipping a beat, as His Imperial Highness Atma Tharoor entered the room behind her, her bethrothed scowling thunderously.

Then, before either of them could begin to make some sort of stammering excuse, Prince Atma melted back into the form of Headmaster Osmond, who offered a wheezing chuckle. "You will forgive an old man his amusements, I am sure."

"That," she gasped, "was not amusing!"

"No?" Some of the humor left his face. "Then perhaps you will heed an old man his warnings."

"His Imperial Highness is not going to find out about this meeting!" Henrietta declared. "No one should have found out. I wasn't casting, I carried no nobilia, no dweomer was active on me-"

"Fouquet crept in and out of my Academy for weeks, your Highness," the Headmaster interrupted. "Carrying no magic beyond potions, whose dweomer was carefully concealed. I would be a fool to assume that one seeming to lack magic presents no threat to our security.

"Furthermore, the Easterlings are very recently come to magic truly their own. You cannot count on divesting yourself of any immediate magic to slip past the security that the Germanian Emperor or his Heir would have in place.

"Therefore, so long as I can discern your comings and goings, I must also assume that others might as well. Thus whenever I am alerted to your presence, I shall take care, as I have said, to be able to witness that your conduct was above reproach."

"But he's still going to help us, as he's agreed to," Prince Wales said, sounding resigned and more than a bit disappointed. "As potential for scandal goes, this is apparently nothing compared to what he's witnessed as Headmaster."

"Indeed!" Osmond wheezed out another chuckle. "Were it not that kingdoms are involved, your torrid affair would scarcely be worth notice, save to laugh over the follies of youth."

And if he would only give them privacy, Henrietta would already be laughing in delight over those follies! Instead there was to be planning.

"Headmaster Osmond made a very valid point about the need to work together, if we're to hope to raise an army of partisans," she began. "I've no doubt that there are many brave sons and daughters of Albion who would gladly rally to free it from Cromwell's tyrannous grasp-"

"But they're scattered," Wales replied, nodding. "Even those who were once in arms under my family's banner will need to be reorganized into units once more, and those who lack any experience, particularly the rising generation who had no chance to enlist in the defense of their nation-"

"They need training!" Henrietta exclaimed, pleased that her beloved was taking this seriously. Not how she truly wished to spend the evening, but so refreshing in contrast to speaking with the Regency Council! "And there are two programs that I've been seeking to implement: One to take commoners and quickly train them for war, the other to do the same with mages.

"As the Headmaster suggested, it shouldn't be impossible to provide training to some whose names are never recorded on the rolls, and thus can't be so easily discovered by a Reconquista spy seeking to discern our vulnerability." She smiled warmly. "If some could be found, perhaps in hiding from their assassins."

"Some, yes," Prince Wales agreed, smiling back. "From many different sources. And others who'll be fleeing the new rulers of the White Isle, as their tyranny weighs it down. I confess, I've given a good deal of thought to where I might recruit partisans from . . ."


". . . but before you take your leave, cousin, permit me to offer you this gift." With that, he Levitated over a small . . . box?

It was surprisingly heavy for such a small thing, and oddly decorated. The style reminded her vaguely of a gift one of her courtiers had once tried to offer her, claiming that it was a relic from beyond Rub' al Khali, whose twisting knobs called forth the favor of far away heathen gods.

Why her lover sought to impress her with desert-spawned trash was beyond her – although she was going to keep it, since it was a gift from him – but there was a bit of silk paper affixed to it! And opening it proved that the note was written in the cipher that she'd used to write the now-lost letter to him!

"Thank you," she told Wales, and if her cheeks were perhaps just a little flushed, it was nothing to remark on. Headmaster Osmond would be able to truly testify that they hadn't so much as attempted to approach each other.

And since the old man was obviously not going to leave the room until she left first, it was time to say her farewells and take her leave.

Besides, she was starting to be curious. He didn't need to be so obvious about passing her a message, not when it could be sent through Louise Françoise. What was the value of the small, heavy box and its prayer knobs, that Prince Wales felt it so important to give to her personally?

Hopefully his letter would make it all clear, once she translated it back in Bruxelles.

And it was much too late, now, to visit Louise Françoise. But if she and her familiar were under similarly chafing scrutiny, perhaps they could work out how to evade that scrutiny together, once she found the time for another visit.


At the center of a classroom that was supposed to be locked up for the summer months, a slender blonde figure froze at the faint thump that came down from above.

There was, however, no following thump of anyone Levitating down to her floor, so after her pulse quieted she turned her attention back to the contents of the cauldron, simmering and seething in front of her.

But the potion she was brewing was a mere pale reflection of the turmoil roiling through her heart and soul.

How dare he? How dare he?! The youngest scion of the de Gramonts had been sweet, chivalrous, and biddable, happy to attend to her moods and carry out her whims with romantic zeal, the very image of a devoted admirer.

And then that salope First Form had come strutting up to their table like she had any right and-!

There'd been no sympathy for the younger girl. The little putain had been at the Academy less than a week and was already looking to give away her virtue to the first Second or Third Form who smiled at her. If she hadn't already!

And if Guiche the Bronze was the sort of rake to pounce on a bitch in heat while also courting her, the two deserved each other!

But the next day had brought doubts. Katie, the First Form, was a silly girl. That had been made very clear when she'd wailed out far too much of her life's story, after they'd thrown their lemonade into Guiche's cheating face and marched off together. Having slept on it . . . could the younger girl have innocently misunderstood the kindness of a more senior student helping a newcomer?

And his attempts to woo her once more made matters all the more confusing, and had her more than half-persuaded that she'd misunderstood the matter entirely.

Until, that is, she received a reply from her mother about the whole . . . sordid affair.

Her family was scattered. Many had chosen to settle south of their ancestral home after ruin had struck them, and thus resided in lands that had been absorbed into Gallia over time. So when she had described the sweet charm that Guiche the Bronze shown in his admiration for her, her mother had recognized precisely what he was doing, and how he was smoothly carrying out the steps, nearly perfectly . . .

. . . of la danse d'amour.

She'd tried to deny it, but the description her mother had included – some Gallian degenerate named Capellanus had written a treatise, of all things! – was too apt, too apropos in describing Guiche de Gramont's courtly mannerisms, his smooth and practiced grace.

Practice. That had been the problem, she'd realized, after crying her eyes out in the privacy of her bedroom, as she'd refused to do in front of the silly First Form enfant. He'd had practice. He had to have done it before. To him, breaking the hearts of earnest maidens was just a well-rehearsed game.

So as she'd cleaned off all trace of distress, she'd decided to move on from the pointlessness of romance, and had held her head high for the spring. At least everyone now knew him for what he truly was, and he'd have no further opportunities at the Academy to toy with the earnestness of an innocent maiden.

Or so she'd thought, and hadn't paid the matter any mind beyond learning Vitrolic Rebuke so that she could make her disdain abundantly clear. The summer would come soon enough, and with it the opportunity to practice her brewing without the distractions of classes and the follies of her fellow students. (And with better facilities, even scrounged, than what her family could provide her. For now.)

Except that he'd also stayed at the Academy for the summer. Perhaps he aspired to become a mage-knight, or join the dueling circuit. She didn't know. She hadn't even known that he'd remained, nor would she have cared, except . . .she'd had a moment of weakness when a maid came to her, begging healing for Guiche.

And he'd wasted no time taking advantage of her foolish longing for what she'd thought had been. Suddenly he was calling on her once more, and he'd led off with a sweet apology for toying with her, for using the full scope of his mother's lessons to charm her, and without thinking of the effects on her heart.

Brimir help her, she'd wanted to believe him. To believe that he'd cared for her all along, that his misconduct was nothing more than the foolishness of youth, not yet wise enough to gauge the intensity of his efforts.

To believe that the kisses he'd stolen from her had burned equally hot on his lips, in his heart.

But when they met for their first tête-à-tête since the start of spring – and somehow she'd felt more nervous anticipation than ever, as if she were a sheltered First Form and not an experienced Second Form! – he had opened his mouth again and ruined it all, spewing out some foreign heathen filth about friends being able to share-

To-

The miserable misbegotten bastard just wanted a chance to sheath his dirk! The dire straits of her family, that she'd so cautiously hinted at, meant nothing to him! He didn't care how rumors always seemed to start, no matter how circumspect students tried to be. It didn't matter to him that Water was always subject to lascivious speculation, that the pair of Line elementari to restore a recently-broken maidenhead were some of the most common contraband at the Academy.

She knew those two spells, of course. There would always be demand from other students for their use, and she'd secured her copies months earlier, anticipating becoming a Line once she summoned her familiar. Their birthdays were both in the early spring, she'd budgeted for the choicest ingredients to bake him a cake in the latest fashion of landed nobility, and it had seemed a very good idea to learn those spells before they got together to celebrate.

And then the day after summoning Robin, Guiche's betrayal had been revealed.

She also knew how to brew Maiden's Balm, among many other potions that nobles and well-off commoners might wish for discreet access to. Her family had yet to recover from the ruin of desperately trying to retain their title to Lagdorian Lake, and so dealing in contraband potions was very nearly her only source of spending money. And among those who would arrange for buyers and sellers to exchange coin without risking the spread of troubling details, she had a reputation. Her potions weren't ditch-water mixed with a pinch of spice imported from Romalia or Rub' al Khali, unlike some of the Third Forms who preyed on gullible First Forms.

And Robin's talents were ideal for harvesting fresh reagents, so she didn't have to waste precious time finding them herself anymore. But right now she could curse all familiars to Hel's dire embrace, for it was a familiar that had ruined Guiche the Bronze.

Except it wasn't. No matter what the professors insisted, everyone knew that the Zero had used her family's money to cheat, to hire some overgrown commoner from Germania to participate in a farce that had to have cost a truly spectacular sum to persuade the Academy to pretend to take it all seriously. Money that could have funded potions research for years, all spent as a sop to the pride of a girl who would never truly want for anything.

And now the stunted inexprimé was managing cantrips, having 'summoned' her 'familiar'. No doubt next year, he'd be found deficient in some quality and disposed of, and she'd be permitted to try again. After all, some hedge witches were said to be able to summon familiars if they practiced sufficiently, and the one thing she'd done all spring was practice.

But in the meantime, the mountain of pig lard had brought with him a philosophy of justified debauchery so outrageous it could only have sprung from Easterling heathenism. Even a Gallian degenerate like Capellanus would be impressed by the blasphemy he descended to!

It was the Zero's delusional pride that drove her to claim a false familiar, and it was that same 'familiar' who'd tainted Guiche with wicked notions of being able to ruin pure maidens and never need to take responsibility, which sadly dovetailed with his previous errors of thought.

If it weren't for the memory of how happy she had been, before it all went wrong, she might have given him a potent reminder of what she'd done to those nauseating poems he'd tried to woo her with. But he didn't press, and after that they did have an enjoyable time together.

And then her eyes had clung to him after their tryst ended and he walked off. For he'd clearly been making use of the gymnasium all spring, and had filled out nicely from the gawkiness he'd suffered from last year. His shoulders were broader, and his buttocks . . . a virtuous maiden should not have trouble looking away from a lecher's buttocks!

And she hadn't. Or at least, once he'd turned the corner and gone out of sight she hadn't sprung up out of her chair to follow him and watch him some more. Which was at least as virtuous!

Especially when pixies danced in her belly, and it was all she could do not to imagine how his burning-hot kisses would once more feel on her lips. Or where else he might steal them from.

It was the fault of that forsaken 'familiar', that Guiche had been encouraged to speak so brazenly to her before they were truly reconciled! He'd have approached her with different words, she knew, if he'd not been further corrupted.

Words that were legally-binding offers of betrothal, even. For that was the only true apology possible for straying as he had after winning and then breaking her heart. If he had so truly missed her these spring months . . .

Once she'd thought it all through, her course had been clear. It would be wrong of her not to help him do what they both knew was right, and her skills were uniquely suited to do exactly that.

Spells that were cast by wands were only one aspect of magic, albeit the most popular. Wands were ennobled according to exacting formulations, helping mages channel the figura of spells with relative ease. Without the focus that a wand provided, learning a single spell could take months. Even cantrips might take weeks to learn wandlessly. But again, spells were only a part of magic.

The constellation of reagents that had consistent effects on the elements were part and parcel of the lore of the apothecary. But alternative reagents could be prepared with the same effects using more obscure and occult properties. Likewise, some spells required their own unique reagents, that often involved elaborate preparations involving those selfsame occult properties. And other spells, usually powerful, multi-element, and rare, might require their own unique wands to cast, which might not look anything like the short rod that was the classic shape of a wand. Yet others required specific occult properties in the environment, only working at certain times or places, or in areas that had been thoroughly prepared beforehand to match the required properties.

Some couldn't even be cast with but a quick phrase and a few waves of the wand. Some could only be cast as rites and rituals, and others were little more than extended prayers, sung for hours, to open the way for one of Brimir's own angels to manifest. Some had to be cast over and over again, at specific intervals.

Naturally, the usual method of casting was far more preferred. These other spells were all rare, and some might not even be used more than once a decade. Or only by the mightiest and most accomplished of mages, for whom lesser spells often required nothing more than a will focused by decades of practice and study.

And some forms of magic were not spells at all, even if cantrips and elementari were the tools to make use of them. Nobilia in all their forms, from the humblest lapideus to the mightiest relic. Wards and arrays bounded by carefully Marked runes.

Or potions.

Preparing a potion was far more than the mere use of Mix, or even the more potent elementari that every potioneer made sure to learn. A potion began with the reagents as they were harvested, for everything influenced their properties in one way or another. Care had to be taken to store them, prepare them, and combine them in the most exact ways, to prevent unwanted reactions, and equal care had to be taken with the various tools of a lab. Many of which, in the lab of an established potioneer, were nobilia, favored tools to work magic in much the same way as wands.

A tyro might prepare truly lesser brews and achieve a consistent result, but any more ambitious efforts would be wasted, resulting in spoiled reagents and unpredictable results. A skilled and experienced potioneer, however, could count on her efforts to be rewarded.

And they would be. She was Montmorency Margarita La Fère de Montmorency, titled the Fragrance (for now). It was her duty and by the grace of Brimir her destiny, to rescue the fortunes of the family that had entrusted the honor of its name to her.

No silver-tongued lout, however noble or handsome, had the right to toy with her heart and tarnish her honor! Guiche would live up to the golden words he'd gifted her.

And the lying, cheating Zero, with her lecherous fraud of a 'familiar', had earned whatever distress happened to fall their way. They'd pushed her to this, and it would be Brimir's own judgement at work if she happened to push back.